Monday, August 30, 2010

My Surprise Florida Weekend

I'm back in the Big Apple after my surprise Florida weekend, and I had a great time! As usual, I'm completely worn out - those visits at home sure are exhausting. It's a good exhausting, but exhausting nonetheless.

Obviously the Main Event of the weekend was the surprise for Heather. She had no idea I was coming, and didn't think I would be able to get to Florida to see her show at all. I didn't think I'd be able to, either, but several weeks ago my dad called to see if he could fly me down to see the show as a surprise for her. Um, yes, please!

My dad picked me up from the airport at 2:00 on Friday afternoon and brought me back to the house. He had a whole plan worked out for how the surprise would play out: I would hide on the front porch, and he would go inside and tell Heather she had a package on the porch. Then when she came outside, SURPRISE!

So, when we got to the house, I assumed my porch position and my dad went inside to get Heather. A moment later, however, he came back outside and said, "she's sleeping!" Well, that was unexpected! I was hungry, so we decided to run out and grab lunch, hoping that would give her time to wake up. So, I got my lunch and we came back to the house and tried again. I assumed the position, my dad went inside, then..."she's still sleeping!"

On to Plan B. I went into the house and hung out in the family room and basically just waited for Heather to wake up. To aid in that process, my dad started unloading the dishwasher rather loudly. When she still wasn't waking up, I sent her a text message wishing her good luck for her second weekend of shows. She texted back! She said thank you, and told me she was just waking up from a nap. I responded that I hoped I didn't wake her, and she replied that no, in fact Dad had woken her with his loud dishes! Ha!

Finally, she emerged from her room. My dad reverted back to Plan A then, and told her a package came for her and he put it in the family room. She walked into the room and saw me sitting on the couch, and her jaw dropped! She was so thrilled! She said that she figured I had been texting her because I felt badly that I would not be able to see her show, so that improvised plan had really helped the whole thing - she was even more convinced I would not be coming to see her. It was so great to see how surprised and excited she was, and Dad and I were excited, too! It was a great family moment. I wish I had a picture of her face when she saw me! But, I do have this picture my mom took of her after her show this weekend, and really her face wasn't all too dissimilar from this, to give you an idea:

Yay for surprises!

We hung out at the house a bit then, before Heather had to leave for that evening's show and I had to beautify myself. Dad and I got to the theater (the Jaeb Theater at the Straz Center) a little early, got drinks and popcorn and found our seats. The theater was set up cabaret style, so we shared a little table with two other women.

 The Respect stage

I was super excited to see Heather's bio in the Playbill - it's so official! I helped her write her bio, by the way. It's like I'm famous by association now!

Respect in the Playbill (my autographed copy, of course) and Heather's bio! (Click to enlarge)

As you already know from my last post, I loved the show. I laughed, I cried, I sang along, I danced, I felt empowered, I felt moved. Heather did a beautiful job, as did the other three girls. My favorite song Heather sang was "You Don't Own Me" in the second act - it's very powerful, and she's incredible. Heather's castmates made the same comment about me that her friends on the cruise ship did: that I'm funny because I just sit in the audience and stare at her the whole time with a big ol' grin on my face. I tried to actually be conscious of it this time, and not sit there like a grinning idiot for two hours straight, but apparently I failed. I'm just so proud.

After the show, the cast comes out into the lobby to mingle with the audience and sign autographs. Do you have any idea how cool it is to watch your sister sign autographs? She's amazing.

Heather autographing more Playbills after the show

After the show

Heather (out of costume), my dad and me!

Yay for Heather and yay for Respect!

When Heather finished with all she had to do, she and I went to downtown St. Pete to Ceviche for tapas and cocktails. We had some amazing food and I had a delightful glass of sangria (Heather had wine), then we walked to another bar for another glass of wine before heading home. It was so nice to be out on the town with my sister!

My pretty sister eating some kind of amazingly delicious spinach thing at Ceviche

That afternoon I took my dad to work so I could use his car to go - where else? - shopping at Target! Gotta love it. I ran some other errands, too. Other than that, it was a lazy afternoon around the house.

