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Going, going – almost gone!

5 May

 

 

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My parents visited from Michigan back in March. I’d been itching to visit the Renwick Gallery since it reopened in November, and my parents were game to check it out.

If you’re not familiar with the Renwick, here’s the quick back-story on it:

  • It is part of the Smithsonian. (And because I answer this question for almost every visitor to Washington: the Smithsonian is a collection of museums and galleries – not a single destination – and they are all open free of charge to the public.)
  • The Renwick was the first art gallery built in the US intended to be used as an art gallery. (A lot of the other older art galleries were originally private homes.)
  • The exterior was completed in 1861 – and then the construction was paused because of the Civil War.
  • In the 20th century, there was talk of tearing it down, but Jacqueline Kennedy led a successful crusade to save it, and it returned to use as an art gallery in 1972.
  • It closed again for renovations in 2013 and just reopened in November.

To re-open the Renwick, the entire building was used for an installation of nine works by different artists, each specifically designed for and filling an entire room. The theme of the exhibit was, “Wonder” and I have to say: Mission Accomplished. I can’t imagine anyone going through the entire exhibit without at least one, “WHOA!” moment.

Here’s the exhibit’s opening plaque, which provides a bit of context for what it contains:

People have debated the meaning and value of wonder for more than two thousand years. It has been described as everything from the origins of our understanding of the universe, to how we respond to something defying categorization, to a naïve emotion delaying us from reason, to a shock to the heart, and a surprise of the soul.

The two rooms that provided me with the most amazement were those where common items were used to create very uncommon results.

The first example was Jennifer Angus’s pink-washed room that used insects for three-dimensional wall decoration. When we walked in the room, our initial reaction was, “Cool,” as we saw the “dia de los muertos” skeletons covering the walls. We quickly followed that by asking, “Those can’t be REAL beetles, can they?”

As it turns out, they WERE. Which then made the whole room a bit more creepy. And I felt compelled to try to approximate how many little insect corpses were pinned to the walls. It made my head hurt. Further, the wall plaque informed us that the pink of the walls was created by using the “juice” from other insects. Ew? And still – ahhhh!

Here are a few photos I snapped that don’t do it justice:

The other example that had me rubbing my chin in wonder was what appeared to be a simple construction of colored thread – pinned to the floor, then running to the ceiling, where it was pinned at a right angle. Sounds boring, but the effect was surprising. As we moved around it, it shifted from being individual clusters of thread to a see-through rainbow that seemed to be made from light.

Again, it doesn’t translate well in photos, but here’s an attempt – and no, I have no idea who that dude is posing in this shot:

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Those were the two creations that I found most provoking, but I heard people exclaiming in delight in every room, whether it was John Grade’s over-sized tree trunk constructed from small blocks of wood, or the glass ball formation created by Maya Lin (of Vietnam Wall fame), that climbed the walls of one room.

In addition to the art work, there were quotes in each room related to the theme. A few of my favorite examples include:

“It is not understanding that destroys wonder, it is familiarity.” —John Stuart Mill

“The mere knowledge that such a work could be created makes me twice the person I was.” —Goethe

The full exhibit is only available through Sunday (May 8), so if you’re in the DC area, if you hustle you can hit it! Even if you’re not usually a fan of art, I’d be willing to offer a money-back satisfaction guarantee. (Did I mention that it’s free?!)

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Travelogue: Carmel-by-the-Sea

3 Nov

We arrived in California today for our week-long vacation. Everything went smoothly until we went to pick up our rental car. For some reason, the line at Hertz was worse than airport security. It took 50 minutes of standing in line before we were given a car assignment. But if that’s the biggest complaint you can lodge after a full day of travel? Not bad at all.

When we went to retrieve it, the car was NOT in slot 161 as promised on our paperwork – so a scavenger hunt commenced to find it. Finally it turned up – a grey Malibu with no pick-up in slot 282.  Maybe this was karma’s way of paying us back for driving through a flash flood in Charlottetown, PEI last year and almost ripping the underbody off our rental.

Oh – I haven’t told you that story? Another time. Still waiting for the statute of limitations to expire.

Once we got our car, we zipped out of town, heading to Carmel, about two hours south of SFO on the Monterey Penninsula. If you’ve never been, it’s an adorable ocean-side town with cute shops, tasting rooms and restaurants that all look amazingly homey. The architecture probably has something to do with that – the town has a funky Bavaria-meets-smurf-cottages kind of vibe. Don’t believe me? Check out these photos.

