19 July 2017

watching roger federer play tennis in 2017.

That I have not picked up the proverbial pen to write about Federer in the last few years is less a function of a waning interest in his performances – you could always find me searching for a stream of his matches whenever he was scheduled to play – as it was, on my part, an acquiescence to what appeared to be the arrival of tennis mortality’s final and inexorable triumph over Fed. Of course, sports writers have been pontificating about The End of Roger for years now – this piece, from 2011, is a beautifully written exemplar of that sub-genre of tennis journalism, and it is clear that the most productive years of his career were over by 2008 – but, going through my old posts, I do not think it was an accident that my tennis writing output fell of a cliff following 2013. Nothing signalled more clearly the acceleration of his decline than ignominiously tumbling out of his hallowed stomping grounds of Wimbledon that year in the second round to a qualifier. Because that’s what old age heralds, doesn’t it? The automatic becomes labourious, and certainties fissure.

In the years since, there were still flashes of hope that never did manage to bear fruit. A Wimbledon final in 2014, where he almost pulled off a stirring comeback against Djokovic. A U.S. Open later that summer in which he would have only had to defeat Marin Cilic and Kei Nishikori to walk away with the winner’s trophy, all other members of the Big 4 having been eliminated at this point, only to get duly trounced by the Croat in straight sets. A return to the Wimbledon final in 2015 with precisely the same result, only, you know, less stirring. These matches were excruciating to watch: I couldn’t rid myself of the fear that this time – this time, surely, would be his last chance to win another major, because, when he wasn’t making deep runs into tournaments, he was being picked off by players against whom he had established otherwise dominant head-to-head records. Losing to another member of the Big 4 in his respective prime was one thing, but to Tommy Robredo and Andreas Seppi? And when, finally, Milos Raonic – that towering, big-serving type that Federer veritably specialises in swatting off the court (sorry, Andy Roddick...) – got the better of him at SW19 last year and Roger, his previously pristine physical constitution crumbling at the edges, pulled the plug on his hapless 2016 season, it seemed that my direst fears had been proved true after all. Rage, rage, against the dying of the light, but, in the end, darkness comes even for the Fed Express.

When he returned to tour at the start of this year, I carefully laid down a piece of washi tape in my planner and wrote on it, “Roger Federer at the Australian Open.” I had no idea how many empty lines to leave underneath it, however. It takes seven best-of-five matches to emerge a Grand Slam champion; how many rounds did I reasonably think tennis’s premiere senior citizen, coming off an extended layoff, could go? In his absence Federer’s ranking had fallen to No. 17, a number that, to fans, might as well have had a few zeros after it. A seeding that low turned his draw into a minefield. Even his first-round opponent – Jurgen Melzer, a former occupant of the top 10 – looked like he could be trouble, to say nothing of the obstacles that loomed over the horizon, assuming he was fortunate enough to even get there. Eventually, I opted to leave the rest of the page blank – not that I thought Rog could win it all, but it’s irritating to have to continue a list elsewhere, and, with sport, you just never quite know.

Thus did I dutifully track his progression through the tournament, one match at a time, all of them accompanied by the unusual novelty of Federer playing the role of underdog (or, if that word seems too strong for you – as if the greatest male player of all time could ever be an underdog, you are thinking – I can soften this phrase to “the unusual novelty of Federer, whose balletic movement and impossibly beautiful yet vicious groundstrokes are seared into my memory the way my favourite Mozart piano concerto is, things so resonant with beauty that they hardly give me space to breathe, being himself a novelty”). “First round – vs. Meltzer (AUT) – Jan 16 @ 3am (2nd match),” I jotted down below the washi tape header, then breathed a sigh of relief when, upon seeing on the morning of the 16th that he had won after all, I completed the line with, “ –W 7-5, 3-6, 6-2, 6-2.” The young American Noah Rubin came next, and, because it was a day match in Melbourne (which translates into an evening match on the east coast of the U.S.), I was able to watch it live. I remember thinking what a joy it was to see him play again, but, while he won that match in straight sets too (“Second round – vs. Rubin (USA) – Jan 17 @ 7pm (3rd match) – W 7-5, 6-3, 7-6(3)”), it wasn’t, well, magical.

