Just a day after I posted on how Leonard Cohen's music was so right for these times, his family announced his death. The news was filled with reverent eulogies for this soulful, voice of our times, and Saturday Night Live opened with actress Kate McKinnon dressed in white singing his meditative ballad, "Hallelujah." Then she turned to the camera. "I'm not giving up," she said, "and neither should you."
Somehow, post-election, the choice of Bob Dylan for Nobel Prize in Literature feels more prescient than ever. But another artist that feels particularly right for these times is Dylan's peer legendary singer, songwriter and poet, Leonard Cohen. Earlier this summer, I heard Renée Fleming sing the most incomparably beautiful arrangement of his classic, Hallelujah, with the Aspen Festival Orchestra. Since this arrangement hasn't been recorded yet and I was desperate for more, I started listening to it on The Essential Leonard Cohen (2002) and rediscovering other familiar favorites of his like Suzanne, The Sisters of Mercy, So Long Marianne, and Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye. This fall, I was encouraged to see that I wasn't the only one thinking about Cohen: out of the blue my mother gave me an old CD of his as a gift in September, a friend put his music on at a party in early October and David Remnick profiled him in the October 17, 2016 issue of The New Yorker. A Zen Buddhist, Cohen was born in Canada in 1934 and feels as relevant today as ever: his last tour was from 2008-2010 and people I know who heard it said his voice continues to impress. Not only is Cohen the most rocking octogenarian around, his "Old Ideas" are as relevant and inspiring as ever.
My thoughts and questions as Americans head to the polls today to elect our 45th President: Why do we vote on a workday instead of a weekday? Why are absentee ballots impossible to get in certain states no matter how often you request them? Why don't we have early voting in all states? Why isn't gerrymandering illegal? How can we make sure our voting locations and election results are secure and protected? Why don't we have a non-partisan medical fitness test for presidential candidates? Why don't we have civic education in our schools that teaches students to look beyond the popular appeal of the candidates to actually evaluating their platform and policies? How could we implement completely protected online voting with paper ballot back-up? What keeps some eligible citizens from exercising their most important constitutional right? How can we describe American exceptionalism in regard to voting? Can we?
As the world's population shifts to cities, it's time to think about where to find nature. I've long felt that New York City's abundant great parks are what make the city livable: in other words, not the buildings and streets themselves but the green spaces between them. The lack of nature can make you so anxious and depressed that there is even a term, Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD), for children who don't get get outdoors enough. Meanwhile, the healing Japanese medicinal art of Shinrin Yoku, forest bathing, holds that guided sensory walks in nature lead to increased feelings of well-being.
But still, sidewalks can be harrowing places. New York City walking for the non-tourist is not a leisurely stroll but often a nerve-wracking competitive sport. Most streets do not have enough shade or trees, and there are few places to sit and take a break besides bus stop and mid-avenue benches in the middle of traffic. What a lovely surprise then to find this pop-up rock park on a way west Chelsea block.
A little rock sit was the perfect antidote for my pre-election stress and general urban ills.
As I sat on the granite ledge, I remembered the inspiring views from the peaks of New Hampshire's Presidentials. The granite ledges felt very rooting and took me out of the city's frenetic pace. The rock stop seemed to work well for the arty guys shown above too, even if they did continue checking their phones while they sat or leaned.
Here's what you can do with a city pet rock. You can take a lunch or coffee break with Vitamin N. You can think back to all the mountains you've ever climbed, the views you've enjoyed and the sunsets you've relished. Or you can just strike a pose and check your email. But even if you don't unplug completely, it's still way cooler than sitting on an ordinary wooden park bench. My vote is for big, beautiful slabs of granite all over the city.
What with all the 2016 election craziness, the rampant bigotry and depressing news like this recent study of a surge in opioid poisonings of toddlers, it's not hard to feel sometimes like an alien in your own beloved country. I literally can't believe my own eyes. So this futuristic big-headed mannequin, seen at Bloomingdale's New York, perfectly captured my November vibe right down to her big saucer glasses. After I played with the shot in Mobile Monet I had my "aha" moment: This is it! American life this election season feels like an out of control comic-book world where good and evil forces battle daily for domination.
