Monthly Archives: January 2018

Pool Paddling Practice: 1

Coach Don about to roll

By Johna Till Johnson

“What do kayakers do in the wintertime?”

That’s easy. We kayak! That’s what drysuits are for.

But even the staunchest of paddlers can’t do much when the water goes solid. So when Matt Kane of Prime Paddlesports announced pool practice sessions in Dobbs Ferry starting Jan 7, I was (literally!) the first to sign up.

It’s delightful to work on basic technique in water warm enough for a T shirt and swim trunks. And being around fellow paddlers in a group is something I’ve missed. Both are reasons I signed up for the Sweetwater Kayak Symposium in Florida in February.

But that’s still a month away. So in the meantime there is this:

Ready to launch

Calm, warm, and brightly lit, the water beckons!

Coach Julie and student

Coach Julie and a student prepare in matching boats…

Coach Don laughing

Getting wet is fun when it’s warm…

Coach Julie keeps an eye on the action…

Coaches Julie McCoy and Don Urmstrom did an outstanding job watching us practice and play. Surprisingly, in under two hours we were all tired and even a bit stiff—working on technique is demanding!

But I am looking forward to the next few sessions—and if you’re a NYC-area paddler looking to brush up on technique during a cold month, I’d love to see you there!

Screams and Surprises

The iconic “Scream”… but what’s that off in the distance?

By Johna Till Johnson

Last night, some friends and I went to go see the Munch Exhibit at the Met. I’ve been a fan of Edvard Munch since I first saw his work as a teenager in Norway. So when one of my friends mentioned he had never seen the iconic “Scream” in real life, I was delighted to accompany him, his wife, and another friend to the exhibit.

Munch made many versions of his most famous work, including “Scream”, some as wood cuts, others in oil. So although we weren’t lucky enough to see a color version of the piece, we did get to see a black-and-white woodcut.

But while looking through images in preparation for the visit, I noticed something I’d never noticed before.

See if you can see it in the image above… Look towards the horizon… on the water…

Do you see them?

The paddleboarders?

Yes! Quite clearly those are proto-paddleboarders in the background,  braving the cold Norwegian waters. All the way back in 1900! Norwegians have always been avant-guard, and Munch was famous for his innovative eye. Apparently he could see into the future!

I pointed this out to my friends when we saw the wood cut. And we all agreed. For sure, those were paddleboarders. Somehow Munch had managed to place a sport that did not yet exist in the center of his most iconic image.

It wasn’t until we compared the image with a photo of the same area that we had to acknowledge they were the masts of small sailboats. But we still preferred our interpretation.

But that wasn’t the end of the surprises that evening. While inspecting Munch’s many self-portraits, I kept having a nagging feeling of familiarity, and  not just because I’d seen them before. Hmmm…

Separated at birth?

Yes, indeed! The resemblance was remarkable! Edvard Munch and Steve Buscemi share not only features but the same intense, haunted stare.

Finally, just because I love it so much, here’s Munch’s Madonna, which is my favorite work of his. Enjoy!

Madonna, by Edvard Munch

All men shall be sailors…

Sailing and freedom

By Johna Till Johnson
Photo by Vladimir Brezina

“All men shall be sailors then
Until the sea shall free them…” — Leonard Cohen, “Suzanne”

I’ve been listening to a lot of the singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen lately. I’m not alone in this; he’s experiencing an (in my mind deserved) groundswell of popularity in the 14 months since he died.

His themes are universal and serious: the inevitability of loss, imperfectability of human nature, the ephemeral transcendence of love.

His fundamental stance is religious, but while it’s rooted in his native Jewish tradition (he remained devout all his life), it draws from a broad set of perspectives, with a pragmatic bent. He once told the New Yorker:  “Anything, Roman Catholicism, Buddhism, LSD, I’m for anything that works.”

He wasn’t joking. Over the years, he studied Scientology, became an ordained Buddhist monk, and studied at an Indian ashram—along with pursuing various intoxicants (from acid to alcohol) and ascetic practices (particularly fasting). His goal was less the abstract pursuit of enlightenment than to ameliorate the bouts of depression that struck him throughout much of his life.

Sylvie Simmons wrote a wonderful biography of Cohen in 2012, “I’m Your Man,” One of the interesting paradoxes of Cohen’s life is that although he was deeply embedded in the contemporary cultural matrix  to a degree that’s almost Zelig-like, his essential formality was fundamentally out of step with the “anything goes” ethos of the times.

The Jewish magazine Forward has an insightful obituary that highlights this: “The “absence of the casual” may well be one of the singular characteristics setting Cohen’s work apart from his so-called contemporaries,” writes Seth Rogovoy.

And it paid off in the long run—Cohen is one of the rare artists who pursued his craft with intensity and diligence all his life, and  peaked as a performer in his 70s.

In a surprising twist that serves as a hopeful beacon to us late bloomers, after his business manager embezzled his money and left him broke early in the 2000s, he decided to go on tour to support his ex-wife and children. Although he had previously hated performing, he put together a stellar backup band and collaborated with them to develop innovative arrangements of his work.

The result was almost a decade of some of the best live performances in popular music history (you can find many of them in YouTube). Cohen not only accomplished his goal of earning back a fortune, he left a shining legacy that touches millions.

That “absence of the casual” is perhaps the most appropriate response to the inevitable tragedies of life, which may be one of the reasons Cohen’s work is experiencing a renaissance.

The lines above (“until the sea shall free them”) particularly resonated with me because the sea has always been associated in my mind with freedom. Towards the end of his life, my father (who was a naval officer)  turned to me and said, “The open ocean is closer than they led us to believe.”

He was referring, of course, to his imminent death, but what struck me was that he associated it with the open ocean—and freedom.

 

 

Tappan Zee Redux!

Unfinished span of the new Tappan Zee

By Johna Till Johnson
Photo composition by Brian Fulton-Howard

Four years ago this month, I wrote about the “New bridge over the Hudson” that was to replace the Tappan Zee. At the time, it was hard to believe the bridge would really be built; the project had been in discussions since 1999. At  $3.9 billion, the new construction would represent one of the largest infrastructure investments in New York this century. And it would be the first new bridge to be constructed since the Verrazano-Narrows in 1964.

A daunting prospect; skepticism was warranted.

Guess what? It’s here! And astonishingly, it was completed on time and on budget, as governor Andrew Cuomo was quick to point out.  The grand opening of the new bridge was last summer (though one span remains to be completed in 2018).

Right after it opened, on a bright summer day, Brian and I paddled up to see it. As we bounced over the slight waves, the twin peaks of the bridge’s profile (a cable-stayed design) slowly emerged from a dusting of clouds.

It looked strangely familiar…

The profile of the bridge emerges…

… Of course!  It was remarkably similar to the original artist’s rendering, below:

Artist’s rendering (New York Times)

I think the actual bridge is even prettier than the original conception, but it’s hard to say, as it’s still surrounded by the original Tappan Zee, which won’t be torn down until sometime this year.

As Brian and I paddled closer to the bridge, we were struck by the sight of the unfinished span that appeared in cross-section in the middle of the combined infrastructure.

It’s not every day you get to literally see the guts of a bridge as it’s being built, so we struggled to stay stable in the strong flood current as I took shot after shot. Brian finally figured out the exact location from which the unfinished span was framed perfectly (see photo above).

 

You’ll notice I’ve referred throughout to “the new Tappan Zee” and “the bridge”. The official name of the bridge, as of late last year, is the “Mario Cuomo bridge”, named after the three-term governor (and the current governor’s father). However, there’s a petition circulating to keep the original name.

As the petitioners explain, it’s nothing against Mario Cuomo, who “may be deserving of having something named after him.” (Don’t you love that “may be”?)

The problem is simply esthetic, petitioners assert. It sounds cool to say, ‘I’m taking the Tappan Zee,” the petition reads. “It does not sound cool to say, ‘I’m taking the Cuomo.”

