Monthly Archives: March 2011

The Gravitation-Electricity Problem

Last weekend I visited the Morgan Library in New York. I never got around to going when I lived there, but I’m glad I finally went: it’s book nerd heaven. (Except that you can’t actually touch any of the books. Being trapped there forever would be book nerd hell.) It’s a library/museum where you can see everything you want to and still get through in under two hours, which is nice for those with a lower wander-around-and-look-at-stuff tolerance.

There was a neat Shakespeare exhibit with early portraits and a First Folio(!), and there was a Diary exhibit as well, which is part of the reason I was so keen to go. Many famous literary diaries are on display, from Einstein to Viriginia Woolf to E.B. White (which, in case you’re a little late to the game on this one, as I was, is not only the author of Stuart Little but is also the “White” in Strunk & White).

This is part of the transcript of an interview with White. He says, “The Journals date from about 1917 to about 1930, with a few entries of more recent date. They occupy two-thirds of a whiskey carton. How many words that would be I have no idea, but it would be an awful lot.”

It should be noted that neither the Standard nor the Metric system uses whiskey cartons as a unit of measurement, and one has to wonder: why not?

This plaque was in front of a page of Einstein’s journal. That particular page was entirely equations, but apparently on another page, he wrote, “I’ve been thinking about the gravitation-electricity problem again.” Which is, of course, exactly what I’d just written in my own journal the day before!

No, not really.

Slightly less highbrow but much more accessible to the public,the Brooklyn Public Library is getting some nice publicity from the clothing store Brooklyn Industries. I don’t know who worked out this partnership, but I am definitely in favor of “I love my public library” t-shirts.

BPL is also the Boston Public Library, so this is a multipurpose garment, unlike that Sox and Yankees gear. Go back and forth between New York and Boston with total anonymity! Library Spies Anonymous. Yup.

What I’m reading: Tender at the Bone, Ruth Reichl; Watchmen, Alan Moore
What I’m listening to: The Saints Go Archin’ In, compiled by Ben Apatoff

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Filed under books, city, library

Oat Maple Scones

Last night a friend and I accidentally adapted the Smitten Kitchen recipe for oat and maple syrup scones. I say “accidentally” because one of us read the whole recipe but got distracted looking for cures for laryngitis, and the other one did not read the recipe but was the one who was de facto in charge of assembling the ingredients into a cohesive whole.

To make things just that tiny bit more complicated, I also had us use oat flour in place of some of (but not all) of the all-purpose flour, so our adapted recipe included 1/2 cup whole wheat flour, 1 cup AP flour, and 3/4 cup oat flour. I don’t think this had any negative effect, and increased the oaty flavor of the scones.

The egg meant for glazing was, alas, mixed in to the dough, and the butter was left out till the end, but then quickly incorporated. Due to the extra liquid from the egg, the dough was a little stickier than it should have been, but all’s well that ends well. Plus, we found a heart-shaped cookie cutter in the cutlery drawer, and decided that it was in fact a biscuit cutter. Result: adorable, oaty, crumbly, delicious scones.

Oh, also, we added chocolate chips to half the dough. Because that’s how we roll.

We used a second egg to glaze some of the scones. It doesn’t affect the taste much one way or the other, but it looks extra nice.

These are easy to put together if you’re paying attention, and pretty forgiving if you’re not, as it turns out!

What I’m reading: Tender at the Bone, Ruth Reichl; Watchmen, Alan Moore
What I’m listening to: The Saints Go Archin’ In, compiled by Ben Apatoff

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Filed under food, friends, recipe

Goodbye to All That

On May 4, 2010, I wrote an outline for a blog post called “Goodbye to All That,” borrowing the excellent title of Joan Didion’s essay about leaving New York. I didn’t finish writing it and never posted it, but I’m revisiting it now, having just visited New York last weekend. My original intent was to forecast what I would miss most, and I was remarkably accurate, as it turns out.

