Monday, April 30, 2007

Romeo + Juliet

Early last Sunday morning, I joined hundreds of other New Yorkers queuing up for free tickets to an open dress rehearsal for the New York City Ballet's "world premiere" of Sergei Prokofiev's two-act ballet, Romeo + Juliet. (Based on the similarly named Shakespearean play, rather than the movie that came out in the mid-nineties.) This is not the first time Prokofiev's ballet has been performed, so I'm not entirely sure what the "world premiere" refers to -- maybe to Peter Martins' choreography?

In any event, you could tell it was a big deal - the ceiling was festooned with large and majestic purple ribbons.

Docents stood on all the levels with historic ballet costumes from the archives - including some dating back to the original productions of Balanchine ballets.

Peter Martins himself came out before the performance and again at intermission to speak to us.

The ballet was lovely. All the Shakespearean speeches and characters were clearly translated into movement (and music). Mercutio translated amazingly well. Sometimes they used exaggerated pantomime to act out something (e.g., dramatic pointing to the exit when the Capulets discover that Romeo has crashed their party to make it clear he is not welcome and must leave). One other comment: although Porokiev obviously composed the ballet long before West Side Story was written, I think it may be difficult for a modern choreographer not to be informed in some way by the Sharks and the Jets when puting together the intial ballet interactions between the Capulets and Montagues. There is some of the same adolescent energy, sassiness and mutual provocation, a push-pull of conflict and sensuality.

For a dress rehearsal - and the very first time they put everything together (costumes, scenery, orchestra, lights and dancers) - it was an incredibly polished performance. In fact, it was more like an opening night than anything else. The crowd went wild. And I think the dancers were reallly gratified by the reaction. This is perhaps what happens when you open the high-fallutin' ballet halls to the masses. New Yorkers love a bargain.

My tickets were up in the third tier, so I brought binoculars. But I really didn't need them...

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Running update

The good news is that I've only missed my weekly run 3 times in the first 4 months -- and one of those times, I went rollerblading up and down the length of the Hudson River bike path, which isn't the same as running, but still counts for something. The bad news is that when I went running today, I only went for 0.8 miles. I blame this partly on my iPod, which is up to its usual tricks: playing only about 10 of the 200 songs I've loaded on to it. The others it passes by like exits on a highway. You can't fool it into playing the songs it wants to skip by (a) putting them onto a playlist, (b) accessing them through different menus [e.g., songs vs. albums vs. artist vs. recently played vs. shuffle], (c) turning the iPod off and on again, (d) using the "reset all settings" feature, or (e) deleting all the songs, upgrading to the new iPod software, and then reinstalling the songs again from iTunes. Luckily the iPod is still under warranty - so I'll probably go in to the store this afternoon and wait in line for an hour to exchange it for a different one. Grrrr. Now I have to get my act together so I can get to a friend's party in NJ before it's over. They're moving to Los Angeles, worse luck. Although I might see them there more often, come to think of it....

Wednesday, April 25, 2007


Judges have long been called to hear conflicting reports from medical and scientific experts (for instance on issues of causation and injury), and then to determine the parties' legal rights and obligations in light of all the facts presented by the opposing parties.

However, there is always a risk - and particularly with the U.S. Supreme Court - that judges will go "too far" in issuing policy decisions based on their understanding of the medicine or science that has been presented to them in an adversarial manner. At what point does a court improperly start weighing in on the science itself, rather than the law?

This point is made much more forcefully by a Dr. Zweig in his letter to the New York Times:
To the Editor:

Re “A Sharp Turn for the Supreme Court on Abortion”
(letters, April 20):

I am a rheumatologist caring for a patient whose lupus
nephritis is flaring. Her creatinine is rising as her
platelet count falls, and she has failed to improve
with pulse methylprednisolone and intravenous
cyclophosphamide. I am contemplating using rituximab.
I would like to refer this case to the United States
Supreme Court for its guidance.

Richard Zweig, M.D.
Santa Rosa, Calif., April 20, 2007
The phenomenon started in earnest with the Warren Court, which issued decisions like Brown (sociology) and Roe v. Wade, but it continues to the present day, with the Supreme Court opining on environmental issues such as global climate change and medical issues such as viability of a fetus.

