Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Perils of Overreliance on the Times

I'm just wondering. Is it possible to enjoy New York as fully as it should be enjoyed without reading the New York Times regularly? How could one ever know what is going on, especially with respect to cultural events, in this amazing, crazy, mixed-up city without having the Times as a guide? On the other hand, you probably can become too reliant on the Times and begin to view the city only through the lens the Times so generously provides, thus abdicating your responsibility to develop your own individual, unique perspective on the city's many wonders.

I am mildly convinced that both of these concerns have merit. I just can't do New York without the Times. For one thing, there is so much theatre, art, film, music, and other similar stuff in the city that I just don't see how I can get by without using the Times, at the very least, as a winnower of what's possible. But of course for me it goes much deeper than this. I do use the Times to decide what play to see, what art exhibit to take in, what movies to consider and which ones to reject out of hand.

Which brings me to the second point. Am I merely a mindless follower of the Times's suggestions and recommendations? Do I not have a mind of my own in deciding what to see and savor? The answer is almost certainly that I am pretty much as slavishly attached to the Times's opinion makers as it appears. What the Times affirms, I affirm. When the Times says I should go and see something, I dutifully obey. 

Now, of course, there are hundreds of events I never witness because of lack of money and time. But I am sure if I could, I would follow through on virtually every one of the Times's recommendations. Is this a good thing? Well, on the one hand, I have come to trust many of the paper's critics and commentators for their good taste and am probably better off accepting their suggestions than just deciding on what to see on my own. On the other hand, can I really let the Times do the work for me of deciding what is worthwhile and what is not? If I were really trying to be a savvy New Yorker who knows the city and enjoys it thoroughly, I should become much more independent. But there are two things, well, maybe three things stopping me. Time, of course, is one. Lack of competence to judge is another. And, well, I guess the third is this sense that I am not supposed to decide for myself, that I should be deferring to the world's leading experts, most of whom, one way or another, end up writing for the paper. 

Lack of time to keep up with what is going on in the city is probably the best reason to rely on the Times. But the other two don't seem terribly convincing, do they. Not because I have expertise to judge well what is worthy and what is not, but because I am the one judging for my own amusement and edification. I should know best, right, what is going to be the best use of my time, what is going to be an event or a show worthy of my consideration that I will enjoy and leave me more or less satisfied and eager for more.

On the one hand, I can't imagine not reading the Times as an important guide for what is going on in the city. On the other hand, I have relied too heavily on the Times for what is good and worthwhile. As I move on, I need to work at paying attention to what is going on in the City without constant reference to the daily newspaper. The web, of course, helps a lot with this, and I do learn about events all the time that go unreported in the paper, including things at the Library, the New York Historical Society, and at the 92nd Street Y. But I want to do better to stretch my wings, to stay abreast of stuff that is inexpensive or even free but also really interesting. This may require me to engage in more purposeful flaneuring, dropping in on different places, picking up tips about what is coming next, even engaging people in conversation about what's potentially hot. But, hey, as a dedicated New Yorker who wants to make the most of the city, this is the sort of challenge I should meet with a wry, inscrutable smile and a hearty, uninhibited laugh.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Saying Yes to New York City

As I contemplate "moving on" from my work at Wagner and becoming a writer in New York City who seeks also to write of New York City, I have come to see the city as a manufacturer of positive spins, as a place that wrests from you an interminable stream of affirmations, assurances, appreciations, and yeses. It is the city of can-do, a town of towering ambition, a site of spectacular achievement and magnificent failure. It is nothing more and nothing less than the sine qua non of urban existence. As such, it is a locale that demands our best and most inspiring imaginings and deserves our most challenging and thoughtful critical reflections. And yet, New York makes me want to vote aye before I have heard all the pros and cons. It pushes me to want to pitch in despite not fully understanding the cause in question. It inspires me to shout "I love you," even when the object of that love is little more than an acquaintance.  It is a city that cannot be resisted, a metropolis that cannot be encompassed, a grand urban complex that can never be explained. 

