The Other Man

It’s true.  I confess it.  There’s another man in my life and there has been for quite awhile.  This affair transcends time and spans two continents.  He’s always been part of my life– in the background, waiting– but it wasn’t until 2010 that we were properly introduced, and it seemed fated that we should meet.

Although I’ve met him in New York, San Francisco, Dublin, Edinburgh, Paris, Berlin, Dresden, and London (and oh, what a time! But I missed him Boston.) and have spent much time trying to peer into the depths of his soul, he remains a mystery to me.  There’s so much about him that I don’t know, that nobody knows.

His name is Johannes.  And you might know him: as Vermeer.

If you haven’t met him, he’s the 17th century Dutch painter from Delft known for painting mostly quiet, contemplative indoor scenes of people engaged in an activity from reading letters, mapping the world, making lace, making music.  He’s most famous for a painting a woman doing nothing at all, just looking over her shoulder as if to respond to something you’ve said.  She’s known for her pearl earring.

It’s through her and the author Tracy Chevalier that I became acquainted with Vermeer.  I read the novel The Girl with the Pearl Earring, and frankly, was not that impressed.  The plot was dark and creepy, few characters were likable, and the only part I really enjoyed was when Vermeer explained how clouds are not white– instead they are yellow, pink, blue, brown.  It changed the way I look at clouds, but it didn’t really compel me to look at a Vermeer.

Me with Woman with a Pearl Necklace at the Gemaldgalerie in Berlin.
Me with Woman with a Pearl Necklace at the Gemaldgalerie in Berlin.

Shortly after, as fate would have it, one of my friends invited me to join her art book club.  Knowing nothing about art, I decided to give it a try.  The first book I read for it was Edward Dolnick’s The Forger’s Spell, a nonfiction work about a 20th century failed Dutch painter named van Meergen who forged Vermeers.  He even came up with a way to paint and bake the canvas so when the painting would be checked for authenticity, it would act like an “old” painting.  Vermeer presented a perfect opportunity for forgery.  No one knew how many Vermeers were in existence because a random one would pop up every now and then in someone’s barn or wherever paintings are stored.  They were also quite rare.  There are only 36 in existence; compared to the copious output by Rembrandt and Rubens, Vermeer seems quite reticent.  van Meergen’s success was so great that he fooled Goering and Hitler with his work, and it wasn’t until after WWII that he was discovered. In retrospect it is amazing that he fooled anyone at all.  His work next to a real Vermeer is flat, awkward, and dull.  How could have so many people been fooled?

If you look at a Vermeer, you cannot help but notice his use of light and keen attention to detail.  Textures are vivid and rich; the people look as though they might look out of the painting and straight to you.  In Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window the oriental rug bunched on the table invites your fingers to touch it, to feel the roughness of each fiber.  The Girl with the Wineglass looks directly at the viewer as if to share some secret joke about her two apparent suitors.  Unlike many of his contemporaries, Vermeer did not have a workshop of understudies who mixed the paints, prepared the canvas, or in some cases, painted the majority of the paintings for him.  He did it all himself; this limited his output.

However, it is not his rarity that makes his work so special; it is that he doesn’t necessarily tell you what to see.  In so many pre-Modernist/Impressionist paintings, the subjects allude to the bible, history, and myth.  They tell a specific story or present an event or person in a prescribed way.  While Vermeer does have a couple of religious and mythological works, most reflect Dutch life. On a recent flight, my seat mate who was a stranger to me and I discussed Vermeer and what made his paintings so special.  I suggested that he gives us a story, but does not provide the narrative.  For the girl reading the letter, we know she is reading a letter, but from whom?  What are its contents?  What is its affect on her?  He allows the viewer to create the story.

His works also quiet the mind; they offer a sanctuary away from the noise and hoopla of everyday life.  Within his frames everyone speaks in hushed voices.  In Soldier with a Laughing Girl, the girl softly laughs at the soldier’s quip.  The loudest of his paintings, The Procuress, is loud from the subject matter– a young woman being fondled by a man as he pays her for what is to come.  They are flanked by an old woman who seems to egg the man on and by another man holding a glass of wine who looks at the viewer with a knowing smile.  All of their mouths are closed and the only sound you hear is the clinking of the coins.

Slowly Vermeer became part of my life.  It started by seeing his work at the New York Met and the Frick Collection.  It continued as my friend Julie invited me to the Legion of Honor to see The Girl with the Pearl Earring in an exhibit of Dutch masters.  It is quite possibly the most beautiful painting I’ve ever seen and clearly outpaces the other woman with a mysterious smile.  My travels have brought me into contact with more of his paintings, and I have seen 22 (sort of) of his works.  To be officially clear, I’ve seen 21 paintings and one frame.  In March of 1990, two men broke into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and stole many artifacts and knifed a few paintings out of their frames. Vermeer’s The Concert was one of them.  The frame is still on display as a remembrance of what has been lost.

