The Casual Blog

Tag: Girl with a Pearl Earring

NYC: finding a nice hotel, good food, great art, and mildly disappointing opera

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Sally and I went up to New York City last weekend to see sweet Jocelyn, eat, and see some art and some opera. Here’s a report.


For all the great things about New York, one problem for visitors is that good hotels tend to be painfully expensive. In quest of the holy grail of a nice-but-not-exceedingly-dear hotel, we tried a new one: the Carlton, at Madison and 28th. Perhaps because it’s not in a high-profile neighborhood, the value proposition is strong: charm, good service, and rooms under $200.

The high-ceilinged lobby was an eclectic-but-stimulating mix of styles (modern, beaux arts, art nouveau). Our room was quiet and comfy. The shower pressure and hot water supply met Sally’s exacting standards. The furniture and fittings were attractive and modern, except for the bathroom sink, which was old school (rounded porcelain with no shelf space). The gym was adequate and available 24 hours. The location was a comfortable walk from the theatre district and within 10 cab-minutes of everything we had planned.


Jocelyn was waiting for us at the hotel when we arrived, and she’d already scoped restaurants and made a reservation for that evening. We checked in, unpacked, and walked one block to Lexington Avenue and an area rife with Indian restaurants known as “Curry Hill.”

The one Jocelyn picked was Chote Nawab. We love eating Indian, although there are common shortcomings: the food often isn’t very pretty (lots of brown), or the atmosphere is a little formal and downbeat. But Chote Nawab was really lively, with many cheerful young people, excellent service, and delicious curries well presented. Jocelyn was as cheerful and lively as any. She was very excited about her new life in New York, and had lots to report.
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On Saturday we did two very different art exhibits: the Art Spiegelman restrospective at the Jewish Museum (92d and Fifth) and the Dutch masters exhibit at the Frick (70th and Fifth).

I was generally aware of Art Spiegelman as a comics artist, but until this exhibit had no clue as to his wide range and depth. He uses a lot of styles and reference points, with courage, exuberance and also humility. His masterpiece, Maus, is a graphic novel about his father’s experience in the Holocaust, which established the graphic novel as a serious art form. The sections I looked at were intriguing and moving. After the show, I ordered a copy.

The show at the Frick was headlined by Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer (1632-75). This is a painting generally regarded as a transcendent masterpiece, and one that I’d been wanting to see for many years. Vermeer’s work is extremely subtle, with seemingly ordinary subject matter, and seeming straight-ahead realism, but a mysterious emotional power.

The Girl is, at first sight, a fairly ordinary girl. But with more time, the painting transmits a more complicated message. She looks as though she’s been surprised, but not unpleasantly so. Could something be going on between her and the artist, as Tracey Chevalier imagined in her novel? Maybe. The painting is ambiguous, but the truth seems just barely out of reach.

She gave me big, long-lasting goose bumps. I enjoyed the rest of the show, which included works by Rembrandt, Hals, and several other Dutchmen of the 17th century, but nothing that was as affecting. I also revisited the Frick’s permanent collection, which is one of the finest small collections of European painting in the world. Henry Clay Frick seems to have been a particularly brutal captain of industry in the gilded age, but still, he had very good taste. However good or bad the motivation for his philanthropy, I’m grateful.

More good food and some opera

After we finished at the Frick, Jocelyn, Sally and I walked across Central Park as the sun was setting. It was getting colder, so we stopped for some coffee, and then made our way to an early dinner at the Leopard, an Italian restaurant on west 67th Street.
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Jocelyn’s friend Mike joined us, and we had an extraordinarily fine meal. My ravioli with braised artichoke and a tomato marjoram sauce managed to be both hearty and delicate. We shared two desserts, which were delicious, and lost track of time. It was snowing when we got out on the street, and we had to hurry to Lincoln Center to make the 8:00 curtain at the Metropolitan Opera.

We saw Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, which is a new production for this season and was completely new to me. I thought the music was gorgeous – as fine as anything Tchaikovsky ever wrote. But dramatically the thing is puzzling and for substantial stretches fairly boring. Why does Eugene reject Tatiana? Why does he ultimately desperately long for her? I don’t know, and worse, the drama didn’t really make me care.

