Sunday, April 29, 2012

Mintwood Place

After the bike ride and the bookstore yesterday, I went into DC to have dinner with a friend of mine at a new restaurant called Mintwood Place.  We had read the food critic's review in the Washington Post and decided it sounded delicious.

And it was!  I started with burrata and asparagus with balsamic onions and spring garlic . . .

then continued with duck served over sauerkraut and potatoes with black pepper sauce . . .

and finished with a brownie sundae (which I really wish had been smaller and less covered in sprinkles).

Aside from the delicious food and energetic atmosphere, it was fun to see some other friends of mine at the restaurant.  The city is small enough that once you have a circle of foodie friends, there's a good chance you'll run into them at whatever hot new place opens up.  I like that.

Tired Legs (despite and because of the weather)

It's a perfect spring night.  After a gloriously warm and sunny day, the evening has cooled to a comfortable chill, without a trace of wind.  I'm sitting on my balcony surrounded by flowers, listening to Prokofiev's ballet score to Cendrillon, and enjoying the enforced immobility that comes with very tired legs. 

I spent some time this weekend out on the bike, you see, and my legs are reminding me that (a) I haven't ridden for about seven years, and (b) I'm not 18 anymore.

As I mentioned before, the weather this week has been awful.  It rained heavily most of the week, and when it wasn't raining it was cold and overcast.  I managed to ride for about an hour on Thursday, but I really wanted to do a longer, more intense ride on the weekend.  So when I awoke on Saturday to another cloudy day in the mid-40s, I headed over to the bike store to pick up some cold-weather gear. 

From a budgetary perspective, the gear-heavy nature of cycling is less than ideal.  But from the perspective of playing dress-up, it's awesome.  There are more outrageous varieties of clothing items than for any of my other activities.  I hit the winter-clearance rack and came away with a windbreaker vest, a long-sleeve jacket, arm warmers . . .

and knee warmers.

The knee warmers came in black, too, but I figured, heck, when else am I going to run around in flaming red tights? 

With these new wardrobe additions, I was set to face the elements.  I rode for two hours and covered a little more than 30 miles -- I went west, away from DC, out to a town called Reston (you can see a map of the trip at the link under the "Garmin Connect" heading in the right-hand column).  Because of the cold, I had the road largely to myself, which was nice.  Especially when I came to stop signs and almost fell over before I could get my feet out of the pedals (having red legs doesn't prevent one from being a spaz).  By the end of that ride, I was officially worn out.  I uploaded my ride data into my Garmin account, sat in the shower until I was pruned, and then went to the bookstore to compare translations of the Iliad

I'd thought that would be the end of my riding for the weekend, but then the weather today was so beautiful that I felt it would be a crime not to go out for a little ride after church.  Well, that "little ride" quickly turned into another two-hour 30-miler.  I started out just exploring some of the paths I used to run on, seeing where they went beyond the point where I'd normally turn around when running.  But then I went down to the Potomac River and struck out along the George Washington Parkway, which is one of the most beautiful roads around -- you're surrounded by open parkland, with views over the bright blue river and the monuments and capitol building on the other side.  The going was slower than I'd have preferred, because I had to dodge the millions of walkers, runners, dogs, children and bikers who were also out enjoying the day.  Most of the time people were pretty good with the give-and-take of traffic, but there's a certain type of woman who, when in "walking" mode, won't budge an inch for anyone.

So now I'm doubly tired.  But happily so.  Sixty miles in my first weekend isn't a bad start, and I'm excited to continue.  Plus, I now feel perfectly justified just sitting here being calm, reading and listening to music.  (As you know, as much as I enjoy reading and listening to music, I'm not very good at being calm enough to do them in a leisurely manner -- too many things to accomplish!)

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Maiden Voyage

Between days-long rainstorms and dinners with friends visiting from out of town, I haven't been able to do more than gaze longingly at the bike I got on Saturday.  After almost a week, I was anxious to take it out on a ride.  Would it be as good as I'd hoped?  Would my knees hold up?  Would I notice the difference between this bike and my old one?  Tonight, finally, the stars aligned and I went for spin on my old running trails. 

Oh man.  OH MAN!!  This bike is awesome.  Mind-blowingly awesome.

