Category : Personal Favorites

The 12 Days of Christmas

Never mind what the retail scene tells you — The Twelve Days of Christmas actually start on Christmas Day, December 25th. The twelfth day ends at midnight on January 5th of each year, followed by the feast of the Epiphany, January 6.

Here’s the symbolism of the 12 days.

The first day of Christmas - My True Love, the Partridge in a Pear Tree. In ancient times a partridge was often used as symbol of a divine and sacred king (“my true love”).

The second day of Christmas – Two turtle doves are the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. The doves symbolize peace.

The third day of Christmas – The three French Hens are Faith, Hope and Love. These are the three gifts of the Holy Spirit.

The fourth day of Christmas – The four calling birds are the four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

The fifth day of Christmas – The five golden rings represent the first five books of the Old Testament.

The sixth day of Christmas - The six geese a-laying stand for the first six days of creation.

The seventh day of Christmas - The seven swans a-swimming represent the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord.

The eighth day of Christmas – The eight maids a-milking are the eight Beatitudes.

The ninth day of Christmas – Nine ladies dancing are the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

The tenth day of Christmas – The ten lords a-leaping are the Ten Commandments.

The eleventh day of Christmas – The eleven pipers piping represent the eleven faithful apostles.

The twelfth day of Christmas - The twelve drummers drumming represent the twelve points of belief in The Apostles’ Creed.

The good news: you’re to leave your ornaments up until after January 6!


Classic Thrills

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to include a short piece on classic crime stories in the MWA NorCal newsletter. Here it is, reproduced with my permission.

You always remember your firsts.

The first time words on a page brought me to tears was when Beth March died in “Little Women.” The first time words frightened me to death occurred when an arrogant, drunken Fortunato was lured into the vault in “The Cask of Amontillado.”

Imagine my thrill when I realized how much more excitement and suspense awaited me in the works of Edgar Allan Poe.

Next I read “The Tell-Tale Heart,” in which the dark guilt of a murderer is his undoing: I admit the deed! — tear up the planks! (Poe was not one to stint on exclamation points!) “The Pit and the Pendulum” gave me the most meticulous description of a torture chamber: Any death but that of the pit! And surely no character descriptions in literature can match those in “The Man of the Crowd,” the art of following a stranger who captures your fancy.

Still, “The Cask of Amontillado” remains my favorite: I plastered it up. Surely one of the most chilling lines in crime fiction.

A place to curl up with a good thriller

•  Care to share your reading “firsts?”

HALLOWEEN Preview

Cornelia Parker’s PsychoBarn, rooftop installation at the Met

Few words say “scary” like “Psycho,” the hallmark of suspenseful movies. And few American artists have been as inspirational as Edward Hopper.

Last summer, the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue paid tribute to the movie and the artist with its rooftop installation.

Here’s another view, that’s more revealing of the structure of the “barn”:

I sat on a bench on the rooftop for the better part of an hour. The weather was perfect for a non-sun-worshipper like me: overcast, chilly. In all that time, as crowds came and went, I saw few people approach the structure closer than about 10 feet.  No one ran her hand along the railing, or closely examined the shingles, or checked the flaking paint, though the only written warning was not to climb the steps. It’s hard to tell in the photo, but at one point, when a little girl approached the steps, her (presumably) mother pulled her back in a protective gesture, covering the girl’s eyes.

And no one peered in the windows. I wonder why?

Every couple of years, I bring out the Fermi problem. Since today, 9/29, is his actual birthday (1901), I can’t resist posting it here. It’s my own favorite aspect of Fermi’s contribution to science—his problem solving technique.

The problem:

How many piano tuners are there in Chicago?

This is the legendary problem presented to his classes by the Nobel Prize winning Italian-American physicist. It’s the original of a category of problems called “Fermi problems,” meant to be solved by putting together reasonable estimates for each step of the solution.

At first glance, Fermi problems seem to be impossible to solve without research. The technique is to break them down into manageable parts, and answer each part with logic and common sense, rather than reference books or, these days, the Internet. By doing this systematically, we arrive at an answer that comes remarkably close to the exact answer. By the end of this calculation, we also see what advantages it has over looking up the answer on Google.

Here’s the way Fermi taught his students to solve the piano tuner problem:

1) Assume that Chicago doesn’t have more piano tuners than it can keep busy tuning pianos.

2) Estimate the total population of Chicago.

At that time, there were about 3,000,000 people in Chicago.

3) Estimate how many families that population represents.

The average family consisted of four members, so the number of families was approximately 750,000.

4) Assume that about one third of all families owns a piano.

That gives us 250,000 pianos in Chicago.

5) Assume that each piano should be tuned about every 10 years.

