The MFA, Houston Fall Exhibitions: Marvelous

There is so much good stuff going on here at my little museum.

Koloman Moser: Designing Modern Vienna 1897-1907 through January 12, 2014
Austrian delights abound at this small show of graphic works, furniture, decorative objects, and textiles. Even though I'm not a fan of "graphic design," these works are luscious and thought provoking.

Koloman Moser, Schwämme (Mushrooms), design no. 4003, 1899, execution: Johann Backhausen & Söhne, Vienna; wool, silk, and cotton, MAK–Austrian Museum for Applied Arts/Contemporary Art, Vienna

Koloman Moser, Poster for Frommes Kalender, 1899, execution: Albert Berger, Vienna, colored lithograph on paper, Serge Sabarsky Collection, New York. Photo: Hulya Kolabas, New York

Antonio Berni: Juanito and Ramona through January 26, 2014
Mid-century Argentinean works from collage artist Berni. Having these around the museum completely changes the environment from solemn to playful with a human touch and a wild bit of whimsy. The installation is superior.

Antonio Berni, Las vacaciones de Juanito, 1972, acrylic, metal, rubber, fabric, and various materials on wood. © José Antonio Berni

American Adversaries: West and Copley in a Transatlantic World through January 20, 2014
Two major artists meet with their most well known works and it's pretty exciting to see these paintings together. The exhibition itself is captivating as it evokes the era so well by including various ephemeral items such as textiles and clothing and the artists's tools. Despite my lethargic interests in eighteenth-century American art, this show, curated by Rice and UT, Austin graduate Emily Ballew Neff, totally won me over.

John Singleton Copley, Watson and the Shark, 1778, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Ferdinand Lammot Belin Fund. Image courtesy National Gallery of Art

Benjamin West, The Death of General Wolfe, 1779, oil on canvas, Ickworth, National Trust, Suffolk. 
Image © Hamilton Kerr Institute, Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge

I especially love this watercolor painting of Sir Lever's cabinet of curiosities (Wunderkammer!) and the curatorial notes I found from the British Museum are so fascinating I had to include the whole story below. It's definitely worth a look!

Interior of Leverian Museum, London; view as it appeared in the 1780s (drawing made on the spot).
Sarah Stone, c1835, W
atercolour, The British Museum

The Leverian Museum was founded by Sir Ashton Lever (1729-1788), a gentleman of substantial means whose property included both coal mines and Manchester real estate. He was also a man of many interests, of which ornithology was the overriding passion. In the 1760s and 1770s he acquired an enormous collection of birds, amongst other materials, which he displayed in the former royal palace, Leicester House. As a friend of Captain James Cook, Lever acquired exceptional Pacific ethnography, which was displayed alongside the natural history collections.

Unfortunately Lever overreached himself financially and had to dispose of his collection, by lottery, in the 1780s. Before doing so he commissioned Sarah Stone to depict the birds, ethnography and antiquities. However, this version is most likely a copy since it is dated 1835.

The British Museum, opened in 1759, permitted artists and amateurs to draw and paint objects in its collections and many private museums, like the one set up by Sir Ashton Lever in 1775, also permitted, even encouraged, drawing and painting, by providing 'Good Fires in all in the Galleries.' Sarah Stone's earliest dated drawings are of objects in the Leverian Museum painted in 1777, two years after it opened; by 1784, she had painted over a thousand.  

In 1789 she married John Langdale Smith, a midshipman who shared her interest in painting and exhibited a portrait at the Royal Academy in 1791 when she exhibited paintings of birds at the Society of Artists. She contributed a view of the interior of the museum in its new location in the Rotunda to a published companion to the museum, which showed some of her framed drawings of birds, shells, flowers, etc. hanging on the entrance arch, but she painted little after her marriage, apart from live birds her husband brought back from his voyages. Following a pattern which seems to have been typical for young women who gained reputations as artists, she exhibited at the Royal Academy before her marriage as 'Miss Stone', when she was described as a 'Painter', but afterwards, as 'Mrs Smith', she was an 'Honorary Exhibitor'. There is no doubt that her watercolours, whether she was paid for them or not, served as an additional exhibit or attraction for the owners of the museum, their 'curiosity' value in being produced by a young woman perhaps underlined by her lack of skill in comparison to works produced by her male professional contemporaries.


Europe 2012: What Did I Miss?

