Thursday, March 31, 2011

Monday, March 28, 2011

New York City Edition and All About the Brain

FOR THOSE OF YOU WHO FOLLOW ME on Twitter, you probably noticed I struck up a love affair with New York City's famous Plaza Hotel this weekend. I was lucky enough to head to the east coast with my mom and I was able to recover from my nasty cold in the high-luxury digs on Fifth Avenue. Amazing how quickly a cold is scared off by white-glove service and a faux-mink comforter.

Loved my ride in the Plaza's Rolls Royce!
The first night I had a completely surreal experience in the hotel bathroom. You see, the tub was just so big that, while lying in it, I genuinely felt as though I had shrunk enough to actually go down the drain if I wasn't careful. I assure you, I was entirely sober -- from Nyquil and any other intoxicating liquids. (The second night, however, my sobriety made a quick getaway when the fixings for more than a few complimentary cocktails were sent up to our room.)

The week was filled with plenty of brain teasers and odd word associations. For instance, as my mom and I were walking back to the hotel along Central Park, she looked across the street and recognized something we had passed earlier in the day.

"Look, there's that Pinto again," she said. I immediately doubled over in laughter. I had completely forgotten that she was talking about one of the brown-spotted carriage horses and instead I pictured a dilapidated old Ford.

It's a good thing our main activity for the following day involved checking out Brain, The Inside Story at the American Museum of Natural History, currently on display through August 15, 2011. Here we were able to learn all about the human brain and the odd associations that sometimes spark within it. And I was reminded of this oldy-but-goody:

Say the color of the ink (don't read the word.) Red Blue Green

From the exhibition's webpage: “I see this exhibition as a coming-out party for the 21st-century brain,” says lead exhibition curator Rob DeSalle, a curator in the Museum's Division of Invertebrate Zoology who conducts research at the Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics. “I think visitors will be fascinated with the complexity of their brains. Brains change with every bit of information that is taken in, and the stimulating information and stunning exhibitry of this exhibition will engage the brains of every visitor.”

The exhibit is filled with brain teasers that point out the odd ways in which the brain works. I couldn't help but think of the museum's resident astro-physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who is always ready to point out the ways in which human brains are defective -- not teased. The exhibit points out all of the ways other brains may work differently from your own, too. 
Mona Lisa, upside down, made with spools of thread.

Entering the exhibit is a dramatic transition into the dark recesses of the human brain. Visitors meander a narrow, winding path among a dense forest of wires hanging from ceiling to floor in messy clumps. The hallway is dimly lit so that placards with facts about the human brain are visible ("The primate cortex is so large that it has to be folded to fit inside the skull. That's why the surface of the brain is wrinkly.") Bright pulses of light punctuate the wires, representing electrical activity in the nervous system, though actual brain signals "involve less than one-tenth the voltage of an ordinary flashlight battery."

At the end of this tunnel we were met with a giant model of the human brain. Alongside this model, a movie played about a woman who was preparing her audition for dance school. Through each step of her process, different parts of the brain model would light up, demonstrating what parts of the brain were in control at specific times.
The exhibit also explores the science behind why it's easier for children to learn new languages, why taxi drivers tend to have a larger hippocampus, and the intriguing condition known as synesthesia. There is a special focus on Daniel Tammet who is a savant living with synesthesia today. I am curious how many people discover that they see the world differently from the general population as a result of this exhibit. How many people will say to themselves, "You mean everyone doesn't see the number seven in pink? Not everyone feels the color red?" I know I always feel something special happen to me when I hear a champagne cork pop, but I suspect this is not because I have synesthesia.

Brain, The Inside Story not only explores the quirks of the human brain, but also how the act of thinking works, how the human brain changes over time, how 21-century technologies may alter our brains as well as the history of brain study.

