Chairman Bao is a Shih Tzu. We travel a lot. I drive. He watches. We've logged at least 10,000 miles and he's never once said, Sweetheart, don't you think you should stop and ask someone?

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

A friend called to tell me that she'd just heard something on the news about a crazy woman who crashed her car while trying to teach her dog how to drive.
It wasn't you, was it? she asked.
No, it wasn't me.
Actually, it was a woman in Hohhot, Mongolia. According to Mrs. Li, her dog had always shown an interest in driving, so she decided to let him have a try at steering. The attempt was apparently less than successful, and they ran into another car, with slight damage to both vehicles. As Mrs. Li was operating the accelerator and brakes (probably because the dog's legs weren't long enough to reach the pedals) it's not clear who was to blame.
You'll be relieved to know that Bao has shown no interest whatsoever in learning how to drive.
Is he glad to be home? Not really. Yesterday, he dragged a dozen of his toys from the basket where they're kept into the hall and left them neatly piled against the closet where I keep our suitcases! I think he was trying to tell me something.
Maybe we'll head down to the Mexican riviera next week.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Tucson is green!
Flowers, everywhere. Look at my "desert" garden. Can you believe it?
It's very pretty, really. But it doesn't look like Tucson. As I drove up my street and into my driveway, I hardly recognized it. I'm still finding all the green a bit disorienting. Like blue mashed potatoes. Bao doesn't know what to make of it either, although he's found and "watered" all of his favorite spots.
Did you know that the US Post Office will only hold your mail for 30 days? The chirpy little voice on their fully automated (of course) telephone "service" informed me, All of your mail has been returned to the sender. Cute, huh? Luckily for me, my postman (who is a real human being) saved it for me in a cardboard box. A machine, of course, would never dream of doing such a thing. Machines don't dream. Machines don't think, either. That's why we call them machines. Someday, people are going to realize that human beings are infinitely more creative and considerate than machines, and perhaps even start employing them again. Stranger things have happened.
There were quite a few violent thunderstorms while we were away, (hence the uncharacteristic greenery) and several power outages. One of my fuses apparently blew (or whatever it is that modern fuses do) and everything in my freezer rotted. Looking at the disgusting mess, I decided it would be easier to handle the muck if it was frozen, so I reset the fuse and am letting it all freeze solid again. It could have been worse. If the food had thawed and gone bad and then the power came back on and refroze everything, Bao and I would not have been the wiser and we both might have been done in by our dinner last night.
We've been home less than 24 hours, and it already feels as if we never left. Isn't it weird, the way that happens?
We'll keep blogging, although not every day. But watch this space.
I'm now going to tackle the freezer.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Las Cruces, New Mexico. And it's not raining!
People have told me that Old Mesilla (just down the street from where we're staying) is worth seeing, so that's where we went today.
People are right. It's worth seeing. But first, lunch.
I know I'm close to home when I'm offered corn chips and salsa instead of bread and butter. Bao was delighted. He loves corn chips.
Old Mesilla has been left pretty much as it was built -- one storey, adobe buildings grouped around a central square. The buildings are shops, and the shops are quite good. It sort of reminded me of Taos, only smaller. I ended up buying another painting, by an extraordinary artist from Guadalahara. And a little, Navajo story-teller. My car has become a gigantic, three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle.
As we walked into a little bookshop, Bao let out a series of anguished, ear-splitting barks. When I looked down, he was sitting there at my feet, trembling all over. But what was wrong? What happened? I couldn't figure it out, nor could the other people in the shop. A woman said, Maybe you stepped on him. But I hadn't. I never step on him. Well, almost never.
Then the proprietor appeared. Turns out, he'd placed an electrified mat at the threshhold of his shop, to keep his own dogs from wandering out. And to make matters worse, one of those dogs is his wife's service dog! I was appalled, and I guess it showed. People have always said I'd make a lousy poker player.
It's only nine volts, he kept saying. It doesn't hurt them.
It sure as hell hurt Bao.
I said I didn't approve of using electric shocks to train dogs. I said, if you wouldn't do it to a child, you shouldn't do it to a dog.
Besides, I added, what if a barefoot child came into your shop? .
He got all huffy.
We left.
Tomorrow, home.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

