Perfection on a Friday by New York Times via Moscow and L.A.

Thank you, John Kaag, and to Breakfast in Moscow for sharing this piece.

The Perfect Essay – NYTimes.com for your reading pleasure below.

The Perfect Essay

Looking back on too many years of education, I can identify one truly impossible teacher. She cared about me, and my intellectual life, even when I didn’t. Her expectations were high — impossibly so. She was an English teacher. She was also my mother.

When good students turn in an essay, they dream of their instructor returning it to them in exactly the same condition, save for a single word added in the margin of the final page: “Flawless.” This dream came true for me one afternoon in the ninth grade. Of course, I’d heard that genius could show itself at an early age, so I was only slightly taken aback that I had achieved perfection at the tender age of 14. Obviously, I did what any professional writer would do; I hurried off to spread the good news. I didn’t get very far. The first person I told was my mother.

My mother, who is just shy of five feet tall, is normally incredibly soft-spoken, but on the rare occasion when she got angry, she was terrifying. I’m not sure if she was more upset by my hubris or by the fact that my English teacher had let my ego get so out of hand. In any event, my mother and her red pen showed me how deeply flawed a flawless essay could be. At the time, I’m sure she thought she was teaching me about mechanics, transitions, structure, style and voice. But what I learned, and what stuck with me through my time teaching writing at Harvard, was a deeper lesson about the nature of creative criticism.

First off, it hurts. Genuine criticism, the type that leaves an indelible mark on you as a writer, also leaves an existential imprint on you as a person. I’ve heard people say that a writer should never take criticism personally. I say that we should never listen to these people.

Criticism, at its best, is deeply personal, and gets to the heart of why we write the way we do. Perhaps you’re a narcissist who secretly resents your audience. Or an elitist who expects herculean feats of your reader. Or a know-it-all who can’t admit that stylistic repetition is sometimes annoying redundancy. Or a wallflower who hides behind sparklingly meaningless modifiers. Or an affirmation junkie who’s the first to brag about a flawless essay.

Unfortunately, as my mother explained, you can be all of these things at once.

Her red pen had made something painfully clear. To become a better writer, I first had to become a better person. Well before I ever read it, I came to sense the meaning of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” And I faced the disturbing suggestion that my song was no good.

The intimate nature of genuine criticism implies something about who is able to give it, namely, someone who knows you well enough to show you how your psychic life is getting in the way of good writing. Conveniently, they’re also the people who care enough to see you through the traumatic aftermath of this realization. For me the aftermath took the form of my first, and I hope only, encounter with writer’s block.

It lasted three years.

Franz Kafka once said: “Writing is utter solitude, the descent into the cold abyss of oneself.” My mother’s criticism had shown me that Kafka is right about the cold abyss, and when you make the introspective descent that writing requires you’re not always pleased by what you find. But, in the years that followed, her sustained tutelage suggested that Kafka might be wrong about the solitude. I was lucky enough to find a critic and teacher who was willing to make the journey of writing with me. “It’s a thing of no great difficulty,” according to Plutarch, “to raise objections against another man’s oration, it is a very easy matter; but to produce a better in its place is a work extremely troublesome.” I’m sure I wrote essays in the later years of high school without my mother’s guidance, but I can’t recall them. What I remember, however, is how she took up the “extremely troublesome” work of ongoing criticism.

There are two ways to interpret Plutarch when he suggests that a critic should be able to produce “a better in its place.” In a straightforward sense, he could mean that a critic must be more talented than the artist she critiques. My mother was well covered on this count. (She denies it, but she’s still a much, much better writer than I am.) But perhaps Plutarch is suggesting something slightly different, something a bit closer to Cicero’s claim that one should “criticize by creation, not by finding fault.” Genuine criticism creates a precious opening for an author to become better on his own terms — a process that’s often excruciating, but also almost always meaningful.

My mother said she would help me with my writing, but first I had to help myself. For each assignment, I was to write the best essay I could. Real criticism isn’t meant to find obvious mistakes, so if she found any — the type I could have found on my own — I had to start from scratch. From scratch. Once the essay was “flawless,” she would take an evening to walk me through my errors. That was when true criticism, the type that changed me as a person, began.

