Sunday, December 30, 2007

Silly Symphonies - Program 4

The Silly Symphonies program was fun, and probably it was good that I only got to see one 70-minute program. (As opposed to watching all four programs. It would be like watching a whole bunch of half-hour sitcoms until you walk away feeling empty, as if a few hours of your life have gone down the drain with nothing to show for it -- you've been neither educated nor entertained, and you've not accomplished anything either. And people wonder why I don't have a TV? I know my weakness.)

The best of the lot was the six-minute cartoon "Hell's Bells" from 1929, the earliest of the series. The music was good, the animation consisted of, er, devilishly clever but simple line drawings. There are some ghoulish touches, such as one devil playing a skeleton bass, and another doing percussion on a skull and pressing the bellows with his foot to sound a trumpet (the "bellows" is another devil, lying on the ground with a trumpet to his lips). Meanwhile, the bubbling lava provides additional percussion. The whole thing is kind of sassy and sweet. The official program describes the crux of the plot as follows: "After the devil king drinks fire milked from the udder of a dragon, he eats one of his devil servants and pursues a second one over a cliff." The scene is more dramatically and psychologically rich than the writeup suggests, and (naturally) vastly more entertaining to watch. The king has to pursue the second servant because he (the second one) won't stand still to be eaten after seeing the fate of the first servant. He then outwits the king and manages to lure him out to the end of a cliff while he hides underneath, then climbs up a crevice behind the king, and boots him over the edge.

I also really liked The Old Mill (1937), which is a lovely 9-minute wordless tale of the creatures who inhabit an old windmill (gotta love the bats) and how they deal with the battering of a severe storm which temporarily jars the old mill into life.

Water Babies (1935) was fascinating, with an innocence that now looks a bit creepy through modern eyes - I don't think Disney would make a film like this anymore. It reminded me a little of the work of Anne Geddes.

The others were interesting, though some have aged better than others. The eerily similar "Little Red Hen" and "Wise Little Hen" (both released in 1934), nonetheless evoke very different responses in the modern viewer. LRH was almost unwatchable, while WLH was okay if a little over-cute. I was more intrigued by the fact that two studios (perhaps independently) came up with the same basic idea, just as they did in 1998 with "Armageddon" and "Deep Impact." Is it the case that great minds think alike (i.e., mere coincidence)? Or were creative minds in both places reading the same zeitgeist? Or, for you conspiracy theorists out there, did one studio get wind of the other's plan and decide not to be left out of the "trend"?

The Art of the Apology

If, like the protagonist in "Sorry" (The Skunks, No Apologies, 1996), you find that you "don't know what to say" (or perhaps you "know the words/ But can't pronounce them anyway"), check out this official apology form which I ran into on a NYT blog.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Yoga Countdown

Well, I have four yoga classes left, and three days to take them. I think I'll take three "easy" classes - the "lounging lotus" restorative session yesterday was wonderfully relaxing. Although it seemed like we spent most of our time folding blankets, which wasn't really supposed to be the point. We were supposed to be peeling away the physical self, the mental self, the emotional self, and one other self I completely forget (maybe it was successfully peeled away) to get down to the "true" self, aka the prana self. I really liked the pose we did to empty out the emotional self - very open and relaxing. By contrast, during the "prana self" pose, I was mostly distracted by the stinky blankets under my nose. And all this talk about selfs around Christmastime tends to trigger thoughts of elfs, which is not very helpful for the visualization we were supposed to be doing.

The only problem with taking the easy class today is that it will interfere with my ability to go see the first Silly Symphonies program at the Museum of the Moving Image. Hmmm. Decisions, decisions.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Feline Instinct

Cats are notorious for settling themselves in to the center of things -- right on the book you are reading, or on the keyboard if you're using the computer. B&S don't have a cat anymore, but their little one has the feline instinct. (And yes, the older one won't let go of her new stuffed animal, Stinger the stingray, as she unwraps another gift.)

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas Pageant

For my belated Christmas pageant debut, I ended up buying an angel outfit at Ricky's (my first visit there). As regular Ricky's customers may have guessed, it was difficult to find anything other than a Sexy Angel or a Plus Size Angel, neither of which would have fit the occasion. My perseverance paid off, however, and I ended up with a costume that was considerably cooler than the church-provided ones -- a much better halo, and real feather wings. So I was careful to stay out of the limelight, since the audience was definitely not there to see me. (Some eagle-eyed readers may quibble that my parents must have been there to see me; to them, I merely point out that my parents' attention was siphoned off to a large degree by other, far more prominent pageant participants -- such as their son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren.)

