The New Year

Pam’s Pictorama Post: I admit when the New York Times posed the question of if we were indeed not just starting a New Year, but perhaps a whole new decade I was a tad overwhelmed. Suddenly the teens have slipped away and we are launching ourselves into the ’20’s. How on earth did that happen? It was a busy decade – in fact it was a busy year – and it is almost hard to look at the stretch from where we started to where we ended and consider it all of a piece.

I start by sharing a New Year’s card today which I have purchased, but will not reach my mailbox until later in January. (Technically this bends if not actually breaks a Pictorama rule about having items in hand when I write about them, but we know about rules and how they are made to be broken. I claim that privilege today.) I love this somewhat ambiguous image of one cat welcoming the other two, senior and youngster into the New Year, gesturing to the road, a mysterious half-smile on his face. The scene is a snowy one, but the path is clear. The elder cat seems to be saying, “Oh yes, let’s head on into this year!” (Not sure why this is Bonne Annéel rather than Bonne Année. Please feel free to enlighten me if you know or get the reference.)

The French can be depended on for New Year’s cards and I believe the art on this postcard is by Maurice Boulanger – a French artist for whom there doesn’t seem to be much biographical information.  Boulanger’s cards were being produced as early as 1903 – or at least there are some postmarked that early according to one website I found which attempts to catalogue the several hundred cards that were produced. (The postmark on this one is obscured, shown below, addressed in this beautiful neat hand.) Working during the same time as Louis Wain and clearly influenced by him – his cats seem to belong to, if not the same universe, certainly a neighboring one of slightly more sane felines. This card is not signed by Boulanger, but certainly seems to emerge from his stable of kitties.

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Highlights of this decade for me include this blog which came into existence around the halfway mark of the decade, August of 2014. In the wee hours today Pictorama hit 125 subscribed readers – thank you readers! (And a special hello to new subscriber, Ver It’s Peculiar.) I never seem to have the right moment to thank you all for signing up; please know that I am always encouraged by it. A new reader is the very most cheerful thing to discover attached to a ping! on my iPad. For those of you who have meandered around the archive you know that there are more than 600 posts, virtually every Saturday and Sunday. Many of you show up directly from Facebook, Instagram and Twitter as well and your interest is no less appreciated!

One of the most significant changes during this decade is that back in 2010 I was still working at the Metropolitan Museum, leaving the Museum wasn’t even a gleam in my eye. 2017 saw that surprising change after thirty years, when I moved to Jazz at Lincoln Center to continue fundraising but overseeing it. I write about Jazz more than I did the Met. Working at the Met after so many years was like breathing – it was hard to take a step back until after I left. They were family to me however and always will be. (My post about leaving the Met can be found here and some of my posts about my work with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra can be found here and here.) They too have become family – I find that Kim and I have been slowly absorbed into that, albeit very different, clan.

Most notably, I lost Dad in the latter part of this decade, having lost my sister Loren in the previous one. The loss of loved ones creates its own relative time – all time gets divided into before and after. (I wrote about my last days with Dad here and a bit about my sister here.) Those are the markers that live large in our mind’s eye.

Meanwhile, a look back on posts of 2019 reminds me that this year kicked off with recreating my grandmother’s Poor Man’s Cake (I’m sort of itching to make it again – perhaps it is to be a New Year’s tradition for me – yum, that post is here), covered authors Edna Ferber to my continuing obsession with the ever prolific Frances Hodgson Burnett. (Too many posts for me to list for those!) Work took me to the west coast (post here), Johannesburg (here) and most recently, Wisconsin (here). We started renovation on the apartment (too many of those posts to list as well), and best of all Kim’s book Reincarnation Stories was published in October. (Today it is on the Best Comics of 2019 list published in the New York Times Book Review. At the time I write this it can be found here.) I wrote my own two-part, very biased wifely review of Kim’s book which can be found here and here. Some posts this year were good and were well received, some less so. Thank you to those of you who continue to read regardless.

Looking forward is more important than looking back and in that vein Kim is hard at work on his next book, How to Make Comics, even as he continues to do appearances for Reincarnation Stories. I am not really a hardcore resolution maker, but it is my hope and plan to continue, and complete, the work in the apartment, fulfilling a dream of creating a wall of built-in bookcases for increased storage.

I would like to travel a little less for work, but I am not entirely sure that is an attainable goal as I already know I will be in London and Paris with the orchestra in the spring, and maybe Florida and maybe a trip back to Madison, Wisconsin also loom this winter. I would also like to take more time for myself – spend more time with Kim and my mom, get back to a more orderly exercise routine. (I have never written about how beloved my exercise routine is to me, but it definitely keeps me sane as well as fit.) This job seems to require endless time so that will be among the challenges of 2020.

So, for now, a toast of the writerly glass to you all, and my Bonne Année wishes to all for 2020. See you on the other side!

 

 

 

 

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Pam’s Pictorama Post: Very few people know this about me, but I am an absolutely sucker for cabinets and boxes. They are like catnip to me. I have always had a weakness for them. As a child it manifest itself mostly in the collection of boxes (wood preferred, in fact treasured), but I remember the acquisition of a grandfather clock case turned cabinet from my grandparents house considered a prize possession.

It stands in my apartment today, next to the front door, hosting an assortment of items including but not limited to: video tapes, dime novels, early film magazines, comics and Kim’s Eisner award. Perched (piled really) atop it are an Art Deco coffee service and two not-quite-functioning Felix clocks. (The photos included here are an unintentional view into the gentle chaos of Deitch Studio.)