Even if you're of the Emo Phillips school of thinking -- "I used to think that the brain was the most wonderful organ in my body. Then I realized who was telling me this" -- there's no getting around that this exhibit really is filled with amazing facts and hugely fun interactive displays, making for a truly fascinating experience.
Brain or bug?
For many, a visit to the American Museum of Natural History is not complete without visiting the big blue whale, but for me I must visit the Rose Center for Earth and Space. And I had to see their space show again, too, called Journey to the Stars in the Hayden Planetarium. This is something that must be experienced. Watching images of outer-space on the giant curved 360-degree screen, you can't help but experience the surreal feeling of floating through space. 

From the Hayden Planetarium's webpage, the movie features "extraordinary images from telescopes on the ground and in space and stunning, never-before-seen visualizations of physics-based simulations, the dazzling new Journey to the Stars launches visitors through space and time to experience the life and death of the stars in our night sky, including our own nurturing Sun. Tour familiar stellar formations, explore new celestial mysteries, and discover the fascinating, unfolding story that connects us all to the stars. Those who come along for the journey may never see the night sky in the same way again." Check out the trailer.

This year also marks the museum's 11th-annual butterfly exhibit, The Butterfly Conservatory: Tropical Butterflies Alive in Winter. Visitors can get up close to over 500 of these fluttering works of art. If you're unable to visit in person, be sure to check out the live webcams.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Broke-ology, St. Patrick's Day, and a Sore Philtrum

 TO ALL OF YOU WHO HAVE WORN YOUR philtrums red from blowing your nose, whose rib cages have been heaving at all hours from coughing -- hang in there. Beware, however. Just when you think think your cold has run its course, it may come quickly return with even more force. Such was the case with mine and Bunny's colds, anyway. So though my weekend may have started on Wednesday, my activities came to a pretty quick halt when a coughing fit woke me up on Friday.

So Wednesday. In the evening, Bunny and I went to see Broke-ology at the Pillsbury House Theater. The show stars James Craven, fresh off the set of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom which played at the Guthrie, Sonja Parks, Mikell Sapp, and Darius Dotch. Craven had to slow down quite a bit from his previous character in Ma Rainey whose speech was a speedy rat-tat-tat, to his current character who is suffering the effects of MS. The show deals with how a growing family's plans can change. In the case of this family, their lives change as a result of a death in the family, aging, limited finances, and just plain growing up.

The dynamics between the cast (including a giant lawn gnome) could be reminiscent of any family you may know, or knew in the past when you were growing up. The set looks great -- like the home of any working-class couple who are just starting to build a family of their own without living beyond their means. There are many great smaller touches to the set, too; note the grocery bags stashed behind the fridge. The brotherly jibes between Sapp and Dotch are especially exciting and in many cases highly entertaining.

From talking with the cast after the show, Mikell Sapp is here from Alabama and Darius Dotch has been doing a great job of showing him around the Twin Cities.

A wonderful detail that must be shared is the fact that all tickets to every performance of Broke-ology are pay-what-you-can. Seriously. You can name your price.

Thursday, St. Patrick's Day, started with seeing a preview of the newest exhibition on view at The Walker entitled Midnight Party and, wow, what a party this is. This show is nothing short of stunning. Here is a little bit of what I wrote about the exhibition for The Dressing Room, an arts-based blog on the City Pages website:
Midnight Party has all the makings of a great party -- or the telltale signs that one has already happened. The furniture is messed up; Nari Ward’s mangled chair-like sculpture rests, twisted and angular on a throw rug. There’s a giant hole in the drywall serving as an entrance to Kiki Smith’s kitchen area. And there is a starlet hanging upside down while black and white movies flicker images of exposed breasts onto the walls.

