Sunday, December 15, 2013

Back for more

I'm back in New York for another round of negotiations. How long will I be here this time? No one knows! So far meetings are only scheduled for tomorrow; I can make it through Wednesday without needing to do laundry (and through sometime next week before needing to repeat a tie).  

Times Square as seen from the 37th floor of the Hilton.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Deck the halls!

Snow turning to sleet and freezing rain with fog and mist?  Perfect.  I decorated for Christmas yesterday, so all I needed was a dusting of snow to put the finishing touch on the look -- how nice of Mother Nature to oblige!  Time to light some candles, turn on the Christmas music and curl up with a good gothic vampire novel -- Sunday afternoon has never been so cozy!

But before I get too engrossed in the novel, let's talk about the Christmas decor.  I'm not going away for the holidays this year, so I decided to decorate "for reals."  Only I wasn't in the mood for a tree.  Trees are big, and my living room is small; plus, trees have the unfortunate habit of dropping dried needles everywhere.  And I always feel kind of bad chopping down an entire tree just so it can bring me Christmas cheer for a few short weeks.  On the other hand, I still wanted lights and greens and that wonderful piney smell.

So I put on my thinking cap and came up with some fun, treeless decorating ideas.  Then, between my box of Christmas decor and a few supplemental trips to the store (or, rather, stores plural -- I hit up the Merrifield Garden Center, Home Depot, Michael's, Pottery Barn, West Elm, Crate & Barrel, and the Harris Teeter grocery store), I was able to bring my ideas to life.

I started with the balcony because I knew it would be the least practical and, therefore, the most fun.  Except for a few hardy perennials that will withstand with winter chill, my pots are empty and bare -- I had a clean slate!  I started by running a 25-foot garland of white pine boughs along the balcony railing and filling the pots with pine cones to cover the bare dirt.  Then I dressed up the wreath and the spruce with some nature-inspired ornaments -- bright butterflies and miniature cardinals -- as well as some traditional glass balls and a giant velvet bow.  Finally, my favorite:  two little lanterns with pillar candles inside to give a warm and homey glow after the sun goes down.  A perfect finishing touch!


Turns out the only pine cones available for sale are
cinnamon-scented.  So with five bags of pine cones, my balcony
is more fragrant with cinnamon than ever I'd expected!







Living Room
Moving into the living room, I focused on decorations that were both minimal and yet high-impact.  Over the sliding glass door, an artificial garland with little white lights, red beads, three mercury-glass ornaments, and the stocking that Lady made for me when I was little.  


On the couch and chair, I changed out my Turkish pillow covers for more festive red and white covers.  The red ones are knit, so they feel like a sweater; and the white ones are a basic off-white linen that matches perfectly the oh-so-soft faux sheepskin throw that Heather sent as a "hug" a few years ago.


Lastly, on the end table, I placed an arrangement of clipped boxwood, a Danish soldier that was a gift from my Granny, and an aromatic oil diffuser (it's the "snow currant" fragrance from Pottery Barn, and I absolutely love it).


I love how at dusk you can see the balcony and the glowing lanterns from the living room.


The Bathroom
When things are busy at work (and when are things not busy at work?) the bulk of my waking time at home is spent in the bathroom -- getting ready for work in the morning, and for bed at night.  So when it comes to decorating, the bathroom was no place to skimp!

I switched out my usual blue and white patterned towels and put out the red and white set that I'd gotten when I first moved in.  In place of fresh cut flowers, I got a little potted poinsettia.


Then for a touch of complementary color, I added a fresh boxwood wreath on the back of the door to the bedroom closet.  Not only is it pretty, but the rich boxwood smell reminds me of my grandmother's house -- she had a little boxwood hedge running along the front porch, so I associate the scent with our visits to her house (this is a different grandmother from the one with the eucalyptus -- I have very strong aromatic associations with my grandmothers; fortunately they had the good sense to stick with their own brand!)


To match the towels, I hung my red and white embroidered shower curtain.  Because normally all that white is too bland for my taste, I hung sparkly snowflake ornaments across the top.