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However, my feeling about smaller cabinets is a bit like some people saying there are no calories in what you eat standing up. In my mind, it is always fine to buy cabinets and boxes because they are storage – therefore the issue of space does not come into it for me. (Incidentally, I always find them to be affordable as well. Such practical items, after all…)

I have several cabinets I could write about – an absolutely lovely mirrored one on a shelf at the foot of our bed. I found it for just a few dollars at a street fair right after spotting the same one in a store that was beyond my means; then there is an Art Deco three drawer mirrored one. I cannot allow myself to look at them on ebay as a rule or we would quickly be backed out of the apartment. Those darling little white medical antique cases, cunning wooden cabinets with myriad drawers that come from stores – I would have them all in multiple. If we had a house it would be another matter, but in our one room it is an addiction I need to keep under control.

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I have an equal passion for wooden boxes and small piles of them can be found around the apartment. This wonderful recent addition was made by Kim’s brother Seth and sent to me. A nicely Felix-y one shown below.

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Wonderful cabinet finds are still, blissfully, bound to slip in occasionally as did this lovely one Kim bought me as an anniversary gift earlier this fall. We were making what may have been our final visit to Obscura Antiques and Oddities in the East Village when I spotted it and we scooped it up. (I will miss that store so much when it closes in the next month or so. I wrote about that visit in a post that can be found here.) It has yet to find its permanent place of honor in our apartment – in part because temporarily perched on my drawing table the light hitting the wavy old glass and reflecting on the old mirror in back is so nice. I have yet to find an equally well lit corner for it.

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The mirrored back of this cabinet has a nifty little door that opens to place the treasured items appropriately on display. Obviously part of the appeal of display cabinets for me is a place to hold my treasured booty – odds and ends acquired and in need of a home where they are safe from prying paws and dust, but on display. I am still in the fantasizing stage about what will find a home in this one. Perhaps some things yet to be acquired even? I promise an update post when it has found its permanent home and is filled with Pictorama finds and goodies.

 

 

We Are Very Comfortable

Pam’s Pictorama Photo Post: Much like yesterday’s toy post, full access to my stuff has allowed for the first photo postcard post in quite awhile. For all of that this is a fairly recent purchase from ebay and it just entertained me. Cats lined up, each a variation on a striped tabby design, displaying varying degrees of contentedness on some sort of fur declaring, We are very comfortable in Colo. 

I will start by noting that the only time I have seen a cat encounter real fur was decades ago when an elderly friend wore a fur coat (equally elderly) to my apartment. My cat Otto made it clear that shredding that coat was now her new found life’s ambition. Ultimately the coat had to be closed in another room, protected from her mania, but I have never forgotten her enthusiastic reaction.

The card appears to have been made in the early somewhat homemade process where a stencil was applied for the shape of the image and the lettering done by hand. I assume it was produced on a small scale – wouldn’t make sense for it to have been a one-off. It was never mailed, nor is there any writing on it. I guess this was for the vacationer who wasn’t willing to commit to having a great time or wishing you were here. Were they available for sale, a small stack of them, at a homely hotel somewhere there?

Today I am packing (warm clothing) for a quick trip to Milwaukee this week. I wrote about another trip to Madison recently (available here), and the opportunity to travel through parts of this country that I have never visited before is one of the aspects of my job, following the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra to strategic points on their tours. This is our Big Band Holiday tour, a favorite everywhere it goes, which will wend its way to Manhattan in about a week. I am so pleased that almost a hundred friends will join us for the concert followed by a reception. (My first shot at this tour was on the road by bus with the band through the Southeast and you can read about it here.)

Colorado is a state I have never explored – only changed planes in Denver. I have agreed to speak at an event there in August so I will see Denver then. This kind of travel brings my father to mind. His job as a camera man for ABC News meant driving across the country, up and down and across constantly in the early years of his job. (Over time local news bureaus shared more of their own coverage with the national affiliate and there was less of this domestic travel and more international and confined to the East coast.)

Like Wynton and the orchestra Dad drove or rode, in his case equipment loaded into a car or SUV rather than a bus, three or four person crew crammed in. Dad did a lot of the driving, in retrospect I am not sure why except it didn’t bother him to drive; he probably preferred it. Long rides in cars, not to mention heavy camera equipment and his height, eventually contributed to a long-life struggle with back problems and in later years his car was littered with back cushions and devices. Dad liked to eat good food and he could suggest restaurants in locations all over the country, from Newark to Pittsburgh, to St. Louis. He remembered them all – and remembered those places where none could be found.

So today I will pack my bag; I suspect it is never as spare and economic as his. (But in fairness he wasn’t a woman who will host events over the entire course of his visit.) And I will wonder if there is a restaurant in Milwaukee that has been there for decades that I really should be trying.

 

Luchs Messbecher Beer

Pam’s Pictorama Post: Returning to the world of fascinating objects today, I offer this item which has graced the top of my refrigerator more or less as long as I can remember. It was purchased at a street fair for a few dollars in the early years of the 1990’s and has been charged first with holding loose change and in more recent years, the card we now use for laundry. It has long held a special perch on the top of the refrigerator where its cheerful striped pattern and black cat face greet us daily.

In retrospect it is not surprising that a street fair in Yorkville would produce such an item. To some degree it has mystified me – a tin beaker with beer advertising on the outside and what appears to be dry and wet measure indications on the inside. At a casual glance you might think these were cocktail recipes, but closer inspection makes that seem unlikely since indicators are for things like butter, sugar and cocoa.

