Monday, November 16, 2009

Recalled to life

Finally slowing down a little on work; you can tell because I'm a little way into Colson's The Intuitionist, and today I bought Queen's album The Miracle, which I happily anticipate listening to tomorrow. Good times

Friday, November 13, 2009

Cliff notes

Twilight summed up:

Hi. I'm a teenage girl and I'm new in town. I'm extremely pretty and boys fall for me right and left, but I'm also really casual and klutzy and un-catty, so you can't hate me for it. I don't seem to have any real hobbies or interests -- well, I read a bit. My mother's flakey and lives at the other end of the country, and my dad's kind of clueless, so I have tons of freedom to have all kinds of ridiculous adventures.

My boyfriend is so awesome. Who needs hobbies when you have him? He's totally gorgeous and sexy and athletic, and so cool. He's also insanely wealthy. None of that is why I love him, of course; I love him for who he really is, 'cause he's also sensitive and vulnerable -- and he has some other interests, though we don't talk about them much. He absolutely dotes on me, but he's so respectful and protective that he won't have sex with me -- which is great, because then I don't have to think about whether I'm ready for it or not or talk about something like condoms, which would break the spell of my fantasy. He's never looked at another girl in school before me, which makes me feel really special.


This is crap, people. Run-of-the-mill teenybopper romance crap. The only thing that saves it is that the guy is a vampire. To get through, you really either need to want to read a Harlequin romance, or shut your eyes to that and focus on the universe. If you try it out of curiosity, just read New Moon, which is at least a little more interesting as Bella gets all crazy after her vampire leaves her, and spares you the exposition of the first novel. And for god's sake, spare yourself the last one, in which she has a half-vampire baby that nearly kills her and who her werewolf Native American best friend then forms a soulmate bond with... How they're going to film all that, I will never know, because I have no interest in seeing the movies. But yes, Robert Pattinson is pretty.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Return to Hobbiton

I can't help it; I am excited about The Hobbit. If you are too, you gotta read this interview with Guillermo del Toro.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Smithsonian day

Not much time for sightseeing in D.C., but I did do a remarkably quick run through three (three!) museums in less than three hours. I've never gone through a museum so fast in my life. First up was the Museum of American History, where I made sure to take a look at my friend Franklin Odo's new exhibit on Hawaii. Well chosen but rather utopian; I'm not sure that anything on the darker side of Hawaiian annexation would really fly unless it were on a much bigger scale, like the temporary exhibit upstairs on the bracero movement (the Mexican contract laborers from 1942 to the sixties). The permanent exhibits were fairly interesting; we only glanced at Julia Child's kitchen and the First Lady dress exhibit, which were very crowded. FYI, no Michelle Obama dress yet, but her photo has been added to the lineup. We did enjoy looking at the trains and the never-ending array of scientific inventions, including various light bulbs, engines, batteries, toasters, turbines...

Next we crossed the street to the Museum of Natural History, which has a great fossil collection. A brontosaurus, stegosaurus, triceratops, lots of wee dinosaurs I don't know the names of, primitive sea life, primitive horse hooves, you name it. Nothing quite as crazy as the T. Rex at Chicago's Field Museum, but a really interesting range. I towed my male companion upstairs to see the Hope Diamond, currently on display free of its setting for the first time, took one look at it, and said, “Eh... it's a diamond.” Jewels don't have much charm for me unless they have cool historical associations. Now the ruby at the Tower of London that Henry V supposedly wore at Agincourt, that one I stared at for a good long time. We jogged on through bugs, butterflies, Greek and Egyptian collections, quickly looked at a nice little Korean collection including some typical primitivist Cheju Island paintings which I'd never seen before, and finished up in sea life under the big whale.

Last but far from least, I speedwalked down the Mall to the Air and Space Museum. A friend had told me that this was really the most distinctive museum, in a way, and he was really right – you don't see rockets and planes in too many places. It would have been worth it just to see the Apollo 11 command module, which sits near the front encased in thick plastic. The planes were cool, too. I can't help thinking that early commercial travelers really had guts – some of those looked like tin cans. And don't even start on the tiny mail planes. Definitely good times all around at the Smithsonian, and don't forget, they're all free.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Whatever happened to Topher Grace?

I leave you with this thought while I jet off to D.C. Liberal Traveler musings on museums will no doubt follow. Weather cooperating, I am going to go see a panda.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

If only it were vacant on purpose

"Total vacant land in Detroit now occupies an area almost the size of Boston, according to a Detroit Free Press estimate."

My god.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Jaw on floor

Well, this oughta silence those mumblings that his international influence wasn't enough to get the Olympic bid.

Too early? I don't need to turn on Fox to know that those commentators are already saying, "Give me a break." I suppose it's already an achievement to have changed the mindset of the international community and given so many people hope. That is, assuming that people feel that way, and many do. Within America, of course, we've been a bit more fickle, fearing the stock market and unemployment and blaming Obama for not fixing everything NOW. Look at his rollercoastering approval ratings.

For that matter, I would bet that most Americans will be doubly surprised by this because we've paid so much attention to his domestic agenda lately (healthcare, cars) that nobody is thinking at all about nuclear proliferation. Afghanistan's had a bit more air time, but it's far from being the #1 issue on everyone's radar yet.

All in all? Too early, yes. Because so much more is expected from him. If he really has changed the world climate, metaphorically at least, it's a good start. But in order to silence the critics, he'll have to change the climate in reality. Kyoto II, here we come.

P.S. Very America-centric Nobel year. I don't recall so many Americans getting the prizes in years in the science fields. Wonder who will get economics.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

I'll huff and I'll puff


And then I'll get overheated. Climbing the Great Wall was a real experience, though true adventurers should definitely head for the unrestored wall on a tour with Wild China or Wild Wall, or even just the day hike from Jianshanling to Simatai. We headed for Mutianyu, about an hour directly north of Beijing, a drive taking you through small towns and past tons of newly planted trees, which a Chinese student told us were done to cut down dust for the Olympics.

Mutianyu is well restored, but at least early in the morning, quite peaceful. When we started climbing around (before 9am), we were perhaps two of ten people on the Wall. It was, as promised, steep and slightly perilous in parts, even though so well restored. I didn't see anyone tumble, but I did hear people saying that they had fallen down stair sections. I calmly and shamelessly resorted to all fours on the steep parts. Why not? Easier than trying to hang off a shoulder-height flanking wall.

The little watchtowers were quite interesting, though of course bare. Little animal stone carvings decorate the corners, and you could even climb up on the roof of some of them. The unrestored section isn't just slightly crumbly on top; it's completely overgrown with shrubs and weeds. You can barely see the wall. I'd imagine that the Wild China tours must go to parts of the wall that are in a more desert location than Mutianyu's greenery, which was quite lush. We got good views of it from the ski lift that carries you up, and then on the toboggan that you can take down. My first toboggan ride! It would have been more fun if the middle-aged European lady in front of me hadn't been terrified to go at more than a crawl.

All in all, an excellent half-day trip, complete with a lovely, friendly cab driver (a black taxi arranged by our concierge). We bought him a bottle of tea, and he then felt compelled to stop and buy us some fruit.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Cutting a swathe

Let's step back to China, shall we? I scarcely know where to start there either, but here's the summary of what we hit: Forbidden City, Wangfujing shopping street and snack street, Lama Temple, Pearl Market, Mao's mausoleum in Tiananmen Square, several Excellent restaurants, and the Great Wall at Mutianyu.

Oh, what the hell, let's start with the food. We didn't do so well the first day—as a matter of fact, we barely ate, as I recall, snacking on a few buns for lunch and getting some soup dumplings in a mall food court for dinner. The second day, we did much better. We thoroughly pigged out on the best dim sum I've ever had at Crystal Jade restaurant in one of the malls on Wangfujing. It was a pretty ritzy restaurant, pricey by Chinese standards, but worth every penny. Excellent service, very little English, leading to a hilarious pantomime when my friend wanted hot sauce.

In the evening, we hit the famous Li Qun roast duck restaurant, to which Mao supposedly used to send his driver to pick up a bird or two. More hilarity here. Guidebooks and maps gave us a general idea of where it was. I paused at a newspaper kiosk to ask the young proprietor if we were on the right track by eloquently handing him the card on which our concierge had written the name. “Ah, Li Qun,” he said thoughtfully. I nodded eagerly. He thought hard and added, “Duck.” I nodded again. He pointed straight, then right.

We knew we were on the right track when we were accosted by an enterprising bike taxi driver, but we waved him away and kept walking. Empty taxis going past us gave me hope, and sure enough the restaurant was right there. My friend remarked on what an ass she'd have felt like if we'd taken the ricksha! Though very, very famous, the place is still an unassuming hole in the wall and none too nice, but more importantly, I've never had such duck in my life. I don't like duck in the U.S. – it's too oily and gamy for me – but this slow woodroasted duck drips the fat out, leaving a tender, flavorful white meat that you roll up with cucumbers and scallions (not me) in little mu shu, dip in the special sauce (some kind of fermented bean base, I think) and eat till you feel like exploding. When we got there, only Chinese customers were around, but some Americans trickled in as real dinnertime approached. When we left, we nearly split our already-splitting sides with laughter; as you exit, on the whitewashed wall ahead of you is stenciled a little cartoon duck and the words “DUCK OK.” I wish I'd taken a picture.



