Author Archives: Johna Till Johnson

We All Love the Yellow Submarine!

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina and Johna Till Johnson

Yellow Submarine Paddle 22

In the town where I was born,
Lived a man who sailed to sea,
And he told us of his life,
In the land of submarines.

So we sailed on to the sun,
Till we found a sea of green,
And we lived beneath the waves,
In our yellow submarine…

The yellow submarine isn’t just an invention of the Beatles—it exists for real. And it had gotten a paint job, courtesy of our friend Erik Baard and his HarborLab crew. So we decided it was high time to paddle out and see the results.

Let me back up… in the waters of Coney Island Creek, just off Gravesend Bay, there rests—amazingly, improbably!—a yellow submarine. We’ve told a fuller story here, but suffice it to say that the story of its existence just underscores the crazy sense of possibility that permeated the 1960s.

But it’s closing in on 50 years since the yellow submarine was launched, and it had become somewhat the worse for wear. So when we heard it had recovered its original cheerful coloring, we had to go see.

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Gentrifying Gowanus?

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina

Gowanus Canal colors

The lively school of fish flashing by probably should have been a clue.

On our kayak trip several weeks ago, we decided to pay a visit to the Gowanus Canal. I know it seems crazy to paddle on a heavily-polluted Superfund site, but we both have a secret fondness for blasted industrial landscapes. And the canal also features charming, idiosyncratic quirks: festive murals, and a houseboat or two.

Or at least it did, upon our last visit. We hadn’t seen it since just before Superstorm Sandy. Then, the mood had been somber, filled with foreboding and a sense of upcoming loss. We feared what the storm would do to the places we’d come to love, Gowanus among them.

True to our fears, Sandy kept us off the water for months, and in the nearly three years since then, we didn’t make it back to Gowanus to see how it survived. So this trip was very much an exploration: How much had Sandy destroyed? And what was left?

Things had definitely changed, as it turned out—but not exactly in the way we expected.

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Midday at the Morris Canal

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina

Midday at the Morris Canal 13

As paddling trips go, this one wasn’t much: We left shortly before noon, and returned just after 2 PM—nothing like our typical day-long expeditions.

The weather was perfect: clear, sunny and dry with a light breeze. No wind, waves, or other “conditions” that make for an exciting kayak adventure.

But since it was our first trip together in quite a while, we were happy just to be on the water.

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Cardboard Kayak Race 2015: The Thrill of Victory… And the Delight of Defeat

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina

Cardboard Kayak Race 50

“We’re going to the cardboard kayak races this weekend, right?” Vlad said, looking at me expectantly. I glanced back dubiously.

We’d missed the 2013 race, the first year that the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance had organized the race as part of its City of Water Day, but we’d thoroughly enjoyed the video. Last year, I’d provided kayak safety support for the race, while Vlad took photos. And we wrote it up on Wind Against Current.

As much fun as the race had been, did we really need to experience it again?

Yes, we did! So last Saturday we headed out to Governors Island, on a sultry summer day that started out reasonably comfortable, but promised heat and stickiness by the afternoon.

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Immortal Beauty

By Johna Till Johnson

Maria Radner

Maria Radner, 1981-Eternity

Among the victims of Germanwings Flight 9525 was Maria Radner, a German opera singer. She was a 33-year old contralto who specialized in Wagner.  I hadn’t heard of her before—no surprise since I’m new to opera, and have yet to warm to Wagner’s music.

But a commentator on one of the news stories posted the video below. Maria Radner sings “Urlicht” (“Primeval Light”) from Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, the Resurrection Symphony.

It’s just under five minutes. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything quite so lovely. Looking into her serene blue-gray eyes and insouciant half smile, and listening to that soaring voice, all I can think of is that although a deranged man was able to take away her life, the beauty she brought into this world is immortal.

The lyrics translate as follows:

I am from God and want to return to God!
The loving God will give me a little of the light,
will illuminate me into the eternal blessed life!

She got that wish.

I only wish that it hadn’t happened quite so soon.

Ice on the River

By Johna Till Johnson

Ice on the river

Flow on, river! flow with the flood-tide, and ebb with the ebb-tide!
Frolic on, crested and scallop-edg’d waves!
Gorgeous clouds of the sun-set! drench with your splendor me, or the men and women generations after me!

Walt Whitman, Crossing Brooklyn Ferry

This is quite possibly my favorite poem ever. I once memorized part of it to recite for Vlad’s birthday. It always gives me shivers, in part because Whitman was, literally, talking directly to us, “men and women generations after me”.

