Sunday, September 25, 2011

A dull boy

The saying "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" seems particularly apt right now.  This week was incredibly busy and now, looking back, I find that I have no good stories to tell.  It was plenty interesting to me while I was going through it, but to an outside ear, the narrative is probably less than fascinating: 

Between Tuesday and Thursday I spent approximately 35 hours in a conference room negotiating a contract for the manufacture and distribution of certain drugs throughout the United States.  The rest of the week I spent either preparing for or following up on those negotiations or managing the other projects that I couldn't focus on during the negotiations.  Non-work life, of course, went by the wayside until the weekend.  But even then I had to hurry to get all my errands and a brief hike finished on Saturday because work started again at 6:00am Sunday morning with a three-hour conference call with clients in the Middle East, followed by a pointless hometeaching-related meeting, and then a long afternoon of contract drafting.

I did manage to set work aside long enough to book a hotel in Paris, though.  Because dullness can only last so long...

Monday, September 19, 2011

Mon père à Washington

This weekend I had the great pleasure of welcoming mon père to Washington, DC.  He had spent the past week up in Aberdeen, Maryland, attending a series of lectures and courses about biological and chemical agents that can be weaponized (he's a civilian public health official at an Air Force base out West, with particular responsibility for emergency response).  The courses finished late on Friday and he was able to postpone the flight home until Sunday morning -- which meant he had enough time to drop down to DC for a visit.

He arrived at my place around 10:30am (at which point I was at the grocery store trying to find things to feed him for breakfast) and we had a great conversation about the things he had learned and seen during the past week, all of which made me want to see the new movie Contagion and avoid experiencing any of that in real life.  He also gave me some dating/relationship/marriage advice that he'd recently given to Mark, part of which consisted of the maxim:  Always have a plan.  More specifically, whenever it comes time to make a decision on what to do with the other person, I should always have a plan for how I want it to come out.  That way, when the other person says, "I don't know, what do you want to do?" I can avoid responding with the unhelpful, "I don't know, what do you want to do?"

It's good advice.  What mon père may not have known (although he can't have been surprised), is that I had figured that out on my own a long time ago.  And this weekend was no exception.  I'd asked him on Friday whether there was anything he wanted to do while he was here.  He said there were a few things he'd like to see in this life:  the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, and the Washington Monument.  Alas, the Washington Monument is closed due to earthquake damage.  Which meant that it was my job to come up with an alternate plan.  

The plan needed to accomplish three things:  (1) Be interesting and fun for both of us, (2) provide opportunities for talking, and (3) give mon père a glimpse of my life here.  Oh, and it also needed to fit into fewer than 24 hours.  Here's what I came up with:

Lunch at Heidelberg Bakery.  I gave mon père a choice of four restaurants:  Vietnamese, Thai, Mexican and German.  We went with the German bakery that grills wursts on the front lawn every Saturday.

He got a debrizener sans sauerkraut

I had a bauernwurst with sauerkraut

Afternoon, Part I: Smithsonian Air and Space Museum - Udvar-Hazy Center.  A few years ago the Smithsonian opened a new branch of its famous Air and Space Museum in a hangar out near Dulles Airport.  It's where they get to showcase the really big stuff.  I'd been meaning to go out there for a while, and I figured that mon père would be just the person to see it with.  Turns out, I was right.  After a lifetime of not living up to this society's (or the church's) expectations of what a proper boy should be, I'd stumbled upon the quintessential "father and son" outing:  Roughly 98% of the people in that museum were father/son pairs; with the exception of one little girl who will probably grow up to be a fighter pilot, the only women I saw were the wives or mothers of the men and boys.

Udvar-Hazy Air & Space

(more than meets the eye)
Remember him from  Transformers 2?


Nazi plane that looked like a baby harp seal with wings
and a pinwheel on its nose

So much for flying harp seals

Surreal to think this thing dropped the first nuclear bomb on Japan

Air France Concorde

The Enterprise
(much bigger than I'd expected)

(they're about the size of disco balls)

Afternoon, Part II:  Great Falls on the Potomac River.  By the time the Potomac River reaches DC, it's a wide and placid river.  Just ten miles upstream, however, the river passes over some remarkable falls.

