Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane. Robin L. Chandler, 2021.
Many years ago, when we wanted to learn about jazz, our dear friend Peggy, a connoisseur of improvisational music, began our education with the 1961 album Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane. The album was recorded in 1957, when Monk and his quartet, featuring John Coltrane on tenor sax, were deep in their landmark six month residence at the Five Spot Café in New York’s East Village. To this day, over sixty years later, their grooves are rubies, my dear, gems I turn to when I need to bebop and blow the blues away.
My uptown train pulled into the 77th Street Station oh so briefly. This speeding apparatus is hurtling me towards an exhibit by the Expressionist painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, a member of Die Brucke, known for paintings of city streets in high-key colors and rough exaggerated lines. So my mind’s eye is primed for heightened awareness. I glance up from my book as the light changes from dark tunnel to bright station and see a Tex-Mex band across the tracks. A human jukebox of sorts, I recall an old Jimmie Rodgers’ tune and start to sing quietly “though my pocketbook is empty and my heart is full of pain. I’m a thousand miles away from home, just waiting for a train.” Fragments overlaying fragments of sound and light and color and text, making new connections and associations, looking, listening and learning; a collage of the mind.
New York City, The City That Never Sleeps, always delights and surprises. Around every corner waits a story to be told which is why I love it. Who are those musicians…a professional band? Where will the green-line train take them? Flatbush? Why this day and why mid-morning…a job…a festival? Are they playing for a gig celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month? I have a million questions to ask these troubadours to learn from their life experience. They bring me a story, a story I want to get off the subway and ask them about, hear their words and hear their song, but the train hurtling through space, travels onward. Content must I be with another special glimpse of New York on a subway platform. In his essay The StorytellerWalter Benjamin wrote “…experience has fallen in value…when someone goes on a trip, he has something to tell …every morning brings us the news of the globe, and yet we are poor in noteworthy stories…the value of information does not survive the moment in which it was new. It lives only at that moment; it has to surrender to it completely and explain itself to it without losing any time. A story is different. It does not expend itself. It preserves and concentrates its strength and is capable of releasing it even after a long time…it resembles the seeds of grain which have lain for centuries in the chambers of the pyramids shut up air-tight and have retained their germinative power to this day.”
The cold winter wind blew me up the stairs and past the Lions, Patience and Fortitude, guarding the entrance to the New York Public Library (NYPL). In my opinion, every trip to New York must include a visit to NYPL, or the trip is not properly consecrated. Designed in the classic beaux-art style by the architecture firm Carrere and Hastings, the building opened its doors to the public in 1911 with over one million items. Today, the collection numbers over fifty-one million items. Washington Irving, author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, was one of the first curators of the collection. A beacon and haven for scholars, the main reading room, the Rose Room, named for the generous donor family, and the Bill Blass Public Catalog Room are being restored and will reopen during the Fall 2016. The historian David McCullough places NYPL among the five most important Libraries in the United States including the Library of Congress, Boston Public Library and the university libraries of Harvard and Yale. The restoration includes, asbestos removal, reinforcing the ceiling and restoration of the Rose Room’s murals of blue skies and clouds.
Fred Lerner in his book The Story of Libraries from the Invention of Writing to the Computer Age described Vladimir Lenin’s admiration for NYPL. In 1913, the Russian Revolutionary wrote “…in the Western countries…they hold that great public libraries, with hundreds of thousands and millions of books, ought not to be the property only of scholars…they are anxious for readers to read books bought at public expense in their own homes; they see the pride and glory of the public library not in the number of rarities is possesses…but in the extent to which books circulate among the people”…..nourishing their souls and feeding their imagination.
Underneath the Rose Room’s spacious skies, many authors have nourished their souls, fed their imagination, and found context within the 40,000 volume reference collection housed in the reading room. Literary greats such as Issac Bashevis Singer, Elizabeth Bishop, E. L. Doctorow, Alfred Kazin, and Henry Miller found inspiration within the Rose Room’s walls. Many of these authors were immigrants, or their sons and daughters born in this new world, New York. The Library opened its doors and its books and gave these newcomers the world, restoring, nourishing and feeding their souls and imaginations. Excitedly, I await the next generation of immigrants, who will grapple with their ideas, applying patience and fortitude, as they create underneath these spacious skies.
