mercredi 27 mai 2009

Hard Times

Fire and Ice by Robert Frost
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Is it just me or do most people tend to get stuck in the lower regions of Manhattan when they visit New York? I always think I'll get up North and usually am lucky if I get to the north end of Central Park! There is so much to see on every street corner, in every nook and cranny. But this time, we went not once but twice north of the magical line of thinking. On Saturday we went to see the Yankees beat the Phillies in the bottom of the ninth at the New Yankee Stadium, although we did not technically see the victory. We left at the top of the ninth, thinking it would rain any second and confident that the Phillies would hang on to win 4-2. In fact, they lost 5-4. What a finish!
But we preferred to leave early and walk a bit. It never did rain on Saturday, so we got off the subway just south of Central Park and walked south for about 40 blocks, through Chelsea.
On Tuesday, our friend Peter actually picked us up at our apartment in Greenwich Village and drove us up north to the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx. You can't miss it: it's next to the famous Bronx Zoo and across the road from Fordham University. It seems that many people do miss it, however, and that's too bad. It is 250 acres of heaven for lovers of fauna and flora. We saw birds, including several catbirds, and a wild rabbit, which dove into a hedge as we approached the conservatory. Peter knew the curator of the conifers, and stopped to chat with him at one point during our tour. He seems to know everyone.
We left the Bronx, NY City and indeed the great state of New York, venturing into Connecticut, Greenwich and Stamford. I did not see any for sale signs, but these towns have been "hard hit" by the rupture created in the economy as FIRE (financial, insurance and real estate) gives way to ICE (information, communications, entertainment). Come to think of it, however, these communities probably have their share of ICE million- and billion-aires too.
In fact, one of Greenwich's most prominent denizens is Walter Noel, who ran the Fairfield Greenwich Group. When Bernie Madoff was first arrested and his Ponzi scheme exposed, Noel and his family were portrayed as innocent victims who had been wiped out by this unscrupulous man they had trusted. Noel has five daughters, all of them married to financiers from around the world who are associated with Fairfield. I guess that's the downside of having everyone in the fam dependent on the same source of income. Noel's group fed more than 7 billion dollars collected from various investors into the Madoff fund, and must have reaped huge benefits from it for many years. It is hard now to believe that these financiers were not savvy enough to question the plausibility of the consistently and excessively high returns regardless of how the rest of the market was performing. I mean, wouldn't you wonder just a little bit?
This initial portrayal of the Noel family as innocent victims has evolved, however. A civil complaint was recently filed against Fairfield by the Massachusetts Secretary of State, and I found this on a society gossip blog:

While most of Walter Noel’s clients are left penniless trying to find ways to put food on their table, some members of the Noel family are still living like its still 2006. Marisa Noel Brown, daughter of disgraced hedge funder Walter Noel, was enjoying a lavish evening of entertainment at her Greenwich, Connecticut home.
According to sources who were at the party Saturday night, about 50 close friends of the Brown’s sipped on what some called the most expensive champagne in the world, Perrier-Jouet, which was sold to about 100 people around the world last year for close to $7,000 a bottle. Another source at the party said that Walter and his wife Monica were also at the party laughing and having a good old time.
“How can these people celebrate when most of the old man’s clients lost everything,” you ask. I do not know, maybe they are using it all up before they lose it all like most of us.

Daily Intel duly notes that the Noel family is having to scale back a bit to cope with these hard times. In years past they have summered at their "7,000-square-foot house in Lake Agawam, an exclusive enclave in Southampton". But this unfortunate Madoff business has meant that their assets are frozen as they face the fraud charges mentioned above. That will put a chill on the best of summer plans. According to Daily Intel, the Southampton property will have to be let to the highest bidder. For just 350,000 dollars you can have the place -- which features ten bedrooms, nine-and-a-half baths, six fireplaces, and a heated pool -- for the whole month of July. If you prefer to vacation in August, be ready to fork over an additional 25,000 bucks.
It may be a short and pleasant journey from the Bronx to Greenwich, CN, but believe me they are worlds apart.

