Since I’ve seen Charles Willson Peale’s 1776 portrait of George Washington a million times in books, I wanted see it in person. We hustled up to Cedar Rapids because Its exhibition at the Museum of Art ends next weekend. Cedar Rapids, as is usual on a winter Sunday afternoon, was deserted and so was the museum, so we had George to ourselves for a little while. The iconic nature of this portrait is largely due its subject, but I’m willing to give Peale more credit for that now that I’ve seen it up close. If I looked him in the eyes, I could sense Washington’s legendary presence and the brass buttons appeared to practically pop off his blue uniform coat.
The portrait was in a big room by itself with some interpretive panels about Washington, Peale, John Hancock (who commissioned the portrait perhaps to flatter the general and ensure Boston and Hancock’s wealth stayed out of British hands), and—since this is Cedar Rapids—Grant Wood, who included themes from the Revolution in several of his paintings and illustrations.
I remember somebody once making an analogy about singing the national anthem at the beginning of a Cubs game: it is a brief formality everyone observes before “all breaks loose”. Which is how I’ve always viewed choosing a font before I type up a document or design my website.
At least until I saw the documentary film “Helvetica” by Gary Hustwit and read the book “Just My Type” by Simon Garfield. Good designers create and select typefaces with tremendous care; they are not just accidents or afterthoughts. For some important projects, like developing the signage for the London Underground, the designer was in on the plans from the beginning and created the Underground font when no other seemed perfect for the job.
In the film and the book, there is some discussion about whether a font should be “invisible”; if you don’t notice it then it must be doing its job. In “Just My Type”, Garfield uses Comic Sans as a counterexample, a typeface despised by professionals and laypersons alike:
Comic Sans is a type that has gone wrong. It was designed with strict intentions by a professional man with a solid philosophical grounding in graphic arts, and it was unleashed upon the world with a kind heart. It was never intended to cause revulsion or loathing, much less end up (as it has) on the side of an ambulance or gravestone. It was intended to be fun. And, oddly enough, it was never intended to be a typeface at all.
I hate Comic Sans. Hate it. I think it looks unprofessional or unserious, and Garfield agrees, but he points out that it is misuse or overuse that makes it the wrong font, not that the font itself is badly designed. And if I saw it on a Bazooka Joe bubble gum wrapper it would probably make me smile with affection.
Both the filmmaker and the author argue that the font ought not be totally invisible, that it should contribute something besides legibility and readability, like beauty or meaning, to the text. Many consider Helvetica dated, trite, corporate, and establishment. But there is something clean and concise and strong about it that I like. Or at least the film and my design-minded wife have gotten me to appreciate it, and with my new Mac I get to see it in action more (I’m typing in Helvetica now). Windows doesn’t use Helvetica, but offers its ugly stepsister Arial as a substitute. I couldn’t describe to you the graphical differences (like with many fonts the differences are so subtle) but it’s a like a Kardashian sister that is not named Kim; if you weren’t aware of her pedigree you probably would not turn your head for another look.
I didn’t agonize over my selections of fonts for my blog. WordPress’s present default theme fonts are Helvetica and Georgia, but I don’t use them. Georgia I find a bit blocky-looking, though it and its sans-serif counterpart Verdana (another I don’t care for) are designed for readability on the Web. Windows doesn’t use Helvetica, so it would appear to their users as Arial or another of the browser’s default sans-serif fonts. I’ve used Trebuchet (for headers) and Palatino (for long texts) on this website for a few years. Both are “Web safe” (compatible with different operating systems) and highly readable, which are important to my accessibility goals for this site. And they’re pretty. Palatino has a classy, warm, old style charm and Trebuchet is quirky but compact and fluid.
We were in Des Moines a couple of weeks ago and had some time to wander around downtown. Sometimes I think Des Moines is what the writers of The Simpsons had in mind when they created Capital City. After five years in Iowa City I feel like hick looking up at the tall Whatever-It’s-Called Building. The streets were weirdly deserted for lunchtime on a Monday. Perhaps many had left early for Thanksgiving, but the streets were really empty. Then I remembered the downtown Skywalk, the system of enclosed overhead walkways that connect buildings in some of the bigger cold-weather cities. We went up and, sure enough, there were the city’s pedestrians.
