Monday, August 16, 2010

Social Security

I am amazed and appalled that conservatives continue to get mileage out of the idea that we need to change the way Social Security is funded, either by partially privatizing it or by extending the retirement age and minimizing benefits. Social Security is one of the triumphs of the modern, industrial state. As Paul Krugman points out today in the New York Times, it funds itself quite efficiently and is in no danger, either immediately or in the foreseeable future, of running out of money.

So why the hysteria? Krugman says it's all about ideology, that conservatives simply can't countenance the idea that this government program works so well and will consequently have to continue to be funded at a fairly high rate in perpetuity. Somehow, I can't believe this is the whole story. There is a missing piece, something else that the right can't stand that isn't being talked about.

Let me suggest that what they are really afraid of is the thing that probably should, in fact, be done to ensure Social Security's long-term stability, but which they have been very successful at keeping out of the conversation altogether. It is simply this. Tax everyone at a 6.2% rate, regardless of income. Right now, Social Security taxes only come out of the first $106,800 of income. After that, for those making more than $106,800, there is no tax at all. Which means, of course, that this is one of the most regressive of taxes in which those most able to pay actually give a surprisingly small percentage of their income. Someone, for instance, bringing in $500,000 a year, is paying a net percentage of just a little over 1%. Even someone making, say, $200,000, is paying only about 3% of income. This is ridiculous, in any case, but especially when so much hot air is being expended about the Social Security crisis when it would be so easy to make this change, with little or no discomfort for those making more than $106,800.

So why isn't this discussed or seriously considered? I can think of only one reason. Greed. The rich control the conversation about taxes and about funding government programs. They have kept the rest of us poor schmoes in the dark. We should be outraged about this. There should be marches in the street. But because of the hegemony that the privileged hold over the poor and middle classes, hardly a word is breathed about this. It is a reminder to me that the rich had better watch out. A revolution is coming and unless more is done to support the needs of the less well off, there will eventually be a backlash like nothing this country has ever seen.

In the meantime, think of the good that can be done to ensure that Social Security is paid out to all those who both need it and deserve it. That's virtually everyone. A simple and relatively painless change in the way this program is funded would absolutely ensure its long-term solvency. We just have to muster the will to make it happen.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

James Fowler Endargo

He ended his own life at age 52 while suffering from crippling despair. But in the years between his all-American upbringing in Appleton, Wisconsin in the post-World War II era and his descent into a deep and incurable depression in the early-1990s, James Fowler Endargo lived fully and creatively, producing one of the most influential bodies of poetical work in the 20th century.

Poets rarely achieve great fame, but Endargo's particular circumstances - his complete mastery of the short lyrical form, his movie-star looks, his four marriages to beautiful and powerful women, and his knack for self-promotion - resulted in talk show appearances and wide advertising exposure that turned him into a household name and launched him as one of the most recognizable faces of the 1960s. Endargo was a great writer, but even more so he was a winning personality whom the general public found irresistible. His simple, often stark poems appealed to a surprisingly broad swath of the reading public and his face, plastered on buses and billboards everywhere, promoting everything from cigarettes to trench coats, never lost its allure. For many people in the 1960s, he was THE face of poetry and his brief, even abrupt lines spoke for a generation. His hyphenated phrases, declaring war the inseparable companion of peace, hate the necessary concomitant of love, deceit the partner of truth, echoed and reinforced the growing cynicism and hopelessness of his time. No one seemed to understand more clearly than Endargo that the great reforming spirit of the mid-1960s could not be sustained and that it must lead to an angry and selfish backlash. In this sense, he foretold the disorienting tragedies of My Lai, Watergate, and the Iran hostage crisis, and even as he captured the growing despair of this era in his own poetry fell victim to it as well, never fully recovering from a devastating drug habit and a disabling depression that shattered him when he was still only in his early 40s. But even as his creative imagination went dry, his dark, craggy, handsome face continued to bring him wealth, and his poetry readings, often treated like rock concerts, offered him the attention he always craved. Only when things had turned for the worst and he was no longer able to appear in public did his fans finally lose interest in their comely troubadour.

Following a kind of idyllic upbringing in Appleton, Wisconsin from 1939 to 1957, Endargo attended nearby Lawrence University for two years. He studied literature with legendary professor Yando Cling during this period, who in that short time introduced him to most of the important poetry produced in America, beginning with Whitman and Dickinson and continuing to Lowell and Bishop. Even then, Endargo began experimenting with the short lyric poem that became his trademark, writing a few of the poems that would be collected in his first volume of poetry called "A Blue Landmark," published in 1960. In 1959, Endargo moved to New York City and began to write reviews for Commonweal and Dissent. Declaring himself a socialist and then an anarchist, he participated in a series of civil rights demonstrations and appeared on television for the first time as a spokesperson for the beat-inspired group Americans for Holistic Liberation (AHL). His glib, charming manner and physical attractiveness drew interest and support and for many years to come he could be seen on public media promoting a wide range of causes. These early appearances led to an encounter with the fashion model Brook Tamarkin, soon thereafter his first marriage, and not long after that a bitter and very public break-up.

In 1965, when he was 26 years old, Endargo published his second volume of poetry to much acclaim, landing him on the cover of Time. This book entitled "Birding" was a strange and exotic mixture of nature poetry, presumably influenced by his Midwest experiences as a youth and the urban verse that made him famous. "Homing Pigeon" became the best known poem from this collection, with the final lines "rootless, homeless, free" perhaps the most famous he ever wrote, and still often emblazoned on T-shirts and greeting cards.

Endargo's next and most famous collection of poetry published in 1971 was "The Darkness Within." This, too, was showered with critical praise and led to his receiving his only Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Endargo's work, which was both accessible and topical, directly criticized US involvement in Vietnam, while at the same time attacking many of the youth protest movements of the time as a manifestation of spoiled privilege. Now at the peak of his fame, his marriage to the Hollywood starlet Sheila Blaine, widely covered in the popular press, quickly dissolved into another bitterly contested divorce, leading to a terrible bout with depression from which Endargo never fully recovered. (To be Continued)

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Why I like Modern Art

The new Matisse exhibit at MoMA, the one called "Radical Invention, 1913-1917," has me thinking once again about why I find modern and contemporary art so satisfying and invigorating. In a way, all art is energizing, as the act of viewing artistic work demands that we focus our attention on the elements that make art so arresting. Those elements include line, color, and shape, but also such things as the arabesque design, which along with line, Matisse believed gave a special vitality to art. These are the things that catch our eye, that wake us up in a sense and that bring to vivid consciousness our craving for aesthetic satisfaction.

But Matisse, more than most artists, brings these feelings to a new height of excitement and creative delight. For me, anyway, this is in part because he was such a master of the line. Karen and I are the proud owners of a Matisse line drawing of a female face that seems incredibly simple, and yet because of Matisse's mastery conveys a sense of humanity that is striking. Hardly a masterpiece, this modest drawing is nevertheless a reminder that Matisse could accomplish a great deal with just a few strong lines. My absolutely favorite example of this ability is the painting that Matisse finished in 1905 that was a portrait of his wife but is often called "The Green Line" because it is marked by a strange green line that cuts across the middle of her face. This line, which seems bizarre and yet works as part of this portrait, divides his subject's face into two sections, one dark, one light; one calm and the other just a bit ominous.

This same painting also demonstrates Matisse's remarkable and famous use of color. At the time he finished this painting, he was regarded as the leader of the Fauve movement, which was marked by a brilliant and unnatural use of color. In the Green line, the very use of the color green to separate the two parts of his wife's face is startling, but I also think the background colors - the purples, the reds, the sea greens - are both beautiful and an outstanding example of how background color can be used to present a subject more arrestingly. This is only a small example, however, as Matisse's amazing color sense can be experienced repeatedly in so many of his greatest works.

The painting, though, that is part of this special exhibit currently at MoMA and that haunts me relentlessly is "The Piano Lesson," completed in 1916. Others have commented on it extensively and I can't begin to add to what they have said, but this picture of Matisse's son Pierre sitting unhappily at the piano, under the apparent tutelage of a stern teacher and with the late afternoon sun fading rapidly, offers a study in light, mood, color, and line that stops me in my tracks every time I see it. The most shocking thing about it is the way in which Matisse has arranged the room in which Pierre sits at the piano and the manner in which the sun casts shadows, especially on Pierre's face, so that his right eye and much of the right side of his face seems to disappear. That shadowy triangle that effaces Pierre's eye and cheek matches neatly the window opening that receives the lowering sun and the outside greenery and which emphasizes and introduces a series of angled lines echoed by the piano, the metronome and the window's thrown-open shutter. Despite Matisse's great mastery of color, this work is dominated by gray, which establishes the depressing mood of the painting (consider Emily Dickinson's lines "There's a certain Slant of Light,/Winter Afternoons/That oppresses like the Heft/Of Cathedral Tunes -) and that causes the green of the window and the pink of the piano to stand out that much more. While never a cubist, Matisse brilliantly combines his love of line and color with a cubist sensibility that shakes us out of our complacency and makes us want to look and look again with wonder and surprise.

