A monthly blog about the sensory experience of New York City

Monday, December 16, 2019

SIGHT: Secret Christmas tree memorial for departed pets

It could take hours to find—or minutes, if you happen upon the right sequence of paths in the labyrinthine Ramble of Central Park

At first it's just a flutter in the corner of your eye, a pattern to the light. Then it emerges from behind a tangle of bare branches: an ordinary evergreen tree, not too different from the two trees flanking it, except that on Sunday in mid-December, it seems to be receiving an unusual number of visitors.

Get closer still, and you'll see why. The tree is bedecked in dozens of Christmas ornaments. Upon closer inspection, you'll notice that most of the ornaments are homemade and are dedicated to pets who have died. Photos of each animal have been laminated and strung with ribbon or encased in Ziploc bags to protect them from the weather.

There are dog treats for good behavior in heaven,

a beribboned collar as a reminder of favorite city walks,

or a bit of honey for the afterlife.

There are curious talismans, including one made of hair, glitter, and ribbon—with a checkered taxicab theme.

There are no backyard chickens or urban sheep. Ming the tiger, who was raised in an apartment in a Harlem housing project and died this autumn, has not yet been commemorated. Most of the pets are cats or dogs, but there are a few outliers: a bunny named Winnie,

a box turtle named Sherman,

and a budgie named Buddha.

Some of the ornaments are simply a photo and a Sharpied name. But others have odes to the lives of pets in the heart of a big city.

I had brought with me an ornament—laminated for free by a sympathetic Print Services worker at Staples—memorializing our family's two goldfish, Ralph and Frank. They turned out to be the only fish on the tree.

As I walked away, I heard the plastic ornaments rattling against one another in the breeze. In this secluded grove in one of the few wild places left in Manhattan, these homemade offerings provide an intimate glimpse into the lives, apartments, and hearts of New Yorkers and of the creatures who offer them unconditional love and predictability in an unpredictable city.

The location of the pet memorial tree is kept a secret by its keepers, but if you are lucky you may stumble upon it during a stroll through the Ramble.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

SOUND: ASMR sound bath in a Bushwich church basement

I first discovered ASMR one evening as I was standing in my then boyfriend's kitchen, idly rolling a grapefruit across his marble countertop. It made a thuddy, rubbery swishing sound. "Do you hear that?" I asked. He listened, then replied judiciously (wistfully?): "Hm. I just don't hear it the way you do." Though we eventually got married, we still don't always hear things the same way.

It turns out there are others who appreciate life's small, satisfying sounds. What I experienced is called an autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR): the relaxing, sometimes scalp-tingling feeling some people have in response to a series of repeated sensations, usually auditory, tactile, or visual, such as the crinkling of a wrapped Band-Aid, a makeup brush against one's cheek, or a knife slicing through a just-decanted cylinder of cranberry jelly. Though arguably ASMR has existed for millennia (a crackling wood fire is a common trigger), about ten years ago it became an internet phenomenon. And on a recent night, it was what led me to a Bushwick church basement to attend Waves, an ASMR-stimulating sound bath.

After descending stairs beneath a neon sine wave and whispering a password through a peephole, I entered a basement room outfitted with a desk, a lamp, and a seashell.

Each participant was given a pair of latex gloves and a handful of glass beads. Another door opened, and we were led into a vintage gymnasium. Yoga mats with pillows were arrayed like wheel spokes around a hub of instruments. An electronic drone bounced off the shadowy basketball hoops and chiaroscuro walls. The lights dimmed to near black.

Two figures in conical hats draped with fabric strips shuffled into the room, the cottony flapping of their robes providing the first taste of ASMR. I heard a faint crackling and soon smelled the waftings of campfire smoke as the figures circled the room with sticks of palo santo incense. The tinkling of tiny, fingery bells encircled us in lacy acoustics and cleansed the air.

I wanted to offer New York City a mysterious and theatrical sound bath with music and costumes," Andrew Hoepfner, one of the robed figures, later told me. Hoepfner is the creator of Waves and co-creator of the live ASMR experience known as Whisperlodge. He told me that Waves was inspired by sound baths he'd attended that incorporated "the full smorgasbord of trappings," from disco balls to animal statuary. With Waves, he wanted instead to "shine the spotlight on little details we all like, whether or not you get tingles." Both he and his assistant--tonight a man named Will--
remain incognito throughout the experience.

With my eyes closed and reclined on my mat, I heard the hollow glugs of water being sloshed around in glass jars with tin lids. Andrew poured the water back and forth between jars, producing a simultaneous rise and descent in pitch as one jar filled and the other emptied.

They next ran their fingers along the teeth of two plastic combs, sometimes tantalizingly slowly, releasing each tine before clicking onto the next, and sometimes fast, creating a tinkling, zippery ripping, holding the combs next to each participant's ear. I couldn't help smiling, though I didn't quite get the tingles. Punctuating the ASMR noises was the plangent, elephantine squeeze of a harmonium.

