the heart thrills

there is beauty all around us

Month: January, 2016

MY BEAUTIFUL JEANS

Bangkok, 25 January 2016

I have a wonderful pair of jeans. I bought them God knows how many years ago and ever since, through a constant cycle of wearing and washing, they have softened, whitened, shredded, and micro-ripped. They are the very epitome of distressed jeans (“Distressed (of fabric): visibly aged and worn, from long, steady use, but still intact and functional”).

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I laugh scornfully at those half-starved ladies who mince around in what are obviously fake distressed jeans, jeans that have been subjected to Lord knows what processes (stone washing, sand blasting, chemical bleaching, cutting, slashing, and on and on) in some sweat shop in a poverty-stricken part of the planet.

woman in distressed jeans

This pair of jeans are still relatively OK. The next pair seems to have been subjected to the tender mercies of Edward Scissorhands.

imageUsing a metaphor, my jeans are comparable to a great wine, aged over years in a cool cellar

bottle of good wine

while theirs are just alcopop.

alcopopAnd the funniest thing is that my jeans cost me little, theirs cost hundreds of dollars. Ha!

Actually, this business of cost, as well as the deliberate mutilation of the fabric that we see in the previous pictures, both give me pause. Let’s remind ourselves that until relatively recently the denim of my trousers, along with the closely related jean fabric, were almost entirely used to make work clothes for working people. Levi Strauss made his fortune manufacturing tough, long-lasting, affordable denim trousers for men like this: gold panners caught up in the California gold rush (the forty-niners, “was a miner, forty-niner, and his daughter Clementine”)

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or for the miners in the gold and silver mines out in Colorado, Arizona, and Nevada

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as well as, of course, for the cowboys who roamed the Western range.

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In a word, jeans were made for tough men who worked in the great outdoors.

The original ads for Levi jeans gloried in this toughness. The company was making trousers that even horses couldn’t tear apart!

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How did this tough, no-nonsense, affordable piece of clothing morph into expensive rags clinging to the legs of elegant, half-starved women? Tasteful rags, I grant you, and clean, but still rags.

Step 1 in this transformation, it would seem, was the dude ranch phenomenon. For those of my readers who don’t know what dude ranches were, they were working ranches in the American West, where city people from the East (called dudes by the locals) would come for a vacation to enjoy a romantic outing to cowboy land without having to suffer the discomforts and dangers of the original immigrants. The popularity of dude ranches soared after the First World War with the advent of the car and easier travel. Here’s the cover of a popular magazine from the early 1940s, which shows what most people probably thought of dudes (notice the laughing cowboys in the back). But what is of even greater interest to us is what this fashionable young lady is wearing – undoubtedly a pair of blue jeans.

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When on the ranch, these city slickers (another term used for dudes, along with greenhorns and tenderfoots) clearly wanted to dress like the cowboys they met there, and then they started bringing these exotic clothes back East: most readers probably don’t know that Levi jeans were not sold east of the Mississippi until maybe the 1930s or even 1940s. Presumably, though, it was still a small minority of Easterners who wore jeans and then only out in the countryside.

Step 2 in the transformation from a good, honest piece of clothing to an expensive rag was the adoption of blue jeans by Bad Boys – bikers and such, of which Marlon Brando in the 1953 film The Wild One became the epitome. Please note the scruffy jeans he is wearing.

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James Dean, in the 1955 film Rebel Without A Cause upped the ante, in an equally scruffy pair of jeans but looking cuddlier than Brando.

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(You see the jeans rather more clearly in this poster of the film)

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Middle class parents hated everything about these films, including the jeans, therefore of course their teenage children loved them. It didn’t help that righteous school principals, cinema managers, and the like were banning jeans from their premises. That just added fuel to the fire.

The wearing of jeans as a sign of youthful rebellion, and of being youthful generally, culminated in the 1960s with the surfing, the flower power, the anti-Vietnam War movement of that decade. Here, for instance, is a hippie couple getting hitched – “married” would not be the correct word I think. I throw the photo in because the officiator is wearing a fine pair of jeans.

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And here’s one of the gigs at Woodstock, where most of the band members seem to be wearing jeans. Note the serious flare on the jeans in the back of the photo – my very first pair of jeans, which I must have bought in the early ’70s, were so flared.

