The Casual Blog

Tag: Rembrandt

In Boston, seeing Dutch masters, Four Big Ideas, and some problems in Afghanistan

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I was in Boston this week for the annual meeting of the Association of Corporate Counsel, where I was a presenter in a session on open source software licensing, and a student at various other continuing legal education sessions. Boston was having its first cold snap of the season, and I had neglected to bring a coat. Brrr!

I managed a quick visit to the Museum of Fine Arts, which I’d only visited once before a long time ago. It’s a really good museum! I was keen to see an exhibit called Class Distinctions, Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer. I mainly wanted to see the two Vermeer works, A Lady Writing and the Astronomer. The Lady, who sits at her desk in a yellow fur-trimmed jacket, was ravishing. There were several excellent Rembrandts.

The exhibit was organized in sections according to the social classes depicted, starting with the nobility, through the merchants, and on down to the poorest. When they were made, the paintings served some of the same purposes as paintings today (e.g. status symbols for the high born), and sent elaborate social signals through the clothing, settings, and objects. My art history education was more oriented toward the formal properties of the works (color, line, texture, composition). This was instead approaching art more as anthropology, which seemed worthwhile.

One evening I met up with a couple of old friends from student days for a dinner at Puritan & Company on Cambridge Street. Through the years of career building and child raising, we’d almost lost touch. It was really gratifying to find that we could quickly reconnect. There was, naturally, news: jobs, travels, civic activities, kids, kids’ girl and boyfriends, parents, funny stories. The food (a southern, organic vibe) was good, too.

On the flight back, I was happy to see that I’d finally made it up the airline classification food chain at Delta to Zone 1 for boarding – that is, the first group (after families with children, business, first class, elite, diamond, service members, and others specially designated or needing special consideration). Well, it’s still good. I really like not having to worry whether there’s a place in the overhead bin for my carry on bag.

With some time for travel reading, I finished The Shape of the New: Four Big Ideas and How They Made the Modern World, by Scott L. Montgomery and Daniel Chirot, and I recommend it. The four ideas are the thought systems of Adam Smith (classical capitalism), Karl Marx (communism), Charles Darwin (evolution), and Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton (American democracy). Montgomery and Chirot do a good job giving lively short bios and summarizing the thought systems. They also give helpful context, including predecessors and successors. The second half of the book discusses the counter-enlightenment, including fascism, Christian fundamentalism, and Islamic fundamentalism. There’s a lot here to chew on.

Speaking of chewing, a few days ago, the President announced that instead of wrapping up the long war in Afghanistan, as previously promised, he’s sending more troops there. I was really sorry to hear this, as I’d say our Afghan adventure has been mainly a disaster, but my view seems to be in the minority. For anyone who cares to think more about this, I recommend a piece by Jeff Vaux in the Huffington Post, which is a bit of a rant, but not uncalled for.

Here are some excerpts: “After 14 years of fighting -at a cost of over 2200 American lives, 20,000 seriously wounded, countless mentally damaged and a trillion dollars – it is obvious that we cannot accomplish our stated objectives. The Taliban cannot be destroyed and the Afghan people will not support a US-imposed government. …

“Today the Taliban controls or is contesting more territory than at any time since the war began. Outside Kabul and a few other areas where mountains of our money buy molehills of temporary allegiance, the government’s army and police are hated for their oppression and human right abuses. Its courts are crooked and criminally unresponsive, while Taliban justice — although harsh — is swift, works without bribes and legal fees, and is honestly administered. Warlords, paid for and armed by the CIA and the Pentagon, indulge in brutal behavior toward their people, including a delight in raping children, which the US army orders its soldiers to ignore.”

Is this being unfair? Are we forgetting some benefits that could possibly justify all this wreckage and pain? Are we Americans (or anyone else) somehow safer, or have we just provided more inspiration and anger to those inclined to hate us?

Our Memorial Day weekend in New York — great ballet, art, and ethnic food

The New York Palace (that's our place on the 32nd floor) and St. Patrick's Cathedral

The New York Palace (that’s our place on the 32nd floor) and St. Patrick’s Cathedral

For Memorial Day weekend, we went up to New York City to see our sweet Jocelyn and get an infusion of arts and food. I’d bought tickets to both the NYC Ballet and the American Ballet Theatre, and wanted to see the new Whitney Museum. We designated Jocelyn as the food concierge, and she booked us into some fun ethnic restaurants. After going back and forth, I decided not to lug along my big DSLR kit, and instead took my compact Canon G16, with the results shown here.