My poor, sweet, old dog Lucy, and Heather's cat Rodney enjoying some downtime around the house

That evening my mom was going to Heather's show, so beforehand she and some of her friends picked me up and took me out to dinner at Olive Garden. We had a very nice meal, and it was nice to get to see all of them, too!

Gary, Mom, me, and my mom's friend Wilma at Olive Garden

I had considered going out on the town that evening, but I was just too tired. Plus, it was pretty rainy out and I don't do well with driving in the rain, especially at night. So I just picked my dad up from work at 9:00, then relaxed around the house for the night.

Sunday morning I got up and went over to Eric's sister Kelley's new house for breakfast with Eric's whole family. Toni was even able to join us! She is doing so incredibly well. It's just remarkable. Her face lit up when she saw me and that is just the greatest thing in the whole world. It was so wonderful to see her and see how she continues to improve - what a woman she is!

We had a great time at breakfast. Kelley and Susan prepared a wonderful meal, and it was so nice to see the whole family. We even got to talk to Eric on Skype for a bit! Some of the family also played some ping pong and Wii Fit (Ronnie tried his hand at hula-hooping), then soon it was time to go. Thanks for putting the breakfast together, Kelley!

Susan and Kelley playing ping-pong

Gramz (and her dog) and Toni watching the Wii Fit action

After leaving Kelley's I went back home to get ready for a second showing of Respect. I met up with Lauren, a friend of mine who actually is friends with Heather from college, too. She agreed to see the Sunday afternoon performance of Heather's show with me, which was great! We met up at Chili's in Tampa for appetizers and margaritas first, then went over to the theater. Once again, the show was awesome. I was so glad I got to see it twice, because I definitely missed stuff the first time around (while I was staring at Heather and grinning), because apparently there was other stuff going on onstage in addition to what Heather was doing. Who knew?

With Heather and Lauren after the show

After Heather's show, she and I went home to meet up with Dad, who took us out to dinner at The Hurricane on the beach. Unfortunately, the sky was dark and stormy so we didn't get to see the sunset, but we ate seafood until we could not possibly eat another bite, enjoyed some great oldies music and just had a nice time together.

Out to dinner with family

After dinner we went back home and Heather and I watched the Emmy Awards, then I packed up my stuff and went to bed. I got up early this morning to catch my 7:15 a.m. flight back to NYC, and just like that, the weekend was over!

Thanks again to my dad for making this weekend happen - I can't even say how grateful I am that I got to see Heather's show and spend this unexpected time with family! And thanks to all of the rest of you who helped make the rest of the weekend so awesome. I am so lucky to have all of you in my life!

And P.S. - Go see Respect!

Saturday, August 28, 2010


SURPRISE! I'm in Florida!

I haven't mentioned my plans for this trip on the blog because it was a surprise for my sister. She recently started performing in a new show called Respect: A Musical Journey of Women at the Straz Center in Tampa, and my dad generously decided to fly me down to surprise her so I could see her show. I was really bummed that I wouldn't get to see it, so I was very excited about this surprise! It really was as much a gift for me as it was for Heather.

And last night, I saw the show! If possible, it exceeded my expectations. It was a great look at the struggles and successes of women in the 20th century, and the music was great! The audience got so into it - we clapped, we cried, we laughed, we sang along. It was really a fabulous show, and I am here now to highly recommend that any of my Tampa area readers make the time to go see it. Here's a little bit about the show, if you're interested:

From "Someone to Watch over Me" to "I Will Survive," Respect is the journey of women told through the music of the Top-40. It's a show that is a journey from the codependence of "I Will Follow Him" to the anger of "These Boots are Made for Walking," to the cynicism of "What's Love Got to Do with It," and finally to the strength of "Hero." Combining excerpts of 60 songs with women's own stories about finding dreams, lost love, relationship issues, entering the workforce, gaining independence and more, Respect is an exhilarating must-see, must-hear evening of theater.

Vanderbilt University professor Dr. Dorothy Marcic created the show based on her book, "RESPECT: Women and Popular Music." For more than the first half of the last century, the voice of women in Top-40 popular music has been one of neediness and dependency. By the end of the century, things were quite different. Popular music had come far enough that women looked for the hero within themselves, were urged to get on their feet and make it happen and were ready to stand on their own with or without a man. Messages in the music encompassed everything from "I am woman - hear me roar" to "I will survive" and encouraged women to find their own dreams.

