Monday, July 30, 2012

Don't Stop Till You Get Enough

This past weekend I took a vacation from normalcy and actually got a social life.  I know, right?  But there was just something about my mood this weekend, combined with the gorgeous weather that New York was offering, and I was primed to get out amongst the people and have a really good time.  Which is precisely what I did.

We already know that Saturday was spent concocting a Plan B on the run, when my meditation instructor called in sick.  When I got home late-ish Saturday afternoon, I half-watched some of the Olympics on TV but then gave up and retired to my air-conditioned room to make a me-sized dent on the bed and watch an episode of "The Hollowmen" on DVD.  I swear that show is freakishly accurate.

I was seized by a bizarre compulsion to go out and despite the weather threatening to turn bad, I texted Westo and said it was up to her to devise a social plan.  Yes, I outsourced the planning but I knew that if one of us was going to have a clue what people did on Saturday nights in this town, it would be Westo.  You know it's true.  And I wasn't totally mean, I dictated the night's parameters: we had to have pasta and red wine, and we had to stay in Westo's neighbourhood.  Ever the good sport,  my friend accepted the challenge.

So fast-forward an hour and we were standing on a street corner in the West Village, waiting for a table to open up at the gorgeous Malatesta Trattoria.  The little restaurant was packed, and had opened up all its side windows to usher in the fresh air.  Every now and again, fat droplets of rain splotched us, and the heavens were truly threatening to open up, so we had wimped out and decided not to take one of the (many) empty outdoor tables.  Instead, we alternately gave pleading looks and vicious stink-eyes to the diners inside, willing them to stuff in the last of their tasty morsels and surrender their tables to us.

The meal was incredible - simple, yet hearty and plentiful.  We had the Chianti, as planned.  And we split an appetizer of four assorted crostini (prosciutto & mozzarella, goats cheese, sauteed mushrooms, and tomato).  We shared a basic mixed side salad that complemented our respective pasta dishes beautifully.  We rounded out the meal with a rich, decadent chocolate mousse.   I didn't spill anything down the front of me, which was doubly helpful as I was wearing a new, sequinned top (operating on the assumption that wherever we went for dinner, if I dressed like the human disco ball, I'd be so dazzling that the hostess would give us a table faster).

Come Sunday morning I was up again, this time to head to brunch in NoHo (local speak for the area "north of Houston").  Shars had booked us a table at the popular "Five Points" restaurant.  As I had a coffee at home beforehand, I looked up the restaurant to make sure I knew how to get there, and a took a peek at their brunch menu.  Huevos Rancheros, kids!  I was so excited.  You know how I feel about this dish - it's fun to say, AND fun to eat.  I was sold.  Brunching is very popular here in New York and even though we had an early-ish reservation by the city's standards, as we enjoyed our meal in leisurely fashion, the restaurant filled up quickly and pretty soon there was a crowd of people waiting for tables, milling around in the bar area at the front.  My huevos did not disappoint, and I can't tell you how lovely it was to just shoot the preverbial sh*t with the girls and not be in a rush to go anywhere or do anything.

After our meal I could feel a food coma setting in, so we parted ways and I headed to the air conditioned sanctuary of my local cinema to soak up the new Batman movie.  It's a bit disconcerting to notice the NYPD presence outside of the movie theatres these days, but I guess we can't do much about that.  The only thing we can do is to enjoy the movie and I totally did.  Tom Hardy playing Bane was a great choice - even though you could only see his eyeballs.  That dude is a TANK.  I read afterwards that he put on 30lbs to play the role, and wore 3" shoe lifts, AND he did martial arts and other fighting training.  Ding ding ding!  Genius.  Even Anne Hathaway didn't make me want to vomit, so that's a good thing.

