Pictures and Permission

IMG_4110When it comes to photographing my fellow humans, I am often in a bind; I prefer candid shots but don’t like to take photos of people without their permission. But there is a middle way; sometimes, through asking permission, I make a genuine connection, even for a few seconds, which leads to a lovely photo. So, while I didn’t ask permission to take the photo to the left or immediately below, all the others have permission and a story.

IMG_4116Yesterday a friend told me about the medieval festival (an annual tradition) in Fort Tryon Park, so I decided to go see it. I had caught the tail end of it two years ago and missed it entirely last year. I headed up the hill around 3:30 in the afternoon. It was a glorious day. All sorts of things were going on: a human chess game, knights in battle, music, magic tricks. Many people had dressed up for the occasion. I saw many colorful and elaborate costumes, but this was the most beautiful of all. I asked the woman whether I could take her photo, and she said yes and beamed. When I complimented her costume, she said, “I made it.”

IMG_4115 Then I saw a boy in an epic sword battle with his little sister. I asked the mom whether I could take a photo, and she said yes–but just at that moment, the girl hurt her thumb and started to cry. I walked away so as not to be in the way. A few minutes later, I came back, the brother and sister were at it again, and the mom asked them to slow down so that I could take some good pictures. I caught the tail end of the pinnacle of the fight. The slow motion only intensified it.

After witnessing such a display of martial arts, I was due for some music, so I found some troubadours. With permission, I took their picture, and they played for a few seconds. Then one of them asked, “You’re taking photos, not a video, right?” I assured them that this was so. Then they played a spirited song, and then another. I stayed for a while.

Yes, I will miss Fort Tryon Park. But probably this very thought pushed me to speak to these people and take these photos. I am usually shy about that sort of thing, but running out of time can make a person bolder.

 

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.

Weeding and Watching

gardening When people tell me that philosophy isn’t their thing, I figure they can’t possibly mean philosophy as I define it. Some other kind of philosophy must unimpress them. I don’t think I could do without it, nor would I want to, though I think in various ways, not only philosophically. Philosophy, as I understand it, involves not only questioning a premise but building a structure of questions. For instance, what questions do we need to ask, and in what sequence, to arrive at a better understanding of happiness? I enjoy thinking and reading about such topics, discussing them with others, and going off on my own to think some more. This isn’t  just fun; to an extent it informs how I live.

But when it comes to gardening, I throw down the gloves. I am not a gardener! Some, hearing this, may assume I have misunderstood gardening, since gardening (as they understand it) goes rake in rake with joy. But no, I  do not like gardening. I am not supposed to spend extended time in the sun; beyond that, I dislike the crouching and the continual feeling (usually confirmed by others) that I’m doing something wrong: that I failed to pull up a weed or succeeded in destroying an important legume.

All that said, I enjoyed some modest gardening in Fort Tryon Park yesterday. The volunteer shift was from 10 to 2; I lasted from 10 to noon. I felt bad about leaving early, but then I thought: isn’t that better than not volunteering at all? For those two hours, or most of them, I enjoyed the weeds and lilies (listen to Hannah Marcus’s gorgeous song by that title). It’s possible to stretch beyond my preferences without going to far: to garden just enough, not to the point where I never want to garden again. Also, within those limits I didn’t have to worry about having to extricate myself; the extrication was built in. I could stay true to the “hardly ever.”

IMG_3668 Today, with some friends, I watched the partial eclipse from Central Park. Many had gathered with special glasses, cylinders, colanders, and other instruments; others stopped by and asked to borrow glasses. We were thronged with excitement and curiosity; I could not have wished for a better crowd and sky. I thought about how these two things go together, the weeding and the watching. To make such a gathering possible, someone had to pull the weeds and clean the litter. Someone had to work out some basic natural philosophy. That person didn’t  have to be someone else; it could be any of us, if we went beyond our usual hesitations and complaints. Then again, no one, given free choice, really has to do what he or she dislikes doing. My only point is that it’s possible and, within limits, possibly even fun.

IMG_3672Thus beauty and labor depend on each other. There would be no point in gardening if it didn’t give people a garden, no point in philosophy if it didn’t open up understandings. It’s easy to delegate the labor to others, but it’s more satisfying to take part, within reason. Short shrift may bite and sting, but a short shift may save the day.

In this last picture, a woman is holding a colander so that the eclipse will project onto the paper below. Others stand by and photograph the paper. The dogs fixate on other things, whatever those may be. People pass through the park. We start to think of things we have to do. Time and schedule press in. Sun and moon slowly let go of each other.

I made a few changes and additions to this piece after posting it.

