Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Do You Love to Boggie?

This is a really enjoyable video. It's pure fun. What a good way to start off the day.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Art Inspired By the Movies

Many artists are inspired by the movies. Recently, I've noticed a trend of re-imaging movie posters into creative works of art. Here a few of my favorites. 

Bettlejuice (1988)
The Shinning ( 1980)
Network (1977)
The Dark Knight (2008)
Harry Potter
and the Philosopher's Stone
American Psycho (2000)
Superman (1978)

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Boring Olympics: Soap Opera or Sport?

I remember being excited about the Olympics, but these days, I have no interest. The Olympic spectacle seems more about grandiosity, pageantry, and securing lucrative endorsement contracts for its prized athletes than the competition.

Let's face it, the Olympics are about big business, commercialism, and frivolous entertainment. I even read that the hand dryers in the restrooms at the Olympic venues have had their manufacturer logos covered up by Olympic sponsor logos. Those Olympic officials don't miss any opportunity to make a buck. 

More significantly, coverage of the athletic competitions themselves is dominated by those syrupy "Up Close and Personal" features, segments showcasing this or that particular athlete who has overcome some form of adversity. They run on and on, taking time away from the actual events. They make the Olympics look more like "Days Of Our Lives" than a sports event. (Apparently, these segments are intended to appeal to the female viewership.)

On the other hand, the Olympics have made some progress on the political front. There's less political strife: the Capitalist versus the Communist systems (Melbourne 1956), discrimination of African-Americans (Mexico City 1968), boycotts (Moscow 1980, Los Angeles 1984), fascism (Berlin 1936), and terrorism (Munich 1972). 

So, instead of sitting in front of the TV watching the Olympics, I plan to do something beneficial: devote more time to physical activity.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Bread in Berlin

Is the bread in Berlin as bad as everyone says? Not really. It's just that the bread in Berlin is not as good as in other parts of Germany. The Berliner Zeitung ran an article today rating the breads of Berlin. Unsurprisingly, most of the rated breads were judged average by the expert baker. However, three breads were found to be outstanding. I will definitely pay a visit to these places.  

Friday, July 27, 2012

House with Character

Now this House has some Character!
Courtesy of Der Tagesspiegel

Thursday, July 26, 2012

16th Annual International Berlin Beer Festival

If you're in Berlin the first weekend of August, I would recommend a visit to the Berliner Bierfestival. From August 3rd to August 5th, Berlin is hosting its annual beer fest, or as it's known locally, the beer mile. It's really worth attending, even if you're not much of a beer drinker.

Last year, the festival set a new Guinness World Record with the longest beer garden in the world having a length of 1,820 meters. With more than 300 breweries participating from 86 countries, this is beer paradise. In addition, to beer, there is live music, food, and entertainment. This year, the event is focusing on the beers from the Baltic countries. The three day event is located on Karl-Marx Allee in Mitte/Friedrichshain and lasts from mid-day to the evening. BTW: The event is free!

Too bad I'm in Portland this year.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The "It" Girl

She was "It." I'm talking about Clara Bow, the star of the 1927 silent movie It. Clara Bow was a big star during the silent film era, and after seeing It, I know why.

John Waters
The It of the title translates into sex appeal; and, although the movie is a light romantic comedy, Bow's screen presence is electrifying. The most striking thing about Bow is her modern look. There's no denying it, she has It

Even though it's a silent, It is an entertaining movie full of charm and wit. It's definitely worth a watch. BTW: William Austin, who plays Monty, Bow's rejected boyfriend, is a dead ringer for movie director John Waters. Also, watch for Gary Cooper. He has a small role as the newspaper reporter.

Bow left the movies in the early 1930s to become a rancher in Nevada. Sadly, her life did not have a Hollywood "Happy End." She suffered from severe mental illness and died at the age of 60. 

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Your Lips are Sweet as Honey, but There's Poison in Your Heart

The Queen of Country Music, Kitty Wells, died last week at the age of 92.  Her amazing career spanned nearly 50 years, and included being voted the nation's number one "Country Female Artist" by Billboard Magazine for 14 consecutive years, an achievement that no other country female artist has ever topped..

Her honest and unadorned voice and plain spoken lyrics touched my heart. My grandparents had a collection of Wells records that I would play for hours on end, and they somehow imprinted on my young mind. I can still hear the lyrics.

While her song titles may have sounded like trashy dime store novels, there was nothing trashy or pretentious about Kitty Wells. Her songs dealt with the common country music themes of love, heartbreak, rejection, and sadness, but Wells was the real deal. No schmaltz here. 

Her hits included, It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk AngelsI Don't Claim to be an Angel, and I Heard the Jukebox Playing. My favorite Wells song has this refrain, "Your lips are sweet as honey but there's poison in your heart." A line that has come in handy over the years. 

Monday, July 23, 2012

Poor Service: The Norm in Berlin

There's a story in today's Tagesspiegel with the title, "Is Berlin a Service Desert?" (Ist Berlin Eine Service-Wüste?) The answer of course is an unequivocal, yes.

The notion of service at a restaurant, store, government office, or even a bank, is a foreign concept in Berlin. Most places in Germany have excellent service. In fact, Germany has a reputation as being efficient, fast, and courteous. But, as with many things, Berlin is different from the rest of Germany.

So when visiting Berlin, one should expect poor service, it's the norm. I've come to think of Berlin's poor service as one of those charming cultural differences to be savored like a fine French wine. 

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Slothful World

No Flat Screen?
It's no surprise that many people aren't getting enough exercise. A recent report by the British medical journal, the Lancet, reported that nearly a third of adults (31 percent) are getting insufficient exercise. The study was able to pool data from 122 countries, covering 89 percent of the world's population.

Malta is the world's most slothful country, with 72 percent of adults getting too little exercise. Swaziland and Saudi Arabia follow close behind. There's good news for the USA. Despite our reputation as being couch potatoes, we are actually getting more exercise than many countries, including Britain, Spain, Portugal, Argentina, Ireland, South Africa, Japan, Turkey, Brazil, and Italy. In contrast, Bangladesh is considered the most active country in the world where just five percent of adults are considered inactive. 

Myth or Reality: the Stereotypical American?
The report considers sufficient physical activity to be 30 minutes of moderate exercise five days a week, 20 minutes of vigorous exercise three days a week, or some combination of the two. It's tragic that so many people are unable to meet such a low threshold of activity. 

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Naked Spanish Firefighters

Firefighters protest
against budget cuts.
Their banner reads,
"With so many funding cuts,
we are left naked."
(Courtesy of Der Tagesspiegel)
Spain is in trouble. Five years after the global financial crisis began, unemployment in Spain is at 25 percent and rising, housing prices continue to drop, bank credit to the private sector is falling, and loans going into default continue to rise. On top of that, Spain's economy is in recession.

The government is implementing austerity measures to avert economic meltdown, but nothing seems to work. Spain's citizens are naturally nervous and increasingly afraid. People have staged one-day work stoppages to protest against layoffs, and demonstrated against cuts to social programs, retirement benefits, and health care coverage.  

Unable to find employment at home, thousands of young people are leaving Spain for the booming economy of Germany. The number of Spaniards in Berlin is astounding, just listen to the sounds of Spanish on street these days. 

Friday, July 20, 2012

Die Gurken LEIDEN

A Huge Puddle Near the Brandenburger Tor
This has been an odd summer. In Portland, the heat wave has finally ended (Hallelujah), but in most of the USA, the hot weather continues. For example, the ongoing drought has river levels along the Mississippi River plunging to record lows and impacting barge traffic. And in certain areas of the western USA, wild fires continue out of control causing millions of dollars in damage. 

Beach Bar is Washed Out
Conversely, in Berlin and most of northern Germany, the cool and wet summer continues unabated. This has been one of the wettest July's on record. All this rain has impacted the Berlin tourist economy, including river cruises, outdoor entertainment and dining, and the popular beach-bars along the Spree River.

To add insult to injury, the latest victim of the Berlin Floods of 2012 is the world renowned Spreegurken. Experts agree that this years crop will yield 50-75 percent less Gurken than last year. Schade!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Gropiusstadt-Berlin is 50 Years Old

If you want to meet real Berliners and experience Berlin without the tourists, high prices, and attitude, then visit Gropiusstadt. The people are unusually friendly and open.

Gropiusstadt (Gropius's City) is a planned community located in the Berlin borough of Neukölln. It was designed by Walter Gropius, a founder of the Bauhaus School of Architecture and one of the pioneers of modern architecture. Gropius believed that modern architecture should include all the arts, including graphic design, interior design, industrial design and landscape architecture.

Gropiusstadt is a celebration of the high-rise. With its towering apartment buildings, green open spaces, pedestrian zones, bicycle paths, and magnificent views of the city, Gropiusstadt was designed as a vision of the future: sleek, efficient, and community focused. Today, Gropiusstadt has a population of 36,000, including its own hospital, shopping mall, and four subway stops (U7 Line: Johannisthaler Chaussee, Lipschitzalle, Wutzkayalle, and Zwickauer Damm).

This week Gropiusstadt celebrates its 50th anniversary. Over the last five decades, Gropiusstadt has had its ups and downs. Initially, Gropiusstadt was viewed as a peaceful refuge from the noise, pollution, and crime of the inner city; but, like most planned communities, it developed a reputation as a sterile and isolating place where people went about their business largely detached from one and other.

In the 1970s, Gropiusstadt served as the setting for Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo (The Children of Bahnhof Zoo), a shocking exposé that showed the ugly underbelly of this seemingly ideal community. (The film version, Christiane F. - Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo, still resonates in its realistic portrayal of drug addiction.)

In the 21st century, Gropiusstadt faces new challenges as immigrants (20 percent of the population) clash with the established German residents. Yet, despite its setbacks, most residents agree that Gropiusstadt has been successful in providing many amenities at affordable prices.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Good News for the Treatment of Alzheimer's

One in three people over the age 65 will develop Alzheimer's. Currently, there is no cure for this devastating illness; however, there is good news on the horizon. A new drug therapy could halt deterioration in people with early symptoms of Alzheimer's.

The drug, intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIg), prevents the decline of cognitive skills, memory, and the ability to live independently, among patients with mild to moderate symptoms of Alzheimer's. A small number of patients who took the highest dosage of the drug for three years showed no decline in memory. This latest finding in the battle against Alzheimer's was revealed at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference in Vancouver, British Columbia. A larger study involving 400 patients will be concluded in a year.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Get an Air Conditioner in Maine

Last week, I was in New York City, and it was hot. That's to be expected. But in Maine, it's supposed to be cool. Maine is Vacationland: the place to visit and escape the heat. That's what the Maine Tourism Board claims. However, for the last few weeks, the temperature in Portland has been in the 80s and 90s with very high humidity. It's hotter in Portland than New York City!

A couple of years ago, we had a heat wave that lasted a month. It was like living in Sacramento, California without an air conditioner. If you ask most Mainers, they will say Maine never gets hot enough to warrant an air conditioner. Why waste money on something you'll never use. Then last year, there was another heat wave. Well, enough was enough, and we decided to get an air conditioner, even though it wasn't the Maine thing to do.

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Impressive Frick

Lady with her Maid
Holding a Letter

(Jan Vermeer
Museums can be overwhelming, but the Frick Collection is a manageable museum that can be seen in a 1-2 hour visit. Located on the corner of East 70th Street and Fifth Avenue, the museum has a small but impressive collection, including three paintings by Jan Vermeer. I'm a Vermeer enthusiast. There are only 34-35 Vermeer's known to exist, and with three at the Frick and five at the Met, New York City is the Vermeer capital of the world.
The Frick's Facade facing Fifth Avenue
The museum is housed in the former residence (mansion) of Henry Clay Frick, a Pittsburgh steel baron of the late 19th century, and the building is perhaps even more impressive than the art. Erected in 1913-1914, the museum takes you back in time to America's gilded age where money could buy almost anything. The lavish decor, the paneled rooms, and the ornate staircase (with pipe organ) belong in an Edith Wharton novel. I hope to go back on a Sunday afternoon because during the summer there's an artist in residence who gives free drawing lessons in the Frick garden. 
The Frick's Garden.
Unfortunately, it's rarely open to the public.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Free Activities in New York

New York City is very expensive, but, during the summer months, there are a number of activities that the public can enjoy for free. For example, Bryant Park, located next to the NYC's Public Library, hosts weekly Tai Chi, yoga, fencing, dancing, juggling, and foreign language classes - all conducted on a drop-in basis and for free.

In addition, on Thursdays from 12:30 - 1:30, there is Broadway in Bryant Park, an hour-long presentation featuring some of Broadway's popular shows and performed by cast members. The day I visited, songs from Stomp, Phantom of the Opera, Spider-Man, and Porgy and Bess were featured. The audience sat at picnic tables, on chairs, or brought their own blankets to enjoy the entertainment while eating lunch. I'm not particularly fond of Broadway show tunes, but the audience enthusiasm was so addictive that I was able to have a good time anyway. 

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Thrilling Automat

Lunch Hour NYC, now on view at the New York City Public Library until February 17, 2013, looks back at more than a century of NYC lunches. The exhibition shows how New York City reinvented the midday meal.

Now a Citibank on the
Upper West Side, this was
once an Automat.
Most Automats had

a sort of Art Deco facade.  
A highlight of the exhibition is a reconstructed Automat machine. The Automat, once a fixture in most American cities, was a fast food restaurant where food was served by coin-operated vending machines. You could get anything from a complete turkey dinner to a bowl of soup. As a child, the high point of going downtown with my mother was stopping for lunch at the "futuristic" Automat. Nobody who dropped a quarter in the slot ever forgot the thrill of an Automat. I never did. 

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Van der Rohe in Berlin and New York City

"I don't want to be interesting.
I want to be good."
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

Seagram Building

I've always admired the work of Mies van der Rohe. His minimal architectural designs of industrial steel and glass have influenced twentieth century architecture around the word. Today, his "skin and bones" style dots the skylines of most cities.

Both New York City and Berlin have excellent examples of his work. The Seagram Building, located at 375 Park Avenue between 53th and 52th streets, is New York City's only van der Rohe design (done in collaboration with Philip Johnson). It's easy to miss. It doesn't have the wow factor of the Chrysler or Empire State Building, but its beauty lies in its simplicity. It seems to float in the air, held together by a skeleton of steel beams and plate glass. Its interior is equally impressive with its generous use of natural light and open space. 
Seagram Plaza

The Seagram plaza is also famous. The film Social Life of Small Urban Spaces is studied by most landscape architecture students. It records the daily pattern of people socializing around the plaza, and shows how people actually use space as opposed to the intent of the landscape architect. 

Berlin's Neue Nationalgalerie is another example of a van der Rohe work. Again, this almost nondescript building belies its beauty. It floats in the middle of a spare plaza. The generous use of glass allows for natural light fill the ground floor and the exhibition galleries below. Above all, this building shows how form follows function: not a square inch wasted.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Inside Gramercy Park

Statute of Edwin Booth
(brother of John Wilkes Booth)
At last, inside the park! Gramercy Park is one of only two privately held parks in New York City (Sunnyside Gardens in Queens is the other). Only people residing around the park and who pay an annual fee have access. (BTW: Gramercy Park is open to the public on Christmas Eve.)

I was able to tour the park as a guest of the Gramercy Park Hotel. (Even by NYC standards, this hotel is overpriced. The rooms are nice and not cramped, but there's no complimentary newspaper, coffee, or WiFi access. The only reason to stay here is access to Gramercy Park.)

An  Unfortunate 1980s Addition

I wasn't disappointed. Inside the 2 acre park, the noise of the big city was noticeably softer, the temperature a few degrees cooler (on the day I visited, NYC was 97!), and the throngs of people absent. In fact, the lack of people using the park, and the scores of people peering through the fence was a bit weird. Now, I know how the rich and famous feel when they are gawked at. 

The lack of People Inside the Park

Saturday, July 7, 2012

It's Summer and Blueberries

Yesterday, I discovered a pleasant surprise while in the garden: blueberries. There's something special about eating fresh blueberries from your own garden. Yum! For me, blueberries mark the beginning of the summer with its long languid days and still humid nights.

Friday, July 6, 2012

I Forgot the Reckless Driving

I'm back in Maine for a few days before heading off to New York City. (Yes, NYC in the summer can be brutal!) I just have enough time to catch up on mail, laundry, and a little gardening.

Don't get me wrong, Maine is a great place to live, but Maine driving is another story. I don't think I've ever lived in a place where reckless driving seems to be the norm. In Berlin, the drivers can be aggressive, but at least they follow the traffic ordinances. (What I find uniquely German is how the people are generally very polite, but put a German behind the wheel of a car, and all that civility goes out the door.)

In Maine, anything goes: speeding, texting, running red lights, illegal turns, and of course, rudeness. Now that it's tourist season, I also have to deal with those blasted Massachusetts drivers (they're known as MassHoles in Maine). Oh well, Maine is certainly a lovely place live, but like all things in life, nothing is perfect.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Priestess of Debauchery

Otto Dix (German 1891-1969)
The Dancer Anita Berber
Loan of the
Landesbank Baden-Würtemberg
in the Kunstmuseum Stuttgart

She was Weimar Germany's version of Lady Gaga, Madonna, and Amy Winehouse all mixed together. Anita Berber was immensely famous in Berlin during the 1920s. She danced nude in nightclubs, seduced the rich and famous (both male and female), made no secret of her addictions to cocaine, opium, and alcohol, and married three times before she died at the age of 29.

She was a dancer whose performances broke the boundaries of androgyny and total nudity. She challenged the taboos of the day with her overt drug addictions, bisexuality, and seductive clothes and make-up. Her actions were closely followed in the tabloids, and her films often censored and confiscated by the authorities.

Today, Berber is best remembered as the subject of this famous painting by Otto Dix. Painted when Berber was only 26, Dix has given us an unflattering portrait of Berber, her once renowned beauty has all but disappeared as a consequence of her hedonistic lifestyle.

I saw this painting a few years ago in Berlin as part of a special exhibition of Weimar Republic paintings. I think this work captures the freedoms and excesses of the Goldene Zwanziger (the Golden 1920s). Berber's eyes, pose, and vacuous expression communicate the tragedies that marked her life, and foreshadow the events that would result in her early death. If you're interested, I would recommend Mel Gordon's, The Seven Addictions and Five Professions of Anita Berber: Weimar Berlin's Priestess of Debauchery.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Freedom in the Internet Age

Independence Day is a time to reflect on the status of freedom in the USA and around the world. Many people argue that one agent in the struggle for democracy and human rights is the Internet.

I'm not convinced. In fact, recent history suggests that far from being a promoter of freedom, the Internet has, more often than not, constricted or even abolished freedom. Don't get me wrong, the Internet is a wonderful thing, but it's not a champion of freedom. 

There have been many promoters of the Internet as an agent of freedom, including Hillary Clinton and journalist Andrew Sullivan. In the case of Mr. Sullivan, he stated during the failed Iranian revolution of 2009, "[t]he revolution will be Twittered." Yet for all talk, the Iranian government was able to use the Internet and social networks to infiltrate protest groups and track down protesters. In the end, because of its vast resources, the Iranian government was able to spread its own propaganda and smash the revolution. 

The idea that the Internet will bring about an "cyber-utopia," a belief that the culture of the Internet is inherently emancipatory is laughable, so says, Evgeny Morozov, in his book, The Net DelusionMorozov warns that unless we are careful, the power of the Internet will not bring democracy but an entrenchment of authoritarian regimes. He cites the failed Iranian revolution of 2009, the use of the Internet in China, Russia, and Venezuela to promote their own regimes, and the ever increasing use of the Internet by western governments to access private information about their citizens. 

We forget, that for the most part, the Internet is a commercial concern. It's more about making money than spreading freedom. It's telling that both Twitter and Facebook have refused to join the Global Network Initiative, an industry wide pledge to behave in accordance with the laws and standards covering the right of freedom of expression and privacy embedded in internationally recognized documents, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

So today, while we reflect on the freedoms we often take for granted, we should be aware that those freedoms are always vulnerable.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

All Motorists Must Carry a Breathalyzer Kit in France

Easy to Use Breathalyzer
As of July 1, 2012, people in France will be required to have a breathalyzer kit in their car, that goes for tourists too.

Alcohol is the cause of 31 percent of all auto accidents in France. That compares with 17 percent in England and 10 percent in Germany. Drivers caught without a breathalyzer kit will face a fine of 11 €. The law was enacted to make people more aware of their blood-alcohol level before driving. Perhaps, this will reduced auto accident fatalities. I sure hope so. However, the whole idea self-testing laws, such as this one in France, leaves me skeptical. Will the people most at risk for drunk driving actually use the kits? Of course, the real winners are the producers of the kits themselves. They stand to make big money. 

Monday, July 2, 2012

Human Zoos

I just finished reading Half Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan. I was hooked on this book from the first paragraph. This book has all the ingredients I like in a novel - a strong story, well-developed characters, a good sense of place and atmosphere (Berlin in the late 1930s and early 1990s), concise prose, and it's a mystery.

However, one small detail in the book kept troubling me. Did so-called human zoos exist? In the book, there's a scene at Hamburg's Hagenbeck Tierpark (Animal Park) where Samoan and African people are exhibited alongside elephants, tigers, and apes. After some research, I discovered that during the 19th and early 20th centuries, "exotic" people were frequently exhibited in zoos across Europe and North America. 

In Germany, Carl Hagenbeck's exhibitions of Africans, Eskimos, and Samoans in their "natural" state were extremely popular during the Nazi era. Likewise, at the Bronx Zoo, Ota Benga, a Congolese man, was exhibited to enthusiastic audiences each afternoon during the summer of 1906. Sometimes, reality is more unbelievable than fiction.