Archive for June, 2008


Friday, June 20th, 2008

Oslo is further north than anywhere I have ever been. Quite a contrast from the feeling in Paris, where it is hard to believe I woke up just this morning. Today my friend Manuela took me to Vigeland State Park to see the sculptures by Gustav Vigeland. It is one of the world’s great wonders – hundreds of sculptures of men, women and children, powerful, personal and utterly unsentimental – all aspects of the human condition in all its subtle beauty and dignity, naked and up close.

As the day goes on here, evening slowly falls, but it never does become night; the Norwegian sky never actually goes completely dark this time of year. Wandering around at 11:30pm with my friends, I find the party hasn’t even really begun yet in this town. People are just starting to pour out into the streets, and the music is only beginning to play.

It seems I got here just in time. At midnight begins the longest day of the year in Norway. And that is saying a lot, considering just how long the days can get. They mark the summer solstice here with all-day celebrations, and outside now I can hear things starting to heat up as the longest day begins.

I’m looking forward to it.

Un coup de fils

Thursday, June 19th, 2008

It is not often that I get a chance to really appreciate the beauty of another language at work. Last night, while I was having dinner in a Paris restaurant with my friend Henri, I noticed the headline on his newspaper:

L’ascension de Jean Sarkozy, simple comme un coup de fils

I realized that it had something to do with election to political office of the President’s son, which I had heard about, but there seemed to be something more going on. Henri explained that it was a clever pun that was quite specific to the French language.

First you need to know that Jean Sarkozy, at the tender age of 21, was recently elected to the office of Regional Manager in the very city where his father had once upon a time been Mayor – and had thereby begun his own gradual ascent to the Presidency of France.

In the wake of this surprising electoral victory, there have been dark murmurings of behind-the-scenes political influence, of presidential meddling in a local election. The headline neatly captured this mood. Taken literally, it reads:

The ascension of Jean Sarkozy, simple as a victory of a son.

But the phrase “coup de fils” – taking the word “fils” to mean “lines” (as in telephone lines) – is a also an idiom that means “phone call”. So the headline can also be read:

The ascension of Jean Sarkozy, simple as a phone call.

Isn’t that beautiful? Sigh.

Can anyone think of any puns in English that rise to this level of inspired wit?

Crossing oceans

Wednesday, June 18th, 2008

The fourteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1868. Here is the exact wording of the first section of that amendment:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

On June 18, 1873 – exactly 135 years ago today – Susan B. Anthony was fined $100 for attempting to vote in the 1872 presidential election. Her defense was that she was protected under the fourteenth amendment of the Constitution (what do you think?). She lost the case, but there was a silver lining: The judgement against her had roughly the same positive effect that being banned by the Pope had on the films of Monty Python. That court case may well have been the definitive turning point in the struggle for the right of U.S. women to vote.

On June 18, 1928 – exactly 80 years ago today – Amelia Earhart became the first woman to cross the Atlantic Ocean by air. And of course four years later she made history by flying across the Atlantic solo.

On June 18, 1983 – exactly 25 years ago today – Sally Ride became the first American woman to travel into outer space.

June 18 seems to be a very auspicious day for crossing oceans, don’t you think?

Travel stories

Tuesday, June 17th, 2008

Took a lovely train ride from Amsterdam today, straight through Brussels and on to Paris. Then met up in the evening with some friends on Rue Bourg Tibourg near the Hotel de Ville for good wine and conversation. We were all, coincidentally, passing through Paris for perhaps a day or two. Inevitably the subject turned to the traditional swapping of outrageous travel stories. Mine was about my old friend and colleague Ken Musgrave, one of my favorite people.

Some years ago I helped arrange for some colleagues in Rio to invite Ken down to speak at a conference there. I, unfortunately, had to bow out due to a schedule conflict, but I assured his hosts that not only was Ken awesomely brilliant (his computer generated fractal landscapes are incomparably beautiful), but that he was also singularly entertaining and great fun to have around.

The moment Ken got to Rio he proceeded to prove me correct in a big way. He quickly discovered the Brazillian drink cachaça. Cachaça is to Brazil and sugar cane what tequilla is to Mexico and cactus. There are literally hundreds of varieties, both high quality and not. Most of them not.

Ken apparently conducted nightly marathon tours of the bars of Rio, in search of the perfect cachaça, with delighted and progressively more stewed colleagues in tow. I heard afterward that these nights would end only when – well actually, nobody could seem to remember exactly when or how they ended.

Some people can blend in when they go to Rio, but Ken is not one of those people. He is a big bear of a guy who has clearly had Viking ancestors somewhere in his family tree. When he gets some sun, his face doesn’t so much tan as turn a bright cheery red, as though he’s been spending the day blowing up party balloons. With his mane and beard of fiery red hair and his penchant for festive Hawaiian shirts, Ken is the very antithesis of “blending in”.

Which goes some way to explain his favorite moment of that week down in Rio, which I relate here pretty much as Ken told it to me.

Copacabana Beach is connected to the Rio Sul shopping center by a long tunnel. Almost the entire width of this tunnel is devoted to automobile traffic, but around each of the two sides there is just enough room for one narrow lane of pedestrian traffic.

The way Ken told it, he was making his way through the tunnel, ambling obliviously along the narrow pedestrian walkway on his way from beach to shopping mall, when he suddenly saw a lovely young Brazillian girl, perhaps around seventeen, with flashing black eyes, long flowing dark hair, and gently swaying hips, coming toward him from the other direction. She was looking right into his eyes, and as they got closer he found himself mesmerized, drowning in her beautiful dark gaze.

As she passed, he turned sideways and leaned back against the tunnel wall to give her room to get by. According to Ken, the girl then turned so that she was facing away from him, and firmly pressed her body back against his, while each of her hands grabbed one of his wrists and held them against the tunnel wall. As he stood there, transfixed, an entire swarm emerged – seemingly out of nowhere – of teenage girls, who proceeded to run their hands through his pockets, lifting anything they could find. Before he knew it, they had all run off, taking with them the equivalent of $35 U.S. in Brazillian real currency that he’d been carrying in his pockets.

The way Ken tells it, he spent much of the rest of the week walking up and down that tunnel, another $35 worth of reais in his pocket. But sadly, he told me, they never came back.

Beautiful creatures

Monday, June 16th, 2008

It’s hard to think of monster movies in the last several decades without the towering influence of Stan Winston, who has just passed away after a long illness. And it is inspiring to think that a single individual created so much movie magic. Aliens, Predator, Edward Scissorhands, Jurassic Park, The Terminator, these are names that conjure a very specific kind of vision. And the link between them, whether Burton or Cameron or Spielberg was at the helm, was Stan Winston.

We have now decisively entered a digital age of perpetual visual one-upmanship, where computer graphic effects allow our movie monsters to break free of all laws of physics, from slinking Gollums to swinging Spidermen to bounding Hulks. It’s all very impressive, yet somehow, on a subliminal level, we know that the creatures we see before us are merely things of light and shadow.

Winston’s creatures were different. He was the final hold-out, Hollywood’s last bridge to an older world, to King Kong and the films of Ray Harryhausen. Winston’s creatures have an old fashioned physicality to them, a pre-digital specificity that gets under your skin. For all their dark gleam, they share a quality that is, in its way, almost Victorian.

As odd as it seems, we are drawn to Burton’s Edward Scissorhands, Cameron’s Alien, and Spielberg’s Tyrannosaurus Rex in similar ways. There is a reason great directors have sought him out for film after film. All of his creatures share an existential burden, which on some level we recognize, and which is missing from even the most skillfully rendered of digital beings. His creatures, finding themselves in a world of uncomprehending humans, seem simultaneously lovely and monstrous, awkwardly physical. This feeling is familiar because it is the way we all felt as small children, exhilarated yet embarrassed to find ourselves inhabiting these strange bodies.

