Muskegon’s Freshwater Beach and Vaudeville Past

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An indicator of being from a place is that you can speak of it using the first person.

“We New Yorkers…”
“In New Mexico, we…”
“Because I am an Oregonian…”

You explain the cultural customs you identify with like virtues of your personality. You take pride in favorite local fares borne by your surroundings (regardless of whether you ever concocted the dish, sauce, or beverage on your own). You may detest the place’s less favorable facets and reflect a deeply digested reaction to why that particular dislike has not only been subtly imprinted, but intricately embedded into your consciousness due to personal experience. You could perceive familiar discomforts that outsiders struggle with as challenges you know how to handle or characteristic feats you’ve long overcome.

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This summer, I’ve familiarized with the Michigander culture, but knowingly through the lens of the third person. Hearing the third person object pronoun, “them,” being used in place of “those” (i.e. someone saying, “Them are done”) at first confused me. Associating Detroit as “the city” and nature as “up north” took several reconfigurations by remembering where in the world I was. Having my “Where is…” inquiries answered not just verbally, but also manually—by Michiganders popping up their palms with their thumbs jutting out to symbolize the shape of the Lower Peninsula—slowly started to make more sense.

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Then there was the beach. Being a native East Coaster (who has also resided on the West Coast and in the Korean peninsula), my idea of entering the beach starts neither at the sandy shore nor the wavy water, but beforehand. What’s in the water transmits into the atmosphere. In a beach town, signals that the ocean is nearby consist of a dense, breezy air coupled with a distinguishable salty fragrance, one which scientists profess to be a gas effusion from sea-dwelling bacteria.

As such, in Muskegon, Michigan, seeing the cusp of sand and freshwater sans any saltwater air threw me off.

I was admittedly uncertain about what I should call it. Was I going to the beach? The shore? The lake? The coast? There are certainly beachy symbols all around town in Muskegon. Wind chimes ping to ding lovely little bells; seagulls squawk, soar, and eat garbage; prints of crabs, lobsters, and seashells adorn paper and porcelain surfaces; lighthouses and sails perk skyward. Naturally, and most importantly, the freshwater beach proves itself a beach existentially, by being a long, sandy strip along a body of water.

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The topography of the area also took some gauging. Most of Michigan that I’ve seen so far is flat and stays consistently so for many miles in any direction. There are several higher points of Muskegon that line Lake Michigan, though, in the form of sand dunes. Mammoth masses of sand constitute hilly mounds covered with forest flora and cut up into hiking trails.

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With visitation comes comparison to other episodes of exploration. I couldn’t help but think of NYC’s Intrepid as I toured Muskegon’s naval ship, the USS LST 393. The downtown drag reminded me of the architecture in Pottsville, Pennsylvania. The appearance of ice cream stand sort of looked like those in Detroit, but the scenery that surrounded them was reminiscent of the Adirondacks.

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As for figures, I learned that the rock icon I knew from growing up outside of Ann Arbor, Iggy Pop, was actually born in Muskegon. A big, blue placard honoring Buster Keaton along with ability to keep a straight face in any situation piqued my curiosity enough to find out that his family and their vaudeville friends developed an actor’s colony. The Muskegon where Buster’s parents used to ride around an elephant was a place of the past. The house the Keatons had built was razed in the 50s, and even the streetcar system of their time is now but a vestige of some nondescript steel rails engulfed by asphalt road.

Another New Yorker in Michigan might make completely different observations, while a Michigander in New York might appreciate overlooked details. Parallels amount in any era; it was a century ago that Lake Michigan Park was referred to as “Muskegon’s Coney Island.”

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In any case, here or anywhere, I’ll acknowledge I’m not the first to discover a place that has long existed, but I’ll be the first to make my own discoveries and categorize them accordingly.

Furry Security in Hamtramck

In the days of Ancient Mesopotamia, humans claimed to see a cat in the night sky.

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Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Millennia later, members of modern human civilization still connect the disparate dots millions of miles away in recognition of that same cat: the constellation, Leo the Lion.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Terrestrially speaking, live Panthera leo prowl across African open planes and through dense brush landscapes. As a motif, the same sub-species has traversed traditions of assorted eras and areas. The lion is filmed roaring for MGM trademark footage, printed clawing across Bohemian coats of arms, and, ironically, encountered searching for its courage in classic narratives.

