Monthly Archives: February 2012

To B&B, or Not to Be

I guess I first became aware of bed-and-breakfast accommodations when I went to Europe years ago. At that time, in the late 1970s, there didn’t seem to be any similar options for lodging here in the United States. Maybe because our country is such a car-happy place, motels were the popular choice, and, too, suburban sprawl was sucking people out of cities and towns, cities and towns being the most likely settings for B&Bs. In America, generally, if you had money you stayed in hotels in the city, and if you didn’t, motels outside the city. I am thinking, too, about all the Automobile Club-rated motels and also the Motel 6s, the cheapest accommodations to be had in almost any out-of-the-way place. Maybe it was in the 1980s and early 1990s that I started to see B&Bs come into their own. What I have been noticing lately is that B&Bs have morphed over time from what their intended purpose had been to what it is now.

My initial forays into B&Bs I found a little weird, I admit. So much togetherness with strangers. There were stays in people’s homes, in their spare bedroom, where I felt odd and uneasy, like I had just married into the family, never having met them. Then at breakfast, there was the coming together of the “parents” and all the new guest in-laws, which I was being introduced to for the very first time. We were all chatting as we awaited breakfast, mostly about why we were here, where we were from and how long we were staying. Although it was congenial, it was like orientation at college – a kind of forced intimacy that I found uncomfortable. The thing was, though, the interaction was part of the deal. You were ostensibly there for the interaction, this being part of the travel experience. You were meeting the natives, plus you were meeting other non-natives, and you were all shaken, not stirred into one big wayfarers-filled happy family with a hosting happy family. The melting pot. Home away from home, so to speak. Although, unless you run a B&B of your own, this setting would be nothing like home.

There were, of course, variations on this theme but, basically, you would become a foreign exchange student in an English-speaking land. Over the years I had noticed subtle changes in dining style. Rather than everyone together, breakfasts could be had at different seating times so that individual digestive tracts could be accommodated; serving was winnowed down so that the meal was not necessarily one for all, all for one. And, too, food choices could be made apart from the original farm-style breakfasts. Once in a while, there was a place that had a stocked mini-fridge in your room so your morning face wouldn’t have to frighten the other guests. And, too, there were the rare places that delivered a basket to your door, like Saint Nicholas filling your shoes overnight – no interaction whatsoever and your time was entirely your own. And, except for check-in, you never had to associate with your hosts again. Or were they elves?

It has occurred to me of late that now, often, the hosts don’t even live in the house. They have another private house on the grounds, or better yet, they live next door or nearby on a separate property. Two things seem to be working here: B&Bs are becoming more impersonal, more like inns with innkeepers who are there to give you directions or find you a corkscrew; and, travelers’ time is deemed more precious in our hurried-pace world so that, face it, talking with strangers is a waste of time. Get up and get going, don’t lollygag around making small talk with people from Des Moines. There are sights to see and someone just left a personalized tray of breakfast items on the hall table for us to pick up. In this instance, I think that we have created fast-food B&Bs. Although it is still, quite literally, a bed and a breakfast, has it become something other than the original concept? 

So the question begs: Is there or should there be placeness in overnight accommodations? Do B&Bs provide that or should they or can they? There is probably the placeness of where they are located, meaning their proximity to your destinations. And, undoubtedly, there is placeness in the style or design of the house or room, depending on where your tastes lie. And, if lucky, there is a placeness to the view you may have from your bay window or porch for the limited time that you will be in your room. But, in terms of the placeness of meeting fellow travelers, there isn’t much of that anymore. Even bed-and-breakfasts have turned into anonymous motels. Sure, there might be dizzying wallpaper, and more doilies than your great-grandmother had in her whole house just in one room, but the idea of a shared experience is over. The independent American spirit prevails, a B&B stay becomes a roof above without personal investment. Get back in your car.


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The Locked Room

In the subset of literature that, for no lack of you-pick-it labels, goes by “detective fiction” or “crime fiction” or “mystery novels” or a half-dozen others, one of the classic amuse-bouches is that of the locked-room story. Depending on which absolutist promontory you stand on – my foothold, quite securely, is on the peak of crime fiction / police procedural, leaning more to the American hard-boiled than the Christie drawing-room mechanical – the locked room is either the epitome of brilliant writing and detection, or a slippery trope of gimmickry and trickery. I kind of like them, the way I like any good, clever puzzle, although they are often devoid of real characters in their slavish concentration on a narrative that is less whodunit or whydunit than howdunit.

