Monday, May 27, 2013

Memorial Day - Cycling, sailing, custard, crabs

Memorial Day was a full day of outdoor fun.  Mark, a friend from church, invited a bunch of people down to his parents' house on the water at Breton Bay, a tributary of the Potomac River near where it feeds into the Chesapeake Bay.  It was a multi-stage affair:  A group of guys (and one girl) biked from Arlington, VA to Leonardtown, MD -- a total distance of about 75 miles -- and met up with all of the non-cyclists at the house.  We spent the rest of the afternoon barbecuing and chatting on the back porch, playing in the water, and spinning around the bay on the motorboat, jet ski, and sailboat.  As dusk fell, we gathered back at the house for a dinner of Maryland crabs and more barbecue.  With approximately 25 adults and a bunch of kids, it was a lively and fun party.  Pretty much a perfect way to spend Memorial Day.
I was actually surprised at how well it all worked out.  I wasn't sure that I'd be able to pull off another long bike ride only two days after the 100-miler I rode on Saturday, but it went fine.  Thankfully these guys weren't nearly as intense as the crazy triathletes I normally ride with -- my legs were sore and creaky, and I was super grateful for the mellower pace!  And as for the logistics of getting myself home from a one-way bike ride, I invited Amy to join the party, so she drove my car down with our food contributions, a change of clothes, and my bike rack for the return trip home.
Oh, and remember those Mexican chocolate pots de creme that I made in the middle of the night on Saturday?  They were a huge hit.  I gave the first one to the hostess, who proclaimed them divine and then started telling everyone else that their lives would not be complete until they'd had one.  So maybe that midnight cooking was worth it after all.
The crack of dawn

The core cycling team. 
Yes, the guy on the far right is wearing a jersey covered in the American flag and the text of the U.S. Constitution.

We had to stop at Mark Sr's favorite frozen custard place. 
Not my typical mid-ride snack, but it's hard to argue with a place that sells happiness.

I ended up clocking 78 miles on this ride.  Would have been
closer to 75 miles, but I got separated from the group at the end and took a few
wrong turns that added extra miles.

They had a motor boat, a jet ski, and a sea-worthy racing sailboat.  The wind was minimal, but they took us
out for a spin on the sailboat anyway. 

My first time sailing!  It's amazingly quiet and smooth.  Very neat to see such ancient technology at work.
Next time I want to wear boat shoes.

Folding the sail.  Kind of like folding a giant American flag, only triangular and made of kevlar fabric.

Well, not for me.  Crabs are the quintessential summer treat in Maryland, but the whole process of smashing apart that
spidery-looking body to get at a few clumps of meat inside is revolting to me.  I opted for the BBQ chicken.

See what I mean?  If it can be brandished by friends screaming "It's gonna get you!", it doesn't belong on your plate.


Sunday, May 26, 2013

Adventures in cooking and trying not to get carried away

I remember my parents telling me a story once about my grandmother's (possibly unreasonable but totally understandable) drive for perfection:  She was having some people over for Sunday dinner and so, the day before, decided to make new curtains for the kitchen.  Since it turned out to be a bigger project than expected, she essentially had to stay up all night to finish sewing on the fringe.
I can totally identify with that.  Take this weekend, for example:  On Saturday, after the 100-mile bike ride and the polo match, I got home around 11pm and still had hours of cooking ahead of me.  You see, not only was I having James and Chip over for dinner on Sunday, I also was bringing dessert to a Memorial Day party.  Since, for reasons that I'll explain later, I had to drop off my car and said Memorial Day dessert at a friend's house before Sunday dinner, I basically had to have all of my cooking for both days done simultaneously. 
The main dishes that I needed to make were (1) a double batch of Mexican chocolate pots de creme for Memorial Day, (2) balsamic honey pulled pork for Sunday dinner, and (3) a chocolate cake for Sunday dinner.  I had all the ingredients; sequencing was the challenge.
I decided to start with the pots de creme, since they were both the most tedious (lots of chopping and stirring) and the most discrete (no need to wait for them to bake or stew). 
dark chocolate

