Roller-dancers herald spring in Central Park

Central Park has been showing signs of spring for some time now. Bulbs have been pushing up through snow and then dry grass since early March, a few tree blossoms began tentatively budding last week and the lawns and playing fields were opened for the season over the weekend.

Whatever nature says, spring in the park isn’t official until the Central Park Dance Skaters Association roll up for its first dance of the season. On Saturday, around 40 skaters, 20 or so dancers, a dj and a crowd of toe-tapping spectators welcomed the season in true New York style. And now, spring has sprung!

It was all about the flow…

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And the fashion. A sight for sore eyes after being shrouded in grey puffer coats for five months.

It was about limbering up and getting back into the swing of things.

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“It’s always been about having fun,” club president Rob Nichols said, as he stopped by to check that everyone was.

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He was keeping a hawk’s eye on the dj, the hula-hoopers just outside the barricade who come to share the music and work on their own routines. He was ensuring that spectators didn’t walk through and break anyone’s stride and that the one-person parade he dubs “Chiquita Banana” didn’t get in the skaters’ way.

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According to Rob, going with the flow takes some scheduling. Skaters have been dancing in the park long before this group formalized. They became an association and fought hard to keep their spot in the park when they got swept up in Bloomberg’s licensing frenzy of the late 1990s. They won, and the CPDSA now holds three permits for every meet: A monthly Special Events Permit, which comes with the ubiquitous metal barricades and gives the skaters their stage – just south-west of the Bethesda Fountain, off the 72nd Street transverse. A weekly, $50 Amplified Sound Permit, which allows for djs like Saturday’s DJ-e, who didn’t miss a beat. And a TUI, a Temporary Use Permit that allows the group to fundraise for the former two.

DJ-e with "staff" Rob Nichols keeping an eye on things

DJ-e with “staff” Rob Nichols keeping an eye on things

Rob had it all in hand. The dancers, skaters, onlookers perched on the rocks above the pop-up rink and the hula-hoopers… all had a ball.

Music flow: Joan Warburton showed onlookers how to keep hoop maneuvers in time with the music.

Music flow: Joan Warburton showed onlookers how to keep hoop maneuvers in time with the music.

Whether you dance, roll, dress up or just need something to put a spring in your step, stop by for a dose of amplified sound and color. Dances are held every Saturday and Sunday and public holiday Monday over summer. 2:45 to 6:45.

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Confetti time

Whether it’s shredded evidence or a wish for the new year, confetti now comes loaded with expectations.

out with the old…

For New Yorkers with excess baggage to shed before leaping into the New Year, there’s nothing like a good public shredding, or even better, a sledge-hammer, to clear the air. Yes, a quiet moment to mentally let go of what ever ills are holding you back would do the trick. Or a few deep breaths and a long hard look at yourself in the mirror. But where’s that broadway moment, that catharsis we’ve come to expect?

In Manhattan, that painful break-up, the shameful court battle and that embarrassing ‘reply-all’ email, are all best purged as part of a public celebration with hundreds of strangers (who can’t take sides).

Divorce papers, a paid off student loan, medical records and Hurricane Sandy insurance correspondence all turned to ticker-tape after being zipped through the shredder on December 28th, during The Times Square Alliance’s annual Good Riddance Day. With a rubber sledge hammer and an industrial sized dumpster also at your disposal, no embarrassment or irritation was too large. If you could carry it, you could dump it.

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My plan was to go down to watch people shed the detritus of 2012 and then go into the Times Square Visitors Center’s Wishing Wall, to see what they were looking forward to for 2013. Unfortunately, with temperatures inching down to zero and two children in tow I couldn’t wait around in the plaza for the hour before the shredding. My wad of unconfessed receipts, plus those I’d ‘fessed up to but rounded down, would remain on my conscience for another year. Paltry baggage, I know, but shredders look fun.

In with the new….

We did however get to the Wishing Wall, a permanent pin-board that collects wishes from January 1st to December 31st every year. Wishes are collected every few days throughout the  year and added to the confetti to be released over Times Square when the ball drops.

