Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Getting Around in New York

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

New York City

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

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

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

Monday, June 28, 2010

Storm King

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

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

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

Sunday, June 27, 2010


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

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

Saturday, June 26, 2010

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 25, 2010

How Democracy Works Now (2)

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

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

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

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Hot and Humid In New York

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Terry Gross at Town Hall

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

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

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A New Definition of Heaven

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

Monday, June 21, 2010


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

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

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

Sunday, June 20, 2010

How Democracy Works Now

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

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

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

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Early Morning on the Subway and the Ferry

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

Friday, June 18, 2010

Obama Cool

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

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

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

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Carole and James in the Garden

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

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Nero's Guests

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Rose Mapendo

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

Monday, June 14, 2010

Pushing the Elephant

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

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

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Staten Island Without Wheels

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

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

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Pleasures of Recorded Books

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

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

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

Friday, June 11, 2010

Life Preservers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 10, 2010

A conversation with a New Yorker

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

"Great day for a bike ride, huh?"

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

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

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

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

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

"You, too. Have a great one."

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The pleasures of roaming a deserted college campus

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

On Renewal

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

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

Monday, June 7, 2010

Strangers in the Mirror

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Perils of Forgoing that Early Morning Ride

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Brutality and the Brain

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

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

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

Friday, June 4, 2010

Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo

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

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

Thursday, June 3, 2010

National Arts Club

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

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

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


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

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

Most Overrated Films:

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

Your Choice______________________________

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Duck Soup

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

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