Friday, January 31, 2014

Chicago - Friends and meatloaf and a little bit of snow

Yay, I got to Chicago without delay!  No 12-hour waits in New York, no overnight diversion to St. Louis, nothing that normally happens when I normally fly to Chicago happened.  Aside from fifty minute wait on the runway on the first leg out to Philadelphia (which was itself only a 20 minute flight), everything went perfectly smoothly.  Phew!

And another quasi-miracle:   I emerged from the airport braced for temperatures nearing absolute zero but was instead welcomed with a balmy, windless 25-degree night.  Tiny ice crystals sparkled down from the sky, auguring more snow to come, but for now, the weather was relatively warm and calm -- all of which made for a quick and painless drive into the city.

Amanda and her parents arrived at the hotel a few minutes before I did, so by the time I arrived they'd already checked in.  Susan had most conveniently arranged for adjoining rooms -- perfect for chatting while settling in.

The view from our room
Chatting, of course, leads to travel planning, which leads to discussions of itineraries for getting around Morocco, which is not something to be done on an empty stomach.  So we paused at Fez and pulled up our various restaurant-finding apps and picked the Weber Grill Restaurant.  Only a few blocks away, full of tasty barbecue and without a long wait time, it met all our requirements for the night.

Angus meatloaf and pulled pork with broccoli and cole slaw
Fresh berries with cream
We finished our travel talk and moved on to other topics -- everything from Amanda's plays to my work to all of our various adventures in church callings.  It was great to catch up and tell stories and enjoy not being in the places we're from.

Finally our waitress came to tell us that it was time for her to go home, so we took that as our cue to wander back out into the night.  The tiny ice crystals from earlier had turned into real snowflakes by then, which made the glitzy shopping district on Michigan Avenue seem all the glitzier as we walked back to the hotel.



When was the last time I took a vacation?  Let's see… in December I was asked not to take any vacation due to year-end client demands.  In November, I worked straight through Thanksgiving and canceled most of an earlier weekend trip to New York with Amanda -- both to satisfy client demands.  In September I attempted to take a week off to visit family in Reno and Boise, but ended up working through most of it.  So that means the last time I really took time off was the Vietnam/Cambodia trip in June.  

And it's not like I've just been coasting along at work, either.  Since the end of August, my monthly billable hours (only a subset of total hours worked) have ranged between the mid-200s to over 300.

It's time for a break!

And a break I intend to take, starting today.  Later this afternoon I fly out to Chicago, where I will see Amanda and her parents, and Vanessa and Stephen, and a (hopefully good) stage adaptation of The Little Prince at the Lookingglass Theatre.  On Sunday, I'll fly on to Reno to spend a few days with my parents, and then I'll finish out the week in Boise with the Idaho branches of the family.  

It's not the ideal "winter vacation" itinerary -- way too short on sun, warmth and palm trees for that -- but a week with so many of my favorite people is exactly what I want right now.  And besides, I've packed 47 sweaters and my mini-galoshes, so I'm TOTALLY set to brave the winter in Chicago.  (Right?)


Thursday, January 30, 2014

Swan Lake

I've never been to Russia, but I imagine their winters being freezing cold and dark all the time.  Kind of like how it's been here lately.  So maybe the dancers from the Mariinsky Ballet will feel right at home this week as they perform Swan Lake at the Kennedy Center.

Amy and I had tickets to see the performance last night, and it really was wonderful.  When it comes to ballet, it's hard to beat Russian dancers performing a Russian ballet.

In case you're not familiar with the story, it goes something like this:  A young prince is being pressured to marry, so he escapes into the woods to go hunting.  There he meets a beautiful princess who has been imprisoned by a sorcerer and turned into a swan.  She takes human form at night, which is when they meet, and of course they fall in love right away.  The lovelorn prince returns to the palace but is distracted from his love when the sorcerer shows up with his own daughter, who dances beguilingly for the prince and lures him to her.  The swan princess sees this and flies against the palace window -- the prince realizes he's been tricked and runs out to the lake to reunite with the princess.  There's a fight with the sorcerer and . . . well, then it depends on which version you're seeing.

If you see the original version, the sorcerer wins the fight, the swan dies, and the prince commits suicide.  (Remember, these are Russians at the height of the Romantic era -- of course everyone dies!)  But if you see the version from the 1950s, then the prince wins the fight, the swan turns out not to be dead after all, and they live happily ever after.  (I guess when you've survived two world wars, you get tired of seeing the swan die.)

