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Thursday, October 31, 2013

Day of the Dead

As a life long fan of the Grateful Dead, I typically thought of the day of the Dead as a time to reflect on the art and music associated with the band that I spent many many hours with in my distant youth.  Now I feel differently about it.

The Day of the Dead is a day to celebrate and remember loved ones who have died.  When I was in my 20's there were very few people who fit that bill.  My brother, Charles.  That was a very painful and overwhelming loss.  It took me until my 20's to really come to a point where I grieved his death in an adult way, and acknowledged the effect it had on my childhood.  Trauma is not a good thing, that is for sure, but I was no way ready to try to integrate that loss into who I was, even though there is no question that my desire to be a health care provider came directly from his illness and his death.

Now that I am well into my 50's (as my father ungenerously pointed out to me last month, in 6 years I will be 60), there are more people who I miss.  My father-in-law is the most painful right now.  I feel like I didn't get to know him as much as I would have liked to, for many reasons, and that we shared interests that we never fully explored. He was wise and generous and he really knew how to live an "it is what it is" life.  I make charitable donations that remind me of him, and that makes me smile--if people remember you when they are being philanthropic you have done something right.

I also hope that my great grandmother is happy with how I turned out.  She is the ancestor that I feel most connected to--the one who baked and cooked and sewed and worked with her hands--I am not up to her standards mind you, and I am pretty sure she knew her way around a farm in a way that I never will, but I hope she sees a little bit of her in me.  So, those are my people to celebrate, who are yours?

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Now You See Me (2013)

This movie is very enjoyable fluff.  It is a movie where the magic is not so much about illusion as it is about settling an old score.  A group of four magicians with moderate level skills who are mostly working on the street rather than in a theatre are recruited for a master plan that even they are not in on.  The hook for them is membership in an exclusive club for master magicians.  That, and the appeal to their egos (which they all seem to have in excessiv amounts) is enough to get them to go along with the charade.

Their first big trick is a bank robbery in Paris--an audience member is chosen, seemingly at random, and his back is then robbed, seemingly in real time--the audience watches him enter the vault, see the pils of money in front of him, and then it appears that the money is vaccuumed up.  Minutes later, Euros are falling from the ceiling of the theater.  Lots of them.  Hours later it is discovered that the bacnk in question has indeed been robbed.  How did they accomplish it?  They go on to have two more appearances that come off specatacularly successfully, and the reason behind the shows is revealed to the magicians, as well as to us.  It is slick, superficial, and very fun.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Lowland by Jumpha Lahiri

This book did not get uniformly positive reviews but I loved it.  It has been short listed for the Man Booker prize, so at least some people agreed with me.

The story revolves around two brothers born 15 months apart.  Subhash is the elder and more cautious brother while Udayan is the bad boy brother.  They are growing up in Bengali, and they are so close that Udayan says that Subhash is the other half of him.  But early in adulthood that changes quite dramatically.  Udayan gets involved with the communist terrorist group Naxalbari and Subhash goes to the United States to study.

What happens then is an example of how tragedy can ripple out across generations.  Udayan breaks all the rules--he marries a woman that his parents disapprove of, for reasons that are not clear--is it that she is not worthy of him or that they did not pick her?  In any case, when the inevitable happens, when Udayan is killed, she is left behind.  She is a serious student at University and they agree completely that they should not bring a child into this world they are leading--but when Udayan dies, she is pregnant, and that is the spark that ignites across the rest of the story.  I do not want to give too much away, but the rest of the story is a message about how one person with one choice and one tragic ending can affect all those who love them and try to hang on to them.  A fabulous story about lose and longing, and maybe at the end, a little bit of redemption.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Park Guell, Barcelona

You have to love this place--Gaudi had the idea to create what would have essentially been a gated and planned community in the hill overlooking Barcelona--he thought that the wealthy would want to move out of the city and that a planned village, with an open market and the longest bench ever circling it (which is not only gorgeous, but has excellent lumbar support) and gardens would be a sure fire winner.  In his time it was not, but it certainly became something decades later. 

So all we have left is a handful of buildings to visit.  I would definitely recommend visiting Park Guell, but not at the time that we did--it was far too crowded to really enjoy what I think was designed to be a peaceful place.  We walked here after lunch one day (so we got there about 5:00pm, after a quite lengthy lunch that required a rigorous walk to overcome--we chose to take a taxi up and walk back, but it was well over an hour back to the Barri Gotic from here), and it was uncomfortably crowded.  But the whimsy of Gaudi, his idea of art and function, modern building options combined with beauty comes through even if you have to stumble over people to see it. 

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Admission (2013)

I enjoyed this movie, which is in contrast to most reviews.  My bar is lower, it turns out.  I would agree that it does not hit a home run with all the things that it brings up.  It is also not particularly funny nor is the central theme a romance, so romantic comedy, or even romantic drama is not quite right.  It is off kilter, but for me, that came off in a good way, and the chemistry between Paul Rudd and Tina Fey is good (one of my son's pointed out that if you can't have good chemistry with Paul Rudd you are doomed in the romantic comedy genre because he can muster up chemistry with everyone...except Jennifer Anniston...but that is another review all together).