My niece loves to play dress-up, so I let her try on my angel outfit afterward. She out-cuted me in my own costume, even though the sleeves were about a foot too long.

She also looked more natural in wings.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Frrrrozen North

After a stressful week (not nearly enough time to do everything I wanted to do, and a strange dinner with a buddy who tried to seize my bags and carry them for me without asking first - is this where chivalry crosses the line into controlling behavior? - but I graciously permitted him to carry the bag containing my angel costume), my 3 a.m. alarm permitted me to cram my Friday morning with cooking breakfast (can't face the day on an empty stomach), running a load of laundry, and frantic bag-packing, followed by a mad scramble to Penn Station with three ill-packed, heavy bags.

I made the 6:20 a.m. Acela Express (thank goodness I mistakenly thought the train was scheduled for 6:15) and commenced a period of intense productivity. I snagged a seat at a table and managed to discourage people from taking the empty seats as I took out my wrapping paper, scissors, and tape, and methodically proceeded to wrap all my presents - including two that I meant to leave in NYC (grrr). Once that was done, I pulled out my stack of Christmas cards and prepared them for everyone whose address I had on hand. Even this partial distribution is a real step forward, as I pretty much failed to send any in 2005 or 2006.

Instead of alighting at South Station, I decided to get out a stop early at Back Bay/Copley Square and walk to my old dorm to catch up with a friend. This was not a particularly practical move, as it turns out, since my mental geography had relocated Copley Square to where the Hynes Convention Center is. How quickly we forget! I was able to find my way, but it was a good 10+ blocks further than I expected. Luckily the walk along Commonwealth Ave in the fresh snow was its own reward. The trees, every bare branch bedecked with an inch of snow, looked like bonsai trees, the snow highlighting their every twist and tangle. I would very much have liked to take some pictures, especially of one particular townhouse with a copper-sheathed bay window, but my camera was deep-sixed and the going was slow enough as it was. I enjoyed a cup of coffee with my friend, talking of this, that, and theology. She also told me about a very cool job opening at Rosedale Achievement Center in the South Bronx (where I used to volunteer three Saturdays a month as a drama teacher).

I caught the bus from South Station around the time that my parents caught the bus from Logan Airport (they flew in from India) and we made our way together to their place. Which turned out to be a nice, energy-conserving 40 degrees. We accidental environmentalists then made the mistake of turning up the thermostat, which had the counter-intuitive result of forcing COLD AIR all around the house. So it got a lot colder. Luckily we were able to start a fire and sit around watching "Christmas in July" (a Preston Sturges flick) while trying to reach the furnace folks.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

FOCUS Cider Sing and the Ghost City

Today's official sermon (more about the unofficial sermon later) was about "speaking truth to power" -- a phrase that raises my hackles and leaves them that way. It doesn't help that R had told me about attending a fundraising "speak truth to power" event held on the grand private estate of one of the younger Kennedys.

However, it was worth going to the 11:15 service, not only because it builds character and Rev. Perdue may manage to slip in a theological truth or two when I let my guard down for a moment, but also because afterward, a hardy group banded together for the annual Cider Sing. That's right, we stood under the eaves of the church on Fifth Avenue, barely sheltered from the cold damp wind, and treated passers-by to unrehearsed caroling, mini muffins, hot cider, and Christmas cheer.

Here you can see us standing around while our director pro tempore oversaw the recall of the 2005 Edition Songbook and replaced it with the 2007 Edition:

The 2007 Upgrade was in some ways a downgrade, since the new songbook did not have the music or lyrics for "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" in it. We had to sing that one from memory. Luckily, it was one of our strong points -- many of us knew the cheeky catch-phrases to shout out in-between verses -- although there was some disagreement about whether Rudolf would go down in history like Christopher Columbus, Mickey Mouse, or various other important historical figures.

Oddly, despite the inclement weather, passers-by slowed and gathered around to watch, listen and applaud. They snapped photos and videotaped us as if we were trained professional singers rather than enthusiastic amateurs much like themselves. (Although in fairness, at least two soprano voices near me were professional quality, and one of those voices belongs to an official member of our auditioned choir. Those voices certainly stood out for their clarity of tone, pitch, etc.) One tourist, carrying an Abercrombie & Fitch bag, came up and told us -- almost with tears in his eyes -- that this was the absolute highlight of his weekend. And they weren't even tears of laughter. He was genuinely moved.