On our last day, we came back from the Wall close to ravenous, and hit one of the oldest Chinese Muslim restaurants in town, Dong Lai Shun, conveniently right on Wangfujing. We had classic hot pot, which we filled with noodles, potatoes, pea shoots, mutton, and scallops, and chased with their delicious little sesame bread cakes. For the record, scallops suck in hot pot – fishing them out is much too hard.

Then it was off to the conference, where food was abundant but not nearly so good, of course. But those two days were ones for the books, for sure.

Once upon a sword


Another airplane post. Look, I've got time to kill and can't sleep.

My last day in Tokyo, I was really torn about what to do, and ended up heading for a slightly off-the-beaten path site, the temple of Sengaku-ji. Off the usual path but celebrated enough to have its own metro stop. This temple is the site of one of Japan's most famous stories from the samurai era, this one the 18th century. The story of the Forty-Seven Ronin is a bloody tale of revenge, hara-kiri, and chivalry. Read the full version on wikipedia; I can't do it better. In very short, a band of forty-seven masterless samurai plotted for two years to avenge their dead master, led by the famous Oishi. They succeeded, carrying off the enemy's head in triumph, but were in turn condemned to commit honorable suicide, which all of them did except one, the youngest, who was pardoned, lived to a ripe old age, and was buried with his comrades. The story became a celebrated tale of loyalty and honor.

The temple is where their master was buried, and all of them with him. It was very quiet, with a few pensioners sitting and snoozing in the courtyard and then some young folks coming to eat lunch on the benches. Only a very few other tourists, all Japanese. The museum has many original documents and artifacts, including, most famously, the receipt the priests wrote out when Oishi returned the enemy's head to his family for burial. There are also letters and documents written by him, and the war drum that the ronin supposedly used on their raid. Most cool of all, I thought, was one of the copies of the ronin's objectives in the raid, which they left behind and also pasted on their enemy's gate the night of the action. What a tale.

I ought to end there, but will just add that I wish I spoke or read a little Japanese to get the most out of this place. The ticket seller barely spoke any English, so I couldn't ask him questions, but I wasn't sure who was buried where. I took photos and will have to ask friends for translations.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Conspicuous consumption

On the airplane this time, on my way back to the U.S.

My last days in Tokyo were exhausting and exhaustive. As a matter of fact, it's hard to remember exactly what I did on which days, but it involved doing pretty much all my Christmas shopping. Tokyo is a shopping mecca. I can't see why, to be honest, you'd go shop anywhere else, except of course for the strength of the yen. With my usual impeccable timing, I hit something like an eleven-year high of the yen against the dollar, much like when I visited England and the pound was 1:2. I opened a vein and happily bled my way to Wimbledon, and so I did once more. Almost bled my way to another tennis tournament, as a matter of fact, since the women's Toray Tokyo tournament was going on, but in the end decided against it.

To return to the shopping, there are multiple high-end shopping areas, Ginza being the most famous and most ritzy. You've never experienced such customer service—such bowing, such gift-wrapping, such polite greeting, such bagging and rebagging of your purchases. Omotesando is also extremely famous, with some great architecture – a standalone Prada store made out of puffy glass diamonds, a famous mall called Omotesando Hills that has a kind of zigzagging ramp from one floor to the next. The Hills has a Harry Winston and a Jimmy Choo. You'd go a long way to find that kind of mall in the U.S. Shinjuku, though a little more vibrant and less high-end, also has some fairly high-end department stores.

For the cool stuff, you head to Shinjuku, Shibuya, Harajuku. Shinjuku is home of Disk Union's flagship store(s), with six branches within three blocks, many specializing in a particular genre or genres. I got myself a fanclub Queen concert recording and an obscure Turandot. People were buying like mad, particularly on the classical floor, where the customers just had little shopping baskets. I was distressed to note that I was almost the only female shopping there; that's just not right. It doesn't aid stereotypes that Harajuku is so female dominated, full of young girls like a Forever 21 is here (and there's one of those there, too). Though there are plenty of guys, hanging out or accompanying girlfriends. Shibuya is also youth-oriented, very trendy.

Asakusa is full of tourist shopping. Little souvenirs, ranging from tiny drums or refrigerator magnets to beautiful handmade crafts that cost hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. For that matter, there's a lot of tourist shopping as well as worshipper shopping at all the shrines, where you can buy little charms for all kinds of things; pregnancy, scholarship, traffic safety (it was green). Main tourist shopping street here:



I've already mentioned my trips to the guitar stores of Ochanomizu and the bookstores of Jimbo-cho, of course. A used English paperback will run you about $5 there. And, of course, my mandolin purchase at the Meiji Park flea market behind the National Stadium. There are many weekend flea markets in Tokyo now, popularized by recycling and, of course, everyone's love of deals. I just couldn't be sure what haggling was like in Japan's polite culture, though. I watched it happen, but when you can't understand numbers, how can you know how much the price is shifting?

Finally, I just about hit my shopping max in a store called Tokyu Hands. This has several branches in Tokyo, and it's billed as a hobby shop or handcrafting shop or something of the kind. Basically, if you do it with your hands, you find everything for it here. I hit the kitchen floor of the branch in Ikekuburo, and to my great delight, found white silicone steamer lids that I'd eyed at MOMA Design Store but were twice as expensive there. They're just round white silicone disks with a pig snout in the middle. Put them over whatever you're microwaving or steaming or boiling, and the steam issues out the pig nostrils. Too cute, and much saving of paper towels, etc. I did take the escalators to the other floors, but I was so maxed out by that time that I could barely function to take in the giant assortment of insoles, gift bags, knives, garden hoses...

One area I did not hit is famous Akihabara, the electronics mecca. I was hoping to find a retractable USB cable, and I almost found one at the airport—but it was a USB to other-connector converter. I knew they'd have anything you could dream up, and I was just about right. I bet I could have found one in town. Oh well.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Donkey, two piles of hay, me

[ETA: I've been blogging about guitar-related Tokyo sightseeing on the other blog, so skip over there for that stuff.]

I've never been on a trip where it was so completely true that it wouldn't matter which choice I made to go wherever; it would still be awesome and amazing and I would also wish I could see the other place. Tomorrow is such a choice. Kamakura or more of Tokyo?

Today was also such a choice. After a morning at the flea market, I spent the afternoon at the Meiji Shrine, Harajuku, and Omotesando. Three more different things in close proximity could hardly be imagined. The Meiji Shrine is majestic and peaceful, very simple and dignified, like the emperor it honors. Go out of the park and you'll be hit in the face by the swarms of humanity that shop Harajuku and Omotesando. Yes, Harajuku, like Gwen Stefani's silent backup dancers and her fashion line. It is a very cool area, very very youth-oriented. Just insane shops from one end to the other, mostly very trendy clothes and accessories but interspersed with costume shops, the odd comic shop, and crepe stands. See:


Omotesando is yet another high-end shopping area, but right next to Dior is the Oriental Bazaar, a great place to souvenir-shop. I got myself a yukata, basically a light cotton kimono, or what we might think of as a bathrobe made out of sheet material. I've always wanted something like this, since I hate heavy robes, but I didn't know there was a name for it. I've been enjoying wearing them in the hotels (they leave them for you, along with a sash, just like a robe in an American hotel). These can be used as dressing gowns or nightwear or summer outerwear if they're nice ones.

Friday, September 25, 2009

I left my heart in Shojiko



Here I am on the bus back from Kawaguchiko to Tokyo, typing this up to post later. Bless the netbook.

I was tempted to stay all day out here, maybe go back to Shojiko, which truthfully I only saw from the bus but fell in love with as we circled it. Tiny blue-green horseshoe-shaped lake, surrounded by unassuming-looking shops and hotels, with plenty of folk boating and fishing on the lake, gorgeous view of Fuji. It also seems more walkable than Motosuko or even Kawaguchiko, which you just can't circle. No trails. This area is also not meant for hiking; you can't get there from here unless you're willing to walk along the edge of a major road. Only two lanes, admittedly, but no shoulder; you'd just be walking the line. No thanks.

Anyway, I decided against it mostly because my stomach has been only the edge of cooperation (medication issues, I think), and also because I was a little afraid that it might be anticlimactic. I got my boating on Motosuko, and that'll just have to hold me till the next water trip. I must say that I am still mightily bummed that there's no swimming in any of the lakes, particularly Motosuko. The water there was so clear and felt so good just splashing my hands in it that I'm sure it would have been the swim of a lifetime. (Had I not been wearing sneakers and full clothing, I'd have been tempted to fall overboard by accident.) Incidentally, all the people (all Japanese) were staring at me as I calmly boated around, including the old boatmen who clearly thought I'd paddle feebly away from shore and get stuck. Must not be a very feminine thing to do here. The boat was actually great, very light and with curved paddles, which let me whiz over the surface of the water. The photo is the view of Fuji from the water.