Sunset right after we checked in at the New York Palace

Sunset right after we checked in at the New York Palace

The flight up went smoothly (storage room remaining in the overhead bin, on time departure, seatmate not apparently infectious). I read a piece in the last New Yorker on Marc Andreessen, the famous Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur and venture capitalist. It was a good primer on what VC is and does, and seemed like a fair portrait of Andreesen and his firm (Andreesen Horowitz). He is, of course, intelligent and richer than Croesus, but, it turns out, sort of inexpressive and unadventurous in his personal life. (His likes watching television.) And for all his successful bets on where technology is about to go, he seems in complete denial about the big economic changes technology is bringing, like rising inequality and unemployment. Cognitive dissonance, perhaps?

We stayed at the New York Palace on Madison and 50th. This hotel opened in 1981, when we lived in Manhattan, and was known as the Helmsley Palace, with ads that featured a then-famous dragon lady named Leona Helmsley touting its remarkable luxuriousness in a loathsome way. Now rebranded (thank goodness), it is quite a fine hotel, and from our room on the 32d floor we had good views of Manhattan towers and a sliver of the East River.
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We had dinner in Curry Hill, the little Indian restaurant neighborhood at 28th and Lexington, at Chote Nawab. It’s a lively place, and the food was good, but our server was amazingly inattentive. Even so, we had fun catching up.

It was remarkably clear on Saturday morning and a bit chilly when we went down to the meat packing district to the new Whitney, which is situated on Gansevoort right where the High Line starts. It took a minute to absorb that the line to get in was a block long, and we kicked ourselves for not buying tickets in advance. But the line moved quickly, and we were inside in about 20 minutes. The place was crowded, but with a little patience we managed to get close to the pieces that interested us.

Eva Hesse's last work before her death at 34

Eva Hesse’s last work before her death at 34

The current exhibition is called America is Hard to See, which is so true, and is a loosely chronological survey of some of the key examples of the Whitney’s permanent collection. It starts on the eighth floor (the top) with the beginning of the 20th century, and comes down and toward the present. The works were given a good amount of space, and where there were narrative labels, they were helpful.

At this point in my own art historical education, Abstract Expressionism from the 50s seems more like an old friend than a shocker. But I found myself moved and shaken by some of the political art of the 60s (some of the big issues of that time are still big issues). I also engaged with the minimalism and conceptualism from more recent decades. It struck me that this was art intended to be discussed, to expand out into a social dialog. It wasn’t about just looking — it was also about talking.

The Whitney's decks

The Whitney’s decks

In addition to the fine display spaces, the new museum has large outdoor decks. We lucked out, with beautiful weather, and after each floor, we stepped out in the sun clear our heads and enjoy the wonderful cityscape views.

Looking south from the Whitney at the new Freedom Tower

Looking south from the Whitney at the new Freedom Tower

We’d thought of visiting some galleries in the area after the museum, but after two and a half hours at the Whitney I was more than sufficiently stimulated, and a bit wrung out. Jocelyn met us outside the museum, and we walked up to the Flatiron District, where we had good lunch at a Korean place called Barn Joo.

Then Jocelyn gave us a tour of her offices in the Flatiron Building. This iconic triangular building at 23d and Broadway, completed in 1902, was one of the first skyscrapers in New York. J’s employer, Macmillan Publishers, is now the sole tenant. The offices were nothing fancy, but still fun to see. It reminded me of our offices at The New Yorker in the late 70s. There was a great view of the Empire State Building from the northern point of the building.

The Flatiron Building

The Flatiron Building

We poked around in Eataly, a giant gourmet grocery and restaurants space, which was very crowded and fully of delicious smells. Jocelyn promoted the cookies at a bakery a few doors down as the best in New York, so we bought three and ordered coffee. The barista for some reason had trouble with our order, and took ten minutes to produce various beverages we had not ordered. We consumed them at a table near Madison Square Park. My cookie was a good mix of smooth and crunchy, and I enjoyed it very much.

The Empire State Building, from the Flatiron Building

The Empire State Building, from the Flatiron Building

We had dinner at Boulud Sud, a Mediterranean Restaurant at 64th St. near Lincoln Center. The place was bustling. There were no veggie options on the menu, but they proposed a gnocchi dish that was good.

We finished dinner with enough time (barely) to get to our seats at the Metropolitan Opera House to see the American Ballet Theatre perform Giselle. I was interested in Giselle in part for its historical significance as one of the oldest ballets still in the common repertoire. It was first performed in Paris in 1841, with Carlotta Grisi as Giselle and Lucien Petipa as Albrecht. It must have been astonishing at the time to see the women rise and hover en pointe.