But this past February, there weren’t many “crested and scallop-edg’d waves”—only acres of ice floes, bobbing sluggishly in the current. It’s hard to believe that lively, open water will return–but spring is less than a month away!

Ice floes have their own bleak beauty, though, especially during a snowstorm. I recently took a walk along the East River and up alongside the Harlem River. This is what I saw (click any photo to start slideshow):

The Power of Art

By Johna Till Johnson

Washington Square Park 1

It is so beautiful I must show you how it looks,” wrote Vincent Van Gogh in a letter to his brother. In the margin of the letter, he scribbled a quick sketch of what was so beautiful: a streetlamp at twilight.

I’ve never considered myself much of an artist. In fact, I’ve gone so far as to say I don’t understand the artistic impulse: I don’t know where it comes from, or how artists know what to create, even though I respect and admire the life-changing power of art.

But one of my favorite explanations is from a book written in 1938: “Art is a feeling of love and enthusiasm for something… in a direct, simple, passionate, and true way you try to show this beauty in things to others.”

That’s exactly what I felt walking home through Washington Square Park a few nights ago. As twilight fell, and the streetlights cast their rosy glow over the snow, the quote above popped into my head. It was so beautiful I had to share it. With Vlad’s editing assistance, I was able to capture and convey some of the magic.

Washington Square Park 2

That unexpected surge of artistic sentiment made me remember how much I loved the book, and its author. The book is If You Want to Write, by Brenda Ueland.

When I first read it, many years ago, I found it inspirational, but a bit cloying. I have to admit that my perception was colored by “time bias”—that sneaking suspicion that everything in the past was quainter and less sophisticated than today. I mean, 1938? They didn’t even have iPhones! What could someone from that distant era have to say that’s meaningful about art in the 21st century?

Washington Square Park 3

And I’ll also admit that I found the persona of the author a bit, well, twee: A little-old-lady writing teacher out in Minnesota. (Never mind that in 1938 she was a vibrant and passionate woman of 47—the photo on the book jacket was a spry, but wizened lady in 1983, so that’s how I imagined her.)

Really, weren’t all women in 1938 conventional, domestic, and limited? Not the sort of person who truly understood the bold, transformative, and terrifying power of art.

Boy, did I get that wrong! If anyone understood life, and art, it was Brenda Ueland. She lived in Greenwhich Village for many years, married, divorced (back when one “didn’t do that”), and moved back to Minnesota to raise her daughter. She supported them both with her writing, which included journalism and essays. As her Wikipedia entry says, “She lived by two rules: To tell the truth, and to not do anything she didn’t want to.”

She was a paragon of physical fitness: well into what people would call her old age, she was turning handstands, climbing mountains, and swimming long distances. (And as for that “out in Minnesota”—it’s not only intellectually vibrant but physically challenging. )

Ueland’s personal life was bold and unconventional as well. The Wikipedia entry politely notes: “By her own account, Ueland had many lovers.”

That doesn’t even begin to tell the half of it. The love of her life was Norwegian adventurer and Nobel laureate Fridtjof Nansen, with whom she had a passionate affair in the late 1920s.

Brenda, My DarlingThe affair came to light a few years back when Eric Utne (her grandson and the founder of the Utne Reader) published Nansen’s letters to Ueland in the form of a book called Brenda My Darling. Her letters to him have been lost, but his to her were surprisingly poetic.

Nansen writes:

“Here from my window in my tower, I see the maidenly birches in their bridal veils against the dark pine wood — there is nothing like the birch in the spring. I do not exactly know why, but it is like you, to me you have the same maidenliness – and the sun is laughing, and the fjord out there is glittering, and existence is beauty!”

And that’s not all. He also sent his maiden several tasteful, but explicit, nude photographs of himself. The photographs turned the book into a minor sensation, with some—including Utne himself—questioning the decision to publish them.  The deciding opinion, as Utne relates, was the Norwegian publisher of the book, Ole Rikard Høisæther, who wrote to him that “Norwegians insist on the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”

That book thoroughly exploded any delusions I’d held. Ueland was clearly no quaint, conventional lady writer—she was a strong, powerful artist in her own right. And forget the notion that age necessarily means decrepitude—Nansen was one hot guy even in his late 60s!

Moreover, though he was known for exploration and adventure, that same sentiment enabled him to write beautifully. My takeaway from all this: Art is powerful and inspiring. Showing the beauty in things can be transformative.

And as I’ve written before, there’s a strong connection between the desire to explore and the artistic sentiment: Both have life-changing power—both for the artist/explorer, and for everyone who encounters their work.

That power is available to all of us, if we only stop and listen to that inner voice calling out: “It’s so beautiful that I must show you how it looks.”