Friday, July 18, 2014

Coney Island

I've been meaning to visit Coney Island for years for basically two reasons. 

Reason #1 was to pay homage to the original Nathan's hot dog stand on the corner of Surf and Stillwell, the subject of numerous hot dog shows and my personal favorite brand in the grocery store for many years. I used to make them in a skillet with Wolf brand no-beans chili (seemingly only available in the South - I have to order it by the case from Amazon if I want it now), shredded cheddar and diced white onions.

Reason #2 was being inspired by Kacey's Coney Island Playwright Competition that she raised money for a few years ago. I think I pledged about $100 at one of the fundraising events at Papacookie. She made it sound like such a magical place, full of mystery and adventure. Since it's a direct subway ride from TSMC, there's really no excuse for it to have taken this long to visit.

So when my friends Chris and Bruce came in this past weekend from Harrisburg for a visit to celebrate my birthday and Bruce said he wanted to sample the most authentic New York style pizza, I saw a chance to cross a few things off my bucket list. Puck was also in town, so the four of us went out Sunday to visit the fabled playground on the shore.

I was surprised how close everything is to the train station - the famous original Nathan's is only one block from the station. In retrospect, we probably could have skipped breakfast before the 50 minute subway ride out there, because we didn't have much appetite for more than one dog apiece. But oh! was that a delicious hot dog! I also got some fried clams and Chris and Bruce ordered fries. But it's great that we got to eat them outside on a beautiful summer day, which also happened to be a day with small crowds (since it had only been a week since the insanity of July 4th).

After our first lunch, we took a walk down the boardwalk, and Chris and Puck indulged their craving for funnel cake.

We turned around and walked the other direction to the parachute tower and walked out to the very end of the fishing pier, where I took some pictures of the shore. Kacey's dad saw them on Facebook and stitched two of the shots together to form this beautiful panorama that is now my desktop background at work and cover photo on Facebook. I like it better than any of the postcards I saw for sale, but then why wouldn't I?

We stopped in the Coney Island Museum and were pleasantly surprised by the experience. We were the only visitors for most of the time we were there, and there was a guide named Jay who told us lots of stories about the history of the area and the ride and attractions that were on exhibit. It was especially interesting to me because I have been reading "Water for Elephants" by Sara Gruen, which takes place in a Depression-era train circus, and I just finished the book today. It was a really worthwhile visit and once again, I marveled at how uncrowded it was that day. Truly, I might make this an annual thing on my birthday weekend.

After the museum we went to fulfill Bruce's desire for authentic New York style pizza by visiting Totonno, the oldest continuously operating pizza parlor in New York, for our second lunch. It was actually very reasonably priced, with a large pizza being only $18 and we got half cheese, half pepperoni. It didn't quite have the same impact for me as Frank Pepe's that Puck and I visited last year in New Haven ("9th birthday" - July 16, 2013) but it was a good pizza. Plus the walls of Totonno are lined with all sorts of interesting news articles and memorabilia, so it was a nice atmosphere as well.

On the way back to the train station we stopped at an Asian bakery for some dessert cakes and bubble tea, which hit the spot and once again, we were the only patrons in the dining room, which was nice. All my needless fretting about Coney Island crowds was for naught. So this is the secret to visiting Coney Island - go right after the big holiday weekend.

Here's a picture of the handstamp from the museum - it's a hot dog mermaid - just to remember this beautiful day of food, fair weather and friends.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

July 4th and High Line anniversary

I had a really memorable Fourth of July weekend, although I really didn't do too much. Puck came through the city on Wednesday night and stayed over, which was a rare treat. Thursday night I didn't get an early dismissal, but I had plenty of work to keep me busy.

Friday I made one of my bourbon bread puddings for a party in Bushwick that Liz invited me and Victoria to, a gathering of former theater friends and professional chefs. Their apartment was on the fourth floor of a building that seemed to lean a little to the left, but needless to say, the food was amazing - homemade pastrami carved off the bone; pulled pork, mango and cilantro tacos; grits with bacon and cheese; corn on the cob with a cheese and mayonnaise spread; raw oysters; and barbecued lamb ribs with yogurt sauce and mint. Plus, Liz made a mixed berry pie to go with my bread pudding for dessert.

The roof was set up with lights and a sound system, along with the barbecue pit and a beer keg. I had what they called an orange crush - fresh squeezed orange juice, orange flavored vodka and Sprite. The three of us kept diluting our drinks with Sprite since they were made with so much vodka - I pretty much drank one and half of them all night (Victoria didn't want to finish hers so I helped her out).

The apartment is about two or three blocks away from Kacey's old place where Lourdes still lives, across the street from this very pretty building off the J line at the Kosciuszko Street stop.

Our hosts shot off a lot of fireworks, and we could see many other going off all around us from other Brooklyn rooftops. We were too far from the Macy's fireworks show on the East River to see much of it over the buildings, but it was fun to see our own up close. Sometimes the wind was so strong it would blow over the cardboard tube launcher after the fuse was lit, so we had a couple go off on the roof, which was a little more excitement than we bargained for.

Saturday I spent most of the day shopping for dresses for my party this weekend. I was very fortunate to find a nice one at The Rack that will probably be the one I'll wear. It's a Adrianna Papell white wrap dress with a Tiffany-inspired stained glass floral pattern. On Sunday I cleaned the apartment in preparation for Chris and Bruce's visit, and then in the evening I joined Liz and Andrea for dinner and to see Andrea's roommate perform in a one-woman play, "The Other Mozart" about the life of Mozart's older sister.

Monday night I met Kacey up on the High Line to celebrate the three-year anniversary of our first meeting there, which was for me the start of our friendship after our meeting on Easter Sunday in 2011. We've never celebrated this anniversary before, but I had a mind to do it because as the years have gone by, I've come to realize what a milestone this event was in my life.

Meeting Kacey was really the start of creating the intentional family I have around me. Along with Puck and combined with meeting and becoming friends with Piper in February that same year at Wicked Faire, they have become my closest friends, and in the process, led me to meet other people who have also become part of my inner circle and many others who touch my life in all sorts of wonderful ways.

So Kacey and I had a nice long visit of about three-and-a-half hours, walking back and forth from 14th Street to the northern terminus at 33rd Street, talking about our history and the events of the past year. She shared her stories about her trip to Prague and Vienna. We talked quite a bit about our past relationships and created an intimate space by kicking off our shoes and facing each other on a bench in the middle of the trees surrounding the flyover bridge. Sometimes when the circumstances warrant, we can be very intense with each other. Other times it's more relaxed. But we continue to find new things about our friendship that makes it unique and nourishing in our lives.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Winter's Tale

I just finished reading Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale for the second time. It's one of those magical books, like Charles de Lint's The Little Country or Keith Donohue's The Stolen Child, that represent the kind of fanciful work that form the cornerstones of my new life. They are examples of beauty and wonder that Tara's influence instilled in me and continues to guide my path.

So it is with some trepidation that I consider the home video release of the movie version of this much-beloved work, starring Colin Firth and Downton Abbey's Jessica Brown Findlay, along with A Beautiful Mind alums Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly. I missed this movie in theaters last year, partly because I wanted to finish re-reading the book first, and I'm glad I did. This is one of the densest, most evocative books I've ever read, and challenges even my prodigious vocabulary to the limit. So the second reading was much more enjoyable than the first time I slogged through it several years ago.

The movie has gotten really awful reviews from critics, and many negative reviews from viewers as well. Liz told me that the word is that the movie ran out of budget and had to be wrapped up hastily, which might account for plotlines being dropped. For a time, I had despaired that I should even try to watch the movie at all, since I would rather not witness this magical story sullied by a poorly executed adaptation.

However, I've been reading the Amazon product page for the Blu Ray of the movie, and the reviews are surprisingly skewed to the positive, with 57 five-star and 21 four-star reviews to just 16 one-star and 5 two-star reviews. And reading some of the positive reviews, I wonder if this is one of those movies that simply got trampled by a mob mentality of negativity.

For example:

I'm not sure why this movie did so poorly in theaters -- bad release timing? critics who came in expecting one thing and got another? -- but it's far more enjoyable than Rotten Tomatoes might lead one to believe. It was hyped as a romance, which it is, but it's more about the power of love in general across generations and how we don't always get the miracles we want, but we sometimes get miracles nonetheless. The performances are moving and the visuals are beautiful. - Michelle Erica Green

Keep in mind, this film is predominantly about Love. Capital L. Love in the highest sense of the word.
Not only the romance that occurs between the two leading characters.
There's more than meets the eye if you look closer. Nothing is without meaning.

Some films may be read like poetry - the smallest nuance being as vital to the whole
as what's blazing on the surface. This one has "layers" of stories within the story.
Some are obvious: the slips and bends of time, the impact of historic places, crossed destinies,
good versus evil, mystery over certainty, the universal longing for love in a world where death
should not triumph. Other aspects are far more secretive and delicate, better left to
individual interpretation.

A person biased against poetry will miss the treasure of the most exquisite poem.
The fault-finding critic will relentlessly find something to pick apart, be it in movie or book.
The particular audience this movie appeals to, the open-hearted viewer, will find
the light and beauty within ~ no matter what anyone else says or doesn't say. 

A touching, deeply memorable film. - Harmony C. Adkins

In a comment to her original review, Ms. Adkins also writes:

Like any movie, it's not for everyone. Even director Akiva Goldsman, in an interview with Vanity Fair, said 17-year-olds would leave the cinema saying "What was that?" Basically, the more you've lived, the more people you've loved & lost, the more thoughtful your perspective, the deeper your emotional experience of life, the more likely you are to find something meaningful in it. 

So given all this, I've reconsidered avoiding the movie and I'm going to give it a try. I'll invite friends to see it with me because I know I have some friends who feel the same way about such works. I have no illusions that it will be a perfect movie, but given all the negative reviews, I just want to approach it with an open mind and an open heart. I have no expectations, but my hope is that I become one of those five-star reviewers who falls under its spell and becomes so captivated by the movie that they feel the need to contradict its many naysayers.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Mischa's Eggplant Saute Recipe

It's been a very nice weekend overall, even though I didn't do much to plan for it. First of all, since so many people have asked me for it, here's my recipe for my Eggplant Saute dip that I made today:

3-4 ribs celery, diced
2 carrots, diced
1/2 large onion, thinly sliced
1 cup cauliflower, chopped
2 tablespoons minced garlic
2 medium eggplants, thickly diced
2 bell peppers, thickly diced (about the size of a quarter)
1/2 cup olive oil
1 lime, juiced
6 oz can tomato paste
3 tablespoons red pepper flakes
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 tablespoon dried oregano
Salt & pepper

1. In a large cast-iron skillet or Dutch oven, heat several tablespoons of olive oil over medium high heat and add vegetables one at a time to keep heat fairly constant. Start with celery and carrots, then peppers and onions, then garlic and cauliflower. Add salt and pepper as you go along to taste. As vegetables reduce, push them to the sides of the skillet and add more oil in the middle before adding eggplant. Add additional oil on top as eggplant cooks.

2. Stir in remaining spices, lime juice and tomato paste and continue to cook until everything is soft and well-blended. Serve on bread, top with Za'atar if available.

Friday night I went straight from Penn Station to the Greene Space to see Irish-American supergroup The Gloaming in concert. It was livecast online and it will be edited for broadcast on New Sounds on WNYC at a future date. But you can see me in the front row in the video, just right of center screen wearing a polka-dot top. It was a terrific concert, and probably the most intimate and hassle-free concert I've ever been to.

Kacey had invited me to a play on Friday night but I couldn't go because of the concert, but we made plans to see a different play on Sunday night. Saturday I went to the movies to use my free guest pass and saw Edge of Tomorrow and Godzilla, and part of The Fault of Our Stars. In the late afternoon Katie M texted me and we tried the Hedwig show lottery together, with no luck. So we went to Schnipper's for dinner and came back to TSMC to watch Shopgirl, a modern romance I've been meaning to show her, since she liked the Before Sunrise trilogy so much. As always we had a wonderfully intimate talk about love and relationships, friendships and subway etiquette.

Sunday I didn't do anything except cook and nap until it was time to meet up with Kacey and Becker for the play, titled "The Feminism of a Soft Merlot (or How the Donkey Got Punched)." I have to say it was the worst play we've ever seen together, and possibly the worst play I've seen in New York, which is surprising considering the talent involved (Diana Oh played one of the leads). The acting was good, but the story was uninteresting and borderline offensive in how it portrayed possessive and territorial monogamous behavior and the lack of agency in its female characters.

However, the evening was not a total waste because we got to hang out together on a walk back to their place, stopping at Trader Joe's and I got to test out a convention for group hugs with them when we said goodnight in front of the IFC Theater: 1) Stand in a circle. 2) Put your left arm up, turn your head to the right. 3) Step forward and embrace to share the love.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Ear candy

I just received a pair of HiFiMan HE-300 home headphones in the mail today, my third major headphone purchase in the last three years. Now I have a Ferrari red leather Phiaton MS-400 set, hooked up to a NuForce uDAC-3 headphone amp for the office, my Bose QC-15 noise cancelling ‘phones for the train, and this set for home. Plus a pair of Altec earbuds for all points in between.

Right out of the box, the HiFi Mans sounded flat and congested, which is the opposite of what a pair of open-backed cans should sound like. Open-backed means that instead of cups that hold all the sound in, these drivers are not sealed around the ear. Sound leaks out, and the effect is similar to speakers in a room where you can hear natural sound in an open environment – the opposite of earbuds. The manual says they need 150 hours of break-in (6 days) so I’m driving them with my Yamaha receiver tuned to the Peter Gabriel station on Pandora. I’m sure they will sound much better after a few days of break-in.

I’ve had headphones since I was little, but I don’t think I’ve ever had three sets of full-size headphones before. It’s mainly a function of circumstances: I work in an open office environment and my primary job is writing, so I need the office set to tune the noise out. I commute by train rather than by car, so the noise-cancelling is a welcome feature. Why don’t I use the Bose in the office? Well, frankly, the Phiatons sound a lot better, especially driven by the NuForce from my laptop. I listen to live concert DVDs all day to help me block out distractions ("Rockin' at work" - Nov. 18, 2011).

The home headphones came from the realization that I can’t get Amazon to stream music over AirPlay to my home receiver. So all the music I can now access with Prime Music I can only play on my mediocre Altec Lansing computer speakers, or via headphones. Since I don’t want to cart my Phiatons back and forth from the office, a set for home made the most sense.

I’m going to date myself a bit here, but I still remember the first set of headphones I fell in love with. I was shopping at a store called Cactus Records and Tapes, a chain of music stores in Houston that now only has one location left, on South Shepherd at Richmond. I used to ride my bicycle to the store to buy records and one day they had a curious box sitting on the counter with a pair of headphones hooked up to it. It was a vertically loading CD player, one of the first ever sold in the US. This was back when there was only one tiny bin of classical music CDs – packaged in cardboard longboxes so they would fit into record bins – in a whole store of records and tapes.

Curiosity piqued, I put on the Koss PRO-4X headphones and pushed play. From a velvety black silence, the London Symphony Orchestra exploded with the first bars of John Williams’ overture to Star Wars. There could be arguably no better introduction to digital music for a young person raised on the acoustic limitations and surface noise of records and tapes. I remember hearing the triangle roll very prominently – I wager if I were to hear the same setup and early digital recording today, it would sound horrible – but that was impressive to my young, untrained ears. I was hooked.

I later convinced my dad, a classical music fan, to buy a Technics CD player for the home stereo – we were one of the first people in our circle of friends to have one. And of course I had to have those Koss headphones as well, with piezo-electric tweeters capable of reproducing from 10 Hz to 40 kHz, far beyond the range of human hearing. This was back in the day when such lofty claims were difficult to enforce.

I used the Koss phones until the earpads literally fell off – they weren’t that well-made. I’ve always coveted a pair of Sennheisers, but they were always a little outside of what I wanted to spend at the time. When I was really young, I even played around with a crude wireless headset that used a loop antenna to broadcast an audio signal - meaning I ran hundreds of feet of cable around my house so I could listen to music anywhere within that loop. My brother had a pair of classic AKG 240s that I liked, but I mostly made do with smaller portable headphones in the age of the Walkman, the mp3 player (I bought my first unbranded one in Hong Kong on a family trip) and finally the iPod. I had a string of JVC and Sony headphones (some of which got passed down to Puck to be used up and destroyed) before I finally spent some bucks for the Bose headphones.

The most interesting pair of headphones was in my last full-blown home theater in Houston, a wireless set of off-ear Sonys that used an infrared transmitter decoding a Dolby Digital signal and simulating it using a multi-driver open-air earphone. I had two headsets so two people could watch and listen to movies in surround sound in almost complete silence, yet still hear any interruptions. I also found that one overseas and I can't find anything like it today. I think today's headphone junkies prefer to block out external sounds with fully enclosed earcups.

Although I disdain Bose as a brand (the joke when I used to sell stereos was “No highs, no lows, must be a Bose”) their noise cancellation circuitry in their headphones is impressive. I’ve invited many of my co-workers to try them on, just to see the wide-eyed reaction when they realize how quiet it can be if you eliminate noise, as if you were in a recording studio. And while the fidelity is adequate for casual iPod listening, the actual musical performance is just mediocre. The best feature is that the music comes from that inky black silence afforded by the noise-cancelling, just like my first experience with the compact disc many years ago.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Tony Awards 2014

Friday night I finally got to meet up with my dear friend Agnieszka and meet her boyfriend Mike at their new home in Cranbury. It's a gorgeous historical house with three bedrooms and one-and-a-half baths, but they plan to renovate it into a four bedroom, two-and-a-half bath someday. They've only been in the house for three weeks so it's still a work in progress, but it's already a lovely space with much of Agnieszka's collection of vintage bric-a-brac on display. Even the modern gas range is modeled after an old-fashioned coal-burning unit.

Since I was so late getting back to the city, I stopped by the MMMM and saw Kiwi for a bit before making my way home.

Saturday Liz and I met up for dinner at The Counter to have some made-to-order hamburgers and catch up - it's been nearly a month since she and Josh came over for Her at TSMC. Then we walked down to Urban Stages Theater and saw The Tragedy of Dandelion, my second time to sit through this marvelous three-hour play. We chatted with Joan and Bruce, and with Kacey and Azizi after the show. Liz also knows the playwright, Duncan, whom I met briefly at the PIT once.

Afterwards, Liz and I walked up to TSMC to meet Josh, stopping at a few souvenir shops so Liz could buy some prizes for her Tony Awards viewing party on Sunday. The three of us met up at the apartment and chatted for a while until it was time for them to get home.

Sunday I had a whirlwind day of three events in a row. First was Lori's singing recital on East 87th Street, then I went home directly after to make peanut sesame noodles for Liz's party. I packed up the noodles and went out to Williamsburg for Classic Album Sundays, which was playing The Cure's bestselling album, "Disintegration."

Then I zoomed all the way back up to East 88th Street for the Tony Awards party and got there right in the middle of Hugh Jackman's opening number. Guapo was suitably dressed for the occasion:

Even though I was in a room full of theater nerds, I managed to pick 10 correct winners, second behind the other Michelle (17) and Liz (15), winning me a souvenir shot glass for a prize. Liz also made a tasty shepherd's pie, and there were Oreo cheesecake cupcakes and an assortment of cookies from Smackery's (the bacon maple cookies were my favorite!).

Monday night Piper came over and we had dinner at the Playwright Tavern on 45th and 7th Ave and watched The Blues Brothers at TSMC. She also brought me some household things she was giving away on Facebook, and we also had a nice catchup (it's been about six weeks since our last visit, although we chat online often).

Tonight is my recovery night before Katie B's event on Thursday and meeting up with Angel and Lillian on Friday. I thought I was getting sick yesterday, but it seems to have gone away now, although my allergies are still troublesome. Judging from the noises in the office, I'm not the only one who's suffering though.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Finding courage

Last Tuesday night’s Open Love NY meeting was our best-attended ever, with about 65 people give or take, most of them fans of our speaker. She’s a blogger and contributor to Psychology Today, and she presented a lot of data and research about different relationship styles and the differences between sexes and orientations.

When I opened the meeting on Tuesday, I rattled off the usual privacy and safe space rules, and then I went off-script and rambled a bit on my thoughts about the Memorial Day shooting in UCSB, and how it relates to my passion for the national polyamory movement. I didn't have anything prepared, just an idea that probably came out of my mouth a lot better than it sounded in my head because when I finished I got a nice ovation from the audience. So I resolved to put the ideas down and this post on my public blog is the result. It’s gotten positive reviews on Facebook and it’s slowly spreading its way around the Internet.

Thursday Natalia and I finished up Season Four of Downton Abbey, and it was a marvelous ending, especially compared to the ending of Season Three. We had dinner at Larb Ubol, a Thai restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen, and we ordered a grilled tilapia, which is the first time in years for both of us to eat a whole fish.

Friday night I went with a group of friends to see Cabaret, which Puck has been raving about since they saw it. My friend Beth had four table tickets, so I got Lori and Andrea to buy in to see the show. We met up at a Vietnamese place called Cha Pa's Noodles and Grill around the corner from the theater for a bite, and then rushed over when it started to drizzle. The show was amazing and entertaining (Lori sang “Maybe This Time” from the show, and Cole Porter’s “So In Love” at her last recital I attended), although I felt Michelle Williams was a bit of a weak spot in the cast. Alan Cumming, who played Nightcrawler in X2: X-Men United and was the pansexual emcee of the show, was terrific, as advertised.

However, the night was not lacking in star power because after the show Andrea spotted fellow X-Man star Hugh Jackman sitting at the table way in front of us near the stage and getting a stage tour as we all looked on. The night was also not lacking in drama from the audience, because during the quiet breakup scene a HUGE row erupted from the mezzanine as a couple got into a loud, nasty fight and literally screamed at each other all the way out the door without any regard for the performance going on. Andrea looked at me and whispered, “Is this part of the show?” and I shook my head. We all gave kudos to the actors for staying focused and in the scene while this kerfuffle was happening.

Saturday I had my picnic in the park with Illona. We had near-perfect weather and we had a long, relaxed conversation about friends, communities, religion and relationships. We discovered a fancy grocery store going from the park to the subway so I picked up a few things. This is a really good walk to do any evening when the weather is nice. There's even some art sculptures along the way, but they have a tendency to get moved around.

Saturday night Puck came to visit from Boston. I was working at my desk with my earphones on (because of all the sirens outside) when they came in, so they completely startled me and I let out a scream like I’ve never done before! And that is why I don’t watch horror movies. We continued our reading of "Matilda" before bed, and the next morning we went to Ess-a-Bagel for brunch. We came home and watched The Grandmaster before heading up to City Center to meet their family, who was taking them to a performance that afternoon before they head back to Boston. I took a leisurely stroll around Midtown before ending up back home for the rest of the evening.

Monday night was Shotz, but none of the usual crowd could make it. I had to work late, so I’m fortunate not to have made plans for the early show. I went straight from the train station to the theater for the 8:30 pm show – the theme was “It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s SHOTZ!” The conditions were 1) Something is in peril; 2) Someone has a secret identity; and 3) The line “Kapow” must be used.

My favorite for kitsch was the first one, about a pacifist superhero named Azure Mist being betrayed by the police commissioner who wants a more aggressive approach to crime. For laughs, the second play was the funniest, about two zebras, one gay, one lesbian, being asked to breed by their ingratiating zookeeper, who gets his comeuppance from a pair of undercover PETA activists.

The fourth play was an audience participation piece where people were asked to come up and “do something brave” with a cast member. The first pair did a shot of liquor, the second pair exchanged shirts (interestingly, they were both wearing black lace bras), the third pair exchanged a passionate kiss (two women, btw) and the fourth audience member got her face painted green.

The point was that we can all have courage in our daily lives (they all put on crusader masks at the end) and it wasn't lost on me since I feel like such a coward now for not raising my hand. I need to be better at letting art inspire me and not being just an observer all the time.