In Italy:

The Bargello Saracino, 1579, Florence, or so I thought.

This guy, a good looking wooden jousting target constructed for rude Renaissance era festivities, captivated me during grad school. There is very little data on his history and the only book that mentions him at all is in Italian. Even though I didn't expect to meet him so easily, I combed through the Bargello, where he is a supposed resident, with no success. I tried asking museum personnel, in poor Italian I admit, but they had no idea. It didn't help matters that there is no artist or title, oh you know the Renaissance sculpture! Its status as a sculpture is even tenuous. Luckily everything else in the Bargello is spectacular. I'll be back to find you Saracino!

The detail put into this is so intriguing. 

Catacombs in Rome. 

Sad, but it was too damn hot for a walk along the Appian Way. Next trip to Rome will take place during reasonable temperatures. Oh, but aren't these early Christian paintings incredible?

Bearded Christ in the Catacombs of Commodilla

In Turkey:

Hagia Eirene, Istanbul, built in the 4th century.

Once in Turkey I learned that the Hagia Eirene is only open for concerts and there weren't any during the two weeks we were there. This former church is remarkable for its interior decoration, an unadulterated example of the Christian iconoclasm which lasted roughly from 754 to 843. All of the figural painting had been whitewashed, a common tactic less reversible than adding plaster which is what the Muslims did.

During Iconoclasm figural representation was criticized for encouraging outright idol worship from earlier Pagan practices. Crucifixes, vegetal scrolls, and Biblical text were used in favor of the well known characters.

Hagia Eirene, Istanbul

Songs That Make Me Cry

From Lina Wertmüller's Swept Away, Piero Piccioni's Turquoise (1974)

Turquoise and Andante Improvviso are the gorgeous stand outs from this soundtrack. Both of these arrangements evoke a kind of delicious horror sound with that deep Argento-esque romantic tragedy flavor. The voice works a haunting embodiment of a salty wind tossed ocean wave, an enchanting, malefic seductress. One listen is never enough.

From Wong Kar Wai's In The Mood For Love, Michael Galasso's Angkor Wat Theme Final (2000)

Another stunning soundtrack from another favorite film. This arrangement, tearing at your heartstrings, defines longing in its truest form. 


From Watertown to Texas: How I Saw The Cure at Austin City Limits

Growing up in Watertown, NY, I spent a lot of time with my grandfather. He was particularly fond of country western music and constantly played Patsy Cline or tuned into the Grand Ole Opry and Austin City Limits when I was visiting. I'm not sure if I liked the music much back then, but I realize now that I was seriously influenced. Although I once spurned country music as the only music I didn't like, I'm way interested now. What it took, apparently, was a big move to Texas.

Around the same time I claimed country to be the worst (high school probably), I was deep in love with a British band fronted by a man with dark hair, sometimes teased into a wild sculpture, red lip stains, and smudged black eye makeup. If you haven't figured it out: this is Robert Smith of The Cure, my biggest dreamboat. Robert Smith was my only high school boyfriend, really. I never was the dating type back then.

Why Can't I Be You, The Cure, 1987
Still my favorite band. 

By some magic I learned that we were going to be visiting friends in Austin during the Austin City Limits music festival, an outdoor festival not limited to country western, and that the headlining band was none other than The Cure (whom I've only ever seen once before in a serendipitous Hard Rock live taping at a closed studio in NYC, 1999. Thanks to my friend Jose from FIT!).

I'm in the front row somewhere, stage left (with a pierced lip, cat eyeglasses, and blondie hair).

I knew I had to try seeing them again. Forget about the fact that there were no $300 tickets available. In Austin the festive atmosphere was infectious. We had a bite to eat as the sun went down, grabbed some hot Vietnamese coffee to go, and set off for Zilker Park.

Zilker Park, Austin, TX

Luckily my wonderful group was totally into the adventure. About 20 minutes of walking in the desert chill and we started to hear the unmistakable sounds of Robert Smith. Excited, we propelled toward the final stretch: a hike through the nearly black wooded path leading into the park. Led by the enchanting soundtrack (which at times unfortunately crossed into Kings of Leon on the second stage), we made our way to the entrance of the festival and from there we could actually see the stage and the projection screens.

Victory! We stood in our happy spot listening to the wondrous music for while and at the last minute I made a quick dash past the guards and into the park! Running like a wild woman toward the stage, I felt an incredible rush of ecstasy that will last in memory for a long time. O Robert!