My day actually started much earlier than 11:15, however, because I had volunteered to help out with Sunday school. It's always a lot of fun, starting with the mini worship service. The kids' sermons tend to be more hands-on than cerebral or political. Jacob Bolton, director of Family Ministries, gave a sermon about how we're all connected through Jesus. The prop was a ping pong ball with an L.E.D. and an electronic noisemaker inside, and two metal strips on the outside. If you hold the ball touching both metal strips simultaneously, the current flows through your body and the ball lights up and makes a little noise. Very cool. But in order to make the necessary theological point, Jacob had to hold the ball so that he was touching one strip, then a kid would come up and hold Jacob's hand and touch the other strip. The current then went through both bodies and energized the ball; if they unclasped their hands, the circuit was broken.

In the picture below, Jacob took a risk with his sermon - he had 10+ kids come up and link hands creating one monster circuit. Would the current run through ALL of them and light up the ball? Luckily, it worked as anticipated (phew!).

On the way home, I caught the ghostly skyline through the subway windows:

Friday, December 14, 2007

The Sun Terrace at Night

Another great shindig at the Sun Terrace, a place in midtown west (far west) with low buildings all around ... thus providing a spectacular nighttime panorama of all the lit-up skyscrapers, that my camera simply cannot capture.

Alda tries to tempt Roger with a brownie...
While Sharon chats with our gracious host, Patricia.
I made my masala-spiced chickpeas for the feast. There was a lot of competition (including a large pizza, two shepherd's pies, several salads, rice dishes, roasted chicken, and a plethora of desserts), but no clear winner. Other than the doormen, who get a lot of the leftover goodies as the party wraps up.

In the spirit of the season, a Christmas tree at night:

Thursday, December 13, 2007

News of the Weird (is there any other kind)

We had a lot of cold rain here today, but when I emerged from the subway on my way home, the streetlights caught the ice coating the bare branches of all the young trees. Really lovely.

My current obsession is Weird Al -- I treated myself to five of his songs recently and am in seventh heaven. I can't stop smiling at these sublime rhymes, which work a Nashian/Seussian transformation of the underlying source material.

The best of the lot is "Ebay", a spoof of the Backstreet Boys' "I want it that way". He should definitely win a prize for best-ever use of the word "tchotchkes" in a song ("...I'll buy your tchotchkes. Sell me your watch, please!"). His anti-TV songs are really fun too.

In yoga news, I have only 8 classes left! And 10 days to take them! Woo hoo! This doesn't leave me a lot of time to rest on my laurels, unfortunately.

And in the "News of the Weird" category, there's another person at work (luckily not in my building or my department) with the same first and last name. So I get her emails from time to time. (She doesn't seem to get mine, or if she does, she doesn't bother to forward them to me.) Today, I realized we also have the same middle initial. Interesting coincidence. So I asked her middle name. Turns out it is the same as mine. Pretty neat, eh? As it happens, though, she was born in a different month, so we can be pretty sure we are not twins separated at birth or whatever. But still.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Two Churches

The yoga countdown continues: 10 to go. The "red-eye" classes are killing me. If only I could take naps at work!!

Sunday, December 09, 2007

The Limbic Brain

This has pretty much been movie week. I saw The Nun's Story last night (Audrey Hepburn tries very hard to be a nun in 1930's Belgium and the Belgian Congo but finally concludes that her conscience is more important than obedience to her order) and Enchanted today (cartoon prince and princess-to-be become real-life characters in NYC and cross paths with a lawyer and his fiancee-to-be; can you guess who ends up with whom, and who ends up rescuing whom?).

I do not know if The Nun's Story accurately portrays life behind convent walls. The film depicts an order in which ritual trumps faith, and human religious leaders are stand-ins for Jesus who must be venerated and obeyed without question.

Even worse, in the film nuns' quest for purity, they cut themselves off from human touch (no hugs, just like Seinfeld). There is no evidence of human love, comfort, or tenderness. If they are indeed giving everything up for the love of Jesus, it does not fill them with joy. Even in worship, they do not show anything other than obedience.

Audrey Hepburn's character is one of the nuns who are called to the ministry of nursing. But the nuns in the film are not supposed to talk unnecessarily, so often decline to speak to their patients where a kind or reassuring word might do wonders. As nurses, they are (I would think) at a disadvantage because they are forbidden to make the connections craved by the limbic brain.

In A General Theory of Love, psychiatrists Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon argue that the limbic brain -- which desperately desires to connect with others -- is critical to the health and well-being of mammals. They describe (as did Rev. Rock coincidentally in his sermon today) how children who are not held and spoken to face-to-face suffer, and may even die. Other reports have suggested that adults who lack a strong social support structure tend to get sick more often (I think the researchers were looking at incidence of the common cold).

I read A General Theory of Love earlier this year, and found it intriguing:
Love alters the structure of our brains. All of us, when we engage in relatedness, fall under the gravitational influence of another's emotional world, at the same time that we are bending his emotional mind with ours. ...Ongoing exposure to one person's limbic [patterns] does not merely activate neural patterns in another—it also strengthens them. Long standing togetherness writes permanent changes into a brain's open book. In a relationship, one mind revises another; one heart changes its partner. This astounding legacy of our combined status as mammals and neural beings is limbic revision: the power to remodel emotional parts of the people we love...Who we are and who we become depends, in part, on whom we love.
I'm not sure how a multi-year crush fits into that schema, other than to suggest that probably my affection for him is probably permanently hard-wired into my brain at this point. Great. Rev. Martha Niebanck of First Parish in Brookline has nicely distilled some of the key premises of A General Theory of Love as follows:
Early mammals evolved from small lizardish reptiles and developed another brain, the limbic brain, which is draped over the reptilian core. The limbic brain transformed the mechanics of reproduction and the orientation toward offspring: “Detachment and disinterest mark the parental attitude of the typical reptile, while mammals can enter into subtle and elaborate interactions with their young...Mammals form close-knit mutually nurturant social groups, —families and clans and tribes—in which members spend time touching and care for one another.” (25) Reptiles abandon their eggs, unhatched. Newborn reptiles are silent lest the sound of their vulnerability invite the attention of their carnivore parents. Vulnerability is no asset to a reptile.

Mammals, on the other hand, vocalize to each other, sing, and play. Mammals cry in distress when separated from a parent or the pack. Mammals sing and coo and reach out with their voices when reunited. Mammals live in a sea of social interchange. Our limbic brains are adjusting to each other continuously—your facial expression is taken in by my eyes, translated into a feeling, translated into a thought and a facial expression in response. This back and forth tuning is called “limbic resonance.” If I meet you and you are frowning, I am more likely to frown with you. We share our moods and we change each other with our moods.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Christmas Spirit

Well, it's that time of year again. Time to take down the Halloween decorations (beaded "spiderweb" candle holder, felt bats, orange greeting cards) and put up the Christmas decorations. So, this year, I put up a Christmas tree - which I haven't done in a few years since I always celebrate Christmas in New England.

Modesty forbids me from stating exactly how imposing this tree really is. In the photo below, however, it's shown with one of those Easter Island figures, so you can get a sense of the scale:

I took Basics with Patty today (a great class), so just 11 to go...

Friday, December 07, 2007

Yoga and On-Line Friends

The yoga countdown continues. I survived the 6:45 a.m. yoga class this morning (just barely) so I have only 12 classes to go.

Since I recently posted a facebook profile, I'm slowly learning about online friendship.

Oddly, these two recent "trends" in my life have somehow intersected with the world of Harry Potter. On her official web site, JK Rowling debunks some myths about how she has acquired her fabulous appearance:

J K Rowling does pilates, yoga, jogs, has botox injections and has cut out saturated fats

Apparently I've been 'Rowling back the years' (ho, ho). Yes, the secrets behind my new (ahem) health and beauty regime have been confided to a British newspaper by a 'friend'.

Now, most people stop having imaginary friends once they're adults, but mine sometimes drop in on journalists to give them completely unrecognisable accounts of my life. My carbon-based friends, however, if asked whether I jog, do pilates and yoga, have a frozen forehead or refuse cake, might well suffer some kind of mirth-induced internal injury.

I just loved that.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

A friend of mine snagged tickets to a sneak preview of Sweeney Todd. I somehow convinced myself this would be a play rather than a movie, and thus relatively un-gory. Let's just say that once the killing started, I watched the movie from behind my fingers. I think it's been a while since I've been to an R-rated flick.