Over the WC, I added a bow to Mr. Rhinoceros and a potted cyclamen.  The flowers remind me of visiting the Bellagio in Las Vegas with my parents.


Front Hallway
Last but not least, I hung a fresh wreath of noble fir ("noble" being the type of fir tree, not a description of its character) and juniper on the back of the front door.  That way when I enter the apartment I am greeted by the most delicious, fresh pine scent.  I may or may not have gone in and out a few times just to smell it.  (Also, when it dries and the needles fall, they'll go on the tile of the entryway and not all over my living room carpet…)


That's all for now.  I'm still waiting for another garland that I've ordered for the bedroom, so once that comes I may update with photos of that room, too (assuming I can figure out how to photograph that room in a more or less flattering way -- I tell you the lighting and angles in that room give me fits).

I hope you had as much fun decorating your place for the holidays as I've had decorating mine!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Shakespeare in New York

I have been in New York this week.  A client called me up on Monday for a round of meetings and hasn't let me go since.  Not that much is actually happening to require my presence (the negotiations have been stalled since Monday afternoon); mostly I think the client just wants to know it has me ready at hand, just in case.  The upshot for me has been a week of inconvenient workdays followed by evenings of phenomenal theatre.

The Belasco Theatre just off of Times Square is running Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and Richard III in repertory (meaning that the same group of actors performs each play in alternation).  The productions are imported from the Globe Theatre in England and have gotten glowing reviews from everyone (for a sampling, check out the New York Times, The New Yorker, and the Washington Post). 

On Tuesday I managed to duck out of work in time to see Twelfth Night; last night I saw Richard III -- and I'm still recovering from both.  Watching these plays was the sort of rare, truly magical experience that makes you want to laugh out loud for sheer happiness while watching them, and leaves you for days afterwards feeling like a different person, like the world is somehow a better, more wondrous place than it seemed before.

The cast is all male, as it would have been in Shakespeare's day, and everything about the set, costumes, music, etc. is as authentic as possible.  For example, the clothing is all hand-made by artisans using the same materials as existed in Elizabethan times (wool, linen, leather; buttons, clasps and hooks, no zippers; silk wigs).  The stage is set to look like the sort of grand hall where plays like this were performed in great houses and colleges while touring away from the main playhouse; the chandeliers are lit by real beeswax candles that drip throughout the performance.  The music is live; performed by musicians using period instruments.  And the performers dress and apply their makeup onstage in front of the audience (also as apparently was done back in the day). 

The integrity of these trappings bring a magic all their own, but the life of the shows is in the performers.  I was familiar with several of the actors from before.  I'd seen Mark Rylance in the hilarious Boeing Boeing, and Samuel Barnett in History Boys, both on Broadway several years ago; and Stephen Fry I know and love from the British TV show QI (though he's done a lot else, too).  The performances were strong across the cast, with thoughtful and subtle portrayals of each of the characters. 

And there was no shouting.  One of my biggest complaints, even about generally good Shakespeare productions such as those put on by the Shakespeare Theatre Company in DC, is that too often the level of intensity for every emotion is ratcheted so high that I come away feeling beaten and a little dead.  In fact, just the other day I was thinking how nice it would be to see a production where people just spoke plainly in an ordinary tone of voice, leaving the shouting and anguish to scenes (if any) that truly deserve it; where the actors speak like human beings, not like SHAKESPEAREAN ACTORS. What a pleasure, then, to find that very thing in these two plays!  There was no overwrought anguish; no shouting where shouting wasn't required. 

Among the cast of strong players, the standout, clearly was Mark Rylance.  As Olivia, in Twelfth Night, and Richard, in Richard III, his interpretation of the roles brought depth and subtlety, and a tremendous amount of humor, to the characters.  He played off the audience and the other actors, and allowed and encouraged them to play off him, in a way that made everyone feel part of the delightful thing that was happening.  And despite (perhaps because) of his greatness, he didn't dominate the scenes, and he clearly relished the moments when the other actors and their characters held their own with his.  For example, in Richard III, I loved the strength and intelligence of Barnett's Queen Elizabeth.  The final scene between the two, when Richard (after killing Elizabeth's husband, brothers and two sons) asks for Elizabeth's help in wooing her young daughter in a ploy to secure his hold on the throne, was electric: two immovable forces meeting and, for the first time in Richard's trajectory, he doesn't win.  (The parting kiss that Elizabeth gives Richard is more violent and humiliating than any blow or curse would have been.)