This production had Stella Abrera as Giselle and Vladimir Shklyarov as Albrecht. Abrera was not previously known to me, but I will not forget her. She was sublime. Her gestures seemed somehow to be magnified and extended, with a remarkable emotional intensity, without being overstated. Shklyarov was also excellent. In the second act, the ethereal Wilis were spookily graceful, and when they tried to dance Albrecht to death, Shklyarov was so fervid that it seemed on the verge of real danger. The ovation was tremendous by New York standards, with the audience clapping for about 10 minutes. After I drafted this, I saw Alastair McCaulay’s review in the Times, which was a rave for Abrera.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

On Sunday morning we took a taxi up to the Metropolitan Museum. I’d been looking forward to seeing an exhibit of the art of the plains Indians, but it had, unfortunately, closed. But there is always a lot to see at the Met. We started with a tiny exhibit of Van Gogh’s irises and roses, which had four paintings. The signs explained that the red pigment in the paintings had deteriorated and changed the colors of the paintings, and a video offered an interpretation of what they must have looked like. We spent time with the Lehman collection of Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, thirty or so great paintings that sum of the field amazingly well.

A Vermeer that just kills me

A Vermeer that just kills me

Then we made our way to the galleries with the Vermeers and Rembrandts. I listened to an interesting podcast the previous week with a debate on whether Rembrandt or Vermeer was the greater artist, and confirmed that I’m more of a Vermeer man. The Met has 5 of the 35 or so existing Vermeers, and I particularly love a couple of them. We also spent time looking at the pre-Colombian art, which is getting more and more interesting to me, and African art.
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We met Jocelyn for lunch on the West side at Nanoosh, a Mediterranean spot, and I had some delicious falafel. Then Jocelyn came with me to Lincoln Center to see the New York City Ballet perform La Sylphide. This was, again, for me partly about ballet history, since La Sylphide is another path-breaking early work, from 1834 by August Bournonville. Lauren Lovette was the Sylph, and Anthony Huxley was James. The corps of Sylphs in Act II was, like the Wilis in Giselle, all in diaphanous white tulle, and entrancing. Lovette danced beautifully.

Jocelyn outside the David H. Koch (aka "El Diablo") Theater

Jocelyn outside the David H. Koch (aka “El Diablo”) Theater

After the ballet we went down to the west Village, where we found an outside table and sipped wine, then had dinner at Pagani, an Italian restaurant. We liked our food, and the service was good until dessert time, when things suddenly came to a halt. The staff regrouped, though, and comped our tiramisu.

On Sunday morning we checked out and took a cab out to Jocelyn’s place in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Her area seemed sort of Village-like, at least on a sunny Memorial Day holiday. We met up with our and J’s old friend Kathryn M, and ate at a South African restaurant called Madiba, which had a lot of funky charm, though it took a while to get a beer. I had the vegetable Durban curry, and liked it, and heard about Kathryn’s new admin job at Victoria’s Secret.

Then we went to the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, where there were things that were blooming and things that were not. I didn’t see a great diversity of species, but the landscaping was pretty. We also took a stroll through some of Prospect Park. There were hundreds of Brooklynites picnicking, playing, and soaking in the sun.

Our diving trip to Fiji

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Over the end-of-year holiday Sally and I went to Fiji for some scuba diving. It was a long journey with some rough spots, but also some thrilling spots, and on balance it was worth it. For those who might consider such a trip, here’s some of the nitty gritty on the diving, and also a note about our stop on the way home at the Getty Museum.

I’d always thought of Fiji as one of those “island paradise” places in the Pacific, but in fact didn’t know that much about it. The reason we decided to go was we’d heard the scuba diving was good, and it’s relatively uncomplicated to get to from the US. It is situated north of New Zealand, west of Tonga, and east of Vanuatu. Although it looks like a tiny speck on the world map, it is made up of 332 islands, though most of the population of 860,000 lives on just two of them. The large islands are mountainous and very green

It took us about 26 hours door-to-door to get there. Going out, we had three flights, a long cab ride, a wait, and then an hour boat ride to get to Beqa (pronounced Ben-ga) Lagoon Resort. The staff was on the beach under the palms singing and clapping as we floated up. This was sweet, but we were surprised that there was no dry way to exit the boat. You had to step into the water and then onto the beach, and Sally was still in stockings, but on she went. One of the staff put a little garland with flowers around our neck.