Fey plays Portia, who is in a long term relationship with a very uptight English professor at Princeton where she is an admissions officer.  Shaun Wallace plays head of admissions and he is pitch perfect for a snooty Ivy League gate keeper, and Fey is not all that far behind.  She is just not all that likable at first.  Then John, played by Paul Rudd, comes to her with a high school senior who he thinks is a perfect Princeton match and he comes to her as a former Dartmouth classmate to pitch his student, Jeremiah Balakian.  Jeremiah hated school, failed all his classes, but then aced the AP exams for classes he never took and got a perfect SAT score--so he is complicated, and when Portia meets him, she is oddly charmed by him.  We go on to find out that Portia has a wacky hippie mother (Lily Tomlin) who has warped her views on intimacy and parenting.  The movie is about how Portia gets some insight into how she became the woman that she is, and how she might change into a much happier version of herself, and that is the message that I enjoyed watching.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Roasted Shrimp

The idea here is really simple.  It is a variation on the Mark Bittman series of recipes featuring shrimp that he recently did, so you know it isn't going to be complicated.  He is a master at the meal that can be simple, delicious, and made after you come home from a long day at work.

Peel shrimp
Season with the flavor profile that you are interested in (I used salt, pepper, and garlic, but you could use all sort of variations for this--it is really a cooking technique)
Toss with a small amount of olive oil (I used a couple of teaspoons for a pound of shrimp)
Squeeze a bit of lemon on them.

Put in an open roasting pan, and put in a 500 degree oven.  Check them at about 7 minutes (my 26-30 sized shrimp were done at that point, but if you have bigger shrimp, toss them a bit and put them back in for a few minutes).

Once cooked through, add a bit more lemon juice and a chopped herb to make it pretty and serve.  To serve with them I made a pasta with a lemon sauce, and, because I had the oven on, I roasted asparagus as well.  You could roast potatoes as well if you started them earlier.
This is a better technique for fall or winter, because of the high heat oven, but it imparted a very nice flavor to the shrimp, and was very quick to make.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Preschool Education

My deepest wish on this subject is that it had been a Republican idea.  It makes perfect sense for it to be part of the platform for the party that has traditionally been seen as being pro-business and putting a greater emphasis on ensuring the economic health of the country.  Unfortunately, the emphasis has been on the effects of poverty and how we can right a wrong by providing preschool as a leg up.

That is just one way to see it.  To be competative in the world market in the 21st century America desperately needs to better prepare students to compete in that economy.  Our K-12 schools are woefully behind the world leaders, and there are very few things that can be done to fix that in the short run.  But adding preschool education for all students is a clear cut, managable, and quick way to start better preparing a work force for the challenges ahead.  And it makes sense for our country--surely even the plutocrats (as they like to be called--I prefer robber barons, but apparently calling them thieves hurts their feelings) want to have skilled labor that can make them money.  Let's create tax payers, starting at age three or four. Every study out there says it is money well spent, for all of us, not just the kids who go to preschool.

Don't take my word for it--here are the words of James Heckman, a Nobel prize winning economist from the University of Chicago (ie. an Economics Department that is well to the right of center):
1.  Inequalities in early childhood experiences and learning produceinequalities in ability, achievement, health, and adult success.
2.  While important, cognitive abilities alone are not as powerful as a package of cognitive skills and social skills--defined as attentiveness, perseverance, impulse control, and sociability.  In short, cognition and personality drive education and life success, with character development being an important and neglected factor.
3.  Adverse impacts of genetic, parental, and environmental resources can be overturned through investments in quality early childhood education that provide children and their parents the resources they need to properly develop cogniftive and personality skills that create productivity.
4.  Every dollar invested in high quality early childhood education produces a 7-10% per annum return on investment--which is significantly higher than other investments are yielding, and translates into more qualified workers, better productivity for the country, and more tax payers.  It may also translate into fewer by products of poverty, like crime, poor health, more jails, and more subsidized benefits--all of which would improve the quality of life of Americans and make us richer.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Love is All You Need (2013)

Susanne Bier is one of my favorite directors and her film 'After the Wedding' is one of my favorite films--she has made powerful films that have been truthful and painful, and that make you think.  This is a little bit less intense, although in the tradition of all great Danish films, there is a lot of dysfunctional family on show here as well.

Ida (Trine Dyrholm) is the centerpiece of the movie.  She has just finished  treatment for breast cancer and her prognosis is unknown.  She comes home from her final oncology appointment of active treatment to find her husband Lief having sex with someone about their daughter's age.  She is so shocked she can hardly speak, which allows Lief time to dig his own grave--the treatment had been very hard on him--yes, he was having an affair with her before his wife had breast cancer, but the added stress made it worse.  What was a man to do?  He seems truly clueless about how narcissistic he sounds--and is.  No matter, Ida's daughter is getting married in Italy and she sets off on her own to attend--en route she meets Phillip (Pierce Brosnan)--by ramming her car into his.  Which he takes remarkably well when all is said and done.  The weekend wedding unfolds with a number of snafu's but Phillip, who has been angry at everyone since he wife was killed in a car accident many years ago, starts to thaw a bit around Ida. She has a way of calling him out on his life priorities and over the week they spend together he becomes quite fond of her.  It is a predictable plot, when all is said and done, but it is so beautifully executed that I was very forgiving of that, and as a middle aged woman myself, it is lovely to see love portrayed in that age range.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman


This is an odd book.  It was long listed for the Man Booker prize in 2012, and it very much reminds me of 'The Finkler Question', which as a winner recently.  Ned Beauman is a young Jewish British writer, and Howard Jacobson is an older Jewish British writer, but their books have an oddly bitter and irreverant tone that is shared.

