Friday, September 26, 2008

Intro to Wine Tasting: Developing your Palate, While Trying to Hide the Fact That You’re Piss-Ass Drunk

I like to consider myself a somewhat cultured person. Sure, I can recite most of the lines of Caddyshack, and occasionally go to work without underwear (hey, all rules are off on laundry day), but I also like to think that having a grasp on the comprehensive works of Mozart and passing two semesters of Art History with straight A’s has left me with an appreciation for the finer things in life. So when Brian started taking me with him to wine tastings, a hobby that he is as passionate about as he is knowledgeable, I was all up for learning something new that might "put a little class in dat ass".

Wine tasting is a funny thing. I have yet to determine whether it is a cultivated, methodically developed skill or shot-in-the-dark, this-is-what-I’m-tasting rollercoaster of brand hype and personal opinion. Brian, along with several other well-versed wine connoisseurs, has assured me that it is a combination of both. Personally, I can tell a really great wine from a really crappy wine, and that’s about as far as it goes. But there are people out there who can supposedly pick a Willamette Valley pinot-noir out of a selection of 20 Oregon region pinots without blinking, and can determine the type of barrel used to age the wine from smell alone. In fact, I was on hand when a “mystery” bottle of wine was poured and Brian, without even taking a sip, confidently proclaimed the origin of the wine to be German based on the color alone. The color for christsakes! WTF is that about?! But on the other hand, I’ve heard stories of people claiming to taste, among other things, white truffles in the wine, but when asked, point blank, if they’ve ever even had a white truffle, they admitted that they had never tasted one. I mean, c’mon. We’ve all seen the movie Sideways (or, at least some of us had). Holding your ear to taste rosemary and Belgium chocolate in your Merlot is just silly. And there are a LOT of silly people like that in the business of wine tasting.

Having had two “warm-up” sessions at a winery near Pennington (excellent) and a wine festival in Shamong (not so excellent), I went to my first real wine tasting event this past Tuesday in Princeton. It consisted of about 25 to 30 pinot-noirs, separated by region. So what you do is you take your wine glass, go up to a table, and ask to try this or that wine. They pour a few mouthfuls in your glass, and then you’re supposed to swirl it to aerate the liquid. The swirling is hard, I’m not going to lie. It seems easy, until you’re at a fancy schmancy event and you need to be absolutely sure that you don’t make a mess; enthusiastic swirling is a disaster waiting to happen in my book, but I did my best to keep the wine contained IN the glass and not ON me and the people around me. You then put your nose to the glass and breathe deeply (or not, if you don’t want to, but I like to think of the smell as the ‘prologue’ to the wine; you get a hint of the style without necessarily understanding the context). Finally, you take a sip. You hold it in your mouth for a bit, and swallow. Easy, right?

Sure, it was easy. And pretty interesting. The first table displayed pinots primarily from the west coast. I could tell the ones that I liked. I could tell the ones I liked a little less. I tasted chocolate in this one and oak in that one. Very cool. We moved to the second table and it was there that I lost my stride. To be honest, I can’t even remember the regions the wines were from. Maybe the west coast still? Maybe not…There was one that was big and dark, and I kind of liked that one. There was another one that just tasted flat to me, so I decided I didn’t like that one. The rest tasted the same. I listened closely to the people around me commenting on the different “bouquets” and “varietals,” suddenly realizing to my embarrassment that I was actually LEANING IN to catch what they were saying. Whoops. The wine was definitely getting to me. I righted myself, suppressed a hiccup, and followed Brian to the hour d’oeuvres table to absorb some of that alcohol making its way through my system. There was a lot of grilled veggies and cheeses, and not a lot of bread, which was pretty stupid in my mind, but I nibbled, hoping I would lose that giggly edge that wine is notorious for giving me.

On to the next table, where we sampled pinots from Germany and Italy…I think. The German one was swill, I decided immediately (did I mention that too much wine gives me an inflamed sense of…uh…being right no matter what?). The Italian wines were okay, but nothing special. I heartily agreed with a random wine taster who described one brand as “earthy,” and corrected a second wine-tasting stranger, saying that the wine was “not full bodied, exactly, but had a modest degree of oak paired with cherry and apple overtures.” And then I looked at Brian...who was looking at me like I had two heads, and remembered that this was my first wine tasting and I had less than a clue as to what I was talking about. Being drunk was getting fun, but I decided it was time to shut up. I was eager to move on to the next table, which featured wines from New Zealand, Australia, and Tasmania (freaking cool!). By the time we reached the table from “down under,” I noticed that I was starting to like everything. And I mean everything. I liked the Australian wines. I liked the New Zealand wines. I liked the wine labels, especially that one with the cute sheep on it. I liked the person who was pouring the wine, I liked Brian, I liked Brian’s dad, who had accompanied us to the tasting, and I even liked the table cloth. I was drunk.

