Thursday, April 29, 2010

Diane Arbus and Spooky Twins

(Please click on the photos to enlarge them)

Long before she killed herself in 1971 at the age of 48, (pills, slashed wrists, found in the bathtub two days later), the photographer Diane Arbus told a friend she was afraid that she would be remembered simply as “the photographer of freaks.”

Today that’s exactly how she is remembered for her searing, macabre photographs of “deviant and marginal people (dwarfs, giants, transvestites, nudists, circus performers) or else of people whose normality seems ugly or surreal,” as one biographer described her favorite subjects.

But one of her most famous photographs (on the left above) is not of circus freaks or mentally challenged people, but of identical twin girls taken in Roselle, N.J. in 1967.

This eerie photograph of young sisters Cathleen and Colleen Wade has been copied and echoed many times—including in Stanley Kubrick’s film ‘”The Shining” with its twin girl ghosts. In fact there’s a TV commercial on right now (for kitchen appliances) with a pair of similar sinister girls.

A print of Arbus’s twins was sold at auction for $478,000 in 2004 and a couple of months ago I saw another one at the AIPAD photography show in New York that was priced at around $275,000 for a tiny print with Arbus’s notes on the back.

Let’s face it, there’s something intrinsically spooky about twins—especially identical twins—because it’s shocking to see the same individual, the same face, doubled and standing side by side. Maybe that’s why I (and many other collectors) love to find vintage photographic images of twins. They always seem to look like something out of Stephen King.

The 1/6 plate daguerreotype, #1, that I have above next to the Arbus twins, is my favorite dag ever. In my opinion it’s just as good – if not better -- than the Arbus image. The two little girls, who were photographed in the 1840’s or 1850’s, look amazingly like the twins from New Jersey. Compare the faces of the girls on the left in each photo.

The stern young ladies in image #1 are each holding a daguerreotype case inlaid with mother of pearl, and they wear identical gold-tinted pendents and dresses.

(In vintage photos it’s very common for siblings—not just twins -- to be dressed alike, because Mom would buy a long length of fabric and then the dressmaker would come around to stitch up clothing for all the kids from the same bolt of cloth.)

These are some of my prize twin images—all of them spooky. In the early days of photography, people were not only intimidated by this modern invention, they were warned not to move—certainly not to smile—because it would blur the image. Children were often strapped into a chair with their heads in a brace. No wonder they often look terrified!

Images 1 , 2, 3, 4 and 5 above are all daguerreotypes—the very earliest photographic process. Don’t you love the dour sisters in the checkerboard dresses in #3 (not a flattering pattern!) and next to them the long-faced girls in plaid. The sisters in image 5 I suspect, because of their somber clothing and jewelry, may be in mourning.

The girls holding books in image 6 are not identical, but the men in image 7 are mirror images of each other. I love how their top-knots curl in opposite directions. (Six and 7 are ambrotypes—negative images on glass—popular from 1854 to 1865.) People were always worried about how to pose their hands in these early days, and the photographer would arrange hands awkwardly like the ones you see here.

The two women in image 9 may not be twins, or even sisters, but I cherish them because they are feminists from the mid-1800’s! Written in the case behind their daguerreotype is this: “Mary, you and my self are still left single/ while others are double and full of trouble. Your KPL”

Photos 11 to 14 are tintypes, which became popular during the Civil War and continued into the 1900’s. The girls in 11 and the boys in 12 have high button shoes, and the ladies in #14, in ruffled skirts, are posed in a photographer’s studio. Check out the bathing beauties in #13, on a holiday at the seashore (but posed in front of a painted canvas background.)

The toddlers in # 15 are boy/girl twins. (Boys wore dresses until after age 5.) Their mother has written on the back of the cabinet card “Twins. Left, Louise Bertha Inez Forte. Right Louis Bertrand Forte. Born June 13th, 1893 at 2 p.m. in West Newton. Louis was born 5 minutes after Louise.”

An equally helpful relative noted the names of the young flappers in image #16, who look very chic in their cloche hats, as “Alice Antoinette Howland and Harriet Alma Howland, 1926.” Their relaxed pose in their fur-collared coats makes for a beautiful portrait, but none of the twins can compare to my ghostly, sour-faced girls from 170 years ago in image #1.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Grecian Festival Poster Tries

In Worcester MA, the biggest, best and most famous ethnic festival is the Grecian Festival held every other spring by Saint Spyridon Cathedral. It’s been happening for 34 years and brings more than 25,000 people to enjoy the fabulous food and festivities.