coconut milk, ancho chili powder, cinnamon, egg, salt

melting, melting, melting
instead of miniature ramekins, I used picnic-friendly plastic cups
(with matching silver spoons) that Jennifer had stashed on hand
By the time I'd finished pouring chocolate into all 24 little cups and stuck the whole batch in the fridge to chill, it was 2am.  I was tired, but I also knew that if I didn't bake my cake then, it wouldn't get done.  That's when I thought of my grandmother and her all-night sewing project.  I decided that the lessons of that story were (a) I'm definitely related to my grandmother, and (b) staying up all night to bake a cake or sew fringe is kind of ridiculous.  So I abandoned the cake project and went to bed.
Next morning, though, I was back in the kitchen bright and early.  A cake may be optional; the balsamic honey pulled pork wasn't.  I started with the meat and vegetables, chopping everything up and getting it into the slow-cooker first thing.  Then I turned to the barbecue sauce.  It's the first time I've made barbecue sauce from scratch, and let me just say that there's a lot of different ingredients that I'd never have thought would go together:  balsamic vinager, honey, Worcestershire sauce, ketchup, brown sugar, salt, garlic, black pepper, etc.  It was quite the brew.
I finished the sauce just in time for church, and then I was in meetings and running errands until literally five minutes before James and Chip arrived for dinner -- which meant I had zero time to test out the pork to see if it was edible.  I only had time to throw everything on the table and serve it up.  Fortunately, it was delicious.  And with a bowl full of succulent watermelon, no one ever missed the chocolate cake.

Saturday, May 25, 2013


Okay, so the question on everyone's mind since Saturday is, Where has polo been all my life?  Seriously.  It's like all of the best things about a football game (fun ambiance, good friends, outdoors), only there are horses instead of football, people wear blazers with pocket squares instead of fan jerseys, and the foodstand sells fine Italian sausage instead of hotdogs; nobody pays any attention to what's going on with the game because they're all too busy socializing, and crystal glasses packed into a picnic basket seem totally normal.  What's not to love?

I discovered this treasure (or, rather, had it introduced to me) on Saturday when Jennifer and two of her friends invited me out to the "Twilight Polo" match at Great Meadow Polo Club in Middleburg, VA.  Yes, our picnic was awesome.  Yes, we had crystal wine glasses (the girls were thoughtful enough to bring a Coke for me).   And yes, we were complimented more than once on how well we'd captured the sartorial theme of the evening, "Preppy and Pretty in Pink" (in fact, the local glossy magazine even wanted a photo for it's write-up on the event).

I may not have been rocking the pink,
but I still nailed the preppy look with my yellow pants, that sweater, and a navy blazer.

Who's up for making Twilight Polo a summer tradition?

The Ride: Slow and steady will still get you to the top of the mountain and back

One of the risks of going to dance concerts that are only 45 minutes long is that you'll end up getting home in time to pick up your bike from the shop before it closes.  Next thing you know, it's Saturday morning and you're out on another 100 mile bike ride with those crazy triathlete friends you've been hanging out with.

I'm happy to report that I was not nearly as neurotic as the last time.  I did not read an entire book on cycling nutrition or lay out my outfit the night before.  I was coasting on the high of having done a hard thing once -- a second time could only be better, right?

Wrong.  As fate would have it, Saturday morning was essentially a time warp to late October, so it was cold and windy.  Really windy.  So windy that I basically lost my will to live approximately 47 times during the ride -- because there's nothing more demoralizing than riding 100 miles with a killer headwind.

Wait, I take that back.  What's even more demoralizing is riding 93.8 miles with a killer headwind, stopping for water and telling yourself "hey, I only have 6.2 miles left to ride!", and then realizing twenty minutes later, that you forgot to start your odometer again, such that the only way to get your computer to actually say "100 miles" is to ride an extra 5 miles with the odometer actually running.

The wind wasn't the only difference this time around.  The group was also different.  The folks from the last ride, who were "competitive and kind of fast, but really nice" were nowhere to be seen; instead we had a group of guys who were competitive and definitely fast and possibly not even that nice. 

