Monday, November 28, 2005

New York City playtime


Spawn of Trump.

In the early 1970s I lived in New York City and it was a hard place. In part, it was hard because I had very little money -- and in part, it was indeed hard, a time of civic bankruptcy, racial tension and fear of violence.

Today I visit New York as a comfortable tourist, enjoying family and taking in its cultural opportunities. The city is a playground. Have I changed or has the city? I know I don't know. It is hard to believe that a place where so much money is thrown around hasn't squeezed horribly those who can't afford a stake. The initial shock of globalization does seem to have worn off; New Yorkers mingle in all colors and languages and don't seem as much frightened of one another as they used to be. Maybe I am missing something.

In any case, I've just enjoyed a great weekend in New York taken as amusement park. We saw the Fra Angelico show at the Metropolitan Museum. Catch it if you can. This 15th century Italian monk painted some of the most vibrant colors I've ever seen. It is hard to believe that any scene in Renaissance Italy was as clean as his landscapes, but perhaps I am making incorrect assumptions about those early mercantile city states. One of his most interesting depictions of storied saints included, as was the custom, the figures of the donors kneeling rapt before the scene. But unusually, the faces of the donors were sheathed in white hoods, perhaps so that the right hand might not know what the left hand had done. Fra Angelico apparently was willing to have it either way; another painting features another donor, Torquemada, prominently.

We also saw the Passport to the Universe show at the planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. The new building, the "Rose Center, "named after the donors of course, is magnificent and, frankly, showy. The planetarium experience simulates travel from earth out through the outer planets, to the heart of the Milky Way galaxy, and onward into the seemingly infinite universe of star stuff. I felt a very earthbound creature leaning back in my comfortable leather seat -- somehow despite the stunning photos, orchestral flourishes and Tom Hanks narrating, this didn't make me as aware of my miniscule place in the universe as does looking out from a rugged mountain top. But clearly the show works for many. We tried to imagine what a creationist might make of this exhibit.

Even in New York, the best things are often simply outside in nature. It is a delight these days to be able to run in Central Park and to walk along the Hudson, meeting the perennial survivors.

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