Unwittingly, I became part of a group of Vermeer hunters: people who travel the world to see Vermeers and the exhibits around his work.  There are more travels ahead as I continue this affair.


Being in Rome

Yesterday I wrote about the struggle of finding the balance between “doing” and “being”.  My thoughtful readers chimed in reminding me that some times life just asks us to “do” more at certain times; that busyness is not necessarily bad but we need reminders to slow down; and that for some of us “doing” is a way of “being”.  As I reflected on this dichotomy, it occurred to me that I can just “be’, but in order to do this, I have to be somewhere else.

The places that came to mind where I have been the most calm, aware, and in tune with my environment are visiting my parents and lying on their couch, hanging out with my grandma in Michigan, morning walks in Palm Springs, walking on the beach with my friends in St. Augustine, or wandering through Central Park. It’s even better if I have a camera in my hand and my senses become attuned to sights of beauty.  Being away means that there’s nothing really required of me.  I just have to BE there.

But one memory stands out the most for constant, sustained BEING: Rome.

Rome and her umbrella pines.
Rome and her umbrella pines.

Rome is an attack on the senses; it is a perfect place to “be” because it is unapologetically itself. It calls on you to be aware as the past and the present are melded into one.  Our modernized apartment in the ancient Monti neighborhood revealed its past as brickwork peeked through the paint and the stairs leading to our door followed antiquated building codes.  At the piazza down our cobblestone street, barely wide enough for a Fiat, bright young things  continued the tradition of congregating around the fountain at all hours of the night drinking wine and solving the world’s problems.  Make a right at the piazza and you find yourself facing the Colosseum surrounded by vendors selling cold sodas and tourists toting selfie-sticks. Ruins, art, and churches are everywhere.  Rome startles you as you daringly try crossing the street on faded crosswalks, praying that the drivers will either stop or drive around you; yet it lulls with its umbrella pines, sidewalk cafes, sunny warmth. It asks you to slow down and savor the moment.

The Roman Forum.
The Roman Forum.

Steve and I landed in Rome after having spent two weeks in London and Paris, respectively.  Unlike the other two capitals where we had planned what sights we wanted to see and where we wanted to eat and had our time determined by reservations, we hadn’t done much prepping for Rome.  After the orderliness of London and Paris’s refinement, we found ourselves in a city that followed completely different rules and no plans.  The first day set the tone as we explored our large apartment that beckoned relaxation and wine drinking.  We set out to find our wine, cheeses, artichokes, and olives. The afternoon was spent enjoying our bounty before heading off to explore the piazza for a late dinner.

You want to BE there for this.  Yummers!
You want to BE there for this. Yummers!

We did what you expect travelers to Rome to do.  We saw the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, the Vatican, the Sistine Chapel, the Piazza Navona, Campo di Fiori, the Spanish Steps, the Keats-Shelley House.  Since we had no set plans, we went back to the Forum again.  However, we took our time. We lingered.  We ate gelato. We drank wine.  We had late dinners.

The Vatican in the distance.
The Vatican in the distance.

None of these quite compared with our experience at the Borghese Gardens.  We planned on going to the Borghese Gallery, but tickets have to be purchased in advance and they did not have any extras.  No Old Masters for us that day.  Instead we eyed the pedal carts that people rode around the park.  Soon we were off and away, Steve pedaling our cart (my feet didn’t reach), laughing as we coasted down a hill narrowly avoiding tourists.  After almost three weeks of walking, it was freeing to explore on wheels.  We rode around the park as I hopped off with my camera to snap whatever caught my fancy.  Soon we passed a stand renting out golf carts.  You can imagine what we did next.

Steve and I in our pedal cart.
Steve and I in our pedal cart.
Umbrella pines at the Borghese Gardens.
Umbrella pines at the Borghese Gardens.

“I’m driving in Rome!” Steve called out as we zipped away to explore another part of the park.  The next we knew we were racing against a group of teenage boys.

After we returned the cart, Steve found a place to sit down and have a beer, and I found a quiet garden with a boat pond.  I made my way through this sanctuary and enjoyed the stillness of the afternoon and watched the ducks and turtles lounge in the sun.

The boat pond.
                              The boat pond.

This place, this city’s only request that we just “be” and be present.

The Homestead and The Orchard House: A Tale of Two Literary Tours

Emily Dickinson and Louisa May Alcott are quite possibly America’s most beloved 19th century female authors. They share more in common by being daughters of men who were both pillars of their communities and who valued education; they were both fiercely independent; both suffered deep personal tragedies; both lived in Massachusetts and reacted against society’s strictures for women. However, both are very different.