We rode out to Sugarloaf Mountain, a prominence that in the presence of any real mountain would be only a molehill (seriously, the peak is only 800 feet above the surrounding countryside).  The route took us through familiar territory.  Lush Maryland farmland, about as picture-perfect an image of rural Americana as you can imagine; complete with vast white-fenced pastures, blowing grainfields, and giant red barns next to pretty white farmhouses.  Not that I have any pictures to show -- if you ride to the top of a "mountain" with a bunch of tri guys, be forewarned that they will not stop at the viewpoints for photos.

It was a hard ride, and I really struggled to keep up.  The wind was a major culprit, as was my knee, which started to hurt about half-way through and diminished the power and efficiency of my stroke.  It would have been difficult to keep up with the group under the best of circumstances; these less-than-best circumstances made it even harder.

BUT -- I've said it before and I'll say it again -- I can do hard things.  So I knuckled down and kept pushing through.  I tagged along well enough that we ended the ride more or less toghether, and I had the satisfaction of seeing that dial tick over to 100 yet again.  Woohoo!

Friday, May 24, 2013

Shen Wei Dance Arts (or, How modern dance can get out of your comfort zone on a Friday night)

Picture this:  You walk into an all-white room that has been heated to approximately 87 degrees Fahrenheit.  On the floor are three rows of square white mats with things on them.  Things like lucite blocks, giant rubber bands, naked people, puddles of paint, piles of hair.  You walk amongst those mats feeling hot and a little uncertain where you're supposed to go -- should you find a spot and stay put? or keep milling about?  Before you can fully answer those questions, the naked people start to twitch and writhe about; and then suddenly one of them is right in front of you carrying a lucite box on her way to a mat on the other side of the room.  You're in her way, so you move.  The eye contact is super awkward.

Gradually the movements become less zombie-like, more dance-like -- which may simply be an optical illusion resulting from the addition of atonal music and drums to the movement.  After all, any movement, when accompanied by music, will seem to take on the quality of dance. 

Gradually, too, you and all the other spectators settle into a comfortable "watching" mode.  It's different for everyone.  Many people are clustered around the edges of the room so they can take everything in.  I preferred to stay in the middle, where I could focus on certain dancers (and audience members -- they were as interesting as the dancers) for a while, and then move every so often to a different area to take in a different set of people.

Initially, the dancers were very careful to avoid the puddles of paint, which was incredibly suspenseful.  Paint on the floor in modern dance is like a gun on the mantel in Act 1 of a play:  at some point someone's going to get it, and it's not going to be pretty.  Sure enough, before long someone's toe or arm or entire head managed to slip into the puddle -- and then it was just a mess.  Because sweaty moving bodies are one thing; sweaty moving bodies covered in paint are another thing altogether. 

But paint was only the beginning.  Remember those blocks? the rubber bands? those piles of hair?  Yep, you guessed it.  Oh, the carnage!

One of the things I love about modern dance is how it forces you to think about aesthetics and beauty and the human body and movement.  Unlike ballet, which is pretty much invariably gorgeous and perfect, modern dance is often intentionally messy and immediately physical, pushing the boundaries of what is beautiful and not beautiful. 

That was definitely true as I stood in the middle of the Shen Wei Dance Arts' performance of Undivided Divided at the Kennedy Center on Friday night.  It was strange and a little uncomfortable to watch the dancers so closely -- normally there are clothes and stages and a lot more space and social norms against staring that mediate our interactions with other people.  Here, though, the whole point was to be in close to the action and see everything. 

If you weren't there in the room, you might smirk at that "everything" (scandalous!) -- but the reality is that when you see someone up close like that, there's a lot to take in.  Yes, there was beauty and attraction, but also imperfection and repulsion -- all embodied in the same dancer.  Likewise, watching each dancer, you had a sense of vulnerability and presence (he's right there!) but also coldness and distance (he'd tuned us out; and those 8 inches from me to him were as uncrossable as the "fourth wall" of any proscenium stage). 

