Friday, December 23, 2011

Happy Holidays: Always the Right Thing to Say

Soho shop window

Plenty of people hate the phrase "happy holidays," but after four years of living in New York, I've learned it's by far the best and most accurate thing to say unless you know someone well. There's simply too many people who don't recognize December 25 the way I do.

Perhaps they celebrate Hanukkah. Or perhaps the Orthodox Christmas in early January. Or maybe they celebrate nothing at all. But everyone -- even those in the latter group -- recognized New Year's Eve. "Happy holidays" is always correct.

Is using "happy holidays" one tool in a "war on Christmas"? I don't think so. There's still plenty of lights twinkling throughout the city, and it's difficult to walk half a mile without encountering a vendor selling trees on the sidewalk. There's no doubt it's Christmas in the city, no matter what you do -- or don't -- celebrate.

Pay a Visit will return Wednesday, January 4. Merry Christmas. Happy New Year. Or happy holidays.

Rockefeller Center tree, 2010

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Diane's Top Books of 2011

After a few nights of endless typing, I finally had my spreadsheet.

Since mid-June 2004 I've kept several sheets of loose-leaf paper on a clipboard, neatly recording each book I've read, plus the author and the month I finished it. For nearly the last five years, I've read exactly eight books per month. Before then, it was sometimes more, sometimes, less.

Even with the handwritten list, it was difficult to keep track of what I had and hadn't read. I once reserved Washington Irving's "A History of New York" from the library, only to discover when I picked it up that the cover looked extremely familiar. Sure enough, when I took a closer look at my list, I realized I already read it -- less than two years before, in 2009.

So I now have a neatly organized spreadsheet, searchable by title, author and month. I still have my clipboard because, honestly, that's often easier to scan. And that's what I used to look over the 96 books I'll have read by the end of the year.

I noticed a theme this year: new books. In the past year or two I've made a concentrated effort to read new bestsellers and critically acclaimed books, ones that might be the classics of tomorrow. In 2011 I still fit in classic authors like Charlotte Bronte, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, but my fastest reads and favorite books were from living authors:
You may also remember that in July I read what I then considered my eight favorite books. While the entire list didn't live up to my expectations, it did convince me that I should be rereading many of the books I checked out 10 or 15 years ago. To start with, I reread "1984" in October, and I have "Brave New World" waiting for me on the shelf. I also want to dig up some Edith Wharton next year.

Do you have suggestions on what I should read in 2012? Please let me know in the comments!

Or are you looking for more books to read? Check out my favorites from 2010 and 2009. Or ask me for tips. After all, I now have a spreadsheet of 700+ suggestions.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Origami Tree at the Natural History Museum

Everyone knows about the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center, but you can escape the crowds and see a much more unconventional tree by visiting the American Museum of Natural History's origami tree.

About 500 origami objects decorate the tree. Look closely and you'll find insects and dinosaurs, as well as animals from the zoo and under the sea. Personally, I like the sparkly silver stars that seem to float around the branches.

The tree is on display this season through Jan. 2, 2012 in the museum's Grand Gallery.

Friday, December 16, 2011

My First "Nutcracker," My First Ballet

How any little girl goes to the ballet and doesn't leave wanting to be a famous ballerina herself, I'll never know. I left my first ballet Saturday with dreams of pirouettes and plies, and I'm 30.

And starting out with "The Nutcracker," as I did, would make it even tougher on a girl. After all, a good quarter of the dancers on stage are young enough that they may still believe in Santa. It all looks so accessible. That is, until you see the grace and discipline behind the art, and then see the world-class adult ballerinas on stage with them, with the same qualities amplified.

New York City Ballet's performance of "The Nutcracker" was amazing. Tchaikovsky's score was magical, Balanchine's choreography beautiful and the costumes sublime. I left Lincoln Center convinced that I've simply wasted the last four years in New York -- not to mention the previous eight years in Columbus -- never having been to the ballet.

"The Nutcracker" was a perfect ballet for a newbie like me, there more for the pixie dust than the technique (although plenty of the latter was on display as well). Paul had seen the show as a boy and remembered bits and pieces, but we were both surprised by how much of the music we recognized --more from mayonnaise commercials and the like in my case than anything more than a passing familiarity with classical music.

Needless to say, I enjoyed myself thoroughly. I'm not ready to get season tickets, but I am ready to return to the ballet, and soon.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Paul's Blue Ribbon Birthday

Blue Ribbon is one of a long list of restaurants that we'd always sort of been meaning to try but never quite got around to.

Paul has friends who rave about the restaurant, and he was more eager that I to see what all the fuss was about. That made Blue Ribbon his obvious choice for the birthday-meal-he-gets-to-choose-without-any-complaints-from-me.

And so on a recent Saturday night we found ourselves at the door to the original Blue Ribbon restaurant in Soho. (The restaurant has several spin-offs in both Manhattan and Brooklyn, some specializing in sushi and baked goods.) The space was small -- there couldn't have been room for many more than 50 diners -- and every table was occupied when we arrived at 9 p.m., and the bar/waiting area was packed. Two hour wait, we were told. We could go to a nearby bar for an hour and then check back in. Maybe something would open up.

We did as we were told, but we still had an hour wait when we returned. We were seated just a few minutes before 11. This is the second year in a row that Paul chose a restaurant for his birthday that doesn't accept reservations for parties of two. I sincerely hope this doesn't become an annual tradition.

The birthday boy chose the appetizer -- beef marrow and oxtail marmalade. It started the evening's trend: fatty, rich foods. A white glob of marrow the size of a pencil eraser went a long way paired with the meaty richness of the marmalade, sprinkled with sea salt and layered on toast. (Apologies -- the restaurant was dim, so the photo quality is low.)

Paul ordered the fried chicken. It was good, he said, but the accompanying collard greens stood out for their almost crunchy texture. I got the roasted duck club sandwich. It was too fatty for my taste, but the raisin nut bread the sandwich was made with was delicious, and the side of crispy sweet potato fries was amazing.

So while Blue Ribbon isn't my type of restaurant, I can understand what makes it a favorite -- decadent comfort foods that make you feel warm and sleepy, just like on Thanksgiving afternoon. Unfortunately, we were eating this meal at midnight, a time when I normally already feel warm and sleepy. We left at 1 a.m., full and thirsty.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Home vs. Apartment: Cold Weather Edition

Sometimes I love living in an apartment. Earlier this fall was one of those times.

That's when water started seeping into the bathroom, just in front of the toilet where the wall meets the floor. FYI: That's not the part of apartment living that I love. Please continue.

After the bathroom rug got soaked once, I replaced it with sections of the newspaper to try to track where the water was coming from. For a few days the bathroom felt (and looked) a little like the bottom of a birdcage.

The water definitely wasn't coming from the ceiling, and the toilet didn't seem to be leaking either. We thought maybe it was caused by the sink or the dishwasher in the kitchen, on just the other side of the wall. However, sometimes the floor would be completely dry even after we washed the dishes.

We couldn't figure it out. But then, we didn't have to. We called our landlord, who called a plumber, and voila. Problem solved. (And if you're curious, it wasn't the toilet, sink or dishwasher causing it. It stemmed from a problem elsewhere in the building.)

But sometimes I definitely miss having a home of my own. More particularly, I miss having control of a thermostat.

In this apartment, we're at the whim of the landlord and the outside temperature -- he's programmed the heat to come on when it reaches a certain degree outside. I don't know what that degree is, but I do know it's too cold. And the heat's sporadic. Sometimes it'll kick on just before I get up in the morning, raising the indoor temperature to a lovely 73 degrees before I leave for work. But when I get home, it'll be 66 degrees, with no sign that the radiators have been on for a long time.

So there's pros and cons. I sometimes wish again for the control that homeownership provides, but it's nice not having to worry about repairs and home values, too. But then again, since we still own our house in central Ohio, it often seems we have the worst of both worlds.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Paul's Oatmeal Stout vs. The World

Remember in June when I wrote about Paul entering his first Knights of Bruklyn homebrew competition? He didn't win that one, but I failed to note on this blog that he won second prize at a subsequent contest in October. That meant he was permitted to enter the Knights' annual competition open only to the winners and people's choice awardees of the previous three contests. Wednesday, Paul's birthday, was the big night. He takes it from here ...
My entry into the Knights of Bruklyn's annual finals at Union Hall in Park Slope was an oatmeal stout, and I think that it turned out pretty well. I might have spent longer making the label, however, than actually brewing the beer. This was the first time I made a custom label for one of my beers, so I feel like I passed some kind of important milestone in a homebrewer's life.
Paul's label: Obama drinking a stout
I was very proud of my label and used three different photo editing programs over the span of many, many  hours (ask Diane) to create it. I wish I had called the beer "Oatbama" since that would have been the obvious choice with the label's blue and red color scheme from Obama's famous "Hope" poster. When my friend Boris suggested this after I entered it under the name "Stalwart Oatmeal Stout," it was a real forehead-slapping moment.

I've always wondered what it's like when regular bar patrons happen upon our homebrew tastings. It must feel like walking into a meeting of a secret society with our "Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade"-style fezes. (I think that's the plural for fez, or maybe it's fezei or something like that.)

The beer didn't win, but I really appreciate that so many people came out to cheer me on and try some beer. I am happy to announce that my brewing and running friend from the neighborhood, Mike, won the people's choice award, which scored him a free bike. The people's choice is an informal vote by anyone who attends, though, so I think that he may have used some Russian-style democracy techniques ....  

Paul and friends
Sadly, neither Mike nor myself won the grand prize, which was a private dinner for 30 friends at Union Hall featuring your beer as brewed by Sixpoint Brewery in Brooklyn. I have to hand it to the club -- they recruit actual brewers from local breweries to decide the winners (they were from Sixpoint and Kelso Brewing this time), so there's no concern of ballot stuffing for the top prize.

I'm looking forward to the contests next year and will continue to invite everyone out for free beer, beef jerky and local cheese. Thank you to those who came out to cheer me on. And to those who didn't, if free beer, cheese and beef jerky don't entice you to come to Brooklyn, I'm not sure anything will.

Yes, Paul spent waaaaaaaaaay too long making the label for his beer. Read his own blog at Presidents by the Book.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Paul's Birthday + Making Friends

Happy birthday to my husband, Paul, who turns 33 today. (Yup, born on Pearl Harbor Day. I've frequently wondered whether a couple of generations ago that was the equivalent of having a 9/11 birthday nowadays.)

This is his fifth birthday we've celebrated in New York, and it's interesting to see how things have changed. I don't remember what we did for his first birthday here, but it must have been just the two of us. We'd only been in Brooklyn two months at that point and knew barely a soul. Even the next year, his 30th, we went on our own private birthday pub crawl. We were friendly with people by this point, but not necessarily friends.

Making friends has always been tough for me, and I suspect the same thing of Paul. I have a handful of good friends, mostly from college and the newspaper where I used to work, and it took a while to add any New Yorkers to that list. I considered it a big accomplishment when we could fill our apartment for our first (and now annual) winter party.

Gradually, however, we've picked up friends here and there -- mostly my coworkers and his, friends of friends and Paul's running buddies. Now we have a nice circle that leaves me just as busy as I want -- certainly not out every night (or every week), but with options. And those options include a happy hour drink or even just some witty banter on Twitter.

But back to Paul's birthday. We'll be spending this evening in a way that's completely different than in birthdays past -- cheering Paul's homebrew on to a victory in the finals of the Knights of Bruklyn competition. He won second place in a preliminary competition a couple of months ago and will be duking it out tonight, surrounded by a whole new set of friends.

Monday, December 5, 2011

A Visit to Central Park's Belvedere Castle

Central Park is easy to get lost in, and never more so than if you're new to New York or just here for a visit. Even after four years in New York, there are still nooks and crannies that I haven't explored.

Now, however, I have my favorite Central Park spots. Toward the top of that list is Belvedere Castle.

We came across Belvedere Castle our first spring in New York. Then (as we often still do now) we explored Central Park almost at random, finding the closest park entrance to whatever subway line we happened to be on, then choosing a winding path and turning right or left whenever the mood struck. And that's how we found Belvedere Castle.

From one angle, the castle rises majestically on a cliff above a body of water. From the opposite way -- the way we first came upon it -- it's more abrupt. Path, then pow -- a castle.

It's not a castle in the traditional sense, unless all you need for a castle is a turret. It's certainly not fit for a king -- although it is bigger than many New York City apartments. The most appealing part of Belvedere Castle, however, is the view from the top. Two spiral staircases drop you off on the first and second floors, providing lovely views of the park and the city skyline.

Fun fact: Belvedere Castle is also the location where Central Park's thermometer is read for the National Weather Service.

It might be more fun to come across Belvedere Castle as a surprise, but it's pretty easy to get to as a Central Park destination, too. It's in the middle of the park at 79th Street, easily and equally accessible from both the Upper West Side and Upper East Side.

View from second floor, looking onto first floor balcony and just outside the entrance

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Freedom Trail: Bunker Hill and Old Ironsides

Boston's Freedom Trail ends with a walk across the Charlestown Bridge and visits to two of its most dramatic sites: the USS Constitution and the obelisk commemorating the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Tours of the frigate -- probably better known as Old Ironsides -- are free, although you do need to show a form of identification, go through security and get your hand stamped. Tourists are allowed onto the boat in large groups and can wander the deck at will. Tours are also conducted below deck, but we headed off to Bunker Hill instead.

The 221-foot-tall Bunker Hill obeslisk looks exactly like a miniature Washington Monument. When we arrived, we realized you can go to the top. The catch: there's no elevator, only 294 steps. I was breathless by the time we reached the top but was rewarded with views in four directions. The space, however, was little larger than a hot tub. I won't be making that climb again anytime soon.

The red line of the Freedom Trail leading to Bunker Hill

Walking the Freedom Trail's 2.5 miles took us about 5 hours, but that included long stops for lunch and shopping along the way. We took our time, leisurely falling into place behind the hundreds, if not thousands, of other tourists making the pilgrimage on this Thanksgiving weekend. It was a lovely way to spend the day. We saw parts of Boston we never would have wandered into if it wasn't for the red line winding along the sidewalk telling us where to go.


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