Monthly Archives: October 2009

Impressed by Impressionists

Musee d'Orsay

Musee d'Orsay, Paris

You know the problem:  you’ve accumulated a lot of stuff, and you’ve run out of places to keep it all.  Some of it has sentimental or monetary value, so you don’t want to give it away or throw it away — what do you do with it?  You could have a garage sale, or you could do what the French government did.  Open a museum.

They already had plenty of museums, of course, including one of the world’s largest, the Louvre.  Over the centuries, though, kings named Louis and emperors named Napoleon had acquired tons of artwork, to the point that paintings and sculptures by more recent artists like Monet and Rodin were relegated to storage bins.  The Louvre sent some of its “clutter” to other museums, which were already overflowing with donated artwork.

Meanwhile, the Gare d’Orsay, a railroad station in Paris on the left bank of the Seine across from the Tuileries Gardens, was about to be torn down and replaced with a complex of commercial buildings.  In 1977, French officials had a bright idea that solved two problems:  they decided to turn the train station into an art museum.  As the old saying goes, “When life gives you lemons, make meringue au citron.” 

The train tracks and platforms were transformed into exhibition spaces; the Musée d’Orsay opened in 1986.  It is one of my favorite art museums in the world.

Among its charms is that, unlike the Louvre, it does not try to have representative works from the dawn of time until yesterday afternoon.  The Orsay focuses on art work of the 19th Century, which they arbitrarily define as the period from 1848, when revolutions swept across Europe, to 1914, when World War I began.

As a result, a tour of the Orsay begins with what we might call traditional art — realism — exemplified by Ingres and Delacroix.  It then displays the transitional work of Manet and Daumier and Degas, to the Impressionists (Monet, Renoir), and on to Post-Impressionism (Van Gogh, Cézanne) and beyond.

The Orsay also has some stuff on display that will make you say “huh?”, or even sneer.  As the museum’s first director, Françoise Cachin acknowledged, “Certainly we have bad paintings.  (But) We have only the greatest bad paintings.”  Of course, they have some of the greatest good paintings, too.  The collection includes works that have been widely reproduced:  you’ve seen them on calendars, cocktail napkins, and hanging on the walls of insurance offices worldwide.

Among the Orsay’s highlights are:

     •  Luncheon on the Grass, by Edouard Manet

     •  The Glass of Absinthe, by Edgar Degas

     •  Dance at the Moulin de la Galette, by Pierre-Auguste Renoir

     •  various scenes from Giverny, by Claude Monet

     •  Self-Portrait, by Vincent Van Gogh

     •  Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, by James A. M. Whistler

(Personally, I don’t include Whistler’s Mother in the category of great art, but it’s still a bit of a thrill to turn a corner in the Orsay and see the original after having seen so many reproductions of it elsewhere.)

Because it’s not massive — no bigger than a train station — it’s possible to see the Orsay in a few hours.  At the end of your visit, you’ll still have some feeling left in your legs.  And you’ll be impressed with the ingenuity the French applied to their fine-art storage problem.


You Shoulda Been Here Yesterday

Caldera of Poas Volcano, on a less-than-perfect day

Caldera of Poas Volcano, on a less-than-perfect day

The charms of any travel destination fluctuate;  a lot depends on the day you are there.  The person who stands in a freezing drizzle while gazing upon the Eiffel Tower for the first time has a different impression of the experience than someone who is there on a cloudless day in May.  If seven giant cruise ships have disgorged their passengers on Cozumel during the time you set aside to explore that island, you’re likely to wonder why anyone raves about it. 

I talked to someone who had visited Yellowstone not long after the devastating 1988 wildfires that destroyed almost 800,000 acres of the national park.  He described Yellowstone as “bleak”; that was the opposite of my reaction when we visited it a couple of years ago. 

Since most of us have a limited amount of time on our travel pilgrimages, we have no choice but to show up at Destination X on the scheduled week or day or morning — and hope for the best.  Usually it seems to work out, but sometimes it’s like our visit to Costa Rica’s Poas Volcano.  These are notes from that experience, on April 9, 2000…

The driver of our Toyota minivan took us through the suburbs of San José (which itself seems to be just one giant suburb) and up into the mountains.  We passed over a bridge that our guide Umberto said is called the “Oh, My God” Bridge.  That’s because it is extremely narrow — just a little wider than a bus — and has no guard rails.  It spans a canyon a couple of hundred feet below.  When they cross it in the big buses, 50 passengers simultaneously gasp, “Oh, my God!”

