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Author: Ralph Gardner

The Presence of Pets

The Presence of Pets

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There are words in other languages that nail aspects of the human experience and for which there are no English equivalents.

For example, “Shouganai” in Japanese, apologies for my pronunciation to any Japanese speakers. It roughly means something that can’t be helped so why worry about it.

Or “Komorebi,” another Japanese word. This one means the interplay of light and leaves when sunlight shines through trees.

Or “Mangata,” the Swedish word for the shimmering reflection of the moon on water.

Another experience for which I’ve yet to stumble across a one-word description in English or any other language, though that doesn’t mean it isn’t out there, is the subliminal presence of pets.

Last week I happened to be in city alone, without my wife or our dog Wallie.

I don’t mean to suggest I missed Wallie more. But her absence is felt more viscerally. Part of the explanation probably has something to do with the predictability of pets, the familiarity of their cadences. For example, the fuss they make when you walk through the front door.

That doesn’t mean my wife is unhappy to see me. However, I haven’t known her to drop whatever she’s doing to rush over and greet me.

But it’s not just the welcoming experience.

There’s a certain profundity about the presence of a pet even when they’re not doing anything. Sleeping, for instance.

It’s the companionship, the reassurance of another breathing soul in one’s life.

Maybe it has something to do with the essence of the relationship between a human and an animal since it’s largely non-verbal. It’s as much felt in silence as in sound.

It’s the realization that they’re going about their own lives as you go about yours in a shared space.

I suppose that applies equally to a human roommate. Perhaps the difference is that a pet is dependent on you in a way that a person, who can fend for himself or herself more or less, isn’t.

You know you’re responsible for their wellbeing so that even when you’re not engaged with them they’re subconsciously on your mind.

Yet that dependency, though to describe it as such denigrates the mutuality of the experience, that connection, goes both ways.

Wallie is never freer or seemingly more ebullient than when we’re taking walks in the woods. To travel the woods without her is a less joyous experience. Perhaps because she’s a hound, a so-called working dog, who feels she’s finally getting to exercise not just her body but also her destiny when she’s out there tracking down animal scents.

Her canter is a joy to behold. She can also accelerate approximately as fast as a deer and frequently does. It would be fun to pin a pedometer to her because I suspect that on our average hour-long walk she travels fifty times my distance coming and going, coming and going.

Her breed and breeding also likely has something to do with the peculiar mark she leaves on our lives.

She’s a Bracco Italiano, a gun dog, with the long floppy ears and folds of flesh reminiscent of a blood hound, but more delicate. She’s described on the American Kennel Club website as one of the oldest pointing breeds, developed in Northern Italy. Her mission in life is to identify prey and then retrieve it.

I don’t know how many other breeds do this: when you return home she greets you not just with a wagging tail but also with a gift in her mouth. A toy, a bone, a stolen sock. Accompanied by a low guttural sound that could be mistaken for a growl if you didn’t know her better.

She’s seeking acknowledgement for her offering. Perhaps because she’s a frustrated hunter.

I might have attributed Wallie’s peculiar behavior to her and her alone until we visited another Bracco and saw that dog behaved in precisely the same way.

But whatever the nature of that companionship Wallie provides, it’s felt as profoundly in the woods as in our apartment in the city or house upstate.

As I said, a walk through the forest is lonelier without her, even though she’s absent much of the time, off doing her own thing – sniffing, running, barking if she thinks she’s cornered a chipmunk in a hollowed out tree or the crevice of a stone fence, and most aromatically of all, shoulder diving into a pile of deer droppings.

I carry a leash to corral her when we’re crossing into the woods from one side of the town road to the other. But you can tell it’s a crushing blow to her ego. The compensation comes when you successfully navigate that passage, release her, and watch her bounding off into the woods again.

The word for that is freedom.

A Perpetual Valentine

A Perpetual Valentine

If a child were looking for convincing proof that magic exists in the world, and that one need never relinquish the passions of youth, that kid would have to travel no further than the local candy store.

During my formative years it was a place called Schwartz’s Out of This World Chocolates. And it was located in Manhattan on 72nd Street between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues.]

To visit was to enter a felicitous alternate reality, a planet without hardship or heartbreak, a modest temple to pleasure. Its cases were organized with neat rows of candy, including a cornucopia of chocolate creams; I’ve yet to come across a better, lighter, vanilla cream. And then there were the store’s trademark red and white checked boxes loaded with their signature wafer-thin chocolate mints. These were delicate sandwiches of dark chocolate and green mint cream. And they suggested a sensibility no less exacting than Vermeer’s. That would be owner Al Schwartz.

When Schwartz’s closed its doors in the early 80’s it felt as if the doors to my childhood had also shut behind me; even though I’m happy to report that Mr. Schwartz’s family continues the noble tradition of candy making, now in its 79th year, in Carle Place on Long Island.

While nothing could quite replace Schwartz’s and that Mary Poppins sense of serendipitous wizardry, I’ve found a more than suitable upstate substitute. It’s called Vasilow’s and it’s in Hudson, NY.

