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Lovely Lola and the Big Apple

Greetings, loyal minions. Your Maximum Leader, as readers might know, recently noted that he’d bought tickets to see the Carnegie Hall debut of the lovely and eminently talented Lola Astanova. The purchase of these tickets was the impluse that developed into your Maximum Leader taking his lovely (and talented) daughter, Villainette #2 to New York City two weeks ago. He started on this post shortly after his return, but has been working on it in dribs and drabs since and finally decided to just hit the friggin publish button… This ain’t high art…

Villainette #2 (aged 12) has been after your Maximum Leader to take her to New York for quite a while now. Indeed the hectoring began a few years ago when we were walking past the Chinatown bus. (NB to readers: There is a bus that will take you from Chinatown in DC to Chinatown in NYC for a mere $20. This bus leaves DC from the alley next to Tony Cheng’s Restaurant in Chinatown DC. Tony Cheng’s is a favorite dining spot of your Maximum Leader’s.) It did not occur to your Maximum Leader to take Villainette #2 with him to NYC for the Lola Astanova concert. Indeed, the first (and only) person he thought of was Mrs Villain. But when he told Mrs Villain the plan, she demured. It was during the week… She had a lot going on… Who would watch the kids… etc… etc…

Then Mrs Villain suggested that your Maximum Leader take Villainette #2 to the show and make it a little overnight trip to the Big Apple. Your Maximum Leader suggested this to Villainette #2 and she immediately got pretty excited. She would get to miss two days of school and hang out in NYC.

So, your Maximum Leader and Villainette #2 set out at about 5:30am on the morning of Thursday, January 19 to go to NYC. Now you might be thinking, “Did he leave that early to drive to NYC?” No. Your Maximum Leader doesn’t drive to NYC (or NYC) if he can avoid it. He got a killer deal on a pair of round trip tickets for himself and Villainette #2 on Amtrak from Union Station. (He could have left from Fredericksburg, VA; but the fare would have jumped nearly $100. Parking was only $40, so it made sense to drive up to DC for the train.) Your Maximum Leader and Villainette #2 were on the train at 7:25 and on the way to NYC on time.

The train ride was uneventful. While passing through north Jersey Villainette #2 caught her first glances of NYC. It was at this point that she started to get a bit excited.

We arrived at Penn Station and your Maximum Leader gave his daughter one piece of advice, “Keep up.” The only fear your Maximum Leader had during the whole trip was one of separation. (An irrational parental fear he knows, but it did pop up from time to time…) Villainette #2 was not impressed with Penn Station per se. (Since the demolition in the 60’s of the glorious Pennsylvania Station there hasn’t been much to be impressed with there.) But she was impressed with the hustle and bustle and mass of humanity on the move. We came up on the Madison Square Garden side and went to the taxi queue. The queue was long and Villainette #2 was worried that we were going to “waste time standing around in line.” She was assured that the line was long but moved fast because there were lots of cabs in the city. It was at this point that your Maximum Leader realized that none of his children have ever ridden in a cab or other hired car. So… In a trip of firsts for Villainette #2, this was another little first. It took about 5 mins to make it to the head of the line and before you knew it we were on our way to the hotel to drop off our bags.

We headed uptown to the Helmsley Park Lane, which would be our base for the trip. The Helmsley Park Lane was the winner for a number of reasons. It was walking distance close to Carnegie Hall and Rockefeller Center (two predecided destinations in the city), it wasn’t sleazy, and your Maximum Leader got a tremendous deal on Hotels.com for a room.

(NB to astute readers: Your Maximum Leader knows that he paid extra for the cab ride to the hotel by not walking a block to get a cab headed uptown instead of downtown… But he wasn’t going to bother with it… Also, your Maximum Leader did spend $230 for the night in the Helmsley - including all the taxes - which are legion. If you know NYC prices, that isn’t bad for a high-end hotel - which the Helmsley is.)

