Archive for the Art Category

Day 44: “Native Ingredients” or How I Learned How to Cook at 22 is BTS

Posted in Art, Dining, People with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 12, 2008 by Vince

 

Early mornings on Saturdays are sacrosanct for a 22-year-old, too precious to be spent on overrated, grown-up things like actually waking up and getting the day started. Thus, it was a little challenging to get around my cognitive dissonance about being up and about at seven on that balmy morning in late August. I was hoping to keep the noise down while setting up the pan, ladle and cooking oil in my tiny kitchen. But, as I’ve come to learn in the past week, the acoustics of New York City walls can amplify incriminating sounds and rustlings that it was a feat to keep my roommate from catching me, in a manner of speaking, with my pans down.

In a few minutes, my mom would give me a call from Cebu City (my hometown and the oldest city in the Philippines), where it’s just past dinnertime, and dictate the recipe of pork asado (pork roast) which, if things turn out as planned, would be the first proper dish I’ve cooked in my life. This sudden affinity for the culinary arts, though, is more akin to a shotgun wedding than a long and steady courtship. Since arriving in the Big Apple two weeks prior, the shameless ubiquity of burgers, fries and salads and the realization that rice was not the staple food this side of Sex and The City left me panicked. The sight of a McDonald’s outlet, until then an insufferable yet perversely endearing blight that was the punchline of “Super Size Me”, has begun to acquire a menace that rattled the core of my well-being. Something had to be done, and fast. 

If the morning’s cooking shebang was the wedding ceremony, then the call from my mother would be the exchange of vows — or whichever part of the ceremony signifying that I was fully conscious of what I was marrying myself into but was still willing to go through it. A conversation which involves my mother telling me what to do is fodder for Chekhovian tragedies; what is otherwise a chitchat about eggplants, string beans and patola (sponge gourd) becomes a loaded setup of innuendos and lovelaced manipulations that would do the Russian master’s women proud. The list of ingredients and the steps involved in preparing pork asado are nothing remarkable but it’s a dish that my mom has put her distinctive – and sumptuous – stamp on that I couldn’t help feeling a little pressure.

I was famished and the desire to cook something the same way my mother would, a dish whose flavors were comfortable and familiar, was tempting. But I was halfway around the world from the kitchen I grew up in, so I doubt it would hurt if I put half a teaspoon more of salt and simmer a little longer than it takes for the meat to become tender, would it? The proposed variations were kept undercover and I kept my banter easy and agreeable to keep my mom off the scent. It was I, however, who could not resist the scent of the pork asado that I know – there could be only one – and as I prepared the meal amid the cacophony of clattering utensils, I ended up recalling flourishes my mom used to do in her own kitchen and got a little annoyed at myself for mimicking them, my minor culinary insurgencies all but forgotten. Half an hour later, I had my first real meal in weeks.

Bollywood Dreams, Salami Nightmares

The success of my initial attempt at pork asado (it was a bit on the salty side, but this I kept to myself) augured well for more adventures in the ktichen. While I signed up for the student meal program at NYU, breakfasting on the ham and cheese omelets that the burly Dominican server whips up as briskly and adroitly as any halal food cart attendant and lunching on pasta marinara or alfredo, my palate still had a hard time taking cold foods seriously. At one of our pre-term events in business school, various selections of cold wrap were served for lunch. My wrap was a monstrosity stuffed with lebanon bologna, proscuitto ham and feta cheese. It was a good thing that my seatmate, a genial and chatty Indian Finance major, had just embarked on a spirited account of Bollywood cinema after I casually mentioned having seen Lagaan back in Manila and liking it. 

The 400-student MBA class was divided into six blocks and, for the duration of the two week pre-term, students become acquainted with their blockmates in a series of recreational and academic activities. Within the first few days of pre-term, I found out in quick succession that I was the youngest in our batch, that I belonged to the small, wayward group of students not specializing in Finance (I was going to major in Marketing and Media and Entertainment) and that I was the only Filipino international student. Being the youngest to get into one of the top US MBA programs was a fact I must admit to being fond of, though I doubt that it would ingratiate me to the thirtysomething Type-A Wall Streeters whom I suspect would be as Darwinian in the classroom as they are on the trading floor.

By the day of the cold wrap, I had become more discriminating about which of my classmates to divulge my post-business school plans to; in my application essay, I had written that I planned to eventually return to the Philippines and launch an independent film studio with an eye on the burgeoning international markets, and one of my productions would be an adaptation of “When The Rainbow Goddess Wept”, the spellbinding WWII folklore fantasia by the West-coast-based Filipino author Cecilia Manguerra Brainard, who happened to be Cebu-born. Sanjay, the Bollywood fan, did not roll his eyes when I told him; when your national cinema consists mostly of song-and-dance extravaganzas featuring star-crossed lovers, corrupt politicians and dramatic reversals of fortune, you’d probably be diplomatic towards other people’s cinematic indulgences. 

As he held forth about Devdas, one of the last few Bollywood epics he saw before moving to the US, a romantic tragedy about a wealthy young Brahmin who is devastated after being separated from his childhood sweetheart who belonged to a lower caste and flees into the arms of a ravishing courtesan, he managed to set aside his own unfinished wrap (the narrative yarn was not helped by wolfing down on baloney and salami). It was only a matter of minutes before he changed the topic and asked whether I had tried Indian food such as naan and saag paneer.