Most of all, of course, I miss my friends. None were native to Manhattan or Brooklyn (though there is one Long Islander), but it was – is – an amazing group of people, in the right place, at the right time. Some of them have also left the city, or are planning to; we will probably never live all in the same place again (despite my efforts to get everyone to move to Boston). Just the fact that the most accurate tags for this post are “friends” and “elsewhere” makes me sad, but we are all still in touch, and see each other whenever we can.

Less importantly but still much missed: the Park Slope Food Co-op and the Draft Barn (especially the beer croutons). The Co-op gets a lot of flack, and it isn’t for everyone, but I loved it. As for the Draft Barn, certainly there are bars here with near-equal beer lists, but none I’ve been to so far can match the atmosphere: exposed brick, alcoves, long tables, very few patrons, quiet, space. Also, the beer croutons.

It turns out that I don’t miss the neighborhood itself that much, and as for running into people while out and about, that already happens here; most of my friends in this area do live nearby. I found people to play frisbee with before I even moved, so I don’t miss Prospect Park Sunday pickup too much (though it was great to play there again last weekend).

Unsurprisingly, I’ve found bookstores and cafes here, too, so I don’t miss the Strand or HousingWorks or McNally Jackson (all of which, interestingly, have redesigned their websites in the past year) as much as I otherwise might; in fact, Porter Square Books fills in for McNally almost perfectly, and I live (dangerously) close to it. I’ve also been going to the library much more, using both the Cambridge and Somerville branches.

Subway service 24/7? I don’t miss that so much either, as I can walk to most late-night places, or drive (and driving and parking are much less of a hassle). I do miss actual trains, as opposed to trolley-cars that have to stop for streetlights above ground, but at least the T is a little quieter, more civilized, and generally better-smelling.

As for the lights on the Brooklyn Bridge at night (I must have been feeling quite nostalgic to put that on the list in the first place), I’ll happily swap it for the Charles River.

What I’m reading: My Life in France, Julia Child
What I’m listening to: How to Save a Life, The Fray; The Suburbs, Arcade Fire; The Saints Go Archin’ In, a mix compiled by Ben Apatoff

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Hamentashen Cookies

I missed Purim by several days this year, but I did get around to making hamentashen; I always do. This year I substituted barley flour for half the all-purpose flour, and the dough held together well but was apt to stick to the mat and the rolling pin (problem solved with liberal sprinkling of extra flour on these surfaces). I don’t think this has anything to do with the barley flour, but then again, since I only make these once a year, I don’t remember well what’s normal.

As is true of so many things.

Anyway, without further ado, the recipe!

Ingredients:
4 cups all-purpose flour (or 2 cups AP and 2 cups barley)
2 cups sugar
1 cup butter (2 sticks)
1 tsp vanilla
3 eggs
1/2 tsp salt
Filling of your choosing (I used strawberry-rhubarb preserves)

Preheat oven to 350 F. Beat butter and sugar together; beat in eggs and vanilla. Add salt and flour, mix well. Roll the dough flat, to about 1/4″ thickness (I’m estimating here). Cut circles out of the dough with a cookie cutter or an upside-down cup; they should be about 3″ – 4″ in diameter (estimating again). Spoon some preserves into the center of each circle with a teaspoon, then fold the dough in on three sides, making a triangle. I use the pinwheel method; other people just pinch the edges together (see SmittenKitchen’s recipe here). Place the filled triangle cookies on a greased* cookie sheet, then bake for about 20 minutes or until light golden brown, rotating the sheet in the oven halfway through.

*I always use the butter wrappers left over from the butter in the recipe. If you have more wrappers than you need, you can fold them in half and stick them in the freezer to use later. Of course, this only works if you buy butter in individually wrapped 1/4 lb. sticks.

Hamentashen, as it turns out, are not particularly photogenic. Also, I am not the world’s best food photographer. Step-by-step pictures of the process would have been fun, but I made the cookies at night, and indoor food photography is no one’s friend.

Think of that black hole in the center as a black hole of deliciousness! These were great the night I made them (though you DO have to wait for them to cool after you take them out of the oven; the outside may feel cool enough to eat but the inside is still VERY HOT. Consider yourself warned). A few days later, the flavor is still good, but the cookies are pretty crunchy (maybe due to the barley flour?).

