At this time of the year, while we are still in the midst of winter and the groundhog has only recently spoken in tones only the hard of hearing can decipher, we find ourselves faced with a holiday lodged securely between the birthdays of the two presidents who are immortalized in President's Day, a holiday that either celebrates love or is a poor excuse to spend tons of money on flowers, candy and greeting cards, depending on where you stand. Depending on how much you are, or are not, a fan of Valentine's Day.
I have run the full gamut of Valentine's Day experiences. Now I am thrilled to plan lovely celebrations for myself and my beloved, the most recent of which I will describe below. But there was a time when Valentine's Day seemed to me to be the most accursed date on the entire year's calendar. Or at least it was a reminder to me of how unfortunate my life was in that most crucial of arenas, in the forging of loving relationships. So before I get to telling you about the present, which is full of joy for me, let me first tell you a little of the bitterness. I promise you that it will not be depressing, but rather, you may chuckle a little bit along with me, as you see how I stumbled along the way to finding the bliss of love's sweet embrace.
My first meaningful experiences of V-Day was in my senior year of high school, when I had my first girlfriend, Nancy. For V-Day, Nancy gave me a card imprinted with a lipstick kiss and a red teddy bear. Our relationship didn't last, though - we only dated for a few weeks - but for some reason I kept the teddy bear. Some time later in the spring, I came home to find 3 of my brothers (I have four) making a game of knocking objects onto the abandoned warehouse across the street from our house with a broom handle. As I looked on with consternation, I saw that one of the objects chosen was my red teddy. They got a laugh out of it, while I felt helpless and angry. I didn't miss the teddy so much when it was gone, but seeing them so callously dispatch my keepsake brought back the pain of losing love so soon after tasting it for the first time.
In college, I banded together with a bunch of artsy geeks like myself - the sorts of folks who listened to Elvis Costello while the rest of the world was moving to the beats of Donna Summer and the BeeGees. Several of us had already had our hearts broken in bad relationships, and most of us had no loves present or on the horizon. So when Valentine's Day approached, one of us came up with the idea of having a "Candy Burning" - charging en masse down to the local department store on the night of V-Day, buying the leftover candy and V-Day cards, going down to South Beach in Staten Island, making a big bonfire, then reading the saccharine sentiments expressed on the cards with great bitterness and sarcasm in our voices and then throwing them along with the candy into the fire. Some people brought love letters from those who had broken their hearts in the past. And yes, we did end up eating some of the candy as well, in addition to consuming quantities of beer and wine to dull the pain of remembering our loves lost.
We had Candy Burnings for about 6 years in a row, many of which I attended. But after college, I moved to New Brunswick, NJ and hoped to start a new Valentine's Day tradition for myself. I began singing in Rutgers University's Kirkpatrick Chapel Choir, and the director, David Drinkwater, had an annual Valentine's Day party, to which I was invited. The party was a wholly enjoyable affair, and eating and drinking and singing the night away in the company of many new friends, I felt safe from thinking about my perrenially single status, and enjoyed a thawing of my amorous expectations, a respite from loneliness.
A few years later, I started grad school at Columbia University, and then I was too busy to think about being alone. But in 1992, newly graduated from Columbia, I had an experience unrelated to the holiday that just happened to fall on the holiday, but which nevertheless cemented in my mind the feeling that I was just not meant to enjoy this holiday.
After graduating, I moved to the East Village. My old roommate from Staten Island, Maggie Smith, called me to ask if I would look in on a mutual friend, Doug, who had been battling pancreatic cancer for several years. Doug, Maggie told me, was getting to the point where he was nearly bedridden, and if I could spend a little time with him and maybe boil him an egg or something, it would be a great help to him, and to her as well, since she wanted to attend him but her obligations to her job prevented her.
I agreed and called Doug, and arranged to come over the following morning before my afternoon shift at Tower Records' Classical department. Well, when I arrived at Doug's apartment, it was obvious he was in terrible shape, and in a great deal of discomfort. It took a couple of hours, but eventually we got in touch with a visiting nurse, who told us to call 911. On the way to the hospital, Doug lost consciousness which he never regained, making me the last person to speak to him in this life.
