Monday, November 29, 2010

We Couldn't Get Much Higher

The final, inescapable fact remains that architecture is now breaking scale, and style, everywhere. (In his secret heart there is hardly an architect who doesn't want to do so.) The objective historian realizes that the twentieth century is in transition to a remarkable new technology and a formidable new environment, before we have learned how to handle the old one. Who's afraid of big bad buildings? Everyone, because there are so many things about gigantism that we just don't know. The gamble of triumph on this scale--and ultimately it is a gamble--demands an extraordinary payoff. The Trade Center towers could be the start of a new skyscraper age or the biggest tombstones in the world.
--Ada Louise Huxtable, May 26th, 1966

There have been quite a few lines that made me almost gasp and think "Holy @#!+ can this person ever compose a sentence." But the end of that paragraph I'm pretty sure made my jaw drop open. So profound, so prophetic, and with such a deep understanding of what it means to create architecture and the inherent implications of what we build. And I think most appropriate considering where I was headed on the train.

This was what I'd just finished reading when I arrived to see the premiere sponsored in part by DOCOMOMO (who, by the way, have a newly revamped website which looks great) of what turned out to be a gorgeous documentary about Louis Sullivan, titled for him with the subheading The Struggle for American Architecture. It's a wonderful film directed by Mark Richard Smith, and the icing on the cake was that the premiere was held at the showroom for the greatest American furniture manufacturer of the twentieth century: Knoll. There's almost a kind of electric buzz about being in the Knoll showroom, almost as if you're in the vortex of a much bigger storm of creativity and design history.

I was very surprised to hear that no one has ever made a documentary about this man. Actually, there was just one, called Tall: The American Skyscraper and Louis Sullivan from 2006 which concentrated on only one aspect of his career. But really? That's it? There's at least sixteen or so about Sullivan's protégé, Frank Lloyd Wright. For crying out loud, Sullivan pretty much invented the skyscraper, put Chicago on the map as an architectural wonderland, and coined one of the most famous lines in all of architecture: "form (ever) follows function." He's probably the architect most integral to the transition into the twentieth century.

Photo courtesy Photosfan.
The film is brilliantly framed. It starts with the Chicago fire of 1871. It was an obvious choice, but it works so well, both narratively and thematically, because it makes the city, itself, a blank sheet of vellum. The photographs of what remained after the fire are incredible. It was a virtual wasteland, with only a wall still standing here and there. They actually remind me a bit of the shots of European cities immediately after World War II. But Chicago's infrastructure--namely the train lines and the stockyards--was left unscathed, which meant the city could be rebuilt. And was it ever. It was during this boom, needless to say a great time and place to be in any way involved with the building industry, that Sullivan arrived in Chicago and decided it was right where he needed to be.

It was a bit of a bumpy start, because a recession hit that slowed down new construction a bit. Sullivan took this opportunity to go to Paris to study at the École des Beaux-Arts, which he found insufferably boring. While making a side trip to Rome, he discovered Michelangelo's ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, which had a profound influence on him. When he returned to Chicago, he teamed up with Dankmar Adler, who was a fantastic engineer and acoustician, but nowhere near as talented a stylist as Sullivan, making them the perfect team.

It was well known that, if you wanted a great theater, you hired Dankmar Adler. Ferdinand Peck did just that for the design of the Chicago Auditorium. The exterior was uncharacteristically bland for Sullivan, inspired by the adjacent Marshall Field Warehouse (1885) by H. H. Richardson. But it was the largest building of its kind ever constructed at the time.
Image courtesy Chuckman's Photos.

Photo courtesy Sampleboard Online.
The interior of the opera house, on the other hand, was an absolute symphony of ornament and decoration, color and luxurious materials, which Smith's cameras captured with the most loving admiration to the sound of a Richard Wagner swell. The film makes a point to note that, because of the intimate collaboration between the two partners, everything was seamlessly integrated into the interior's style, down to the ventilation grilles and the lighting, which was the frighteningly-new electric technology. It was a gargantuan job, self-inflicted by Sullivan, who wanted to design all the ornament from scratch to cover every inch of the place. A young Frank Lloyd Wright, hearing that Sullivan was swamped, sent over some sample drawings asking if they needed another draftsman. Quite wisely, Sullivan hired him. The Auditorium catapulted the team of Adler & Sullivan to fame. They also made their new home in offices in the building's tower.