Was it as good as I'd hoped?  Way better.  Did my knees hold up?  Yep.  They felt better on the bike than they do when I'm lying in bed.  And my old bike?  Not even in the same class.  It's like I went from an old station wagon to a sports car.  Seriously, when I hit my first straight-away and could really let her rip, I had the same "holy cow, so this is what all the hype is about" moment that I had the first time I drove in a Maserati.

Which brings me to something new that I learned about myself:  I like going fast.  Who'd have thought?  As a fly-weight pushing around a heavy bike, I'd always congratulated myself when I could maintain 13 miles an hour, and I told myself that I was more into distance than speed.  This new bike weighs virtually nothing and it's super fast.  It was fairly easy to maintain between 18 and 20 miles an hour, and when I sprinted on a flat stretch I got up to 30 miles an hour (I want to go back and try that on a hill...).  Those speeds may be nothing for more serious cyclists, but they were exhilarating for me (and admittedly a teensy bit terrifying when you realize that your feet are locked into pedals that come with a warning about how they won't automatically release in the event of a crash, and the rest of you is covered in only a thin layer of Lycra). 

Of course, this was still my first bike ride in seven years, so my performance was by no means polished -- I did not maintain pace well (nor did I even try, most of the time), my gear-shifting on the hills was atrociously inefficient, and my dismounts from those clipless pedals were far from graceful (no falls, though).  After about an hour, I'd gone 15 miles and was ready for a break from the low crouch of the road bike.  So there's lots to figure out and plenty of room for improvement.  I've purchased a couple of books that should give me some pointers to get me off to a good start, and I've got some friends who are serious cyclists as well -- I'm hoping that once I get used to riding more regularly they'll be willing to take me along on their training rides.  Who knows?  Maybe by the end of the summer I'll be ready for a race.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

New Toy

You know how, when you were five, you'd get a new toy and it would be the awesomest thing ever and you'd want to bring it with you everywhere and take it to bed at night?  I kind of feel like that right now.  Thank heavens I have a queen-sized bed.

I fancied myself a cyclist once.  After getting my Eagle at the end of 8th grade, I was inclined to check out of the Boy Scounts (knot tying is interesting for only so long...), but then one of the Scoutmasters suggested forming Venture Crew devoted to cycling.  So I saved up $400 from my paper route to buy the best bike I could afford and started riding around the Grande Ronde Valley.  We did two big bike trips in the following years -- first through the Puget Sound, then through the Canadian Gulf Islands and Vancouver Island -- and I realized that I'd finally found a sport that I enjoyed.  The people I rode with (who included Lady -- I was in a Catholic-sponsored troop and therefore free of the church's exclusion of women from the Scouting program) were a lot of fun, and I loved the feeling of riding 20, 60, even 100 miles in a day (I only did the latter once). 

I didn't ride quite so regularly during college.  I picked it up again briefly between college and law school but then found myself in a tiny apartment in New York with no place for a bike.  That's when I started running.  First it was just to relieve stress, then I realized that it was fun, too.  Eventually I ran a half-marathon (which I loved) and began training for a full marathon.  My knees objected, however, and for the past year I've battled some pretty significant knee pain that makes running more than three miles at a time risky business. 

Which brings me back to cycling.  According to some folks, Washington DC is the #2 city in the U.S. for cycling (Portland is #1), and there is a wide network of cycling trails all around the city and the suburbs (that's what I'd been running on the past few years).  When my knee started acting up again this spring, I decided that it was time to get back on wheels.  I started with a couple of weeks of indoor spinning classes to make sure that the repetitive motions of cycling wouldn't exacerbate the problems caused by running.  Fortunately, spinning had no discernible effect on my knees -- if anything, my knees actually felt better after spinning. 

Luckily for me, I live about a block away from Fresh Bikes, one of the best-reputed bike shops in the region.  This morning I woke up early, checked my bank account, and walked over to the shop determined to return as a fully outfitted road biker.  The folks at the shop were incredibly friendly and knowledgeable (also very biker-cool -- some piercings, a mohawk, shaved legs on everyone; the laid-back vibe was the genetic opposite of law firm neuroses).  I told them that I was basically starting from scratch and invited them do the rest.  Three hours later I walked home with three bags full of gear and brightly colored spandex.  Having dumped those items on my living room floor, I went back for the bike. 