On the way to the other lakes, I stopped at two famous lava caves formed by old Fuji eruptions, Hyoketsu and Fuketsu. Fuketsu, which I went to first, is the “wind cave,” a dark little cave with a small structure built at the end of it. Alas, all the signage was in Japanese, so I have no idea what the heck I was looking at. There was lava rock. There was some ice. There were bamboo banisters.

Hyoketsu was more exciting. The descent was fairly perilous, though brief; I met some elderly Japanese emerging who looked like they'd been through the mill. Really steep, narrow stairs (wet, to boot), tunnel-like areas with vaguely step-like indentations. At one point you had to crouch and scoot through. I gave up and slid on my butt for a few feet, thinking all the time, “How would my parents manage this?” Hyoketsu used to be mined for ice, and there were signs with pictures showing how it was done. They have ice blocks piled up in a few areas for historical reenactment purposes. Lots of fun.



I hiked from Fuketsu to Hyoketsu through the beginning of the famous sea of trees, Aokigahara, following the signs by matching the Kanji to the words on my bus schedule. I now know the character for cave. Some of it was nice walking, some rougher over loose lava rocks, two small pebbles of which I took for souvenirs. I also bought some pink Japanese salt when killing time waiting for the bus to Motosuko (had to go back to Fuketsu for that).

And as I said, all day, the only foreigner around. Really unique experience. I exaggerate when I say that they didn't speak a word of English. They all spoke words. Maybe two. And I finally heard someone refer to me as a 'gaijin,' which excited me no end. I did teach the old man the word for “rowboat,” and when I backed the boat neatly into the launching fork, he said, “Nice!”

Where none have gone before

Torn between lakes and mountains, I went for lakes and caves -- mostly because the bus was earlier and I was raring to go. While Im sorry not to see Fuji on this trip, it was a great choice. I saw lava caves full of ice that used to be mined for it, the infamous sea of trees, the adorably horseshoe^shaped Lake Shoji, and the completely pristine Motosu. And all day, I was the only foreigner around. This seems like freak timing, since Im pretty sure I saw some tour buses saying Kanko, which means Korean. Still, it was pretty cool, and I think I was a nine days wonder to the old men at Motosu who rented me a rowboat for a half hour so I could get out on the surface of the lake and photograph Fuji. Motosu has the bluest water Ive ever seen, and its so clear that you can see all the way down (how far I dont know).

In case you can't tell, I just found the apostrophe on this keyboard.

In any case, it was fantastic, and I'm jazzed and wiped out at the same time. I spent the afternoon at a small museum, about which more later. Dinner is ready.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Neither fish nor fowl

Out at Fuji Five Lakes, more specifically Lake Kawaguchi. 50-min bus ride to Fuji is giving me pause. I may just do the caves, lakes, etc. Touristy but not very dolled up on this side of the lake. Yamanaka might be nicer, or the north shore. Will try tomorrow and blog from my own computer if the wifi is back up. This Japanese keyboard is driving me nuts.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Faster than a speeding train

Going around Tokyo has been so easy. The subways are full of English signs, and they move fast. Fast! I can get to Ginza in 10 minutes, and to Ueno, which is almost the opposite end of Tokyo, in 22. The only difficulty is the stations themselves, which wind around crazily for transfers sometimes and have multiple exits that are rather far apart. In addition, the system is made up of Tokyo Metro lines (the majority), four private lines run by Toei, and the JR network, which is more like a commuter rail. So if you buy a day pass, you need to know which lines you want, or else you may just be wasting money. Stations are clean and most have bathrooms.

Today, however, I take a break from Tokyo and go out to Kawaguchi-ko, one of the five lakes around Mount Fuji. Wish me luck. I will try to blog from there if I can.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Emerging!

Here I am in the land where you can access blogger and facebook, i.e. Japan. I couldn't get to them in China, which blocks such instant-commentary sites as best it can. In spite of such reminders of totalitarianism, I loved China and found it unbelievably interesting and surprisingly modern, full of paradox and development and Michael Jordan ads. The first three days there were an orgy of tourism and eating such as I have rarely managed before on jetlag – more on those later.

They were then made up for by the next three days at a conference center out in the boondocks next to a petrochemical plant and nothing else. Not a shop nor restaurant nor anything else within sight or a half hour's drive, and a serious lack of bottled water. I boiled like nobody's business, but on the second day found white particulate matter in my mug, and sure enough my stomach rebelled about six hours later. God only knows what it was – I really don't like to think. My traveling partner and I escaped on Sunday morning, heading first for an expat clinic for medical treatment for me and then to Dashanzi 798, the artist and craft area that's kind of like a pedestrian converted-warehouses version of, say, Greenwich Village twenty years ago? I don't even know if that's a fair comparison, but it was obvious that this is where cool young Beijing hangs out. After another fraught stomachic night, here I am in Japan, quietly drinking my hotel's free bottled water.

I had a great time talking to the Chinese graduate students, so cool and aware and curious and all completely untraveled outside China. So young-looking for their ages. I bestowed my Glamour magazine on one girl who had a Coach knockoff purse, and she was so delighted she couldn't even express it. She said they can't get the American fashion mags there – I wonder if that's true, but maybe they don't try shopping the Peninsula hotel newsstands. Another girl expressed great love for Kobe Bryant and Nicholas Cage, and inquired if there was a real Central Perk (the coffeeshop in Friends). A lot of the girls were very into the Twilight books -- can you imagine? Worldwide phenomenon. They wanted to know what Seattle and the Pacific Northwest were like (which is where the books were set and movie was filmed, apparently). Some few had extremely good and idiomatic English, some were very halting. They all have English names for speaking to foreigners (a practice I hope they get rid of ASAP), and one couldn't even pronounce hers: Nadine. The only two Nadines I have ever encountered are Gordimer and Fran's sister on "The Nanny."

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Over the North Pole

Off I go tomorrow morning, folks. Flying to Beijing via Tokyo for three days of jetlag/tourism and then a conference. Return to Tokyo for a week+ of tourism (will need to work, also, while I'm there), including three nights in the Fuji Five Lake region and a possible day trip to Kamakura or Kawagoe. Will try to keep you posted -- I'm taking the netbook, god's gift to weary travelers, or in my case, the gift of Asus and a Best Buy sale.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Deeply disturbing

Back in Chicago, frantically unpacking and repacking, but taking a break to mention a nice visit to the Chelsea Museum of Art. Combine it with a walk on the new High Line Park, and you'll have a fun afternoon in one of Manhattan's fanciest but fun neighborhoods. The museum is a nice small space, and right now they (I think still) have an exhibition of modern Iranian art. If you can judge a country by its modern artists, you wouldn't have to know anything about the political situation there to see that this is a deeply disturbed and rifted society. Some of the video installations were just brutal. One featured a couple watching that movie where Deborah Kerr is supposed to meet Cary Grant on top of the Empire State building and happily sobbing while a young blond woman is raped by a band of dark-haired young delinquents outside their window. On the lighter side was a room imagining what the world might look like if consumer goods were centered on the Arabic world -- sneakers with lots of Arabic lettering and designs, reoutfitted Chanel purses, etc.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Seeing the Gugg

It isn't the Guggenheim when the main galleries with their famous windy ramps up inside the circular structure are CLOSED. I paid the reduced entrance to get in anyway -- if you ask me, it wasn't reduced enough -- and fought through the crowds to see some Picassos, Pollock, Renoir, Van Gogh, Kandinskys, Chagalls, etc. There were also some quite large Frank Lloyd Wright rooms with video projections, models, and architectural plans, many of them never built but fascinating structures very different from his famous Prairie houses. Too bad.

As always, I say that audio tours are the scourge of museums, because it causes infinite clumping, especially in a space as small as the Guggenheim's side galleries. If anyone's thinking of going right now, I'd wait till they finish the main installation and reopen the whole thing.

Friday, August 28, 2009

I owe him

Without Ted Kennedy, my parents would never have come to America.

This is probably the best and most unshakable tribute I can give him. He was one of the chief movers and shakers of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 that, contrary to his own rhetoric, did do quite a bit to reshape the ethnic makeup of immigrants to this country, my own two parents among them in the early 1970s. My mother came in as a medical worker (a nutritionist), my father as a student (and, I suppose, stayed on after school as spouse).

Was his career, or rather the post-1969 part of his career, worth a woman's life? I can't answer that question, but I also never voted in Massachusetts during an election for him. I also don't come of a region or generation that has much use for the Kennedy mystique -- that odd combination of machismo, public service, politics, and privilege -- and I recognize that he paid a pretty high price for his, burying one soldier brother and two assassinated brothers. Teddy did a fairly good job overall of living up to both the best and worst that was ever said about the Kennedys. But I know that because of him, I am here.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Alive!

Just haven't been posting. Expect a long post soon with my slightly aggrieved thoughts about the Twilight series. My Brooklyn friends own them, so I've been reading them at the gym, slightly embarrassed to be carrying them.

