Wednesday, December 26, 2012


We headed up to Portland, Maine for the day to visit an art museum, a fine old Victorian home decorated for Christmas, and the old Wadsworth Longfellow homestead.

Near our parking spot, a sticker left over (perhaps) from the recent election:

Nobody was my first choice for president in this election.  But I voted for someone else anyway. 
The museum was hosting an exhibit called "Weatherbeaten: Winslow Homer and Maine."  I found Homer's sea foam surprisingly solid, immovable, even weighty in appearance in many of these works - as if it were made of cotton candy or styrofoam rather than the instantaneous result of waves crashing. The water itself though, and the quality of the light, was generally amazing.  My favorite works were West Wind (1891), Fox Hunt (1893), and High Cliff, Coast of Maine (1894).

The PMA audio guide to Fox Hunt stated that the fox is tiring in the deep snow and that he is wearily looking over his shoulder as he runs.  This is consistent with the contemporary commentaries as shown on page 381 of Winslow Homer 1836-1910, by Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr., and Franklin Kelly:
A wretched fox, driven from his lair by frost and famine, struggles through the heavy drifts in quest of food; and over him, circling nearer and nearer, as he grows weaker and weaker, come the ravens [sic] who are soon to pluck his bones. [citation: Alfred Trumble, "Facts, Ideas, and Opinions," The Collector 4 (1 April 1893), 166]   
The fox's condition is also referred to here: 
The subject ... requires a word of explanation as to the fact in natural history of which it is a dramatic illustration.  In the depths of winter, when the ground is for long intervals covered with snow along the coast of Maine, it is observed that a flock of half-starved crows will have the temerity to attack a fox, relying on their advantage of numbers, the weakened condition of the fox and the deep snow, which makes it the more difficult for the victim to defend himself.  [citation: "Winslow Homer's Latest Picture, 'The Fox Hunt,' at Doll & Richards'," Boston Evening Transcript, 30 June 1893]
Although the online notes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts do not focus as much on the fox's physical condition, they still characterize the fox as "struggling"and "desperate[]":
[Homer] dramatized the brutal realities of winter on the Maine coast by showing a fox desperately bounding through deep snow in an attempt to flee a flock of half-starved crows. The birds descend ominously with outstretched wings, forming a dark hovering mass above the struggling fox. ... The fox's red silhouette is splashed across a field of oppressive snow; we sense that he is cornered, trapped within the flattened white plane while the aggressive birds break its edges on descent.  
But I don't quite see all of this in the painting itself - even though the fox is likely a goner (given the title and the circling crows), he looks alert, as if captured in mid-run rather than in his last moments.  The left foreleg is reaching forward for the next step, his head is turned to a small break which would allow him to run down to the sea in case that would be helpful (probably not, but worth considering).  I see no sign in the body language that the fox has reached a point of desperation, that the fox believes he is trapped or cornered.  Nor do I see signs that he is physically exhausted quite yet, that the snow has warn him down; he looks sleek, but is he necessarily famished in this painting?

Perhaps we are to infer his deteriorated physical condition from the fact that the crows have targeted him.  That's possible, but it could also be that the crows are sufficiently motivated to attack him even if he is not yet weakened (i.e., while he was out and about on his usual winter prowls and forays for food).  I also  found myself wondering if the crows might be taking advantage of a human-led fox hunt, rather than launching their own -- though I'm not sure that we have much of a fox hunting tradition here in the U.S.

(As a side note, Homer was supposedly painting from death - the pelt of a fox and the bodies of crows - and actually re-did the bird figures after a neighbor told him they did not look like crows.)

I thought we'd visited the museum before, but they've apparently remodeled since we last visited together in July 2007, so I wasn't totally sure until I saw this painting:

N.C. Wyeth
We also tooled around another section of the museum and saw a lovely Renoir painting of a couple in an arbor, the woman's white dress sun-dappled - Confidences (1874).

Afterward, we headed up to Victoria Mansion a/k/a the Morse-Libby House, decorated for Christmas by a variety of local merchants according to this year's theme, "The Gilded Age".  Yes, there was a bit of glitz.

