Saturday, September 12, 2009

Day 339/365 - Opera in the Outfield

Tonight was the Washington National Opera's second annual "Opera in the Outfield" and I went along with my friends Chris, Desiree, and Adriana and some of my co-workers. For the past two years, the WNO has aired a simulcast of its season-opening performance on the big HD scoreboard at Nationals Park (DC's baseball stadium). It's completely free to attend and you're allowed to sit in either the stands in the lower seating bowl or park your butt on a stretch of outfield grass.

Last year we sat in the stands until the intermission and then moved down onto the grass, but this year we opted to spend the entire time in the outfield. The sound quality is certainly much better in the stands, but it's just more fun to be laying back on a blanket on the grass under the stars and watching the opera. It's always a funny contrast when the simulcast begins and they show the crowd at the Kennedy Center on the screen. They're all gussied up in tuxedos and fancy gowns and there we are in jeans and t-shirts, eating hot dogs and drinking beer.

This year's season opener for the WNO was Rossini's comic gem, "The Barber of Seville." Although I'd seen "The Marriage of Figaro" before, I'd never seen its prequel "Barber of Seville." As with last year, before the simulcast began they showed a Bugs Bunny cartoon on the screen. This time it was the perfectly appropriate "Rabbit of Seville." The opera was even funnier than the cartoon. It's a story of love, greed, disguises, schemes, ruses and plots and the WNO's staging had several broad, slapstick-ish elements that were hilarious.

The singers in tonight's company were all excellent, and for a change the male performers were just as skilled at acting as were the women. It's been my experience that female opera performers are equally good at both the acting and singing required by the genre, while the men tend to focus almost entirely on their singing and settle for the most wooden, rudimentary, declamatory style of acting. The male performers in "Barber of Seville" thankfully didn't settle for that and their acting was generally excellent.

The crowd seemed bigger than it did last year and the concession lines were fairly crazy, but it was still a great night out. After the opera, my friend Chris got touched by divine inspiration and decided we should make a run to Krispy Kreme. As we neared the store, we saw that the "hot donuts now" sign was lit and we got as giddy as little kids. The four of us split a dozen donuts, which meant we each got to pick three. Chris and Des went for three of the hot glazed, I went for three of the chocolate iced cake donuts, and Adri mixed and matched. Then we sat there under the glowing neon sign and scarfed them all down. It was the perfect nightcap to our evening of high culture and low comedy.

(Taken with my Nikon D90)

Friday, September 11, 2009

Day 338/365 - My 9/11 Story

This is the exact spot where I was standing on the morning of September 11, 2001 when the terrorist attacks occurred. It's a little park adjoining the back lawn of the White House of Washington, DC. The Eleventh was the second day of my brother's vacation in DC. He, my sister-in-law, and a couple of their friends came out to visit me and see the sights. They'd toured the National Mall on their own the day before while I went to work, but I took the Eleventh off so I could take them on a tour of the White House. I don't remember what else we had planned to do that day.

The four of them had battled DC traffic the day before, but on the Eleventh we followed my usual commuting pattern instead. We caught the bus that stopped at the end of my street and rode it to the Pentagon, where we caught the subway into the District. We got into DC at a little after 7:00 a.m. to get in line at the White House Visitor's Center for tour tickets, only to find that because it was no longer peak tourist season, they weren't bothering with tickets. Tours started at 9:00 a.m. and if you wanted to go on one you just got in line at this little park and waited your turn. After finding that out, we went to get breakfast, spent some time sitting around in Freedom Plaza, and then came to this spot to get in line.

We were standing there along with a gaggle of other visitors. The squirrels in that park were very accustomed to people and they were coming up and eating out people's hands while other tourists laughed and took photos. It was just another quiet, pleasant, run-of-the-mill morning in Washington, DC. My sister-in-law, who is very friendly, wandered up to the head of the line to chat with the NPS ranger who was standing there and then came back to relay the fact that he'd told her two planes had just hit the Twin Towers in New York. I knew something was happening then. One plane could have been some sort of accident. Two had to be something more sinister. I was puzzled and uneasy but didn't know what to make of things at that point.

