Tuesday, February 27, 2007

12 Eateries in 12 Months, Part I


Over the past twelve months, Kerstin and I have enjoyed a wide variety of dining experiences – from wine and cheese with Amy and Steven at The Point in Corona del Mar to Ben’s seafood boil on the back deck in Corolla, from champagne and gobelins at Le Bar du Plaza Athénée (near the Seine) to schnitzel and weisswurst in the basement of the Shawnee Presbyterian Church (near the Delaware). Actually, to be perfectly frank, Kerstin didn’t really "enjoy" that last one so much.

At any rate, along the way, we discovered a few new restaurants, and rediscovered some old favorites. Here’s 12 Eateries, more or less, in 12 Months:

  1. Last February, we were hanging out in Philadelphia for my birthday. We will always have a soft spot in our hearts for Davio’s, site of an early romantic evening for us, but on this particular trip we literally stumbled in from the freezing cold at Sotto Varalli. Located in Philly’s theater district, Sotto Varalli is comfortably intimate, with imaginatively prepared seafood and a side dish of live jazz. We shared some fresh shucked oysters and a couple of dirty martinis, and I had the whole fish of the day, roasted with fennel, tomatoes, celery leaves, Yukon potatoes, lemon and extra virgin olive oil. Topping it all off, for dessert – a couple of scoops of the extraordinary gelato made by nearby Capogiro, Philadelphia’s own gelato artisans. Try the Bacio (chocolate-hazelnut) or, for something a little edgier, the Lime Cilantro.
  2. We enjoyed a trip to London last May, for a friend’s wedding. The old cliché about London is that British food is terrible. Having lived there for a couple of years earlier in this decade, however, I can tell you that, cuisine-wise, London ain’t your father’s Old London anymore – the city now boasts some of the best restaurants in the world. We didn’t go out of our way to visit the justly-praised Terence Conran establishments, or Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen, though. Instead, we chowed down more casually at Wagamama, the now-ubiquitous noodle bar that typifies the trickle-down effect of London’s explosion of cuisine. The Soho and Covent Garden locations were old haunts of mine, but this time Kerstin and I enjoyed lunch at the Tower Hill spot. Seating is family style, in a modernized echo of the best tradition of British chop houses, on long pine-and-aluminum bench tables, and the atmosphere is always bright, noisy and cheery. My long-standing favorite Wagamama dish is the Yaki Soba – “teppan-fried soba noodles with egg, chicken, shrimps, onions, green and red peppers, beansprouts and spring onions, garnished with black and white sesame seeds, fried shallots and red ginger” – with a bottle of Asahi Super Dry. Kerstin enjoyed the Seafood Ramen and some fancy fresh juice, while we shared some excellent gyoza. (Watch for two new Wagamama locations, the first in the U.S., opening in Boston later this year.)
  3. Osteria Basilico was a cramped but gregarious little gem we found in Notting Hill. Free yourself from all notions of personal space, embrace a spontaneous and lively sense of community with strangers, and you’ll do fine here. We spelunked our way through the narrow passages between the tiny, rustic dining tables to the antipasti buffet for starters, and it was definitely worth the trek: a tasty selection of cheeses, grilled vegetables, cured meats and olives, and insalata pomodoro. The entrees are hearty, pastoral Italian favorites, such as Ossobuco with Saffron Risotto, Homemade Tortelloni filled with spinach and ricotta and topped with tomato and fresh basil, and my choice for the evening, the Char-grilled Lamb Cutlets, with roasted vegetables and pine kernels. Add a couple of bottles of Barolo and a pair of good friends from Yorkshire, and you have yourself a great evening out.
  4. Paris offers tasty treats everywhere you look. For the mother of all splurges, however, on the recommendation of Kerstin’s Aunt Beth we had to try Lasserre, on Avenue de Franklin Roosevelt, near the Champs-Elysees. With its gilt-trimmed décor and sober decorum, its almost pathologically attentive service, as well as in its classic menu and extraordinary wine cellar, Lasserre is the height of Old World French elegance. Opened in 1937 by Rene Lasserre, who passed away at age 93 only a few weeks before we visited, the restaurant was once an international celebrity haunt whose regulars included Dali, Malraux (who has a pigeon entrée there named in his honor), Audrey Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich; it has, in its old age, become a celebrity in and of itself. It was a drizzly evening in May when we were there, but the staff did us the favor of opening the retractable roof for a moment, giving us a peek at the clouds above Paris and a sense of what it must have been like to dine under the stars, with the stars, once upon a time. The old standbys – the duck a l’orange and so forth – can still be found on the menu, but hidden among them are updated surprises, such as the mouth-watering delicate Macaroni with foie gras and truffles, the Chablis-flavored oysters, and the Lemon-and-Ginger Côte deVeau. The wines are priced comparably to nights in a luxury hotel, but the good news is that the more you drink, the less you’ll worry about the bill when it’s all over.
  5. Kerstin and I spent more evenings out together in Washington, D.C. during our dating days than anywhere else, so we’ve developed a number of comfortable favorites there, including the Old Ebbitt Grill (the site of our post-wedding day brunch), Johnny’s Half Shell (in its old location in DuPont Circle) and Firefly. On one of our recent returns to D.C., however, we went with some good friends to a place that wasn’t even open when we were Capital regulars – Agraria, at Washington Harbour. Opened by the North Dakota Farmers Union in June “with the intent to promote and enable the American family farmer to capture a greater share of the food dollar,” the Washington Post called this restaurant a “culinary lobbying campaign,” situated on K Street as a constant reminder of the plight of the American family farmer. Don’t let the agricultural collective talk scare you away, though: the restaurant is beautifully appointed with an elegant minimalist design, and its Transcendental American fare is first-rate. We were there less than two months after it opened, a notoriously shaky time in the life of any restaurant, but we were willing to overlook minor gaps in service for the Cabbage Soup (with white beans, carrots and potatoes); the Beef Carpaccio (with arugula, parmesan, black pepper, olive oil and lemon); the grass-fed Rib-Eye Steak; the Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes; and the Scallops in bouillabaisse sauce with baby fennel. Desserts are mighty fine, too, including the Cocoanut Bread Pudding and Chocolate Terrine.
  6. In Las Vegas, of all places -- on the fringes of the great ringing and ch-ching-ing of the slots midway at Caesar’s Palace, a few paces away from all the chintzy plaid and glitter on the folks lining up to see Celine Dion in her Colosseum -- there is an unexpectedly refined and stylish eatery that gave us one of our most memorable dining experiences of the year, Bradley Ogden. Ogden, of course, has gained renown as a Bay Area chef-restaurateur, but his Las Vegas location truly seems to have knocked the establishment food critics for a loop; it was the only restaurant outside of New York to be nominated for the coveted James Beard “Best New Restaurant” award in 2003, and it beat ‘em all. The polished stone, glass and dark wooden beams of the sleek interior are evocative of Frank Lloyd Wright’s contemplative, organic Post-Prairie Style, which had the overall effect of spiritually transporting us far from the garish effrontery of the faux Roman motifs inside Caesar’s. The waiters, elegantly attired in gray suits and ties, are true professionals of the sort you rarely find in American restaurants. Our gentleman was extraordinarily well-informed about every facet of the restaurant, and a good listener, too; having quickly identified us as foodies, he gave us a tour of the kitchen at the end of the evening. And speaking of the food … it’s New American cuisine, upscale comfort food, meticulously presented for the eye as well as for the palate. Kerstin and I enjoyed a course of Oysters, unveiled in five imaginative tableaux; Farmer’s Market salad; Wood-fired Pork Loin; and to top it all off, an Apple Cobbler with custardy Homemade Vanilla Ice Cream.
See Part II.