Research reveals that this was a ubiquitous implement in German and German American kitchens. Evidently traditional German cooking measure is done by weight and therefore this cup expedited simple measuring, a shortcut for daily baking needs which otherwise would require taking out a scale. Strangely, for something so popular and therefore still widely available, some relatively simple questions are not easily answered. Why and how did a beer company end up producing this household device staple and what years was it produced? I have found no answers to these questions, nor have I found out much about the beer company which made it.

When I purchased it I thought it was pre-War German and while there is some speculation dating it there among online sellers, I am less convinced of that now. Dates by some sites are given as late as the 1950’s. My feeling is the 1940’s seems likely. There are shinier examples online, as below, and even a sort of zippy red version.

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Emptied from its depths I disgorged: various loose change (38 cents in US pennies, a 5 Kuna coin from Croatia, and 60 cents in Canadian change); 3 NYC subway tokens of the last variety before they did away with them (the ones with house-shaped holes in the middle); the aforementioned laundry card and doppelganger laundry cards that might or might not work any longer, and may or may not have money on them; an elderly purple vial of Rhus Toxicodendron (homeopathic remedy made from the poison ivy plant); a device that is to be used to unscrew/tightening the screws of the futon frame we sleep on (I’d frankly forgotten this entirely and gone out and purchased another several years ago); and lastly a box of straight edge razors. I went through a phase of using these razors for all sorts of things which, in retrospect, seems cavalier or even a bit dangerous now. I was using them for drawings and I got used to having them around I guess.

The new refrigerator is higher and more narrow than those of years past and some large pans have already been assigned to that venue. However, I think I can find just enough space to fit the Messbecher beaker back in its place of honor.

 

Smooth as Glass Savings

Pam’s Pictorama Post: Today isn’t quite a toy post, but I guess we could label it a premium post, which is a genre I explore not infrequently, usually in my quest for interesting cat related items. (A favorite post about Corbin pin trays depicting cat heads can be found here, and the more recent acquisition of my Feed the Kitty bank here.)

This little bank was acquired last weekend on what may be our final trip to the store Obscura Antiques and Oddities in the East Village. I was sad to learn recently that they will be closing at the end of the year, a fact I discovered via Instagram where a parade of visitors are paying their final respects and posting them. Evidently it is more a decision about wanting to do something different than about raising rents, but I was very sorry to see this as I have made it my premium choice for expeditions celebrating my birthday or our anniversary annually. A truly great day is pairing a visit there up with a trip to the The Antique Toy Shop in Chelsea. (Some of my other adventures and acquisitions at these establishments can be found in prior post here , here and here.)

It is a bit boring to bemoan how all the interesting places for poking around in old stuff are disappearing. It is just a reality of the way we live, especially in fast moving Manhattan where things seem to come in go with an alarming rapidity. But it saddens me, as poking through the detritus of lives past is one of my great joys. However, I try to be philosophical about the general entropy of retail in Manhattan.

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Obscura Antiques and Oddities in the East Village when we visited last week. I really wish I had room for Mr. Peanut.

 

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Paper Mache mask at Obscura recently.

 

On our recent visit Kim purchased this little bank and a lovely little cabinet for me (future post) as an anniversary gift. I am just charmed by it and I immediately imagined stuffing it full of change as a child – and then being faced with the quandary of retrieving the coins as there seems to be no obvious option for cashing in. There is a seam running down it, and in the case of mine there is a crack near it which makes me wonder if someone didn’t break it in an attempt to open it at the seam. I suppose the purpose of piggy banks was saving, but I have never approved of the idea that you should have to break your beloved piggy bank in order to eventually realize your savings. It seems cruel.

My own experience with piggy banks starts with a nice pig model decorated with painted pink roses. The one below is not the one I had, but puts me reasonably in mind of it.

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I also had a Snoopy one that, given the evidence and availability on the internet of the model I called mine, every child of my generation must have owned at one time. My memory was that it was actually a bit fragile and made of some paper mache material so I did not keep change in it. It was beloved though and I owned it for a very long time. I don’t think I kept money in the pig either – although both had rubber handy plugs in the bottom for releasing the change. No smashing my pig!

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As it happens I instead kept my savings in a small safe made for that purpose. It had a combination lock (with the combination written on a tag the bottom as I remember, defeating the purpose but preventing the obvious problem) and it held a lot of coins, and then it weighed a ton. My sister and I each had one, and although I kept mine for more than a decade I could not tell you what happened to it ultimately. Somehow it and the change in it were lost to the sands of time. The one below, available on Etsy, is pretty much spot on the one I owned. It is a kick to see it again.

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Meanwhile, Pittsburgh Paint was a small Pennsylvania paint company which was acquired by a glass corporation back in 1900. Therefore the slogan smooth as glass and the glass bank premium make total sense and a slogan still associated with them today. (On the reverse side of the bank it also states, Nature’s Colors in Lasting Beauty, a poetic thought.) The paint brand is still very available and the company has become one of the world’s largest corporations, PPG. I am not in a position to comment on quality of their paint except to say that my own kitchen was recently painted with Benjamin Moore and in all fairness, I had not considered Pittsburgh.

The prevalence of contemporary piggy banks found during my online search makes me assume that children are still given them with the intention of instilling a sense of thrift and savings. In a world where, according to Google, the average price of a Hershey bar is $1.60 and a comic book almost $3, kids either need larger piggy banks or to replenish them quickly. I know nothing of the economy of childhood today, but assume it involves as more folding money than coins. In a sense this is too bad as coins were nice objects to collect and own, although folding money seemed downright exotic when I was a kid.

On Stuff

Pam’s Pictorama Post: As we remain packed (and dusty) during our renovation stint I find myself reluctant to go digging among my collections so today I am reflecting on that which I have recently packed up in the process. Life in our apartment is about maintaining status quo right now, with hopes of all returning to its rightful place in about ten days. The process of packing up was by necessity much quicker than I would have liked (tucked in after the window replacement packing and unpacking a few days prior) and unfortunately the thinning out of unnecessary items will have to occur on the unpacking side.

As I have opined – it is a very small kitchen and in general a compact, tiny really, apartment. Having said that I was amazed by how much I had managed to store in the kitchen cabinets. Like a clown car at the circus, it just kept coming and filling more (and yet more) boxes. I had honestly thought I could pack the kitchen in two hours and instead found myself searching frantically for additional boxes and packing well into the night. Boxes were piled higher and claimed more space in the living room until there was only a path through it.

What I found interesting was that in some ways it was like excavating through the layers of my life back to my much younger self, setting up my first apartment in New York City. As I measure the reality of my life against the sort of adult existence I imagined for myself, the difference can be divined through dishes rarely or never used.

I was launched from my home in New Jersey with access to generations of dishes and a certain wonderful excess of antique furniture. (As a result I have a truly unusual number of antique rocking chairs in a very small space, but we’ll discuss my family’s mania for chairs another time.) As I packed up wine decanters and covered serving dishes well into that evening I realized I had envisioned a life where I would entertain more, one where I would actually cook. I was unable to peer into a future where at most we would grab some pizza or take-out from the Mexican place across the street (run by a Korean family which makes for not quite authentic, but perfectly satisfying cuisine), move some piles of books and call it a meal.

In addition to the aforementioned decanters and covered dishes, I am in possession of a full set of sterling silver – I think it is service for at least eight. I had tucked away serving bowls, luncheon plates and some fairly esoteric baking devices such as a gram scale, which had not seen the light of day in decades. I will certainly send much of this on its way to a thrift store in hopes that it finds a home where it is trotted out and used more frequently and I am touched in some ways with gratitude that I was launched into adulthood with such largess. Nonetheless, I am also confronted with a ghost memory of a younger me, imaging a different sort of future where I would cook and bake and have a need for serving dishes. One that has never really reached fruition.

It isn’t like I have never cooked for friends, although admittedly it has not happened in recent years. I am a good cook – professionally trained as I thought that was how I would make my living at one time. It is a muscle I rarely exercise beyond weekend meals for Kim and I however and those more about dietary exactitude and convenience than creative cooking endeavors. (However, Pictorama readers might remember when I was seized with a desire for my grandmother’s poor man’s cake over the holidays last year and I recreated it with the help of the internet. I posted about it here. Incidentally I found the Pyrex baking dishes I knew I owned and could not find and which I ultimately replaced with a purchase from ebay.)

In part it isn’t just me but the world that has changed and I dare say there aren’t many people in New York apartments who are making much use of decanters or cake plates these days, even in larger abodes. Perhaps it happens in the houses in other parts of the country where HDTV home renovation television thrives – but even there the days of formal dining rooms seem to have faded away.

The question remains, how much of this will I keep out of a sense of nostalgia and perhaps promise. By this I mean, will our entirely new kitchen mean a renaissance of baking and cooking? It seems unlikely given my current job and priorities. Still, with the holidays on the horizon there is an itch for another poor man’s cake and perhaps even some of my grandmother’s spice cookies if I can locate the recipe.

Joyeux Anniversaire: an Anniversary Ode to Kim

Pam’s Pictorama Post: For those of you who are wondering where all the photos have gone I assure you that I am storing up a few that are slowing coming in by mail. Much like the Felix fiesta of a few weeks ago, a photo phase is in our near future. However, today following on yesterday’s whining about our apartment woes, I am scribbling an anniversary ode to Kim – tomorrow is the day. (Surprise Kim!)

While at the moment we find ourselves largely devoted to the more ho hum aspects of our lives – packing for the window replacement, doctor’s appointments, a loaf bread gone unexpectedly moldy, and Cookie stealing Blackie’s favorite sleeping spot (Blackie is pacing the apartment grumbling as a result), our 19 years rates some ballyhoo I think despite the fact that we rarely put much into celebration of the day. (Also of note, come November we will have met 25 years ago and have lived together for most of that time. Sometimes we seem to focus more on that anniversary than the day we actually got hitched.)

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Bronze cat based on Benin design and perched on local fabric, all brought back from South Africa

 

One’s 19th anniversary is evidently the bronze anniversary, symbolizing stability and health within the union, reflecting the way the couple have supported each other through challenges and obstacles, according to our friends at Google. (Kim, a heads up that your favorite metal, copper, doesn’t come up until our 21st.) Having just purchased a bronze cat (which is perhaps the only bit of bronze we own) we will attribute it to the anniversary granting me credit where it is perhaps not due as I only looked that up this morning. Meanwhile, I tend to agree with Google – the 19th seems like a moment to raise your head up and acknowledge that the corporation is running just fine and to take a moment to give a nod to the Board of Directors. Yay us!

I think the best tribute I can give to our union is that when I congratulate people on getting engaged I tell them all that I wish that they will be as happy with the decision as I am and I mean it very literally. Quite simply, it is the best decision I have ever made and it was not one I arrived at easily either. I still marvel at the workings of the machine that is marriage, and I am the first to say it seems to be tricky business – to the extent one can claim to get it right.

Putting romance aside for the moment, I think of it more like a corporation. Your spouse is your teammate on all the things to come every single day, as long as you are together. (Not to mention that your lives will be one long continuous conversation – people should consider that when picking out a spouse. I beg people to consider this and make sure they are really interesting.) That covers a heck of a lot – everything from career decisions, to leaky faucets, to which side to support in the coup d’etat of the co-op board. It is damn hard to find the right person to partner with in all of what life throws at us so I don’t blame my younger self for questioning if I was up to the task of finding one.

