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Monday, March 31, 2008

In Defense of Food

Michael Pollan's latest book, In Defense of Food deserves every bit of the praise that's being heaped on it. It's a natural follow-up to last year's blockbuster, The Omnivore's Dilemma.

Much of what he says you already know intuitively: The Western Diet (bad). Nutritionism, defined as eating based on "nutrients" alone (bad). Traditional ethnic and aboriginal diets (Mediterranean, Japanese, Greek, Indian, even French (good). Eating in the car (bad). Sitting down to enjoy meals with friends and family (good). Packaged, processed foods (bad). Packaged food that makes health claims (bad). Fresh fruits and vegetables (good). Farmers markets and CSA plans (better). Growing your own food (still better). Fast food (bad). Cooking at home and from scratch (good). And so on.

But there's plenty here that was new to me. I finally understand, for example, why it's important to look for grass-FINISHED meats. And eggs from chickens that have been "pastured". Did you know that the ultimate best source of the all-important Omega-3 fatty acids is green LEAVES? Fish, yes, but it's because the fish eat seaweed. And that one of the best sources of Omega-3 is purslane - that weed I go after with such a vengeance! It's all about food CHAINS, it turns out.

This isn't a diet book, or a recipe book. It's not at all preachy. And you won't find any specific recommendations about what to eat. Rather, it's a highly readable history of the mess the scientists and nutritionists and yes - the government - have gotten us into, and a hopeful message about how we can, individually, make more informed choices. Reading it will make you want to rush to the store and load up on produce. At least that's what I did.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Spring: ready or not, here it comes!

I can't remember a year when I felt that spring had come too soon.

But this is such a year. I didn't get the bulbs underground til mid-January; it just hadn't seemed cold enough til then. (True, there was a snowy period in December that caught us unawares, but I really couldn't have done it then.) Yesterday, around town, I saw some forsythia showing that faint but telltale yellow cast. That's like the opening bell, spring-wise. I'm not sure I'm ready.

What I wish for: a strong young person to help on an ad hoc basis with some of the heavy outdoor chores. Mowing, when it's needed (and not when it isn't); mulching; edging, raking (not blowing, thanks). Here it's an all-or-nothing scenario. You hire one of the mow-and-blow companies, and they descend with all their noisy apparatus on their schedule, not yours. Or you do it yourself. Find a kid who wants to earn some pocket change? Dream on.

But of course the exercise is good for me. And, once I get into the swing, you can't pry me away. Still, it seems so soon....

Monday, March 17, 2008


On Saturday I attended a pruning workshop at the Van Vleck Garden. I had no idea that I was going to have to apply my newly-acquired skills IMMEDIATELY! For certain things (broadleaf evergreens and conifers, for example), it's almost too late. They need to be pruned when they're dormant.
Mainly it's the roses that have to be cut back now. It was gray and rainy yesterday, so I had a reprieve. But today it was gorgeous - so out I went with my Felcos, and the special rose gloves H provided at Christmas. Mission accomplished, more or less.
The general rule about pruning is that you prune flowering shrubs right AFTER they bloom, so as not to sacrifice any blossoms. But the exception to that is when you can see that there are branches that are shooting off in odd directions, or rubbing against their brethren. It's easy to see these offenders now, as compared to later when the leaves are in the way.
But here's the trick: bring the clipped branches inside and put them in water to enjoy "forced" blossoms in the house. I'd always known about this, but had never thought about it in exactly this context. So I am trying this with my serviceberry (amelanchier); we'll see what happens!

