Tuesday, July 31, 2012

These Olympic Games have been about breaking down barriers and having fun, too

The 2012 London Summer Games are less than a week old. Already, these Olympic Games have been all about host Britain being confidently eccentric, at times quirky, but always putting on a good show.

From the pristine grass tennis courts of Wimbledon to the party-like atmosphere of beach volleyball, played in the middle of the Horse Guards Parade, to the road cycling races buzzing the Mall while taking a quick right at Buckingham Palace, the sights and sounds throughout London have been unabashed and brilliantly British.

After all, a nation that's given us William Shakespeare, Sir Isaac Newton, Jane Austen, Sir Winston Churchill, the Beatles, Mary Poppins, Harry Potter and the House of Windsor, is definitely a nation secure in its own identity. And, who else but filmmaker Danny Boyle of "Slumdog Millionaire" fame could convince Queen Elizabeth that jumping out of a helicopter with James Bond during last Friday's opening ceremonies would be a good career move for her? 

Who even knew the Queen even had a sense of humour?

Undoubtedly, the London Summer Games have been colorful. Lots of Union Jacks, Stella McCartney-inspired fashion and painted faces all about town have made for good visuals on TV and the Internet. Thank goodness, I've found a reliable Internet link to watch the BBC's refreshingly enjoyable coverage that is far less pretentious and glitzy than NBC's here in the U.S.

Just as importantly, the London Summer Games have been about breaking down barriers. 

On Tuesday afternoon, the U.S. women's football (soccer) team defeated North Korea 1-0 in the first women's international match played in the 102-year history of Old Trafford, the home of famed Manchester United of the English Premier League.

"It's not every decade," said U.S. player Megan Rapinoe, when asked by a New York Times reporter if she was impressed by the aura of playing at Old Trafford, the so-called "Theater of Dreams."

Talk about your gender bias.

As Olympic and Old Trafford historians met and compared notes, it seemed that the only other women's match believed to have been played at Old Trafford was a 1989 Women's F.A. Cup final between Friends of Fulham FC and Leasowe Pacific, which Leasowe won 3-2 in front of a paltry crowd of 916.

Big Ben / The Games of the XXX Olympiad from London.

NPR sports commentator Frank Deford recently observed that the Olympics are "like an independent movie with foreign actors you've never heard of." Further, he said, it's quite alright if we "cheer for people you've never heard of in a sport you don't care about just because."

While I've been riveted to the first-week excitement in the swimming pool, I've also been fascinated by sampling a bit of the action in archery, badminton, fencing and table tennis, too. These aren't exactly household sports with recognizable athletes in America. And, the competitions in these sports have been airing at odd hours of the day and night. Yet, it's been fun to watch, too.

Meanwhile, the London Summer Games have been filled with wonderful, weepy moments and dreams come true. And, it's only the first week.

At the Olympic pool Monday night, Ruta Meilutyte, a 15-year-old from Lithuania, won the gold medal in the 100-meter breaststroke in 1 minute, 05.47 seconds. It was her country's first Olympic swimming medal. Imagine what this must mean for Meilutyte and for her country, too.  "I can't believe it," said Meilutyte, excitedly, in a poolside interview with the BBC moments after beating an impressive field. 

Michael Phelps / The greatest Olympian of them all.

Tonight, American swimmer Michael Phelps anchored a U.S. victory in the 4 x 200-meter freestyle and, thus, won his 15th gold and 19th overall medal to break the Olympic record for most career medals set 48 years ago by Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina. The crowd was electrified by this unbelievably spectacular and historic night in the swimming pool. Phelps had become the greatest Olympian of them all.

Aside from cheering for Phelps, among the most emotional of highlights in the first week of the Olympics for me happened during the opening ceremonies. It was the performance of the hymn "Abide With Me" as sung by the Scottish singer Emelie Sandé. She appeared shortly after a moving sequence during which a memorial wall on the stadium screens showed images of spectators' loved ones who had passed away. It was worth a good cry.

The hymn, "Abide With Me" is a prayer for God to remain present with the speaker throughout life, through trials, and through death. Since the 1927 F.A. Cup final between Arsenal and Cardiff City, the first and last verses of the hymn have been traditionally sung at the F.A. Cup final before the kick off of the match. It was awe inspiring.

As a nation, Britain has always excelled at celebrating its past: from its military victories to its monarchies, from its intellectual achievement to its culture. For this fortnight, the BBC commentators are sparing no adjectives. Everything is: amazing, beautiful, charming, dashing, elegant, fabulous, and so on. Boosterish? Maybe, but it's that lovely British accent that puts a delightful spin on everything. And, that's cool by me. 