She chided me as a pseudo-sophisticate when I included obscure references and professional jargon. She had no patience for brilliant but useless extended metaphors. “Writers can’t bluff their way through ignorance.” That was news to me — I’d need to find another way to structure my daily existence. She trimmed back my flowery language, drew lines through my exclamation marks and argued for the value of understatement. “John,” she almost whispered. I leaned in to hear her: “I can’t hear you when you shout at me.” So I stopped shouting and bluffing, and slowly my writing improved.

Somewhere along the way I set aside my hopes of writing that flawless essay. But perhaps I missed something important in my mother’s lessons about creativity and perfection. Perhaps the point of writing the flawless essay was not to give up, but to never willingly finish. Whitman repeatedly reworked “Song of Myself” between 1855 and 1891. Repeatedly. We do our absolute best with a piece of writing, and come as close as we can to the ideal. And, for the time being, we settle. In critique, however, we are forced to depart, to give up the perfection we thought we had achieved for the chance of being even a little bit better. This is the lesson I took from my mother: If perfection were possible, it wouldn’t be motivating.

John Kaag is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and former visiting assistant professor of expository writing at Harvard. He is the author of the forthcoming book “Finding Westwind: A Story of American Philosophy.” And yes, Becky Griffith Kaag, his mother and a former high school English teacher, took her editing pen to this essay.

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April Showers Bring May Flowers ~ Williamsburg, Brooklyn

I’m quite fond of some good ol’ clichés; I use them and I’ve come across many in recent articles. Yet they are considered a no-no in writing.

Cliché, defined: a phrase or idea that has been used so often that it is no longer interesting or effective. (Source: Oxford American Dictionary)

There’s a reason why a cliché is a cliché; like a quote, sometimes it describes something so succinctly, that – depending on the nature of the writing – it might be just the right wording you’re looking for.

Recently, I read an article in the New York Times by A.A.Gill: My London, and Welcome to It, that was dotted with clichés; from phrases such as the river runs like dark silk through the heart of the city, to non-specific words like charming, wonderful, and beautiful.

Reading his prose, I thought it brilliant; I wasn’t bothered by his choice of words one bit as I was swept away by the tongue-in-cheek writing style.

While I do strive to do justice to my travel writing by utilizing concrete descriptions, I believe there to be a time and a place for clichés. But that’s just my two cents.

While silence may be golden, I’d love to know your thoughts: when do you think it right, or wrong, to use a cliché?

In the meantime, kick your feet up and scroll through images of a lush and blooming Williamsburg, peppered with some oft-used phrases. Enjoy!

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Stop and smell the roses.

Green thumb.

Out on a limb.

Perfect storm.

Pretty as a picture.

Under the same roof.

Two to tango.

The Bedford

Old meets new.

Diner

Spring to life.

Art imitates life… or vice versa.

Everything old is new again.

Understated elegance.

Woodley and Bunny Salon

No pain, no gain.

Lighten up.

Fada Restaurant

Everything but the kitchen sink.

Store bought.

Peas in a pod.

Man’s best friend.

Labour of love.

Green Dome Garden

Nip it in the bud.

Russian Orthodox Church

Knock it out of the park.

McCarren Park

Photographing til my heart’s content.

The last laugh.

The Good Old Brooklyn Bridge…

… sang Frank Sinatra in the 1940’s black & white film, It Happened in BrooklynThe Brooklyn Bridge  is such a beautiful song.

If someone asked you to name New York’s top three iconic landmarks, I am sure that the Brooklyn Bridge would make the cut. It’s inspired so many films, poems, stories, and life moments.

Love moments, locked on the Bridge

From this architecturally stunning structure, an open-air viewing deck grant visitors unobstructed New York views, unlike those seen from the Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges. (NB: The Bridge is undergoing renovation at this time so there is scaffolding on part of the way from Brooklyn towards its centre).