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Animal Estates and Demuth

Another museum last night - this time the Whitney. I had wanted to see the small show of paintings by Charles Demuth, from the twenties. These are, for the most part, paintings of industrial buildings in his native Lancaster, Pa. There are also some earlier works - watercolors of flowers, and one of acrobats. All lovely, and worth the trip.
The bulk of the museum (first four floors) is given over right now to the Biennial, a big every-other-year-show of the latest goings-on in the art world - the sort of things you see in Chelsea. More conceptual than beautiful, mostly huge, nothing you'd hang on the wall (exception: some interesting photo-realist paintings by California artist Robert Bechtle).
That's where the milling throngs were, and I breezed through it all fairly quickly, returning to the uncrowded fifth floor where a small groups of works from the permanent collection was on display, in addition to the Demuth exhibit and an exquisite small group of Calders.
But outside the museum, surrounding the sunken pool, there was an installation by Fritz Haeg called "Animal Estates". The artist has created homes for twelve "animal clients" who would have lived in the area over 400 years ago, before the European colonists arrived. So there's an enormous nest for a family of bald eagles, a burrow for an opossum, gourd-houses for purple martins, a sunningi platform for the eastern mud turtle, and so forth.
People who are waiting in line to enter the museum peer into this area over a railing, and are given little signs to read about the "clients", similar to what you'd encounter at a nature preserve.
While I was standing in the line (along with a bunch of twenty-somethings, as I now realize is the norm at museum "free nights") I didn't really know what I was looking at - I thought maybe it had always been there. I'm not sure what the plan is, but I hope it will stay!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Life Clock

How about this "life clock" which makes one sweep of the "year hand" every eighty-four years? You get to see how much time you have left - if you're lucky. An interesting perspective, for sure. How did you feel when you were 21, or 42? Young, or old? From Boing-Boing.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

I knew it would come in handy

Crossword clue today: Quarterback who played himself in There's Something About Mary. Woo hoo! Got it right away. Thanks, Supermom!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Art lovers

Last Friday I went to "free night" again at the MOMA. This time it was the new show on color that I wanted to see. Once again, there was a big crowd in the big open spaces, but no problem viewing the exhibits themselves.

Plenty of time to enjoy some old favorites, as well. Funny how some of these paintings from the fifties and sixties are starting to look almost old-fashioned now.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Jasper Johns

So, I actually DID end up going to the Met on Saturday, despite the rain.
One of the special exhibits right now is devoted to paintings of Jasper Johns that are entirely GRAY. The works are culled from throughout his career. It would be wrong to assume that he had something like a "gray period"; it's just an idea that he keeps returning to.
In the pastel class, which is very much about color theory, we've discussed how gray is always the result when you combine the three primary colors, or when you combine two complimentary colors. Of course there is a vast RANGE of grays that will result when you do this. In the Johns show catalog, which I thumbed through, an interview with the artist makes this same point. Johns has said it's his favorite color.
There is another exhibit devoted to Johns' work right now at a gallery in Chelsea. It's just drawings from the last ten years, and they're not just gray. I like Johns' work, for the most part, and I was thinking of going, and still may.
But then I came across this interesting film clip of the show's opening night. The artist (nearly eighty now) is there. Lots of art world bigwigs (though who knows who they all are). Lots of gabbing. Very little looking at the art. If you've wondered what these events are like, pour yourself some wine and take a look. You'll think you're part of the scene.
UPDATE: And here, remarkably, is a video tour of the opening of the Met show. Pretty soon we can all just stay home.


For years I was a hopeless magazine junkie. I subscribed to them all. The New Yorker. Gourmet. House and Garden. Harpers. Martha Stewart. Garden Design. Newsweek. That was the core. But I'd go off on tangents. Vogue, for a while. House Beautiful. Smithsonian. Metropolitan Home. American Artist. New York Magazine. Art and Antiques. The New York Review of Books. Oh, and all the alumni magazines!

Of course there was never time to read them all, so I'd pile them up into categories, thinking I'd get to them later. Sometimes I would. More often, I wouldn't. And the piles were occupying serious space.

I have a different approach now. No subscriptions.

But the library lets the magazines circulate - even the most current issue. You get them for a week. So, whenever I go there I take a few. And - remarkably - I READ them. Maybe it's knowing there's a time limit? Of course I can't maintain my vast clipping files any longer. Instead, if there's something I want to take note of, or remember, I write it down. Or sketch it.

I still have a few piles here and there. But I'm working my way through them. The alumni magazines still pour in, of course. Who said anything about perfection?

Saturday, March 08, 2008


When you live in the suburbs it seems to be expected that you'll "join" things. I've pretty much done it all - from the League of Women Voters, the Junior League, the Women's Club, the Garden Club. And that's just for starters. And then there are all those "boards".

