Different

One of these is not like the others…

By Johna Till Johnson

On a cold winter’s day, I sip my morning coffee, scan my eyes idly across the rows of identical windows in the apartment building across the street… and squint a bit. What’s that? Apparently one of the apartment dwellers  hasn’t gotten the memo.

Some people just have to be different…and I’m glad!

Zlarin: Anchors at Sunset

The double anchors of Zlarin

By Johna Till Johnson

Last September I paddled the Croatian Adriatic coast with Peak and Paddle Croatia. It was enchanting.

For the first part of the trip, we stayed on the island Zlarin.  It’s a small island (winter population of 284), but has been inhabited since Neolithic times, and is famous for its coral divers.

This double-anchor monument was erected in 1977 to honor Zlarin sailors and emigrants. (Interestingly enough, that group includes Anthony Maglica, the founder of Maglite, who was born in New York City of Croatian parents, but returned to their hometown of Zlarin during World War II.)

I took the photo from the kayak at sunset, after one of our first trips. Stories are to come!

Democracy is Coming

American flag at the Intrepid, as seen from my kayak

By Johna Till Johnson

July 4, 1976. The Bicentennial.

I remember it vividly. Earlier that year with the rest of my sixth grade class I’d prepared a multimedia report, with photos and artwork and carefully crafted text. That night as the fireworks lit up the sky, and the grownups chatted over drinks and hors d’oeuvres, I thought to myself, “Pretty cool! I need to catch the next one!”

Then I realized that meant I’d have to live to be… 111 years old.

Not impossible. But definitely a stretch. It would take luck, work, and considerable scientific and technological advancement. (My interest in life extension stems from that moment, because I really do want to be around.)

And then something else occurred to me: What if we didn’t make it? What if I lived to be 111, but there was no longer a U.S.A.?

By then I’d learned something about the Greeks and Romans, and that democracy was an inherently unstable form of government. Like many children, I couldn’t truly believe that anything bad would really happen. So I tried to shut down the thought. But it remained: What if…?

In the decades since, I’ve become increasingly pessimistic, while still clinging to my native idealism. I’m an American not because I was born here, but because I believe in the principles on which this country was founded, however imperfectly we’ve managed to adhere to them over our history:  Every person is entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Every citizen gets a vote. And most importantly, government is here to serve us, not the other way around.

Over the years, I’ve thrown citizenship parties for more than a few friends who have chosen to throw their lots in with the U.S.

And I’ve shared with them the hope that we can defy the odds, remain a democratic republic, and continue to adhere as closely as possible to those cherished ideals.

Sometimes, that hope feels faint and flickering.

So it’s no small irony that it’s the Canadian Leonard Cohen who helps fan that flickering flame.  His song “Democracy” was written shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

It’s apolitical (neither right nor left, as he says in the song). And as he said in an interview: “It’s not an ironic song. It’s a song of deep intimacy and affirmation of the experiment of democracy in this country…This is really where the experiment is unfolding…This is the real laboratory of democracy.”

That’s as true today as when he wrote the words below. Every day, every hour, democracy is being tested. Sometimes it fails the test. And sometimes, against the odds, it succeeds.

If you haven’t heard the song,  it’s worth a listen.

Lyrics ©Leonard Cohen 1992

It’s coming through a hole in the air
From those nights in Tiananmen Square
It’s coming from the feel
That this ain’t exactly real
Or it’s real, but it ain’t exactly there
From the wars against disorder
From the sirens night and day
From the fires of the homeless
From the ashes of the gay
Democracy is coming to the USA
It’s coming through a crack in the wall
On a visionary flood of alcohol
From the staggering account
Of the Sermon on the Mount
Which I don’t pretend to understand at all
It’s coming from the silence
On the dock of the bay,
From the brave, the bold, the battered
Heart of Chevrolet
Democracy is coming to the USA

It’s coming from the sorrow in the street
The holy places where the races meet
From the homicidal bitchin’
That goes down in every kitchen
To determine who will serve and who will eat
From the wells of disappointment
Where the women kneel to pray
For the grace of God in the desert here
And the desert far away:
Democracy is coming to the USA

Sail on, sail on
O mighty Ship of State
To the Shores of Need
Past the Reefs of Greed
Through the Squalls of Hate
Sail on, sail on, sail on, sail on

It’s coming to America first
The cradle of the best and of the worst
It’s here they got the range
And the machinery for change
And it’s here they got the spiritual thirst
It’s here the family’s broken
And it’s here the lonely say
That the heart has got to open
In a fundamental way
Democracy is coming to the USA

It’s coming from the women and the men
O baby, we’ll be making love again
We’ll be going down so deep
The river’s going to weep,
And the mountain’s going to shout Amen
It’s coming like the tidal flood
Beneath the lunar sway
Imperial, mysterious
In amorous array
Democracy is coming to the USA

Sail on, sail on…

I’m sentimental, if you know what I mean
I love the country but I can’t stand the scene
And I’m neither left or right
I’m just staying home tonight
Getting lost in that hopeless little screen
But I’m stubborn as those garbage bags
That time cannot decay
I’m junk but I’m still holding up
This little wild bouquet
Democracy is coming to the USA

Note: Astute observers may note the British Airways logo on the airplane in the photo. That’s the British supersonic airplane the Concorde, which was donated to the Intrepid museum upon its retirement in 2003. As in so many things, the U.S. remains indebted to Britain.

Watch Out For a Man With a Hot Grill!

He doesn’t LOOK that dangerous…

By Johna Till Johnson

Two years ago, a new falafel shop, Gyro 96, opened up on my street. It focused primarily on lunch, so I investigated immediately—there are few good lunch options near me, and I was looking for something fast, cheap, tasty and reasonably healthy.

It was a tiny hole in the wall, no seating, just a grill/kitchen behind a serving window. But the way the crowd of construction workers, hospital employees, and assorted denizens of the Upper East Side and Spanish Harlem gathered around told me the food had to be good.

Aside from serving up the best chicken gyro salad I’ve ever had (and introducing me to hibiscus iced tea),  the shop did something better: it made me laugh.

I don’t know whether the sign behind chef/owner Waled Harady’s head is intended to be humorous. But the way he and his partner Inna Sobel laughed when they saw me taking the photo makes me suspect it is.

Harady seems to be the kind of guy who’s well aware of gender roles—and doesn’t mind upending them a bit. He’s a former aeronautical engineer who ended up running a falafel restaurant in Harlem, then after a few iterations ended up at the current location with his partner.  There’s a great piece about the story in the New York Times.

Harady’s recipes are all authentic. They come from his mother and his grandmother, and he makes them the old-fashioned way. And that hibiscus iced tea? It’s not only a lovely drink on a hot summer day, but may be a wonderful natural way to lower blood pressure.

So if you’re in the neighborhood, stop by. But watch out for those men cooking!

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.