I selected a Cervelo R3.  It was the first bike they'd suggested when I told them what I was looking for and, although the price tag initially gave me pause, it was love at first ride.  I kid you not, riding this thing is the bicycle equivalent of being greeted by name by my waiter at a Michelin-starred restaurant.  I test rode a few other bikes long enough to convince myself that it was okay to own a bike worth more than my car, and then closed the deal. 

A thunderstorm hit shortly thereafter, so I wasn't able to go out for a ride today, but I did spend the rest of the afternoon trying everything back on, playing with my new GPS computer and figuring out how to get in and out of the clipless pedals without breaking my neck.  If it's sunny tomorrow after church I may decide to have a two-wheeled devotional out on the bike trail...

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Roller Girls, a Drag Queen and Eugene O'Neill

Boy, this week has gone fast!  We've almost reached the weekend and I'm still processing last weekend, which was action packed, of course, but perhaps more ecclectic than usual.

On Saturday afternoon I went with a friend of mine to see a roller derby tournament out at the DC Armory.  This was part of the DC Rollergirls league, and we saw the bout between the DC Devilcats and the Majority Whips.  I knew about roller derbies from Whip It, which is a fun movie, but had never seen one myself.  They're a pretty rough-and-tumble affair -- those girls are no dainties!  But the spectacle (both on and off the track) is wonderful -- lots of tattoos, piercings, skinny jeans and at least one man in a kilt.  Obviously, I stuck outlike a sore thumb until I went behind this screen and acquired the body of a tough blond roller girl who may have been named Ovary Action:

As for how the roller derby actually works and how you win -- I have no idea.  We hadn't bothered to read up on the rules or scoring mechanisms beforehand, so the whole thing made pretty much no sense.  We started to figure some things out after watching for a while, but even by the time we left it was still bewildering.  In any event, here's a video so you can see what it looked like:

Later that night, after a neighborhood barbecue with some friends who live on Capitol Hill, I saw Arias with a Twist at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre.  It's another other installment of the Basil Twist Festival, this time involving a collaboration between Joey Arias, a New York drag performer, and Basil Twist, the puppeteer I wrote about a while ago.  I hadn't quite known what to expect (other than spectacle, of which there was boatloads), but this New York Times review from a previous performance in New York gives a pretty good description.  My sense is that it was all well done, but it's not my favorite genre of performance.

The next day I saw a new production of Strange Interludes at the Shakespeare Theatre Company.  There had been a lot of buzz about this show in the press (click here for the Washington Post's review) because it's a famous play by a famous playwright and is famously never-ending -- the original script runs over 6 hours, I think, and was generally performed with a generous dinner break in the middle.  This production, fortunately, had been cut down to a mere 3 hours and 45 minutes. 

Interestingly, the play was neither fast-paced nor particularly spectacular (just four people sitting around talking) and yet it was totally gripping the entire way through.  Essentially, it's a story about a woman, three men who love her, and the memory of a fighter pilot killed in World War I:  The woman loved the fighter pilot, but he was shot down and killed during the war.  Out of grief and a sense of guilt, she has a nervous breakdown and then abandons her morals in order to "comfort" wounded soldiers.  Eventually she meets a smart doctor and his nice but stupid friend, and she marries the latter out of a sense of obligation rather than love.  When she becomes pregnant her mother in law tells her that the family is genetically insane and that she should abort the baby (which she does).  Consumed by the loss of her baby, she asks the doctor (who is not insane) to get her pregnant so that she can still be a mother and make her husband happy.  The doctor goes along with the request and then the two of them end up falling madly in love with each other and being miserable for the next twenty years as she raises the baby as the son of her husband and continues the affair on the side.  Of course, during all of this time, she's still completely obsessed with the dead fighter pilot, naming her son after him, raising him to be like him, and writing a novel about him -- all of the other men hate him and try to be like him.  Eventually they're all old and unhappy; the husband dies and the son finds out about his parentage, but the lovers are no longer in love, so the woman marries her fussy "replacement father figure" bachelor friend who is a novelist and has been chastely in love with her from afar this entire time.  The end.