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However, in Mr. Deitch I am pleased to report that I find the best yang to my yin. Where he is fuzzy I am on point, where I have moments of panic he remains calm. He is dreamier and I am more concrete. This puts us in charge of different segments of the corporation, Deitch Studio if you will, but doesn’t mean that one doesn’t inform the other. Kim’s right there when I make career decisions and I make my nascent contributions to Kim’s comics world.

Meanwhile, the world of Deitch comics is pretty much one you enter into when you walk through the door of Apartment 16D here on 86th and York Avenue. As a mega-Deitch fan I enthusiastically embraced being a card carrying member of that world immediately when Kim and I first started living together and my appreciation has only grown. It is an interesting and delightful (if occasionally dark) place – and there is nowhere I would rather reside. Somehow we still manage the day-to-day of bill paying, grocery shopping, long work days, and periodic separations such as my recent trip to South Africa for work, while keeping one foot happily in the realm of Deitchiana.

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Reincarnation Stories hits the stands the day after our anniversary! Lucky me, my comic book avatar makes numerous appearances.

 

We rarely actually fight, but do disagree and snipe as people will – especially perhaps people who live together in a very small space. And only being human we nurse our gripes and allow them to fester until they take on velocity and grow to unwarranted proportions upon which a periodic reckoning takes place. This is always very painful as ultimately we are each other’s best friend and to be on the outs with each other is really being out of sorts with yourself.

So today I raise my metaphorical glass to my mate and wish us many more decades ahead. One cannot know where time and life will take us and how we will respond, but it is my fervent wish that I am penning much the same sentiments for years to come. For now a tip of the hat to the first nineteen years.

Johannesburg

Pam’s Pictorama Post: Yesterday’s post poked around a bit at some of my underlying thoughts about heading off to South Africa for a week of work around the Joy of Jazz festival. My internal resistance to the trip pointed to something more than the inconvenient travel. Nonetheless, I hopped on a plane for upwards of 15 hours, and only after only a bit of intermittent sleep I found myself on the other side of the planet where I stumbled off the plane and began my adventure. While I usually write more about myself when traveling Johannesburg was surprising enough as place that I am taking a departure to do a bit of an overview in this post today.

Those of you who are Pictorama readers already know I have traveled a fair amount with two trips to Tibet under my belt, Bhutan and a bit of Nepal along the way. (I had reason to examine those trips in a recent post about a trip to California which was somewhat disastrous in August. That post can be found here.) I did a brief turn in South America (Peru, Buenos Aires, Santiago) many years ago on my first trip representing the Metropolitan Museum. Shortly after taking the job with Jazz at Lincoln Center I had traveled to Shanghai. (That adventure was memorialized in my post which can be found here.) Mostly I note this because I have traveled a fair amount for comparison. To my surprise, Johannesburg is not the Third World, but neither is it the First and I will write more about that below.

I had not really considered what I would find when I got to Johannesburg and frankly there were things that surprised me. On a very basic level, I had not realized that Johannesburg is at an altitude of almost 6000 feet. While that wasn’t really high enough for altitude sickness (Lhasa for example is almost 12,000) the first time I went to run up a flight of stairs I couldn’t catch my breath. It is indeed high enough to get winded with exertion and perhaps to make me a bit dumber than usual – not good when you are trying to work in a foreign country!

It is extremely dry which I had considered (no umbrella in my suitcase, lots of moisturizer), but I was surprised that instead of desert vegetation there were deciduous trees (leafy) and even some evergreens, although also the occasional cactus. It was spring there (the seasons are opposite from ours) and we saw an abundance of beautiful flowering trees at the height of their bloom. It was one of the nicest aspects of the trip, the smells of these flowering trees (beautiful purple jacarandas) and other plants as well as seeing them in flower. At unexpected times I would wonder at what I was smelling and ask what it was. Generally people just looked at me like I was nuts – clearly enough of their day to day that they don’t think about it and no one could ever tell me what plant I was smelling. Giant aloe plants also seem to grow wild and at one point I am fairly sure I was enjoying wild jasmine when outside taking a break at the Apartheid Museum.

The food was simply amazing everywhere we went – much of it South African, but with an especially memorable Portuguese meal tucked in there. While, by nature of my business, many of my meals were in fine restaurants, even the more modest meals were notable. I was concerned that as a pescatarian my options would be limited, but there was a remarkable profundity of excellent fish and vegetables while meat of all kinds was indeed in abundance. The extreme spiciness which I experienced that time in London was evident – although the hot spices were full bodied and nuanced, not just a matter of blowing your head off. Many of the upscale restaurants based their menus on either traditional South African or pan African cuisine. Several meals will live in food memory.

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Lunch at a cafe in Soweto.

 

The extreme dryness however surprised me by making me cough and, perhaps along with the altitude, caused my nose to ooze bloody congestion endlessly throughout the trip – which I gather is not unusual for visitors and tormented me, waking me occasionally despite exhausted sleep. I battled these issues by drinking what must have been gallons of water. Although some of my colleagues drank the tap water I never do in foreign countries (it may be safe, but that doesn’t mean I want to take the time for my stomach to adjust to it) so I felt responsible for a vast number of plastic bottles which will need to be recycled. (I did spy a staff person at the hotel carrying out those bottles in a bag almost as large as himself.)