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Even when things turned ugly, as they did in Kent State a year after Woodstock, jeans were being worn. I think everyone in this photo, including the Dead Student, is wearing jeans.

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Note also how the Mourner has adorned her jeans with graffiti (art work is too big a word) – something jeans wearers of the ’60s liked doing and something which the fashion world caught on to quite quickly. Already in the latter half of the ’60s, a New York boutique called Limbo hired impoverished, out-of-work East Village artists to embellish its jeans with patches, decals, and other touches, and sold them for the-then princely sum of $200. Jeans wearing was on the way to becoming trivialized.

By this point, I think it’s safe to say that jeans had pretty much entered the mainstream. The definitive proof of that is that I, who was never that alternative, was wearing them. They were still casual wear rather than formal wear, but they had “arrived”. There was, however, still an important step to take, namely the wearing of ripped jeans. I suppose we’re so used to wearing anything nowadays that the sight of ragged clothes on obviously well-off people doesn’t shock us. But not all that long ago, and by that I mean in my lifetime, wearing ripped and ragged jeans would have meant only one thing: you were poor, if not downright down-and-out. To stress this point, let me throw in here a picture of a painting by an unknown Italian artist of the late 17th Century, who goes by the soubriquet of “The Master of the Blue Jeans”. He is so known because of the ten or so paintings which are known to be from his hand, and which all have as their subjects people (poor people I should add) wearing blue jean fabric.

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As readers can see, the child in this painting is very obviously poor, and the jean jacket which he is wearing is ripped. In today’s world, this child could probably sell this garment for a good price (after a strong fumigation and a good wash I would think). But in his day, and indeed even today in many parts of the world, ragged clothes meant poverty. Which is why my grandmothers obsessively darned and mended every hole they found in our clothes. And which is why there are many paintings recording this part of a woman’s work.

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Yet in some mysterious way, some two-three decades ago it started to become chic, at least in certain circles, to wear ragged denim. Why?

It seems that we have the punks to thank for this. It was they, with their anti-conformist, anti-establishment, anti-everything attitudes who popularized the slashing of jeans. This picture gives a good example of the genre – both punks and slashed jeans.

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I suppose slashing one’s jeans was just another, very obvious, way of giving the finger to our social conventions, in this case that rags were shameful; no doubt punks’ mums were horrified to see their children going around in rags and were mortified by what the neighbours might think.

But why didn’t this fashion statement just remain in the shadows of the sub-culture of punk? To answer that, I think we must acknowledge a modern trend in the fashion world. For centuries, the trend setters in fashion were the social elites, people like Louis XIV

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or Beau Brummell, intimate of the Prince Regent, later George IV

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or Edward VII, inventor of, among other things, the Homburg hat

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or even someone like Mona Bismarck, American socialite of the 1930s

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Beginning in the 1930s, though, we can see a shift towards a less elitist view, with film stars, for instance, becoming fashion trendsetters. By the 1960s, the shift seems to have been complete. The fashion trendsetters are now people on the street, like the punks, who are pushing fashion boundaries. Which has brought not just rag-wearing but also body-piercing and tattooing into the mainstream.

Personally, I think an important but overlooked element in the road of rags to riches is the introduction of an elastic component like spandex into the denim, which has allowed jeans to become very tight around the leg. Let’s face it, while the punks may have been giving us all the finger, the fashion industry doesn’t want to do that. It wants slashed jeans to send a nice message, and what’s nice about slashed jeans is that it allows one a sight of the shapely legs of the half-starved women inserted in those jeans. And one doesn’t get a good sight of the legs unless the jeans adhere tightly to them.

That, I think, concludes the journey of jeans from serious work clothing to chi-chi vestment. What can be next, I wonder? Well, there is talk of jeans disappearing altogether. Many young things, it seems, are opting more and more for the cute sounding athleisure, which is cutting into jeans’s traditional markets. If this goes on, everyone will be dressed like this

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or this

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or other variations, and Levi Strauss will either be making these or will have gone out of business.

I must keep my jeans for another 30 years. They will probably be a very rare piece by then and worth a fortune.