Our infrequent trips to Des Moines are always good for a pound of sliced bologna, plus olive paste, homemade pasta, and Italian sausages from Graziano’s. For some reason, deli-sliced Boar’s Head bologna is absent from Iowa City (as are proper delis for that matter).
We also walked down to the newly installed Pappajohn Sculpture Park which has about twenty large outdoor sculptures. Some were good, some were not, some looked like bowel movements. Our favorite was Nomade by Jaume Plensa, a huge crouching figure composed of metal letters which you can walk into.
Even more exciting than seeing American Gothic at the Art Institute of Chicago was waiting for lunch, which we took in the museum’s courtyard cafe. There was an empty blue glass bottles on each table to hold down the paper menus. On our bottle was a little green inchworm marching in circles along the rim of the bottle. Every couple of revolutions, it would venture down the threading, only to find smooth, unclimbable glass below. And so it would return to the rim and continue its circumambulation. It occurred to me that if the inchworm was nearsighted enough, it might never know it was moving in a circle and would be condemned to wandering around that bottle until it died from exhaustion. Even after I brought the bottle to a nearby yew to shake the caterpillar off it was still reluctant to let go, so I liberated the little booger-like creature with a flick of my finger.
We decided last minute to go to Chicago for the long weekend. The Chicago Jazz festival was underway our first night but we skipped that to frolic at the Cloud Gate (a.k.a. The Bean). If you ever want to feel like a monkey amused by its reflection in something shiny, go see the Cloud Gate.
We spent the better part of the next day at the Art Institute of Chicago in the American Modern Art exhibit. As Iowans we were required by law to gaze at American Gothic by Grant Wood. We had company. Visiting American Gothic is a minor league version of Mona Lisa at The Louvre—in the sense that there’s a small crowd that makes it hard to stand and admire it. It was still fun to see in person.
Near the Art Institute is the Chicago Cultural Center, in the former Chicago Public Library building. This is truly a wonder, not just because you can go in for free and look at exhibits but because of the mind-blowing tile mosaics and dome ceilings. I’m starting to suspect Chicago has something of a second city inferiority complex because everything is so deliberately over the top.
In addition to artery-clogging Chicago art and architecture we ate some unhealthful Chicago food: Italian sausage sandwiches and deep dish pizza. Our pizza dinner was at Gino’s East in River North, a place huge and busy but not crowded inside. The interior was divided by graffiti-covered wooden booths and partitions that preserved some intimacy. We didn’t have a marker to add to the graffiti so I borrowed the waitress’s pen to write our names on the seat cushion.
We walked off the pizza at the Navy Pier, a schlocky Coney Island-like place but a good long walk. We got rained on pretty hard right at the end of the pier as we learned why Chicago is called the Windy City. It was a long wet walk back.
Lore recommended to me documentary film “Exit Through the Gift Shop”. It’s well-summarized and reviewed by Roger Ebert so I’ll skip that part.
“Exit Through the Gift Shop” was pretty provocative stuff. Commenting on the controversy around the artist Mr. Brainwash, another artist muses,
“I think the joke is on… I don’t know who the joke is on, really. I don’t even know if there is a joke.”
This is almost a throwaway moment in the film even though it captures its central point, which may have been more obvious to the filmmakers than to me. What was acceptable about a street artist pasting Space Invaders around Paris or Andy Warhol’s mass-produced Marilyn Monroes but not acceptable about Mr. Brainwash’s even more derivative art? Where is this line drawn and who draws it? I wish they had pursued that discussion a little further.
For her part, Lore thinks Mr. Brainwash “is an idiot”.
We rode a train out of Paris to Versailles, one of the great monuments to excess, on a beautiful fall day. Trees here in northern France are in full fall color.