My sister-in-law then went off to visit the ladies' room at the Ellipse and shortly thereafter my brother and I looked up and saw a crowd of people running in our direction and away from the White House. The White House was being evacuated. My brother and I walked over to the ladies' room to corral my sister-in-law and that's when I saw an enormous cloud of smoke on the horizon to the southwest. It was the widest and darkest cloud of smoke I'd ever seen and it just kept pouring up into the sky. My sister-in-law caught up with us and told us someone had said another plane had hit the CIA building. I remember frowning in the direction of the smoke column and saying "that's not where the CIA building is. The CIA is out in the middle of nowhere." Then after a pause it hit me. "That's where the Pentagon is." We had just been there a few hours earlier.

I knew then we had to put some distance between us and any other likely targets. I grabbed my brother and my sister-in-law and we went to retrieve their friends who were still standing along this wall. The four of us then started heading toward the Federal Triangle subway station to take the train home. At that time, I lived on the border of Alexandria and Annandale. The nearest Metro stop to me was the Van Dorn Street Station. We'd have to catch a bus there that would take us to my apartment. I knew we weren't going to be getting off at the Pentagon and catching the bus that had brought us in.

On our walk to the Federal Triangle station, one of my sister-in-law's friends stopped to film the scene with her video camera. I was more than a bit brusque and bluntly told her that now was not the time to be taking movies. Now was the time to be getting the hell out of town. We got on a train and headed toward Virginia. There was a small, Middle Eastern-looking man on our train who looked absolutely terrified that he would be singled out and attacked by an angry mob. My sister-in-law, who is one of the sweetest women you could ever meet, tried to reassure him and make him feel better as our train traveled along.

After making a few stops, the train driver came over the PA and told us that no trains were going south of the Pentagon station. We were going to be stopping at Rosslyn, where we could catch a bus to take us further. Things were surprisingly organized when we got off at Rosslyn and went outside to the street. There was a Metro supervisor there who told us where to stand and informed us that buses were on the way to take us south into Virginia. He wasn't sure how long it would take for them to arrive.

I thought it would most likely be at least another half-hour before the bus came, so I walked across the street to a fast food restaurant to buy a drink. I had just bought my drink when I looked out the window and saw that a bus was pulling up. I hustled back across and the street to rejoin my brother and company and we piled on that first bus leaving Rosslyn. The bus driver told us that she would be taking us to the Pentagon City station where we could catch another subway train to continue our journey.

That's when our odyssey really began. Before we'd gotten much farther south Metro HQ contacted our bus driver and told her she couldn't take us to Pentagon City. We then wound up making multiple loops around Rosslyn and along the Potomac River. I remember pointing out the Watergate Complex to my brother and sister-in-law and then seeing it go by again several time as we kept driving in circles while our driver was on the radio with Metro HQ seeking new instructions.

I'd never seen so many people out walking along the streets. Most hadn't been as fortunate as we had been in catching a bus and they were all streaming homeward on foot along the side of the roads. As we were making multiple circuits of Rosslyn, I tried to call my parents on my cellphone to let them know we were all right, but the network was overloaded and I couldn't get a dial tone. My sister-in-law didn't have any better luck in trying to reach her and my brother's children.

Finally, the bus driver announced that she would be taking us to Shirlington. I knew that we could catch a bus there that would take us to my apartment. When we got to Shirlington, my sister-in-law walked over to a gas station to use the rest room and when she came back she told us what she'd seen on the news reports on the tv at the gas station. She'd also finally been able to get through to my niece to let her know that we were all okay. I still hadn't had any luck in reaching my parents.

We waited at the Shirlington stop for about 30 minutes before the bus came and finally took us home. From the phone in my apartment I was at last able to call my parents and reassure them that we were okay and tell them we had gotten out of DC and were back safe at my place. Like everyone else in the country, we then spent the rest of that day sitting in front of the tv as the news of that day's tragic events unfolded. Like everyone else in the country, we were also shocked, saddened, frightened, worried, confused, and angry.