Outside of The Homestead, Emily Dickinson's home.
Outside of The Homestead, Emily Dickinson’s home.

Dickinson’s poetry resists static interpretation; her use of idiosyncratic punctuation, words and images that convey multiple levels of meaning, and closing lines that often turn a poem’s meaning on its head create very personal and individual responses in the reader. Some poems have a universally agreed meaning; others unfold with each rereading. To read her work is to embrace uncertainty. This is compounded by the many myths and images of the poet that have proliferated over the years as a result of the portrayals of her by her niece Mattie Dickinson Bianchi and Mabel Loomis Todd, Austin Dickinson’s mistress whose motives were far from altruistic. Was Emily Dickinson a meek, retiring woman in white, broken-hearted over a lost young love? Or was she a fiery, passionate woman ahead of her time? In addition to the poems’ multiple meanings, there also persists the question of which Emily Dickinson wrote them.

Alcott, on the other hand, is most famous for her classic Little Women, the story of the March sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. She presents the reader with a family that on some level, we’d all like to have as our own. And as a precursor to other narratives that have multiple female characters (ie. Sex and the City and Girls), readers can easily identify with one of the sisters (however, I most closely identify with two, Amy and Jo). Even though Alcott is read all over the world by disparate readers, the novel, and the movies, provide a shared experience.

These two different ways of “reading” and “knowing” the authors shape the tours of their homes. Granted, there are many factors that play into a tour. There is the quality of the artifacts in the home based on how many belonged to the original family to how well they represent the time period if they don’t. What is shared with the public is determined by what organization puts on the tours and how they wish to present the people who lived there. What is shared is also determined by the type of tour chosen, and last, but not least, the personality and knowledge of the tour guide.

Our tour guide obviously loved and admired Emily Dickinson, and it was apparent that she had a long history working at the Homestead. She also had some very definite ideas about the poet, but I do not know if her ideas are part of the museum’s party line or are a reflection of her own beliefs. She explained at the beginning that she would “dispel the myths” about Emily Dickinson, but she dispelled them with didactic statements such as, “Emily Dickinson was NOT a recluse. She went to many social gatherings.” When asked about whether or not ED suffered from epilepsy as posited in Lyndall Gordon’s book Lives Like Loaded Guns, she brushed it off with a wave of her hand, “Emily did NOT have epilepsy. Her nephew did, but Emily did NOT! An author wrote that in some book, but doctors have shown that what she describes as epilepsy is NOT epilepsy. She has apparently written two good biographies before, so I don’t know how she got so off the rails with THAT book.” Why it is so bad to suggest that she might have been epileptic, our guide did not explain. She did not go into why ED had so much freedom to write nor why she was never expected to get married (both went against standards for women at that time). She stated that ED’s father supported and encouraged her education, but did not mention his ambivalence as ED once said, “my father bought me books, but begs me not to read them.” She also glossed over Austin Dickinson’s affair with Mabel Loomis Todd that tore the Dickinson family apart, and instead said, “It’s a good thing we had Mabel, otherwise ED would not be known to the world.” While there is a lot of truth to that, Todd is one of the major reasons why we have myths about ED. Also disconcerting was that she told us that ED was not published much in her lifetime was because the male editors found her work to be too “wild” and preferred her simpler nature poems. Throughout the tour she recited some poems to us, but instead of giving us the more complex ones, she read those that most likely would be found on a card in a Hallmark shop. She perpetuated Samuel Bowles and Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s expectations.

It felt like rather than dispelling the myth about ED, she was set on maintaining her view (or the museum’s). Ideas were presented in black and white, and there was no room for contemplation and wonderment. It was like reading an ED poem with all of the dashes taken out–no pauses for reflection about what it all means.

Stewart and I in front of the Orchard House where Louisa May Alcott lived.
Stewart and I in front of the Orchard House where Louisa May Alcott lived.

The Orchard House was a different tour entirely. It probably helps that Louisa May Alcott’s life is not shrouded in myth and mystery, and Little Women is universally loved and understood. It also helps that my own expectations of how a tour should be did not clash with the tour guide’s. Our guide also did not carry the task of having to promote a certain image of Alcott. If the guides at the Homestead loved ED, their love paled in comparison to the women who worked at the Orchard House. It was palpable. Our guide was warm and thoroughly knowledgable about the house and all of the artifacts in it– the majority of which had belonged to the Alcott’s. She was visibly saddened when she revealed that Laurie and Mr. Laurence were made up; she displayed obvious pride in May’s artwork that was featured throughout the house. The Alcott’s joys were her joys; their sorrows, hers too. She carefully delineated which events in the novel happened in the house and which ones did not. If she didn’t know the answer to a question, she said so, and made sure to get the answer before the end of our visit. Understanding our interest in the house, she went out of her way to point out the smaller details–like the picture of Bronson Alcott sitting at the desk we were standing near. It brought history to life.

