Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.

Street Seens

Street Seens: Philosophy 101- The Gift that Keeps on Giving


At the risk of sounding like a bad TV Advertorial (or a presumptive Presidential candidate/aka ‘Rich Dad’ riffing on a network marketing scheme to make America rich again) let me explain. If you ever studied History of Philosophy 101 you very likely own a resource presently stored like cash under a mattress, untouched and so unproductive. This conversation is about how you might take it out, invest it in your busy life and start building equity and generating dividends.

What you likely have there under the Posturepedic are some remembered insights of the great philosophers that most followed/studied/enjoyed/endured (take your pick) as undergraduates registered in History of Philosophy 101.   As a one-time teacher of Philosophy, I concluded that the very best definition of the subject was this: “Philosophy is a system of ideas that helps make sense of experience.” With that as the starting point, I recently set off to explore the connection between the philosophers’ insights and the real life experiences from which they may have arisen and which they are still capable of illuminating.

But first a word of caution from the Journal of the great 19th Century Danish Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard who observed, “Experience, it is said makes a man wise. That is very silly talk. If there were nothing beyond experience it would simply drive him mad.”

What makes Kierkegaard’s observation timely and relevant is that in a world of “24/7” accessibility and connectedness, experience is coming at people at an unprecedented pace and from an unprecedented number of sources. To avoid being inundated, it is time to find some organizing principle, to develop resources for processing these mountains of experience. It’s time for the experience-saturated to be at least as concerned about the dangers of unprocessed experience as they are about those of processed foods. Here are some of the reasons why.

Raw experience is completely singular. So it follows that it’s a pretty solitary, possibly isolating. To get beyond the isolation, it helps to focus on what articulate people have said about their own experiences and how their reflections have struck a chord with others. This is illustrated by the common sense insight. It may be expressed as an aphorism, it can go on to become a byword, slogan or iconic statement for the millions. A good example is FDR’s insight about the potentially paralyzing experience of fear, “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.”

The second path to “making sense of experience” is to recall the reactions philosophers had when they focused on experience in the light of their own special insight about the nature of reality. A good example would be to look at the experience of human institutions that lose their dynamism and become static or moribund. From the point of view of the French philosopher Henri Bergson who saw the central reality as a dynamic force he called “the élan vital.” It was a surging, dynamic forward/upward flow. So he made sense of the experience of institutions becoming static and lifeless by seeing that as a “crystallization” of the life force resulting from the “capping” of the élan vital. For him, fluidity equaled life and stagnation was understood as a failure to grasp the importance of a constant reinvention. If he were alive today, he would be quite likely to relate to the advice to “Go with the flow.”

So far the recipe for “making sense” calls for three ingredients:

  1. Your own raw, “what can I say about it?” experience;
  2. The common sense “sounds similar” interpretation of experience you heard from a friend, or in a song lyric or a rap or a prayer or a speech or an adage or an aphorism;
  3. The “from under the mattress” remembrances of a byword or headline you used to identify a philosopher’s more systematic interpretation of reality as a whole or some specific lived experience of reality.

By creating your own recipe from these three basic ingredients I wouldn’t bet against you coming up with a satisfying (or at least intriguing) result that makes sense of one or other of your life’s experiences.

Here are some “for instances” of experiences you’d probably love to make sense of, or at least understand better and so appreciate more.

  • fear
  • falling in love: try blending you, Rogers and Hammerstein’s “People Will Say Were in Love” and the observation that laughter is what distinguishes humans from all other animals
  • procrastination: try blending you, Scarlett O’Hara and Leibniz’s contention that this is “the best or all possible worlds”
  • perfectionism,
  • the temptation to think that “It doesn’t matter.”
  • the honest question “what really does matter?”
  • the crucial distinction between could and should.
  • The effort to cope with “office politics”

What will make it worth your time to have read this far will be if you’ve begun to believe that you know more than you thought you did about how to make sense of your own experience. And a bonus, if it encouraged you to take a fresh look at the wisdom to be found in adages, insights, song lyrics, memorable speeches, favorite bits of poetry. And an even bigger bonus, if you’re considering reconnecting with the untapped information in the recesses of your memory since the days of Philosophy 101.