To explain: While a locked-room mystery needn’t involve a murder, it usually does, just to up the ante. The story usually goes like this: Someone is noticeably missing, or an apartment-building neighbor detects “that smell,” or a landlord can’t get into a rented room, or the door to the den in an ancestral blue-blood manse can’t be opened and the key is nowhere to be found and Lord Grosvenor hasn’t been seen since dinner, or the high-tech computerized keypad (with iris ID) can’t be activated because nobody knows the PIN number. In all these cases, the door is broken down and, alas, a body is found, slumped over a desk, or at the center of the floor, or someplace instantly discoverable. But here’s the hump: the room was locked from the inside, yet the culprit is not inside, and somehow got out – but how? There are no signs of forced entry, or exit. How does one commit a murder (and sometimes in exotic, arcane fashion) in a locked room – often trying to make it look like suicide? How’d the killer get in, then get out? And what is it about the scene – or absent from the scene – that solves the mystery? (I’ve just finished one, an early Martin Beck procedural by the excellent Scandinavian team of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, titled, appropriately enough, The Locked Room, an airier-than-usual foray for the writers, more in an 87th Precinct vein, especially one of those Ed McBain corkers involving the Isola cops’ devilish Moriarty, the Deaf Man. The Beck locked-room story has a less baroque solution than most, but, as with most, is far-fetched; many are just brain-twizzlers stretched to 200 pages, and many of them cheat a little by not giving you a pertinent detail, or by basing it all on facts or motivations that are, essentially, unrealistic. Still, the Beck is the one that got me to thinking.)

What hit me this time around, in my reading, is that far beyond being just an entertainment form – a disposable diversion that we read quickly, are engaged and entertained by and then almost immediately forget  – it is clear that locked-room mysteries are, in fact, metaphors. Actually, that realization merits a “duh.” But, while some or most will see the metaphor as one of an existentialist expression of life, I see it, for the purposes of our explorations here, as a metaphor for placeness and art, and of art-making, and even of art criticism. For years now, I’ve thought of the act of creating, whether it be writing or fine arts or even performance, as a painting of oneself into a corner and then finding one’s way out (or not); it used to be that it was important to find the exit path without leaving footprints in the wet paint, but these days that is no longer a necessity: some of the best art leaves tell-tale tread marks, and gladly and purposely smooshes the perfectly coated surface, in attempts at modern or post-modern “transparency.”

But, really, isn’t being an artist a lot more like finding oneself in the placeness of a room locked from the inside, alone, committing the “crime,” keeping the culprit world outside, and, in a sense, waiting for the curious and interest-piqued “detectives” to break down the door and discover you and your work, and your stage-posed ingenuity? And doesn’t the locked-room describe the art lover, who enters that mysterious place and finds a scene that needs “solving,” that demands an understanding of not only its methods but its meaning? Is not art appreciation, on its highest level, standing in a now-unlocked room – one opened by you – and through not just looking but seeing, not just inventorying but empathizing, not just looking for the weapon but also both superficial and deep-rooted motives, finding the answer? The resonance of this placeness is both in the locking and the unlocking of a room we need to be in.

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Temple of Love

Valentine’s Day aside, February truly is an example of a love–hate relationship, a mixture of longing and dread. That it is the shortest month is both a blessing and a curse. It reflects so directly the paradoxical nature of the human condition as its daylight hours grow longer while, counterintuitively, its temperatures decline. February is a flirtatious tease, filling us with hope while reminding us, cruelly, that we are not in charge. Of course, February behaves differently depending on where we reside. Here, in the Middle Atlantic states, our winters register low on the harsh meter, and we are grateful for that, but February reminds us not to be too gloat-y or greedy, since anything can happen. Any time.

Despite my instincts of mistrust for February, by December I can’t help eagerly awaiting its arrival. The reason is, I yearn for something that only February can provide, a desire that it alone can quench. What it brings starts its yearly emergence mid-to-late January and disappears mid-March, like an extended appearance of our annual groundhog. However, it is not a roly-poly, fur-covered mammal that makes my heart go pitter-pat, exceedingly cute as it is; it is rather, a nearly round, shiny-skinned fruit: the Temple orange. It is my love apple.