Winston’s creations, even his fiercest monsters, consistently convey an undertone of vulnerable awkwardness. We care about them because we are able to see the world through their eyes. They are not merely the Other, the thing lurking in the closet or hiding under the bed. They are also, somehow, us.

Your tree is ready

Sunday, June 15th, 2008

There’s an old saying that the difference between an American and a European is that a European thinks that 100 miles is a long distance, whereas an American thinks that 100 years is a long time. Today, in a conversation with some fellow Americans all finding ourselves temporarily on the other side of the Atlantic, the topic turned to differences in how time is viewed between the U.S. and Europe.

I told of the time I had gone to a conference at the in Chateau de Bloire, and was invited to dinner at the nearby chateau of a colleague (people seem to live in old castles in Europe a lot more than they do in the U.S. – maybe because we don’t have any). The thing that impressed me the most was the big barn/stables out back. The oldest part of the estate, the barn had been standing for about 800 years. The walls between the giant beams holding it up were made of a kind of mixture of caked mud and straw. My host pointed to a place where, before the mud was completely set, teenagers had carved their names and whatnot, and I realized that I was looking at 800 year old graffiti. As a native New Yorker, who thinks of “old graffiti” as something measured in mere decades, I felt a kind of awe.

The conversation drifted, naturally enough, onto the topic of giant beams. My friend Michael Gleicher told a wonderful anecdote about a college in Cambridge University – perhaps it was King’s College – where one of the old houses was held up by a single massive wooden beam, supported by smaller beams. It seems that after seven hundred years of faithful service the great beam was finally starting to rot out. Those responsible at the college realized it would need to be replaced in a few years time, lest the building itself eventually collapse.

But there was a problem: The house had been built back in a time when England was still verdant and covered with magnificent forests, and a tree from which to carve such a beam had been easy to find. Now, of course, things were very different. So the way Michael had heard it, the Cambridge dons turned for advice to the British Forestry Commission. The foresters told them “Your tree is ready.”

It seems that seven hundred years earlier, somebody had realized that this day would come. In preparation, a tree had been planted.


Saturday, June 14th, 2008

Today I am in the city of Utrecht. A hop, skip and a jump from home – a flight to Amsterdam, followed by a short hop on a train. I suppose that’s more of a jump and a hop, isn’t it? The image shows the canal, the part of the city where I had dinner this evening with some friends. The old canal dates back to Medieval times, when it served as a moat to protect the Dutch against us foreigners.


A certain quality of the Dutch comes across very clearly the moment you arrive. The people are friendly, cheerful and efficient, while the streets, buildings and interiors are clean, sturdy and well made, like the Dutch psyche. There seems to be a complete absence of any tone of romantic moodiness (van Gogh was a notable exception).

I am struck by the contrast between this place and almost all places I have visited in more equatorial climes, where the blood seems to run far hotter in peoples’ veins. I remember once, after coming back home from a visit to Sicily, remarking to a Sicilian colleague in New York how friendly everyone had seemed. “Yes,” he replied with a rueful look, “Sicilians are either the friendliest people in the world – or exactly the opposite.” As he spoke, I could almost hear the ominous and melancholy strains of Nino Rota’s theme for The Godfather.

You don’t seem to get much of that here. The Netherlands is a place you could raise your kids safely, and keep a house without fear of crime or other disaster. But it doesn’t seem like the sort of place where you’d want to rent that candle-lit garret walk-up, drown your heart’s dark torment in absynthe, and compose mad feverish odes to the agonies and ecstasies of Love Unrequited.

And the beginning of Central Park

Friday, June 13th, 2008

This morning, in the midst of my mad dash to get things done before boarding a flight to Europe, I managed to race over to the Old Arsenal at 64th St. and 5th Avenue, where they have, on exhibit – for only the third time in the 150 years since its creation – Central Park’s original map – the winning entry by Olmsted and Vaux in a competition to design the park (seen here turned on its side).

The park today hews remarkably closely to that brilliant original plan. There are a few differences – what was to be a floral garden is now the Conservatory Pond, and the Great Lawn was a later edition – but the essential vision was all there in the original.

