Three Smart Phones and the Sounds of Silence

Cell_phones_imageLast Tuesday morning a couple walked into the restaurant where Herb and I were having coffee. They sat down at a nearby table; the waitress took their order, the man pulled out his cell phone and began texting—maybe emailing. For the next five minutes, she sat silent as stone, staring into the middle distance.

After a few more minutes, a third phone in his pocket rang. He took it out, spoke briefly to the caller and then returned to the  business of the first phone.

Finally, she took her phone from her bag and started scrolling. I kept my eye on them, fascinated by a real-life example of what I have been reading about in a compelling and disturbing book, Reclaiming Conversation: the Importance of Talk in the Digital Age by Sherry Turkel.(More about this book later.)

After twenty minutes, we finished our coffee and left. Not a word had been exchanged between them. I don’t know how two people who are so uninterested in each other could maintain a relationship or a marriage for long. As someone who has remained happily married for a long, looong time, I am here to tell you this is not the way you do it.


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What I Learned from “The Heart of the Andes”


Would you pay seven dollars and stand in a long line around the block to see this painting?

When I learned that in 1859, almost 13,000 New Yorkers did just that—paying 25 cents (the equivalent of about seven dollars in today’s currency) during the three weeks that Frederic Church’s “The Heart of the Andes” was on view at the Tenth Street Studio, I decided to seek out the painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it now lives.

I wanted to see if I could put myself in the place of those 19th_century New Yorkers and feel some of the same excitement they felt when looking at this painting.

 The short answer is no, I couldn’t.

 Upon reflection it should have been clear that I would fail at this attempt. In order to succeed with my experiment I would have to become what I am not. I would have to somehow escape the culture I swim in, forgetting a lot of what I know and the assumptions I make. Professional actors can sometimes do this, but it takes a lot of training and talent to replace oneself with another self.

First of all, in 1859, there were limited opportunities to view art work. There were galleries with a limited selection of paintings, but the Metropolitan Museum would not be founded until 1870. Just to be able to see a large (10 by 5 ½ feet tall) painting by America’s most famous painter would be an exciting possibility.

Today we are surrounded by colored representations everywhere we turn. Then there was much less visual stimulation. No colored pictures in books at all and the chromolithographs which were then widely available were feeble in comparison to what we are used to seeing wherever we look.

 But there was more to it than that. Travel to exotic locations was limited then to intrepid explorers and scientists. Alexander Van Humboldt, a widely recognized naturalist explorer began a five-year expedition to South America in 1799, in which he recorded the natural environment. Later, Church, following in his footsteps, painted the natural world that Humboldt described. And curious New Yorkers flocked to see what Humboldt had found.

“The Heart of the Andes” is not a representation of an actual site but a compilation of the various climatic zones that Humboldt explored: the snowy peaks, the temperate climate and in the foreground the steamy jungle flora, which Church painted with meticulous accuracy. These detailed elements are not visible in the above image; in fact, they are not visible at all unless you stand very close and scrutinize the painting carefully. Visitors to the exhibition in 1859 were encouraged to bring opera glasses so that they could examine the details of the flowers and foliage, the birds and butterflies.

Today there is no corner of the world that is as mysterious to me as Ecuador was to the mid-19th century New Yorker. I’ve seen too many National Geographic publications and videos to be amazed by Church’s representation of tropical flora.

If I wanted to—I don’t, but if I did— I could be in Ecuador within hours and there are many travel services that would take me on an exploratory trip of the natural wonders depicted in Church’s painting.

 By grouping paintings chronologically, the Museum encourages us to view the painting as representative of the art of the period. It shares the gallery with Leutze’s iconic “Washington Crossing the Delaware” and other paintings of the time. Yet I think we would be better served in understanding this particular  painting if they exhibited it, as they once did, in a replica of the walnut frame which Church himself designed. Something like a window frame, it stood on the floor, putting the painting at eye level of the average viewer, making it easier to view the details. A green drapery completed the theatrical effect Church intended. And it wouldn’t hurt if they provided opera glasses.


Church original



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Ten More Reasons I Love New York City

This is the third list I’ve made of Reasons I Love New York. The other two are here and here. It is said that New York is a great place to visit but you wouldn’t want to live there. Actually, the opposite, it seems to me, is true. Hard to visit—there’s just so much to do and see in a short time— great to live here (same reason).


Way to Go!

I said the next time I made a list, Uber would be at the top. I love Uber because it has made my life easier. It’s that simple. It’s not the only summon-a-ride service available in the City, but so far the only one I’ve tried.


Lovely neighborhood gardens

Located on vacant lots throughout the City are a number of neighborhood gardens. This is West Side Community Garden, just two blocks  from my building. Right now it is abloom with gorgeous tulips.



Thomas Hart Benton at the Met

Benton is my favorite American artist. Like me, he lived much of his life in Kansas City. The ten-panel mural “America Today” depicts a panorama of American life in the 20s. I never fail to visit this work when I’m at the Met. It is installed in a space that recreates the board room where it originally hung.


Park Avenue Armory’s restored Veterans Room

Magnificent restoration of historic sites happens in New York, where there is access to plenty of money to carry it out. The most recent is this restoration in the Park Avenue Armory.


Horses in Central Park

Okay; it’s controversial. Animal activists think these horses’ lives are too hard. But I don’t buy it. Their work in the Park is not hard. Walking to and from work through city traffic is somewhat hard, but it’s not far. Lots of us do it every day.


Riverside Drive

A runner’s dream. The last westerly street on this narrow island so there are no intersections. You can run (or walk) for almost 20 blocks til you get to the highway access roads, and you never have to pause for a traffic light. After running down hill for a bit, you circle back through

RS Park

Riverside Park with Hudson River in the background

If you need a long view of water, Riverside Park is the place to go. More or less a straight line, it parallels the river. Beautifully planted, the park attracts moms and nannies with babies in strollers, bicyclists, runners, dog walkers, and me.

New Amsterdam

The New Amsterdam Theater

The Broadway theater is one of the best things about New York City. Nothing can compare to that delicious moment when the house lights dim and the overture begins. The old Broadway theaters, too, have been the beneficiaries of renovation. Most of them were built in the early-mid 20th century when more was more—and I love it.


Dogs and dog walkers in Riverside Park.

Big dogs, little dogs, cute dogs, ugly dogs—they are all vastly entertaining—and so patient. I’d like to have one, but the walkers are expensive, and I don’t relish the idea of taking Fido down eleven stories and outside on a cold winter morning.

Miracle on Fourth

Finally, The Merchant’s House in a repeat performance. It’s always on the list because it is so important to me, particularly this year—my second book about the house has just been released.


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Just Released! Miracle on Fourth Street: Saving an Old Merchant’s House

What Makes the Merchant’s House a Miracle

August, 1933—The country was in the depths of the Great Depression. Gertrude Tredwell had just died at the age of 93 in the 1832 rowhouse her family had inhabited for almost 100 years. A century of urban progress meant that the house, once located in the New York City’s most desirable neighborhood, was now just steps from the Bowery, the nation’s skid row. It was a time capsule, complete with the original owners’ furnishings dating to mid 19th century, and personal belongings as well—books, decorative objects, textiles, and even 39 dresses belonging to the women of the family.

Miracle on FourthEnter George Chapman, a distant cousin who made what can only be described as a foolhardy decision to “save” the old house from the auction block and turn it into a museum. Not only had the old house been long neglected and was then well along the road to disintegration, but certainly no one at that time was inclined to donate money to preserving the home of an early New York City merchant—a rich merchant, to be sure—a good man certainly—but not a person of historical significance.

But George was a wealthy man and in spite of increasing physical infirmity he just barely managed to hold his beloved museum together at great personal cost for over 20 years. However, he was not inclined to make major repairs let alone the needed thorough restoration of the collapsing house.

Eventually, after an improbable chain of events, an impeccable authentic restoration did take place, undertaken without charge by Joseph Roberto, an accomplished restoration architect who exercised a scrupulous regard for the original fabric of the building and recruited some of the most talented craftsmen in the country as well as White House architect, Edward Vason Jones and noted 19th century authority on American decorative arts, Berry Tracy, as pro bono consultants.

