Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Why men and women can't be friends

Nora Ephron died today.  She was 71 years old.

I've been a bit quiet on the blogging front lately.  But I figure that for a woman like Nora Ephron, a writer and director whose life and reputation were shaped by words, I ought to spare a few of my own in memory of her.

I have loved Nora Ephron's work for a really long time.  Sure, she and her sister Delia were, creatively-speaking, a powerhouse pair whose collaborative work I saw in New York only recently.  But it was Nora's work that resonated with me the most.

Nora knew how to breathe life into quirky but wonderful female protagonists, even when film directors insisted on casting Meg Ryan to play them. Groan.  Then again, I can't imagine anyone else playing Sally Albright these days, so that just goes to show what I know about these things.  And of course "When Harry Met Sally" gave me a favourite script as well as a favourite movie soundtrack, all in one fell swoop.  And who could forget THAT scene in Katz's Deli?  Iconic.

I will still watch "Sleepless in Seattle" any time cable TV chooses to play it, rainy day or not.  And as Norah taught me in that very movie (which she wrote and directed), "it rains nine months of the year in Seattle".  That movie also taught me where Baltimore is, especially in relation to Seattle.  And how can you knock a movie that pays blatant, unapologetic homage to "An Affair to Remember"?!  I mean, seriously.  Kindred spirits.

So the next time I'm on a plane, I will think of Nora.  I will order a regular tomato juice, not too much ice, filled up about three quarters, and then add a splash of Bloody Mary mix - just a splash, and add a piece of lime, but on the side.  You know it's true.

Monday, June 18, 2012

4 Bars + 1 Block = Happy Girl

So yesterday was Father's Day in the US so when I made the brunch reservations, I was a little nervous that the restaurant would be crawling with noisy families and squawking children.  Not so, as it turned out.  In fact, I think all the families must have been and gone hours before me & Shars even got to Gravy - a fabulous little Southern restaurant one street over from my Pilates studio.

I had made really good time walking to the restaurant yesterday so I set myself up at the bar and ordered one of their specialty brunch cocktails - a lovely sparkling wine, bitters and pomegranate something-something that was ice-cold, tart and really refreshing.  When Shars arrived, we got our table and another round of drinks, settling down to the serious business of selecting one dish from the tempting menu before us.  Shars chose the crawfish benedict and I went for the BLT&D, which started out as your garden-variety BLT but with the addition of duck confit.  I know, incredible.

Our meals complete and bellies full, we wandered to the restaurant at the top of the street, a Mediterranean place called Barbounia.  I've never been there to eat before, but the place looked so inviting yesterday with their windows and doors wide open, taking full advantage of the sunny day and cool breeze.  So in we went and sat at barstools to enjoy a delicious glass of wine.  I bought a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, which is probably a little wimpy in terms of playing it safe but again, the wine was beautifully chilled and it was just the thing I needed to help me and Shars solve all the problems of the world.  Again, this restaurant was full of brunchers, but not of the screaming family variety - just young, upwardly-mobile things freshly awakened from the crazy party the night before.

But our day was not done - there were still problems we needed to workshop and crises we needed to work through.  So down the street we went, to the elegant Gramercy Tavern, whose talented chef has just won the James Beard Award for 2012.  A few more families in here for brunch, but a much older and more sophisticated crowd - as befitting the venue.  Another glass of wine, this time a bit of a braver choice (or so I thought).  I asked the bartender about the Assyrtiko white wine on the menu.  Apparently from Santorini, I felt the wine just sounded like what I ought to be having on such a warm and sunny day - something that reminded me of Greek beaches and relaxation.  Of course the bartender puts the bottle up on the bar to show me, and I realised I had actually had the wine once before - firstly in Chicago, when it was part of an early wine club order.  I recall really enjoying it, so I was pleased to rediscover it yesterday.

To round out our day and our impromptu wine-tasting walking tour, we rounded the corner to Tom Colicchio's Craftbar and had a few more drinks there.  The cocktail list is really fun, with lots of tempting items, and it totally helps that the bartender knows what he's talking about so you feel comfortable to stick your neck out and take a chance with unfamiliar things.  I wasn't totally brave, in the sense that I had a vodka-based cocktail, but it was delicious and really refreshing, and strong enough that I could just sit there and savour it rather than chug it back like a frat boy.  To close the day, I switched back to a really light, dry white wine and again, sat back to sip that slowly until Shars and I realised that we had no more problems to solve and no more life stories to workshop - it was wonderful.