Trouble is, I don't seem to have much staying power. Pretty soon it all comes down to this: phone calls and meetings. Meetings and phone calls. More meetings. More phone calls. I hate meetings. And I hate phone calls. And so, with guilt, I resign. I see friends and acquaintances less often, and I regret that. But that's the way it is.

But there's another kind of joining. I decided, recently, to join the Met. That's the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It's the one with the richest holdings by far - the one you can never see even a fraction of at any one time. And, on top of that, there are "special" exhibits that come and go in a flash. If I go there four times a year I'll have gotten my money's worth. My hope and expectation is that I'll go way more often than that.

I was going to go today, in fact, but it's raining now. Do I want to walk to the bus stop? It wouldn't kill me would it? But I went to the city yesterday and the day before. And I'm a little behind on things here on the home front. We'll see how it goes.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Michael Clayton

Entirely satisfying, first-rate old-fashioned lawyer-thriller. Reminiscent of The Verdict. Discovering that Tom Wilkinson was in it just added to the pleasure. My favorite part might have been the closing credits (just watching Clooney's face ...) - not that I was happy to see it end. On DVD now. I guess they'll be coming thick and fast from here on.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Speed vs Accuracy musings

I did the seven "at home" tournament puzzles. The scoring goes like this: for each puzzle, you get 10 pts for each correct letter, 150 pts bonus for a perfect score, and 25 pts for each minute that you finish before time is called. If you turn the puzzle in early with a mistake, you get 25 pts subtracted for each WRONG letter.

I aced four of the easier puzzles with time to spare (3, 4, 6 and 7). Puzzles 2 and 5 were, as always, the tough ones - especially 5, which was a killer. In each of those I was left with pretty much an entire corner unfinished when the clock ran out.

Then there was puzzle 1. This was another easy one, but I made a careless typo.

Checking my score (including this mistake), I had a total of 9150. This would have placed me at #238 had I achieved the same score among the 699 "live" competitors. Had I NOT made the mistake, I would have gotten the 150 point bonus, and not had the 25 pts subtracted, adding 175 pts to my score for 9325. Then I would have been #217 overall. Hmm. Not such a tremendous difference, actually. Still...

All but a very few of the competitors are there to try to achieve some personal goal and to have fun. To actually win, or even place in the top 50-100 you have to be some kind of amazing crossword-solving machine. My goal, had I attended in person, would have been to place in the top 40%. As it turns out, #238 would have put me in the top 34%. I'd have been quite happy with that, actually. Well, maybe I'll go to Brooklyn next year and see if I can do it there!

The overall winner was Tyler Hinman, for the fourth straight year. He is still one of the youngest competitors, just a year or so out of college. How he does it is anyone's guess.


Sunday, March 02, 2008

Steig, Jacquette and Burckhardt, and Snowdrops

Today I more than made up for yesterday's wimpiness. I had a beautiful art-filled day in New York.

I don't often think of going in on weekends; our train service runs only on weekdays; on Saturday and Sunday you have to take the bus. For years the bus was the ONLY option, but now that we have the direct train to Penn Station, which is quite a bit more comfortable, the bus starts to look like a poor alternative.

But there were two specific museum shows that I was anxious to see, and time was running short for one of them. So - the bus it was!

First stop: The Jewish Museum.

Specifically, the William Steig exhibit, which will be closing soon. I've been a Steig fan for years, so in a way this was more about paying homage than seeing something new. Because his work was always meant for reproduction (New Yorker covers, book illustrations, cartoons) there is nothing really surprising to see in the originals. Still, it was all so well put together, more or less chronologically, but also by subject (childrens' books, battle of the sexes, psychology, memoir...). And there were some surprises. For example:

1. Steig attended Yale for five days. (He had to support his family after the 1929 crash; I assumed that might have had something to do with it?).

2. He was a friend and disciple of William Reich and used an orgone box faithfully.

3. He dabbled in sculpture in the thirties, and had a small exhibit in NY. Nelson Rockefeller bought nearly all the pieces, at a negotiated price of $10 each. (A few pieces are shown here.)