Menu Crazy

In between reviewing statistical concepts and the law of diminishing returns during the fall semester, I was able to add three more recipes to my repertoire, all transmitted over the phone: humba (a Cebuano version of pork stew), chicken curry and beef teriyaki. By then, I had already been to or heard of Filipino restaurants both in Queens and in Manhattan, a number of them having the unglamorous, scrappy, lived-in feel of carenderias or cafeterias. They would be Marty Scorsese’s diner of choice if Elvie’s, a Filipino bistro in the East Village, was transplated to Little Italy circa 1973.  Considerably more upmarket is the SoHo-based Cendrillon, celebrated for its rich, imaginative take on Filipino dishes, blurring the edges between kalamansi-marinated adobo and haute cuisine.

I first heard about Cendrillon at a marketing seminar organized by the consumer goods company I worked for; the speaker, a Filipino advertising director who had just come back from a stint in New York City, picked out the restaurant as a subject for an activity on branding. When it first opened in the mid-1990s, Cendrillon was marketed as a Pan-Asian experiment, its blonde ambitions made apparent by its name, a reference to a French opera about Cinderella. It was a few years later that the chef incorporated more distinctly Filipino flavors into the menu, which was well-received by the critics, although the Pan-Asian attribution has become hard to shake off.

Although the self-esteem of Filipino cuisine in a city of connoisseurs had been showing promise, the offerings were either too sparse or unremarkable for Filipino restaurants to merit their own category listing in guides like New York magazine. Walking past Elvie’s, which is a stone’s throw away from two major hospitals, I kept thinking that Filipino food in New York City would have turned out differently if it had had half the tenacity of the Filipino nurses who had doggedly sneaked their way into the city’s emergency rooms and medical wards.

Kitchen Confidential

Meanwhile, the infliltration of my own kitchen cupboards was still in progress. The dishes I usually prepared on quiet Saturday afternoons alone in the apartment, a ritual that was increasingly becoming a habit with me. I was more surprised at myself than I let on about how I had warmed to the idea of cooking; after all, I could easily hop on a train on a pilgrimage for Filipino food and reach my mecca not twenty minutes later. For the longest time, I regarded domestic chores, which I considered cooking to be a part of, with little more than condescencion. My erstwhile disdain for domestication knew no bounds. My 7-year-old sense of pride unwavering in my wide eyes, I thought that the drudgery of cleaning and scrubbing was best left to the weak-minded, the help or mothers. 

At that age, I usually spent my free time reading in the school library, pretending that I can make myself invisible like making up fantastical stories, which I would either write down or narrate to my clique at recess. It didn’t take long before more characters peopled my narratives with hysterically melodramatic plot twists not unlike those in “As The World Turns”. I would write scripts all through grade school and jump at the chance of adapting them into theatrical productions in class, modifying a plot point or two to suit the current topic in Religion or Civics and History and scoring it with the soundtrack of the latest Julia Roberts movie. The trio of theater, As The World Turns and Julia Roberts did not go unnoticed and had set more than a few tongues of Parent-Teacher Association members a-wagging. Adding a flair for domestic chores to that mix would have changed my status from quirky child prodigy in an all-boys Jesuit school into something else entirely. It would have been one bit of emasculation too many. My mother did not seem to care one way or the other about my interest in household chores.

Such preoccupations seemed juvenile and distant just then as I sauteed sliced chicken in garlic, onion and tomatoes for chicken afritada (chicken cooked in tomato sauce).  For the first time, my personal experience of cooking stripped bare its attendant contexts. Or rather, the contexts informing it when I was growing up were easily supplanted by new impressions, both intriguing and diverting, in those first few months in New York City. My insatiable appetite for the sensations and sensibilities that the city had to offer triggered an epiphany recalling the Zen koan, “When the Student is ready, the Master appears.” And, boy, did the student take down a lot of notes.

My repertoire of food appreciation used to be limited to chewing and swallowing; the art of eating was little more than the art of stuffing my dinner plate with as much motley assortment of entrees from my host’s birthday banquet. The “hunting and gathering” phase of gastronomic appreciation that I was initially stuck in gave way to a more sophisticated calibration of my taste buds, savoring the subtle gradations of flavor in one dish. A taste for fine dining (more of an aspiration, really, given my student budget), wine and cheese was the logical next step.

Foodie Faux Pas

While my attempts at cooking Filipino dishes went auspiciously, my early brush with Manhattan fine dining turned out to be something of a cautionary tale. In the Spring, I went on a date that I’ve come to call “Dinner at Tiffany’s”. It was at at Per Se, an obscenely swank and snobby French-New American restaurant frequented by the likes of Donald Trump and Sarah Jessica Parker and whose elegant rooms reward with an expansive view of Central Park.

The standard chef’s tasting menu, at a prix-fixe price of $200, is nine courses, including coddled eggs tipped with black-truffle purée and lobster tails, each one poached in butter, each one painted (with saffron-vanilla sauce, red-beet essence, or vermouth) in a seductively mouth-watering way. I was still a long way from mastering the gourmet’s vernacular; entrees nestled in this, dishes embedded in that or topped with a foam of the other leave me in a state. I have, however, nailed down certain New Yorker affectations that come in handy in such places.

A great example is describing wine, an exercise in conjuring metaphors and therefore always a treat for writers. Catching a whiff of gooseberries from a Sauvignon Blanc, or red currants from a Cabernet, or horse manure from a Shiraz is inspired but literal-minded. Paradoxically, the more over-the-top taste descriptions are, the more they can appeal to the layman, who you are trying to intimidate. Thus, in a tone of voice that was sober yet vaguely patronizing, I ask the waiter about which herbs and sauces are in this or that dish, checking to see that my date did not miss a beat, and smile beatifically as a barrage of high-concept desserts (thyme-infused ice cream, cucumber sorbet, a deliciously milky chocolate soufflé) is served in succession to our table.

