Thursday, October 30, 2008

Pho = Warmth

Back in Chicago, Mike and I were hungry and in a bit of a hurry. I'd read in my guidebook about a no-frills deli not far from our hotel, and that seemed like a good way to fill our stomachs.

But on our way there we walked by a restaurant with outdoor seating and the smell of the food being served was incredible. The restaurant looked fancier than we were in the mood for--white tablecloths, rich women with high-end shopping bags, waiters in suits--but we couldn't get over how good the food smelled, so we got a table and ordered up some lunch.

Thank goodness we stopped.

What you are looking at is the finest bowl of pho M or I have ever consumed. The balance of flavors in the oxtail broth was incredible and the cuts of beef tenderloin were absolutely sublime--they just melted on the tongue. The restaurant's name is Le Colonial and their focus is French-Vietnamese fine dining. We got the pho as a starter, but sadly, neither of our follow-up dishes scored anywhere near the ballpark of the pho. We both wished we'd simply ordered two bowls of the pho instead.

Back in Seattle, M and I were introduced to the joys of pho by the Than brothers, who serve up a more everyday kind of pho with a more everyday price tag. They started a pho house in north Seattle in 1996 and quickly expanded all over the city. You can't get anything but pho there: many varieties of beef, or chicken, or vegetarian. And each meal begins with a complimentary (and complementary) cream puff. The puffs are so good that when M and I got married in 2000, we ordered five hundred of them and stacked them into towers instead of serving cake--a tradition my sister and her husband continued when they got married this summer.

When we're in Seattle, we often get into cream puff eating competitions with Mike's sister and brother. I believe that Mary is the reigning champion, having swallowed 15 cream puffs in one sitting, but if I've got that wrong, forgive me. (They take the competition very seriously.)

So tonight, in chilly Brooklyn, far from either Chicago or Seattle, I started dreaming of pho, and I remembered a place on Atlantic that had served us pho once before: Nicky's. I called and ordered two bowls of pho and two bahn mi sandwiches. An intolerable 45 minutes later, the food finally arrived.

When you order pho to go, they separate out the broth from the meat and the noodles and the vegetable matter so that you can assemble it fresh just before you eat it. Also, some of the meat is raw, so that it will be cooked by the hot broth.

I took the two containers of broth and, though they were still hot, I heated them on my stove until they were boiling. The pod of star anise gave off the most heavenly aroma. And then I poured the broth into two big glass bowls and we each set about assembling our pho, me with more plum sauce, M with more sriracha.

I tell you, it was so, so good, that I'd wait an hour for it again. I really would. And it was so filling that I had to put my bahn mi in the fridge for tomorrow's lunch. (But I scored a bite off of M's so I know it's going to be delicious.)

Then we hunkered down with our two mighty bowls and watched last night's episodes of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report on while the dog anxiously fluttered between our feet, hoping we might drop some part of our meal.

We did not.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Ancho Chile Lesson

I would have included this photo in the round-up below, but I had to scan it in first.

We ate a lot of chiles on that trip to New Mexico--green, red, roasted, stewed, and even the green chile cheeseburger they serve at the McDonald's in Los Alamos. I wouldn't call myself a chile expert now by any means, but I do know my answer to the official New Mexican state question, "Red or Green?"


Monday, October 27, 2008

A Dramatic Exit

Oh, what a night we had at yesterday's opening. The house was packed with Public and Pub staff, lots of donors, a few friends, and a few stray members of the press. Mike was in fine form and the performance was electric. After having heard this monologue 37 times since it was born 4 months ago, it's been hard for me to come to recent performances with a fresh "beginner's mind."

But last night it was not a problem. I was there, and I was rapt, and Mike made me laugh and think and feel in new ways again. Lovely.

Also, I eschewed my usual no-nonsense Dansko clogs for ridiculously high black heels my much-sexier little sister had advised me to purchase months earlier, and I wore peacock feather earrings and painted my nails bright red between the matinee and evening performances. I felt good.

The after-party was terrific, and we closed the Pub down drinking with our crew and a few members of the Pub's waitstaff, with whom we otherwise never have a chance to connect. In fact, we were having such a good time, we all decided to head over to a nearby bar to finish the night off, and it was then, as we were leaving the lobby of the theater, glowy and triumphal, that I stepped incorrectly on the stairs and managed to twist the heck out of my ankle.

I come from a long line of fainters. Something about our low blood pressure, perhaps? I don't know. All I knew last night was that I was in serious pain and I was fighting for consciousness--the bleary vision, the sudden sheet of sweat, the mouth filling with saliva--and I managed to stumble out into the cool night air and lay my overdressed self down on the dirty New York sidewalk.

Someone brought me a napkin full of ice, someone else brought me some water, and eventually, we made it into a cab and home, where I admired my swollen ankle between teary applications of ice. I may also have made a few extremely dramatic statements about how when we are ill we are truly alone, and while it's easy to share in other people's joy, no one is ever willing to share in someone else's pain . . . (All while longsuffering M was fluffing my pillows and fetching me ibuprofen and water and placing the ice-pack exactly as I directed it.)

