January 2011

Posted by Ellen

In the 1890s, when Thomas Eakins was teaching painting and anatomy at the Philadelphia Academy of Art, he spent a lot of time hanging around a local gym, watching the anatomy in action. This painting, "The Wrestlers," the final work in Eakins's sporting series, features not only a stylized moment in a wrestling match, very close to a final pin, but also some background characters watching and working and teaching and learning. In particular, the man in street clothes who is pointing at the wrestlers has been compared to Eakins himself--the coach in the gym, like the art instructor in the studio, draws attention to the wrestling action in hopes of elucidating salient matters of craft and human dynamics.

In 2011, meanwhile, wrestling season is again upon us, and one of the Stein wrestlers has stepped away from the gym for a few moments to share with us some observations about the Eakins wrestlers. "The guy on bottom," notes Allen, "should not be trying to peel the fingers off of the offensive opponent. He will be better off planting his right foot on the ground and arching on his head and trying to punch through back to his belly."

Coach in the background may be making the same point. But Mr. Eakins, the guy with the paintbrush--the guy in charge--apparently liked both these wrestlers exactly as they are.

Posted by Ellen

The way I see it, there's not much point in digging out my car before the plow comes around, and it hasn't shown up yet. So the work Margaret White took care of today is still ahead of me, waiting for another day. I'm okay with that.

Our street, Kater Street, is what they call a "small street" in Philadelphia. It's plenty long--almost river-to-river, the entire length of Center City--but it's narrow, narrow, narrow. Regular-sized garbage trucks and snowplows can't fit through. The city operates special skinny garbage trucks for us small-street folks, and I once saw what looked like a lawn tractor from the parks department, chugging down the block with a plow fitted to its front. However, that was back in December.

Today, the kids on the block built a snowman in the middle of the street, with a carrot for a nose and almonds for eyes. He's not blocking any traffic. It's quiet here, with the cars all shrouded and still. If spring comes before the snowplow does, if the snowman has a chance to just shrivel up in the afternoon sun . . . well, it could save me a lot of shoveling.

Posted by Ellen

For most of the twentieth century, the fare for a ride on the Staten Island Ferry--a five-mile, twenty-five-minute trip between Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan Island and St. George Terminal at the northern tip of Staten Island--was a nickel. By the late 1960s, when I took my ferry ride, there really wasn't anything else on earth you could still buy for a nickel; even a coke had gone up to a dime.

In the 1980s and 1990s the ticket price was raised a couple of times, till it cost a quarter. But then in 1997, for reasons I know nothing about, the fare was dropped altogether. It's a free ride now, and it operates twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Last year, people made twenty-one million trips on the ferry.

These people were taking their free ride late one night in December 2010.

Posted by Ellen

Two years ago, son John sent me this picture; he and his girlfriend Bonnie had posed with the pigs. But they were young then; today, John turns thirty-three. He and Bonnie are still together, though I fear that something has happened by now to most if not all of those little piggies.

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Posted by Ellen

Ferrets in their den, according to their mother. Groundhog Day comes next week. 

Posted by Ellen

Lobby of the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas. 

Posted by Ellen

 The car was packed, the trailer was hitched, and in late December 1956 this family set off to begin a new life in West Palm Beach, Florida, with three little kids in the backseat and another on the way. The photo was taken just before they left home, on Lee Highway in Arlington, Virginia.

This is a perfect picture.

I don't know the family, and I don't remember ever visiting Arlington in the 1950s, but I was living about ten miles away back then in Maryland, and this is exactly what the world looked like. My immediate neighborhood was a quiet little subdivision, but once we got in the car and went to the grocery store or anywhere else we went, this is what I saw--these same cars, that Texaco sign, those commercial buildings, the plate glass windows at the dry cleaners. This was how the world looked . . . from where I sat in the backseat.

I see now that none of the cars had outside rear view mirrors. But that wasn't too important because back before carseats and seatbelts, a driver could ask the kids in the backseat to get up on their knees and look out the back window and see if it was clear. Unless you were hauling a trailer, of course.

Posted by Ellen

He looked the way a pirate ought to look, with most of his face buried beneath a thick black beard and his head wreathed in smoke from the cannon fuses he wore under his hat.

And he was in fact a pirate's pirate, looting more than fifty ships in the early years of the eighteenth century, including many vessels "belonging" to other pirates. If you surrendered without incident, he would likely strip your ship of rum and treasure and then let you loose to limp your way home. If you resisted, however, he would fight his way on board, steal all supplies and valuables, put off any surviving crewmen into a small boat, and then burn the ship, unless he had use for it.

At one point he assembled a large enough flotilla to blockade the port of Charleston, South Carolina. People feared him so much that the governor of North Carolina, Charles Eden, offered to pardon him if he would just give up his piratical ways. He accepted the offer, set up headquarters just outside the colonial capital at Bath, and proceeded to capture a French ship offshore, insisting that he'd found it floating abandoned and derelict. Governor Eden accepted sixty hogsheads of sugar from the ship and agreed that the ship must have been derelict when Blackbeard happened upon it.

Blackbeard also went by the name Edward Teach or Thach, but the custom at the time was for pirates to invent new names for themselves, so as not to disgrace their families. Almost nothing is known about his background, except that he is probably from Bristol, England, and he likely knew how to read and write. His piratical feats first drew widespread notoriety in 1716, and he was killed in battle at Ocracoke Inlet less than three years later, in late 1718.

A couple of weeks ago, a team of divers sponsored by National Geographic searched an inlet near Beaufort, North Carolina, where Blackbeard was believed to have intentionally grounded one of his ships; they found the hilt of a sword that matches the description of one of his two personal swords. The rest of his treasure is . . . .

Posted by Ellen

There's a new mural in the neighborhood, by Michael Webb. It honors Julian Abele, the architect who designed the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Duke Chapel, among other wonders, and who lived in the neighborhood for most of his life.

Abele was the first academically trained African American architect in the United States. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania School of Architecture in 1902. 

That's Abele in the middle of the mural, in the brown, three-piece suit, standing in front of a blueprint of the Duke Chapel tower.

The small lot here is called a park--Julian Abele Park--and with a new grant for landscaping improvements, it may soon become an actual park. One of the landscaping features is to be a walkway lined with old marble stoops, suggesting the rowhouse architecture of the neighborhood.

 The trees in front of the mural don't look like much in the wintertime, but of course they are controversial. Do they block the view of the artwork or frame it in natural greenery?

Posted by Ellen

Believe it or not, there are in this world orangutans who just don't know what orangutans need to know. There are also orangutans who know full well how to be orangutans but who because of injury or illness can't get with the program. There are also orangutans who know how to be orangutans and are able and willing to live the orangutan life but who've lost their habitat.

On their own in the wild, these unfortunate orangutans are not going to make it. But if they are somehow directed to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center just outside of Sandakan, on the north coast of Borneo, even they can live happily ever after.

Sepilok is basically a feeding station with no walls; orangutans can eat there forever, come and go at will, or hang around for a while and then give life in the jungle a try. There's also a nursery for orphaned babies, who grow up unafraid of humans or orangutans; by growing up in orangutan paradise in the company of numerous adult orangutans, the orphans have a good shot at learning all the good stuff about orangutan ways.

This fellow certainly looks like proof of concept.