Late that evening, I trudged home after keeping a vigil with Maggie and some of Doug's other good friends for most of the day. I had not been prepared for the day's events, and I was almost in shock. The doctors were obliged to keep resuscitating Doug until his next-of-kin, elderly parents who lived in Oregon, notified them of the DNR order. I sat in my dark apartment, sipping beer and nibbling pop tarts. Sometime after midnight, Maggie called me to tell me that Doug's parents had contacted the hospital, and Doug had been allowed to die. I noted in my mind that, with the turning of the calendar at midnight, it was now Valentine's Day.
Luckily, my dreadful feeling that I would always feel haunted by Doug's ghost on Valentine's Day did not come to pass. Just two years later I became engaged, and my fiancee and I decided to get married on Valentine's Day. It was a cold and snow-filled winter, and a snowstorm actually prevented us from getting married on the day itself, but nevertheless, each year when V-Day rolled around became a joyous occasion for us. We had 8 years of February anniversaries, and then in 2002 we separated and later divorced.
But by 2002, the past of dreading and fearing and agonizing over Valentine's Day was gone. I turned 40 years old that year, and felt the truth to the cliche that life begins at 40. A while there were times during the ensuing years that I did not have a date on Valentine's Day, I weathered the ups and downs of looking for love with an optimistic spirit, most of the time. Which brings me to two years ago, and my first V-Day with Therese.
Therese and I are (wow, already!) on our third Valentine's Day together, and the first one, I think, set a great tone. At that point, we had only had a couple of dates, and I was thinking, "well, gee, we haven't dated that much, it's kind of overstepping things to act all lovey-dovey and such." Nevertheless, I thought the holiday gave us an opportunity to do something special, something really fun. So I got us a reservation at Convivium, a very special restaurant not far from where I lived in Brooklyn at the time. That worked out great: we had a wonderful meal, after which we walked to Pacific Standard, a nearby pub, and had a couple of good artisanal beers. We were both smiling from ear to ear: me, because I had planned a very successful holiday outing, and Therese, because (I think) I had made her feel very special. And we had both enjoyed ourselves.
To follow up on that first success, last year we went to a Moroccan restaurant in our new neighborhood, the Lincoln Center area: Les Epices. Internet reviews of the restaurant warned that the host, an older gentleman, could be quite cantankerous. But others said that Les Epices was a very romantic place to eat. The latter comments won out in our experience: we enjoyed a lovely meal, and got a taste of Moroccan cuisine, which was fortuitous since we had plans to visit Morocco the following month.
For this year, I wasn't sure how to proceed. Would another fantastic dinner fit the bill? Or should we do something more elaborate? Therese is working in NJ three days a week, Monday through Thursday, so it would have to be something the weekend before. Then I remembered that we were talking about going to Washington, DC for a weekend since Therese hasn't been there in quite a while, so I proposed that we do that for Valentine's Day weekend, i.e., Friday the 10th through Sunday the 12th.
It was a great weekend! We rode Amtrak down midday on Friday, and went straight from the train to our first museum, the National Gallery (they have several coatcheck rooms where you can leave luggage, so that's what we did). We started in one of my favorite areas, Medieval and Renaissance paintings, and then moved on to the Cascade Cafe where we ate the remainder of our snacks that we ate for lunch on the train: baguette rounds with cheese and salami and pate and slices of corned beef. After snacking, we visited the Eastern building, where the modern art is kept. I had never been there, so I enjoyed it very much.
I had planned a quiet evening. After cabbing to our hotel, the Capital Hilton, checking in, and resting for a while, we decided to walk to the nearby Wasabi restaurant, get some takeout, and then eat our dinner while we watched a movie on our hotel room tv, "the Descendants" with George Clooney. While we waited for our order to be ready at the restaurant, we drank a small bottle of unfiltered sake, the first time either of us had had unfiltered sake - very tasty! We enjoyed our sushi rolls and edamame and shrimp dumplings and seaweed salad. The movie, which has gotten great reviews, we thought to be not bad, but not so great either.
Saturday was a full day. After a disappointing breakfast in the Executive dining room at our hotel, we walked to the National Museum of Women in the Arts. I had never been there before, while Therese had been there more than 10 years ago. We were thrilled to see, among other things, two impressive paintings by Rosa Bonheur, whose painting "The Horse Fair" was the subject of the gallery talk we went to see at NY's Met Museum as our second date. Other than the third floor which is full of great 19th and 20th century art, I felt like the collection is rather slight, but that doesn't stop this museum from being very important.
Then it was time to have a light lunch at Capitol City Brewing Company. Not a bad place. The lunch had to be light because we would be going to dinner at 6 at Zola before finishing our day with a concert of the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center.
As we finished our lunch at Capitol City, it started snowing. And the wind was blowing pretty hard, too! Walking back to our hotel was quite a challenge. But you know, the nasty weather made arriving at the hotel and hearing the doorman's "welcome back" that much more satisfying!
After warming up and retooling, we were ready for our full evening in the Capital. Luckily, we were able to get a taxi to our restaurant for dinner – the snow had nearly abated. And dinner at Zola on F Street was fabulous, even better than I remembered it being the last time I was there, five years ago. Therese had brussel sprouts with parsnips and Korean beef ribs washed down with prosecco, and I devoured maple glazed pork belly and Moroccan lamb chops with spinach and couscous fritters with a lovely red Spanish Tempranillo wine.
We had told our waiter about our concert at the Kennedy Center, and so he moved us along just right, somehow allowing our dinner to feel unrushed but nevertheless we were done eating and paying in good time. One more taxi ride later, we were at the Kennedy Center, walking down the hall of flags, ready for a transporting experience.
I had never been to the Kennedy Center before, nor heard the National Symphony Orchestra or violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg perform. In one fell swoop, I encountered all three, and was thrilled to have done so. Ms. Salerno-Sonneberg is a dynamic, passionate performer, and her thrilling performance of Shostakovich’s Concert in A Minor started off the concert in excellent fashion. After the intermission, the concert concluded with a wonderful display of the mysteries of Bruckner’s final symphony, the 9th. Therese and I left the concert hall feeling as if our weekend in Washington had now officially become a weekend to remember.
Our final day, Sunday, began at a leisurely pace, with a lovely room service breakfast that we munched on while still in our pajamas. The first event of the day was seeing the Anglo-Saxon Hoard on display at the National Geographic Museum, once again within walking distance of our hotel. But while the previous day’s snows were gone, the day was very cold, and we found it necessary to hunt a cab down to take us to our next museum, the National Portrait Gallery. At the Portrait Gallery, I was keen to see the exhibit of Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ “Black List”, 50 photographic portraits of prominent African-Americans. But to get to that exhibit, we had to walk through the galleries displaying all the portraits of the presidents, and I’m glad we did. From the classic paintings of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart and Charles Wilson Peale to Chuck Close’s interpretation of Bill Clinton, it was wonderful to see them all.
An added unexpected bonus was that the Portrait Gallery shares its building with the Smithsonian Museum of American Art. So we were able to see an interesting exhibit of Annie Liebovitz’s photography, and various other paintings and sculptures of American art.
The Portrait Gallery’s block, F Street between 8th and 9th Streets, is a very active one. Across F Street is the Spy Museum, and Zola, Saturday night’s extraordinary dinner spot, is on the second floor above the Spy Museum. Then there are a couple of other restaurants not far away, like Gordon Biersch’s brewpub. We stopped at Gordon Biersch for our late lunch and to pick up some take out for our Amtrak ride back to New York. We found the beer, a Belgian-style ale, and the food (lobster and crab macaroni and cheese for Therese, fish and garlic chips for me) better than what we had had the day before at Capitol City Brewing Company.
Our weekend trip ended with a quiet and uneventful Amtrak ride back north. It was definitely a memorable weekend for us, and another step for me towards redeeming Valentine’s Day in my eyes, as a time to treasure the love that Therese and I share. Candy Burnings are a distant memory now, and Zola and the National Symphony playing Bruckner have pride of place as Valentine’s memories.