Saturday, February 16, 2013

Storytelling - Greek mythology and Oscar shorts

Stories.  I love 'em.  They get you out of your head, into someone else's.  They take you places.  They make you feel things and understand things that you might never otherwise feel or understand because the scope of your first-hand experience is too narrow. 

As a teenager who read way too many books (for example, in my ninth-grade English class we were supposed to read 1,000 pages each semester; I read 10,000), I probably would have said that I was reading for the story.  In the intervening years, I've come to appreciate the telling of the story as much as the story itself -- possibly more, since good storytelling can transform an otherwise mediocre tale and poor storytelling can cripple a good one.

These past two weekends have been full of stories and storytelling. 


Last Sunday I finally got to see Mary Zimmerman's Metamorphoses at Arena Stage.  I say "finally" because I've been wanting to see it ever since 2002, when I was in New York for the very first time and decided to see a more traditional musical like Chicago instead of some weird non-musical that got people wet -- naturally that "weird" play won a Tony for best play, the playwright/director got a MacArthur Genius Award, and I've loved everything of hers that I've seen since (Lookingglass Alice, Candide, Arabian Nights -- all of which I apparently saw prior to writing this blog, because I can't find any posts about them).  

Metamorphoses is based on Ovid's poem of the same title, and stories and storytelling are at it's core.  The central conceit is a group of people sitting around telling each other stories that people have been telling each other for centuries; namely, Greek myths.  The actors tell us the stories of Midas, Eros and Psyche, Orpheus and Eurydice, and a bunch of others -- through all of which runs a central theme of, transformation.  

Eros and Psyche
What struck me about the storytelling is just how spare it could be while delivering a powerful message.  Greek mythology is so deeply ingrained in Western culture (especially as inculcated through my liberal-arts-heavy education) that in many instances Zimmerman could dispense of everything but a person and a single simbolic action (for example, a woman walks on stage and opens a box, smoke escapes, and she walks off) and we still get the point and know the whole story (Pandora!).  Because the basic stories already live in our heads, Zimmerman could evoke them with little effort and then let the combination of the audience's imagination and her script bring them to life with current, modern resonance.

One of my favorite sequences was Orpheus and Eurydice.  The actors performed the story twice (Eurydice dies on her wedding day; Orpheus goes into the underworld to rescue her; but right as they emerge from the underworld he looks at her -- which he was forbidden from doing -- and loses her forever), and each time the narrator offered a different interpretation -- one from Ovid; one from Rilke -- and in so doing invited us to question both of those interpretations, as well as the interpretations we place on any of these stories.


Tonight I saw a different set of stories, all in short-form, unrelated to each other, and told in sequence, but this time film was the medium, and their common quality the fact that they've all been nominated for Academy Awards. 

The live action shorts included a film from Belgium/France (La mort d'une ombre), Canada (Henry), the United States (Curfew), Afghanistan/USA (Buzkashi Boys), and South Africa (Asad).  None of these stories was light:  In one, a ghost takes pictures of deaths as they happen in hopes of returning to life; in another, an aging man struggles with dementia; another presents a man on the verge of suicide and his beaten sister; the remaining two offer bleak depictions of childhood in war-ravaged countries.

The first two were my favorites, both because I liked them in their own right, and because I loved the pairing. 

Death of a Shadow
La mort was a fantastical and somewhat gothic story of a WWI soldier who takes pictures of deaths (which appear as shadows) in an effort to buy a second chance at life. He succeeds only to realize that the reason for his return -- a lovely young woman who nursed him -- has been shattered by the death of her own soldier love.  Our hero sacrifices his new-found life to restore that other soldier to the woman he loves.  Not necessarily a profoundly original tale, but the shadow-camera is a cool idea, and the visual presentation of the film is gorgeous. 
What La mort really did was prime the pump for Henry.  This is a story of an aging musician who is losing his memory.  The film takes us through moments of lucidity and dementia, and it rips your heart out to witness Henry's loss of the beautiful, happy memories of his life with his wife (a violinist who is dead), his daughter (whom he doesn't recognize), and even himself ("Was I a good man?" he asks the stranger who is is daughter).  The tender Schubert piano music of the soundtrack contributes significantly to the poignant tale.  By the end I was a complete wreck.

The others were fine; each with strong points.  The more I think about them, though, the less I like the Afghani/US film.  It was visually stunning (those mountains!) and told the story well -- but here I think the story and the storytelling were out of synch.  The film was written by an American, funded (at least in part) by the U.S. State Department, and it felt like an unhappy projection of the "American Dream" onto the reality of war-torn Afghanistan.  I'm having a hard time figuring out how I feel about the film because I feel like I can't tell whose story it is or who is telling it -- and that uncertainty makes me distrust the film; I remember it cynically, and so it falls in my esteem.