Saturday visitors swarmed Versailles. It is an intimidating and beautiful complex. I imagined myself as an American commissioner, arriving from the distant colonial world during our Revolution to negotiate with this great and ancient empire. I doubt if any buildings in the new United States were as large as even one wing of one of Versailles’ palaces.
As a museum, Versailles had an appropriately baroque bureaucracy. We visited two information desks, bought tickets at an automated kiosk, and bothered a couple of docents before we finally found our way to the royal quarters in the Grand Apartments.
Spacious as they were, the Grand Apartments weren’t designed to circulate such crowds, so we shuffled from room to room, each one as ridiculously lavish as the last. Our own apartment building could fit in the king’s bedchamber. Nothing in or out of the palace was under-decorated with gold or marble or crystal or mirrors. I could see why the French had their Revolution when they did.
The grounds were even more impressive with their fall ochers under the blue sky. The crowd had a chance to spread out along the long canal and in the maze of gardens. We rented an oar boat for a short and erratic row on the Grand Canal before heading into a cafe for lunch.
The cafe on the grounds of the Louvre was the opposite of everything I thought French food ways stood for. We were herded into a high-density factory feed lot and served swill at inflated prices.
The whole Versailles experience struck me as very funny. Louis XIV would have been appalled. The place was never intended for “the people” and there we all were trampling through his bed chamber, wandering in his garden, and paddling across his pond. Even more obscene than the sight of an unshaven American dipping rented oars in the regal waters was the temporary art exhibit of plastic anime-style cartoon sculptures displayed throughout the palace and gardens. The tacky sculptures were even more alien at Versailles than I.M. Pei’s pyramid at the Louvre. I think this reflects a healthy sense of irony in the French. It’s a suitably republican way of saying “This is ours” to the monarchy they left behind over 200 years ago.
From Versailles we took the train a little further into the French Republic to Chartres. Lore and I can’t pronounce the town’s name correctly; nobody understood where we wanted to go until we finally pointed to the name in our Lonely Planet guidebook. “Ah, Shar-TRUH,” a man said before we nearly got on the wrong train.
We arrived in Shar-TRUH late in the afternoon, as the sun was about to set. The monstrous cathedral greeted us with bells calling the start of Mass. Scaffolding and safety netting covered the famous eastern facade and signs prohibited photos during Mass. I was afraid I wouldn’t get any good photos, but as before it was an opportunity to look around without filtering the sights through my camera lens.
Chartres Cathedral is massive, spacious, and dark. The interior is pretty simple except for the stone-carved choir screen and of course the towering stained glass windows which glowed coolly in the late afternoon sun. I walked around the outside which though dingy and in need of a scrubbing, had plenty to keep me occupied. When Mass finished I had a chance to take some photos inside. The sun had set and the light was gone from the stained glass so many of my photos didn’t turn out very well. It doesn’t matter. I’ve always wanted to see this cathedral.
Back in Paris we had another un-French meal, but this one was better: chicken in a Cuban-style restaurant in Bastille. We are tired and ready to go home, and to sleep in our own bed. Daylight saving time ends here tonight, so we get an extra hour of sleep before tomorrow’s early start for Charles de Gaulle.
Everything we’ve seen on this trip, like Versailles, Chartres, the Temple of Olympian Zeus—even the Parthenon, which strove for balance and proportion—has been beyond the human scale, monumental and overwhelming.
We had a good flight back to Paris but it took us a while to get out of the airport. The ground transport from Charles de Gaulle is not as seamless as it is in Athens; that’s maybe one thing Paris can learn from its older, less refined sister city. We even had a broken train, but eventually we checked in to our hotel and headed out to the Louvre Museum.
Lore really likes the Louvre’s glass pyramid. It is pretty cool but looks out of place amid the Renaissance architecture of the palace. Lore pointed out that the Louvre is a pretty impressive building and something similar but of lesser caliber would have been even more out of place.