Sightseers on scaffolding; uptown Manhattan and the Manhattan Bridge (background)

Scaffolding from Brooklyn side

On the Brooklyn Bridge, everyone shares the same path, which means mayhem. Although a dividing line maintains some order, it doesn’t succeed given the throngs of tourists descend on the bridge daily. Walkers brush shoulders as the stroll from Manhattan to Brooklyn, or vive versa. Cyclists ding their bike bells to caution photographers and other gawkers, who may have crossed into the bike lane. That said, it is very fun photographing the landmark.

Tripods and Manhattan vistas

As the Brooklyn Bridge is mentioned and/or featured in so many works, I thought I’d share some interesting excerpts with you.

Enjoy!

All photographs are my own – taken between December 2011 and January 2012. A few may have been retouched with the Nikon D5000.

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I’ve lived most of my life in Manhattan, but as close as Brooklyn is to Manhattan, there are people who live there who have been to Manhattan maybe once or twice. ~ Ellen Burstyn

Brooklyn is very much worth the visit…

Dumbo’s lofts from Brooklyn Bridge

Good composition is like a suspension bridge – each line adds strength and takes none away. ~ Robert Henri

View from Broklyn’s Fulton Park

Mortimer Brewster: All I did was cross the bridge and I was in Brooklyn. Amazing.     ~Movie: Arsenic and Old Lace

View of Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridge

You’re in Brooklyn

Sunrise on the bridge
light splashing through the arches
joggers chasing dreams

~ Haiku: Brooklyn Bridge by Laurence Overmire

Since the bridge was completed in 1883, the idea of illegally selling it has become the ultimate example of persuasion. A good salesman could sell it, a great swindler would sell it, and the perfect sucker would fall for the scam. ~ For You, Half Price – New York Times.

A view from the East River shores of Brooklyn

“The oddity of the thing today,” said Luc Sante, author of the book, Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York,  “is not that there might have been con artists ready to see the bridge, but that there would have been suckers gullible enough and sufficiently well-heeled to fall for it.” ~ For You, Half Price – New York Times.

“Up to the 1920’s people were still trying,” Mr Nash said. “But it was a hard sale. Immigrants had become much more sophisticated and knowledgeable, and by that time the processors at Ellis Island were handing out cards or booklets saying, You can’t buy public buildings or streets. These shifts explain why the Brooklyn Bridge is the span associated with swindles; the city’s other bridges were built after the high tide of gullibility had already begun slipping away.” ~ For You, Half Price – New York Times.

re: the above… Is this reflection for sale?

They may call me a ‘rube’ and a ‘hick’. I would rather be the man who bought the Brooklyn Bridge than the man who sold it. ~ Will Rogers

Strolling from Manhattan…

In the 19th century, the bridge was one of the two best-known symbols of America, the other being the Statue of Liberty. ~ Kathleen Hulser, the public historian at the New York Historical Society

Downtown Manhattan from the Bridge; Statue of Liberty – in the far off distance

Another NY icon – the yellow cab

If you’ve been a rover
Journey’s end lies over the Brooklyn Bridge
Don’t let no one tell you
I’ve been tryin’ to sell you the Brooklyn Bridge

All the folks in Manhattan are sad
’cause they look at her and wish they had
The good old Brooklyn Bridge.

~Lyrics: Frank Sinatra sings ‘The Brooklyn Bridge’

Untried expedient, untried; then tried;
way out; way in; romantic passageway
first seen by the eye of the mind,
then by the eye. O steel! O stone!
Climactic ornament, a double rainbow,
as if inverted by French perspicacity,
John Roebling’s monument,
German tenacity’s also;
composite span—an actuality.

~ Poem: Granite and Steel, Marianne Moore

East River against the Arch

O harp and altar, of the fury fused,
(How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!)
Terrific threshold of the prophet’s pledge,
Prayer of pariah, and the lover’s cry,–

Again the traffic lights that skim thy swift
Unfractioned idiom, immaculate sigh of stars,
Beading thy path–condense eternity:
And we have seen night lifted in thine arms.

~ Poem: To Brooklyn Bridge, Hart Crane

Annie Hall: Do you love me?

Alvy Singer: Love is too weak a word for what I feel – I luuurve you, you know, I loave you, I luff you, two F’s, yes I have to invent, of course I – I do, don’t you think I do?