It was your Maximum Leader’s plan to drop our bag with the concierge and then return later nearer to check-in time (since it was only 11:15am); but fate dealt him a pleasant surprise. Upon arrival at the Helmsley, our room was ready for us. We were on the 35th floor with a city view room. On the ride up the elevator when we passed the 20th floor your Maximum Leader mentioned that the Helmsley had become the tallest building that Villainette #2 had ever been up in (surpassing the Old Post Office observation deck in DC). She thought that was pretty exciting.

Our room was nicer than your Maximum Leader would have imagined. It had a nice view downtown and it was pretty big. Your Maximum Leader has stayed in a number of hotels in NYC and he’s always managed to get rooms that seemed just a touch small. This room was not small. It was roomy and had two closets, a large open bathroom and room to easily walk around the beds. If you need a hotel recommendation, you will get one for the Helmsley Park Lane. The staff were great and the room was very nice.

So, after laying out our clothes for the concert, Villainette #2 announced that she was hungry and that it would be a good time for lunch. We trekked over to 7th Avenue and walked a few blocks down to the world famous (and only slightly touristy) Carnegie Deli. Okay… He knows that there are better deli’s in NYC. But he also knows that this one is a landmark and famous in its own right for being a backdrop in film and TV. We split a pastrami sandwich and some pickles (sour and half sour) and some onion rings (as Villainette #2 didn’t want fries or chips). We ate our fill and then departed for other touristy sites.

First touristy site on the agenda… Rockefeller Center. We signed on for the “Top of the Rock” observation deck and the NBC Studio tour. Your Maximum Leader had been to the top of Rockefeller Center before and has felt that it is a better experience than the iconic Empire State Building. Villainette #2 was just excited to go up in such a tall building and see the view. It was a nice clear day and we soaked in the view. It wasn’t too crowded and we had a very nice time. Then we went back down to ground level and noticed a crowd and some TV lights on the plaza in front of the building. Closer examination showed this to be a shoot for the show 30 Rock. We watched for a little bit (and even saw Jane Krakowski arrive for the shoot). After a time we decided to mosey on to the NBC Studios tour.

The two NBC pages (Tess and Grant) who took us on the tour were great. Lots of energy and personality. We also lucked out with a small group (only 10 people - what? Thursday afternoons in January aren’t high tourist times?). Our first studio visit was to the Dr Oz studio. Your Maximum Leader must admit that he’s heard the name “Dr Oz” but he doesn’t know the man from Adam and couldn’t tell you the first thing about him. The most interesting thing about the Dr Oz studio was learning that many moons ago it was the “Late Night with David Letterman” studio. The next studio we visited was the “Football Night in America” studio. That studio was pretty interesting. First off, all the lights were on and the monitors were active. So, it looked like you would expect it to from watching on TV. The lighting was amazing. Your Maximum Leader really had no concept of how much light was needed to make HD broadcasts look good. (NB: your Maximum Leader has worked once under TV studio lights - when he represented his high school on a local TV quiz show. The lights back then were nothing like they are today.) The other interesting thing to learn on this visit was how the floor works. The floor of the studio is essentially a “green screen” (or Chroma Key as Tess told us) and is always changed to look like the flooring you see on TV (they have used mahogany floors, grass, etc). (BTW, the floor is blue not green.) After the Football studio it was off to the Saturday Night Live studio. It was surprisingly small. Your Maximum Leader thought being in the studio might elicit more of a response than it did. He felt that it was cool, but sort of small. Being there did make him want to watch the show on Saturday night. After the SNL studio, we saw some of the SNL makeup department (which was sort of cool, but doesn’t lend itself to easy description). And we concluded the tour with a stop to see the national broadcast center. (Which wasn’t too interesting because most of the country was in “affliate” time where the network isn’t broadcasting…)

After NBC, Villainette #2 and your Maximum Leader went back to the hotel to prepare for dinner and the concert.

