Saturday, March 31, 2012

New York - Friday Night

Last night after work I met up with Amanda and we ushered in the weekend in proper style with dinner at Maze by Gordon Ramsay, at the London Hotel.  It was described in the Michelin as "the Pippa to Gordon Ramsay's Kate Middleton," "sexy and elegant," and "chic-Paris in its smoky-mirrored, teal banquetted, shimmering glass art deco glory."  Although it was listed without a star, it still had three forks, which meant it was going to be very comfortable.

Comfortable it was.  The description of the ambiance was spot-on -- it was the sort of color scheme and decor that suited my tastes very well.  We felt very elegant indeed at our little table in the corner.

I started with sautéed sea scallops with golden raisin purée, cauliflower beignets and crispy capers.

Followed by an 8 oz dry aged strip loin steak with creamed spinach and potatoes.  There was a white sauce that seemed innocuous at first but turned out to be intoxicatingly delicious -- I couldn't tell what it was, but it made me think of an emulsion of a salty cheese, if there is such a thing.

I finished (we both did) with a Valrhona chocolate fondant with green cardamom caramel, sea salt and almond ice cream.  This was, by far, the highlight of the night.  That cardamom caramel was a knock-out with the warm, melty dark chocolate.

The food was all very good, although Amanda seems to have ordered a couple of the less-stellar options on the menue, and we agreed that it didn't rank among our very top gastronomical experiences.  Even so, the "Frenchified" atmosphere was wonderful and further enhanced by a young French couple sitting next to us.  Their English was clearly very poor, and they struggled for quite a while with the menu before ordering.  Then, when their food came, there was general amusement and surprise.  For example, when I heard the woman exclaim, "What?  I ordered soup?  I thought I was ordering potatoes?"  I realized she must have ordered the sweet potato velouté.

We had decided some weeks ago not to see a play after dinner.  Instead, we enjoyed our dinner for as long as we wanted, without the tyranny of the curtain time, and then made our way to a nearby cinema where we watched The Hunger Games.  We both had read and thoroughly enjoyed the books and were curious to see the new wildly successful movie.  Overall, I think it was well done.  I hated the hand-held photography at the beginning, but I thought the overall storytelling was good enough to let the compelling story come through.  At any rate, I was properly disturbed and stressed out through most of the film as the teenagers battled each other to the death for the benefit of an authoritarian state.  (Also, Lenny Kravitz can pull off gold eyeliner surprisingly well.)

Friday, March 30, 2012

New York - Remind me why I don't live here?

I'm working out of the New York office today.  I'm on the 42nd floor, with awesome views of the Hudson River and New Jersey.  With floor-to-ceiling windows, the office is bright (so bright, in fact, that I can't see my screen very well) and I love it.  It's a marked difference from the shady 6th-floor window in my DC office. 

It feels good to be in New York.  I came up yesterday on the train.  I was about to say that I'd come up "after work" but I actually ended up working the whole way -- work doesn't stop just because you're on a train without email access!  So my thumbs got a great workout on the Blackberry, and the poor junior associate who's working for me had to put up with me calling him every few minutes to ask him to send documents to so-and-so with such-and-such in the cover note. 

The stream of work didn't stop once I got to New York.  I checked into the hotel and proceeded to work a while longer while Amanda finished up at Sleep No More.  (We're staying at a decent midrange hotel in Mid-Town that is definitely a step down in price and quality from the JW Marriotts I'm used to staying in during work travel, but, oddly, it's equally comfortable to the W -- which the W probably would not view as a compliment).

When Amanda arrived, full of wonderment and glee from her theater experience, we chatted for a while as she freshened up (mask hair!) and I fired off a few more emails to impatient partners.  Then we headed out to Danji, a Korean restaurant that had gotten rave reviews in the papers and a star in the Michelin Guide, and which had the added plus of being open until midnight. 

Or so we thought.  We arrived at 10:50pm, delighted to see that there was a table for two available (they don't take reservations) only to learn that they had closed the kitchen at 10:45.  We protested and referenced their website, which they acknowledged was wrong, and found ourselves out on the stoop wishing we had kept our mask hair and made those partners wait.  Boo. 

Still on the verge of starvation (though not quite as on the verge as I would have been, had I not taken precautionary measures earlier in the evening), we set out to find Plan B at 11:00pm.  This being New York, we had plenty of options.  Naturally, we chose a hamburger joint that had a line around the block and was standing-room-only inside.  You know, something low key.  The Shake Shack has been around for a few years now (and they recently opened a shop in DC) and is enormously popular, but I'd never eaten there.  Seemed like a good time to give it a try.

We waited dutifully in line listening to a local policeman complain about the cold and a tourist competitively declare that it wasn't as cold as Minnesota.  After a while we mashed ourselves inside, where Amanda was able to read the menu and I could admire a guy who was rocking a double-breasted navy blue cape, black leather driving gloves and some eccentric spectacles (my yellow pants would have gone perfectly with that outfit).  We fretted for a minute about where we were going to sit, but then Amanda managed to snag a table that came free before 87 other people grabbed it (she's good at handling crowds like that). 