I was introduced to Temples by my mother and, sadly, I don’t know how she gained her knowledge of them. They just became an annual event in our home, similar to what now, for others, Clementines have become for the winter holidays. But it wasn’t so ubiquitous as that, since, even though they were available for her purchase, they were not something I ever saw in anyone else’s household. She must have had the same love for them that I developed – maybe it is something in our DNA, or some pheromone we sensed in common. But we shared, too, the midwinter jones that only this citrus could satisfy. Thanks, Mom.

There is a learned kind of placeness in having a food as an annual event, of it being representative of the same month every year. And, too, having it create a cyclical yearning and anticipation makes for a visceral desire for the fruit. Its placeness every February becomes the only antidote. This seasonal nature of things like foodstuffs, let alone their placeness, is practically unheard of in the year-round availability of almost every other comestible. Of course, this makes the Temple all the more special.

A descendant of the original growers of the Temple orange, Ethel G. Hakes wrote a history of the fruit entitled, “The Romance of the Orange,” published in The Florida Grower around 1964. In her personal and factual account of her husband’s grandparents’ discovery of a single tree in their Winter Park, Florida, citrus grove, she relates the surprise origins of the parent tree that became the propagator for all the Temple oranges that followed – and how it was named: for William Chase Temple, who helped build the steel industry in Pittsburgh, Pa., and then the citrus industry, forming the Florida Citrus Exchange, in 1909. From her memoir: “Ranking among the handsomest of Florida’s fresh fruits is its luscious-tasting, easy-peeling Temple orange. Believed to have come from Jamaica before 1894, it was introduced to the public in 1917.” It generated much interest as a new “wonder” orange and its name was patented.

Declared “undoubtedly an accidental hybrid,” by Dr. David Fairchild, head of the Bureau of Plant Introductions, for the federal government, the Temple was one of those happy freaks of nature: a cross between a tangerine and an orange. The tree also had its druthers, preferring certain growing conditions, like rich hammock soil. “And today,” Hakes wrote, “the fruit market of the world is enriched by truly a miracle orange – the handsome, easy-peeling, luscious-tasting Temple.”

Hear, hear! The Temple hints at its power to entice simply by one’s sniffing the slightly cratered and bumpy skin. It’s pungent aroma permeates the air when you just break its thick but easily-penetrated outer rind. It has a deeper orange color than most other citrus, except maybe the tangerine. The citrus oil is as heady as pine oil can be. Tearing  through the skin, the orange itself has a slight bitter smell; the more of the fruit you reveal, the more pronounced is the subtle scent of the white inner-peel. Disengage a segment and place it whole in your mouth, because if you bite into it, its juices will land on your chin and clothes, not in your mouth. Beware of lots of seeds, but don’t let that minor inconvenience spoil the taste. And what of the taste? Spurts of tangerine and orange, and hints of something indefinable, sweet and sour, refreshing and tart, complexity, perhaps umami.

Remember that old slogan out of Florida’s citrus campaign, “A day without orange juice is like a day without sunshine”? I would do that one better: A February without Temples is a devastating winter. So, according to the PLU codes from the International Federation for Produce Coding (IFPC), the number to look for is 4387 (large) or 4386 (small) Temples – sandwiched chronologically between Navels and Valencias. Temple oranges were known as the king of citrus in the 1950s-‘60s, as well as a sign of spring in Florida. They are loved by more than myself. In the famous Philadelphia Reading Terminal Market, a former vendor, Ro & Sons Produce, would hang a banner every year in March. It said, simply, “Goodbye Temples, see you next year!” 

Hey, it’s Valentine’s Day. Get some love for the one you love. It’s round and orange.

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A Child’s Kitchen

Kitchen, n.  Middle English kichene, from Old English cycene, from W.Gmc. *kocina (cf. M.Du. cökene, O.H.G. chuhhina, Ger. Küche, Dan. kjøkken), probably borrowed from V.L. *cocina (cf. Fr. cuisine, Sp. cocina), variant of L. coquina “kitchen,” from fem. of coquinus “of cooks,” from coquus “cook,” from coquere “to cook.” First Known Use: before 12th century

Okay, I am standing in a glass booth, a kind of vertical faceted bay window poking into a doorway at either end – looking into a kitchen. The first thing that hits you, is it is vast, large enough to roller skate around. It is a sea-foam blue with golden wood tones: some, not all, of the cabinets are painted a Colonial blue that, with age and the patina of cooking, have become almost aqua, and in contrast, the shiny copper pans and pots, hung in rows, reflect even more friendly glow into an already warm space. It is, no doubt, efficiently laid out but it invites with an informality of the familiar.