Galleries 4, 5, and 6 in the Walker have been transformed into a sort of ersatz house for Midnight Party, guest curated by Joan Rothfuss. While roaming about the large gallery spaces as well as smaller, cozier theme rooms built especially for this exhibit, one gets the eerie feeling that the party’s hosts aren’t home, but it is most certainly open for a party. There’s even a wunderkammer featuring treasures including a meat dress (literally made out of 60 pounds of meat and 60 pounds of salt), Kranky Klaus masks by Cameron Jamie, and a time capsule, among other fascinating items too numerous to mention.
And then it was time to dash over to St. Paul to catch their St. Pat's parade. I thought for a moment how strange it was to have such a large parade so early on a weekday, but then I considered the madhouse it would be later in the day -- after everyone had a few drinks in them -- and realized the early hour must be quite on purpose. Here is my photo slideshow from the event:

And then we returned to home just long enough to warm up before Bunny had to head to the Guthrie to meet with Peter Michael Goetz. I tagged along for the interview, which soon relaxed into reminiscing about the Twin Cities theater scene (be on the lookout for some great theater anecdotes in Max About Town). Goetz met us at Sea Change, and soon after he ordered a salad, he wished he could order a martini. He decided to go with something non-alcoholic, though, because he was in the middle of tech rehearsal. We ended up sharing a delicious corned-beef sandwich. As for drinks, Bunny and I sipped a special green cocktail the bartender had just shook up.

Peter Michael Goetz has been in many great movies and theatrical productions, but I had to ask him about C.H.U.D., a horror film made in 1984. "Oh my god! Chud!" he said. He hadn't thought about the film in years, but he remembered what the anagram stands for. "Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers," he said. We talked about how great the cast was for that film -- John Heard, Daniel Stern, Jay Thomas, and John Goodman just to name a few. I was sure to mention that the DVD commentary for the film has reached a legendary status and that, if he ever has the time, he may want to watch it. It's absolutely hilarious.

The three of us spoke for a bit before Goetz had to return to rehearsal. Bunny and I returned home, opting to skip the Minneapolis St. Pat's parade and a night of drinking because our coughs were returning. Turns out we might as well have stayed out all night whooping things up, shaking our green beads along with everyone else. Because the next day we were back to nursing our colds, which had rallied with much more fury than any old hangover ever could have.

Feel better soon, kiddos.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Opera Riff-Raff, 7-Shot Symphony, A Naughty Basement Party, and 2 Gingers Whiskey

Photo by Bunny
MY WEEKENDS SEEM TO BE STARTING earlier and earlier each week -- Wednesdays lately. But I'm nursing a cold, so this week I started hopping-to on Thursday. From the amount of people downtown later in the week, Thursday has been the new Friday for some time now anyway.

If I may, I'd like to comment on the state of Downtown Minneapolis -- specifically the southeast corner of the infamous Block E. This location has been home to many entities, Hopscotch Grill being the most recent failed business. Now that Hopscotch Grill is closed, opera music plays on exterior speakers outside of the dark windows, presumably to dissuade any ne'er do-wells from loitering on the corner. Each time I pass by this corner I'm a bit sad that the top-hat-and-tails crowd hasn't claimed the territory as their own. I think I would quite enjoy some opera riff-raff.

This weekend was a busy one for Bunny and me.

Thursday we headed over to the Loring Theater for The 7-Shot Symphony performed by local physical theater troupe Live Action Set. Aside from an energetic live band and a few wardrobe pieces -- mostly hats and duster-style longcoats -- the stage is just about as barren as the dusty plains on which these stories are set. When members of the cast aren't acting as characters, they themselves become the set pieces by making shwooshing wind noises and moving their hands like tumble weed, for instance, or the swinging doors of a saloon. Though this show is a Western, the characters are characters from classic myths. Between the old-style western shoot-out scenes, there are plenty of tender moments and the members of Live Action Set transition swiftly between the multiple storylines. See it if you have the chance.

Friday night was exciting, as it was the world debut of Basement Porn Party, a play written by Bunny and I. We're fans of chaos and have been experimenting making Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control theater and I am happy to report that Basement Porn Party certainly delivers. Scott Pakudaitis found and directed a wonderful and willing cast and, most importantly, provided his very own basement in which to stage the play. This show's audience is very limited in number and is restricted to invite-only. On a personal note, let me extend my apologies to the after-party and cast for leaving a little earlier than expected. My cold was acting up and I had to go home to circle bed and cling to a hot cup of whiskey-spiked tea.

