5 things about da Vinci.

Leonardo’s in the news. And, as it happens, on my bookshelf. I just finished trudging through Walter Isaacson’s new (Simon & Schuster, October, 2017) biography Leonardo da Vinci and thus am completely qualified to offer my expert opinion on last week’s record-breaking sale of the maybe-it-is, maybe-it-isn’t da Vinci Salvator Mundi. 

$450 million dollars! For a painting sold in 1958 for less than $100!


What? You don’t care about my “expert” opinion? All right then. Fine.

But surely you are interested in Isaacson’s: he comes down on the side of the painting’s authenticity. His biography is thorough, perhaps even masterful. It is, at 624 pages, um, dense. Like fruitcake dense. And you know how we all feel about fruitcake. So in case you don’t get around to devoting two weeks or two months to reading it, here are my five favorite factoids from Isaacson’s book

#1. Spirals, curls and ringlets. Early in the book Issacson asserts that “…Leonardo delights in what will become his favorite pattern: nature’s spirals.” And sure enough, it’s right there to see in every drawing, every painting, whether it be a portrait or proposal for a military engineering project. Curls and spirals everywhere. His exquisite portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci is an example:


According to Isaacson, Leonardo’s affection for curls may stem from his #2lifelong obsession with water and its force and forms. From fluid dynamics to hydraulic engineering to his late-in-life fixation on an apocalyptic deluge, da Vinci was always thinking about water. Sixteen of his final “deluge drawings” remain, including this one:


#3 Procrastination So good to know that even the great Leonardo was a mere mortal. We know many things about him – he was left-handed, he was illegitimate, he was gay, he was vegetarian, he was the “archetype of the Renaissance Man” and “history’s most creative genius”. But he was also a procrastinator! Thank God, something I can relate to. The man rarely finished anything and lugged his incomplete paintings, including the Mona Lisa around with him for years. I like him more all the time.


#4 Friends in high places. If we are judged by the company we keep, da Vinci rates some very high esteem. Deftly maneuvering around wars, politics and personalities, Leonardo variously claimed as patrons Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, the infamous Cesare Borgia and Pope Leo X – a dé Medici, of course. He was also a friend of Niccolò Machiavelli. But although they were contemporaries, da Vinci and Michelangelo had no use for one another. Giorgio Vasari, who wrote the first biography of da Vinci in 1550, reported that Michelangelo “displayed a very great disdain” toward Leonardo, a disdain that was apparently mutual.

Leonardo’s final patron was King Francis I of France, depicted receiving da Vinci’s last breath in this famous 1818 painting by Ingres:


My favorite discovery about Leonardo was not the Salvator Mundi but another orphan painting that came to be attributed to him. #5 La Bella Principessa was long labeled as a work of nineteenth-century German artists who imitated the style of the Italian Renaissance. The painting languished in obscurity until it was acquired by a collector who commissioned scientific analysis and aroused interest in closer scrutiny which resulted in an eventual consensus among experts that the portrait was truly the work of Leonardo.  If only I could get my hands on $450 million or so – La Bella Principessa is the painting I would most like to see hanging over our mantel:


Oh, and one last thing, which yes, I know, makes #6, but let’s not quibble. A small detail, perhaps, but a significant one. Where, oh where, are the Mona Lisa’s eyebrows? As early as 1625 a description of the painting notes that “this lady in other respect beautiful, is almost without eyebrows.” Isaacson comes to our rescue, citing high-resolution scans in 2007 by French art technician Pascal Cotte, who, using light filters, “found tiny indications of eyebrows that originally existed.”

Whew. Now I feel better. Don’t you?





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Sweet Indulgence.

What could be more self-indulgent than a quick trip to NYC for no real good reason at all? 

Sachertorte, that’s what. I mean, when you’re off the rails already, why not?

Let me explain.

“Um, we were just there,” said the CE, giving me the side eye, when I started murmuring about running off to New York. Yes, I know. According to the calendar we had been there just a month ago. But according to my heart,  I had left a few things undone.

Like being there to see the trees begin to change color.


Like walking across the park one last time before it snows.


Like squeezing in one more dinner with son Daniel since we won’t see him for Thanksgiving. I mean, who wouldn’t fly across the country on a whim to see this kiddo?


I wasn’t there long enough to settle in, but I did check one thing off my long “must do” list: The Neue Galerie and Café Sabarsky.

A tidy little jewel of a museum, the Neue Galerie is, per the mission statement, “devoted to early twentieth-century German and Austrian art and design”. The gallery is best-known for its permanent display of Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer I and she is a treasure to behold in the walnut-paneled drawing room where she presides.


No photography is allowed in the gallery, and anyway, a camera can’t really quite capture the richness of the textures in this painting. You just have to see it, and see it again. I can’t wait to take the CE to visit!

