Tuesday, December 29, 2009

I Know a Place

This summer, back in Israel for the first time in three years, I visited in Jerusalem with an architect friend who is similarly fascinated with the mix of buildings, history and culture. After coffee in a retro café that used to be a bakery we explored the city at night, first on foot and then by car. Do you have time to stop? He asked. Of course I answered. We parked and paused at a lookout, below the road and reached by a small flight of stone steps, a balcony with a serene view of the modern city, the ancient city above at our backs. Jerusalem lights are modest by comparison to my home town; its buildings are low and its streets quite silent in the dark. We looked on in our own silence for a moment. How could you ever leave? I asked. We held another pause, heavy with love of place. My friend let out a soft sigh. You hit it exactly he admitted with a knowing laugh. He was about to embark on a months-long visit abroad.
Before I left for Israel in June I ventured down to the Meat Packing District, determined to see the High Line (www.thehighline.org) the week it opened, despite the rain that plagued the city for most of the month. It was love at first step, somewhat surprisingly. I had followed the evolution of the project from early on, skeptical even while intrigued by it. Years ago I went to Grand Central Terminal to see an exhibition of proposed designs for the site’ one was a fanciful swimming pool. I love my island, alternate universe that it is, and know more of its nooks and crannies than many of my fellow denizens, although I recognize the large band of New Yorkers who proudly display and share their knowledge of their own personalized city kingdoms. The High Line offered everyone the opportunity to journey to the new and magical within this beloved and well-traversed landscape. What a gift. I have been back a dozen or so times, to take in the views and show them to various visitors and friends. It is my favorite new spot, a landmark of 2009; I wanted to claim that I knew it well as soon as possible and have others equally in the know.
There are many unexpected, detailed pleasures to take in. One of my favorite elements is the combination of the commanding view of the Hudson with the more intimate peeks into the surrounding buildings; it reminds me a little of the odd balance of scale that one experienced from the outdoor deck of the World Trade Center. I also love standing at the point were the path turns parallel on 10th Avenue. Looking north one sees a long view up the Avenue while looking back south one can catch a perfect glimpse of the Statue of Liberty. The neighborhood is a great mix of New York’s old and new, the gritty outdated industrial markers adjacent to and intermingled with shiny new design and fashion outposts. Most delightful is the anticipation of the next stages of the project, with further stretches of the path expected to open in the next few years - as if one needed such a reason to keep coming back.
I grew up on the Upper West Side and more particularly in Riverside Park. The Hudson is one of my oldest landscape memories and it never leaves me, even when I neglect it. The streets and hills of Jerusalem are as well and do the same. The best places do that I think: they stay lodged within us even when we force ourselves away in order to have the adventures of our lives. Somewhere within we are always anchored by the vistas that shaped us. When we yearn for those places or wonder if they have changed we can at least visit in our mind’s eye.

©2009 Leah Strigler

My Father, Humming

For Mordecai Strigler, z”l*

My father sometimes hummed to himself, while doing routine chores or walking or putting on his coat. He mostly hummed Jewish music, but not always. I remember this as a morning activity, a fresh start to the day and a show of optimism that for me was always all the more stunning in light of his personal history. He had a lovely singing voice and used to sing me Yiddish lullabies when I was little.

The humming was also surprising because I usually thought of my father as a serious person, although I knew that he had a sense of humor that was quite wry and light, given to intellectual word play of a linguistic or logistical nature with a touch of satire added. As I grew older and learned how to formulate my own jokes we began to share this particular form of play, trading witticisms as we spun out our observations on a given topic. I think my father especially relished being able to use his voice to convey exclamation, surprise and other reactions. I later learned that he was admirably able to convey such reactions in his writing as well.

Sometimes these witticisms would be based on text study. I studied with my father regularly, at first because I would ask him about the homework I brought home from my Jewish day school. I quickly learned that he knew more than my teachers and that his view of the text was different - more liberal but still studious, literary. Studying with him was far more intriguing and illuminating than my classes were. He introduced me to the activity of commentary by explaining that the text was full of conundrums and that therefore the rabbis were driven to ask questions, explore possibilities and find answers that spoke to them. These questions varied in different times and places. My father had his own questions, about passages that he thought were still opaque, commentaries that he felt had missed certain possibilities or allusions and tenets of Jewish belief that were difficult to leave unquestioned in the latter half of the twentieth century. We would discuss for hours, a discussion on the creation story leading to evolution and archeology, the nature of God’s ability to create, God’s attachment to his creations and fallibility. My father would often comment that he still had much to teach me.

Thanks to our studying together I knew that my father knew everything, or just about. Certainly he knew about anything connected to Judaism or being Jewish - from the obscure text to the obscure Jewish actor or sports figure - and everything about Israeli and Jewish politics. I was a spoiled child in the following way: I knew that I could call my father with any question on a Jewish topic and receive information instantly; I happily relied on him in this way. Despite his instant recall, he always emphasized the importance of checking sources. He would say “I think it’s ___ but let me check and get back to you”. I think he enjoyed the variety of my questions, which grew out of my own studying, reading and later, teaching and working in the Jewish community. My questions would lead to long associative discussions reminiscent of Talmudic passages. Once or twice I was able to offer a tidbit from contemporary Jewish life that was unfamiliar to my father; this would usually yield a phrase that was the closest I remember to his being surprised: “You don’t say!”

My father did not waste words, even in everyday speech. He was thoughtful in formulating his comments. He always spoke softly and carefully. The same is true of his writing; he was thorough and careful while at the same time incredibly prolific. His mind was always working and he slept little, I think as a result of the constant turmoil of his thoughts and questions. He was quietly but incredibly curious about the world and its people and had much to say about them. He would think, read and read more, sometimes while humming, until he was ready to formulate his thoughts in words on paper, writing late at night and early in the morning. I sometimes thought that night was one of God’s gifts to my father: quiet time for reflection and clear thinking, an opportunity to write down some of his many observations and ideas. Perhaps my father’s humming in the morning was simply the result of so much mental energy, his way of letting some of it escape as he began a new day of studying and observation.

PS: I originally wrote this piece for the Yiddish Forverts, the paper my father edited, on the occasion of his yahrzeit (the anniversary of his death) a number of years ago. It has been humming to me to post it on this blog so I decided o heed its call and hope that it inspires me to return to posting more regularly. A News Year’s resolution, bli neder – I do not swear, merely set an intention.

* zichrono l’vracha, may his memory be a blessing

©2009 Leah Strigler

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Circle: Cycles and Seasons

I thank Roxana for inviting me to participate in this lovely celebration of the season, its sensory, familial and festive delights. I wish all a Merry Christmas and blessed turn of the year and decade.
I am Jewish and grew up in an extended family that did not celebrate Christmas. Still, the holiday season has always been the dominant theme of the advent of winter for me. A lifetime denizen of NYC (two years in DC do not count) the cityscape is replete with decorations and events from early on in the fall – this year starting just after Halloween! – and I am ever aware that Christmas falls just after the Winter Solstice, when we are beginning to notice a little more light each day. Actually, it takes some time to notice, not just because of the subtle shift but also because once the festive lights (they are everywhere: stores, institutions, apartment buildings…) come down the whole world seems darker and less colorful for a good while. New York City is one of the most diverse places on the planet, so Channukah and Kwanzaa decorations and in the last few years Diwali has been coming into the spotlight as well.
All senses are inundated with these markers: the bright and colorful sights, the Christmas songs performed in all musical styles, the abundant textures of gifts, ornaments and wrapping paper begging to be touched, the tastes of holiday and winter treats and the aromas that they emit. I am particularly fond of two scents: the rich creaminess of eggnog (with that touch of alcohol) and the pungent sweet fruitcakes that my former super expounded upon every year, asserting that he really loved them. Roasting chestnuts are less common these days but they evoke my city childhood, a time when we saw a lot more snow. As a pedestrian I am most aware of the trees (and wreaths too) that are sold on city sidewalks in the weeks leading up to the holiday. They turn the streets into imaginary forests, with trees that angle outward and perfume the urban locale with the fresh dark green and dark brown of earth and plant. I have from childhood relished the magical escape that they provide and I still love to walk through these corridors of nature, even when they are full of people shopping. On the coldest part of the year it is a beautiful reminder that even in the city we have not completely forgotten the natural beauty of our world. It may be because of this memory that Sierra is my favorite of Roxana’s perfumes – because it echoes that sense of how trees remind us of where we come from.

