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.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

MoMA Garden Party

Okay, so we're big supporters of the Museum of Modern Art, and when we learned that a garden party would be held in their lovely courtyard between 9 PM and Midnight on Tuesday, we thought it would be fun to attend.

Because we don't live all that far from MoMA and because it was an especially lovely night on Tuesday, we decided to walk. We did this in spite of the fact that Karen was wearing quite high party heels. Somehow, she can go almost anywhere in them. At any rate, there we were, strolling through Central Park and then along 5th Avenue. As we neared the 54th Street right turn to MoMA, I suggested to Karen that we play a game. "Will the entrance to MoMA be quiet and deserted," I asked her, "or will there be hundreds of well dressed twenty-somethings thronging the street outside the Museum?" She guessed that it would be quiet, as did I. But even before we made the turn we could see how wrong we were. The entrance to the museum on 54th Street that they happened to be using that night is about 1/3 of the way down the street, but the line of well-dressed twenty-somethings was already pushing out to 5th Avenue. What was going on?

Fortunately, we asked someone and learned that the line was for people who were trying to purchase tickets at the door, whereas we had acquired advance tickets. We felt just a bit haughty walking past all these glamorous people and right into the museum and the courtyard pulsating with loud music and streaked with flashes of color emanating from a strobe light. Food was not their forte, just nuts, popcorn, crackerjacks, and cheese puffs, but the wine and the mixed drinks flowed endlessly. Before we could get our bearings, we each retrieved some sort of orange marmalade margarita from a tray held by migrating waiters, but quickly jettisoned these rather bizarre concoctions in favor of a glass of wine.

Then, we found a good spot to stand (no sitting at the MoMA Garden Party) and watched this uninterrupted wave of prosperous New Yorkers strut by. Our best sighting was the artist Chuck Close in his now signature wheelchair - fully automated and elevated - and his companion, an absolutely smashing-looking supermodel type. As soon as she saw Close, Karen went to his side, toasted the cup he was holding in his hand, and said "we love you." We almost feel we know Close, as we have seen his super-realist paintings many times, watched a documentary about him on New Year's Eve, and said hello to him at a gallery opening a couple of years ago. Interestingly, we are going to see him next week in a conversation with Oliver Sacks, as they both suffer from an inability to recall people's faces.

Well, anyway, we did some of the best people watching of our lives at this party. There was supposed to be live music, but that didn't get going until we were ready to leave at around 11:30. By then, we were tired, and, truth be told, a bit tipsy (you know, we couldn't resist the endless flow of liquor). It was great, incredibly decadent fun, but only for a once in a great while occasion. Maybe we'll do something like it again in a couple of years to see if the bold and beautiful of New York remain as glitzy as ever.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Two in the Glass House

A play called "The Glass House," now playing on Theatre Row, is really about 2 glass houses and the 2 architects who made them. The 2 architects - Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson - were fierce competitors and utterly different personalities. Johnson was young, brash, and inexperienced. Mies was aging, self-assured, and a complete master of the architectural arts. Mies had the idea for a glass house first in about 1945. Philip Johnson, who saw a small model of what Mies had designed, became completely enamored with the idea of a glass house while he was still the architectural curator at MoMA, and brought his own glass house to fruition long before Mies. Mies, in far less of a hurry for recognition and fame than Johnson, though he had already acquired them as a result of a long line of highly distinguished work, finished his glass house for Mrs. Farnsworth in 1949. He labored on it deliberately and carefully until the result was exactly what he wanted. In the end, because of personal differences between Mies and Mrs. Farnsworth, the original vision for the glass house was not fully realized until much later.

The play suggests, however, that the contrast between the two houses shows the difference between true artistic vision and the work of a charlatan who is only out to achieve his selfish ambitions for money and power. Mies is, of course, the true artist in this narrative. Johnson is the Philistine with only half-baked ideas about
good design. How true this contrast is I cannot say, but the story of art for art's sake pitted against art for the artist's sake is always worth telling and is a reminder of the impressive power of an authentic artistic vision.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The New York Sun

How can it be that the sun so often shines so brightly and so strikingly in New York City? As a longtime resident of New Mexico, where the sun burns brilliantly much of the time, I never expected to live in a place on the East Coast where the sun was similarly appealing. Perhaps it is the water that is all around us that seems to make the sunlight brighter in New York. Maybe it is all the wonderful tall buildings with their transparent high windows that reflect the sun with such power. The light in New York City really does have a special quality, not just of brightness, but of breadth; it seems to spread out and reach more parts of the city than you would expect, particularly given all the places the light cannot reach. I don't know what it is, but I do know it is a remarkable, even an ethereal light that brings joy and wonder almost every time it beams. The sun may not shine as often as we would like, but when it does, it almost always has an unmistakably magnificent quality that makes each sunny day all the more remarkable.

Monday, May 24, 2010

"Two in the Wave"

We went to see a new film about the French "Nouvelle Vague" or "New Wave" the other day, and the two people who were by far its most famous proponents - Jean Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut. The film itself wasn't that hot, but what a great story! Two French critics, two struggling theoreticians of film who had been writing for the great film magazine Cahiers de Cinema for years, finally make good on their ideas by turning out two great motion pictures at the end of the 1950s - Truffaut's "400 Blows" and Godard's "Breathless." These truly were stunning, unique visions on celluloid made by two writers who had been complaining for years about the staid, conservative nature of French cinema. When they got their chance to show how different it all could be, they did not disappoint their viewers.