~ Words spoken near the Brooklyn Bridge. From the movie: Annie Hall

View of the Bridge from Dumbo

View from the Manhattan Bridge

The cables that hold up (the Brooklyn Bridge) on big stone piers are beautiful and not hidden. It’s metal in your face taking traditional material and putting it to use in a way that you can see what it can do.  ~ Alan Goodheart

A collection of love locks like the ones found in Paris, Budapest, and Seoul are starting to pile up on the New York City landmark. ~newyork.cbslocal.com

Whenever I think of yesterday,
I close my eyes and see,
That place Just Over The Brooklyn Bridge
That will always be home to me.
It’ll always be home to me.

~ Lyrics: Just Over The Brooklyn Bridge, Art Garfunkel

5 Pointz – Graffiti Art Gallery in Long Island City, Queens, NY

Because I have posted on street art in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a fellow blogger, Victor Ho, drew my attention to a graffiti project in Long Island City (LIC), Queens called 5Pointz Aerosol Art Center, Inc. From Williamsburg, it’s a quick drive over the Pulaski Bridge to LIC.

in some ways, LIC is similar to Williamsburg. Both neighbourhoods are both undergoing gentrification, enjoy view of Manhattan and the East River, are easily accessible by subway or ferry, and are situated close to major bridges — the Queensboro Bridge connects LIC to Manhattan’s Upper East Side. the area has attracted a young professional crowd though the  feeling of community doesn’t permeate as much as it does in Williamsburg.

Queensboro Bridge linking LIC to Manhattan

Dubbed ‘5Pointz’, this empty, 20,000-square-foot, five-story factory building is covered from top to bottom in graffiti. The name, 5Pointz, represents the five boroughs of New York, although the building is showcase global graffiti works by artists from Australia, Spain, Canada, Brazil, and France as well. Located under the rambling elevated 7-subway line, this one block long industrial complex continues until the Davis Street’s dead end. Today, the enclave was far from dead, which was filled with film crew, photographers, iphone-toting fans and trucks.

7 Subway Line

5Pointz Building…

5Pointz Building… continues along Davis Street

5Pointz Building… full frontal

Art continues down the complex on Davis Street

Unfortunately, 5 Pointz faces an undetermined fate. The graffiti art curator, Jonathan Cohen, plans to convert the building into a “graffiti museum”, as well as “a school for aspiring aerosol artists, complete with a formalized curriculum that imparts lessons in teamwork, art history, and entrepreneurship in addition to technique”, yet there are rumours that the building will be knocked down to make room for condos. The building’s owner, John Wolcoff, has expressed interest in building two 30-story high rises to cash in on renters escaping expensive Manhattan, and has promised a rear wall accessible to graffiti artists in lieu of what may be torn down. Hardly compensation.

An homage to Dali

Marie Flageul, an event planner who is part of the 5Pointz team, recently stated on NYTimes.com, “What the landlord doesn’t understand is that 5Pointz is a brand and an icon, and if he knocks it down it will be missed. 5Pointz is the United Nations of graffiti.”

Ironically, LIC is located directly opposite the United Nations building in Manhattan.

View of the United Nations (left), as seen from LIC’s Water’s Edge dock

If you’re a graffiti artist and are interested in staking a piece of real estate within this “graffiti Mecca”, perhaps the only legal place left to tag in New York, you’ll need to obtain permission from 5Pointz. According to the website:

The most coveted locations are given to accomplished graffiti artists who create high-quality, conceptual work that displays great artistic detail, while the less visible areas are preserved for new and aspiring aerosol artists.

The better the mural, the longer it stays up. Pieces and productions are typically left on display for anywhere from one day to two years, depending on the quality and effort of the work, as well as the pedestrian traffic level of its wall placement. Long-lasting, prominently displayed productions require a rough draft and demonstrate creative vision, a high-level of craft, and originality.

Frogs (mural located opposite 5Pointz building on David Street)

To sign the petition, click here: SHOW UR LOVE TO 5POINTZ

Condos along LIC’s waterfront

Please share your comments below. I’ll be tweeting this page regularly to relevant parties and discussion groups. This will be a way to support 5Pointz in their efforts to save their space.

Grimace…

5Pointz – Close Up