Monday, January 28, 2019

NYT Monster Cookies

Morsels with M&Ms, Reese's, oats & nuts 

Sometimes, you need a January Saturday where you pull the comforter out into the living room, plop down to binge Netflix for nigh 12 hours, do face masks, eat chili, drink bloody marys in the morning & hot toddies in the evening, and break only to bake a sweet smackerel. 

These monster cookies from the New York Times are great because they come together easily and always turn out super yummy — a little crisp, a little chewy. And they're big. The addition of nuts and oats give some great texture, and cute, colorful candy pieces are, in my opinion, good mental therapy for a dreary winter's day. Like Winnie the Pooh said, "Nobody can be uncheered with a balloon." I say, nobody can be uncheered with a monster cookie. 

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(makes 12 hefty cookies)

1 cup flour
1/2 tsp baking powder 
1/2 tsp salt 
1 cup rolled oats 
9 TBS butter, at room temperature (I used 5 TBS salted, 4 TBS unsalted, because that's what I had)
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup white sugar 
1 large egg 
1 tsp vanilla 
3/4 cup chopped pecans (I used walnuts in a pinch) 
1/2 cup M&Ms 
1/2 cup Reese's pieces (you can do just one candy or the other, but I prefer the mix) 

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. In a small bowl, combine flour, baking powder, salt, and oats. Set aside. 

2. In a larger bowl, beat together butter and sugars until creamy. Add egg and vanilla and beat again until smooth. 

3. Add flour mixture to butter mixture and beat until smooth. By hand, fold in nuts and candy pieces. 

4. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, or grease it. Using a measuring cup, scoop out 1/4-cup balls of dough. Place on the prepared baking pan, then flatten slightly into fat disks, about 1/2-inch high. Bake six cookies at a time to give them room to spread. 

5. Bake until very lightly browned, 14–20 minutes (I took mine out at 14, so start checking then). Let stand a few minutes to harden a bit, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. The bottom of the cookies should have a nice soft golden color. 

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I originally tried making these cookies smaller than the recommended 1/4-cup size, which turned out to be a mistake. The ratios of nuts and candy are simply better in a bigger cookie! So feel free to go big. I also love how you can adapt these for most any holiday by using festive M&Ms. But who needs a holiday? Winter in Wisco needs all the festive feelings we can get. Stay happy, stay warm, bake something! 

Saturday, January 26, 2019

7 Things to love about "Zie Magic Flute"

Geeking out over the Milwaukee Opera Theatre

The Milwaukee Opera Theatre never ceases to amaze. It's opera for people who think opera isn't for them. There's crazy amounts of wit and artistry behind every production dreamt up by the marvelous Jill Anna Ponasik and her team of fellow creatives. 

This is the company's second mounting of Mozart's Zie Magic Flute beneath the Tripoli Shrine dome, and it's every bit a singular, wonder-filled spectacle. Let me tell you why.

(1) Location, location, location. 
The Tripoli Shrine Center, where architectural eye candy awaits! Open seating features simple banquet hall chairs encircling the shimmering, gilded, mosaic-laden dome. Arrive early to snag seats. Dare to sit front row for optimal views. Also, stay clear of the aisles, as performers and puppeteers flit in and out throughout the course of the show.

(2) The story.
Quick rundown: Princess Pamina has been kidnapped. Prince Tamino must seek to rescue her. There's a sidekick bird named Papageno who comes along for laughs. There's also some confusion as to whether Pamina's kidnapper, Sarastro (the great Mark Corkins), or Pamina's mother, the Queen of the Night, is actually the villain. Mayhem ensues! But happy endings (spoiler) are imminent. Gotta love a classic fairytale that ends in merriment.

(3) Oh Em Gee! Modern language makes you lol.
At the onset of Zie Magic Flute, we meet three supernatural emissaries of the Queen of the Night. You wouldn’t expect their beautiful voices to intone things like “No way, José!” or call our prince a “sexy boy” — but they do, to much laughter. So if you thought that opera equals seriousness, you’ll quickly learn that you thought wrong. 

That said, there are a number of songs that retain their native German, sometimes with actors holding up signs to give the audience the gist of what’s being sung about. Other times, you can read the translation in your program — or just relish in the transcendent beauty of the voices and forget worrying about what it all means. I tend toward the latter.