You never know how a day is going to turn out.
This one did not begin auspiciously. Clouds shrouded the moutains, rain spattered sporadically, the Weather Channel was not encouraging and Bao flatly refused to go out and do his morning wee. Bao refused to go out, period. He hates rain. In the end, I had to carry him to the car, with the luggage. Not a good start.
And it got worse. Ten miles south of Colorado Springs, we hit torrential rain. Thunder, lightening, the whole meteorlogical enchillada. When the rain was so heavy that the windshield wipers could no longer move, I gave up and pulled over to wait it out. Nobody else did, and I felt like a real wuss. (But a safe wuss. When we finally got underway again, we encountered a 7-car accident a quarter of a mile down the road)
I'd given Barbara the address of a restaurant on Canyon Road in Santa Fe, not because I particularly wanted to go there (although I did want to end up at Canyon Road, where all the art galleries are) but because Barbara thrives on specifics.
When we reached our destination it was still raining, I'd been driving for nearly four hours, I was hungry and I thought, What the hell. El Farol (the restaurant) turned out to be absolutely fantastic. They had a Spanish Lunch -- paella, chocolate espresso torte and a glass of wine for $15. It was the best paella I've ever tasted. Highly recommended. And from then on, it just kept getting better and better.
Canyon Road is wonderful, one gallery after another. We wandered, damp and happy (almost all the galleries offered Bao treats) for several hours and didn't spend any money until we got to the last gallery of all and they had -- wait for it -- Chinese snuff bottles. In Santa Fe. It was a deceased estate. I shall make a long story short. I bought a snuff bottle. In Santa Fe, of all places. (They also had a 19th century Chinese ceramic pillow, from the same estate. It was expensive, but I've always wanted one of those Chinese ceramic pillows. I am thinking about it)
So it was a good day. Bao is asleep, and I'm about to take a bubble bath.
Tomorrow, Las Cruces.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Colorado Springs.
I love the Southwest. The mountains, the colors, the vast, blue sky. Tonight's La Quinta is nestled beneath Pike's Peak, so we got an early start this morning and managed a quick visit to Garden of the Gods before the clouds rolled in.
This is a collection of huge, red rocks scattered across the lush foothills that rise to the west. It's apparently a city park, and amazingly, it's free. Plus, they allow dogs on leashes. You can hike, or bicycle, or even ride a horse through the park. We drove. Bao got out at the first Scenic Vista to lift his leg, but after that, he stayed in the car and watched me take pictures. Scenery just isn't his thing.
Pike's Peak was named after Zebulon Pike, who was supposed to be looking for the source of the Mississippi River. Pike saw the mountain, and described it in his journals, but he never actually climbed it. In 1893, Katharine Bates was so inspired by the sight of Pike's Peak that she wrote "America the Beautiful." It truly does dominate the surrounding landscape. The Utes called it, Sun Mountain Sitting Big, and I'm glad I got to see it in all its towering majesty. Even as I was taking this photo, you can see how the summit was being obscured by clouds.
After lunch at Ruby Tuesdays, Bao and I were both uncharacteristically tired.
I hope I'm not coming down with something, I said the girl at the desk.
She replied that it was probably the altitude. The city of Colorado Springs is 6,035 feet above sea level, and Garden of the Gods sits above the city. I probably shouldn't have had that second glass of wine with lunch.
Tomorrow, Santa Fe.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

North Platte, Nebraska.
This is the first place we've stayed where there are printed notices in all the rooms, advising guests to "be in a state of alertness to the outdoor conditions" by "keeping an eye on the sky and an ear to local radio and television bulletins" and being "prepared to take shelter if conditions warrant." Shelter in this case being the lower hall of the hotel. Tornados. I didn't know they had tornados in Nebraska. I thought it was only Kansas. Oh, well. Never a dull moment.
Does anyone know why gas is so cheap in Iowa? It was only $2.66 a gallon. The other interesting thing about Iowa is that all of the highway rest areas feature wireless internet connections. You pull into a rest area, park your car, turn on your computer and check your email and do whatever else you want to do. I couldn't get on the internet at all in Pownal, Vermont. It sort of makes you wonder.
But I've got to tell you about Ten Chimneys. The nicest thing about it is that it's a real house, with normal-sized rooms and medium ceilings. You can actually imagine living there (or better still, being one of Lunt and Fontaine's house-guests!) and hobnobbing with Noel Coward and Carole Channing, which is something you can't really do in places like Hearst Castle. They take small groups on docent-led tours and then afterwards there's a stage set where you can dress up in costumes and take photographs and pretend you're a star. And there really are ten chimneys. Eleven, if you count the out-buildings.
We got there early so we stopped in Genesee for lunch and a browse through the inevitable antique shop. I'm always looking for Chinese snuff bottles. Usually, I don't have much luck, but you never know. I once found a wonderful carved ivory bottle in the middle of Disneyland, of all places.
My acquisitive eye fell upon a lovely set of crystal, cut-glass wine glasses with seagreen stems, and only $49 for all eight of them. That's less than you pay for ordinary wine glasses in an ordinary store, and these are so delicate and pretty. It was a bargain, actually. Charlotte said they'd make a nice memento, and I agreed, although I didn't think I could fit anything else in the car. Well, I did.
Bao, as you can see, finds antiques uninteresting. Maybe it's because they have no smell.
I've just had a look at the sky, and it's blue, with wispy white clouds. Hopefully, it'll stay that way. We don't want to end up in Oz, or for that matter, cowering in the lower hall. Not today, anyhow.
Tomorrow, Colorado Springs.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Okay, we're back.

The format changes threw me. Bill figured it out. Thank you, Bill!

So I'll pick up where I left off, which was shopping. Bao loves shopping. He trots happily up and down the aisles of whatever store we're in, eyes peeled for a stuffed animal he can grab. And I'll say this for him, he's quick. Once he's slobbered all over the pink pig or the yellow duckling or whatever it is, I have to buy it, and then as soon as we leave the shop he drops it on the sidewalk and never looks at it again. This is why he's got a pile of stuffed animals at home that's nearly three feet high.

On Monday, Charlotte and Bill took us to Milwaukee's Historic Third Ward. Lunch, and shopping. Art galleries, jewelery stores, boutiques, all that kind of stuff. The high point was Metropawlis, a veritable puppy paradise. Bao snatched a toy, the most expensive toy in the shop. But I didn't mind, because after years of fruitless searching, I had finally found a harness that fits him. Bao can't wear a collar, because his trachea was damaged when he was attacked by a pit bull, years ago when we still lived in Australia. The trouble is, I've never been able to purchase a harness that's the right size. He's too big for Small, and too small for Medium. But this harness, wow! It doesn't even look like a harness; it looks like a pair of sunglass frames made of leather. (I might add that it cost as much as a night in a cheap motel) But it fits, and Bao no longer looks like a little old man who's losing his suspenders.

