Thursday, April 19, 2012

Lyman, Whitford, Reality Check: A Career in the West Wing?

On a chilly Sunday night in February two young girls in jeans and light blouses were standing in front of the artists' entrance of one of two local art theaters in Pasadena, California. The pathway beyond the barrier, an iron gate, was barely lit. It stayed empty for a long time while the girls, shifting weight from one foot to the other, chatted and giggled. After a while a figure emerged from the shadows. The girls fell silent but it was the wrong actor.

When the right man, Bradley Whitford, finally appeared he was wearing a bicycle helmet pushed way up on his forehead. Whitford is best known for playing Josh Lyman in the TV series The West Wing but on that night he had performed in the Pasadena Playhouse's production of Yasmina Reza’s Art. The girls stopped the actor, told him about their social studies class and how the teacher would have them watch The West Wing. Whitford smiled, asked, "Which school is it?" and autographed the two print-outs the girls were presenting him with. They were, of course, pictures of him as Josh (no helmet there).

As it turned out, at least one of the girls is so enamored with Aaron Sorkin's TV series about power in Washington that she is planning for a career in the White House. Sounds good to me - as a reporter I understand the draw of politics. At the same time I cannot deny that nagging little voice in my head: what if this is not about politics?

Friday, March 9, 2012

Books, Stuff, Data: Why I Will Not Get Facebook on Paper

My kindle, my salvation: books in our home
The New York Times Magazine recently ran an article by Carina Chocano on us and the electronic age: The Dilemma of Being a Cyborg. Reading it, I learned about a Facebook app offered by the German postal service DHL. The app allows users to convert their Facebook activity into "a handsome book containing all your fondest social-media memories, converted into, and preserved as, commemorative infographics".

I can understand why DHL would come up with the application: Facebook books will have to be shipped, which means business for the mailing service. What I don't get is why we would want to use the app. Maybe I am just not a big enough fan of Facebook but to me the one big advantage of digitization is space related. Whatever I have stored virtually takes up as much room as my kindle and my PC plus the back-up system it is connected to. The belongings of me as a cyborg fit into a small carry-on travel bag.

Compare that to the belongings of me as a citizen of the real world, hold it up against our stuff: china and clothes; furniture, pictures, CDs, and skis; towels, trinkets, and books. When my family first came to live in the United States in 1999 our moving container included more than 80 boxes filled with books and since then our library has only grown. Book cases line every wall in our house; more books sit in our garage and in a public storage space we rent. 

Chocano writes that "for everything that’s gained by our ability to store and maintain more information than ever before, something is lost that has to do with texture, context and association". This is so true and, for me, never more so than when it comes to books, something I explored a while ago in Goethe, McCarthy, and the Ups and Downs of Book SpinesBut something has to give and we have run out of space. My kindle, therefore, is my salvation.

Will I add to our hands-on library by turning me on Facebook into "a handsome book"? Heck, no. But - confessions of a book addict - I might go out and buy a hard copy of William Boyd's Any Human Heart. It is such a great read; it really belongs in my library.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Solid Rock, Human Transience (The Huntington 2)

Organic blend: Chinese garden at the Huntington
The Chinese garden at The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino (L.A. county) is a magical place. It blends the man-made and the natural, architecture with trees, straight lines and curves, all in an organic way.

Last week, as I was wandering the cobbled paths of the garden I decided to take a closer look at some of the rocks. I got to my knees, admired the shades of white and grey, the undertones of purple, green, and red; I let my hand glide over the limestone's spurs, cracks, and sharp edges, felt the coolness of the rock against my skin, its enduring solidity against my human transience - and decided to look up some facts.

Spurs and cracks: 50 Chinese stone workers flew in to carve the stone
Transplants in L.A.: 850 tons of rock
The limestone rocks in the Huntington's Chinese garden are transplants. They were imported from Lake Tai in the Yangtze Delta in China. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times the Huntington shipped in 850 tons of stone. 50 Chinese stone workers flew in to carve and lay the stone.

The rock was carved? Well, there goes its enduring solidity.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Botanical Gardens Mirror Life in L.A. (The Huntington 1)

Showing off in pinks: magnolia tree at the Huntington Gardens
Roses, camellias, cacti; sages, jacarandas, and palm trees: last week a friend invited me to spend an afternoon at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, an affluent suburb of L.A. The Huntington boasts more than 14,000 varieties of plants in 14 principal garden areas and one section or another is always at its best. Right now the magnolias and parts of the cactus garden are showing off in oranges, reds and pinks.

