My ‘Next’ Dinner, in Photos

Next is a ‘special-occasion’ restaurant in Chicago conceptualized by executive chef (and master of molecular gastronomy) Grant Achatz. It’s not your normal restaurant. You don’t make reservations; you buy tickets months in advance (which cover gratuity, taxes, and — if you want — beverage pairings).  You don’t order off a menu; you are presented with a multi-course culinary experience of Achatz’s choosing. And the restaurant doesn’t have a ‘type,’ per se.  Every four months, the cuisine offered shifts radically. From vegan to Thai to steak, to the food of Paris in 1906.  Hence, one wonders what’s ‘Next.’

I’ve had tickets to Next on three occasions.  Through a series of unfortunate events — one of which involved my boyfriend of two years breaking up with me three hours before our reservation — I had never actually gone before. So I was a tad nervous when my good friend AKD sold me her tickets that she was sadly unable to use. I figured the third time would be the charm, or serve as a final strike … and a sign I should no longer attempt to go to this restaurant.

But attempt I did, with my friend Heddy. The current theme is Modern Chinese, and it was wonderful, from amuse-bouche all the way to dessert. Unlike my trip to Alinea — Achatz’ other restaurant, which has appeared on the top-10 of all North American dining establishments (along with French Laundry, Per Se, Red Lobster, etc.) — I had bites of food that were simply sublime. The focus, I felt, was a little less on the pageantry and more on the taste bud engagement. So quickly, I’d like to share photos of my experience — mostly for AKD so she can live vicariously, but also to capture this once-in-a-lifetime meal for posterity.

Ordinarily I try not to eat much meat, but when dining out, especially at noteworthy restaurants, I tend to let this tradition slide, because I want to eat the meal as the chef intended. And it’s a good thing, because if I’d avoided mammals this night, I would have missed out on a lot.

I am using (in quotations) the descriptions provided for us at the end of the meal on a nice ‘fortune’ slip, but the description narrated by the waitstaff  at the time was infinitely better. Also, we missed photographing a couple of the courses. ALSO, because this is my awkward life, they told me to be discreet with my camera, so some of the pictures are snapped hurriedly (and all without flash, of course).

The "playbill" welcoming us to our evening and describing the 'Modern Chinese' concept.

The “playbill” welcoming us to our evening and describing the ‘Modern Chinese’ concept.

 

This 'centerpiece' of Chinese okra, cilantro, parsley, and ????? was crushed using a French press to create ...

This ‘centerpiece’ of Chinese okra, cilantro, parsley, and ????? was crushed using a French press to create …

... this savory, room-temperature broth

… this savory, room-temperature broth

'Scallop Dumpling with Watercress and White Fungus ... Pork Dumpling with Jujube and Cuttlefish ... Congee as a Hot Foam with Pork Floss.'   The 'hot foam' was some of the best stuff I've ever eaten. Buttery, rich, amazing. And the dumplings, while they look like standard gyoza, were not dough at all, but actually made from the processed scallop and pork, respectively.

‘Scallop Dumpling with Watercress and White Fungus; Pork Dumpling with Jujube and Cuttlefish; Congee as a Hot Foam with Pork Floss.’
The ‘hot foam’ was some of the best stuff I’ve ever eaten. Buttery, rich, amazing. And the dumplings, while they look like standard gyoza, were not dough at all, but actually made from the processed scallop and pork, respectively.

MISSED PHOTO: ‘Monkfish with White Asparagus in a Roasted Spine Broth’  This was a beautifully presented soup.  The monkfish was tender, the asparagus was al dente and as wide as hearts of palm.  Refreshing.

Ice made from fresh coconut water was ground tableside ...

Ice made from fresh coconut water was ground tableside …

...to create this, probably my second-favorite dish of the night. 'Crab with Green Chili Paste and Fresh Coconut.'  Amazingly good salad.  We wanted to gnaw at the coconut itself but were lacking the hammer and nail.

…to create this, probably my second-favorite dish of the night. ‘Crab with Green Chili Paste and Fresh Coconut.’ Amazingly good salad. We wanted to gnaw at the coconut itself but were lacking the hammer and nail.

