Life in the big city – Day Four

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Ah, New York, where everything is big and old and somewhat grimy. Where clerks treat you like you’re kind of annoying, but hey, it’s their job to wait on you. Where pedestrians talking to themselves on the street aren’t crazy, they’re just on the phone. It’s boisterous and crowded and expensive, and one of the most fascinating cities in the world.

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Spent the day wandering around Greenwich Village, Chelsea and the Garment District. Admired the Empire State Building and especially the Flatiron Building, and spent some time in Herald Square and Madison Square Park. I’ve been walking quite a lot, (though I bought some cushy socks today that put an extra bounce in my step), so any chance to sit and be in nature (and there are some great parks here) is a good thing.

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Not a terribly productive day, but the weather was rather nice and it was a good chance to absorb the ambience of the city. I did get a little disoriented walking the streets, as the grid pattern that I’m used to is rather chaotic in lower Manhattan. I also managed to hop on the wrong subway on the way back, ending up in Harlem. Oops. After some wandering, map consulting and head-scratching, I figured it out.

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At least I wasn’t as confused as another passenger, who seemed to think she was on Metro-North (um, that’s a whole other train company), nor did I have the train doors close on me, making me a subway sandwich (ha!) like a third passenger. How embarrassing! I did, however, manage to bang my head a time or two on the handrails when getting up from my seat. This is one reason I wear hats.

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I discovered that there are different classes of subway cars on different lines. Some of the ones I rode today seem to be the Cadillac models, much more updated and contemporary-looking, with modern electronics and lots of information to tell you what the upcoming stops are. And here I’ve been riding coach most of the week! I also discovered that trains only go in one direction on particular tracks (uptown or downtown, and it’s important to note that distinction). Duh! I should have had that one figured out days ago.

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After resting up from all this meandering, I headed to my third and final opera of the week, Puccini’s La Boheme, which the Met bills as the world’s most popular. They’ve performed it almost every year since 1900. It contains several extremely popular arias, including this soprano showstopper (skip to 2:30 if you just want to hear the part you no doubt are familiar with):

https://youtu.be/UgaN3vIqJUY

You know you’re seeing a first-class production when the audience applauds the costumes, set and scenery when the curtain rises, before anyone even sings a note. Among other things there was a donkey, a marching band, and snow on stage, along with a cast of dozens. Zefferelli knows how to impress.

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In operas there are often tragic deaths (melodramatic as operas tend to be), and they usually don’t faze me too much. But in this opera, even though I know Mimi dies at the end, it gets to me every time. I think the reason is the fantastic music Puccini wrote for this heart-wrenching scene (you can hear it here at 3:38):

https://youtu.be/qqLU6kboyM0

When I went to get on the subway at Lincoln Center after the opera, there was a street performer playing this very tune on his saxophone, which made it sound even more somber. Smart guy. I threw him a buck.

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I then headed down to Times Square, which I had only visited during the day (this trip). Quite a different experience at night. The billboards have gotten bigger and brighter, lighting up the square like it’s daytime. The whole area is much cleaner, safer and more tourist-friendly then it was when I was here years ago. They’ve installed a no-cars pedestrian area, bleachers, and lots of places to sit and soak it all in without worrying about getting hit by traffic (which I’m sure used to happen). They’ve really done a nice job with it.

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While I was there I finally stopped in the Times Square flagship store of my employer. I was not at all impressed. While it’s spread out over three floors, it felt very small and cramped (like much of New York) and the layout was a bit strange (well, the building is narrow and triangular, but hey, we wanted it for its prominence and history). There were many employees on hand, even at midnight, but not a one of them said hello to me (this is a standard requirement of our staff nationwide, but this is New York, where it’s OK to ignore the throngs of people that are everywhere). I bought nothing.

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On the ride “home” I practiced my nonchalant subway gaze – the one where you dart your eyes around the car dispassionately without really looking at anyone for too long. I’m getting quite good at it. Maybe by the end of the week, I can pass as one of them.

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Life in the big city – Day Three

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Today I acted like a true tourist and visited the Statue of Liberty. I had been to the Statue many years ago, but felt the need to go again. It’s such an inspiring symbol of American greatness, and the best piece of eye candy we possess. I noticed when I was there today that people can’t stop looking at it even if they’re walking away from it. It’s disrespectful. They turn around to catch another glance, maybe to see if it’s really still there or maybe they just can’t believe that they’re actually standing in front of the American version of the Colossus of Rhodes. Pinch me, I must be dreaming!

