Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Society Column: Halloween

An exclusive event took place on Wednesday night in the heart of fashionable Bed-Stuy. Despite some touches of gray in her hair, hotelier Leona Helmsley was looking quite youthful and vibrant for someone 2 months dead. She was accompanied by her pampered dog, Trouble, who (to our spy's surprise) literally towered over her. Ms. Helmsley's co-host (and husband) was a vampire, and specifically a vampire from Interview with the Vampire. Our spy didn't catch which character he was playing, but according to, he would have to be either Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise -- albeit in a truly impenetrable disguise.

Among other visiting luminaries too numerous to mention, we spotted Supercop (presumably the archnemesis of Supertramp), an escaped head trauma patient accompanied by a doctor who did not provide any medical credentials, and a fiery-winged dragon with a knight (possibly St. George?) to slay her if she got out of hand. Although our spy reports the dragon looked rather fierce, so it's probably just as well that she didn't start ravaging the neighborhood and demanding sacrifices. Some marathon runners stopped by, no doubt in an effort to get a several-day jump on the competition, but no one had the heart to tell them they were nowhere near the race course.

We hear, we hear ... Those who were hoping for a visit from the Great Pumpkin - or more specifically, the genuine article rather than a cheap imitation - were sadly disappointed. Apparently, the Great Pumpkin requires a pumpkin patch out of which to rise, not a jack-o'lantern patch. So the real T.G.P. was a no-show. As the experts at wikipedia have concluded based on their extensive research:

The Great Pumpkin is a holiday figure (comparable to Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny).... [O]n Halloween night, the Great Pumpkin rises out of the pumpkin patch he deems the most "sincere". The Great Pumpkin then flies through the air to deliver toys to all the good little children in the world. ...
  • Unlike with Santa Claus, one shouldn't specify any gift ideas in a letter to the Great Pumpkin; rather, you should wait for whatever he brings you.
  • It should be addressed as thus; Great Pumpkin c/o the Pumpkin Patch

'Nuff said.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Cloisters

The birthday celebrations continue (although they are now seeping into Halloween).

I enjoyed another Scottish opera Friday, this time from good orchestra seats. Macbeth and his Lady dazzled. It was the second time I've seen Verdi's Macbeth, but this time the nationalistic theme came across much more strongly (there's something powerful about a refugee scene in which the huddled victims are slowly armed [and foliated] into non-victimhood). The sudden "apparating" and "disapparating" of the banquet table during the Banquo's ghost scene (an over-the-top-party) was a bit gimmicky, but pretty cool nonetheless. I liked the ensemble of witches, which felt like an exponential enlargement of the triune Ariel in The Tempest this summer. Reviewers called the witches "bag ladies", and they did have the eccentric movements down pat, but oddly, their bags made me think more of "ladies who lunch". In general I'd have to say that the non-named-character performers in this opera seemed to be having a blast.

On Saturday afternoon, as the rains slowed, the festivities moved to the Cloisters. The capitals and many other architectural elements were cobbled together from 12th and 13th century monasteries as well as other sources. This capital is likely from Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert (Herault). There was a tapestry-weaving demonstration in this area.

Downstairs, the Gothic Chapel featured "French and Spanish tomb effigies ... from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries." So I guess this guy is probably not just taking a nap:
For much more modern art (e.g., 15th C), you can visit the Boppard room. I liked this painting of the archangel Michael slaying a demon (it may be the antichrist). It's hard to see in this low-resolution picture, but the demon is a nightmarish grab-bag of parts. Its upper left arm is a lizard of some kind. Its torso is a face, with a mouth at the stomach; and its upper thigh and groin are both faces with eyes and mouths. To me, these extra faces suggest greed and lust.
An espaliered pear tree in the Bonnefort Cloister herb garden:

According to Wikipedia:

Espalier is the horticultural technique of training trees through pruning and grafting in order to create formal "two-dimensional" or single plane patterns by the branches of the tree. The technique was popular in the Middle Ages in Europe to produce
fruit inside the walls of a typical castle courtyard without interfering with
the open space, and to decorate solid walls by such trees planted near them. [It may have been invented much earlier, even in ancient Egypt.]
An espalier collects almost as much sunlight as a regular tree, yet has far less mass. ... [Espaliered trees may] be planted next to a wall, which can reflect more sunlight and retain heat overnight, or be planted so that they are facing south ... and absorb maximum sunlight. These two facts allow an espalier to succeed in cooler climates, where a non-espaliered tree of the same variety would fail. They also mature fruit more quickly. Certain types of trees [e.g., Pyrus (pears)] adapt better to this technique than others, although any fruit tree will theoretically work.