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My jeans: my photo

Woman wearing “distressed jeans”: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-4r9MHsbshO8/VLuo7CuxZBI/AAAAAAAA36s/sTB-FnG5_a4/s1600/Distressed%2BDenim.jpg (in http://www.over50feeling40.com/2015/01/would-you-wear-it-wednesday-distressed.html)

Extremely distressed denim: http://www.aliexpress.com/item/Women-s-Vintage-boyfriend-slouchy-Big-Ripped-Destroyed-Washed-Out-jeans-Denim-Distressed-punk-rock-trousers/1867914655.html

Bottle of good wine: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/7e/71/99/7e71991ec3b450efa2b50d7923cdb1f5.jpg (https://www.pinterest.com/pin/196539971211872465/)

Bottle of alcopop: http://drink-brands.com/drinks/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/SourzFusionzAlcoholicDrink.jpg (in http://drink-brands.com/drinks/alcoholic-drink/sourz-bring-out-sourz-fusionz-bottled-drink/)

Gold panner: http://www.legendsofamerica.com/we-mininggold.html

Gold miners: http://www.mcmahanphoto.com/lc548–montanamineoldwest1889goldminersphoto.html

Cowboy: http://www.old-picture.com/old-west/Cowboy.htm

Old Levis poster: https://equigeoblog.wordpress.com/tag/horse-logos/

Woman dude: http://debyclark.blogspot.my/2012/06/20-june-1942-woman-at-dude-ranch.html

Marlon Brando in The Wild One: http://leblow.co.uk/fashspiration-of-the-week-kate-moss-on-a-motorbike/

James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause: http://www.grimygoods.com/2014/03/06/12-best-iconic-mens-vintage-biker-leather-jackets/

Rebel Without A Cause poster: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0048545/

Hippies getting married: http://s192.photobucket.com/user/Swinging_Sixties/media/1960s/Hippies.jpg.html

Woodstock: http://www.woodstock.com

Kent State shooting: https://www.aclu.org/blog/speak-freely/flowers-are-still-better-bullets-45-years-after-kent-state-massacre

Boy in jeans jacket: http://tmagazine.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/01/11/vintage-jeans/?_r=0

Woman darning socks: http://stilllifequickheart.tumblr.com/post/35997420012/wybrand-hendriks-interior-with-wife-mending-socks

Punks: http://ellorajones.blogspot.com/2011/06/punk-rock.html

Louis XIV: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louis_XIV_of_France

Beau Brummell: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beau_Brummell

Edward VII: http://blog.sekora.cz/?tag=edward-vii

Mona Bismarck: https://www.pinterest.com/ccmfarrow/power-of-style-mona-countess-of-bismarck/

Athleisure: http://www.ocreurope.com/athleisure-a-growing-trend-in-fitness-fashion/

SPADES, CLUBS, HEARTS, DIAMONDS

Bangkok, 8 January 2016

In a previous post, I sketched out a rough agenda for my retirement. I think my wife was pleased with it. But she does have certain anxieties about this upcoming event. She has recently been reading about some Japanese syndrome called Retired Husbands Syndrome which attacks Japanese housewives. Suddenly, this guy whom you’ve hardly seen in the last 40 years – being a good Salaryman, he’s been leaving the house at 6 am and not getting home till midnight – is now constantly hanging around, getting in your way, messing up your routines, and expecting you to do things for him. Not unnaturally, the stress levels rocket up. While we’ve maintained a more balanced lifestyle, she does have fears of me moping around the house, lounging around on the sofa, eating natchos and watching TV all day. This dystopian view of hers is not helped by a number of films we’ve seen recently, describing exactly this situation. Nor is it helped by my fondness (my wife thinks more obsession) for playing Spider Solitaire on my iPad. She’s afraid that come retirement all I’ll do all day is compulsively play Spider Solitaire, with a little Freecell on the side.