It was amazing.  Weird.  Thankfully short.  Forty-five minutes after walking into that bright wight room, it was all over, and I was free to return to normal life, where clothes and space and social norms keep us clean and tidy and out of the paint. 

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

It's all fun and games until you start ripping the flesh off your body

At Crossfit this morning we got hit with the benchmark workout known as "Helen," which consists of three rounds, for time, of a 400 meter run, 21 kettlebell swings with a 24-kilo kettlebell, and 12 pullups. 

Normally Crossfit workouts aren't repeated, but Helen is one of the benchmark workouts that gets trotted out periodically so that we can measure our progress.  The last time we did Helen was in February.  I don't remember my time, but I know I had to scale down weight on the kettlebell swings and use a giant rubber band to get through the pullups.  The run, of course, was the easy part. 

Today my goal was to get through Helen as prescribed (or "RX" in Crossfit lingo) -- and I did it!  With a time of 14:48, I was not the fastest in the class (though not the slowest, either), and I made it through all three rounds with the full 24-kilo kettlebell and the pullups without any assistance.  As I suffered through the last round of pullups I totally wanted to die (and feared I might puke), but everyone who had already finished stood around cheering me on -- which was really great and one of the reasons I love Crossfit. 

BUT . . .

. . . all those pullups kind of destroyed my hands. 

Both hands look like this. 
And yes, I've essentially ripped off all the surface skin at the base of my ring finger,
it's just hanging on by a bit of flesh at the top of the flap.

Obviously showering, etc., was way more difficult and painful than normal.  Fortunately, I still have plenty of gauze and tape and disinfectant/anesthetic cream from my last hand fiasco, so once I'd cleaned myself up I just bandaged everything and went to work looking like I'd been attacked by a drunken Florence Nightingale.

Two-handed photo courtesy of Barbara, who sits across the hall from me

Needless to say, I think it's time to find some of those straps that I've seen other guys wear to protect their hands.  Add that to this weekend's shopping list!

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The grills are out at Heidelberg Bakery!

One of my favorite hallmarks of summer: grilled German sausage, sauerkraut and potato salad at Heidelberg Bakery. They grill every Saturday from mid-May until it gets cold again.

And of course it's only a few steps from the grills outside to the inside counters where all sorts of baked goodies are just waiting to be tried. Yum!

Monday, May 13, 2013

One step closer

Look what came in the mail today! I can now legally enter Vietnam.


Unfortunately things aren't going so smoothly in Chicago. I heard from Vanessa today that the US Postal Service lost her visa, despite it's having been sent via certified mail.  We still have a month before we leave, so there should be plenty of time to sort things out (fingers crossed), but still, what a hassle! 

Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Ride: Impromptu Century

So this happened today:

For full stats, you can click on the link in the "Garmin Connect" widget in the lower right-hand column of this blog.
How, you ask?  Simple:  I got on a bike at 6:30am and didn't get off again until 1:30pm.  (Okay, okay, so I did get off a couple of times in between -- as you can see from the chart, I was actually riding for only 5 hours and 48 minutes; that lost hour-and-twelve-minutes was devoted to pit stops and snacks.)

Why, you ask?  Ummm, because that's what happens when you hang out with people who are training for Ironman triathlons.  Consider yourself warned.  Here's how it all went down:

[Wednesday afternoon.  At work.]

Chris:  I'm going on an 85-mile training ride on Saturday.  Want to come? 

Me:  Sure!

[That night it occured to me that I'd only ridden my bike, like, three times this entire spring, and none of those rides had been longer than 35 miles.]

Me:  So, um, how long do you think it'll take to ride 85 miles?  [Code for how fast are you going to ride, and am I going to die?]

Chris:  I dunno, probably 5 hours or so.  Just a comfortable, rolling pace.

[Comfortable? No way was 85 miles going to be comfortable. And for FIVE HOURS? How were we not going to starve to death? My usual approach of munching on a few snacks by the lake with the water lilies (or, in extremis, stopping at a McDonald's) surely wasn't going to mesh with the triathlon training regime. So I did a little research and found an entire book devoted to how not to die (including by starvation) while riding a bike. I read that book.]