That gives us about 25,000 tunings per year in the city.

6) Assume that each piano tuner can service four pianos per day, and works about 250 days a year.

Each piano tuner would perform 1,000 tunings per year.

Summary: In any given year, pianos in Chicago need 25,000 tunings; each tuner can do 1,000 tunings, therefore we need 25 piano tuners.

The answer was within a few of being the number in the yellow pages of the time.

Why not just count the listings in the yellow pages in the first place? A good idea, until we remember that “solving a problem” is an exciting, challenging word to people like Fermi and to scientists in general. Difficult problems are even better opportunities to test their minds and their ability to calculate.

Another of Fermi’s motivations in giving this problem was to illustrate properties of statistics and the law of probabilities. He used the lesson to teach something about errors made in estimating, and how they tend to cancel each other out.

If you assumed that pianos are tuned every five years, for example, you might also have assumed that every sixth family owns a piano instead of every third. Your errors would then balance and cancel each other out. It’s statistically improbable that all your errors would be in the same direction (either all overestimates or all underestimates), so the final results will always lean towards the right number.

Fermi, present at the time, was able to get a preliminary estimate of the amount of energy released by the atomic bomb—he sprinkled small pieces of paper in the air and observed what happened when the shock wave reached them.

A whole cult has been built up around “Fermi questions:”

• how much popcorn would it take to fill your family room?

• how many pencils would you use up if you drew a line around the earth at the equator?

• how many rejection letters would it take to wallpaper a writer’s office? (oops, too personal?)

For Fermi, there was great reward in independent discoveries and inventions.

Many contemporary scientists and engineers respond the same way. Looking up an answer or letting someone else find it impoverishes them, robbing them of a creative experience that boosts self-confidence and enhances their mental life.

Could this also be why they don’t ask for directions when they’re lost?

NYC UNFINISHED

Preparatory sketch for Doge . . . Presented to the Redeemer

Has it really taken me 3 months to organize photos from my July museum breaks? One exciting stop was to The Met Breuer, the new branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, located at 75th and Madison, the site of the old Whitney.

My favorite exhibit there: UNFINISHED — THOUGHTS LEFT VISIBLE

Some of the pieces were unfinished in the usual sense, like the paintings by Tintoretto (above) and Van Gogh (below).  In the Tintoretto painting you can see that some of the characters are fully rendered, some are hovering in the clouds as sketches.  In the Van Gogh, the sky is unfinished, a series of scattered brush strokes. The artist took his own life before completing the work.

Street in Auvers-Sur-Oise

Below are two unfinished paintings. In one, the artist has completed the face, but not much else; in the other, it’s the opposite — all but the face seems complete. An insight into how each artist worked?

Klimt's Posthumous Portrait of Ria Munk III

Meng’s Portrait of Mariana de Silva y Sarmiento

It seemed that every artist I’d ever heard of was represented in this exhibit: El Greco, Rembrandt, Velasquez, Monet, Manet, Sergent . . . on and on.

One more piece deserves a specific mention, however. Not a painting, but an installation

Robert Smithson's Mirrors and Shelly Sand

A long pile of sand is spread directly on the floor. The documentation reminds us that even in the museum, the sand is vulnerable to loss and disintegration, an illustration of incompleteness in its own way. The mirrors that accompany the sand change our perception of the sand. I was fascinated by this installation, and understand how it can be viewed as “unfinished,” reminding me of Sir Isaac Newton’s comment:

I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore . . . while the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

I would appreciate the thoughts of anyone else who has seen this installation. Otherwise, I’m going to have to rush back to NYC and interview people in the gallery.

WHAT I’M READING: A MEDLEY

Recently, Marshal Zeringue invited me to share my current reading. In case you missed it on his site, which is always interesting.

I always have several books going at the same time, some paper copies, some on my e-reader.

Here’s my current stack and the excuses to read them:

1. Dead Wake: the Last Crossing of the Lusitania, by Erik Larson, for a nonfiction book group that has been meeting monthly in my home for more than 20 years. Like all his narratives, Larson’s detailed presentation of the WWI disaster reads like the best fiction. Here the characters are a luxury ocean liner and a German U-boat. I’m always amazed when a writer can accomplish suspense, even when we all know the outcome.

2. Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology, by Johnjoe McFadden and Jim Al-Kalili. Heavy! This one will take a while to finish. Biology is so much more complex than physics (five simple equations and you’re done).

3. Guilt by Degrees, by attorney Marcia Clark, for the December meeting of the Castro Valley Library Mystery Book Club, another longstanding group. The story, or “case”, is interesting, the author’s many years reading police reports obvious.

