Saturday, April 16 2022
location: upper floor, Apartment [REDACTED], East Watergate Building, Washington, DC
For breakfast this morning I had some matzo-based granola one of Gretchen's parents had made, and it was good enough to get seconds. There was also coffee of dubious provenance, and neither me nor my sister-in-law (the other coffee lover in the family) could determine whether or not it actually contained caffeine.
It was such a beautiful day that I opted to go with Gretchen when she set off on foot for Hip City Veg (a vegan junk food franchise we'd first discovered in Philadelphia) to meet up with her childhood friend Andrea. Andrea usually eats super healthy foods like kale salad, but today with us she ordered sweet potato fries and some sort of greasy breakfast sandwich. I went for a massive sandwich featuring slices of pickle and a deep-fried patty of faux chicken. Unfortunately, the only form of french fries they offer at Hip City is sweet potato fries, which I find inedible. So I opted for a greasy rectangle of hash browns instead, with some sriracha aeoli to dip it in. As for Gretchen, she also ordered a chicken patty similar to mine but for some reason insisted on taking a bite out of mine as well. For drinks, I got a can of cold-brew coffee, while Andrea and Gretchen got milkshakes. Conversation was mostly about Andrea's current work situation, which is apparently going well, mostly because she hosts at a high-end restaurant and tends to receive big tips. I also told Andrea about my current work situation. And then inevitably Andrea asked Gretchen for her views on various diet-related matters. Was honey really not vegan? (I'm not really into honey, but it doesn't bother me if it's in my food. And, as I explained to Andrea, it's possible supporting the honey industry is good for the environment, since doing so leads to greater advocacy more sustainable practices.)
After lunch, we walked with Andrea to the restaurant where she works, a place called Annabelle, and she introduced us to her well-dressed colleagues and gave us a tour. It's got some beautiful dining areas, some with walls covered with various trained plants, but, as Gretchen made clear, they have nothing on their menu for a vegan. Later this evening Andrea would text us from Annabelle to tell us that Eddie Vedder (the most famous member of the band Pearl Jam) was dining there tonight.
From there, Gretchen and I walked straight back to the Watergate through beautiful neighborhoods that were at peak beauty, lined with spreading trees, many with perfect little nascent leaves temporarily deprioritized for the production of flowers. While walking with Andrea, I'd wondered how difficult it would've been to design a planet where it was like this all the time. Perhaps Venice, California, comes close. But it's too dry.
Back at the Watergate, Gretchen's parents and the other members of the family were continuing on third day of non-stop food preparation for tonight's big seder, which would have twenty two people in attendance. I'd do a little cleanup here and there but mostly try to keep out of the way and unnoticed so nobody would know how little I was contributing. At some point Gretchen's childhood friend Dina arrived with her husband Gilad and their two kids, and they were all wanting to go see the Lincoln Memorial (which is within walking distance). BUt we only made it close enough to to see the side of the building (we'd walked a little past the not-quite-brutalist architectural horror that is the State Department) before rain drops started falling from gnarled masses of dark clouds overhead, so we turned around and went back to the Watergate. Along the way, I'd been telling my niece about how I'd come to lose my sweet tooth some time after I was a teenager. Back when I was in high school, I explained, I used to come home from school and, if there was any, I'd devour an enormous slice of cake. The reason for this, I added, was that I'd be saving my lunch money to buy things because, "I was raised in proverty." That's an experience my niece will never have, so she just mumbled, "uh huh." Later while walking with me and Lev (Dina's now 12-year-old son) she asked us what our favorite animals were. After some deliberation, I said "a mockingbird." Lev couldn't decide between a dog or a duck, so I suggested he might really like the duck-billed platypus, which is sort of like the everything bagel of animals.
Back again at the Watergate, people began arriving for the seder. I was talking to Gilad for a bit about working for a company in Boston (something he relates to, since he has done a lot of work in Boston) when he changed the subject and said, accurately, that there seemed to be a bit of hosting malpractice going on because nobody had thought to provide drinks to anyone as they stood around awkwardly making introductions and greeting each other. Had this been any event in his family, Gilad assured me, there would be drinks, and those drinks would've been hard liquor. But that's the kind of thing that would never occur to anyone in Gretchen's family, particularly her parents. I told Gilad about the time I'd been alone in their house and gone to fix myself a drink from the sorry cabinet holding their liquor. It has bottles, alright. But they consisted of several bottles of vermouth, a few half-drunk bottles of liquor (some sealed shut and nearly impossible to open from dried residue), and absolutely none of the basics (whiskey, vodka, gin, or rum).