The dinner lasted five hours and I thought I held my own impressively over dinner, the intoxication of having just tasted seventeen types of chocolate notwithstanding. The ensuing diarrhea that plagued me in the three days that followed was less than glamorous and the episode inspired my sharp-tongued close friend from high school, the knowing country mouse to my city mouse, to retort, “You can take one’s digestive system out of Cebu, but you can never take Cebu out of one’s digestive system.” 

New York Is My Oyster

Although my affection for Filipino cuisine was undiminished, my palate began to wander in search of other geographies after some time. Temptations abounded; the ethnic diversity of New York City was such that each new turn or corner promised to unveil yet another unique ethnic group and its cuisine. In the borough of Queens alone, Astoria is a hub of Greek and Mediterranean cuisines while Jackson Heights is a buffet of Latin American offerings including Colombia, Argentina, Peru and Mexico, not to mention that it is the epicenter of Sanjay’s delicious samosas and saag paneer. French, Italian, Korean and Japanese restaurants are scattered all over Manhattan, while Chinese take-out is practically as ubiquitous as Starbucks outlets. While I couldn’t help feeling venturesome toward other national flavors, I was accosted by a faint sense of déjà vu, of revisiting a long-lost relative.

In attempting to escape the clutches of Filipino cuisine, a mélange of Malaysian, Chinese and Spanish influences, I inevitably ran into yet another of its uniquely sublime incarnations and, good-humouredly conceding the inescapability of certain things like one’s mother, I was less inclined to lament the fact that my gastronomic excursions did not take me very far from my origins. Come to think of it, New York City was a museum showcasing the various episodes in the history of Filipino cuisine in a vast, resplendent diorama.

The first panel, mounted in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn and its preponderance of Malaysian bistros, depicts our Malay neighbors arriving in Philippine soil during the pre-Hispanic era and preparing food by boiling, steaming, or roasting. This ranged from the usual livestock such as carabaos (tamaraws), chickens and pigs to seafood from different kinds of fish, shrimps, prawns, crustaceans and shellfish. Our most significant heirloom from this phase would be rice. Certain fixtures of Filipino cuisine, including toyo (soy sauce) and patis (fish sauce), as well as the method of stir-frying and making savory soup bases trace their roots back to pre-Hispanic trade with China, Japan, India, the Middle-East and the rest of Southeast Asia.

The second panel, which stretches along Roosevelt Avenue in Queens from Jackson Heights to Corona (my neighborhood). Spanish conquistadores certainly knew their spices and introduced Filipino cuisine to chili peppers, tomato sauces, corn and the method of sauteeing with garlic and onions. Local versions of Spanish dishes flourished in the national culinary idiom  such as paella into its Filipino counterpart of arroz valenciana, chorizo into its local version of longanisa (from Spanish “longaniza”), escabeche and adobo (a close cousin to the Spanish dish adobado, and even by way of Latin America and Mexico which also have adobo dishes).

The final panel, a lofty avant-garde display that only the MOMA could undertake, showcases the galaxy of Chinese diners littered all over Manhattan. During the nineteenth century, Chinese food became a staple of the panciterias or noodle shops around the country, although they were marketed with Spanish names. “Comida China” (Chinese food) includes arroz caldo (rice and chicken gruel) and morisqueta tostada (an old term for sinangag or fried rice) and chopsuey. The concept of chopseuy evokes the very essence of New York City, a smorgasbord of cultures and flavors, embracing its motley assortment of ethnic influences yet remaining distinctly its own character, a marvel of appropriation and reinvention, not unlike Filipino cuisine.

When The Mistress is Ready, The Student Appears

As the fall semester drew to a close and I was getting ready to fly back to Cebu in December of 2005, I had very clear ideas about the Christmas gift I’d ask from my mom. By then, I had reached a certain level of comfort with my cooking and was feeling confident enough to jazz up traditional recipes with my zing. First, I needed the compendium that packed all these recipes and I knew exactly where to find it. Minutes after arriving home in a cab from Mactan Airport, I raid the mini-library in my mom’s cabinet and, right beside Healing Wonders of Medicinal Plants, pull out her copy of Let’s Cook with Nora by Nora V. Daza (the Julia Child of the Philippines) which first came out in 1969. The receipt taped to the back of the front cover shows that it was bought at a Paul’s Book Store in Sanciangko St. on August 26, 1976 for Philippine Peso 48.00 – quite a fortune she divulged at the time, costing as much as a leather-bound Bible.

At first, she was adamantly opposed to the idea of parting with the cookbook, the pages of which were all faded and yellowed, the ‘60s-chic black-and-white illustrations adorned by brownish smudges in every pages of so. She eventually relented, but only after getting me to promise to dictate recipes to her over the phone “if the need arises”. I offered to teach her how to email as it would be more convenient to forward the recipes that way; she wouldn’t budge. It seems ludicrous now how neither I or my mom initially did not want to part with the 30-year-old copy of the cookbook when I could have easily gotten other cookbooks – classier ones, more comprehensive ones – but it was hers that I wanted, and we were both against the idea of photocopying the book. She had already asked that I dictate to her the recipe for Royal Bibingka on page 169 come Holy Week, something I was actually looking forward to, despite myself.

During the few weeks I was home, I knew better than to attempt to take over the kitchen but I was hanging around the kitchen more often when she was preparing a dish, quietly absorbing and remembering how she would sprinkle pepper into a pan or blend together the ingredients in a cooking pot while doing this or that recipe. It will probably be more than a year before my next trip back home so I wanted to get everything right. I wasn’t quite expecting this act of observing my mom in her element to be a kind of enlightenment.