(From NBC's Photoblog) NYE host Allison Hagendorf conducts the confetti air-worthiness-test, from a Times Square office window on Saturday.

Air Worthiness Test: NYE host Allison Hagendorf released confetti from a Times Square office window yesterday. (photo from NBC’s Photoblog)

Whether all those of hopes and dreams are destined to soar for hours or be spiked on a stiletto, they’re another great testament to the city’s unique offer of anonymity through public exposure. No one knows who you are but potentially thousands know that you’re luckless in love, for example.

There were the confident wishers, those who went for specifics….

“To become a successful host/ actress with lots of money”

“To get into Princeton”

Then there were the truly hopefuls: Keep it general and it’s bound to work out in some form …

“To go on a date.”

“I hope I’ll smoke less and do more work.”

For the most part, the confetti categorized itself neatly into those three universal aspirations: health, wealth and finding love.

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Wherever you are on Monday night, I wish you all of the above. If you happen to be in Times Square before the street sweepers early on Tuesday morning, and if your name is JB, look down. Someone with hasty handwriting wants you to marry them in 2013!

Christmas shopping, unplugged

For expats, or maybe for all parents, or maybe just mothers, the lead up to the Holidays in New York can be an overwhelming list of events and errands.  There are two weeks of holiday parties at school, all involving contributions of time, shopping or baking. Or all three. Then there’s shopping. I don’t remember ever spending so much anxious energy on shopping before, but year by year, Christmas became a process of research, hunting and gathering.

Gifts are scattered in stores from SoHo to the Upper East Side, and unless you plan on giving everyone you know a $90 graphic-T from SoHo boutiques, or batik & bric-a-brac  from Lower East Side vintage stores, browsing for just the right thing to jump out at you  takes some fancy footwork.

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The week before Christmas during our first year in the city, I went on a home-sickness fueled search for mince-pies. I dragged two preschoolers from the Upper West Side to West Village’s Tea and Sympathy, a British store on Greenwich Ave. Greeted by a blast of wind-driven sleet at the 14th Street subway exit, I pulled them down the wrong Avenue, across a block and then the wind pushed us back up the correct one, to arrive at the tiny store and stand in a crowd of steaming parkas waiting for their fix from home. We were weather-beaten and wet. But we had our mince pies.

Before I learned the full extent of online shopping here, I zig-zagged frantically – several trips over two or three days – between Fairway, Wholefoods and a few of the specialty grocers like Zabars and Citerella. I dangled gingerbread men and candy canes in front of the children so they’d keep walking and at each shop I bought just a little more than I could realistically carry home.

I hung onto to DIY gift shopping for another year. While most expats refined their new-found efficiency by saving their wish-lists for Black Friday and Cyber Monday – the two major shopping days that launch the post-Thanksgiving sales, to start their holiday shopping,  I did it myself.

And missed the post. December 10 is the last day of guaranteed delivery for regular mail parcel post to Australia.

Into the vortex - in line at USPS

Into the vortex – in line at USPS

Last year we finally embraced online shopping for gifts. All department stores and toy shops run online stores, as do most clothing chains, some boutiques and all the major museum stores. Amazon Prime offers free, two to three day delivery on almost anything sold almost everywhere else.

After spending a holiday season as a sherpa, managing logistics from my couch was a substantial promotion. I practiced all year and I was ready for this Christmas days before December 10. For the first time in four years, I was on top of it!

Yet, I felt like I was doing more work. I work on-screen. I organize the children’s school and social schedules via email. I increasingly read on line. I even conduct most of my own social life and half my marriage via email. Things were getting done but they weren’t as much fun.

I missed browsing. I missed wasting money on those gifts for which I’d fail to find suitable recipients, which I bought because: “I might not be back this way”. I love walking through the alleys of the pop-up Christmas tree stalls, overhearing French-Canadian accents patiently explaining to New Yorkers the exponential dollar-per-foot formula of Fraser, Douglas and Balsam Firs.