This book opens in Berlin in 1931, but it is not steeped in revelry followed by pain.  No indeed.  The protagonist in the novel is the hapless Egon Loeser, a theatre set designer who is indeed Jewish in Germany, but he is clueless about what is going on around him.  When he passes Nazis burning Jewish books he thinks it is performance art and throws a book on the pile himself.  He is obsessed with two things--getting laid, which he is serially unsuccessful at, and teleportation, which is only slightly less disasterous for him.  So while the book is set in a historically charged era, that has nothing to do with what occurs between the pages.  Loeser is a man who goes with the flow.  He is a creature of happenstance--not a happy one, but in many ways he is not unhappy either.  The book has an oddly adventurous tone, but one with an axe to grind.  I think the author has an original voice, and it is well worth readin to see if it speaks to you.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Gresca, Barcelona

When I discovered that most of the top tier fancy Barcelona restaurants are closed Sundays and Mondays, I got some really good tips on where to go from Chowhound, and after much research into what was what, chose Gresca for lunch on Monday.  The chef,  Rafael Peña, who is touted as a gifted disciple of Ferran Adrià, was the clincher.  It was a really nice follow up to a fabulous tapas lunch on Sunday, and a good introduction to the modernist cuisine that one can get in Barcelona.
I was not quite into the mode of "we are here for fantastic food" at that point in the trip, my husband was.  Our only problem was that the whole reason we were in Barcelona in the first place was for a meeting, and in order to get to that meeting, we had to be able to finish lunch in two hours.  Fearless as he is, he asked the waitress if there were any way that we could order the nine course lunch and be guarenteed of finishing it in the alotted time.  She gave us a slightly pained look, went to confer with the chef, and then came back and said yes, it was barely possible.  I would have been content with the plat du jour at 17€, but freely admitted afterwards that the meal we had was a better deal at 39€.  There were 12 plates in all, and they were happy to substitute for me.  The plates were small enough that we were not stuffed by meal's end, and were largely fish-based, which I loved, and fantastic.  The two desserts were the biggest surprise of all--the fist was whimsical--a thin chocolate shell with finely shredded coconut in the shape of a cocnut, filled with pineapple sorbet that was remarkably good, and then a chocolate mousse that had bits of all sorts of things--cookie crumbs, peppery flours, candied nuts--so each bite of it had a unique and different flavor from the previous bite or the bite to follow.  This is a great meal at a very reasonable price.

Monday, October 21, 2013

What Maisie Knew (2013)

The movie is loosely based on the 1897 Henry James novel of the same name.  The story is told through the eyes of the child, Maisie, and the movie really does attempt to keep that focus.

Maisie's parents are in the midst of a bitter end to their relationship that takes place as the backdrop to Maisie's home life and it becomes very clear very earrly on that they do not care for their daughter in anything more than an abstract sense.  The reality of parenting her in a loving way is beyond them.  Her mother, Susannah (Julianne Moore) is a rock star who is cutting a new album.  Her father is Beale, (Steve Coogan), a businessman who is constantly on the phone--they live in an unbelievable Tribeca apartment that is larger and more luscious than almost everyone's home, but it is miserable to watch.  They are literally screaming viscous comments to each other non-stop.  The incredibly sweet nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham) does her best to cushion the bitterness-- taking one for the team, when Beale moves out, she moves in with him, quickly moving to marrying him.  Susannah counters by marrying Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard), a bartender that she knows casually.  Ironically, these two really love Maisie, and what Maisie knew is that this was the truth.  She loves them right back, and they form the basis for stability in her life.  Maisie is played by Onata Abrile, and she is remarkable playing a child who never knows where she will sleep, who will pick her up, or where she will be next.  The movie is far more entertaining than the subject matter would make you think, and yet another way to look at how parents disregard their children when it suits them.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Grilled Broccoli With Chili and Garlic

I have been searching for great ways to eat broccoli that don't involve cream and cheddar cheese--healthy ways to eat this vegetable that is widely available year round.  I have had a very good summer of eating what is available in the Farmer's Market, keeping to a more vegetarian, sometimes even vegan meal plan, and the key to long term success, for me, is to have a lot of choices about how to cook the raw ingredients, especially once winter comes and the options do not include flavorful tomatoes and corn on the cob any more.

This one is a real winner, coming from Yotam Ottolenghi's latest cookbook, concisely entitled 'Ottolenghi: The Cookbook'.  It is a simple recipe, and it gives precise instructions, so you have the feeling that you are able to follow it more or less exactly

1 lb. of broccoli
4 Tbs. olive oil
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 mild red chili/jalapenos, thinly sliced

To garnish:
toasted almond slices or thinly sliced lemon

Separate the broccoli into florets and blanch in boiling water for 2 minutes and not longer! Immediately refresh under cold running water to stop further cooking, then drain and leave to dry completely.

Once the broccoli is dry, toss with 3 Tbsp of the olive oil and season generously with salt and pepper. Place a griddle pan on high heat and leave for 4 to 5 minutes until smoking hot. Grill the broccoli in batches on the hot pan, turning to get grill marks on all sides. When ready, transfer into a bowl.

While the broccoli is cooking, place the remaining Tbsp of oil in a small saucepan together with sliced garlic and chilies and cook on a medium heat until the garlic begins to turn golden brown. Be careful not to let them burn – they will continue cooking in the hot oil even when off heat. Pour the garlic and chilies over the hot broccoli florets, toss well and serve.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Paco Meralgo, Barcelona