For all those years the poster was designed by award-winning artist Alexander Gazonas, who passed away several years ago. In 2008, the entire festival was dedicated to his memory. That year’s poster, based on the famous statue the Charioteer of Delphi, was his last design.

So this year a call went out for local artists to attempt a poster design for the festival, which will be held on June 4, 5 and 6. I submitted three poster tries – the rough drafts are above. The top one was based on an archaic pottery design showing a man playing a double flute while a woman dances, holding castanets in her hands. (I had to cover up their nudity a little—after all, this is a family event!)

The second design is a detail of a watercolor I painted last year showing three priests whom I photographed dancing at a summer festival near my husband’s village of Lia in the Mourgana mountains of Epiros in northern Greece, just below the border with Albania. The white-bearded man on the right is our village priest, Father Procopi. (Actually, he covers three villages and is very busy. Until recently he traveled from one village to the other by foot. Now he has a car.)

The third design is based on a classical head of Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty.

I was very pleased when the committee selected my first design—the dancing couple—for this year’s official poster. At the bottom you see the final, finished poster as it was polished up by Sarah Kyriazis of New Market Media.

If you are anywhere near Worcester MA on June 4, 5 or 6 be sure to come by. You‘ll think you’ve been transported to Athens.

Here are some of the reasons you should visit: Greek music, food, (baklava! souvlaki!) dancers, Greek goodies for sale, including jewelry, crafts, books, clothing, icons and more. There’s a living museum and a kids fest, and on Sunday evening a raffle drawing. The minute you walk in, you’ll be filled with the uniquely Hellenic high spirits which in Greek are called kefi!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

My Hunt for Emily Dickinson

(Please click on the photos to enlarge them.)

There are a few photographs of long-dead celebrities that are so rare, people will pay close to a million dollars for them. If you come across a previously unknown image of, say, Abraham Lincoln, Edgar Allan Poe, John Brown, John Wilkes Booth, Jesse James, to name a few, you have discovered a real treasure.

One of these iconic images would be a new portrait of Emily Dickinson. That’s what a professor at the University of North Carolina, Philip F. Gura, thought he had found on an E-Bay auction that he won on April 12, 2000. It was an albumen photograph (the bottom row above).

Later Gura wrote a delightful description of his torturous six-month search to validate the image. It’s called “How I Met and Dated Miss Emily Dickinson: An Adventure on eBay.”

Read it on

Gura wrote about Emily Dickinson: “Even though she lived when the new invention of photography was changing the ways people thought about themselves, there is only one known photographic likeness of her, taken by William C. North. It was made between December 1846 and March 1847, and shows a thin teenager suffering from what her family took as the first symptoms of tuberculosis.

“A second photograph of Dickinson has long been the Holy Grail of artifacts for scholars in my field…”

Gura paid $481 to win the albumen photograph with “Emily Dickinson” written on the back. As soon as it arrived from the eBay seller, the professor set about trying to validate it. He soon had calls from The New York Times and the New Yorker, who were vying to be the first with the news of his discovery.

Then NPR and many papers around the world were knocking at his door. After much trouble, Gura finally found a forensic anthropologist who was able to measure and compare various anatomical landmarks on the two faces (the original verified dag above left and the new-found albumen photo in the third row). This seems so much quicker and easier on TV shows like CSI and Bones!

Meanwhile two historians of costume analyzed the sitter’s clothing and determined that the albumen photo was a copy of an original daguerreotype taken sometime between 1848 and 1853.

In the one verified image of Emily — the daguerreotype at the upper left-- she is either sixteen or 17 years old. It was taken at Mt. Holyoke and is in the possession of Amherst College.

After all his research, Prof. Gura still doesn’t have a positive "yes" answer. But he believes that it is indeed Emily and quotes one reporter: “Although the forensic analysis of Gura’s photo strongly suggests the woman is ED, no one can say for sure. By the same token, no one apparently can say that the woman is NOT Dickinson.”

Something that was not reported by international media, (but is reported here exclusively on A Rolling Crone), is that I had a very similar experience to Philip Gura’s. But it happened exactly four months earlier. On Jan. 13, 2000, I purchased on eBay a 1/6 plate daguerreotype of a young woman who looked strikingly like Emily Dickinson. The famous verified Emily image is on the left above, on the right is my dag, which I purchased for $127.50 from a seller in the Berkshires of Massachusetts.