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A lion fends off intruders from a Buddhist temple in Da Nang, Vietnam

Humans have also typecast the courageous cat as a universal security guard for its shelters. Scowling bronze lions menacingly guard imperial Chinese palaces; monumental marble statues magnificently flank NYC cultural institutes. Chiseled lion visages grimace at passersby from the stone slabs that construct grandiose apartment buildings. On such facades, the muscular cat’s bestial behaviors threaten as its regal physique adorns.

IMG_0868But for as powerful as the lion sculptures seem, their power to protect carries a fundamental limitation: it is symbolic. The animals are inanimate, figurative facades in themselves—like how starry Leo’s existential state is really a bunch of big, burning gas balls far out in the universe.

Meanwhile in Hamtramck, Michigan, residents practice a more pragmatic means of employing felidae for protective purposes.

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They use living breathing cats–of smaller sizes.

BlogBWLions may be the choice animal for the football team of the greater city that engulfs the city of Hamtramck. With Tigers, too, for baseball, it seems that Detroit has designated ferocious felines as its athletic juggernauts. But for home security, the domestic cat is suitable, size-wise. Two or three-story, freestanding urban homes of the American Midwest have no need for 600 pounds of cat.

IMG_0644Some porch cats are solitary.

PorchClowderOthers flourish in groups. Similar to the lionesses in prides, several mother cats congregate in clowders to raise their young and find ways to procure nourishment for their kittens, kith, and kin. Their tom counterparts? Perhaps off fending their turf–or marking it, or lazing upon it–like their lion cousins do.

HamhousesWhether the Hamtramck inhabitants intended it or not, their lion substitute is apt. In a 2010 study by the University of Edinburgh, researchers found that domestic cats and African lions exhibited a trio of similar personality traits: dominance, impulsiveness, and neuroticism.

For defensive purposes, letting a dominant, impulsive, and neurotic lion pace in front of the home may sound like a smart protection strategy. Inside the home, well… those three virtues might make for some problematic behavior.

fat_cat001 copyAn five- or ten-pound creature acting in such a manner should probably be less destructive to indoor settings.

Inclusive of the interior and exterior environments of Hamtramck’s residential edifices, cats have traveled along countless trajectories throughout human history. Their domestication took place thousands of years ago, possibly around the rodent-fraught grain silos of what is now Egypt. Members of same ancient society considered cats to be a deity. One of their iconic relics still stands as the world’s largest monolith: the Sphinx of Giza.  Although many uncertainties still surround the lion-man limestone statue–what the Ancient Egyptians called it, which Pharaoh built it, how the nose broke off its face–the colossus still shows us the deep roots of humankind’s fascination with felidae.

catpostShould the foundations of contemporary civilization come tumbling down, it seems likely that we’ll have some four-legged friends to join us in the ongoing evolutionary journey.

IMG_0896But until then, we can indulge in the sumptuous comforts that periods of peace offer…

Travel from NYC: Four Ambivalent Factors

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New York City is a fascinating place to travel—and travel from. Living within a locale where constant change permeates controlled chaos amidst a sea of countless cultural influences can be as riveting as it is tiring. Many New Yorkers may say it’s hard to travel, due to demanding jobs coupled with the high cost of living. Nevertheless, NYC is not the worst place to feel trapped, as there is often something, somewhere in the five boroughs left unexplored.

Read more.

A Week in the Isthmus

What can one do during a week’s time in Panama?
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Start off in the city and see how the skyline stacks over the low-tide muck.
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Study local urban ecology by observing how endemic mammals practice the siesta.
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Realize that it is quite hot and humid to stay in the city.
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Venture off to El Valle de Anton for a few days to enjoy Panama’s natural settings.
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Hike up into the hills to see more hills across the crater.
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Get privy as to how a fence can depict the cruel reality of the food chain.
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Bathe in mineral delight at Los Pozos Termales.
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Cross into the woods over a bridge that is itself constructed out of wood from the woods.
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Stroll under trees and alongside gushing streams.
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Admire how parrots pair at El Nispero Zoo.
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Not get poisoned by poison dart frogs that thrive behind glass.
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Stop by a mango graveyard.
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Watch bugs suck into overripe fruits at Butterfly Haven.
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Learn about the stages of life pre- and post-pupa.
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Take a peak at the Panama Canal of course.
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Island-Tramway-Island

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For all of my time spent in and around New York City, I had never ridden the tramway or visited the island. Roosevelt Island, that is. Yesterday was the day when that all changed.