Best of all, it’s apparent from the moment you set foot in the store that the Vasilow’s – Kate and Jim – have a sense of the responsibility that lies in their hands; to marshal the transporting power of a candy store, not just the smells and tastes but also the aesthetics, the theatrics.

It’s no accident that this commentary comes the week of Valentine’s Day. But the message that Vasilow’s, with its old-time cases and patterned tin ceiling, imparts is that treating yourself, as well as your friends and loved ones well, very well, should be a year-round habit, almost a regimen.

“People are happy,” Kate said of her customers and the sense of delight that enrobes them as soon as they set foot in the store. “They’re buying chocolates.”

Jim Vasilow has done his best to reproduce the candy store and soda fountain that his grandfather and great uncle, at the time recent arrivals from Greece, operated on Warren Street in Hudson from 1923 to 1969.

“When we had days off from school I’d help out at the store,” he remembers. “In my mind I was helping. I’m sure I was just underfoot.”

I neglected to ask him how much he was paid, undoubtedly in candy.

Among the memorabilia the resurrected Vasilow’s has collected are some of the original store’s signs – ice cream sodas were 35 cents – and a well-thumbed bi-lingual candy cookbook in both English and Greek.

There’s no soda fountain but I’m pleased to report that business is good even though Vasilow’s is ever so slightly off the beaten track. No longer on Warren Street but at 741 Columbia Street.

Kate described their customers as a lucrative mix of locals, weekenders and corporate clients. And it’s easy to understand why. I’d dropped by to purchase Valentine’s hearts for my family, the assorted one-pound box costing roughly half of what it would in New York City.

Jim got into the candy business shortly after getting out of the tool distribution business and “hating every minute of it,” he told me.

There was little of the original candy store left – just a couple of copper kettles and a few chocolate molds. He’s also recreated Vasilow’s inlaid tile floor. Most significantly, with his grandfather gone Jim had no guide or mentor to teach him how to master the art of making chocolates and candies. So he set out to learn, crisscrossing the country taking classes. The couple opened the reincarnated Vasilow’s in 2002.

Since that time tastes have changed. At first, Kate told me, they sold 70% milk chocolate and 30% dark. Those numbers have now flipped, dark chocolate considered a healthy treat. Dark chocolate is also part of the popular Keto diet.

I don’t see why one has to choose. While I also prefer a dark chocolate cream — the bitterness of the chocolate setting off the sweetness of the raspberry, orange or maple filling  — a milk chocolate cherry cordial overloads the brain as few activities that come without emotional complications can.

Christmas is the busiest season, with Valentine’s Day and Easter – Vasilow’s has a collection of bunny molds in various shapes and sizes as well as solid and hollow – coming in a close second.

They even have an older customer who returns once a year to have the same pound-and-a-half Valentine’s heart replenished for his wife.

“We’ve even done repairs,” Kate told me.

But only a fool would consider a candy store just for special occasions. While I’m not recommending it become a staple of your diet, it has a coolly efficient way of instantly helping life rise above the mundane.

Kate reported that their almond butter crunch and peanut brittle are very popular. And their chocolate truffles can be a charmed addition to a balanced diet. And if you’re one of those to whom locally sourced ingredients is important, I heartily recommend Vasilow’s cacao maple vodka truffle. It’s made from vodka from Olde York Farm Distillery in nearby Claverack, NY.

The Art of the Croissant

The Art of the Croissant

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This part of the world has a lot going for it: verdant nature, great vistas, a world-class river. But one of the areas where it cannot pat itself on the back is an abundance of good, let alone, great bakeries.

And when you think about it can a community, any community, describe itself as a truly civilized place without a storefront pumping out the transporting smell of fresh bread? Not to mention fine pastry?

The cookie aisle at the local supermarket will do in a crunch. But it really can’t compete with a well-crafted buttercream chocolate cake, a lively mocha éclair, or a warm sea salt chocolate chip cookie.

So it came as a pleasant surprise when, in 2016, the Bartlett House, an historic railroad hotel from the 1800’s in Ghent, NY was renovated and turned into a restaurant, café and bakery.

That’s the other thing about bakeries. They should be within easy driving and better yet walking distance. Not too long ago I asked a French chef how Paris manages to support a bakery on seemingly every block. His explanation was that people are loyal to their neighborhood bakery. That’s where they go to pick up their morning croissant and their daily baguette. In a way I suppose they see it as an extension of their kitchens.

Bartlett House is an approximately five mile, ten minute drive from our house. In a rural community such as ours that’s the equivalent of next door.

But just because a new bakery opens near you doesn’t guarantee it’s going to be any good. I flatter myself that I know my baked goods but I’m far from a snob. My standards are high but not effete. I haven’t met the cookie, cake, or come to think of it pretty much anything else that couldn’t benefit from a generous layer of frosting, a downpour rather than a drizzle.