Christmas Tree Alley

Christmas Tree Alley

“… The Frasers will last longer. The Douglas will “drop their needles, but stink up good – great smell those Douglas”.

Just as Christmas threatened to become a giant to-do-list, I spotted a backdated NY Times Modern Love column. One throw-away line from Teresa Link’s essay said it all. On the list of domestic duties that swallowed her up…

“There was … the calendar of holidays we had to celebrate in ways that drained all pleasure.”

That sealed it. On Monday morning I walked 20 blocks down to the Urban Space-run Holiday Market in my neighbourhood, the Columbus Circle Holiday Market. Its 100 pop-up stores include great accessory designers, great food and a very laid back vibe if you’re there early. Also more hat/ glove/ scarf vendors than seems economically viable.

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From there I took the subway down to 42nd Street and wandered through the more touristy Bryant Park Holiday Market, set around The Pond. I elbowed my way over four avenues to take an overcrowded 6 train back up the east side to the Metropolitan Museum of Art store.

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Walking back to the Upper West Side across Central Park, I had a great gift idea. I’d have to head back to Columbus Circle for it. Another day. It was late, I was tired, over-caffeinated and foot-sore The day’s errands could have been done in a morning on-line and left time for Christmas cards, which will now become new year cards. But I had jostled my way around Manhattan and back into ‘The Holidays”.

Cole Haan’s advertisement in the train, for all its smugness, had a point …

“You didn’t move to New York to stay home.”

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Well, up to a point. Now that all the pre-season rushing around is over, it’s up to us to celebrate it – gratefully, quietly, pleasurably – at home!

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Supersized Art at Storm King

George Cutt’s Sea Change, the only motorized sculpture at the 500 acre Storm King sculpture park, twists and turns silently on itself like skeletons of two fern fronds. Calder Hill is stamped with Alexander Calder’s trademark geometric shapes, in bright red steel set against the green lawns leading up to Museum Hill. Down in the South Fields, behind the mirror-fence, a deer pauses to stare in at Zhang Huan’s huge Three Legged Buddha, whose face is half-submerged in the grass.

Whispering into Buddha’s ears

Emerging from under the spindly white steel web of Kenneth Snelson’s Free Ride Home, two very loud children roll down a steep hill, giggling hysterically while gathering momentum.

The Free Ride Home

There was no need to shush them. This was interactive art appreciation at its best. In fact it would have been remiss of us not to scramble up a leaf-covered hill in the North Woods and run, whooping down the other side – if only to be stunned into silence by the implausible balancing act of Menashe Kadishman’s Suspended.

“Suspended”

Set in the lovely Hudson Valley, an hour and a half north of New York, it’s a day-trip that puts art and nature in a whole new perspective as you run, walk and ride bikes under and around the more than 100 sculptures from artists including Mark DiSuvero, Andy Goldsworthy and Alexander Liberman.

The great climbing hill in the North Woods

We managed to go last week just before it closed for the season. It will reopen on April 3rd, 2013. It’s impossible to imagine the park and its sculptures in anything but the burnt light of a Hudson Valley Fall. But we will be first in line in the spring to let it surprise us all over again – and to check on our own contribution to the park, a small shelter of fallen branches along the South Fields path called Surface, 2012.

Liquid Light: William Lamson’s “Solarium” was part of this year’s Light and Landscape exhibition. Each pane of glass in this hut was filled with caramelized sugar.

If you go

We took a day-trip package with Coach USA’s Shortline Bus from New York’s Port Authority Bus Terminal. The $45 ($22.50 for kids aged five and over) covers bus trip and the $12 entry fee ($8 for kids) to Storm King. Getting there was a breeze as the bus takes you directly to the door but with a 5pm pick-up time it’s not the most flexible option when you’re traveling with kids. I recommend a Zipcar rental for this trip.

Our Highlights

Sea Change

Sea Change is mesmerizing. I was drawn in by its graceful swerving arc through the air and Ruby loved the shape of “antlers”, made by the two poles as they swerved apart.

The Three Legged Buddha: To all three of us, it looked creepy from afar but up close, its head looks like its basking in the sun, with half its face submerged in a still pool.