The eBay auction had the title “Fine Dag – Lovely Woman – Emily Dickinson???”

But the seller was not making any claims that he couldn’t prove: “Purchased some time ago from an estate auctioned [sic] near Amherst, Mass. A fine daguerreotype…an intriguing and attractive young woman. …Some say she is, some say she looks like, Emily Dickinson. And some say not. Draw your own conclusion (there is one surviving dag of this noted Amherst author.) A fine daguerreotype either way.”

I studied the small photo on eBay and tried to compare it to the one verified dag. Like Philip Gura some months later, I waited in suspense for it to arrive. I imagined the excitement, the glory, the press attention if it proved to be an actual second image of the Belle of Amherst.

You must admit, looking at the two dags side by side, that the resemblance is striking. Even the style of dress and hair and the pose itself. (Emily is near a book and holding what I think is a flower in the official dag. In my image the woman has an adorable beaded bag hanging from her arm. They even seem to be wearing the same kind of dark bracelet, which may or may not be a mourning bracelet made of human hair.)

But I didn’t have to consult forensic anthropologists and costume historians to validate my image when it came. I took one look at the actual dag that lay in my hand and I realized she couldn’t be the real Emily, because, judging from the one true photograph, Emily had dark brown eyes and the woman in MY image had pale blue eyes.

I should have known this, because Emily once wrote to an admirer (who asked for a portrait) this description of herself: “I…am small, like the Wren, and my Hair is bold, like the Chestnut Bur-and my Eyes, like the Sherry in the Glass, that the guest leaves – would this do just as well?”

So mine is not a priceless iconic image, and the world’s press is not about to come calling — as it did four months later when Professor Gura discovered his image of ED on eBay. But I like ”my” Emily anyway and would never part with her, because this woman was a contemporary, perhaps a neighbor — perhaps even a relative -- of the real Emily. She certainly has a remarkable resemblance to the mysterious and secretive Belle of Amherst, who wore white and refused to come out of her room in the last years of her life, talking to visitors through a closed door.

And then after her death, her sister Lavina discovered the 1800 poems hidden away in her drawer. The first volume was published four years after Emily diedin 1886 at the age of 55.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Michelle Obama, the Grammar Police & a Cranky Crone

Today I read in all the news media about Michelle Obama’s surprise visit to Haiti during her first official solo trip abroad.

I applaud her for her compassion and for bringing public attention to the devastating needs that still have to be met, especially for the Haitian children.

I’m a huge fan of Michelle’s and admire her more than any first lady since, say, Eleanor Roosevelt. But I did wince when I read the statement that she made to the press about her trip. Her insight was perfect but her grammar was not.

“I think it was important for Jill and I to come now because we’re at the point where the relief efforts are under way but the attention of the world starts to wane a bit, ” she said.

What’s wrong with that? Take out Jill and you have “I think it’s important for I to come now.” It’s supposed to be: “It was important for Jill and ME.”

I admit I’m cranky, crochety and over-sensitive about bad grammar. I spent so many years getting a degree in English Literature and then a master’s degree at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Back in the old days, a brilliant editor of The New York Times named Theodore M. Bernstein was also a professor at Columbia J School. After he died in 1979, Time Magazine noted, “Theodore M. Bernstein, 74…served as the paper‘s prose polisher and syntax surgeon for almost five decades, authoring seven popular texts on English usage and journalism…In a witty Times house organ called ‘Winners and Sinners’, the shirtsleeves vigilante caught solecists in the act.”

(Note to Time Magazine, I got a memo from Ted Bernstein, who was spinning in his grave. The memo reads: “ ‘Author’ is not a verb.”)

At Columbia J School we often saw Bernstein’s “Winners and Sinners” newsletter. (It was printed on paper, children, not sent via the internet.) Somewhat like the judges on American Idol, Ted Bernstein would periodically praise a brilliant headline or turn of phrase in the NYT and chide and make fun of grammatical and syntactical lapses.

It used to be that The New York Times was the last bastion of proper grammar, usage and correct spelling. The rules we were taught at Columbia were strict and thorough.

But today even the Times’ reporters, misspell, manhandle the language and misuse verbs like “lie” and “lay” until I wince and fume every morning reading my three newspapers.