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Like a typical tourist, I strolled down the promenade towards Roosevelt Island’s southern tip and snapped shots of the arching cherry blossoms in bloom–yet saw nothing of the area’s residential neighborhoods to the north.

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The main attraction was the Smallpox Hospital that stands today as a shell of the facility it once was. Other than functioning as its namesake, the Gothic Revival building also served as the Charity Hospital before closing in the 1950s.

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Enclosed by the edges of an encompassing fence, the remnants of an institute originally intended to combat an infectious, sometimes fatal disease (that was eradicated in 1980) are now buttressed by interior and exterior beams.

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The barren window frames frame sky-scraping edifices that tower above the west-facing horizon.

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Visitors: do not plan on getting too close to the Smallpox Hospital.

RooseveltGoose
Unless you happen to be a goose (who reads this blog).

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I climbed what appeared to be the the tallest hill on the southern end of Roosevelt Island. The pinnacle offers instant visual access into the current skeletal structures recently constructed for Cornell Tech to flesh out.

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Nevertheless, like the smallpox medical facility of the past, the grounds of the future Cornell Tech institute are also off limits to the public.

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The campus even trained an infantry of miniature panthers to guard the territory from intruders.

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Apparently these little guards also defend gardens from pesky canine invaders.

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However small and arguably overlooked, Roosevelt Island is surely its own ecosystem where structures develop, thrive, die, decay, and regenerate. Alas, at this location’s southernmost tip, the viewer can compare it to two tiny islands that will in all likelihood never host any such towns, towers, or tourism.

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I was satisfied, so it was time to head back into the sky and say bye to Roosevelt Island.

Cue the Blooms and Buds

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Spring’s just started. While some are still bare, certain branches are delightfully speckling.

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The subtle buds are now budding on select trees, while lavish petals embellish the branches of others.

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On the ground, it appears that park gardeners have determined that daffodils were the botanical species best suited to welcome spring to NYC.

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Even under the pre-dusk overcast, the vibrant pastel petals brighten the scenery .

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They are an appetizer for the colorful, pollen-full main course to come.

Snow Week

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It was one week ago that Winter Storm Jonas came to NYC. Two notable forbiddances have occurred in this seven-day stretch: on the roads, there was a temporary motor transit ban, and in Brooklyn, a resident who constructed an igloo on his property and tried to rent it out on Airbnb had his listing taken down within several hours.
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After the precipitation had settled and things were more or less back to normal, I took the chance to travel north to a wooded area where I could try snowshoeing for the first time.
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While there were some traces of human impact along the trails of Anthony’s Nose, on Monday, we had the whole hike to ourselves.
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The lack of leaves on the trees on both sides of the Hudson made views of the snowy Bear Mountain grounds much clearer.
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After a taste of nature it was time to remove the snowshoes and return to civilization, the designated outpost being Peekskill, NY. The town itself is as friendly as the sign suggests (but not as creepy as its overall appearance suggests).
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Back in NYC, the snow has been gradually melting.
SnowgrossSome mountains have amassed on street sides–some prettier than others.
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Snowshoes aren’t needed, but still, proper footwear is required for urban snow navigation.
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Crocs are not recommended.

Puerto Rico: Analog Film and Big Bamboo

I discovered on my fifth morning in Puerto Rico that my means of digitally documenting or navigating the island were null. My smart phone had died. I consequently acquired a pair of noble instruments on which I could visually capture and travel to the remainder of places I wanted to visit: a disposable camera and a paper map.

PRWindshield
Reading the roads off of what’s printed on a basic tourist map makes journeying through the forests in an itty-bitty car all the more intricate—and, perhaps, more intimate. Tracing the trajectories this way came challenging at times, especially when forks lacked signs or surprise signs popped up to mark unmapped roads. After dissuading ourselves from wondering why speed limits were posted in miles while distance markers measured kilometers, noting the numbers printed on the latter series of signs proved fruitful for figuring out which roads and directions we were driving.

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Several stars speckled the map’s roadsides to indicate where drivers could take a break. As passenger and navigator, I took note of a few starred waterfalls and minor water bodies to go see.

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We also parked outside a the entrance of a popular pedestrian path—that appeared to have been converted from a former vehicular route—for a brief hike.