'Tiger Salad with Cold Skin Noodles and Seitan; Tingly Squab with Tarragon and Sumac; Skate Chops in the Style of Muslim Lamb'  The squab (which is just pigeon, right?) was fried lightly and utterly delicious. Another one of my favorite things of the night. The skate chop was one bite if intense flavor -- a bit heavy-handed on the paprika. And the salad was a nice, light accompaniment.

‘Tiger Salad with Cold Skin Noodles and Seitan; Tingly Squab with Tarragon and Sumac; Skate Chops in the Style of Muslim Lamb’
The squab (which is just pigeon, right?) was fried lightly and utterly delicious. Another one of my favorite things of the night. The skate chop was one bite if intense flavor — a bit heavy-handed on the paprika. And the salad was a nice, light accompaniment.

 

'Shrimp in a Duck Yolk 'Sand''  This one was most outside of my comfort zone. Duck egg hard-boiled and mixed with salt created the 'sand,' into which was nestled a cripsy shrimp-shell head and tail. And raw shrimp meat.  (At least it looked raw, but I still gobbled it up.)

‘Shrimp in a Duck Yolk ‘Sand”
This one was most outside of my comfort zone. Duck egg hard-boiled and mixed with salt created the ‘sand,’ into which was nestled a cripsy shrimp-shell head and tail. And raw shrimp meat. (At least it looked raw, but I still gobbled it up.)

'Beef and Broccoli in Liquid and Solid State'  Inspired by the familiar dish, this was a deliciously rich consomme, followed by dehydrated broccoli spheres and slabs of leathery beef brushed with chive butter. A touch better than carry-out.

‘Beef and Broccoli in Liquid and Solid State’
Inspired by the familiar dish, this was a deliciously rich consomme, followed by dehydrated broccoli spheres and slabs of leathery beef brushed with chive butter. A touch better than carry-out.

'Duck in Layers'  Let me try to remember this pyramid of flavor. There were smoked greens, fried duck egg mixed with red cabbage, walnuts, and chives , red plum jam, two dipping sauces -- hoisin and mustard -- and roasted duck meat, which was cooked perfectly, but was also the most 'ordinary' thing served.

‘Duck in Layers’
Let me try to remember this pyramid of flavor. There were smoked greens, fried duck egg mixed with red cabbage, walnuts, and chives , red plum jam, two dipping sauces — hoisin and mustard — and roasted duck meat, which was cooked perfectly, but was also the most ‘ordinary’ thing served.

MISSED PHOTO: ”Pulling Threads’ with Sweetbreads, Taro Root, and Banana’ First, we were told veal sweetbreads, and plantains (v. banana). This was like the best Sweet-and-Sour whatever you will ever have. The sweetbreads, taro, and plantains were cut into chunks and caramelized. We were instructed to dip the pieces in a citrusy glaze for six seconds, and in so doing, a crispy shell appeared around it. Probably my favorite dish of the night.

MISSED PHOTO: ‘Frozen Rice Soup with Legumes and Whipped Vinegar’ Sweet peas, puffed jasmine rice. Crunchy and slightly sweet and cool. 

'Dragon's Beard Candy with a Pressing of Honey'  At this point, we were pretty full. This was a lot of chewy sweetness.  It was accompanied by 'Black Sesame Butterfinger,' which tastes exactly like it sounds. Like a Butterfinger, but with a sesame flavor (vs. peanut)

‘Dragon’s Beard Candy with a Pressing of Honey’
At this point, we were pretty full. This was a lot of chewy sweetness. It was accompanied by ‘Black Sesame Butterfinger,’ which tastes exactly like it sounds. Like a Butterfinger, but with a sesame flavor (vs. peanut)

'Fortune...' Finally, this huge fortune cookie, which contained our menus for the evening. Clever presentation, and light almond cookie, as you would expect.

‘Fortune…’
Finally, this huge fortune cookie, which contained our menus for the evening. Clever presentation, and light almond cookie, as you would expect.

And that’s ‘it!’  A great meal that was both inventive AND delicious. And now I’m starving.  Off to fix breakfast …

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Friday Lyric Quiz, No. 470 (The Wintry Mix Edition)

Yep.

