Saturday, May 12, 2012

Monte Cristo Weekend

Last week we FINALLY went to some mansions in Newport. This is one of the Rhode Island things you have to do because you can. Taking the tours reminded me of when my brother got the Guiness World Records 2000 for Christmas and I stole it and flipped through random pages and found the world’s heaviest woman (700+ pounds) posing in a stars and stripes bikini, and the lady who had to build a special room in her house to accommodate over 5,000 pieces of soap, and I thought it was all a little bit excessive and wondered, “WHY?!” The mansions make you wonder the same thing.

But they’re fascinating, in an odd, Count of Monte Cristo way; the owners built them because they had more money than they knew what to do with. Example: one guy built a stone palace and gave it to his wife for her 39th birthday and then they divorced and she kept the house but refused to live in it, (to spite him?) and moved in down the street with her new husband, a friend of her ex. 

Anyway, the owners of the Newport mansions had eclectic taste, like Monte Cristo—except I imagine MC had more taste. Their houses were designed with furnishings built in France or purchased from other wealthy households, taken apart, shipped to America, and reassembled in Newport—my favorite was the massive painting of Aphrodite or Athena or some ancient someone that was cut out of its frame in Italy or France and glued to the ceiling in one of the Newport lady’s bedrooms so she could wake up with good feminine (or masculine) vibes every morning. They imported cipollino marble from Italy and built rooms with platinum in walls embedded with images of the Greek muses. Their houses tried to be what classy European aristocratic palaces were, but didn’t quite impress the owners of their overseas counterparts. What probably disgusted the European aristocracy most was that  owners of the Newport mansions had no noble pedigrees. Example: Cornelius Vanderbilt, the steamboat and railroad tycoon from New York, son of lowly Dutch immigrant, was thought to have been “modest” with his money and taught Sunday school. Which is why his summer cottage, called The Breakers—the 700 pound lady of the Newport mansions—only has 70 rooms and 750 doorknobs (or is it 700?).  

In these houses you bathed in solid marble tubs that had to be filled and drained several times before the water was tolerably warm; you had to change your clothes 7 times a day and wash everything after using it once; you had servants whose entire jobs might consist of doing laundry, or emptying chamber pots, or polishing shoe buckles, respectively; you ate in dining rooms with 75 pound chairs made of bronze and covered in gold leaf while staring at massive portraits of Louis XIV's fake hair and unnatural legs. And you paid a French chef $10,000 a year (in the 1890s) to make you dinner (called Service a la russe), and the dishes moved in and out so quickly that you didn't have time to digest anything:

1. Oysters
2. Choice of soup (clear or thick)
3. Salad
4. Fish
5. Sweetbreads (which aren't what they sound like)
6. Meat roast with vegetables
7. Pheasant or some other gamey thing with more salad
8. More salad
9. Pudding doused in cognac and set on fire
10. Ice cream shaped into the form of a turtle or George Washington's face
11. Cheese, biscuits, and butter
12. Bonbons
13. Coffee, liquor, sparkling water, cigars

Side note: before refrigerators, servants/kitchen staff had to cut big blocks of ice from the private lakes on the house grounds. Everything was kept on ice, and since the collecting of ice blocks was so labor intensive, serving ice cream was the sign of real wealth.

So, yeah, life was good. I guess. But ours is better because we can go to Wal-Mart in our pajamas and we have a friend who will make us ice Redbull sorbet in the shape of our favorite animals and deliver it to our door whenever we want.

The gate outside of The Breakers
A cool lamppost.
The back of The Breakers
I like how the nose looks sunburned.
This house was built for the Vanderbilt children behind The Breakers--so the little Vs would have somewhere to play after they got tired of sliding down the grand staircases on cookie sheets.
Jesse outside of Marble House.
The lady of Marble House was obsessed with the Orient, so they put this in her backyard.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Safety First!

For those of you out there who might think that Sarita and I were not being responsible by playing on the train tracks as the picture at the top of our blog might suggest (i.e., Christian), I feel obligated to point out that the track we were on was not in use. You can see in the background the big red blot that is actually a sign put up in the tracks to signal discontinued use. So sleep easy my friends. Sarita and I only practice safe frivolity.

If you look real hard you can see someone on the tracks in the background.

I'm glad that we have such conscientiously safety-minded friends. For those of you who haven't yet learned your lesson not to play on train tracks, I leave you with a little lesson from Señor Gorey and The Gashlycrumb Tinies . . .

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Last day

In seventh grade, the first day of school is the best: everyone comes to class on time and is seated with new shoes, unsharpened pencils, eager whispering, and class schedules folded neatly in their pockets before the bell rings. Everything is new and shiny and kept under control until they start this: 

But because they’re only 12, it’s easier to forgive them, even when their biology makes them go nuts from March to June. On their last day of school, they have to stack their desks, those ones with the chairs soldered to the tables, on top of each other, and someone always feels compelled to climb in between the desks once they’re stacked, even after I told them not to. The kid who climbs between the desks always gets his head stuck. And then they all want to run around in circles in the middle of the empty classroom. It’s a spectacular waste of time and tax dollars.

In my university universe, the last day is the best. It’s everyone’s favorite day and they all come on time and sit attentively, awaiting instructions. It’s my favorite day because it means the end of this:

Because they know better, it's harder to forgive them. I thought teaching college would be different. But average college freshmen are shockingly similar to 7th graders. When they get to college, they're just taller, hairier, and can sit still for longer periods of time. Their writing is a little better too.

The main difference, I suppose, is that when asked to describe themselves, seventh graders don’t have much to say, except that they like (or hate) Justin Bieber and their favorite food is Skittles. College students have slightly more interesting lives. This year, all the following described my students:

1.  I’m in the army
2.  I own a business with 20+ employees
3.  I was born in Belgium
4.  My favorite food is pickles and I eat them by the jar
5.  I’ve written two novels
6.  Will Smith is my role model!
7.  I moved to the U.S. from India
8.  I grew up in the Philippines
9.  I went to school with Adam Sandler’s nephew
10. I collect limited edition clothing
11. I have a jazz piano album called “The Movement” on iTunes
12. I played a lead role in Oklahoma! in high school
13. I love sharks
14. I’ve traveled internationally three times but have never been to New Jersey
15. I’m trying out for American Idol this summer
16. I frequent nude beaches

The last day of college freshmen is my favorite because, in 7th grade, everyone runs out the door screaming with a trail of Starburst wrappers in their wake, and if they shout, “Bye, see you next year!!!!!” I shudder and think, “Holy Hannah, I hope not!” But freshmen are on their best behavior, and even the ones who sat in the back and texted the whole semester say thank you on their way out the door. The last day is the best because the student who writes his paper about entomophagy and brings in a Tupperware full of beetles gathered from outside his dorm to show me one day stays behind after everyone has gone, just to say that he started the semester thinking that he could never be a writer, but realized somewhere along the way that he can write, and that he can write well.

I’m always a little sad on the last day of college. But today, I was only sad for about five seconds before I realized that summer must be here because squirrel pancakes are back! As soon as I got home I put on shorts and sat in the sun reading The Bell Jar because a) I haven’t read outside in a LONG time, and b) the forecast for tomorrow says RAIN, RAIN, RAIN.