Part 2: Spring in Manhattan

The second half of our day took us to the southern part of Manhattan. My mom had wanted to check out the Oculus, the new transport station that was part of the World Trade Center network. The building is out of science fiction – weirdly shaped and white. Inside, there are several floors with high end shops and as far as we could tell, one restaurant/cafe. Very odd. It was a dramatic place architecturally but I’m still confused how you can have a massive transportation depot without food.

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After our tour of the space, we headed to Trinity Church nearby. Inside we found beautiful wooden carved chapel and windows. Outside, we discovered that this was where Alexander and Eliza Hamilton were buried. However, it took some time finding their grave. We learned that there are burial grounds on both sides of church. When we paid our respects to his grave, the lady next to us starting singing the section about Eliza from “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” Her grave had pennies all over it as well. Nice touch.

We passed by the Bull of Wall Street and the Little Girl standing him down. There was a line of mostly women waiting to get their photo taken with the Little Girl. I declined getting my photo taken since it was a long line of chaos.

We then went to the National Museum of the American Indian next to Bowling Green Park. The museum is housed in the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House, which is a pretty astonishing building. Big rotunda with murals. We learned from the guard that Bowling Green Park’s fence went back to colonial times; on the fence, there used to be symbols of the crown that revolutionaries had sawed off! Plus there was an amazing plaque talking about how the rental of the park was only a peppercorn. Back in the day, peppercorn was a big deal.

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I had read about the museum and its current exhibition “Native Fashion Now” in the New York Times a few weeks earlier so I was keen to check it out. They had gone to Native American designers to showcase their work in the show. It was spectacular. For instance, there were these high heeled boots covered in beadwork with hummingbird motif by Jamie Okuma. Another was a kimono that depicted ledger art by Toni Williams. Astonishing. They also had a quiver made in the famous Louis Vuitton fabric. Or a pair of moccasins made from electrical parts. Innovative and astonishing.

The permanent collection had some pretty spectacular objects from a diverse number of groups. There were drums from Mapuche in Chile all the way up to various groups in the Pacific Northwest. They even had a room set aside for Native American Contemporary art where there was a paper jingle dress.

Another special exhibition included pottery from Central America, which was a treat. As I have gotten older, I have grown to love pottery, especially from Latin America. I love all the pots of local animals!

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We then walked from the museum to the Strand, not a small walk. It was delightful wandering around the city. I enjoyed all the street art, as per usual. The Strand was great as always. We met up with a good friend and my parents at a Spanish restaurant in Greenwich Village.

Afterwards, we wandered with our friend to find a speakeasy. There is a trend in bars in NY (and elsewhere) of speakeasies that are accessed in unusual places. The first place we tried involved going through a toy store. Sadly, it was merely a shelf of toys and the bar was extremely crowded and loud.

We then began our trek to find an available place. There was another one that involved going into a phone booth in a hole-in-the-wall hot dog stand. When we got there, there was a line, so it wasn’t truly hidden. When it was our time to get to the front of the line, a man pulled back a wall of the phone booth and I could peer inside. It was a quiet bar with a taxidermied pheasant on the wall. We were informed it was a three hour wait, which wasn’t happening. He ended up handing my friend and I a black business card with a number and the name of the address. Someday we’ll go.

Ultimately we ended up a regular bar, notably only for the strange channel it showed of people embarrassing themselves by doing stupid things. It wasn’t “Funniest Home Videos” but it was an actual channel that bars can request. Strange.

That’s all for now!

Prague and London: Part 9

It was our last day of the trip and last day of 2016!

We started the day with a trip to Portobello road to check out the Saturday market! What a blast we had. It’s fun to wander through and find all sorts of amazing artifacts of the past, from old maps of English counties, beautifully designed metal stamps to Alice in Wonderland illustrated cigarette cards. One stall sold old school boxing gloves and china, while others sold beautiful purses. We even saw some original Banksys that had been covered in plexi-glass, presumably to prevent people from chiseling them off the wall and selling it for millions at auction houses. Around the market, we saw at least two “Unofficial Banksy shops,” which were selling t-shirts and photos of his work. For all we know they could be the real deal or not.  We wandered the full length of the market, watching the goods range from antiques to clothing.We stopped for lunch and had a tasty platter of cheese and tea, a nice break from our wanderings.