Because of her and the rest of the staffs openness, our tour was a much more gratifying experience, and I left with a greater appreciation of the Alcott family and their role in Concord, education, art, and literature.

The Alcott plot at the Sleepy Hollow cemetery.
The Alcott plot at the Sleepy Hollow cemetery.

Readers, what tours have you been on that have been especially enlightening?

Follow The Leader

Our destination for our morning hike in Wales.
Our destination for our morning hike in Wales.

You might be hard pressed to determine how an early morning hike up Welsh hills, dotted with wildflowers and contented sheep, to ancient castle ruins could inspire anger, but inspire anger it did. It was hardly the setting that made me angry– I was hiking in Wales!  To ruins!  Nor was it the exertion of charging up the hill; nor was it the early start.  The blue sky peeked through the gray clouds, and the sun hovered in the distance.  The company that surrounded me was charming and equally enthusiastic.  My anger was the anger of “what-might-have-been”.

You see, it was the fifth morning of a sixteen day tour through Ireland and Great Britain, and this hike was not on our itinerary.  Daniel, our tour director and outdoor enthusiast, saw opportunity to offer this trek, and offered to guide us up to the ruins.  He could have opted to sleep in, but why stay in the hotel when you’re in Wales?  The night before, unable to take us out and about Llangollen, he asked if I would lead a walk along the River Dee that coursed through the town.  I didn’t really lead, but I had the map and directions from the guy at the front desk and away we went.  Again, why stay in the hotel?  In Killarney, Daniel found us venues playing live music, and in Dublin, he took those of us that did not want to go back to the hotel just yet to Temple Bar.  We weren’t just going to tour Ireland and Great Britain, we were going to experience it.

Enjoying the ambience of Temple Bar in Dublin.
Enjoying the ambience of Temple Bar in Dublin.

Flashback to a year ago when I took four students to London and Paris, and this is where the anger sets in.  Our tour director for that adventure happened to have lived in both cities, but instead of giving him a wealth of knowledge of fun things to do and check out, he was befuddled, lost, and unenthusiastic. He was a slave to our itinerary, didn’t tell us any information about what we were seeing, and seemed out of his depth.  He got us lost, and when he finally opened up to talk to us, no one wanted to listen to him.  My group and I had a good time because of our own initiative and our enjoyment of each other’s company.  But as I walked up the Welsh hills, I reflected on this time and wondered, “What did we miss out on?”  What could have we seen or done had we had an enthusiastic leader with a “the world is your oyster” attitude?

This experience, like most experiences, reminded me of the classroom, our role as teachers, and our power to set the tone in our classrooms.  This isn’t rocket-science, but it was good reminder how our own enthusiasm , flexibility, and willingness to try new things pushes our students to adopt the same attitude.  Daniel wanted us to have meaningful experiences as a group and individually.  He offered us a hike from William Wordsworth’s home at Rydal Mount to the next town.  Seeing first-hand what Wordsworth saw and walked through everyday gave me a greater appreciation for the Romantic sensibility.  In Edinburgh, Daniel pointed the National Gallery out to me, because he knew I wanted to visit it during my free time.  As teachers, it is important to respect the class goals as a whole and those of individual students.  When we support everyone, everyone will rise.

Wouldn't you be a Romantic Poet if you lived here?  At Rydal Mount.
Wouldn’t you be a Romantic Poet if you lived here? At Rydal Mount.

This adventure was pretty amazing.  My mom joined me, and we had our first (and hopefully not last) overseas adventure together; one of my school’s counselors, Mary Jo, joined me, and we became good friends; Max, who went with me last year, accompanied me, and again we had more fun and laughs; and Maria, a quiet and reserved student, also came along, and it was wonderful to see her blossom, make jokes, and assert her independence.  Then all of the other group leaders and their groups were so much fun.  I now have friends in Florida, Houston, Tracy, and Colorado.  However, I doubt all of this would have been possible if we didn’t have such a good leader leading the way.

