Right & Wrong At the U.S. Open

Since I usually end up cheering for victories by underdogs, I admit I wanted Naomi Osaka to win the U.S. Open. She was facing a seemingly insurmountable obstacle in Serena Williams whose prior victories showed she had more experience, more powerful strokes and, ultimately, a preternatural determination to win based in part, I suspect, on her awareness that her time of dominance in women’s tennis is in its final phase.

Sadly, mostly for Osaka, the match was marred by controversy that could have, and should have, been avoided.

First, and I think most important, Serena Williams knows the rules of tennis. After so many years and matches, she is conclusively presumed to know the rules as well as she knows anything. She therefore knew that the rules forbade coaching from the stands and don’t depend on whether the player “knew” about the coaching. Her coach admitted he was sending her hand signals to move into the net more aggressively. So, Serena “broke” the coaching rule and was properly, in the technical sense, assessed a warning, the first stage of an escalating set of penalties for repetition of rule breaches.

Now, and this is really the crux of the matter, the “no coaching” rule is a joke. It is violated routinely for decades in matches great and small without actually assessing a penalty, though that does occur at times. And that is the real problem. Could the Chair Umpire have handled the coaching differently? Of course, but the root of the problem here is the rule, not the particular umpire.

If there is going to be a “no coaching” rule, it should be enforced all the time or abandoned. Given the difficulties of enforcement in any evenhanded way, abandonment is the better outcome. Why have a rule that is randomly and erratically enforced, especially when it affects the outcome of a match? Imagine what would have happened if the coaching yesterday had been detected on match point against Serena and the Chair Umpire stopped the match short of playing the last point. As a tennis fan, you would get the chills thinking of such a situation but it is entirely possible with the current coaching rule.

Second, Serena surely knows that destroying a racket is an automatic penalty and that if it’s a second violation in the match, it results in award of a point to the other player. She has done it a number of times in big matches and, despite penalties that would blanche players with less wealth, she has joked about it. https://bit.ly/2wLFQ3b

Yes, yes, it was an emotional moment and all that, but Serena Williams is the dominant player in women’s tennis and should be able to avoid destroying a racket on the court, no matter how frustrated she might be. If she was completely out of control of her emotions, she could have requested an injury timeout to get some time to calm down. So, the second penalty was clearly correct.

Third, the sting of the first penalty lingered with Serena who continued to harangue the Chair Umpire for an apology about the first penalty that Serena believed impugned her integrity as a player and was discriminatory. Again, while her exasperation was understandable (the coaching rule, as argued above, should be abolished – it inevitably led to this moment), it strikes me that making a social issue out of that situation was inappropriate. Serena’s emotions were out of control. Serena has never called her coach down for a court-side consultation even when allowed by the rules, but this might actually have been a good moment to request that help. I get the “go it alone” thing, but sometimes it’s smart to ask for help.

Finally, while I believe Serena Williams was ultimately responsible for the situation, I also believe her post-match maturity and grace toward Osaka was remarkable. I suspect she realized her responsibility and understood she should set aside her own anger and grief to try to recapture the moment that Osaka had earned. Osaka was plainly mortified at the situation she played no part in creating. Serena tried to comfort Osaka putting her arm around her shoulders with a smile. She asked the crowd to stop booing and recognize Osaka’s victory as legitimately earned. Those acts of sportsmanship, along with the brilliant, steely performance of a 20-year old in her first Grand Slam final, are what should be remembered about this match.

And please, please, change the “no coaching” rule. Help save tennis from itself.

How the Other Half Lives

Well, maybe not the other half. Maybe the 1 percent. Or the 3 percent. Or … I really don’t know. For present purposes, let’s just say that the people who buy or rent the places I am about to describe are well off in the extreme. No other explanation fits the facts. Buckle up.

First, some background. I acquired an early interest in the price of real estate in New York City when my wife and I started looking for a place to live when we moved here for her new job. We were not interested in owning anything and our price range to rent had been thoroughly discussed, calculated (holy moly!!) and recalculated (ouch!). Nonetheless, as you search the listings for livable space in livable neighborhoods, your eye can’t help noticing the listings for properties that blow your mind. More than a few examples follow.