Those who cheered on the results in the earlier cases, not worrying about the methodology that was used to achieve those results, may realize with a shock that the same expansive methods can be used for other ends. That's the strongest argument I know for a judiciary to try to keep its focus narrow and its aspirations modest.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

A Change in the Weather

Return trip from Staten Island Friday afternoon:

Central Park Sunday, near the roller disco area:

This picture understates the gloriousness of the weather Sunday, but it was still early in the morning (after I picked up free tickets to NYC Ballet's Romeo + Juliet, but before the birds started to use me for target practice during my pre-FAPC nap).

Pastor Rock gave a sermon about the simplicity of grace and our human capacity for error in trying to impose additional requirements for "true" Christian living. I found myself really moved by a story about 6 athletes in the 100-yard dash of the Special Olympics; one guy fell shortly after the race started, and the others came back to get him. Our text was 1 Corinthians 13 (the call to love and humility), but it also made me think of Philippians 3:13-14 because the racers' eyes were on the true prize, not on who would win that race.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

There and Back Again

It was a great day for skating along the Hudson River Bike Path. I went from Battery Park up to the first end of the path, above 79th Street, and then down again to the 4/5 at Bowling Green.

A lot of things are the same as ever along the bike path - tennis courts, Chelsea Piers, etc. - but the Trapeze School is no longer there. Rats!!

I really liked this new building, across the street from the bike path.

New York Central Railroad 69th Street Transfer Bridge:

(From this angle, the structure reminded me of a light house. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2003.)

One of the new arty seating areas, which doubles as a monument to some of the old railroads (including Erie and the B&O), reminded me of a cross between a Shinto shrine and an Adirondack lounging area:

(It's a little difficult to see, but the wooden furniture is designed as all-in-one lounge chair & picnic table units.) Other new areas I liked include a grassy boardwalk area which reminds me of semi-wild beaches on the Jersey Shore (sigh), and one that is a just big slab of silver floating above the ground, like a table top, with small chairs cut into it. (I may upload those pictures later.)

This is the surviving portion of Pier D, which was apparently saved in response to public request.) The wooden structure burned down in 1922, and a steel structure was thrown up in its place. Eventually it was abandoned, and part of it was dismantled for public safety.) They don't say you can't go climbing on it, but you'd probably have to swim over first. That's probably sufficient deterrent for most people.

Afterward, I caught the movie Hot Fuzz (2007). Very funny, if a bit over the top at times. For those who don't know, it's the story of London's top cop, Nicholas Angel (aka "Angle" according to a typo in the local rag) assigned to a sleepy English village because his arrest and conviction record is making everyone else look bad. There he unexpectedly runs into a bunch of "accidents" that look to him like murder. The movie gets a bit carried away with the shoot-em-up aspect once Sgt. Angel cottons on to who-done-it (that portion is funny at first, but goes on so long that the humor leaches out), but otherwise is thoroughly enjoyable, with a few nice twists. The violence is deliberately cartoonish, with liberal use of ketchup, pasta sauce and jam instead of blood at certain key moments.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Jedi Mind Trick: You WILL Buy Postage Stamps

So I was walking along, minding my own business, when I suddenly noticed R2D2 standing guard over a pile of garbage. Or was it a mailbox, attacked by vandals?

Or, looking more closely, could this mean that the U.S. Postal Service has gone to the Dark Side? (Oh, sure, they call themselves jedi masters - but anyone can say that ... even the bad guys.)

Apparently I missed the news 23 days ago that:

Two Legendary Forces Unite to Honor 30th Anniversary of Star Wars

as modestly stated in the press release. Apparently, the "legendary forces" are ... Lucas Licensing and the U.S. Postal Service. They are offering commemorative Star Wars stamps (starting March 28) as well as painting mailboxes (as of March 16).

And it's not too late to go vote for the most popular Star Wars stamp (through May 23) and "enter [a] sweepstakes by solving six different challenges about Postal Service products and services featuring a Star Wars theme" (through May 7).