So it was a good day. Bao got a toy and a harness, I got two pairs of shoes (but not at Metropawlis) and we finished off the day at Coldstone Creamery (which is a very nice way to finish off a day) Milwaukee is a delightful city for shopping. On Tuesday, we spent the afternoon doing a tour of Ten Chimneys, the famous summer home of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontaine. But I'll tell you about that tomorrow.

At the moment, we're in Des Moines, heading home.

Driving Chairman Bao

Monday, August 14, 2006

Delavan, Wisconsin used to be Circus City. Between 1847 and 1896, no fewer than 26 circuses used Delavan as their summer headquarters. P T Barnum began here.
I've got a great photo of Bao in the jaws of a pink lion drinking fountain at Delavan's Commemorative Park. (There was also a 12-foot statue of a rearing elephant, but it was too big to photograph) You'll see the photo when I figure out how to upload it. And I will figure it out. Tonight, tomorrow, whenever. Delavan's Main Street is paved with thousands of red bricks, laid by Italian immigrant workmen half a century ago.
We're back in Elkhorn with Bao's Aunty Charlotte and Uncle Bill for a couple of days of R&R in preparation for the long drive home. Except for the buffalo wings, we hadn't had a real meal since Boston. Charlotte suggested Sunday brunch at Fiddlesticks, a new venture run by a promising, young local, Chad Steen.
Chef Chad's Eggs Benedict turned out to be an intriguing variation on the classical dish, substituting succulent hunks of salmon for ham and an artichoke/potato pancake for the traditional English muffin, topped by an exquisitely poached egg (have you any idea how hard it is to poach eggs perfectly for a crowd?) and lashings of hollandaise sauce. It was divine.
On to Arts at the Lake, an annual, juried art show at Lake Geneva showcasing the best work of nearly 100 selected artists from all over the United States. There were paintings, sculpture, photography, glass, wood, fiber and jewelry. The quality of the works on display was extraordinarily high, and the prices were amazingly reasonable, half of what you'd expect to pay in the Big Smoke. All those bargains, and there I was with a car already stuffed to the gills, to muddle another metaphor.
I can't possibly buy another thing, I told Charlotte.
But I did. A happy wood sculpture of bright blue swimming crabs for my bathroom, and a ring and earrings made out of old forks and spoons.
Charlotte and Bill are going to help me repack the car. Dinner was prime rib at Moose Creek Inn.
Good art, good food, good wine, good friends. What more could anyone want?
At the end of the day, Bao was so tired that I had to carry him upstairs and put him to bed like a two-year-old.
And I wasn't far behind him.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

This is where we didn’t have lunch.
Isn’t it gorgeous? It’s the old Studebaker mansion, a Romanesque home from the Gilded Age, now completely restored with antiques and period furnishings. In its day, it was the grandest home in all of Indiana. The restaurant is called Tippecanoe Place. They serve lunch during the week, and brunch on Sunday, but (just my luck) it was Saturday.
South Bend is lovely. Large, attractive houses set well back on tended lawns, big shade trees, wide roads, not much traffic. What a relief after the snarling streets of Boston and Cleveland! We ended up having lunch at a place called Buffalo Wild Wings. Chicken wings, obviously. But you get to choose from 16 different sauces, everything from ordinary, sweet BBQ sauce to what they call Blazin’ (keep away from eyes, pets and children)
Bao had a Wild Child meal (boneless chicken without any sauce) I had two glasses of merlot and a good time was had by all. If there’s one thing I love, it’s a good barbecue sauce. In fact, I ended up buying a bottle of the Mango Habanero (feel the burn, savor the sweet) to take home. It’ll be just as good on ribs as it was on chicken.
They’re really relaxed about dogs, here in South Bend.
Actually, they’re relaxed about everything.
It’s quite amazing, but when you cross the border between Ohio and Indiana, everything seems to somehow change. The roads are wider, and smoother. The grass is greener. The drivers are more courteous.
People always talk about the difference between big cities and small towns, but in the United States, the differences seem to be regional. Boston and Chicago are both big cities, but Boston is mean and unforgiving, whereas Chicago is expansive and welcoming. (As for small towns, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a nastier place than Stamford, Connecticut) Generally speaking, I’ve found that people in the Midwest are frank, and open, and generous, people in the Southwest smile a lot and people in the Northeast don’t. And the further east you go, the less they like dogs. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s the weather.
By the time we finished lunch, it was mid afternoon. Bao curled up and went to sleep. I lay by the pool, reading. It’s a good life.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Cleveland’s got an odd approach to tourism.
The Cleveland Museum of Art is hosting a major exhibition, “Barcelona & Modernity: Picasso, Gaudi, Miro, Dali”. The only other venue will be the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that at the moment, the Museum of Art is closed, for renovations. The whole museum. It’s been closed since January. However, they didn’t exactly announce this far and wide. My up-to-date AAA guide suggests business as usual, which is why I’m here.
“Barcelona & Modernity” sounds great, but it doesn’t open until in mid-October.
I pick up a copy of City Visitor Cleveland.
Maybe there’s something else to do.
There isn’t.
Mind you, lots of things have happened in Cleveland. The padded bicycle seat was invented in Cleveland. So were the modern golf ball, the automatic windshield wiper, and LifeSavers. Sammy Kaye, Bob Hope and Paul Newman were born here.
And there are other attractions, besides the Art Museum. There’s the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, I’m not into rock and roll.
There’s also an exhibit about Jane Goodall and Chimpanzees at the Museum of Natural History, where you can “learn to walk and talk like a chimp.” Ummm, no.
There’s the Stan Hywet Hall and Gardens, but that’s in Akron, back the way we came.
And at the Cleveland Zoo we can “get nose-to-nose with the zoo’s endangered jaguar cubs,” which doesn’t appeal to Bao at all.
That’s about it – except for a Trolley Tour that covers more than 100 points of interest.
Except there aren’t any.
Seems to me that when your only real tourist attraction is “one of America’s leading comprehensive museums” (Brenda Lewison’s words, not mine) you figure out a way to keep it open while you’re doing renovations. Or you do your renovations in the winter, when nobody’s around. Brenda Lewison (editor of City Visitor Cleveland) nonetheless makes a valiant attempt to be cheerful about it all. Her chirpy message to tourists concludes with these words: “So, welcome to Cleveland – and be sure to plan your return this fall!”
I don’t think so.
Next stop: South Bend, Indiana.