Fancy a row in Killarney National Park?
Fancy a row in Killarney National Park?
Looking across Lake Windermere, England's largest lake.
Looking across Lake Windermere, England’s largest lake.
Stewart and I with Vermeer's Christ in the House of Martha and Mary at Scotland's National Gallery.
Stewart and I with Vermeer’s Christ in the House of Martha and Mary at Scotland’s National Gallery.
Mary Jo, Daniel, me, and my mom enjoying our Rob Roy Specials (hot chocolate with brandy) on the Sir Walter Scott at Loch Katrine in the the Trossachs.
Mary Jo, Daniel, me, and my mom enjoying our Rob Roy Specials (hot chocolate with brandy) on the Sir Walter Scott at Loch Katrine in the the Trossachs.
Stewart, Jane, and I at the Jane Austen Centre in Bath.
Stewart, Jane, and I at the Jane Austen Centre in Bath.
My new friend, Angela, from Florida-- so much fun!
My new friend, Angela, from Florida– so much fun!
My new friend, Erika, with Stewart outside of the church where Shakespeare is buried.
My new friend, Erika, with Stewart outside of the church where Shakespeare is buried.
At the top of Calton Hill with Edinburgh in the background.
At the top of Calton Hill with Edinburgh in the background.
Haunting scene from Cashel Rock, Ireland.
Haunting scene from Cashel Rock, Ireland.
Mary Jo, Maria, Max, my mom, and I in front of Fort Ross (?) in Killarney National Park.
Mary Jo, Maria, Max, my mom, and I in front of Fort Ross/Ross Castle (?) in Killarney National Park.

Bucking Tradition: A Reflection and A Review

Before I went to London and Paris last summer I wrote some posts that I set to be published while I was gone.  This was a challenge since I was already at that time writing a post a day– this goal forced me to write two or three.  Instead of trying to create something entirely new, I mined my past and came up with my prom.  More specifically, how I did not go to prom and how this act changed the course of my life.  Since it posted in June, this reflection has been one of my most viewed posts ever, and the search term “not going to prom” has lead many a people to my site.

Prom, or not going to prom, apparently is a big deal.  As someone who has taught high school seniors in the spring, I know how all-consuming prom is for the teenage brain.  There is a lot of pressure to go and even more pressure to have it mean something, so it’s not surprising that there is more than one kid who would want to opt out.  Some may even see it as akin to Valentine’s Day, an event that everyone gets so wrapped in because it’s supposed to “mean something” but ultimately only means something to the corporations hawking their red, pink, and white wares.  Prom is good for business– it tides companies over between Easter and the Fourth of July.  These consumerist tendencies are kept alive because of “tradition”– it’s what everybody does every year.  It is no small thing to buck tradition, but doing so can teach you a lot and may even be the key to survival.

The Michelin Guide, the little red book that lavishes stars on restaurants they deem worthy of praise, is like prom.  Restauranteurs do everything to be titled prom king or queen and when they do not win, it’s crushing.  More puzzling is how were the winners chosen.  Was it a popularity contest?  Did the winners have a whiter, brighter smile? Did they deserve to win?  In the meantime, Michelin turns a profit: people buy their guides and their tires.  Michael Steinberger explores the impact of the Michelin Guide and other social and economic forces that lead to the downfall of French cuisine and culinary greatness in his book Au Revoir To All That:Food, Wine, and the End of France.

Steinberger is a Francophile who remembers the France of his youth: the one that set the standard for the world to follow.  Now he laments its fall from grace as other cities such as New York and London, yes, London, have taken over the reins as as the culinary capitals.  He set out to discover how this came to be so, and wrote not only an engaging and entertaining book, but one that sheds light on the impact of economic policies, the rise of businesses and celebrity chefs, the non-integration of immigrants, and the control of societal expectations.

The decline of French food and wine cannot be traced back to one source.  It is the result of government policies and regulation run amuck.  First of all, we need to consider the traditional fine dining experience; it included not only top-flite cuisine, it also meant that the meal would be served on fine china, with crystal stemware and silver on crisp, white linens in an opulent dining room run by a legion of suited servers.  This cost money.  With a history of high unemployment and a 19% value added tax, most French cannot afford go out to eat.  For a successful French chef to remain successful, it means opening restaurants in the States, Japan, and England.  This results in less time behind the stove and less time involved in quality control.

The economy has also hit cheese-makers and vintners.  Most French consumers cannot afford to purchase the expensive small-batch cheeses that are made in the traditional ways.  Instead they turn to mass-produced cheeses that are less expensive but also have less quality.  Regulations against using raw milk for cheeses hurt the industry, too.  The extra bacteria in raw milk cultivates the complexity of flavor that traditional cheeses are known for.  Regulations have hurt the vintners as there was a massive crackdown on drunk driving and the advertisement of alcohol.  In addition to these prohibition-like moves, the wines are categorized as AOC (supposedly the best), vin de pays, and vins de table.  Wine sellers are required to display each group separately, rather than displaying the best together.  The AOCs often had many bad wines, while the vins de tables represented many of the good wine-makers.  Of course, the French vintners rested on their laurels and were blind-sided by the quality and affordability of California wines, and soon those made in Chile, Argentina, and Australia.  They experienced competition like never before as the French consumed less wine and the Americans consumed more.