Emerging into the dusky twilight, we realised we had spent 6 hours wandering in and out of four bars in a one-block radius.  I'm not sure what Shars thought, but I had enjoyed a wonderful day.  Sharing the subway at least part of the way home, I bid Shars adieu at 33rd Street and walked the rest of the way home.  On the footpaths, fathers and their kids were walking together and sharing ice creams and cold drinks - the end of another Father's Day out.  Nobody squawking, everybody just looking happy and relaxed.  Just how I felt.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Mixing it up

Multicolor - Originally uploaded by 96dpi.
New York's Bowery/Chinatown neighbourhood always confuses me. I never go there on foot anymore, because I always seem to get caught up on wrong side of the street and end up halfway over the Manhattan Bridge before I've noticed.  When I go there on a bus, things aren't always better.  Case in point: tonight.  

I was headed to Chinatown to meet Pedro for dinner at a very cute Mexican restaurant.  I know, but bear with me.  The restaurant is in a tiny, windy street down a set of very steep stairs behind an unmarked door.  My bus had been diverted by an accident close to the Manhattan Bridge, so I was running a little late.  Having leapt off the bus, I was powering down the street on foot, so fast and so purposefully, that I failed to discern Pedro (in his white shirt) standing in the middle of the street amongst a bunch of other men, all of whom were also dressed in white shirts.  The fact that these other men were all ancient Chinese men and they were wearing chef whites was lost on me at the time.  Memo: must buy new glasses.

Descending down the steep stairs, we emerged into Pulqueria, a gorgeous (and huge) subterranean space lit by candlelight.  It's not a romantic restaurant, but it had that secluded feel of a place that not many people know about.  The margaritas we had (both strawberry and classic) were delicious and our four-course tasting menu was really filling.  Particular standouts for me were the pumpkin seed and habanero salsa, the delicious creamy corn thing (and I'm bummed I can't remember what else was in it), and also the delicious churros for dessert.

After our tasty meal and strong drinks, we headed back to street level to the bar next door.  Apotheke is a speakeasy I guess - like the Mexican restaurant, it is not advertised - it's definitely a word-of-mouth place.  The doorman/bouncer was turning some people away when we got there, but I stood off to the side a bit and waited until they disappeared before announcing our arrival and heading up the stairs.  I was not obnoxious about it, but a girl needs her cocktails and she needs 'em now.

There is a beautiful ambience at the cocktail bar.  Like the Mexican restaurant, the lights at Apotheke are turned way down so there is a feeling of anonymity about everything.  The mixologists behind the bar are decked out in suits and ties (or even lab coats, in the case of some) and they were nothing if not theatrical.  As they prepared people's cocktails, they set fire to alcohol inside glasses and swirled them around with one hand, as they mixed and shook an array of boozy combinations with the other.  

The bar's menu is sorted in terms of treatments - you have some cocktails that are listed as aphrodisiacs, while others are stimulants, relaxants etc and they're all house-made daily using fresh ingredients (including fruits and herbs).  My first cocktail was a bourbon-based one.  I actually chose it because it also contains blood orange, and I'm going through a bit of a blood orange phase at the moment. My second cocktail was a happy marriage of China and the UK - a Chinese Pimm's.  The freshness of the mint and the cool cucumber with zesty lime and ginger ale was such a delicious combination; I really liked it.

Heading out into the balmy night air, we walked for a bit because I wanted to show Pedro the old-school bar at the Bowery Hotel, where I'd been last year.  When we were happily set up on our table in the bar area, Pedro ordered a delicious vodka-based cocktail for me that was sort of like a cosmopolitan, but more raspberry-flavoured and it had a fresh raspberry garnish.  The drink was tart, to be sure, but it was so refreshing and really delicious. Next thing we knew it was nearly 2am and both of us were ready to call it a night.

Given I had been fortified by a four-course Mexican feast and some truly inventive and delicious cocktails, I didn't need to run screaming from Bowery/Chinatown this time around.  In fact, starting and ending my night there was really a wonderful idea.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

The mess in the dress

If a plague of locusts swept down and ate my face this afternoon, I would not be at all surprised.  In fact, I would consider it the rancid cherry atop the mouldy sundae that has been my day.

So where did it all go wrong?!  Well, I woke up at 6am this morning so I can safely assume that fatigue is playing a part in my state of mind.  But my day didn’t start out so rushed – it was quite relaxed, in fact.  I made myself a coffee and some toast, and got back into bed to read (and finish) my book.

Keep in mind the fact that not once this week – not even once – have I dressed appropriately for the weather.  Today is no exception to this.  My bad fashion choices have been (as my boss used to say) a total embuggerance.

But sartorial misgivings aside, my day really was going alright...until I got to the office. 

Almost on cue as I walked in the door, my left shoe started rubbing on my toe and I could just feel the blister forming.  Do I keep a spare pair of (sensible, non-rubby) shoes at the office?  Uh, that would be a no.  But I do have blister bandaids and while they helped to ease the pain, my shoe nevertheless continued its assault on the plaster bandage.

Never one to deal well with tight shoes, let's just say the day started tanking from there.  What else happened, you may ask?  Well, read on - and bear in mind, this is just a sample:

  • Having to interrupt the conversation of three people at a food store, so I could buy a sandwich;
  • Getting wound up in totally frustrating but terribly brilliant red tape bureaucratic BS at not one, but two organisations that should really know better;
  • Attempting to answer my ringing Blackberry, but the phone slipped out of my hands, fell into peak-hour traffic on 42nd Street, and broke apart;
  • Losing $1.65 in change in a vending machine after trying to buy a bottle of water;
  • Trying to get free water out of a drinking fountain, only to have the water dribble out rather pathetically;
  • Missing six calls, but being unable to hear the voicemails because the reception was utter crap;
  • Getting distracted and catching the wrong train to a destination I’ve been at least 15 times;
  • Having to take the bus to said destination, in peak lunchtime traffic;
  • Needing to use her credit card for one tiny purpose and having the machine declare it unreadable;
  • Giving some guy at the train station a free peep show when I got caught in a gust of wind, with no free hand to hold down my skirt;
  • Intending to go uptown, but taking the downtown train instead; and
  • Realising the wrong train I'm on is actually an express. 
DUDE.  All of this, and it’s not even 4pm.  I really think I should just take the universe’s hint and get back in bed.  With a  bottle of Diet Coke and a bad DVD, of course.

A happy pretzel brain

Early this morning I finally finished reading a book I started about a month ago, called In Pursuit of Happiness: Better Living from Plato to Prozac by Mark Kingwell.  Now before you think I've finally succumbed to the self-help aisle of the bookstore, trust me when I tell you this is not an instruction manual for how to live a happy (and/or better) life.  Nor is it a smug, clinical analysis by some stuffed-shirt academic on why a happy life is the only one worth living and if I'm not living one, then I'm deficient and deserving of sympathy.  Rather, this book is a series of personal reflections on the part of the author (a young, PhD-toting Canadian philosopher) on what our culture says that happiness is, and what it says about us that we keep striving to attain it.  Kingwell was inspired to write the book one afternoon when he was with some family friends at the playground, watching their daughters play on the equipment.  He wondered whether as adults, there is anything in our lives that makes us as happy - as purely happy - as kids are when they are lost in their world of playtime.  At what point do we lose that simple, happy pleasure?

The book goes on to discuss what Aristotle and Plato had to say on the subject of happiness, and focusses a lot on Socrates and his assertion that "the unexamined life is not worth living".  In raising this point (and using stories from his own life as examples), the author realises that sorting out what makes you happy is a really independent exercise - because what makes you truly happy might not be the same thing(s) that makes me so.  And only by examining your life in this way - moment to moment - can you divine for yourself what happiness means and how you can work on attaining it.

Some parts of the book do veer into academia but I suppose an educated author can't help but do so, when so many of the points he's trying to make are grounded in philosophy, psychology or similar sciences.  But for the most part, I liked the fact that Kingwell is basically just a storyteller.  The chapters devoted to the time he spent at the happiness camp in Minnesota (yes, there IS such a thing) are a particular delight.  Ditto the stories about the time he put himself on Prozac, just to see what all the fuss was about, and to find out whether happiness really can (or should) be found in pill form.  In Kingwell's case, the answer was no.

I chose to read this book not because I was looking for the secret to happiness, or anything nearly as soul-searching or wanky as that.  I honestly just thought the title was really clever (and the cover has a big yellow smiley face on it).  I was just really curious about how the author would link the ancient perspectives of Plato and his contemporaries with the modern-day happiness pill.  Has humanity's quest for happiness really been going this long?  Haven't we figured it all out yet?

