Month: November, 2006

Jon Franzen’s bird problem

Monday, November 6th, 2006 | All Things, Books

Much of bird watching is about disappointment. Part of the appeal is that really, more often than not, you don’t see what you’re looking for. The great pursuits are more about failure than about success.

— Jonathan Franzen, Time magazine (August 20, 2006)

I added SYB’s “plus one” to tonight’s Nature Conservancy event, but en route up Columbus Avenue, he got a better offer from AC, so I ended up attending solo.

Author Jonathan Franzen was at the New-York Historical Society auditorium to share insights about his ornithological troubles. The event was an odd — or at least: not obvious — pairing; Jon was scheduled to appear, it seems, based on his essay, titled “My Bird Problem” which first appeared in The New Yorker earlier this year. The essay is also included in his recent memoir, The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History.


I’ve been reading Jon’s book in snippets, since picking up a copy at his last appearance at the 92nd Street Y. I’m ever more impressed by Jon as a writer; his work speaks of such intelligence and wry wit. At the same time, I can empathize with his anxious nerdiness. There are those, however, who are somewhat less entranced. New York Times book reviewer Michiko Kakutani, famously (and rather harshly) dubbed his memoir “an odious self-portrait of the artist as a young jackass.” Still, with a few glaring exceptions, reviews of the book have been generally favorable.

In “My Bird Problem,” Jon offers a genuinely funny glimpse into his adventures as a nascent bird-watcher, cleverly combining stories about his hobby with rueful remembrances of his marriage in collapse, life in New York City after 9/11, reluctant concerns over global warming (after attending a lecture by Al “Inconvenient Truth” Gore) and cultural criticism regarding upper-middle class environmentalism. Somehow, it works. To be sure, as Jon himself noted that night, the subject of bird-watching has high potential for comedy: the very idea of the special binoculars, the stealthy creeping, the self-imposed physical discomfort… all for a fleeting glimpse — or perceived glimpse — of some particular bird variety or another, for the primary purpose of checking names off of a master list.

But the titular problem is not the inherent ridiculousness of the venture. Rather, despite the author’s normally tight rein on his environmental consciousness, heretofore confined to the ten minutes per year when writing “guilt-assuaging checks to groups like the Sierra Club” — or The Nature Conservancy — he is forced to confront the idea of “not the world’s falling apart in the future, but my feeling inconveniently obliged to care about it in the present.”  The truth is inconvenient indeed.

Jon was quick to point out by way of introduction, that he was no bird expert — more an enthusiast, and a recent one at that. The talk, moderated by the Nature Conservancy scientist and author, Phillip Hoose, was loosely structured around Jon’s discussion of three bird species he particularly likes — the piping plover, the LeConte’s sparrow and the bittern — and relating anecdotes about his experiences with them, complete with audio and visual aids.

Hoose and Franzen


Apparently, Jon has an affinity for sparrows, which he likened to writers, in their quiet plainness — small, unobtrusive observers of the landscape, seeming too delicate for this world.

Incidentally, I didn’t quite grasp the night’s overarching theme — part interview, part presentation — though it did draw some necessary attention to grass roots conservation efforts.

Though it was not a literary event per se, Jon did stay on afterwards to sign books. I didn’t have one with me that night — and didn’t want to risk a repeat of our last meeting — so after the talk, I slipped out quietly for the short walk home.


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Marathon Sunday 2006

Sunday, November 5th, 2006 | All Things, Events, NYC History, Sports

The New York City Marathon — since 2003, known as the ING New York City Marathon via a corporate sponsorship deal with the New York Road Runners — is held on the first Sunday in November. The race has been run has been run every year since 1970.
The first marathon had 127 runners participating in a 26.2-mile race that looped several times within Central Park. That year 55 runners crossed the finish line. In 1981, the course was redrawn to direct the 2,090 runners through all five New York City boroughs — a tradition which continues to this day.

In 2005, a record 87,625 people worldwide applied to run. Because of the popularity of the race, participation is limited to around 37,000 entrants, who are chosen largely by a random lottery system in June, with preference given to previous participants. NYRR members can also gain guaranteed entry by winning one, or completing nine, scored, qualifying races in the previous year, or by meeting qualifying time standards for a marathon (2:55:00 for men; 3:23:00 for women.)

In 1970, the entry fee for the marathon was $1. It has since been raised to $80-164 (based on residency and NYRR membership status), plus a $9 processing fee. Other costs include the mandatory ChampionChip scoring device ($35) for all entrants not already in possession of one.

The ChampionChip is a miniature transponder encased in a waterproof glass capsule, used for participant timing, identification and registration. It is the chip used in the biggest running events in the world (including the New York City, the Boston and the Rotterdam marathons) and a wide range of bicycle races, in-line skating and cross country events. The basis for the ChampionChip system is the radio-frequency- identification system (RFID) from Texas Instruments. This is the same technology that is also used for security locks in cars, admission control in buildings, credit card payment systems (MasterCard’s contactless PayPass and Chase’s blink card) and, it seems eventually for the NYC subway pass system.

Of course, the most famous runner in this year’s field of 38,368 starters was the 1999-2005 Tour de France winner, Lance Armstrong. Sunday morning’s television coverage followed the elite men’s and women’s runners and had one “Lance cam” fixed on Armstrong throughout the race.

I made my way to Central Park, near the 26 mile mark, to cheer on the finishers.


NYC Marathon

The crowd was in fine form, cheering away, and shouting encouragement by name to the runners who had identification emblazoned on their shirts. Go, “Mr. Awesome”!