Perhaps more than anything else, these plays were fun; especially Twelfth Night (it's admittedly harder to have fun when the Duke of Gloucester is murdering children in their beds).  The audience was eager and willing (and surprisingly sophisticated for Broadway -- most around me were die-hard theatre (and specifically Rylance) fans, trading stories about the shows they'd seen in New York and London and wherever else (my kind of people!)), and the actors and other production elements intentionally brought us in.  There was a winking sort of complicity between the actors and audience, and an acknowledgement that we needed each other to make real the worlds of the plays.

I'm not sure how much longer I'll be here in New York (from a laundry perspective, I really should go home tonight), but if I don't leave tonight, I'm seriously considering going again.  (And for my readers who don't live near New York, I'd say that if ever there was theatre worth traveling for, this is it!)

Twelfth Night
One of my favorite Shakespeare plays.  Mostly because the story revolves around a pair of boy-girl twins.  If Heather and I are ever shipwrecked, this is how I'd want the story to turn out.  (Synopsis here.)

Viola and Olivia
Viola (played by a man) is a woman dressed as a man
wooing a woman on behalf of the man she (Viola)
loves; naturally Olivia falls in love with the man that
Viola is pretending to be.  Hilarity ensues.
Sebastian and Viola
The shipwrecked twins, reunited
Malvolio (Stephen Fry) pursuing Olivia (Mark Rylance)
after pranksters lead him to think she loves him
Malvolio, Maria, Olivia
This photo gives a sense of the set.

And here's a video featuring Rylance's Olivia and Fry's Malvolio.

Richard III
A history play that will make you question any fairy-tale-inspired desire to be royal.  Also, one more down, 18 to go!  (Synopsis here.)

(That little crippled hand is the creepiest
thing ever. Especially when he made people
kiss it.)

Elizabeth and her son, the prince.
(Richard murders the prince)

Richard and Lady Anne
(he murders her father and husband, then marries her
and murders her, too)

Elizabeth and Richard
(after that final kiss I told you about, when Elizabeth refuses
to encourage her daughter to marry the man who killed her father,
uncles and brothers)



Sunday, December 1, 2013

Diamonds and gold all over my face

Okay, let's say you had a story to tell about how you accidentally got a super-fancy facial at a high-end cosmetics boutique where they smeared magnetic Dead Sea mud and real live diamonds and who knows what else on your face before releasing your now-flawless self back into the world of mortals.  How would you start that story?  Think about it, because it's not as easy as you might think.  Especially if you didn't have the presence of mind to take a selfie while lying half naked on the heated bed while the mud dried.

I blame it all on Morocco.  And Turkey.

In those countries, "shopping" involves negotiation, and "negotiation" means a heady mixture of haggling, storytelling, theatre and ritual:  The merchants lure you into their shops and display their wares.  They ply you with tea and tales of weaving widows as a sweating shop-assistant unfolds rug after rug from the giant piles lining the room.  When you show any interest, they compliment your taste ("A lawyer? I thought you were a designer!"); when you show reluctance, they ask you to name your price; when you name your price, they gasp in faux-outrage ("You are a Berber!"); when you pretend to get up and leave, they quickly come back with a counter-offer and assure you it's the best price they've ever given to anyone.  Back and forth you go, feeling out the limits that are real or fake, all the while hoping to avoid becoming overly attached to the rug of your dreams before you get it down to a reasonable price. 

It's fun and competitive and completely addictive.  On a positive level because, when you strike a deal, you feel like you've just matched wits with another person and come out on top.  On a negative level because, after that first rush, there's always a sneaking suspicion that you've just been had -- and so you want to try it again, just to make sure.

It's also totally foreign to American shopping malls, where everything is pretty and packaged and haggling is not allowed.  Or so I thought.

