Wednesday, September 30, 2009

TR and the American Museum of Natural History

Gosh, have you ever stood outside the main entrance to the American Museum of Natural History on Central Park West just to take the measure of this incredibly imposing edifice and to stare at Theodore Roosevelt atop a giant steed, accompanied by two striding companions, one a Native American in traditional dress and the other an African, almost completely naked? Here is mythmaking in stone and brass. So obvious and simplistic in some ways and yet so seductive, too. I mean, really, what are they up to? Are we to accept TR as the great white father astride an immense horse, leading these benighted men into a more enlightened future? Or should we see this tableau as more of a team effort? And if so, why does Teddy get to ride and the other guys have to walk? Silly question, I guess. Imagine the sense of entitlement that the rich still reserve for themselves today, and then consider how thick and unexamined that entitlement was in TR's time. Enough to make you gag and yet...I think we must also readily acknowledge that without that sense of entitlement, without that noblesse oblige, without the unrestricted accumulation of immense wealth, and without some version of the white man's burden, New York as we know it could not exist today. Teddy represented all of those things at their worst and at their best, which is why I find myself returning to him again and again as one of the key New York archetypes.

Along the wall that extends down the block at the entrance to the museum on Central Park West, there are the following words carved in stone. They look something like this but in a single continuous line:


They are, of course, the roles that TR actually played in his life, and as I suggested in an earlier post, he was no dilettante; he didn't dabble in these things. He worked hard at them, practicing and laboring until he mastered them, every last one. Could he have accomplished so much without his family's considerable wealth? Probably not. Could he have done it without that sense that he was entitled to do these things, and that if he didn't do them, no one else would be able to do them as well or as honorably? Almost certainly not. And yet, we are left with the fact that no person of his time, despite the fact that many were far wealthier and more entitled, was able to achieve so much and at such a high level. TR was by turns exasperating, arrogant, belligerent, insufferable, naive, bigoted, and misguided. But in the totality of his accomplishments and the sweep of his vision, few of any time have ever rivaled him.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Frank Rich

Every Sunday, it is our ritual to read Frank Rich aloud, the great columnist for the New York Times who writes only on Sunday, but at unusual length, and focuses most often on politics and how it is being covered by the media, and, in turn, how that coverage is influencing the decisions that shape the kind of society we live in. Somehow, for me anyway, Frank Rich is the great newspaper columnist of our time, the heir to Walter Lippmann and many of the other noteworthy pundits of an earlier era. But in many ways Rich is better than his predecessors. He is angrier, less elitist, more willing to tell a version of the truth that is often difficult to hear, but needs to be expressed. He is also, of course, the former lead theatre critic for the Times, and thus brings to his commentary a literary and dramatic edge that makes his columns more substantive, memorable, and even more musical.

So that is all by way of preface. Accept for the moment that Frank Rich is the crown jewel of the New York Times empire (an empire that is shrinking rapidly, unfortunately, but still a big deal). Well, as Karen and I were strolling down the subway platform at 72nd Street and Broadway last Saturday night on our way to a play, I nudged her and pointed to a man of medium height, rather rotund, with a ruddy face and whispered "That's Frank Rich." Then I added, "That's Frank Rich and he's done here with the rest of us sweating out this long wait in his business suit in the hot, stuffy, rat infested subway." I kept looking at him and thinking about him, but Karen, being bolder and far more outgoing than I, went straight up to him and said something like, "We just want you to know that like thousands of other people your column makes our Sunday mornings very special." Poor Frank, he fumbled a bit to remove the ibuds that were stuck in his ears to hear her words of appreciation, smiled weakly, and then quickly retreated again to his ipod. He seemed to be used to this sort of thing but a bit shy about all the attention. I mean, who can blame him? And he was very late. He kept pacing up and down the platform waiting for a train that was taking a good bit longer to arrive than it should. When we finally boarded the train, he got on the same car as we did but on the opposite end. I couldn't help noticing that he remained standing all the way to 42nd Street, and then we lost sight of him.

It's funny, you really do see a lot of celebrities in New York. Just the other day, I watched this cute older couple carefully consulting their grocery list as they slowly made their way up the aisle at the amazingly exorbitant Food Emporium. That couple was Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker, best known, I guess, for their starring roles in the TV show LA Law. And loyal readers of this blog will no doubt recall my double encounter with the Daily Show's Jon Stewart. But Frank Rich was different. What he says really does affect how people think and how policy gets made. It was a little like being in the presence of Bill Clinton, though at this point Rich is probably the more powerful of the two. But wait, who am I kidding? Jon Stewart is, by far, the most influential of these three, with Rich running a distant second, and Clinton bringing up the rear. So why was I especially taken with seeing Frank Rich? I'm not sure. I guess I do love his old fashioned earnestness and his ability to influence us by virtue of the 1200 words that he so carefully researches and artfully composes for our consideration every single week. And at a time when there is a lot to be angry about, no one that I know of expresses it more powerfully or more satisfyingly.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Books on the Street

As discussed in a post not too many weeks back, New York has lost many of its independent bookstores. The Strand pretty much stands alone as the great independent bookstore of New York, though I have enjoyed browsing at a handful of others still standing in places like the Village, Soho, and the area around Columbia University. And as I recently indicated, I am guilty of being seduced by the enormous collections at chains like the Lincoln Center Barnes and Noble and at Border's, especially the one at Columbus Circle. But there is another New York custom that is rather quaint when it comes to bookstores, and that is the large number of small bookstands on the street where stalwart booksellers hawk contemporary best sellers, as well as a variety of classic texts.

If you visit the southern end of Central Park, the blocks along Broadway near 72nd Street, or a number of places around Columbia University, you can't help being struck by the excellent deals, not just for the hottest books, but also those that appeal to more academic tastes. Books like the new one on Jane Jacobs, the great crusader for a less car-dominated urban environment, or the one by Adam Gopnik, comparing the lives of Darwin and Lincoln, are frequently in stock. And, hey, if you want either of Mr. Obama's books, they are readily available at a very reasonable price.

I spoke to one of these long time booksellers up near 72nd and Broadway the other day, and he said he's been hauling books out to his favorite spot for well over 20 years. He doesn't make a lot money, but he does make a profit. How much he wouldn't tell me, nor would he tell me where he gets most of his books, but he did mention he picks up a lot of them for almost nothing at flea markets and used book store fundraisers like the one regularly held by the Housing Works Group, which raises money to support homeless people with AIDS.

He also noted that he was part of the Bookwars protests that occurred when Mayor Giuliani back in the late 1990s tried to get "nonlegitimate" vendors off the streets, which, at first, included the booksellers. But because there were so many protests and because so many college and university professors signed petitions and other documents supporting the booksellers, the Mayor eventually relented and let the booksellers alone. My sense is that New York benefits from these bookselling street vendors, and that it is a very good thing that they continue to be able to do business in their favorite neighborhoods and on their favorite streets.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Swine Flu Vaccine

I just got a flu shot, thanks to the largesse of Wagner College. There is talk here, however, of the next vaccine we'll need, the one for Swine Flu, and the rumor is that the vaccine will give you almost as bad a case of swine flu as going without it. Now, if this turns out to be true, you would kind of think that this would defeat the whole purpose of submitting oneself to one of those nasty punctures in the upper arm. Ah, but this is where I beg to differ.

You see, the swine flu vaccine still serves a useful purpose, if you can determine precisely when you will contract the flu. For one thing, you can make plans for having the flu. In my case, I'd let to get it at about 5 pm on Wednesday, my busiest day, and then ease into a long weekend to weather the storm of the flu at its worst. Perhaps, emerging on Monday able to return to work, however listlessly, before taking another long weekend to see through the remnants of what is sure to be a lingering illness.

But consider this, by carefully timing the adminitration of the swine flu vaccination, you are freed of the stress and anxiety that accompanies the uncertainty of not knowing when you might catch it. And once it's past, that's it for the season. When everyone else is sweating out the flu season wondering if they will be struck by this debilitating sickness, you can enjoy yourself knowing you are protected. No worrying about who you shouldn't sit next to, no need for excessive hand washing, no time wasted reading about the dangers of an impending swine flu epidemic.

In a way, this vaccine is a small example of actually getting to know when and what the future will bring. Some call this hell; I call it, in this one isolated case, reassuring...

Saturday, September 26, 2009


I now have a daily weekday commute of about 80 minutes. Seems long, I know, but, so far, I am enjoying it tremendously.

I begin by taking a short four minute walk from my apartment at 69th Street and Amsterdam Avenue to the express stop at Broadway and 72nd Street. I wait at most two or three minutes for the train to arrive, and if I can get a seat, I'm in heaven. I have saved the Arts and Leisure section of the Times for this leg of trip, and with little sense of time passing, we travel rapidly first to 42nd Street, then onto 34th Street, 14th Street, and finally to Chambers, where I get off the express train and wait to board the local that makes one more stop before proceeding directly to the Ferry. During this entire time, despite the congestion of the subway, I am so absorbed in the Times that I am barely aware of what is going on around me. Of course, if I don't get that precious seat, it's harder but still possible to stay focused on reading. People watching remains an always enlivening option as well.

The ferry ride is a relaxing, almost luxurious ride of about 25 minutes. During this leg, I read one of the following magazines: The New Yorker, New York, Time Out New York, the New York Review of Books, the New Republic, or the Atlantic, or possibly The Chronicle of Higher Education, Education Week, Educational Leadership, Phi Delta Kappan (a leading education journal), or perhaps a book I am slowly making my way through (Why slowly? Because I've got all those blasted magazines to get out of the way!).

Once the ferry arrives, I proceed to a shuttle that Wagner College generously provides. If I can make the first shuttle, it usually leaves immediately and gets me to Wagner in 15 minutes. This is the least comfortable part of the trip, as I can't read on this bumpy, stop-and-go vehicle. However, I often sit next to someone whom I have gotten to know and we are able to catch up on the latest happenings, so this part of the trip can also be quite pleasant. And even in silence, I never seem to get tired of the passing Staten Island scene.

So I hope you can see what I mean. For some folks, this could be a long and even tiring commute. For me, it is a chance to catch up on my reading and on the doings of a few Wagner acquaintances. Instead of being tiring, it turns out to be, at least most of the time, a pleasant and even rejuvenating experience.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Scattered Thoughts on Reading the NY Times

Just about every day, sometime between 6:00 and 6:30 in the morning, I look outside the front door to see if the New York Times has arrived. If it has, and it usually has by 6:30, I pick it up and begin immediately scanning the headlines, though my eye inevitably drifts toward the below the fold articles, which tend to be more feature-oriented. I will often follow one of these feature articles to its continuation, somewhere in the middle of the paper, before returning to the front page again to begin the forward march through the first section. This march tends to be more like a double time gallop, as I tend not to be very engaged by the international articles. I will often linger over a political piece about the national scene, skim through the articles about New York City, and then settle down for a good long sit with the editorial page, the letters to the editor, and, of course, the op-ed pieces, especially those by Paul Krugman, David Brooks, Gail Collins, Nicholas Kristof, and Bob Herbert (I once went to a NY Times event on a day when I particularly admired a piece by Herbert about the virtues of liberalism. At the end, as he was walking off the stage, I yelled "great column today, Mr. Herbert." He smiled that beautiful broad smile of his and waved enthusiastically). Let me add that on Sunday, Frank Rich is a special and much savored highlight. But, of course, reading the Sunday New York Times is a unique experience that merits its own separate post.

Upon finishing the main news section, I usually reach for the business news, much to my surprise. I don't read much of the news about the stock market or how particular companies are doing, but I find some of the macroeconomic analysis quite instructive, and some of the articles about the economics of culture and leisure surprisingly enjoyable. There are quite a few "Wisdom of Crowds" type articles in the business section, too, that I also find illuminating occasionally, though, on the whole, it rarely takes me more than five minutes to peruse this section.

On Tuesday, the science section is worth lingering over, though at age 59, I find that what captures my attention most often are the articles about maintaining one's health. The style section gets a quick look on Thursday but I pretty much never read the food news on Wednesday (?) or the sports reporting on Mondays.

And that leaves the section that I save for last, because I enjoy it the most - Arts and Leisure. I devour book reviews, usually enjoy anything about live theatre, and cannot resist anything about vintage films. I read Dave Kehr's weekly column about new DVD releases religiously. I often read music reviews, especially of chamber music concerts, and usually at least scan reviews of new museum exhibits. It is only a slight exaggeration to say I live in New York City to experience directly the things that get discussed in the Arts and Leisure portion of the Times. And it certainly doesn't escape my notice that one of the greatest pleasures of the last 20 years of my adult life - reading the New York Times daily - is tremendously enhanced by actually being a resident of New York City.

Thursday, September 24, 2009


Two days I mentioned a desire to visit the Kandinsky exhibit that has just opened at the Guggenheim. It is a magnificent show that can't be fully absorbed in one viewing. But as I looked at the paintings, especially the improvisations of 1911, which move away rapidly from anything that could be called representational and rely entirely on the power of pure color, line, and shape to communicate, I recalled something Virginia Woolf had said when she actually lived through this period. As it turns out, in an essay from 1924 she wrote: "on or about December, 1910, human character changed. . . . All human relations have shifted—those between masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children. And when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature. Let us agree to place one of these changes about the year 1910." It is also important to note that at this very time Woolf was being exposed to multiple works by post-impressionist painters like Gaugin, Manet, Van Gogh, and Matisse for the first time through an exhibit that her friend Roger Fry had organized in November of 1910.

So why am I mentioning all this? I'm not quite sure myself. No, seriously, I think it's because what changed had something to do with removing the boundaries on what could be expressed artistically. Just about anything was becoming possible, which meant that the freedom to use whatever means were at one's disposal to communicate an idea or emotion were also being greatly expanded. For Kandinsky and so many other artists like him, including other painters, musicians, writers, and architects, this constituted a liberation from the shackles of the past. There were no limits. So Kandinsky's friend and colleague, Arnold Schoenberg began to experiment with atonal music that abandoned entirely the use of musical keys, and writers like Joyce and Proust were trying out stream of consciousness techniques that greatly slighted traditional narrative and gave new prominence to the raw materials of communicating. At any rate, I really did think about all this as I stared at these creations of Kandinsky that seemed to culminate in 1911. Glorious, bold colors, striking use of line, mind boggling experimentation with geometric shapes of all kinds. Hard to come up with criteria to evaluate it, not that I particularly want to. But I found much of it incredibly appealing and beautiful. All of it, of course, enhanced by being in the round of Mr. Wright's supreme architectural masterpiece.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Upper West Side Redux

I once used the word redux with a bunch of hard-nosed academics, only I pronounced it by sounding the x, as in "reducks." They really thought I was dumb.

In any case, since I'm now living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, I wanted to say a few more words about it. There will be many more posts about aspects of the UWS, but this one is about the area in general.

Just 40 years ago, some parts of this area were slum-like, dangerous to visit and littered with drug addicts and other unsavory types. I talked to a guy recently whose parents bought a place on Central Park West, right along Central Park at about 70th Street (we're at 69th) back in 1970. They bought it for 100K and sold it in 2004 for 2.5 million. This guy said that when his parents first moved into their place, it was iffy to walk West at all, but especially bad along Broadway and the lower to mid 70s. The streets as you walk west from the Park and Central Park West, by the way, are Columbus, Amsterdam, Broadway, West End Avenue, and then Riverside Drive. The movie Panic in Needle Park portrayed this area of Manhattan in 1973 and the story it told was similar to what this guy had told me.

Additionally, as many people know, the opening of the film West Side Story, the only part they filmed on location and it really shows, takes place in the area where Lincoln Center was to be built and was, in fact, an area where many gangs roamed. Actually, the building of Lincoln Center was for some, especially Robert Moses, a huge urban renewal project.

So what changed? I'm not really sure, but I do know that improvements, both to Riverside Park and to Central Park made a big difference. Of course, the construction of Lincoln Center back in the mid-60s and all the additional building it encouaged had something to do with the change over time. Apparently, there was also an influx of college students, many of them attending Columbia, about 40 blocks North, that also contributed to the vitality of the area in the late 80s and throughout the 90s.

It is fascinating how big city neighborhoods evolve. I hope to say more about this before too long.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Upper West Side

My apologies to the handful of you who read this regularly and who did not find a post at this site yesterday. I usually have a backlog of posts that sees me through most contingencies. But I am in the process of moving from the Financial District to the Upper West Side and this is New York City after all, so it has been quite stressful.

But once moved in, you can set that stress aside, and enjoy that feeling of being surrounded by the culture and the energy of the Upper West Side. There are few areas more exciting. Lincoln Center is three blocks South. My favorite Barnes and Noble Bookstore in all of New York is across the street from Lincoln Center. And Central Park beckons just two blocks to the East. But there is so much more. For instance, Riverside Park to the West, which runs along the Hudson, is another amazing resource, with a beautiful bike trail that actually extends at least as far as the upper reaches of Washington Heights. Columbus Circle is nine blocks to the South, and Carnegie Hall just another three from there. The New York Historical Society is just a few blocks to the North and East, along Central Park, a museum we have come to appreciate deeply, particularly for their fabulous list of lecturers on historical subjects. And, of course, a place we have not gotten to know but is revered as one of New York's most famous museums - The Museum of Natural History - is also just a few blocks away.

Tonight is a special event at the Guggenheim, which is just across the Park, more or less. We are not only looking forward to the event, which celebrates the work of Wassily Kandinsky, but also the stroll home that skirts the Central Park Reservoir and offers a breathtaking view of the skyline and then winds around picturesque bridges, open spaces, and ponds, all a bit unreal, as if they were put there straight out of some idealized storybook about life in New York City.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Man Striding Ahead of Me

As I got off the ferry the other morning on the Staten Island side, I was startled by the sight of a tall man rapidly striding ahead of me who seemed to be missing most of his left leg. He wore one of those remarkable prosthetics that allowed him to walk with a normal gait without any signs of strain or jerkiness. I quickly noted that although the architecture of the limb appended to his thigh was radically different from an ordinary leg - with its long, thin metallic stem - the mechanics of it - how it moved, bent, and sprung from the floor - appeared to duplicate the action of an actual leg with striking precision. What a marvel! The result, no doubt, of years of close study and computer modeling of the movement of the human leg, followed by painstaking efforts to reproduce that movement, with still more experimentation of how to attach that leg comfortably and naturally.

I'd like to think that those who devoted their lives to developing such a technology did it for all the usual reasons - to make a living, to apply well honed skills, to work hard on something interesting, to pursue a dream, to make a difference. But in this case what a direct and transforming difference it makes to the person who has lost that leg and now has restored to him or her this capacity to ambulate, a capacity I give thanks for almost every day. For me, there are few things as exhilarating as taking a walk. To be able to do this after suffering such a terrible injury is a great gift and reminds me what a wonderful world we live in.