Tried to go to the Guggenheim today; I've actually never been. But there was a massive line that curved around the corner of the museum, this at 4:30 (it's open late today). I said hail no and walked down Fifth Ave to the Met, which luckily was open late as well. I had already taken my parents there, but I visited my favorite Van Gogh and other old hotspots. More importantly, I saw the special Treasures of Afghanistan exhibit, which includes items that simply weren't known to have been preserved during recent chaotic events till, uh, more recent chaotic events turned them up. The gold artifacts from the burial mound of Tillya Tepe are on display, the highlight of the collection. It's like the Sutton Hoo of Afghanistan. Exactly what tribe or kingdom these are from is not known; it's speculated that the male buried in the center is a king or ranking chief of some kind, with women possibly sacrificed around him. It's often referred to as Bactrian, which is an adjective you don't hear anymore except to refer to camels.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Life of leisure

I have always thought that in order to live in NYC, or at any rate to enjoy it, you have to have either money or energy. Ideally both. One of the things that requires mostly energy is boating on Central Park Lake. (It's $12 for the first hour and $2.50/15min after, as low a boating rate as I've ever seen in any reasonably sized town .)

Here's a view of the lake from the boat after we had made it away from the boathouse into the main area. You can see one of the tiny islands in the lake, and the pretty bridge.



I rowed my parents around on Saturday, not always an easy task in a rowboat, which travels backwards. Lots of people on the lake had never rowed before, plainly, not least the two toddlers with a mom who was letting them try to handle one oar. I did greatly enjoy our exchange with the boatman when we were embarking.

Boatman: "Ladies, both on the back seat, please."
Me (firmly): "Oh no. I'm doing the rowing. I appreciate the thought, though."
Dad (to the boatman): "This is for you young folks, you know."

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Sad and squalid

I liked The Reluctant Fundamentalist so much that I followed it up with Mohsin Hamid's first novel, Moth Smoke. This one's set completely in Pakistan, though with flickers of the U.S., and has the same concerns about screwed-up relationships, the effect of the world economy on individual drones, and the pace of urban life killing us all. Singularly depressing, with a more experimental style. I didn't love it, but it was an interesting read.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The pleasure of agreement

I haven't been watching much late-night TV lately -- the time for practicing and studying guitar has to come from somewhere! But I did tune in again the other night in time to catch a delightful rant by Craig Ferguson that went something like this:

"Young people of America. I finally decided to listen to the Jonas Brothers, and oh my lord, they SUCK! (audience cheers) Young people! I'm begging you! They don't even suck in an interesting way!" The delight was in the delivery. There's a crap vid on YouTube of an old rant of his about their appearance, but apparently the music pushed him over the edge.

As I always say: they will live to regret this, much like NKOTB fans.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

An imaginarium of his own

Was there ever a director with such grandiose artistic vision and bad luck as Terry Gilliam? His Baron Munchausen has become a byword, and is probably the reason stupid Warner Brothers wouldn't consider him to direct the initial Harry Potters. I've just watched Lost in La Mancha, the highly entertaining documentary about his failed Don Quixote film. Most films, I imagine, hang by a tightrope the way this one did, with actors not showing up till the last second, sound problems from planes, not hammering down contracts, etc. But this one was special. Location was (why?) next to a NATO air base. There was a flash flood on the second day of production. Then there were actor Jean Rochefort's health problems, culminating in a herniated disc. It ended with bangs and whimpers and insurance squabbles.

But it's finally due to be remade next year. The insurance company refused to relinquish the rights for years, but Gilliam's got it back, baby! Here's wishing him the best of luck and a big knock on wood, but word is that he may have to do it without Johnny Depp this time. I hope he can keep some of the old sets and costumes. The design looks absolutely gorgeous, and so did the locations (Spain). Gilliam also drew the most extraordinary mock-ups for his storyboards and designs, which I would love to see in a book.

Of course, bad as Rochefort's prostate problems and back problems were, he didn't go to the length that Gilliam's last leading man did to wreak havoc.

It was Heath Ledger. He died.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

A quick rock thought

Here's one of my favorite songs from the famous Queen concert at Wembley (not Live Aid, their own concert the next year):



I absolutely adore this performance, but who let Spike Edney (Queen's extra instrumentalist in their later concerts) wear that pink tank top? And suspenders, gods above. Would not a flashing sign over his head saying "Not Really Part Of The Band" have been more subtle? All the more because the band is extremely color coordinated in their own crazy way in this concert; John's tiny yellow eighties shorts go with Freddie's Coronation Street shirt and the military-style jacket he's already shed, Brian and Roger both started out wearing stripes, etc.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A long and storied life

In the category of "finally got around to it," I read the Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Ernest Gaines, which tells the story of a young slave freed by the end of the Civil War, who lives through all the turmoil of the next several decades. Reconstruction, racism, rights, death, marriage, humor -- it's all in here, and extremely well wrought. The only fault I have to find with the book is its episodic quality, which I'm not terribly fond of. I think it could have been given a little more of an arc, but at the same time, I can understand that life doesn't always fall out that way, and it follows in a great tradition of rather episodic African American literature, like Souls of Black Folk.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Nostalgia

I was intermittently weirdly cool as a child, probably because I so didn't give a crap about the things that I ignored. Stuff like New Kids on the Block. I think we can agree that I made the right call on that one. (All those Jonas Brothers fans are going to know what I mean in 5-10 years.) However, there were also things I was into that made me cool. Guns N'Roses was one of those things. Yes, heavy metal can keep you cool even when you're reading Dickens, wearing knee-high socks (thanks mom), and ac(e)ing every test. Ah, "November Rain," you saved me.

I hate prom

I finally figured out why I never really got into Eric Clapton. Two words: "Wonderful Tonight." Can you blame me? Of course, it's a charming, mushy, sentimental song, and his guitar sounds as good as it always does, but it was a staple of the painful junior high and high school slow dance. A girl putting on her makeup, a boy telling her she looks wonderful... Ugh, ugh, vomit. I still can't listen to it without a shudder.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Happy birthday to me

My birthday present to myself came today, two Czech Queen LPs. Why Czech? Well, Queen vinyl is very collectible, but of course, since LP collecting is odd, colored vinyl is exceedingly collectible. And so are rarities. Foreign releases often combine the two. I decided recently to collect Queen vinyl, since my dad has tons of vinyl that I will inherit someday, all classical and light music. I already had a Radio Ga Ga single and the Jazz album with its wonderful centerfold photo of the band in the recording studio. Now I have Queen I, with a marbleized white LP, and Queen II, with a black-stained green LP. Good times. Of course, someday when my ship comes in, I will get the pink vinyl Ecuadorean greatest hits or the Holy Grail of Queen collecting, the 7" limited promotional blue vinyl Bohemian Rhapsody single.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Installation heaven

I finally went to the new wing of the Art Institute of Chicago today, the modern wing. Airy, glassy, white-boxy; it's much like any other modern art museum you've been in, but newer. There was actually a moment looking at Miro paintings when I forgot where I was and wondered if I was in the Tate Modern (I've been multitasking too much lately, I guess).

But well worth your while. Some of the good old familiar pieces have been moved, like Picasso's Old Guitarist, the Roy Lichtensteins, the Gaudier-Brzeska stag sculpture. But the installations in the post-1950 galleries are great. There's a gay marriage room -- no, really -- as well as a room with a gigantic carved sculpture of a fallen cypress that was designed by the artist and made by woodworkers in Japan, and a very interesting installation room reflecting on America post-9/11. Pardon me for forgetting all the artists' names; I was clearly in a semi-hallucinatory state. I enjoyed my quick run through and will have to go back another day to see the Architecture section.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Gangster epic

I went to see the movie about John Dillinger, Public Enemies with Johnny Depp last night, the first time I have been to an opening weekend in I don't know how long. Now here's a saga for you: I've been aware of this movie for a long time because it was partly filmed in Oshkosh (which I recognized in the film). My friends in Oshkosh told me to come up, sleep on their floor, and be an extra -- casting calls had gone out for women sizes 2-12 or something odd like that. Of course, I pointed out that they were likely not looking for Asian extras, unless they needed Native Americans (which judging from the movie, no, it was mostly Midwestern, especially the Oshkosh-filmed sections). Anyway, they were more excited about David Wenham, who played Faramir in Lord of the Rings, than Johnny Depp.

For good reason, as it turns out, because there wasn't really any conviction or point of view in Depp's performance, or Christian Bale's for that matter. No, I take that back. Bale had a point of view, but no ability to convey inner struggle through subtle facial expression. Whatever happened to him? He was so good at that in American Psycho. Marion Cotillard, however, was almost too great as Billie, Dillinger's girl. She has a kind of ferocity and intelligence as an actress that only Rachel Weisz also has that I can think of (what an awful sentence). This isn't to say that those are the best things to have; they're also limiting. I can't imagine either of them playing some of the roles that Kate Winslet has, for instance, and it was almost too much for a two-bit coat check girl to be an epic heroine. But it worked here, because this was definitely more of an epic than an action movie or a gangster flick.