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The thing I find really special about visiting the statue in person is the many different angles you can view it from while on Liberty Island – angles you don’t usually see in picture books, angles that catch you by surprise as you’re walking along, breathtaking  angles that drive home just how massive the statue is. It has an occupancy limit bigger than many New York restaurants (there is a staircase inside that you can climb right up to her crown). Talk about getting inside someone’s head!

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I went through three different Security checkpoints during my visit, and only those with advance reservations (which I had) can go into the pedestal. A ticket to climb up inside the statue requires a special reservation (which I didn’t have) planned months in advance (and, of course, another security check). I had to take my belt off at every one, and was beginning to feel like a stripper. I would have left my belt in the room if I didn’t need it to hold my pants.

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The boat ride to the statue was pleasant and offers some dramatic views. I felt a little bit like Barbra Streisand in “Funny Girl” (Don’t rain on my parade – but it did). This is the same view that millions of immigrants had when they first came to America, a whopping first impression that told them that everything they heard about America was true – it is big, it is grand, it is the land of opportunity.

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The pedestal the statue sits on is almost as tall as the statue itself. There’s a museum inside that includes the original torch, which was replaced a number of years ago, as well as a registry of names of people who donated to the statue’s restoration for its centennial in 1986. When I saw this display I had a vague recollection that I had contributed money to this cause years ago, and sure enough, when I looked up my name on the computer, there it was. It was an unexpected surprise. It would have been really neat if my name was etched in a wall or something, but I didn’t give that much money.

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Probably the most moving part of the trip for me was when I was standing right in front of the statue, looking up at it with my binoculars. It gave me a feeling for just how big it is but it also filled me with a sense of pride and wonder, not just in the country but in the human ingenuity  that could envision and build such a thing. It brought tears to my eyes, as a grand accomplishment always does, which even the operas I’ve attended haven’t managed to do (yet – La Boheme is Thursday night).

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After this experience I took the boat over to Ellis Island, something I had never done before. The museum there was very impressive, and gave me a real feel for what immigrants experienced when they stood in the very same spot I was now standing. So much history in that building. The restoration work they’ve done on it is fantastic, as evidenced by the before and after photographs. It looks today just as it looked in the early nineteen hundreds, with faithful reproductions of ceilings, floors, rooms and hallways.

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After leaving Ellis Island I decided to walk over to the 9/11 Memorial since I was so close by. As I approached the area, the New Freedom Tower came into view, another giant of American ingenuity. This building is massive, the tallest in the Western Hemisphere. I found the controversial design appealing, and if I may say so more aesthetically pleasing than the Twin Towers were, even though they themselves became such a symbol of the New York skyline

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Somehow I didn’t find the reflecting pools that now inhabit the exact footprints of the twin towers as moving as I expected, perhaps because the waterfalls weren’t running, and running water always invites reflection and introspection. I plan on visiting again tonight, in the ambience of the lighted pools and names, and hopefully flowing water. I did find it moving that some of the names carved around the memorial had American flags, flowers and other mementos placed by them, just as you would find at a gravesite.

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After all this adventure I got together again with my friend Michael in the evening and visited Chinatown, where we had a great meal and great conversation. We walked through the streets of Chinatown and Little Italy afterward before we parted ways. He’s leaving the city tomorrow, as he likes to get out of here every chance that he can. Here I am marveling at every corner of the city this week in true tourist fashion, but his perspective sheds some light on what it’s actually like to live here. The noise. The tourists. The inconveniences. The need for personal space. There is definitely a price to pay to live in such a marvelous city, but it sure is a nice place to visit.

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Life in the big city – Day Two

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Today was a museum day, partly because it rained, and partly because I’m very tired of walking the streets already (I overdid it yesterday). The problem with this plan was that I ended up doing a ton of walking anyway, and in the rain. Twice now I have tried to cut through Central Park to get to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is about the only direct way to get there from my hotel. It looks simple enough on a map. But both times I ended up going in a loop (the park is huge and meandering) rather than a straight line and coming out pretty much where I started after a good 40 minute walk, and mind you every step of that walk was somewhat painful. I finally found the museum after a walk that was twice as long as it should have been, so I was a little cranky and wet and tired by the time I got there.

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The museum is, of course, magnificent. It’s cavernous. It’s overwhelming. There are so many rooms that I suspect I only saw about half of them in the five hours I was there, and many of those I raced through because I was mindful of the time. The museum did remind me a bit of being in Macy’s in that once I was inside, I couldn’t figure out how to get out. Someone could have offered me $500 to find them an exit and I don’t think I could have done it.

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The other thing I couldn’t find was a scrap of anything to eat or a restroom (actually, this has been a problem in general the whole time I’ve been here). In this sense the museum is not very patron-friendly. But that was all made up for by the stunning artworks the museum possesses, over a hundred and twenty of which I took pictures of (see my Facebook page for today). Yeah, I was that guy. But I had tons of company, and at least I wasn’t stupid enough to use flash. I might be from Eastern Connecticut, but I know a few things about being in museums (I probably used flash last time and got yelled at).

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By the time my museum gawking was winding down I was extremely tired and extremely hungry. I did manage to find something to eat about three-quarters of the way through my visit. It was a $7 peanut butter and jelly sandwich that was the worst one I have ever eaten. I don’t know how you can ruin a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but they managed, and my $3.50 cup of coffee was so hot as to be undrinkable and un-holdable. Plus there was nowhere to sit. So imagine my delight when I noticed a comment card on one of the tables. I asked them if they hated their customers. When I left the museum I found a hot dog vendor on the street, and to my groaning stomach it was filet mignon. It hit the spot, and was enough to fuel my walk back to the hotel – which I didn’t screw up this time.

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I had a whole hour to rest and shower before heading out to my second opera of the week. Luckily, I can leave my hotel and be at Lincoln Center in less than ten minutes. The opera house is gorgeous and elegant. Everything is decked out in red velvet, including the walls and the railings, accented by rosewood and stunning chandeliers that rise out of the way when the show begins. I think the house seats somewhere around 3,000 people, making it the largest opera house in the world.

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This opera was a bit special in that it’s one of my favorites, and in that it was being conducted by James Levine, the aging, beloved, and soon-to-be retired musical director of the opera house for the past four decades. It was a treat to see him there. He is now in a wheelchair and hasn’t conducted many shows lately, but this is also one of his favorites. He received a warm and  thunderous ovation, not once but four times during the evening. They built a special ramp and conductor’s podium for him to accommodate his wheelchair. The audience loves him and so does the orchestra, so they go out of their way to take care of him.

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The opera itself is not one of Mozart’s most popular, but I think the music is fantastic. It’s not a serious opera. There are a lot of lighter moments mixed in with gorgeous and uplifting tunes (one of them, the rousing “All hail the mighty Pasha Selim,” is my cell phone ringtone, below).

https://youtu.be/cZn0TKvjsfA

The story concerns two refined British women who find themselves in a Turkish harem after their ship is seized by Pirates. Their beloveds were also taken and separated from them. The rest of the story concerns the effort of the men to rescue the women, even though the women have been given to the Turks as concubines. The opera was featured prominently in the movie Amadeus, which is where I first encountered it. The music struck me even back then when I wasn’t into opera at all. It was a magnificent show. The costumes were gorgeous.

Tomorrow I visit the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. While I’ve seen the statue before, Ellis Island will be a new experience, and I suspect a moving one.  I may also try to squeeze in the 9/11 Memorial if there’s time, which of course will be more moving still. I’ll report back tomorrow night after what will probably be an emotional day.

Life in the big city – Day One

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Having an amazing time in New York. I’ve only been here a day and a half, but it feels like much longer. The pace is of course very different from back home, and I did pack quite a bit into today’s itinerary. All in all I walked from my hotel on 87th Street all the way down to 34th Street, stopping at many attractions along the way. The weather turned really pleasant in the afternoon,  which was a nice change of pace from how overcast it’s been.

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I started the day having breakfast at Hot and Crusty, a cool bagel & sandwich shop that’s open 24 hours in my Upper West Side neighborhood. I then headed over to the Metropolitan Museum of Art via Central Park. It was a little overcast, but the park is fantastic (and huge) with many species of mature ornamental trees and great, picturesque spots to sit (and dogs are allowed!) What an amazing respite for the city folk. Finally made it to the Met after taking so many meandering turns in the park that I ended up on the same (West) side that I originally started on, which was not my intent. After what seemed like an hour-long walk – and well may have been – it turned out the museum was closed for some big gala they’re having this evening (!), so I’ll have to save that for another (rainy) day.