Yes, these Olympic Games, the world's greatest five-ring sports spectacular, have been absolutely fabulous.  And, it's only the first week.

Michael Phelps photograph courtesy of the Guardian.co.uk.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Two wheels good: Citius, Altius, Fortius?

Two wheels good / A simple two-wheeler is the bicycle of choice
 for residents navigating the narrow streets and canals of Amsterdam.

With the London Summer Games just days away, it is with great interest that I read of the triumph of Bradley Wiggins, the first British winner in the storied history of the Tour de France.

Cycling's premier event finished its annual, three-week endurance trek Sunday afternoon under bright, sunny skies along the famous cobble-stoned Avenue des Champs-Élysées.

The Tour has become controversial in recent years due to doping allegations against seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong as well as the suspected and apparent use of performance-enhancing drugs in more recent years that has seen two champions ~ Floyd Landis and Alberto Contador ~ stripped of their titles. In fact, until this year, only two Tour de France champions since 1995 ~ Carlos Saestre in 1998 and Cadel Evans last year ~ have not become embroiled in controversy surrounding performance-enhancing drugs. Thus, it was very refreshing to see Wiggins, 32, vehemently deny that he was doping during this year's Tour.

Looking good in yellow /
Bradley Wiggins rides into Paris.
Wiggins won the Tour de France the old-fashioned way:

He e-a-r-n-e-d it.

Which brings us to the subject of the London Summer Games. The Olympic motto is the hendiatrus Citius, Altius, Fortius, which is Latin for "Faster, Stronger, Higher". The motto was introduced for the Paris Summer Games in 1924. Fast forward more than eight decades and, certainly, today's athletes, for better or worse, emulate the Olympic motto. They run faster, they are certainly of stronger build than ever before, and athletes definitely can leap higher, too.

But is it really necessary? Is it worth paying this price?

Through the looking glass /
Cyclists enjoy their ride

along Binnenamstel
 canal in Amsterdam.
Just for a moment, imagine this: Picture a modern-day Tour de France being contested using a simple, two-wheeler like those that are refreshingly commonplace in cities like Amsterdam, the Dutch capital of the Netherlands. Sure, it might take more than the currently-alloted three weeks to complete the Tour, but who cares? And, ask yourself, too: How would a modern-day Tour cyclist handle the demanding climbs of both the Alps or Pyrenees mountains riding a simple two-wheeler?
The answer is simple:
It wouldn't be easy. Yet, it sure would be pure sports.

Citius, Altius, Fortius?

Let the London Summer Games begin.

Amsterdam photographs by Michael Dickens, copyright 2012. All rights reserved.
Photograph of Bradley Wiggins courtesy of The Guardian.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Yes, Chef. Connecting with food and having a conversation about it with Marcus Samuelsson

Marcus Samuelsson / An incomparable story.

It began with a simple ritual:  Every Saturday afternoon, a boy who loved to cook walked to his grandmother's house and helped her prepare a roast chicken for dinner. The grandmother was Swedish, a retired domestic. The boy was Ethiopian and adopted. He would grow up to become a world-renowned chef after emigrating to the United States.

Meet Marcus Samuelsson.

Samuelsson's recently-published memoir, Yes, Chef (Illustrated. 319 pp. Random House, $27.) is not only a great culinary story, it's also a love letter to food and family. I have been reading this incomparable story and it's hard to put down.

Born Kassahun Tsegie in a small, poverty-stricken Ethiopian farming village, Samuelsson contracted tuberculosis at age 2, as did his mother and sister. Together, the three found the strength and courage to walk bravely through seventy-five miles of terrible heat ~ fighting through their fatigue and fever all the way ~ to reach a hospital in the Ethiopian capital city of Addis Ababa. Through a miracle, Kassahun and his sister, Fantaye, got out alive. Their mother died. They never knew their father.

Yes, Chef.
As Samuelsson shared his fascinating life's story with great honestly during a conversation and book signing at Book Passage's intimate San Francisco's Ferry Building store last week, he said: "Sometimes, the worst situation can become the best situation."

Recovered but now orphaned, Marcus and his sister were welcomed into a loving, middle-class white family in Göteborg, Sweden. They had been adopted. Samuelsson hiked, skied and fished, all the trappings of a happy childhood. Best of all, it was there in Göteborg that Marcus's new grandmother, Helga, nurtured in him a lifelong passion for food and cooking with her pan-fried herring, her freshly baked bread, and her signature dish of roast chicken.