And the food?  Meh.  The first bite was tasty enough, but the burger soon registered as very salty.  And the shake was a little too milky smooth for my taste -- I would have liked the texture a little rougher.  So it was fine but not great.  I'd rank it as better than In-n-Out but not as good as Five Guys. 

We chatted until about midnight and then wended our way back to the hotel.  Amanda had the whole day ahead of her, but I still had to work.  Which is what I've been doing so far all day.  But I think the end is in sight, though -- the crazy deal has hit a snag that has prevented it from closing until next week.  While this prolongs the craziness, it also means that there will be a lull over the weekend -- which is exactly what I wanted.  Dinner, opera, theater, movies -- here I come!

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Workday Pause

I’m taking a break.  Given that I’ve already billed 40 hours this week (and it’s only 3:00pm on Wednesday!), I think I’m entitled to a few minutes of down time.
I initially thought I’d write about the weekend – I went to three opening receptions at art galleries downtown, met a friend for dinner at a trendy tapas restaurant, and went with another friend to a house party where I heard first-hand what a homicide prosecutor thinks about the jury system (essentially, it’s as irrational as determining guilt or innocence by the direction a chicken runs when its head is cut off). 
But what’s really on my mind is work.  Specifically, a deal that I’ve been working on for the past few weeks.  It hasn’t been like any other deal I’ve worked on in the three and a half years I’ve been a lawyer.
To begin with, the lawyers and businessmen of the counterparty (let’s call it the Purchaser, since they’re purchasing my client’s company) are unbelievably bad – and I mean morally bad, not incompetent.  I’ve been in negotiations with plenty of companies that have a lot of power and money and who drive a very hard bargain.  The people at those companies can be demanding and rude and unreasonable, but I’ve always felt that, ultimately, they were playing within (roughly) acceptable parameters.  In this case, though, I do not think there is any notion of “out of bounds” for the Purchaser.  They are sneaky, discourteous, blatantly dishonest, and more than willing to ask our client to engage in conduct that is illegal and ethically wrong.  And the bargain?  They’ve driven hard to the point of being vicious – as if they hate the guts of our client and just want to hurt them.  You know how a mad dog might shake a small animal violently in its jaws even after the animal is dead, just to make sure the neck is broken?  That’s what this negotiation has felt like.  The head guy at the Purchaser is powerful, well-known and worth billions – and yet throughout these negotiations he and his lawyers have demonstrated a repulsive lack of integrity.  If I were a businessman, I would let my business fail before I’d do a deal with them.
Of course, all of this throws into sharp contrast the standard of behavior that is expected – and generally maintained – at my law firm.  I came to this firm in part because of its strong reputation for integrity and its culture of civility.  Throughout this deal process, the partner I’m working with has behaved (from my perspective) in a classy and professional way, and he has been very careful to talk to me about the behavior we’ve witnessed.  We discuss not only what is generally acceptable and unacceptable in society and these types of deals, but also specifically how to handle the very real risks that come when a lawyer’s client tries to pull him onto ethically and legally shaky ground.  He’s used it as an opportunity to teach me about the structures and processes at the firm and how to identify and handle situations when they arise.  As I look at the behavior of the associates at the Purchaser’s law firm, I can’t help but fear that they are not getting similar training or role models (and in fact are subject to pressures in the opposite direction).
A second observation has more to do with myself.  This is the first M&A deal that I have done from beginning to end.  It’s also the first deal I’ve done where I haven’t been the most junior person on the team – I’ve had a more junior associate playing the role that I’ve played in the past, and I’ve taken a more senior role (a role that became even more “senior” this week, as the partner left on vacation and has been largely absent).  It has required a ton of work and I’ve had to play a lot of it by ear because I really had no idea, going in, how I was going to handle things – and yet it has also been a lot of fun. 
Much of the fun comes from the adrenaline, the responsibility (we’re full trauma surgery mode here), and the feeling of competence.  A former partner of my firm said once (when he was recruiting me to follow him to his new firm) that he wanted me to work for him because I was “fearless” and “polished.”  At the time, that characterization had surprised me, but I kind of think he was right.  There’s very little that intimidates me, and I find it enormously rewarding to figure out how to handle things I’ve never done (like managing another person and being on the front-lines of a crazy deal) and then have them go well.  For example, despite my relative inexperience (and the intransigence of the Purchaser), I’ve managed to handle the process with little adult supervision and win certain points in negotiations to benefit my client.  In addition, the junior associate stopped me yesterday and said that he has really enjoyed working for me (more so than for others) because of my demeanor and organization and ability to stay calm in the frenzy.  (He also said I had the best handwriting of anyone in the corporate group, which, I admit, also made me happy.) 
Adrenaline and praise go a long way – in fact, for me they go almost all the way.  Give me a challenge and some praise, and I will do pretty much anything for you.  But appreciation (which is different from praise) matters, too.  Last night, after being completely incommunicado all day long, the partner called to thank me for enabling him to have (and I quote) “the second-best day of my life, and, for my seven-year-old son, the absolute best day of his life.”  They had gone as father and son to a Major League Baseball spring training game that day and had had an absolute blast – because he hadn’t spent the game distracted by work. 
Now I’m hoping (anxiously), that the same will be true for me starting tomorrow night.  I’m meeting Amanda in New York for a weekend of opera, theatre and Michelin-starred restaurants (funded, in part, by some gift cards offered at the end of last year by another appreciative client).  Which means that the 17-hour workdays need to stop.  I’m more than happy to work during the day (I’ll have a guest office in our New York office on Friday), but once those dinner reservations come around, I’ll be gone!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Farewell Chicago

