Thursday, December 31, 2009


Miriam and Alice have each grown very fast recently. Miriam's measurements are on the left (or top, if your page is narrow), Alice's are on the right (or below):

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The National Aquarium, Baltimore

We started with the dolphin show, and then walked through the many displays of sharks, rays, tropical fish, local seascapes, and the big Australian exhibit. We ended with the remarkable jelly fish room. It's a fantastic aquarium.

Miriam's second favorite animal is frogs, so they are well represented. Sharks are her seventeenth favorite, but they aren't easy to photograph.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

White House Christmas

This morning we went to an exhibit of the famous Terra Cotta Warriors from the 2200-year-old tomb of the Chinese Emperor, as I illustrated here. Then we walked to the White House to see the Christmas tree, the giant menorah for Hanukkah, and the other Christmas displays. Around the tree are many little villages with lots of toy trains. A huge bonfire burns in a deep pit, and there's a small building housing Santa's workshop.

As we stood in line, we saw Santa's Naughty-Nice-O-Meter, and lots of toys being built and packed up for Santa's sleigh. Finally, we arrived at Santa's seat. First Miriam and alice met one of the elves, and then they talked to Santa and told him they wanted lots of books.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

New Tea Set

Here in my china cabinet is the magnificent and tiny tea set that Carol made me! The cups are only around an inch high.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

"Armageddon" by Max Hastings

Armageddon is the horrifying story of the last months of World War II. In fact, this book leaves me unable to say anything. I learned too much about the unmitigated suffering of innocent people, especially children, and the corruption of so many who could have been good. See my food blog for a few thoughts on the unimaginable mass starvation that the book described.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

My New Bike

Here is my wonderful Hanukkah present. Note: I tested it briefly without a helmet but when I took a ride, I wore mine. It rides beautifully. What luck that we have a brief respite from the deep cold we've been having.

Hanukkah Song

Happy Hanukkah!

Friday, December 04, 2009

Olive Kitteridge

Elizabeth Strout's book Olive Kitteridge is irresistible. I really couldn't put it down, and that doesn't happen to me very often. A friend loaned it to me yesterday morning, and I've finished reading it.

Olive Kitteridge is a set of nearly independent stories about the people of a town in Maine. Sometimes the story is about Olive, but in some stories there's barely a single glimpse of her -- she appears at a party or a concert, and the character who is central to that story thinks about his or her reaction to Olive. So it's a composite picture of Olive from many points of view. Her students from her career as a junior-high school math teacher, other teachers and colleagues, people with stores in town, her son Christopher, her husband Henry, women that Henry is attracted to (but never is unfaithful with), men that she's attracted to (but never is unfaithful with) -- all see her, but never quite know what's going on to make her act as she does.

Olive is not likeable, but she's horrifyingly clear-sighted. What often makes her unlikeable or odd or gruff or moody is that she sees everything so clearly, and offends people by her reactions or by what she says. Some stories take place when she's younger, but most of the stories are about her late 60s and early 70s, when she's fat, unhappy with herself, and fully clear that everyone gets sick and dies in a depressing and often undignified way. She has no patience for euphemism or comfort on this topic, and is brusque if people treat her as a old woman or try to gloss over what she can't help seeing.

Vivid events and characters make the stories individually very readable and enjoyable. Every other story is inside the mind of a different character, alternating with stories of Olive herself. Each story, whatever its center, advances your understanding of Olive and how she seems to people. In contrast, another novel I read recently, Brooklyn, is 100% inside the mind of the main character, but is named Brooklyn because that's what it's really about, while this one is not about the town where events occur, but about a character who sometimes only pops up for a moment.

The most amazing story in the book (which my friend who loaned me the book also singled out) is about Olive's son's wedding. Olive can't stand the woman her son has chosen, but tries to act like a normal mother of the groom. However, she overhears people making snide remarks about the flower-patterned dress she made for the wedding. She snaps, and acts up -- among other things, she steals one shoe and a bra from the bride's closet. We follow her thought process as she goes through with her bizarre action, hiding the objects in her large purse under a piece of blueberry cake that she plans to enjoy alone -- she doesn't want to eat with all the other guests. I can't quite capture the unique quality of writing that makes this such a good story.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Mona Lisa at work

From Reuters:
Paris's top museums shut on Wednesday and the Mona Lisa kept her fans waiting as staff went on strike, protesting against cost cuts that they see as a threat to priceless art.
I'm just wondering -- is Mona Lisa a union member?