Post Cure morning bliss and breakfast at Bouldin Creek Cafe on S. 1st


Two Exciting Works at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

On my last visit to Philadelphia I found myself wandering around the great museum there (surprise surprise!). I made a quick pilgrimage to some of my old faves, but as it happens with art and museums, the more you look, the higher the chance you discover something you hadn't noticed before. Of course, I was hanging around the European art galleries mostly (although I did drop in on Joseph Cornell).

My photos couldn't capture the magic, but these paintings are worth spending a generous amount of time in front of. Both of these works are predella panels from different altarpieces. A predella is the space beneath a grand altarpiece. These spaces are usually filled with small scale narrative paintings that relate to and expand on the more well known religious events depicted in the altarpiece, which are usually something like a crucifixion scene or the annunciation. 

Agnolo Gaddi, The Legend of St. Sylvester, 1380, tempera with tooled goldGallery 210, European Art 1100-1500, second floor

In Gaddi's painting, Pope Sylvester I (d. 335) binds the mouth of a dragon, sealing off its poisonous breath, and revives two victims who lay prone in the foreground. The crowned observer on the right is the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great (ruled 306-337), who, according to legend, had been cured of leprosy by Sylvester. 

Dragons painted in this era are always interesting subjects, formally. I especially like how this dragon is a pet sized cutie and how tenderly Sylvester seems to be interacting with it. 

Botticelli's The Last Moments of Saint Mary Magdalene, 1484, tempera

Tempera as a painting medium can be sublime. Because the artist mixes pure pigment with a binding agent, egg yolk, and water to thin, the translucency of the quick drying paint works well to create a mystical world. Very fitting for the religious paintings found here and throughout the middle ages toward the Renaissance. 

Look at Magdalene, a lovely 15th century Cousin Itt. Depicted as a mass of golden hair, she's a face less apparition, a symbol floating on curls. Instead of these figures appearing fully corporeal and integrated into the architectural space, their presence hesitates, flickering as if flames of a candle. The impermanence and delicacy of life is in contrast with the strength of the Pietra Serena in this Brunelleschi-esque building.

Some art historians say that the transparency shown here is the product of a mistake or somehow unintentional. Whichever the case may be, I think it's pretty spectacular and very effective.



The Man Without A Past, 2002, Wins My Heart

This summer is magnificent in some ways. Although we don't have glamorous travel plans and the days are sometimes too long, too hot, there are little treats to be had. I've shut off various social media for a refreshing peace which is turning out to be a very nice treat. My museum projects are interesting and intellectually satisfying. Every evening we have a twilight bike ride. Summer rain in Houston is better than anywhere I've ever been. Sometimes there is a magical rain that sprinkles down while the sun is shining and at night the lightning shows are terrific. A gigantic sunflower has sprouted up in our backyard. We have a backyard! 

After tonight's bike ride we made a spicy batch of iced chai, homemade pizza dough, and chocolate chip habañero almond cookies. Oh and we watched this incredible piece of art which made me just so damn happy:

All I want to do is watch films written and made by Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki. There are a million reasons why. Find out for yourself and enjoy.


Things I Like, July 2013

I'm going to report on my recent travels to Massachusetts, New York, and Hill Country, TX, but in the meantime here is a small compendium of important things that I like right now.


It being sultry, sultry summertime here in Houston frozen treats factor largely in our routine. Paletas, Mexican popsicles, are my new favorite and Alex surprised me by delivering us to the best place in town. Upon arrival I bolted inside, figured out the paleteria layout and got serious. After some deliberation on a) how many can we eat at once? and b) which flavors have the fewest and best ingredients, I decided on one chile cucumber, for dinner, and one rice pudding, for dessert. But then I noticed some other irresistibles in an upright case: mangonadas and a similar production with sandia (watermelon). These delights consisted of: either frozen mango or watermelon with a liquid mixture of chile and cayenne pepper swirled through. I think you're supposed to take the entire thing out of the cup and eat it on its stick, but it's big and drips all over. I used the stick as a utensil and everything in the world improved.

Our collection at El Pibe Paleteria

All frozen things were consumed on the spot as other paleta fans looked at us strangely, but knowingly. 


