Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Cherry Blossoms in DC

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Because Saul had a mandatory, college-sponsored lecture to attend, in full academic regalia, by celebrated portrait artist, Nelson Shanks, on Thursday evening, we were not able to leave for DC until Friday morning. We traveled to New Jersey in our SUV so that we would be able to bring home a stack of extra chairs for Passover that were still residing at Ari’s since his house-warming party. We met Saul’s sister, Rif and her husband, Paul, at a Cracker Barrel for breakfast before setting out, with Rif joining us, on the road to DC.

We had a very pleasant trip down. The weather has been absolutely spectacular this month. Last year I wrote that March came in like a lion and went out like a lion. This year, it came in like a lamb and is going out like a lamb. Peak cherry blossom season in DC is a full two weeks earlier than usual. As of this writing the crocuses, daffodils, and most tulips have come and gone already. All our flowering trees and forsythia are in full bloom. Outside, it seems more like early May than late March. After unpacking our gear at Ari’s house, we drove downtown and found a rare parking spot right in front of the National Portrait Gallery. Rif has never really toured DC and, in the two hours we had available, we ran around the enormous museum showing her all our favorite things. Then, we drove just a couple of miles to meet Ari for an early dinner at Founding Farmers. We left the car at a parking garage across the street where the rates went down considerably to $10 for the evening at 5:00 p.m. The attendants were kind enough to wait the ten minutes until the rates changed before validating our ticket and then sent someone across the street to the restaurant to locate us and give us our ticket. We were happy to tip them a few dollars for such great service. We shared a whole bunch of small plates for dinner which was great fun and very delicious. The restaurant is a very hip scene in DC and we would not have gotten a table on a Friday had we not eaten very early. We took advantage of the parking and late sunset by going for a long walk after dinner to see the White House. We had planned to drive to the tidal basin to tour the Roosevelt Memorial and Korean War Veterans Memorial at night, but when we approached the area, we were greeted with masses of traffic at a crawl and masses of tourists walking the streets and pathways around the National Mall. We drove around the clogged arteries looking for a parking spot for about an hour, and then finally decided that we would awaken early the next morning and head to the tidal basin, hopefully, before the predicted rain could wash out the blossoms from the trees. We were on Rock Creek Parkway, heading for Ari’s house when he realized that he had left his new iPad and computer at work. He wanted to finish reading the second book of The Hunger Games Trilogy, Catching Fire, on the iPad, so we decided to go to Moorenko’s for ice cream and then head back downtown to his office. Moorenko’s is really a gem. The ice cream is luscious and many of the flavors truly unique. The featured flavor was honey with sunflower seeds, which could have been bland, but the vanilla and honey flavors burst on the tongue and the seeds added a nutty crunch. Saul and I shared three scoops of different flavors because I couldn’t decide on just one (we also had cappuccino cinnamon and salted caramel pecan). Since office hours were long past, Ari was able to take Rif up to show her his new office space.

We were out of the house by 8:30 a.m. as the rain threatened to come pouring down at any second. We lucked out, however, and after much hunting, located a parking spot that allowed us to tour the new Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial and the Roosevelt Memorial with just a short walk through cherry blossom-lined streets. Then, famished, we headed to China Garden in Rosslyn for dim sum, and arrived at the perfect time, just before the crowds, and with a great selection of dishes steaming on the wheeled carts. After breakfast/lunch, we drove further into Virginia to find a Tuesday Morning store which was rumored to have a gadget to froth milk for use with the Tassimo, which has recalled all the capsules associated with milk because they sometimes would burst while in use and cause burns. We didn’t find  the item, but decided that since we were already halfway to Belfort Furniture, we would continue to look for bedroom furniture for the room that Saul and I use at Ari’s house. No luck there, either.  On our way back from there, we tried to stop for dinner at a Fleming’s, but the wait was too long. Eventually, we wound up at yet another Lebanese Taverna in Tysons II Galleria, where we, again, had a very satisfying meal and dessert. We wandered through the mall a bit before heading off to wait in line at a nearby AMC Theater to get good seats for The Hunger Games in the IMAX theater. We agreed that the movie was very well done. From finishing the trilogy, I knew where to avert my eyes to avoid the more violent scenes, but from what I saw, an effort was made to downplay the gorier situations. I was quite happy about that because the books become so gory by the third one that I had considered avoiding the movies altogether. By the time we arrived back home and got into bed, it was 2:00 a.m.