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

More on Typewriters

From the Guardian online, another article about Cormac McCarthy's typewriter and the views of other authors who used these obsolete machines. Don DeLillo and Frederick Forsyth are the lead examples of typewriter users who insist that typing -- nothing electronic -- must be part of their creative process. Hemingway, we learn, "liked to bash away at a 1940s Royal between bouts of drinking, fighting and chasing women and bulls." And Jack Kerouac typed 100-plus words a minute, which prompted Capote to say: "That's not writing, that's typing."

Monday, November 30, 2009


I always hated typewriters. I could never type a whole sentence without an error. I love word processing software. I loved more primitive mark-up languages at first introduction -- even when the editing was line-oriented and so primitive you can no longer imagine it.

Today, for no apparent reason, I saw four articles with references to typewriters:
  • I read about the last typewriter repair man in Ann Arbor. He spends most of his time doing something else. Bigger offices still have a typewriter here or there for filling out forms, but they use them so little that there's not much work to be done on them. Parts are scarce.
  • In the New York Times, I read about an auction of writer Cormac McCarthy's Olivetti manual typewriter which came from a Knoxville, Tenn., pawnshop around 1963. He wrote: "I have typed on this typewriter every book I have written including three not published. Including all drafts and correspondence I would put this at about five million words over a period of 50 years." Proceeds will go to the Santa Fe Institute.
  • I read that Mark Twain was the first writer ever to submit a typewritten manuscript. But I forgot where I read that.
  • And I read that some one has done the famous experiment of seeing whether monkeys will type out the works of Shakespeare. "After one month - admittedly not an 'infinite' amount of time - the monkeys had partially destroyed the machine, used it as a lavatory, and mostly typed the letter 's.'" So they probably would never have made it to Romeo and Juliet.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Penguins at the Aviary

At the Aviary in Pittsburgh we met Preston the Penguin, and spent around an hour with him. We also toured the kitchen: highlights, a frozen rat and the live insect bins. Many of the birds are in fact vegetarian, though, and eat veggie pellets, chopped kale, or spaghetti. Then there are bald eagles and sea eagles. Rats. Eleven African penguins including Preston live in a beautiful enclosure with all the penguin amenities. We had a wonderful time.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Grandma goes over the river and thru the woods

... from Ann Arbor to Pittsburgh.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

An Embarrassed Smile? What!

"Before its airy makeover with the glass pyramid, the Louvre felt like the worst kind of museum–punishingly vast, the walls of its interminable corridors lined with dukes with beards like spades and spoilt, mean-mouthed women in poodle wigs. After some hours, footsore and deafened by culture, we got to the “Mona Lisa”. I remember thinking how small she was. And how podgy. The famous smile hinted at embarrassment that all these people would bother coming so far to see her, when really she was nothing special."
For the complete article, actually about the Rodin Museum not about the Louvre, see RODIN'S SONNETS IN STONE by Allison Pearson. I have mixed feelings about the Rodin museum as we lived quite near it for a year and took so many visitors there that I was maxed out on Rodin.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

What does Mona Lisa need?

According to a recent New York Times "Consumed" column, Mona Lisa needs augmented reality --
One assessment of augmented-reality possibilities suggested a future in which you might point a smartphone at the “Mona Lisa” and access a documentary about Leonardo da Vinci. And maybe someday it will seem normal to look at a Burger King location through a portable screen and see Yelp ratings, diners’ tweets and possibly a character from “Avatar” enjoying a $1 Whopper Jr. Perhaps this will seem advantageous. Why just look at a restaurant, a colleague or the “Mona Lisa,” when you can you can “augment” them all?

Monday, November 16, 2009

California Fiction Part 2

Double Indemnity covers the same themes as The Postman Always Rings Twice (which I wrote about earlier today in Back to California Fiction). James M. Cain's narrator-murderer in this one is entirely in control of his choices, though he misjudges his incredibly cold-blooded accomplice. It's a chilling story: the accomplice is an unforgettably awful woman -- beyond description. Similar brief passages of California local color and legal details make the two stories a bit repetitive -- I wish I hadn't read both of them on the same day.

