Saturday, May 31, 2008

Shadows of giants

I can't remember if I've mentioned that Frame Dances takes place in a fantastic old warehouse building, right on the East River. Here's the view - Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges. Here they are from street level: the view under the Manhattan Bridge towards the Brooklyn and lower Manhattan (the Twin Towers would have dominated this view), and a view of the Manhattan Bridge in a huge puddle left over by a sudden squall.

Friday, May 30, 2008

In the garden

And here you are (see above, below) (and note the City at Peace mug).

Thursday, May 29, 2008

It's research, I swear!

Three performances of Frame Dances down, five to go! Tonight's two performances were as different as could be. I exaggerate, but they were different, and it had nothing to do with us performers. It was the audience. The 6:30 audience were very somber; someone said they were afraid to laugh (there are comic bits). The dancers felt very isolated, the audience very distant. This made the whole thing seem quite oppressive somehow, like some kind of vaguely cruel human experimentation. The 9:30 audience was looser (also a bit smaller), and it felt more like we were sharing the experience with them. But we performers were also more aware of being there for each other, our interactions in "Green, green grass" smoother and more clearly a work of collaboration.

Don't ask about my few seconds in the frame; that's not what this is about. What it's about - what I'm getting from this experience - is an inside taste of being part of a company of performers doing the same thing many times, something rare enough in the arts but unthinkable in the academy. I opined at length in Religion & Theater last month about how the shared repeated experience of the same performance allowed of an awareness of the vast possibilities available within a fixed script or form, of the room for play and contingency and consequently how no performance is like any other precisely because of the unchanging framework - things my reading had suggested were points in common between liturgies and theatrical performances. Some students thought these superficial if not misguided parallels; and in truth didn't know what I was talking about. I could only imagine, aware of romanticizing it, what it would be like to be operating within an entirely predefined script, liberated from the need to be "creative" in a vacuum and freed to be responsible and responsive to a context, a project, a collaborator, a moment. Now, thanks to Susan Marshall, I'm getting at least a little smidgen of first hand experience of this! (I can also already taste the sadness which will come when our run ends, sadness not only at the end of what we've shared, but of being part of an ongoing open-ended work of shared creation.)

And so, you see, this isn't just Mark up to his usual digressive oddball tricks. It's research!
Imagine seeing an airplane for the first time. Imagine being seen by an airplane for the first time. And then imagine the airplane carries a photographer, whose photo is posted on the worldwide web (courtesy of BBC news), and now on this blog. This is one of fifty or so "uncontacted" tribes in Brazil. I believe the last uncontacted Aborigenes in Australia collided with modern civilization in the 1960s.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

With child

We had the first performance of Frame Dances tonight - just after the first full run, when us volunteers in "Green, green grass" finally got to see the other somewhat more dancerly elements. It's pretty interesting, though it does push the concept of dance far. I gather from the web that this is innovative work in videodance: each piece here is filmed from above and broadcast on a screen on the wall, which is not only a different angle on the movements but liberates them from up-down orientation.

"Green, green grass" involves the members of Susan Marshall's dance group and eight of us "volunteers" moving horizontally across a small space of fake lawn. Four of the volunteers are young women (recent dance majors trying to keep the spirit alive while making ends meet as personal trainers, yoga instructors, etc.) and one is pioneer of disabled dance. Then there's Lynne, a dancer/choreographer, Mateo, her two-year-old, and me. (Mateo steals the show, of course!) Perhaps because Lynne, Mateo and I are in a vignette together, many guests assumed we were a family. Which is weird, but I suppose Susan has cast us as if we were a family group - I enter the frame, arching my back; Lynne enters parallel, pushing against me; then Mateo crawls through the tunnel of our bodies and we roll off after him.

It's a strange thing to be mistaken for a dad - it happened a lot in Australia, and once in South Bend when I went shopping with my friend J and her daughter (J was, however, disturbed at it, and went to considerable lengths to set people right). Strange but strangely gratifying - I don't mean because fatherhood would suit me well (though it might well). There's a kind of benevolent regard fathers (or men mistaken for fathers) of young kids get from passersby, very different I realize from what I'm used to. A solitary man is, I think, generally perceived as an outsider.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Heresy on heresy

Did you know you can make risotto in a pressure cooker? Seven short minutes and zungo. And it doesn't taste half bad! And here's worse: tonight as an experiment I put French black lentilles (la lentille du Puy) in along with porcini, etc., and got a yummy nutty risotto out of it. Tasted delicious even without parmesan.