In a chapter of Yes, Chef devoted to Helga, Samuelsson writes: "Mormor (the Swedish word for mother's mother) treated her house like it was her own little food factory. She made everything herself: jams, pickles, and breads. She bought large cuts of meat or whole chickens and game animals from the butcher and then broke them down into chops and roasts at home. It's so funny to me how, today, we celebrate braising as some refined, elegant approach, when it's the same slow cooking method Mormor used. Her menus followed a simple logic:

"You have bread today because it's fresh. You have toast tomorrow because the bread has gone stale. You make croutons the next day, and whatever bread is left after that gets ground into crumbs that you'll use to batter fish.

"I don't think I saw a rib-eye steak until my late teens when I started working in restaurants. At home, we ate mostly ground meat that was rolled into balls and stretched even further by ample additions of breadcrumbs. We ate our own Swedish version of a hamburger: pan beef, a patty topped with caramelized onions. Sometimes we ate beef Lindstrom: a hamburger patty mixed with onions, capers, and pickled beets before being seared in butter. That's comfort food where I come from, and it's damn good."

A multi-cultural life.
Indeed, there was little question that Samuelsson was destined for a life and career that involved his passion of food. He studied cooking at a vocational high school in Sweden.

Then, he endured working his way up the culinary ladder, cooking on cruise ships and in the demanding culture of good restaurants in Switzerland and France. All the while, Samuelsson's goal was coming to the United States with the great determination of finding his place in the world.

"I am an immigrant, not a refugee. There is a big difference," explained Samuelsson. "I am as patriotic as any American. I am determined and grateful."

In 1991, at age twenty-one, Samuelsson arrived in New York City and took a low-level job at Aquavit, a restaurant known for its celebrated Scandinavian cuisine. "You have to completely give yourself up," says Samuelsson of being a low-ranking member of a good kitchen. "It's a daily dose of humility."

Soon, his "outsized talent and ambition" as a chef finally came together at Aquavit and he earned a coveted New York Times three-star rating at the age of twenty-four.

As Samuelsson told his San Francisco audience, sometimes, it's a matter of "luck and the belief in others."

Throughout his memoir, Samuelsson describes the brutal and selfless work ~ "chasing flavors" as he describes it ~ that he endured in order to achieve his culinary aspirations, which have including cooking for President Obama's first White House state dinner in 2009, reality show triumphs (Top Chef Masters), and appearances on Today, Charlie Rose, Iron Chef and Chopped, where he is a frequent judge. He's also experienced ambitious failures ~ career crises ~ which have included opening a much-heralded branch of Aquavit in Minneapolis only to see it shuttered four and one-half years after it opened due to an evaporating convention and business audience brought on in a post-September 11 world.

In a New York Times review of Yes, Chef, Dwight Garner wrote: "There's a strong undercurrent of loneliness. ... In part this is because, he says, blacks are 'shamefully underrepresented at the high end of the business.' When bad things happen, like the time the voluble and unhinged British chef Gordon Ramsay used a racial insult to describe him, he felt he had few people to turn to for support. That loneliness is a part of Mr. Samuelsson's reserve."

With modesty but tact, Samuelsson, who won the 2003 James Beard Award for best chef in New York City, pointedly notes: "A hundred years ago, black men and women had to fight to get out of the kitchen. These days, we have to fight to get in." He further explained during his conversation in San Francisco: "I knew in Europe, I could not be accepted as a black chef. I was determined to make it in New York City." 

Always with a smile.
Fast forward to the opening of his beloved Red Rooster in the heart of New York City's lively Harlem (310 Lenox Avenue, between 125th and 126th streets). Samuelsson's newest restaurant celebrates the roots of American comfort food ~ think fried chicken, what the restaurant calls its "fried yard bird" ~ and, it represents a fulfillment of a dream of "creating a truly diverse, multiracial dining room ~ a place where presidents and prime ministers rub elbows with jazz musicians, aspiring artists, bus drivers and nurses." In Red Rooster, Samuelsson has found a place where he can feel at home, filled with "diversity from all different backgrounds" and in a neighborhood he now calls home, where he lives with his wife.

At times, it's been a struggle for Samuelsson to find his place, both in the kitchen and in the world. At least for now, he has the appearance of a man who's found peace in all the right places ~ and, he's always with a smile on his face.

"Cooking has changed, but the core values remain the same. It's about expressing a journey and culture. What better way than through food," says Samuelsson. And, besides, as he playfully shared with his San Francisco audience on this summer night: "My fried chicken is better than yours!"