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The resort didn’t look quite as gleaming as its website suggested, but it had tropical charm, with palms, flowers, sand, pools, and grass-roofed buildings, and the staff was warm, friendly, and competent. We were in Bure (which I’m guessing means cottage) No. 5, which fronted on the beach and had thick hedges on the side – great privacy. That afternoon, I did a short checkout dive, but otherwise we took it easy and had a couples massage at the spa. It was marvelous.

The next day we did two boat dives in the area. The water was a comfortable 82 degrees, but choppy, and the visibility was mediocre – at most 50 feet, rather than the super clear water we were expecting. We were looking forward to the fabled soft coral, of which we saw some, but we were also struck that there were big coral areas that were bleached white (prematurely dead). It was nice to see many small tropical fish that were new to us, including new species of angelfish, butterflyfish, damselfish, anemone fish, fusiliers, wrasse, parrot fish, and my new favorite, the Moorish idol.
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At dinner that evening we sat down next to a youngish Swiss couple, Mark and Doris, who spoke excellent English and were charming and lively. We found a lot of interests in common, starting with diving but extending to skiing, travel, and world affairs. Our conversations that evening and for the rest of our stay were a highlight of the trip. As for the eating, the resort accommodated our request for vegetarian meals, and almost everything was tasty.

On the second day of Beqa diving, we enjoyed talking with Rick, a nice Mormon guy who owned a bunch of car dealerships in the heartland. He was up to speed on the self-driving car, a favorite subject of mine, and like me thinking about what this meant for employment and the economy. He was intrigued to hear about our scuba liveaboard trips, and wanted to learn more. He allowed, though, that he wasn’t sure he was passionate enough about diving to do a week focused entirely on that. I agreed – you’ve got to be passionate.
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The next morning we crossed back over Beqa lagoon, and got a ride to our dive boat, the Island Dancer II. It was 101 feet long, 22 feet in the beam, and well-appointed for diving. Our cabin was on the main deck past eating/socializing area. It was air-conditioned and quite commodious and bright by marine standards, with a queen bed, desk, large windows, and private bathroom.

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Our crew, led by Captain Joji (pronounced Cho-chee) and divemaster Moses, was all Fijian, friendly and hardworking. Our seven shipmates were from D.C., San Francisco, Sydney, and Moscow, and all were very experienced divers who’d all been to several exotic dive locations before.
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Our first night involved a nine-hour trip from Viti Levu (the main island) through the Makogai Channel toward Vanua Levu and Namena Reef. The weather was rainy, and the seas were choppy. The boat rocked enough to dump things off of countertops. Fortunately, our stomachs were up to the challenge (thank, Bonine). The next morning it was calm, and we did a check out dive – ostensibly to check how much weight we needed, but, I suspect, more to let the crew verify that no one was going to be a hazard to himself or others. That went smoothly, and we quickly settled into our routine.
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Our typical Island Dancer day went as follows: Up at 6:30 a.m. for pre-breakfast (e.g. yogurt, fruit, cereal), first dive at 7:30, breakfast of eggs or French toast at 9:00, second dive at 10:30, lunch at noon, third dive at 2:00 p.m., snack at 3:30, fourth dive at 4:30, dinner at 6:00, fifth dive (night dive) at 8:15, have a glass of wine at 9:30, and then sleep. In short, dive, eat, and sleep. In the background were gorgeous lush islands, lovely sunsets, and usually a mild tropical breeze. The water and air were both mostly in the low eighties. What could be more fun?13 12 31_5910_edited-1

OK, not everything was perfect. The visibility was disappointing. It ranged from a best of about 50 feet down to 20 or so – far from the 80-100 feet we were expecting. The captain said at one point it was as bad as he’d seen it in many years of diving the area. He said a tropical depression shortly before we arrived was responsible. So, that was unlucky. We were also initially struck that there were significant areas of the reefs bleached white with not a lot of animal life. There were fewer big animals (big fish, turtles, rays) than we had hoped. At least one person saw a manta ray, but we did not.