By the time we hit up the French pinot-noirs, my face had a pleasant numbness and my pronunciation of words was getting noticeably slurred. Thankfully, I noticed by then that the room had gotten much louder, and the crowd much “warmer” (as Brian politely put it). Thank god I wasn’t the only one experiencing the unfortunate side effects of fermented fruit. I was sober enough, however, to realize that as far as pinot-noir goes, the French have it down to a science. In fact, I (a little too loudly) declared my number one favorite to be one of the wines from the French table. I’ll be damned if I can remember the name of it now, but I do remember that it had this lovely taste of cranberry, followed by about a million other flavors, all pleasant, progressing seamlessly across my tongue. It was amazing. And then I finally got why wine tasting is such an interesting hobby. It challenges you in a way that many other tasks don’t. It forces you to focus intensely on your least-developed sense – your sense of taste. And the more you concentrate, the more you pick up. That wine that was once described as “good” now overwhelms you with oak and spice and fruit, and maybe a little honey or chocolate or coffee, or even white truffle (just kidding). It’s a profoundly personal experience. In the end, it doesn’t matter if the brand is well known or the price is high. All that matters is if you like it or not. In the end, it’s just about you and your preferences, and how much you want to develop them.

And then my revelation was gone. It was replaced by a sense of woozyness and warmth and tingling and the sense that my hands were “so far away from my body!” Yep, I was definitely drunk. But along with being an outlet for public drunkenness (and don’t get me wrong, there’s definitely an appeal in that), wine tasting is a really, really interesting and educational pastime. I learned a lot, met some great people, drank some great wine, and even made friends with a table cloth. The evening was a success, and I look forward to many more. If Brian will ever take me out in public again, that is :-)

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

In the Trenches: On Commuting and...OMG THAT GUY JUST CUT ME OFF

I swear to god, if I have to flip the bird one more time, I’m going to jab that middle finger of mine straight through my eye socket and into my brain, where I will hopefully damage my frontal cortex, thus erasing all memory of this stupid commute with these stupid drivers on this stupid Tuesday morning.

But let me back up for a moment.

I long ago (well, about 4 years ago, to be precise) resigned myself to the fate of a daily commuter. I have conceded the fact that twice a day, five days a week, I will be throwing myself, properly encapsulated in glass, steel, and moving engine-type parts, into a frenzy of other encapsulated individuals, all of us trying to get to our destinations on time, many of us (them) attempting to do so while smoking, talking on the phone, reading the paper, eating breakfast, and (horror of horrors) applying make-up. It’s a true recipe for disaster. And I quickly learned, those short 4 years ago, that this ritual would include and exercise in patience and anger management bordering on inhuman. Or should I say, inhumane, as this daily routine has stripped us all, myself included, bare of ours most virtuous attributes; humility, forgiveness, empathy, etc.

I’ve had all sorts of commutes. I’ve had short commutes, consisting of three turns executed within a 30-second timespan. I’ve had long commutes, where getting from point A to point B within an hour is only achieved with a little luck, the grace of God, and maybe a pint of beer or two to loosen the ole’ accelerator a bit . I’ve had windy commutes through tangles of back roads and parking lots, and commutes that were so straight and uncomplicated that drowsy driving became a paramount concern. What all these commutes had in common, what is the unifying component of all commuters in all the countries in all of the world, is a sense of urgency, negativity, and stress, all jumbled into an angsty package, hurling down the highway at 85 mph.

And if this equation wasn’t bad enough, allow me to throw in the wild card: crappy, oblivious, selfish, borderline-retarded, ass-hat drivers.

You know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s that stupid, manicured, highlighted stay-at-home wife, careening between lanes on her SUV while on the phone, gossiping about her pilates instructor’s husband’s secretary. It’s that __(insert race or ethnicity here)__ driver who insists on going 10 miles under the speed limit, clutching the steering wheel white-kunckled, leaning so far forward that his or her breath is condensing on the windshield. It’s that businessman in his BMW who’s taking a conference call through his earpiece (*snicker) who cuts you off because he’s obviously more important than you and is on his way to another important place to do important things and you should just be lucky that he’s sharing HIS highway with you. It’s that Mac truck driver (true story folks) who couldn’t be bothered to do something as cliché as, say, check his side-view mirror to make sure there isn’t a red Subaru Impreza in his blind spot before merging left and FORCING THIS CAR INTO ONCOMING TRAFFIC AT 7:30 IN THE FREAKIN’ MORNING.