Mozart’s Birthday: Henry loved this enormous Di Suvero sculpture of industrial beams and a brushed steel pendulum. And that it came with a rubber mallet. Hit the brushed steel gong to make music.

Momo Taro: Isamu Noguchi’s quiet white stone carving tells the story of a Japanese superhero, a little boy with superhuman strength who was found inside a peach. Children are encouraged to climb inside the peach – reappearing with superpowers is optional!

Fallen for jazz

The first Jazz & Colors Festival brought a string of small musical miracles to Central Park on Saturday. Just five weeks after they were given permission to go head, the organizers of this pilot event found 30 ensembles and scattered them throughout the park. In glades, atop bridges, next to playgrounds and by the roadsides we found them, each group offering its own spin on the same 18 jazz standards. The result was as promised – a whole new landscape painted 30 different colors of Fall.

All the ensembles, mostly trios and quartets, worked through classics like Billy Strayhorn’s Take the A Train, Fall, by the Miles Davis Quartet and Charles Mingus’ lovely Nostalgia in Times Square.

If you were on the East side and you timed it just right, you could, for example, see Marc Cary stationed in front of the Jacqueline Onassis Reservoir at East 90th Street, play Scrapple from the Apple on his Melodica (blow-organ), then make it to the lawn between the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the hot sugared nuts vendor, for the Roy Campbell Tazz Quartet’s own Scrapple –on trumpet.

Our tour began at the West 85th Street playground where the Jason Kao Hwang Trio were wrapping up Autumn Serenade and launching into Goodbye, Pork Pie Hat. This was song no.7 of nine in the first set, so we were off to late start. We headed north and reached 90th Street as rockjazz pianist Elew was in the final throes of his own raucous rendition of Pork Pie Hat.

It’s hard to pass by a grand piano in the middle of the road and a small crowd had amassed around the charismatic quartet. After setting the scene he promptly silenced it, with a quietly soaring version of Rodgers and Hart’s Manhattan.

Joggers, dog-walkers, families with strollers, tourists – no-one within earshot escaped the reverie. Elew (Eric Lewis) muted his piano keys like guitar strings and leaves skittered up the road in the breeze to accompany the rustling snare. The bassist found his moments and gently interceded. Innocent passers-by, pulled out of their afternoon by the lull, failed to pass by.

It ended too soon. A whoop went up from the crowd and like that we were all released back into our day. Next came John Coltrane’s Blue Train then intermission. We paused to check out the quidditch match (yes really!) on the lawn and spent the rest of intermission at the 100th Street playground.

Travelling with children, you learn to recognize when you’ve seen “the one” – that thing that allows you to leave peacefully if there’s a mutiny. I had my highlight and was happy to roll with the punches from then on. As intermission ended we decided to cross over to the east side and make our way down to the Naumberg Bandshell in time to see the Mingus Big Band finish up the second set. We would see what we would see along the way.

Even on bikes and carrying a few leftovers from our Halloween stash, we were never going to make it from 85th Street up to the Harlem Meer to see Marika Hughes and Bottom Heavy or down to Pinebank Arch to see Lakecia Benjamin and Soul Squad. We saw seven of the 30 groups, for about a half to one or two songs each – it was more than enough for each of us to go home with a buzz.

Ever the romantic, Ruby was taken by the atmosphere on the carriage bridge between Cedar Hill (our sledding Hill) and the Alice in Wonderland statue (the best climbing spot in a park full of non-climbing trees). She became besotted with Sharel Cassity Quintet’s Skating in Central Park,. Henry’s favourite was the terribly cool, “anchor-shaped” electric violin played by Jason Kao Hwang. And the afore-mentioned blow-organ – he’s all about process!

Without really trying, our timing was perfect. We reached the Mingus Big Band at 3:40, just as the pre-dusk cold started to creep in. After spending the afternoon hanging out with little clusters of impromptu audiences, the three of us stopped paying attention when we joined the huge stationery crowd at the Bandshell. However we still got our big finale as Empire State of Mind closed the set. The crowd went as wild as a jazz crowd can.