We were starving when we arrived – with the time difference and the flight, it was approaching 7pm Eastern time and our last meal had been a 9am burger at the airport Five Guys. Fortunately, I’d happened to check TripAdvisor before we tumbled out of the car, so instead of blindly choosing the first place that looked halfway good (and there would’ve been no shortage), we made a beeline to Dametra Cafe.

It’s funny – neither Alan nor I were particularly feeling mediterranean food, but the TripAdvisor reviews were so overwhelmingly positive, that we felt we should give it a go. I’m so glad we did – if I were dying, I might make a special trip to this restaurant for my last meal.

Let me set the stage. The place is tiny. There are approximately 18 tables which can each seat two people. The decor is simple but warm – it feels like you’re a guest in someone’s overly large kitchen. Perhaps part of why you feel like you’re in someone’s home is because of the hospitality the owners show.

Bashar, one of the owners who also serves as the host, welcomes everyone who sets foot into the place as if they’re a friend, placing his hand on your shoulder while he looks around to see if they have a table for you. Unfortunately, the answer to this query is usually, “Sorry – we’re completely full. Do you have a reservation?” Alan and I somehow managed to snag the last unreserved table (probably because we arrived 4:45pm) and felt incredibly lucky every time we heard him turn away another couple.

This photo doesn't do it justice.

This photo doesn’t do it justice.

After spending a ridiculous amount of time debating what to order, we decided to split two of the most basic Greek staples: spanikopita and chicken kabobs. It was the right decision. They were so different than any other version of those foods I’d eaten before that – had my eyes been closed – I wouldn’t have recognized them. The spanikopita was huge – imagine getting served two perfectly golden, flaky poptarts sprinkled with sesame seeds and filled with garlicky spinach hugging little gems of salty feta unlike any feta you’ve ever tasted. Delish.

They split our entree in the kitchen, bringing us each a generous plate with rice, Greek salad and a kabob of chicken, tomatoes and onion, drizzled with a garlic aoili. This sounds like a boring line-up, so you’ll just have to trust me when I say that it was amazing. The chicken was beyond tender, and I don’t know what they marinated it in, but it was magical. The homemade salad dressing and the aoili completely transformed the meal – and I’m normally very finicky when it comes to sauces.

Midway through our meal, as we were marveling over how something so simple could be so mind-blowingly good, we heard someone begin to tune what sounded like a guitar. Then, from the kitchen, Bashar emerged, playing some kind of Middle Eastern guitar, followed by two servers banging drums. They shuffled through the small restaurant playing and people rose from their tables to begin dancing. It was like a party had just broken out, and everyone was up for it. It felt like being included in a secret.  Here’s a snippet:

When we finished our meal, they brought us a plate with complimentary baklava drizzled with honey and whipped cream. I had no room for it, but managed to choke it down since it is tied with fried ice cream as my favorite dessert of all time. One our way out the door, we thanked Bashar for having us. “Every time you turned away someone, we felt so lucky that we had managed to snag your last table,” Alan told him.

Bashar countered, “No – the luck was ours. We were lucky to have you dine with us tonight.” And with that, he asked our names and said he hoped to see us again soon. And like a good host, he truly seemed sincere.

After dinner we walked down Ocean Avenue and it’s adorable cottages to the beach. We arrived just in time to catch the tail-end of the sunset as we smelled the wood smoke from various bonfires dotting the beach. Not a bad way to end our first day of vacation, though it does set a high bar for the rest of the trip.

Sunset in Carmel

 

My own, personal holiday: The Annual LOC Book Festival

23 Sep

I love books. Always have. (In related-news: I’m a dork.)

In fact, if I’m being honest, I partially blame books for not wanting to be a mother. I can’t tell you how many of my book-loving friends have said, “Now that I have a kid, I’m lucky if I read a few books each year.” Hear that enough times and you’ll begin to think of children and books as mutually exclusive.

And if you’re me, books have more appeal: you can pick them up whenever you want (and set them down just as quickly); they don’t cry – but can make you cry for all the right reasons; there’s no risk of death if you drop them on their spines; they’ll never sass you – although you may learn some choice new swear words from them; and if they crap the bed, it’s only in a figurative sense.

Now that we’ve established that I love books, let me tell you about my favorite weekend of the year: The Library of Congress’s Annual Book Festival. It’s a holiday that rivals Christmas in my book. <–See what I did there?

If you’re not familiar, the festival is a two-day event with huge tents (seating a few hundred people each) on the National Mall, with well-known authors presenting every hour. Here’s this year’s line-up of authors.

I ventured down both days and was able to hear Margaret Atwood, Brad Meltzer, Terry McMillan, Adam Johnson, Christopher Buckley, and Denise Kiernan. I wanted to see Joyce Carol Oates, Alyson Hagy, Khaled Hosseini, and Veronica Roth, but – due to either conflicting schedules, exhaustion or rain – had to miss their talks. Fortunately, the LOC records all the talks and broadcasts them on their website. (At this point they only have 2011-2012 webcasts available, but I expect they’ll add this year’s soon.) Guess what I’ll be doing with my next few weekends?

Of all the sessions I attended, the one that most pleasantly surprised me was Brad Meltzer’s talk. I tend to steer clear of authors that crank out thrillers that occupy the top slots on the NYT’s best seller list because (alert: unfair judgement coming) they generally strike me as formulaic, so I haven’t read any of his books. In fact, had I been there alone, I probably would’ve skipped his talk entirely, but I thought he might hold some appeal for Alan since he, too, is a recovering lawyer.

I’m glad we hung around. The guy is a great story teller. Sure, some of his anecdotes – like brunching at the White House – were somewhat self-congratulatory, but they were entertaining. If he writes as well as he talks, I might have to give his books a whirl.

The other presenter who surprised me was Christopher Buckley. I’ve never made it past the cover of his books and assumed I wouldn’t be a fan since he was a speechwriter for George HW Bush, but he was amusing. Unlike other authors, who transparently promoted their latest book by giving a reading or discussing it directly, Buckley cleverly promoted his book by talking about how titles are chosen. He then offered up a few titles that he’d suggested to the publisher for his latest book, using that prompt to tell us the stories he was drawing on – from the book.

He also wove in a few tidbits about proposed titles for other famous books that had the audience laughing. The one that cracked me up was his reference to Steinbeck, saying that when The Grapes of Wrath was translated into Japanese, its title became Angry Raisins. Amused, I tweeted it out…

When I checked my Twitter account a few minutes later to add a new post, I saw that a slew of people – including the person manning the official Library of Congress account – had retweeted my comment. BOOM! 

And that’s when I realized the full magnitude to my dorkiness. Not only was I treating the festival as my own private holiday, but I was also starstruck by having fewer than 140 characters noticed and shared by the Library of Congress. Nevermind that it was probably an intern who selected my post for retweeting.

Which means my excitement was probably on par (in all aspects) with this:

But hey… considering I think a book festival is nirvana, it shouldn’t be shocking to learn that I’m a big old dork.

The Nutcracker: Bah Humbug!

7 Dec
Image Source: http://b5media_b4.s3.amazonaws.com/28/files/2006/11/nutcracker-girl.jpg

Boring. Sigh. Zzzz….

I’m just going to put it out there, even though I realize this isn’t going to be a popular statement: I’m not a fan of the Nutcracker.

I’ll add this to the list of things I don’t like – such as pumpkin pie and babies – that make people regard me with some combination of horror and disgust. Get over it. More for you. (Note: My friends’ babies are exceptions. Their pies are not.)

Anyway… I had a vague recollection of being bored stiff when seeing the Nutcracker as a kid, so I was curious to see if I’d enjoy it as an adult. Alan’s daughter is dancing in it for the first time, so we went to watch her performance last week.

Five Reasons I’m Not a Fan:

  1. I have no tolerance for mimes. I know, the thing is a ballet, so they’re primarily dancing, but a lot of the first act relies on people acting without talking. Also known as miming. I find it physically painful to watch a family of characters cross the stage pretending to have an animated conversation, moving their mouths like they’re chewing on the largest hunk of bubble gum known to man in an attempt to show us they’re talking.
  2. The story is lacking.  In case you’re not familiar: a rich family throws a Christmas party, their daughter receives a Nutcracker that she loves, her brother breaks it, a magician mends it, the Christmas tree grows like it’s on steroids, and then she dreams that a bunch of people are dancing for her. Someone needs a lesson on plot development. And less LSD.
  3. The Sugar Plum Fairy is full of herself. The one thing the Nutcracker does pretty well is provide an opportunity to showcase a LOT of dancers. The scenes can accommodate a seemingly limitless number of dancers, so it’s the perfect show for making sure everyone has a role. Until the Sugar Plum Fairy takes the stage. Once she arrives, it turns into her show and you realize that all the other parts were just humoring the parents in an attempt to sell more seats. She single-handedly undermines the adage that, “There are no small roles, only small actors.”
  4. Really, a NUTCRACKER? When is the last time you saw a child get excited by a nutcracker? Probably NEVER, because they are inherently boring and hardly qualify as a toy. I know this story was developed long before American Girl Dolls were on the scene, so I’m not proposing they replace the title character with a modern toy. But SURELY there’s something more compelling from those days. I mean, even a corn husk doll (circa Little House of the Prairie) would be more exciting. Which says a lot.
  5. The Magician is creepy. I find it interesting that a holiday/children’s classic includes a character who is clearly a pedophile. His arrival with a trunk full of tricks would’ve been only marginally creepier if he’d pulled up in an ice cream truck. And has no one ever asked why he’s hiding behind a clock watching little Clara sleep?

So I might revise my opinion of The Nutcracker if someone would stage a version where Chris Hansen (from Dateline’s ” To Catch a Predator” series) made a cameo and busted the magician, and Kristen Wiig repeatedly photo-bombed the Sugar Plum Fairy’s scenes. Until that production is available, I’ll stay home.

Unless, of course, Alan’s daughter remains a ballerina. In which case, I’ll dutifully attend and clap during her scenes… and secretly try to enlist her in my battle against the Sugar Plum Fairy.

Now *this* I would pay to see.

Now *this* I would pay to see. (Image: courtesy of my sister, Alicia.)

Review: In this case, I wouldn’t call the owner The King.

27 Sep

When a restaurant receives polarizing Yelp reviews (all 5 Stars or 1 Star), it’s bound to be an experience. At least, that was my rationale when I struck out for dinner last night. I’d consulted my phone for a recommendation, and found myself seated at Trattoria Casa Di Isacco – a dimly lit Italian place in Hells Kitchen.

The Yelp Review that ultimately led me to try it? “Weird, fun, creepy, but pretty good food. Definitely has character in a Spanish Elvis cooks Italian food in a restaurant decorated for Christmas yet in a February kind of way.”

I wasn’t sure what that meant, but I wanted to know.

First off – the owner is Spanish and loves him some Elvis. I say this not only because his hair was clearly modeled after that famous pompadour, but also because every inch of wall space was occupied by photos and paintings of The King (including more than one black velvet model).

Oh, and also? The television showed Mediterranean Elvis impersonators dancing along to the soundtrack of Spanish/Italian songs. Yep, it was an experience.

The owner – whom other Yelp reviewers loved – irritated me. At least, I assume he was the owner, based on the way he strode around the place as if he owned it. When he approached my table and spouted off the specials, I found myself struggling to decipher the day’s specials because his accent was a bit challenging.

He left me to contemplate my choices, and when he returned, I asked him for a recommendation. “I’ve whittled it down to either the Gnocci Pesto, the Lasagna, or the Veal Marsala. Of those, which do you think is best?”

I’m not sure if that question offended him, or if he’s just generally a prick, but his answer – “I can’t make up your mind for you. They are all good but very different. You decide” – wasn’t exactly the tip I was looking for .

“Fine,” I said. “I’ll take the Veal Piccata,” I told him, mentally high-fiving myself for not saying please. And mentally calling him a CornHole.

When the food arrived, it obliterated the owner’s surly behavior. The veal piccata had been pounded to within an inch of its life and was swimming in a lemon caper sauce that was equally good on bread. I may have just been hungry, but it was easy to clean my plate.

Apparently the owner decided he didn’t like me either, because after he took my order, another guy had taken over the dinner service. He returned to clear my plate, crumb the table, and bring me a complimentary glass of sweet dessert wine.

I could see why the place had received such spotty reviews. I suspect the stars match the mood of the owner on any particular night. Unfortunately, I caught him on a one-star night.