Chris:  [Last night] Update on the ride: A couple of my friends from the DC Tri Club are going to join us on the ride, so let's all meet at 7:00 am at the intersection of M Street and Key Bridge.

[Oh no! Other people!]

Me:  Great!  I'll be there.  P.S. I feel a little intimidated.

Chris:  I think you'll be fine, though fair warning the two people riding are fast and somewhat competitive (though really nice). Also, it looks like it'll be raining.  Will be fun but a bit hard.

[Crap. Eighty-five miles with nice, competitive people in the rain. I didn't even know what color lenses I was supposed to wear in the rain! (Turns out Google had the answer to that question.)]

Chris:  [The next morning -- 7am at the rendez-vous point] Ready for this?

Me:  Sure! I'm not so worried about the distance [a complete lie] but I am a little nervous about riding that distance with folks I don't know [God's honest truth], so I'm making no promises! If I can't keep up, I'll just call it a day and pack it in. [pause] Or . . . .

Chris:  Or you'll just force yourself to keep up anyway, knowing that you're completely Type A and competitive and willing to spend the rest of the day recovering on your couch.

Me:  Um, yeah, pretty much. [Gosh, was it that obvious?]

Two seconds later, Erin and Brody pulled up on two of the most tricked out tri bikes I'd ever seen, looking for all the world like the intense, competitive triathletes they were reputed to be.  Hellos all around, and then we were off! 

Many hours -- and many miles -- later, I dismounted back at my apartment, totally happy; totally encrusted in dried sweat and sticky gnats.

Don't be fooled by my general hotness --
at this point I was completely disgusting and NOT sweet-smelling
Not only had I survived, but I'd had a blast. The others were clearly all very strong riders, but so, apparently, was I (surprise!).  I had no problem matching the pace they set -- it was challenging, but in the exhilarating "I can totally do this if I push myself" way.  It was fun to ride with the group and feel motivated by the others' energy.  It was fun to feel my body healthy and strong and working like a machine.  And it was fun to see those miles tick by.

Speaking of miles, how did the original 85 miles turn into 100 miles?  That's a no-brainer.  By the time we'd gotten back to the initial rendez-vous point, I'd done the 85 miles, plus the additional 5 miles that I'd ridden to get from my apartment to the bridge in the first place.  I thought to myself, "90 miles? Sounds weak. Better top it off and get the full 100."  So I did.

Not without regret, though.  Those last 10 miles were as hard to get as the first 60 had been.  After the bridge my companions had all gone their separate ways, and I discovered what an enormous difference it makes to ride in a group instead of alone.  All that moral support, friendly competition, and chitchat were gone -- my thighs, calves and butt had my undivided attention for the first time in six hours, and they were NOT happy.

But it's not like I could just give up, right? I mean, seriously, what descendent of Mormon pioneers gives up at the end of a hundred-mile bike ride just because his legs are tired?  There weren't even any freezing rivers to cross! So I pressed on and reminded myself that all this suffering would simply add to the bragging rights (and the inevitable blog post; suddenly all those pioneer diaries made more sense -- THEY WERE BLOGS!)

Besides, having read up not only on what to eat before and during a long ride, but also on what to eat after a long ride, I knew that my screaming legs would be getting all the tender loving care they needed before too long.  And by "tender loving care" I mean "carbohydrates and protein." 

For carbohydrates, I opted for banana waffles with 100% pure maple syrup . . .

which I ate standing up because, well . . . BECAUSE I'D JUST SPENT SIX HOURS SITTING ON A TINY TRIANGLE
and for protein, I busted out my trusty keg of trainer-approved protein powder and made a nice cold chocolate protein shake . . .

which I drank lying in fetal position on the floor of my shower until the
crystallized sweat and gnats started to melt and run into my eyeballs and I had to
wash my face to avoid going blind and catching malaria.
Needless to say, the rest of the day will be pretty low-key.  My legs have been loving the couch as I sit here and write this blog post.  In a few minutes, after I hit "publish", I'll probably run to Home Depot and pick up some gardening supplies (I bought flowers yesterday! too many to fit into my pots!) and see if I can find a pet store with pond-friendly goldfish (time to replace the Elijah-fish!).  Then it's off to the movie theatre, where I'll meet up with Amy and see Ironman 3 in 3D.  Because flashy Hollywood action-figure entertainment is exactly what I want right now.
Give me a couple weeks, though, and I may just get the itch to do this all again.  Apparently Chris and company are planning to ride Skyline Drive in the Shenandoah National Park . . . . Stay tuned!