I had just missed the winners by the time I arrived, but then came the announcement over the loudspeaker. Lance Armstrong had entered the park! An audible buzz of excitement shot through the crowd. Minutes went by, and then I heard the distant rumbling cheer. Closer, closer…


There he is…

Lance Armstrong

…and there he goes.


I stayed on for an hour more, to cheer on the rest of the field, most of whom looked remarkably spry, for having just run 26 miles.




Jeļena Prokopčuka of Latvia repeated her 2005 NYC Marathon win in 2:25:05. Marílson Gomes dos Santos of Brazil won the male race in a time of 2:09:58, becoming the first winner from South America. (Armstrong finished 856th with a time of 2:59:36 in his first marathon.)

This year’s race had 37,954 finishers, the most ever — representing a 98.9% completion rate. Phenomonal.

Free Hugs

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Mom’s birthday banquet

Saturday, November 4th, 2006 | All Things, Eats, Events, Family, Friends

I messed up.

A bit of background: On all of my mother’s U.S. government-issued identification — driver license, passport, etc. — her date of birth is listed as September 24, 1946. This is not her birthdate. September 24 is the Gregorian calendar conversion of her actual birthdate, which was on the 24th day of the 9th lunar month. For those unfamiliar, the Chinese calendar is a lunisolar calendar, i.e., it incorporates elements of both lunar and solar calendars. (The only widely used purely lunar calendar is the Islamic calendar, whose year always consists of 12 lunations.) Although the Gregorian calendar is used by Chinese in day-to-day life, the Chinese calendar is firmly entrenched in the culture; it is used to determine the dates for traditional holidays like Chinese New Year and the Mid-Autumn Festival, and in astrology to select auspicious dates for important events like a wedding, a funeral or a business venture. In the Chinese calendar, the first day of the month is determined by the arrival of the new moon. The length of the month will vary between 29 and 30 days.

The Chinese calendar dates do not correspond to the dates on the Gregorian calendar from year to year; Chinese New Year (i.e., first day of the first lunar month) can fall anywhere between January 21 and February 20. In years past, trying to figure out Mom’s birthday would involve tracking down a Chinese calendar, and studying it to determine the date that year. The advent of the Internet has made this annual research somewhat easier, but… well, I’m getting ahead of myself.

The 60th is a milestone birthday in most cultures, so the family wanted to celebrate accordingly. At minimum, this involved the “children” all gathered in one place, which given the geographical distance and punishing work schedules, required quite a bit of advance planning. A few strokes of the keyboard and — Eureka! — I hit upon the official governmental Hong Kong Observatory (HKO) site for handy Gregorian-Lunar conversions — a quick reference to the years from 1901 to 2100. I clicked on 2006 to find the Gregorian calendar date corresponding to the 24th day of the 9th lunar month.

If you looked at the 2006 calendar, you may have noticed, as I did, that the 7th lunar month is repeated: 6th, 7th, 7th, 8th, 9th. I assumed this was an error, so made the adjustment accordingly. The 24/9 (on the calendar as 24/8) would fall on October 15. I sent the word out, and work schedules and tentative celebrations were planned accordingly.

What is the old saw about why one should never ass-u-me?

Had I done a little more research, I would have learned that each lunisolar year has 12 regular months, which are numbered in sequence (1 to 12). However, because a solar year does not have a whole number of lunar months, a lunisolar calendar must have a variable number of months in a year. There needs to be an adjustment every second or third year to keep in sync with the seasons. The adjustment is made in the form of an intercalary or embolismic month — something like a “leap month” — which may come after any regular month. It has the same number as the preceding regular month, but is designated intercalary. For 2006-2007, there are effectively 13 months.

It seems that the Hong Kong Observatory official Gregorian-Lunar calendar was correct in repeating that 7th intercalary month. Mom’s 60th birthday would be on November 14 — not October 15.

So I messed up.

J clued me into this discrepancy when she did her own — accurate — research. Mea culpas (mine) and mad schedule scrambling (theirs) followed, but in the end, since Mom hadn’t wanted an elaborate birthday blowout, I was spared at least from having to recall dozens of mailed invitations — for the second time in two years.

The family plus a few special guests gathered on Saturday night for a traditional Chinese banquet at East Manor in Elmhurst. Longtime friends ML and LL were in town visiting my parents from Vancouver — and also celebrating a birthday — so it became a joint celebration. We made the arrangements in advance, and the restaurant was able to put us in a private curtained area, set off from the fountain wall and familiar-looking ceiling mural. (Egads!)

East Manor

Food, glorious food. We started off with plates of Chinese cold cuts, bitter melon and jellyfish…


…followed by suckling pig…

Suckling Pig

… baked scallops on the half shell, with sea cucumber and other seafood…


…jumbo prawns (love the candied walnuts!), braised whole abalone with chinese mushrooms, crispy-fried whole chicken, sauteed lobsters, a whole steamed fish, and of course, my favorite: shark fin soup with crab meat.

After all these courses, we finished off the meal with giant platters of E-Fu longevity noodles and a dried fish and scallop fried rice, which was really quite delicious, despite the chef’s sneaky inclusion of golden raisins, which I abhor under almost all circumstances.

Three varieties of sweet dessert soup, and a plate of these lotus seed-paste filled longevity buns — the traditional Chinese birthday bun in the shape of a peach.

Longevity Bun

Our own Western touch: birthday cake. Well, not entirely Western: it was green-tea flavored.

Happy Birthday Mom

From now on, I’ve proposed that we celebrate Mom’s birthday on October 18 — which corresponds to the Gregorian calendar date in 1946. Though perhaps we should get second party confirmation on that.

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