So we saw La Gioconda, a.k.a. the Mona Lisa. As I’ve said to pretty much anyone who would listen after my last trip: elbowing through a crowd to squint at it from 20 feet away is no way to enjoy this fine little portrait. On our way to it, we made sure to admire some of the other Italian Renaissance paintings in the same wing. A lot of people just blow right past these to get to the most famous painting on Earth, but the Louvre is just full of them, each one a treasure of Western civilization.
What’s really amazing is that this is just one museum’s worth of little treasures. I noticed the Italian painters were very ethnocentric. They managed to make Biblical characters, even Jesus, all look like Florentine burghers. We went up the Northern Renaissance galleries so I could show Lore what I liked about Flemish paintings. I get a little bored of Italian Renaissance renditions of Bible stories. Flemish artists painted more everyday stuff and images from nature.
We had dinner in Bastille again: this time my meal was duck, apples, and chevre. My head nearly exploded from the sensory overload of the evening.
Our plane landed on Santorini Island (or Thira, as the Greeks call it) at night and it was too dark to have an impression of it. We do have a nice room for a great price in the middle of Fira, the main village.
Our day was off to a disappointing start, meaning rain and heavy winds. Looking for breakfast as the rain came harder, we ducked into an over-decorated and over-priced cafe with an underwhelming menu to be waited on by a brusque waitress. The Greeks have a direct manner that treads a fine line between endearing sincerity and snotty rudeness. I think they are also not morning people.
The streets of Fira are a maze of narrow but colorful pedestrian alleys that wind up and down the hilltop. Our wandering took us up to a place exhibiting reproductions of wall art from Ancient Akrotiri, an important Minoan-era archeological site on the island.
What a view was revealed as we followed a street along the ridge that looked out over the town! We could see the circle of islands that were the volcano’s caldera. Painted stucco buildings cascaded down the hillside. The hilltop villages form a white rind on the scrubby brown island surrounded by blue, blue Mediterranean water.
Our walk took us up to the adjacent village, Firostefani, where we had a lunch of Greek salads overlooking the caldera. Once back in Fira, we stopped at the Orthodox Cathedral and the Catholic Church before taking a cable car down to Fira Skala, the port at the bottom of the cliff.
The cable car ride took about 5 minutes and we were the only passengers. The cliffs are more colorful up close; red, white, and chocolate brown rock layers with some dusty green plants. Fira Skala was quiet. The few shops were closed though ready for business when the cruise ships call. A man offered us a mule ride up the cliff steps back to Fira. We didn’t want to ride the mules and he got annoyed and a little too aggressive. “Why?” he asked, as if we owed him an explanation. The cable car is probably ruining his livelihood.
After we got back to the top we got on the bus to Oia (pronounced EE-a), another hilltop village on the north end of the island best known for its gleaming white church and sunsets over the Mediterranean. The bus was crowded and one of the passengers opened the emergency overhead hatch for ventilation. The driver and the conductor got really upset about that because the hatch nearly blew off on a winding mountain road. We had to pull over so they could secure it. “Malaka,” the driver kept saying.
Oia was really windy—strong winds that we had to lean into to move forward—and dusty. The wind blows dust right into your eyes. I was shaking it out of my hair later in the hotel. Actually it was more like coarse sand than dust.
Oia was also amazingly beautiful. The sunset observation area at the north point (it was too overcast to see the sunset) also looked over Ammadou, another cute little village with windmills on the cove below.
We got back to Fira for a late dinner. I had a yummy lamb gyro. There is a thunderstorm tonight. Will it bring sunny weather behind it?
We headed up to the Acropolis today, starting at the bottom of the hill with the Theater of Dionysos. Restoration work everywhere in the Acropolis makes it looks as much like a construction site as a tourist attraction. They’ll probably be restoring it for decades if not centuries.
It’s hard to get an overall picture of the Acropolis without a map or a guide, but we didn’t really need one or want one to admire the marble ruins. There were some waysides with decent illustrations.
