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Friday, January 30, 2009

Thing 135: The United States Botanic Garden

January has been kind of rough, right?

It's not just me and my thin, grew-up-in-California skin is it? I mean, it's been COLD outside, right? That was a lot of snow and ice, right? And, if I recall the last ten winters I've spent in this District, February is always our coldest month. We always get our city-shuts-down snow storm in February, and it's always impossibly, bitterly cold in February which makes me mad every year because spring is in sight. So we're not even to the worst of it, despite how frozen my toes got on Inauguration Day.

But now, I have a plan for getting through it.

Because my most glorious, impromptu and inexpensive Saturday was not over yet, after the hairballs and the ackee. Oh, no. We then proceeded south, into the warm, tropical, humid embrace of the US Botanic Garden.

The Botanic Garden is free. And warm. And beautiful. And there are copious benches in all of these free, warm, beautiful rooms. Are you picking up what I'm putting down? Why am I not reading in the Botanic Garden all the time?!

I could peel off layers and be comfortable in a t-shirt. I could change into flip flops. I could spend the whole afternoon there and catch up on issues of the New Yorker and overdue library books. I could break a sweat. This is very exciting to me.

But don't tell anyone my secret, OK? I want to ensure that I have some bench space to myself once February hits.

The Boyfriend took some great pictures during our visit. Enjoy!

PS - I finally got around to updating the DC365 City Guide -- so check out the link on right to find something to do no matter what your mood or location!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Thing 134: Sweet Mango Cafe

In my very first blog post, I wrote:

I am continually fascinated by this city -- its colonial, racial, and federal history, its jumble of cultures in such a very small space, its big city opportunities and small town realities. Its obsession with politics. Its free museums. Its stunningly high HIV rate. The vaulted ceilings of the metro and the cheap seats at RFK and the fantastic Jamaican food in Petworth -- I love learning about this district.
Emphasis added because...drum roll please...I am finally blogging about the fantastic Jamaican food in Petworth. Namely, Sweet Mango Cafe (fyi, that link also plays reggae).

Sweet Mango Cafe Jerk Chicken
I love Sweet Mango. I used to live in north Petworth, on Gallatin, and I used to get off the metro at Georgia Ave on my home from work, pop into Sweet Mango to order takeout, then hop on the bus to finish my commute. Once home, I would enjoy spicy, hot jerked chicken, smokey, fatty curried goat or sometimes spiced fried snapper, all with a generous heap of rice and peas (which is rice with red beans, not what Americans would think of as 'peas') and a scoop of boiled veggies. I'd often get a side of fried plantains or coco bread or a Jamaican beef patty.

Or in the summertime, when the weather was warm and heavy, I'd take advantage of their fabulous rooftop patio and adjacent bar to eat jerk chicken and savor a cold Red Stripe.

But then, alas, I moved to Logan Circle, and while vowing to continue my patronage of Sweet Mango, I haven't been back since. So I was thrilled when I threw it out as a lunchtime destination after a morning of looking at hairballs and war wounds and everyone agreed.

I love Sweet Mango's curried goat, but then at the last minute I was talked into trying something I've never eaten before, ever. I went for the daily special, which was ackee and saltfish with dumplings, yam and banana. I was told by one of my lunch companions that ackee and saltfish is a breakfast staple in Jamaica. He'd eaten it before, mistaking the ackee for scrambled eggs (they look similar but taste quite different). What is ackee? It's a fruit, that when cooked becomes soft and yellow and only mildly sweet. Uncooked, it makes you vomit a lot. But I ordered it anyway! And mixed with the saltfish it was salty and soft and light and altogether a delicious lunch. The yam turned out to be yucca (that beans/peas phenomenon at work), and the dumplings were doughy and really dense -- not my favorite thing on the plate. But I love trying new foods, especially ones I turn out to really like!

Sweet Mango Cafe Ackee and Saltfish
Others I ate with got either jerked or curried chicken and we all ate heartily (medical oddities work up the appetite, apparently). While we were eating, a long line formed as people placed their lunch orders.

What a treat to hit up one of my old favorites. When the weather warms back up (when? when will that be?!), you'll find me on their roof deck eating curried goat and oxtail, I promise.

Don't forget -- you can follow me on Twitter! Learn about the DC stuff I'm doing, and help me out when I have DC-related questions. Just search for DC365.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Thing 133: The National Museum of Health and Medicine

My grandparents had hoped my uncle would grow up to be a doctor. My grandfather was a doctor, and both of my grandmother's brothers as well as her father were doctors. So it was perhaps only natural that they would expect their only son to follow in the family business and heal the sick.

With these high hopes -- or so goes the family lore -- they paid a visit to a museum of medical oddities when my uncle was still a young and impressionable boy. My grandfather had hoped that the array of weird things floating in jars would pique the boy's interest. Instead, my uncle was so horrified by the entire experience that he swore he'd never become a doctor. He still recalls the experience with disgust and horror.

So it was with great excitement and not a small amount of trepidation that I agreed to visit the National Museum of Health and Medicine, located at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. I had heard that this museum had the bullet the killed Lincoln, fetuses in jars, and medical oddities of all kinds including the world's biggest hairball. I'm fairly squeamish, so while I was really intrigued, it wasn't out of the question that I might pass out on the premises.

Well, I remained conscious although there were a couple things that turned my stomach (especially the leprosy pictures and the leeches). Mostly though, the museum focuses on military medical history starting with the Civil War through the current conflict in Iraq. In particular, it chronicles the advances of caring for the war wounded, improvements in field hospitals and ways to identify those who died during war. There is also an extensive exhibit on the evolution of the microscope -- from Anton van Leeuwenhoek (hello seventh grade science!!) to modern electron microscopes.

But it's not all tame and historical. There is some weird, gross and even funny stuff in the collection too.

Take, for example, the world's biggest hairball. It was removed from the stomach of a 12 year old girl who had been eating her hair for six years and it was the exact shape of her stomach. Eww!

Or how about the preserved tongue and esophagus of someone who died while choking -- it's floating in formaldehyde along with the enormous piece of steak that the person died trying to eat.

Cross sections of lungs taken from coal miners (pitch black), iron minors (dark red), smokers (gray with white cancer) and city dwellers (distressingly, alarmingly nearly as gray as the smokers' lungs).

There was also an exhibit on misguided medical equipment, including an x-ray machine that x-ray'ed people's feet in their shoes at the shoe store to ensure that they fit properly. We watched a rather charming video about the machine in which we learned that these machines emitted 25 rems per minute in order to ensure that your shoes fit properly (recommended radiation exposure for nuclear power plant employees is not to exceed 5 rems per year!). About 20 years later, when shoe salesmen started dying of cancer left and right, the machines declined in popularity.

There is a lot to see at this museum -- it's free, and easily accessible from the 70 bus. You will need to show your ID in order to get onto the property though. If you like history, military history, science, medical facts or just really gross/weird stuff, you've got to go. I imagine that young boys might especially like this museum -- unless you're trying to initiate them into a medical career-- then it might backfire. Just ask my uncle.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Thing 132: Mid-Atlantic Leather Weekend

So did you hear?  There was this really huge, amazing event in DC this past weekend.

I accompanied David to the MAL expo on Saturday afternoon, the token straight girl among thousands of gay men of every fetish and persuasion.  We wandered the booths filled with finely crafted leather pants, shirts, straps and hats.  I saw impossibly big and strangely shaped dildos, and accessories I'd never have dreamed of.  There were paddles and chains, rubber suits and pornographic DVDs.  But along with some truly jaw-dropping accoutrements, what I mostly saw was an inclusive community of people offering a wide umbrella to those who might otherwise feel ashamed or secretive.  

There is something for everyone at the MAL expo -- rubber and leather, pleasure and pain, doms and subs, slaves and puppies.  There was also an abundance of leather chaps, as well as people dressed in leather straps, butt-less wrestling outfits and army fatigues.  The people-watching to be done in the bar area was amazing.

One thing I took away from the whole experience was how very quickly it all became totally commonplace.  Whereas in the beginning I was a big overwhelmed just by the sheer quantity of butt plugs available on the market, by the end the casual commoditization of sexual fetishes lead to me getting exactly the same feeling as when I've been at a museum too long.  All the art works blend together after a couple hours, and my brain shuts down to new experiences.  Thus, after awhile, my eyes glazed over as they passed rack after rack of leather.  

So, it wasn't really my thing, but I did have a good time and I sure learned a lot.  MAL also consists of numerous parties, events and, er, hotel rooms if you're planning on stopping by next year.  

One year ago: The now-defunct Butterfield 9.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Thing 131: Inaugurate a New President

I watched the inauguration of Barack Obama today from the rooftop of the building at 101 Constitution.  We were there to witness history, but with easy access to heaters and bathrooms -- the best of both!  

I was moved to tears during the inaugural address and I was frozen to my toes while waiting for the motorcade to finally go by.  The Boyfriend took some pictures -- enjoy our experience of the inauguration from the comfort of your warm home! 

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Thing 130: Malaysia Kopitiam

Hey!  Look who found her camera's battery charger:

Malaysia Kopitiam
How have I lived in DC for ten years and never eaten at Malaysia Kopitiam?  It seems like a grave oversight, one I am glad to have finally righted.

I don't eat Malaysian food often.  I've been to the Straits of Malaya a couple of times, but otherwise, I am more likely to eat Thai, Chinese or Vietnamese before I think of indulging in the cuisine of Malaysia.  How wrong, how misguided!  As I tucked into an enormous bowl of hot, sweet and sour broth rich with rice noodles, tuna, red onion and mint I thought of how satisfying, tasty and exotic this cuisine was, and was already planning a return visit.

The service is pretty slow -- our dinner lasted over two hours, just two of us ordering an appetizer and an entree -- but luckily food was worth waiting for.  We started with an appetizer, similar to something I've had many times at dim sum, slightly sweet, sticky rice in a tight cylinder stuffed with a spicy minced chicken, wrapped and grilled in a banana leaf.  Unfold the banana leaf and you get a sweet, spicy, smoky delight.

Malaysia Kopitiam
My main course, as I mentioned, was a huge noodle bowl -- so big I had enough for two leftover lunches.  The assam laksa noodle soup was dark red and garnished with green flecks of onion and large green mint leaves.  The flavors worked well together, like the hot and sour soup you're used to at Chinese restaurants, but on steroids.  The boldness of the hot, sour and sweet, with the thick ropes of rice noodles was perfect for the cold rainy night from which I had sought shelter.

We also got a vegetable entree to split as a side dish; I was trying to get at least a few green things into the meal.  We ordered watercress in fermented tofu sauce purely because I'd never had fermented tofu sauce.  And guess what?  It's not nearly as weird as I thought it might be.  I was picturing some Andrew Zimmern-esque, stinky tofu madness, but it tasted mostly of ginger and watercress with only a hint of sour and savory -- in other words, delicious.  I ate the leftovers tossed with egg noodles the next day, and it was delightful.

The lesson of the evening?  Malaysian cuisine is vibrant and bold -- every dish had at least three strong flavor components going for it, all playing off of each other and combining in delicious ways.  The meal was surprising and affordable (entrees in the $10 range and big enough for at least two meals) and I will be going back soon.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Thing 129: Improv Workshop from WIT

"I am one of those people who believe that improv really changes who you are, and how you approach your life and relationships," Anna, our improv teacher for the night, told us by way of introduction.  What followed was two hours of games and exercises, as nine strangers stood in a circle to see where 'yes' would take us.

The Washington Improv Theater gives free workshops leading up to their regular sessions of classes, which cost $240 for eight weeks of 2 1/2 hour classes.  The free class is a great way to decide if you want to invest in the full session, if you've ever been curious but scared to commit to learning the fundamentals, or if you just want to flex your funny bone.  If you're shy or a ham, the small group setting and professional instruction will make you feel comfortable during what could be a pretty scary experience.

I was not in totally unfamiliar territory however.  Those of you who have read this blog very carefully, or who have just known me a long, long time, may recall that in high school I did my fair share of improv.  My high school theater program, which I remain grateful for even though I don't do a lick of theater in my adult life, really emphasized the skills of good improvising -- not just being funny, but being realistic, in the moment, accepting, open minded and empathetic.  Having gone through the introductory two hours with WIT, I am pleased to report back that they stress those same skills, valuing experience and truth over the cheap and easy laugh.

Anna led us through a series of games and exercises, some tried and true ('freeze tag,' 'what are you doing?') and others that I'd never done before ('emotional four square').  Throughout the lesson, she highlighted the 'teachable moments,' picking out the things that worked best in certain scenes, and explaining the theories or techniques behind why they worked.  We learned about mirroring of physicality and emotions, why patterns (and breaking them) are so darn funny, the importance of listening and accepting the realities as we created them on stage together.  She was a great teacher, knowledgeable, approachable, friendly and quick to encourage making mistakes as part of the learning process.

We were also fortunate that the group itself was eerily good at improvising off the bat.  Though by no means experts, we all worked together with the trust and openness of a troupe that knows each other intimately and has worked together a long time.

As part of my new year's resolutions to both save money and blog more, I will not signing up for the regular class session, but not because I didn't enjoy myself.  It felt really great to remove that safety net and take the leap, to not know what was coming next and accept it as it came.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Thing 128: The 13th Annual Iranian Film Festival

So, here's the thing when you open yourself up to new cultural experiences and your only criteria is that it be free:  sometimes, those experiences suck.

It was truly with an open mind and fairly high hopes that Good Friend David and I headed to the Freer Gallery on Friday night to take in Banana Skin, the film that would kick off the 13th Annual Iranian Film Festival.  Despite a degree in Middle Eastern Studies, I admit to being fairly ignorant about Iranian culture though I've heard rumors that it's vibrant, critical and exciting.

Unfortunately, the movie was none of those things.  It was an unfunny comedy, poorly acted and lacking a plot that -- how do I put this delicately -- made any sense.  The rough story is much like It's A Wonderful Life, except the opposite.  A business man so focused on making money that he has no personal life to speak of gets hit by a car and falls into a coma (are we laughing yet?).  While 'dead,' he falls in love with a beautiful woman in the afterlife.  When he wakes from the coma, he decides that the only way he can be happy is to be reunited with his love.  Which means he has to die.  Except that suicide is a sin.  So he has to die 'accidentally.'  So he hires a hit man to murder him, but the hit man is a heroin addict who forgets to kill him.  

Never have I been so nostalgic for George Bailey's rosy-cheeked children and their glee at bell-ringing.

I'd love to expound about how the different viewpoints (better off dead v. better off alive) is a metaphor for the hopeless situation in Iran whereas the American dream allows for hope and optimism.  I am sure that that would be woefully misguided.  Sometimes a bad movie is just a bad movie, and I'd sure hate for all of American culture to be judged on Sweet Home Alabama.  

I should also mention that it was pretty obvious that the subtitling was terrible.  If I spoke Farsi, this may have been an adequate movie rather than a poor one, but I can't imagine it transcending higher than that.  I'm puzzled by its inclusion in a festival designed to highlight the films of Iran, which have to get better than this.

The festival continues through February with five other films, all of which are shown free of charge at the Freer.  While I can't in good conscience recommend Banana Skin, I do urge you to cast the dice and check out one of the remaining films.  If you do, please report back in the comments and let me know your thoughts.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Thing 127: Mr. Yogato

I can't find my camera's battery charger, so allow me to lead you through a guided visualization.

A small white paper cup holds a swirl of palest pink frozen yogurt, leading up to a small, perky peak.  Shining red cut strawberries and enormous dark red raspberries fill the white cup to the brim.  A small sprinkling of chocolate jimmies freckle the light pink, shining and dark reds.  The whole thing begs to be eaten, immediately.

That was my reward for filling my Mr. Yogato card -- the tenth is free!  And I have loved every bite of it.

In the tradition of pinkberry or tangysweet, Mr. Yogato serves less-sweet frozen yogurt, Greek-style, tangy frozen yogurt.  They always carry two flavors: orginal tangy and original soft, the soft being slightly sweeter.  Then they carry two flavors that rotate through -- they currently have blizcherry and duffacino.  And why not just cherry and coffee flavored you might ask?  Well, this hints at the unique Yogato world view.

Yogato's owner, Steve, who is always in the store either behind the register or studying for his doctorate in economics, has posted a list of rules that account in part for Yogato's appeal.  Among them -- if you get a Mr. Yogato stamp on your forehead, you get a discount.  If you elect to answer a trivia question at the register, you get a 10% discount if you get it right -- but an additional 10% tacked on if you get the answer wrong.  If you suggest a topping that is adopted, you get a 5% discount for life.  And if you come to Yogato every day for thirty days, you get to pick a flavor and name it after you -- hence Duffy's Duffacino and Liz's Blizcherry.

Adding to the fun and atmosphere of the experience is an old-school 8 bit Nintendo (yesterday we played Super Mario Brothers for about an hour), various board games including boggle and and memory, and customer participation such as the 100% discount for standing on the toes of one foot with your eyes closed for 15 seconds, and the Tim Tam Slam, which I still don't fully understand but encourage everyone to try nonetheless.

Yogato is about two blocks from my front door, which makes it a frequent dessert stop for me, but it's worth going out of the way to seek out, too.  The yogurt is delicious, the toppings are fresh and in some cases (basil leaves? balsamic vinegar?) bizarre, and the entire experience is always fun.  And for those of you with new year's resolutions to keep, Yogato is only 30 calories and ounce (150 calories for a small) with tons of fresh fruits and berries as toppings options.  Now that I've earned my free yogurt, I'll be back to start my new card.  Only ten to go before I get another free one.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

New Year's Resolutions

Happy 2009! I don't know about you, but I woke up with a pretty great champagne hangover, chocolate on the light switch, and every surface of my house in need of a cleaning -- in other words, a pretty great ending to 2008.

Now is the time to face the new year with great hopes and resolutions. Here are a few of mine:

  • I resolve to save more money. This coincides nicely with the credit crunch and the total collapse of our economy, but I also have some plans and some dreams I'd like to finance in the future, so I'll be tightening the ol' belt this year. What this means is that this blog will be shifting focus ever so slightly -- I'm still on a quest to do 365 things that make DC unique and wonderful, but there is going to be greater emphasis on things that are free or cheap. This means there will be fewer fancy meals to report, but more museums, festivals and taco trucks.

  • I resolve to blog more. Yay! I know I was pretty quiet in the last half of 2008, but I'll be back to posting once or twice a week in 2009.

  • I resolve to tweet. You can now follow me on Twitter by searching for DC365! I'll tweet upcoming plans and locations, and ask for suggestions and feedback.
May you all have a happy, healthy and prosperous 2009!