I sometimes think I’m the last reporter alive who cares about “lie” and “lay.” (And I think Bob Dylan, who is exactly my age and, like me, from Minnesota, is much to blame for his song “Lay Lady, Lay (across my big brass bed.)”

Here’s the 411: “Lie” is an active verb – as in “When the police came, they found the body lying in the street.” “I’m going to lie down.” It’s “lie”, even if it’s an object: “The police arrived to find the bomb lying in the street.”

“Lay” is when something is laid down by someone else. “The crowd watched the police lay the victim on a stretcher.” “Now I lay ME down to sleep.” Not “Now I lay down to sleep.” That’s wrong! But in past time – “Yesterday I lay down to sleep at nine p.m.” That’s correct. “Lay” is the past tense of “lie”.

Okay, it’s complicated. But somebody has to know.

And don’t even start me on “its” versus “it’s.” And “to”, “too” and “two.”

Today, after tsk-tsking about Michelle’s misuse of “I” and “me”, I turned to the New York Post which I read daily for the gossip and drama. (That’s what tabloids are for.)

Within the first few pages I was faced with two more grave grammatical slips. The defense of the reporter in both cases would probably be, “But I only quoted what he said.” And that’s valid. When you’re quoting someone, even if she’s the first lady, you can’t go around correcting her/his verbal errors.

On page three of the Post, is a sad story of a “Terrified Tot Abandoned on Day-Care Bus” under the title “HE SOBBED ALONE”. The piece ended “SUNY Downstate spokesman Ron Najman said nothing like that had never happened before in the program’s 23 years.”

Maybe all the Post’s copy editors had been fired or were on coffee break yesterday, or working on the Chinese earthquake.

On page six of the Post, (not the famous Page Six, which actually started on page 12), a shaken member of the Los Angeles Angels , star outfielder Torii Hunter, described seeing a “gruesome suicide leap from the luxury hotel” where they were staying. He said, “We just saw the body just laying there. It’s terrible.”

You don’t expect perfect grammar from a baseball player (or from Bob Dylan) but maybe you do from a First Lady who’s a lawyer, educated at Princeton and Harvard.

Kids acquire an ear for correct grammar by hearing it spoken by the adults around them; their parents and their role models. But now that young people mainly communicate by texting in a phonetic code, both spelling and grammar are becoming as antiquated as the Model T.

It’s great that Michelle Obama is encouraging kids to eat smart and get out there and exercise, but let’s encourage them to mind their P’s and Q’s and their prepositions, nouns, verbs and grammar as well.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Wilma Mankiller and My Grandmother

Today (Sat. April 10) thousands of people will gather at an outdoor memorial service for former Cherokee tribal Chief Wilma Mankiller,(above) who died last week at the age of 64 from pancreatic cancer. The service will be held at the Cherokee Nation Cultural Grounds in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, about 70 miles east of Tulsa.

If anyone deserves to be in the Crone Hall of Fame it’s Wilma Mankiller, who was the first woman to lead a major tribe and the most famous activist on behalf of American Indians. According to her New York Times obituary, she revitalized the Cherokee nation’s tribal government and improved its education, health and housing. She was the Cherokee chief from 1985 to 1995 and during her tenure, the nation’s membership more than doubled, to 170,00 from about 68,000

Wilma Mankiller battled lymphoma and myasthenia gravis, received a kidney transplant from an older brother and survived a head-on automobile collision in 1979 that required 17 operations and years of physical therapy.

She first became famous when Native Americans took over Alcatraz Island and occupied it for 19 months to call attention to the government’s treatment of Indians.

She had two daughters, and after her marriage ended in divorce, she returned with them to live on her grandfather’s land in Oklahoma where she was born—a tract of 160 acres known as Mankiller Flats, where she grew up. During her childhood, her family had no electricity or indoor plumbing.

As the Cherokee nation’s elected leader, Wilma was chief executive of a tribe with a budget that reached $159 million a year. She put her energy and the tribe’s income into health care, job-training and the local schools.

Now about my grandmother – her name was Anna Truan Dobson. She is the young woman in the vintage photo above in the upper row on the right. She grew up in Tennessee with French-speaking Swiss-immigrant parents who had colorful tales of the Civil War. Anna had two college degrees before the turn of the century—a rarity for a Southern woman back then. She was courted by my grandfather, Frederick Fee Dobson, a Presbyterian minister who wanted her to join him in his ministry in Indian Territory Oklahoma, where he was expected to convert the Indians to Christianity and establish churches and schools.