It wasn't a happy story, but the complicated situations gave a lot to think about, particularly when it comes to why we do what we do in relationships and how selfishness, meddling and love (or the lack thereof) can hurt or help the people around us.


Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Discovery Fly-over

The retired space shuttle Discovery is being transported today from the NASA space center in Florida to the Smithsonian's Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum out near the Washington Dulles Airport, where it will replace the Enterprise, which is currently on display but never actually went into space.  (You may remember it from last fall, when I wrote about my visit there with Dad.) 

The giant shuttle is perched on top of a modified jet airliner that made a crowd-pleasing detour over the National Mall on its way to the landing spot in Virginia.  Given our proximity to the Mall, the firm's rooftop terrace was a prime viewing spot for the fly-over.  Unfortunately, the shuttle arrived slightly earlier than predicted on this morning's NPR report, so I missed the best shots -- but I did manage to get this bit of footage before it moved out of sight.

One of my colleagues got to the roof earlier than me and was able to take these shots:

The Washington Post also has a bunch of good photos and video.  Here's a clip of the shuttle near Dulles:

Monday, April 9, 2012

Digital Parenthood

During my years in the church, I've seen many an unruly child disrupt a meeting.  Crying babies, tantrum-throwing toddlers, overly exuberant happy kids -- they have a way of distracting teachers and learners and turning long meetings into never-ending tedium.  One of my least favorite moments in church is the few seconds that follow some toddlerian eruption, when I wonder, Will the parents be responsible adults and take the kid out?  Or will they torture the rest of us by staying and either failing to correct the bad behavior or ignoring it altogether?

Of course, being a childless bachelor it's pretty easy for me to feel that a parent's failure to remove a noisy child from a church meeting qualifies as socially irresponsible behavior.  I normally rank it just above eating Doritoes in public.  Every once in a while, however, I pause and wonder if I'm too harsh in my judgment -- Would I do any better than those beleaguered parents in getting my kid to stay quiet?  And if I didn't, would I have the decency to take the kid out? 

Thanks to our friends at Apple, I don't have to get married and have a child to discover that the answer to those questions are No and Yes.

I recently became the proud father owner of a new iPhone, you see, and so I've been exploring life in Appledom.  I call people and text them and make the map app give me directions to places.  I set alarms and (because I'm not in Athens) they wake me up on time.  I download scripture apps so that I can leave my books at home and spend church staring at my glowing screen with a degree of interest that makes every non-iPhone user wonder whether I'm actually following along or just reading movie reviews.

It was wonderful.  That is, until last week in church, when suddenly my phone started talking in class.  Right out loud, without being called on, it just started reciting verses from the Bible:  "VERILY, VERILY, I SAY UNTO YOU..."  What's happening? Is this a visitation?  "...WHO COME UNTO ME..."  Why is everyone looking at me?  This is not my fault!  "...FILLED WITH THE HOLY GHOST..."  Oh please, just pretend this is the still small voice -- I mean, at least it's giving you the Sermon on the Mount, right?  "...AND BLESSED ARE ALL..."  Why won't it shut up?  How can frantically pushing every button on the screen forty-seven times not be the right answer?  "...PERSECUTED FOR MY NAME'S SAKE..."  What if I just sit on it?  "...UNDER A BUSHEL? NAY, BUT..."  Alright kiddo, that's it, I'm taking you out into the foyer...

...where I found myself surrounded by other parents dealing with their rowdy, crying and otherwise noisy children. 

I'm not gonna lie -- it was a tad awkward at first.  "...I AM NOT COME TO DESTROY..."  But there was no sense in losing my temper or ignoring the situation, so we went into the corner and had a little time out to think about reverence and minding.  "...AND FIRST BE RECONCILED TO..."  That's when I discovered that if you push the "pause" button the talking stops.  (A miracle!)  Just to be sure, though, I also cranked the volume down to zero and turned the power off altogether.  Ahh.  Silence. 

It was a proud moment, walking out of the foyer and back into class.  In those few challenging minutes, I had become a better person:   Not only could I now empathize with those poor incompetent parents who couldn't figure out how to get their kids to be quiet, but I had also proven that, yes, I was the sort of parent who would take a talking kid out of a meeting.  What's more, I had become the envy of all the foyer parents by having a kid with an actual "off" switch.

Oh, parenting.  Who'd have thought there was an app for that?

Monday, April 2, 2012


Guess what I just found? A recording of Juan Diego Florez's encore performance on Saturday!  No video, but you get the first time through, the wild applause, and then the encore.


Each year my law firm distributes performance bonuses to associates.  Unlike in New York (including at my firm's New York office), where all associates at top-tier law firms receive the same bonus in a lock-step structure, the bonuses in DC are not automatic and are meant to reward overall contributions to the firm, taking into consideration both the quantity and quality of billable work, as well as participation in pro bono work, client development, firm committee work, willingness to volunteer for assignments, involvement with recruiting, and other factors.  Normally only about half of the eligible associates in any given year receive a bonus, and of those who do, the amount of the bonus can vary enormously.

Unfortunately, the bonus process is opaque in its application.  Given the variety of factors that we're told are taken into consideration, and the fact that no further explanation is provided when bonuses are awarded, it's hard to know how to modify your behavior to maximize your chances of a good bonus.  Plus, bonus awards in any given year can seem arbitrary and contradictory.  For example, I did not receive a bonus after my first year, but I received a modest one after my second year, despite the fact that I couldn't see any meaningful difference in the quality or quantity of my contribution during the respective years.  This makes it difficult to interpret what message (if any) is being sent by the firm with a bonus (or lack of bonus).  Ironically, the result is that the bonus has little incentive power for me -- since it isn't clear to me which activities (other than billable hours) are valued by the firm, I'm less inclined to do anything other than billable work.  I do enough of the non-billable work to maintain credibility as a "firm citizen" and "team player," but otherwise, if it's not billable, I don't do it.  I don't work for free.

The firm apparently has no complaints about this strategy.  I logged an enormous number of billable hours last year (more than anyone else I've talked to at the firm), and my bonus, which I just received, was commensurate in size.  At roughly 25% of my base salary for last year, it was one of the biggest in the firm (the only associates who got bigger bonuses were considerably more senior than me, and my secretary, who has all sorts of inside scoops, says that I'm the only one at my seniority level who got this amount).  So management can say what they want about the value of firm citizenship and professional pride -- it is clear to me that what the firm values is people who make the firm money.  I suspected as much; nice to have this confirmation.

The weird thing is that the size of the bonus seems almost irrelevant.  In part, that's due to the fact that bonuses are taxed at a much higher rate than ordinary income -- because of those taxes, I pocketed less than half of the face value of the bonus (talk about a let down!), so the face value ends up feeling hollow.  But even apart from the taxes, the amount of the bonus seems irrelevant from more of a psychological perspective.  I mean, it would have been highly relevant had I not gotten anything or if it had been too small.  But the fact that I got the highest bonus I could get feels more like a meeting of expectations rather than anything special.  Kind of like getting an "A" in school -- as far as I was concerned, the teacher didn't deserve a pat on the back for giving me an A when I knew I had given A quality work.  Likewise, the firm doesn't deserve particularly warm feelings for acknowledging with a monetary award that I worked like a fiend last year -- because that's what I expect them to do if they want to keep me working here. 

As nice as it is to have some additional funds in the bank (watch out student loans!), at the end of the day it doesn't change the fact that during the past year I worked essentially all the time, to the exclusion of nearly all other non-work activities.  For a good portion of the year, I stopped singing, running, seeing my friends.  Was the trade-off worth it?  I think the answer so far is yes (because I'm still here), but only because I've gotten much more out of work than just a paycheck and a bonus.  In working as much as I did, I learned a lot about my profession and myself, I had the satisfaction of doing something interesting and challenging, and I built good relationships with my colleagues and my clients.  Those are benefits that can't be bought with money (recognizing, as well, that there were costs that cannot be compensated with money).

[P.S.  Writing about money in a quasi-public forum like this blog might strike some people as vulgar or insensitive.  I recognize that I am very well compensated and that this bonus alone is more than some people (many of whom work just as hard as I do) make in an entire year.  My goal in writing this post is not to complain or to be cavalier or ungrateful for the financial blessings I've received.  As with anything I write here, my objective is only to share what I'm thinking about and experiencing with family members and friends who I want to be part of my life but who otherwise wouldn't be because of geography and over-booked schedules.]