Whether it was set off by the purring repetitions of the cooking utensils, their warm, silken surface, or my mom’s incantatory gestures, or the voluptuous contentment in holding one pose for an impossibly long time, I do not know. For a second, I saw my mom transform into one of the women in Vermeer’s silence-drenched small paintings, totally absorbed in the minutiae of their unremarkable domestic chores. This epiphany took place for a mere second, and the next thing I knew my mother told me that the dinner of beef caldereta was ready.

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Day 34: Going on a Silent Date at the Cloisters is BTS

Posted in Art, Dating, People with tags , , , , on July 20, 2008 by Vince

When it comes down to it, silent dates are a love-it-or-hate-it affair; there can be no middle ground.

If my date and I hit it off, it will be the meet-cute of meet-cutes – Two gay guys in New York City! The Cloisters! Blind date! No talking or touching at all!– easily beating runaway heiress Claudette Colbert and world-weary ex-reporter Clark Gable fighting over the last seat on a bus in “It Happened One Night” or bookshop owner Hugh Grant spilling orange juice all over megastar Julia Roberts’ white crop top in “Notting Hill”. And 38 years and 3 grandchildren later, this: “Grandpa, tell us again the story of how you and Popo [the nickname I’ve picked for my future husband, whoever he will be] first met!” Besides, the story of how the silent date got set up in the first place is destined to be a Craigslist-era classic in itself. (You can read it all over again here.)

If it flops…well, it will just be one long awkward subway ride downtown with someone I’ll probably hate to my last breath. 

Having said that, I’m sure that you, dear reader, would know by now that, as far as I’m concerned, the second outcome is not a possibility, not even remotely. True, it takes a lot of imagination for two gay men meeting for the first time without talking and NOT for a hookup to actually have a good time. But, with my sleeves rolled up and my radiant, pearly-white smile on autopilot, I’m determined to charm the pants off S.D. – in a manner of speaking – without uttering a single word.

The Train Rides They Are A-Changing

Back in the Big Apple after a grand time in New England with A.T., I was up at 7:30 AM for the silent date at 10:30. I’ve never been to the Cloisters, the Met branch located way uptown that was devoted to the art and architecture of medieval Europe. While my mental Hopstop told me that in a perfect MTA world – but who are we kidding, especially since it’s the weekend – I could make it to the 190th St. stop of the A train (which runs express) in 45 minutes, I padded my estimate by half an hour more.  When I got to the subway station, I found out that “due to repairs on the tracks, the A Train will be running local for the weekend.” But of course! I resorted to Plan B: Take the express D train to the 145 st. station and transfer to the A line from there. However, I wasn’t prepared for the Twilight Zone episode that followed. On my three subway transfers, the right train would arrive less than a minute after I’d get to the platform, which meant that I was making very good time. Creepy. It was too good to be true and, like the few times I came close to thinking that I’ve found Mr. Right, I decided to wait for the other shoe to drop with this MTA-of-your-dreams business. Minutes later, it did, to the sheer delight of my schadenfreude: passengers were told that they would have to get off at 168 St. and take the shuttle to 190 St. With that, I breathed a sigh of relief and concluded that everything –its seductive fiction of the perfect man and the perfect train ride included – was all right with New York City.

The Meet-Mute

After a pleasant 10-minute walk through Fort Tryon Park, overlooking the Hudson River and New Jersey, I made it to the upper driveway to the Cloisters a few minutes after 10:30 AM. I wasn’t surprised that S.D. wasn’t there yet since I pretty much lucked out with three-quarters of my subway trip. S.D. finally got there at 10:50 AM, walking up the driveway and all smiles. He didn’t look much different than he did in the photo he-emailed, better-groomed in fact, which is good, though he was a bit shorter than I imagined he would be (not any fault of his). With his build, he looked like a cousin of Robert Downey, Jr. in the sequel to “Gladiator”. He was wearing a purple T-shirt, military shorts and rubber shoes and carrying a pretty big backpack. I flashed him my best “where-are-we-going-camping-and-did-you-bring-the-frisbee” smile before gesturing as if zipping my lips shut. He returned the gesture which, as touching wasn’t allowed, had to do as a handshake.

When we got inside and S.D. started gesturing to the girl at the ticket counter, I looked away, barely able to stifle a smile. I almost wanted to tap him, though, “We didn’t have a rule about not talking to other people, did we?” There were less than a dozen visitors at the entrance hall and, two short turns later, we were in the first of the museum’s five reconstructed cloisters, the Cuxa. A cloister, for those who don’t know, is the heart of a monastery, a covered walkway surrounding a large open courtyard, with access to all other monastic buildings. The Cuxa was partly reconstructed from a monastery in the French Pyrenees in the mid-12th century.

S.D. and I moved around the cloister separately, surveying the different pieces like the column capitals, doorways and a 12th-century French chapter house (or meeting hall for monks) on our own. We would look up every minute or so to see if the date was still around and ackowledge him with a nod or smile. Unbeknownst to S.D., I would snap pictures of him literally behind his back whenever he was close enough. S.D. then walked into the courtyard garden, abloom with flowers, and started smelling three or four different kinds. With a tonsure and a monk’s robe, S.D. could pass off as a Medieval-age saint in the wilderness, a friend of the animals but one who had a secret life where he knew about the birds and the bees a little too well. (Further proof that my lack of sex can induce bizarre, WTF fantasies.) 

Baby, Talk is Cheap

It was becoming increasingly clear to me that the Cloisters was the best possible place to have a silent date at – and also the worst. There’s a solemn, soothing vibe to the whole place; it feels like being on a spiritual retreat. But if you’re into medieval art – and the Cloisters has five thousand works of art from from architectural sculptures and stained glass to metalwork, illustrated manuscripts and tapestries – I doubt that you’d want to keep your orgasmic ecstasy to yourself. More than a few times, S.D. and I would signal to each other to come over and check out a sculpture or a painting. We have somehow coded a spectrum of facial expessions with enthusiastic approval at the extreme left and violent objection at the opposite end.

