Sunday, January 31, 2010

Howard Zinn

Last Wednesday, the historian and social activist Howard Zinn died at the age of 87. I was delighted to see Bob Herbert's tribute to Zinn in the Times' Saturday edition, but I cannot resist weighing in with a brief appreciation of my own.

Zinn was raised in Brooklyn, earned his BA from NYU after serving in World War II as a bombardier on B-17s, and then went on to get his doctorate at Columbia. He was a New Yorker born and bred. His academic career, however, began far from New York. His first appointment was at Spelman College, the historically Black Women's College in Atlanta where he became immersed in the Civil Rights Movement before being fired for insubordination in 1963 for actively opposing the idea that Spelman's mission was to "turn out young ladies." Soon thereafter he accepted an appointment as a professor of Political Science at Boston University. He continued at BU until he retired in 1988. His battles with long-time president John Silber were legendary, with each trying to get the other fired over many years of contention.

From the beginning, Zinn was intent on telling the stories of ordinary Americans and what they did to make their communities more humane and democratic. He was also an unyielding and often annoying critic of the great men of history, from Columbus to Lincoln to FDR. I say annoying, because so much energy and historical scholarship is invested in reinterpreting and reaffirming the greatness of historical figures like these. When someone like Zinn comes along to take them down a peg or two, the folks who write these histories get quite angry and find all sorts of reasons to marginalize people like Zinn.

When I first encountered Zinn's work in my twenties and then for many years after that, I regarded him as a marginal figure, a little bit kooky and not really to be taken seriously. Many years later, though, when I reread him and encountered much of his more recent work, I found his perspective incredibly refreshing and invigorating. For one thing, he was totally committed to nonviolence. He has never supported any post-World War II military engagement by the U.S. and has never himself engaged in any kind of protest that was anything but nonviolent. I must add here, and I am ashamed to come so late to this point of view, that I now agree with Zinn completely that there is not a single case of United States' military intervention since World War II that can be successfully defended, either with respect to the reasons for initiating the intervention or with respect to outcomes.

Just as important, I came to deeply, deeply respect how Zinn thought about history. Despite the seeming irresistible desire to glorify great men, his goal was always to explore what it had looked like in the past for people to work toward a society where everyone could have a fair share and no one would be given special privileges. I have particularly benefited from a recent volume called "A Power Governments Cannot Suppress." For instance, he says on page 11 of this volume, that his goal is to write "in order to illustrate the power of people struggling for a better world. People, when organized, have enormous power, more than any government." Rejecting nationalism, he declares on page 154: "We need to assert our allegiance to humanity as a whole, to all living things, and not to any one nation. We need to refute the idea that our nation is different from, morally superior to, the other imperial powers of world history." And arguing always that one of our great enemies is war itself, Zinn writes on page 196: "My hope is that the memory of death and disgrace will be so intense that the people of the United States will be able to listen to a message that the rest of the world, sobered by wars without end, can also understand: that war itself is the enemy of the human race."

What I love most about Howard Zinn, though, is his use of history to show his love for humanity. His interest has always been in the 99% of the people who do not get included in the history books, the every day, ordinary people who work so hard to make life better and who stand up, often risking their reputations and their lives, for the rights and respect that they and their neighbors so richly deserve and yet so rarely receive. Zinn understood that history should be used as a lens for making the future more decent, more humane, more committed to tapping into the brilliance and creativity of the bulk of humanity. We need people like Howard Zinn, not only to instruct us about the lessons of history, but to inspire us and give us hope that real change is possible. Here's to Howard Zinn and those who will follow in his footsteps to show us a better way.

Saturday, January 30, 2010


There really are few sights more soothing than watching big white flakes falling gently to the ground. On Thursday morning it snowed in New York in that rare and wonderful way, without wind and without excess. At most a couple of inches fell in nearly complete silence as we watched from behind our wall of windows facing East. It was as unreal as viewing the white particles that float inside one of those glass balls that you shake just to make it "snow" all over again. Looking out those windows, you could see the sidewalks and the streets attracting a thin layer of snow and the branches of the line of trees just out of reach developing an icing that made them seem especially enticing.

Is part of the appeal of such a day the desire to live in that glass ball, cut off from the cares and woes of our everyday lives? To just be as those countless flakes come to rest on our head and shoulders in a continuous, unending cycle? Without purpose, without any little items to check off our to-do list, we can exist for a while in a lovely bubble of nothingness where, as the poet Wallace Stevens says, we can can hold in our hearts "the nothing that is not there and the nothing that is."

Friday, January 29, 2010

Should We Leave Wall Street Alone?

Reshma Saujani is running as a Democrat for the House of Representatives seat that represents the Upper East Side of Manhattan. As a former Wall Street analyst, she is, as she says, "running on my Wall Street record, not from it." Her strategy is to invite leaders of the financial industry in New York to create more jobs, not to browbeat them. So far so good.

But she also is quoting as saying this: "If you go to Texas, you'll never hear a Congressional member speak poorly of the oil industry. In Michigan, you'll never hear a Congressional member speak poorly of the auto industry." Here's where I especially want to part company with Ms. Saujani. One of the many reasons we find ourselves in this financial mess is that far too few public servants were willing to hold Big Oil and the former Big Three automobile companies to account. They were allowed to run rampant and the result was bad for everyone. Rather than follow the example of Texas and Michigan, I would urge Ms. Saujani to follow the example of New York: Don't hesitate to tell it like it is even if that means criticizing some big companies that employ a lot of people. This is a democracy. Remember? Criticism and accountability are important principles that we need to uphold much more assiduously. That's what we expect of our public servants. People in power are self-interested. They rarely do the right thing without oversight and constructive criticism. Of course, it is ridiculous to attack an entire industry. And of course they should be encouraged to hire more workers and to have some incentives to do so. But please do keep the heat on these powers that be. That's a critical part of the job in a democracy that is supposed to be advancing the interests of the many, not just the often supersized financial ambitions of the wealthy few.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Dance and Democracy at the Guggenheim

Last Sunday night we attended a much anticipated event at the Guggenheim Art Museum, part of their Works and Process series, in which seemingly disparate arts are brought together in surprising and often enlightening ways. Sunday, it was a world class ballet dancer and choreographer encountering one of the most acclaimed college teachers of our time.

The choreographer, an incredibly charismatic and fit man of about 40, was Damian Woetzel. The college teacher was Michael Sandel, the political theorist, whose latest book is based on his famous Harvard course about justice, a course that apparently attracts something like 1000 Harvard undergraduates each semester. What Woetzel wanted to do was make links between teaching dance and teaching about justice, links that for him ultimately reveal what it means to live in an democratic society. So the first part of the evening, Mr. Woetzel taught us a simple dance. Despite our awkwardness, we grew just a bit more graceful under his guidance. Then he turned things over to Professor Sandel who facilitated a discussion about some of the ideas that underlie different perspectives on justice. Here, too, we became just a bit more nimble at working our way through some challenging philosophical distinctions. What was the similarity?

Mr. Woetzel thought that in both cases with the right instruction we could grow in roughly equal measure in our ability to dance and to participate constructively in discussion. Professor Sandel, on the other hand, doubted that many of us would ever improve much as dancers, but that as discussants, as participants in a discussion about justice, with practice and the right guidance, we could become very good, and indeed must become very good, if democracy is to thrive.

