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Tuesday, February 2, 2016

CHUCK'S FORECAST FOR GROUNDHOG DAY




     Chuck has an important announcement to make today. He’s charged with forecasting the weather and telling us when spring will arrive. Chuck a.k.a. Groundhog, Thickwood Badger, Canada Marmot, Whistler and the Red Monk amongst other more casual names (some people think of Chuck as a large ground squirrel) must wonder why people do not have the courtesy to call him Charles. After all it’s an important job that not everyone is able to do. They pull him out of his burrow where he’s been comfortably hibernating to look for his shadow. Any self-respecting groundhog would rather be in his nice warm bed. Who can blame him for nipping New York’s mayor last year? There are a few horses in Central Park that would enjoy that opportunity.

     Chuck has been successful about 40% of the time according to meteorologists but Chuck—excuse me, Charles—believes they are just jealous because on February 2 of each year, it’s the Red Monk that gets all the attention.
     Groundhogs are found all over—the United States, Canada, as far north as Alaska and southeast to Georgia. They weigh anywhere from 4 to 9 pounds and are16 to 26 inches long. Charles is the proud father of chucklings. Charles thinks calling them chucklings is as cutesy as Chuck. 

How much wood would a woodchuck chuck
if a woodchuck could chuck wood?
A woodchuck would chuck all the wood he could
If a woodchuck could chuck wood!
    Wrong! The name Woodchuck is not actually related to wood or chucking. Charles received his name from the Algonquians—wuchak.
     Chuck loses a lot of weight when hibernating in his burrow. When he comes out he’s ready for a good meal—a succulent plant, wild berries, insects and your garden vegetables would make a tasty meal.

photos courtesy of Ladycamera and Susan Sam
Bests,

Elise

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Friday, January 22, 2016

SYLPHS OF THE SEAS




     The Queen of Illyria named Teuta sailed the ocean blue in 232 B.C. When her spouse sailed out of our known world, Teuta decided her flotilla of small, swift vessels (Lembi) would combat then ransack the picturesque and thriving towns along the Adriatic. Teuta was a hands-on pirate and could often be found joining her sailors in the pillaging. That motivated the towns to trek inland abandoning the coast to Illyria until Rome decided enough was enough and brought Teuta to heel—her fleet was disbanded.

     Halfway through the 9th century, Alfhild of the Valkyries was born. Daughter of   King Siward of the Goths, she commanded her own fleet of longships, with crews of female buccaneers who plundered towns long the coasts of the Baltic Sea. Alfhild’s chamber is said to have been protected by a lizard and a snake which kept her suitors at bay. A Danish prince named Alf crushed Alfhild’s guards but the lady scorned his marriage proposal and decided to remain a pirate and dressed as a man in chain mail accessorized by a sword and the fashionable horned helmet. Alf and Alfhid were destined to meet again—he searched and found her fleet off the coast of Finland. After a bloody battle Alfhild lost her helmet and was recognized. The fighting came to an end and Alf embraced Alfhild who had sailed her last sea as a Valkyrie. Dear reader—she married Alf.