Sunday, April 1, 2012

New York & DC - Two Snow Whites

Last night after seeing Tribes, we realized that the night was still young (it was only 9:45pm).  So we ran back up to the movie theater at Lincoln Square and caught a screening of Mirror Mirror, the new Snow White movie with Julia Roberts and a handful of other interesting people.  (And yes, if you're keeping track, this does mean that in less than 36 hours, we had seen two movies, one opera, one play, eaten at three notable restaurants, and toured a cathedral -- because that's how Amanda and I do New York.)

The movie was terrible.  Visually very pretty, but in all other respects one of the stupidest movies I have seen in years.  Almost offensively so.  To the point that if I hadn't been so tired, I would seriously have contemplated leaving mid-movie (which I've only done once in my life).  And because it was so bad, that's all I'm going to say about it.

Ballet Preljocaj: Blanche Neige

Infinitely more interesting and satisfying on all levels was the performance of Snow White by Ballet Preljocaj at the Kennedy Center (which I saw this afternoon, directly after getting off the train from New York).  This French dance company (which is headed by Angelin Preljocaj) told the classic fairy tale in the form of a full-length narrative ballet but in the vernacular of modern dance -- so no pointe, no tutus; instead, we had funky modern movement in aggressive costumes by Jean-Paul Gaultier.

I really enjoyed it.  In particular, some of the highlights:

1.  The piece opened with the good queen (Snow White's mother) alone on the stage in a long black dress, heels and a crown.  She's enormously pregnant, and we see her give birth alone and in agony, and then die.  Clearly, this was not going to be a whimsical romp.

2.  When Snow White first meets the prince in the woods, they dance a very romantic pas de deux twice:  The first time, when their eyes first meet, the music stops, and they proceed in complete silence.  Then the music resumes and they repeat it exactly.  It felt to me as though we'd seen, in dance form, the concept of spiritual creation preceeding physical creation:  The dance without music was the spiritual connection between the lovers, and then the music brought them into the world and made it real.  Such an interesting and unexpected effect.

3.  The poison apple scene was completely terrifying.  Rather than allowing Snow White to eat the apple and wait passively for the poison to work, the witch rams it violently down the girl's throat, tormenting her until she's dead.  It felt like watching a poisonous snake take down a lovely bird.

4.  When the Prince discovers Snow White's body, he doesn't just kiss her -- first he melts in grief, and then he takes her lifeless form and dances a tender and lovely pas de deux.  It was surprisingly moving and, although he did eventually kiss her, I had the feeling that it was the dancing that brought her back more than the kiss.  It made me think of Gisele, where the heroine supports the dying prince as he dances under deadly enchantment.

5. Oh, and speaking of dancing to death, guess how they kill the witch! They bring in the fatal red shoes (from that other gruesome fairy tale) and force them onto her feet -- she then dances frenziedly until she expires of exhaustion.

New York - Sightseeing

Lest someone accuse us of not being well-rounded in our dining/theater spree, Amanda and I managed to work some sight-seeing into our itinerary.

Our first interest was to see the recently finished renovations/remodeling of Lincoln Center.  Over the last four years the arts complex had tried to undo some of the unfortunate architectural blunders of the original layout, which was notoriously brutalist and fortress-like. The overall effect is subtle but noticeable:  It still looks like Lincoln Center, but it feels more open and welcoming.

Then, after the opera, we stopped in at Saint Patrick's Cathedral, New York's flagship Catholic church on Fifth Avenue.  Neither of us had visited the cathedral before, and frankly it was a little underwhelming, both because Manhattan's skyscrapers have a way of dwarfing anything that isn't a skyscraper, and because both of us have seen much more impressive cathedrals in Europe and South America.  Even so, the interior still had that wonderful visual updraft that is the hallmark of gothic architecture.  And it was neat to see the preparations for Palm Sunday.

New York - Gastronomical Happiness Realized

While opera was the primary objective of this trip to New York, food was an certainly an ulterior motive.  As thanks for many hours of hard work last year, one of my clients gave me a generous American Express diner's gift card.  I could think of no better way to use that gift card than by exploring the culinary marvels of New York with Amanda.  As noted on Thursday, we missed the first of those marvels by five minutes -- thankfully, the others came through to perfection.