The show runs through September 26th, with performances every Friday, Saturday and Sunday (with the exception of Labor Day weekend). Tickets are not very expensive, and they also offer "Girls Night Out" packages that include tickets and drinks. All the information you need is on the Straz Center website.

Let me just say again that it was an absolutely fantastic show. I realize I am biased because one of the four women in this show is my sister, but I loved it and I don't think you'll be disappointed if you make the time to see it! Please go, and enjoy!

The women of Respect - go, Heather!

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Colbert Report

Wednesday night we crossed yet another item off our NYC To-Do List. Man, we are just knocking 'em out, aren't we? At this rate, we'll be through that list in no time! Hmmm, maybe I better start adding some new things to it...

Anyway, this week's list item was attending a taping of The Colbert Report. We live ridiculously close to the Colbert studio, so it seems crazy that it has taken us this long to get inside. Tickets were pretty hard to come by, though. But, we finally made it happen thanks to their ticket mailing list and good timing. Hooray!

We were instructed to be in line no later than 5:15 p.m. However, it's a "we-overbooked-so-if-you're-not-early-you-might-not-get-in" kind of situation, so we wanted to be earlier than that. I arrived at 4:40, and Eric and our friend Jose joined me around 5:00. We waited in a little covered hallway outside the studio. Around 5:15 they made some security announcements, then a little after 5:30 they came through and handed out our actual tickets. Jose and Eric managed to look super uninterested, but I suck at being fake serious, so I could not hide my excitement.

Eric and Jose are totally not excited about seeing Colbert.

I AM excited. I'm not ashamed.

The waiting really was the worst part of the whole Colbert experience. This is the third talk show taping we have attended (the others being The Daily Show and The Late Show), and the wait time for Colbert was by far the longest of any of the shows we've seen. After passing out tickets, they very slowly started letting people inside to the holding room, pretty much one group at a time. When you got inside you went through security, then just stood around in this holding room, watching old Colbert episodes and waiting for everyone to get in. We were able to briefly entertain ourselves with some fun photos, and of course the old episodes were entertaining, but dude. It took forever.

With the man of the evening himself. Well, a painted-on-the-wall version of himself.

It looks like Colbert finds Eric funny. The feeling is probably mutual.

Once everyone made it through security, they gave us some more rules and pep talks (LAUGH! GO NUTS! HAVE FUN!) then there was more waiting around. Finally they opened up the doors and let us in to the studio! We were seated on the far right side against the wall, three rows from the top. By the time we got in and seated, it was 7:30. I had already been hanging around there for three hours! The wait wasn't over yet, however - we continued to wait for the show to get on the road.

At long last, the warm-up comedian came out to get things going. He was actually very funny. He talked with the crowd for some time, then finally it was time to bring out Stephen Colbert! He came out and the audience was allowed some time to ask him questions out of character, which was fun. Then finally it was time to start the show!

When the show started, the audience immediately went nuts because Colbert opened with an "inside joke" relating to an audience member's question during the Q&A question. This woman in the audience had informed Colbert that some elephant seal somewhere is named after him, and Colbert later mistakenly referred to it as a "sea elephant" instead (a combination of "sea lion" and "elephant seal," apparently). Then when he opened the actual show he said, "I give you answers, but I also ask questions on a nightly basis, the eternal questions like: there are sea cucumbers, there are sea lions. Why no sea elephants?" The crowd went crazy! Of course, it sounds terribly unfunny all written out here, but it was a great way to get everyone excited at the start of the show!

The guests that night were Andrew Hacker, who discussed the negatives of for-profit universities, and Heidi Cullen, who discussed climate change. We found Colbert very funny, of course, and more "off the cuff" than Jon Stewart was - Stewart had nearly all his jokes on teleprompters, but Colbert was much more improvisational. It was also very fun to see him dancing and joking around during breaks. He was highly amusing.

If you missed last night's show and would like to watch it (and listen for us laughing!), click here to watch it on Colbert's website.