But still, there was a great deal to see. A typical site involved a pinnacle (that is, a column), of coral rising from the sand perhaps 50 feet. The top layer would generally be about 15 feet below the surface, and would have an enormous profusion of soft and hard coral, anemones, and thousands of tropical fish. With so many textures and colors, the coral looked in places like a fantastic garden – amazingly beautiful.
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Along with the fish, we saw quite a few other interesting and strange small creatures, including various kinds of nudibranchs, flat worms, sea horses, tiny shrimp, pipe fish, blennies, and others still more obscure. There were a few turtles, and a couple of moray eels. One morning we watched a banded sea snake (highly poisonous) swimming for several minutes, and a very well-disguised octopus, who changed disguises a couple of more times. On one night dive we saw three leaf scorpionfish and a giant clam at least four feet across.
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The fourth day in, off of Gau (pronounced Now) Island, we did two shark dives, where we saw dozens of gray reef sharks close up. With them were many red sea bass and smaller fish, as well as schools of barracuda. On the first dive we held in current behind a rock wall, while the sharks came in for fish heads. The second involved a drift dive in a fast current, with the sharks zooming in and out.
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On that second dive, I got low on air, and shared Sally’s with her extra second stage as we got pushed hard by the current to the exit point. It was a challenging situation, but we worked well together, as usual. We saw a spotted eagle ray during the safety stop.

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On the afternoon of the fourth day, we visited a little village on Gau island called Soma Soma. Our guide there told us that 114 people and 3 clans lived there. The people greeted us in a friendly way. Teenage boys were setting off fireworks with a palm cannon to celebrate the new year, and little kids were splashing in the water. We sampled kava, a watery drink made from soaking kava root. Supposedly it can produce a high, but I got only slight numbness in my mouth. The villagers did some singing and dancing, and got some of us to join in a dance.
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My Sea Life underwater camera quit working (wouldn’t turn on) after the second day of diving, and so I rented a little Canon G15 camera from the boat. Lacking a strobe, I used my Sola flash light for extra light, which was suboptimal. My photographic aspirations were simple, really – to get a few images that started to convey the incredible beauty down there – but it was still hard to do.

There were so many great shots that got away. A beautiful angelfish would present itself in all its splendor, and either the camera had gone to sleep, or wouldn’t focus. Or in the half second shutter lag interval, the fish would turn away, or another fish would swim between us, or another diver’s bubbles would mess things up. Then, after the shot, the camera would take a few second to recycle, during which time the subject fish would again look gorgeous, but as soon as the camera was ready to go – so was the fish. Some of those little fish are shy! Anyhow, I tried, and I a few times I got an image I liked.
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Our trip back was a total of 41 hours, including layovers, but we made good use of the eleven-hour layover in L.A. with our first visit to the Getty Center. The logistics were a bit challenging, in that we couldn’t check our heavy dive bags and so had to cart them by cab and tram to the Getty’s coat check room, but it was worth it.

It is a wonderful museum! It’s perched on top of a hill, surrounded by gardens, with a good view of downtown L.A. It has several connected buildings, with a vibe that’s modern but evocative. The crowd was all ages, international, multiracial, and friendly.

And there was an outstanding collection of European art. We spent time looking at the excellent collection of paintings of Rembrandt and his contemporaries, and of the Impressionists and post-Impressionists. We also very much enjoyed the current exhibit of the works of Abelardo Morrell, a Cuban-American photographer. His works were highly conscious of texture and shape in a formal way, but also touched something emotionally powerful.

Ballet paintings, fossils, and a piano recital

Light on One’s Feet by Nicole White Kennedy

Last Thursday Sally and I had lunch at the Remedy Diner, where my sandwich was the Tempeh Tantrum, then went to a gallery to to look at paintings by Nicole White Kennedy. Kennedy, a local artist, paints in an Impressionist/Post Impressionist style that I once thought of as old hat. My early art education stressed the triumph of modernism and abstraction. But over the years I’ve really enjoyed Kennedy’s landscapes and cityscapes in her husband’s fine Italian restaurant, Caffe Luna. I’ve gradually gotten past my prejudice in favor of the modernist aesthetic. Artists show us multiple ways to see the world, and it’s fun to try different ones.

Anyhow, I was intrigued to learn that Kennedy had worked up a show of works featuring dancers from the Carolina Ballet. We really liked the show. No doubt it helped that we came to it as balletomanes, and that we could recognize some of our favorite ballerinas. But she unquestionably had a feel for the interiors and exteriors of the dancers and their work places.

I was conscious that the works owed a debt to Degas, both in their behind-the-scenes intimacy and the juxtaposition of ethereal sweetness and stark angularity, but I didn’t find this bothersome. Artists always borrow ideas from other artists and build on them, just like scientists and inventors. We were particularly touched by the paintings above and just below, and bought them.