It might sound very cliched (and it is) but, we went to have dinner at the Russian Tea Room. We lucked out in that it was Restaurant Week in NYC and they had a real deal on a three course meal for $35/person. Villainette #2 had a salad, Chicken a la King on spaetzel and finished off the meal with a chocolate mousse pyramid. Your Maximum Leader had the Goat Cheese and Wild Mushroom Blinchik, Variniki (a vegetable ravioli) and cheesecake. Your Maximum Leader also indulged in a three course vodka tasting. Service was impeccible and everything was delicious. The food was prepared perfectly and was of good quality, but in the grand scheme the most memorable thing about the meal was how happy it made Villainette #2 to eat at a “fancy” restaurant.

After dinner wrapped up, we walked next door for the main event, Lola Astanova’s Carnegie Hall debut.

Your Maximum Leader ordered his tickets early out of fear it would sell out quickly. The show did sell out, but not quickly. There were tickets available on the Monday before the performance, but it was a full house on Thursday night.

If you Maximum Leader might indulge himself (on his blog) with a few observations. The first one is that the last time he’d been to Carnegie Hall was either in high school or one summer early in college. It was smaller than he remembered. He also recalled that everyone was dressed to go to a classical music concert during his last visit. He’s not talking that it was black tie, but men wore suits and women were dressed in suits or dresses. There were a number of people in jeans and sweatshirts (he didn’t see a hoodie but he’d bet there were some around…). The two lovely young women (Columbia graduate students) sitting next to us were wearing turtlenecks and khakis. He middle aged Israeli man behind us was wearing khakis and a button-down shirt without a tie. When did it happen that you could dress down to go to Carnegie Hall? Was it the Clinton Administration? Your Maximum Leader wants to know. He is happy that people of all ages, races and classes were there for the performance; but there is enough of a snob in your Maximum Leader to believe that all should try to dress up to go to Carnegie Hall.

The program began with the speeches. The East Coast Chairman of the American Cancer Society opened up the show. (The program was to benefit the American Cancer Society - you can donate here if you like.) He was followed by the Performance Sponsor and Chairman - The Donald. Yup. Donald Trump. Trump’s remarks were snappy and quickly over. Trump then introduced the event hostess, (Dame) Julie Andrews. She was charming, witty, thoughtful and delightful as she discussed her work, her dedication to fighting cancer and her love of her fans. Her remarks were lovely and well received. Then Dame Julie and The Donald received some awards from the ACS. That part of the program concluded there was a brief choral performance by the Stonewall Chorale. The Stonewall Chorale is, as your Maximum Leader understands it, the nation’s oldest gay and lesbian choral group. They did a wonderful rendition of “Climb E’vry Mountain” among other pieces (the names of which your Maximum Leader has to admit he doesn’t know).

Then it was time for the main event. Lola Astanova emerged to begin her performance… Let your Maximum Leader get the silly stuff that always seems to make it into show reviews done with first. Miss Astanova shimmered in her couture dress and Tiffany jewels. The New York Post apparently made a big deal about her borrowing $850,000 worth of jewelry from Tiffany & Co for the show. Since many people in the audience along with many writers and critics feel it is necessary to mention this, your Maximum Leader will join the chorus. Your Maximum Leader does feel he needs to comment on one element of Lola’s attire. Her shoes. They were spikey high heels and your Maximum Leader wasn’t sure how she would be able to operate the pedals of the piano with them. The geometry of it seemed improbable. Rest assured that her pedal work seemed fine.

Miss Astanova played a number of nice pieces from the romantic school. They included Chopin’s Nocturne OP. 62, No1; Etude Op. 25, No 5; and 4 movements of his Sonata No 2. Also by Chopin she played Etude Op 25, No 12 and Scherzo No 2, Op 3. She also played two preludes by Rachmaninoff (Op 32, No 10 and Op 3 No 2) and his Moment Musicaux. She also did two studies by Alexander Scriabin.