By the time we reached the visitor center of Volcan Poas, we understood why the surrounding area is described as cloud forest.  We were in high humidity — a heavy mist — and low visibility.  Within minutes, the mist had turned into rain, being driven horizontally by strong winds.

We lingered at the gift shop area for almost 30 minutes; Umberto was hoping that the skies would clear.  Recognizing that was a futile hope, he led us up a trail to the rim of the crater.  The wind inverted our umbrella along the way, but it really didn’t matter, since the rain seemed to be coming from all directions and we were already soaked.

At the observation point, we observed thick fog.  It wasn’t possible to see the caldera of the volcano.  It wasn’t possible to see anything that was more than fifty feet away.

We took a nature trail back to the visitor’s center.  Because the canopy of vegetation was so thick, we weren’t getting rained on quite so hard.

Eventually our soggy little group was loaded back into the minivan and returned to the city.  In truth, we weren’t all that disappointed that we hadn’t seen the volcano — it had been an adventure, and therefore a rather enjoyable day.

Progress Report

Syracuse marching band 1990With luck, many of you have forgotten some of the bold predictions I made about the 2009 college football season.  In case you want to indulge in some schadenfreude, though, my preseason picks can be found on the July 25th post, entitled “Tom’s Top 25”.

Yes, I selected Virginia Tech and Oklahoma to finish #3 and #4, respectively.  At the midpoint of the season, it now appears that neither will be playing in one of the multimillion-dollar BCS bowls.  Oklahoma in particular seems destined to be headed for one of those bowls that pays bus fare to its participants.  The Sooners are playing stout defense, but the injuries to QB Sam Bradford have seriously harmed their chances of finishing anywhere near the top ten.  Virginia Tech’s prospects are somewhat better, mainly because its remaining schedule doesn’t include Alabama or Georgia Tech, which have already thumped the Hokies.

You’ll notice, by the way, that I predicted top-10 finishes for both Alabama and Georgia Tech.  Midway through its schedule, the Crimson Tide looks solid — at least, the defense and the running game does.  If some team figures out how to stuff RB Mark Ingram and forces Alabama to pass, though, the chance for an undefeated season evaporates.  Based on its remaining schedule, I’m sticking with Georgia Tech to wind up highly ranked.

Please accept my apologies for including Mississippi, California, and Georgia in my preseason list of contenders.  For some reason, Mississippi insists on mis-spelling its nickname as “Ole” Miss, rather than Ol’ Miss.  Either way, it’s starting to look like Same Ol’ Miss, which is to say — not championship caliber.  Cal was so awful against Oregon and USC that it will be hard for the Golden Bears to climb back into the polls.  Georgia, meanwhile, has lots of fumbles and interceptions to explain its unexpected mediocrity.

Admit it:  None of us saw Cincinnati coming, especially since it had only one defensive starter returning from 2008’s 11-win squad.  The Bearcats’ schedule gets easier the rest of the way, but the recent injury to QB Tony Pike may cause trouble for them.

Other than yours truly, most prognosticators had no preseason love for Pittsburgh (currently 6-1), Iowa (7-0), and West Virginia (5-1), but those success stories go to show that I’m not always wrong.  Of course, none of us gave Houston any reason for hope, either, and the Cougars appeared in the first BCS rankings at #17.

We all had Florida and Texas as the top two teams, and it still might turn out that way.  Or it might not.  The things I’m sure of are a) so far, no team in the country has demonstrated that it is clearly superior to the rest, and b) come December, I’ll have more rationalizations and excuses for why things didn’t turn out the way I said they would last July.

And that, my friend, is the kind of personal touch you just don’t get with ESPN or Sports Illustrated.

Rinse and Spit: The Story of Dentistry

Tooth Extraction, c. 1370 (The British Library)

Tooth Extraction, c. 1370 (The British Library)

Of the many facts we all know about America’s Founding Fathers, at least one of them is wrong:  George Washington did not have wooden teeth.  His dentures were actually made of ivory, but because of all the port wine Washington drank, they got so stained that they looked like wood.  If you care to see them, they’re on display in the National Museum of Dentistry in downtown Baltimore.

Oh, and one other teeth-related note about the Founding Fathers:  Beginning in 1768, Paul Revere advertised his services as a dentist.  He did not, so far as we know, work on George Washington.

Dentistry as a profession didn’t really catch on until the 19th century.  From the 1100s until the 1700s, dental procedures — extractions mostly, but the occasional filling — were performed by barbers.  Prior to that, monks had done it, and prior to monks, dental work was pretty much do-it-yourself.