On the surface, Godard's film with its jump cuts, anti-narrative flow, and excruciatingly extended two person scenes, seems the more experimental of the two films. But its story is banal and downright silly (though that is partly the point) and is really more of a tribute to American gangster movies than anything else. Truffaut's film is authentically autobiographical and a deeply moving meditation on the trials and tribulations of childhood. It retains a universality that only deepens with time. On the other hand, Godard's playfulness and wry sense of humor have a lasting quality, too, that can easily be overlooked because of the silly story.

These two men who took the film world by storm and then went on to make many other influential films could not have been more different. Truffaut was working class, modest, and tentative. Godard was a child of privilege, rather boastful, and just a bit too full of himself. Their films, in many ways, reflected these contrasting qualities perfectly. In the end, Truffaut is the much greater filmmaker, while Godard is the more memorable personality. Both continue to have an impact on how films are made today.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Dvorak's "American"

The Emerson String Quartet played its final concert on Wednesday night in a chamber series devoted to late 19th century Czech music. Focusing in particular on the work of Antonin Dvorak, the Emerson thrilled the audience with its renditions of two of the works most closely associated with Dvorak's extended visit to the United States between 1892 and 1895 - the "American" Viola Quintet and the "American" String Quartet.

This was my first hearing of the Quintet, so I can't say much about it, but I have been an avid listener of the "American" Quartet since I first heard the Emerson play it outdoors in a Vermont meadow during the summer of 1977. But what exactly can a non-musician say, however enthusiastic his appreciation, about a work that is so complex and so hard to capture in words? Not much, really, but I'm going to try anyway.

Right from the beginning of the first movement as the violins trill in the background and the viola sings out this strong, spring-like opening theme, which is then echoed by the cello, you get this feeling of newness, of being on the brink of something bright and beautiful and unparalleled. I don't really know, but I think the America of the 1890s might have struck Dvorak this way and that in the process of paying tribute to musical themes emanating especially from Native and African American traditions, he was trying to capture something of the anticipatory excitement that some Americans, mostly white ones, felt at that time. That's a lot perhaps to read into a musical work, but there is no question that Dvorak came to America to teach people about the power of classical music, especially when it incorporates native folk themes, as he had done in his earlier Czech-influenced work, and witness American music first-hand, with the intent of using some of what he learned to push his own compositions in a somewhat different direction.

The "American" quartet may be the greatest result of this synthesis, though many people who like symphonic music might point to the "New World" Symphony. But it is in the "American," it seems to me, where Dvorak experiments most successfully with strains from Negro spirituals, especially in the slow moving and lugubrious second movement, and with themes from Native American dances in the first and third movements. More generally, I find the entire work enthralling. The alternating rhythms, the beautiful melodies, the insistent resonance of the dominating viola, all make for a chamber work that is one of the most delightful in the entire repertoire. And with the Emerson playing it so brilliantly in Alice Tully Hall as we witnessed it all from the front row, just a few feet from these marvelous musicians, the whole experience became a kind of perfect fantasy of what a musical listening experience should be.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Alan Alda's Commencement Address Part 2

Here is the continuation of Alan Alda's commencement address from 1980:

"For one thing, you can clean the air and water. Some people feel that lead poisoning was a major cause of the fall of the Roman Empire, because the ruling class had their food cooked in expensive pots that were lined with lead. They didn't know any better, but we don't have that excuse. Now almost 2,000 years later a number of American companies have hit upon the incredibly clever idea of getting rid of their industrial waste by putting it into our food. Not directly of course; that would be too expensive. First they put it in the ground, then it goes into the water, and the next thing you know you're eating a sludgeburger. You can do something about that.

Or you can try to make the justice system work. You can bring the day a little closer when the rich and privileged have to live by the same standards as the poor and the outcast.

Or you can try to put an end to organized crime, that happy family whose main objective is to convince us they don't exist while they destroy a whole generation with drugs and suck the life from our economy.

Or you can step gingerly in the path of the lumbering behemoth of nuclear power. And you can ask the simple question: What ever happened to the principle of no radiation without representation?

Or you can keep the tiger of war away from our gates for a while longer. You can do what you can to keep old men from sending children away to die. They're tuning up for the song of war now. They're making preparations and trial excursions. They're tickling our anger. They're asking us if we're ready to pour the cream of our youth out onto the ground where it will seep into the earth and disappear forever. Tell them we're not. The time to stop the next war is now - before it starts.

If you want to take absurdity by the neck and shake it till its brains rattle, you can try to find out how it is that people can see one another as less than human. How people can be capable of both nurture and torture. How we can worry and fret about a little girl caught in a mine shaft, spending days and nights getting her out but then burn a village to the ground and destroy all its people with hardly the blink of an eye. When the new draft was proposed a few months ago, some kids raised signs that said, "Nothing is worth dying for." I don't agree. I don't feel that nothing is worth dying for, but since I was very young I questioned if anything is worth killing for. If you're interested, you can question that, too, and you can try to find out why people all over the world, of every country, of every class, of every religion have, at one time or another, found it so easy, for reasons large and small, to use other people, to make them suffer and to just plain do away with them.

And while you're doing all of that, there's something else you can do. You can pass on the torch that's been carried from Seneca Falls. Remember that every right you have as a woman was won for you by women fighting hard. Everything else you have is a privilege, not a right. A privilege is given and taken away at the pleasure of those in power. There are little girls being born right now who won't even have the same rights you do when they grow up unless you do something to maintain them and extend the range of equality for women. The soup of civilized life is a nourishing stew but it doesn't keep bubbling on its own. Put something back in the pot as you leave for the people in line behind you.

There are, of course, hundreds of things you can work on, and they're all fairly impossible to achieve, so there's plenty to keep you busy for the rest of your life. I can't promise you this will ever completely reduce that sense of absurdity, but it may get it down to a manageable level. It will allow you once in awhile to take a glorious vacation from nothingness and bask in the feeling that, all in all, things do seem to be moving forward.

