OUTDOORS (Screed) continued

2/18/2007 5:32 AM

I woke up this morning with insomnia. I intended to stay asleep, but I woke at 5:15 and just couldn’t go back to the land of winkin’ blinkin’ and nod. I’m going to try to continue my “outside” post for the blog. I did a photo-collage of the churches in Western Queens (and one in Chinatown), and I’d like to write the poem/story/movie/essay I’ve thought about dozens of times “Zoned for God” (See: previous post “These Foolish Things”). 

So as I blathered on about indirectly, inefficiently and inconclusively in my last post, I like to be outside. While my folks also took me to the naked beaches and of national shorelines, miles away from any crowds, and occasionally took us up to cabins in the woods, where there were few if any people to play with, I always preferred to be out in the city. When I was a boy I used to love to walk downtown or take the train to Harvard Square. I used to go up to Copley SQ., up to Beacon Hill, around the Commons and Gardens, through Back Bay, along to the promenade by the Charles River, where people would walk to cool off on the hot summer days before everyone had air-conditioning. I’d ride my bike to any of the neighborhoods that kids of color could ride their bikes to in
Boston. This meant that much of the shoreline was forbidden because it was in
Charlestown, The North End, South Boston, Dorchester (the white parts) and
East Boston.

There was a geography of proscriptive terror that held me in its sway growing up. I would work around it, going the places that I knew I could, but it reminds me that there are places that I can go now that I’m sure adolescents and young men cannot now visit in New York. Again with the digression, on and on I go. I loved exploring. I loved being outside. I never needed to go to someplace beautiful to be outside. I need just to be outside.

I like to be with people. I like to look as Chauncey Gardner said in Being There. As I recall Sister Carrie really got to the heart of that need to see and be seen, of course with tragic consequences. Jimmy Breslin said that “God never made anything more beautiful than a crowded street” (though I can’t find it). To me that is truer now than ever. Not everyone can see the beauty of humanity, but I do. I’ve been to the tropics and longed on deserted beeches. I’ve lived with Polynesians on Maui, and slept under the stars on Culebra, off of Puerto Rico. I’ve been to the mountains in the American West and yet without someone to share it with it is empty.

Focus. I know I am a philistine for saying it, but the idea of needing to ditch humanity in order to enjoy outdoors is the short-sighted view of the un-imaginative. I do love all of those places where I was alone or in the company of a few like-minded exclusive individuals. And I know that people, especially poor people, are a pain in the ass. Nothing ruined Sears Point where I spent a few weeks working outdoors than the 3 million Nascar fans for whom I was working on raceday (remind me to tell you about that, too). What I am trying to say is that it is great to be outdoors. And if we cannot see G_d in our environment unless it has grass and trees and very few people who are like us, or are poor and know it, then it is because we have stopped looking. God is always outside. I am always happy to be outside. Not looking at outside though a window, but with my feet on the ground. I remember when Marius and I were in the Grand Canyon and he scrambled up the side of the canyon between to loops in the path nearly giving himself a stroke. I couldn’t figure out why he did that, but now I do. He needed to be off the tourist-worn track, if only for 50 feet. We had driven with my future wife and his best girl at the time from SF to down the coast to LA across the desert to Las Vegas and over to the Grand Canyon. We had spent nearly 1000 miles in an air conditioned Mercury, looking at outdoors. By the time we were outside a little bit he felt the need to “BE” outside. Focus.

There is something transcendent about being able to see for miles and miles. When you get to the mountain top and you can see into the next valley, or for miles in any or all directions, there is a transcendent feeling. I feel like my soul can fill all of the space between where I am, and the furthest point that I can see. I assume that this is p[art of the impulse that drives people to climb Mt. Everest (do the Sherpas call it that?). When we see the iconic hermit or guru in a mountaintop cave that is what he is signifying, elevation, isolation, nature, vista and distance. Distance. We have got to be alone to be in touch with the spirits. Well Sunnyside, Long Island City, Greenpoint, and Williamsburg all have the majestic views of Manhattan that make my heart soar like when I used to summit Grizzly Peak (1660 ft Elevation) on my bicycle. I am no less moved when I walk down Queens Boulevard to work and I see the Empire State and the Chrysler Buildings in Manhattan. My heart soars across the frigid East River to their spires as I walk to work. When I see the United Nations I imagine all the places that it represents: I visit the Andes and the shores of Micronesia when I see it, because I now they are all there. The experience has been visited on NYC.


Under the El

I love to be outside. It doesn’t need to be the beautiful bucolic destination that bourgeois aesthetics describe as beautiful. In fact, it is following that narrow definition that this screed is against. I love to be with people. I was walking on Roosevelt Ave, under the El in exotic Jackson Hts. I saw a woman with one in a stroller and two in tow. Though she had a bit too much make-up on I could see the long chin and high round forehead of her Inca ancestors so often carved in stone in those Andes Mountains. I don’t need to go see Machu-Pichu because the majestic vistas have come to me. The transcendental architecture, geography and art have moved to Queens in a million Andean eyes: eyes that toil here anonymously. Look into the eyes of people and you can see the beauty they have seen. Look for the joy that they have known.


It is outside that I saw those eyes. It is out of my home and out of my comfort zone that I see the world. It is not possible to see the world through the window of a car. You cannot see the far vistas of exotic locals through the eyes of those like you. If you want to see Zion, look into the eyes of a Hasid, or some Rastafarian Mystic (not to be mistaken for those seduced by weed and its incumbent black market). On Roosevelt Ave in the high 60s or low 70s you can see the Philippine Archipelago, palm trees, ferries, and everything. But you have to be outside looking life in the eyes.


So the next time you have the impulse to go to REI, Wilderness Outfitters or some such commodity broker, resist the impulse and just go walk around your neighborhood with new eyes. See it as you would if you were from
Kazakhstan, the bush, or Tierra del Fuego. Discover the common outside your door and when you do see Cote d’Ivoire, it will be as familiar as home.
I still haven’t gotten the essence of my love for outdoors down here.

I am TOOO digressive! FOCUS!!!!

(I don’t know if I can continue this…[it will never end])


3 responses to “OUTDOORS (Screed) continued

  1. “I’ve been to the mountains in the American West and yet without someone to share it with it is empty. (. . .) I know I am a philistine for saying it, but the idea of needing to ditch humanity in order to enjoy outdoors is the short-sighted view of the un-imaginative.”

    Your idea reminds me of something a community organizer I know once said. We were in the middle of a campaign against displacement (“urban renewal”) and he was making the argument that fighting displacement is not just a working class issue, but also an environmental issue, because people are part of the environment, so when you price working class folks out of their communities, it is a form of enviromental destruction. He said that classical Chinese landscape painting did not become fully mature until painters began to incorporate evidence of people living amid all the mountains and mist — even if it was just a little shack, or a boat, or a wayward monk sitting on a cliff.

    Personally, I disagree, but it’s an interesting point of view and I almost envy it. Maybe I can’t relate because unlike you I haven’t traveled far and wide — largely grew up amid crowds and concrete, so now as an adult I tend to romanticize solitude, silence, and open space.

    But dude! I never knew you worked for Nascar!

  2. I am thinking about what makes a landscape. The funny thing is that any real lansdcape of open space is defined by its end. It is the hill, mill, mountain, river or bridge that defines the “open space” that so many romanticize. The key is to see the open space: the 2000 meters between you and the Queensborough bridge are all enpty, and it is there that our souls rush to. I’ll get on this later.

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