Category Archives: Culture

A Prayer for Puerto Rico

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina

Crescent moon high above the Castillo San Felipe del Morro

Vlad loved Puerto Rico. One of his dreams was that we’d go there together some day, perhaps even circumnavigate the island by kayak (though he warned me about sharks).

Vlad knew the island well. For many years, he collaborated with a colleague at the Institute for Neurobiology at the University of Puerto Rico. That meant taking regular trips to Puerto Rico, at least annually, sometimes more often. And he took advantage of those trips to explore the island and its environs.

View of La Perla from the Institute of Neurobiology

Entirely aside from the exciting work he did with his colleagues, Vlad really loved the place itself: the warm, moist tropical air, the vivid colors, and most of all, the people.  He often told stories about his time there. One of my favorites was about the “palmetto bugs” that scientists caught from the lab floor for experiments (apparently it was cheaper and easier to catch your own than to order them from suppliers.)

View from the Castillo San Felipe del Morro

But my all-time favorite story was when he talked about how the scientists in his lab were almost universally young, beautiful women. I didn’t believe him, so he forwarded a photo “as evidence” (as he put it). Unfortunately I can no longer find it, but the photo indeed featured a half-dozen or so mini-skirt-clad young women holding martini glasses and smiling at the camera (it was an evening outing of the lab). Not exactly the first image that comes to mind when one thinks of “a gathering of neuroscientists”–no wonder Vlad was enamored of the place!

Beyond the sheer physical beauty of the island and its inhabitants, Vlad also appreciated its many biological wonders. Among  them: the bioluminescent bay
at Vieques Island, the bat caves, and the El Yunque Rain Forest.

Clouds after sunset, San Juan, Puerto Rico

I know he would be deeply saddened by the devastation that Hurricane Maria has wreaked on Puerto Rico. Fortunately the Institute for Neurobiology has reported that it has survived; but recovery will be a long, slow, painful process for them, and for everyone affected by the storm.

If you want to contribute, here is a list of charities that have been highly rated by CharityWatch and are contributing to Irma relief in Puerto Rico.

Blown Away

Vlad as a child

By Johna Till Johnson

It’s 11:30 on a sweltering summer weekday. I’m on my way to a client meeting downtown. I step into the subway car, grateful there’s a seat and working air conditioning. The people in the car are the usual mix of ages, races, genders. We avoid eye contact.

At the next stop, a heavyset young man gets in, with a little boy, about three, in a stroller. The man settles into a seat across from me, and I glance at the little boy.

He’s adorable. There’s something hauntingly familiar about his expression: placid yet worried, with his brows drawn up in a look of concern. I smile at him and try to get his attention. Out of shyness or embarrassment he looks away, towards his father. Or maybe he’s put off by my unnatural hair color and the giant, bug-eyed sunglasses covering half my face.

“Can you wave hello?” the father asks, but the boy won’t turn towards me. “It’s ok,” I say, smiling, to the father. “He doesn’t have to wave at the strange lady.”

Then I suddenly realize, with a pang, why the child’s expression is so familiar.

I turn to the woman next to me, a kind-looking middle-aged Hispanic woman. She’s also smiling at the little boy.

“My husband has a photo of himself at about that age, with that same expression,” I say to her. “So sweet!” I notice I’m speaking of Vlad in the present tense, but don’t bother to correct myself.

“So sweet,” the lady agrees, and tries to get the boy to look at her, but he won’t.

The familiar wave of grief washes over me. I feel my eyes watering, and I’m grateful for the sunglasses hiding my face. To distract myself, I look at the people across from me. There’s a couple, sitting close together. Both are looking down at their phones, oblivious. The only way I know they’re a couple is how close they’re sitting. A couple. Another pang.

A few moments later, my stop is approaching. In preparation, I get up and head towards the door. As I do, I hear the people around me start to stir and murmur, but I’m not paying attention. Then the man who was across from me says, “Ma’am, look!”

I turn, and the boy is reaching out for me, his hand a starfish, his body straining against the stroller straps. He says nothing, but the beseeching look on his face is clear, and clearly directed at me.

“He doesn’t want you to leave!” the woman gasps in surprise. We all exchange looks of wonder.

The subway doors open. I step off the train, glad once again for the oversized sunglasses.

Daily Post: Dormant

By Johna Till Johnson, photo by Vladimir Brezina

Today’s daily post is Dormant.