Think of it this way: instead of being left in the lurch of unprocessed experience you’re thinking of calling up the something “beyond experience” that Kierkegaard believed could help you avoid being driven “mad.” Now that, I submit, “makes sense.”

Street Seens: The Transforming Power of Music


Here’s what I learned this past week in our “urban village” at a piano concert on April 7, 2016. The President Emeritus and Professor of Music at Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota returned to the Church of Saint Vincent Ferrer to revisit the Dominican community where he lived three years ago while on sabbatical in New York City.

BDI_20150217_31On both occasions his lavish thank you gift to the wider world of his adopted community (i.e. “urban village”) was a concert of piano music that filled the body of the historic landmark Church with resonances that left no doubt as to the genius of the composers and the musician interpreting them.   The sidewalk easel on Lexington Avenue announced a concert by pianist-educator Father Robert “Bob” Koopmann, OSB. I can only hope that any passerby who had a moment of skepticism when seeing the title “The Transforming Power of Music” returned to have that doubt swept away by performances that challenged the intellect, engaged the heart and evoked the sense of wonder that are all vital ingredients of transformation.

The concert spoke for itself. But in a fortunate chance to speak with Father Bob I was given a gift that left me with a question. Should I tell first of what I heard on Thursday night along with the scores of people who listened with me; or of the insights into the person that occurred in a Friday morning conversation that spoke as eloquently as the masterful performance the night before.

Happily, “Transforming” comes in a variety of shades. I should have known. In the setting of that entirely remarkable church I have been privileged to see heights of art and architecture; know people who minister the Word and who share it in very human exchanges. There I have heard astounding preaching; shared conversations with those who like me, are gifted with the discoveries we can only hope never to take for granted. Why would I be surprised to have received another gift?

Father Koopmann told me the next day, “As I play I invoke Beethoven when I perform his music. I invoke my parents and offer my gratitude for all they did for me to bring me to this moment.”

live from japanMusic with Power to Transform

The concert was performed in and as a tribute to the Church and community that have been home to Father Bob when his travels bring him back to New York.  He did his post doctoral study at Julliard.  His visits to the city have been a recurring part of his work as President Emeritus of St John’s University (SJU) in Collegeville, Minnesota, Professor of Music at SJU and St. Benedict’s College, development executive for SJU and of course, performer/ classical pianist.

Performing throughout the United States and around the world, his recent concert engagements have taken him from New York and Madison, Wisconsin to Tokyo and five other Japanese locations for a 2013 series of “wish concerts” benefiting victims of the 2011 tsunami and dedicated to providing comfort and inspiration to all whose lives were affected by the tragedy. He will leave in late April for another such Japanese tour. After a concert in Tokyo’s Sunny Hall, he will visit Hiroshima where he will lecture on Music and Religion and perform a concert at the University of Elizabeth Conservatory of Music, considered the “Julliard of Japan.”

Listening to the Music

The program Thursday began with a multifaceted Bach Partita that suggested how formal structure could, in the hands of a genius, open a window into the transcendent. Then Sonata Number 30 in e major, born in the later years of Beethoven’s challenges of deafness, broke the heart with its six powerful variations giving his audience a glimpse into the life of a genius that struggled against the brutality of life by creating beauty that is a gift to those who can hear it as he never did.

The next selection was two piano pieces by Debussy. The first was his impression of the spirit of the Minstrel shows that were popular at the time. The next was his classic Claire de Lune.  It was introduced with a comment that reminded the audience that like impressionist paintings, the music was created to capture the composer’s very personal  impression of moonlight. For me, it called to mind the idea of what Saint Augustine referred to as “Beauty ever ancient, ever new.” It was a sound portrait of moonlight that was personal and fleeting, a recollection of beauty that can be observed but never literally captured.

Next, a muscular, powerful Samuel Barber Sonata for Piano included the very challenging Fuga that led the listener to a new understanding of how this 20th Century composer invited his listeners to fresh hearing of music popular and classical.

