Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Snapshots of a flash visit to Boston

The bell tower was as impressive
as Old South Church's history. 
For all its colonial charm and perfect climate, life in San Miguel can become claustrophobic and, hmm, even a bit of a snooze. A few days in big-city Boston last week were a welcome jolt, even if the reason for our visit was to attend a memorial service for a good friend from San Miguel.

Friendships in San Miguel come easily but at a cost. We have more friends here, particularly gay couples, than we ever had in Chicago but alas, because of the demographics of our social cohort, illnesses and deaths also are depressingly frequent.

Bill Amidon was one of those memorable but too-brief friendships. He was a vociferous New England liberal with intense and mischievous blue eyes and a sense of humor to match. We met him and his quieter wife Pam through the San Miguel Community Church though, truth be told, Bill and God seemed to have but a distant relationship.

The memorial was held at the venerable Old South Church in downtown Boston established in 1669. How old and venerable? Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Adams were among its members.

A cellist was among the performers at Bill's memorial.
The sanctuary reminded me of a beautiful forest—woody and dark, majestic yet warm and embracing. Given Bill's agnosticism, the service followed a surprisingly conventional Christian liturgy. Pam said she wanted it that way to comfort her and her family. We understood. It was a moving experience.

Bill rhapsodized so often about the Boston Symphony Orchestra and its home, the famed Symphony Hall, you'd think it was his own private combo.  So in honor of Bill, and frankly for our own sheer pleasure, we went to a concert the night before his memorial. 


Strike up the band. 
As expected, it was a memorable experience. Bernard Haitink led the orchestra in Brahms' Second Symphony and Piano Concerto No. 2, the latter performed by Emanuel Ax. 

The hall, reputed to be among the three or four best-sounding musical spaces in the world, was rectangular rather than horseshoe-shaped like Carnegie Hall or the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's home. The seats were old and worn and the wooden floor squeaky but the feeling was intimate and the sound amazing, just as advertised. 

The audience skewed very young and casual, perhaps because of the concentration of colleges and universities in Boston. Bermuda shorts, flip-flops and unruly haircuts were seen. While  many orchestras complain about aging audiences, the BSO didn't seem to have that problem. 

One final curiosity: At least for the performance we attended, the BSO's concertmaster was a woman, a rarity among symphony orchestras. 

From our last visit to Boston in 2013, when we got married in the neighboring town of Stow, Stew and I remembered the huge Barnes and Noble bookstore on Copley Square. We had to stop by again. 


Come in and browse. We might be gone soon. 
Large bookstores are a vanishing pleasure anywhere, even in larger cities, and a non-existent one in San Miguel. 

Downloading books from Amazon? Not even close to the sensory high of sitting at a bookstore, browsing through a pile of books and taking in that new-book aroma of ink and glossy paper. 

Sadly, it turns out B&N itself is on the endangered list. We tried to support it by buying two photography magazines and a book about minimalist Japanese architecture. 

A landmark we missed in our last visit was was the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. The building designed by Chinese-American architect I. M. Pei and sited on a privileged location on facing Boston harbor still stuns as a modern masterpiece.
A time when America reached
for the heavens.
A walk through the exhibits also can be an exercise in teary nostalgia for the days when the country seemed to be inspired rather than bitterly divided and manipulated as it is today.

I tried to imagine what the Donald J. Trump Library will look like, what narrative it would present—a wall with non-stop projections of his most noxious tweets?—or even where it would be built, given that the overwhelming majority of New Yorkers likely wouldn't want it anywhere near their city or state.

With the guidance of two former Bostonians who now live in San Miguel, one of them the minister who married us, we made a quick tour of New England historical sites, including the bridge near which the famous "shot heard around the world" was fired, to trigger the war for independence from the British. We visited the home of Ralph Waldo Emerson home, and of course, drove by Walden Pond, which was closed to swimming a few years back due to bacterial contamination. I hope that Thoreau, an early environmentalist, didn't hear about that.

After listening to stories about Emerson, Thoreau and other early American thinkers, it seemed to me that they were truly revolutionary, including their views about religion, nothing like some of today's evangelical  Christians often try to make them. Far from devout, born-again types, these guys not only thought outside the box but often seemed to recognize no boxes at all. 


Load up your muskets and aim for the guys on
the other side of the bridge. 
After that flash through colonial history, we fast-forwarded to the twentieth century to visit modernist architect Walter Gropius' home in the town of Lincoln—possibly the highlight of our one-day tour. 

Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus architecture movement, refused to follow any of the rules of conventional design. Among the precepts of the Bauhaus, which later included other modernist luminaries like Mies van der Rohe,  were "less is more" and "form follows function."


His small house indeed is marvel of inventive design, with surprises in every room. From the street it looks bunker-like and unwelcoming, with glass-block walls and a tier of smallish clerestory windows.

Keep it simple, Walter said. 
But the rooms inside are bathed in sunlight, thanks to large north-facing windows. The windows and the large deciduous trees he planted  were an early form of passive solar design, to keep the house cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

The dining room was one of my favorite spaces. It had a small round table, just big enough for him, his wife and two guests—any bigger gathering, he said, was not conducive to good conversation—and lit by a pinhole fixture recessed in the ceiling that projected just enough light to cover the table top.

As a person allergic to mob-scene entertaining, I could relate to Walter's ideas. When it comes to parties, less is indeed more.

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