I can see your brow knitting in that way that I love. That crinkle between your eyebrows that signals your doubt and your skepticism just as it does on the forehead of your mother and your Grandpa Simon. The genetic code is signaling your doubt to me right now. Why, on a day of such excitement and hope, should I be talking of nothingness and decay? Because I want you to focus that hope and level that excitement into coherent rays that will strike like a laser at the targets of our discontent.

I want you to be potent, to do good when you can, and to hold your wit and your intelligence like a shield against other people's wantonness. And above all, to laugh and enjoy yourself in a life of your own choosing and in a world of your own making. I want you to be strong and aggressive and tough and resilient and full of feeling. I want you to be everything that's you, deep at the center of your being.

I want you to have chutzpah.

Nothing important was ever accomplished without chutzpah. Columbus had chutzpah. The signers of the Declaration of Independence had chutzpah. Don't ever aim your doubt at yourself. Laugh at yourself, but don't doubt yourself. Whenever you wonder about yourself, look up at the stars swirling around in the heavens and just realize how tiny and puny they are. They're supposed to be gigantic explosions and they're just these insignificant little dots. If you step back from things far enough, you realize how important and powerful you are.

Be bold. Let the strength of your desire give force and moment to your every step. Move with all of yourself. When you embark for strange places don't leave any of yourself safely on shore. They may laugh at you if you don't discover India. Let them laugh. India's already there. You'll come back with a brand new America. Have the nerve to go into unexplored territory. Be brave enough to live life creatively. The creative is the place where no one else has ever been. It is not the previously known. You have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. You can't get there by bus, only by hard work and risk and by not quite knowing what you're doing, but what you'll discover will be wonderful. What you'll discover will be yourself.

Well, those are my parting words as today's door closes softly between us. There will be other partings and other last words in our lives so if today's lingering at the threshold didn't quite speak the unspeakable, maybe the next one will.

I'll let you go now

So long, be happy.

Oh, by the way, I love you.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Alan Alda's Commencement Address

The United States is currently enjoying that time of the year known as commencement season, when colleges and universities all over the country are sending their students out into the world and speakers from all walks of life are invited to offer their best advice to the graduates. Many of us have have sat through dozens of commencement speeches that were ordinary, perfunctory, and unremarkable. Every now and then, though, a graduation speech holds our attention and even changes how we see the world. Such speeches are rare, to be sure, but when they come along, they should be appreciated and savored and re-experienced again and again. So here's just part of a really good one by Alan Alda from 1980. Even as a part, it's bit long, so the second part will be tomorrow. Enjoy.

"I want to tell you to be as smart as you can but to try to remember that it's always better to be wise than to be smart. And don't be upset that it takes a long, long time to find wisdom because nobody knows where wisdom can be found. It tends to break out at unexpected times like a rare virus and mostly people with compassion and understanding are susceptible to it.

The door is inching a little closer toward the latch and I still haven't said it. You'll be gone and I won't have found the words. Let me dig a little deeper.

Let me go back to when I was in college. There were words that had power for me then; maybe they will for you now.

I had forgotten how much this idea meant to me, how much I wrote about it and thought about it. It was the essence of a philosophy that was very popular at the time and it's one of the most helpful and cheerful ideas I've ever heard.

It's this: Life is absurd and meaningless and full of nothingness. Possibly this doesn't strike you as helpful and cheerful, but I think it is, because it's honest and because it goads you on.

I had a teacher in those days who saw me with a book by Jean Paul Sartre under my arm and he said to me, "Be careful, if you read too much of that you'll start walking around dressed in black, looking wan, doing nothing for the rest of your life." Well, I read the book anyway and as it turned out, I'm tanned and lovely, I'm rich and productive and I'm happy like nobody's business.

Maybe it was my natural optimism at work, but what I saw and warmed to in the existentialist writings was that life is meaningless unless you bring meaning to it; that it is up to us to create our own existence. Unless you do something, unless you make something it's as though you aren't there.

I was very taken at the time by a Catholic existentialist called Gabriel Marcel who spoke about fidelity as essential to existence. Fidelity had a special meaning for him. It meant presence, being there with the people around you. None of this seemed dour to me. Existentialism was supposed to be the philosophy of despair. But not to me, because it faced the cold hard stone you hit when you touch rock bottom and I saw in it a way to bound back up again. No matter how loving or loved we are, it eventually occurs to most of us that deep, deep down inside there, we're all alone. I'm not telling you this to depress you or to turn your eyes away from the soft flutter of blossoms on a day in spring. But I know that winter's coming and when the moment comes for you to wrestle with that cold loneliness which is every person's private monster, I want you to face the damn thing. I want you to see it for what it is and win.

This spring is the fulfillment of an era in a way. It was news back then when people declared God to be dead, but now Sartre is dead; and in a curious way so is the optimism that spawned his pessimism. The distressing reality is that 25 years ago when I was in college we all talked about nothingness but moved into a world of effort and endeavor. Now no one much talks about nothingness, but the world itself, the one you will move into, is filled with it.

You may not feel it right now, not on a day like this. Maybe it's something that strikes you, not when you graduate college, but only when your child does. But whenever that sense of absurdity hits you, I want you to be ready. It will have a hard time getting hold of you if you're already in motion. You can learn the skills of your profession. You can use those skills and others you have learned here and you can dig into the world and push it into better shape."