This is not just any kitchen. This is Julia Child’s kitchen. Squint, and you can see Julia puttering around in it. It is the real cook’s kitchen.

We all have curiosity about other peoples’ kitchens, especially of one of the most famous chefs in our lifetime, a woman who became a TV celebrity when she entered our homes (via another smaller glass booth) to demonstrate what French cooking was about, at a time when American food was at its lowest ebb. Her career spanned fifty years, her voice was unmistakable, her combination of love of food and expertise in its preparation made us all want to watch her shows. She was a cooking phenomenon, and her command of her kitchen and its utensils was awesome to watch. The thing is, it was her kitchen, really. Apparently, her husband designed the kitchen in their Cambridge home specifically for the TV cameras, breaking the barrier of the fourth wall and creating the original reality show. Having seen her show many times, I never paid much attention to the set, only to her. And here it is, beyond the glass.

Three years before Julia’s death in 2004, her now-famous kitchen was moved to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Somehow it took ten years for me to catch up to it. Maybe I just never thought it would be so interesting. But it is. Of course, it has historical significance, but that doesn’t guarantee it having placeness. It does, though, so much more so than I had anticipated. It is a large kitchen, even by today’s standards. Funny, it doesn’t have that magic triangulation that defines distances between workstations, but it does have very nice flow. The color scheme is sort of timeless, yet of a time. There are distinct areas for specific tasks but they aren’t front and center – there is a unity to it all. And it is quite homey, not institutional in the slightest. It keeps that perfect balance of appearing cared for but not clinically pristine; it is not just for show but rather for use, despite having been a stage set. There are even a few items sitting in the dish drainer.

My first awareness of a kitchen, obviously, was my mother’s, the original dating from the 1930s but updated in the Fifties, and by the time I was paying attention, it already looked retro to me. It was not what you would call a real cook’s kitchen, but it was fully functional, whether it served lunch to kids, breakfast and supper on a daily basis, or large adult dinner parties. Growing up, I spent time in other mothers’ kitchens and, although some were larger or had more currency than my own, they never felt quite as comfy to me. Not like my own. And both of my grandmothers’ kitchens seemed, by comparison, archaic and quaint; they were not as cabinet-covered with more free-standing furniture, but with a country-style coziness factor.

My own adult kitchen was designed by me; our house, having been a commercial building, did not have one. The result is a hodgepodge of low cost and high design (high design being the 1930s to me). I claimed the original cabinets that had been replaced in my parents’ home (they had, for years, sat repurposed in the basement) and transported them 600 miles to my soon-to-be kitchen. Using my favorite touchstone for design, the 1939 Worlds Fair, I wanted the kitchen to have an Art Deco look and feel, in mostly white and black, with splashes of jade. It is not a modern kitchen now and it wasn’t when it was built – modern only in the sense of its design period. It is a large room, but it has that homey-ness that comes age-appropriately with its style. At least to me.

As kitchen design has streamlined and modernized, the warmth factor has suffered. Cozy eat-in kitchens are undesirable, country kitchens have become code for old and outdated. For a long while, people tried “warming up” a kitchen by putting dark wood cabinets on the walls. In the 21st century, a sleek Euro-modernism has prevailed and there seem to be very few kitchens, mine being one of the few, in the lower forty-eight that do not have stainless steel appliances and granite countertops. This trend is to simulate a professional chef’s kitchen in the home. It’s rather ironic to think that as domestic kitchens have become more like restaurant kitchens, people have opted to eat out more than cook at home. Many modern kitchens look clean and empty, maybe a bit institutional, but not warm or homey.