(4) Props to the props. And costumes! 
Bird kites, a toy viewfinder, duck calls, a jack-in-the-box, plush puppets, a shower of Raggedy Ann & Andys — many of the props used in Zie Magic Flute are actual toys, and that’s loads of fun. Others, from the cut-paper projected overture to larger-than-life puppetry, are absolutely enchanting in their fanciful artistry. Costumes are equally charming: a Bjork-inspired swan on roller skates, classic sorceress drag for the Queen, a bejeweled fez for the Sarastro — a nod to the Shriners. Eye-popping creations are everywhere.

(5) Those voices, though.
For all the humor and playfulness on display, Mozart's score still demands some serious skill. Across the board, the cast assembled here delivers with ease. Benjamin Ludwig's princely Tamino brings the most modern sound, nailing every classical note, while proving he'd make a killer frontman. Lydia Rose Eiche is a worthy Pamina for our prince, a mighty voice emanating from her petite frame. Lending support is the hilarious Nathan Wesselowski as the lovable dunce, Papageno, his sound classic baritone perfection. 

But step aside mortals — she's not called Queen for nothing. There's something otherworldly at work in the pieces of music written for this part. The Queen's solos elicit a sort of out-of-body awe can only be achieved by a voice that's up to the task. Sarah Richardson's Queen of the Night is downright fierce. Her vocal gymnastics leave jaws on the floor and souls soaring to the tippy-top of the Tripoli dome. In Richardson, Zie Magic Flute has indeed found its Queen. 

(6) Shout-out to all those spirits! 
Give it up for the spirit ensemble! They're a delightful, witty, wonderful chorus, guiding our protagonists on to their happy ending. Their blend of sweet song and laugh-aloud physical comedy is a joy.

(7) A chance to give in.
Zie Magic Flute requires that you give in. Give in to the whimsy. Give in to the playfulness of it all. Give in to the moments when you're not sure exactly what they're singing about (whether in German or sometimes-still-befuddling operatic English). Just embrace the beauty, the oddities, the menagerie of wonder of display. Bask in such an opera being sung so up-close and personal. Laugh along with this cast who so clearly delights in the magic they're making. This is theater that fills you up, if only you let it.

Friday, January 25, 2019

The Milwaukee Rep presents "Mark Twain's River of Song"

Delightful trio soothes & inspires through Mississipi music in the Stackner Cabaret 

Whitewashed towns, forests of green, golden fields. The snapshots of landscapes and life depicted in Mark Twain's River of Song are stitched together by the mighty Mississippi and woven in song. This world premier production by Randal Myler and Dan Wheetman features three fantastic entertainers bringing over 20 tunes from the days when riverboats ruled the The Big Muddy. Those songs tell the stories of farmers, lumberjacks, boat captains, gamblers, and runaways — their songs often optimistic, sometimes somber.

From the first chords they strum, the terrific trio of Harvy Blanks, David Lutken, and Spiff Wiegand plant smiles on faces and set toes a-tappin'. The three performers take turns on an impressive lineup of instruments: guitar, washboard, mandolin, fiddle, accordion — even a makeshift woodwind whiskey jug and a percussive tap-dancing little wooden man. Special nod to Wiegand, the real master of music-making; the range of instruments in his repertoire makes for lots of fun.

While Wiegand brings a youthful, rollicksome energy, Harvy Blanks brings a jovial presence laced with subtlety and soul. His "Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child" is easily the most stirring hymn of the bunch. In other moments, Blanks lights up so brightly, it's impossible not to beam right along with him.

For all the others' charms, David Lutken is the most rousing storyteller of the bunch. Honest and approachable, a natural friendliness shines through his performance. His comforting vocals and soothing cadance inspire cozy feelings of kinship.

Mark Twain's story of Huck and Old Jim was indeed the longest and meatiest of any of the tales Lutken told. Funny, but the titular character of Mark Twain's River of Song doesn't make an appearance until the latter half of Act Two. In the end, I found myself entranced, wishing Lutken would tell just one more story.

This wish for stories to last a little longer carried over to the music, too. I found there were some songs that, just as I began to fall for them, they were over. Though disappointing in the moment to say goodbye to melodies you've only just met, that's the sign of a something good. Leave the audience wanting more.