On my most recent trip to Barcelona, we were there for both Sunday and Monday, which are nights when more than a few of the highly noted restaurants are closed.  In my research pre-trip I found a thread on Chowhound with the promising title 'Barcelona Restaurants Open Sunday and Monday', and found this to be an oft mentioned option.  We were to land in Barcelona at 1pm, having already immigrated into Europe while we were in Frankfurt, and the restaurant closed for lunch at 4pm, so I made a reservation for 3:15.  I was quite proud of myself because it involved calling Spain and communicating in Spanish,
all of which could have gone horribly wrong, but it didn't and they were expecting us when we arrived, jet lagged but ready to appreciate the tapas they had to offer.  Which were numerous and delicious, I must say.  We started with a Barcelona specialty, tomato bread.  It is prepared either with a special tool that shreds the inside of the tomato, so that it can then be spread onto toasted bread, or you can run a half a tomato repeatedly over the bread until only the skin remains.  If you use the tool, you get a much more even textured and finely textured tomato pulp.  You start by rubbing the bread with garlic cloves, and after applying the tomato, you can drizzle some high quality Spanish olive oil

it and you are good to go--the tomato bread here is well worth getting.  Another thing that Paco Meralgo is known for is their bombas, which are potato and meat balls with a spicy sauce over them--even if you only get one, they are well worth trying.  The third thing that is a 'must try' here is the small squid a la llauna--the preparation is native to Catalania and involves paprika, garlic, white wine and olive oil--delicious!  The patatas bravas are exceptionally notable here, and I never pass up cockles when they are on a menu, and the grilled cockles were quite good as well. 

Friday, October 18, 2013

Apocalypse Now (1979)


This is the quintessential movie about Vietnam.  I never saw it in my youth--or ever before--but it was the definitive statement about what was wrong with the war.  The chaos that it conveys is remarable and moving.  I watched it related to a film analysis class, and it showed in the weeks between cinematopgraphy and editing--two things that the film has come to be known for.  Coppola edited it to a 2 1/2 hour movie, but then issued a 3 1/2 hour version.  having just watched the 2 1/2 hour version, that is definitely enough time to get the gist of the message, which is that no one in the combat theatre of Southeast Asia was entirely with it.  The commanding officers are all over the place--inured to the danger, gone rogue, or just plain gone--men are left commander-less to fight as best they can.  The use of drugs and alcohol was rampant and only escalated the disorder that prevailed.  The intensity of the color and the sound that pervades the movie leads to a sense of entering an alternative world as you watch the movie.  It is bold and sweeping and frightening, just like war.

The story concerns a journey upriver by Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen, looking even younger than his 36 years here), who commands a patrol boat to penetrate behind enemy lines and discover the secret redoubt of the almost mythical Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando, looking older and more haggard than his 55 years) -- one of the Army's most decorated soldiers, who had gone rogue and was now leading his own band of tribesmen, decapitating and hanging people left and right. The story is based on Conrad's Heart of Darkness, but replaces the implacable mystery of the upper reaches of the Congo with the equally unfathomable mystery of the American venture in Vietnam. When you get to the bottom of who Kurtz has become and what he is thinking, you can see how the war transformed the original American idealism.

The film was shot in the Philippines and, much like Herzog's 'Fitzcaraldo', it was plagued by it's own disasters from the very beginning (maybe when you are telling a real life horror story in the medium of film, the story recapitulates itself in the real life filming).  Coppola invested millions of his own dollars into the movie, ignored warnings about jungle filming and monsoons, displayed his spectacular and immature temper on a regular basis, and had a cast and crew that were taking their parts seriously enough to be stoned and drunk every day of filming.  It was the 1970's after all.  Despite all this, it was a pleasure to watch Martin Sheen, but apparently he had a heart attack during the filming and the alcoholic bender that his character is on at the front end of the movie was not acting on his part.  What they say about making sausage appears to apply to this film, but in the end, it is a masterpiece.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat

If you are prepared for the fact that a book that is set in Haiti is bound to contain a lot of hardship and heartbreak, then you are prepared to begin this book by the gifted Haitian author Edwidge Danticat.

The book weaves in and out of time but is centered on one particular day, Claire's seventh birthday.  The book opens with Claire's father, Nozias, finalizing a deal to give Claire to Madame Gaëlle, a business woman of middle class means in a community of severe poverty.  Nozias' wife, Claire's mother, died in childbirth with Claire.  It was a particularly heartbreaking death because Claire's mother sole wish and ambition was to be a mother.  She had a lot of trouble getting pregnant with Claire, so there was even more than the usual anticipation for her birth.  Nozias was unable to cope with the loss of his wife, and Claire was initially raised by relatives until Nozias could manage to take her into his home.  He is not giving her away because he doesn't love her, though.  He is doing it because he cannot afford to care for her, and wants her to have a better life than he can provide for her.  That is the heartbreak of modern Haiti. 

There is another story that is partly independent and partly intertwined with Claire's story of a house maid, Flore, who is raped by the son of her employer.  Such is the society in Haiti that when the father is confronted by Flore his reaction is that she should have expected that--it was the norm.  The rich take what they want from the poor, and the poor have no expectation that they will be treated justly.

All of this sounds dismal, I know, yet the book is not one of misery.  It is much more matter-of-fact than self pitying, but there is a lot of material here to think about.  It is a gentle but firm reminder that the world does not offer an equal life for all it's inhabitants.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Cinq Sentits, Barcelona

This is the restaurant that we went to that was mentioned in every guide book--which can mean several things.  The first is that it is a restaurant that has been around awhile.  You can get picked up in one, maybe two books early on, but to be essentially ubiquitous you are an established joint.  This is just that sort of place.  If you want a meal that is served with the utmost attention to the pomp and circumstance that exquisitely prepared food often warrants, this is just the place for you.  The staff take their job of creating the atmosphere of a special meal very seriously.  So seriously that there really is no room for joking around. 
I thought my husband would forbid me from using the restroom again after the waiter came over to refold my napkin using only spoons and forks to manipulate it.  It is that kind of place.  For me, the food is the main attraction and everything else comes well afterwards, but lots of people want the whole package and this place is just that.

