29 August 2005

The Bicycle Thief

Let's say it's maybe 1947 and your country lost the war, and you're poor as hell, and it's been more than a year since you've had a job. You've got a wife and a young son (he's maybe ten years old and works in a gas station) and a baby at home, and not that long ago you had to pawn your bicycle so your family could eat.

Then, out of despair, hope: you're offered a job putting up posters. But you need a bicycle to get this job. So you and your wife pawn your bedsheets to get your bicycle back. You start your new job, which you're not terribly good at, but maybe you'll improve, and before the end of your first day, your bicycle is stolen.

Can things get worse? They can. You can search all over Rome for the bicycle, not find it, then confront the thief, but be unable to prove it's him. You can turn into a bicycle thief yourself, out of desperation, and be caught by a mob, shamed before the eyes of your young son.

If a picture of misery can be beautiful, then this is it. The Bicycle Thief was directed by Vittorio di Sica.

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26 August 2005

New Yorker Festival, Coming Soon

The 5th New Yorker Festival will be held in a few weeks and yesterday at noon tickets went on sale. I was psyched to buy tickets for readings by Michael Chabon and Stephen King, but I guess a lot of other people were, too. Though I was at my laptop at 12 sharp, I couldn’t manage to make a successful purchase. A message said tickets were not available. Same problem with tickets for the special screening of Nick Park’s new Wallace and Gromit feature. So after several attempts I got tickets for other events and then waited an hour to try again.

You can guess what happened then. SOLD OUT! Boy was I bummed.

But not TOO bummed. After all, I have tickets to see Edward P. Jones and Marilynne Robinson, Richard Dawkins, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and a panel of smart people remembering Auden. And we have tickets to see Twyla Tharp’s Movin’ Out on Broadway the same weekend.

I love going to NYC as a tourist.

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25 August 2005

Just Read: The Coffee Trader

This novel by David Liss was a quick read. It takes place in Amsterdam in the 17th century, during the birth and early childhood of corporations, stock exchanges, and futures trading. The protagonist is a commodities trader named Miguel Lienzo, of Portuguese Jewish extraction, who is in the process of recovering from a financial disaster and soon grows to hope that trading in the little known new commodity called coffee will make his fortune. There are a variety of intrigues that keep you turning pages, and plenty of interesting tidbits about the little-known culture of the “hidden Jews” of Portugal (in previous centuries many Iberian Jews had become Catholics to avoid execution by the Inquisition; many of these conversos privately maintained their Judaism as best they could while adhering to the forms of Christianity in public), the position of women, and the cosmopolitan culture of Amsterdam at that time.

The writing is mostly efficient, with occasional infelicities. But this is not a novel to read for the pleasure of its prose; in The Coffee Trader, the plot’s the thing.

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23 August 2005

A Resurrection

I first heard of the renaissance of Bryant Park years ago (the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation (BPRC) formed in 1980), but until today had not had an opportunity to experience it myself. I was delighted and bemused to find this civilized and calm oasis in the midst of the perennial midtown rush.

The park, on 42nd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, behind the iconic New York Public Library building, is no longer the disaster area I knew in the mid-70s and early 80s. When I was a kid in New York, Bryant Park was a place you didn’t go if you knew what was good for you. The “Park” part of its name was as empty of meaning as the “Hills” in “Forest Hills” (and the “Forest,” too, for that matter). It would have been more aptly called “Bryant Don’t-Go-in-There.” I am not sure what I thought was inside—probably muggers and drug pushers, the bogeymen of my childhood and adolescence.

Bryant Park was so much to be avoided that I remember walking past it (as I often did, on my way to and from the 7 train stop on 42nd between Fifth and Sixth Avenues) quickly, with my face averted. (A survival skill from a New York childhood: Never make eye contact with those you fear, or they’ll find out you’re scared.) I even remember having nightmares about it—the bogeymen reaching out for me through the iron fencing surrounding that bad place.

Since 1980, the BPRC has made a miraculous transformation. Stately avenues of London plane trees provide shade and thousands of little dark green folding chairs (like those in Paris’ Tuileries) are scattered throughout. There are a lovely fountain, attractive gardens, a lush expanse of lawn, and free wireless Internet access, attracting thousands of office workers during and outside the lunch hour. The park offers concert series, outdoor film screenings, and cultural programs. There are also restaurants, and multiple kiosks selling food, drink, and even flowers. Its excellent Web site provides information about its history, management, and events.