Saturday, February 9, 2013

Ladyfood, caveman style

So.  You're a caveman.  You're all fit from crossfitting and eating mastodons and birdseed and stuff, and you get invited to a potluck with your team so that you can score some points and beat the competition.  What do you bring?

The answer isn't obvious.  Especially when the hostess is making some famous chili recipe and everyone else is bringing steak and stuffed peppers and paleo brownies and homemade coconut-milk icecream with fresh blueberries. 

Your first instinct will be to attempt that pad thai recipe again, but then Whole Foods will still not have any coconut aminos, and you'll decide that it's better to let that one go than risk another meltdown in the Asian food aisle.  Instead, you'll do something simple and delicious and not very cavemanlike:  Ladyfood.

Specifically, quiche.  Quiche!  Mmmm.

Thanks to the PaleOMG blog, you find a recipe that looks delicious and doesn't require any fancy-pants ingredients.  It does have a weird take on the crust -- replacing the typical flaky pastry crust (which isn't allowed in the paleo regime) with a "crust" made of ground meat -- but hey, isn't this all about trying new things?  Within minutes you're pressing your mild Italian sausage into pie-crust form and sauteeing your sweetpotatoes and garlic.  And then it's only a matter of time before you're pulling it out of the oven and letting it cool, all warm and delicious-smelling, on your kitchen counter.  Cinderella's ready for the ball! 

And boy, talk about the belle of the ball!  Any doubts I had about making a quiche, especially one with a crust made of meat, flew out the window as soon as folks started serving themselves.  Before touching any other dish on the table, everyone made a beeline for the quiche.  It was like they were racing to make sure they got some before it was gone.  And gone it soon was.  The little that remained after the first round was snarfed up when people went back for seconds.  More than one person said it was their favorite dish of the night; I was the only person who went home with an empty pan.  That's my idea of a successful potluck dish.

I can't take credit for coming up with the recipe, but I will take credit for finding it and executing well!



Short and sweet

I'm kind of famous amongst my extended family for going to crazy-long performances.  And it's true that I'm no stranger to six-hour operas and four-hour plays.  But not everything I see is that long, and I certainly don't think that everything should be that long.  Indeed, there's something sweet and clean and refreshing about being short and to the point. 

Take Eugene O'Neill's Hughie, for example.  With a running time of only 55 minutes, I was in and out of the theatre and back home earlier than I often get home on an ordinary worknight!  Awesome.

The great thing is that those 55 minutes were all that O'Neill needed to tell his tale.  The play is a model of tight, rigorous composition.  It reminded me of the best of the classical Greek or French tragedies, where there's only enough to accomplish the purpose of the play -- no more, no less. 

Essentially, the play presents the first meeting of two men in a hotel lobby:  One, a guest, is a seedy gambler returning late; the other is the the night clerk at the front desk.  I say meeting, but I should probably qualify it with quotes -- "meeting" -- because they never really meet each other.  Not in a deep, meaningful way.  Their bodies are in the same room, and they talk to each other; they even sometimes listen to each other.  But their minds never meet.  Each man lives in the world of his own mind, and the play achingly depicts how those two worlds never meet, even when in any other context you'd say they did meet. 

It's almost depressing.  Indeed, for most of the play it is depressing.  The men's failed communication emphasizes the essential loneliness of being an individual person -- how you can never really get outside yourself to really experience another person.  We think we make connections and have meaningful relationships, but what if it's just an illusion we've created in our own minds?  A story that we tell ourselves that bears no relation to the story that the other person is telling himself? 

If the play had ended at 50 minutes, it would have left us in a bleak state indeed.  But, instead, during those last five minutes the O'Neill shifts the fit:  he never lets the two men connect in any real way, but he mitigates their terrible loneliness by allowing them to discover how the story in one man's mind fits with the story in the other man's mind, so that each gets from the other exactly what he needs (even though the other never realizes exactly that that's what he's giving).  It's just a little shift, but it's all that is needed for each man to feel like he isn't alone after all.  A bleak world, to be sure, but not without hope.

Patron of the arts

The Alvin Ailey concerts are always one of the highlights of the modern dance season at the Kennedy Center.  They come every year, and every year I go and I love them.  (Here's what I wrote about their performance last year.)  I saw them perform at the Kennedy Center on Thursday and, as always, the athleticism and beauty of the Ailey dancers left me in awe of the human form in motion. 