Andrew ran a stick over the back of a wooden frog with a ridged spine, creating a nutty, knuckly sound.

A Tibetan singing bowl keened and hummed, like a finger run over the rim of a wineglass.

Andrew then asked us to slip on our latex gloves and rub our fingers together to "make noise for the room," then to bring our fingertips next to our ears and "softly, secretly, make some sounds just for you." The powdery whisper felt intimate and alive, like the static between tracks on an LP. When we cupped the glass beads in our gloved hands, they washed against one another with watery clicks. Then Andrew and Will swept around the room, crumpling sheets of tissue paper with a crashing roar, then bending rolls of thicker paper back and forth, which sounded like a flag whipping in the wind. Held next to my ear, the tissue had the effervescence of lather foaming on one's ears during a shampoo. Then came the springy pings of a thumb piano.

After a wafting of sage incense, Andrew played the ocean drum, which is filled with metal beads that sweep against stretched fabric like wind blowing sheets of rain across an expanse of water. Andrew flashed about the room, casting his shadow across the pressed-tin ceiling.

I realized that noises that might otherwise have annoyed me had now become part of the ASMR landscape: the rustling of a parka, joints cracking, a zipper, snoring (!), and even the meteoric growling of a rumbling stomach. My most recent Waves sound bath happened to take place on Election Day; Andrew had forgotten that the church is used as a polling site. On that night, the sounds of the show were punctuated by heavy footsteps and the scraping of table legs in the room above us. It occurred to me that this might be a litmus test for ASMR: from the pings of a hair comb to democracy in action.

For tickets to the next Waves sound bath at Gymnopedie, Hoepfner's arts and performance space in Bushwick, click here. The photos above were taken after the sound bath; no photography is permitted during the experience.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

MULTISENSORY: Urban forest bathing

The buildings of Central Park West rose beyond the treetops as Brooke Mellen, the owner of Cultured Forest, a local forest bathing and nature therapy group, instructed us to face each of the four cardinal directions. "Which one feels best?" she asked. This was the opening of what would be a two-hour session of shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, in a setting far removed from the practice's roots in 1980s Japan. To me, the most comfortable direction was west, toward the city, with the sunlight on my left arm.

I admit that when I first heard the term "forest bathing," I pictured myself splayed on the forest floor, gazing up at the treetops, or perhaps sprawled facedown, nuzzling into a bed of moss and pine needles.

So I was surprised to find that, at least in the United States, forest bathing includes few moments of rest. As described by the US-based Association of Nature and Forest Therapy, here shinrin-yoku is "a practice of developing a deepening relationship of reciprocity, in which the forest and the practitioner find a way to work together that supports the wholeness and wellness of each. In forest therapy, there is a clearly defined sequence of guided events that provides structure to the experience, while embracing the many opportunities for creativity and serendipity offered by the forest and the individual inspiration of each guide." 

As we concluded our opening ceremony, peals of laughter and waftings of palo santo incense drifted toward us from a nearby group of French picnickers. Rather than feeling annoyed, I smiled at the thought of this group engaging in their own form of forest therapy, albeit with wine and cheese. 

Next, we stopped at the junction of two paths. Brooke had us reach into a bag of stones and select one to infuse with good intentions for the person across from us. Mine was prickly and glinted with mica. We squeezed our rocks and tried to exchange them without opening our eyes. My partner and I crashed into each other, but succeded in passing off our stones. Hers was still warm from her hand.

We strolled on to our next location, observing the movements in the park around us. A dog leaped to catch a squeaky ball. Chipmunks rustled in the underbrush. Bees hovered over flowers. A topless man did calisthenics on a picnic blanket. As usual in the city, everyone was doing their own thing, but on this fall day their disparate activities seemed to be in sync.

Brooke led us to a secluded grove, where she encouraged us to spend ten minutes immersing ourselves in the forest. Aha! Forest bathing at last. I found a slab of Manhattan schist and lay on my back, inhaling the tannic scent of early autumn and letting the breeze wash across my face.

My reverie did not last long, however, as three men emerged from the trees lugging bulging trash bags. They were soon followed by a man on a bike. "What y'all doing here?" he chastised one member of our group. "I was smokin' some weed--or I was about to smoke some weed till all y'all came along!" As it turned out, he was a forest bather himself, though perhaps not by choice. The eye of his tiger-print blanket glared out at me from beneath some trees.

After a few more activities, including communing with a tree and throwing stones representing our burdens into a waterfall pool, Brooke had us create Andy Goldsworth–esque art installations in the woods. As I rooted around the forest floor, I kept coming across pieces of litterfour blue cigarillo sheaths, a Magnum condom packet, sublingual film for narcotics overdoses, a Honey Bun wrapper, nickel bags. All seemed to be tokens of the ways humans escape from themselves and their surroundings. 

