August 27, 2010

Living Spaces for a Small Planet

I saw a terrific show at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London last week called 1:1 Architects Build Small Spaces. Out of 19 architects invited to submit proposals for small structures, seven were selected and constructed, and are scattered throughout the museum. The V&A’s challenge to architects was to design a space that explores the idea of refuge and retreat. Here are two of my favorites, Terunobu Fujimori’s “Beetle’s House,” and the Norwegian Helen & Hard Architects’ “Ratatosk.”

The first, conceived as a venue for an English version of the Japanese tea ceremony, is made of charred pine and is set atop stilts. The charring is an ancient and labor-intensive Japanese method of preserving wood, and gives the teahouse a weathered, alligator-like skin. Visitors climb a ladder and enter by a hatch in the floor of the teahouse. Traditional Japanese building methods were used to evoke a simpler, more primitive way of life. Housed in the V&A’s sunlight-filled Medieval and Renaissance room, the juxtaposition of this new, yet old-looking structure next to a medieval wooden spiral staircase was fantastic. Fujimori is a longtime professor of architectural history at Tokyo University who came to designing structures later in life.

The title for the second piece, “Ratatosk,” comes from the name of a squirrel in Norse mythology that lived in a giant ash tree at the center of the cosmos. The architects of Helen & Hard constructed their piece—which sits in the outdoor courtyard of the V&A—from five ash trees split lengthwise, planted face to face and covered with a canopy of curving willow slats. Although they used a high-tech 3-D scanning and modeling process to map sections of wood to be cut, the result is completely organic, conjuring the forested magic of myth and fairytale.

August 14, 2010

When samurai walked the streets of New York

There is a curious gem of an exhibition on now at the Museum of the City of New York, Samurai in New York. The show tells the story of the first official delegation of Japanese to visit the country in 1860, not long after Commodore Matthew Perry forced the ports of Japan to open after 220 years of isolation from “barbarian” foreign influences.

The purpose of the nine-month voyage was to ratify an amity and commerce treaty Japan’s Tokugawa Shogunate signed with the U.S. in 1858. A total of 170 Japanese left from Edo (now Tokyo), including the official delegation of 76 samurai, interpreters, doctors and other functionaries. After setting anchor in San Francisco Bay, the “Japanese Embassy” as the delegation was known, split off from the rest of the group and continued on to the East Coast via a Panama land crossing. The Embassy completed its mission in Washington, traveled through Baltimore and Philadelphia and ended its visit with a two-week stay in New York.

In the Big Apple, the furor the delegation’s visit created was like something you might expect if aliens were to descended from a space ship to take a meeting with Mayor Bloomberg. With their shaved heads, topknots, hakama (skirt-like culottes), swords and martial demeanors, they were the extra-terrestrials of their day, and a transfixed city made them the toast of the town. New York, entrepreneurial and sassy on the eve of the Civil War, tried to portray itself as the “Edo of the West” to the visitors, staging two parades, a City Hall reception, and a grand ball, among other lavish celebrations. Walt Whitman wrote a typically hyperbolic poem commemorating the teeming parade up Broadway that he witnessed:

Over sea, hither from Niphon,
Courteous, the Princes of Asia, swart cheek’d princes…
First-comers, guests, two-sworded princes,
Lesson-giving princes, leaning back in their open barouches,
Bare-headed, impassive……
This day they ride through Manhattan……
When million-footed Manhattan, unpent, descends to its pavements….
When pennants trail, and festoons hang from the windows,
When Broadway is entirely given up to foot-passers and foot-

The exhibit is filled with curious mementoes: stereoscopic photographs, some of them hand-colored, of the visitors and their hosts; gifts exchanged; sketches and poems composed by the several poets and artists members of the Embassy. The visitors were especially impressed with a hot air balloon draped with flags that they witnessed rise in Philadelphia and head to New York, another commemoration of their historic visit.