Of course, no photos were allowed inside the studio, but Jose did manage to snap this one photo of the set as we were leaving:

Illegal set photo

We didn't really get on TV this time, at least not like we did on The Late Show! At the beginning of the show and after Heidi Cullen's segment they very briefly (and quickly) panned the audience from a distance, and since I know where we were sitting, I can pick out which pixelated blobs are most likely us. You can't recognize us, but take my word for it:

There we are at the start of the show!

Oh hey, there we are again! Well, kind of. I promise we're in there somewhere.

All in all, long wait time aside, we had a great time. We did wait forever, but we had so much fun at the show that it more than made up for it. It's so cool to be able to be a part of something, then go home and watch it on TV. It's fun to see which jokes made it to air, which were cut, and remember seeing it all live. We had a great time!

After the show

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Let's See How Many Sights We Can Cram Into One Weekend

This past weekend, we had a new set of visitors staying with us: my Aunt Rachel, Uncle Mark, and cousin Sarah, visiting from Pittsburgh. They visited us in Washington, D.C., and we were happy they were able to make it to New York, too. We took them all over the city and gave them all our best tours - hopefully we didn't wear them out too much! That's an awful lot of walking.

They arrived by cab from JFK Airport around 10:00 on Thursday night. We spent some time chatting and developing a plan for the next day, then went to bed. We would need our rest!

Friday, Eric left for work and I prepared to take my guests on our Downtown Tour. Once we were all awake and ready, we took the subway down to High Street in Brooklyn for pizza at Grimaldi's and a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. We actually arrived shortly before Grimaldi's was open, so we walked down to the water and checked out the newly completed Brooklyn Bridge Park, which is very nice. I had never explored it before, and it definitely is a beautiful park. New York, man. They know their parks.

Me, Sarah and Uncle Mark in Brooklyn Bridge Park

Because we were so early to Grimaldi's, we were able to get in with hardly any wait at all. However, we did wait quite some time for our pizza. You can't rush greatness, I suppose. As always, I found it to be well worth the wait. I hope my guests agreed with me!

Aunt Rachel, Uncle Mark and Sarah waiting for a table at Grimaldi's

Sarah and me waiting for our pizza

After finishing our pizza, we made our way across the Brooklyn Bridge. That is one thing I just never get tired of doing, no matter how many times I make that walk. It's just so scenic and such a cool thing to do.

Walking across the bridge with Sarah and Uncle Mark

Our visitors on the bridge

Once we made our way back into Manhattan, the rest of our Downtown Tour could commence. We wandered through City Hall Park, then made our way over to Ground Zero and St. Paul's Chapel. We also stopped in to the temporary 9/11 Memorial, which I had never visited before. We spent a lot of time talking to Sarah about what happened on 9/11, since she was too young when it happened to really remember. The rest of us remember it vividly. It was hard for me to look at the pictures in that memorial.

Views in City Hall Park

Construction at Ground Zero

This helmet was in the 9/11 Memorial. It was worn by Lt. Mickey Kross of FDNY Engine 16 when he responded to the North Tour after Flight 11 struck. He and his company were inside the tower when it collapsed, but he and 13 others survived. Incredible.

Statue of Liberty figure in the 9/11 Memorial, covered in memorabilia

From there we continued on to Trinity Church, Wall Street, the Stock Exchange, and the Bull. We also strolled through Bowling Green and on to Battery Park, where we checked out The Sphere and The Immigrants statue. Of course, we also saw the Statue of Liberty from afar and the East Coast WWII Memorial.

The ladies in Bowling Green

Uncle Mark and Sara at The Immigrants statue

It was then time for the Grand Finale of our Downtown Tour: a roundtrip ride on the Staten Island Ferry for closer views of the Statue of Liberty. Both trips on the ferry were so nice - peaceful, relaxing, and with gorgeous views. It was enough to nearly lull us to sleep.

Aunt Rachel, Sarah and Uncle Mark on the Staten Island Ferry

Uncle Mark with the Statue of Liberty

By then we were beat, so we hopped back on the subway to head home, making a stop at Crumbs on the way (duh). We had considered going to Movie Night on the Intrepid that evening, but we were both A) exhausted and B) feeling bad for the poor dog who had been crated all day, so we scrapped that plan. Instead, we picked up dinner at Daisy May's BBQ and had a picnic by the river (and took Achilles with us!). I just love doing that! We watched the sunset and enjoyed the beautiful park.