I wanted to agree with both Woetzel and Sandel. We could get better, maybe even much better, if we continued to practice our dancing, particularly under the guidance of a fine teacher. He also taught us a great deal about dance appreciation, into which I think we also gained some valuable insight. And we needed to get better, as Professor Sandel suggested, and could, if we continued to engage in democratic discussions. But what I thought Sandel missed is that maybe, just maybe, democracy depends on our becoming reasonably good dancers and dance appreciators as much as it does on our growing into proficient discussants. The more we can experience and understand the world of the arts, the more we grow as appreciators and practitioners of creative endeavors, the more we can begin to imagine and perhaps even enact a more participatory and equitable society. As brilliant as Michael Sandel is, I think it was Damian Woetzel who understood this point more deeply and envisioned its implications more boldly.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


Our choosing to live in a studio apartment in a wonderful neighborhood in New York City is another example of making a decision that consciously benefits us while also in some small way giving us more of an option to help others, too. We bought a studio, even though we could have afforded a one bedroom, because we wanted there to be a little more room in our budget, not just to enjoy the City, but also to have something left over to support worthy causes. We actually enjoy having a single, relatively large room to sit and read and work and listen to music in. The fact that we have a Murphy bed that must be brought down every night and then put up every morning hardly affects us at all. It is a very comfortable space and with a wall of windows facing East the morning light gladdens our interior every day. Do we regret that only those guests who have little need for personal privacy will be comfortable sleeping in our quarters while we are also present? Sure. Though potential visitors please note you are always welcome as long as you willing to sleep on a couch bed only inches from our own. But, in the end, we decided to make this decision, despite the regret, because the benefits both to ourselves and unknown others overrided everything else. Self-interest? Absolutely. But connected in a modest way to a little old-fashioned altruism as well.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Who Gets to Call It Art?

I went to see a movie yesterday at the New York Historical Society about the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art's first (?) contemporary art curator Henry Geldzahler. Geldzahler who was the son of rich Dutch parents attended Yale as an undergraduate and was doing graduate work at Harvard in art history when the Met chose him to run their division on contemporary art in about 1960. It is probably both a sign of Geldzahler's innate talent and how little the Met valued contemporary art at the time that they chose such an inexperienced curator to manage their tiny but growing collection of recent painting and sculpture. As the movie shows, the Met made a good choice.

To be honest, I can't quite tell you what Geldzahler's special talent was, but I think his ultimate success was the result of two things: 1) A complete passion for art, and especially contemporary art; and 2) As David Hockney suggests in the film, an eye for art that was nearly flawless. If he thought it was good, it more than likely would be seen as good by the art establishment. Now whether this was a true coinciding of tastes, or a case of a curator at the Met having the power to shape how that establishment viewed art, I'm not sure. Probably a little of both.

At any rate, Geldzaher early on championed Pollock, de Kooning, Stella, Rothko, and then the likes of Warhol, Lichtenstein, and Claes Oldenburg, and many, many others. All of his work supporting and promoting these many contemporary artists culminated in a gargantuan show that he put together in 1969 recognizing artists whose work first appeared between 1940-1969. There were well over 400 works in all, and to make this show possible, the Met had to temporarily empty many of their galleries of classic works to make way for the contemporary ones. Many people believe that it was Geldzahler's boldness in putting together such an ambitious show that finally put the stamp of approval on contemporary art. Geldzahler's influence, though he died in 1994 of liver cancer, continues to be felt in an art world where contemporary artists consistently attract big crowds at galleries and fetch huge sums at auctions.

After the movie, one of the contemporary artists that Geldzahler supported early on spoke to the 100 people gathered at the New York Historical Society where the film was shown. He spoke irreverently and only half-coherently about that time, but there was something about his tone and his desire to offend as much as inform that I found especially endearing. If this wasn't enough, the crowd helped to make this a true New York moment by repeatedly interrupting him, shouting him down, and challenging him to speak more understandably. He had a habit of wandering away from the microphone and wading into the audience, which made it hard for some people to hear. A number of people recalled the show that Geldzahler put together and often questioned Poons' memory of it all. In the end, Poons insisted, whatever was accomplished at that heady time had little to do with anything that was thought out or planned. Everyone did what they had to do. Painters painted, sculptors sculpted, curators bought and displayed and somehow it all came together in a beautiful and illuminating way in 1969. He does not expect to see anything like that happen again in his lifetime. But the memories remain and the painters continue to paint and the sculptors continue to sculpt, and that is always what has mattered most, at least as far as Mr. Poons is concerned.

More on Mr. Poons here, including some great images, here from a recent interview with Poons on the occasion of a 2009 show.

Monday, January 25, 2010

"The Power of Half"

Leave it to Nick Kristof to devote his latest Sunday New York Times column to the remarkable story of the Salwen family that sold their large Atlanta home because 14-year-old Hannah Salwen would not stop pestering her parents to do something about the disparity in wealth between families like theirs and the homeless people she often saw on street corners. They then proceeded to purchase a much smaller house and to use the considerable proceeds from the sale of the larger home to contribute to a highly reputable charitable organization called the Hunger Project. In a new book called "The Power of Half," they don't just write about the satisfaction of giving, but also the direct benefits they themselves came to enjoy from living in a house that literally brought their 4-person family closer together. Kevin Salwen, the father, insisted that selling their home turned out to be "the most self-interested thing we have ever done." That it helped others at the same time was thrilling. All of this did not come easily, however. Some neighbors resented the Salwens for what appeared to be a kind nouveau sanctimoniousness, and at least one member of the family - their young son Joe - had a hard time adjusting to the smaller quarters.

In writing a book to share this story, the Salwens were certainly not advocating that everyone sell a home to make more money available for charity. Even Hannah calls this "kind of a ridiculous thing to do." But she adds this was a case where her family realized the house was much bigger than what they needed and that most people have something, "whether it's time, talent, or treasure" that is more than what they actually need. "Everyone does have their own half," she asserts using wise words that belie her years; "you just have to find it."

A while back I wrote a post about the ethicist Peter Singer and his call for people to give 6% of their income, before taxes, to charity. Karen and I wanted to do something to show our responsiveness to this call, to begin the process, so to speak, of finding our own half, but we also found Singer's standard, at least at this point, to be much too high. Instead of the $1000 a month that Singer would have us contribute, we settled on about half of this, a great deal more than we had been previously setting aside to help others, but still not enough. This money goes primarily to the New York City Food Bank, the Worldwide Fistula Fund, Developments in Literacy (to support educational projects in poor countries), the New York City Restoration Project (to plant a million trees in NYC), the Center for Arts Education, again in New York, and a group called BRAC, which supports women as agents of change in places like Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Finding ways to do more to help out others less fortunate is an ongoing project. But just about every time Mr. Kristof writes a column, you can feel yourself being re-inspired to go just a little bit further. We have found that when we opt to do one less cultural or entertainment event a month, we can set aside anywhere between 20 to 60 additional dollars a month for charity. We'll keep working at it, even though we remain far short of fully tapping into our own "power of half".

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Not Seeing at Carnegie Hall

Carnegie Hall, the great concert venue of New York City originally built in 1891, has a number of seats with partial views. This is one of the last great halls built entirely of masonry. As a result, there are a number of large pillars included in the original design that are used to support this mammoth structure and which can in a few cases obstruct the view one has of the stage. These seats are actually scattered throughout the main concert hall and vary quite a bit with respect to view, but I assume not in terms of sound quality.

Today we intentionally bought two tickets for seats with obstructed views to a February 28th concert of the Leipzig Orchestra playing the Brahms' Second Symphony and Chopin's First Piano Concerto. Naturally, these seats are cheaper than most and so we were attracted to the idea of paying less, but we also wanted to see what it is like to experience a concert in this Hall noted for its acoustics but with only a limited view of the Orchestra. Will this allow us to concentrate on the music better? Will we find ourselves frustrated and straining our necks to get a better look? Or will we grow bored and disengaged without a visual perspective to enhance our aural experience? We'll see. I'll be reporting on our reaction here on March 1st, so please visit again at that time and we'll let you know how it went.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Frank Rich and the Power of Theater

Since witnessing the interview between Frank Rich and Stephen Sondheim, I have been thinking about them both a lot lately. I have shared some thoughts about Sondheim, but really nothing about Rich. Well, the night of the interview, I finally landed a copy of Rich's 2000 memoir "Ghostlight," which is a memoir of his often troubled boyhood, often brightened and even transformed by his early experiences in the theater. From about the age of 10 on, Rich was obsessed with theater, especially musical theater. Thanks to good fortune and youthful persistence, he went to the theater often. Some productions he saw repeatedly, thanks to his proximity to Washington, D.C., which in Rich's day was a major tryout city and because he eventually became a ticket taker at the leading theater in D.C. - the National.