We opted for the nine-course lunch, which ended up being more like 12 course once we got the amuse bouche and this interesting drink (pictured here).
It has salt on the bottom, then maple syrup, and it is topped with cream--I know, it sounds odd, but it is quite delicious.  The courses are all quite small--the fois gras is above and my substitute for this course, the scallops, are both examples of the size of what you are eating, and the meal is paced over a solid 2-2 1/2 hours, so you really don't emerge feeling stuffed, just that you won't need to eat for 8 hours or so.  The food is very good, and we had a wonderful meal--but I would not go back.  See my reviews of Gresca and Paxta (to come) to see where in fact I would go back--and why.  This is a great meal but once is definitely enough.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Sapphires (2013)

Wow, I really liked this movie.  It chronicles a story of a group of cousins who were of aboriginal origins from Australia who worked as a singing group in Vietnam during the war. 

In the fictional version Dave Lovelace (marvelously played by Chris O'Dowd) is a music promoter who is running 'talent shows' where the entrants largely lack any talent at all and he bored out of his mind.  Until a group of sisters with a cousin come on stage and do a heartbreakingly beautiful version of a Wountry-Western song.  He sees right away that they have the potential to be great.  He answers an advertisement in the paper for singing groups to travel under U.S. military escort in Vietnam entertaining troops.  They are successful at getting a chance, and over the course of the movie they morph from rural Australian girls of Aboriginal background into sultry soul singers in bright spangled dresses that grab the attention of the whole room.  The soundtrack of the movie is stellar and that thread of the story is great.  The group as a whole are grappling with a family issue and then with their own individual struggles.  Gail (Deborah McMillan) is the eldest and she has a sharp edge and a bad attitude that would wear you down if it wasn't for the fact that Dave falls madly in love with her and saves her from he natural bitterness.  The family situation is that the cousin, Kay (Shari Sebins) had a white mother, and as a child she was taken by the government from her family to be raised by a white family--something the Australian government did up until the 1970's.  The issues of race are intermingled with the terrifying backdrop of the war (bombings, being under fire, wounded soldiers, and constant anxiety are all well represented).  Really enjoyable movie that I would highly recommend.

Monday, October 14, 2013

George Perkins Marsh and Conservation in Vermont

George Perkins Marsh grew up in the foothills of Mount Tom in Vermont.  At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Vermont landscape was a shadow of the wild forestlands that had once covered the state. Geographer Harold Meeks estimates that Vermont was 95 percent forested in the 1760s. But by 1790, potash and pearlash - used to manufacture and process glass, soap and wool and made by burning hardwood - were Vermont's leading export items. Farmers routinely felled large swaths of woods to create cropland and pasture. On Mount Tom, farming, timbering and the effects of fire had left little forest cover on the slopes by the time George Perkins Marsh was born in 1801 and it only got worse over the time of his life.
He went to Congress in 1840 and in an 1847 speech to a local Vermont agricultural society, he warned farmers that they continued clearing the land of trees at their own peril and described responsible forest management practices already in use in Europe. By regulating when and how many trees were cut, timbermen and farmers could improve the health of the forest and nearby agricultural land.  He had seen the permanent destruction of previous fertile land in Europe, and he did not want that to happen in Vermont.

Marsh wrote a book, 'Man and Nature', published in 1867, summed up the observations that he had made throughoput his adult life and the interventions that he had made on the land that he had grown up on.  He initiated the reforestation of Mount Tom and the sustainable use of forest land. In the book, which is now considered the inspiration for the modern conservation movement, Marsh compared the destruction wrought on Vermont's landscape to the deforestation he had seen in Europe. By conjuring up images of Ancient Rome, Marsh showed how long-lasting the effects of environmental harm could be. He argued that man inevitably causes change to the natural world and it is up to him to decide whether it will be for the better or the worse. Humans had to be stewards of nature, he wrote, and make choices that would benefit the health of the entire natural world. He also noted the change in climate that had happened over the course of recorded time, and noted that man needed to be a better steward of the land.  He was well ahead of his time, and if you go to Vermont today you can see how wildly successful he was.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Wyeth Vertigo, Shelburne Farms, Vermont

My parents have been long time fans of the Painter Andrew Wyeth, and I have seen the works of his son, Jamie Wyeth on a number of occassions and in a number of places, but I was completely unfamiliar with the work of Andrew Wyeth's father, N.C. Wyeth.  He was best known as an illustrator, and early in his career, he traveled throughout the West and did primarily outdoor scenes--which is largely what his son and grandson became known for.  He moved away from depicting the outdoors in 1911, and his illustrations fo Robert Louis Stevenson's 'Treasure Island', thought by many to be his best work.

I thought the paintings that were on exhibit by N.C.Wyeth were spectacular--I wish that I had known I would like them so much, I would have budgeted more time for the exhibit!  The paintings amassed at Shelburne Farms by all three Wyeths were put together with the idea that this family of American painters likes to be above what they paint, at least in the perspective of the painting.  The additional point made is that the view may not be what you would expect it to be--that the angle is just a bit off, or surprising--I found that to be most true with the Andrew Wyeth painting looking down from a tree at a hunter on the ground. 
Andrew Wyeth did a number of paintings from a bird's eye view, and he is famous for those, amongst others.  I really do not like to be up high myself--whenever I climb to the top of a tower (most recently it was a castle in Spain) and I look down on the view below all I can think about is that I want to get down, preferably as soon as possible.  I am not one to marvel from above, but I very much enjoy a painting that does just that.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Umbrella by Will Self

This is a difficult book to follow--it is the sort of book that my spouse thinks of when he thinks of the Man Booker prize (which this was short listed for in 2012).  It is stream of conscious, covering three distinct time periods, including a long stretch in a mental institution.  To complicate things further, there are not chapters, no breaks between time periods.  You just have to ride the tide of the book from beginning to end and hope that you can keep up with the story along the way.  There are paragraph breaks, but they really do not help all that much.  If you though Ulysses was impossible, this is not the book for you.  If you feel like you have to know exactly where the book is going and where it has been, then this book is not for you.  But if you like the way words sound and fit together, and you can let the rest of it go, then you might just enjoy this. 