Today I called my doctor, whom I really adore. He's a rheumatologist, and he comes to see our shows, and he takes great care of me. He got me in for an x-ray right away and happily, there was no break, just a badly sprained ankle. So it's rest, ice, compression, and elevation for me for the next two to six weeks.

That, and finding new ways to be nice to Michael, who in addition to enduring last night's drama now has to take Baci on all his walks, at least for the next 48 hours. Sigh.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Bright Alchemy

Before we leave October, I want to post pictures from our trip to New Mexico last October, when we were doing research for the new monologue. I'm thinking about it a lot because that's the monologue we're now doing in New York seven times a week, and I figured folks who have seen the show might enjoy seeing some of these pictures.

I have to start with Ed Grothus, who runs the Black Hole, and who came to see our show on his 85th birthday when we performed it in Santa Fe this summer.

You can see Ed in action here, and I know that Morning Edition is going to be doing a big piece on him shortly, to which I'll provide a link once it's up. He's a real character, and his devotion to his cause is inspiring. His shop is a must-see if you ever get the chance to visit New Mexico.

Yes, that's a daisy made out of 1,000 pound bomb casings split in half, with a grouping of detonators forming the flower's core. And below you'll see a picture of atomic bomb detonator cables for two dollars a piece.

We stayed with my father and his wife who live in Albuquerque and are extremely gracious and enthusiastic hosts.

On a side note, he has a blog of his own, and like the best blogs, his editorial focus is quite specific. It's a weekly dispatch from his adventures riding the bus, and his sharp but nonjudgmental observations make for a nice window into another corner of the world.

They took us to the Balloon Fiesta, for which Albuquerque is world-famous. Turns out you have to leave your house at 4 AM if you want to be there for the mass ascension, which apparently we did. It was cold and dark, but there were vendors lined up and selling breakfast burritos with green chiles and watery (but warm) hot chocolate, for which we were grateful.

Mike was groggy and irradiated, having made the pilgrimage to the Trinity blast site the day before (I chose to stay behind and learn how to roast ancho chiles with my father instead). He saw most of his balloons by peaking out from the blanket he was shivering beneath.

It also turns out that conditions have to be just right for a balloon to be able to take off. And special shapes, like this Darth Vader balloon, have a more difficult time than standard shapes, but they also draw bigger cheering sections.

Friday, October 17, 2008

JM's Dream

Maybe it was yesterday's talk of outsourcing killing, but last night I dreamt that M and I were subsidizing our income by taking on contract killing while on the road. It was perfect--we breezed into a town to do a show, took out the target sometime between tech and opening, and then skipped town long before anyone would ever suspect us.

I write "us," but even in the dream it was Mike doing all the dirty work while I merely helped coordinate logistics via iPhone texts. (Yeah, brilliant move, that. Leave a big old trail, why don't you.)

We were in a city that had a huge sports arena next to a huge concert hall (in my dream logic I decided it was Philadelphia) and I was listening to a piece of music being performed by fifty violins when I suddenly realized, Hey, we're killing people. That's not cool, that's not sexy, that's horrible.

M had a simultaneous come-t0-Jesus and sought me out, saying, "Isn't the most important rule of monloguing this: 'First, do no harm'?"

We agreed to mend our evil ways and immediately cease all killing, but it was too late. They were on to us for a previous offense, a botched job from the start. Our lives as we knew them were over, but even worse was the realization that we'd have to live knowing what we'd done.

I woke from the dream at 5 AM and turned to M and made him promise never to become a hitman as a side job, no matter how lucrative. Of all the weird wake-from-a-dream-and-elicit-a-promise moments we've shared in our twelve years together, that was probably the easiest one for him to agree to.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


"To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul."
--Simone Weil

We're back in New York now, back in our apartment, and we'll be here through at least November. I hadn't realized how much I missed it until now.

As I write this, I'm sitting on the couch in the front room, the pug is a soft black line between me and my laptop, and M sleeps in the bed, emitting an occasional sigh or snore. We live in a garden apartment, and one of the best things about that is being able to leave our back door open at night, as we do for most of spring and fall. Right now there's a fresh breeze blowing in from the garden helping to displace some of our accumulated dust.

It's October, which means that the wasps who live somewhere in our walls are also back. It's the strangest thing: we moved here in October seven years ago, and as we were carrying in the boxes I looked down at my pants leg and saw a wasp gripping my corduroy. I screamed and dropped the box. I've always had an outsized reaction to bees, wasps, and hornets and give them far more credit for possessing a kind of evil intellect than the simple creatures deserve.

(Ongoing debate between M and me: Can bees/wasps/hornets smell fear? And if you kill one of them, do they emit a pheromone that calls out to their brothers, "Avenge me, avenge me, aveeeeeeeeenge meeeeeeeeee..."?)