Strangely enough, in addition to the falls, the site is also a staging ground for Civil War "living history" enactments.  As far as we could tell, this involved a bunch of guys standing around in Union uniforms and facial hair, with the occasional march in formation up and down the trail.

Evening:  Dinner and Theatre Downtown DC.  We started with a brief tour of my law firm offices (including a visit to the rooftop terrace to take in the views), and then headed over to the W Hotel, where I had dinner reservations at the J&G Steakhouse.  I knew mon père would appreciate a good steak!  After dinner, we went to the Kennedy Center for the 9pm showing of Shear Madness.

Seared scallops with sweet peas and bacon

Lamb chops

New York steak with asparagus and mashed potatoes
(three of mon pere's favorite things)

During intermission, we enjoyed observing and critiquing the outfits of our fellow theatre-goers.  Our favorite was a guy wearing a green-and-red plaid shirt with a rainbow striped sweater vest.  I tried to get a picture of the choice ensemble by pretending to take a picture of dad. 

It's blurry, so you can't tell just how bad it was!
*  *  *

I thoroughly enjoyed this visit.  It meant a lot to me to have this time with my father.  And it was particularly special that we had the chance to visit with just the two of us.  You see, while this was the first time he'd visited me here, it was not the first time we'd been in DC together -- in a lot of ways, this visit was the mirror of the very first time I ever visited Washington, DC, over twelve years ago.  In the spring of 1999, he was here for meetings at Bolling Air Force Base, and I was a freshman at the University of Utah.  During spring break, I decided to fly out and visit him.  It was my first time on the East Coast, as well as the first time I'd ever traveled so far on my own.  I spent the days visiting museums (it was my first visit to the Smithsonian's original Air and Space Museum), and the evenings we spent together driving around the beltway to see the LDS temple, eating at a Scottish restaurant on King Street in Alexandria (I had quail with raspberry sauce), and other things that I can't remember right now.  I loved that trip and everything I did and saw.  It's entirely possible that I live and work in DC now because of the time I spent here with my dad during that week so long ago.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

It's all about winning

Tonight I had five people from church over for a little dinner party.  Every few months the ward coordinates these small-group dinners:  They pass the sign-up sheet around, and I indicate whether I want to host, how many people I can accommodate, and what my views are on children.  The person in charge then sends me the contact information for a few people who more or less fit my requirements, and from there I organize the dinner.

Standard church procedure would probably be to coordinate a potluck, with everyone bringing random and potentially horrible food that I would pretend to like while secretly gagging.  But that's not how I roll.  Instead, I check to make sure that no one is vegetarian or allergic to anything, and then I tell them what time to show up and where, but with express instructions not to bring anything.  Then I prepare the fail-safe menu of Mormon comfort food that I inherited from my parents:  spinach salad, ham, cheesy potatoes, and the Davis familiy chocolate cake.  It really is the perfect dinner for this sort of party.  It's super-easy to make, and everyone always loves it.  I've made it at least five times during the past year or so, and every time people have polished off the potatoes and chocolate cake (either at the table or in the form of take-away leftovers) and asked for the recipes for both (the potatoes I give, the cake I don't).  It makes me happy.  And all the credit goes to Lady and mon père, who gave me the recipes and a childhood full of delicious Sunday dinners.

Hey Lady - I got compliments on the placemats!
My guests this time were as follows:
  • Young white married couple: he's in law school, she's a high-school music teacher, no kids.
  • Young white married couple: he just graduated from law school, she's a middle-school math teacher, no kids.
  • Single African-American woman in her mid-sixties who introduced herself as the "Nubian Queen."
The Nubian Queen was by far the most interesting.  She teaches Spanish classes to retired people and claims to make a mean chili con carne.  She also had many stories of her trials and tribulations:  She had survived thyroid cancer (which she was convinced was the result of her habit, as a child, of eating dirt out at the Dugway proving grounds) that was removed by opening her up "from here to here" [dramatic hand gestures to heighten the gruesome effect].  She was also the recent victim of theft in her own home.  Someone had pinched a $24 packet of makeup from her upstairs bathroom!  And the thing of it was, there were only three people it could have been!  One was a woman who was "challenged" [and we all know that "challenged" people don't wear makeup], and the other two were men [significant looks all round]. 

