Tuesday, May 27, 2008

This is Your Brain on NYC

Allegedly, exposure to the unfamiliar strengthens the brain.

When confronted with stimuli, the brain's neurons branch out and connect with one another to exchange information. If you do something repeatedly (drive the same way to work everyday, or eat the same daily lunch, for example), information travels down pre-worn pathways, and there's no need for the brain to forge new neural circuits. But when you do something you've never done before, your neurons must reach out to new, unfamiliar neurons and forge additional connections, thus increasing the processing capacity of the brain.

That said, NYC gave my brain quite a workout.

From the moment I boarded the plane to JFK, my gray matter was forced to contend with the new, strange and unfamiliar. Here are the highlights (conveniently categorized into headings and sub-headings for your browsing pleasure):


The American Museum of Natural History

Let's start this off with a bang, shall we? And by bang I mean a 4.5 billion year old meteorite!

This is the Cape York meteorite, discovered in Greenland in 1894. At 34 tons, it’s the heaviest meteorite in captivity (yes, this was the term used on the accompanying text). According to earth and space explainer David Teich (a kind and patient man), it formed 4.5 BILLION years ago, when the stray bits of our solar system that failed to coalesce into planets and moons fused into meteorites. The molten material cooled at a rate of 1 degree Celsius every MILLION YEARS! At that rate, it would have taken a few billion years for this meteorite to settle into its present state.


How awesome is it to touch something 4.5 billion years old? Totally awesome. Of course, the ground we walk on (i.e. Earth) is also 4.5 billion years old; actually, all of that inorganic matter is 13 billion years old, it's just been morphing into different forms since the Big Bang (or whatever force birthed the Universe into existence). But to touch something that reached its present form 4.5 billion years ago? Yeah. Totally.Fucking.Sweet.

Other highlights:

The Spitzer Room of Human Origins

Did you know that the Khoisan people in South Africa carry the most ancient human DNA mutations? Or that modern humans are tolerant of non-human dairy products because our goat milk-drinking ancestors were the ones who survived famine? Neither did I. Till I came here.

Dinosaur Hall

Q. Is it an Apatosaurus or a Brontosaurus? A. An Apatosaurus, says the explanatory sign. Both names were used to describe the same species of fossilized dinosaur in the 1870s. Since Apatosaurus was used first, it's the name preferred by scientists.


Museum of Modern Art

My knowledge of modern art borders on the Philistine, but I do enjoy it. Proof: a montage of blurry photographs of my favorite pieces, obnoxiously taken to serve my faulty short-term memory.


Mark Rothko, No. 16

This is the kind of thing I'd skip over in a textbook, but in person, I found it quite striking. According to MOMA, the "forms and colors are meant to arrest the viewer in a state of reflection," and I have to say – it worked. I couldn’t stop looking at it and went back to it several times. I took several pictures, but none of them captured the beauty of the colors. They elude digitization.

Ad Reinhart, Abstract Painting

Oh, Ad Reinhart. Your nihilism is hilarious.


Jackson Pollack, Full Fathom Five

Loved this for its color scheme, but mostly for its texture. Bottle caps, keys and cigarettes are buried beneath the paint, giving the piece a rollicking, “tumultuous” feel.

Jasper Johns, Flag

This is another piece I'll skip over in a textbook, but the encaustic paint (pigment mixed with wax) over newspaper created a pretty cool effect. Apparently, he was a fan of taking the ordinary and making it extraordinary. Yay for him.

Robert Rauschenberg’s “combines” were sweet. Love me some collage.


Rauchenberg, Factum I & II

Another Rauschenberg creation, proof positive of the uncertainty principle.


Duchamp, To Be Looked At... for Almost an Hour

It'll get you hiiigh.


Francis Bacon, Painting



Alberto Giacometti's bronze dog.


Umberto Boccioni, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space


Dali, The Little Theater

Eleven planes of glass = one surrealist piece of awesome.


Andre Masson, Battle of Fishes.

According to Masson: "Left to chance, pictorial compositions would reveal the sadism of all living creatures."

I can get behind that.

But you know what I can't get behind? Matisse.