Off to New York this weekend for a long-overdue visit to former roommates and old friends!

What I’m reading: My Life in France, Julia Child
What I’m listening to: Surfer Rosa, The Pixies

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Filed under food, holiday, recipe

Snowflakes and Crocuses

As promised, a few photos of spring flowers. When these first poked up I thought they were crocuses, but now I am thinking irises. Edited to add: Nope, right the first time – definitely crocuses. Read more about crocuses (and crocuses vs. squirrels) here.)

Also, it snowed again today. Just flurries, but still…very un-spring-like weather. (Although, when have New England weather patterns EVER conformed to the calendar?)

Yesterday was even colder than today, I think – all the flowers that had poked up through the soil looked like they really wished they hadn’t.

“Flowers are so inconsistent!” –The Little Prince, Antoine du Saint-Exupery

What I’m reading: My Life in France, Julia Child
What I’m listening to: Blonde on Blonde, Bob Dylan

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Filed under plants, seasons, weather

Spring

I tried to put up a new post yesterday, but got this error message:

Things weren’t back to normal in “a minute,” which is why I am posting today instead of yesterday, but I liked the error message so much that I wasn’t upset about it at all. (Matt might not be so thrilled, but someone has to be the scapegoat.)

This is just an example of how humor can defuse anger, especially in the customer service context. Imagine if anytime something broke – through no fault of yours – instead of having no information on when it would be fixed, or having a short, uninformative message, or worst of all having to spend 45 minutes on the phone with various customer service representatives and STILL [whatever it is] isn’t working, you experienced humor and cheerfulness instead? It doesn’t change anything – the site is still down, the phone is still broken, the internet is still out, whatever – but you feel better about it. And THAT’S good customer service.

I may as well mention here that I spent 16 minutes on the phone with Verizon recently, trying to figure out why I had stopped receiving text messages (and no, it wasn’t because my friends and family had abandoned me). In the more distant past, I spent a significant amount of time on the phone with Comcast customer service, and in the even more distant past, I spent more time on the phone with Time Warner than some people have spent living and breathing on this planet. Can you guess which one of these entities is my least favorite?

© Naturesound.com

Anyway, this post is supposed to be about spring! I did see a robin recently – not the first day of spring, MAYBE BECAUSE IT WAS SNOWING, but the day after that. It wouldn’t hold still for a picture though, so I took this one off the internet. Seeing the robin reminded me of the Calvin & Hobbes strip (which is not readily available on the internet because Bill Watterson is pretty serious about copyright, as well he should be) where Calvin sights a robin and gets all excited, asks his mom to call the newspaper because he saw the first robin of spring, is convinced he is going to win all kinds of rewards and become a millionaire, etc. His mom explains that is not going to happen, Calvin is deflated, and Hobbes says, “Cheer up! Did I tell you I saw a robin yesterday?” (I’m paraphrasing, I don’t have it in front of me right now.)

So, yes, it’s springtime in New England, such as it is. There are crocuses popping up (photos TK) and in general it is more on the warmer side of freezing than it was a few weeks ago.

And I saw the first robin, so I am in for wondrous riches and fame. Call the newspapers!

What I’ve been reading: Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf

What I’ve been listening to: Help! and A Hard Day’s Night, The Beatles; Horrorscope, Eve 6; Warm Strangers, Vienna Teng

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Filed under animals, rants, seasons, weather

Book Review: John Lennon: The Life

I hate to say this, but this book was disappointing on a number of levels: it compared poorly with Keith Richards’ autobiography Life, which I read just previously, both in content and style; there were a number of mistakes in the text (on the copy-editing level); and it turns out that John was, simply put, kind of a jerk, especially when he was younger.

