may 2011

Watched The Informant! last week, a movie starring Matt Damon that is somewhat loosely based on the life of Mark Whitacre, an executive at a major agricultural firm who assisted the FBI in an investigation of massive price fixing and at the same time embezzled millions from his company. Matt Damon did a great job with the part, which reminded me a bit of the hapless car salesman from the Coen brothers' Fargo, but the overall story was a bit hard to follow and didn't seem to have a solid narrative path.

My favorite parts of the movie were the little interior monologues the main character would have while he was supposed to be paying attention to a much more important conversation, such as discussing a plan of action with the FBI agents who were working with him. The best of the bunch:

When polar bears hunt, they crouch down by a hole in the ice and wait for a seal to pop up. They keep one paw over their nose so that they blend in, because they've got those black noses. They'd blend in perfectly if not for the nose. So the question is, how do they know their noses are black? From looking at other polar bears? Do they see their reflections in the water and think, "I'd be invisible if not for that." That seems like a lot of thinking for a bear.

Whitacre is otherwise this very plain, ordinary midwestern company man (well, except that he was stealing from the company and trying to get his bosses sent to prison by wearing a wire for the FBI), but then you get these interludes that are like something pulled from Jack Handey's Deep Thoughts. "That seems like a lot of thinking for a bear" kills me every time I read it, and that little monologue was the centerpiece of the movie as far as I'm concerned.

I don't really have much to say about Osama bin Laden's death other than that it's really weird that it happened eight years to the day after Bush's infamous "Mission Accomplished" speech on the deck of an aircraft carrier. And I can't wait to see how Fox News is going to somehow spin this into a criticism of Obama.

I think the best thing I can say about the Sherlock Holmes film starring Robert Downey Jr. and directed by Madonna ex Guy Ritchie was that it was exactly what you would expect. I mean, I guess it was entertaining, but the plot was completely nonsensical, the ending that set up the sequel was far too predictable, and it was clear that the only goal of the film was to put Downey's Iron Man persona into a Victorian setting. Definitely glad I waited to Netflix this one.

Survivor continues to suck. For the first season since the terrible Africa, I don't look forward to watching this show every week, and at this point I'm more waiting for it to be over than really curious about how it turns out.

The only thing that will make this season vaguely redeemable is if one of the ousted members of the non-Rob tribe comes back from Redemption Island at some point and can get into the finals, because honestly, that's the only way Rob isn't going to win. But even if that happens, it still won't make up for having to watch seemingly endless weeks of entirely predictable episodes.

Everyone else at work is now officially in summertime mode, which means that, between now and September, they think it's more or less optional whether they actually do any work on a given day, or even bother to come in at all. If it was that way for every team, I wouldn't have as much of a problem with this attitude, but my team is coming off our most hectic cycle ever, and we're already overbooked for work through September. So while everyone else is going into hibernation mode, we're busier than ever, and I can't foresee a time in the next couple years when we won't be as busy as we are now. It would be nice to have a small break at some point, and even the hope of one would be better than nothing.

I think Julie had a pretty good first mother's day. We got sushi the night before, and then went out to breakfast at Bob Evans in the morning, partly because of their expanded multigrain offerings, but mostly because when we get a booth there's a little seat Will can sit in right next to mommy. We were hoping to get there early enough to beat the crowds, but it was already packed by the time we arrived, so we had to wait about 25 minutes before we were seated. But ordering and service were quick, so we were able to eat before Will got too tired (he tried eggs, hotcakes, home fries, and orange juice).

The rest of the day we hung around the house, did some yardwork, and just generally took it easy. Will was in a really good mood all day, so Julie had a lot of fun playing with him.

Last Saturday, my friend Jeff and I went down to Richmond to meet another one of my friends, Tom, and take a visit to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and see two temporary exhibits that are showing now, one on African art, and the other (and more significant) on Picasso.

The museum was just redone in the last year or so, adding a major new wing for and renovating the older galleries in the original building, and I've got to say, I was impressed. When you exit the parking garage, you are at the top of a hill looking down on the museum and the nascent sculpture garden (which has only one piece in it currently). There is an outdoor space to the right that has benches and a long water feature, and a grassy hill for lounging. The steps that take you to the museum entrance are whimsically accompanied by a separate set of steps for a stream that bubbles along happily with you as you make your way to the museum, ending in a tranquil pond with a bed of smooth oval stones covered with a green moss.

We ate lunch in the cafe and sat outdoors on the deck, which was sitting on yet another pond and from which you could view the sculpture garden. Inside, the building was light and airy, all glass and white walls with minimal metal accents. It was one of the nicest museums I've ever been in, and it was all the more pleasing to find such a treasure in Richmond.

