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New York City & Akhnaten – December 2019

Early in 2019 I purchased tickets for me and my brother, Tim, to attend Philip Glass’ Akhnaten in New York in December. I saw this opera a few years earlier in Los Angeles, but it was the last of Philip Glass’ Trilogy that Tim still needed to see, so of course I had to see it again.

As the year progressed and business travel plans were made, I had to work that around this NY Glass trip. Unfortunately, this meant that after spending 5 days in New York City, I would need to head directly to Lisbon for a business meeting.

December 3: Travel to NYC, Mean Girls

First, the obligatory aerial photo: Yes, I am one of those nerds who loves a seat by the window so I can take pictures.

While there was news of a snowpocalypse in the east, my arrival on December 3 came with high winds the day after the snow. This meant that, although it was very cold, the streets were clear and there was no sign of snow.

I’d plotted my long route using the subway to get from the airport in Newark to my AirB&B apartment in Hell’s Kitchen in east Manhattan, but once I got my luggage upon arriving at the airport, I took the lazy approach and opted to take an Uber. After much wandering and annoying people with questions about where one can connect with an Uber from this airport, I gave up and took a taxi. This experience confirmed my dislike for taxis: after being told it would cost $56, the final bill was $75.

The apartment I rented for this 4-night stay in the city was, well, let’s say it was just barely this side of adequate. It was safe, somewhat clean[ish], cluttered, astoundingly shabby, tiny, unbelievably loud, and incredibly drafty. But at least the cockroaches were few and usually did an excellent job of staying out of sight.

All kidding aside, while there were huge issues with the place, this two-bedroom apartment cost me under $200/night, which is a small miracle for a place in Manhattan near Broadway. So, as much as I complained (a lot, if I’m being honest), I really can’t complain much. Put another way: the low cost of this place helped keep the overall cost of this trip from being exorbitant, and that’s worth something.

Tim had arrived at the apartment earlier in the day and so was already settled in. Once I arrived and took a little time to wander the tiny rooms in a bit of underwhelmed shock, we bundled up and headed out in search of sustenance. We were a mere few blocks from the New York that people know in the movies, and the early-evening winter twilight was accented by more artificial light than the outdoors has any business of having:

We found ourselves in a fun place called Juniors where we had dinner.

Insistent that it is practically a crime to spend a night in New York (or London or Los Angeles) without going to the theater, Tim got us tickets to see Mean Girls. It was entertaining fun, but nothing to get too effusive about. I’d say that the Barbie-esque character of Karen was my favorite part.

After the play we walked back to the apartment where we decided that, while it was probably okay, neither one of us felt comfortable drinking the water — so we headed back out and walked to a nearby grocery store to buy water and a few other provisions.

Hanging out in this apartment was uncomfortable, so much so that it was almost entertaining.

It was so drafty that I could literally feel a breeze coming in at the windows, which, as it got down into the high 20s (Fahrenheit) during our stay, was fairly uncomfortable. I kept my coat on at all times while inside. The only heat in the place came from turn-of-last-century radiators in the bedrooms, which had rotted the wood floors beneath them and made loud, industrial-sounding complaints all night long. Thank goodness I don’t go anywhere without my hard-core ear plugs!


December 4 – MOMA and Akhnaten

In the morning we each did some work with our laptops at the tiny little table in the kitchen, ate a small breakfast, then headed out to the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), which was a 10-15 minute walk away.

In a city like Manhattan, even a 15-minute walk yields many photo ops. We saw a gaggle of police officers in front of a Starbucks… either that or it was a herd of actors all trying out for parts in a new police-themed show:

And of course, the buildings and trees provided many opportunities for the photographer willing to raise one’s head:

And then there we were at MOMA.

There are so many museums in New York City, yet I’ve been to only a few (after all, this was only my second trip to this city). But I would never miss a trip to MOMA. There’s something about modern art that seems to vibrate on the same level as I do — I wrote a bit about this at the very end of this post.

While I can’t see things like a mere chair with a block of wood sitting on it as “art,” I really love most of what I see in MOMA. One of my favorite things that I saw today was this 1913 painting by Umberto Boccioni called “Dynamism of a Soccer Player”:

There were also a great many paintings that would be recognized by almost anyone — paintings by Matisse, Picasso, Monet, Rothko, Kahlo, Riviero, and so many more. I won’t even try to represent here all that can be seen at MOMA, not when they have a perfectly good website.

But here’s an image I like of Tim pondering some art

And here’s a perfect view of van Gogh’s “Starry Night” (which is similar to the picture I took of the “Mona Lisa” that I include in this post):

“Starry Night” is hanging in a room not far from some of Monet’s many Water Lilies (here’s a rather inexpertly shot video of one of them):

While I take photos of some of the art that I see, this is in addition to just watching it and letting it work its way into my mind. It was interesting to me how many people just walked about snapping pictures and moving on.