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Passing the Time on the Subway

How do people spend their time on the subway? After a careful and systematic study of this question, I have come to some general conclusions. The most common way to pass the time on the subway is to stare into space. Yes, it's true. By a wide margin doing nothing at all is the most frequent subway passenger activity. And no wonder, really. We all get so used to being squeezed into this small space with too many people, in which it is impossible to hold a newspaper or carry on a private conversation, that just about the only thing left is nothing. Of course, nothing comes in a variety of forms. On morning trains, another highly common activity is sleeping. Also frequent is monitoring one's phone or Blackberry. Reading is probably the third or fourth most popular way to spend the time, right after nothing, sleeping, and Blackberrying. Other favorites are conversing with a fellow passenger, panhandling, promoting a product or service, putting on makeup, and talking to oneself. Here, then, is the official top ten list in order of frequency:

1. Staring into Space
2. Sleeping
3. Monitoring one's electronic device
4. Reading
5. Conversing
6. Panhandling
7. Loudly promoting a product or service
8. Talking to oneself
9. Putting on makeup
10. Writing or completing a puzzle

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Educational Testing Service

For the last couple of days, I have been staying at the Henry Chauncey Conference Center that is one small part of the huge compound where the Educational Testing Service (ETS) is located, here in Princeton, New Jersey. The conference Center is beautiful, with wonderful accommodations, delicious food, and incredibly hospitable service. The Center, by the way, is named after Henry Chauncey, ETS's first CEO when this august citadel of the American meritocracy opened its doors in 1947 with a large grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. In his memoir, former Harvard President James B. Conant claimed that with the use of his Harvard connections and his interest in employing standardized tests to determine college admission, he, in effect, "set Henry Chauncey up in business" in 1947. Things have been going swimmingly for ETS ever since.

So why the huge compound with its scattering of buildings nestled in this bucolic setting, not unlike a low security military base? One theory would be that this setting provides physical protection from the rebellious masses. When the people, who have been duped time and again by the loopy logic of ETS, finally decide to rise up and once and for all seek to dismantle by force this embodiment of the capitalist status quo, they can be easily turned away by rapidly assembled military forces who will be arrayed along expansive grassy knolls sworn to protect Henry Chauncey's grand legacy. For what is America in 2010 without ETS?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Front Row Seat with the Emerson

For the second of three concerts, we once again sat in the front row at Alice Tully Hall to hear and watch the world renowned Emerson String Quartet play the incredibly challenging chamber music of Antonin Dvorak and Leos Janacek. To be that close is a tremendous privilege, particularly in the case of the Emerson, because they are famous for communicating closely with each other by employing a quick look, displaying an alert eye, waiting with an anticipatory hand. They are the most democratic and collaborative of musical groups, always striving to work together, to make their sound as whole and integral as possible. If they lose that sense of togetherness, they have lost everything. But if they can hold on to it, as they invariably do, they can wow their audiences with their passion, their solidity, their sense of wholeness. They are such an accomplished and professional musical ensemble. Nothing seems to faze them, to keep them from near-perfect performances again and again.

Each member has his distinctive personality. Philip Setzer, often the first violinist, is steady, undemonstrative, and highly skilled. Eugene Drucker, who alternates with Setzer, also is unemotional, at least on the surface, and is similarly skilled, but his intellectual approach to the music conceals a tremendous pent-up passion for the romantic music they are playing. David Finkel, the cellist, often smiling, constantly looking to his companions for cues and leads, plays his instrument with flawless delight. Finally, Larry Drucker, the violist, who gets to do more during the Dvorak concerts, as Dvorak, too, was a violist, sways softly to the music, evincing a sense of being entranced by what they are playing that is undetectable in the others. Together, they make a beautiful sound that never lets the audience down. What a thrill!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Subway Operator as Therapist

Recently, on a very busy and badly delayed morning on the New York City underground train, the subway operator resorted to the language and terminology of a therapist to keep everyone orderly and calm. Part of the problem, apparently, is that when the subway cars are extremely congested, people end up leaning on the doors, which can, in turn, jam them, making these doors temporarily unusable. This, in part, is what the subway operator that morning was struggling to overcome, as delays lengthened and passengers' nerves also grew increasingly frayed.

After waiting for an inordinately long time for a train, we boarded and heard a surprisingly talkative operator asking us to "be courteous to one another." A moment later, as the train stalled between stations, we heard a softly pleading voice imploring, "work with me, work with each other." When the train did reach its next stop, he begged for us to "let the passengers off first" before boarding and then that he counted on us to ensure that "a smooth transition" occurred. "Work with me," he demanded again, and then more strangely, "Don't worry about seeing the station, just listen for my voice, you can count on my voice." Perhaps people were crowding toward the doors and windows to look for their particular stops and this, too, was causing pushing, congestion, and jamming of the doors. As we pulled in to each station, this gradually became a kind of mantra: "Don't worry about seeing the station, just listen to my voice. I will announce the name of the next station at least twice. Just count on my voice." And then at the next stop: "Let them off first, let them off first, let's have a smooth transition." And then, as the train started up again, as if we didn't know, he would whisper, "Here we go, here we go." And as people fell into a routine that he liked, and as the trains became somewhat less congested, he announced encouragingly, "So far, so good, so far, so good." And "you really are working with me now, that's good, that's good."

