Friday, August 8, 2014

Manhattan, Isle of Joy

The city's bustle cannot destroy
The dreams of a girl and boy—
We'll turn Manhattan
Into an isle of joy.
—"Manhattan," Ella Fitzgerald

Anna and I have been traveling a great deal this summer—a wedding in Ann Arbor, visiting friends and family in Indiana—but nothing in the way of what you might call vacation until this past weekend, when we flew out to New York to visit friends.

The friends in question were slightly nonplussed when they realized that our goal was not to ascend the Empire State Building, visit Ellis Island, or see a show on Broadway, but simply to spend time with them. We've both been to New York a couple times before (my last New York trip was the foundation on which was built several key college friendships that endure to this day), so we'd basically had the New York ExperienceTM already. We had no desire to, say, see Times Square or the Statue of Liberty while we were there, because we knew that those things would not actually be fun, the way anyone who has been to Navy Pier knows that Navy Pier is not actually going to be fun.1

Once we cleared the air on that matter, we were able to plan out a fun weekend together, doing stuff that we could all enjoy. We stayed in Upper Manhattan with two of my friends, Brinton and Matina, but also wanted to hang out with two of Anna's friends, Alicia and Alain.

~   ~   ~

Arriving late Friday night, Anna went off to bed while Brinton, Matina, and I schemed about the days to come. (Anna had worked since five that morning; I had, uh, not.) Brinton is from Minnesota and Matina is from Tajikistan, so we woke to a breakfast of mixed Minnesotan and Tajik fare, and then set out for a visit to a nearby art museum run by the Hispanic Society of America, where we saw Art.

Yeah, Art! Much of the Art was quite cool. I liked this Art the best.2

It was both fun and free, which is a great combination, plus it gave me a chance to tell the story of our first date, which is always a pleasure.3

Speaking of our first date, we next asked Brinton to bring us down to the main New York Public Library branch on 42nd street (a great research library recently rescued from a plan to turn it into a glorified internet cafe), where we took a picture that commemorated our first meeting, next to the lions at the Art Institute in Chicago:

There are people all around us in this picture.
I swear Manhattan is not a desolate wasteland.

We toured the inside of the library, which is quite lovely, including a wonderful exhibit called Why Children's Books Matter, which included dozens of old, rare, and beautiful illustrated books for children.

Alas, we didn't get to see the coolest bit, the reading room (pictured) because part of the ceiling fell off. Source

We then met up with Alicia and Alain and tooled around downtown Manhattan, stopping for 99-cent pizza slices and chilling out in Grand Central Station, where they patiently listen to me explain my leftist political views on education and the economy. They were both extremely gracious and quite fun to be around. So much so that they agreed to come with us and Brinton and Matina to the symphony at the Lincoln Center later that night.

The Lincoln Center is gorgeous, BTW. Source

I am a somewhat casual fan of classical music, so I often run into a problem when going to the symphony, which is that I can't pay attention for longer than about five minutes unless I already know the song well. If I do know the song, I can focus on the details of how it's being performed, which is a great pleasure for me as both a musician and a music listener. Somewhat unfortunately, then, I wasn't too familiar with either of the pieces being played that night, Beethoven's "Emperor" concerto and Haydn's "London" symphony, and I had a little trouble giving them my full attention. Though there are worse things than thinking about knotty political issues and the like while beautiful music plays in the background.

That said, the performances were excellent, and I really did enjoy them, apart from my wandering attention. Brinton thanked us for the opportunity to go, since he and Matina hadn't gone to the symphony since moving to Manhattan. It's a familiar feeling to me: not going out and seeing the great stuff in your city until someone comes to town who wants to see it. I was happy we'd given them reason to go.

~   ~   ~

The real adventure of our weekend came on Sunday. Brinton proposed we go see King Lear at Free Shakespeare in the Park that night, which suggestion I rejected out of hand because I know from talking to her that Anna does not like Shakespeare.4 Anna overturned this ruling, however, declaring her openness to Shakespeare performed live by professionals, as opposed to how she usually experiences it: read in class, seen in a movie, or performed in a high school auditorium.

Free Shakespeare in the Park was completely new to me, but it is evidently a robust and well-loved New York tradition, stretching back five decades and featuring a wide variety of well-known actors, including this year's John Lithgow and Annette Benning (not to mention Clarke Peters, seen below, who I had a hard time recognizing outside his role as The Wire's Lester Freamon). It takes place throughout the summer each year, and the performances are held in the Delacorte Theater in Central Park.

How did John Lithgow get so old? Source

Typtically, the intersection of Free and Popular features either Long Lines or Luck; Free Shakespeare features both, in that you can get tickets either by showing up at around 7 am and waiting in line till noon, or by entering a lottery. We opted for the certainty (and tedium) of the line, at which we arrived early enough to guarantee ourselves some tickets, but late enough that there were already hundreds of people ahead of us, the morning's rain not having done much to dissuade folks: 

The view forward from our spot in line.

I brought a book (China Mieville's The Scar, which is brilliant and a great deal of fun, by the by), sheltered it and myself under an umbrella, and took periodic walks around Central Park to keep myself spry. The line is so big, long-lasting, and well-known that an entire cottage industry of service to people waiting in it has sprung up, of people selling food, chairs, umbrellas, and the like to folks in the line, who aren't allowed to leave for more than 20 minutes. This also makes them a captive audience for, say, street musicians, or people advertising things, like a new Shakespeare app for iPhone.