I think exhibits like the one on Matisse at MoMA give us an opportunity to look in penetrating and absorbing ways. Really, they offer us practice at putting our own lives on hold for just a little while and to devote ourselves without thoughts of anything else to the mystery and the magic of the most masterful of human-made creations.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Virtues and Limits of Smallness

We have been hearing a great deal about smallness lately. The need for smallness in government, the call to reduce the size of banks and other businesses, the advantages of smaller, more intimate schools, the advisability of keeping our meal portions modest, the value of maintaining smaller, more adaptive organizational teams, and perennially, the need for smallness when it comes to practicing democracy as a way of life. I am a big fan of smallness, particularly when it comes to schools and democracy (more about that later), and I am hardly alone in becoming increasingly impatient with this notion, still widely promoted, that we need banks and investment firms that are too big to fail. Smallness as one of the bases for changing how our society works seems to be everywhere, but it is hardly a new idea. As I have said, I am attracted to smallness, but at the same time, I am aware, even painfully so, of its limitations. As with other recent posts, then, I want to use this space to explore why smallness is such a galvanizing idea, especially now, and why it should also be approached and advocated for with caution.

If you consult a dictionary on smallness, you might be surprised by the variety of both denotations and connotations associated with it. It denotes, of course, less than average size, but also lack of importance or significance, limited influence or scope, and even narrowness in outlook or purpose. It also implies modesty or humility and simplicity and even agility or flexibility, as in a craft that can be easily driven or directed. A small boat, for instance, can easily be turned around, whereas a large one may require a very elaborate and complicated maneuver. Smallness also suggests a decentralized situation in which a relatively few number of people are able to interact with one another, often in a face-to-face manner. Bigness, by contrast, is impersonal and often alienating for people. One of the big problems with large organizations is that when something goes wrong, it is difficult to determine who is responsible. It often can't be discerned who gave the order that led to disaster. In small organizations, on the other hand, there appears to be greater accountability, more oversight, and greater satisfaction in being able to put a name and a position to an action taken. People seem to know where they stand with small enterprises. Very large ones are disorienting and not particularly efficient.

One of the historical figures who has been mentioned a lot lately who was a great foe of bigness in both business and government was the Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. As Jeffrey Rosen notes in a recent book review, Brandeis, unlike other liberals, opposed bigness, not just in business, but in government as well. He saw bigness as a "curse," and he recognized discerningly that bigness in both business and government often leads to a kind of interlocking directorate between the two, something like what Eisenhower later called "the military-industrial complex," that is not only a waste of resources, but more harmfully, a promoter of "greed, recklessness, and oligarchy." Such bigness, Brandeis contended, leads to imprudence, fraud and self-centered practices that are simply not in the public interest.

Rosen also mentions that Brandeis was committed to judicial restraint and states' rights, but never says anything about how this philosophy might have played out during the Civil Rights Movement where judicial activism and big government were absolutely essential. Here we see one particularly outstanding example of the need for bigness to resist the forces of racism or of regional prejudices. Bigness is often a problem, but it is not always so, and it does seem, for instance, that once again a very large bureaucracy and an activist government are critical if we are to have the kind of environmental reforms needed to address global warming.

Another interesting case of the virtues and limitations of smallness relates to educational reform. A lot of good has been done, for instance, in New York City breaking up very large schools into much smaller ones, or creating small, self-governing units within existing educational behemoths that sometimes enroll as many as 5000 students. These smaller schools report, on the whole, better attendance, higher achievement, and a much stronger connection to parents and to the surrounding community. Of course, smallness does not accomplish these things by itself, but it is a facilitating influence, and many of these changes would be nearly impossible without these reductions in size. At the same time, the Obama administration has been almost universally praised for its efforts to provide federal incentives for educational reform within the states. Many people believe that without these measures and without the accompanying efforts to create national educational standards, change would not happen. This seems to be another case where bigness is necessary to deal with a system that for too long has been mismanaged.

I also want to put in a good word for smallness when it comes to any kind of direct democracy, where each person in a group has an equal claim to voicing her or his view and to having an opportunity to influence the final decision or outcome. By direct democracy here I don't mean a system of government so much as a way of life found in families, schools, interest groups, religious congregations, or community organizations. In such settings, democracy is practiced by people who believe in mutual persuasion as a way to reach decisions. They also believe that dialogue and well thought out arguments, combined with close, respectful listening, and a commitment to understanding other points of view are all essential. People who believe in small-scale democracy strive to hear as much as speak, to understand as much as be understood, to learn from a variety of perspectives at least as much as propose a solution. This process of reciprocal enlightenment is often as important as the product of wise, judicious decisions.

Yet, even as I revere such small-scale democracies, I also know that at the national level there are many times when discussion must come to an end and that it even becomes counter-productive to prolong it, when decisions must be made, often without taking into account every point of view. Such processes must be handled with care, but as I mentioned in an earlier post crisis demands action, and our decision makers at the national level have too often taken too long to achieve resolution about jobs, the environment, and energy that have become self-evident to many of our most rational and well informed citizens. Bigness and activism once again have a highly valued role. Perhaps, by the way, health care reform is our most recent example of the need for a very ambitious, thoroughgoing, and activist set of changes at the federal level. There simply is no way to pull it off without affirming that bigness has its virtues, too.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Eyes Have It

Lately, while riding on the Staten Island Ferry, I have gotten into the habit of using my cell phone camera to snap close-up pictures of one of my eyes. In fact, one of these pictures currently serves as my phone's screen saver. Why have I started doing this? Well, for one thing, this camera takes surprisingly clear and crisp pictures. Even extreme close-ups come out well. But, of course, this comment neatly evades the more pressing issue of what in the world would possess me to occupy my time in such a bizarre way. I'm not sure I know, but I thought I would use this post to try to figure that out.

Like many people, I enjoy experimenting with the camera that comes with my cell phone. I'm always looking for unusual and arresting images. One day I turned this camera on myself and was absolutely appalled by the result. It was one of those pictures taken from just below my jawline, almost looking up into my nose. But the really disgusting aspects were the creases in my chin that appeared so prominently as I bowed my head to look into the camera, and the flat, almost blank expression that appeared on my face. It looked like me sadly enough, but it was a version of myself that skewed toward extreme unattractiveness.

Somehow, this terrible outcome led me to more attempts, including a series of close-ups of my face. There was something about my eyes in those initial close-ups that surprised me, prompting me to pull the camera even closer to myself, so that a number of the pictures that resulted were dominated by one of my eyes, either looking up, to the side, or straight into the camera. Despite what I assume is a low quality camera, these eye pictures were sharp and very blue (my eyes are blue) and rather haunting, quite different really from pictures one usually sees.

By isolating my eyes in this way, I seemed to be peering more deeply into myself, or at least viewing a side of myself that doesn't come across as clearly as when my entire face is in the frame. What I saw was altogether too serious, too intense, too penetrating, and, in a way, too frightened. All of this especially came across as I viewed and reviewed an extended series of these pictures. It was almost as if my eye was a window to my soul and what I was seeing was disconcerting, a person on the edge, unsettled, uncertain, but also alert to new possibilities, and eager to experiment. But it was the tentativeness of that eye, that not-quite-sure-what's-going-to-happen-next aspect that threw me a bit, even as I was intrigued by it.

Eyes are fascinating in this way. I have long been a fan of self-portraits of all kinds and of those painted by Rembrandt, in particular. Rembrandt began painting himself when he was a young man and a prospering artist and continued to do so periodically for the rest of his life, even as his mastery of his art reached new heights while his economic fortunes took a nose dive. These works, more than 40 in all (and this omits the many etchings and sketches), are among the most powerful and haunting in the history of art, not least because of his skill in capturing his own aging eyes. His eyes as a young man are confident, self-assured, even a bit arrogant. As an old man, they are undeniably sad, but also knowing, fully lived-in eyes that reflect both the weariness of a long, often difficult life and the wisdom that comes from successfully withstanding adversity. They are the eyes of a fully realized human being who despite great success and accomplishment, tends to accentuate the disappointments and the regrets, and who portrays himself, anyway, as more exhausted than exhilarated, more worn down than looking up or ahead. Yet, somehow, these portraits, as a whole, are also a study in persistence and of a person who, though battered, remains true to himself and to his art.

What do Rembrandt's self-portraits have to do with my own efforts to capture my eyes with my cell phone? Not sure really. For one thing, my photographs are an amateurish capturing of my eyes as they really are, whereas Rembrandt brings an authentic artistic genius to his perspective on himself. His self-portraits are not merely a documentary record of his face, but a brilliant re-imagining of who he is and what he is becoming. But I think there is something about taking time to look ourselves literally in the eye to help us get a better view at who we are and what we are feeling that has some value. We often talk about self-reflection and developing a balanced sense of self-awareness, but we rarely, if ever, suggest that we look ourselves in the eye to gauge our state of mind, to take stock of who we are. I'm not sure I feel so strongly about this that I would recommend it to others, and admit it may lead to self-absorption and narcissism, but I would still say give it a try. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll get a glimpse, however modest, into your very own true self.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

What David Brooks Didn't Say

This has been a good week for New York Times columnist David Brooks. For his July 6th op-ed, he skillfully casts doubt on the confident claims of the "Demand Siders" who insist that now is the time to spend more public money, not less. A fiscal conservative, Brooks argues convincingly this is a largely untested assertion. Also, this week he is profiled in New York Magazine as one of America's most brilliant pundits and for maintaining his popularity among both liberals and conservatives. Of course, he is hated by many in both groups, but it is surprising, as well, how much bipartisan support he continues to enjoy.

