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.

Monday, November 12, 2007

LOTR: The Two Towers

After I watched the extended version of The Two Towers all the way through, I went back to listen to commentary on selected scenes.

Writer Phillippa Boyens, Director/Writer/Producer Peter Jackson, and Writer/Producer Fran Walsh identified three deviations from the book:

1. The Ent-moot results in a decision to stay out of the war.

2. Faramir takes Sam and Frodo to Gonor, and orders that they - and the Ring of Power -be handed over to Denethor.

3. Eomer is not inside Helm's Deep when the fighting starts, but instead comes in with Gandalf from the east.

They pointed out that many people complained about items #1 and 2, but nobody seems to be bothered by #3, which is just as big a change. The subtext (I suppose) is that the "purists" aren't that pure; they just glom on to some changes but don't mind others. Boy, aren't these purists inconsistent or maybe even hypocritical?

My answer to the implied question is an unequivocal No. I see item #3 as very different in nature from items #1 and 2. Eomer's character is not changed by whether or not he is in Helm's Deep during the siege - he can be every bit as noble, loyal and brave either way.

But the character of the Ents and of Faramir is tarnished by their initial bad decisions in the movie. The Ents are more narrowly selfish and short-sighted in the movie; they don't have the wisdom or compassion to see the need for their involvement in the war (even to help their new friends) until they really take a good look at the southern edge of Fangorn.

Similarly, in the movie, Faramir basically falls under the spell of the Ring, not understanding its corrupting influence even when he hears about Boromir's fate. He is no real foil for Denethor and Boromir, but instead is cut from the same "Gondor first!" cloth. And he is childishly eager to win his father's favor by sacrificing Frodo and Sam, even when he starts to realize that what they say is true. He is not as mature or wise as he is in the book, and is unable to make the tough (but correct) choice to set Frodo, Sam and Gollum free until the chaos and distraction of a Nazgul attack.

So I can't speak for everyone, but my own complaint about the first two changes is that they undercut some otherwise interesting and complex characters by having them act out in response to simple and selfish reasons to do the wrong thing. The third change doesn't bother me because it doesn't raise those kinds of issues.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Skating at Rockefeller Center

It is a truth universally acknowledged that New Yorkers don't skate at Rockefeller Center, unless they have out-of-town visitors who can't be talked out of it.

But we are lucky enough to have an Olympic-caliber skater in our midst at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, who figured that young folk who were new to New York might actually enjoy the holiday lights and crowds before they get jaded and cynical. So she organized a trip pre-Tree (to minimize the crowds) and found a lovely group discount for us. We were, at 13 strong, by far the largest group on the ice.

And quite possibly we were also having the most fun, no matter how long we'd been here in the city:

As you may see, the Arent Fox law firm (an old adversary of mine) was having some kind of event on the sidelines, with a good view of the proceedings. I'm pretty sure some of them were, in spirit at least, standing with their noses pressed against the glass. Moping around inside with a bunch of lawyers? Been there, done that. Much better to be outside, where we could scarcely contain our grins:
No touristy pose was too hokey for us -- we couldn't resist the Rock Center Cafe backdrop:
Luckily, our crowd largely managed to weave in and out among our fellow skaters without incident, even when going arm in arm:

That gilded statue in the background is Prometheus. His right hand, not visible in this photo, clutches a somewhat anthropomorphic ball of fire stolen from the gods. Fire myths and motifs would seem to be an odd choice for a skating rink, but apparently the sculpture dates from 1934, when Rockefeller envisioned the location as a fountain-filled entrance to a shopping arcade (it was converted in 1936 to a skating rink flanked by restaurants, a much more successful formula):

We did not form a human pyramid (an enterprise that would likely be frowned upon by the Skating Authorities), but this is the next best thing:
Angela and Shay made a few tours around the rink before a spill brought them to the sidelines... But luckily Shay bounced right back for a victory lap.

Claire dazzles the rink with her smile, whether caught on candid camera...

... or in a posed shot:
Kathryn's megawatt smile:
Rick and Court help propel first-timer Wasita around the rink:

A dangerous pas de deux (the ice has become deeply grooved by this time):

I wish I could take credit for this next one, but it was not created using advanced shutter speed techniques. My camera creates such images from time to time purely by accident because the shutter isn't what it should be.

Erin and Kent, fresh from an X-Games dodgeball victory, watch the rest of us skating ourselves dizzy:

Soon afterward, the Skating Authorities closed the rink for the zamboni to go around and smooth out the ice. It took quite a while to clean it up, but once they were done, our heroine got a chance to take a few spins solo before the rest of the crowd re-entered the rink:

It was a fun time. And even the kitschy window displays nearby were kind of cool - this one has snowflakes cut out of MTA subway maps and coordinates well with the bike rack in front of it.