One of the plays he saw when he was about 14 was King Lear with Paul Schofield. Here is what he says about how the audience received what must have been generally regarded as a momentous production: "Once the play was over, the audience reacted as no other I had ever seen. As the curtain fell, not a single person clapped. When the curtain rose again, the entire cast assembled onstage, flooded in light and the whole audience stood up, as if on cue, but still in silence. Only then, as if seventeen hundred people had all at once taken a deep breath and then exhaled, did they start to applaud, softly at first, as if they were trying to regain their strength. The applause grew louder and louder, but when the curtain call was over, the audience didn't rush out as it usually did. I could understand why: No one wanted to let go of this memory while it was still fresh; this play was a dream that would dissipate too quickly upon awakening."

I love Frank Rich's weekly journalism, but this book is something else. Painstakingly crafted, there are many, many paragraphs as beautiful as this one. It is in many ways a sad book about a difficult childhood, but the passages about going to the theater are lovingly remembered and undeniably inspiring about the transforming power of theater.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Staten Island Ferry

Now that I have ridden the Staten Island Ferry at least 500 times I have come to the conclusion that there is no end to the variety that is to be experienced on the Ferry. This variety includes where you sit on the boat and what vantage point of the passing outside world you have, the amount of passenger noise you hear, how smooth the actual ride is, what you read while you are traveling on the ferry, what conversations you overhear as you look up from your reading, the weather conditions, and, most definitely, whether the boat you are shuttled onto is modern with vinyl seating or relatively ancient with wooden benches and trim all around. All of these variations have an impact on your ride, and although almost every ride is satisfying, my ideal would incorporate all the following: 1) Seeing the Statue of Liberty as you emerge out of the harbor; 2) very low, almost inaudible passenger noise; 3) a smooth, effortless, rumble-free journey; 4) reading a non-fiction book regarding a topic I am thinking about a lot; 5) one short conversation punctuated with a lot of enthusiastic profanity; 6) lots of sun and little wind; 7) a more modern boat in which the men's room is readily accessible. You might think 2) conflicts with 5) but I'm thinking of a very short, but very Staten Islandly conversation between hard working stiffs. In a short burst, always amusing to hear these guys wail.

That's pretty much it, my perfect Staten Island ride. But I should point out that because of all the variations that are possible on these rides, I haven't really come close to that perfect one yet. But each day brings new hope.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Sondheim From the Paris Review Interviews, Volume 4

Yesterday, I recalled the Frank Rich interview with Stephen Sondheim, which was staged at a Barnes and Noble to get people to buy the latest edition of the Paris Review Interviews of writers, in part, it seems, because Frank Rich's son, Nathaniel, is on the editorial staff. In any case, I bought a copy and found a number of the interviews interesting, including those with Maya Angelou, William Styron (though at the time of the interview he had only written "Lie Down in Darkness"), E.B. White, Philip Roth, John Ashberry, and a really quirky one with Jack Kerouac. But, of course, this post is about Sondheim, so here are a few tidbits from that interview.

First, as many people know, Sondheim was closely mentored by the great lyricist Oscar Hammerstein. In fact, Sondheim says that he was so transfixed by Hammerstein he probably would have followed in his footsteps whatever his profession had been. If Hammerstein had been a geologist, Sondheim probably would have become a geologist as well. Among the lessons Sondheim says he learned from Hammerstein was the power of simple language attached to music. His lyrics from "Younger than Springtime" or "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning" may not seem like much on paper, but when paired with Richard Rodgers' music the words move people. As Sondheim says, Hammerstein understood "what happens when music is applied to words - the words explode."

Hammerstein, by the way, actually prepared for Sondheim his own special curriculum that he thought all aspiring musical theater composers should be able to tackle. First, he advised Sondheim to find a play he liked and to musicalize it. Second, he proposed that Sondheim take a play that is flawed and then improve it through a musicalization. Third, take a non-theatrical piece, a story or a short novel, and musicalize that. Finally, write a musical play from scratch, that is not based on another source. According to Sondheim, early on, he actually attempted all four of these tasks, and although they were not all produced, doing this work was a decisive part of his apprenticeship as a composer.

Sondheim also divulges that when he was first approached to write the lyrics for "West Side Story," he hesitated, because he wanted to write music, too. But Hammerstein advised him to take the job so that he could collaborate with and learn from the other great artists who were putting together the show. It was, Sondheim says, another case where Hammerstein's judgment was exactly right. I guess, in fact, it was such a good experience that he figured he would do it again with "Gypsy."

When asked whether he prefers writing the music or the lyrics, Sondheim replied that the answer was easy. It is the music that he enjoys working with most because, as he says, "music's abstract and it's fun and it lives in you." Earlier on, Sondheim had noted mathematics comes naturally to him which may be a hint for why he prefers the music. He adds that language can be exciting to work with, but that the English language, particularly, presents often insurmountable challenges, such as rhyming essential words like "live" and "love." And in case you were wondering, Sondheim does not hesitate to admit that he uses a rhyming dictionary regularly. It is part of his indispensable equipment as a lyricist. For the record, the best one is Clement Wood's from 1938. He also relies on a thesaurus, the most useful one being, in his view, the 1943 edition of Roget's.

Finally, although there are so many other tidbits to mention, Sondheim explained that Sweeney Todd, a musical which is supposed to horrify and scare people, was inspired by the great film score composer Bernard Herrmann and uses many of Herrmann's techniques to maintain suspense and tension throughout the show. I found this fascinating, because I have always thought Herrmann's contributions to movies have been underappreciated and underrated. Just some of the films Herrmann has scored are: Citizen Kane, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, and Taxi Driver. The specific film of Herrmann's that influenced Sondheim was something called "Hangover Square," which Leonard Maltin says is about an "unhinged composer who goes off his top and kills women whenever he hears loud and discordant noises." It's not much of a stretch for a composer who could write something like "Sweeney Todd" or "Assassins" to identify with this film.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Stephen Sondheim Interviewed by Frank Rich

For weeks Stephen Sondheim was scheduled to be interviewed by Frank Rich at the Upper EAST Side Barnes and Noble (not Lincoln Square but another really nice one just across the Park). I kept checking because this seemed hard to believe: a free interview with the most acclaimed musical theater composer of our time questioned by one of our most discerning journalists. But it, in fact, did happen and I was there. I should add that in order to reserve my spot in the audience, I had to buy my copy of the latest Paris Review Interviews (that includes an excellent interview with Sondheim) and I had to arrive at 5:30 for a 7:00 appearance. But it was definitely worth it. The two of them spoke together for 50 minutes in an always engaging and animated conversation. No questions from the audience allowed, but we had Frank Rich, with his encyclopedic mind, pitching some very good questions, so that was just fine.

Sondheim, who has some sort of difficulty with his left eye which causes it to close completely, was in excellent spirits and although he is about to turn 80, he had the energy, at least, of a man of 60. One of the things that he and Rich discussed were the many tributes that are planned for Sondheim to celebrate his 80th birthday. The Roundabout Theater is doing Sondheim on Sondheim, which is apparently a mixed live and multimedia production that includes film clips of Sondheim interacting with the cast. This is all part of James Lapine's vision, the great producer/director who has been working closely with Sondheim since "Sunday in the Park with George." There is a limited engagement of "Anyone Can Whistle" coming up, which, I guess, is one of the most famous flops in the Sondheim canon, and there is a plan in the works to do "Merrily We Roll Along," another very early show that is now regarded an an underrated classic. Frank Rich also mentioned that he is a big fan of the current production of "A Little Night Music" with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury. So I guess you could say that of late everything is coming up Sondheim. And I didn't even mention the special productions of vintage Sondheim shows underway in London and Paris.

