I look at pictures of me as a baby; as a 7 year old; my high school photo; at my wedding; at my high school 30th reunion. Now, at 75, I look in the mirror and ask, “Who are those people?” How can they be me? They are alien beings and there is no reason to suppose that they can all be “me”. This is the fascination of looking at old pictures of ourselves—“really, that was me?!”
The only thread that gives continuity and unity to these images is my memory; oft times not even my memory of myself but of what I have been told: “That’s you,” said my mother of the photo of the toddling, smiling cherub. Memory is the thread that that stitches these images into a coherent, stable unity; into “me”. The memory-stitching that confers stability and coherence to long past images does the same for my experience of what happened to me 5 minutes ago. This is how we creatures of time acquire a sense of permanence, a sense of self.1
The enduring entity I experience as my self is conferred by the gossamer thread of memory. And what a tentative thread it is. Our memory is continually being reconstructed, subjected to alteration without our knowing it, influenced by changing circumstances, moods, personal experiences, and reflections of others. One of the disconcerting experiences of aging is witnessing the loosening of our filaments of memory. As memory erodes, so do “I”. The spectra of dementia that looms over the aged sparks dread that we will lose ourselves; that the delicate stitching of memory will unravel. Dementia exposes as it destroys. What is exposed is our moment-to-moment awareness; the experience of pure being. What is shattered is the illusion of a permanent self that allows us to adaptively manage in the world; a phantom that keeps us sane.
Identity is a deeply felt feature of our selves. Our race. Gender. Sexual orientation. Ethnicity. Cultural heritage. Language. Occupation. Etc. These so primally experienced aspects of ourselves are not indelibly inscribed in us. They are, rather, attire of the self. We are born into a cultural matrix of ready-made identities that signify meaningful distinctions between people. Each culture possesses its own identity “wardrobes”. Race, for example. Being Black in contemporary America does not have the same meaning as in precolonial equatorial Africa, where it may not have had any meaning at all. Another example: Homosexuality is a term of Anglo-European origin coined in 19th century. It is a term that confers an identity to a person based on same-sex behaviors. By contrast, in Greece and Rome, same sex behaviors between men was common and approved.2 What mattered was not the act, but who was the initiator of the act; accepted when upper class men were the initiators, vilified when the reverse. Status, not the specific sex act, signified cultural identity. Identity anchors us, defines us, viscerally binds us to a stable set of culturally established meanings. They are part of the fabric we stitch together to clothe our phantom selves.
Why the outrage against men who dress as women, or women who dress like bikers? Why can the mere clothes we wear and our body adornments provoke harassment, government legislation, even murder?! Because garments and adornments carry potent cultural meanings. How we fashion ourselves can vary greatly: Executive or tradesperson, business man or woman, trucker, biker, military officer, “person of the cloth,” police officer, sports team supporter, cool dude, ersatz cowboy, etc., etc., etc. Clothes communicate. We never simply “get dressed.” We choose to display cultural meanings that are encoded in the clothes we wear, how we wear them, and the way we craft our body. We may not even be aware of the codes we signal, think they are natural, or that we simply wear comfortable clothes. What makes us comfortable varies from person to person, and comfort can include the color of the clothes, the style, the cut, the nature of the fit, etc. All these are selected from the rack of garments made available in the culture.
We wear some clothes out of obligation; attending funerals, our places of work and worship, graduations. Many of these we happily shed when we can. Other garments are more closely tied to our identity, freighted with meanings that resonate with our sense of self. Gender is one such identity that is encoded in our garments that cannot be so easily shed, even if we want to. Before a baby is out of the womb, a pivotal choice is “pink or blue?” What clothes and adornments? How should I announce my baby to the world? Even if we want to assert gender neutrality by avoiding the conventional markers of gender, this is, itself, a choice defined within the ubiquitous dimension of gender. Gender is a presumed natural, God-given feature of our selves; it identifies us, defines us.