Saturday, September 19, 2009


I don't know about you, but I am especially aware this year of famous public anniversaries. There is, after all, something rather special about the year 2009 in that it is the 200th anniversary of both the birth of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin on the same day - February 12th! They are arguably the two most influential men of the 19th century (now there's a way to get an argument going - I mean who's your candidate for most influential person of the 19th century?), and they have exactly the same astrological sign! Hey, does anyone out there know what time they were born? Adam Gopnik has written a book about these two that I have been meaning to read. Perhaps he knows.

It is also the anniversary of the death of Franz Josef Haydn, that great musician who particularly distinguished himself as a composer of chamber music, a form to which I, for one, am especially drawn. One other person whom I think should be singled out is Tom Paine, who also died in 1809 and probably did more to bring about the American Revolution than any other single person, including Thomas Jefferson.

This year also marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), an organization that sometimes doesn't get enough credit, but was, by far, the single most important influence on the civil rights cases that led to the great landmark Brown v. Board decision of 1954. Both Thurgood Marshall and the sadly forgotten Charles Hamilton Houston were the official heads of the NAACP's Legal Department and prosecuted all of the cases that led to Brown. Incidentally, the NAACP was founded in 1909 because it was the 100th anniversary of Lincoln's birth. What would you call an event whose anniversary we are celebrating that took place to recognize an earlier anniversary?

Finally, 2009 is important for New Yorkers because 400 years ago Henry Hudson, an Englishman sailing his ship The Half Moon under a Dutch flag, navigated up the river that divides Manhattan from New Jersey and made possible the settlement of New York City by the Dutch some 15 years later. But when did it become known as the Hudson? According to Wikipedia, people in New York referred to the Hudson as the North River, which is what the Dutch called it, as late as the early 1900s. Does that surprise you as much as me? It raises the whole fascinating question of how and when places get their names, a topic that we don't have time to get into right now, but probably merits its own post.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Carl Bernstein and Institutions that Work

This is still another post on the gang that gathered at BAM last Saturday to celebrate Robert Redford and the making of the film "All the President's Men." I wanted to tell you about something Carl Bernstein mentioned at least twice that evening. During the Watergate craziness, the thing that was so inspiring and invigorating for him and many others was that in the end the people and the institutions they led did their jobs quite well. The Congress did its job by investigating the Watergate controversy with such vigor and persistence. The Judiciary did its job, led by the indefatigable Judge Sirica, by seeing to it that wrongdoers were brought to justice. The press, of course, did its job, too, by making sure that Watergate was not forgotten and that the abuses were uncovered and explained. And, in a sense, the public did its job as well by recognizing how wrong Nixon and his administration had been and that his abuse of power could not be tolerated.

The point, of course, is that unfortunately too many people have not been doing their jobs during our current crisis, which goes particularly for Congress and the Press, at least in Bernstein's opinion. As bad as Watergate was, it was also one of America's finest hours in that the system, thanks to the diligence and competence of many fine people, actually worked. Bernstein didn't quite come right out and say this, but he seemed to imply that he has grave doubts whether those same people and institutions have the capacity and even the will to do their jobs now. A sobering thought, to say the least, particularly for those of us who make up that great public who too often have not done our jobs by holding the government more accountable for its actions.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Robert Redford and All the President's Men - Part II

C'mon, can Robert Redford's hair really still be that blonde? Redford is, what, 73, 74? Shocking, huh? Around his eyes and his jawline, most of the usual signs of aging are there. But with his golden hair, still pretty thick and curly, and that athletic build, even at his age, he retains some of the contours of boyishness. And more interesting, he still has the boyish enthusiasm of a young man.

As I said in the last post, I saw Redford, and Woodward and Bernstein last weekend at BAM talking about the making of "All the President's Men." Redford is proud of the film and shared how he pursued the two journalists to help him make a film about their efforts to break the Watergate story long before even they envisioned a book. Interestingly, Woodward and Bernstein were so consumed by their pursuit of Watergate that they never returned Redford's calls, convincing Redford that this was a project that would never go anywhere. Only much later, sometime in late 1974 or early 1975, after W and B had won the Pulitzer Prize and had written both "All the President's Men" and "Final Days" (an inside story about what went on in the White House just before Nixon resigned in August of 1974), did the three men finally get together, and with Alan Pakula, the eventual director, plan the film.

From the beginning, Redford, in particular, went to great lengths to make the film as authentic as possible. It turns out that the legend is true, that the garbage from the Washington Post's wastebaskets was actually transferred on a regular basis to the sound stage in LA where a perfect replica of the Post's offices had been constructed. But much more importantly and interestingly, both Redford and Pakula, and the screenwriter William Goldman, wanted to tell the Watergate story with great honesty. The actual notes that the two reporters used during phone calls and interviews were incorporated, in some cases, verbatim into the script, and as I suggested in the previous post, the relentless drudgery of doing investigative journalism is captured well, somehow, by the way, without making the movie at all boring.

After much discussion about the film and the times, the final inevitable topic broached was a comparison between then and now. Which administration, Nixon's or Bush's, did more to undermine the first amendment? Which administration was more corrupt? Which more evil? Would it surprise you to know, dear reader, that no one on the panel or, as far as I could tell, in the audience thought the abuses of Nixon came even close to the abuses of Bush? A telling sign of the times, and a reminder of either how much things change or how little.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Robert Redford and All the President's Men

I spent last Saturday evening with Robert Redford...and about 1000 other people who came to the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) to hear him talk about his acclaimed 1976 movie "All the President's Men" and to pay tribute to his career as a film actor, director, and producer. He produced "All the President's Men", while also starring in it. Joining him were the guys who broke the story of Watergate and wrote the book on which the movie is based. Of course, we're talking about Bob Woodward (played by Redford in the movie) and Carl Bernstein (played by Dustin Hoffman, who wasn't able to appear at BAM). They were all interviewed by Brian Lehrer, a prominent New York City radio talk show host.

As you can imagine, it was quite a night. The movie is outstanding and should be seen regularly, not just because it's a fine piece of American cinema, but also because it offers one of the best and most honest portrayals that has ever been put on screen of the grunt work that constitutes about 90% of all investigative journalism. Nobody gets shot in this movie or participates in a car chase or even falls in love. It is simply a story about two relentless, dedicated reporters who smell a story from the very beginning and go after it without let-up, when five middle-aged burglars in business suits are caught breaking into the Democratic headquarters on June 17, 1972. The questions these dogged reporters ask and the leads they follow propel them inexorably toward the uncovering of the most corrupt presidential administration in American history.

