Two other cities I'd live in

In the span of the past week, I've had a chance to spend time in two other cities in the U.S. (besides Seattle) that I'd seriously consider living in: NYC, and SF.
First up, NYC. I was there for a conference last last Wednesday, and I stayed through Sunday morning. It's been a long time since I've spent much time in NYC. It's strange to even call any other city in the United States a city after you've spent time in the Big Apple. It has a grand, extreme personality that is both grating and endearing. Its unique qualities assail you as soon as you arrive.
Lots. New York has lots of everything. Lots of people, lots of traffic, lots of buildings, lots of noise, and restaurants, and sports teams, and activities, and museums. How exciting for me to arrive in NYC, open a copy of The New Yorker or The New York Times, and be able to actually take advantage of all the events listed in the arts and leisure sections.
Friday night, I caught a performance of Mary Zimmerman's Metamorphoses I laughed my head off at the segment where Phaeton visits his therapist's office wearing a pair of sunglasses, floating on an inflatable recliner, recounting his difficult relationship with his dad Apollo and the disastrous day he asked for the keys to his dad's car, the chariot which pulls the sun. Those of you who know the myth will understand why the conceit is so clever.
"My dad is such a pain. It's like, I'm the Sun God, blah blah blah. On my last birthday, he says, 'Son, it's your birthday, I'll grant you any wish.' So I say fine, Dad, I want the keys to your car. And he starts wringing his hands and saying, 'No, anything but that, you can't control it.' But I insist and he gives in. Boy, big mistake. As soon as I'm up there, I'm totally out of control, the horses are going everywhere, I'm lighting fire to farms all over the Earth..."
If you ever get a chance to catch this play, do so, just to see this segment. I wish I had it on tape, like a favorite SNL skit.
Saturday afternoon, a matinee show of Mamma Mia with my sister Karen. And, in a distinctly New York moment, we scalped the tickets for Mamma Mia a few hours before playing time from some guy who grabbed us as we walked past the theater where it was showing. We ended up dead center in the seventh row, Orchestra. Nice.
You can find anything in NYC. Have a craving for good Chinese? Shanghai Gourmet or Joe's Shanghai in Chinatown are your places for outstanding Shanghai dumplings, the type you put on a big soup spoon to eat because they're filled with the tastiest soup. Bite a small hole in the side of one, drink the soup, eat the dumpling. Karen and I shared a basket one morning.
Shopping? I couldn't tell one flagship store from the next, there were so many. Walking up Park Ave. or through Soho I could feel my Visa card twitching in my wallet. I felt sated just shopping with my eyes, like Holly Golightly taking in the showcases at Tiffany & Co.
Shows? The rest of the U.S.'s major cities might be fortunate enough to get a show working out its kinks before it moves to the big time of Broadway (see Hairspray, Seattle, or my later post on Baz Luhrmann's La Boheme, now in the minor leagues of San Francisco's Curran Theatre). Or it might get the dregs of NYC on tour. Make no mistake, though, the big stars play in NYC. In the space of what seems like just two years, they've had Mary Louise Parker, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Anne Heche in the title role of Proof.
I tried to get tickets to see Ed Norton and Catherine Keener in Burn This, but came up empty-handed. But no fear, NYC never disappoints for those with stars in their eyes. Wednesday night turned out to be the 50th birthday of Christopher Reeve and also the birthday of both Michael Douglas and his daughter, I mean wife, Catherine Zeta Jones. Well, they all decided to host a big party at the Times Square Marriott Marquis, where, coincidentally, my conference was being held. I won't be as crass as to recite names of stars present like some Hollywood groupie, but suffice it to say fans of Matthew Modine didn't go home empty-handed. And every time you hop into a cab, they play a recording of some random celebrity urging you to wear your seat belt. The one I heard most frequently? Michael Buffer: "Let's get ready to ruuuuuuummmmmbbblllleeeeee...for safety!" Or something like that.
Oh yeah, I was also in town during the New York film festival's opening weekend. Couldn't get tix, though. Sold out long long ago. I really don't think they price new show tickets high enough in NYC. Seriously, companies and their banks get chastised for pricing IPOs too low on the stock market and flipping their shares for a profit. What about the price of tickets to new shows in NYC? They could raise seat prices by 50% and still sell out.
Which brings me to cost. I bleed money in NYC. Cab rides, meals, shows, rent, taxes, shopping. Sometimes I think subsidized school housing and rent control are all that keep NYC from consisting entirely of wealthy urbanites--celebrities, fashion designers, and bankers--basically, people like Mayor Bloomberg. I did the math and figured that it would cost at least $3000 a month to survive in NYC. Most of that would be rent and housing costs, a big chunk would be food, and what's left over would provide a modest play fund.
Tough. Attitude. You don't meet many wilted flowers in NYC. On Sunday afternoon, before my flight, I went over to the West 4th basketball courts to catch some of the legendary street ball I'd only seen before in Nike commercials. Half the entertainment is the flashy in-your-face style of the play, and the other half is the trash-talking and playground arguments. It's more entertaining than a Knicks game, I can guarantee that, and it's free. This toughness runs through the blood of the inhabitants and can be read in their stoic expressions layered upon hundreds and hundreds of faces passing you on the streets and subways. Its signature wardrobe is the street wear which Karen and I found while shopping in Soho on Saturday. I was actually tempted to pick up an entire outfit of street wear--a hoodie with some vague street gang or small NYC neighborhood reference, some pre-tattered jeans--but I'm of the philosophy that the tude comes before the tat, not vice versa.
Even the drinks in NYC are tough. At a business reception Friday night, the bartender poured me a vodka martini that could have powered a 6 person Cessna (you know just the type, don't you Laura?). It nearly burned a hole through the back of my empty stomach, and as it was NYC, I felt perfectly comfortable cursing loudly in public, "Jesus, what the !@#$% did they put in this?" Though if you do the math, the drinks should be strong in NYC since they cost about twice as much as the fruit juice they call liquor here in Seattle.
Anyway, I'm not coming down one way or the other on New York City. Just collecting my thoughts.
Then, there's...