That was the silent-date dynamic we’ve pretty much established. We would enter a hall together, check out the pieces on display separately (and I’d snap pictures of the pieces I liked), look up to make sure that the other person was still in sight (otherwise, wait for him to get back for a minute or so) and nod off to each other when we feel like moving to the next hall.

When I first checked the time on my cellphone, we were about 50 minutes into the silent date, and we’ve seen a little more than half of the museum. We went downstairs where the Gothic Chapel, Glass Gallery and Treasury were, apart from two other cloisters. For the first time during our tour, there was a painting S.D. seemed totally excited about showing me. It was a portion of “The Mass of St. Gregory” (pictured below) which, I have to say, was about as distracting as the conspiratorial grin on S.D.’s face. Now we all know about the devil working with idle hands, but who knew he could work the same magic with a naughty silent date and an otherwise innocuous religious article?

About twenty minutes later, there was an announcement about a gallery talk starting shortly and that interested visitors should assemble at the entrance hall. I looked expectantly at S.D. and gave him the widest smile I could manage: “Let’s go check that out!”. He smiled back and jokingly threw his arms up in the air: “No, not me please.” I rolled my eyes at him.

When we got to the café (which had its own lovely courtyard), I realized that, in the realm of human communication, if people had to pick two things that they really needed to tell each other, they would have to be:

1)    I’m thirsty – done by patting one’s throat a few times and craning one’s neck and and gesturing as if drinking from a glass (me)

2)   I need to pee – done by pretending to unzip one’s fly (S.D.)

There was a bigger garden adjacent to the café and the flowers were beautiful. More flower-sniffing by S.D. ensued, reinforcing my “birds and the bees” theory about him. He told me to go over to the lavender bed and smell it. Then he asked me to take his picture a certain way. He was gesturing like crazy but I didn’t get what he was trying to say; the other museum visitors were probably wondering why two guys would want to play charades in the Cloisters garden of all places. Then I finally got it. He wanted me to take a picture of him with his hands covering his mouth: “Look, Ma, I’m on a silent date!” Voila!

Word!

At 12:30, we went to the museum shop and I noticed he hung out at one section for 10 minutes. It was the children’s section and S.D. was checking out stained glass coloring book and colored markers. (I remember him emailing about a family get-together the next day so I presume it’s for a niece of nephew.) We left the Cloisters shortly after that; I was actually hurrying to catch a show at Times Square at 2pm. At the bus stop across the entrance to Fort Tryon Park, there was a gay couple waiting with us. They didn’t know I was with S.D. since we weren’t speaking to each other though we were seated together. When S.D. and I started gesturing to each other and showing each other the books we were reading – mine was on Edward Hopper and his were the screenplay of Charlie Kaufman’s “Adaptation” and the new David Sedaris – I looked up and saw the gay couple give me a knowing, ingratiating smile: “Awww, a mute gay couple on a date! How cute!” There we were, the apparent epitome of unconditional love in our (faux) voiceless splendor. 

It took the bus forever to arrive so, when it did, we hopped on it right away. A few blocks later, it occurred to me that it might not actually be the shuttle bus but a regular bus, which goes on a different route. S.D. walked over to the driver and talked to him.  I started panicking and felt bad about breaking the vow of silence but I had to – our date was technically over anyway – and asked S.D., “What did the driver say?” It turned out that S.D. has a sexy, masculine voice. He got off at the next stop since he was spending the weekend in Jersey with family (hence the backpack). The next day, I got an email from him: “I just wanted to say thanks for being my silent date at the Cloisters. I got to fulfill a fantasy of mine – and it didn’t even involve lube! What a treat!”

The Post-Mortem

The fundamental question at the heart of a silent date is really this: Can you possibly establish a connection with another person without using words? As much as I’ve sung the praises of witty repartee as key in creating that spark between two people, my silent date experience made me realize that chemistry does go beyond the trappings of language. When it’s there, it’s there, and the silent date setup magnifies that, a one-of-a-kind experience that only the two of you share. Like an inside joke, but the sensation is much more gratifying. If done with the right partner, a silent date is a fun icebreaker that ratchets up the sexual tension nicely. You can’t wait until the second “speaking” date to debrief and compare notes about the experience.

It takes a certain kind of pair to pull off a silent date, I also realized. Having the same temperament or disposition is key. I could tell that, just like me, S.D. was in touch with his inner kid and had the ideal combo of curiosity, mischief and love of fun to make it work. (The silent date was his idea, after all.) It’s all about attuning to the rhythm of the other person. The silent date could work just as well for two people who are both thoughtful, quiet types. 

Despite my initial misgivings, a silent date is not much different from a conventional date; only it’s done in reverse. The traditional date often starts with dinner or a meal where most of the conversation takes place and is followed by an activity involving the arts, entertainment or a recreational activity, and conversation takes a back seat. Just the same, the shared post-dinner experience is intended to indirectly allow both people to get into each other’s non-verbal rhytym as well as provide fodder for more stimulating conversation afterwards. The silent date creatively upends that sequence, gives it an unpredictable spin and just might be — for romantics with a taste for adventure, like myself — better than sex. 

Day 32: Boston’s Gardner Museum, the site of the biggest art theft in history, is BTS

Posted in Art, Travel with tags , , , on July 15, 2008 by Vince

Once A.T. and I got to the Titian Room on the third level, with its high ceilings, its walls adorned by Diego Velazquez’s Philip IV of Spain and Bellini’s Christ Carrying the Cross, and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Gardner Museum’s lush courtyard in full bloom, I felt transported to the eccentric Miss Havisham’s mansion in “Great Expectations” as dreamed up by Alfonso Cuaron as she swayed and shimmied to “Besame Mucho”. The Gardner Museum, established in 1903 by Isabella Stewart Gardner, is a menagerie of the wealthy arts patron’s favorite things: paintings and sculptures and ceramics and manuscripts that she has amassed in her world travels.