Meet the Noels: Walter, Monica, and their five fabulous daughters

Delmore Schwartz died in the Chelsea Hotel

Delmore Schwartz, whose name is somehow synonymous with failure to live up to early promise, died here

Delmore Schwartz: in dreams begin responsibilities

Could there be a more intriguing title for a short story than this: In Dreams Begin Responsibilities. It is the title of the first short story that Brooklyn-born Delmore Schwartz ever published, to critical claim. I once read a very good biography of Schwartz and will update this post with a reference to it if possible. It has always haunted me that he died, alone and alcoholic, in the famous Chelsea Hotel on 23rd between 7th and 8th. He taught briefly at Syracuse University, where one of his students was Lou Reed.

Below, one of my favorite Schwartz poems. For me, the subject is the anxiety of influence and also what makes New York City so great. We walked by a branch of the New York Public Library on Saturday, where I took these unremarkable photos. Unremarkable, except that they reminded me for some reason of Delmore Schwartz, which reminded me of the Chelsea Hotel, which we found on our long walk home from South Central Park to Greenwich Village via Chelsea. And which brings me to this poem.

The Greatest Thing In North America by Delmore Schwartz
This is the greatest thing in North America:
Europe is the greatest thing in North America!
High in the sky, dark in the heart, and always there
Among the natural powers of sunlight and of air,
Changing, second by second, shifting and changing the
Bring fresh rain to the stone of the library steps.

Under the famous names upon the pediment:
Thales, Aristotle,
Cicero, Augustine, Scotus, Galileo,
Joseph, Odysseus, Hamlet, Columbus and Spinoza,
Anna Karenina, Alyosha Karamazov, Sherlock Holmes.

And the last three also live upon the silver screen
Three blocks away, in moonlight's artificial day,
A double bill in the darkened palace whirled,
And the veritable glittering light of the turning world's
Burning mind and blazing imagination, showing, day by
And week after week the desires of the heart and mind
Of all the living souls yearning everywhere
From Canada to Panama, from Brooklyn to Paraguay,
From Cuba to Vancouver, every afternoon and every night.

What to do in NYC

New Yankee Stadium from the outside

Impromptu Memorial Day jam in Washington Square Park

John Lennon once said that he profoundly regretted not having been born in Greenwich Village. This fabulous tribute to Lennon and the city that embraced him is in Soho.

lundi 25 mai 2009

Living Well is the Best Revenge

Happy 103rd birthday GG...G!

I asked GG (now GGG) what her secret to longevity was, and she whispered this in my ear: "I don't judge others and I got no time for self pity". Words to live by.

dimanche 24 mai 2009

Lucky in New York City

Saturday in NYC
Wake up late, grab a coffee, hit the road. Since we’re staying in Greenwich Village and had to get to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, we had to think about the SW to NE crossing. Luckily, it is a straight shot on the D line. The D line goes uptown on the west side of Central Park before cutting to the East at Harlem. This meant just a short walk from our apartment (we are staying in a truly fabulous apartment whose owner is away), with a stop at Bar 6, a charming Moroccan restaurant recommended by Laurent, a French musician we met in the elevator. As we were waiting for the elevator and considering our options for lunch, we heard a man and a woman speaking French and saying their goodbyes. I asked if we should hold the elevator and the answer was a surprised yes. So Laurent and I had a nice chat about the respective and considerable merits of Paris and NY and the dangers in both places of eating fruits de mer (shellfish) that is not 100% fresh. Laurent had been sick the night before on baked clams. Laurent is a musician – a guitarist – who was born in Paris (20th arrondissement) and then moved to the banlieu of Sarcelles (generally considered one of the poorer ones – my ex spent time there with his parents, peasants from Corrèze who came to Paris in search of work after the war). So he and I had a kind of natural affinity. As he said, you don’t meet many people outside France, even in the global city of New York, who know Sarcelles. Laurent recommended the Moroccan restaurant and then walked there with us. He told us about his four Sunday gigs, playing guitar for church services, and about his current gig doing the music for some Broadway musical (he told me which one, but I have already forgotten it), and then bid us farewell. He said we should be sure and stop by Elliette’s place and say salut. The Diaspora francophone generally loves the opportunity to speak la langue maternelle and share their nostalgia for l’Hexagone. One carries a little mal de pays around forever after spending any significant amount of time in France.