At first Anna Truan turned him down, but eventually she relented and joined him at Tahlequah Institute, Indian Territory, Oklahoma where she is in the photograph above (and where Wilma Mankiller was born and died.) . The information written on the back of the photo says that at the time of her marriage on Jan. 1, 1896, Anna Truan was teaching on the faculty of Tahlequah Institute. She is posing on the “porch of the dormitory” with the other faculty members—the women were her bridesmaids and the man with the mustache was Reverend Hamilton, the minister who married them. (Don’t you love the ladies’ stylish leg ‘o mutton sleeves?)

After Anna was married and began having her nine children (two boys and seven girls!) she continued to teach the Native Americans piano and French, sewing and quilting. We have inherited a large beaded pincushion that the Cherokee women gave my grandmother in appreciation. (I also have a Dresden Plate pattern quilt she made for my mother’s wedding – as she did for each child—and my grandfather, Rev. Frederick Fee Dobson, reportedly sewed one of the quilt squares himself.)

I believe my grandfather was also responsible for producing the first written dictionary of the Cherokee language, but that may just be family legend.

I always admired my grandmother for her beauty and her intellectual curiosity. After her husband died, she traveled and lectured about birds, wild flowers and biblical subjects. Just raising nine children to adulthood back in those days was a phenomenal achievement, but she also found time to keep on researching and learning until she suffered a stroke in her eighties.

Not until my children were in school studying subjects like the Trail of Tears (when Native Americans were forcibly driven from the Southeast U. S. by federal troops during the winter of 1838-39) did I start to suspect that my grandparents may also have been part of the oppression of the native Americans in Oklahoma (although I’m sure their motives were benevolent.)

Looking back with today’s perspective, knowing what we have learned from activists and educators like Wilma Mankiller, I can see that my grandparents, who undoubtedly meant well by carrying their Christian religion and western educational system to the Indian Territory, were also part of the bureaucracy that forced the Native Americans to give up their ancient culture and traditions

I know very well how badly the American Indians were treated by our government. In a future post I’m going to write about a woman called “Lost Bird of Wounded Knee”, an infant found alive under the frozen body of her dead mother four days after the massacre in December 1890. This girl was adopted by the Brigadier General who found her, and then exploited and mistreated by him and others until she died at age 29.

But that’s a story for another day. Today we remember Wilma Mankiller and also my grandmother, Anna Truan Dobson, who died in 1965 at the age of 93. I think they were both brave and resourceful women worthy of the Owl of Athena award for courageous, wise and exemplary cronehood. They both deserve the title of Crone of the Week.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Why is “American Idol” Better than “Dancing with the Stars”?

I have never seen a single episode of “Dancing with the Stars”, while I have been a faithful viewer of “American Idol” for years, so I’m certainly not qualified to discuss which is the better show. But a fascinating article in today’s New York Times business section explained why, even though DWTS was crowing last week about having more viewers (23 million!) than American Idol (21.8 million), advertisers still have to pay three times as much ($642,000) for a 30- second commercial on “Idol” compared to $209,000 for a commercial on “DWTS”

Why? Because “Dancing” appeals to women viewers over 50 years old (that’s us crones) and “Idol” appeals to young women.

According to the NYTimes, “When a show has a disproportionate number of women over 50 in its audience, it simply cannot charge as much for commercials. That is not because advertisers do not like older women, but because they are so easy to find all over the rest of television.”

One media seller noted that “it might seem odd that advertisers tend to devalue the audience that has the most money—that is older viewers, but the scarcity argument tends to rule: advertisers pay more to reach people who do not watch much television. Thus the most prized viewers of all watch the least amount of television: men under 35. The younger women who watch ‘Idol’ are also highly valuable to certain advertisers”…like sellers of soft drinks, beer and gadgets like computers and phones.

Right now I can hear my friends saying, “Why on earth would a person like yourself, a pseudo-intellectual with a master’s degree in journalism, BA in English literature, Phi Beta Kappa key, watch a show like “American Idol”? And why don’t you watch “Dancing with the Stars”?

It’s hard to explain, but I try to find some TV show every night for one or two hours from eight to ten that I can watch while pedaling my stationary bike for exercise – a show that will distract me from how much I hate exercising and it won’t matter if I miss some of the dialogue due to the noise of the bike. So “Idol” fits the bill, and so do re-runs of “Bones”, “House” and “Medium”. (I can’t make myself watch “ER” any more.)

