Tuesday, February 25, 2014

26 hours in El Paso

A few weeks ago my friend Amy told me that she and Kristin (our mutual friend who lives in El Paso, Texas) were planning a week-long backpacking trip to a place called Big Bend -- a national park along the border in western Texas.  They wanted to know if I was interested in joining them.

As tempting as the invitation was, I had just gotten back from a week's vacation in the chillier northern states, so I thought the timing wasn't quite right to take off again.  But then we learned that Kristin had commitments on Saturday night (choir concert) and Sunday morning (half marathon) that would prevent them from leaving for the wilderness until Sunday afternoon anyway -- so I thought, why not spend a weekend with Amy and Kristin in El Paso?

On Saturday morning I woke up at 4:00am to finish packing and get to the airport in time for the 7:00am flight to Texas.  Amy met me at the airport and we had fun catching up until the plane took off, at which point we both zonked out.

Thanks to the difference in time zones, we landed in El Paso a little after 11:00am -- just in time for lunch!  Naturally, both Amy and I were craving green chile, so Kristin took us to Avila's to get our fill.

(beef, green chiles, onions, tomatoes, cheese enchilada, beans, guacamole)

After lunch, we ran errands so the girls could get supplies for their camping trip.  While they selected fuel canisters for the camp stove, I noticed the mini rifle-shaped BBQ lighters that were on sale in the same aisle.
Because pointing guns at flammable tanks of gas
 is the sort of behavior we should all be modeling
for our children.
After the errands, we went back to Kristin's house.  Amy and Kristin planned out their camping menus; I sat on the couch and read a book and tried to be friendly to Kristin's eager-to-please dog.

Then it was time to dress for the concert.  This was a performance of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana by the El Paso Symphony Orchestra, and Kristin (who is an excellent singer -- we sang together in law school) was in the chorus.  She, naturally, was all in black, but Amy and I could be more colorful.  Amy donned a fun summery dress that worked well in the early desert springtime, while I figured I'd introduce El Paso to the bow-tie.


I hadn't known whether bow ties were cool in Texas, so I cleared it with Kristin's husband, David, ahead of time (he said, "go for it, you'll be the only one!") and enjoyed the reactions.  My favorite was in the convention center, where we stopped to pick up our race packets on the way to the theater.  I walked up to the registration desk and the women were so impressed with how "dapper" I looked that they couldn't help but ask where I was from and what I do for a living and oh, since I'm an attorney, do I know Sam Blumenfeld?  They also told me that one of them had lived in DC for a while (at 18th and T, to be precise) and heavens, honey, you're gonna be SWIMMING in a medium t-shirt so here's a small.

The concert was about what you'd expect for a town like El Paso -- passable execution, with an appreciative and forgiving audience (read: clapping between movements and standing ovation at intermission and at the end).  Kristin's husband was there, and some of her family from nearby Las Cruces, all of whom I'd met at the wedding last spring, so it was fun to see them again.  And the theater was a real gem.  Apparently constructed in the 1920s as a movie house, the Plaza Theatre has been converted into a venue for the performing arts and lovingly restored to its Spanish Colonial Revival style glory glory.  I wish I had taken pictures (and the ones I found on the Internet don't do it justice), because it was really a charming and lovely theatre -- unlike any other theatre I've seen in the US.

After the concert Amy and I were exhausted (having awoken at 4am!) and so we went home and went to bed -- only to get up bright and early the next morning to run a race!

Kristin and I ran the half marathon, and Amy ran the 5K.

Kristin and me, before the race
Now, lest you start thinking this was a great idea, I should point out that I have not run more than a few hundred meters at a time since last March, when I ran the Cherry Blossom Ten Miler here in DC.  True, I've done plenty of cycling and cross fit and other training -- so I've got a decent fitness base -- but no running.


