Sunday, April 30, 2017

Mona Lisa selfie



      To my credit, I did not plan to visit the Louvre during our recent trip to Paris. For several reasons. First, I saw it during my last trip, 24 years ago. Been there, done that. Second, and more importantly, my wife didn't have fond memories of what she recalled as hulking time-darkened medieval works plastering across endless, packed galleries. And third, both of us much preferred the Impressionist art at the Museum d'Orsey, which we went to immediately.
      But we were in Paris nearly a full week, and the expected exerts a gravitational pull. Something we had already noticed in Florence, when a friend of our son's insisted we visit a certain sandwich shop. The line in front of the shop was long, we waited a half hour, while other shops were empty. When we got our coveted sandwiches they were ... just okay. A reminder that the wildly popular is sometimes better, sometimes not.
    So the tractor beam of the Louvre eventually pulled us in. And once there, we shuffled, zombie-like, toward the Mona Lisa, like salmon fighting their way upriver. You have to. There are mute signs, with just her black and white image and an arrow, to both satisfy the common urge and to reduce wear and tear on the guards. Plus, the idea of going to the Louvre and not seeing the painting, it feels almost perverse, like going to Fort Lauderdale and not seeing the ocean. 
     On the way to see the star, we enjoyed the Louvre more than we thought. It was brighter, the pictures, fresher. Maybe a quarter century of general cleaning and restoration. Maybe our tastes are more refined now.
    And it was worth it just for the shock of arriving at the large room containing the Mona Lisa. It's a madhouse, jammed with visitors, all trying to get pictures of themselves with the Mona Lisa in the frame.
    Even before you glimpse the painting, a wave of humidity, sickly sweet, slightly perfumed, hits you in the face. The moisture from all those bodies. It's like being in a crowded locker room with art.
    And why? Because the Mona Lisa is the most famous painting in the world. And this particular painting is the most famous of all paintings because ... any idea? No, not the smile. She was just another one of Da Vinci's works, no different than this "Portrait of a Woman" which museum-goers flock by with nary a glance on their way to the Mona Lisa. 
     But in 1911, a worker named Vincenzo Peruggia, hired to cut a pane of glass for the painting, instead rolled it up, tucked it under his coat, and walked out of the museum with it. The Mona Lisa was so not famous that it took a day for anyone to notice it was missing. And it stayed missing for two years, the Da Vinci tucked in his trunk while the theft made more and more headlines -- at one point Picasso was a suspect, and the chief of the Paris police resigned out of embarrassment. It was only returned after Peruggia, who like most criminals was no Lex Luthor, tried to sell it to the Uffizi Gallery. 
    So that's what you're crowding to see--the after-echo of a true crime mystery. That's why the crowds are there. But why all the photos? Hard to take in a throng, the image muddied by the protective glass. You could buy a perfect postcard in the gift shop for 1.2 euros. But that wouldn't satisfy the "Kilroy was here!" impulse that has us in its thrall, the Facebook urge to document our precious selves. A manifestation of the brainless egotism that has so thoroughly gripped our times.  I'm not excluding myself, though I generally resist the urge to include myself in photos. I know what I look like.
    The Mona Lisa is so popular it almost can't be perceived. Like Grant Wood's "American Gothic." You see it and think of the parodies. To be honest, I far more appreciated Da Vinci's "Portrait de la Femme," in the next room. I can't tell if the painting is substantively finer, or just less familiar, which are pretty much the same thing in the art world. Nothing kills a work more than over-exposure, and attention has in essence ruined the Mona Lisa. The Mona Lisa's smile is famously enigmatic, but this unknown woman seemed, to me, downright hostile. As if she's saying, "Go ahead, fawn over the bitch in the next room." I looked for a postcard in the gift shop of her, but of course there were none to be had, among the hundreds and hundreds of duplicates of M.L.
       This has to be a transitional phase, all this picture taking. A little gap between the time when we used film, which cost money, and limited our number of shots, and the time when we wear some device that constantly films our surroundings, as a matter of security. No wonder we revere the past, or at least our ragged perceptions of what it might have been  like.








Saturday, April 29, 2017

"Another voice, then"



     It is surprisingly easy to overlook the Baptistery of San Giovanni, a plain—well, plain relative to its surroundings — octagonal building sitting in the courtyard of the vastly larger, vastly more stunning, ornate and magnificent Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, commonly called the Duomo.
     The first time I went to Florence, in 1999, I didn't even go inside the baptistery. 
     But that was before I caught what my wife recently called "your Dante thing," and on my recent trip I made a point of ponying up the 12 euro entrance fee and going inside to take a peek, even as my loved ones took a pass. 
     This is, after all, the place where Dante was baptized on March 26, 1266. It is not often you get to sit in a room 750 years old. There is a wonderful, spare beauty to the altar, which looks like this.


   
     I spent a long time looking straight up, at the mosaic ceiling. It looks like this:
    

