Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Walking Tours in NYC - Learning from the Ground Level

'Victorian Christmas: Origins of Christmas Traditions -- A look at the literary roots of the holiday with stops at sites associated with O. Henry ("The Gift of the Magi"), Clement Clarke Moore ("A Visit From St. Nicholas") and Washington Irving's character of St. Nicholas in his "Knickerbocker's History of New York."  At 2 p.m. Sunday, led by NYC Discovery Walking Tours.'

The Weekend section of the "New York Times" was full of goings-on in the city, from Christmas tree lightings to storefront extravaganzas; but for a writer, what could be more appealing than following in the footsteps (literally) of other authors?  What could I learn by walking in their neighborhoods over a hundred years later?  I was intrigued.  With directions in hand to the corner of 21st and Lexington (across from Gramercy Park), I set off to meet the guide, in a part of NYC I had yet to discover.

Brownstones surrounding the park date to Victorian years (1837-1901), and with twinkling lights peeking through windows, I imagined picture-perfect holiday scenes immortalized on the covers of Christmas cards.

Norman Rockwell, "Santa at His Desk"
Saturday Evening Post
Of course, as with any imagined scene, all was not coziness and hot chocolate. Christmas traditions evolved in the United States, our guide explained, as immigrant cultures converged (often clashed) and sorted out customs -- keeping some, discarding others and "melting" many into what today is often referred to as "American Christmas."

Two of the authors highlighted on our tour contributed to the evolution of the dimpled-cheek, pipe-smoking, overworked - but ever-jolly - St. Nicholas.

Using the pseudonym, Diedrich Knickerbocker, Washington Irving penned his first book, a satire, in 1809 about the Dutch founding of NYC, with an appropriate tongue-in-cheek title -- A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty.  He included a description of the Dutch St. Nicholas.  Sound familiar?

"And the sage Oloffe dreamed a dream,–and lo, the good St. Nicholas came riding over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to the children. . . And when St. Nicholas had smoked his pipe, he twisted it in his hatband, and laying his finger beside his nose, gave the astonished Van Kortlandt a very significant look; then, mounting his wagon, he returned over the treetops and disappeared." (Irving, Washington.Knickerbocker’s History of New York, New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1928, p. 50)

Irving's youthful face faces the street named in his honor at 47 Irving Place (or 122 E. 17th), although myth is stronger than fact that he ever actually lived here.

Clement Clarke Moore, living a few blocks away in Chelsea, was clearly influenced by Irving's words (almost exact words - "laying his finger beside his nose") when he wrote "A Visit From St. Nicholas," in 1823, later re-named "Twas the Night Before Christmas."  His poem adds to and solidifies the character we know as Santa Claus, his eight reindeer, pack of toys and curious top-down manner of entering houses.
A sketch by Moore's daughter, Mary C. Ogden, in 1855, depicts the Moore's mansion on their Chelsea estate, now occupied by townhouses at 8th Ave. and 23rd.  Notice the numerous chimneys.  How ever did Santa choose?
The final author on the tour had nothing to do with Santa Claus and the evolution of Christmas into a commercialized frenzy.  Just the opposite.

Similar to today's writers setting up shop in a Starbucks,   
O. Henry ("according to local legend") occupied a booth in Pete's Tavern*, and wrote "The Gift of the Magi" in 1906.

*(at 129 E. 18th - between 3rd Ave. and Irving Place)


"The more expensive, the better, was the message of Christmas-giving during the Industrial Revolution," said our guide.  O. Henry's story of a young couple who sell their prized possessions to buy each other beyond-their-means gifts, not only twists the ending, but tests the conventional thinking of the day.

One of my favorite stories, it's worthy of yearly reflection, perhaps this year in O. Henry's booth, before penning my letter to that "right jolly old elf." (Moore)
Now, where did that tradition get started? Sounds like a writer's idea to me.


Monday, November 21, 2011

New York Cares!

Volunteering has never been so easy!  If you move to New York City today, you can start volunteering before the week is out.  No hassles, no frustrations, no red tape.  While you're still trying to figure out how to get furniture delivered and internet service activated, you can glide through the process to become a New York Cares Volunteer.  Connect to your new (or hometown) community of 8 million, in ways you could never discover on your own.

Thanks to Shannon, a friend who lives in NYC, I learned about this amazing network of volunteer opportunities.  "You can pick from hundreds of choices, one-time jobs or longer-term, many lasting only an hour or two.  They make it really flexible for people," she explained.  That's what I needed, a system, a paved path to involvement.  I signed up and have already volunteered once.  Here's how. . . in 3 user-friendly steps:

1. Go to the New York Cares website. Click on "Become a Volunteer, Sign up for orientation today!" and follow the directions.

2. Attend a 45-minute orientation; various times and locations are available throughout the city.

3. Search Projects on the website, select one, and GO!

What to choose?

  • Help children with homework
  •  Plant trees
  • Assist adult immigrants preparing for the U.S. Citizenship exam
  • Dance with 1st and 2nd graders 
  • Distribute clothing to homeless individuals
  • Create pieces of jewelry with blind and low-vision adults

. . . or hundreds of other options every week

I couldn't resist the listing at the Yorkville Branch of the New York City Public Library as my first volunteer experience. 

Yorkville Branch
222 East 79th St.
  "Volunteers will sort and shelve books, prepare reserve items, weed out old circulations and other general library assistance."

