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Suntory Time, Chicago Style

It's already the Thursday after I returned from a long weekend in Chicago but I'm still on a high from the past week's events. I was in town for a close friend's wedding, for which I was asked to serve as best man, a great and humbling honor and a first for me. The weekend really couldn't have gone much better. I arrived a couple of days early and was able to spend a lot of time catching up with the groom, meeting his wonderful bride and seeing them operate as a couple for the first time (a natural fit). Since weddings are such busy occasions, I didn't expect more than an hour with them amidst the buzz of arrangements and coordination of arriving visitors. Instead I got the better part of two days, which we spent sampling local beer, playing FIFA 2005, and discussing the nuances of Lutheran marriage preparation and single malt whisky. Speaking of the latter, I received a bottle of Suntory Yamazaki 12 Year--which you will no doubt remember from Bill Murray's commercial in Lost in Translation--from the groom as "compensation for my efforts" (totally unnecessary, yet appreciated nonetheless). As it is currently Suntory time in Connecticut, I can happily report that it is subtle yet quite good--starts slowly, a little honey in the middle and a nice dry, woody finish.

Then came the day of the wedding and, all wedding things aside, it was like a college reunion (which makes sense since we all met during college). It's always tough to see people you were close with after a long period of time has passed and your lives have gone in different directions. You want to relate to them as easily as you used to yet you can't because so much has changed and you're not sufficiently caught up. On this front, the weekend yet again surpassed my expectations. It's one thing to get together and relive the good old days but even better to make new memories with old friends, to relate as the people you are now and recognize that things have gotten even better. I would like to think that with close friends this will always be possible.

But back to the real focus of the weekend, the wedding. It will surprise no one to learn that occasions like this awaken certain feelings and cause me to reflect on my life, marriage, fatherhood, etc. Without completely losing it here, let me say that it is such an honor to witness such a powerful and holy event that will no doubt completely transform the lives of those you love. It is impossible not to be moved by such a public and unadulterated outpouring of love. As an interruption in the bustle of our everyday lives, it reminds us of the depth and beauty of life and sends us with renewed purpose to appreciate and pursue it. And despite the extended warnings about sexual immorality and marital sin, I believe that's part of what the good-natured pastor from Nebraska was trying to say.

But even after all these flowery words, I have to admit that the real reason I'm still flying from the weekend is because my toast at the reception was so well received. This is rare for me, let me have my moment.

June 30, 2005

Dogville

Dogville is simultaneously one of the best movies I've seen this year and one of the hardest to watch. "Good" and "fun to watch" are often too loosely interchanged—despite the prevailing attitude in Hollywood, good doesn't have to equal fun to watch, and despite the beliefs of the Austrian filmmaking community, a movie can be fun to watch and still good. Dogville is the second of the Dogme films that I've seen (the first being Italian for Beginners) and I continue to be impressed. The director, Lars von Trier, removes everything that might distract from the unfolding drama, even the walls of the buildings and all scenery beyond the current action. The film is shot entirely on one black stage with no set changes (not that there's much of a set to change) so everything rests on the interaction of the characters, which is roughly the definition of the Dogme way. I know that this style might sound extremely boring, but after twenty minutes I had almost completely forgotten about the difference because I was so engaged in the story and characters, which the sparse setting and some terrific acting make possible.

When you strip away so much, you've got to have a lot of substance underneath and this movie has more than enough to go around. The set is small, the drama is more subtle than grand, but the intentions are epic, as I think the invocations of Greek literature are meant to indicate. Each chapter conjures up a new metaphor for interpretation and at the end you're left with so many layers that your head spins. Is it a nuanced theological argument about God's gift of grace and our inability to accept it? An investigation of the morality of forgiveness and vengeance? A sociological examination of the Protestant work ethic and its implications? A political indictment of the consequences of the American dream? To me, it is all of these things and much more. I was most affected by my own theological interpretation (big surprise) but, given that this is supposed to be the first film in a trilogy about America, the America stuff was probably supposed to be in the forefront, although I will admit that this theme didn't occur to me until the final song and ending credits.

