Friday, December 30, 2005

A Sporkful Family Christmas

As a way to save money, for the past few years my siblings and I have both drawn names and imposed a cash limit for Christmas gifts. It worked okay for a while, but we seemed to keep drawing the same names over and over again. This has been largely blamed on the persistent failure of my sisters and I to get married and bring new blood into the family. Add in the fact that many of us are difficult to shop for, and gift giving had become kind of a drag. Also, when we first started drawing names, Mama Spork could not bear to not give everyone something, so although she was receiving presents from six, she was also buying for six and could not really afford to do so.

Always the innovator, I suggested that instead of gifts we could use that budget to finance some sort of family trip or activity, and just have the time together instead. Our two present-loving, and therefore easier to shop for, Sporks, had some doubts, but after all, birthdays start coming around really fast with the New Year (all seven birthday, plus an anniversary, fall between January 1st and April 3rd), so presents would not really be deferred all that long.

Well, getting everyone to agree that an activity would be nice in no way makes finding an activity easy. Big Brother Spork is working full time and in school, which basically left us one weekend to work with. There was a Symphony program that could have worked then, but it was a little outside of budget, and he was concerned he would fall asleep. We finally decided on dinner at Stanfords and an ornament exchange, and only needed to reschedule once. But that reschedule was on the same day as the ballet and another Christmas party.

You see, the Pacific Northwest has an abundance of holiday ballet available. OBT has their Nutcracker, of course, but there are also recommended shows in Seattle (which has sets by Maurice Sendak) and Eugene (my old stomping grounds). In addition, there is a community version performed by Pacific Festival Ballet (featuring 100 local performers) and Pacific Artists Ballet Theater does La Boutique Fantasque (which is a totally different show). They all have their attractions.

I had already seen both the regular Nutcracker and their spoof, The Nut Has Finally Cracked, under former OBT director James Canfield. When I first read the article about all of the different regional offerings, it was after Christopher Stowell came into OBT and they changed the version, and I decided I wanted to see them all.

Last year, my younger sisters and I went to see the new OBT one. With the old version, there would often be reviews exclaiming over how beautiful the set was, with the design being inspired by a Faberge egg. I thought it was pretty, but did not get what the big deal was until I saw how cheap the current sets look. I liked the old one better. (For anyone who is wondering though, the spoof was pretty vulgar and stupid. Good satire is hard to do, I know, and there would be a limit to how much time you could put into it, but realize that you don’t have the resources to make it worthwhile and then don’t do it!)

Anyway, when I checked to see if anyone was interested in going to see one of the remaining options, Mama Spork and younger Sporks decided to come along to La Boutique Fantasque.

I am sure that one reason for the seasonal popularity of the Nutcracker (besides it being set at Christmas) is that instead of a few principal parts and a big chorus, there are lots of small solos and group numbers, so it is a good chance for students to stretch their wings. La Boutique Fantasque is the same, except instead of the small parts being food and drink (coffee, tea, candy canes) they are toys (cards, can can dolls, poodles).

The performance was okay. Yes, you do see some difference in quality between a professional performance and a student performance, but they did okay. Getting there was horribly stressful because the traffic was so bad. Only one back road remembered at the right moment allowed us to arrive just before show time. The performance was at PCC Sylvania campus, and there was exposure there to an icy cold wind that I’m glad does not usually make it to this part of town.

We thought we would have to go straight to Stanfords after the ballet, but it ended sooner than expected, leaving us with not enough time to go home, but too much time to go there. This led to the first stop in our great snowflake hunt.

We are throwing a couple of bridal showers in January. One of my sisters spotted a Palmer Double Crisp Snowflake that would make a perfect favor for the first one. When we decided to buy them, though, they were starting to sell out and we needed twenty. I think we went to five different Rite-Aids and two Dollar Trees that day. One more Rite-Aid was hit on a different day, but we got them.

Finally, we were able to go over and meet Big Brother, Sister In Law, and Big Sister Spork. Dinner was okay. I’m not a big fan of beef or fish, and that rules out a lot on their menu. In general though, the idea of a dinner worked and the ornament exchange was fun. I’m not sure if we will do it again next year. Maybe we will rent a beach house, or go back to drawing names. We usually draw names in September, so if there is a flurry of weddings between now and then, who knows? The other party, we had to skip. We had already celebrated plenty, and there were snowflakes to find.

Our next big Christmas event came on the 23rd. It’s been a rough year pet-wise. We started with four greyhounds, but they were all close in age, and getting older, so we knew there was the possibility of hard times ahead. This summer Fozzie and Jenny were both diagnosed with kidney disease. We tried to stretch things out with water packs, but ultimately we had to say good-bye to Fozzie in October and we lost Jenny a few weeks ago.

The primary loss is of the individual dogs with their particular quirks, but you notice the difference in quantity too. And for the remaining dogs, Forest and Angel, they just seemed more nervous and depressed. They’d been running in the same pack for a long time, and they felt the loss too. On the 23rd, we got to bring home Suzy, a three-year old little girl (greyhound). She’s a bit of a princess, but we can live with that. In addition, we have been dog sitting, and had two guests on Christmas day, so the house finally felt full again. The last guest goes home today, so it will just be our three (plus one grouchy cat). I think we will need to find a nice big boy in the next few months, but we will give Suzy some time to settle first.

Saturday, Christmas Eve, younger Sporks and I wanted to get in more culture while we still could, so we took in the Hesse exhibit at the Portland Art Museum. We then grabbed lunch and dashed over to the CameraWork Gallery to see the portraits of the Fisher Price Little People. How did the exhibits compare?

The Hesse exhibit had its ups and downs. Many pieces were horribly overdone, tacky really, showing once again that money does not automatically equate taste. There were some lovely portraits and rich jewels, and of course there is a lot of history to it. Hessian soldiers were crucial in the American Revolution, and it’s an interesting business model in and of itself. They are German, but they are tied in with the royal families of England and Russia, bringing in different influences that way. Also, I never knew that pineapples were once a popular motif in German craftsmanship, but there was evidence all around (tacky evidence).

My favorite paintings were some portraits of falcons by Cristoph Wilhelm Grote. They were refreshingly stark, after all the fussiness, and more moving than you would expect. Yet the most interesting pieces for me were probably two sets of dishes. One was a set commissioned for a dinner party of 2000. The factory needed to use every artist, and they could not reproduce quickly enough so they just used different scenes. There are portraits, landscapes, mythological scenes—everything. Then there is a 569-piece set that used pictures from botanical works to adorn every single dish with a different flower. Mismatched china can be quite the opportunity. Still, I think it’s easier now when we just have the caterer provide dishes, or rent them. It’s less wasteful.

The biggest drawback to the Little People exhibit was that although we were within the posted hours, the place was all locked up. Fortunately, there were big windows and we were probably able to see about half of the works. The most important thing is that the dog was present and within eyesight. We pretty much went for the dog.

It was surprisingly effective. The pictures were very clear when you consider the magnification involved. The portraits were bright and colorful, which made them visually engaging, and they evoke so much childhood nostalgia that it was really a pretty cool display. It’s sad that they only gave the exhibit a few weeks over winter vacation. Obviously, it is pop art, and not as profound as the Hesse exhibit, but there is room for fun in art.

After deciding not to have presents, someone had asked what we would do for Christmas Eve, and I suggested that the five of us (Mama Spork, sisters, and me) could draw names for stockings, with an even lower dollar limit. So we had agreed on that, and did that after dinner. Little Sister J Spork had my name, and got me two Charlie Sexton CDs; his new one and his first one, Pictures for Pleasure, which I only had on vinyl. I had Big Sister Spork, and got her a new mystery novel and CD. Then we turned on A Muppet Christmas Carol, and while that played I finally started writing out my Christmas cars, explaining why you only received them now.

After getting the turkey in the oven I curled up with the book version of “A Christmas Carol” which I read every Christmas Eve. It is one of my favorite books, and not long, and it always lifts me up.

Sunday was church of course, and Christmas dinner, and more Christmas movies. We just have a lot of them and we love them all. My top three used to be “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”, and “A Charlie Brown Christmas”, but I think Charlie Brown has been edged out by “The Year Without a Santa Claus” now. I just cannot care about “A Christmas Story” or the Jim Carrey Grinch. But in addition to “A Muppet Christmas Carol”, you should also try and watch “A Muppet Family Christmas” It is really good. The one they did a few years ago with David Arquette – not so good. It had its moments, but I don’t think I will ever need to watch it again.

So that was our holiday season. It would have been better with a Holiday Bowl victory for the Ducks, but you can’t have everything. Their overall record is still better than the Sooners. Stupid interception.

Anyway, Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night. I’ll see you in 2006.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

DC Travel Tips

In April my friend Tara and I went to Washington DC. I tried to get good advice for touring the city, but the only advice anyone gave was that we would run out of time. True, but not particularly helpful. Now, as the voice of experience, here are my tips:

1. Don't bother with the White House.

In movies they show tour guides leading you through various rooms telling you fascinating things. That may have once been true, but now you have ropes that you follow through about five rooms, with people standing around that will answer questions if you ask. For this privilege you have to contact your state senator and request a form that you fill out several months in advance requesting clearance and giving information for them to do a background check. On the day of the tour, you cannot carry any bags, cameras, or anything other than your keys and ID. That ended up being rather inconvenient, and combined with the letdown that the "tour" itself was, yeah, don't bother. There is a Visitor's Center just down the block where you can find pictures and information on the house, but no one will explain the difference between an Easter egg hunt and an Easter egg roll.

2. Don't bother with the Cherry Blossom Parade.

It is a small parade, but the real problem is that it is so poorly organized and brings in so many people. I am not saying not to go at cherry blossom time; the trees are beautiful and should be seen. However, on the actual day of the parade and street festival there are horrendous crowds, in lines that do not move for hours, while the sun beats down on you. (See the side photos of the Jefferson monument on Parade day and on a different day. The difference in population is exponential.)

The parade itself has long gaps, so we kept getting faked out that it was over, and then more banners would appear. Most importantly, if you are going to have equestrian groups, the cleanup crew needs to be directly behind them. This way the cute little girl scouts and the dancers in their elegant long kimonos do not need to dodge so much.

3. If you want to go to the Washington Monument, get there early.

There is just a limited amount of people they can put on each elevator trip. The tickets get taken fast, so even if you arrive in the late morning you will probably be too late. The form you fill out for the White House is not exclusively for that, but can also get you special tours or admissions to various monuments, including this one. I strongly recommend using it for the Washington Monument if you want to go. And if you don't, that is okay. It's pretty much a fast elevator ride and then a view. For something different, but similar, try the Old Post Office Clock Tower. It is very high, great view, but with less waiting. It may also be the only place in town where you can fully appreciate the park below, which has the city layout on its squares.

4. Do not eat at museums.

Of course they are overpriced. It's to be expected. The real question is, where can you find food that is not overpriced? We found two good locations. Actually, our real gold mine was the fellow I think of as the most helpful souvenir vendor in DC. I should have gotten a name; it would be easier to type. Anyway, he pointed us to the food court in the basement of the Old Post Office (he was set up across the street from the food court entrance), and answered many other questions. In addition, the lower level of Union Station has an extensive food court. Most of our meals occurred at those two food courts.

Now, you might think eating at food courts is kind of lame in such a great city. I asked around a lot to see if there was any traditional area cuisine we should try, and it looks like everything is pretty homogenized. If there is a good restaurant, it is probably some hole in the wall owned by immigrants who happen to be good cooks, and you could only find those accidentally while off the beaten track. So, if I am going to be eating the same stuff I could find anywhere, I'd kind of like it to be cheap. The one museum exception I suggest is at the Museum of Native American History. The have traditional cuisine for different regions, and that is kind of cool.

5. Take a tour the first day.

Our first day, we did a lot of wandering around because things would look interesting and we would head that way to see what they were, though often when we got there we still couldn't tell. Later, tour guides would tell us. The wandering was okay, but getting the lay of the land down early can really help you spend your time more efficiently. We took four tours total: the regular Tourbus tour, Tourbus Monuments by Moonlight, DC Ducks, and a boat tour to Mount Vernon. The two Tourbus tours are probably tied for being most informative, but I'm glad we took the others also, if for no other reason than that I really love boats. There are also walking tours, bike tours, Segway tours, all sorts of tours. Definitely take at least one and take it early.

6. Do not miss the tour of the Capitol Building.

It may sound boring, and being around Congress is generally not all the fascinating, but the Rotunda, with its statues and paintings, is so spectacular that it should not be missed. It was disappointing that we could not wander around at will, and that it was so crowded and noisy. Still, you really need to go.

7. If you do go to the Zoo, spring for a map.

The place is large, and the extra buck is well spent to see where you are and which direction you need to go.

8. Wear good shoes.

Even when you are taking a tour bus, there is still a lot of walking. Treating your feet right, both by what you are wearing and by incorporating rest breaks, will make a big difference.The one similarity DC has to Vegas is that everything looks closer than it is because things are really huge. It's just that Vegas is a giant monument to self-indulgence and DC is mostly a monument to sacrifice and serving your country. I guess that's why there were no buffets.

9. Check hours of operation for everything.

Most things close around 5 or 5:30 PM. It appears to be so they can hold fund-raisers after hours, but I am just basing that on seeing a lot of tables and glassware set up every time we left a place. The point is, if you sleep in, you are cutting a big chunk out of your opportunity to see things. Early to bed and early to rise is actually better here. (That is another difference from Vegas.)

10. The Iwo Jima monument is not in Arlington Cemetery.

It is outside of it, and that was never clear until we were about to leave the cemetery and realized we had not seen it yet. You have to go all the way out, then across this other park, past a carillon and you still keep going. Everyone says, "You'll see the flag", but we did not until right before we got there. I think we needed to ask directions of three different people. Still, it is worth it. It was a powerful image as a photo, and it is a powerful image as sculpture.

Finally, decide which things are most important and put them first as much as possible.

Yes, you will run out of time. I was disappointed to miss the Spy Museum, the National Aquarium, the ghost tour of old Alexandria, and the paddle boats on the tidal basin, but what would I have missed? Certainly not the Lincoln, Jefferson, FDR and WWII memorials, or the various Smithsonian museums we visited, or the National Gallery of Art where we really should have spent more time (it had been closed, so its reopening caught us off guard). Not the National Archives where we saw the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights (in the presence of a thousand eighth graders). Even with what we missed there was so much that we saw, from a section of the Berlin Wall in the Ronald Reagan Building to Jerry Seinfeld's puffy shirt in the Museum of American History, to Giant Pandas sucking bamboo-sicles in the National Zoo.

Actually, I already specified, I would have skipped the White House and the Cherry Blossom Parade. I didn't know better, but now you do.