Road Trip (and More)!

I originally planned this trip to the southwest of the United States in 2019 long before I had ever heard of Covid-19. We were supposed to go in May of 2020 but had to cancel, much to my disappointment. Well, we are taking the trip now!

This past Friday we flew from Albany to Albuquerque, New Mexico, leaving very early in the morning. Other than a misunderstanding about our hiking sticks – I thought they could come on as part of my carry-on baggage, TSA disagreed. They characterized them as ‘weapons.’ You’ll never guess who won that battle. We had to leave the security area and check our bags. We were early enough to get to the Delta check-in counter and back through security a second time so there was no issue. Otherwise, our travel to Albuquerque was uneventful, long (because we had a four-hour layover in Atlanta) but uneventful. Given the horror stories one hears about air travel these days, I am grateful.

We picked up our rental car and promptly got on the road to Santa Fe which is only a little over an hour drive. As we exited the small airport and got on the highway I did look around Albuquerque trying to find evidence of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman, to no avail.

On the road in Albuquerque

The landscape looked about what I expected. It got prettier and prettier as we approached Santa Fe.

Snapped from our moving car

We checked into our hotel, the Inn on Alameda, a mere 14 hours from when we started our day. But it was still early enough to go explore a bit and get dinner. The gentlemen who checked us in was friendly, efficient, and provided us with good information about restaurants and nearby attractions, and a map (I love maps!).

Though we had not planned it to coincide, this was the weekend of Fiesta in Santa Fe. It is an annual celebration of the city’s Spanish heritage. The festival has evolved over recent years in recognition of the complicated relationship between the Spanish settlers, the indigenous people and the Mexicans who also ruled the area for a time. From our perspective, as tourists, what it mostly meant was that the city square had food and craft booths set up, as well as a stage where various performances were featured. It made for a fun, lively time.

After dinner we walked back to our hotel in a light rain. We basically collapsed in our bed so we would be ready for our scheduled walking tour the following morning.

We met up with our tour guide at a lovely coffee shop. He gave us an overview of the area’s history as we sipped our coffee. Then we started our tour. Here are some scenes from our tour:

The tour ended at the Georgia O’Keeffe museum. We enjoyed looking at her work and learning  her history. Women who are brave enough to forge their own path are inspiring – and she certainly did that. Plus, I like many of her paintings.

Not a ‘typical’ O’Keeffe, but I appreciated it. She did live in New York City for 20 years after all

We came back to our hotel, legs aching more from standing than walking, we had been on our feet for about 4 hours. Rather than make life complicated, we had lunch at our hotel. They had delicious offerings, as it turned out.

After a brief rest, we headed out again to explore – this time to Canyon Road where many of the art galleries are located. It is amazing how many talented people there are in this world. The paintings and sculptures were breathtaking.

Sunday morning, we had breakfast at the hotel. I couldn’t leave Santa Fe without getting a magnet – I make a point of collecting magnets from wherever I travel. The wall in our mud room has metal sheeting attached so I can put them up and remind myself of all the fabulous places I have been. I neglected to get one as we were wandering around on Saturday, so we drove over to the Five and Dime (that was the name of the store!) and I found a great addition to my collection. Now we could move on.

We had only 7 hours of driving ahead of us! – to get to Antelope Canyon, Arizona. Gary and I don’t mind long car rides, though this was pushing it. Some observations: The northwestern part of New Mexico is kind of depressing. Some of the landscape is beautiful, but some of it is dreary and desolate. You also see the poverty of the native peoples – pawnshops, scrap yards, and not much else in the way of industry.

Here are some photos shot from the car as we drove through New Mexico and into Arizona

Our destination was Horseshoe Bend, Arizona, where the Colorado River emerges from the Grand Canyon. We finally made it. We started our day in 55 degree Santa Fe. We emerged from our car into 90 degree blazing sun. It was a 1.5 walk from the parking lot to the site. Fortunately, we had water with us, though within minutes the bottled water was hot! But hot water is better than no water in that climate! The walk was well worth the effort.

Then it was on to our bed and breakfast – only 30 minutes away. Our host provided a beer for Gary and a glass of  well-chilled Chardonnay for me (a generous pour, too!). Ahhh! Lovely. We caught a beautiful sunset and moonrise before going to sleep.