The big revelation of the night, at least for me, is that Sondheim almost never reads. He is a slow reader, doesn't particularly enjoy it, and so pretty much doesn't do it any more except when he has to. His medium, he claims, is movies, and he took a few minutes to recall all the movie theaters that used to line 86th Street, the location of the bookstore we were in, but also Sondheim's homebase (more or less) since he was a kid. His favorite marquee memory of a double feature along this very street was "George Washington Slept Here - Between Us Girls." The audience and Sondheim got a big kick out of that one. At any rate, it was a treat to hear these two brilliant, articulate guys trade stories about the theater. I walked back across Central Park (on a night that hit 52 degrees) thinking about what they had said and smiling just about the whole time.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Honoring Chick Corea

Chick Corea, a long time jazz pianist who played with Miles Davis in the 60s, pioneered jazz fusion in the 70s, has experimented with jazz and classical compositions in recent years, and continues to play a rich and accessible brand of jazz, was honored by an appreciative group of collaborators on Saturday night at Symphony Space. For most of the performance, he sat in the audience enjoying the many tributes to him.

The lead appreciator was Gary Burton, the great vibraphone player, who told us that he has been playing off and on with Corea for 38 years. He also told the audience a story about Corea's plans to write a sextet for string quartet, piano, and vibraphone. Corea prepared by listening, in particular, to the Beethoven and Bartok string quartets over and over, and by trying out variations on what he heard on his piano. Then at a certain point, he decided he was ready. He gave himself about 6 weeks to actually compose the sextet. In addition, before he had actually written anything, he scheduled a long and involved touring schedule for playing the unwritten sextet. This caused Gary Burton considerable anxiety, especially when he called Chick after he had been supposedly working on the piece for a week and learned that although Chick had not written everything he was very satisfied with the excellent composition paper he had chosen for the occasion. Somehow, though Corea did make the deadline, the rehearsals and the tour went on without a hitch and Burton called it one of the finest professional experiences of his life.

We heard a lot about this sort of thing from the folks who were gathered there to play Corea's music and to recognize his accomplishments. He is apparently a generous collaborator and a consummate professional. Everyone seemed to be expressing a kind of subdued awe for this great jazz pianist. And they played his music beautifully and sensitively, especially as they got warmed up and surged with a new energy into the second half of the program. Finally, at the very end, Chick Corea himself was brought up on stage and after the expected handshakes and hugs, he sat down to play with them one of his recent and most successful compositions - Matrix. It was at that point, as Corea started those amazing jazz riffs up and down the piano that we could see clearly how great he is. For even in the midst of these wonderful, acclaimed musicians who came to pay this tribute to him, he stole the show. He completely controlled the stage. He was the attraction and it seemed no one could touch him, though it was interesting that Gary Burton seemed to play with even more speed and fury than he had at any time earlier in the evening. Chick Corea was at the piano and one of the greatest jazz pianist of his generation (along with Keith Jarrett?) utterly dominated the bracing finish. A great evening!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Warm Up In New York City

We have seen a bit of a warm up the last few days in New York City, and it's quite pleasant. Mind you, this is not a Florida-style or a Los Angeles-style warm up, this is a New York kind of warm up in which the high temperature goes from 25 to maybe 40 degrees. But whether it's my way of rationalizing the decision to live in New York City or the lowering expectations that seem to come with age or a genuine change in how I handle the cold, I honestly think I could embrace a climate that never went above 50. Most of all this has to do with what I enjoy when I am outside. And, of course, being the good New Yorker that I am, what I enjoy most is going for a walk. Walking is good when the temperature is 40 and just about perfect when it's 50 (or just at that point when you no longer need gloves). The things that I once needed warm weather for pretty much no longer apply. I'm not organizing any baseball games any more, not heading to the community pool, not even looking to get in a fast game of tennis. But I do revel in every chance I get to walk New York. Central Park is usually included, but I love walking down Broadway on the Upper West Side, strolling along Lexington on the Upper East Side, meandering up Hudson Street over in the West Village, or window shopping in Soho. My guiltiest pleasure is probably gazing at all the expensive things that I can't and don't really want to buy on Madison Avenue, but I also love exploring the winding streets just North of the Staten Island Ferry. There are parts of Harlem that are great, areas in the East Village that are wonderfully funky, even a not-too-often slog along Seventh Avenue as theaters are opening up can be fun. Wherever you go there is something interesting and you actually don't want it to be too warm if you're going any kind of distance and getting up any kind of speed. Those 50 degree days are just right for those long, wandering New York walks.

So I figure there isn't even much left of the really cold weather, probably just a handful of days before the highs are regularly in the 40s again or even higher. I'm a simple guy. All I want is some relatively mild weather and a crazy, mixed-up, infinitely complex city to walk in - if possible, without having to wear gloves.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Challenge of Parking

The other day, as I was tramping gleefully toward our local Barnes and Noble in anticipation of another pleasant booktalk, I was stopped by a man with a thick Eastern European accent whom I expected to request directions from me. This is something that happens quite frequently in New York City. But what he wanted instead was my judgment about whether he could park in an empty space along West 66th Street. Now, I have to tell you that I consider myself very lucky to be in the enviable position of not having to worry a jot about driving any more, and I am particularly delighted to report that the agony of parking in the city has been driven entirely from my mind. But when something like this comes up and I begin recalling all the times that as a New York resident with an automobile in the 1970s I searched in vain for a parking place, I get just a bit nauseous. In this case, though, my bewilderment took precedence over my nausea. I mean how did I know whether he could park there or not? The signs, as expected, were utterly confusing. He seemed to be contemplating a space that could lead to an immediate tow or that would allow him to safely leave his car there for hours. I honestly could not tell. But there was something about this man and my own identification with the absurdity of his problem that made me want to search out a police officer or some knowledgeable person to help him. I thought of walking up a half a block to Broadway where I knew a police officer was often stationed, but I realized, of course, that he would never be able to leave his post for that long. So I did the next best thing and sidled up to the clerk in a nearby convenience store to help. His English was so rudimentary, however, I couldn't quite make out what he was trying to tell me, but I was pretty sure it wasn't going to assist my hapless parker. I emerged from the store with my palms upturned to indicate that I was at a loss. I just didn't know how to help. The Eastern European accepted this and said something colloquial like, "I guess I'll take my chances," and within 10 seconds had expertly parked his car in the available space. I waved at him as I hurried up the street, relieved that trying to find a parking place in New York City would never again preoccupy me. It made the rest of my short jaunt to my B&N that much sweeter.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Slowing Down...

As the day before yesterday's post emphasized, New Yorkers are busy, on the move people, who have too little time to do all the things that need to be done in the big city. We hurry out of our apartments to hurry along the sidewalk to hurry to the subway to hurry to our jobs to hurry to our shopping to hurry to our shows and our late night dinners to hurry back to our apartments to hurry into bed. It's a rat race, as they say, but a really interesting one. Occasionally, though, it does us good to slow down; sometimes it even does other people good.