The one really moving moment to me didn't even have Depp in it; it's the scene where Billie has been smacked around and 'tortured' during her interrogation, and Bale comes in and expressionlessly releases her and carries her out. It wasn't too hammer over the head in the parallels to Guantanamo, and nothing was said about our moral downfall as we pursue justice, etc. It had the bones of a great scene.

Really quite well made, which no doubt accounts for the storm of good reviews. Beautiful art direction, interesting hand-held style cinematography, a little bit heavy on the epic music. Compared to summer popcorn fare, it's practically arthouse. But I can't figure out how it managed to be a pretty decent movie without great acting from the two male leads, not much chemistry between the romantic leads, and not enough time ever to get to know some of the cooler side characters.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown

The Statue of Liberty's crown has just reopened to tourists, albeit bagless, guided by Park Rangers, and limited to 30 at a time. While this might significantly improve the experience, let me tell you right now: it ain't worth it. I was about ten years old, I think, when we took my aunt and uncle to see it. I remember the interminable climb, which was not so much a climb as a standstill. I was sitting on the stairs at my uncle's feet, suffering in silence till the next time we got to climb a few feet. Then when we got to the crown, they were shuffling us through, so I got a quick glimpse through the small windows, which I recall not even being perfectly clean, and that was it.

In contrast, the pedestal is still a great view, it's open so you can smell the sea breeze, it's elevator-equipped for the handicapped, and you can walk all the way around. No contest.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Big babe singing

Have been watching Wimbledon -- that's where the post title comes from (big babe tennis being the winning style of play there).

Have found a new favorite Broadway belter, Kerry Ellis, the British Elphaba in Wicked. I don't really like the over-the-top belting, which is odd considering that I do like opera singers who give it 110%. But the overdecoration and the rip-out-the-vocal chords type of singing, it's not for me. Idina Menzel is a prime example (in Wicked, not in Rent). I love her emotion, but I'm always half expecting that she's going to do herself an injury.

I came across Kerry Ellis by YouTubing Brian May performances -- he guests with her a lot, because she sang in We Will Rock You, and I guess he liked her. Like I said, belting itself is not my favorite type of singing, but she's pretty good, and better when she shows some restraint. She does not show said restraint in this Royal Variety performance, but it is Wicked, after all, and Brian May's there, so it's all good.



Sunday, June 28, 2009

Rock opera

I love rock opera. I think it works as a genre. Whether or not it works as a film rather than an album is a question not resolved by finally watching The Who's Tommy, which I enjoyed but found occasionally boring. That's a problem with some of the songs, at least for me. The psychedelic look and feel of the film definitely works, especially with my two favorite numbers, Eric Clapton's song and Tina Turner's. Yes, I liked them even better than Elton John's appearance as the Pinball Wizard, because while he's fantastic, there's just so much in Eric Clapton's appearance as a guitar-playing preacher of the cult of Marilyn Monroe that both the music lover and the cultural critic in me were thoroughly satisfied.

It was a lot of fun to see The Who scattered through the film, with Keith Moon having way too much fun playing the perverted uncle. Roger Daltrey was unbelievably convincing, particularly in Tommy's catatonic stage. I can't say I really loved it, but it's an interesting piece of musical and cinematic history.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Stunned

I was shocked to be informed at dinner that Michael Jackson had died. I didn't believe it at first -- I was not reading the news all afternoon. I will always remember him both as a cautionary tale about uncontrolled fame and an unbelievable performer. My brother and I used to breakdance in the basement when I was maybe five or six. Still, I wouldn't say that I was hugely into him until that video for Black or White came out, relatively late. That was just a fantastic, cutting-edge video for that time, and then I retroactively got into his Thriller days, then in college the Jackson Five Motown days, and finally settled on my favorite, "Billie Jean." Jackson was just... I mean, regardless, I think it's all right to feel sad about his death, both for the loss of the music legend and what went wrong in his life.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The green race

Time magazine, which I don't read very often, had a half-decent article on the coming competition in green technology. Of course, they had to slip into old Japan-bashing habits by making it seem like a race between an evil Asian axis and the poor, underfunded U.S., mentioning Europe as a kind of afterthought and completely ignoring the role of transnational corporations. However, anything that raises American awareness of the growing importance of developing better and greener tech is, I suppose, good.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Reinvention

I've started Toni Morrison's new novel/la, A Mercy, set in earlier slavery days than any of her previous works (I think). It's a new departure for her stylistically as well as topically, but I was not wowed by the start. I'll post again when I make my way through.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

At least the dog is cute

Are you kidding me? I thought it was bad enough when the media followed Obama to Five Guys -- and I think for PR's sake he'd better quell those outings for a while, as it's distracting people from the work he's doing -- but all these news stories about him killing a fly during some interview have me completely baffled. Why? Has the 24-hour news cycle really gotten that unfillable?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Meh, mistborn, mess

I'm always looking for fun reading for the cardio machines, but Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn trilogy doesn't seem to be doing it. When I make it halfway through a book and have no impulse to finish, it is not good. Aside from the fact that few of the characters are compelling, their interactions are not that interesting, and the magical universe is not terribly fun, the writing is beyond repetitive and clunky. Let me give you an example: one of the primary ways that the magicians, for lack of a better term, work is by burning metals that give them specific powers. They can fly through the air by Pushing or Pulling on metal. (Great terminology.) This is painstakingly explained the first time that the hero does it, balancing himself with a coin dropped here, a window sash there, a guard's armor hither, a thrown coin thither. You get the idea, right? Well, then we go through it yet again when the hero teaches the scrappy gutter girl with amazing powers how to do this, and we have to hear her first-time experience -- which adds next to nothing. I blame the editor as well as the author.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Freshwater madness

The Tampa Aquarium doesn't have much in the way of big marine life, and none of your classic dolphins, belugas, etc., but they do have a really adorable pair of river otters who like to tussle:





Also, in the coral reef area, which is a series of small tanks, they feature these incredibly weird sea dragons, which look more like floating plants than anything else. They swim with tiny, almost invisible transparent fins. They would not do well in a hurricane.

Storm about to break

I was fairly disgusted when Arlen Specter switched to the Democratic party for reelection purposes, so I was very interested indeed when I heard that Congressman Joe Sestak (from the district right outside Philly) wants to challenge him in the Democratic primary, against the will of the Dem leadership and possibly even the Obama administration, saying it would take an "act of God" to stop him.

Sestak is a retired admiral and a bit of a... say it with me... maverick, which is why he is bucking the will of the party. I can't say I blame him. The question is whether as a second-term congressman with much less money than Specter and low name recognition can make it. I found this article on philly.com very interesting, particularly the poll in which voters read a list of characteristics about the two went for Sestak.

The Dems will want to avoid a dogfight primary, but I don't know what they could offer Sestak to get him to stand aside, and you'd have to shoot Specter. This will be well worth watching.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

New blog

Rather than inflicting it ceaselessly on all of you, and to have a record for myself, I've started a new blog to track my entry into the world of guitar-playing. Check it out: http://mayandme.blogspot.com/

In case you couldn't figure it out, from the About this Blog:
"The URL mayandme is a tribute to my all-time favorite guitarist, Brian May, as well as that movie about Ben Franklin and his mouse... don't ask me why it popped into my head when I was starting the blog. I fell in love with his sound when I was young and have never loved another the same way... though I did, like everyone else at math camp, go through a 'Stairway to Heaven' Phase."

Monday, June 8, 2009

Koreatown, FL

I'm visiting a friend in Tampa this weekend, and we sallied forth in search of ethnic enclaves yesterday and today. There's a Koreatown of sorts on Hillsborough in west Tampa, dispersed among strip malls. Hair salons or supply stores, Kim Brothers grocery ( a fantastic Korean grocery), a noraebang (karaoke). Finally, we wanted dinner, and headed for Rice, a huge restaurant in a big strip mall that is so big that it was rented out for a private party for a baby's 100-day ceremony. Luckily, my friend has an iPhone, and we found the oddly spelled Sa Ri One, where we pigged out on very well made Korean food. Today, we found a new Indian restaurant near USF called Jai Ho (presumably after the Slumdog song), which had the most expansive menu I've ever seen, including Goan specialties, north and south Indian, and Indo-Chinese food. Tampa is a palm tree strip mall expanse, but there's gold in them there malls!

Friday, June 5, 2009

Upholding idiocy

I think I'm going to buck the Twitter trend with short blog posts.