Friday, May 10, 2013

Best dance concert of the season

Monica Bill Barnes & Company performed last night at the Kennedy Center.  It was, hands down, the most fun I've had at a dance performance all year. 

The choreography was fresh and full of humor and contagious enthusiasm.  The dancers exuded personality and, by the end of the show, I wanted to be best friends with all of them.

It helped, of course, that I'd actually met two of the dancers and learned some of the choreography earlier this week.  On Tuesday night Christina and Giulia taught a Master Class for luddites like moi, inviting us to step inside Monica's world. 

It's a fun and physical and risky world.  There were typical dance moves, of course (ball change!), but also lots of purely theatrical physicality.  For example, we'd be given a scenario with general directions but the details would be left up to us.  So, say you're in middle school and you see your friends across the room, and you go to them, but you trip on the way -- what do you do?  Or, say you show up at a party and don't see anyone you recognize; you wait a minute, then start grooving to the music on your own, only to realize that it's actually someone else's funeral and not your party at all -- how do you react? 

One aspect that I really loved was how positive and collaborative the experience was.  The scenarios often required a partner in a supporting role -- and by "supporting" I mean literally encouraging and motivating.  So one of you, say, would be a contestant in a shaking contest, and the other one would be cheering you on, absolutely convinced that you were going to win.  Or one of you would be trying to get up the nerve to flirt with someone at a bar, and the other one would be encouraging you and acting as your wingman.  Having another person there whose sole job was to encourage and support you made it easy to drop the inhibitions of performing in front of strangers, and, weirdly, it made you like the person better (because it's hard to fake being a fan of someone 100% without actually becoming a fan on some level) and it made you feel better about yourself (because how could you not when someone is right there cheering hysterically about what an incredibly awesome shaker you are?) .

None of that made the dancing any easier to perform -- I'm still a complete disaster when it comes to spinning around (spotting is so hard!); there's no way I'll be quitting my day job to join a modern dance company.  But still, it was a great intro into the world of modern dance and a wonderful contrast to the very different discipline of ballet.

And, of course, as I watched the performance last night, it was super exciting to see the scenarios play out and the familiar choreography come together -- "Look Amy, I know how to do that! ... So that's what it was supposed to look like."

Chairs and batons and confetti were not part of the master class.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Spring Gala

What's the use of having a reputation for excellent French and a passion for the performing arts?  Well, for starters, it increases the odds that your name will come up when the folks planning a black-tie gala look at the guest list and think, "If only we knew someone who was fluent in French and a fan of the Kennedy Center!"

That's apparently what happened a couple of months ago during a meeting where the heads of fundraising at the Kennedy Center were brainstorming how to make the wife of the Gabonese Ambassador feel welcome at the annual Spring Gala.  The Embassy of Gabon was a major supporter of the event, and the Ambassador and his wife were planning to attend, but language barriers risked leaving Madame out of the social patter that would accompany the dinner.

Solution?  Moi.  En smoking.  Evidemment.

Of course I was flattered and accepted the invitation.  I planned to spend the following weeks reading up on Gabon (West Africa, major nature reserve, lots of offshore oil, regional commercial hub) and the Ambassador (six kids!) -- and I promise did spend about half an hour Googling all of that before the event -- but the real fun lay in updating my eveningwear wardrobe.  Because wearing a tuxedo is one talent that I have every intention of developing in this lifetime...

The evening started with a reception on the terrace overlooking the Potomac River.  Not knowing when the Embassy party would arrive, I got there early and enjoyed milling about amongst the finery and the plastic surgery -- and there was a lot of both.  It would have been more fun to have had a date to share it with, but at least I knew many of the Kennedy Center folks and was able to chat with them periodically as they mingled with donors.