David Failor, executive director of Stamp Services, U.S. Postal Service, stated: "The Star Wars films have timeless qualities that cross generations, just like the United States Postal Service."

What can I say? I just hope that the U.S. Postal Service didn't have to pay a lot of money to Lucas Licensing for all this. I'd hate to have them raise the rates again.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Virginia Polytechnic Institute

I am sorry for the Virginia Tech murders and suicide - for the victims, bystanders, and families of everyone involved - but I can't help wondering why this story in particular has gripped the headlines. (It seems that we lurched from the overblown Don Imus incident to this one.) Surely there are tragedies around the world every day that involve far greater numbers of lives lost.

One explanation, of course, is that we tend to be more touched the more we identify with the victims. Many of us have gone to college and enjoyed a sense of safety and community with likeminded students, in a setting that was both free of parental guidance and supervision and (at least in retrospect) free of real-life responsibilities. And many of us have met slightly disturbed loner types from time to time. So maybe the reaction is like the old chestnut:
X: "In other news, a plane crash has killed 300 people, including one American."
Y: "Poor guy."
There is another aspect to the impact of this particular incident, however. The story fits nicely into a pet theme of the media: A school rampage, with guns! Advocates for gun control love stories like this, for obvious reasons, even as they deplore the loss of life.

It is all very well and fine to advocate for gun control, and to sell newspapers, but there is a real downside to the obsessive coverage of school shootings - especially when there is such focus on the shooter and on the relative size/horror of this rampage vs. previous rampages.

Obsessive media coverage not only encourages imitation, it encourages the next sociopath to try to outdo his predecessors. A "nobody" can become a "somebody" (at least after his death) by shooting up a bunch of people; every statement, every encounter of the shooter will become news.

As reported by the New York Times, this shooter was very much aware of the imminent media coverage; he actually mailed photographs, a video, and some writings to NBC mid-rampage. He was also very much aware of his predecessors; in his "rambling statements" he "evoked the names of the killers in the Columbine High School shooting."

The murderer was media-savvy, and media-driven, but (as you would expect from someone so disturbed) not too bright. As the New York Times reported:
“[NBC] probably would have received the mail [from the killer] earlier had it not been that he had the wrong address and ZIP code,” said Steve Capus, the president of NBC News.
So he botched it up in every way, a loser to the end. All the more pity that he took 32 other people with him.


Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Ex-Boyfriend Flees to Vietnam, Japan

I just had to use that headline. After talking about going to Asia for the last 4 years, Z finally went. He apparently decided last week. His planning (as far as I can tell) consisted solely of purchasing his airline tickets. Good thing he keeps his passport in order! In all seriousness, though, he needs a break - he has allowed customer calls to overtake his life around the clock. So he is basically hanging up the phone for two weeks, a long overdue move. I am sure he will meet people and follow their advice on what to do and where to go, so he will not need a guidebook. Or a plan. It just makes me laugh, it's all so typical of Z.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Notes on Jade

In a largely futile effort to jettison some of the papers I've amassed over time (I fear the only truly effective method would involve a blowtorch), I've been going through my "New York" folder to remove things that are out-of-date and/or don't relate to New York.

One gem of sorts: Some notes I made at a museum on the back of a mini-brochure for the Hotel Monaco. The name of the museum? Unknown. The date and location of the trip? Unknown. Although my guess is it might have been either Seattle or Chicago (two of the 7 locations of Hotel Monaco listed on the brochure) in 2004, when I was seeking a federal clerkship.

Highlights of the intelligible portion of my notes on jade from the Museum of Mystery (obviously not its real name):
  • Jade's warm luster represents benevolence; its translucence stands for loyalty; its clear tone when struck, wisdom; its strength ("steadfastness"), courage; and its purity, integrity.
  • The form of jade known as "nephrite" is dense and heavy, with long fibrous interwoven crystals. Prior to the 18th century, essentially all jadework is in nephrite.
  • By contrast, "jadeite" is brighter and clearer because it is formed with clusters of granular crystals. It is apparently not found in China, and it comes in a wide variety of colors, including lavender and red-orange.
From my notes, I further learn that the Chinese word for "bat" is a homonym for "happiness", and gourds symbolize fertility. So a gourd-shaped vase with bat and gourd motifs might be an appropriate wedding present.