Moonrise

We have finished 3 days of our vacation, 6 more to go with so many more magnificent places to see (Antelope Canyon, Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks are coming up) before ending our journey in Las Vegas. By the way, did you know that there is a Las Vegas, New Mexico? We were confused by road signs for it as we drove to Santa Fe. We know our geography well enough to realize that Las Vegas is not 125 miles from Albuquerque. Who knew there was another one? One of the many things I learned on this trip. Apparently, New Mexicans refer to it as Las Vegas, and call the one in Nevada ‘Vegas’ to distinguish them.

Can’t wait to see what else I learn.

Art, Artists and Audiences

“And I went to see the doctor of philosophy
With a poster of Rasputin and a beard down to his knee
He never did marry or see a B-grade movie
He graded my performance, he said he could see through me
I spent four years prostrate to the higher mind
Got my paper and I was free”

These are lyrics to the song “Closer to Fine,” by the Indigo Girls, released in 1989. They were the words sung by about 10,000 people attending a concert at Tanglewood in Massachusetts. The Indigo Girls began the song but stopped singing after the first verse and chorus, continued to play their instruments and invited the crowd to take it from there. And we did. It is a powerful thing to be among so many people singing words together – and these aren’t simple lyrics. Not “I love you, yeah, yeah, yeah.”  We were among strangers, and yet we weren’t. We all shared the experience of singing that song for decades, in our cars, in our dorm rooms, in our headphones while we jogged, while hanging out with friends. We were different people, living separate lives, varied ages and backgrounds, but united in finding meaning and connection in that song. It is a unique sensation experienced only when attending concerts in person.

When I bought the tickets a month or two ago, it was to see Brandi Carlile; I didn’t know the Indigo Girls would be the opening act, that was a bonus I learned in the days leading up to the concert. I first became familiar with Brandi Carlile from my local radio station (WEXT) and noted that I liked her sound. I saw her interviewed and was further impressed. I bought the tickets based on that. Then, more recently, I saw video of her performance with Joni Mitchell, and I am a huge fan of Joni, at the Newport Folk Festival. That sealed the deal; I was excited to attend my first in person musical performance since the pandemic began.

Tanglewood’s capacity, with lawn seating, is 15,000. It was close to full (there were some inside seats open until the rains came). Though most had come for the main attraction, it was clear that the Indigo Girls had their own fans, as well. The audience was very enthusiastic from the first notes and the performers fed off the energy of the crowd. I can only imagine how it feels to have lyrics you have written sung back to you by thousands of voices. How validating! Perhaps, after years of it, it becomes old hat. It didn’t seem that way for any of the performers that night. Brandi Carlile exulted, with her bandmates, that after years of playing chowder houses and chain restaurants in the Pacific Northwest, they had made it; they had, in her words, achieved their dream. I couldn’t help but feel happy for her and her talented band as they reveled in the cheers and absorbed the energy of the crowd.

Artists may pursue their art for a variety of reasons. Some may not love the public part, the performing; they may derive more satisfaction from the creative process. Some may choose to generate their work alone; others seek out collaboration. Brandi Carlile appears to enjoy both the performing and the collaborative potential music presents. Writing books, poetry or essays is generally a solitary craft, at least initially. Publication involves others.

No matter how the work is produced, though, the reality is that if you don’t have an audience, it may feel incomplete. People can talk about creating for its own sake, but without a reaction, without any audience, isn’t something essential lost? And, beyond that, the artist certainly can’t make a living without it.

This notion was reinforced by another ‘show’ I attended of an entirely different sort. The Clark Museum, also in the Berkshires, is hosting a Rodin sculpture exhibit. I have always appreciated Rodin’s work, especially The Thinker and The Kiss.

A small reproduction of The Thinker sits on my desk

I learned a few things from this exhibit. Rodin sketched first, then created a clay or plaster model (not necessarily full size). He did not cast the bronze or carve the marble himself; he employed someone to do that. I was surprised to learn that a woman, Camille Rosalie Claudel, did some carving for him. She was his student, assistant, model, and romantic partner for a time (Rodin also had a lifetime woman companion with whom he had a child but that is another story).

Learning that someone else did the carving was interesting on many levels. Part of me feels like the carving is an essential part of the artistry. One of the extraordinary things about sculpture of the human form is coaxing emotion and texture from stone. Does Rodin get credit for doing that if he didn’t do that part of the work?

