Monday, March 28, 2011

double bill — rod stewart & stevie nicks

I’ve never quite taken to Rod Stewart the way the middle-aged female fan who bopped and wiggled and pumped the air in front of us clearly did, blocking our view and insinuating her unbridled enthusiasm on those unlucky enough to be sitting at her rear. But Rod Stewart and Stevie Nicks in the same concert on the same night was too inviting to pass up.

So off we went to Madison Square Garden, flowing with the crowds into its six-tiered stadium large enough for 20,000 people. First up was Stevie Nicks, in her flowing black handkerchief-hem dresses and diaphanous spangly scarves, her rich-chocolate voice with that hard edge as appealing as ever. In this time of ageing rockers, she still looks remarkably good, no doubt with a little sculpting and the help of modern medical enhancements. Performing against a changing backdrop of family photos and images of herself as the young and beautiful dewy-faced rock artist she once was, she sang her way through her best songs from Fleetwood Mac days, and some of her own since going solo.

Although the packed stadium cheered, whistled and sang along to the lyrics all the way through her gig, she was no match for the roar that went up when Rod Steward finally took the stage. We all know Rod’s not a spring chicken anymore, but you’d be surprised given his decidedly springy step, nimble sashays, hip thrusts and nifty footwork.
And the blond-streaked hair, gelled and spiky as ever.

Rod knows how to throw a good party. With elegance, too. Supported by an unusually young trio of drummer and guitarists nattily dressed in jackets and ties, Rod also made sure he had the requisite
glamour girl-power: gorgeous doo-wop dancers in fringed shift-minis, each with a voice so powerful you could levitate on the sound; two spike-heeled blondes on saxophone and trombone; and a leggy brunette on violin and mandolin.

Trading between bold jackets — shimmering yellow, turquoise, crimson — his gravelly voice eroded by time (not that it changed his sound), Rod danced, swivelled and entertained us with his Cockney humour and charisma. He energetically gave us all his mega hits — he was saved any vocal strain on the high notes since the crowd joined in with every word; Rod simply held out his microphone and his lyrics swelled back to him across the stadium. (It almost precludes the need to go to a concert.) Stevie Nicks joined him for some rocking good songs, her strong smoky trill a great complement to his raspy vocals.

In the end, not being a fan and all, it was a good night. Great idea to get them together; definitely killing two (compelling) birds with one stone.

Image from

Friday, March 25, 2011

cappucino wars

You would’ve thought I’d asked for a triple-spiced pumpkin latte with extra cream and a swirl of caramel. (That’s normally Starbucks’ domain and I was in Le Pain Quotidien.) But, no, it was a small double-shot cappuccino, not too milky please. One-quarter milk.

You see, an enforced limitation of three cups of coffee a week (health reasons, it’s a long story) make it a matter of national importance that my brew is the personification of perfect. My server's nose wrinkled with incomprehension, her face filled with the difficulty of the task ahead, she asked, “Oh, you mean a macchiato?” I’ve been faced with that question at Starbucks too, so I was prepared for the question.
“Kind of, but I don’t only want foam. I’d like a little bit of milk too.”

It's a big dilemma. Ask for a "dry" cappucino and you get shudder-inducing espresso with a layer of foam. Leave out the "not too milky" bit and it's a bland uncoffee-like milkshake.

I waited. Being a Belgian-inspired chain … well, I’d call it very French … Le Pain Quotidien’s staff have inherited the particularly Gallic trait of exquisite leisurely service. The person who greets you at the counter also heats your pastry, pushes and pulls the levers of the coffee machine, and carefully and precisely bags your almond cheese Danish. But any sense of urgency that might produce a bead of sweat on their upper lip is way too un-French for this institution. That’s why there’s always a line of customers filing out the door. The ones as impatient as I turn on their heels with a hissing expiry of breath.

Someone should do a survey on how much money they could save by ramping up their service and lassoing in those straying customers.

But back to my coffee. I was handed a paper cup the size of a thimble. Very obviously a traditional macchiato: two shots of espresso with a thin lining of foam. “No, no, no,” I said. “It was a cappuccino I wanted. Just not too milky.” This now required conferral with an entire team of coffee-handlers. Raised eyebrows and puzzled looks were shot my way. The line swelled. I waited.

I got my double-shot cappuccino in a bigger cup, with extra foam.
It was a little milky.

So, I’m back to my old routine. Pain Quotidien, I love your carrot muffins sprinkled with crunchy sugar, and your spiral raisin pastry with its coating of icing. But it’s down to you at 91st for my muffin, back up to Starbucks at 93rd for my coffee.
Somehow they’ve managed to get it just right.

Image by nuchylee/

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Washington DC …

… where the cherry blossom hasn’t yet bloomed…

We took ourselves off to Washington DC a week ago, just a little too early for the beautiful cherry blossoms to erupt in delicate powder-pink. The weather was foul … leaden grey skies, a biting wind and even a day’s bucketful of rain … but when you spend your entire stay wandering open-mouthed among the museums belonging to that most venerable of all institutions, the Smithsonian, what’s a little water down your back and sodden shoes from an inside-out umbrella?

There simply are no words to describe the quality, depth, extent and sheer excellence of the hallowed galleries and museums that line the enormous green strip stretching for 1.5km, with the domed white Capitol at one end and the Washington obelisk and Lincoln Memorial at the other. The greatest wonder of it all is that you don’t pay a dime to get into any of them. The mind boggles.

I couldn’t even begin to describe the breadth and scale of what we saw and absorbed during our time there.

Our favourites have always been the mammoth Air and Space Museum (real space shuttles and capsules, old propeller-driven planes and fighter jets suspended from the ceiling!), the Natural History Museum (a giant bull elephant in the rotunda, dinosaur skeletons, preserved mammals in mid-pounce and an unbelievable rocks and minerals gallery), National Museum of the American Indian (oh, so many beautiful artefacts and beads and mythology and feathers…), and the National Museum of African Art (stunning bronze, wood and stone statues, carvings and masks).

Being particularly partial to gemstones and crystals myself (H is eternally patient but he was as entranced as I was), we spent hours gawping at display cabinet after display cabinet of utterly exquisite rocks, crystals, metals and minerals, each more spell-binding than the last. The natural geometric shapes, iridescence, translucence, and even textures — cylindrical, twiggy, faceted, fibrous, furry — were endless. In the end it was all too overwhelming, and the beauty so intense it was almost painful.

We banished the dreary rain to the furthest fringes of our consciousness by escaping into two 3-D IMAX movies. The first, on dinosaurs, was wild enough, what with screeching pterodactyls lurching at us with such ferocity that I ducked in terror. At times we were gazing at the underside of a gigantic foot, poised to squelch us into oblivion before it thundered down in a cloud of dust, mercifully leaving us unscathed. The second movie, following the team of astronauts who ventured into space to repair the Hubble Telescope’s mirror and displaying the incredible imagery captured by Hubble, can only be described as mind-bending. H and I walked out tongue-tied. There were no words to describe it. We’d just been in a spacecraft, drifting among the outer galaxies of a wondrous universe.

I can’t forget the image of one astronaut who, floating effortlessly in his cramped capsule while preparing his peanut butter and jelly sandwich, carefully placed his knife in mid-air, where it obediently hung next to the airborne bread as he stretched behind him to secure the peanut butter container. He returned to the suspended knife and sandwich, which hadn’t moved, then grinned and waved to the camera before tackling his lunch.

There is so much more to say about Washington DC … its graceful colonnaded Classical architecture so suitable for a seat of government, its broad avenues and traffic circles and orderliness, the brisk business-suited men and women clutching their briefcases and exuding an air of importance, streets lined with historical and characterful low-rise buildings …

I’ll just let the pictures do the talking.

Capitol Hill through a tracery of winter trees
Ring of flags round the base of the marble and granite
Washington Monument
Speaking of
Fountain at WWII War Memorial on the Mall

Cool reflection … Abraham Lincoln Memorial

Flat-roofed … pretty pastel Georgetown

Conical-roofed … row houses in Georgetown

Monday, March 14, 2011

icicles at the reservoir

It feels strange . . . we haven't had a snowstorm for weeks now, and the big thaw has set in at the once-frozen ponds and lakes of Central Park. All that's left are crystalline frozen droplets in the Reservoir, where icy water laps at the overhanging grasses and twiggy branches, leaving behind sparkling diamond pendants.

Monday, March 7, 2011

in defence of The King's Speech

Let me stress this right upfront. The New York Times movie critic Manohla Dargis has a right to her opinion. And, usually, I can identify with what she has to say. But in this particular instance I disagree with her so vehemently, I feel compelled to write about it.

It's about The King’s Speech.

Now, first things first. I admit it. I wasn’t hugely keen to see it, going on the decidedly uninspiring subject matter (I thought). I was nudged by a friend; it was way before the Oscar hoopla and the hyperventilated gushing of the marketing people, and the only reason I was vaguely tempted was the cast. I love Colin Firth, I admire Geoffrey Rush, and I just can’t resist Helena Bonham Carter.
Even if she does wear strange clothes.

So I went to see it. To put it mildly, it blew my eyebrows away. To take a subject as mundane as a king trying to master his stutter for a character-defining speech and fill a full two movie-going hours with it is one challenge. But to ineluctably draw you in and keep you hooked right to the end … breathless, spellbound, so caught up in it that you forget where you are … this can only be described as masterful.

Yet Manohla Dargis, reporting on the aftermath of Oscar night, declared: “I wanted to watch The King’s Speech go down in flames.”

Deep breaths.

So I understand how American movie-goers (in general) go for movies produced on their own turf way more than any foreign import. (Okay, District 9 was an exception. Yay, South Africa!!)
It’s a question of sensibilities: a (very) specific sense of humour, dialogue that needs no interpretation, over-the-top scripts, action that has more bang and sparkle than a Guy Fawkes coup.

But then Dargis made it worse. Asking the rhetorical question of whether the Academy Awards was good for her readers, she chirped:
“It was for me, even if the Academy’s habit of rewarding mediocrity, especially if it comes with a British accent, remains intact.”

Mediocrity? Now I’ve got my gloves on.

So she loved The Social Network. So did I, it was very good. Excellent, in fact. But it simply didn’t make the same impact; it didn’t have you walking out in a daze at the sheer marvel of three absolutely brilliant performances.
And she also loved True Grit. Can’t comment. Cowboy movies just don’t do it for me, even if this one comes packaged with Jeff Bridges.
I have no doubt it’s very good too. But it wasn’t even a contender until much later in the race, when the marketers cranked up their media circus with full-page ads and glowing hyperboles and exclamation marks.

This was the death knell.
The King’s Speech is a pudding [nice British word, Manohla] of a movie, easy in, easy out, and its lack of chew is ideal for those porcelain veneers twinkling in the dark at the Kodiak.” Ouch.
And Miaow.

The fact is, no-one else does it better. We can always rely on the Brits to produce a movie such as this, filled with immense subtlety, replete with the finest nuances of speech, facial expression and fragile human connection. (Yes, French film-makers have proven they can also do subtlety and restraint. And the Spanish can convey a world of meaning in a fierce glance and an arched eyebrow [seen any Pedro Almodóvar flicks?] ) But only the British have perfected that emotional reserve, that stiff buttoned demeanour, the ability to convey emotion with a twitch of the corner of the mouth. And still reel you in with it!

And check out the younger public who is readily tweeting, next to trendy gloopy mugshots, about how they looooved the movie and can’t believe it took them so long to go watch. That, and the $114 million sales at the box office versus The Social Network’s $97 million (which Dargis conceded).

Now that I’ve got that off my chest … I can retract my claws and pull off my gloves.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

hawks and kestrels

To a background orchestra of honking horns, grinding gears, hissing hydraulics and the mournful whoop of the sirens, I still feel so privileged to be witness to the wildness of a raptor’s wings gliding effortlessly past my 15th-floor windows. This is New York, after all. Broadway bright lights, yellow cabs, Top Chefs and Christian Louboutins.

But just today, in the brittle cold air, I watched the swallow-like silhouette of an American kestrel dipping and diving before finding the pinnacle of its favourite water tower, in full view of our windows. Sometimes I know it’s around by its high-pitched trill, and when I check, there it is, tail flicking up and down on its precarious perch.

Then, darkening my windows with a large outstretched wing span, here was a red-tailed hawk which, much to my delight, settled on an air conditioner of a building right across the way — where it perched for at least 20 minutes, basking in the morning sun, fierce yellow eyes surveying the humming city below. This beautiful picture from exactly replicates what I see from my glass eyrie.
I’ve learnt to read the signs: pigeons scattering in panicked flight, small birds whipping past the glass, a momentary glimpse of a larger-than-usual wing span drifting weightlessly by. Sometimes the red-tailed hawks circle lazily just above me, only the glass separating us; I’ve seen them rising and swooping to evade attacks from the smaller, threatened birds; or plane gracefully over Broadway to alight on a building corbel and stare regally across the city’s apartment blocks. I've also encountered them on my runs in Central Park, where, a couple of times, a hawk has cruised low across the path in front of me somewhere near the North Woods, or they've been gliding gracefully on the thermals on the Upper East Side.

Now, as I write hours later, this time in my study, there the red-tailed hawk is once again, gliding among the water towers, twisting and turning, backwards and forwards; I see a flash of its speckled white chest, then its mottled-brown back and wing feathers. And, only sometimes, the hawk’s signature red tail is visible from above when, in flight, the feathers splay into a russet-red fan. Meanwhile, all the tourists in 5th Avenue and Times Square are happily clueless.
Never mind, it’s my secret.

Image of American kestrel: National Geographic Field Guide to Birds: New York