So it is with some hesitancy and trepidation that I take issue with Mr. Brooks' remarks, particularly given the dark forecast inserted into the New York Magazine piece that the U.S. is in danger of becoming Greece. In his column, Mr. Brooks concludes that while we must be fiscally cautious, it is foolish to save money, for instance, by curtailing unemployment insurance or depriving the states of much needed revenue to maintain basic services. I was glad to read that, but I don't think he goes far enough. Of course, if we're going to become Greece (and after all he has access to all these highly knowledgeable informants), then forget it, all bets are off. But, assuming reasonably enough that we are not going the way of the Hellenes, at least not any time soon, I want to make a couple of largely non-economic arguments for doing more than just extending unemployment insurance or helping the states balance their budgets with "race to the top" type competitions.

We desperately need an ambitious and comprehensive public jobs program. Bob Herbert has been talking about this for months, but I am appalled that his lone cries have been ignored. First, unemployment does terrible damage to people, to families, to communities, to individual and collective self-esteem. When the market economy is this troubled and shows so little sign of recovering any time soon, government must step in to make up the difference. God knows, there are sound economic reasons for doing this, but I think restoring the well being of people thrown out of work is the most important reason for doing something right away. It is the right thing to do and it will not only help the unemployed directly, it is very likely, too, to improve the overall economic picture as a whole.

But, here is the part that really bugs me. We could put millions back to work while also repairing our crumbling national infrastructure! All those bridges and roads and schools that are falling apart could be repaired and rebuilt by an army of government-employed workers. What a great way to use stimulus money! This is the capital formation we need. Like the WPA in the 1930s, such programs have a long-term and untold impact on the overall strength of the economy. We could put people back to work and help our long-term chances for ensuring economic growth.

So why aren't we doing this? I honestly believe that in addition to the usual political reasons, it stems from a lack of imagination. It is the inability to envision how much of a difference such a dramatic jobs program could make. But it does demand a leap of faith, the kind FDR became famous for. A massive jobs program is risky. It could fuel inflation and it could even make things worse long term. But the good that would be done in the short run for innocent people damaged by this terrible economy and the likelihood that in the long run great good would be accomplished, makes this our best bet for now. I urge President Obama and the Congress to take note. An ambitious jobs program targeting the faltering infrastructure will yield some immediate good, no matter what else happens. But the longer we wait to take action, the greater the damage done to everyday people. As in the darkest days of the New Deal, the same mantra applies: "We need action and we need it right now." Or, as Rahm Emanuel said during the presidential campaign, "you never want to let a national crisis go to waste." If action isn't taken soon, we will be doing just that.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Final Daily Post

This blog has now come full circle. Begun on July 4, 2009 as a site for one New York settler to share his passion for the City, today it concludes as a daily reflection on life in New York City. For those few of you interested, however, this is the not the end of this blog, only the end of a daily recounting of my New York life. Thethirdnewyork will continue with posts that occur on a roughly weekly basis, usually appearing on Sunday or Monday morning.

It has been an incredibly worthwhile experience to write these posts every day. It has given me a place to express myself, to pour out my thoughts, in the end, about a multitude of subjects, but always with New York City at least in the background, and more often than not, at center stage. The fact that his blog has covered such a wide range of subjects is fitting as New York remains, above all, the place that is most like that great Long Island and Brooklyn poet Walt Whitman: it contains multitudes. It is, as I have said quite a few times before, inexhaustible.

For this last post, I had thought of writing about Central Park or about the theater, two things that make New York so special for me, but, as important as these things are to so many New Yorkers, that didn't seem quite encompassing enough. They are key dimensions of New York but not New York itself. No, this final appreciation has to focus on New York's inexhaustibility, on the fact that it remains the world's single, greatest microcosm. There is more diversity here in almost every realm of human experience than any other place in the world. Ultimately, it is New York's sheer variety, its unbelievable mix of rich and poor, disciplined and casual, creative and conventional, sports-obsessed and sports-averse, art-oriented and art-clueless, the performative and the observational, the ever-busy and the stubbornly inactive, that makes New York such an exciting, bizarre, and endlessly interesting place.

Perhaps it is best summed up by what an elderly lady said to me the other day as we stood at a street corner, me with my trusty bicycle beside me, she with her walker that doubles as a shopping cart in front of her. We were chatting about the beauty of the morning and she noted something about a play she had dearly loved but couldn't recall the title of. I tried to help but my prompts only confused her more. Finally, she resigned herself to not remembering, but then brightened and added, "but this is New York after all. It will be back. It has to be and I will see it and enjoy it all over again."

Well, yes, of course, I thought. New York is the city of second, third, and even fourth acts, both literally and figuratively. If it has happened here, it will happen again, you can count on that. And if it has been part of human experience, however wonderful or terrible, it has probably happened here before and will again. That is New York's blessing and its curse, its source of wonder and the fact that it is shunned by so many non-New Yorkers. For me, though, all of this just makes it that much more remarkable. To the extent that any life is an education, there is no greater school than New York. I am proud and delighted to be its willing and appreciative student.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

New York's Museums

I don't know for how many people this is the case, but in a very real sense, our schedules here in New York City are shaped by museums - their openings, their closings, their special events, their members' viewings, their relatively easy accessibility. We are members of MoMA, the MET, the Guggenheim, the New York Historical Society (N-Y), the Museum of the City of New York, and the Paley Center for Media. The only one of these that never sends us a special invitation to attend their openings or special events is the MET - famously stuffy and aloof. We love it anyway, though, and go there as often as any place because there is always so much going on. MoMA, our beloved MoMA, is the other extreme. They constantly send us invitations to special viewings, to receptions celebrating openings, to so many parties and jazzy gatherings that we can't keep up and often have to turn them down. For instance, we are invited next week to a reception at MoMA for members only that welcomes the wonderful new Matisse exhibit that centers on a time of great creativity for him - his period of "radical invention" as it is referred to - from 1913-1917. Somehow, especially given Karen's love for Matisse, we had to drop everything to make sure we could be there for this unique evening.

The Guggenheim, too, has provided us with rich sources of stimulation and amusement. Their "Works and Process" Series, often noted in this blog, with its sly pairing of seemingly disparate arts and sciences, and its reliably delicious concluding receptions, has never failed to provoke and satisfy us. Its really quite outlandish exhibits, too, have kept us laughing and amazed and coming back for more.

N-Y, a favorite of ours, continues its terrific lecture series of fascinating historical and contemporary topics. Its surprising celebration of musical comedy, that has wreaked havoc with our schedules since they present these events at 6:30 on weekday evenings, has continued to give us much pleasure, even if we occasionally do have to slip into our seats just before (or after) the curtain.

The Museum of the City of New York recently installed its own fascinating exhibit on the John Lindsay Years, Mayor of New York from 1965-1973, and also held a can't miss musical revue on the Broadway hits from that period. We vow to return to see much more of the excellent Lindsay exhibit, though it does mean hiking up to 5th Avenue and 103rd Street, the one museum that sometimes seems just a bit out of reach for us.

Finally, Paley is hot and cold when it comes to special events. For a while, we seemed to be going to one a week, whether celebrating Leonard Bernstein's birthday and his Young People's Concerts or premiering the film "Julie and Julia" paired with clips from the actual Julia's famed TV show or feting an aging Harry Belafonte. But lately, the pickings have been slim. Of course, Paley's great virtue is its video library and the fact that you can view any program in its large archives any time you want.

So there you have it - life by museum. It's tough to keep up with everything, but we do our best. We regard it as one of our most sacred New York responsibilities.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Everybody Walks

Everyone walks in New York City. I mean even if you drive, you walk at least some of the time, because the distance between your parking space and your destination tends to be fairly far. But in general New Yorkers are by necessity big walkers. Most of them can't just go out back to let their dogs relieve themselves. They have to find a park or a relatively deserted area for this, and in some cases you have to go quite a ways to get there. Subways are convenient, but they are often many blocks from your eventual destination, thus necessitating more walking. Of course, it is also true that because it is so difficult and expensive to own a car in the city, far fewer people rely on automobiles. This requires them to walk to work or to walk to the subway or even to walk to a corner when they can catch a taxi. There is always some walking involved. And I think for most New Yorkers, especially those in Manhattan, great pleasure is derived from walking, from seeing the city from a pedestrian's vantage point, from the slow but observant pace of those who meander and stroll. As a result, walking becomes part of the way of life in the city. People get used to it, enjoy it, and even seek out opportunities to do it. Which, in part, accounts for how congested Central Park is on weekends. People enjoy getting out and the easiest and most pleasant way to do so is on foot. This habit also results in a much lower rate of obesity and I daresay a higher quality of life. It took us a long time as a society to figure it out, but we now know that one of the best, most desirable ways to live is in a dense, compact environment where many things are within walking distance. For the elderly, for the young, and for pretty much everybody in between, when you can access most of the services you need on foot, each day brings a special sort of satisfaction that is missing for people who are shut up in cars most of the time.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The People - YES!

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of New York City living is the people in all their marvelous and bewildering variety. Because there are so many of them, you really do get to witness a pretty full range of human behavior, from the man with tattoos covering every part of his body to the woman who literally carries a small kitchen sink in her handbag to the dude who brings his surfboard with him on the subway en route to the fabulous waves of Long Island Sound. Almost every day you see someone who in action, appearance, speech or vocation startles you just enough to make you look and forget about yourself for at least a few moments. All this seems very healthy to me and a reminder as well that just when you think you've seen it all, somebody comes along to upset that presumption. New Yorkers are cynical, frustrated, angry, loud, and demanding, but they seem to me to be among the least complacent people in the world. They know that something they have have never seen before is just around the corner and thus their aliveness to the unexpected gives them a kind of grounded hope that keeps them alert to each day's possibilities.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Getting Around in New York

Here is another post bringing this blog to a close as the daily expression of my passion for New York. Of course, one of the joys and one of the curses of New York City is its public transportation system. When it works well, it is incomparable. To speed from uptown to downtown in a just a few minutes in one of the busiest cities in the world is a marvel. As I have said many times before, it feels like magic to disappear into the ground in one part of the city and to reemerge into the light in a completely different part of Gotham, all within minutes. Without the subway, without the ability of people to move from one remote section of the city to another, New York would be very different and significantly less dynamic.

