Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Another opening, another show

It ain't just football season that's starting up this month. Shows are opening all around town.

Tonight, for example, my dearest cozes in The Moth storytelling series alight in Chicago for the first of four monthly evenings of stories told live on stage. It's the last Tuesday of every month at Martyrs, 3855 North Lincoln Avenue. 7:30 p.m. doors, 8 p.m. stories. $7. More information is here.

In the past week I have been fortunate to attend the season openings of two leading Chicago theater companies, Steppenwolf Theatre and the Goodman Theatre.

Steppenwolf kicks off its new season with Fake, a world premiere by ensemble member Eric Simonson. It explores the subject of faith via the early 20th Century discovery in England of the remains of "Piltdown Man," believed at the time to be the missing link between ape and man but later revealed to be a hoax. It didn't blow me away but it's worth seeing. My Flavorpill preview is here.

Last night, the Goodman opened its new slate with a rousing production of Animal Crackers, the 1928 Marx Brothers Broadway smash that preceded the Warner Brothers screen comedy of the same name. After Groucho and co. left New York for Hollywood, the show was considered impossible to produce without its original stars and sat on a shelf for fifty years, but has enjoyed revivals in recent years. This one's funny and entertaining, with rarely seen material from the original Broadway script. My Flavorpill preview is forthcoming.

Now get out there, buy some tickets and support live theater. Football's not 'til this weekend.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Room of Requirement

This isn't just one of the most classically beautiful rooms I've ever visited, it has an impeccable pedigree.

During my recent visit to Stanford University I found myself with several free hours on my hands, so I was in the market for a pleasant place on campus to do some reading and catch up on email. As in all things Stanford, my professor friend and Cardinal expert David P. had an excellent suggestion.

There's a reading room on the fifth floor of the Bing Wing of the Green Library, he explained, that is among the more ideal places on earth to relax. And was he right. With soft leather couches, easy chairs, broad wooden tables, speedy wi-fi signal, shelves full of excellent books, Oriental rugs, sunlight streaming through elegant skylights, tasteful lamps, scenic views of "the farm" (Stanford campus), and an open, inviting layout, this aesthete's delight is about as perfect an answer to a specific request as I've ever gotten.

Interestingly, after twenty years on the Stanford campus, David himself only learned of the reading room in the past few months when a friend tipped him off. He's a math and computer guy who's toiled on the engineering and science side of campus since his undergrad days, eventually getting his Ph.D. in medical informatics (think CAT scans and cancer research), so he's never had much occasion to visit a humanities library like the Green. For him it was all about the science library, which I'll assume is known as the SciLi since everything at Stanford has a cool nickname: the Coffee House is the CoHo, the Florence Moore building is FloMo, frozen yogurt is froyo.

So when David recently asked a colleague to suggest a nice place on campus to sit and work away from their lab, and thus learned about the reading room, he couldn't believe that he'd never known about it. Although it's been sitting right there the whole time, it was an open secret unknown to him until he specifically went looking for it.

It felt to David like a Harry Potter moment. As our fellow Potterphiles know, when Harry needs a private room for a specific purpose (training his friends in magic spells, hiding something valuable, etc.) he repairs to a little-known hall in Hogwarts Castle that exists to help those who seek it, magically providing suitable materials and assuming the proper shape and size to meet the needs of its users. It's known as the Room of Requirement.

Since the reading room so perfectly answered David's request, he's come to think of it as the Room of Requirement. And since it so perfectly answered mine, so have I.

p.s. Thanks to David for letting me share this story. He has been overwhelmed by autograph seekers, groupies and fan clubs since receiving several mentions in this blog over the past few weeks, and after today it's only going to get worse. He might have to hide out in the Room of Requirement.

p.p.s. As a sumptuously comfortable place where students read or do homework, the Green Library reading room is also reminiscent of the Gryffindor common room.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

We don't do what we do

During my recent trip to California, I had lunch in Palo Alto with an old friend who works as a Stanford University professor. As we chatted about work, we noticed something similar about our jobs.