It feels wonderful to be a writer in New York. Published or not, successful or not, talented or not, the writer in New York is immersed in a tiny world of such richness and multiplicity that only a wry, perfectly inscrutable smile can do it justice. 

Thursday, January 9, 2014

New York's Marvelous Variety

Suppose you owned a century-old document that had been entrusted to you, but over time had become badly worn and was in need of restoration before it could be framed. How far do you think you would have to go to find someone competent to carry out this task?

Until I realized that my grandfather's naturalization certificate had deteriorated rather significantly and that I, in fact, wanted to be able to frame and display this paper as a tribute to my grandfather and father who had entrusted me with it, I never even considered whether there were people in the world who possessed the skills to restore a worn-out document.  What startled me, as a New Yorker, is that there is at least one person (and probably many others) living only two blocks away from my own apartment who makes her living as a restorer of archival materials and public documents.

And so as a lover of New York and all its marvelous variety, I wondered with a kind of joyous awe where else in the world would you have to travel only two blocks to find a person, living modestly in a rent-stabilized, ramshackle pre-war apartment building, who not only possesses the skills and the broad experience to restore documents, but who also cares deeply for antiquated things and so insists that the job be done just right.

Still another sign that sometimes there doesn't seem to be any limit to the unanticipated marvels that are available to the residents of New York City.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Skyscraper Security

Today I was reminded once again how challenging it can be to get in and out of Manhattan office buildings. If you haven't had an occasion to visit an office in a fancy Manhattan building, don't think you can just walk in, locate the elevator and ascend to your designated floor. Our appointment was with a lawyer at 6th Avenue and 53rd Street to get our "estate" in order, but before we could get up to him we had to run the gauntlet of 21st century New York City security. First, we displayed our driver's licenses, then we provided the exact, full name of the professional we would be meeting with, third, we dutifully turned over our passports, next we offered proof of our annual income after taxes for 2012, and finally they respectfully requested that we officially pledge our fealty to the United States of America by signing their special loyalty oath.

Okay, so maybe it wasn't quite that hard, but it felt like it was as we waited patiently to be "cleared." Once we were given the go-ahead to proceed, we even had to take a special pass with us in case we were stopped by overzealous security officers wondering what we were doing wandering the hallways of the 28th floor, the very floor where our lawyer happened to reside.

All of this reminds me of something I did as an irresponsible young adult many, many years ago the first time I lived in New York, long before everyone was so careful about security. I was in midtown and intrigued by the idea of visiting the offices of ABC television news just to see what was going on up there. That's about how much thought I had put into it, but I remember there was no one preventing me from going ahead with this plan to take the elevator to the floor where the news was aired each night. I went to the bathroom and wandered around for awhile, but for a few minutes I went completely unnoticed. When security did finally ask me what I was up to, I simply replied honestly that I was curious to see what the offices of ABC News looked like. I am sure that if I had put some thought into my answer I could have received a better reaction, but my vagueness definitely aroused concern. They nicely but expediently escorted me out of the building. I never did anything like that again.

Still, it rankles me just a little that today so much effort is put into decisions about who can enter and exit a luxury office building in Manhattan, and so little into how we treat people who are left abandoned on the streets and expected, despite the complete absence of even the most minimal of resources, to fend for themselves.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Passing the time when it's really, really cold

What do New Yorkers do when the temperature is so low and the winds are so boisterous as to make the simple act of stepping outside a threat to one's well-being? Today was like that in New York and most New Yorkers stayed indoors. I should know because when the wind-chill index rose to 10 below this afternoon, I strolled down Broadway and wandered through Lincoln Center to see what was going on. For the 20 minutes or so I was outside I encountered few people willing to brave the cold.

So what were they up to? You can bet that a lot of them looked out the window constantly to check out the strength of the winds that had helped to create these dangerous conditions and to see if their neighbors had mustered the courage to venture out. Listening to the radio and watching the TV were also likely pastimes, mainly, you know, to keep an eye on how bad the weather had gotten and to enjoy an endless round of self-congratulations for exercising the good sense to stay put.

