Wednesday, November 30, 2011

No Piles for this Princess

Yesterday was the second Tuesday in a row that it decided to rain all afternoon. Not normally an issue of course, except I was supposed to have my third pre-season workout for the NYC Half-Marathon in Central Park. Where is the incentive to run outdoors when it's pissing down?!

Of course I talked it over with Flock and Flower, my two running companions from work, and we agreed to bail. It didn't take us very long to come to that decision. Then ten minutes before we were supposed to walk out the door, Flock decided we were going. So I caved. I called Flower's office but she was already long gone. Sensible woman, that one. So Flock and I changed into gym gear and trudged along to Central Park for our 6.45pm workout.

The rain had stopped but there was this annoying misty spit falling from the sky, which is probably more irritating than rain when you think about it. We exercised in the open air - skipping, hopping, jumping-jacking (aka star-jumping, for those of you playing at home on the other side of the world). Then we had to jog up and back along the walkway. I didn't die, but I was glad when it was over. I have no stamina for this running gimmick yet. Then we did a couple of ballet leg lifts and some bicep something-somethings, and as the heavens threatened to open we sought refuge back under the Bethesda Terrace bridge.

For whatever reason I decided to get indignant at this point. Physically I felt fine - the workout up till now had been fine and my body was feeling warmed up and ready. But when the trainer asked us to lay down on the cold, wet floor under the bridge, I just wasn't having it. High school flashed into mind, and Sister Maryanne's frequent warning against sitting on concrete floors ("you'll get piles, girls!"). I don't want piles. Who does?! So I stubbornly refused to do the floor-based exercises.

My protest would probably have been more effective had I not been the only one participating in it. I looked around and I was literally the only princess in the group. One of the happy-clapper trainers came over and asked me if I was doing okay. She probably thought I was injured or something. I just said to her that I wasn't prepared to lie on the floor tonight (subtext: or any night, lady!). Harrumph. The lady just smiled that giant grin of the righteous and chirped, "okay!!". I could almost hear both of those exclamation points in her voice. ARGH. I begrudgingly joined the group towards the end and did one plank for the sake of Pilates (plus I find them relatively easy for some reason), then we did some cool down stretches, and the workout was all over for another night.

Yes I know that I was being a princess last night and I achieved nothing by boycotting the abdominal exercises. But this has been my only act of rebellion so far in this whole half-marathon enterprise, so I'm not dwelling on it too much. Somewhere out there, Sister Maryanne is quietly proud of me.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

A Little Bit of Give

I was up early this morning, before my alarm in fact, because I've signed up to another block of four Pilates lessons every Sunday morning from now until my parents come over. I love this groovy Pilates studio, the same one that I went to back in summer. Has it really been that long between classes?! I've graduated from beginner status though, and this morning I was ready and willing to get started on the hard stuff.

I must have put rocket boosters on my sneakers because I walked the 14 blocks to the studio in record time. There were a lot of crazies out earlier today, scavenging bins and screaming at threats only they could see. Scarier still was the handful of hungover souls doing the walk of shame. No judgment.

The instructor we had this morning remembered me from a previous class, which I thought was really nice. She took us through the usual bendy-stretchy routines on the tower, swapping springs and straps and all manner of tools designed to strengthen and lengthen our muscles.

But the total kicker for me came when we had to lay on our backs, keeping our legs straight and our thighs and feet together. Using our abdominals we had to raise and lower our legs as much as we could. Sounds easy but it's a bit of a killer, trust me.

The instructor told us to squeeze our thighs together, and pretend we had a piece of paper in between them that we didn't want to lose. Coming over to check that I was maintaining neutral pelvis (not as kinky as it sounds), the instructor said, "keep your thighs together - don't let anything get between your thighs!". I snort-laughed; it was like all the nuns from high school were back in the room again!

The instructor just smiled and I kept leg-lifting. That imaginary piece of paper didn't budge.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Hangovers and Leftovers

I am so glad that this blog does not come with a webcam because today is Black Friday and I'm going to recline in my pyjamas for as long as I can without grossing myself out. I'm going to enjoy copious amounts of strong coffee, lip-smackingly hot buttered toast, and a TV line-up that is so ludicrously crappy that I can scarcely believe it.

Black Friday is the biggest shopping day in the US and it comes the day after Thanksgiving. I did not have a big Turkey Day this year, but even I'm having trouble moving too far, too fast. How gluttons heave themselves around the department stores on this capitalist delight's special day is totally beyond me. Maybe they secretly did what I did this year, and got up early to shop online. With the exception of one person, my Christmas shopping is now totally done. And I didn't have to leave the apartment to do it. Score!

The best thing about being a sloth on Black Friday is it allows you to reflect on the day before. Turkey Day, Thanksgiving - whatever you call it - is a day to stop and give thanks for the good things in your life. I've had some amazing Thanksgiving meals in my US experience:
  • The first time, I went to an old friend's place in Chicago when the weather was ridiculous;
  • The second time, I tried to host an orphan's Thanksgiving and one by one, everybody bailed. So in the words of Forrest Gump, "that's all I have to say about that";
  • The third time, I went to the Trade Commissioner's house and had a huge roast lunch;
  • The fourth time was actually my first truly American Thanksgiving, hosted by a Chicago friend at her gorgeous apartment;
  • The fifth meal I cheated and hosted it in June, to celebrate my Aussie friend's visit;
  • The sixth and seventh meals were, if you can believe it, both on the same day, this time in NYC when I flew in to visit K. We were more stuffed than the turkeys by the end of that day; and
  • Now of course it's Thanksgiving Meal #8 and despite my fancy cooking class, I wimped out and did the heat-and-eat option.
I actually thought I had Thanksgiving plans this year, but friends who had initially talked about coming to NYC for the weekend ended up changing their plans. Quite separately, I was also invited to have an orphan's lunch at a friend's place but with the idea of hosting my own friends in town, I had to decline. Nothing was a big deal in the end of course, because the food I bought freezes really well. So I kept out the pre-cooked turkey breast, cranberry & herb stuffing, mashed potatoes and turkey gravy, and I managed to cobble (gobble?) together some steamed vegetable side dishes to go with it. I sensibly froze the apple crisp dessert because I think that if I'd left that out, I would have scoffed the lot. As I polished off the plateful of almost-homemade deliciousness, I had a couple of glasses of red wine and watched "Ghostbusters" and "National Lampoons Christmas Vacation". It was a pretty good day, for sure.

And the only hangover I have today is a food-related one. Waking up from a turkey coma is always a bit rough. Online shopping and strong coffee has helped revive me somewhat, and I'm ready to face the day dealing with leftovers. I'm thinking that a turkey chilli is on the menu, for which I shall be truly thankful for days to come.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Pain lets you know you're not dead yet

Last night was pre-season workout number 2 in Central Park. I'm quite ashamed to say that even though I'd put in some treadmill time on Saturday, Sunday and Monday - my thighs were still a bit dodgy after last week's session. I was a bit nervous about how much effort I'd be able to put in to the cross-training, stretching part of our weekly workout. I had already decided to find the 70 year old lady who was there last week and stand close to her.