     As I did, a thought came to me. The thought went something like this:
     You know... that ceiling. It sorta echoes the entire structure of The Divine Comedy. You've got Satan below. You've got the mortal world above, then the angels above. Here Dante gets all this credit for imagining the nine rings of hell, and the complex design of his masterpiece. Maybe he got the idea for the whole thing merely by looking up.
    Nah, I thought. That can't be. If it were possible, I'd have heard of it. Seven hundred years is a long time. Who knows when the ceiling was even decorated? 
     In 1225, it turns out. Forty years before Dante's birth.
     Okay, I would have certainly read about it. I've certainly read enough Dante commentary. My idea of fun, embarrassing as it is to admit. This isn't some Dan Brown novel where important clues sit out in plain sight waiting centuries to be noticed. Amateurs do not discover important aspects of literature heretofore unnoticed. If it were at all a valid thought, somebody would have had it and mentioned it. 
    Turns out, somebody did. When I got home, I immediately pulled down my go-to guide for all things Dante, Barbara Reynold's masterful, Dante: The Poet, the Political Thinker, the Man. The world's foremost Dante scholar doesn't mince words while describing Dante's upbringing:
     Images of evil were depicted everywhere. In particular, the cupola of the Baptistery was decorated with mosaics arranged in rectangles, placed symmetrically, representing Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, the Last Judgment and, of special importance for the Commedia, a grotesque figure of Satan, with three mouths, two protruding snake-like from the sides of his head, each devouring a sinner, an image with which Dante was familiar from earliest childhood. His presentation of Lucifer in Inferno resembles it closely, even to the sinners being crunched in his three mouths.
   Ah good, not original to me, but at least I'm not off-base either. The detail she's referring to is this.
     What I think this little episode illustrates the value of seeing something for yourself, versus reading about it in a book. I'm all for books. Still, I had certainly read the lines in Reynolds' book, then promptly forgot them. 
     But seeing the mosaic on the ceiling of the Baptistery -- that isn't going to slip out of mind anytime soon.
      My wife and son had bowed out—save 24 euros, gone to get some cappuccino, leave dad to his madness. I didn't blame them. And honestly, I was glad for the time alone, to sit not only where Dante squalled as a baby, but where he yearned all his life to return.
     In Canto 25 of Paradiso, he pines for the place:
Should it ever come to pass that this sacred poem
to which both Heaven and earth have set their hand
so that it has made me lean for many years, 
should overcome the cruelty that locks me out
of the fair sheepfold where I slept as a lamb
foe of the wolves at war with it, 
with another voice then, with another fleece,
shall I return a poet and, at the font,
where I was baptized, take the laurel crown.
     I like the "made me lean for many years." Just another frustrated writer bitching about the paltriness of his reward. Which is no doubt why I like Dante so much. Not for Beatrice, not for all the Florentine politics or Catholic cosmology. But for the swollen, aching ego, so real across the centuries. Something I relate to.
     Also the "with another voice then, with another fleece..." What exactly does that mean? There's a lot of obscure stuff in the Commedia -- to this day nobody can figure out what "between Feltro and Feltro" means. Maybe he meant that he's hoping to come back, perhaps disguised. "Vello" means fleece, but it also means "veil." Or... not to put on airs ... but maybe he was referring, not to himself returning at all—hope of that was fading as he wrote Paradiso, which was not discovered until as his death. But maybe he was thinking of other people, of strangers, speaking in other voices, wearing other garb. To, maybe, guys like me. Who, if the poem was as popular as Dante seemed convinced it would be, might shamble by, centuries and centuries later, to sit for 20 minutes on a bench, and think about him, and grant him the honor he so hungered to receive at that spot.


The relevant lines quoted above from Paradiso Canto 25 are carved in marble, generally unnoticed, outside the Baptistery. 
     

Friday, April 28, 2017

"This is as actual a part of living as being born"


     Concrete sounded terrible.
     "You don't sound so good," I told him.
     "I'm very weak," he replied. "I don't think I will be able to call you. I have edema all over my body. My nephew is a doctor and he says I have maybe weeks. I think that might be optimistic. I think more likely days."
     He would die the next day, April 5
     Concrete had been phoning me at the newspaper for 15 years. Once a week, once a month--it's not like I kept track. To comment on columns. To talk about stuff. He had a blunt, rounded Chicago voice, massaging his "t's" into "d's.
     "Hi, it's Concrede..." he'd say.
     He was pleasant and informed and often complimentary. But still, for years I viewed him as something of a nuisance. I had things to do. I'd surf the web while we talked. It's not something I thought much about. I had no idea, for instance, why I called him "Concrete" -- his business, maybe.
     But over the past few months, he got sick—heart failure—and started to die. I began paying closer attention. A heart transplant was not an option.
     "I can't see taking a heart from someone younger," he said. "I'm not Dick Cheney."
     He could have fought harder but, at 69, he didn't see the point.
     "It's not like I'm jumping at death, but you gotta be realistic," he said. "Seventeen years ago I had a triple bypass, so I've actually outlived most people with the condition I had. Things are coming to the conclusion. This is as actual a part of living as being born. I know it's a cliche but it's true."
     I was concerned he was alone, but, the oldest of seven children, six boys and a girl, he had relatives around.
     "I feel terrible being a burden to them," he said. "My nephew carrying me down the stairs. I liked it better when I carried him."
     What's it like, knowing that you are going to die soon?
     "In a way it's almost a gift," he said. "I get to say thank you to people, to try to make amends to people I've offended by commission or omission. To forgive those who've done things to me."
     Was he worried about what might come after death?
     "Reason only carries you so far," he said. "That's where things like faith come in. I hope for some survival of awareness. I can't be sure there is. I've fallen back on Christian tradition. There are things beyond what our brains can comprehend."
     He had a lot of good memories.
     "My niece Dana on my shoulders, leaving the Auto Show, the kids waving bye-bye to everyone as they were going out of a the Auto Show. It's a nice memory. My God, I've been thinking of so many good memories, things when I was a kid, my dad, funny things. Seven kids, one bathroom, I once tried to see if the toilet would swallow a potato."
     Any regrets, besides that?
     "Oh God," he said. "I wish I had years and years, I had plans with my brothers, stuff like that. You have to let all that go. People are saying good-bye to me. I'm saying good-bye to everybody. There's a sadness to it, an anger phase, I've come to acceptance ... though I'm also still angry about it. I'll probably die that way."
     Toward the end, I thought to ask something I had never asked before
     "Concrete, what's your name?"
     "My name is Michael Rosewell," he said. "It's an English name. My great-grandfather was a remittance man. The family was paid to leave England and never come back."
     Why did I call him "Concrete"? I had written something about touring the engine room of a ship in the mid-Atlantic.
     "I told you that in Vietnam we experimented with concrete hulls for ships, and you started to call me 'Concrete,'" he said. "When it's over I'll have someone call you..."
     True to his word, the day before I left on vacation, I got a phone message from his brother.
     "He never married, never had any children," said Joseph Rosewell. "He always felt like the nieces and nephews were the children he never had."
     Rosewell died in Garfield Ridge, in the house his parents bought 66 years ago. His brother said he was greatly missed.
     "He was the leader, he was highly intelligent, you could see that, could sense that right away," said Rosewell. "He was always ready to share things. He loved to talk, loved to have us sit around and chat, hey, have a cup of coffee with me, one thing turn to another and we were having a great conversation."
     I can vouch for that. I never met the man, but felt bad, missing his funeral. The day I arrived in Rome, the first church I came upon was a lovely 16th century cathedral, the Trinità dei Monti. at the top of the Spanish Steps. I put a coin in the box and lit one of the short round votive candles and said a prayer for Michael Rosewell.