It is true that I tend to play the game whenever I have a spare moment. I do admit that it can get a little out of hand. But I’m sure it’s good for my aging brain to carefully plot my strategy for getting the cards out. And those little electronic cards, with their glossy black spades and clubs and glowing red diamonds and hearts, and kingly Kings and queenly Queens and knavish Jacks, are really very pretty.
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I was thinking about their prettiness the other day during a Spider Solitaire game, and when it became clear that I was dribbling towards defeat I decided to quit and do a little research on the history of playing cards, principally to understand where the suit design of hearts, diamonds, spades, and clubs originally came from. I was very pleased that I did so, because I discovered that what we have here is yet another example of the Great East-West Exchange which took place along the Silk Road and other trade routes that once criss-crossed the Eurasian continent. Of course, most of what was exchanged was traditional goods, but ideas also flowed along these routes. So did less obvious things, like the the willow tree and the pomegranate, both of which I’ve had occasion to write about in the past. Now I can with pleasure write about a third such item, playing cards.

Our story starts in China. Some time in the Tang Dynasty, around the 7th-8th Century, it seems that someone in the Imperial Court came up with the idea of a pack of playing cards, divided into four suits. The suits were Coins, Strings of (1,000) coins, Myriads of strings (10,000), and Tens of myriads. Like our modern cards, each suit contained cards with different numbers of pips. Here we have a Three of Coins and a Three of Strings-of-coins.
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These packs also included face cards, like this one from the Ming dynasty.
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These ‘chi-pai’, which is Chinese for playing cards, are still in use. This next photo shows the cards from a three-suited variant. Note how the design of the suits became highly stylized – this is important for our story.
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I’ve no idea what games exactly were played with these cards back in Tang Dynasty times, I’m not sure anyone knows, and actually it’s not important for our story. What is important is that the use of cards spread westward. This could have happened through trade; I can imagine Chinese merchants whipping out a pack of cards to while away their down time in the caravanserai that dotted the Silk Road.
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Alternatively, it could have happened through conquest, with conquering soldiers picking up new habits from the conquered. In this case, the Mongols, who conquered China in the 13th Century, seem a very good candidate. At its height, the Mongol Empire stretched from Korea to Ukraine.
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Any new fads picked up by Mongol troops in China could have spread, through many an evening around soldiers’ camp fires, all the way to Kiev.

I don’t think the two diffusion mechanisms are necessarily exclusive. I could imagine that the Mongol conquest also amplified diffusion of card playing through trade. The two maps above superimpose quite well, and in fact the period of the Mongol Empire brought political stability to Asia which in turn encouraged a surge of trade along the Silk Road.

Whichever way, Chinese playing cards diffused westward. Some time in the 13th-14th Century, maybe earlier, so-called Ganjifa playing cards started being used in Persia. The etymology of Ganjifa is uncertain. Some see its root in the Persian word gunj, which connotes treasure, treasury, or money, and suggest that this connects them to the money-suited Chinese playing cards. Others see a more elaborate etymology, proposing that Ganjifa is actually a corruption of ‘han-chi-pai’, or ‘Chinese playing cards’. In this case, there would be a very clear line of descent from China. In any event, variants of Ganjifa playing cards began to be used throughout the Muslim world, as well as in India (brought there in the saddle bags of the Mughal conquerors). What interests us most is the variant used by the Mamluk in Egypt.

The Egyptian Mamluk were an interesting bunch of people. Initially, they were slave soldiers recruited by the Ayyubid dynasty. For the most part, they were drawn from the Cumans-Kipchaks, a nomadic group who controlled the steppes north of the Black Sea. They were conquered by the Mongols and then absorbed into the Mongol Empire as the Golden Horde. Some time in the 13th Century, the Mamluk slave-soldiers kicked the Ayyubids out and reigned in their place. This happy state of affairs continued until they were in turn defeated by the Ottomans and their territories subsumed into the Ottoman Empire. Luckily for them, the Ottomans kept them on as governors of Egypt.