Please visit the entire advent series at Roxana's Illuminated Journal (and the rest of her site!) for a feast of remembrances, creativity and wisdom:


Monday, August 24, 2009

Do the Math

For most of my elementary school career I was in the advanced group in math, which meant that I worked with a small group of classmates on advanced subjects. In the younger grades we usually received separate instruction from an assistant teacher. This changed from fifth grade on, when our small grade was divided into girls’ and boys’ classes. My group now consisted of me and one other friend. She and I were sent to the back of the classroom with the textbook for the following grade and expected to work on our own. If we needed help we had to wait, a lot. We finally hit upon the tactic of referring to the teacher’s answer book: we would look up the solution to the problem that had stumped us and then try to figure it out by reasoning backwards. At home in the evenings we would confer with parents or my friend’s older brother. I am not sure if our families quite understood how poorly we were being instructed.
In seventh grade our math teacher started us off by assigning us an enormous number of review problems covering what we had done the previous year. This bored us out of our minds and then annoyed us – why were we doing so many problems that were redundant rather than learning something new? You have to imagine the seventh grade version of this sentiment, coming from smart but sometimes sassy students. To our great good fortune this teacher had to take a leave of absence in order to have an operation. Not to worry – she was fine and everything turned out alright. But at the time her leave-taking brought relief to us, although at first we did not know what to expect. The school’s business manager, a former teacher, took over the class for the needed weeks. She paid attention to the two of us and noticed our lack. So she started teaching us algebra. When our regular teacher came back, the business manager continued to teach us and our counterparts – the smart math students – both in our grade and the grade above, boys and girls. At the end of the year all of us took the ninth grade algebra regents and did very well. It was a tremendous amount of additional work for this woman to take on and I remain grateful to her for doing so. She became one of my most powerful role models as a teacher, but not just for rescuing us or for putting in the extra time. She also shared with us some of her reflections on her teaching; this may have simply been who she was, or she may have felt more able to do so because our set-up was non-traditional. She told us that if she gave a test and her students did not do well her first reaction was not to fault her students but to critique her own teaching, to wonder where she had failed and how she might amend her current students’ understanding and do better in the future. It was mind-blowing for a teacher to share these thoughts with a student in such a traditional school.
In eighth grade we were not so lucky. We were given a free period for math, during which we were expected to sit in the library and amuse ourselves. We gave up our lunch period three times a week, bringing our trays upstairs to the classroom, where the new math teacher, a well-meaning but slightly awkward young man new to the profession, tried to teach us algebra two and geometry. We never got very far. I do remember one lovely interview with our new principal, who got up and demonstrated by walking the process of halving infinity ad infinitum or at least until one reached the wall and could go no farther. The joy he showed in explaining and sharing his knowledge won me over for good, but he had too much on his plate to teach us regularly.
My friend and I went to the same high school and both continued in advanced math classes. By twelfth grade, when I took AP Calculus, I found my interest had waned considerably as the material grew harder and my preference for the humanities grew. I think that my friend’s interest fell off sooner than mine, but we were never in math class together. Years later when I took a class in teaching math at Bank Street I interviewed my former study partner and was amazed to learn that she was rather anxious or even phobic about math. We met over dinner and she shared how tallying up bills and tip and such made her nervous. I am not sure what part of our experiences caused or helped this fear to grow, but it was touchingly sad. Bank Street wisely makes most of their students take this math course, knowing that my friend’s reactions are all too typical. In class we sat and solved problems, working with manipulatives and other tools, including M and Ms - no, not for counting but for exercises in probability and statistics. I still remember one fellow student exclaiming that she finally really understood fractions, how they worked as relationships. Leaving aside questions of gender, which are pertinent and much studied and discussed elsewhere, I wonder as ever about the ways in which our learning is shaped by experience, for good and ill. That includes the messages that teachers and schools give, whether intentional or not. That math is daunting and complicated.

Friday, May 29, 2009


I love blowing bubbles; it may be my favorite form of meditation. When I was a child and teenager I would sit on the radiator and blow them out of my eleventh floor bedroom window. I would watch to see how far they travelled, if they made it across West End Avenue; I would follow as best as possible to see how many floors down they drifted and if any made it to street level. My cat RJ was extremely curious about these light-infused, delicate ambulatory objects. At first he was perturbed by them – he would chase them and they would mysteriously disappear as soon as he got his paws (or a paw or nose) on them. After a number of experiences stalking them he seemed to understand that that was their nature – they disappeared as soon as they were touched. And so began the practice of Bubble Hunting, a great game between us, in which he would follow them watchfully, sometimes giving sudden chase, and swat them as late as he dared before they reached the floor and disappeared of their own accord. Observing him engaged in this activity brought me no end of glee, especially as I fancied that he looked quite satisfied after a session, sitting up tall and licking his mouth. I sometimes blew them at night, when they looked even more magical and evanescent against the dark sky. On occasion the wind would play along and blow the bubbles back into the apartment.
I also associate bubbles with Lawrence Welk, which my mother watched when I was very little and which felt as oddly non-hip or American as my parents. Those bubbles are black and white, as was our TV screen then; funny because in general I think of bubbles as timeless, not dated. I remember my envy of the huge bubble-makers, the ones that came with large geometric wands and platters for dunking them in the soapy water; those were brought to the park by cooler parents and seemed decadent and daring.
As a younger adult I have often bought bubbles, cheap bottles from the local drugstore, as gifts or in lieu of cards, especially for birthdays, a way to give others a package of wonder to take into further adulthood. I miss Penny Whistle Toys on Columbus Avenue, which for years parked above their storefront a mechanical bear who blew oodles of bubbles onto the street to entice and delight.
One of my college neighbors fell in love with bubbles with a Zen philosophical fervor. He could wax about them for a long time and his pace was languorous and worshipful of each orb; when he spoke about them his hand curved as if he was holding one ever so carefully. I still remember the glistening of the baubles against the Gothic buildings and green lawns. One day he was distressed to come home and find one of his roommates blowing huge groups of bubbles out the window with the help of a hair dryer. I understood both impulses: the dashed delicate nerves of the dreamer and the irreverent genius of the jester; I remember thinking that it was the kind of playful inventiveness that really could save the world, as could regular doses of such meditative, dreamy and pointless play. Purse your lips and blow slowly; see how many bubbles you can get out of one dip of your magic wand. Our own orb will wait while you watch for them to pop quietly, wetly dispersing into the atmosphere.
©2009 Leah Strigler

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Left and Right

I am a strong lefty, with a very large writer’s bump on my middle finger and a bend in my nail. Yet I type – very fast – one-handedly with my right hand, with only the very occasional aid of my left hand, usually not necessary but rather a concession to the idea that both hands should be employed at the keyboard. My typing practice without fail freaks people out when they see it for the first time, even when I explain how useful it can be: I can use my left hand to hold the phone, sift through papers and even once, on a dare from a colleague, eat lunch while continuing to take notes at a meeting. Taking notes is a much larger subject that I should revisit in a later post. Yes, I have been typing all of my blog entries in the way just described.
How did I come to do this? The evolution of my technique was doubtlessly aided by the fact that I am a pianist, so the idea of having each hand do something different was not foreign to me. Most importantly I came of age at the dawn of the computers’ wide-spread adoption in educational realms. All through elementary school I hand-wrote (and occasionally watched my father type on his Yiddish type-writer, though at home he much preferred to write by hand. This seems the appropriate place to mention that his hand-writing was incredibly tiny and neat, just as mine is – shockingly so in both English and Hebrew - see photo above) my work. In high school I did acquire a type-writer; my school realized almost at the last minute that my class could not graduate without a basic course in computer skills so they required us to take it during our free time; the classes below mine already had it embedded in their regular curriculum schedule and requirements. While sitting at the type-writer I developed the habit of flipping through my notes and drafts with my left hand so that I could write to myself additional notes as needed. As I did this I typed up my final versions with my right hand and thus the process was born. It continued when I went to college and went to the computer rooms to produce my papers for submission. I was not a great fan of the computer room and did much of my creative work elsewhere; this meant that I came to the machine with written papers in hand. I resisted buying a computer of my own until my senior year. By that time my habits were set and worked well enough that I saw no need to change them.
While I am perfectly comfortable with these habits and their mechanical ease I often wonder about the repercussions of my system in terms of how my brain works: if my right brain is dominant but not involved in the production of that which I type what does that say about my computer output? What of the general understanding that the left brain is logical and the right creative? Should I be engaging in creative writing by hand and only typing when I am producing copy for consumption by others? All of this musing is working on the assumption that my brain is wired typically; there are lefties who are left-brain dominant. I often write out notes at early points in projects. I also still keep a hand-written journal, as I have since I was twelve, and generally use it to process random thoughts and impressions of the day, something akin to the Morning Pages that Julia Cameron describes in her book The Writer’s Way, which I finally read only a short while ago. If attending a lecture I prefer to take hand-written notes as I listen; it helps me both process and stay focused. I can also write about other things if I am not sufficiently engaged by the presentation. If I am going to be preparing official notes from a meeting then I prefer to type and not have to re-do them later. Writing by hand is also appealing because of its sensual nature: the feel, texture and color of the materials and the movement entailed, much more elegant and languorous then typing. The sound always makes me think of the somber clicking of an old-fashioned machine that used to serve as theme music for 1010WINS, the main news radio station in New York, in the days when serious reporting would not employ any bells or whistles. I confess that until recently creative thinking did not come as naturally to me when I typed, but there are so many possible contributing factors that I could not be sure if it meant anything beyond an unconscious connection between typing and work as opposed to pleasure or expression. That dichotomy is also somewhat forced or false. Is my voice different in the two media? I think not really at this point, but it would be interesting to devise experiments to explore the question.
I always note lefties in my orbit; at Interlochen nine of my sixteen cabin mates were lefties, a shock but perhaps not a surprise at an arts camp. I mused that if I had returned I would have asked the camp if it were possible to poll the entire student body to see what the overall percentage was. Our current and a disproportionate number of recent presidents all share the trait. Life for lefties is difficult as many of the design details of our lives are fashioned for lefties: keys, doorknobs, etc. It is easier sometimes to learn to use one’s right hand, as my father was forced to do when he was a child. He ended up being ambidextrous, which may account at least in part for how unbelievably prolific he was. I did wonder this about him as well – was he in some way different when writing with each hand? He did type with both hands, but he never learned to use a computer.
Photo courtesy of Lucy Raubertas, www.indieperfume.com
©2009 Leah Strigler