As I mentioned above Johannesburg defied category of First or Third World so I Googled it out of curiosity and discovered that it is indeed in a somewhat new category of Second World. We drove to Soweto for a Jazz for Young People concert and on that drive there was poverty not unlike what you see in Nepal or India – shanty towns, vast areas of trash. There are people begging, although my experience was that it was mostly at traffic intersections and of course you see that (to a lesser degree) when you enter Manhattan via the Holland Tunnel. I was told that these were largely immigrants from the neighboring Zimbabwe who came to South Africa starving and looking for work. (Their immigration is controversial there.) Much of where we spent our time was like any cosmopolitan city however. We could have been any number of generic urban places. Joburg was a strange mix of things and in the end not quite like any place I have been.

 

It is no secret that parts of Johannesburg are dangerous and women in particular are told to be very careful. Night travel in particular seems to be considered carefully. As a result, and because I worked almost every waking hour I was there, I did not attempt to go anywhere alone which was unusual for me as well.  We saw some wealthy enclaves with walls around them which reminded me of Lima, although I didn’t see many individual homes this way – mostly sort of gated communities. When being driven to the north and the Apartheid Museum on the one morning we had to ourselves, our driver gave us a most interesting impromptu tour. He began by discussing the immigration issue – in his opinion the people from Zimbabwe had a right to come looking for a better life as had generations who had migrated to Johannesburg in prior decades. This is clearly a controversial issue there.

As we drove down a highway that could have been I-95 in Connecticut, I was fascinated when he pointed out a developed area of high rise buildings (could have been Stamford) and said that it had once been the heart of Johannesburg, but as the commerce moved to Sandton (the area we were staying in) this area had become desolate, deserted and ultimately unsafe. All the buildings we saw were now in disuse and inhabited by the aforementioned immigrant population. He pointed out a brick building that had been the stock exchange, a high rise hotel and said they were empty now and had been for years despite periodic attempts at urban renewal. (As Kim said, it begs to be the beginning to a story.) Further out he motioned to mountains covered in yellow sand that contained the famous (infamous) gold mines which were responsible for the creation of Johannesburg and said the mines of platinum and diamonds were further to the north.

Later that day we found ourselves at what was called a craft market which appeared to be the prescribed place to buy our tourist bits and pieces in a sort of one-stop shopping. Despite (or perhaps due to) my travels in Asia I have never been good at bartering. I might occasionally offer someone less for something, but that sort of expected to and fro has never been my strong suit. Therefore I was hesitant to even begin the game.

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Eventually I put my toe in the water with this cat figure which I gather is a leopard (their version of the king of the forest) and based on Benin bronzes. The seller had a few versions that were larger than my real life kits Cookie and Blackie and weighed five times what they do. He tried to tempt me with one of these, assuring me that he could ship it. (I didn’t think I could make him understand that I lived in one room in New York City with a husband, two cats and a heck of a lot of stuff already which made the size undesirable. I was the only person visiting the Mandela three room house in Soweto and thinking that the space was pretty good and about a third larger than our apartment.)

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Side entrance Mandela house museum in Soweto.

 

The seller then set his sights on selling me a pair of leopards – how lonely one cat would be without the other! I assured him that it was going to a destination with many, many more cat friends than he could imagine. We finally arrived at a price for the single cat and I dashed away while he shouted after me that the other cat would be waiting. I found a quiet corner where I purchased some fabrics made in traditional patterns and with vegetable dyes that would become gifts.

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Craft market from my bench perch, resting!

 

I chose one among a myriad of beaded elephants for Kim who spent several months drawing elephants earlier this year – trunk up for good luck. Lastly I added these few birds below and a couple of beaded bowls and then found a bench to rest on while my colleagues finished their shopping. Several members of the orchestra were also there and we compared acquisitions as we planned a route back to the hotel. Whew!

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We were to travel home on Sunday and the orchestra had been invited on a tour of a lion park early in the day so my colleagues and I joined the group. While it turned out to be a glorified zoo (which reminded me remarkably of my childhood trip to a then spanking new Great Adventure park in South Jersey which ran more to baboons than lions) it was interesting to finally get out of the city and see the non-urban landscape.

 

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Petting zoo where this cub uses a tree as a scratching post.

 

Working in another country (even out of state domestically) is always hard – event planning is most easily and successfully done when you can eliminate the unknowns and nothing is known to you in a foreign place. Therefore, this was a long and difficult trip (two seated dinners, welcome packages, a reception, a lunch, a lecture, four concerts – two which didn’t start until midnight – all tucked into five days) from a work perspective. Suffice it to say I had no trouble sleeping on the plane coming home.

However, when I consider what I actually thought of the country I am torn. South Africa, and perhaps especially Johannesburg, is earnest in its self-examination and forth coming about the issues and history they wrestle with which are real and difficult. The politics of their situation is well beyond my capacity to comment on in an intelligent way. However, I found the people of Johannesburg to generally be lovely and welcoming of us as visitors, but also well informed and involved in the continuing evolution of their city and their country.

Below is a few moments from our Jazz for Young People’s concert in Soweto which was so well received it ran over by more than half an hour as Wynton and the orchestra improvised for the appreciative audience of students. In the end I believe our music brought joy to all those who encountered it and in that way was indeed successful.

 

South Africa

Pam’s Pictorama Post: As I have occasionally done in the past, I write today from an airplane as I speed home (if a 15 and a half hour flight could be called speeding by the stretch of any imagination) from a far flung destination. I travel not infrequently for my job and this time it was to join the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in Johannesburg, South Africa for the Joy of Jazz festival.