There was absolutely no point in having me stay in Chicago for another day of negotiations.  We got to the offices and were shown into a conference room by the receptionist.  We then got an email from the associate on the other side (my counterpart) informing us that he was in another meeting at the moment and would be there as soon as he could to go over his comments on our last draft of the agreement.  No sign of the partner on that side; even less of their client.  So much for yesterday's plan of everyone meeting together one last time to hammer out the details.  We went into this deal knowing that the guys on the other side had a reputation for being jerks, and they were clearly delighting in living up to that reputation.

Of course, we had no choice but to wait.  There was nothing to do.  I couldn't talk with my client, who was storming around the room speaking fast and loud in Hebrew into his phone (well, mostly in Hebrew -- some of the more colorful English curse words popped out every now and then).  I logged into my firm's network and tried to work on other projects, but there's only so much you can do when you're sitting in a different state with no printer and none of your other files.  So eventually I got up and wandered around the conference floor taking pictures of the view from where we'd been sitting for the past three days.

After more than an hour of waiting, the other lawyers came in (along with lunch, at least they had that  much consideration) and told us, as per usual, that they wanted some major new term.  Then they flipped through our draft of the agreement picking on little things that they didn't like (most of which we succeeded in preserving). 

And then they were gone.  It was the middle of the afternoon, we'd had a totally unproductive 30-minute meeting, and we were done for the day.  So we had our respective secretaries move up our respective flights and headed out to O'Hare, where we managed to sail through security (a small miracle in that airport, which in my mind is second only to Charles de Gaulle for being a horrible airport to fly through).  When my client realized I was flying coach, he magnanimously tried to get me upgraded to first class (alas, it didn't work because everyone in first class had already checked in).  While waiting to depart, we had a couple more calls with other lawyers regarding outstanding issues.  Again, not much progress was made, but at least it was something. 

Fortunately, this was not the height of summer thunderstorm season, so we were able to take off without incident (other than a 45-minute delay) and get to DCA safe and sound.  It feels good to be home!  (I'm trying not to think about everything I'll need to do in the morning to compensate for being gone an extra day.)

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

One Day More

After last night's break, we reconvened this morning on the 40th floor of our counterparty's offices to resume negotiations.  They began by handing us what was (in the terms of the partner I'm working with) an "F.U." markup of the agreemnet we've been negotiating.  In other words, in turning the draft, the other side had done everything they could to stick it to our client.  Everything from raising major new issues (which you just don't do -- once you've had a turn to talk, you aren't supposed to go back and raise new points) -- to making petty language changes (like changing "a single thing" to "one thing").  And of course they "forgot" to make any of the changes we'd agreed to that would be favorable to my client. 

It was a clear message that they had no intention of doing the deal and were going to be complete jerks about it.  So we went into the negotiating room and asked them to just be up front with us:  if that was the case, and stop wasting everyone's time and let's go home.  Their response:  Who, us?  We have no idea what you're talking about?  What could POSSIBLY have bothered you in this draft?  We totally want to do this deal.  We love you.

My eye. 

Needless to say, we were in for a long day.  Frustrating for my client and the partner but fun for me -- my role here is not a stressful one (I just need to be organized, efficient and focused on details, which I am) and I find the theatrics of the negotiations enormously entertaining.  Eventually the logjam on the other side broke, though, and we started making tiny amounts of progress instead of moving backwards.  Enough to make my client think that it made sense to stay for another day.

So here I am, in Chicago for another night.  My client (who is 35) and I switched to the W Hotel, so my hipness quotient is currently through the roof (said my client, "The Marriott feels like a place my father would stay" -- and hey, when he's the one paying, who am I to say no?).  Then we went out for sushi at one of these trendy Japanese-Peruvian fusion places (which, unfortunately, was underwhelming in comparison to the Michelin-starred Japanese food I had in Paris last November -- I may be ruined for life).

And now I'm back in the hotel, trying to get work done for other clients that I won't be able to do during the day tomorrow, and rescheduling all of my personal life that now isn't going to happen as planned. 

(Better this, though, than what my partner is going through:  He has to be back in DC tomorrow, so he left for a late flight home.  Last I heard, he got bumped from his flight, which was oversold, and was left stranded at O'Hare with such dire food options as Chili's and McDonald's, and, presumably, has to take a crack-of-dawn flight back to DC.)

Monday, March 19, 2012

Dealmaking in the Windy City

As I boarded the plane to Chicago this morning, the partner I'm traveling with leaned over and said, "If anyone asks, we vote in favor of working non-stop until this agreement is done.  Even if it means working all night long.  Got it?"  Got it. 

Only no one ever asked. 

At 5:00pm, the negotiations broke up.  The other side went off to redraft the contract.  We headed into a separate conference room to wait for the new draft and work on our own stuff.  About thirty minutes later, I went to the lobby to make a phone call (and look at the view from the 40th floor windows), and I saw that the place was all shut down -- as in, it was deserted and a giant metal gate had been lowered to block the elevator bay.  You'd have thought it was the post office at lunch time, not an international law firm. 