The book is largely set in a mental institution in 1971.  A psychiatrist, Zach Busner, is taking care of a long term patient, Audrey Death (yes, there is a sense of irony in an author named Self writing about a subject named Death).  She has been catatonic and Busner suspects that schizophrenia may not be her primary diagnosis.  The other prominent thread is what are more or less flashbacks to Audrey's life around WWI, the War to End All Wars, especially for the British, who underwent monumental changes post-WWI to the point where it appears to have a role in every major British novel, and this one is no exception.  The book is decidedly unusual, and much more pleasant than I am making it sound.

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Turin Horse (2011)


This is a bleak dystopian view of the end times.  Béla Tarr describes this as his final film (he was in his mid-50's when it was made, but if this is your world view in film then you could see why you would need to quit)--it is Nietzsche-inspired with a Cormac McCarthy ending.

My spouse and I have been watching movies that our youngest son is watching in his film analysis class, and while the vast majority of them have been quite interesting, I confess that I really do not get this one.  It was shown during the week that they were learning about cinematography, and the cinematography is spectacular--it is shot all in black and white, there are largely just 2 characters, one horse, one modest stone farm, and a windy desolate landscape to work with, so it is especially remarkable.   This seemed to fit better with the segment on boredom and the whole 'slow movie' movement--it was certainly more lively than an Andy Warhol movie of the Empire State building (4 hours of film on a building that more or less does nothing).  Okay, this has more going on than that, but not by orders of magnitude.  Béla Tarr is known as a slow film guy, with a previous work that clocks in at 450 minutes, and I am going out on a limb here, but I am betting not a chase scene to be found. 

Here is a story, told in 6 days, of a man, his daughter, and their horse who live a meager existence.  One boiled potato a day.  No eating utensils.  Warm clothes, brandy,  and a beautifully built stone house are their luxuries--heat and food are not.  Soon they lose even water.  Then fire.  Then light.  The end.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Marsh Billings Rockefeller National Historic Park Paintings

The collection of Hudson River artist paintings at the Marsh Billings Rockefeller National Historic Park is believed to have been the largest collection of this school of painting (24 in all) that was privately collects in the United States, including this parinting of Cathedral Rock in Yosemite by Alfred Bierstadt and Niagra Falls by Thomas Cole.  Frank Billings, who made his money as the president of the Northern Pacific Railroad (and for whom Billings, Montana is names) was a huge fan of conservation, which gave him a natural affinity with the Hudson River School of artists.  They wanted to capture America's natural beauty on canvas for all to see.  It is possible to take the art tour of the home that I did not take on my recent visit, but would definitely consider planning my next trip around.

The Hudson River School was America's first true artistic fraternity. Its name was coined to identify a group of New York City-based landscape painters that emerged about 1850 under the influence of the English émigré Thomas Cole (1801–1848) and flourished until about the time of the Centennial. Because of the inspiration exerted by his work, Cole is usually regarded as the "father" or "founder" of the school, though he himself played no special organizational role.  The group initially had a great deal of fraternity with each other--they lived near each other, they socialized with each other and they shared a focus on the beauty of nature and presenting such beauty in the British aesthetic style known as the Sublime.  The railroad opened up large areas in the western United States to accessible travel, and the Hudson River School of painters enticed Americans to come and experience that beauty for themselves.  Conservationists encouraged Abraham Lincoln to protect Yosemite from exploitation, which he did in 1864, beginning the tradition of National Parks and the preservation of natural places.  Come to Vermont and see a collection of paintings that were part of that movement.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Thea Alvin, Set in Stone

 Wow--these are just spectacular pictures of stone sculptures made by a Vermont woman named Thea Alvin.  She has been a master stone mason for over 25 years, and the experience shows.  Thankfully she teaches her technique so that her skill and knowledge will not necessarily end with her, because the gorgeous spirals that she designs and renders in stone are breathtaking to see.

I did not discover her--I read a long article in the New York Times, but I loved what I saw.  She does the sort of meticulous design that makes you pause.  That is just having seen the pictures--this summer I ventured to Warren, Vermont, where she teaches her art to others in order to  seeher work in person. On one of my all too infrequent trips to Vermont in the future I hope to get to Morrisville where she lives.  She charges her age per hour for her work--that whimsy seems in keeping with her work.  Fanciful but not selling herself short.