A vast and lovely oasis in the heart of some of the most densely packed and fought over real estate in the world, it is not just the beauty of our park that is so striking, but its philosophy as well. Rather than make a park reserved for use only by the wealthy few (which was the standard at the time) the city planners had the great temerity to commission a park that would, from the ground up, be designed for everyone to enjoy.

I am incredibly proud I to live in a city that had the foresight to make a “people’s park” 150 years ago, when most of the Western world’s cities were still taking a far more elitist view.

The end of the universe

Thursday, June 12th, 2008

This evening I was at dinner with some friends, one of whom talked about dealing with her five year old daughter’s reaction when their dog died. The topic turned to what such finality might mean to a five year old.

We started sharing different stories on the topic, and I told my friends that my grandfather had died when I was almost five, and that I could remember walking along a country road at my parents’ summer place right after he died, thinking about what it might mean to die. I still remember my thoughts at that moment very clearly. I realized that my grandfather no longer existed. I didn’t think of him as being in heaven, but rather as being in the past – except within my memories. My next thought was the realization that this would happen to me one day.

I remember wondering what, if anything, it would mean for other people to continue to exist after the point of my death. I thought to myself that in a sense the moment of my death would be, as far as I was concerned, the end of the universe, and so maybe it wouldn’t matter what happened after that. After all, it’s not as though I would care anymore about that or about anything else.

Looking back on this now, I am amazed by the self-centered thinking of the little kid that I was, but I guess that is the point of view of a five year old. Is that what religion is for? To protect us all from our ruthless little inner five year olds?

Somebody needs a talking to

Wednesday, June 11th, 2008

Today I am visiting my parents. They get The Wall Street Journal, and I saw that it had a story today on the front page entitled “When Dogs and Robots Collide, Somebody Needs a Talking To”. The gist of the story is that pets get upset at robotic entities like the Roomba vacuum cleaner, or the Pleo, a robotic toy dinosaur (by the same guy who made the Ferbie!). There was much discussion about how people convince their animal companions that these electronic contraptions are not actually threats. The lead story was about a man whose dog, apparently feeling threatened by his Roomba, kept attacking it. The man, following advice in an on-line forum, made a deliberate show of chastising his Roomba in front of the dog, and saying “Bad Roomba!” Which apparently did the trick.

There was some weird stuff in the article about people deliberately bringing strange robotic gadgets into their homes just so they could film their dogs and cats freaking out in fear or anger, and then post the results on YouTube. I found that to be really creepy. I wonder whether these people dress up in monster suits and lie in wait for their kids to come home from school so they can chase the terrified little tykes around the house and then amuse themselves by continuing to make scary noises while their traumatized children huddle, quivering and sobbing in abject terror, in the bedroom closet. Well, to give them the benefit of the doubt, I’m sure these folks would only do such a thing if it would make a good YouTube video.

But what really threw me for a loop was the last anecdote of the article. Have you ever had an experience where you’re reading about something, you’re telling yourself that there are multiple sides to every issue, and that you’re ok with that, and suddenly you realize that what you are reading is just completely and utterly looney tunes? Well, that’s kind of what happened here. After yet another story about a dog trying to adjust to a robotic Pleo toy, here’s what I read next:

Another Pleo owner, Maggie Spencer, has gone as far as to broach the idea of robot-to-robot interaction with her Roomba.

She showed the Pleo, named Linus, the vacuum in its turned-off state and warned Linus that the cleaner would make noise when it started up. “When the Roomba hit him, he was fine,” says Ms. Spencer, a Harrisburg, PA., psychotherapist. “I raise him like I did any other pet, not to be afraid of things.”

Well, I have to say that reading something like that makes me very afraid. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that this person is a psychotherapist. And I am left wondering whether the author of the article knew that this last anecdote speaks to an entirely different issue – one that is, on several levels, deeply disturbing. In any case, as the title of the article said: Somebody needs a talking to.