Sadly, I find that I do not love the new Green Day album. I hope that it will grow on me, but I don't feel that it has the sound variety I was hoping for. Billie Joe Armstrong's voice is just so distinctive, and that fast thrashing guitar sound gets a bit repetitive. Maybe I'd also like it better if it weren't through my faintly tinny computer speakers. Oh well. I still prefer their last album, American Idiot.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Seeing what the fuss is all about

I only read Neil Gaiman after seeing the movie Stardust, and then, hearing all the praise for what an imaginative prophet of modern life he is, I thought I should read some of his more serious work. (Stardust, while fun, is decidedly a light novel.) Having now read Anansi Boys and most of American Gods, I think I can pronounce that he is good, if not quite as earth-shaking as I'd been led to believe. Anansi Boys in particular manages to balance myth with a lot of real-world themes like failed parenting, individualism, finding a truly suitable partner in your life, and so forth, while being a good fun adventure chasing crooks around the world. Anansi's son, Charlie, leads a very boring life in London, which is turned upside down when his more godlike brother shows up... and turns out to be, quite literally, his better half -- or at least more fun, more daring, and more problematic than anyone could imagine, forcing Charlie to become pretty godlike himself. It's fun.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Guitar gods

Having nothing but free time [sarcastic look here like you can't believe; only about five writing projects on the burners, and more in my head], I am really thinking of finally taking the plunge and learning how to play guitar. I've toyed with the idea on and off for years, but now's the time. I thought that it would be fun, and even if I only ended up taking a few lessons or being very, very bad at it, it would enhance my musical appreciation.

In college, I took about five voice lessons -- it couldn't have been more -- and I really had no intention of becoming a wonderful singer. That was just an accident. [!] But it taught me so much about vocal production and technique in only that short time, and it's really paid off in my listening ever since.

Now that was mostly for opera. With guitar, for me, it's all about the rock. And my serious contemplation of playing guitar has already paid off. I found this video of Brian May, my own personal guitar god, demonstrating the solo from "Bohemian Rhapsody," and other than the fact that I would watch the paint on his guitar dry and find it enthralling, I have already learned about guitar technique. My ignorance is so vast that I didn't even know you could bend the strings; I thought that sound was from vibrating the fretting finger, not the picking finger. I really can't wait to learn more.

Late to the party

Kill me now, I finally joined twitter. I have to admit, tweeting does appeal to me a little bit -- IF I kept it topical, like this blog, rather than tweeting about the banana peel that I slipped on two minutes ago, etc. have not put up a tweet of my own yet. Am skeptical of the whole thing. If I thought people would actually read it, I could see tweeting "I must read Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth!" But I don't think anybody would read it. Would you?

I do enjoy following the clever tweeters. Right now, I'm following Stephen Fry, the White House, Rainn Wilson, Jim Courier, Green Day, the Killers, and a couple others. Stephen Fry tweets excessively well, as he does with pretty much anything to do with the English language. Some other Brit comedians I like also tweet (Russell Brand, Jonathan Ross), but they do so much responding (the @soandso posts) that you really can't follow the conversation. I

Like I said, I like the content, but I do feel that the supposed instantaneous communication with your favorite celeb that it provides is rather pernicious. I must be the wrong age bracket for normal folks to tweet. Maybe teens are all following each other in addition to celebs.

ETA: all right, already getting exasperated with trying to find the real celeb instead of the fake one. I couldn't quite decide about aasif_mandvi, but decided to follow him for now. I just think he'd have more followers if it were the real guy from the Daily Show, but I thought the same thing about ice skaters Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto, and those accounts are the real deal. Huh. This must be somewhat of an ego risk for anyone vaguely famous.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

An ode to NYC

Ah, New York, you muse of novelists and filmmakers... you've done it again, in Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake. I'm a little late to the party on this one, I admit, especially since I've taught her short story collection The Interpreter of Maladies. But I have to say that reviews bear some responsibility. I can only see the words "coming of age" so many times before I start thinking I can put off reading this oh-so-important novel. However, Namesake is worth it, and the great thing about modern coming-of-age novels is that they can portray important times of life like high school and college without being treated as un-serious. The hero, Gogol Ganguli, struggles with his name and all it represents: his family's complex history and immigration, relationship to art, adjustment to life in America. It handles the issues of a second-generation child and his interracial dating without ever becoming too symbolic or cliched, which in itself is a true feat. And, since Lahiri is nothing if not a fun descriptive writer, there's also lots of loving portrayal of NYC's urban desert and yummy Indian desserts.

I'm looking forward to renting the movie that was made by Mira Nair starring Kal Penn, late of House and soon of the White House.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Only Arsenio?

I just watched a kind of politicians' wrap-up on the Tonight Show, all the pols that Jay has had on in his seventeen years. And... no Bill Clinton. That's odd. Was that before presidential candidates were really hitting the talk shows? Perhaps Clinton and his sax on Arsenio were really the first of that wave.

I also wonder if Clinton for some reason didn't like Leno, maybe some of his jokes, etc., because I know he's been on Letterman since his presidency. It would have to be very specific, though, because Letterman also did so many Clinton jokes that he ran a 'Clinton Classic' every day in the days leading up to the end of his presidency.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Based on nothing

Or next to nothing... I don't follow American Idol, but I did hear that Queen (visualize the air quotes that I always have around the present-day version of the band) was on the finale, so I YouTubed it. Based on this three minutes, there's simply no comparison between the two finalists. Adam and his eyeliner all the way, man.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Whitmania


A post from the not-so-distant past, when I went to Camden and finally saw Walt Whitman's house, the house he lived in toward the end of his life and died in. It's well set up inside by the Park District, but being rather out of the way and unassuming, I don't know how much foot traffic it draws. It's in a little row of houses -- I didn't take the best photos, as you'd have to step out into traffic to get a good angle. Combined with the Camden Aquarium, it's a nice day.

The house is well set up inside, but no photos are allowed. A fair amount of Whitman's own possessions are scattered about to give the air of authenticity. I particularly recall a pair of his boots. The garden out back is lovely, and if you're a Whitman fan, you will recall that Horace Traubel spends quite a lot of time detailing the social gatherings that would happen in the garden and at this house generally.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Speaking of...

...authors who died, leaving their series unfinished, none was sadder than Kate Ross, an attorney who died after writing only four of her acclaimed Julian Kestrel mysteries.  Kestrel was a sensitive, complicated dandy living in Regency-ish England (I think -- it's been a while), whose obscure origins were as much of a puzzle as the murders and heartbreak constantly dropped in his lap.  They are in the same family as Anne Perry, though not terribly similar; there's a lot of emphasis on emotion and moral dilemma, but less on politics, except for the last one, set in Italy.  Fortunately, Ross did reveal some of Julian's origins in the last one, which makes it a not altogether abrupt close, but it's quite sad to think of all the books she might have written.

Wise man's fear, indeed

Ah, the life of a fantasy novel fan. Finding the good stuff is hard; not running out of it is harder; waiting for the good stuff to come out is the hardest of all. I threatened to beat my good friend to death with a George R. R. Martin novel when I discovered that this doorstopper series he had highly recommended was not done yet. Robert Jordan fans had to deal with the biggest heartbreak of all, the author actually dying before the series is over. Last year, I stumbled across Patrick Rothfuss' acclaimed debut, In the Name of the Wind, the first of a trilogy, a compellingly narrated doorstop about an orphan (yeah, I know) of inhuman brilliance and power (yeah, yeah) and musical talent (kill me now) who enters a magical school (screams of anguish)... Fine. It does not summarize well, but when I first read it, I was blown away, and recommended it to the Martin friend.

Then it did not really stay with me. I wasn't compelled to reread it instantly, and I found myself forgetting large chunks of plot even as I remembered some turns of phrase so bleakly powerful that they were well worth the whole book. But I did recollect that book two had been scheduled to come out sometime around now, so I got the book out and reread it all today. Hm, I thought to myself, not without its problems and stereotypes, but really it was quite good, wasn't it... I merrily skipped over to my computer to find that the second book, The Wise Man's Fear, had disappeared from amazon. Completely.

Furious with amazon and their damn search system, I then googled, found the author's blog, and learned that... the release date was always a load of optimistic crap. The humorous and blunt blog post, which reminds me a little bit of Kevin Smith, goes a long way towards softening the blow. The book was not done as of February, and judging from the author's international signing schedule, it will not speedily issue forth anytime soon. I expect my friend to come beat me to death any day now.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Pearls after swine

My mother traveled to South Korea recently -- she's still there now -- and since she was transferring at the Tokyo airport, asked if I would maybe like a little pair of pearl earrings as an early birthday gift. Which offer I declined with thanks, but as it turned out, she wouldn't have had time to look at any airport shops. When she got off her plane, she was whisked into a quarantine room and had a thermometer shoved in her ear. So it went for every person off every incoming flight from every swine flu-stricken country. As my dad put it, "Japan, they don't mess around."

ETA: No, apparently my dad got it slightly mixed up. Two guys came on the plane in full Hazmat suits and scanned everyone with those infrared heat-seeking cameras to see whose temp was elevated. Even better.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Harold and Kumar

I was thinking about Kal Penn's new White House gig and John Cho's new film coming out (Star Trek) and found this hilarious interview with the two of them being crazy and giving each other a hard time. It's fun.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The windward paradise


Kailua! On the east side of Oahu, Kailua offers beautiful sandy beaches that are much quieter and much less touristy than Waikiki (well, what isn't?), though they did a fairly good business with tourists like us who were coming in to kayak. And eat shave ice, which I think pales in comparison to a real NJ Italian ice.