Then came the third-round match encounter with Tomas Berdych. Now this, I thought, was genuinely terrifying. The Czech is no slouch and has taken Federer out of a Grand Slam on two previous occasions, and you might think that, knowing this, I would have learned my lesson and stayed away, but of course I woke up early that morning and, sitting in bed with multiple blankets layered over my shoulders and my iPad propped up on my lap, I watched, astonished, as Federer engineered a complete demolition job on court. This was all getting decidedly unreal.

Each successive stage of the tournament – another line in the planner to fill – only heightened the unreality of it all, culminating in his victory over erstwhile rival/frenemy/alter ego Nadal in a five-set final. Has a more patently fantastical thought ever crossed my tennis mind? Almost half a year after the fact, I still don’t quite believe it. (I watch this 26-shot rally from late in the fifth set every once in a while to remind myself that this match actually happened. That down-the-line forehand winner from Fed, sending back a ball hit so close to the doubles alley that you can see him practically tipping sideways into it, surprises me every time.)

Yet nothing that has transpired in 2017 felt nearly as topsy turvy as Fed, in what should by all rights be the late winter of his career, going into Wimbledon as the prohibitive favourite, parting his way through the draw with those otherworldly racquet skills and an almost rude degree of confidence, and emerging the eventual champion without dropping a set. The final, a straightforward thumping of Marin Cilic, may have been an altogether anticlimactic match, but that did not stop me from rocking back and forth on the sofa throughout that last service game, knowing what would lie on the other side if Rog were in fact to prevail: an eighth title at Wimbledon, a 19th major title overall, and a claim on two of the three Slams played so far in 2017 along with Masters 1000 events in Indian Wells and Miami. This is not merely playing well: it is reprising the kind of unprecedented supremacy of the men’s tour (Rafa Nadal’s impregnable clay kingdom notwithstanding) that Federer once made commonplace in his own earlier years, only to have done it now – I mean, it’s just completely mad, and it would be the stuff of the most unmoored of dreams if it weren’t so blissfully, blissfully true.

10 July 2017

mid-year reading report.

stack of books.

After spending much of June dashing about the city, July has, for me at least, slipped into a slower rhythm. I spend most of my days trying to make progress on my job market paper, which, in practise, amounts to waiting for my Matlab code to finish running, studying the output, emitting a despairing sigh, tweaking something in the code, running it again, etc. etc. etc. from now until the day I shuffle off my #econgradstudentlife coil. The silver lining is that, while my laptop’s processor is occupied with all of this, I am more or less free to do as I please. To nobody’s surprise, this has largely entailed getting lost in a succession of books.

(As an aside, I should add that 2017 is so far shaping up to be my most productive reading year since starting graduate school. If I can keep up the pace from the first six months, I should round off the year with 38 completed books under my belt. Of course, to make this entirely fair, I will try not to front load my to-read list with shorter books...)

Since moving to New York, I’ve managed to read four books. On a whim, I was surveying the wares in my parents’ bookshelves when I happened across The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steve Johnson. I have historically not been drawn to the pop science genre, but, dating a physician does create something of an obligation to broaden my book selection in that direction. The approach I have so far taken is to pair the science with a healthy dose of history, and it seems to be working so far. A story of London’s 1854 cholera outbreak and the genesis of modern epidemiology, The Ghost Map made for a fascinating read on a number of levels, functioning as a fast-paced whodunit as John Snow and an assorted cast of figures raced to determine the source of the epidemic, a visceral evocation of living conditions in Victorian London – little did I know until I picked up this book that waste removal in 19th-century cities involved a full hierarchy of professions – and a parable about the nature of scientific research and progress. (In the latter respect, it was a close analogue of The Emperor of All Maladies.) It only faltered a bit for me at the end, when the book slipped into TED Talk mode and extrapolated from this otherwise tightly narrated historical episode to the Great Challenges of Our Time.

Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Culture and Politics by the late Carl E. Schorske is a book that I first encountered during my senior year at Georgetown in the course of doing research for a paper I was writing about the institution of the cabaret in early 20th-century Vienna and Krakow. Ah, those halcyon years during which I was allowed to study things other than economics – but I digress. The bits I did read stuck in my mind enough so that, when I spotted the book at the Neue Galerie gift shop a few years ago, I immediately bought a copy. As someone with a long-standing interest in the Viennese zeitgeist at the turn of the 20th century, I was inevitably going to enjoy the book. Schorske writes with clear prose and a keen analytical eye. His work is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a breezy beach read, but he admirably resists the academic’s temptation to pile on the jargon. Each essay in the book deals concretely with different “branches of cultural production,” to use the author’s phrase, delving into, among other topics, urban modernism as embodied by the construction of the Ringstrasse; the rise of anti-Semitism, Christian democracy, and Zionism in reaction to perceived inadequacies of liberal governance; and the turbulent trajectory of Gustav Klimt’s career as an exemplar of the growing role of art as a refuge from civic life. In turn, the collection as a whole elucidates the challenges of modernity as they played out in this particular milieu.

That I happened to read the book in 2017 gave it special resonance, unfortunately. Some sentences spoke as much to today’s political predicaments as it did to those of that earlier time:

Anxiety, impotence, a heightened awareness of the brutality of social existence: these features assumed new centrality in a social climate where the creed of liberalism was being shattered by events.

I next read The Noise of Time, which is, I suppose, historical fiction of a sort. Author Julian Barnes takes us deep into the mind of composer Dmitri Shostakovich at three moments in his life as he contemplates his existence as an artist operating under the capricious and brutal auspices of Soviet totalitarianism. The historical record shows that Shostakovich had, to put it lightly, a rather complicated relationship with the authorities. His opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District was denounced in Pravda as being a “formalist” deviation following Stalin’s attendance at one of its performances, yet later works of his, such as his Symphony No. 5, would be hailed as supreme examples of Soviet art. Countless historians have since tried to divine the extent to which Shostakovich used his music to encode his opposition to the Soviet state. Barnes mines this ambiguity to produce devastating commentary on the impossibility of maintaining one’s integrity not merely as an artist but as a human being under such circumstances. For every passage that felt a bit too on the nose, there was one like this, tucked away in fictional Shostakovich’s hypnotically elliptical ruminations:

A soul could be destroyed in one of three ways: by what others did to you; by what others made you do to yourself; and by what you voluntarily chose to do yourself. Any single method was sufficient; though if all three were present, the outcome was irresistible.

The book underscores that the corrosiveness of totalitarianism stems not only from the crimes committed by the state itself but, perhaps more cruelly, also from the way the state conditions its subjects to give their preemptive and unwitting obedience.

Most recently, I tore through the first instalment of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, My Brilliant Friend and, within a few hours of finishing it, ordered the rest of the series. I’m going to limit my commentary here because it is only proper of me to withhold final judgement until I complete the tetralogy – the books are meant to be considered as a single work – so, for the time being, let me just say that I am in love. My friend Praise wrote about her obsession with these books here in a post that ultimately persuaded me to give them a try.

Meanwhile, I have continued to fail at upholding my pledge of not buying any books this summer. I walked away from a long overdue pilgrimage to the Strand with A Time to Keep Silence by Patrick Leigh Fermor and The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami, both of which were total impulse buys. Then, another day, I found myself waylaid by the Strand’s kiosk by the entrance to Central Park on 5th Ave. and 60th St., which, despite running by it multiple times per week, I had never previously noticed. It had a wonderfully curated selection of used books on display, and I could not resist bringing home this beautiful Penguin Orange edition of David Foster Wallace’s first novel, The Broom of the System, as well as Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I read my first Murakami book, a record of his conversations about music with Seiji Ozawa, earlier this year, but I’ve yet to attempt any of his fiction.

3 July 2017

an afternoon at the cloisters.

In searching for an escape from the ceaseless hustle & bustle of Manhattan, one could do worse than the Cloisters, located at the northern tip of the island in Washington Heights. I might call them a hidden gem, to the extent that any part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art can be considered off my beaten path. (Okay, I think that fills my quota for travel-writing clichés for this entry.) When we went a few weeks ago, they were blessedly free of crowds, the most disruptive element being a few school groups being led around on field trips.

met cloisters.