So when the Bartlett House opened I would have been satisfied if they’d produced a dependable cake and cookies. It came as rather a shock when I bit into their croissant – it looked authentic sitting there on the café’s scenic counter but looks can be deceiving – and discovered it the equal of the best Parisian croissant.

In other words a full-bodied sensory experience, a celestial butter delivery system, an elegant invitation to unite it with a helping of excellent strawberry or raspberry jam as quickly as possible.

Whether a croissant should also be slathered with additional butter – I think it should, but as you’ve probably gathered by now I see little benefit in self-deprivation – is open to spirited debate.

But their croissant was flaky on the outside with a cloudlike interior and the sort of locally sourced fresh ingredients that, when bonded through a process that seems as much alchemy as chemistry, gets the brain firing on all cylinders; that reminds you that for all our woes and missteps humanity is a rather noble experiment.

And I haven’t even mentioned their pistachio croissant. As described to me by chef Cody Fitchett and Alina Roytberg, one of the co-owners of the Bartlett House, that dopamine engine starts its day as a classic croissant, gets cut in half, slathered with pistachio cream and simple syrup, and baked again.

It’s probably best avoided if you suffer guilt and sweat calories. But if hedonism is a cornerstone of your personal worldview it’s well worth a detour.

I’ve also discovered that the bakery does special order cakes, such as a lethal looking dark chocolate cake with hazelnut buttercream.

I frankly had reservations about helping to publicize the Bartlett House. It’s popular enough, especially on weekends. In the past I’ve had to call ahead to reserve a croissant or two against the heartbreak of showing up in late morning and discovering them all gone.

But the staff assures me they rarely run out any longer and are actually ramping up production to supply a new project of Ms. Roytberg’s and her partners Lev Glazman and Damien Janowicz – the soon-to-open Maker Hotel in Hudson, NY.

Ms. Roytberg and Mr. Glazman are also the co-founders of Fresh, the natural beauty products company. I bring this up only because they seem to have an eye for quality, the ability to set and achieve lofty goals, and most important from my point of view, Ms. Roytberg’s frequent travels abroad have afforded her the equivalent of a PhD in croissant  appreciation.

Bartlett House’s croissant production is actually a four-day process. On Day one the ingredients are measured. Day two the dough is mixed (the formula seems a one-to-one ratio of dough to high fat content European-style butter) and then allowed to freeze overnight. Day three the dough is shaped into croissants. Day four it’s baked and shared with the Hudson Valley’s discerning clientele.

I’ve also discovered they freeze nicely, though obviously nothing quite compares to the lightning in a bottle experience of starting your day with a perfectly rendered fresh croissant.

Snow Day

Snow Day

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Snowstorms are more complicated than they used to be. I’m not referring to the weather, though that, too. I read that because of global warming we can expect more balmy winters, or at least balmy Decembers, followed by blizzards and bone chilling polar vortexes, or is it vortices, later in the season.

No, the complication I’m speaking of is going on Facebook or Instagram and having to suffer photographs and commentary from your friends and acquaintances of them lolling on the beach in Belize or floating on their backs in Cozumel.

Perhaps the problem is that I’m a bad person. I should be happy for my friends that they’re enjoying themselves and getting a tan while I fret that, after the snow ceases and the wind begins to howl, the electricity is going to go out and the pipes freeze because yet another season has passed that I’ve failed to invest in a generator.

I’m confident that the only reason they’re posting images of azure seas and golden sunsets, sometimes filtered through the prism of a pina colada garnished with a cocktail umbrella, is because they want to share their happiness and because they know their friends will be just as joyous and fulfilled living vicariously through their adventures as if we’d boarded a plane ourselves and were buffeted by the welcoming breezes of the Bahamas.

Did I mention that I’m not such a person? I’m the envious sort. Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy for you that you afford a bike trip through Thailand and sticky rice with the locals. But I would prefer it were me.

Does this make me petty? Perhaps it does. However, in my own defense when I travel I try to keep it to myself. Of course, I have no control over what other family members post. But my particular conceit is that people who didn’t get their first passport stamped and boarded their first airplane yesterday don’t need to brag about it.

Actually what you just heard is a long-winded introduction to testifying that while I’m no more immune than the next guy to feelings of superiority on the charmed occasions when I’ve been swimming with colorful parrotfishes in the Caribbean knowing it’s blizzarding back home, there are few things that fill me with the anticipation of knowing that I’m available for a good snowstorm; that one promising a foot or more of precipitation is on the way.

As it was last weekend. If global warming has any positive consequences it’s this: after a non-eventful, almost non-winter weather-wise through Christmas and New Year’s, I was chaffing for a good old, honest-to-God Snowmageddon. Not one where the lights go out, of course, or a foot of ice sends tree limbs crashing through the roof but just about anything else.

Think about it. If the allure of the tropics is measured in trappings such as palm trees and water the color of breath mints what we’re known for up north besides, of course, flinty self-reliance born of an often hostile climate, is the ineluctable beauty of falling snow and, once the sun returns, the way that source of warmth, light and life glints, jewel-like off freshly covered fields.