The others were somewhat less interesting.  They were pretty typical young married Mormons:  Grew up in Utah, went on missions, met at BYU, came out here for law school.  And they were so very, very nice.  So nice.

I'm just going say it:  Nice Mormons drive me nuts.  I don't know all the reasons why, but there's a certain type of Mormon niceness that I just can't stand.  I don't really know how to describe it other than as a vacuous, saccharine-sweet niceness.  It's what I think of when the Witch in Into the Woods sings, "You're so nice.  You're not good, you're not bad, you're just nice!"  And when I encounter it, I sometimes react by being extra not-nice (which isn't admirable but probably better than hitting the nice person).  To be honest, I sometimes wonder if I'm reacting to a trait that I see but don't like in myself.  Whenever people say that niceness is my most salient trait, a little piece of me shrivels up and dies.

Niceness is a condition that affects many of us, but it manifests with alarming frequency and intensity among returned missionaries who are recent graduates from BYU.  Unfortunately, my law-student and music-teacher guests tonight each have extreme cases of niceness.  I'd noticed it when I'd met them in the ward and had avoided them because of it, but tonight, in the interest of being a gracious host, I decided to see if there was any backbone behind that niceness.  For the music teacher, I decided that yes, she was nice, but deceptively so.  She was also smart and more than capable of getting what she wanted despite her niceness.  Her husband, alas, didn't fare so well on closer examination. 

He was telling me about his experiences in law school and some of his interviews for summer jobs.  He explained that he only had an average GPA and that, despite his being eligible for patent work (which requires an engineering or other technical background, a rare condition among lawyers, and is therefore highly marketable), he hadn't been successful at landing a job.  I asked him to explain, and he gave me two stories:

First, he said that, during one interview, his interviewer asked him about a line on his resume that said he had co-founded a company in Kenya that brought affordable water to people who needed it.  The company's business model was to sell water in plastic bags, rather than bottles, since bags could be produced at roughly half the cost of bottles -- a simple and practical solution for a part of the world that is in desperate need of water.  Unfortunately, political corruption, ineffective regulation, and anti-competitive cartels stifled the company before it could flourish.  Boy, if I'd that that on my resume, it would have been the highlight of the interview.  Talk about a slam dunk!  But what did Mr. Nice say?  "Oh, that, well, it's much less of a big deal than it looks on paper."  He totally downplayed the experience and the things he learned from it and, in doing so, he undermined his credibility by inadvertently suggesting that he'd puffed up his resume.  Why?  Because, he said, he is just too "honest" and "frank" and didn't want to come across as "prideful" or boasting.  From my perspective, that's total b.s.  Telling the truth and telling a good story are two different things, and they are definitely not mutually exclusive -- look at President Monson, for crying out loud!   

Second, to illustrate how he was not a "confrontational or argumentative" person, my guest told me about one of his professors, who had had an impressive career as a litigator prior to going into academia.  The man is pompous and arrogant and probably a jerk.  One day, in class, the professor went on some tirade and asked the question, "What is the only thing that matters in being a lawyer?"  My guest paused for dramatic effect -- and I said "Winning."  My guest reacted with sincere astonishment and said, "Yes!  How did you know?  That's exactly what my professor said!"  How did I know?  Because that was the only possible answer!  OF COURSE that's what he was going to say!  My guest's response:  "Oh, I would have said something like, 'Helping people.'"  Right.  Of course you would have.  But that was the wrong answer.  For two reasons:  First, because, as a practical matter, as a lawyer (especially a litigator) you don't help "people," you help your clients, and you help your clients by winning for them.  If you can't win, people won't want to be your clients.  Second, because even if you have a more nuanced/idealistic view of what lawyers do, the professor is clearly the sort of person who cares enormously about winning.  So while another answer may not be wrong in the abstract, it was the wrong answer to that question posed by that person.

These two incidents illustrate part of what annoys me so much about this "niceness" that I've described; namely, that it seems to be the opposite of "gumption."  In each case, my guest was so concerned about being humble and helpful and service-oriented that he completely failed to play the game.  He seems to think that in order to be a good member of the church, he needs to be a milksop who never puts himself forward in a way that might make him shine -- which means that he lets important opportunities pass him by.  I just don't believe that being a good Mormon is incompatible with being ambitious and figuring out how to play the game to get ahead in school or professional life.  There's nothing dishonest about presenting yourself in a way that helps people recognize the God-given talents that you have or the skills that you've been blessed to develop.  Nor is it necessarily inappropriate to want to "win" in your profession or other pursuits.  Sheesh, buddy -- get some gumption and do something with yourself!