Chamoy has a pickled fruit base to which you add salt, sugar, lime, and chile pepper spices. It can range in consistency, from a liquid to a powder. In powder form (chile en polvo) we've had it sprinkled on fruits and vegetables and in mixed drinks, especially those containing mezcal. We've had it on mangoes in San Antonio, where they take an entire beautifully ripe mango, impale it with a sturdy wooden pole, slice petals into the fruit, and douse it with liquid and powder chamoy. It is now a part of our culinary lexicon and I'm excited to experiment with the sweet, salty, sour, and spicy recipe. 

Homemade chamoy and Mezcal brought back from DF (Mexico City).


Cajeta is a Latin American dulce (sweet) that I first discovered in Philadelphia actually, in the Italian Market. Back then it was made with goat's milk, sugar, and wine. It's no longer made with wine, sadly, but I still love the buttery caramel spread. You can find this dulce in all kinds of Mexican candies, especially at the Fiesta market. You can find it at here in Montrose at Blackhole Cafe in a cajeta latte or offered as a topping on a snoball (shaved ice) or piped inside churros.

For my first visit to Texas I traveled by train, from NYC, and the state seemed very exotic to me. We took a day trip to romantic San Antonio where my senses were inspired by many things. Hidden in the back corner of a bookstore there, feeling pretty excited, I secretly copied a recipe out of a cookbook. How could I resist the title: San Antonio Chocolate-Cajeta Flan Cake (from The Tex-Mex Cookbook by renowned food historian Robb Walsh). This was ten years ago and I have been making the cake ever since in various Northeast cities.

Fine. This is a fancy styled photo and not my own. But this is how my cake looks!

The flan sinks to the bottom of the bundt pan and the chocolate cake rises to the top (when you flip it out of the pan the flan is then on the top). Once the cake has been set free, get generous with MORE cajeta. It's a beautiful cake and I love making it. I recently made it for a friend's birthday here in Houston, to go with our Mexican themed dinner (con mezcal margaritas).

My mother in law gave me her copy of The Tex-Mex Cookbook since I had lost my little recipe card/scrap from 2002 and as I was reading through it I learned how Tex-Mex was introduced to France. It was after the film Betty Blue (32'7 le matin), 1986, came out in Paris. Apparently, everyone in France watched it and since there are several mentions of Tex-Mex style food (chili con carne, tequila, etc.), the French demanded this exotic cuisine. Soon Tex-Mex was making its way through Europe. Crazy!

I recommend this film. It's spectacularly romantic and sad. Pair it with all of the above food and drinks for a memorable evening.

One last thing I've been dreamy over: BBQ smokers. I have never seen these anywhere in the north, but they come out in full force around here, especially during summer. While I probably won't sample from these ubiquitous smokers in the near future, I can drown happily in the scent that pretty much permeates the entire city right now. It makes for a heavenly, uniquely Texan atmosphere.


Asia, San Francisco

My most recent adventure took me back to the West Coast for five days in San Francisco, its cooler sibling, Oakland, and north up the coast to wine country for a wedding. I got to spend time with my old bestie from New York, a great friend from Tufts, and take part in a family celebration. I learned a few things about the city while the recurring Asian atmosphere provided dreamy thrills.

My first trip to SF in 2010 did not impress me too much which, I know, is a huge, glaringly provincial oversight. I cared more about seeing my best friend and less about where we were (I do remember some of the great things we ate).

This time I made more of an effort. Strategy: 1. Land 2. Squeeze my old friends 3. March them over to the best bakery in town, Tartine. In the heart of the Mission and right next to Dolores Park, this place is always busy and amazing.

I was in a hunger crisis so I ordered ten things in a state of delirium. It's a great way to experience Tartine. Of course everything: the orangey morning bun, the pain au chocolat, the brioche bread pudding, and the asparagus croque monsieur, was divine.

Sunset/Ocean Beach
A magical evening: dinner at Outerlands where the butter was so good we took home the uneaten portion in a to go box. Fantastic meal from butter onward thanks to the insider knowledge of our food critic host. Afterward we walked past the above ground train station over to Ocean Beach. We saw surfers on the street in full gear, we passed the neon lights of the last stop on the N. Judah line, and leaving civilization, we walked along the desperately dark beach. I couldn't tell where the sand ended and the water began.