Which is not to say that no one cared about oral hygiene.  Various methods had been employed to keep teeth clean and breath tolerable at least as far back as ancient Greek and Roman times.  The Chinese were using twigs to clean their teeth around 1600 B.C.  The twigs were selected from aromatic trees; one end of the twig was chewed until it softened up and became sort of brush-like.  In western cultures, a version of the chewstick was also used, and teeth were wiped off with cloth scraps for that minty-fresh feeling.

It wasn’t until 1780 or so that toothbrushes were mass-produced.  An Englishman named William Addis put his family to work assembling brushes that had handles carved out of bone.  The bristles came from boars and were held in place by thin wires.  I’d like to believe the barber gave you a free one if you didn’t cry when he yanked your molars.

Perhaps the most important advancement in dentistry came along in the 1840s, when anesthesia began to be used.  There is some dispute among dental historians about who deserves the credit for that achievement, but we can all be grateful that somebody figured it out.  Frankly, I don’t think I’d see the dentist quite so often if the only thing they could do for potentially painful procedures was to tie me into the chair.

As pointed out earlier, this was also the era when dentistry became the province of actual dentists, rather than just guys who gave haircuts and were also handy with tools.  Today, dentistry is acknowledged as a medical specialty; oral-health professionals serve a vital function, and they do it skillfully (and relatively painlessly).  In honor of their dedication, they even have their own patron saint, Apollonia.  Her feast day is February 9, which also happens to be my wife’s birthday.  Hey, that gives me a great idea for a present — a gift certificate for a visit to a dentist!  What do you think?

…Yeah, you’re right.

Wow Moments

Lucas thinks wowSome words are so overused that they no longer have any real meaning; they are mere driftwood in the conversational stream.  Hell is one of those words.  It gets tossed off in phrases like “hot as hell”, “cold as hell”, “boring as hell”, “crazy as hell”, “noisy as hell”, “quiet as hell”.  It stands to reason that however unpleasant the official Hell may be, it can’t be all of those things.  Users of those metaphors are just being lazy as hell.

Another word that is losing its value is “wow”.  It doesn’t have a linguistic pedigree, but wow has been, until recently, a useful exclamation.  It now sometimes conveys disgust at reckless driving, or scorn for someone’s bad taste in clothing, but it once had only positive connotations.  Wow was used to express surprise, delight, excitement, great pleasure.  It was a way of saying, “this is so thrilling, words fail me.”  It was — and still can be — the spontaneous response to a transcendent experience; what I call a wow moment.

Babies have wow moments all the time.  Since everything is new to them, they are constantly surprised:  “My arms and legs move!  Wow!”  “That thing is shiny!  Wow!”  “That giant seems to be talking to me!  Wow!”  (see photo)

As we grow, the number of wow moments diminishes somewhat, but there are still plenty of them.  Learning to walk, riding a bike, catching a ball, reading a book (and getting it!) — those are among the experiences that are inexpressibly gratifying.  Puberty supplies some exciting occasions (that you don’t need me to describe), but by the time we reach adulthood we seem much less likely to have genuine wow moments.

Maybe that’s because we aren’t as easily surprised; the accumulation of life experiences has left us a bit jaded.  Maybe irritation and disappointment and general weariness have impaired our wow receptors.  But there’s something in the way we’re wired that needs more than same-ol’-same-ol’; we want to be inspired to an extent that we are rendered temporarily speechless.  And those wow moments are still out there, waiting for us to notice them.

So just to jog your memory of the ones that you have had, let me list a few of mine:

•  Standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon at sunset

•  Watching an athlete effortlessly do something that seems impossible

•  Hearing a choir sing the Sanctus from Franz Schubert’s German Mass

•  Tasting a glass of excellent Pinot Noir

•  Reading a perfectly-crafted sentence in a novel

•  Entering the Sistine Chapel and looking up at Michelangelo’s ceiling

•  Overhearing children belly laughing

•  Smelling warm banana bread, fresh from the oven

•  Regaining consciousness after a medical emergency and realizing I’m still alive

And you?  I’d like to hear about a wow moment you’ve had; please post it in Comments.

Science Lurches On

This device could save your life!

This device could save your life!

Down through the centuries, scientists and inventors have come up with countless ways to improve our human existence.  Can you imagine what life would be like without the wheel, without the electric light, without Velcro?  Where would we be, as a culture, if someone hadn’t devised the telegraph (a primitive version of texting)?