An excited press even manufactured a young heartthrob among the members of the Japanese Embassy, Tateishi “Tommy” Onojiro (photo, left), a teenaged interpreter-in-training who reporters dubbed a “darling fellow,” and a “Japanese prince.” By the time the Embassy reached Washington, young ladies were in a frenzy to meet him, begging for his autograph or to have their photo taken with him (photo, below left).

The first American Consul General in Japan, Townsend Harris, arranged the trip and was largely responsible for this hero’s welcome; he had elevated the status of the Embassy in order to burnish his own reputation and persuade his government to foot the bill for the entire trip.

Despite the image-making of Harris, aided by Whitman and the press, the truth, writes Masao Miyoshi in his absorbing book about the Japanese Embassy, As We Saw Them: The First Japanese Embassy to the United States, was that the Tokugawa Shogunate sent “rather humble officials” to America.

Even the MCNY exhibit (co-presented with the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University) falls into the trap of romanticizing the exotic visitors, describing them as “all sword-wielding samurai” and “members of the military nobility.” Miyoshi dismisses them as “a group of bureaucrats too humble to even guess where Tokugawa policy might turn next.” (A few members did, however, go on to have distinguished careers in Japan, although one, a Tokugawa loyalist to the end, was beheaded by the imperial army.)

The compact MCNY exhibit touches briefly on the ugly racism that appeared in press accounts and among the American populace during this giddy cross-cultural exchange. For greater detail and complexity, though, look to Miyoshi’s 2005 book. He describes the impressions of both the Japanese Embassy members—whom he criticizes for being incurious and condescending—and the Westerners, who, although genuinely welcoming and generous, harbored equally appalled responses to certain Japanese customs and behaviors.

In answer to food historian Sandra Sherman’s question to me after she saw the exhibit, “What did they eat?” Miyoshi offers an amusing description of the difficulty the delegation had with the rich feasts that were endlessly proffered to them. Even today, the author points out, Japanese are “extremely attached to their native diet of rice, soy sauce, bean paste, fish and poultry, and cannot tolerate Western cuisine for any prolonged time.” (So true!) Many also adhered to Buddhist vegetarian diets and never touched milk, cheese or butter. Although the envoys brought huge quantities of their own foods and learned to love some delicacies (ice cream and champagne, for example), keeping well-fed on the trip was a challenge. They were “at times famished in the midst of feasts more luxurious than they had ever dreamed,” writes Miyoshi.

Miyoshi’s scholarly book (he was a professor of Japanese, English and comparative literature at UCSD) is both comic and poignant, and ends with the suggestion that despite the cosmopolitan outlook of many Japanese today and 150 years of diplomacy between Japan and the U.S., the relationship between the two countries is still, at bottom, one of mutual bafflement and incomprehension.

Samurai in New York
The Museum of the City of New York
1220 Fifth Ave. at 103rd St.
New York, NY 10029
(212) 534.1672
Through October 11th, 2010

August 6, 2010

The NEDA coach and trainer toolkit has arrived!

Exciting news: The National Eating Disorders Association toolkit for coaches and trainers that I coordinated and wrote has just been launched online. You can download and view it here.

At the outset of this project, I knew a fair amount about eating disorders through co-authoring The Parent's Guide to Eating Disorders with Dr. Marcia Herrin.  But I learned a lot more about athletics and eating disorders, including useful general information about sport, fueling and hydration that I have taken every opportunity to pester Son about, and even the children of other people.

 Organized sport, often as early as at the middle school level,  emphasizes the achievement of lean muscle mass, peak fitness levels and winning at all costs. The most successful athletes are driven, highly competitive and intensely perfectionistic, traits that just happen to be risk factors for disordered eating and eating disorders. For a genetically susceptible child or adult, the combination of these traits and sport can be dangerous; it’s no surprise that there is a high incidence of eating problems among competitive athletes.