Would I go to New York with a bunch of high schoolers?

Miss Waterhouse's high school students are nothing if not persistent.  Remember how I was the focus of a recent session of show-and-tell?  Well, according to the latest news out of Denver, I was again a trending topic during discussions about a possible trip to New York.  Apparently, when it comes to must-see sights, I rank right up there with the Statue of Liberty, Broadway and Ground Zero.  (This arrangement is great for my ego.)

So, what do I think?  Would I go to New York to meet a bunch of high schoolers from Colorado who are intensely interested in meeting little ole me?  Um, yeah.  Pretty sure that's a no brainer.  I mean, when have I ever turned down the opportunity to (a) go to New York or (b) be the center of attention?  And to do both in one trip?  Talk about two birds with one stone! 

I'm going to have to play this right, though, lest, by meeting me, the students start to suspect me of being a mere mortal not worthy of their fascination.  I wonder if we can arrange for me to drop in by hot air balloon, impeccably dressed and with a great overcoat...

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Start of the Season!

Summer is over and the theatre season has begun!  It officially started for me tonight with the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s brand-new production of The Heir Apparent -- David Ives’ new translation of Jean-François Regnard’s 1708 comedy Le Légataire Universel.  It's the first play in the STC's 25th Anniversary season.

Translation?  Well, not exactly.  I think the preferred term is “transladaptation.”  Essentially, Ives translates from the French and, in the process, updates the language and the humor so that it registers for a modern audience in much the same way that it would have registered with the original audience.  The classic French comedic core remains:  you’ve got the French take on Commedia del Arte character types (aspiring bourgeois, noble but penniless young lovers, wily servants); the convoluted, improbable plots with surprise twists (he’s dead! he’s not dead!); the strong physical comedy; and, of course, the quick wit, clever word-play, and sparkling rhymes.  That’s right  -- Ives dropped the Alexandrine verse (switching to iambic pentameter, instead) but he kept the rhymes!  And, unlike most rhyming plays in English (which I tend to hate), the rhymes and the word-play really drive the play’s energy and wit, making it enormously fun for the word-lovers among us -- and just plain funny, too.

The transladaptation was commissioned by the Shakespeare Theatre as part of the ReDiscovery Series, a program designed to recover from the dustbin of history plays that never should have fallen in there in the first place.  Which, frankly, I think is a brilliant program (it’s certainly something that I would give money to support) -- and as far as I’m concerned it’s been a tremendous success so far.  This is actually the second play that David Ives has helped to rediscover.  The first one he did, The Liar (from Corneille’s Le Menteur) débuted last year to great critical acclaim and was the best, funniest play I’d seen for years -- at least since I saw Boeing Boeing on Broadway in 2008 (another French comedy, natch).  More about Ives and The Liar available here.  (Interestingly, I told Amanda about The Liar this summer, and now there’s a production in Denver.)

In honor to the play’s French roots (as if I actually needed an excuse) and to put myself into the proper mood, I managed to get out of work early to spend a couple of hours at Paul (who finally had the decency to hire an actual French person), enjoying a croq monsieur and immersed in Suite Française, Irène Némirovsky’s remarkable account of life in France during WWII (I'm in the middle of the the pre-bombing scramble to get out out of Paris).

* * *

For more about the plays, here's director Michael Kahn:

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Character Study

This morning I got to the gym and my trainer greeted me with a declaration along the lines of "There comes a time in a young man's life when he is confronted with an epic challenge.  The manner in which you approach this challenge will determine the quality of your character for the rest of your life."

Which got me thinking:  What sort of character do I have? 

It was a question that had been tugging at the back of my mind for the past couple of days.  You see, I had taken stock over the weekend of certain goals that I had set for myself (sticking to my marathon training schedule, practicing choral music on non-running days, going to bed earlier, eating more healthily), and I'd fallen short on every one.  What did that say about my character?  Am I a lazy, unfocused person who lacks self-discipline?  If character is the sum and total of a person's choices, then maybe yes. 