And there’s skiing, obviously. If adrenalin happens to be your thing it’s far easier to access bombing down a mountain than it is lolling by a swimming pool at Atlantis.

I’m not referring to their ten-story Mayan waterslide. But, again, speaking only for myself, my idea of exotic travel doesn’t include a waterpark, no matter how over-the-top or ubiquitously advertised.

Indeed, I can’t think of anything more delightful than the anticipation I feel with a major snowstorm on the way. I know that not everybody shares my sense of childlike wonder. For many it’s a nuisance, especially if they have to commute.

But part of its magic is that it serves as an enforced time-out from the pressures of the modern world. Being snowed in focuses one on life’s more subtle pleasures, things like a good book, a roaring fire and a late season football game if the electricity doesn’t die and I manage to survive accessing my roof and satellite dish to exfoliate it of the snow and inch-thick ice.

Among the actions I undertook ahead of last week’s storm was frequently to check the weather starting several days out and purchase a snow shovel at Lowe’s with one of those bent, ergonomic handles.

I also took a warm bath after checking the weather radar one more time and watching the blue mass on the screen, signifying the approach tempest, inch ever closer. There’s nothing that connects you to the cozier, more visceral memories of childhood than a bath as night falls and with it the first flakes heralding the oncoming storm.

The Newspaper of Record

The Newspaper of Record

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 The writer’s father and brother in the 1970’s

 I was filled with sadness the other day when I got off the phone after cancelling my 94-year-old mother’s New York Times subscription.

Some of my response has to do with her decline. She no longer reads the newspaper as she once did from cover to cover every day. Now, when I go over to her apartment I see the Times sitting there untouched.

But my emotion extended well beyond my mother’s current health issues. Every family has threads that weave themselves into a tapestry – where they came from and where they settled; births, deaths, jobs; triumphs and setbacks; perhaps a larger than life parent or grandparent whose influence reverberates through subsequent generations.

In our family one of those threads was the New York Times. I recall how my father read it every morning. Sitting at the dining room table, the paper – back then the format was wider than it is today (in 2007 it cut its width by an inch and a half) – was spread out in front of him like a map of the world.

My hunch is that some of that was habit that came from having worked at the Times in his youth and reading the night owl edition hot off the presses. He started as an office boy for publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger in the early 1940’s and was rehired after the war where he was assigned to the newspaper’s Paris and Frankfurt bureaus. Returning to New York, he worked on the paper’s picture desk. He left the Times in 1955 to start his own advertising agency.

But he never lost his affection for the newspaper, nor the habit of starting off his day with it. In our family it was as much wallpaper as newspaper, the backdrop to our lives, delivered to the front door each morning. My father would no sooner neglect the paper than he would forget to wear a raincoat and galoshes in a downpour.

And that reverence for the Times filtered down to me. I can’t remember when I started reading the paper in earnest. It might not have been until college. But the die had been cast years earlier.

And it wasn’t just about maintaining tradition. It was the notion, if transmitted only subliminally, that responsible citizenship – not even responsible citizenship; it was more like good hygiene – required one to stay abreast of the national discourse.

I’ve written for the Times over the years. I was proud when I became a stringer for them in college, even earning a few bucks. And I well recall my excitement and pride standing in their newsroom and being handed a printout by an editor when my first byline appeared in 1994.

I have photographs of my father in that same newsroom on West 43rd Street, though it had changed beyond recognition over the years, the noise of typewriters and newswires replaced by the near silence of computer keyboards. Not to mention that in 2007 the newspaper migrated to Eighth Avenue and a modern office building opposite the Port Authority bus terminal.

Even when I went to work for the Wall Street Journal as a columnist – a newspaper whose reporting is as good and in some areas better than the Times – my affection and loyalty remained with “The Gray Lady,” as the newspaper is affectionately known.

And how could it not? While I was named after my father my youngest brother James was named after Times columnist James Reston.

I don’t remember my mother being quite as focused a reader as my father, but she must have been. Naming my brother after James “Scotty” Reston was her idea. And when my brothers and I were born the Times ran small announcements, paid I assume, and not entirely uncommon in those days.

I suspect my parents felt that our delivery wasn’t complete until the Times was delivered the next morning, heralding our arrival in the “Newspaper of Record.”

When my father, who was also Horatio Alger’s biographer, died in 2005 the Times ran a news obituary. I knew it would have meant a lot to my dad.

Journalism has changed a lot in the meantime. By the time the Times crosses our transom I’ve already read many of its stories online. Sometimes I don’t even crack the physical newspaper.

Among the reasons I don’t cancel the print subscription is inertia, habit, but also a small sense of well being, that no matter how disturbing the news, seeing it organized and prioritized by the Times’ editors in black and white offers the confidence that order will triumph over chaos, that corruption will be called to account.