My nerves about session two were somewhat eased by the company of Flock, one of the girls from work who I'd somehow managed to convince to do this half-marathon with me. And like me, Flock is not a runner (yet?), and she's equally dubious about her body's ability to get through this 13.1 mile challenge in one piece. But as we've been talking about it together over the past few days, we've managed to keep each other motivated. Flock has even ramped up her fundraising efforts by feeding us all home-made sausage rolls this week. $1 for 2 of those delicious delights? A bargain, if ever there was one!

Rain fell for most of yesterday afternoon and I don't deny that I thought about bailing on training. But it was only the second week - and we're still only in pre-season. Training hasn't even started properly yet. Plus Flock was still committed, so I had to be too. By the time we got to Central Park, the sky was dark and the raindrops were there to stay. As we walked towards the Bethesda Terrace meeting point, I was carrying on about how the trainers couldn't possibly expect us to run in the rain...we'd catch our deaths of cold....I'd surely slip on wet leaves....I'm wearing all black; I'd get hit by a car for sure. Bla-di-bla-bla.

All this melodrama came to nothing though really. Our trainer didn't expect us to run in the rain at all. We stayed underneath the Bethesda Terrace bridge and did our workout under there. We jogged, we skipped, we kicked our legs. We squatted and planked and pushed up. I tried to lunge (and thought better of it), and did a couple of half-ass curtsies before my thighs decided enough was enough. I was relieved when we started the cool-down stretching parts and when I leaned over to do a calf/hamstring stretch, I was quite proud that I could put both of my palms flat on the floor. If I had done that same stretch after last week's training, I probably would have cried.

After our workout, Flock and I parted ways and I walked to the bus stop with one of the other girls from training. Yep, I made another new friend. This is getting to be a bit of a pattern, kids. This new friend is a first-time marathoner and non-runner too. She works at Penguin books, so you can imagine the geeky conversations we had as we walked together. Penguin is actually sponsoring a team of her colleagues to do this half-marathon and they're matching donations dollar-for-dollar. Isn't that wonderful? I was too busy chatting to notice how cold it was and how rained-on I was getting, despite my umbrella. When I got to the bus stop and tried to put on the hoodie that I'd left in my backpack, I realised that my bag is not as water-tight as I'd hoped it was, and my hoodie - and most of my work clothes - were all damp. Nuts.

Within about 30 seconds of getting home last night, I was standing under a scalding hot shower and feeling immediately revived. A bowl of hot soup, a glass of red wine, and two episodes of "The West Wing" rounded out my night. I slept like the dead and it was wonderful.

What is also wonderful is the fact that I can actually move this morning. I feel better today that I did after last week's workout and I hope that this is just a good sign of great things to come.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Where Do You Keep Your Crazy Pills?

There is a pharmacy up the street from us that K has decided to boycott because a few months ago they ripped out all their cash registers and replaced them with self-service machines. Given that I prefer as little human contact as possible in most retail situations, I was all for the automation and have continued to patronise the place. But after tonight's shopping experience, I get the impression there is likely to be an 8x10 photograph of yours truly posted up around the place. Good grief.

I was walking back from the gym, rocking out to my old lady radio station on my iPod and I headed into the pharmacy. I had only brought $20 with me, so I relied on my superior mathematical skills to instruct me when to stop shopping and cash out. You are already seeing my problem, aren't you? Arms loaded with stuff, I headed for the faceless automaton check-out and started scanning. Bleep, bleep, bleep - the purchases whooshed through.

Then we stalled. The scanner couldn't read the bodywash barcode. Or, more accurately, wouldn't read the bodywash barcode. The machine disputed that I had put it in the bag. "Incorrect weight", it kept saying. I took the bodywash out of the bag; I put it back into the bag. "Incorrect weight", the machine insisted. I tried to ignore the message and scan my Diet Coke instead. The machine was not having any of that. It had clearly dealt with humans trying to circumvent its authority before. I huffed and puffed, and made a none-too-subtle comment under my breath about the state of the universe when a machine won't even let you buy bodywash. And just at the point where I was going to squirt bodywash all over the machine's circuitry, a ridgey-didge staff member came over to help me. He possessed the magic credit card override thingy that told the machine to scan the freaking bodywash and get over it.

But the machine was not going to back down easily. As Human Being stood idly by, I scanned my extra purchases. The machine stubbornly refused to acknowledge my toilet paper, hand soap or chewing gum. One by one, Human Being swooshed his increasingly unimpressive credit card override thingy at the machine until (finally) all my purchases were in the bag. We looked at the computer screen.

The smug electronic bastard decided to charge me $20.95. I could almost hear it laughing; mocking me. As Human Being became absorbed in studying his shoes, or the ceiling, or anything else that wasn't me, I huffed and puffed some more and tore into my shopping bag to remove whatever item I could not apparently afford. Grabbing the first thing to hand, I hurled it off to the side and narrowed my eyes into slits at the machine.

Trying to salvage whatever suggestion of sanity I could, I thanked Human Being profusely for helping me defeat a smartass computer. Human Being did his best not to page the pharmacist.

It wasn't until I scurried off into the night that I realised that the item I'd surrendered was the toilet paper - the one thing I actually went shopping for in the first place.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

If it makes you happy, it can't be that bad

When friends come to town, it's usually a bloody good excuse to throw your sensible diet and lifestyle plans out the window - right? Hmm maybe that's just how I approach these things. Not that I don't mix in a little culture with my hedonism, mind.

So it was that at 8.30am yesterday, I met Courts on the corner of 58th and Why-The-Hell-Am-I-Out-Of-Bed-At-This-Hour, and we taxied to the American Museum of Natural History. As a member there, I had snagged a couple of tickets to the Museum's new "Beyond Planet Earth" exhibition which officially opened yesterday. We just got to see it before all the tourist hoards (and their bratty children) came charging through. The exhibit is quite small but it has some pretty fancy interactive displays and the gift shop even sells little sachets of space food. At this point in the day, I was fueled by only half a Whole Foods coffee, so even the dehydrated chocolate ice cream sandwich was looking pretty good. But I knew what was to come, so I resisted.

Rather than stay on at the Museum during its opening hours, we walked over to my fabulously favourite food emporium, Zabar's. I have made no secret on this site about my love for this place and I'm so glad that Courts liked it too. The average age of shoppers in there yesterday would have been about 300 but that's typical for this place and one of the reasons I love it. Little old ladies and their husbands shuffle around to do their weekly shopping, being jostled about by tourists and locals who (like me) just want to grab as many pastries and pickled products as they can and scoff them immediately. Okay maybe that's just me. I emerged with a loaf of signature rye bread and a giant pack of chocolate rugelach, both of which made me a very happy girl. When we left Zabar's I was heartbroken to realise that H&H bagels had closed its Upper West Side store. This upset was mitigated however by the smoked salmon & cream cheese delight and freshly-squeezed OJ that I enjoyed at Zabar's little cafe next door. Nom nom.

In fact, happiness through food seemed to be quite the popular sentiment yesterday. With our Zabar's purchases in hand, we took our full and caffeinated selves on the subway to the Madison Square Park. Across the street, in all its epicurean glory, is Eataly. I don't need to remind you how happy this places makes me. Lavazza coffee, creamy cakes, dried and fresh pastas, live seafood, charcuterie plates and wines, for the love of all that is holy. Eataly sells itself.