Monday, May 26, 2008

“Religion is a story that the left brain tells the right brain,” she said.
Still, Dr. Taylor says, “nirvana exists right now.”


One thousand six hundred twenty-six meals were served at the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen today, a record. (Not all records are reasons to celebrate: the happiest day would be the day noone needed a meal.) I was with a small assembly line of parishioners madly trying to assemble ice cream sundaes: two scoops of vanilla ice cream, chocolate sauce, whipped cream, sprinkles, a maraschino cherry and a little US flag toothpick, served with a plastic spoon and a paper napkin. (Today is Memorial Day, the day the US remembers its military dead.) I'm not big into the flag - I missed 9/11 so didn't have to decide when and how to put stars and stripes up - but this was fun. It's hard to be proud of a country which, despite great wealth, abandons so many people to hunger and homelessness, but it's hard not to take a little satisfaction in the thought that an organization like HASK, largely fueled by volunteers, is the sort of thing America is best at.

Sunday, May 25, 2008


Nipped into MoMA today and had a look at Take Your Time, the exhibition of works by Olafur Eliasson. Very simple, almost pure. It's about spaces and perception, I guess. (But is it "art"? Can one still ask that question?) I was struck by the effect of yellow neon tubes in the hallway where the exhibition began, though (tellingly!) I first needed a description to tell me what I was seeing! The yellow light washed out all colors, so that everyone appeared as if in a black and white movie (well, black and yellow). It was the strangest thing, especially as one explored the peripheries of this color-free zone - the escalators going up and down, the hallway beyond the lights - where someone's grey teeshirt emerged as red and another's turned out to be blue, while others, entering our space, apparently unknowingly left their colors behind. I was wearing a shirt striped grey and grey, though it had been blue when I dressed this morning - it was like seeing myself in a fantastically sharp black and white photograph. Profound? Maybe not. But cool.

A matter of corse?

Went to see American Ballet Theater's "Le Corsaire" last night, a splendid romp of a swashbuckling story full of stunning classical ballet. This show requires six principal dancers, a big corps de ballet, and numbers of children; it offers dashing pirates, slave girls, turbans and minarets, breathtaking stunts by male dancers (Ethan Stiefel was a fetching slave, Sasha Radetsky an effortlessly lithe Birbanto), even a Busby Berkeley-like dream sequence in the mind of a humorous pasha. Although it's an unregenerate Orientalist fantasy of delightful harems wasted on foolish Arabs, it's a dazzling evening of fun.

And yet I'm perplexed. I don't get ballet. I'm not sure if I'm watching an art or a sport (like gymnastics or even - forgive the thought - dressage!). I suppose I'm prejudiced against it by my first modern dance teacher Ze'eva Cohen, who derided ballet as like sport in rejecting the human body and trying to turn it into a machine. No question, there are grace as well as precision of an incredibly high order, and each dancer is her/his own finely tuned machine. But... but...

I guess I can see ballet as a means but not an end.

Friday, May 23, 2008


Took the (in)famous Chinatown bus for the first time today, to see a friend finishing a stint in Philadelphia. ('Dafia' is - I think - Cantonese for the City of Brotherly Love.) I've not spent much time in Phillie - never more than a day - but every time I am hit by the thought that it's the perfect size for a city, just the right mix of old and new. And we happened into a gallery where a painting really took my fancy. It's by an artist known as SPEL.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Mixed blessing

Ian Frazier's long-awaited New Yorker article on the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen (HASK) has finally appeared. It's probably just in the nick of time, as some of the traditional sources of funding for HASK have dried up, and the need is greater than ever. (HASK has been serving upwards of 1400 meals a day for many months now.) The article informs us that HASK has had better luck soliciting support from the readers of the New York Review of Books than from "red-state" Christians, so a feature in The New Yorker should help, and it's always a good thing for people to find out that places like HASK - and the needs they address - exist.

That said, I'm still somewhat disappointed by the piece. One reason is entirely predictable. Frazier knows the Soup Kitchen (he's directed its writing workshop for 14 years), not the parish, so the distance between the HASK and Holy Apostles communities feels greater to him than it does to the parishioners. A fascinating account of the surprising symbioses of the communities of parishioners, volunteers, guests and supporters could be written, but this is not it. Another reason for disappointment was a bit of a surprise. I had expected that Frazier, as a writer, would feature some of the Soup Kitchen guests' writing. All we get is the briefest of anecdotes about them, most barely a sentence long. In fourteen years wasn't there even a line or two worth quoting? Couldn't he at least have pretended there was?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


This picture is nearly a week old, but I figured if I pasted it into one of last week's posts nobody would see it. Here we all are - well were, most of us - after Lang graduation last Thursday. Religious studies is small and caring enough that we have a little reception right after the Recognition Ceremony; each graduate gets a tailor-made prize and a book; the one student who couldn't make it is represented by the book on the table.The best way to explain who's who is to start at the middle with Sara, foundress of Religious Studies at Lang. On her left is Angel, still robed; sitting next to him is Amy, and standing behind her is Stephanie. To Sara's right are Gala, Jake and Katherine (faculty). Back row, from left: Atticus, Michael (faculty), Danielle and yours truly in a tie. Like a happy family!

Monday, May 19, 2008

I hope you dance

Sometimes my life is so much fun it seems I must be making it up. Which I guess I am! Today's fun is all about dance.

A friend has invited me to the gala opening of the season of American Ballet Theater this evening at Lincoln Center (he's a rehearsal pianist for ABT). So I'm wearing my black suit (black is the new black, I'm told on good authority), which always feels way cool.

But even cooler than that is what happened this morning. Another friend (this one from church) is a producer of theatrical and other performances, and she told me a week ago that a dance piece she was producing in her new space in DUMBO required some non-professionals - why didn't I audition? I've never been to an audition, so I agreed to do it, if only for the audition experience. I won't try to explain what Susan Marshall's Frame Dances is about - in part because we only learned about part of it today, but mainly because I'll know all about it soon, and from the inside. Yes! I got a callback. (Not a surprise, really, since not many people showed up for the "audition" and I was the only man. And presumably we're supposed to look non-professional. But had I been totally hopeless they'd surely have found a way to do without.) Very exciting. Very scary. I'll keep you posted!

Sunday, May 18, 2008


Went this afternoon with my friend D to New York's newest museum (or one of its newest), the Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art. Himalayan - mainly Tibetan - art isn't everyone's thing. It isn't really my thing either; I get worn out quickly here - most of the paintings are crammed with incident and color. But with repeated visits I'm starting to get a better sense of what's going on in this tradition, and in this art. The picture at right - all I could find online - isn't representative except in its bold colors. Indeed it isn't even one we saw at all (is that gentleman standing on the copulating couople really holding his head in his hand as blood spurts out of his neck? it wouldn't be the wildest thing in the museum). Compared to the rest, it's actually not busy at all, but a picture of balance and calm.

When we were sopranos

This is part of the keyboard of a Marimba Lumina, an electronic instrument I heard in performance last night at Merkin Hall (a venue new to me, just north of Lincoln Center). Played like a marimba, it can be programmed with all manner of found or manipulated acoustic sounds - the keyboard responding not only to the firmness of the foam covered mallets' pressure, but responding differently to different colored mallets; the keys light up too, apparently. The performance I heard mingled sounds of percussion instruments from across Africa and found snatches of melody. Quite dazzling, and much more so than the other performer Coleen, who twiddled a bunch of knobs to generate multi-layered but lugubrious music with viola da gamba, a music box, a clarinet, a guitar and two wind chimes.

What was I doing at a performance of electronic music? Reconnecting with an old friend! The marimbist was Lukas Ligeti, my best friend when we were both twelve, thirty years ago, in Vienna. (I contacted him after hearing a performance of a piece by his father at Gert's Salon in Melbourne last April.) Lukas is now a composer and percussionist, based right here in New York; he's done a lot of work in Africa, a commission for the Kronos Quartet, and is currently at work on a setting of Brian Greene's Elegant Universe with Karol Armitage. I imagined I was hearing shards or sparks from some of those experiences in his playing.