A few weeks ago, as I was leaving the mall after picking up my new laptop computer and a few bottles of fountain pen ink (because those things go together), something caught my eye:  a stylishly unshaven Israeli guy about my age was waiving something at me.  I paused to see what it was, and -- BAM -- next thing I know I'm on a stool inside a glowing white cosmetics shop, and Ben (that was his name) is smearing potions and ointments on my face, arms and neck.  He alternatingly flatters me ("What are you, 26, 27? Older! AMAZING.") and judges me ("What moisturizer do you use? Really. Well.") and criticizes me ("It is socially irresponsible not to use a nighttime anti-aging syrum if you 're over thirty.") and reassures me ("Don't worry, lots of men use this stuff, not just old ladies.").

Then he started asking me which products I liked the best, which ones I'd actually use.  He mentioned giving me a "good price" and maybe even striking a deal that "no one else would have to know about." 

Aha, I thought.  I know this game!  So I started playing back.  I expressed dismay at the prices; he broke it down into a per-usage value over the course of a year.  I was skeptical of the value; he handed me a mirror and claimed to see instant results.  I said I was happy with my own moisturizer; he asked me if it had gold in it, because this one was made with real gold.  I gathered my things to leave; he broke out the freebies:  This facial peel? Included free of charge. These soaps? My compliments, take more than one.  Facials?  YOU'VE NEVER HAD A FACIAL?!  Look at this menu, see they normally cost $300, but this will be free. A gift for you. We will book it right now.

And that's how I ended up, three weeks later, lying half-naked on a heated bed while a friendly middle-aged woman wiped and massaged and steamed and brushed and mudded and cleaned my face and neck and arms.  I pretty much loved everything about it!  Unlike massages, which I find completely stressful and ticklish and horribly awkward, the facial was relaxing and soothing and extremely comfortable.  (Also, the magnetic mud?  Way cool.  You smear it all over your face and let it dry. Then pass a magnet over the skin and the mud just peels right off, leaving your skin incredibly soft.)  I could have stayed in there all night. 

Of course, I knew the facial wouldn't be the end of the story.  I'd demonstrated a willingness to purchase outrageously priced cosmetics once, surely Ben assumed I'd do it again.  Sure enough, the woman giving the facial commented more than once, with some amusement, that Ben had asked her to use the most expensive products, and when I emerged, he had a whole counter full of products for my consideration.  There was a pot of the oh-so-cool magnetic mud.  Several vials of "diamond infused" serum and masks.  More creams with gold in them (for nighttime use, he said).  There was even -- and this was the best part -- a stack of manicure kits and be-ribboned sets of toner and lotion, three of each item (why three?  because I'd told him I had three women in my family and he was anticipating my Christmas shopping needs -- all these things would be thrown in for free to sweeten the deal). 

Ben pulled out the mirror to show me the emperors new clothes my face and even called over his colleague to comment ("Oh wow, yes, that cheek where you didn't put the diamond stuff? Totally saggy. The other cheek, though, looks AMAZING!"). 

Finally, the moment we'd all been waiting for, the big reveal:  All of these treasures -- for only $3,500. 

Holy cow.  Time to put on the brakes!

I stopped him right there, thanked him for the facial and said I would not buy anything.  His eyes grew huge with amazement -- how could I turn down this deal?  How could I turn down eternal youth and beauty?  Was it a money issue?  But these weren't real questions, they were game pieces; and I had stopped playing the game.  

As I rose from the seat, I wondered how this would play out.  In Morocco and Turkey, most of the merchants I met, however hard they might have pushed, understood when the game was over and let go with a certain amount of grace.  One, though, took it personally and grew nasty.  I felt relieved when Ben, seeing that I was serious, dropped character, shook my hand and wished me safe travels home.  He was a disappointed salesman, but still a nice guy.

I went home and spent the rest of the evening luxuriating in my diamond-covered face (and secretly reassuring myself that my non-diamonded cheek wasn't actually all that saggy).
(By this time the sun had set, so I had to make do with
the terrible light in my bathroom. Even so, I'm
not sure I could tell any difference between the before
and after, other than the softness from all the