I took Courts up to the rooftop and we hung out at Birreria until CS joined us. We might have been ticking on a little bit by the time he got there, but such is the effect that two of the restaurant's delicious home brews will have on you. Retiring to a table, we enjoyed a delicious meal of assorted salamis; blood sausage and sauerkraut; pork chops; and portobello mushrooms. I know, right? Well look at the menu for yourself - you would have done just as much delicious damage! The meal and the beers and the location made all three of us quite happy and we were ready to face the Eataly market downstairs. Tasty treats made it safely into our shopping baskets, I can assure you.

Parting ways with Courts and CS, I wished them well for their delicious dinner at Mercer Kitchen and I headed for home. Laundry and episodes of "The West Wing" followed (Mark Harmon as a Secret Service agent, anyone? Hubba hubba). Then I made the fatal mistake of ordering Thai take-away and asking the restaurant to make it extra spicy for me. If I ever try and do that again, can you please karate chop me? Needless to say that the remainder of my Saturday night is best left forgotten. I was very disappointed in myself, but also for the fact that it meant I couldn't meet Courts & CS at Wallse after their dinner, for the much-anticipated tomato peppar cocktail (or Bloody Martini, in this case) that I had read all about in my New York Times cookbook. A story for another time, I guess.

After a 13-hour sleep, I woke up to a Sunday morning full of promise. Thai food was a distant memory and my legs even felt fit enough to drag me to the gym. A one hour workout cleared my mind and cheered me up immensely. As I walked home, I had to actively remember not to dance to my iPod music in public (I make an unfortunate habit of this). Lost in my thoughts, I got pulled back to reality by a truck-full of New York City firefighters, honking their horn and waving at me. At least I hope they were waving at me, cause I totally waved back. I'm only human, after all.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Feel the Burn

So here we are the day after pre-season training and I woke up this morning feeling fine. I was secretly just grateful to wake up, to be honest.

I stretched my legs out in bed and nothing seemed to ache or pinch. Feet on the floor, walking was not only possible but quite normal. I got ready for work without incident and even managed to strut on the way in – not hobble along in a hunched-over state, like I feared I would.

As the day has worn on though, my body has become increasingly sore. My legs are not happy, and when I try and flex my thigh muscles my vision blurs. Okay, that is overstating things somewhat, but you know what I mean. My back is also sore, but I think it has just gone out in sympathy with my legs. I have developed a headache but I think that’s just biological rebellion. I am so out of condition. Who signed me up to this running gimmick anyway? Oh yeah, me.

On the upside, the fact that my legs hurt surely suggests I used them properly last night. That’s got to count for something, right? I’m sure it does, but right now it hurts to think about it.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Acrid Stench of Death

So tonight was the launch of pre-season training for the NYC Half-Marathon. I was so nervous as I made my way from the 68th Street subway station up onto Fifth Avenue and the few blocks into Central Park. The rain that had threatened to fall all day finally started to splotch everything as I stood at the 72nd Street entrance to Central Park, a full 15 minutes early for training.

In my anticipation, I texted my sister. I mentioned where I was going, and that I was early, hoping to inspire some last-minute words of encouragement. "You're early? Haha - nerd!" was the reply. Figures.

I killed some time fiddling around with my backpack and then made my way to Bethesda Terrace (well rehearsed after Sunday's reconnaissance mission). A small but growing group was already there. Coaches and mentors in shiny, sporty jackets were shaking hands and greeting newcomers. I hung around the back, smiling at people when they looked at me, but trying not to look maniacal and "late night Central Park-y" (think "Law and Order" for the type of menacing nutty expression I mean).

I got talking to a girl next to me and we discovered that we were both half-marathon virgins. In fact, neither of us had ever done anything like this in our lives, and we were still trying to work out how a promotional junk mail postcard (that we would normally never read) managed to suck us in this far. A kindred spirit if ever there was one. So we adopted each other and when the time came to go downstairs, drop off our bags and confess about our lack of running ability, we did it together.

Fortunately there were more first-timers there tonight than I was expecting. The vast majority seem to be non-runners, though tonight was not the time to divulge why we've all come together to do this thing. I suspect we'll save that for another night.

Tonight was about getting started. The head coach announced that we would run for 10 minutes. We'd run 5 minutes in one direction, turn around and then run back to our meeting spot. Before we knew what was happening, we were off. I actually ran. Body parts wobbled and wheezed. My head spun. But I did not stop. I ran the full 10 minutes without stopping. I talked to my new friend the whole way, even laughed a few times, and yet my legs and arms kept moving and propelled me forward.

By the time we got back to the meeting place I was knackered. My new Nike shirt was excellent at wicking away sweat, but my face was on fire and I thought I was going to die. And yet I didn't die - quite the opposite, in fact. I totally kept going. We did silly exercises back and forth, skipping and lifting our knees up, crab-walking and side-lunging, and then a grapevine type step that was quite easy until I started concentrating and then I nearly fell down.

After that we did some stretches and it's fair to say I was in my element at this point. Standing still and stretching is my forte. I did a good Pilates plank and held my form, though my core is not as good as it used to be and I can't wait to get back to my Pilates tower/reformer classes that start next weekend.

There was a lot of "woohoo" and "go team" and self-congratulatory applause employed tonight. At first it was a bit weird. I was waiting for someone to pass me a glass of Kool-Aid. But then I kind of relaxed into it and realised that it was actually a very supportive, encouraging environment.

My running and lunges and crab-walking will probably render me immobile tomorrow but I am so resolved to do better next week. I've arranged to meet my friend at top of the stairs next week (when her friends will also be coming along) and with safety in numbers, I think we'll all be fine to keep on truckin'.

Now, what do we say?

I was running late for work this morning and I shared the elevator with a little boy from down the hall, all rugged up in his stroller. He was heading out for his morning constitutional with his nanny. I have seen this pair before and they are just adorable. While the little boy is cocooned under mountains of blankets, his little sneakers poking out the bottom, he chats away happily – mostly to himself, but occasionally to his nanny too. Usually he just stares at me. I poke my tongue out. He laughs.

We missed that little pantomime this morning because the little boy was having a late breakfast on the go. As his nanny leant forward to hand him the piece of buttered toast, she uttered that truly international phrase “now, what do we say?”. Obediently the little boy responded, “thank you”. Okay admittedly, his response was more a “fank goo”, but I’m giving him some leeway here.

It’s so weird that kids all over the world are schooled this way. We all get conditioned with “now, what do we say?” (thank you) and occasionally, “what’s the magic word?” (please). Weirder still is how we all start this way, but as our adult personalities develop and change, so too does our observence of basic good manners.

Old school etiquette put a lot of pressure on men – holding doors open for women, walking on the gutter-side of the street, standing up whenever women came into (or left) a room or a dining table. Those practices haven't entirely disappeared but they have slackened off - sign of the times and all that. But hey, good manners aren't just the domain of men. Women can just as easily hold doors open for people, give up their bus seats for the ancients, and cover their mouths when they sneeze. And when I witness these simple acts of kindness in my modern day life, I ask myself “now, what do we say?”, and of course I respond accordingly. You can't undo that sort of conditioning.