30 years is hard to fathom, a quite unreasonable span of years! We were both prepubescent - sopranos! At that stage he had glasses but I didn't, my hair was straight. Vienna's streetscape was black with soot, the BeeGees and Queen were big, and the Cold War was on full tilt. I was really into neutral, high-cultural Austria, especially as celebrated in its stamps, which I bought at a place in the passage beneath the Karlsplatz on my way to a piano lesson. I remember the American International School where I spent 1977-8 but not much that went on there. There was a girl named Cecilia Medlin, I think, who had a crush on me. And a boy named Alan Fernandez traumatized me by calling me "gayboy." I was also in a play - the title character in "Curse you Jack Dalton" - and remember the difficulty of throwing a glass of water in the face of the gold-digging lothario who was seducing my sister (while I, nobly, had been secretly wed to Bertha, the maid); in rehearsal I kept missing, getting the actor's shirt wet. Was Lukas in it, too? Much to (re)discover when we get together in a few days!

Friday, May 16, 2008


The picture of Beichuan on the top of A1 of the Times today was incredibly powerful (the website image below is cropped, but you get the picture). A rescuer carrying a woman survivor (whose leg is whose? and why the mask?) in a landscape of destroyed buildings. There's no horizon and there are no vertical lines. Eventually you notice a hand and a foot on the left of another rescuer, pulling a rope which the other rescuer is gripping; he seems to be pushing against the scene we see for balance, as if he were trying to pull the others out of this scene of endless horror.
The picture is nightmarish, hellish. Its like a painting by Bosch or a German expressionist, a scene from a Japanese post-apocalyptic anime, or from 9/11. What terrible power nature has. I remember reading something while in Japan once about the consciousness that comes with living on land constantly shaken by earthquakes. Earthquakes are in a deep, deep way the most unsettling of disasters. (I suppose they are the definition of unsettling.) There's nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. The earth, our home and friend, seems to turn on us, an enemy, a trap.

I kept recalling this image through a stunning performance of Shostakovich's 4th symphony by the Chicago Symphony Orchester, conducted by Bernard Haitink, at Carnegie Hall tonight.

Thursday, May 15, 2008


Lang had its commencement - er, graduation - er, recognition ceremony today. I guess it's modestly titled because the semester hasn't quite ended and we don't know for sure that the second semester seniors have passed all their classes this semester. Or handed in acceptable senior work... In any case, our 200+ graduation candidates and we faculty got dressed up in the customary faux renaissance garb of American university ceremonial, and processed into the very grand First Presbyterian Church down the road from college. We no longer fit into any hall at school, and are about ready to move on from First Church, too, as the faculty this time had to sit behind the rood screen, where we could barely see or be seen! It was disappointing to be removed from the action, but I suppose we've had our chance, and it's time to let the students go...

Although the graduating class was bigger than any before, an odd thing happened. Almost every student named (best students in various departments, humanitarian award, etc.) was one I had had some contact with. I'm not claiming credit here! Just noting a big change from graduation (sic) ceremonies past, when I was overwhelmed at how few of the students I knew or even recognized. A nice feeling.

I do want to take credit for something, though I'm sure the credit isn't mine alone. The David Woods Humanitarian Award, a prize given each year to a student who has made signal contributions in social service, etc., was awarded to Angel Folgar - one of our students (and one of my senior work advisees; his senior work - due any minute now! - interprets Hip Hop as "religion without religion"). I nominated him - surely not alone - but didn't know he was to be the recipient until this morning. I don't know about others nominated, but he certainly deserved it! All us religious studies faculty are very proud of him. Along with the rest of the class of 2008, receive our congratulations and best wishes for the future!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

What sorrow. (Juyuan, China)

Monday, May 12, 2008

Test yourself

For the last meeting of Cultures of the Religious Right I invited students to submit questions for a final quiz (otherwise I'd come up with questions of my own). We ended up with a quiz which, if not always seriously, touches on virtually everything we've read and discussed. Here are some of the questions.

1. What is the "Social Gospel," as it was understood in the late 19th and early 20th centuries?
A) Christians should engage in society functions for the chance to evangelize over hors d'oeuvres
B) Christians must engage in social work as Jesus was primarily a teacher of ethics
C) Christians must engage in social work because the Second Coming will only occur after the human race has rid itself of social evils through its own effort
D) Christianity should be spread by community sing-alongs

7. Methodism had roots in what movement on the European continent:
A) Pietism
B) the Jesuits
C) the Holiness movement
D) The English Act of Supremacy

10. Dispensational premillenialism asserts that:
A) The millennium precedes the Second Coming
B) The Second Coming precedes the millennium
C) The millennium is dispensed seven times
D) The Second Coming takes the place of the millennium.