Of course, the restaurant recommended by Laurent was perfect. A wonderfully luminous space with a skylight and mirrors on a light-colored wall with light brown wood moldings. The signature dishes and wines were painted high up on the mirrors: chicken tagine, vegetable couscous, etc. I had the vegetable couscous, which is one of my favorite dishes and one I love to make. But I never quite get the couscous right. I think you have to be born in North Africa to understand how couscous works. That’s why they sell it in easy-cook packets for non-magrebines. But it ain’t the same. I heard a show on French radio once about how it is cooked and realized it was much more complex than it seems. Walt tried a croque monsieur, which is kind of like a grilled ham and cheese sandwich but way better. It was served with shavings of what looked like celeri rabe and carrots, alongside some cornichons and pickled white onions. My vegetable couscous was simple and delicious. Stewed carrots, celery, green beans, yellow squash, russet potatoes and tomatoes in a tomato-y sauce, served with a fluffy yet firm mound of couscous delicately topped with a raisin or two and an almond sliver. A small ramekin of harissa came with it. Delicious. A couple sitting in the corner was eating something that required ketchup. The woman poured a huge amount of salt on whatever she was eating. When they got up to leave, I noticed she was a few months pregnant. Geez, I thought, all that salt can’t be good. But Walt noticed they she had left her sunglasses on the table. He rushed out the front door and by some miracle managed to spot them on the crowded street. They were grateful out-of-towners. So grateful that a few minutes later our waitress presented two mimosas, a gift of gratitude from the out-of-towners.

After lunch, we made our way down to the D line, stopping to look at puppies in a pet shop window and to buy some clairefontaine writing notebooks, which I have not been able to find in Seattle, and a Cross pencil, at a fully-stocked, even overflowing, stationary shop.

That’s a lot of serendipity before 2 pm. But that’s New York.

mercredi 20 mai 2009

Les Pictes et le mariage

If you aren't interested in the Middle Ages, etymology or traditions related to finding a suitable spouse for an unmarried woman AND if you don't read French, you will probably want to skip this post.

Les Pis (1)
Voici quelques faits intéressants sur les « Pis » (les Pictes) :
En effet, il s’agit du peuple qui vivait autrefois dans les Terres Basses (les « Lowlands ») de l’Ecosse actuelle. Le nom, qui vient de l’épithète latine « Picti », signifie « hommes peints ». Certains pensent que ce nom, attribué par les Britto-romains puis par les Anglo-Saxons aux habitants des Basses Terres entre le troisième et le neuvième siècle, fait référence à la peinture de guerre et donc qu’il désigne un peuple guerrier.
L’absence de sources historiques fiables rend difficile tout commentaire précis sur l’origine des Pictes. Cependant, on sait qu’au milieu du neuvième siècle ils sont « absorbés » par les Scots lors de la formation de l’Ecosse médiévale par Kenneth Mac Alpin,(2) qui réuni les deux peuples en un royaume qui durera jusqu’en 1707.
Selon une des seules sources disponibles, cette disparation a été déclenchée par le massacre des nobles pictes par les Scots lors d’un entretien organisé. La source en question est l’historien Bède le Vénérable (l’auteur de l’Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum), qui explique l’arrivée des Pictes en Bretagne ainsi :
« Les Pictes comme je l’ai dit, arrivèrent sur cette île par la mer, ils désiraient obtenir un endroit où s’installer ; les Scots répondirent «que l’île ne pouvait accueillir à la fois ces deux peuples ».Ces derniers continuèrent «nous pouvons néanmoins vous donner un bon conseil leur dirent ils. Nous savons qu’il existe une autre île, guère éloignée de la nôtre, en direction de l’est, que nous apercevons souvent au loin, par temps clair. Si vous y débarquez vous obtiendrez des colonies ; et si l’on s’oppose à vous, vous pourrez compter sur notre appui.
Les Pictes en conséquence, cinglèrent vers la Bretagne dont ils occupèrent les parties septentrionales, car les bretons possédaient le sud. Mais les Pictes n’avaient pas de femme aussi demandèrent ils aux Scots d’épouser leurs filles. Les Scots acceptèrent à condition qu’ils choisiraient en cas de litige un roi né de la race royale féminine plutôt que masculine, coutume que les Pictes observèrent jusqu’à nos jours…
Bien qu’ils soient absorbés par les Scots, les Pictes ont laissé quelques traces de leur passé qui subsistent de nos jours. Par exemple, on doit aux Pictes de nombreuses pierres dressées, ornées de figures géométriques et à caractère sacré, y compris la croix chrétienne après leur conversion religieuse. Aujourd’hui, peu de ses pierres restent dans le lieu original de leur implantation, mais beaucoup sont conservées dans des musées situés en Ecosse.