From 1:00-5:00 on a Friday afternoon, I joined 4 other book-loving volunteers as we shelved cart after cart of returned books.  Sitting cross-legged on the floor, I enjoyed the company of some of my favorite picture books as I guided them back to their spots, alphabetically by author.  I couldn't resist leaning up against a bookcase and sneaking in a quick read of The Five Chinese Brothers, Mama Do You Love Me? and Oh, the Places You'll Go.  

The two librarians, who were swamped with helping a steady stream of adults downstairs and children upstairs, shook our hands repeatedly as we left, grateful for the extra help. "Will you be coming back next week?" one asked, more as a plea than a question.

As you read this posting from as close as Connecticut or far away as Russia, I'm sure you've already concluded that you don't have to live in New York City to volunteer in your own neighborhood.  Every community has its unique needs, its own system for lending a hand.

The New York Cares website highlights a quote by Margaret Mead which inspires me to continue this important work:

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." 

I hope you'll join me, especially during this holiday season when needs are multiplied. . . wherever your community may be. 


Monday, November 14, 2011


Sunday afternoon.  A cloudless, 60-degree day in New York City. I leave our apartment building, walking towards Wall Street, 10 minutes away.

The first two blocks are predictable, with a few less stores open and people along the sidewalks than on a weekday.  Approaching Wall, I notice the same police barriers in place, keeping tourists and Occupy Wall Streeters at bay.  A police car further secures an intersection.  I pass it, glance up Wall St., keep walking. Then, as if the scene were just catching up with my brain, I slow my pace, puzzled.  Something  is not right.

The color of the car -- blue, not white.  The letters on the side -- GPD, not NYPD.   

Shaking my head, I move closer to read the words on the car door.

Gotham City?  Where am I?

And what is that I see beyond the car, lining the curbs?  Snow?  

Trying to stay calm, and not succeeding, I begin running the couple of blocks until I can see Wall St. from another perspective, at the New York Stock Exchange. A recognizable landmark.  I am not prepared for the horror that awaits.

Holy red, white and blue shenanigans!
 Flags across the street from the Stock Exchange are shredded, in tatters, singed with black.

Gangs of men gather, some with guns.

What is happening?  Is there no "caped crusader" who can help me?

A leaflet ruffles my hair, flutters to my feet.  I bend to retrieve it, then look upward to its source.  Seeing nothing but endless towers, I read.  My answer. . .

                                                                            Photo - Warner Brothers Studios

Summer 2012, Tune in at your favorite theater, "Same Bat-Time, Same Bat-Channel"

(For more information about filming of the latest Batman movie, "The Dark Knight Rises," in New York City, check out this link:  http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/movies/dark-knight-rises-films-nyc-gallery-1.972754


Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Joy of Van Gogh

Van Gogh's Sunflowers was the first painting I ever paid attention to. My mother bought a copy when I was about 10 years old and hung it on the wall in our entry hall.  Following decorating whims and changing addresses, she placed it above the piano, a bed, buffet table, but never gave it away or tucked it in a closet.  When she downsized from her two-story home to a two-bedroom apartment last year, she parted with boxes of possessions, but Sunflowers was always in her "To Keep" pile.  Today it hangs in her bedroom at the retirement community, having been a joyful companion for 50 years.

The name "Vincent" written midway up the vase, intrigued me.  I remember looking in the "V" book, one of the skinniest volumes in my grandparents' World Book Encyclopedia collection, to learn more about him.  I'm sure the basic biography was there -- birth, brief 37 years of life, tragic death, ear-cutting-off incident, insanity, along with a description of his art and selected paintings.  That limited story was all I, and probably most people, knew of Vincent, although there has certainly been much research conducted and scholarly books written about him since.  But nothing to match what was published just two weeks ago.

For the past 10 years authors, Gregory White Smith and Steven Naifeh grew closer to Vincent Van Gogh than a nosey next-door neighbor.  The only thing they didn't have access to, besides the man himself, was the garbage he might have tossed out in the alley behind his rented rooms in Arles or trash can in the insane asylum at St. Remy Hospital.  The book is 1000 pages long with 6000 more pages of research notes online!  Van Gogh: The Life.

Gregory White Smith (left) and Steven Naifeh signing
books after their presentation
I sat enthralled like a school child hearing the next chapter of a suspenseful "Read-Aloud," as the authors told the audience what they had learned about Van Gogh. The auditorium of the Metropolitan Museum of Art was nearly filled with Van Gogh fans, many of us with notebooks and pens, trying to keep up with Naifeh and Smith.  New facts about his life added to the familiar story, while others were unexpected. For example, I never pictured Vincent as a reader, an intellectual, yet the authors said that he  read voraciously in a variety of genres.  He spoke four languages.

Yet, it was through their descriptions of his overwhelming sadness, isolation and pain that I began to understand why I have loved his paintings since childhood.  The authors described Vincent's art as "inner directed."  "His life and art are interwoven; his art expresses what it's like to be human," they said.
Beyond the vibrancy of the colors, the movement in sky and tree, I "feel" the person who
created. . .

                                                                Starry Night

                                                       Bedroom at Arles

Wheatfield with Crows

and so many more.      

As Mr. Smith simply said at the end of their discussion, "Vincent created jubilant art from a sad life."  Where he found the joy, how he touched it and gave it a face through his art, remains a mystery to me.  Perhaps I will learn as I read the book, or perhaps that mystery is better solved by standing in front of one of his paintings.

(Today I ordered two copies, one for myself and the other for. . . my mother.)

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