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12 Eateries in 12 Months, Part II


See Part I.
7. I grew up on rustic Southern California Mexican food, prepared by little old ladies in stifling kitchens inside little old East-of-East-LA holes-in-the-wall, so I’m always a little amused these days at how gentrified the whole Mexican cuisine scene has become. A happy case in point, though … tucked away near the Back Bay of Newport Beach -- in a strip mall, no less -- is a brightly-decorated and cozy joint called Taco Rosa. It’s really quite unpretentious; even if it claims to purvey “Spanish, French and Southwestern” food, it is mostly imaginative pan-Mexican cuisine, bursting at the seams with fresh ingredients and interesting taste combinations, from Oaxacan Pollo en Mole to Yucatanean Baked Carnitas Pibil to coastal Escabeche (pickled vegetable salad). Although the owners of Taco Rosa go to great lengths to remind people that Mexican cuisine is more than just tacos, burritos and enchiladas, their handling of the standard fare is pretty irresistible. One great favorite that Kerstin enjoyed is the Burrito Arizona, comprised of lobster, sautéed with spinach, mushrooms, red onions and tomatoes, wrapped in a whole wheat tortilla and topped with chipotle guajillo, tomatillo and tequila lime cream sauces.

8. We’re always a little skeptical of restaurants with great views – as a rule, they don’t have to try as hard in the kitchen if they know the view will keep ‘em coming. Along California’s Highway 1, however, there is a beautiful vista around every bend -- and yet, when we must eat, we must eat. Fortunately, Nepenthe is a wonderful exception to the rule. Situated high atop an 800-foot Big Sur ocean overlook, Nepenthe is built on the site of an impromptu World War II-era picnic that turned into a real estate deal for two Hollywood newlyweds, Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth. They grew tired of it, and each other, before much could come of it; so they sold it to the enterprising Fassett family, who hired Frank Lloyd Wright apprentice Rowan Maiden to build them a beautiful romantic retreat, from which they opened their restaurant in 1949. The fare is fresh and unfussy; specialties include the fat Ambrosiaburger and a pair of great salads, the Heirloom Tomato and Mozzarella Salad (with mache, frisee and arugula, dressed with sweet corn and basil vinaigrette) and the Three-Way Salad (a combination of garbanzo-bean salad, cole slaw and tossed greens; though they won’t say it, I suspect that the concept must have been inspired by the predilections of Nepenthe’s famous neighbor, writer Henry Miller). Kerstin enjoyed a house-cured salmon plate, and we both found Nepenthe’s Basket of Fries to be the perfect snack before hitting the rest of that great winding road.

9. Who goes to Napa Valley for the food? It’s a fair point; but nevertheless, amid the beautiful vineyards, there’s some pretty darn good meals to be had. I had an Ahi Tuna Salad at the Rutherford Grill (a cousin of Gulfstream, one of our Newport Beach favorites) that I’d be happy to nominate for salad of the year. However, the main attraction around these parts is the venerable La Toque, the intimate Country Cal-French restaurant that is attached to the Rancho Caymus Inn in Rutherford. For people who love good wine and love good food, the innovative wine-and-food pairing experience is heavenly: a five course prix-fixe menu (six, if you count the optional cheese course, which we did), with each course accompanied by a wine specially-chosen by in-house sommelier Scott Tracey. Although we love Napa wines, we were also pleasantly surprised to see Tracey going off the reservation, occasionally pairing our courses with a French sauterne or an Austrian Brundlmayer when the spirit moved him. Kerstin had the Tomato Soup, Marinated Black Cod, Ravioli topped with White Truffle (shaved tableside with much ceremony), Kobe Beef and Chocolate Gateau; while I had the Foie gras, the Cod, Twice-Cooked Pork, Salmon with Polenta Fries and the Apple Galette Tort with Buttermilk Ice Cream. And we both had a really good night’s sleep afterwards.

10. Just after Thanksgiving we gathered the whole clan (22 of us, if I’m counting correctly) for a celebration of Kerstin’s grandfather’s 90th birthday at Steve and Cookie’s, in Margate, New Jersey, on the bay side of the island. The food is no-nonsense – crab cakes, steak, meatloaf – and we opted for set menu (a choice between filet mignon and salmon), a boatload of wine, and numerous fulsome toasts to the health of the fellow who will no doubt outlive us all. When Kerstin looks around the place, inevitably she thinks of christenings, showers, friends’ weddings … sometimes a restaurant can be a favorite simply because it has become an extension of your household. In a similar vein, the family has come to rely on Dino’s Sub & Pizza, a few blocks away, as an extra set of kitchen hands. No idea what to have for lunch? Let’s order subs. Lizanne’s coming in from Boston? Let’s order subs. Hangover this morning? Let’s order subs. Kerstin likes the grilled veggie with provolone, while I usually opt for the cheesesteak with grilled onions, both with lots of hot peppers on the side.


11. We couldn’t find a mediocre meal in Asheville, North Carolina earlier this month. Limone’s, a Mexican-Californian joint on Eagle Street, offered a giant selection of Tequilas, and a tasty entremesa of Goat Cheese Poblano Pepper Empanadas, while the Sunny Point Café seems to be Asheville’s definitive breakfast place, featuring locally-grown goods, a mellow bohemian clientele, a killer Pecan-Encrusted Fried Green Tomato Sandwich and life-affirming plates of Huevos Rancheros. (We were tempted by the Sunny Point Oatmeal Brulle and the Cocoanut Pancakes, but it was just the wrong time of day for a smorgasbord.) One of the other bright spots was a breezy little bistro in Biltmore Village called Fig, which co-owner Treavis Taylor told us stands for “Food is Good.” And it is: a contemporary blend of French, American and Italian tastes, we had Mussels in a Curry Broth, Lemon Risotto with Rock Shrimp, Free-Range Chicken Breast over Lemon-Lime Cous Cous, and Fried Veal Sweetbreads, all accompanied by an excellent wine list and a friendly, informative staff.

12. For my birthday this year, we had dinner with good friends at one of my favorite Pittsburgh area restaurants -- Vivo, a small, romantic BYOB Italian restaurant situated in the unlikeliest of locales, the bland and unassuming North Pittsburgh neighborhood of Bellevue. Once inside, you can easily forget that you’re on a street otherwise populated by an inordinate number of funeral homes and chiropractors; comfy chairs, muted lighting and terracotta-washed walls covered with black-and-white family photos give us the feeling of having a meal in someone’s old Italian rowhouse. The menu is a waitress’ unprinted monologue of seven starters and seven entrees that changes daily, and the overall experience features the appetizer course (we had Fresh Oysters and a splendid Three-Mushroom and Chorizo concoction), then a small plate of pasta, followed by the entrée (among our crew, there was veal, lobster, lamb and beef, each prepared with personality and panache) and the salad course. Side dishes are served with the entrée at room temperature, antipasto style, and on the night we were there, chef/owner Sam DiBattista had outdone himself with the Wheat Berries and the Green Beans. We capped our meal with a dessert of berries and cannoli filling pressed between two vanilla pixelles – which is about as great a birthday present as I can think of.


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The Nobel Committee Doesn't Get to Say Who's Best


Physiologist Charles Best was born on this day in 1899 in West Pembroke, Maine.