If you can fault Miss Astanova for anything it is only youth. By this your Maximum Leader means that her performance is technically wonderful. Her stage presence is tremendous. She dominates the piano and uses every part of her body to make herself as much part of the music as possible. It is obvious that the pieces she played move her. She is emotionally connected to them and it shows; to the benefit of the audience. But the fault is that she doesn’t have a tremendous scope to her performance. She loves the romantics, and that is what she plays. Your Maximum Leader has read interviews with her, and watched her You Tube clips, and she is very open about how she plays pieces she feels strongly about. Your Maximum Leader believes that her star in the world of classical music performance will rise faster and farther if she would broaden her horizons and expand her repetoire.

That said, your Maximum Leader was dazzled and impressed. The whole show was tremendous. He would recommend to anyone who had an opportunity to see Lola Astanova perform that they take advantage of the opportunity. Villainette #2 and your Maximum Leader had a wonderful time.

After the performance ended your Maximum Leader and Villainette #2 walked back to the hotel. We were exhausted from such a long day and quickly fell asleep. The next morning (like clockwork) your Maximum Leader was up early and wasn’t sure what to do with himself until it was time to wake Villainette #2 and get some breakfast.

Villainette #2 was roused and we went to breakfast at the wonderful Sarabeth’s. Your Maximum Leader, on previous trips to NYC, had eaten at Sarabeth’s. He’s also eaten at Sarabeth’s in Key West, Fl (their only non-NYC location). So he knew it was going to be excellent. It was. Both your Maximum Leader and Villainette #2 had eggs benedict. (A dish that your Maximum Leader cooks regularly enough at home that Villainette #2 thinks it is a “normal” breakfast food.) For those of you who may not know, Sarabeth’s is quite well known for their preserves and baked goods. (You can buy them here if you like.) It isn’t often that your Maximum Leader would say this but, the english muffin upon which the rest of the eggs benedict rested was actually the highlight of the dish. (We’ll revisit this theme in a few paragraphs.) Sarabeth’s gets your Maximum Leader’s unreserved recommendation if you need a meal recommendation in NYC.

Fortified by breakfast, we trudged through Central Park to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Met is, of course, a world-class museum. (BTW, it is listed on the right sidebar of this blog along with other world-class museums around the world as part of the “Villainous Culture” topic.) Villainette #2 wanted to see the Egyptian Wing and the Arms & Armor exhibits. Your Maximum Leader wanted to see the Asian Art wing and the special exhibits on Renaissance Portraiture and Art from Renaissance Venice (1400-1515). We spent the most time in the Egyptian wing and the Arms & Armor wing. Villainette #2 was very attentive and interested in both of those areas. She was also interested in the Asian art wing. But as we made our way to the Renaissance Portraiture exhibit her interest started to wane. Sadly, your Maximum Leader took the hint that he was losing his daughter and decided to ask what would you like to do now? She responded that it was getting on time to eat lunch (it was nearly noon) and then she wanted to do other stuff - like see Macy’s and Times Square.

So we hitched a cab to the hotel (Villainette #2 was complaining about all the walking already - and she’d left her gloves and hat at the hotel.) We checked out of our room and asked the concierge to hold our bags until we were ready to catch the train. Then we went to the gastronomic high point of the whole visit…

Your Maximum Leader hadn’t expected to make lunch the main meal of the trip. Indeed, his original plan had been to get street food for lunch as we walked the city. But when he was checking out restaurants near the hotel he noticed a branch of one of his favorite restaurants in the whole world.

Now your Maximum Leader is, has been, and likely will forever be a huge (HUGE!) fan of Masaharu Morimoto. But right after Morimoto, he is a big fan of Nobu Matsuhisa. So imagine his excitment when he learned that a short walk from his hotel was the new Nobu 57. Your Maximum Leader has eaten at Nobu in Tribeca before. He’s also eaten at Nobu in Las Vegas. So he figured he’d try Nobu 57.