I'd also always heard of the movie Double Indemnity with Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson. I wonder if its director Billy Wilder preserved the timeless quality of the story, which like the other seems less dated than I'd expect.

Back to California Fiction

I had never read anything by James M. Cain before today. The Postman Always Rings Twice is short and suspenseful -- a good read, and not at all dated. I enjoyed the setting in southern California, with just enough local color from the 1930s.

The narrator, Frank Chambers, is an unlikeable, hard-boiled drifter and petty criminal who unthinkingly becomes a cold-blooded murderer. In some ways the narrator makes me think of Camus' The Stranger -- he just doesn't quite know how all these things happen to him, and exists from minute to minute. Chambers constantly drifts downward, manipulated by a woman named Cora -- I see her as very individualized example of a stereotyped temptress. Camus didn't portray any character like Cora.

In the novel, ethnic prejudice against Cora's husband Nick -- a likeable, successful Greek cafe owner -- is a heavy theme. At the very beginning, she asserted her plain-white-American identity: a girl from Iowa, married to a Greek. All she wanted was a secure life, and didn't mind being the cook in Nick's diner kitchen, but she had nothing but hatred and disgust for Nick himself. Cain's first-person narrative is so convincing that you almost (only almost) wish Frank and Cora well with their despicable scheme to get possession of her husband's cafe, car, and money. And the several reversals at the end (which I won't spoil) make it all the better reading.

I just looked up the two films made from this book, which I've heard of but never seen. In 1946, Lana Turner played "Cora Smith" whose husband was "Nick Smith" -- in other words, the film removed the ethnic identity issue. The 1981 remake starred Jack Nicholson as the drifter, Frank Chambers, and Jessica Lange as Cora Papadakis. My guess is that the first film would have become much more dated than the book. Maybe I'll watch the films some time. I definitely want to read another of Cain's stories from the collection I have checked out of the library.

Also see Road Food, 1934 on my food blog for another view of the story.

Jewish Pirates?

Remember the jokes about the world's shortest book? When I saw Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean on the Jewish Book Festival table, I thought it was impossible to have a whole book on the subject. And in fact, the author Edward Kritzler would have had a very short book indeed if he hadn't padded his narrative with Jewish pirates from other places (like North Africa), non-Jewish pirates (like Henry Morgan) and Jews from all over the Sephardic world.

Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean is a frustrating mish-mash of historical information. True, its reason for jumping around is that the few actual Jewish pirates had a jumpy background. The real ones, who went after Spanish treasure ships and did other privateering jobs, were connected to Jews in Spain, the Netherlands, Brazil, New Amsterdam (that first Jewish colony), England, and many Caribbean islands. If you didn't know a thing about that era, you might find it interesting -- or frustratingly hard to follow. I found it mainly annoying. There just weren't enough real pirates. AAAR.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Old News Repackaged

I just read an article that says that Mona Lisa had eyebrows. Vasari said that 450 years ago, approximately. Ho Hum. So the latest thing was to x-ray or otherwise use technology. The end result is simply not new! see this --

Mona Lisa 'had eyebrows'

The Mona Lisa originally had eyebrows, according to a French art expert who has analysed Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece with a special camera.

Monday, November 09, 2009


Yesterday as we were walking by Argo Pond in the Huron River we noticed three young men on the railroad bridge above the water. The air was warm, but their swimming shorts seemed a little out-of-season. Friends on the bank were urging them to jump. I photographed them in sequence, beginning with the first one in the water.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

No News

On our walk this afternoon we saw this delivery box for the Ann Arbor News. It was on the ground next to the post that once held it, no longer needed.

Ann Arbor is marginally famous for the fact that it's a city of well-educated people that now has no newspaper at all. The News went out of business last summer, leaving a smaller less frequent (and much less staffed) publication that mainly runs a website. I've read that the out-of-town owner of the News (and its little replacement) wants to experiment with what can be done if you cancel the paper globally.

In the many years I've lived in Ann Arbor, I was a subscriber to this local paper for less than 8 months once, in the mid-80s. So I don't really miss it. I began reading what the News posted online a couple of years ago, and now read the successor website. I switched from the paper New York Times to the online one in 2003. I also read several other online publications.