Friday, August 11, 2006

If a cat can look at a king, a dog can have his portrait painted by Thomas Gainsborough. And a dog did. “Portrait of a Pug belonging to Jonathan Spilsbury, in a Landscape” is one of the several dozen works in Best In Show: The Dog in Art from Renaissance to Today on exhibition at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut.
Samuel Johnson said, “I would rather see a portrait of a dog that I know than all the allegorical paintings they can show me in the world.”
Bao agrees.
He sat up straight in his stroller, and looked at everything, including the skeleton of a dog carrying a copy of Le Monde in its mouth. He was intrigued. He was fascinated. I think I’ve finally found his genre.
This is a wonderful exhibition, and the catalogue that accompanies it includes many other works featuring dogs, including Titian’s famous portrait of Fredrico II Duke of Mantua with his white maltese. Fredrico loved his dogs, and at one point he owned 111 of them.
I actually saw – and purchased – the catalogue of the exhibition at the Clark, and when I realized that the show itself was still on, we detoured to Connecticut especially to see it. It was a delight, and a revelation. I had no idea that artists like Pierro della Francesco, Phillipe Rousseau (whose marvellous “Everyone for Himself” hung at the Paris Salon of 1865) Gustav Courbet, Jean-Leon Gerome, Joan Miro and Andy Warhol (to name a few) painted dogs.
Bruce Museum is actually a natural history museum, and in a couple of rooms adjoining the main show, another exhibit, The Nature of Dogs, explores the history of dogs and men. Dogs originated in North America, but now inhabit every continent except Antarctica. DNA testing can establish how “ancient” a given breed is – the oldest is the Shibu Inu, followed by the Chow Chow and the Akita. The Shih Tzu is ninth; the Saint Bernard is eleventh.
There were also hands-on displays that let you compare your senses of hearing and smell to those of a dog, and explanations of “doggy” sayings. For instance, the phrase, “a three-dog night” originated in Australia, where Aborigines are said to have slept with their dogs at night, for warmth. A three dog night was therefore a very cold night.
It was all a lot of fun. If you love dogs and are anywhere near Connecticut, the show runs until August 27. Even if you can’t get to the exhibition itself, you might want to order the catalogue, which is beautifully presented and very reasonably priced.
Next stop, Cleveland.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