As I hurried from the Staten Island Ferry Terminal the other day to hurry into the Number One subway, I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of two things. First, I saw a surprisingly fragile man literally inching up the stairs from the subway, reaching, at first, in vain for the railing that he needed to grasp to maintain his stability. Everyone around him scurried by as if he were invisible. His staggeringly slow pace compared to all the hustle and bustle around him was almost laughable. Second, someone who had been hurrying along just like everyone else stopped abruptly. She stared just for a moment at this vulnerable man teetering on the subway steps and then she reached out swiftly and reassuringly. She guided him gently up the stairs, set him on his tortoise-like way back on the level pavement, smiled weakly as he took his mini-steps toward the Ferry, and then, quickening her own pace once again, hurried away. A very nice gesture, I thought. Simple, quick, helpful. It won't happen, though, without people who are willing to break out of their routines, even if just momentarily, to look out for someone else who might be in need.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Dr. Martin Luther KIng, Jr.

Sometimes it is worth recalling the actual birthdays of the people whose lives we now officially celebrate on Monday as a way to extend the weekend, even though those Monday celebrations rarely coincide with their real birthdays. You know what I'm talking about. Most of us have forgotten that February 12 was Lincoln's birthday or that February 22 was Washington's. And most of us probably never knew that Martin Luther King's actual birthday was January 15, 1929. If he had lived, he would be only 81 today. Amazing, huh? It is stunning to recall that he was only 26 during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, only 34 when he wrote the "Letter from a Birmingham Jail", only 34 again when he delivered the March on Washington "I have a Dream" speech, just 35 when he won the Nobel Peace Prize, and only 39 when he was cut down in Memphis, apparently by a lone assassin.

The United States celebrates about a dozen official holidays, but only three individuals are singled out by these holidays: Washington, Lincoln, and King. It has been commented on many times that King just isn't in the same league as these luminaries and that there are a dozen historical personages more worthy of a holiday than King. Let me state in the briefest of terms why I believe Dr. King's birthday does, in fact, merit a holiday celebration.

First, King was a remarkable man - courageous, eloquent, completely dedicated to racial justice and promoting democracy. He became the nation's conscience for a dozen years, forcing the country's citizens to wake up and to do something dramatic to address our democracy's most gut-wrenching contradiction: pernicious and outlandish inequality in a land built on the idea that all are created equal. His use of a combination of soaring rhetoric and strategic nonviolent resistance transformed America. And his own personal commitment to nonviolence, demonstrated again and again under the most excruciating of circumstances, make him the most inspiring leader in American history. Two quick examples. When his house was bombed in Montgomery, nearly killing his wife and young child, and when people began to gather outside his house with pistols and rifles, ready to do battle, he sent everyone home imploring them to put their weapons away and to follow the nonviolent path. He radiated peace and love at a time when most of us would have been seething with hatred. Second, when he was stabbed by a crazed woman during a book signing in 1959, a stabbing that nearly killed him, he responded with complete charity toward this woman, showing her no hatred or antagonism whatsoever, wanting for her only help and proper medical care. Despite his personal flaws, Dr. King truly was a man of peace who never wavered from nonviolence, and who, by the way, never did any of this for personal gain or to advance himself financially.

The King we do celebrate and must celebrate is the man who recognized that in promoting racial justice we would finally be living up to the American promise of a just and democratic society. Like Lincoln, he knew how to universalize individual events. Whether it was Montgomery or Birmingham or the March on Washington, King knew that the fight was not just for racial justice but for human justice, not just for civil rights but for human rights, not just for integration but for a nation finally learning how to live out the true meaning of its creed. As Eric Sundquist says in his recent book about the "I Have a Dream" speech, King's greatness "lay in his ability to elevate the cause of civil rights and the cause of America at the same time." Sundquist adds that King was a devout believer in America's foundational values, and that unlike his opponents, he understood those values profoundly. Through his speechmaking and writings and demonstrations he "purified and consolidated those values by insisting that only when the revolutionary rights they guaranteed were shared by Americans of all colors, creeds, and nationalities would they truly BE America's foundational values." Just as Lincoln transformed the Civil War into a struggle affirming the basic principles of the Declaration of Independence, so King made civil rights a quest for the nation's soul that continues to this day.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

"There's a lot to do"

There is a guy in our building who lives just down the hall from us, who works for ABC News as a news writer and can often be seen going in and out of his apartment at odd hours of the day or night. He sometimes returns from work at 7 AM and occasionally heads out to cover a story at 11 PM. A couple of days ago, I saw him leaving his apartment quite early at what seemed like a particularly brisk pace, and so I asked him if there was a fast breaking story he was hurrying to cover. "Naa," he answered. "This is my day off. But I'm a New Yorker, so I'm always in a hurry, there's a lot to do." I nodded, as he began to shuffle his feet impatiently waiting for the elevator. I wanted to follow up to find out what New York task was pushing him out the door in such a rush. I said something awkward about the cold weather and how it's hard sometimes to keep moving when the temperature is so low, but he just tilted his head in apparent agreement and stepped with me into the arriving elevator. "So," I went on, "what IS on your New York agenda for the day?" At that moment, I looked down at the small FAO Schwarz bag he was carrying, thinking he might be heading out for some major shopping. He caught my look and said, "I'm not an FAO Schwarz shopper, in fact, I'm not much of a shopper at all." I knew he was an observant Jew who often attended a nearby synagogue, but he usually wore his skull cap on those occasions. I wanted to know more, out of sheer curiosity, but before I knew it, he was striding out of the elevator and within a few moments had disappeared down the street. Just one of a million New Yorkers with so many things to do and so little time in which to do them.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Brooklyn Strong Man Struck Down at Age 104

I opened up the New York Times yesterday to see a headline in the Metropolitan section about a long-time resident of Brooklyn who was struck down during his daily 5-mile walk at the age of 104. As I began to read, I sort of wondered what finally did him in. Was it a stroke, heart failure, something connected to complications from cancer? This man, often called the Great Joe Rollino, was one of the most noteworthy strongman for his size the country has ever seen. Only 125 to 150 pounds, he could easily lift three times his weight. In the 150 pound category, Joe bested all comers. He was most proud, though, of his finger strength. Apocryphal or not, he proudly claimed that he once raised 635 pounds with a single finger! He was also a fearless swimmer who swam in the waters off Coney Island every day in every kind of weather for eight years in a row. The story goes that he was such a strong swimmer that he was able to bring the bodies of two drowning victims to shore on his own despite the fact that the police claimed they were unrecoverable. At one time, he also boxed under the name Kid Dundee, worked as a longshoreman for many years, even appearing in a scene from "On the Waterfront" that never made it to the finished movie, and served proudly overseas in World War II until the War ended in 1945, when he was a mere 40 years old.

So what struck him down? Literally a 1999 Ford Windstar Minivan hit him as he was crossing Bay Ridge Parkway. He had fractures to his pelvis, chest, ribs, as well as injuries to his face. He died later on Monday. So the Coney Island strongman who didn't drink alcohol or smoke or eat meat and who walked 5 miles each morning, regardless of weather, finally succumbed to that most dangerous of urban objects - the motor vehicle. What a sad yet predictably mundane end to a legendary urban life.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

"Dangerously Funny"

The title of the new book about the 1960s TV program the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour written by Terry Gross's TV critic, David Bianculli, is "Dangerously Funny." A good title, I think, for a book that could turn out to be a real sleeper, though, for all I know, everyone is predicting it to be a best seller. Doesn't feel like it though. Those events are just a bit too passe, too much like a tiny footnote that may not be all that worth recalling. I mean I remember the Smothers Brothers and their TV show. I remember when Pete Seeger sang his song "We were -- knee deep in the Big Muddy, but the big fool said to push on." It was a thinly disguised reference to the tragic foolishness of the Vietnam fiasco and to that most beloved of presidential fools - LBJ. For those of us watching at home it didn't seem like that big a deal (or did it?), but to the Johnson Administration, where everything, however minor, threatened national security (LBJ paves the way for RN, thank you very much!), it was just short of treason. Soon, the Smothers Brothers would be off the air and everyone would be blaming LBJ and his lackeys for putting the pressure on William Paley and CBS to get those boys out of sight. It was all pretty amazing. Another bizarre story from the 60s.