If California’s wines were surprising, then their other form of competition is even more surprising: McDonald’s.  In a depressed economy McDonald’s acts as a salve to many.  It’s cheap and only has a 5.5% value added tax; most of the youth are poor, need something, anything to eat, and cannot afford fine-dining; it employs large numbers of youths, including immigrant youths who have been disenfranchised from traditional businesses; and most people do not have time for long meals anymore.  McD’s won over the French by reaching out to the consumers and using French beef, bread, and vegetables.

Steinberger also puts much of the blame on the Michelin Guide.  Michelin put out the guide to get Parisians out and about, on the road, to experience fine dining and gain product recognition for its tires.  It doled out one, two, or three stars to various restaurants; two stars cemented the success of any chef who received them.  Chefs, in turn, worked hard and did anything they thought was necessary to receive a star, including piling up millions of dollars of debt.  Unlike our Zagat ratings, which lay out the standards by which a restaurant is judged by, Michelin’s methodology is unclear, nor do they feel the need to explain themselves.  The result is restaurants of inconsistent quality being awarded stars and those of quality not receiving them or having stars taken away.  This guide dominated the food scene for almost one hundred years.

But is this ultimately the end of France?  Steinberger points to some new trends that signal the revival of French dining, but they do not include expensive tabs, fine linens, or le Big Mac.  One involves a group who turns out to be more French than the French: the Japanese.  From a culture devoted to making a superior product, many Japanese chefs have learned French cuisine and often stay in France to open restaurants.  If not, they go back to Japan or elsewhere in the world and recreate the bistros and brasseries.  Another group is a new generation of chefs who have bucked the traditions of large dining rooms with opulent decor.  They focus on smaller restaurants that provide quality local food at reasonable prices.  They do not aim to create culinary empires but prefer to stay behind their stoves.  The result?  They’re getting the French interested in French food again.

Au Revoir To All That‘s first half is reminiscent of Robert Grave’s WWI memoir Goodbye To All That in that it shows the death of a way of life.  The last part of the book twists the meaning as the new trends say goodbye to much of what has held the culture down.  New chefs are carving their own paths, creating new experiences, and reviving their culinary greatness.  They do not chase after anyone else’s stars, but instead chase their own.

Into The Great Wide Open: Two Book Reviews

On the face of it– or if you were to judge two books by their covers, if you will– my  two most recent reads have nothing in common.  Tony Horwitz’s Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before has an  appropriately blue cover graced by a small globe wearing a ship at a jaunty angle like a sailor’s cap. It captures what his subject, the enigmatic Captain James Cook, would have seen each day at sea, the endless blues of the ocean and sky with nothing but clouds to break the monotony.  Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, on the other hand, features a well worn hiking boot.  The boot represents the journey: the leather worn and broken-in, the laces broken, the base of the sole encrusted in dirt.  The boot was where Captain Cook often was not: terra firma.  Cook sailed the seas far, far from home in the 18th century; Strayed, a woman with no home, hiked the Sierra Nevada and Cascades in 1995.  But if we crack open the spines and delve into the stories, we see that they have much more in common than at first glance.

Captain Cook did not leave much beyond his ship’s journals to posterity that explain why a successful man who pulled himself out of abject poverty and broken through England’s rigid class system would leave not once, not twice, but three times on perilous journeys into the Arctic and Pacific that lasted three years or more.  He left behind a stable home, a lucrative position, and his wife and kids to fulfill Homeric quests; his first solidified his place in history, so why did he keep going?  Tony Horwitz, a writer who combines humor, travelogue, and history into one, takes up the challenge to climb into Cook’s skin to learn what kind of man he was, what drove him, and why he continued to set sail.  The best way to learn about a man is to walk in his shoes, so Horwitz follows Cook’s routes around the world, including back to York, England, Cook’s home, to discover what Cook might have seen, his legacy, and how he is remembered today.

Cook’s history and legacy, as Horwitz learns, is messy.  While Cook could have easily earned an A+ in the 18th century explorer grade book, for he didn’t try to convert, take over, or kill the native people he met, nor was he an unjust captain and instead under his watch kept the majority of crew alive, he happened to be the messenger to the world of changing times.  Like all messengers, Cook is blamed.  Horwitz compares Cook’s journals with what he witnesses first hand and concludes, like Cook did with incredible foresight, that Western influence has brought on much harm to the South Pacific island nations.  Horwitz uses Cook’s early life and infers from Cook’s habits and routines to create a profile of the type of man he was.  His findings are incisive–  the fact that Cook strived so hard to raise up in the ranks, leave home, and not name any of his discoveries after his family or childhood home suggest that his early youth was difficult and he struggled with his parents.  This is corroborated by the fact that Cook was meticulous and precise in everything he did (his maps that he drew were so accurate they were used until 1994), a trait of people who grew up with alcoholic parents.  Cook’s legacy is as disheartening as his childhood.  In the South Pacific he is either vilified or forgotten, and many island nations are still coming to grips with how to represent him.