Reading must have been another common pursuit, with the main topic of literary interest being severe weather, cold snaps, and dramatic dips in temperature. After all, while most New Yorkers awoke to a downright balmy morning in the mid-50s, most pulled the cover over their heads that evening with the temperature hovering just a little bit above zero. Who wouldn't want to read about that spring day over 90 years ago when the Warren G. Harding Administration had yet to acquire its reputation as the most corrupt in history and when the temperature in New York City took an even more drastic nosedive than yesterday's.

Certainly, some people whiled away their time cooking up wonderful recipes, but you can bet they focused their efforts on the preparation of dishes that not only tasted good, but that took some of the chill off of this most frigid of days. Hot soups, warm stews, and spicy chiles were surely in demand as the day dragged on and as it dawned on all of us that it just wasn't going to get any warmer. You couldn't go wrong by staying home to feast on whatever goodies helped to stave off the cold.

I, for one, chose to spend a little time in the public library today to counteract the cold and keep my boredom at bay. It's really such an interesting place in which to wait out the bad weather. There are all those books for one thing, and even more, there are all those fascinating people who congregate at the library, sometimes to read, but more often to sleep, to hang out, to chat, to get online, or just to pass the time. They are a diverse and interesting lot, much more diverting than watching a movie.  But when you people watch you never quite know how the story is going to move forward or to end. And there are so many stories to keep track of! Pick someone and see what happens. Sure, a lot of these stories may end abruptly as the person you have chosen to watch suddenly heads for the exit, but turn around and start tracking a new one. There simply is no end to them

Which fortunately is not something you can say about the weather. It may feel as if the terrible conditions will go on forever, but they never do. But in the case of the stories there is no end to them and that, like the end of cold spell, is a blessing to be thankful for.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Driving the West Side Highway

New Yorkers either hate to drive or love to drive, I can never remember which. But almost all of them abhor the traffic jams on the West Side Highway, which runs along the Hudson River in Manhattan from Battery Park to well above Washington Heights. Every now and then we have to drive on the West Side Highway, as we did today, and every time I do I can feel my heart beat faster and my throat clench in anticipation of the horrors of this most impossible of thoroughfares.

Today, we rented a U-Haul to move most of the rest of our stuff from our co-op on Staten Island to our co-op in Manhattan. It was 2:00 pm in the afternoon, but I still expected the worst. Stalled cars, emergency vehicles pushing us to the side of the road, 18-wheelers hopelessly stuck in low gears, and New York drivers instinctively jumping ahead of us at every opportunity. In general, though, the worst part of driving up the West Side of Manhattan is simple: too many cars and too little space.

But today a miracle happened. We made it without delay, in the record time of about 20 minutes from the Battery Park Tunnel to 69th and Amsterdam. What a delight! What a rare and unexpected treat! Instead of averaging 9 MPH, which is typical for Manhattan, we actually traveled up the West Side proceeding at a very normal 30 MPH. I never thought it would happen to us, but it has. And I will be forever deeply grateful for the strange confluence of circumstances that made this impossible journey possible.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Fighting the Ordinary Blues

(Karen and Steve are walking toward Central Park on a wintry day in which the sidewalks and streets are just a bit slippery. Karen tucks her right arm inside Steve's crooked left wing with satisfaction.)

Karen: Now I won't fall, because I can count on you to keep me steady walking along beside me in those dull but reliable boots of yours.

Steve: Is that really a comment on my boots or are you suggesting that I, as a person, am a bit dull as well?

K: You dull? On the contrary, mon frere. There is nothing about you that is dull with the obvious exception of your boots. Even the boots have a kind of charm that complements your other charming qualities.

S: My other charming but mildly dull qualities?

K: Oh, my. You are the self-conscious one aren't you. Don't you believe me when I say there is nothing dull about you?

S: It's hard, because everything about me feels dull. You know, not sharp, not incisive, not cutting edge, just, well, so darn ordinary.