Monday, May 25, 2009

Landmarks and Longing

I thought up this title for a friend long ago and then regretted giving it away. It is especially perfect for a discussion about architecture and how it affects us. I am not sure when I first became interested in the field or in architectural history; I grew up in Manhattan so buildings have always been my natural landscape. Perhaps awareness developed because of the contrast between my native city and Israel, and especially Jerusalem, which I visited every summer as a child. In both places, wildly different from each other otherwise, there are layers of history to be detected in the scenery and in the memories which it evokes. This interest of mine remains an avocation and passion; I am wont to point out an interesting design detail or burst into impromptu sharing of history and trivia when walking the city with friends. A number of people have suggested that I become a tour guide and I think that it is a good idea.
Summers in the city I fed this passion in a few different ways, including volunteering at Belvedere Castle (the highest point in Central Park and where the park’s temperature is measured) and at the Landmarks Preservation Commission, where I scoured through buildings documents doing research for what became the Ladies’ Mile historic district. Later on I would work in the building that had once been the headquarters of Simon and Schuster (and which until recently housed United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism) complete with a little study on the mezzanine that was said to be where Teddy Roosevelt sat and wrote his memoirs. His reconstructed birthplace, a national historic site, is only a few blocks away. I took a class at the Metropolitan Museum with a member of the Commission and that led me to volunteering. That class was my formal introduction to the study of architecture. With class guest Elliot Willensky we analyzed the block of 82nd Street between Fifth Avenue and Madison, with the main entrance to the museum filling the view past the western end of the block.
My interests in museums dovetails here: Belvedere is an educational center and the staff there sent me to my first meeting of NYCMER, the NYC Museum Education Roundtable. Historic sites usually identify as museums and museums often make use of their buildings and especially their interior spaces to help shape their experiences and tell stories. One of my favorite features of the Metropolitan’s building complex is that there are glimpses in the current interior of what were formerly exterior elements. In college I took Modern Architecture with the legendary Vincent Scully while he raged against the proposed handicap access elevator to Cross-Campus Library, complaining that it would ruin the symmetry of the library approach. Walking to class one morning he tripped over some ice (it was a snowy winter), broke his leg and spent the rest of the semester in a wheel chair. He publicly acknowledged the importance of access over aesthetics, at least in certain cases. I also took Study of the City with Alexander Garvin and loved the complexity of urban planning and development but I ignored the call.
Anthony Tung left the Landmarks Commission and later wrote a book called Preserving the World’s Great Cities: The Destruction and Renewal of the Historic Metropolis, with stories of urban centers that survive various kinds of disasters. It was published in the Fall of 2001 and I went to hear him give a presentation on it at the start of November at the Municipal Art Society. The audience was dominated by people in related fields such as architecture and urban planning; the feeling of loss weighed heavy in the air and made the room seem dark and stormy. It was still too raw to really feel that rebuilding was possible, but one story in particular stayed with me and gave me hope. Even though New York and Jerusalem are featured in the book, it was the tale of Warsaw during World War Two; it is the city where my father was located at the outset of that war. Local planners, there and in other European cities, took note of the destruction that war would bring and made plans for rebuilding afterwards. In Poland this activity was outlawed by the occupying forces, but engaged in nonetheless by professionals driven to see their city survive. In particular, architecture faculty at Warsaw Technical University preserved documentation, including photographs, of the cityscape to be used as reference in the future. Tung describes in detail the forces that marshaled post-war to recreate the city, mostly true to its historic form. I visited Warsaw a few years later and because I knew the story, but also because of my family’s history, it felt surreal. It was still majestic, if a bit too shiny still to be truly hundreds of years old. I have shared the story of these urban heroes often.
When I worked in the local bookstore, whose memory inspires longing as well, there was a pattern of people who would come in with a certain glazed look in their eyes, saying “I just read the best book in the world and I have to buy copies for everyone I know”. It was always Jack Finney’s Time and Again, a time-travel novel and quintessential romance with historic New York City. There are other novels that evoke similar feelings, but none with the same grandeur and satisfaction as this masterpiece, in which The Dakota, one of the crown jewels of the Upper West Side, serves as a crucial landmark. Beloved buildings appearing in the past and present serve as anchors.
The seeming solidity of buildings, cities and civilizations: they are signposts on which we hang so many messages about what we know, believe to be true and see as possible. They are examples of an artistic form that simultaneously contains past, present and future.
©2009 Leah Strigler

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Small Feet

I used to wear size 5, sample size, and life was bliss. I could walk into shoe stores with friends and make them jealous by trying on everything on display while they waited for the salesperson to return with boxes for them. Most of my shoes came from sample sales, causing more jealousy. In truth the shoes were often a bit too big but I made do; after all, shopping for shoes was easy and fun. Then one day, fifteen or so years ago, the industry shifted sizes, and what was a 5 became a 4. Some stores eventually stopped carrying 5s altogether. All this was to accommodate the vanity of American women, whose average sizes had been on the increase. I suddenly could not find shoes anywhere. I knew that a few far flung specialty places (and yes I know Neiman’s but they are not in Manhattan) carried size 4 but the trouble and the cost were added insult to injury after the halcyon days I had enjoyed. I bought no shoes for about a year and a half – can you imagine the torture for a woman in New York City?
Finally one day in desperation I walked into Shoofly’s store on Amsterdam (this branch is now defunct, but you can visit them in Tribeca; see www.shoeflynyc.com; also check out their hats and hair accessories) to see if I could find suitable children’s shoes. I found that I was not the only adult woman in the store shopping for herself; a new obsession was born. I became a devotee of children’s shoes, which are thankfully – at least in this city - chic and sophisticated, well-made, often European. My one dilemma is that it is extremely hard to find real heels, although low heels and wedges do appear. Also, there is a tendency for colors and designs that might seem OTT for the over 14 set. It is fun most of the time to have such shoes – from hot pink clogs with real wood to purple sequins on leopard print. This is all partly because I still love to buy shoes on sale and hence surrender to the serendipity of the hunt when most of the black shoes are gone. My favorite store is Harry’s Shoes for Kids at the end of the season (www.harrysshoes.com). I walk in and declare my size (34 for the most part; New Balance for Kids 21/2 extra wide is my perfect sneaker size, determined by one of the wonderful salespeople here) and often submit to having my foot measured first – I can understand the skepticism of a salesperson who has not yet worked with me. But then they mumble that they will be back with whatever they have on sale in my size. I will try anything, almost, because I still have this lingering fear that I will never again find shoes that fit me.
I do have other shoe haunts, especially discount stores – Daffys and Marshalls (especially the branch in Harlem) have great shoe sections. I wish I could find an outlet that sells Stevie’s, Steve Madden’s children’s line, so that I could try them on before buying; they are available online. His designs tend to wedges and heels, giving me some much needed height. Once in a blue moon I do find adult shoes, the rare 5 or small 6, that fit me. Sometimes it is because of a company that runs small in their sizing, sometimes it is because the design of the shoe (think pointed toe) makes extra length workable. Lately as I have explored Williamsburg I have found two pairs of wedges and a pair of fabulous black heels – Lucy’s advice about the last was that I should buy them and wear them frequently.
The other day I took a long walk in a pair of very comfortable but absurdly colorful sneakers: lilac-silver suede edged in Barbie pink plastic. I bought them in part because they are so over the top. On Park Avenue a young woman and admired them and pointed them out to her companion. She was a toddler and showing them to her mother. I commented that her patent Mary Janes were in my favorite color, a deep burgundy.
These days I usually boast about how small my feet are - on occasion I even display them - in order to talk about shoes and how I shop. People also will notice them before I say anything and make hilarious remarks; one of my favorites of all time was the colleague, whom I had known for years, who exclaimed with new awareness “How do you stay balanced on those”? I sometimes up the ante by saying that my parents bound my feet when I was little. I cannot believe that people fall for it. As both ancient tradition and sizing practices attest, small feet are a sign of beauty, and beauty is not always practical. My shoes rarely make me feel beautiful in the sense of being elegant but they usually make me feel happy and support me well when I walk. Together with my feet they keep me feeling youthful and playful as I get farther away from being one of those customers who scores a balloon at the end of a store visit.
©2009 Leah Strigler

Blogs and Other Fabulous Things

My friend Lucy of www.indieperfumes.com has graciously made note of askingLeah in her listing for the Your Blog is F@*%^&# Fabulous! Award and I am honored, especially as such a newbie to the blogosphere (a word that I know is becoming out-dated). So now in turn I am acknowledging five favorite blogs:

Drunken Corpse: Charlie’s Blog Academy meetup is the final push that got me to actually start this blog and I am grateful for her energy, encouragement and extroversion. Enjoy her smart and sassy take on media, current events and the world. www.drunkencorpse.com
Places: Peg and her husband Bernie (and their collies) are neighbors, friends and inspiration for the kind of traveler I would like to be. They are ceaseless adventurers and artists and this blog is laying the groundwork for chronicling their further adventures travelling around the country in their new SUV. Their wonderful photography illustrates every step… www.places.typepad.com
Roxana Illuminated Perfumes: Roxana is an exquisite artist, perfumer and writer. Follow her botanical creations and illuminating reflections: www.illuminatedperfume.com and click on “buzz and blog”.
StorySpiral: Many kudos to Nadya Peeva who has created an amazing community of seekers interested in imagining a new future with different stories, ideas and inspiration to action. Look for the group on www.meetup.com and learn more at http://storyspiralblog.com
Vetivresse: Christopher Voigt’s wide-ranging intellect and areas of expertise make his perfume blog exceptionally erudite and enlightening. www.vetivresse.com

Five addictions that I have beyond perfume:

Books: I have been addicted to reading for as long as I can remember. I love to own books and reread my favorites; this is my largest and most beloved collection by far, the dominant design element in my apartment.
Shoes: Subject for a future post, but I have small feet and buy children’s shoes almost exclusively. Since finding shoes that fit is not easy it has become an obsession and great pleasure when the hunt is successfully completed. Good shoes are also essential for addiction #4 below.
Journaling: I have been keeping a journal since receiving one as a gift in middle school. I have piles of completed ones and love finding beautiful blank books that I can turn into journals. I usually write daily and when I fall out of practice I feel the difference in my thinking and muscles.
Walking: My most favorite form of meditation and really of existing: exploring terrain either familiar or new, feeding my eyes while my thoughts roam and moving to clear out all the accumulated energy.
Music: an instant mood-changer and energizer, it is off how often I forget how happy music makes me. I must have been a musician in at least one former life, probably in medieval or Renaissance times.

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You list 5 of your fabulous addictions in the post.
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Sunday, May 10, 2009

Choosing a Piano Teacher

At Interlochen (see New York City State of Mind, posted in March) piano students chose teachers individually. On one of the first days all the piano teachers held hours at their studios, located off of one great hall, in order to meet with students and sign them up for lessons. The more popular ones held auditions. I was new so I asked around for recommendations and promptly got myself on line for the most mentioned, a teacher I’ll call Maestro. While I was waiting I had someone hold my place so that I could go around and see some of the other teachers; I met a few, included a man who I think of as the Composer because he was one as well. I attended a performance he gave of some of his own pieces, which used hands and arms as well as fingers on the keyboard. A teddy bear of a man, he had a quiet but thoughtful manner. I returned in time to perform for Maestro, who listened to me play and then barked “I can fit you in on Friday at 8 AM”; I said yes of course. I felt quite honored that he would take me on, given all of his others students and that I was a new camper, too old to develop a years-long relationship with him. But I left with a bad feeling in my stomach. I knew that this would likely be my one summer in residence and I wanted it to feel right. So I went to Composer, signed up, came back and thanked Maestro but said that I had chosen to study with someone else. That summer was bliss; I was introduced to new composers and performed in a master class and was relaxed enough that I never worried about competition or whether I was progressing in any way beyond my own internal compass. This was a luxury that my friends in orchestra and band, who faced weekly seat challenges, could not afford. And it was going to be a way of life for those who aspired to professional careers in music; I already knew that was not compatible with my Jewish observance, but I also knew that I liked people too much to spend six hours or more each day seated at the keyboard. Freed from the yearning to “make it” as a pre-professional, I was able to absorb everything the place could offer me with fretting. Composer was true to his nature as a teacher: gentle, even–keeled, open in sharing his wisdom and guidance. No barking.
Towards the end of the season I ran into Maestro in a small clearing along one of the pathways near main camp. He acknowledged me, stopped and asked how my summer had been. I do not remember what I said, but I think that I smiled and assured him that it had been good as indeed it had been. I was trying not to gape; I had immediately understood that I was recognizable because I was probably one of the few (only?) students who had declined to study with him. The respect he accorded me as a result was a tremendous gift and mark of his greatness; I wish I could say as much of others I have disappointed or ruffled. To this day I wonder what, if anything, he learned from it. And I do wonder what I would have learned from him, even though I have no regrets about my decision.
Just over a year later I found myself auditioning again, this time for a piano teacher at college. I was a freshman just starting and I only wanted half-hour lessons to start, but I was good enough to be matched with a professor. He was fresh from completing his doctorate, sweet but quiet in a way that held little wisdom as of yet. One of the first pieces that he assigned me included a passage very difficult for my small hands (my span is basically an octave, a bit more if I stretch hard) and it was painful. Respectful of his methodology, I brought him a piece with a similar passage that I had studied with my childhood teacher back home and explained how we had adjusted the fingering for my hands. I asked if we could do so with this new piece as well. My teacher was non-plussed, laughed nervously and said that I should continue as set out originally. I quit lessons soon after and did not return to them ever again. For a long time I practiced on my own, but between the pulls of college life and the lack of a teacher or a professional goal, I found my interest atrophying. Those who knew me when I was young are sometimes shocked because they think of me as a serious pianist.
Growing up I had the great good fortune to have an amazing teacher at Hebrew Arts School (now Lucy Moses School: http://kaufman-center.org/lucy-moses-school), where I took lessons, and two great teachers at Usdan (www.usdan.org), an arts day camp on Long Island. All of them were assigned to me and all were demanding but they were also thoughtful and themselves open to learning new things. All of them understood me and knew when to push me and when to let me grow on my own. This post does not do them justice, so I will plan a revisit. But I need to add here that they set the bar extremely high and led to my being a very particular student. Perhaps I did not give the Maestro or the young professor enough of a chance, but I had little tolerance then for a teaching partnership that did not feel right. I also had more moxie and self-conviction. I still rarely practice piano, although over the years two of my old teachers have asked for me to play for them. I am too embarrassed, but I do hold onto the goal that one day I will be able to revisit those partnerships and again study music with them. I need to practice first…
© 2009 Leah Strigler

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Idiot Box

I rarely watched TV as a child; I missed most of the 1970s hits, although I was aware of them. I have a flash memory of standing in the gym in my elementary school, in line for some equipment, and not being able to add to the conversation about the previous night’s episode of The Bionic Woman. The homework load of a yeshiva day school education coupled with two hours of piano practice each night left very little time for such activities and when I had the time I preferred to read. Many years later when I moved into my own apartment I was so removed from the idea of TV that I hardly thought before I decided to not buy one; I also did not buy a VCR – I have now bypassed this technology completely - or a cable subscription. I reasoned that it would save me a lot of money and wasted time. A friend’s boyfriend was so incensed to learn of my TV-less state that I quipped that if it bothered him so he could get me one. A few weeks later I received a small black and white, encased in colorful plastic like an Apple machine from the turn of the century. It came in time for me to watch the breaking news about the recount of votes in Florida. I kept it unplugged on a shelf but it took it out one morning in September after hearing on the radio the first report that a plane had gone into the World Trade Center. I saw the first footage and thought to myself that the subway would be backed up and I had better take a bus to work. I saw comparatively little of the endless loop that that story would become. It was only the news that really made me feel like I was missing out on anything, and of course I was, for media is a critical tool of popular culture in our society. Oh, I eventually gave away that little model - sorry Don – maybe because of the associations with that morning report but mostly I think because I wanted color TV if any at all.
These days, not so much farther in the future, thanks to computers with DVD players and to the growing amount of video on the internet I have the ability to procrastinate by browsing through a treasure trove of shows (and movies) from my youth and beyond. This is a terrible admission from someone who has long prided herself on not owning a TV. And I need to clarify: I watched little but I did choose to see some things that were significant influences. Hill Street Blues appeared when I was in middle school and I was rapt; I followed it religiously. Much has been written about the show’s innovations and importance, how it was unlike anything else broadcast until its time, gritty and fast and complicated, with continuing storylines and a large ensemble cast. Watching the first two seasons again (I am stuck in the third season at the painful moment when an old Jewish man is threatening to jump from the roof rather than be evicted from his apartment) I was amazed at how practically every shot and line were imprinted somewhere in my memory; it was the oddest form of déjà vu, with the consciousness and realization of how deeply these episodes were imprinted on me. Today I see that some of it is silly – to be fair, much of intentionally – and that some of it is dated. But it is still breath-taking for all of the risks that it took, for all of the tough narrative turns and for how human it made its characters.
I was also a huge fan of PBS and when Brideshead Revisited appeared I became obsessed. I saw each episode at least three times. One friend gave me an old-fashioned jointed teddy bear that she named Aloysius for me. This summer another friend gifted me (for my birthday) the whole series on DVD and I spent one weekend dreamily immersed in that grey landscape, heavy with history, marveling once again at the gorgeous settings, acting and ennui. The DVD set came with bonus features, including a number of those involved in the production commenting on how unique an enterprise it was, with thirteen hours given over to the adaptation of a single novel, a particular gift for the actors. I have not yet seen the recent remake in part because it is so radically short, that is the length of a regular movie. I hope that you are humming the theme music of one of these series to yourselves as you read. For a while I had the following quote from Sebastian as a message on my answering machine; it was particularly appropriate for graduation week, although one caller protested that it was too sad. He says it to Charles during an early escape that they take, while they are lying in the grass post-picnic: “Just the place to bury a crock of gold. I should like to bury something precious in every place where I’ve been happy and then, when I was old and ugly and miserable I could come back and dig it up and remember.” It now seems to me that this is exactly what our favorite old shows and movies do for us: we revisit them but we also revisit ourselves when we first watched them. Even better, as long as the video is playing we get to travel back in time as well, pretending that we are once again viewing from the vantage point of our younger selves.
©2009 Leah Strigler