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Instead I took a stroll down 5th Avenue, encountering many attractions along the way including Trump Tower, Rockefeller Center and Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. There were many police around Trump Tower, no doubt because of Trump’s presidential aspirations. The building itself is extremely tall and slender, and the lobby reminded me a bit of the casinos back home in terms of decor and extravagance. Rockefeller Center had many gorgeous water fountains and flowers, which made for a pleasant place to rest.

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The Cathedral of course is stunning in its cavernous size and grandeur. There’s even a gift shop inside, which is a little surrealistic for a church, and places to donate money every six feet or so. I also stopped in the Chrysler Building, which has a very 1930s-looking Art Deco exterior and interior, but unfortunately only the lobby was accessible to casual tourists. Checked out the New York Public Library also, with the slight disappointment that the famed main reading room was closed for renovations.

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Then headed over to the cavernous Grand Central Station to admire its renowned beaux-arts decor.  I was rather tired after all this walking by late afternoon, but thank God I brought the right pair of shoes – the same ones that I wear at work, where I also do an enormous amount of walking. So I stopped at Hot and Crusty again for a delicious BLT and headed back to the hotel for a shower. Then I jumped on the “1” train to Lincoln Center at 66th Street, which is only 3 subway stops from my hotel, to see the first of three operas this week at the Met. Being there is an amazing experience for me. It’s one of the best Opera Houses in the world (and the biggest), and as a Met Opera On Demand subscriber I have watched many telecasts from this very House, so I feel like I know it. I listen to opera almost every day on my ride to work, but it’s always special to hear one live, which in tonight’s case was Otello by Verdi. It was a real tragedy. Literally. A Shakespearean tragedy, with lots of drama, cymbal crashes, and a duet that was so sublime that it almost lulled me to sleep – not from boredom, but shear loveliness. The ovations were long and deserved (my phone battery died on me from overuse today, but I’ll have pictures of the gorgeous opera house tomorrow).

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Things have changed a lot since I was here last (probably about 15 years ago). For one thing, just about everybody you encounter on the street or subway or restaurant or anywhere is buried in their smart phone, either listening to music or texting or on Facebook. I must admit I am guilty of this myself – smartphones are amazingly versatile devices that make life so much more enjoyable – and I don’t see them as an evil. It’s just something I’ve noticed. Everybody’s in their own little world, which makes the introvert in me grin knowingly. I kind of wonder what New Yorkers did before smartphones. I don’t think they really talked to each other then either, so it’s probably not a bad trend.

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The city seems safer than the last time I was here in the late 90s, and I’m sure much of this is due to 9/11. There is a much larger police presence, and you seem to get scanned just about everywhere you go, including Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, the library, and the opera. Times Square has definitely changed, with much of it now blocked off creating a large pedestrian area which is really quite nice. There are many places to sit and absorb the experience of being at the Crossroads of the World, checking out the amazing billboards and engaging in some of the best people watching anywhere.

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Before all of today’s excitement I got together with an old friend last night whom I hadn’t seen or talked to much in almost 20 years. You never would have known because we picked up right where we left off, just like always seems to happen with true friends. He treated me to a nice quiet meal in a restaurant that was fairly deserted,  and we caught up on twenty years of life (neither of us has changed much – I don’t know if that’s good or bad).

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One thing I notice about New York is that although everything here is huge, such as the buildings and the Avenues, space is so expensive and at such a premium that I feel cramped everywhere I go, most noticeably in restaurants, where tables are extremely close together, and hotel rooms, which are tiny. My hotel is interesting in this regard as the designers seem to have made efficient use of every possible inch of space. The hallways are extremely narrow and mazelike, such that you have to turn numerous times to get to your room. The room itself is extremely small and there’s not a bit of wasted space anywhere. Dresser drawers are under the bed, and the bathtub is sized for a midget. It’s not like the wide-open spaces of Eastern Connecticut.