K: Mmm. First of all, for me, dull and ordinary aren't synonyms. I could revel in your ordinariness and still not find you dull at all. Ordinary is egalite, liberte, fraternite. Ordinary is every man. Ordinary is democracy. Ordinary is the one God loves.

S: Doesn't he love the dull as well?

K: Of course, but don't distract me from my main point. You are ordinary, but in this really marvelous and appealing way. The way you wear that brimmed and ear-flapped hat of yours is ordinary, but it's also entirely and uniquely you. Nothing dull about it, but gloriously ordinary, yes.

S: Gloriously ordinary? Nice phrase. Almost oxymoronic, don't you think?

K: Hardly almost. Intentionally and brilliantly oxymoronic. There is nothing almost about it. Please don't bring me down with your almosts. I am fully, irresistibly, and insistently present. Nothing almost about me. Kiss me, you fool!

(He does and it is a long, loving embrace.)

K: Nothing dull OR ordinary about that kiss. That's the sort of kiss that makes watches stop and wolves howl. That's a kiss for the ages. Which startles me into a wonderful thought. The next time you're feeling dull or ordinary, just invade my personal space, and steal a big, amazing, long-lasting kiss. Best antidote for the ordinary blues I know.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Bob Moses on my mind

Robert P. Moses is much on my mind these days. He was a fearless and unrelenting civil rights organizer in rural Mississippi in the early 1960s when this was extremely hazardous duty, and he subsequently served as the lead organizer of Freedom Summer which brought hundreds of northern college students to Mississippi in the Summer of 1964 to help register disenfranchised Blacks. Many years later, he became famous again as the creator of the Algebra Project, a nation-wide program to teach math to students of color so that they might pursue careers in engineering, technical and a variety of scientific fields. He has, in fact, called access to algebra and higher mathematics the civil rights issue of the 21st century.

He is much on my mind, because he is emblematic of the quiet, humble, bottom-up leadership I have been studying over the last few years. And he is coming to Wagner College in February! Where he will be our second Black History Month Scholar in Residence.

Interestingly, Bob Moses grew up in New York City, as a resident of the Harlem River Projects at 151st Street and Harlem River Drive, where he attended public school and periodically worshipped at St. Marks Church on 138th Street before being admitted to one of New York's most selective public secondary schools - Stuyvesant High.

He was not a particularly outstanding student at Stuyvesant, but he did well enough to earn a scholarship to Hamilton College in Upstate New York where he studied analytic philosophy and developed a taste for mathematics. He graduated from Hamilton in 1956 and then completed an M.A. in philosophy at Harvard in 1957. Although he wanted to go on to pursue his Ph.D., this dream was interrupted when his mother tragically succumbed to cancer and his father also took ill. He left Harvard and accepted a position teaching math at the Horace Mann school in the Riverdale section of the Bronx to care for his Dad.

In the spring of 1960, the student sit-in movement was spreading rapidly, and as Moses himself has said, these demonstrations "hit me powerfully, both in the soul and the brain." What especially appealed to him was the courageous leadership shown by thousands of young people who were willing, despite considerable danger, to challenge white supremacy head-on. He signed up initially with Dr. King's organization - the Southern Christian Leadership Conference - and for a few weeks spent most of his time stuffing envelopes in SCLC's Harlem office. But when one of Dr. King's top advisors, Bayard Rustin, learned about Moses's background, he was sent to Atlanta where he spent long afternoons talking philosophy with Jane Stembridge and got to know the legendary leader Ella Baker, then the outgoing Executive Director of SCLC and "Founding Mother" of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

Sensing that SCLC did not have much of a program, he conferred with Ella Baker about working with SNCC, and on her advice went to see a local NAACP organizer named Amzie Moore who had been combatting discrimination and prejudice in rural Mississippi for decades. Moore introduced Moses to the ins and outs of racial politics in Mississippi and eventually recommended him to another local organizer, C.C. Bryant in McComb, Mississippi, who got Moses started in his campaign to register Black voters.