But, back to Julia’s kitchen: One thing that is particularly nice about it is that the kitchen table sits right smack dab in the center of the room. My understanding is that, for the cooking shows, there was a center island with two stovetops. I prefer the setup in the museum, where the eating takes center stage instead of the cooking. I believe that Julia felt that way too. It is so welcoming, just as Julia was on-the-air, this kitchen bearing the same casual elegance as its proprietor did. In design, Julia’s kitchen is a harmonious composition of positive and negative space, natural and applied color, line and geometrical shape, metal and wood, form and function. Placeness. A kitchen should be the center of a home, the site that is both literally and figuratively a place of fueling up, of doing what is life-giving and where most time is spent; so it should be the most natural and comfortable of places. Julia’s kitchen is all of that, it seems, despite its being a studio – a place in which it must have been easy to spend one’s life and life’s work. Bon Appetit! 

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They’ve taken in the David Smiths for the winter, up at Storm King, and put them in storage until it’s safe to have them re-emerge in the spring, like crocuses, or tax preparers. We’ve never quite been able to figure out why so many of the sculptures up on Museum Hill disappear every year at season’s end. Does the bronze or steel of the pieces tend to crack in the area’s bitter cold, or collapse under the weight of the heavy snows? Or are they trundled off to the indoors because they are smaller and can be moved, and that it would be good if all of the works could be nestled in shelter but are simply too big to move? Not one of life’s great mysteries, but a puzzlement nonetheless.

The mystery, such as it is, was solved recently when – on a winter walk through the browned and still beautiful (indeed, perhaps, more beautiful) grounds, devoid of all humans except for our small, select group (one of the benefits of membership) – what to our wondering eyes should appear but the realization that the hilltop area is covered with trees mature enough that, when the winds barrel down from the mountains or ice storms coat everything, large and weighty branches snap and hit the ground (or David Smiths) with damaging force. Ergo, the sculpture exodus – no sense playing dice with Nature, not when fine art and millions of dollars are at stake … and, especially, when some of the stuff is merely on loan. So, off they go, to their Citizen Kane-ish warehouse, awaiting the equinox.

Which leaves the pedestals. Here and there, poking up from the beaten down grass, the concrete rectangles remain, devoid of duty, like doormen in a doorless world. In a sculpture park, as Storm King is, or in any museum or gallery, the pedestal is the most overlooked and nearly-invisible object in the place. But they also serve who squat and support; without pedestals, there’d be a lot of lopsided pieces ruined by contact with the elements, and a lot of art lovers with bad backs from bending over to look at things situated at the wrong height. The art would suffer, too, by just being plunked there – to be on a pedestal, after all, is a figure of speech indicating honor or praise or the implication of importance … all of which a lot of today’s art could use, if only to be considered adequate. Sometimes, pedestals are what make art “Art.”

But, up there, nearly alone on the semi-barren rise above Storm King’s di Suvero’d landscape, one can imagine more life to pedestals than even those functions already mentioned. One can dig deep into one’s memory and try to remember the pieces that had recently been on those pedestals, and imagine them there, seeing them, the shiny burnished surfaces, the geometric forms, ghostly, like phantom limbs. It’s a good mental exercise. Then take it to the next step: use the empty pedestals to envision your own sculpture garden, imagining works that could go on them, whether they be works you know or works you’ve made (give yourself an ego boost by seeing your art in Storm King), or even works you devise out of your own creative wisps as you stand and peer at the pedestals. And, for that moment, in that very site-specific magical moment, when site impacts you and you create art, you have an essential arslocii experience that is not only wonderful and ephemeral, but entirely personal – and, yet, no less valid or “real” than if the solid pieces were standing there before you. So much of the appreciation of art is what we make of it, our “take,” the intellectual and emotional resonances, the inner gong we strike; so why should imaginary artworks, utilizing the site and your brain, have less personal impact? They don’t extend beyond you … but, then, what does?

And, then, consider the concrete pads themselves, without any whole-cloth addenda. Fanned out across the ground, low to it, quietly making their presence known, they seemed like an artwork in and of themselves: physical, minimalist in the sense of a Donald Judd or even a Serra, as well as conceptual – a piece playing with the idea of pedestals without art, engaging us with the absurdity and opportunity to imagine. Believe me, we have seen worse things that call themselves art by big names who call themselves artists in places that call themselves art collections.

We’re not saying here that anything can be art – it can’t, although some might disagree – but that sometimes the art need not be present to appreciate and perceive the placeness inherent in an art place, and that sometimes the littlest things can be art, even unintentionally, and that when art is the thing under discussion, you the observer are in the driver’s seat. When they take in the David Smiths, it doesn’t mean that they’ve taken in your senses.

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