Photographs by Michael Dickens, copyright 2012. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

A calm serenity inside an artistic interior

An artistic interior /
Interior of the Saint Bavo Church in Haarlem, the Netherlands,
painted by 17th-century Dutch artist Pieter Jansz. Saenredam.
This painting is part of the Rijksmuseum's permanent collection.

During my recent European holiday, I spent a portion of a Sunday afternoon visiting the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. For me, spending time in art museums is always time well spent. And, if you're lucky like I was on that day, you just might learn something new about art that relates to history, too.

In an exhibit featuring a retrospective of Dutch artists, I came across a 17th-century painting depicting the interior of the Saint Bavo Church in Haarlem, the Netherlands, by Pieter Jansz. Saenredam.

Saenredam (1597-1665), who was the son of a print maker and draughtsman, was one of the most remarkable painters of 17th-century Holland, a period known as the Golden Age of Dutch Art. He painted this oil on panel of the light-filled interior of Saint Bavo Church in 1636.

Saenredam painted no fewer than six "portraits" of Saint Bavo, considered by many as one of the finest Gothic buildings still in existence today. Each time, he focused on one of the organs. Here, he depicted the Resurrection of Christ on the open shutter of the organ. He mixed gold powder with his paint to represent the gold in the painting. In describing the ornamentation of this painting, the Rijksmuseum website noted:

"At the time Saenredam painted the Saint Bavo Church, leading music-lovers were campaigning for more organ music to be played in church services. Calvinist ministers objected to organ music. Little music was played in church and psalms were sung unaccompanied. The ministers would rather have had no organs at all in church because they felt the beautifully decorated  organs were evidence of ostentation and excess. Haarlem's music-lovers handed a petition to the town council, in which they asked to be allowed to use the organ, 'the ornament of the church', everyday. It is possible that Saenredam gave the organs a prominent position in his painting in support of this campaign."

(As an aside, the interior of the church, which was originally Roman Catholic, was stripped of all of its embellishments, including statues and paintings, by the Protestants following the iconoclasm of the Protestant Reformation.)

What I learned in researching the artist and this painting is this: Saenredam was the first Dutch painter to specialize in church interiors. His precise on-the-spot observations and detailed perspectives helped us to have a better understanding and appreciation for these architectural marvels. And, through the addition of including tiny figures, he helped to emphasize the height and immensity of the church. Also, in some of his interior paintings, the artist used a central perspective: All of the lines in the painting disappear in a single point. Finally, Saenredam signed and dated all of his paintings in order to speak to posterity, a personal testament to the history of his work for future generations.

The Getty Center in Los Angeles, California, which owns one of Saenredam's interior paintings of Saint Bavo, commented on his work in its website:

"The overall impression is one of strong verticality, soaring space, and penetrating light, a spiritual reference to the heavens above. The inclusion of small figures accentuates the viewer's experience of exalted interior space. Saenredam described architectural elements in great detail: vaulted ceilings, moldings, decorative capitals, clustered pillars, and clerestory windows."

Saenredam made his first drawing of the interior of the church of Saint Bavo in 1626. From then on, he devoted himself almost exclusively to painting church interiors, always using precise perspective. Of his fifty surviving paintings, almost half show the interiors of two churches, Saint Bavo and the Mariakerk in Utrecht.

What can we learn from Saenredam's sacred interior spaces? For one, they were designed for contemplation. Unlike others whose paintings evoked a certain type of pomp, pageantry, and theatre that was usually seen in Roman Catholic churches, Saenredam's surprisingly modern paintings evoked "the whitewashed austerity of the Dutch Reformed Church," says the Getty Center.

In describing Saenredam's style and viewpoint, the Getty Center said: "There are no processions, no clusters of worshippers at shrines. He adopted a very low viewpoint and a palette restricted to the palest of tones, and allowed few people into his bare interiors. He concentrated on depicting light, color, and space. Many Dutch artists continued his tradition, but few equaled his inventive vision."

Indeed, Saenredam's painting of the interior of Saint Bavo Church owes its calm serenity to his desire to paint a faithful rendering, one that is careful and accurate. And, more fact than fiction.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

You cannot be (too) serious!

John McEnroe / He not only makes watching tennis interesting,
he's affable, opinionated and makes each story line believable.

One of the joys of watching the Wimbledon fortnight unfold on TV is listening to the entertaining and insightful commentary of former world no. 1 tennis player John McEnroe.

During McEnroe's illustrious Hall of Fame career, he won seven Grand Slam singles titles, including three Wimbledon championships. McEnroe was a superb shot-making artist and a gifted volleyer. He was both a winner and a whiner.