Several years ago—I am not entirely sure how many—Vlad and I decided to go to the Central Park Zoo. I can’t recall at this point where the idea came from, but when we discovered that neither of us had ever been there (despite a combined residence in Manhattan of over half a century), the decision was made.

Thanks to our trips to Florida, Vlad at that point had begun getting quite serious about photographing animals, particularly birds. But of course wildlife photography is challenging, because the animals tend to run (or fly) away when they realize they’re being observed.

So he was delighted to be in an environment where the animals had no fear of humans. He took a number of quite amazing shots (which apparently we haven’t blogged about yet! Stay tuned!). This one captures today’s theme in what I hope is a slightly different way.

For the record, “dormant” comes from the Latin word “dormire”, which means to sleep:

To sleep, perchance to dream;

I wonder what this orange bird is dreaming of?

Trip 5: Hudson River, Manhattan to Irvington, October 1999

Text and Photo by Vladimir Brezina

Autumn colors

Saturday, 30 October

Met John and Kathy at Dyckman Street. Put boats together and launched at 11:30 a.m. around the predicted beginning of flood current. Warm for late October. Fog still not burned off completely, but sun gradually appearing. At first light wind from the north, then calm.

Palisades very colorful in the thinning fog. Lunch at Alpine. Stopped at Italian Gardens (waterfall and foliage very picturesque) then crossed over to Irvington. Arrived around 4 p.m.; took out at convenient boat ramp in parking lot by the train station. Briefly saw Kathy’s show at the gallery, then Metro-North train back to New York.

(Note: It’s nice to see that Vlad sometimes went on short and sweet paddles, as well as the longer ones he was known for. And Italian Gardens site was a favored destination for us from Pier 40, though we often failed to make it that far–somehow we constantly managed to underestimate the time required!)

Window Box

By Johna Till Johnson

NYC Flowers 042017 Edited

Window box on the Upper East Side, Spring 2017

APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

—T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land

Ah yes, “Dull roots with spring rain”!

Every spring, it’s the same surprise. We spend the winter yearning for sunshine and warmth. Yet when spring arrives, it’s usually wrapped in a cloak of dark clouds and cold rain.

It’s become a cliché: “April showers bring May flowers”—even though in New York, the flowers usually bloom in April (until they’re washed away by rain), and May is the month of green leaves.

But every now and then, even in the dank days of mid-April, a burst of sunshine appears. In this case, a window box, seen on the way home from the gym, with a riotous profusion of plants and flowers. A promise of brightness to come!

The Easter Bunny

By Johna Till Johnson

NYC Easter Bunny 1 041517 Edited SM

The Easter Bunny appears in the wine store!

Friday night I saw something I haven’t seen since I was five or six years old: The Easter Bunny! Who, apparently, buys wine for Easter dinner just like the rest of us.

Actually, I didn’t quite see the Easter Bunny back then, either. So technically this was my first actual sighting.

We were living in Naples, Italy, at the time. I’d awakened early Easter morning, excitedly anticipating the basket and associated goodies, only to find… nothing.

Nada. Zilch. The Easter bunny, apparently, hadn’t arrived.

Maybe he just hadn’t arrived yet, my parents suggested optimistically. Maybe he’d show up later on. There was still time! So, like the good Catholic family that we were, we headed off to Easter Mass.

Upon our return, I pushed through our creaky garden gate. My father was holding my hand. “Look!” he shouted suddenly. “It’s the Easter bunny! I saw his fluffy white tail!” And the two of us dashed off around the house in mad pursuit. I didn’t see anything, but I wasn’t as tall as my dad. And maybe, if we ran fast enough, I’d actually see the Easter bunny!

You know how this story ends: when we came in the front door, panting and puffing, we discovered a giant, green-and-yellow Easter basket on the kitchen table. We hadn’t succeeded in seeing him, but evidently the Easter bunny had arrived.

Even as young as I was, I put the pieces together pretty quickly. I never found out what happened to delay the Easter basket, or at what point my parents hatched the scheme.

And I don’t remember why I figured it out. Maybe it was the fact that my father, who hadn’t the slightest bit of whimsy, didn’t pull off his acting job quite credibly. All I know is that was the end of my believing in the Easter bunny.

Until now.

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By Johna Till Johnson

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