Rather than reject the detritus, I decided to incorporate it into a mandala to honor the dark underbelly of the city's woodland. Brooke had told me she sometimes arrives ahead of the session to pick up litter from each of the sites, but in this case I was glad she hadn't. Even if the point of forest bathing is nature appreciation and contemplation, it seemed disingenuous to ignore the reminders of our urban setting.

Our last stop was a boardwalk overlooking a burbling stream, where Brooke unveiled a forest-themed tea ceremony from her backpack, including a thermos of dandelion tea and a box of maple leaf sandwich cookies. She passed around a balm made from hinoki cypress, native to Japan, to rub on our wrists to stimulate our sense of smell. Then she sang a heartfelt rendition of the Beatles' song "Blackbird," her voice mingling with the rushing water. An elderly birder with binoculars around his neck paused to listen, smiled, and mentioned a wood thrush he'd spotted near the stream, another urban forest bather making the woods his own.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

MULTISENSORY: A two-vine winery on a Carnegie Hill brownstone rooftop

When Latif Jiji was twelve years old, he would pass by his father’s wine barrel near their kitchen in Basra, Iraq, lift the lid, and inhale. Seduced by the scent, he sometimes dipped in a finger and licked the juice from his fingertip. (His father, an amateur vintner, hadn’t yet figured out that wine should not be stored in containers with loose covers.) “That was the origin of my daring to repeat it. It’s all based on feeling, intuition,” Latif, now in his nineties, says.

Those stolen moments were the sensory spark of Chateau Latif, Manhattan’s only vineyard and winery, which evolved by accident in the backyard of his family’s Carnegie Hill brownstone. “I’m not really into fine wine tasting or anything like that,” he says. “The taste of my father’s wine is the one that has stayed with me.”

In 1977, Latif snuck a Niagara grapevine into his garden, which had previously been his wife’s domain. Then he sort of forgot about it. But seven years later, after he returned from a summer vacation, he noticed that it had grown to about fifteen feet long—and had started to produce grapes. 

Excited by the prospect of re-creating family history, he decided to harvest the fruit. The first crew, in 1983, was just Latif and one of his daughters; no wine was made that year. Soon after, he planted a sprig from the first vine to create a second. Together, the twin vines, now more than one hundred feet long, have climbed the back wall of his four-story home and sprawled across a rooftop arbor in an urban terroir of bitumen roofing, AC compressors, and water tanks, and with a view of skyscrapers.

Chateau Latif produced its first fifteen half bottles in the second harvest, in 1984. Though wine from the early years is drinkable, he didn’t know enough about proper corking those first years. He has saved these bottles for posterity in his wine cellar, a hobbit hole in the front of his basement. 

A retired engineering professor, Latif is always making improvements, but Chateau Latif’s operation is decidedly homespun. His vines are watered by urban rainfall and city water, and he prunes them only once, in winter. In 2019, he harvested four hundred pounds of grapes, which will make eighty bottles of white wine. On harvest day, around Labor Day, about thirty friends and family members—including Latif’s children and grandchildren, who all live in Manhattan—will gather and work from morning till early evening. The process starts with a climb up Latif’s defiantly steep staircase to the roof, where a hatch leads to the arbor.

In most vineyards, the vines are only five or six feet tall, so harvesters do not need to snip grapes upside down, standing on benches and milk crates, as they do at Chateau Latif. But here the crew is rewarded by a panoramic view of the Manhattan skyline.

The crew shuttles them down the back wall of the brownstone in a plastic laundry basket, using a pulley system.

In the backyard, the harvesters receive the grapes, weigh and wash them, and feed them into a manual crusher and de-stemmer. Children love to turn the crank and watch the stems move to one side of the de-stemmer and fall into a bucket.

The grapes then go into a wine press lined with netting to extract the grape juice. The first sweet squeezes of Chateau Latif wine ooze out the sides.

They pour the juice into five-gallon glass jugs and add a precise amount of metabisulfite to kill the natural yeast. A measured amount of yeast is then added and fermentation begins in a day or two. Fermentation ends after about a week, and the jars are topped off and sealed with airlocks to let gases escape but no air can enter. The jugs are stored in Latif’s ingenious wine cabinet, constructed of insulation boards and cooled by a mini-fridge with the door removed.

Using a back issue of the New Yorker and school glue, Latif attaches the signature labels. They are hand-watercolored by family and friends and feature an image of his brownstone with the roof arbor atop and legendary vine trailing down the side.

He seals the bottle neck with a plastic heat-shrink capsule over his kitchen stove burner.

“My goal is not to make the best wine but to have a story,” Latif says. Is it a stretch to say the 2018 vintage tastes of the Second Avenue subway, the pleats of private-school uniforms, glazed Dunkin Donuts, the metal chains of a playground swing set, dry cleaning, and the wax-and-wood of Brick Presbyterian Church—all in the vicinity of Chateau Latif’s vines? Perhaps, but that it tastes most of is family and history.