Monday, November 30, 2009

New York Review of Books

In the current issue of the New York Review of Books, there is a review by Stephen Greenblatt, a leading Shakespearean scholar, of a book about Shakespeare called Soul of the Age: A biography of the mind of William Shakespeare written by a world class Shakespearean scholar, Jonathan Bate. The NYRB has been doing this sort of thing since the New York newspaper strike of 1963 when a group of New York intellectuals were so frustrated by the fact that they couldn't get the New York Times Book Review that they decided to create their own unique book journal. In my humble opinion, it remains the premier site for insightful book reviews, usually about nonfiction works. And, of course, the current review by Mr. Greenblatt of the latest book about Shakespeare is a prime example of the excellence in critical analysis that the NYRB continues to promote.

Not surprisingly, Greenblatt is unimpressed with Professor Bate's effort. Why do I say this is unsurprising? Because there is so little evidence to document Shakespeare's life. Greenblatt himself found this to be the case when he wrote his own best selling biography, and although he admires Bate, he concludes that any attempt to recount his life or his mind is doomed to failure, owing to the paucity of documentation. Which doesn't mean that Bate isn't perfectly capable of, say, producing an impressive survey on Shakespeare's "perspective on the seven ages of man," or on making a convincing case for the short list of works that probably influenced Shakespeare's own writing. As a biography of his mind or anything else about his life, however, Bate can only get so far, as Greenblatt ably points out. Bate offers a kind of compendium of Shakespeare's best rhetoric, but it would be a stretch to call it a picture of his mind. As Greenblatt indicates, for such a picture, we require not scholars but artists on the order of James Joyce. Only they have the imagination and the genius to offer a plausible portrait of a mind who must be said to have transcended all literary eras.

Sunday, November 29, 2009


In November of 1937, the Mercury Theatre Company led by Orson Welles presented a radically pared down 90 minute production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar that was called simply Caesar. Like a whirlwind, it seemed to destroy everything in its path. It was so different and yet so likable that for many people it changed New York theatre forever. Its fascist costumes and setting, its monumental, skyscraper-like lighting, its original music by Marc Blitzstein, its rat-a-tat-tat line readings, the audacity of editing Shakespeare so heavily, all resulted in a one-of-a-kind show. You could say this is the play that convinced a lot of people that Orson Welles was a genius and that made possible many of his future triumphs on radio and on film. The story of this production is told well in a book by Robert Kaplow - Me and Orson Welles - and has resulted, too, in a surprisingly well done movie by the same name. Although I haven't seen the movie yet, I plan to as soon as I can. As for the book, I finished it in a hurry and have to rate it a fun and revealing read.

The Orson Welles who is portrayed in this carefully researched novel is self-centered to an extreme, incredibly temperamental, an incorrigible philanderer, and an artist obsessed most of all with his own artistic reputation. He also borders on the criminally irresponsible who leaves John Houseman to clean up all the chaos and damage he leaves behind, and is, well, at the same time, also an authentic theatrical genius, whose instincts are almost always right, who knows better than anyone what lighting effects work best, what music needs to accompany the action for maximum effect, how actors' voices should be modulated to emotionally manipulate the audience, and what lines should be cut and which retained to leave that indelible impact. To this day, probably no other director has had the arrogance and daring to alter Shakespeare so utterly and to leave his audiences so shaken in the process. This Welles was blessed with one of the great voices of all time, and he could do almost anything with it. Like Chaplin, he probably would have preferred to play all the parts himself, but his confident approach and his sense that hard, unrelenting work could lead to greatness inspired everyone in his company to try harder and do better. Which is why his productions are pretty much the ones that his actors remembered best, even as they despised his meanness and shamelessness. As a human being, Welles was some kind of monster, but as an artist, he was peerless.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Citizen Kane Part Two

As Morris Dickstein so brilliantly points out in a chapter about Citizen Kane from his new book about the culture of the 1930s - Dancing in the Dark - many of the explanations for what makes the character Charles Foster Kane tick can be found directly in the movie itself. Sometimes, it seems, the best criticism draws attention to all the evidence that is there in plain sight, directly before our eyes.

Kane was "a man who lost almost everything he had," Mr. Bernstein, his personal manager asserts. "All he really wanted out of life was love," his friend Jed Leland explains. "That's Charlie's story. How he lost it. You see, he just didn't have any to give." This sense of loss, of decline, the inevitability of being unable to hold on to what is good and true, this is an important part of the point of Citizen Kane. This is as well a story about the quest for power, and as such it is also a tale of the high price that is paid when the obsession for control and dominance obliterates everything else until it is finally too late.

But the explanations hardly stop there. The Rosebud thesis would have us believe that Kane's story is one of lost innocence, of being torn away from the security of family too soon. The inventory thesis contends that Kane sought satisfaction in the accumulation of things, though in the end these things, uncountable and hopelessly scattered, almost literally suffocated him. Still another account would have us believe that Kane's privilege, his unearned millions, prevented him from becoming the great man he was meant to be. When things are at their worst, he mutters to Bernstein and Thatcher, "If I hadn't been rich, I might have been a really great man." Thatcher pushes Kane to reveal what he would have done and stood for under different circumstances. And Kane snarls back, "Everything you hate," as if the very establishment figures who made Kane possible also prevented him from spearheading the reforms that would have toppled the greedy magnates once and for all.

In the end, Citizen Kane's greatest achievement as a work of popular art is that, as in life, there was no simple explanation for what made Kane tick. He was too complex and his story too multifaceted to point to any one explanation. The film then was a triumph, not of resolution, but of process, not of understanding, but of exposition that confused as much as it explained, obscured as much as it enlightened. What makes Citizen Kane so eminently rewatchable is that it remains a grand, relatively straightforward narrative of the rise and fall of a noteworthy public man, but all the usual clues for making sense of such plots are constantly being undercut and contradicted. Just when we think we know what is going on, we would do well to think again.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Citizen Kane Part One

Years ago, for about 6 weeks, I co-hosted my own Siskel and Ebert-type cable TV program called Classic Movies in which I, along with my co-host and producer, Jeremy Davis, each week discussed and showed clips from two of our favorite vintage films. One of the films I chose was Citizen Kane and the clip I particularly wanted to talk about was a scene out of the memoirs of Mr. Thatcher, the custodian of Charles Foster Kane’s huge fortune, who expresses his frustration with Charles’ do-goodism and his desire to own a money-losing newspaper (Charles: “I think it would be fun to run a newspaper”) that Thatcher regards as trivial. But before I say more about this clip, which I think encapsulates Welles’ cinematic mastery, let me mention a few of the clips I rejected owing to their iconic status.

I couldn’t use the famous opening, which shows a series of lugubrious overlapping shots of Kane’s great pleasure palace, Xanadu, and culminates with his dying words – “Rosebud” – and the shattering of the glass ball. It has been shown and reshown dozens of times. It would have been similarly banal to run the mock-newsreel reviewing Kane’s life followed by the reporters trading wisecracks in the dark screening room. And it would have been hopelessly redundant to screen the famous portrait of Kane’s marriage to his first wife, Emily, which in about a minute details how their union deteriorated and includes Kane interrupting his wife’s words: “People will think...” with his own definitive “…What I tell them to think!” Nor could I include the often seen sequence in which Susan Alexander Kane, Kane’s second wife, debuts as an opera singer. Her voice is not only undistinguished, she can’t quite stay on key, and as we listen to her struggle to get the notes right, the camera gradually moves higher and higher above the stage until it stops, centered on two stage hands listening. They look at each other in silence, their faces impassive, until finally one of them signals their shared derision by holding his nose between his thumb and index finger.