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Tremor in His Right Hand

My favorite book of all time is a young adult novel by Ellen Raskin, a well-known illustrator who wrote four “puzzle-mysteries,” or novels for older readers, before she passed away, of illness, at age fifty six in 1984. The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues is not as famous as The Westing Game, which won the Newberry Medal in 1979, nor as playfully memorable as The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel). Both of these have opaque one-liners and references that true fans know by heart. One friend at college would trade these with me as greetings: “purple waves,” or “Grown a mustache. It’s red!” I used to be able to recite the glub-blubs. The last novel, Figgs and Phantoms, is more oddly mysterious in its exploration of death and afterlife. Raskin was from Wisconsin, which features prominently in Leon I Mean Noel, and the University at Madison has an online compendium of state authors and illustrators. Raskin is one of the authors included and her page contains archival material such as the manuscript of The Westing Game and an audio recording of a presentation in which she discusses The Westing Game, with comments along the way on her other “books without pictures” and the process of her work: http://www.education.wisc.edu/ccbc/authors/raskin/main.htm. It is curious to me that in this speech she says little about the plot of my favorite novel, although she does confess that the house depicted (in Greenwich Village) is hers. She also shares that the core idea that birthed the book was art, a subject not covered in the previous two mysteries. I wonder if her reticence to talk about it stems from its closeness to her primary profession as an artist.
As a child I loved all of these books, but The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues is the one that I continue to read annually to this day. The book’s protagonist is Dickory Dock, a determined and naïve young art student. She takes a job working for Garson, a successful portrait painter for the wealthy; he comes across as callous and superficial but has much to hide. He finds his employee cum apprentice more astute than he expected. Each learns from the other and by the end of the book the lives of both have changed significantly. Through a series of cases in which they aid the New York City Police Department, a gig Garson scores by boasting at a party about his abilities, the two of them hone their skills of observation and perception - seeing through the masks that people routinely employ by solving crimes.
Garson is obsessed with costumes, which are tools of his trade as he dresses up his subjects in suitable roles. The title of my post refers to one of the many teaching games that he plays with Dickory: he routinely shows up to his own house disguised, but Dickory always recognizes him. Her most compelling explanation as to how she does so is to note the tremor in his right hand. Garson’s persona is highly constructed; his uncontrolled tremor seems to represent his real self and/or artistic genius, a quality that he can never fully hide.
I return to this book for many reasons. Certainly I am touched by the sympathetic portrayal of an artist tortured by the truths disclosed in his work. Also, I am moved by the development of the mentor-mentee relationship in which the student, a scrappy New Yorker with her own ghosts, helps her teacher move beyond his own blocks and burdens. [In another game Garson asks Dickory to describe people in one word; his for her is haunted]. The author has, in the guise of a playful book, managed to explore profound issues of truth, art, humanity and identity. I should add that because the emphasis is on portraiture, the focus is on how people present themselves and perceive each other, which means that in the end it is about relationships and how our beliefs about ourselves and each other can keep us from true to ourselves as well as connecting with others. I can no longer remember how much of this I “got” on my first read, but it was enough to keep me coming back. I love too that in the end it is the brutal honesty that the artist so fears that turns out to make everything right, or almost. I would share my favorite line, but it would give everything away. A tension in this post is that I do not want to tell the entire plot, but know that the book is out of print. I have made paper copies in order to share it with others and own two editions, the hard cover a most thoughtful gift from a friend; they never leave my home.
While Raskin, Garson and Dickory are all artists, words are equally important and just as useful in covering and uncovering insights. In the recorded talk Raskin remarks on how she thinks of herself as an artist rather than a writer; I wonder how the interplay of these talents might have developed further if she had lived a longer life. As the body of her work makes evident, her unique gifts blended together brilliantly.
© 2009 Leah Strigler

Thursday, April 30, 2009


When I was a tiny baby Cynthia, who was very pregnant with her son, stopped one of my parents on the street – I have heard both versions of the story – to remark on what a beautiful baby I was. A neighborhood friendship ensued, in which I played with her son in the park and also attended the nearby day care where she worked. I have vague halcyon memories of that time, including picnics by the Hudson and reading Fantastic Mr. Fox by Roald Dahl. When I was in first grade we moved eight blocks downtown and lost touch with her and her family. At some point my mother ran into her and learned that she had divorced and remarried. In truth, I forgot her as I grew up and became immersed in school and other activities. In high school I baby-sat for my neighbors. One day I was looking for a book to read to my charge and found Fantastic Mr. Fox on the shelf. My memory flooded back and I wondered what had happened to her. That is when I asked my mother, who did not remember her new last name.
In college I worked at Shakespeare and Company (may it rest in peace) the great local independent bookstore. One day I was sitting at the bag check station when a woman came up to me, stared and asked “Are you Leah? You have an unforgettable face”. It was about fifteen years later and Cynthia had recognized me. She looked different, mostly heavier from a bout with illness, but her German lilt and smile were familiar. She gave me her card – she was now an astrologist – and we proceeded to be in touch. She often sent me sunny letters decorated with fun stickers, often with typed messages.
It was from Cynthia that I first learned in-depth about astrology as well as other New Age concepts. At the time I was not interested in the subject area at all, but I listened and took it all in. The personal growth section of the bookstore was one that staff members often made fun of, in part because we fancied ourselves intellectual and it was so popular. Although I never read anything from it I absorbed the titles of many of the more requested books, effortlessly storing in my brain a list of future classics: You Can Heal Your Life by Louise Hay, Many Lives, Many Masters by Brian Weiss, Creative Visualization by Shakti Gawain and many more. Cynthia never cast my chart but she did explain a number of terms to me: Sun, Moon, Rising Sign, (mine are Leo, Caner and Aries, respectively) Houses, Angles and so on. Today you can cast your own chart online: try http://www.astro.com/; you will need your exact birth time in order to learn your rising sign. We continued to remain in touch for over a decade, waxing and waning, especially as she struggled with further health issues. As she grew unwell I was often wary of overtaxing her and so heard from her less often and we drew apart.
The year that I started my doctoral program Cynthia passed away, something that I did not learn immediately, so I did not attend her funeral or say goodbye in any formalized way and this saddened me greatly. I was mad at myself for not being in close enough contact to know of events as they unfolded. I also began reading personal growth, in spades, shocking myself and at first causing tremendous self-consternation. What was the cause? Perhaps it was because I had lost a spiritual muse, or I might have been rebelling against the over-intellectualized world of academia. I might have been swerving into early mid-life with a desire to explore inner realms in a new way or I may have been answering an intuitive attraction that had always been there but gone unheeded. In any of these cases I do wish that I had been able to talk to Cynthia these last few years, to go back and ask her further questions about astrology, her beliefs and related topics. As some consolation I have the knowledge that her family is prospering; her daughter no longer lives in New York but one sunny day I found her sitting on a bench in Riverside Park, site of those long-ago picnics and playdates. I also have the internet, with no end of material for browsing. I imagine what Cynthia could have done with her own website, the colors and illustrations that she would have gleefully included. And every time I read a horoscope or explain an astrological concept to someone or watch myself as I integrate these layers of exploration into my knowledge bank and sense of self I think of it as an homage to her and thank her for expanding my horizons. (Your rising sign, by the way, is the constellation that appeared on the horizon when you were born). The name Cynthia is Greek for the moon and is of course an alternate name for Diana, the moon goddess. I used to think of Cynthia as moonlight in my life, the mystical light that comes at nighttime. But in truth she is more like a sun, a shining adult presence that lit up both my childhood and my early adulthood. It guides me still.
Astrology is an ancient knowledge system and that has always fascinated me as well. I often picture people in ancient times, unable to sleep, perhaps sitting by a fire, trading stories and staring up at the stars in the great heavenly expanse that must have looked ever so much more mysterious and powerful then it does to us today. Jewish culture has a number of astrological references, but most people do not realize the connection: “mazal tov” literally declares that an event has occurred under a good star. We wish that a child be born “b’sha’ah tovah” – at a good hour. Whether one believes in astrology or not, it is a system of understanding that is striking in how it helps humans capture our way of seeking meaning while feeling small in the grand cosmos, wondering about our lives on earth and recognizing the moments of brightness that grace our existence.
Some interesting astrology websites: http://www.planetwaves.net/, http://www.yasminboland.com/, http://www.cainer.com/, http://www.astrostyle.com/, http://www.astrologyzone.com/ to name just a few. The publishing company http://www.hayhouse.com/ is an excellent starting point for books in personal growth.
© 2009 Leah Strigler