That fitness base got me through ten miles, no sweat.  I felt GREAT.  The air was cool but not cold, the sun bright and warm, and I maintained a comfortable 8:30 pace.  But then around the ten mile marker my hips and knees decided they were done with this game and it was time to go home.  So they gradually got tighter and tighter, and more and more painful -- by the end, I had dropped to a 12:00 mile and had to stop and stretch every so often just to keep my mobility!  It was ridiculous and a little discouraging when I saw all the people I'd passed running by.  Only then I reminded myself that I'd done zero training and so finishing was an accomplishment in and of itself.  Wahoo!

Amy, Kristin and me after the race

After the race, we went for brunch at a place that I've forgotten the name of.  Again, green chiles figured prominently in the menu -- and it was very tasty, especially the cinnamon-roll French toast.

Mint and cucumber agua fresca
Cinnamon-roll French toast.
Not at all what we'd expected, but totally delicious.
Scrambled eggs with turkey, green chiles, avocado and bacon.
By the time we'd finished brunch, returned to the house and showered, there was only about 45 minutes before I needed to head back to the airport.  We considered whether there was anything worth seeing during those 45 minutes but opted instead to relax on the back porch, soaking in the desert light and marveling at how different it felt from Virginia.  It's the sort of down-time that I hardly ever take for myself, but which is so wonderfully restorative, especially when shared with friends.

The view from Kristin's second-floor balcony.
(See the flowering tree?  It's springtime in El Paso!)

The home-bound flights all went smoothly.  I made my connection in Dallas and landed in DC around 11pm -- just in time to fall into bed before starting work again on Monday morning.  It was a super short trip, but we managed to pack a lot into just a few hours!  My kind of vacation… (in fact, at one point Amy was marveling at our ambitious itinerary and said, "I feel like I'm vacationing Jason-style" -- how right she was!).

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

I may be going to hell now

So, I go to the gym tonight in the middle of the alleged snowstorm of the century, and on the way home I learn a valuable life lesson:  Snow is super bad for my eternal salvation.  I mean, here I am looking at the footprints in the snow and judging all the people who have a shuffling problem, when all of a sudden I think, "Wait a minute, how do I know that these people aren't living in that Footprints in the Sand poem and right now they're actually being carried by Jesus?  I am totally judging Jesus for shuffling.  I'm so going to regret this when the Rapture happens."

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

I hadn't realized it was so obvious

Conversation this morning with the Southwest Airlines agent as I checked my luggage for the flight to Boise:

Agent: Your bag is a little over the weight limit; you'll need to take something out. 

(I think for a minute, then remove a redweld folder containing some files from work.)

Agent: That'll do it. Geez, what are you, some kinda big shot lawyer?

Me: Well, actually...

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Lake Tahoe

Today Lady and I drove over to Squaw Valley and Lake Tahoe.  The weather couldn't have been better -- bright and sunny, not much of a breeze.  The snow-covered mountains sparkled white, and the sky and lake were a deep, rich blue.  I knew Lake Tahoe was supposed to be beautiful, but I hadn't expected this.  Amazing.
Squaw Valley is a ski resort on the way to Tahoe, where the 1960 Winter Olympics were held.  We stopped and marveled at the slopes and how much fun it looked to ski down them. 

Monday, February 3, 2014


Look, people, just LOOK at what is on offer in the men's pajama section of Target.  I just -- I don't -- are there even words for this? 
These are the pajama equivalent to eating Doritos in public.
Can anyone say "crisis of American masculinity"?
Um, Lisa Frank called and wants her Trapper Keeper pjs back.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Chicago - The Little Prince

Chicago's Lookingglass Theatre is one of our favorite theatres and has been the excuse for weekend trips to Chicago more than once.  When Amanda heard last fall that they were staging a new adaptation of Antoine de Saint Exupery's book The Little Prince, we bought tickets and, well, that's how we all ended up here this weekend in the first place. 

So, after that fantastic dinner at Everest, we made our way over to the theatre and took our seats in the front row.  What followed was a delightful and imaginative adaptation of a book that doesn't exactly lend itself well to the stage:  it doesn't have much of a plot; it requires a bunch of different planets, a talking fox and a precocious little kid; and much of the book's charm lies in its use of simple, childlike line drawings.  On most of these things, the company found good solutions.