At the top of the hill it got crowded. The steps of the Propylaia, the gate to the hilltop, was crammed with polyglot visitors. The cruise ships brought their passengers up hundreds at a time. There were lots of Americans, French, and Spanish; even some Argentinians. It reminded me of the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.
Then I finally saw the Parthenon! All architects should be forced to stare at the Parthenon until they develop good taste. I wish it wasn’t so crowded. What is it like during the busy season?
The Parthenon is massive but we tried to pay attention to the details. What was so amazing about this building, I realized, was not just the Parthenon itself but what was scattered around the entire site: Acropolis chunks. Ancient columns and pedestals and capitols stacked up like warehoused merchandise to be used later in the restoration. A close look at a random capital on the capital pile reveals beautiful and precise hand-carved decorations. There is not just one of these little masterpieces, but hundreds of them.
The Ancient Agora, below the Acropolis was much more tranquil. It was park-like and quiet, better organized and less chaotic. The grounds aren’t trampled to death and there are actual blades of grass. Much of the Acropolis crowds didn’t venture down there, or at least the herds of cruise ship passengers didn’t.
Then we went to the Roman Agora, amid the maze of streets in Plaka. I thought it was interesting that though it was Roman they still built in the Greek style with no arches.
We took lunch on a quiet, sunny street in Plaka: lamb and potatoes and Greek salad. The meat was very tender and tasty, cooked simply with lemon, oregano, and olive oil. We’ve been lazy about learning Greek pleasantries; everybody in central Athens speaks English. Even traffic signs are in English. Sometimes I feel like I’m in a Greek neighborhood of a big American city.
We wrapped up the day at the Temple of Olympian Zeus. What little was left was even bigger than the Parthenon, built to the mind-blowing scale of the gods. One fallen column looked like a giant stack of poker chips someone knocked over.
Yesterday I didn’t think Athens had any charm but after our tour and our pleasant lunch this fine day, I think it does. The weather was sunny and pleasant, almost perfect, though a little muggy in the morning after last night’s rain. Athens is somewhat ragged and without the elegance of Paris (it’s not even close), but its roughness matches the partially restored remains of its ancient civilization.
We visited Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio in Oak Park this morning. Lore is a big fan and I’ve always had a casual interest in his work.
The interior is a bit dark in places, as there is not a lot of direct sunlight, but it also has a warm, soft, greenness. There were lots of surprising views from one room to a next, as if no room was really separate. You could tell he was a bit persnickety about the design of his home. He paid a lot of attention to detail and designed his own furniture. He even paneled over a couple of windows to block the view of a house next door which he detested.
Because I couldn’t take pictures indoors, and because the midday sun was too bright, and because I can’t operate a camera very well, this building is ill-served by these photos.
We started our second day of exploration with a water taxi ride up the green Chicago River up to the Sears Tower, now known as Willis. The view from the 103rd floor was a bit hazy and the windows were a little dirty but we saw some great sights nonetheless. Against my better judgment, I walked out onto the glass-bottomed ledge for a look straight down.
We spent the afternoon shopping along the “Magnificent Mile” of North Michigan Avenue. We went to a Macy’s—not exactly a quintessential Chicago experience. I think they bought Marshall Field’s a while back because they occupy a couple of Marshall Field’s old buildings.
For the evening, we walked through the Loop and down to Millennium Park, which is more of an architectural and cultural park than a typical city park. Frank Gehry designed the band shell at the outdoor concert pavilion. At first we thought, “oh, another lopsided Gehry building” but we had to admit it was pretty cool after checking it out up close. Gehry also designed the adjacent meandering bridge from which the brilliant skyline can be seen. The most intriguing part of Millennium Park is the Cloud Gate, which I can only describe as a gargantuan stainless steel kidney bean. You can walk under the concave part and look at your many distorted reflections. My camera battery crapped out halfway through our tour of Millennium Park. I’m thankful for that because it reminded me to look at the city around me as it lit up after sunset.
Our dinner at the Green Door Tavern was as good as the half-pound hot dog on my plate was heavy.