But we were alive and healthy and together and that is a great blessing that many other thousands of people were denied that terrible September day.

(Taken with my Nikon Coolpix S200)

Day 337/365 - Circling the Bases

This is the mobile that hangs from the ceiling near the home plate gate at Nationals Park in DC. There are four big cylinders with baseball players on them that rotate slowly as a nearby speaker plays "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." It's a cool, artsy element of the ballpark that most people miss because not much traffic passes through the home plate gate. And the people that do pass by tend not to look up.

There were a host of reasons to skip tonight's game: it was a rather chilly evening at the ballpark, there are only a couple weeks left in the season, the Nats are 48-92, they'd lost 9 of their last 10 games, they were playing the defending World Series champs, and they long ago surrendered any hope of making the playoffs. But I went despite all that.

Tonight's game was being started by once and current Nats heavyweight hurler Livan Hernandez (Viva Livo!). It was also the major league debut of Nats shortstop and September call-up Ian Desmond. Desmond had quite the coming out party. He got his first hit and his first home run and drove in four runs, a franchise record for a player making his major league debut. He also made an error on an airmailed throw to first, but atoned for it in the end.

After quickly going down 2-0 in the first inning, the Nats tied it up the third, scored the go ahead run in the fourth, and surged to a 6-run lead in the fifth. Then things got a little more interesting than they needed to in the 9th. The Phillies scored 5 runs in the top of the frame, with the majority of them coming on a pinch hit grand slam by Matt Stairs.

With the Nats clinging precariously to a 1-run lead with only 1 out and runners on the corners, Ian Desmond scooped up a Ryan Howard grounder and started the game-ending double play to preserve the victory for Livo. And that's why you go to games at the end of the season when both the temperature and your team are lowly -- you never know what might happen.

Baseball... it's like a slow motion roller coaster.

(Taken with my Nikon Coolpix S200)

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Day 336/365 - Muffin Man

For this week's self-portrait we have a shot of me standing in the kitchen of my apartment with a batch of apple ginger muffins fresh from the oven. We're having a little breakfast get-together at my office tomorrow morning to welcome a new attorney into the fold. Various members of the office will be baking/buying treats to bring into work and I decided to make a batch of muffins. They turned out to be pretty good, although you can't really taste the ginger in them.

p.s. - the recipe I used can be found here.

(Taken with my Nikon D90)

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Day 335/365 - 700 Sundays

Tonight I went to the National Theater to see Billy Crystal's one-man show "700 Sundays." I had never seen Billy Crystal on stage before and I was hoping he was still funny. He was, although the show was also sad. It's a biographical reminiscence of his time growing up on Long Island and the wonderful and eclectic cast of characters that passed through his life. It's funny, sweet, sad, and surprisingly informative. Most of the laughs are to be had in the first half, where I laughed so much my stomach hurt and I got a bit lightheaded. The show takes a more somber turn in the second half, but there are still several funny moments sprinkled throughout.

It's a show about life, love, laughs, and loss. If you're familiar with his work you'll have heard some of the material before, but that doesn't make it any less worth seeing. After it ends, you know so much about Billy Crystal that you feel almost as though he were an old friend of yours. I didn't realize that tonight was the first time he'd performed the show in front of an audience for two years. Despite the long layoff, he was great.

(Taken with my Nikon Coolpix S200)

Monday, September 7, 2009

Day 334/365 - Monday in Manhattan

For the final day of my Labor Day weekend in New York I got up, checked out of my hotel, left my bag, and headed to Brooklyn. There is a park in the DUMBO section of Brooklyn that borders the East River and sits between the spans of the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges. There are great views from there I'd wanted to visit it the first time I went to Brooklyn back in 2001, but I couldn't find it then. As I discovered repeatedly on this trip, navigating New York City is much easier when you have an iPhone.

After finding the park, I walked back into Manhattan across the Brooklyn Bridge and went to get breakfast at the Empire Diner. It's such a cool little restaurant. It looks the way all diners should, and the food is not bad either. I believe it was one of Bette Davis' favorite places to eat in the city. With a bellyfull of french toast and bacon, I set off for Central Park. This was the first time I'd been to the uppermost portion of the park. There is a wilderness section there called the North Woods that was landscaped to resemble the forests of upstate New York. I even found a waterfall there. It's amazing to me that Central Park was built from scratch with truckload after truckload of rocks and dirt. I originally thought it was just a part of the city they'd preserved in its natural state, but it's not. It's entirely manmade.

When I'd finished meandering through the park, I went to the Museum of the City of New York. They had a really cool historical photography exhibit there, along with waterfront dioramas and recreations of old home interiors. I picked up a nice book full of photos taken in New York between 1920 and 1945. I've wished for some time I could have visited the city during that period, and now I guess I sort of can. After the museum, it was time for me to dash back to my hotel, pick up my bag, and head to Penn Station to catch my train back to DC.

So ended the final day of my weekend getaway, and what a whirlwind trip it was.

(Taken with my Nikon D90)

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Twice on Sunday Bonus Photo - New York Vignette

For this week's extra photo from my archives, we have this shot I took last Thanksgiving of a pair of passersby framed in the opening of a Central Park bridge in New York City.

(Taken with my Nikon D80)

Day 333/365 - So Long to Summer

I think I rode the subway more today than I ever have on any one day. I started out the morning by following Duke Ellington's advice and taking the "A" train up to 125th Street. 125th is the heart and historic main street of Harlem. I walked along 125th and saw both the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theater. It's not the original Cotton Club, but still. It's the Cotton Club. Then it was back on the subway to Fort Tryon Park at the very northern tip of Manhattan to go to the Cloisters.

The Cloisters is part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and houses a collection of medieval art and architecture. In addition to the art it contains, the building itself is also very interesting. It's composed of the scavenged remains of several old French monasteries and it's at the top of a hill in a forested park that overlooks the river. I'd been wanting to visit there, but given that it is so far away from the main part of Manhattan I'd never made the time until today. Glad I did.

After the Cloisters, I got back on the train for a verrrrrry long subway ride from the northernmost part of Manhattan to the southernmost part of Brooklyn, Coney Island to be exact. I was determined to go to the beach at least once this summer. It was late afternoon when I finally got there and the beach was largely empty. It was a bit chilly and the wind was kicking up and sand was filling the air so much that it looked smoggy or hazy out. I didn't care. I was in Coney Island.

My first stop was at Nathan's famous hot dog stand to grab a hot dog with sauerkraut and a corn dog. Then I walked along the beach, waded in the ocean (brrrr!), and wandered down the boardwalk to Brighton Beach before hopping back on the subway and heading to the west side of Manhattan to see the High Line. The High Line is a set of old elevated railroad tracks that have been converted into an urban park. The tracks used to take freight trains directly into the old warehouses that used to populate the lower west side of the city. It's an interesting little park and it gives you a view of Manhattan that you don't normally get -- above the street but below the rooftops.

No rest for the weary, it was time to go back to my hotel, change clothes, grab dinner at the Bridge Cafe, and then dash off to Birdland to hear some jazz. I got there 15 minutes late but it worked out fine because the band started playing seconds after I arrived. First time I've ever made a dramatic entrance. It was Andy Farber's Big Band. I'd never heard of them before, but they were quite good. They played a mix of their own compositions, along with big band and bebop jazz. It was Birdland, it was New York, and it was jazz. I was in heaven.

When the gig ended, the night still wasn't over yet for me. On the way back downtown I stopped off at McSorley's Old Ale House for a beer (or two, actually). McSorley's is another place I'd been meaning to visit but had never done so. It's sort of cool. They serve one thing there -- beer -- and it comes in two varieties, light and dark. I went with the dark. It's probably the most unhygenic bar I've ever been in, but it was fun to go.

After finishing my beers, it was one last subway ride back to my hotel and the second day of my weekend getaway finally came to a close.

(Taken with my Nikon D90)