I liked this stained glass at the stairwell:

In one of the upstairs bedrooms, there was a nearly hyper-realistic painting of an infant.  The setting is truly minimalist: she sits on a bare floor, with a single dark drapery panel in the background.  She dominates the portrait, gazing at the viewer. She holds two roses in her hand.  A docent explained that these were standard conventions for a portrait of a deceased child.  In fact, the body was painted in advance, with only the face customized based on the family's descriptions.  That seemed consistent with what we saw.

Finally, we went to an exhibit about the electrification of Maine to pass the time while waiting for a tour of the Wadsworth-Longfellow House.  From the website:

Anne Longfellow Pierce, Henry [Wadsworth Longfellow]'s younger sister ... lived in the house until her death in 1901. At that time, in accordance with a deed she executed in 1895, the house passed to the Maine Historical Society to be preserved as a memorial to her famous brother and their family. 
Virtually all of the household items and artifacts are original to the Wadsworth and Longfellow families.
Apparently, Anne agreed that the Maine Historical Society could electrify and heat the home after her death, but strongly opposed any indoor plumbing or other alterations.  They have abided by these wishes.

It was interesting to see the place, but I was a bit skeptical of statements announcing (in effect) "this was the very desk where Henry composed" a particular poem.  Even if true, I hardly imagine the desk has been imbued with particular greatness as a result.

Sunday, December 23, 2012


There are some off-topic comments on a particular thread which I've been so very, very tempted to address. But it is best not to throw fuel on the fire. My comments, though well-intentioned, would also be off-topic. It can't help. And my instinct also tells me not to address either of the participants separately about this.  So I'll address one aspect of this off-topic discussion quietly here just to get these thoughts out of my system.
Christian: [S]o-called Atheism really is Egoistic agnosticism. … I don't like to get into logical/philosophical debates here on [forum], but Atheism suffers from a preformative contradiction…. There's no room in this for being offended or for sentiment in rational discussion.  
Seems to me that folks reach their various beliefs or conclusions about religion/spirituality not only through logic and reason alone, but also through personal experiences and deep intuition about how the world works. So there is, in fact, plenty of room for sentiment -- and plenty of need for sensitivity. 

Setting aside the question of whether the analysis or diagnosis above is correct in at least some cases, I think it is easy for Christians to assume that all atheists believe the same thing.  But I am not certain if that is correct -- or even if it is correct, that it is helpful.  It's possible to say (for example) that all Christians "believe" the same thing, but if one defines the core belief narrowly enough to make it common, one misses all the nuances of how and why they believe what they believe, and how they reached their conclusions. These and other nuances matter tremendously in shaping a world view, and in the working out of one's faith (or non-faith) in everyday life.  The devil is indeed in the details.  

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Mythmoot and the Hobbit

It's astonishing to me that it has not quite been a year since I signed up for my first course at Mythgard. It seems like 3 years, when it has only been 3 trimesters. And even Mythcon, which actually took place in August, seems like a year ago. Partly it's because the online academic experience has involved a fairly intense time commitment, and partly it's just the way time goes as an adult (as the saying goes, the days are long, but the years are short).

So this is all by way of explaining why I went to Baltimore to see the first movie of the Hobbit trilogy with a good group of Tolkien geeks on opening weekend.  I watched it Friday night with a few folks I knew from Mythgard (one I'd actually met earlier this year at Mythcon), then watched it again with the full complement of Mythmooters on Saturday morning.

Jackson & Co. were obviously trying to please many different genre audiences, so some scenes were not to my particular taste (although I'm quite certain they'll appeal to other folks). And yet the movie worked, as a movie.

