North America

Mark & I made a quick trip to DC while we were home and made a quick stop at Logan Circle, where we’d lived for a few years in the 1990s. Back then this park was all drug dealers and prostitutes but it’s such a beautiful and peaceful place now.

We loved our eight-week summer vacation in Europe, but we were excited to come home, too. The odd thing was that we knew we’d only be back for a month, as we had made plans to go to Germany with friends for Oktoberfest. But we packed a lot in during our home respite and I figured I’d memorialize some of the highlights here before leaving for Germany tomorrow.

First up the Saturday after our return was hosting a birthday party for our friend Constantine, the Musical Director and Principle Conductor of the New York City Opera. It was going to be a small affair, maybe 25 or at most 30 people, so Mark & I treated it as an experiment: could we pull off a party like that, with lots of food, without caterers? And the good news is, yeah, we can do it. Mark took responsibility for all the dishes and glasses and drinks and charcuterie and veggies, while I did all the actual cooking. That seemed to be a pretty fair distribution of labor, though the next time – with all the glasses and plates and flatware now purchased – we would likely share more of the cooking.

Mark with new friends Tair Tazhigulov, a bass who sang for us that night and performed onstage with the New York City Opera the following weekend, and Hayk Arsenyan, a concert pianist, at our birthday party

As for the party, it was great fun. As we knew he would, Constantine brought a few singers and as we’ve noted before there is absolutely nothing like live opera in your own living room. The guests were all his friends but increasingly we’ve started to get to know some of them a little better and they’re always fascinating. Like the former U.S. Ambassador to Armenia (which is how Constantine knows him) currently awaiting Senate confirmation to become the Ambassador to Nigeria. So who knows, Mark & I may be off to Abuja sometime in the next year or two just to hang out.

In all good food, great music, fun company. But oh God, after all that prep, was I tired the next day.

Next up was actually seeing Constantine and his company in action. A couple nights every summer they perform a free opera in Bryant Square Park, and we were in town for Lucia di Lammermoor, a 19th century opera by Donizetti. It’s a story where a beautiful young woman is forced by her family to leave the love of her life to marry another man. Sad. But then on their wedding night she stabs him to death and appears onstage in her white nightgown drenched in blood, having gone mad. She spends like 15 minutes singing and dying, appears to die, then gets back up and spends another 10 minutes dying.

Sarah Coburn in her blood-drenched nightgown, onstage with Tair and Elissa Pfaender who also performed in our apartment the week before

It’s actually a fabulous scene and the lead soprano, Sarah Coburn, was spectacular. The voice of an angel (although, as an aside, her late father, a Republican Senator from Oklahoma, was less of an angel…). And two of the soloists on stage had performed at our house the weekend before, so that was pretty cool.

We’ve been wanting to branch out in our cultural explorations and the very next night we had a chance. Analia Farfan is a professional dancer who, among other things, performs with the opera group who we’ve hosted here twice. She was putting on a tribute to Anna Pavlova, the great early 20th century Russian ballerina. The show was really great, the sort of thing that you can’t believe you get to see for just $35 a ticket. Altogether there were maybe eight or 10 dancers all doing numbers associated with Pavlova. Another success.

Analia Farfan was beautiful

Meanwhile my sister Becky was in town that weekend too, bringing her daughter Lily back to Barnard College to start her sophomore year. Sadly, no pictures of them: they were all busy moving back into the dorms and all that stuff.

The excitement continued with Shakespeare in the Park, this year an adaptation of As You Like It. Now, it’s funny that Mark & I keep going to Shakespeare in the Park, since neither of us particularly like Shakespeare. But Shakespeare in the Park is such a cultural … thing … that you somehow just have to. And this adaptation was very loose and very fun. And there you are in Central Park, sitting under the stars watching this great show.

The cast of a very adapted As You Like It

Our month at home even included a quick trip to DC. Way back in 1979 I was awarded a scholarship from the Harry S. Truman Foundation, the third year of its existence. The grant was made to one sophomore in each state who indicated an interest in public service, so it was kind of a big deal. Well, this was the 45th anniversary of the foundation’s founding and they were doing a big party at the residence of the French Ambassador to the United States. Who could miss that?

Dinner after the party at the French Ambassador’s house with Anthony – another Truman Scholar – and his husband Thomas

The event itself was fun, but most impressive is that the residence was just amazing. We saw a couple friends from Truman world, met some new friends and in general had fun. The next morning, because Mark & I had been sponsors of the event, we had breakfast with a select group from the foundation, including Clifton Truman Daniels, the former president’s grandson. Heard lots of fun stories about growing up with the old guy as your grandfather. Interestingly, Clifton occasionally performs a one-man play, Give ’em Hell, Harry!, that starred James Whitmore when it was first produced in 1975. Now I have a fantasy of getting him to do it here and inviting a bunch of Truman Scholars who live in New York. Stay tuned.

