Sunday, July 30, 2006

"a painter of painting"

My friend Palermo came by yesterday, with her out-of-print book on the complete works of Picasso's experimentation, as creator and destroyer, with Velasquez' painting of Las Meninas. A born rebel in an age rebels with or without causes (Castro, James Dean), Picasso became the first 20th century celebrity artist by dazzling peers, critics and investors with the Protean creative impulse exhibited here.

He had a legendary, colossal ego. Note that in the 1656 Velasquez, the painter himself is almost obscured in shadow and the royal toddler is the person in the spotlight. In the 1957 Picasso, the painter looms large and magnificent, out of proportion to other figures represented. Was Picasso paying homage to Velasquez, to painters in general, or just himself? Was this just a sign of the times, 300 years after Velazquez?

What I want to know is how much did that ego drive his innovation. Science has decoded genetic material for shyness, why not for ego? We could all use some if it came with some of that zest for breaking out of tired old molds.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The English Garden

London Is So Dry, It's Planting Cactus.

Such good timing. A few days after my post on the Olive, which is sinking roots in terrain once too soggy for it to prosper, this page one story in today's Wall Street Journal reveals climate change is now bringing cactii to England.

Note: subscription required to access the link.

Friday, July 21, 2006

The Olive and the Almond

Long a symbol of the sunny Mediterranean, the olive now grows in once less suitable terrain. A radio report this week revealed that olive trees and almond trees are taking root in Devon, England. A farmer there is in his second planting season; by next year he hopes to begin pressing olive oil. We can now anticipate unusual pairings of ingredients from traditional Greek and English recipes. How about steak and olive pie? Almond pudding? Trifle of Orzata?

That's the good news. The bad news is what global warming portends for southern Europe, not just in terms of cuisine but in more serious matters. We once spoke alarmingly of the Sahara desert's creep southward, but today Sicilians and Pugliesi and Calabrians wonder if their regions' climatic patterns are not becoming Africanized by a northward drift of the desert. This means a hot, dusty, parched environment, one inhospitable to most crops, including the olive. Droughts are commonplace in these Italian provinces now. Dust storms now occasionally drop sand as far north as Verona.

A few years ago, I sipped a refreshing tonic of almond syrup and water, a southern Italian summer staple, at the Tripoli cafe in MartinaFranca . It brought back childhood memories of Roman summers, late afternoons at the seaside town of Fregene, and of my mother daintily smacking her lips. Outside on the door stoops in the area's towns women and girls (the boys were off fishing or doing something else) were peeling fresh almonds picked in the groves or bought in bushels at the markets. It is hard to imagine this part of the world without the almond and hopefully it will never come to that.

The olive trees around Martina Franca are ancient, thousands of years old. Some of the best olive oil in Italy comes from these trees, and is exported all over the world. Many of the trees have split in two, a pair of wide, groping trunks, and begun "walking". They are wonders of nature, possessed of the essence of life for most of the Mediterranean world since history was recorded. Let's hope they and the almond tree continue to thrive and support a culinary culture that goes back farther than antiquity.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Blithering foolishness

We waited all day to take tea at the famous Blethering House in Oak Bay, Victoria. I'm a tea maven and one of the things I enjoy the most about the city is the tea houses and a great tea shop on Fort Street where I stock up on Irish Breakfast, Roibos, Green tea and numerous other fine leaves. So I was really happy to finally make it to this tea institution. But I must have been a blithering fool to fall for the myth of the place, as the service ranged from neglectful (30 minutes+ wait for a mostly cold plate order to arrive, and when it did, in bits and pieces) to rude, rolling eyeballs and all, plus the food was mediocre and I can brew a better cup of tea in my kitchen.

What I can recommend however, is the Malahat Inn on the Malahat highway towards north Vancouver Island. It is about the only place to grab a bite for a long stretch, and it is worth a stop in any case. Not just for the savory and satisfying antipasto plate or amazing fresh cut french fries, but for the view.

Back from B.C.

Lots to report on our passage through Vancouver Island, where we met up with our friend Ruth and her daughter Lily from Milano, Italy. We had about three days of constant chatter, none of it trivial, especially given the backdrop of the latest Israel/Hezbollah war, and all of it stimulating. After three days, they returned to Vancouver (or, Van City) and we moved up north to Qualicum and Hornby Island (see photo).

Vancouver Island and coastal B.C. in general has some of the most stunning geography in North America. For a long time it has been left unspoilt, neglected in a benign way that allowed us to get this far into the 21st century without seeing it all paved and strip malled. Now, economic growth is changing everything. So my advice to intrepid travelers is, go now.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Portland: The new Paris?

Saturday night, we went with some friends to hear music at the Mississippi Studios on the resurgent, eponymous avenue. The venue probably holds not much more than fifty people, who sit on “vintage” theater seats for the two nightly sets of music that span the gamut of popular genres, from jazz to grunge. Given the small space, the sound can be earsplitting. But usually the quality of the act is quite high, as was the last night’s show with the Bittersweets of San Francisco. Portland is full of these small, ginned up musical venues that are suited to a clientele that likes some spontaneity, intimacy and character, not to mention that promise high standards for live performances.

It is one more reason why people, especially young people, find Portland attractive. A client told me this week, and I have not verified it as fact, that people continue to migrate to Portland at a rate faster than job growth. They are clearly looking for a place to live that they can relate to. The Bittersweets guitarist last night quipped, “Portland is cool! I could live here.”

