The Casual Blog

Tag: Vermeer

In New York with my kids, and a Snap Pea dinner in Raleigh

St. Patrick's Cathedral from the 35th floor of the New York Palace

St. Patrick’s Cathedral from the 35th floor of the New York Palace

After the Softer Freedom Law Center conference on Friday, I grabbed a cab and headed downtown. The plan was to meet up with Gabe, Jocelyn, and J’s friend Kyle for Italian food and then some jazz. I allowed an hour for the trip from Columbia (116th St.) to the West Village, but the traffic was epically bad, and the trip took almost two hours.

My cabbie was a compulsive talker, and he really wanted to talk about Trump. Out of desperation for another subject – any subject — I started asking him about himself, and learned about his upbringing in Ecuador, his work as a commercial printer with diminishing opportunities as those jobs moved abroad, and his plans to move to California. I ended up liking him.

Olio e Piu, a fine Italian restaurant on Greenwich Ave., was crowded, but they quickly got us a table. My ravioli al funghi was to die for. Afterwards, we walked over to the legendary Village Vanguard and listened to a quartet led by the pianist Enrico Pieranunzi.

Pieranunzi had the elegant pointillism of Bill Evans joined with the percussive emotionality of McCoy Tyner. His original charts were both engaging and bold, and three bandmates were excellent. I particularly loved drummer Clarence Penn, who was a hard-driving yet subtle polyrhythmist with a huge smile, and tenor Seamus Blake channelled the smoldering intensity of John Coltrane. I couldn’t find any online recordings of this current group, but here’s a sample of Pieranunzi’s playing.

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On Saturday afternoon Gabe and I went to the Frick. Since he’s well along in his graphic design program at Parsons, he’s got a high level of visual sophistication, but he hadn’t yet experienced the world class collection of old masters there. It was fun sharing some of my favorite paintings, including the Vermeers and Rembrandts. We had an espresso afterwards, and then he headed downtown to do some studio work, and I walked over to the Met Breuer.

There, I had my second close encounter with the fantastic Diane Arbus exhibit (leaving Nov. 27), and my first with the paintings of Kerry James Marshall. These included some very large-scale works with a lot of painterly quotes, references and influences, with most of the works prominently depicting black people.

Marshall’s art is political in a vital sense: it makes visible previously hidden social forces and assumptions that limit us. Marshall points up that blackness is normal and part of us, but black people have been largely excluded from the paintings in our museums. The implications of this are interesting. His black people as really black – darker than any American with African ancestors that I’ve ever seen. That seemed to be part of his playfulness, but it was also provocative.

A view of St. Pat's from the hotel gym.

A view of St. Pat’s from the hotel gym.

Afer that, I walked over to the main Met to check out the work of Max Beckmann. He’s generally thought of as an Expressionist, though he rejected that label. His best work has the psychological depth and penetration of Picasso. Some of it was dark and macabre, but there were also elements of humor. I liked it. I also spent some time with the pre-Columbian collection and a small current exhibit of Native American work.

That evening, Jocelyn and I ate at Rosa Mexicana on Columbus and 61st, where they made guacamole at the table and served fantastic vegetarian hongo tacos. It was just across the street from Lincoln Center, and so we were confident that we’d get to the opera on time. I was very excited about seeing Rossini’s L’Italiani in Algerie, which I’d prepped for with a recording from Spotify. But it was canceled. New York’s Finest were there in force when we arrived. Apparently there was a scare having to do with a patron throwing some brown substance (possibly human remains) into the orchestra pit.
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Jocelyn proposed a Plan B, which was to go to a Jazz at Lincoln Center concert: Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks. We got in to the 9:30 show off the waiting list. The band was some 14 ace musicians who recreated the hot jazz of the 1920s with passion and erudition. Vince G played tuba, string bass, and bass sax, and sang a bit as well. It was delightful, toe-tapping fun!musicians

On Sunday, my flight back to Raleigh went smoothly. That evening, we went to our first pop-up dinner by Snap Pea with our friends Gerry and Gay. The Snappea dinners are multi-course vegetarian events held in surprise venues (revealed only hours before) with food created around a theme paired with the physical space.