Moses was in Mississippi in June 1963 when the KKK shot NAACP Field Secretary Medgar Evers in the back while he was standing in his own driveway, and Moses was right there again when the discarded bodies of three civil rights workers were found just outside Philadelphia, Mississippi in early August of the same year. These were only the most celebrated deaths. The toll of casualties, infamous and forgotten, was much higher. Through it all, Bob Moses maintained his composure and his courage, despite many close calls, and pushed on to organize 1964's Freedom Summer, which in many ways was the beginning of the end for the cruelest forms of white supremacy in Mississippi.

In the wake of these successes, Moses worked with Fannie Lou Hamer to create the Mississippi Free Democratic Party and attempted to have those representing the MFDP supplant the regulars of the Democratic party at the 1964 convention. This maneuver met with failure and its lack of success contributed to Moses's increasing disillusionment. Not long afterwards, he would leave for Africa for a time, and then later left the United States to escape the military draft during the Vietnam War. He not return to the U.S. again until 1977 when Jimmy Carter issued a general amnesty.

In 1982, Moses received a large MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grant" and used it to create the Algebra Project, which he oversees to this day. It represents the second stage in his civil rights work and is, by far, his most sustained and focused effort to promote equal opportunity for all Americans.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Today was very cold in New York. Wind chills well below 0 degrees Fahrenheit and as a consequence, reduced bus service, especially on Staten Island. We had to wait over 20 minutes for a bus in the wind and cold as we headed once again for the ferry and Manhattan. Karen's feet were so chilled by this long delay, she couldn't confirm that her toes were still connected to her feet for a good ten minutes afterwards. This experience induced her finally to shop online for proper boots that will not only keep her feet warm, but will also be steady enough to allow her to navigate the snow drifts and the urban slush that make walking in the city after a big storm such a challenge

New York is funny when it comes to harsh winter weather. We can easily go a whole winter without much snow or cold, making you think that good winter boots and layered clothing are unnecessary. But a mild winter is often followed by a pretty brutal one, and that seems to be holding true again this year. As we recall, last year's winter was pretty easy. This one is proving to be both cold and snowy, a tough combination for a city as congested as New York. Yet, in some ways New York is the best city in which to experience snowy conditions, as the subway can be counted on to get you to your destination with almost no hassle. Again, this turned out to be true during our travels today. Plus, what a blessing to wait for a subway in the relatively warm conditions of a subterranean platform. Staten Island's lack of a decent public transportation system, including its own but still far too limited subway line, definitely adds to its unattractiveness as a permanent place to live. 

We leave Staten Island, especially the North Shore, with some regret that we did not get to know it better or come to appreciate more fully its many wonderful strengths as a community of diverse cultures. But Manhattan beckons, regardless of the weather conditions. We are very glad once again to call it our one and only home.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Embracing Manhattan

For the past year and a half, we have been living a divided existence, the workweek on Staten Island, the weekend in Manhattan. This about to end, as we are in the process of moving back to Manhattan full-time. This decision is, in part, a result of my choosing to retire, or, as we like to say, "move on." It is also in keeping with our shared sense that we are better suited for Manhattan than Staten Island. In Manhattan we feel at home. On Staten Island, we are forever visitors. But what, you might ask, makes Manhattan such an ideal location for our permanent home? There are any number of things we could say about this, that, undoubtedly, would include Manhattan's proximity to the most remarkable set of cultural institutions in the world. We are not only thinking here of the museums, the music venues, the unparalleled variety of theatrical options, and some of America's finest repertory movie houses. But also the remarkable library system from which virtually any book is available, if you're willing to wait, and the fact that we live within two blocks of two of the world's most impressive and commodious public spaces - Central Park and Riverside Park.

Yet our affinity for Manhattan has more to do with its special energy, its historic eagerness to welcome and absorb a dizzying diversity of lifestyles and cultures that most obviously embraces a multiplicity of fashions, races, colors, creeds, classes, and sexual orientations, but extends as well to such a rich variety of interests, hobbies, forms of amusement, and passions that every day seems to offer something new.

To walk out onto the street and to witness this unending stream of humanity is a joy. It may present difficulties at rush hour or at other times when you're in an hurry, but for the most part it is a bottomless source of fascination and delight. Manhattan's unique combination of density and variety, of affording you the opportunity to do almost anything you can imagine, makes it our ideal home.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Rejecting Humiliation

With this post, I return after a three year absence to the Third New York, my first blog, to kick off the New Year. This piece is only peripherally related to New York, but a guy has to start somewhere. 

In the New Yorker this week, Adam Gopnik writes the lead Talk of the Town piece about two alternate futures for the United States and the world, one leading to disaster, the other an uneventful but deeply satisfying voyage to peace and well being. Comparing the fate of two great and identical ocean liners from 1912, the Titanic and the Olympic, one destroyed on its maiden voyage, the other entirely successful, Gopnik wonders which ship we are traveling on today, conceding unhappily that there is not only no way to know for sure;  there is little that can be done to ensure passage on one over the other. 

Yet he does offer one ray of hope, one thin sliver on which to build a more humane future. It is simply to reject honor and fear of humiliation as the motivation for our actions. As he says, trying to retrieve lessons from the burgeoning literature on the causes of World War I, "the relentless emphasis on shame and face, on position and credibility, on the dread of being perceived as weak" echoes through the decades and has led again and again to the deepening of conflicts without clear purpose or a basis in common sense.

I, for one, find this advice, however tentative and uncertain, to be a good message for 2014. It will be extremely difficult to practice it, but it will be made easier by a citizenry that insists on decision making that is free of hubris and quests for domination.

We probably can't make much progress on this goal, however, without committing to a society whose internal, everyday institutions are free of humiliation as well, the kind that Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit talks about in his 1996 book "The Decent Society." What Professor Margalit has in mind is captured early on in this work when he says that "a society is decent if its institutions do not act in ways that give the people under their authority sound reasons to consider themselves humiliated," or, as he says elsewhere, giving them sound reasons to believe that their self-respect has been injured.

In at least one example employed by Margalit, even someone whose rights are honored, may be suffering from humiliation if he lacks the conviction that he is entitled to those rights, that there is a rational basis for demanding them or actively working for their full and uncompromised application. Here Margalit is referring to any person whose self-respect has been so relentlessly and systematically undermined that he develops a sense of internalized inferiority in which he feels he is not deserving of key rights. He calls this example "Uncle Tom," but it would refer to anyone who has been persuaded that he is less worthy than others, for entirely irrelevant reasons such as race, gender or even social class.

At the heart of Margalit's claims is the idea that a person who is shown respect, who is free of humiliation, sees himself as enjoying an open future, who has the capacity to change his life at any time for the better "through action or a reevaluation of the past." Or to put it another way, that the institutions governing this person's life operate in such a way as to give each person the freest and least oppressive path toward an open and unrestricted future. 

Note here that when these institutional conditions are in effect the need for people to dominate others, to demonstrate that they are better than others, more worthy than others, etc., is greatly diminished for they are enjoying the sort of recognition, respect, and dignity that makes such demonstrations unnecessary, even redundant.

Which is why I invoked Margalit to begin with. We cannot hope for a society or a world in which nations eschew honor and credit in favor of compromise and common sense unless the people who inhabit those countries also have experiences which show them full respect and are largely free of humiliating circumstances. 

It occurs to me, as it might anyone, that schools are a particularly hopeful site in which to begin such a change in social practices, and, appropriately enough, that the new call to curb bullying is largely an attempt to denounce and proscribe behaviors that humiliate children. But, of course, campaigns against bullying are only a small part of this larger effort to create a decent society. All of us must consciously and diligently work to eliminate humiliating behaviors from our lives, and to develop much greater sensitivity toward those actions which tend to diminish people, robbing them of the dignity and self-respect that are so central to a decent society.