Of course, what made this such a special event was the presence of Redford and the two journalists. All were in fine form. Redford, whom I think of as low key and almost shy, spoke energetically and at length about the film and how it was made. And the really interesting inside story that came out of this conversation was this: It was Redford's idea, as early as late 1972, to explore on film the partnership of Woodward and Bernstein and how they broke the Watergate story. This was long before even Woodward and Bernstein themselves envisioned a book. Equally intriguing, and now, of course, quite amusing, is the fact that W and B avoided Redford and did not return his phone calls when he first tried to contact them. Why? Partly because they were so consumed by their work - which involved writing over 200 articles during the first year of Watergate - they simply didn't have time to respond. And partly because they were suspicious of this most magisterial of movie actors. What could he possibly want from them? Did he want to put them in a movie? Was he looking for inside information? Only much later, while the book was being written and the Watergate controversy was running its course, did W and B finally respond to Redford and begin to cooperate with him to make the film. TO BE CONTINUED.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Statue of Liberty

Over time, certain phrases become so familiar and so overused they become drained of their meaning for many of us. The Statue of Liberty is like that, it seems to me. Perhaps I should only speak for myself, but it does seem that when we speak the sounds thestatueofliberty they become like a single word that we mumble aloud without any sense of the larger meaning or context.

As most people know, the Statue of Liberty was a gift to America from the people of France, celebrating the freedoms that both countries had worked so hard to make a reality, though it was specifically meant to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Of course, in both countries, there were still many people who were not free at that time, but it became a symbol not just of what was, but especially of what could be. And that notion, as represented by the Statue of Liberty, that we could be a nation that is truly free for everyone, still inspires. Though it is also probably an idea that we don't spend enough time thinking about or working to bring to fruition.

Every day I pass the Statue of Liberty on my way to Staten Island and to work. Many days I don't think about it much, but at least once or twice a week I do take note of it and the sense of reverence I feel. You know, the Statue of Liberty couldn't be erected for a long time, because the pedestal that it sits on had to be paid for by the American people and there wasn't much enthusiasm for such an expense at the time. In a way, I think the late 19th century was a low point historically with respect to appreciating and celebrating our freedoms. There were so many ways at that time, including the most oppressive racism and the terrible exploitation of ordinary laborers, in which freedom was not particularly valued or practiced very consistently in America. Sometimes I worry we have entered a similar period. Somehow it helps me to remember the Statue and the hope that it has given so many people who have gazed at it with awe as they sailed into New York Harbor for the first time.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Subway Sketch Artist

As I rode the number 2 subway line the other day from 72nd Street to Fulton Street, I noticed a guy in a kind of funky white hat with a sketch pad in his lap. Turns out he was drawing the faces of the people sitting across from him on the train. His likenesses were very good, too. I asked him what he did for a living, but he didn't respond to that. When I followed up by inquiring about the sketching, he became animated and said that it was his first love. That everywhere he goes he does sketches and that in a few cases when he has taken the time to refine them a bit, he has even sold a few. I requested that he sketch me, but he declined, almost as if he prefers to do his sketching only when people aren't aware of it. I could tell he didn't want any more attention, so I ended our conversation, but I continued to watch him closely as he filled in the details of a young, attractive woman sitting directly in front of him who appeared not to know what he was up to.

Funny, I also couldn't stop envying him a little. I love to look at people on the subway in all their rich variety. How delightful to have the talent to capture them in the moment. I wanted to tell him to gather up all his sketches and put them into some sort of compilation about the diverse folks he captures on the subway, but I really didn't want to disturb him further. So I sat there thinking very hard about this idea, hoping that somehow what I felt was a wonderful notion for a book would enter his consciousness, causing him to act on it.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

New Yorkers and Their Dogs

New Yorkers are no different from other city dwellers when it comes to loving their pets, but I guess because there are so many die-hard pet fanciers here you notice it more. And the thing that I'm noticing much more than in the the past is how many people are taking their pets, almost always dogs, into public institutions with the claim that they provide psychological comfort they cannot get any other way. For the most part, this is an innocuous trend. It really doesn't affect me much until people begin to let their dogs sniff through the pineapples, which I haven't witnessed yet myself. Still, you can't help wondering a bit about folks who cannot let their dogs out of their signt even for a visit to the corner drug store. What, if anything, does this development say about our collective emotional state?

One thing it may suggest is that we are not as tolerant as we once were of the unfamiliar, the strange, and the new. That the need to cling to something that is always there for us and completely reliable is a symptom of a society that fears its healthcare may be yanked away at any moment or that a retirement account can be reduced to a shambles in a matter of months. Of course, the traditional resort of people who fear the unpredictability of everyday life has often been organized religion, which in this country, at least, continues to have many adherents. But the turn to something as simple and tangible as a dog may also be a sign that we need our reassurance in the here and now, as present and nuzzleable as possible.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Central Park Carousel

At the southern end of Central Park, sitting charmingly on a small piece of land that dips gently below the main road, is a carousel so unusual that it seems to be a throwback to a much earlier time. As it happens, this one is the fourth carousel to lie within the boundaries of Central Park during the Park's history and was actually recovered from an old Coney Island trolley terminal back in the 1950s. As the Central Park Conservancy explains, this 1908 carousel boasts 58 hand-carved, painted horses, all of which "are caught rearing or in mid-stride with almost fierce reality."

The Conservancy says that 250,000 people ride the carousel every year and that part of the fun has to do with the life size scale of many of the horses and the surprisingly fast pace at which the carousel whirls about to the familiar sounds of the calliope.

When we visited it the other day, it was a pleasure simply to watch young children and aging adults alike thrill to this simple, yet enduringly appealing amusement. Funny, how when you get to a certain age just observing others enjoy themselves in such a festive environment can be so diverting. Few things are more purposeless than a carousel, but, really, that's exactly what makes it so refreshing and enjoyable, too.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Subway Reading

The Sunday New York Times last week had a great article on what people read on the New York subway. My kind of piece. I wish I had written it. It turns out, too, that the Times article was inspired by a blog written by a New York lawyer who has been keeping a careful catalogue of what people have been reading on the subway for the past two months. Here's the link to that blog:

And here is one of his early posts that actually has nothing to do with reading but is good advice for all pedestrians navigating the busy streets of New York:

"OK, not technically subway related, but if you’re on the subway, you end up on the sidewalk at some point.

