Down By the River

Before Rob Lowe was Benjamin Kane and Jennifer Grey’s nose job, there was a fabulous little Cinderella story called If the Shoe Fits.  Its fabulousness consisted not only in ridiculous French accents and big hair a la Strictly Ballroom, but also the subdued wildness of high FASHION that only made for TV movies can provide.  Certain key quotes also spark the imagination, such as the strongly intoned ‘READ them to me’ or the somewhat obvious ‘she has this place she likes to go, down by the river’.  Who doesn’t have a place they like to go down by the river, some murky canal of sewage where they can reflect and let small ripples peel consciousness away for awhile?

In cities with over 1 million residents, people are rarely alone, even in the privacy of their own homes.  How then can one find a space to think, a space to be alone, a space for the individualism and expansive personalities our culture so admires?  How do the quiet corners of a public garden, or the atriums and courtyards of libraries and malls serve to give us a little room to breathe?  How do we find peace, even for a moment, with all of humanity traipsing past?

There are several spots of seclusion I have found in Boston that allow me this space, that have yet to be spoiled, even when shared.  One favorite place is my own personal bench down by the river.  Facing the Charles on the Cambridge side next to the Longfellow Bridge, it doesn’t have a perfect view of Boston.  Instead, Memorial Drive arcs out over the water some distance away from the bench and the railing in front of it, creating a small pool river waves that gently slap against the roads’ visible pilings.  Every day at about one pm, the sun is low enough to warm the bench despite overhanging trees.  The light also strikes each strand of spider silk between the iron bars of the railing, giving the whole mass an oddly tempting glow.  The whole scene puts me in a kind of daze, the sounds of joggers, water slapping, and cars speeding past somehow not disturbing the overall seclusion and peacefulness of the space.  Even the occasional goose hanging around for a handout doesn’t disturb the atmosphere, and I really despise geese.

What planner or builder knew to set a bench just here, seemingly to view cars and concrete?  What gardener planted and watered these trees, protectively nestled between two roads and a bridge?  What hobos have slept here gently, or promenading females have gently taken a seat out of the sun’s glare?  How many spiders, geese, and sparrows are provided for by the largess of picnickers and passers-by?  What souls have found comfort here, or puzzled minds, a solution?  Do the stones tell a story in this place, any more than those of the bridge, or those of my fluorescent-lighted office building?

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Dirty Money

There is a belief that many people in the U.S. have lost that I frequently encountered in China about money.  Money is seen as very dirty, both in the sense of dirt and germs.  On one hand, it makes perfect sense that people would want to wash their hands before eating, especially if they’ve just handled money which has been circulating and picking up all kinds of nasties from who knows where.  Especially as my initial time in China was just after SARS, everyone was exceedingly careful about washing up after handling money at all.  However, I’ve always been supremely confident in my own resistance to microscopic invaders.  I generally ignored the handwashing rules and proceeded to inoculate myself against local bacteria as quickly as possible through exposure.

However, money in excess makes me ill in a way that bacteria can’t.  When I first moved to Boston, i spent a period of time temping at the lock box of a bank.  While that particular job was both exceedingly stressful and exceedingly boring and I quickly left it, it did give me some particular insights as to the way money flows.  I can remember delicately handling checks and double-checking amounts when I was dealing with numbers that were more than I would see in a few year’s salary.  I remember angry or pathetic letters enclosed with payments, since money is one of those things that can stir anyone’s emotions.  I can remember day after day of deadlines in a miserable little fluorescent-lighted box.  It was not a pleasant period for me, but I survived, and I would guess that passing sickness made me stronger.

My current job is also somewhat boring, and occasionally stressful.  However, the compensation is much better and the overall work environment is the best I’ve ever experienced.  People work hard, work well together, and are generally happy with their jobs.  I love my boss, with his friendly personality and yet serious demands.  He’s a genuinely good guy, and so is almost everyone else I come into contact with here.  But it’s a big-money office that often deals with the financial movers and shakers of the world, which means that I’ve also come into contact with very serious professionals who are, at best, cold.  In my hubris, I feel I deserve more than that, even as a lowly admin.  Yet at times there are events which bring me up short, times when I see the uneccessary wealth around me and it makes me slightly sick again.  We are all working, after all, to make as much money as possible, which cannot help but shape the outlook we have on the people we work with.

Ten years ago, those in positions equivalent to that of my boss were receiving bonuses greater than my annual salary.  Last year, those same positions won more from bonuses alone than I expect to ever see my salary increase to.  I know nothing of these people, what they might be like, if they are decent human beings and a blessing to their neighbors or are totally reprehensible slugs.  I don’t know how they might spend their money, what their goals in life are, or how they’ve worked to reach the position they are currently in.  But the numbers alone freeze my mind, like the thought of counting a cupful of sand grains, then a bucketful, then a whole beach.  There is no meaning there anymore – I am half-afraid to even think about those large numbers, half-afraid of what they mean.

The ICEBERG had nothing to do with it.

After extensive study of metallurgy, shipbuilding methods of the time, and the records of Harland and Wolff, the company that built the Titanic, Timothy Foecke and Jennifer Hooper McCarty have published a new book, What Really Sunk the Titanic.  In this book (I have not yet read it), they claim inferior iron rivets are to blame for the sinking of the ship.  The article review I read leads me to believe the shipbuilding company used some iron rivets of inferior quality due to the necessary speed of construction and the high demand for rivets at that time.  Since I have not read the book or done any similar research myself however, I remain unconvinced.  My favorite quote: “The company knowingly purchased weaker rivets, but I think they did it not knowing they would be purchasing something substandard enough that when they hit an iceberg their ship would sink.”  I know there has been debate about the design of the ship, and if it would’ve remained floating if it had hit the ‘berg straight on, but either way, it’s like running aground on a reef or wrapping your car around a telephone pole.  Even if you don’t die outright, you’re not going to just walk away from that.  And while I can understand that the authors are not trying to prove that the weak rivets alone didn’t sink the Titanic, the idea that it would have sunk more slowly if the rivets had been stronger seems obvious and unnecessary.  If the whole ship had been made of alien super-metal, it probably would’ve just crushed the iceberg to bits and gone on its merry way.

What tickled me most about the whole situation really has nothing to do with the Titanic or the Atlantic at all.  It’s about the retired naval engineer from Harland and Wolff.  he’s the one who handles technical questions about the Titanic, I guess as a personal hobby.  His name?  David Livingstone.  So far though, he hasn’t found the church or explored a largely unknown continent, as far as I can tell.  Still, it makes me wish I were named Stanley…