Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A Welcome Visitor

Andrew and I had a very nice weekend with Alex, despite the cold. The weather, however, caused us to alter our daytime plans for Saturday and Sunday, dropping outside activities in favor of inside visits. In any case, everything worked out perfectly.

It was my job to drive to the airport Friday afternoon in order to pick up Alex and bring him home. Alex and I walked in the door of the apartment only a few minutes before Andrew returned home from work.

Friday night was devoted to cooking and eating and catching up, and little else.

The first thing we did was put bread in the oven to bake, and soup on the stove to heat. On Thursday night, Andrew had prepared dough for bread as well as his mother’s tomato-based vegetable soup, which calls only for yellow and green vegetables. We thought warm bread and hot soup would be the perfect foods to give Alex as soon as he arrived, since we suspected he would be hungry long before time for dinner and since we believed he would welcome some warming food.

The bread and the soup warmed us up, and warmed up the apartment, too.

Our next project was boiling chicken parts in herbs and spices and broiling tuna, most of which was to be saved for Saturday. Once the chicken and tuna were well under way, we prepared pasta, and ate a plate of pasta with a little chicken and tuna on the side.

Only at this point did we begin to prepare our main dinner foods for the night: a pork roast, cheddar potatoes, parsnips, Brussels sprouts and fried apples.

By the time we were done eating dinner, we had spent over five hours in the kitchen, cooking, eating and cleaning up, in sequence, three times. It was fun.

We went to bed early Friday night, and we rose early Saturday morning.

The first thing we did was make banana bread and nut bread, and put those in the oven, at which point we ate a bowl of cereal, followed by a bowl of berries (strawberries, blueberries, blackberries). This was followed by our real breakfast—ham-and-cheese omelets and potatoes—which in turn was followed by the banana bread and nut bread. It took us a couple of hours to get through all of this, during which time we read the newspapers and discussed how we were going to spend much of our day.

Our original plan was to spend the bulk of Saturday taking an extended walk, from mid-morning until mid-afternoon, exploring some of Boston’s most historic neighborhoods, but the bitter cold caused us to abandon this plan.

As a replacement project, we chose to make a visit to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and we decided that we would try to arrive at the museum at 12:00 Noon and leave at 3:00 p.m.

This gave us plenty of time to clean up, and plenty of time to make chicken-salad sandwiches and tuna-salad sandwiches to take with us.

We enjoyed our visit to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The museum is quirky, as befits its founder and namesake, who was an unmistakable eccentric. Housed in a late-19th-Century recreation of a 15th-Century Venetian Palazzo, the museum displays paintings, sculpture, antiquities, decorative arts and what can only be described as oddities. The artworks are displayed in the same manner as they were displayed during Mrs. Gardner’s lifetime, viz., irrespective of nationality, school or period. It is all rather jumbled, if not rather peculiar, but also rather fun.

The museum has a $12.00 admission fee (unless one’s first name is Isabella, in which case admission is free). I am troubled by steep admission fees, as I believe that museums, as a general rule, should offer free access to the public, consistent with their missions as tax-supported institutions. Moreover, I would categorize the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s collection as a six-dollar collection, not a twelve-dollar collection.

In 1990, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was the victim of the nation’s most famous art theft, an art theft still unsolved. Through subterfuge, thieves dressed as Boston policemen gained entrance to the museum after hours, and made off with several key Rembrandt masterpieces as well as one of the world’s greatest surviving Vermeer paintings, all of which were priceless. None of the stolen artwork has ever been recovered.

After our museum visit, we ate the sandwiches and fruit we had packed and headed over to The Lyric Stage Company Of Boston, where we had tickets for the 4:00 p.m. performance of “The Year Of Magical Thinking” by Joan Didion.

None of us had read the book on which the stage play is based, so we were not quite prepared for what we saw and heard onstage at The Lyric Stage Company. “The Year Of Magical Thinking” turned out be a one-woman show, lasting ninety minutes, about a year in Didion’s life in which her husband died and she was to learn of her daughter’s mortal illness.

The material was maudlin, self-indulgent and creepy beyond belief, and I quite intentionally classify it as “Women’s Entertainment”, with all the pejorative connotations associated with that particular brand of material, which I thought had died out decades ago. “The Year Of Magical Thinking” is no more sophisticated and no more thoughtful than the tripe paraded in a Ross Hunter movie production from the 1950’s, and I was angry that we had wasted our time and our money on such appalling rubbish. So was Alex, and so was Andrew.

After the play, we ate dinner at a Chinese restaurant—we all three ordered wonton soup, egg rolls, and shrimp-fried rice, followed by individual servings of Hunan beef, sweet-and-sour pork, and General Tso’s chicken, which we shared back and forth—and after dinner we headed over to The Huntington Theatre Company to attend the 8:00 p.m. performance of Emlyn Williams’s “The Corn Is Green”.

None of us had seen a previous stage production of this play. None of us had seen the film version, either.

“The Corn Is Green” is a very old-fashioned play, dating back to the era of the well-made, three-act play, often featuring a large cast. The play remains a durable vehicle for a star actress, and The Huntington Theatre Company had an excellent actress on hand, Kate Burton, to lead the cast. Burton was very good. She was one of the finest American actresses I had ever seen. She commanded the stage, and held the audience’s full attention, for two hours and thirty minutes.

No one else onstage was at Burton’s level—the rest of the company of actors was provincial—but the bad acting from the ensemble did not destroy our enjoyment of the play. I doubt any of us would want to see “The Corn Is Green” a second time, but we very much enjoyed this earnest but creaky drama for a single viewing.

The level of presentation—stage design, costume design, lighting design, stage direction, casting—was not high. Such quality of presentation would never pass muster at The Guthrie Theater and would never fly with Minneapolis audiences.

Boston is definitely not a theater town.

When we got home from “The Corn Is Green”, Andrew prepared a hot brandy sauce, and we poured the hot brandy sauce over peaches and ice cream and enjoyed a late dessert.

We slept in a little later on Sunday morning.

As soon as we got up, we made orange bread and lemon bread, and put those in the oven, after which we ate a bowl of cereal, followed by a plate of melon slices (cantaloupe, honeydew, watermelon). For our main breakfast, we ate bacon, scrambled eggs, and potatoes, followed by the orange bread and lemon bread.

During breakfast, we discussed how we were going to spend our Sunday. Owing to the cold, we abandoned our original plans—another series of self-guided walks through historic Boston neighborhoods—for the second consecutive day.

After weighing a few alternatives, we settled upon a visit to the USS Constitution and the USS Constitution Museum. It turned out to be a good choice for us.

The USS Constitution, whose nickname is “Old Ironsides”, has a remarkable history. Prior to visiting the museum and touring the ship itself, none of us had more than a bare-boned knowledge of the vessel’s vast historic significance.

The USS Constitution is the oldest commissioned vessel afloat anywhere in the world.

Launched in 1797, the USS Constitution is one of the six ships of the original U.S. Navy. The ship’s name was chosen by George Washington.

The ship was involved in the War Of The Barbary Pirates, but its most dramatic service came in the War Of 1812, a war in which the USS Constitution destroyed five different British battleships in four separate engagements, each one of which was notable and each one of which has gone down in the annals of wartime naval history. It was during the War Of 1812 that the ship became famous and acquired its nickname. The USS Constitution was part of a remarkable U.S. naval force that, although vastly outnumbered, somehow defeated a superior British navy, over and over, in that conflict. This was a miraculous feat, since the British navy, only a few years earlier, had achieved a stupendous victory over the combined navies of France and Spain, both world powers at the time.

Not only is the USS Constitution still afloat, but the vessel also remains seaworthy. The ship is generally taken out to harbor once a year, but only under tow, and not under sail, because full rigging is exorbitantly expensive. The last time the USS Constitution went to sea under its own rigging was in 1997, a special voyage held in conjunction with the ship’s Bicentennial. It must have provided a most magnificent and unforgettable sight.

The tour of the ship, conducted by U.S. Navy personnel, was both impressive and frustrating. The ship is presently undergoing renovation—there is an entire forest in the State Of Indiana whose trees are devoted exclusively to providing material for ongoing maintenance of the USS Constitution—and we would have liked to explore the vessel in much more detail than the guided tour allowed.

The USS Constitution Museum, set ashore alongside the ship, was not particularly impressive, but we were happy to spend an hour viewing artifacts associated with the ship while reading about the long and distinguished history of this magnificent vessel.

We were very pleased that we made the decision to visit the USS Constitution. It was a last-minute choice on our part, winning out over a couple of other options we had considered, and it was a very successful choice, as things turned out.

We were back home by the middle of the afternoon, and we prepared an early dinner, because we had plans for the evening and would have to leave the apartment again at 6:30 p.m.

We started with soup, a type of clam chowder that is neither New England clam chowder nor Manhattan clam chowder. Andrew had tried out the recipe on me while I was studying for my exams, and it had worked out, and I had liked it, and it does not take long to make, and we thought Alex might like to try it. The recipe is very simple, and involves onion, pepper, corn, bacon and hash brown potatoes in addition to clams. It turned out a second time, and Alex liked it.

We followed the soup with a major garden salad, containing a little bit of everything, and then we had our main course: baked steak, prepared according to Andrew’s mother’s personal recipe, accompanied by baked potato and steamed broccoli, steamed corn and steamed carrots.

Not long after eating dinner, we headed out again, because we were to go to Watertown to catch a performance of the musical “Cabaret” at the Arsenal Theater, performed by the New Repertory Theater Company.

We enjoyed “Cabaret” very much, despite the fact that the performance was not particularly good. It was a performance operating precisely on the inflection point at which, throughout the performance, it might have risen to professional quality at any time or instantly have descended to the level of a college presentation. The performance remained, firmly, on this inflection point all night, stubbornly refusing to budge. Oddly, this tension sort of added to our enjoyment of the show. “Cabaret” is an indestructible vehicle, and the material came across, despite the fact that most of the singing was poor. A live orchestra was used.

Our weekend’s three theater excursions—“The Year Of Magical Thinking”, “The Corn Is Green” and “Cabaret”—provided Andrew and me (as well as Alex) with our first experiences of local theater in Boston. I’m not confident Andrew and I will return to see additional performance by any of these local theater companies anytime soon. As far as local Boston ensembles are concerned, I believe our time will be better spent, and the rewards greater, at Boston Ballet rather than at the local repertory theater companies. Nevertheless, I’m glad we attended these performances, because doing so allowed Andrew and me to satisfy our curiosities about the local companies and because doing so allowed Andrew and me to offer Alex some evening entertainment during his visit. Aside from the Joan Didion play, mercifully short, Alex was happy with what he saw. He enjoyed the two evenings out. He enjoyed exploring the different venues. He enjoyed seeing “The Corn Is Green” and “Cabaret”. In fact, he was pleasantly surprised when he had learned, before his visit, that there were three plays in town with some prospective appeal for him. He instantly said “Yes” when Andrew had asked him whether he wanted us to get tickets for the three productions. I’m glad things worked out.

When we got home, we were all hungry for dessert, so we made white cupcakes, and ate the cupcakes with ice cream and raspberries.

On Monday morning, we ate a Sunday breakfast. As soon as we got up, we made a cinnamon streusel coffee cake and put that in the oven. While that was baking, we made hot oatmeal, and followed the oatmeal with bananas, nuts and honey. Our main breakfast came next: buttermilk pancakes and sausage. We wrapped things up with the coffee cake.

Our Monday program was a visit to the New England Aquarium. There is no aquarium in Minneapolis, and Alex thought it might be fun to visit the New England Aquarium.

There were a few interesting displays on view at the aquarium, most interesting for us of which was the penguin exhibit. The penguins were fascinating to watch, and we could hardly take our eyes off the penguin community as it went about its daily routine.

I have no idea how the New England Aquarium measures up when compared to other aquariums around the world, but we were not particularly impressed. We did not believe it was worth the $19.95 admission price.

We left the aquarium in the early afternoon and walked over to Faneuil Hall Marketplace and had lunch at McCormick And Schmick’s. Andrew and I thought it was imperative that we give Alex at least one good seafood meal while he was in Boston, and we knew that McCormick And Schmick’s would not disappoint (although there is a McCormick And Schmick’s in Minneapolis, too). Our meal was excellent.

After lunch, we walked around Faneuil Hall Marketplace for a couple of hours before we returned home.

We stayed in for the rest of the day, playing cards and playing around on the computers and reading the Sunday newspapers one day late and cooking and listening to music (Tchaikovsky’s opera, “Eugene Onegin”, which Andrew and I will hear at the Metropolitan Opera next month, and Stravinsky’s complete score to the ballet, “Pulcinella”, the first piece of music by Stravinsky I have heard that I actually like).

We prepared a major dinner. Andrew baked bread for the second time in three days and, while the bread was baking, we made a tomato-cucumber salad and an Amish pepper salad, which we ate with warm bread. A bit later, we prepared a very sharp version of macaroni-and-cheese, and ate the macaroni-and-cheese with baked stuffed peppers and baked stuffed tomatoes. The main event came later: roast chicken and stuffing, mashed potatoes, and steamed peas and steamed corn. For dessert, Andrew made an apple cake.

Yesterday morning we slept in, knowing that Andrew and Alex would have to rise at 3:00 a.m. this morning in order to make it to Logan in time for Alex to catch his plane back to Minneapolis. We didn’t get up until almost 8:00 a.m., and we had another Sunday breakfast. We started with hot oatmeal with apple, cinnamon and raisins, and we followed that up with Eggs Benedict, and we ended with apple pancakes and sausage.

Our plan for yesterday was to visit the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, but all through breakfast we discussed other options, such as the Science Museum and a few other alternatives. None of the potential alternatives captured our imagination or seized our attention, so we decided to stick with our original plan and head up to Salem.

The Peabody Essex Museum is the oldest museum in continuous operation in the United States, dating back to the late 18th Century. Its original mission was to collect treasures from all over the world and to bring them back to Salem for display. Salem’s trading firms, whose ships sailed the globe and engaged in trade in Europe, Africa, the Americas and the Far East, amassed hordes of items from all over the world during the era of clipper ships. The items they brought back to Salem form the basis of today’s collection, supplemented over the past century-and-a-half with items amassed by museum personnel.

We did not attempt to explore the entire museum, which is very large (it is one of America’s 25 largest art museums). Instead, we focused on the collections we believed would be of most interest to us.

On the first floor, we viewed the collection of maritime art and the collection of American decorative art, as well as the rooms addressing Salem’s seafaring history. On the second floor, we visited the collection of Japanese art.

That was enough for us. Nothing we viewed was of first- or second-quality. We did not bother even to take a quick stroll through the many temporary exhibitions or through the collections of art from China, India, Korea, Oceania, Africa and North America, or through the collections of photography, architecture, export art, and rare books and manuscripts.

The Peabody Essex Museum has an outrageous admission price, $15.00, which is more than it costs to gain admittance to the Louvre. The museum lacks a Louvre-quality collection, to say the least, and should reduce, even eliminate, its admission fee. The museum has a four-dollar collection, not a fifteen-dollar collection. At least residents of Salem are, I believe, admitted to the museum without charge.

We returned home by the middle of the afternoon and, first thing, we prepared a late lunch: poached salmon, wild rice and steamed broccoli.

We did not do anything for the rest of the day other than hang around the apartment.

Andrew and I gave Alex a good dinner for the final night of his visit. We prepared a pot roast with tomatoes, onions and peppers. We ate the pot roast with mashed potatoes, butternut squash, escalloped green and red cabbage cooked with butter and cream, and an apple salad. For dessert, we ate blackberry cobbler and ice cream.

I don’t believe Alex will be able to report back to Minneapolis that we did not feed him well during his visit!

I’m glad Alex came for the long weekend. He is very good company, and a very good guest, helping out whenever possible and lending a cheerful presence to what otherwise might have been simply another cold, and not particularly eventful, January weekend. Because of Alex’s presence, Andrew and I made a point of getting out and showing him some things we otherwise would have delayed seeing ourselves, perhaps for months if not years. That is one of the advantages of out-of-town visitors—they encourage hosts to discover interesting attractions in their own locales.

As for Alex, he had a very good time. He got plenty of rest, plenty of good food, plenty of company, and managed to see a few interesting things that made his weekend getaway worthwhile.

I don’t believe he could have done better.

His visit ended this morning, when we had to rise at 3:00 a.m. in order to get him to the airport to catch the first flight of the day to the Twin Cities. Andrew planned to take Alex to the airport by himself, but I heard the alarm go off and I decided to get up, too, and go to the airport with them. Because it was still the middle of the night when we left home—it was 4:00 a.m.—we did not have to contend with traffic in either direction.

Andrew is back at work today, but I am off this week. I will do some reading.

On Friday afternoon, Andrew and I will drive down to New York for the weekend, our final weekend of leisure before my classes begin again the following Monday, on which day it will be back to the grind for me, too. We plan to attend a performance of New York City Ballet, a performance of Miami City Ballet (the company will present a guest engagement at City Center), a concert by the New York Philharmonic (the guest conductor will be Riccardo Muti), and a performance of the Broadway revival of “Equus”, which will close soon.

Alex brought a copy of “Equus” with him from Minneapolis so that I can read the play before this weekend’s performance.

I am going to read it today.


  1. It's a shame that you didn't visit the complete Chinese house at the Peabody-Essex. It is really extraordinary and the various decades, even centuries, through which it has been occupied have left heir pentimenti that I think you and Andrew would have enjoyed discovering.

    As to the local the scene, give Speakeasy a try.

  2. The best thing about Boston is the Museum of Fine Arts. Otherwise, Boston is Manchester all over again, old, decaying, dying, suffering population flight, with only the poor left behind. I had to go there a few times on business. A dump, I say. Total dump.

    Were there no military museums you could have visited for Alex's sake?

    Alex enjoyed the old ship, no doubt, but HOW DARE IT HAVE DEFEATED THE ROYAL NAVY!