4. Fatal Voyage, by Karin Fossim, my new favorite thriller writer. For me, the darker the better when it comes to reading crime fiction.

5. Assorted magazines: The New Yorker (of course; makes feel like one); Science & Technology Review (to stay connected); Writers Digest and Publishers Weekly (to feel like a writer); Real Simple (makes me feel organized); the Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin (to enter a different world); and miniatures magazines (makes me feel crafty).

And, finally, just for fun

6. Grand Central: How a Train Station Transformed America, by San Roberts. Probably my favorite place on earth, and probably because I grew up with the radio show long before I ever saw the terminal. What can be more exciting to listen to while ironing than the crossroads of a million private lives?

The Halloween of His Life

Here’s the cutest Halloween story I’ve heard in a long time. It’s by a frequent visitor to The Real Me, author Jo Mele. This piece appeared in Reminisce magazine.

Jo, a few years after the Halloween in question

My little brother Joey is the most determined; some call it stubborn, person I know. Joey loved Halloween and couldn’t wait to get home and sort his candy into piles eating  all his favorites first.

When he was eight he had to miss trick or treating because he had a high fever. My mother’s decision to keep him in nearly drove Joey crazy. The pleading went on for hours until he gave my mother a headache and was sent to his room in tears.

I went around the neighborhood with two bags asking for a treat for my brother who was home sick. The neighbors were sorry to hear he was missing his favorite Holiday and were very generous to his sack. He didn’t even feel well enough to do his sorting and eating routine until the following weekend.

The next year Joey had two costumes ready, the pirate from last year and the new cowboy costume complete with boots and pearl handled Lone Ranger six-shooters he got for his birthday. He was counting the days to trick or treating. Unfortunately, he came down with the flu and couldn’t even stand.  My mother did not allow him to go out into the frigid New York afternoon.

I went around the neighborhood with his sack and mine and everyone said “Not again.” They poured goodies and change into his bag saying he could buy what he liked when he felt better. He made two dollars but wasn’t happy.

When October came around again Joey was ready. He was ten years old, full of energy, had three unused costumes waiting to be worn. He was determined and on a mission. My parents had already decided they’d let him go trick or treating – no matter what. Halloween fell on a Saturday that year so Joey could rest before his long-awaited adventure and stay out late since it wasn’t a school night. It was a beautiful warm fall day and after whining “Can’t I start yet,” for the hundredth time,  my mother gave in and let him start.

He was the first kid out and the last one home. When his bag got heavy he came home, changed his costume and got another one. He started over again, and again, determined to make up for lost time. He had the Halloween of his life.

When Joey finally dragged in and saw his three bags full of goodies waiting for the sorting, he hugged them and burst into tears of joy. He’d won his battle with Halloween.

I admired his determination. He never gave up and wouldn’t settle for one round of trick-or-treating when he deserved three. I’m sure I would’ve quit after the first. Joey was no quitter, he needed to even the score, two traits he would carry with him for the rest of his life.

Museums, Part 2-ish

Here are a few samples from my summer museum visits. Which would you linger by?

Madame X by John Singer Sargent

Glass and neon with transformer by Keith Sonnier

3 of 4 paintings by Van Gogh, never before exhibited together

The Original Selfies

Earlier this month, I wandered into the Morgan Library and Museum on Madison Avenue in New York. I hadn’t been there in decades and was pleased to see a new wing—a common occurrence in my museum hopping lately, a la the Gardner in Boston and the whole new Whitney down by the High Line. I’m glad to see museums prospering and do my best to help, especially in the gift shops.

Exhibits at the Morgan this summer feature 150 years of Alice in Wonderland (see what the real Alice was like!); photographs by Emmet Gowin; and portrait drawings from Durer to Picasso.

A fun observation in the Morgan: an intro to the portrait drawings refers to self portraits of Rembrandt, Matisse, and the like as Selfies!  So I had to take one.

Edgar® Week 2015

As promised: a pictorial summary of my week in New York for the Edgars®.

• A trip to the Museum of Arts and Design at Columbus Circle, for an amazing exhibit of paintings by photorealist Richard Estes. Here’s a shot of his Hotel Empire, oil on canvas:


• An orchestra seat (OK, the very last row!) at The Audience, starring Helen Mirren:

• The Edgar ® Banquet, black tie and glitter. And me (moderately glittery) presenting the Edgar to my new BFF, Stephen King:

• A tribute to New York’s way of dealing with trees. Instead of letting them get out of hand, trap them in beautiful art deco metal frames:

• A great traveling companion, Ann Parker, author of the award-winning Silver Rush Mysteries, shown here at the Oyster Bar in GCT:

• And when a building is high enough, add a few stories:

Start spreading the news . . .