When we finally reached the last stop, my stop - the Staten Island Ferry, he seemed to breathe a sigh of relief. "We made it, I told you I would get you here. Everything's fine, be kind to one another. Have a good day, try to at least. Try to at least." All I can say is, I did my best, egged on by my friendly neighborhood subway operator.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

A Full Day

Yesterday included an hour-long bike ride along the Hudson River; another hour of walking from the Upper West Side of Manhattan to Chelsea; visits to two art galleries in Chelsea; viewing a short, documentary-type play at 59 E 59 street about the perils of immigrating from Guatemala to LA; taking in the exhibit at the New York Public Library on the history of mapping New York's coastline; eating a delightful outdoor meal in Bryant Park, behind the Library; and enjoying a live Retro production of an old Tracy and Hepburn movie called "The Desk Set." Each part of this day was terrific fun on a day where the sun shone brightly and the temperature never exceeded 70. I am choosing to focus on just one small part of it - one of the Chelsea art galleries.

The Gagosian Art Galleries are among the largest and most prosperous galleries in New York. Their exhibit spaces are enormous and the works they display tend to be very distinguished. Yesterday we enjoyed the privilege of seeing some late works of Monet at one of these galleries, from 1907-1926, that focused on one subject matter - the lily pond in his backyard. These are large, overwhelmingly beautiful works that show Monet's genius as a colorist, his ongoing experiments with how the time of day and season affect the play of light, and his inexorable yet very logical movement toward nearly complete abstraction. His Japanese bridge pictures that were completed between 1918-1924 particularly show this progression. At their most abstract, they are only faintly representational and reminded me of some of the works of the abstract expressionists of the 1940s. Really amazing. I think we all have painters we are especially drawn to. For me, one of these painters is, in fact, Claude Monet.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Eye of the 20th Century

Last Thursday morning, we attended a special morning opening for MoMA members. Among the exhibits available for viewing was a breathtaking one featuring the photographs of the great French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. Sometimes called the "eye of the 20th century," he may have been the most adept photographer at capturing "life on the run," placing a moment of experience inside a frame that seemed to sum up an entire era. This was especially true for his career as a photojournalist, most famously chronicled when he was a recurring correspondent for Life magazine.

Although many photographs in this show were riveting, one, in particular (shown here), reaffirms photography's power to tell a whole story in a single frame. From April of 1945 and taken in Dessau, Germany, even before the war's end has been officially declared, the photograph shows a woman whose head is hanging in shame and is accused of being an informer for the Gestapo. Another woman nearby extends her arm toward the accused and seems to take great glee in declaring her a traitor. In the meantime, a strong Aryan type wearing dark glasses and a white starched collar sits at a table, seemingly ready to declare the informer guilty. While this drama is played out, at least 20 people surround the central figures, considering, condemning, judging, dispassionately looking on. It is a remarkable picture at a crucial moment in history.

Friday, May 14, 2010

No More Cartwheels

She was one of 3000 Ziegfeld girls, and, most likely, at 14, the youngest ever to debut on a Ziegfeld stage. She became the last of those 3000 to survive. Wearing a shining red costume, she won notoriety as the gleaming paprika in the Follies' legendary salad dance. She claimed to be the first person to warble "Singin' in the Rain," co-written by her lover at the time, while 8 chorus boys surrounded her. She described her experience as a member of the Ziegfeld Follies as a time of "beauty, elegance, loveliness."

As part of a famous performing family, she danced in public for the first time at the age of 5. George Gershwin played the piano in her family's parlor and Lucky Lindy, not long after his triumphant solo flight across the Atlantic, once dropped in to chat over tea. When the Depression hit and show business jobs became scarce, she opened up a series of dance studios where she taught Henry Ford II, among many others, how to dance. After many years as a dance teacher, she returned to school and earned her BA in history and a Phi Beta Kappa key from the University of Oklahoma. Only a few weeks ago, at the age of 106, she displayed her high kick technique for the audience at the Minskoff Theater, assembled to benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. She apologized for not feeling well enough to contribute a few of her signature cartwheels. Her name was Doris Eaton Travis and a few days ago she died in Commerce, Michigan, 10 months shy of her 107th birthday

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Roth Redux

We enjoyed another phenomenal chamber music concert with the Emerson String Quartet on Sunday afternoon at Lincoln Center. This time the theme was the Bohemian genius of Antonin Dvorak and Leos Janacek. The highlight was the Dvorak Piano Quintet, with the wife of the Emerson's cellist, David Finkel, filling in as pianist with only a week to spare. She, Wu Han, was sensational.

But the other thing that happened inevitably was an encounter with Philip Roth. Sometimes we think we're being stalked by him, but, of course, we know it's just that he loves chamber music as much as we do. After all that has happened between us I wasn't sure what to say to him, but he wasn't interested in talking to me particularly anyway. Instead, during the intermission he ignored me and greeted Karen with undiminished enthusiasm and began chatting her up amiably about the quality of the Janacek quartet we had just heard. He commented how much he likes Janacek and what a pity it is that it is played so rarely. Karen, who also enjoyed the Janacek enormously, nodded and smiled and continued talking with him about the Janacek for another three or four minutes. Suddenly, Roth was surrounded by a few of his fans and Karen and I retreated to the corner of the atrium, sipping our wine and munching on these fantastic cookies that they sell at Alice Tully Hall. Wanting to be as interesting as Roth to Karen but unable to think of anything to say, I pulled her aside and whispered:

"Aren't these amazing cookies?"

"Hmm," she said, finishing hers with a final gulp.

"I mean," I went on, "They're so chewy and nutty and chocolatey all at the same time. I'm not sure I have ever had a cookie quite as extraordinary as this."

"They are delicious," she responded as she looked around the room, seemingly desperate to find someone more interesting to talk to.

"And have you noticed what a great aftertaste they have. Some cookies leave you feeling dissatisfied, but these just keep getting better even after they are gone."

No response at all from Karen.

"Cookies are such a pleasure, you know, when they're really good. Truly an underestimated delight, something rare and kind of wonderful, you know what I mean."