Kieran and 2 Gingers
Bunny and I took a brisk late-morning walk Saturday to meet with Kieran Folliard, owner of The Local, The Liffey, Cooper's, and Kieran's Irish Pub. He'll be debuting yet another business venture -- not a new pub, but something to drink at his pubs: whiskey. Let there be no mistake -- there is no shortage of whiskey in any of Folliard's pubs. (For those of you who don't know it, The Local sells the most Jameson in the world.) With the help of Cooly, the last remaining independent distillery in Ireland, Folliard took great care in creating something worth sipping: 2 Gingers Irish Whiskey. "I wanted something that could stand on its own two feet," Folliard said. And, after having a healthy-sized sample (Bunny and I brought home a bottle), I would agree that it's good to have whiskey that can stand on its own -- even if, after a few generous tastes, you cannot.

2 Gingers is undoubtedly distinct from all of the other brands of whiskey I've tried. It is smooth and, as Folliard says, "It has an edge to it." But it's a savory edge that is soon subtly overtaken with a sweetness that isn't too sweet. I definitely took pause before my next sips to enjoy the aftertaste. This is a great whiskey to drink on the rocks, but it also mixes well with ginger ale to create the Big Ginger, The Local's signature drink. 2 Gingers Irish Whiskey will be available at all of Folliard's Irish pubs beginning March 16.

The pounding of hard-shoe Irish dancing filled the rotunda of St. Paul's Landmark Center on Sunday for The Day of Irish Dance. Various rooms were dedicated to musical performances, readings, and even a small Irish marketplace, but the main rotunda was dedicated to the many local students of Irish dancing. Ranging from toddlers to 20 year olds, girls topped with tightly curled wigs and dressed in colorful dresses embroidered with Celtic knot patterns took the stage throughout the day to perform. Finished with their set, some of the girls, still donning their hard-soled dance shoes, climbed the marble steps of the Landmark Center with such force that it sounded like a herd of horses had figured out how to use hammers during a stampede. Feeding my delight for chaos, I thought this was perhaps the best part of the festival.

Photo by Bunny
My weekend concluded Sunday evening at the Guthrie Theater. David Hyde Pierce spoke on stage in conversation with Joe Dowling, the theater's Artistic Director. Pierce shared stories from his college years at Yale, where at first he trained as a concert pianist. Dowling asked how that lead to an acting career. "Well, what was key," Pierce said, "was that I wasn't a very good concert pianist."

He shared several stories from the beginning of his career as a theater actor, to his transition into television and film, and then back into theater. He told a few anecdotes from his time working on the television show Frasier, as well. Influenced by his fellow actors, he learned how to be a wine drinker. "I was never a wine drinker because I so thoroughly love alcohol," Pierce said. After hearing that, I found it funny that he didn't immediately know he wanted to be an actor.

It's almost Wednesday, and Thursday, of course, is St. Pat's. There is certainly a wild adventure or two lurking in the coming days. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

George Washington's Teeth and an Oscar Party at Hotel Ivy

ACTIVELY SEEKING OUT LOCKS OF PRESIDENTIAL HAIR is by no means a goal of mine, not yet anyway, but I've seen a fair share by happenstance.

In 2006, for instance, I was in New York City visiting a restaurant that has since become a favorite of mine, Fraunces Tavern (order the house salad). Because this tavern was the site of many historic events, they have a museum upstairs for anyone who wants to find out more about them. One such event took place on December 4, 1783. On that date, General George Washington bid farewell to the members of the Continental Army. And sure enough, a piece of the general still resides there: a lock of strawberry blond hair. Washington was a red head. How interesting!

And when I lived in the French Quarter, I visited the Ripley's Believe It Or Not Museum which is home to a snip John F. Kennedy's locks as well as a sample off of Jackson's glorious coiffure.