Grand Tier Restaurant

We needed a place for brunch on Saturday before the opera.  It needed to be near enough to the opera house to minimize the stress of getting there on time, and it needed to be awesome.  So I made reservations at the Grand Tier Restaurant -- the restaurant inside the Met, on the balcony overlooking Lincoln Square.  Close?  Check.  Awesome?  Double check. 

We arrived a few minutes before the reservation.  The guards checked our tickets and we were ushered into the inner sanctum (while the non-elect waited below for the house to open) and up the grand staircase to the tabled tier where we sat in tufted luxury in a sea of octogenarians.  Amanda observed that it was kind of like going to the temple -- if the temple were decorated with giant Chagalls and everyone wore pearls and Hermรจs.

I ordered the wilde mushroom bisque...

followed by salmon with risotto...

and banana bread pudding with chocolate chips.


As fun as the Grand Tier Restaurant was (and it really was perfect for the setting), for dinner we took things up a notch.  Or maybe twenty notches.  I had made reservations at Gilt, a two-Michelin-starred restaurant (out of three) that is located in a gilded-age mansion just off of Fifth Avenue, behind St. Patrick's Cathedral.

We got there early -- before they were officially open, actually -- so they couldn't seat us right away.  But they did let us wander around the mansion.  The marble staircases and fancy windows were lovely, but what really won us over was the library.

But we hadn't come for the decor.  When the clock struck 5:30, we descended to the dining room and entered a whole new world.  Beautiful women met us at the reception desk -  one whisked our coats and umbrellas off into a sideroom, and the other led us down the panelled corridor to a pair of massive sliding doors that opened into an opulent dining room right out of another era.

We were deftly seated and then greeted by an elegant waiter with a European accent:  "Good evening, Mr. Davis," then to Amanda, "Madame, welcome to Gilt."  At which point I became thoroughly convinced that being greeted by name by one's server is the only civilized way to dine.

We started with an amuse-bouche from the chef -- a tiny cup of lobster bisque with a dollop of creme fraiche...

followed by foie gras with truffle, green apple, and little dabs of buttermilk...

which, in turn, was succeeded by aged wild squab (a type of fowl) with smoked cabbage, turnips, mustard and walnuts...

We then moved into the dessert realm with a treat offered by the chef, which consisted of grapefruit sorbet, ginger cubes, and candied beets...

and then a "citrus" dessert comprised of blood oranges, key lime semifreddo, Meyer lemon bombolini and yuzu meringue (most of which made no sense to me, but they were delicious and refreshing)...

And of course the chef followed up with an offering of petit-fours -- I selected a piece of dark chocolate with hazelnut filling, and an elderberry profiterole.

The entire experience was superb.  I don't even have words to describe the food -- it was delicious and delicate and beautifully arranged and perfectly portioned, and the flavors were subtle and complicated and almost always surprising (grapefruit with beets? amazing).  In fact, we had a hard time maintaining the flow of conversation because we'd take a bite and lose our train of thought, so captivating were the flavors.  It's the sort of experience I could certainly get used to! 

Of course, now that we've done one-star and two-star restaurants -- and seen the difference between the two -- the next step is to get into a three-star restaurant... (which will probably spoil us for life).

New York - Love Potions and Sign Language

L'Elisir d'Amore

The whole point of coming to New York this weekend was to see Juan Diego Florez sing the role of Nemorino in the Metropolitan Opera's production of L'Elisir d'Amore. It's a popular bel canto opera by Donizetti that tells the tale of a lovelorn country boy who would do anything to catch the eye of the village coquette. When she spurns his protestations of undying love, he takes a cue from Tristan and Isold and buys a "love potion" from a traveling charlatan. The love potion isn't anything other than cheap wine, but the boy's persistence and sincerity eventually prevail.

But let's be honest, the opera was kind of irrelevant -- it's the tenor who was the main attraction. I've been listening to Florez for several years now, and I've written about him before, but I had never seen him perform live. So when some friends mentioned that they were planning to get tickets, I asked them to get one for me, too. (Likewise Amanda, when she heard I was going, decided to make the pilgrimage from Denver.)