The Sackler Museum at Harvard is utterly amazing. Life size, sandstone wall carvings from Longmen caves. Wall paintings from Dunhuang, collected during the first Chinese Expedition in 1923. Perfect. Impeccable. Not a flaw, not an imperfection. How did they do it? How did they manage carve out a huge block of vertical (and crumbly, I should think) sandstone and transport it halfway around the world, back then? One can’t help wondering how many of them they spoiled, in order to get a few that were intact.
And the Shang bronzes. Omigod, the bronzes. I’ve seen photographs, of course. Hundreds of photographs, maybe thousands. The rhinoceros, for example. I think that’s one of the first Chinese bronze images I ever saw, in an art book. But I never realized it had teeth, two wonderful, perfect rows of teeth. You have to see these things in person, if you love them. And I do love them.
There were jades, wonderful jades, things I’ve never seen anyplace else. An intricate, jade garment hinge, as long as my finger, for instance. Can you imagine a hinge, carved out of jade, which is one of the hardest stones in the world? Actually, you don’t carve it. You abrade it, with sand, very, very slowly. Imagine the work that went into this single garment hinge. Is there anyone alive today who could duplicate this piece, with all our technology? I doubt it.
There were turquoise inlaid ceremonial axes and daggers, 3000 years old. There was a set of tiny jade animals, some of which resembled the carvings of the Olmec, in South America. Many of the Shang motifs are identical to those of the Olmec, but I’ve never seen actual, carved animals from China dating from this period before.
This is absolutely the best collection of ancient Chinese artefacts I’ve ever seen anywhere, including the Shanghai Museum.
And the ink scrolls … but I think you’re beginning to get the picture, and I don’t want to bore you. Bao got bored. Once he’d rolled on the floor, he was ready to move on.
We were about to head off to Connecticut (which turned out to be a much longer drive than I thought) so there wasn’t much time. Moreover, Barbara had experienced a “senior moment” in Salem, and I wasn’t sure she going to be able to cope with Cambridge’s tangled spaghetti of streets. We almost didn't go. But in the end, I couldn’t leave Boston without seeing the Sackler, or at least, trying to see it. There was no place to park, of course. There never is, in Boston. They pride themselves on it. But I drove round and round and we finally did find a place half a mile away, and then we walked. (I walked. Bao rode in the stroller. That stroller has been a Godsend)
There are other things in the Sackler, equally wonderful. (And other museums in the complex, including the Fogg) We only had time for the Roman artefacts (including a complete, intricately carved marble sarcophagus) and the Greek section. Here’s Bao, trying to figure out why anyone would write an ode about a Grecian urn.
On to Connecticut, and a very special art exhibition.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Everyone has been telling me that I mustn’t miss the Faneuil Hall Marketplace. Even the usually staid AAA guide says it is “considered by many to be Boston’s top attraction … the very embodiment of shopping as entertainment.” So yesterday we decided to give museums a rest. Here you see Bao and his new, best friend, just outside Faneuil Hall proper, which is now a museum.
Faneuil Hall was built in 1742, financed by a wealthy merchant named Peter Faneuil. It stood on what was then the waterfront, and was basically a fish and produce market with a town hall upstairs. It’s as historic as all get out. They do talks and tours and all that. But as I say, we were having a rest from culture.
Little old Faneuil Hall is totally dominated by the massive, copper-domed, Doric-colonnaded, glass-canopied Quincy Market. This pile looks as if it belongs on a Greek mountain-top, rather than in the middle of New England. It’s all façade, though. Inside there’s just one food stall after another. Indian, Italian, Chinese, Greek, Mexican, all the usual suspects. Plus lots of fish, from aristocratically pricey lobster salads to proletarian fried clam rolls and chowders.
Quincy Market is flanked by two extremely long but architecturally unremarkable granite faced, brick warehouses, North Market and South Market. These, and the tree-filled cobblestone walkways separating them, constitute the real marketplace. Every available square foot is packed with shops and stalls and pushcarts selling everything from miniature jade animals to egg cups. They say there’s nothing you can’t buy here, and they may be right. True, most of it is tourist tat, but it’s interesting, unusual tat. Besides, you don’t come here to buy things. You come to watch all the other people who’ve come to watch.
The cobblestone paving was a bit rough on the stroller, but Bao was busy leaving messages on the trunks of all the trees, and didn’t get tired until it was almost time for lunch.
And I did end up buying something, an interesting pair of shoes. They look like clogs, but they only weigh about an ounce, and they’re perforated so your feet don’t perspire, and incredibly comfortable. They’re called Gekkos.
We had lunch in the peaceful shade of huge trees at McCormick & Schmick’s. Fresh oysters and a spinach salad dressed with pecans and strawberry vinaigrette, washed down with lashings of Pinot Grigio.
And I had my hair done, which (as you will know if you’ve been looking closely at the photos) was a matter of some urgency.
Shop ‘til you drop, then eat ‘til you explode.
And go home looking better than when you left.
I can think of worse ways to spend a day.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Salem owes its continued existence to witches.
Without the witches, Salem would be just another dingy, dying New England town. There are no more fishing fleets, no more South Sea traders. There’s no industry. There’s really no reason for the place to exist. It’s not even picturesque; the rows of two storey wooden houses are neat and tidy but they look like Newark, and I had enough of Newark as a child to last a lifetime.
However, history threw Salem a life-line, and (to mix a metaphor) you can’t blame the town for taking the ball and running with it. So you can peer into a Witch Dungeon, browse through the Witch Museum, take a Witch Tour, participate in a Witch Trial, buy a Witch T-shirt and have your palm (or your tea leaves) read by a witch.
Or you can give the whole witch thing a miss and visit the Peabody Essex Museum, which is what Bao and I did.
The Peabody has a wonderful collection of Asian Export wares, which are of particular interest to me, as I specialize in Chinese art. Porcelains for export are an important part of the genre. I especially like the blanc de chine “Virgin Mother and Child” statues – these are really images of Guanyin, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy who (I suppose) bears a sort of resemblance to her Christian counterpart. These Chinese export porcelains of Guanyin holding a baby sold like hotcakes in the West, which makes them deliciously subversive, because what the Europeans didn’t know was that Guanyin was originally a man. In another life, but even so.
Bao’s favourite exhibit was the Yin Yu Tang house, probably because the house still smells of the people and animals that lived within its walls over the past couple of centuries. I didn’t smell anything, but a dog’s sense of smell is 77,000 times stronger than yours or mine, so who knows what was being communicated? Tail up and nose to the ground, he was certainly following a scent. At one point I thought he was going to lift his leg and contribute to the dialogue, but of course, he didn’t. He wouldn’t. He’s a good little dog.
The house is a genuine, wooden Chinese merchant’s house, reassembled piece by piece at the Peabody as a part of a Chinese American friendship initiative, complete with its original furnishings. It’s perfect. It’s even got Mao posters on the walls. (I haven’t seen a Mao poster in decades. At this point, the posters are probably worth more than the house!) I don’t think there’s anything else like it in the United States. You have to buy a special ticket to visit the house, and you can only linger for 30 minutes but the experience is well worth it, and worth the drive from Boston to Salem.
And the less said about that, the better.