One of the best things was a "reading room" - an actual room designed to look like a Steig drawing - perhaps the living room of Sylvester's (and the Magic Pebble) family. There were big round pillows on the floor to lounge on, and a pile of Steig books to read on a table in the corner. Whole families were cuddling in there, reading aloud, chuckling... Steig would have loved to see it! I was itching to take photographs, but they were verboten. The museum has a nice on-line version which I highly recommend. I'm feeling link-lazy, but it's easy to find.

Update: The NYT has just published a wonderfully descriptive review, with lots of pictures (on-line version). Definitely worth a look.

Since I had never been to the Jewish Museum, I also took a quick spin through the permanent collection, which emphasizes Jewish history and culture. I could have spent much more time on that, and will certainly return. Most likely soon, when they install what sounds like a great show on abstract expressionism.

From there it was a quick stroll up Fifth Avenue to the Museum of the City of New York.

I had read in the NY Times about this show of paintings and photographs by husband/wife team Yvonne Jacquette and Rudy Burkhardt, and I knew I had to see it.

Jacquette is a painter and her husband (now deceased) was a photographer and filmmaker. Both focus, in this show, on images of New York. Jacquette's paintings are referred to as "urban nocturnes". They are all aerial views - from planes, helicopters, tall buildings - showing the lights of the city at night. Her method is, in general, to start with a pastel painting (many of these on view here, the largest about 18" x 24") and then graduate to a much larger (roughly 6' x 6' or so) oil painting. They are all just mind-blowingly beautiful.

Burkhardt's photographs, all black and white, are equally worth seeing. Reminiscent of Walker Evans and Berenice Abbot, but with a quirky charm of their own. Besides the still photos, there was an ongoing video of some of his 16mm black and white movies. Two that won me over in particular were "What Mozart saw on Mulberry St.", made in collaboration with Joseph Cornell (Burkhardt was always part of the larger NY art scene, knew everyone) and "Under the Brooklyn Bridge".

The first one shows fifties street life, including children, cats, traffic.. one child who is practicing ARCHERY in the middle of a busy sidewalk scene keeps reappearing...!). The other includes an unbelievable scene of a group of young boys skinny-dipping in the East River with the Bridge looming above, and the lower Manhattan skyline beyond, with occasional appearances by fast-moving trains and boats.

When I finally tore myself away from this spectacular show I revisited some of my other favorites there, such as the Stettheimer doll house, the toy collection, and the beautiful period rooms. There was also a fascinating small exhibit of Broadway set design from the 30's and 40's by Donald Oenslager, some nice but very small etchings by John Sloan (Ashcan again!), and a group of color photos of more contemporary (70's and 80's) NY street life, as nice counterpoint to Burkhardt.

When the museum closed at five it was still light (hooray - and Daylight Savings Time will soon be here to boot!), so I took time to stroll across the street to visit a favorite oasis - the Conservatory Garden. It's another one of those well-designed gardens with such good structure and "bones" that it can be enjoyed in any season. But look! Snowdrops are in bloom!

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Where I'm Not

This is the weekend of the big crossword tournament. After the success of the movie, Wordplay, it became so popular that it outgrew its original venue in Stamford, Connecticut and is being held this year at the Brooklyn Bridge Marriott. I waffled all week about whether to go or not. I know my times aren't anywhere good enough to win, since I use the "timed applet" every day when I do the Times puzzle, and can see where I fit in. Not the worst, but nowhere near the best.

It snowed a little last night, and when I looked outside this morning, still waffling, I decided that I wasn't up for the trek. Now it's all sunny and the snow is practically gone. I'm wishing I hadn't been such a wimp.

So I signed up to do the tournament puzzles on-line, which I've never done before. This is something anyone can do, and it can be done at leisure, any time through December, 2008. It costs $20 to do this, and you get results that are timed and scored just as if you had been there in person. For me, the on-line part is actually advantageous, since I always have a lot of trouble switching to the unnatural-for-me pencil and paper mode. Still, it won't be quite the same.