Perhaps because of their Mongol connection, or in some other way, the Mamluk picked up this new fad of card playing and brought it to Egypt some time in the 14th Century. What is of interest to us here is the fact that Mamluk packs of cards had four suits: Coins, Polo-sticks (the Mamluks were great polo players), Cups, and Swords. In addition, each suit had three face cards, the king, the first vizir, and the second vizir. Some clever people, who know more about the history of playing cards than I do, see a link between these four suits and those used in Chinese playing cards. Their thinking goes as follows. There is no problem in seeing the Mamluk Coin suit being derived from the Chinese Coin suit, that’s an easy equivalence to envisage. After that, it gets trickier. The clever people propose that the Chinese String-of-coins suit was transformed into the Mamluk Polo-stick suit, on the grounds that a String-of-coins pip could easily be misinterpreted as a stick to those unfamiliar with this very Chinese way of dealing with coins. It is true that the String-of-coins suit in the photo of Chinese playing cards above has been so stylized as to look stick-like. Then the clever people suggest that the Chinese Myriad-of-strings suit became the Mamluk cup suit, on the grounds that the Chinese character for myriad, 万, which was often used as a sort of pip, was simply inverted by the Mamluks, at which point it does indeed look cup-like. Finally, the clever people suggest that the Chinese Tens-of-myriads suit, where the Chinese numeral for ten, 十, was often used as the pip, was simply interpreted as a sword by the Mamluk and so gave rise to their suit of Swords. The ice over which we have been scrabbling these last few sentences is indeed thin, but the romantic in me is willing to believe this wonderful story of Central Asians scratching their heads over these strange-looking cards which had come all the way from China and giving their own interpretations to the drawings on them. To enliven all this text, I throw in here a photo of one of the rare Mamluk playing cards to have survived, a Six of Coins, found in Istanbul’s Topkapi palace.
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The next leg of our journey is somewhat easier to envisage, the transit of the Mamluk playing cards to Italy. I’m guessing that Venice was the entry point, although there could have been more than one. Until the Portuguese rounded the Cape of Good Hope and made for the Spice Islands, most of the spices which Europeans lusted for entered Europe through Venice, which in turn picked them up in Egypt. In addition to picking up spices, I can imagine Venetian sailors and merchants picking up packs of Mamluk playing cards to while away the long journeys back to Venice. Once in Italy, the use of playing cards spread rapidly, with each region having its own particularities. Here, for instance, is a pack of cards from Bergamo.
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Italian playing cards basically adopted the Mamluk suits, except that they changed Polo-sticks to Clubs – polo was an unknown game in Europe at that time and I suppose the polo-sticks looked club-like to the Italians. They also adopted the idea of three face cards per suit but Europeanized them into king, upper marshal, and lower marshal.

There followed a fairly rapid diffusion of playing cards throughout Europe as the craze for card playing caught on. The Southern Europeans – Spain and Portugal – kept to the Italian design for their suits, with some minor modifications. The Northern Europeans instead experimented with a lot of different suit designs. Given the aristocratic background of many players, the suits were often hunting-themed like this pack from Flanders.
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Through the newfangled technology of printing, in which they were leaders, and through which they were the first to produce cheap packs of cards, the German lands popularized the use of the following suits:
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Personally, I don’t see much connection between these suits and the Italian versions. I think the Germans just used their fantasy. In any event, here are some old German playing cards with suits of Bells and of Acorns.
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Not to be outdone, the French came up with a somewhat different set of suits.
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The Hearts suit was taken as-is from the German suits. The Spades suit seems to be a slight modification of the German Leaf suit. The Clubs suit could be considered a geometric transformation of the Acorns suit – the sides of the acorn shell pulled out, the acorn itself shortened. The circular Bells suit of the Germans was replaced by a different shape, the diamond. As the cards above show, the French also introduced Queens, who displaced the upper marshal.

The French suits have since become those most used worldwide. Why that should be is not completely clear to me. I think it probably has something to do with the fact that the French suits are easier to read; I would have got really confused using those German cards I show above – “wait, is that an Eight of Acorns I have in my hand, or a Nine?” Or perhaps it was because the French were the arbiters of good taste in Europe until World War I. Or perhaps it was because the British adopted the French suits and happened to become the most powerful country in the world with the biggest colonial Empire, which allowed them to impose their choice of card suits and card games on their colonial subjects. Or perhaps it was because the Americans, who took over the title of the most powerful nation, followed them in choosing French suits for their playing cards. For any or all of these reasons, or maybe others again, French suits now stare up at me from my games of Spider Solitaire and Freecell.

Well, now that I’ve figured all that out, I can go back to what I was doing and actually win my Spider Solitaire game.

