Blog Credo

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.

H.L. Mencken

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Bright Lights, Big City

It's tough out there.

So, I had my great day in the city.  After dropping off the young woman at the airport, I headed into the rising sun and the $12 toll for the Holland Tunnel.  Down in Lower Manhattan, there are police everywhere.  I don't know if that's a result of 9/11 or OWS.  I parked just off Zuccotti Park across from the Federal Reserve.  Then I went down to Trinity Church and saw the graves of Alexander Hamilton and Albert Gallatin, two of America's greatest Treasury Secretaries.  I then saw what was left of "the Pit" at Ground Zero and the immense, gleaming structures rising from the margins.  I was unable to see the full memorial, only the firefighters memorial, as I was probably illegally parked and with  a 1:1 cop:citizen ratio, I wanted to avoid a large ticket.

Which is a good thing, otherwise I couldn't have paid for my $15 omelet.

After parking and dropping my stuff at my friend's apartment, I went to the Met.  I'm not sure there are words to express what it's like to walk through that place, nor frankly are there hours in the day to visit it properly.  I wandered into the Greek Antiquities wing before making my way to the Modernist rooms.  I suppose my fondest for Edward Hopper reveals something deeply anti-social or depressive about me, but there you go.  I also noticed that for the first time I found the Modigliani women alluring.  When I was younger, I was mystified as to why they were considered attractive.  I mean, they look like they were drafted by a fairly untalented ten year old.  But he manages to somehow convey context and character, which I've come to appreciate as being essential to attraction.

Anyway, I think I made my way through European decorative arts to the American Wing.  It was phenomenal.  Again, knowing more than I ever used to about American history meant that I was walking through my textbook.  Looking at how painters like Copley and Trumbull self-consciously emulated English portraiture made more sense when you understood the complex relationship of envy and mistrust that characterized relationships between the former mother country and colony.  That combined with the myth making of paintings of Washington, including the massive Washington Crossing the Delaware.

And then you could see the embrace of America's natural heritage with Bierstadt and the Hudson River School.  The post Civil War darkness in Winslow Homer.  The growing sophistication of the American Impressionists.

And then it was off to see the Impressionists.  I had my iPod, put on Yo-Yo Ma and had myself a time.  Sadly, my favorite painting - a Monet, Parisians in the Parc Monceau -  was not on display.  But small matter.

On a whim I went to the Asian art wing and saw a display of a Chinese painter who bridged the era between Sun Yat-Sen and the Cultural Revolution.  Stunning and interesting all at once.

I show my students a documentary about New York, in which one of the talking heads talks about how New Yorkers had to recreate the idea of community as the city grew beyond the ability of a small government to control it.  New York has infrastructure needs that other places can't conceive of.  And New Yorkers must live together as other people - especially in America - don't.

Wandering the Upper East Side, I felt like I was walking through a parody of New York.  There were the wealthy matrons, there the elderly Jews, there the men with perfectly coifed grey manes.  At the diner I ate at, they were literally Greeks running the place.

It was all I could do to not gawk at them.  But I guess being a New Yorker means you live and let live, because that is what it takes to live in a place where you get to go to the Met and stare at Van Goghs and Rembrandts.

After a nice visit with my friend and her son, I went to the Dartmouth Rugby celebration.  They won the Sevens national championship and it was mostly about that.  As was usual at these things, though, there was too much belabored speechifying.  The only good that came of that was the wine had worn off by the time the blathering had ended and I could safely drive home.

Anyway, I sat with the guys from my era, an era where we came close three times to a National Championship, and I played to two Final Fours myself.  But sitting with my cohort, I was reminded of how acrimonious the relationships were at Dartmouth in the late '80s.  The men didn't get along with the women, the students hated the administration.  From my perspective now, I can see the seething grievance of white men who were losing their privileged position in the world.  Sitting with my friends, I could sense that at least a few of them where still nursing that grievance.

I don't like regrets, but I do regret that I spent four years nursing my sense of grievance, my outrage in the name of outrage.  I wish I could live as a New Yorker, live and let live.

I have come to value the idea of "tending one's own garden".  I care about things outside my control, but my first priority is and must be that which is right before me.  I left before the drinking started again so that I could awake in my home and eat breakfast with my beloved children and my wonderful wife - who would've hated me if she met me in college.

I wouldn't want to - I couldn't - live in New York City.  It's an artificial environment in many ways and requires its citizens to embrace artifice themselves in order to navigate it.  But I sure like being able to visit.

Maybe next time we can go as a family.  Maybe when the kids are old enough to be impressed by a Jackson Pollack that covers a whole wall.

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