I spent this Saturday afternoon at the Art Institute of Chicago, an incredible institution that never fails to inspire jealousy. Not the admiring jealousy inspired by the visual artists I know personally – the ones who found their craft in the visual or tactile realm and who work like demons to improve their skills (and I am jealous of you, one and all, for both your dedication and ability to create something that can be touched) – but something deeper, that revolves around a time when art seemed to mean more.
I always forget how much I adore John Singer Sargent and Ivan Albright. Both seeing the art from a distance, as it’s intended to be seen, and getting up closer than I’m meant to, to look closely at the broad strokes of thick paint and color. When I inspect those, I remember that each stroke was a choice made, a decision on color and thickness and direction. I remember that each of those tiny decisions, strung together, created a miraculous result.
I’m not foolish enough to believe this is only in classical paintings. Digital art is the result of just as many tiny decisions, strokes of a mouse or Wacom tablet. Photography requires painstaking work around composition, light, lenses and structure. In sculpture the placement of chisel to stone is, in general, less observed than the glory of the end result. And in good writing, every sentence takes as much work and effort as every brush-stroke.
All of those, however, are backstage work. Invisible unless you hold it close to your eyes and make yourself remember that human hands were behind this creation. The thick brush-strokes of the painters whom I admire and most envy reveal both the genius which went into the entirety of the composition, as well as into each individual component.
This is, perhaps, no more than some idealized artistic myth. I’m prone to both mythmaking and idolization.
Admittedly, my sister took me to the Institute to particularly see the revamped Arms and Armor exhibit, which she knew was always my favorite as a boy and young man. What red-blooded American boy doesn’t love knights and implements of destruction? The new exhibit remains impressive, and you should go to see it, but for the reasons listed above I am more struck as a grown man by Whistler’s Mother (also here on a limited run) and Sargent’s portrait of Mrs. George Swinton (Elizabeth Ebsworth).
Today’s question is, “What do you do repeatedly that you hate doing?”
Heh. Only ten minutes? All right, let’s pick one and dig deep:
I hate that I internalized the idea that my own dreams and desires should never come before those of other people. My mother, whom I love very deeply and by whom I was beyond fortunate to be raised, recently told me she didn’t do my sister and I any favors by implicitly teaching us this mindset and explicitly reinforcing it.
My personal role, as I’ve seen it, has almost always been in support. To be there for what other people needed, to lend my muscles or mindpower or financial or emotional resources to the people who mattered to me. Or, in the absence of any of them, to whomever came along and needed help.
It’s a trait that has landed me in hot water with scam artists and sob stories. It’s cost me a great deal over the years in terms of deferred personal growth and pleasures or wishes denied. It’s not something I enjoy about myself, but it is rooted so deeply inside of me that standing against it causes a huge disconnect and massive discomfort.
I’ve been through therapy and life coaching. I’ve read uncountable books on self-help. I’ve tried assertiveness training. None of it takes away the very real psychic turmoil caused when I want to do one thing, and someone I love even suggests something different.
On top of the trouble it causes me, it doesn’t make me easy to live with, either. It took over ten years of marriage to understand that a yes-man doesn’t make a terribly good husband; and thank everything that is that we decided against having children.
As a friend it may be easier – you can typically rely on me to go with the flow, unless it’s something really important like avoiding a restaurant I know is terrible. Still, I suspect that even then, people would prefer I express a preference.
There have been times I’ve overcome this tendency. When I was at my very happiest in my skin, around 2010 or so, I had less trouble putting myself first and expressing my opinions. Unsurprisingly, I made a much bigger and better impression on the people I met and dealt with at that stage in my life. Over time, however, old habits overrode that other, stronger, more assertive part of my personality.
That said, I’m better than I was. I am still working on it. But while putting others first certainly sounds like a noble ideal, it’s something I hate about my character, and yet repeatedly indulge in.
Are there other, worse vices which I hate but repeat? Oh heck yes. Eating and drinking to excess, making excuses, passive aggression. As well as everyday behaviors like biting nails and mindlessly surfing the internet. I could go on all day with things I do repeatedly but hate doing, but as an exercise in digging to find the root causes, this is the one which consumes me, and which I suspect underlies many of those other vices.
Unless, of course, you’d prefer I hated something else. In which case I’ll do my best to please.
“What experience from this past year do you appreciate the most?”
For the past 11 months, I have served as an Area Director for the Toastmasters organization. It has been, by turns, fulfilling and frustrating, rewarding and … really, really difficult.