The collection is quite the cultural smorgasbord, as the Gardners’ travels through Asia, the Middle East and Europe fostered an appreciation for different cultures. In 1867, the Gardners traveled to St. Petersburg, Moscow, Vienna and Paris, and crossed Norway to see the midnight sun. During 1882 and 1883, they traveled around the world, visiting Japan, China, Vietnam, Cambodia (where they rode on an oxcart through the jungles to see the ruins of Angkor Wat), Indonesia, India, Egypt and Palestine.

From the outside, the museum evokes the feel of a Venetian Renaissance palazzo, but it was built entirely from the ground up in Boston, out of new materials. The design itself incorporates numerous architectural fragments from European Gothic and Renaissance structures. The antique elements are seamlessly worked into the design of the turn-of-the-century building. Special tiles were custom designed for the floors, modern concrete was used for some of the structural elements, and antique capitals sit atop modern columns. The interior garden courtyard is covered by a glass roof, with steel support structure original to the building. It is particularly rich in Italian Renaissance paintings, as well as in 19th-century works by John Singer Sargeant and James McNeill Whistler. The first Matisse to enter an American collection is housed there.

The museum’s other claim to fame (which I discovered only after my visit) is that it is the site of the biggest art theft in history which remains unsolved to this day. On the morning of March 18, 1990, two thieves disguised as police officers broke into the museum and stole thirteen works of art, including a painting by Vermeer (The Concert) and three Rembrandts (two paintings, including his only seascape The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, and a small self-portrait print) as well as works by Manet, Degas, Govaert Flinck, and a French and a Chinese artifact. The thieves removed works of art whose value has been estimated as high as $300 million. (Criminals they may be, but I can say they have excellent taste in art.) The museum still displays the paintings’ empty frames in their original locations due to the strict provisions of Gardner’s will, which instructed that the collection be maintained unchanged. 

 

Day 31: A Day (and Night) in Provincetown is BTS

Posted in Art, Dining, People, Recreation, Sex, Travel with tags , , , , , , on July 14, 2008 by Vince

It happened while A.T. and I were having calamari at Pepe’s on the Wharf, one of P-Town’s many waterfront restaurants, visions of scallops, wellfleet oysters, and littleneck clams from the menu still swimming in my head. Our table was by the window overlooking the harbor and, when I looked up, there they were. Children, no older than five or six, playing on a boat by the shore. They were squealing in delight, far too engrossed in their late afternoon frolic to mind the cacophony of commerce a short distance away. Nothing remarkable about the scene, really, but there was a familiarity to it. I was viewing it through a window, framing the scene like a canvas, just enough shades of white and brown and blue brushed in to channel a different planet. It was the planet of Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth and Winslow Homer. An hour earlier, A.T. and I had been in a couple of art galleries along Commercial Street looking at landscape paintings, thinly veiled homages to the idyllic coastlines and countrysides of the three masters. Those images and the sight of the children losing themselves in play at the beach, made me feel that I’d finally arrived – and not merely in the physical sense – in the New England. It’s a good feeling.

After dinner, we were back among the busy throng of vacationers walking or biking along Commercial Street: buff gay men in their muscle shirts (it was Circuit Week that week); college-age sweethearts; yuppies and straight families and their kids. P-Town was growing on me every minute. I knew very little about it before coming here; some friends have been here but said little other than being a gay resort town. I had imagined a Fire Island with its flashy pieces of real estate and underwear parties but quainter, less drugs, more low-key. While I can imagine the Pines boys itching to flaunt their tight asses at High Tea, Low Tea and a smattering of circuit parties, there was frankly little there that piqued my interest (save for the minor scandal involving local massage therapists slandering each other by way of lamppost announcements).

While I’m walking beside A.T., the revelry and flurry of Commercial Street, P-Town’s Broadway, make it hard to believe I’m in just one town. It’s a happy confusion of towns – of borders and vernaculars and sensibilities overlapping into each other – but never one town too many. Within a block, you can find a dive bar, high-end art galleries, jewelry and antique shops, a bike rental outlet and a fancy seafood resto. All the same, P-Town’s heritage as a hub of artists and writers dating back to the 1890s is intact., Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock have at one point called P-Town home; to this day, art galleries and theatre houses are strewn all over the main avenue. I know this sketch tries too hard, but I’ll make it anyway: gay men partying in Fire Island, sweat dripping down their sinewy bodies; P-Town a massive canvas for a drip painting, the frenzied, electric energy behind the random streaks and splotches of city folks, drag queens, lobsters, ice cream, leather and children playing in boats oblivious to the rest of these things, making for a dynamic, inspired, oddly Gestalt work of art. Just like Pollock’s action paintings, P-Town is pretty much all over the place.

It was getting late and A.T. and I decided to stay overnight at a place called Pilgrim House; it was lucky that we got ourselves a room on a Fourth of July weekend. We spend the rest of the evening checking out the different shops and having drinks; I spotted John Waters at least three times that evening. Back at Pilgrim House, I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. At around four in the morning, I woke up to the loud sound of skin slapping hard against skin. Panicked, I looked down: “Chastity belt still in place, thank God”. I turned around to face A.T. who was wide awake and listening intently to something: “Shhhh. The guys in the next room are having a foursome. Somebody just took a shower and they’re now in the second round.” Ah, how could I have forgotten about P-Town also being the mecca of hormonally-driven party boys? Within the next twenty minutes, A.T. and I became acquainted with the erotic adventures of Justin (who got asked about the soap in the shower), Josh, Kevin and the unnamed fourth person who kept saying “Harder! Harder!” to alternate with the slapping and grunting sounds. I heard Kevin talk animatedly about something that “tastes like shit and yogurt”. When everyone – in the next room, let me be clear — has had their fill of the bacchanalia and two of the gentlemen left to go back to their own lodgings, the sky outside the window was starting to turn light. Before dozing off again, I remember thinking, “Isn’t it just lovely to wake up in a town that can make everybody happy!” 