Aside from the nightly hours on the bike, I don’t watch TV unless I turn it on for “The Good Wife”, “Medium” “Big Love”, “Madmen” or “Glee” (my current fave—can’t wait for next week when it starts again.) I used to watch “Lost” but became hopelessly out of the loop long ago.

I have no desire to watch “Dancing with the Stars” because it seems to me that it features has-been celebrities and people who are famous just for being famous –like Kate Gosselin—doing something they’re not very good at.

“Idol” on the other hand, features real people (most of them) with real background stories who are hoping to relive the Cinderella fairy tale and catch the brass ring. (Okay, I don’t like the way they hype the sob stories in the contestants’ past or the way, in the auditions, they exploit troubled, often mentally fragile bad singers. But I think they’re soft-pedaling that because so many felt the way I do. Uncomfortable.)

I also like the way the producers of “Idol” pretend that the contestants , backstage, are all a multi-colored, loving family supporting each other. I believe that other reality shows, in contrast, encourage in-fighting and bad behavior to drive up viewer numbers. And those “reality” shows only are encouraging rudeness, confrontation and horrible behavior in all the impressionable young people (and old people) who watch things like “Jersey Shore” (not that I’ve ever seen that one either.)

I believe I read somewhere that the Obamas watch “American Idol” with their girls – it’s a good family show – but that conflicts with what I read somewhere else – that the Obamas don’t let the girls watch ANY television on weekdays.

My own kids—all three in their thirties, run for the door when I try to bring up my favorites on American Idol. Over Easter weekend one daughter said, while begging me to drop the subject, “They say Idol is for everyone from nine to ninety, but I think the only people who watch it are either nine or ninety.”

So who are you rooting for – Crystal Bowersox? Siobhan is my favorite at the moment, and I’m predicting that Andrew Garcia gets sent home tonight. But I never guess that right. My husband always does, and he’s predicting Garcia too.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Crone of the Week, An Early Aviatrix, (And a Geezer)

The first time she rode in a rickety open-cockpit biplane at the age of 8 in 1919, Elinor Smith (then called Elinor Patricia Ward) knew that “my future in airplanes and flying was as inevitable as the freckles on my nose.”

Ten days after she turned 16, she received her pilot’s license, becoming one of the youngest pioneers of aviation. She soon made headlines as the “Flying Flapper of Freeport”.

She made her first solo flight at the age of 15, and when she was 17, on a dare from boys at her high school, she took off from Roosevelt Field in Long Island and flew under the four East River bridges in Manhattan. For that stunt the Department of Commerce grounded her for 10 days, as was reported in The New York Times.

She was only 5 foot three inches tall, with curly blonde hair, but Elinor ranked high among the pioneering women of aviation, like Amelia Earhart. In January 1929 she set the women’s solo endurance record twice—flying 26 1/2 hours. In 1930 she set the women’s altitude record and then broke it a year later, almost losing her life when she passed our at about 30,000 feet as the motor sputtered and ran out of gas, then recovering a miles lower and guiding the plane down.

In 1934 she became the first woman on a Wheaties cereal box—a true Crone milestone.

She died on March 19 of this year, leaving a son and three daughters, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

She was 98 years old.


Also in the New York Times obituaries, I met a gentleman whom I believe deserves a Geezer of the Week award. (The blog “A Rolling Crone” is not sexist.)

Alberto Arroyo, born in 1916 in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, claimed to be the first person to jog around the Central Park Reservoir, back in 1937. At first he was using the bridle path below the reservoir to train for fights as a bantamweight boxer, but a police officer told him he was bothering the horses, so he started jogging on what was then a maintenance footpath around the reservoir.

He regularly ran ten times a day around the 1.6 mile circuit, making a total of more than 200,000 trips. He became known as the Mayor of Central Park and the founder of the modern fitness movement. Every day he held court on a bench at the reservoir’s South Gate House, where he greeted runners, provided free foot massages, stood on his head and gave psychological advice until he was 90, according to his New York Times obituary. He raised $100,000 from passing runners for Achilles International, which helps disabled runners. As he aged, he switched from running to walking, using a cane, then a walker. After a stroke in 2008, volunteers pushed him around the reservoir in a wheelchair, with a balloon attached to it.