I have 50 more examples of these drivers, and I have no doubt that you would nod your head in agreement at each one. We’ve all seen them. We’ve all narrowly escaped potential accident after potential accident, all the while screaming and cursing and festering in the unfairness of it all. But what can be done? We daydream of grenade launchers and flame throwers and spring-mounted, oversized boxing gloves and jimmy-rigged bullhorns, but at the end of the day, the only things we’re left with are our lungs and cultural hand gestures. These are my weapons against the low browed, moronic masses I encounter Monday through Friday, 8:10-8:45am and again at 5:00-5:35pm. So I will use them. I will curse their parents and wish plagues of pox on their children and conjure demons to haunt their dreams, all the while exercising my right, as an American, to flip the bird. I am the Administrator of Road Justice, and I will pass judgment on whomever I please.

Am I proud of who I’ve become? No, not really. I’m not particularly pleased that I mutter “somebody better be dead” when my drive grinds to a standstill due to an accident. And I certainly don’t advertise the fact that when I finally pass an agonizingly slow driver who brakes every 50 feet, I take a good look in the window and more often than not think, “well, THAT explains it.” But you know what? It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there. It’s 8:35 and I’m running late and I haven’t had my coffee yet and I’ll be damned if I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt. When I’m retired, I plan to be an accommodating, yielding, stay-with-the-flow-of-traffic kind of driver. In the meantime, get the hell out of my way, because I have to hurry up and go to a place that I don’t particularly want to go to do a job that I don’t particularly want to do. It’s the American dream, folks, and I’m living it.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

In search of the "runner's high": Why exercising sometimes makes me want to punch myself in the face

God, here we go again.

I'm out for a jog at one of my favorite places to go running; Smithville Park in Eastampton. I'm on a wide, level, gravel running path that meanders through several square miles of hushed woodlands. It's a beautiful evening in September; clear and fresh, with just a hint of fall in the air. The sunset is spectacular: half the sky is aflame with burning orange-and-pink clouds, while the other half is that cool, clear, deep blue one encounters only when the sun is departing to the west. I'm jogging along, my feet scrunching in the gravel, the clean wind through my hair, surrounded by nature, alone with my thoughts....and I'm absolutely miserable.

Yeah, you heard (read?) me right. I'm miserable. I'm a wreck. I'm a gasping, heaving, lurching mess of body parts flailing along the pathway at an embarassingly slow pace, sucking oxygen out of the air like a fish out of water, wishing I could just kill myself to stop the pain. Why? Well, to put it bluntly, I'm a shitty runner. Personally, I blame genetics. I inherited my mother's build, most of her skill sets, and her tendancy to curse like a trucker. I also belive that I inherited her running ability - or, should I say, lack thereof. She's a crappy runner. Her mother was a crappy runner. Her mother's mother was a crappy runner. Okay, I'm exaggerating a bit, but you get the point. Hey, we're Italian - Italians don't run. We eat and drink and seduce each other.

So why do I do it? Why do I keep running when I'm obviously an embarassment to the sport (not to mention myself)? Well, frankly, I've never sucked at anything so badly in my life. At least, I've never sucked so bad at anything I actually wanted to be good at. I guess it's that stubborn capricorn in me. I see people running all the time. They seem fit. They seem happy. Importantly, they seem to be taking in enough oxygen to prevent them from passing out. I want that. I'm so jealous of that, I'm practically green with envy. So I keep strategizing my approach, trying to find a way to beat my genetics, as well as my penchant for laziness. So far, the following strategies have decidedly not worked:

Jogging slowly

I thought that if I could find a pace that would allow me to jog and at the same time do this breathing thing that everybody seems to be into lately (who knew oxygen could be so...vital?), I'd naturally be able to increase my speed and distance over time. This didn't work. Apparently I CAN'T find a pace that would be classified as a "jog" that prevents me from turning red, blue, or one of any other alarming colors. Maybe I should be a speedwalker?

Ignoring the pain

No good. Turns out pain can't be ignored. Period. My internal dialogue went something like this: "okay, everything is fine. I'm running. I'm okay......NO I'M NOT OKAY THIS FREAKING, no, everything is fine. See how beautiful it is outside? Isn't' it great to be out in the fresh air?....FUCK THIS! I CAN'T BREATHE AND MY LEGS HURT AND MY HEART IS POUNDING. OHMYGOD I THINK I'M HAVING A HEART ATTACK!!!....okay, I'm ignoring you and focusing on how great it feels to be exercising and clearing my head and...I'M DYING! I'M DYING! CALL 911! THIS IS INSANE! MUST....STOP...IMMEDIATELY..."