Then it was off for a Spy and Spycatchers walking tour with London Walks. I’ve talked about them previously. They are a walking tour company that has 40+ walks covering lots of topics in London, from Jack the Ripper, Harry Potter, to Ghost stories, etc. Each tour is immensely satisfying and reasonably priced. But prepare to walk! We try to do one tour with them each time we are in London. This time, we were interested in spy history and literature. The walk centered around the West End where real life spy history and spy fiction intertwined at times. We learned that one of the pivotal scenes were filmed for John LeCarre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, with Alec Guinness, was also the place of a pipe shop that Russian agents went to to buy one of the English traitors his pipes and tobaccos after he defected.

We learned the locations of various MI5 and MI6 buildings in the area. Every time they moved, the building was razed completely, presumably, to check for any bugs or any files that may have been mislaid. These buildings would be forgotten on maps but everyone knew where they were any way. We did learn about how an actor named M.E. Clifton James was asked to impersonate Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery as part of British intelligence deception plan. That’s simply marvelous. David Niven left Hollywood to enlist and worked in British intelligence as well!

A delightful tour as always.

That evening we spent at our usual New Year’s Haunt of Sarastro, a Turkish restaurant that is an aesthetic combination of harem and opera house. We wore masks, played with poppers, and drank champagne as we rang out the old year and our trip!

That’s all for now! Next week, I’ll talk about our short trip to Brinsom, Minnesota to go dogsledding!

China and Cambodia: Part 6

And then it was our very last full day in Shanghai. So we decided to do what had worked so well for us before: art and food.

We started off our day at the Minsheng Art Museum in the west side of Shanghai. It’s an an interesting area with lots of galleries/exhibition places. It was like an even more exclusive version of M50. There were public art pieces everywhere.

The museum, funded by a bank, shows contemporary artists. They had two shows on. One of them was one of the best shows I’ve seen all year. Puppets and video installation! The work was by Zhou Xiaohu. He built these life size puppets from found items (pre-made masks) and had them act out Buddhist fables. We spent 20 minutes watching the video installation of these creatures dancing and talking about these fables. It was surreal and poignant. This was a show that resonated with the crazy in my head. We also saw the actual puppets themselves. He also had these amazing pieces where he used objects like feathers, bones, and tools, that he arranged in such a way that the shadows reflected onto a wall made it look like handwritten calligraphy. Incredible.

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After our visit to the museum was done, we took a break at a cafe nearby. It was nice to people watch at this arts area. We also found a copy of TimeOut Shanghai that had amazing illustrations.

Then it was time to head to the Shanghai History Museum. It’s located in the base of the famous Oriental Pearl building in Pudong, the land of the crazy skyscrapers. I had never actually set foot in the area; I’d only seen it from across the river at the Bund. So it was kinda exciting being amongst the skyscrapers (and yes, I grew up in Chicago. Shh). At the train station, we went to a bakery and I got a Portuguese egg tart and a mango custard danish. Holy cow the mango custard was amazing.

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When we got to the Oriental Pearl, we were amazed to find this huge line stretching around and around, all to go up the tower. It was interesting how the ticket sellers and guards were surprised when we said that we had no interest in the tower, just the museum.

The museum was a fine collage of different exhibits. It starts off with a history of transportation. We started with sedan chairs, carriages to cars and buses. As we walked up through the museum, there were lots of dioramas, showcasing life in Shanghai at various points in history. Some dioramas were life sized recreations while others were tiny tabletop models. It was neat walking through their recreation of 19th century Shanghai with all the model shops, etc. There wasn’t the most clear narrative of the history but we enjoyed spending time there.