We started our exploration of the museum by viewing some galleries in the permanent collection before making our way to the exhibition on African art. This was a great exhibit, and it's too bad that the Picasso show overshadowed it, especially because Picasso himself was greatly influenced by African art. When I think of African art, I usually think of wood carvings, or maybe terra cotta, but this show featured a lot of metal work, which I don't typically associate with African art.

There was some really amazing stuff, particularly the busts of royalty. Most of them featured a series of parallel lines on the face, which wasn't simply an artistic choice; it turns out that most of the tribes from this region and time practiced scarification, where each tribe had their own distinct pattern that they would carve into the faces of tribemembers at a young age for idenitification purposes, and the lines on the faces of the sculptures were recreations of the lines that had been carved into the actual faces of the people they represented. There were also a bunch of funny little animal sculptures, but the human busts were far and away the stars of the show.

The other notable thing we saw before Picasso was a collection of Japanese prints. There were a couple by Hiroshige, who I'm a fan of, but most were by Hasui, a 20th century artist whose work I hadn't seen before. There some of these that were just beautiful, and I'm hoping to purchase some—they were in the same style as Hiroshige, but they had a more modern, shinier feel to them. But the ones I liked best had palettes with deep blues and blacks, and there was a stillness to all of them that simultaneously communicated tranquility and melancholy.

The Picasso exhibit was enormous, and it took nearly two hours to walk through, but when we started at 6, there was no line, and the galleries were relatively uncrowded—you could stop and linger on your favorite pieces without feeling like the crowd was herding you along.

The pieces on display spanned every imaginable medium and featured work from every phase of his career, from his earliest pre-fame works to paintings created only months before his death. The collection is from the Musée National Picasso in Paris, and it was culled from the artist's personal collection in lieu of his heirs paying a tax debt to the French government; since that museum is undergoing renovations until 2012, the collection is traveling to various other locations, and Richmond is the only stop on the east coast of the US.

Given the size and scope of the exhibit, it's hard to summarize it, but there were two works that really stuck with me. The first was from very early in his career, a simple sketch from 1905of a nude woman whose body seems to be composed of so few lines that you can almost imagine that it was made with only five or ten fluid, continuous motions:

The second was a painting from his mid-career work, a 1939 piece of a cat carrying a dead bird:

I don't know what appeals to me about this piece so much, but fifty years from now, if I remember anything from this exhibit, it will be this painting.

The show is gone from Richmond now, and the only other stop it's making in the US is San Francisco. If you happen to be out that way, it's well worth seeing; otherwise, you'll have to wait until everything returns to France next year when the Musée National Picasso reopens to the public.

Several weeks ago, we had been planning to go to Ocean City this weekend to take a mini-vacation in conjunction with a work-related conference for Julie, but before we got too deep into planning that trip, we decided to stay home so we could attend two other events. Tomorrow we're going to an annual benefit thrown by one of Julie's friends for research into genetic defects (they had a child with a genetic condition who lived for only one short year), and Sunday we're going to sell my photos at the Sykesville Art and Wine Festival.

I'm not too sure if we'll do much business on Sunday, but the festival only lasts for five hours, the entry fee was only $50, and it's relatively close, so it won't take us long to get there and set up. If we sell only two prints we'll have made up our entry fee, and this will also be a good test for Will to see how he might do with the crowds and the noise of a festival as we consider whether or not to start back up with events like Artscape next year.

Will had another big weekend. Saturday we went to Oregon Ridge for a charity event that had a lot of activities for kids, including balloons and an animal educator who brought turtles, snakes, spiders, and owls. He also tried some macaroni and cheese, and pieces of a chocolate chip cookie and a brownie.

Sunday was his first arts festival, a five hour affair on Sunday afternoon that we probably spent about seven hours at total (I was a vendor). He was pretty good even though he had no nap that whole time and despite the loud live music for the last half of the afternoon (we were located very close to the music tent). He actually seemed to like the music, smiling and clapping when I would bounce him up and down in time with the beat, but we did take some extended walks away from the action so he wouldn't get too overwhelmed.

Sales-wise the festival was a bit disappointing. There were a lot of good arts vendors there, and the crowds were decent, but almost no one seemed to be selling anything; the people came out for the wine, the music, and the food, not the arts and crafts vendors despite the fact that it was an arts festival. The forecast had called for rain and thunderstorms all afternoon, and even though it was sunny (actually it was hot) all afternoon, the threat of storms could have kept some people away.

I only sold one print (not surprisingly, it was my most popular one); it would have taken two just to recover my entry fee, and another two to cover associate costs. I thought I'd sell at least three or four, especially because I lowered my prices a bit for this festival, but I took some comfort in hearing similar stories from many other vendors.

Worst. Survivor. Ever.


I predicted everything that happened, including the final three and the winner, two months before the show ended. The whole season was a long slow march towards an inevitable conclusion with a seasoned veteran (whose fame blinded his fellow players) competing against the weakest, most servile group in the history of the show.