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Old Chinese cards, coins and strings of coins: http://www.gamesmuseum.uwaterloo.ca/Archives/Wilkinson/Wilkinson.html
Old Chinese cards, face card: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Playing_card
Chi-pai three-suited cards: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_playing_cards#Money-suited_cards
Silk Road: http://archive.silkroadproject.org/tabid/177/defaul.aspx
Mongol Empire: https://mapcollection.wordpress.com/2012/06/27/the-mongol-empire/
Mamluk card: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Playing_card#Egypt
Bergsmasche deck: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Italian_playing_cards#/media/File%3ACarte_bergamasche.jpg
Flemish hunting deck: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flemish_Hunting_Deck
German suites: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_playing_cards
Old German playing cards, acorn: http://www.spielkarten24.de/flohm.htm
Old German playing cars, bells: http://deerbe.com/unt/59680-___alte_spielkarten_playing_cards_dondorf_301_deutsche_spielkarte_1868___.html
Old French playing cards: http://www.culture.gouv.fr/public/mistral/joconde_fr?ACTION=CHERCHER&FIELD_98=AUTR&VALUE_98=BERGERET%20Pierre%20Nolasque&DOM=All&REL_SPECIFIC=1

CHRISTMAS CHEER

New York, 2 January 2016

There was a habit in China that I always found strange – dissonant perhaps is the better word – and that was the locals’ enthusiastic adoption of typical Christmas decorations. One would enter any self-respecting mall at the end of the year and there, standing proudly in the foyer, would be a resplendent Christmas tree.
imageA tree was sort of OK. Pine trees grow in China, right? and one could imagine the Chinese covering them with colorful baubles. I could even live with the muzaked Christmas carols that invariably were being played in the malls. Seeing Father Christmases in China, though, was really strange to me.

A man dressed as Santa Claus walks past two security guards in downtown Shanghai December 23, 2010. Officially recognized by the Finland government after a four-year training, the man is one of 50 officially registered Santa Clauses who is paying a visit to Shanghai, warming up the Christmas holidays. REUTERS/Aly Song (CHINA - Tags: SOCIETY IMAGES OF THE DAY)

I mean, Santa Claus has his roots deep in Northern Europe, in some place like this
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and not in the arid plains of northern China.
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Luckily, I never saw any Santa elves while in China. That would really have been too much, I would have had to take to my bed.

My Chinese office staff always got enthusiastically into the swing of things in the first weeks of December, sprinkling the walls and other surfaces with Christmas decorations.

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I tolerated all this Yuletide good cheer à la chinoise, although the first year I found it somewhat disconcerting that one of the secretaries kept her decorations up around her workspace way after Christmas: a cheerful Santa ho-hoing away and a couple of reindeer-drawn sleighs as I recall.
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In July, I finally got around to asking her why she kept them up. They were cheerful, she replied. OK, why not? My role in running the office did not extend to policing the interior decorations, so long as they didn’t offend public morals.

Luckily, now that we no longer live in China I don’t get this weird feeling of something not quite right around Christmas time. In fact, this year, in Brooklyn, I get the feeling that everything is absolutely right. In this part of Brooklyn (Carroll Gardens), many of the brownstones have small gardens in front of them. Their owners have enthusiastically filled them with various Christmas-themed stuff, many of them lit up at night. The result is a very pleasant walk for me and my wife from the subway stop down to our daughter’s apartment. I throw in here a gallery of the community’s efforts in Christmas son et lumière (actually lumière only; there was no son except for the wind rattling the branches of the trees above our heads).

Here we have a bare-bones offering, although the lights do give off a cheerful glow.
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In these next few photos, the owners have created somewhat more complex tableaux
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whereas in the next cases the owners have made some serious efforts
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All these efforts culminate in a wonderful series of tableaux where compressed air (I guess) has been used to create large and exceedingly cheerful balloon-like sculptures, which wave gently with every passing breeze.
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But a whip around the web shows that all these efforts are nothing compared to what some people have done. Here, for instance, is an unutterably cool house somewhere in Queens.

The owners should get a medal for their efforts.

All things considered, my feelings of discomfort about seeing such cheery Christmas scenes in China are silly. In this highly globalized world of ours, where we all dress the same, eat the same, buy the same furniture and furnishings, see the same movies, and play the same videogames, where’s the harm in the Chinese decorating their apartments, houses, offices, and malls with Christmas paraphernalia? Especially since it’s all made in China.