Then the lawyer from the other side came back with one of the documents we'd been waiting for.  As we hunkered down, ready to crank out our response in time for another round of negotiations, he stood there with an awkward "Ahem" look on his face.  "Did you guys need any recommendations for a restaurant tonight?  I'd be happy to help with reservations and then walk you out of the building.  There's this gate thing..." 

Riiiight.  Because for some reason he thought the business day ended at 6:00pm.  Weird.

The upshot is that now I'm sitting in a room at the JW Marriott hotel in downtown Chicago, having just returned from a delicious dinner at Michael Jordan's Steakhouse (where, Dad, you'll be happy to know that I actually ordered steak -- I had a filet mignon and brussels sprouts, with celery/lobster soup as an appetizer and a key lime "bombe" for dessert; all delicious).  It's a quarter to ten, and I'm essentially done with work for the day -- negotiations don't resume until tomorrow at 9am! 

Part of me is tempted to call up some of my Chicago friends and go out.  The other part of me is eyeing that down comforter and thinking I should nestle down with my new biography of the Cardinal de Richelieu and read about 17th century French politics for a while. 

Fortunately (albeit to the detriment of my hipness) my Chicago friends are all responsible adults with jobs, so Richelieu wins.  But a few quick thoughts before heading to bed:

First, Chicago is SUCH a cool city.  Every time I come here I'm impressed by how much I like it.  I love the skyscrapers, the way the river fits into the city, the gritty industrial feel of the town (like it's got guts), and that quintessential midwestern-American friendliness.  Like New York, Chicago makes me ask the question:  Why don't I live here? 

Second, I really like partners who let me into their heads on the deals we're working on.  Today, for example, was weird on a lot of levels (not just because we got out at 6pm).  We went into the negotiations with basically no idea what we were supposed to be doing.  The circumstances and terms of the deal were unusual, the other side didn't want to do the deal but was being forced to do it by their superiors, our client was being forced to do the deal by the US government and so had zero leverage.  What's more, we'd never met our client before in person, did not know how he wanted to handle the negotiation -- and his flight was delayed so we wouldn't have a chance to caucus in private before going into the negotiation room.  What I appreciated was the partner's willingness to say, "I don't know how this is going to play out.  Keep your eyes and ears open and just go with the flow -- this will be an exercise in reading other people."  Which is exactly what it was.  I watched and listened and it was fascinating how things unfolded -- and as they unfolded, the partner would lean over and explain to me his theories on what was happening, or what he thought would happen next, or why he thought what was happening was good or bad.  Most of the partners I've worked with so far haven't done anything quite like that, and I felt like I learned a lot just in this one afternoon.  It was great.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Trauma Surgery vs. Urology

Last Thursday I got a note from my friend Paul saying that he and his wife Blake would be in town over the weekend.  They live in Akron, Ohio, and were coming to DC to go to the temple (Akron apparently is equidistant from the Palmyra, Manhattan and DC temples, so they chose DC.)  They wanted to know if I’d be interested in catching up over dinner.

Of course I said yes:  Paul and I served our missions together in Brussels, and although we’d kept in touch since then, we hadn’t seen each other for years -- quite possibly since the Superbowl party where we watched Justin Timberlake cause Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe” to “malfunction.”

I decided that we should have dinner at the J&G Steakhouse at the W Hotel (where I took mon père when he visited last fall).  I also decided to invite Ron and Debbie H., who had been the Mission Presidents in Brussels while Paul and I were there.  I was the first person waiting at the airport when they stepped off the plane, and Paul was in the first transfer of missionaries who came in under their watch.  I served for about a year as Ron’s secretary, essentially acting as second-in-command over the temporal aspects of the mission, and Paul became Ron’s assistant, with responsibilities over the spiritual aspects of the mission.  Both of us were great friends with Debbie, who is a lot of fun and (unlike her extremely intense husband) totally laid back.

The mini-reunion was great – Ron began by noting how “youthful” Paul and I looked despite the twelve years that have passed since he first met us.  His second observation was a jibe at the fact that I’d brought him to a restaurant in a competing hotel – to which I responded that it wasn’t my fault his hotels had mediocre restaurants.  (He followed by chatting up the waitress about the chef -- Ron's apparently thinking about putting a Jean Georges restaurant in a new hotel that's under construction.)

Then we proceeded to fill everyone in on the past few years of our lives:  Paul is in his final year of medical school, having transferred to Ohio after spending the first couple of years at a medical school in the Caribbean, and having just matched into his first-choice urology residency.  Blake is teaching modern dance at several studios in Akron and otherwise raising their son Hugh.  Ron and Debbie are busy with their roles in the company and the church (he’s the DC stake president; she’s head of public affairs for the church).  As for me, well, you know what I’ve been up to.

Once finished with ourselves, we moved on to everyone else we’d kept in touch with:  So and so is finishing X degree; so and so has a baby; so and so was killed in a car accident.  And so on.

The funny thing about talking like this is that you see life patterns emerging from the people you knew back when we were all starting out.  The mission president who finished an Ironman race the month before starting his mission is now a high-powered business executive.  The go-getter missionaries who held leadership positions in the mission (and some who didn’t) are now doctors or lawyers or investment bankers or successful entrepreneurs.  Those who struggled on the mission generally still struggle.