No visit to the Cloisters is complete without a tour of the unicorn tapestries. On prior visits, I couldn't figure out a narrative that made sense for all six tapestries. It always puzzled me that the unicorn is found, attacked, and killed, and then somehow ends up alive and chastened in captivity. I wasn't buying the resurrection theory (if the unicorn is a resurrected Christ figure, it should not be a captive). Turns out the historians aren't buying it either. The official museum position is that these are at least two unicorn tapestry series. Among other things, they point out that the "unicorn in captivity" tapestry and the "hunters enter the woods" tapestry both have a flat mille fleurs background very unlike the rich layered landscape of the other four (be sure to play "spot the wildlife" and also look for the subtle distortion when objects and animals are portrayed underwater). One of a number of known unknowns about these tapestries is the mysterious "AE" who supposedly was an original owner. For what it's worth, I thought the "AE" might really be an alpha and rotated omega, or an "A" and a very fancy "D" for anno domini, but no one else seems to like these theories.

And after all this cultural and horticultural enlightenment, we drove off to Lowe's and picked up a 2x4 (my first!), handsaw, and medicine cabinet. The gaping hole in my bathroom wall is now nicely filled in a mere six years after I moved in. What bliss! A girl could totally get used to this.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Hawk Mountain

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step - or, in my case, with a trip to Penn Station.

On arrival at Hawk Mountain's South Lookout, we were immediately rewarded with a closeup of not one, but two migrating eagles (look carefully on the left for the second one):

Here is a closeup of the circling raptor:

It was a warm, sunny day, and the foliage was only starting to turn:

Oddly, we weren't the only ones who thought it was a good day to sit at the North Lookout and watch for migrating raptors:

Over the course of the afternoon, the clouds meandered in and out across the landscape:

The rays of the sun shining through the clouds lent the scene a biblical aspect:

The sun broke through again, but clouds slowly chased across the valley:

We hiked the long way through the woods, scrambling across rocks. This tree showed us the importance of tenacity:

That evening, in a nearby town, milkweeds by twilight:

An amusement park on the way back to NYC:

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Clear-Eyed Zen

In case anyone wants to know, I'm turning 95 today. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Vitamin Z

It is a truth universally acknowledged at a certain socio-economic level in Manhattan, that a 3 or 4 person family must be in want of 2,400+ square feet worth of accommodations. When you compress 3 adults and 2 small children into a mere 900 square feet, zany things happen. 10-month-olds chew on electrical wires and push small tables across hardwood floors. 3.5-year-olds stomp wildly across non-soundproof apartments and compete wildly with younger siblings for attention and toys. Noise and motion abound, and all surfaces are lightly refinished with food.

This is all to the good, because a person can otherwise get all too accustomed to getting her own way. However, we also made sure to spend a lot of time outside in the fresh air and open spaces of New York City. (No snide remarks, please.)

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, around 2 p.m., you can join literally hundreds of like-minded anthropologists for a free ride on the Staten Island ferry. Tall teenagers from Germany stand on benches outside to block the view of mild-mannered persons behind them, but once you cotton on to their scheme, you learn to grab seats indoors by the window on the 2nd floor, where there is no deck and you can see the Statue of Liberty in all its glory. (Don't tell the teenagers. I'm sure they'd think of a way to dangle over the edge to enjoy this view if they could.)

We saw some regular garden-variety sailboats, and then this lovely vessel:

Further afield, these creatures adorn a park bench with a small sign saying "FREE HUGS" - the gray one on the left has long fabric arms that can embrace an entire family. As you can see, it is exhausting to ride in a stroller.

Here we discovered a rare variety of lily pads that allow you to (practically) walk on water. It was a real hit with the 3.5-year-old set:

Other discoveries were more perplexing. After all, porcupines don't grow on trees... do they?

As you can see, contrary to the cynical, narrow-minded naysayers who claim New York City is overrun with rats and pigeons, we saw quite an assortment of animals. We even glimpsed the elusive red panda on our expedition:

This post was brought to you by the letter Z - an essential vitamin for life fully lived.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Soccer: Autumn '07

Tonight's victory gives us a record so far this season of 2-1-1. We fielded a lean team - just eight players, no substitutes - and in an unusual twist of fate, we had 4 women rather than the minimum of 3. My contributions were somewhat mixed, but I did manage to kick the ball away from the bad guys so my teammates could get it. Several times. That felt great! And I also (as usual) managed to get in the way of the bad guys from time to time. (One of them even stepped on my foot. Ouch.) But then I got spacey toward the middle of the second half, and managed to miss the ball entirely a few times when no one was even on hand to poach it. At one point, I remember looking blankly at a round object in front of me, which my foot had failed to touch, while my teammates were yelling "Settle! Settle!" It took an effort to bring my mind back into the game - oh, right, this is soccer, and I'm on the field.

