Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Krewe of Pygmalion 2012

Since I had so much fun doing it last year, and since my float lieutenant invited me back to ride again this year, last weekend I headed back to New Orleans for the 2012 Krewe of Pgymalion Mardi Gras parade.
One thing I love about Mardi Gras is that New Orleans celebrates the holiday with the same festive intensity that the rest of the nation reserves for the Christmas season. People decorate their houses, like this one in the French Quarter, with elaborate and beautiful decorations.
If you've never been inside a float, this is what it looks like. Hooks are provided for participants to lay out beads and other goodies to throw. The rest of the throws are in the bags below, and although the hooks are nice to have, it's hard to "refill" them once the supply of throws hung from them is exhausted and the float is moving. Which means we spend most of the parade frantically tearing through our bags, pulling out throws, removing them from their plastic wrappers and tossing them to the crowds. By the time the parade is over the deck of the float is strewn knee-high with plastic wrappers, cardboard boxes, vinyl bags, broken strands of beads and empty food and beverage containers.
This year's theme was vintage board games, and each float was dedicated to a different game. Mine was the "Payday" float. It was rather windy and chilly Saturday night. I was wearing a shirt, sweater and jacket underneath my costume smock and I was still freezing cold.
Some revelers on St. Charles Avenue. It seemed to me that the crowds were a bit smaller than last year - the cooler weather probably had something to do with it - but they were still out in force. In terms of throws, beads are still the main attraction. When they're flying through the air, they are magical, priceless artifacts that spectators jostle each other for. If they hit the ground without being caught, however, they're deemed to be worthless! (And to the punk kids who ask for beads and then deliberately move out of the way to avoid catching them: you aren't being clever, you're being annoying and stupid.) Children's toys are also quite popular, as are some of the Krewe's other specialty throws like lighted medallions. The occasional Moon Pie or bag of Zapp's Potato Chips is also appreciated by the revelers. Doubloons didn't seem to be quite as popular; a handful of collectors go crazy for them, but they're too small for most people to see or catch, especially at night.
Saturday I was a participant. Sunday I was a spectator. Here, the Krewe of Carrollton rolls down Canal Street. In addition to being in and watching parades, I also ate at a few of my favorite New Orleans restaurants, spent a lot of time walking around the Quarter, and, of course, hung out on Bourbon Street.

All in all, I had a great time. However, as of right now I'm not completely sure if I'll go back for a third ride next year. As much fun as I had, and as much as I enjoy the folks on my float and the people of the Krewe in general, the fact remains that participating in a Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans is a costly endeavor. There's the membership fee, the cost of the throws, the cost of lodging (hotels in New Orleans gleefully jack up their prices for Mardi Gras), the cost of parking and transportation ($33 a night to park my car in the hotel garage? Seriously?), the cost of the afterparty and, of course, the cost for meals and drinks. To say I spent a total of about two grand on this year's trip would be a conservative estimate.

But, like I said, I had a wonderful time and I'm glad I got the opportunity to do this for the second year in a row.

I still hate Valentine's Day

Another Valentine's Day is upon us. I still think it is a silly and contrived Hallmark holiday. I wish people would stop celebrating it, or at the very least quit making such a big deal out of it. CNN commentator Dean Obeidallah explains why he hates Valentine's Day, and I can't argue with his logic:
What may have started out as a holiday intended to bring couples together has been transformed into a commercial spectacle peddled to us by florists, greeting card companies, jewelry stores and makers of stuffed animals.
My issue is not with being romantic or expressing your feelings to the person you love. My issue is being required to do so on February 14. This date has zero connection to us. Each year on February 14 we are in essence commanded to be "romantic."
Shouldn't romance be organic -- sort of like a "Cialis moment"? That's the "moment" in the TV commercials for Cialis, the drug designed to combat erectile dysfunction -- where the couple is lifting a table together, their eyes meet, and bingo: It's a "Cialis moment." It may be drug-enhanced, but at least they chose the moment.
I understand that Valentine's Day earnestly purports to bring couples closer together. Great idea, but let's be honest, how many of you have had fights on Valentine's Day because of Valentine's Day?
I certainly have had my share, usually when one of us in the relationship (namely me) didn't buy a nice enough gift or put in enough time planning a special "VDay" activity -- thus, transforming Valentine's Day from a romantic evening for two into a scene from the film "The War of the Roses."
Yep. Been there and done that. Many times. Including today. You see, my son has a doctor's appointment early tomorrow morning, which means that I can't drive all the way out to the suburbs to spend the night with my girlfriend. And so she says she is "a little irritated" with me, which is to say she's absolutely furious at me. There's no way to make it up to her, either. I can't do Valentine's Day on the 15th or the 16th. The nature of Valentine's Day is such that you have to do something, it has to be good enough for your significant other to accept, and it has to be on the 14th. Nothing less will do.