Cross dressing violates the natural order, undermines the pillars of identity that buttress our sense of self. We can do this by merely wearing pink instead the expected blue! Oh, by what a meagre thread does our identity hang! Violence is an effort to enforce the natural order, to forcefully obliterate the realization that simply donning the “wrong” outfits we can overturn our tidy universe. Everything we wear, however, is but a disguise that tricks us into believing in the fixity of the phantom self. Whatever our attire, we are all drag queens.
We begin with an admission of bias: We love New York City.1 Sharon was raised on Long Island, where most of her family still reside, and I was raised in upstate New York. Although upstate is closer, culturally, to Peoria IL than “The City,” I have been embraced by Sharon’s family and now am a naturalized citizen of the Big Apple.
This is brief overview of some of our favorite hidden gems of New York City; actually only Brooklyn, Manhattan and day trips. Obviously, this list is very limited, not only in its brevity, given the unlimited gems NYC has to offer, but by our interests, and also by our experience and exposure. For over 10 years, we spend a month in the summer and 2 weeks for Thanksgiving in Park Slope, Brooklyn, which gave us the opportunity to explore beyond the highlights mentioned in most tour guides.
We will start in Brooklyn, cross into Manhattan and board a ferry, then return to Manhattan and work our way up Manhattan Island. We will then leave Manhattan for day trips, which will be followed by “honorable mentions” that space constraints force to us to only briefly note.
Green-Wood Cemetery was established in 1836, at a time when it could only be reached by boat from Manhattan. It was a burial place for the well-to-do, and retreat from the smells, squalor, filth, and crowds of Manhattan. It inspired the subsequent development of Prospect Park, which is nearby, and Central Park in Manhattan. Its significance begins, however, in the Revolutionary War, where the largest battle of that war was fought—the Battle of Brooklyn. Washington’s army was surrounded by a much larger British force, but Washington escaped in the night, saving his army and the Revolution.
The torch of liberty on the Statue of Liberty points to this pivotal spot; the highest point in Brooklyn (Battle Hill). A stature of Minerva, the Roman god of crafts, arts, and also of war, was later erected facing Lady Liberty. The two women are waving to each other. Very moving.
Take a tour. There is much to learn and it can be fun, or at least ours was. We were regaled with stories and song by our tour guide, a Broadway singer, who honored Leonard Bernstein’s memory by standing on the bench at his grave and belting out a song from West Side Story.
There is much going on at this beloved and historic place—concerts, lectures, bird walks, guided nature walks, tours, art installations, and more. We attended a dance concert in the chapel commemorating Isadora Duncan that was a re-creation of a concert given by her.2
Brooklyn Heights/Brooklyn Bridge Park
Stroll along the promenade in Brooklyn Heights which connects with Brooklyn Bridge Park. The views of the Manhattan skyline are unparalleled. Relax on a bench, lay in the grass, there are things to do (i.e., roller skating, kayaking, pickle ball), food stands, picnic tables, and interesting people to watch.3
Leaving Brooklyn. . .
We love the subway. It is an entire city, on the move, underground. It is the “Essence of New York”, the beating heart of the city, with its wild variety of people, languages, attire, behavior, entertainment, and filled with dizzying optical illusions in the train windows. We never have had any fear for our safety—indeed, have witnessed uplifting acts of kindness and generosity. Despite the reputation of New Yorkers as a rough and impatient breed, we are often reminded, above ground and below, of how quick they are to offer help.4
Governors Island, an idyll just off the coast of Manhattan, is a short ferry ride away. Catch the ferry from the Battery Maritime Building at the bottom of Manhattan, where you can also catch the (free) ferry to Staten Island (worth the trip for the views), and nearby you can catch the Statue of Liberty ferry. (Battery Park is itself a nice place to stroll and sometime has great street entertainment). We went to Governors Island just a few years after it opened (in 2001) on a summer afternoon and it was blessedly uncrowded.