Of course what I liked most about Dogville is that it made me think through all the hypotheses listed above, whether I agreed with them or not. I know this seems sad—shouldn't all movies make us think, as cliché and watered down as that sounds?—but it takes something to make any kind of art that is really engaging. As I sit here now, reading through all the critics' reviews and realizing that most either disliked it (New Yorker, Ebert, Metacritic) or interpreted it differently than me, my enthusiasm is not deflating as it normally does, because last night I was watching this movie and thinking about Billy Budd, Max Weber, and Homer. That's a good night at the movies to me.

June 18, 2005

A Weekend with Noni

My girl, happy at the zoo

For the past two days, Dinka has been at a resort in Vermont getting massages, watching movies and enjoying the newly arrived summer. This was her Mother's Day gift from Veronika and me, not Vermont specifically but a trip of at least twenty-four hours away from us, which she hadn't had since Veronika was born. Before you comment on how thoughtful and unselfish this gift was and what a wonderful husband I am, let me get to the point of my story--the last two days have been pure magic.

Veronika and I had such a good time together. On Friday we spent the day at the Bronx Zoo, where I was able to show her the real animals behind all the sounds and pictures from her books. It was a hot and humid day and the zoo was teeming with thousands of agitated and vocal middle-school field trippers (God bless those chaperones, they are brave people) but we just floated around them, Noni's eyes widening in amazement at the sight of a sleeping tiger and finally understanding why the books make such a big deal about giraffes. Today we had a lot of downtime to recover from yesterday's excitement but it was no less fun. For the first time since she was born, I had her to myself from her first words in the morning (calling for me! "Papa... Papa...") to tucking her in at night. I prepared her meals, picked out her clothes and planned her day and I couldn't have been any happier doing it.

Veronika is so grown up now that you do things with her instead of just bringing her along. She interacts with everything around her and tells you what she thinks and wants, likes and dislikes. She has so many words at her command now (and more with each day) that you can almost have a conversation with her the whole time. She's also learning how to express herself in a wider array of situations through reproducing what she hears us saying, like the scolding tone she takes with Digby and the exasperated sigh she uses when something goes wrong. Plus she wants to do everything herself lately and with a little help, she's usually very good. It's really a blast. Now, when I get the opportunity to spend some time with her, my mind spins at the thought of all the things in the world I'd like to show her and do with her. I also realized that the only reason I ever don't completely love every second of my time with her is because something else gets in the way. Either I have to work when she wants to climb all over me or I'm in a rush to pick her up from the babysitter and get her in bed or she needs to say goodnight to everything in the living room and I haven't slept enough to have patience for it... you get the idea. If you take all of that interference out of the way, every moment with her is pure gold and I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world.

Finally and in all fairness to Dinka and her occasional frustration with spending every hour of the day with Veronika, I realized that Veronika definitely behaves differently with each of us, and Dinka's getting the short end of the stick right now. With Mama around she is always seeing how much she can get away with and letting her smallest wishes be made perfectly clear; with Papa, all of that disappears. I think she cried twice all weekend--once after bumping her head on a chair and the other time when waking up with a full diaper--and almost never whined. Yesterday she spent a lot of time in a hot car and in a stroller in the zoo but I didn't hear any complaints. She went to sleep without a peep and happily ate all of her meals (not because I was starving her, I hope). I took her to church and she was an angel, nothing but cute looks at the neighboring people, whispers and smiles (believe it or not, this is not always the case when we go as a family). I realize that this situation is unfair to Dinka but I have to say that getting the preferential Papa treatment makes me feel like a hundred dollars.

I hope Dinka had such a good time in Vermont that she doesn't realize how selfish that present I gave her actually was.

