Sunday, July 24, 2011

Svetlana's Elephants

After a very tasty brunch at Ristorante Asselina at the Hotel Gansevoort Park Avenue, I went on a bit of an experimental journey to Soho. Mapless and therefore clueless, I boarded the N train Downtown and got out at Prince Street.

Now fortunately Prince Street is a block from Houston (entirely where I wanted to be) but then I walked in the wrong direction for three blocks - in high heels and in extreme heat. Not pleasant. Spinning myself around, I got on the right track but ultimately realised Houston is a very looong street, and I was at least 8 blocks out of my way. I could feel the blisters forming on the underside of my toes; it was all very gross.

With confirmation from a gaggle of Soho firefighters that I was indeed headed the right way, I almost belly-flopped into the cool and welcoming arms of S.O.Bs, a neat little bar/brunch venue with a live band playing mellow Latin American tunes. I only wanted to cool off and have some icy cranberry juice & soda, but the live music was an added bonus and I made a mental note to come back there another time.

A little before 1pm I rounded the corner and headed into Film Forum, the premier independent movie house in New York City. I was cashing in a Groupon certificate I had bought (naturally) for a year-long membership to the cinema. When I was in Chicago I was a real devotee of The Gene Siskel Film Center, and I figured that Film Forum seemed to be NYC's equivalent. Film Forum has been around since the 1970s and though the screening roster is not large, it offers a lovely collection of American and foreign films, documentaries and even throwbacks the golden oldies.

Today I went to see "The Woman With The Five Elephants", the story of 87-year old Svetlana Geier who has translated the five major works of Dostoyevsky from Russian into German. She is widely considered the most masterful translator of these works in the world. Screened in German with English subtitles, the film tells the story of Svetlana's life and her family, from growing up in the Ukraine and then as a young girl being forced (by wartime circumstances) to move to Germany and work for the SS as a translator. As time rolled on, Svetlana raised a beautiful family in Germany and honed her linguistic crafts. The film follows Svetlana as she returns to the Ukraine for the first time in 65 years, to deliver a series of readings and lectures about the art of translating.

I know a lot of people would yawn and roll their eyeballs at a movie like this, but I really liked it (or maybe Svetlana just reminded me a little too much of my own Granny). To see her wispy white hair, and her wrinkled hands smoothing her beautifully hand-made lace tablecloths, it was just really lovely. Her mind as sharp as a tack, Svetlana speaks fondly of friends she has made over the years, admiring them for being well-read, articulate and punctual. It was interesting to hear her speak about making a home for herself in Germany, knowing now (and even then) what the Nazis had done to people she cared about back in the Ukraine. Having worked for the SS, she only spoke of the kindnesses her employers had shown her. She found it hard to reconcile the bosses and colleagues she remembered with the atrocities that the regime had committed. I just thought that was a really astute and honest observation, not to mention a point of view I'd never considered before.

Having scratched my language and literature itches, I emerged into the hot sun and undertook more experimental train travel home. Remind me never again to take the train to Penn Station on a Sunday - I keep forgetting that people, lots and lots of them, still like to shop at Macy's. Ugh!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

What would William Blake have thought?

Today was another stinker in New York - lots of sun, little breeze and yet off I trotted to Pilates at 2pm, to strengthen my core and try not to scream obscenities at my teacher.

Let me tell you that I rocked the sh*t out of the class today. It was really different to last week - this time we really focussed on our Pilates breathing and finding our "neutral pelvis" (uh huh), and the instructor said "pubis" a lot, which gave me a fit of the giggles. I don't feel as sore this week, but I suspect my core is still in shock. Come Tuesday I will probably be paralysed again but at least for now I feel really good.

Tonight I went to a fabulous restaurant in Hell's Kitchen on 9th Ave (where there are SO many restaurants). I mean, if you can't find something to eat on 9th Ave, it probably doesn't exist and you should just leave town.

Anyway as I was saying, went to Ember Room and I thought it was great. I am still keeping up my good eating plan, so I had some grilled shrimp (prawns to us real people) and then for my main course I had a beef salad. Because of my Pilates efforts earlier in the day, I had a scoop of real vanilla icecream for dessert - it was delicious. And to drink? A cranberry juice and soda water. I know, it is TOTALLY not like me to do that and I have to be honest, I was dying for a glass of white wine but I am really taking this seriously and I'm trying hard to do all the right things. The food, the decor and the service were really great and I want to go back. Guess what I saw on the menu? If you give the restaurant at least 48 hours notice, you can order a whole suckling pig! I couldn't eat that all by myself of course but damn, that would be good. I will totally do that, after the wedding when I can slacken off this healthy eating regimen a bit.