As I write this (7 p.m. on Thursday evening), I am enjoying 20 minutes (and only 20 — rush rush!!) of complimentary WiFi service in Chicago’s Midway Airport.  I’ve been here for three hours — three more to go — thanks to a blizzard that descended upon us just in time for New Year’s travel.

On the plus side, I have my Kindle, a couple of good books, a comfy chair (until I need to use the bathroom and inevitably lose it … ), and a carry-out Guinness from Reilly’s Daughter (quite possibly the world’s best airport bar).

Friday morning update: I sat around for lit’ rally 10 hours until my flight was cancelled.  At least I wasn’t among those traveling with small children.  Yikes!

Anyway, let’s make lemonade (or a shandy) out of lemon ice and parlay this into a lyric quiz theme, yes?  All of the clips below are from songs dealing with the topics of snow, ice, winter, numbed extremities, freezing to death, etc.

Hopefully I’m able to send this in the morning and am not still sitting here. (Note: see update above.) 

1. “Love is a bird, she needs to fly, let all the hurt inside you die ” (late ’90s) 

2. “From the coastline to the city, all the little pretties raise their hands” (mid-’70s)

3. “Seasons change with their scenery, weaving time in a tapestry” (mid ’60s, late ’80s)

4. “We, used to be, just like twins, so in sync” (late ’00s)

5. “You’re digging for gold yet throwing away, a fortune in feelings but someday you’ll pay” (early ’70s)

6. “Step from the road to the sea to the sky, and I do believe that we rely on” (mid-’00s)

7. “Well, maybe just a cigarette more … Oh, never such a blizzard before” (early ’60s)

8. “I’m the burning bush, I’m the burning fire, I’m the bleeding volcano” (early ’80s)

9. “Gonna take her home cause she’s over romancing, don’t wanna hold hands and talk about her plans alright” (mid-’00s)

10. “She bit my lip and drank my warmth, from years before, from years before” (mid-’00s)

Answers to Friday Lyric Quiz #469 [Hits of 2013]

1. “I put it in park and grabbed my guitar, and strummed a couple chords and sang from the heart”
Cruise, Florida Georgia Line f/ Nelly

2. “I just know I know I know I know that you’re gonna be OK anyway”
The Wire, Haim

3. “Remember only God can judge ya, forget the haters, ’cause somebody loves ya”
We Can’t Stop, Miley Cyrus

4. “The present has no ribbon. Your gift keeps on giving.”
Get Lucky, Daft Punk f/ Pharrell

5. “Blood stains, ball gowns, trashin’ the hotel room”
Royals, Lorde

6. “Pop culture was in art, now art’s in pop culture in me”
Applause, Lady Gaga

7. “A constellation of tears on your lashes, burn everything you love, then burn the ashes”
My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark (Light ‘Em Up), Fall Out Boy

8. “What do they make dreams for, when you got them jeans on”
Blurred Lines, Robin Thicke f/ Pharrell and T.I.

9. “Oh, tear ducts and rust, I’ll fix it for us, we’re collecting dust, but our love’s enough”
Just Give me a Reason, Pink f/ Nate Ruess

10. “Stinging like a bee I earned my stripes, I went from zero, to my own hero”
Roar, Katy Perry

The Secrets of an Extended Stay

Well, well, well, I got a new full-time job. It’s exciting and new, but strangely familiar, as I took a different — hopefully better — gig with my old company (1997 – 2008) and will report to one of my former bosses. Even more flattering? The Cincinnati-based company recruited me from Chicago, which means they really value my skills but also means I will be frequenting the Queen City more often than I used to.

Which is fine.

I like it here, I have friends here from years past, and the beers are cheap.

I’m here right now for a month and am staying in an Extended Stay hotel. It’s clean, it’s close to the office, and the shower’s water pressure is surprisingly satisfying. And yet, I must admit, it’s a tad depressing. There are fellow business people here, but also people who appear to be shacked up indefinitely. I saw one room from the parking lot where a mother and small daughter had evidently hauled in in a wire shelving unit to hold piles and piles and piles of clothes.

Sigh.

