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New York State of Mind

I should have known. Should have put 2 and 2 together and figured out that it would be an incredibly difficult time to be in my favourite city.  But no, we watched the Donald on TV,  delivering his typical load of bombast and bull to the United Nations, and then blithely got on a plane to NYC, never connecting the speech with the City until we landed.  And then the cab driver at La Guardia told us, “Well I can get you near (to our hotel, the venerable Algonquin) but I cannot guarantee I can get you to the door”.  Oh sh*%t.

That was one of a series of long, expensive cab rides that marked our holiday. (Yes, the subway is an option, but not if your beloved is dying in the heat.  And it was sweltering.)  I swear that every black Escalade ever made in the US, (and every high class hooker) was in NYC last week!

The trip was ostensibly to celebrate Ben’s 73rd birthday.  In truth, I picked the date because that was when I could secure tickets to my favourite all-time musical, “Hello Dolly”.   I get shivers when I think of Streisand in all of her glory, standing at the top of the stairs of the fictional “Harmonia Gardens”, looking down at all of the waiters who gazed up adoringly.   Of course, there was Louis Armstrong, singing out a greeting in his trademark raspy voice. Most adults are shaped by the music of their pre-teen or teens years,  and of course, I had my share of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and Queen. (Bob your head to the music of Bohemian Rhapsody if you can relate 🙂 But the movie musical “Hello Dolly”,  released in 1969, was my particular touchstone.

And what made it so compelling was that “Dolly” was being played by another musical icon of mine:  Bette Midler!  The mermaid in the wheelchair with the sly grin,  who was the queen of the Continental Bath house in New York, had graduated to respectability with movies like “The Rose” and saccharine songs like “The Wind Beneath my Wings”.  Blehh. (Just my own view)

The crowd that lined up for the performance certainly was more Rose than Bathhouse.   Silver rinses everywhere.  And the wheelchair line took forever!  (I keep telling Ben that he needs to get a collapsable cane for just such events!) But perhaps there were some subversive souls underneath the pearls and twinsets.  Only saw a couple of gay couples, which surprised me actually.

Regardless, the Divine Miss M. was worth every inconvenience:  we were 5 rows back stage right, and I knew all the words (Before the Parade Passes By, It only takes a Moment, Elegance, and of course “Hello Dolly”) but I was too overwhelmed to sing along.  One of the highlights was when she had a senior moment during the singing of “Parade”, and had to ask the conductor for the next stanza:   she turned back to the audience, shrugged her shoulders and said “I am old, these things happen”, and proceeded to sit cross legged on the stage, in her big flouncy costume, singing the song from the beginning, as herself I like to think, and not the character, with pathos and genuine feeling, until the end when she walked herself up gingerly, (always the performer) It brought the house down. (Ben thinks it might have been all part of her act but whatever) The place erupted when her voice reached a crescendo and the marching band appeared and the conductor threw her one of those big swirling batons for the big finale.  It almost eclipsed the big showpiece song “Hello Dolly”,  when she comes slowly down the stairs in a fabulous red dress and even more fabulous feather headdress. I will always love Streisand in the movie but

this was so so much better.  Oh, and David Hyde Pierce was good too.  Looking frail though as Ben observed.

The story line is corny and the dialogue is hackneyed but the staging, costumes, and dancing were just so visually stunning.  Had me in in tears.  I will remember this experience for a long time.  And Ben will too! And it was his birthday on Sunday after all😎.**
For those interested in neuroscience here is a short video which uses Swan Lake to illustrate the different aspects (music, story, movement, social interaction) in the relationship between live performance and the brain.    https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2017/lifestyle/your-brain-on-art/?utm_term=.e05bf1a0bbdf
 ** To help him celebrate, we did some consignment shopping for me 🙂   I am fortunate to have a man who loves to pick out clothes and shoes/boots for me! It says something about my stage in life that after I tried on a stunning Chanel jacket, I decided to put it back:  it fit perfectly, but I don’t go to places anymore that require such a formal article of clothing, and I am not one of those “ladies who lunch” in that way.  Good to know about oneself I think.