Patience and fortitude are touchstones for life; wise words for guiding a lifetime of work, a long-term relationship, or perhaps just simply life. Leaving the library, I pause near Fortitude and whisper from the Mourner’s Kaddish “may there be abundant peace from heaven, and life for us all Israel, to which we say Amen.” Until we meet again Evelyn, daughter of immigrants, blessings on you on your next journey.
Two nights ago the San Francisco Giants won their third World Series in five years. Can you believe it? We had witnessed first-hand the 17-0 drubbing a visiting Los Angeles Dodgers had delivered to our boys in mid-September; and as the season drew to a close, those same Dodgers claimed the Division title, and the wild card berth was the last glimmer of hope for our Giants. Our boys in orange and black were not blessed with the dominating pitching rotation that had secured their crowns in 2010 and 2012, so we silently feared their post season appearance would be brief. We had an ace this year, Madison Bumgarner, but it seemed unlikely a team’s destiny could rest with the arm of one young southpaw. But Madison’s teammates got something started. First came Brandon Crawford’s grand slam in the National League Wild Card elimination game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. And then came the 18-inning game with the Washington Nationals where a fastball crushed in the late night by Brandon Belt became a walk off home run. Of course there was Senor Octobre, aka The Panda, himself. And our spark plug The Preacher, Sasquatch (as I nicknamed Michael Morse) and the rest of the “killer Ps,” and last but not least, one of the greatest situational managers on record, Bruce Bochy. Steadily, game by game, we began to believe. Maybe there was something to that little voice in my head…”they always win it all in even years.” I started humming Don’t Stop Believin’ and We Are The Champions.
After defeating the “Nats,” the Giants dueled with the St. Louis Cardinals for the National League Pennant. During the Pennant race, we visited New York City once home to Harlem’s Polo Grounds and Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field; these mighty stadiums, the historic homes of the Giants and Dodgers until expansion brought their rivalry to California in 1957. In 2014, Cardinals had won their Pennant race berth by defeating the Los Angeles Dodgers most feared pitcher, Clayton Kershaw. We enjoyed the cultural delights of New York City by day and found neighborhood pubs by night to soak up the play by play of the Giants and Cards matchup. Maybe it was the experience of those previous Series, but the Giants had something extra. Calm and focused, battling against the odds, they came to play every day. Even when the night before was a crushing defeat – a fabric appearing torn beyond repair, they never gave into despair. And then Travis Ishikawa, who almost hung up his cleats this summer, eclipsed Bobby Thompson‘s 1951 “Shot Heard Round the World” with his pennant winning homer. The Giants kept working together as a team, and each game was a fresh start, a new dialogue, a renewed bargain.
Tom Stoppard’s play about love and relationships The Real Thing is on Broadway this October. In the play, Charlotte, a divorcee, tells her former husband Henry “there are no commitments, only bargains. And they have to be made again every day. You think making a commitment is it. Finish. You think it set like a concrete platform and it’ll take any strain you want to put on it. You’re committed. You don’t have to prove anything. In fact you can afford a little neglect, indulge in a little bit of sarcasm here and there and isolate yourself when you want to. Underneath it’s concrete for life.” Charlotte implies relationships are not static, they are dynamic; they are a negotiation and you must keep working at them and through the wear and tear of daily life, bringing your “A” game every day.
Relationships are never static. This theme surfaced in an exhibit of Cy Twombly’s work currently on display at the Morgan Library and Museum entitled Treatise on the Veil. The series of paintings and drawings were inspired by French composer Pierre Henry ‘s work The Veil of Orpheus. Working in the style of music known as “music concrete” (music based on collecting random sounds and abstracting their musical values often by manipulating recordings on magnetic tape), Henry evoked the journey of Orpheus to the underworld to rescue his wife, Eurydice as the sound of tearing fabric. The composer references the moment at which Orpheus loses his bride forever by transgressing the gods’ command and gazing upon her before leaving Hades. Twombly visualized “the sound of a relationship ending” as a study of subtle variations of gray – like concrete – mapped over time on a canvas nearly thirty-three feet long. Sitting before Twombly’s painting, I was struck by three artists grappling with the juxtapositions of concreteness and fragility; static and dynamic; commitments and bargains. And I meditated on relationships, battered by the strains of daily life. We cannot assume relationships are concrete, able to withstand any storm. They are fragile fabrics susceptible to wear and tear, neglect and strain. Relationships, just like baseball teams playing in the World Series, thrive by renewing the daily bargain…by never giving over to defeat and despair. Yes, they suffer frays and tears, but no matter how bad, the negotiation – the bargaining – begins anew with the windup and delivery at the top of the first. When asked if the season was over, Yogi Berra replied “it ain’t over ’til it’s over.” And if anybody made us believe that, it’s the 2014 San Francisco Giants!
Summer is typically the time for blockbuster movies and their sequels: Iron Man, Star Trek, X-Men; the list goes on. But this summer, you don’t need to go to the movies to participate in blockbusters and their sequels. History it seems is a series of blockbuster events with sequels, taking the form of declarations, laws, court-decisions, executive-orders, opinion-pages, blogs, marches, rallies, and the unfortunate loss of dialogue manifesting itself as gridlock, filibuster or most regretfully as violence and battlegrounds on the streets where we work and live.
Several anniversaries of blockbuster events concerning freedom, justice, and rights in our nation’s history occur this summer; some are annual rituals, others are commemorations of significant anniversaries. Juneteenth celebrated annually on June 19 commemorates the day slavery was abolished in Texas in 1865 as a result of Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. The Stonewall Riots in New York’s Greenwich Village on June 28, 1969 were a series of spontaneous and sometimes violent demonstrations by members of the gay community (many of whom were angry and fed-up drag queens) protesting a police raid on gay bars. As a result gay rights organizations and newspapers were formed in New York and nationwide seeking civil rights for gay Americans. As a result, the first gay pride march was established in 1970, an event celebrated annually in cities throughout the United States and the world. July 1 – July 3, 2013 was the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg considered by many historians to be the turning point in the Civil War, whose origins lay in contentions over the abolition or extension of slavery in the United States. July 4th is of course our annual commemoration of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence proclaiming all men are created equal, a statement universally adopted as human rights. On August 28th, our country will commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where in 1963 more than 300,000 Americans rallied at the Lincoln Memorial calling for civil and economic rights for African Americans; this march is credited for the passage of the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965).
This summer has brought several poignant sequels to these litany of History blockbusters. On June 25, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, originally passed by Congress and signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson aimed at eliminating various legal strategies to prevent African Americans and other minorities from voting by preventing racial gerrymandering among other actions. The Court’s decision freed nine states mostly in the South, to change their election laws without federal approval. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissenting from the bench declared “the nation’s commitment to justice had been dis-served” Shortly after the decision, the State of Texas announced the voter identification law would be in effect immediately and that redistricting maps would no longer need approval.
The blockbuster historical events and their sequels continue. Will we take part? To be measured, History must be made, and each of us has a role in History making. History can be made by forming our opinions through reading, thinking, and by voicing our opinions through word and deed. August 28th, 2013, Washington, D.C. will host the the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Conferences and a rally will be held and a grassroots civil rights movement will be launched at 3PM that day called “63 Minutes of Peace.” 3PM was chosen, because that was the time Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his famous speech “I Have a Dream.” The idea is to take 63 minutes of your day to volunteer to help change someone’s world, be it mentoring a young person, aiding a homeless person, or participating in voter registration.” So, in some cases we have made progress, and in others, there is much work remaining to be done. In the end, we must progress forward; we must voice our opinions and take action to achieve freedom, justice, and rights for all persons.