Here are other things I’ve learned in my 24 hours here:

1. Bring or buy your own coat hangers. My room had four. For a place that charges by the week.

2. You might want to bring your own towels. This isn’t the Ritz. Ditto body wash, hair dryer, shampoo and conditioner. This isn’t the Hampton Inn.

3. A ‘fully equipped kitchen’ means one skillet, one pot, two plates, a small fridge, a sink no bigger than the one on airplanes, bowls large enough to hold one Frosted Mini-Wheat, no oven, and a colander.

3a. If buying wine for said small fridge, get screw-top, because there isn’t a corkscrew. And snag a wineglass or two if you’re particular about such things. I? Am not.

4. Go ahead and bring/buy some: dishwashing detergent, Clorox wipes, paper towels, hand soap (for the kitchen if not the bathroom as well).

Now, I’m not sure how many people use the ‘fully equipped kitchen,’ but it was important to me.  It’s not healthy to eat every meal out, nor is it economical for my company. And I figured my new/old job in my new/old city (temporarily) would be a good chance to kick off on achieving my new/old body. When I left Cincinnati in 2001, I weighed about 15 pounds less than I do now. If I keep up this impressive 15-lbs-per-decade pace, I will not be living my Golden Girls life to the fullest.

So I swung by Trader Joe’s last night after checking in and picked up some provisions. Fizzy water, tea bags, wine (see above), raw oatmeal. And for dinners I aimed for simplicity. Tonight was veggies stir-fried with a touch of curry sauce served over Quinoa.

And this feast came after a lovely walk in the park. Oh yeah. Also on the ‘pro’ side of this Extended Stay hotel? It’s a five-minute drive to a beautiful park with a 2.6-mile jogging loop that provides dusk-time glimpses such as this:

And a visit with this little guy:

So it’s not all bad. I’m excited by the prospective challenges of my new job, I look forward to some time spent with long-distance friends, and while I miss Chicago, maybe I’ll be looking a little bit trimmer when I return. Just in time for lake season. (Note: I go to the lake like once a year).

Mediocrity is All Relative (In Which I Share My Favorite Analogy)

The holidays are over, New Year’s Eve has come and gone, Christmas parties are in the bag.  All we are left with is the cold reality of winter, which in Chicago can last until mid-May.  My North Face puffy coat will be working double-time for the foreseeable future. Literally, on January 2nd, I walked out into a 6-degree wind chill, could barely take a step against the gusts, and thought I might have no recourse other than to lie down on the sidewalk and freeze to death.

So I’m a little melodramatic.

But I’m not here to talk about the weather or proper cold-weather wear (which, ladies, is not flats with no socks). I thought it as good a time as any to share one of my favorite analogies, courtesy of my pal Andy. Andy is a hella smart, wryly funny, deeply cynical music and film snob aficionado who keeps me around as a friend despite my appreciation for Kelly Clarkson music and refusal to watch The Empire Strikes Back.  

Back when we worked together, we would IM about important topics such as the death of Corey Haim (which I still can’t reference without tearing up) and the monotony of Beyonce lyrics.

One day I asked him: “Who is worse, Collective Soul or Creed?”

CLASH OF THE RIDICULOUSLY NAMED, DIME-STORE PHILOSOPHIZING, DRIPPY ALT-ROCK TITANS:

His response, which I wish I’d saved verbatim, was something to the effect of: “Creed is worse, but that’s like saying 60 degrees below zero is worse than 40 degrees below zero. One is slightly less bad, but either one’ll kill you.”

Brilliant!

Of course, I agreed with him.  Creed is totally worse, if only because of Scott Stapp’s vaguely faux-religious pretentions and blistering arrogance. Also, ‘The World I Know’ and ‘Gel’ and maybe even ‘Shine’ are all better than the best thing  Creed ever did (‘My Sacrifice.’)

I’d put Collective Soul at about 15 degrees above zero, in fact.

This analogy can be used for a number of scenarios, as I have already demonstrated here previously. Any debate of what’s bad versus what’s even worse – Two and a Half Men versus Rules of Engagement?  Jack and Jill versus any other later-era Adam Sandler flick? A McDonald’s Filet o’ Fish versus Burger King French fries? The freezing-to-death analogy works like a charm.