The prince was played by a young actress who looked like a fairly convincing 12-year-old boy; the fox was played by an actress who found a wonderful character (but a terrible French accent). 

And the planets were ingenious samples of clever stagecraft -- each one made perfect sense, and no technology was repeated twice. 

This was my favorite planet.
Balancing on a giant plastic ball.
The whole action of the play took place on a giant, unfurled blank page on which the narrator (the adult aviator) drew pictures with a grease pencil. 

As for the plot, well, there still wasn't much of one.  The prince's travels from planet to planet ended up feeling somewhat like a quest, and the aviator's reactions seemed to impose some sense of connection between the prince and his rose and the aviator's youth and perhaps a lost love.  But it scewed a little off-target, in my opinion, when it came time for the prince to return to his planet and the Christ-figure images became obvious and a little heavy handed.  I wouldn't say that it's the best thing I've seen at Lookingglass, but it was fun and clever and a wonderful excuse to play in Chicago with wonderful friends.

Will, Susan, Amanda, JJD

Chicago - Galoshes and Michelin stars at Everest

Amanda and I returned from brunch and kronuts just in time to dress for . . . (can you guess it?) . . . dinner! 

We've been hooked on the Michelin Guide for years now and have been looking for an opportunity to bring Will and Susan (Amanda's parents) into our decadent ways.  Since Chicago is one of the three U.S. cities that Michelin deems worthy to rate, we figured this would be a great opportunity. 

Amanda made reservations for dinner at Everest, a swanky one-star restaurant perched on the 40th floor of the Chicago Stock Exchange tower.  Fortunately, while making the reservation she noticed the restaurant's dress code -- emphatically no jeans, and jackets are encouraged but (technically) not required.  This posed a potential problem:  How does one tromp through Chicago's mucky streets and still look decent when you get to the restaurant? 

The answer:  Galoshes!
Especially when they come with a convenient little carrying case that can be handed
to the coat check along with coats and scarves and gloves.

Once inside and up the elevators (where the altitute caused our ears to pop), we discovered a high-glitz dining room full of mirrors and white linens and a view like no other.  At first the low clouds and falling snow obscured the distance, but then the snow broke and we could see the city lights stretching southward to the Mexican border.

Our waitress (who clearly should have been played by Jane Lynch) greeted us professionally and warmly.  She told us that she knew of our post-dinner theatre plans and would ensure that we had finished in time to make our 7:30 curtain; she would have a taxi waiting for us downstairs when we left.  From there, we ordered and the wonders of the evening began:
Amuse bouches (from left): Salmon in a nage of fennel; artichoke potage; pate;
emulsion of onion with bread crumbs and bacon
Slow-poached farm-fresh egg with cauliflower mousseline, topinambours
and black truffle
Roasted Maine Lobster in Alsace Gewurztraminer Butter and Ginger.
Magret of Mallard Duck, Pine Honey, Marinated Turnips à la Colmarienne
Alsace New Style Cheesecake, Lemon, Honey des Vosges
Miniardises (from left):  white chocolate with chocolate ganache filling;
dark mint chocolate with marshmallow filling;
almond/pistachio cake; citrus jelly
Hot chocolate hand crafted from Dominican cocoa beans
(so good!)

The meal was delicious.  I think consensus was that the amuse bouches and appetizers were the strongest in terms of wow factor (and there were multiple wows).  I particularly liked my duck entree, which was incredibly tender and flavorful and had been garnished with cracked cardamom instead of pepper.  The surprise of tasting cardamom (one of my favorite flavors) instead of pepper was delightful. 

The service as also impeccable.  Our waitress was attentive and efficient and stayed perfectly on top of the time, occasionally giving us updates so that never once did I feel the need to look at my watch.  And her flock of helpers made sure that there was never an empty glass or stray crumb on the table.  By the end, as we left to catch our taxi, we were bidden fond farewell by everyone from the waitress to the Maitre d' to the bartender with whom we'd never even interacted.  It kind of felt like we were in a musical -- I half-expected everyone to break out into song and tap dancing!