Last night's production used the modified 1950s choreography, so everything ended happily.  It was the first time I'd seen the happy ending, and although it was nice, I prefer the dramatic oomph of the original tragedy.

Regardless what you think of the ending, the dancing was incredible.  The corps was incredible strong, with tight formations and crisp, clean lines.  All those swans flitting about the stage in perfect synchronicity was like a living kaleidoscope.  The prince was good and had the delicious legs that all princes should have, but the sorcerer stole the thunder when it came to leaps -- oh man, he was good.

And then there was the prima ballerina.  She dances both the swan and the sorcerer's daughter, so she's got to go from being a sweet, vulnerable, fragile princess to a dark, sensual, aggressively alluring bird of prey.  The woman who danced last night pulled both aspects of the performance off perfectly.  It's always amazing to me to focus on the prima ballerina.  However good the other soloists may be, she always stands out.  There's something about her style and the lyricism of her movement that the others just don't have (or at least aren't showing).  The control she had over every movement of her body was astonishing; nothing happened if she didn't want it to happen just that way.

Anyway, it was a lovely performance and an even better way to start a week of vacation.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Monday night ambition

I haven't written much lately.  I'm inclined to invoke the admonition "if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all" in my defense.  The past few months have been grueling at work, and the resilience with which I normally meet those challenges seems finally to have been worn out.  It's definitely time for a break.  It might even be time for a different job.  

But gloom notwithstanding, I do have nice things to say.  In the past few weeks, I've seen some excellent plays, art exhibitions and a poetry slam.  I've made new friends and reconnected with old friends.  I've seen a few movies and eaten good food.  It's just that, with work, I haven't felt like I've had the time to even think about these experiences, let alone write about them.

And I've missed the writing.  I've missed the fun of looking for the stories in my daily life and sharing them with the people who care enough to read them.  So even though I really don't have enough time to craft a proper narrative right now, I'm going to say that these things happened tonight:
  • Dinner with Nicole at the Kennedy Center, followed by a chamber music recital with pianist Christoph Eschenbach and baritone Matthias Goerne performing Schubert's Die schone Mullerin (a musically enchanting, thematically distressing set of songs about a miller who loves a girl and then drowns himself when she doesn't reciprocate).
  • Bought airplane tickets for a lightning-fast weekend trip to El Paso at the end of February.
  • Signed up to run a half marathon while in El Paso.
  • Thought seriously about what I want to do when I grow up.
  • Avoided thinking about all the work I should have been doing instead of the foregoing.
These things motivate me and energize me, and they're part of the "good life" that I want to have:  I want to be a person who goes to a recital on a Monday night and flies across the country to run a half marathon with friends.  So maybe, if I can manage to actually take a meaningful vacation next week (when I'll be in Nevada and Idaho), I'll be recharged enough to make the most of these crazy plans! 

(Who would ever have thought that I'd go to El Paso twice within a year? Get ready for some more green chili!)

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Stage moms and tow trucks

Tonight I managed to duck out of the office early enough to see Signature Theatre's current production Gypsy with my friend Melanie.  I'd never seen the show before and this production has gotten great reviews (and accordingly is sold out most nights), so I was excited when I managed to snag the tickets.

It's essentially the story of the mother of all stage mothers, an indomitable woman of ferocious energy and vitality who pours all of herself into pushing -- driving -- her daughters towards stardom during the waning years of Vaudeville.  She doesn't quite succeed the way she imagines.  The pretty, talented daughter elopes young and is never heard from again; the other daughter, so often relegated to the background, then becomes the object of her mother's ambition.  She hasn't the talent for real performance, but ultimately achieves a sort of stardom when she discovers striptease (the character is loosely based on the real-life striptease Gypsy Rose Lee).

Momma Rose is a fascinating character; a force of nature in the same vein as Scarlett O'Hara only with her energies channeled into her daughters instead of herself.  She's charismatic and oppressive and, when she finally opens up and lets herself shine in the song "Rose's Turn", magnificent.  (That song has got to be one of the hardest to perform well in all of musicaldom.  It was as thrilling a physical feat as any prize-winning gymnastics routine might be.)

Now, if only that were the end of my story!

But no.  Part deux of this evening's adventure kicked off in the parking terrace.  I'd offered to give Melanie a ride to the nearest metro station only to discover that my car was nowhere to be found.  Vanished without a trace from the parking terrace.  The only thing to do was call the police to see if the car had been reported as having been towed (I wasn't so vain as to think anyone in the neighborhood would think to steal an eleven-year-old Kia).