Among the most successful scenes, in my view:
  • The dwarves singing the "Misty Mountains" song - quite possibly my favorite part of the movie. The voices are deep, beautiful, haunting. In fact, this one song, more than anything else, made the dwarves utterly convincing for me. Bilbo is not in the room with them, but we see him listening and it is clear that their song has touched him in some way. He is not suddenly seized with a desire to go on adventures, nor does he suddenly "get" the dwarves; it is more subtle than that, but still there is something there in his face, almost unreadable.
  • The scene where Bilbo decides to join the quest. This is again done subtly; in fact it was only in discussing the scene at Mythmoot that I came to fully understand what the film makers were doing here. What we see in the book is a child-like Bilbo being manipulated and railroaded into the adventure, without time to think or pack. In the movie, the choice is far more grown-up; in fact, Bilbo declines the adventure, and the others respect his choice. When he awakens, he has exactly what he wants: everything is ship-shape, as if the dwarves had never been there. The nightmare is over, and he has been released to continue his regular life with all its settled ways. He is free. And as he looks around, we see his face. The sense of loss, of emptiness. As if he didn't know how lonely and sterile his life was, until he had a chance to contrast the silent, empty rooms with the boisterousness that had been in them just a few hours earlier. None of this is explained; it is all in his face. Then he sees the contract and he realizes it is not too late. This is a really wonderful scene, and I recommend Sarah's discussion of it in her Riddles in Response blog
  • The flashback to the dragon's attack. There is a lovely visual joke at the very start of this scene, which also picks up on a small detail in the book which I'd never noticed until this year.
  • The very last scene - it's a little bit of movie cliche, but it absolutely works.
  • And of course the scene with the dwarves throwing Bilbo's plates around is very funny.
There's more to say, of course. I haven't even touched on the riddles in the dark scene, which (among its many merits) has a wonderful, easy-to-miss homage to my favorite part of the Rankin-Bass film.


Over the past week, I've seen calls for:

  • More/better gun control
  • More/better mental health treatment 
  • Less violence in the culture (movies, TV, video games)
  • Less/different coverage of mass murders 
  • Legalization of recreational drugs (less "drug control")
  • More guns in schools (i.e., arming teachers)
The first four involve, ultimately, restrictions on freedom; the latter two do not.

I don't know whether any of these proposals would have actually prevented the particular incident which has dominated the headlines and op ed pages over the past week. They strike me, for the most part, as well-intentioned but ultimately opportunistic advancement of pre-existing political agendas. I can't help thinking that one's conclusions on these issues are very heavily influenced by one's starting assumptions and personal predilections.

The one political agenda I have not seen advanced anywhere (yet) in response to the incident is home schooling. It is not a "universal" cure, by any stretch of the imagination. But for those parents who are willing and able to homeschool their kids, this strikes me as a highly effective way to steer clear of the danger. First, their kids are not in a large group of children, so they are a less attractive target. Second, their kids are not on government property (which is generally required to be at least semi-open to the public) but on private property, so their kids are less accessible to sickos. Harder to find, harder to access.

UPDATE| Just a few hours after I posted this, I saw Peggy Noonan's op ed in the Wall Street Journal weekend edition. She points out (among other things) that homeschooling could become more popular in the wake of the incident. So now I know for sure that I am not the first or only person to see this particular connection!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Not Quite There Yet

My favorite coffee place still has a red sticker on it, meaning the structure has not been deemed fit to enter. This could mean the structure is unsound--but at least one restaurant on the same block has yellow stickers (ok to enter and get stuff but not to use and occupy), and one place has actually passed all the hurdles and re-opened (presumably on generator power). The buildings on the block do not appear to be fundamentally distinct, so my guess is that the coffee shop folks have abandoned or terminated their lease.

There are five Duane Reades on or below Wall Street (i.e., a few minutes' walk from each other). The one on Water Street was closed for quite a while, but is back up and running. The one on Beaver Street has not yet reopened, but it seems likely that they are renovating it so it will as nice as the others.

My office building is still on mobile generators. We lost power this afternoon and were evacuated.

Many shops remain cash only. Long lines at several food and beverage places at lunch time, though, which is a good sign of a return to normal.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Hobbit Movie Anticipation

Critics may complain about the allegedly "bloated" treatment of Part 1 of the Hobbit trilogy, but I, for one, am looking forward to intensive, real-time coverage of the preparation and consumption of breakfast, second breakfast, elevenses, luncheon, afternoon tea, dinner, and supper.

Interspersed with that perennial favorite, Tolkien's much admired packing scene, the lovingly re-created meal scenes will doubtless be of great interest to foodies and hungry movie-goers alike; cultural anthropologists and amateur psychologists will be mesmerized by the cross-cultural bonding between Bilbo and Bombur on this subject.

Marketing Campaign, NYC

When I ventured uptown recently, the very visible (and presumably expensive) marketing campaign in Times Square and Columbus Circle took me by surprise -- I really haven't seen any ads for this downtown.

A presence in Times Square, both above-ground...

... and below.
But they really went to town (so to speak) in the Columbus Circle subway.  Five stairwells had the trompe-l'oeuil poster slivers on each step:

The main entrance of the subway station has a huge tunnel -- and a lot of wall space...
Both sides of the long hall, around corners...

Each dwarf identified by name

The contract is a little more complicated in the film.

There's also a bank of videos in the tunnel, continuously looping trailer(s).  

Here's a little video tour:

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Entertainment This Week

I feel like I'm slowly reconnecting to NYC.  Maybe.  Here's what was on this week:

Survived a much dreaded presentation in White Plains, then somehow caught "The Heiress" on Broadway (recommended by Time Out NY) on my way home.  This was really good, although I had a bit of shock of recognition/empathy with the socially awkward heroine.  The 1948 movie was highly recommended to me, so I've requested it through the public library.

Small group (aka home fellowship group) - last week, I provided dinner (another variation on chickpea masala), this week I just attended and enjoyed the taco/fajita DIY. 

"If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet" on Broadway -  I took a chance on another 5-star recommendation from Time Out NY, and was underwhelmed.

Patricia's Christmas party - this was nice.  Managed to escape the talent show though.

Hiking in Beacon - 10.5 miles (including 4 miles road walking to and from the train station).  Very foggy, so not much in the way of views.  But good.  I listened to Tolkien Professor podcasts.  Let's not talk about the mile I walked up the wrong path (one of those well-trodden and poorly marked trails that are not part of the formal trail system) and slipped on the slick leaves and fell and bruised the back of my left thigh.  That will just be our secret, OK?

9am service at Trinity Wall Street, followed by some progress on my "Songs of Peril" paper for an upcoming conference, and then Handel's "Messiah" at 3pm.  Which was really good. Although I was surprised to see how many "female" singing parts (alto, and even soprano) were taken by men.

Just saw "Meet Me In St. Louis" for the first time. Funny.  And very sweet. Absolute treacle. But also with a side of weird violent child fantasies that would probably never make it into a modern movie.  It's also weird to see a movie in which the key point of optimism is the decision NOT to move... I'm speaking as one who moved every 3 or 4 years throughout my childhood.  There are some "surprising" innuendos (surprising only to those who assume that the 1940's were a more innocent time).  Of course, this was a 1940's movie set in the 1900's...already self-consciously nostalgic.  

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Is it really evil...

... to resent someone who was going out with a friend of yours off and on for many years, then hooked up with someone else and has had two kids in a span of 18 months with the new partner? Sigh.  I just feel bad for my friend.  Don't know for sure if she knows about this relationship or either of the kids.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Monday, December 03, 2012

External Power Supply

More than a month after the storm, many buildings in lower Manhattan have generator rental trucks parked outside them.

This Duane Reade has not yet re-opened, although work has begun inside.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Nix on the origin of Abhorsen

NIX: Because the Abhorsens in a way are executioners — they make the dead stay dead. So I went looking for a name that was not particularly well known but that would resonate as an executioner, and I looked through lots of historical sources as well as eventually turning to Shakespeare, and choosing that name from the name of the executioner in Measure for Measure.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Snow in Them Thar Hills

On the train ride up, I began making notes for my upcoming paper for Valpo.  Of course, I didn't bring any blank paper, so I was writing in the margins of an outdated train schedule I'd brought with me.  

I got my camera out when we stopped at Peekskill - I was so taken with the metalwork at the station.  