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_____________________
Christmas tree, China: http://www.ocweekly.com/news/south-coast-plaza-looks-a-lot-more-chinese-these-days-and-its-not-by-accident-6781849
Father Christmas, China: http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/12/what-china-loves-about-christmas-and-doesnt/250488/
Winter, Sweden: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/snowandski/8355017/Skiing-in-re-Sweden-the-place-to-go-for-Europes-best-snow.html
Winter, Inner Mongolia: http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photo-winter-grassland-inner-mongolia-china-image50804885
Christmas decorations in office, China: http://godfatherstyle.com/creative-inspirational-work-place-christmas-decorations/
Santa Claus wall decoration: http://www.aliexpress.com/store/product/2Pcs-28x21cm-Merry-Christmas-Santa-Claus-Wall-Stickers-Christmas-Decoration-Random-Pattern-Christmas-Stickers/532381_32242806520.html
Garden Xmas decorations: my photos
Highly decorated house: http://indesignss.co/best/best-christmas-decorated-house-in-queens

RETIREMENT HERE WE COME!

New York, 1 January 2016

2016 is upon us! My wife and I did not stay up to ring in the new year, we let the younger folk do that.
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No need to make any new year resolutions, this year will be one of momentous change! (for me, anyway) I retire in August and finally become a free man again! Yippee!
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What I need to do over the next eight months (apart from ensuring as smooth a handover as possible to my eventual successor) is to figure out what my wife and I will do with all this wonderful spare time given to me. Travel is high on the list. For instance, we are planning to drive across the US, something I’ve dreamed of doing since my student days in the US 35 years ago, visiting the natural wonders of the West
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as well as the man-made wonders along the way.
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Or there’s a little trip I’ve had in mind for a while, visiting stained glass windows across Europe, from the Medieval glories of la Sainte Chapelle in Paris
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or Chartres cathedral
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to the modern take on this art form in Cologne Cathedral.
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Further afield, I have emitted the desire in a previous post to visit Easter Island.

AH2B07 Chili

Or how about Belize? My wife is currently searching the web for places there where our daughter and her beau could go and spend a short vacation. I’m thinking we should go there too and do some snorkeling

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as well as go and visit some of the country’s Mayan ruins
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My wife and I have also talked of spending several months in a number of our favourite cities, cities which we’ve only been able to visit briefly because of our work schedules but which we would like to get to know better. And on and on … There’s so much of the world we’ve not seen! But we cannot spend our whole time just traveling. For one thing, it gets rather expensive and I’m not sure how far my pension will stretch. For another, it greatly increases our carbon footprint, which is currently a big problem.

Which brings me to more serious things that my wife and I need to do in this latest phase of our lives. I’ve already mentioned in a previous post that we are going to have to do something to drastically reduce our environmental footprint.
imageI’m thinking in a confused way of turning these efforts into a blog and/or a website and/or an app to help others do the same. That will definitely keep me busy, especially since the workings of websites, apps, and the like are black holes to me. Time to learn and keep the old brain working!

And then there’s the exercise! We have to continue the good work we’ve started. Joining a gym near our apartment in Milan is a definite possibility (we’ve already looked into the options). But we’ll surely supplement that with trekking in the Ligurian hills behind our apartment near Genova.
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And here we can give back for all the years we’ve been using the trails, volunteering to help maintain them in our spare time (of which we will now have plenty).

And then, hopefully not in contradiction with the last two thoughts, I would like to turn my hand to some cooking. Not common-or-garden cooking but rather out-of-the-way things. For instance, I’ve always wanted to make tomato ketchup from scratch
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Vinegar makes me think that I would like to try pickling my own vegetables.
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I know this culinary impulse of mine is strange. I suppose it’s my way of rebelling against all the processed food that has swamped our lives. Maybe I can make this a subset of my website on reducing our environmental footprints, since our current food habits are such a big part of them.