Chicago is only four hours away and now I’m wondering why we haven’t gone before. We’re staying in the Near North neighborhood at the Ohio House Motel. It looks a little outdated from the outside but it is clean and in a good location for walking or catching a train around the city.
Lore is blown away by the variety and quality of Chicago’s architecture. The broad streets and sidewalks, along with the open space along the lakefront make it easier to admire the buildings than in New York, where you really have to look straight up much of the time.
Our first order of business was the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), which had an exhibit of sculptures by Alexander Calder. They didn’t let us take pictures of that exhibit but we saw many of his delicately balanced mobiles. There were some other exhibits, but not many, including works by sculptors influenced by Calder.
In the afternoon we took a train (underground, not elevated) to the Field Museum of Natural History for my dinosaur fix. I love dinosaurs and always have ever since I was a kid. The dinosaurs are among the many fossils in the Evolving Planet exhibit. I suppose we could have skipped the exhibits on cyanobacteria and synapsids but I happen to like learning about evolution. Some of the videos weren’t working, which is one of the pitfalls of high-tech multimedia museum displays. The exhibit’s emphasis on biodiversity and extinction ended with a rather simple but stunning mosaic of our planet’s many beautiful life forms.
We walked from the Museum Campus back to the Near North for a dinner of deep dish stuffed pizza from Giordano’s. It was good, not great, pizza—a little lacking in garlic and onion for my tastes—but the crust was really soft and delicious. Our small pie was still massive and probably good for about four meals.
Since it’s back to school time, Iowa City is being repopulated by “stoonts”. Mostly I notice the bad driving, which has been compounded by a sudden rash of street construction all around town. I’m not sure why the city waited until August to start all these much needed street repairs. Anyway, I bicycled with Lore over incompletely repaved streets to work this morning. On the way we found the university marching band practicing on a field. They weren’t marching but practicing with their instrument groups around a mock football field.
Downtown, this weekend is Sand in the City, a sand sculpture competition and festival. Lore wondered out loud why a landlocked city like Iowa would have such an event. It’s a fun thing for the returning students and their parents who can be seen accompanying them around town during the weekend before classes start.
Speaking of landlocked, the Landlocked Film Festival is next weekend. I’ve missed it every summer. I’d like to break that streak.
I had a little mishap on my bike. I’m embarrassed to say it happened while I was walking it across the street and more embarrassed to say I don’t know why it tipped over, but I got an massive smear of chain grease on my calf. It looked like an interesting tattoo when I squinted and ignored the lacerations.
Today was the first in about three weeks that it wasn’t too cold, windy, or rainy to go outside without complaining, so this afternoon we wandered around downtown unjacketed, starting with a visit to our favorite library.
The library installed a new self-checkout stations this week. They are very slick and amazing to use. Just scan your card and place your books in a pile on the pad and miraculously your books are checked out. It’s like borrowing books from the Starship Enterprise, the only anachronism being the books themselves.
While they were upgrading the machines they also rearranged the furniture in the reading lounge, which is to say they rearranged the hobos who sleep there. The new arrangement gives the lounge a refreshing but still hobo-encrusted appearance. I think the librarians should deposit classical volumes in their sleeping laps so that it looks like they fell asleep reading, just in case inspectors from UNESCO come to check up on the International City of Literature.
Oh yeah, and Lore reported a guy watching pornography at one of the computer terminals. So it’s not all Kurt Vonnegut and poetry contests around here. Just so you know.
Otherwise the streets of downtown have a very cheerful air this weekend. Parents of university students add to the weekend population as they visit town to see their kids graduate or help them move. A couple of elderly tourists even stopped to inspect the bronze statue of local historian Irving Weber.
While we lunched outdoors on chicken salad sandwiches, a group of young performers wearing white lab coats played music and danced outside a used book store.
On the pedestrian mall, there was free chalk for drawing, so Lore chalked up about 25 square feet of colorful flowers on the brick walk while I doodled on the side.