When people ask him what he does, he told me, he responds that he's a professor. Inevitably they then ask what class he teaches, to which he replies, he doesn't. He runs a laboratory in the Stanford radiology department, performing research, earning patents and contributing to the world's knowledge in his field. So although he does instruct and collaborate with the students in his lab, unlike many professors (or at least most people's concept of a professor) he doesn't stand up in front of a lecture hall and teach a class.

I can relate because I'm an attorney who doesn't really practice law. I do occasionally file court papers, appear in courtrooms and work on transactions, but I've mostly left the practice of law behind, spending more of my time as a client than an attorney. I don't bill my time or cultivate a roster of clients. So there we were having lunch, the professor who doesn't teach a class and the lawyer who doesn't practice law.

A few days later I was catching up with another old friend in Berkeley whose parents, whom I know well, also live in the Berkeley area. My friend's dad, a retired radiologist, is an expert pilot on advanced flight simulators. Despite his medical background, he told me that if he were on an airline flight and both pilots had seizures, as a practical matter he would rather take the controls and land the plane himself than try to nurse the pilots back to health.

It felt like he should have been there a few days earlier at the lunch meeting of people who don't do what they do.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Wine country: a photo essay

International Orange.

I first heard that term in a cool Final Jeopardy question many years ago, or should I say, in the answer whose question contestants had to provide. (This was not when I was on the J show, I just remember it.) The category was something like "American Landmarks." I'm going from memory here but the answer was something like, "This popular tourist attraction, the most visited in the world, is painted a color that was created specifically for it and named International Orange."

And the question was: What is the Golden Gate Bridge?

I took the above lousy photo as we approached the G.G.B. from San Francisco. About 40 seconds earlier, we'd rounded a bend and happened upon a perfect postcard view of the bridge. Unfortunately, my camera was buried in a backpack. By the time I had it ready to go, the moment was gone and I ended up with the above snapshot of some guy's car with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background. I am a lousy photographer. That is why I went to law school.

But even I couldn't mess this one up. The scenic outlook on the southern tip of Marin County provides this excellent view of the bridge. Obligatory San Francisco fog: check.

The outlook also afforded the above view of the Bay full of boats out for a Labor Day ride, plus Alcatraz Island and the San Francisco skyline. I found it quite exciting at the time, but the above photo is pretty boring. I guess you had to be there.

So do I.

We spotted this car as we made our way north into Marin County. In addition to Buffy, I also love the fact that California vanity plate buyers get to use hearts. Are you listening, Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White?

This intersection presents a difficult trilemma. You've got three tempting choices: north to Geyserville, south to Napa, and east into downtown Calistoga. I love me some Calistoga. It's a pretty little wine country town with hot springs, mud baths, and laid-back people. I was there six years ago and liked it so much I made a point of returning.

Actually there are two other good options at this intersection: stay at the Craftsman Inn, visible at right, or eat at Buster's BBQ, at left. We did both of these.

Eventually we got into wine country proper, where something called the Napa Valley Wine Train passed by. How great is that? I wanted a photo of it but got the above photo of some other guy's car with the Napa Valley Wine Train barely visible in the background. I told you I was a lousy photographer.

Squint and you can make out the name of the train above its windows.

We stopped here for beer but they didn't have any.

But did they ever have the whole grapevine thing covered.

A closer look at the vines. Are they even vines? They look like little trees but I assume they're vines that have been trained to grow vertically with the white sticks along the "trunks." Wine making is like photography, I got nothing.

Look at those grapes. They're not as big as the grapes most of us buy in the grocery store, and they have seeds, but they do taste good...

...which I proved by trying a couple, sticking it to the big corporate winery by eating some of their profits. The above shot of a misdemeanor in progress is as close as I will ever get to an action photo.

