Friday, December 5, 2008


Today, 5 December, is Sinterklaas. On the eve of Sinterklaas, Dutch children set out their shoe, wooden klomp, or boot (favored by my kids due to its greater capacity), by the chimney. They fill the shoes with a little hay and a carrot for Sinterklaas’ white horse. If they’ve been good, one of Sinterklaas’ helpers, Zwarte Piet, fills their shoes with a present, some gingerbread cookies called pepernoten, and a chocolate letter.

The painting above, The Feast of St. Nicholas by Jan Havickszoon Steen (1626-1679), hangs in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. It depicts the morning of Sinterklaas in a Dutch household. The golden girl, complete with her golden dress, was obviously very good. She got a beautiful doll and a bucket full of goodies. Her older brother was the naughty one. He must have gotten a piece of coal. You can tell this is a Jan Steen painting right away because there is often a happy chaotic feeling to them. There are little round pepernoten strewn on the floor next to the bread basket and I see a huge beautiful, delicious-looking banket, which is almond paste covered in puff pastry, also on the floor(!). There is even a Dutch expression; a “Jan Steen household” is one where the housekeeping is a bit more…shall we say, lax.

What I remember of Sinterklaas in Holland most fondly is that this is the day when we exchanged presents. Yes, it’s very commercial, just like our Christmas, but it left Christmas as a sacred holiday. The Christmas I remember in Holland is similar to our Thanksgiving. It emphasizes sharing a beautiful meal with family and friends and of course, it also celebrates the birth of Jesus.

This time of year street organs ("draaiorgels") all over the Netherlands are playing Sinterklaas songs. Click here to hear a sample.

I adore Sinterklaas songs; there are dozens of famous classic ones. I used to sing them to my kids when they were babies, even when it wasn’t Sinterklaas.

I mentioned Sinterklaas’ helpers earlier. These helpers are palace pages from Morocco, just across the Mediterranean from Sinterklaas’ palace in Spain. They are usually white people wearing blackface and colorful pageboy costumes. When the political climate questioned why white people are masquerading as black, the immediate answer was that Zwarte Piet is black because of the chimney’s soot. All I know is that Zwarte Piet scared the peep out of me; mostly I’m sure because of the unnatural-looking shiny blackface.

Does all of this sound a bit strange to you? Tangobaby gave me a David Sedaris CD several years ago which contained a hilarious gig about the Zwarte Pieten and the rest of the Sinterklaas traditions:

Happy Sinterklaas!

Draaiorgel photo by marielle at Flickr

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Elsa Mora

Today I would like to introduce you to an amazing artist named Elsa Mora.

She is a multi-faceted artist who was born in Cuba and now lives in Los Angeles with her Hollywood producer husband William Horberg.

She is a great illustrator:

Flower artist:

Miniature artist with a passion for Frida Kahlo:

And, my favorite, the most amazing paper artist:

You will find many, many more examples of her whimsical art at her main blog where writes beautifully about her art and her family. She recently started her papercut blog which is chockfull of resources for paper artists and where she is very generous about sharing her art secrets.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Inner Life of a Cell

I used to belong to an ├╝bergeeky organization called the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). I haven’t thought about ACM in a very long time until my son sent me a link of a video he watched in his biology class. This video was developed at Harvard University. The animation conception and scientific content are by Alain Viel and Robert A. Lue and the animation is by John Liebler/XVIVO. It won an award at the 2006 SIGGRAPH Computer Animation Festival. SIGGRAPH is the Special Interest Group for Graphic Computing within ACM.

Click here to see the high-resolution video:

If your computer does not have the horse power for you to view the above video, here is the YouTube version, but it’s much lower resolution:

You don’t have to be a cell biologist to be at awe of this achievement. When I was studying biology at Berkeley back in the stone ages, we studied cell physiology mostly from two-dimensional illustrations and an occasional video of electron microscope images. This animation would have been immensely helpful! Maybe I wouldn’t have switched to computer science. Nah, computers would have found me one way or another.

For those of you interested to learn what exactly you are viewing here is the same video with the science dude narrating (as my son puts it):

It is pretty mind-boggling to think that these intricate systems are inside all living cells. I am in awe of the universe’s beauty on a grand scale and on a microscopic scale.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

San Francisco Flower Mart - Part II

Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays are “market days” at the San Francisco Flower Mart. Wholesale hours on market days are from 2 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. Yes, you read that right, the market opens at two in the morning! I read somewhere that the top designers in the area consider all the good stuff gone by three a.m. I have never been there when the market opens. My friends and I often threaten to go to San Francisco for a night out and then stay up until the market opens, just to see what this good stuff really is.

I usually go after I send my kids off to school which means I don’t get to the mart until 8:30ish. The earliest I’ve ever been there is 4:30 a.m. and I saw a difference in the product offerings. I saw flowers in unusual colors or new varieties that are in short supply. By 8:30, those specialty flowers are long gone. I can only imagine what is available at 2 a.m.

Wednesdays are the busiest days because that’s when most designers buy their flowers for weekend events. The mart is bustling with buyers from all over Northern California, the fragrance is at its headiest, and the parking lot is hopelessly congested.

It often reminds me of that fabulous flower market scene in “My Fair Lady” (especially minutes 3 through 5):

Non-market days are Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. The flower growers get to sleep in and show up at 5 in the morning. The Flower Mart is open to the public from 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. six days a week.

I have my favorite vendors at the Flower Mart; you met some of them yesterday. Brannan Street Wholesale Florist and Torchio Nursery carry a great variety of flowers with consistent high quality. They are pricey, but you get what you pay for.

The day that Treasurehunter joined me, Brannan Street had the sweetest nosegays that flower girls in a wedding party would love to carry:

I asked someone to hold one up for me to show how delicate and sweet these bouquets were.

They also offer beautiful fruits and vegetables. In fact, this is where I bought many of the materials for the della robia arrangement Tracy and I made.

The long-stemmed artichokes I bought from Torchio Nursery:

Vickie (left - top photo), at Florist at Large , is the most personable vendor at the mart. Her sister Valerie collects greens and mushrooms all over the Bay Area. They creates the most lovely still lifes of their findings:

Blossom Valley is my favorite place to buy gerbera daisies and cut orchids:

Shibata’s tropical flowers are beautiful:

Shibata is also a great place to buy floral supplies including ribbons:

Coast Wholesale Florist carries fabulous dry flowers, silk flowers,

sea shells and other novelties to enhance your designs. I know Robin Bird will like these:

It’s a good thing flowers are perishable, because that means that I have to return time and time again.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

San Francisco Flower Mart - Part I

Walt Disney may call Disneyland the happiest place on earth. Not me, I call the San Francisco Flower Mart the happiest place on earth. The Flower Mart is always brimming with possibilities that make me giddy with excitement.

When I went to buy supplies for The Wreath Clinic, my friend Treasurehunter joined me. I sensed immediately that she was in the same state of giddiness as I was. Thank goodness because I heard myself talking with a very rapid, high-pitched voice; perhaps she would understand. "We should make this a field trip for book club!", she said in the same rapid, high-pitched voice. Well then, we're good to go!

Within minutes of arriving, I lost Treasurehunter. I had turned around to set aside some winterberries and “poof”, she was gone. A couple of cell phone calls later I found her with, what else, her treasures:

There is something that “wow”s me every time I go the mart. For example, this stalk of palm dates is what “wow”ed me three weeks ago. It was just casually hanging around Brannan Street Wholesale Florist :

That is one fruit-bearing palm tree! Here are some more dates, with yellow stems, amongst loads of china berries and a couple of bunches of green pomegranates:

I was also “wow”ed by these lady slipper orchids:

I apologize for the Seurat pointillism effect on this photo. I had the camera with the macro lens enabled in one hand and the orchid stem in the other hand – two moving objects, what was I thinking?! But the colors of this flower are so delicious, I just don’t have the discipline to leave this photo on the editing room floor.

These cattleya orchids were other-worldly looking:

Right now it’s wreath-making season at the flower mart. Here are Pacific Coast Evergreen’s wreathmakers:

I could stand and watch them for hours. They make these wreaths at breakneck speeds:

What fascinates me, okay let’s be honest, what infuriates me, is that they don’t even seem to be looking at their work, yet their wreaths always come out gorgeous, balanced, and sturdy.

These wreaths from Brannan Street Wholesale Florist are ready to sell:

Other vendors offer dried wreaths:

This Santa speaks volumes:

That's all for now, but as you probably know by now, I have more to share, so stay tuned for more flower mart photos next time. By the way, the top photo is Torchio Nursery Co.
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