This past summer, in Bath (England), I visited a "Far East" museum which went into a lot more detail about the puns that routinely inspire Chinese art. Let's just say that bats and gourds merely scratch the surface of rebus-type messages that look like innocuous decorations to the uninitiated Westerner.

Friday, April 13, 2007

The S-Factor: Syracuse & Saratoga Springs

This week it was planes, trains and automobiles. A bit nerve-wracking, actually, because I haven't driven a car in 3 or 4 years - and here I was renting one for 3 or 4 hours of driving in a 24-hour period. In an April snow/slush/sleet/rainstorm, no less. But all went well. It's just like learning to ride a bike, or something, except it hurts more if you fall off.

People were remarkably friendly in Syracuse - not only my colleagues (who might be expected to be collegial), but also folks at the Dinosaur BBQ, and at a local branch of a national car rental establishment.

Syracuse also features a remarkably unphotogenic "Clinton Square." I understand that it was not named for our former president, nor for his presidential-aspirant wife, nor for the town in New Jersey. I liked the bleakness of the square from this perspective:

Saratoga Springs was a lot more beautiful, especially because I spent some time wandering around the State Park. Despite the occasional packs of joggers and the occasional Francophone tourist family, I got the strong sense that I was there in the off season.

I followed a sign for the Saratoga Tree Nursery, which is apparently run by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. That sounded like a nice place to go, but the entrance had a big metal bar blocking vehicular traffic, and I saw a bunch of small yellow signs forbidding something. At first I thought they were "No Trespassing" signs, but on closer inspection they were "No Skiing" signs. So I went in. Let me tell you, I wasn't even tempted to try skiing in there.

Not only did I not see any snow, but I also didn't see any indication that trees were being conserved (or even nursed) in the Tree Nursery. In fact, the place looked a bit abandoned, with a few fields of vegetables that looked like they had been chopped down by a tractor, two unmanned gas pumps, and an old barn.

Toward the back, as I approached the golf course (also oddly empty; too bad I'm not a golfer), there was a nice-looking house, with a side door yawning open to beckon me into its unlit interior.

If it had been a movie, instead of real life, I would have gone in despite the ominous music on the soundtrack, and there encountered either a psychopath or some supernatural force to be reckoned with. As it was, I didn't find that open door particularly inviting.

I also wandered up to some of the mineral springs - the one I tested was ice cold, which may explain why the bath officials have been adding warm tap water to the natural spring water. I particularly liked this island spouter:

It is totally fake-looking (especially the built-up part around the actual jet), but apparently it at least began spouting all on its own through natural cracks or fissures in the island.

The belated April Fool's joke, of course, was the lovely snowfall in the morning. Nice snowdrift right outside my window. Maybe those "No Skiing Allowed" signs meant something after all?

Nah - too slushy anyway.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

The Hunt is ON!

"Gentlemen, start your baskets!"

This year's annual All-Cousins Easter Egg Hunt took place in a snowy field in New England. Some of the eggs were easy to spot, like this yellow one.

Others, like the white eggs that we hid in snow drifts, will probably be found in mid-July. However, the hunters had a real incentive to look for the eggs; most contained a penny, nickel, dime, or quarter. One cousin somehow snagged $4.39 in coins; I don't think he obeyed the "12-egg limit".

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Madonna and Eggs

I love this photo because it sweetly echoes and subverts the classical Renaissance paintings of Madonna and Child: he has the demure, downcast look and gentle smile of Mary, while she has the slightly anxious yet compassionate look often shown on the face of the Child.

My maternal grandmother used to commemorate our lives in Easter eggs.
Middle: this egg was modeled on a newspaper photograph of me holding a clay bowl I made while on an archeological dig (Kampsville, Illinois). 6th grade.
Left side
: the ski sweaters and rake are from a leaf raking picture (Lasne, Belgium). 7th or 8th grade.
Right side: I was Queen Victoria in the school's production of Sweeney Todd (some said I was typecast), while my brother was (in real life) a Cub Scout (Waterloo, Belgium). 9th grade.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Greyhound Goes to Binghamton

I can't say I got an in-depth appreciation of Binghamton from my day-trip. But if you want to check it out for yourself, Greyhound goes there.