Fortunately for us, researchers are still at it, asking questions and dreaming dreams.  The strangest of them are honored each year with something called the Ig Nobel Prize.  Presented at Harvard University by a publication called the Annals of Improbable Research, the awards are handed out by actual Nobel laureates.  This year’s event, held on October 1st, was billed as “The 19th First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony”.  The 2009 awards, of which there were a total of ten, included these achievements:

Physics:  To three doctors for analytically determining why pregnant women don’t tip over.

Chemistry:  Won by some scientists from Mexico who have devised a method to create diamonds from tequila.  Who knows — someday tequila may be a girl’s best friend.

Veterinary Medicine:  Presented to researchers who proved that cows with names give more milk than cows that aren’t named.  Could that also be true of other kinds of anonymous donations?

Peace:  This prestigious category was won by four gentlemen who dared to wonder about the effects of getting hit on the head by beer bottles.  Their study, which I tracked down on the internet, was titled “Are Full or Empty Beer Bottles Sturdier and Does Their Fracture-Threshold Suffice to Break the Human Skull?”  The short answer is yes, as reported in the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine.  And full bottles, it turns out, shatter at a lower impact energy than empty bottles.

One can’t help speculating how many bottles had been emptied when the research team came up with the idea for the study.  “Dude, we should totally do it!”  “Hell yeah, dude.  It’s ON!”

Public Health:  Dr. Elena Bodnar, with Raphael Lee and Sandra Marijan, got this award for inventing a brassiere that quickly converts to a pair of gas masks.  In a matter of seconds, presumably, one can wriggle out of her bra, slap a cup over her own face and offer the other cup to an innocent bystander.  There’s no word how the bra-slash-facemask looks under a cashmere sweater, but Dr. Bodnar has obtained a U.S. patent for it.  Granted on August 14, 2007, Patent #7255627 is described in Patent Office records as “Garment Device Convertible to One or More Facemasks”.

There’s real potential here, I believe; with minor modifications it can probably be put to other uses.  Perhaps one day, airline flight attendants will be announcing during the safety briefing, “In the event of a loss of cabin pressure, a brassiere will drop from the overhead compartment.”

According to the Annals of Improbable Research, the Ig Nobel Prizes “honor achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think.”  They’re right:  they made me laugh, and then they made me think… about laughing some more.

Fake Beer

Looks like the real thing, doesn't it?

Looks like the real thing, doesn't it?

A question I used to field occasionally was, “Are the actors on Cheers drinking real beer?”  That was asked by people who were unfamiliar with how television shows are produced.  They didn’t know that there are multiple “takes” of each scene; there would be slight variations from one take to the next.  If an actor’s mug was supposed to be drained by the end of the scene, though, he would have to gulp down his drink every time, so that the footage would match with earlier takes.  Had the actors — especially George Wendt (Norm) — been drinking real beer, they probably would have been sprawled out under the bar by the time the director called, “That’s a wrap.”

So, no:  it may have looked like the real thing, but it was what used to be called Near Beer.  It has virtually no alcohol in it — less than half of one percent.  That’s probably about how much alcohol is left on your teeth after you gargle mouthwash.  What I was surprised to learn is how many brands of non-alcoholic beer there are, because — other than for TV and film production — I wouldn’t have thought there would be much demand for it.  Well, as I so often am, I was wrong.

The Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — Prohibition — originally created the market for a beer-like substance, and American breweries have been supplying it ever since.  O’Doul’s, made by Anheuser-Busch, is the best-known, if not necessarily the best-loved, of the non-alcoholic beers.

European breweries are also doing their part to provide a sober yet bladder-filling experience.  Heineken makes something called Buckler, Beck’s brews a decent beer substitute, Guinness has a brand called Kaliber.  To my taste, the best non-alcoholic malt beverage is St. Pauli N.A., made (as you could probably guess) by the St. Pauli Brauerei of Germany.

And who is consuming all of these fake beers?  People who have had problems with alcohol abuse have switched, although to me that seems like tempting fate.  People with certain medical conditions, or who are on medications that interact with alcohol in unpleasant ways, are among the non-alcoholic beer consumers.  Women who are pregnant — or who worry that they might wind up pregnant and not remember how they got that way — are wise to avoid real beer.  And for all I know, maybe Near Beer is what’s served at Brigham Young University keg parties.

If you fall into any of the above categories and prefer, in social situations, to have something in your glass besides room-temperature tap water, stick with the fake beer.  I’ve tried non-alcoholic wine.  Trust me — that stuff tastes like something a cult would drink to commit mass suicide.