Monday, August 29, 2016

STRATFORD-UPON-AVON: It’s All About Will, Guest Post by Gretchen Woelfle

Stratford-upon-Avon, Anne Hathaway's Cottage

My friend and fellow children's book writer, Gretchen Woelfle, has spent the last several months in England. She is also an avid Shakespeare fan. Here is her report of her trip to Shakespeare's birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon.
Stratford-upon-Avon is a one-note town, but its overtones are still sounding three hundred and fifty-odd years after its native son left the provinces for the London stage. The town fathers and mothers have done a fine job of honoring him. They’ve minimized the tack and preserved many wonderful ancient buildings in the compact town center.
Birthplace Garden
Unfortunately we can’t visit New Place, the rather splendid house that Will bought for his retirement, and where he died in 1616. In 1759, the owner, Rev. Francis Gastrell, annoyed by hordes of gawking tourists, demolished the house. The good people of Stratford drove him out of town.
Shakespeare's birth room
But we can visit Shakespeare’s birthplace: the room where he was born, the adjoining room where he slept as a boy, his father’s glove-making workshop, and a garden that has replaced the less fragrant tanning sheds his father used. Well-versed costumed guides answered my many questions, and offered all sorts of quirky tidbits.  Did you know that the Elizabethans slept with their head and shoulders propped against a wall? (See the pillows in my photo.) They thought that if they lay prone, the devil would assume they were dead, and steal their souls.
Shakespeare's funerary monument
Holy Trinity Church saw Will’s baptism and burial. His grave and funerary monument are at the altar, and a friendly verger shared Shakespeare stories with us, and pointed out some rather risqué carvings in the choir stalls.

A guide at Anne Hathaway’s “cottage” gave us a very detailed genealogy of the family and the house. Anne and her family lived in a two-room cottage, but it expanded over time into today’s twelve-room house.
Tudor Schoolmaster
King Edward VI School is still going strong. Today’s boys (and a few girls) attend classes in a 20th century building, but they have daily morning assembly in the 14th century building where Will learned “some Latin and less Greek.” Upstairs a Tudor Latin master instructs us tourists, while brandishing a birch rod to keep us focused on his lesson. A current student, overseeing the prefects’ room with a table covered with old boys’ carved initials, described the school today.
The river Avon
More Elizabethan houses and pubs, small museums, boat rides on the River Avon, and countless tea shops add to Stratford’s charms.

The main draw for me though, was the Royal Shakespeare Company and its two theaters. I saw Two Noble Kinsmen, Shakespeare’s last play, a collaboration with John Fletcher (based on Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale.) It’s far from his best, but it filled my Shakespeare Bucket. I’ve now seen all thirty-eight plays (and Venus and Adonis) on stage.

That won’t stop me returning to Stratford.  There’s a new garden at New Place that opened the day after we left, and my Shakespeare Pass is good until August 2017. I just might make it back by then.

For more information on Stratford’s attractions:
Swans on the River Avon

Monday, August 22, 2016

CHINESE LANTERN FESTIVAL: Franklin Square, Philadelphia, PA

Dragon, Chinese Lantern Festival, Franklin Square, Philadelphia, PA
Franklin Square, one of five public squares laid out by William Penn in his original plan for Philadelphia, offers a refreshing, urban green space with a variety of activities including a miniature golf course, classic carousel, burger stand, storytelling bench, picnic area and more.
Overlooking the beer garden
During our recent visit to Philadelphia, Franklin Square was lit up every night with 25 amazing illuminated Chinese lanterns–including a 200-foot long dragon. Around the park various booths offered Chinese crafts and foods and on the open-air stage performers juggled, did balancing acts, and demonstrated the art of “face-changing”–in which the actor changed masks so fast it seemed almost magic.
The nighttime visit required a ticket. We purchased our tickets ahead of time online, and made our way from our hotel to Philadelphia’s Chinatown, which is adjacent to the park.
Entrance to the festival
It was still light when we arrived, and although the lanterns were colorful and impressive, we knew they would be even more dramatic in the dark. So, after enjoying a drink in the beer garden under the watchful eye of the dragon, we went to a nearby restaurant for dinner and returned as the sun was setting, entering through a tunnel of lighted arches.
Tulips and Roses
We then wandered through the park past displays of glowing flowers, stars, fish, penguins, flamingos and more, but the star of the show was the giant dragon. This was our last night in Philadelphia after a week of meetings for Art, and it was a fitting finale to the trip.
The Chinese Lantern Festival, which ran from April 22, 2016 to June 12, 1016 was a celebration of the tenth anniversary of the rebirth of the once-derelict city park.

