Sunday, January 10, 2016

Beating the winter blues

I’ll make this short. I sometimes write for a small newspaper here in Germany called the Eimsbüttler Nachrichten. Usually, I pitch stories to the editors at this newspaper. But a few days ago, an editor at the Eimsbüttler Nachrichten approached me with an idea. She wanted me to write about what winter in New York City is like and how it stacks up against winter in Hamburg. (We had been having some seriously cold weather in Hamburg, so the weather was sort of on everyone's mind.) 

I agreed to do the piece, and after I submitted it, the editor said she thought it would also be nice if I included a few paragraphs at the end about how to beat the winter blues. I said OK and did. Only there had been a misunderstanding between us. She had wanted me to write about how to beat the winter blues in Hamburg. I wrote tips about how to beat the winter blues in New York City. After the misunderstanding was cleared that up, I rewrote the article according to her wishes.

But excising what I had written about New York made me kind of sad, because I liked what I had written.

Hence, this blog post. Below are my tips for beating the winter blues in New York City. I'm glad that I was able to pick up these scraps off the cutting room floor and use them here. I think they have value.


Stroll down Fifth Avenue and check out the decorations. Fifth Avenue, in Midtown, is considered a major shopping street, and during the winter, many of the shops that line it decorate their storefronts with beautiful lights and garlands. Some department stores even set up holiday-themed tableaus in their storefront windows. A walk down Fifth Avenue in the winter will surely lift spirits.

Find a nice, cozy bakery and eat something delicious. New York City is filled with fantastic bakeries, like the Magnolia Bakery, which sells cupcakes that are to die for, or Junior's, which is famous for its cheesecake. Visit one of these places or any other with a friend and let your spirits be revived by the warmth, the company and the yummy eats.

Take a walk through a place that’s not so populated. Usually, New York City is teeming with people. But during the winter, fewer people tend to be just out and about. This gives you the opportunity to freely explore a place of your choice, an experience that can be both invigorating and inspiring, especially in New York. Two places I recommend visiting under such circumstances: Central Park in Manhattan and the former World’s Fair grounds in Queens.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

I can write like Hemingway!

Hemingway often spends a long time describing the orientation of the physical objects in his fiction. It may sound funny, but trees often "line roads" in Hemingway's works.

You know, it’s funny. As a writer, it’s very hard to turn off your writing brain. Even when you’re just reading for pleasure. For example, I’m currently rereading Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and every time I pick it up, I can’t help but notice Hemingway’s writerly mannerisms. I mean, these mannerisms (if that’s what you want to call them; I almost think of them as tricks) are great. They're what make Hemingway Hemingway.

But they are very noticeable. For example, we all know that Hemingway’s sentences are often terse. But he also has a tendency to mention the things that are not there: “When I woke in the morning I went to the window and looked out. It had cleared and there were no clouds on the mountains.” He also often makes these sweeping generalizations using very simple words: “Bayonne is a nice town. It’s like a very clean Spanish town."And my favorite, he has these sentences in which a thing or feature of a thing being described leads into the description of another thing: “It was good to get out of the sun and under the shade of the arcade that runs all the way around the square.”

I decided to have some fun and write about an actual experience from my life as if I were Hemingway. The experience: on a recent trip to France, my girlfriend and I decided to drive the back roads to our destination instead of taking the highway because we wanted to avoid tolls. Now, just so you know, in this little exercise of mine, I'm going to embellish a little -- especially with parts where I mention alcohol. I hardly ever drink alcohol and I certainly wouldn't drink in a car! 

But let's see if we can pull this off. A real-life experience of mine, as told by "Hemingway." 
We decided to take the back roads to Annecy because we didn’t want to pay for tolls. Maya turned off the highway and started onto a road that had fields on either side. The day was warm and I had my window down. I looked out at the fields. In the distance was a small house and beyond the house were a few trees that gave shade to a barn that belonged to the house. I asked my girlfriend if I could turn the radio on but she said that she would prefer if it was left off because she had a headache from the beers we had had at the bar the night before and besides, she wanted to concentrate on the countryside.  
We kept on driving. At one point the road dipped down and then rose up before quickly dipping down again, but when we arrived at the small village that had been announced by the signs flanking the road, the road leveled. 
The village was very charming and it was very small and there were flower baskets hanging from the the street lamps along the main thoroughfare. After driving a little more we came to a fork in the road and there was a small stone church near the fork. Only a few people were in the streets and they were old or at least middle-aged or older. 
We didn’t know which road to choose so we took the one that led right and the moment we did I had the feeling that we had made the wrong decision and that we should have gone down the road that led left. But we took the road that led right. We drove down it slowly and on either side when you looked out the car windows were two-story houses like the kind you might see on the immediate outskirts of an industrial American city. The houses had stoops in front of them and a group of young kids were hanging around one of the stoops but they weren't looking at us. At the end of the road were large hedges and I think there were train tracks beyond the hedges but I’m not sure. I told my girlfriend to turn around and she did.
By this point the day had become very hot and I asked my girlfriend if she had packed the drinks and did she pack the ice in the cooler like I had requested and she told me that she had, so I got the ice out of the cooler and put it into a cup that I had with me in the front seat. As she drove back up the road I poured some soda and a little scotch into the cup with the ice and I mixed it and I waited for it to all settle before I took a sip. The drink was nice because the day had become so hot and I had been thinking for a pretty long while about how good it would be to have a drink, but not a drink with too much scotch. My girlfriend looked at me and asked why I had to have alcohol, but it is legal in France for the passenger of a car to drink alcohol and I told her that we weren’t breaking the law.

Sunday, September 13, 2015


Here's a funny little anecdote.

A few nights ago, I was at my mom’s apartment and she and I were on the balcony. It was a nice night with a nice warm breeze, I had my guitar, and we were just sitting out there chatting.

Eventually, the conversation began to peter out, and when it did, I suggested we play a game. We had played this game before, and it goes like this: I play a song on my guitar and my mom has to guess whether the song is mine — i.e., whether I wrote it — or if someone else did.

My mom agreed to play and said, “OK, go.”

And so I did. The song I chose was “Real Love,” off the Imagine soundtrack. I played the first verse:

"All the little boys and girls/living in this crazy world/all they really needed from you/is maybe some love."

“So what do you think?” I asked. “Did I write that song or did someone else?”

My mom grinned. “Publish it” was all she said.

“What do you mean?” I asked

“That's not yours.”

“Yes it is!” I said.

“Publish it then," she said. "If that's yours, that is, like, wow, beyond amazing."

I must say, at this point I was pretty impressed. After all, I had only played the first verse, though the chord progression was signature John Lennon: D, D major 7, B minor, A augmented.

“OK, it's not mine," I said.

“I didn't think so.”

“It's John Lennon.”

“Ya see; I could tell."

What can I say, the woman's got a good ear.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

The penny drops

You know, it's funny how and when certain things just come to you.

In the neighborhood where I grew up, Great Neck, there’s this village called Thomaston. Thomaston is very residential, quiet and pretty. Anyway, when I was younger, I always used to notice that there were these stickers on the backs of many street signs in Thomaston. The stickers were white, square and had the letters "V.T." printed on them. 

Anyway, I used to always wonder what that "V.T." stood for. I had been very much into graffiti when I was younger, so for the longest time, I thought that "V.T." was a tagger and that these were his stickers. I had had some other guesses about what "V.T." possibly stood for, but for the most part, the meaning behind those letters just always puzzled me. 

Fast forward to today. On Tuesday, I arrived home from Germany after not having been in the United States for two and a half years. I didn't feel like doing much the first few days after my arrival, but today, I decided to go running. And I decided to go running in Thomaston. 