I hope it’s obvious why I mention all these other scenes. There are many others I could have included. Citizen Kane remains a cornucopia of memorable movie making, telling a story with visuals as well as it has ever been done. Whether all these great scenes add up to a great movie is, of course, an entirely different but still interesting question, one I will attempt to take up in my next post. But before tomorrow comes, let me return to the scene I DID choose for that cable program of mine and explain why.

Mr. Thatcher sends a letter to Kane with suggestions for how he might invest his fortune. We see an aide reading Kane’s response out loud to Thatcher. Kane rejects all the suggestions except for a small New York newspaper that he wants to manage. His final line, “I think it would be fun to run a newspaper,” is repeated aloud by Thatcher with a “grrr,” as he looks directly into the camera (quite unusual at that time). What follows are a series of headlines from the newspaper to which Kane has decided to devote his energies. Each one is either a sensational distortion of the truth or an expose about the corruption of the financial industry, Thatcher’s bread and butter. In the series of scenes that we see, each newspaper headline is held up to the camera and then pulled down to reveal an angry Thatcher glaring directly into the camera, usually accompanied by a growl. For the final headline that is shown, it, too, is held up to the camera, but instead of revealing the face of Thatcher when it is pulled away, we see Thatcher standing in an small office, revealing for the first time in the film a very young Orson Welles sitting at a desk, holding a cup and saucer in front of his impish face. Mr. Thatcher says, "Is this your idea of how to run a newspaper?" Welles as Kane, but in a way, very much as Welles, too, says, "I don't know how to run a newspaper, I just try everything I can think of." A fascinating commentary, not just on Kane, but on Welles, the filmmaker, who when given, as Welles once put it, "the biggest train set in the world," tries everything he can think of to make his film stand out. Incidentally, for years afterwards, one of the things said about Welles was his openness to innovation. Film People who had wanted to experiment with something different for years, but had been told repeatedly NO, now had a chance under Welles to try out their most creative ideas.

The scene continues from there, with Welles giving one of his best performances, one part wryly charming college boy, another, impassioned man of the people, still another, gadfly to his grim benefactor. Part of the fun of the scene is in knowing the subtext - how much Welles resembled Kane. When, as Kane, he tells Mr. Thatcher, "you don't realize you're talking to two people..." he was also describing the many contradictions and divisions in his own character. William Randolph Hearst, the publisher who was said to be the true subject of this project bears a cursory similarity to Kane, but Welles - the democrat who wants total control and the artist who seeks popular acclaim - is a better model for Kane than Hearst ever was.

And yet, Welles WAS an artist. Kane as businessman and politician, was a man who made things happen. As an artist, a poet, if you will, Welles was in W.H. Auden's words, someone who "makes nothing happen." Yet that nothing so carefully conjured by Mr. Welles (and it is worth noting that Welles was an accomplished magician in addition to everything else) continues to haunt us, to call us, to insist on being seen again, offering up endless lessons on the art of moviemaking and even a handful on the art of life itself.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

This is Orson Welles

Yesterday’s post was called Orson and I, but it really wasn’t about my personal fascination and identification with Orson Welles. Today’s is. I guess a lot of people want to label Welles a genius, and it is hard to deny his status as such if you define a genius as someone with off-the-charts, preternatural gifts. The legend says that he was quoting from great books by the age of 2 and putting on full scale productions of plays like King Lear before he was 10. He qualifies once again if you think a genius is someone who transforms how an entire medium is used. He actually had such an impact in three realms – movies, theatre, and radio. Even if you don’t like Citizen Kane, and I know many of you out there think it is hopelessly overrated, it is still regarded as an inexhaustibly useful sacred text by many critics and filmmakers who continue to return to it, shot by shot, for inspiration.

On the other hand, he is assuredly not a genius if we mean someone who knows more than anyone else or is able, without assistance from others, to think up grand schemes and to act on them boldly. Welles badly needed collaborators to activate his best gifts. He is also not a genius if we mean someone with a highly disciplined mind who, by virtue of profound analytical frameworks, sees more deeply and more expansively than others. Oh, and, by the way, much to Welles’ bitter disappointment, he was also not a genius, not even close, by virtue of his facility with the written word. He had a great voice and was a superb improviser and had a way of relating to an audience, whether remote or before his eyes, that few of his contemporaries could match. But his best work was always driven by someone else’s words – Houseman, Howard Koch, Shakespeare, Herman Mankiewicz, Booth Tarkington, Graham Greene – words he often revised or used as a basis for improvisation, but words that nevertheless originated with someone else. He was bitter to the end of his days that people saw Welles as only the “second” author of Citizen Kane ("Mank" being the widely acknowledged "first" author) or that Howard Koch received credit for drafting the original script for the War of the Worlds broadcast. It was typical of Welles that in spite of his many gifts, he would begrudge the recognition others received for drafting scripts – the art he most lacked and yet most desired.

As the foregoing suggests, my fascination with Orson Welles, my love really, has as much to do with the contradictions in his character as anything else. He was enormously talented and never lacked for attention, but he often didn’t get the attention he wanted. He planned scrupulously and was a fabulous producer and director, but he had a tendency to lose interest in projects, to leave them to others to mop up, and then when they didn’t turn out quite the way he wanted, blamed them for botching the job or for interfering with his vision. He was a quick study who could immediately intuit how to stage a script, but his final productions were often slick and superficial, because he lacked the discipline to go deeper. He was so smart and yet so dumb about so many things. I still resent the fact that he let himself get so obese, to the extent that by the last 20 years of his life, he was more often the butt of fat jokes than the subject of serious criticism. But it was strangely fitting that he should be so rotund as well, for like Kane or Falstaff, he consumed and absorbed everything in his path. He DID have some knowledge of everything – however superficially – and had a way of thinking about and acting on that knowledge that had a flashiness and surface brilliance that impressed (and frequently fooled) just about everyone. He was the ultimate dilettante, who despite all his flaws, was, by far, the single person most responsible for fashioning a truly great film.

Despite all the talk of his decline and his failed promise, all of which is true, how many people can say, “I once made a film that everyone should see, and even after 30 viewings somehow remains fresh and exciting.”

Next post: Thoughts on Citizen Kane

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Orson and I

Today a new film about Orson Welles opens around the country which focuses on his innovative and triumphant theatrical production of Julius Caesar from 1937. I thought it would be fitting and rather fun, at least for me, to devote a few posts to some of the reasons for this undiminished fascination with his life and works.

One thing we should get out of the way immediately is his close identification with New York and consequently his fit for this blog. Although Welles’ first love eventually became film, his early successes all took place on the stage and on radio in New York City. His name as an actor and as a director was made in New York to such an extent that he was a nationally renowned figure by the age of 22, at least a year or two before the War of the Worlds broadcast that he produced for radio on Halloween 1938, and that turned him into a superstar.

It was his all-Black production of Macbeth that he produced with John Houseman in Harlem in 1936 that first won him acclaim. For opening night, the lines of people wanting to see the play snaked around 5 Harlem blocks and the traffic was so thick it was impossible to reach the theatre except by foot. The African dress and rhythms that were incorporated into this production were said to give it enormous power, and the performances that Welles coaxed from a largely inexperienced cast were described as phenomenal. It was a complete triumph and Welles was barely 21 years old.

How he got to this point is part of theatre legend. How he journeyed to the Gate Theatre in Dublin in 1931 at the age of 16, advertising himself as a great American thespian, despite having no significant acting experience at all; how he convinced the Gate’s accomplished impresarios to assign him major roles in important classical productions; how he returned to America, flaunting his Gate notices, and eventually toured with the great actress Katherine Cornell in Romeo and Juliet and Shaw's Candida; and then how he encountered Houseman and collaborated with him to accomplish something daring and innovative in New York; and how they established the Mercury Theatre, which would lead to one groundbreaking production after another on the New York stage and on radio, and form the basis for the cast and production crew that would create Citizen Kane.