"I work close to Times Square and spend a lot of time dodging tourists, especially on my evening walk to the subway when they tend to be out looking for dinner and/or a show. I don’t need to tell you all the annoying things tourists do on sidewalks, nor how frustrating slow or stopped traffic can be when you just want to get home (or at least onto the train to read a good book).

"So here’s what we need to teach tourists: I’m not joking about calling it “traffic” on sidewalks. Our sidewalks are like your highways – we take short trips to the store, commute and go out to dinner via sidewalk for some or all of the trip. Just like a highway, a large percentage of people are trying to get where they’re going pretty quickly. But it’s fine if you’re on the scenic route, just translate everything you know about driving to the sidewalk. Want to go slow? Stay to the side. Want to stop, take pictures, check the map, make out? Pull over. Yield to faster movers. Stay alert. Don’t try to go 3 or 4 abreast! If you can’t follow the rules, at least stay out of rush hour, which is a bit later here than back home. Sleep in or have an earlier dinner, just don’t debate where to eat at 7pm in the middle of the sidewalk."

I couldn't agree more!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

New York Toes

When you take into account that there are something like 1.65 million people in Manhattan, and therefore at least 16 million toes, and when you further consider that on hot summer days at least half of those toes are garbed in sandals and thus completely exposed to Manhattan inhabitants' eyes (all 3.3 million of them), it is just a bit breathtaking to consider what a dazzling variety of toes you can see if only you take the time to look.

Recently, I have begun to take note of toes more closely, especially on the subway where it's much safer to gaze at people's toes than to look them in the eye, and I have found that toes can say a lot about a person. In general, women's toes are more interesting and more complicated than men's, primarily because they like to paint them. For instance, hours of subway riding have led me to this finding. The pinker the toes the more likely the person connected to the toes is a sunlover. Bright red toes indicate a stylish dresser; no nail polish at all suggests a highly practical person who can be counted on for good investment advice or the location of the closest outlet for organic vegetables. Green, black or purple toes are without exception women who like vampire novels.

Men are easy. Either they have clean, well kempt toes, relatively rare, or, more likely, they have dirty, overgrown ones with nails that look kind of ragged, as if they tear them off by hand when they get a little too long. Men are beasts, really. The toes tell all.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


As we all converge to disembark from the Staten Island Ferry
I brush up against an older man in a dark blue sock hat
That hides most of his unruly red hair. He is part of
An informal circle of Staten Island-based construction
Workers who are returning from a long night’s labor and
All are talking at once, bragging, joking, hassling each
Other about their work, their favorite sports teams,
Their relationships, the bars they always go to.
Two of them, the red haired one and another
Somewhat chubbier, strikingly cheerful fellow
Lean in to each other, not in any way that is sexual,
But friendly, close, caring, the high spirited guy
Occasionally throwing his arm around his com-
panion as if there is real affection here, bordering
On love. Despite the hard times and all the inevitable
Frailties of growing old, the simple bonds that human
Beings form, the elemental hold that they have on
One another makes adversity feel less severe and
The fact of making a strong connection
all the more miraculous and reassuring, like a mother
bird who will not rest until she has returned to the
nest with food for her young or a watchful baboon
who moves to the rear of a wandering herd to keep
company with the one who is slowed by injury, infirmity
or grief.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

New York's Most Transforming Invention

It can be fun to play the game: what's the most transforming invention of modern times. I have heard good cases made for television, automobiles, airplanes, air conditioning, computers, and quite a few others. I want to devote this post to my vote, at least as far as a city like New York is concerned. My pick is the elevator.

First developed and tested by Elisha Otis in 1853 in Yonkers, New York, the elevator was initially used to move freight but within a few years was also being installed in department stories and hotels to move large numbers of people more efficiently between floors. The elevator didn't really take off as a widely used device until well after the Civil War, but it, along with the development of steel, literally made the skyscraper possible.

Interestingly, when the Brooklyn Bridge was finished in 1883, it was designed not so much to bring people to Manhattan but more so to convey people from Manhattan into Brooklyn, as it was believed that most of the space in Manhattan had been used up and that the development of Brooklyn was where the future lay. Even at that point, no one really anticipated the modern skyscraper. The idea of developing a city up, instead of out, hadn't really dented the public imagination. Although there were a number of 10-story buildings in Manhattan as early as the 1870s, the skyscraper of 20
stories or more was not constructed until about 1890. Throughout the 1890s, however, thanks to the elevator and steel, many buildings of 20 stories or more were put up. Throughout the first years of the 20th century in New York, a new record for height was set almost every year, culminating in a sense with the Woolworth Building of 1910-1913, which climbed to 60 stories and became the tallest commercial building in New York until 1930 and the next great wave of skyscrapers rolled in.

All of this tremendous development upwards would have been impossible without the elevator. Thus, cities as we know them today, particularly New York, were the direct result of the perfection of elevator technology, a most transforming innovation.

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Top Ten Uses of Construction Scaffolding

Because New York City is a city on the move, there tends to be a lot of construction going on. And where there is a lot of construction, there is also a lot of scaffolding. Sometimes it seems whole blocks are darkened for months extending to years by these heavy, elaborate wooden and steel platforms that provide construction workers with the footing they need to do their work. Scaffolding is always a blight on any neighborhood. It looks unsightly and often appears unstable, and sometimes just walking under it you can't help wondering if you are taking your life in your hands. Just the other day in Brooklyn, the scaffolding that was being used to restore a six-story building collapsed killing a 42-year old man. When scaffolding is finally removed from a place where it has sat for a long time, that area seems transformed, suddenly becoming airy, infused with light, revealing details from buildings that have remained hidden for a very long time. The whole block looks different, almost as if it has been liberated from an unfairly prolonged imprisonment.