A former sergeant in the Canadian tank corps during World War I and a University of Toronto grad who paid for his education by playing minor league baseball, Charles Best joined Frederick Banting in John J.R. MacLeod's Toronto physiology lab in 1922. Banting was also a Canadian war veteran: he had joined the Canadian Army medical corps right after medical school and was awarded the Military Cross for gallantry in action in World War I. After the War, Banting began studying the pancreas -- particularly the already-discovered connection between pancreatic activity and diabetes mellitus. At MacLeod's lab, Banting experimented with a new method he had devised of attempting to isolate the pancreatic hormone that regulates blood sugar. Best became his chief assistant.

MacLeod was skeptical; but while MacLeod was away on vacation, Banting and Best closed the pancreatic ducts of dogs and mined the islets of Langerhans for an extraction which was free of other pancreatic substances. They then used the substance on diabetic dogs and observed the reduction of their blood sugar. When MacLeod returned, he brought in his chemist James Collip to purify the extractions for human use. Banting, Best and Collip received a patent for the resulting hormone, named insulin by MacLeod, and licensed it for production by Eli Lilley & Co.

Meanwhile, MacLeod and Banting were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1923, but Banting was angry that MacLeod received any credit at all while Best received none, and threatened to refuse the prize. Instead Banting took the prize and divided it with Best, while MacLeod divided his with Collip, before taking his leave of Toronto and returning to Scotland permanently as professor of physiology at Aberdeen. Banting assumed the leadership of Toronto's Banting-Best research department in 1930, and focused his research on cancer and adrenal cortex function.

As leader of the Banting-Best department of medical research after Banting's death, Best went on to discover choline, a vitamin used in treating liver damage, and histaminase, an enzyme used in breaking down histamine, the hormone transmitter which produces the symptoms of allergy; to introduce the use of heparin as an anticoagulant; and to show that zinc could be used to prolong the activity of insulin.

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Monday, February 26, 2007

Katzenjammers


Rudolph Dirks was born on this day in 1877 in Heinde, Schleswig-Holstein. He died on April 2, 1968 in New York City.

Until the introduction of rookie cartoonist Rudy Dirks’ Katzenjammer Kids in December 1897 in William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal, newspaper comics were largely one-picture jokes with an ever-changing cast of stock characters. Inspired by Wilhelm Busch’s sequential-picture storybook, Max und Moritz (1865), Dirks’ Katzenjammer Kids ("katzenjammer" literally meaning "howling of cats," German slang for hangover) portrayed a regular cast of characters (something only tried before in fits and starts, notably in Outcault’s The Yellow Kid), with action progressing through sequential panels (with or without well-placed dialogue "balloons") to tell a tale, not just a joke. As Dirks’ "comic strips" told tales about the Kids (a pair of mischievous German children, Hans and Fritz, who incessantly played pranks on their Mama Katzenjammer, or later, on the old Captain and his pal the Inspector) on a daily basis, Hearst and his rival newspaper publishers realized that comic strips could be a great promotional tool, even more compelling than the use of recurring characters in a one-frame slice-of-life vignette as Outcault had been doing, as readers would buy the paper to see the Kids in their next mini-adventure.

With a compelling economic reason behind it, Dirks’ comic strip form became the industry standard, inspiring a million imitators. In addition to the basic outline conventions of the comic strip, Dirks was the originator of a number of detail elements which would become instantly understandable comic strip cliches, including sweat beads to indicate exertion, motion lines, and stars to indicate pain.

In 1912, Dirks left Hearst and joined Pulitzer’s World, setting off litigation over the rights to the Katzenjammer Kids which concluded with the ridiculous result of Hearst retaining the name of the strip, and Dirks retaining the likenesses and the names of Hans and Fritz; Harold Knerr lovingly took over the Katzenjammers for Hearst, while Dirks continued to draw Hans and Fritz (later as The Captain and the Kids), the two strips running in parallel for decades, oddly playing off each other’s character developments. The Katzenjammers survived for nearly 100 years, while Dirks drew The Captain and the Kids on and off into the 1950s, when he passed it on to his son John; the strip was discontinued in 1979.

Outside of his newspaper work, Dirks was also a serious artist who established a painter’s colony at Ogunquit, Maine.

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Saturday, February 24, 2007

Pico's Dignity


Pico della Mirandola was born on this day in 1463 near Ferrara.

A precocious child, Pico was sent to Bologna to study canon law at the age of 14. Canon law began to sicken him, however, and he moved to Ferrara to study philosophy and theology, soon afterward meeting the philosopher Marsilio Ficino. At Padua, he gained a reputation as a public lecturer on scholarly topics, acquired a deep knowledge of Greek and the Semitic languages, and encountered ancient Greek texts by Plato and Aristotle as well as the literature of medieval Judaism. By 1484, under Ficino's influence, he was an avowed Neo-Platonist, employing Plato's methods of inquiry to a critique of the Church.

He studied in France briefly, and upon his return to Florence in 1486, he published his "900 theses" (or, Conclusiones Nongentae in Omni Genere Scientarum), a mélange of dialectics, metaphysics, theology and magic, and brashly announced that he was prepared to defend them in public debate against all the great scholars of Europe. For the impending occasion, he wrote what would become his most famous piece, the Oration on the Dignity of Man, one of the principal statements of Renaissance humanism -- stressing a return to the centrality of man in the universe.

Within a year, 13 of his theses were declared to be heresy by Innocent VIII, who forbade public discussion of the work. Pico recanted, but came back two months later with a a retort addressed to Lorenzo the Magnificent, the Apologia. In the Apologia, Pico took the extraordinary position that the Hebrew Kabbala, the Jewish mystical tradition which provided a means for approaching God directly, was the best logical basis for the belief in a divine Christ.

With Innocent still hot on his trail, Pico fled to France and was arrested there. Innocent died in 1492, and was succeeded by Alexander VI, who absolved Pico of the charge of heresy. With Alexander's blessings Pico returned to his roots in his work the Heptaplus, a mystical interpretation of the Creation. He fell away from Ficino and Lorenzo near the end of his life, when he submitted to the influence of the monk Savonarola and began a period of meditation.

He died young, on November 17, 1494 in Florence, without leaving a synthesized philosophy, but his critiques were influential: they encouraged scholars to penetrate long-ignored Hebrew texts and enriched theological discussions with an approach to mysticism derived from classical literature. His critique of astrology influenced the work of astronomer Johannes Kepler.

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Friday, February 23, 2007

Hollywood Hack


When the American Film Institute released its list of the Top 100 American films of all-time in 1998, some film buffs were a little surprised to find that two of the top 10 -- Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz (both 1939) -- were credited to someone named Victor Fleming. No one, however, has ever made the case that Victor Fleming was one of the great filmmakers of the 20th century, or that he was even a very important American filmmaker.

Fleming, who was born on this day in 1883 in Pasadena, California, was, basically, a Hollywood hack. He started in film as a chauffeur, fixing director Allan Dwan's car, and through that connection he eventually worked as a cameraman on a number of Douglas Fairbanks films. From there he graduated to directing. During the silent period, he gained a reputation for making bad films which made a profit (as well as for bedding Clara Bow), and landed at MGM with the coming of the talkies, frequently working with Clark Gable.

In 1939, he took over The Wizard of Oz, which had been started by Richard Thorpe and George Cukor, and directed about 45% of Gone With the Wind, before and after suffering a nervous breakdown (with Cukor and Sam Wood directing the rest). He managed to ruin neither film, despite having slapped Judy Garland's face when she was being difficult on the set of Oz.

To be fair, he was an excellent technician, which made him well-suited to action pictures such as Captains Courageous (1937, with Spencer Tracy) and Test Pilot (1943, with both Tracy and Gable), but he did not have the personal skills to obtain superior performances from actors in need of guidance.