San Francisco

Went down to the Bay Area for a business trip last Wednesday, and stayed the night at Jon's. He owns amazing 1 bedroom apartment down near Pac Bell, in the Mission district. Quite the bachelor pad, befitting a young banker.
The big event of my one night there was to see the Baz Luhrmann production of Puccini's La Boheme, one of my favorite operas. Baz Luhrmann himself came out in the beginning to give a short introduction apologizing for a long transition between two scenes in the opera. Or is it a musical? Call it an opsical. A popsical. The singers sing in Italian, and there are the familiar English transalations projected on a rectangular screen that hangs from the ceiling. But unlike the opera, the performances run on a Broadway musical schedule. A show every night, an extra matinee on Saturday, and just the matinee on Sunday. This production moves the setting up in time, from 1840 to the Bohemian left bank of Paris in 1957. Unlike most renowned opera singers, the three couples chosen to rotate through the lead parts of Rodolfo and Mimi are all young and attractive twenty-somethings.
Well, call it what you will. It all sounds convincing when Baz explains it in that accent of his.
Baz wasn't kidding. Between scenes, workers would come out and rotate and move props, and a woman would come out after all that was done, get the actors in position (all while wearing her headset), and then cue the music. It was odd, like seeing the "making of" La Boheme and La Boheme itself, all in one show. The six week run in San Francisco is a tryout, much like they tried out Hairspray in Seattle for a bit before promoting it to NYC.
I enjoyed it a lot. Those who are disoriented by the visual fireworks in Baz's movies will find his La Boheme
quite viewable. Baz has cast three different pairs of Rodolfos and Mimis because of the performance frequency (much like starting pitchers in baseball, opera singers aren't meant to sing every day. I saw the Alfred Boe/Wei Huang pairing.
Baz is trying to bring opera to a new generation, to pair the musical heights of opera with the visual spectacle and narration of the musical, and I find that a worthy endeavor. Much like Mary Zimmerman modernizing ancient myths like those in Ovid's Metamorphoses and Homer's The Odyssey. And (here's where I bring San Francisco and New York City together) if you're interested in seeing it once all the kinks are worked out, it will be moving from SF to NYC in November. More news at the official website.