In terms of appreciation, however, it’s hard to beat this experience.
Taking on this position inspired me to take on greater challenges in the office, and in other spheres of my personal life. I have said “yes!” with enthusiasm to several opportunities which I would have hesitated to accept in the past, even when I was unsure of my capacity to execute them with perfection.
I have met such a large group of warm and wonderful people, all of whom are invested in improving their skills and being of service to a larger cause. They come from all over the Chicagoland area, and when the District is split between North and South I will miss seeing several of them, but will rest well knowing that they are continuing their good work in another sphere. I consider many of these people friends, and several of them as inspirations.
I’ve learned a great deal about myself and have improved my skillset as a leader. While I could have done more – and I will always feel I could have done more – I have certainly grown in terms of dealing with challenges and setbacks, in terms of long-range planning and in dealing with sometimes difficult personalities.
I no longer fire off immediate responses to questions which can be set aside until more important matters are attended to. I have learned to keep my hands off those projects and clubs which are running well, relinquishing control and delegating authority to the proper individuals. I have also learned how to most effectively step in to offer assistance when it is needed.
At some level, too, I have learned to lose more gracefully. In this year, not all my efforts have borne fruit. Some clubs into which I put my time and energy have decided to discontinue their charters, and ideas I advanced have been turned away by others. I have yet to be able to find a replacement for my position, which is a source of some vexation.
Still, I do not take these as slights on myself or on my capabilities. Instead, they are lessons in the famed serenity prayer, choices made by others which are beyond my actual control.
For that knowledge alone, along with many other insights and opportunities, I can truly say that I have appreciated this challenge.
I can also say, however, that I will not pick these reins up again lightly. I enjoy crafting words and phrases, speaking in public and sharing my knowledge with others. The administration and oversight of others is something I can now gracefully relinquish into hands which are unknown to me, but which I am certain will be up to the task.
In which we wax philosophical, apparently. I believe that there is, indeed, such a thing as perfect. However, that thing lies not in a thing as it is, but in a thing as it is perceived.
Let’s consider a perfect afternoon. I’ve eaten a delicious lunch and had a small cocktail to round things out. The sky is bright azure and there are small, white, puffy clouds skittering about the ceiling of the world. The temperature is in the mid-seventies, the grass is green, the lawn work is already done, leaving me comfortably sore and tired. I have no commitments in the evening or for the rest of the afternoon. The hammock is set up, and I am in that hammock, watching the clouds in the sky and considering this perfect day.
The day, in and of itself, is not perfect. Somewhere, a child lays screaming; somewhere, missles are being fired, somewhere, an old woman is dying alone and unloved. The day itself is certainly not perfect. The experience which I am having – my perception of this day – is perfect, as long as I don’t consider these other elements of lives outside my own.
And yes, these are the thoughts which intrude upon my most perfect days. For how dare I enjoy perfection in an imperfect world?
Let’s consider a perfect meal. A beautifully balanced pre-dinner drink, made by expert hands with a strong sense of flavor. Appetizers which prepare the taste buds and sharpen hunger, perhaps a little crunchy, perhaps a little sweet. Soup to follow which cleanses the palate and is presented with precision. An entrée of tender lamb, with a crisp crust and an interior which falls off the bone, served over garlic whipped potatoes and sweet peas. Dessert of crème brulee and a glass of Armagnac to finish.
A perfect meal, but one which would turn a vegan’s stomach, which would send an alcoholic packing, would absolutely freak out anyone more frugal than your humble narrator. A perfect meal nonetheless, in my experience and perception.
And yes, I ask as I eat; how dare I enjoy such luxuries, when I am surrounded by want and need? Who am I to partake of perfection when others go hungry?
Or a perfect relationship, one in which each partner’s needs are perfectly and exquisitely balanced to bring maximum pleasure to each one, to serve one another’s hopes, dreams, and desires and which lasts until the day they pass peacefully together into that long night. Hardly perfect in the eyes of their divorcee friends.
Perfect exists as an experiential state of mind. Is there a platonic ideal of any material thing? Perhaps elsewhere. Perhaps in the mists of another world. Here, however, as Milton says – Our minds can make a Heaven of Hell, or a Hell of Heaven. With our thoughts and our eyes, our choice of how to see those things around us, we can make perfection here on Earth …
Or we can question our rights to Heaven.
Duck Duck Goat is star chef Stephanie Izard’s “reasonably authentic” take on Chinese food, located in Chicago’s West Loop – the Fulton Market District. My friends Carl and Nancy snagged reservations in late May and invited us along for the ride.
First off, let’s discuss the decor. Each room in this multi-room, high-ceilinged restaurant is decorated in a different but striking style. The lounge area is a lovely jade green, with a small but well-tended bar behind which rises an old fashioned mirror and about two dozen statues of goats. Many with lucky coins, others without. The room in which we ate was also jade green, but festooned with around sixteen different Bob Ross style paintings of calm forest waterfalls. You think they’re all the same at a casual glance, but if you look more closely you’ll pick up on the differences. The ceilings were dark cork for style and sound-dampening properties, inset with colorful crests and ornamentation.
The main room feels taller as well as larger thanks to the exposed pipes and the mahogany shelves up where our ceilings were, filled with goods that give the feel of an Indiana Jones market set-place, well-lit against the scarlet walls. I could spend a happy hour just walking through the place and taking in the feel.
We started in the lounge with Blind Goat Old Fashioneds: J. Henry Blind Goat Bourbon, Birch-Sarsaparilla, Angostura Bitters and an orange peel the likes of which I’ve never seen. Their mixologist really knows what he’s doing – not a hint of pith, and about as wide as a woman’s palm.
Our lovely server Sara recommended two dishes apiece for a group of four, as the food is served family-style typically in sets of 3-5 items. We wound up with eleven dishes total, plus dessert and perhaps another cocktail apiece.
Starters were possibly my favorite item of the evening: goat and duck skin spring rolls, lightly fried and served with two sauces. These little morsels could be a lunch for me and I’d be well pleased. The snap of the roll against the slightly musty flavor of good goat’s meat combined with the richness of rendered duck skin and the wonderfully hot mustard.
After that, wood-grilled duck hearts in horseradish aioli sauce. The lovely copper tang of organ meats blended with a perfect amount of smoke, with sliced scallions offering some vegetal relief from the supreme richness of the meat and sauce combination. At the same time we were served scallion pancakes with hoisin sauce and cabbage coleslaw. I’ve never had scallion pancakes this light and airy – thin, crisp, and warmed just so to balance the coolness of the slaw. These two together were a lovely combination.
After that we got pickled cucumbers as a palate cleanser followed by pork fried rice. I’m not normally a fan of fried rice, but the manner in which we were eating was protein-heavy, and carbs sounded like a good idea. (I would have preferred to try the Forbidden Goat, black rice with goat and pickled quail eggs, but I wasn’t about to push anyone at this stage.) The dish wasn’t as heavy or greasy as most fried rice, as I expected, and the pork belly and sausage were a real treat.
Frankly, I could have stopped here and been immensely satisfied. But no, oh no! There was more on the way.
Horn Shu Rao – braised pork belly – which was properly prepared, but a bit gelatinous for some members of our party. I enjoyed the entire thing immensely and wound up enjoying their servings as well. A plate of pickled mixed vegetables and a dish of the most amazing green beans in black bean sauce with fried onions and cashews I have ever had. These two vegetable dishes together gave me a world of enjoyment.
Barbecue pork Bao buns, half apiece, really put me over the edge. These were good, and it may be my increasing discomfort, but I don’t think I’d get them again personally. On top of that pork we got jiazao – fried potstickers of short rib and bone marrow – which would rank as my second favorite items of the night after the spring rolls we started with. Completely different profiles, with these being rich and dark and smoky and divine; much better suited for the end of an evening.
Of course, then we saw a plate of regular wood grilled short ribs being served at the next table and, being who we are, added an order of those. Again, I’m afraid I wound up eating more than my share as some in the party had believed they would be boneless rather than bone-in. Saucy, sesame-laden, and pillow-soft to the tooth once you got through the tantalizingly crisp wood crust.
For dessert, blueberry and bullet chili sorbet topped with shaved rhubarb ice, “crunchy corn cereal” which I believe – but cannot prove – came from a certain Captain of the cereal industry – caramelized condensed milk, blueberries, and an incredibly delicious take on rhubarb slices that melted in the mouth.
The bill was also … remarkably low. I have honestly had much less food at a similar price here in the suburbs, routinely. I had fully planned to spend twice what I did for this experience, which makes it all the sweeter.
Admittedly, sleeping was an issue after that much rich and incredible food, but I’ll gladly trade a good night’s sleep for a meal I’ll still be thinking about for years to come. I am an unabashed fan of Duck Duck Goat and look forward to trying Chef Izard’s other locations in the near future.