Afterwards, we headed back to the hotel for one last meal with family. We had a little time to kill before our appointed time so we hung out in a public park near the train. Part of it was hilly and labyrinthine, which was cool. There was a flute player amidst the trees which was a nice touch. We found a little bamboo forest too. As we walked to meet my family, we also found a street with some nice street art. Aside from the day at M50, I hadn’t really seen much.

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We ended up a hot pot place. It was a bit challenging meal. We had split the pot in two: one side was mild while the other was spicy. Very spicy. I didn’t want to dunk the meat in the mild side since my companion was a vegetarian. (She was fine with it but I was committed!) So any meat got cooked in the spicy side. HOly cow, was it spicy! I eventually had to stop and drink my juice to calm the war on my tongue. Alas!

After dinner, we had a little misadventure. When we had the reservation made at the hotel for us, we received a receipt that was mostly in Chinese with only the date legible. I saw that it was a date earlier than we needed but I asked and was told it was fine. However, when we checked in around midnight, we had to explain that no we were staying 7 nights, not 6. Unfortunately, the lady who checked us in did not have great English so it was a bit difficult. But we got to a place that made sense. She showed us a price that made sense to add to the price we were paying. We made sure that we understood what was going on. We weren’t go to just agree.

So when we got back to our room on the 6th day, we found that our key cards didn’t work. We went downstairs, knowing what had happened. Then the fun began. It was the same woman but the story changed. She said we had to pay more for the extra night. We tried to explain that we had already paid and had a receipt to show for it. We ended up with a friend on the phone who was a native speaker. The lady kept changing her story. First it was only 400 RMB for the extra night (about $60) and then it changed to 500 Rmb (about $75). It wasn’t a lot of money but it was the principle of the thing. We didn’t know if our bags were still in the room. It was incredibly frustrating. I wanted to leave but my rational side prevailed. If we got our stuff and left, we would still pay more at another hotel. It was Friday night after 9pm. Eventually we paid the 500 RMB and found that the room was exactly as we left it. Thank goodness.

As soon as we verified that nothing had been taken or even moved, we got in a cab and went to the Bund. We were going to have a fancy drink in the fanciest part of town. We wandered a bit trying to find a place with a view. We ended up in the Peace Hotel, which had a beautiful art deco feel. But no room with a view. Eventually, we ended up in the Waldorf Astoria. It was beautiful. No view but it felt right. We got a table in this wood paneled gem. I ordered $30 glass of champagne. I enjoyed every single drop. There was a singer, beautiful and tiny, with a pink shirt and black pants. She wore amazing tassel earrings. It was what was needed after our frustrations at the hotel.

That glass of champagne was worth it.

That’s all for now!

Top Books of 2015

Since it is nearing the end of the year, I’m going to spend a few blog posts talking about the best media I’ve read/seen this year. It won’t be a top ten list because some media will have more than 10 and some will have fewer.

From these lists, I will exclude movies and books that I’ve read or seen before. I just finished my rereading the Harry Potter series and watched most of the original Star Wars. I don’t think I have to convince people to read/watch those. And yes, Harry Potter  is still as great (maybe even greater) than when I read it several years ago. Star Wars is also still good but not in the same way that HP is.

This year, I decided to keep track of all the books that I’ve read and grade each one. So the following is a list of the books that received an A or A+.

Best Books (chronologically ordered by when I read them)