Sure enough, there it was in the tow-truck register.  The policeman gave me the number for the impound lot and I set about tracking it down -- which turned out to be a lot less easy than you'd expect.   For one thing, it's not so fun to be making all these phone calls at 11pm at night when the temperature is around 15 degrees outside and you left your scarf and gloves inside your now-impounded car.  For another thing, the towing company does not make finding your car easy.  This is partially due to physical location.  Towing companies apparently have access to a fourth dimension that is not readily findable by Google maps and Uber drivers.  We followed the directions to a T but found ourselves in a God-forsaken spot next to an underpass near the Pentagon, with no impound lot in sight.

But fourth dimensions aside, the problem was also partly one of personnel.  As you might imagine, a towing company isn't going to be the place where you find America's best and brightest (especially working the overnight shift).  For example, when I found myself beneath that underpass and called for further directions, the conversation went something like this:

Me:  Hi, it's me again, the GPS has led me to this underpass and I'm wondering if you can give me further directions.

Guy:  Mmmkay.  I'm next to the Public Storage building.

Me:  There's no Public Storage building in sight.  In fact, there's nothing in sight except the Pentagon and wilderness.  I'm on the edge of the wilderness.

Guy:  I have no idea where that is.

Me:  Well, let's brainstorm.  How about you give me more info about where you are -- can you give me an intersection?

Guy:  Oh! Yeah, I'm on 12th Street.  

Me:  Thanks.  [Beat]  Umm, I thought we were going for an intersection.

Guy:  I just told you the intersection.

Me:  No, you told me the name of one street.  Intersections, by definition, require at least two streets.

Guy:  Oh, got it.  Twelfth and Long Branch.

Me:  That's more helpful.

Only it wasn't, really, because Twelfth and Long Branch apparently don't ever intersect.  But at least it got us going in the right direction, because after a while we spotted the sign for the Public Storage, which in turn led us to the place where cars go after being impounded.

It also looked very much like the place where teenagers in horror movies go to get murdered.  I was fairly confident that I did not live in a horror movie, so I wasn't too nervous -- but I did think it prudent to ask the driver to wait for me while I bought back my car and/or escaped from any crazy people with chainsaws who might be waiting for me in the shack.

Turns out I was right about not living in a horror movie -- no one tried to murder me; all they wanted was my money.  So $150 later, I climbed in my car and drove away, bidding fond farewell to my driver and the poor man who had to spend his nights in the tiny freezing shack giving driving directions to idiots like me who somehow manage to get their cars towed in the first place.

Maybe next time I should bring a stage mother with me to talk her way out of paying the towing fee...

Monday, January 20, 2014

Strong(ish) man

Happy MLK Day, folks.  Hooray for a day off another workday!

While other people celebrated civil rights and gorgeous January weather (think sunny and mid-fifties), I stayed at home and worked on projects for clients that don't observe the holiday. 

But I did manage to get out long enough for a noon-time workout.  It was deadlift day at Crossfit:  five sets of five repetitions, with the goal of increasing the weight for each set until you max out.  I set a new five-rep personal record with 200 pounds.  Holla!

Makes me think of something my trainer told me a few years ago when I first started lifting weights for real:  "It's easy to get strong," he said, "all you have to do is pick up heavy stuff off the ground."  Well, given that I currently weigh in at a whopping 135 pounds, I think 200 pounds counts as heavy.  Maybe someday I'll be strong!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Figure Drawing 101

After an incredibly work-heavy fall, and a December spent almost entirely in New York conference rooms or working around the clock at my kitchen table, I resolved to make a change in January:  I would meet new people, try new things, and make an effort to have a life outside of work even on weeknights (gasp!).  So when a friend of mine asked if I'd be interested in going to a figure drawing class on Wednesday after work, I said yes without hesitation.  Never mind that I know nothing about figure drawing and haven't sketched anything more complicated than my hand since middle school -- I figured if I could handle a ballet class and a design class, I could definitely do drawing.

The class was held in the attic of neo-gothic church in DC -- and oh, what a perfect little attic it was! At the top of a winding staircase, the landing opened into a set of wonderfully bohemian rooms filled with books and artwork and tattered furniture.  The only thing missing was Mimi dying of tuberculosis in the corner.

