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The Humor and Home of James Thurber

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Cartoons and funny articles in a style that is spare and gentle.

James Thurber was one of the most beloved humorists of the last century and his cartoons were regularly featured in The New Yorker for over 30 years.  I recently visited his boyhood home in Columbus, Ohio, where the stories about Thurber’s childhood explained a lot about his gentle and quirky humor, particularly the tales about his delightfully cooky mother and his love of dogs.

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Thurber’s drawings are spare, simple black lines and experts speculate that it may be due in part to an eye injury he received as a child. If your knowledge of Thurber’s work is limited to “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and its recent movie incarnation, I suggest reading The Thurber Carnival, a collection of his short stories and drawings for a better look at the author/illustrator. For example, one of my favorite of Thurber’s canine characters is Muggs, in “The Dog That Bit People.” Muggs, a really crabby Airedale, was one of the family dogs (Thurber owned 53 during his life). Muggs bit everyone except Mrs. Thurber who always defended him.  Thurber writes, “Mother used to send a box of candy every Christmas to the people the Airedale bit. The list finally contained forty or more names.”  Like most authors’ homes, Thurber’s house offers a view of life in a slower, though with Muggs around, not necessarily a safer era.

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James Thurber’s home in Columbus, Ohio.

Apart from the stories and drawings, one of Thurber’s most important legacies is the Thurber Prize for American Humor that is now awarded in his name from the non-profit that runs the house and the many Thurber House programs for writers. Winners have included Jon Stewart, David Sedaris,Calvin Trillin and most recently Minnesotan Julie Schumaker for her hilarious book Dear Committee Members.  See my article in the Minnesota Women’s Press on Julie Schumacher.

Fabulous Holiday Windows in New York City

Architecture was the theme of this window at Bergdorf Goodman in New York City.
Architecture was the theme of this window at Bergdorf Goodman in New York City.

It’s the time of year when retailers ramp up for the holidays with ornate holiday displays.  Nowhere in the U.S. is the holiday decor more fantastic than in New York City.  And, in New York you’ll find the most fabulous of all in the windows of Bergdorf Goodman.

I’ve been lucky enough for the last several years to be in New York during the holiday season.  The corner of 5th and 58th is always my first destination to see what wonders they’ve come up with for the year. (I also enjoy touring the wonders inside the store, but window gazing is much more economical.)

Fabulously ornate windows at Bergdorf Goodman. The subject of this window: Literature. How many authors can you find.
Fabulously ornate windows at Bergdorf Goodman. The subject of this window: Literature. How many authors can you find?

The theme for last year’s windows was the arts, including architecture, theater, painting, music, and my favorite, literature–all absolutely and delightfully over the top. The Creators Project blog has an article about last year’s windows.

If you go this year, send me a picture of Bergdorf’s windows.  And, be sure to read about my literary walking tour of mid-town Manhattan.

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New Mexico Chiles: Know Your Boundaries

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Sometimes you need to set your own boundaries, know your limitations.  That’s especially the case with chilis.

They may merely add flavor to cooking or set your mouth ablaze in a manner that will send you running for the icewater (and have other repercussions, too, if you know what I mean.)

I was in New Mexico a couple of weeks ago where chilis–red and green–are in just about everything you eat.  Fall is the height of chili season there and you’ll find them piled in farmers’ markets and smell them roasting, “New Mexico aromatherapy,” at the market or on the roadside. You’ll find them in restaurants any time of year.  When ordering, your server may ask, “Red or green?”  By that she means the color of chilis you want.  If the answer in both, it’s common to say “Christmas.”

Some chilis hot, some not.   In some cases it’s like playing roulette–one in ten is hot, you just don’t know until you eat it.  Either way, they’re beautiful to look at.

Graffiti at 5 Pointz New York City

The ultimate in self-expression: Graffiti in the Five Points section of New York City.
Vandalism or self expression? Graffiti in Queens, NYC

This week’s photo challenge is express yourself.  While some call it vandalism, there’s no more in-your-face, larger than life form of self-expression than graffiti.  For the past 20 years, the mecca of that gritty urban art form has been 5 Pointz, a dilapidated  factory complex in Queens, New York City.

Founded as the Phun Phactory in 1993, it was designed as a place for street artists to legally practice their craft. Here, aerosol-can Picassos made the derelict buildings beautiful and gained worldwide fame.

Sadly, the buildings were recently demolished to make way for yet more shiny high-rise apartment buildings.

New: From the Ashes of the World Trade Center

 

The new One World Trade Center rises over lower Manhattan.
The new One World Trade Center rises over lower Manhattan. The final component of the skyscraper, its glowing spire, made the building’s height 1,776 feet, tallest in the Western Hemisphere.

Who doesn’t feel like they know just about everything there is to know about 9/11? We’ve seen the video tapes of planes crashing into the World Trade Center on September, 2001 countless times and viewed special reports and documentaries without end. Yet, when I stepped into the new National September 11 Memorial Museum I found that there actually was more to learn, but more importantly, to remember.

Located underground in the heart of the World Trade Center site, the museum tells the story of what happened on 9/11, including the events at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the story of Flight 93 that crashed in Pennsylvania. The exhibition explores the background leading up to the events and examines their aftermath and continuing implications.

In Foundation Hall,  the "Last Column," stands 36-feet high and is covered with mementos, memorial inscriptions, and missing posters placed there by ironworkers, rescue workers and others.
In Foundation Hall, the “Last Column,” stands 36-feet high and is covered with mementos, memorial inscriptions, and missing posters placed there by ironworkers, rescue workers and others.

Even though we’ve seen them so many times, when those video clips and films of what led up to the attack played in the museum the people watching them with me all had the same reaction: “Oh my God.” There are video taped stories from people who were there, displays of artifacts ranging from fire trucks and twisted metal beams to personal objects of people working in the towers that day (really personal things like shoes and purses), papers that rained down, and a portion of one of the stairways from which survivors escaped the building.

The National 9/11 Museum at ground zero in New York City is underground with entry adjacent to a portion of staircase from one of the World Trade Center towers.
The National 9/11 Museum at ground zero in New York City is underground with entry adjacent to a portion of staircase from one of the World Trade Center towers.

As one would expect in such an emotionally and politically charged situation, many parts of the museum have been controversial. Some people object to the the way one exhibit connects Islam and terrorism and the simple fact of tourists gawking at what is essentially hallowed ground offends some of the families. Nonetheless, I felt like the curators struck the right balance.

Many survivors of the attack on the World Trade Center and their families are very involved with the museum and give tours and talks at the complex. I felt lucky to be there for a presentation by an NYPD officer who was on site that day and a young woman whose father died trying to get people out of one of the towers. Their stories made it all very personal. Not a dry eye in the house.

I left the museum to stroll around the 9/11 Memorial outside with its two square waterfalls surrounded by the names of those lost in the attacks. The newly opened One World Trade Center–the tallest skyscraper in the Western Hemisphere and the fourth tallest building in the world–towers, symbolically, over it all.  I’m sappy enough to feel proud of the way the city and the country has moved on, but still remembers.

If you go: Admission, $24 for adults. Go to 911memorial.org to reserve tickets, download the free 9/11 app to enhance your tour and for directions. images-1

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Read up: As usual, I recommend a bit of reading before you go which adds immensely to enhance your experience. And, as usual, I recommend fiction books for their ability to layer events and emotions to create a story that is almost more real than non-fiction. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close– Jonathan Safran Foer, Falling Man, Don DeLillo. For nonfiction, check out an anthology of New Yorker articles,  After 9/11– edited by David Remnick.

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Monuments — The Eiffel Tower Transformed

The Eiffel Tower, with the Waterlogue app.
The Eiffel Tower, with the Waterlogue app.

The Eiffel Tower is one of the most famous monuments in the world, which means it has

The original photo
The original photo

been photographed at every possible angle and every time of day since construction began in 1887. But I’m not so interested in telling you about the Eiffel Tower as I am in letting you know about an an app that that I’ve had great fun playing with, Waterlogue, which turns photos into some pretty cool watercolor painting-like images. It works on any Apple iPhone, iPad or iPod touch that is running iOS version 7 or great. You download a photo, and apply one of Waterlogue’s filters. And, Voila!

As a result, my photo, which is just like those that millions of other tourists have taken, now looks a little different. Give it a try.  There are some serious crafty possibilities.

 

Weekly Photo Challenge: The Sea and the Imagination

Man at the Wheel, Gloucester, Massachusetts
Man at the Wheel, Gloucester, Massachusetts

I love the water, but as a Midwesterner, the ocean holds a special fascination because we don’t have one. Granted, the Great Lakes are big enough and fierce enough in bad weather to give the feeling of the ocean and the same waves of motion sickness wash over on me on rough water, salty or fresh. But there’s just something about the ocean that launches my imagination into overdrive.

First there are the tides. We visited friends one summer who live on a Pacific coast inlet.  When we arrived we were oceanside. The next morning the water was gone and the boats all sat in the sand awaiting high tide to float them again.  This was a freaky, Stephen King-like experience for a “lake person.”

The wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald aside, the ocean simply carries a bigger cargo of tales, from Moby Dick to Captains Courageous to The Perfect Storm and about a zillion classic novels in between.  Gloucester, Mass., a real fishing town north of Boston, offers one of the best places to hang out and absorb a heavy dose of the maritime atmosphere that makes those stories come to life. You’ll get a double dose if you attend the Gloucester Schooner Festival this weekend.

Sailing the harbor, Gloucester, Mass.
Sailing the harbor, Gloucester, Mass.

Finally, few things are more pleasurable than being sea-side, dozing intermittently, lulled by the warmth of the sun, a view of the ocean, the sound of the surf, and the coconutty smell of sunscreen on your skin. I just read a post from a blog I follow, Jenn’s Bookselves, in which she writes about how much the venue in which we read a novel, can affect our

Beach reading, Rockport, Mass.
Beach reading, Rockport, Mass.

feelings and reading experience.  I nominate surfside as one of the best places to read, though it’s important to do so with books that give your brain a chance to relax along with the rest of your body.  So raise your pina colada and your copy of anything by Carl Hiassen. Here’s to beach reading.