We actually did get a little more when technical difficulties wreaked havoc in the Stackner Cabaret on opening night. The troupe improvised through a 10-15-minute mic malfunction and played on, filling the space with music and laughter — a testament to not only their talents but to their sticktoitiveness and regard for this work, its creators, and the audience.

It was a treat to spend a couple hours rolling down the river for Mark Twain's River of Song. In a frigid Wisconsin winter, it's nice to take a little journey to the south, accompanied by songs and stories both moving and merry — but mostly merry. There's a wonderful sense of freedom in enjoying a musical theater performance that seems uncomplicated in its mission to lift spirits and bring folks together for a good time.

Be sure to check out the Hootenannys on tap at the Cabaret, where members of the community are invited to bring their instruments out for a post-show jam session with David Lutken! There will be Hootenannys following the January 31, February 21, and March 14 performances, plus a special gathering in the Back Room at Colectivo on Prospect on Saturday, February 9th, from noon-1pm.

Monday, January 21, 2019

The Milwaukee Rep presents "Junk"

Play by Brookfield native unpacks corporate power & greed 

"When did money become the thing?" That's the central question unpacked in Ayad Akhtar's Junk, the latest work by the Brookfield, Wisconsin, native and Pulitzer Prize winner. In our capitalist society, money has been the thing for ages, but this play direct from Broadway focuses on the junk bond era of 1980s Wall Street.

In brief, the plot focuses on the fate of Everson Steel — a family-owned business at risk of falling victim to financial sharks and junk bond traders. Tom Everson, the third-generation owner, is desperate to preserve the integrity of the company founded by his grandfather, despite the fact that numbers show that their Pennsylvania steel mill is steadily declining in value. 

Enter Bob Merkin, a slick, cutthroat investor, intent on using his pawn, Israel Peterman, to win the majority shares in the publicly-traded Everson and gut the company of its steel roots — slashing 1,500 jobs and laying waste to Tom's family legacy in the process.

That, in Merkin's mind, is the cost of progress. Out with the old, whatever the consequence, to make space for the new. Whether Merkin and his associates are vultures or visionaries, that's something to be debated after sitting edge-of-your-seat through the entirety of Akhtar's two-hour, no-intermission script. Those hours zoom by, packed with 20+ actors, dozens of tightly-written scenes, fluid transitions, and fast-paced dialogue requiring the utmost attention — especially if all of that Wall Street lingo isn't a regular part of your vocabulary.

Falling into the stock-market-illiterate camp myself, I was thrilled at the wealth of digestible information included in the Rep's play guide for Junk. It's a must read before you go. For instance: What is a junk bond anyway? Per the guide, bonds are debt in which loans that are given to a company, city, or government are backed by private investors, rather than a bank. Bonds are considered "junk" when they're especially high-risk. "They are more likely to default and end up worthless," the guide explains, "but if they work out, they have the possibility of very high payouts to investors."

It's cool that Junk will force some of us to do our homework and learn a bit more about the big money that drives our society. It's also cool that Akhtar is bringing to light a world not often shown on stage, perhaps attracting a different type of theater audience than usual. I imagine anyone who already speaks the Wall Street language, invests in the stock market, or finds capitalism a fascinating, even fearful beast, would be especially drawn to this play.

Even if some of the financial verbiage sails over some heads, Junk succeeds in entertaining on a purely theatrical level. Upon entering the Quadracci Powerhouse, a staggeringly tall, angled, grey backdrop looms ominously. That stony facade eventually gives way to a rush of color and motion, thanks to Projection Designer Jared Mezzocchi. Video and still imagery usher in new scenes — New York skylines, west coast palm trees, wood-paneled meeting rooms — and trigger new tones.

Working in tandem with Mezzocchi's projected imagery, clever lighting design by Thom Weaver and sound design by Lindsay Jones sets scenes and moods often without the use of tangible props. Clandestine dialogue held in a cavernous projected parking garage is given the echo treatment. Phone calls across country are simulated with single spotlights. Voices in a conference call between 12 board members sound appropriately distant. The effects are, to put it plainly, neat.