One of the rooms was set aside for drawing:  Chairs lined the walls and in the center lay a white sheet and a draped bench.  We were instructed to hurry inside and secure a seat before they were all taken. As we settled in, the model arrived and, with very little ado, dropped her kimono and struck a pose! And so, without any warning, I had thirty seconds to capture the image . . . 

then another thirty seconds to capture the next . . .

it was all going so fast and it was all I could do to keep up!  I had to start strategizing -- find an anchoring line and work outwards from there; instead of focusing on anatomy, notice the geometry and proportions and turn it into a foot later; don't get too bogged down in making any one thing too perfect.

Then, thankfully, the poses started to lengthen. I had more time to gather my wits and produce something vaguely humanoid.

But no rest for the wicked, right? Just as I felt like I was starting to get the hang of it, the model
busted out this pose.  Seriously.

Frankly, I'm surprised it looks like a woman and not a jellyfish
But after that we got into much longer poses -- fifteen twenty minutes without interruption. Probably the longest I've stared with such concentration at another person.

Twenty minutes was long enough for me
to run out of things to draw, so I went
back over the lines and made them too dark.
Between the longer poses we'd break for a few minutes to let the model rest.  During those breaks, Joe and I compared our sketches and chatted with the people next to us.  Some were very good; others more middling; a few were able to capture certain things beautifully (say, the turn of a foot) while failing to get other things quite right.  I also realized that some people were drawing things that had never occurred to me to draw -- for example, I fixated on line and shape; others were clearly more interested in shadows and light or capturing the nuances of face.  I admired most the drawings that were bold and a little bit wild in their effect -- they seemed to capture both the stillness of the model and the movement of the drawing hand.

Most of the more experienced artists were using some sort of fancy crayon or pastel that allowed them to shade easily and capture nuances that were beyond what I could do with my super-fine mechanical pencil.  Joe had this great terra-cotta-colored crayon that reminded me of sketches I'd seen in museums.  For the last pose, he offered me a piece and I gave it a go.

By the time the model broke this last pose, we'd been in the room for over two hours -- only it felt so much shorter!  I found drawing a live person in a short period of time to be an incredibly focusing, almost meditative exercise -- less physical than yoga but similar in its ability to drive out all other thoughts.  And the hushed energy of the room -- full of similarly focused people -- reminded of the great reading rooms of the New York Public Library where everyone sits so silently intent on their pursuit of knowledge or art or escape from whatever.

But two hours of sitting after a long day of work without much of a supper is about enough, artsy-library vibe or not.  So when the model began setting up for another pose, we ducked out and headed back into the night.  What a fantastic way to round out the day!

Friday, January 10, 2014

Polar Vortex (or, Fish Rescue 101)

As everyone who has access to any form of weather-reporting media outlet knows, Washington has been struck by the dreaded zombie apocalypse polar vortex.  Or, I should say, the POLAR VORTEX!!  Because this is way serious.  I mean, never mind the fact that it has been negative a million degrees and snowy in Chicago for months -- the important thing is that it got all the way down to 12 degrees Fahrenheit for approximately two days here in the Nation's Capital.  It was enough to shut down the schools and cause a run on the frozen pizza aisle at the grocery store. 

It also nearly froze my fish.  (See, I told you this was serious.)

I got home from my Bikram yoga class last Saturday morning, rejoicing in the contrast between the 19-degree weather outside and the nearly unbearable 105-degree temperatures of the yoga studio, and discovered that my barrel had frozen into what appeared to be a solid ice cube.  Which wouldn't normally be a problem, except that, in my work-addled state, I had not followed the forecast as assiduously as I might have done, and so I had failed to pull out my fish before the formation of said ice cube. 

But as I always say, when life hands you frozen goldfish, do a science experiment.  I mean, tell me you've never wondered whether you can really freeze a goldfish and have it come back to life!  So I set up a polar drilling rig (consisting of a pot of boiling water) on the surface of the ice and started working through the layers to reach the bottom, where I was sure the fish were trapped.

It was slow work, but effective.  And when I was on my third pot of boiling water, the ice was thin and clear enough that I could see that (a) it hadn't frozen all the way through, and (b) at least one fish was still swimming around beneath the ice.  IT WAS A POLAR VORTEX MIRACLE!