Still, it was a good movie. I was familiar with the story, because we put on Sweeney Todd as a musical when I was in 8th grade. (I played Queen Victoria, a very minor but entertaining character who does not appear in the film. Then again, the film has entirely different songs and music, not to mention additional characters, subplots and plot twists. So I'm thinking we didn't put on the Stephen Sondheim work.)

The movie is directed by Tim Burton and stars Johnny Depp as Sweeney Todd. There's a lovely moment where they pay homage to their prior collaboration Edward Scissorhands - the barber has been reunited with his gleaming silver razors after 15 years, and promptly unfurls one of the blades. Holding it full-length with outstretched arm, he proclaims that finally his arm is complete again. Corny, I know. But pretty cool.

I'm not a big fan of musicals in general, or movie musicals in particular (sorry, Bollywood), but I really liked several of the songs - especially the barbershop duet with Todd and Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) and the meat pie duet with Todd and Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter).

There are a number of nice touches and even a few small surprises that occasionally lighten the grim tone (without dispelling it). I liked the trip to a Victorian madhouse - especially that the women are sorted and stored by hair color. The hero (if you will) at one point is looking for a blonde, but he is first shown the brunettes and redheads.

HP fans might see some touches of Severus Snape in Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman does malevolence well), but rest assured Turpin's level of debauchery would not be suitable for a children's film.

The Third Shoe Drops

Or the third toenail, at any rate. Precisely 3 months after the end of my hike through the Scottish highlands, the toenail on my left big toe finally gave up the ghost. I'll spare you the pictures, although it's actually not gruesome at all - a pale, wavy nail about three-quarters grown covers the toe. Kind of cute, in a way.

In other news, I realize I have to somehow cram in 13 yoga classes into the next 20 days. Hmmm. I've been waking up way too early anyway, maybe I'll try the sunrise classes (ugh).

Saturday, December 01, 2007


On the way to a wedding, I saw this "Love Birds" bus. I hope this was not the honeymoon getaway vehicle.

Tahira was lovely (as always) and simply radiant; there was hardly a dry eye in the audience.

Jim chose the texts for the ceremony. The selection from the Song of Solomon was particularly well-presented (and somewhat mischievous).

I'm not sure who chose the music - Swan praised the choices but denied any involvement in the selection. Then again, he seemed to think the wedding ceremony was a BYOV affair. (Get your mind out of the gutter, V stands for violin.) During the Hayden duet, Holde Gattin!, I was trying to practice my German, but to no avail - I was only able to pick out words such as "Freude" (joy) and "Augenblick" (moment), which might not really be the keys to the song.

Rev. Rock officiated; one nice touch was to encourage everyone to recite the Lord's Prayer together in whatever form was most comfortable to them. I'm a "trespasser" at heart, even though I've trained myself to say "debtor", so it was nice to be in a room full of trespassers. The sermon focused on wine - alas, another thing I miss from my childhood church - which provided some natural, fruitful metaphors about blending and maturing and so forth. (He didn't mention grafting ourselves into Jesus's vine or putting new wine into old wineskins, but that's probably just as well for the purpose.) Wine was also, of course, a good segue into the reception.

Despite the excellent transition, we did need to give the happy couple some time to pose for photos etc. and make their way to the Essex House. Cheryl (henceforth to be known as "the Mastermind") suggested getting our nails done. Very cool. We took the opportunity to nail down our positions on important topics such as what would we do if we ran away and joined the circus.

The reception was lovely, although there was bit of an issue with the paparazzi at first:

Jim's speech at the reception had its humorous moments in keeping with his public persona - he built suspense by telling us the second thing he noticed about Tahira first - but also revealed some of the depth and warmth of his feelings for Tahira (not exactly a secret, naturally, but I think it was a big deal to put into words in front of a crowd). Tahira's brother James gave the couple, and particularly his sister, a really moving tribute.

There was also plenty of dancing and good company, with lots of photogenic FOCUS folks (photos on facebook).