Karen excused herself to go to the restroom and I continued to stand in the corner waiting for the intermission to end. As I headed back for my seat, I was rather surprised to see Karen once again in animated conversation with Roth. I heard something about the beauty of Prague, where they both had traveled at different times in their lives and then references to Dvorak, Janacek, and Vaclav Havel. They were really having quite a spirited and wide ranging conversation, but all I could think about was how great that cookie still tasted in my mouth.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Staying Safe on the Staten Island Ferry

Last Saturday dozens of people were hurt when the Staten Island Ferry's brakes stopped working and it barreled into the dock on the Staten Island side at a reported 5 knots (though it was probably going faster). On impact, the many people who were standing by the exit of the ferry or on the stairs leading to the exit were almost certainly thrown to the ground, though apparently a number of people who saw what was about to happen also got hurt bumping into obstructions as they tried to run away from the front of the boat.

Although the accidents on the Ferry are rare, it surprises me that one simple precaution is not taken. If everyone were politely asked to remain seated until the boat is docked, I think the potential for future injuries would be greatly reduced. I have now been riding the Ferry for 2 years, much to my amazement, and I can recall early on how alarmed I was about the number of standees who congregate at the front of the boat as it nears the shore, and especially how little care is taken in keeping passengers off the stairs just before docking. There are signs that warn people to be careful about taking the stairs during docking, but I don't think I have ever seen anyone actually asked to stay off the stairs.

Seems simple enough. But these habits die hard. And it is fun to stand on the bow of the boat as the shore gets progressively closer. I just wish we could count on this always being a safe thing to do. Because occasionally it clearly is not.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Anti-War Grannies

The great Clyde Haberman, chronicler of all things New York, wrote in the New York Times on Friday about the Anti-War Grannies who gathered last week in the same spot in Midtown Manhattan for the 330th consecutive Wednesday to express their disapproval of America's wars. As Haberman points out, of the 21 people who actually protested, 5 were men and a handful were young women in their 50's, but most were grandmothers, 65 and older, who for many years have been consistent and organized critics of America's folly overseas. One was 92, another 90, and all regretted the fact that this demonstration continued to be necessary. A few passersby greeted the Grannies with approval, while a couple of others chided the Grannies for their disloyalty. Still others regarded the whole thing as kind of "cute." But as the Grannies said, "This isn't about being cute." For them, it had to do with disrupting the routine of people on the street, getting them to think about something that most people just want to avoid. Interestingly, though, one of the protesters remembered A.J. Muste, the great pacifist who died in 1967, and who, as head of the Fellowship for Reconciliation for many years, introduced a whole generation of civil rights activists to the power of nonviolent resistance. When Muste was asked what possible difference a small nonviolent demonstration against war could make, he supposedly replied: "I don't do this to change the country. I do this so the country won't change me."

And so the Grannies continue to gather to denounce war, as much to uphold their own convictions as to protest something they despise. We can only admire them, and in a similar fashion, find our own way to remind ourselves of the values we hold most dear and how to actualize them.

Monday, May 10, 2010

David Remnick's "The Bridge"

Have you noticed that when certain books are first reviewed you don't get the full sense of how good they are until later, sometimes much later? I am guessing this is true of David Remnick's new book about Barack Obama called "The Bridge." The bridge in the title here means many things but my favorite is the quote from the legendary SNCC activist and long-time Congressman from Georgia - John Lewis - who was one of participants in the Selma march for voting rights back in 1965: "Obama is what comes at the end of that bridge in Selma."

What makes Remnick's book so great are 3 old-fashioned things: Good writing, meticulous research, and skillfully providing a sturdy historical context for the main events in Obama's story. With respect to that third point, for instance, Remnick does not believe you can make sense of Obama's rise to power without understanding in some depth the Civil Rights Movement. Similarly, since you can't really understand how groundbreaking it was for Obama to be elected President of the Harvard Law Review without an appreciation for Harvard's preemimence as a law school, Remnick goes back to the late 19th century to describe Christopher Columbus Langdell's innovations at Harvard Law with the case study method. Even more revealingly, you can't really appreciate Rush Limbaugh's outrageously racist claim that Obama didn't write his own autobiography without acknowledging that a long line of distinguished African American autobiographies have been subjected to the same racist attack: that they couldn't possibly have been written by their reputed authors alone. One of my favorite context-setting scenes in the book is Remnick's exploration of the history of community organizing, a profession much maligned by Republicans during the 2008 presidential campaign, but one with an important and impressive Chicago background, thanks to the indispensable contributions of the great organizer Saul Alinsky.

Perhaps I have gone on too long with these examples, but my point is that Mr. Remnick's book will last because it has refused to oversimplify a long and complex story and because it insists on giving history its due.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Three Legged Dog

Walking up Broadway the other day, I saw a three-legged dog. He was missing his right front leg, which you would think would turn out to be a pretty important limb, but here's the thing: Despite a slight hitch in his gait, he was moving along just fine and seemed to be one perfectly contented animal (to the extent you can discern such things in a dog). It was such a striking reminder how well animals of all kinds can adapt to adversity. This is not my first three-legged dog. That came many years ago and I recall being utterly flummoxed by it. Three legs? I mean how could you expect it to get anywhere at all?! Since then I have seen quite a few such disabled animals. In fact, it becomes easy to just take it for granted that dogs can get by on three legs. But there was something about that dog strutting up Broadway that sort of pulled me up short and reminded me once again how marvelously resilient the things of nature tend to be.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Biking Dilemmas

Biking season has begun, which is great, but it does present dilemmas as well. Where we live there are two great rides one can take. One is, of course, around Central Park, which is only two blocks away. The other is in Riverside Park along the Hudson River, also the equivalent of about a two block ride. The Central Park route is more reliable. You always know what to expect, know precisely how far you're going (6.2 miles for each loop), and know almost exactly how long it will take. The Hudson River ride requires you to go along a route that is relatively narrow with a lot of runners, walkers, and bikers, and you never know when you will run into a garbage truck or a utility truck that blocks your way. Hard to gauge how long it will take and you must make a decision at some point to turn around, or you could keep going for a long time. All in all, the Central Park ride is easier and, at least on weekdays, the go-to ride.