Plus intéressant encore - mais selon la légende seulement - le drapeau écossais, parmi les plus anciens drapeaux nationaux au monde encore utilisés (il date du IXème siècle), est associé aux Pictes. Selon cette légende, le roi Oengus II des Pictes (ou King Angus) mena les Pictes et les Gaëls en bataille contre les Angles sous le roi Aethelstan d'Est-Anglie. Quand Angus et ses hommes furent encerclés, le roi se mit à prier pour leur délivrance. Durant la nuit, Saint André (qui avait été martyrisé sur une croix diagonale) (3) apparut à Angus et l'assura de la victoire. Le lendemain, un sautoir blanc sur un fond bleu fut visible par les deux côtés. Cette apparition encouragea les Pictes et les Gaëls mais pas les Angles, qui furent battus. La croix de Saint André devint ainsi le drapeau écossais.

Le jour de la saint André : un lien avec la mal mariée ?

Selon la tradition, toutes les jeunes filles non-mariées priaient à la Saint André le 29 novembre vers minuit (la veille de l’actuel Jour de la Saint André) pour un mari. Elles adressaient leur demande à Saint André, puis cherchaient un signe que leur vœu a été exaucé.

Une fille voulant trouver un époux pouvait (au choix) :

• Jeter une chaussure contre une porte. Si la pointe de la chaussure tombée par terre s’orientait vers la sortie, ceci voulait dire que la fille se marierait et quitterait le foyer de ses parents dans l’année à venir.

• Retirer la peau d’une pomme d’un seul geste (sans la casser), puis la jeter en arrière par-dessus de son épaule. Si la peau tombée par terre formait une lettre de l’alphabet, cette lettre pourrait désignée le nom de son futur mari.

Le jour de la Sainte Catherine

Le 25 Novembre est le jour des « Catherinettes », à savoir toutes les jeunes femmes de 25 ans qui ne sont pas encore mariées. Ce jour là, les Catherinettes portent des chapeaux extravagants de couleur jaune et vert (les couleurs symboliques de la foi et de la connaissance, respectivement) qu’elles ont souvent confectionnés elles-mêmes.

La tradition de Sainte Catherine remonte au Moyen Age. A l'époque, les jeunes femmes de 25 ans qui n’étaient pas encore demandées en mariage mettaient leurs chapeaux et se rendaient devant une statue de Sainte Catherine à Paris qu’elles « coiffées » avec des fleurs, des rubans et des chapeaux, dans l'espoir de trouver un mari.