The lack of a newspaper has a variety of consequences for a city this size. Last Tuesday, we voted to change the city charter, which required publication of certain acts of the City Council and other local government apparatus in the "newspaper of record." The only journal that satisfies the criteria in the old charter language is a legal journal with a circulation of around 1000, I read. Now it's legal for the city to post these items on certain websites. And legal requirements and reality are better lined up again.

Someone eventually is going to have to figure out how to replace the seeming finality of printing and archiving newspaper announcements. Otherwise we will have no certainty that the electronic version hasn't been tampered with. A brave new world -- or more like what Orwell predicted for 1984 when Big Brother's minions regularly changed the historic record. But we have no newspaper, so the change isn't negotiable.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Halloween 1989, Poitiers, France

On Halloween of 1989, our friend Laurent Bloch invited us to visit Poitiers, his home town. All Souls Day and the previous evening were a very different type of holiday in France. Many families visit cemeteries, maintain or decorate family graves, and go to church services. There is a public holiday when government offices, schools, and many businesses are closed.

Laurent's family are not at all religious, so he took us on a tour. The first photo shows me in a Visigoth grave, acting for Halloween. The Visigoth graves are something of a mystery, if I correctly remember what Laurent told us. Their sarcophagi, pictured here, have been heaved up out of the ground in the ensuing 1500 years.

We visited a number of the beautifully preserved early medieval churches in the area. Some were restored by the famous (or infamous) Eugène Viollet-le-Duc in the nineteenth century. A few may be in more authentic shape -- Viollet-le-Duc is known for his somewhat excessive creativity in making his restorations fit his theories about art and history. We enjoyed all the Romanesque architecture. In the evening, seeing the robed priests silently entering the churches was a very spooky sight.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Indescribable Concert

Tonight we heard an indescribable concert at the Kerrytown Concert House. It was in a number of languages: English, Idiotish, Fringe, HighBrew, Russian, Yiddish, Uglish, Portu-guess, and a few others. One example: the very skilled and talented woman singer performed "La Vie en Rose" accompanied on a musical saw. Pavel Lion, pictured above, performed "Lili Marlene" in Yiddish or maybe it was Idiotish, I'm not sure.

My favorite number was "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" sung in several of the languages I mentioned. Also "Momik." I think it was in Russian. Evelyn says you go to college so you will get the jokes. I'm not really educated enough for this yet, but I enjoyed it enormously.

The Train

This afternoon I was taking a walk with the International Neighbors group when the train went by. I was standing on the dam at Barton Pond when I took this video. I really love to watch the train go by!

A while earlier, I took this picture of my walking companions in front of the dam:

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Bard of Waverly Place

This is the set for the London Globe Theater production of Love's Labors Lost that we saw on the Michigan campus this evening. (I took photos only before the performance and at intermission.) The set was imaginative, clearly designed to be like Shakespeare's original stage with multiple levels and an inner stage, but no changes during the performance.

The production was raucous -- tons of vocal effects, sarcasm, exaggerated costume details, live music on period instruments, lightly modern touches (like playing Hava Nagila when a play-in-play introduced Judas Maccabeus), and constant broad physical humor (even farting jokes) and slapstick of all sorts. The sarcasm and method of reading the lines reminded me of some of the kids' shows on Disney like the "Wizards of Waverly Place" -- really, no kidding. I am not at all familiar with this play, so I don't know if this is a reasonable interpretation.

During Intermission

Thursday, October 22, 2009

What did women want?

I have finished reading Gail Collins' When Everything Changed (which I mentioned in my two previous posts: Women's History and Everything Changed). It's a very thorough history of the progress of women's rights and women's quest for equality in the last 50 years of American history. But as I said, I was disappointed because it lacks the vigor and humor of its author's usual style.

As a witness and as a person affected by this history, what does this book really say to me? Is it really true that women got what they asked for but learned that it's not really what they want? Did upper class and well-educated women see their privileges extended, while poor women's lack of access to education, good jobs, and child care were simply made more painful? Did attitudes towards women in the workplace improve women's chances while attitudes towards women's maternal and housekeeping duties didn't change fast enough to make up for it? Did changes in some fields (military careers, academic science, engineering, average politics) lag behind so that men still dominate them and can make a woman's life in them very hard? What about pressure on women to be beautiful, thin, fashionable or trendy, and flattering to men -- did anything about that improve? I love Collins's optimism. But I'm not sure it answers enough questions.