The Cloisters house a collection of medieval European art within a building designed to evoke a monastery nestled amidst some impossibly rustic-looking landscape. As the name implies, the museum features four cloisters reconstructed partially with elements from original abbeys and monasteries in modern-day France and Spain. (I am sure that you, dear reader, are thinking, “That sounds like quite an unnecessary and indulgent expense!” but, I guess when you are, say, a titan of the Gilded Age who has recently acquired some impoverished collector’s holdings of medieval art and is looking for a place to store them, ferrying capitals and stonework across the Atlantic is just another day in the life.) Each had its own distinct character; my favourite featured a rambling garden filled with plants that would have been found in a commonplace medieval garden.

met cloisters.
met cloisters.
met cloisters.
met cloisters.
met cloisters.
met cloisters.
met cloisters.

(Please tell me other Harry Potter fans out there got way too excited seeing actual, real-life mandrake.)

Connecting the cloisters were a series of named rooms (e.g., the Unicorn Room). The most thematically cohesive of these evoked tableaus from this particular era of the past – the sumptuous warmth of a nobleman’s manor, its ceilings crossed with great oak beams and the walls draped in fanciful tapestries; the beatific solitude embodied by a small chapel, its domed ceiling adorned with frescoed saints; the austere gloom of a crypt, where the stone visages of the dead maintain their eternal repose – that gave me the sensation of literally walking through history. It goes without saying that I found every square inch of the Cloisters an absolute delight to behold. It had so much of the magic that I felt while travelling through Europe during my student days that I could have spent an entire day lost in these spaces.

met cloisters.
met cloisters.
met cloisters.
met cloisters.
met cloisters.
met cloisters.

As a bonus, the walk to the Cloisters from the nearest subway station features sweeping views of the Hudson River and, on the opposite bank, the Palisades in New Jersey. It is, in my opinion, the perfect place to marinate in the schadenfreude derived from other people being stuck in the Garden State while one is not.

met cloisters.

27 June 2017

i ran a thing.

the running of the balls 5k & 10k.

Belated post is belated but, two weekends ago, I officially ran my first 5K – and first road race ever (notwithstanding my desultory participation in the middle school track and field team) – at the NYCRuns Running of the Balls. Occasional readers of the blog may know that I, like many people who have resolved at some point in the past to stop being a lazy sod, have had an on-and-off-again relationship with running since graduating from college. The most recent “on” phase began the summer after the first year of my PhD when I sensed that, if I didn’t begin taking care of myself, I might actually just altogether physically disintegrate. I still remember the initial run of this new regime: I set out with my mother towards the local park and struggled through 1.5 miles before my body gave out and I was forced to walk home.

Since that discouraging outing three years ago, I have made progress that I never thought possible. I’ve increased the distance I have been able to run (admittedly from an extremely low bar), cemented running as a regular habit in my life, and raised my fitness level to a point where a 5K, then a 10K, then perhaps even a half marathon (given a lot more training, of course) felt feasible, but the prospect of participating in a race – the very thing that motivates so many other people to run – felt too daunting to contemplate. For a long time, I had believed that I was somehow incapable of even the barest competence at physical activity. Growing up, I disliked sports, was absolute rubbish at them (an intramural soccer coach once had to remind me that my job was to run towards the ball if it were coming in my direction, not away from it), and had internalised the sort of cultural dogma averring that either you were a psychologically sensitive bookworm or you were a dumb jock. It’s a dichotomy whose falseness has long since been apparent, but I still catch myself thinking that I am a dilettante compared to all the “real” runners and athletes out there. I suppose that, in my mind, a race felt like too much of a public declaration of my being a runner, which, per the previous sentence, I probably was not. Better, then, to keep these activities strictly private.

Why the sudden change of heart? Prodding from my younger sister certainly helped. Every time I would share a screenshot from Runkeeper with my family over iMessage, Irene would invariably reply, “Dude, just sign up for a race.” Indeed, it was after one such exchange with her that I found myself searching for 5K races in New York City and impulsively registered for the nearest one on the calendar that, you know, happened to be four days away – something something, caution to the winds – but I doubt I would have been brought to this point at all had I not spent the previous two weeks running in Central Park. It has been inspiring to find myself suddenly surrounded by a veritable community of people who enjoy/put up with this particular brand of self-imposed torture; running in Ithaca, by comparison, feels far more a solitary pursuit. It has also been just intimidating enough that, finally, I feel ready to really push myself, if only to mitigate the shame of getting passed by what seems like everybody else out on the road.