Monday, August 07, 2006

The La Quinta Courtesy car drops us at the station, but I think they’ve made a mistake. It doesn’t look like a station. It looks like a multilevel car park. It is a multilevel car park.
Bao spots the sign: Take elevator to Level Three for shuttle.
Level Three is deserted. At the far end of an empty concrete space there’s a set of sliding doors over a long, precariously elevated track. And another sign. Press button for shuttle.
Utter silence. Nothing is happening.
But wait! Something is coming down the track, towards us. It’s a little, square, unmanned vehicle. It slows and docks in utter silence. The doors slide soundlessly open. I look at Bao and he looks at me. It’s all very Twilight Zone.
We get on, and the doors slide shut behind us. Will we be beamed up to The Enterprise? Not this time. We disembark uneventfully at Wellington Station, and continue on to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
Part of MFA (as they call it) is under construction. Everything in Boston (including the train stations and the wharf area) is under construction. Never mind. The MFA is wonderful. They’ve got an awesome collection of early Chinese bronzes, and the Chinese porcelains are exquisite. I saw a piece of turquoise-glazed Sizhou ware – totally unique. To display their collection of Chinese furniture (all of which is constructed without the use of nails, or glue) they’ve built a replica of a Chinese house, complete with garden, gourd window and ornamental rock. You could almost be in Suzhou.
Someone wants to take a picture of Bao in his stroller.
Next, the “Americans In Paris” Exhibition, and I finally got to see Whistler’s Mother. (She lives at the Louvre in Paris, but she was out on loan when I was there) Also, Mary Cassat’s mother. And Mary Cassat’s original tea set, which features in many of her paintings.
Someone else wants to take a picture of Bao in his stroller.
What can I say about lunch at Bravo, except Bravo!
The people at the next table want to take a picture of Bao in his stroller.
We spend the afternoon admiring the European masterpieces, which are displayed salon-style, in a gargantuan hall with ceilings that must be 50 feet high. Just being there is an experience. This is actually how these works would have been hung, in a church or private chapel. (Most were, as you’d expect, religious subjects) Standing in the midst of this vast space, gazing at the enormous canvasses, you almost feel transported to another world.
Two Japanese tourists want to take a picture of Bao in his stroller.
On to the American galleries. Georgia O’Keefe. Winslow Homer. The spirit is willing, but the body is beginning to flag. We’ve been here all day. I’m tired. I’m even too tired to shop, although I make an effort.
In the train on the way home, a woman takes a picture of Bao in his stroller.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Bao won’t sit on just anyone’s lap. But he made an exception for John.
John is incredible. John is fantastic. John is the best. John has been driving a sightseeing trolley around Boston for the 15 years, and what he doesn’t know about Boston probably isn’t worth knowing.
Did you realize, for example, that nearly three quarters of present-day Boston was originally under water? Or that the Battle of Bunker Hill wasn’t fought on Bunker Hill? Or about the Great Molasses Disaster of 1919? (A silo filled with molasses burst in the heat, killing 21 men and 9 horses. I always feel sorry for the animals)
My favourite story was about Bostonian James Michael Curley, who took a civil service examination for someone else, got caught and went to jail. Popular sentiment was on Curley’s side, however. People thought he’d done a good deed. So while he was still in jail, he decided to capitalize upon his popularity and run for Alderman. And he won. Boston politics, says John.
John sings, too. His rendition of Charlie and the MTA brought down the house. Kingston Trio, eat your hearts out.
For two hours, the unflappable, unstoppable John regaled us with anecdotes, songs, jokes and stories.
It was hard to stay angry.
The reason we were angry was that we’d just found out that all of Discover Boston’s trolleys would stop running at 2 PM, because they were catering a wedding. Ride all day, promised the ads. Get on and off as often as you like. But it wasn’t all day. It was only half a day. Trouble was, they didn’t tell you about this little detail until after you’d bought and paid for your non-refundable $27 ticket. People were understandably pissed off.
And it got worse. Turned out that only four Discover Boston trolleys were in service, which meant that there was at least a half hour between trolleys. Ticket-holding tourists were piling up at the stops, lost and bewildered and perspiring in the blazing sun. As the clock inched closer to 2 PM, our trolley filled up. Everybody wanted to get on, and of course, nobody dared to risk getting off.
John did his best. He kept stopping for people, even when all the seats were filled. It was like being in a lifeboat with wheels. There were people standing in the aisles. There were people sitting on the steps. And finally – when John couldn’t squeeze anyone else in – there were people left behind, discovering Boston on foot.
Four companies operate these trolley tours, and they’re a wonderful way to get an overview of the city. I wouldn’t recommend driving, at least not until they finish the massive roadwork project they call the Big Dig. And I certainly wouldn’t recommend Discover Boston.
But hey! John was terrific.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