What’s your favorite (or least favorite, as it were) bad-versus-really bad debate?

My Karaoke Life in 17 Pictures (In Which I Question Some Former Hairstyles)

I greatly enjoy cooking, reading, (very) (occasionally) jogging, playing trivia, writing, watching the MLB, and partaking in a number of other rather passive pastimes. But when it comes to pure unadulterated fun, there are few activities I like more than karaoke. And it’s not a phase, ladies and gentlemen. I’ve been on the karaoke circuit (if there is such a thing) for more than a dozen years, have more than 100 different song attempts under my belt, and am always in search of the newest venue or the latest song to challenge my meager pipes.  Now that I don’t having a driving commute, however, I’ve lost my practice venue, so some of my song attempts are totally on the fly.

While relaxing over Christmas, I was looking through some Facebook photos, and realized that karaoke was a very consistent theme. Some of the pictures below are bittersweet for various reasons, but there are universal truths that haven’t changed. ‘Baby Got Back’ done expertly by a couple of white chicks will still impress the right crowd, ‘The Rose’ should NEVER be performed — EVER — and while you may think alcohol can help your skills, all it can do is make you sloppy.

Without further ado, here are some high- and low-lights of my karaoke life, in pictures. Please excuse the gap between the early 2000s (when everyone was getting married and had professional photographers on the scene) and 2010 (when everyone had cell phone cameras at the ready).

January, 2001.  Childhood BFF Amy (who will show up a lot) and I sing ‘Baby Got Back’ at fellow BFF Rebecca’s wedding. I was about 19 red wines deep at the time. I appear to have cornrows and may or may not be a vampire, if we’re using my skin tone to judge.  This song led into a solo rendition of ‘Baby, One More Time.’  In unrelated news, my boyfriend at the time broke up with me about 36 hours later.

April, 2001.  Amy and I at it (‘Baby Got Back’) once again at Amy’s bachelorette party.  Believe those are still cornrows, ladies and gentlemen.  And who wears a white shirt out on a night that involves drinking on a bus?  We won’t begin to discuss Amy’s outfit – it was a bachelorette party in 2001, am I right?!

October, 2004. My bachelorette party.  Believe I’m singing Duran Duran’s ‘Rio.’ And I appear to be slightly more into it than any of my friends and relatives. The Bud’s chubby in my left hang is clinging to my pinky for dear life. THAT?  Is passion, ladies and gentlemen.

April, 2005. Zapata’s Mexican Restaurant in Collinsville, IL.  Where once I entered a karaoke contest so unashamedly rigged it made Idol’s inclusion of Sanjaya in the top 10 seem entirely legitimate.  And speaking of Duran Duran, this is the first exhibit of me singing karaoke while wearing a Duran Duran tee shirt … 

May, 2005. … and here is the second. Simon & John & Nick & Andy (sniff) & Roger. With a jean jacket and a red SKIRT, and the DEVIL HORNS UP HIGH, everyone.  Rep-re-sent.  This was at Ole Morales Tacos in Alton, IL.  Because when you sing karaoke at a Mexican restaurant in suburban St. Louis, you must wear a tee shirt honoring one of the biggest British New Wave bands of the 80s. It’s a known rule.

July, 2006. Yes, that’s my Hanson tee that I still wear to this day.  And my faded jeans that may or may not have had a hole in the knee.  That’s also my karaoke machine on the fireplace, which brought joy to no fewer than two dozen high school friends at this impromptu lake house reunion one summer in Chattanooga.

September, 2007. Me and the lovely Dr. Christine belting out … I have NO IDEA.  ‘I Touch Myself,’ maybe?  I think?  No recollection of this happening, but I look vaguely terrified. And am so ready to run that I’ve brought my purse on stage with me. This was Molly’s pseudo-surprise 30th birthday party in Atlanta. What bar are we in?  No idea.  Probably a Mexican restaurant.

November, 2008. Back to Zappata’s.  Back to ‘Baby Got Back’ with Amy. I appear to be doing a Corona-enhanced jig.