Monday, April 27, 2009

When You have Naturally Curly Hair

This weekend I met a new curly girl, a redhead. She suggested that we could discuss products. Yes, but I said more important was hair care routine. I am not often a zealot, but I am about curls. I told her that she must read Curly Girl, penned by Lorraine Massey, the owner of Devachan Salon in New York City (www.devachansalon.com), which I recommend to every curly-haired person I know. It is a manual for curly hair care that is liberating, empowering and very playful. I know many who will only get their hair cut at Devachan or at Ouidad (www.ouidad.com); once you find your inner curl you get very fussy about who gets to come close with scissors. If you need more propaganda, look at www.naturallycurly.com for articles, photos and product descriptions. I like to play with products and often go browsing in stores that cater to ethnic markets. A particular favorite is www.carolsdaughter.com; Avon’s Advance Techniques Dry Ends Serum is my single favorite product, even though it is not specifically for curls. (See www.avon.com).
Frieda, the redhead in the Peanuts cartoon strip, (go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frieda for a history and picture of the character) was also a curly girl and would tell you that people “expect more” from you when you have curly hair, but in my childhood it taught me to expect less, especially to have no hope of thinking I was attractive. Actually, I had fine, lank hair until the age of ten (I have the photos to prove it…somewhere) and my mother originally kept me in severe short cuts like hers. I hated them. As I grew older I was able to persuade my mother to let it grow a bit longer, but she never ceased to complain about it. I cut my hair a bit shorter in fifth grade and it grew back thick and curly, a marvel, except that it was impossible to manage. Who knew how to take care of it? It was the mid-70s, the era of Charlie’s Angels and straight hair, preferably feathered or flipped, was the ideal of beauty. No matter what, my hair could not learn any of those tricks and was a perpetual frizzy, messy disappointment. It makes sense to me that, as reported by Wikipedia, Frieda’s last appearance was in 1975. Also, I had black hair and almost all fairy tale princesses were blonde, redheaded if they were feisty and chestnut if they were sultry. Snow White was the one exception, but her hair was straight and she was drugged into sleep for most of the story. By the time the 80s came around and I hit junior high school I had given up on my hair ever being reasonable. Even when perms were in they did not look like my head, but had a slick perfection to them and remained in place. Real curls have minds of their own. The Medusa myth comes from deep truth.
At some point something happened and the trends turned around, as did my own attitude. When I graduated college I finally got rid of the woeful bangs that I had clung to, thinking that they would help frame my face. (I am so embarrassed). I think I first realized the potential of it all when a hairdresser in DC (at Supercuts on Connecticut Avenue in Cleveland Park) kept me in the chair so that he could play with my hair. “So tell me,” he asked “are you Jewish or Italian?” “Jewish, how did you know?” “Oh, the hair.” He played with it for a good half hour. I started to pay more attention to hair, and standards of beauty, as markers of ethnic identity. And I took charge of learning how to take care of my own coiffure. I have not blown my hair dry since around that time, even in salons, sometimes causing much consternation. A few years later I discovered hair product (I was late to this… I could blame my mother or my own puritanical streak or the lack of curl mentors) and found out that my hair curls instead of frizzes when it has enough moisture in it. Down the road I minimized the use of brushes, combs and shampoo. The book encouraged me to abandon them altogether. Gulp, I did, just about. And I have been happier ever since, as have my tresses, which stay soft and untangled with what is now minimal, easy care. I also figured out that many hair accessories did not work for me. I tended to use scarves instead of hair bands and elastics became verboten.
I am now on a personal mission to help other women unleash their inner goddesses, to stop punishing themselves and allow unfettered the tremendous beauty and energy in their locks. It helps that for the most part curls are in style these days, and I trust likely to stay so. Truthfully, it seems harder in our global world to justify prejudices against them, even though many still see them as unruly or even unprofessional. As a museum person I often stop to note the prominence of waves and corkscrews in the art of earlier eras, pointing it out to companions. Curls are timeless; Curly Girl has a great illustrated timeline. Curls, color and culture: our hair sends all sort of messages, intended or not. I feel most confident and calm when it sends the message that I celebrate who I am and what I have, naturally.
© 2009 Leah Strigler

Sunday, April 26, 2009

You Know Everyone

When I was a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (where I completed a masters degree in Jewish Education in the 1990s) I had a reputation for “knowing everyone” as I was often accused of by fellow students when they watched me greet others, especially those from other programs, by name and with a smile. A natural extrovert, I was confused by this reaction. At the time the Seminary population, including all forms of staff, could not have topped five hundred; most students were bound for clergy positions in congregations that were likely to be as large and in which most members would hope or even expect that the clergy staff would know them by site as well as by name. So why not start practicing now? That is what I really thought about these exchanges. I was unusually adventurous in my choice of classes: I sat and studied with rabbinical, cantorial and doctoral students. I also took courses at Union Theological Seminary and Teachers College, neighboring institutions that offered reciprocal enrollment. I participated in a number of extra-curricular projects in which I worked with representative students from other programs. So I have this tendency to explore and meet people along the way and get to know them. This is often because I am curious and friendly and ask lots of questions. When I was younger I think I thought everyone did this…
At Interlochen (see New York City State of Mind, entry below) I made friends with Geoff, who worked in the kitchen, because on the first day at dinner while I was waiting online I looked over at him while he was at the sink. I must have made a terrible face as I watched him work at the Army surplus trays on which we were served, causing him to ham it up. He kept me company Saturday afternoons; classes met and I attended but did not perform on instruments, due to my orthodox Jewish praxis, so instead of going to practice sessions I sat with him and debated theology on the lawn. I recently Googled him in a fit of nostalgia after telling the story to a friend (the internet is an amazing and dangerous thing) and learned that he composes music in the Christian world. It was lovely to hear samples of his music. I also became friends with a young librarian who was a pianist and studied at an evangelical college. Both of these friends became pen pals; my pianist friend worked hard to get me to convert. I still have the copy she sent me of a biligual New Testament in Hebrew and English.
Over time my gregariousness has faltered, especially when I feared that it was somehow unappreciated or seemed to be too much. I have been trying to re-cultivate it in different ways. In the last few years my building has undergone a change in ownership and a condo conversion that brought tenants together to discuss the changes and issues that have arisen. I live on the first floor and without the benefits of elevator chatting time I knew many folk by sight but not by name. As a result of the recent activity I have gotten to know most of my neighbors and become good friends with a few of them. It is a treat and a blessing that my building now feels like a shtetl. And it is one; many of the tenants have lived here for decades, are close with each other, and remember as I do the ways that the ‘hood has changed over the years.
I am quite fallible, despite the reputation. I have been surprised on a few occasions when younger schoolmates recognized me even though I had no recollection of them. I can still hear one alumna of my high school saying “But we remember you” and feeling terrible about the ageism of adolescents. There was a time when I really did remember most everyone I met but now I forget more often than I would like; I especially forget names. It is embarrassing, but names are hard for me to remember unless they are attached to people’s stories. So sometimes I can tell you many details about a person’s life and circumstances, but I have forgotten their name, especially if it is a more common one, like David or Rachel, because when I heard it when I met them there was not story yet.
In a related vein but somewhat off-topic, the Manhattan School of Music is in the same neighborhood as JTS. The first time I went with a friend to have lunch there I almost cried because the excited buzz in the hallways was so different from the church-like or sepulchral tone across the street (a common joke or slip of the tongue is to substitute “cemetery” for “seminary”). The School of Music was alive with noise, notes and chatter. I often wonder about the difference between the two places and if it can in part account for the phenomenon that I am describing. Do students at places like Interlochen or MSM engage more with each other because of the nature of their activities? There are of course a host of other factors to consider in making such comparisons; I can still feel what it was like to walk down the halls in both places. And I sometimes wonder why, after these experiences, I did not return to music or the arts; I am so moved when I remember the vibrancy of the arts settings in which I studied as a child. How do our environments inspire or dissuade us from getting to know each other and learn about each other’s lives? What are the educational opportunities and costs of these environmental factors in terms of how students learn and engage with each other? How might educators pay more attention to the cultures of their institutions? And can you teach people to be interested in others, in learning their names and stories?
© 2009 Leah Strigler