While I mostly groused about the very long flight and the difficulty of leaving Manhattan in the fall, a very busy time for fundraising, the truth was I was extremely ambivalent about going. The history of the country, within my living memory, tainted it and I tried to unwrap my hesitancy and it wasn’t easy. I reached back my mind to the time I spent living in London when I was in college. I had made friend with a man who went by the name of Don Bay (his given name is Azad Bayramian) and who owned an African music distribution business, Stern’s. It was through him that I first heard High Life music.

 

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While it never quite established itself the way jazz ultimately did in my sensibility, I enjoyed it immensely. Don brought me to concerts – often outdoors in summer, going for hours over steamy British summer afternoons into evening and then into night, lines of dancing women in colorful, brightly patterned cotton outfits, the audience drinking, smoking and of course dancing, dancing and dancing. I was twenty-one and living on my own in a city for the first time and exploring every new thing that came my way and this was certainly far different from anything life in New Jersey or Connecticut had to offer. The music was a big part of it.

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The shop, which I believe is no longer there, as it looked when I lived in London.

 

In this way I also seriously contemplated the continent of Africa for the first time in my life. While the lure of India and Central Asia had ignited via studying the art in high school, I had never deeply considered Africa. For the first time I became curious about it in a real way and because of my friend Don I was meeting a never-ending stream of African musicians as they passed through London, playing gigs and promoting their music. I remember being told that at home in Africa they might fill a stadium with fans while playing more modest festivals, theaters and even clubs in London.

Meanwhile many would stay at Don’s house in Putney which always seemed to have a room enough for a few more people. Don and I both enjoyed cooking and we would make wild lavish meals and invite all sorts of people over for massive dinners and the musicians were frequently in attendance. However, they could often be found just as often, making themselves dinner or a coffee on a quiet evening.

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King Sunny Ade – I did meet him and loved his music, although he was too famous to join our gatherings in Putney.

 

On one occasion in particular I remember coming in just as one fellow, I do not remember his name, was just putting the finishing touches on his meal and he asked if I would like to join him. In the pan was a very small fish in a red sauce and a large pot of rice. I felt dubious about depriving him of any. However, he explained that the fish was so spicy I would only need a small amount to a large amount of rice. I can still remember it – the spice just about blew the top of my head off and it was great!

To be very honest, this was the first time in my life I met a large number of black people. It feels odd to say that but it is the truth. I had grown up in a very white town in a wealthy enclave in New Jersey. Quite simply it was extremely white. Our minorities, as such, were Jews and Catholics. (I lay claim to a fair portion of both but have come out looking sheer WASP – more about that another time.) It was the sort of town which would turn on its ear when one of its own football types dated a fellow student who was Asian and brought her to the country club. Now here I was living in a foreign country and meeting people from Africa. Amazing!

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I lived in the basement of the building on the far right and on the right side of the entry. It was much more run down back then!

 

During this time I dated any number of people – a random cross section of mostly British young men. One I discovered to be a heroin addict (fascinating and another first for me), another a very short good lucking man who was trying to break into modeling, but whose height barred him from success in this area. (Oddly he got one gig in a party scene for a liquor ad and I saw him plastered all of the tube for weeks.) He was a bit mean and we only went out a few times.

I don’t remember how I met David, probably at the coffee house I used to frequent for the only decent cup of coffee in all of London (a sort of a cappuccino – this was long before the Starbucks-a-fication of the world) and it was also an inexpensive warm perch on cold evenings when my flat was largely without heat. He was a white South African and that alone oozed romantic unknowns. Older than me by a few years and clearly more worldly, he was living in London in a sort of self imposed exile, north of where I lived, in what was at the time a somewhat suburban enclave.

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The Troubadour Coffee House pretty much as I remember it from the endless hours spent drinking coffee there. It is still in business although the owner, Bruce Rogerson who I knew well, died a number of years ago.

 

Opposed to Apartheid David had left South Africa without fulfilling his mandatory military commitment. He did not wish to fight on behalf of a country with politics he did not agree with, however his exile stung him and he opined on missing his homeland frequently. I did some reading up on Apartheid and I guess I couldn’t figure out why he’d want to go back to a country which sounded horrid to me – nor did exile in London sound especially bad. Admittedly, while very enamored of his exoticness, I was perhaps in my naiveté unfairly unsympathetic.

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Enlargement of an early pass carried by all individuals in South Africa under Apartheid – this is from the entrance to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg.

 

However, where I encountered my real nexus of confusion was around David’s discomfort with interacting with actual black people. (We never discussed other races and I have no knowledge of his thoughts about let’s say Asians although they certainly suffered under the rules of Apartheid as well, and I now wonder if his unease extended to them.) In retrospect, all these years later I want to hope I can have more compassion for someone who was struggling to find his way out of the dubious lessons he was raised with, even if unable to fully transcend that formative training. Despite an inclination to support a view that was different from he how was raised, his discomfort with people of different races mingling was extremely uncomfortable for him and I was simply flummoxed by his inability to accept.

Needless to say, my interactions with the musicians and my new found fascination with High Life music was an insurmountable issue for him – he was horrified – and our relationship never really got out of the gate. It wouldn’t have anyway – we did not have much in common other than my romantic fascination with the exotic and whatever it was about me that had a passing fancy for him. I was just sizing the whole world up at that point.

We parted genially, but it stayed with me and to some degree I wrestled with it all through the subsequent latter part of the 1980’s and early 90’s as the fight against Apartheid received more international attention. Along with AIDs it became the a central political issue of my young adulthood, although to be frank I have never been politically active. Oddly, he wrote me a letter when I was back in the United States. It didn’t really say much as I remember and I can’t imagine why he did; perhaps the encounter with me continued to nag at him. He still was in the no man’s land between England and South Africa. I wrote back and never heard from him again. I remember wondering later if he was ever able to return home.