Well, as David Bianculli repeatedly told all of us gathered at the Lincoln Square Barnes and Noble last night, it took him 15 years to tell the story of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, a show that he thinks made Saturday Night Live and Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert and many others possible. It was a labor of love apparently, as he not only revered the show but stays in close touch with the Smothers Brothers themselves. He even writes the liner notes for their special DVD releases of the highlights from their three seasons. Tom is now 72 and Dick 70, David shared in answer to a question about them, and says they continue to tour the country doing their act and they're still, according to Mr. Bianculli, pretty darn funny.

The best part of the evening, though Bianculli was marvelous in sharing his enthusiasm for the boys, were the clips he showed of Pete Seeger and Mason Williams (Tom's partner in crime and composer of the popular Classical Gas) and Steve Martin (a writer and occasional performer in the 3rd season) and a bizarre clip of the Who smashing their instruments on the stage and blowing up Keith Moon's drum kit. All part of the good fun of the 60s, lovingly revived by that most trenchant of TV critics, David Bianculli. Boy, at this rate, I can get all my amusement for free at the local Barnes and Noble! What a great deal! And so convenient!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Central Park at Dusk

I strolled through Central Park yesterday evening, as the light from a bright, sunny day quickly faded and the bitter cold air that nipped at my cheeks grew even more frigid. With very few people around and traffic disallowed on Sunday, my surroundings seemed unusually still as I headed deeper into the Park. The light changed so rapidly I could hardly keep up with it. With each passing minute, another old-fashioned street lamp lit up the darkness and the meager remnants of ice and snow lying on the ground caught the glow of those lights and reflected it back gently, unostentatiously. As the Park got darker and colder, fewer people remained, but they missed its serene beauty, its quiet romance. However, as the dark descended, it wasn't just the Park that became more alluring now; it was also the city just beyond the Park that grabbed my attention. As the lights went on in the hundreds of windows that seem to impose order on that monumental array of buildings that stands at the South of the Park, I could see a kind of Mondrian-like pattern emerge that was strikingly reminiscent of his Broadway Boogie Woogie, with its emphasis on constant motion and relentless energy. Standing in the Park in the cold in the dark, I seemed to be able to view that motion and that energy, to see it and hold it, even as I reveled in my own sense of peace and stillness. That push and pull of activity and stillness, of incessant movement and slowing to a halt, that, too, is New York, a New York that would simply be impossible without the miracle that is Central Park.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Who is Daniel Pink and What is He DRIVING at?

Went to see the best-selling author Daniel Pink last night at the Lincoln Square Barnes and Noble, which is in my experience the best bookstore in the city, and just a few blocks from our door. Barnes and Noble has this terrific performance space on the second from the top of its 5 levels (the bottom floor, a kind of basement, has an incredible supply of CDs and DVDs) where many fine authors and performing artists appear. I am a fan of Pink because of his previous book called "A Whole New Mind" in which he argues that it is right-brain people who will guide the future by virtue of their aptitudes in six areas: Design, Story, Symphony (more or less an ability to synthesize), Empathy, Play, and Meaning. His new book is called "Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us," and the essence of it is that when it comes to complex work that involves creativity and out-of-the-box thinking the best way to encourage it is by giving it free rein. That is, that the work itself is its own best reward and that by honoring this notion and carving out time for people to be creative, creativity will be more likely to flourish. Apparently, in fact, if you use only traditional rewards such as money to reinforce creative behavior you may find that you are actively decreasing the likelihood that it will occur in the future.

Pink relates a simple experiment that has been tried many times. Two groups of participants are presented with the same materials: a candle, matches, and a box of tacks sitting on a small table. They are told to affix the candle to the wall so that the wax from the candle does not fall on the table. The members of the first group are presented with this problem and told by the experimenter that they will be timed in completing this task and so the faster they do it the better. The second group is given money for finishing, the faster they finish the more money they will receive. Which group do you think on average completes the task faster?

It turns out that this experiment has been replicated many times and that it is the group without obvious incentives that repeatedly does it at a considerably faster rate. Members of both groups at first try to tack the candle to the wall, which doesn't work; others try to melt wax to the wall and then stick the candle to the melted wax. That doesn't work either. In any case, there is a simple solution, but the point is that the group without extrinsic incentives solves it more readily, apparently because they are less constrained in how they think about the problem, more open and creative really, and thus better positioned to discern the solution. Whereas the incentivized group is literally more narrow-minded in its thinking, more focused on a specific goal and thus less inclined to see, say, alternate uses for ordinary objects.

If you haven't figured it out already, the solution is to empty out the box of tacks, use a couple of the tacks to attach the box to the wall and then to place the candle on top of the affixed box. Simple? Sure. But easier to see, and the evidence is overwhelming on this, when the rewards are not carrots but the simple satisfaction of doing an intriguing job well.

Of course, there is much more to the book that this, but this is the gist. Or, as Pink himself puts it, "Human beings have an innate inner drive to be autonomous, self-determined, and connected to one another. And when that drive is liberated, people achieve more and live richer lives." So that's what Daniel Pink is driving at, and it's probably a good idea for schools and community groups and organizations of all kinds to at least consider whether they have left room for the free play of that vital human drive. It can't hurt and it could do a whole lot of good.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

No Grooming!

So there I was in the men's room in the terminal of the Staten Island Ferry on the Manhattan side. I had just taken a leak and I turned to see a bright yellow sign fastened to the wall high above the wash basins and mirrors. The sign read:


No grooming at all? You can't even drag a comb through your hair? Or push an unsightly blemish around? Is adjusting your tie in front of the mirror taboo as well? And who's going to check, in any case? It seemed like such a ridiculous sign I decided to look up the word "grooming" to see if it had a more restricted meaning than I realized. American Heritage says "To make neat and trim, polish." defines it as "To care for the appearance of; to make neat and trim." It also says "To care for one's appearance." Seems harmless enough, right? But maybe they specifically meant no fingernail clipping, which, after all, would also count as grooming. It even occurred to me that this is a shorthand way of discouraging toenail clipping, an activity which, in my experience anyway, really could stand a sign. Or perhaps they're saying that it might be okay to comb your hair, but that you shouldn't be taking a scissors to it and leaving all those unsightly discarded strands in one of their sinks. Or maybe, just maybe, this being the terminal of the Staten Island Ferry and all, the sign serves as a friendly reminder that no matter how carefully you groom yourself, the ride on the ferry, with all that wind and fuss, will undo anything you've attempted to do neaten yourself up, so, please, don't even bother to try in the first place. "Positively no grooming" seems a bit strong, though, if that's the actual message.

To be perfectly honest, I'm not entirely sure what the sign is about, but I will admit that there are always a number of well trained drug sniffing dogs hanging around the terminal. It is likely that the grooming they are referring to is animal grooming, not human grooming. Still, if I am right, you have to admit that it remains humorously ambiguous. I'm still waiting for something direct and declarative in those bathrooms. Something like: ABSOLUTELY NO ARMPIT SNIFFING AT ANY TIME!

Friday, January 8, 2010

MoMA Thursday Nights

For the first time ever, I guess, MoMA tried opening until fairly late on Thursday evening. With MoMA you never quite know how late, as they are very liberal with their closing policies. When we left at 8:30 last night, the place was still jumping. In addition to the usual exhibits, there was live music, a cash bar, and a prixe fixe dinner in the much acclaimed CAFE 2. The theory is that a museum isn't just a place to view art any more; it needs to provide a total experience. This includes being a place to meet new friends, get a bit tipsy together, and enjoy the latest music.

