When Life Hands You Lemons Make Puttanesca: Lessons from the Lemony Snicket booket

They say that everyone has a story.

I guess someday I thought maybe I would write mine. But it turns out that a book has already been written about my life. Not just a book, but a set of them. They are called: A Series Of Unfortunate Events.

Unfortunate, a word which here means having or marked by bad fortune; unfavorable or inauspicious circumstances.

I have to admit that I was intrigued by the book title and who can resist an author by the name of Lemony Snicket? My favorite pie is lemon pie. That must be why he was chosen to write my story.

Book one is entitled “The Bad Beginning.” Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad BeginningIn the book the Baudelaire children, Violet, Klaus and baby Sunny, who are from a wealthy privileged home, are suddenly orphaned. This is unfortunate event number one.

Then they are sent to live with their nearest relative who turns out to be the evil Count Olaf who is a member of a very suspect troupe of actors. His house is a horrible dilapidated place and he has a cruel streak, even slapping young Kraus across the face.

He makes the children do many tasks and one of the tasks he assigns them is to make dinner for his entire acting troupe. Given only a small amount of money the children head next door to the house of the kind Justice Strauss to read cookbooks from her library. Here they come up with the ingenious plan to make puttanesca, a recipe which consists of a sauce of sauteed olives, capers, anchovies, garlic, chopped parsley, and tomatoes served over spaghetti.

The children buy all the ingredients and make the dish only to have Count Olaf come home and tell them he expected Roast Beef. Yet another unfortunate event.

Though he might have wished me to reach this conclusion sooner, it took me till about the end of chapter five to realize the brilliance of Lemony Snicket. I understood then that he was writing a book to and for children who are facing the issue of child abuse and showing them he understood and empathized with their pain.

How does one write a book to children about that topic?

Snicket figured it out.

Maybe that wasn’t his aim. Maybe that’s just what I read into it. Maybe he just wanted to write a horribly unfortunate story with a horribly unfortunate ending and make a fortunate amount of money. I guess I will have to let the author himself weigh in.

Yet he describes very well many of the things abused children face: evil parents, verbal and physical abuse, squalid conditions, unfair demands, insufficient care, all with little or no chance to escape.

Snicket says: “I am sure you, in your life, have occasionally wished to be raised by different people than the ones who were raising you, but knew in your heart that the chances of this were very slim.”

So what do children do in these inescapable conditions? Baudelaire ChildrenFor the Baudelaire children “they figuratively escaped from Count Olaf and their miserable existence. They did not literally escape, because they were still in his house and vulnerable to Olaf’s evil in loco parentis ways. But by immersing themselves in their favorite reading topics, they felt far away from their predicament, as if they had escaped.” That so accurately describes how children cope the unbearable. They make a way of escape in their head.

It seems Snicket doesn’t give us a happy ending, or does he?

In a way he does by showing that the human spirit can still transcend. Life handed the Baudelaire orphans a lemon, and they made puttanesca.

The human spirit can escape the inescapable even if only figuratively. We can be trapped by terrible things, but we can still dream. The Baudelaire orphans would go visit Justice Strauss and lost themselves in the books of her library.

As Dickinson says “Hope is the thing with feathers- that perches in the soul- And sings the tune without the words-and never stops- at all-”.  For all those children out there who find themselves in a series of unfortunate events please remember that there is always hope.

Hope, a word which here means, grounds for believing something good may happen.

Notorious: Inside The World Of Art Heist

Unlike the theft of money or jewels, cars and other collectibles, the theft of a
singular work by an artistic virtuoso is truly a crime against all of us.

Anthony Amore, Tom Mashberg

Let’s say hypothetically, that you wanted to become an art thief.

You pick your museum of choice. You case the joint. You lay out your plan. You watch the change of the guard. Then you go for the prize.

Here’s the rub: What exactly do you rob? How do you know what you should take?

Well according to Anthony Amore and Tom Mashberg, who have written a book on the subject, the jewel of any museum’s collection is a Rembrandt.

That being said, take note of their warning: “It’s very rare for a Rembrandt thief to gain something valuable from the act….Almost never has a theft brought them riches or happy lives.”

Art theft is a serious crime and it’s never a victimless one as they point out. In fact we all suffer at the loss of an irreplaceable work of a Master. Amore, one of the authors of “Stealing Rembrandts, The Untold Stories Of Notorious Art Heists” knows a little about this as he is the head of security at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The Gardner Museum, located in Boston, was robbed in 1990 on the eve of Saint Patrick’s Day. Two men posing as Police officers knocked on a side door of the museum supposedly in response to a call about a disturbance. The two guards let them in and they were promptly tied up. The thieves then spent the next two hours leisurely robbing the museum, in some cases cutting the canvases from the frames. One of the items they took was Rembrandt’s “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee.” It is Rembrandt’s only known seascape. They also stole Rembrandt’s “A Lady and Gentleman in Black” as well as a postage stamp sized self-portrait etching. As Gardner had stipulated in her will that none of the artwork was to be moved, today the empty frames stand as mute testimony to the greed of men. None of the stolen artwork has been recovered.

Art theft is often portrayed as glamorous, but it reality it is far more gritty. Amore and Mashberg describe it as “disorganized crime” often done by petty offenders who are also involved in all sorts of other thievery. It’s not as beautifully orchestrated as it is in films such as “The Thomas Crown Affair.” I also highly doubt the thieves are as good looking as Pierce Brosnan.

Gaugin Brooding WomanIn the book they describe different robberies that have occurred. One example is the robbing of the Worcester Museum in Massachusetts. Upon driving off from the museum during the getaway Gauguin’s painting “Brooding Woman” was placed on top of the car’s luggage rack while the thief stuck his arm out the window to hold it down. One has to wonder if the thieves thought it would be bad luck to have a brooding woman in the car with them. It would remind them too much perhaps of the nagging woman they were going to go home to who would be extremely upset about the stolen artwork now under her bed. He just didn’t want to think about it.

In stealing art, the thieves often quickly find out that the frames are just too #*!* heavy to carry.  In one art heist Rembrandt’s Saint Bartholomew was stolen. Along the way the thief tossed out the original seventeenth century frame. Thrown into a canal it was never recovered. Another amusing, but lucky fact is that many art thieves often pass by works of greater value than the one they are stealing.

In the book there are other interesting facts they bring out about art theft. For example, do you know who has the dubious honor of being the most stolen artist in history? Picasso.

Another interesting fact is that “thieves who rob museums more than once are unusual. Rarer still is the painting that is stolen for a second time.” The exception to this they point out is Rembrandt’s portrait of Jacob de Gheyn III.

Rembrandt's Portrait of Jacob De Gheyn
"The Takeaway Rembrandt": Stolen four times!

Outlandishly it has been stolen four times all from the same museum, the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London. It is known as “The Takeaway Rembrandt.” After the third theft and subsequent return the museum bolted the painting to the wall. It did no good. The fourth time the thieves brought a crowbar. The miserable director of the gallery was informed “The Rembrandt is gone again sir.” It was found three years later. It had been place at a railway station “wrapped in paper and placed inside a series of three boxes.” Upon receiving the painting back once again the director wryly remarked: “The temptation is to lock the wretched thing away and put up a color photograph.” The portrait had been a set of two done at the request of two friends: Jacob de Ghen III and Maurits Huygen. As a symbol of their friendship they wanted their portraits painted and whoever died first the surviving friend would get the other’s portrait. The portraits were meant to stay together, but over time they were separated. If only de Ghen knew what an exciting journey his portrait has been on!

Art museums give considerable thought to how artwork is secured to a surface. As Amore and Mashberg point out “stealing art is difficult.” It’s basically done any way it can be. Sometimes even teenagers have been able to carry off a piece, by creating a distraction in one part of the museum while stealing something in another. I personally can’t imagine doing it. To me a museum always seems like such a highly watched environment. Having just been to the St. Louis Art Museum recently my husband set off an alarm by stepping too close to a painting. I also realized I had stepped over a line on the floor I was not supposed to step over. The motives are many for stealing art and thankfully the recovery rate is usually high. Art doesn’t really have “street value” which often leaves the criminals at a loss for how to exactly profit from their heist. You can’t exactly pawn a Rembrandt.

Far away from all of this is the artist himself. I wonder what Rembrandt would think about all the clamoring over his work. As the authors point out “Even those with little background in fine arts- and that includes most criminals- are impressed when standing before a Rembrandt.” In other words you know you are a really great artist when even the dummies realize you are. You also know you are a great artist when people the world over recognize you by your first name.

I recently showed Rembrandt’s “Adam and Eve” etching to a group of people. I asked them if they knew who the artist was. None of them did. When I told them who it was however they let out a collective “Ahh, as in I should have known that!”

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was born July 15, 1606 and died October 4, 1669. Eschewing the high money of court painting he led a gritty urban life. He drew constantly immortalizing the common life. He had a particular skill for portraits and painted many as that was where the money was in art in his day. He also drew and painted many self-portraits in a sense making Rembrandt a “household brand.” Unlike some artists he was famous in his day. People knew his name and his face and he had financial success. In the end however he died “grief stricken and barely solvent” and was buried in an unmarked tomb in Amsterdam’s Westerkirk Chruch. He was a prolific artist who left the world some 2,000 works. “Today Dutch and American scholars agree on the following minimum numbers: 300 paintings, 700 drawings, and 80 metal plates from which Rembrandt made etchings.

One of Rembrandt’s most famous pieces is called “Nightwatch” (1642).

Rembrandt's Night Watch

As the author’s note: “It portrays men in charge of guarding Amsterdam by night as a gaggle of dandified and half-cocked musketeers rather than redoubtable sentries.” Ironically it is often this gaggle of dandified and half-cocked musketeers who guard Rembrandt’s art today who are easily duped and outwitted by art thieves. Rembrandt will get the last laugh if “Nightwatch” is carried off. He already predicted it.