Monday, April 20, 2009

Girl with Glasses

I started wearing glasses in third grade and did not move into contact lenses until I was in eleventh grade, late in the game if you consider the trials of adolescence and development of self-esteem at that time. I was bookish and studious, so it made sense stylistically that I wore glasses. But I also went to high school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan; the fashion and make-up trends in the air (even with a strict dress code)were terribly sophisticated and seemed beyond my purview, like the fuzzy space of one’s peripheral vision when wearing glasses. The way that glasses frame and limit one’s clear vision annoys me terribly to this day. My father wore glasses too and when I was little his were quite thick, the Coke-bottle kind. My prescription grew stronger in tandem with technological breakthroughs in lens-making so I only wore thick lenses for a short time; I liked large frames and they were tricky with the heavier prescriptions. I still have most of the pairs from my childhood, but they are so out of fashion that they cannot be worn in public.
I still think of myself as a girl with glasses even though most of the people I currently know or interact with have no idea that my eyesight is shoddy and that I wear lenses. This was true as early on as college, but even then I had a residual sense that I looked at the world from behind a protective and distancing lens, the way a teenage girl with glasses might find it impossible to think that she is pretty or that others might see her as so. I still remember the first time I walked out in a storm with contacts on; the world was truly then for me more wondrous and beautiful than it had been before. On the rare occasions that I need to wear glasses I am surprised at others’ surprise that I need them. I am usually in a bad mood as well, trapped again and not able to see the world as widely or clearly as I would like to. It is always a bit of a mystery to me – do people perceive me differently once they know? How am I affected by how I perceive myself with my memories?I could go on about glasses and/or I could spin out the metaphors: seeing, lenses, frames and framing, clarity; all of these could be illuminating lines of rumination. But these reflections really take me somewhere else; to thinking about how our physical characteristics and limitations shape the way we experience and understand the universe. I know that my being left-handed is significant to almost every movement that I make and that my height affects everything from the ease with which I move about in my kitchen (greatly helped by wearing wedge clogs) to how easily I tire at parties or in crowds, where I am forever looking up at others. Yes I am vertically challenged (the PC language is thanks to Gary Trudeau’s Class Day speech at Yale in 1991); the funniest moment of awareness was the day I met a friend’s outspoken and inquisitive nephew. He looked me up and down and pronounced “You’re awfully short for a grownup”. Some of these characteristics are easily observable; others are not. There are characteristics that are not physical and perceptible only to those with particular kinds of awareness or sensitivity. Still other characteristics only exist in the mind’s eye, where we remember our past experiences and sometimes forget to separate them from current reality. Consider the stud or bombshell who still feels like the mousy or obese child that they formerly were. I think that in America, with our cultural myths about independence, pioneer spirit and the like, we often have a hard time taking such differences into account in a way that feels comfortable; limitations and inequality of all sorts are hard to square with some of our collective beliefs. And yet those very differences do sometimes require that we adjust things for different individuals. As well, these characteristics and the combinations of experience (that stud that used to get bullied…) lie at the heart of so much of human creativity and genius. Because of my poor vision I learned early on to recognize people’s entire beings, not just their faces. I would startle people by recognizing others at a distance, like the time in DC that I stunned my roommate by identifying the gait of someone walking a block ahead of us. He was a childhood friend I had not seen in almost a decade. I am certain that this habit is why I have a secret gift for mimicking others – facial expressions, voice and body language. I like to think as well that it is the joy with which I can now see so widely is related to my interest in the big picture in every sense of the term. And that my poor eyesight combined with my love of music bred a keener sense of hearing. There are more connections and consequences I am sure and I hope to come upon them in time, startling at their distinct beauty, detailed and crystal clear as raindrops, snowflakes and bolts of lightening.
© 2009 Leah Strigler

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Riddle Me This

As an adolescent I read a fair share of science fiction and fantasy, something that should not come as a surprise. I was of the geeky, intellectual bent that favors such narratives at that age and had a number of friends who shared this interest. I still own many of my favorite books and on occasion return to beloved worlds and characters. Long before Harry Potter arrived at Hogwarts and on our planet, protagonists in these epics searched for wisdom, knowledge, power and control over both internal and external forces. Usually their journeys included formal training as well as quests filled with danger and adventure. Ever the educator, I have always paid attention to the presence of schools and systems of knowledge in these universes; I have attended as well to the ways in which knowledge, both practical and philosophical, is imparted. Often the stories told involve tumult around transfers of power, the culmination of historical epochs and the chaos of a changing world order. It is no wonder that memories of the genre have been bubbling up in my mind of late.
One of my particular favorite series (as this genre breeds multi-volume series) is relatively obscure. It came to me by accident when an elementary school classmate loaned me a bunch of books that included an early omnibus edition. A current single volume, titled Riddle-Master, is available, but I own Patricia McKillip’s work in its original three parts: The Riddle-Master of Hed, Heir of Sea and Fire and Harpist in the Wind. The protagonist, Morgon of Hed, is a young land ruler and a drop-out of the College of Caithnard, founded by wizards, where study is conducted in the form of answering riddles, with accompanying strictures, in recitation style. But Morgon himself, branded with three stars on his forehead, is a riddle that the established codes of knowledge cannot answer. The growing threats of violence in the world, which kill his parents before the story begins and then start to close in on our hero, combined with his own impetuous drive to ask questions, send Morgon on a long journey to escape danger and uncover answers. In the process of his chase the order of his universe as well as the details of his identity unravel and reconstruct themselves. Morgon is headstrong, too inquisitive for his professors and too restless to stay in his own small country. But his personal power is greatest not because of his intellect or charisma; what marks Morgon most is that his mind and heart remain open to learning from others and to diving into new experiences. Along his journey his fellow land rulers respond to this quality and teach him all that they know. Their knowledge is quite physical: land rulers are bound to every living thing in their countries and are attuned in unusual ways to the nature and animals around them. I love questions and I love that in this story the structure and limitations of questioning are the fabric that hold and also break this world, but it is in the moments of mentorship and communion that Morgon has with others that I see the truest, deepest learning take place. I could go on and tell you more but please, read the series instead. McKillip is a beautiful writer.
I like to think that at my best I too am this way with others but I know as well that this kind of questioning and desire for knowledge is usually threatening to others. Actually, I have learned this from hard experience. Because a part of me is as fearless in intellectual quest as Morgon is. One must wonder – if questions are so threatening, then what is it that those in the know are truly afraid of? This is most especially so when some questions are allowed but others are verboten. What questions should we be asking in our world at this point in time?
I have a question myself about the seriesm for McKillip. I would like to know what becomes of Rood, Morgon’s schoolmate and brother of his intended, Raederle. For the romantics: Morgon wins her hand because he wins a riddle contest with a ghost in her native country. Rood is perhaps more temperamental than his friend or his sister – and that says much – and at the end of the last book his role has changed in a way that must surely chafe, but we learn nothing really of his reaction. This is a geeky question from a fan left a bit restless by loose ends…

Other worlds to explore: http://www.patriciamckillip.com/ is a fan website with a bibliography for this prolific author. http://www.ursulakleguin.com/ is one of the best and wisest writers in this genre, practically without peer. Her Earthsea Series is required reading; it now stands at six volumes. I am not sure that anyone should be allowed to grow up without following Ged on his adventures. My favorite single volume work of hers is The Lathe of Heaven. Roger Zelazny’s Amber series is a guilty pleasure… all ten books, two series of five, each focused on a different generation of the dysfunctional royal family. I have long wanted to walk the Pattern. For “younger readers” I particularly recommend http://www.madeleinelengle.com/ (and I trust that if you are under 50 and reading this that your world was rocked when you first read A Wrinkle in Time) and Lloyd Alexander; his Chronicles of Prydain (five volumes) are the masterpiece but my sentimental favorite is The Marvelous Misadventures of Sebastian, with his perfectly named cat Presto. Watch for the children in the street playing out the events of the day with great prescience. Wisdom and discernment can appear in the unexpected corners of any world.
© 2009 Leah Strigler