Monday, August 15, 2016

PTEROSAURS: Flight in the Age of Dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum Los Angeles

Model of Pteranodon in the exhibit PTEROSAURS: Flight in the Age of Dinosaurs
Imagine a world in which the sky was filled with hundreds of  flying creatures, some as big as a small plane, and others no bigger than you hand. These were the pterosaurs, the winged reptiles of the Dinosaur Age. Long extinct, and you can now see them again–as models and as fossils and in life-like videos–in the excellent exhibit PTEROSAURS: Flight in the Age of Dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum Los Angeles, on view from July 3 to October 2, 2016.
I went to see the exhibit a week ago. I was especially eager to see it because of my book Pterosaurs: Rulers of the Skies in the Dinosaur Age (out of print but now available as an e-book on Amazon.)

I learned from promoting my book that "pterosaur" is a tricky word. While most five-year-olds know about pterodactyls and have no trouble pronouncing the name, when adults see the word “pterosaur” they stumble on the silent “p”. (“Ptero” is the Greek word for “wing”.) So, if you see a “p” at the beginning of a pterosaur’s name, just ignore it.
Many of the pterosaurs in the exhibit were familiar, such as Pteranodon, with its twenty-foot wingspan, who once flew over the shallow seas of central North America and Thalassodromeus from Brazil, pictured on the cover of my book. But I also met some new species such as Jeholopterus, a relatively small insect eating pterosaur from northeastern China. Unlike many pterosaurs, it did not have a showy crest.  
A young player tries to guide the pterosaur to catch a fish.
A very popular part of the exhibit as a room with large video screens showing pterosaurs in flight as they search for fish or insects. Viewers stand in front of the screen and flap their arms to control the pterosaur's flight, as in a Wii game. You win if your pterosaur is successful catching its prey--not as easy as you might think!
Pterodactyl fossil from Solnhofen, Germany
Some of the most amazing fossils in the exhibit are from the limestone quarries in Solnhofen, Germany. The fragile bones are preserved so perfectly that you can see how they fit together in the skeleton. Another amazing fossil, discovered in Romania, actually shows the remains of a fur-like skin. Scientists think that pterosaurs may have been warm-blooded.

In this fossil from Solnhofen you can see the dark fibers of the wing membrane.
I have always been fascinated by prehistoric creatures and pterosaurs are some of the most amazing. They were the first vertebrates to fly (bats and birds came later) and dominated the skies for 150 million years before becoming extinct at the end of the Dinosaur Age 65 million years ago. This exhibit makes it seem almost as if they were alive again.
A pterosaur's long wing was supported by the elongated bones of its little finger

PTEROSAURS: Flight in the Age of Dinosaurs is a traveling exhibit organized by the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
Timed tickets are necessary to see the pterosaur exhibit at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles. You can reserve them online at the NHMLA website. If you are a member, as I am, the tickets are free.
Note: A fun feature of the NHMLA website is the animated flight of a pterosaur over a map of Los Angeles, showing a pterosaur's-eye view of the city.
Interactive displays are a popular feature of the pterosaur exhibit

Monday, August 8, 2016

CREATIVE AFRICA Exhibit at the Perelman Building, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Creative Africa Exhibit at Perelman Building, Philadelphia Museum of Art
Brilliantly colored fashion designs, haunting photographs, traditional textiles, masks and other objects, and a look community architecture, make up the Creative Africa exhibit at the Perelman Building of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I was drawn to the museum because of my love of African fabrics and textiles but found every part of the exhibit fascinating.
Entrance to Perelman Building
My first stop was in the room called "Vlisco: African Fashion on a Global Stage" which features cotton fabrics printed by the Dutch company Vlisco for the African market. In the center of the room were models wearing stunning dresses made from the fabrics and around the walls were samples of some of the company’s most popular designs through the years.
Fashions designed from Vlisco fabrics
My favorites were those that turned everyday objects, such as a sewing machine or a chicken and eggs, into decorative motifs. They reminded me of the fabrics I saw offered in village markets years ago when I was in East Africa for three months while Art was doing a research project. I still have some of those fabrics. This exhibit will be on view until January 22, 2017.
Wax printed fabric by Vlisco
An exhibit on the second floor of the building, called "Threads of Tradition", displays some of the traditional kinds of African cloth. A table in the center of the room has blocks of kente cloth strips and an invitation to make your own pattern by mixing and matching the striped blocks to make your own design.The exhibit is on view until January 2017.
Kente cloth is made by the Asante culture, Akan peoples, Ghana
In another room was an exhibit of photographs by three African photographers who had taken pictures in six African cities. I found the photos of Tombouctou (Timbuktu) particularly powerful, especially one of an ancient manuscript, now threatened by current events. For centuries, Tombouctou has been a center of Islamic scholarship and book production. Today it is home to more than 400,000 rare manuscripts. The photography exhibit is on view until September 25, 2016.
Photo by Seydou Camara,
On the main floor another large room was filled with a variety of art created in West and Central Africa from the 1500s to the 1900s including carved ivories and bronze altar objects from the kingdom of Benin, Kongo power figures, Kuba textiles and vessels, Akan gold weights, Kota reliquary figures, and more. Visitors are invited to look again and gain a fresh perspective. The "Look Again" exhibit will be up until December 4, 2016.
Reliquary Guardian Figure from Gambon