When I lived in Chicago I adopted the very American practice of writing thank you notes. Is this an American custom? It seemed so to me – I don’t recall Aussies doling out too many thank you cards on a regular basis. I do recall however that when I lived in Chi-town, Hallmark made millions from me. I had boxes of thank you cards of all different designs and whenever I attended dinner parties or birthday parties, or even if friends just did something nice for me, I’d send a follow-up note to formally acknowledge the kindness. It wasn’t even forced either. For me, it had become another US custom that I’d adopted and it was borne of a sentiment so sincere, that it felt good to be able to express it.

While I take care to remember my manners at all times, I have admittedly slackened off on the card-giving these days. But as my attention turns to the fast-approaching Thanksgiving holiday, I’m wondering if I shouldn’t just reinstitute the practice. It won’t save me from the ghastly hand-holding, saying-what-you’re-thankful-for Thanksgiving lunch tradition, but it will be a nice thing to do. And let’s face it, it doesn’t really matter where you’re from – “fank goo” is always nice to hear.

Monday, November 14, 2011

And All That Jazz

I don't know whether the gin was cold or if the piano was hot, but tonight I went to a gorgeous little wine bar in the East Village called Cellar 58. I listened to some very cool, easy-listening jazz and stuffed my face with amazing pappardelle and Sangiovese. I am quite easy to please when it comes to these things in life - give me music, red wine and pasta and I will be a very happy girl.

In her naturally exuberant way, one of K's friends violated my no-touch policy several times. But she was a "hugger" and there's not much you can do when "huggers" move in on you. You just have to roll with it and I think I dealt with it all quite well (particularly for a Monday). This probably means that the Sangiovese - and even the jazz - were doing their jobs; I was in good spirits all round.

We were there to celebrate K's room mate's engagement - she and her betrothed got engaged in Central Park just yesterday. I was only in Central Park yesterday so I know first-hand what a beautiful day it was there. What a gorgeous day to have something so lovely happen to you. And in such an iconic location. Sigh. See! Even fusty old ladies like me can be happy for people sometimes. Again, I blame the red wine and the jazz for my marshmallow attitude. What a pushover!

I even violated my own no-touch policy and voluntarily hugged everyone goodbye. Invasion of the pod people. Apocalypse a-go-go! So now I'm on a pasta and red wine hiatus and I'm mentally prepping for my first day of training tomorrow night (eek!).

No more pasta and red wine for a little while, but I'd definitely go back to the gorgeous wine bar any time!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Accidental Tourist

It is a truth universally acknowledged that I am not good at geography. I enjoy looking at maps because I can at least give the impression that they mean something to me. But I have the unique gift of always turning left when I should be turning right.

So today I should quite probably buy a New York lottery ticket because it was really was my lucky day. I found everything I went looking for today and did not get lost once.

I left home early this morning to make good on my pledge to find Bethesda Terrace in Central Park, where I will be meeting my Team in Training crew on Tuesday night. I had snuck a bit of a look at a map beforehand so when I set off on the bus from home, I at least knew the general direction I'd need to go to reach my goal. I caught the super fast bus up 1st Avenue and then switched to the cross-town bus at 79th St over to Fifth Avenue. This was a bit further north than I knew I needed to be, but I wanted to walk south along the edge of Central Park.

My mum would love this time of year in New York, and in Central Park in particular. The leaves are changing colour beautifully here and when they get tired of hanging around, they're falling off the trees left and right. Everywhere I looked today, little kids - and big kids alike - were stomping through piles of dried leaves, just clowning around. We were all a bit rugged up today because despite the sun, the cool air had come in and made everything a little crisp.

I cut into Central Park at 72nd street and headed down the hill, in the direction of where I hoped I'd find Bethesda Terrace. I nearly got run down by horse-drawn carriages, joggers, cyclists, roller bladers and bicycle rickshaws but it was all good. I found myself the "walkers only" lane on the road and stuck to it. Sure enough, as I rounded a corner and came over the crest of the hill, what did I see in front of me? Yep, the beautiful fountain and staircase of Bethesda Terrace. I did a little victory dance on the inside.

You'd recognise Bethesda Terrace from a bunch of New York movies and TV shows. My favourite of course? This scene from "One Fine Day", when George Clooney carries Michelle Pfeiffer through the rain puddle. Swoon. Naturally when I went here today, the place was swarming with tourists - and Gorgeous George was nowhere in sight. Pity.

Feeling deservedly proud of myself, I set off in search of coffee and I headed back up the hill and off to the left. Around a bend or two I found the iconic Central Park Boathouse which, it has to be said, has pretty good coffee for a New York restaurant. It was still relatively early by the time I got here and the brunch crowds hadn't yet arrived. So I got myself a coffee and a brownie, and relaxed outside - right along the water - and read my new book. Before I knew it, I'd lost an hour this way and figured I might as well keep moving.

I wandered back to Bethesda Terrace and back out of the Park the way I came in, confident in the fact that on Tuesday night I'll be OK to get myself back there.

Taking the N subway in the direction of home, I noticed that the last stop on my line would be Coney Island. Never having been there, and having all the time in the world, I figured I might as well go visit. I wasn't on the express train of course, but I was too scared to get off and switch lines, in case my brand new geography skills were just a fluke. So I sat where I was and let the train s-l-o-w-l-y take me through Manhattan, across into Brooklyn, and all the way out to the seaside.

Coney Island in autumn is as dead as a dodo. And I have to say, seeing the Boardwalk all boarded up and the amusement park rides all closed down is a creepy sight. But at the same time, I quite enjoyed being there - because there were hardly any tourists, or kids, or people riding roller coasters and screaming. About 40 people were braving the cool conditions along the Boardwalk today. The water was calm and the beach sand was clean and undisturbed. The fresh air put me in the mood for fish & chips but as I bought a couple of postcards for my grandmas, I remembered that Coney Island is home to Nathan's hotdogs, somewhat of an institution since it first opened here in 1916. Sure enough, I left the Boardwalk, rounded the corner and opposite the subway station was the iconic storefront. Even though I had to line up for it (almost out the door), the hotdog and Diet Coke really hit the spot and gave me the energy I needed to get back on the train and head for home.

I was all over the map today - Central Park and then far-flung Brooklyn - but I had success both times. If I could high-5 myself I totally would. My new sneakers also held up to all the walking around too, so I feel confident they will do the same in March next year. All good.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Looking The Part

On this cool, crisp Saturday morning I set out for breakfast with K&N, who had come back to New York for a very brief visit.

Over waffles and coffee (for me, anyway) we chatted about a bunch of things, and conversation turned to the NYC Half-Marathon. N is an excellent runner and has done a bunch of endurance events already. K has been doing them too, especially lately, and the more they talked about the more convinced I got that I will be okay in March.

I was telling them how nervous I was about the pre-season training on Tuesday and how I was glad to be in that part of town, because I wanted to do a reccy mission and scope out Central Park to find exactly where I need to be on Tuesday night. Then we talked about what one wears when one runs in the cold weather. N told me all about the excellent running tights he has. $100+ a pair, but totally worth it. Compression tights that breathe but also hug your muscles and treat your legs right. I took mental notes.

After breakfast, K and I wandered around a bit, stopping into Tiffany's, The Apple Store, The Nike Store, Sak's and Rockefeller Centre (ARGH). The tree is being set up now and while there's not much to see, that doesn't stop the hundreds of tourists slowing down to get a good gawk. The ice skating rink is also chock-full already, but that does provide a bit of amusement. People falling down is always fun.

As I farewelled K&N for their long road trip back to Canada, I abandoned my Central Park plan (delayed until tomorrow) and instead I caught the subway to Union Square. I'd heard about Jack Rabbit, a great store to buy running, triathlon and yoga gear. I thought I would just have a look at the range of running tights and long-sleeved tops, all designed to "wick sweat away" (yep, scientific).

After a lap and a half of the place, I threw myself at the mercy of a sales lady and she helped me pick out a long-sleeved Nike top, a little hand-held drink bottle (with reflecto-strips), and some running tights. Um, the tights are very confronting. I tried them on in the change-room and they are like black Spanx; they suck you in and leave very little to the imagination. Sure, they contoured me, but I'm not sure I really want them to right now. Shudder.

Then I signed up to the shoe list and waited my turn until a fitting expert came to my aid. I explained what I had signed up to do and the sales man tried his best to care. I emphasised that I had very little interest in running this event (though I suspect the trainers & mentors might try and encourage me to). I told him I just wanted new sneakers that would be good all-terrain ones, and not leak, and not hurt my toes. I bought the first pair I tried on. Cha-ching!

Laden with my new athletic possessions, I walked home on the sunny side of the street.

Tomorrow I'm going back up to Central Park and find the training location for Tuesday. I refuse to start this new adventure by being "the Aussie girl who got lost". Then again, I don't want to be "the girl with astonishing tights" either, but I'm not sure I have much choice in that now.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Giving Thanks - a little early

When I turned 21 again this year, K & P were kind enough to gift me with four cooking classes at Home Cooking New York. I took a look at the online class calendar (which changes each season) and there are so many tasty classes to choose from! Fortunately the teacher agreed to let me book my lessons individually, so I can take my time and choose carefully.

Home Cooking New York’s Manhattan location is a gorgeous loft property in Chelsea, all polished concrete floors, exposed beams and industrial décor. And somebody actually lives there, can you believe it? While we took over the owner's apartment for our class, she and her wire-haired Jack Russell terrier hid out in the bedroom and watched TV. It probably would have been awkward were it not so awesome.

For my first class, I signed up to a Thanksgiving Tutorial. Despite not liking turkey all that much, Thanksgiving is one of my favourite US holidays. I love the tradition of it – the smells, the flavours, and all the pomp and pageantry that goes along with it. Due to my no-touch policy, I tend to draw the line at the hand-holding part (where you go around the dining table and say what you’re thankful for), but from a strictly culinary perspective, I do love it. So my motivation for joining the class was just to learn a bit more about how to take the stress out of Thanksgiving and confidently prepare some of the main traditional side-dishes typical of the holiday.
Behold the menu for last night’s class:

  • Roast chicken with pan juice gravy (an appropriate turkey substitute)

  • Cornbread stuffing with wild mushrooms & pecans

  • Fresh cranberry-orange relish

  • Maple sweet potato puree

  • Pear tarte tatin

Our merry band of wannabe chefs included one instructor and eight students. I didn’t know anyone of course, and nobody made any effort to introduce themselves, which I thought was a bit weird. But we donned our aprons and gathered around the long tables in the kitchen, our knives and cutting boards in front of us, settling into casual small talk.

From what I could glean from the conversation around me, I was the only first-timer there last night. The other students talked about the classes they’d been to and I got the impression that the Indian (vegetarian) class was the most popular one by far. I made a mental note to look that up later on.

The class website encourages you to bring a bottle of wine (or equivalent) with you, because the idea is that you cook together and then you sit down to enjoy the meal afterwards. I had come prepared but because I couldn’t see any bottles of wine on the dining table or anything, I kept mine hidden in my handbag (as I so often do).

While the chef began his introduction and overview of the class, the two boys next to me went to the fridge and brought out their home-made infused vodka. It had some sort of wrinkly fruit swimming around inside it. They did not offer the rest of us any, but instead proceeded to pour themselves multiple glasses and talk amongst themselves – and to us – about how delicious it was. Well, we had to take their word for it, didn’t we? Another couple had bought a bottle of wine with them and again, they poured themselves glasses and put the rest of the bottle back in the fridge. I had bought a bottle of wine too but I was hardly going to pour myself one glass and screw the lid back on. So I offered glasses to the other students (and the chef) and felt better once we all had a drink in front of us. When the boys’ vodka ran out, they too cracked open a bottle of wine (again, without sharing any). For such a small class, I guess I was expecting something a little more collegiate, you know? A little more caring, a little more sharing...nope.

Anywho, once we were all boozed up, the class began and the chef took us through the menu, a shopping list, and the best ‘plan of attack’ for a stress-free Thanksgiving. He talked about the things we should do (up to 4 days before) and it was quite comforting to know that for such a seemingly-complex menu, so much could be done ahead of time.

In terms of confidence and ability, our class varied dramatically. One woman next to me was obviously afraid to even boil water. She wrote down everything the chef said and as he chopped, she picked up her knife and mirrored what he did (even though she was chopping invisible food). It was all a bit unusual.

We helped the chef prepare our meal, doing our share to dice fruits & vegetables, zest oranges, and season and stuff the chickens. Unfortunately the preparation part took so long, it was almost 9pm before we got to eat anything. Our stomachs were rumbling, all the wine had been drunk, and we were desperately ready to eat something…anything. Fortunately it’s the chef’s prerogative to eat while they cook, and while we got busy preparing the cranberry-orange relish, I got to taste my first fresh cranberry ever. It was very tart but actually quite refreshing. I much prefer them in their dried, sweeter form though.

Finally the time came to enjoy our dinner. The chicken was moist and tender, the two potato dishes we made were amazing and even though I’m not normally a fan of stuffing, it was delicious. My eyes were bigger than my stomach though and I struggled to get through all the meal. I couldn’t even face dessert – though the tart was a beautiful sight to behold.

I learned two really great things at the class last night. Firstly, I learned that all this time, I have been holding my kitchen knives incorrectly. I have been holding them by the handle (duh), but apparently that is quite bad because it puts strain on your wrist muscles and doesn’t give you the maximum control over your chopping and slicing. The trick is to hold the handle further down by the blade, so that your fingers are actually gripping the base of the blade itself. True enough, when I shifted my hand position it felt weird at first but then I realised I had much better grip and so much more control – it was great.

The second really useful thing I learned was how to chop an onion properly. I see how they do it on TV (cutting the onion cross-ways a couple of times to create a really fine dice), but I don’t even try that because I’m so afraid of slicing myself. When I chop onions, I usually send a lot of it skidding across the cutting board, or onto the floor (or both). This time the chef showed us how to cut the onion easily. Rather than slicing it across, you cut it in half and remove the skins. Taking half the onion, you first cut crescent-moon shapes, and then rotate the onion so you’re ready to dice it. But instead of cutting straight down (as I always do), you cut in a sawing motion following the contour of the onion. So your first cut is almost a diagonal one, and you keep following the shape of the onion around until you’ve sliced the lot. It is easy, and fast, and the onion stays put.