Is it possible for flowers to photo bomb? I could swear this very urban sunflower found growing on a city rooftop farm is saying "Boo"! I love how a foreground object changes scale and heightens impact. The applied chrome filter reminds me of the heightened realism in a David Lynch movie. This sunflower is scary, but still a lot nicer looking than the the giant man-eating plant, Audrey II, in Little Shop of Horrors.
Pumpkin designers are thinking out of the box. Is it because orange has become such a scary color in the 2016 election season? Or, like heirloom tomato and carrot growers, have they decided that colorful, misshapen, warty and hybrid is just a cooler way to grow. This season I've been surprised by the everywhereness of white, blue, peach, red and even super ugly pumpkins— anything but smooth and orange. I found ghostly white pumpkins with candles in a restaurant bathroom, I stumbled by a natural rainbow of pumpkins at my city fruit market, I read about autumn couleur heirloom pumpkins in The New York Times, and, when I went pumpkin picking in Maine, I walked right by a number of smooth-skinned Jacks to pick the quite voluptuous (and apparently tasty) Porcelain Beauty shown above. Thank God kids will no longer grow up thinking that pumpkins or even carrots (see my blog post, Purple Carrots, Black Dirt Region) can only be orange. Pumpkin diversity may not save the world, but it will definitely make it brighter.
In my fantasy doctor's appointment of the future, I'd like to take a low-tech Lab test for cancer. As in a white-coated Labrador who sniffs all around me in the examining room to declare me cancer-free. It's completely possible. Dogs "see" with their noses and some are even able to detect cancer, earthquakes, and even counterfeit goods. Now a new book, Being a Dog: Following a Dog Into a World of Smell (Scribner, 2016) by Alexandra Horowitz, confirms the amazing spectrum of dogs' noses. Horowitz is director of the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College, which studies and researches the world from a dog's point of view. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got about dog walking was from my friend and dog guru, Diane, who advised me to give my little Havanese "time to be a dog." That means time to sniff, explore and meander while walking on leash in her olfactory paradise, aka our stinky city sidewalks. Even our dogs need a chance to stop and smell the roses, or whatever.
I've walked by this cafe thousands of times and never thought it seemed that authentically French. But after shooting it and applying Prisma's "Illegal Beauty" setting, I'll never look at it the same way again. Once when I was driving a very familiar route home I got lost in thought, and when I began to notice my surroundings again I had no idea where I was. Even though I'd driven that route twice a day for years, I was seeing the road as if for the very first time. I stayed calm and kept driving and a few minutes later found familiar signposts that re-oriented me. The point is that looking and seeing are not the same thing. Art confronts us with that all the time.
Puddles are completely underrated. At least by adults. No kid can walk by one without jumping into it. Dogs love them, too. But to most of us they're just shoe threat, traffic inconvenience or not really worthy of attention or thought at all. But puddles can be incredibly beautiful and even mystical, particularly the ones that reflect a topsy-turvy view of the world. Call it the Alice Effect. When I took this photo after the heavy rains from the end of Hurricane Matthew, I was struck by the golden quality of the late afternoon light. The yellow oak leaves glittered in the sidewalk water. The puddle itself had long octopus-like tentacles that stretched and waved. I couldn't help but wondering, is it really reflecting the park at me? Or is it a portal to a world hidden deep below? Unless you jump in it, you'll never know.
Maybe I'm late to this art party, but lately I've been having a hilarious time with apps like Pikazo, Lucid, Prisma, Waterlogged, and Mobile Monet that transform your ugly duckling photos into digital swans. I'm not patient enough for adult coloring books, one of the fastest growing segments of the publishing market, but I did once love Paint-by-Number kits. Now, with the flick of a thumb and a side swipe, I become a museum quality digital painter. Above, look what happened to my mundane photo of arranged flowers with Prisma's "Mosaic" setting on it. Okay, I know it's cheating, but it sure costs less than an MFA.