Natural habitat, home base: cactus garden
As my companion and I were wandering down through the desert garden, into the Australian garden, and, later, through the Chinese garden it struck me how the Huntington is a mirror for life in Los Angeles. Botanical sections adjoin and sometimes blend into each other the way neighborhoods in L.A. do.

To the immigrant from Europe some parts of the Huntington such as the Asian areas and the jungle seem strange and alien; others, like the rose garden, appear familiar though belonging to some earlier stage of life. The parts of the Huntington I feel most comfortable in are the herb garden with its mediterranean touch and the desert garden. They are the sections I am first drawn to when I visit the Huntington; they are my natural habitat, my home base. They are what L.A. is for my life.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Late Roses, My Good Friend L., and the Promise of Summer

White on white, hard to capture: iceberg roses
Mid January, and we just cut the last roses: Icebergs, a burst of fullness but serene and still, white on white, hard to capture in a photograph.

Years ago, when I was in high school in Innsbruck, my good friend L. used to give me the last roses from her mother's garden. It was an annual ritual I looked forward to, always reserved for the end of October. Unlike mine, L.'s roses came in colors - red, yellow, a washed out orange. Their stems were  often scraggly, the leaves a little smaller than they might have been two months before, at the height of summer.

The memory of the recurring gift includes that of the giver: L.'s green eyes, quick and sharp, the big yet humble smile as she passes the bouquet, three or four flowers, thorny, wrapped in aluminum foil and a damp paper towel.

L. was the smartest in our class, an honor student through all grades. After graduation she enrolled in vocational school, to be trained as a teacher. For a while she taught the little ones. She married young, had three children of her own and never left the village she and her husband are from. Different from mine, L.'s life seems to move along one big arch but that's because I see it from afar. From a distance the many stop and goes, the interruptions and turmoil that are part of every life are not visible.

As I look at the Icebergs my teenage daughter crosses the room, and I know: the roses in our yard will be back by Easter, their stems as strong as ever, leaves large and green, the first bloom more beautiful than any, a promise of fullness, of summer.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Passionate Nerd, Dull Date: Encounter With a Stamp Collector

"Their album - it's an excuse." Stamps from Austria
Last week I received a packet from Austria. It came with two old fashioned looking petit point stamps. I do not collect stamps and would not recognize a Blue Mauritius if you sent me one but the stamps from Austria caught my interest. As my fingers were running over the stitching I couldn't help but wonder: does anyone still do petit point? Are young people here in L.A. or even back in Europe still acquiring the craft?

I learned to stitch, sew, and knit in elementary school in Austria but handiwork was not my forte. On the contrary. Crafts used to be the one subject I loathed - though I believe that my mother still keeps the red and blue pot holder I crocheted in second grade. (It was supposed to be a square but ended up an irregular trapeze.)

The other thing I was wondering about when the packet arrived is whether young people still collect stamps. When I was in high school I knew a guy my age with a collection. Someone had warned me about young men with stamps: "If they ask you to come and look at their album - it's an excuse." I went anyway.

My stamp guy was the nerdy type, very intelligent but socially awkward. His passion for stamps fascinated me the way alien things often do. By visiting him I hoped to find out what fueled his excitement for small, sticky backed pieces of paper.

We spent an hour together, went through the collection. There were no petit point items and no Blue Mauritius either. All my nerd had was a book with rows and rows of flat, two dimensional stamps from Austria, Germany, and France. I failed at seeing behind his passion, and the album was no excuse for anything, the date dull as a crafts class.

To this hour I cannot understand what drives people to collect stamps - or to spend their days doing needlework. One day I hope to find someone who can tell me. Until then I'll hold onto my petit point stamps from Austria.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Casual Spirit, Egalitarian Touch: the American Potluck

"Meal at which all people present share dishes they brought"? Potluck.
Today being Labor Day some families in our neighborhood decided to get together for a potluck: grilled chicken and salmon, home made potato salad; a salad of spinach, blue cheese, and pears; a fruit platter, brownies...

I like potlucks, their casual spirit, the egalitarian touch. Very American. Everybody pitches in, no one has to feel bad because one family or even one person had to do all the work. In Austria potlucks are not really common; there is not even a German word for the concept. It could be  Kesselglueck - literal yet somewhat charming - but that term doesn't exist. On the web I found "Potluck: großes Abendessen, bei dem sich alle Anwesenden selbst mitgebrachte Speisen teilen" (translation from Reverso). This describes the idea accurately but it is a bit long.

For those of you who don't speak German, here's a re-translation, phrased as an invitation: "Please join us for a large evening meal at which all people present share dishes they brought themselves." How does that sound?