Days of Joy

intheheightsset.jpg

senechal-ad

I thank Columbia Secondary School for a joyous weekend of the musical In the Heights. My friends Deb and Eric came down from Peabody, Massachusetts (north of Boston) to see it with me. We went on Friday and Saturday nights; I was planning to go again today, but since all three shows were sold out in advance, I decided to release my tickets so that someone else could see it. The students put soul, wit, work, and talent into the show–and brought out the heartbeats of the Washington Heights neighborhood itself. I felt at times as though the musical were opening up the music of my everyday life and the lives of the people around me.

The above letter went into the program (as a little ad); when I wrote it, I didn’t know whether my friends would be able to come down, but sure enough, they did. Besides attending the shows, we walked in Fort Tryon Park, rode the train downtown to Katz’s Delicatessen, feasted, talked, and laughed.

After last night’s show, on our way back to the subway station, we saw some men working on a new storefront on St. Nicholas Avenue. The sparks mixed with the memories of the musical.

construction

One of the chapters in my new book is about joy: how people often associate it with outward cheer, but how it often accompanies difficulty. I thought about how this applied even to such an enjoyable weekend. In the Heights has difficulty and sadness: death, loss, failures, disappointments, stress. But the rapturous music and the characters’ spirited goodwill all lift the story into beauty. I realized just now that the musical doesn’t have a single villain. Yet at the same time it’s anything but pat and rosy; it shows people in subtle conflicts, internal and external, short and long.

Marianne Moore’s poem “What Are Years?” has been in my mind for years, day after day, but it seems especially appropriate now.

… satisfaction is a lowly
thing, how pure a thing is joy.
nnnnn This is mortality,
nnnnn this is eternity.

Gradus ad Parnassum

gradusadparnassumI took this picture yesterday in Fort Tryon Park; it is one of my favorites. It made me think of a book I loved in childhood: The Study of Counterpoint, from Johann Joseph Fux’s Gradus ad Parnassum. The book teaches you counterpoint through a dialogue between teacher and student. Step by step (with some leaps and longer views), you learn the principles and practices.

I am not especially systematic when it comes to learning new things or advancing my knowledge. I like to plunge in at a much-too-difficult level and figure things out. But even that requires a sequence; I find myself going as far back as necessary to basic concepts and then working toward the problem at hand. I enjoy finding out again and again that it can be done—with languages, music, mathematics, and even human conundrums.

Here is the beginning of the dialogue in The Study of Counterpoint:

       Josephus.— I come to you, venerable master, in order to be introduced to the rules and principles of music.
       Aloysius.— You want, then, to learn the art of composition?
       Joseph.— Yes.
       Aloys.— But are you not aware that this study is like an immense ocean, not to be exhausted even in the lifetime of a Nestor? You are indeed taking on yourself a heavy task, a burden greater than Aetna. If it is in any case most difficult to choose a life work—since upon the choice, whether it be right or wrong, will depend the good or bad fortune of the rest of one’s life—how much care and foresight must he who would enter upon this art employ before he dares to decide. For musicians and poets are born such. You must try to remember whether even in childhood you felt a strong natural inclination to this art and whether you were deeply moved by the beauty of concords.

Once Josephus convinces Aloysius, the instruction begins.

Today the idea of inborn talent is unpopular—but Aloysius’s point is not that talent rules over all, but rather that the hard work of music requires great and strong desire. It can’t be a passing whim or a light interest.

On the other hand, once you have committed to the ascent, all you have to do is ascend, step by step, over many years. It doesn’t matter if sometimes you rush ahead and then backtrack, or pause for a long time at a given level; even then, you lead your life on the stairs.

Gratitude, Cultivated and Wild

fort tryon park july 2016

I dislike the gratitude of platitudes. I sympathize with those who resist obligatory gratitude; I resist it too, or at least I have in the past. The perfunctory thank-you card fulfills a duty but may lack some spark. Yet raw, unbidden gratitude has its problems too; it depends too much on momentary passions. It’s easy to pour gratitude into one thing or person and ignore another; this turns into self-will and self-satisfaction, a far and whooping cry from gratitude at its best. So, over time, I have come to favor a mixture of the cultivated and the wild. True gratitude, at once genuine and responsible, does exist.

The photo above (which I took yesterday evening in Fort Tryon Park) has more of the cultivated; the one below (which I took in June), more of the wild. Or maybe that is an illusion; maybe they both contain both in similar proportions. In any case, when I walk there, I sense intense gratitude of many kinds around me. People come to pause, to take things in. They walk their dogs, run up the steep hills, bring easel and paint, take pictures, recline on a lawn or bench, engage in a fencing match, or just walk empty-handed and think. The park has its troubles; there have been robberies and other crimes. Walking there too late or too early is not wise. All the same, it is a magnificent place, and the regulars, staff, and volunteers help protect it.

On another note: the short film “The Tale of Four,” directed by Gabourey Sidibe, is filming in my building, just down the hall from me. The premise is promising (it’s based on Nina Simone’s “Four Women“), and I look forward to the film.

fort tryon park june 2016