So there I was, running through Thomaston. I chose to run in Thomaston because, well, it's pretty and quiet, remember? 

On the last leg of my run, I looked at the back of a stop sign, and guess what I saw. Yup, one of those "V.T." stickers. Once I saw it, I said to myself, "Wow, they still have those mysterious stickers up." But then almost immediately after I thought that, I finally realized: "V.T." It’s not a tagger or anything mysterious. "V.T." means “Village of Thomaston.” Those stickers were placed on the backs of the signs to show that the signs are the village's property.

Incredible. It took, like, a childhood and not living in the United States for two and a half years for that penny to finally drop.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

This is something I experienced today here in Hamburg, Germany.

I was riding the bus with my girlfriend around 11 a.m. We had just bought a small piece of furniture and were transporting it back to our apartment. The bus was pretty crowded. At one stop, a man in his 60s or 70s got on. As he was walking further into the bus for a seat, I heard him grumble something that had the word "Ausländer" in it. "Ausländer" means "foreigner" in German. I didn't know exactly what the man said, but I definitely heard the word "Ausländer," and it did not sound nice.

When the man made this comment, it created a tension in the bus. Already I saw in my girlfriend's eyes that she was not happy. She looked at me and said something like, "Did you hear that?" I said, "Yeah; is he crazy or something?" But because I hadn't fully understood the man or the situation fully, I didn't feel like pursuing it too much further.

But then, I noticed this other woman. She was probably in her mid 20s and she had a baby swaddled around her chest in a sling. She turned to this guy -- she must have been max four feet away from him -- and said in German, "A little ignorant, what you just said, don't you think?" And she had a really cold and strong look in her eye. A few other people sort of snapped to attention when she said this, and my girlfriend said something like, "Yeah, exactly."

The man, who by this time was seated, did not respond to her comment. Instead, he said, "What a cute baby." But the woman wasn't having it. "Yeah," she said, "wonderful. A baby. A little stupid what you said." The man, trying to diffuse the situation or just plain oblivious asked if the baby was a boy or a girl. The women, still with this very cold and strong look in her eye, completely undeterred, said, "It doesn't matter if it's a boy or a girl. What you need to know is the baby is not a racist."

At this comment, which I initially didn't understand -- it was only later that my girlfriend translated for me -- several people on the bus laughed and nodded in agreement.

When my girlfriend and I got out at our stop, I asked her what had exactly happened in there. She said that what seemed to have happened was that there was an Indian woman sitting in one of the first few seats of the bus -- those reserved for the elderly and the disabled -- and when this man got on, he saw her in this seat and made a racist remark.

Hence, my having heard the word "Ausländer."

I gotta say, I'm sad that people still dare to make such remarks, but the reaction of that woman and the other people in the bus really impressed me.

Saturday, July 18, 2015


A few pages from my personal journal: 

So it’s weird. I’ve been thinking a lot about my childhood lately. Just two minutes ago, I was in the bathroom and the image of John Ritter popped into my mind. John Ritter and the sound of his voice and “Three’s Company.” The way that set looked. Watching that show on our 13-channel Zenith TV. Just me and my mom. Actually, we would never watch “Three’s Company” together.

You know, it’s funny. I remember watching all those shows from the '70s/early '80s and wondering about them. There always used to be something about them that was beyond my understanding. Those shows are ancient history now. But I suppose they were pretty much about the same things that today’s shows are: love, sex, dating, strife. But, Christ, "The Regal Beagle." I remember that the sound of that name, “The Regal Beagle,” had had a fantastic effect upon my ear. I had no idea what the name really meant or why it was funny; I simply liked the sound of it. Sort of like how I used to like the sound of the book title “The Borne Ultimatum” and the band name “Deaf Leopard” without really knowing what those things really were.  

But yeah . . . thinking about my childhood. Now that I’m in my 30s, my memory is not less clear. It’s still clear. But now things take on more of an understood significance. This was the era that I was living in. Cordless phones and shoulder pads, boom boxes and cars that looked very big and boxy. 