A vine grows in Peekskill.
As we pulled away, I tried snapping a picture of a sculpted diver, but it was really fuzzy.  I put the camera away and settled back to enjoy the ride.

And that's when I saw a bald eagle, perched on a tree overlooking the Hudson River.  So cool!!!  Alas, no photo.

 * * * 
For today's hike, I had very little daylight available to me because I got such a late start.  So I took Washburn (2.3 miles, white blaze) to Nelsonville (2.6 miles, green blaze) for a very simple loop.
Details: It was about 1.5 total miles of road walking to and from the train station.  I actually left the pedometer running the whole day until I got home, and clocked a total of about 9 miles.

The stark winter landscape was softened by fallen leaves...

...and fog 

Toward the upper reaches of the Washburn Trail, I began to see little patches of snow, which soon gave way to bigger patches:

I suddenly remembered a book I read as a kid (Ghost Town Treasure, by Clyde Robert Bulla) where two children find the diary of a now-deceased relative, who had gone out prospecting or something.  Thrillingly, one of the last entries says "Gold in the cave" -- and our hero's family is facing dire economic straits -- so the kids spend most of the book looking for the cave, and eventually find it.  Somehow they figure out at the end that the entry actually said "Cold in the cave."

On Frozen Pond?  Supposedly it was 43 F today.

The road goes ever on and on

Mount Taurus

There were patches of snow on the Nelsonville Trail, even at lower elevations.

I spent most of the trail time listening to the Tolkien Professor podcast, specifically the last few sessions of his Faerie and Fantasy class, where he talked about Sabriel, by Garth Nix.  I had an idea for a paper (comparing Sabriel with Silver Chair), although I'm wondering if there might be a third one to throw into the mix.

Some additional connections came to mind as well - Kerrigor with Rowling's Dementors, for example (because of the attempted kiss). Kerrigor is probably worth some additional thought; he was  apparently seeking to enslave Sabriel rather than to suck out her soul, and the scene is described in a way that actually brings to mind an attempted rape, rendered extra creepy by Kerigor's suggestion of a family relationship between them.

Dr Olsen pointed out some Shakespeare connections I'd missed, particularly the name Abhorsen and Touchstone.  Abhorson is an executioner who appears in a single scene of Measure for Measure; he is offered a bawd as a helper, and insists that execution is a mystery.*  I don't feel bad for missing that one, as I've only seen the play twice and I don't recall seeing that particular scene.  But Touchstone is the fool in As You Like It, and I should have picked up on that.

Dr Olsen also mentioned that Rogir and Touchstone were brothers, one (I assume) legitimate, the other the Queen's bastard, but raised in the same household.  That reminds me, of course, that in Shakespeare, it would be the bastard brother who goes rogue -- but in Nix, it is the bastard brother who is good.

On my way back to the train station, I stopped at Le Bouchon for a salad and a glass of wine.  Bliss.

Just had time to change clothes and go out again for a Camerata Notturna concert.  Wonderful, esp. the Schubert Symphony No. 9.

FN* Provost describes Abhorson to Pompey as "a common executioner, who in his office lacks a helper."  When Provost makes his pitch to Abhorson that Pompey could be Abhorson's helper, the following dialogue ensues:
PROVOST: [Pompey] cannot plead his estimation with you; he hath been a bawd.
ABHORSON: A bawd, sir? fie upon him! he will discredit our mystery.
PROVOST:  Go to, sir; you weigh equally; a feather will turn the scale.
Provost then exits to let the bawd and the executioner speak alone, and Pompey is understandably curious to hear what is so mysterious about execution by hanging:
POMPEY: ... what mystery there should be in hanging, if I should be hanged, I cannot imagine.
ABHORSON:  Sir, it is a mystery.
POMPEY: Proof?
ABHORSON:  Every true man's apparel fits your thief: if it be too little for your thief, your true man thinks it big enough; if it be too big for your thief, your thief thinks it little enough: so every true man's apparel fits your thief.
Measure for Measure, Act IV, scene ii.