March, 2010. At my friend Ken’s wife’s surprise 30th birthday party. I’m with Ken’s cousin Claudine here, scared out of my wits as (I think) I was just conned into singing ‘Party in the U.S.A.’ and had no interest in moving my hips like anything in a room full of relative strangers.  I sang roughly 75% of all karaoke songs performed that night.  Yeah, I’m that party guest.

May, 2010. With Cincy pals Kelly and Leslie.  Leslie is ROCKING. OUT.  Can’t remember what we were singing, but the KJ appears more interested in playing with a metal turtle than listening to us.

August, 2010.  Ahhh … Four Trey’s.  The pride of Roscoe Village, Chicago. Note the Christmas lights.  In August.  And the trash can right by my feet, suitable for karaoke-induced vomiting.  My Chattanooga-turned-Chicago-turned-back-to-Chattanooga friend Amy (different Amy) and I used to enjoy wowing the crowd with little-remembered Wham! ditty, ‘I’m Your Man.’  This photo was snapped during her solo.

September, 2010.  Woo hoo!  Live band karaoke at the 10 High bar in Atlanta for Molly’s 33rd birthday. Bringing a bit of Illinois to the Peach State, I attempted some Cheap Trick – ‘Surrender,’ to be specific.  Kind of difficult with a key change right off the turnbuckle.

December, 2010. Okay, so this may look like a hot mess, or a party for nerds in someone’s basement circa 1993.  Neither conclusion is exactly wrong.  This convergence of attitude and outfits was at Lincoln Karaoke, the Asian karaoke stop north of Chicago that features private rooms, neon tambourines, overpriced draft beer, Solo cups (apparently), and more fun than should be allowed on any given evening. We are all wearing our 90s finest (I’m in a plaid-on-plaid-on-long-underwear tribute to Angela Chase) and if you look closely, the song we’re all singing is the Spice Girls “Wannabe.”  From left to right, that’s Molly, me, Suzanne, Taylor, some rando dude that was in our group somehow but didn’t get the dress-code memo, and Christine.

June, 2011. Jump!  For my love!  JUMP. IN. I shall, friends.  I shall.  This is at my friend’s Julian’s lake house, the best adult playground on the planet. Some like the jet-skis.  Others, the shuffleboard table. I prefer the less potentially deadly entertainment of the do-it-yourself karaoke roulette wheel of shame. Sometimes you discover songs in your wheelhouse that should be brought out for public consumption.  Other times (e.g. Fleetwood Mac’s ‘You Make Lovin’ Fun’), you grow to accept that some songs should be left to the original artists.

August, 2011. St Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands.  One of two places I’ve done outdoor karaoke – the other was Vegas. Here, Leslie and I are attempting to rock right now with Rob Base (and DJ E-Z Rock’s) ‘It Takes Two.’ Was not the crowd for this attempt, folks.  Was not the crowd.

November, 2011. Alice’s, in a remote area in northwest Chicago.  Hipsters, bikers, and Bruno Mars enthusiasts, all friendly, all talented.  Karaoke Fred likes his singers talented, his crowd relatively sober (despite the bar being open until 4:00), and his inflatable instruments neon-colored.  This is a magical place, despite the trend of everyone getting just one chance per night to sing.  Here I’m doing a standby, JCM’s ‘Hurts So Good.’

December, 2011. The Blue Frog, a wee itty bitty, super classy, karaoke dive spot in Chicago’s Gold Coast.  In the right-hand side of the foreground, John and Lauren are intently reviewing the relatively pristine karaoke books.  I’m in the background in a silver skirt, rather dressy for the venue but it was my birthday (observed).  Later in the night, I would get my hair attached to those Christmas decorations you see behind my head there.  While singing Ke$ha. Not my proudest moment. The party don’t start till I walk in.

Thanks for indulging me in this trip down karaoke’s storied memory lane!  And this gallery, sadly, doesn’t even include shots of three of my karaoke mainstays – Lebo’s in Cincinnati (every Friday, 1998 – 2001), MLT (also Cincinnati, every Tuesday, same years), and Martini Bar (Chicago, many Thursdays in 2011).