It is wonderful to see a public park developed and maintained with such care and thoughtfulness. Good parks are one of those things that make a city worth living in.

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22 August 2005

The Underneath

A remake of the 1949 noir Criss Cross, directed by Robert Siodmak (which I have not yet seen, though I’m adding it to my Netflix list), Steven Soderbergh's The Underneath is the story of Michael Chambers, a young man who returns home years after a sudden departure to escape gambling debts. His mother (Anjanette Comer) is about to marry an armored truck security guard, his brother keeps his distance, there’s tension around the dinner table, he finds out his former girlfriend, Rachel, is dating a thug…in other words, things start off pretty dark. And stay in dark territory, as Michael accepts his stepfather’s offer of a job at the armored truck company (alarming his brother, a policeman) and sets out to pursue Rachel.

Rachel at first rejects Michael’s overtures, telling him, “Don’t call me, don’t talk to me,” but when he takes her at her word, she starts pursuing him in turn. Then, without warning, she marries the thug, Tommy Dundee. Dundee eventually breaks in on a tryst, and to divert his suspicion Michael tells him that he and Rachel were actually discussing his idea to rob an armored truck.

As you can imagine, the movie gets more noir from there. You’re never sure who’s telling the truth and who’s lying. Things that seem straightforward aren’t. For example, Michael’s brother David, who seems to dislike him for being a slacker, and not supporting their mother enough when their father died, is himself no great model of thoughtfulness. After he presents his mother a pair of earrings on the morning of her wedding, there is a short but awkward pause. Then she smiles and says, “They’re beautiful. I’ll have to get my ears pierced.”

The movie is fraught with flashbacks, which don’t do much to make things clearer. And yet its effect lingers. I still catch myself trying to figure out who knew what when—which events were accidents and which were planned, and by whom.

This 1995 release stars Peter Gallagher (who also starred in Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape) as the prodigal son; with Adam Trese as his brooding brother David; Paul Dooley as his mother’s new husband; Alison Elliot as Rachel, the girl Michael left behind; Elisabeth Shue as Susan, the girl Michael just met; and Shelley Duvall as a nurse.

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21 August 2005

Babette's Feast

This is a lovely fairy tale of a movie. Most of the characters are archetypes—two beautiful, saintly sisters (as beautiful in their old age as in their youth), a stern pastor, a suitor from the world of society, a suitor from the world of art, a sinning but well-meaning flock. Babette herself is not an archetype but a character, a person. Which makes her mysterious. You are never sure just what she’ll do (what everyone else does is entirely predictable).

The story takes place in a remote area of Denmark, in a small, pious community led and perhaps established by the sisters’ father, a pastor. The sisters, in spite of their beauty, remain spinsters, devoted to God and their father; and after their father’s death they continue his work, caring for the aging members of their dwindling community. Babette, a French refugee, arrives on their doorstep bearing a letter that attests to the hardships she has endured (her husband and son were murdered) and the fact that she “can cook.”

What follows shows this to be the understatement of the century. Her day-to-day contributions are appreciated—if little understood—by the sisters, but it’s the dinner referred to in the movie’s title that enables the sisters to understand they’ve been harboring an artist in their home.

Based on an Isak Dinesen story, Babette’s Feast is not only a literary pleasure, but a visual one. The Jutland village, with its cluster of cozy houses around a narrow and unpaved path, seems to arise out of nowhere, in a land of gray sky and gray ground. In the grocery, as Babette chooses among the colorful vegetables you wonder how far they must have traveled.

I thought I’d seen Babette’s Feast when the movie came out in 1987, but I was mistaken. If I had seen it, I wouldn’t have forgotten it.

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Can you ever accuse someone of being selfish without exposing yourself as—after all—selfish? Even if you’re not complaining of a selfishness that affects you directly (i.e., “Mary won’t give me a ride to the mall, ergo, Mary is selfish”) but purports to be about someone else (e.g., “Mary won’t give Helen a ride to the mall, ergo Mary is selfish”), isn’t it still really about you? Because why aren’t you giving Helen a ride to the mall? Does calling Mary selfish just help repress your own suspicion that it’s you who’s selfish? And if you do give Helen rides to the mall, then aren’t you just wishing Mary would take her so you don’t have to? What is that, if not selfish?

If you take Helen to the mall twice a week, it may not be unreasonable to wish that Mary would get off her lazy butt and help, but being not unreasonable doesn’t mean unselfish. The wish still comes from self-consideration.