Still, once you become reliant on the subway, it becomes very annoying when it doesn't work properly. When it is too slow, too hot, too crowded, or inaccessible altogether, it can completely alter plans, turning a good day into a bad one. Probably the worst things about subway travel are the unexpected and often unannounced closings of certain stations and even whole lines. It is never wise, especially on the weekend, to count on the subway to get you anywhere as quickly as you planned. I must say, though, that despite the terrible overcrowding, the reliability of the subway on weekdays is impressively consistent.

I suppose our worst public transportation story had nothing to do with the subway, but resulted from the foolish decision to take the bus from downtown to uptown on a hot summer night when the air conditioning on the bus wasn't working properly. Owing to street closings, special emergencies, and the generally slow pace of the bus system, it took us something like 2 and 1/2 hours to travel from Houston Street to 86th Street, a trip that should take maybe 40 minutes and that can be walked in considerably less than 150 minutes. At times, it was fun, particularly quickly bonding with our fellow passengers who were even more frustrated than we were. But after the first 90 minutes, there was very little that was amusing about the final hour of what came to be known as the Third Avenue Crawl.

I can't end, however, on a negative note. The subway has its troubles and in the economic downturn, those troubles will most likely continue to multiply. But the subway remains one of the glories of New York City. Long may it thrive!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

New York City

This is the first of a series of posts bringing this blog to a close on July 4th as a site for the everyday expression of one settler's passion for life in New York City. Although this blog will continue, the posts will not be daily, as they have been almost without exception since last July 4th when my brother John suggested I start a blog about my love for New York. Rather, I will post only occasionally here (not more than once a week) and only when I am truly moved to write.

It now surprises me every time I hear about someone who doesn't care for New York or hates New York or is indifferent to New York. In many ways, it is an impossible place - rude, cramped, dirty, and endlessly noisy. But all of these qualities are the necessary concomitants of its energy, its joys, and its unrivaled variety. I can't imagine living anywhere else, as I find I am now fueled by its vitality, animated by its lessons, shaped by its endless possibilities.

It seems to me that a single year of New York living has yielded more learning, more growth, more exposure to a wide world of yeasty experience than 20 years in almost any other place I have lived - including Albuquerque, New Mexico; St. Paul, Minnesota; Burlington, Vermont; Long Island, New York; or Urbana, Illinois. The number of plays I have seen, musical events I have attended, classic movies I have viewed, museums I have visited, poetry readings I have heard, or book talks I have witnessed in just a few months exceeds the sum total of such experiences in all the other places I have lived. It is all true, but it astounds me nonetheless to say this. New York has become a symbol for full tilt living for me. I think I would die a premature death if I were separated from it for too long.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Storm King

"Storm King" refers to a mountain that borders the outdoor sculpture park called "Storm King Art Center" that is located in upstate New York, only about an hour by bus from New York City. This center displays on its grounds the works of some of the most noteworthy sculptors of the 20th century. I wasn't prepared, however, for the emotional wallop this park delivers in terms of its sheer beauty and enchanting interplay between the things of nature and the things of human beings. To look out over the bluff of the museum center and to view these giant works, all greatly separated from each other, is to be part of a landscape where art and nature don't merge exactly, but co-exist in a particularly satisfying way. By this, I mean that the sculptural park is big enough to allow artists to create works that are virtually unlimited in size and thus able to compete visually with the grand vistas of forests, mountains and plains around and behind them. When you add in the oranges and reds that many of the sculptures wore, along with the more muted bronzes and browns, you have a natural and crafted landscape that is utterly unique.

I don't know what it is about a place like Storm King, but both Karen and I found ourselves weeping gently as we joined our first tour and began to investigate works both quite close to us and others at surprisingly great distances (as much as a half mile away). It is a combination of this place's unique beauty - both natural and human-made - and the commitment of the artists to realizing their creative visions that especially moved us.

This past weekend we visited Hyde Park and all these places recalling the greatness of the Roosevelts. Our day touring their ancestral home, ER's own Val-Kill, and FDR's Top Cottage, which was to be his retirement retreat, was incredible. We also toured Dia at Beacon, which was wonderful, too. But it was Storm King that took our breath away and that both of us feel we need to return to again and again.

Sunday, June 27, 2010


Dia:Beacon is designed to be a larger than life experience of art. When you first walk into this museum that was once a box making factory and see its first "gallery" that appears to be the length of a football field, you gasp a little at the sheer length and height of the room you are in and quickly begin to notice as well how effectively this huge area is used to display the work of art that is your introduction to Dia. The work is Imi Knoebel's "24 colors for Blinky, 1977," which displays 21 of the panels on a rotating basis. Each shape is brightly colored and each evades recognition as a square or triangle, rectangle or trapezoid. No shape is symmetrical or predictable. Individually, they seem like improvisations, but together they strike you as the perfect, monumental work of art for this extremely large venue.

The area that houses this work is so large, however, you can't really quite make out the work until you walk toward the middle. At that point, you can see the colors and the shapes and begin the process of trying to absorb the artist's use of color and shape to create this unique experience of art. As I looked, I was immediately reminded of Ellsworth Kelly's room of colored panels that occupy a large gallery at the MET. But Kelly was primarily interested in experimenting with color in a relatively small space. Knoebel's ambitions seem grander, though I actually have no idea what they are. But there is something about the unevenness and uniqueness of each shape and the fact that these shapes actually rotate through the work (I don't know how often) that remind me of some sort of cycle of life. Add to this the fact that this work is dedicated to Blinky Palermo, a fellow artist who died at a young age, and you have a work that is reaching for something momumental, like the gallery in which it is displayed.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

"Next Fall" to Close on the 4th of July

A great American play is about to close after only 132 performances. It is a story about our identities as Americans - sexually, religiously, interpersonally - and like any really good American play, it makes us laugh and cry, often at the same time. It is about our need to love and our need to judge, about our penchant for unconscious cruelty and our compulsion to reach out to others for help and for meaning. And it reminds us that it is never too late to forgive or to learn. "Next Fall" is about all these things and more.

I refuse to accept that this simple, beautiful play did not attract large audiences because of a no-name cast, which is the reason given by most of the pundits. Somehow, I think it is something more fundamental than that. People have forgotten what the theater does at its best. It serves as a mirror of ourselves and who we are striving to become. "Next Fall" provides us with such a mirror and does so in such gentle and heartfelt ways that it is easy to lose sight of how profound its lessons really are.

I don't know. Most likely, I overrate this play. It is perhaps too transparent, too lucid, too straightforward, too sentimental to be truly great. But I love it nonetheless and may have to see it one more time before it finally closes.

Friday, June 25, 2010

How Democracy Works Now (2)

More reactions to the films featured in the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. Two nights ago was the final film in the 12-part series called "How Democracy Works Now." These 12 films were made over a six year period in which the filmmakers obsessively followed the United States Senate's efforts to address immigration reform, particularly from the point of view of the Senate's then leader on these issues - Edward M. Kennedy. As pointed out in an earlier post, this legislative process does not just involve the senators but also very much includes the staffs of the senators and a variety of interest groups committed to immigration reform.

The lesson about how democracy works now is ironically that democracy still works as it has always worked - through the building of interpersonal relationships and in relentless pursuit of what is possible, not what is ideal. Those relationships that in some cases take many years to build are delicate and easily undermined. They must be attended to with care and devotion and they must never be overworked or exploited to excess. Interestingly, that Master of the Senate - Lyndon Baines Johnson - was a consummate politician by virtue of his relationships with other senators. It was LBJ's willingness to do whatever it took to get legislation passed that in many ways resulted in America's finest hour with respect to justice and equality and yet one of its darkest hours when it came to the fine art of persuasion, an art that Johnson practiced with such ruthlessness that he strained it to its breaking point, leading arrogantly to the tragedy of Vietnam.

Today, there is no one in the Senate like LBJ. It is both terrible and wonderful that this is the case. But on the whole when it comes to improving the quality of people's lives through federal legislation, I would have to say that the absence of a legislative genius like LBJ, however ruthless, is more terrible than wonderful. But I could easily be persuaded that exactly the opposite is also true.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Hot and Humid In New York

When it's hot and humid in New York City, everybody talks about it. Shuffling onto another crowded, unair-conditioned subway car, you can hear people murmuring how hot it is. Emerging once again from the damp heat of the underground subway to the almost as uncomfortable air at ground level, you can see people giving each other the eye communicating with emphasis that it's really hot. Walking along the city streets, with the built-up heat from the sidewalks and buildings making it feel even hotter, you can't help but notice people nodding at each other with their grim faces and then adding with a kind of obvious satisfaction - "Boy, it's hot."

But the heat also presents fun opportunities to get cool. The cool breezes on the Staten Island Ferry are always welcome, as is the icy environment inside most large movie theaters. We have been regular attendees at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, held in the beautiful and spacious Walter Reade Theater. It is perhaps the best venue for viewing films in New York City. Whenever you go in, it is cooled to perfection, never too cold, but always providing welcome relief.