Yeah...epic fail.

Embracing the pain

When I couldn't ignore the pain, I tried welcoming it, like one of those sadist freaks, or people who listen to Barbara Streisand. I faced down my run like boxers do in the ring. I stared at the path and put on my most menacing face. "Bring it on," I thought. "Bring on the pain." And then I started to run. My legs started to ache and I laughed it off. My lungs started to burn and I smiled. I was wheezing and panting and the whole time I was thinking "More...MORE PAIN." Finally, when I couldn't take any more, I stopped. Problem was, I stopped about 50 yards from where I started. Guess my threshold for pain is low. Bummer.

So here I am, back at square one. I still suck at running, and I now have several near-death experiences under my belt. Maybe this is the end of the road for me. Maybe I should just pack it in and stick to things I'm good at (like eating, drinking, and seducing people). But do I really want to go to my grave wondering what would have been? Do I really want to have my grandchildren at my feet, listening to tales of "when i was young, I was ALMOST a runner"? Well, first of all, I hope I have more interesting stories for my grandkids. Second of all, NO, that's NOT what I want!

Anybody have any advice on how to run without simultaneously passing out and throwing up? Can anybody help a brotha out?!?!

I'm going to meditate on this dilemma and see what I can come up with.

And if that doesn't work....maybe I'll try crack.

Friday, September 5, 2008

On Hitch-hikers, Bears, and The Great Outdoors: Trip Report from Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park is one of the great treasures of the east coast. With its impressive peaks and idyllic valleys, this park is worth the 4 hour drive from southern New Jersey. The mountains range anywhere between 2,300 and 3,700 feet in elevation; tiny, yes, compared to the west coast, but not bad for being accessible by car (hey, we all gots bills to pay). And let’s be honest—climbing anything more than a few thousand feet in a day borders on an expedition that I just don’t have the heart, lungs, or legs for. So while some may scoff at the so-called ‘mountains’ of Shenandoah, most would change their minds quickly should they attempt to summit any one of these peaks in half a day with 45-50 lbs on their back. For the average backpacker like myself, 3,500 feet is quite high enough, rendering any hike in Shenandoah a thoroughly satisfying—and wearying—experience.

My significant other (Brian) and I decided to tour the park over the Labor Day holiday by partaking in quick 3-day, 2-night backpacking excursion into the less-explored southern half of the Shenandoah. The goal was to summit 3 peaks in 3 days: Furnace Mountain, Trayfoot Mountain, and Blackfoot Mountain. All in all, a total elevation gain and loss of almost 10,000 feet. The plan was to bring my trusty canine sidekick, Jericho, along for the ride, but a mysterious injury occurring the night before we left caused us to leave him in the capable (?) hands of Brian’s brother, Scott. To be honest, I suspected Jericho would fare better battling bears and mountains with a gimpy leg than being left alone for 3 days under Scott’s supervision, but to his credit, I came home to happy and healthy critter (thanks, Scott, for not killing my dog).

The Jones Run trailhead is 80-something miles down on Skyline Drive. For those of you who are not familiar with Shenandoah Nat’l Park, it consists of a strip of mountain lying primarily North-South, with the Skyline Drive Highway running along its center. Skyline drive is an excellent way to view the numerous peaks of Shenandoah, and also allows for a certain amount of Douchebag spotting. Douchebags are native to Virginia, it turns out. I know – I was surprised too. I thought New Jersey was the native home of the Douchebag, but it turns out that a certain subspecies of Douchebag is known to range as far south as North Carolina. You can spot this subspecies by their horrendous hair. The majority of them drive along in their cars at a whopping 25 mph and are known for nonsensical breaking and unannounced turns. There are signs all over the park stating that it’s unlawful to feed the wildlife, so we were careful not to feed any of the Douchebags. We did, however, almost hit a few with the car, but that was mostly on purpose.