I was at a Patti Smith concert this summer when a fan tried to hand her a gift onstage in the middle of a song. Her reaction was angry and immediate, "What the fuck are you doing?" she yelled. She stopped singing and had to start again. Both her creative space and personal sense of security had been assaulted by a stranger whose self-justified actions overrode traditional notions of respect.
I thought of that moment today after hearing that Kim Kardashian was robbed at gunpoint in a Paris apartment and pseudonymous writer Elena Ferrante was robbed of her anonymity by an Italian investigative journalist within days of each other. Both actions violated private female space in repellent and troubling ways.
It's not often that we think of Kim Kardashian and the pseudonymous Italian author Elena Ferrante of the Neapolitan quartet as soul sisters. Though Kardashian is a public extrovert whose every last kohl-lined eyelash blink is self-recorded for the public sphere and Ferrante is a private introvert who purposely avoids exposure ("I have withdrawn from the rituals that writers are more of less obliged to perform in order to sustain their book by lending to them their author's expendable image," she told Vanity Fair), they are both engaged with telling a female-driven story. Essentially, Kardashian makes her living by performing those rituals in public; Ferrante, on the other hand, works in solitude.
But despite their different methods, both Kardashian and Ferrante (and, for that matter, Patti Smith) are women who have carved out original spaces where they feel free to create and in control. For Kardashian, that space is more complicated than one might originally think. It seems public, but is it really? Think of her as a successful performance artist along the lines of Lady Gaga, Madonna and Michael Jackson. Not only is the "Kim-ness" of Kim most likely all performance, it is also expendable, as shown by her constantly changing features and lifestyle. It may be that everything she does shields her private life while simultaneously pretending to expose it. Like Elena Ferrante, she has brilliantly created and sold a story while hiding in plain sight.
A woman who successfully maintains her own independent space, creative or otherwise, threatens the power structure and traditional order of male dominance. In that way, both Kardashian and Ferrante are alike. So Kardashian's recent robbery at gunpoint in a Paris apartment drew Twitter sympathy, yes, but also criticism that she had invited it by publishing photos of her big diamond, choosing a discreet Paris apartment (where she could hide from the public eye) rather than a hotel, and not surrounding herself with enough security.
Italian journalist Claudio Gatti also broke into Ferrante's space and stole the jewels of solitude and privacy. Female readers were appalled; we get it. We're also worried that without this essential creative sense of safety she may not write another word. If so, Gatti will have erased her. Like Kardashian, Ferrante will no doubt ever feel as free or safe again. Yet Gatti justified his investigation and the publication of her private salary and real estate details in The New York Review of Books ever so slickly: "But by announcing that she would lie on occasion, Ferrante has in a way relinquished her right to disappear behind her books and let them live and grow while their author remained unknown. Indeed she and her publisher seemed to have fed public interest in her true identity."
In other words, both Kim and Elena "asked for it." Let me just say what should be obvious: they didn't.
Today I am thinking about the nature of time. Time spent, time gone forever, time to come. A teacher once asked our small seminar group to draw a picture of a year. Only Becky, who later moved to Sweden, had enough insight to draw a circle. Like Joni Mitchell in Circle Game—"And the seasons they go round and round"— she saw how time was shaped like a carousel. The large clock inside the Musée D'Orsay, a former railway station, is another circular portrait of time in action. Its imposing scale makes me feel as small and awed as the boy in Martin Scorsese's 2011 film, Hugo. I wouldn't mind a turn on it either.
The streets of New York City are paradise for both treasure-hunters and collectors of odd ideas. I've seen an encyclopedia of random objects in my walks, from panties to piles of books and even an upright piano. I've seen lots of discarded mail and signs, including the touchingly handpainted "I love you Norman, Mom." But I never came across alphabet letters until now. Even funnier to find them lying near a mailbox, as if they'd fallen out or were trying to sneak in. My first thought was of ee cummings (who signed his name, Edward Estlin, in capitals). Then I thought of old apartment door letters that got tossed to the curb when fancier versions moved in. But what I really think happened here is that they escaped from a book.