Fleming died January 6, 1946 in Arizona.

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Monday, February 19, 2007

With the Sun at its Center


For 14 centuries, the prevailing view of the workings of the Earth, the Sun, the planets and the stars was the one articulated by the Greek astronomer Ptolemy: that the Earth was a stationary object, and that all other planetary bodies revolved around it in a uniform circular motion. The Ptolemaic model was happily embraced by the Roman Catholic Church as it sought to portray the Creation of Man on Earth as God's masterpiece, the center of God's universe. By the 15th century, European scientists and mathematicians -- who were generally not atheists, but aesthetes who yearned for glimpses of beauty at the nexus of time and space -- grew curious about the troublesome phenomena that the Ptolemaic model seemed to gloss over without easy explanation, such as the fact that the Big Dipper, for example, at certain times looked further away from the Earth than at other times. Over the years, scientists added a plethora of minor amendments to the Ptolemaic model to attempt to explain the observable eccentricities, but Ptolemy's simple, elegant model was beginning to look like a Rube Goldberg invention.

Mikolaj Kopernik (later known by his latinized name, Copernicus) grew up during this time of unresolved skepticism, the son of a merchant. Born on this day in 1473 in Torun, Poland, Copernicus' father died when he was 10, and he was sent to be raised by his maternal uncle, Lucas Watzenrode, the bishop of Ermeland. The bishop set young Mikolaj on a course to become a church canon. He studied liberal arts (including astronomy and astrology) at Cracow before setting off to his uncle's alma mater, the University of Bologna, at 23. There he lived for a time in the household of Bologna's foremost astronomer, Domenico Maria de Novara, who introduced Copernicus to the curative and skeptical literature, including Regiomontanus' Epitome of Ptolemy's Almagest (1496) and Pico della Mirandola's scathing Disputations Against Divinatory Astrology (1496), which argues that one of the flaws with astrology was that no one could agree on the order of the planets floating around the Earth.

With dissent already in the air, the exploration of the new hemisphere of the Earth incidentally discovered by Columbus began to call into question all sorts of fundamental assumptions about the order and primacy of things, and encouraged scientists to consider anew the incompleteness of their knowledge. Meanwhile, Copernicus kept busy: he received a doctorate in canon law at Ferrara in 1503; studied medicine at Padua; served as a scholar in absentia at Wroclaw while assuming the duties of canon at Frauenberg (which involved general administration and occasionally practicing medicine); prepared a Latin translation of the aphorisms of the Byzantine poet Theophylactus Simocattes (published in 1509); and still managed to pursue his astronomical observations in his spare time, building a small tower at Frauenberg from which to observe the sky.

His reputation as an amateur astronomer was great enough, however, for Copernicus to be invited in 1514 to the Fifth Lateran Council to make recommendations on the reform of the calendar. By this time he had begun to articulate a theoretical critique of the Ptolemaic model, quietly showing a summary of his views to a few friends. As a good canon lawyer, he must have predicted that the Church would not be happy with his theories; but after his 25-year old admirer Georg Rheticus published a summary of Copernicus' summary without provoking the Church's anger (in all likelihood they were a bit busy with Martin Luther at the time), Copernicus turned to completing a full dissertation on the heliocentric ("Sun-centered") model.

In what would come to be known as On the Revolution of the Heavenly Bodies, Copernicus argued that the Ptolemaic model, as amended, was like a Mr. Potathead in which the arms, legs, nose, eyes, ears and mouth were all placed in the wrong holes (to paraphrase his paraphrase of Horace's Ars poetica). By contrast, Copernicus wrote, if one assumes that the Sun is a stationary midpoint and the Earth is in motion, by a relatively simple set of calculations the remaining planets fall into orderly orbits around the Sun -- orbits whose length of time increase with a planet's relative distance from the Sun. Thus, Mercury would circumnavigate the Sun in 88 days; Venus, in 225 days; Earth, in one year; Mars, 1.9 years; Jupiter, 12 years; and Saturn, 30 years.

While he admitted that he could not rule out other potential alternative models to the Ptolemaic model -- it would take later mathematicians to uncover solutions for the problems of falling bodies, acceleration and force and ultimately prove that Copernicus was correct -- at least he had constructed one handsome Potatohead, in which all of the pieces fit together into a balanced, harmonious whole.

Copernicus avoided the potential wrath of the Church by waiting 36 years to publish Revolution; legend has it that on his deathbed he was able to hold the freshly minted first edition in his hands before passing away on May 24, 1543 in Frauenberg, East Prussia (now Poland). The cause and its implications would be taken up, in turn, by Galileo, Kepler, Descartes and Newton, among others. To Galileo goes the prize for making Copernicus a posthumously dangerous thinker; after Galileo's Discourse on Floating Bodies (1612), the Church banned Copernicus' Revolution. The Church would finally lift its ban in 1835.

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Sunday, February 18, 2007

Learn to Say President Willkie


Wendell Willkie was born on this day in 1892 in Elwood, Indiana.

Wendell Willkie blazed in and out of American politics with the short-lived intensity of a spark of static electricity. An unlikely presidential candidate, he was the model of the dilettante crusader, the role Ross Perot seemed to fill in 1990s American politics. His father and mother were both lawyers, and he was raised to become a lawyer himself and a good Democrat. After serving in the artillery at the Meuse-Argonne front in World War I, he joined Firestone Tire and Rubber Co. in Akron, Ohio as an in-house lawyer. In 1929, he moved to New York City to work for and later head Commonwealth & Southern, a large electric utility company.

Although he had campaigned for Franklin Roosevelt in 1920 when Roosevelt was on the Cox for President ticket and had contributed $150 to Roosevelt's 1932 campaign, Willkie became a strident opponent of Roosevelt's New Deal excesses -- particularly Roosevelt's establishment of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) by which cheap electricity was introduced to rural Tennessee through federal projects which competed with Willkie's own utility company. Although Willkie generally supported the New Deal conceptually, his ire over the TVA led him to denounce Roosevelt on a national speaking tour.

His natural charisma appealed to the anti-Roosevelt minority, and "Willkie Clubs" began to spring up around the country, leading a group of Eastern Republicans to convince Willkie, who had never held public office, to switch parties and seek the Republican presidential nomination in 1940. With conservative Robert Taft and a too-young Thomas Dewey as his only credible opponents, the Republicans unanimously rallied around Willkie at the convention on the 6th ballot.

Ideologically similar to Roosevelt, Willkie supported intervention in Europe and much of Roosevelt's economic policies. Nevertheless he barnstormed 30,000 miles around the country giving more than 500 speeches criticizing Roosevelt's aspirations for a third term (employing the words of George Washington as moral precedent for presidents not serving more than two terms). He was enough of a thorn in Roosevelt's side that Roosevelt considered leaking a story that Willkie carried on adulterous affair. Roosevelt decided against the strategy, and the voters decided that Willkie did not offer enough of a reason to change horses in midstream: Roosevelt defeated Willkie, 55% to 45%.

After the election, Roosevelt dispatched Willkie to Europe to visit allied governments on behalf of the U.S. He published a best-selling book, One World, in support of international cooperation, and pursued the Republican nomination again in 1944, but withdrew from the race after a poor showing in the Wisconsin primary. He died shortly thereafter, on October 8, 1944, in New York.



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Saturday, February 17, 2007

"Free Huey!"


Huey P. Newton was born on this day in 1942 in New Orleans.