After a memorable dinner at Lupa on Thompson Street, we walked quickly through the brisk night eager for the warmth of a bus leaving the village. Fittingly, we find ourselves precisely on President’s Day at this place facing the monument shimmering in the darkness. The Washington Square Arch was built to celebrate the 100th anniversary of our first President’s inauguration. And here we are, at the square on George Washington’s Birthday looking uptown from the base of Fifth Avenue, where patriotic colors of red, white and blue playfully adorn the Empire State Building in celebration of this day. Its cold and late, but I reach for my watercolors and brushes. The night skyline is framed so perfectly by the arch, I just can’t let this moment go by without trying to paint it. I’m not the first to succumb to this impulse and frankly I’m in great company. Watercolourist and blogger Poul Webb wrote inspiringly about some of these painters who captured the noble arch round-the-clock in all seasons.
Designed by architect Sanford White, in the early 20th century, the Washington Square Arch was situated in a wealthy enclave bordering working-class neighborhoods. The monument captivated members of New York’s Ashcan School, painting in the early 1900’s, including William Glackens, George Luks, Everett Shinn, and John Sloan. Robert Henri, the group’s teacher encouraged his students to paint the dynamic of the street: its beauty and its brutal reality. One of the Ashcan group, George Bellows, is the subject of an exhibition, recently at the Met and soon to travel to London, providing the first comprehensive survey of Bellow’s work in almost fifty years. Bellow’s created some of the most moving depictions of the urban landscape when America was an emerging industrial giant. He captured the harshness of this rapidly changing society but also a timeless beauty that continues to captivate me in paintings such as The Lone Tenement and Blue Morning. Charles Baudelaire described this ability to extract the “eternal from the transitory” as searching for modernity.
“What do you want to do,” he asked. “Thorndale…I want to visit the Texas town where you were born and grew up.” We drive through Milam County listening to my Father’s stories as he points out his life landmarks. Travelling the farm-to-market roads in cotton country, we pass through mostly ghost towns like Bartlett, a once thriving farming community and sometime Hollywood location shoot, and San Gabriel, originally a Spanish mission. Under gray winter skies, the soil, where corn and cotton were recently harvested, still look rich and black. Farmers still grow these crops here, but you get the feeling, people don’t do much of their living here anymore. Living might be a few miles to the south where the economy has shifted to the technology industries surrounding Austin.
It’s Christmas Eve and Thorndale is quiet. Thorndale is about ten miles east of Taylor where my grandparents and my mother are buried and about forty miles from Temple where I was born. A few trucks are parked in front of the main street café where we get a last cup of black coffee before they close down for the holiday. A main state highway cuts through town paralleling the railroad tracks. Pick-up trucks roar by and now and again the sound of a Santa Fe diesel train engine horn moans lonesomely in the distance. We walk around town visiting the Victorian era farmhouse where my Father was born and grew up during the Great Depression. Living mostly in busy urban centers, it’s hard to believe that many of these ramshackle wood frame houses – that a strong wind might scatter – are still lived in.
When my Father was a boy, more than one thousand people lived in Thorndale. Ironically, the 2010 US Census counts the town’s population at over one thousand. As we walk, my father points out the now boarded-up movie theater where he watched Tom Mix movies, and the abandoned car dealership. Some businesses from his childhood remain, including Mr. Butts’s dry goods store where you can still buy a good pair of work boots. I feel like a human Historypin, my imagination does the work of the computer overlaying linked-data historic photographs of a busy farm town on the now sadly deserted streets. Down the street, stands a small brick building framed with Doric columns, still housing the Prosperity Bank; I laugh to myself, recalling a scene from the 1936 film My Man Godfrey.