Is this common practice? I have watched a number of profiles of artists on the news magazine CBS Sunday Morning. When working on large installations, artists have used teams of people to weld, pour concrete and other tasks involved in creating the work. But that struck me as different than having someone else do the ‘sculpting.’ But, where do you draw the line? Does it matter?

I don’t recall when I’ve seen Rodin’s work displayed at other museums whether the person doing the carving was given credit. If they were, I didn’t notice. At least at this exhibit they were.

I was also surprised to find that it was a woman who did the work. Maybe that wasn’t unusual either, he was creating in late 19th and early 20th century and I would not have expected that. It comes as news to me.  

One of the major themes of the exhibit was the role that patrons played in Rodin’s success in the United States. Without a few dedicated supporters, who bought his art, got it displayed in major museums and spread the word about his talent, he would not have become the world-renowned artist he became. It was also interesting to note that many of his patrons were women.

We may have an image of artists as lone creatives, toiling by themselves, perhaps tortured souls. A piece of that may be true. But, if we know about that their work, if they have achieved wide exposure, then it is likely that they have benefitted from a network of people who have supported them. Nothing wrong with that – and I am not suggesting it is luck, though that may play a role for some – but as a writer seeking publication, it is useful to keep that in mind.

Gratitude, Part II

Note: I wrote a blot post about gratitude a while ago (you can find it at https://stories-i-tell-myself.com/2019/03/11/gratitude/). The impetus for that essay was International Women’s Day and I reflected on the women in my life for whom I was most grateful. Interestingly, that post is the single most read offering among the 305 (!) posts on the blog. That piece was planned. The other day a feeling of gratitude crept up on me from an entirely different source and I was inspired to write about it. I wanted to share it – perhaps it will lead you to find gratefulness in something you might otherwise take for granted.

I plugged ‘Untermyer Gardens’ into my GPS and drove the designated route. It was simple enough to find, though I was not familiar with Yonkers at all. I had heard of it from several sources and knowing how much I enjoy gardens, I wanted to check it out. Plus, it’s free!

It was the day after taking Mom to see the pulmonologist, which went uneventfully, I’m happy to report. It wasn’t my best visit with Mom, but it went smoothly enough. Driving to Mom and back is a lot for one day (about 7 hours) so I usually do an overnight at my brother’s home or in our apartment in New York City to make it more manageable. I decided to reward myself by going to the garden before I headed back to Albany.

As I pulled into the small parking lot, I noted there were still some spots available. The website had warned of the limited number of spaces, so I was prepared to search on nearby streets. I was glad that wasn’t necessary; it was a good start.

As I got out of my car, I felt especially grateful, and not just for the parking spot. Gratefulness is not a feeling that sneaks up on me all that often. As I made my way to the entrance, I realized I was grateful for many things. Though it was overcast, rain was not in the forecast, so the weather was cooperating. More importantly, I thought about the fact that I had the wherewithal to make this trip, from Albany to Freehold, New Jersey, to the Upper West Side of Manhattan to Yonkers and then back to Albany by myself over the course of less than 36 hours.  I had the time, the financial resources, and the physical ability to do this. Not every 62 year old woman can, not every human being can. I took a moment to appreciate my good fortune. I wasn’t worried that I wouldn’t be able to walk the grounds of the gardens. My legs are pretty strong, by heart and lungs are in reasonable shape – I didn’t know what to expect but I knew I could climb up and down stairs, I can walk 3 to 5 miles without too much difficulty so I was confident I would enjoy the experience.

I write this not to brag, but to acknowledge my blessings. There are challenges in every life, mine included, and I tend to hyper-focus on those. Here was an opportunity to appreciate what I have and take pleasure in something that brings me joy, the combination of natural beauty and human creativity. Untermyer Park and Gardens embody both.

Turns out Mr. Untermyer, who established and bequeathed the gardens to the people of New York State, is also worthy of admiration. Samuel Untermyer, a Jewish-American born of German immigrants, was a successful lawyer who advocated for financial regulation to protect against corruption and monopolies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I was even more impressed that he initiated and campaigned for a boycott of Nazi Germany beginning in 1933. He recognized Hitler as a threat early on. Unfortunately, Untermyer’s efforts were not successful in isolating Hitler, but he was on the right side of history. It is uplifting to learn of people who made positive contributions to our world – someone I had never heard of before.