Rent a bike, walk, picnic, loll about and enjoy great views of Manhattan, the Statue of Liberty, and the New York harbor. Stay over night glamping, which means “glamorous camping.” There are slides, mini mountain hikes, and an array of events, including public art exhibitions, bird walks, music concerts, workshops, and poetry festivals. A restaurant has been added since we have been there where you can relax, have a drink and a bite to eat.5
Every time we go to New York, we go to Union Square. It is the third largest transportation hub in the city where 8 subway lines converge. It is a hive of activity, an oasis amidst the bustle and buildings, and a gathering spot for New Yorkers of all stripes. Music buskers, often of great talent and diversity, from classical to jazz, folk to blues, Peruvian to brass bands, perform. We did see someone playing a baby grand and giving piano lessons—how did he get the piano there?? Subway??
Even if you don’t know anything about chess, the unusual pairing of players offers a poignant, intimate, snapshot of the types of encounters and couplings that occur in this vibrant, diverse city. African American men typically hold the board and take on all comers, for cash. Bobby Fischer came here in his youth to play, as did his coach in his later years, so the hustlers must be very good to survive. And they are. I had lunch with one who said he quit his job because he could make more money playing chess. He was a prodigy, and began winning games in the park when he was nine years old.
Every Friday night the Legendary Cyphers perform freestyle hip-hop. It is thrilling—a cousin to jazz improvisation; angry, funny, dazzling street poetry; an expression of communal solidarity; and joyous entertainment. I never cared much for this kind of music–the rhythm too monotonous, the words too fast. Hearing it, here, in Union Square, was a revolution. So too, the musical, Hamilton, which does much the same thing.
Union Square is transformed into a thriving “Holiday Market” when the Thanksgiving-Hanukkah-Christmas-Kwanza holiday season approaches. Booths offering a cornucopia of goods by independent artisans and local growers, often accompanied by music, create a festive atmosphere. It is worth a visit, even if you don’t buy anything.6
NYC Public Library
This magnificent building opened in 1911, and at that time it was the largest marble structure in the United States. Its grandeur is a monument to the importance of learning, literacy, and commitment to providing free public access to books. Tours are offered—take one if you have the chance.7
Adjacent to the library is Bryant Park, which hosts concerts in the summer, a market in the holiday season, and a quiet, relaxing place to stretch, read, have a coffee, and people watch throughout the year.8
This is our favorite train, and also for many New Yorkers as it is often voted the best train in yearly polls among riders. Here is one reason why we like it: When traveling from Brooklyn to Manhattan, sit on the right side of the train near a window. As you go through the tunnel, if you look close, you will see this artwork, called Masstransiscope. Click here to view it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3IwVD5efXz0 . Once you emerge from the tunnel, stand and go to the left side of the train for a view of Manhattan, New York harbor, and the Brooklyn Bridge as you cross above ground on the Manhattan Bridge.
Continue on the Q train to the last 3 Manhattan stops, which are the most recent additions to the subway system: 72nd, 86th and 96th street stations. Each station is filled with mosaics and worthy of a prolonged visit.9
The Audubon Bird Mural Project is dedicated to publicly, graphically bringing attention to climate change and its effects on birds. The Audubon Society has identified 314 birds who are at risk from the changing climate and is sponsoring murals depicting all 314. So far, 100 murals of 138 species have been completed. The mural “street art” is on storefront grates, sides of buildings, and other, sometimes partly hidden spots.
They are whimsical, visually stunning, playful, and an uplifting contrast to their urban surroundings—like the birds themselves.
Most of the murals are on Broadway between 137th and 177th street. Go on Sunday mornings when the businesses are closed and the storefront gratings are lowered.10
Kykuit is the John D. Rockefeller Sr. estate located in Pocantico Hills north of New York City. You must take a tour to visit and probably should make reservations ahead. It is an American Versailles, with a commanding view of the Hudson River, beautiful terraces and gardens, fountains with whimsical brass ornamental frogs and other creatures, and an array of stunning sculptures situated to highlight both the sculptures and the landscape.
Above are only a few of the many.