Thus the first reason for the undiminished fascination with Orson Welles was his peerless audacity, his belief that he could do it better than anyone else despite the complete absence of any kind of track record in theatre. He would of course do this again in the world of film in such a striking and revolutionary way that what he created at the RKO studios during those terrifying years of 1940 and 1941 continues to influence filmmakers from around the world.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

La Danse

Here I am again writing about something that appeals to me even though I really know nothing about it. In this case, the subject is ballet, especially as captured by the great cinema verite filmmaker, Frederick Wiseman, in possibly his greatest creation yet - La Danse - a chronicle of the Paris Opera Ballet. Wiseman's style is to spend many months filming his subject, shooting outrageous amounts of footage, and then to edit that footage into a narrative that simply unfolds without narration or explanation. He has done this for many subjects and institutions - perhaps most famously in Titicut Follies - about the mistreatment of patients at the Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane; High School, a portrait of a very bad school; High School II, a portrait of a very good school; Hospital, in which he documents the whole range of activities, both grand and pathetic, that occur in a typical hospital; and more recently, State Legislature, about the shenanigans and good intensions of various Idaho State legislators. There are many, many other such projects directed and edited by Wiseman.

What sets La Danse apart, at least for me, is the rapturous beauty of many of its scenes - dancers of impossible grace and ability wrapping themselves around each other, first in rehearsal and then in performance. But what is also outstanding is the range of activity that revolves around the dancers and the dances. The administrators who keep the company going but who do so largely as a labor of love, the choreographers who want to experiment with new moves and new music, despite their lack of popularity with the dancers. And then all the costumers and stage hands and make up artists who help to make the dancers beautiful and the productions luminous. It is all there woven into this amazing and almost always diverting story. In this film, Wiseman never holds any one scene too long. His timing is superb as he moves from rehearsals, to planning meetings, to outside shots of the beautiful ballet theatre, to these immensely appealing and beautifully lit scenes of the dancers in full costume and at their artistic best.

The final pas de deux, danced to a solo cello (I think), is shown strikingly and even painfully in rehearsal, but to see it so perfectly and gorgeously realized in performance as the film comes to an end is to ensure that the best is saved for last.

Monday, November 23, 2009


We went to see Vermeer's painting The Milkmaid yesterday, which is currently featured at the MET. Vermeer is a remarkable painter and so many of his works are strikingly beautiful, but perhaps the Milkmaid stands out as one of a handful of undeniable masterpieces. What makes it so great?

Well, of course, it goes without saying that I have no authority whatsoever to make a claim for its greatness. Still, for me it is rather fun to try to make a case for it just by looking. And like so many others, what I find especially arresting about Vermeer and this painting, in particular, is his unmatched ability to paint light shining through a window and to capture how it reflects on the milkmaid's forehead and the wall behind her, and especially how it plays so brilliantly on the bread and the pitcher before her, as well as the milk that she herself is pouring. Indeed, you could argue that the subject of this painting is how the objects in a room that is flooded with light are transformed by that very light. Particularly fascinating is how that light brings the blue of the cloth on the table to life, or how it seems to enliven each seed of the bread in the foreground. Could it be that this painting is, in fact, about the things that give life itself? The sun, the bread, the milk, the milkmaid in all of her youth and female robustness. Even the discarded foot warmer on the floor at the bottom right of the painting is a contributor to the theme of what gives life.

What perhaps undercuts this theme is the look on the milkmaid's face, quiet, serious, unenthusiastic. A look that could be the product of many things, though the story goes that she more than once protected Vermeer's wife from being physically abused by her brother. She is thus a woman who can take care of herself but is also utterly lacking in naivete. She knows how cruel people can be to each other, how much we tend to diminish each other, and she is prepared to do what she can to prevent this from happening to those she cares for. She goes on, but she also seems to be acutely aware of how hard it can be to go on when so many things prevent us from being our best selves.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The New Absurdities?

For an hour at a time they sit erect at their desks puzzling over one challenging question after another. Some questions are fairly readily solved; others prove to be a little too difficult. Sometimes a weak smile appears on their faces as they receive approval for getting a right answer, but more often they wrinkle their brows in consternation as they struggle to make sense of the problems posed to them. They are part of an increasingly large group of New Yorkers whose families are paying as much as $145 an hour to get them ready for the big tests that many parents believe will determine their children's professional futures.

These studious test takers happen to be just 3 and 4 years old and the tests they are preparing for will decide whether they are admitted to New York City's gifted and talented program for kindergarten children. As the New York Times reported yesterday, more and more New York City parents are finding it difficult to afford private school, and are looking to the public schools' gifted programs as the next best thing. As one parent put it, "Even though we live in the West Village and there are great public schools, obviously, any opportunity to step it up a notch in caliber, we would like to try."

Absurdity #1: Using a standardized test to determine entrance to a gifted and talented program, which is, at best, modestly correlated with academic ability.

Absurdity #2: Test prep for 3 and 4 year olds which has only a modest impact on how they will perform on these tests.

Absurdity #3A: Private schools regard such test prep as "unethical" because, as the director of admissions at the elite Dalton School observed: "It completely negates the reason for giving the test, which is to provide a snapshot of their aptitudes, and it doesn't correlate with future success in school." Right...but all the advantages that come with being privileged and rich are okay.

Absurdity #3B: Somehow aptitude is your innate ability that cannot be...or should not be...influenced by environmental factors or efforts to manipulate the score through test preparation. Sometimes known as the SAT/Kaplan Test Prep Absurdity. (Amazing aside: The Washington Post bought Kaplan back in the 80s and the only thing keeping it afloat financially right now is the fantastic business Kaplan continues to do.)

Absurdity #4: The New York City Public Schools encourage test prep for gifted and talented admissions as a way of "leveling the playing field."

Absurdity #5: As one gifted and talented test administrator noted, "Some kids can do well without preparation, but children who are familiar [with the test questions and how the test works] have an edge." She added that with respect to equity, "it's ridiculous."

Absurdity #6A: The head of gifted and talented programs in New York City concludes: "I would hope that parents make decisions around this program because they feel that this is an educational option that their child really needs, as opposed to I have to get my child into this program because that's the only place where they are going to get a good education." What planet is this person living on? There are some good public schools in New York City, but they are relatively scarce. Can she really blame parents for wanting every possible advantage for their child?

Absurdity #6B: The widely held point of view that: My child's life is ruined if she or he doesn't get into this gifted and talented program.

The Umbrella of Shame for These Absurdities: Everything we know about the kind of education that changes the life chances of the least privileged children in this country is exactly the kind of opportunity offered in gifted and talented programs. So why is it this country does not have the will to make this opportunity available to every child? Because what many of these parents are really looking for is not so much a superior education as it is isolation from difference. The more their children can be educated with children who are just like them - well off, white, privileged - the better they like it.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Anne Frank Center, USA

I recently read a beautiful book by Francine Prose about the history of Anne Frank and her diary. It recounts the story of how the diary was preserved by Miep Gies, the brave women who hid the Frank family and others for 25 months, how she held it closely for Anne's return, and then finally turned it over to Anne's father, Otto, when it was clear that Anne had succumbed to Typhus in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp just before the end of the War. Prose goes into great detail how Anne's diary came to be published. At first, many publishers dismissed it as the ramblings of an immature girl, but it was issued in 1947 in Europe, receiving relatively little attention, and then finally became a publishing blockbuster when it came out in English in 1952. Prose also explores how the diary was adapted to appeal to popular tastes when it became a hit play in 1955 and then a film a few years later. She also discusses how widely the diary has been used in schools and ends with a personal story about the year she taught the book while in residence at Bard College. Prose believes it to be a great work of art composed by an emerging literary master. I guess the diary continues to sell many hundreds of thousands of copies each year.