A former San Francisco Law student, in 1966 Newton joined forces with an acquaintance from Alcoholics Anonymous, Bobby Seale, to establish the "Black Panther Party for Self-Defense." In addition to coordinating food programs and protests, the Panthers conducted armed patrols on Bay Area streets in response to Malcolm X's call for black America to defend itself from what he saw as the systematic government-sponsored violence against African-Americans -- including those engaged in peaceful protest.

In May 1967, the Black Panthers made national headlines when about 40 of them, dressed in leather jackets, marched into the California state capitol carrying loaded weapons as a protest against a bill being considered by the California legislature which would prevent citizens from carrying weapons; the bill quickly became law. Not long afterward, Newton was accused of murdering an Oakland police officer, which encouraged the predominant impression of white America that the Panthers were violent Marxist insurrectionists, a powder keg waiting to explode. Clearly, Newton and his cohorts had intended to scare white America, but their pre-fab image also served to obscure the community assistance missions of the Party.

Newton was convicted of voluntary manslaughter after an 8-week trial in a courthouse surrounded by a couple of thousand protesters chanting "Free Huey!," and was sent to prison. The conviction was later overturned and Newton publicly renounced violence, but he was soon arrested and charged with another murder, and he fled the country to Cuba for several years before returning and getting acquitted of all charges.

After his return to the Panther leadership in 1977, even as the popularity of the Panthers among urban blacks declined, Newton continued to carry the Panther banner, although adopting a capitalist, "within-the-system" tone, while fellow Panther Eldridge Cleaver retained the Panthers' original Marxist stance.

In 1980, Newton received his doctorate in philosophy from the University of California with a thesis (later published) on the FBI's tactics against the Panthers, War Against Panthers: Study of Repression in America. Even after this, Newton could not stay out of trouble: in 1985 he was charged with embezzlement of public funds in connection with an education program, and in 1987 he was convicted of illegal possession of firearms. A drug and alcohol addict for a number of years, he was shot and killed in a dispute with a small-time drug dealer on August 22, 1989 in Oakland, California.

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Friday, February 16, 2007

Golden Arches


Dick McDonald, co-founder (with brother Mac) of the original McDonald's drive-in fast-food hamburger stand in 1948, was born on this day in 1909.

Brothers Dick and Mac McDonald were tired of paying car hops and dishwashers at the hamburger restaurant they owned in 1940, so on the eve of the car boom in suburban Southern California, they designed a new kind of restaurant, with a small standardized menu, unprecedentedly fast service (under a minute), low prices (15-cent hamburgers, 10-cent french fries), no waitresses and no tipping -- fast food, to go, for a go-go-go culture. By 1952, the reborn McDonald's restaurant was so successful that it was featured on the cover of American Restaurant magazine and could boast 6 million hamburgers sold.

Mac, as operations chief, came up with the idea for a no-frills burger assembly line (inspired ultimately by Henry Ford's assembly line for the Model T) that came to be McDonald's, just as Henry Ford's vision of a car-clogged American countryside was coming to fruition after World War II.

While Mac was designing the burger assembly line, Dick was the marketing whiz. Dissatisfied with an architect's rendering of the proposed restaurant, Dick sketched the "M" which became the world famous "golden arches" -- at once historically the symbol for money used by Karl Marx as well as the symbol for "millions," now erected in bright yellow neon around the world, transformed into a symbol for American economic imperialism by the end of the 20th century as McDonald's marched triumphantly into 91 countries.

Before that could happen, though ... in 1955, Ray Kroc bought the rights to franchise and develop McDonald’s drive-ins in the U.S., and in 1961 came back for the entire package – trademarks, test secrets, and the McDonald’s system, along with the worldwide franchise rights -- for $2.7 million. The McDonald brothers kept their original store in San Bernardino, renaming it Mac's Place (since they no longer owned their own name), but the restaurant was eventually put out of business by the megalomaniacal Kroc, who opened a McDonald's across the street.

For his own part, Dick McDonald never seemed to mind the fact that $2.7 million in hindsight looked like a discount price, or the closing of his San Bernardino place -- what he minded was the rewriting of history: "Suddenly, after we sold," said McDonald, "my golly, he elevated himself to the founder."

Dick McDonald died on July 14, 1998 in Manchester, New Hampshire.

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

Candidate, Under a Eucalyptus Tree


John B. Anderson was born on this day in 1922 in Rockford, Illinois.

A 20-year Republican congressman with a record of bucking the conservative wing of the Republican party by supporting the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, relative unknown John Anderson decided to run for the Republican presidential nomination in 1980 in an effort to help steer the party away from right-wing candidates such as Ronald Reagan.

With thick white hair, thick plastic-rimmed glasses and a foghorn voice which sometimes betrayed a cranky impatience, Anderson was anything but telegenic, but he captured the attention of the press with his non-partisan candor in the Iowa debate; he was the only candidate who refused to pander to farm interests when he voiced his support for Democratic President Carter's grain embargo against the Soviet Union in retaliation for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Although he placed a poor fifth in Iowa, his national profile was on the rise when cartoonist Garry Trudeau began to feature the Anderson campaign in his Doonesbury comic strip.

After Iowa winner George (H.W.) Bush lost to Reagan in the New Hampshire primary, some polls began to identify Anderson as the strongest moderate alternative to Bush, and Anderson placed a close second in the Massachusetts and Vermont primaries. After he lost to Reagan in his home state of Illinois, however, Anderson decided to take a breather (in his words) "to sit under a eucalyptus tree in California" (a reference, no doubt, to Siddartha's epiphanous rest under a pipal tree), and in April 1980 he emerged as an independent candidate for president.

With a combination of socially liberal positions (favoring abortion rights, the Equal Rights Amendment and gay rights) and economic pragmatism (poking holes in Reagan's supply-side economic program and supporting a 50 cent hike in the gas tax), Anderson built on support from moderates and independents, including many college students, and drew polling numbers of 20% to 30% during April and May, causing speculation that the presidential election might result in an Electoral College draw. He suffered, however, from lack of funds and from being excluded from the September debate between Carter and Reagan -- although CNN, then just a fledgling network, did feature Anderson that evening responding to the same questions from another stage.

The Carter campaign was particularly hard on Anderson, as they believed that Anderson would take more votes from Carter than from Reagan in the general election, and the campaign repeatedly called upon Anderson to bow out of the election and avoid being a spoiler. Anderson, however, who believed Carter's fate was sealed following the botched Iranian hostage rescue attempt, responded by asking, "What's to spoil?" Anderson ended his campaign by borrowing funds from supporters (probably a securities violation) on the promise that he would pay them back with federal matching funds, which he would receive only if he achieved 5% of the general election vote. He kept his promise, getting 6.6% of the vote to Reagan's 50.7% and Carter's 41%.

After the 1980 election, Anderson largely retired from politics, teaching law and working on public interest projects, including the Center for Voting and Democracy. He supported Democrat Walter Mondale during the 1984 election, and briefly considered running for the 2000 Reform Party nomination.

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Ferris Wheel


George Washington Ferris, the inventor of the Ferris wheel, was born on this day in 1859 in Galesburg, Illinois.

Ferris was a bridge and tunnel engineer who designed and built the first Ferris wheel for the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, a 264-foot pair of concentric wheels from which 36 pendulum passenger cars (with a total capacity of 2,160 riders) were hung, connected to a 45-ton axle -- the largest piece of steel forged up to that time -- powered by two 1,000-horsepower engines and supported by two 140-foot towers. His inspiration was the water wheels he had seen in the mining district of western Nevada, which delivered water in tiny buckets to troughs for the mining mules and horses.

The wheel captured the imagination of the world, and the $350,000 it cost to build was recouped within the first few days of its opening on June 21, 1893. William Dean Howells, for one, called it "incomparably vast" -- but ultimately dismissed it as "a money-making contrivance." It was indeed that: it grossed $726,805.50, and it hinted at the fun that could be produced by modern technology.