Mr. Arroyo was said to have a daughter whom he had not seen since she was a child. He lived in a cheap hotel room and ate one meal a day at a senior center. He lived on Social Security and a small pension. But he was admired by famous people, film stars, tycoons and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who came by to thank him for a get-well card six days before she died. A short film about him was made last year.

Arroyo scorned material possessions and said he did not fear death. “You just go from one apartment to another.” He was 94 when he died on March 25th. Joggers created a memorial to him at the South Gate House, and more than a thousand came to his funeral.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Easter in Four Languages

(Please click on the photos to enlarge them)

Today is Good Friday and in a Greek household that means we can’t eat dairy or meat (that’s been going on for 40 days) and also today we can’t eat oil, so on Good Fridays we usually end up surviving on things like plain baked potatoes and peanut butter on crackers.

But today the Big Eleni, who lives with us and is the best cook in the world, has all sorts of “fasting” Good Friday food ready – Halvah, stuffed grape leaves, rice-stuffed tomatoes, taramasalata (made from fish roe) and some sort of artichoke/spinach/ hummus concoction. And boiled shrimp.

Today was also the annual dramatic journey into Worcester to collect the lamb which we had ordered far ahead from Bahnan’s Market on 344 Pleasant Street. As you can see from the first sign above, the people at Bahnan’s are ready to sell you your Easter needs in four languages: English, Greek, Turkish and Arabic.

(And they now have a café where, according to local Greeks, you can get the only authentic gyros for miles around.)

Shopping at Bahnan’s is like a visit to the United Nations, but on Easter week it’s like several festivals rolled into one.

There was a considerable line of people waiting to get into the refrigerated back room to receive the lamb they had ordered and have it cut up to their specifications. And this was in the morning, before church let out. I imagine by afternoon the line was out the door.

I didn’t last long in the refrigerated room, because of the cold and the proximity of all those lamb corpses, some of which looked the size of a small horse. (Our lamb was very small—I believe 27 pounds.)

I had to escape before the butcher started sawing, I couldn't take it, but this process is still easier than some early Easters in Nick’s Northern Greek village when the adorable baby goats were tied to each house’s front door knob and my offspring loved petting them. Then I had to drag the children, (all three under ten) out of town on Holy Saturday to prevent them seeing the general bloodshed as the baby goats were slaughtered and the blood ran in the street.

In the village on Easter Sunday you see spits outside every house, each one tended by the patriarch who is drinking homemade moonshine called Raki and having a good time. We sometimes do the lamb on the spit outside in Grafton, but not when Easter comes this early.

(By the way, this is a rare year when Orthodox Easter and everyone else’s Easter are on the same day. Usually we Greeks are later because Orthodox Easter has to be after Passover. It’s complicated.)

In the photos above you see the Big Eleni shopping for Greek cheese at Bahnan’s. We already have our large round Tsoureki bread with the red egg in the middle. And on Holy Thursday, as always, we dyed dozens of eggs red for the Saturday-night egg-cracking duel when you challenge everyone – saying “Christ is risen” “Indeed he is risen”. Crack! And whoever’s egg comes out the winner gets the other guy’s egg.

Tomorrow—Holy Saturday—we will all go to church very early and without consuming as much as a drop of water beforehand. We line up to take communion and then are free for the first time in seven weeks to eat dairy (not meat. Not yet. But we are free to rush to the Pancake House where we traditionally stuff ourselves with high-calorie breakfast treats that have been forbidden for weeks.)

Then it’s back to church again at midnight.—for the dramatic Midnight Mass on Saturday night when the church is plunged into darkness and the priest comes out at the exact stroke of midnight with a single candle and announces ‘Christ is risen!” Then the flame passes from his candle to everyone else’s and the church fills with light as we sing the Resurrection hymn: “Christos anesti!” We try to keep our candles lit as we drive home to break the Lenten fast by cracking eggs and eating the delicate dill-and-egg-lemon soup made by the Big Eleni out of the lambs intestines.

(Actually, she doesn’t put in the intestines because she knows that our kids would never eat it. In fact one is a vegetarian. And after my visit to the market today, I understand perfectly.)

I hope wherever you are celebrating Easter or Passover -- in any language – you are enjoying warm spring weather. Here in Massachusetts it has finally stopped raining and will be a beautiful weekend. Kalo Pascha!