In between eating different good things, I saw the de Young. Pretty cool museum set in the gorgeous Golden Gate Park. About the size of Central Park, but this park is like a red carpet to the Pacific Ocean. What the hell amazing. While there you'll find a Japanese tea garden, a Bison pond, a Botanical garden, the Renzo Piano designed super green California Academy of Sciences, with aquarium/planetarium combo, and a horseshoe pit. I wish we had an entire day to wander around.

I came explicitly for the textile collection, which is known to be very good. Disappointment! The entire collection was in storage.

Looking around the special exhibit "Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshuis" we saw some interesting things and of course the climax, Vermeer's sadly underwhelming Girl with the Pearl Earring. Vermeer is a great artist, but he was not included in the show, only his fame whore (I'm sure he did not intend this to be her future, poor thing). I decided then and there that I really have no patience for these blockbuster museum shows which tout their features like licentious women. The mobs just make it all so tawdry, crushing through mindlessly gaping. Why should this painting be so vaunted? Because of the movie starring Scarlet Johansson? I felt that all of the people enjoying their perfunctory glance at the painting were just checking it off their list of things to claim "seen." I guess I was too, but in a more cynical, or clinical, way. The experience left me with a bad taste, especially after watching people sneak photos with their iphones. Why? Stupid. Where are we, Chateau Marmont? I came across this article recently which in a way summarizes my complaints with these kinds of short attention span entertainment shows.

We did see some cool stuff such as:

Rubbings and stelae from Chichen Itza (featuring the Mayan ball game in which the loser is decapitated, see bottom left of the rubbing).

Peruvian feather tunic

Photorealist Robert Bechtle's "Four Palm Trees," 1969

The de Young is a great museum, even better I'm sure, when the textiles are out.

After our museum trip, I decided I didn't want to see any more art institutions, only the different neighborhoods of San Francisco.

Centered around a grand, but somewhat ugly concrete stupa, this is the oldest and largest Japanese community in America. Japantown is like an entire Asian city within a city. We had a lot of fun checking out Daiso, the Japanese dollar store, and the Japanese mall complete with arcade. We also learned that plastic bags are banned in SF and if you want one you have to pay. I loved it!

Stupa (Buddhist reliquary monument)

For caffeine: YakiniQ Cafe. Matcha latte, matcha shortbread, and onigiri. Good spot. There was also a British Japanese tea shop and cos play type clothing for sale in the same building. Atmospheric places.

My matcha latte

Books: Kinokuniya. We stuck around here for a long time. Lots of things to explore. I picked up a few fun things related to Japanese draping techniques and secret household tips.

Oldest and largest Chinatown outside of Asia. Just walking around here is thrilling. I found a small hand, carved from jade, in one of the shops. The lady working there said it was a protective charm.

We picked up some Chinese bakery treats for our adventure.

Fisherman's Wharf
Musée Mécanique, a crazy collection of mechanically operated arcade games and music boxes. 

North Beach
We walked all over from Chinatown to the Wharf to North Beach. We visited City Lights Bookstore, then watched an accordion band at Caffe Trieste (by the way the Africano is what to get). We stopped in Russian Hill where we actually met a Russian man who basically told us he couldn't speak English. Further up the hill I had an unexpected bloody nose. Out of nowhere another man came running over with an entire box of tissues. Bending down to me like a gentleman, he allowed me to take what I needed and then disappeared. In my blood loss induced delirium I thought I saw this tissue savior a few minutes later and yelled out a sincere thank you. I looked more closely and yelled "NOT YOU!" after I realized it was the wrong guy and therefore undeserving.  

I spotted this vertical veggie garden on my way to Samovar Tea Lounge, Sanchez Street. I wanted to revisit this tea place for the simple reason that it is incredibly good. Last time I was in town we went to the Yerba Buena spot but this location is closer to Tartine (convenient for last minute pastries to go). It was much more low key, which I appreciated, especially after several days of failed attempts to get into restaurants on my wish list. I learned: dinner reservations are a must in this city and two hour waits are standard for popular places, including bars!

At Samovar, I got the Japanese Tea Service with Ryokucha Green Tea. It's the most perfect kind of food: clean, healthy, interesting, kind of like a metaphor for the city itself. My tea service included a great variety of hearty salads alongside smoked salmon, a small bowl of soup, and the grassiest, greenest, most delightful tea I've had the pleasure of tasting. Another thing I learned in San Francisco, no one eats tofu or soybean products. It's practically anathema so don't even ask. Anyway, I adore this place and I'll be back a hundred more times.