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Crop-wise, banana trees and coffee plants thrived throughout Puerto Rico’s central, hilly terrain. Out in the more remote, less inhabited stretches, the wild flora’s extensive branches grew gangly and would whip into our little car’s windshield as we crept on through.

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Giant bamboo stalks towered above many roads, and these plants feel even more mammoth when up close and personal.

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Horseback riding was the most common means of transportation for several parts of Puerto Rico. It was necessary to pause for and pass the horses as they clomped down the same paved paths.

The farthest north and west we drove was Aguadilla, a city that’s not so visited for being a city but more as a sea and surf spot. Admittedly, some of the surfers who had come to the place specifically for their favorite sport confessed that the waves were too aggressive for their taste. Since I don’t surf, I was keener on observing what the coastal scenery had to offer.

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One such site was what remained from the façade of a former seaside lighthouse that was flooded last century.

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Crash Boat Beach is another one of Aguadilla’s leisurely coastal spots. Swimmers jump off of the piers jutting out into the saltwater, and onshore, seagulls and pelicans flock to a Pelican Man, a figure who feeds them fish from his plastic bag.

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The Pelican Man has trained several of his feathered friends to perch themselves on human arms for photo ops. Though I was at first considering extending a limb for this rare inter-species opportunity, I was immediately discouraged when I saw how bird vomited fishy bits when it was hoisted.

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An installment of dazzling city lights illuminated Aguadilla’s downtown area to celebrate the holiday spirt.

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Since it’s been years since I’d used a disposable camera, I was reminded of the reality of its finite nature, offering a roll of 27 shots of which I should choose wisely. Upon developing and scanning the film, I realized that trying to snap a shot of Puerto Rico’s biggest stalagmite formation in the depths of Rio Camuy Cave was unwise. It was, however, a decent idea to try for an image of the lushly developed limestone ring that framed the sky view.

PRGato
Although all of my phone’s fotos de gatos prior to my fifth morning had disappeared, I didn’t let that loss discourage me from enjoying Puerto Rico’s diverse feline population, one that’s composed of demographics like the lazy island bums around Culebra’s beach kiosks and peppy city mewers nurtured by San Juan’s Save a Gato sanctuary. During the hottest parts of the daytime, Puerto Rican cats can be seen lazing in whatever shady spot they deem suitable for napping, whether it is against the base of a big monument or beneath the belly of a parked vehicle.

Flatness and Hotness

A pair of environmental consistencies remained constant throughout a recent trip to South Florida: flatness and hotness.

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In the realm of the region’s civilized constructions, many cultural components of the Ft Lauderdale metro area seemed consistent, from my conditioned recognition of American consumer big-box chains (albeit built in pastel editions) to the general of pace I’d remembered of the place. Though, having resided in Northerly regions virtually my entire life, the presence of palm trees always comes as a novelty.

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The calming palms weren’t the only trees that impressed me by their nature. The potted bonsai trees atop outdoor plinths at the Morikami Museum and Japanese Garden did not disappoint my expectation to stand in awe at such small-scaled specimens of organisms that are often over-towering when not maintained in miniature form. Perhaps the density enhances the inherent magnificence.

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The path looping along the Morikami Museum’s lush grounds offered educational tidbits about Japanese garden models–for instance, the embracing of more nature-inspired aesthetics, as seen in the Modern Romantic Garden, as opposed to installments that fell more in accordance to traditional philosophies or rendered abstraction, like certain rock gardens.

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Beyond learning what botanic species and aesthetic concepts could be successfully imported from Japanese garden culture to exist in the Floridian setting, the Morikami Museum offered the chance to see what types of reptiles and amphibians could thrive within a contained ecology as such.

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Colossal koi and whiskery catfish slid throughout the water of the pond’s slimy shoal, while gliding turtles would occasionally prick their pointy snouts through the top line of murky aquatic limits.

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On the land-side, four-legged, cold-blooded creatures scurried stones, soil, and brush before locating the perfect peak from which to perch.

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The state’s flat surface was replete with water bodies, big and small, against horizons, a scene that was seen by standing along of circumference of the freshwater lake that the Morikami gardens looped around.

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Chlorinated blue waters shimmered, surprisingly brilliantly, under the bright blue skies in a more manufactured form: a chain hotel’s onsite swimming pool back-dropped by a multistory car dealership.

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What naturally came as less of a surprise was the way the Atlantic offered a saltier, splashier expanse of azure stretching far beyond the coastal limits of the locality’s (and country’s) continental bounds.