We chose to try the Prixe Fixe dinner in the the always delicious and usually efficient Cafe 2. The dinner was 3 courses with two choices for each course. We decided to sample everything, so Karen had the lobster salad, the codcakes, and the chocolate tart with Vanilla gelato. I had the goat cheese salad, the lamb, and the bread pudding. Overall, the food was good but not quite up to Cafe 2's very high standards. The funny and frustrating part about the dinner was the manner in which it was served

After a short wait, I had the excellent goat cheese salad; no word on Karen's lobster. Together we ate the goat cheese salad, but Karen held back a little in anticipation of her own lobster confection. We finished the goat cheese salad, ate a few olives, still no lobster. Finally, it arrived, but it was the low point of the evening - unacceptably rubbery. A good 15 or 20 minutes later, Karen's codcakes were dropped off. Very nice. Once again, we ate this course together as my lamb was nowhere in sight. We finished the cod, but, naturally, I tried to show restraint, assuming my lamb would come by soon and knowing that Karen didn't care much for lamb anyway. Still no lamb. The next thing that appeared was the chocolate tart with the most delicious vanilla gelato we've ever had. At this point, Karen expressed her frustration that I still hadn't received an entree, even as she eagerly accepted the tart. At this point, the hostess was pitching in with service, as everyone agreed, including a couple of waiters, what a fiasco for everyone the service of the prixe fixe had become. She promised to deliver the lamb, and it did come by just a couple of minutes later. The lamb was cooked just right and had some good spices, but was just a trifle bland. In the meantime, Karen was digging into her tart with relish and especially singing the praises of the gelato. I occasionally reached over to complement my lamb with the essence of vanilla.

Before I was even finished with my lamb, the bread pudding came by, and it, too, was quite nice. As the bread pudding arrived, Karen asked for more vanilla gelato, which the hostess brought with an irresistible smile and an apology. She also served us really delicious coffee we had not ordered and did not pay for. In some ways, a disappointing evening, as we expect, well, perfection from MoMA, but overall it was a blast. Of course, these delays didn't leave a lot of time to see art, but we did cast an eye over Monet's late Water Lillies, which we can't seem to get enough of and which will be leaving MoMA soon, a few Pollocks, and some great Giacometti sculptures. We walked back to the subway quite happy, dreaming of vanilla gelato and goat cheese croutons.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Lincoln Center

Lincoln Center has quite a few detractors. For one thing, there are those who see it as the mother of all gentrification projects. In 1954, the area where Lincoln Center now sits was designated a prime area for slum clearance. Many of the more dilapidated buildings were torn down and a lot of folks were left with no alternative but to move out of the area. As the decade wore on, the dream to create a major arts center in this neighborhood gained momentum, and in May of 1959, President Eisenhower broke ground to begin the process of constructing the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. During the 1960s, most of the institutions we associate with Lincoln Center were completed and opened. These include roughly in order: Philharmonic Hall (later Avery Fisher Hall), the Lincoln Center Fountain designed by Philip Johnson, New York State Theater, the New York City Ballet, the New York City Opera, the Vivian Beaumont Theater, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, the Metropolitan Opera House, Alice Tully Hall, and finally in December of 1969 - the Julliard School for the Arts. During the 1970s, these institutions not only did well, they greatly helped the entire area to go through a major transformation. What had once been a questionable area was gradually becoming a very desirable place in which to live, and many new buildings went up in anticipation of this continued growth. And throughout the 1980s, that growth continued, reflecting New York City's resurgence as a great city, but also owing to the enormous popularity of Lincoln Center itself as one of the world's great centers for the arts. Some thought it was too big, overgrown, even garish. But most people loved it and showed their appreciation by making it one of their favorite destinations for opera, classical music, ballet, jazz, and theater.

Since those early days, Lincoln Center has continued to grow in the variety of the arts featured there. Now, thanks to Wynton Marsalis, jazz is a key part of the Lincoln Center experience. And for years, the Film Society has been a fixture. It is an amazing place and it immeasurably enhances the neighborhood in which we live. If something was lost as a result of the building of Lincoln Center, I would have to say that so much was gained with respect to culture and quality of life that those losses were ultimately worth it. All I know is I, for one, am glad to be nearby and able to take advantage of it, even when it's only ambiance or the beauty of a fountain that anyone walking by can enjoy.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

"What a great neighborhood!"

Last night at the new glass-enclosed Apple Store located on Broadway and 67th, about two blocks from our apartment, a world class pianist gave a 50 minute concert for free. According to the New York Times reviewer, it was an outstanding performance. As everyone was milling out, he heard one very satisfied audience member exclaim, "What a great neighborhood!" And I am here to tell you that I wholeheartedly agree. Although I did not have the good fortune to hear this concert, I did have a series of experiences on the same day that reminded me what exquisite judgment this exclaiming lady has.

First of all, I stayed home from work yesterday to do some grocery shopping and some laundry, and to catch up on a backlog of tasks I needed to complete. At about 4 o'clock in the afternoon, I put my tasks behind me and wandered out into the crisp, darkening cold. First I went to the New York City Performing Arts Library, which is exactly one block from our home and one of the five major research libraries that make up the New York Library system. It is a great library and has many CDs and DVDs that patrons can borrow, though they are limited to only 10 at a time. Tsk, tsk. As I explored the place for the first time in months, I stumbled on a really magnificent exhibit celebrating the 50th anniversary of Lincoln Center. You see, the Performing Arts Library has long been a part of Lincoln Center and one of its exits actually spills out into the great plaza that faces the large windows of the Metropolitan Opera. At any rate, in this surprisingly ambitious exhibit you can find some recognition of the many great productions and people that first won acclaim at Lincoln Center. Leonard Bernstein is there, Balanchine is there, Beverly Sills is there, Wynton Marsalis is there, Jerome Robbins is there, and the list goes on and on. There are wonderful video tapes, beautiful pictures, gorgeous costumes, and incredible posters commemorating this series or that production.

When I finally left the library, I found myself in front of a new reflecting pool that surrounds these monumental sculptures that I think are Henry Moores. In was so beautiful in the soft evening light that I could feel myself go breathless for just a moment. The pool is the kind that always seems to be about to overflow but never does and it just seemed like the perfect counterbalance to the imposing Moore sculptures.

Finally, I strolled over to my favorite New York bookstore just across the way - at 66th and Broadway - and climbed the escalator to their great performance space only to find this terrific jazz quintet in mid-improvisation of "Sophisticated Lady." There was a large crowd, and, as I listened, I couldn't help thinking how fortunate I was to be so effortlessly a part of all this. It is, indeed, a really great neighborhood!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Another Take on Teddy

The insightful historian and social critic, Jackson Lears, has recently published a new book on that key period in American history - 1877-1920 - that the great scholar Robert Wiebe many years ago definitively described as the "Search for Order." This was a hard time for a still weary and tentative nation, and as in so many other periods of uncertainty, people drew strength and confidence from a gallant and self-assured leader. That leader, Professor Lears tells us, was none other than that most quintessential of all New Yorkers - Theodore Roosevelt. And, of course, Teddy loved nothing more than for those less able and accomplished than he to admit their inadequacies while imploring him to furnish solutions to their problems. Teddy, who had read everything, seen everything, and done everything - from running the New York City Police Department to writing prize winning histories to stopping a ring of Montana cattle rustlers to leading a gang of thugs into an insignificant battle in Cuba - had all the answers. You didn't even have to ask. He would supply them one by one as he transitioned brilliantly from one arcane topic to another. But as brilliant as he was, such a one-man approach hardly advances democracy. At their worst, Progressives, who counted TR as their patriarch, claimed to follow a righteous path, owing to their superior wisdom and insight, that led to the end of history, an era where all conflict ceases and the better angels of our natures, schooled by brilliant leaders like Teddy Roosevelt, finally prevail.