They say every cloud has a silver lining.
Yesterday’s clouds certainly did. And not just a silver lining – a whole silver city!
You’re looking at Zhan Wang’s Urban Landscape, a version of Beijing, rendered in stainless steel pots, pans and utensils, a metaphor of China’s rapidly urbanizing landscape currently installed at the Williams College Museum of Art. Amazing!
But what’s really amazing is that we weren’t going to visit this museum at all. The plan was to leave for Boston first thing in the morning. However, it was raining buckets, and Bao wouldn ‘t budge. So I decided to hang around for a couple of hours in the hope that the rain would stop. It did, but by then I was thinking, Why not stop off at the Williams College Museum?
It was one of my better thoughts. This place is a little gem. They’ve got a little bit of everything. And what they’ve got is very, very good.
There’s a Roman sarcophagus, and Khmer sculptures and Moghul watercolors and Assyrian wall reliefs from 880 BC. Unexpected things, too. Thomas Nast’s drawings for Uncle Tom’s Cabin. A whole wall of Tanguys. And the Pollock. They restored Pollock’s Arabesque Number 2 and it’s there on display, along with a wonderful video explaining the restoration process. That alone would have been worth the entry fee, but there isn’t one. It’s free.
The Museum is much larger than it appears from the outside. I didn’t bring the stroller, and as you can see, Bao got tired. Never mind. The cool, wooden floors were a delight.
Back outdoors, the sun was shining.
The day was shot anyhow, so we made one more stop at the Frelinghuysen Morris house and studio in Lenox. You never heard of Frelinghuysen or Morris? Neither had I. George Morris and Suzy Frelinghuysen were two fabulously wealthy people who got married, built a Bauhaus-style home in the Berkshires when the rest of us were living in little boxes made of ticky-tacky, and fancied themselves artists. You can do what you like when you’re rich. According to the brochure, George and Suzy “were a remarkable couple at the leading edge of the national and international art scene” back in the 1930s. The house is cute. The gardens are glorious. George’s studio is to die for.
Bao says there were no interesting smells. He says there hasn’t been an interesting smell since Niagara On The Lake.
I told him to stop complaining and count his blessings.
And bought him a steak for dinner.

Friday, August 04, 2006

An air of peace and quiet purposefulness pervades the Hancock Shaker Village, which is not a reproduction, but a reconstruction. It used to be called the City of Peace. The ghosts who linger here are happy ghosts. Bao romped and sniffed. He’s finally getting the hang of grass.
Arriving first thing in the morning was a good idea, and not just to avoid the heat. Having the whole 1200 acres to ourselves was magical. The green fields, the gardens and the simple, sturdy buildings were like a stage setting.
Shaker communities were founded on the basis of celibacy, confession and community. The brothers and sisters of each community (at the movement’s height, there were 19 Shaker villages) lived, worked and prayed together, devoting themselves to the service of God. If it sounds a bit grim, it wasn’t. There was music, singing, dancing and laughter. Women and men were equal. And although they eschewed the two-backed beast, they did enjoy a smoke and until 1826, the occasional tipple. So celibacy doesn’t seem to have been a problem. Our guide suggested that in fact, it may have been a welcome respite for the many widows who joined the community.
Shakers were superb craftsmen, inventing both the flat-bottomed broom, the mail order business (through which they sold seeds and herbs from their gardens) and their famous, finely-crafted chairs and oval boxes, which were made to order and shipped to customers all over the United States.
Of the buildings, the Round Stone Barn is unique. 270 feet in diameter, its walls are over 20 feet high and three feet thick. Up to 400 tons of hay can be stored in the central core of the barn, while the outer perimeter of its middle level is divided into stalls for milking cows. Manure is stored in a sort of basement below. The Shakers ran a successful dairying business until new laws mandating concrete floors for milking cows made the barn’s wooden floors obsolete. That was bad luck. When Krakatoa erupted in 1873, it snowed in July and the gardens never really recovered. More bad luck.
But it was the Industrial Revolution that put paid to this 200-year old experiment in communal living. More jobs, more money, more opportunity. The last of the sisters left the City of Peace in 1960, although a Shaker community continues to function in Sabbathday, Maine.
There are still gardens, and farm animals. The cow in the photo is a replica, but you can milk it. (I didn’t. I’ve never milked a cow or jumped out of an airplane, and I don’t intend to start now) You can also card wool, try your hand at weaving and dress up in Shaker clothing and have your photo taken. Everyone took Bao’s photo. I suspect he’s this season’s most photographed dog in the Berkshires.
On to Boston.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

The sun never managed to come out yesterday, but that’s probably just as well. It was hot again, the worst day yet. 96 F. They cancelled the horse racing at Saratoga because officials were afraid the horses would collapse and die of heat stroke.
The stroller has become Bao’s new, best friend. In this heat and humidity, he’s tired before we even start. When we reach a destination, he sits and waits for me to take it out of the back seat. Then he heaves a little sigh of relief as I unfold it, climbs in happily, and immediately goes to sleep. He won’t budge without the stroller, and I don’t blame him. In fact, I wish we could take turns.
It’s too hot to do much sightseeing, especially outdoors. It’s too hot to go swimming. It’s even too hot to shop.
We did manage to visit the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, which is about an hour’s drive south from here. People think of Norman Rockwell as an illustrator, which is what he was. In fact, Rockwell and Walt Disney were the last, great illustrators of the 20th century.
But illustrators aren’t artists. At least, not in the sense that individuals like Picasso and Matisse and Winslow Homer and Frederick Remington were artists. Right?
The museum features perhaps a hundred of Rockwell’s oil paintings, many of which ultimately became covers for the Saturday Evening Post. The covers were illustrations. But the oil paintings themselves are art; traditional rather than so-called contemporary art, and a bit old fashioned. But art, nonetheless. You could take any one of these paintings and hang it in a traditional art museum with other representational paintings, and people would ooh and aah.
Of course, I remember many of these Saturday Evening Post covers. I also remember when the United States was actually like the world depicted on these covers, and in these wonderful, detailed, evocative paintings. It was a world in which your doctor lived down the street, and made house calls; a world in which people still said their prayers; a world in which kids threw sticks for dogs to fetch, and rode bicycles, and did chores for pocket money.
Walking through this display, looking at the paintings, remembering them in the context of my perennially hopeful lemonade stands (where nobody ever bought any lemonade) and selling packets of seeds door to door (did anyone else believe those ads in the comic books?) and shovelling snow and eating popcorn at the Saturday matinee, I understood why people who’ve been here call it a “feel good” museum. And I defy any (older) American to walk through the wonderful Four Blessings Room without a lump in his or her throat.
In case you haven’t already figured it out, I grew up in New Jersey during the Eisenhower years, when nothing much happened. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There’s a Chinese saying, May you live in interesting times. It’s not meant to be a blessing, though. It’s meant to be a curse.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

It’s been hot. New England is as bad as Tucson. It’s worse than Tucson. At least in Tucson, it’s a dry heat. Here, you’ve got humidity.
The charming little shops that line Spring Street in Williamstown are all but empty, although most of them are air conditioned. Bao likes Library Antiques, as you can see. He and proprietor Joan (who is also a dog lover) have become real buddies. Joan says things have been quiet, this summer. People aren’t travelling as much.
The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MOCA) cost $23 million and was supposed to put North Adams (a twenty minute drive from here) on the map. What they did was transform an abandoned factory into a space in which monumental pieces of contemporary art can be displayed. By monumental, I do mean monumental. The gallery showing the Amusement Park installation (more about that in a moment) is the size of a football field.
MASS MOCA is big, but it’s surprisingly difficult to locate. The signs point the wrong way. And when you do get there, it’s hard to find the parking lot. And once you’ve parked, it’s hard to find the entrance. You’re sort of wandering around a brick labyrinth. Once you’ve negotiated it, and shoved your way through two sets of heavy, user-unfriendly doors, and paid your $10 admission (no Seniors discount) you’re ready to enjoy the art. Such as it is.
I don’t think I’ve ever visited a public gallery that provided less information to visitors.
Or in which the staff were less helpful.
Contemporary art isn’t always self explanatory. Hundreds of glass jars, filled with things like ashes, or a snippet of fur, or tin foil bearing labels like, My mother taught me to save this and I have a whole drawer full. The jars are stacked on a table, and you’re meant to move them around. What does this mean? And more importantly, do I care?
Amusement Park (on the second level) consisted of half a dozen full-size amusement park rides – Bumper Cars, Gravitron, Twister, set in a row in the dark. Their neon lights flashed on and off, and they moved, very slowly. The “artist’” didn’t make the rides, but they’re in a museum of contemporary art, so that makes them art, by definition. I suppose. You walk past them. You look at them. You move on.
Bao’s relished the installation by Huang Yong Ping, on the third level. Two huge cages, with thick, black iron bars. Inside each cage, a water dish, genuine lion poo (they’re lion cages) and – miracle of miracles – a bone! A bone the size of Bao, with bits of meat still clinging to it. I had a lot of trouble persuading him that it was art, not lunch.
If you care enough to want to know what to make of all this, you can join a Docent Tour.
Or you can buy a $50 book.
Or you can do lunch, which is what we did. The Café, by the way, was excellent.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Robert Sterling Clark and his French-born wife Francine admired artists who could depict the shimmer and flow of light. This continual, ephemeral play of light upon water, fabric and human flesh animates their personal collection, on permanent display at the eponymous Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts.
People say this place is one of America’s best-kept secrets.
And they rave about the Clark’s fabulous collection of Impressionists, especially the Renoirs. You’ve got to see the Renoirs! they say. And they’re here, heaps of them, a whole room of delicious, succulent Renoirs. All your favourites. At the Concert. Sleeping Girl with a Cat. Onions. (Bao liked Tata, the little black dog. He would, wouldn’t he?) I like a Renoir as much as anyone, but I have to tell you: There’s lots more to the Clark Institute than Renoirs.
This is, above all, a personal collection, reflecting the tastes and preferences of its owners, and that’s the beauty of it. You either like it, or you don’t. I did. If I had as much money as the Clarks had, these are the paintings I’d buy.
There are currently two, separate shows, the first of which is a celebration of the Clark’s 50th anniversary. The Institute’s directors invited locals to vote for their favourite works in the collection, and then put the top fifty nominations on display. The people’s choice for Best in Collection was Fumee d’ambre gris (Smoke of Amergris) by John Singer Sargent, acclaimed at the Paris Salon of 1880. It is a haunting, intriguing Orientalist work, and one I’d never seen before. Even so, I would have gone for the absolutely incredible Turner, Rockets and Blue Lights. The colours, the movement, the atmosphere! I’ve never seen anything to beat it, not even at the Tate in London.
The second show was equally fascinating. Sterling (as Robert was called) and his brother Stephen were both heirs to the Singer sewing machine fortune, and they both collected art. But their tastes were different, and so were their goals. Sterling founded an art institute of his own, whereas Stephen bequeathed his collection to a number of public institutions. The brothers were estranged for most of their adult lives (the opening chapter of The Clark Brothers Collect reads like a novel) but the show (garnered from 19 Canadian and American museums plus private collections) juxtaposes their acquisitions, briefly joining two of the 20th century’s most prestigious, private collections in a wonderful tour de force.
Bao cut quite a figure as we moved through the beautiful galleries, lounging in magisterial comfort in his stroller. We looked at paintings, had lunch in the excellent Café, and then looked at more paintings. We bought books in the book shop. It was too hot to stroll through the grounds, but we did sit on the grass in the shade alongside the lake, admiring the ducks and the lily-pads. We had a lovely, lovely day.
The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute is a must see. Put it on your list.