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I feel like I have adapted quickly to being a New Yorker in terms of riding the subway (I’ve got it down to one swipe of my MetroCard), crossing the street (I don’t always wait politely for the walk signal if no traffic is coming) and just walking around as if I belong here (I do). I’ve even learned to ignore people like a pro. There are plenty of tourists around though, so I certainly don’t feel out of place at those times when I feel like one. Everybody’s taking pictures and looking up and marveling at the amazing eye candy that is everywhere, and I’ve seen numerous cases of New Yorkers really helping tourists out.

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As an introvert it doesn’t bother me at all to be here by myself. It is nice, however, to have the connection of one or two friends in the city that I could rely on if I had to, and also to have the connection or sharing my pictures and experiences on Facebook. It’s enough for me without being overwhelming. My neighborhood is very safe and there are all kinds of people walking around at all hours of the day and night. The subway does thin out late at night, but even then there’s just your Average Joes riding the train to get home, just like myself. There’s almost a feeling of “We’re All in This Together,” and that may also be a residual of 9/11. However I’m also a realist, and I do monitor my surroundings for safety.

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Could I ever live here? I’ve often felt that I could. I would love the cultural opportunities (symphonies, operas, plays, shows), and nobody seems to think anything of you living in your own world if you choose to at times. But as I learned a number of years ago, it’s very different visiting a place and living in it, so for now I’ll just be content with my week. More on that as it progresses.

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The Greatest, Most Amazing Blowhard Ever, Believe Me

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Donald Trump scares me. I watch his shameless bragging and cringe-worthy self-promotion in fascination, but what amazes me even more is how many people are willing to vote for him in spite of his outrageous statements and ideas, his off-the-chart arrogance and narcissism, and his tendency to shoot off his mouth without thinking of the consequences. None of these are desirable traits in a leader, especially one of the free world.

Granted, he sometimes says things that make sense and that I agree with (some of the best being his bold and accurate criticisms of George W). And yes, his confidence can be admirable, as well as his conviction, his show of strength, and his willingness to say what he thinks. But all of these things are also negatives because he does them to great excess, without any filter or brake pedal. In fact, almost everything is a superlative with him: “everyone” loves him, his programs will be the “best” and the “greatest,” everything else is “fantastic” or “the worst ever” or whatever other extreme fits the situation. He’s a walking thesaurus of overstatement, but most of his grandstanding blather has no substance. It’s vague and empty. Just listen to him talk. Sure, he can be very persuasive. You can see that he believes his own boasts (narcissists usually do), and this extreme confidence is seductive and invites trust, misplaced as it may be. We tend to like confident people. This seems to be the hypnotic secret behind his appeal. People desperate for leadership want someone cocky and self-assured whom they can believe in, no matter what they say or propose (this is how Hitler was able to rise to power, by the way). We’re so tired of phony, scripted politicians that we welcome one who is refreshingly off-the-cuff and who has unbridled (though neurotic) self-confidence. With Trump, it seems to be all about his attitude with no concern for his lack of political experience, his unwillingness to compromise or his frequent lack of decorum. The fact that he has little to back up his statements (i.e. that Mexico will pay for a border wall, that you’ll have the best health care you’ve ever had under his proposal and you’ll be “so happy,” that he’s somehow going to be able to keep every terrorist crackpot out of the country by banning Muslim immigrants, etc.) doesn’t seem to concern many voters. They just like his boldness. Please, separate the boldness from the buffoon. Boldness is good in a competent leader (think Teddy Roosevelt), but dangerous in a buffoon (think Kim Jong-un, another crackpot with wacky hair). Besides, we’ve already had a buffoon Republican president, and look how that turned out. Could we pick someone smart, reasonable and competent for a change? Maybe if we did, we’d see less polarization in the country.

A president needs to be able to compromise. This has been difficult for most modern presidents, but would be especially so for Trump. He admitted as much recently when asked about it, saying that he “likes a compromise where I win.” With him, it’s his way or the highway, and this would not set well with Congress. You think there’s stubbornness and obstructionism now? Congress would come to a screeching halt under a President Trump if his party wasn’t in control, and still might even if Republicans did control Congress since most establishment Republicans don’t like him. This isn’t reality television, and you can’t run the government with sound bites and empty platitudes. He would be a bully not only with Congress but with world leaders as well, which at best would make us isolationist in an increasingly interdependent world, and at worst start a war. Trump is used to getting his way and having everyone obey him. Politics doesn’t work like that. And even if it did, who usually benefits from his gusto and deal making? He does. It’s always about him. His whole campaign is about feeding his ego and promoting his greatness (“did you see the latest poll? Everyone loves me!”). Everything he does is to glorify himself, and he only cares about the consequences of his actions to the degree that they boomerang on him. He has already backed off of some of his more outrageous comments (often by denying that he said something that there is audio and video proof of him saying), so perhaps he is learning. But we don’t have the time for, or luxury of, him learning to behave like an adult. Granted, there is an endless array of immature and extremist candidates seeking the nomination this year, but letting Trump loose in the White House would be, to use his words, a “total disaster.”