Not surprisingly, this has gotten me reading the Diary again and thinking a lot about Anne Frank. I was pleased to learn, too, that there is an Anne Frank Museum down in the Soho section of Manhattan that I want to get to, but because of their unusual hours, it is rather difficult to find time to see it. The next time I can make it is the first Sunday in December - December 6th. I will be reporting here what I find there.

I can't quite bring myself to say how I feel about the Diary itself. It is a beautiful and touching and quite funny human document in its own right. But really what gets to me most is how utterly full of life it is. These reflections of a young girl who has so much to live for and who sees other people with such wise discernment is chocked with wonderful insights. But despite all this, she did not survive and apparently suffered a particularly awful and harrowing death in Bergen-Belsen. That has to leave you speechless.

But we keep talking about her because that is, after all, a way of keeping her alive. What can you say about a 13 or 14 year old girl who writes this: "Quickly into dressing gown, soap in one hand, pottie, hairpins, pants, curlers, and cotton wool in the other. I hurry out of the bathroom; but usually I'm called back once for the various hairs which decorate the wash basin in graceful curves, but which are not approved of by the next person." And then this: "I could go on for hours about all the suffering the war has brought, but then I would only make myself more dejected. There is nothing we can do but wait as calmly as we can till the misery comes to an end. Jews and Christians wait, the whole earth waits; and there are many who wait for death." And finally this: "It's really a wonder that I haven't dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything I STILL BELIEVE THAT PEOPLE ARE REALLY GOOD AT HEART (My Caps). I simply can't build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again."

The reason for the CAPS above is that the play made these words, all by themselves, the last ones that Anne speaks. To do so, is to take them out of a rich and complex context and to reduce Anne Frank's incredibly profound sentiments to little more than a Hallmark greeting card slogan. Beware of adapters bearing revisions. Interesting, though, a lot of people have their minds on Anne Frank. A new play version has been written, a new movie is being contemplated. Just more signs, I am guessing, of her timelessness.

Friday, November 20, 2009

What's Quintessentially American?

A recurring theme of this blog, in my own mind anyway, holds that Theodore Roosevelt was a quintessential New Yorker, who by virtue of his many attainments, as well as his many character flaws, represented a spirit, both capacious and repressive, that continues to shape, not only New York City, but many aspects of the American character.

Today, in a New York Times review of still another volume about TR, the really pernicious side of his personality is brought to the fore. The reviewer quotes the author James Bradley writing in his new book The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War, to the effect that TR stood, in many ways, for the late 19th century's worst impulses. He says: "One after another, White Christian males in America's finest universities 'discovered' that the Aryan race was God's highest creation, that the Negro was designed for servitude, and that the Indian was doomed for extinction."

This ideology, which no one trumpeted more loudly or acted on more triumphantly than TR, lingers today in our continuing haste to make the world safe for democracy and in our insistence that the American way of life must become the model for the rest of the world. There are many, to be sure who acknowledge the often tragic results of these beliefs, including quite a few military commanders in Iraq, whom as I understand it, rediscovered, after the utter failure of the initial occupation, the value of good old fashioned listening and learning to share power with the ordinary people whose country we had invaded.

Some are also beginning to heed the great journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sherry WuDunn, who are urging us to exit Afghanistan as soon as possible and to spend our nation's wealth not on impossible and misguided missions in the Middle East, but on domestic healthcare for everyone, or just as nobly, on basic medical care and schools for those millions around the world who desperately need them. I am tired of deferring to the so-called experts who are said to understand the situation so much better than we. Haven't we reached the point as a nation that our mission around the world must be refocused on spreading good health and education. Military, get out of the way, make way for the New Foreign Policy. Let us accomplish some undisputed goods, and set aside these uncertain and usually ill-fated efforts that bring nothing but suffering and alienation to our opponents, while shattering our returning soldiers, leaving them fit only to be killers.

All of this is the legacy of the thinking of people like Theodore Roosevelt. Like a terrible illness, it is very hard to recover from. But we must declare this a new day where guns take a back seat to books and women's rights always trump tanks.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

A City On the Move

New York is a city on the move. People work hard and play even harder and they don't suffer slowpokes gladly. If you want to take it easy, stay home. But if you're a New Yorker and you're hot to get somewhere, it seems only right that your fast track should remain unobstructed. And yet, at almost every turn, New York pedestrians who are ordinary and able-bodied constantly gum up the works. Walking to the department store for the big sale, you try to pass them as they amble along four abreast. They lack that sense of urgency. Don't they know this is New York? Up the narrow stairway as they leave the subway, the lumbering stair climbers sometimes seem to be in the majority, as they prevent the folks in a hurry from enjoying their quick exit. The audience filing out of the theatre hardly moves at all. Okay, maybe they're thinking about what they've just seen, but can't they do that when they get out on the street, or better yet, when they settle into a booth at their favorite restaurant? The walkers in the city should be alive, able to move quickly and energetically, almost unstoppable as they make their way to and from the attractions of the city. I mean part of the problem is there's so much to do, you can't afford to be stalled too much. That museum is going to close, that gallery is ending its exhibit, that free play in the Park has only one more day in its run. How will we do it all, especially when half the city lacks the urgency to insist on that must-see thing? Why do they live in New York anyway? Don't they know that if they don't hurry up, they will never be able to witness this unique, unrepeatable event ever again?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Ridiculous, hopelessly predictable, and a whole lot of fun, that's how I describe seeing Woody Allen's 1979 film Manhattan at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences screening room on Monday night. I have seen it, what, maybe 20 times? But I still can't get enough of it. Just the opening alone - those sensational black and white pictures of late-1970s Manhattan paired with the music of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue - are easily worth the price of admission, which, in this case, was ten whole dollars, five for me and five for Karen. But, hey, like I said, the opening alone makes it worthwhile. And then you've got all those great scenes with a young and gorgeous Meryl Streep and the witty repartee between Woody and Diane. And Wallace Shawn as Diane's former "devastating lover." And that final look on Woody's face when he is imploring his 17-year old girlfriend played by Mariel Hemingway not to go away and study in London. The only thing in movies comparable to that look, in my humble opinion, is the expression on Chaplin's face at the end of City Lights when the blind girl whose sight has been restored realizes through touching his hand that it was Charlie, now completely down on his luck, who found the way to pay for her operation.

But for our five bucks, it wasn't just the movie we got to see. We also witnessed a Q and A with the often forgotten but memorable other male lead in that film - Michael Murphy. Murphy did a lot during this period - Unmarried Woman, the Front (a comedy about the blacklist that included Zero Mostel playing the one tragic figure in the film - Hecky Brown), Nashville, and then later that HBO series called Tanner
'88 about a politician, written by Garry Trudeau and directed, like Nashville, by Robert Altman. I would say it's fair to conclude that as an actor, Murphy has had a pretty distinguished career. It was fun to hear him talk about Manhattan.