An unfortunate side effect of eating grapes directly from the vine is that I am now a complete grape snob who refuses to eat any grape that was picked over ten seconds earlier.

I always thought "CS" in boldface Helvetica was the nickname of an obnoxious glossy magazine called Chicago Social, but it also turns out to be shorthand for Cabernet Sauvignon. I discovered this after nicking the grapes in the previous photo. I'm glad they didn't turn out to be Merlot grapes because I crave the respect of Paul Giamatti.

Yes, we also visited smaller wineries than the massive house of Mondavi. E.g., we had a nice chat with a mellow California vintner dude and bought some vino at the Camellia Cellars tasting room. We also visited Healdsburg, a beautiful enclave and home to several dozen wineries including La Crema, the favorite label of a buddy of mine. But I didn't take pictures of any of these places. Now I'll have to go back. See how I did that?

Actually, this is a better action shot than the first one. I snapped this picture of a "West Zinfandel Ln" street sign at around 40 miles an hour. Someone alert the Pulitzer committee.

As we made our way back into civilization on Sunday evening of Labor Day weekend, my friend's Toyota Camry started to lose power, dying and restarting a few times in the crawling traffic on the 101 South. This was after she'd owned it for several years with no issues. The problems started shortly after I started driving the car for the first time. I also happen to drive a lemon in Chicago. I am trying not to take this all personally.

Eventually the car died for good in Sausalito about two miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge. We were in the left lane of a four-lane expressway. There was no shoulder on either side. You know those horrible people whose car is stalled with flashing lights, blocking traffic on a packed highway, being showered with obscenities shouted by passing drivers? We were Those People.

We called AAA and it seemed like a nightmare was starting. After several minutes of explaining our predicament to an operator who was physically in the Midwest and mentally somewhere past Neptune, my patient friend (a University of Chicago graduate) still hadn't convinced the operator that we were in neither Sacramento nor, after an extensive discussion of 101 South, Los Angeles.

Happily, our deus ex machina arrived ten minutes later in the form of Bill, a passing tow truck driver on the way home from work who happened to be a Triple-A driver. He also happened to be the nicest, coolest, most competent, and most awesome person in the history of everything. Within a few minutes we were on our way.

I took this photo of the sunset over the Pacific Ocean from the passenger seat of Bill's truck as we drove over the bridge.

I never thought I'd start a phone call with the unlikely words "I'm on the Golden Gate Bridge in a tow truck," but I did so moments later. I now realize that before doing so my life was sadly incomplete.

Bill's rescue only looked more fortuitous when we discovered that the AAA operator hadn't done anything productive after all. She'd tried to send a truck but described our location so poorly in the AAA dispatch computer that we'd have remained stranded if someone had tried to follow her garbled directions. (I don't know whether anyone did; Bill canceled the request as soon as we were on our way.) I've never had a problem with AAA in Chicago, but apparently in California, as in baseball, AAA is one level below the pros.

Above photo: Best Guy Ever.

It turned out our guy was not the Bill Wren stenciled on the truck, but a Bill who worked for Bill Wren. He delivered our car to a local San Francisco garage, then went the extra mile (literally) and dropped us off at my friend's place because he lives nearby. I returned the favor by tipping him handsomely and blowing his mind with a quick card trick, then we sent him on his way.

Bill, wherever you are, thank you for preventing what might have become a disastrous end to a relaxing Labor Day weekend. And to all the great people we met in wine country, I hope to see you again soon.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Where's the host of this party?

On vacation, that's where. I've had a wonderful time over the past week in California, with several more days in store. Unfortunately (fortunately?) the whirlwind of travel activity has eaten into my blogging time, hence my not touching base here over the last week.

But just as Hemingway slummed in Paris cafes and caught bullfights in Spain so he'd have something to write about, so has my western jeremiad provided some grist for this mill. Ever mindful of my literally tens of readers, I've got a few stories half-written in my mind that I will post, fully written yet typically half-baked, in the days to come.

