Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas Reflections

I am a Christmas junkie. Ever since I was a little boy, I have always loved Christmas in all its splashy, sparkly splendor. It wasn't so much the gifts, but rather the energizing atmosphere of anticipation and the comforting rituals surrounding the holidays. Ideas like love, joy, and peace are thrown around, and for a brief instant each year, it feels as if the whole world might actually believe in them. As an incurable optimist, I find this refreshing and hopeful.

The older I get, however, the more aware I become of the complexities of adult life. On Christmas Eve, The New York Times posted this captivating albeit depressing column on how disparate our childhood perceptions and the reality of our early memories can be. And even as we joyously celebrated my beloved niece's first Christmas this year, there were several long shadows cast on my own holiday spirit.

Due to my overwhelmingly blessed and privileged childhood, I've only recently come to understand that for many people, Christmas is simply a time of suppression—a few weeks out of the year to grin and bear it. We pave over our adversities with empty hustle and bustle, subconsciously hoping that if we plan and celebrate enough, we will somehow transform our humdrum lives into a Norman Rockwell painting. In spite of my most idealistic wishes, life does not magically become perfect and rosy during this season. It's wonderful that people are able to put aside tensions and awkwardness long enough to gather for a day, but it's only a fleeting and often detrimental fix for very big problems. Behind the masks of frozen smiles are intense loneliness, pain, and sorrow.

For an uncertain instant, the challenges of this holiday season threatened to smother my usually unflappable cheer. But when I revisited the Christmas story, I was reminded that the events of Jesus' birth were not at all as warm and fuzzy as the sanitized greeting card covers would suggest. It is a supernatural and bewildering drama for the unlikely cast of characters. Christmas was not meant to be a candy-coated holiday.

Here's the beauty of Christmas: all those passing mentions of love, joy, and peace are not simply trite wishes, but rather the central theme of the holiday. The disconnect comes when we choose to glaze over instead of acknowledge our broken world during this time of year. Christmas is not an excuse to hide behind a veneer of fake laughter and polite small talk; it's a reminder to pause in the midst of our very real struggles and remember Immanuel, God is with us. The Almighty Lord of all the universe became flesh and walked among us and intimately understands our trials and tragedies. He has come because you were not meant to conquer your shortcomings by yourself. You are not alone, and God himself loves you enough to prove it. And that is the most beautiful truth in the world, more comforting and heartwarming than any lights or ornaments, or even friends and family.

Christmas is about the hope we have because God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. And our response to that extravagant gift is where that magical feeling at Christmas comes from: the freedom we have in light of God's grace to forgive, to lay down our heavy burdens, to be still and at peace, eternally loved and secure.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Day 113: The Holiday Party

Photo of the Day: A Classy Christmas Feast

Today was the New York office's holiday party, which was held at an elegant apartment at The Belnord on the Upper West Side. The sophisticated festivities were organized by Jacob, our rockstar Special Assistant to the President. He managed to secure the gorgeous venue from a few of his designer friends, who let us use their apartment while they were out of town on vacation, and he singlehandedly whipped up the tantalizing gourmet spread of homemade finger foods. Our dinner was composed entirely of a buffet of hors d'oeuvres, including asparagus quiche, bruschetta, roasted figs with blue cheese, walnut-stuffed dates, spinach and artichoke dip, roasted peppers with arugula and cheese, three types of hummus, chocolate-dipped apricots, coconut macaroons, and milk and mint white chocolate fudge. Every platter was filled with inventive and delicious creations, and despite the small serving sizes, I unabashedly stuffed myself silly.

After dinner, we played a few party games, including the ever-popular White Elephant. Not a lot of stealing went down, but there were a few amusing and useful gifts. I walked away with a bendable figurine that doubles as an office accessory to hold or organize your stuff. We also made some predictions for 2011, which we sealed in a "time capsule" to be read at next year's holiday party. It was a pleasant time, which only got better during the after-party. As some of the more senior staff members went home and the crowd dwindled to a more intimate size, the conversation turned to more relevant and juicy subjects, and I wound up staying until well past 10 p.m. That was unfortunate, because I have to catch a 7 a.m. flight out of Newark Liberty International Airport back to Texas tomorrow morning. I can't believe that the holiday break is already here; I feel I haven't even begun to scratch the surface of experiencing Christmas in New York, and my opportunity has now passed. Make no mistake: there's nowhere I'd rather spend the holidays than at home with my family, but I will miss the magical atmosphere that New York takes on for the season since it will be gone by the time I return.

On a that note, I will once again go on a hiatus during the duration of my holiday in Houston. I will be back in New York City on January 3 and will resume posting then. I wish my readers a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! I'll see you in 2011!

Endives with spread at the end of a splendid buffet of hors d'oeuvres.
Roasted peppers stuffed with arugula and cheese.
Apricots dipped in chocolate and pistachios.
Homemade wraps with salsa.
Mini asparagus quiches.
Figs and blue cheese.
Dates stuffed with walnuts and cheese.
Mint white chocolate and milk chocolate fudge.
Jacob gives guests a rundown of his amazing spread.
The beverage bar set up in the kitchen.
Diana kicks off the party by reading a tribute to Jacob, who recently announced his impending resignation.
Our president, his wife, and their two adorable kids steal the show.
Allie and Francesca laugh at the kids' antics.
Skip and Jacob enjoy some light conversation before the games begin.
Gathering in the living room.
Lindsay explains the games to party attendees.
Presents gathered in the center for the room for White Elephant.
The children score first on the drawing and get first dibs on the gifts.
Skip selects my gift of a cheese grater, Slap Chop cutting board, and bubbles.
Lindsay opens a gift wrapped up in a turnip tie.
Jacob opens a very special gift handmade by Aaron himself.
Simone is delighted with her gag gift notepad and photo snow globe.
Dupe gets a tub of specialty shower gel.
Francesca laughs at her clever gift: a one-can refrigerator powered through your computer's USB port.
Allie gets started building a monthly calendar out of Lego blocks.
End table decorations.
One of the many nativity scenes with a unique ethnic twist.
Another dainty tableside Nativity display.
Aaron's rendition of a Taproot in Lego.
The courtyard of The Belnord apartment complex.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Day 112: The Cousin

Photo of the Day: Do You See What I See

In this post, you will see lots of amazing food. As I mentioned yesterday, my cousin Grace, who is from Indonesia and currently lives in Houston, is visiting this weekend, and my role is to be the local tour guide and photographer for her travels. Grace grew up watching shows like Sex and the City and Gossip Girl, and as an unfortunate side effect, has an unattainably glamorous image of New York City. By nature, she also enjoys the finer things in life and aspires to be a socialite. Hence, I found myself indulging my wickedly pretentious side as we traipsed around swanky Midtown locales. When else would I have the opportunity to compare and critique the foie gras of New York's finer eateries or spew random trivia on modern art?

After a late start, we met up at The Modern, a sleek and sophisticated restaurant attached to the Museum of Modern Art, for lunch. We were starving and ordered some perfectly delightful appetizers, including pan-seared Sullivan County foie gras with pickled quince and double duck consomme and grilled diver scallops with roasted beets, Swiss chard, and hazelnuts. I enjoyed the fresh scallops but was put off by the unfamiliar flavor of the beet. The foie gras was fantastic; although last night's dish from Momofuku Noodle Bar (see Day 111: The Kids) had a more interesting and complex texture overall, the actual liver portion was much more fresh and flavorful today. My main course was a decadent Colorado lamb saddle with lamb pancetta and roasted lemon chickpea coulis, which was very rich and tender.

After our satisfying meal, we strolled next door to the MoMA. Though she has little actual interest in the art itself, Grace saw the photos I took for my blog during last month's visit (see Day 85: The Museum) and wanted to go primarily to reenact her favorite shots with her in them. We raced through the collection snapping pictures and left after just half an hour so.

Before it got too dark for photos, we decided to dash down to Central Park. I took Grace and her friend to the entrance off Fifth Avenue by the pond, which I think is both one of the prettiest and most convenient locations in the whole park. I was shocked to see the pond had been sealed with a thin veneer of ice; it was my first time ever to see a naturally frozen body of water!

By then, we were all starving again (you know how these fancy restaurants serve such dainty portions), so I opted to take the girls to my all-time favorite dessert spot: Momofuku Milk Bar, where we indulged in various cookies and cake balls. While my young tourists were very pleased with their sugar high, they still did not have their cravings fully satisfied, so we had a little pre-dinner with some crab and pork soup dumplings at Joe's Shanghai. Our dinner reservation wasn't until 8:30 p.m., so we killed some time on Fifth Avenue, stopping by Henri Bendel and the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, then grabbing an early dessert at the popular Magnolia Bakery. On our way to the restaurant, we also swung by The Holiday Shops at Bryant Park for a little Christmas browsing and photo opportunities.

Our final stop for the night was dinner at Cipriani Dolci, located inside the Grand Central Station Terminal. Despite being an offshoot of the distinguished, world-famous Cipriani restaurant group, the food was, in a word, overrated. The very promising appetizer of delectable ricotta and black truffle panzanotti was followed up by my very average veal cheeks, which was clumsily overpowered with an uninspired tomato-based sauce and toed the line between tender and mushy. But even though the meal was a disappointing way to end the day, I still enjoyed hanging out with my cousin and getting to glimpse a side of New York I can rarely afford to experience.

The entryway to The Modern.
Hanging out with minors today, so wine glasses remain unused.
My cousin Grace and her friend Nadya.
Pan-seared Sullivan County foie gras with pickled quince and double duck consomme at The Modern.
Grilled diver scallops with roasted beets, Swiss chard, and hazelnuts at The Modern.
I am excited to try our appetizers.
The Modern's Creekstone Farm beef tenderloin with oxtail bread pudding, wild mushrooms, and mustard jus.
My Colorado lamb saddle with lamb pancetta and roasted lemon chickpea coulis.
Grace digs into her succulent beef tenderloin.
Nadya prefers her beef medium well.
The sleek, elegant interior of The Modern.
Posing in front of the menu to commemorate our meal at The Modern.
Grace tries (and fails) to imitate the pose of Andy Warhol's Double Elvis.
Grace really liked this picture I took from a previous post, so we tried to somewhat re-create it.
Getting playful in front of Jackson Pollock's One: Number 31, 1950.
Grace poses in front of a painting in the Abstract Expressionism exhibit at the Modern Museum of Art.
Grace literally had me run all the way around the building to take this photo, but I kind of wanted to try out the shot anyway.
In the Museum of Modern Art stairwell.
Grace in front of René Magritte The False Mirror.
Grace in admires Pablo Picasso's famous Boy Leading A Horse.
The girls copy the pose of a leaning woman sculpture.
Taking the escalator to the sixth floor of the Museum of Modern Art.
We snuck one photo before the security guard informed us no photography.
In front of the Double O installation, which shows two rings of magnetic tape kept aloft by two fans blowing at each other.
The icy pond at Central Park. It was my first time seeing a naturally frozen body of water!
Silly Grace tried to test the ice, but we all cautioned strongly against it. Instead we just took a photo by the frozen rocks.
Pretty pictures of New York hotels and skyscrapers from the Gapstow Bridge.
Overlooking the pond from Gapstow Bridge.
Enjoying the view from the pond at Central Park.
Friends laughing together by the Gapstow Bridge at Central Park.
Indulging ourselves with cookies, pies, and truffles at Momofuku Milk Bar.
Grace doesn't even wait to sit down before starting to munch on her compost cookies.
We were still hungry after our desserts and stopped by across the street for crab and pork soup dumplings from Joe's Shanghai.
The disturbingly beautiful The Nutcracker-themed decorations at Henri Bendel on Fifth Avenue.
Grace browses through some cute keychains at Henri Bendel.
Grace adjusts her scarf and coat in the mirror at Henri Bendel.
Henri Bendel eerie take on Clara from The Nutcracker.
In front of Henri Bendel The Nutcraker-themed store window.
Stopping by the Rockefeller Center Plaza for pictures.
Grace tries her first cupcakes at Magnolia Bakery and deems them, as I did, undeniably tasty but also overrated.
Getting their hands washed with moisturizing hand scrubs and lotion at Sabon at The Holiday Shops at Bryant Park.
Washing away the scrub for fresh smooth skin.
Underneath the blue-lit Bryant Park Christmas Tree.
Me under the Bryant Park Christmas Tree.
The beautiful glow of blue lights illuminates and refracts off the crystal ornaments.
The blue lights and crystal snowflakes give the Bryant Park Christmas Tree an icy, frigid feel.
Enjoying a fancy dinner at Cipriani Dolci at Grand Central Station Terminal.
Grace peruses the Cipriani Dolci menu under the vast blue sky of the Grand Central Station Terminal.
Cell phones, cell phones, everywhere.
Ricotta and black truffle panzanotti at Cipriani Dolci.
I am just about ready to lick my plate clean of the decadent, creamy filling.
Grace orders Cipriani Dolci's filet mignon with green peppercorn sauce and peperonata.
My disappointing order of veal cheeks alla Cipriani.
Cipriani Dolci's complimentary dessert of assorted cookies. We were very unimpressed.