The word selfish comes up when we see a need—in ourselves or others—go unfulfilled. It’s uncomfortable to see a need go unfulfilled. There’s a tear in the fabric of the world that needs mending. We want to see it mended. But in fact there are billions of tears, and few of us could bear going through life mending every one of them we encounter. We have our own weaving to do. So we blind ourselves to some of it, compartmentalize some of it, assign some of it to others (whether they know it or not), and attend some of it ourselves. We decide which needs we are going to attend to; likely we decide our own needs come first.

It’s a self-centered, even cruel process, but—like triage—pragmatic and necessary. I’m not saying (with Ayn Rand, for example) that selfishness is a virtue, or that altruism is a farce, but simply that all our choices—if we’re honest—are somehow informed by self-consideration. Part of what keeps the world turning is the fact that the nature of self-gratification is so various. We all want to be happy, but typically part of that is feeling important—valuable­—in some way. Because feelings of value are generally tied to the good opinion of others, we have plenty of motivation to not only do well, but do good. Helping others provides satisfactions that can be lasting and profound.

But we still choose how we get those satisfactions. Selfishly.

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19 August 2005

On Being Green

Before we met, Victor killed a cactus. In college, a spider plant died in my care, a plant which—I’d been assured—is impossible to kill. I even killed one of those air ferns.

(Don’t ask me how.)

When we moved in together back in 1991, Victor and I were reluctant to add any other form of life to our household. Cats made us both itch and sneeze and dogs were too much of a commitment at that point in our lives. And we were both still smarting with a guilty sense of our inadequacy with regard to plant life.

Years later, after we’d relocated to Columbus and had bought our own house, we were at Victor’s mom’s place in Los Angeles admiring its greenness. There are potted plants scattered throughout her condo, lined up outside her front door, and overflowing her balcony. We told her we wished we could have lots of plants like that, but our plants always died.

“Mine die, too,” Victor’s mom said. “I just replace them. Nobody knows the difference.”

Sometimes a revelation is so stunning, it really is like a light bulb goes off in your head.

Since then, we’ve always had plants. Some of them live a while, too.

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18 August 2005

Boys Only

Victor and I were talking to a colleague this evening, and she mentioned that her family sells fireworks in Indiana and Ohio. It turns out that her brother, cousins, uncle, and father are all in the business.

She is an environmental scientist. Her sister is getting a PhD in biology at Brown. “Funny how the girls didn’t go into it,” Victor said.

She shrugged. “If I’d shown any interest when I was 11, I’m sure they would have welcomed me.”

Her family’s fireworks business extends beyond sales. Her brother and cousins design and execute public fireworks displays for municipalities and institutions. Does that sound fun, or what? She just shrugs.

Maybe pyromania is a guy thing. I think of how Victor gets so excited by fireworks—the prospect of them and then the detonation of them. To me they’re pretty enough, but typically my aversion to crowds is enough to keep me home or at the movies on July 4th. I’m not crazy about the noise, either. And lately I’ve started to think about how odd it is that we celebrate important occasions with the sights and sounds of conventional warfare.

Her father, retired, now travels to China with her uncle yearly to inspect plant practices and foster relationships with fireworks manufacturers. (Isn’t it funny that we’re buying fireworks from the folks who invented them more than a thousand years ago?) He asked her if she wanted him to bring anything back for her.

“I want to go to China,” she said.

“It’s good to want things,” he said.

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17 August 2005


Sometimes Victor gets on my case for all the arty and foreign movies I order from Netflix. Admittedly, sometimes they are hard to watch. We couldn’t get through even fifteen minutes of Last Year at Marienbad, and Breaking the Waves almost had us throwing things at the TV. But other times the “good for us” stuff is better than we could have expected.

Nashville is one of those. I added it to our list because I’d seen it referred to as a classic, but I wasn’t anticipating anything great. Seventies country music, southern city, Karen Black… Didn’t seem like a very promising combination.

Boy was I wrong. Nashville—which tells the stories of at least a dozen characters in its 160 minutes—is terrific, managing to capture not just the essence of Nashville, TN (having never been there, I’ll have to take that on faith), but the essence of the 70s.