Me and Nicole, who looked fantastic in that mint-green dress
(the photo really doesn't do it justice)
From the reception we went upstairs to dinner in the rooftop atrium.  Seen at any other time, the atrium strikes most people as a boring waste of space -- but add a few lights and flowers and crystal chandeliers, and voila! you've got a glamorous formal dinner for a couple hundred guests.

The view from the Ambassador's table
They hire professional calligraphers to write the place cards
First course:  butter lettuce salad with English cheddar,
blackberries, walnuts and honey vinaigrette
The food at these events is usually decent but, given the challenges of feeding so many, it's rarely outstanding -- and this night was no different.  You go for the socializing and the clothes and the concert, not the food. 

Speaking of socializing, it didn't go quite as planned.  The Ambassador and his wife never came!  Not surprising, perhaps, given that this is the party season and I'm sure they've got gala fatigue like everyone else (new personal goal: get to the point where I can claim to have "gala fatigue").  But that didn't mean I ate alone.  Also at my table were a Congressman who is the Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs (who affably introduced himself and then, upon realizing that I wasn't important, tried to ignore me the rest of the night), a businesswoman who is the senior director of international affairs at a major French company and on the board of the Alliance Francaise (who eagerly gave me her business card and invited me to get involved), the director of the Atlantic Council's Africa Center, and his wife who is an accountant (both of whom recently moved to DC from New York and were still adjusting -- we bonded over the Met Opera), and the executive vice president of the Kennedy Center (who handles all administrative and operations matters).  So while I didn't spend the evening conversing in French about the place of Gabon in the world, there was still plenty of interesting talk to go around.

Dinner was followed by a concert performance of My Fair Lady.  By happy coincidence I was seated in the same box as the Marriotts.  Ron and Debbie weren't there (off in Kenya, I hear) but it was still fun to catch up with Bill and Donna and Donna's sister (whose name I've forgotten, but whose daughter married one of my mission companions).  The performance itself was spotty but charming -- you could tell it hadn't been rigorously rehearsed, but the blips and foibles actually made it more fun, keeping the audience on its toes.  It's amazing to see how a musical as well known as My Fair Lady can still delight an audience and generate fresh laughter after so many years.  It's a testament to the strength of the show and the place it occupies in popular culture.

After the performance we headed back upstairs for the "Midnight Party" on the roof.  There were fountains and flowers and towers of desserts; a silhouette of the London skyline projected on the wall.  A DJ played music at one end of the hall, which had been cleared for dancing; there was an open bar on the other end.  I circulated for a while, saying hello to folks I hadn't caught up with during the reception earlier, but I didn't stay long.  After all, it was a Sunday night, and unlike the wealthy and the retired, I needed to get up early in the morning for work (and Crossfit). 

So I bid my fond farewells, grabbed my Boeing/Estee Lauder goodie bag, and headed back to my apartment and the plain old ordinariness of regular life. 

The goodies were perfect, by the way:
An umbrella from Boeing with a discrete logo on the inside,
and some sort of eye cream from Estee Lauder that claims to ensure
my continued hotness for years to come.


Thursday, May 2, 2013

La fin (enfin!) des Miserables

So here I am, Thursday morning, sitting in my dentist's waiting room, reading Les Miserables until they call my name, when -- suddenly -- I turn the page and discover . . .

there were no more words!  Nothing but snowy white blank pages until the editor's notes began.  After 1800 pages and six months of my life, Victor Hugo finally had nothing else to say.  (Or, at least, he had left off here to seek other platforms.)


You'll recall that I started reading this book (this time around) with more than a little ambivalence.  You may therefore wonder whether that ambivalence changed now that I've finished the novel.  The answer, sadly, is no. 

The basic premise of the novel is, admittedly, epic.  The relationship between the forces of mercy, repentance and sacrifice (Jean Valjean) and those of justice, truth and the law (Javert) is profound and problematic in the abstract, and moving and revelatory when applied to concrete examples of the poor and excluded in society.  The chapters devoted to the moral quandaries of Jean Valjean are some of the best and most compelling in the book.