 

Day 30: Meeting a model for Norman Rockwell’s paintings is BTS

Posted in Art, Travel with tags , , , , on July 14, 2008 by Vince

As planned, A.T. and I were up by seven to get ready for a day of festivities at the Charles River Esplanade. The weather forecast the previous weekend said the Fourth of July in Boston would be in the crisp, seething 90s. But, as we looked out the window every half hour – ominous, heavy clouds making themselves at home in the New England sky – A.T.’s meticulously planned and much-anticipated picnic seemed less and less of a possibility. “Too bad,” I thought. My visit was anchored on the Fourth of July celebration in Boston being BTS, and A.T. wanted to make good on that.

On the flip side, what we evidently had on our hands was an off-season “Snow Day”. In no time, I was busy hatching new plans for the day ahead of us. The day before, A.T. and I talked briefly about going to the Berkshires and visiting the Norman Rockwell Museum, where he had bought a print of “Christmas at Stockbridge” a few weeks prior. So off we drove and made it there in two hours.

For the longest time, Rockwell’s keen, irreverent tableaux of twentieth-century Americana had few fans among highbrow art critics, who thought him little more than a glorified caricaturist or comic book illustrator. But looking past the puckish, mimetic sheen of his iconic covers for the Saturday Evening Post, Rockwell turns out to be a mythologist, his slice-of-life scenes weaving narratives of the greenhorn’s odyssey, from runaway boys to baseball rookies (pictured below). It comes as no surprise that he was commissioned to illustrate books like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Perhaps that’s why his paintings hit close to home. It’s the greenhorn in me, equal parts abandon and ambition, that can’t wait to stake a claim on his little corner of the world. I have to say, although my heart belongs to Edward Hopper in the pantheon of American painters, I’m becoming rather fond of Norman, too.

At 60, the native New Yorker moved to Stockbridge, Massachusetts (where the museum is located) and continued to paint there until his death. He generally used his friends and neighbors as his models, often hiring photographers to capture his models in various setups and scenarios for Rockwell to choose from. I was lucky today to meet one of Rockwell’s models, a Stockbridge local, Mrs. Claire Williams, who posed for Rockwell in a couple of his illustrations and paintings (which add up to more than 4,000). In the photo, she is holding one of the sketches that Rockwell did of her in 1959. Behind her is a panel of Rockwell’s “Christmas at Stockbridge”. (A.T. told me that the buildings in the painting look exactly the same as they did when Rockwell did it so, every Christmas Day, the town closes off the street and recreates the scene from Rockwell’s opus down to the last detail.) What can I say, getting to vicariously experience a maestro at work is BTS.  

Day 16: Esopus Magazine (Issue #10) is BTS

Posted in Art, Magazine with tags , , , on June 23, 2008 by Vince

Esopus is a creek in the Catskill mountains that begins as a small stream and meanders north, then southeast, then northeast until it empties into the Hudson River. In the 19th century it was a powerful force that carved canyons along its course, but in the 1930’s its current was intersected by the construction of the Ashokan Reservoir, which stores much of New York City’s water supply. The part of the stream that runs below this filtering system is often brackish and slow-moving; but above the reservoir, the Esopus is still vibrant: a pure dynamic space in which diverse elements flow and meld together.

It is this body of water that Esopus magazine is named after, a twice-yearly arts compendium that feature diverse, exciting works of creative professionals including artists, writers, filmmakers, designers and musicians. For a journal that can have different kinds of paper stock to suit the requirements of the pieces being featured (a rather costly affair) comes with a CD of songs by indie musicians, Esopus is refreshingly free of ads; a non-profit was set up to subsidize much of its publication cost. 

I first heard about Esopus and its editor, Tod Lippy, while doing the marketing for a documentary about the late author Christopher Isherwood and his partner, painter Don Bachardy (the works of both have been featured separately in the magazine). I picked up a copy of the current issue, Esopus #10, a little worried that it was going to be a cooler-than-thou gallery of esoteric and inaccesibly astract works. But the first piece, excerpts of the black-and-white cityscape prints by New York-based artist Yvonne Jacquette, promptly dispelled my qualms, the genius, daring and element of mystery jumping right off the page.

Two other artists’ projects engaged me the most, their wit and quirk anchored by a deep sense of life and humanity. The first is “Daily Reminders”, a sampling of notes that Exhibition designer Robert Guest has been getting up at dawn every school day for the past 15 years to write to each of his two children, Joanna and Theo. Thousands of these letters were collected by his wife, Gloria, from lunchboxes and laundry piles, and are pictured on the issue cover. The second is Dulce Pinzón’s “The Real Story of the Superheroes”, a photographic series of Mexican immigrants in New York City donning superhero garb at their various blue-collar jobs; many of them send the bulk of their earnings back to their families in Mexico. It’s a technicolor Zen koan, an exercise in subtle humor punctuated by a sharp jolt of insight. 

To set me on my path to Nirvana and further liberate myself from the shackles of sexual depravity, I decided to seek out Tod – the fact that twenty-minutes of Google-stalking him turned up photos of a guy I’d normally succumb to temptation for didn’t help – and ask him a few questions:

Me: What inspired you to start Esopus?

