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Life Is a Walk - Santa Fe
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My father and I started taking my son Jonah to Santa Fe in 2003, and this was when I first wrote about it. I have been writing, rewriting, and adding to this essay for the past ten years. I repolished it and included it in Soul in the Game. This time, I decided to leave it untouched. I added new thoughts at the end after our 2023 pilgrimage to this wonderful little town in New Mexico. I hope you enjoy it.
Santa Fe and my family go way back to the early ’90s. It all started with my father and my stepmother. My father had his paintings exhibited in a gallery on Santa Fe’s famous Canyon Road. A few times a year, they would load up paintings in a minivan and drive them to Santa Fe.
My first experience with Santa Fe was in 1998 – it was not a good one. I went there with a girl I was dating. We got there. It was unbearably hot. We did not see much. Santa Fe fell flat with me (and I fell flat with the girl). I should have checked the weather before the trip.
Then eight years ago I wanted to do a road trip with my father and my then 12-year-old son, Jonah. My father suggested Santa Fe. This started one of my favorite Katsenelson family traditions of visiting Santa Fe in the summer.
Santa Fe is 400 miles from Denver. It is a gorgeous eight-hour drive through the Rocky Mountains – this beauty is worth every mile. We leave at seven in the morning, have lunch in Salida, Colorado, and arrive in Santa Fe by 4 p.m. We always finish our first day at our favorite restaurant, the India Palace.
We’d spend half a day walking Canyon Road – Santa Fe’s gem. Canyon Road used to be just another residential street in a sleepy neighborhood. Then the houses were turned into galleries. There are about a hundred galleries along the road. Going from gallery to gallery is a bit like trick or treating – you want to make sure you stop by every house on both sides of the street (even if you don’t get the Halloween goodies).
My father turned this gallery “trick or treating” into a four-hour art lesson. He is a phenomenal teacher and art guide. Though in the US he became known as an artist, he has a PhD in electrical engineering and taught electrotechnics theory for 27 years at Murmansk Marine Academy. He was one of the teachers most beloved by students at the Academy. Thus, in addition to being a scientist and an artist, he is a very gifted teacher. It doesn’t matter what he teaches; you want to listen to him.
Anything and everything I know about art was taught to me by my father. As I have mentioned, our summer vacations were always accompanied by trips to art museums. Even when I was older and my father and I traveled to Europe, every city of size required a visit to an art museum.
This “trick or treating” through the galleries turned into a wonderful art lesson. My father was very gentle, not inflicting his thoughts on us, wanting to know our thoughts about the art. Our opinions mattered to him. He’d treat us as art equals. Obviously we were not, but it felt so good.
Student of life
In Ego Is the Enemy, Ryan Holiday makes the point that ego stifles our growth – we stop learning. What is the point of learning if we already know everything? Ego is a virus that is genetically programmed into all of us. It sits dormant and waiting to attack if we let it (usually triggered by failures and successes).
The best way to guard ourselves against our ego is by thinking of ourselves as evergreen students. Albert Einstein said, “As our circle of knowledge expands, so does the circumference of darkness surrounding it.” We should welcome “the circumference of darkness” wholeheartedly.
As I think about it now, my father is the embodiment of the moniker that has become near and dear to me: student of life. He is an accomplished artist who has won national and international awards, and his art is in an art museum in Japan. He took masterclasses from artists he admired well into his 70s. There was always something he could learn from others.
After exhausting our “trick or treating” we’d go to our favorite restaurant, sit under a big tree, have lunch, and play cards. Then we’d go to the hotel. My father would take a nap. Jonah and I would take a dip in the swimming pool. Then we’d go out to dinner. Jonah always wanted to go back to India Palace. So we did.
Santa Fe Opera
We’d finish the evening with the Santa Fe Opera – the highlight of the trip, at least for me. I’d argue the Opera is the second (or maybe even the first) gem of Santa Fe. The Santa Fe Opera building is itself a work of art – it sits gorgeously on a hillside overlooking the Jemez Mountains to the west and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east.
I’ve been to many operas, all over the world, but this was the first opera that had tailgate parties in the parking lot. And not your hotdog and beer football gathering. Opera lovers, dressed nicely for the occasion, brought their portable tables, with white linen cloths, and some even had flowers and candles. This was a wine, steak, and fine cheese kind of tailgate event with genuine wine glasses and fancy silverware – in the parking lot!
Saying that Jonah liked the opera is an overstatement, but he liked going there because I’d let him get Sprite during the intermission. He patiently suffered through the opera in anticipation of the intermission, when he’d have his Sprite.
On our third trip, in 2015, my father, and then 14-year-old Jonah, and I were joined by my then nine-year-old daughter, Hannah. We went to the Santa Fe Opera. This was Hannah’s first time at the opera, and we saw Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi. After the performance, as we were walking to the car – this was five years ago, but I remember this conversation as if it happened today – I sheepishly asked Hannah what she thought. She said, “Dad, I know you really wanted me to like this opera. And honestly, what I am saying has nothing to do with what you want. I really, really liked this opera.” My eyes are watering a little as I write this.