Thursday, April 27, 2017

More for me





     Don't get me wrong. I like money as much as the next guy. Maybe even more so.
     If you were to say, "Would you like some more money, Neil?" I would immediately reply, "Yes, please!" and hold my cupped hands out for your to pour the money in.
     And yet. When Trump announced his big tax cut Wednesday, my immediate reaction was not: "Goody, more for me." 

     Instead, it was the same furrowed concern that greets every Trump proposal. Did he think this through? Did anyone? What gets pitched over the side so American taxes, low already, can go even lower? We've already seen funding slashed for environmental protection, the state department, the arts budget gone. What's next? 
     What about the deficit? I thought Republicans were crazed to slash the deficit, all important when it comes to funding programs that help poor kids. Not a dollar for them unless the dollar is cut somewhere else. 
     All out the windows. Suddenly we are boosting the national debt by trillions of dollars so Apple can pay a lower tax rate than it already does.
     And me too. Though, like the stock market bump, I'm not spending it yet. Given Trump's dismal record of accomplishment, there is little reason to suspect a connection between what he says he's going to do and what he indeed will do. Who knows? Today's promise is tomorrow's shrugged-off rhetoric. It's like those Jewish groups clutching themselves in relief this week because Trump uttered some reassuring words about the Holocaust. You want to snarl: "Really? He's still a liar. Just because his lies are words you want to hear, at the moment, doesn't change that."
     And how much will this widen the yawning divide, between those who struggle for crumbs, and guys like me who live in a padded world of steady salaries and health benefits and insurance and better health care for my dog than millions of Americans enjoy for themselves?
    A lot, I bet. Based on narrow self-interest, I should be glad, because my pot gets sweeter. But self-interest can be defined in more than one way.
    A young man of my acquaintance expressed what I thought was an embarrassing placidity over the advent of Trump—a common reaction of the young, I'm distressed to note, lumping Trump into the same box with the politicians and parents, the sagging old world.
     Is he not, I wondered, concerned?
     Nah, he said, he wasn't Muslim, he wasn't Hispanic, or any of the other special focuses of the animus of Trump and his administration. None of this would likely affect him. He'd be fine.
     I carefully considered my reply, and said:
     "But you are affected," I said. "You have to live in the country where it's happening."

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

"Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable"





     James Joyce hated Rome. For reasons that had much to do with him and little with the Eternal City. He was 24 years old, drifting with his new family, forced to work in an Italian bank, copying letters -- up to 200 a day. “Rome reminds me of a man who lives by exhibiting to travellers his grandmother’s corpse.” he wrote to his brother.
     Harsh. Yet a damnation that echoed in my ears, not only while revisiting the wonders of the Vatican Museum, its arching gilt hallways stretching to the horizon, but to other cities as well: to Florence, for instance, at the Uffizi, with its harem of Botticellis, and the Galleria dell'Accademia, Michelangelo's David a marvel undiminished by 500 years.  

   Wondrous. But also half a millennium old, nearly. Doesn't anybody in Italy do anything magnificent anymore? Besides Ferraris, I mean. Everything of value seemed either 500 years old or baked that morning.
     As if to answer my question, as soon as we set foot in Venice, my 21-year-old, with the radar for the Happening Thing of the Moment the young innately possess, announced there was someplace he wanted to go. My wife and I tagged after him like a pair of pull toy ducks as he hurried through narrow alleys and across little bridges to the Palazzo Grassi to see the Damien Hirst show, "Treasures from thee Wreck of the Unbelievable."
     Hirst is a British artist. Going in, I knew exactly two things about his work: one, he created those huge glass boxes with sharks and cows suspended in formaldehyde; and two, a decade ago he crafted a diamond encrusted platinum skull that embodies the insanely inflated values of the contemporary art world....

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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The most beautiful library in Paris