Legs aching, feet sore, we finally got our tickets at 12:30, having suffered most recently through the musical stylings of a street saxophonist who arrived after the rain to work the line for tips. We went home, rested, ate, and left for Central Park again that evening.

As Anna knows well, live Shakespeare, done poorly, can be pretty heinous. His plays do not work on their own regardless of talent, and though this is true of many playwrights, it is perhaps especially true of Shakespeare. At any rate, his are the plays you're most likely to see performed badly, of anyone's in the English language.

But live Shakespeare done well is always a joy. In particular, I love it when actors and directors know their stuff well enough to make the meaning come through in spite of the age of the language. Watching King Lear that night was like this. Though I'd read the play before, seeing it staged brought a wealth of connections and resonances that I'd never noticed in reading (or, for that matter, in watching Ran, Akira Kurosawa's Japanese-language adaptation, which I love). Layered on top of my joy at seeing a great work of art performed well, was the pleasant, bewildered astonishment of seeing it performed by, um, really famous people, in Central Park, for free. Free Shakespeare in the Park is a fantastic, brilliant idea, and it is justly loved by the people of New York. The guy who created it sounds like he had a good head on his shoulders:
In the feature-length documentary Joe Papp in Five Acts, Papp, the founder of New York City’s Free Shakespeare in the Park, recounts what he hoped to achieve when he started producing outdoor performances on the Lower East Side in 1956. Until his death in 1991, Papp brought more theater to more people than any other producer in history. In his eyes, art was for everyone, not just a privileged few. “We have public libraries,” he would argue, “Why not public theaters?”
“I believe that great art is for everyone — not just the rich or the middle class,” said Papp, who grew up in a poor neighborhood of Brooklyn. “When I go into East Harlem or Bedford-Stuyvesant and see the kids who come to see our shows, I see nothing so clearly as myself.” (Source)
~   ~   ~

The only thing of note that happened on Monday was the violation of the familial book buying ban, which was laid down by Anna after we went on a book buying spree earlier this summer and she declared we couldn't buy any more books till we'd finished what we had. (Note that this ban had already been violated, in the buying of the ESV Reader's Bible that I reviewed last week, but I was given a pass because it was, after all, the Bible.)

The occasion for the violation of the ban was that we were in New York City, doggone it, and I really wanted to go to The Strand. The Strand is a famous and famously good bookstore in Manhattan, where one's options range from browsing the $1 used book cart outside to visiting the rare book room on the third floor. I wanted to go in order to, yes, buy books, but also simply for the experience, and especially the chance to forge a link with my last trip that I remember so fondly.


I ended up finding a couple of books by two of my favorite Jewish Bible scholars (Jacob Neusner's Invitation to the Talmud, a new find, and Jon D. Levenson's Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel, which I've wanted to read/own for almost a decade now). I also came across a whole shelf full of Aubrey-Maturin novels, a personal favorite series of mine, which I've been slowly attempting to acquire in its entirety for the last few years.5 I ended up buying two, which represented some very serious restraint on my part:

Behold, outlined in red, the transgression of the book buying ban
The remainder of Monday was spent resting, enjoying the remaining time with friends, and traveling back to Muncie. We arrived home pretty exhausted, but quite exhilarated at the fun we'd had. Having gone so far and had such fun, with such lovely people, felt deeply satisfying, not least because it is an accomplishment to go on a vacation this successful. At all events, it was a truly great first vacation for us both, I think, and I look forward to many more to come.

1. Zing, Navy Pier. Zing. Also, sorry if you're really into Navy Pier; I know it has a nice garden.
2. And now I've written Art so much that I'm experiencing semantic decay and Art sounds like a made-up nonsense word.
3. Short version: Anna and I met at the Art Institute of Chicago, where we walked around and looked at Art and Anna thought I was a humorless fuddy-duddy because I was being all serious and Arty. I later redeemed myself by taking her out for falafel, but it was a close call, there, folks.
4. Marriage, y'all. We like, talk and stuff.
5. The story of that is probably even more boring than the rest of this post, so it's going in a footnote. I saw Master and Commander: Far Side of the World when it came out in 2003. I was in high school; I liked it a lot. For Christmas that year, dad got me two of the books in the series, Master and Commander (book 1) and The Far Side of the World (book 10). The trouble was, the books are written in early 19th-century period style; though the author lived in the 20th and 21st centuries, the books sound like they were written by Jane Austen's seafaring cousin. I had trouble reading at that level for pleasure in high school, so I put them aside. Fast forward to a couple years ago: I picked up the first book and found that, not only was I able to read it, I actually thoroughly enjoyed it. I went to the library and burned through the first 18 of the 20-book series in a few months. Along the way, I decided that I had a marked preference for one of the printings of the books over the others, which feature a single large naval painting across the spines, matte covers, clear fonts, crisp off-white paper, and general loveliness all around. I find that I really loathe finishing series of things, and occasionally I've found myself refusing to do so; this was a case in point. Rather than read books 19 and 20 and be done with it, I resolved to wait until I'd acquired all the books, used when possible, in the printed edition that I liked best, and only then read them all from start to finish. As you can see in the picture above, I'm a little over a quarter of the way there; I'm not sure what I'll do with the three books that aren't the favored edition, especially given that two of them were gifts from my father.

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