Oh and there was a third thing I learned. Even though I’m not a baker, I could TOTALLY make the pear tarte tatin that we had last night. Pears, vanilla sugar, a bit of cinnamon and some puff pastry? Dead easy, man. I just need a flat-bottomed cast iron skillet and I’m good to go. I wonder if Mr Le Crueset is feeling generous this Christmas?

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Do or do not. There is no try.

We’ve already established that during my blogging hiatus, I hit up the theatre, went to Chicago and watched an alarming number of episodes of “The West Wing”. Um incidentally and just as an aside, I’m still not sure if I have a bigger crush on Josh, Sam or the President (it varies from episode to episode).

But when I wasn’t blogging I was also walking miles on the treadmill, doing my best to make sure my work wardrobe still fits me for another season.

Naturally this focus on fashion-related fitness also left me vulnerable to a fundraising appeal I received in the mail one day. Before I knew what happened, I’d signed myself up to walk the NYC Half-Marathon in March 2011.

Do not adjust your computer settings – you totally read that right.

I am now dedicated to hauling my ass 13.1 miles to the finish line in support of the great work of the Leukaemia and Lymphoma Society. From now until March I will be under the expert tutelage of the LLS Team in Training, who have taken me under their wing and promise to help me achieve this new goal.

The Team in Training folks will host weekly training sessions throughout winter (Saturday mornings in Central Park!), and I meet my small group of fellow walkers to train and exercise together, and learn a bit about endurance along the way so that I don’t collapse during the event. Or worse, give up.

But as part of the event, I also need to raise funds for the LLS. I’ve set myself the rather conservative minimum goal of raising $1,000USD. The LLS has also set me up with a fundraising webpage, which I will gussy up shortly and then send out the link, to herald the start of the shameless but necessary cup-rattling and hat-passing. That’s where you come in, by the way.

So when the time comes, I would be really proud if you could help me reach – or even exceed – my fundraising goal. Plus if you have any tips for how I can stay motivated (and alive) on this latest fitness journey, I’m all ears.

I know how far 13.1 miles is, and I know that this half-marathon idea is a potentially crazy one, but I have to give it a go. Your support will give me the extra push I need to shuffle along.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

A dinner that's all for SHO

I have not been to all that many fine dining restaurants in my life but the ones I have patronised have definitely left a distinct impression. A couple of cases in point: I will never forget the meal we had at the Jules Verne in Paris for J’s birthday. A girl doesn’t easily forget dining 125 metres up The Eiffel Tower or her resolution to curl up and die inside the restaurant’s cheese cart, even with the smelly Epoisse for company. Likewise the degustation menu I enjoyed at Danny Meyer’s Eleven Madison Park, where I not only managed to gorge myself on some truly beautiful and delicious dishes, I experienced first-hand what exceptional table service is supposed to be.

Last night was another such memorable experience, this time at the 2 Michelin-starred SHO Shaun Hergatt in the heart of the Financial District and the gorgeous (but very confusing) Wall Street neighbourhood.

On the second floor of the impressive Setai Club and Spa, the restaurant boasts Asian-inspired décor that is uncomplicated, sleek and elegant. To get to the dining area, you walk through the most amazing wine cellar, displaying an amazing floor-to-ceiling collection of bottles all lit up and designed to impress. The centre of the hallway is decorated with what looks like a long black table with candles on top, until you realise that it’s actually a water feature – so gorgeous.

The dining area itself is quite unremarkable. The tables and chairs are comfortable and functional, no doubt so that the kitchen itself will remain the star attraction. A huge long (and soundproof) window allows diners to see right into the kitchen and admire the hustle-bustle ballet of chefs and wait staff. At first a spectacle, the kitchen blends into the background once the food service starts. Under the leadership of Executive Chef and Partner (Aussie) Shaun Hergatt, the kitchen is a constant hive of activity and an obvious example of organised chaos in living colour.

Fortunately (for me), the restaurant’s five-course dinner menu is set, so you just have to select one item from each course. As we perused the menu to make our choices, we enjoyed the amuse-bouche (aka fancy-pants hors d’oeuvres) that the chef had prepared. We had little foie-gras and potato balls coated in breadcrumbs dyed with squid ink; baby clams with sour cream sauce; and a ginger mousse creation that had a warm spicy aftertaste that I really liked.

Naturally there were multiple options in each course that tempted me but ultimately I enjoyed the following five dishes:

Chef’s Garden Beets Roulade
Little red and yellow beets with a hibiscus tuile (I don’t know either, but it had gold foil draped across it like a little blanket), horseradish marshmallow (a spicy pillow of awesome) and beet dust (yes, I stuck my finger in it).

Griggstown Farm Coxcomb
Veal tongue ribbons with chicken skin and an autum mushroom pave (I understand the mushroom bit, but not so much the rest). To be honest, the veal tongue was my favourite part of this dish. I’ve never eaten tongue before so I had to seize the opportunity. The meat was so tender – very much like carpaccio actually, and as long as I didn’t dwell on what I was actually eating, I could manage to really enjoy it.

Sous Vide Amadai
Next up was sea bass, with Blue Moon Acres baby turnips with a cockles-mollusc clarification. I really enjoyed this dish too, partly because leaning up against the sea bass was a crispy triangle of skin which was speckled and silvery and looked really pretty. The baby turnips were adorable and I had forgotten about the cockles – they were so tiny, they looked like pistachios on my plate. It was all so yummy.

Beef Cheek Wrapped in Iberico Ham
Course Number 4 turned out to be my hands-down favourite of the evening. The dish was served with baby leeks, and potato parchment (in the shape of a maple leaf no less) and a perigourdine (or truffle) sauce. The beef cheeks are marinated for 48 hours and the effect is incredible. Not only does the meat almost fall apart, the marinade is rich and decadent and almost jammy. It adheres to the beef so beautifully and the truffle sauce just adds to the earthy flavours. I am also a fan of miniatures so the baby leeks also appealed.

Black Mission Fig Vacherin
All good things must come to an end and I rounded out my meal with dessert, which included stewed, juicy black figs with Sicilian pistachios and Manhattan Rooftop honey. Perhaps this choice was inspired by Michael Moore’s figs & ricotta recipe I’d been reading about on the subway earlier, but it was totally the right idea.

The red and white wines that K selected complemented my dishes beautifully and with the complimentary petit-fours and strong espresso afterwards, I left SHO feeling almost buoyant. My wallet was quite a bit lighter so that probably accounted for some of the levity haha. But honestly, I don’t think I could fault the restaurant a bit. For my way of thinking, it’s not easy to navigate a fine dining menu when you don’t really understand 3 out of 4 of the ingredients in each dish. So for me, service is what I tend to remember the most. In our case last night, the service we had at SHO was exceptional. When I bumped into the hostess in the bathrooms at one point in the evening, I found myself raving to her about what a good time we were all having. As awkward as that was (for both of us), she was kind enough to pretended that she cared. Do you see what I mean? So nice.

SHO is certainly not the place I could go back to often, but I will certainly recommend it to anyone looking for a special dining experience in New York. The food was elegant, local and so creative and the service was excellent.

Please Sir, I want some Moore!

I had to blush this morning when I realised that Al had suggested this site as one of her favourite light-hearted online reads. I was touched to learn that she enjoys stopping by but of course now the pressure is really on to keep up with the stories. Fortunately I'm finding that in this City at least, I never have to look too far for them. Take last night, for instance.

I signed up to attend the NY launch of "Blood Sugar", the latest cookbook offering from Australian chef Michael Moore with a special forward by the dishy Curtis Stone. By way of background for you I have to pinch the blurb from Michael's book because the inspiration for the project was quite something:

Michael Moore was busy running his restaurant, cooking on television, climbing the ranks of top chefs in the world and traveling the globe. He was already living with diabetes and for a top chef surrounded by great food, he faced the daily challenge of healthy eating. Then, one day out of the blue, he suffered a major stroke while he was out to dinner with his family, an event that changed his life and his outlook on food, forever.

The result of this life-changing experience was a 239 page, beautifully-photographed hardcover opus. As I took my copy up to get signed last night, I asked Michael whether I would need to buy new equipment or fancy devices to make these recipes. He was quick to laugh and assure me that his latest collection of recipes were all about simple, no-fuss ingredients and preparation designed to give maximum taste for minimal effort. To illustrate his point, Michael skimmed through the book and found me his wife's meatless lasagne recipe (yum!) and his own favourite, the Power Food Salad (salmon, beans, egg whites, pumpkin seeds and more - delish!). I was totally on board and Michael signed my book with a flourish. And PS, the event catering called in as a favour from NYC's Oceana restaurant was amazing!

I got on the subway headed for Wall Street after the event and I opened Michael's book for my first proper look. With each page I flipped, I became hungrier (naturally) but also more confident that I will definitely do my best to reproduce some of these dishes for myself. The figs & ricotta on toast is so damn simple I would be a dummy not to try it. I think the subway lunatic reading over my shoulder quite enjoyed the recipes too. He was muttering to himself most of the way, so I'll never really know, but I can tell you for sure that Michael Moore has made healthy eating look good - I am convinced it will also taste great!

But as for my own dinner plans last night, there's more to come....

Saturday, November 05, 2011

No Blood or Guts? I'm outta here!

So Broadway happened and then life returned to normal for a while. Sure I was still watching too much “The West Wing”, assuming of course that there can be ‘too much’ of that. Before I knew it, October was almost over and I took off to Chicago for Halloween weekend.

I need to put it out there that I do not like Halloween. Well that’s not entirely true, I just don’t dressing up for Halloween. I have never been into the costume party thing ever, and I just can’t make an exception for Halloween. I know it’s not a particularly popular stance but there you have it.

And the thing about Halloween is that it’s a bit like in that movie “Mean Girls” (which starred Rachel McAdams and Lindsay Lohan when she actually had nice red hair and looked kind of normal). Anyway like Linday’s character in the movie, I always thought that Halloween in the US would be about dressing up as ghosts and zombies and vampires – except now I realise that costumes for women here are “sexy ghost” and “slutty zombie” and “buxom vampire pirate wench”. I mean, really? They’re our options? The scariest part about Halloween for me is seeing grown women who have shoe-horned themselves into those ridiculous costumes that you’d swear are actually meant for kids. And do men have these options? No, costumes for men are normal size. Of course. Ugh. Okay I know I'm ranting and I know that my point of view is not a popular one. So I boycotted Halloween this year and instead chose to go to Chicago, scheduling my return flight to coincide with the Halloween trick-or-treating madness 37,000 feet below. Yes fine, I was a party-pooper, I know. And nobody cares what I think about this stuff - I know. Jeez, can we move on already? Yes!

Landing at O’Hare just after 8.30pm on Friday night, I was almost dead on my feet but I had promised to meet L&D for a couple of drinks. My taxi driver either sensed the urgency or else was trying to quality for Le Mans, because he drove foot to the floor the whole way. I made it to my CBD hotel in just over 15 minutes. I am not sure that’s ever been done before, not that I didn’t appreciate it.

I decided to stay downtown at the Marriott on Michigan Avenue. When I lived in Chicago I never even went inside the property so I wasn’t sure what to expect. But I bargained on the whole “a Marriott is a Marriott” thing and figured it would be okay. Can you please just click on that link and check out the picture? I mean, I should have known better - but I was in it for the price and the location, okay? Anyway, the first thing that told me I was going to lose my mind was that there is a giant bar in the hotel lobby. I knew that from the hotel picture online but that could not have prepared me for the real life experience. I heard the bar before I saw it – the shrieks and boozy cackling of women who, by this point in the evening, were no doubt regretting their 4” stilettos. Then there were the red-nosed tradeshow delegates sitting off to the sides looking at said drunk women and taking bets on which of them would fall down first. Then there were the out-of-towners, in Chicago just for the weekend. You can pick them because they’re the ones doing shots straight off the bat. Then there was me – awestruck by the human zoo in front of her, horrified by the casino-style carpeting and irritated that the website had advertised the lobby chairs as “private oases” when in fact they were in between the noisy bar and the toilets. Plus I couldn’t find the check-in counter, but geography has always been a problem, so nothing new there. Fresh out of king rooms, I was put in a room with two queen beds. Faced with such an expanse of space, you would think I’d spread out, right? Nope. I basically lived in a tiny corner of the room and only crossed over to the other side of the room to open and close the curtains each day. LAME. I clearly don’t know how to life the hotel lifestyle, do I?

Dumping my bags I went out to meet L&D for a drink and some nibblies at Rock Bottom Brewery. And after the long day, air travel, white-knuckle cab ride, hotel culture shock and a couple of jumbo beers (delicious house brews no less), I was done for the night. Well by then it was just after 2am, and for an old bag like me that was a pretty good effort.

Saturday morning came a little too quickly for my liking. I tossed and turned, debating whether or not I should get out of bed and go on the Chicago Architecture Foundation boat cruise. Reason won out and off I went, bee-lining straight for the Argo Tea at the gorgeous Tribune Tower for a peppermint tea as big as my head. Stupid local brew beers. I got stopped at the Du Sable Bridge (also known as the Michigan Ave Bridge) because sailboats were lined up to get out of the harbour for the winter season. So the City was raising and lowering the bridges all day to give them safe passage. I stood on the wrong side of the Bridge, watching my cruise boat just across the River, steadily filling up with tourists. Fortunately some out-of-towners were ahead of me and told Mr City Official Bridge Inspector Guy that they also had tickets on the 10am cruise. They asked him to contact the cruise boat captain on his walkie-talkie and ask him not to take off without us. Genius, and hopefully something I would have thought of, had I not been quietly dying of Local Beer Disease.

Once I was safely onboard, the boat cruise was as wonderful as I remember. I didn’t sit outside though, as the morning winds off the River were pretty fierce. I found a sunny spot under cover downstairs and polished off my peppermint tea and chocolate cookie. It always impresses me how knowledgeable these tour operators are – not just describing the buildings we could see, but they offer up juicy morsels of info about the architects who designed the buildings and how the buildings fit in (or didn’t) with the City landscape as it was at the time. Even in my hungover and jet-lagged state I could appreciate the architectural beauty of the City. Peering at it through squinty eyes through dark sunglasses, Chicago is still gorgeous.