The multiple stories are connected by proximity, yet they highlight the absurd self-involvement of most of the characters. A BBC documentarian (sans cameraman), played by Geraldine Chaplin, tries to insinuate herself into the country music scene (with little success). A soldier on leave (Scott Glenn) indulges his obsession with a great country singer (Ronee Blakeley) by stalking her (she doesn’t notice). The third wheel of a folk trio (Keith Carradine) is such an incorrigible womanizer that he’s picking up the phone to call his girlfriend before his lover of the moment (Lily Tomlin) has walked out the door. A third-party politician we never see is running for president on a platform that decries the National Anthem (nobody can sing it) and the demographics of Congress (too many lawyers). His advance man (Michael Murphy) shrewdly maneuvers apolitical musicians into performing at a rally for the candidate. A music industry lawyer (Ned Beatty) pines for a first-time stripper who is really a waitress who wants to be an Opry star (Gwen Welles). Only she can’t sing.

Nashville tells many more stories, but one of the amazing things about this movie is that—while they unfold coherently—the stories never quite link up or lead anywhere. Hollywood trains you to expect them to—the young wife (Barbara Harris) who abandoned her husband to come to Nashville and get famous ought to hook up with…someone; the grieving uncle (Ed Wynn) ought to teach his feckless niece (Shelley Duvall) a thing or two about love and responsibility; the grinning, self-effacing son (Dave Peel) of the country star Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) ought to come into his own somehow.

None of these things happen. Instead, the movie ends with an explosion of violence smoothed over by music.

Which feels exactly right: American, seventies-ish, and 100 percent Country.

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Calling All English Majors

I came across this editorial by Garrison Keillor in today's Chicago Tribune. In it, Keillor skewers political pork and Republican self-dealing, and defines "the English major community" as a special interest group that has yet to flex its political muscle. He suggests we go ahead and flex, proposing "public libraries as a tool in the war against terror." Here's my favorite passage:
How many readers of Edith Wharton have engaged in terroristic acts? I challenge you to name one. Therefore, the reading of Edith Wharton is a proven deterrent to terror. Do we need to wait until our cities lie in smoking ruins before we wake up to the fact that a first-class public library is a vital link in national defense?
This is what I love about Garrison: folksy and ridiculous, yet absolutely correct.

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Puffin Love

If you're like me, you love puffins. You know, those big-billed, clownish birds, the penguins of the North. In the summer of 2000, Victor and I spent a week on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia--a destination selected solely for its proximity to puffins. We did get to see some puffins, though not as close up as I would have liked (for that, I had to move to Chicago and visit the Lincoln Park Zoo, which--in a dark and rather stinky building--displays Atlantic Puffins, Tufted Puffins, and several relatives, including Common Murres and Razorbills).

We came home with some wonderful souvenirs: a coffee mug decorated with iconic puffin images, a tee shirt with an embroidered puffin, and a magnetic memo pad (suitable for grocery lists) with a puffin photograph on every page. Over the years, though, the puffins on the coffee mug succumbed to too much rough treatment by the dishwasher, the tee shirt faded and shrank, and the memo pad ran out of pages.

So I've been in the market for puffin stuff. In the past several months, I've occasionally cruised the Web for sources, with no luck. Recently, though, I came across a site that's actually called Puffin Stuff. While I didn't find mugs or tee shirts to catch my fancy, I did find some magnetic memo pads featuring a nice photo of two splendid specimens on top, and a pale watermarked image of a single puffin below. (Imagine my joy!)

They arrived just yesterday and they're perfect, except...

The pad says "Maine" on top. Which I didn't notice when I examined the product online. (Probably didn't fully magnify the image, in my excitement at finding a pristine puffin photo instead of an icky-cutesy drawing.) I've been to Maine several times, but mainly to Portland. I've never seen puffins there.

To rectify this, I guess we'll need to plan a puffin-seeking Maine getaway.

Now, if I can only get Victor to agree with my impeccable logic...

16 August 2005

House Sparrow Eats Moth

For the second time this summer, I saw a house sparrow going after and wrestling with a large moth. I thought that sparrows--with their seed-cracking bills--stuck to grain, but a little Internet research reveals:
[t]he House Sparrow's diet is diverse: seeds, nuts, berries, buds, insects, scraps.
Still, I had never thought of the house sparrow as a hunting-type critter, but rather a scavenger.

I was pleased to find this British fact sheet about the first bird I ever watched. When I lived in Seattle and worked for an engineering firm, I'd take breaks in a little park beside my downtown office building. A host of little brown birds chattered away in the park's manicured bushes and--seeing them day after day--I became fascinated (probably because I was unhappy in my job, and the sparrows seemed so busy and content). That Christmas Victor presented me with a field guide, and after several days of study I managed to figure out that the little brown birds I'd been watching for months were house sparrows.

