Sunday, January 23, 2011

Favorite Restaurants

It was the kind of meal by which I fill up a short list of favorite restaurants.

No restaurant is likely to become a favorite of mine unless a conversation takes place there that has stopped me in my tracks. I can easily forget an entrée, an appetizer, a specialty cocktail. I cannot easily forget the news about a son who is in trouble, the silent exclamation of a friend unwrapping a gift she had not expected, the update on someone long vanished that starts “Well, you do indeed have a good memory.”

Nothing matches the simultaneous lifting of heads and meeting of eyes over a first bite by which two friends corroborate the other’s instantaneous conviction: “We ordered the right thing.”

That happened last night.

The restaurant chosen for our visit belied the common wisdom of a Zagat’s review. On the other hand, neither of us felt the need to take on the reviewer’s role or prepare a sage critique to serve up on Monday morning to colleagues apparently ready for the scoop.

My friend and I had gone to be together. We had gone out for a meal to let the efforts of others provide us the time and space and energy simply to be company for a friend. We had gone out precisely to see the other across the table.

Oysters? They were a bit briny but nothing, we found, that the mignonette did not make more interesting. Memories? They surfaced with every stage of the meal. We named other restaurants, other meals, other years.

When you have a habit of honesty with a friend, you find the attention something that lets you forget why some things don’t work out, why some people can’t fathom the simplest things.

Like two friends at a meal who look across at the other.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Portrait of a Seated Man in the Studio

I wonder if anyone else walks into one of the second-floor rooms of the Neue Galerie in New York and registers the reaction I did last October. Having climbed the curved stairwell from the ground floor, I had allowed myself to be pulled first to the wide luminous room where Gustav Klimt’s iconic portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer rules. Curators probably wisely planned on the lure of that work to move visitors along; it is also the third image in the slide show on the homepage of the museum’s website.

It is not that bright room facing Eighty-sixth Street about which I want to write. When I walked next door into the long paneled room facing Fifth Avenue and began my circuit of the hangings on those walls, I was looking up again and again at portraits. With one exception, I was also looking up repeatedly at portraits of men. Did Austrian painters in the early twentieth-century have mostly men sitting for their likenesses? Did someone specially plan this room of men painted by other men?

I am enjoying the questions. Why would I even have noticed that pattern on that day last fall? What was aroused in me with such consistency as I circled the paneled room a second and even a third time? Was I perhaps weighing not how good the paintings were but whether I would have liked meeting the men depicted in them? I recall being intrigued by what may have been going on inside each artist as he looked closely at one or other of these men, looked at him day after day, responding perhaps without knowing it to the subtle daily changes in the mood of his sitter, lamenting (or not) a daily contact that would end when the portrait reached completion.

There was one portrait in that paneled room that sent me to the bookstore before I left the museum an hour or so later. I wanted in one way or another to take home a reproduction of a painting by Viennese artist Richard Gerstl entitled Portrait of a Seated Man in the Studio. I had gotten to stand below the portrait for a comfortable length of time and later to gauge the mood of its subject from different angles in the room. There was no determined look in the man’s face, no tools of a trade positioned near him, no favorite setting to suggest his tastes and interests. Who would have found him interesting? He seems almost mystified that he is at the heart of anyone’s effort and creative attention.

None of the postcard racks in the bookstore showed that portrait. The only place I found a reproduction of the Gerstl painting was a hardcover coffee table book that had been the catalogue for the opening of the museum in 2001. I may actually have been ready to pay $37 for the book with all its essays on German and Austrian art. Near the end of my New York stay, however, I did not look forward to carrying still another parcel from my hotel to the bus the following morning. Six-hundred pages long, New Worlds: German and Austrian Art, 1890 - 1940 was going to need another way to get to my living room.

As luck would have it, back home I located a library copy of the volume. In the past few weeks, I have gotten to sit some evenings with a full-color plate of the Gerstl portrait before me. The scholarly footnotes admit that it is not known for certain who the gentleman seated in the armchair in the studio is. I renewed the book once; I wanted not to return it until I had written something about this portrait that has fascinated me.

Who else has ever found this man interesting? I like the idea that he would feel mystified once again that he has been at the heart of someone else’s effort and creative attention.

Image of Neue Galerie from NewYorkDiaryStar

Monday, January 17, 2011

South Pole

I do not have the easy gift of writing about cold. New England winter still has the ability to surprise me. Opening the storm door this morning to get the newspaper from the front steps, I encountered something stern.

At times there is a blizzard and at times there is 11 degrees Fahrenheit. Friends living farther north may smile reading that temperature. I prided myself on being ready for last week's blizzard. I was not ready this morning for 11 degrees.

I have sat recent evenings reading by lamplight, a cable knit throw over my legs, feeling cozy as I looked out the window at the snow-covered rooftops across the street. Moonlight made them blue like a ghostly winter graveyard.

The curious thing is that I spent a good part of December working through a book set in arctic landscapes. I had weighed the 600 pages in my hands at the start of reading The Last Place on Earth, Roland Huntford's carefully researched narrative of Amundsen and Scott's race for the South Pole. Defying notions about the things I like to read, I determined that I would make that trek into a topic that was largely unfamiliar to me. I wanted to read about setting off for the unknown and returning victorious -- or not.

A number of people I know who did not read Huntford's book had watched the PBS miniseries based on it. Having completed my read, I let Netflix tantalize me and ordered the seven episodes, full of the yelping of those marvellous dogs. It proved unorthodox holiday fare but satisfying.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Quiet House: Two Authors Record a Storm

Now we were creeping ahead, groping our way through a blinding blizzard. At times we could see no more than a few car lengths before us. All the highway signs were obliterated by snow. So we advanced for ten miles, twenty miles...

It took us nearly half an hour to creep those last six miles. All the time the blizzard closed tighter around us. Once, in the very heart of the gale, I glimpsed for an instant a crow hurtling on the wind across the highway and into the woods.

Edwin Way Teale, Wandering Through Winter (1966)

Some black ducks
were shrugged up
on the shore.
It was snowing

hard, from the east,
and the sea
was in disorder.
Then some sanderlings,

five inches long
with beaks like wire,
flew in,
snowflakes on their backs,

and settled
in a row
behind the ducks --
whose backs were also

covered with snow --
so close
they were all but touching,
they were all but under

the roof of the ducks' tails,
so the wind, pretty much,
blew over them.
They stayed that way, motionless,

for maybe an hour,
then the sanderlings,
each a handful of feathers,
shifted, and were blown away

out over the water
which was still raging...

Mary Oliver, "In the Storm" from Thirst (2006)

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Cobblestone Chimney

Your childhood home should have some magic about it.

In the best of all possible worlds, it looks like something out of a children's book in the library. The landscape sprouts boy-size and girl-size gates and walls and gables. Weather rolls over it and hovers beside it, presses on windows and makes you glad you're inside.

When your dad makes magical things happen in your life, the house itself can be more modest. When your mom weaves tales at bedtime and then clicks off the light, you are ready for dreams that are sure to come to you as you burrow under the covers.

Sometimes you get to grow up in a fun house. Sometimes you just get to imagine it for years and years to come.

Sunday, January 2, 2011


Some photographs tumble through years and years and land at your steps.

Nameless, she can be a patron saint for this month of January.

Out of a silence too deep to fathom, she looks. The oval frame is lost, the glass broken. Flowers may once have stood in water in a vase beside this portrait.

Someone's daughter, she may have been her father's pride. Someone's mother, her younger face may have seemed a pattern for her daughter's.

Sometimes all that you need is a reminder of a time when there was no serious question of someone's not always being around.

Saturday, January 1, 2011