It was quite cold and snowing when we finished the opera at about 11:15, and there were many more people looking for cabs than there were cabs. We walked past Columbus Circle and over to Sixth Avenue, and finally found a cab to get us back to the Carlton.

A little more art
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On Sunday we had breakfast at the hotel, and then walked a few blocks up Madison to the Morgan Library. They had an exhibit of Leonardo’s drawings and notebooks, including the famous Codex on the Flight of Birds. Leonardo was, of course, an extraordinary individual – a true Renaissance man, curious about everything in the natural and human world, and constantly innovating, or imagining future innovations.

I didn’t realize how few paintings he made, perhaps because he was so interested in everything. His drawings seem effortless and timeless. But his presumed self portrait in red chalk shows an old, bearded man looking extremely remote and grumpy, if not bitter. It’s hard to reconcile his extreme gifts and imagination, which seem reason for great joy, with this persona.

My quickie to Rio

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I had a short work trip to Rio this week – down by the red eye on Sunday night, and back by the red eye on Tuesday night. Though I wasn’t looking forward to the long (9.5 hours from Atlanta) flight, there were several good things.

1. Pre-check. I got pre-check status on another recent flight, and this time I happily concluded it was not purely by accident. Pre-check means you can keep your clothes on and keep your computers bagged when you do the security line. For me, it also meant a much shorter line. Should I feel guilty about being such a privileged character? Maybe, but I don’t.

2. Zone two. For some reason I had my priority boarding status seriously downgraded this year, and have been put in zone three (the last group) on several flights. I’m always pulling a roll aboard and toting a knapsack, which means I need a significant chunk of overhead storage space. Boarding with the last group means all overhead space may be gone. This makes me a little anxious and grumpy. Getting zone two means a positive attitude adjustment, and there was more than enough space for my bags. Whew!
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3. Use of electronic devices. Because of the recent FAA rule change, I didn’t have to turn off my tablet device and MP3 device when they shut the cabin doors or began the descent, and was able to use it throughout the flight. One of things I actually like about flying is the opportunity to do some reading and listen to music, but as more of my reading has migrated to the ebook format, the no-devices rule was a real inconvenience. So, one small step in the direction of rationality and happiness.

4. Delta’s Boeing 767-400. A handsome plane with four aisle seats per row and a reasonable amount of leg room, even in the prole seats. Delta communicated the regulation pre-flight data with a video that had some quirky understated humor. But they still include a careful explanation of how to fasten a seat belt. Really now, is there anyone who needs coaching on that?
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5. Zolpidem. I usually have trouble sleeping on planes, but 12.5 mg of generic Ambien really did the trick. I got a solid six hours. I considered getting one of those horseshoe-shaped pillows. I decided against it, based on the principle of when in doubt, leave it out (lighter is better when traveling). This was not a great call – I got some neck soreness from sitting-sleep. Next 9-hour-plus trip, I want that pillow.

6. Rio de Janeiro. After working late on Monday night, I finished with what had to be done early Tuesday afternoon, and got a quick tour of Rio. My guide was Mr. Fred, who didn’t speak much English, but was cheerful and a good driver. Highlights were the tram up to Sugarloaf mountain, the little train up to Cristo Redentor, and drive-bys of the big beaches, including Copacabana and Ipanema.
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Rio is a sexy city, with lots of curves and indentations, as well as many upthrusting hard places. There are spots where you can see at one time mountains, forests, cliffs, massive high rises, giant slums, beaches, boats, and ocean. It is spectacular.
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7. Girl with a Pearl Earring. I read most of Tracy Chevalier’s book on the plane, and liked it. I picked it up in preparation for a short trip to New York in significant part to see Vermeer’s famous painting of the same title. The book consists of a historically informed imaging of the possible backstory of the painting.

The girl narrates the story of going to work as a maid for the Vermeer household and becoming involved with the painter’s work. I learned some interesting things about eighteenth century Dutch domestic life and painting techniques, and also something about how to look at those remarkable paintings. I was surprised how involved I got with the girl, whose life was narrow in a way, but also rich in texture and feeling. Note, the movie of the book with Scarlett Johansson was enjoyable but no substitute for psychological subtlety of the book.
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