Yes, if you look closely, that is a Greyhound logo on the clock. And that is a plaid vinyl bag which they offer for sale at the concession stand. Its capacity is supposedly 50.8 (not sure of the units).

Now that Peter Pan, Greyhound, Bonanza, and Trailways are all one, I am starting to wonder the Department of Justice isn't sniffing around for antitrust purposes. But of course if you define the relevant market as "long-distance transportation," there is plenty of competition (private cars, trains and airplanes). And that's probably the right way to look at it.

As far as other interstate bus options go, we still do have the supercool Chinatown buses (e.g., Lucky Star and Fung Wah). Only problem is if you want to go somewhere that doesn't have a Chinatown. Like Binghamton.

It took almost 4 hours to Binghamton, and a good 5 hours back - quite a bit longer than advertised. The driver on our return trip was pretty entertaining, however. The bus had started in Syracuse, and had room for 7 more passengers when it stopped in Binghamton. But after the driver collected 6 tickets, his bus was full. He asked the person who had sneaked on to identify himself/herself, and no one stepped forward. So he announced that he would conduct a ticket check on Mount Such-and-Such, and whoever didn't have a ticket would be ejected from the bus. He said he would accept no excuses. Then he started the bus. This sounded like an empty threat - he would never dare leave anyone en route. Or would he? We traveled along for a while, wheels turning and turning. Time went by. People napped. And then the driver suddenly announced we were almost to the top of Mount Such-and-Such. It gave me a bit of a thrill: Was he really going to leave the stowaway at a rest stop?!

Then the driver pulled over at a barren stretch of highway, opened the door and explained that it was time for the ticket check, and that he would not accept the excuse that someone had "lost" their ticket. He counted and re-counted the tickets he had collected. Then he started at the front and worked his way back, checking our receipts/stubs one by one. About a third of the way back, he hit pay dirt. The culprit, a young man in his 20s, dejectedly followed the driver off the bus. The luggage compartment under the bus opened.

When the driver shut the bus door behind him, I knew he was going to give the fellow a talking-to outside our hearing. I wondered whether the driver would get beaten up or stabbed or shot, and if so, whether the young man would hijack the bus. But then the driver came back on, followed by a rather chastened young man, and announced that things had been taken care of. We drove on.

An hour or two later, we stopped at a McDonald's. The driver told us we had exactly 15 minutes at this rest stop, and that we needn't bother asking our spouse or girlfriend/boyfriend to try to hold the bus for us -- if we were late, we would only see them waving goodbye (unless they were kind enough to get off the bus with our stuff). He also warned us sternly not to wander off and try to go anywhere else, because he would not wait. What can I say? After the near-ejection of the stowaway, everyone complied. We were all back in the bus and ready to go at 0:14.

As we cut across New Jersey, the driver made a public service announcement. He warned us not to hand our luggage to anyone unless they were wearing official uniforms and badges which identified them as Greyhound, Peter Pan or Trailways personnel. He told us that if we handed our bags to anyone else, don't come crying to him. He sure as hell wasn't going to chase down our bags for us. He pointed out that everyone goes to New York to do some shopping, and if we wanted to contribute to someone else's shopping by handing them our bags, that was our problem.

Then on the final approach to Lincoln Tunnel, it was basically a parking lot. And the driver had just about reached the maximum number of hours he was allowed to be on the road for one day under the regs. So whenever we stopped (i.e., every 20 feet), he would open the doors, step outside, and smoke a cigarette until the bus in front of us was at least one bus-length ahead. (He could get away with this because we were in a bus-only lane.) I think this must have been relaxing for him. It was nerve-wracking for the rest of us. Especially when he walked over to a bus headed in the opposite direction and the other driver opened his door....