These patterns shed light on the lives of others, but also on my own. For example, consider the following:

When I asked Paul if urology was his first choice, he said no, he really wanted to be a trauma surgeon:  he wanted to be in the ER sewing up people with gunshot wounds to the head and limbs missing after car accidents.  Why?  Because he loved being the one person who had to keep his head on straight and focus on making crucial decisions about how to save the person’s life.  Same thing for another guy, Jay, who had been my companion:  Jay is finishing up medical school to be an ER doc; he thrives on the pressure of the crises and resolving the problem.

If you’d asked me what I thought when I was companions with Jay, I’d have said that we were totally different.  I hate crises and chaos and I don’t feel any particular need to save people from gunshot wounds.  Or do I?  Instead of becoming a French professor or whatever, I’ve put myself in a fast-paced, high-pressure, high-stakes legal world – because I thrive in those circumstances.  The pressure, the problem-solving, the expectation of perfection in results, the feeling of accomplishment when I achieve those results.  And of course, this applies both to my professional life and my personal life.  When things get too slow and calm, I get bored and restless and ornery – I start looking for mountains to run up (figuratively and literally).  This is why I struggle with Sabbath observance and beach vacations (or, really, any vacation longer than a weekend that isn’t high-intensity).

But note this; Paul didn’t become a trauma surgeon. As much as he personally would have enjoyed the work as a trauma surgeon, he didn’t want the lifestyle that came with it. He didn’t want to spend days on end in the hospital, sleeping on cots in the closet and missing out on life with his wife and kid.  So he chose urology, a field known for having high satisfaction with work-life balance, as well as handsome remuneration.  He enjoys it and will do well, even though it may not have been his very first choice.

I, on the other hand, seem to have taken the other route.  I became the “trauma surgeon” and I’m getting both the ups and the downs that go with it.  So I guess the question is how I feel about the balance between those ups and downs.  Last year, on balance, the downs were out of control.  This year, the ups are winning.  So far, I think that’s generally been the case:  there’s a lot that I really like about being at this law firm (and I'm still there, aren't I?).  Still, hearing about Paul’s choice makes me wonder if there’s a “urology” equivalent for me.  How do I find enough of the high-intensity stuff to keep me happy, while making sure it's adequately cabined?  Alternatively, are there other things that motivate and satisfy me that I can focus on in a way that will substitute for the satisfaction I get from the high-intensity stuff?  Or will I turn everything I do into "trauma surgery"?  (To be honest, part of me suspects that the answer to that last question is yes.)

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Flowers in spite of the firm

Last weekend was cold, rainy, and I had nothing to do.  I was SO BORED.  This weekend, on the other hand, the weather has been gorgeous, the cherry blossoms are opening, and I had a ton of things I wanted and needed to do. 

So, when last Friday rolled around, did I get any last minute calls from partners or clients?  Nope.  Not a peep.  But what about yesterday?  Radio silence until half-an-hour before I was supposed to leave for the theater.  Then, by the laws of the law firm universe in which I exist, the floodgates opened and I got calls or emails from no fewer than six different partners and/or clients all wanting things done over the weekend.  Including one client that wanted me to be ready to get on a plane first thing Monday morning to spend two days in Chicago negotiating a 60-page contract for the sale of a $25 million company.

So I spent the first totally perfect weekend of the DC spring working indoors.  Not shopping for a bicycle or replanting my pots or running.  Working.  Grrr.

But I did manage to grab some outside time.  I had originally planned to go to the Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens with a friend of mine to see the orchid exhibit in the greenhouses.  And also to see the building and grounds and exensive collection of French and Russian decorative arts that Marjorie Merriweather Post, heiress to the Post cereal fortune, accumulated during her lifetime.  I finished enough of my work that I felt able to spend about an hour wandering through the estate and gardens between conference calls in my car with the Chicago client.  I didn't see everything properly, but it was better than seeing nothing, and it was great to catch up with Amy and walk around in the sunny weather. 

Photos were verboten in the house, but here are some shots of the exterior and the orchids.

Regeneration ship?  Anyone?

Puppet Ballet

Puppets are magical and creepy creatures.  I read an essay once that described them as totally theatrical, because a puppet's life and meaning (unlike a living actor's) comes exclusively through performance:  Without a puppet-master and an audience, all you have is a pile of sticks and cloth. 

Or is it?

That's the question (or at least one of the questions) that Basil Twist asks in his puppet production of the ballet Petrushka.  Set to a score by Stravinsky, the ballet is a tragic tale about marionnettes in a Russian circus.  A Clown (Petrushka) . . .

a lovely Ballerina . . .

and a Moor . . .

obey their masters' strings as they dance before the circus-going audience -- but once the performance is finished and they're tossed into their box, they come alive as real beings.  Petrushka shakes in rage at his enslavement to the puppet strings, and he yearns for the love of the lovely Ballerina.  The Ballerina is repulsed by his odd appearance and clownish behavior and seduces the Moor.  Petrushka jealously interrupts their raptures and is pursued -- then stabbed in the back -- by the enraged Moor.  Petrusha's lifeless pile of sticks and cloth falls to the stage, but the audience sees his freed spirit flitting joyfully toward freedom.  The end. 