The very nature of some sports can be damaging to the body image of both women and men, girls and boys, for example, gymnastics, figure skating, diving (aesthetic sports) and wrestling, rowing and distance running (weight-sensitive sports). Yet despite this pile-up of risk factors, there has been scant education about eating disorders within the world of sport. In part this is because of the feeling among coaches and trainers that eating disorders education contains an implicit criticism of what they do.

One of the goals of the toolkit is to balance an understanding of the goals and methods of coaches and trainers with the perspective of the eating disorder professionals who treat affected athletes. Attempting to do that, I included interviews with coaches and athletes, as well as physicians, psychologists and nutritionists who specialize in both eating disorders and sport, and worked with an advisory committee of experts in the field.

The toolkit, which has won the endorsement of the Academy for Eating Disorders and the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, will be officially launched at NEDA’s national conference this October in New York City.

August 4, 2010

Dogs, humans vie for licks at the Café Cluny ice cream cart

It’s been a hot summer so far. Really hot. Horrible, humid hot. So the mobile ice cream cart sitting in front of Café Cluny at the corner of West Fourth and West 12th Streets has looked even more enticing than in past summers.

We wait for it every spring, wondering when the cart will appear and officially kick off ice cream season. Addicts have their favorite flavors – a new one this year, banana vanilla wafer, made a big splash, especially after the persuasive Idyl Bray (pictured, at right), who studies dance at Alvin Ailey when she’s not scooping or hostessing inside the café, began touting its deliciousness. Cookies ‘n’ cream is the standard by which many measure newer Cluny flavors, but spearmint chocolate chip, peanut butter and strawberry seem to have large followings as well.

This cart is a charming, bright spot in the neighborhood, but I have to agree with Julia Moskin, who wrote in today’s New York Times (You Scream, I Scream….at the Price) that this whole artisanal ice cream boomlet can feel like silk-gloved hold-up. Some patrons, it must be said, drew the line and stopped coming when Cluny hiked its prices this year, from $2 to $4 per single scoop.

Those who can afford it, or who can’t but have no will power, have Jacqueline Zion, pastry chef of The Oden in Tribeca to thank/blame. She is the mixologist behind these flavors, which are also served from a cart in front of The Odeon. The pedigree of Zion’s cold comfort food is so long that it would surely win best in show in the Westminster of ice cream battles (perhaps that has happened already on the Food Network). The milk comes from Ronnybrook Farm Dairy in the Hudson Valley, the eggs from Fishkill Farms, and the fruits and herbs hail from Satur Farm on Long Island. Naturally, the cookies and wafer mix-ins are all made at the restaurant.

Delia Acosta (above left), a deceptively docile martial artist, has been scooping in front of Café Cluny for three summers now, as long as the cart has been in existence. She’s watched kids grow up during that time, and gotten to know every neighborhood dog. Delia and Idyl, in fact, rave about their dog customers more than their human counterparts.

There’s Larry, who after a fateful sampling of one spoonful of peanut butter ice cream, now lies down in front of the cart every time he and his owner pass by, refusing to budge until he’s been given his taste. “You would think I gave him doggie crack the way he acts,” says Idyl. There’s Petey, the French bulldog who will eat anything and thanks his servers with a bark, and Ella, the goldendoodle with the beautiful greenish-gold eyes that plead for dessert.

Idyl has become friends with half the neighborhood, many of whom know that she is going to Poland to meet her boyfriend’s family. “Some people will sit here for hours and talk to you,” she says, motioning to the inviting bench that sits next to the cart. Delia says Gay Pride Day is always particularly memorable for the bare-chested, Speedo clad men who parade by, and there is even the occasional celebrity. Food writer Mimi Sheraton, a longtime 12th Street resident, has sampled a flavor or two, and Delia was once stiffed by Kirsten Dunst, who promised to come back with money but never did. She obviously doesn’t live in the neighborhood, for who would dare wear out their welcome when the ice cream is so cold, and so good?

Cafe Cluny ice cream cart
284 W. 12th Street, at W. Fourth Street
One scoop, $5, two scoops, $6
Root beer and Abita float, $8
Open daily, 3 to 10 p.m.