Spending hundreds of dollars (just on the ticket!) and traveling across the country to see an opera may seem odd to some people (some of my family members included), but there's nothing quite like seeing a great opera star perform. They walk out on stage and the audience applauds their mere presence, and then they open their mouth and everyone within earshot is caught in the spell. That's what happened when I saw Renee Fleming sing. And that's what happened with Juan Diego Florez.

Boy is he good! He has such a clear, strong voice, and the things he can do with it -- all the runs and ornamentation that characterize the bel canto style -- are astonishing in their musical beauty and pure physicality. Amanda described it as the aural equivalent of male ballet dancers leaping. I agree.

So did the rest of the audience. When we got to the show-stopping tenor aria Una furtiva lagrima the audience went wild and demanded an encore -- WHICH WE GOT!!! I've always read about audiences demanding instant encores of arias they love, but I had never seen one -- I kind of thought they were a thing of the past. But no, after a man in the balcony shouted for an encore, Florez stopped for a moment, then turned to the conductor with a cue, and started the whole thing from the beginning. The audience's delight was palpabable as everyone held their breath and settled in for a treat. He sang the aria again, this time taking greater liberties with the cadenza, and finishing to even greater applause. It was a wonderful moment, where the audience members collectively managed to say, "Yes, we want to hear the story, but mostly we just love you and want you to keep singing to us" -- and the singer understood and responded. I thought for a moment that the audience might be able to coax another encore out of him, but then the conductor gently took over and we pressed on with the scene (which was just as well, since the following soprano aria, sung by Diana Damrau, was equally stunning).

Here's a YouTube clip of Florez singing the aria (in a different production, with less than ideal sound quality):

And, by way of encore (and for purposes of comparison), here's Luciano Pavarotti singing the same aria:


Later in the evening, we went to see the new play Tribes, which is playing at the Barrow Street Theatre, an Off-Broadway theater down in Greenwich Village not far from where I used to live.  I had read a review of the show in the New Yorker a few weeks ago, and it caught both Amanda's and my interest.

It's a complicated play, and not a very happy one, about identity and language and how those two things influence (or are influenced by) the groups we belong to (voluntarily or otherwise).  The setting is a family of five, where the parents and two of the children are each engaged in some sort of literary/artistic pursuit -- the father is a former professor who now writes books, the mother is an aspiring novelist, the daughter a singer, and the son is working on his thesis in a field that seems to be worried about the expressive limitations of language.  Taking their cue from the father of the family -- who seems to view argument as a blood sport, and whose only mode of communication is argument -- these four characters exist in a torrent of words, as they argue, write, read, tease, criticize and, only very occasionally, comfort each other.  Sitting silently in the middle of this domestic storm is a second son, who is deaf.  He's been brought up to read lips and not to sign (so as to avoid being subsumed into what the father clearly believes is a linguistically inferior subculture of deaf people).  He does well with lipreading but still misses a lot of what is said, and no one ever takes the time to fill him in entirely. 

Eventually Billy, the deaf son, meets a girl (Sylvia) who is his opposite:  She was raised in a deaf family but is, herself, hearing.  At least for now.  She's rapidly going deaf, and so is transitioning with difficulty into the the deaf community.  Billy comes along and discovers a whole new world where he seems to fit. 

That's about it for the plot.  The real interest comes from the themes that emerge.  How different groups view others (in this case, it's the hearing versus the deaf; the English-speaking versus the non-English), and how those groups establish hierarchies within themselves that serve both to include and to exclude.  What it means (and what it takes) to move from one group to another, and whether you can ever really leave your old group.  Whether you can or should change the centerpiece of your identity.

Very appropriately for the day, there was an extended discussion on the merits of communication through non-verbal means.  To ward off the offensive attacks of the father, who clearly feels any language other than verbal English must be intellectually, expressively and probably morally inferior, Sylvia explains that sign, unlike verbal language, is able to take complicated concepts and convey them without having to pin them down into words that obscure meaning.  She runs through a series of signs for concepts such as worry, insecurity, happiness, love, jealousy.  As she does, the sister (the singer) starts to get it -- "Oh," she says, "it's like opera -- you don't understand the words, but it gives you feelings."