Set in a “Hooverville” along New York’s East River, Godfrey Park (the actor William Powell) and Mike (the actor Pat Flaherty) exchange a few words. “Mike, I wouldn’t worry. Prosperity’s right around the corner.” “Yeah. It’s been there a long time. I just wish I knew which corner.” Prosperity’s right around the corner was a phrase employed by Republican Party members advising the country after the Wall Street Crash to be patient and trust the free market’s ability to right itself. Will patience serve us today as our Congress and President tango close to the fiscal cliff? As we stand in front of the bank, my Dad recounts a sight that remains stamped on his brain. As a young man in the early 1930s, he witnessed grown men leaving the bank with tears streaming down their faces when the bank foreclosed on their farms. He recalls they didn’t know how they were going to feed their families and hoping the federal government would continue to provide the five-pound sack of flour for free. Woody Guthrie’s song about the bank robber Pretty Boy Floyd comes to mind. The Smithsonian Folkway released a wonderful collection of his songs this year celebrating the centennial of his birth.
“Well, you say that I’m an outlaw, You say that I’m a thief. Here’s a Christmas dinner, for the families on relief.”
“Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered, I’ve seen lots of funny men; Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen.”
“And as through your life you travel, yes, as through your life you roam. You won’t never see an outlaw, drive a family from their home.”
Life is all about the journey; it’s never about the destination. Over the years, I have made many pilgrimages to Mount Whitney, a mountain that has “tattooed” my body and still lingers in my dreams. Many years ago, I began a dialogue with my “friend,” the tallest summit in the continental United States, and I am grateful that the conversation continues. On September 15, 2001 – a mere four days after 9/11 – I walked the pathway to the summit (14,497 ft.) for the first time with six friends. On that journey, the mountain helped me believe in my ability to prepare, plan and confront my fears and doubts. Unexpectedly, the mountain helped me grapple with the tragic events in New York City. In 2001, I reached the mountaintop, looked eastward and was gifted with a glorious view of my country; I saw strength, determination and resilience. Looking to the valley below, I saw the result of similar challenging times beset by fear and prejudice, as realized by the internment of Japanese-American Citizens at Manzanar.
Now, ten years later, I returned to visit my old friend the mountain and see what stories the mountain might share. Seven of us started the walk up Mount Whitney on September 17, 2011 at 3:00AM: Connie, David, Doug, Kim, Margaret, Matt and me. In 2001, it had taken me eighteen hours to reach the summit and return to camp at Whitney Portal. Hoisting my pack on my back, I imagined myself back at the campfire around 9 PM with a well-earned celebratory brew in my hand. My dear friend Pam was coming all the way from Sonora to make sure we had a warm fire, pizza and beer at the end of our hike. But before fast-forwarding, I rewound thinking about when this journey really began. It began months earlier with hours of hiking. April 2011, I hiked to Sill Hill waterfall in San Diego County with David and Margaret. May 2011, I circumnavigated Monterey Bay with my friends Irene and Sara. July 2011, Connie and I hiked Big Basin in Santa Cruz. August 2011, Irene and I hiked in the Sierras surrounding Convict Lake and summited Mt. Dana in Yosemite. August 2011, David, Margaret, Doug and I hiked Mt. San Jacinto near Palm Springs. September 2011, I hiked in the Hurricaine Ridge in the Olympics in Washington with Umberto and Giovanni. All lovely hikes with friends whose companionship I treasure.
Three of the seven argonauts made it to the summit this year; and I toast my compatriots David, Doug and Margaret for their accomplishment! Cheers! For me, this hike ended at nearly 13,400 feet somewhere amidst the 98 switchbacks between Consultation Lake and Trail Crest. More importantly, the journey to the mountaintop has never ended and I hope it never does. This time, my friend the mountain shared with me long-lasting stories: the joy helping others accomplish great things, the grace in humility, the sweetness of friendship during hardship and pain, and the wisdom in understanding “its never over ‘til its over.” I look forward to my next pilgrimage to the mountain.
Born in the 1970s in the African American, Afro-Carribean and Latino communities of the Bronx, Hip Hop culture includes DJing, breakdancing, graffiti writing and rapping. According to Johnny Otis, rhythm and blues musician and teacher, in 1975, Mayor Abe Beame was faced with New York City going bankrupt. His choices were few as neither the federal or state governments would come to his aid. So, to solve his problem he fired over 19,000 city workers, and 15,000 of those workers were teachers responsible for instruction in the humanities: literature, art and music. Suddenly a generation of children had no access to instruments and formal music instruction. But ever resilient, these communities looked inward, drew upon their cultural heritage and created a new musical genre “rap,” one of the pillars of hip hop culture, using all that was available to them: language and percussion. The human spirit creates no matter how stripped bare.
Today our society, and by default, our educational systems are undergoing transformative change. To manage the fiscal crisis, our California state government is making deep cuts to our public universities, and campus and university administrators are now struggling with how to manage these reductions that will no doubt profoundly change our educational system. They will be faced with choices making decisions about what programs, what departments what campus units are sustainable and support the core mission of the university. External funding from public and private sources, though comprised during this economic crisis, continues to be available to support research in medicine, science and engineering, but not so readily available to the arts and humanities, Institute Museum Library Services (IMLS), National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), National Endowment for the Humanites (NEH), National Historic Publications Record Commission (NHPRC) and the Mellon Foundation being among the most valiant exceptions. Writing in the New York Times recently, Drew Gilpin Faust, President of Harvard University wrote “since the 1970s there has been a steep decline in the percentage of students majoring in the liberal arts and sciences, and an accompanying increase in pre-professional undergraduate degrees. Business is now by far the most popular undergraduate major, with twice as many bachelor’s degrees awarded in this area than in any other field of study. In the era of economic constraint before us, the pressure toward vocational pursuits is likely only to intensify. As a nation, we need to ask more than this from our universities. Higher learning can offer individuals and societies a depth and breadth of vision absent from the inevitably myopic present. Human beings need meaning, understanding and perspective as well as jobs. The question should not be whether we can afford to believe in such purposes in these times, but whether we can afford not to.”
In the September issue of Harpers Magazine, Mark Slouka (Professor of Creative Writing at Columbia University) wrote “the humanities, done right, are the crucible within which our evolving notions of what it means to be fully human are put to the test; they teach us, incrementally, endlessly, not what to do but how to be. Their method is confrontational, their domain unlimited, their “product” not truth but the reasoned search for truth.” Slouka also wrote “By downsizing what is most dangerous (and most essential) about our education, namely the deep civic function of the arts and the humanities, we’re well on the way to producing a nation of employees, not citizens. Thus is the world made safe for commerce, but not safe.”
During the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal Works Progress Administration invested in creating jobs across a wide spectrum including the arts and humanities. These became the Federal Art Project, the Federal Music Project, the Federal Theater Project and the Federal Writer’s Project. There was also the Historic Records Survey which employed archivists to identify, collect and conserve historic records throughout the United States. Rand Jimerson writes in the introduction to his recently published book Archives Power: Memory, Accountability, and Social Justice “Archivists [can] contribute to a richer human experience of understanding and compassion. They can help protect the rights of citizens, and to hold public figures in government and business accountable for their actions. Archivists provide resources for people to examine the past, to understand themselves in relation to others, and to deepen their appreciation of people with different backgrounds and perspectives. This is the essence of our common humanity.” Archives and teaching in the humanities are crucial to the formation of citizens able to participate fully in our democracy.
In February 2009, Congress passed and President Obama signed into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act ARRA which included stimulus funding making investments in infrastructure such as transportation, public schools, college financial aid, renewable energy programs, healthcare and homeland security. Conspicuously absent is direct funding for teaching and research in the arts and humanities, nor for libraries and archives. In his public high school rhetoric class Marcus Eure provides students with critical thinking skills as they study issues about civic morality. Eure believes “every marriage, every job, every parent-teacher meeting hinges in some way on the ability to understand and empathize with others, to challenge one’s beliefs, to strive for reason and clarity. “ The time is now to invest and provide federal stimulus packages in our arts, humanities, libraries and archives. It is our duty and obligation to the future, to build citizens to grapple with the challenges of today.