I redoubled my efforts to break through the ice and rescue the fish, feeling all the while like a (much lesser version of) the people who got to rescue those Chilean miners a few of years ago.  By the time I'd melted through the ice, I grabbed my net and tried to fish the little friend out.  Only apparently he didn't realize that he was about to become a national media sensation by being rescued from such certain death, and so he swam away.  Undaunted, I tossed the net away and dove in headfirst to swim after it plunged my right arm into the freezing water and caught the fish with my bare hands.  It was exhilarating and horrible all at the same time -- exhilarating because catching a fish with one's bare hands is kind of badass (especially if you omit the fact that it was a goldfish swimming, in its near-frozen state, about as quickly as a snail), and horrible because holy cow that water was cold!  (I've always known that I'd never survive a cold-water natural disaster, and this just reinforced that.) 

Having thus risked life and limb for my 25-cent goldfish, I happily plunked it into a vase and stuck it in the fridge to wait out the storm, just like last year

Now I just need to figure out what happened to the other two goldfish.  They may have been sitting on the bottom of the barrel, under the water lily pot, where I couldn't see them.  Or perhaps they've followed the path of their Elijah-fish forebear and have been taken up into heaven.  If the ice doesn't melt soon, we may never know the answer to this mystery!




Thursday, January 9, 2014

Happy New Year (at last!)

You all probably hate me for leaving you hanging for so long!  I mean, in mid-December I post a glamorously cryptic note about being back in New York for negotiations of uncertain duration, and then it's radio silence for nearly a month.  You've probably been worried sick that I might have had to repeat a tie. 

Well, not to worry:  I didn't.  I ended up staying in New York until right before Christmas, but I had enough ties to last me.  And by the end I had the distinction of being called the best-dressed person in the NFL's offices by at least one executive.  Given the somewhat macho culture of the institution, I might have worried that the observation wasn't meant to be complimentary -- but by then I'd also been given a nickname ("JJ") and included (against my better judgment) in various midnight games of "tossing the pigskin" through the all-glass corridors, so I figured I was okay.

After getting back from New York, I dove head-first into another intense set of negotiations for a different client.  We were simultaneously negotiating about eight different tv/cable deals that all had a hard deadline of midnight on January 31.  It was pretty brutal.  I basically worked every waking minute of the day -- I'd roll out of bed in the morning around 7am or so, and then work at my kitchen table until 2 or 3 or 4am.  I stayed at home to avoid losing time to commuting (and making myself presentable) and I soon got super stir-crazy -- only every time I left the apartment to get a sandwich or walk around the block, I inevitably got 47 emails and voicemails wondering where I was and why was I not available every second of the day? 

Fortunately, we paused long enough that I didn't need to work on Christmas Day.  Instead, I got up early and met some friends at the Jewish Community Center downtown DC.  We had signed up for a service project, where we prepared and served lunch to a bunch of people at a shelter in Alexandria.  It was my first time volunteering through the JCC, and I had a great time.  I was the first of the team to show up, so by default I became the team captain.  Next thing I know, I'm running the show and giving directions and being interviewed by reporters who wanted to know all about the Jewish tradition of serving on Christmas (talk about awkward!! fortunately she got distracted by some adorable children before she discovered that I wasn't, in fact, Jewish!).  The service project was by no means difficult (though the logistics of boiling 16 pounds of spaghetti are trickier than you might think), and the other volunteers were friendly and eager to be there.

After that, I spent the rest of Christmas Day at a dinner part with some friends from church.  I made a chocolate cake, bacon-wrapped sausages, and basalmic-roasted root vegetables as my contribution to the pot-luck spread.  It was a much needed break from the crush of work.

But it was only a temporary break: work picked up bright and early the next day and continued uninterrupted until about 8pm on New Year's Eve, when we finally got to a handshake deal with the last and biggest (and most intractable) of the cable companies that we were negotiating with.  Given that we technically had until midnight to reach the deal, I was kind of surprised that we finished so early!  But I didn't complain.  Instead, I took a nap, shaved off my two-weeks' beard and dressed up for a fancy New Year's cocktail party that some friends of mine were hosting.  I got there in time to meet the other guests, play a few rounds of Cards Against Humanity, and then ring in the new year. 

Like Christmas, New Year's was only a temporary break.  The "handshake" deal that we'd struck on New Year's Eve still needed to be finalized, and then all the work for other clients that had taken a back seat during the prior month needed to be addressed in short order -- all of which has been keeping me plenty busy.

But as of today I feel that I've finally gotten things under control.  The big year-end deals are done; the backlog has been processed and shipped out to clients/counterparties for review.  And for the first time in a long time I feel completely entitled to leave all of my "to dos" until Monday, devoting my afternoon instead to making plans with friends, buying plane tickets for upcoming vacation, and looking forward to a completely work-free weekend.  Finally, I feel like I can say, "Happy New Year!"