In a cast as large as this one, it's equally neat and impressive to find fine performances throughout — actors with parts big and small pulling their weight and delivering Akhtar's cerebral script with unflustered ease. Special praise to the two men at the heart of Junk: Tom Everson and Robert Merkin, played by Gregory Linington and James Ridge, respectively. Ridge's desperate Everson is one of, if not the only, character in the lineup who earns any real sympathy. Linington's Merkin is indeed complex, but ultimately displays mainly, as Akhtar calls it, "fancy rationale for heroic greed."

In this financial faux-religion ruled by men and their outrageous egos, Akhtar adds a few strong women to the world of Junk. From Merkin's wife Amy (Rachel Sledd) to brilliant Harvard lawyer Jacqueline Blount (N'Jameh Camara) to investigative writer Judy Chen (Rebecca Hirota), each is smart, accomplished, savvy, and no-nonsense — though, unsurprisingly, flawed.

Akhtar has a knack for writing real people with real flaws, though given the sheer number of characters here, Junk features fewer truly developed individuals than his other works. What Akhtar does achieve, as usual, is taking a hard look at tough, often-uncomfortable issues in our society. Per a WUWM interview, Akhtar asserts that Junk is not pessimistic, just real. "It's bleak but it's realistic, unfortunately," he says. "If you're coming to the play and you're expecting something uplifting, just be prepared."

It's spot-on to suggest that any realistic portrayal of the wolves of Wall Street is bound to deflate some moral hope and crush, as Merkin calls it, our "Norman Rockwell sentimentality." But what Junk creates from the rubble of human greed is a conversation and examination of the pursuit of wealth and the sacrifices made to attain it.

Friday, January 18, 2019

The Tandem

Down-to-earth food you can feel good about

If you haven't heard about the incredible things happening at The Tandem in Milwaukee, it's time to grab your friends and get some fried chicken and feel-good vibes in your life. OnMilwaukee's Lori Fredich very thoroughly told the Tandem story last September, but to sum up: Owner Caitlin Cullen is a badass lady, using down-to-earth food and an encouraging, yet no-nonsense managing style to legitimately change lives and help revitalize an entire community. 

The Tandem is located on Fon Du Lac Avenue, just far enough northwest of downtown for some folks to raise an eyebrow and opt to stay in their bubble. It's time to pop those bubbles, people. This little gem is just a four-minute drive from the Fiserv Forum, to put location into perspective — and it's worth the drive.

The Tandem atmosphere is homey, warm, and inviting. It was bustling on a Friday night with a catfish fry on the chalk Specials board. The fish fry was yummy — golden brown crust, white and flaky inside, and served with a pile of crinkle-cut fries and purple cabbage slaw. We started with fried okra (would repeat!) and hushpuppies (strangely bland, though a satisfying texture). 

Their signature Milwaukee Hot fried chicken is indeed hot, so proceed with some caution. The fried breading was crisped to perfection — for me, a deciding factor in repeat visits. The Tandem's plates of chicken are served with a drumstick, a thigh, and three sides. The potato salad was a runaway favorite at our table, and I personally enjoyed the mac 'n' cheese — creamy and saucy, not baked and congealed. 

We did wait a while for our food, but that's not to say the service was poor. The cool thing about Tandem is how genuine everyone is and how upfront and honest they are about the goings-on in their establishment. We saw owner Caitlin Cullen in the trenches with her staff, running to and from the kitchen and making sure each guest felt seen and tended to. We felt both.

When we arrived, her team needed 15 minutes to set up a table for our party of six (we didn't know they accepted reservations). Standing awkwardly by the door, Cullen personally welcomed us and offered to snag us drinks while we waited. She also invited us to hang out at a reserved table in the mean time, with the understanding that we'd have to move if the scheduled party arrived. Cool with us. 

After taking our proper seats and ordering dinner, the fryer ended being super backed up. Instead of leaving us in limbo, they told us the news and we took it in stride. We were in no hurry, and even if we had been, their transparency would not have gone unappreciated. 

There really seems to be a beautiful synergy happening at The Tandem — between the members of the staff and the way they treat their clientele. Here, everyone is in it together; it takes a village, and that's okay. A place that's so open about its mission, the folks it hires and serves, and about its own growing pains — that's a place worth supporting. And let's not forget: damn good fried chicken. 