At the hands of “Father Bob” America’s music is simultaneously reflected and elevated in a new idiom of the musical languages. Finally that night on Lexington Avenue concluded with an invitation to hear improvisations on traditional hymns and sacred music. That reminded us to expand our awareness to embrace the many accents in which praise can be expressed, from blues to jazz to traditional chant.

Fr. Bob

Listening to the performer

One lasting impression was of the raw power of the performance. At times I had to remind myself that the force that seemed almost to rock the formidable structure was the touch of a single pianist, performing on a single instrument

At the next day’s conversation I learned, in the performer’s words, “I take the composer’s notes very seriously, but as the years of relationship to the music continue I find that the notes also embrace the lived experience of the performer.” Since this performer’s lived experience includes the role of professor to 18 talented young student musicians, some reflections of the Professor enrich the picture. “I continually learn from my students, through their responses to whatever material we are studying. At the same time, I work at finding more and different pedagogies to help all of us bring our text to life. We all learn in slightly or sometimes vastly different ways: some learn better by writing; others by discussion; some by looking first at the big picture; others by beginning with the details. I wish to give my students every opportunity to connect with our material and to discover the ways they learn best. Some musicians first need to find ways to get the piano keys down and up in a relaxed and efficient way; others have more need to hear more attentively what they are playing; still others need to study the score more critically; and some need to work first at performing in front of a group. The pedagogies for teaching an effective First Year Symposium, Senior Seminar or Music Literature class are similar. Whatever the course, I hope to teach my students how to think, how to listen, how to understand the ideas of others, how to develop discipline in study and practice, and how to interact with others around particular musical or intellectual material. Above all, I want students to know that a life lived with the materials and skills I teach is a richer, fuller existence.”

For a vicarious experience of Father Bob as professor and performer his performance CDs are available at sjmarket.com and can be downloaded in MP3 format. These include “Lead Kindly Light,” improvisations on sacred melodies and “Live in Japan,” He is also in the process of enriching a Facebook Artist Page. This is the young boy from Iowa who found his way to SJU because it was the best music faculty in this Midwest, North Central area. On graduation he focused on one of the region’s finest symphony orchestras and within two years had become staff pianist of the Milwaukee Symphony. When his life was transformed by recognition of his vocation to become a Benedictine Monk, he was already well aware of the power of music to transform. All his varied constituencies and audiences are the better for that insight.

The Transforming Power of Music
Thursday, April 7, 2016, 7:00 PM
Church of Saint Vincent Ferrer
New York City

Robert Koopmann, O.S.B., Pianist

Partita Number 1 in B-flat Major, BWV 825                                  J. S. Bach
Prelude                                                                                                   (1685-1750)

Sonata Number 30 in E Major, Opus 109                           Ludwig van Beethoven
Vivace, ma non troppo – Adagio espressive                        (1770-1827)
Gesangvoll, mit innigster Empfindung- Andante molto-cantabile ed espressivo
Variation I- Molto espressivo
Variation II- Leggiermente
Variation III- Allegro vivace
Variation IV- Etwas langasmer als das Thema
Variation V- Allegro, ma non-troppo
Variation IV- Tempo I del tema- Cantabile

Two Piano Pieces                                                                  Claude Debussy
Minstrels (Preludes, Bk 1)                                                   (1862-1918)
Claire de Lune-Moonlight (Suite Bergamasque)

Sonata for Piano, Opus 26                                                   Samuel Barber
Allegro vivace e leggero                                                        (1910-1984)
Fuga–Allegro conspirito

Lead, Kindly Light                                                                 Robert Koopmann, O.S.B.
2 Improvisations on Sacred Melodies

Street Seens: Good Enough to Eat – Where Skill and Heart Make a Great Menu Unique


This is not a restaurant review. More like an alert that a restaurant can be addictive; how to recognize the signs that it is becoming so; and why that can be a good thing.

I discovered Good Enough to Eat when on “safari” in the early 1990s when Michele Weber had joined the GETE team. I suspect that is a key reason that in all the intervening years I have never been disappointed as I moved from breakfast to brunch to dinner, at succeeding locations (most recently on the downtown route to Lincoln Center via Columbus Avenue and 85th Street).

banana pancakesThe safari in question was not an upper west side wildlife adventure, but a tour of what one website named “The 10 Best Breakfasts in New York City.” Next came the effort to entice friends to join me in visiting all ten, located from one end of Manhattan Island to the other. In the course of this “safari” in pursuit of the Holy Grail of breakfasts I found, only one crosstown and one uptown transfer away, the one that holds a unique place in my imagination.

In all that time, I never actually met Michele. When I did, early this past February, I understood what accounts for the unique ambience of GETE. Beyond the mostly irresistible menu offerings and the creative imagination of today’s reigning mixologists, there is a spirit and a spark that defines this as the “go to” place for nourishment, on every level, that has kept me coming back for as many years as Michele Weber has been the genius at the heart of Good Enough to Eat.

IMG_3395-2The country homestead décor, the examples of bovine art, the handcrafted piggy bank, the patchwork quilt and children’s art sharing space on the brick walls nearly all came as gifts from delighted visitors. The peaceful spirit of the crowds waiting congenially to be seated on weekend mornings, the contents of the antique glass fronted cabinet as a showcase of “calories-be damned” homemade goodies define the space.

But as I review the years and the progression from breakfast through brunch and dinner I can recall the singular moments of various friendships that were spent over a GETE table. The Gramercy Park omelet as prelude to a son’s revelation about his relationship to a hyper-achieving Father who finally recognized that dyslexia need not be a limitation; the bacon waffles that fueled the young students’ concerns about the man she would leave behind as she pursued her choice to study medicine; the arrival at peace in the face of a husband’s early onset Alzheimer’s toasted with a Bourbon cocktail that perfectly set the stage for a dinner entrée that lent new sophistication to the term “homemade comfort food.” If all this sounds like what can happen at the table of a culinarily gifted hostess that may be no accident.

IMG_3326When I finally met Michele I learned that there is a seamless connection between the woman who abandoned the world of publishing to follow her heart into a role she likens to preparing a dinner party for dear friends every day of her life. You could say she went from Z to GETE when she secured passes to the Fancy Food Show, got a job as a business development specialist with a retail bakery where she visited Eli Zabar’s EAT, asked to speak with the person whose name was on the door and (to his credit) was recognized as one for whom a restaurant qualifies as “what one does for love.”

GETE came next and now the role of chef carries her into a new era preserving the old values. I think it’s safe to say smart people recognize that this is a singular love song to great food garnished with utter personalism and style. So the young man whose birthday cakes Michele has baked from his first to the 18th this Spring can hope for more. The wedding cake adorned with fresh flowers and the 20 sheet cake creations providing enough for every guest to consume and more to dream on will continue as long as Michel is inspiring a staff that shares her values. The diner who calls and says, “Please tell me you will do my favorite shepherd’s pie tonight will if at all possible get a hearing (and a favorite entrée.) The NYPD and FDNY regulars will know that they can count on finding a traditional Saint Patrick’s Day dinner at the end of a long March.

IMG_3393Eggs may come as “whites only” and tofu and vegetarian and vegan offerings appear on today’s menu choices in company with comfort food and its creative variations, but those who need gluten free will be encouraged to find other options on the menu of a chef who treats wheat as “sacred.” The mixologists behind the ample bar will create surprises based on the best of brands and instincts for combining that see the ceremony as equal in value to the quaff.

IMG_1082When I met Michele she was wearing a simple chef’s cap, not an iconic toque.   But then she is known for a collection of hats for street wear that demonstrates her highly personal taste (at least one that fans of the Ramones will recognize) One of the “hats” she wears most proudly is that of mother of a 10-year old budding chef who said when she was first able to speak, “Mimi, I want to help you.” One day at GETE when she spied a table of diners who had finished their meal, she announced “that four top needs a check.” Get ready for the reign of Adriana! She is sure to prove that Manhattan is every bit as able as Michele’s native St. Cloud, Minnesota to produce a truly distinctive chef.

Annette Cunningham’s Street Seens appears every Sunday.

Street Seens: An Answer – “Villagers” Open My Eyes by Refusing to Close Theirs


Nearly a year ago I was asked a poignant question for which I had no answer. A man whose homelessness was not evident approached a group of “villagers” with great courtesy and sincerity. Our sidewalk conversation must have given him confidence that he could expect to be included in its atmosphere of respect. He reported that he had secured an interview and wondered if any of us might suggest a place where he could have a shower in advance of that appointment. None of us had a definitive answer. Several had some plausible suggestions ranging from a local “Y” to a Parks Department Recreation Center. As we dispersed I was left with a vague sense that I should search for a better answer.

Fortunately, my neighbors and fellow parishioners of the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer (CSVF) Social Concerns Committee don’t stop with vague good will. Their commitment, dedication and consistent hard work were trained on finding solutions. Two weeks ago they marked a weekend of laser focus on the problem of homelessness by providing a spoken summary and printed information that illustrated the results months-long research and outreach to like-minded advocates had yielded. Taken together, their original report; a pocket sized reference card from the Neighborhood Coalition for Shelter;(NCS) and a quick guide to contact with the Coalition for the Homeless Crisis Intervention Program.

homelss flyer

What I heard and saw that weekend told me that I now had my answer for the question that had haunted me for months. It told me that we can and should be inspired by the neighbors in our various urban villages to join in a spoken or unspoken agreement not to close our eyes or our minds and hearts to the reality of homelessness. This information and consciousness-raising exercise make it undeniable that there are things we all can do to address this issue.

The CSVF Committee summarized research drawn from a broad cross section of print and online media detailing the dimensions of the problem, and the efforts to address it. It also included original research showing that the surprisingly long history of homelessness in New York was evident as long ago as 1710 “when the arrival of destitute Palatine German immigrants in Manhattan created the city’s first homeless crisis, but the first almshouse was not opened until 1736.”

The Report, Entitled “Our Neighbors Living on the Street and Those We Don’t See Living in Shelters” follows the historical survey with a lexicon of terms to help de-mystify the kinds and types of needs and ways of addressing them used in the discussions of what the CSVF Committee calls “the inconceivable and unacceptable reality of homelessness in New York City.” Months of study and lifetimes of commitment are summarized in less than a dozen pages to stimulate an enlightened response to the challenge posed to all dwellers in our urban villages who aspire to being fully engaged human beings.

The problem is not one-dimensional and the presentation called attention to the enormous variety of shelters: dozens, from ones for families to others focused on exiles created by domestic violence and some for runaway children under 21 years of age. Eviction and domestic violence are major causes of homelessness. The variety of facilities is wide. But as the numbers and age-range of the homeless population are increasing there can be no sugarcoating of the deplorable conditions in all too many facilities in the city’s shelter system. The CSVF Committee encourages people to familiarize themselves with alternatives to the current system. They also suggest using the reference cards from the Coalition for the Homeless to provide help to people needing immediate assistance.

brochureOne of the members who found in this New York neighborhood an outlet to continue the work she did to assist Vietnamese refugees when living in Hong Kong and Singapore suggested that a fine way to maximize the benefits of the information folders from the NCS and Coalition for the Homeless would be to acquire and distribute a small supply of Metro Cards loaded with at least a round trip fare to enable a person in need to travel to the place where help may be available.

The connection that kept resurfacing as I studied the information was to the amazing “Flying Eye Hospital” ORBIS whose mission is summarized as the assault on preventable blindness in places where that may be of epidemic proportions. Taking a cue from these dedicated volunteers in our urban village I now have at least the beginning of an answer to the one question one man asked me long months ago. And I have renewed hope that at least some of the problems of homelessness are “preventable.” It all begins by refusing to close one’s eyes.

Annette Cunningham’s Street Seens appears every Sunday.

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