It's a lovely story with wonderful music.  I would love to see a pairing of the ballet with the opera I Pagliacci

With puppets, it takes on a whole new significance.  You see just how exhilarating and expressive great puppetry can be, even as the puppets are railing against their puppetmasters.  And the final escape to freedom?  It's only an illusion, because that escaping spirit is as much a puppet as the corpse he left behind.  The great thing is, by the time it happens, the audience is willing to believe it's real, that the poor little man really did escape to greater happiness after all. 

I was lucky enough to see all of this last night at the Shakespeare Theatre's staging of Basil Twist's Petrushka.  Basil Twist is one of the preeminent puppeteers in the U.S.  I'd seen his work in the Broadway production of The Addams Family (he did Thing and the monster in the basement) and in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (he consulted on the underwater puppets), and apparently he's done a lot of other really interesting work.  So much so, that several local theaters are putting on a Basil Twist festival that will run for the next month or so and showcase four of pieces.  Last night was the opening night of both Petrushka and the festival in general -- which meant it was the place to be among the DC theatre crowd.  All the theatre critics were there to review it, as were various other local theatre celebs to mingle and be seen.

All of this played out well for me.  The people-watching was better than usual, what with the various mucky-mucks running around.  I ended up sitting next to Michael Kahn, the artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre (who was a great audience member -- super attentive and responsive, his attitude while watching actually helped me get more out of the performance that I otherwise might have).  And, best of all, we were treated to a surprise "behind the scenes" demonstration of how the puppetry worked.  During the performance, all we saw was a gilded frame in which the puppets moved about in a very shallow and bright field of light.  Well, in the darkness behind that field of light was an army of puppeteers -- at least three per puppet -- controlling various body parts of the puppets.  Normally you had one person doing the feet, another doing the arms, and another doing the torso and head.  Impressive enough when you have just one puppet.  But then imagine puppets doing ballet lifts and sword fights and seductive embraces!  It was like a moving jigsaw puzzle of puppeteers in black velvet jumpsuits as they climbed over and through each other or passed off the various puppet parts to ensure a seemless movement by the puppet.  It was pretty amazing.  (And, interestingly enough, seeing the puppeteers actually enhanced my appreciation of the puppets -- I kind of wish I could have seen them throughout the play.)

(You'll be hearing more about Mr. Twist if I can get tickets to the other performances in the festival.)

Friday, March 16, 2012

Like a bird

Back in the day, fancy ladies would often eat in their private apartments before coming down to dinner.  That way they could be seen by everyone to eat like a bird.

Er, maybe a dainty bird.

As far as I know, that practice has generally fallen out of fashion – but the more I think about it, the more I think the birdy ladies were on to something. 
Eating is a problem, you see.  If we ate purely out of instinct in order to survive, then it wouldn’t be a big deal – we might have to worry about how much we ate, or the quality of the food, or even manners if we were eating in the presence of other people, but all of those things are pretty easy to manage.  That's not how we eat, though:  We’re human and social and (supposedly) civilized, and a lot of our civilized socializing happens while we eat -- which is a problem.  Hunger has this way of bringing out everything that is uncivilized and anti-social in people, so if we go to dinner hungry, then will be great at eating but probably lousy at the other stuff. 
Take me, for instance.  I am always charming and interesting and a perfect joy to be around.  However, when I’m hungry, my family and travel companions like to pretend that I become less charming and interesting and pleasant to be around.  It seems improbable, I know, but since I care, I listen.
Recently, I’ve started conscientiously eating before dinner (or lunch or brunch or whatever).  Whenever I have a meal planned with someone else, I eat something small ahead of time so that I go into the meal happy and barely hungry instead of starving and completely misanthropic.  It makes dining out so much more pleasant – I can focus on the people I’m dining with instead of my raging headache and why I hate everyone so much.  Plus, it frees me up to eat smaller portions and lighter fare, which may not be the path to muscle super-stardom but surely can’t be bad when I spend as much time as I do in front of a computer.
So, whatever you may have heard as a kid about “ruining your dinner” by eating beforehand, just remember that sometimes “ruining your dinner” might just make it all the better.

(In fact, it works so well that I've started doing it even when I'm eating alone:  I'll eat something quick right when I get home from work so that I enjoy the process of making a proper dinner.)

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Masks in the bedroom

You know how, when you're decorating a bedroom, and you're 98% done, but you just can't find the right thing to fill that odd-shaped gap over the table between your bed and the wall and you're reluctant to just put up whatever because you're in love with the paint color and would regret poking holes in it for no good reason?  So annoying.

Fortunately, there's a shop in Antigua, Guatemala, that has these wonderful, brightly colored masks that are perfect for just that spot. 

Of course, I had to completely rework the hanging mechanism before I could put them up.  They came with twine loops running out of their foreheads -- no way was that going on my wall.  I came up with a combination of wire, tiny eye screws, and thumb-tacks that enabled me to mount the masks so that they hung straight and the wires weren't visible through the eye holes.  It's a good thing I'm not Snow White's mother, though, or I'd be dead for sure from jabbing the thumb-tacks through the thin wood and into my fingers.  (At least I hope I'm not Snow White's mother.  One of the pin-pricks left a piece of paint lodged in my flesh, and it's been kind of painful as my finger decides what to do about it.  I'm monitoring for gangrene and/or Guatemalan superpowers.)

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Tea Party

On Monday I received a phone call from Ashley in the middle of the afternoon.  Despite being at work, I answered the phone.  It was Teya on the other end, and she wanted to tell me all about her toilet-training successes before running off to eat her treat of chicken nuggets and French fries.

Then today I got this photo and text message from Ashley: 

Tea party! 
A cup for Mommy, Teya, one for Daddy,
and one for Uncle Jason!

Boy do I love being the favorite uncle.  It means I get these wonderful little interruptions in my grown-up day when I can remember what it was like to be a little kid -- and feel how special it is to be loved by one.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Fun Game

[Late Friday afternoon, Client sends a 150 page contract.  I spend most of the weekend reviewing that contract.  On Monday, Partner calls me into his office.]
Partner:  Client is very cost sensitive – they’ve asked us not to do a line-by-line mark-up of this document; instead, they want us to focus only on revising the liability-related provisions and flag any major issues that we see in the business terms. 
Me:  I’ve done that.  I’ve revised the key provisions and will raise the other business-related issues in a cover note to Client.
Partner:  No, I want you to go back and annotate every provision of the agreement that you would normally edit (but which you can’t due to Client instructions), telling the Client how you would edit that provision if you were authorized to spend the time to do so.
Me:  [Expression of disbelief]
Partner:  Do you think this is overkill?
Me:  Yes.  I don’t think Client actually cares about any of the business issues that we’re flagging – it just wants a document that it can skim quickly and send directly to the counterparty.  Plus, if it doesn’t want to pay for us to actually mark up the document, it probably doesn’t want to pay for me to annotate it.
Partner:  Hmm.  Well, I want you to do it anyway.
[Five hours (which is well over $2,000) later, I finish annotating the contract and send it to Client.  Client immediately asks that I forward it to the counterparty.  Partner calls me from his car.]
Partner:  I can’t believe this!  We haven’t discussed all the issues we flagged!  Is Client upset?  Do you think Client is upset?  I think Client is upset.
Me:  No, I don’t think Client is upset.  I told him that there were notes we’d need to discuss before sending.  He said “Great.”
Partner:  Oh no.  He’s upset.  You need to take out all the annotations right now and have a clean document ready to go.  Also, let’s schedule a call with Client for sometime after 9:00 pm tonight so that we can discuss all the annotations.  That way you can turn the draft and get something to the counterparty overnight.  Do you think that’s a good idea?
Me:  No, I don’t think that’s a good idea.  Nobody’s going to read the document overnight.  Even if they do, it’s inefficient to have them read something that is still going to change.  Plus, I have six other projects for other clients that need my attention tonight – I’ve pushed them off during the day in order to prioritize this project, but I still have to finish them today.
Partner:  Okay, then let’s schedule the call for 9:00 pm and then you can start pulling out the annotations so the document is ready to go as soon as the call is finished.
[I do as instructed.  Client doesn’t want to have a call because he doesn’t have anything to say about the issues we flagged.  Eventually he agrees to have a call midday tomorrow.  What do you want to bet that he’ll acknowledge that we’ve made valid points but say that he doesn’t want to make any changes?  I’ll end up taking out all of the annotations and sending to the counterparty essentially in the form that I first prepared.  Sigh.]

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Keigwin + Company

Getting seasons tickets to the Kennedy Center's modern dance series was one of the best decisions I've made in recent years.  There's just so much great dance! 

Last night I saw Keigwin + Company perform.  If Merce Cunningham was cerebral, Mark Morris gorgeous, and Alvin Ailey exhilarating, Keigwin + Company was pure fun.  The company is based in New York -- and boy, does that show.  The pieces were glitzy, sexy and mischievous, with tons of energy and style and a healthy dose of winking irony.  If kind of felt like they were flirting with everyone in the audience all night long.  Enormously entertaining. 

My favorite was "Megalopolis," which the Kennedy Center describes as follows:

"[A] work that blends the structure of a futuristic city with the vibrancy of its late-night scene performed to a mash-up of music by Steve Reich and pop artist M.I.A. The hyper-kinetic piece has space age black and silver costumes and choreography that combines hip hop with club moves. Keigwin describes the work as "…a blend of formalism and pop.  It's fun and serious."

Some of the critics I found online thought it too populist and accused it of "pandering to the audience," but as a member of the audience, sometimes it's nice to be pandered to!  Especially when that pandering comes in the form of good-looking dancers doing beautiful moves in outrageous costumes.  Unfortunately, I can't find any good photos of said costumes, but here are some photos from other pieces they did.

This video has excerpts from the Runaway piece, which was the final piece of the evening.  It was my least favorite of the lot, mostly because it had a darker vibe and because I didn't quite get it (something about fashion, I think).

Contemporary Folk Americana

On Thursday night I got a text message asking me if I wanted to see a concert at a place called Jammin Java on Friday.  I had no idea who sent the message (some out of state number), and I'd surely never heard of Jammin Java -- but I said yes anyway.  A quick Google search told me there was a music club/cafe/bar called "Jammin Java" out in Vienna, Virginia, and I figured that I'd figure out who the sender was sometime before I got there.  Lest it turn out to some rando in Milwaukee.  Or a mass murderer.