Throughout his career, McEnroe was often confrontational on the court with chair umpires and linesmen, and his famous catchphrase "You cannot be serious!" grew out of an exchange he had with a chair umpire at Wimbledon in 1981.

Now 53, not only is "Johnny Mac" graying gracefully around the temples, he's much less controversial in the broadcast booth than he was on the court. In fact, McEnroe has become much more mellow and affable now that he speaks in the hushed tones favored by tennis commentators.

As a super-talented commentator much in demand ~ at this year's Wimbledon he is commenting on men's matches for both U.S. (ESPN) and British (BBC) audiences ~ McEnroe not only makes watching tennis interesting, he's not afraid to voice his opinion. He's honest and all about accountability. And, yet, he also enjoys drawing upon an historical perspective of the sport like few others can do, except, maybe Bud Collins, to enhance his gravitas.

Chances are good that over the course of a five-set match, McEnroe will bring up his epic 1980 championship match against his great rival Bjorn Borg ~ his first Wimbledon final. His recall of this famous match is very detailed and spot-on. McEnroe was booed by the crowd as he walked on Centre Court following heated exchanges he had with officials after his semifinal victory over Jimmy Connors. He saved five match points in a 20-minute, fourth-set tie-break and won it 18-16. Borg went on to win the fifth set 8-6 and the match, considered by many to be the greatest Wimbledon men's final of all time.

In sharing his opinion of today's players and of the sport he dearly loves, McEnroe makes excellent use of the English language that's part lyrical, part plain-spoken, part New York state of mind. In a 2008 interview with the New York Times, McEnroe said his "vow" as a broadcaster was "giving people an idea of what it's like to be out there." Still a competitor in the booth, this is what makes listening to McEnroe such great entertainment.

Last week, McEnroe observed the match involving seven-time French Open champion and world no. 2 Rafael Nadal, who was knocked out in the second round at Wimbledon by Lukas Rosol, the 100th-ranked player in the world. It was an outcome that stunned the Centre Court audience and nearly left McEnroe speechless after the match ~ well almost:

"I can't believe what I just witnessed," said McEnroe on ESPN's broadcast. "At the end of the day, (Rosol) had more energy than Rafa Nadal. He challenged (Rafa) every step of the way and stepped up like no one could ever imagine.

"Rafa's not only physically one of the most gifted players ever to play, but mentally he's so tough. He imposes his will eventually on you and wears you out both physically and emotionally. And, to think that this complete unknown (Rosol) could step it up ... Nadal was the guy who looked perplexed."

And speaking of Rosol, whom not many tennis fans had ever heard of before his epic upset of Nadal, McEnroe opined:

"Lukas who? Three aces and a forehand winner. He looked really tight in that last game. It's going to be inspirational to a lot of guys. It was an inspirational performance. Talk about unpredictable. In my wildest dreams, I never thought it would happen."

McEnroe was also in ESPN's broadcast booth at Centre Court last Friday night for Roger Federer's five-set, come-from-behind victory over journeyman Julien Benneteau. Naturally, he had plenty to comment upon. As Federer was serving for the match, ahead 5-1, McEnroe said:

"It's a formality now, but  you've got to hand it to Benneteau. He's really persevered out here tonight." After match point, he added: "It's torture that Roger's put himself through, but in the end it's all worth it."

McEnroe isn't afraid to give props to the losers, especially if they've given their all out on the court. On Benneteau's spirit, he said:

"It's a brutal game; he's played the match of his life and now, he's limping off the court. But he gets a standing ovation. Now, he doesn't want to leave the court and you can hardly blame him."

Often, McEnroe is given the opportunity by his broadcast partners ~ Ted Robinson of NBC (McEnroe comments on the French Open for NBC), Bill Macatee of CBS (McEnroe also comments on the U.S. Open for CBS) and Chris Fowler of ESPN ~ to get in the last word before signing off. In his postmortem of the Federer-Benneteau match, he shared these final thoughts:

"Julien Benneteau played the match of his life and swung for the fences. He played an intelligent match and deserved to have the crowd appreciate his efforts. At the end of the day, a lot of people, including myself, picked Federer to win this. You would like to see him win another Slam. The fact he's already got six (Wimbledon titles), he's still hungry. He still finds a way to dig deeper and beat an unknown like Benneteau."

Like Federer, McEnroe's still hungry. Just a tad mellower. The Grand Slams are his time to shine. He understands the characters of tennis and their emotions ~ and, best of all, he makes each story line believable.

John McEnroe photograph courtesy of AELTC, copyright 2012.