The interior of the house is an decorated with fine furnishings, Chinese and European ceramics, a vintage car museum/garage, a tack room with beautiful saddles and other horse equipment, and the lower floor is adorned with the only Picasso tapestries ever made, as well as work by a host of other famous modern artists.11
Union Church, located close to Kykuik, was built by the Rockefellers in 1921, which they regularly attended. When John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s wife, Abby, died he commissioned Matisse to design a stained glass window to commemorate her life. It was the last commissioned work by Matisse. The rest of the church windows, commission later by the family, are by Chagall. We have been to many of the great stained glass churches of France; this small, intimate house of worship illuminated by masters of stained glass, is the equal to the best of them. When we went, we were alone. This is truly a hidden gem. If you go to Kykuit, don’t miss it.12
West Point is aptly named, situated in a strategic location on a point jutting into the Hudson River from the western shore. It was here that during the Revolutionary War the Colonists installed a Great Chain across the river to block the movement of British ships.
The Academy was established in 1802 and its long and heavy history of service, heroism, sacrifice, and loss is everywhere felt. We were surprised at how much we were moved by the tour, which inspired reverence and gratitude. Interesting statues commemorating famous soldiers, wars, and battles are scattered throughout the Academy grounds. What was most moving was the cemetery. The history of war and sacrifice etched in the stones, including those recently killed; men and women, with brief bios of their brief lives. Heartbreaking.
Honorable (Briefly) Mentioned
Museums: Tenement Museum consists of a restored tenement dwelling with the story of family that lived there. Also guided tours of the neighborhood are very informative.13
Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum is a WWII aircraft carrier turned into a museum depicting the ship’s role in WWI. Also includes a guided missile submarine, a Concord jet, and a NASA Space Shuttle.14
Morgan Libraryand Museum is a book lovers destination, with rare books, engrossing exhibitions, and chamber music concerts.15
Cloisters is a satellite of the Met dedicated to medieval art and architecture, including a chapel and cloister.16
Trail, Tour, Tomb, and Church The High Line Trail is a park built on an abandoned elevated freight line where you can stroll above the streets, look into windows of adjacent apartments, and enjoy the gardens, green spaces, and art works that adorn the trail.17
Circle Line Cruise Tours circle Manhattan Island offering unique views of New York.18
Grant’s Tomb is a magnificent and fitting monument and resting place for one of the most important people in American history.1920
Riverside Church has a long history of social activism and is listed on the National register of Historic Places. The stained glass is magnificent, and a New World cousin in color, luminescence, and beauty to those in Chartres Cathedral in France. 21
The Oculus, in The One World Trade Center Plaza, is a magnificent architectural masterpiece. It is a major transportation hub, located in the One World Trade Center near 9/11 Ground Zero. It is meant to inspire. And it does.22
The Brooklyn Japanese Garden is one of the oldest and most visited Japanese gardens outside Japan. It is located in Prospect Park, itself a worthy destination, and adjacent to the Brooklyn Museum, which is the second largest museum in New York City.23
Coney Island still carries a tawdry edge of its “Nickel Empire” heyday in the early 20th century, which drew throngs to its carnival midway, freak shows, beach peddlers, and thrill rides. The flagship for Nathan’s Famous Hotdogs is here, where the annual hotdog eating contest is held, as well as the home for the Brooklyn Cyclones minor league baseball team.24 Great fun.25
Brooklyn Academy of Music, BAM, is a performing arts venue for dance, theatre, music, and film that feature edgy, experimental works. We have seen some memorable performances here.26
Storm King Arts Center is an outdoor 500 acre sculpture park with the largest collection of outdoor sculptures in North America. Located in the Hudson River valley, the large-scale sculptures, many by famous artists, are carefully situated in pristine hills, fields, and woodlands.27
FDR Home in New Hyde Park is the birthplace, home, and burial place of FDR, and the place where many monumental decisions were made during WWII. Looking in on his and Eleanor’s living quarters is an intimate experience, and the tour gives appreciation of the weight and scope of decisions made in these rooms that changed the world. 28
Train along the Hudson River offers a leisurely way to enjoy the beautiful scenery along the river (including West Point) as it winds its way through the Catskill mountains. There are quaint towns along the way and stops where hikers exit to begin treks into the mountains.29
About This Site
This blog is a collection of meditation “songs” in the December of my life on topics at the intersection of psychology, science, religion, and existential concerns.