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 ( 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 ( 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 ( and December by George Winston ( 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 (, 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 "" 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 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, “,” 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 “,” 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