Tod: Essentially I‘d done other magazines and really enjoyed producing something that gets immediate response from readers but I had always been frustrated in the places I’d worked with this sort of intermingling between editorial and advertising. I was frustrated with the art world and in certain specialized fields in that magazines directed toward each of those disciplines are very jargony and tend to be a little offputting to general readers. I feel that contemporary art is not reaching a huge slot of the population so [Esopus] was a way to cover the non-commercial thing that I really want to do and avoid advertising. I wanted to create something that was friendly to a larger group of people and do something that was very multidisciplinary and so it wasn’t a segregated magazine that would only reach a certain type of creative person.

Me: How would you describe your aesthetic sensibility when it comes to curating the pieces that end up in every issue?

Tod: Part of it is personal in that there’s usually one very well-known artist project in each issue. Generally it’s somebody that I’ve admired for years, people that have meant a lot to me in my creative life like Kay Rosen and Jenny Holzer. And then we also get incredible submissions; at least 2 things in every issue are unsolicited like Doug McNamara’s “Biodiversions” in the current one. He’s a subscriber and he’s never shown the work anywhere but his work is amazing. The idea is to make it feel like each thing exists on its own terms design-wise as well as content-wise. Although there are some things that feel Esopus-like, it’s a little more suprising when you open each issue and you get something that’s more than expected.

Me: How did you find out about Bob Guest’s letters to his kids?

Tod: It’s a classic example of my board of advisers tipping me on great material. I called [award-winning illustrator] Scott Menchin and said I was looking for something that’s like a found object – not contemporary art, not literature, but something really interesting. He said, “Remember my friend, Bob? I think he writes to his kids every day.” I met Bob a few years ago through Scott so I went out and met with him and thought, “This is incredible”. Bob has thousands of stacks and stacks and bags full of  the ones on the issue cover. The only challenge about having only two weeks to sort through the stacks was we had to get only 10 letters for each kid. In a way, it was merciful that I didn’t have two months to do it or I would have been completely incapacitated because there was so much great stuff. The idea was to get a representative sample – some entries were more philosophical, some were drawings and some were more banal like “Hope you do well in basketball today” so we’re trying to get that diverse feel. What’s amazing about the whole piece was that Bob did it every day for years. At the launch party for the current issue, his son Theo came and he’s a wonderful kid and obviously very close to his dad.

 

From “The Real Story of The Superheroes” by Dulce Pinzón in Esopus 10

 

Day 12: Jari Silomäki’s “My Weather Diary” exhibit at PS1 is BTS

Posted in Art with tags , , , , on June 16, 2008 by Vince

I don’t know about you but when I’m wearing shades and then it turns out – surprise! – that what I should’ve brought was an umbrella, my mood can change from Elle Woods one second to Wednesday Addams the next. If you were in the city on Saturday, you’d be right to think that sometime in the late afternoon, I had disemboweled Bruiser and served his juiciest bits on Uncle Fester’s dinner plate. Bend and snap, indeed.

Since puberty, my mood has been determined chiefly by two things – infatuations and the weather – and it frightens me how perfectly attuned my mood is to the subtlest variations in either. A text message sent to a crush who hasn’t responded in 3 minutes (Hmmm, maybe he’s in the subway and can’t receive messages)….7 (What if he’s actually having coffee with a cute guy ?) …11 minutes (I’ll bet he’s totally making out with that guy right now!) can inspire the same agony as a overcast sky with not a single blast of blistering sunshine coming through. The main difference between the two is that boys I can momentarily shut out of my field of vision – say, by not logging on to Gmail Chat – but the weather, relentlessly hounding me wherever nook and cranny in New York City I lodge in, is not so easy to escape. Secondly, I can be forgiving about men being flaky, indecisive and not realizing the second they see me that I’m what they need to be happy. That’s actually how I like it – my final moment of triumph wouldn’t be half as delicious if it wasn’t preceded by suspenseful drama. But when a wintry day sneaks into the official summer season, it’s nothing but a downright betrayal.

There is one man, though, whom I’d let fiddle with my barometer and forecast my atmospheric conditions any day. Jari Silomäki is one of 16 Finnish artists featured in “Arctic Hysteria: New Art from Finland” at the P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in Long Island City. While I went to P.S. 1 for Olafur Eliasson’s “Take Your Time”, I stayed for Silomäki’s “My Weather Diary”, a series of photographs of landscapes, locales and everyday scenes that he’s taken daily since 2001. He scribbles notes at the bottom of each photograph by hand, the calligraphy describing a mood, the day’s most memorable piece of world-political news or an event in his personal life: “There is no place for human rights in a country lacking human rights. The Israeli army began a ground assault to Lebanon” or “Parkano, the day when Germany apologised for the treatment of Marlene Dietrich”. The off-handedness of the annotations renders them both a nostalgic tone and a special weight, a value, to what is said. 

In the exhibition situation the work is transformed into a wallpaper-like installation that fills a whole room. (In the P.S.1 exhibition, roughly 60 or so photographs dress up at least half of two walls.) A presentation like this can play up certain aspects of the work – the fleeting mass of days, the flow of the seasons, the shifts in feeling. The composition of each photograph is a study in poetic abandon, the mood distinct, running the gamut from ennui and melancholy to expectation and joy. Descirbing the impetus behind the series, Silomäki said, “The starting point of this work was that world events, personal events and weather will repeat themselves and merge into one large continuum.” Silomäki’s lens captures a world of boundaries blurring and shapes shifting, where you don’t know where your personal geography ends and the rest of the world begins. Sounds suspect, this interconnectedness of things, but perhaps everyone having this sort of sensory distortion might do the world a bit of good.