Turns out it was just some people from my old ward who are really into live indie music and who happened to have my phone number.  Apparently they had invited me to things before (when I responded they said "Wow, you're alive"), but I'd never been able to go -- that's what happens when you regularly work until 10pm on Friday nights for a year and a half straight.  This time, though, I managed to extricate myself from the office in time to get to the venue by 7:00pm. 

It looked like a random store front in a suburban strip mall (because that's what it was):

but inside, a dark and hipster vibe prevailed as befits the indie music scene.  My jeans were definitely not skinny enough.  And as for ironic facial hair, well, we all know that isn't my strong suit.  Thankfully the lights were off, so I was able to sit my preppy self down without drawing too much attention.

The show we'd come to see was a singer named Anais Mitchell and her band.  She's on tour promoting her new "Young Man in America" album.  I'd never heard of her (not surprising) but I enjoyed her show a lot.  The group was predictably ecclectic -- Anais and her vocalist side-kick were little and cute in a raggedy hipster-elf sort of way; the bassist was handsome, lanky and uber cool (as bassists so often are) despite a distressing quasi-mullet on the back of his head; the drummer was clearly a lunatic.  The sound was what did it for me, though.  My biggest complaint in listening to live music" (meaning these sorts of bands, not orchestras or opera or musicals) is the way they sound -- all electric and distorted, with the volume up so high that all I want to do is plug my ears and run away screaming.  But the sound technician for this group managed to keep a clean balance throughout the show, letting the tight vocal harmonies come through and capturing the funky things they were doing with the guitars and other instruments.  It was such a clean sound that it felt surprisingly intimate, like they were whispering closely in my ear.

I had no idea how to characterize the group or its music.  One of the women in our group (who is a rabid enthusiast) described it as Contemporary Folk Americana.  "Folk" because the songs are normally very narrative about folksy themes; "Americana" because they use traditional American instruments like guitars and banjos; and "Contemporary" because, well, they are.  My favorite song, which seemed to embody this characterization, was a sad ballad about a farmer whose wife dies in childbirth while he's out working in the field.

Here are some links to her songs, some of which were on Friday's set list:

Your Fonder Heart
Two Kids
Old Fashioned Hat
Come September
O My Star

Who knows, maybe I'll go to more of these sorts of concerts if my work schedule stays manageable.  I'll need some skinny jeans, though....

Friday, March 2, 2012

And the winner is...

Ashley!  Amongst her many suggestions was a pendant lamp that looked like a doily draped over a light bulb.  Ever eloquent, her accompanying comment was "Uuuuuuuuhhh.....???"

(This is not the winner. Keep reading.)
To which I said, "Of course!  Tord Boontje!"  Because the droopy doily is actually called "Midsummer" and was designed by Tord Boontje, a Dutch designer who makes incredibly cool things.  I'd first encountered his designs in New York (you can find his stuff in hip design stores and at MoMA) and had been following him over the years as he's won various awards.  I had meant to keep him in mind for when I was finally trying to furnish an apartment -- but clearly I needed a reminder, which is precisely what Ashley provided.  As soon as I saw her suggestion, I knew exactly what lamp I wanted to get:  Tord Boontje's Garland Light.

The Garland Light consists of a bare lightbulb suspended from a white cord, with a metallic floral garland draped around the bulb.  I opted for the brass garland -- it looked loveliest in the photos on the Artecnica website, and I thought it would complement my yellow chair nicely.  When the garland arrived, it's pretty sparkliness confirmed my choice -- but I got nervous about whether I would be able to turn this...

into this...

I consulted various blogs to get others' takes on how to do it right.  Most of the accounts I found were from women who gave dire warnings about what a frustrating and tedious process it was -- it was bound to take me HOURS to finish and by the time I was done I would be in TEARS and SWEARING.  Sounded to me like changing the sheets on the bunkbed when I was little (except that, there, Lady was the only person who was allowed to swear), so I figured I could handle it no sweat.  And . . . ta da!

About an hour.  No tears.  No swearing.  I may have a talent for arranging brass garlands. 

The next step was to figure out how to hang the damn thing (shoot! I guess the bloggers were right about the swearing after all).  I couldn't screw any hooks into the ceiling because it is solid concrete, and all the brackets I found in the hardware stores were either industrial or horrendously old lady.  So I ordered a short swing-arm curtain rod and wrapped the cord around it.  This has the added advantage of allowing me to swing the arm around to cast light on the balcony for summer reading.

I'm thoroughly delighted with how it all turned out.  The room is brighter than before, feeling much livelier.  And the shifty, glinty nature of the garland adds intrigue to a once bland corner.  I now spend my evenings sitting on my couch staring at the lamp.  It's incredibly cool.

I really need to learn how to do interior photography --
but I think you get the gist.  Kind of.
So, there we have it.  The happy ending to a months' long saga.  Thanks to everyone who contributed ideas -- and also to Jennifer and Mark who sent my camera back from Guatemala so I could give you these pictures.

Now I need another project . . . .