There are other gems on display – I came across the Austrian painter Egon Schiele in my reading last year and was thrilled to see his Town Among the Greenery (The Old City III):


Best of all, the works of art are not confined to the gallery. The adjacent Café Sabarsky serves up Viennese classics like Bratwurst mit Sauerkraut & Rösterdäpfel and Wiener Rindsgulasch mit Spätzle. When pressed to pick a personal favorite, my waiter named the Wiener Schnitzel mit Erdäpfel – Gurkensalat & Preiselbeeren (Wiener Schnitzel with Potato-Cucumber Salad & Lingonberries) so that’s what I ordered.


And he would not let me depart without sampling the café’s famed Sachertorte. And yes, it comes mit schlag. You can only imagine how hard it was for him to convince me to order it. I mean, what choice did I have?


I enjoyed it with what must be one of the best double espressos in the city.


The café is small but evocative. I haven’t been to Vienna but it felt the way I imagine Vienna to be from the way it is portrayed in books like Edmund de Waal’s The Hare With Amber Eyes and Selden Edwards’ lovely novel of fin de siècle Vienna, The Little Book.

A perfect solo excursion. A perfect November week in the city. Sweet indulgence, indeed. Lucky me.


If you go: Neue Galerie is located on the Upper East Side at 1048 Fifth Avenue (at 86th Street), just a few blocks north of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays. General admission, $20. Café Sabarsky is adjacent to the museum. Lunch reservations available only to members so come early as I hear you can end up waiting in line otherwise. Open daily 9 a.m. to 9 p.m, dinner reservations available to the public.





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Fashion Fauxward: It Bugs.

It happened again the other day. A giant bug in my salad. He presented quite a tableau, his bulbous carcass and spindly legs splayed across a wedge of tomato.The waitress, properly horrified upon viewing it, immediately comped my lunch and might have been persuaded to set up a trust fund for me if I had pressed my case. It was a really, really fat, formidable bug.

This is at least the third time in as many years that a representative from the insect world has strayed, unbidden, into my salad bowl. At least that I know of. Supposedly, we ingest a pound or two of bugs annually – gulp!

And just FYI, in case you think by skipping the salad course you can avoid such encounters, did you know that, per the web site howstuffworks.com

“your 8-ounce glass of orange juice, for example, can legally contain five fruit flies. There could be 50 aphids, mites or thrips plus some caterpillar larvae in 3.5 ounces of frozen spinach. Thrips, tiny winged parasites that are up to an eighth of an inch long, hang out in apple butter, and frozen asparagus, broccoli and Brussels sprouts [source: FDA].”

Entomology seems to be everywhere these days. Grub Street is happy to direct you to seven NYC restaurants where you actually pay to eat insects. And the six and eight-leggers also seem to be spreading their wings, so to speak, in the fashion world.

There’s this hat at Saks Fifth Avenue, for example;


Or you can bag a bug at the New York Botanical Garden gift shop:


Conditions Apply tank at Anthropologie:


The house fly becomes royalty on a plate at Bergdorf-Goodman so you can have a bug in every salad!

Sonia Rykiel is buggy at Barneys:

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And Silken Favors favors flies and ladybugs at Net-A-Porter:

bug scarf silken favours net a porter

The only bugs I’d pay for, however, are the ones Gucci is selling. This belt bag looks good enough to eat, antennae and all. The bee’s knees, indeed.


Happy Saturday. And keep a close eye on your salad…






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June in October.

You may not want to think about this as you peer into a bucket of extra crispy KFC, but every chicken has a personality. I’m not saying I’ve met a hen who’s up there with Mahatma Gandhi, but there have been a few along the way who have stolen my heart.

June does not happen to be one of them.


She’s pretty enough, as you can see. But the Miss Congeniality award may elude her. She is skittish as all get out, possibly just her temperament, probably partly due to flock dynamics. Kind of like with humans, you mean? Yeah, kinda. Let’s say you you were born a little on the sensitive side and then got pecked at pretty much every day of your life. Your world view might be just a bit skewed, right?

And say you also had a very, very tiny brain. A brain so small that you run away squawking even when someone tries to give you a juicy handful of meal worms.  Poor thing. I was already to give her the Most Unlikely to Succeed trophy. But then, last week, everything changed! Miss June (named by grandson Thomas and perfectly so, because she is the color of Santa Barbara summer fog) made all the other hens green with envy when she ever so nonchalantly left this in the nesting box:


June was advertised as an Ameraucana but is more likely a mongrel breed known as an “Easter Egger” who luckily carries the Ameraucana gene for laying a colored egg. Her flock mate, Ginger, for example, was also billed as an Ameraucana but lays a rather ordinary looking pinkish-beige egg. That’s Ginger on the left, wondering how she suddenly got outshone by the little upstart on the right. Life comes at you fast, Ginger.


You’d think I’d be used to it by now after nearly a decade of chicken-keeping, but every time I step into the coop and see one of these little jewels my heart skips a beat. They are so pretty!