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Thanksgiving at the Wildlife Refuge

First thing in the morning, before putting the turkey in the oven, we set off for a national wildlife refuge. This gave us an opportunity to watch non-basted birds, like this tri-color heron [?]:*

The colors got a bit washed out in the harsh Florida sun, but the roseate spoonbills were pretty cool (they are pink, like flamingos, reflecting their shrimp-heavy diet, but their bills have a distinctive spoon shape at the end):

A little blue heron [?] hid among the mangroves, ready to catch any fish that mistakenly sought shelter in the roots :

At the Mangrove Overlook, we didn't see very many tree crabs, but the red mangroves (which ironically have green leaves) have made a strong comeback. Another tricolor heron [?] enjoyed the shade.
We spent a lot of time at the Mangrove Overlook, looking over a reddish egret (that's the official name of the bird, not a vague description) that was fishing, fluttering, taking off and landing. I think this is a picture of the reddish egret (they drag their feet to stir up the fish):

The mangrove root system, which certainly could have inspired the forest of Fangorn:

On our way out of the Mangrove Overlook, we got a close view of another tricolor heron [?]:

Soon afterward, we came across a real hotbed of activity, a small waterway running alongside the main road. Egrets challenged each other (puffing up their feathers to intimidate each other), jockeyed for position on a favorite branch and prime shore spots, and dragged their feet in the water to stir up the fish. Not many of them seemed to catch and eat fish while we were watching, but they were constantly in motion:

By contrast, a pelican glided serenely through:Despite a number of signs warning us that the last big storms to pass through the neighborhood had decimated the mangroves, leaving them to be out-competed by other, more aggressive plants, there was plenty of new growth:
This great blue heron [?] obviously can't read the sign:

We took a final detour just outside the exit gate of the refuge, to enjoy a stroll along the Shell Mound Trail. You can see key lime trees, gumbo limbo trees, and parasitic cacti. You can also see some cool black-and-yellow bugs on milkweed pods:
This brown anole (a non-native species that is crowding out the green anole, much like the gray squirrels are edging out the red squirrels) apparently likes shady hammocks...
...but then again, don't we all?

My mom cooked a lovely Thanksgiving dinner, with a new cranberry sauce invented on the spot because she forgot one of her usual ingredients. (The replacement ingredient was apricot jam, making for a much thicker sauce than usual.) She also made the pumpkin pie with extra ginger and no nutmeg - it was still delicious!


FN *: I used to recognize the different types of birds, but now I keep getting all the different kinds of herons and egrets mixed up. So I'm going to need to double-check the bird names.... Where is a Stokes guide when you need one??

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Paradise Found

Eat your heart out, Milton. A few more images from Florida.

There is a bike path all around the island, perfect for rollerblading - although you have to watch out for obstacles of various kinds:

Sunset on the beach:
A boy looks out on the water:

At The Mad Hatter, we dined on goat cheese phyllo pillow pastries, spiced watermelon salad, and "airline chicken" (delicious, and sans plastic tray). Stained glass featured Alice, the dormouse & the mad hatter:

The morning sun shines through the sea grapes....

... and of course I immediately challenge my dad's advice that taking pictures of the sun directly will somehow damage my digital camera:

The beach in twilight:
Another beach scene:

Most of the australian pines (a non-native tree that grows to towering heights) were lost in the last batch of storms. They are top-heavy and have a shallow root structure, so this was not exactly a surprise. However, it means that we no longer get to see pelicans roosting along the shoreline. That's OK, because we still see pelicans fishing and floating, and even lines of pelicans arcing down to fly low over the water:

Bird tracks in twilight (NOT pelican tracks):

A view away from the setting sun:

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Long Road to Turkey Day

I do not particularly recommend that NYC-based, Florida-bound travelers take precisely the route I took this year. I flew from JFK to Houston, then drove to San Antonio (it took about 5 hours in a torrential downpour with a navigator whose modus operandi was characterized by frequent stops to ask for directions). At San Antonio, I stayed at the Pear Tree Inn, which had a somewhat musty smell in the corridors, but was incredibly convenient to a traveler who needed to leave for the airport at 5:15 a.m. The Pear Tree Inn turns out to be a bit like a hostel, in a good way, except with private rooms. When I arrived, some families were using the bellhop luggage carts to wheel in a large amount of groceries; teenagers or college kids were sitting at the cafeteria style tables under the watchful eye of reception; and I was able to check my email for free on the hotel's computer. They said the breakfast was available from 7 to 10 a.m., but when I came down at 5 a.m. to call the free shuttle to the airport, there was already a tremendous spread: coffee, juice, cereal, milk, yogurt, bananas, apples, toast, etc. There was also a microwave, and this initially mysterious device:

It is a waffle iron. And the plastic cups in the ice bucket contain premixed waffle batter. I thought that was so incredibly gracious and sweet. Unfortunately, the shuttle to the airport arrived before I could even think about trying it out!