We hit the trailhead by 12:30 pm and were quickly on our way. The hike of the first day was an easy 6 miles downhill, so we anticipated an early night at camp. The rangers had warned of the exploding black bear population, so we were half-expecting to encounter a bear at some point during the hike. We kind of weren’t expecting to encounter a bear within the first half-mile of our hike, but eeh, it happens. Luckily, Brian had his Bear Mace on the ready. Oh yeah, I smirked when he packed it too, but we must have pulled it out and had it ready to use no less than 20 times during our hike. Brian has this unfortunate track record with wild animals—they kind of like to attack him. That’s why he brought the Mace. And because Brian can run faster than me, I was quickly onboard the Bear Mace Bandwagon. As he pointed out, the best way to avoid getting attacked by a bear is to be the 2nd slowest person in your hiking party. Yeah, he’s sweet like that.

We only actually saw one bear (by we, I mean Brian, because I’m about as observant as a doorknob). We mostly just heard them crashing through the underbrush, mere yards from the trail. Luckily, black bears are kind of like large raccoons. They are mostly a nuisance and while they could attack you, it’s more likely that they just want to nose around in your pack for some dinner. Still, that one bear who heard us and, instead of retreating, just kind of stood there had me very aware of my limited running capability and my backpack full of tasty cliff bars and beef jerky. At any rate, we made it to camp that night after a fairly uneventful hike. It was a lovely campsite set up next to a babbling brook, nestled in a grove of trees, right next to…a frequently used fire-road. Privacy, not so much, but we were hungry and tired and it worked just fine. Still, the looks we got from the several people who passed us while out for their evening stroll were amusing.

We were up early the next day and ready for our climb first to Furnace mountain (~2,900 ft) and then on to Trayfoot mountain (~3,500 ft). I’m not going to lie, the climb was a bitch, but we were enjoying the views from Furnace Mountain by 10:00am, munching on snacks and wishing we had brought the camera (the summit was reached by a .5 mile out-and-back trail, so we had dropped our packs – and the camera – to hike the last half mile. Doh!). We then continued up to Trayfoot mountain, which was even MORE of a bitch to climb, and had us (me) begging for mercy. I really liked it when we spotted the summit marker WAYYYY above on the trail, and when we finally reached it, it was actually a marker pointing to the summit, which was an additional 0.2 miles ahead. I would have kicked that marker if my legs weren’t about to fall off. And when we reached the summit…there was nothing. No rocky outcrop for us to dangle our legs over, viewing the terrain we had just crossed, no boulder to scramble upon for a glorious view….nothing. Just trees, and a whole lotta bear poop. Trayfoot mountain is apparently covered in thick underbrush and about 1 bear for every 100 yards squared. Fabulous. Luckily, there were a few good views on our descent, but if you’re not at the top, it kind of defeats the purpose. Aaah, well, we were quickly at camp for our second night (no fire roads this time), where Brian surprised me with booze he had packed in just for kicks. HOORAY BOOZE! We enjoyed our libations, toasting to the journey (except for the stupid Trayfoot Mountain summit), and hit the hay.

The final day of hiking was uneventful. Although 5 out of the 6 miles were uphill, a wide, moderately graded old roadbed eased our climb considerably. One mile from our car, we were pleasantly surprised by the best view of the trip from Blackfoot Mountain—360 degrees of peaks and valleys, with not a soul in sight! We lazed at the peak for a good hour, soaking in the view, and getting burned to a crisp by the deceptively strong sun. About a thousand pictures later, we hiked a final mile of downhill luxury and we were back at the car, headed for Skyland resort for a shower and a good night’s sleep in a bed. Our final day was spent meandering around Big Meadow (you can guess what was there), taking pictures and getting absolutely fried by the sun. If you can stand the gnats, Big Meadow is a great place to cap off your trip. Nowhere else in the park did I feel so far from New Jersey. We wandered about in the open field, spotting dear and enjoying to numerous species of butterflies that frequent the meadow. When the sun and the bugs got to be too much, we headed home, stopping on the way to pick up some hitch-hikers who were headed to mile marker 20-ish of skyline drive. They were AmeriCorps kids who had hitch-hiked into the park from Maryland for a week of backpacking. Brad and Taylor (?) were their names? Maybe not – I’m awful with names. But I’m sure the good karma will come in useful some day when I’ve done something despicable with the intent of getting away with it. Aaaaah, karma. To stall our arrival back in New Jersey, we stopped off in Baltimore for dinner. I highly recommend the scallops at Phillips in the harbor area. Mohjito butter reduction? Hell YES. And then it was back to New Jersey, where the view sucks, the people are rude, and the air is disgusting. Home at last.

So, in summary, I’d recommend this park to anyone who is in the mood for some good trails and a little bit of an ass whooping. Then again, if you’re REALLY in the mood for an ass whopping, you should go to New Hampshire, where their idea of a moderate trail includes climbing down the face of a cliff. But that’s another story for another day…