Needless to say, I felt rather anxious about this race. The nerves began the night before and persisted as I ate breakfast on the morning of, took the tram over to Roosevelt Island, picked up my bib number at the registration tent, made desultory attempts at warming up, and made my way to the starting line. The nerves didn’t truly subside until about thirty seconds after I started running and that familiar sensation of wanting to die took over.

I found the race challenging for a number of reasons. First, I simply haven’t run at a distance this short for a long time, so, basically, I was winging this. Second, my usual strategy when out for a run – starting out slowly, establishing a baseline level of comfort, and ramping up the intensity from there – was quickly proved unviable as I spent the beginning weaving my way through a large pack of runners and out-pacing them as best I could. Third, conditions were not the best: the cloud cover and a temperature in the mid-70s were nice, but they came at the cost of stultifying humidity. It felt like I had already been running for an eternity by the time I got to the mile #1 sign, and the only thing that kept my spirits from wilting into a sad, defeatist puddle was reminding myself that a 5K is less than half of my typical running route these days and that I had put in too much work to give up now. (My internal monologue while running is full of such platitudes.)

But it was not all negative. Running up the western edge of Roosevelt Island with Manhattan taking flight to my left, I revelled in just the sheer coolness of getting to run my inaugural race in such an amazing city. I remember the volunteers and bystanders cheering us runners on as we neared the end of the course far more clearly than the actual act of crossing the finish line, my capacity for conscious thought diminishing with the distance I had left to cover, and I loved the collective, infectious joy of everyone milling about afterwards, all of us knackered and sweaty and terribly, terribly relieved. The cherry on the proverbial sundae? I clocked in at 27:02, good for a pace of 8:43/mile, an overall placement of 97/386, and 6/56 for my age-gender group. Given it was my first race, I wasn’t too upset about this.

Naturally, my thoughts have already turned to what’s next. Previously, I had been content with running for distance rather than pace, but, now, I’d like to see if it is possible for little old me to get stronger and faster too. I’ll be retooling my current workout regimen by jumping into this training programme at Week 7 with an eye to registering for a half marathon in the fall (*knock on wood*). I am even strongly considering getting a gym membership for purposes of cross-training. As far as the next race goes, I have my eye on this 10K at the end of July, but I will likely require more nervous texting with my sister before I finally put down the registration fee for that!

For those of you who have made it to the end of this post, here are some pictures that don’t involve a surfeit of rambling about running (full disclosure: I turned my camera over to the boyfriend for the day, so these are all his photos). After the race was over, we walked around Roosevelt Island. Most of the island is covered in residential housing, along with an under-construction Cornell Tech campus, but the views of the Queensboro Bridge and Manhattan from it are superb.

queensboro bridge.
manhattan.
manhattan.
manhattan.

At the southern tip lie two attractions that are relatively off the beaten path. For the more macabre among you, there are the ruins of the Roosevelt Island Smallpox Hospital (see this fascinating article from Atlas Obscura regarding ruins in New York City more generally). Adjacent to that is the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park. On that Saturday morning, it was the most peaceful corner of Manhattan I’ve yet found.

FDR four freedoms park.
FDR four freedoms park.

21 June 2017

new york, so far.

In the interests of not kicking off my stay in New York with a huge blogging backlog, here’s a somewhat condensed overview of what I’ve been up to so far. As alluded to in the previous post, much of the first two weeks was given over to the myriad joys of moving in. The boyfriend had to furnish the apartment almost entirely from scratch, which involved making a few trips to IKEA, chasing down pre-owned furniture via Craigslist (figuring out how to transport a large bookcase down twenty city blocks is a fun bonding experience for a couple), and undertaking more home improvement projects than you ever thought a simple studio apartment could entail. When the bulk of that labour was completed, though, we had days/evenings during which we could set out and get better acquainted with this place.

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The best way, I think, to really begin to know New York – or any large city, for that matter – is simply to walk around it until one’s feet will have no more of it, then to keep going. On our third full day in the city, we set moving responsibilities aside temporarily and went on a long and mostly unscripted stroll through Lower Manhattan. Some of the sights were familiar, others were new, but the overall experience felt like a most suitable inauguration to life around here.

east village.
washington square park.
tribeca.
manhattan borough president's office.
new york city hall.
one world trade center.
oculus.