When you read my weekend back, I don't sound incredibly social but believe me, this was a jam-packed weekend by my usual standards haha.  I really had a wonderful time and I'd forgotten how nice it is for someone else to make your meals for you, and enjoy them in a restaurant setting.  I might have to make a bit more of a habit of this.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

An impromptu communion

I stayed at work last night and watched the Olympic Opening Ceremony in the comfort of an air-conditioned office, with a couple of glasses of super tasty St. Kitts spiced rum & coke at the ready.  I liked the ceremony, except the bit about the NHS was confusing, and I couldn't decide whether Sir Paul McCartney was overcome with emotion or just crap.  I don't want to lean toward the latter, but I think I need to on this one.  It was pretty bad.  But whatever - on balance, I thought the ceremony was amazing and the way Danny Boyle did the Olympic cauldron was fantastic.  When I left the office a little before midnight, the air was still thick with heat and humidity - a muggy start to the weekend.  I could have walked home, but I split an air-conditioned cab with Hewie instead.

Morning came around really fast (you know I hate that).  I was up early though, because I was more determined than ever to commune with Buddha at the meditation center in Chelsea.  This was my third attempt at the 'serenity and enlightenment' thing but I was totally busted again.  I made it to the Centre, checked in with the security guard (apparently inner peace is a closely-guarded commodity), and was told by the receptionist that our teacher has the flu and class has been cancelled.  I was gutted.  And suddenly without plans, on the other side of town, at 10am on a Saturday.

I got back on the subway and visited Battery Park, where I got all cosy on a bench, feet up and all.  If I looked up, I was staring straight over the water at the Statue of Liberty.  And every so often, a beautiful breeze would come off the water and cool me right down.  I got through a couple of chapters of my book, a vanilla cream churro, and a Diet Coke and I was well relaxed.  I didn't even mind the hordes of tourists dashing back and forth in front of me, bee-lining for the cruise ships over to Liberty & Ellis Islands.

Having soaked up enough sun, I rode the #1 subway back uptown, this time alighting in the West Village.  I turned the wrong way out of the station (of course) before I righted myself and wound in and out of a couple of clothing boutiques and bookshops in the neighbourhood.  Without really knowing where I was, I stumbled across Meyers of Keswick, the little store that sells foods primarily from the UK but also from Canada.  The store also sells Vegemite, but at USD$4.95 for a teeny jar, I don't think I'll ever need it that badly.  I did purchase a pork sausage roll and a stick of strong peppermints, but otherwise I just had a bit of a browse (HP sauce, Branston pickle, Scottish tablet - ahh memories!).

Strolling along, I looked to my left and saw Pastis, where I had enjoyed some light refreshments a few weekends before (ironically, after the first failed attempt at meditation).  But seeing the restaurant finally gave me my bearings, for the first time in quite a while.

At that point, the number 14 bus nearly ran me over, so I hopped on board and took myself to the movies.  Have you seen "The Savages" yet?  Oliver Stone is the director and it's pretty full-on but I found myself really enjoying the story.  And I totally want to look like Salma Hayek when I grow up - she has aged so well and she's particularly fierce in this film.  And there is something lovely about sitting in an air-conditioned cinema, not having to think about what you're watching - just zoning out.

I suppose it's funny that all three times I've tried to go to the meditation center, my plans for a communion with Buddha have been thwarted.  And yet on all three occasions, I've found Plan B diversions that have been totally wonderful and left me feeling relaxed and happy.  It may not be a mantra-fuelled enlightenment, but I'll take it anyway.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The weather brings 'em out

I wasn't feeling all that well on Friday night so I put myself to bed relatively and slept like the dead.  That's always pretty good, except it often leads to an early wake-up the next morning.  Indeed, on Saturday my eyes flew open at around 7.30am and I honestly thought I was late for work.  Bummer.

Having finally established with myself that it was, in fact, the weekend I took my time making some breakfast and getting myself organised.  Then I took the bus to Central Park, but this time just to kick back and enjoy storytime.  I know it's supposed to be for kids, but I enjoyed it there last week and with no other pressing engagements yesterday, I figured why not?

Though it doesn't really look like it here, the Hans Christen Andersen statue was in the shade yesterday and it was really beautiful just sitting back on a bench to enjoy some stories.  Not having to think, not even having to pay attention - just letting the story wash over you.  I really am such a big kid at heart.  Again, like last week, this week's tales were not always G-rated and is it just me (in my advanced state of spinsterhood) but are there an alarming number of fairytales about needing to get married?  Even in Thumbelina - the poor little darling was not even as big as her mother's finger, but she had offers of marriage from a mole AND a fairy king (both of which she was seriously considering).  Interesting take-home message.  