12. Why was Jerry Falwell criticized by other fundamentalist leaders when he sought accreditation for Liberty Bible College?
A) They disagreed with the understanding of Christian ethics taught at the college
B) They were angered by Falwell's move into the secular mainstream out of his former separatism
C) They were angered that Liberty Bible College had founded a museum on evolution
D) The credit belongs to God alone.

16. The Scopes Trial of 1925 in Tennessee was brought upon by what "immediate issue":
A) Disgruntled student John Scopes was upset that his biology teacher's curriculum included no mention of God or Genesis.
B) Substitute biology teacher John Scopes taught evolution to his class even though it was illegal at the time.
C) Biology teacher John Scopes was discovered to be having same-sex relations with a fellow teacher.
D) The will of celebrity John Scopes left the vaudeville star’s entire estate to his monkey, Darwin.

20. The "wall of separation" between church and state appears:
A) in the Bible
B) in the Constitution
C) in the Bill of Rights
D) none of these

25. Who criticized what in these terms: "a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross"?
A) Martin Luther—the Counterreformation
B) H. Richard Niebuhr—liberal Protestantism
C) Reinhold Niebuhr—fundamentalism
D) Mark Driscoll—the emerging church

26. The parable of the good Samaritan answers the question:
A) Who is the chosen of God?
B) What do I owe strangers?
C) How do I inherit eternal life?
D) Who is my neighbor?

(Answers: 1C, 7A, 10B, 12B, 16C, 20D, 25B, 26D)
The cardinals' nest

Sunday, May 11, 2008


Went back to my old stomping ground, Princeton, yesterday. Nice to take a tour through the Art Museum, celebrating its 125th anniversary with an exhibition of its masterpieces (and to commune again with my favorite Shang bronze, their Morandi, Ilya Repin's staggering "Golgotha," and Emil Nolde's ravishing bright-dark "Twilight"); go on a brief splurge at the Princeton Record Exchange (including Duke Ellington's 2-disc Small Groups 1938-39 for $9.99!); grab a coffee at Small World; have dinner at Mediterra with friends... and marvel at changes to the university's achingly picture-perfect campus. On a luminous late spring afternoon, when students have just left but reunions and summer construction haven't happened yet, it's like a movie set built incon- gruously in stone.

The reason for going up yesterday was a production of a piece of documentary theater developed by Stephen Wangh and Kristin Dombek called "Testimony: Scenes from an American Apocalypse." This course-based project, part of a multi-year exploration, had 14 Princeton students conduct interviews with people on campus and (over Spring break) across the country about their faith, or lack of it. The "testimonies" were then brought back and knit together into a powerful performance piece, each student embodying several different people of very different religious persuasions.

The genre of documentary theater - in some ways more like documentary film-making than anything else - is an intriguing and relatively new one. It makes different demands on actors than creative drama, including a distinctive relationship of responsibility to a specific person whose words you are speaking. I know a bit about the genre because my friend C, with whom I co-taught "Religion and Theater" last semester (the reason I went to this), has written and directed some documentary theater pieces of her own (I was in the one about Clifford Odets!). "Testimony" was engaging and well put together, but in a few cases I thought it nearly broke faith with its subjects. It's one thing to have two monologues unfold in syncopation - showing similarities across great differences of background and conviction - but it's another when people who had clearly been interviewed on their own were made to seem in conversation with each other.

I hope to see further iterations of this project - perhaps at Lang! I'll leave you with a poem to which one person featured in the play alluded. This was in a scene artfully juxtaposing an Evangelical's account of being saved by coming to understand mystery and wonder with a secular poet's discovery of her vocation to be a poet. The poet described taking a class of middle school students to a poetry festival, and hearing the following poem by Mark Doty. It's final line cracked her open, made her realize she didn't want to be a teacher all her life but instead a poet - for poetry can express wonder in ways people locked into religion cannot know.


When I heard he had entered the harbor,
and circled the wharf for days,
I expected the worst: shallow water,

confusion, some accident to bring
the young humpback to grief.
Don't they depend on a compass

lodged in the salt-flooded folds
of the brain, some delicate
musical mechanism to navigate

their true course? How many ways,
in our century's late iron hours,
might we have led him to disaster?