Finally, our tiny apartment, in part because it IS tiny, gets cool and comfortable immediately. And there is nothing quite like coming in from the heat to a small but cozy room where the effects of reliable air conditioning can be immediately felt. Great for sleeping, perfect for reading the New York Times in the morning, and just right for sipping a small glass of wine at the end of a long day before turning into bed and finding yourself ensconced in cool, comfortable sheets.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Terry Gross at Town Hall

Last Wednesday night, Terry Gross, the long time interviewer of "Fresh Air," appeared, pretty much by herself at Town Hall on West 43rd Street, sharing stories of her most memorable radio interviews. Actually, I have heard many of these stories before, but the way she told them reminded me once again how important, even necessary her work is. What does Terry Gross do that is so simple and yet so appealing? Could it be that she has a way of plainly being herself, of coming across as genuine and sincere and honest, that many of us find rare and yet sorely needed?

I don't quite know, really, but I do know that when I listen to her I find her credible, interesting, and a superb witness to the people she encounters. She meets these people fairly and courteously, eager to learn more from them and providing them with the widest possible avenue to express their views. She is thus a superb conduit for artists, opinion makers, and politicians offering a little window into our complex and confusing world. I, for one, am grateful to her for accomplishing this mission day after day, even though I don't listen to her much any more. It is just good to know she is there and that one can turn to the "Fresh Air" archive at any time to get the best possible perspective on the people who shape our lives.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A New Definition of Heaven

Two nights ago at BAM, after the showing of the silent film "Diary of a Young Girl" accompanied by the band 3epkano, there was a reception offering free beer and bar treats in little bowls. The beer was Brooklyn Summer Ale (not bad, though doesn't reach the heights of Brooklyn Lager) and the treats included a mix of various nuts and pretzels and other fun stuff that I, well, couldn't get enough of, frankly. But here's where my new definition of heaven comes in. Usually, these treats go so quickly you only get a chance to grab a fistful or two before they are gone, but that night at BAM, it seemed that no one was consuming this particular mix. Every time I returned to the little bowl to dig out more stuff, there was no change at all in the amount still available. I could even recognize the little rifts and dents my greedy little fingers had left in what remained. Amazing. Free beer and inexhaustible amounts of a silly little treat I happened to crave. Ah, yes, heaven, indeed!

Monday, June 21, 2010


You really haven't enjoyed a silent film fully until you have seen one accompanied by the unique strains of 3epkano, "an experimental/instrumental post-rock seven-piece band/ensemble formed in Dublin, Ireland in early year 2004 by Matthew Nolan and Cameron Doyle." Their unique and really quite beautiful sound rejuvenates and enhances old silent films, many of which are great on their own, but that take on a new resonance and interest by virtue of this band's virtuoso playing.

The film we saw last night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music was "Diary of a Lost Girl" by the great Bohemian director G.W. Pabst and starring the American screen siren of the time - Louise Brooks. Brooks had hit it big with her previous film with Pabst - "Pandora's Box" - a sexy and sordid romp for the famously bobbed-haired star. "Diary," though billed as more of the same is really quite a tame story about a perfectly innocent girl who is unloved and abandoned and then reluctantly and briefly becomes a prostitute before returning to polite society and in the end risks everything she has gained to defend "wayward girls" like herself.

What is especially wonderful about 3epkano's accompaniment is the way it twice subtly builds through music to the two emotional peaks of the film. The first is when the teenage residents of the Home for Wayward Girls rebel against their uncaring supervisors and the second is when our star returns to the School to care for an old friend who is regarded as stubbornly recalcitrant but who is in actuality really quite good at heart if only shown the love that ultimately "redeems us all." Hackneyed, awkward plot raised to high art by the power of a superb and carefully matched musical accompaniment.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

How Democracy Works Now

This blog has been quite loud in its enthusiasm for the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. Well, last night, we saw one of the best and most insightful pieces on the national legislative process in America we have yet encountered. It was called "Mountains and Clouds" and it focused on efforts to pass national legislation to address immigration issues. It is part of a 12-part series to be shown on HBO called "How Democracy Works Now" and what makes it so great is the amazing behind-the-scenes detail combined with a fast-paced, brilliantly edited narrative. In this particular film, as well as many of the others, center stage is given to two senators with strong commitments to immigration reform - Kennedy of Massachusetts and Brownback of Kansas. Even more interesting, are the ways in which the staffs of these senators work behind the scenes to move the legislative process along.

It turns out, though, that democracy is not for the squeamish or the faint of heart. The workload is crushing but the pay-off is dauntingly modest and incremental. All the more reason, then, to admire the people who labor for these senators. Esther for Senator Kennedy, his chief counsel on immigration, and David for Senator Brownback, his go-to advisor on such issues, become the focus of this portrait of the legislative process and their competence and commitment are nothing short of amazing. Particularly fascinating in this film is the central role played by Senator Byrd of West Virginia, who opposes any effort to liberalize immigration policy, and how delicately his easily rankled personality must be handled.

Indeed, what makes this such a great film is how powerfully it documents the ways in which relationship building shapes the legislative process and how uncertain and tentative every action is until the final vote is called.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Early Morning on the Subway and the Ferry

For the last two mornings, I have been on the subway at 6 am and the Staten Island Ferry at 6:30 am. I thought it would be worthwhile to share who I see as I ride public transportation this early in the morning. Does it surprise you at all to know that my fellow riders at this time in the morning are almost all people of color and working class types dressed for another day on road crews or construction sites? Despite what we hear about the long hours that investment bankers must suffer through, I do not see anyone dressed in a suit ready for a long day at Goldman Sachs. I do not see anyone getting off in midtown to slave away in Manhattan's corporate offices (with the possibly exception of custodians). Most of all, I definitely don't see anyone who works for a college or university. What I see are the common people, the everyday people who maintain the all-important infrastructure of this country. These are the people who get little thanks for the incredibly important work they do and whose jobs are often at risk. These are the people who get up at 5 am every weekday morning and who go to their workplaces with little or no complaint and who do their jobs, on the whole, with remarkably consistent excellence. They truly are the backbone of the nation, the people upon whom all the rest of us depend, often without our knowing it. You can see them just about every day dutifully riding the public transportation system, usually just before dawn. Sometimes they sleep most of the way, sometimes they read, sometimes they just stare into space. But they are there, day in day out, getting the job done for the rest of us.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Obama Cool

There is a section of Jonathan Alter's "The Promise" that captures the many ways in which President Obama continues to be a "cool customer," almost to a fault. Among the characteristics that make Obama "cool" are:

-His almost preternatural sense of calm, even at the height of a crisis
-The confidence he radiates, which also means he has no need to posture or show off
-His effortless approach in which no sweating, grappling or struggling are apparent
-The fact that he NEVER panics or gets angry - people who have known him for years have never seen him raise his voice or lose his temper
-Just about nothing bothers him, with the likely exception of staffers who "leak" something he wants kept secret
-He is unflappable like Mr. Spock
-For Obama, most of the time, the head rules the heart, or at least that's how it appears
-He is supremely self-confident, comfortable in his own skin, he is the most genuine of public figures

I, for one, am impressed with the above. These traits make him an unusual and admirable figure. But people like, say, Maureen Dowd, who have to write about something, will turn this profile into a negative. Sad and wrong.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Carole and James in the Garden

Well, we saw Carole King and James Taylor in a much awaited concert at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night, and they did not disappoint us. They put on a great show. Interestingly, I found Carole's voice better suited to the ambient noises of the Garden. Her belting voice rose above the din, whereas James' quieter crooning was harder to catch at times. But they were both great, and it was fun to watch Karen happily weep through most of this. I am a fan, but she adores both Carole and James, really sees them as pop heroes, especially Carole, who is an important female role model for her. And they do both radiate joy and peace, which are pretty good things to, well, you know, radiate. I, too, enjoyed myself thoroughly and was amazed how great it was to hear these songs again, most of which are from the 1970s. They hold up really well, as do Carole and James.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Nero's Guests

We saw another amazing film that is part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival last night. Titled "Nero's Guests," it follows a crusading journalist named Palagummi Sainath who is chronicling the agrarian crisis in India and the tragic suicides of thousands of impoverished farmers who are prevented from making a living by public policies that favor the rich and ignore the poor. These farmers are so distressed by their financial situation and so humiliated by their inability to support themselves and their families that many of them feel they have no choice but to end their lives.

The film begins with these facts emblazoned in white letters across a black screen:

"In India, 60% of people are still dependent on agriculture."

"836 million Indians live on less than 50 cents a day."

"Nearly 200,000 farmers have committed suicide since 1997, driven by debt and distress."

Yet, in India, this story is rarely if ever reported and not a single journalist for any mainstream paper is assigned solely to the topic of poverty. Few Indians even know about this crisis and yet its impact is enormous. This film focuses on the unrelenting efforts of Mr. Sainath to let people know what is happening and in the process to lobby for policies that support the rural poor. In a brisk 59 minutes, many of the issues surrounding this complicated situation are introduced and viewers get a sense of how much of a difference one reporter can make who is persistent, single-minded, and willing to confront the powerful with the painful truth.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Rose Mapendo

Yesterday this blog took note of a new film called "Pushing the Elephant," about Rose Mapendo and her unyielding efforts to find safe havens for refugees from the genocides of the Congo, the very genocides that nearly destroyed her and her family. In addition to exploring this immensely important public work, the film is a beautiful portrait of Rose and her 10 children. At the heart of the story is the homecoming of Rose's daughter Nangabire, who was separated from Rose and her 9 siblings for over a decade. How Nangabire finds it in her heart to forgive her oppressors, as her mother has done, and to put those "lost years" behind her is particularly moving. Watching Rose listen intently to Nangabire pour out her heart in sadness and anger is a monument to their relationship and to Rose's vigilant patience. Witnessing how much pain is associated with these "lost years" for both Rose and Nangabire brings even more troubling and saddening emotion to a viewing of this film. The film truly is a testament to the courage and resilience and love of this magnificent family.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Pushing the Elephant

"Pushing the Elephant" is the title of a wonderful film we saw last night which is part of the Human Rights Watch Festival at Lincoln Center, but it is also a phrase shared by the film's chief protagonist - Rose Mapendo, a heroic refugee from the killings in the Congo - who has said that many hard working people working closely and collaboratively together are needed to "push the elephant." Thus, pushing the elephant is another way of saying that many action-oriented people are needed to make positive and sustainable change and that we should not underestimate the efforts of any one of those pushers in making good things happen.

This film about Rose Mapendo is not only a fine and touching portrait of a committed activist, however; it is also a movie about a mother of 10 children who showers her love on her offspring, even as she works tirelessly to bring peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation to the Congo. In fact, it is the best film portrait I can recall about a strong woman who maintains an incredibly successful and important public life while also giving time and close attention to her large family that has successfully resettled from the ravages of Central Africa to the serenity of a suburb in Phoenix, Arizona. Kudos to the filmmakers Beth Davenport and Elizabeth Mandel for making such a remarkable film and for bringing much needed attention to such terrible violence and the amazing resilience that people can demonstrate in the face of such atrocities.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Staten Island Without Wheels

Just about everything that has to do with Staten Island goes against being a pedestrian and a user of mass transit. The other day I was trying to get from Wagner College to the College of Staten Island, a simple and brief journey, but just a little too long to do by foot. I got on the first bus that showed up at the foot of the hill where Wagner stands and realized gratefully I would be early for my appointment at CSI. Ah, but not so fast. Turns out the particular bus I boarded veers away from Victory Boulevard, which is also where CSI is located, so I got off the bus and started to walk down Victory. With no other bus in sight and with more than half of my trip completed, I kept walking until I got to CSI, only to realize that while CSI officially fronts on Victory, it is a good half mile before you reach any actual buildings. I continued on foot and finally reached my destination, not early, but only about 10 minutes late. Still, it felt frustrating and, well, unnecessary, unless your default position is that it's okay for everything to be based on automobile travel. I know I'm spoiled by Manhattan, but it does seem this has to change, but that only a long-term vision can make this happen.

Later that evening I enjoyed a dinner at a lovely Italian restaurant called Bocelli's on Staten Island. But when it was time to leave I was completely dependent on my guests to convey me to the ferry terminal, some ten minutes away. There really was no other way to get there. Again, a good and dependable mass transit system would make such dependence unnecessary.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Pleasures of Recorded Books

I am listening to my second excellent recorded book in a row. The first was David Remnick's underrated "The Bridge," perhaps the best biography of President Obama available. The second, that I am now only halfway through, is Jonathan Alter's "The Promise," about Obama's first year as President. Alter's book includes one gripping and plausible scene after another, helped along tremendously by the hundreds of interviews he did with people close to Obama who apparently were surprisingly ready to open up about their experiences. My favorite scene so far shows Obama in complete mastery of the dismal economic crisis in a meeting during late September of 2008 when things looked blackest and when President Bush and Obama's presidential opponent John McCain silently deferred to Obama's far greater knowledge and more confident and well grounded insight.

This post today, however, is not so much about the contents of these books as it is about the pleasures of listening to recorded books, especially as a resident of New York City. Like many other people, reading is my favorite way to occupy myself when I am commuting. But when the subway is jammed or when a long walk is necessary to get to where I want to go or when the bumpy shuttle ride from the Ferry to Wagner College rules out conventional reading, then recorded books are a perfect way to pass the time. There is something quite wonderful about immersing oneself in the world of the book you're hearing and thereby to filter out most of the noise and the aggressive hurriedness of the city. To a certain extent, you can usually still take in the most interesting sights around you, including how people are occupied or how folks are dressed, though snatches of overheard conversations are pretty much inaudible.

In general, though, what I love about these books is the opportunity to read something worthwhile when I all I would have as an alternative are my own thoughts. I know, I know, I am giving up something valuable when I don't spent the time allowing my mind to wander and taking a few moments to reflect about the day. But more often than not, these books strike me as much more interesting than my thoughts, and, at the same time, ironically enough, give me something especially powerful and substantive to reflect on, when I finally give myself the chance.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Life Preservers

Underneath the seemingly endless rows of yellow and blue fiber glass seating that lines the interior of the Staten Island Ferry are these words neatly stenciled in white letters: LIFE PRESERVERS. For every six seats, there seem to be four large, pull-down compartments, each ostensibly holding some sort of flotation device.

"I guess that's enough," I said to myself, "even if disaster struck and the boat was loaded with tourists."

But then I added to myself, "what if some of those compartments were empty? Would there be enough then?"

On impulse, I pulled on the handle of the compartment just below me. Nothing. The compartment was bare. I pulled down another. Just empty space. Still another. Bingo! A large orange life preserver glared back at me. It looked worn and very heavy, as though it could just as easily drown you as save you. But surely it could do the job in a pinch.

But what if my random openings indicated a larger pattern that only one in three of all the compartments contained this essential item? I did a quick calculation. Suppose this were the case. Then there might be as few as 2 life preservers available for every 6 seats. Or, if 500 people happened to be on board (a fairly large number) a boat with a capacity of, say, a 1000, there would be only enough life preservers for about two thirds of the passengers. The others would have to fend for themselves. Which means that about 150 people would have to get by on their own. Can that many people, on average, swim well enough to survive?

I am not a particularly good swimmer myself, probably slightly below average, but I'm pretty sure I could swim, say, the half mile to mile that would be needed to get to safety. Using a rough estimate, then, in a population of 500 people with a normal distribution of swimming ability, about 350 can swim about as well or better than I can. Which means 150 people on that boat definitely need those life preservers, which further means there are just enough preservers for those who really need them. Oh, I'm so glad that the New York City Department of Transportation has this all worked out. Now I feel so much better!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

A conversation with a New Yorker

I had just finished a wonderful bike ride on a beautiful pre-summer morning along the Hudson River pathway and I was waiting at the intersection of West End Avenue and West 70th Street for the light to change when an older woman who was standing next to me turned and said simply:

"Great day for a bike ride, huh?"

I answered, "Really a great day for anything outdoors."

"You're right," she affirmed, "like California, only, unlike California, it won't last."

"But while it does we savor and appreciate it more, because it is so fleeting. And even after the good weather ends, we still get to live in New York City."

"Hmm, so true. That's certainly how I feel. I just went for a long walk and will probably do another one before the day's over."

"That's so great. You are setting an example for all of us how to make the most of this perfect day."

"You, too. Have a great one."

"I will and you as well. Even though the perfect weather won't last, there is something perfect about some aspect of each day in this city. Don't you think?"

"Yes, that's just what I think. Bye, bye."

"So long." I walked my bike the rest of the short way home thinking about this simple encounter and the enduring joys of New York City living.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The pleasures of roaming a deserted college campus

Last Monday evening, somewhere between 6:15 and 6:45, was an especially lovely time on Staten Island. The air was cool and dry, the sky was clear, and the sun shone brightly but also obliquely, you know, the way it does when it is low on the horizon and the resulting shadows are slanted and stretched out.

I had just returned from a meeting off-campus to Wagner College, where I work. There wasn't a soul in sight. Wagner enjoys a particularly picturesque setting. Lots of large, leafy trees surrounding nicely restored and rather quaint mid-century buildings with spectacular views of Brooklyn and Manhattan. Even when there are a lot of people around it often feels peaceful and calming. But with no one in sight, with the whole campus to myself, I felt energized, ebullient, and yet also quietly satisfied with its simple beauty. I guess you could say I was experiencing a feeling of well being.

Most of my day had been spent lecturing recalcitrant students and arguing with colleagues whose analysis of the situation facing New York's public schools seemed naive, ill-informed, and simplistic. In other words, I was feeling impatient and feisty, almost looking for a fight. To come upon the Wagner campus at that particular moment drained me of all the hostility that had welled up inside me. I could feel my natural composure returning and that sense of what really matters restored. A good way to bring my workday to a close and still another reminder of how very, very hard it is for me to keep my eyes on the prize of what it means to live respectfully, peacefully, and wisely.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

On Renewal

I am part of an upcoming summer institute that is focused on issues of community, meaning, and renewal in higher education. When I see the word "renewal," I recall the views of John W. Gardner, former HEW Secretary and founder of Common Cause, who asserted years ago that renewal must begin with self-renewal, that sense that each day brings fresh and exciting challenges coupled with the strength and joy needed to face them productively. Gardner knew a great deal about public challenges. As President of the Carnegie Corporation in the 1950s, he helped to lead one of the first educational reform movements. He was also one of the architects of LBJ’s Great Society in the 1960s, and a pioneer in the citizen advocacy movement in the early 1970s, to name only a few of his most noteworthy accomplishments.