Dinner that night was with great old friends who we love to see and then it was back to New York. Now we’re packing and getting stuff ready for another two-and-a-half weeks in and around Bavaria. One day of serious beer-drinking is in store but then a couple weeks of exploring places we haven’t been to before. Should be fun!

More family! Mark got a text one day from Leigh that she was in town briefly on a school trip. She had COVID, though, so the visit was masked and outdoors.

Maestro Constantine, pianist Michael, and some new friends from the birthday party

I almost forgot: we even did politics during our home visit. Mandela Barnes is the Democratic Senate nominee in Wisconsin, so we went to a small event for him. He’s running neck-and-neck against the incumbent and would be an incredible improvement. Sadly, though, Mark & I both find these kind of events kind of boring.

The night we got back from DC I made this fabulous dinner, including roasted beans with pancetta and lemon, and branzino with a fresh cilantro sauce. It was really great but as I put it down it reminded Mark of dinner the night before with our friends and he said “Wow, wasn’t that dinner Dan made last night great?” I explained that’s not the right thing to say when I’ve been making dinner all evening!

The view from our apartment is stunning every day, but maybe even more than usual as the leaves start to change

October has been a very busy month. You already know that Jim spent a week in Paris with my dad. And soon after that we spent a week in Barbados. The rest of the month we enjoyed mostly glorious (and some really crappy) fall weather here in New York.

This was also the month that saw the most visitors we’ve had yet. Plus construction began in earnest on our condominium. And we started to dabble more seriously than ever in art and music.

But let’s start with the fact that autumn in New York is wonderful. The cooling weather facilitates those long walks we love to do (when it’s not windy and rainy). The turning leaves are beautiful (like everywhere else I suppose). I’m pretty sure this is my favorite time to be here.

Even in the rain, the city can be so beautiful under fall colors

A jazz quartet livens up Washington Square Park on a glorious fall day

But nonetheless we did schedule a week away in mid-October, the week when we celebrate Jim’s birthday and our anniversary. We wanted to go someplace new and fun, and an obvious choice was Barbados. We could fly there direct and at convenient times. Plus it’s a country we’ve never been to. And if we hadn’t gone there this month, there was a threat that we wouldn’t make it to a single new country in 2019 — for the first time in 20 years.

So we booked a nice hotel on a beautiful beach and spent a week doing just about nothing — at least as long as you count sitting on the beach, reading, taking a swim, and eating as nothing. OK, I did make myself work out at the hotel gym every other day. But other than that, it was all about nothing.

This is the very spot between our room and the beach where most of the nothing took place

We’d occasionally get out of the beach chairs to cool off in the water

A view of the beach from our favorite lunch spot

Celebrating Jim’s birthday

Celebrating our anniversary — 32 years

With the exception of Barbados, we haven’t been planning to travel much at all as the construction on our condo finally got under way this month. A week of demolition cleared out the space and revealed some unexpected new challenges. Our architects quickly dreamed up solutions and redrew the plans. And then the construction team measured and measured and started building walls. We are thrilled to watch our new home finally starting to take shape!

As the walls begin to rise, we now turn our attention to finishing details. We’ve already ordered appliances, cabinetry, plumbing fixtures, flooring and tile. Now we’re turning to furniture, rugs, wall treatments, and art. It seems like the decision making never ends.

One of the last shots after demolition and before the actual construction began

Walls, glorious walls going up!

Unlike the last time we renovated, lasers now help make sure everything is level and in the exact right place

We meet every Monday to go over plans and make adjustments as needed. I’m reviewing drawings here with Naiky from the architectural team, Cesar the general contractor, and Alberto the project lead.

Our lead architect, Mitch, helps us make final selections of which slabs of stone and tile to use at a big warehouse in New Jersey. This very sheet of porcelain will become our kitchen counters.

Moving slabs of marble around so we can pick the perfect ones for our powder room sink and floor

As I mentioned, October was the busiest month yet for out-of-town visitors. We were rarely alone this month.

While Jim was in Paris I enjoyed a dinner and theater date with our friend Nina from Chicago

We had a wonderful weekend visit from our friends Jennifer and Bill (right) from St. Paul. Minnesota. We were joined one fun night by Natalia, left, who used to be my personal trainer.

Forty years ago, Shideh was my pen pal in Iran. We’ve enjoyed visiting her and her husband Lars in Sweden a few times, but this was the first time we ever met up in the US. It was great fun showing the condo to Shideh, who is an amazing architect.

We hosted dinner at our place for Shideh and Lars, along with my college friend Mary Beth

On the other side of the table…me with Lars and Sven

We also had a fun visit with James, who I worked with very closely for several years at NGP VAN. James now teaches journalism at the University of Missouri, and it was great to catch up. Hope next time he’ll bring Molly and his two cute daughters.

The visit by Shideh and Lars was especially timely as we start to think about buying art for our condo, which has a variety of spaces just begging for beautiful things. The four of us spent a long day touring the most important galleries in Chelsea, something of a global epicenter for acquiring art. On my own, I find this world pretty intimidating. But Lars, who happens to be one of the world’s leading art critics, really helped demystify some of it. It’s less intimidating in these galleries when the owners and artists all come running to welcome Lars into their spaces.

Shideh and Jim give perspective to this giant sculpture or whatever you’d call this

When you are wondering why this piece of masonite with white paint slapped on it is listed for $1.5 million, it’s great to hear Lars explain the important role that painter Robert Ryman played in the development of 20th century art. Genuinely super interesting, though we decided to keep looking.

This was one small piece of an amazing exhibit of paintings, video installations, and sculpture from the French artist Laurent Grasso. When the gallery owner heard that Lars was there, he soon introduced us to the artist himself for a personal tour of the show.

And that takes us to music. Over the last six months we have contemplated the prospect of acquiring a piano for our new condo — even though neither of us knows anything at all about playing. But the more we learn about pianos and piano culture, the more captivated we’ve become. And in October we took a big leap forward with the plan, as we both decided to start taking lessons right away. It’s useless to take lessons if you can’t practice, so we acquired a nice Yamaha keyboard to get us through the next six months of lessons.

We are fortunate that our friend Gena has agreed to take us on as her students. Gena is a spectacular pianist, teacher, and lover of music. She also teaches our friend Mary Beth’s son Luca, who is an incredibly gifted player. I had my first lesson at Gena’s house in Harlem on October 31. I think this is going to be an important part of my post-career life here in New York. It feels like a whole new world is about to open before us!

There it is, our new Yamaha keyboard that is opening up a new and exciting world to us

And speaking of music, we saw Tina: The Tina Turner Musical in previews on Broadway. What a show!

Finally, on the last day of the month, after innumerable delays, they started tearing out the existing walls

At one point a month or two ago we were lamenting all the delays in getting our condo project underway and Mark observed that in the worst of circumstances – the worst – it would certainly be going by October. We finally received our building permit on September 11 and signed a contract with our general contractor the next day. Demolition was scheduled to start on September 23 and we planned a pre-demolition party for the 21st. Everything was set.

The party goes off without a hitch. It was relatively small because it was kind of a last-minute thing, but a lot of fun. People we’ve only recently met in New York, old friends from college and early career, two people we met on our travel extravaganza – one in Bali, the other in Morocco – who are New Yorkers and part of our new local network of friends. A lot of fun.

Party night with Hiro and Ann

But there was to be one more delay. On Friday evening, with demolition scheduled for Monday, the building super (the guy in charge of things day-to-day) mentioned to Mark that we couldn’t start on Monday because we didn’t have the electrical and plumbing permits. We had the building permits but not the subcontractors permits. What the …??

Well, the city doesn’t require it, but apparently our building requires you to have all the permits in place before you can start demolition. So Monday’s start date is pushed back a day so the subcontractors can pull their permits. Except on Monday the city’s online permit application system is broken. And it’s broken on Tuesday. And Wednesday. No permits, no demolition. Limbo.

The demolition crew had moved their equipment in the weekend before demolition was to begin but it just sat there unused for another week

By Thursday Mark and I have had it. We go to our city councilor’s office to lodge a complaint. How are we supposed to do a project when your system is broken? Mark files a complaint online with the Mayor’s office. And then we go our building super and beg. There’s no objective need for those permits, and the subcontractors are trying to pull them but the city’s system is broken with no indication when it will get fixed.

Eventually he relented. OK, you can have your guys get started. It takes a couple days of course to get the crews ready so finally on Monday, September 30, we broke ground so to speak. If the absolute worst case scenario was that we would start by October 1, well, we cut it pretty close. The project, though, is finally underway.

Day One. Just six or eight months to go now.

We’ll post more pictures from the demolition soon but meanwhile I should add that the rest of September, aside from the frustrations of construction delays, was a lot of fun. The first weekend we celebrated Mark’s sister’s birthday with Jeanne and her husband Jamal, along with our great friends Dan & Laura. Other highlights included an evening at the Metropolitan Museum for a members-only opportunity to view their exhibition on rock and roll instruments, an Elizabeth Warren volunteer event, lots of furniture shopping, the conclusion of Mark’s root canal (OK, that wasn’t fun), more house guests, and piano shopping.

Jamal, Jeanne, & Laura celebrating Jeanne’s 50th birthday

Oh yeah, and keeping with our efforts to be cultural we saw two plays over the course of September. First up was Sunday, a play that was pretty much boring. You just never cared about the characters or what was happening. Later in the month we saw Soft Power at the Public Theater, the famous theater immediately adjacent to our condo. If I described it as a musical about a Chinese-American who in 2016 meets the next president of the U.S. – Hillary Clinton! – and then changes the course of history, well, it would be true but wouldn’t do it justice. It was one of those shows that’s great to watch and then really gets under your skin so you can’t stop thinking about it. There’s a measurable chance it will be headed to broadway after its run at the Public, so stay tuned.

Stay tuned now, soon to come are more pictures from the condo demolition and renovation!

One more photo of destruction from Day One

By the end of the third day an enormous amount had been removed. There was still a lot more but it was exciting to see the space with almost no interior walls left.

Nic, Naiky, and Mitch, our architecture and design team, in one of the final pre-demolition meetings on site

Jeanne relaxing on our daybed with Manhattan spread out behind her. We’re excited about the condo project finally getting underway but we do love our little apartment.

Dan liked the space too

Dan & Laura at our favorite Greek restaurant

Mark and his baby sister Jeanne

The streets of Greenwich Village. There’s a lot to love about New York City.

At almost any moment walking the streets of Manhattan you can see one gorgeous building or another

Speaking of things to love in New York, we discovered an incredible little Italian restaurant in Alphabet City just a few blocks from our apartment. The heavily accented owner is from Rome and she really, really knows how to run a great restaurant.

We sat outside for our first lunch at this little Italian place, with the interior decorated pretty festively

Signs of fall coming to New York

What else do I love about New York? I spend a surprising amount of time down on the East River walking, running, reading … just enjoying it. That’s the Williamsburg bridge connecting over to Brooklyn. Interesting to note, though, that while I love the East River, it’s actually a tidal estuary, not a river. Big difference.

More from the party, here’s Mark with old college classmate Jane.

We brought chalk to the party knowing there would be some kids who would enjoy it. What we forgot is that the husband of a friend of a friend is an artist and that he would take a few moments to decorate the place.

And here’s Mark with Alex on the right, the rental agent we worked with to get our apartment, and Alex’s friend whose name I sadly forget

Other great moments in September included a members-only evening at the Met, where among other highlights was an exhibit of rock and roll instruments. You can tell who used this.

This gold piano was the one Jerry Lee Lewis (“Great Balls of Fire”) used in his house for sixty years, from 1957 to 2017

Lady Gaga’s piano. I think that would look stunning in our condo!

Speaking of pianos, we made a couple of trips up to the Steinway showroom, considering getting a piano for the condo. Neither of us play (yet) but the space just seems to beg for a grand piano. Here is Betsy, our salesperson, showing a used piece that someone had just bought. For what it’s worth, ours will be black. And it just may play itself.

Culture? After seeing the play “Soft Power” we went to a little after-show cocktail party open to members. Here Mark is with most of the cast. The guy standing just to his right was playing the lead, though he is normally the understudy. If the understudy was that good I can only imagine how good the normal lead actor must be.

Mark got all cultural and joined Ajay for the film Pain and Glory at the New York Film Festival. Here is director Pedro Almodóvar discussing the film afterward. He reports that the movie was incredibly beautiful.

Our friend Dara (right) had an extra ticket to Outstanding in the Field, a fun dinner that was held on a 2-acre rooftop farm in Brooklyn. So Mark joined her, along with her friend Carole and her nephew Jake. We’d heard Carole’s name for 30 years, though we’d never met. And we hadn’t seen Jake since he was about six. Both were so interesting and fun.

Jake and Carole made fun dining companions

Speaking of dining companions, here’s Meredith joining us for dinner and an overnight stay in our apartment. We last saw Meredith in Bali where she was dreaming of starting her own yoga business, running yoga retreats in exotic places around the world. We encouraged her, she took the leap, and started a successful business. Sadly, she then developed Lyme’s Disease which has really put a crimp in her ability to teach yoga. She’s still pushing though, and was with us on her way to Greece for one of her retreats.

I love this picture of Meredith and Mark

Finally, we closed the month with a fabulous visit from Tony and Sharon, a couple from Adelaide, Australia we met while biking in India. Hearing of our adventure they decided to pack it all in for a year and travel the world. I know, just a year. Sad. But they’re having a great time, and what would world travel be without a week in New York? And that’s right, no one should be surprised seeing them drinking Perfect Manhattans in our apartment.