The goal of the trip was to catch up with friends around the Bay Area, which I certainly have done. But in so doing I've also gone native with, inter alia, such site-specific local experiences as:
  • Comparing the goods in the vineyard tasting rooms of Napa and Sonoma (it all just tastes like wine to me, but what's not to like?)

  • Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge in a tow truck

  • Banging out a Saturday New York Times crossword puzzle in the town square in Healdsburg, a picturesque village in the heart of wine country, after a delicious lunch on the terrace of the unapologetically bourgeois Oakville Grocery

  • Recalibrating my definition of the word "charming" at the Craftsman Inn, a British-owned bed and breakfast in the deeply likeable hot-springs town of Calistoga (a portmanteau for "California's Saratoga"); try the barbecue place next door

  • Visiting Stanford Law School to attend a criminal law lecture by a brilliant professor whom I worked for during the summer after my first year at Northwestern Law School; he was later recruited by Stanford to head their legal clinic

  • Reuning with my other favorite Stanford professor, a high school friend who moved to Palo Alto for college and never left (he stayed for his PhD and is now on the radiology faculty), over lunch at the sparkling new cafeteria in the Clark Center, named for former Netscape CEO Jim Clark; other campus edifices with familiar names include the William Gates computer science building and the cutely adjacent Hewlett and Packard buildings

  • Playing tennis with a national-caliber amateur player at his beautiful oceanfront tennis club in downtown San Francisco, where they're lucky enough to play outdoors year-round; under his tutelage I hit some authoritative backhands I'd never hit before

  • Sampling the lobster roll at Sam's Chowder House in Half Moon Bay, named among the top five sandwiches in America by NBC's Today show; I don't know how they or anyone could plausibly make that claim, but it certainly was not among the five worst; it was excellent

  • Catching a San Francisco Giants day game at scenic AT&T Park, now oddly bereft of the Barry Bonds mania I recall from my last visit six years ago, much as no one at Wrigley Field now seems to remember the once-iconic Sammy Sosa; the Giants lost to the Padres but are still fighting for the National League wild card playoff spot

  • Meting out some frontier justice, Texas Hold'em style, to the local boys at Artichoke Joe's casino, where the $1 chips are green and the action is furious; founded in San Bruno in 1916 as Joe's Pool Parlor and horse racing bookmaker, it's still family-owned to this day; it changed its name to Artichoke Joe's in 1921 after the owner said he'd pay off a big bet "in artichoke leaves"

What am I leaving out? Plenty, but that's a representative sample. More to come.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Grape expectations

I will be spending the holiday weekend in Napa and Sonoma, California, enjoying the harvest season as only a non-drinker can. (I was going to the Bay Area anyway.) Of course, there are also the rolling hills of grapevine plants, excellent restaurants and natural hot springs to recommend wine country. It's a very relaxing place to, in the words of David Foster Wallace, get away from already being pretty much away from it all.

Still, you don't even have to leave Cook County, Illinois much less pay a $15 airline fee to check one standard-size bag as I just did (don't get me started) to enjoy all things vino in a festive atmosphere. Not this weekend but next, the Windy City Wine Festival takes place downtown all day Friday and Saturday. Wine tastings, gourmet food, chef and sommelier lectures, beer garden, live music. Unlike me, they don't spell "wine festival" with an H after the W. My Flavorpill preview is here.

This all brings to mind Dana Goodyear's entertaining New Yorker article from a few months ago about wine industry maverick Fred Franzia. He's the controversial vintner family scion who sells oceans of wine as "Napa" product, which it often is in only the most technical sense. Franzia also pioneered the "super-value" category, most notably via $1.99 bottles of the Trader Joe's house brand, Charles Shaw, nicknamed "Two Buck Chuck." An abstract of the article appears here but you have to be a New Yorker subscriber to read it in its entirety. If you want to read it and are friends with a subscriber, perhaps they'll email you a copy.

OK, enough about wine. Tomorrow: women and song.