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

First Stage presents “Matilda: The Musical”

Roald Dahl’s classic brings big magic to a small stage

Alphabet blocks the size of shipping crates sit about the stage, as words like read, cake, maggot, phys-ed, escapologist, and rebellion lie scrawled along the length of a giant chalkboard, rife with foreshadowing. Kids in the audience wriggle in anticipation as a tuneless smattering of chords fills the Todd Wehr Theater, soon giving way to the raucous three-part opening number, "Miracle."

As an ensemble of lucky youngsters sing emphatically of being found exceptionally exceptional by their parents, their exuberance at being so one-in-a-million soon shifts focus to our heroine, Matilda, and her good-for-nothing parents, Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood. To sum up, the Wormwoods certainly don't find Matilda to be a miracle, and their colorful vocabulary of vile name-calling is appalling in its poetry. As Matilda grows to the ripe old age of five, she escapes into storytelling and books — and what books! She zooms through the likes of Jane Austen, Dickens, and Dostoyevsky in a week's time. This child's brain really is an extraordinary miracle, if anyone would take the time to notice.

Enter Miss Honey, Matilda's new teacher — kind, beloved, and immediately in Matilda's corner. She, along with everyone else at school, must answer to Miss Trunchbull—a tremendous, towering, menacing, monster of a headmistress, whose motto is "Children are maggots." Can Matilda, Miss Honey, and a ragtag crew of kiddos finally stand up to The Trunchbull and reclaim their miracle status?

As the villainous Miss Trunchbull, Kelly Doherty might shake your faith in a happy ending. We first encounter her foreboding form seated in an ominous control room of blinking TV monitors. Her tone ranges from deliciously dry and disdainful to downright diabolical. She's the kind of baddy one loves to hate, and that is sheer perfection.

Other hateful types, like Matilda's parents Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood, played by Jackson Evans and Molly Rhode, respectively, are just as perfectly cast. Both Evans and Rhode have a history with First Stage — Evans with a string of acting roles for the company and Rhode having just directed First Stage's delightful Best Christmas Pageant Ever.

As the Wormwoods, these two are smarmy, self-centered schmucks, ignorant and indifferent. Yet in spite of their genuinely unpleasant natures, each character is primed for laughs, and Evans and Rhode nail their comedy of terrors. Between Mr. Wormwood's "Telly," an ode to the glories of television, and Mrs. Wormwood's "Loud," a salute to "a little less brains, a lot more hair," Evans and Rhode are dynamite.

Bringing some sweetness to all of the slime is Elizabeth Telford as Miss Honey. Telford's demeanor is every inch believable in her complex blend of self-doubt, wide-eyed hope, and determination. Moreover, her lovely voice rings clear as a bell-especially beautiful in Act Two's touching "My House."

Even with the fantastic song, dance, and comedy on display from the grown-ups in Matilda, it's fitting that the kids still are — no question — the runaway stars of the show. There are two ensembles, the Diligent and Determined casts, and three Matildas — 7th graders Taylor Arnstein, Reese Bell, and Marina Evans.

The production I so thoroughly enjoyed starred Arnstein as Matilda, backed by the Diligents. Arnstein is a fierce firecracker of a performer; she's spunky, pitch-perfect, and a spot-on little professional. From the mischievous "Naughty" to the tender "Quiet," Arnstein moves to laughter and misty-eyed amazement. What a joy!

In fact, all of the young performers stun with their level of skill and professionalism. The ensemble features a range of local middle schoolers and high schoolers, and it's thrilling to see such a talented batch of young triple-threats command the stage. After all, they may very well be the future of Milwaukee theater.

Quick shout-out to sixth grader Max Larson as Bruce Bogtrotter, who, in the story of Matilda, is famously challenged to eat an entire chocolate cake as punishment. Larson later unleashes his inner superstar with the show's final showstopper, "Revolting Children," his soulful wails a jaw-dropping delight.

Just as delightfully staggering is the incredible amount of creativity — from costumes and sets to choreography and bits of theatrical magic — that so clearly went into every single moment of Matilda. Choreography by Jayne and Michael Pink (yes, of Milwaukee Ballet fame) is especially ingenious in Act One's "School Song," and the young cast carries it off with sensational attitude and aplomb.

Indeed, Director Jeff Frank's team of all-star creatives and actors is serving up a Broadway-caliber production, made all the more special with First Stage's signature small-scale intimacy and kid-friendly flair. Stay for one of the post-show talk-backs so your youngster can ask their burning questions. Purchase a Roald Dahl book from the merch stand to further encourage a singular Matilda-ish imagination. Snag a cookie and juice box in the lobby during intermission. Truly, you may need sustenance — this show is the most ambitious yet at First Stage, clocking in at over 2.5 hours. You'd better believe they are over 2.5 hours well spent.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

A weekend in New Orleans

Beignets, booze & all that hoodoo 

New Orleans had been at the top of my U.S. bucket list for years. I recently knocked it from my list of daydreams to my pile of been-theres. How did it go? I'll break it down so it's easy to digest.

Things to eat 
On the afternoon I flew into town, we made our way to Central Grocery on Decatur Street, a spot famous for its muffuletta sandwich. Shocking though it may be, I'd never had one before and was all about trying the famous stack of marinated olive salad, layers of mortadella, salami, Swiss cheese, ham, and provolone.

Because open containers are allowed in NOLA, we popped open a bottle of rosé and kicked back in Jackson Square, muffuletta in tow. Note: A half-sandwich is enough to feed two people. Oh, and if you see Voodoo chips, you're gonna want those. Such a tasty little picnic!

On Day Two, we indulged in an insanely scrumptious brunch at Willa Jean, a bustling restaurant and bakery with that oft-sought-after fresh, Instagram-worthy vibe. The food is as delicious as its interior is warm and inviting. Whatever you do, for the love of all that's holy, start with the monkey bread. These pillows of caramelized goodness are melt-in-your-mouth divine. For my main, I went for a sausage, egg & pimento cheese biscuit — a choice I'd eagerly repeat.

Of course we saved room for the famous Café du Monde — in the rain, no less. Some hot tips for any NOLA newbies: The line looks long, but moves quickly. Yes it's worth standing in the rain for. The café only serves coffee and beignets, and a café au lait is the signature sipper. One order of beignets gives you three hefty morsels, which is sufficient for two people in search of a snack. The experience overall is loud and crowded, but s oworth it. Plus, they're open 24/7!

Not pictured is my trip to District Donuts, Sliders & Brew on Magazine Street. Once again I found myself in need of a snack, so I ordered a chicken slider and a donut, just to see how the sweets stacked up to other pastries. The donut wasn't, I thought, particularly special. The chicken slider, however, made me wish I'd ordered a full sandwich. Would go back, would order a full lunch. 

Places to drink
Thirsty? We didn't do too much bopping around from bar to bar during our stint in New Orleans. Rather, we found a couple spots that really worked for us and went multiple times! The first was Hotel Monteleone's Carousel Bar & Lounge — an actual carousel with painted chairs instead of painted animals, slowly rotating around a circular bar. Fun fact: To get in and out of the bar, the barkeeps have to hop over! Here's where I found my new favorite drink, a Pimm's Cup. 

The other bar we frequented was 21st Amendment. It's a cozy joint with yummy cocktails and live music nightly. I'd advise scoping out the music calendar on their website before you go. We came in at the tail end of a couple bands whose style was more up our alley; next time I'd make sure to plan our timing accordingly. Also a note for next time: Make it to Bacchanal, an outdoor wine bar. 

Stuff to do
A lot of New Orleans can just be walking around, sitting with a drink in a sunshine, bumping into a NOLA wedding parade, admiring the scenery and architecture, and people watching.

But if it's raining cats and dogs, you could check out the Voodoo Museum. It won't take you very long, and it will feel more like a couple small rooms and a hallway jam-packed full of the bizarre — but that's what's fun about it. There's no better place than NOLA to learn the difference between Voodoo and Hoodoo, not to mention send up a secret prayer to Marie Laveau. 

However, if I'm ever in New Orleans on another rainy day, I wouldn't rush back to the Voodoo Museum; I'd rather see what's cookin' at the New Orleans Museum of Art. Also worth your time: A ride on the St. Charles Streetcar! Even if you miss your stop and end up riding to the end of the line (wonder who could have done that?), you'll pass sprawling boulevards lined with southern-style mansions galore. The St. Charles is basically an architectural tour.