  1. The Magicians, Lev Grossman – This is the first book of a trilogy that is about a world of magic where teenagers deal with sex, drugs, ennui, etc. in a way Harry Potter doesn’t. Very well constructed world that riffs off other magical worlds in clever ways.
  2. Department of Speculation, Jenny Offill – This book is one of those most heartbreaking and beautifully written books I’ve read all year. It’s about a woman trying to understand her life and art as her marriage begins to crumble. It was hard for me to read at times, and reduced me to tears, but it is so worth it.
  3. The Elephant Whisperer, Lawrence Anthony – This nonfiction book records Lawrence Anthony’s adventures with a pack of rogue elephants on his reserve in South Africa. One day out of the blue, he got a call asking if he wanted about a dozen elephants. However, if he didn’t take them, they’d be shot. It’s an incredible story about elephant and man.
  4. Phoebe and her Unicorn  and Unicorn on a Roll, Dana Simpson – This YA comic and its sequel is about a young girl who meets a unicorn, named Heavenly Nostrils, and befriends it. The book is described as a new take of Calvin and Hobbes and I think it is fair. It’s a charming series that anyone, young and old, either gender, can get into.
  5. Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, Karen Abbott – Karen Abbott is one of my favorite history writers. She focuses on incredible women in US history that have been lost to the main narrative of American history. Previously, she wrote on the Everleigh Sisters, madams of the Levee district in the Chicago, and Gypsy Rose Lee. This current book deals with four women in the Civil War who act as spies and other roles. Two women are from the North and two are from the South. It’s a wonderful story of bravery and daring-do in the time of war.
  6. The Penelopiad,

    Margaret Atwood – Another book that was beautiful and painful to read. It tells Penelope’s story from the

    Odyssey and Iliad from her perspective. Alternating chapters are in Penelope’s voice and her doomed 12 maidens. Stunning.

  7. A Cuckoo’s Calling, Robert Galbraith – So yes, a J.K. Rowling book snuck on. When I read Harry Potter, I knew that she had the making of an incredible murder mystery writer. A Cuckoo’s Calling showed that. It’s a great detective series start with Cormoran Strike, an Afghanistan vet who lost his leg in the war. In this case, he attempts to understand the possible suicide of a star model.
  8. The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac, Sharma Shields – This book begins with a young boy watching his mother walk out on his father and him with a man he thinks is Sasquatch. The book beautifully interweaves his lifelong obsession with Sasquatch and his family, all dealing with sometimes nefarious magic.
  9. Consider the ForkBee Wilson – Since I like reading books about history of objects, I devoured this book about cooking utensils. The book looks at tools in the kitchen: pots, spoons, fire, knives and forks. It’s a fascinating way to look at history through these objects.
  10. Heads or Tales, Lilli Carré – This is an exquisite set of short stories in graphic novel form. The graphics are simply astonishing and the stories are full of magic and gravitas.
  11. Wild Seed, Octavia Butler. – This was my first book of Octavia Butler’s, known for her incredible science fiction. It’s an incredible story about Anyanwu, a woman who is a shapeshifter, who encounters a powerful vicious spirit named Domo who is trying to breed his magical race of humans. It’s a beautiful consideration of slavery, love and death, family and duty.
  12. Champagne, Don Kladstrup and Petie Kladstrup – This book is a great and fascinating history of champagne. It’s a tale of invention, daring-do, and much more. The authors wrote Wine and War that looked at the wine industry under the Nazis in WWII. Champagne is a great addition to their history works.
  13. Step Aside Pops, Kate Beaton – Web cartoonist Kate Beaton published her third (second) collection of her comics. These are full of history, literature, philosophy. Extremely silly and erudite. Everything I could have wanted!

That’s all for now!

Washington, DC in July: Part 3

Now I’ll talk about the second half of the museums we enjoyed on July 4th in DC. OUr next stop was the National Museum of American Indian.I had never been to this museum before. In front there was a Peruvian folk festival that had food, music, and artisanal crafts. It was really neat to see it up and running on July 4th. We ate lunch there but it wasn’t terribly good. (I should have held out for someone who sold ceviche!)

In the museum, we headed upstairs to the top floor to check out two exhibitions. The first was “Our Universes: Traditional Knowledge Shapes Our World.” It was one of the most breathtaking exhibitions I’ve been to. The main hall of it had a ceiling mimicking the night sky. So many stars. The exhibition looked at how different indigenous groups viewed the world. There were these little offset rooms that were dedicated to different tribes like the Mapuche. It was a wonderful way to present the philosophy/theology of various groups. My only complaint was that I was not sure where some of the groups were located. But it’s well worth a visit.

Night sky in ExhibitionAwesome skull from Mexico (i think)

Next we went to “Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations.” It reviewed eight treaties that the US eventually (or quickly) broke. It’s a very important exhibition. I liked how it gave two perspectives in each display. One for the American Indian Nation involved and one for the US. While I have some knowledge of Native American history, it was astonishing to see the same pattern: treaty is made, kept for a time, and then broken. Century after century. THere was one exhibit that talked about how a treaty was better than no treaty as in the case of California where things were even worse for the various tribes without a treaty. It’s really a very important exhibition and well worth checking out.

Then we decided to check out the Natural History Museum. Because dinosaurs. This was the first museum that we had to wait in line outside for more than 5 minutes. The parade was over and everyone was heading to the popular museums like Air and Space. But once we got inside, we made a beeline for the dinosaurs. We did walk through an incredible exhibition of National Geographic photos of Africa. What incredible shots! It made me yearn to go back there again! One shot was a lizard with an extended tongue catching a fly. What an incredible shot! We finally found the dinosaurs, which was much smaller than either of us remembered. We said hi to the T-Rex and Triceratops and got the heck out of dodge. So crowded!

T-Rex

Our last two museums were the Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum, both housed in the same building. Unsurprisingly, there was no line to get into the museum. There was an awesome exhibit of photographs of current celebrities. There was a truly spectacular shot of Renee Fleming, luxurious and free. I got to see a little exhibition on Dolores Huerta, Latina leader in the California farm workers movement of the 1960s and 70s. I hadn’t really heard of her before but she was co-founder with Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers. Very cool. My fiance was keen to check out the photos of generals from the Civil War. I spent some time contemplating an awesome shot of Busby Berkeley and another photo of Nat King Cole. We also wandered through the presidential portraits as my fiance tried to come up with jokes for each one.

Our visit to the American Art Museum was quick. We saw this impressive piece with all 50 states license plates with the Preamble of the Constitution. There was also this magnificent shrine made of tin foil and other similar materials in the folk section. (I think it was:James Hampton’s spiritual sculpture, The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millenium General Assembly of the Nations’ Millenium General Assembly) And there were some lovely Hoppers.

License Plates and the Preamble Tin foil Shrine

That’s all for now! Next we’ll talk about our adventures in Alexandria, VA.

Listening Room: Migrations

Last night, I went to a Listening Room by the Third Coast International Audio Festival. It’s one program leading up to the Studs Terkel “Let’s Get Working Festival” at the University of Chicago in May. I have previously mentioned Listening Rooms before but I’ll recap. Third Coast puts together a selection of audio clips ranging from 30 seconds to 20 minutes that center around a theme. We collectively listen to these audio clips together. It’s fairly magical.

This past evening’s event was a wonderful. The theme was migration and focused on 5 clips and an interview with Dr. Timuel Black. One of my favorite clips was the first story.“Mssrs Craft,” by The Memory Palace, is a piece about Ellen and William Craft escaping from slavery in the 19th century. It’s a fairly incredible story where Ellen dressed as a man to aid in their escape to the North. However, they had to contend with the fact that Ellen didn’t have a beard, an Adam’s Apple; she had to learn to walk like a man. And she couldn’t write. So they concocted this story that the man (Ellen) was really sick and needed to go to Philadelphia with his trusty slave. There were bandages on his face, an injured leg and a an arm in the sling. Brilliant! The ruse worked and they eluded capture.

The Abolitionists love them since they had such an incredible, daring story of freedom. They were hunted down by slave hunters but the people of Boston helped protect them. Ellen was whisked away to a town outside of Boston and William holed up with another ex-slave who owned a huge house. Apparently, the owner stood in the doorway with two pounds of gunpowder and a torch, threatening to kill them all if the slave hunters tried to take William away. What an amazing story!

Then there was a live interview of a 95-year-old man, Dr. TImuel Black, a scholar of the Great Migration. He also lived it; he was a baby when his parents migrated from Alabama to Chicago. He was a real treat! He talked about the “Black Belt” in Chicago, basically a ghetto of African Americans who developed their own parallel institutions because of racism. Black entrepreneurs started cab companies so the population would get served. There was a saying, “Don’t spend your money where you can’t get work.”

Another audio clip that really struck me was part of a larger story called “Divided Families: The Hidden Cost of Migration.” It told the story of a family where Rocio, the mother, took care of the kids in Mexico while their father and her husband worked in Rolling Meadows. It was heartbreaking because they spent so much time apart from one another. He could only make it once every couple of years. He would send $200 a week to his family down in Mexico but it cost $3,000 to travel to Mexico.

Another fascinating audio clip was part of the “Musical  Migrants – Chicago.” It was about a Japanese singer Yoko Noge who moved to Chicago to learn the blues. She’s had loved the blues while in Japan but wanted to know more about the culture. So she came to Chicago and went to blues clubs. The people were so friendly that they had her sing off the bat. She loved the community and said that she wanted to be African American. Ms. Noge talked and sang like her friends. Eventually, she realized that she had to be herself so her songs are a combination of the blues and Japanese folk songs. Now she sings regularly at Cyrano’s on Friday nights.  I’ve seen her briefly at the Art Institute but I’m going to have to check her out now, especially since I’m now obsessed with the blues.

What a wonderful event! If you have the chance, go to a Listening Room. It’s such an amazing experience to collectively listen to audio shorts. Third Coast always puts together a fascinating selection.

Newberry Library Exhibit

Yesterday, I got to spend a little more time at the Newberry Library’s “Home Front: Daily Life in the Civil War North.” It’s a collection of printed materials, paintings, sheet music, letters and more from the Civil War. I’m not the biggest Civil War buff but I did enjoy it because it showed some alternative perspectives.

There were various caricatures and drawings throughout the exhibition that really pummeled home different aspects of the civil war. THere was a drawing criticizing Great Britain for continuing to trade the South for its cotton despite England’s role in stopping the slave trade. It showed John Bull talking to a Southerner while a slave is literally trapped in a bale of cotton. Very potent piece. There were text-based pieces but I’m a visual person so I’ll mostly talk about those.
 The exhibition also discussed the violence against Native Americans during the war. I’ve learned in my studies is that war tends to increase the general level of violence in society, not just on the battle field. Rates of domestic abuse go up so it made sense that there were more battles with Native Americans. There was an incredible drawing that showed the hanging of 38 Dakota Indians from “crimes” perpetuated during the Dakota War. It was allegedly the largest execution in US history ordered by Lincoln. He did commute the sentences of 256 men though. Regardless, there was a big trial but it was very one-sided. There was little representation for the Dakotan Indians. It reminded me a bit of the Haymarket Riot trial and its martyrs. Sad that I didn’t even know about it until today. Read more.
There was also discussion about women during the war. Envelope art was apparently a thing. One envelope had a little drawing of a woman with the phrase “If I cannot fight, I’ll feed those who do.” It was that wonderful time of negotiation between women’s roles of domesticity and needs of the nation. Women may complete essential tasks of sewing, caring for the sick, etc, but it wasn’t limited to the domestic sphere previously. Though I did learn about women marching on a courthouse in Lancaster, Pennsylvania against the draft. So there is that. I also learned a bit about two Chicagoans, Mary Livermore and Jane Hoge, who were important in the Chicago Sanitary Commission during the war. I’m going to have to read a bit more about them but it’s neat to find some new names to read. They also wrote about their experiences during the war. Excellent.
There were some lovely paintings and drawings too. Many were by Winslow Homer. There is a wonderful one that starts the exhibit, called “Banner in the Sky” by Frederich Church (1861). It shows a red menacing sky but in the middle, the clouds make the picture of an American flag. It’s really lovely. It’s a nice depiction of this idea that we live and breathe patriotism. Even our landscape does too! There is another painting “On Guard” by Winslow Homer. It shows a boy in the countryside, seemingly far from battle. But he’s waiting, perched on his seat for something to happen. It’s a nice reminder of how the home front and war front are connected.
So it’s an interesting exhibition and worth checking out. But it closes March 24th so time is running out. There is a digital component so you can check it out here. But it’s always better in person.