    I could put on airs and pretend I knew it was there. 
    But the truth is, I didn't.
    The way I found myself in the Bibliothèque nationale de France -- the National Library of France -- is this: I was visiting Paris for the third time last week, had been to the Louvre and the Museum d'Orsey, Notre Dame Cathedral and the Arc de Tri0mphe, the Opera and the Eiffel Tower. What, I wondered, did I want to do new? 
     I really like libraries. Not for the books, per se, but for some intangible grandeur they preserve. Maybe the idea of books having value, once, and perhaps still. They're just beautiful. I'm not sure I can explain it. 
    So I plugged in "Most beautiful library into Paris" into Google and came up with this. I think it was the distinctive beige ceiling, with its round skylights, that made me have to see it for myself. 
     The Richelieu Reading Room, as the above space is called, because its address is 58 rue de Richelieu is open only to researchers. Which I learned when the guard tried to turn me away. It was ironic. In many cultural institutions through Italy and Paris, journalists are admitted free -- either out of respect or pity. But here, where there was no charge, I couldn't get in. I appealed to the guard, who said he didn't speak English, and summoned an administrator who did. I explained to her that I am a journalist from Chicago who wanted to step into the reading room.
    "People are doing research," she said. "They do not want to be disturbed." I realized she perhaps thought I was there to quiz people, perhaps about the upcoming presidential election. I assured here I wouldn't talk to anybody. I just wanted to see the place. She waved me in, another victory for French flexibility. I thought of the guard at the Library of Congress -- whom readers of my Chicago memoir might recall -- would flatly refused to let my 7-year-old son see the reading room because he wasn't a registered researcher like his dad.
"Please return the books to their place."
    The room was worth the struggle. 
    If it looks extra fresh for a 143-year-old library, that's because it just reopened last May after five years of renovation work. 
     Tracing its roots to 1368, and the royal library founded by Charles V, the library has 14 million volumes, and is the repository for books published in France. Of course it has other buildings than this stupendous space, constructed in 1868, designed by Henry Labrouste.        At the time it was the Imperial National Library, and the room was the Salle de Travail--the workroom -- for the Department of Prints. Finished in 1873, it holds 80,000 books over three stories of shelves, seats nearly 330 readers, is divided into nine domes by 16 cast iron columns supporting spherical cupolas, "the successful disposition of which marks a distinct advance in the art of architecture," according to the Oct. 24, 1891 issue of The American Architect and Building News,  which noted its  "grand imperial effect."
    Indeed. Though the place was criticized when new. A British visitor in 1870 noted "the lighting of the new room is by no means satisfactory, there being too much light in summer and too little in winter. indeed, on more than one occasion last winter the reading room had to be closed before four o'clock, owing to the want of light."
     The library was not gas-lit for obvious reasons -- the technology was still crude, and gas lights tended to cause fires, a particularly problem in a library holding not only the literary patrimony of France, but ancient Greek manuscripts.
    Although that was part of a general takedown, criticizing it for being noisy, poorly ventilated, lacking blotting paper, and decorated by medallions of writers exaggerating French contributions to literary, containing "three errors for which a child at school would be whipped." 
   Getting in was a challenge from the start, I was pleased to note. Though the librarians, "and indeed all those in any way connected to the establishment" were "polite and affable," those seeking admission had to submit "application at the bureau de l'administration" and show "that they have some definite object in view."
     "Foreigners are generally requested to make an application through their ambassadors, but for the benefit of English readers we may mention that the production of the British Museum reading ticket will immediately admit for the bearer a card of admission."
     In view of that, I got off light. I spent maybe 15 minutes, tops, in the reading room, photographing it from various angles, and sitting quietly at space No. 186.  There I noted that, whatever advantages the internet certainly possesses, quite a number of young French people had taken it upon themselves to use the library on a sunny Thursday morning.

     For more than you'd ever want to know about the history of the French national library, including Jacobin leader Francois Hanriot's proposal, during the French revolution, that it be burned "partly, it would seem, because he was anxious to destroy the Fleur-de-lis and other armorial  bearings stamped on the books" plus minute observations of its condition in 1870, including a general disparagement of the new reading room, and many catty remarks on French vanity versus the unquestioned superiority of all things British, see this unsigned article in the April, 1870 Westminster Review, beginning on page 207.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Bebe Vio raises her foil against anti-vax hysteria





     You don't need to speak the language to have your attention snagged by the April issue of the Italian edition of Rolling Stone magazine.
     The cover is a fashion shot of Paralympic fencing champion Bebe Vio, dressed in Dior, her dark brown hair short, her deep blue eyes staring straight at the camera. The scars on her face are concealed by makeup, but those on the stump of her right arm are on display as her left prosthetic hand points directly at the viewer.
     "Vaccinatevi!" the headline reads.
     In English, "Vaccinate!"    

     It's tempting to think of resistance to vaccination as being a particularly American form of selfish ignorance, like belief in healing crystals or denial of climate change. But the phenomenon is, sadly, global. While some 380,000 people die each year of meningitis, mostly in Africa and other underdeveloped regions, a significant number of parents in supposedly developed countries still resist vaccinating their children. Italian Rolling Stone calls it a "real civil battle" and Vio, 20, is their poster child in the fight.
     Born in Venice, Vio was 11 when she contracted meningitis — the Centers for Disease Control suggests children of 11 or 12 get inoculated against the disease, with a booster shot at 16....


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Sunday, April 23, 2017

Several columns for the price of one

Piazza Colonna, Rome.

     Computers are such an integral part of our lives now, I don't know why I'm slightly embarrassed to admit that among the joys of coming home Saturday-- seeing the house still standing, scooping up the ecstatic dog at a neighbor's—was sitting in front of my smoking hot, souped-up iMac, touch-typing and no longer having to navigate the world on the molasses-dripping-from-a-stick-in-winter modem speeds found at 19th century apartments in Rome and Venice and small hotels in Florence and Paris.
     Old school, I suppose, an echo of the scorn we used to feel for computer nerds and their Tandy motherboard projects sent away for from an ad in the back of Popular Mechanics. 
     I immediately went back and posted pictures over the past week's worth of posts, which had seemed blank, inadequate, without illustrations. It was frustrating, not being able to share photos. I had got a week's worth of posts to run, and then planned to just toss up an interesting picture and a few words: how cool it is, for instance, that the sewer covers in Rome feature the initials "S.P.Q.R"—"Senātus Populusque Rōmānus," "The Roman Senate and People," the same acronym carried into battle by centurions 2,000 years ago and found on ancient Roman coins. Well, cool to me anyway.
Marcus Aurelius's column
      Our hotel in Rome was a few blocks from Piazza Colonna, the square dominated by Marcus Aurelius's column, which we passed every night hurrying to our favorite gelato spot, Giolitti's. The square around it was blocked off and patrolled by soldiers—the valid fear, I suppose, being that somebody will ram a truck into the 1,800-year-old pillar, with its winding face telling of the victories of the emperor, famed for this "Meditations." 
      The column is one of the many based on Trajan's column in the Roman Forum. I figured, I would toss up the photo with some glib line, "Here's your column for today." Given the Romans had the technological ability to build the thing with chisels and ropes, it seemed perverse, in our modern age, not to be able to upload a picture of it.  
      Articles on such columns invariably note that it can be difficult to ascertain how much of the stories depicted on the columns are fact, how much propaganda, and that had a familiar ring to it. Donald Trump didn't invent lying about your accomplishments.
     Jump forward about ten days, and we were meeting our son in Place Vendome, in Paris, to go to lunch. There, I should have known but didn't, is found what at first struck me as yet another copy of Trajan's column, except in bronze. Luckily we had a few minutes to kill, and I went in for a closer look. Not a copy at all, except in concept. Rather, it is a completely different spiral narrative, this one celebrating Napoleon's victory at Austerlitz.  
     A reminder that, when doing a column, it's all too easy just to imitate somebody else's column.  
Place Vendome, Paris.