June 11, 2005 | Comments (2)

The Trials of May, The Summer of George

Every Friday afternoon should look like this

May has been a complete wash for me. I haven't had time to do anything I've wanted to do in my spare time (except taking time to have a wonderful fifth anniversary dinner with Dinka). I found myself missing Veronika even though I never left home. The weather changed and the weeks passed but I just kept moving, head down and nose to the grindstone. As I look back on the last few sentences, I realize how completely unacceptable this is. A month is a long time, certainly too big of a part of one's life to let pass without noticing.

To combat this trend, I took a number of steps in the last week of May that I believe are an indication that a better summer is in store. Each is worthy of exploration in its own post but let's face it, that will never happen (speaking of posts that will never happen, go see the new Star Wars. It's really good, the best of the new ones by far and can run with the old ones. Imagine what you liked about all the other ones but with legitimate drama, with feeling.). I'm not sure if this if a sure-fire method for breaking out of a rut for everyone, but it can't be a bad start:

  1. Discover port. Why didn't anyone let me in on the sweet secret of port earlier? I had always wanted to try it but didn't have the guts to buy a whole bottle without knowing what I was getting myself into. I finally had the occasion to order it in a restaurant (the aforementioned anniversary) and I was not disappointed. Having no idea which to choose or even what the different varieties were, I went with a 10-year-old tawny. It was very nice--something sweet in place of dessert (but not cloying like those disgustingly sugary white dessert wines) yet with the addition of brandy for a little extra fortitude. It would be useful if you wanted an after dinner drink but for whatever reason cognac was too strong an option. Since then I've purchased a bottle, of course--a 1998 Dow's Late-Bottled Vintage--and it has been helping me along for a week now. More information for interested parties: informational Wikipedia entry, Seattle PI primer with recommendations.

  2. Eat at Shake Shack. Last week I commuted into the Big City for a training class, which was cool because I could pretend that I was working in New York without changing a thing. However, the novelty of taking a train into Grand Central and a 5 train downtown wears off by mid-week when the exhaustion of keeping that schedule sets in. In order to take a 9 - 5 class, I had to leave the house by 6:40 a.m. and wouldn't get back until 7:00 p.m. at best. The upside was a lot of train time for reading, but the huge downside was barely seeing Veronika. Needless to say, commuting into the city isn't going to happen any time soon.

    Anyway, class got out a little early on Friday afternoon and I took the opportunity to wander over to the much talked about Shake Shack. Even though New York magazine recently deemed their burger the best in New York, I was only interested in one thing--their Chicago Dog. I love Chicago-style hot dogs like no other and, having been a resident of the Chicagoland area, I know what a real one should be like. I never dreamed it would be so hard to find a legitimate Chicago dog on the East Coast but until Friday, I had had no luck (that's ten months of withdrawal, for those keeping count). My judgment may have been altered by the fact that I was jonesing for a Chicago-style so bad, but I think Shake Shack's was one of the best I've ever had. It had all the right ingredients, high quality and in perfect proportion. It was such a sublime experience that I had to capture it in a photo album. Click here to view An Afternoon at Shake Shack.

  3. Spend a perfect day with your family. On Memorial Day, I finally had the opportunity to spend a whole day with the family and we took advantage of it. We spent a couple of hours biking up and down the Putnam County Trailway, Veronika in tow in her new bike trailer and Digby alongside on leash. It was a beautiful day and the trail winds scenically through lush New York forests. Veronika narrated the entire trip, Digby trotted bravely along like the miniature horse he is, and we all had a great time. Afterwards we got lunch at Quiznos, the greatest of all sandwich chains, where I ordered my usual--the Turkey Ranch & Swiss--while Veronika ate a whole container of pickles. After a long nap at home, we finished the night with a dinner of grilled filet mignon with friends. Not a bad day to end the month.

So you see, there's hope after all. June will be better, I know it.

June 02, 2005