Horwitz’s narrative readable, informative, and funny.  He offsets the seriousness of Cook with his own traveling high-jinks, mostly in the form of Roger, his drunken, foul-mouthed Aussie friend and traveling companion.  Horwitz tries as much as possible in today’s age of technology to keep his travels as close to Cook’s as he can, but he also uses his hard-nosed investigative skills to uncover as much about each place he can, as can be seen in my favorite chapter: “The Hunt for the Red Banana.”  Overall, he paints a compelling portrait of Cook, flaws and all, and shines light on what it meant to live at a time when two worlds began to collide.

Over two hundred years later Cheryl Strayed puts on her own shoes to walk the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).  As Cook’s journey was onward and outward, Strayed’s journey was inward as she reflected on what it means to live in her own skin.  How did she ruin her life and end up on this journey for which she was ill-prepared alone?  The PCT was just as unknown to her as the Pacific was to Cook.  In her months-long journey she faces this question as well as dangers such as bears, rattlesnakes, strange men, inclement weather, and her own inexperience.

At the beginning of her journey, it’s rather easy to not like Strayed.  In the aftermath of her mother’s death, she makes some really bad choices– it is difficult to not pass judgment.  What makes her memoir so successful is her recognition of her failures at the beginning.  She does not ask for the reader’s forgiveness, nor does she excuse her choices.  She takes a hard look at her relationships with her mother, family, and ex-husband.  She comes to terms to who she is and why she is that way.  Her thoughts and actions are unflinching as she says, “The thing about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, the thing that was so profound to me that summer– and yet also, like most things, so very simple– was how few choices I had and how often I had to do the thing I least wanted to do” (69).  There is no escape on the trail, yet she stuck with it, tenaciously plodding ahead.  She earns her redemption through each step of her journey, gaining respect from other hikers, her readers, and herself along the way.

One of the greatest lessons she learned on the trail was how much we let stories define us or let ourselves be defined by others.  In the beginning of her hike she thinks, “Fear, to a great extent, is born from a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe.  I was strong.  I was brave.  Nothing could vanquish me” (51). This story motivated her to push on when most of us would have run for the nearest set of four walls with a locking door.  She examines how the stories of her parents shaped her story and eventually learns which parts are their story and which are hers.  In the end, she has her own story to tell that is hers and hers alone.

We have to respect those who go out into the unknown, uncertain of their safety and what they will find.  They make discoveries far more than those of us who cling to the familiar and the safe.  While Cook was not out on the ocean soul-searching, he and Strayed made the same discovery.  Strangers out on the trail or on faraway islands are often kind and seek understanding.  When Cook and his men met the islanders, the majority’s first impulse was to show goodwill; the second, to establish communication.  Strayed met many who wanted to share stories of the hike and have camaraderie with others.  In the end, even though our journeys are as far flung as places on the map, our destination is always the same: understanding.

A Fall Day

I craned my neck to get a glimpse of the sky through my hotel window.  Shards of crystal blue peaked between the corners of the buildings, letting me know that weather-wise that day was going to be A DAY.  The sun shone so brightly that it was difficult to see even with the help of my sunglasses.  Everything it seemed, shined and reflected off of each other.  A perfect Friday, really, to go rowing in Central Park and then hang out in Greenwich Village.

Here comes the sun.
The wonder of Central Park is that there is always something to see and admire.  It ranks right up there with baseball games as a people-watching venue: New York natives jogging, tourists wearing their I [Heart] New York sweatshirts, musicians and artists displaying their talents.  It’s all here.  Then there are the trees.  Fall colors shyly emerged from the tips of still verdant leaves– drawing rapt attention from those sluggish of summer and eager for fall.

The very fun Tin Roof Jazz Band with a splash of fall in the distance.

This avenue is one of my favorite parts of the park.

Capturing Shakespeare in the fall light.
Steve gallantly rowed me around the pond by the Boathouse.  Renting a rowboat for an hour is probably one of the least expensive excursions available in New York: $12 for an hour and $2 for each subsequent 15 minutes.  Out on the water with the other boaters made me feel like we had entered a Seurat painting.  The nature and light dappled around us.

Out on the water.

Stewart leads the way!

Looking back at the city.

Queen Anne’s Lace!

Afterwards we meandered to the other boat pond.