We rented a double for my friends and a single for me from a German surfing expert and pulled them on wheels to the beach. Kayaks are surprisingly heavy, by the way. And guess what, none of us inexperienced kayakers had worn bathing suits, so we just soaked ourselves pushing off. I unflappably waded to my waist, hopped up and took off, then realized that my paddles were oriented at about five degrees to each other, which made for an awkward stroke. Nonetheless, I really enjoyed kayaking, especially when we got to the edge of the 'safe zone' and rode the waves. My friends flipped over. It was hilarious, except that the volcanic rock on the bottom there was extremely sharp, and one friend was not wearing reef shoes, so he was dancing around trying not to cut himself and push the kayak back over. Not a good combination.

We landed at a tiny islet called Flat Island, a seabird sanctuary, and walked around. A native Hawaiian was looking for fish. He was kind enough to go down with his net to amuse us, even though he'd seen about two fish. Paddling back felt harder -- tired arms? -- but the views of the coast were worth it. Thirteen hours later, I was in Chicago, staring at the rain.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

From Hanauma to home

24 hours ago, I was kayaking in shorts and t-shirt off the windward coast of Oahu. I just went out to the grocery store in a down coat. I am also bombarded with news of swine flu and Arlen Specter.


Who wouldn't go back to this if they could? This is world-famous Hanauma Bay on the southeast tip of Oahu, a protected coral reef where the snorkeling is great. It's also very difficult at low tide; I got considerably banged up, which was probably because I took the injunction not to touch the reef extremely seriously and was doing all kinds of gymnastics in one to two feet of water rather than hang onto or stand on the reef and save myself. It's also quite difficult at the left of the bay, the so-called Witches' Brew, where the currents are strong and the shore is jagged rocks. However, if you stick to the clear circle of the inner reef and go in at high tide, you can have an easy snorkel.

I saw two big green sea turtles, or honu, peacefully chomping away surrounded by snorkelers gawking at them. These guys were about two to two and a half feet long. I saw tangs, parrotfish, triggerfish (better known as the humuhumunukunukuapuaa, Hawaii's famous fish), butterflyfish, and one (only one!) Moorish Idol, which looks exactly like an angelfish but isn't really. I even found a quiet spot at high tide where I could hear the fish eating off the reef. It's a "crunch" sound, much like a person stepping on gravel or, say, a handful of cereal.

Hanauma is protected, which means that you pay to get in, have to watch an instructional video, the staff vigilantly keeps the beach clean, etc. (They do not attempt to make you use biodegradable sunscreen, which means I blew a lot of money.) However, I found that unprotected snorkeling in Hawaii is awesome as well; just diving in at Queen's Surf, next to Waikiki, I found schools of tangs the size of dinner plates, immense Moorish Idols, and even saw an eel and a -- I can't remember the name, but they stick up out of the sand pretending to be grass. I guess I really ought to have bought an underwater camera. I wish I had had a chance to snorkel off the leeward side of Oahu, too.

In case you can't tell, I have fallen for snorkeling bigtime. I knew I would. I love to swim more than almost any other sport, and as a child, my mother could park me in front of the fish tank in the supermarket, for god's sake, and find me there whenever she wanted. I'm already dreaming of more snorkeling trips in my future.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Go for what?


Who doesn't know what 'go for broke' means, even if it's not used every day? There was a time when it was a weird, unknown slang phrase, which is how it became the motto of the 442nd, the Japanese American infantry regiment of WWII that became the most decorated unit of its size in American military history.  These men came from the internment camps and Hawaii, leaving their incarcerated families behind, to fight to defend the rights and privileges that they were being denied. Their heroism is really one of the remarkable stories of the war, and of civil rights history.

I was honored to meet some veterans who were hanging out by the Go for Broke monument in Little Tokyo, L.A. That's my photo with one of them, standing in the half-moon. To make it even better, the photo was taken by a vet who served with the Military Intelligence Services in the Pacific, which is an even more untold story.

When I say 'hanging out,' of course I mean volunteering to educate and raise awareness of the Go for Broke Foundation, which does wonderful oral history work.  They hope to raise the funds to build a facility behind the monument, which would put it within a stone's throw of the Japanese American National Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art's outpost.  It would be a great addition to that area.  Alas, like all other fundraising efforts, they've been hit hard.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Expect the unexpected

When I rebooked all my hotels on the fly last week, I didn't realize that I would have the opportunity to go to see a play at the Geffen Playhouse out by UCLA, a lovely two-stage theater with a beautiful tiny courtyard in front. I was serendipitously walking past at an hour to showtime tonight and ended up postponing dinner to watch The Seafarer, a play that I missed at Steppenwolf, starring John Mahoney (Frasier's dad). Excellent acting, though some of the accents, including Mahoney's, drifted in and out of Irishness. And the play is either slow in itself or the direction was; I couldn't quite decide. A bunch of drunk drifters, one henpecked, one blind, one perenially unfortunate, in north Dublin are... being unhappy, for quite a while, till yet another one brings home an urbane outsider who turns out to be the devil, come to play for Sharky's soul as agreed in a prison card game. Who knew? Hard realism meets wild Miltonesque drama, urban misery meets nihilistic, po-mo misery. It had some real moments, but there was at least one moment when I thought, "Oh lord, get on with it!" So a mixed bag, but I'm glad I got to do it.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Too cute for words

Los Angeles' Chinatown can't quite compare with the wonders of SF or NYC, but it's quite big and extremely scenic. Every building on the main drag is pagodaed out, or has murals, or something. The entrance gate is relatively subdued, with two slender, writhing, gold dragons on a metal arch. No big lions or loud colors, no Chinese characters even.

Sometimes it is rather hard to keep yourself fed on a busy trip, when you're running around and have a budget, eschew chains, and have some faint sense of dietary health. I got takeout dim sum, a pile of little steamed dumplings and a bbq pork bun, and ate it bit by bit all afternoon. Of course, it left me slightly vegetable-less, unless you count the bits in the pork dumplings.

Chinatown was full of bakeries, restaurants, groceries, etc. I didn't go up to the library or cultural center, so it was a quick tour, but a fun one. As my friend observed when I took her to Boston's Chinatown, "Now I can say for sure that Chicago's Chinatown is really dead."

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Happy accidents




I accidentally found Olvera Street today. I recognized it when I saw it from television, but I hadn't looked it up or planned to see it today. It's a pedestrian street of Mexican restaurants, crafts stalls, souvenir shops, etc. Lots of leatherware. I was most tempted by some of the cute little hard purses with flowers tooled on them, but I'm not six. I did, however, buy some barrelhead cactus candy. Very, very sugary, but I can tell what a cactus tastes like through it, much like eating violet gelato in France.

Not too much going on there today, but I'm sure that there's music in the pavilion on weekends. I am not a churro person, and I was full from Chinatown, about which more another day. But it was quite a lot of fun.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Well, excuse ME

Safely ensconced at the Millennium Biltmore, Los Angeles, where I found a movie shoot going on in one of the banquet rooms. We were politely requested by a sign to stay the hell away. No idea what movie.

At the moment, I'm seated next to the fountain, occasionally glancing up to take in the outrageous barrel-vaulted/coffered/gilded ceiling. It's pretty cool. The historic nature of this hotel was not oversold. However, I already note that downtown L.A. is very odd; just a couple of blocks away from the hotel are some, uh, seedy areas. I happily scarfed down a sandwich from a Mexican bakery and deli there (ah, they're generous with the avocado -- between that and the shoot, I know I'm in California) but decided I had best hie myself back to the hotel as it grows dark.

I was hoping to go to Chinatown for dinner, but my lack of maps and the early closing of the RiteAid left me with no sense of how to get there, and I was afraid I'd pass out from low blood sugar before I figured it out! Tomorrow.

Oh, and man is this area sprawling. The time it took to get to the train station from the airport would have gotten me into downtown Boston.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Hitting the road

Getting ready for another trip: Los Angeles and then Waikiki! Purely for work purposes, I assure you; L.A. for research, Waikiki for a big conference.

I will be blogging for you from my brand new netbook. I'm very excited about this; I haven't had a piece of cutting-edge technology since I was an owner of one of the first-generation clamshell iBooks. People used to come to my dorm room to visit it. Netbooks, in case you don't know, as I did not, are basically tiny computers (about 8" diagonal) meant for light use: websurfing, a little word processing. They have full capability like a built-in webcam and all, mind you, just limited hard drive, but for a light user like myself, they're fully loaded. Best of all? They weigh two pounds. Tuck in the purse and run.

Having dropped my old, heavy laptop only about four times on the last trip, I think I can safely say that this is better for my shoulder and the life of my main machine.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Pacifist overtures

I went to see a very interesting and very rare production of Stephen Sondheim's Pacific Overtures last night, done here in Chicago by Porchlight, a small musical theater company. It's a musical about the opening of Japan in the mid-nineteenth century, and if one more usher, director, board member, or whoever had told me that I had to read the synopsis first, and that this show is "from the Japanese point of view!" I would have walked out.

