Saturday, May 31, 2008

Laughter in the Rain

I was really down this morning, but I managed to drag myself to pilates class, with the mental promise that I would treat myself to Shake Shack afterwards.

During class, it got dark and stormy out, exciting my hunger for Shake Shack even more. I figured if it was raining, the line wouldn't be so bad.

I left class early as I often do when I'm really achey, and bolted out into the rain under the protection of my umbrella. Some other folks weren't quite so prepared, but they didn't care: instead of seeking shelter inside Home Depot or running to Duane Reade for a cheap umbrella, they just went on their merry way, hustling down 23rd Street, turning plastic bags into makeshift headcoverings and ponchos.

I didn't care either. I was wearing my flip flops and gym clothes, with no particular place to go - except Shake Shack. I'd already missed two M23 busses, so either way I had to walk that way home.

I guess not surprisingly, despite the rain, there was quite a line at Shake Shack, but not nearly as bad as the wait would be on a nice Saturday. Standing silently in the rain, none of us there waiting would look at each other. Were we all just crazy? Maybe so, because I was having a good time, even with Audra Rox playing her kiddie concert on the nearby stage (with catchy songs like "Sugar High" and "Short Attention Span").

Of course, like any other day at Shake Shack, you have to wait again once you've ordered your food, and that's where things got hairy today. No cups for the ketchup and mustard, no straws, too many umbrellas crammed below the overhang that didn't really keep the rain out. And then...it began to pour. It poured so much the concert had to stop. It was pouring so hard that when I saw a soaked guy with two little kids and no umbrella run under the overpass, I immediately hoisted my umbrella above them (turns out it was my friend Jeff from Naked Angels!).

It's funny how it took a little rain (well, ok, a lot) to put a smile on my face. And by the time I got to E. 25th and Third Ave, the rain had stopped and the sun was beating down again. It was sticky out and I was soaked, still cradling my Shake Shack paper bag in my arms to protect it on the way home, with only two blocks to go.

The 40-Year-Old Verge

I braved the throngs of sundress-wearing, huge bag-toting girls in their 20s at the movie theater yesterday to catch the 3:15 screening of the Sex and the City movie. I've never seen such a homogeneous crowd at one movie.

Of course, Edith and I claim that we're nothing like those other girls, but we were there, weren't we?

I haven't always been a fan. Having never paid for HBO at home, I'd only caught episodes of SATC on business trips, and I was always annoyed by Carrie's "And I began to wonder..." voiceovers, which is basically the same reason I hate Gossip Girl. But once it went into syndication and I could catch it every night on the CW or TBS before bed, I became addicted. The characters are so flawed. In fact, the media coverage of the show is totally different than the heart of the show. It's not about fashion! It's about digging cigarettes out of the gutter, farting in bed, and falling on your face.

The movie version stays true to that, maybe even more so. You feel the self-consciousness of Carrie, the 40-year-old bride. You see the age on her face, the bags under her eyes. In fact, all four of them age only as gracefully as one can in New York (or, in Samantha's case, under the magnifying glass of LA). The only one who seems happy and trouble-free is also the one who looks the youngest (Kristin Davis' slapstick charicature Charlotte).

The other night, Eric mentioned something about how Sex and the City is basically turning into The Golden Girls, and he's not too far off. But how is it that at age 40 and 50, things aren't nearly any easier? How is it after 20 or 30 years of practice, these women still can't get it right? And for me, feeling like I'm already on the verge of 40, what can there possibly be for me to look forward to?

I project myself too much into movies. I guess that's what makes me a good moviegoer (at least for the studios that need my $11.75). But I spent pretty much the last half of the movie, which was probably a half hour too long, on the verge of tears.

Orange BlossomAfter the movie, I was all alone, with no plans for another couple of hours, so I decided to take advantage of the early hour and get myself a seat at the Gramercy Tavern bar. I was hoping the Orange Blossom cocktail - made with sparkling Gruner Veltliner, bitters, sugar and an orange peel - would make me feel better, but I downed it too quickly and followed it with a glass of lambrusco and a glass of Pinot Noir sparkling rose. I just kept feeling worse, even while eating delicious roasted cauliflower (with almonds and raisins) and chicken liver mousse on buttery toast.

chicken liver mousseI bailed on my later plans in favor of stumbling home and going to bed at 7:30 p.m. (missing the stunning Manhattanhenge sundown which has made its way into my photo blog in the past). I figured I might wake up on my own around 11 or 12 and would send myself back out into the city, or I might sleep through the night, but either way, at that moment, I could not deal.

I ended up sleeping through the night, getting 13 hours of supposed rest that was filled with dreams of my sister and my mom, something about wanting to go to the beach and some overlying theme of Moby Dick. I woke up exhausted and still depressed. Of course, nothing had actually changed about my life in those 13 hours - only the chicken liver no longer filled my stomach and the wine had worked its way through my own liver.

And as I lie in bed, eyes closed to avoid the clock, I began to wonder: can you actually find love, or do you have to build it, buy it, design it or just let it find you?