Because it's a nonnative species, most U.S. information on the house sparrow is pejorative. I remember being outraged the first time I came across a field guide description of female and immature house sparrows as "streaked dull brown above, dingy white below..." (National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds, Eastern Region). The same volume goes on to note the species' "shrill, monotonous, noisy chirping." The supposedly scientific Cornell Lab of Ornithology refers to the female as "dingy brown all over." In Peter Mattheissen's otherwise splendid--if grim--polemic Wildlife in America, house sparrows are taken to task both for their repetitive song and for their habit of foraging in horse manure.

The Brits, on the other hand, take a more objective stance, referring to the female house sparrow as:
...paler and lack[ing] the grey crown, white cheeks, black bib and eye stripe, and chestnut brown nape [of the male].
Sparrow song is described as "Non-stop cheeping and chirping."

(A far cry from "shrill, monotonous," and "noisy.")

But then, house sparrow populations in North America are huge and getting huger; these birds are variously blamed for crop depredations and declines in native songbird species. In Britain, the house sparrow is itself inexplicably declining (by more than 60 percent in the past 30 years).

Funny how this bird can prosper so in strange lands while dwindling in its native territories. Maybe we should release representatives our own troubled native species--bluebirds, owls, woodpeckers--overseas, see if they can do as well.

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15 August 2005


Sometimes you want to see a movie just to be contrary. Such was the case with Duma, which we saw last weekend. I'd heard that Warner Brothers hadn't even wanted to release it, but a 3.5-star review from Roger Ebert led to a limited Chicago opening.

Director Carroll Ballard has made a specialty of animal movies, starting with Never Cry Wolf, in 1983. Perhaps no other filmmaker takes animals so seriously--so much on their own terms--while staging their interactions with human beings.

The story--about a young white African boy named Xan who adopts an orphaned cheetah cub--seems farfetched, but the film is based on fact, as told in How it Was with Dooms, a young adult picture book written by Xan with his mother. The movie doesn't provide much detail about what it's like to raise a wild animal--Duma behaves pretty much like a housecat, only bigger, and able to run a hell of a lot faster. When the cheetah is nearly grown, though, Xan's father impresses upon him that Duma must be returned to the wild soon, or he will never be able to survive on his own. After a series of events, Xan embarks on a solo mission to take Duma back to the wilderness. This adventure is the heart of the movie.

Like most animal pictures, Duma is likely to be billed as a family film. Certainly, there is nothing to exclude children over a certain age (very young children might find some scenes frightening), but there is also nothing childish about it. The key themes of love, grief, and survival are explored with grown-up thoughtfulness and depth, and I don't know any adults to whom I would not recommend this movie.

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Lighting Quest

We've been wanting to improve the lighting in our apartment for some time, but have been deterred by cost. We found loads of things we liked at Lightology, but the cost of the equipment combined with the cost of the electrician's installation was prohibitive. For example, I got an estimate of more than $2,000 just to buy and install undercabinet lighting in the kitchen.

After I emphatically admired this chandelier at a party in Lincoln Square Saturday night, a couple of friends tipped me to Lamps Plus, a west-coast chain with an extensive online catalog of reasonably priced lighting options. Sunday morning found Victor and me in bed with my laptop, poring through pages of ceiling lights and cheap halogen torchieres (we thought these had been forever banned because of the fire hazard).

In the end, we ordered fixtures for the entry hall, dining room, and kitchen. They should arrive in a couple of weeks. Wish us luck!

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Korean Festival

We've gotten jaded about neighborhood festivals, having attended close to a dozen this summer. This weekend's Korean festival didn't really light our fire, although we did get to see some kind of Korean martial art where the combatants try and wrestle each other to the ground while holding onto the other guy's belt. The street food wasn't that fabulous, and it's the street food I looked forward to, having read in Saveur some time ago that Seoul has the world's greatest street food. We ate at Dal Paeng Yi Restaurant, on Bryn Mawr, where I was excited to order the "Broiled Mandu (Korean Style)"--never had a broiled dumpling.

As it turned out, "broiled" was a typo. The dumplings came boiled. Quite a disappointment.

Luckily, there was no such miscommunication over the bibimbop, which was fine, though nothing special.

(Victor pointed out that bibimbop is pretty hard to ruin.)

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