Dancer Removing Turquoise Points by NWK

The next day I flew up to DC for a gathering at the Supreme Court in honor of my old friend Justice Elena Kagan, which was highly nostalgic and which I will try to write about soon. But as post-election therapy, I’m focusing just now on art. With my free morning I sampled the Smithsonian museums, which always make me proud and happy to live in the USA.


First I visited some of my favorite works at the National Gallery. These included the Rembrandts and other Dutch masters, including especially the two exquisite Vermeers, as well as the French Impressionists. Still thinking about dancers and art, I paid particular attention to the Degas paintings and sculptures of dancers. He clearly loved the subject, and it touched me. But I must say, his dancers are not as lithe and athletic as the Carolna Ballet ones.

Next, I walked down the Mall to the Museum of Natural History. As always, I enjoyed looking at the dinosaur fossils, but I wanted to have a close look at the trilobites, which are much much older than dinosaurs.

Trilobites were marine arthropods that began their run around 520 million years ago. They developed an amazing variety of body types during the 270 million years (give or take) that preceded their extinction. RIP. Nature has done a lot of amazing experiments!

I returned to Raleigh on Sunday afternoon in time to go to the recital of my piano teacher, Olga Kleiankina. Her program, like her, was Russian: Alexandr Scriabin (1872-1915), Nikolai Medtner (1880-1951), and Sergai Rachmaninoff (1973-43). She played brilliantly. She’d told me a couple of weeks ago that she was struggling with memorizing the Medtner piece (the Tempest Sonata), and I was feeling a little anxious for her, but she seemed completely in command. The piece was very dense, and at first I was a bit bewildered, but then I got my bearings. I particularly enjoyed the Scriabin Black Mass sonata. From our work together, I know how intensely she focuses on sound colors, and now that I’ve learned to hear some of those things, the music took on a new dimension.

There was a good piece on the Sunday NY Times about the sense of hearing, and the difference between hearing and listening. According to Seth Horowitz, we react to auditory signals 10 times faster than visual ones. Hearing is an early warning system, among other things. He notes that close listening is hard in a world where there are endless distractions, but that we can get better at it. I concur.

Discovering Amsterdam

Last week I went to Amsterdam for the Free Software Foundation–Europe legal conference, and got in a bit of sightseeing as well. Sally and I stayed in the Krasnapolsky, a large, older hotel within walking distance of the railroad station, museums and several interesting neighborhoods.

Amsterdam is lovely city. Its row houses, streets, and canals are an ensemble that suggests a real community, with shared values and history. It seems well-organized and clean. But very lively! We’d heard that there were more bikes than cars, which is true, but hadn’t realized that heavy bike traffic can be hazardous to pedestrians. We had some close calls, and I eventually began to start at tinkling bicycle bells as though they were blaring car horns.

We found the Dutch to be polite and helpful, though reserved with strangers. Almost no one asked us where we were from, which was nice, in a way. They seemed lively and affectionate with their friends. Everyone we dealt with spoke English at least adequately, and many were absolutely colloquial. Sally noted that from our street level few, there was little interest in fashionable dressing, with most dressed in a casual, comfortable way. There were fewer overweight people — perhaps because of all the bicycling.

We were particularly eager to see the Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum. The VG was quite crowded, but the collection of VVG’s art was spectacular. There were also great impressionist works by Monet, Pissaro, and others, which put VVG in context. I also enjoyed an exhibit of fin de siècle print making, which had some of the great work of Toulouse-Lautrec, one of my great favorites.

The Rijksmuseum is undergoing renovations, but fortunately there was a substantial exhibition of its masterpieces from the 17th Century. The high point for me was Vermeer’s The Milkmaid. I’d seen it three years ago as part of a traveling exhibit in New York, and was overjoyed to see it again. She’s so quiet, entirely in her own dreamlike world. Yet she and the scene are somehow full and complete.

I also especially loved this still life by Willem Claesz Hedda. The realism of detail is astonishing. Looking hard at such paintings makes you wonder what you might see if you looked at everyday objects harder.

There were several great Rembrandts. Also, I was particularly moved by this portrait of a young Rembrandt by Jan Lievens, with whom he shared a studio early in his career. A youth with a bright future!

We enjoyed walking by the canals and squares, through the old Nine Streets district, the theatre district, and the Jordaan shopping area. We also had fun visiting the famous red light district. I’d imagined it would be at least a bit seamy and sinister, but not really. Yes, there were prostitutes in bikinis displayed in windows (some quite beautiful), porno theaters, and shops of sex paraphernalia, but also many cafes, bars, and restaurants. There were large crowds of cheerful people promenading. We had some delicious Thai food.