Tonight one of my friends and I watched “The Fly.” It’s from 1986. I remarked before the movie started how my mother didn't let me watch it when it came out. Funnily enough, while watching the movie,  I found myself nostalgic for the era in which it played and also in awe of the deep feelings the characters expressed toward each other. Here was passion. Here was lust. Here was unrequited love. All during a time when I was, what, 4 years old? People had these passions, these desires. People were actresses and were reaching a high point in their careers -- all when I was 4! 

Gina Davis was an absolute stunner in the movie: pouty lips, sexy, fit. And as I watched the film, I kept thinking, “What does Gina Davis look like today? Did she age? She must’ve aged. Maybe she didn’t age.” But of course she aged! The move was made 30 years ago! But I didn’t want her to have aged. I wanted things to be as they were. Why? 

Life is marching on, and I’m really starting to reflect, I guess. I’m starting to hear mortality click its nails on the desk. 

And so I think of my childhood. In flashes, it comes back to me: That time when my mom gave away my watch to the kid who ruined his because she thought I wouldn’t know the difference between a broken watch and a working one. Lying on the big red rug in the air-conditioned Queens apartment in the summer. The sound of the announcer on Channel 11 -- or was it Channel 9? -- when he would say, “And now back to [the Late Movie].” Watching my mom from my bedroom as she watched TV and as I tried to go to sleep. The sound of the thick rubber ball echoing off the hallway wall as I played catch with myself. 

Yes, there is a lot to remember. I don’t know, as I and the people around me get older, I find myself reaching for something. I can’t say exactly what it is.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Taylor Swift concert T-shirts made in Bangladesh -- a little hypocritical?

I’m not going to lie: I like Taylor Swift. I think her music is catchy and her lyrics are potent. I even like her as a person and think it was cool that she recently persuaded a huge corporation like Apple to pay artists their fair share of royalties.

So I was a little disappointed when I bought a Taylor Swift T-shirt at her concert in Amsterdam in late June and saw that the garment was made in Bangladesh.

It seemed a little hypocritical. We all know that Bangladesh’s garment workers are paid some of the lowest wages in the world. In 2013, a Bangladeshi garment factory that produced clothes for big Western labels collapsed, killing about 1,130 people.

Granted, just because catastrophes have occurred in Bangladesh’s garment industry does not mean the Bangladeshi factory used to produce Taylor Swift’s concert tees is a bad one. And since that 2013 factory collapse, a concerted effort has been made to improve safety in Bangladesh’s garment industry.

Still, looking at the label on Taylor Swift’s concert tee and seeing “Made in Bangladesh” just didn’t sit well with me, especially because she had just won so much praise for championing the rights of the underdog.

So I decided to send out a few emails with some questions in them to see if anyone could address my consternation.

The first email I sent was to Stoked PR, which handles public relations for Swift. The founder of the firm, Kate Head, actually wrote me back. She said, “The manufacturing company responsible for the [concert] shirts operates under a global code of conduct, which is one of the highest in the industry.”

OK, fair enough. But this is what I had expected. I didn’t think that Taylor Swift’s people were going to tell me that her clothes are produced in slums. Head also said in her email that someone from the company that produces the shirts would contact me in a business day with more information.

OK, that was nice, but I didn’t want to wait a business day. So I did the practical thing. I went over to my closet, got out the T-shirt and looked at the name of the company on the label. It said “Gildan.” I then went to my computer and emailed the Montreal-based company with some questions.

In a couple hours, I had a response from Geneviève Gosselin, Gildan’s director of PR, and I must admit, I found her email very informative.

Gildan, she wrote, is a global apparel producing company of 42,000 employees. The bulk of the company’s garment factories is in Central America -- places like Nicaragua and Honduras -- but Gildan also owns facilities in the United States, and in 2010 purchased a facility in Bangladesh to boost sales in Europe and Asia.