Fibonacci mathematics drives Thea's designs and sets the rules for the Roman Arches that she often builds. The Roman Arch is a semicircle where all angles between the stones point to the center of the circle. If this simple rule is obeyed the arch will stand.  Piece of cake--but when you are lifting and placing rock, figuring out which shape will work the very best, well, it seems more complicated than it sounds, but it is very beautiful when done right.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Dance, Girl, Dance (1940)

I watched this movie as a recommended viewing for a film class, so I did not realize that the Library of Congress chose this film to be preserved in the U.S. National Film Registry as a movie of "cultural, historical or aesthetic interest"--I am not sure, but I think it might have looked quite feminist for the time period it was made in.  The girls work, and they have minds of their own (which becomes abundantly clear in a speech made towards the end of the movie).  The director was a woman--Dorothy

Lucille Ball is spot on as Bubbles,  a show girl who has charisma on the stage, and hard to miss sex appeal.  This is the best Lucille Ball performance that I have seen.  She looks like she is having fun performing, and she is a knock out.  The story goes that Bubbles leaves the more or less respectable world of show girl dancing to become the main attraction in a burlesque show.  She had been living in a boarding house with a group of other show girls, which included Judy (Maureen O'Hara), a squeaky clean girl who has aspperations to be a ballerina, but has absoultely no formal training.  Judy loses her job, and Bubbles convinces her to dance ballet in the burlesque show--she is the unpopular goody two shoes that the audience boos until Bubbles comes back on. the movie has romance, and ends up with both Judy and Bubbles ending up with men they deserve.  Very nice period piece.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

It is not hard to believe that the author of this novella writes plays.  The book reads like a play in prose form, and the story unfolds in such a way that it could be easily staged as a play.

The basic story is not complicated.  Two couples are sharing a villa in France for vacation.  The Mitchel's have their problems but they are not the main event.  The Jacob's are the couple to keep your eye on.  Joe is a poet and a serial philanderer.  Aside from his international reputation as a poet, he feels his only real accomplishment is that he has almost single-handedly raised his 14 year old daughter Nina while his wife Isabel has traveled the world as war correspondent.  She witnesses catastrophes and tries to get people to remember them.  He has witnessed catastrophes and tries to forget.  Their marriage is tenuous, although they feel genuine love and affection for each other, and deeply love their daughter.

Enter Kitty Finch into the scene.  She is a red-head who spends much of her time naked and has recently been discharged from a long term stay in a psychiatric hospital which included ECT.  They come upon her swimming in the pool naked, and it is immediately clear she is trouble.  A borderline personality disorder who delights in stirring the pot and seeing what might happen.  Isabel invites her to stay, which is like throwing bait at her husband, and we sit back and watch the story unfold.  There are parts of it that we see quite clearly and there are parts that come as a surprise.  Sparsely and beautifully written.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Affordable Health Care

The plague of disonfomation and outright manipulation and lying about the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, is understandable when you look at this chart.  Only 8% of the people polled felt that news media was a reliable source of information, and yet 81% of them are getting their information from this source that is held in such low esteem.  It is this disconnect that makes us all look foolish, but there is big money behind the disinformation--no, you do not need to get a rectal exam in order to quality for health insurance, but the Koch brothers want you to think that.  Why? Because the Affordable Care Act will save consumers and the government money.  So who loses?  The robber barons, that is who. 

Here are some facts.  While only 37% of Americans viewed the ACA favorably in a March Kaiser poll, most liked what the healthcare bill is scheduled to do. Over 55%, and up to 88%, of Americans regard the following facets of Obamacare at least somewhat favorably: tax credits to small businesses to buy insurance, closing the Medicare "doughnut hole", creating insurance exchanges, giving rebates to customers of insurance customers that spend too much on administrative costs, and the employer mandate. Even Republicans like all of them except the Medicaid expansion, increase in Medicare tax, employer mandate, and individual mandate.
Indeed, the only requirement of Obamacare most people didn't like was the mandate for all people to join it. Now, about that.  There is a lot of help out there for the poorest amongst us, those who currently cannot afford health care, and many people don't know about this.  More than a third of people are unaware of the health insurance exchanges, subsidy assistance to individuals, or the Medicaid expansion. The latter two provisions of the law have actually seen a decrease in the percentage of people who knew these policies were in the bill, since it first passed. And that it would cost them more--again, not so for the majority of people, especially those who can ill afford it.  I have friends who are self-employed who found out this week that they can get health insurance with better coverage for 1/5 of what they have been paying.
More worryingly, more people than not thought that Obamacare includes a public option, undocumented immigrant insurance, "death panels", and cuts to Medicare. The Affordable Care Act contains none of these.  The fact is most of Obamacare is liked by the public. The issue is that the provision that is not liked is the best-known. 

Which is not an accident, I fear.  So what are House Republicans afraid of?  That they are wrong about this.  That the law will be incredibly popular and successful, and they will be shown to be like the Emperor who has no clothes.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

42nd Street (1933)

Yet another one of the old movies that we are watching as a family.  I have always read the books that my children have been assigned in school, and I continued that habit well into the college years--the only times that has been challenging have been with my English major son--the other two studied Biology and Engineering, and I was never in danger of being overwhelmed with reading.

Now that son number four is in school, and my other three sons have limited time in college, I am ready to throw myself fully into the college experience--after all, it has been quite some time since I was there myself, and I can undoubtedly learn quite a bit.

The education I have been receiving this semester in old movies has been fabulous.  This one is a musical set right in the midst of the Depression.  Warner Brothers was known for not glossing over the hardships that people were enduring.  They gave people hope, but they also depicted the lot of the average person as being beleaguered and challenging.

One of the reasons this may have been so popular with me is that while it is a musical, it is what is known as a 'backstage' musical--so most of what we see is the makings of a musical, rather than that the story is told in musical form (which I am less fond of)--there is some magnificent dancing shown (the overhead shots of this were well known to me even before I saw the movie), and the story is a familiar one:  Penny Sawyer (Ruth Keeber) is a young unknown dancer who feels lucky to be working at all.  She is in the chorus of a musical with a big name talent (Bebe Daniels), but when the star takes a tumble and cannot go on, Penny gets her big chance.  It is not complicated and it gets its message across in a very entertaining way.  One notable thing is that while this is filmed during the Depression and people are actually not getting enough food, the dancers are not super skinny and anorexic looking--they look like real women look.  Refreshing that we used to find that attractive.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Time Flies

Time flies.
And so does Tucker.
Wishing him the happiest of birthdays today and a great year ahead.