That, in those days, was how
I'd come to see the world:
dark upon dark, any sense

of spirit an embattled flame
sparked against wind-driven rain
till pain snuffed it out. I thought,

This is what experience gives us ,
and I moved carefully through my life
while I waited. . . Enough,

it wasn't that way at all. The whale
—exuberant, proud maybe, playful,
like the early music of Beethoven—

cruised the footings for smelts
clustered near the pylons
in mercury flocks. He

(do I have the gender right?)
would negotiate the rusty hulls
of the Portuguese fishing boats

—Holy Infant, Little Marie—
with what could only be read
as pleasure, coming close

then diving, trailing on the surface
big spreading circles
until he'd breach, thrilling us

with the release of pressured breath,
and the bulk of his sleek young head
—a wet black leather sofa

already barnacled with ghostly lice—
and his elegant and unlikely mouth,
and the marvelous afterthought of the flukes,

and the way his broad flippers
resembled a pair of clownish gloves
or puppet hands, looming greenish white

beneath the bay's clouded sheen.
When he had consumed his pleasure
of the shimmering swarm, his pleasure, perhaps,

in his own admired performance,
he swam out the harbor mouth,
into the Atlantic. And though grief

has seemed to me itself a dim,
salt suspension in which I've moved,
blind thing, day by day,

through the wreckage, barely aware
of what I stumbled toward, even I
couldn't help but look

at the way this immense figure
graces the dark medium,
and shines so: heaviness

which is no burden to itself.
What did you think, that joy
was some slight thing?

The theater piece was able to let the poet make her argument forcefully, but also gently question it through the juxtaposition with the Evangelical's account - question it not to poke holes but offer the possibility of bridges, conversations. At its best, the whole play did this. An exciting project!

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Crossing the same Rivera

The Lang Mural Project has just completed a splendid mural inside 65 Fifth Avenue, the converted department store which has for several decades served as the heart of the graduate faculty. (It's on the ground floor, which is 2 stories high, so you get an idea of scale.) They were given permission to do it because the building's slated for demolition, to make way for the visionary new glass-clad "vertical campus" "signature building" on which all our hopes are supposed to be pinned. The razing of 65 has been postponed, so the mural will have a longer life than expected!

The mural is based on a mural Diego Rivera designed for Rockefeller Center 75 years ago called "Man at the crossroads, looking with hope and high vision to the choosing of a new and better future" - a mural never completed because of it positive depiction of communists (yes, that's Lenin). The Lang students studied the history of the Mexican mural movement, and updated Rivera's planned painting. Where Lenin was are now portraits of supporters of the Lang Mural Project, and some long-term employees of the university.

The official unveiling of the mural yesterday was a magical event - one felt the power of a mural to reach out and change the world. After students described their process, someone read a letter of congratulation from the daughter of Diego Rivera in Mexico. Everyone beamed. Then, a Mexican dance teacher who just happened to be walking by started enthusing about it, how the Mexican embassy would want to know about it, and promised to bring word and images of it to various organizations he would soon be visiting in Mexico City. Wow!

Maybe the energy of this hopeful mural, rooted in the past and attentive to questions of social justice in our own time but looking brightly forward, can help keep our crazy university on course!

Friday, May 09, 2008


The gallows, the quotable Samuel Johnson once opined, have a unique way of focusing the mind. Ever notice how the signs real estate agents hang outside properties for sale are like little gallows?

I've not had occasion to note this similarity before. And my mind is anything but focused. Instead, I find it fluttering about like a moth around a flame. Sometimes it constructs elaborate scenarios of non-sale: perfect storms of real estate market dysfunction involving (why not?) unscrupulous bidders, unverifiable title, endless haggling, denied credit and collapsing prices ... ending in abject apology from the landlady for the trouble she has caused us tenants (in some versions taking the form of offering us the house for a pittance). At other times it remembers my thinking "people like me don't live in places like this" from the start, and considers how lucky I am, imposter, to have gone undetected for even this long: I'll savor every minute in the garden as if it's my last chance ever to have one (which it might indeed be). At still others, I find myself huffing that this isn't really a neighborhood I'd want stay in long-term anyway - not enough restaurants, no street life. I guess this way I'm prepared come what may!