We finished our row with lunch at The Boat House.  The outdoor patio seating was full with forty minute wait, so we opted to eat inside from their to-go counter.  As we turned to head over there, a woman behind me, who spoke to her husband of their “usual table”, tapped me on the shoulder to let me know that the prime rib sandwich was excellent.  I passed this tidbit to my red-meat eating husband.  He tried it and concurred.  I ordered the veggie burger; should have got the salmon salad instead.

We had tickets to see Ravi Coltrane at the Village Vanguard in Greenwich Village, so we walked down to Times Square, a haven for tourists opting to spend their money and time buying tennis shoes, visiting the Hershey’s Store, hoping to get spotted on MTV, and eating at the Olive Garden.  Basically it’s one loud, raucous, crowded shrine to commercialism.  We kept walking until we finally took the subway for the rest of our trip.

Out of the subway station in the Village, it was like we entered a different world.  Quiet surrounded us as we strolled along New York’s older buildings and brownstones.  It was conceivable that we would spot the cast of Sesame Street along one of the tree-lined avenues, or Carrie Bradshaw running out to meet Mr. Big’s (sigh) limo.  Since Grover or Mr. Big were not around to catch my eye, Three Lives and Company book store did.  Nestled on a street corner, it provided a selection of literary fiction, poetry, travelogues, cookbooks, and reflections on the craft of writing.  It was like the book gods created a store just for me– my own little bit of heaven.

Stop in!
From there we made our way to Washington Square Park.  On a beautiful Friday evening everyone was out to enjoy the last vestments of nice weather.  It was predicted to get chilly and overcast the next day, and no one knew if this was it– the final time to don shorts and t-shirts and sunglasses.

Famous arch in Washington Square Park.

Everyone enjoys the afternoon. I don’t know the dude in the yellow shirt, or the green one for that matter.

A jazz band played. Notice– he’s playing two trumpets at once!

Even the bee comes out to enjoy the festivities.

Summer’s last bloom.
We made our way to Apiary, a restaurant run by Scott Bryan, a chef who Anthony Bourdain considers a god.  Steve, who has a little man-crush on Bourdain, was eager to experience the culinary delights there.  I, on the other hand, was a little skeptical.  Was this going to be a pretentious meal with pretentious service?  Was this going to be some manly place that puts pork belly on everything?

The restaurant’s pink font and pink chairs let my worries be put to rest.  The decorations were whimsical, soft, and feminine with a modern spin.  Our server was kind and knowledgable.  I don’t recall seeing pork belly on the menu.  I ordered the Apiary salad, a perfectly mounded pile of greens dressed in olive oil, vinegar, and chives.  It was so lightly dressed that there was not even a puddle on the plate.  For dinner I opted for the Scottish Salmon dusted with horseradish with braised artichokes topped with trout roe and a light cream sauce.  Everything about the meal was subtle.  The fish had a smooth salmon flavor as opposed to the strong flavor found in Atlantic salmon; the horseradish gently asserted itself as a supporting role rather than a key player; the roe’s mild saltiness balanced the sweetness of the artichokes.  It was superb.  Steve ordered the ricotta ravioli with sage-butter starter, followed it up with steak, potatoes, and creamed spinach, and completed his meal with the peach galette topped with creme fraiche ice cream and caramel sauce.  The only disconcerting moment arrived when I listened in on the girls sitting next to us.  One also ordered the salmon, but scraped off the roe and sauce.  Their only comment about their meals was, “Yeah, this is good,” before continuing on their conversation about one of them locking herself out of her house.  I wondered if this was a problem among New Yorkers: being spoiled by too much good food.  My home town doesn’t give me easy access to Scottish salmon so perfectly cooked, and I was going to enjoy every bite.

If you find yourself on 3rd Avenue and you’re hungry…


Isn’t that the prettiest salmon you’ve ever seen? I hated to demolish its loveliness.

A modern take on Steve’s favorite meal.

Again, almost too pretty to eat.
Our evening ended at the Village Vanguard– the jazz mecca of New York.  There is no assigned seating, so Steve wanted to get there early to be first in line.  We weren’t first, but as finished our descent down the red staircase, Steve was surprised to learn that the very, very, very, very front seats were vacant.  Steve snatched them.  I rested my feet on the stage.  When Ravi Coltrane came out, he stood in front of us, looked at Steve, and asked, “How ya doing?”  While Coltrane didn’t know this, I knew Steve was in heaven.  He was about two feet from us, and we could feel his reverberations through the stage and see him play every note.  He channeled his dad’s spirit, and it was the most “jazziest” show we have seen to date.  Later on, Steve stunned by the experience, had to go have a drink.  I, sated by the sun, sounds, and tastes, went to sleep.

The Ravi Coltrane Quartet

Steve’s version of heaven.