That explains some of my sadness regarding my mother. Once you stop reading the Times in our family it feels as if you’ve bowed out of the conversation.

Can Trees Talk

Can Trees Talk

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 Snap quiz. What are the large organisms that surround us, that provide beauty and shade, fuel and shelter, but that we know least about? I guess I gave it away with the shade part.

It’s trees, of course. And lately I’ve been hearing that there’s a lot more going on in our woods than meets the eye. If you think your pets are withholding, they’re positively blabbermouths compared to the maples and oaks in your backyard.

In order to better understand our arboreal friends I picked up a book, The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, at Barnes and Noble over the holidays. Actually, it was supposed to be a gift either for my wife or naturalist older daughter, though I don’t think possession was firmly established when we were opening presents Christmas morning.

However, so far I’m the only one who’s cracked the book’s spine.

I haven’t had much luck recently picking up a book that sweeps me off my feet. It’s entirely my own fault and Donald Trump’s, not much of a reader himself from what I gather, since the daily news cycle seems more compelling than any work of fiction I’ve stumbled across lately.

Advanced age may also be playing a part. I can’t seem to read more than a couple of pages in bed at night before nodding off. That makes it hard to keep track of things like plots and multiple characters.

But I decided to break bad habits during the week between Christmas and New Year by committing myself to The Hidden Life of Trees while lounging on the couch in front of the fireplace and between walks in the woods. Those forays suddenly became field trips as I hoped the forest would speak to me and share its secrets in ways it never previously had.

To be honest, I’m only a hundred pages into the 250-page volume, not including notes and index. Also, the author runs an environmentally friendly woodland in Germany so some of the trees he’s referring to and their conditions appears a bit different from the deciduous forests of the Northeast.

But what I’ve gathered is that trees have a lot more going on than appears at first glance. Literally. Much of their activity occurs underground, in fungal networks around their root tips that the author describes as a kind of Internet transmitting information from one tree to the next.

As he tells it, trees are less individuals, or at least not only individuals, but also members of communities extending acres and even miles.

In fact, it’s hard to resist anthropomorphizing them. Like us they share information about threats – such as droughts and insects – and even rally to each other’s defense; communicating through olfactory, visual and electrical signals.

They may even “speak,” perhaps not as self-assertively as those trees on the banks of the Munchkin River in the Wizard of Oz. But researchers have discovered roots crackling at 220 hertz.

They can also learn, and like us, they’re rather competitive, struggling to reach the summit of the forest canopy and monopolize as much sunlight as possible to aid in photosynthesis.

We’re only beginning to understand their language and, of course, they operate on a different, more patient time frame than we do.

But the book reinforces something I’ve felt since I started walking our own woods in my teens. Something that’s easy to ignore until you successfully still your own senses. And that is that we’re part of a community, some of whose members we might not instantly recognize as being sentient. That while we insist on asserting our singularity, our fate will surly turn on acknowledging and then acting on the knowledge that we’re part of something larger than ourselves.

In fact, our survival may depend on embracing that realization as soon as possible.

Apologies for suddenly getting dark. But even if we’re willing to destroy ourselves the other animals and trees, the oceans and air and soil (it’s hard to imagine how much many critters live under your feet) don’t deserve to become collateral damage. We have no right to spoil things for everybody else.

There’s been a lot written lately on the 50th anniversary of that photograph of Earthrise first taken from Apollo 8. It’s become a cliché but from that distance there are no borders, no walls and fences, no us and them.

We’re all in this together – trees, humans, the squirrels that raid my birdfeeders, and the fragile atmosphere that protects us — passengers on a beautiful oasis spaceship traveling through the blackness of interstellar space.

The faster we realize it the better. Just ask a tree.


The Clark

The Clark

So I probably should have been disappointed when I arrived on a dreary day in late December to find the pools drained for the winter.

We’ve been making pilgrimages to the Clark – one of the world’s great small museums – from our home in Columbia County, approximately an hour drive, over winter break for decades now.

And the muted Hudson Valley and Berkshires landscape along the way at this time of year, a composition in greys and browns, typically with cloud cover to match, only enhances the experience, the cocoon-like effect.

That cozy sensation, and the fact that I wasn’t more disappointed that I couldn’t experience the reflecting pools in their full glory, was brought home as I stood before one of my favorite paintings at the Clark.

“Friends or Foes?” also known as “The Scout,” by Frederic Remington it depicts a solitary Blackfoot Indian on horseback gazing across a snowy starlighted landscape at a distant encampment.

I could relate. The painting captures the allure of warmth and shelter as well as the experience of spending winter break upstate and why some of us don’t head to warmer climates at this time of year. There’s something intimate and inward-looking, that focuses the senses on family and friends, fireplaces and walks in the woods, knowing that what awaits back home is a good dinner and an early night punctuated perhaps by a warm bath.

The Remington is just one of dozens of masterpieces on display at the Clark, perhaps ten of them by Winslow Homer alone. And if American art isn’t your thing, or your only thing, its Impressionists rival the Musée D’Orsay in Paris in quality, if not quantity.