After the museum and a small lunch, we cut across a twilight corner of Central Park…

And walked over to Lincoln Center to the Metropolitan Opera…

to see Philip Glass’ Akhnaten: the real reason I was even in New York in the first place (and about which I am a complete dork).

It was an amazing show — and we had lovely chats with the people sitting nearby. There’s really nothing I can say here about Akhnaten to do it justice, so I’ll defer to this review in the New York Times. Or better yet, watch this wonderful 10-minute video from Vox, How an Opera Gets Made to get a tiny taste of how wonderful it is. This was actually my second time seeing this show, having seen it when it premiered in Los Angeles in 2016. [Here’s my full list of Glass events.]

In any case, it was a wonderful, wonderful day.


December 5 – Mood and Beetlejuice

We had a lot going on this morning. Tim and I walked about 30 minutes to get to Penn Station to meet my sister, Cindy, who took an Amtrak train up from Virginia.

I had an important phone meeting that I couldn’t miss, and which started just after the time my sister’s train was expected, so I left Tim in the main area to wait for Cindy and went off to find a quiet place to sit.

There was a bit of a mix-up, as Cindy hadn’t checked her email before leaving her house (and doesn’t get email on her phone, have you ever?) and so never saw the message from Tim telling her where he’d look for her and what his phone number was. Luckily as I was looking for a place for my meeting I ran into her in a long line at the ladies.’ I found Tim to gave him her cell number, then dashed off for my meeting, ending up on the floor in a dark corner near a closed ticket counter. During my meeting I watched as a cop woke up a sleeping homeless person to get him to leave. Frankly, he was extremely courteous and careful about it, calling him Sir — I liked that I saw that.

After my meeting I called Tim to find out where he and Cindy went, then joined them for breakfast just around the corner from Penn at the Tick-Tock Diner. I tried to take a selfie with the three of us, but seeing my struggles, a nearby patron offered to take it for us.

Immediately after that pic was taken, Tim headed back into Penn to take a train to Newark to fly home, and Cindy and I headed toward the apartment. However, just a few blocks away from Penn is the famous Mood Fabrics made famous on Project Runway, and I’ve always wanted to go there. So off we went, pulling Cindy’s luggage behind us, into the famous store. I was in fan-grrl heaven!

I bought two yards of fabric for my next quilt project and a few buttons just because I could, and I signed up for their frequent shopper program only because I wanted the membership card as a souvenir.

After Mood, we walked back to the apartment. It’s a 19-block walk, so once we got there, we were happy to just sit and chat a while. She had a phone meeting that evening and so planned to stay in, but I had tickets to another show. Just before 5:00 we walked just half a block away to a very nice Swiss restaurant called Mont Blanc 52, where we had raspberry-drop martinis and chicken cordon bleu. It was wonderful. The helpings were so huge that both of us only ate half. (Guess what will be for breakfast in the morning?)

Cindy wasn’t wild about the thought of walking back to the apartment alone in the dark. After walking her “home,” I headed just a few blocks beyond the restaurant to a theater to see Beetlejuice. An oddity I noticed: the production team for the play isn’t sure how they want to spell it (but I later learned you will see this discrepancy in the film as well):


There was a girl sitting next to me who was a teen or early-twenties person who was so obsessed with the show that she was dressed exactly like the girl-character on the show all the way down to her makeup and hair, and was able to answer any question about it. She reminded me of myself the night before at Akhnaten. It’s always good to be able to see yourself from others’ points of view, even when it’s not terribly flattering.

My assessment of the show? The opening number, “This is a show about death” (I think that’s what it was called), was brilliant. And the rest of the show, with a few excellent exceptions, was not so great. The actor playing Beetlejuice was stellar, but the actor playing the girl was awful. Put another way, the gal had a nasal pop-singer intonation that was 100% inappropriate for Broadway, making her words difficult to understand and resulting in what I thought was a wince-worthy performance. What the hell was the girl sitting next to me thinking by idolizing this?

I really wish I’d gone to Tootsie instead.

After the play, I went back to the apartment and Cindy and I stayed up talking very late. It was an interesting conversation, too serious to write about in this light little blog post. A very interesting conversation.


December 6 – MOMA again and Chicago

We had leftover chicken cordon bleu in the fridge, so as I was getting a shower and fussing with my hair, Cindy put that in the oven to heat it up

Cindy wanted to see the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Central Park, and the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center (preferably when the sky was starting to darken so as to see the lights ). Then we needed to get dinner and get to the theater by 7:30, as we had tickets to see Chicago.

Cindy mentioned that her favorite piece of art in the world is Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” and I told her I’d seen it just the other day hanging on the wall on the 5th floor at MOMA. Her jaw dropped a bit, then we added MOMA to her list. I wasn’t wild about going to the same museum twice while leaving a city-ful of world-class museum choices unseen, but I could see how much this meant to her, and I dearly love MOMA. We moved it to the top of the list.