However, it was perhaps unfair of me to read it right after Life; if I could jump back in time two weeks, I’d read them in the opposite order. Keith’s book had the immediacy of a first-person narrative, whereas John’s was, necessarily, a biography. There were other factors going in as well: The Beatles’ image as a smiley boy band, in suits and ties (despite their later long hair and other late-’60s/early-’70s trappings) raises the bar of audience expectation of the individual Beatles, whereas the Stones’ bad-boy rock ‘n’ roll image lowers the bar. One expects all kinds of bad behavior from the Stones, but is more surprised to learn about the Beatles’ very early years playing (and misbehaving) in the red light district in Hamburg.

Preconceptions aside, the Beatles did start out more rock ‘n’ roll before Brian Epstein cleaned up their act, and one gets the sense that John may have been happier with a grittier image, like the Stones. One clear point of contrast between the two is that Keith’s love for music and for playing live shows shines through his whole book, but John came to hate playing to live audiences. No one was prepared for the unprecedented phenomenon of Beatlemania, and so “the boys” were not well guarded against it – not hidden behind a wall of security as they would be today. Additionally, it’s easy to see how fans claiming to love the music and then screaming so loudly during the concert that the music was rendered inaudible could be extraordinarily aggravating.

The wonderful thing about Keith’s book was his happiness, his enthusiasm about life and music and other people, and his sense of humor. If John had lived to write an autobiography, it might well have been a more enjoyable read than Philip Norman’s biography of him. John’s story as told by Norman is drier and more scholarly (Keith certainly couldn’t be accused of either). And Keith has the perspective and distance of several extra decades; the flaws that stood out in John’s youth and Beatles years were beginning to mellow before his premature death, but – if both accounts are to be taken at face value – John was far more insecure and had a much worse temper anyone who hears “I Want to Hold Your Hand” would suspect.

Not that I expect musicians (or writers or artists) to be paragons of virtue or shining examples of character, but it was a bit disillusioning reading about John in detail. I had a positive impression of his before I read the book, less so now. (Keith, on the other hand, was surprising in the opposite direction, as it were: despite all the drugs and trashed hotel rooms, he seems to have a relatively sunny outlook and peaceful personality. If I could hang out with one of these two, on the basis of these two books alone, I’d pick Keith, and not just because John’s dead.)

Another difference between John and Keith is that Keith is primarily a musician: he goes into great detail about various chords and open tuning and riffs. Though it goes without saying that John was a brilliant musician as well, it seems he was primarily a writer; he wrote and drew from a young age. This difference is reflected in their respective songwriting processes as well as in their music. (When Keith and Mick wrote together, Keith usually came up with with central riff and a few words, usually the chorus – “it goes like this” – and Mick would fill in the verses.) In John and Paul’s songs, there is often a strong story element; the lyrics are just as important as the music. In fact, the Beatles began printing the lyrics of their songs on their album covers, starting with Sgt. Pepper. Think of “A Day in the Life” – it tells a whole story in itself.

On a personal level, having been brought up to loathe Yoko Ono, there’s really no way to do that after reading Norman’s book, and that’s a bit of a letdown. One does certainly feel for Cynthia and, especially, Julian, when one considers the radically different treatment of the first wife and son compared to the second; but, at least as presented in this book, it seems as if John did much better as a husband and a father the second time around.

Overall, John simply wasn’t a person who could be constrained by one image or even one medium. He was undoubtedly creative and brilliant, but after nearly a decade, he didn’t love being a Beatle the way Keith loved being in the Stones (or the way Paul loved being a Beatle; maybe I’ll read a book of his next). Though the Beatles broke up fifteen years before I was born, I’ve always been sad about it (and also always blamed it on Yoko), but I don’t know if I am anymore.

A final note: there were numerous typos and other small errors that ought to have been corrected in the copy-editing process. True, 850 pages is quite a long book, and this was a first edition, so some errors may have been corrected in subsequent editions. However, it makes this thoroughly researched book seem sloppy.

And it was thoroughly researched, and the writing was competent, if not lyrical or inspiring. There were certainly good tidbits about the origins of many of the songs, about who wrote what and why. There is solid primary source material, letters to and from John, quotes from many who knew and worked with him. But John Lennon: The Life just doesn’t blaze off the page the way Keith Richards’ Life does.

See additional quotes on Goodreads.

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