The Bangladeshi facility, she said, employs about 2,300 workers who earn “significantly more than the basic minimum wage” (though she wouldn’t say how much more). In addition, these employees receive healthcare from a medical team that the company employs. “In Bangladesh alone, our medical team provides more than 45,000 instances of medical attention to our employees per year.”

OK, I thought. Gildan does its part. Which of course is only right. The company, after all, has an $8.2 billion market capitalization.

More interesting to me was this: When Gildan purchased the Bangladeshi factory, Gosselin said, it hired a U.S. firm to inspect the structure’s integrity. As a result of that firm’s findings, “Considerable resources were allocated to reinforce the building structures with structural steel and reinforced concrete.” In addition, Gosselin said, the factory is continually inspected to make sure it is up to code.

Gosselin then went on to give a litany of other critical safety practices that are exercised at the facility, practices that the Fair Labor Association has approved.

OK, OK. But I still didn’t understand something. After that catastrophic factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013, many well known brands, trade unions and nonprofits came together and created “The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh,” a legally binding agreement to maintain basic safety standards in the Bangladeshi textile industry.

Brands must pay a significant amount of money to join the Accord -- money that’s used to fund the Accord’s various safety initiatives. Though not a panacea, the Accord is one way that brands can show that they are willing to shell out the kind of cash needed to improve safety in the country’s garment industry.

Why, I wanted to know, hadn’t Gildan joined the Accord?

Gosselin had an answer. Most of the companies that signed the Accord, she said, only outsource labor to Bangladesh. But Gildan also owns the actual factory in which the clothes are made. Therefore, “We believe we have the ability to directly implement our own strict standards."

Even so, some of Gildan’s customers signed the Accord, so Accord inspectors recently inspected Gildan’s factory in Bangladesh. Gildan will publish the findings of that undertaking in its next corporate report.

OK, I thought. Pretty good. Of course, I’m not fully satisfied. Multinational companies are still reaping mega profits from the low cost of labor in Bangladesh; the minimum wage in the Bangladeshi garment industry, $68 a month, is still, according to a 2013 Bangladesh Institute of Labor Studies report, 32 percent less than the amount needed to make basic ends meet; and some of Gildan’s factories in Central America have been cited for serious workers rights abuses (though Gildan has worked to try to rectify those problems).

But I will admit that the issue is complicated. So complicated, in fact, I almost forgot about Taylor Swift and how she plays into all of this.

So let’s review. Swift champions the rights of people in one sector but makes big profits by participating in a type of business scheme not beyond reproach.

It’s a criticism. And yet I wonder. Is it even fair to criticize Swift? Do we live in a world that has become so globalized and so reliant on cheap labor -- so used to seeing “Made in Bangladesh” or “Made in Cambodia” on every label -- that reproaching Swift would be unfair?

Again, a difficult question. So I thought I’d pose it to Julie Irwin, a University of Texas business school professor who specializes in consumer behavior.

Her answer was very interesting.

“Whenever someone makes an effort to be ethical in any domain,” she said, “then people look carefully for inconsistencies and do not like it when they find any.”

As a separate example, she cited that of Whole Foods. People have criticized Whole Foods for overpricing and carrying items that have been genetically modified. However, she aptly noted: “You rarely hear people making the same sorts of complaints against grocery stores that do not try to be ethical (i.e., most every other player in the market).”

She did say, however, “Holding celebrities accountable, gently, might get a little focus on pervasive human rights abuses, if they actually are taking place.” All the same, she said, “I just strongly balk at the idea of focusing on someone who is already trying to do something good for workers in one area ... because doing so could ensure no one ever speaks out about anything.”

Fair enough. I guess one main point is that after weighing all the information I received, I at least feel comfortable enough to wear the T-shirt I bought. It cost 30 euros and says “I Love Taylor Swift.”