It was around this time that I noticed a scruffy, unwashed fellow had joined the storytime group.  He stood about 6'1" and was dressed as a medieval wizard.  In flip-flops.  He had a stuffed dragon around his arm and I think he was vying for the kids attention.  But children aren't stupid, as we all know - they can spot a crazy person when they see one, and so they kept their distance.  No matter how good the man thought his costume was, the storytime lady told him he was scaring the children and he had to move along.  So he tried to share his fantasy stories with her instead - she was not impressed.

The stories finished around noon and the crowd dispersed.  I needed a coffee so I stopped by the Boathouse and then wound up back at Bethesda Fountain, which was now in full swing in terms of tourist numbers and trickling water.  In the case of the latter, behold:

Pretty, no?  What you can't tell from this picture is that just to the right of where I was standing, a busker was playing the saxophone.  He was treating us all to songs from "The Wizard of Oz".  I liked that very much.

Then, as often happens, the bubble burst and my stomach started to hurt again. I headed for home, stopping briefly to buy a sandwich to see if it would settle the pains.  It didn't.  Summer is the worst time to be feeling crummy, cause you know how beautiful it is outside and you know exactly what you're missing when you can't be part of it.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Sensual Assault

I was grateful for the slow start this morning.  My legs were feeling sore today, not just because of the Central Park walk yesterday but also because I thought that wearing 4" heels out to dinner was a good idea.  It wasn't.

So after a morning spent pottering around, I met up with JoHa at lunch time and we headed out to Brooklyn - her first visit there.  Earlier in the week Stokesy had told us about the big Bastille Day celebrations in Brooklyn, and we wanted to be part of it.  This article explains really well how the party has come to be so big out there - but even I wasn't prepared for the crowds and the heat and the craziness.

First of all we wandered up and down Smith Street, pausing to especially enjoy some of the petanque games going on in little makeshift sandpits.  This video was taken a couple of years ago, but shows you how well the Petanque championship is incorporated into the street party:


 As we got closer to the really cute Bar Tabac (on the list for a return visit in less-crazy times) we could hear some music playing and so we grabbed a sandwich, found a spot to sit (in the gutter, no less!) and enjoyed the show.  We didn't enjoy it as much as our acid wash jean-clad friend here, but we were grooving on the spot, trust me.

Some of the local vendors were out keeping people hydrated with what looked to be JUGS of sangria, but neither me nor JoHa partook.  Instead, we enjoyed a couple of delicious sandwiches prepared by Bien Cuit - the Smith Street Bakery.  You have to visit their website - just LOOK at the breads and cakes on offer...yummo!

For a change in culture, we then took the train to Coney Island.  The sun had stopped shining, but the heat and humidity continued unabated.  It was altogether rather unpleasant, but I was buoyed by the hope that maybe - just maybe - by the time we reached the boardwalk, the ocean breezes might improve conditions a bit.  On the way up to the boardwalk, we saw the famous Nathan's hotdog stand and THIS fantastic billboard:

I was quite dismayed that we'd only just missed the last hotdog-eating competition, but I'm so glad that Coney Island is already counting down the days until next year's.  Can you believe that in the 2012 competition, the winning male scoffed 68 hotdogs (and buns) in 10 minutes - for a grand prize of $10,000?!  Crazy.  The winning female  is also American, but she could only stuff in 45, but it was enough to clinch her the prize money AND a new record.  Her parents must be very proud.

I was fully expecting to see lots of stretchy pants and hotdog consumption once we hit the boardwalk, but nothing could adequately prepare me for the assault on my senses that ensued.  LOTS of wobbly flesh, and not nearly enough lyrcra (or other material) to cover it.  Shudder.  Families galore - the area was TOTALLY different to the last time I came here (which was, admittedly, out of season and at the start of winter).  But still it was astonishing to see the sand dotted with families; kids playing soccer; people flying kites; impromptu dance parties on the boardwalk - the place was just crawling with people.  And don't even ask me about the state of the public toilets; I just...I can't.

After a bit of a walk up and back, we grabbed a couple of lime sno-cones and took the subway back to Manhattan and the hustle-bustle of Herald Square (sensibly avoiding Macy's though).  The heat and humidity have not really gone anywhere though so if anyone needs me, I'll be hanging my head over the air-conditioner vent, or else laying in front of the open fridge, with my feet in the vegetable crisper.

Silver Lining

I was a bit unfair yesterday when I suggested that the week had been pretty rotten.  My half-day solo walk in Central Park was the highlight to that point, but there had been a number of really great episodes too that I think warrant some spotlighting.

Last weekend I went to see "Macbeth" at the Rose Theater, which is part of Lincoln Center but is located off-site, at the Time Warner Centre, opposite Columbus Circle and Central Park.  The best part is, its location affords you views like this, while you're waiting for the show to start:

See?  Gorgeous.  Now I'm a huge Shakespeare fan, no question.  But I'm not a purist in the least.  I love it when people mix Shakespeare up a bit and do funny, silly, or just different things with it.  So I was totally on board with the National Theatre of Scotland's production of "Macbeth", not least of which because it stars the super-talented and charming Alan Cumming.  This production is effectively a one-man show, that takes place in a mental institution.  Alan Cumming basically plays all the major roles of the play, and slips in and out of the characters pretty seamlessly.  If you know the story well, you can tell what character he's playing by where you're up to in the plot.  But if you don't, Cumming's characters have "tells", just like in poker, so you can tell who he's playing by his mannerisms. (smoothing his hair, eating an apple, talking all pompously-British).  The way he breathes life into the three witches is especially eerie, with slitty eyes and malicious grins - one step away from an all-out cackle.  With no intermission, the performance is pretty intense (to watch surely, but certainly to perform too).  I thought it was a really interesting take on a fantastic play.

In a similar vein, I seized an opportunity on Tuesday night to be Kell's "plus one" at a performance of "End of the Rainbow", a Broadway show I'd been wanting to see since I was in London and the play had been taking the West End by storm before coming across the Pond.  The musical drama takes place in London, and focuses on a string of comeback concerts that Judy Garland gives, three months before she is found dead of an accidental drug overdose.  The play is punctuated by beautiful songs (that are often painful to watch, when you realise what it took to get her out on stage in the first place).  Of course I cried, particularly when she closed the show with "Somewhere Over The Rainbow", but sang it so full of bitterness and pain, with her eyes full of tears, that it was a far cry from the innocent black-and-white Dorothy Gale on film.  The play was brilliant, and I'm so glad that Kell thought to take me with her.

My rather rotten week rounded out last night with an absolutely beautiful dinner with K and her aunt and uncle, at The Water Club, right on the East River and just a stone's throw from our apartment.  I had delicious bluefin tuna for my main meal, that was served with a crunchy rice cake, some freshly-roasted corn and some cool, refreshing tomato salsa.  Dessert was a butter pecan and toffee parfait (cause everybody likes parfait!), that was sitting on top of espresso coffee icecream. Yummo!  But the prize for theatricality definitely went to K's aunt and uncle, who cleverly ordered the Bananas Foster for dessert.  Our waiter prepared it table-side, and the heat that came off that explosion of rum and banana liqueur warmed my cheeks for minutes afterwards.  Whoa.  I almost had to check I still had both my eyebrows attached!  And despite the little slip-up in my Dry July fundraising campaign on Friday night (one glass of white wine, for which I paid my $25 fine), I climbed back aboard the rickety ole wagon and did not have a sip of alcohol at all yesterday - no matter how tempting the cocktail list looked.  An opportunity for another time, for sure!

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Meditate on THIS!

Central Park NYC
Originally uploaded by Ronaldo F Cabuhat.

I stood Buddha up again today. I think that's twice I've missed the weekend meditation class. But you know what? The jolly old fella will forgive me because I have had the most beautiful Saturday morning just hanging out in Central Park.

The week just gone was pretty rotten, to be honest. I had been looking forward to the meditation class for the rare opportunity it afforded to sit still, put the week's events in perspective, and decompress. Then it occurred to me that if I got up early on Saturday morning, I could go back into Central Park, walk for a bit, and THEN get to the class. A double dose of meditation, if you will.

I got to bed early last night and awoke this morning in a really good mindset. Bagel and coffee for breakfast, huge bottle of water chugged, and I left the house by 8.15am. A quick cab ride to Central Park and I set off on my 10-mile walk around and around. The Park looks so different now than when I was last here - back on NYC Half-Marathon day in March. Green trees, fluffy squirrels, lush grass - it was just gorgeous. And so many dogs off their leashes - and young kids off theirs too - everyone, human and not, seemed in great spirits.

From behind my chic sunglasses and full face of make-up (of course!), I sweated it out up towards Harlem Hill. As I approached the ascent, I bumped into Flock from work, who was jogging down the hill in a super-fit style that put my strutting to some shame. We chatted for a bit and then went on our merry ways. I was rocking out to my iPod music list and trying very hard not to mouth the words along the way.

10 miles in, I found myself back at the Central Park boathouse and I grabbed a large coffee. I walked a little way to the little lake by 5th avenue and watched a family floating a little electric boat along the water. A few more sips of coffee and I figured I should probably start heading for home.

Rounding the little lake, I saw some chairs set up by the Hans Christian Andersen statue (did I even know that was there before??). Sure enough, the clock was almost striking 11am, and I realised I was just in time for Saturday Storytime. Kids and their parents were settling themselves onto the folding chairs, so I sat on a public bench close by and the story-tellers told their tales. The kids were completely spellbound even though some of the stories were a bit more adult than I thought would have been appropriate. Storytime Saturdays take place at 11am every week between early June and September, and I am sure they are very well-attended. Being a big kid myself, I certainly enjoyed it and would like to come back.

Storytime ended at noon so I figured I would head home. It was already clear that I wasn't going to make the 1pm meditation in Chelsea, so I didn't rush myself at all. I walked most of the way home, but grabbed a bus for the last 20 or so blocks, when my Boathouse coffee and chugged water started to catch up with me.

I really enjoyed my solitary morning, and I don't even care that the longest conversation I'd had out loud was when I ordered my coffee. My morning in the Park was quite enough to erase all the bad feelings and stress of the week that was. I may not have been doing guided meditation this morning, but I think this is what zen feels like anyway.

Monday, July 02, 2012

Sober contemplation

My weekend was quite solitary, as it turned out.  I don’t think I intended for it to be so at the outset; however, now that I think back on it, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Saturday was a bit of a slow start, after a tiring week and a Friday capped off with a couple of relaxed beers in the summer heat. I was supposed to do a half-day Buddhist meditation class on Saturday morning, and I was out of bed in time for it.  But when you combine a lack of motivation to get ready with missed buses and bad traffic, I got to the meditation centre quite late.  The monk greeted me with a serene “Namaste” and I realised too late that my altogether Catholic reply (“and also with you”) probably wasn’t totally ideal.   But what can I say?  I was flustered.  If the monk minded, he didn't show it.  Instead, he quietly explained that the workshop was already well underway and the students were participating in their first full meditation exercise.  I was welcome to go in of course - the choice was entirely mine.  I really did think about it, but I’d already missed so much of the preamble I didn’t want to dive in unprepared.  I didn't want to interrupt the other students either, so I decided not to enter.  The monk said he understood and suggested that I was welcome to come back next weekend instead.  I vowed to do so (and made a mental note to set my alarm clock at a more appropriate hour then).

Returning to the dry heat and sunshine of the early morning, I walked on the shaded side of the street from the meditation center to Chelsea Market.  The walk wasn’t far, but I purposely took myself a few blocks out of my way so I could wander through the cobbled side-streets of the Meatpacking District first.  I don’t know that area well at all, but I like the idea of being amongst what I feel is so "old New York" – close to the concrete jungle but nestled amongst converted warehouses, fashion boutiques and fabulous yet understated hotels.  But then something pricked my nostrils.  What was that smell?  At first I thought it was hay or horses (or both), but then the odour took on a distinct cow poo stink.  Is meat packing LITERALLY still done out here?  Gross.  I need to get my Google on for that one, no question.  And before you get all up in arms about me being a giant snob, it’s not that the smell of the countryside offends me, not in the least.  It’s just that it seemed so out of place – I couldn’t hear horses or cows, but I could certainly smell them, and that was really strange to me.  Nobody else seemed phased, so I wasn’t worried – just curious.  All that neighbourhood wonder aside, I was ultimately relieved to take refuge from the summer sun and rural smells and pop into the gorgeously urban warehouse that is Chelsea Market. 

At that time of the morning, the stores were only just waking up but I could already smell coffee beans, bacon and fresh fruit & vegetables.  Now THOSE are morning smells!  I picked up a take-away coffee Ninth Street Espresso and a grilled cheddar cheese and fig panini from Lucy's Whey and found an empty table at which to enjoy my breakfast and people-watching session.  I regretted not bringing my book, because I could have happily whiled away the time there.  To round out my market experience though, I made a quick stop at Anthropologie for me (where I bought a book, among other things), then a visit to Inglot cosmetics for my mum & baby sis.  As the market filled up with tourists and locals alike, I made my escape.

I was going to have a beer at the Standard Hotel, but it wasn’t yet midday and the beer garden was still closed.  So I walked around the corner to the famously chic eatery Pastis and I sat outside and ordered a glass of wine and a fruit salad instead.  An eclectic snack perhaps, but it certainly hit the spot and made me feel quite mellow.  I could still smell the farmyard, but I quickly accustomed to it.  Reading my book for about an hour, the sunshine had warmed me all the way down to my bones and it was time to move on.

I decided to cool off by visiting the cinema so I took myself off to see the new Pixar movie, “Brave”.   I loved it, even though (or perhaps because) my cinema was full of kids who were mesmerised by the movie.  Kids are so funny at the movies because they get so invested in them (look who’s talking!).  But every funny bit, they belly laugh and every sad bit, they stage-whisper their concerns to anyone who will listen, or to nobody in particular.  There is something really nice about that, because I think it shows they are really engaged in the movie.  Whatever – move along, old lady.

When I left the cinema around 6pm, the heat of the day was still very much there.  Fortunately the walk home wasn’t long, and before I knew it I was hanging my face over the living room air conditioner and enjoying an ice-cold beer from the fridge.  I ended up having two beers that night, knowing they would be my last for at least a month. I’ve signed up to the Dry July challenge in Australia.  Not only is this a health and well-being challenge, it’s also a fundraising opportunity with the proceeds going to cancer research in Adelaide (self-selected, as it is my home town).  I will definitely need all the help and encouragement I can get on this month-long path to sobriety so if you are feeling particularly generous, please donate here.

Sunday morning was a long and languid affair, with no alarm clock to wake me up.  I munched a home-made breakfast of bagel & avocado, a strong coffee, orange juice, and yoghurt and fruit.  It was all very tasty and made all the more delicious by the fact I was in my pyjamas, on the couch, in an air-conditioned room.  It was all so good.  I thought about doing the laundry, but that’s about as far as I got on that task. 

Time sped by, as it tends to do on Sundays, and next thing I knew I was hitting the streets to get to Times Square to see “One Man, Two Guvnors” at Irving Berlin’s Music Box Theater.  If there’s one thing you don’t want to do in New York EVER, it’s go to Times Square in the middle of summer on a weekend.  It is like the mouth of hell, only worse.  What a treat it was to escape that madness and hide out in a chilly Broadway theatre and laugh myself stupid to some slapstick and farcical British comedy.  James Corden definitely deserved his recent Tony Award for Best Actor - he was fantastic!  But the entire ensemble cast was great too and they all put on a really good show, with just as much improvised comedy as scripted, which was a lot of fun.

A nap on the sofa on Sunday evening was the perfect prelude to a quiet, booze-free night in.  With stomach, heart and head completely happy after a lovely weekend, I gave myself an early night and tried not to think too much about Monday morning.