Perfect if you want to give Rob a million dollars. Terrible if you want people to keep watching the show.

Back when I was in high school, I saw a documentary at a local bar/indie club near the Duke campus called Cane Toads: An Unnatural History. It's the story of how an alien species, the cane toad, was introduced to Australia in the 1930s in an attempt to control the cane beetles that were destroying the sugar cane crops but which instead devasted the every ecosystem they touched. The film was as educational as you'd expect a science documentary to be, but it was also hilarious, and I've been waiting to see it again ever since that first viewing.

Now, two decades later, the director has teamed with the Science Channel for a sequel, and I watched it earlier this week after having TiVo'd it over the weekend. It covers some of the same ground as the first movie (which I guess should be expected, because it's unrealistic to think that the audience for this movie would be familiar with a relatively obscure documentary from the late 80s), but it also shows how much the cane toads have continued to spread over eastern and northern Australia since the first movie was made

It wasn't as entertaining or funny as the first one, but it had a lot more scientific and philosophical content, and while I'd recommend watching the first one if you can somehow find it (I was hoping that the Science Channel would rerun the original as a prelude to the contemporary film, but no such luck), this one is definitely worth viewing, especially if you are unfamiliar with the story of the cane toads.

My mom arrived on Tuesday night, and she's going to stay until mid-next week. Our daycare provider is on vacation this week, and mom is in between contracts and won't likely see Will again until July, so this was a good time for her to come visit and spend some time with him while we're at work.

It's always hard for me to host houseguests for that long—a couple of days of anyone visiting and I start to get twitchy about getting out of my daily routines—but Will loves the extra attention, and our family all have to drive a significant amount to get here, so it makes sense for them to stay for more than a weekend.

Hopefully this weekend we'll be able to take him on an outing to the zoo or the aquarium with her, and we're taking advantage of having a babysitter to go out to dinner with some friends tonight. I'm still a little nervous about leaving him all day with anyone, even family, but this will be a good visit for my mom and for Will.

Because my mom is here and we can leave Will with her for the evening, we decided to go out for a nice dinner with friends last night. We decided to go back to Volt, the restaurant in Frederick owned by Top Chef contestant Bryan Voltaggio, where we went for our anniversary last year (which was probably the last time we went out for a nice dinner before Will was born).

We made reservations weeks ago, so we had a pretty nice reservation time of 6:45, which gave us enough time to get home from work, change clothes, and get to Frederick, but which wasn't too late for us to linger and enjoy our meal.

The menu had just been switched recently (I think they do a major seasonal overhaul twice a year), but there were still a few things that I recognized from our last visit (we were on the same seasonal menu as our visit last June). For my first course, I got the tuna tartare, which is what I got last time, because it was just so amazing last time. It was essentially the same preparation, and it was still pretty good, although one of the servings had an overabundance of roe. Julie and I also split the clam chowder interpretation, which didn't have clams in it as far as could tell, and instead feature long translucent noodles that were incredibly difficult to eat with a spoon. There was also a strange bacon flaver that pervaded the entire dish; the closest reference I can think of is bacon bits, and it kind of ruined the dish. It was easily the worst thing I've had during either of my two visits to Volt so far.

For my second course, I chose the fried soft shell crab, and it was a nice way to rebound from the terrible clam chowder, because it might have been the best thing I've ever had at Volt. Last year I got the lamb for my main course, and it was the best lamb I've ever had, but this soft shell crab was better, both because the ingredient is more difficult to deal with and they way it was prepared was more adventurous than the lamb. It had some sort of spicy, earthy breading that gave it a darkish-green/black appearance, and all of the accompaniments—ramp kimchi, pickled green strawberries, and a couple of sauces—added new layers of flavor to the dish. I would consider going back to Volt again just for this dish, and given the relative ordinariness of many of the other second course choices, I would urge anyone having dinner there to get this. It's a dish I'm going to remember for the rest of my life.

Because I wasn't sure how the soft shell crab was going to turn out, I ordered a fairly straightforward dish for my third course, a beef tenderloin with creamed potatoes, spinach, mushrooms, etc. It was very good, but amazing steak is par for the course at fine dining establishments. I've had great steaks several times in my life, and while this dish definitely belongs in that top tier of my experiences, it wasn't as memorable or unique as the soft shell crab.

For the final course, I chose the artisan cheese plate, the same thing I got last year. On my previous visit, this was one of my favorite courses—I enjoyed each of the four cheeses on their own and as a complete experience. This year there were five cheeses, but it wasn't nearly as memorable. There were two cheeses that were so bland that I didn't see the point of having them on the plate, and they followed one another, which compounded the pointlessness factor. There were also two interpretations of a bleu cheese, and there were no hard cheeses. Last year I had a house-recommended glass of white wine with this course, and while it's possible it would have added some much needed contrast to the cheeses on the plate, I don't think it would have saved it.