But it's not as simple as all that, because, while the Park is free of cars until 7 AM, at that point, about a mile of the park is available to cars. And at 8 AM the floodgates open and anybody in a motorized vehicle can go just about any place in the Park until at least 10 AM and certain parts of the Park until 7 PM, when it is finally closed again entirely to traffic. So the point is if you go out at, say, 7:30 AM (as I did the other morning), you are going to get caught in the big traffic, so you're better off with the Hudson River trail. But, you know, you've got to think all this through ahead of time, but, on the other hand, it's early morning, after all, and sometimes the brain doesn't work that well at dawn. But you have to force yourself to think, so that you can enjoy the best ride possible. True, not the worst problem in the world, really not a problem at all. And isn't it lucky to be in the middle of New York City and to have two great bike rides available to you within easy walking distance? Still, it's important to stay alert to all the possibilities, at least that's what I've always heard.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Next Fall Nominated for TONY!

"Next Fall," a play I have been touting for some time as one of the most underrated theatrical experiences of the year, has just been nominated for a Tony. I am delighted. It is up against some pretty tough competition, including: 1) "Red," the play about Mark Rothko, by John Logan; 2) Sarah Ruhl's "In the next room or the vibrator play," and 3) Donald Margulies "Time Stands Still," which featured an all-star cast led by Laura Linney. Now it just so happens that I have seen all these plays, except the Margulies, though I did just see an older play of his called "Collected Stories" that I thought was great. Still, unless "Time stands still" is amazing, then in my humble opinion "Next Fall" deserves to win. Unfortunately, I don't think it will, as "Red" appears to be the strong front runner this year. It is a fine, glittering production, with terrific performances from Alfred Molina as Rothko and Eddie Redmayne as his assistant. It epitomizes what a really flashy play does. And who doesn't love flashy.

"Next Fall" on the other hand is a gentle, funny, emotionally stirring play about the most ordinary people and how they relate to each other. It's about a gay couple struggling to get along and it has strong religious undertones because one of the people in the relationship is a fundamentalist and the other is an agnostic. When one lover gets into a fatal accident, the families and friends of the respective partners clash. But, really, what makes this play so beautiful is how simple and true it is. Simple and true. Ought to trump flashy every time.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Boots Stretched Here

I was riding along in the shuttle that goes from Wagner College to the Staten Island Ferry when I saw one of those fold up sidewalk signs standing outside an old hardware store. It read simply: "Boots Stretched Here." I couldn't help thinking about this marvelous and unusual service. Just when those new boots of yours are getting intolerably uncomfortable, you can always walk right into that old hardware store, quietly remove them from your stinging feet, and ask for a stretch. Who Knows? Maybe there are levels of stretches. A short stretch for five bucks and a long stretch for 15. Maybe even a super-sized stretch for 25. And there would have to be an overnight stretch for a cool 50.

I don't know about you, but such thoughts do make my imagination run. How about a sign that says "Backs Scratched Here." For a buck you could enjoy a quick scratch and for another sawbuck they'll find that unreachable spot that has been driving you crazy and give it a good rub.

I would buy from a clothing store that displayed a sign saying "Clothes Tried On Here." Imagine someone exactly your size who for a price would try on all those pants and shirts that you ordinarily have to go into the dressing room for. Then you have to come out to show your companion the fit, then return for another try on. With someone else trying on your clothes, the agony of clothes shopping would ease considerably.

Best of all might be a strange and imposing storefront bearing the tagline "Ideas Tested Here." You could go in there and mention solar energy or charter schools or world government and they would give each of these noble ideas a good test. How this would be done, I have no idea. But it would be reassuring to have a place where you could go to test your ideas, whatever they might be. You have to keep the faith. If they can stretch your boots, surely they can give your ideas a good spin around the analytical block.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Who's Vulnerable

As I disembarked from the Staten Island Ferry the other day, I walked alongside an elderly man who moved with a pronounced limp and was bent over like a partially opened jackknife. He had red bruises all over his face, and his chin and jaw were grizzled and weather beaten. He didn't smile or reveal any delight in his eyes or face at all and his movements suggested that every step brought at least a little bit of pain, and perhaps even a lot. He didn't say anything and kept his head steady and straight, looking neither right nor left. He clearly was going someplace, but it was hard to tell if he was heading off for work or to see a sick relative or to take the ride back to Manhattan on the ferry. He looked unhappy, ill, unsatisfied, and vulnerable. But at the same time he also looked tough, resilient, and game. Are all these qualities possible at the same time? Can someone be vulnerable and yet resilient? Unhappy yet game. Unsatisfied yet determined?

Of course. We're human. We're frustratingly mysterious and made up of hundreds of contradictions and tensions. But we're also unencompassable. We contain multitudes.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The end of the world

The cover story of the latest issue of The New Republic offers Nine Scenarios for Imminent Apocalypse (And Only One is Global Warming). Some of the others include ocean acidification, extinction rates, land and water use, ozone depletion (I thought we resolved that one), and something about a disruption in the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles. The New Yorker, also this week, points to nuclear proliferation as the likeliest cause of our imminent demise. In fact, the New Yorker warns that if Wall Street were to be hit by a nuclear bomb, the worst thing you could do is escape to Long Island, something Long Islanders, even without the threat of nuclear holocaust, have been discovering to their dismay now for decades.