Murphy was cheerful and open and happily took many questions. One of the things he volunteered was how much Woody was enjoying Manhattan at that point and how inclined he was to go out on nights on the town with Murphy. Woody was still a director of few words and always critical of his own work, but he seemed happier, more normal, more of an everyday guy to Murphy at this point in his life. Murphy also shared that once shooting on Manhattan was completed, Woody disliked it so much he offered to buy it back from United Artists and do another film for them for free. Everyone agreed it was fortunate this didn't happen. After thirty years, Manhattan has become an American classic and probably the greatest film about New York ever made.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Walking Amsterdam

Just walking the handful of blocks along Amsterdam Avenue between our main subway stop and 69th Street seemed like an urban revelation last night. As we strolled we saw and heard the following: A man sprawled on the ground who seemed to be moaning softly in pain but who also was cradling one of those supersized soft drink containers from McDonald's; a bunch of twenty-somethings out on the town, speaking brashly to each other, and occupying most of the wide sidewalk as they shouted and strutted and backpedaled along; a solitary old man with a chewed off cigar butt in his mouth, hovering by the shop windows so as to give all other activities on the street a wide berth; a woman running precariously in the highest of high heels as she chased after a departing bus; and a couple of late night book hawkers still trying to peddle a few more volumes before heading home.

Whoever first said that there are 8 million stories in the Naked City had it right. Every one of these situations prompts you to wonder what is going on in each of these person's lives. It is a city of countless stories that range from the most awful things imaginable to the most wonderful. The full range of human experience displayed in all its glory and ignominy, right there on Amsterdam Avenue on the Upper West Side. Imagine how many thousands of other stories are being played out in every section of this endlessly diverse and beautiful and unspeakably ugly and diverting and oppressive and absurd and profound and happy and sad metropolis. You want a living, breathing, pulsating microcosm of the human condition? You can't do much better than New York City itself.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Zero Hour

We saw a play on Saturday night, another one of those absolutely striking one-man shows, this time about Zero Mostel, the actor and comedian best known for playing Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, and, of course, Max Bialystock in the movie the Producers. The play, written by an actor named Jim Brochu and also starring Brochu as Mostel, is amazing. For one thing, Brochu is nothing short of sensational as Mostel. He comes close to imitating him, but also does something much more important and moving: he captures Mostel's spirit, his explosive, larger than life anger, and his incredible, side-splitting sense of humor.

Mostel's humor is well documented but his anger less so. You see, Mostel and many of his good friends were blacklisted in the early fifties, and in some ways, despite his later success, he never got over it. The play shows sharply and comedically how ridiculous the basis for the blacklist was; as long as someone named you, no matter how obscure, you were suspect. And the consequences were dire - years and sometimes even decades of little or no income and no opportunity to appear before the public, a performer's only way to get work. The play tells the story of at least one close friend of Mostel's who lost his will to live because of the blacklist, and treats Jerome Robbins as the ultimate genius-snitch. Genius, because he rescued at least two plays Mostel starred in - A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Forum and Fiddler on the Roof, and snitch, because when the despicable House on UnAmerican Activities Committee called him to testify, he was so afraid of damaging his own career that he named a slew of Mostel's friends and fellow actors as Communists. Despite recognizing Robbins' genius, Mostel never forgave him for that.

It needs to be added, and this is beautifully dealt with in the play, Mostel himself was called before the Committee for being at a Communist meeting that he could not have possibly attended. But the Committee badgered him anyway and the notoriety that resulted dashed his own career for close to a decade. He recovered brilliantly but never lost his immense rage that such a thing could happen in a country reputed to be free.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Bicycle Thief

There was a time in New York City, especially in the late 50s and early 60s, when the films that were playing at major theatres were as likely to be, say, Citizen Kane from 1941 or the Gold Rush from 1925, as they were something contemporary. That was an amazing time for the City, when film buffs seemed to be everywhere and when you could overhear debates in coffee houses and jazz lounges about the virtues and flaws of the latest New Wave film from Paris of whether the theory that a director of the film is often its author or auteur really holds up.

I want to relive that time as much as I can, which is why I am such a fan of Film Forum, where the old, classic films continue to play in repertory. This weekend, for instance, the greatest of all dance movies - Michael Powell's the Red Shoes - is playing in a glorious new 35mm technicolor print.

Best of all, one of the signature classics from Italy's great post-war, neorealism period is playing at Lincoln Plaza, a theatre that shows great films, but invariably the most current ones. The exception they are making this weekend is for Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thief, one of the most remarkable movies ever made.

What makes it so remarkable is its simplicity and honesty. These are words we often use to describe things we like, but they apply so perfectly in the case of this film. It is the story of a man living in Rome in the period immediately after World War II. The film purposely shows many actual bombed out buildings to reinforce the terrible damage that was done by the war and to emphasize the fact that this damage continues to take its toll. The man has a wife, a baby girl, and a lively son of about 10 years of age and they are desperately poor. Out of a job for a long time, he finally secures a position as a hanger of posters, but only if he has a bicycle. He HAD a bicycle but hocked it to feed his family. Now he promises the employer he will have a bicycle for his first day of work and hurries home to his wife to figure out how to get his bike out of hock. They decide to gather up everything they can that is expendable, including their bed sheets, to trade them in for the money they need.

The next day the man proudly pedals to his first day of work with his son sitting in front of him. Both are exhilarated by this ride and cheerfully looking forward to having enough money in the household to eat reasonably well and perhaps even indulge in a gelato now and then. It probably won't surprise you to know that the man does not even finish a day's work before the bicycle is stolen, forcing him to search in vain for the rest of the day for this missing lifeline. Without that bike, there will be no job. In a near state of hysteria, he informs his son and before going to his wife, decides to seek advice from some well connected friends. They reassure him that they can all go to a bicycle market in the morning where the bike is almost certain to show up.

The bicycle market is mobbed with people and crowded with bikes and bike parts, but there is not sign of this man's bike. The rest of the day, the man and his son search for the bike, growing more desperate every hour that they do not find it. The father and son enjoy some refreshment together, but it is only a small pause in the agony they are experiencing. Now, near the breaking point and with the streets filling up after a soccer game has let out, the man steals someone else's bicycle. He does not get far, however, and is soon caught in a mob that berates and abuses him for comitting this criminal act. His son is horrified by all of this but shows great compassion for his father, as if he understands all that he has gone through, including the act of taking someone's else's bicycle to spare his own family. The film ends with the father free to go walking with his son in the streets completely ashamed and humiliated by what he has done.

What could be more simple than this tale of woe - about a man who must have a job to keep his family healthy? And what could be more honest than to end the film with the man still out of a job, still lacking that bicycle, and emotionally broken with shame over what he was driven to do? What this film captures is in some sense a dilemma that poor people all over the world face daily, but rarely has it been documented so unsentimentally and straightforwardly by a movie director. That is what makes Bicycle Thief such a remarkable work of art.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Rear Windows

The New York Times ran a surprisingly frank piece yesterday about how much some New Yorkers in large high rises like to sit at their walls of windows watching other New Yorkers live out their lives. There was the story about the woman who watched an old fashioned Italian couple celebrate the husband's 80th birthday in the midst of a large, gregarious family as the strains of Volare wafted through the air. Another far more sobering story featured a painter who worked late into the night and took inspiration from a man across the way who worked late as well on his art and whose unextinguished light pushed her to keep creating. Then one night the light did not go on. For a week his room remained dark, until she finally learned that a week earlier he had committed suicide.

The article suggested that people do not stare into other people's windows for lewd or prurient reasons primarily, but to fight loneliness or to make a connection in a city that can often feel lonely and alienating. Although there is no way to know how many people in such apartments actually acquire binoculars in order to see their neighbors' actions more clearly, doing so is a common occurrence. Not long after we moved in to our apartment, a friend inquired when we planned to get "our binoculars" as if they were standard equipment.

