Saturday, March 28, 2009

Mental Habitrails

You remember Habitrails. Transparent modular tubes form a structure, (a habitat, hence the name) for hamsters to move through. We make our own mental ones, and we move through them over and over until they start closing in and we go nuts. Then we do something, anything, to break free--- before jumping right back in to begin again.

Where are you in that cycle? This isn’t rhetorical, please stop and think about it. Maybe you can predict what the people you see every day are about to say. I can do that with about half of the folks in my gym.

When you get an email, can you tell what it will be based on who sent it? Or perhaps you work with someone who will always tell you first how great your stuff is, then how you should change it all. You know it’s coming, because life is a Habitrail, and you’ve been there before.

But then it happens. Someone surprises you. The obnoxiously un-funny lout (of either gender) says something insightful or genuinely amusing. The person who you thought wasn’t listening not only responds, but gives you a new perspective on what you were thinking. It’s the third line of the haiku, the one that twists the whole and bestows meaning. Habits are made to be broken, even and especially mental ones.

Habitrails to you, until we meet again.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Vegas Snapshots: Food

My dears, I couldn’t possibly tell you All. Those of you who decry my veggies and grains with protein powder should have seen me gobble and gorge. Of course I kept a list, but there isn’t space on the Internet for it.

I will say that the truffled onion soup poured over sautéed wild mushrooms and a quenelle of red cabbage & red wine puree at Fleur de Lys remains one of my favorite flavors ever, anywhere. This version isn’t on the menu and was brought out as a gift from the kitchen, which added to my gratified delight. The asparagus, wild mushroom and parmesan risotto didn’t look like much but my oh my, the taste! Exploding with yummy goodness. Yellowtail (also not on the menu, another gift) with wild mushrooms and ginger foam. Tapioca soup with fruit and sorbet. Oh yeah, Robert liked his steak thingy and his valrhona chocolate soufflé. He can tell you about that himself.

Fresh cinnamon sugar doughnuts at Bouchon were served with home-made (in a restaurant?) cherry jam and Nutella for breakfast. Candied orange peel and cranberries in the oatmeal. Beurre monte over the poached eggs on toast.

Sustainable and artistic and delicious sushi at RM Café, two lunches in succession. Perfect pastries too numerous to mention, from a plethora of places.

But we mustn’t forget Aureole. They got an entire post from me last trip. Highlights only this time, because the kitchen generously added two entrees and two desserts to the full meal we had ordered. To describe it all would kill us both. Six (count’em 6!) amuse bouches, I especially liked the truffled egg served in an eggshell, and the lobster spring roll. Three cheese ravioli with house smoked salmon and lemon thyme foam, the thyme was a whisper, a melody that united the whole. The seared escolar on carmelized cauliflower with watercress beurre blanc was my other favorite dish of the trip. My dessert: Lady Gala doughnuts on salted-caramel mousse with apple ice cream and apple confit. Our terrific waiter gave us six different house-made sorbets and a lovely tiramisu and a chocolate thing as well.

In closing, I will just say--- burp.

Vegas Snapshots: Characters

A week ago I hit burn-out. I was weary in spirit. Then we spent four days in Las Vegas, and the strange, wonderful and delicious things that happened there gave my soul a jump start. Robert and I go often enough that we’ve settled into a happy rut. This time, the familiarity was punctuated by astonishment. But I’ll get to that later.

This trip turned out to be partly about people. Not just the ones we know, but also the ones we saw. We were both enchanted by a couple in their early 60s walking in front of us during a post-breakfast stroll through the Venetian. She kept grabbing his butt. I tried to take a picture, but it blurred.

Downtown, I saw a burly man with shaved head and graying goatee, muscles bursting out of muscles, one arm devoted to a lone wolf tattoo--- wearing an ornate gold Star of David over his wife-beater t-shirt. Obviously he doesn’t care where he’ll be buried.

I kept one photo that was blurred beyond recognition. The woman had to be at least 70, with a graceful presence you could feel from ten feet away, and a beautiful face. Her companion was a handsome young man who held her hand and looked at her with utter devotion. They exuded such serenity and happiness as they walked that I ran after them and snapped a picture although Robert tried to stop me. I hope I never forget them.

At one restaurant, a compliment about the food elicited the life story of the waiter. Apparently he’d been in the food industry for 16 years (he looked about 25 but was over 30) and had owned his own establishment at 18, traveled Europe with Eric Ripert and now was a triathlete who trained UFC fighters. The same thing happened the next day at a different restaurant, with a different waiter, who had a very different biography.

On the last night, the table next to ours was filled with defense contractors ranting about work-related issues despite the public setting. They paused to discuss the wine list (10,000 bottles long, this was at Aureole.) After much consideration, they asked the sommelier for a bottle of “red”, and then returned to talk of Afghanistan battles and product lines. A woman stopped by to say hello to one of them. She had been sitting unseen at a table directly behind the loudest complainer, and knew him professionally. I hope he hadn’t divulged anything proprietary.

Are you still with me? I’ll close on the astonishing thing as a reward for your patience. When I stopped by Aureole to make the dinner reservation, the reservationist remembered us from our first visit there nearly a year ago. She told us--- correctly--- where we sat. How many people go through there in a week? In a year? Why on earth would a hostess (not the server) remember us? But she did. At Bouchon, the waiter looked at us and said (also correctly) “I’ve waited on you before, haven’t I?” We hadn’t caused a scene, nor done anything notable in either place. I try to tip well by normal standards, but again, nothing memorable. It was downright freaky.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Watch This Space

Jim Harrison said, "Art is in no position to duke it out with our baser appetites."

I intend to test that theory. With any luck, I'll have some stories for you when we get back in a few days...

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Clarified Better

“If it doesn’t hurt, you’re not doing it right.”

How many times have I been challenged on this over the years? That’s rhetorical, stop waving your hands.

Those of you who have trained with me know what I mean in the gym: do the exercise properly, by this I mean “perfectly”, until the muscle quivers with pain and won’t move. Then do it again and again and again. Do a different muscle every day til that first one is healed, then repeat.

Take it out of the gym and it’s a metaphor. (Go figure.) Pain is not a requisite for correctness, but there is a level of effort beyond comfort that is salutary. And, to reply to the comment on the previous post, yes, that includes writing this blog.

We don’t just seek comfort, we inhabit it. I revel in mine, and am lost when pushed outside its cushily familiar limits. Oh, I go, and often, but I’m not happy about it. That’s in real life. Here, in my cyber-niche, with mostly my good and dear friends and family to see, I can stretch without fear--- but I don’t. I should, but I don’t. I vent my curmudgeonly spleen on topics I have thought out to various extents. Sometimes, I even edit.

But when I’m writing something for someone else, I push. I strain. I squeeze my brain until it quivers and won’t move anymore. That’s where the best work is, and that’s when I know I’m doing it right. Just like in the gym, that’s when it hurts good and makes me stronger.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Pas De Food

When I was 8, my ballet teacher, Monsieur Pierre, would walk down the line of little leotards and pointed toes and whoosh his cane down the back of anyone whose butt was sticking out. He never connected with actual juvenile flesh, but the point (the pointe?) was made. In spite of Monsieur, I love and revere ballet above all other art forms to this day.

In ballet, I learned my driving principle: “If it doesn’t hurt, then you’re not doing it right.” When I became older and finally convinced of my fundamental gracelessness, I turned first to weightlifting, then to kung fu, then back to weightlifting. No other disciplines offered the same neurotic fascination with perfection as ballet, the same extremity of aesthetic, the exaltation of endurance.

Somewhere along the way, I became equally obsessed with food. Nutrition first, sad to say, then taste. I’d like to think I’ve found a balance between the two. You can argue if you want to, I might even listen.

Today I ran across the following quote, by Julia Child: “Non-cooks think it’s silly to invest two hours’ work in two minutes’ enjoyment, but if cooking is evanescent, well, so is the ballet.” (‘Culinary Artistry’, Dornenburg & Page, 1996)

This proves two things. One, I was right in the first place and two, Julia Child rocked. Q.E.D.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Solitary Confinement

Bam! Smack! Kapow! Sunday I had no Internet. Smash my fingers and call me Stumpy. I was lost, temporarily bereft of distraction.

Yesterday morning my training partner went AWOL. Working out alone was solitary confinement at its worst, just me and the voices in my head. What a pity I know all their jokes.

We live behind bone walls, locked inside our own skulls, listening to our own running commentary on whatever we’re doing. And unless you’re in a monastery, you’re probably doing something. (If you’re in a monastery reading this, you should probably be doing something else.)

Twenty years ago it was no big deal to climb onto a rock in Campo and just sit. Either thinking or not thinking, it didn’t matter which. Now the only time I sit and think is when I’m stuck in traffic. You too?

“Contemplation” has become an invective associated with either an innie or an outie. I deplore this. Not that I’m rushing into a Transcendental Meditation retrospective, but there are occasions on which roses should be smelled. If it requires going offline, then do so.

I’ll try to remember all this when I work out alone again tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Magic Babel-Fishbowl

It’s all misdirection, really. We think we’re living in a technological fishbowl (because, if you’re reading this, you probably are) but what matters more is what we don’t say.

When I staked out my bits of cyberspace, I did it with malice aforethought, as a fully consenting adult. This is my real name, and I’ve even gone to the effort of putting an accurate photo up, instead of the more flattering but outdated one that was easier to use. Look! There’s nothing up my sleeve. I have nothing to hide. I stand beside my words. Celebra--- oops, I mean, Abracadabra! Of course it’s all an illusion. We control what we post.

You’d think people would care more about the image they’re projecting. Then again, how often is the driver of the next car picking his/her nose? Don’t my neighbors know I can hear them in their backyard?

Privacy has changed. The Internet is like a small town in the 1800s, although less picturesque. We’re in each other’s pockets all day. We wear our secrets, and our foibles. We even advertise them. Does anybody remember when dignity was a virtue?

But when I swim in the Twitterstream, munching bits of wit and tons of trivia, mangling metaphors (albeit alliteratively), I often find myself wondering what they aren’t saying, what’s really going on behind the techno-curtain. Of course it’s all a trick, I just hope the joke isn’t on me.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Not Just A Number

One of my good friends is about twenty years older than me, give or take. Another is about twenty years younger. Though we each are very much stuck inside the stereotypes of our own ages, it’s more significant to our characters that we’re from three different continents--- if you count Brooklyn as a continent.

Age is a context. We’re the product of our times, our fashions, our music, our stories. Nowadays there is a personality attached to the number. I can’t run into Hot Topic and pick up something to wear, even if I was so inclined. Luckily I’m not.

So today I’m a year older. Big deal. My bones were creaky, and my glasses progressive anyhow.

Thank you all for your kind wishes, tomorrow we’ll resume our normal one-sided conversation.

Thursday, March 5, 2009


Mariette Hartley and James Garner used to do a series of TV commercials. Not quite narrative, but so rich with character that the audience was engaged. Maybe that sort of thing still happens, I wouldn’t know. Everything I see around me is getting as abridged as an old Dana Carvey impersonation. One characteristic line, one image or gesture is enough. It’s narrative by logo, no need for transitions or inductive reasoning.

My adored Twitter aside, let’s face it, we’re becoming a culture of captions. Celebrities are identified by a single trait. Political issues, and politicians, are painted either red or blue. Similes are rampant; everything is “like” something else. That similarity suffices for description, and I for one don’t like it.

This entropy also affects written language. Our complex, heartfelt emotions reduce to smileys. Psychotherapy should be much easier now. Go ahead and text how you really feel. The response might well be a prescription for dietary supplements, or a pharmaceutical “as seen on TV”.

Adjectives are good. So are adverbs. I mean this! :0

Which reminds me, Jim, how are you coming with “Atlas Shrugged”?

Monday, March 2, 2009


Robert said (on Facebook, naturally) that Facebook is an A.R.G. Of course, he’s absolutely right, but in such an insidiously sinister way I felt it deserved elucidation.

A.R.G., Alternative Reality Game. The example he gave me was a movie I never saw, called “The Game”, in which Michael Douglas’ life is turned inside out by what turns out to be--- you guessed it--- only a game. Real life interactions turn out to be fake, or at least part of the larger scheme. Dire consequences are negated, happy ever after attained.

That was a movie. Facebook is real, but it’s an ersatz reality. There are two people I don’t know on my friends list. One of them is completely random, we have no friends in common, nor do I have any idea why I was chosen. No further communication has occurred to explain it. My dog has a Facebook page, with more activity on it than my own. It's an A.R.G.. While I do my best to transcribe in human terms what I presume to be his canine motivation, it is absurdity in pixels and may stop amusing me at any moment. Robert can take over from there.

The idea of the A.R.G. is that fiction overlays reality. That distinction already blurs online. Deb, I’ve known you for seven years now, but if you walked up to me on the street I wouldn’t recognize you because we’ve never met. For that matter, my photo was taken before I let my hair go gray.

Where is the edge of reality, and what constitutes an alternative? If there is no ultimate purpose to Facebook, and it seems like there isn’t, maybe it is all just a game.