My most recent Presidential hair siting happened at the Minnesota Historical Society's newest exhibit, Discover the Real George Washington: New Views from Mount Vernon. The exhibit shares quite a bit about Washington's younger years as well as a look at Presidential life at his Mt. Vernon home. There are life-sized forensic wax models of Washington representing various stages of his life -- including a young Washington set upon a taxidermied horse. On Sunday the exhibit was packed with people learning more about the nation's first president and the details of his impressive leadership skills as a young man. Although this may sound crass of me, I must admit that I meandered through most of the exhibit rather quickly. I was most looking forward to seeing the only surviving full set of Washington's dentures. My brisk pace did halt rather suddenly at one point however, most likely the result of Pavlovian conditioning, when I caught the site of a whiskey still.

It was a replica, but no matter, what the hell was it doing here? Turns out George Washington was not only a military and political man, he was a successful agricultural entrepreneur as well. As a result, he began to distill whiskey at his Mt. Vernon home. Since I had Washington's troubled periodontium on my mind, I couldn't help but wonder if he drank whiskey to help ease his pain.

I grew up knowing Washington had dentures and never thought much more about it, figuring it was an inevitable result of a time in which dental hygiene was barely a concept. Mostly I thought it was a time in which people didn't care about dental hygiene or, even if they did, they may not have had access to the proper tools.

As a result of this exhibit I found out that Washington in fact took dental hygiene very seriously; he made a point of always having a toothbrush and brushing powder with him. What luck this poor guy had, I thought. He actually makes a point of taking care of his teeth and still ends up having the worst teeth imaginable. Bad genes, maybe? My older sister had to have something like 17 teeth pulled when she was growing up. If she had grown up in the 1800s, how would that scenario have worked out? Probably not so good. But she would have been able to go to college on Tooth Fairy money alone, so at least there's that.

Anyway, in addition to highly abrasive brushing powder, he most likely used boar hair toothbrushes. It's well-known that Washington had reoccurring toothaches, but I wonder if he further irritated his mouth to such an extent that his teeth and gums just couldn't take it anymore.

There is an entire semi-circular room devoted to Washington's tooth situation, the center piece of which looks like it could have come from the Tut exhibit a few blocks away at the Science Museum of Minnesota. Under a pyramid-like column of glass are Washington's dentures, and they look agonizing. Real teeth (from where!) and carved ivory teeth are embedded in lead. Small metal springs mimic the human jaw's natural hinges toward the back of the mouth. I wonder if they pinched the inside of Washinton's cheeks. Additionally, his gums rested on flat lead surfaces. I can only assume the springs had enough tension to keep the dentures pressed to his upper and lower gums and he had to exude an unnatural amount of force in order to bite down. A guide in the museum pointed out a portrait of Washington and told everyone to look at how his closed mouth bulged around the lips. It was because of his ill-fitting and painful dentures.

Coco with Ultra Violet.
Photo by Bunny
SPEAKING OF BULGING LIPS, this Sunday evening marked the 83rd annual Academy Awards. There were a few parties in Minneapolis, including the only official Academy-sanctioned Oscar party in the Twin Cities at Hotel Ivy. Bunny and I attended this party, which was sponsored by the Aegis Foundation. Proceeds from evening were equally divided and donated to the Smile Network and the Link.

Barbara Davis, best known as the spokesperson for Ken Davis's BBQ, MCd the event between commercials. She seemed particularly interested in the emotional instability of the various mom characters in this year's batch of movies. At one point, between various bits of Hollywood gossip, she asked "What's with the mom bashing this year?"

Blooming Barbara Davis.
Photo by Bunny
Davis wore a close-fitting green silk gown and a matching brimless cocktail hat that appeared to be blooming with red fabric petals. Along with a handful of people in outrageous outfits, she stood out among the cocktail dress crowd. Thank goodness for that. Though it was a loud, well-attended party, it wasn't particularly rowdy. Despite the boxes of free popcorn, nobody thought to throw it at the screens whenever someone they didn't like won an Oscar. I thought for sure a drinking game would erupt -- take a sip every time the music interrupts someone's speech! But, alas, it was a well-behaved bunch.

Visit the Washington exhibit at the Minnesota Historical Society. I went on Family Day, so there were many activities and demonstrations going on, including this dance that was popular at the time George Washington was President.

See what I wore to the Oscar party via The Minneapoline.