We slept so late on Sunday that we spent an hour driving around the neighborhood to find a place for brunch that wasn’t mobbed. We eventually went back to the place where we started, The Heights, because Saul had the foresight to put our names on the list. We had never eaten brunch there before, and it was exceptional and reasonably priced. I think we will be going often from now on, especially when the weather is nice and we can walk over. We parked on the lot of the Giant Supermarket across the street in Columbia Heights and picked up a few necessary items there before heading back home to drop off Rif, who waited for us while we attended Talia’s first birthday party at the home of her grandparents in Silver Spring. Jess and Alex had driven down with Elaine and the girls after religious school for the party, but left to drive back as soon as the party was over so that the girls would be in bed at a reasonable hour. By the time we arrived in New Jersey to return Rif home, the girls had already had dinner and were in bed. We met Jessica alone at Friendly’s for ice cream because Sunday was her birthday and we wanted to celebrate in some way.

Yesterday, after some minor cleaning up and the installation of LED bulbs in my new recessed lighting fixtures, the work inside my house was officially completed. We met Larry at the Fireside Grill for an early bird dinner and climbed into bed early as we both had residual exhaustion from our cherry blossom weekend. I was so relieved this morning knowing that no one was coming to knock on my door to paint, or sand, or anything. The house looks gorgeous, better, I think, than when it was new. With this beautiful weather, my own weeping cherry tree is in full bloom today.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

MC Dinner, Dana's Wedding, Purim, March Birthdays, etc.

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Wow! Until I had to think of a title, I didn’t realize how packed this month has been so far. True to form, and as I should have known from past experience, the Men’s Club dinner and program on March 1, had a rash of last minute reservations. Fortunately, the preparations went so smoothly that we were able to accommodate over 40 people for dinner in record time. Because my trusty volunteers are well familiar with the drill, we were able to prepare the bulk of the dinner in three hours and adjourned to one of our favorite Chinese restaurants, Jasmine, where we were able to schmooze and be waited on while we recuperated from our labors. By coincidence, fellow congregants and friends, Burt, Janet, and Janet’s daughter, Michelle, arrived right after we were seated and they moved to a table right next to us. Apparently, they have been coming to this restaurant for years and are recognized regulars. Right before the Men’s Club dinner, I did a little extra shopping and we arrived an hour earlier than we planned to prepare additional chicken and rice and set up an extra table. The dinner went like clockwork and the speaker, armed with a PowerPoint presentation explaining Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program, was interesting and informative. More than just an art program, the murals represent a revolutionary approach to encouraging community involvement and empowerment through the access of social services.

At Shabbat dinner on that Friday, no one seemed upset with a reprise of the leftovers from the previous evening. We were joined by Beth, Larry and Faith, who was just freshly returning from Israel and had spoken about her adventures to those of us in the Bible class that she taught the previous morning.

After services at MBI-EE on Saturday morning, we returned home to rest and get ready for Dana’s wedding that evening at Vie on North Broad Street in downtown Philadelphia. Dana is the daughter of Saul’s first cousin, Elaine. Her father and Saul’s father were brothers. The facade of the newly-renovated building with multiple sets of glass French doors, glimmered with candlelight from the thick, white candles within the staggered-height, cylindrical, clear, hurricane lamps that dotted the stairs as we drove up to have the valets park our car. Inside, in a reception area, we were greeted by butlers bearing silver trays of Champagne in fluted glasses and an open bar. As we had arrived just in time, we hurried in to greet family members and friends before the wedding ceremony. Dana was a very lovely bride. The officiating rabbi from Las Vegas, a relative of Dana’s father, told the amazingly coincidental story of how Elaine’s father, and the groom’s grandfather had become business partners for a few years after the Holocaust. The families, who emigrated to the United States and set up individual businesses, had lost contact for many years. Then, randomly, the groom’s mother contacted Elaine, who sells real estate (not even realizing the connection) for advice on putting their house up for sale. Elaine recognized the groom’s mother from childhood when they met, and began pulling out old photographs and a printed kippah that had been saved from their wedding that her father and mother had attended. Unbeknownst to both of them, their children had already met and were becoming serious about marrying when the families reunited and realized their connection. What a shame that neither grandfather was alive to see this union of their grandchildren after all they had suffered through in their lifetimes. After the ceremony, a long cocktail hour ensued with a buffet, butlered hors d’oeuvres, and a variety of food stations. This was followed by a full-course dinner with a selection of entrées. A live band performed in the enormous, chandelier-illuminated ballroom, flanked by floor-to-ceiling, time-lapse, moving photo displays of flowers opening and designs evolving. Later, this was replaced with slide shows taken from the photo albums of both bride’s and groom’s families. On Sunday, we left for a week in DC.

March 1 marked the beginning of Saul’s week of spring break. For two reasons, we decided to spend the whole week in DC. For one, Ari made reservations for my birthday at Central, one of Michel Richard’s restaurants. The other, Citronelle, is higher end, more pretentious, and has not been receiving such good reviews the last couple of years. When Ari got his first job in DC and moved there from California, we were supposed to celebrate at Citronelle, but never got around to it. Richard is my second favorite chef after Thomas Keller, of French Laundry fame. He started as a pastry chef making the most intricate and imaginative desserts, and then took his art to other types of cuisine. Central did not disappoint. Although it is at the lower end (which, of course, is relative), the food was, indeed, imaginative, well-conceived, expertly prepared, and beautifully presented. Our server was efficient and friendly, and not in the least pretentious. At the end of the meal, I asked if people sometimes stop in later in the evening for coffee and dessert alone, as there were several additional desserts that we longed to try. She said that people do that especially because of Richard’s stellar reputation as a pastry chef. We ate out every evening during our break when Ari returned from work each day. One of our particularly satisfying meals was at “The Heights” in Columbia Heights. Saul worked to get our income tax figures ready for our accountant, and when he finally finished, we celebrated by going to the movies to see The Secret World of Arrietty, a Miyasaki animated film from Studio Ghibli. I adore Miyasaki movies and Arrietty did not disappoint with its intricately painted settings, filled with elaborate detail, in a lush kaleidoscope of color.

The second reason for spending the week in DC was that work began on our home. The wall-to-wall carpet in the great room was removed and a new red oak hardwood floor was installed to match the adjoining, existing floors in the dining room and kitchen. I never thought about all the work involved in getting that done. Both breakfronts were emptied of their contents—delicate crystal, pottery, china, and art glass—and disassembled for moving elsewhere by the workers, who were obviously very careful as nothing was chipped or broken when we returned. All the books were removed from a tall barrister’s bookcase. All the coats and cartons were removed from a double-doored closet and moved elsewhere, not to mention moving a baby grand piano, buffet, sofa, etc., etc. I naively did not realize the scope of the job until I returned home and was relegated to entering my master bedroom through an outside door because the furniture was piled in every available space outside the barrier of plastic walls that had been set up during the sanding phase. We also had access to the office and second master bedroom through the outside office door. But I am getting ahead of myself.

As Saul is still in mourning for his mother, we attended shacharit and a relatively subdued adult reading of the Purim Megillah early on Thursday morning. The congregation at Adas Israel in DC was extremely welcoming and the rabbi was kind enough to offer Saul an Aliyah. Not only that, he presented us with a mishloach manot package as we were leaving. Ari was particularly pleased with the nusah which reminded him of Camp Ramah. We dropped him off at his office afterward.

On Friday, we headed back home, taking two cars and following behind Ari. We had intended to have Shabbat dinner with Jess and Alex for Ari’s birthday, but we found ourselves in bumper-to-bumper traffic and finally had to resort to having dinner on the road at Pho Thai Nam. Although we left at 3:30 p.m., we didn’t arrive home until 10:00 p.m. Besides coming in for his birthday, Ari, and Saul and I, had an appointment to meet the accountant whom we have been using for many years. Ari joined us for services at MBI-EE Saturday morning. On Saturday night, we drove over to New Jersey and had a delicious and unusual vegetarian Afghan meal at Ariana with Jess and the girls, followed by a short walk across the parking lot to Spoon Me for frozen yogurt. On Sunday, Beth went with us for dim sum at a restaurant in Chinatown that our family used to frequent over 40 years ago, The Imperial Inn. It seemed like not much had changed in 40 years. Although the reviews on the net were really good, we thought it didn’t begin to compare with our favorite places near DC.

Once the floors were dry (and they look brand new!) I spent the next couple of days weeding out and organizing all the stuff I had sitting around from closets, cabinets, and drawers. I did some research on the net to find out if there were any rare or valuable, 78 rpm records in my deceased father’s five-carton’s-worth of a collection. My research showed that it was not likely, and, in the best-case scenario, the $100 or so I would earn if I did find one or two would not be worth all the time sifting through, tracking down and haggling with a possible buyer, or constantly checking eBay. Impact! was delighted to take them, because lots of their buyers like to sift through them and are old enough to still use record players.

I went to the eye doctor on the thirteenth for the follow-up to the broken blood vessel at the back of my right eye and was delighted to find that there is no trace of it left.

On Thursday, the fifteenth, I attended Faith’s class and then Saul and I went shopping when he returned from school to pick up produce for Shabbat dinner and the weekend. I could not resist buying two enormous flowering gardenia bushes for $6 apiece, one of which I presented to Faith the next day as she is as smitten with gardenias as I am. That evening, Jessica treated Elaine and me to tickets to a gala fashion show at TBS. Alex was one of the reluctant models. Saul babysat for the girls, fed them pizza, and put them to bed, while we drank flavored martinis and filled ourselves with a huge variety of diminutive foodstuffs—tiny pareve Caesar salads stuffed into cones of bark paper, chicken sausage lo mein in petite take-out boxes, sliders of beef, turkey or veggie with various toppers and sauces, morsels of ceviche, seared mahi, sushi, and felafel to name a few. After the very enjoyable show, in which models of all shapes, sizes and ages displayed very wearable clothes, they began choosing raffle winners. I won $52 in a 50-50, which I gave to Jessica to cover the cost of my ticket. A dessert buffet followed the show which was very attractive in its presentation of tiny desserts, but the desserts were mostly flavorless because they were pareve and made from artificial creams and canned fruits.

After the fashion show, Sami and Izzy came home with us, sleepy, and in their pajamas. They had no school on Friday because of an in-service day for their teachers. Friday morning, we breakfasted on bagels, cheeses, and strawberries. Then we took the girls to Baja Fresh for a lunch of bean and cheese burritos, which they both loved, a rare occurrence. We went to Giant to pick up additional kosher chicken for Shabbat dinner and some other odds and ends. Saul and, particularly, the girls helped me prepare dinner in record time when we returned. We had homemade challah, homemade chicken soup with dumplings that Izzy had helped to make a few months earlier, deviled eggs, Israeli salad, sautéed mushrooms, glazed Brussels sprouts, steamed cauliflower, black and white rice, and chicken paprikash. For dessert, we had fresh strawberries, bananas, grapes, raspberries and cashews dipped in individual pots of chocolate. Beth brought Brenna over after school and we taught her how to form the challah dough into braids. Beth, Brenna, and Faith joined us. Larry stayed home with a fever which turned out, after a visit to the doctor the next day, to be an infection. After dinner, Beth took the three girls next door to her house for a sleepover.

In the morning, before we went off to shul, Beth came over with the three girls and we had a big breakfast of bagels and kippered salmon, salad, and cheeses. When we returned, Beth joined us with Brenna again and we lunched on the leftovers from dinner. After lunch, outside in the gazebo, the girls painted wooden birdhouses that Beth had purchased. Then they played a bickering game of Monopoly. Eventually, we discovered a 5 p.m. showing of the Arrietty movie nearby and took the girls to see it. Saul and I were happy to see it the second time so that we could spend more time taking in the intricate details of the art. I brought them all home as Izzy and Brenna were beginning to get antsy, and made them soba noodles with the leftover sautéed mushrooms from the previous day. After Havdallah, we met Faith with two of her grandchildren, Hillary and Alex, at Friendly’s for ice cream. We invited Brenna to sleep over in Yona’s bed. Everyone went to sleep easily after such a contented day.

On Sunday morning, the girls and I made banana taro pancakes and French toast with whole grain bread accompanied by maple syrup, fresh fruit, juice, and whipped cream. Beth again joined us. They worked with their paints and clay for a while longer after breakfast. Jessica called to say she needed shoes for Yona and clothes for Sami to take to camp. We decided to meet at Nordstrum Rack in King of Prussia. We sent Brenna back to Beth’s house, I fear a bit disgruntled, because she was not accompanying us for lunch later. After an hour of trying on shoes, the girls had what they needed and we walked across the parking lot to our reservations at Bahama Breeze. The waiter was an angel who put in the order for the two hungry and cranky little ones first and returned with their smoothies and food in short order. Once the crankiness disappeared, we had a very enjoyable lunch. Jessica returned the $52 in one-dollar bills that I had won at the fashion show by picking up most of the check for lunch. Saul headed for home to grade papers while I accompanied Jess and the girls to Old Navy where we spent almost two hours helping the girls try on clothing. Sami left with a very reasonably-priced, entire summer wardrobe for camp. The girls ate leftover soba for dinner. We had a mishap where Izzy’s heel found a tiny shard of glass that we had missed after I broke a dish. Jessica removed the shard with magnifying glass and tweezers, applied antiseptic and a band-aid, and left for home with the girls.

Over the weekend, Larry gave me his old iPad as a birthday gift as he had replaced it with the latest model. Among the first apps that we put on it is the Kindle app and I immediately signed up for a Kindle account.

A work crew arrived yesterday and began to hang up plastic barriers against dust from drywall. I decided to stay out of their way in my bedroom and began reading The Hunger Games on my new toy. I spent almost the entire day reading, engrossed in an absorbing tale that is not always very well written. Surprising! But the story was engaging enough that I went on to finish the second book last night. The first movie is coming this weekend and Ari, who also read it, wants to see it. We have plans to visit him again this coming weekend as it is cherry blossom season in DC and we are invited to a party there for Talia’s first birthday. My reading obsession right now is reminiscent of my first encounters with Harry Potter. Today, I actually finished some work, both house and computer, even though the banging on the roof above my head went on for hours as heavy sheaves of new roofing tiles were carried up and dropped there followed by the banging of nail guns as a crew began to affix them in place. When the home improvements are getting me down, I can’t think of a better place to escape than curled up somewhere really comfortable with a good novel.