Now… Nobu is known for their “Black Cod and Miso.” Surprisingly, your Maximum Leader has never had it. Never before last Friday that is. Normally your Maximum Leader sticks to the sushi at Nobu (because it is outstanding). But he took the waitress’ suggestion of a cold dish, a hot dish and then sushi. Villainette #2 thought that sounded like a good idea. So that is what we did. We got the “signature” dishes of “Yellowtail tuna sashimi with Jalepenos”, then the aforementioned cod, then we got an assortment of sushi rolls at the chef’s descretion.

Allow your Maximum Leader to go on the record and state that he’s been an idiot for not having the Black Cod & Miso prior to this visit. It is one of the best fish dishes he’s ever eaten. It is sweet. It is savory. The crust has flavor that accents the tender fish without overpowering it. It is as close to a perfect piece of fish as you are likely ever to eat. If you are near a Nobu and can afford it, get some. Your Maximum Leader will never go to Nobu again without getting it.

So we finished a very memorable lunch and took the subway down to Herald Square to satisfy Villainette #2’s desires to see Macy’s and Times Square. Your Maximum Leader doesn’t know what there is to say about either Macy’s or Times Square. They are iconic places in NYC. The most interesting thing about visiting Macy’s is riding the old escalators. (Which pretty much summarizes our visit. We rode up 8 floors and then down 8 floors stopping only to buy a hot chocolate and browse for about 5 mins the girls department to see if there were any jeans that Villainette #2 liked.) We walked up to Times Square and poked around in the various stores there that interested Villainette #2. That meant a stop in the Toys R Us (in which Villainette #2 bought a small remote-controlled helicopter) and the M & M Store (in which your Maximum Leader bought a mixed bag of M & Ms in colors he doesn’t believe he’s seen anywhere else - including electric green, purple, teal, silver, magenta, marroon and a sort of burnt orange).

After Times Square, Villainette #2 decided that the lure of the Empire State Building was too great to resist. So up to the top we went. Your Maximum Leader feels that the visit was something of a letdown for her. It was just view that she had (pretty much) just seen the day before. If you are asking your Maximum Leader (which you may or may not be), going to the top of 30 Rockefeller Center is a better visit than going to the top of the Empire State Building. He thinks it is better to see the Empire State Building in the view than to see the view from the Empire State Building. But, it is a visit to an icon that Villainette #2 can check off her list of places she’s visited.

We rode the subway back uptown to the hotel to get our bags and think about getting to the train. Villainette #2 indicated that she was “sort of hungry.” So we stopped back by Sarabeths for a sandwich. Since we were going to split the sandwich we decided we had to agree on whatever we ordered… We opted for the lobster roll. It was fabulous. Allow your Maximum Leader to mention that as good as the lobster was, the highlight of the sandwich was - in fact - the roll itself. Your Maximum Leader has forgotten the lobster, but he remembers the roll it was served on.

Then we got our bags from the hotel and took a cab ride through Times Square to Penn Station and returned to DC. By the time in DC it had been snowing for a few hours. That meant that the drive home (11:30pm to 1:30am) was somewhat harrowing - but that is a story for another time…

It was a wonderful trip overall. One that he imagines he’ll have to repeat in many ways with Villainette #1 (who became a little jealous of the trip on our return) before too long.

Carry on.

Winston S. Churchill - RIP

Greetings, loyal minions. Your Maximum Leader would remind you all that on this day in 1965, Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill died at his home in London, England.

Churchill has always been a personal hero of your Maximum Leader’s. Your Maximum Leader was quite disappointed with Time Magazine when they didn’t select him as the “Man of the Century” for the 20th Century. (Okay, he had already been declared by Time Magazine the man of the half century in 1950… But still… BTW, does anyone care about Time Magazine anymore?) Sadly, your Maximum Leader is finding that many of the details of Churchill’s life that he used to be able to cite from memory are slipping from his memory. (As are so many other tidbits…) Your Maximum Leader has decided, as a result, to relearn what he’s been forgetting. He’ll pull some volumes out of his expansive Churchill Library and set himself to reading.

You all should, in the words of the monument set inside the main doors of Westminster Abbey, “Remember Winston Churchill.” Without Churchill there is no telling how much worse off the world would be today.

Carry on.

PS from your Maximum Leader: Mitt Romney is the only Republican presidential candidate who has pledged to return to the Oval Office the bust of Churchill returned to the British Ambassador by President Obama. Why can’t we get a debate moderator to ask the rest of the candidates their position on this esoteric (but important to your Maximum Leader) issue?

Carry on.

Now listening to..

Greetings, loyal minions. Your Maximum Leader heard this song about 2 weeks ago. He’s listened to it quite a bit since then. It was only when Villainette #1 accused your Maximum Leader of only liking the song because of the dancing girls in the video that he learned the song even had a video…

Here it is…

Your Maximum Leader does like the dancing girls.

Carry on.

Now listening to…

Greetings, loyal minions. Your Maximum Leader mentioned in the post below that Mrs. Villain is with her father right now… While she is gone your Maximum Leader has been listening to this song and thinking about her…

He’s also listening to “our” song…

Carry on.

Whither your Maximum Leader

Greetings, loyal minions. Your Maximum Leader sees that the month of January is nearly half spent and he’s hardly blogged at all. He’d thought that he’d devote a little more time to blogging in 2012.

But fate has conspired against him.

Your Maximum Leader is not trying to elicit sympathy from any of you out there that are still reading… But…

2012 (and frankly the tail end of 2011) have not been particularly good for your Maximum Leader.

After Christmas, Villainette #2 got pretty sick and was not feeling well for a while. That was a downer during the period from Christmas to New Years.

Right after New Years your Maximum Leader’s dear father-in-law saw his doctor for some chest pains. He (father-in-law) has had some cardiovascular issues in the past and has a number of stents in various arteries around his heart. After an examination we all thought that there would be more stents inserted into arteries around father-in-law’s heart. Well… That was wrong. Upon closer examination, father-in-law required double bypass surgery. That was the bad news. The good news is that father-in-law is a model of health and vigor and has come through the surgery very well and is now recovering at home. In fact, Mrs Villain (and a fully recovered Villainette #2) are with him now to help him and mother-in-law get all settled in.

As if that was not enough…

He hardest blow has been what has happened to your Maximum Leader’s graduate school buddy and one-time roommate, Frank S.

The Wednesday after Christmas your Maximum Leader received a call from a friend. She had just been called by Frank’s father. Frank was in the hospital. Frank had had a massive stroke. Frank was in a coma. Frank’s prognosis was unclear, but likely bad.

Sadly, my friend Frank’s condition is unchanged. He has suffered massive amounts of brain damage. He is still in a coma. His prognosis is still somewhat unclear, although doctors say any recovery is highly unlikely.

Frank is 44 years old.

I last spoke to Frank over Thanksgiving weekend. We had agreed to chat in January and set a date to go and see the hoard of Saxon gold at the National Geographic Society. I was going to bring the family along and we would see the gold and then get some Indian food near Frank’s apartment in Arlington.

I have visited Frank a number of times in the past few weeks. Some days I believe he might be “aware” of my being there and talking to him. Most days I don’t know. Sadly, as I have already mentioned, it is my understanding that Frank’s condition will not improve.

So there is that…

Sorry your Maximum Leader hasn’t started off 2012 with a burst of creative output. But he doesn’t have it in him.

Carry on.

Happy New Year

Greetings, loyal minions. Your Maximum Leader wishes you all a happy new year. He hopes that your 2012 is going better than his…

Carry on.

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