Our opponents, the orange team, had a large turnout - enough for two teams, at least - and were wildly enthusiastic any time anything went slightly in their favor. But we were ahead the whole game, and spent most of the time nearer to their goal post than ours. When the final whistle blew, and we knew that we had won, we quietly walked off the field and geared up for the journey home (variously by tram, subway, and bicycle). Meanwhile the orange team cheered as if they were celebrating a glorious victory. They certainly had team spirit - and a good turnout at the ZogSports bar afterward.

Saturday, October 06, 2007


The Scottish theme continues. Although Gaetano Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor is a bel canto opera, sung in Italian, it is set in Scotland. And apparently "some of [the] visual elements [of the Met's current production of the opera] are inspired by actual places in Scotland." I am a little disappointed that the Met did not undertake to re-create any actual places in Scotland. It can be done; for instance, the Fernbank Museum made casts of actual rocks in Georgia and carefully painted the copies to create exact duplicates of the originals.

The program for Lucia states that "to artists of the Romantic era, [Scotland] signified a wild landscape on the fringe of Europe, with a culture burdened by a French-derived code of chivalry and an ancient tribal system." (I assume they are referring to the clan system; my own clan, the Campbells, has the double disadvantage of a lackluster tartan and the ancient hatred of the other clans for cooperation with the English.) The wildness of the landscape (real or imagined) suits the heroine's descent into madness. You could even say she gets unmoored on the moors.

The second intermission was quite long, and some of my fellow nose-bleeders up in Family Circle got a bit restive. Eventually, a suit came out on stage and announced that, due to sickness (slight pause for a moment of horror), one of the male stars would not be able to continue but an understudy would replace him.

All the reviews praise Natalie Dessay in the title role, and she was really good. But that didn't stop some folks in the elevator with us after the show from comparing her unfavorably to Joan Sutherland who (they said) owned the role. I can't say who was better, since I never saw Ms. Suhterland's performance, but the program notes support the claim of Ms. Sutherland's "total identification with Donizetti's ethereal music." It was apparently her break-out role, which made her a star, and she played Lucia in "37 performances from ... 1961 until 1982."

My next opera, by coincidence, is also set in Scotland - Verdi's Macbeth.

It was a good day for rollerblading along the Hudson, although I got a late start and only skated up to 15th Street and then back down again. The Empire Strikes Back in rose-gold.

It seems like there's always something new on the Hudson River Bike Path. For instance, I didn't remember seeing this fountain before:

As usual, the sun set over New Jersey.

Finally, in honor of "Target First Saturdays", here is a glimpse of the Brooklyn Museum from in front of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden:

Thursday, October 04, 2007


All quotes are from "Letter from Moscow: The Tsar's Opponent," by David Remnick, in The New Yorker (10.1.07).

The Death Penalty
p. 66, col. 1: "Since Putin took office, in 2000, more than a dozen Russian journalists have been murdered, as have several opposition politicians."

p. 66, col. 3: "Putin has adopted a haughty, derisive tone toward the West. 'Of course, I am an absolutely true democrat,' he remarked recently. 'The tragedy is that I am alone. There are no other such democrats in the world. The Americans torture at Guantanamo, and in Europe the police use gas against protesters. Sometimes protesters are killed in the streets. We have, incidentally, a moratorium on the death penalty, which is often enforced in other G-8 countries. Let us not be hypocrites as far as democratic freedoms and human rights.'" (emphasis supplied).
It would seem that Putin's regime does not have a moratorium on the death penalty; they have only a moratorium on due process of law for those who are sentenced to death.

An Unflattering Light
p. 67, col. 1: "Early this summer, Putin went to Guatemala City, where he delivered a speech in English ... as part of Russia's campaign to host the 2014 Winter Olympics."

p. 75, col. 3: "Kasparaov [a critic of Putin's regime] has all but disappeared from state television. 'And when I do appear,' [Kasparov] said, 'they try to make a fool of me. Usually, they make sure to show me speaking English. That way, I seem like an alien, a tool of the foreigners."
Inquiring minds want to know whether Putin's English-language speech was shown on Russian TV.