Fuck Matisse. Fuck him and his dainty pastel dashes. He makes me feel like I have a cat (See also: Feist, white wine).

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Turns out the Met has much more than boring old paintings. Oh yes.

It's a mind-numbingly large and labyrinthine warehouse of pillaged artifacts. Such as:

4,000 year old Celtic armbands! (Could've sworn I had a picture of this... but I can't find it. Sadness.)

And an egregious amount of Egyptian burial stuff!


Some swords!


Suits of Armor!


Behold the 1549 armor of German Emperor Ferdinand I (and his accoutrement):



Feast your eyes on these 16th century Italian spears, capable of lacerating the flesh of men in hundreds of different ways!


And old furniture!


1820 NYC Grecian Sofa.

(I was particularly taken with this couch).


Bear with me for a moment while I sing the praises of Delta Airlines ...

As a Southwest devotee, I was a bit hesitant to fly Delta, but my fears were completely unfounded. Not only do they have a fine selection of free snacks (biscotti, cheese crackers, salami, trail mix), but they also have TV screens in the seat backs featuring movies, TV shows, games (including interactive -- and free -- in-flight trivia) and a fucking map showing your flight trajectory, remaining flight time and all sorts of other interesting facts, like outside air temperature (-70 degrees), distance traveled, altitude, etc. Yeah, so I was into that.

And that in-flight trivia game was pretty fun: a series of 20 questions with multiple choice answers and a little "in case you were wondering..." factoid dessert. For example, say the situation was:

Q: Ridley Scott directed what 1982 film?
A: Blade Runner
In case you were wondering: Blade Runner was based on Philip K. Dick's novella "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?"

But every now and then you'd get something like:

Q: Mellow Gold was the title of whose 1994 album?
A: Beck
In case you were wondering: Beck is the man.

(For serious.)


Well, I started out with a bran muffin. But from then on, it was all gluttonous Street Meat, baby! OH YEAH!

Hot Dogs
What's on the New York street dog? Sauerkraut, and some sort of brown, tangy mustard sauce. Tasty, but doesn't hold a candle to a Chicago Dog— I'm not even sure it stands up to the Angeleno bacon-wrapped hot dog.

Nevertheless, I ate several from random street vendors, and was still compelled to check out Papaya Dog on 42nd street, particularly because I assumed it was in some way affiliated with Anthony Bourdain-approved Gray's Papaya. I had two dogs and a papaya drink and it was good; it would have been mind-blowing if I was drunk, but it was good. Though I have to admit I was a little suspicious of the two dogs-and-a-drink deal for $3.50. Rrruh?

I took a long walk in cold rain to check out the co-worker endorsed Shake Shack, which was really great for the price – I had a quality, thick juicy cheeseburger and some expertly salted crinkle cut fries. I also had a strawberry shake (hey, why not) but wasn’t too impressed with that – Chick-fil-A does it better.

Katz serves beer and pickles. What more do you need? Oh – a pastrami sandwich perhaps? Oh yes indeed.


Oh boy.

Let's hit this chronologically, shall we?


While waiting for Pete to finish hobnobbing at his NYU archivist function, I ducked into Terra Blues on Bleecker street and cozied up with some Maker's Mark during a refreshingly unpretentious solo blues acoustic set. 'Twas a nice venue: small, dark, candle-lit, intimate; yet kind of divey, with paper mache looking angel wall sculptures affixed to dark blue walls in need of a fresh coat of paint.

Once Pete found me, we headed to a mysterious bar (I neglected to record the name of it) for gin gimlets, refreshingly crisp cocktails made of gin, lime and soda (sort of like a mojito, without the mint and sugar). We then moved along to the Blue and Gold for Pabst and Magic Hat Apricot Ale. After building a nice buzz, we parted ways, and I resolved to sit on the chair-backed log in the Hudson Bar once I got back to the Hudson Hotel.

And then I went the wrong way on the subway, and got lost in Brooklyn for one hour.