There are so many times that I see glimpses of myself or my spouse in my kids.  I also enjoy seeing aspects of my brother, or another close relative.  And then there is the unexplainable.  The things that I have no idea where they come from.  Tucker's love of English is no surprise.  We are a family of readers.  The current generation, their offspring, the previous generation, both sides of the family, it is everywhere you look.  His love of sports--that is findable in the gene pool. His adventurous approach to eating--totally explainble.  His love of travel?  We can all pack a bag in no time flat, travel light in order to travel far, and we love to hear languages that are not our own.  What could possibly be a better use of a vacation than to be on the road, or in the air?  No one close to him would argue with that philosophy.  But his sense of fashion?  That came out of nowhere.  It is nice that I can be surprised and perplexed.  I cannot say that I have learned anything about it yet, but that may come.  In the meantime, I encourage Tucker to enjoy the year, and prepare for your post graduation entrance into the world.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

House Republicans--Even the Devil Disavows Them

As Andy Borowitz noted, Satan is all about evil, and from everything the devil had heard in recent years led him to believe that the House of Representative Republicans in general, and the Tea Party Republicans in particular, were his people.  But with this, he realized that they are just stupid.  And yes, I do realize that this political cartoon is in poor taste and borders on the immature, but it is the shoe that fits this extremely stupid behavior.  And this man is responsible for the shut down of the government.  Make no mistake, he holds the cards to end this.  And people need to know that.  Accountability is everything.  All we need to open the government back up is for Boehner to allow the House to vote on the budget that the Senate approved.  That is all.  Then the House can return to their inane, know nothing/do nothing wheel spinning. 

This Congress may be held up as an example of why this form of democracy is flawed. The founding fathers clearly state in writing time after time that to serve in government is to serve the people. The motivation to become a U.S. Congressman should be, in their minds, to serve the people. There was often a personal sacrifice involved, and they certainly did not make a salary that would put them in the top 2% of the country in terms of income, without the additional perks that Congress today enjoys. So the motivation for public office has changed since the country began, as have the corporations that Congress men and women of both parties are beholden to. That is not good, not is it the way the government was envisioned when it was created—but the past several years have been atrocious, and now you, House Republicans, have shut the government down. For what? Nothing. The Affordable Care Act is the law. It is constitutional because the Supreme Court says that it is. It went into effect this week, and the amount of traffic on web sites was so great they crashed. So why are you keeping thousands of people out of work and making the United States the laughing stock of the world?

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

His Girl Friday (1940)

I am not sure how hard it is going to be to actually analyze films, but I am really enjoyinig watching old movies with my youngest son related to a film analysis class that he is taking.  This is just one of a number that I have been watching this month.
The context of a working woman in the pre-World War II era is an interesting one.  Many women worked during WWI, but they largely left the workforce after the war was over, or they remained in jobs that did not have educational requirements.  Rosalind Russell plays a top notch newspaper reporter, Hildy Johnson, who has divorced her newspaper editor husband, Walter Burns (Cary Grant), and is looking to settle down with a house and a family.  Or is she?  She stops by the newspaper to let her ex-husband know that she is remarrying.
  She knows his double crossing wily ways and yet she allows herself and her new fiance, Bruce Baldwin (played by the ubiquitous Ralph Bellamy), to be sucked into first lunch and then a hot fast-breaking new story.  Baldwin quickly realizes that Hildy is by no means ready to give up the rough and tumble world of a star reporter and asks her if she is sure that she doesn't want to keep working.  He seems like a very decent guy, who gets shafted repeatedly by both Hildy and her ex-husband.  There are some great use of costume to convey Hildy's transformation from sophisticated society girl back to work-a-day reporter--her hats are a dead giveaway, as are her facial expressions and her body language.  It is a great demonstration of transformation in a character so that the audience has anticipated the change before it happens.  Burns is an unscrupulous character, but as the snappy lines are delivered in this screwball comedy, he holds up well.  Lots of fun, even though the social themes are dated.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Halibut with Lemon Sauce

Simple is the best, it turns out.  My son and his wife visited my brother in Alaska this past summer, and they brought back a cooler full of fish, including some very nice pieces of halibut, which we froze and have been enjoying ever since.  My parents visited recently, and my mother is not a huge fan of fish. but she does like halibut, so we decided to serve some--they go to Alaska about every other year, and are traveling less than usual these days, so it seemed like a nice way to share the bounty.

4 halibut steaks (1/2 lb. each)
sea salt
ground pepper
1/2 c. plus 1 Tbs. flour
2 tsp. vegetable oil
2-3 Tbs. butter
1 1/2 Tbsp. lemon juice
1 c. stock
2 Tbs. parseley

Dredge the halibut in 1/2c. flour after seasoning them with salt and pepper.  Heat the oil to moderately high heat, and once hot cook the halibut, about 5 minutes on each side.  Reduce the heat to moderate heat if the fish is burning--you want a nice golden crust on the fish. 
Transfer the halibut to a plate.  Add the butter to the pan, melt, and then stir in the 1 Tbsp. flour--stir for a couple of minutes, so that the flour starts to turn a little brown.  Add the lemon juice and the stock, and boil the sauce, whisking it until it reduces and thickens.  Season with salt and pepper and serve on top of the halibut.  Sprinkle with parsley and serve.