The Scent Track of Our Lives

I first realized the depth of my interest in perfume because of visits to my friend Amanda’s house starting early on in elementary school. Her mother loved perfume and gave Amanda a host of samples to keep on her dresser; we routinely sniffed them. I loved the elegance of these essences, the sensual pleasure of them and the ways in which the scents triggered my imagination, transforming a pre-war Manhattan apartment into an exotic and opulent interior. Occasionally we also looked at her mother’s own collection; she favored orientals, spicy perfumes that I would later on identify as my own favorite category of fragrances (although as I have gotten older chypres have run an increasingly close second). On her tray: Opium, Bellodgia, Must de Cartier, Samsara and others in similar deep warm-toned hues and bottles. I began to wear perfume myself while still in junior high school, not cottoning to the typical adolescent favorites of the day - Lauren, Anais Anais, Oscar de La Renta. I preferred Tuxedo (Ralph Lauren’s original evening counter-part to Lauren) and Bellodgia (in its older, much spicier version which in my opinion no other carnation soliflore can match).
My mother, a chemist, had no interest in perfume. But once I started talking about fragrance she told me that her father, a pharmacist (like his own father) had mixed perfumes for clients in his shop in Bulgaria. When they moved to the new state of Israel in 1949 he found little demand there for the product, something that has changed quite dramatically, as a visit today to any drugstore there or to the duty-free shop at Ben-Gurion can attest. I usually consider myself to be thoroughly my father’s daughter, interested in writing, texts, culture and history and all things Jewish… so to have this interest in scents (and also, although less intensely, in beauty products and treatments more generally) be traced through my mother’s lineage is ironic. I call it the revenge of my mother’s genes. It is a sultry love, fragrance, and my mother is a Scientist with a pioneer personality, fond of very few frills. I have seen video and photos of Bulgaria and know the terrain to be lushly green, producer of the world’s most prized rose oil. So something from the generations my ancestors lived there has come to me and I know that I have a hidden capacity for enjoying sensual indulgences.
Surprisingly I did discuss this interest with friends while in school – in high school a group pooled resources to buy me a bottle of Fidgi as a birthday gift - but I was largely silent about it as a younger adult, even though I continued to collect articles and books on the subject. In the last few years I began again to tell people about my love of fragrance. I stopped being embarrassed by this seemingly trivial interest, so different from the persona I usually focused on developing and presenting to the world. I began to wonder about the ways in which our often forgotten sense of smell influences the way we react to and make meaning of the world, all the more mysteriously because we understand it so poorly.
A few years ago I wrote a paper on perfume, focused on Chanel No. 5, one of the most iconic and classic fragrances, for a class on the Sociology of Objects. (My paper focused on the question of what constituted the “object” of a fragrance). In doing research I explored offerings on the web and found a wealth of new resources: blogs, forums, resource sites, e-tailers and niche perfumers. The virtual fragrance world is a revolution; a recasting of what was once a secretive and cloaked arena into one where aficionados publish criticism and trade tips and perfumers are acknowledged and feted; where it is much easier to hunt discounted and discontinued fragrances and where indie perfumers can develop international followings. I joined Sniffapalooza (http://www.sniffapalooza.com/) and began attending their events, where I was introduced to a host of new scents, lines and perfumers. My collection has grown accordingly. I also made friends with people who share this passion, usually superseding me in their holdings, knowledge and skill. Our conversations, rooted in fragrance, expand into many other topics and issues; every perfumista is an artist and philosopher at heart. Lucy’s recent posting on http://www.indieperfumes.com/ captures the beauty of these exchanges. Daily SOTD (scent of the day) postings online allow group members to share the micro and macro events of daily life as they are matched to fragrances, a soundtrack for the nose and a chance to focus on those brief moments of beauty and artistry, both natural and man-made, that our senses capture fleetingly in the crush of our routines and trials.
Forums: http://www.sniffapalooza.com/ (see also http://www.sniffapaloozamagazine.com/), http://www.perfumeoflife.org/, www.makeupalley.com
Blogs: http://www.nstperfume.com/ (Now Smell This, the best for industry news and links to articles), http://www.perfumeposse.com/, http://www.boisdejasmin.com/ Follow the links on each to find other blogs – there are many, they are quite varied in style and of exceptional quality.
Perfumers: http://www.cbihateperfume.com/, http://www.neilmorrisfragrances.com/, http://www.dshperfume.com/, http://www.kingsburyfragrances.com/, http://www.illumintedperfume.com/
© 2009 Leah Strigler

Thursday, March 26, 2009

New York City State of Mind

“How do you know so much?” she asked.
“I’m from New York”.
Don Delillo, White Noise

The summer that I spent at Interlochen Music Camp (http://www.interlochen.org/) I took one class for fun: Twentieth Century Popular Music. I had figured that I knew little of the subject but was surprised to learn over the course of the summer that I knew a ton – no topic and few musicians were unfamiliar to me. In stark contrast, my classmates knew far less. (I should note that the class was historical and chronological, so we covered everything from Tin Pan Alley to ’60s singer-songwriters to MTV). One day I noted that I was puzzled about this to my teacher, a jazz musician from Oklahoma. He looked at me keenly and said with a smile “You live in New York. You do not realize how much you are exposed to just walking down the street or listening to the radio”. That summer was my first extended stay in the heartland of America (northern Michigan, top of the hand and only a few miles from Traverse City, cherry capital of the world) and it was revelatory to realize just how right my teacher was. Being from New York made me very different, inside and out, from what I wore to how fast I talked to what I knew about and how much I knew.
Mr. Howard’s remark connected my knowledge to the streetscape of my hometown and that felt deeply true. Walking in the city has always been a favorite activity for me, most profoundly marked by the treks across Central Park as I traveled between high school on the Upper East Side and home on the Upper West Side. To this day I feed my interests in architecture, neighborhoods and local history in this way. There is always something to notice, observe and learn in this city; one need only look. And there is what to recollect. Sometimes when I walk with fellow long-timers we test each other’s memory, asking each other: Do you remember what used to be here?
But walking for me works on two tracks: the streets offer a feast for the eyes, for gleaning information and observations, but the experience is also meditative and affords me the opportunity to let my thoughts sift as I reflect, plan and problem-solve. There are few places that can compete with New York City in offering pedestrian-friendly space, large cuts of terrain and a never-ending variety of interesting sights and people.
I have often wondered about how the surge in mobile technology has changed the experience for so many New Yorkers. I am an avid reader on vehicles, including elevators, but I prefer to walk sans music or accompanying phone conversation. I remember the first time I saw someone (in the neighborhood) strolling down the street and talking on a cell phone, one of those that looked like a walkie talkie, while he simultaneously walked his dog. I immediately understood the appeal of what was sure to become an essential contraption and I was saddened that it would make people less attuned to their surroundings. Of course, cell phone conversations have provided a whole new type of rich material for those eavesdropping in urban public spaces.
Since listening, within and without, is such a key aspect of this experience for me, it feels right to include some musical references, elements of my own personal soundtrack. Before I went to Interlochen I was already a fan of the NPR program New Sounds hosted by John Schaefer (http://www.wnyc.org/shows/newsounds/) and it has been an important source for me to learn about many different types of music. That summer at Interlochen the albums that were most popular on campus (I know, I am dating myself) were Upstairs at Eric’s by Yaz (www.myspace.com/yazooofficial) and December by George Winston (http://www.georgewinston.com/). Winston and the Windham Hill label were still avant-garde at that point and I had first heard the music on New Sounds. It is ironic that these summer memories of a New York Jewish kid have an underlying score of Christmas carols played on solo piano… but it suits the rich cultural jumble that is exactly what I have been trying to capture. By the way, my main instrument is the piano, although I am woefully out of practice. Billy Joel (http://www.billyjoel.com/), whose song "New York State of Mind" captures the meditative state of walking in the city, brings this to a fitting close: "I don't have any reasons/I've left them all behind/I'm in a New York state of mind".
© 2009 Leah Strigler

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

askingLeah: An Introduction

A number of years ago a colleague nick-named me "askLeah.com" as an homage to my random but detailed knowledge on a wide variety of subjects. The name also reflected a larger reputation that I have, especially in regards to the workings of the “organized Jewish world” which serves as both my professional and communal milieu. It is summed up by the comments “You know everything” and “You know everyone”. Both exaggerations are meant as positive attributes but sometimes lead to teasing, for a reputation becomes something that one must uphold. I am on occasion treated to remarks such as “You mean there is someone that you don’t know?” when I do not recognize a name. When I was back in New Haven for my last college reunion I stopped in at The Wave Gallery, a favorite place for object discovery (you might call it shopping; check out http://www.wavegallerygifts.com/) and I noticed a group of hand-painted ceramic signs designed to look like those that normally sit on a desk and proclaim one’s name and title. One called out to me; it declared “To save time, let’s just assume I know everything” and I had to own it - as my humorous and hopefully self-deprecating enough definitive reply to any ribbing on the matter. These signs were slated to go to a second Wave store in Rhode Island but the salespeople on duty that day agreed to make an exception for me.
An aside: how coy of me to not tell you that it was my fifteenth reunion and to not mention that I went to Yale. It is a classic practice to avoid mentioning the school by name, saying something like “I went to college in New Haven” instead. Many interpret this as arrogance and a type of in-joke; I see it more as a sign of the ambiguity around claiming alumni status from such an elite institution. As I describe in terms of my reputation, above, being branded smart or expert in some way can be a double-edged sword, arousing jealousy or competition as much as admiration. I hope to return to this topic for further consideration in the future.
So how did I come to be known as a know-it-all? It is related to activities that are so essential to who I am and how I function that it is hard for me to properly explain it, but I will try to do so in various ways as I continue writing in this forum. I love learning and relating what I know: telling tales of what I find in my various explorations and sharing anecdotes or resources with friends and colleagues. I also thrive on problem-solving, including listening and helping out when others are stuck on a task or in making a decision. In order to figure out what is going on I usually ask many questions; I am fueled by unceasing interest and a desire to understand in detail how things work. I will usually keep thinking about something until I come up with a solution or at least a good suggestion to offer. It is no wonder that I am fond of cats, their curiosity and playfulness.
Because of this incessant questing and study, or at least the resulting build-up of trivia in my brain, many encouraged me to start a website, “askLeah.com,” where I could respond virtually to queries. I thought about the idea at different points in time but never managed to launch such a site. Something did not quite fit – and that presented a mystery to unravel. All this time later the name is still apropos, but I am clearer about its limitations and why it has always agitated me: the title “askLeah.com,” complimentary as it is, emphasizes the mechanical nature of my knowledge, the ability to call up and dispense information. However, my wonder is not fed by static knowledge. I am truly fascinated by the dynamic nature of knowing: how knowledge is developed, what shapes it, how it is shared and how it evolves. It is this interest that has led me in a career focused on education and culture. I have therefore titled this blog “askingLeah,” riffing on the original nick-name in an attempt to capture in a phrase a sense of action and interaction. My purpose here is to share both what I know and how I came to know it. I plan to report and reflect on the ways in which I encounter the world and the questions I ask as I explore, learn and make meaning. There will always be more questions to ask and ponder…
© 2009 Leah Strigler