The restoration was a story of creative solutions to structural calamities, heartbreaking setbacks, personality conflicts, and an unceasing struggle to find funding, but Joseph Roberto simply would not give up, and eventually the house was restored to its original beauty, structurally stronger than ever. The textiles had completely deteriorated, but instead of replacing them with period appropriate examples, The Decorators Club, who were responsible for the interior refurbishment, wisely had the original silk curtains and the carpeting reproduced at extraordinary expense.

The story doesn’t end there, however, for there was to be one last crisis, which could literally have brought the house down were it not for the wise direction of the current director and the support of government and corporate grants, and the generosity of private donors.

Since the beginning, The Merchant’s House has held an unworldly attraction for all those who have been involved in its long life. It is not an exaggeration to say that people simply fall in love with it and are willing to devote extraordinary effort to its preservation.

Maybe that’s because of what happens when you cross the threshold.A mirror reflecting the 19th century.

Which brings me to the most miraculous circumstance of all. Here we come as close as we ever will to those who came before us. As we tune in to the height of the ceilings and the nearness of the walls, as we travel a path from room to room, observing the light, seeing what the family saw in those rooms—the piano, the mirrors, the Duncan Phyfe chairs, their four poster beds—we learn with our bodies as well as our brains what it was like to live in a 19th century urban rowhouse owned by one of the early merchants who laid the commercial foundations of this great city.

Once there were hundreds of such homes lining the streets of the neighborhood north of Bleecker. Now there is only one left to tell the story.

Miracle on Fourth Street: Saving an Old Merchant’s House



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Celebrating Easter Under an Enemy Occupation

Theresa Kaminski

After Japanese forces occupied the Philippines in early 1942, American civilians and other Allied nationals were forced into internment camps. The camps had a plethora of rules, including a ban on “commingling”–an enforced separation between adult men and women, including husbands and wives–and rules on what women could and could not wear.

Camp commandants demanded that women be “decently” attired at all times with discreet necklines and long skirts, just like proper Japanese women. But because of the almost unrelenting heat of the Philippines, American women tried to get away with as few articles of clothing as possible while remaining seemly by their own standards.

In the Santo Tomas internment camp in Manila, women were particularly forbidden to wear shorts of any length. The camp’s civilian Executive Committee, run by men of the Allied countries, approved of the ban no matter how much the women resisted, believing they were saving…

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86th st. transverse Central Park

86th Street Transverse, Central Park

Behold, we know not anything;

I can but trust that good shall fall

At last—far off—at last to all,

And every winter change to spring.

“In Memoriam A.H.H”

Lord Alfred Tennyson, 1849



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The Cursive Handwriting Debate is Not Over—Not Yet!

ballpointpen_(1)_360_360_90Yesterday I received two handwritten missives in my mail, both written in cursive. One was from my doctor, explaining the results of recent routine blood tests and wishing me a pleasant weekend. The other, a brief and lovely message from a friend who recently visited, thanking me for a pleasant time.

And not too long ago, I had a lively conversation with a stranger on the bus who happened to notice I was doing some editing with a fountain pen. He allowed that he loved writing with fountain pens, in fact collected them. I was sorry when we came to his stop.

Personal experience aside— it seems to me that resistance to abandoning the teaching of cursive handwriting is growing.

Some teachers say that in this technological era, being able to write in cursive is an unnecessary skill.  What kids are going to need in the future is skill in keyboarding, and they don’t have time to spend on teaching both handwriting and keyboarding. That’s the good reason they give for their opposition. I suspect the real reason is that the better kids are at keyboarding, the better they will do on the tests that are mandated by the common core. In some school districts, children as young as eight years old have to be able to drag and drop and type answers on a keyboard so that they can take tests mandated by the core—tests that as far as I can see benefit no one except the those involved in the test industry. Certainly they don’t benefit the third grader who has squirmed and struggled answering questions that are widely seen as too difficult.

Another real reason is that many teachers themselves do not write in cursive and so feel unable to teach it.

Unfortunately proponents do not put forth very strong arguments. One of their favorites is that if kids can’t read cursive, they won’t be able to read our founding documents. Who in the world reads founding documents in the original copperplate? Have you ever? Neither have I; neither have those making this argument. If that were the primary reason kids need to learn to write cursive, proponents of teaching it would lose hands down.

The strongest arguments for teaching of cursive comes from neurological research. And these are powerful arguments. Pity they are not advanced more often.



Filed under Education, Handwriting