I don’t know if June will ever get any respect from the rest of the flock, but I love the way she colors our world. Good work, June! Lots of meal worms coming your way!








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The Last Fruits of Fall.


Thwack! Thwack!

Is that the sound of the sky falling? 

And then a tremendously loud THWACK, as a deluge of acorns crashes upon the hard plastic roof of the chicken pen. Incredibly, the hens take no notice. You see, this has been going on for a month, this daily hailstorm of acorns, and they have become inured to it. Even when a fierce October wind knocks over a pot, they don’t skitter away but instead gather around to pluck the lovely yellow blossoms. 


Fall used to be my favorite season. New notebooks and sharpened pencils season. A crisp edge to the air and, yes, even here in California, some leaf color with the liquid amber and birch trees in our neighborhood. But I have grown old, and too fond of languid summer evenings. Those nights when dusk falls so late and you can still make out the silhouette of a hen as much in love with summer as I am, lingering in the pen and waiting until full dark to march into the coop for the night.

This season, now, has begun to feel more to me like an ending than a beginning.

We lost a family friend week before last. A gentleman too fine to make such an early departure. It was incredibly sudden. A man who always had a kind, quiet word for everyone and who, refreshingly, preferred to stand behind the camera rather than in front of it.

And then another shock. A neighbor in the hospital. It is serious. Prognosis uncertain.

Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! The acorns fall hard and fast. Pay attention, they say. Notice the things that matter!

But I am too much like the little-brained hens. Inured. Easily distracted. Because there are yellow blossoms to pluck, and there are other fruits of fall – nascent pomegranates growing in the hedge, wizened little olives dropping from the trees and fiery pyracantha berries bursting into bloom. Even those acorns are fruit, even in autumn, even amidst grief. Perhaps, just as we send flowers to the grieving, we are sent these fruits as a consolation. A reminder of life amidst death. Because where are we without hope?


And just as I was pondering all this in my tiny hen-brain, a text message lit up my screen (remember the old days when the phone used to ring?) and there is a joyful summons to come visit a newborn baby! Life wheels around, endings and beginnings blurred together, all of it a mystery to me.

I am like those hens, too feeble-minded to grasp it all. But I suspect there is a call beyond fear and grief, a call to faith and that promise of hope. Today, I’m on my knees, praying for those in grief, praying in gratitude for new life, and praying for the miracle that I might someday get the wisdom to understand.

When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought me joy. – Psalm 94:19






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A Last Look at New York.

Let’s see. Before I interrupted myself with that bit of shameless self-promotion last week we were re-capping the New York trip…

It was even harder than usual to leave this time. Fall is (despite UN General Assembly Week, despite whatever is going on with that ongoing subway nightmare – HELLO powers that be???!!!) my favorite time to be in NYC. It’s as if the city tried to be even more alive, more beautiful than usual before the temperatures drop and the skies turn leaden.

So many things I loved this trip:

This building on Columbus Avenue at 70th just wanted to be noticed.


Always, the chandeliers at the Metropolitan Opera House.


Chrysanthemums on Park Avenue. At every intersection!


Dinner at Balthazar with a few of my favorite people.

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Street flowers for sale. They look suspiciously like milkweed! Do New Yorkers pay good money for milkweed?


We may have found the ultimate hamburger at The Ribbon.


Bergdorf windows. Love the fall forest theme.


Yes it is egregiously overpriced, but a drink with a friend at the Plaza’s Palm Court is hard to resist.


Passionfruit Pavlova for the CE at Nougatine.


Possibly the best dressing room decor – yes, this is a dressing room – I’ve ever seen – Ted Baker at Time-Warner Center.


The endowed flowers in the Grand Hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They are refreshed weekly and never disappoint.


A lovely Monet:


and some enthusiastic art lovers:


How lucky we were to be there while the weather pretended that summer would never end. Alas, we know what’s coming next. The trees don’t tell lies. Those leaves are starting to turn.

Sigh. Get out those puffers, everyone…










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A Chicken in Every Plot.

Okay, so I didn’t get the cover story. That honor went to “Raising Meat Birds”, with an arresting photo of a turkey whose neck wattle gives mine a run for its money. Fair enough.

But if you go to page 38 of the current issue of Backyard Poultry magazine you’ll find this little gem about my twin passions, chickens and literature. Chicken lit, I guess you could say.

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Complete with byline, pull quotes and a photo of the handsome CE with his sidekick,  Pippa.



Ever since we embarked on the chicken project back in 2009, it has seemed that chickens are everywhere, especially in my reading. They warm the plots of some of my favorite books, including Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables, Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley and – especially timely, given last week’s Nobel Prize award – Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. Different books, different authors, different settings and different centuries, yet in each the humble chicken helps enliven the story, just as my little flock enlivens my daily life.

Write what you know, they say. So I did.

And now I need to go read up on Raising Meat Birds…













Posted in All Things Poultry | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments