26 October 2015

Ithaca and Cornell University

October 22 - 25
Daryl was chuffed to be invited to give a colloquium at the prestigious Cornell University. A 4 hour drive from Princeton through wooded landscape took us into Pennsylvania – allowing glimpses of the Appalachians – before entering upstate New York. Abundant fall foliage, despite past peak in most places, made the drive quite picturesque.

While a packed room of Ivy League mathematicians gave Daryl their full attention, I meandered through the attractive campus. The ivy covered buildings certainly exude serious scholarliness.  How much of our world and our lives have been shaped by the minds that graced these lecture rooms?

In the middle of campus is Beebe Dam. A quick trek from Malott Hall (the math building) got me in the midst of nature. On this very mild Thursday afternoon I followed a trail along the lake, my spirits soaring from all the beauty around me. The heavily forested area around the lake was at peak fall colors. A waterfall gushed down a steep gorge. From a pedestrian bridge I gazed at the vertical gorge walls and False Creek. I kept gasping at the vibrant fall foliage colors.

Almost as soon as you arrive in this town you nod your head in agreement with their tagline  "Ithaca is Gorges". This part of upstate New York – the Finger Lakes – owes its geography to glaciers that receded after the last ice age. Further erosion resulted in deep gorges and waterfalls which are everywhere. I spent most of Friday on hiking trails along stunning gorges. Luckily it was another pleasantly mild day – just perfect to be outdoors. The scenic Cascadilla Trail from downtown all the way up to Cornell University takes you past nine waterfalls. I smiled all the way up as I made my way to campus to hook up with Daryl, Kelly, and Jason. We went into the Johnson Museum of Art to see Kurt Vonnegut drawings and paintings on exhibition. From the top floor of this very contemporary designed building we enjoyed great views of Lake Cayuga.

After decades of using the Moosewood cookbooks, I finally got to experience their restaurant. We had 3 meals here in 3 days. The food had a familiar, home cooked taste to it. Duh! My favorite was the spinach lasagna. We've made their lasagna from the original cookbook numerous times. The tomato sauce is so flavorful and is definitely the key to its perennial success. The limited menu at this restaurant surprised me. Good, wholesome, hearty, and healthy are the best adjectives I can come up with. And old-fashioned. You do get the impression that you're in a 1970's time warp.

Lake Cayuga - the longest of the Finger Lakes
These lakes were formed from receding glaciers. Further erosion carved out the deep gorges. Ithaca lies at the southern tip of this lake.

Taughannock Falls, though skinny, are taller than Niagara Falls. The weather turned brisk on Saturday when Kelly and Jason took us on a drive. Clad in a thick woolen hat and chunky sweater from Kelly, plus my down coat and fleece gloves, I braved the chill and did the 3/4 mile hike to the falls. Definitely worth it.

Back in town we marched over to Ithaca Falls. These wide falls – 175 ft in width – were the most powerful of all the waterfalls I'd seen in Ithaca. It's amazing that this huge, cascading beauty plunging into a big pool is minutes away from downtown.

We stayed with Jason and Kelly in their 100 year old house at the edge of downtown Ithaca. Warm friends sharing with us their house full of character – creaking oak staircases, paneled ceilings, bay windows – made our time here very enjoyable. Saturday evening we had dinner at the home of Tim and Tara. Tim's very polished culinary skills were evident in a stuffed portobello mushroom dish - a recipe from Plenty, an Ottolenghi cookbook. Good conversation, some opinion differences, lots of Malbec, delicious apple pie from Ithaca Bakery, and a lot of laughter. A fine way to end a visit.

19 October 2015

Some High Points of the Past Week

October 12 - 18
The Moth Story Slam

Had a blast with Michelle, Therese, and Sada at the Moth Story Slam. It all happened at an old fashioned bookstore - Housing Works Bookstore - in SoHo, New York. Michelle had the crazy idea to drive into Manhattan from Princeton, but thankfully it all worked out. Ten talented and engaging speakers each related a 5 minute story on the theme "I was my own worst enemy". An enthusiastic audience dished up loads of atmosphere.
Later, around 9:30, a jazz quartet's uplifting music lured us into Antique Garage, a lovely Turkish Restaurant with vintage décor. We dined on tasty mezzes, which included a spicy muhamarra dip, and haloumi wraps. There was no front wall, giving the interior a delightful terrace like feel on this warm October evening. With such perfect ambience it was hard not to fall in love with NYC!
To commemorate the 100th anniversary of General Relativity, IAS director, the suave Robbert Dijkgraaf, gave a talk about Einstein's work and how his equations continue to help us understand the universe. He spoke about the principles that connect the physics of motion and mass to the geometry of space and time. Most of the people in the audience, including Daryl, found the talk riveting. Not me ... but I did a good job of faking it.
After the talk we indulged in the monthly buffet dinner at the IAS Restaurant. After stuffing ourselves with fresh salads, roasted portobello mushrooms and asparagus, and pumpkin ravioli, we studied the dessert table. Willpower abandoned us - we sampled it all - pecan pie, pumpkin cheesecake, chocolate mouse, apple crisp, and chocolate pots de créme. Needless to say, we are still recovering!
Lake Carnegie

Took full advantage of the pleasant weather all week, going on morning walks in the woods and cycling along the Delaware Raritan Canal and Lake Carnegie. The ground is now carpeted with leaves and the trees are beginning to don fall colors. It's all so beautiful.We see deer frequently. Found out that to prevent the deer population from exploding five hunters are given special permission in the fall to hunt them using a bow and arrows!

Spent all Saturday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. IAS arranged for a coach to drop us off at the entrance right at opening time. How does one navigate through the overwhelming collection at this art paradise? Looking at the map I found it impossible to limit myself to just a few highlights. This Tiffany piece was created entirely from colored glass. Isn't that amazing? I loved the Egyptian antiquities and the American landscapes and the Dutch Old Masters. Of course I teared up at the many Van Gogh pieces displayed. The Islamic art, especially from Turkey, was breathtaking. You could spend months in this museum and still take in only a fraction of its collection. It begs to be the setting of a story, an idea seized on by E.L. Konigsburg. The fountain in the American wing made me think of Claudia bathing in it at night in the company of beautiful sculpture.

It's been a chilly weekend, a reminder that summer is definitely over. Yesterday we needed gloves, hat, and warm coat on our walk into Princeton town. We purchased 4 books for $4, at the library's annual book sale. Then, over tea and hazelnut chocolate cake at Café Vienna, we did some reading. Walking back through Princeton University we nipped into the Art Museum. In the half hour we had before closing we took a look at the Cézanne still lifes on special exhibit. This museum, on a very human scale, has a pretty decent collection of art through the centuries. We'll be back for a few more visits.

12 October 2015

The Week at IAS (Oct 5 - 11)

IAS is all about an optimum environment for thinking and creating, so we spend a lot of time doing exactly that. While Daryl works in his office in Fuld Hall, I work at a desk in the Humanities Building library. A view of the pond and trees (now in fall foliage) at the edge of the Institute woods provide a pretty cool setting for me.

It's been a while since I worked on an actual book, and I'm pleased that the haphazard writing I'd been doing in the last six years is shaping up into a manuscript. Still a long way to go, but it's happening ...
Opportunities for other forms of enjoyment abound, and here's what I did last week when I wasn't at my desk:
  • Monday morning conversations hosted by Helen Goddard, wife of the previous director of IAS, at their lovely home on Maxwell Lane. What a splendid house with an open interior, and big windows providing natural light and views of their attractive garden areas. We were an international group of about 15 female "partners" of IAS members. Helen's idea is to provide a safe forum for non-English speakers to practice the language with native speakers. We partnered up – I with a gorgeous lady from Cameroon – and exchanged information and personal experiences. A woman in her 90's - the widow of a famous mathematician who'd been a permanent faculty member at IAS - remarked that China is better than Japan, when a Chinese lady shared something about her home. We roared with laughter. Helen said to her, "It isn't polite to say that especially because we have two women from Japan here." She looked puzzled. "But why not? My husband and I spent time in Japan and China and China was so much more interesting." The mood was lighthearted all morning. At 11:00, Helen who is English, served "elevenses" in her very large kitchen. Over tea/coffee and homemade raisin cake we mingled informally.

  •  Marc Maron gave a public lecture at Princeton University on Tuesday evening which I went to. A very friendly New Jersey native sitting next to me raved about WTF, the speaker's biweekly podcasts. "I love how he does his interviews. I feel I can relate to him. He's honest and quick to admit his failures." I'd only ever heard the podcast of the Obama interview - the one in which Obama created waves when he used the "n" word. Marc Maron has great stage presence and is full of humor, so I enjoyed the talk a lot. 

  • One noteworthy thing about Wednesday was my productive morning of writing. Another was that the weather was glorious - a perfect autumn day. The air was still, the sky was blue, and the temperature blissful. I went for a cycle ride along the D and R canal. Even on a week day afternoon the towpath was full of walkers and joggers.

  • On Thursday evening I went with my friend Christine – an art historian – to the McCarter Theatre to see "Baby Doll", a play based on a movie script by Tennessee Williams. Set in the Mississippi delta in the 1950's, it deals with the multilayered struggles of a cotton gin owner and his very young and immature wife. It was a superb production, with engaging actors pulling you into their individual worlds. 
  • The timing of a heavy thunderstorm on Friday couldn't have been worse. It struck at precisely the start of a welcome barbecue party given by an organization called "The Friends of IAS". Tables and chairs were set up inside a large tent, and while lighting flashed continuously and rain bucketed down, we filled up our plates with the fine spread of food prepared for us. Barbecued meats; interesting salads like orzo with toasted pumpkin seeds and organic greens with pecans; chips and a selection of salsas and guacamole; craft beer, including IPAs; a selection of fruit pies and ice-creams for dessert. The party literally went on - a live band played bluegrass type music, the kids made crafts, a balloon man made funny balloon shapes, and "The Friends" displayed flyers of services they offer to bring IAS members into the Princeton community.
On Saturday we were back in NYC for more opera at the Met. This time we saw Otello, performed by a mainly Eastern European cast of exceptional singers. Otello's skin was not darkened and in the titles the phrases "thick lipped" and "my black skin" were changed. Not sure how I feel about this, but grateful for the sensitivity. After the opera we checked out the gorgeous crafts at a craft show in Lincoln Plaza. I was quite taken by the quality and uniqueness of everything – the paintings, sculpture (glass), formal clothing, and jewelry. 
It was late afternoon and a perfect fall day. We strolled over to Columbus Circle, and in the shopping mall checked out Bouchon Bakery and Per Se – a 3 Michelin starred Thomas Keller restaurant.  We debated the ethics of a $310 per person  9 course vegetarian meal. Another life time maybe ... So we continued our walk, ending at Blossom Restaurant in Chelsea where we had a delicious vegan meal within our budget.

06 October 2015

A Princeton Weekend

It seems in poor taste, after a rough news week (the Oregon shooting, US airstrikes hitting a MSF hospital in Afghanistan, Hurricane Joaquin), to describe my weekend of pure indulgence. But life goes on, and here it is:
On Friday evening we experienced a new level of fine dining at the Institute for Advanced Study. The restaurant, run by Chef Michel Reymond, is Michelin star calibre, but is heavily subsidized and therefore affordable. So, of course it would be idiotic not to indulge in their 5 course meal - each course a distinct event - served in a totally elegant setting - just a 5 minute walk from our apartment. Our meal here easily ranks in the top 5 of any restaurant meal we've ever had. Choosing a wine from a "book" of the world's finest wines, many from France's most famous chateaus, would normally be an easy task for us. Go with a glass of the house wine - usually quaffable at a reputable establishment. But the alluring below retail prices presented us with a totally unfamiliar dilemma. We struggled with whether to splurge on something shocking like a 30 year old Chateau Margaux, or to go for a modestly priced New World vintage. We compromised on a 1997 Pauillac. Watching the deep purple liquid trickling through a filter into a crystal decanter made us a bit jittery. So this was how the 1 percenters lived all the time! The Pauillac turned out to be the perfect choice. Robust, yet smooth, dry with some fruitiness, and a deeply seductive fragrance. A delicate pastry encased amuse bouche got our meal into gear. Then came a citrusy cress and apple salad (for us vegetarians) in lieu of foie gras mousse. Tomato soup, hitting the tastebuds with the sweetness of hot September Jersey tomatoes, followed. Warm, crusty bread helped clean up every drop of soup. The main course was a mound of mushroom risotto adorned with roasted smoky chanterelles, crisp asparagus and other vegetables.
It was so beautiful and delicious, and so deserving of a fine wine. To round off the meal we were served a dessert of corn cake with blackberry jam and sweet corn ice cream artistically arranged on a narrow plate. A bit too experimental for me, but tasty. The meal ended with a bittersweet dark chocolate truffle and espresso. Then, when we finally got up to leave, hours later, a chocolate brownie in a gift bag arrived from the chef. We returned home in a heady daze. Wow!

On Saturday morning we were back on the Dinky, the little Princeton train that shuttles us to Princeton Junction, to catch the New York train. After a bagel and coffee at 'witchcraft, a café in an airy, contemporary Lincoln Center space, we were back at the sumptuous Met for our second opera this season. And boy, what a performance of Il Trovatore!

Two of the world's most formidable opera singers, Anna Netrebko and  Dmitri Hvorostovsky, in the lead roles delivered beyond expectations. It was especially fun to watch them in the company of adoring fans. When each appeared on stage, thundering applause from the audience brought the performance to a brief halt. We savored every second of this magnificent performance, acutely aware of how lucky we were to be there. Cameras were set up for a live simulcast production, so thousands around the world were watching too.

We had a very interesting end to the day. I got in touch with a high school classmate who now lives in Manhattan. He works at the United Nations in a top level position that requires a lot of international travel. Over tea and a spread of snacks we reminisced about our Windsor High days in Ladysmith. It was the '70's in apartheid South Africa, post Soweto Riots, and we were rapidly becoming politicized then. There was a lot to talk about and laugh about and be bitter about ... Dusk turned to darkness, and from his high rise apartment we saw the Empire State Building bathed in white light.

On Sunday afternoon we were entertained by Signum Quartet, a young group of German (one was South African born) musicians, in the intimate setting of Wolfensohn Hall at IAS. This was part of the Princeton Symphony Orchestra's Chamber series. (The director grew up in Pietermaritzburg, less than a 100 miles from me!) They performed both experimental and traditional pieces and it was all quite pleasant. We were doing the Princeton thing - being all cultured and stuff.

01 October 2015

La Dolce Vita at IAS

So, it's been a month now since our arrival in Mount Olympus. Yes, that's what they call the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton! There's the privilege soaked town of Princeton, glowing from a divine perch above the rest of insipid New Jersey. Then, there's the anointed Princeton University, its Gothic buildings shouting out exclusivity. And, even more sacred is IAS, the place we get to call home for a brief period of our existence! Us mortals, members here for only a short time, get to check out the digs of the gods, permanent faculty carefully selected from the world's brainiest academics.
This is Fuld Hall, the main administrative building with the school of mathematics offices on the top floor. Sprawling lawns at the front and back of this building give it an even greater air of distinction. The elegant common room is furnished with leather sofas and Persian rugs. A bust of Einstein on a pedestal pays tribute to the Institute's most famous permanent faculty member. (It's Einstein Drive that you take to enter the grounds.) Every afternoon I indulge in afternoon tea and fresh baked goodies in the common room. Members of various schools stand in clusters arguing/discussing/opining in academese. I usually grab the New Yorker or Harper's from the impressive rack of newspapers and periodicals, and escape to a quiet corner.
I have a desk in the library of the Humanities building with this lake view. In the evenings we often relax here with a glass of wine. The weather all through September has varied between sultry and perfect, allowing us to take full advantage of the beautiful grounds of this campus.

The founders of IAS were focused on creating a peaceful environment to promote contemplation and intellectual ideas. So the Institute Woods came into being - a combination of preservation and active planting. We walk through these woods frequently in the the cool shadows of beeches and oaks, and other species. It truly is rejuvenating after a day of thinking and concentrating. A deer might make an appearance, and birdsong is ever present. The changing light through the tree-tops in the morning and evening is magical.

Beyond the woods is the Delaware and Raritan Canal. Sunday afternoon cycle rides along what used to be the mule towpath, gets us in the midst of some seriously gorgeous scenery. Last week we cycled to Lake Carnegie where the cycle path goes between canal and lake. We watched a snowy egret take off from the bank, then a blue crane flapped its wings and glided into the air. The canal and pathways on weekends are abuzz with people - kayaking, fishing, jogging, or just strolling.

The Institute to me is like a five star academic resort. How dost thou pamper us? Let me count the ways: A tasteful apartment designed for comfort; International academic families for neighbors; fine on site dining; a shuttle to get to town and shopping centers; Harry's Bar for entertainment - featuring live Jazz bands, decent wine and beer; classical music concerts once a month; lavish cocktail parties; on site gym; yoga; free tennis lessons; ... The list goes on.

An eventful first month has slipped by. We made a few trips by train into New York City for opera, a Broadway play, and restaurants. A math trip to Bethesda, Maryland gave us the opportunity to visit Washington D.C. It was a perfect September weekend for strolling around the mall and the Ellipse (we had to gaze at Obama's house after all!). Also went to the Smithsonian Museums to wallow in the great collections in beautiful Greek Revival buildings.
The calendar for next month looks scarily full too. What a life!