The boat tour must have been quite restorative because alighting at the Michigan Ave bridge I almost bounded to the bus stop to go and meet R&L at their place for lunch. With two adorable kids now, I was so looking forward to spending some time with the family and just catching up - particularly on all the goss of baby sister's wedding and my not-so-new job in New York. We went to a great little Mexican place and I stuffed in a giant burrito (naturally). Relaxing, delicious and a long-overdue catchup, which was great.

R&L dropped me off at my hotel/zoo and I had a little bit of downtime before it was back into get-ready mode, to meet LH. We high-tailed it out of my hotel lobby and headed straight to PF Chang's for dinner. The poor restaurant was having some problems with its lighting and every so often, we got plunged into darkness. Great atmosphere, but rather confusing. But hey, we figured that as long as the dodgy electrics didn't impact the kitchen or the bar, we didn't care what was happening. After dinner we walked to The Peninsula where LH was kind enough to share with me a gift certificate she got for the hotel's 'Chocolate At The Pen' enticement. That it is a chocolate buffet does not do the experience justice. This was a pretty fancy, la-di-da buffet and the chocolates on offer were like little works of art. Mini tiramisu, little parfait glasses with delicately-crafted layers of chocolate, fruit and cream - all so dainty and single-serve and very, very rich. I always make the same mistake with buffets - I go in too hard, too early and I end up stuffing myself. I had a take a break half-way through the circuit and I wished I were wearing elastic pants rather than my little black dress.

After this we waddled out to Michigan Ave and took the bus out to our old neighbourhood, to a dive bar on Broadway called Jaqueline's. In the four years I lived in Chicago I never went into this bar, but I'm the poorer for it I have to say. The bar IS a dive, sure (tacky Halloween decorations, dart board, scary toilets - but it's also a bit of a blast. We had parked ourselves right by the jukebox and subsequently took control of the musical entertainment for the evening. I probably spent as much money on music as I did on drinks, but at least I ensured that my terrible musical taste was experienced by as many people as possible. And fortunately our fellow patrons were on the right side of sober to seem like they were really enjoying our musical offerings. It was great fun!

Sunday morning came, as Sunday mornings often do, and I was actually feeling really good. I put myself on the train to J&D's house, where we had a couple of mimosas and then hit the Chicago Brauhaus for lunch. OMG how long had it been since I'd enjoyed a schnitzel?! Too long I think. A couple of beers, a delicious schnitzel with fried potatoes and green beans, and I was a very happy girl. It was a shame that the full oompah band wasn't starting until later in the day (when we would be long gone) but there was one little old man on the stage playing his keyboard and at least filling the place with some musical vibe. On a soppy note I really thought it was amazing how grown up people's kids get when you're not watching. J&D and A&L have such gorgeous, well-behaved kids and it's so funny to see what little adults they have become in just a few short years.

Monday morning was another early start because I wanted to spend the day at the Adler Planetarium, another place that I had never been when I lived in Chicago. Along with the Shedd Aquarium and The Field Museum, the Adler is part of what Chicago calls "Museum Campus", and it enjoys prime lakefront real estate. If you worked at any of these places, how do you not stare out the window all day at those amazing views? I have no idea. But I digress. On my trip to the Adler, I dragged L along with me so we could geek out together. We sat through a couple of really impressive video displays about our solar system and learned about our sun and the Milky Way and what will happen to the earth when the sun finally burns out. Sure, this is not likely to happen for another 4 billion years, but it still gave me the creeps. There is still so much I need to get done. I love chatting to L because he doesn't think I'm a weirdo for being addicted to "Ancient Aliens" on the History Channel. I was telling him all about the ancient astronaut theories and how I used to think they were crackpots but now I think they're onto something. L is a HUGE fan of Ancient Egypt so he (kindly) listened with interest as I talked about the idea that aliens helped the Egyptians build the pyramids so precisely aligned with the constellations. As we gazed up at the planets and stars around us at the Planetarium, I think we were both wondering what else was out there in that huge expanse of outer space. That of course led us to talking about religion and the meaning of life, which we could only do properly once we were in the cafeteria, stuffing in paninis and potato chips.

Before long it was time to get back to the hotel, collect my luggage and get back out to O'Hare. Whenever I visit Chicago I run myself ragged but I always have a really great time. This visit I did things and went places I had never enjoyed before - but it was so much fun. I was exhausted on the plane home, and almost dead on my feet by the time I got back to the apartment. Despite our best efforts to be welcoming to the little trick-or-treaters in our building, K said we only had two kids visit. Now we have a whole stack of horrible candy left in our apartment that neither of us want to eat. I'm sure it will keep until next year...

Friday, November 04, 2011

Giving Regards to Broadway

Yes I know, it’s been a very quiet couple of weeks here and once again I only have myself to blame. Actually, I have the cast of “The West Wing” to blame, because I bought the DVDs and have officially become addicted to that show. Even as the clock ticks 1am I hear myself saying, “just one more episode” and next thing I know the alarm is going off to herald another work day. Oi vey.

But when I’m not watching DVDs or going to work in a zombie-like trance, what have I been doing? I know you didn’t ask, but you were thinking it...

Well, Broadway beckoned a couple of times during my blogging hiatus. I dragged myself to a Sunday matinee to see Samuel L Jackson & Angela Bassett star in the production of “The Mountaintop”. I thought the play was fantastic, but after an amazing run in London it has been getting quite mixed reviews. You can read a synopsis of the play here.

My seat was almost in the back row of the theatre, but by happenstance I was sitting with a bunch of African-Americans and I could see a white family across the aisle from me. I don’t know why, but the white family didn’t find the play half as funny as I did. Sure the play touches on racial tensions, but they are the racial tensions of Dr King’s time. The characters debate about “what should be done about the whites” but it’s light-hearted and conversational and not at all intended to inflame white audience members. I mean how could it? Dr King was all about peacefully acknowledging the sameness of people, not violently magnifying their differences. Anyway for what it’s worth I thought Jackson & Bassett gave really powerful performances and I have been recommending the play left and right. It was just such a different interpretation of what happened at The Lorraine Hotel, the night before Dr King was assassinated.

A week or so later I went along to see “Venus in Fur” (again, with synopsis here). Starring the adorable Hugh Dancy – aka Mr Clare Danes – and the amazing Nina Arianda, the play is promoted as being quite erotic. Maybe I am just not sure what that word means, but for me the play was a smart study in human psychology, with a bit of Greek mythology and mysticism thrown in. The production was all about power plays (not exclusively sexual), and examines whether you actively or passively surrender your power to another person. I mean, how much control do you really have over your own emotions – or over somebody else’s? Sure it’s a sexy play (Nina rocks a bustier and stockings for a fair amount of it), but I thought it was so cleverly written and wonderfully acted that the sexy part was secondary to the intellectual battle raging between the characters. The oldies around us in the audience squirmed in their seats and coughed uncomfortably when the action on stage took a more, um “intimate” turn, but let’s face it, that just adds to the humour really.