Jacob Boehm, the owner and executive chef, was inspired by an abstract mural gracing an otherwise vacant shop in North Hills Mall, and used different colors for the 9 courses. As each course came out, he told the group about where the ingredients came from and what he’d done with them. He helped you taste more. I especially liked the spoonbread with turmeric butter and the chestnut soup. Jacob explained that the reason he did not use meat in these dinners was for him not premised on animals rights or health, but rather because using plants inspired more interesting experimental cooking and tasting.

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.

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.

Accommodations

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.

Food

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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Art

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.
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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.

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.

Thanksgiving in New York

There’s just something electric about New York City! Flying in last Wednesday, I passed close to the Statue of Liberty. Liberty! Then the splendid dense verticality lower Manhattan, and the gleaming skyscraping icons of midtown. It’s Oz!

The original plan for the Tiller clan to meet up for an urban Thanksgiving got off to a rocky start because Stuart, our dog, appeared to be dying. He threw up all over the apartment for a couple of days, and then spent several days in the animal hospital unable to eat. Exploratory abdominal surgery failed to yield a clear diagnosis, but made him weaker still. The day before we were scheduled to leave for NYC, Sally declared she couldn’t stand the thought of his being miserable and alone at the end. He’d been a beloved friend to us for eight years. So she decided to bring him home for hospice care. She urged me to proceed with the plan to meet the kids, who were already there, and so I headed north, with mixed feelings. (P.S. Stuart started improving the day after Sally brought him home and is still with us, frail but looking perkier every day.)

Wednesday afternoon I rendezvoused with Gabe and Jocelyn at the Hotel @ Times Square, a modestly priced (by NYC standards) but clean establishment at a great midtown location. Jocelyn was just back from two months backpacking in Columbia, Ecuador, and Peru, and I was delighted and relieved to see her. Not a day went by during her trip when I didn’t worry about her being kidnapped or worse. She seemed very chipper and glad to be back to the land of flush toilets and hot showers. Gabe came in from Colorado looking handsome, hale and hearty.

I was so glad to see them, and so glad to be back in NYC! When I lived there in my twenties, I could ordinarily not afford taxis, and it was satisfying to take many cab rides with the kids to share some of my favorite places. We went to the Metropolitan Museum and I introduced them to some of my favorite paintings, including the Vermeers. We checked out the amazing holiday windows in the shops on Fifth Avenue, and maneuvered through the mobs of people at Times Square.

On Thanksgiving morning, we’d planned to go to the Macy’s parade, which was passing just a block and a half to the west, but Jocelyn’s left eye was hurting badly, possibly from an infection. We watched a couple of big balloons (including Horton) go by, and then we went looking for medical care. With my iPhone I located an urgent care clinic close by, but it was closed, and the next one we tried was closed as well. We ended up in the emergency room of NYU Bellevue. I expected an endless wait, but it was not so bad. They got us in and out in a couple of hours, and Jocelyn started to feel better soon after.

For Thanksgiving dinner, we went to the upper west side and shared a fine meal with Sally’s brother Bill, his wife Mary Jane, and their daughter Carmen. Everyone was in high spirits, and I was most grateful that they provided delicious non-meat food. Bill was eager to hear more of Jocelyn’s South American journey, and she had some good stories of jungle adventures with snakes and spiders and marathon bus rides. Carmen, now thirteen, seemed amazingly grown up and well spoken. She’d just applied to an arts high school for both acting and piano performance, and played her audition piece, a Haydn sonata.

On Friday, we got a personal tour of the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange and ate lunch in Chinatown. Late that afternoon, Gabe and I went to the Museum of Modern Art. Gabe was interested in Picasso and Van Gogh, and I never get tired of them. I also spent some time with the J. Pollocks. The big big drip painting finally clicked for me (goose bumps). We met Jocelyn and her friend Pam at a little Italian restaurant on the east side. Pam is an art world person and aspiring critic, and amazingly articulate, warm, and friendly. Gabe mentioned Andy Warhol, and it turned out Pam had some dense but fascinating ideas about him.