Monday, August 1, 2016

COAST STARLIGHT EXCURSION: Oakland to Los Angeles by Train, Guest Post by Gretchen Woelfle

Around the bend with the Coast Starlight train, California

My friend and fellow children's book writer Gretchen Woelfle recently took the train from Oakland to Los Angeles, a scenic trip and opportunity to see parts of California not available any other way. Here is her report.
My son and daughter had been urging me for years to take the train from the San Francisco Bay Area to Los Angeles, but chained to my car as I am, I never did. Then, a few months ago I got a ride north, and finally took their advice for the trip south. Amtrak offers several options involving train/bus links and but I chose the non-stop train from Jack London Square in Oakland to Union Station in Los Angeles.  This is the Coast Starlight – such nostalgic names trains still have.  Somehow “flight #xxx” doesn’t have the same ring.
Amtrak Station, Jack London Square, Oakland, CA
We left on time at 8:50 a.m. The conductor steered me toward the end carriages, assuring me that they were “cleaned up.”  The middle was full of passengers still asleep or just waking up from the long journey that began in Seattle or Portland.  Wide-awake in a rear carriage, I peeked into the backyards of working class and industrial Oakland, before we finally left the urban scene and reached the country.
California coastal hills
The twelve-hour ride should be seen as an excursion, certainly not the quickest way to get to Los Angeles. Driving on Interstate 5 takes about half the time, but most of those hours are certainly not scenic.  Route 101 is prettier, and Route 1, through Big Sur, prettiest of all. (Though if you’re driving you keep your eyes on the road to avoid plunging off cliffs.)

Quarry along the tracks
The Coast Starlight takes you into country not seen from a highway. We passed a vast quarrying operation and oil wells that loomed up in the middle of golden hill country. We rode right up against some of those hills, so close I could almost touch them if the windows opened.
Oil Wells
The train itself was sleek and pristine. Double decker cars offered great views, and an observation car with skylights opened up the sky as well as the land. I struck up a conversation with two people in the seats in front of me, since I was curious about the huge video camera he was hauling around. Turns out he was an advance scout for a British television series for ITV, Billy Connolly’s Tracks Across America, with the Scottish actor traveling 6000 miles through twenty-six states. I don’t know when it will air, but a book is due out in September, 2016.

A stop at San Luis Obispo was long enough to stretch my legs and take a shot of The Iron Road Pioneers, a sculpture honoring the Chinese who helped to build the railroad. Then back on the train for the final run to the coast.
Sculpture of Chinese railroad workers, San Luis Obispo

When it came time for an afternoon cup of tea, I discovered that the snack bar wasn’t up to much more than a cup of tea, but come dinnertime, the service was lovely. Conductors took reservations and since I was traveling alone, I was seated with a young mother and her son, who travel the route twice a month. The food was excellent. During dinner I watched the sun set in the Pacific near Santa Barbara, and we pulled into the grand and glorious Union Station at 9:00 p.m. 

Sunset over the Pacific from the dining car

Many of the old train stations around the country have been renovated to their original elegance, but Los Angeles’s Union Station, with its Spanish-inspired tile work and landscaped courtyards, remains my favorite. 
Union Station, Los Angeles
 To keep my carbon footprint as small as possible, I took the local bus home, landing within a block of my house, at 11:00. It was a leisurely excursion indeed.

For more information:

Billy Connolly’s Tracks Across America:

More from Caroline about riding the Coast Starlight:
Last summer, Art's brother and his wife, enthusiastic train aficionados, took the Coast Starlight as a round trip from Oakland to Los Angeles and loved every minute of it. (They stayed overnight at a hotel in downtown Los Angeles before returning the next day.) They told us that one of the things they liked best was the talks by Trails and Rails National Park volunteers about the various sights along the way.