I decided to pay attention to the decision points that arose during the day, and to note how I handled them -- with the idea that I might gain some additional insight into my character.  Here's what I got:

Challenge:  After a rigorous legs work-out at the gym, do I still go running as planned?  Even though it's pouring rain?  Or do I take a "recovery" morning and put the run off until tomorrow?
Decision:  I went running, right after the work-out, through the rain.

Challenge:  Do I eat an untasty lunch at the law-firm cafeteria upstairs?  Or do I walk the five blocks to my favorite cafe to get something delicious -- through the pouring rain, wearing newly pressed trousers and leather-soled shoes without my wellies?
Decision:  I braved the rain (sacrificing my shoes and trouser crease) and had a delicious lunch.

Challenge:  Do I go to bed at 10:00pm, as planned, and get up at the crack of dawn to finish a work project for tomorrow's deadline?  Or do I stay up working until midnight, on the theory that I'm already in the groove?
Decision:  I blew through bedtime hours ago and only just set aside my work -- which is still unfinished.  Looks like I'll still be getting up at the crack of dawn to finish it.

Challenge:  When I get peckish before midnight, do I eat a granola bar or some plain Greek yogurt?  Or do I eat pink and white circus animal cookies with sprinkles on them? 
Decision:  I ate the cookies.  (And instantly regretted it.  For some reason those cookies were much more delicious when I was eight years old.  Maybe it's because I was washing them down with milk and not diet Coke.)

It could be worse, but I suspect it's a spotty character at best.  Adding "fix my character" to my list of things to do...

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Beach again! Rehoboth and Lewes

Tim -- a friend of mine from the newspaper -- was on vacation this past week.  He'd rented a beach house in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, and he invited me to visit.  The weather was perfect, and work not pressing, so I took him up on the offer.  For the second time this summer, I went to the beach!  (How extravagant!)

I left early this morning in hopes of avoiding the Labor Day exodus.  It worked -- I flew through the Bay Bridge toll lanes (which is normally an enormous bottleneck) and on into Delaware.  But then, in a three-light town in the middle of nowhere, I hit this:

The entire town was a gridlocked parking lot.  Why?  Because apparently it was town-wide yard sale day.  Every single house I passed had all sorts of junk set out in front, and people were everywhere.  They must have come from miles around.  It was pretty horrifying.

Of course, I kept an eye out for hidden prizes (maybe a lamp?) but didn't see anything, and so kept pushing on to what I really wanted:  breakfast at Jimmy's Grille!

Jimmy's French toast is amazing.

After breakfast, I finished the rest of the drive to Rehoboth Beach and, with some assistance from Tim, found the house.  (Someone neglected to read the detailed driving directions that had allegedly been sent to him...)  Having already exhausted the entertainment options in Rehoboth Beach during the past week, Tim suggested that we rent bikes and ride to Lewes Beach, another beach town about eight miles up the coast.   

Salt water marsh

WWII Guard Tower
(one of several built to watch for German naval attack)

Dutch museum, built in 1931 to commemorate
the 1631 massacre of Dutch settlers.
After riding around the town and nearby state park, we were famished.  To our great surprise, we found a perfect Italian deli.  It was full of delicious salamis and marinated olives, and in one corner a guy was making fresh mozzarella.  I ordered a pizza with artichokes, prosciutto, mushrooms, mozzarella and basil -- and it was was the best pizza I've eaten in years; in fact, probably one of the best pizzas I've ever eaten. 

After lunch we spent a while on the beach.  It was sunny and warm.  About twenty feet away from us, a bunch of kids were digging a trench to rival the Suez Canal -- all under the supervision of a driving nine year old taskmaster (who was incredibly effective).  After that, we headed back to Rehoboth Beach to return our bikes (with 26.3 miles on the odometer!), lock up the rented house, and head our separate ways home.  Unfortunately, I was too late to have dinner at Jimmy's Grille (I got there 5 minutes before closing), but I was able to get a bag of their delicious dinner rolls!

From Jimmy's Grille, it's still a good two hours to home.  In an effort to ward off the sleepies, I turned on the radio and hunted for something to capture my imagination.  What did I find?  Biblical geneaology read verbatim! 

Friday, September 2, 2011

Work Lunch

Guess what just opened a few blocks from work?