Having said all that about scaffolding, I feel the need to reiterate that scaffolding is first of all a sign of a city's vitality, that renovations are afoot and the basic infrastructure of the city is being reborn. But more than that, the scaffolding itself, while often annoying, has valuable temporary uses too. Herewith are the 10 top ways to make use of construction scaffolding:

10. When you want to light a cigarette, it provides shelter from the wind.
9. You meet fascinating people huddled underneath the scaffolding trying to light cigarettes together.
8. It's a great place for the homeless to camp out for a while.
7. On a bright sunny day, scaffolding allows you to rest your eyes.
6. If you're handing out leaflets (which it turns out is the job category for 34% of all New Yorkers), the area underneath the scaffolding is a great place to do it.
5. If you had to leave early without getting your morning workout, you can always do a few chin-ups on one of the handy crossbars of the scaffolding that you're passing.
4. If the scaffolding is dense enough, it's a little like walking through a tunnel, making it a good place to sing your favorite song out loud.
3. If you lose your bearings, scaffolding offers a kind of resting place to look at a map and reorient yourself.
2. Scaffolding is no place, which from a zen perspective can provide valuable enlightenment.

And the number one way to make good use of construction scaffolding:

1. When it's raining in torrents, scaffolding is a Godsend!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Bedbugs in New York

New York is infested with bedbugs. It sometimes seems that virtually everyone has them, even many of those who dwell in luxury high rises on the Upper East Side, and once you do, they are very difficult to exterminate.

What are bedbugs? As one commentator noted, they're these tiny nocturnal mites that can't wait to come out of the woodwork at night to suck you dry while you sleep. They leave unsightly welts all over your body which result in severe itching, and often leave your bedsheets caked with dried blood. Apparently, the greater your infestation, the more sins you have committed for which God is exacting punishment (there is no proof for this, of course, just wanted to see if you're still reading). However, it is interesting to note that this rumor about the correlation between budbugs and sins got started when former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, you know, the one who used public monies to pay for high priced call girls, suffered through a bedbug infestation in his top of the line Upper East Side mansion. If true, it really is just a matter of time before all the rest of us get them, too. By the way, I have good news for those of you who do not live in New York. This is strictly a New York phenomenon. After all, we are known as Sin City.

So, indulge me with the following syllogism:

All New Yorkers are sinners.
All sinners eventually get bedbugs.


All New Yorkers eventually get bedbugs.

It's a sure thing, but don't panic. And, if possible, utilize common sense. Some experts urge us to vacuum all floors and baseboards with special care and then to make sure to dispose of all used vacuum bags. Somehow, this strikes me as woefully inadequate. No, it turns out you can never get rid of bedbugs entirely (especially if you're extremely sinful), but the good news is that with the right training, their bedbug circus far exceeds anything fleas are capable of, and they can even be taught, through a highly evolved form of cooperative grouping, to retrieve the newspaper in the morning. Like all of New York, you just have to learn to be resourceful and to figure out how to take an admittedly challenging situation and to turn it to your advantage.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Montaigne and New York

I am often stimulated to think about New York from a new angle after reading something in the New Yorker magazine. It occurred to me after reading Jane Kramer’s article on the great French essayist Michel de Montaigne in this week’s magazine that Montaigne’s search for himself through his essays is similar to New York’s ongoing quest to carve a unique place for itself in the world, one that both highlights its dazzling variety and offers some kind of unifying identity.

As Kramer says, Montaigne in his essays was a “Protean creature” impossible to anticipate or pin down. He seemed to want to express everything, be everywhere, and embrace every possible tradition. He was less a self with boundaries and limits and more a self that was marked by its very lack of such limits or constraints. “He followed himself wherever his attention settled,” and it rarely settled for long in any one place. Kramer also quotes him as saying that “The only things I find rewarding are variety and the enjoyment of diversity.” He seemed to write to find himself, but his search was really a strategy for getting lost, to become tangled in a thousand different literary allusions and to reach out for the new, the bizarre, and the exotic, while evading the persona that lay within. In some crazily ironic and postmodern way, it was by way of evasion that Montaigne found himself.

Doesn’t New York strike us in a similar way? Ten thousand different possibilities, but nothing that unites or brings people together. New York’s greatness, like Montaigne’s, is in being everything, an everything that simply cannot be reduced to one single, defining quality. To use philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between the hedgehog and the fox, in which the hedgehog knows one big thing and the fox knows many things, New York is a fox inhabited and animated by millions of foxes. Somehow, though, by knowing and appreciating and embracing thousands of things, it is thereby a hedgehog as well. The big thing that it knows and that it thrives on is far more than a tolerance of diversity; it is diversity itself.

In writing “My house, being always open, easily approached and ever ready to welcome all,” Montaigne could have been capturing New York’s unifying quality. It is by virtue of the acting out of this immense diversity that energizes, innovates, welcomes, baffles, frustrates and reimagines new possibilities that New York has been and will remain great and a model for the rest of the world.

Friday, September 4, 2009

A New Yorker Reads the Harvard Classics

I am reading a book about a young man who has lived in New York City his whole life and is seeking to find meaning by reading the entire contents of the Harvard Classics, also known as the 5-Foot Shelf of Knowledge, because, according to its compiler, the great educator and public oracle Charles W. Eliot, these classics, that could fit on a 5 foot shelf, were all anyone needed to attain true knowledge and acquire enduring wisdom. The book by Christopher R. Beha is called The whole five feet: What the great books taught me about life, death, and pretty much everything else, and to avoid the wrath of the blog administer, who demands that all posts comply with the strictest standards of factual accuracy, I must admit that at this point I have read only two-thirds of this volume. But what I have read so far is quite good and nicely spiced here and there with stories that feature New York settings.

A significant part of my favorite chapter so far takes place in the Museum of Natural History, where Christopher and his 5-year old nephew, Peter, walk through the museum’s Hall of Fossils together. Christopher, who at that moment is just a bit obsessed with trying to untangle the complex, scientific prose of Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species, one of two books by Darwin selected for the Harvard Classics, is especially delighted with the sense of innocent wonder his nephew experiences as they stroll past the great reconstructions of dinosaurs the museum displays. To Christopher’s surprise, he finds that this trip and others like it are shaping his reading more than his reading is shaping his experiences.

He goes on to say at the conclusion of this chapter about his reading of Darwin and other classic writers: “It’s not by the knowledge of words that I came to understand this thing, but by my experience of things that I came to follow his words. It is all here with us. The past is buried deep in the ground of the present; tomorrow is written above us, in the stars of today.”

What Beha’s words made me think of in my own case is how much New York City has lately become a text for me that I am trying to read closely and discerningly, and that the more I do so, the more I find myself experiencing other texts, both symbolic and literal, with new excitement and new insight. To put it another way, New York has become for me a great book. The more I read it, the more I find myself wanting to gain new knowledge about the world, other people, other times, and, of course, that ever elusive thing we call the self.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Great Hill

As you ride the bicycle path in Central Park, sailing through the graceful downhills, downshifting and pumping hard in preparation for the gentle inclines, enjoying the momentum of the long straightaways, you find yourself unable to resist the tendency to mentally brace for the impending Great Hill, the highest point on the ride, and just on the other side, naturally, of the long decline that winds around the very lovely Harlem Meer. This hill, which does require you to climb steadily for perhaps two to five minutes, depending on your strength and conditioning, is really not, in the scheme of such things, much of a hill at all. It isn’t especially steep, but because it is fairly long, it appears to be more taxing than it is. And, in the 6.2 miles that make up the full circuit, there isn’t anything nearly as challenging as Great Hill. Some runners have more understandably labeled it “cardiac hill,” but that’s because it takes so long, even at a good jogging clip, to get to the top. On a bike, the pain you experience, if you experience pain at all, is blessedly short lived.

So, then, why does my mind harp on Great Hill as I circle this great park? Why do I wonder if I have the staying power or even sufficient nutrition from breakfast to make the climb without a premature dismount? It is fascinating to me how in any self-contained system we assign each aspect a role. In this case, Great Hill is the villain, the gatekeeper that we must traverse before we can say we have fully accomplished our goal. Once you’ve done that, you can relax for a while until once again Great Hill looms in your mind and in the physical distance. Then this same process repeats itself until finally the great barrier is surmounted. It is only with repeated triumphs over the rigors of Great Hill that we gain the confidence to see that the Great Hills are not worthy of our fears and apprehension, and that it is the sheer joy of the ride and, yes, the climb as well that deserves our greatest attention and even our utmost appreciation.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Central Park Biking

Biking in Central Park is one of New York’s special pleasures and part of the challenge of making the most of this magnificent metropolis. It is both freeing and constraining at the same time, much like New York itself. Following the main roadway that circles the park, one time around the park equals 6.2 miles. Two circuits gives you a good workout. Do it three times and your neighbors may think you’re in training. Riding in Central Park is delightful, in part, because Central Park itself is so wonderful. Its mix of small forests, open fields, picturesque ponds, and lots of decorative additions, from public sculptures to beautifully wrought bridges, make it a kind of magical place. As Caleb Carr has said, life in New York is made possible by the constant, reassuring presence of Central Park.

But in another way, the bike path around the primary street that encircles Central Park is really not that remarkable. There are cities that offer bike paths of 20 or 30 miles that are better paved and better maintained, with far fewer interruptions and perils. Central Park's 6.2 miles requires you to keep a constant lookout for baby carriages, park touring groups, skateboarders, runners, joggers, walkers, strollers, roller bladders, other bikers, vending carts, pedicabs, horse and buggies, and occasional maintenance trucks, not to mention roaming police cars. And that’s only on the weekend when cars are banned. It’s a completely different story during the work week, when the rules for what vehicles are allowed seem to change hourly. Furthermore, especially on the weekend, you never know when there might be a bike race scheduled. And believe me, there are few things as scary as a swarm of huddled racers hissing toward you at top speed.

No, what makes Central Park so great for bikes is the fact that compared to all other provisions for bike riding in New York it is, by far, the best. On a good day, you can ride all the way around the park without stopping or even slowing down much. Every other "bike path" that I know of, and this definitely includes the much heralded path that runs along the Hudson River, requires you to stop periodically for intersecting traffic, and to remain unfazed when some speeding driver inevitably careens wildly into an unseen driveway past which you are innocently trying to steer your beloved Trek Hybrid. I’m afraid, too, that because other bike paths in New York are so much narrower than the roadway in Central Park, the difficulty of navigating around pedestrians, skateboarders, and runners is far greater, resulting at times in so much congestion that a dead stop is necessitated.

It's a jungle out there, and even more so for those who want to travel by bicycle. And although Central Park poses challenges for cyclists, they are nothing compared to the dangers that lurk around every corner in the rest of the wilds of New York City.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

September 1, 1939

Seventy years ago today, the Nazis marched into Poland drawing most of Europe into the world’s second global conflict in 21 years. It would lead to indescribable suffering and changes so vast the after effects are still being felt seven decades later. What I want to explore today, though, is a great poem that was ostensibly inspired by that event and the culture that enabled it. And it is a quintessential New York poem written by a British expatriate, who had arrived in New York only eight months before, seeking to make a life for himself in America. The poem is September 1, 1939 and it was written by Wystan Hugh Auden, better known as W.H. Auden. He was already famous when he came to America, but there was something about the States and its less class-based social structure that he hoped would free him. In a sense, the passage to America is a turning point for him. Some of his best work was written during this very period and highly creative years lay ahead.

Auden sets the New York scene from the beginning of his poem:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-Second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

He then turns briefly to the history of accumulated wrongs that have brought about these dire times. One of the reasons that so many people turned to this poem in the wake of 9/11 has to do, in part, with this stanza’s conclusion which asserts: “Those to whom evil is done/Do evil in return.”

Auden follows with a section on the ways in which demagoguery inevitably recurs, and then brings us back with a jolt to the contemporary New York scene: “Into this neutral air/Where blind skyscrapers use/The full height to proclaim/the strength of Collective Man.” And adds that no one can live for long in this “euphoric dream.” The dive where he has been ostensibly ruminating also comes back into play. It is a place where are all our fears and forebodings can be forestalled at least for as long as we can keep the gin flowing and delay the long, lonely walk back home.

In the face of the lying, the deceit, the demagoguery, and the unabating hate, Auden offers only the simplest of responses, much quoted and much debated. It comes at the end of the second to last stanza and it reads: “We must love one another or die.” This line, recently celebrated by the late Morrie Schwartz in Tuesdays with Morrie, has also been maligned, particularly by Auden himself, who chose not to include this poem in his selected works because this offending line struck him as so illogical. No matter how much we love one another, he reasoned, we cannot escape death. Or did he mean die in a less literal and more collective sense? Who is to say?

And yet, it is the final stanza that probably should be best remembered. I include it here as the conclusion of this post for its beauty and its reminder that those ironic points of light may, in fact, remain our best defense against the forces of intolerance and consciencelessness.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair
Show an affirming flame.