The director, in his notes, drew parallels to Iraq, and noted that Japan took the Western intrusion and used it; the show ends with a paean to Japanese global achievements and popularity. Such an earnest and well-meaning production, and even an intermittently well-meaning show, still can't take the horrific stereotyping out entirely. When you have a number about geishas preparing happily for the Western influx, it just isn't going to go over well. Nor is it going to go over too well when a cringing young official gets jeered at and bossed around by Perry's sailors when he tries to turn them back. In general, the officials could have been done with a little more dignity. They might not have been able to keep Japan closed in the face of Perry's cannons, but they didn't have to be played as helpless and ridiculous, either. On the other hand, some of the other characters were played with a real sensitivity and well-roundedness.

So it's up to you, if you can endure those uncomfortable elements. Musically, I actually liked it very much; it's slightly more melodic Sondheim. The production is excellently and minimally staged, allowing for a lot of good dance choreography (and some rather lacking fight choreography). The cast is uneven. David Rhee, the Reciter (the central, self-ironizing role played in the revival by B.D. Wong) was a little too obviously the best trained actor in the show, and rather intense -- maybe because he felt he had to make up for the others. (I'd have taken his mike off, if nothing else, to level the sound.) This was cleared up on the way home when I looked at the bios and found that he is an Equity member who has played on Broadway and at Steppenwolf. The rest are local actors of varying experience, some of whom were excellent, and some of whom were certainly good local talent, but not up to Rhee's level. Beautiful costumes -- what costume designer doesn't love to go nuts with kimonos? and a decent little 5-piece band behind a screen. If you are a big Sondheim or musical fan, by all means run, don't walk. But only if.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

It was a simpler time

I've gotten quite addicted to YouTube clips of the CBS game show What's My Line?, which ran through the fifties into the sixties. MCed by John Charles Daly, who was also a reporter and anchor on ABC, this game show featured a panel of four who had to guess the occupations of regular joes as well as blindfold themselves and identify a mystery guest, based on yes or no questions. The panel itself changed over the years, but mostly featured Random House editor Bennet Cerf, Broadway actress Arlene Francis, reporter and gossip columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, and a fourth spot filled over the years by Steve Allen, Fred Allen, and famous guest panelists.

I stumbled on it looking for specific people; they had a wide range of celebrity guests, mostly Hollywood and sports types but also politicians and artists. I was absolutely staggered to see that Salvador Dali appeared on it:



I have to say that I also found it rather awkward to watch appearances of lauded African American guests at a time before civil rights, particular this one of Jesse Owens, when Daly lauds him for ramming his medals "down the throat of Adolf Hitler." Still wouldn't have been able to sit at the front of the bus everywhere in his own country, though.



Once you watch a few of these, you start to get the humor of the time period and the personalities of the panel. I admit that Arlene is my favorite. This is the point at which the regular guests are good to watch, particularly because things were just funnier back then. The hysteria over the scandalous occupation of this gentleman, a girdle designer, is a real insight into that era for me.




Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Noooooo!

I am so mad that I missed last night's House. So mad that I won't spoil it here, in case anyone has TiVoed it. Would you believe that it doesn't go up on hulu or even FoxTV's website until 8 days after the episode airs? I'm sunk. I'll poke around hoping that it repeats on Friday or something.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Great ... Novel

I have occasionally thought in the last few years that The Great American Novel, as an elusive concept, has been replaced by The Great Post-9/11 Novel. Certainly, a frontrunner for that one is Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, a justly lauded novel about a Dutch-born banker and his British wife, whose marriage crumbles during? because of? the stress of life in Manhattan post-9/11.

I'm guessing that many adored it for its loving depiction of the energy and wackiness of Manhattan, as well as the sorrow and sordidness of its illicit underbelly and the weariness of its corporate giants (we might feel less sorry for the protagonist today, thinking of AIG!). It has all of that in spades. To me, however, the characterization was ultimately unsatisfying, though done in that clever way so that you could say it was the wonderful art and subtlety of the author in realistically depicting the limits of ever knowing another human being, etc. etc. Come to think of it, it reminded me a great deal of Kazuo Ishiguro's self-deluded protagonists, but without Ishiguro's ability to expose the painful, almost crippling emotional wounds of his characters, wounds that are often the effect of the British establishment and imperial leftovers. Hans and his wife represent a more modern malaise, the loneliness, self-loathing, and pain that afflict people who have no obvious source of complaint and every seeming source of satisfaction -- or rather, 9/11 is put in as the source, when it plainly isn't the source so much as a catalyst for self-examination. I dunno. I really did not love it, but I'm almost afraid that it might be because I'm too much imbedded in the same framework to judge.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Ze local cuisine

Because I foster rabbits for an animal shelter, and had rabbits of my own when I was little, my friends are sometimes careful not to mention eating rabbit around me (not that it comes up often). Actually, I don't mind it; nobody's eating my rabbit, and I've tried rabbit myself. Odd taste.

However, I don't have any particular compunction about this issue myself, and have often enjoyed telling the story of how my brother was bound and determined when he went to Korea to eat dog (soup, it's mostly served as a very spicy soup). This is due to all the ridiculous Brigitte Bardot-type 'they're such barbarians' kind of dialogue that centered on the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. I notice that whether due to China's might or the passage of time, there was less talk of a critical nature during the Beijing Olympics, though even I flinched when I saw the kebab of fried mice.

When I was in Poland last year, my brother dragged me north of the main tourist area of Krakow to a really wonderful open-air food market with tons of fresh produce, cheese stalls, bakeries, and sausage stalls. He was hunting down horse sausage, and finally found it. He handed it to me; I took a careful bite, and handed it back. He said, "You don't like it?" I said, "No, it's good. Lean. Flavorful. But, you know, I really like horses, and I just can't quite keep going."

I'd eat it again, though. Maybe not a whole pile of it, but I'd definitely take a bite.

Recently, I was talking to my dad about this whole cuisine issue. We were marveling at the Chinese; he was curious about the horse; and we circled around to rabbits. I pointed out to him that he's mentioned he had to kill chickens for the family dinner as a youngster, but I never heard of him killing the rabbits. "Koreans don't eat RABBIT," he declared indignantly. "Rabbits are PETS."

To each his...


p.s. I forgot it was April Fool's -- but this is not an April Fool's post. I suppose it might look a bit like one!

Monday, March 30, 2009

Once upon a bus

Once upon a time, when you rode the Chinatown bus from Boston to NYC or vice versa, it was a real experience. We're talking aggressive people shouting for your business on the street, persuading you that it was fine to wait around for an hour or two to catch the next bus amid the crowds on the sidewalk. We're talking crazy drivers shouting into huge cell phones (it was a long time ago). We're talking people carrying live chickens onto the buses, people.

The good times no longer roll. Boston swept the Chinatown buses off the street and into South Station, there's no more livestock, and you can buy tickets online (horror!). As a matter of fact, I no longer see why you would take the Chinatown buses at all, because for about the same price, you can take the Bolt Bus, which is immaculately clean, offers free wifi and power sockets, and drops off in Manhattan next to Penn Station (far more convenient for most than Chinatown).

Bolt is great. But part of me misses the old days.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Grey's mentality

An extremely popular book last year was Alex & Me, the story of a Grey parrot -- think Polynesia in Doctor Doolittle -- and his scientist. Like Polynesia, Alex was wise beyond a parrot's common lot, and talked a great deal; like Dr. Doolittle, Irene Pepperberg had a great many adventures, but the love of her work kept her afloat during all of them. I'm not sure, frankly, if the book reads more as an entertaining and incredibly intriguing look at animal intelligence and language use, or a cautionary tale about academia and women in science. Either way, it is excellent, if a little prosy at the end, and I highly recommend it to everyone as a great short read. It is alternately painful and hilarious, and if you don't tear up at Alex's last words to Irene, "Be good. I love you," you are dead inside.

Coincidentally enough, the same day that I finished this, I took a fantasy novel to the gym for reading, the new Valdemar book by Mercedes Lackey. I almost never look at her Valdemar stuff, and wouldn't you know, I noticed that this one is dedicated to Alex and Irene. Lackey is a big bird lover herself, and works with wild birds.

You can find out more about Pepperberg's work via the Alex Foundation.

Esteban! Zia! Tao!

Did anyone else watch The Mysterious Cities of Gold on Nickelodeon as a child? It was a cartoon, and to my great shock, I find that it was anime. (I just remember thinking of it as a cartoon, like David the Gnome or any other Nick favorite.) I'm happy that it's finally coming to DVD. As you can probably guess, it's about the Spanish exploration of the Americas and the legend of the cities of gold (and it has some vague resemblance, at least in the use of character names, to Scott O'Dell's wonderful YA novel The King's Fifth). I really liked that show, and so did my brother. I still remember that we were watching an episode, and they advertised that the three-hour finale would play that weekend... when we were being hauled off on a car trip of some kind, maybe for a piano recital or something. In any case, I can't believe that our parents would have let us watch it, but I've always remembered it. I can barely remember how the series went now, so the urge to find out how it ends is dimmed, but I'm looking forward to it all the same.

I am a bit nervous, though, because the intro theme is nothing like I remember: