Posts Tagged ‘Philadelphia’

“A Friend may well be reckoned the masterpiece of Nature.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

My American adventure is two-thirds over, and let me tell you, I’ve had a ball.  No, I’ve not kept up this blog as much as I could have – and you know what?  For good damned reason.  It’s that old raging debate – if you’re busy recording, are you actually in the living experience? Humbug. Let me tell you why this trip has been incredible:


I have exceptional friends.  Beautiful compassionate intelligent hardworking friends.  Besides laptop-working out of myriad Starbucks across this great nation of ours, I have spent most of my time seeing old friends.  And as they’re some of the world’s best people, I’d like to tell you about them.  Besides, this is the most accurate way to describe what this year’s American adventure has been.

Philadelphia: I’ve already blogged about Philly, but I just feel the need to spread the love to my pals Bruce and Kate.  Bruce, dear friend and mentor of mine is the founder of the Philadelphia City Paper, and his wife Kate is the founder of a unique design firm.  It is always a pleasure hanging with them and meeting their friends.  Over our dinner celebrating their 25th anniversary, I met Ariel Ben-Amos, a proud young Philadelphian urban planner.

New York: Here the adventure picked up speed.  Besides seeing my sister Ashley (aka “my sister the surgeon”), serendipity is the only word to describe the few days I spent in this exciting metropolis. While strolling in Central Park on Sunday, we happened across the queue for the Public Theater‘s “Shakespeare in the Park” performance.  A longstanding NY tradition, something I have always wanted to experience, I dropped everything and got in line.  Lo and behold, I was one of the last 10 or so people to snag tickets to The Merchant of Venice starring none other than Al Pacino.

Paul Miller aka DJ Spooky

Ashley having abandoned me to my obscure follies, I met up with my friend Paul (aka DJ Spooky) who happened to be in town for just about…15 hours…between his varied gigs worldwide.  I caught up with him between Switzerland and Seattle.   With the number of projects he’s simultaneously involved in (he’s an artist, author, editor, teacher, and much more), it’s hard to keep up.  He recently collaborated with Chuck D of Public Enemy on a remix of “By the Time I Get to Arizona,” in response to the recent outrage down south (really worth a listen).  We met near his place in TriBeCa, had some decent Italian fare (but better wine by far), some more than decent conversation, and happily made our way to Central Park for the show.  Despite the stormy weather (of course I wore a silly short-sleeved tunic and sandals), there was a brief lull for most of the play, aided by yet more wine (thank you, dear Paul).  Rain and wind and all, it was a pretty awesome day.  Amazing how connections just happen.  And yes, Al Pacino was incredible as Shylock.  Incredible.  You, too can get a taste of him in the comfort of your own home from the film version of the same play.  Thank you, dear Al.  I must say that I was even more delighted by getting to see actress Marianne Jean-Baptiste onstage, as well.  I have loved following her career since Secrets & Lies, an all-time favorite of mine, so thank you, dear dear Marianne.

Marianne Jean-Baptiste

New York, New York was a gift that kept on giving.  I got to see Margo, a dear friend who in college had staged managed for me, and who is now a producer on Royal Pains.  Jenny, a talented actress in her own right and now a produced playwright, met me for a brief breakfast at Whole Foods at Columbus Circle.  And Kamilah, a talented editor at the Guggenheim who is also the fiction editor of Make Magazine, introduced me to a gourmet underground cafe in Greenwich Village on the very street that was used as the exterior shot of the Cosby Show’s house.

Even more?  That’s right.  I met with another college theater bud, David (he played Romeo to my Juliet in our Shakespeare acting class), who just graduated with an MFA in Dramaturgy from Columbia University.  He completed his thesis doing a performance project with children in Benares, India.  AND my best friend from childhood, Sarit, just had her first baby.  I had a visit with her new family in lovely South Orange, NJ (which proved a minor public transportation adventure, alone).

James Joyce

The frosting on the NYC cake? Bloomsday on Broadway. No friends could come to this one, but my sister Ashley, my dear sweet sister Ashley indulged one of my exceptionally (and painfully) odd quirks.  We went the 29th annual Bloomsday reading of James Joyce’s Ulysses at Symphony Space.  The readers included Stephen Colbert, Ira Glass, Eilin O’Dea, Marian Seldes (who had just received a lifetime achievement Tony Award two days before), and many others.

Chicago: Sheesh has this post become amateur, sentimental and long long long! I will not be doing Justice to Chicago.  What a pity.  My cousin Danielle Klinenberg is a talented artist.  She has had a very successful year, and her work is more beautiful than ever.  We enjoyed a beautiful

"Driftwood" by Danielle Klinenberg

vegan lunch in her garden in Old Town.  Hallie and Rocco Palladino (she a writer, he an academic in philosophy, and both together amazing cooks and food connoisseurs amongst many other things) were a big part of the reason I came to the States last year – for their wedding in Ojai, CA.  A lovelier wedding I’ve not seen.  We hung out twice, talked about everything under the sun, and let me tell you, better hosts (and margarita-makers) in the world do not exist.

My sister Ashley’s (the surgeon’s) best friend Wendy was in town house hunting.  A brill special education teacher, she and her husband are moving back to Illinois after living in the Quad Cities for 3 years (and according to them, good riddance).

Wendy and her sister Dana lived kitty corner to us, and we essentially grew up together since the age of 4 (or 1, as in Ash and Wend’s case). We had a ball hanging in her parents’ house, playing with her new dog Bandit (a “Blue Heeler“), eating spinach and mushroom pizza from Giordanos, and gushing over her dad’s very complete Start Trek anthologies.

My friend Heidi Thompson Saunders, formally the world’s best stage manager and for several years now the best Chicago theater management exec (Court Theatre at the U of C is lucky to have her), hosted her annual barbecue.  There, I reconnected with Elizabeth Levy, actress and theater educator (check out Barrel of Monkeys Theater); Bryson Engelen, an actor whose production of Twelve Angry Men just won the coveted Outstanding Ensemble Award at the Jeff Awards; and John Boller, another U of C theatre friend whom I haven’t seen in years and years. Unlike the rest of us lost souls, John is a mathematics professor at our alma mater.

Aida at the Bailiwick this summer

And finally the last few days: I saw Connor Coyne who has written an avant-garde novel, Hungry Rats, that will be coming out later this summer. Julie Burt Nichols, one of my oldest friends from high school, and I had lunch at a typical old spot for us, The Corner Bakery at Old Orchard Shopping Center.  Julie is part of the producing team that has resurrected Bailiwick Chicago.  Already having produced four or so shows in under a year, they have two going up at the same time, Elton John’s Aida, and Joe DiPietro’s Fucking Men. And this evening I had a refreshing walk all over Rogers Park with Matti Allison and Joe Szentivanyi.  I can’t but nearly burst with excitement when I encounter Matti and Joe.  They are such interesting people, talented artists, that it’s impossible to be bored.  No, impossible not to be fascinated.  They are world travelers, voracious readers, expert cooks, opera connoisseurs, longtime Rogers Park residents, and enthusiasts of dive-curry-shops.  It is essential that each and every reader of this blog who has reached this point check out Matti’s blog, The Squishy Jesus Taxonomy.  I highly recommend the section entitled, Convenient Tit.

Virgin de la Leche with Christ Child and St. Bernard Clairvaux By an unknown artist from Peru 1680 (AKA "the twofer")

And there we have it.  Friends.  My friends.  And there is much more to come.  I’m traveling to Minneapolis tomorrow to see some very old dear friends.  By car.  Alone.  And I had really better get to sleep in order to do that.  Then I’m off to Iowa.  To see more amazing friends.  What a world.  You marvel why there’s any war.

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Philadelphia has a pretty awesome mayor named Nutter.  Nutty.

You know what’s really nütty? The Mütter Museum.

Not for the weak-stomached, this is honestly one of the most fascinating museums I have been to.  A collection of oddities like no other, the museum which is part of the Philadelphia College of Physicians began with a large donation of specimens by none other than Dr Mütter himself.  What used to be a great learning ground for would-be doctors, this 19th century fascination could today be viewed merely as a carnival freak show if it weren’t for the very thoughtful curation.

Eng and Chang

And a freak show it definitely starts out as.  You walk in and you’re immediately drawn to jar upon jar of diseased feet and hands and tongues and tumors in jars.  Then you see enlarged intestines the size of a boa constrictor.  More conjoined twins than you think are possible (most in fetus-form).  The actual post-mortem plaster cast of Chang and Eng, the original Siamese twins, AND the liver that joined them together.  You see pocked syphilitic skulls.  You see John Wilkes Booth’s foot.  It just goes on and on and on.  Of particular interest to me:

  • Human leather.  You got it.  And this wasn’t actually an oddity of the era.  A 19th century fad, some people had the skins of their deceased loved ones tanned and then used the leather (most often) to bind books.  There was a book displayed, bound in human leather, that was actually an anatomy book!  There was an elegant human leather wallet.  At the end of the case was a long long strip of the leather, and when you looked closely, you could see it was a whole human leg.  Inscribed upon it was the name of the deceased, dates, etc.
  • Soap woman.  An odd phenomenon.  Natural human mummification that takes place in particularly humid climates.  There is a process by which we are broken down into a soap-related substance.  When this mummification takes places, it’s only partial.  It’s extremely rare that it’s complete.  And here was one full naturally-created mummy.  A woman.  Who when x-rayed was found to be around 40, had a congenital childhood disease, had a broken jaw (took place shortly before or after death), and had two four-holed buttons at her wrists.
  • Hundreds of skulls, categorized by country, gender, age, and cause of death.  Amazing!  The more I looked at them, the more differences I started seeing.  When you look at bones, you think, heck, they’re just bones, white, pretty much the same.  But these skulls.  The eye sockets are shaped and angled differently.  Eyebrow ridges are different sizes and angles.  The “faces” even have expressions.  They started resembling Commedia del’Arte masks.  Seriously
  • Heart of Gold

    The gift shop.  No kidding.  This has got to be to coolest museum gift shop ever.  You can buy stuffed plush anatomically-correct hearts.  There are soaps and candles in the shapes of skulls and hearts.  There is even a soap, clear glycerin, with tiny little conjoined-twin-fetuses inside it.  Ewww!  I bought a key chain shaped like a nose, and when you squeeze it, snot bubbles out of it!  I also got a magnet set that looks like a paper doll dress-up game – except it’s of all the organs, and they’re very real-looking.  Amazing stuff.  Fine jewelry – little gold (real) hearts.  Fine hand-made (real teeth-mark) patterned ceramics.  Go visit.

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Tree House Books

One minute I’m half asleep on a tiny 6 am commuter flight, the next minute I’m weed-whacking in the back lot of a non-profit children’s bookstore on the north side of Philadelphia.  En route, somehow, I experienced a tiny Vietnamese hoagie shop where I drank one of the sweetest coffees of my life (gotta love Southeast Asians’ fascination with condensed milk), got an interesting tour of an entire south to north strip of the city (Broad Street) in bumper to bumper rush hour traffic, and visited a priceless African American doll museum.

African American Folkart Dolls

All this before noon. We rounded off the day with a spectacular dinner at Osteria (one of the chefs there was recently awarded a James Beard Award) – memorable for me (amongst so much fun stuff) was the stinging nettle ravioli and a bottle of Tuscan Vin Santo.

Vin Santo - eaten traditionally with hard nutty biscotti

And it’s typical of my adventures with the close friend I’m visiting.  Previous adventures include flying to Atlantic City in a motor glider to visit for an hour, just because (I played ski ball); in London somehow getting into Gunther Von Hagen’s Bodyworlds with press passes before the show got huge worldwide; and getting stuck in downtown Nazareth traffic during a crowded market day with an armed (M-16), jumpy, off-duty, teenage (Israeli) soldier (my sister) in the back seat screaming at us to get the hell out of there.  You get the idea.  Never a dull moment.

On the recommendation of another friend, today we snagged tickets last minute (reservations in advance required) to the Barnes Foundation,

Inside the Barnes

an extraordinary collection of mostly impressionist and post-impressionist art (dominated by Renoir and Cezanne with Picasso, Van Gogh, Courbet, Manet, Matisse, Seurat, Miro, Modigliani, and a couple others I can’t recall at the moment), some Renaissance and pre-Renaissance religious paintings, and an array of traditional African art works (masks, sculptures).

An exclusive, private collection, much of which was never allowed to be reproduced (we’re talking hundreds of works that could have been displayed in the Musee D’Orsay or similar for the last century and weren’t), the works are soon going to be separated and dismantled for the first time ever.  I don’t know the details, but apparently somehow the foundation wasn’t managed well, the city wanted to take over, there was a very long court battle, and I think a building is now being built in the city center for these works of art.

Too bad.

The Barnes Foundation is special.  It’s in an old mansion house with the grounds to prove it in Philadelphia’s famed Main Line.  Dr Albert Barnes who made his fortune in medicine and pharmaceuticals was devoted to art and education, created his foundation in 1922, made John Dewey (a close friend) the first director of education, purchased the 12-acre property, and commissioned the building for his new organization.  Barnes personally arranged the hanging for every work of art on the walls.  His wife Laura was devoted to the grounds, the arboretum, horticulture, and to this day there is an impressive formal garden, exotic trees and ferns from around the world, and a quaint pond and tea house tucked away on a corner of the property.

Tomorrow, the Mutter Museum.  Medical oddities.  Yes.  I’m psyched. This is what the museum highlights from the collection:

  • The plaster cast of the torso of world-famous Siamese Twins, Chang & Eng, and their conjoined livers
  • Joseph Hyrtl’s collection of skulls
  • Preserved body of the “Soap Lady”
  • Collection of 2,000 objects extracted from people’s throats
  • Cancerous growth removed from President Grover Cleveland
  • Tallest skeleton on display in North America

Nothin’ beats Philadelphia Freedom.

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