Friday, May 30, 2008

Hitting My Stride

I got through yesterday by just looking forward to having a nice dinner and going to The Johnnie Walker Journey, a private scotch tasting event that I managed to get invited to. There's really something wrong when the only thing that gets you through the workday is the promise of free scotch after work, but you do what you can.

We left work early for us to grab some dinner at Market Table, which is a total 180 from its prior occupant, Shopsin's. The exposed brick and chalkboard wall create a gorgeous, rustic, country market look - similar to what Borough Food & Drink is going for but with better food.

Edith is a good dinner partner because she likes to split dishes, so we got the skate on white gazpacho with green grapes, and a side of asparagus with egg and parmesan. One of the highlights of my entire evening was sticking my fork into the glistening yolk and watching it burst. It was almost better than actually eating it.

A couple of unnecessary wines in our bellies, we strode over to Skylight Studios for the Johnnie Walker tasting. A free cocktail, a few snacks and a lot of douchebags later, we finally got to run through the gamut of Johnnie Walker colors: the basic black, the chilled gold, the mixer red, the earthy green, and the premium blue (another highlight, served in a snifter). Each tasting was a pretty small portion, but in aggregate, we'd had quite a bit of scotch which made the evening go by pretty fast.

After kind of a late night, I was lucky enough to be able to work from home today, conducting conference calls from my home phone and laying in bed with the laptop on my legs. Resting up for more adventures. No more work til Monday.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Escape In New York

The city was empty this weekend, but I stuck around. While everybody else was laying out at the beach, I was getting my nails done at the salon that was closing early. I was grocery shopping without waiting in line. I was doing laundry without fighting for a dryer.

But today, on the holiday, I got the chance to get out of Manhattan a bit and do some city exploring. First, we went to City Island - my first excursion there - for somgiant musselse fried seafood by the water at Johnny's Reef Restaurant, a counter service fish shack with outdoor picnic table dining and different lines for fried, steamed, and raw food selections. Like something you might see at Coney Island but much tastier, adding to the Reef's ambiance was a flock of seagulls and a cool breeze with the hot sun beating on our backs (giving me a burn despite only being out there for a half hour). The steamed clams were big and meaty - though no match for the giant mussels I'd had at Bar Jamon the night before - and the fried filet of sole rivaled the fried haddock I'd eaten at the Clam Bar in North Syracuse. With $3 cans of beer to wash everything down, it was a uniquely New England habor town by-way-of-the-Bronx experience.

City Island was founded in 1685 and has managed to fly under the radar for most New Yorkers, at least the imports into the city who think the only island in the metropolitan area is Manhattan. While Eric dreamed of buying a cottage there, we managed to walk down the main drag of the island without buying a yacht or taking sailboat lessons, but we did get some soft serve at Lickety Split which reminded me of the ice cream stands we all take for granted Upstate. Today, we only had to drive 20 minutes north to find a cool delicious treat that was just as good.

waterfallThere is a beach nearby, but we skipped it and instead went island-hopping to Randall's Island for some miniature golf in the much-needed shade. With two different courses and only $6 per person to play, the Randall's Island golf center - which also has driving ranges next door to batting cages - is a great escape if you have a car, and not too hard to get to via public transportation or, better yet, car service. Plus like any good amusement park or miniature golf course, there are waterfalls, fountains, caves, Stonehenge-like rock formations, and trees that completely surround you and make you forget you're in the city. I scored the worst out of the three of us, but I didn't do too bad considering the last time I played was in blacklight at Palisades and, before that, in high school.

There's plenty of time for me to beach myself this summer, so I'm glad I got to take advantage of the nice weather this weekend and enjoy the city sights, especially since I've been away so much lately. And what islands are next? Rikers? Roosevelt? If I'm lucky, I'll avoid Wards Island, as long as I can avoid being diagnosed criminally insane.

golfers three




Island Hopping: A Place Where Cape Cod Meets the Bronx - The New York Times
Miniature Golf Beckons - The New York Times

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Top Eater?

I've recently become obsessed with the Bravo TV show Top Chef, courtesy of JetBlue's live TV allowing me to catch a marathon or two on business trip flights. It's not surprising, though, if you know my love of food and, well, eating.

People often ask me if I'm in the restaurant business, maybe because I hang out in bars and at restaurants by myself, or maybe because I get so comfortable at places like Bar Jamon that I just start handing menus to people and explaining the dishes to them.

beef cheek

On Thursday I was trying to reacclimate to New York City so I took a personal day and took myself to lunch at Bar Boulud, which I haven't been able to get into each time I just happen to be in the Lincoln Center neighborhood. But since I'd visited Daniel's brasserie in Vegas, I was dying to try another of his restaurants, so I planned ahead this time and went when I could actually get a seat. Since I was alone, I sat at the bar and chatted up the meat guy, spirals of black and white sausage nesting in the glass case between us, terrines and head cheese glistening. He, too, asked me if I was in the restaurant business, but as I patted a slice of beef cheek on my toast points, I said, "No, I just really like to eat."

Thursday night I finally made it to Gottino for their seasonal fava crostini, some other snacks and lots of wine.

Between yesterday and today, I've been to Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill twice, once to chicken in a biscuittry the new tequila Siete Leguas and again for brunch. But as sophisticated as my palate may have become after living in the city for 11 years, I still couldn't resist redeeming my coupon for a free Southern-style chicken biscuit breakfast sandwich for McDonald's this morning, when I was returning home from a night in Queens at 8 a.m. I can't remember the last time I'd eaten there, but after having so many conference calls with their corporate office lately, I've been dying for it. It scares me to go there because I could easily slip back into my habit of going way too often, where once a week is "cutting back." The chicken was good, but not good enough to throw me off the wagon. But I think I will go back sometime to redeem my coupon for a free Southern-style chicken sandwich.

It's a long weekend and there are lots of restaurants to conquer, lots of untried menu items at familiar restaurants. Now that I'm finally back home and here for a while, I'm happy to put my wanderlust to good use right here in my own backyard. And although I will never myself ever be a Top Chef, there are plenty I can chase down for their delicious recipes and lovely establishments.

New Word: Brochebag

There's plenty of bro-cabulary out there referring to the characteristics and behavioral patterns of bros. In fact, the word "bro" came into mass popularity after the infamous "Don't tase me bro" phenom, because the worst part is, often a "bro" is a guy that calls other guys "bro."

So here's a new word that encapsulates the ultimate, insufferable dude that brings together the worst of two worlds:

Brochebag: (noun) the unfortunate combination of a bro and a douchebag

And we all know one of them.

I'm pretty sure I made this word up. Nothing comes up when you Google it.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Missing New York

I was missing New York tonight a little bit, so I insisted we have dinner at the Orlando outpost of Il Mulino.

sausageIt's not like I ever get to eat at the original location on Third Street anyway, though a block away from work but too expensive and family-style for my normal personal budget. But I wanted some nice Italian wine and snacks, and since somebody else was buying, the deal was sealed.

It sure was satisfying too, trying every color of wine (Pinot Grigio, Montepulciano and a sparkling rose) and a variety of vegetables including Caesar salad, peas with pancetta, and broccoli rabe with sausage and cherry peppers. And rice balls. It was a beautiful thing.

What was even better was being taken out. I could get used to this pampering: the bellmen who scramble to help passersby, the Dutchman at check-in who declared us friends when he found out I was from Bavaria, the lifeguards watching my every move in the wave pool...

I guess going to the kids' conference turned out to be not so bad. Especially since I won an award today.

Monday, May 19, 2008

How Far We've Come

I had to blink my eyes a few times. I wasn't wearing my contacts, and I couldn't quite believe what I was seeing. But it was true, I was swimming with real live ducks.

I'd hightailed it to the pool upon arrival at the Disney Yacht Club Resort, remembering three years ago when I'd watched the Magic Kingdom nightly fireworks from my watery repose. But this year I'd become impatient, bored with swimming in circles and letting the fake tide carry me along - until I saw the ducks.

I was surrounded by the scent of lilac and the literal quacking of two different live ducks, who sailed along with me til they got bored and beached themselves on the concrete sidewalk, flying away when curious toddlers approached. Each photo I tried to take with my camera phone turned out like those of the Loch Ness Monster or the Abominable Snowman. I doubt anyone will believe me that they were really there.

In a way, it wasn't so different from the zoological experience I'd had in Syracuse at Maria's house, which is laden with several different species of animals, all living relatively harmoniously together. But Syracuse had been 40 degrees today, so I appreciated the 80+ degree heat I was cooling off from in the pool.

I got too impatient for the fireworks, which started sporadically and so inconsistently that I gave up and got dressed for dinner. I wanted to try the Todd English restaurant BlueZoo at the resort next door, and suddenly that became more important than fireworks that could never compare to the ones I'd seen on the beach at Coney Island in September.

During my vacation weekend, I'd really experienced a taste of Syracuse, authentic home-cooking whose local flavor rivaled that of my new hometown NYC (including an amazing Grandma slice from Mr. P's Pizza, the former Mike's, the former Paladino's, the former Papa John's). After discovering my love for the "Syracuse salt potatoes" that they serve at Dinosaur BBQ in Harlem (but not at the Syracuse outpost), Maria offered to make them as an accompaniment to our Sunday night cookout. I was so excited, but they seem simple enough: it's a bag of small, thin-skinned potatoes that comes with a packet of salt. But somehow when served with butter (and the requisite grilled meat), the potatoes transform into something heavenly and addictive. The most famous packagers of salt potatoes have a restaurant in North Syracuse - yet another stop I must make when I'm back home.

scallops with braised short ribsBut tonight, travelling on business in Orlando, my palate reverted to more of its metropolitan character, so I braved BlueZoo alone. Typically, the waiters and bus boys took extra care with me, but of course sitting alone, I was relegated to the job of photographer for the tourists sitting at the table next to me. Once my food came, though, no one could distract me from it. I started with a romaine heart salad that was served with elephant garlic crisps and a generous drizzle of dressing that tasted more buttermilk ranch than Caesar, paired with some tastes from the bread basket and fennel butter. Then I washed down my seared scallops with braised beef short ribs on a cauliflower puree with a surprising Chardonnay-Viognier blend from Sonoma. Still working on my food - including the lobster broccoli cheddar baked potato side dish, I finished the evening with an effervescent Austrian Gruner that prepared my palate poorly for the chocolate ganache cake I indulged in for dessert, but I didn't care.

Three years ago when I stayed at this resort for the same conference, I spent my nights at Downtown Disney / Pleasure Island, getting drunk, getting conventioneers to buy me drinks, taking part in the neon touristiness of it all. This year, I just wanted to have a nice glass of wine, sit in a dark restaurant, and be alone with my thoughts. I couldn't wait to get back to my room and write.

Look how far I've come.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

My Eyes Have Seen the Glory...

I went home to Syracuse yesterday for Maria's birthday, which inevitably turns into a birthday weekend. It was good timing since I have to fly to Orlando for work on Monday, and it's just as easy to fly there on JetBlue from Syracuse as from JFK. Besides, I get some quality time with family, and I got to be here when they got their newest addition to their home, otherwise known as Wild Kingdom.

You would think a household with three cats, two ferrets, a bearded dragon, a sugar glider, a Husky and several creatures in a fish tank wouldn't need any more company, but they decided to get an eight-week-old Husky puppy, and he sure is a cute little boy.

We picked him up from the breeder's house in Pulaski, and on the 45-minute drive out there, I started to think I could actually live there. We passed a tiny cemetery with ancient headstones, and a construction site where a diner had been torn down but the DINER sign still loomed above the highway, exciting my inner explorer. Then I saw where the breeder lives: in a gorgeous farm house with a ton of property, horses, and 20+ dogs (one of which was a black poodle that kept biting my butt). Ever since Death Valley, I'm way into remote locations and getting in touch with nature. I may need to move.

IndianaOn the ride back, the new puppy mostly slept on my lap, except for when I tried to feed him water out of a Dasani bottle and soaked myself. Baby boy promptly began lapping up my skirt. It got weird.

But he's a total joy and makes you see life in a total new way, watching him learn how to walk up stairs, how to carry things in his mouth, how to eat peanut butter to cure the hiccups. Of course, that's all I need, something else to give me an existential crisis. And although it's not really making my biological clock go off, it is making me want to live somewhere I could actually have pets.

My new eyes have seen lots of other interesting things in Syracuse this weekend, like the old sanitorium that's part of Van Duyn where we visited Maria's grandmother, and the War of 1812 cemetery across the turnpike. I think if I hadn't grown up here and didn't have so many bad memories, I'd be more inclined to go exploring on my own. But I kind of prefer just driving around in the car with Maria, who always seems to know where she's going, and press my face up against the passenger side window and say things like, "Ooh! What's that?"

juicy haddockThat's how I discovered The Clam Bar, which we decided to go back to today for lunch. A nice fish shack in the middle of North Syracuse, The Clam Bar serves the usual battery of surf and turf that you can get fried, broiled, sauteed, Cajun spiced, buttered and garlicked. I had the "award-winning" clam chowder (deserving) and the house specialty fried haddock sandwich whose crispy fillet couldn't be contained by the sandwich roll, and whose steamy insides squirted hot boiling fish juice on my cheek as soon as I took my first bite. That place is a real find in Syracuse, and immediately I wanted to bring all of my New York friends there for some clams casino washed down with a draught pint of Labatt Blue.

The Clam BarSure, normally I like to visit my favorite chains while in Syracuse, and we did make our requisite stop to Pizza Hut upon my arrival. But since my teenage idea of a nice date was Olive Garden, and my parents' idea of dining out when we were little was Burger King, I now like to explore the same types of charming, locally-owned pig-out destinations in Syracuse as I discover when travelling elsewhere.

The greater Syracuse area has never felt very familiar to me. I still get lost if I have to navigate my own way around when I visit. So I know there's a lot I haven't seen, and someday I'd like to try those diners we passed on the way out to Pulaski - the ones that haven't been torn down yet. And I'd like to get there before Guy Fieri discovers them!

Monday, May 12, 2008

Crisis! Missing Out Alert!

I was too sick to go out Saturday night. I spent the whole day in bed, save for pilates class and some very necessary grocery shopping.

I was too sick to clean my house Sunday. I dragged myself out of bed for a delicious Mother's Day brunch at Bar Americain featuring the highly anticipated chicken pot pie and a gravy-soaked biscuit-sausage-egg combo, self-medicating myself with two Kentucky 95 cocktails which were as packed with vitamin C as with Maker's Mark. It was a pleasure to spend Mother's Day with Edith, a mother who was not mine, and the spirit of Bobby Flay, but I got so pooped that I skipped dinner to sleep and had weird dreams that took place in my childhood home (typical).

I skipped an open bar party at the HUSTLER Club tonight to lie in bed and feel sorry for myself.

Who knows what other delights await me out there while I huddle in my bed, cold and hot, fuzzy-headed, within arm's reach of a box of tissues and a pizza-flavored Lean Pocket?

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Making Choices

I could've had bone marrow for dinner again last night at Blue Ribbon, but instead I chose to have a good light meal with a leek salad and a special appetizer of something I think he called "rouge fish." Lots of veggies left me room for dessert and lots of wine. Regardless, our waiter, Benjamin, with the way he described the minerality of my Aligote wine and the flavor and texture of each dish we asked about, could've probably gotten me to eat anything.

Benjamin and I really hit it off - I'm a sucker for a nice beard - but the biggest turnoff was when he was trying to get me to come back and visit by saying, "I work 15 hour shifts just about every night! I'm here every Friday!" A relationship like that is bound to fail. Normally I would leave my number or at least my business card for a cute waiter like that, especially since I work up the street, but last night I left it in my pocket, and just waved as we walked out the door.

I will go back, but more likely to try their bone marrow and oxtail or the pigeon entree (which I'm bound to dislike).

Friday, May 9, 2008

Love Is a Losing Game


I auditioned to be on the new version of The Dating Game today. If they choose me, it won't be a fix to my very broken love life, but it'll be a free date and hopefully fun.

The casting director asked me why I wanted to be on the show, and sadly I had to say that I thought I needed help. I've never used the services of a professional matchmaker, but my reality show addiction to Matched in Manhattan and Millionaire Matchmaker has really wanted me to. At least in the case of The Dating Game, the potential dates are curated for me, even though ultimately the decision is still up to me.

I didn't bother looking camera-ready for the audition, and I even wore my glasses. I wanted to seem like a real person, but memorable. Instead, I think I made myself a sympathetic character, because we all seemed a little more depressed once the interview was over.

The worst part was recalling my best date ever. Unfortunately, I don't go on that many dates so it's easy to mentally go through them all, but then describing the one date I was able to get with my eye doctor was heartbreaking. That was four years ago and I still don't know what went wrong. And I still wish I was with him.

So maybe I've got to be more aggressive and really put myself out there on national TV - and not on Rock of Love or some other such trainwreck. A real date, just him and me, no other girls sitting on his lap during my time....

I hope they pick me.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

In the Blood

cow bonesTrue to form, Edith and I cored cow bones out tonight to spread the marrow on crostini. It was the perfect accompaniment to the steak tartare at Quality Meats, with its upscale rodeo motif. Edison bulbs turning meat hooks into lighting fixtures, I was ready to eat whatever bloody thing they brought me.

We'd had a few champagnes at the Rogan for Target party at Barney's tonight, where we were flanked by paparazzi who didn't care about us but flashed their bulbs at folks like Alan Cumming and models we didn't recognize. We also spotted Barney's creative director, Simon Doonan, who we did recognize as a talking head from various VH1 pop culture shows. How posh. The snacks were great but only whet our appetite for a real meal, and being on the lower upper east side, we didn't know where else to go.

Sometimes it's good to get back to basics. The first time I ate blood, besides my own from a bloody finger injury involving a chain and my bike, was on an Aer Lingus flight to Dublin when I had a traditional Irish breakfast featuring blood sausage or "black pudding," which I thought kind of tasted like stuffing. The last couple of years, I've been daring enough to try bloody steak tartare at Employees Only and Country, but tonight was my first out-of-bone experience. It was a memorable one.

steak tartareRaw beef? No problem. Raw egg? Bring it on. The bones kind of freaked me out, though, reminding me of the Shake 'n Bake chicken that my mother would make in the toaster oven, marrow bursting out of the meat-covered bone and globulating on the outside of the breadcrumb crust. But since I like food that scares me, tonight was a perfect meal....

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Facing It Head-On


I ate an entire (baby?) octopus tonight, including the head, at Gusto.

Actually, I ate two of them.

Inside the head was gooey.

The tentacles were pretty crispy though and the whole thing was in a nice olive oil with lemon.

I felt savage and a little guilty, but I like facing my fears.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Haunted by Death Valley

I spent way too much time alone on this trip, traversing perhaps the loneliest part of the country, the place where it is perhaps the most ill-advised to travel alone. But it made me think: at some point, I might have to either switch gears entirely and do something really significant with my life, or just commit myself to doing absolutely nothing with it. Either way, I can't remain in mediocrity anymore.

Panamint Springs Resort turned out to be anything but mediocre during my Death Valley trip, but it's not like I really chose to stay there. I had to.

The other options within the park – Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek – were sold out save for the $400 rooms at the Furnace Creek Inn, which I just couldn’t justify even though my flight had been free. After exploring options outside of Death Valley like the Motel 6 in Beatty and the Amargosa Opera House in Death Valley Junction, I finally found Panamint, which sounded like a great nighttime oasis for my trip.

True, Panamint is an oasis – it tends to be 10-15 degrees cooler than the rest of Death Valley – but it’s no resort. And it’s really far – at least an hour away from the two main visitor centers and much of the stuff that there’s to see in the park. But it’s smack dab on the western end of a scenic byway, and even though I couldn’t actually find Darwin Falls, the nearby waterfall, despite driving back and forth on route 190 looking for it, it was kind of nice to know it existed.

In truth, Panamint would be a great option for anyone coming from the west and making their way through the valley, a great one-night stay with really good meals and friendly staff. This morning I overheard my waiter telling another table that every year, some Hollywood celebrity rents out the whole place – even the campgrounds and RV park – for a week-long wild time of beer-drinkin’ and “girls takin’ off their tops.”

Too bad it’s haunted.

My first night at the motel, I thought maybe I was imagining a ghost cat walking across my pillow and onto the nightstand. It would’ve been understandable, since that black cat had been keeping me company earlier at dinner. But last night, I woke up screaming in my pitch-black room, with the vision of a man crouching next to my bed. I shouted “Oh Jesus!” and took the pillow I was cuddling next to and thrust it into the air past the other side of the bed, hoping to dissipate the apparition. I suppose it was friendly enough – it was just sitting there – but it’s creepy enough when a person watches you sleep, not to mention a ghost … or…whatever. I didn’t take too kindly to it and yelled at it to go away and get out, my heart racing, my body sweating. I think he left, though it was so dark – and so was he – that I couldn’t really tell, but I managed to fall back to sleep anyway.

the boardwalk to the salt basin I'd needed a good night’s sleep after all the exploring I’d done on Saturday, too. I drove all over hell’s half-acre, getting car sick from my own driving with so many dips in the road, experiencing the extremes of the park by accelerating up to 5000 ft. above sea level and sinking to over 200 ft. below sea level. I visited the lowest point in North America, Badwater, which was probably my favorite site in Death Valley. It’s a salty basin that collects all the debris from the eroding mountains surrounding it (including the highest point, Telescope Peak), but because of movements in the earth’s crust, it’s actually sinking faster than it’s collecting. And since it hardly ever rains in Death Valley (and Lake Manly and all other bodies of water have dried up in the last couple of thousand of years), it doesn’t really collect any new water, which means the pools of water at its entrance are ancient. And, according to how it was named, too salty for drinking.

ancient waterThe ground there is white and damp, and touching it feels like you’ve grabbed a wet powdered donut. The whole thing is flat and wide open, and with the mountains looming above (and a sign mounted that indicates sea level), it’s a weird reminder of your humanity. Everything is bigger than you.

The rest of Death Valley was less existential and a little more like a theme park, each attraction named cutely like “Artist’s Palette” (because of the multiple colors of the mountain) and “Devil’s Golf Course.” I preferred the truly shocking natural wonders, choosing to climb the Mesquite Dunes where Star Wars was filmed, teeter on the edge of the Ubehebe Crater where the wind blows up to 50 mph, and nearly blow out my tires on the unpaved road to Titus Canyon – which I really should have approached from the east, so I could’ve driven down the one-way road through a ghost town.

Many of the ghost towns in and around Death Valley are inaccessible by roads or even hiking trails, but the most famous and accessible one is probably Rhyolite, which is just off of nearby border town Beatty, NV. I’ve always been fascinated by ghost towns, which seemed like a paradise of abandoned buildings, so I made Rhyolite my first tourist stop on Friday. Driving down the old unpaved Main Street, you’re surrounded by rubble and scrap metal, the vestiges of abandoned homes and businesses that are currently unrecognizable, sometimes only a pile of stones remaining. But you can still see the old railroad depot, its “Rhyolite” sign double-painted with “Rhyolite Ghost Casino,” and the old general store.

depot-slash-casino

As I was taking some pictures and giggling to myself, I realized I’d stumbled into the shot of a Travel Channel production, and was being asked to get out of the way by the crew. Hilarious. Too bad they were rushing to get the last shot of the day, otherwise I would’ve campaigned to get myself into the show.

I think the majority of my trip was just driving. As soon as I got out of the greater Las Vegas area on Friday, I was driving down highways at 80 mph surrounded by a whole lot of nothing, cell and Blackberry signals out. The only communications I received were from the ominous road signs, telling me to turn my headlights on in daylight, to avoid overheating by turning the A/C off, and to fill my radiator with water. I’d rented a hybrid so I could save on fuel, but the dashboard displays on those things are so wacky I didn’t even know how to know if my radiator needed water. Did I even have a radiator?

With no one to ask, no one to call, and no rangers in sight, I just kind of breathed deeply and did a Hail Mary the whole way, risking the soft shoulder edge of byways on the ledge of a mountain with huge dropoffs. With a variety of maps rustling against the A/C and no GPS, I managed to navigate my way around without getting lost or freaked out. I encountered very few cars on the road, and a few bikers riding in formation, but mostly I was alone on the open road.

On the way back to the Vegas airport today, I ignored the MapQuest directions and instead took my motel’s suggestion of driving through Death Valley Junction and Pahrump, which turned out to be a really easy and direct route straight to the car rental plaza for the airport. It’s still pretty desolate, but appears to be growing, and I think I even spotted a new town being built. It was all very Wild West.

By the time I was back within Vegas city limits, I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. I was booked on the redeye back to NY but instead of visiting the Pinball Hall of Fame or the outlet mall, I hustled to the aiport and bought my way onto the next flight out, getting me back into the city tonight rather than early tomorrow morning. It’s not that I’m so anxious to get back to my life – rather, the opposite – but I’d just had enough of what I was doing this weekend and ready to move onto the next thing.

So how do I dig myself out of mediocrity? Well, I've got to pick one thing or the other. We'll see what the future holds...

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Kindred Encounter

a pretty flattering shot of Panamint Springs Resort Last night when I arrived at the Panamint Springs Resort in Death Valley, which isn't a "resort" at all, I was kind of ready to jump off the ledge. I'd been in a race against time, to get to my motel before sundown and before they stopped serving dinner. I was all alone, with no cell or Blackberry service, and a little stressed out from all the driving. By the time I got here and checked into my room, it was peak dinner hour and I had a hard time finding a seat for myself on the restaurant's outdoor terrace. Typical cafeteria moment, except not appropriate to ask someone if I could join them. And too many big tables for me to justify taking up one all alone.

So I ended up being relegated to the back of the terrace on the side of the building, by the parking lot, in the dark. At a four person table. When the waitress went to give me a place-setting, she said, "Just one?" and I'd just about had it.

Lucky for me, a guest who'd been sitting at a small table alone, with whom I'd shared a mutual nod when I walked by, vacated his seat and took off on his bike. I quickly relocated to his table and nestled into the corner of the terrace, followed immediately by a black cat who took the other seat and proceeded to clean himself. It was nice to have the company, even though he wasn't paying attention to me and didn't care to be pet (typical male).

As I was drinking my soda, I noticed a party-of-three squished at a table-for-two giving me the evil eye for hogging such a huge table just for myself. They wouldn't stop staring at me, and while normally I would offer them my seat, I just found the whole situation so rude that I mentally gave them the finger and stayed in my seat. I'd earned it. They could sit at that dark table in the back.

My guilt got the better of me when I saw the older gentleman return and eye his former table, so I blurted out, "I stole your seat..." as he walked by. He smiled leisurely and said, "That's ok, I'll come join you."

For the rest of my dinner, the black cat was replaced by Ike, a German self-described "traveller" who bikes his way around the country, setting up camp wherever he can hang his hammock.

Ike Ike's real name is Horst but stupid Americans need a more accessible name like "Chuck" or "Bud," so he quickly appropriated the understandable portion of his last name and became "Ike." Long since divorced and without family in the U.S., Ike makes ends meet in Santa Barbara as a roof contractor, but occasionally must answer the call of the wild and go exploring on his bike, scouting locations for his side business of guided Harley group tours.

Sometimes I have a hard time meeting people because I just don't care enough to ask them extensive questions about their lives. But Ike was so comfortable and non-threatening, so cool and tough at the same time with his white pointy beard and distressed western hat, that I couldn't stop asking him about his life. What has he seen? Where does he shower? How does he fit all of his stuff on one bike? How does he avoid getting eaten by coyotes in his sleep?

I think Ike was glad to meet a kindred spirit on the road, one that wasn't looking to hire him, that just wanted to hear about his life. I like weird and unusual travel (his specialty), but I'm comparatively sheltered and have never driven a motorcycle, only ridden on the back of one from Sullivan Street to some gallery in the West Village. Ike and I joked about taking off together on his bike, the only obstacle being the "damn laws" that require me to have a helmet. Once again, I recalled never having seen a ranger, and wondered who would be there to enforce it.

After complimenting me on my feeble attempts at artistic photography on my cell phone, Ike offered to show me his camp last night - I think in a genuine expression of hospitality, given my keen interest in his life. But it gets too pitch black out here at night, and I didn't even want to cross the street, much less be in a campground with a stranger. Luckily there were no hard feelings, so after I saw Ike again this morning and shared breakfast with him, I was happy to join him in his camp and investigate the life of a bona fide nomad.

While swinging in his hammock, which was tied between two gnarled trees, I asked Ike if he was ever afraid of someone stealing his stuff. He said, "No, but sometimes the wind steals it!" and we both had a laugh, me suggesting maybe the coyotes carted his goods off instead of the wind blowing away.

I was sad to say goodbye to Ike this morning after he cheered me up so effortlessly. But I promised to sign his online guest book and to take him up on his offer to ride the next time I'm on the West Coast - as long as I bring my own helmet.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Life's a Gamble

I actually didn't gamble one bit while in Vegas this time. I think maybe if the Wynn casino had featured more pop culture-themed slot machines, I might have, but it's all for the better. I'm a terrible slot player because I just try to get to the bonus round, like playing a video game. When you're just playing penny slots on an I Dream of Jeannie themed machine, it's probably ok, but even nickel slots can add up. I lost a lot of money on the PONG machine in Detroit's Greektown.

But the way I see it, I'm a risk-taker in life. I say things that other people would advise against. I've been fairly aggressive about my salary. I've put myself out there in more ways than one. So why should I put down a couple hundred dollars on a blackjack or roulette table? I prefer a calculated risk, and casino gambling never feels that way to me.

Besides, I'm saving for an apartment.

Instead, I spent my money on a "custom massage" at the Wynn spa, which turned out to be as customizable as any massage session should be: she let me change the music when the flutes got annoying. She brought me water. She offered to adjust the temperature of the room. Still, she gave a pretty good massage and a kick-ass scalp rub, and she turned my attitude around 180 degrees from when I first walked in, on the verge of tears.

Travelling alone to a conference is tough. You're consumed by daytime meetings and nighttime networking sessions, Blackberrying all the while. In my case, I was waking up at 7 a.m. and starting my workday concurrent with 10 a.m. NY time, and not ending it until late into the evening, sometimes 2 a.m. NY time or later. You have to carve out some break time for yourself or you'll go crazy, so the massage was definitely a good call.

I also gave myself a break at Mario Batali's Enoteca San Marco in the Venetian, which turned out to be a poor OTTO ripoff without the atmosphere (instead being subjected to obnoxious Italian street performers singing overdone opera). Unlike OTTO, though, they serve their sparkling rose by the glass, so I used that to wash down an order of the fritto pizza dough served with parmesan and red pepper flakes. (I tried to balance that out with an order of sauteed broccoli rabe but it arrived mushy and practically inedible.)

That was the first of many drinks I would have yesterday in Vegas, continuing with wine during dinner at Gallagher's Steak House in New York New York, a location I clearly did not choose and instead submitted to for the sake of the conference. For the conference wrap party, unlimited free tequila gimlets were intoxicating enough, but getting free and expedited admission to Ghostbar, which I'd seen numerous times on MTV's The Real World Las Vegas and most recently on last year's VMAs, was positively thrilling. We had the whole outside deck to ourselves, with a breathtaking off-Strip view of the city, and winds strong enough to blow my dress off.

the view from Ghostbar at the PalmsThe winds were tremendous from the moment of my arrival in Vegas, bouncing our arriving flight up and down before landing, and literally blowing the furniture around during our networking cocktail hour by the Wynn pool. Last night, most people escaped to inside the nightclub, which was getting hot and full of Goombas, so I stayed outside and went with it. I had plenty of room to dance - to a pop-friendly soundtrack of Britney, Justin, Timbaland, Pussycat Dolls, etc. - and I let the wind whip me around as much as it liked. My business associate and I joked that we'd invented "hurricane dancing" and started singing it to the tune of the "Safety Dance." When I've got my dancing shoes on, I'm easily entertained. Nobody else seemed to appreciate it, and all the dudes there just looked through me. As usual, I could only get the attention of the bartender and the bus boys. I was not made for Vegas.

It took me at least an hour in traffic today to just get out of the city, so by the time I got on 95N I was happy to leave it all behind. In fact, I was happy to leave my entire life behind, and exchange it for a couple of days of desolation.

Travelling alone on business is tough, but travelling alone on vacation can be terrifying. If I were to drive off a cliff here in the middle of Death Valley, who would know? I haven't seen one park ranger yet, and I basically traversed the entire width of the national park today.

More dispatches from the road when I can get a cell phone signal to upload more photos!

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Sleepy and Boring in Las Vegas

I've missed my window of opportunity. I was such a party girl for so long, Vegas would have been perfect for me. But the one time I was here during that stage of my life, I caught the worst flu of my life and was bed-ridden.

Nowadays, sleep is more important to me than staying up all night. Instead of winning big at the roulette tables, one of my biggest personal goals for this trip (besides my Death Valley jaunt this weekend) was trying Hot Dog on a Stick at the Fashion Show Mall across the street, interest piqued by the Food Court episode of "Unwrapped" on Food Network. The hot dog wasn't given its full three minutes in the cooker, I think, because it was a little doughey and the dog itself was room temperature at best, but I was pleasantly surprised to find it's housed in a really good mall (with a Paul Frank store!).

I'm staying at the Wynn, a new multi-million dollar resort with outrageously high room rates and a luxe reputation, but even as I type, my desk chair is too low for the desk, and I'm burned over the lack of wireless anywhere in this hotel (besides the lovely pool, where you can order takeout from the neighboring restaurant including bartender Miguel's deliciously unsweet mojito in a to-go cup). I guess the hotel is nice - the rest of my room is quite nice - but there's a generic opulence to casinos these days that just kind of grosses me out. I prefer something with a bit more old-school charm or some kind of uniqueness. We don't even have a fountain show here. But we do have Spamalot.

I look out my window and can see the Strip, with the New Frontier sign still looming but no hotel to speak for. We're right at the end of the core of activity, across from Treasure Island and Mandalay Bay, and next to the new Palazzo where Mario Batali has three restaurants (and I'm not sure that I'll have time to try even one!). Still, as unexciting as it may be, I was happy to stay in at the Wynn last night and have dinner by myself at Daniel Boulud's Brasserie, where I sipped a lovely Viognier and ate the tomato tarte tatin, meant for sharing, alone. And a French Onion Soup built for one, beef broth enhanced with actual pieces of beef.

When I first sat down for dinner, the waiter asked me if I wanted a magazine or something, flashing me back to that scene in Forgetting Sarah Marshall where the male lead gets used to travelling alone. I'm already used to it so I declined, and let the very weird light show on the waterfall outside (set to songs like Yello's "Oh Yeah")entertain me alone. Still, the staff felt so bad for me that I got a free wine refill, and the wine manager's cell phone number. I was too tired to use it, and I was too tired to take The Magic Guy, who was sitting at a neighboring table, up on his offer to hang out with his group.

I'll be working most of today but I did schedule a "custom massage" for myself at the hotel spa, so I'm curious to see what they come up with. Hopefully I'll get another swim in, and I'll get to hang out with that cute young guy from San Francisco I met at last night's cocktail hour.