I’m thinking that I could also do a bit of teaching, linked to my professional specialties. One university has reached out to me, let’s see if we can come to a mutually satisfactory arrangement.
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I’m sure there’s a thousand other things we could set our hand to. But of course it could be that amongst all this busyness we’ll be called to do our duty as grandparents. The children are not yet at the point of having their own children, but the moment could come. Have no fear, children, we’ll drop everything and be there in a jiffy!
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What better way is there to spend one’s waning years than in imparting some of one’s experience (I won’t say wisdom) to the little ones in our society?

Happy New Year!
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WORLD TRADE CENTER

31 December 2015

Two years ago, when we were last in New York, we visited Ground Zero and the newly created Memorial to the victims of 9/11. Several days ago, during our current New York stay, we decided to go back to see how things have moved on.

Well, I’m glad to report that One World Trade Center is finally finished. I read up the back story to the development of the overall master plan for the area as well as for the design of the individual buildings; a veritable Shakespearean drama, with super egos confronting each other in dramatic showdowns, stabbing each other in the back, making sonorous declarations to the press, and otherwise carrying on like children in kindergarten. It’s a wonder that anything got done at all.
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Rising serenely above all this human mayhem, WTC 1 is a very lovely, glass-sheathed building. As readers can see in the photo below, the corners have been severely shaved back. I wouldn’t know how to describe the geometrical shenanigans going on here, so I simply quote a line from the building’s entry in Wikipedia: “from the 20th floor upwards, the square edges of the tower’s cubic base are chamfered back, shaping the building into eight tall isosceles triangles, or an elongated square antiprism”. However you describe it, the effect is pretty cool.
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WTC 2 is lagging behind. After having gone through a complete redesign, it is now being built, with a planned completion date of 2020. It should look like this once it is finished – a set of cubes stacked somewhat untidily one on top of the other.
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Personally, I’m not sure I will like this building. Something about those poorly stacked cubes disturbs my sensibilities. But I’m willing to be convinced once 2020 rolls around.

I will skip over WTCs 3, 4, 5 and 7 (WTC 6 seems to have disappeared from the roster in the new master plan), although I would draw readers’ attention to WTC 4, finished a few years ago and a very handsome building indeed. I want to focus instead on the Transportation Hub, which is a grand name for the entry to the subway lines running under the site. This, I have to say, is a rather strange-looking structure.
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When I first caught sight of it, from the side, I was powerfully reminded of photos that came out in the immediate aftermath of September 11, showing the jagged remains of the outer sheathing of the old WTC 1 and 2 buildings which had come crashing to the ground.
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I don’t know if that was also on the mind of the Hub’s designer, the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. In his public pronouncements, he has talked rather about it being like a bird flying out of a hand. It certainly has a bird-like quality from the back, although commentators have suggested a more stegosaurus-like look, which as the photo above shows is certainly true from the front. For those readers who may not be familiar with their dinosaurs I throw in a picture here of a reconstructed stegosaurus.
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The similarity is even more striking when you consider a stegosaurus skeleton.
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Frankly, I’m not completely sure how well this piece of design will withstand the test of time. Calatrava’s other design for the new World Trade Centre, the rebuilding of the tiny Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas which got flattened in the maelstrom of September 11, may weather better, at least from the models I’ve seen
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but we will have to wait until 2017 to pass a firmer judgement.

Well, it seems that my wife and I have plenty of excuses to come back to New York in the years to come. Which is nice, because the primary current excuse for our coming, our daughter living here, is about to disappear as she moves on to greater and better things.

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Silent film dramatic scene: http://bayflicks.net/2014/01/17/whats-screening-january-17-23/
WTC 1: http://anotherpartofme.com/the-real-reason-one-world-trade-center-1wtc-lost-its-best-features/
WTC 2: http://www.cnn.com/2015/06/12/travel/two-world-trade-center-tower-big/
Transportation Hub: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/25/nyregion/a-crossroads-decades-gone-will-reopen-at-the-world-trade-center.html
Ground Zero: http://www.propublica.org/article/new-docs-detail-how-feds-downplayed-ground-zero-health-risks
Stegosaurus reconstruction: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stegosaurus_in_popular_culture
Stegosaurus skeleton: https://digitalstore.makerbot.com/stegosaurus-skeleton
St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/31/nyregion/st-nicholas-church-destroyed-on-9-11-to-rebuild-with-byzantine-design.html