And last but not least, I’d like to share  a photo of my pal Marilyn.  This is from a few weeks ago at Tostada’s (another Mexican restaurant!) in Cincinnati.  I first met Marilyn in the late 90s at Lebo’s, where she would sing anything from Reba McEntire to Joan Jett. She had her standard comfort-zone favorites, but also wasn’t afraid to add something new to the mix.  Everywhere she goes she makes fans and friends, and always has her supportive husband by her side, switching places at the table when she takes the stage  so that she can watch the singers the rest of the time but he can watch her when she’s got the mic. Marilyn has to be pushing 80 these days.  So as far as I can figure, and God willing, I’ve got at least 40 or so good years of John Cougar Mellencamp, Ke$ha, and Sir Mix-a-Lot ahead of me. Stay tuned.

What Big Eyes You Have (In Which We Learn About Automatonophobia)

Flying, heights, spiders? I’m pretty complacent when it comes to all of these things. Public speaking, although I’m not at all good at it, doesn’t top my fright list.  Of course I fear death, illness, loss of loved ones, and all of these sensibly alarming things that no one wants to endure anytime soon.  But as far as baseless phobias are concerned, I have but one. Statues. Specifically, unrealistically large statues of humanoid beings. (Okay, I don’t like fish aquariums either, but that’s a story for another day).

I can trace this back to Christmas, 1984. I was in 5th grade.  I received a super-sweet-ass National Geographic book from faux-Santa (yes, I was always a nerd and no, I can’t ever remember believing in Mr. Kringle). I took said book to bed with me and the first page was an up-close and personal shot of the Statue of Liberty’s face. Just staring at me with no pupil, no iris.  Judging me with that wisp of curly bangs. Kinda like the shot below.  Side note: the innocent Google image search to find this pic may spur several days’ worth of  PTSD.

Gotta hand it to me (my current and my 10-year-old self) … creepy, right?  Well, I’d had it then and there. Lady Liberty and I would no longer be friends. (And no, I’ve never seen Ghostbusters 2, so it isn’t a factor).

The phobia snowballed from there … the friendly guys of Mount Rushmore? Sorry, founding fathers, I prefer your less-granite-y forms.  Crazy Horse, Lincoln Memorial, The Sphinx? No, in triplicate. And no, I do not hate Indigenous Americans, emancipation, or the Bangles. (Or freedom, as some others have asked when hearing about my SoL aversion – it was a gift from the French, people.  It’s copper.)

ACK! (Photo Courtesy of sanddollies.com)

This fear, no matter how irrational, hasn’t gotten better as I’ve gotten older, by the way. Around 10-11 years ago, I attempted my own form of immersion therapy by watching that fateful climactic scene in the original Planet of the Apes. (Having giggled through The Simpsons’ musical rendering of the big reveal, I thought I was decently prepared).  I was wrong (it was Earth all along).

In that moment as Charlton Heston made his own gruesome discovery, I realized my heart was racing.  I was tearing up.  I was damn close to asking my friend for a paper bag in which to breathe.  I could NOT see it – see her – my arch nemesis – emerging from the sand.  Fail. (Anticlimax: I saw the SoL in person, in 2002, from a safe distance, and things were totally copacetic.  In fact, I think I could’ve taken her, had she sprung to life).

They finally made a monkey out of me (also, RIP Phil Hartman)

Today, cruising up Michigan Avenue in a taxicab on the way to the doctor (another common phobia to which I do not subscribe), I came face-to-face (err, face-to-lower ankle) with a new larger-than-life terrifying lady.  The iconic vision of Marilyn Monroe in The Seven-Year Itch, skirt powerless against the magnetism of the steam grate … but blown up to be 26 feet. I appreciate the random pockets of unexpected art throughout my fine city, but what does this say, really?  Conservative critics think the statue is sexist or inappropriate (you can see her three-feet-large underpants!).  I just think it is vaguely unsettling.  And I’m pretty sure she may rise to eat us all.

“Happy birthday … to that guy-in-the-red-shirt-standing-right-below-me…”

Am I alone in thinking large vacant faces mask an inner terror?  Do any of you have irrational phobias you’d like to discuss?