So after the restaurant we wandered up the street to the Music Box Theatre to see the production of "Jerusalem". I'm still trying to work out what I thought of this production, to be honest. I'd seen the main star (Mark Rylance) back in London when he performed in "La Bete", and I thought he was fantastic. And then when I knew that he'd won the Tony this year for Best Actor for his role in "Jerusalem", I was all the more convinced I wanted to see the production.

The title of the play comes from the English hymn of the same name, adapted from the poem by William Blake. In my Playbill book, the Director's Notes suggest that the hymn's sentiment is "so optimistic, yearning and human". I'm not sure the play is all those things though; in fact, I found it to be quite dark, at times unsettling, but very compelling. There is also an element of mysticism underlying it - because the character that Rylance plays is about to be evicted from the caravan he has illegally squatted in for years, to make way for a new housing development. Except the land is on an energy highway line that runs all the way through the area, through Stonehenge, and then up through Rylance's beloved plot of land. Sure he's a drunk and a drug dealer and prone to bouts of verbal diarrhea, but you also get the impression that he feels a spiritual connection with the land that underscores his obvious disinclination to leave. I might have to think about the play for a few more days before I decide if I enjoyed it or not. I can certainly say I enjoyed Rylance's performance (again). He was intense and a definite scene-stealer, but he just commands your attention and you can't look away.

On the way home in the cab, we had the misfortune of driving through Times Square but at least we got to see The Naked Cowboy. High brow to low brow in two short blocks. That's New York for ya!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Desperate Times, Lunatic Measures

I fly back to Australia four weeks from today to be Maid of Honour at baby sister's wedding. I have decided to kick my own a$$ for the next month and implement an eating and exercising program that I hope will help me feel (and look) trim, taught and terrific.

I've got three more weeks of Pilates to go [Author's Note: it's Day 2 after my first class and I'm in a bit of pain but predominantly okay, as long as nobody makes me laugh or drops something that they expect me to bend down and pick up). In addition to this I'm ramping up my Global Corporate Challenge efforts and taking myself off on rambling walks after work (in my new dance pants, of course). Nothing crazy - just an hour of aimless power walking while rocking out to my fantastic (read daggy) iPod playlist. None of these ventures scare me in the least.

The diet part is another story. I am resolved to eat well over the next four weeks. I don't eat badly now, but I am committed to an eating plan that excludes all the usual nasties, but also:
  • bread
  • pasta
  • rice
  • corn
  • potatoes
  • pretzels (especially of the Snyder's cheddar cheese persuasion)
  • chocolate
  • caffeine
  • alcohol
I know, I know. The first couple are manageable, right? But cutting out the last two is probably going to kill me. I will be interested to see what happens to Snyders share prices over the next four weeks when I'm not buying 'em actually ha! So here I am on the cusp of voluntarily giving up my favourite things for my favourite person (who, it is fair to say, has not asked me to engage in this silliness - this is all my own doing).

Follow me on this crazy journey for the next four weeks, if you dare. I will be tired and I will be grouchy, but when that Maid of Honor frock zips up the whole way, I know it will all be worth it. Let's do this thing.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Getting to the core of it

So I've signed up for four weeks of beginner Pilates classes at the gorgeous Gramercy Pilates Fitness Studio.

I was so nervous about today's first class that I called ahead a few days ago and asked the instructor what I was supposed to wear and to bring. Yoga pants were okay, she said, but something a bit more fitted would be better as it gave the instructors more chance to see the alignment of my body. Good grief! Off I went and bought myself some three quarter-length fitted dance pants (uh huh) and I was ready - sartorially speaking, at least.

I was up early this morning and I had plenty of time to walk to the studio. I couldn't find motivational music on my iPod so I settled on Bon Jovi's Crossroads album, figuring that if I were thinking about Jon and Richie, I wouldn't be thinking about the impending torture I was about to put my body through.

Arriving at the studio 15 minutes early, as requested, I met my two other classmates. The girl was also wearing dance pants (phew!) but hers did not match her tshirt and sneakers. She had obviously done this fitness "thing" before. I distanced myself from her and instead stood alongside a very friendly gay man who chatted incessantly, and who was not wearing dance pants (thank you, Jesus).

Our instructor arrived and I liked her immediately. She had a friendly demeanour and an enviable, Pilates-sculpted body that filled me with confidence that I might be doing something right for myself.

With the introductions out the way we climbed aboard our own "mat" (or "Cadillac", as our instructor called them). It's weird to call this machine a mat, because it's not even on the ground level. Imagine a medieval torture rack and you have something close to the Pilates Cadillac. With a footrest bar at one end, and a place for your head at the other, you can reach up and grab all manner of stretchy arm bands and pulleys that take you through your workout and slowly kill you in delightfully creative ways.

With only three students in the class, I was determined to stay alive. We started by working our abdominals to strengthen our core. I didn't even know I had a core. But given the way we worked it today, I'm going to know EXACTLY where my core is by this time tomorrow morning....if I can breathe at all, that is.

We had to do the Pilates version of abdominal crunches, tucking chin into chest and pulling ourselves up (by the strength of our core), vertebrae by vertebrae. I was actually pretty good at this part, until we had to bring our knees up "to tabletop" (ie as if we were sitting at a table - but still lying down), and then do the same thing. Trickier. Then we had to extend our legs out to a 45-degree angle and do the same thing. I think I passed out, but I did not die. I did, however, regret not putting a fresh coat of nail polish on my toes.

Then we moved on to leg exercises and we had to manipulate our own Cadillacs to the settings that the instructor wanted. Seriously it's like total sadism. What other prison in the world asks you to tart up your own torture chamber before they put you in it? But again, I was determined to do this thing right, so I paid attention and strapped myself into my tailor-made Cadillac. The leg exercises were actually much easier for me. Alternating your foot position, you push yourself up and the Cadillac has springs in it that move with you. So effectively you're doing squats, but you're just lying down to do them. I was pretty good at those. Then we did exercises to stretch our calf muscles and I was down with those too. Afterwards we did some exercises with the long stretchy straps and they were fine - rotating our strapped-up legs around and around, knees out "like chicken wings, folks!", all the while working the blessed core.

Then our arms got involved and I realised with some dismay that I am totally devoid of upper body strength. The instructor recognised this but cheerfully motivated me nonetheless. I hardly noticed: I was too busy reminding myself myself to breathe. Then we spun around and did some work with the hand bar, giving our cores some more lovin'. I could almost hear my core whimpering, so I know I was doing the right things.

Before I knew it our hour was up and we were putting our Cadillacs back to the way we had found them. On the hard wooden floorboards we did a couple of deep squats to stretch our legs back out, and then we were done.

After the class I honestly felt like I could have leapt over the Empire State. I felt limber and relaxed yet full of energy. Even as I sit here, some 90 minutes after the class finished, I still feel good. I am enjoying this period of happiness, because I get the distinct impression that tomorrow, even blinking is going to be tough. My core is definitely going to have the last laugh, no matter how much that hurts.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Armpits and Pee

So I have just submitted my first assignment for the online writing class I'm doing. I am very grateful to the small team of unofficial editors whose wise counsel helped drag me over the finishing line.

The submission is officially due tomorrow, so I won't have any feedback from my lecturer for a few days yet. That's probably a good thing anyway, because it will take a few days to process this piece and determine if I'm entirely happy with it or not. We shall see.

What I will say is, keeping to a 500-word limit is very tricky. The lecturer was never going to criticise us for exceeding it - or even totally disregarding it - but I was trying to be disciplined.

Le Souvenir

The phone booth was a greenhouse that sunny May day; the unseasonal heat amplifying the typical phone booth smell of urine and stale sweat. I pulled the door shut behind me and resolved to breathe through my mouth. The conversation I was about to have demanded complete privacy; or as much privacy as I could expect to have in a public phone booth on a busy French street in lunch hour.

I had been making these distress calls home so frequently that I had committed the dialing codes to memory. Nevertheless my clammy hands rummaged for the phone card hiding in the abyss of my school bag. Brushing a hot, fat tear off my crumpled tee-shirt, I pondered my decision not to unpack. My clothes still smelled of home. Assigning them to unfamiliar cupboards would taint them with a sense of belonging that I knew I did not feel here, and maybe never would.

The blast of a car horn startled me. Looking out the booth window, I could see my language classmates across the street, sitting together in the dappled shade of the public park. No more than strangers ten days ago, this motley crew from at least nine different countries was effortlessly doing what I could not – swapping stories and laughing casually, in their wrinkle-free clothes.

Card in hand, I dialed the number, with no idea what time it was back home, or what my call might have been interrupting. The phone rang twice, three times, and then connected. I immediately discerned the sleepy voice of my father at the end of the line. It must have been the middle of the night in Australia, but Dad had answered the call because he had known it would be me. And that broke my heart.

For a split second, my breath caught in my throat and my vision blurred with new tears. Squeaking a hello, I could hear my Dad sitting up in bed and my mother leaving the room to pick up the phone extension in the study. It was the middle of the night and both of my parents were again ready and willing to provide telephonic therapy. More tears fell.

For ten minutes the calm common sense of my parents punctuated my incoherent, snuffling sobs. Falling into our familiar roles, I whined and wailed as my parents cooed and consoled. From somewhere amongst my self-pitying moans of homesick solitude came the firm voice of my mother. “You could just come home, you know” was all she said. Her words echoed in my brain. After a few silent moments, my father sighed, bade me goodnight and announced he was going back to sleep. I thanked my parents, made my own hasty farewells and quietly replaced the receiver.

With dry eyes, I looked up towards the park and heaved open the phone booth door, breathing in the warm aroma of freshly-baked baguettes.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

You've Got The Write Stuff

About 10 years ago, HR officers across my home state were carrying on about the concept of “lifelong learning”. Jargon though it undoubtedly was, the idea nevertheless spread like wildfire across the public service and underpinned every training course we were asked to do; every seminar we were invited to attend; and every performance review we had to endure. It seemed that nobody in the workplace was too young, old, junior or senior to learn.

While I am loathe to admit it, I became quite a fan of the “lifelong learning” idea. Whenever my early administrative jobs offered more troughs than peaks (as happened quite often in those days), I remember being buoyed by the notion that old dogs could learn new tricks, and were in fact being encouraged to do so. Needless to say this dovetailed beautifully with the other piece of intelligence I acquired around this time; namely that these days, a person changes careers at least 11 times in their life. I don’t recall aspiring to that number necessarily, but the very idea that “lifelong learning” had overtaken “lifelong career” as a modern-day aspiration filled my twenty-something’s heart with hope.

I poke fun at “lifelong learning” only in jest, because I do believe it has influenced a lot of what has happened to me over the years, in life and at work. There’s no question that it explains my current enrolment in an online non-fiction writing course with Gotham City Writers (cool name, huh?).

Over the next six weeks my virtual classmates and I will learn about what it takes to produce quality non-fiction work. We’ll dissect the elements of memoirs, personal essays, biographies and similar. I will have to participate in online discussion boards (not my strong suit) and complete weekly assignments that are peer-reviewed (eek!).

The first assignment is a bit of a cracker. In 500 words or less, I need to:

Think of a specific moment when you were at a crossroads, major or minor. Zero in on that moment. Remember all that you can about that
moment, perhaps even jotting things down. What did you see, hear, smell, touch, or taste? What were you thinking or feeling?

In a way it’s quite amusing because in the spirit of lifelong learning and moving ahead, I have to first look backwards. No chance of writer’s block in this class, baby.

Monday, July 04, 2011

What Makes America Great

In addition to Snyder's Cheddar Cheese Pretzel Pieces, I do believe there are lots of things that make America great. Oh sure there are lots of things that make America kinda nuts too, but because today is July 4th, I reckon it's a much better idea to say nice things about the old girl.

So take diversity for instance - it makes America great. Yesterday I had a long overdue brunch date with C&K, two friends from The Cheese State who I met through LH back in Chicago. Yesterday was something like 91% humidity and it honestly felt like I was breathing water. But hunger is an obvious motivator and so it was that I heaved myself down to the East Village and we met up at Veselka, a New York institution since 1954 that serves up Ukrainian soul food, 24 hours a day. Trust me - the potato cakes alone were worth the 20 minutes we waited to be seated. Sitting there at the restaurant and catching up for almost 3 hours, the tables around us were chock-full pretty much the entire time. Kids, parents, grandparents - that restaurant was a microcosm of New York yesterday and it was great.