For Gardner, self-renewal entails being personally engaged by difficult problems, experiencing first-hand the barriers that people face in getting their needs met and working with as many of these same people as possible in seeking ways to overcome those barriers. But the trick is always to keep the focus on the idea that positive change is within our grasp, especially when we work together. As individuals, this means focusing on developing ourselves and others as much as possible, building our individual and collective self-knowledge, and really meaning it when we say we give ourselves and others permission to fail. Self-renewal also means finding ways on a regular basis to show that we genuinely care for one another and really appreciate in overt ways their ongoing efforts. All of this contributes to that energizing sense of being alive to what is around us and alert to the people and ideas that can lead to transformation. Self-renewal, both individually and organizationally, is truly the key to making the most of these possibilities. To stay wide awake, to throw off sleep in quest of our best selves, this is the work of self-renewal and without it, authentic achievement, community and meaning are simply out of reach.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Strangers in the Mirror

Our second World Science Festival event took place on Friday evening at Hunter College (at the Sylvia and Danny Kaye Theatre - Isn't that nice that they are remembered in this way) focused on people who suffer from prosopagnosia - the inability to recognize faces. Both the neurologist Oliver Sacks and the super-realist painter Chuck Close suffer from an extreme form of this disability. In fact, the title of this event - Strangers in the Mirror - comes from Sacks' fairly common experience of failing to recognize himself when he looks in a mirror. Or, in another fascinating case, thinking he saw himself reflected in a window when it was really someone else.

With the always witty Robert Krulwich moderating a conversation between Close and Sacks, we learned that these two very accomplished people sometimes cannot recognize the faces of people with whom they are intimate and that only with repeated encounters can they finally discern with confidence a particular face. In Sacks' case, he also cannot recognize places and before he lived in New York City (where the grid system helps him get around), he often got lost just trying to get home.

As interesting as all of this turned out to be, it was their strategies for compensating for this disability that proved especially intriguing and encouraging. Close, it turns out, while naturally an introvert, makes a special effort to go out a lot and to be with people and to be as open to others and as convivial with them as possible. He has found that the best way for him to be comfortable with others is to actively seek them out and not to let the lack of face or name recognition get in the way of enjoying being with people and getting to know their stories.

Sacks seems much more resigned to living a kind of solitary life. He avoids being with a lot of people, it appears, because the difficulties and embarrassment associated with not being able to recall faces is too painful. He does better with voices, and has found that speaking on the telephone is a kind of compensation for the face recognition problem. He also appears to get a great deal of pleasure from spending time with a very small circle of friends whom he has gotten to know very well.

As Robert Krulwich summed up the evening, both men were pleased to be part of this event to share the phenomenon of prosopagnosia with the general public and thereby to lessen the stigma associated with this condition. All in all, the whole thing was motivated by the admirable and hopeful goal of helping everyone become somewhat more compassionate and understanding about a difficult and complex disability.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Perils of Forgoing that Early Morning Ride

Yesterday morning I put off taking my bike ride along the Hudson River until 11 AM, instead of heading out at about 7 or 7:30. Doing so is fraught with peril. Here's why.

First, you have to eat multiple breakfasts. If you wake up at, say, 6:30 and plan to ride at 7, it is good at least to eat a yogurt. But then, if you let too much time go by - more than an hour or two - you really should eat again in order to have enough energy stored for a ride of reasonable length. So you help yourself to a hearty bowl of cereal. But because the New York Times is so interesting still more time passes until it it close to 11 and you realize even more energy food is called for, so you down two handfuls of peanuts and raisins. During all this time, you're also drinking plenty of water and digesting that daily dose of morning prunes, which leads to even more delays and second thoughts. Finally, at about 11 AM, you head out.

Second, by 11 AM, getting to the bike path is complicated by increased traffic. True, the ride or walk to the path is quite short, but weaving among the cars and waiting impatiently for the two or three lights to change that must be adhered to, adds to stress and heightens the sense that the day is getting away from you.

Third, and most obvious of all, by 11 AM, everyone is already out there! Thousands, it seems are walking their dogs, fathers and sons are slowly dragging their baseball gear home, tennis players are rushing to their reserved courts, and multiple groups of thirty-somethings (the twenties are still asleep) enjoy strolling along the shore at a tortoise-like rate as they regale each other with their tales of drinking and carousing from the night before. Worst, are the other bikers. A few are going much too fast, seemingly jeopardizing everyone's well-being, especially mine. But most of the bikers are on rented vehicles and are so slow and lumbering in both directions on paths already clogged with dozens of unmindful pedestrians that you are driven to distraction waiting to find an opening that allows you to get into the clear. Then for a few moments you sit up high on the pedals, churning as fast as you can, until you run into another traffic jam that makes you go through this same infuriating process of waiting and breaking free all over again.

Not ideal conditions for riding, but, you have to admit, there is an underlying joy in the whole experience resulting from the realization that so many people are eager to take advantage of the outdoors and that New York City has shown such good sense in committing itself to creating, maintaining, and even expanding its many beautiful parks.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Brutality and the Brain

On Thursday evening we went to a panel discussion sponsored by the World Science Festival (the big science event for ordinary people organized by the physicist Brian Greene) about what is known regarding the links between brain chemistry and the inclination to be violent and the implications for law in society. In sessions like these, we expect to hear about how violent humans are, but these commentators were quite cautious about this. At least one urged us to consider how peaceful we are. He noted "New York City works most of the time in a context that is impossible." Or, as he elaborated, if you subjected any other species to the conditions New Yorkers face every day, you would have chaos and mayhem. So maybe we're doing pretty well. Well, no, not necessarily, another commentator pointed out, as the amount of violence between human subgroups is far greater than with any other species. That is, the human tendency toward mass death and genocide, usually inflicted by the members of an "in-group" on an "out-group," is unheard of anywhere else in the animal world.

One of the themes of this discussion was the tendency of humans to dehumanize other humans, primarily by treating them as lower animals or as objects. When we dehumanize we make it easier to inflict violence on other humans because we come to regard them as "less than human." Even this tendency to dehumanize, however, as one commentator noted, can have an adaptive function. The doctor who must maintain a distance to perform surgery competently, or the military commander who must put aside his affection for his troops and send them into battle knowing that some of them must die are both plausible cases of "constructive dehumanization" (my phrase).

The other issue that was brought up from this discussion was the adaptive function of violence itself - in self-defense, to protect scarce resources, perhaps even to create a balance between population and the means needed to support that population. I understand and appreciate this point, but for me, it should not dominate the conversation about brutality and violence. Trying to understand where unwanted and unwarranted violence comes from (by far, the majority of violence) and what can be done to limit its practice is primary. Unfortunately, surprisingly little was said to shed light on these issues. Perhaps next year.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo

I have a recurring case of Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BPPV). I can go a year or even more without suffering any of its effects and then wake up one morning and find it difficult to keep my balance. The first time it attacked in the spring of 2005, I was experiencing a tremendous amount of stress and the effects were severe. I could barely stand up. I thought I was having a stroke. My doctor told me in an email I was almost certainly experiencing BPPV. He was right. He prescribed something called Antivert, which it turns out has the same active ingredients as most over the counter motion sickness tablets, and it gradually went away. No one really knows what causes it, something about the crystals in the inner ear loosening and then rattling around until they settle down again. It is not a serious condition and has no worrisome side effects, except, in severe cases, the possibility you will fall down and break a limb. So far, it has never been that bad for me.

On Wednesday morning, I was hit by it again, perhaps for the fifth time since 2005. It wasn't terrible or alarming, the way it was the first time, but when I woke up I realized as I scuttled to the bathroom that I was leaning dangerously to the left. I also felt the slight nausea that usually accompanies the dizziness and is probably the worst part of my version of BPPV. I started taking my motion sickness pills that I now always keep handy, and most of the symptoms dissipated within six hours. Which was great. But BPPV has a lingering effect, with me anyway. I feel a sense of unease that I can't shake easily, and when I bend down or move my head in any unusual way, I can feel just a bit of dizziness start to return. If you have to be sick, it's a good choice, but that sense that it can rear up at any time and throw off your daily routines (such as riding your bike) does leave one feeling unsettled. Oh, well, a continuing pain in my arm, a little BPPV, some accelerating hair loss, if this is what getting older is about, I'll gladly take it, at least so far.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

National Arts Club

For the third time this year, I spent an evening at the National Arts Club, a charming 19th century brownstone that sits across the street from one of the few private parks in New York City - Gramercy Park. The National Arts Club, which is now exclusive and private, claims its mission is to "stimulate, foster, and promote public interest in the arts and to educate the American people in the fine arts." No doubt true, especially in the past, but today it seems to me to be a place mainly designed to cater to the rich, the privileged, and the well connected. You must be nominated by a member to join, go through a rather elaborate selection process, and pay an exorbitant fee just to be able to eat at their fancy club. Incidentally, The National Arts Club was formerly the residence of Samuel J. Tilden, the reforming New Yorker, who lost his bid for the presidency in 1876 to placate the South and thereby end Reconstruction.

There is something peaceful and secluded about the area where the National Arts Club is situated. It is a real throwback to a more sedate and simple time. And even though many of the residences have been thoroughly renovated, it feels old and venerable. A good New York place to visit briefly, but hardly worth an extended stay.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


We saw the fully restored version of Fritz Lang's 1927 film "Metropolis" the other day at Film Forum. It has a kind of greatness because of its vision and ambition. This is, after all, a film about a whole society in which the rich, who live in giant skyscrapers, prey on the working poor who live in cave-like residences deep underground the city. These workers who trudge through their long working day as if chained together and with absolutely nothing to live for are far less alive than the robots that the film's evil genius, living in one of those fancy skyscrapers, is trying to create. The plot turns on the actions of the son of the industrial magnate who seems to control the metropolis's entire economy. One day this young man, while in mid-dalliance with a short-skirted playgirl, sees a poor but noble and very beautiful woman with the bedraggled children of the poor. Right then and there he leaves his care-free life of dancing with chorus girls behind to pursue this brave woman underground. He discovers the horrible, inhumane life of the workers and resolves to do something to end their suffering.