Luckily -- or not -- the Hudson Bar was still open by the time I made it back at 3:00 a.m. I paid $12 for a watered down vodka soda and stared at the ceiling mural (some abstract art design that looked like a child's Crayola crayon sketch enlarged to 100x its original size) while two chubby girls in satin dresses closed down the house with a rumpshaking rendition of Beyonce's "Irreplaceable." After they finished, I was asked to take my vodka drink upstairs. Fatigued, I complied.


On the way back to the Hudson after more academic conferencing and a sniffling, chilly walk across several dozen city blocks, I got lost on the subway. Again. I ended up by Les Halles. So what would Anthony Bourdain do? Why, he would go into Desmond's Tavern, the local Irish pub. (Seriously, it's been televised.)

I enjoyed several Smithwick's there among the local happy hour crowd, none of whom were particularly interested in speaking with me.

After that I walked to Central Park and shared my Holden Caulfield moment with some ducks on a rock in the middle of the pond. Then back to the Hudson, to check out the Library Bar. It was a chill space: black and white photographs of cows wearing various kinds of hats lined the walls, as well as books; all sorts of books, about porn stars and Tanzania and supernovae and Marilyn Monroe. Chess boards were built into the table tops and a large blue pool table anchored the center of the room. It would have been a cool place to drink alone, but my sniffles had worsened, so I packed up early.


Pete -- did we do car bombs at The Library? Yes, we did. With the sultry bartender from Montreal.

After that, we went to the 2 by 4. Two words: Exultant sleaze. Wood paneling, cheap beer, pool tables, bartenders in bikini tops dancing on the bar. What more could one ask for?

How about some Yuengling on the way home? And my botched interpretation of an improbable Body Worlds pose and the subsequent repercussion: a skinned knee and bruised cheek after faceplanting on Pete's roof. Twice.


All right; now I was sick. But that didn't stop me from going back to the 2 by 4 after dinner, then on to the Belgian Room for Delirium on tap and Burp Castle for the Monks-on-a-bender mural before heading off to Pete's roomie's birthday fiesta at Lit.

There are two levels to Lit. The first is a Short Stop-esque bar/dance floor with a DJ spinning Vampire Weekend for a smattering of greasy haired patrons. But this isn't where you want to be. You want to go downstairs into the basement, and dance among the exposed brick and cigarette smoke (yes, you can smoke down there!) to soul, oldies, new wave and classic rock. I powered through my Dayquil induced haze and had a blast. But dancers beware: don’t set your favorite purple sweater on one of the booths. Because the staff will move it. And lose it.

In Memoriam: Purple Sweater

The last photograph of my purple sweater and me (center).

Dear Purple Sweater,

I only knew you for three months but I felt I’d known you forever. You were a particularly soothing shade of purple. Plum, perhaps. You matched nearly everything. Even my purse. I have tried to replace you but the only retail outlet with purple sweaters in stock is H&M and the quality is far inferior to Express. We had some great times. And some bad. I’ll never forget you.


And thus concludes the boozing.


I was shocked by how friendly everyone was in New York. I haven't been approached by so many strangers since... well. Ever. Strangers helped me wrangle my bags and hop onto the right subways, complimented my chic bangs (thanks, Summer), and interjected their own wry opinions into private conversations. Unexpected, truly. But refreshing.

Though nothing beats an old friend.

And now:

A GBD Salute to Peter O.

Peter is a great friend. He will drop everything to show you around town, and cheerfully agree to accompany you to cheesy tourist traps, even if you end up too hungover to visit them the next morning. He will not laugh at you when you faceplant twice on his roof, drunk. (All right, he will, but not in a mean sort of way.) He will take you to the Natural History Museum, twice, and wait patiently while you take painstaking notes on every exhibit you can get your hands on, and wait even more patiently for you to post 2% of those notes to your blog, 2 months later. He will also take pictures of you cheesing out in front of a stegosaurus.


Thank you, Peter.

Alain de Botton once asked, Why travel? When you bring your worries, your insecurities, your anxieties with you, everywhere you go? I say: to know the feel of a 4.5 billion year old meteorite. Or the taste of a Papaya Dog. Or the pain of smashing your face into shingles. Or the comfort of reconnecting with an old friend. To "expand the mind," as they say. Figuratively. Literally.

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