Of course, it not only didn't turn out that way, such thinking may well have set the stage for the most horrific century the world has ever seen. And there is every reason to believe that we are making the same mistake all over again. It is rooted in the notion, going back at least as far as Plato, that only a few know what is right and that it is the duty of this tiny elite to guide the ignorant masses toward this unseen but undeniable good. And when there is resistance to the answers this select group provides, coercion, force and violence are not only acceptable, they become necessary.

Theodore Roosevelt, revered for so much brilliance and so many real accomplishments, had no conception of the things that really distinguished America. He had little or no regard for ordinary workers, Blacks, immigrants, Native Americans, even the military veterans who gave their lives for his dream of domination. He really did say this: "I don't go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn't like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth." And despite his credentials as a progressive (and perhaps because of them), he had little faith in the ability of ordinary people to solve their own problems without the intervention of superior men such as himself. Whether Roosevelt was exactly what the American people wanted and needed at that point in history and whether Roosevelt himself adjusted his temperament to meet some instinctive need to be controlled and dominated is immaterial. What I think is becoming clearer the farther we get away from the Gilded Age is that there are lessons to be learned from that time, almost all of them negative, and the more we seek out and study the anti-TRs - the role models celebrated for their gentleness and their revulsion for injustice and for their desire to make democracy work and nonviolence thrive - the better off future generations will be.

P.S. Dear Readers: I clearly have a complicated and downright weird relationship with Teddy Roosevelt. My apologies for the above outbursts. As Karen says, something goes "click," and I find myself not just writing about Teddy again, but condemning him in ways that are probably all out of proportion to his actual influence.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Theater as Imperative

We gotta have it - theater, I mean. Thanks to theater, we watch more closely, listen more acutely, feel more deeply, wonder more audaciously. Theater broadens our idea of what people can experience together. It expands our sense of the possible and may even strengthen our own imaginative powers. I don't have any proof for these claims, only first and second-hand knowledge of the tremendous emotional and intellectual forces unleashed by theatrical performance. It is difficult to overstate their impact.

The play I wrote about yesterday - "Circle Mirror Transformation" - doesn't feel like theater at all; there is so little obvious artifice or familiar theatricality associated with it. Which, of course, is part of its brilliance. We seem to be watching five people going through the motions of living, and the more we watch them, the more we get to know them and understand them and the more we see ourselves reflected in them. In a recent interview, the playwright Annie Baker talks about her special interest in the daunting challenges of communicating effectively with other people. She herself is terrified by the prospect of conveying meanings to others and falling into numbing silence or a kind of linguistic babbling when the right words do not come. Her play is, in part, about the horror of such communication - the fear of appearing foolish, never wholly overcome, and the need, despite the fear, to keep this precious conversation going. How to break through our twin inadequacies with both words and emotion, how to cope with the painful inevitabilities of boredom, meaninglessness, and miscommunication - all central to our everyday human dilemma and just waiting to be excavated through that most verbal of media - theater. Annie Baker pulls it off better than most contemporary writers perhaps because she, as much as anyone, is haunted by these very same demons, and is thus especially well positioned to unearth them in such funny and poignant ways.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Necessity of Theater

In his 2008 book "The Necessity of Theater," philosopher Paul Woodruff says that people need theater the way they need each other - "to talk things over, to have stories in common, to share friends and enemies. They need to watch, together, something human." At this point, it is worth recalling that theater and theory have similar etymologies, that both derive from the words "to behold" or "to view," and that both therefore, at their best, offer opportunities to gain fresh perspectives on the world. With the help of theater (and theory), we see things with greater clarity and insight, and are invited to reconsider those traits and those experiences that define us as human.

On Friday, we saw a new play by Annie Baker called "Circle Mirror Transformation." There is nothing Aristotelian or Shakespearean about it (at least not on the face of it), so perhaps Professor Woodruff would not find it worthy of further analysis or discussion, but I found it immensely resonant. The entire play is the story, over a 5 week period, of a small community education theater class - 1 teacher and 4 students - that in the process of undergoing a series of rather contrived acting exercises get to know each other and themselves in wholly new ways. They are, in fact, transformed by the experience. But those changes occur subtly, gently, even mundanely, and it is only as the play is ending that you realize how much has happened to them all.

What particularly fascinated me about all of this was how skillfully silence is used, for instance. At the very beginning of the play, the class has already begun and the five of them are lying on the floor. Nothing happens for what seemed like many minutes, though it was probably only a minute at most. Then you hear someone call out the number "one." Then "two," then "three," then two participants at once say "four," which requires them to begin again. It turns out they are engaging in a group exercise to test their ability to be "fully present," and which obliges them to count as a group to ten without any of the numbers being said by two people simultaneously. This elementary exercise captures all the awkward hesitations and pauses that are often part of any group's efforts to get to know one another, and that are echoed again and again in this play's developments. And it is, in fact, that supremely discomfiting awkwardness of human beings thrown together in a strange situation and trying to make contact with each other that this play explores with such sensitivity and insight. Nothing much seems to happen and yet...over the 5 weeks all 5 people have life-changing experiences. It is all so basic and yet so complex, a lot like real life. And the ways in which this often painful portrayal of human beings struggling to make sense of their lives forces the audience to do the same thing is just short of miraculous. You leave the theater with dozens of questions unanswered about these people and their motivations but at least some of those questions, unavoidably, inexorably, apply to your own life as well. Only live theater can do this for people, it would seem, and leads me anyway to the inevitable conclusion that Paul Woodruff is right. In a very real sense, theater does feel like a necessary part of being more fully human - more alive to the frailties and grimaces, the grace notes and generosities of everyday experience.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

One Wonderful Thing A Day

How about this for a New Year's resolution? Do one wonderful thing a day. Just one. Since landing in New York City, this has become a bit of a dilemma for me, as there seem to be hundreds of things worth doing at any one point in time. Not surprisingly, though, this seemingly advantageous situation presents problems. How do you decide what one thing is worth doing? What about all those other wonderful things that you rejected in favor of that one great thing you did decide on? What if the one thing you chose turns out to be a stinker? Just think of all the great stuff you could have done instead. One solution is to try to fit in three or four or even five great things everyday, knowing that at least one, and maybe two or three, will turn out to be terrific. But this strategy can also drive you crazy, and in spreading yourself so thin, can cause you to lose interest in all of it.

I thus return to one wonderful thing everyday. It could be a play, a movie, a museum visit, a musical event, a book talk, even a substantial walk through Central Park (more than just a traverse to get somewhere else). It should be something worth taking note of, as well, in this blog.

Yesterday, we did one especially wonderful thing. We saw a play called "Circle Mirror Transformation," and it was not only engaging in itself, it reminded me of how remarkable theatre can be, indeed, in the words of one recent commentator, even how "necessary" theatre can be. But more about that tomorrow.

Friday, January 1, 2010

David Levine Abides

Arguably, the greatest caricaturist of the second half of the twentieth century died the other day. His name was David Levine, and for over 40 years he most famously drew hundreds of cartoons for the New York Review of Books. Perhaps the most brilliant of them all was his rendering of LBJ displaying his gall bladder operation scar, something LBJ actually delighted in doing. But, of course, in Levine's version the scar is shown in the shape of Vietnam. Hard to imagine a picture doing a better job of expressing so much with so little.

There is another drawing by Levine which is similarly brilliant. It shows William F. Buckley in an almost perfect likeness but altered just enough to portray him at the same time as an innocent beaver. The beaver, as we know, is forever busy, mates for life, and derives great pleasure from damming up rivers and streams that eventually become his temporary abode, until he moves on to other similar obstructive projects. Which is pretty much how William F. Buckley made his living, when he wasn't writing those detective story potboilers of his. Oh, and for those who feel that this particular cartoon unfairly maligns beavers, hey, I'm with you, I'm very much with you.