We still don't have those binoculars and we are too far away from other buildings to see much of anything without ocular enhancement, but as we sit out on our terrace and stare at the hundreds of windows arrayed before us, we do sometimes imagine or fantacize or just guess what might be going on. Is that flicker a favorite TV show or the latest DVD? Is the large, unusual hat sitting in the window sill for outdoor use or part of a fashion shoot? Are those uncurtained windows the result of exhibitionist tendencies or just a desire to stay open to the world? The questions and the possibilities are endless. And a great deal of the fun of such speculations is never knowing for sure. It is a little like living in a world where questions trump answers and being in a constant state of wonderment is what counts most.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Subway Update

One of the pleasures of writing a blog is quoting myself. Back in late September, I described the first part of my commute from 69th and Amsterdam this way:

"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 the 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."

Well, in fairness, I must update this a bit. Recently, the express has been chronically late and packed with people. It's so crowded that just boarding is often a challenge. I sometimes wish New York had those pushers that you see in films of the Tokyo subway system, so that more people could take advantage of each express trip. Of course, the considerable down side of these jammed subway cars is that there is no way to read the Arts and Leisure section of the New York Times and surprisingly little opportunity for people watching. Today, I was trying so hard to make room for others by cramming myself into a corner that I found my vantage point was limited to a tiny segment of the grimy wall right before my eyes. Although the ride was not long, time seemed to stand still. No matter how hard I tried, the grimy wall remained unabsorbing. Not what I envisioned when I waxed so romantically about my commute. Oh well, you can't have everything. And the delights of the Staten Island Ferry ride continue unabated.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Dry Cleaning

In many ways, I am naive about life in the city, so perhaps I am flaunting my ignorance and inexperience when I say how much I enjoy the dry cleaning service that is available in the city, especially to those who dwell in large buildings with doormen.

Because of the city's seeming formality and also because we like it, Karen and I tend to dress up for work. I am always in coats and ties, she invariably dons suits and heels. Which means that we use the dry cleaner pretty often, weekly, at least. Here is how it works. We accumulate our soiled clothes that need to be dry cleaned in a bag that includes an attached tag that identifies us by address and phone number, we carry the bag the two blocks to our 71st and Broadway Organic Neighborhood Cleaner, and we drop it off with a simple "Good morning." (Incidentally, we could even leave the dirty clothes with our doorman for pick-up by the dry cleaner, but that just seems too decadent, and, after all, we do need the exercise). Then, miraculously, about two days later, at most three, it shows up in the lobby of our apartment building. We, in turn, lug the clean stuff about twenty feet to the elevator, whisk ourselves to the 6th floor, walk in to our modest but comfy studio apartment, and put everything away.

What a delight! What urban simplicity! What a way to live! And it's not even as expensive as you might think. So that's my dirty (dry cleaned?) little secret for the day and one of my chief guilty pleasures of living in the Big City.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Subway Driver

If you board the first car of the subway and stand as far forward as you can, there is a small window that provides a very unusual perspective on your ride. By looking through this tranparent square of 8 inches by 8 inches, you can pretty much see what the driver takes in as she steers the train along the tracks. And for some reason that I can't quite figure out, I am utterly enchanted by the view from this little window. Maybe, just maybe it is so appealing because peering through it mimics how a film director would frame the image of a rapidly moving train. Traveling in the dark with scant illumination provided only by different colored lights is intriguing enough, but when approaching the much more brightly lit waiting platforms, the contrast seems especially striking. Looking ahead toward these platforms, first you see the light, then tiny forms of waiting passengers, which become progressively larger and more to scale as you finally grind to a stop to take on more riders. Then once again the train pulls out of the station, leaves the brightly lighted platform behind, and plunges back into the darkness, slowed perhaps by an assortment of flashing red and amber signals.

The whole scene seems dreamlike, otherworldly. Maybe part of the thrill comes from a brief but powerful insulation from ordinary experience, an experience that is marked by deep darkness and starkly lighted platforms and the rapid movement from one state into another, with you at the window witnessing all the in-between gradations between light and dark, open and closed, seeing and not seeing. The tiny window, the cramped space, the complete focus on this contrast between light and dark are all that matters for the few minutes that you peer ahead, hurtling by subway through the dark from one inevitable stop to another.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Dorilton - Official New York City Landmark

In a comment on my November 8th post about the Dorilton, db noted that a lot of effort was put into saving the great Beaux-Arts Building, the Ansonia. He then asked, what saved the Dorilton.

To my amazement, I found the following minutes from an October 8, 1974 meeting of New York City's Landmarks Preservation Commission in which the Dorilton is described at some length. Among other things, the minutes say: "Architecturally the Dorilton is one of the finest Beaux-Arts buildings in Manhattan and displays exceptionally handsome detail. It is twelve stories high, built of brick and limestone....Tall chimneys, flanking the courtyard and at the outer extremities of the building, with their horizontal banding and paired brackets supporting cornices at their tops, lend a note of elegance to the skyline. The most striking feature of the dorilton is its deep entrance courtyard facing 71st Street which is entered through a handsome triple gateway. This side portions of this gateway, with their high iron gates, once served as a U-shaped carriage access drive while the low central gateway was for pedestrians. Adding dramatic character to the entrance courtyard is the flying three-centered arch which connects the wings of the building on either side of it at ninth floor level."

The Commission concluded that the Dorilton should be designated a Landmark and thus given special protection from exterior renovation or demolition owing to the fact that "the Dorilton has a special character, special historical and aesthetic interest and value as part of the development, heritage and cultural charcteristics of New York City."

Hardly the whole story, but definitely an interesting footnote on what made it possible for the Dorilton to survive and once again thrive during a period of great stress and change for the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Long live the Dorilton!

Monday, November 9, 2009

The New Yorker's Passport to the Arts

I have to say the New Yorker Magazine is one of those institutions that more than ever helps to make life in New York especially lively and exciting. For one thing, the magazine itself is pretty good, better than ever in my humble opinion. But now they are sponsoring a lot of other stuff that enriches the city. Not too long ago, they held their annual New Yorker Festival that featured a lot of terrific events - sneak previews of artists' studios, panel discussions about lively subjects, tours of obscure New York neighborhoods, special outings to little known restaurants, and many others. Unfortunately, this festival has become so popular that even if you call the very minute that they begin taking reservations, you get shut out, unless you know David Remnick, the New Yorker editor, personally, and even then there's no guarantee.

So, I was very glad to see another opportunity come through the New Yorker that was a little bit easier to take advantage of. It is called Passport to the Arts and it offers participants the chance to visit a variety of leading art galleries mainly in the Chelsea neighborhood, to get a peek at one artist at work, and to take part in a reception at the end of the day that includes a silent auction and plenty of good food and wine. We participated last Saturday afternoon and found it all to be everything we had hoped for.

Of course, at the heart of the thing is a cheap and simple gimmick. Every studio participating made a stamp that reflected in some way the show they were displaying. Patrons would go from gallery to gallery getting their stamps in a kind of passport book provided by the New Yorker. At the end of the day, if you went to all the galleries, you would have a passport book full of charming stamps. Which is exactly what we did. I might add that the end of the day party turned out to be every bit as good as expected, too. Endless wine and incredibly tasty treats, topped off by some amazing brownies, all served in a very large but also very crowded 13th story room overlooking the city on 27th street just west of 11th Avenue. Of course, as we ate and drank, we quietly wrote in bids for the various items that were being auctioned. We bid on a pile of art books, an espresso machine, and a close-up picture of Jackie Robinson's hands gripping a baseball bat. We were not successful in purchasing any of these things, but guess which one attracted the most bidding and the highest price?

Correct. Jackie Robinson's hands.