Sunset over the Hudson River

Looking back towards the city, with the moon rising over the buildings

Fountain near the Intrepid

Intrepid at sunset

When we got home we played a little Rock Band - a first for Aunt Rachel and Uncle Mark! They really picked it up well. We played a little regular and a little Beatles Rock Band, then it was time for bed.

Sarah on guitar, Eric on vocals, Aunt Rachel on bass and Uncle Mark on drums

More Rock Band fun

Saturday was another busy day. I planned to take our guests on our Midtown Tour, and Eric was able to join us! We started off with our usual tour of the lower quarter of Central Park: The Dakota, Strawberry Fields/the Imagine Mosaic, Bethesda Fountain, the Conservatory Water, Hans Christian Andersen Statue, Naumburg Bandshell, Literary Walk, Wollman Rink, and the Bridge.

Bethesda Fountain

At the Bethesda Fountain. Hey, look! Eric's there, too!

At the Hans Christian Andersen statue

Bubbles at the Naumburg Bandshell!

Uncle Mark and Sarah walking along The Mall

Uncle Mark and Aunt Rachel by the Bridge

After exiting the park at the southeast corner, we started our "Midtown East" part of the tour: FAO Schwartz, St. Patrick's Cathedral, Rockefeller Center and Radio City Music Hall. At St. Patrick's, we actually saw a wedding procession! I never thought that weddings there would have to be subjected to tourist onlookers, but they didn't close off the church so we onlooked (is that a word?). And you know what I realized this weekend? I realized that one of the coolest things about this city is that no matter how many times I take guests on the same tours (which has been A LOT of times), I always end up seeing something I've never see before, or doing something I've never done. Just with this weekend's visitors, I saw Brooklyn Bridge Park, the 9/11 Memorial, and a wedding at St. Patrick's. These are all places I've been to tons of times, but still I am seeing new and different things. How cool is that?

See the bride coming down the aisle?

Bride and groom at the altar at St. Patrick's

VIDEO: Wedding procession in St. Patrick's Cathedral

Summer foliage at the Promenade at Rockefeller Center

A very tired group at Rockefeller Center

We took the team for lunch at Tri Tip Grill in Rockefeller Center, our favorite local french dip sandwich place. Then we walked briefly through a street festival on Sixth Avenue, then over to Times Square. We stopped in Toys 'R Us for a quick look at the ferris wheel, then spent some time shopping in Times Square's new Forever 21 store for Sarah while the boys relaxed on the chairs outside. Eric said they saw a number of different bridal parties (apparently mid August is an awesome time to get married, but DUH we already knew that), including one where each bridesmaid had a black dress with different colored shoes. Love that!

I am currently lusting over those blue shoes. Love this bridal party look!

While we were in Times Square, my guests also ran into friends of theirs from Pittsburgh who were also visiting NYC this weekend! What are the odds of that?!

After all that, we spent some time debating the evening's plans: Top of the Rock at dusk (which Sarah really wanted to do) vs. TKTS booth for tickets to West Side Story (Aunt Rachel's preference). We reached a compromise that everyone ended up being very happy with: Eric took Sarah and Uncle Mark to Top of the Rock, and Aunt Rachel and I went to West Side Story (that's another NYC To-Do List item for me!).

From what I hear, the Top of the Rock folks had a great time, although apparently they had a difficult time getting up to the edge for good pictures. They did discover that if you go to the far east side of the building and look down, you can see St. Patrick's Cathedral - another tidbit we didn't know! See? You always learn something new when you lead tours!

Uncle Mark and Sarah at Top of the Rock, looking north over Central Park

Southeast view from Top of the Rock

Dark, but Sarah and Uncle Mark with the Empire State Building

Sarah in "The Breezeway," which identifies visitors as they walk through the space and assigns each a color. She appears to be "red."