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Stability is so 20th century

Looking for a nice four-story brownstone in Brooklyn? Quiet street, close to subways and Park, ample garden with just-planted lettuce and tomatoes?
Alas, my building's just gone up for sale - the landlady's letter notifying us hasn't arrived yet, so I found out from a phone message from a realtor planning a showing - and the big Century 21 one sign hanging out front.

Bummer. Maybe. This isn't a good time to be selling, so maybe no buyer will turn up, or none willing to pay what the owner wants ($1.9 million). Or maybe the buyer will just be interested only in the investment, and will let us renters stay on (our lease goes through the end of February, but the landlady could give us 31 days notice anytime). In any case, it's a good thing I'll be spending the summer here - may be my last as well as my first gardening summer in the City!

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Dream this

Went today to see this year's production of City at Peace, a wonderful organization which brings together disadvantaged teenagers from the five boroughs of New York City to create and perform a piece of musical theater about their lives. I saw the show two years ago and thought it one of the most moving and inspiring things I'd ever seen. (With gratitude, I've been starting each day with coffee in a City at Peace mug ever since.)

This year it seemed a little more formulaic - I suppose you never notice a formula the first time you see something - but it's a good formula. In a series of skits, based on actual experiences of participants (but nobody plays her/himself) we see the enormous challenges which kids of today face - fighting parents, coming out as gay, a mother who works you to death but never has a kind word, unwanted pregnancy, sexual molestation by a family member, involvement in the drug trade. As these scenes unfold, the situation gets worse and worse, and one approaches a moment of hopelessness. At the nadir today, the whole stage was covered with bodies of students, who at one point sat up and sang, several of them crying, that there seemed to be nobody there for them, that they "want to scream but have no voice, want to dream but have no choice." And then young people - friends, boyfriends, siblings, cousins - help each other out, and hope is restored, chastened but the more real for the seriousness with which the problems have been described. The skits end not with happy endings but with hope that it's not ended already.

The production two years ago was called "R. I. P. Revolution In Progress," and was narrated by five very cool young people who were like urban guerillas, or a band of superhero friends from a cartoon. This year's production, "Dream This," is a bit less exciting as it's framed by a single young woman's account of her research on her generation for an essay on the American dream which she must write to get a scholarship to go to college and study journalism. The frame works well enough - she goes through various drafts, starting with clichés then collapsing into a kind of stunned silence before realizing that these young people must have a dream of some kind to keep going in such adversity. Yet while she concludes that she's going to be a journalist to help everyone, not just for herself, it feels the only hope is individual escape, rather than transformation of dysfunctional communities through solidarity (though of course this was the upshot of the skits).

It was still a very good show, and I feel now, as before, that our college would be much the richer for having some of these kids as students. I know I'd learn a lot from them!

Tuesday, May 06, 2008


A pair of cardinals have set up shop in our garden - my upstairs neighbor E showed me the nest they've built inside the dense bush in the garden's center. Feels very auspicious, somehow. (I'm reminded how Mircea Eliade, in some autobiographical piece or other, said that the burst of red of the cardinal was a hierophany, a manifestation of the sacred.) No photos yet, but I trust there will be soon! And maybe even little baby cardinals...

Monday, May 05, 2008

Putting down roots

Crafted two more rows of vegetables in our garden today, planting several kinds of tomatoes, basil and some lettuce. I did the first two yesterday, planting seeds of radishes, another kind of lettuce, and Japanese eggplant and cucumber, and there's space for two more. (The picture's by housemate T, just returned from a month abroad and stunned at how Brooklyn's greened while he was away.) It's fun to be gardening, at least at this early hopeful stage - who knows which (if any) seeds will sprout? Some seeds I planted a few weeks ago - nasturtiums and bachelor's buttons - have come up, so there's hope. Some aojiso and hadaikon, brought probably illicitly from Japan by H, should be sprouting soon, too.

Summer planting is new for me, and not just because I haven't had a garden before. In years past, the last weeks of the academic year - final class meetings and graduation are next week - have been busy with packing. But this summer, for the first time, I'm staying, at least much of the summer. (Mid-July to mid-August I'll head out west.) Feels strange, somehow, though I'm not quite sure why - most of my friends stay. I mean, they live here! I guess I do too...!