In addition, Hugo also may be one of the most eloquent and finely observant writer's I've read.  Here are two of my favorite passages:
Il [l’Evêque de Digne] cherchait à conseiller et à calmer l’homme désespéré en lui indiquant du doigt l’homme résigné, et à transformer la douleur qui regarde une fosse en lui montrant la douleur qui regarde une étoile.
Soit dit en passant, c’est une chose assez hideuse que le succès. Sa fausse ressemblance avec le mérite trompe les hommes. Pour la foule, la réussite a presque le même profil que la suprématie. . . . Prospérité suppose Capacité. . . . Dorure est or. . . . Ils confondent avec les constellations de l’abîme les étoiles que font dans la vase molle du bourbier les pattes des canards.
But the problem with Hugo's eloquence is that it knows no bounds.  Literally.  The rigorous discipline so evident in the crafting of his fine sentences was not applied to the novel as a whole.  Instead of focusing on his primary characters and plot -- and on developing his themes through them -- Hugo runs on and on and on, with lengthy tangents and tirades that do nothing to advance the plot or develop his themes, with detailed descriptions of characters who are never seen again.  I didn't do the math, but I'd hazard a guess that a good third of the book could easily be cut without any detrimental effect to the integrity of the whole.  When, on page 1769, I read (for the upteenth time) the words "Ici une courte digression est nécessaire" I knew that it would be neither short nor necessary.  Whatever indulgence I may have granted earlier such "digressions" had long been supplanted by a dull, impatient rage:  I skipped whatever "necessary" babble Hugo offered and picked up when he got back to the point.

Finally, aside from Jean Valjean, Javert, the Bishop, Thenardier and Gavroche, I kind of hate all of the characters in the novel.  They feel like cartoons.  Cosette is vapid and empty; Marius is a dreamer who needs to grow up -- it's hard to feel confident that either of them could succeed in the world without Jean Valjean to protect them.  This may be a symptom of 19th Century Romanticism more generally (as opposed to a failing unique to Hugo), but in a novel as annoying and voluminous as this one, my ability to care about the characters ended long before the book did.

I'm happy to say I've read the book.  I'm happier to say I've finished it.  I'm happiest to say that I will never have to read it again.


Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Play hard, work hard, then take a night off

Do you ever just want a night off?  Like, where you get to take time out from everything you're doing (not just work) and recuperate for a minute?  Me too.  And I don't even have kids or cows or a Chicago-style mail-order catalog business to worry about.  Just my own little life.  Which is enough.

Take the last few days, for example.  First I spend three days in Chicago, packing in as many performances and restaurants and friends and beluga whales (yes, dang it, I totally have video of beluga whales that I forgot to post) and all-night conversations as can possibly fit into three days.  Then I come home and proceed to work approximately 40 hours between Sunday night and 10am this morning, all so that my client could buy three companies by the first of the month.

By noon I was pooped.  But I still had plenty of other work to do, and of course there was my usual Wednesday evening yoga class and an invitation from Jennifer to see the Philadelphia Orchestra in concert at the Kennedy Center.  So I plowed ahead with the best intentions of Being Productive . . . only to find myself waking up with a crick in my neck after falling asleep at my desk. 

At that point I decided I needed to reboot.  I checked my list of Things To Do; everything was either optional or could be done another day.  So I canceled yoga, took a rain check on the symphony tickets, and left work a little after 5pm.  By 6pm I was home.

After I finished wierding out about seeing my apartment in afternoon light for the first time in about a million years, I realized that I couldn't just go to bed.  I mean seriously, there's a difference between being tired and being a fossil.  So I went on a quick 20-mile bike ride, made some dinner, and watched the latest episode of New Girl (and also Smash, because apparently I lose all self control when I have unstructured time on the couch in front of the television).

And now it's bedtime.  Time to curl up in my flannel sheets and read a few pages of Les Miserables.  Because there's nothing like drifting off to sleep with visions of 19th-century Parisian sewers in your head.