Part of the pleasure of a small museum, besides the fact that you’re not exhausted at the end of the experience and afraid you’ve missed more than you’ve seen, is that it reflects the tastes of the collectors.

In this case, Robert Sterling Clark, an heir to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune, and his wife Francine who opened the museum in 1955. If you felt like criticizing the collection you could say it’s slightly too pretty and perhaps weighted a little too heavily towards Renoir. But if you love Renoir this is the place to come. And if you don’t like Renoir you’ll respect him more after your visit to the Clark.

However, there are also wonderful, world-class paintings by John Singer Sargent, George Inness, Gerome, Degas, Goya and Monet. If you’ve never heard of William-Adolphe Bouguereau, his large 1873 painting of naked nymphs coaxing a randy satyr into the water to dampen his ardor – apparently satyrs weren’t accomplished swimmers – is worth the effort of a visit all by itself.

So are the Homers. Then again I may be slightly prejudiced. My introduction to art history came during freshman year at Middlebury College in Vermont. And it was under the guidance of John Hunisak, a compelling professor who studied at Williams and was no doubt intimately familiar with the Clark’s Collection.

I fondly recall sitting in the dark and enjoying slides such as Homer’s luminous “The Bridle Path, White Mountains” and 1877’s “Two Guides” of a young and old wilderness guide in the Adirondack Mountains. Both are at the Clark.

Such works serve to reinforce the notion of how fortunate one is to be able to return to a similarly painterly landscape when you leave the Clark and head home. But there’s also something special about being able to enjoy great art against the backdrop of nature.

It feels like an oasis of culture.

While you expect to encounter masterpieces at the Metropolitan Museum or the Louvre or Prado discovering them in the Berkshires makes then all the more precious. The absence of distractions such as crowds and traffic and the bleak winter landscape out the gallery’s windows heightens ones’ focus.

And the effect is similar at other nearby museums. MASS MoCA and the Norman Rockwell Museum among them.

In years past we’ve tried to hit two on the same day punctuated by an excellent lunch somewhere like the old Miss Adams Diner in Adams, MA.

Unfortunately, this year we didn’t make it to the Clark until three p.m. and the museum closed at five. But we nonetheless managed to score cappuccinos and several baked goods, both to enjoy there and to-go, at Tunnel City Coffee in Williamstown. Even during winter break it had the feel of a campus hangout with people hunched over their laptops.

The only thing it was missing was a roaring fireplace. But that was our incentive to head home through hills and hollows shrouded in rain and fog.

An Insomnia Cure

An Insomnia Cure

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I’ve been sleeping with a woman named Anna. She’s even cured my insomnia. And my wife approves.

Anna can cure yours, too. Not to be cast aspersions on her reputation, but she’s in the public domain.

She’s Anna Karenina. By Leo Tolstoy.

Actually, my daughter’s the one who came up with the idea. When she heard me complaining about waking up in the middle of the night and not being able to go back to sleep she suggested I listen to something that would distract me from thoughts of impending doom – economic, personal, political, existential – that were preventing me from returning to peaceful slumber.

And what do you know… it worked!

I’ve never had trouble falling asleep. The problems arise only at around three or four a.m. So now I plug in my headphones – actually only one depending on which side of my head I lay – and return to Tsarist Russia and a microscopically observed world of romantic intrigue.

The method isn’t foolproof. The story is so compelling that sometimes I can’t stop listening. For those who haven’t read it yet it’s the tragic love story of Anna Karenina, a beautiful and very married woman, to a high government official, who falls in love with Count Alexei Vronsky, an affluent, single cavalry officer.

There’s also the anxiety caused because I’m trying to write a novel myself and Tolstoy sets an impossibly high bar. Indeed, some consider it the greatest novel ever written.

I’d read it for the first time many years ago and what always stayed with me was the precision of the emotional world the novel depicts. In particular an early scene at a ball where Kitty, a young princess making her social debut, realizes that Vronsky, with whom she and her mother hope of making a spectacular match, has become infatuated instead with Anna.

If you’ve ever experienced a situation where you’re attracted to someone but lose out to a competitor, experiencing the profundity of your powerlessness to forces far greater than yourself, you’ll recognize it all in Anna Karenina.

The Russian novel isn’t the first one that’s lulled me back to sleep. Prior masterpieces I’ve listened to include Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn and Ulysses by James Joyce.

I’ve toyed around with the question about whether I deserve credit for consuming a book if I’ve listened to it on earphones instead of reading it on the printed page.

I’m not sure I do. There’s an immediacy, something intimate and even tactile about the physical act of reading, a compact, a connection between author and reader that listening to a book can’t quite replicate.

Also, I like to reread certain sentences and paragraphs – either because they’re especially eloquent, or confusing, or I’m distracted. That sense of control is harder to achieve when you’re listening to a book. It’s like trying to catch a moving train.