From San Antonio, I flew back to Houston (?!) on my way to Florida. (Ironic, but I couldn't get a direct flight.) My plane was delayed, so it wasn't clear that I would make the connection - but then it turned out the connection was delayed too. It would have been nice if they'd mentioned this on the flight status monitors. Grrr.

Then at last, bliss. I spent a lot of time relaxing and reading Rising Tide (recommended by runnernyc) or looking out at the water and sky.

There were some interesting clouds at sunset:
And anoles indoors on the tiled porch:

A scene from my first rollerblading jaunt, toward the lighthouse:

It was good to be home.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Saturday at the Jewish Museum

I got a cold in Buffalo last week, while I was staying in the last room available in the entire hotel: an unheatably large Presidential Suite. In retrospect, I probably should have hung out in the in-room sauna or demanded wood and matches for my two fireplaces. Oh well.

But since I was feeling a bit under the weather, I really tried to take it easy on the weekend. Saturday was my day of rest (no soccer games), so what better way to rest up than to take a peaceful stroll through Central Park on my way to the Jewish Museum (for the sabbath, admission is free).

The trees are finally starting to turn. Sort of.

I passed my favorite obelisk near the Met and continued north:

The exhibit that drew me to the Jewish Museum this time was the impressionist paintings of Pissaro. I wasn't familiar with his work, and for the most part, I wasn't really taken with his portraits and subject matter; too much romanticized peasantry for my taste. But I did like his landscapes, especially this one (yes, this too is a farming scene - ploughing - but really lovely in person):

After a relatively short time with Pissaro, I turned to the William Steig exhibit, which turned out to be a lot of fun. I've thought of him largely as a New Yorker cartoonist and cover artist (and not my favorite, either), but it turns out I've been exposed to more of his oeuvre than I'd realized. For instance, I knew some of his children's books -- I've actually read them to my niece. (I think my sister-in-law was responsible for the purchase of Dr. DeSoto and Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, since they weren't part of my or my brother's childhood.) Also, it had somehow escaped my notice that Mr. Steig was behind the concept of the movie Shrek. Oddly, I'm not a big fan of the books or even Shrek -- but I loved the exhibit, which should give you a sense of how cool it was.

One room was dedicated to his books for children. I enjoyed reading the descriptions of the books, and the artwork was lovely - I really liked this one, "Battles Raged":
Another room was dedicated to his cartoons. They were arranged in an interesting way, so you could see some of the themes and backstory developing.

In the cartoon room, I really liked the interactive wall of faces. Some of the faces are slightly raised, and they turn out to be doors. You can open them and discover painted cubbyholes containing 3-D interpretations of items depicted elsewhere in Steig's work. For instance, one face opened up to reveal a miniature stone and a red pebble, from Sylvester and the Magic Pebble.
Now that I think about it, it was the three large, colorful interactive exhibits that really transformed the experience. In addition to the wall of faces, there was also a fabric wall in another room with a sort of plant or jungle scene on it. On the fabric wall, the raised objects turned out to be magnetic (e.g., a butterfly, some birds, a frog, etc.) and you could move them around and change the scene. One young mother was facing an uphill battle to keep her toddler from touching that colorful wall -- she was thrilled when I pointed out the sign inviting us to touch and move things around!

The third interactive exhibit was a reading room again decorated with bright painted foam objects from the books. There I took some time to get a sense of one or two of his other books before some of the smaller set came in to take over the comfy beanbag chair.

Finally, it was closing time, so I took a nice long relaxing journey home by subway and then settled in to watch The Two Towers.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

If it ain't Baroque...

... don't display it. Or something like that. The Curator of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art told us that tapestries are a woefully overlooked art form (scholars, art historians and the viewing public are all into paintings these days), and to the extent anyone does look at them they always go for the medieval/renaissance tapestries (e.g., The Cloisters) rather than the more vibrant baroque items. This is, he intimated, a mistake.

The curator even hinted that art collection bargains might still be found in the world of tapestries -- although his example of a "find" ($32,000 in 1992 for a mislabeled and faded tapestry that is now heralded as an important masterpiece) does not make me optimistic that I personally will be able to identify and acquire worthwhile investments in this area.

One of the earlier tapestries on display shows a very detailed formal garden - fairly static (like the earlier periods), and with small figures (small figures are apparently easier to weave in than larger ones, and thus suggest a commercial item rather than a royally commissioned one). A fountain to the right of the greenery features a "bronze" statue (apparently of Diana's transformation of the unfortunate mortal Actaeon into a stag that will be ripped apart by his own hunting hounds) flanked by "bronze" statues of dogs. The weavers then put in a "real" dog to the right of the fountain, crouching/squatting and facing away from the fountain. You can't see the detail here (in fact, you will probably have trouble recognizing the dog, a gray blur between the person and the flowerpot), but that's just as well, because he is doing something that cannot be described in detail in a family-friendly blog. Let's just say if he were a cat, Miss Manners would prescribe a litterbox for this situation.

Somewhat later, after people rejected Rubens as a tapestry stylist (more on that shortly), more delicate, refined and aristocratic styles became fashionable. Here are Leander and Hero, the star-crossed lovers fatally separated by the Hellespont. You gotta love the buckling columns of Venus's temple in the background.

What I really liked about the Hero & Leander tapestry was the realistic 3-D portrayal of draped fabric (the lovers' clothing) on the flat fabric of the tapestry itself. Here's a somewhat color-imbalanced closeup of the folds of fabric falling near Hero's dainty foot:The curator pointed out some intriguing similarities between Baroque tapestry and film. Partly this is due to the intense detail and sense of movement - it's somewhat cinematographic in scope and intent. But from what he said, I get the sense that the actual "production" experience is also similar. In a sprawling epic film such as Lord of the Rings, for instance, I would expect that most of the artisans/craftspersons and actors had access to some or all of the script. Many had probably read the book. But I would imagine most of them worked on their specific portion(s) with only a hazy idea of what the final product would look like -- it would be probably Peter Jackson and his closest writers/co-directors who had the clearest vision of the film and how all the parts would be woven together. Similarly, for tapestry production, there would be an artist who would create the design (known as a "cartoon", though it might be a very large and detailed oil painting), perhaps a few others who would translate that cartoon into specific amounts, types and colors of thread and specific patterns, and then the myriad laboring weavers who would see perhaps no more than 2' of the fabric at any one time, and might even be weaving from the back.

The purposes of tapestry (besides spiffing up a castle and keeping out the drafts) were many - ranging from shameless propaganda and self-promotion to mere decoration to perhaps an attempt at zoological instruction. This tapestry apparently included a number of Brazilian plants and animals, along with some random out-of-place interlopers from other continents:

(I like that the jungle cat has not bothered to go after the weakest of the herd, but is instead just taking a bite out of the back of a nice, strong, juicy horse/zebra.) But let's get back to Rubens, shall we? Apparently, the critics didn't like his round, full-bodied tapestry style for some reason. Here's a detail from his scene showing one of the Emperor Constantine's most famous battles, one where the bad guys are on a bridge when it collapses sending them to their doom. This was actually one of my favorite items in the exhibit, but there was something a bit surreal about it:
And I found it subtly echoed in one of my favorite Dali works, Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus), which I ran into on my way to the Arts of Africa/Oceana/etc. exhibit:

I liked this full body mask, perfect for those days when you find all of your clothes terribly unflattering.
This "whale transformation mask" dates from 1890 in British Columbia. All of its parts are hinged and movable - there are strings to control the flippers, the tail, the mouth, etc. And it is a "transformation" mask because you can open up the whale head (like three flower petals) to reveal a humanoid mask inside (visible only from the front).
I liked this aboriginal painting (Australian), athough I do not know why it is called "The Two Women of Pinarinya":

So it wasn't an all-Baroque event. I have to say it is hard to get excited about the more faded tapestries, though I try to imagine their original vibrant colors. And I don't agree with the curator's suggestion that tapestries necessarily offer more to the close observer than paintings. He claimed that you can just take a look at a painting from a distance and it offers up its secrets. In my experience, that is false except in the case of very simple works - a red circle on a white background, for instance - or poorly crafted ones. But many paintings (independent of their size) are intensely detailed and reward repeated scrutiny from multiple angles and even different distances. And some tapestries are a bit cartoonish -- particularly in the nuances of a face. There are painted portraits that can provoke intense debate over the meaning of a facial expression, but I have never seen the equivalent in the world of tapestry.