There was one other special treat that only the New Yorker Passport patrons were able to take advantage of. On 24th street, between 10th and 11th Avenues, right in the heart of Chelsea, a modest little cart held two large containers of hot chocolate that anyone displaying the New Yorker passport could use. It was some of the best and richest hot chocolate I have ever had. What a terrific bonus! Oh, and some of the art was pretty good, too!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Beaux Arts

What do Marshall Fields in Chicago, the Musee D'Orsay in Paris, Grand Central Station and the Public Library in New York, and the Dorilton on 71st and Broadway (pictured) all have in common?

They are all products of the School of Architecture known as Beaux Arts, shaped by the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and characterized by heavy French Empire ornamentation combined with a highly symetrical, classical style that has an imposing and momumental effect.

The reason I bring all this up is that the Dorilton, the apartment building pictured, is such an integral part of the neighborhood we live in. As you proceed along Amsterdam or Broadway from 69th to 71st to get to the subway or just to go uptown, even if you are not conscious of it, the visual splendor of the Dorilton alters your perspective, and changes the feelings you have about the whole area. Despite all the construction around it, The Dorilton, built in 1902, remains one of the anchoring architectural objects of this part of the city. Its boldness and audacity overshadows other buildings around it and seems to make them disappear. Notice, by the way, the high, arched opening to the building on the right that creates this overpowering multi-storied courtyard that extends something like nine floors. The ornate, eye-catching entrance gate to this courtyard, which is right on 71st Street and that I often pass on my run, is accessible to pedestrians and one of the glories of this structure.

Along with another great apartment building, the Ansonia, also still thriving between 73rd and 74th Streets and finished in 1904 (imagine what a dynamic area this must have been between, say, 1900 and 1910), the Dorilton is at the center of this one section of the Upper West Side that would be utterly altered for the worse, if it were ever torn down.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Yankees Again

New York City is baseball crazy! I don't think I've ever been in a city that loves its baseball team so much. I mean wouldn't you think after 26 World Series championships that the 27th would not be that big of a deal? But it is. Today is the Lower Manhattan tickertape parade that has been arranged to celebrate the Yankees' victory, and has it ever turned the City upside down. Traffic is tied up, subways are delayed, even the Staten Island Ferry has been affected. One long-time resident of Staten Island who drives the shuttle from the Ferry to Wagner College claimed that the traffic was worse than he has ever seen it as the throngs hurried in their cars across the Verazzano Narrows bridge or bussed to the ferry station in hopes of getting the best possible vantage point on the parade that is scheduled to go from Battery Park up to City Hall.

But why? To see the players drive by in chaffeur driven limousines with the top down while thousands of onlookers throw little pieces of paper on their heads? That can't be it. It must be something more, something more atavistic and basic, like the need to join with others in acknowledging one's heroes, or, you know, a really great excuse to party. Speaking of excuses, my classes at Wagner today were not at all well attended, all owing to this deeply bred instinct on the part of the students to recognize the mighty Olympians who conquered their enemies. To celebrate that great battle of wits and strength in which one overpowering clan of titans prevails convincingly over another. Or it could be just another opportunity to go wild. What could be more basic than that?

But here's another thought about all this. My natural inclination is to think historically, to consider the Yankees of today in the context of the Yankees of the past. But most folks, especially my Wagner students, don't think this way at all. At the tender age of, say, 20, all they can think about is that there hasn't been a Yankee champion since 2000, which means, in a sense, that there hasn't been a Yankee winner during their most active years as a fan. To have the Yankees of 2009 win it all is something to be celebrated in itself. The fact that they did this 26 other times is not only not much of a concern to them, it doesn't enter into their thoughts at all. So let's hear it for the baseball champions of 2009 - the New York Yankees! They may have done it many times in the past, but this one - the one we can enjoy and taste and savor right now - this one is the best one yet.

Friday, November 6, 2009

New York Winter

There was a time when I shuddered at the coming of winter. The temperatures hovering near zero, the prolonged darkness, the piles of crusted over snow, the overcast skies, the drudgery of trying to move around in it, all made winter feel oppressive and just a bit suffocating. I have lived in quite a few places where the winters were long and frigid, and the prospect of facing those hard, seemingly endless days of unrelenting cold brought sadness and just a touch of desperation.

New York winters feel different to me, in part because it's New York, and I suppose, too, because I'm a somewhat changed person. Changes in weather of any kind don't depress me any more; they interest me, and the coming of winter is no different. I enjoy, at least for a while, wearing sweaters and heavier coats, and I really love the way the winter air feels and smells. Walking in the cold can be particularly invigorating. But the fact that I now live in New York has really transformed my attitude toward winter. Even though the cold may bite at times and the wind may blow powerfully (the winds of New York are, by far, the hardest part of winter for me), the fact remains that it is just a short distance to Lincoln Center, my favorite Bookstores, the partial shelter of Central Park, or the subway which can whisk you easily and directly to many fascinating parts of Manhattan or Brooklyn. Those New York winters just don't seem all that bad when there are so many wonderful ways to pass the time until the warm weather returns.

Will I be tired of winter by late March or early April? Almost certainly. But for now the coming winter brings thoughts of finding refuge in colorful museums, well heated theatres, congenial restaurants, and those little cafes where a hot cup of coffee or a rich container of hot chocolate offer protection from the winter cold that somehow seems to give this season of cold and abbreviated days its very reason for being.

Thursday, November 5, 2009


Perhaps inspired by the New York City Marathon, I have started to do some running again for the first time in probably 20 years. I'm still not doing it as regularly as I would like, but I am surprised by how much I enjoy it when I do. My plan is to run softly, calmly, and pretty slowly. I want to save my knees for one thing, but I also want to retain the pleasure and the simplicity of this most elemental of physical activities. We really were meant to run, but not necessarily to compete with others or to see how quickly we can lower our times or even to lose weight. It is rather a natural way for human beings to get around that shouldn't necessitate special gear or other equipment. I mean part of the satisfaction of running is that it can literally be done anywhere at any time.

In my case, at least at this point, I am trying to run in bike pants and walking shoes just after dawn. What I think might help me to sustain this is my route - two blocks East and then a nice trot along the cindery bridle path in Central Park. The delight of being in Central Park three or four mornings a week is a big part of the appeal right now. I enter at 69th and Central Park West, take only a few steps on a paved path and then turn left on to the cinders. The path curves enticingly toward a tunnel where it is hard to see your footing in the dusky light of the new day, then continues on more or less straight before coming to another charming little tunnel and then up toward the main road before reversing direction to return the way I came.

After leaving the Park and heading home via 69th Street itself, I am often struck by what a neighborly place this street is. It is filled with brownstones and old three and four story walk-ups with steep stoops of stairs. During Halloween, virtually everyone had elaborate decorations. On other days, you can't help noticing how carefully everyone maintains their frontage with flowers or other colorful decorations or just by keeping everything very neat and tidy. One day as I ran home, I was surprised to see preparations for a street fair, which the residents organize themselves, both to celebrate their neighborhood and to welcome others in.

So I guess you could say my run is full of little enticements. The run itself, the promise of Central Park, the charm of a New York City neighborhood, and the pleasure of returning once again to our own humble home that looks out so longingly on this great and diverse city.