UPDATE: A number of studies have just appeared on the same topic as Collins's book. From Judith Warner, writing about the dubious gap in women's happiness:
Freedom, opportunity, respect, dignity, self-determination and equality — those universal human rights we somehow judge optional for women — do not make people unhappy. Only roadblocks to those entitlements do. Particularly when those impediments are packaged as what we “really” want.
See When We're Equal, We'll Be Happy

Women's History in "Time"

Gail Collins, whose book When Everything Changed I'm continuing to read, isn't the only one writing about how women's place in society has changed in the last 40 or 50 years. Ed Rollins published a story at CNN about how much times changed in the life of his mother, recently deceased at the age of 91. He wrote: "she was not just a spectator to those changes, she was a participant and a pioneer. She was not a woman's libber. She just got up every day and led by example."

Rollins cites Time magazine's recent set of stories: The State of the American Woman. The anchor article by Nancy Gibbs, What Women Want, presents a summary which essentially is an echo of Collins' book, which she cites. Writes Gibbs:
It's funny how things change slowly, until the day we realize they've changed completely. It's expected that by the end of the year, for the first time in history the majority of workers in the U.S. will be women — largely because the downturn has hit men so hard. This is an extraordinary change in a single generation, and it is gathering speed: the growth prospects, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, are in typically female jobs like nursing, retail and customer service. More and more women are the primary breadwinner in their household (almost 40%) or are providing essential income for the family's bottom line. Their buying power has never been greater — and their choices have seldom been harder.
Time also reports on a number of polls about attitudes towards women. And Maria Shriver wrote about her recent study of how families live and work today and about her mother, Eunice Shriver. She says:
Everywhere I went, people talked to me about how stressed they feel, especially when it comes to financial security. Women said that never before has so much been asked of them, and never have they delivered so much. Divorced mothers talked to me about trying to make do without child support. A single mother who had just lost her job told me she was utterly dependent on her family and friends just to stay afloat. A businesswoman on the West Coast told me she and her husband "are constantly renegotiating our agreement about what gets done [and] who does it." You hear a lot about the search for a "balanced life." More and more women say that if they could, they'd like to leave companies that are unresponsive and start their own businesses. Many of them do. In fact, the number of women working for themselves doubled from 1979 to 2003, so that women make up 35% of all self-employed people.
We're supposed to question ourselves about the value of the changes, maybe. Gibbs cites the recent dubious study proving that women are less happy than the used to be (the change is much more marginal than the ones featured in these articles).

I wonder why this is suddenly such a hot topic. I'm sure I'll figure out the reason soon. In any case, I plan to finish reading the Gail Collins book soon.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Everything Changed?

Gail Collins' When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present received a rave review by Francine Prose in Sunday's NY Times Book Review: 'When Everything Changed'

I ordered it immediately and I've now read about half of it. So far, I'm very disappointed because I feel as if I read every word of it 40 years ago or more -- above is a photo of my dusty attic bookshelf with so many of the sources of her material. I even recognize a number of her little vignette stories. Below is another photo of two very well known and extreme examples of books by individuals she mentions in the book.

If Collins had something new to say -- something witty and fun to read like her New York Times columns -- the sense of nothing new wouldn't be so bad. Usually when she comments on current events, she's discussing something that I read in the paper that week, not a lifetime ago, and she manages not to seem redundant. Unfortunately, I hardly recognize the Gail Collins that I thought I knew.

Maybe it isn't fair to expect her to say something new. I remember too much to be surprised by the retelling of the terrible stories of oppression of women that she covers in the first 200 pages. If I hadn't read it all before, I'd be quite interested. Actually, I remember the reading but also even remember some events such as the one above (clipped from a campus newspaper). Evelyn (in hooded coat) and I (leaning over her) were looking over literature and buttons. But is it too much to ask Collins to apply her witty and penetrating skills that she uses in her columns?

I will try to read the second half of the book and hope it gets better.