Examining his own life for the exercise, Kingwell draws the conclusion that happiness doesn't come from stuff - well, it can, but consumer-borne happiness is fleeting, as the sensible part of our brain already knows.  So it seems that you don't just wake up one day and decide to be happy.  Real and sustained happiness comes from a commitment to work, dedication to good thought and deed, plus a bit of luck thrown in.  And to achieve all those things, you have to keep working at it throughout your life - popping a pill is not going to make it happen for you.  Curious.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Small Poppy

Just when I think I'm actually getting good at Pilates, I have two classes in a row that totally suck.

Saturday's class was all about balance and long, sustained stretches (mostly on one leg).  We used the big medicine ball a lot too and I am just so clumsy on those things.  I had to concentrate a lot but with each wobble and topple, I started to get cross with myself and then lost motivation to keep concentrating.  It doesn't help when you have a small class, and you feel like the only elephant in the room.

As a result of all the stretching yesterday, I woke up this morning with really sore glutes and hamstrings.  Walking gingerly around the house, I tried to stretch my legs out in preparation for my 2pm class.  The walk to the studio helped with this somewhat, but I think I was still out of sorts from Saturday's class so I really didn't go into today's lesson with the right mindset.  And when the teacher asked us to do ab work on the foam roller, my brain knew what to do but my body wouldn't comply.  I just couldn't balance well today.  My lower back was sore, my brain got grouchy, and for a couple of exercises I just laid there and stared at the ceiling while the other students obediently bent and stretched.

The good thing about doing Pilates on both Saturday and Sunday is that I sleep really well for the weekend, and I wake up feeling like I've worked out and actually done something. I've actually come to the end of my latest pack of 10 Pilates classes, so I'll be taking a break from the studio for a while.  My gym has a couple of Power Pilates  classes - focussing on abs and lower body, as well as another class that just focuses on arms and back strength.  Plus the gym still offers the ballet Pilates that I love, so I will likely keep myself busy doing those for a while.

It's not that I have to be good at everything, it's just that I like the idea of being good at something that I really enjoy.  I guess the old adage 'practice makes perfect' really does apply here, at least in my case.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

A neighbourly send-off

Originally uploaded by Jane from Illinois.

Well as I found out last night, there ain't no party like an Indonesian party!

After a really long day yesterday (that incidentally ended a really long week), Yarls, J-Bird, Robbo and me walked over to the Indonesian Mission for a farewell party for The D-Man, a true gentleman, lovely colleague and friend. His posting to New York is over now and as I type this, he's probably at JFK with his family getting ready to fly back to Jakarta.

I haven't been to many events at other Missions but one of the things I really love is how they incorporate parts of their own culture - language, food, music - into the celebration. Indonesia was no exception. A delicious buffet was set up in the middle of the long function room, offering Indonesian prawn crackers, stir-fry noodles and tasty satays. Not trusting myself to gnaw anything off a stick (in public anyway), or try and slurp noodles in front of diplomats, I stuck to the raw veggies and dips. Until me and Yarls spotted the mini spring rolls - and then we were in heaven. The dessert buffet was out of this world - such fresh fruit, and the cream-filled profiteroles were probably not authentically Indonesian, but they were an inspired choice.

After the formal proceedings had concluded, the karaoke started. The first time I had ever done karaoke was actually on a trip to Bali. The D-Man and his colleagues jollied everyone along to get up, leave their inhibitions elsewhere, and just rock out. And people obliged! It was so funny to watch people I've normally only seen in meetings get up (in groups, for there is safety in numbers) and belt out power ballads, Bon Jovi, and even a bit of Bruce Springsteen.

Yarls discovered a tambourine at one point in the evening and I was very jealous. I resisted the urge to steal it from her, as there will be plenty of time for me to regale people with my musical abilities (questionable or otherwise).

We DID get up and sing too, though. We sand TWO songs with D-Man in fact: firstly we did "YMCA" (a real crowd pleaser and dance number, where I was Backup Dancer #!, ably assisted by Miss European Union) ; and then we shimmied around the stage to "You're The One That I Want" (as our homage to Olivia Newton John). Much later in the evening a couple of us - possibly egged on by me - sang a rousing rendition of "Piano Man", complete with impromptu dance moves and lots of swaying. It was quite special.

At close to midnight, when only a few hardy souls remained, the time had come to say our REAL goodbyes. It was not easy to farewell D-Man, but I am confident that a) he is going on to bigger and better things; and b) he will keep in touch to share it all with us.

I am just so glad that I got to attend his send-off, because I had a really wonderful time.