At some point Gretchen's brother, acting as MC for the seder, shepherded everyone into the living room for the seder, which would be taking place in different place from the meal. As seders go, this one was fairly standard, though we used a custom haggadah that Gretchen's brother had created about twenty years ago. There were also more interludes for singing, and the production values for these were higher than usual since my brother-in-law would be singing and playing a guitar while his two kids also sang and played instruments (my niece of a ukulele and my nephew on a mandolin). Unlike in other seders, there was no actual wine provided for the ritual drinking or to symbolize the plagues. Instead, we were urged to take grapes from a bunch in a basket. But as it came around, I abstained, since it had been so throroughly handled by that point by a number of pre-teen children.
Due to the number of people at the seder, two dining areas had been provided. One was in the conventional dining room, and second one was provided on folding tables on the marble floor area just inside the main entrance to the apartment. Gretchen and I ended up in that second area, along with Dina, Gilad, Dina's brother Daniel (yes, it turned out he had met once with Elizabeth Holmes), Daniel's second wife, and nearly all the kids. The two smallest kids were young enough to be annoying, but most of the other kids are now old enough to engage with as if they're adults. Usually with them, our attitude is one of irreverent nonchalance of a "cool" aunt or uncle, which is rather different from, say, Gretchen's mother, who still talks slowly (and with a somewhat animated affect) even when talking to someone as old as me. At some point Gilad told those at our table about what it was like to work at a fried chicken place in Arizona called Cluck U.
One of the things I'm especially known for in the family is my casual love of alcohol, and it wasn't long before I'd told Dina to pass me the one bottle that had been placed on our eleven-person table. All the kids wanted to have wine too, which is apparently perfectly normal during a seder. My niece said that one big exception to underage drinking laws, at least in Arkansas, is for religious observances. But then the kids didn't end up actually like the wine and it all got poured into my cup. Gretchen had fetched a bottle of Manischewitz, and they seemed to like that a little more.
One of the other things I'm known for is my love of hot sauce, which is both fascinating and incomprehensible for the kids. But today I learned that Dina's 12 year old son Lev also loves hot sauce. So he and I kept putting it on our faux chicken drumsticks (the kind with bamboo "bones"). The hot sauce was that habañero sauce I'd bought yesterday at Whole Foods (O'Brother's Organic), and it was much hotter than I'd expected. As for the food, it was pretty good, especially a sort of bean stew called a cassoulet and those faux drumsticks. I'd had that big faux chicken sandwich earlier, so didn't have too much of an appetite (and hadn't suffered much during the seder).
At some point Gretchen's brother herded us back into the living room for the rest of the seder, a part that is usually elided from the process (since it's tempting to leave a seder after the meal). This section was almost entirely musical, and featured a very long song featuring thirteen parts and much recapitulation, in the manner of "the Twelve Days of Christmas." I snuck out during that and went up to the guestroom and noodled around on my computer and drank gin for awhile (I'd brought it in a flask in my computer bag along with a bottle of powdered kratom and a D1 Arduino, among other things). But eventually Gretchen came up and found me and convinced me to rejoin the festivities downstairs.
Something caused me to pick up my nephew's mandolin and start plinking away on it. My nephew asked if I wanted to have a little primer on how to play it, and I said sure. So he ended up showing me a few chords that even my fat fingers could form. The lesson was no more than a minute or two in length, but it showed me that I could actually make musically useful sounds with the thing. It was hard to remember the names of the chords, but with a little practice I could see being proficient enough not to be embarrassing. It also opened my eyes to what a good instructor my nephew is. My niece chimed in a few times, and it turns out she also has experience teaching musical instruments, though she said most of her students are much slower at picking up the basics than I was being.
At the end of the seder, there wasn't all that much to clean up, since all the plates and cups had been compostable. (Nevertheless, Gretchen's father washed out all the plastic cups, which seemed exactly like plastic cups, since there was no reason not to use them all again. Gretchen and I have done the same many times in the past.)
The neighbor's garden boxes on the east balcony of the Watergate. In the distance you can see the tents of the a homeless camp. Click to enlarge.
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