But the more we talked about our plans, the more I knew I just didn’t have it in me to try to do it all — and Cindy said she wouldn’t be able to either. We knew we’d be paring our to-do list way down, and might only have the energy to do one thing.

We headed off to MOMA. On the way it was fun to see the city all decked out for the holidays.

One cool thing about going to MOMA twice was that I was able to feel so familiar with the place — it was very comforting to not have to confusedly figure things out every minute! We headed straight up to the Starry Night on the 5th floor:

… then we winded our way down through the rest of the museum, taking about 1/3rd of the time that Tim and I had taken on Wednesday. Today I was most taken by this by 1914 painting by Francis Picabia called “I See Again in Memory My Dear Udnie.” I don’t know the story behind it, but the title alone tugs on my heart.

Afterward I looked up this painting online, and this is what I learned (this is from the MOMA website):

He based this painting’s title on a line from Virgil’s Aeneid from that source—“Dying, he saw again in memory his dear Argos”—substituting “Udnie,” a name of Picabia’s own invention. The artist associated the name with his memories of French dancer Stacia Napierkowska rehearsing onboard during his transatlantic journey to New York in 1913. “Udnie” is also an anagram of the last name of French musicologist Jean d’Udine, whose theory of synesthesia (published in 1910) linked painting with music and dance through the concept of rhythm.

I confess I love it less now that I know it was not a painting about a lost love, but on the other hand, a painting that is at least in part an homage to the ideas behind what makes modern art so wonderful is definitely worth notice. And knowing this and looking back at the painting, I still love it — just in a different way.

I was also taken by some drawings by Frank Lloyd Wright. Look at the old cars in this close-up below. I love how much they are a caricature of old-timey autos, yet they were completely contemporary when he drew this, highlighting the time-bending that I love in great art:

One thing that  I particularly enjoyed about both my trips to MOMA was Tim’s and Cindy’s attitude about modern art before we went there. In both cases, they said they didn’t particularly understand or like modern art, but after I tour-guided each of them around MOMA to see some of my favorites, they both really liked more of it than they expected. I think if asked today for their opinions of modern art, they’d change their answers to something less negative, maybe with a few bright shades of positive.

At the end of our trip through the museum, we spent way too long in the MOMA gift shop, in which Cindy bought an awesome Lego-man/invisible man.

By the time we left the gift shop I was having a real energy crash. Cindy and I split a granola bar which helped a lot, giving us enough zip to walk 5 or 6 blocks away from MOMA (past the HOPE statue) to get away from the tourist places and make it to a very typical New York deli for lunch.

We each could only eat half of the sandwiches we ordered, so we packed each in its own bag, added bottled water and granola bars to each bag, then handed the bags to the first homeless people we saw on the street on the way to the apartment. We made a quick stop in a touristy Christmas shop, then went “home.”

We had tickets to the theater later, but for now we were pretty both wiped out and took a 30-minute nap. When I got up I got all my packing done for my travels the next day, then went to the post office that was just a few doors down from the apartment to ship some things home, including my Mood fabric. When going on a two-tiered trip such as this, shipping some stuff home is the best way to save yourself from carting way, way too much stuff around. Yes, it adds to the cost of your trip (this cost me $60), but it is worth it!

A short while later we went to have dinner at Lillie’s Victorian Establishment, where we split an order of Shepherd’s pie. It was a very bustling, loud bar with only a few tables, but we loved it. It was a beautiful, explosive orgasm of Victorian Christmas decoration! (I assume that their place at Union Square has more room for people who are more interested in dinner than a bar.)

Lillie’s was just a block or so away from the theater for our show, Chicago, so it was an easy saunter to stand in line to get inside.

The show was extremely fun. I’m glad I saw the film, but I’m not sure what the “proper” viewing order would be, as either would have its pros and cons. But having now seen the show live, I look forward to watching the film again. I’ll have to talk with my sister about this, as she went into this without having seen the film first.

As we were filing out of the theater, now about 11pm, Cindy said she wished she had bought an ornament at the Christmas store nearby, but that probably everything was closed. I reminded her that we were in “the city that never sleeps,” which right now had streets teeming with tourists with wallets full of dollars and that no, nothing was closed yet. We headed back into the busy NYC night.

I was gobsmacked by how the entire facade of this building was a giant HD display:

Anyway, we went back to the Christmas store, Cindy bought a nutcracker ornament, then we went home. We made plans for the next day (which involved setting my alarm for 4am), and called it a night.

This almost ended my trip to New York. We got up before dawn the next day to head to JFK for my trip to Lisbon. I expected to be leaving New York in just a few hours, but I was sadly mistaken [read about that on my post about Lisbon above].

In any case, it was really wonderful to be able to hang out with my brother and sister in the city, to see MOMA twice more, and of course, any time I can see a Philip Glass production, I’m happy.

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