Aujourd’hui, la tradition persiste dans quelques villes et villages et à Paris, ou les stylistes de mode confectionnent des chapeaux farfelus pour l’occasion. Parfois, les collègues de bureau fêtent la Sainte Catherine autour d’un pot,(5) surtout si une Catherinette fait partie de leur équipe. Mais c’est de plus en plus rare. Féminisme oblige ? C’est peut-être simplement parce que les mariages se font de plus en plus tardivement, en France comme dans tous les pays développés. Dans un tel contexte, une femme de 25 ans qui n’est pas encore mariée n’est plus remarquable. Au contraire, c’est parfaitement banal.

Qui fut Sainte Catherine ?

Tout comme Sainte Marie l’Egyptienne, Catherine est née au sein d'une famille noble. La ville de sa naissance est Alexandrie, en Egypte, la ville d’accueil pour Marie la pécheresse. Catherine se converti au christianisme à la suite d’une vision. La légende dit que Jésus, ému par sa ferveur, contracte un mariage mystique avec elle, après quoi la très intelligente Catherine, qui suit les cours des plus grands maîtres chrétiens, réussit à démontrer à 50 grands philosophes d'Alexandrie la vanité des idoles et la fausseté de leur foi. Elle finit par les convertir tous.
L'empereur Maxence, impressionné par ses capacités intellectuelles, lui propose un mariage royal. Mais, fidèle à son mari mystique, Catherine refuse. Humilié, l'empereur lui fera subir le supplice de la dislocation des membres sans succès, puis le supplice de la roue duquel elle sort indemne. Elle finira décapitée le 25 Novembre 307 et deviendra la seule Sainte du paradis à posséder trois auréoles : la blanche des vierges, la verte des docteurs et la rouge des martyrs.

(1) Mes sources sont diverses et variées, du Wikipédie jusqu'au site, en passant par les collections des musées écossais.

(2) Il s'agit de Kenneth I, le roi des Pictes et, selon la légende nationale, le premier roi des écossais. Il est le fondateur de la dynastie qui régnait en Ecosse pendant la quasi-totalité de la période médiévale.

(3) La bataille qui opposa les Pictes et les Gaëls contre les Angles date de l'an 832 après la mort de Jésus.

(4)Le patron saint de l'Ecosse est l'apôtre André, dont le frère est l'apôtre Simon Pierre. Le Jour de la Saint André (Saint Andrews Day), le 30 novembre, est une fête nationale en Ecosse.

(5) Ici, le terme "pot" désigne une réunion informelle autour d'une boisson, notamment dans un contexte professionnel. Au bureau, on fête les embauches, les départs, les naissances, les anniversaires, le Nouvel An, la fin de l'année....

samedi 16 mai 2009

Le café

Diane and me last summer near Chambonnet, her summer home ("La Belle Ruine") in France.

Today we went for a bike ride with our neighbor, from Mount Vernon to La Conner and back. It is an easy, flat ride through the farm-studded Skagit Valley. The tulip season is over. Nothing that magnificent can last. We had a quick lunch at the brew pub in La Conner. It was supposed to be quick. The service was slow so we had to rush out and get back on our bikes so that Walt could get to the ball field by 4 pm.

I thought about the hundreds of lunches I had with Diane in Paris over the years. I lived near where she worked and getting away from my home office was a pleasure and a necessity. We would meet at the aptly named Ailleurs (Elsewhere) most of the time. As we got to know the waitresses (relatively rare in France; most restaurant servers are career waiters) over time -- Marlène, from Cuba, and Lulu (short for Ludmilla) from Madagascar -- we became friends and were always well taken care of. Every once in awhile, they would make a great ceremony of presenting us with a bill for "zero francs" (later, "zero euros"). A free lunch. Just because. I was thinking about how in France every lunch, whether with ma copine Diane or a client, ends with coffee. With an expresso usually. And the petite tasse de café almost always comes with a wrapped chocolate. Sometimes the chocolate is covering an almond. It is such a lovely way to end a meal. I miss this ending.

All the way home, I was thinking about how nice un petit café et un petit chocolat would taste. I love the moment when coffee meets chocolate: the coffee gives up a tiny bit of heat, the chocolate a tiny bit of hardness.