In some ways all this to say, while there is no excusing prejudice and everything about Apartheid was heinous, looking back I think my youth made me self-righteous in a way that I understand now was simplistic. We all want to believe we are free of the tribalism of whatever clan we claim, but the reality is more tangled than that. Even with the best intentions I think in reality we have to struggle to understand the other guy – whoever that is at the time. I know that better now that I am a few decades down the line. And that truth is far more uncomfortable to live with, but more real.

My friend Don’s business interacted largely with Nigeria and Ghana as I remember, and there had been an opportunity to travel to Nigeria with him but I could not come up with the money. I regretted the missed chance for years – it would have been fascinating to travel that way and a great introduction to that country. Although Don and I stayed in touch for a long time (he was at our wedding – our 19th anniversary is coming up in a week or so), he stopped traveling to this country post 9/11, when his Iranian place of birth on his passport (he was a naturalized Iranian of Armenian descent and faced painful prejudice his entire life which is its own story) became an entry issue each time he attempted to enter into the country.

Stern’s shut down the New York office of the company in the early 2000’s. They also had a location in San Paolo, Brazil which I believe may still be in existence as well as an online presence. I am unclear if they have a retail outlet in London although the location I knew on Warren Street was sold and redeveloped. Don removed himself from the daily operations of the business in the early 2000’s and was spending part of each year in Thailand in semi-retirement.

All came slowly back to me as I tried to unpack my resistance to this trip, confronting my discomfort, as well as some anticipation about finally setting foot on the continent of Africa for the first time. I have already gone on too long for today and I will attempt to tie up the story about my trip tomorrow.

Smooth

Pam’s Pictorama Post: I am writing this today, drafting it a few weeks in advance, with the intention of sharing it with you all as I sit endlessly idle on a plane heading for a stint with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in Johannesburg, South Africa. While that 15 or so hour flight might provide me with some blog scribbling time, posting from an airplane is more than my experience with shoddy internet leads me to believe I should endeavor to do. So instead, I write in late August, knowing that the few short weeks until my departure will dissolve before my eyes as soon as I am back to work after Labor Day.

The specter of long distance travel and time away from home has me pondering, among other things, the interruption of my daily intake of green smoothies. Upwards of five or six years ago my mother became a green smoothie enthusiast. She began extolling their virtues and since she is a vegan this was not especially surprising. I took note but did not feel compelled to follow her down this path – that is until she sent me a book about them and a blender. I did feel that if someone goes to the trouble of sending you a blender (and a book) the least you can do is give something like green smoothies a try. So I did.

To my surprise I not only liked them, but attributed some things like a boost in energy and better sleep to a daily dose of them almost immediately. In turn, I quickly converted Kim. (Kim is never one to ignore a health improving opportunity – he is extremely open to these self-improvement paths I head down and has, most notably, followed me into yoga and more recently working out with my trainer, Harris. One day Harris will get his own post.)

My smoothie recipe contains mostly greens (bok choy, salad greens, chard, sometimes broccoli but excluding kale – which makes my tummy hurt – skirting all the heavy greens like spinach which Kim’s body takes exception with) and in my case topped off with a half a banana, a couple of strawberries. At some point I added gogi berries (as someone who is always looking for a shot in the arm for my liver which is inclined to be sad about some mediation I take) and there the recipe, give or take, stands to date.

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Kim is all-green for his, eschewing fruit entirely and being very virtuous. At some point, after several years, my place at the helm of smoothie making was handed over to Kim who makes them on a more dependable schedule than I do – two, made every other day and providing a daily dose. He does a splendid job.

I have illustrated today’s post with a photo from a site call cookingclassy.com and chose it for its shade of green, a good approximation of the one I drink. The lurid color is, for me, part of the appeal.

Until my vacation this year I had avoided fruit smoothies entirely. I found myself with a meagre handful of strawberries and two very small and over-ripe nectarines that needed a plan however. I whipped out a container of yogurt, added a touch of milk and the fruit and wowza! I was in love! I have subsequently replaced that bit of milk with water to much the same effect. While it can be a pow-o sort of amount of fruit one can keep it to a reasonable amount and still have a lovely treat. (It is, I should note, a rather electric pink which is quite cheerful as well.)

Our devotion to smoothies has turned us into blender experts. We generally burn the motor out on a blender in the 18-24 month (on average) period. For a very long time I had Oster blenders and was able to acquire replacement parts for everything but the motor. Therefore, with replacement carafes, blades, etc. I was able to extend the life of one or two blenders across several years. After that came a series of Cuisinart ones – meh. Bad designs that made leaking possible and ended with a recent catastrophe of smoothie spillage. (It should be noted that green smoothie is hard to clean up and stains tenaciously. Rinse glasses and carafe from blender immediately. This goes for teeth too – my dentist does not love them.) So committed am I that we generally keep a spare blender in anticipation of breakage. We try never to be without.

This brings me back, alas, to travel. On my longer trips I find myself missing my daily smoothie. Some upscale hotels, especially in Los Angeles although one memorable hotel with a spa in Florida, have come through with credible replacements for my smoothie. They tend to use apple instead of banana (I like the texture of banana as well as the taste, but nothing against apples – my mother’s go-to fruit for them.) Generally speaking however, my trips are smoothie droughts. Like many other daily aspects of home which I will miss (Kim, cat petting) smoothies are generally a casualty of my business travel. I have no particular reason to think South Africa will prove differently, although you never know.