On Saturday afternoon, I took the kids to their first live opera at the Met, where we saw Carmen with Elina Garanca in the title role. She was smoking hot! Everything was truly wonderful — singing, sets, costumes, orchestra. And the story is still a bloody shocker. I was a little worried beforehand that the kids might not like it, which, especially in view of the ticket prices, would have been a bummer, but was not — they enjoyed it.

Gabe and Jocelyn had an early flight to Colorado on Sunday, so I was on my own for the last day. I went back to the Met in the morning and spent some time with the Greek and Roman antiquities, looked in on an exhibit of the work of Jan Gossart (Dutch Renaissance), and looked in again at the beloved Vermeers. Then I went to Lincoln Center to see the City Ballet’s Nutcracker.

After many Nutcrackers, I thought I was pretty much nutcrackered out for life, but it turned out not. Somehow it hit the sweet spot of pure joy and wonder. The dancing was delightful, the stagecraft was impressive, and the orchestra sounded great. The child dancers had more-than-usual charisma. Jennifer Ringer as the Sugarplum Fairy seemed a little flat at first, but was gorgeous in the pas de deux. Ashley Bouder was an exquisite Dew Drop. A few weeks earlier I’d ordered a piano version of the Tchaikovsky score and played through parts of it for fun, so I was particularly attentive to the music. It is a masterpiece.

After the ballet, I took a cab to 46th and 12th and visited the aircraft carrier Intrepid, the submarine Growler, and the Concorde. Impressive machines! The Intrepid is a proud veteran of WWII that played a significant role in the Pacific theater and survived some kamikaze hits. The sun was setting at the end of my tour, and the view of Manhattan was beautiful.

Taxis and Vermeer

When I first arrived in New York right after college, it didn’t bother me that I had barely enough money to share a tenement apartment and eat.  It was just so great to be in the city.  I loved epic scale   — all that glass, all that steel, all that concrete.  All those details — sooty buildings with gargoyles.  The contrasts —  suspension bridges, Central Park.  The super charged energy of New Yorkers, with many ethnicities, languages, accents, customs, gestures, styles.   So many, so much.

I continued to feel that way about New York, and still do.  But by the time I left to go to law school five years later, I’d grown tired of being (relatively speaking) poor.  It wasn’t that I desired any particular worldly goods.  My ambitions involved freedom of movement.  I was tired of running for and missing the subway, and waiting on a lonely platform, or squeezing into a crowded car.  My great fantasy was to take a cab whenever I wanted, and never to look at the meter with anxiety.

Last week I had some great cab rides when I was in the city for two nights.  Catching them was as easy as in a dream:  one appeared almost every time I got ready to raise an arm.   Going up Broadway and down Fifth, up Madison and over on 59th.  The teeming pedestrians —  all ages, colors, and clothing styles.  I was briefly fascinated, then annoyed, by televisions in the cabs, and learned how to turn them off.    Many cabs, wonderfully, now take credit cards.

I was tightly scheduled with meetings, but managed to carve one hour free to see the Vermeer exhibit at the Met.  The centerpiece is The Milkmaid, loaned for the exhibit by the Rijksmuseum.  It was a subtle and powerful work.  The subject is as common as possible — a servant pouring milk into a bowl.  As in other great Vermeer portraits, the light seems natural at first; the impossible vividness of it becomes noticeable only gradually.  There is a hyper realism to the scene, and at the same time a dreamlike quality.

I disagreed with some of  Peter Schjehdahl’s review in the New Yorker, who argued that The Milkmaid did not deserve to be placed in such a position of honor in Vermeer’s oeuvre.  For me, it was worth much more than a cab ride, and perhaps even a trans-Atlantic flight.  But Schjehdahl reminded me that Vermeer, perhaps more than any of the Dutch masters, changes our perceptions of ordinary life.  After gazing at The Milkmaid, I was reminded that there was much more to see in everyday life than we normally notice.  Even within the commonplace, hiding in plain sight, is otherworldly beauty.  Thanks, V.