A further complication is that I might get through the first chapter or two – Anna Karenina famously begins, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” – only to wake up several hours later to discover that fifty or a hundred pages and a dozen chapters of the novel have lapsed, throwing me into a state of confusion.

So I have to return – the next night or the one after that – to the approximate place in the book where I think I lost consciousness.

That presents a challenge in particularly ambitious novels, such as Ulysses, where even under the best circumstances – which often means an annotated text and preferably a full semester course taught by a passionate and inspired literature professor – it’s hard to tell what’s happening.

So why don’t I set my sights a little lower? And listen to, say, a James Patterson page-turner or better yet waves lapping the shore or just white noise?

For starters, I’m ambitious even while dozing off. For another thing I’m cheap. As I mentioned all these novels are in the public domain. Which means they’re free for the listening.

And classics become classics for a reason. Ulysses perhaps aside, it’s because they’re accessible, insightful and often highly entertaining. There’s also something stress-reducing about tucking into the timeless cadences of Mark Twain’s Mississippi River or taking a crash course in Nantucket whaling.

By the way, even though I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit it, I’ve never read Moby Dick in printed form. So I was under the impression it was a dour tome filled with religious allusions.

In fact, it’s a really witty book.

Of course, I’m basing that on reading, or rather hearing chapters one through four, and maybe forty-one through sixty-four. I can never be sure.

But hopefully my exposure to the works, parts of them only subliminally, will persuade me eventually to return to the real thing.

In the meantime, I’m sleeping better than ever, even though I doubt that was Tolstoy or Twain’s goal when they devoted superhuman toil to creating entire worlds from scratch.

No Tinsel Required

No Tinsel Required

So it was that I found myself preparing to head to Hudson, NY last Saturday afternoon and a botanical perfume shop my wife had visited the previous day. She thought the store would make a festive subject for a holiday commentary.

I suspect she’s right and I plan to get there soon. But as I was putting on my coat I realized that what I really wanted was a walk in the woods with our dog. And as soon as I made that decision it occurred to me that there’s little in life more in the holiday spirit than a quiet stroll through nature.

Tinsel and ornaments, let alone four-foot letters spelling out “JOY” on your front lawn accompanied by electrified reindeer, aren’t required.

The silence of the forest, broken here and there by the crunching of leaves under foot, or rather under hoof, by whitetail deer picking up the scent of a hunting dog and departing the area in an excess of caution, are good tidings enough.

However, I’m all for tinsel and ornaments. Indeed, I consider the holiday season incomplete unless it includes joining the crowds streaming along Fifth Avenue to admire the windows at Bergdorf’s and Saks and the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree.

That’s even as I’ve grown increasingly skeptical of the tradition of cutting down a singular majestic spruce in the prime of life – this year’s comes from Wallkill, NY — for the pleasure of New York City’s tourist hordes.

If the Rockefeller Center folks contacted and informed me they were bestowing upon me the high privilege of donating my tree in the name of peace and the greater good of the holiday shopping season I’d politely tell them to get lost.

Though, I’d never be the owner of such a specimen. The reason they’re so robust and perfectly shaped, as I understand it, is because they have no competition. They’re typically found on people’s front lawns. Which just doubles the travesty of sawing them down as well as my belief that the folks at Rockefeller should employ a fake tree. Or better yet hire an underemployed artist, of which New York City has its fair share, to fill the space with some cutting edge ode to the holidays.

But returning to those Fifth Avenue tourist hordes. And I do mean hordes. Every year there seem to be more and more of them – traffic cops now corralling them behind ropes so they don’t walk into oncoming traffic. And with Saks having upped the ante with a multi-story music and light show, the Rockefeller Center area has officially become impassable.

I still suggest you visit midtown. It’s a box that needs to be checked off. Without that experience the holiday season would feel somehow hollow, incomplete.

Not everybody shares my opinion, I realize. It’s even something of a conceit that Fifth Avenue has become the equivalent of a glorified mall, with the same stores you can find at any local mall — Hollister, Abercrombie, Victoria’s Secret. More than a few true New Yorkers prefer the relative retail authenticity of Brooklyn and Queens.

Yet beneath the branding and the glitz Fifth Avenue’s sturdy old bones remain. There’s stolid St. Patrick’s Cathedral and just up the avenue the grand old University Club, the chlorine from its basement swimming pool wafting up to street level and wistfully evoking the Fifth Avenue of an earlier, less knowing era; one illustrated in a famous Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover. It depicts a sailor flirting with a girl under the University Club’s windows as its fossilized membership looks out upon the scene with a combination of distain, nostalgia and envy.

That holiday stroll also triggers a bit of nostalgia in me, personally, and the first time I did so unaccompanied by a parent or caregiver. I might have been on the cusp of adolescence and there felt something wonderful and empowering about traipsing down the avenue solo.

It was as if all those store windows – from bookshops that no longer exist, such as Scribner’s and Doubleday, to Tiffany and the department stores with their animated holiday displays – had been decorated for my enjoyment.