In any case, despite my admiration for these august periodicals, I think they both have it all wrong. To my relief, anyway, the end of the world is still a few hundred years off, but when it does come it won't be the result of climate change or nuclear war or even ocean acidification (as bad as that sounds). No, it will happen because contrary to previous forecasts, human skin is getting increasingly thinner, not thicker, and over a surprisingly short period of time, as people confront each other with more and more teasing, abuse, mockery, and sheet meanness, our skin will become so thin, so attenuated, so insubstantial that people will suffer en masse from epidermal insufficiency. Our skin will become so thin that it will no longer be able to contain us, and, worst of all, as we grope in vain for that dangling tissue and sinew that no longer have any place to go, the infinite pleasures of being comfortable in one's own skin will finally be denied us forever.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The van Gogh I don't know

Van Gogh was a great, visionary expressionist artist who was also mentally unstable. He had few friends, lived for his art, and mainly cared about producing as many good pictures as possible. He came to art late and basically taught himself how to paint. His favorite subjects were still lifes, landscapes, and portraits. At one point in his life, after he and Gauguin had spent a fair amount of time together in Arles, he became so unhinged that he disfigured himself. He shot himself in 1890 and died without ever having sold any of his paintings.

The above is pretty much what I think I know about van Gogh. I'm actually not sure if it's all even accurate. I'll check later. But I went to a lecture about van Gogh and Gauguin at Arles the other day at the MET and was a little surprised to learn how relationally needy van Gogh was and how much he craved the companionship of people like Gauguin, especially Gauguin.

The lecturer, an art historian from Sarah Lawrence College named Jerrilyn Dodds, spoke very movingly about van Gogh's fervent hope that Gauguin would join him at Arles so that they could paint together and develop a closer friendship. In a letter from May 1888, van Gogh writes to Gauguin:

"And that it would seem to me that if I could find another painter inclined to work in the South, and who, like myself, would be sufficiently absorbed in his work to be able to resign himself to living like a monk who goes to the brothel once a fortnight - who for the rest is tied up in his work, and not very willing to waste his time, it might be a good job. Being all alone, I am suffering a little under this isolation."

Clearly, it was about the chance to do even better work in Gauguin's presence, but it was also about van Gogh's considerable need for some kind of professional and personal relationship. And for van Gogh, the stakes were high. One author has said that he was both exhilarated and anxious about the prospect of Gauguin's arrival, but that his concern that the prickly Gauguin would end up not liking the arrangement continued to heighten until Gauguin finally did agree to share a house with van Gogh. Van Gogh became obsessed both with the desire to work side by side with Gauguin and the growing certainty that Gauguin would come to hate such a partnership. It could easily be surmised, that to invest so much emotion in what seemed like an interesting but hardly life changing decision was asking for trouble. Some nine weeks after Gauguin arrived in Arles and the relationship between the two artists had deteriorated badly, van Gogh first confronted Gauguin with a razor blade and then would use that same blade to cut off the lower part of his left ear lobe. They never saw each other again.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

We have bike storage!

A sensational thing has happened. It is the fulfillment of all our New York dreams. With this new development, we now feel we have achieved authentic status as Manhattan residents. We have bike storage!

Yes, it's true, deep in the bowels of our apartment building our two bikes now hang from their front wheels in their assigned spaces - Numbers 64 and 80. We have a special electronic key that buzzes us in, allowing us to retrieve our bikes from this surprisingly spacious storage area, and then either tuck them into the elevator for the ride to the ground floor, or just haul them the short, single flight up. No more clutter for us. No more struggling to keep the bikes from dirtying our clean floors. No more stuffing them into elevators for the 6 flights down.

Best of all, our bikes are now completely protected from the elements. No more rusted chains. No more corroded brake lines. No more winter dirt caked on to the handlebars and the seats. We now have bikes that can last and storage that can not be taken away from us for as long as we live in our building. And now that we have bike storage, there's just no chance we'll be leaving any time soon. But I gotta make this short. I have some bike riding to do! And after that, the fun of putting my bike back into my own special storage space.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

What Really Matters?

Philosophers and many other less sophisticated thinkers have been wondering for a long time - What Really Matters? What makes life worth living? What are the fundamental things that apply? I, too, as one of those less sophisticated thinkers, have been thinking about this for some time, and while enjoying my second spring in New York City, I think I have discovered the answer. The answer is trees. Trees are the thing that really matters. Trees are what makes life worth living. Trees are the fundamental things that apply. They prevent erosion and help to balance the ecosystem. Through photosynthesis, they provide oxygen and reduce the carbon dioxide in the air. They are major providers of food, and they are the key to any large-scale landscaping design. They often contribute an appealing fragrance to the air. They offer shade, and they are, by far, the most efficient users of solar energy in the world. The leaves of trees also have a way of reflecting the sun's rays to create a particularly brilliant and appealing effect.

In a place like New York City, trees are a must. They help to clean the air, but on an everyday basis, they make the city more beautiful, habitable, and striking. There is nothing quite like the contrast between a street lined with apartment buildings with no trees, and a street that has been carefully designed with trees all along the curb. Central Park, of course, is a magnet for many reasons, but most of all, I think, for its tremendous number of trees in so many different varieties. Trees provide relief from the urban landscape. As I have said before elsewhere in this blog, New York City would be impossible without Central Park. And Central Park would be impossible without its trees. It thus follows, at least for New Yorkers anyway, trees are the thing that really matters.