The Boat Ride to Sorrow

The man whose life and work I most admire died on this day in 1893, at the same age that I am now, in the prime of his life. He was one of the most famous composers in the world, even more so outside of his native country, which sometimes failed to recognize his genius. He had visited America for the first and only time just two years prior to his death, where he was lauded from New York to Philadelphia for his prodigious musical talent (he was the star attraction at the opening of the brand new Carnegie Hall, where he led concerts of his own music during the week of his 51st birthday). He had just written the magical and wondrous music for The Nutcracker that year – some of it coalescing during the long boat ride to America – and had given the first performance of his manic-depressive Sixth Symphony only nine days before his untimely death, from cholera, at age 53. This was a man who certainly had more to say, but never had the chance to say it. His last symphony seems to eerily foreshadow his death, ending – no, dying – in a whisper that trails off into silence, surely one of the more unusual endings in the symphonic repertoire (he used the unprecedented musical direction pppppp, basically meaning extreme quietness, which many conductors interpret by observing a moment of silence before lowering their batons to a hushed, stunned and emotionally-drained audience).

My fascination with Tchaikovsky began in 1987. I was in college, and my psychology professor had a habit of digressing wildly during his lectures, often talking about music and literature, two things that interested me far more than psychology. The rest of the class grumbled, but I found it fascinating. Tchaikovsky was a favorite topic of discussion, and my professor would point out the resigned drudgery of the opening to the Fifth Symphony as emblematic not only of the hardness of Russian life, but also of a palpable despair that paints a vivid picture of the composer’s emotional state  (if there’s one thing Tchaikovsky excelled at, it was conjuring ready images and feelings with his music). Being no stranger to feelings of despair, I was highly intrigued and had to hear this mysterious symphony that promised emotional depth, brooding and introspection. That’s when the love affair began. It certainly wasn’t the usual point of entry to Tchaikovsky’s impressive opus (that would be either the delicious Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, the triumphant 1812 Overture, or the aforementioned Nutcracker), but then I was always drawn to the more serious things in life. It seemed that in Tchaikovsky I had found a fellow introvert, a man after my own heart.

It is music like the Fifth Symphony, and especially the expansive and ethereal second movement, that makes me thankful I am an introvert, and that I have a special appreciation for the deep, the serious and the reflective. I consider this movement to be one of the most beautiful pieces of music I have ever heard, and the first sixty seconds are surely among the most somber sounds ever consigned to an orchestra. While I know some might find the emotional heaviness of this music depressing or be unable to sit still long enough to listen to it, to me it is rapturous, healing and sublime. I have heard it countless times in my life, yet it still manages to slow my pulse and bring a tear to my eye every single time. The live performances I have been privileged to attend I count among the most eye-opening moments of my life – those experiences when time stands still, every distraction vanishes and I feel so present that I marvel at how I’ve been living in the fog for so long. When I listen to the movement while also being mindful of Tchaikovsky’s turbulent life history and struggles, it takes on a whole new dimension. This man poured his heart and soul into his music, and his works closely echo the vicissitudes of his life experience. While I have sometimes fantasized about what it would have been like to meet him, I know that no in-person encounter could possibly match the depth of his spirit that he has communicated through these notes. This is his voice crying out from the grave. He is speaking to me in a language that not everyone can understand and appreciate, but I’m extremely glad that I am able to. It may be a one-way conversation, but the lesson is so profound that I am speechless anyway. The poet Heinrich Heine said, “Where words leave off, music begins.” Indeed, the output of Tchaikovsky’s pen cannot be described. It must be experienced.