Recovery Inspir-o-meter

Over the last few weeks I have spent an ungodly amount of time bedridden for recovery purposes. I hate being less than active, but trying to rush the process always wiped me out, plus it's pretty important that I not mess around with the required recovery. So with piles of library books and films on my night stand I gave in. A rough general theme was developed to maximize positivity and inspire motivation to get the hell outta bed.

I pretty much loved all of these.

Man on the Moon, Milos Forman, 1999
I'm not sure why I'd never seen this. An incredible story and I especially loved Danny DeVito's performance.

Slums of Beverly Hills, Tamara Jenkins, 1998
Repeat viewing, still great. Alan Arkin and his band of misfits.

Walker, Alex Cox, 1987
Brilliant ideas here from the director of one my favorite films, Sid and Nancy. Absurdist surreal tale of colonization and the shifting of ideals in the onset of madness. Loved the film score by Joe Strummer and performance by Ed Harris.

Even the Rain, Iciar Bollain, 2010
Provocative look at what it means to make a modern film about colonization in a country, Bolivia, that is being controlled by their own government and exploited by the film industry for cheap labor. This one, beautifully shot, stayed with me for days bringing questions of exploitation and the human cost of making art.

La Jetee/Sans Soleil, Chris Marker, 1963
Stunning. I appreciated the attention to rituals, the thoughtful ruminations on existential ideas, and the photography was achingly gorgeous. I miss film and its tangibility.

Consuming Spirits, Chris Sullivan, 2012
Out for the evening! Lucky us, this was showing at the MFAH with the artist present, one night only. It's a real heartbreaker in many ways. This film, a product of obvious painstaking work, represents 15 years of passionate tenacity. The tale is utterly original, with the added bonus of being unconsciously strange, both in content and in detail. Sullivan makes fantastic use of the different media and uses them to help the viewer keep track of the complex drama. At times it was somewhat grotesque to look at, the realism found in mundane activities is laid bare and it's unattractive, the truth. Fascinating. Best seen on the big screen.

Searching for Sugar Man, Malik Bendjelloul, 2012
Maybe the most inspiring of all and a true story that is unbelievably uplifting. I aspire to be as modest, chill, ready for anything, and totally hardworking for the benefit of my children as Rodriguez. What a star.

I didn't fare as well here.

Just Kids, Patti Smith, 2009
A quick read by the estimable Smith. Although it charted an interesting time period, there was something about it that put me off. The somewhat pretentious literary references and lofty writing style, too many famous personalities, I don't care so much for poetry? The end felt rushed and amateurish. Not very compelling.

This is How You Lose Her, Junot Diaz, 2012
I was excited about this. I even ordered it from another library and had it delivered to the Montrose branch. While I do like Diaz's writing style, I find it similar to other writers that I much prefer (especially Sandra Cisneros and her spectacular, underrated Caramelo from 2002). Perhaps it's the male perspective or the exhausting objectification of women and in this case, the anti-Boston angst (bad timing). The first two parts were easy, entertaining, too, but the conclusion was a real bummer. I suspect there's a larger point connecting these stories, but either I'm not the targeted audience, I didn't get it, or I didn't care. The one element I did appreciate was the sensitive and honest insight into the Latino male experience.

The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer, 1475
Never read it, always meant to. Super.

Lucky Girls, Nell Freudenberger, 2003
To be honest, I picked this up based on its cover. But also because the book, a collection of short stories, centers on various female expatriates in Southeast Asia. This was compelling to me for two reasons: 1. I enjoy commiserating with others who find themselves struggling to adapt to new lands. 2. Opportunity to armchair travel. I didn't start this one until the end of my recovery, but once I did, it was the book that most captivated me. Each story was cleverly told and evoked a filmy dream atmosphere. With smart writing, not the self-aware kind, I found simply, an effortlessly gifted writer. Freudenberger, who often writes for the New Yorker, provides rich descriptions for her characters and locations, not by offering obsessive details, but by giving us key information and allowing us to invoke our imaginations, so that these people could be conjured easily. I don't usually go for short stories and I wonder if authors take a different approach when their format is much shorter. In the case of these stories, I quickly felt very familiar with the world in which they were set, and when the end of the story came, sadly, and even without the expected satisfaction of denouement, I missed that particular world immediately as it faded away from coherency as a memory often does.

