Monday, January 29, 2007


An all-you-can-eat vegetarian Gujarati restaurant, Vatan is a little bit of heaven on Third Avenue. The servers wear saris and other traditional garb; the décor attempts to replicate an Indian village, complete with a fake banyan tree. Most tables require you to take off your shoes—and lay back on an assortment of cushions—as the wait staff brings you three courses.

First come the starters, including baby samosas, spicy potato balls, fried jalapeño peppers (which “can be tricky,” as one server says), and wheat cakes. There’s also an assortment of sauces: mint chutney, tamarind, peppers and garlic, carrots and garlic, and mango chutney. Next comes the main course: papadum (thin lentil-based flatbread), two kinds of rice, aloo (cauliflower), spinach and corn, gobi (potatoes), lentil soup, chana masala (chickpeas), chaptai (another bread). And, finally, to seal the meal, a dish of mango ice cream and a cup of chai tea.

There’s no ordering involved, except for drinks, and the servers pace the courses so that you can savor each bit of goodness. Best of all, you can order seconds (and thirds), a privilege we took full advantage of on Friday night.

Adorably, the menu states that you shouldn’t come to Vatan if you’re on a “Diet” (sic). I once ate so much that I literally leaned my way home: the fullness of my stomach caused me to hunch and tip to the right. I’ve since learned moderation, but only just. Now, when I know I’ll be at Vatan later that night, I essentially fast my way through the day, thereby creating the maximum space for its deliciousness.

Friday, January 26, 2007

"Neon in daylight"

Perhaps only Tokyo rivals New York for the amount of neon in daylight. But Frank O’Hara, the quintessential New York poet, lived here, not Japan. In a 1956 poem called “A Step Away from Them,” O’Hara described walking around Midtown on his lunch hour, concluding, “Neon in daylight / is a great pleasure.”

For O’Hara, urban life was the only life. His most famous lines about the city are inscribed on a wall in Battery Park: “I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy” (“Meditations in an Emergency,” 1957). He loved the peculiar swirl of sensations that comes from a place so teeming with people and their proclivities, particularly abstract art and popular music.

Using a writing style he termed “I do this, I do that,” O’Hara wanted to do in words what his artist-friends were doing on canvas. Together, O’Hara and his pals, including Jasper Johns, Larry Rivers, Mark Rothko, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler, among others, formed a loose confederation of friends in the 1950s and 1960s interested in exploring the links between poetry and art; critics now refer to them, collectively, as the New York School. (That’s Rivers’s painting of O’Hara above, “Double Portrait of Frank O’Hara,” 1953.)

O’Hara worked at the Museum of Modern Art, and he would eat lunch and write poems in (and sometimes about) Times Square; many of these were collected in the aptly named collection “Lunch Poems” (1963). He died in an accident on Fire Island in 1966.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

"McCabe and Mrs. Miller" at the IFC Center

The hip, lovely IFC Center has been showing several Robert Altman movies throughout January to honor the recently departed director. We jumped at the chance to see Altman’s revisionist Western, “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” (1971), on the big screen, having only ever seen a lousy video from the wonderful Scarecrow in Seattle. And we weren’t disappointed.

Altman’s tale of a gambling man and his business partner, a madam and part-time prostitute, little resembles the typical Western, in which a brave white man rides into a desert town behind a setting sun. As the movie begins, McCabe (Warren Beatty) rides through the pouring rain into a half-finished town named Presbyterian Church in the Pacific Northwest, establishing the movie’s bleak, wet tone. It’s clear that any hold civilization gains over nature here will be tenuous, at best.

McCabe eventually hooks up with Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie), a hooker who doesn’t have a heart of gold. Instead, she has an addiction to opium and a savvy business sense. (McCabe’s inability with numbers is a running joke.) They make a tidy profit together and begin to fall in love, though Mrs. Miller continues to charge McCabe for sex. After McCabe unwisely rejects a local mining outfit’s offer to buy him out, Mrs. Miller begins to fear for McCabe’s life. She knows that the corporate monopoly won’t make another offer.

Aside from the heavy-handed soundtrack by Leonard Cohen, “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” makes no mistakes as it indicts big business and re-thinks the stories we tell ourselves about manifest destiny. It uses Altman’s trademark overlapping sounds, as well as a perfect color palette of soft browns and yellows for the interior scenes and of whites and blues for the noteworthy outdoor scenes. And the final shot of Mrs. Miller is one of Hollywood’s most haunting conclusions.

Monday, January 22, 2007

"sleepwalkers" at MoMA

On Friday night, we braved the cold to watch Doug Aitken’s “sleepwalkers,” a video installation currently being shown on the courtyard walls at the Museum of Modern Art. Aitken filmed five characters going through the quotidian motions of their days: waking, showering, making coffee, dressing, walking to walk. The films are show on continuous loops, three at a time, linked by match cuts and kaliedescopic images.

Each character seems isolated in his/her urban environment, but Aitken tellingly gives each one a moment of reverie: the character played by Chan Marshall (Cat Power) spins furiously, while the Donald Sutherland character dances atop a taxi and the Tilda Swinton character plays the violin. (The other two characters are played by actor Seu Jorge and drummer Ryan Donowho.) The urban environment might trap us in impenetrable bubbles, the films imply, but as humans we have an infinite capacity to feel joy, if only we let ourselves.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Flights to Africa

We had an amazing eleven days travelling through Senegal and the Gambia. Highlights include: feeding monkeys, touching crocodiles, getting 'married' in a traditional Mandinka ceremony, walking through the bush, drinking bissap (hibiscus) juice and ataya (a type of tea), eating benechin and brown rice salad, sucking on lemenos, seeing the westernmost point in Africa, bartering for a tablecloth, visiting the Marche Malien, wading in the Atlantic on black sand, strolling through the artists' colonies on Ile de Goree, going up in Arch 22, watching a monitor lizard attack a frog, making a wish on a baobab tree / griot burial site, hearing the calls to prayer from a nearby mosque, sleeping on a straw mattress, riding a horse cart across the border, and spying a giraffe in the middle of the road.

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