I went through the entrance and found a map of the grounds. My children tease me about always wanting to know the ‘lay of the land.’ Whenever we traveled, I looked for a map or floorplan so I could scope out where to go and what were the highlights. Much of this information is available today on smart phones, but I still appreciate a guide on paper. I set out to explore.

The Gardens are located in view of the Hudson River. It includes structures that borrow from the architecture of ancient times. Some of the buildings have gone to seed – in some cases the ruins have been incorporated into the landscaping. Sometimes it isn’t clear whether the decay is intentionally left, or if it will eventually be restored. Perhaps they don’t know. It made for interesting viewing.

In one case, graffiti decorated the walls of what had been a gate house (you know you are on an estate when there is a gate house). I posted a picture of the scene on Facebook and Instagram, asking if folks thought the graffiti added or detracted from the look.

The picture I posted on social media

Some thought it detracted, some needed more context (was it ‘allowed’ or invited, or if it fit in with the history of the place), while others simply thought it enhanced the view. My visceral reaction, while there, was positive. I liked the juxtaposition of the colors, the new art and the old stones, the lushness of the plantings and the intrusion of urban expression on a structure from a time long gone. When I read about it, after the fact, the guide says that the graffiti was “intentionally preserved as an artifact from a troubled time in its history.” That raises even more interesting food for thought.

After exploring for about two hours, I sat in a shady portico (see photo below) and considered the blessings of the day. I felt energized when I returned to my car. I headed north, stopping first to have lunch with a friend before continuing the long drive home.

I carry that gratitude with me now.

The Albany Book Festival to the Rescue

I thought this week’s blog post was going to be titled “The System is Broken.” The system I am referring to is elder care. It was motivated by my visit to my aunt at the Amsterdam Nursing facility. I will write that piece, but not today. Fortunately, I was rescued from that dark place by some uplifting experiences, and I decided to focus on those.

First, I will note the value of friendship. In the midst of my distress, I had a lovely dinner with my almost-life-long friend (we met when I was 14), Steven. We commiserated over our respective painful experiences of seeing our elderly parents, relatives and friends go through the indignities that aging can bring, especially when coupled with the limitations of the health care system. We found much to laugh about even as we covered those difficult subjects. We ate outside on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with a refreshing breeze washing over us. A strong cocktail improved my mood. It was a much-needed respite. Thank you, Steven.

This was followed up later in the week with a zoom call with Merle. We lamented the state of our country, but then focused on our gratitude for the good fortune we both enjoy.

The crowning event, though, in shifting away from writing that disturbing blog post, was attending the fourth annual Albany Book Festival. Last year it was limited to a virtual event due to the coronavirus. This year it was a mixture – virtual and live. I was concerned about attending an in-person, indoor event and wondered whether they would be taking appropriate precautions. I read the Covid information on the website and my worries were eased. I assured Gary that if they weren’t enforcing the rules and the environment felt unsafe, I would leave promptly.

My well-thumbed program

The morning fog had burned off, leaving a bright blue sky dotted with puffy white clouds, as I drove the short distance to the SUNY-Albany campus. I parked my car and ran into an ex-colleague from my days working at NYSSBA. This was a delightful surprise, as I had not seen her in several years. We caught up as we walked to the campus center. Purple signs, SUNY-A’s color, directed us. As we entered the building, I was relieved to see each and every person masked; not just masked but wearing them properly, fully covering their nose. There were a lot of people, but the area was not overcrowded. So far so good.

I perused the program and decided to head to the auditorium to hear Nathan Philbrick talk about his new book, Travels with George. It is a combination history, travelogue and memoir; the George in the title is George Washington. I had not read the book, nor was I familiar with Mr. Philbrick’s earlier work, but I thoroughly enjoyed the relaxed but informative conversation that was facilitated by moderator, Paul Grondahl. Mr. Philbrick, who has written multiple history books about early America, talked about Washington as a flawed but great man. Sprinkled in were amusing and interesting anecdotes about Philbrick’s own life. To conclude the session, Grondahl asked the author about his prediction for our country’s future, in this difficult and contentious time, given his knowledge of the past. Philbrick reflected on other perilous times in our history, including in the immediate aftermath of Washington’s election when the United States was first forming as a nation. He responded, “I have faith in America.” He pointed out that it may take a while, likely years, to weather the current storm. He admitted that though he is a pessimist by nature, he still trusted in our institutions. My spirits lifted. I felt better. I realize he is just one person, but he struck me as well-informed, intelligent, and knowledgeable. I bought his book.

I picked another session to attend. This one featured a conversation with the newly-named New York State poet and author, Willie Perdomo and Ayad Akhtar, respectively. Again, I was not familiar with either man’s work. I am not well read in poetry.  I am always promising myself that I will read more of it, to no avail. I left this session motivated once again. We’ll see.

Both men were well-spoken, good-humored and insightful. It is no wonder that Mr. Perdomo is a poet. He spoke lyrically, expressively and meaningfully about his life-journey. I could have listened for another hour. Mr. Akhtar didn’t project the same warmth, but he too was insightful. I bought his novel, Homeland Elegies, which according to Barack Obama is ‘a powerful and searching examination of contemporary American politics and attitudes.’ I value President Obama’s book recommendations and look forward to reading Mr. Akhtar’s work.

After that session, I wandered through the exhibit hall, taking in the offerings of other authors and publishers. I looked out the window and saw the brilliant sunshine. I decided I wanted to enjoy the beautiful weather rather than attend more sessions so I headed home.

I was invigorated by the talent, intelligence, and diversity I had witnessed at the book festival. Though I cut my stay short, I had gotten what I needed: a reminder that there are creative, smart, interesting people who are engaged with complex issues. It made me feel better about the world, about the future. Though it doesn’t change the fact that ‘the system is broken,’ I felt more hopeful and energized. Next week I can write about elder care.

New York City Isn’t Dead

Based on media reports one might think New York City has become a hell hole. My recent visits have not borne that out. Obviously, my experience is just that – mine. Anecdotal – limited to the times and places I have been. That time has been spent on the Upper West Side, which according to some reporting has been the site of a mass exodus. Data may reveal a decrease in population, but you never would have known it by walking through the neighborhood and strolling through Central Park this past weekend.

Gary and I celebrated my birthday in the city, joined by our daughter and son-in-law-to be. We traveled down on Friday evening. It was a beautiful, clear evening. A huge full moon hung over northern Manhattan as we crossed the George Washington Bridge. Leah and Ben, after taking a half hour to find a parking spot, arrived at our apartment. With so many Citi-bike stations and a wider bike lane eliminating parking spots from one side of Central Park West, street parking, which was scarce before, is now almost impossible to find. It is one of those trade-offs of urban living; convenience for car-owners versus encouraging eco-friendly biking. At least once a spot was found, we didn’t need our cars for the rest of the weekend.

Saturday was my birthday and Gary, Leah and Ben wanted me to choose our activities. I considered our options. Given how bike-friendly the city has become, renting bikes seemed like a good idea. The weather was supposed to be great. But many other people might have the same idea and I didn’t relish the idea of navigating heavy traffic. I looked up the Metropolitan Museum of Art, thinking if it was open, maybe it wouldn’t attract too many people. The website indicated it was open and explained the COVID guidelines – tickets were available for specific times, there would be a temperature check before entry, masks were required and guards would be ensuring compliance, sanitizing stations were placed throughout. The Met is a huge building. It seemed like it could be a safe space. We all agreed, and I bought tickets for a 2:00 entry.

We had a relaxing morning in the apartment. Gary and I went out and picked up bagels. That walk revealed some of the toll of the pandemic. A number of retail stores and restaurants were closed. There were more homeless than there had been before, but there were still families out and about and a lot of stores were soldiering on. Lenny’s, the bagel place we favor, had a line (properly spaced) out the door, and we didn’t encounter any aggressive panhandlers. The streets looked a bit battered, with the closed businesses and more trash, but nothing like what I remembered from 1980 when I was attending graduate school. The city may be staggered, but it isn’t on its knees like it was then.

We returned to the apartment and had our bagels and coffee and chilled out. We left at 1:00 so we could take our time getting to the museum, taking a scenic route through the park. We only had to traverse about a mile and change.

We entered the park at 100th street, hearing peals of laughter from the nearby playground. The vast majority of people were masked (with both nose and mouth covered!), including the children. Families were picnicking. A father was teaching his son how to play badminton. We passed cyclists, runners and rollerbladers – or more accurately they passed us. I noted many interracial couples, heterosexual and gay, of every age. We saw and heard musicians (jazz and classical), exercise classes and softball games. We even saw a group of dancers, wearing flouncy black skirts trimmed in vibrant colors, doing what appeared to be salsa. We saw birthday parties, a bridge table set up in the grass, paper table cloth flapping in the breeze, balloons tied to chairs. It was an extraordinary tableau, vibrant with life. Some may not have been socially distancing, it was hard to judge whether groups are families or households, but other than people who were eating, most were masked, and many were clumped in small clusters which suggested they were trying to maintain appropriate distance. We were able to walk with enough space to feel comfortable. The sun was shining, the air was crisp. It felt like life – maybe not normal but affirming.

I was reminded that life wasn’t normal by the persistent feeling that a hair was trapped between my mask and my lips. I stopped twice, moved to the side next to a tree, removed my mask and inspected it for the stray hair. I rubbed my fingers over my lips. I never did find it – it just kept irritating me. But I kept my mask on.

We arrived at the museum at the right time, had our temperatures taken and our tickets scanned. Some spaces were more crowded than others, but we still took in their extensive Impressionist collection. People were mindful of spacing, we found ourselves doing a dance to allow access to the works. They thoughtfully reprinted the identifying information cards in larger font so you could stand back farther and still see the artist’s name and description of the piece.

I have been to the Met a number of times over the course of my 61 years, but I am hardly a regular there. Each time I respond to the paintings and sculptures differently. One of the things I have come to appreciate more recently is the spaces that museums provide. The Met has a number of courtyards with walls of windows that offer views of Central Park and high ceilings so that it feels airy and open. The sculptures in those areas may not be my favorites, but I love the overall effect.

I had read a bit about an installation on the rooftop garden that I wanted to see. You had to take the elevator to the fifth floor to get there. They were regulating the flow of people, limiting the number in the elevator and preventing crowding on the roof. We found a long line to get on the elevator, with markings on the floor to designate proper distancing. The line wound itself around a room. We wondered about waiting, decided it appeared to move quickly, so we got on. It was well worth it – both because the room itself had some interesting pieces to look at and because the rooftop was fabulous. The installation, called Lattice Detour by Hector Zamora, was a wall made up of blocks that left open spaces, hence the name of the piece. It may not sound all that special, but it created cool shadows and great photo opportunities. The view up there was spectacular. The park and the city skyline were lit by brilliant sun against a pale blue, clear sky, with just wisps of clouds.

After enjoying the fresh air and views, we walked down the stairs instead of using the elevator, careful not to touch the bannisters. We were alone in the stairwell, just the four of us.

I got us lost looking for the American wing, but we found great pieces of modern art. It was nearing closing time. Leah and Ben were determined to find George Washington Crossing the Delaware, my left heel said it had enough (we had already walked five miles and still needed to walk home – a cab was not an option). We agreed to meet in the gift shop. Another thing I love, museum gift shops!

I picked out some gifts, paid for them, and went to sit on the front steps (those iconic steps) to wait for everyone else. The beauty of cell phones, I texted everyone where I was, so I wasn’t concerned about being separated. I people-watched as I waited. Again, the variety that is New York presented itself. One woman, dressed in a body-hugging black outfit, thigh high boots, blond hair blown dry to perfection, gold earrings glinting in the sunlight, confidently posed for her partner as he snapped pictures. Vendors were selling pretzels and hot dogs and people were buying.

It wasn’t too long before Gary and the kids joined me. We sat a bit longer, criticizing those who were not masked properly, but also noting how many more were. We began our trek back to the apartment.

Having been out and about for the whole afternoon, we decided we had enough exposure to the elements and ordered food in. So many choices! Once again, they deferred to me. We ordered Chinese from Red Farm. I poured some wine while we waited and reflected on the day.

Thank you, universe, for giving me a beautiful present. The only thing that would have made it better was having Dan, Beth and our granddaughter with us, but I had a FaceTime visit first thing in the morning. I was beyond grateful for the gift of the day. And, I was relieved to find New York City doing its thing in this new reality.

Revelations

One of the things I have done during this period of quarantine is watch a variety of videos: music, movies, t.v. shows. Some are homemade that pop up on my Facebook or Twitter feed; others have been made available by professional artists or companies. All of them provide a welcome diversion. I received a link to one such performance from my daughter Leah. She knows I am a fan of the Alvin Ailey Dance troupe and they released Revelations, which was filmed at Lincoln Center in 2015, so that it could be viewed for free. [Note: The link she provided is no longer active. Apparently, Alvin Ailey has created a free All Access streaming service that rotates programming. Here is the link. Hopefully they will offer Revelations again. Their other works are well worth viewing, too.]

Watching the piece brought back memories. The first time I saw Alvin Ailey was in the early 1970s. It was a powerful experience

Aunt Clair, who I wrote about here, invited me to join her to see Alvin Ailey at City Center. I was excited. I was a fan of dance as an art form. During my teen years Mom and her sister (Aunt Simma) had a subscription to the New York City Ballet (NYCB). They took their daughters, me and my cousin Laurie, to three or four performances each season. The four of us would meet for lunch beforehand and then go watch the ballet. I loved those afternoons. Although I could not imagine myself as a dancer, I was moved by the athleticism, grace and strength displayed. Sometimes the music was even more beautiful than the choreography. Taken together, the music and dance were breathtaking. Some might find classical ballet boring, but it was rare for me to think the piece dragged. Most often I was captivated by the expressiveness of the human form – sometimes it told a story, but sometimes it was just raw emotion.

Alvin Ailey would be a different experience on several levels. We were going at night; not to a matinee. That meant being into the city after dark, which brought a different energy. Plus, it was the holiday season so Manhattan would be more lit up than usual. I didn’t know what to expect from the dance itself, but I did know that Alvin Ailey was not the classic approach offered by NYCB.

It also meant getting dressed for an evening at the theater and going into ‘the city.’ Though I lived in Brooklyn, which is in fact part of New York City, we didn’t think of it as the city. When we went to Manhattan, we said “We’re going to the city.”  I  also would be spending time with my Dad’s sister, my adventurous, independent and always interesting Aunt Clair.

Though I did not ordinarily focus on my wardrobe, this was an exception. For one thing, I was feeling a bit better about my body. For a brief time during high school, after having some success at Weight Watchers and staying quite active (I played basketball on my high school team), I was in reasonably good shape. Mom and I bought some clothes that I felt good in.

I chose my high-waisted, plaid, bell-bottom slacks. They were red and black with a thread of yellow, quite stylish at the time. I put on a black turtleneck sweater. I had to decide whether to tuck the top in or wear it out. I modeled for my mom and she suggested I go upstairs and ask Uncle Terry what he thought. Maybe Dad wasn’t home at the time. I was nervous as I climbed the stairs. Uncle Terry gave me a thumbs up for either way. If I tucked it in, I felt like it emphasized my chest. I wore the sweater out. Though I felt more comfortable in my body, I wasn’t ready to make that statement.

It was winter and holiday lights made the theater district even more festive than usual. I don’t recall how I got to the city – if Aunt Clair picked me up or if my Dad drove me in. I know I would not have taken the subway by myself. At that time, taking the LL in the evening alone was simply not an option – too dangerous.  Either way, Aunt Clair and I arrived at the theater and found our seats along with several thousand others. The theater was packed. Our seats were in the center in the lower balcony – perfect to see the whole stage, the dancers’ full bodies and the patterns they formed.

We saw three pieces: Blues Suite, Cry and, the finale, Revelations. I was enthralled by each one in turn. The program took us through the range of human emotion, from despair to joy, from anger to triumph. The audience was totally immersed in the ride. Revelations uses spirituals as its spine and the theater felt like what I imagine to be a revival meeting in a black church. Being a white, Jewish person, I had no point of reference for this, but I loved it. The heart of the dance was universal, showing us the human spirit in all its dimensions, but calling upon the specific experience of African-Americans. When the performance concluded, the audience, which represented a cross-section of New Yorkers, kept clapping, stomping and singing – even when the lights came up. No one wanted to leave, no one wanted to break the joyous spell. Eventually, after many minutes, people started to make their way toward the exits. Aunt Clair and I were exhilarated.

I have returned to see Alvin Ailey many times since. Though not all performances elicited the excitement of that first one, I have always been moved and grateful for the opportunity to see so much talent. I come away amazed at what the human form can communicate. Once we get through this period of social distancing, I can’t imagine a more perfect choice of performances to see than Revelations. If you have an opportunity to see it live, take it.

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And, thank you, Aunt Clair for opening my eyes to what dance and theater could be.

Art or Not

On Saturday Gary and I met friends and went to Dia, an art museum in Beacon, New York, in the Hudson Valley. The building was repurposed, it had been a box factory for Nabisco. It featured large spaces that housed huge installations – sculptures, paintings, arrangements of stuff. We were told it was 30,000 square feet. We took a guided, one-hour tour.

The docent introduced herself, offered some history of the building and explained that she was an artist. Gary whispered to me, “Duh!!” From her theatrical manner to her inability to remember dates to the words she used to describe the art, she was what you think of when you imagine an ‘artist’ – creative and airy.

We were a small tour group. As we gathered to begin one gentleman coughed, a phlegmy, worrisome sound. Everyone took a step back and looked at each other. Coronavirus was on all our minds, but we were not deterred. During our visit we stopped once to wash hands at the restroom and later Gary passed around his travel sized bottle of Purell.

The first installation we looked at consisted of numbers painted on the walls of the gallery with a straight red line connecting them. The line and numbers were above my eye-level (I’m 5’6”). The docent explained that the numbers corresponded to the measurement of the space and the height of the line was the eye-level of the artist. She talked about it as a blueprint brought to life, bringing our awareness to the structure in which we stood. I thought it was interesting and gave me food for thought. I caught two of my companions rolling their eyes – they were not enthralled. Another person on the tour was moved to point out that the space wasn’t made up of perfect squares – the measurements across from each other weren’t exactly the same. The docent and that person engaged in some discussion. I was getting less interested by the second. Finally, we moved on.

The second room, see picture below, was comprised of a white dust arrangement on the wood floor. We were asked what we thought the substance was – we took some guesses. It was chalk. I liked the look of it – the wave-like pattern. Gary found this more interesting than the last room, but not by much.

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We continued walking through galleries. We came upon rusted structures designed for people to walk through and another area with free-standing discarded car parts, and a space with colorful fluorescent lights. We went outside to a garden where there was a soundscape – an artist had manipulated bird calls. The docent explained that the artist, a woman, was commenting on the fact that, other than her, when the museum opened all the exhibits were made by male artists. The sounds were the names of those male artists, distorted through a computer. If I hadn’t been provided that background information, it would have sounded like random noises. It wasn’t unpleasant, but I wasn’t sure it added to the experience either. Instead, I noticed that there were buds on the cherry blossom trees. A welcome sign of Spring.

After the tour, our foursome continued exploring the museum.

After about another half-hour, we agreed it was time to move on. One of my companions commented that the art had not moved him – he said he didn’t get it. Gary agreed. I was asked what I thought. I explained that I didn’t know if I ‘got it,’ but I enjoyed a lot of it. Some things amused me, in other pieces I liked the play of light, shadow and reflection. Without the docent’s explanation, I found some pieces pleasing even if I didn’t understand the artist’s intent, while others didn’t do anything for me.

Here are samples of pieces I found interesting (I didn’t take photos of those that I didn’t, which made sense in the moment but as I wrote this post I realized might have been useful to contrast. Of course I probably would have felt bad posting an artist’s work that I didn’t like.)

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It is interesting to me how my taste in art has evolved over time. When I was a teenager and young adult the art I appreciated were Impressionist paintings, like Monet’s Water Lilies or realistic depictions, like Andrew Wyeth’s. I was mostly interested in ‘pretty’ landscapes. I still like Monet and Wyeth, but my appreciation for other things has grown. Now I see nuance, depth and skill in a portrait – I especially like John Singer Sargent. I can also enjoy an abstract arrangement of colors that simply pleases my eye. I enjoy outdoor sculpture gardens, especially whimsical pieces.

Art is clearly in the eye of the beholder. For two of my companions yesterday, there wasn’t much art to behold. They enjoyed the light and wide-open spaces of the building, and the scenic views of the Hudson River but didn’t get much from the pieces displayed inside. They were good sports about it, and we had plenty of laughs (especially at the phallic sculptures – which I did not photograph :)).  Our visit was a success. But, it begs the age-old question: what is art?