An then an exciting day out! The Indie Book Fest at the Menil where we saw some friends, had a great food truck lunch at H-Town Streats (fried avocado taco, huckleberry ice cream sandwich, and a bottle of Limca). Besides the beautiful weather, the most memorable part of this event was this thrilling short film by Houston filmmaker, Kelly Sears, shown in the Byzantine Chapel.

Once It Started It Could Not End Otherwise

 And now: back on my bicycle and back to work! 


As If By Enchantment: Surgery, Tragedy, and the Cure

I was scheduled for an April surgery, over the telephone by a sweet secretary named Cherry, while visiting San Francisco. Majorly bummed, the sunny day turned dark for me. However, the experience ended up being much richer than I had imagined. Here are the three phases and some tips I learned.

1. Attempting to control anxiety revolving around the unknown. I didn't worry much until close to The Day. I unleashed my powers when I finally had my pre-op visit. During this visit, which lasted four hours, I was asked repeatedly about my will. Did I have one? No. The many details of the day gave me a slight meltdown, which ended up with the good hearted Cherry comforting me in her office.

My doctor's office: collection of protective amulets and his wall of delivered babies. Good signs.

Right before I was admitted to the hospital, a new friend, experienced in surgery, kept me completely distracted. She accompanied me to the library, to collect my recovery reading, talked endlessly with me about art and art history over ice cream, and wandered with me around shops looking at pretty things. At one point I looked at my watch and seven hours had gone by. This distraction was key for keeping anxiety at a healthy low and everyone should do this kind deed if they can. 

2. Create zen like moment by moment strategies for maintaining adult integrity as you enter the hospital, get compression stockings put on you, and prepare to be temporarily put to sleep and be cut open. Since I had never had surgery before I had built a vivid image of what the operating room would look like and I did not want to see, but neither did I particularly want to be put to sleep. Conundrum. I imagined that the OR would look basically like a morgue or autopsy room, 80's horror film style, and I imagined my bright red blood gushing everywhere. Even though they took my glasses off before they wheeled me in, I could tell that the room looked like it had been yarn bombed. I was not expecting the place to be so colorful. This was my last thought and it was a comforting one.

3. Waking up in a room full of other people doing the same. We were all cranky in various stages of coming out of anesthesia. In clear plastic detaining beds, it all felt similar to the nursery ward. According to the nurse tasked with watching over all of us babies, I had been trying to climb out of my restraints even while still sedated. She told me this story after I repeatedly yelled out "where am I?" with my breathing mask thing still on.

It's very surreal to wake up with a bunch of fresh wounds and bruises and not remember how they got there. Trying to recover the hours of my life that I could not account for was only possible by refraining from any painkillers. While the pain was not blinding, it was uncomfortable enough to remind me of reality and what had taken place during those several dark hours. For reasons I can't fully explain, I wanted that time back. Shaking the lingering effects of the anesthesia was the biggest learning experience. It stays in your system and makes you crazy sad, which I didn't know in advance. Tears are shed inexplicably, frequently. Every bit of encouragement, cheese ball or other, really knocks the drug out of you. Loving messages of all kinds work far better than Morphine. In the future whenever someone has to submit to surgery, I'll know just what they need. 

I was already home when I heard about the situation in Boston and Cambridge, where I lived for three years, 2009-2012. Although I was still weak and recovering, the unfolding events completely refocused my emotional state as following it was one of the most heartbreaking experiences I've had in years and it still torments me, but not for the most obvious reasons. There are many tragic situations around the world and our own country, but when something happens in a very familiar place, the impact is much stronger. Beyond this, seeing the remnants of an attack in this familiar place reactivated my own quieted memories of another intimate experience from my past, September 11. I remember so many small details from those days, the movie I watched the night before (Alphaville at a cute bar), the call right before I went into the subway entrance (my mother, stopping me with the news), the smoke, the smell, the debris floating across the river, the stunning silence and zombified survivors stumbling around with confusion in Brooklyn. There was no other thought on anyone's mind and no one wanted to say much. Together with a close friend, we escaped to Coney Island where we sought out the tranquility of ocean waves. I can't remember how long it took for a routine to resume, but the memory of my first few days back in Manhattan was revived when I saw the pictures of Boston, completely empty of people or traffic. Those images, maybe more than the marathon images, struck me with force.