You don’t know John. Neither did we, really. We were the fortunate couple that bought the San Miguel Mexico home of John and Elaine McLeod 6 years ago. Ours was the last home they built here. And naturally, we think it’s the best: the culmination of 24 years of designing and building homes in our lovely colonial mountain town. They had been drawn to San Miguel from Sarasota Florida, where they had lived, we presume, as a happily married “second time” around couple. She is an artist and a beautiful woman, who had adorned her home with a “painterly” eye. One of the first gifts that I bought for my husband Ben was one of her large oil paintings that was hanging beside the downstairs fireplace when we were shown the house.  I thought it belonged right where it was, and made a secret deal with John to keep it from being loaded on the truck headed to Taos New Mexico.  When guests admire our home, I acknowledge Elaine for the paint colours & furniture we inherited: to John goes the credit for the gracious, well proportioned design.

We spoke briefly and cordially with them for the first couple of years. While we were waiting for the house to close, John generously oversaw the construction of our lap pool with an admirable attention to detail. He came in on time and on budget,  treating us like real clients, sending us photos of the work in progress every Friday morning.  I think that he just liked to build things. And he likely knew that this might be his last project.
Have you ever wondered what the sellers do with “your” money on closing: we were happy to learn that the McLeods had returned to the boating world, investing in an ocean going luxury power cruiser that roared down the Atlantic coast. He had been a sailor, like Ben, but the demands of that sport began to weigh. I imagine him standing tall behind the console, hand on the controls, eye on the horizon, sporting his trademark ear to ear grin as he pushed the throttle forward.
On our first day back this July, we learned that John McLeod had died. A heart attack but the cancer had returned. It put a pall on our evening and dampened our usual pleasure in our return to our special Mexican home. We recovered some the next day, and I am sure that tomorrow will be brighter still. We will remember him through the elegant proportions of the outdoor sala, the exquisite detail around the ceilings and the grand cantera fireplace in our living room. A fitting and much loved memorial for a kind and talented man.

Actually George, it was me, last week, butt in the air, head in the euonymus, fiercely yanking out the rampant Bishop’s Weed.  Recently, I have been volunteering with the Garden Guild of St. Jude’s Anglican Church, in Oakville.  After an unsuccessful fight with The Dreaded Weed last year (it deserves to be capitalized for its sheer mendacity),  I inquired if we might embrace its virtues and consider it just an overly aggressive ground cover.  I was greeted with horrified looks. (Truly, I jest:  there is a gentle camaraderie among the members of the Guild.)  Bishop’s Weed kills plants that we plant. And that is a universally understood definition of gardening:  man imposing his will on nature.  For what is a weed, but a plant that is growing somewhere that it is not wanted!

I do not have much of a garden at our town-home in Oakville:  my back yard consists of paving stones and a lovely big fountain that would not be out of place in the centre of an Italian village! But I have a need to get my hands in the earth, and the Garden Guild fulfills that yearning for a connection with the soil and the plants that can be coaxed from it.

Gardening is wonderful hobby for many reasons: beyond the exercise and cathartic benefits of weeding, there is the constant planning, learning, designing, selecting and then of course, the actual work of hauling them to your car trunk and getting them into the well tilled wet ground unscathed. Mix with daily or weekly tending and you have a source of satisfaction, pride and wonder at the perfection of nature.  Work may be hell, your kids drive you mad, and your house a mess, but every spring, the flower of the clematis vine is reliably, consistently, and apparently without effort, beautiful.

Time passes quickly in the garden.  I never seem to get everything done, but that is also the attraction.  The garden is always there, and with some attention, it always seems to get better.  The cycle of the seasons is of course reflected in the garden, and while it does mean another birthday marked, I can feel productive and useful, rather than just older.   Small rewards;  the smiles on the faces of those that pass by and wonder at the beauty of the summer roses.  There are memorials in the garden.  I almost ripped one out before knowing what the little markers meant.  A pink carpet rose in this garden is a tribute to someone’s wife and mother:  even if her family has forgotten it exists,  I take special care.
My parents live in Northern Ontario, and are passionate gardeners.  When I was a child, every fall we would pour over seed catalogs like they were the “Sears Christmas Wish Book”.  Remember that 300 page door stopper? My mother and I sighed over the more exotic treasures of the garden, like rhododendrons and azaleas, meant for climate zones that did not suffer extended periods of below zero weather, snow and ice.   I wondered at her refusal to concede to bitter nature:  in our crooked, barely upright, DIY greenhouse, she grows bountiful crops of sugar sweet cherry tomatoes (started from seed of course),  nasturtiums to garnish the plate, and tiny, delicate Alpine strawberries.    Can someone’s character be defined by their garden?  If so, here is my mother:  determined, optimistic and a lover of flavour as well as beauty.
My father is a farmer’s son.  His focus is on turning our oversized lot into a miniature experimental farm, filled with hardy vegetable plants, and every year, a new variety or two.  Yellow Gold potatoes and Peaches & Cream corn, were commonplace at our dining table at least a decade before you put them into your shopping cart at Loblaws.  He still strolls amid the summer rows, snapping the beans and opening the pea pods.  I can remember an ever hopeful pet rabbit from next door, hopping along beside him.  Here is my father:  always thinking, always reading, always taking care of his family.

Garden centres are one of my favourite forms of retail therapy, right alongside any kind of grocery store.  I walk around in a daze, overwhelmed by the colour, the fragrance, the possibility.  That too, is what gardening gives:  a belief in the outcome, however improbable, that your garden will look like those contained in the glossy pages of a catalog.  I read an article in the Times recently that suggested that what ails depressives is not to be found in past trauma, but in an inability to plan for or imagine the future.

I cannot imagine anyone being depressed, who also gardens.

I am attaching a bunch of photos from the recent garden sale:  it is the major fund raising event for the Garden Guild, and as usual, it was well attended.  Oakvillians love their gardens. If you live nearby and would like to join the Guild, I know that you would be welcome.  You give one morning a week and you get back so much from the knowledgeable members who are eager to help and share.  All you need bring is your own gardening gloves:  all else is there.

Recently, Ben & I were fortunate enough to be invited to a destination wedding and this time, the destination was San Miguel!  The “Again” in the title of this Post refers to the magical meeting of Ben and I, just over seven years ago.  We were in a roof-top hotel bar when we first entered each other’s orbit,  not too far from where we now enjoy the winter months. (He was going on a dinner date with the owner of that hotel but that’s another story. Another Post perhaps?)

This bride and groom are a sophisticated couple from Toronto, who decided to celebrate their nuptials in the company of their many friends who “winter” here. They also decided to give themselves up to their eager San Miguel party planners and just go with it. In greeting the beautiful but clearly nervous bride at the warmup party, I said that she had the “look of a deer in the headlights”.  Her eyes darting around, she said it was because she did not know what the hell was going on. Or what would happen next.

What happened next was a traditional wedding parade around the Jardin, the central town square.  Well, the parade was not really “traditional” in the sense of other wedding traditions like long white dresses, walks down the aisle and “something old and something new”.  This tradition involves large quantities of tequila being drunk by increasingly tipsy participants following the bride and groom and a white burro ( how often do you read those three nouns together in one sentence?)down and around cobblestone streets for the better part of an hour. As is usual in San Miguel, high heels were only for the fashion foolish!

By the end of the parade, I suspected from the happy silly looks on their faces, that she and her husband-to-be in two days, (the actual ceremony was later) were enchanted with the town, the huge paper mâché “Mohigangas” puppets of a bride and groom that twirled around them*, and of course, grateful to their planner friends.  Even the burro got a big kiss on the nose!

*A mojiganga (pronounced: mo-he-gang-ga) is a giant puppet also used as sculpture or a grand scale design element for a large event. The head and bust are made of paper mâché which is then mounted on a tall supporting A-frame structure. They twirl madly and swoop their huge heads down on the unsuspecting:  quite startling actually!

It is San Miguel in January, and no, it is not literally “hot”:  that day is usually in June, when you cannot find a sliver of shade outside and even when just walking, you start to pant like an overheated Basset Hound.  Not pretty.

No, this is a figurative “hot,” because in January we have the annual Chili CookOff!  Five years ago, our local competition was actually on the official Chili Society  circuit.  Just like with the Barbecue Competitions that crisscross the United States all summer, there are rules!  Judging considerations include good chili flavour, texture of the meat, consistency, blend of spices, aroma and color.  At the Chili CookOff’s of yore,  a large hotel opened up its extensive grounds for booths with multiple international competitors, a huge VIP tent sponsored by a well known local watering hole, stages with live bands rocking the town, and a real live rodeo!  Cowboy hats, embellished boots, big hair and shiny silver belt buckles ruled.  All of the San Miguel characters came out to party, and the people watching was spectacularly strange.  Sadly, the hotel decided that one day of fun could not fund the damage to their lawns. And so this annual tradition became one of those “Do you remember when…..?” stories.

Fast forward to 2017 and the CookOff is ON!  Not on the Chili Society circuit, and on a much smaller scale, but it was still colourful, wacky, tasty and crazy as only San Miguel can be.

The chili on offer was not that aggressive “5-alarm” style which burns your face and tongue and sees you heading for the nearest bucket of water, beer, or  better yet, milk.  Milk actually works to calm the ferocious bite of the capsicum but frankly, milk at a Chili Cook Off?  Better to stick to beer.  Drink enough, and either the pain or you will pass(out).

These dishes were made to suit the chili discerning palates of the local ex-pat crowd, many of whom hail from Texas and parts south.  Garnishes of fresh coriander, cheddar cheese, or white or green onion  were also supplied by most.

And the Winner ….drumroll please…..Los Chili Dawgs.  Behind the win (for both People’s Choice and the all important Judge’s Choice) was the recipe from our friend Sharon, Glenn Griffin’s talented wife,  and months of culinary trials by Glenn (aka Don Day) and his Californian buddy, Chef Mark.  They said that the recipe had many, many steps:  the final product was multilayered and complex, with just a slight burn behind the rich chili flavour. It was a riff on a classic bowl of “Texas Red,” rich and thick, with chunks of beef and no beans.

 

 

Our friends’ chili was truly the best, which is good, because I would hate to be accused of  bias in a food review. I would have dived into the serving dish but it was too darn small. Licking the dish was not an option either:  just too many spectators.  And Glenn got there before me 🙂

How do I know?  Because just this morning, my fingers walked passed by the traditional eye liner pencils, in boring colours of black/brown, brown, chestnut brown, and gasp, taupe,  to settle on a bright, shiny, emerald green. A colour I would never ever wear in the staid surroundings of my April to October world of Oakville, Ontario. All right, it’s really not much of a statement, but in my world of carefully curated outfits & makeup for women of a certain age, it is bordering on blasphemy! Or at least merits a raised eye-brow from the ladies at the Club.

Our round of social events in San Miguel once again leaves us breathless: outdoor market on Saturday morning, horse show in the afternoon, birthday dinner in the evening. We closed the day with a set from our favourite crooner, “Johnny Favourite”, Newfoundland’s gift to SMA.

Sunday began with an afternoon party in the campo, and a band of young hipsters, rocking out the covers for the grey haired crowd that partied on.

Some of the folks who live here or just enjoy their winters in SMA apparently find their most favourite selves in the ’70’s and their sartorial style in Texas.   In certain circles, it is a world of  carefully draped serapes, expensive jeans worn tucked into embroidered cowboy boots, worn with stylish Panama or cowboy hats, and lots of silver. On the dance floor, they sing along with passion to “Come Together,” while madly shaking their booties, some smiling smiles too bright to be natural and ladies carefully arranging long “blonde” hair to cover evidence.   But who am I, a woman who can attach meaning to the choice of bright green eyeliner, to criticize anyone’s choices?

 

Rock on Boomers, Rock on.

When the music started to wan, we retired to drinks at a friend’s wonderful house on the hill, and then gratefully home.  The snow is blowing back in Ontario, and we are in front of a fire, contemplating falling into our bed.  Frank Capra had nothing on us.

 

 

Now that I have the words & music of “New York, New York” running around in your head, let me tell  you about our latest adventure in the city that never sleeps. “Our” is Leslie & me: Leslie is one of those people for whom the expression “oldest & dearest friend’ has real meaning.  Not that she is old, but we do go back, all the way back to our girls’ dormitory, Victoria Hall,  at Queen’s University.  (In the vernacular of the time, that made us “Vic Chicks”, not that you could get away with that today mind you. Now that does make me sound old, positively curmudgeonly).

Our annual weekends in New York City are a tradition that started eight years ago, and we have missed it only once.  In order to get the maximum city for the minimum dollar, we have established a pattern of going in very early on Friday morning, and staying late on Sunday. We buy three days of experiences for only two nights of hotel.  Very Scottish Ben would say.

So what did we do with our three days?

As you can see, we ate magnificently at Del Posto,  where they offer one of the best value “big deal lunches” in New York City:  a prix fixe for $49 including amuse bouche and delicious little after dinner treats. Extraordinary  fine Italian dining.  On Friday, accompanied by Barb, a transplant from Toronto, we dined at the funky and crazy popular RedFarm. It sounds like a comfort food spot, and indeed, one the servers said that some guys do come in looking for a cheeseburger. Those guys should have stayed for some of the best and most interesting Chinese I have ever had, and that includes favourite places in our Chinese cuisine centric suburbs.

We always want a culture infusion, and since the ticket prices for the big blockbusters like “Hamilton” are approaching the cost of plane ticket, even without the exchange, we went to an off-Broadway production of a 300 year old comedy, “She Stoops to Conquer”.  It was funny and a little precious but we will definitely choose off Broadway again.  A warmer and more intimate experience, where for about 50$, you are in spitting distance of the actors. Literally. I saw spit.

We also did some restrained but rewarding shopping at a pretty,  petite candy store, sugarfina, where the colourful little boxes of delicious jellies & chocolates from Italy and Germany made us smile.   I always appreciate great retail marketing and this store had it all:  superb packaging & merchandising, attentive service and special promotions for volume purchases.  And the cute little boxes will make great stocking stuffers, which justified in our minds spending over $80 US each on candy!

We decided that our boutique hotel, The Roxy, while very “au courant” with it’s 70’s vibe throughout,  did not meet our bar for price/value and the Tribeca location was not ideal either.  A midtown choice makes more sense if you want to go from the bottom to the top of the City many times over.  And we do.

The highlight of the trip was an “EmptyMet” tour from viator:   an enthusiastic and knowledgable PhD in art history gave us a whirlwind tour of the world’s finest museum for one and half hours before it opened and the masses arrived.  Ahem, my fine shot of the fine rear of a life-sized nude sculpture came from that tour. Worth the money.

As a final note, I observed New Yorkers in general to be friendlier than I remember. And the city to be greener, the air, fresh and pleasant to breathe.  Maybe it was the fine fall weekend, but there were smiles and warmth and welcomes everywhere.  Definitely, fall is now our preferred time to visit, and we start planning now!