A lot happens but hardly any of it is interesting, though it does admittedly happen amid a lot of really creative movie sets, so the design and visual effects are first rate. But somehow it ends with everyone agreeing to work together, including the great magnate who apparently also has second thoughts about what he is doing to destroy people's lives. The moral of the story is that the heart of the mediator, as represented by the son, must unite the head of the magnate with the hands of the workers to bring about peace and prosperity for all. How ridiculous! It really is one of the most overrated films of all time. For those who care about such things, please add your entry for most overrated film below to the ones I have already selected.

Most Overrated Films:

1. Metropolis
2. Citizen Kane (I still love it, but the unending praise is ultimately overdone)
3. Bringing Up Baby (More silly than great)
4. Gone with the Wind (As with Birth of a Nation, the ugly racism overshadows everything else)
5. Annie Hall (Both Manhattan and Stardust Memories are better)

Your Choice______________________________

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Duck Soup

Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theatre is doing a series on American comedy - Slapstick to Stoners (Cheech and Chong are on the program) - and, well, if you're going to do any kind of series on American comedy you have to include "Duck Soup," the greatest comedy by America's greatest trio of comedians (Zeppo doesn't count). What sets Duck Soup apart is that despite the silliness, there is a satire about war underneath its rickety plot structure that is pretty much sustained throughout. When you add in that it's the only Marx Brothers' comedy omitting the inevitable musical interludes by Harpo on the harp and Chico on the piano, you have a comedy that begins at a breakneck speed and never lets up. Furthermore, it has the original mirror sequence in which two of the brothers - Harpo and Chico - are looking at each other through a broken mirror and must anticipate the other's every movement in order to keep up the illusion that each is looking into a mirror. The premise is ridiculous but the comedy is priceless. This sequence was brilliantly adapted, by the way, by Harpo and Lucille Ball when he was a guest star on "I Love Lucy" sometime in the mid-1950s.

The other outstanding sequences of "Duck Soup" include the hysteria that results, led by the brothers, when Freedonia finally decides to go to war with Sylvania (Yup, I said Sylvania), and the long "combat" sequence that concludes the film, in which just about every joke making fun of war is served up. "Duck Soup" is brilliant insanity, but it is also insanity with a purpose that reminds us, however ridiculously, of the enduring absurdity of war.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Passion Play

"Passion Play," a play by Sarah Ruhl who has received much acclaim lately, is being presented in Brooklyn's Fort Greene at an historic Presbyterian church that was the site of a great deal of abolitionist activity before the Civil War. The theatre space that has been carved out of the church is commodious and impressive, which works well for a play focusing on multiple retellings of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection.

I really didn't expect to like this play all that much, as I have been disappointed on a number of occasions by Ruhl's plays. I loved "Clean House" but found Eurydice and even the positively reviewed "Vibrator Play" remote and scattered. Passion Play is divided into three fairly long acts. The first takes place in 1575 England, the year that Queen Elizabeth prohibits the production of passion plays. The second part happens in Nazi Germany, and the oppressive tendencies of the passion play (anti-semitism, for instance) are thoughtfully developed.

Yet, during the intermission between the second and third acts, I turned to Karen and said I didn't really get Sarah Ruhl, that I again was feeling disappointed that so little of consequence seemed to be happening in the play we were watching.

The third act takes place in South Dakota, first in 1969 and then in 1984, where updated passion plays have been put on for many years. Somehow, for me anyway, Ruhl completely redeems herself in this act, linking the passion plays to dangerous patriotism and prejudice and to false promises about America's greatness. In this act, she works President Reagan into the plot, whose personality I think she perfectly nails and in the process inserts a sad, biting humor into this final act. There is much here as well about our utterly tragic and pathetic involvement in Vietnam that I also found quite moving and that is connected intriguingly to our ongoing attachment to organized religion

Not for all tastes and uneven throughout, Passion Play matters. I want to read it and see it again. For me, that is a sign that it is a work of enduring value. I hope it will continue to be presented regularly in New York and elsewhere.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Political Poem of the Century

In the June 10 issue of the New York Review of Books, there is a beautiful translation and a fascinating exploration of one of the great political poems of the 20th century called "Epigram Against Stalin" by the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam. Mandelstam apparently recited this poem publicly for the first time at Boris Pasternak's home in 1934 even though he knew that under Stalin's repressive rule doing so could prompt his arrest and even his execution. His decision to share this brief poem has been called an "act of total insanity" and a "16-line death sentence." Six months later, Mandelstam was arrested and then, surprisingly, not long afterwards released. Yet, the poem continued to be circulated and the pressure for holding Mandelstam accountable for this blot on the State continued to mount. He was arrested again in 1937 and eventually perished of an incurable illness in one of the USSR's great gulags. As one commentator has noted, Mandelstam's own commentary about this poem was ultimately vindicated:

"Only in Russia is poetry respected — it gets people killed. Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?"

Here is the poem as translated into English (by Esther Allen) from the brilliant Spanish translation by the novelist and critic Jose Manuel Prieto, who also wrote the article:



We live without feeling the
country beneath our feet,
our words are inaudible from ten
steps away.
Any conversation, however brief,
gravitates, gratingly, toward the
Kremlin's mountain man.
His greasy fingers are thick as
his words weighty hammers
slamming their target.
His cockroach moustache seems
to snicker,
and the shafts of his high-topped
boots gleam.

Amid a rabble of scrawny-necked
he toys with the favors of such
One hisses, the other mewls, one
groans, the other weeps;
he prowls thunderously among
them, showering them with
Forging decree after decree, like
he pitches one to the belly,
another to the forehead,
a third to the eyebrow, a fourth in
the eye.

Every execution is a carnival
that fills his broad Ossetian chest
with delight.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Philip Lopate on Upper East Side

Even close readers of this blog may not be aware that I am an avid, admiring reader of the writings of Phillip Lopate - particularly his personal essays. Mr. Lopate is a New York writer of the first order. He grew up in various parts of Brooklyn, enjoyed four life-changing years at Columbia University in the early sixties, and was already a prolific writer of prose and poetry by the time he graduated from Columbia in 1964. For many years he worked in the public schools as a writer for the Teachers and Writers Collaborative, and from this experience emerged one of the best books about education written in the last century - "Being with Children." He also wrote long separately published essays about education that recounted producing Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya" with 5th and 6th graders and his experiences with a schoolteacher who eventually committed suicide.

I discovered him through his education writings, but then I started buying his many collections of personal essays, all witty, engaging and beautifully and transparently written. He writes in the tradition of writers like George Orwell and Somerset Maugham (see a very good essay about Maugham in a recent issue of the New Yorker), who believe that clarity and liveliness come first. Lopate himself most admires Montaigne and William Hazlitt, but a quick glance at their work will affirm that they are all part of this same writing tradition that foregrounds precision and finding just the right nouns and verbs to express oneself.

In any case, there I was the other night at the Upper East Side Barnes and Noble wanting there to be hundreds of people turning out to hear this wonderful writer speak. Disappointingly, only about 40 showed up to hear him read from his recent book about Susan Sontag that is part of Princeton's Writers on Writers series, and a new collection of his poetry, primarily from the 1970s, which are the years when he was writing a lot of poetry. The poetry is pretty good, but the best part of the new poetry book is almost certainly the introductory essay in which Lopate recalls his time hobnobbing with the New York poets of the 1960s. He read beautifully, of course, and the passages he chose were characteristically witty and lucid. When he asked for questions, however, the audience response was tepid and lackluster. Again, I was so disappointed. I wanted them to love Mr. Lopate and to shower acclaim on him. At the end of the reading, only about four people asked him to sign books. An outrage. I NEVER stand in line to have books signed, but this time I made an exception and told him how much I admired his work. He thanked me with a warm smile and that was all. Strangely, I identify with him so closely that the whole experience left me unsettled. Phillip Lopate should be regarded as one of the world's great writers, but instead he is, using his own characterization, a "mid-list" writer who is known by other writers and a few others who appreciate good writing but whose name doesn't mean much to the general public. Somehow, I take that personally, and will keep going to his readings until someone, other than myself, stands up and declares, "You are one of our greatest contemporary writers. Thank you for all the pleasure and enlightenment you have provided me through your writing."

Friday, May 28, 2010

Baseball in New York City

How they love baseball in New York City! The best sign of this is how often it is played by people in sandlots and parks all over the city. Every other place I have ever lived, kids have tended to resort to soccer or football or basketball or Lacrosse or whatever. But in New York, the game of choice still seems to be baseball, as it was 50 or 70 or 90 years ago. Of course, major league baseball has always been big in New York. Many of the greatest teams and many of the most important and most exciting games have been played here. And whole historical periods have focused on New York teams. In the early days of the 20th century, it was the Giants of John McGraw. In the twenties it was Ruth and the Yankees. In the thirties, the Yankees of Gehrig and DiMaggio caught the country's attention. In the forties and fifties, all three New York teams were simultaneously great. But what amazes me is how many kids and adults play baseball all through the year in New York, especially in the summer, of course. Central Park encompasses an incredible number of fields, but they are constantly occupied by baseball players of all ages and abilities. If you love baseball, this fact makes you feel at home in the city. It gives you that strong sense of belonging to a place where the greatest of all games is appreciated and enjoyed by thousands. It is still one more reason to love and appreciate New York.