     

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Homeward bound


     A day is 24 hours, last time I checked, and while I like to have a post up at midnight, it isn't a RULE. As your amiable host, I get to set the rules. And the truth is--truth being a value even more valued than consistency--when it was midnight in Chicago Saturday, it was 7 a.m. in Paris, and I was just stirring in our hotel room in the Latin Quarter. Dinner and packing kept us busy until midnight, there was no energy or inclination to cull some words from the herd and assemble them in any kind of cohesive order. Now it's almost time for a quick croissant and the bolt to the airport.
     Or maybe not so much of a bolt. The sign of a good vacation is it resets your carburetor a little, dials it back from a frantic roar to a steady purr. Cabbies good or bad, flights early or late, crowded or empty, we'll get back all the same, to the deep rut we've shuffled over years. And when we do, we'll even appreciate THAT. Another reason you go on vacation: to come back. To experience that sweet moment went you drop your bags, look around, smile, and say to yourself, "Hey, I live here! This is pretty nice!"
     Not a bad thought. I began this thinking I was telling you you'd have to wait until tonight. But I think this will do. Back at full 10-finger strength tomorrow.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Attack on the Champs-Elysees



     People eat late in Paris. So when news of Thursday night's terror attack on the Champs-Elysees started pinging across our cell phones, shortly after 9 p.m. local time, we were sitting around the dinner table at the apartment of friends in Boulogne Billancourt, a western suburb, discussing the upcoming presidential election--the first round of voting begins Sunday. As with America last November, theirs too is devolving into a nightmarish farce, with the likely winner suddenly seeming to be either the communist Jean-Luc Melenchon, who wants to pull out of the European Union and nationalize the banks, or the National Front xenophobe Marine Le Pen. It hardly needs to be said that the murder of a police officer and the wounding of two others, a shocking event in France, on the wide shopping boulevard synonymous with prosperity, will boost Le Pen's all-too-real chances. A reminder of the tacit collaboration between haters around the world. Groups like ISIS commit atrocities in the name of Islam trying to drive a wedge between Muslims and the moderating influence of the tolerant West, and fearful haters like Le Pen eagerly believe them.  Both are allies, and both want the exact same thing.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Metro mysteries



    I've ridden the Paris Metro nine times in the past two days, racing from museum to restaurant to library, rumbling from Odeon to Pyramides to Opera, and so couldn't help noticing ways their system is different than Chicago's.
     No announcements. They commute on utter quiet on their trains' rubber wheels.
    Some parts took figuring out. The first train I went to get on pulled into Cardinal Lemoine station. The other doors slid open, but the door directly in front of me stayed resolutely closed. I sprinted to  the next door-- Paris subway trains have three or four entrances to the two on Chicago "L" cars--and hopped on the train. On Paris trains, riders have to open the doors themselves to get on or off, either by lifting a chrome lever or, on newer trains, pushing a green button. Parisians seem to handle the responsibility well.
     The benefits are obvious. Less wear and tear on the door mechanisms, for one, since they only open when a person wants to get on or off, not every time the train pulls into the station. It also allows, I noticed, gentlemen a chance to be polite, as those standing by the doors will open them for the benefit of others, even though they themselves are not leaving the train.
     Other differences are less readily explained. I have seen more people rolling cigarettes in two days riding the Paris Metro than I have in the past 20 years riding the "L," including a man Wednesday who removed the tiny butt of a smoked cigarette from between his lips and delicately inserted it into the makings of his next smoke. Why all this impromptu manufacture? It couldn't be poverty--France does have 25 percent unemployment, so maybe that's it. Though there are a lot of poor people in Chicago too and I don't see them rolling cigarettes on the train. Maybe that's it--I'm riding the train more  here. Or maybe it's that so many more people still smoke here.or -- a guess from left field-- maybe a country with national health care taxes the bejesus out of cigarettes, to pay for the enormous medical burden they place on society, but loose tobacco for some reason is taxed less. Anybody know?
     While I'm tossed out questions that I would figure out myself were I not on vacation, what's with the scarves? French men like to wear them loosely around their necks, dark blues and purples and greens, fine wool scarves that are part warmth, part decoration. You might see such a scarf on a flamboyant young man or two in Chicago, but here they're everywhere. I know it's dome kind of Gallic badge of masculinity. But why?

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

A perfect day....



    —Tech problems persist in Paris: I can't make the italics I like for this little introductory text, perhaps due to some heretofore unimagined EU restriction on the importation of exotic fonts. Anyway, while doing so raises the specter of lowered EGD standards, I thought, since I'm on vacation and my equipment is failing me, I would offer up something I wrote previously but never posted (I don't know which is scarier, the realization that I write even more stuff than gets thrown up, pun intended, here every goddamn day, or that I actually reject my own stuff as inadequate, sometimes. Though that IS the mark of a professional, which I try to be, today notwithstanding.
      Enough. I wrote this at the end of December but never posted it, probably because it struck me as boastful and arch and preening. But still, better than nothing. I hope. For the record the boy did call faithfully, every week, without fail.—

   Lunch was tuna fish salad -- with cranberries, the good stuff from Sunset Foods. Expensive but, heck, it's the holidays. I started the charge Friday, loading up two slices of wheat toast, with lettuce and tomato and a big mound of tuna.
    My wife followed my lead, piling sliced tomatoes with tuna, then noticed the banana bread she had baked earlier that morning, set out, cooling. She reconsidered -- maybe a slice of that instead of the tuna. 
    "You could put the tuna fish on the banana bread," Ross deadpanned. "It's a Perfect Day for Bananafish." 
    She looked up with an expression of inquiry. An odd remark that warranted explaining.  
    "..a short story," Kent began. 
     "By J.D. Salinger," I added. 
     Welcome to the Steinberg family. Edie will say we could have some noodles with dinner, and I'll say, glancing at Ross, "Noodles. It's a long time since I've eaten noodles" and he's smile—a line from Uncle Vanya, thick peasant practicality intruding on all the high-minded Russian banter at the end of the play. Chekhov goes on from there, but I always thought it should have been the final line.
    I don't get to do that with other people, but one glory of children is that you can raise them into people you want to hang around, if you're lucky.
     Forty-eight hours later, Ross was on his way to France, where he starts classes in international economics and French at the Pantheon-Sorbonne on Wednesday. Kent was back at Northwestern, with no prospect of another lunch, all four of us around the kitchen table until May. 
     I almost said it's hard to have the boys go away, but that's not true. It's hard to have your children in a hospital, or in prison. To have them at college, it's neither hard nor easy, but just is, how it's supposed to be, just as winter might be cold, but it's expected. Besides, if winter comes, can spring be far behind?
      That's Shelly. 
     "A Perfect Day for Bananfish," by the way, is not nearly my favorite Salinger story from his Nine Stories. Though if you ignore the shocking development, it is apt, with the daughter talking by long distance to her concerned mother, a connection that takes two and a half hours for the hotel operator to make, and costs a fortune. No more. I downloaded Whatsapp—another punning literary reference, this one on Bugs Bunny. You can talk to anybody anywhere in the world for free—but can't imagine us using it much. I think I'll pause from hanging out in Paris with my new pals to go talk to my DAD.... No, don't see that happening much. But if it does, I have the app.
     "The Laughing Man," that would be my favorite Salinger short story from his collection, for how it so perfectly captures a moment in a young boy's life, when he is a member, "with maximum esprit d'corps" of this threadbare New York City after-school club, run by the Chief, a hero in their eyes, and the romance that goes on just outside of the view and understanding of the boy, and the cheezy-yet-perfect radio serial-esque tale told to keep the tribe occupied. 
    A close second is "For Esme—with Love and Squalor" a tale, like "Bananafish" of an adult man and a little girl, this one about 13, at the next table with her little brother and their governess in a tea shop in wartime Britain.  The same PTSD dolor hangs over the tale, though this one ends happily, or happier than "Bananafish," which isn't saying much. 
  


Tuesday, April 18, 2017

You can be the center of the world

      "I'm listening," announced the waitress, walking up to our little round table at a small bistro called "Le Centre du Monde" on Rue Galande not far from Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris Monday night. I asked her if the salmon in citrus sauce is good. She gave me a curious look, as if I had asked something exceedingly obvious.  An almost insulted look that said, "Of course it is."
     "It is ... in citrus sauce," she replied, and I took that as a confirmation, of sorts, and ordered it, even though I had already had salmon at lunch.
     The fish was more than good, it was excellent, served with rice and ratatouille, and as we ate I asked my son if "I'm listening" is a common French idiom, something waitresses typically say to prompt an order. No, he said, he didn't think so. Maybe it was particular to her.
     I considered asking the waitress, a majestic Gallic beauty. But that seemed a Bad Idea.
     Perhaps as compensation, as we headed out the door, I asked a passing waiter why the restaurant is called, "The Center of the World." He laughed, a short, derisive laugh, the laugh an unkind person would make seeing a stranger trip and fall and hurried outside to smoke a cigarette.
    But as we stepped onto the street the owner, an older man--okay, maybe he was my age--followed us out of the restaurant. I asked the question again.
     "This used to be a Roman road," he began, gesturing to the narrow cobblestone street in front of the place. "The Romans built them east to west. About 100 meters away is Notre Dame Cathedral, which is the center of Paris. Distances of the various roads to Paris were measured from that spot."
     He went on quite a bit, saying, in essence, France is the center of Europe and Paris is the center of France and this is the center of Paris."
     "Now of course we know the world is round, so the center is..." He gestured down below. " Now the center of the world can be anywhere. You can be the center of the world."
     I understood what he meant, and thanked him. "The dinner was excellent," I said.  
     He gave me a surprised look, as if to say, "Of course it is."


Monday, April 17, 2017

This is not a post


 
   There will be no post today. The internet in my apartment in Venice is balky, and while I can for some reason tap letters into my phone with the tip of my left index finger, I can't use my iPad or attach a photo, which throws me off my game even more than usual.
     Unless this notice, telling you there is no post, actually is ITSELF a post. That would make it something of a paradox, a koan, exactly the sort of mental calisthenics I reach for when I have all my fingers at my disposal.
     Or perhaps it is just a contradiction, the way the stillness of the Sistene Chapel is periodically punctuated by booming, amplified cries of "Silence please" and "No photo!" The later edict was respected by the hundreds of visitors craning their heads to look at Michelangelo's triumph. I also complied, reluctantly, knowing that no photo could do it justice anyway. Which leads to another paradox: due to technical difficulties, I can't post the photo I didn't take.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Only two years to go ...

     I'm technically on vacation. But this tidbit was lying around, and might bring a smile.

     Facebook and Twitter and Gmail, Linked-In and Snapchat and Instagram—there are so many ways to communicate. And I'm not even talking about individual sites. I went on my Berea High School web page, after not having gone on since 2009, and found all sorts of messages from classmates who had written to me, never realizing I wouldn't check back.  I felt bad that they had reached out and I hadn't responded.
     Then there was this conversation. Though I don't know if he just lost track of it, found it, and replied, or what. It's not as if I could ask and get a straight answer. I do know this, however: I am blessed with two sons who are both smart and deadpan.  The rest I can deal with.
     I think the exchange stands on its own:



     
    

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Botticelli, ripped from the headlines

 


     Some things are obvious.
     Not the painting "The Calumny of Apelles" by Botticelli. That isn't obvious. Almost subtle, actually, hung as it is immediately to the left of the enormously big and enormously famed "Birth of Venus" at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Such a magestic masterpiece sucks up all the attention. So the relatively modest, relatively unknown 1495 artwork hardly gets a second glance from most visitors, who don't get close enough to even be tempted read the explanatory text on a card next to it. 
     But I did. Because I gave it a long look. Since it is an enigmatic painting. And I wanted an explanation. Which I got. This is what it says:
   On the right King Midas, poorly counselled by Suspicion and Ignorance, prepared to judge the victim of Slander, who is dragged by the hair by Calumny and accompanied by Fraud, Deception and Spite. Repentance looks at the naked Truth, who raises her eyes to heaven. 
     I don't have to say another word, do I? Some things are obvious.




Friday, April 14, 2017

Take better vacation pictures



     By the time a man is in his 50s, he's lucky enough to hold onto his oldest friends, who have a tendency to drift off, move, die, embrace loathsome political beliefs, or otherwise become inaccessible.
     Never mind making new friends. 
    However, unusual, traumatic experiences can forge new friendships, even in the gathering twilight. Floods. Earthquakes. Writing a book together. Thus I was pleased and surprised that, even though the rigors of collaboration passed, that my co-author Sara not only didn't part enemies, shaking our fists at each other in mutual creative disagreement, but actually seem to be keeping in touch. 
    She returned from touring Japan a few weeks back, and shared some of her excellent photos—readers with steel trap memories might recall the post I did on her charming cat portraits, done pro bono for New York City area shelters, trying to help find their kitties homes. But these travel shots are even more impressive, and they offer insight into how to take better vacation photos.  

   1) Three salarymen taking a selfie: Here Sara masters a concept that is very difficult for many of us to wrap our heads around even when we're not taking photographs: other people. How many vacationers feel the need to obscure every landmark they come across by including their own precious selves? Who would no sooner take a local person's photo than they would pick his pocket? Why photograph strangers, they exclaim, not realizing that is very close to asking: "Why travel at all?"
    When the truth is, you know what you look like, and being in the midst of a trek around the globe doesn't really improve matters. Forget the Kilroy Was 
  Here documentary proof and keep an eye out for people who live there, especially when they are concentrating on doing something else, such as this trio. Caught at the moment of saying chizu which is Japanese for "cheese" and what they actually do say over there when snapping photos. 
     2) Mom and schoolgirls (left). When you do want to take a photo of your traveling companion, try to get them doing something rather than just standing there, as in this picture of Sara's mom, who she went through Japan with, taking a photograph for a group of students.
      3) Bamboo trees (atop blog). The flip side of the Other People concept is the No People at All Concept. Look for patterns, for interesting juxtapositions, like these achingly straight bamboo trees crossed by a perpendicular fence.  Be aware of colors, and when you realize that chalk white and brush brown are colors too, you'll be on your way.

   
     4). Branches in water (right). Look up. Look down, to find unusual perspectives, like these branches reflected in water  Trees reflected in water along the Philosopher's Path, a serene retreat near Ginkakuji in Kyoto.  This one is intriguing because it takes a moment for the eye to grasp what you're looking at—not up, into the sky, but down, into a channel of water, reflecting branches and clouds and blue. It's almost like a little riddle, a koan, waiting for the viewer to come along and solve.
     5).  Look for details, like these kimono buttons at a flea market (below) Details bring you into a location, make it very tactile and real, and will show how far you've come from the tiny-people-standing-in-front-of-a-distant-monument Kodachromes of our parents.
    6) .Don't mug for your selfie. There's nothing wrong with taking your own picture, but that doesn't mean you have to offer up an expression like Betty Boop trying to blow a bubble. I like how Sara isn't looking at the camera here, in front of a temple gate, how she manages to get a bit of the ancient wood in, and goes for an interesting angle by holding the camera up and away. 
     Not everyone would be willing to share their vacation pix with the world, so thanks to Sara for allowing me to show them off while I'm away, taking my own vacation shots, which I'll no doubt be sharing soon too.
   

     
    

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Italy Flashback #4: Road worrier misses home


     I'm on spring break. And since my older boy will soon be exploring Venice, I thought I would reprint a column from when I visited there in 1999.

 
Venice, by John Singer Sargent (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
   DATELINE: ABOARD THE EUROSTAR TO VENICE — The moment I opened my laptop computer on the little pale gray fold-out table at my seat on this lovely Italian train, flashing through the Tuscan countryside at 90 miles an hour, it struck me:
      "This is it. This is the dream. The success fantasy from all those financial security TV commercials."
     You know what I'm talking about. Those companies — and I have no idea what they do. Something financial. They take your money and, in theory, give you back more money, keeping a bit for themselves.
     Anyway, you see them all the time on TV, flashing images of the kind of good life you'll enjoy if you do business with them. You'll stride across cobblestone streets while pigeons take flight. You'll confer with colleagues, eat room service breakfasts, climb into luxury cars.
     And, inevitably, you will curl up with your laptop in scenic spots -- on mountaintops in Katmandu, beaches in Bimini, at the end of rustic wooden docks in Maine and — I was thrilled to realize — on foreign trains while terra-cotta towns fly by.
     I've seen the image 100 times.
     Reality of course doesn't quite measure up. Those men floating across the globe like milkweed tufts seem so at ease, so happy.
      Even after two hours on the train, listening to light pop music on the tiny pair of headphones they give you, even after the nice man came by with the trio of fancy cookies handed out in first class (second class gets a trio of malt biscuits), I didn't feel quite at ease, not the International 1999 Businessman in Motion.
     For one, I was worried about being robbed. Sports columnist Rick Telander, a man projecting an air of calm, competence and control, got back from Italy the week before I left, and reported the only flaw of his trip was getting his briefcase lifted on the train. This was deeply troubling to me. I figured, if it happened to a cool character like Telander, who played one-on-one with Michael Jordan, what would happen to me? Robbed and beaten and left naked and weeping by the side of the tracks. In the rain. In Italy.
     So whenever I walk the 10 feet to the bathroom, I have to fold up my laptop, tuck it under my arm, and cart it with me. And even then, I cast a long, appraising look at the pair of innocent, grandmotherly types dozing in the seats across the aisle from me, trying to determine if they were tensing to leap up and rifle my luggage the moment I step into the bathroom.
     But they haven't, yet. In fact, none of the thieves waving newspapers and pickpocketing people that every guidebook warns about in five separate places have made an appearance. I've been wearing this stupid money belt, fishing around in my pants like a man with a rash, for a week, for no reason. Nobody has so much as asked me for spare change.
     Perhaps because I've been gone for 40 days — the same amount of time, I realize now, that Noah was on the ark. I don't know how people in times past traveled for years. Even with Venice before me, the city of Thomas Mann and Henry James, do you know what I find myself thinking about? The bratwurst sandwich at the Berghoff stand-up bar. Awash in mustard and sauerkraut. Fresh rye bread. Companion pickle. Stein of cold Berghoff brew. I'm not saying that I won't enjoy Venice. But that's not what, at this point, I'm really, honestly, looking forward to. Maybe some people aren't made to travel.
                          —Originally published in the Sun-Times, July 6, 1999

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Rome flashback #3 -- You don't have to Catholic to dig the Vatican

     I wasn't exactly a simpleton as a young man, but re-reading these columns from 1999, they do have a certain gee-whiz quality that was wrung out of me in my 40s and 50s. Don't get me wrong, I'm still looking forward to going back to the Vatican someday very soon. 
Interior View of St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican, by Giovanni Piranesi (Metropolitan Museum of Art) 

     VATICAN CITY—As a good Jewish boy, I don't know why I felt the need to bolt here the moment I got to Rome, even before seeing the Colosseum or the Parthenon or any of the other scenic piles of rubble that define this ancient place.
     My father, with whom I'm traveling, certainly had other priorities. He wanted to see the synagogue -- he always wants to see the synagogue in every city, though he doesn't go at home regularly. I think it makes him comfortable while abroad, the way some people go to McDonald's.
     But the synagogue in Rome, which turned out to be guarded by four cops with machine guns, wasn't on the top of my list. The Vatican was.
     I'm not certain why. I can't recall anybody grabbing me by the shirt front, drawing their face close to mine and babbling that St. Peter's Basilica is the most fantastic place ever constructed, the boldest architecture ever to rise out of the human mind, and to see it is to impoverish every other wonder you've seen in the world.
     But it is. Or it was, for me.
     Perhaps it was that my childhood was spent building things out of blocks. The square in the Vatican is what a child would build if he or she had all the blocks in the world. An enormous dreamscape flanked by curving colonnades of paired columns built around a gigantic Egyptian obelisk.
     And that's just the appetizer. As grand as the square is, it contracts to nothing and falls away the moment you step inside the Basilica. The interior nearly defies language. The first thought to fight its way out of my blown mind, boggled from the dim enormousness of St. Peter's, was that here is the limit of communication. Mere words—"gigantic," "soaring," "grand," "wonderful," "119 meters tall"—struggle to get anywhere near the reality. No photos, video, CD-ROM would offer more than a whiff of the collect-your-jaw-off-the-pavement impact of the place. You just have to go there.
     I don't mean that as a bland cliche—that a person has to go to the Vatican to appreciate it. I mean that as a specific command—that you, the particular person reading this right now, must go there, if you possibly can. Sure, it costs money. Maybe you can't afford it today. But it's something to shoot for. I'd make the 10-hour plane trip just to walk through St. Peter's for an hour, then go home. Really.
     And I'm not even Catholic. I can't imagine the effect on people to whom the images are more than bravura examples of art and architecture. It must be overwhelming.
     Many of the adult Catholics I know do not have the most charitable feelings toward the church, and they couldn't see the Vatican the way I did, without baggage, as an amazing structure erected by one of the world's many faiths. A Catholic co-worker, hearing me praise the Vatican as the gem of Italy, contorted her face in a mask of disgust. "I hated it," she said, adding that it seemed obscene in light of all the coins they dropped into collection plates for the poor each Sunday.
     Well, yes, I can see that. Perhaps there was something disloyal in my embracing the Vatican. But that's how I felt.
     The Basilica provided an hour of respite from hard feelings, a misericord, to use the church's term. It was emotional and not intellectual. I tried to remind myself to be offended, but it didn't work. As I made a slow circuit of the place, from Michelangelo's Pieta to Bernini's canopy and back, I tried to tell myself that this was the stone proof of how the simple teachings of a carpenter's son could be inflated into a fever dream of power and splendor. That this was the marble pep rally for every pogrom over the last 400 years.
     But I didn't believe it. Maybe I was duped by deft stonemasonry. But I found myself thinking as I walked, head tipped so far backward at times I almost lost my balance, "Of course they'd repress dissent. Who wouldn't, coming home to this every night?"
     Perhaps it boils down to the question of whether you can separate artwork from the circumstances of its creation. In my view, that's like not enjoying your dinner if the chef is a Republican. You can let matters of politics influence matters of taste, but why?
     And the Catholic Church, if not perhaps a force for universal good, isn't burning heretics anymore. Times change.
     Besides, I left puzzling over a deeper mystery. St. Peter's was built almost 500 years ago. For the last half millennium, people have been making pilgrimages to it, and coming away, as I was, amazed. A thousand years from now they will still be visiting, still be amazed.
     And what have we done, in this brief century, that can compare? Are people going to file by that first McDonald's, preserved as a museum, in awe of the splendor of franchising? Maybe the power of our science and ideas will amaze future generations. But I don't think so. As my visit to St. Peter's shows, a tall ceiling will trump ideas every time.

          —Originally published in the Sun-Times July 4, 1999