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Subprime values

Thomas Friedman, author of The World is Flat and an often glib columnist for the Times, has returned from a book-writing holiday, and writes:
Traveling the country these past five months while writing a book, I’ve had my own opportunity to take the pulse, far from the campaign crowds. My own totally unscientific polling has left me feeling that if there is one overwhelming hunger in our country today it’s this: People want to do nation-building. They really do. But they want to do nation-building in America. ...
We are not as powerful as we used to be because over the past three decades, the Asian values of our parents’ generation — work hard, study, save, invest, live within your means — have given way to subprime values: “You can have the American dream — a house — with no money down and no payments for two years.”
That’s why Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous defense of why he did not originally send more troops to Iraq is the mantra of our times: “You go to war with the army you have.” Hey, you march into the future with the country you have — not the one that you need, not the one you want, not the best you could have.
A few weeks ago, my wife and I flew from New York’s Kennedy Airport to Singapore. In J.F.K.’s waiting lounge we could barely find a place to sit. Eighteen hours later, we landed at Singapore’s ultramodern airport, with free Internet portals and children’s play zones throughout. We felt, as we have before, like we had just flown from the Flintstones to the Jetsons. If all Americans could compare Berlin’s luxurious central train station today with the grimy, decrepit Penn Station in New York City, they would swear we were the ones who lost World War II.
How could this be? We are a great power. How could we be borrowing money from Singapore? Maybe it’s because Singapore is investing billions of dollars, from its own savings, into infrastructure and scientific research to attract the world’s best talent — including Americans. ...

The bit about airports and infrastructure sure rings true, but so does the suggestion - glib though it is - that the subprime crisis somehow reflects a broader cultural breakdown.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

It never rains ...

... but it pours! This weekend I'm veritably inundated with visitors!

My friend H, from Japan, is finishing up a 9-day stay tomorrow. (That's her at right, taking a picture on her phone of the dinner we made together tonight with ingredients from the Brooklyn Farmers Market.)

Meanwhile my old graduate school friend P, with whom I stayed in India last February, was in town today with his family. (That's them below, on the Staten Island Ferry, with son V honoring the distant Statue of Liberty in pose and color too.)

And now I've just heard that my first French teacher, N, is in town - just this weekend - from Lyons, so of course we're brunching tomorrow. I'm not complaining of course. With the dollar what it is, this is practically the only way for an American to see his friends from overseas these days...

Friday, May 02, 2008

In case you're wondering what I do all day

Could an opera make us stand up for the truth?

H was out seeing "Spring Awakening" tonight (which I saw before it hit Broadway two years ago) so I went to see the new production of Philip Glass' "Satyagraha: M. K. Gandhi in South Africa" at the Metropolitan Opera with my friend R (who had seen the original New York production at City Opera in 1981). I wasn't a Philip Glass fan before this, but now I'm not sure - maybe I could be. The production (co-produced with English National Opera) was virtuosic, using a simple set, puppets, the chorus and lights to magnificent effect (showing just how flat-footed this season's new "Peter Grimes" was by contrast). Although at times it felt like Cirque du Soleil, the waves of motion moving steadily across the stage to the music, stately and fluid and when the puppetmasters formed newspaper and baskets into huge figures wondrous, seemed perfect for Glass' music, though there was perhaps a surplus of ingenuity in the first acts, one wonderful stunt or effect following another without cease, possibly distracting from the music.

But then the final act - after some silliness involving scotch tape - entered the meditative loop of Glass at his profoundest, and I was transported. All the earlier stuff, including the splendid images, was still there, somehow, but now it was just Gandhi repeating a single line, a statue of Martin Luther King in the distance before an open sky (it made sense in context). I was moved in the way I was when I finally got "Tristan und Isolde" a few years ago (also at the Met), something whose music seemed to me to work on me like a chemical reaction.

"Satyagraha" has been advertised throughout the city with posters asking "Could an opera make us warriors for peace?" and similar questions. Seemed cheesy if effective marketing to me before (the production is sold out), but now I wonder if the answer isn't yes. Director Phelim McDermott's words in the program ring true: One of our outdoor publicity posters asks the question, "Can an opera make us stand up for the truth?" After working on this piece I have come to the conclusion that it is perhaps only through an epic form like opera that we can communicate the complexity of ideas behind such a thing as satyagraha. It is through art like this that we can tell stories of what happened, not just as events, but as shifts in group perception about what is possible if people transform their state of being as well as what they do: we can be given a felt sense of what satyagraha might really mean on all the deep levels it demands. As Gandhi says, "Be the change you want to see in the world."