Coffee has always been my drug of choice. At home, I brew my daily cup from the ridiculously dark and rich Rebel Blend from Portland, Maine micro roaster Coffee By Design and then drink it in a Nerd Nation mug from Stanford U. In cafes, I still get excited as a little kid if baristas top off my drink with art to go. The care they take reminds me of a mother's love. The symmetry of this heart-shaped flower on this cappuccino from a cafe in Encinitas, California, gave me a second buzz. On a patio table, it became true outsider art.
Speaking of cool fruit (see my previous posts on Purple Carrots and Jumbo Blueberries), I was struck by the ability of this decaying green apple to paint a Cy Twombly-inspired line. The apple was nailed to the wall along with other fruits and vegetables in the exhibit, "Kitchen Pieces," by German conceptual artist Karin Sander at i8 Gallery in Reykjavik (the exhibit closed September 24, 2016). The veggies wilted under pressure, but this inspired apple took a strong painterly stand. I was pretty impressed by its confident use of positive and negative space, along with its bold improvisation in response to a wall environment. Critics of avant garde art like to dismiss things with "My kid could do that!" Now I might answer, "But could your apple?"
Audiences know that if there is a gun in the first act, it has to go off in the third act. I took this photo of jumbo blueberries near a transparent push pin to show their super sizing (one-inch wide!) but realized I had also made a portrait of dramatic tension. It amazed me how juxtaposition of two common household objects easily suggests a plot. The blueberry's moist, tender skin looks so vulnerable near the tack's sharp steel point that your mind can't help connecting them in unfortunate ways. But, spoiler alert, the pin didn't kill those blueberries in the end. It was teeth that got them.
Orange is the new purple. Or at least when it comes to carrots. I bought these beauties from the Black Dirt Region (spanning southern Orange County, NY to northern Sussex County, NJ) after a friend and I decided those convenient bags of machine-cut carrots had more in common with large pencil stubs than they did with vegetables. The funny thing is that purple carrots are actually the authentic carrot color (along with white), but Dutch growers decided in the 16th century to breed to orange. Purple carrots are more nutritious, with 28 times the amount of antioxidants, according to the Carrot Museum website and they also color coordinate well with my winking Blue Eyes granite countertop. They're quite amusing to scrape and hilarious to mash. Hey, do you think they grow better in Purple Rain?
Silicon Valley would definitely call Athanasius Kircher a disrupter. The 17th-century intellectual's weird inventions included a mechanical singing chicken, a vomiting machine and the original version of this stunning magnetic clock with a goldfish that points the time. My first thought upon stumbling across this magnificent clock in the Lane Reading Room inside Stanford's Green Library was that things do not generally end well for goldfish in college settings. But this little guy should last for eternity in artist Caroline Bouguereau's 2001 recreation of Kircher's missing prototype. To remake the clock, she learned both glass blowing and old-method copper-painting with garlic. Her working clock (which runs on electricity instead of hidden magnets, but no complaints) is so incredibly awesome I couldn't take my eyes off it. No matter how you see the globe–clock, mirror, goldfish bowl?–its design and execution make you reflect on the vast mysteries of time and space, and of course on the flipped reflection itself.
Let's face it, farm credits (as in menus, not government loans) have had their day. In his hilarious Vanity Fair article, "What Does Farm-to-Table Mean Anymore?" food journalist Corby Kummer debunked many of the pretensions behind the F2T trend last year, one of which is endless lists of artisanal food sources. Nonetheless, these breakfast menu credits at Mayfield Bakery and Cafe in Palo Alto made me smile. Perhaps inspired by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's closing voiceovers ("made possible by viewers like you"), these gracious credits put the emphasis down on the farm.