His next big breakthrough was a result of his attitude toward buildings, that they should look like what they are. Sullivan was dismayed by the handling of height. The technologies making it possible--namely steel frame construction and the elevator--were too recent, and architects were not sure yet how to deal with it. These early tall buildings were typically in any number of different architectural styles stolen from Western Europe and stretched vertically. His response in 1891 was "every inch a proud and soaring thing," the Wainwright Building in St. Louis, Missouri.
Photo courtesy Brandon.
Because Sullivan thought the main problem was that tall buildings didn't realize what they were, he strongly emphasized the Wainwright's height. His model was the classical column, with base, shaft, and pediment. If you look at the building at a sharp enough angle, you can very much see the fluted column in it. Five years later he did something very similar with the Guaranty Building in Buffalo, New York. Guaranty, however, was an explosion of ornament in terracotta that adeptly masked the necessity of terracotta to be installed in tiles.
Photo courtesy Cuda swiata.

Photo courtesy SFSU.
The end frame for the story appears in 1893: The Chicago World's Fair. The gleaming white architecture of the fair by Daniel Burnham (with Frederick Law Olmstead) was strictly Beaux-Arts (though built, characteristic of our Drive-Thru Fast-Food culture, like a stage set).

Sullivan had rejected all this contrived pomp for being decidedly European. He felt American architecture deserved its own idiom, rather than simply deriving forms from another time and another continent. As the title of the documentary suggests, he was looking for a truly American architectural vocabulary. The country, however, was too young, too fragile in the wake of the Civil War. So while European visitors to the fair were fascinated by Sullivan's unique and colorful Transportation Building, American visitors were much more turned on by the pretense of legitimacy neoclassicism could bestow upon the United States. Sullivan said it set back American architecture by forty years.

From that point on, classicism was it. Every substantial commission purchased a big, white marble Beaux-Arts temple. Nobody wanted Sullivan's eccentric, unfamiliar brand of Americana. His last great large building would be the Carson, Pirie, Scott department store in Chicago.

Photo courtesy iReference.
Quite amusingly, outside of this store is where one can purchase a demon-possessed Good Guy™ doll from a homeless man.

Finished in 1899, this building is easily twenty-five years ahead of its time and about as modern as any building could have been in the nineteenth century. Additionally, his nature-inspired ornamentation was the perfect complement to what was beginning to be understood as the market driving force behind the art of the fashions sold inside the store, namely the changing of the seasons.

Photo courtesy Exoterika.

Sullivan died penniless and broken in 1924. Despite the fact that he'd built one of the most beautiful tombs in the world--for Carrie Eliza Getty--his friends could only scrape together enough money to buy him a sad, forgettable headstone. His last work wasn't even a building, but merely the façade of a tiny little music store. That a man of such unbelievable talent should meet such a tragic end is shameful and disheartening.

The sort of happy post-script onto the story, though, is a flurry of incredible creativity and exquisite work he did for a bunch of small banks in mid-western farm communities. He built eight of them, from 1908 to 1919, in Minnesota, Indiana, Wisconsin, two in Ohio, and three in Iowa. In my opinion, it's some of the best work he ever did.
Photo courtesy Primitive Screwheads.

His use of ornament had reached a level of sophistication that could be matched only by a true genius, like Michelangelo himself, isolated to brief moments of explosion and intricacy, while tempered by expanses of serenity and restraint.

The modest scale and proportions presented a welcoming, down-to-earth stance to the farming communities and very much appealed to them, quite contrary to the overblown elitism of the common neoclassical approach to bank architecture. Furthermore, his use of natural, organic ornament here spoke to the lives of townspeople who earned their living from the land. The banks became beloved. They also ended up in small towns where little ever changes. So in one last, small victory, while much of Sullivan's work was heedlessly demolished, the banks all remain standing as jewels on the countryside.

One of the great things about them is that he'd begun "signing" his buildings. Right underneath the bank's sign, it would say "Louis Sullivan Architect." It sort of reminds me of how Fellini started to put his name into the actual titles of his films: Fellini Satyricon, Fellini's Roma. But entirely justified because Sullivan's work was so distinctive and at the same time, in a way, quite modest.

After the screening, there was a short talk by the director and a Q&A session. He said he'd never made a film before, which made this project a bit difficult to get produced, and makes it even more impressive as a debut effort. I asked Smith if, while shooting the film, there'd been any one building that really grabbed him, that really took his breath away. He said the Guaranty in Buffalo. He lamented the fact that, due to issues with the current owners, Prudential, it was just not possible to get inside it. But he did manage to get some stunning photography of the exterior with the help of a window-washing platform. A couple other questions and we all headed over to finish off the wine they'd so nicely supplied.

I'd said hello to Kathleen, John, and Leslie from DOCOMOMO when I arrived. I'd met them all at their Kips Bay Towers event for Open House New York, which will be the subject of a later post. But afterward I got the chance to chat with John Arbuckle, who I was impressed to discover works for Gwathmey Siegel. He was telling me all about Buffalo since it's the location of the building Smith said most grabbed him. He reminded me that Frank Lloyd Wright's Darwin D. Martin House is also there and is now open to the public, and a few other things that all together might make it worth a trip to Buffalo. I think he might have sold me on going at some point.

I also asked Smith if this might be picked up by PBS or a similar network. He said he had spoken to people at PBS, but that they already have their own stable of directors with whom they work almost solely. I think this is very ridiculous and unnecessary. It limits the voice of their programming and means that some very good material (this film, for instance) will never see air time on their stations.

You can purchase a copy of the DVD (also available on Blu-ray), Louis Sullivan: The Struggle for American Architecture, on the website for the film (link at top). I highly recommend seeing it. Personally, I'm looking forward to buying my copy when the expanded edition is released with (perhaps) behind-the-scenes footage and commentaries and whatever else.

©2010, Ryan Witte

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Man on Campus--Part 2

This was not the smorgasbord of sculpture of PepsiCo by a long shot, but I thought these three pieces were very interesting. I first stumbled onto a Henry Moore, Three-Way Piece: Points (1965).

There was a student there who appeared to be sketching this sculpture, but I didn't inquire. It stands on three "legs," one a point, one curved, the third with a straight edge and a rounded one. There's some uniquely bad analysis of this piece going around the web. A lot of it claims with a perfectly straight face that it encourages the viewer to walk around it and look at it from every direction. This is about the most redundant thing you could say about a sculpture, since pretty much all sculpture does that, being a three-dimensional art form. In any case, it manages to work quite nicely against the wildly various architectural backdrops of this part of the Columbia campus.

Much more interesting is that, looking at the base, I was fairly certain it turned, so I gave it a push. It wouldn't budge. One source claims it was powered by a motor until the energy crisis of the 1970s, when it was permanently shut off. Another seems to suggest that it can be rotated by pushing it, which students do, necessitating special conservation measures. If that's true, it clearly requires more than one person to turn it and there were no drunken fraternity boys around for me to ask for help. The student sketching it probably would have been very irritated if I'd changed its orientation, anyway.

Then there's this great piece by David Bakalar called Life Force (1988).

Bakalar is kind of an interesting character. He got a degree in physics from Harvard and metallurgy from MIT. He then went on to work for Bell Telephone Labs, which was a research powerhouse at the time. He was president of Transitron Electronic Corporation from 1952 to 1984. I'm sorry to say I don't think all of his work is terribly successful. A lot of it is way too simplistic and obvious. You basically don't even need me to tell you what Computer Man looks like for you to guess what it's about.

His abstract works, on the other hand, can be a bit better, and I think this is one of the most successful of them. Its form is primary enough to allude to a lot of different things without being blatant. It's a simple piece, but I think that works in its favor here. In fact, I think he's stumbled onto something extremely intense and dramatic. It's located beautifully in the middle of the plaza, as well.

And the last one, which previous photos almost revealed, is over the entrance to Greene. It's Bellerophon Taming Pegasus (1967) by Jacques Lipchitz.

Bellerophon was sent to kill the Chimera, which was thought to be a fatal mission that would cause his demise (long story, you know how those demigods were), so he needed the help of Pegasus. Athena gave him a golden bridle to help, but it was evidently still quite a task taming the winged horse. The law student sitting on the steps told me that the sculpture symbolizes the triumph of man over nature and the imposing of laws, an analogy for what goes on inside the building. His friend was like "really? Is that what it means?" The somewhat sculptural canopy had been there since the building went up in 1961, but there are varying claims as to when Lipchitz' piece was created and installed. Most likely this cast was made in 1973 from a maquette from 1967. It was donated to Columbia in 1977, allegedly by alumni, and shipped to the United States from Europe in eight pieces. It's evidently one of the largest outdoor sculptures in Manhattan.

Despite what I've had to say about Cubist sculpture, I do actually kind of appreciate Lipchitz' work. Obviously he had gone different directions by the late-'60s. It's fascinating to me that any artist would be working with Classical themes as late (or early) as 1967, but I guess those themes have remained timeless. It was only the Modernists who rejected them, and that only lasted about thirty or forty years out of thousands. I'd be tempted to say that this was a very Postmodern choice of subject if it weren't for the fact that Lipchitz had been doing it for years.

At this point I figured I'd better get to doing what I had gone there to do, and headed over to the Avery Library. I did need to ask one person for directions, but it wasn't difficult to find. There's just way too many buildings there and the signage is spotty at best. The girl at the entrance desk to the library was one of these really weird, tweaky Library Science types. If you've never worked with a librarian, it's difficult to explain them, but they are a really strange breed. It's not exactly bad social skills, although it can be that, also. It's more that they have this really strange way of interacting with people.

My first real introduction to this character type was volunteering to work in the library at the Municipal Arts Society. The librarian in charge, Claudia I think was her name, was extremely meticulous and surely would have had her hair in a bun and looked at me over the top of her bifocals if she'd been older. The one thing I'll take away is that she had the irritating habit of referring to it as the "Citicore Building." This is a major pet peeve of mine and everyone needs to please stop it. It's not a "corps," with two silent consonants at the end. It's a "corPoration," with a "P" in it. "CiticorP." I tried saying it properly for her, but she never did get the hint, much to my annoyance.

Anyway, Librarian Girl told me I couldn't get right in with the Metrocard, but I had to go over to the office in the Butler Library to get an access pass. First she assumes I know exactly what that is, even though I'm clearly not a Columbia student. So I say, "I don't know the campus that well, can you be a little bit more specific?" So then she proceeds to give me these really long, convoluted directions about walking along paths and turning right and left and going down stairs, when all she really had to say was that it's the enormous building on the south side of the main quad and utterly impossible to miss. When I got through her directions and realized that was the building she meant, I'm thinking, "THIS is where those directions were supposed to be leading me?"

So I get to Butler. The woman behind the desk in their front office basically took one look at me and instantly decided that she was not going to let me into the library. It's kind of mysterious, really, because I am so very handsome and charming. Barely even looking at my Metrocard, she says with condescension and patronization just dripping from her voice, "ooohhh, nooooo, this isn't going to wooork. Ooohhh, noooo, you need the bluuuuue card." I'm like, "oh, wow, is there anything you can do to help me out because it's not all that easy for me to get up here." "Noooo, this is the wrong caaaard. Oooohhh, noooo, this isn't going to work at aaalllll." Siiigh.

"So you're saying that I have to go all the way back downtown to get a different card and then come all the way back up here again?" Eventually she got around to informing me that there is in fact a regular New York public library branch right around the corner. That was a relief, so I set out for that branch.

After waiting at the public library information desk for about an hour while a big long line of people checked out laptop computers (did you know you can check out laptops for free at the library? I didn't.) I finally got up to the desk. I put on my absolute friendliest, cheeriest tone of voice, asked the desk attendant how she was doing, and explained that I had the wrong card. They don't have the blue cards there, they never do.

Can you see the steam shooting out of my ears?

I decided to go back over to Butler anyway and just beg and plead for some kind of consideration. This time, the first woman was helping someone else. So I went instead to talk to her coworker, a much younger woman who was very likely a Columbia student. I explained my predicament. She's like "oh, SURE, that's no problem, just show me your driver's license." What. She really was my savior. If only I'd been able to deal with her the first time around, it could have saved me about a half-hour.

I take my fancy new access pass and head back over to Avery. Weird Librarian Girl tells me that now I have to have specific call numbers for her to allow me inside. Well, I didn't have call numbers, that was the whole point of needing the blue Metrocard in the first place. I was researching a subject, not looking for specific research materials. But I did manage to find in their computer system a list of drawings that seemed like a good place to start.

Finally, I descend the stairs into what they clearly consider to be the great holy sanctuary of Columbia's Avery Library. The drawings are only available for view by appointment...and I don't have one. Of course.

The woman handling the desk downstairs was very nice, and called back to the drawings collection. Jason, who I had emailed a couple of weeks earlier, and who I soon learned was the person she'd gotten on the phone, quite graciously allowed me to come back to the drawings archive anyway so that I could make an appointment. He was also very nice and helpful and explained what I would need to do so my next trip wouldn't be as ridiculous as the first. I didn't know when I'd be able to return, however, so I just got his contact information and would have to wait for a good day to go back again.

Next up: International Affairs.

All text and images ©2010, Ryan Witte.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Double Features

It seems like every other week, I'm yet again unable to resist the urge to discuss something that treads on the boundaries of what this blog was supposed to be about. The irresistible temptation up until now has been the Performing Arts, until such time as I see what futuristic insanity Rei Kawakubo's mind has birthed lately. Film, most particularly, is about as over-saturated by uneducated opinions as you can get, mostly because pretty much everyone sees them and proclaims to know what they don't like. But this post I think is far enough out in left field (or perhaps I should say the left side of the Cricket pitch) that I'm just going to go ahead and do it. And I do have a degree in Film Production, after all, so I suppose I should be allowed.

I've been trying to see a lot of Bollywood movies lately.

Asoka (2002), Satosh Sivan Cinematographer
It always baffled me how films from India, an industry that produces more films than even Los Angeles, are practically impossible to see here with any normal kind of consistency. Until the advent of Netflix, that is, bless that cult, but I really meant in the theaters. Certainly it takes getting used to some of the cultural differences. More than the way characters behave--I'd have to be an idiot (at best) to claim that causes me any consternation--I mean the way that physical action, visual signals, and character behaviors affect cinematic meaning. At the same time, these films are positively normal by the standards of a typical American audience compared to the alien things Fellini was doing mid-career, let alone the work of someone like Alejandro Jodorowsky.

And they love those musical numbers. But you'd be hard-pressed to find any American over thirty who hasn't seen at least one movie musical in his or her lifetime, especially if you include Disney. For everyone under forty, I fail to see all that much difference with sitting around watching MTV for a couple hours.

This intimate relationship between popular music and film is a bit troublesome. It means that Pop music is restricted to being compatible with a film context, which is dangerous, especially in clubs. The most innovative club music hasn't been narrative for about twenty years, except for the preferences of silly drunken sorority girls, who are not widely known for their progressive taste in music. It does, though, raise the standards quite considerably for film soundtracks to be club-worthy, an obligation not understood here since probably Footloose, and not fully realized since Grease, or questionably Xanadu. Much of it here is  radio-ready, and put to great use, but it's usually in the Ballad category.

We have the stars of course. John Williams is a brilliant master. Ennio Morricone is an absolute genius. Jerry Goldsmith and Nino Rota generated revolutions.  Giorgio Moroder did it all. But none of them could hold a candle today to Wolfgang Gartner, Saeed Younan, or even Danny Tenaglia on a dance floor (to choose three of my favorites out of many choices).

Well, I think I have a theory. Perhaps if an Indian reader feels I'm getting it all wrong, they'd be generous enough to discuss it. It's actually a combination of different elements creating a problematic result. The language barrier is one part of it, and I'd like to argue than it's actually more of one than it might be with a Romance language, and also that it's more of a problem than, say, Japanese, when combined with other factors.

I get the impression that India's audiences weren't raised as much on the zero-attention-span television media that we did, necessitating the rapid-fire audio-visual bombardment we get with most of our films now. On the other hand, I also get the impression that living in a city like Mumbai is like that, in reality, all the time. So many people, so many vehicles, so many smells, so many colors, so much bustle, so much activity. One might think their cinema would be ponderously slow just to offer a retreat, but they move fast. It's not quite an Oliver Stone pace (and he comes back into the discussion later), but the plot points hit hard and fast.

This is where the language becomes a problem. The pace is fast, and it's a narrative bombardment, as well as cultural. In other words, take for an example the first act of Terminator 3--which, in my humble opinion, is one of the greatest feats of destructive, pyrotechnic, computer-generated action ever put on film. Sci-Fi nerds may compare it to T2 as disparagingly as you wish. Its physical action is overwhelming, but in only a very visceral way. There's not much you have to absorb intellectually, and for the most part, it relies very little on language, much like the popularity enjoyed by some of the Asian offerings, both Gojira and Kung-Fu (the preponderance of dubbing notwithstanding). It's interesting also to note that the pacing of, say, Yasujirô Ozu is extremely leisurely.

It's pretty much understood that Americans love movies because they can't be bothered to ever pick up a book. Subtitles are always going to be a hindrance because no one here wants to read. I'm not quite as cynical as that makes me sound, but you know what I'm saying. To be as fair as I'll care to be, it has to do with the reasons why people go to the movies in the first place, namely for escape.

There's something else here, as well, that I'd like to coin a term to describe if no one already has: Hindglish. My eyes know very well how to handle normal subtitles. In a Chinese film, where I understand none of the spoken dialogue but can focus more on raw intonation, subtitles are a breeze. But I have found it a bit distracting that much of the dialogue in Indian film is quite familiar (English) and much of it so foreign to me (Hindi), but all contained in a single sentence, bouncing back and forth.

The sum of all this--cultural differences, the fast narrative pacing, and the disorientation caused by the dialogue/subtitle dilemma--is that it is a lot of information to absorb. That brings me to the next factor: these movies are LONG. Make no mistake, I have many, many times sat through the entirety of Lord of the Rings installments. I become engrossed. I don't need to pause the DVD fifty times. A friend from India explained that mass audiences there (he very amusingly called them "the mob") wouldn't pay to see a movie if it weren't three hours long, that they'd feel cheated paying the same price for a movie of shorter duration.

I said most Americans can't sit still for much more than an hour at a time, especially without checking their Blackberries a couple of times. I also pointed out the size of an extra-large soda at our neighborhood cineplex. I almost puked just looking at this mammoth plastic vessel. I swear the extra-large is literally a half-gallon of soda. If I drank that much Coke in an hour and a half, quite seriously I'd need to be taken to the hospital. So no way is anyone going to be able to last three hours without going to the toilet. He did point out that they have rather long intermissions, gratefully.

I really lament the fact that our longer films these days don't have intermissions. It seemed like such a civilized inclusion to the experience. I understand that theaters want to pack as many showings into their business day as they possibly can. I also can't help but wonder if the loss of that percentage of ticket sales per day wouldn't be offset by the inevitability of some audience members purchasing another $11.99 barrel of popcorn or $7.95 slab of milk chocolate on their way to or from the restroom.

I'm also not surprised that the Bollywood Dramas are as long as they are. Speaking of Oliver Stone, I was recently
inspired by the similarly intense and brilliant Rajneeti to watch JFK again, a movie I proudly own. Stone's movie is rapid-fire with not only narrative information, but also complex historical references, and it's a relatively long film. But I'm really not surprised by a lengthy Drama anymore. What got me was that the Bollywood Comedies are just as long.

I really thought about it, and in the entire history of American cinema, I could think of only one true Comedy that far surpassed the two-hour mark, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. And for the record, I also believe that is the single most epic Comedy in the history of American film. I say that not because it is so very good or so very funny (or lengthy). There have been plenty of movies that were funnier (although it is soil-yourself hilarious). I say that because on the one hand, its plot is so ingeniously, uniquely simplistic that the greatest comedic insanity could effortlessly be attached to it. On the other, it symbolized a complete 180-degree shift in the nature of comedy as a genre and a vocation, from the old Vaudevillian Guard of both live theater and the Golden Age of Hollywood to the figures who would make their names and whose work would be shaped by the brand new medium of television.

I'm going to see more of these works and perhaps my impressions will change. I've found them entirely entertaining. I think it may be that it's too much for typical American audiences to handle, in intensity and duration. In New York, maybe we have a chance. We've always loved foreign films here. Our city is intense, its pace speedy compared to Los Angeles, the suburb-without-an-urb that has molded our continent's understanding of cinematic expression in its own image. Still, we have no city here that runs at the pace of Mexico City, Tokyo, Hong Kong, or I suspect Mumbai. I'm just happy I live relatively close to Jackson Heights so I might have a chance to enjoy them.

©2010, Ryan Witte

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Getting Stoned--Cenozoically

While we were inside the quarry, everything was so fascinating that I didn't even stop to notice, but it was around this time that the Ibuprofen had completely worn off and I started to feel the pain. I was nursing this horrible ear infection all day. ["What are you, an infant?" my good friend had asked me, having never heard of an adult getting one. Yes, an ear infection.] My ear canal was all swollen shut, so I could barely hear from that direction, and the pain was awful, like having a migraine headache through the whole left side of my head, jaw to crown. And there were some fluid results I won't discuss in case you're about to eat lunch. I'm fairly sure the constant moisture from the rain and the quarry itself, plus all the dust in the air exacerbated my condition. It was a sacrifice I was willing to make, and it's all better at the time of this post, thankfully.

The Artistic Tile folks had mentioned at the very start of the trip that they had aspirin and that no one should suffer through a headache, but at that point I figured it wasn't going to matter all that much. I tried my best to stay in good spirits despite this annoyance as we headed to the restaurant where we'd be eating dinner.

Along the way, we did pass something I don't think I'd have believed existed if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes: The American Museum of Fly Fishing. Now the art of weaving feathers and tassles together to make something that looks like a bug to a fish is definitely pretty cool. I'm just not certain the sport warrants an entire museum. They do have the oldest known fly in existence, though, evidently.

The place where they took us for dinner came about as close as any place could to making up for a horrible ear infection, The Equinox.
The original hotel was established in 1769.
Their grounds are absolutely stunningly beautiful and consist of seventeen different buildings, many of them discernible as separate construction but combined into larger structures.

I really thought it would be the ideal place to have a wedding, and I'm sure many, many couples have over the years.

I'll have to say that--minus an unfortunate cole slaw--the food was far better than I ever would have expected. Particularly delectable were a homemade macaroni and cheese (which I overheard someone say was "the real deal") and a soup which, if I remember correctly, was butternut squash and apple and spiced just perfectly.

It was at dinner that I met Jeff, spoke to John DeSoto and John's friend and neighbor, Jan, a bit more. Unfortunately, I could barely hear from one side of my head, and it sounded to me like I was yelling when in fact no one could hear what I was saying. I suppose I probably came off as all timid and shy, which are two of about the very last words anyone would ever use to describe me. Oh, well. By this point, the rain had stopped, and the temperature was a comfortable sixty-five degrees or so. It truly was the perfect ending to an incredible day.

For the ride home, Levinson had brought along the DVD for Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. He remarked at how very difficult it is to choose a movie for an entire busload of people who really were of every conceivable age and background. It's a great movie, and I haven't seen it for probably twenty years, but mostly I just wanted to sleep. So I crumpled myself up as best I could on a cramped bus seat (I did have two of them, thankfully), and passed out.

My subway ride was also excruciating because I was dressed for rainy Vermont and a forty-two-degree quarry while New York, especially the subway, was remarkably hot. I thought I might collapse, but I survived it. I slept like a rock that night, as well. All in all, it was a trip I will not very soon forget.

All text and images ©2010, Ryan Witte.