My first reaction to this was similar to what I experienced when we dropped into a neighborhood diner for breakfast and got a bill for more than $50. Yes, yes, we ate too much, but still. Breakfast. In a diner. In a scene repeated several times at dinner and even later, we saw many, many people of apparent limited means (judging, perhaps inappropriately, by their manner of dress and general demeanor) consuming equivalent or larger meals with no apparent concern for the cost. In many cases the servers and managers knew these people as “regulars,” so it seems they do this often. Where, I wondered, do these folks acquire the resources to live like this?

Then, I opened the Real Estate section of the Sunday New York Times to which we subscribe. Here is what I found. Really, voyeurs, buckle up.

Back in March a property in the East Village was listed at $7,995,000 which may seem high but it had eight, that’s 8, bedrooms and “5+” bathrooms.The accompanying photo showed brick walls, fireplace and beamed ceiling. Eight bedrooms!

Also in March, what appears to be a townhouse in the Upper East Side was advertised at $21,000,000 with nine, yes 9, bedrooms and ten, really 10, bathrooms.

For comparison, also in March, a 10,442 sq. ft. house in Bronxville, NY (17 miles and, allegedly, a 30-minute drive from midtown Manhattan) was listed for only $6,900,000 and offered 9 bedrooms and 5.1 (??) bathrooms on 1.36 acres. I confess I don’t know what a tenth of a bathroom is but that was the offer. Zillow says it’s a half-bath so that’s probably it. The stone-sided Tudor style home was built in 1849 and has three stories. [BTW, it’s still on the market for $6.9 million if you’re interested]

For people looking for a more vertical lifestyle, there is also One Manhattan Square, “Waterfront Condominium Residences From $1.2M” and going up to about $4.5 million for a 3-BR with 1,667 sq. ft. On the Lower East Side at New York Harbor. But the really interesting thing is the amenities package:

  • 360 degree views
  • Fitness center
  • Squash court
  • Basketball court
  • Spa with Infrared Sauna
  • Studio classes
  • Screening & Performance Theater
  • Bowling Alley
  • Golf Simulator
  • Pet Spa
  • 1 Acre Landscaped Private Gardens

Now, I am not particularly surprised at the price levels for real estate in Manhattan. There is, after all, only one Manhattan and it is one of the most important (if not the single most) cities in the world. Space is at a premium so you can expect to pay premium prices. What surprised me and still amazes me is the scale of some of these properties in the heart of the city. Nine bedrooms?!?

To close this exercise in “holy cowism” and property envy, I commend to you the “Gold Coast” of lower Manhattan, the seven-block stretch of Fifth Avenue between 14th Street and Washington Square Park. A good description and history can be found in the New York Times at https://nyti.ms/2mhFdcJ On offer, as I write, is a “55’ Wide Grand Mansion Fifth Avenue & West 10th. Renovated “Gold Coast” single-fam w/aprox. 16,560 SF indoor/5,690 outdoor, elevator, movie theater $59.5M.” listed by BrownHarrisStevens.com. What can I say?

 

Late Show with Stephen Colbert

I am not sure how I was persuaded to do this, but my wife and I attended the Stephen Colbert Late Show on CBS a few nights ago. I suspect I was primed to say ‘yes,’ by having walked past the theater many times and seeing the people lined up outside. Besides, the ticket price is great: zero.

You pay instead with patience. My bank account balance in patience is low, but you only live once. In a nutshell, the deal is that you apply online and at some point you get an email confirmation telling you, in our case at least, that you have Priority Tickets for a specific date. All people named on the tickets must be present or the “guardian” will not let you enter the line. The line begins to form well before 3 pm and priority entry closes at 4, at which point late arrivals must enter the “General Admission” line. There appeared to also be a group of “VIPs” who were at the front. Don’t know about that.

In any case, I compulsively arrived early and my wife arrived “late,” but we were in the line together by 3:30, after stuffing down a hot dog from the cart carefully positioned at the entry point for the line. So, we’re in line, fresh wristbands on (like a hospital band) and we wait, fortunately in the shade as temperatures are in the mid-80s. Eventually, another shouting guardian allows the line to enter the theater, which is accomplished by presenting your forearm vertically to display the wrist band.

Inside, we are crammed tightly into a hallway designed for other purposes with multiple TV screens showing past episodes from the Late Show. There are essentially three tranches. You must remain in your own tranche, or else. Another guardian allows us to use the restrooms, down the stairs, in groups (that is, we are released in groups to go down). You are reminded that you must return to your same spot in the crammed in lines. To my surprise, everyone seems to comply.

And we wait. And wait. And wait.

Then we are admitted to the theater. As you enter, another guardian tells you which way to turn and yet another one tells you where to sit. This is not negotiable. We luck out and get an aisle seat and adjacent on the right of the two “center” aisles, closest to the band.

Two important cautions: it is a lot colder in the studio than is conveyed by the “it’s cool in the studio” warning on the tickets. A lot colder. Probably to offset the heat of the lights and massive electronics everywhere in the studio. Also, during what becomes another protracted wait, they pump rock music, or similar, at high volume into the theater. There is no escape. If this bothers you, you may wish to bring earplugs. It did and I didn’t.

The show has a very clever comedian who comes out to “warm up” the audience, complete with calling people up on the stage and humorously embarrassing them. This too is not negotiable. All in good fun, of course, as long as I don’t get called up.

Another man, Mark, as I recall, explains how important the audience enthusiasm is to the energy of the show and indicates how he will call on the audience from time to time to demonstrate its unlimited excitement by vigorous applause and yelling, etc. The signal is a rolled-up magazine held up and rotated. Occasionally, also, flashing “APPLAUSE” signs, but mainly it was Mark. All that technology and a rolled-up magazine. [More likely, it was a script; we’ll never know]

We practice this vigorous applauding and yelling multiple times. The audience is pumped. Hell, even I’m getting pumped, and I generally don’t do pump.

Then Stephen Colbert comes out to talk to the audience, answers a few questions and then, suddenly everything starts happening. The show moves very fast. The monologue is right in front of us but there are a lot of cameras and booms so you end up watching the monitors a lot. Colbert’s guest this day is Josh Brolin, currently starring in Deadpool 2 and Sicario 2: Day of the Soldado. Brolin has a long list of movie credits, but I have only seen one of them, so had nothing much to go on. Colbert, however, is a comic genius and was able to create a very funny interview.

The second guest, Ruth Negga, was less successful. She was the star of Loving, for which she received an Oscar nomination but didn’t have much to say this day. She confessed to being extremely nervous about being with Stephen Colbert who, even for major acting figures, has become a larger-than-life figure.

One absolute standout of the experience was the band, Stay Human, led by Jon Batiste. Their musicianship was amazing, a surprise because I had not cared for them when watching on TV. They came up the aisles during commercial breaks and played right next to us, jazzy pop music, I would call it, and were very impressive. Kept the crowd pumped so they wouldn’t “come down” during the breaks. Side note: during the breaks, Colbert conferred at his stage desk with various staff people and could be seen writing and marking up notes to himself. Back on the air, he never missed a beat.

So, the big question: is this a great experience? Was it worth all the standing and waiting (I hate lines and waiting, if you had not guessed that by now). Answer: unqualified “yes.” The overall experience was exciting and also exhausting because you found yourself going along with the excessive enthusiasm of the worked-up crowd and just letting go. And Colbert was very funny. We laughed a lot. I would do it again. If you do, bring a warm jacket. The studio is freezing. So cold.

Ballet in Bryant Park

The first time I saw ballet performed was an exhibition in St. Petersburg many years ago. The performances were brief but spectacular, especially the leaps of the male performers. I had never seen anything to equal it, but it did not trigger a passion to see more. Indeed, I found the length and pace of the traditional ballets I later saw as a bit much, though, again, the artistry and sheer physical power of the performers was almost supernatural.

When we arrived in New York, one of the obvious benefits of our location was Lincoln Center, literally a few blocks from our apartment. And, miraculously, within months, the one ballet I really did want to see, Stravinsky’s The Firebird, was scheduled for the Metropolitan Opera House. The added treat was entitled AFTERITE, danced to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, one of my favorite pieces of classical music, with Misty Copeland to boot! As a side note, we were so excited to see all this that we sprang, first time ever, for box seats. They turned out to be cramped and difficult for viewing unless you were in front row or elevated third row (we weren’t). I was also interested to observe that in order to enter the box at any time, an attendant, usually nearby, had to unlock the door. I kept thinking of Lincoln at Ford’s Theater. As a further and final side note, we didn’t much care for AFTERITE. Misty Copeland’s amazing talent was largely wasted as her role involved more standing and walking around the stage than dancing.

But I digress. All of the above being true, I remain an uninformed, inexpert observer of ballet,  but still awed by the superhuman effort, grace, athleticism and artistry of the dancers. So, facing Friday night with my wife out of town on business, I went to Bryant Park for what was advertised as a “A Night of Ballet, including a Master Class led by Cynthia Harvey, Artistic Director of the American Ballet Theatre Onassis School, a discussion of personal histories with two ABT Company dancers and performances by three local New York City ballet companies.

Bryant Park shares with the New York Public Library the rectangle bounded by 5th and 6th Avenues and West 40th and 42nd Streets. There is a lot going on there all the time. See http://bryantpark.org/

Arriving early, I snagged a seat in the first row, on the stage side of the rope separating the walkway from the Lawn in front of the Fountain Terrace. After the Master Class, in which I did not participate [contain your amusement] and the discussion, the first group of dancers came onto the stage. The first good shot I managed to get is the featured photo at the top of this post. There is nothing meaningful I can say about the extraordinary talent of these young dancers except that I was mesmerized. Rather than pretend to be a critic, for which I am, as noted above, grossly unqualified, I will let the photographs speak for themselves.

I’m just going to show a small sample of the shots I took that night. The first group, Continuum Contemporary/Ballet, danced Concerto Geloso to the amazing music of Vivaldi. The second “group” is just two dancers, from Doug Baum & Artists performing Tangle, and the final group is Da’Von Doane & The Artists of the Shift performing Dances for Brass: Sacred and Profane. These photos do not do full justice to the performance because they lack the music and the continuity of the moves, but I think you’ll get the idea.

 

 

Continuum Contemporary/Ballet

  Choreography: Donna Salgado

 Dancers: Laura DiOrio, Dorothea Garland, Shoko Fujita, Donna Salgado,

 Vanessa Salgado

Doug Baum & Artists

Choreography: Doug Baum

Dancers: Doug Baum, Katie Currier

Da’ Von Doane & The Artists of the Shift

Choreography: Da’ Von Doane

Dancers: Malik Berry, Daniel Cooke, Paunika Jones, Cortney Key, Courtney Cochran

 

 

 

 

 

Planes, Trains and … Chaos

Imagine this scenario — you arrive at the airport, any airport, check in, pass through security and then … you enter the large central space with all the other passengers and their carry-on bags, children, pet carriers, shopping bags, briefcases, etc. and you wait. And wait. And wait some more. You and everyone who is paying attention, which is fewer and fewer people as time passes, stare hopefully at the large electronic board mounted near the ceiling. You wait some more as your attention begins to wander.

Then, without warning, the information on the big board changes and a voice emerges from the speaker system announcing that your flight will be boarding immediately at Gate 1. In keeping with frequent airport design practice, Gate 1 is the furthest gate from where you are standing, down a long concourse full of other nearly hysterical travelers trying to line up according to their station (you know, first class, business class, Ruby, Platinum, Kryptonite, Silver, etc. followed by people with no station who, in earlier times, would have been placed below decks in steerage. Now, in the Age of Flight, they are merely put in window seats in the Coach section near the rest rooms.

They board last. If they bought the latest airline fare “innovation,” they may not place carryon bags in the overhead compartments. They didn’t understand this, but now they do. Seasoned travelers on the flight hate people who are trying to save money and are uninformed. There is congestion in the aisle as the flight attendants frantically try to get everyone seated with bags stowed, large electronics off “so we can have an on-time departure.”

The airport “cattle call” I have described is not, of course, reality, at least not until you board the plane. That’s why I started with the word “imagine.” But this is the reality of a train trip in New York City starting at Penn Station. The track announcements are awaited by the gathering crowds in the center hall of the station. They are posted on the centrally placed schedule board more or less at the same time an oral announcement is made over the general din that pervades the place most of the time.

The crowd then surges toward the named gate and forces its way down the escalator to the track below. curbed.com says that about 650,000 commuters pass through Penn Station daily so it is not hard to imagine the scene. In the Amtrak section of the station, there are 27 gates, accessed through 14 gates/escalators, about half of which are designated “east” and the other half “west,” so it pays to no your directions. Still, your chances of being trampled are pretty good unless you are quick on your feet and can handle your luggage adroitly. If not, you would be wise to hook up with the Red Caps in the Amtrak Waiting Area.

The Long Island Railroad and New Jersey Transit also serve Penn Station. If you’re good with maps, you can see a visual layout of Penn Station at https://bit.ly/2JbpdXS but you have to experience it to believe it.

Some of the “storied” history of Penn Station can be found at https://bit.ly/2wU3I7h along with the “plans” for its future. I am already a cynic and I’ve only lived here six months. But I’ve used Penn Station dozens of times over the years so my cynicism is at least somewhat justified.

One must wonder why they can’t determine the track assignments at least somewhat in advance of a train’s arrival. I have asked the Red Caps a few times but never got an answer that made sense to me. It is the age of computers, after all, though I suspect Amtrak’s computers are just plain aged. Forewarned is forearmed, so be prepared. And just be glad the railroads don’t run the airlines.

Footnote:  If you are coming on Amtrak into Penn Station from, say, Washington, you have a different issue. First, you will exit the train (minding the inevitable gap between the train and the platform) and, usually, take the escalator up to the main hall of the station. Then your challenge is: take a taxi or take the subway? If subway, you just follow the relatively obvious signs to the subway station you want. If you want a  taxi, you face the question whether to exit at 8th Avenue or 7th Avenue. Bear in mind that 8th Avenue runs one-way going uptown and 7th Avenue is one-way downtown. Also, the never-ending construction around Penn Station may alter the location of taxi stands, so be prepared for that surprise too. But, hey, you’re in New York!

Hey, I’m Driving Here!

I recently returned from a trip to Honolulu. I had accompanied my wife who was making a speech at a conference there. Tough duty, but someone had to do it.

My wife began her speech by suggesting that, contrary to what instinct tells us, Honolulu and New York City have a number of things in common. Both are on islands, both have tall buildings and both have lots of tourists. And both have poke shops. Poke, for the uninitiated, is pronounced “po kay” with the accent on ‘po’. It is a

“preparation of chopped fish, seasoned with sea salt dried in the sun; limu (seaweed), giving it another layer of texture and flavor; and inamona (roasted and crushed kukui nut, or candlenut), lending an oily richness.”

That, according to CNN Travel. https://cnn.it/2KK4LJE Also per CNN, with whom I am loathe to argue, on this subject at least,

“the most popular poke these days is cubed, raw tuna tossed with soy sauce, sesame oil, raw onions, scallions and red chilies, but Hawaii’s seafood counters offer plenty of variety. Flavorings may include wasabi, spicy mayo, kimchi or oyster sauce, and the seafood ranges from salmon to clams to raw, chopped crab — shell and all.”

Re eating chopped crab shells, to each his own, I suppose. The real point is that there are poke restaurants here and there in New York City.

There is, on the other hand, a fundamental distinction between Honolulu and New York City. I refer to the habit of drivers in The City, to honk their horns incessantly at the slightest provocation or, in many observed cases, no provocation at all. The honking goes on 24 hours a day in some parts of town. You will not, however, find this in Honolulu. The aloha spirit has imbued Hawaiians with an innate resistance to honking their horns and engaging in the practice is seriously frowned upon.

You, no doubt, will immediately think of other distinctions between Honolulu and New York City, but for present purposes, stick with me on horn honking. Because the practice is virtually universal among NYC drivers and intrudes into your unprotected consciousness whether you want it to or not. Like unprotected sex, the effects of prolonged exposure to horn honking can stay with you for a long while. After a few months of this punishment, I concluded that the practice warranted some deeper thought.

For example, under what circumstances and for what purposes, do New York City drivers honk their horns? Are there different honking techniques that signify something that is worth knowing or at least attending to? Herewith the answers you’ve been waiting for.

Circumstances first. Based on extensive, though obviously not scientific, observation, horn honking in NYC has become an autonomous response to driving in traffic. It happens for reasons about which I suspect many perpetrators are unaware. They may even be unaware that they have honked. It just seems to happen.

I have seen/heard vigorous, often extended honking (as in, minutes of uninterrupted beeeeeeeeping) when:

  • Light changes and car in front hesitates one second before moving out
  • Car is approaching pedestrians crossing against the light
  • Car is approaching pedestrians crossing with the light
  • Turning vehicle is blocked by pedestrians exercising their right-of-way; driver behind goes berserk
  • Traffic moving too slow
  • Traffic not moving
  • Vehicles stopped to let out/take in passengers
  • Vehicle changing lanes, with or without signal
  • Street fair — traffic not moving at all [9th Avenue shut down as I write, cross streets at a standstill & horns a’blazing. Note: street fairs are common on NYC weekends, yet each time seems like the first time for many drivers]
  • Vehicle is blocking an intersection — the worst offense; serious serial and continuous honking follows

Those situations share some common features, the clearest of which is futility. Nothing much changes in response to the honking, except the relative peace and quiet of the immediate vicinity.

And, honkers, especially the taxi drivers which seem omni-present throughout the congested parts of The City, appear to simply honk out of frustration, not really expecting any behavior to change. Honkees, understanding that there is not much they can realistically do to relieve the honker’s frustration, simply ignore the honking. Everyone seems to understand this and yet the honking continues.

As for the deeper causes, well, that’s complicated. Watching a lot of people repeat a behavior with no apparent hope of seeing anything change is itself somewhat disturbing. Pedestrians here, officially, have the right-of-way. They know it and, being New Yorkers or tourists unaware of their surroundings, exercise it.

Commonly, a car will approach an intersection green light with turning signal on and pedestrians, also with the green light, will just walk right out in front of the car. It is unusual for that first car to honk at the pedestrians who, after all, have, officially, the right-of-way, which fact everyone knows and more-or-less accepts, unless they don’t. But the second car in line, as suggested in the above list, often lays into the horn, knowing full-well that the pedestrians are not going to hurry, at least no more than “New York normal,” to clear a path for the cars and that the car in front is helpless to change that. It’s as if the second driver simply wants everyone to know:  I’m here and I’m not happy!

And maybe that’s the root of the matter. In the overcrowded, seemingly indifferent world of urban living, people just want their existence and their suffering to be acknowledged. They honk to say “hey, I’m driving here!” Compare Dustin Hoffman’s famous line in Midnight Cowboy.

The problem is compounded by modern technology. Look at any crowd on the street and chances are a large percentage will be using some form of sound-blocking or displacement technology. This technology enables pedestrians to block out much of the urban background noise by either streaming music directly into the ears or enabling a conversation to occur with another person elsewhere. The telltale clue are the now ubiquitous earphone wires or the white wireless “ear plugs” sold by Apple. It is also common to see young people with full size noise-cancelling headphones made by Bose, Beat and others. These devices permit a degree of near total dissociation from everyone around the wearer.

No wonder drivers feel they are not being acknowledged. Their only hope is to sound blast their way through the resistance forces thrown up against them by modern technology. So, in the end, the cause of much of the honking in New York City may simply be traceable to the isolationist tendencies of young people selfishly seeking solitude among the chaos that surrounds them. I knew it was them all along.