Meanwhile, Aunt Rachel and I had a wonderful time at West Side Story. It was so beautiful! I know the movie practically by heart, and there were some differences in the live performance, but I loved it. I had heard they added more Spanish to this version, which they did - when the Puerto Ricans were together, they mostly spoke in Spanish and many of their songs interspersed Spanish with English. I actually thought that was a really nice touch. Also, we had fantastic seats! We were technically in the 8th row at orchestra level, but we were actually on a little raised side platform which put us a little higher than orchestra level and we had only two seats in our whole row! We were so close, it was really great. I also just enjoyed spending time with Aunt Rachel. I'm not sure we've ever spent one-on-one time together like that before, and it was really nice! Thanks again for taking me to the show, Aunt Rachel!

West Side Story at the Palace Theater in Times Square

Aunt Rachel in our seats

View from our seats

At the show. (I really need to master how to do a self-taken picture without increasing my number of chins.)

By the time we got home we were absolutely exhausted, so we went to bed pretty quickly.

Sunday was a more leisurely day. We slept in a bit and took our time getting moving in the morning. We didn't really have anything planned, and the weather was pretty dreary so we considered hitting a museum. Ultimately we decided to do a little more sightseeing instead.

Achilles liked Sarah. Here he is practically sleeping on her head.

We went back to Times Square to hit the M&M Store we missed on Saturday, then walked south to Bryant Park, stopping at the Pop Tarts Store on the way. And guess what? I got my Pop Tarts Sushi! It was surprisingly not as disgusting as it sounds. It was several fruity flavors of Pop Tarts all minced up and wrapped in a Fruit Roll-Up. Altogether, not disgusting. Terrible for you? Yes, I'm sure. But not super gross. And now I can say I've had it!

The girls in the M&M Store

My first bite of Pop Tarts Sushi

Everyone inspecting the sushi. I don't think they were convinced.

After Bryant Park we tried to visit the New York Public Library, but it was closed. We continued on the Grand Central, where I showed them the Whispering Gallery and we had lunch. Then we got on the subway down to Chinatown and Little Italy, so Sarah could check out the discount shopping. She successfully haggled for some perfume (seriously, her negotiating skills left me wishing I had used her when booking wedding vendors - color me impressed), and I went off in search of a new hat. However, my plans were thwarted by the rain (which hasn't stopped since, actually) and a band in Little Italy that was just marching along with a big statue of Jesus covered in dollar bills. They would stop every few feet and play a short little tune, then continue on. It reminded me of the scene in The Godfather when Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) gets married in Italy, and there's a little band that marches along (this band might have even played the same tune, but I'm not sure). Anyway, I had never seen this sort of thing in Little Italy before, so chalk that up to yet another new experience while tour-guiding.

Little parade in Little Italy

VIDEO: Band in Little Italy

As the rain started to come down, we hurried back to the subway and made our way home again. Our guests had tickets to see In the Heights that evening, so they got ready and went to that while Eric and I relaxed, had dinner, and I called my mom to chat for a bit (as I am apt to do on Sundays). Apparently they really enjoyed the show, and had even closer seats than we had for West Side Story! They also saw Jordin Sparks (the new "Nina") after the show, so I think they had a pretty good time.

Monday was their last day, and Aunt Rachel wanted to check out The Today Show. It was still raining, but we went out there anyway. The crowds were pretty light, so we actually had some great views. We saw Matt Lauer and Ann Curry come out onto the plaza, and we were able to see Martha Stewart filming inside. And, we got on TV! Well, Uncle Mark and I did, and only very briefly. But you know how I love to take pictures of myself on my TV (see here and here, for example), so it was good times.

Filming The Today Show in the rain

Martha Stewart and Matt Lauer sharing a laugh (while he gets his makeup touched up)

Aunt Rachel with the Today Show folks

Hi there, Uncle Mark!

There I am!

After we had our fill of Today Show fun (or more so, our fill of rain) we headed back home. We spent the rest of the morning relaxing at the apartment, then my guests packed up their things and I hailed them a cab to the airport.

Aunt Rachel, Uncle Mark and Sarah - it was so great to have you all here! Please feel free to come visit any time. Actually, that goes for any of you out there! We love having guests and our door is always open.

(Note: In the next day or two, I'll be adding more pictures from this weekend to our photo share site, if you're interested!)