But all of that effort and window-dressing creativity often goes into creating a dreamscape that exists for real upstate. Snow tipped pine trees. Furry woodland creatures. Ice skating on frozen ponds. The cozy sensation of heading home through the forest to a roaring fireplace as night closes in on the shortest days of the year.

So what if the temperature was in the forties last Saturday and there was little snow to be found. Ultimately, the holidays isn’t about shopping, or only about shopping and dodging fellow pedestrians. It’s also about pausing to count your blessing. And there’s no better place to do so than deep in the woods.

Portrait of a Town

Portrait of a Town

Kendra Martin, 7 years
Here’s a holiday party throwing tip: if you want to make sure a desired person shows up make him or her your guest of honor. And if you really want to guarantee an impressive turnout, select, say, two or three hundred of your favorite friends and make all of them the guests of honor.

That wasn’t the only or even the main reason the Omi International Arts Center in Ghent, NY had a full parking lot last Saturday night. But the exhibition that everybody was coming to see, and perhaps a few even to be seen, pretty much guaranteed a good head count.

Called “All of Us: Portraits Of The Ghent Bicentennial,” and shot by photographer and Ghent resident Richard Beaven, it was devoted to images of 275 of the town’s residents. Quite a few of the photographer’s subjects showed up.

“Over eighty percent of the people I didn’t know,” Richard, a professional photographer whose work has appeared frequently in the Wall Street Journal, told me as we toured the show the afternoon before it opened. “Which is kind of the point.”

The subjects included lifelong residents, weekenders and everything in between. The only biographical information provided were their names and how long they’d resided in the town. “How did I decide who’s in it?” Richard asked rhetorically.

Actually, it wasn’t a rhetorical question. He was responding to one about why he’d failed to include my mug, even though I didn’t take the omission personally.

“There’s no science to it,” he added. “I hope this feels like a good representation of the town. We live in our own bubbles. I wanted to explore the other bubbles.”

Richard told me that he was informed by road commissioner Ben Perry – Ben made the cut, standing outside the town garage and posed before the piles of salt that will find their way onto local roadways this winter – that there are 149 miles of roads in Ghent.

“I’ve been down 147 of them,” the photographer said.

Richard performed a somewhat similar exercise prior to the last Presidential election when he took portraits of Trump voters. Not just any Trump voter but those passionate enough about their candidate that they created their own yard signs.

One of them, of a voter named “Bear” Brandow, his a sign large enough that it covered the side of a building in Gloversville, NY — that moody image somehow managing to capture the hope and anger of many who voted for the real estate and reality TV mogul — found its way into a show at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Many of the subjects in Richard’s current show ostensibly have nothing in common except for the coincidence that they happen to reside in the same bucolic upstate New York town. The project materialized after he was approached by Patti Matheney, a member of the town board, who wondered whether he had any photographs they could post on the Town of Ghent website to honor the bicentennial.

Individually, each image holds its own as a work of art. Richard shot all of them using an old Pentax medium format film camera. They’re colorful and the backgrounds are gently blurred, drawing the viewer’s eye towards the person at the photograph’s center.

But there’s also something more profound going on. Richard said his goal was to create the contemporary equivalent of a 19th or 20th century “box of prints in the basement,” that will serve as a tactile historical document when people examine them fifty or a hundred years from now.

Ironically, in the age of digital photography and the cellphone, when capturing fleeting moments has become effortless, they’ve also become somewhat devalued. Most of them never get printed. If they qualify as artifacts, they’re only of the most haphazard kind.

Yet what Richard has managed to accomplish in “All Of Us” is to show that something deeper, something that is often not readily visible and even ignored, unites us. And it’s something larger than the simple fact that all of the people portrayed in this show – children and the elderly, white and black, farmers and supermarket employees, hunters, artists, writers and bank tellers – share a common, uplifting humanity.

That’s why I suggest you see the show which runs through January 3rd. It makes no difference whether you live in the town of Ghent or not.

What it brought to mind was a famous 1976 issue of Rolling Stone magazine shot by Richard Avedon. That was composed of 73 black and white portraits of some of the most notable people in America at the time. It coincided with another bicentennial, that of the United States, and that summer’s political conventions.

Among the underembellished portraits, pores and all, were those of Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Nelson Rockefeller, Katherine Graham, Henry Kissinger, Rose Mary Woods and Cesar Chavez.

What riveted the viewer then was that sense that you were somehow seeing behind the armor that all of us wear as we wander through life, the masks of the famous and powerful the most opaque of all.

This show is similarly revelatory. Richard Beaven, who used to be an advertising executive – “advertising is about understanding human behavior so you can change it,” he told me – shot and sometimes reshot the same subjects.

“Most of these were not spontaneous,” he said. “They knew I was coming to take a photograph. They could decide what they were going to wear.”

What all of them have in common is the luster of psychological truth. And Richard treats every subject with dignity and respect.

“We’re in very divided times,” the photographer said. “It made me realize we actually have more in common than divides us.”