I didn't have the wine with the last course because I had already had two cocktails earlier in the meal. I don't normally order drinks with dinner, but when I saw the Greenbrier on the drinks menu—gin with lime and cucumber—I had to give it a try, and I liked it so much I had another. I don't see it on the web version of their cocktails menu now, but if I go again, I'm going to ask for it whether it's on the menu or not. A great summer drink—I'd love to recreate it for one of our backyard cookouts this year.

As a final cap to the meal, they brought out a sampler of four mini-desserts, two of which were amazing, one of which was average, and one of which was pretty awful. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of eating the two good ones first, so I left with a bad taste in my mouth. The really terrible one was the last thing I ate, a which chocolate truffle infused with lavender. A hint of lavender may have helped salvage the cloying, bland sweetness that I usually associate with white chocolate, but this wasn't so much infused with lavender as drenched in it. I ate a single bite (half the truffle), and it was like having a flower shoved in my mouth. It was way, way too much lavender, and it was a shame that an otherwise great meal had to end like that.

Still, I'd go back again in a heartbeat. The prices mean that people like us can't afford to go that often for dinner, but I have a feeling we'll continue to indulge at least once a year.

A girl in my office is getting married in a couple of weeks on the Maid of the Mist at Niagara Falls—yes, just like on The Office. She's one of the coolest people I know, but I can't decide if, post-Jim and Pam, this is still a cool thing to do. I don't think she's doing this to copy The Office, and in fact this could have been her dream wedding since childhood because she's from the Buffalo area, but hasn't been long enough since it was done on The Office for this to have reached ironic-cool status, and instead it makes you look like you lack imagination and had to turn to a pop culture touchstone for ideas about how to get married in a unique way.

What is cool is what my office did for her as a wedding gift: we got her 50 or 60 custom ponchos with her and her fiancee's names and the date of their wedding for them and their wedding party to wear for the ceremony. As an office, we're usually good about celebrating major life events like marriage or babies, and we're reasonably generous, but we generally stick to the gift registries, so I thought this was pretty original of us, especially since it took a bit of preplanning to get them ordered and delivered in time for the office bridal shower.

In the end, I don't know whether she got this from The Office or not, but even though I'd be very hard pressed to do something that had just been famously done on television even if I had thought of it before tv did, it doesn't lessen her coolness one bit in my eyes. If I heard about someone I don't know doing this, I'd tend to look down on them, but knowing her, I know that wherever the idea came from and whatever her motivations, she's going to have an absolute ball at her wedding—there could be dozens of strangers on the boat rolling their eyes at the ceremony and its emulation of a tv show and it wouldn't lessen her joy one bit. Which is why she's probably always going to be cooler than me.

The only time SNL ever even comes close to being good 100% of the show these days is when Justin Timberlake hosts. I'm no Lady Gaga fan, though (I'm not really a Timberlake fan, either), so her constant inclusion in the sketches even though she wasn't that good was a pretty big distraction. All in all, a decent season finale for a show whose last good season happened a decade or two ago, but there's no reason to hope that the show is going to genuinely improve.

Tomorrow is my university's commencement ceremony, which means everyone on my campus has to take one of their floating holidays because they need our parking spaces for all the visitors. And with Monday being a national holiday, almost everyone (including me) will take Friday off as well, giving us a nice long weekend to get away from work for a bit.

As is my custom, I won't be posting during that time, even though we're not going anywhere. We're going to try to get the house straightened up a bit and do some long overdue yard work, but other than that (and Julie's trip to the spa with a friend on Sunday, a Mother's Day gift from my parents), we don't really have any plans. And that's fine by me.

We had a relatively low key cookout for Memorial Day yesterday. Two coworkers and their significant others joined Julie, Will, and I, but instead of my normal production of hamburgers and sausages with peppers and onions, which takes a decent amount of prep and cook time, I instead marinated six chicken breasts for an hour or so and cooked them in 15 minutes. I grilled some corn, too, and Julie made some buffalo chicken dip, but otherwise the rest of the snacks and sides were store bought, and it was a much more relaxing day for us than normal.

Today my parents are arriving for a few days to spend time with Will, and we're also having someone come in to take care of a lot of little oddjobs around the house—fixing a hole in the downstairs ceiling from where they had to cut through to fix a leaky pipe, installing two new ceiling fans and fixing another, painting the shutters, etc. I'm going to be at work, so I'll miss all the fun and hopefully just come home to a newly spruced up house, but Julie would much rather watch over a contractor as he does all this stuff than find time for us to do it all ourselves, especially because the fans involve electrical work.

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