Thursday, February 22, 2018

Beacon Beckons

As much as I love New York, one of the great pleasures of living here is also leaving it, even if it’s just for a day. When AR told me that Beacon, New York was just a hop, skip, and a jump from Grand Central (read: an hour and 45 minutes by train) and you don’t even need to rent a car to get around, the premise intrigued me. What if, one fine winter weekend, we went? And so with Mag this past Sunday we did.

We met bright and early at Grand Central and I went up to the golden booths where the ticket salespeople were to ask for mine just like Ginger Rogers in The Major and the Minor. “One round trip ticket to Beacon, please.” I don’t think I knew how much I wanted to do this until I got there when the premise of the machines presented themselves to me and I decided to be a 1930s movie star instead.

We hopped the correct train after first mistaking another one, and soon we watched New York City pass us by with stops in Harlem and the Bronx and all the little nonsense suburb-y places on the way until it became a little more country, a little more picturesque, a little less corporate America. The train ride didn’t feel long, either, since we laughed and talked and ogled the Olympic bobsled team the whole time. Cliffs and mountains that looked like dirt cake covered in powdered sugar sped past the window and ice floated in the chilly river as I took pictures.

Beacon is a small city in Dutchess County, New York, a former mill town that became a sort of funky, arty enclave New Yorkers now venture to to encounter things like fresh air and reasonably priced coffee. Arriving at around 11:15, we staked out a spot for brunch/lunch and ended up after a picturesque walk down Main Street (yes, Main Street), past all of its updated buildings that house galleries (like one for beach glass that’s in a converted firehouse), brunch spots, smoke shops, newfangled donut joints, and grocery stores. We ended up at the Yankee Clipper, a teeny diner inside what looks like a chrome train car. We drank coffee and ate a variety of breakfast and non-breakfast delights. Then Mag led way back through town, down a hill, to Dia: Beacon, the town’s contemporary art museum (there’s another one in Chelsea here in the city). She is an arty lady and has been before so she knows the way. I significantly lag behind because I keep stopping to take pictures. “Everything about you is a New Yorker except how quickly you walk,” AR says. He’s not wrong.

Dia: is a high-falutin’ sort of place, with deep philosophical installations that are nice to look at and interesting and make me think but also make me miss photography museums that I understand. Much of it is impressive but not necessarily art that you’d think fondly of when you leave home during a long vacation. None of it will make your house a home. Unless, that is, you have a rather large, austere house you want to fill with either white canvases painted white or intense sculptures made from ripped-apart machines (I actually really liked these pieces by John Chamberlain and perhaps would put them in my house--you know, my country house on acres and acres of land just a train ride from the city that I don’t have) or a giant wedge of wood or a pile of broken glass. In which case, this is definitely the place for you. AR, Mag, and I take a family portrait outside of its dead but still sculptural tree installation outside and we part ways, she heading back to the city and us to find some sort of pastry to eat and records to buy.

We complete our tasks at All You Knead Artisan Bakers with a peach cheesecake turnover and Hudson Valley Vinyl, where I find the Richard Hell and the Voidoids album Blank Generation, which I never expected to see in person, much less in Beacon, New York. We drink tea and coffee at Bank Street Cafe, then walk to the train, a gaggle of does hobnobbing amongst the trees (suddenly I feel like Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny) and a fabulous sunset of technicolor pastels sending us off into the night.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Miss Manhattan Hangs Out...with Ben Mirin

If you Google the phrase “wildlife DJ,” almost all of the hits on the first page will lead you to Ben Mirin. “That’s not real, girl,” my friend James says via text when I tell him about my latest subject. “Get receipts. That’s a line at a bar.”

But it is in fact a career Ben has developed himself, traveling to the far corners of the earth--India, Madagascar, Belize, Honduras, and countless other locales--to record animal sound he then mixes into music. The goal is to inspire conservation and expose audiences to nature that may not get to connect with it on a regular basis. He also beatboxes along with these recorded sounds and performs live. Ben is a National Geographic Explorer and educator as well. He hosted his own show on National Geographic Kids and Nat Geo WILD called “Wild Beats” and was the first artist-in-residence at the Bronx Zoo. He also just launched his own game with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology called “BeastBox” which allows you to create music with sounds from nature.

Today Ben is being interviewed by philosophy professor and jazz musician David Rothenberg for The Explorers Journal, the quarterly publication of The Explorers Club, a professional society dedicated to “the advancement of field research and the ideal that it is vital to preserve the instinct to explore.” Ben received the organization’s 2017 Scott Pearlman Award to go to Honduras and record sounds of local frog species this upcoming spring.

We walk into the depths of Prospect Park this sunny morning, the sting of cold air on our faces. Even in the middle of Brooklyn, there are escapist qualities in birdwatching for Ben, especially if you can isolate the birdsong from, shall we say, ambulance song or car horn song or what have you (“anthropogenic sound” if you want to feel like a scientist). Finding a spot nestled in an expanse of trees, Ben and David chat amongst the fallen leaves, felled trees, the ambient birdsong that Ben can identify without hesitation.

After an hour or so, it turns bitter cold, the sun disappearing and wind blowing. The three of us leave the park, David departing while Ben and I head into the Brooklyn Public Library’s Central Library to warm up. Ben gets us chamomile teas and soon we thaw.

We talk about 9-to-5 jobs, which neither of us have and frankly don’t know if we ever want or should have. It reminds him of something he tries to impart to the children he educates so they never have to feel like being unusual is a negative: “I’m wired differently and that’s okay.”

He says this and my chest aches. How is it possible that now, as I am sitting in the Brooklyn Public Library at 29, he's said to me something I have been waiting my entire life to hear and I didn’t even know it? And if it affects me this way, I can only imagine how a roomful of children might feel.

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