I had felt that my surgery was a kind of hostage like invasion, similarly, my response to this was that my city, my home (one of them and my most recent), was under attack, as if the city itself were a person that I loved. Boston is a symbol of many things for me. Number one: graduate school with all of its good, bad, depending on the day, truly exhilarating or devastating moments, was a major milestone filled with bigger milestones. While I explored Boston frequently, I spent most of my time on the other side of that magnificent Charles River in Cambridge and Somerville. These towns are both tiny and run into each other so people affectionately use the term Camberville. That's about exactly where I lived.

Washington Street in Union Square, first days.
Last days (raising money for our Grand Tour. Spot the sun lamp for sale! Required for surviving winter in the north).

On our first visit to Cambridge I was not impressed at all, partly because I was sad to leave Philadelphia, partly because it was cold and rainy and ugly when we looked at apartment possibilities. But I really wanted to go to Tufts and we did find a cute place on the second visit. The area, with all of its different squares, is full of memories for me, of course I eventually came to love the city. I had many rituals with many people, as we were academics, meeting at cafes was a big one. Almost all of my old friends from New York, Philadelphia, California, and Australia came to visit multiple times so that our home and our neighborhoods became familiar to them as well.

Many meals had here: Sofra, on the border of Cambridge and Watertown.

We built a fantastic network of new friends (difficult, but rewarding). We spent a lot of time seeing films at Kendall Square, near MIT, at Harvard, the Brattle, on our back porch. Wandering around our own neighborhood, Union Square, watching it evolve, weaving our way into its fabric. I could go on since I'm obviously homesick for Cambridge right now.

When the action was re-ignited and crossed over toward my side of the river, waves of emotion washed over me. Interviews in front of the mundane backdrop to our years there elicited powerful feelings of surreal helplessness...I am far away, still deeply connected to that community, but unable to help support my city in physical solidarity. I wanted to flee my recovery unit and get back to Cambridge, going into the tornado this time.

The street where the brothers lived in Cambridge, only three blocks from my old apartment, served as a short cut to many meetings at Darwin's Cafe and the meet-up spot for my husband and I. He taught across the street at CRLS, where these guys went to school. Just outside of Cambridge, in Watertown, my little Armenia, where I've had many cultural adventures, the manhunt ensued. I found myself sympathizing for the living suspect, the antagonist, not evil because I don't believe that evil exists, but human, deeply flawed as he is. Of course I realize that he willingly hurt and killed people, but I imagine him as one of Alex's students, like the ones interviewed to describe their schoolmate. Even though his future is destroyed, doubly tragic, I'm hoping that he's treated with humanity. I suppose in a way that my reaction is also a reaction to the many bloodthirsty people who would love to see an eye for an eye and public torture for the offense. I don't believe in the death penalty and I demand equal rights for everyone. For now I am relieved that the situation is under control and the people of Boston, who united instantly, can repair.

While I was fixated on this event, maintaining contact with our beloved Boston brethren, and worrying about others instead of myself, I managed to recover fallow strength. Finally feeling bold enough to resume life outside the sick room was a great thing. After all, the small act of going outdoors seemed like a rebellious luxury after talking to friends that were unable or afraid to do so during the week.

To celebrate, we checked out Record Store Day. Even though I'm not any kind of collector, I like the atmosphere and I want to keep record stores open. There was a long line at Cactus Music, which I wasn't expecting, and a really fun DJ. As a treat I picked up this red vinyl re-issue from 1987, number 1254 of 3500. One of my favorite Cure songs is on here, Just Like Heaven. Dreamy.


Azerbaijani Apotropaic

In the syncretic Muslim belief of Lahij (located in northern Azerbaijan), the mummified cat, embedded in this wall above the samovars, is thought to ward off evil. There is also a history, around the world, of placing mummified cats within the walls of your home for the same reason. 

Azerbaijani, located in the southern Caucasus, became part of the Persian Empire from the 6th century BC, and the ethnic groups speaking dialects related to Persian started to migrate up in the mountains. This move accelerated under the Sassanians (3rd to 7th centuries AD). Lahij is well known for its extensive range and skills in crafts making. Someday I hope to visit. For now I can check out the Azerbaijan Cultural Center which I recently discovered in my neighborhood!

The religious communities there today range from Persian, Sunni, Shiite, Armenian Christian, to Mountain Jews. Syncretism describes the fusion of these and other diverse religious beliefs. 

Read more about Lahij here.