Diane, if you stop by and read, I want you to know how much I miss our lunches. They were often the highlight of my day. I miss you, my friend. I feel a trip to Paris is needed. Coffee and chocolate.

vendredi 15 mai 2009


Sally, my mom, on March 17 at Le Pichet. We were celebrating the birthdays of two of her daughters (and two of my sisters), Janie (50) and Carolyn (40), born ten years apart on St. Patrick's Day.

Jo, Walt's mom, at the December 26, 2008 Christmas celebration with Walt's family. She's holding Eli, her great grandson.

Mother's Day is such a bullshit holiday, a manufactured Hallmark moment that I love to opt out of. This does not mean I don't appreciate my mother or motherhood in general. Nor do I wish to belittle motherhood as an activity. But the idea of one special day to honor mothers (or fathers or grandmothers or grandfathers) has always struck me as silly.

We did the obligatory thing last Sunday, showing up at my mom's house for what turned out to be a very late brunch, and then going almost directly to Anthony's Home Port in Des Moines for a mother's day dinner with Walt's mom, his brother Bruce and Bruce's wife Patty. So Sunday really was Mother's Day, in the sense that we spent the whole day driving to, driving from and taking part in these events. The only diversion was the search for Pushkin, who mysteriously disappeared just before we had to leave for event number one. Speaking of motherhood, she is in heat and has not been spayed, so we worried she might have gotten outside for some brief sexual encounter with a stranger. We left for my mom's at 1 pm and came back to look for her at 5 pm, before dashing out to be at the restaurant by 6 pm. We looked and looked, called and called. Pushy! Where are you? Walt was outside when I decided for no reason to open the bottom drawer of our dresser, where I keep my sweaters. Pushkin reared her head up like a coiled snake. She had just spent four hours in a drawer, unable to sit up. Being Pushkin, and being very blasé about everything, she didn't leap out of the drawer. She looked around, stretched a bit and then delicately stepped out, like a lady descending from a horse-drawn carriage.

My mom's brunch was low-key and centered around getting us to take all the stuff that she has been accumulating for the last 75 years or so. She has everything her six kids left behind, everything that my dad left behind, everything that her parents left behind, everything that my uncle left behind... everything. She has kept every thing any of us has ever written or drawn, plus every candy wrapper and comic book we ever neglected to throw or put away. She had prepared a basket for me, containing the few letters I wrote from China and France, plus postcards from every place I ever went for a vacation. Not to mention photos of me and of people I used to love or whom I have befriended in faraway places over the years. My mother has the most amazing jumble of photos imaginable. She is pretty disorganized and a little ditzy, so she has triplicates and quadruplicates of many photos. She has albums she has started on a theme and not finished. She has albums that started on one theme but ended up in a very different place. If you look closely, you can see where and sometimes why she went off on that tangent. The photos and all the rest are up for grabs now because she's getting married in June and wants to erase us from her life. I'm kidding! I think it is great that she is abandoning us to marry some guy who has six grown children of his own. I am truly joking. About feeling abandoned. My mother has finally found the man of her dreams and he lives in a large but very neat condo in Magnolia. It is time for her to finally get rid of all the junk she has been stockpiling for years. Record albums, books, bibelots, candles (I have never seen so many never used candles in my life, stuck in every nook and cranny). I found a ball gown that belonged to my mom's Aunt Viva, who would be about 120 if she were alive. I took the gown. You never know. They might do a remake of the Shirley Temple movies and ask me to be an extra. I took a cool dress that my grandmother bought at "Best's", the precursor to Nordstrom's. It was a foregone conclusion that all my dad's books were mine if I wanted them. I had already stolen a dozen over the years -- and always denied it -- so it was time to give me the whole collection.

All in all, my mom got what she wanted for Mother's Day: a whole crew whose main mission was to help her sell her house and move on. Go Mom!

To be continued for Jo Cougan, who deserves her very own post.