Oh, and one other thing, I had no post for today, so I wrote this little piece at 6:00 in the morning...instead of takng my little early morning jog. Sometimes just writing about running is as good, if not better, than the run itself.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Seagulls and the Staten Island Ferry

Standing on the back of the Staten Island Ferry last night as it plowed toward Manhattan, with the orange light from the setting sun brilliantly lighting up the western horizon, and the dots of light from the Statue of Liberty's torch and crown coming spectacularly into view, I enjoyed this marvelous moment of profound well being. This feeling continued as I watched the seagulls, dipping and veering over our wake. They seemed to relish their job of escorting the boat all the way into shore. As I watched them, no one could convince me that they weren't having an absolutely terrific time gliding and darting, flapping and careening, floating and banking in the wind. Making the most of who they are and what they can do, their slicing and swooping seemed to be their way of saying we are here on this earth to play our precious, irreplaceable part in the ecology of the sea. Of course, that part is mainly to reproduce, to fish, and to provide sustenance for others, but what if part of that role is to show us to how to play as well, with all the abandon and joy of beings who make beautiful use of whatever the elements have to offer and do so with no other object other than to paint the sky with their vivid and colorful movements.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Human Flourishing

Yesterday I wrote a post about a unifying narrative for President Obama, building on what Tom Friedman said about this subject in his Sunday New York Times column. Today I want to add to this just a bit by describing in somewhat greater detail what the economist Amartya Sen and the philosopher Martha Nussbaum have called the Capabilities Approach to promoting human well being, an approach that I believe should be the basis for that unifying narrative.

In her book Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach, Nussbaum writes that she wants to provide a philosophical justification for ensuring that every person is treated as an end, not merely as a means, able to lead lives worthy of the dignity that goes with being a flourishing, fully realized human being. For her and for Professor Sen, this means that society has a responsibility to ensure that all human beings, without exception, are able to do a set of things - what they call "human functional capabilities" (ten in all) - that permit every human being, without exception, to "live really humanly" (p. 74). She goes on to say that the enumerated human capabilities "can be convincingly argued to be of central importance in any human life, whatever else the person pursues or chooses." Finally, before sharing the list, it must be emphasized that many of these capabilities emerged from the constrained experiences of women from around the world. As Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn argue in their new book Half the Sky , the great human rights issue of the 21st century may well be the opportunity for women everywhere to live securely and fully, without fear of violence or repression. An incredibly large number of women lack these basic rights, which has been one of the chief spurs for the development of the list of capabilities indicated below. Please note I have shortened some of these simply owing to space considerations. See pages 78-80 in Women and Human Development. Finally, I should add that although Amartya Sen has pioneered some of this thinking about capabilities, Martha Nussbaum is wholly responsible for the list below.

1. Life. Being able to live to the end of a human life of normal length; not dying prematurely, or before one's life is so reduced as to be not worth living.

2. Bodily Health. Being able to have good health, including reproductive health, to be adequately nourished, to have adequate shelter.

3. Bodily Integrity. Being able to move freely from place to place; having one's bodily boundaries treated as sovereign; being secure against assault, sexual abuse and other infringements on freedom and safety.

4. Senses, Imagination, and Thought. Being able to use the senses, to imagine, think, and reason -- and to do these things in a "truly human" way, a way informed and cultivated by an adequate education...Being able to search for the ultimate meaning of life in one's own way. Being able to have pleasurable experiences, and to avoid non-necessary pain.

5. Emotions. Being able to have attachments to things and people outside ourselves; to love those who love and care for us, to grieve at their absence; in general, to love, to grieve, to experience longing, gratitude, and justified anger.

6. Practical Reason. Being able to form a conception of the good and to engage in critical reflection about the planning of one's life.

7. Affiliation. Being able to live with and toward others, to recognize and show concern for other human beings, to engage in various forms of social interaction, to be able to imagine the situation of another and to have compassion for that situation; to have the capability for both justice and friendship.

8. Other Species. Being able to live with concern for and in relation to animals, plants, and the world of nature.

9. Play. Being able to laugh, to play, and to enjoy recreational activities.

10. Control Over One's Environment. A. Political. Being able to participate effectively in political choices that govern one's life; having the right of political participation, protections of free speech and association. B.Material. Being able to hold property and having property rights on an equal basis with others; having the right to seek employment on an equal basis with others; having the freedom from unwarranted search and seizure.

Monday, November 2, 2009

A Unifying Narrative

As a respectful but often skeptical reader of Thomas L. Friedman's New York Times column, I wanted to cheer as I read the introduction to the piece he wrote for, yesterday's Times about President Obama's policies (More Poetry, Please, November 1 2009). He indicated that while Obama does not have a problem communicating his message clearly to various audiences, he does have a "narrative" problem in that he "has not tied all his programs into a single narrative that shows the links between his health care, banking, economic, climate, energy, education, and foreign policies." I agree with Friedman that if the President could find this unifying narrative, the support he already enjoys would grow stronger and he might win new constituencies that have been confused by what too often looks like an incoherent, piecemeal approach to policy making.

But once Mr. Friedman identifies the basis for the narrative - "nation building" - he loses me. For one thing, it smacks too much of the 20th century project to dominate and control other countries by focusing on strengthening our own nation, often at the expense of the rest of the world (for a stark contrast, read just about any column by Nicholas Kristof, but the one about solving the problem of obstetric fistulas from the same November 1 issue will do nicely). For another, it is in the end too vague to provide the inspiration we need.

What President Obama really cares about most and what all his policies have in common is a desire to promote human flourishing, to nurture human growth and development to such an extent that people from all around the world, not just in the United States, can get much closer to the goal of realizing themselves as human beings. I refer, of course, to the highest need on Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs, but also to the Aristotelian ideal that in order for people to realize their full potential, there are certain goods that they must have, survival goods, yes, but also the goods of education, employment, and a project or projects that give their lives meaning. A modern day equivalent of this approach is philosopher Martha Nussbaum's notion of "capabilities," the things that everyone needs to achieve a life of dignity and fulfillment. I will have more to say about this in the next post, but let me add that a version of these capabilities was introduced as early as FDR's State of the Union Address of 1944 when he declared every American was entitled to a Second Bill of Rights that includes: "a useful and remunerative job; enough money for adequate food, clothing, and recreation; a decent living; a decent home; adequate medical care; adequate protection from economic fears of old age; and the right to a good education."

Of course, nothing like this ever came about, but the fact that these issues were seriously addressed some 65 years ago in a state paper of considerable importance is a small sign of how long these concerns have lingered in the public mind. I think it is possible that President Obama intends to make good on some of this agenda as he moves forward, however glacially, in the years to come to bring this country closer to this humane ideal that has been dreamed of for so long.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Teachers College - Columbia

On occasion, I spend a couple of days at Teachers College - Columbia - helping to give a workshop to their graduate students (there are no undergraduates) on some topic that may appeal to those studying adult learning or leadership or organizational psychology or curriculum and instruction. I did one the other day focusing on leading productive discussions, so I found myself thinking some about this enduring but often maligned institution.

You may have heard the saying that the widest street in the world is New York City's West 120th Street because it is the thoroughfare that divides Columbia University from its poor cousin - Teachers College. Why poor cousin? Because TC has always had only a tenuous relationship to the rest of the university, is entirely focused on educational studies, the lowest status discipline in any university, and, finally, has often been considered the primary culprit in spreading the influence of progressive education as promulgated by ideological liberals like John Dewey, William Heard Kilpatrick, and Maxine Greene. These people and TC in general are hated by many people for perpetuating the idea that education is something that is not primarily conveyed or transmitted to relatively passive pupils, but is an active, constructive process of making meaning and encouraging students to take control over their own learning, and hence their own lives.

Teachers College probably does have a lot to answer for and almost certainly hasn't done nearly enough to make schools more rigorous and accountable, but it really is an exciting and stimulating place where students are not only learning how to become more effective teachers, but are learning as well how to be strong leaders, insightful educational psychologists, experts in conflict resolution, and proficient in organizing ppor neighborhoods to support educational renewal. In the end, I would say that Teachers College offers a great deal to help us solve our educational problems and to make educational institutions of all kinds more responsive to their communities. This has been true since the time of Dewey and continues to be a critical part of its institutional mission.