When you're ready to hop off the streetcar, it's just a few short blocks to Magazine Street. This is a good spot for boutiques, vintage clothing shops, and eateries. The street is long, and apparently split in half by a residential stretch. I stayed on the more vintage-heavy end, starting at Century Girl Vintage then working my way toward District Donuts and beyond. Those inclined to browsing could easily spend a day strolling Magazine Street.

We stayed in the Warehouse District, which had a good selection of places to eat and drink without the sloppy insanity of the French Quarter. The good news is that the French Quarter is still within walking distance, so you get the best of both worlds. 

I will say that I was warned by multiple people, from good friends to my Uber driver, to be careful where I ventured out alone. The French Quarter is more gritty and sketchy than I anticipated. Be aware of people trying to scam you out of money by offering you shots, putting parrots on your head, or asking you where you got your shoes. Choosing Magazine Street as a solo outing was absolutely the right way to go. 

One last note on streetcars: We found their times to be a bit sporadic. This could be due to user error and confusion, our soggy weather, or both, but just something to be aware of. Though charming, I wouldn't count on the streetcar if you're on a time crunch. 

Do you have favorite spots to check in New Orleans? The more tips, the merrier! You never know when The Big Easy will call us back.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Adventures in rock climbing

Fears faced, progress made & boy, do I love the ground!

If a child can do it, you can do it. 
If a child can do it, you can do it.

Welcome to my not-so-inner monologue during my first trip to Adventure Rock. For those of you just tuning in, new sports activities are not exactly — how do you say — my jam. Mini bowling made me sweat. I had to pretend I was Pocahontas during my first solo kayaking experience. Similarly, one of my best friends advised I play Mulan while scaling my first rock-climbing wall. Ahh, the things we do for love. 

After watching scads of eager kids and self-assured grown-ups methodically scurry up sky-scraping walls, it was tempting to wuss out and remain a spectator. Spoiler: I didn't. "It's just like climbing a ladder," he said. 

So I climbed that first ladder. "If a child can do it, you can do it," came my spontaneous mantra. I freaked out at the top and freaked out coming down, then planted my feet and full-body embraced the wall. "I've never loved solid ground more." 

"Do you have a fear of heights?" they asked. Who knows! When was the last time I voluntarily dangled from the ceiling? But I was willing to try again, and wall number two ended up being slightly less scary. That was the Mulan climb: Get down to business, defeat the Huns. 

Wall number three was the hardest one. Pretending wasn't an option. I got to a point where the angle tilted in such a way that I indignantly questioned the wall, "Why are you like this??" before giving up and landing plop on the ground. Maybe next time I'll conquer the top of that climb and find some other choice words for said wall. Maybe. 

My fourth and final wall was conducive to humming Rey's theme from Star Wars: The Force Awakens, as I imagined myself a scavenger on Jakku. I made it to the top, descended most ungracefully (though at least I kept my eyes open this time), and was perhaps not-so-secretly thrilled to call it a day. 

"Are you going to blog about it?" friends asked. My gut reaction: Yeah right! Anyone with a love of climbing or penchant for hand-eye coordination would find my coping mechanisms ridiculous, and anyone on the fence about climbing would be wise not to take notes from me.

But I got to my car, screamed (because car screams are a beautiful thing), and realized that I do have some takeaways for anyone fearing The Climb. Pretending helped, as did the not-looking-down. Turns out, clichés like "fake it 'til you make it" and "don't look back" apply to both physical and metaphorical climbs. 

Even more helpful and shout-out-deserving were the warm, encouraging friends and strangers who nudged my inner monologue to something a little more positive. The people at Adventure Rock and the people who climb there are upbeat, optimistic types; welcoming, patient, and accepting of those who are still working through whatever fears they're toting. And wow are they ever (go with it) rock-stars. 

At the end of the day, am I going to become one of those muscle-backed climbing fiends? Uh, no. But this experience reminded me that, as we enter a new year, progress is progress. Anyone can challenge their "that's not for me" narrative by at least trying. If it takes Mulan, mantras, and friendly motivation to make that progress and find out what is and isn't for you, that's fine. Do it your way.

**Steps off soap box** 

Now, if you need me, I'll be over here nursing sore muscles and kicking myself for just realizing that "Climb Every Mountain" would have been a perfect addition to my inner soundtrack. I guess there's always next time.