What was different this time around was my new status as a "Member" of the Kennedy Center.  Their telemarketers had been pestering me for years to become a member -- which essentially is the entry-level donor program -- and this year I finally gave in and sent them a check.  In return, I received a flimsy ID card, some vouchers for reduced parking fares, the promise of having access to members-only lounges during intermissions, and the internal satisfaction of having begun (in albeit a very small way) to achieve one of my life's goals.  When I left my fundraising job at the Kennedy Center (a job that I loved), I told myself that I'd rather be a patron of the arts than a person who solicited donations from patrons.  And now look at me:  a bona fide donor! 

Now, don't get me wrong:  This is NOT fancy.  I am by no means a high-roller or important at all.  And I thought I knew that, but I was still excited to go to the members' lounge during intermission.  It seemed like a sophisticated thing to do, and I figured it would be fun to take my friend Amy along with me. 

So during the first intermission we walked up to the Opera-house lounge.  As we went, Amy asked, somewhat uncertainly, if my membership was enough to cover her, too, or if she'd have to wait outside for me.  Bah, I said, of course they'll let you in!

Little did I know that they shouldn't have let either of us in!  We came to the door of what I thought was the members' lounge and greeted the hostess.  She knew me from when I worked at the Kennedy Center, and she was happy to see me.  I cheerily told her that I'd finally become a member and was looking forward to using the lounge.  She took one look at my card and laughed -- You've got the wrong lounge!  Your lounge is on the other side, up a few levels and on the right-hand side -- there are no drinks or refreshments there!  But don't worry, I like you, so you and your friend can come in anyway. 

And in we went!  We got some refreshments and enjoyed the lounge that should have been out of our league.  I was a little mortified at my mistake and made a note to myself to keep my delusions of grandeur in check.  On the other hand, I was gratified to realize that, regardless of whatever money I may give (or not give!) to the Kennedy Center, I was already a "member" in the way that really counts -- I was friends with the folks who run the place!

We finished our drinks and went back down for the next act of the performance.  During the second intermission we decided not to press our luck too far among the fancy donors.  We stayed among the plebes and agreed that we'd leave our hunt for the correct members' lounge for next time.


Sunday, February 3, 2013

What I ate

I spent more time cooking this weekend than I have in years!  Two reasons for that:  First, having arrived at the end of the second week of this paleo/primal challenge, I was oh so bored of eating the same rotation of grilled meats and fresh vegetables/fruits -- I needed a more complicated and satisfying hot meal.  Second, we got bonus points for trying out new-to-us recipes and sharing them with the group.

A couple of friends of mine who have been eating paleo for a while recommended some blogs with paleo recipes and directed me to a few of their favorites.  Sadly, I wasn't able to find all the ingredients for some of the recipes I was most excited about (and when I say "sadly", I really mean it -- nothing makes you want to cry in the middle of the grocery store quite like not finding that one last ingredient for the dish you've been fantasizing about all week), but I still managed to pull off three solid dishes. 

I would describe the first two as definite successes; the third as a valiant effort.  I'm looking forward to making these recipes again (with certain refinements that I've noted based on this first attempt) and to discovering more!

Butternut Squash Lasagna

This recipe comes from Health-Bent, a blog run by two crossfit coaches in South Carolina.  The trick here is to replace the pasta with slices of squash -- and it works surprisingly well.  While it lacked the cheesy goodness of ordinary lasagna, it was still delicious.  The key, I think, is to use good sausage and not to skimp on the red peppers; also, keep your squash slices thin.  The recipe is a definite keeper, and I'm curious to play around with variations (maybe add some spinach?).

Sweet Potato Hash

This recipe is the result of a Google search from the middle of the produce section at my grocery store.  In response to my concerns about losing weight (I'm trying not to) my coach suggested that I eat sweet potatoes after my workouts in the morning.  I made a batch this afternoon with the idea of having it on hand through the week.  Of course, it also made a fantastic pre-meal for the Super Bowl party I went to tonight -- by filling my tummy ahead of time, I wasn't tempted to eat the non-paleo treats that were spread ever so enticingly on the counter.

Adam's Apples

This recipe comes from one of my teammates (who may have gotten it from somewhere else, but she didn't say), and it's my first attempt at a paleo dessert.  It consists of apples (green and red) and a pear tossed with cinnamon, vanilla, dried cranberries, almonds, pecans, salt and coconut oil, and baked together in the oven.  The result didn't wow me, but I see potential:  Essentially, I would cut the salt and increase the dried cranberries, and I would cut the apples/pear smaller and cook them for longer so they were soft like in an apple pie.  I've got some apples left over, so I may give that a try later this week.


Not everything I ate this weekend was the fruit of my own labor.  On Friday I met up with cousin James again (which feels like an appropriately Downton Abbey-esque thing to call him), this time for dinner at Huong Viet, my favorite Vietnamese restaurant in Arlington.  With all the fantastic noodles and rice and dumplings on the menu, I was tempted to abandon my paleo challenge for the night, but then I discovered a few items that seemed paleo-friendly -- and I'm not gonna lie, I did not ask too many questions to make sure!  (Of course, there was no way I was going to try to figure out how to log all that in my food log, so while I got full points for sticking with the diet, I lost one for not keeping track... tant pis!)

Lotus root salad with shrimp and pork
Caramelized chicken with ginger and chilies

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Eat like a caveman (or, Careful what you sign up for!)

Okay, so you know how I've been going to the local Crossfit gym for a few months now, right?  Well, in early January they announced a "Primal Nutrition Challenge" and encouraged us all to sign up.  I paid only enough attention to learn that there would be a nutrition seminar followed by a structured program to help us implement the principles covered in the seminar.  Sounded good to me -- I'm always up for learning how to eat more healthily, especially if it helps make my workouts more effective.  So I enrolled.

What I didn't know is that, by so doing, I was essentially committing myself to eating like a paleolithic hunter-gatherer for the next six weeks.  Turns out "Primal" is more than just an abstract, fit-sounding word that an over-the-top gym throws around:  It's actually a fairly stringent version of the faddish "paleo" diet that has recently taken the fitness world by storm.  The basic theory appears to be that humans evolved eating meats, fruits, certain veggies, nuts and berries -- and nothing else, especially not refined sugars, grains, legumes, dairy or French pastries.  Accordingly, in order to be optimally fit, we should stick to that evolutionary diet and eliminate all those delicious bad things that make us happy fat and ill.

At first I thought it wouldn't be that big of a deal:  After all, I could try it out and, if it didn't work for me, I'd just go back to my normal diet.  But then the other shoe dropped:  I was on a team.  We were keeping score.  IT WAS A COMPETITION. 

Which meant I had to win.

Dang it.

So I went to the seminar and got indoctrinated learned the groundrules of the paleo diet.  In certain respects, I was already very close:  I already ate fresh meats and vegetables, with very little sugar.  But I also ate a fair amount of dairy and starchy carbohydrates like breads and potatoes, and all of that needed to go.  After the seminar I went out for one last burrito with beans and rice, and then went to the grocery store to stock up on things like almond milk, almond butter, coconut milk, eggs, avocadoes, nuts, bananas, bacon, chicken, tomatoes and other things that fit within the rules. 

That was all ten days ago.  Since then I've strictly adhered to the diet.  I've discovered that I love almond milk and almond butter.  I also love the robust breakfasts of eggs, bacon and avocado that I've started to eat in lieu of cereal or toast.  And in terms of how I feel, I like how this low-carb/no-sugar diet has nearly eliminated the blood sugar highs and lows of a more ordinary diet:  Gone are those starving hunger pangs and those postprandial "food comas" -- the day proceeds in a much more even way (which is an effect that I'd approximated for years simply by not eating; this strikes me as a better way to get there).

I've also discovered that the paleo diet is not for the poor or the time-strapped.  So far my grocery bill has tripled (these specialty, non-processed foods are expensive!), as has the time I spend in the grocery store.  When you have to read every single label to make sure it doesn't have sugar or grain or legumes or dairy, or when you have to go to three different stores just to find "coconut aminos" to replace your soy sauce, there's no longer such a thing as a quick run to the grocery store.  And I'm starting to tire of what feels, at least lately, like a meat- and fat-heavy diet.

Still, I've lost three pounds (which wasn't the goal, but there you have it).  I feel great (it helps that eating "paleo" isn't the only thing we're doing:  we get points for workouts, for getting at least 7 hours of sleep each night, for setting goals and achieving them, for experimenting with new recipes).  And, of course, my team is winning. 

Speaking of my team, that has been the best part of this whole project so far.  It's a good group of people (both men and women) who are enthusiastic and supportive.  We have a private Facebook group where we share recipes, ask questions, and encourage each other.  For example, this happened the other day:

In a world where I often feel conspicuously out of place and eons behind everyone else in the gym, this is the first time I have ever felt this sort of community and support from fellow gym-goers.  That, alone, is enough to make this paleo challenge worth it.

The contest runs through the first week of March, and I'm planning to stick it out.  I'm not quite as convinced by the diet as some of my teammates are, but I figure six weeks of it can't hurt me, and maybe I'll become a true-believer -- or at least pick up some good ideas along the way. 

In any event, I'll keep you posted.