Santa Fe 2020
This year I went to Santa Fe with Hannah. My father and Jonah couldn’t make it. It was a father-daughter trip.
The Santa Fe Hannah and I encountered this time, during the pandemic, was quite different from the Santa Fe I am used to seeing. It was a ghost town. The Santa Fe Opera was closed. It seemed like we were the only tourists in town during the virus outbreak. Though the galleries were open, we did not visit them. It was hot, and we’d have to wear our masks for hours to go trick or treating.
Instead, Hannah and I would get up at 6 a.m., arm ourselves with Starbucks, and walk the empty streets of Santa Fe for a few hours before it got too hot. We’d talk. Hannah would tell me about the fantasy novels she is reading (they sounded so good I wanted to read them too). She’s been reading two books a week. We’d have breakfast, then find a bench under a big tree and read until dinner (we’d just snack for lunch). This was basically a reading trip.
During our long drive, Hannah and I listened to the audio book of The Martian. Hannah has shown an interest in science since we watched Elon Musk’s SpaceX rocket sending astronauts to the International Space Station. (Now I can understand how sending men to the moon in the ’60s was so inspiring to the nation.)
After that we watched astronaut Chris Hadfield’s MasterClass, and I could see Hannah’s eyes light up. The movie version of The Martian was the next logical stop. The book was different from the movie in that it went so much deeper into how (fictional) NASA astronaut Mark Watney, stuck on Mars, deals with incredibly difficult problems thrown at him by using science, ingenuity, and the will to survive.
As a parent, it is so important to notice these little inklings that your kids have and nurture them and help them grow. Maybe Hannah will become a scientist – as long as she is happy, I’d be delighted if she did. (Jonah has expressed no interest in investing, nor has Hannah. My six-year-old, Mia Sarah, is my last hope for IMA to become Katsenelson &… Daughter.)
Hannah used The Martian on me before we even finished listening to it. In the book, Mark Watney needs to travel 1,300 miles over Mars in a vehicle. It will take him a few weeks. The only food he has left is potatoes. He bakes potatoes before the trip and then freezes them. He explains that he did this not just because it is easier and more pleasant to eat cooked potatoes, but because cooking breaks down the protein in potatoes, and thus they provide more net calories than uncooked ones.
A few hours after we listened to this episode in the book, we stopped for lunch in Salida. Hannah had an ahi tuna salad (mostly uncooked tuna). Thirty minutes later, after we’ve eaten and are driving again, she tells me she’s hungry and could we stop and get a snack. I say, “You just ate!” She says, “Dad, you don’t understand. That tuna was not cooked and thus the protein was not broken down and so I didn’t get as many calories as you think!” How could I refute this well-constructed scientific argument?
A friend of mine told me a story about the St. Louis Bread Company that is known today as Panera Bread. After they made their very first batch of sourdough bread, they took a lump of the dough and put it aside. The following day, when they made a new batch of sourdough, they added the lump from the day before. They did this every day thereafter – adding the dough from yesterday to today’s dough. When they opened a new bakery, someone would bring a lump of yesterday’s dough from another bakery. They have been doing this for 40 years.
Think about it; Panera has 2,000 restaurants today. Every piece of their sourdough bread has a tiny bit of dough from 40 years ago and every day in between. The history of the company has been strung together in its sourdough bread.
Traditions are like that. The connecting tissue (dough) of traditions are memories. We string them together when we do things together with our family. Going to Santa Fe is a tradition for my family. When Hannah and I were walking the streets of Santa Fe, we kept saying, “Remember this place? You were looking for Pokémon with Jonah here,” or, “Remember this place? You played cards with Grandpa Naum and Jonah here.”
That is what Santa Fe is for us now. It is full of memories strung together – it is our “remember this” place.
2023 – Life is a Walk
My father could not come to Santa Fe this year; he has turned 90, and this trip is no longer for him. I went with Jonah (22), his girlfriend Molly, and Hannah (17).
Before I get into the trip, let me tell you about the text I got from Jonah in February this year while I was in Zurich.
“listened to this [Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4] with my friends today. Did not even hate it. I think somewhere in my brain I actually enjoyed it!”
I have to confess that this short text brought me incredible joy and even tears to my eyes. Zurich’s grey buildings started to look a bit less grey. It is hard to put this into words, I felt I could retire from being a parent at that moment. If I had, I would have been leaving at the top! One down, two to go.
Getting this text meant that the seeds I had planted and diligently watered for so long had taken root. I have been gently exposing Jonah to classical music since he was negative in age. Yes, while he was in my wife’s tummy. My wife wore a belt with speakers that had a pocket for a CD player in it and played Mozart to the baby (read the full story in Soul in the Game). We listened to music in the car on our trips to school and skiing. We went to classical music performances and, yes, took annual trips to the Santa Fe Opera.