All in all, I highly recommend this sort of adventure. So I'll take a bus tomorrow as well.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

"Palm Weekend" in Images

This view (roughly east-by-northeast from the southeast corner of 55th St & 6th Ave) more or less captures the role of the church in the city.
Both FAPC (shown above) and Redeemer strive, in their different strains of Presbyterianism, to be churches in and for the city. I have always felt that FAPC appealed more to the heart, and Redeemer more to the mind. This is still true, even with FAPC's tremendous turnover in pastors (only one remains from Advent 1999, when I first attended a service there), and it is ultimately why I returned to FAPC after what we might call a serious extended flirtation with Redeemer.

Today, this Palm Sunday, was the first time in quite a while that FAPC's sanctuary was filled nearly to capacity at the 11:15 service. Of course it was not only Palm Sunday, but also a Eucharist day (we unfortunately celebrate the Eucharist only once a month), and also the baptism of 9 infants. The baptisms likely drew their own familial crowds, of course, and yet it is still a good sign.

A digression about the baptisms: there was a lot of screaming and wailing from the infants this time. It always makes me smile wryly in sympathy because of three distinct thoughts that course through my brain simultaneously: (i) it really is difficult for any of us to fully accept God's grace; as grown-ups, we don't literally kick and scream and gnash our teeth, but boy do we resist it sometimes; (ii) the infants' wailing suggests despair or existential angst, as if they instinctively knew that they are born sinners; (iii) if they knew what they were in for as Christians, they'd cry even harder.
The closing hymn was "All Glory, Laud and Honor," one of my all-time favorites. I'd have loved to have some live trumpets in there, but at least our guest organist pulled out all the stops and did us proud. It almost made up for the travesty of the re-written Doxology, which has somehow survived our most recent music director's departure. Almost.

A few images from "Palm Saturday" (or "April Fool's Eve" for the secular among us):

Margaret and Jane, volunteering at the pancake breakfast for the homeless. (Jane's sweatshirt was cute, though its glory is cloaked by a black apron here. She reminds me very much of Elizabeth, the incredibly sweet woman my grandfather eventually met and married after my grandmother died.)
Some of the eggs decorated at Table 4, by Edwin, Ismel, and Julie. The picture actually does not do the eggs full justice, because the bright flash obliterated the lovely gradations in color resulting from dipping different parts of an egg for different periods of time, drawing on the eggs with crayon before dipping them, etc. However, if you look closely at the darker blue egg, you may see a circle with lines radiating out from it; that was quite nice (though still subtle) in real life. And on the pink egg in the lower right, you can see the "JUL" on an egg dedicated by Ismel to Julie.

After the pancake breakfast, I had to rush home to cook some lunch for my mahjong party (buying the ingredients on the way). The good news about mahjong was that Carolyn and I were tied for "3rd place" or the "bronze medal" (i.e., neither of us won a single hand). Patricia won 5 rounds as compared with Stella's 4 victories, so they get the gold and silver medals, respectively.

Gold, bronze, silver:
Bronze, bronze, silver:

Happy April Fool's Day

After mahjong yesterday (which was a blast), I went to the park and quickly realized I didn't feel like running at all -- something I blame entirely on the fact that I had just eaten a large slice of something nominally considered a "chocolate cake" but actually just a seething mass of chocolate mousse and creme brule. So I just walked around the park once, enjoying the fresh air, and didn't even bother to try breaking a sweat.

Caught a performance by Laura Brenneman at Caffe Vivaldi on Saturday evening - very nice. I particularly enjoyed the song about Abby & the Captain. Several songs were very funny and poignant, including one called "I Wanna Write 'West Side Story'". Her husband says his favorite song is "Better", in which someone keeps speculating that both she and her beloved might each be better off with someone else... but then admits at the end that she comes back to bed every night with her beloved.

Today I felt really crummy; my mind was just in the wrong place. After dragging myself to Palm Sunday service and listening to perspectives on cultural/religious differences in Jamaica, South America, the former Soviet Union, Ghana, and the Sudan, I went running and eked out 1.9 miles. It didn't lift my spirits as much as I'd hoped. I think I just need to figure out what I'm doing for Easter and get my taxes done.

My grandfather just wished me and a host of other people a combination happy Easter Sunday [sic] and a happy April Fool's Day. He's not much of a churchgoer.