In that vein, and in honor of this man who never felt accomplished enough, who achieved worldwide fame yet was often lonely and despondent, who felt compelled to run from his homosexuality (a punishable crime in 19th-century Russia, and a sure disgrace for one of its most famous citizens) by entering into a disastrous and short-lived marriage and then trying to kill himself, and who had a remarkably facile gift for expressing depth of emotion in music that few have equaled, I invite you to listen to the musical passage at the top of the page. It’s a fifteen-minute commitment. You’ve heard people say of a disappointing experience that it’s an hour of their lives they’ll never get back. This experience may pay it back. It’s just one of the four glorious movements of his transcendent Fifth Symphony (he wrote six symphonies; all are excellent, with the last three generally recognized as masterpieces). Turn off the lights, close your eyes, and listen closely. Empty your mind of thoughts and focus on what the instruments are saying, on what Tchaikovsky is expressing. Turn the volume up some, as the opening is very quiet but oh-so-important, a somber segue from the distractions of everyday life to the oft-neglected, deeply buried inner self. You are off on a journey to another world, much like Disney World’s boat ride to the Magic Kingdom symbolically transports you to another place and time. You may become a bit uncomfortable, as this music is so evocative it can stir painful feelings, ones that we normally avoid, at our own peril. There is sorrow in life – untold sorrow, as the U.N. Charter puts it – and it must be felt. Unfelt sorrow turns to dysfunction, to anger, to crime, to drugs, to war (perhaps I did learn something in those psych lectures). Money is not the root of all evil, ignored emotional pain is, and Tchaikovsky was a master at expressing and exorcising it through his music. If you aren’t moved by his pleas, if you don’t shed a tear for his struggles and your own, if you don’t feel a transcendent catharsis by the end of this piece, then you didn’t really hear him. But when you do, you will have discovered an emotional depth that will enrich your life and that you can return to whenever the need arises (recorded sound was just being invented when Tchaikovsky died, but we now have the luxury of his entire output at our fingertips).

Thanks to my psych professor and to a Russian man whom I never met yet feel that I know, I discovered the Fifth, and I will never be the same.

(The Fifth Symphony isn’t all sorrow and despair. Tchaikovsky often juxtaposed great sadness and great joy in the same work, perhaps a statement that working through one leads to the other. This symphony actually ends in thrilling triumph and exuberance. The whole delicious work, in a measured and loving rendition by the great Herbert von Karajan, is linked below for your enjoyment).

Tell me what you really think

trump
It took me a while, but I can finally understand what people see in Donald Trump. Sure, he’s as arrogant as they come and makes some pretty outrageous statements. But he says what he thinks – he’s unfiltered – and that’s a refreshing change from the ultra-scripted and on-point politicians we’re used to. We have no idea what they really think, and this unknown scares us more than the stuff Trump is spewing. It’s almost as if straight talk is such a relief, such an admirable quality, that we don’t care too much about content. At least we know where Trump stands, and this invites trust.

Now don’t get me wrong, I in no way think Trump would make a good president. While unbridled candor may be appealing, it isn’t a good quality for a president, who needs to be diplomatic and avoid ruffling foreign feathers. Wars have started over such faux pas. Even domestically, presidents are expected to practice a certain decorum. I’m reminded of the time Ronald Regan told a reporter to shut up during a televised press conference. It was shocking to behold, and I’m sure even more so for the hapless reporter.

But Trump’s candidacy got me thinking about how much most of us have to stifle our thoughts. Few people, unless they’re billionaires, can get away with saying what they really think – at least not if they want to hold down a job or have close relationships. So what do we do instead? Talk about people behind their backs, a rampant and shameful activity that probably few of us can claim to be innocent of. Is this any better than what Trump does? At least he says things to people’s faces.

I had to write reviews recently on the people I supervise, some of whom needed to hear some hard things. How blunt should I be? Would I be doing anyone any favors by couching my criticism in soft rhetoric, or should I not mince words? On one of my own past reviews I was told that I was sometimes too outspoken, and that, while I was usually right, I often didn’t raise my concerns in the best way (i.e., I was not diplomatic enough). I had a touch of Trump in me. Having run my own business for so many years, I could get away with considerable candor since I answered to no one. It took a long time to tame that freedom in a hierarchical workplace, and I haven’t given it up entirely. Sure, it has held me back, but I have to live with myself. We could all use a touch of Trump’s bluntness if we want to sleep at night. It gets things off our chest, and, when we’re the object of someone else’s candor, it’s probably something we need to hear in order to grow.