This brings me to this year's trip. My kids are regular kids; in their free time, they listen to what other kids their age listen to. But these trips have planted something else in them: curiosity, love for art, and yes, love for classical music, even opera. When Jonah was young, on these trips he was looking forward to the treats: ice cream, soda at the opera, a game of cards during lunch. He was not quite serving a sentence while walking the Canyon Road galleries or going to the opera, but his attention was definitely on what he considered to be the "funner" parts of the trip.
This year was different. We saw Tosca, one of my favorite Puccini operas. For the first time, both kids unequivocally loved it and thought it was the highlight of the trip! But it was more than that. Both Jonah and Hannah were captivated by the art in the galleries; they were present in the moment, not thinking about what was to come.
The Vietnamese monk Thích Nhất Hạnh once said, "Life is a walk." These four simple words made me think a lot for weeks. I could write a whole essay on this brief sentence, and one day I will; but not now, to me, it means being present in the present moment. We often think of our life as something that will begin in the future – tomorrow night, when we go to the movies, or next month when we go on vacation. Life is now, this moment, and we are living it. It took ten trips to Santa Fe and dozens of visits to art museums and classical music concerts for Jonah and Hannah to start “walking” through life in Santa Fe on this trip.
I had another, important realization on this trip.
My parents grew up in very traditional Ashkenazi Jewish families. They valued books and classical music and viewed their children as the center of the universe. They attended every classical music concert they could, and they always took their kids with them. My parents followed in their parents' footsteps, adding art museums to the mix.
We were having dinner in Santa Fe the day after we saw Tosca. Hannah asked Jonah if he would bring his children to Santa Fe, take them to the opera, the galleries, or even take them to classical music concerts in Denver. Jonah thought about it for a moment and then said firmly, "Yes." Somewhat surprised, I asked, "Why?" He replied, "That is what we do."
I realized that this trip is more to us than just a continuation of the tradition my father started in 2003. It goes deeper and further than that; we are continuing the traditions started by my grandparents, and likely those of their ancestors. Life is a walk!
P.S. In this essay, I focus on only one cultural dimension of raising children. Raising good kids is much more than just taking them to classical music concerts, museums, and art galleries. The job of a parent is to bring children into this world who can stand on their own two feet when they face adversity in life, which they inevitably will. They should be great human beings who will be a net positive to society. Perhaps society is a big word, but we want our kids to be people who want to make the lives of those around them a bit better. It is important to be what you want your kids to be, too – they pay much more attention to your actions than your words. This is how my kids changed me; I had to transform into what I wanted them to become.
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Today I want to share with you an aria from the opera Tosca, composed by Giacomo Puccini. The aria I am sharing, “Te Deum,” is not the most popular one, but it is one of my favorites. In addition to the music of the orchestra and the remarkable baritone voice of the character Scarpia, Puccini packed this aria with organ, choir, and the background sound of church bells, creating an incredibly rich, powerful sound.
And then there is emotion. We feel it most strongly in the singing of Scarpia, who plays the chief of police, the villain of the story. He is in love with Tosca, but to get Tosca he needs to send her lover, Cavaradossi, who is hiding from the law, to face a firing squad. You see the duality of Scarpia: an evil mastermind but also a soul tortured by unrequited love for Tosca. The last words of Scarpia in this aria are those of a tortured soul: “Tosca, you make me forget God.” We see all the evil that may be caused by misguided love. Do we hate Scarpia a little bit less once we understand him?
According to the American baritone Cornell MacNeil, who sang this opera over eight hundred times, “When you put together interpretation, action, acting, movement, custom, the attitude, and the voice… it is tremendous. It is the most demanding role.”
Who is your favorite Scarpia? We are lucky that there are a lot of great performances of Tosca and this aria – after all, Tosca is one of the most-performed operas. It is right up there with La Boheme, Carmen, and La Traviata.
The Ruggero Raimondi performance adds a visual dimension to the opera: It is beautifully filmed. Also, if your Italian is rusty, it has subtitles.
The performance of “Te Deum” by Evgeny (Zhenya) Nikitin is very special to me because he was my childhood friend. Zhenya grew up in Murmansk, and we were in the same class until eighth grade (at the time Russia had a ten-grade system). We lost touch when I left school for technical college (the Murmansk Marine College). Zhenya completed his training at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and in 2002 he debuted at the Metropolitan Opera. I am biased, but his interpretation of Scarpia is one of my favorites.
Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who also sang the role beautifully, was a Russian (post-Soviet) opera superstar. He sadly passed away in 2017 at the age of 55. In 2015, when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor, he canceled all his performances; but he could not stay away from the Met and Anna Netrebko, and he travelled to New York to give his last three performances in Verdi’s Il Travatore.
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Vitaliy Katsenelson is the CEO at IMA, a value investing firm in Denver. He has written two books on investing, which were published by John Wiley & Sons and have been translated into eight languages. Soul in the Game: The Art of a Meaningful Life (Harriman House, 2022) is his first non-investing book. You can get unpublished bonus chapters by forwarding your purchase receipt to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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