A national business magazine is currently looking into why people move here and are passionate about the city. I think I have an idea, and it has to do with the values of the under-30 cohort:

Sustainability. This is not just about the environment. It is a practical way of living. It is about a sustainable life. It means balance between personal and professional, integration of the outdoors into daily life, so that there is time for a regular morning kayak ride before work and a jog through one of the parks before dinner. It means being able to live pretty close to work, so time is not lost in an inhumane daily commute. It means living in a city where you can bike, walk or take public transportation and leave the car in the garage. It is about not giving in to burnout. As it so happens, all of the above has an environmental message as well.

Personalization. This generation is driving the “my” culture. It may seem a narcissistic turn of events, and it may be that in part, but it is also about personalizing every aspect of one’s life. One person told me last week that she lives in Portland because here “I can be myself.” The corollary to that is “because this is where I belong.” Belonging – that is part of the peer to peer revolution that originated with tech file sharing and has become a state of mind. It is a city that is tolerant, offers a multitude of diverse entertainment choices and neighborhoods, has a tradition of independence, and is supported economically by local, mostly small, businesses and is undergoing an energizing burst of growth and differentiation.

Creativity. This is related to personalization. Because people can feel free to be themselves, they can “personalize” their lives according to their individual wants and needs. Even people who are not artists feel the creative spirit in designing their lives and expressing themselves in how they live their lives. Portland still thrives on the optimistic pioneer spirit and still feels like a creative frontier, where anything is possible. It is a DIY culture that encourages leaps of faith. In the early 20th century creative spirits flocked to Paris to partake of the incredible feast that the city laid before artists. We may not be producing this century's Picassos and James Joyces here, but notable painters, writers, musicians abound and have created a very democratic culture of artistic expression.

Culture. If you are young and into music, this is the city to be in. Portland abounds in clubs, cafes, pizza pubs, vintage theaters that offer live music. Local bands as well as imports have a fertile base of potential fans, and the open mike nights at many of these clubs plus the low cost recording studios mean as long as you get a day job you can make music every night. Film buffs can keep busy every quarter with the international film festival, the Jewish film festival and a local favorite, Reel Music, or a film festival for films about music. The Pearl District originated the local art scene, and now that it has gone chi-chi, alternative sites across the river on Alberta and Broadway serve different tastes in the plastic or performance arts.

The Weather. Yes, the weather. Perfect summers easily chase away memories of the long rainy gloom that runs from October to June. We are so blissfully happy during this glorious season that perhaps we are rendered temporarily insane – drunk with enjoyment of the views of river and volcanoes, the hikes in Forest Park, the evenings outside at the Zoo concerts, of weekends on the beach or a mountain lake or through a wilderness a short drive away. When the rest of the country swelters, Portlanders barely break a sweat. Lunch time downtown is full of runners and bike riders taking an outdoor break. The dog parks are full. Grills are smoking every night. No mosquitoes to swat, none of those black flies, “no see’ems”, midgies that plague summer days elsewhere. Some friends, a keg and it’s party night, every night.

Community. Leaving the Bittersweets behind last Saturday, we were stopped in our tracks on Mississippi by what seemed to be an endless train of cyclists, each one adorned in some serious or whimsical or loony way with colored reflectors on handle bars, hats, tires, and necklaces. We had run smack into the annual Summer Night Ride. Alongside the street some of those under-30s were lighting sparklers and torches and doing impromptu dances as they caught the spirit – of that singular Portland way of belonging.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Viva Italia!

Despite the fact that some French and francophile interlopers threatened to be spoilers, we had a great time cheering on the Italian World Cup team at a local Italian eatery. The anxiety at the penalty kicks, madonna! And that silly head butt by Zidane in the final minutes of the game, che figura! And that Italianesque fondling of the cup itself in the euphoria of victory. Ma esageri! Our friend Rocco in Mantova told us he changed his shirt three times in his nervous sweat over the game and his voice was hoarse from exuberant shouting throughout the night. Italy celebrates all night long now, its first World Cup championship in 24 years.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Bumper Stickers Revisited

As I have written before, bumper stickers are showing pre-election year signs of impatience. Look closely here at the word before "Last" as it is hard to read at a glance.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Platinum era for TV?

I've been listening to a fun CD, "Designs in Music" by Ben Vaughn. It is a witty, whimsical series of sets that recall music from the end of the golden age of television. Remember "Secret Agent" and "Hullabaloo" and "Get Smart"? It is offset by ingenious touches, such as the professional whistler on a few of the pieces. (Note: if only I could reincarnate as a professional whistler...) But back to that golden age I was referring to. Are we in another one? Last night while socializing with friends and fellow culture fiends, I couldn't help but notice how animated the conversation became when it fell on programs such as "House", "NipTuck" and "Lost". As someone who did not own a TV as an adult until I was almost 30, and who would do anything to avoid having to sit in front of the boob tube, I've found myself actually enjoying some recent programming. No doubt the quality of some of the dramatic shows is impressive. TV as an entertainment medium today operates on a different set of assumptions, it seems. Actors navigate their careers between television and film now, whereas back in the day they were pretty well segregated in one or the other. Cinematography is now present in TV, as is serious acting and writing talent. "Appointment TV" is back and movie theater attendance is down. I think when HDTV and home media centers hit a tipping point, we'll see a further explosion of creativity and choice in programming. Anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that the quantum leap in quality of HDTV and its ability to transform the TV viewing experience is such that it is far more addictive than analog. Add to that the rapid growth in amateur video, and the high degree of comfort young people today have with digital visual technologies, and suddenly it seems like open sky possibilities for the medium. Could we be at the cusp of a Platinum Age of TV? What will the music be like?