     Anne McCormac came into this world around 1697 in Kinsale, Ireland—the daughter of a lawyer, William McCormac and a housemaid Mary Brennan. McCormac left his wife and Ireland for London bringing Mary and Anne with him. He began dressing Anne as a boy and calling her “Andy”—guess he wanted a son. When his family discovered their whereabouts, they moved to a plantation near Charleston, South Carolina where McCormac changed his name to Cormac and after a rough start joined a mercantile business and made a good deal of money. Poor Mary passed on when Anne was twelve.
     Anne had a temper to match her red hair and at thirteen she is thought to have stabbed a servant girl. She married a sailor and pirate named James Bonney who did poorly at both jobs. Her father disowned her. The couple moved to Nassau on New Providence Island—a haven for pirates where Anne began socializing with pirates in taverns and met John “Calico Jack” Rackham, a colorful dresser and Captain of the pirate sloop Vanity with its notorious skull and bones flag—Rackham and Bonney fell in love. Farewell to James Bonney—Anne considered him a coward for accepting the pardon of Bahamian Governor Woods Rogers and becoming his informant. Anne, once again, disguised herself as a man, joined Rackham’s pirate crew and married the scoundrel.
     Mary Read’s mother was married to a seaman who went on a long voyage and disappeared from their lives. After waiting many years for his return and becoming destitute she took Mary to London to request financial help from her mother-in-law. Knowing the lady preferred boys; she dressed Mary in a boy’s clothes, told her act like a young lad and informed her in-law she had a grandson. Promised a crown a week, Mary continued to dress as a boy.
     Her first job was a footboy; she enlisted on-board a man-of-war for awhile then still wearing her disguise joined a foot regiment in Flanders and then a horse regiment. There she met and fell in love with another soldier, admitted to being a woman and changed her mode of dress. The couple opened an inn called The Three Horseshoes in Holland. Her husband died while still in the prime of youth and her finances soon shrank.
     Mary knew that life as a man was much easier so she raided her husband’s trunk and went to sea on a Dutch merchant ship sailing toward the Caribbean. Eventually the ship was commandeered by Captain Jack Rackham’s Vanity and tired of her “legitimate job,” she once again turned pirate. Anne Bonney and Mary quickly discovered each other’s cross-dressing and became good friends. The two shared a reputation as fierce, ruthless, bloodthirsty pirates. 

     Ching Shih, before becoming a pirate, worked as a prostitute in one of Canton’s floating brothels in 1801. That same year she married a legendary and infamous pirate named Zhung Yi who descended from a pirate family of renown. Yi brought together competing pirate fleets and brokered an alliance know as the Red flag Fleet. After Yi passed on in 1807, Ching Shih took over her husband’s leadership position and commanded over 1,500 ships and 60,000 pirates.
     Those ladies knew how to crack a glass ceiling.

Bests,

Elise
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Wednesday, December 16, 2015

CELEBRATION




     We were young—it was Christmas and our anniversary and we wanted to celebrate our very special day with a memorable dinner. Our pocket s were fairly empty—at that time—chorus dancers and singers didn’t earn much so we scrounged and saved for a few months in order to reserve a place at The Russian Tea Room, a restaurant on 57th Street in Manhattan that gives it address as “Slightly to the Left of Carnegie Hall.”
     After the Russian Revolution, dancers, musicians and actors—once stars in St. Petersburg and Moscow—began to emigrate to New York City and the Tea Room became a hangout for White Russians looking for a taste of their former home. In its early days the restaurant had many owners including the former owner of a halvah factory in Moscow and it was he who introduced full meals.
     The artists were homesick for the gossip, intrigue, intellectual discussions and the sweets and pastries of the Czar’s Russia. Feodor Chaliapin, a commanding Russian opera star and Michel Fokine who introduced Americans to the Imperial Russian Ballet were among the newly arrived talents who enjoyed the food and the ambiance.
     I don’t know why I wanted to eat at the Tea Room—it’s still a mystery to me. Though my grandparents came to America from Russia, they came to escape the pogroms and traveled in steerage class. Our family was poor and my grandfather worked as a shoemaker. They couldn’t wait to arrive at Ellis Island, study and become American citizens. Perhaps it’s just something about Royalty that intrigues Americans.
     The room’s setting, warm and welcoming, greeted us with green walls that served as a backdrop to vivid scarlet leather banquettes that displayed tablecloths and napkins pink as the first blush of spring wine. Christmas decorations—brightly colored ornaments that would remain all year—garlanded the room along with polished samovars that sparkled and ignited my imagination with dreams of tea being carried by Tartars—nomads who traveled across Asia brewing tea to slake their thirst. Buffed wood and gleaming mirrors reflecting images of the elegant clientele seated around the restaurant promised a dinner we would never forget.
     The waiters attired in Red Russian tunics and the busboys in green paid attention to their guests without being intrusive; we settled down and each ordered a Bloody Mary to toast our anniversary. A Russian restaurant—vodka was and is a specialty of the bar
     We began our dinner with the Tearoom’s traditional hot borsht made with red beets, shredded cabbage, and the freshest vegetables of the season. The borsht, flavored with dill, was crowned with sour cream. Piroshki—little meat filled dumplings made with puff paste and filled with beef, parsley, onions, eggs and Tabasco attended the borsht.
     The main course, Chicken Kiev—rich with sweet herbed butter stuffed in a boned and breaded chicken breast, then deeply fried came next. The dish is thought to have been created by a French chef at the court of Alexander I.
     We lifted our forks in preparation for the first succulent bite of the chicken than glanced at each other. We thought we heard a soft whimper. The whimper sounded again and we looked at the adjacent banquette. The moans came from a sweet, baby-faced woman sitting on the bench much to the concern of an equally young man who sat at her side. Soon everyone in the restaurant had stopped eating and began staring at the couple. From our banquette, I could see the woman was pregnant and leaned over to ask if there was anything I could do. My only experience was watching movies where someone always boiled water. A flutter of her hand said, “Go away.”
     The maitre d escorted a distinguished fellow to the table.
     “Madam, I’m an obstetrician. May I help you?”
     “Not yet,” she said. “Not yet.”
     The Tea Room had grown silent. No sound of a fork, spoon or knife could be heard. No glasses clinked in tribute to Christmas or the Holiday season. No one was sure what the proper etiquette was. Does a caring person continue eating when someone may be about to give birth? The doctor looked as confused as every other diner in the restaurant.
     The young woman stopped moaning and slowly sank to a prone position in her booth. She couldn’t be seen and she couldn’t be heard—conversation resumed. We relished each bite of our Chicken Kiev and ate every last bit of our dessert—Baklava made with sheets of thin phyllo pastry and sweetly layered walnuts, honey, and cinnamon.  
     We’ve never forgotten that Christmas anniversary dinner and I’ve often thought about that woman. Did she give birth on Christmas? At the Russian Tea Room? A boy? A girl? And did the doctor finish his dinner?   

HAPPY HOLIDAYS

BESTS,

Elise


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Monday, October 12, 2015

SECOND SON-LEIF ERIKSSON


     Who discovered the America? There are several contenders. Christopher Columbus, the Genovese controversial explorer sought a westward route to the East Indies and until he had departed this life, claimed he had achieved that desire. He never believed he had planted colonies in Central America. The there is Amerigo Vespucci—for whom the USA is named—the Italian navigator who explored South America and realized that the New World was a new continent and not part of Asia.
     According to one account—the Icelandic Eiriks saga—the second son of Erik the Red—Leif Eriksson was on his way back home to Greenland when he sailed off course. Erik landed in Nova Scotia and he named the land Vinland. Some believe Vinland comes from the wild grapes the crew found growing there. The Groenlendinga saga says he learned of the land from an Icelandic trader and it was his intention to land there.
     In 1960, indications that support the theory of a Scandinavian settlement in L’Anse aux Meadows, New Foundland were found. Was it the early Viking adventurers and explorers—no longer followers of the Norse Pagan Gods and converts to Christianity and intent on converting natives—the first ones who discovered what would become a new continent named America?
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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART CHINA THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS


CHINA THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS

     Extended through September 7—Labor Day—because of great demand the Met Museum’s China Through The Looking Glass curated by Andrew Bottom of The Costume Institute is an exciting, enchanting and impressive exhibit to behold.
     Since the beginning of the west’s awareness of China in the 16th century European designers, artists and architects have been inspired by Chinese designs. The exhibit on three floors begins with Buddhist sculptures—serene faces, some with a gentle smile gift the viewer with an air of peaceful meditation. On the opposite wall is a film of magnificent dancing and in the center stalactites of glass project downward.
     Porcelains, jade and calligraphy are on view as well as the Astor Court with a circular “moon gate” that frames a rectangular doorway. Plants, a spring of water and Taihu rocks rest on a floor of gray tile—the half-pavilion is styled after those found in northern China.
     Fashions designed for Haute Couture by western designers such as Christian Dior, Paul Poiret and Yves Saint Laurent attract cameras and amazement with their colors and conception. Three striking black gowns introduce Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American movie star. Wong began her career during the silent film era and became a fashion icon. Her career continued into the talkies but though an acclaimed and accomplished actress, her roles were stereotypical and limited because of America’s anti-miscegenation laws which would not allow her to share a kiss on-screen with a person of another race. She moved to Europe in 1928 and received the acclimation she deserved.
     She returned to America in the 1930s and in 1934 and was voted “The World’s Best-Dressed Woman” by the Mayfair Mannequin Society of New York.
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Wednesday, August 5, 2015

CASTING AGAINST TYPE




    Theatre director and writers or their characters will often cast against type. Think about the sweet, innocent child who wrecks havoc on his playmates and siblings—a monster who cannot be saved by parents, priest or psychiatrist. Example: The Bad Seed written by William March, later made into a film, where a mother begins to believe her child could be a cold-blooded murderer.
     And who hasn’t written or read about the handsome, personable and intelligent man who is—unfortunately, a serial killer who revels in matching wits with detectives, police or the FBI? There’s a prime example in Dr. Hannibal Lecter, starring in a series of horror novels, penned by Thomas Harris. How many readers fall for the virginal, usually blonde ingĂ©nue whose obsessive love, jealousy and neediness will ruin the lives of people whose lives touch hers. Read Leave her to Heaven by Ben Ames Williams—another novel to film with Gene Tierney, Jeanne Crain and Cornell Wilde.
     The affectionate relative or teacher who turns out to be a pedophile? Or not? Doubt—a play written by John Patrick Shanley kept audience members debating for days after they left the theater. Did Father Flynn molest the boy or was Sister Aloysius, a woman of iron convictions, accusing an innocent man who was guilty of nothing but befriending the child and personalizing the priesthood?
     The bad stepmother has been handed down from old folk tales—what about Snow White and her jealous stepmother—the Queen—characters written by the Brothers Grimm. Books that tell us about the good stepmother who gives her all? There aren’t many. One that stands out is Butterfly’s Child by Angela Davis-Gardner. The story takes place after the geisha Cio-Cio San kills herself leaving her child Benjie to her lover—the child’s father and his new American wife. The author’s inspiration—Puccini’s opera—Madame Butterfly. Perhaps more books are waiting to be written about the good stepmother.

     When my creation twists, turns and changes the route I jotted down so carefully—I have to pay attention. A call from my character may be a surprise—sometimes pleasant, sometimes not—that alters the course of my book. I try to be ready to embark on an entirely different escapade. A not to be missed venture into the unknown.
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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

IN MEMORY OF WARREN CLARKE

     I watched the new version of Poldark, a swashbuckler British television series on PBS last Sunday and at the end saw a dedication to the actor Warren Clarke who had played his last role as Charles Poldark on the program. Americans will join their English cousins in missing this fine actor.
     His work as Albert Robinson in another series Sleepers that crossed to America's shores brought him to my attention and I watched the programs faithfully. The plot has the KGB integrating two agents into British Society. The agents forget why they've been sent and become as British as the native born. Warren Clarke played a moderate trade unionist, a happily married man with children and a council house in the north of England. When the KGB realizes what has happened they pursue the agents closely followed by the CIA and M15. I never missed an episode of the series.
     Reginald Hill's Dalziel and Pascoe crime fiction are classics and they were presented as a series on PBS featuring Clarke as Detective Superintendent Andy Daziel--fat, crude and complicated. I--along with many, many fans--never missed an episode.
      On reading his obit, I learned of all the stage roles Clarke had played and wished we had been able to see them here in America.
     Rest in peace Warren Clarke.


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