That's right!  Sure, it's a chain -- just one of many in Europe, though the first in the U.S. -- but it's French.  Which means that my diet during the workday now consists primarily of pains au chocolat. 

Pain au chocolat
Of course, man cannot live on pain au chocolat alone, so I usually add in a sandwich on a baguette and a San Pellegrino (which, of course, is not French and comes from the stock I keep in the mini-fridge in my office).

I do have one bit of criticism for our friends at Paul, though:  If you're going to hold yourself out as a French bakery -- to the point of having French labels on your pastries and encouraging your employees to greet customers with a cheery "Bonjour" -- then you had better be able to play the part.  More specifically, when I ask for a "chausson aux pommes," I shouldn't be met with a blank stare until I translate it into "apple turnover."
Chausson aux pommes

Not a goob!

One of the fun things about being the out-of-town bachelor friend of an unmarried high school teacher (i.e., Amanda) is that I am the object of intense interest among her students.  My "celebrity" amongst the high school drama crowd has been amusing Amanda and me for years now, and this morning Amanda posted another funny post.  I've reproduced it here in full, with commentary (of course) from yours truly:

* * *

Me: I'm sorry, I forgot to bring something from home for Show and Tell.  Here (digging in my pocket) you can see a photo from my phone, if you like.  I have a picture of my parents, of some of the kids I taught in Thailand, of this Incan-

Students: (Interrupting) Show us Jason!

Me: Jason?

Students: Yeah!  Show us Jason!

(Note: They collectively forgot 40% of their theater vocabulary words over the summer, but this they retain with perfect clarity.)

Me: Um, okay then.  Here.  (Flipping through the pictures) Here's a picture of him in Turkey(I hand my phone to the student next to me.  They instantly flock around it.)

Various Girls: Aww!

Cody (a girl):  He looks like a goob!

Students: (chuckle)

Me: What's a goob?

Cody:  You know... a goob.

Me:  (looks confused)

Cody:  Like Zach. (points at Zach)

Zach: (nods)

[JJD: Wait, no one else knows what Zach's like! The Urban Dictionary uses the words "awkward and weird," "peanut head," and "ridiculous" in defining "goob," though.  Poor Zach!]

Me: No, he's not a goob.

[JJD:  Whew!!]

Kailey:  Yeah.  He looks more like a nerd.  That's okay though, Ms. Waterhouse.

Me:  (Thinking about it) I'm actually probably more nerdy than he is.

[JJD:  They only believed that because they don't know about the 11 bottles of fountain pen ink sitting in my drawer.]

Alana:  Tell us about him!

Randy:  Yeah, it's Show and Tell.  Tell us about him.

Me:  What do you want to know?

Alana:  Where did you meet him?

Me:  At a dance in college.

Katie:  What does he do?

Me:  He's a lawyer.

Students:  A lawyer?

Kailey:  Oh, then he's not a nerd.  Lawyers are, like, hardcore.

[JJD: This one should get an A.]

Cody:  Yeah, they're real.

[JJD: True. But are we hot like vampires and werewolves? Hard to say...]

Ali:  You should invite him to Homecoming!

Steven:  Call him up right now and ask him.

Bri: We'll pay for his plane ticket

[JJD:  Because that wouldn't be awkward.]

Me:  He's a work right now.

Zach:  So are you!  Call him!

Kailey:  At least get married to him, Ms. Waterhouse.

Me:  We're just friends.

Cody:  That can change.

Kate:  Yeah, what if he was, like, dying and he then he like, realized that he loved you, and then he called you up and was all like (in a deep voice), "Miss Waterhouse, I'm dying.  I love you.  Let's get married."

Everyone: (Laughs)

Me: (Laughing too) I like how you think he calls me "Miss Waterhouse," Kate.

[JJD: Looks like somebody's got a new blog alias!]

Students (including Kate): (Laugh)Me:  Yes, and I call him "Mr. Davis."

Katie and Alana:  Like Mr. Darcy!
Katie:  He could be your Mr. Darcy, Miss Waterhouse.

[JJD: I like the casting choice, but this is never going to work unless I have an adequate Pemberly, complete with a pond that I can be climbing out of (in dripping trowsers and undershirt) just when Miss Waterhouse arrives...]

And... scene.