We figured out they were coming from behind the radiator in the front room and went down into the basement to seek out their nest, but couldn't find it. Then November came and they were gone, so we stopped worrying about it. Next October, they appeared again. This cycle has been repeated many times, with searching by our landlady and an actual exterminator, but no one can find their home. And since we've never been stung (they are very sluggish, climbing slowly up the glass of the front window as if drugged) and since they always leave come November, we've learned to accept them as another marker of time.

It also helps that M kills them for me. I'll be working at my desk when suddenly I'll hear it, the quietest of alarms--two pieces of paper slowly sliding against each other, that's what it sounds like when they move. Usually the poor thing is crawling his way up the window, which makes him easy to spot, and I call out to M who saunters in and applies the blunt end of his chopstick to the insect's center, killing it instantly. Then he has to clean up the carcass and dispose of it outside because I've seen too many horror movies to let something like that remain in my home. Plus, there's that pheromone thing.

Sometimes the creature will get further, though. One made it all the way from the window to my foot. I was at my desk, working on my computer, when suddenly the hairs on the back of my neck pricked up and I looked down just in time to see the little beast attempting to bridge the gap between carpet and my shoe.

Did I step on it myself? No. I've always managed to find a way to outsource my killing. Before M there was my sister Ruth, who got a kind of thrill from rescuing her older sister from spiders and stinging things. Hey, I'm happy to play the part of the rescued damsel so long as someone else is doing the dirty work.

All of which is to say, it's good to be home.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Guess Where?

"A consideration of the imagination is the shared province of philosophy, religion, art, psychology, politics, culture and science. Our participation in all of these realms depends on a moment of the "What if?" The theater, as a community-engendered and -received imagining, is a particularly potent arena in which to investigate this profound human resource. The imagination is the zone of our contact, the place where we meet and begin our conversation."

--Martha Lavey, Artistic Director of Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Monday, October 6, 2008

New England Mini-Tour

Last week the TRAVELMONKEYS team headed up to New England to teach some workshops at Colby College in Waterville, Maine; see some family and friends; perform the new monologue; and then drive to Burlington, Vermont, to perform a different piece at the University of Vermont.

A lot of people wonder how we fly with the dog. Here's Baci, demonstrating his in-flight kennel. It slides right under the seat in front of us and for long, cross-country trips, we'll give him a sedative. We've been flying with him since he was a puppy, so he's used to the routine. When we're getting our suitcases out we put out his bag too and he hops inside then stares at me until I give him a treat.

After we flew into Portland, we picked up our rental car and then drove up to Waterville. Baci likes to ride with his front paws on the raised thingamathing between us so he can look out the window.

Mike's mom came over to the campus to have lunch with us. She looks fantastic and we had a great visit as Mike showed her photos from his trip to Tajikistan.

Often we'll leave Baci behind at the hotel while we tech the show. He's not a barker, thank goodness, and seems more than happy to curl up on the bed and sleep until we get back. But our day was back-t0-back with events, so in this case, we brought him with us.

This is also where Michael went to undergrad, so this stage holds a lot of meaning for him as it's really where he cut his performance teeth. And ever since we co-taught a course here a few years ago, it holds a special place in my heart, too.

Part of our itinerant lifestyle means that we have pockets of friends whom we get to check in with every couple of years. It's neat, being able to keep up with folks who might otherwise have slipped through the cracks. Here we are backstage at the theater with Lisa, who also went to Colby with Mike, and Luke, whom Mike actually taught theater to when he was in high school. (And now Luke's teaching high school math! And he has an excellent blog.)

Mike's dad and his wife Nancy came to see the show as well, and we met up the next morning for breakfast. (Note the cookies Nancy's clutching. Bob is always baking up something special, and in this case, he made us cookies for the drive ahead. So sweet!)

But not as sweet as this little guy, our nephew, Nicholas. M and I are more dog-oriented than baby-oriented, but there is something about this kid...

Mike suspects superior genes. I suspect superior parenting by his mother, Mike's sister, Beth.

Whatever it is, he's a super-social delight. (And a budding technophile, too. He's always reaching out for electronics and delights in seeing his picture in the viewfinder.)

After we said goodbye to them, it was a five-and-a-half hour drive to Burlington via route 2. It was the perfect time of year to make the trip--the trees were exploding into fiery red and orange and brilliant yellow--but I was happy when it was over.

Burlington struck me as a beautiful city, with that big lake shimmering in the distance and its surrounding rolling hills...but all we had time for was a half-hour walk across campus with Baci before it was time to do the show, then get back to the hotel so we could catch four hours of sleep before packing up and heading to the airport.

We seemed to make a great connection with the folks who came out to see the show, so hopefully we'll be able to come back at some point. I'd love to have more time to explore.

Tomorrow we head off to Chicago, which will be both M's and my first time in that city. Suggestions on where to go, what to see, where to eat, gratefully accepted!