Perhaps I'm just an unromantic sourpuss. But what, exactly, is romantic about compulsion? What should I find joyful about a holiday that oftentimes inspires within me little more than dread, frustration, and shame?

If we as a society absolutely must celebrate Valentine's Day, fine. But let's not take it so seriously. Let's respect the opinions of those who don't care for it. Let's realize that love is just as worthy of celebration on the other 364 days of the year as it is on February 14th. And let's not let a day that purports to bring us together become one that drives resentful wedges between us instead.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

The Menil's Byzantine Frescoes are going back home

A couple of weekends ago, my girlfriend and I went to the Menil (she had never been and I hadn't been in years) to look at the artwork. We then walked over to the Byzantine Fresco Chapel to see the restored thirteenth-century Greek Cypriot frescoes on exhibit there. I'm glad we got to see them when we did, because they are leaving Houston soon:
In 1987, the Menil Foundation and the Church of Cyprus reached an agreement. De Menil, the parties agreed, did not own the frescoes, but had acquired them and restored them on behalf of the Church of Cyprus. By then, the de Menils and their backers (including former President George H.W. Bush) had spent $1.75 million to save the frescoes. In exchange, the church agreed, it would allow them to reside for 20 years in Houston, where the Menil Foundation would show them in a chapel consecrated as an Eastern Orthodox church. That 20-year clock began ticking on Jan. 1, 1992.
The frescoes were looted from a Cypriot church shortly after Turkey invaded the island in 1974. Dominique de Menil discovered the frescoes in 1984. She realized that the people selling the frescoes weren't being honest about their provenance, but decided to purchase them anyway in order to preserve them. She discovered that the Church of Cyprus was the rightful owner of the frescoes, and reached the agreement with them described above. The frescoes were then restored and placed in the building designed by her son, Fran├žois:
In a book about the painted churches of Cyprus, he found photos that inspired him - photos, oddly, of newer structures sometimes built around the ancient chapels to protect them.

That's it, he thought: There should be a modern building around an interior "chapel" that holds the frescoes.

The building's exterior would be the modern protective shell, boxy and heavy-looking, with stone at the base (a nod to Cyprus) and rough, modern concrete above. Inside that box, he designed a black steel box, lit from above by skylights. And inside the steel box, he designed a "chapel," an arching, domed metal frame that holds the Christ fresco at the dome and Mary at the apse. But where the original chapel's walls would have been completely covered, top to bottom, with yet more frescoes, these walls were made of frosted glass.
The chapel opened in 1997. After March 4th, the chapel will be closed, and the frescoes removed and returned to Cyprus for eventual display (the chapel from which the frescoes were originally taken lies on the Turkish-controlled side of the island, so they won't be returning there). The metal frame that holds the frescoes will be dismantled as well, and the building will be repurposed.

I admit that I wasn't aware of the history behind the frescoes, or that their exhibition here in Houston was meant to be temporary. And while I'm sad to see them leave, it makes me happy to know the role the Menil Foundation, as well as the city as a whole, played in restoring, preserving, and repatriating these priceless medieval works of art.

If you haven't seen them yet, you have three and a half weeks to do so. Go check them out.