Ferris rebuffed several offers for the rights to his invention, tried his hand for awhile at running his own amusement park, and died broke and suffering from depression in a Pittsburgh hospital on November 22, 1896. The original Ferris wheel changed hands several times and ultimately made its way to St. Louis, where it was demolished in 1906.

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Things I Learned This Weekend #3

1. It takes about 3 hours and 40 minutes for two guys to hang 8 bicycles from the rafters of The Wedge Gallery, down near the railroad tacks in Asheville, North Carolina. It takes longer to think about how to get them back down a day later.

2. There's a man who lives in a tent who makes some pretty good beer.

3. For headline chutzpah, the New York Post has nothing on the Asheville Tribune.

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Monday, February 12, 2007

Atget


"Often the central thought of an image by Atget consists in the confrontation of two opposing ideas: the grandiose and the humble, the elegant and the commonplace, the past and the present, the static and the moving, the light and the dark." -- J. Borcoman.

Eugene Atget was born on this day in 1857 in Libourne, France; he died on August 4, 1927 in Paris.

Orphaned at an early age, Eugene Atget was a loner and a drifter for much of his life: he worked on ships for awhile, then traveled as an actor in provincial theater groups and finally turned to photography, accepting routine commissions from architects and public bureaus to document Paris -- its streets, shops, historical monuments and parks -- during a period (1892-1927) in which large sections of old Paris were being demolished to make way for the redevelopments that were begun by Baron Haussmann in the 1850s. In 35 years Atget amassed over 10,000 documentary images, made as golden albumen and gelatin contact prints from 7 x 9-1/2 inch glass plates using a wooden bellows camera. When his simple, unpretentious compositions were "discovered" by Man Ray, Andre Breton and others during the 1920s (and preserved by Man Ray's assistant, photographer Berenice Abbott), Atget's reputation as a "folk" artist of unique vision, uninfluenced by the "art photography" movements that raged around him, began to emerge.

Atget was not the simple tradesman that his earliest proponents made him out to be, however; a frequent public lecturer on literary topics, it is more likely that in the course of his routine jobs he sought for his own purposes to reflect on a Paris of the literary past as imagined in the works of Hugo and Dumas pere and fils -- a landscape of dreams and portentous solitude, with the French countryside still coursing into the city's main arteries from the perimeters. Since he normally shot his Paris scenes early in the morning when there were few people in the streets, they are almost surrealistically empty, imbued with expressive, deep dawn shadows and soft haze. Despite the dream-like qualities of his work, there is also a sense of straight-forward presence in many of his photos; his depictions of horse-drawn tramways, restaurants, walls plastered with posters, and street vendors are also evocative of a vanishing civilization, but a civilization whose lashes still fluttered in Atget's daily sunlight.



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Sunday, February 11, 2007

Part Managerial, Part Poetic


In the event his life was split
And half was lost bewailing it;
Part managerial, part poetic --
Hard to decide the more pathetic.

-- Roy Fuller, "Obituary of R. Fuller."

Poet and novelist Roy Fuller was born on this day in 1912 near Oldham, England.

Writing under the literary influence of W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender, the hallmarks of Fuller's poetry were the sparse directness of his language and his strongly individualistic, humanitarian conscience. Fuller first gained critical notoriety with two collections of poetry he wrote while serving in East Africa with the British Navy during World War II, collections considered to be the among the finest "war" poetry of the period. Following the war he continued to publish poetry collections and several novels while serving as solicitor to a building society. Fuller died on September 27, 1991.

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Thursday, February 08, 2007

$eeing $tar$


Evangeline Adams was born on this day in 1868 in Jersey City, New Jersey.

Adams' career as a prognosticator began in March 1899, when she claimed her astrological chart told her she should go to Manhattan. Checking into the Windsor Hotel, she advised the owner that he had bad stars; the next morning his hotel had burned to the ground, and Adams was celebrated by the papers as an amazing fortune-teller.

In 1914 she fought and won a lawsuit attempting to restrain her from earning her livelihood as a seer. Later she predicted the duration of Lindbergh's historic Atlantic flight within 22 minutes and Rudolph Valentino's death within a few hours. As the bull stock market of the 1920s emerged, Adams set herself up in a Wall Street office (complete with ticker tape machine and copies of the Wall Street Journal) and began providing stock tips, for ever-increasing fees, based on astrological principles. Among her clients were J.P. Morgan, Jr., Mary Pickford and King Edward VII.

In May 1929 she predicted that the "Dow Jones could climb to Heaven," but by October 29, known forever as "Black Tuesday," the market had clearly gone to hell. She consoled her faithful, telling them that the market would come back, and promptly told her own broker to sell out her entire position.

Following a stint as the host of her own popular radio show, she died in November 1932.

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Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Frederick Douglass


"If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing the ground . . . Power concedes nothing without a demand." -- Frederick Douglass.

Fifteen years before the historic Lincoln-Douglas debates on the future of slavery in the U.S., another famous public debate on slavery's future occurred in Buffalo, New York in 1843 -- this one between two former slaves, Henry Highland Garnet and Frederick Douglass, before a gathering of the National Negro Convention. The question: should African-American slaves rise up in violent rebellion against their owners to bring the heinous practice to an end? Garnet lent his support to a resolution encouraging slaves to strike, violently if necessary. Douglass, however, showed his great powers as an orator and molder of opinion by convincing the assembled leaders that any such rebellion would be decisively crushed. Garnet's resolution was narrowly defeated, and Douglass emerged as a member of the front ranks of African-American political life.

As Douglass underwent a personal conversion with respect to the question of an active struggle during the 1850s, however, so would the views of his African-American constituents, and the course of history was indelibly altered.

Born around 1817 in Tuckabee, Maryland, Douglass was the son of a slave mother and an unknown white man, and was almost immediately taken away from his mother to live at another plantation as slave property. Although he suffered treatment usually only accorded to livestock (being forced to eat from a trough and enduring cold winters without adequate clothing and shelter), at the age of 8 he was selected to be a house servant, and was taught to read by the woman of the house. Douglass quickly surmised that the withholding of education from Africans was a principal instrument of the white man's domination, so he absorbed as much as he could when he could, in essence stealing an education.

In 1838, after one unsuccessful escape attempt when he was 16, he stole himself, borrowing an affidavit of freedom from an African-American sailor and settling in Massachusetts under the name "Douglass" to avoid recapture. In 1841, he gave a speech against slavery at a meeting of white abolitionists on Nantucket Island, and was instantly recognized by anti-slavery activist William Lloyd Garrison as a potentially powerful symbol for the movement. Douglass became Garrison's willing protégé, but with his charisma and superior intellect Douglass became much more than a symbol; he rose to be a leader.

His 1845 autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, was a sensation, revealing in the first person the inhumanity of the slave system as no white man could. As the leonine Douglass gained his own spotlight apart from Garrison, his views against active resistance by (and on behalf of) African-Americans began to soften. He viewed John Brown's raid as a quixotic spasm, but he predicted that Brown's execution would lead to civil war. Although white leaders on both sides cited "states' rights vs. federalism" as the central issue of the War Between the States, Douglass' voice helped to shift the debate to the human rights conflict underlying the War, and was no doubt one of the influences behind Lincoln's decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.

After the Proclamation, Douglass spent much of the rest of the Civil War recruiting African-Americans to fight against the South. After the War, however, Douglass permitted himself to be used as a "token African" by the Republicans to whom he somewhat naively clung, accepting hollow federal appointments (including as consul general to Haiti) from Presidents Hayes and Garfield; yet he maintained enough independence to criticize the manipulation of newly-freed Southern African-Americans. Nevertheless, his wealth and security did eventually alienate him from the realities of the Reconstruction. He drew criticism in 1884 when, 2 years after the death of his first wife (also a former slave), he married Helen Pitts, a white woman; Douglass' reply to critics was characteristically logical and unapologetic: his first wife "was the color of my mother, and the second, the color of my father."

At the height of his powers during the 1850s, he had extraordinarily complex and consistent political views which, through his words, seasoned the consciousness of white Americans. Not only did he lend his name and support to the Seneca Falls women's suffrage convention called by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, but he was active in the temperance movement, calling the distribution of liquor by slave owners as a means of controlling slaves "one of the grossest frauds committed upon the downtrodden slaves" -- a prophetic perspective in light of the systematic exposure of African-Americans to narcotics in the 20th century.

Douglass died on February 20, 1895 in Washington, D.C.

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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Poet Laureate of Flight Attendants


Lori Jakiela, one of my favorite writers, was born on this day in 1964 in Pittsburgh.

I first encountered Jakiela while driving home from work, listening to the normally monotonous local poetry program on one of our public radio stations. Jakiela, who was reading selections from her chapbook The Regulars, would have charmed the socks off me were I not at that moment engaged in driving down the parkway at 65+ mph. Her funny, often both funny and poignant vignettes from her experiences as an airline hostess made me laugh out loud, and were a breath of fresh air from the usually ponderous fare I had come to expect from the program. I made a mental note to reserve a special space in my very own personal literary canon for Lori Jakiela as the poet laureate of flight attendants.

Last year, Jakiela published a memoir of growing up in Western Pennsylvania and briefly following her dreams in New York City, entitled Miss New York Has Everything. Miss New York is a sweet and mischievous book, and Jakiela’s voice is so disarmingly blithe that at first it is difficult to understand why it gets under one’s skin.

I know that at least some of what attracts me to Jakiela’s tale is that both of our fathers were machinists. Jakiela depicts her adoptive father, who once dreamed of being the next Frank Sinatra, as a bitter and misanthropic man – “probably closest in temperament to the French writer Celine, who could say the word sh*t in seventeen languages and kept company mostly with dogs and whores” – whereas I tend to think of my father as more of a self-assured and chatty cross between Leonardo da Vinci, Jack LaLanne and Looney Tunes animator Chuck Jones. As Jakiela’s contemporary, the catalog of references from the junkyard of 1970s pop culture that tumble forth in her work, from “Seasons in the Sun” to Shaun Cassidy to Lassie and That Girl reruns, also sends inevitable shivers of recognition up my spine. Although I grew up in Southern California, a place with which I now enjoy a special love-hate relationship and a prison from which the teenaged me vowed to escape, I now live a mere two-stone’s-throws from the little town of Trafford where Jakiela survived her dour childhood; and it is with a mixture of irony and awe that I find myself viewing the 70s, 80s and 90s through the windshield of an adopted person from my adopted home, cruising past familiar Pittsburgh institutions such as the Electric Banana, George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, Iron City Beer (“If you’ve never had an Iron City Beer, suck on your car keys. You’ll get the idea.”), bingo night at the Polish Club, and the Squirrel Cage.

What really pushes my buttons about Miss New York Has Everything, however – the kernel of the universal in it that rises above the particulars, if you will – is Jakiela’s portrayal of that fine line between love and horror. One feels Jakiela’s warmth and empathy for the people of her hometown, even as she is compelled to share with us, as though possessed of a pair of X-ray glasses from an ad in the back of a comic book, the ruptures and boils that lie beneath the flowered housecoats of the Trafford ladies. Cartoon visions of hell play prominently amid her early memories.

The distance between horror and love for Jakiela, however, seems to be comparable in magnitude, as the crow flies, to the gap between reality and dreams. Everyone around her, it seems, has at least one broken dream, or a real or imagined near-miss with fame or good fortune; and yet, in her unfailing optimism Jakiela conveys the sense that we’re all walking around like unrecognized stars. Even as she admits that her aunt, the one her father called Shirley Temple, had plenty of ambition but no discernible talent, she is happy to remind you that before James Dean became James Dean, he had a bowl haircut and glasses and played Frankenstein in his high school production of Goon with the Wind. We’re all, it seems, a mere accident away from reaching out and touching the impossible.

In the meantime, as Jakiela observes wistfully,

… [L]ife and the people in it are mostly complicated. We might all be jokes, but there are a lot of punch lines and we don’t always see them coming.

The pope, a piece of string, a blonde, an Irish man, a black man, a nun, a rabbi, the Easter bunny, the tooth fairy, and a midget walk into a bar. The bartender says, ‘Hold on, this has to be a joke.’

We don’t fit into neat categories, we don’t see ourselves clearly, and, even if we dress the part, there’s a good chance we’ve been miscast.
There you have it. There's a fine line between horror and love, a thin screen between dreams and reality. And, miscast or not, an unforeseen punch line can come along and push you right past those capricious, delicate barriers ... which is how an ex-flight attendant from Trafford can one day become a writer who deserves to be read, the poet laureate of flight attendants.

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Monday, February 05, 2007

Ride the Biggest Waves


Big wave surfer Mark Foo was born on this day in 1958 in Singapore.

The self-described "living legend of surfing," Mark Foo was probably the most adept promoter of surfing during the 1980s and early 1990s. His credo: ride the biggest waves, and make sure people see you doing it. He would routinely alert the sport's best known photographers of his plans -- where he would be surfing, what they could expect to see -- and soon he was the best known surfer in the world, appearing in magazines and on TV surfing giant Hawaiian waves, particularly around the surfing mecca of Waimea Bay. In doing so, Foo also changed the style of big wave surfing, moving the sport away from the straight-line, no-nonsense fashion which was its hallmark since the 1950s toward flashy, dazzling maneuvers, leaving an indelible mark on younger surfers. Foo took big risks for the sake of publicity: in 1985 at Waimea, after several other surfers began getting into trouble amid unrelenting 30-foot waves, Foo waived off a helicopter rescue to surf, for an instant, a 50-foot wave -- long enough to have his picture taken, looking as though he were about to be consumed by a whale -- before his board broke in half.

On December 1994, reports of 50 and 60-foot waves hitting the craggy unfamiliar coast at Maverick's near San Francisco drew Foo and his rival Ken Bradshaw to California. Upon arriving, they were disappointed to find merely average waves, but they set out to surf nonetheless. With a 100 onlookers on the beach, Foo stole a routine 15-foot wave from Bradshaw, only to fall almost immediately as the wave's course shifted unpredictably. After an hour, people began to notice that Foo had not surfaced. Surfer Mike Parsons, who had himself nearly drowned at about the same time, spotted Foo's body floating near the surface while riding one of the media boats. Foo was pulled from the water, but all attempts to revive him failed. It was surmised that Foo was knocked unconscious by his board and that his leash caught on some rocks near the bottom of the surf.

Although Foo had often said that dying in a 50-foot wave would be a "glamorous" way to go, no one ever suspected he would die on a routine wipeout in California, albeit amid dangerous rock hazards. He was the first big-wave surfer to die riding since 1943. 700 people attended Foo's memorial service at Waimea, where 150 men and women paddled their surfboards into the bay and released Foo's ashes.

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Saturday, February 03, 2007

First Woman Physician in the U.S.


Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman physician in the U.S., the sister of pioneer woman surgeon Emily Blackwell, and the founder of the London School of Medicine for Women, was born on this day in 1821 in Bristol, England.

The Blackwell family was chock full of progressives. Elizabeth's brothers Henry and Samuel were active opponents of slavery and supporters of women's rights; Harry married suffragist Lucy Stone, and Samuel married the first formally ordained woman minister in the U.S., Antoinette Brown. Indeed, they arrived in the U.S., in part, because their father's interests in reform had marred his commercial prospects in England. Unfortunately, he died when Elizabeth was 17, whereupon the Blackwells opened a school for girls to support themselves.

Elizabeth, who had received a decent education, taught at the school, but did not see teaching as her life's calling. Despite feeling tempted by the attentions of men, she made up her mind early that she would not marry -- and her attitudes about the way men alter the course of women's life and health would be a constant theme for her throughout her career. A woman friend dying of cervical cancer urged Blackwell to study medicine because the presence of a woman doctor (then unheard of in the U.S.) might have eased her worst suffering.

Blackwell was intrigued by the idea, but she was aware that to pursue medicine would be to take on a disapproving male medical establishment, as well as the unfavorable perception of women who dabbled in medicine, such as Madame Restell in New York City, a then-notorious backstreet abortionist. Nevertheless, she began to read medicine with family friends in the Carolinas and with progressive physicians in Philadelphia. She was rejected entrance to medical schools in Philadelphia and New York, and turned down the suggestion that she study in Europe or disguise herself as a man. Finally, in 1847, she was accepted at the Geneva Medical College (after a vote of the student body prankishly approved), and fought her way past the cynicism to earn the respect of her anatomy professor, who had initially decided to exclude her from lectures on the reproductive system until Blackwell convinced him otherwise.

While at Geneva, she made clinical studies in the wards of a Philadelphia poorhouse, where her observations of Irish immigrants suffering from typhus, and of women suffering from syphilis, awakened in Blackwell a conviction that hygiene and sanitation were critical aspects of medical practice, and that the moral dimensions of sexuality were also aspects of a patient which needed to be "treated."

After graduation, Blackwell went to Paris to study at La Maternite, but contracted opthalmia from an infant she was treating and left Europe blinded in one eye. Although her plans to become a surgeon were dashed, Elizabeth returned to New York City to open a general practice; her earliest attempts were foiled by landlords and a cold shoulder from her male colleagues, but after a period of public lecturing on women's health issues, she bought her own place and opened her practice in 1856, with her sister Emily (who had recently studied surgery in Edinburgh) and Marie Zakrzewska, a recent graduate of Western Reserve Medical School.

While Emily and Zakrewska ran the practice, Blackwell assumed the role of international spokesman for women's medicine, undertaking a critique of male-dominated medicine in writings and speeches which indicted "medical materialism" (the treatment of patients as objects) and "laboratory medicine" (which focused on certain afflictions in a specialized way). For Blackwell, preventive care and treatment of the whole patient -- techniques which emphasized nurturing, empathy and moral education, as well as an awareness of the social and political climates of disease -- were "female" ideals which needed to be advanced within the "masculine" milieu of the new experimental medicine. At times, her ideas kept her from recognizing progress (she resisted vaccination, for example), but Blackwell's ideas continue to live through the approaches of alternative medicine, and more recently have been given increased attention in formal medical education.

She settled permanently in England after 1869, providing inspiration to England's first generation of women physicians, such as Sophia Jex-Blake. She died on September 7, 1910 in Argyllshire, Scotland.

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Friday, February 02, 2007

Posada's Calaveras


Jose Guadalupe Posada was born on this day in 1852 in Aguascalientes, Mexico.

The son of a baker, at 16 Posada became an apprentice to a local printer, Jose Trinidad Pedroza, from whom he learned engraving on wood and metal and lithography. At 19, he began to contribute lithographed satirical cartoons about the local jefes to Pedroza's journal, El Jicote, which became so popular that each edition which contained Posada's work sold out as quickly as it could be printed. The more popular El Jicote became, the less welcome Pedroza and Posada were among the local jefes, so a year later they moved to the town of Leon de los Aldamas. There Posada ran Pedroza's print shop and eventually bought it from him, eking out a living through commercial assignments such as cigar and liquor ads and labels, as well as contributing traditional drawings and lithograph reproductions of paintings to local publications.

In 1888, Posada lost his shop in a disastrous flood and moved to Mexico City, where he hooked up with Antonio Vanegas Arroyo, a national publisher of broadsides and chapbooks. The literary content of Vanegas Arroyo's publications was pure pulp, and Posada indulged the words by providing garish lead-engraved or zinc-etched cartoons of grisly crimes, violent riots and disasters, depictions of physical deformities and supernatural phenomena, and bustling social and political reportage. He worked quickly, briefly studying a text and then rapidly sketching out his illustrations, producing a printing plate as little as an hour after conceiving his designs.

Posada's on-the-spot inspirations were nourished by the deeply-rooted imagery and attitudes of his country: his most famous illustrations, known as calaveras, emerge from the bemused Spanish/Mexican stoicism regarding death and the sights associated with the celebration of All Saints Day (the Day of the Dead) each year on November 2. Posada's calaveras were prints in which skeletons mime (sometimes gleefully) a variety of ordinary daily activities, from selling newspapers to dancing and drinking to courting and seducing; yet Posada took his skeleton drawings a few steps further, responding to the emerging Mexican thirst for revolution against the Diaz dictatorship by showing skeletons as Zapatistas doing battle with the cavalry or triumphantly leading bloody revolt (such as in the Oaxaca calavera, 1903) or even as ghastly historical portraits (The Calavera of Senor Madero, 1913) -- in effect, using the culturally rich details of the Day of the Dead as a medium for expressionist social commentary.

Although he was sometimes jailed for the brutal honesty of his work, he toiled on humbly and indefatigably, producing more than 20,000 engravings before dying in poverty and obscurity, at the age of 61, on January 20, 1913 in Mexico City.

Mexican artists of the next generation saw him as their precursor: Rivera revered him, putting him in a place of honor in his mural for the Hotel del Prado in Mexico City, with Posada's own Calavera catrina on his arm; and Orozco was moved to say: "Posada is the equal of the greatest artists, an admirable lesson in simplicity, humility, equilibrium and dignity. A strong contrast, indeed, to the hatred and the servile attitudes so common today."

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Thursday, February 01, 2007

S.J. Perelman


Sidney Joseph Perelman -- better known as "S.J." -- was born on this day in 1904 in Brooklyn, New York.

A graduate of Brown University, Perelman wrote comic vignettes for magazines but was little appreciated until the publication of a collection of his articles, Dawn Ginsbergh's Revenge (1929). Despite the fact that his name was left off the title page of the first edition (unintentionally), Perelman gained a national readership for his outrageous wordplay, non sequitirs and puns. Shortly thereafter he moved to Hollywood, where he wrote for the Marx Brothers (Monkey Business, 1931; Horse Feathers, 1932) and continued writing magazine pieces, showing an increasingly angry and nihilist comic persona, while contributing to other Hollywood scripts. He won an Oscar for his work on the script for Around the World in 80 Days (1956, with David Niven).

Once asked by an earnest interviewer how many drafts he wrote of his stories, Perelman replied, in typical wise-ass fashion, "Thirty-seven. I once tried doing 33, but something was lacking, a certain -- how shall I say? -- je ne sais quoi. On another occasion, I tried 42 versions, but the final effect was too lapidary -- you know what I mean, Jack? What the hell are you trying to extort -- my trade secrets?"

Perelman died on October 17, 1979 in New York City.

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