After bidding farewell to C&K I wandered around the East Village for a bit and found my back to a little piece of Australia, The Tuck Shop. I settled in to read a few more chapters of the third instalment of "The Hunger Games" trilogy when the bartender, a British fella, asked me what I was reading. I made the mistake of telling him I'd stayed home all day Saturday to read the second book. The look he gave me said everything. "I know," I admitted rather guiltily, "such a loser". He had the good grace not to agree with me outright. What followed was a bit of a conversation over some Coopers beers about the differences between Aussies, Brits, Scots and Americans. Our collective travel experiences, plus a healthy bullshit factor, meant we considered ourselves eminently qualified to dissect our respective cultural nuances. But even I was at a loss to clarify for the bartender why a bunch of Aussie tourists who had visited the bar earlier in the day had felt compelled to steal fistfuls of free napkins from off the counter. Perhaps some deep-seated and irresistible return to their convict beginnings? Or perhaps they were just morons. I think a little from Column A, a little from Column B to be fair.

Heading home briefly, I then ventured out in the cooler evening air to meet up with P at The Hill to redeem a Groupon certificate I'd had for a while. When I got there, the bar was pretty much empty and I had a good opportunity to make google eyes at the cute tattooed bartender (in spite of his trucker hat). I mean, seriously - the guy opened my beer bottle with the bottom half of the cocktail shaker. Could I have done that? Could you do that? Talent and showmanship, my friends. They make America great. So me and P sat outside in the fresh air, having beers and delicious white pizza (truffle oil also makes America great, by the way). As time went by, I watched the bar fill up with pretty young things, all of whom would have been at least 10 years younger than me and fortunately P agreed with me that it was time to head off somewhere else.

So we went around the block up to Wolfgang's, a steakhouse (this is definitely another thing that makes America great). We sat up at the empty bar and had a great chat with the barman, a French/American Vietnam Vet who was full of stories of 9/11, Jimmy Carter and Scotch. I was also quite taken with the beautiful tiled decor of the steakhouse, and will likely come back there soon for something cooked medium-rare with a side of mashed potatoes.

Tonight though I'm heading off to my boss's place to watch the July 4th fireworks and to help The Big Apple celebrate this great - and sometimes crazy - country's birthday. Here's hoping there's cake. But I will settle for some Snyder's pretzel pieces, of course.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Geekylocks and the Three Beers

I know that summer in New York is one of those fleeting things that is meant to inspire me to break free, dash outside and greedily seize the season with both hands.

Yet here I am on a sultry Saturday, holed up inside doing loads of laundry, drinking beers and getting totally absorbed reading "The Hunger Games" trilogy. If there were a bigger nerd on this earth, I'd like to meet her.

This week has been quite a busy one. I was occupied with end-of-financial year madness at work and in an effort to amuse myself more than anything, I created some pretty dazzling budget spreadsheets. My boss even felt sorry enough for me to approve one of them, and thus our tentative budget for next financial year was set. Whether it remains so is a mystery to us all.

I have also caught up in my studies for an online course run by the United Nations Institute for Training & Research (UNITAR). My office was kind enough to pay for my enrolment in a course designed to give me an Introduction to the United Nations System. In the sixth months I've been at work, I know a lot of my knowledge has come by osmosis and yet I was still feeling a little behind. I had begun using acronyms and phrases without really knowing what they meant or where they come from. The six week online course really just skimmed the surface of the UN System, but at least I feel now like I have some more context for the things I do and why. I was even quite proud of my consistent 90% exam results across the board. Multiple choice exams they might have been, but 90% is still 90% and I was pretty pleased about that. I think I still have one more module to go although as with the budget stuff, I won't know more until the email comes out next week.

I also finally bit the bullet and bought a new computer this week. I have finally bitten the Apple and my Macbook Pro gets delivered next week. Of course the idea of going into the NY Apple store terrified me, so I chickened out and did all my ordering online. As I did with my last PC, I also ordered "stupidity insurance", to guard against any Diet Coke spillage or unfortunate rolling-off-the-bed incidents that might occur. As an added perk, I treated myself to an iPod nano - a blood red one - and I got it engraved with my name on it. I suspect that might be the most ridiculous and pathetic thing to do, but I was caught up in the consumerism of it all. Anyone who finds my iPod and listens to the dodgy music selection won't need the engraving to know who it belongs to - and yet I couldn't resist inscribing it. Oh well, it's too late to back out now. Once a geek, always a geek.

But for now, this little geek is going to imprint the sofa with her butt and settle in for a few more chapters - and maybe a few more beverages. Isn't this what weekends are for, anyway?