I have to give them the point—”the Tappan Zee” sounds way cooler.  I doubt the petition will succeed, but I’m not sure the official name will stick, either. New Yorkers can be stubborn, and  even Google Maps still refers (confusingly to out-of-towners) to the Triboro Bridge rather than its official name of  RFK Bridge.

In any event, with my Tiderace now living happily at the Yonkers Paddling and Rowing Club, I look forward to many more trips to the, ahem, Tappan Zee.

Meantime, here’s a photo of Brian in the sunshine, just to remind everyone that summer will indeed return!

Brian in the sunshine (view looking north)

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Snowfall by the River

East River in snow

By Johna Till Johnson

I’ve always loved the East River.

She’s not really a river at all, but rather a connector between Long Island Sound and New York Harbor.  That topography accounts for her rapid currents, which are slightly out of sync with those of the Hudson (a tidal estuary). And it also accounts for much of her charm. To me, the East River has always been beautiful, mysterious, and slightly dangerous, with an allure that’s impossible to resist.

Before I learned to kayak, I’d walk along the river and think, “Wouldn’t it be lovely to go into the water?” Crazy thought! In addition to the swift currents, the East River was known in decades past for pollution and the occasional dead body. (These days, the water is much cleaner. There are even dolphins!)

After I took up paddling, I ended up actually in the East River more than once, usually by design (practicing capsizing in current) but one memorable time entirely by accident. And I’ve paddled its length many more times than that—my best count is that I’ve circumnavigated Manhattan around 40 times, and I’ve paddled out to Long Island Sound a handful of times as well.

But as is the case with most true loves, knowing the East River better only increases her allure.

It was natural, then, when a blizzard rolled in, for me to make time to go down to the East River and see what she looked like in snow.  I’m biased, but isn’t she gorgeous?

Sunflowers!

Sunflowers, summer 2011


By Johna Till Johnson

Photo by Vladimir Brezina

Sometimes you need to bring the sun inside. Particularly on a cold winter’s day, it’s good to remember the warmth of the sun, and the brightness of flowers.

What can be better than sunflowers?

Potatoes, potatoes, potatoes!

Potatoes carefully protected against the elements (Dubrovnik, Croatia)

By Johna Till Johnson

Vlad loved potatoes. I mean, he loved potatoes. He got a light in his eye and a lilt in his voice just talking about them: “Let’s have potatoes for dinner! Boiled ones! The little ones with the white skins!”

Sometimes I’d have to run all over town to find just the right potatoes. (The little ones with the white skins, of course.) Once the potatoes were procured, the cooking process was equally precise: Boil the potatoes in properly salted water. Don’t cook them too long, or they’ll get mushy. (You want the teeth to pierce the skin with a satisfying crunch, but the interiors should be soft and tender.)

Add plenty of butter to the hot, freshly drained potatoes. And don’t forget the dill, or lacking that, parsley!

But that’s not to say Vlad was a potato snob. Although he had his favorites, he loved them all. Mashed. Baked. Fried. I used to love to watch him at restaurants, when the server would offer a choice of starch: Rice or fries?

“Hmm…” he’d say, thoughtfully, appearing to consider all options. Inside, I was already chuckling, because I knew what would come next: “I’ll have the fries, please!” he’d say, as if it were were the outcome of long deliberation, rather than a foregone conclusion.

Although I knew Vlad loved potatoes, and I knew he was Czech, and that Czechs are Slavs, I didn’t entirely put the pieces together until I was in Croatia this past fall. Croatians are also Slavs—and they love their potatoes, with a love that’s delightfully reminiscent of Vlad’s own.

Even more delightful is the respect with which Croatians treat their potatoes. Walking into Dubrovnik in a torrential rain, I saw a bag of potatoes carefully protected from the elements, wrapped in a plastic bag. No rot would come to these cherished spuds!

And a few days later, in a city square, there was another bag of potatoes—carefully resting on a pallet, safe against any morning dampness.

Hail the humble yet glorious potato!

The potato pallet (Dubrovnik, Croatia)