Richard Avedon

The Sunday I was to leave NYC, I dragged Karen along with me across Central Park to visit the Met, to see the photography exhibit collecting some of the famous portraits by Richard Avedon.
Avedon is a fascinating character, his work ranging from fashion photography to stark portraits. Some of his shots, taken with an 8 x 10 view camera, were blown up to larger than life size, and something about seeing pictures of, say, The Chicago Seven, looming above me as if I were in the land of the Lilliputians (or so the caption said I should feel).
He evolved from a fashion photogrpaher, early in his life, shooting his subjects against elaborate backgrounds, to a stark portraitist. Over time he developed a philosophy about portraiture, about how to best capture his subjects on film:
  • White backgrounds--it's about the person, not the set
  • No fanciful poses. Minimal composition.
  • There are no inaccuracies in portraiture, and no truth.
I'm sure there were other points. This is what I remember.
As his philosphy evolved, so did his equipment. He switched from using a waist-level viewfinder on his Rolleiflex to using a view camera because he wanted to be able to look his subjects in the eye instead of composing the photograph through the viewfinder. I can see why he'd wish to do so. It's always odd trying to develop a rapport with your subject when your face is hidden behind a black camera body. Reading it, I thought that yes, this was the type of artistic philosophy that one could only develop with age and maturity, understanding and humility.
In one of his books, an interesting anecdote. It's starting to fade a bit--maybe it's the painkillers. But I remember that he taped a piece of film on his sister's shoulder one day before they went to the beach, or was it his own shoulder? And at the end of the day, after a day of sun, there was a picture on her shoulder.
Another story: he took some photos of his father late in his father's life. Some of those were shown at the exhibit at the Met. When his father finally saw the shots, he was extremely upset. I can see why. The pictures show him grimacing as if he was a crazy old coot, or in intense anguish or rage. Late in life, Avedon wrote his father a letter. In it, he tried to explain to his father why he had taken those photos. In essence, he wanted to capture his father as he thought his father was. No compromise in his art. I wish I could find a copy of that letter online. Anyway, it is a fascinating attempt at reconciliation.
When Avedon's father passed away, I believe Avedon found that letter in his father's jacket.
One of the benefits of living near a museum is that you can visit it several times during the course of a year, seeing one or two exhibits with each visit. That's all I can absorb. As a kid, I'd try and cover every inch of a museum, to maximize the value of admission. But it's like trying to shop for an entire wardrobe in one visit to a department store. Just not productive.
Even just visiting NYC, it felt like the right amount of time to spend at the Met.

Out of it

When work gets crazy, I lose all touch with the world. I'm in NYC at James' place, and he pops out this Aerobed. I guess everyone's heard of it from infomercials. This isn't just one of these inflatable mattresses. Pull the thing out of a bag, plug it into the wall, press a button, and the thing inflates into a 3 foot high bed, complete with a bed skirt and everything. It looks like a mattress placed on top of a box spring. I've never heard of it, but I slept great. No peas for this princess.
Then, on a cab ride to the airport at five in the morning in San Francisco the other morning, the cabbie's blabbing away like it's the middle of the day and like he hasn't had human contact in weeks. I'm teetering on the brink of passing out in the back seat but I can't. He's asking just enough questions that my brain feels compelled to respond. He asks me about the strike. I say, what strike? He says, you know, the West coast dock worker strike. I say, I haven't heard anything about it. He goes on to explain it in great detail. He asks me if it's affecting me. I say, obviously not since I haven't heard about it and my life is as busy as usual.
I browsed the other morning and got briefly up to speed on all the random events in the world. It was like coming out from a cave to blink and frown at the world around me before crawling back into my hole. Damn sunlight.

For aspiring comedians

Scientists conducting year-long research into humor have finally released their results. They've identified the world's funniest joke from among 40,000 jokes (criteria being the % of people who found it funny) and it was published in a CNN article:
Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn't seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy takes out his phone and calls the emergency services.
He gasps: "My friend is dead! What can I do?" The operator says: "Calm down, I can help. First, let's make sure he's dead." There is a silence, then a gunshot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says: "OK, now what?"

Among the other snippits from the article:
Bizarrely, computer analysis of the data also showed that jokes containing 103 words were thought to be especially funny. The winning "hunters" joke was 102 words long.
Many jokes submitted contained references to animals. Jokes mentioning ducks were considered particularly funny.

I didn't find the top jokes for various countries to particularly funny.
This one from Britain was pretty good:
Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson go camping, and pitch their tent under the stars. During the night, Holmes wakes his companion and says: "Watson, look up at the stars, and tell me what you deduce."
Watson says: "I see millions of stars, and even if a few of those have planets, it's quite likely there are some planets like Earth, and if there are a few planets like Earth out there, there might also be life."
Holmes replies: "Watson, you idiot. Somebody stole our tent."