Eventually, we ended up at Lombardi’s for dinner, where, over what was admittedly an exceptionally delicious pie, I was introduced to the seriousness with which New Yorkers take their pizza.

lombardi's pizza.

I made the mistake of remembering that McNally Jackson is in the same neighbourhood, wandered over there, and left with Édouard Louis’s The End of Eddy in hand. Thus did my pledge to abstain from buying books this summer and rely entirely on the New York Public Library for reading material die an quick and ignoble death.

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I accompanied the boyfriend on one of his trips to the IKEA in Brooklyn. Getting there is something of an epic poem, to quote one particular fictional Manhattanite, so, to make the experience more memorable, we undertook part of the journey via water taxi. Not only is it free on the weekends, but it also boasts some rather spectacular views.

downtown manhattan.
downtown manhattan.
statue of liberty.

This particular excursion highlighted for me something I discussed in my previous post regarding the sudden compression of my personal geographic scale. In Ithaca, if I found myself facing the urgent lack of a coffee table, I would simply hop in my car, drive the fifteen minutes from my apartment to the Target in Lansing, purchase aforementioned table, throw it in the trunk, and drive back, all without a moment’s hesitation. No such carefree transactions existed here: getting to IKEA required an hour, our combined manpower constrained what we could feasibly lug back to the apartment, and the combined expenditure on subway and Uber fare would have been enough to cover a decent lunch for one. It was enough to make me see why so many do reach the end of their line with city living and flee for the more spacious & forgiving living conditions beyond. (This is not not a novel observation, of course but a younger, more pigheadedly idealistic version of me would probably have held that decision in contempt whereas I felt rather more empathetic towards it now. In general, I don’t like living in the middle of nowhere, but it does have its conveniences.)

But then I think of the shimmering mass of metal and glass falling into focus above the East River and what a wonder it is that man was able to root such buildings into the earth of this unassuming island, and I think of the Statue of Liberty and how many symbolisms weigh upon that ever raised arm, and it becomes no surprise at all that this is where the aspirations of millions should congregate – where else could they go?

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I will never not be amazed at the many different worlds that this city sustains. We spent one evening in the East Village, which, even in the face of pervasive gentrification, retains a rather “hip” aura, where self-styled artisanal eateries and old tenement housing turned desirable yuppie accommodations meet dreadlocked, free-spirit types camped out in a circle on the sidewalk. Against this background, we enjoyed ramen at Ippudo (excellent, though I still go to bed at night dreaming of the noodles I had at Ichiran in Tokyo), grabbed drinks at the Sly Fox in the Ukrainian Village (where, for the price of a latte hand crafted from shade-grown beans, one could get a shot of whiskey and a PBR in a flimsy plastic cup), and topped it all off with ice cream at Van Leeuwen (pricey but oh so good).

ippudo.
sly fox.

The next day, we ventured north instead of south to undeniably posh surroundings of the Upper East Side. We went to Bluestone Lane for some caffeinated libations. Located in the space of an old church and filled with marble tabletops graced by succulents, it was one of the most beautifully appointed (and eminently #instagramworthy) cafes I had ever seen. I sipped on a matcha latte – made with almond milk, natch – at a table shared with a mother-daughter pair, both of them impeccably blond and the parent appearing little older than the child, who could have walked right out of the pages of Gossip Girl.

bluestone lane.
bluestone lane.

We had designs to visit the Neue Galerie that day as part of the Museum Mile Festival, but who knew that lowering the price of a good to zero could increase quantity demanded so much?

museum mile festival.
museum mile festival.

Instead, we settled for a walk through Central Park – hardly a poor alternative.

central park.
central park.

We stumbled across some benches where someone had left behind a little knitted toy cat that appeared to be in the process of surveying the adjacent path. I found the tableau impossibly cute, so we sat down near it to do some reading. Perhaps it’s just my penchant for forming emotional connections to stuffed animals at work, but I’d like to imagine that the cat spends its days roaming through the grounds, making only the briefest of appearances in the presence of human beings before darting off for the cover of nearby bushes.

central park catto.
central park catto.