Chicago - Art, brunch and kronuts in the snow

Chicago is not an obvious choice for a February vacation, not with its reputation for ungodly cold temperatures and biting wind.  We lucked out on Saturday -- the weatherman substituted steady snow for the arctic winds -- but it was still no day for strolling through the park.  So we headed to the Art Institute of Chicago
The Art Institute has famously good collections of art ranging from antiquity to modern and is a cornerstone of any good Chicago experience. Having visited the permanent collections on previous trips, we focused on a couple of the temporary exhibitions.
The principal draw was an exhibition dedicated to illuminating the influence the Greeks had on Egyptian art during the 300 years when Greeks ruled Egypt (from the fall of Alexander the Great to Cleopatra's famous suicide by snake bite).  It was a small exhibit but very well done.  Wall text did a good job of providing historical context (by the time the Greeks ruled, Egypt was already 3,000 years old) and religious context (most of the Egyptian art on display was religious in nature).  And individual labels provided enough interpretive explanation to help the viewer grasp the significance of what was happening from an art history/cultural perspective.
For example, here are two samples of bas reliefs depicting the head of a goddess.  The one on the left pre-dates the arrival of the Greeks; the other was created during the Greek period.  You can see the influence of the Greek taste for life-like representation (as opposed to a more stylized representation) and the more refined stonework.
What you can't see is that each feather on the bird atop the goddess's head is
etched out in super-fine detail.
Here's another example:
Take a look at this statuette before jumping below to read the accompanying plaque.
Does it remind you of anything?

After soaking up the Egyptian art (and vowing once again to visit Egypt sooner rather than later), we visited an exhibition of Hiroshige's winter scenes.  Hiroshige was a Japanese artist in the first half of the 19th Century.  He's famous for his wood-block prints; this exhibition focused on those depicting wintry scenes.  They were lovely in their simple but thoughtful evocation of winter life.  The overall impression was one of peaceful nature, but details showed the daily drama of ordinary human life. 

This print was one of my favorites.  There's a tiny figure of a
man carrying a burden across the precarious bridge, and the
boatmen rowing unaware below.
After the prints, we couldn't resist soaking up the saturated colors and fantastic shapes of Chagall's stained glass windows.

The windows form a tryptich dedicated to the theme of the arts. This portion depicts dance.

Amanda and I ducked out after the Chagalls to meet up with Vanessa and Stephen for lunch (you'll remember Vanessa from the Vietnam/Cambodia trip last summer).  It took us a minute to find a cab in the soupy mess of Chicago streets, but eventually we made it to Carriage House, a cute little place in the Wicker Park neighborhood that Vanessa had picked for us.


Although lunchtime by normal standards, I opted for a more brunch-like option . . .

Pullman french toast with caramelized bananas and sorghum whipped cream.
which I wouldn't normally follow with a sweet dessert consisting of fried dough, strawberry jelly and sugar -- but when Vanessa said that we were just around the corner from Alliance Bakery, and that they sold kronuts (so spelled to avoid trademark issues with the New York baker who invented the idea), we couldn't resist.  We got there just in time to get the last kronut of the day!

A kronut is basically flaky croissant dough that has been cut and fried
like a doughnut.  Tasty enough, but heavier and richer than expected.
I'd like to try one earlier in the day and without the jelly and cream.
It was great to see Vanessa and Stephen and to catch up on their adventures with work and fixing up their house and their (divergent) theories on whether couch pillows should or should not ever be allowed on Stephen's sofa.  And I enjoyed mixing my friend worlds a little bit more -- Amanda had met Vanessa once or twice before but had never met Stephen.  Turns out Stephen was an avid debater in high school, so once he learned that Amanda was the speech coach there ensued some of the most enthusiastically nerdy speech/debate-talk I've heard in a long time!  I guess that makes up for Vanessa's and my inside stories from Vietnam... :)

Vanessa, JJD, Amanda