On the way back to our exit, we met a friendly drum teacher watching the lake. Like nearly everyone else in the park that day, she had stumbled upon this fantastic free event. Between her and a few other walkers stopping to compare who saw whom play what, it was unanimous: On Central Park’s busy events schedule this one was a keeper – well timed, well-managed and well worth adding to next year’s calendar now.

Two Bridges, Sandy and a cupcake election: the whole watermelon

So many bloggable things have happened over the last two weeks. At risk of failing the first grade writing workshop checklist on my wall, which includes the question, “Is it a seed story?” (as opposed to a “watermelon story”), I’m just going to list them.

The seeds are out of date, so here’s the whole watermelon.

Sunday

I went way downtown, even below Chinatown, which in my mind was always the end of Manhattan. The little pocket of the Lower East Side between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges may have its own neighbourhood name, but “Two Bridges” is one of those in-between neighborhoods, like Hell’s Kitchen or Murray Hill. If they were Australian country towns their claim to fame would be a sign boasting that they’re “the gate-way to…” somewhere else.

I spent the afternoon at St Joseph’s church with 72 members of the North American Craco Society (Craco Italy, not Krakow Poland). We celebrated the Feast of San Vincenzo, Craco’s Patron Saint, with mass and then lunch in the basement cafeteria. It’s another story. I hope it will turn into a published one before the year’s out.

I left the reunion at 4pm to get into the subway three hours before the MTA was due to shut down in preparation for Hurricane Sandy. Early evacuation was just taking effect as I crossed the Grand Street exit off Manhattan Bridge. Traffic heading in both directions was snarled and the queue outside the Lucky Star Bus window on the Bowery was snaked around the block. Families sat on suitcases looking nervous, cold or bored and a young couple close to the office window screamed at one another so long and loud their yelling drowned out the traffic noise. The pair stood nose to nose the whole time, spraying each other with shouting and spittle. People in the queue behind them covered one ear and wondered if they should be afraid. Yet somehow – either used to this routine or used to long uncertain waits for transport, accommodation or evacuation – neither one raised a hand once.

The Bowery, at the Manhattan Bridge exit

Monday

School was cancelled in case the storm hit while people were commuting. We had a wonderful rainy day at home carving pumpkins and weather-watching.

I learned I have to mind my manners, when Ruby said to a relative in Sydney on the phone: “It’s just wind, New Yorkers take these things so seriously,”  If I’ve rolled my eyes at what I may or may not have called a propensity for hyper-caution here, I apologize! Cynicism doesn’t suit us.

Snapped: The skyscraper crane swinging ominously over midtown on Monday

Still at work late in the afternoon, Martin wasn’t taking things at all seriously until he watched a crane collapse two blocks from his office. He came home early after that and we spent the rest of the night watching the storm on TV, occasionally checking on the real thing outside the window. The wind outside was noisy but apart from a chunk of scaffolding flip-flopping down the sidewalk, it wasn’t nearly as dramatic on 85th Street as it was on TV.

Tuesday

New York Magazine’s photo of lower Manhattan’s power cut

Everybody uptown awoke to an island that had been cut off at 49th Street. New Jersey, the Rockaways in Brooklyn and Staten Island were awash with debris, sodden and in some places flattened.

I wondered if the statue of Craco’s San Vincenzo, lying prone in his box next to the alter at St Joseph’s, was still in tact. I wondered about the guy I accidentally pushed off his stoop when I exited through the church’s (obviously seldom-used) cafeteria door. I hope he found a safe place to sleep in time.

Wednesday

Still no school. No subway. Traffic on every corner was gridlocked and every business was short staffed as a result. Those that opened were over-run with “downtown refugees” – up to shower, charge phones, shop and eat. We met a dad and his daughter outside a locked playground and while the children tried to pick the padlock with a stick, then gave up and used the stick/lock-picker to play spies, he said their return home to an apartment near the Chelsea Market was uncertain.

Block Party: trick-or-treating, stoop-to-stoop on 87th Street.

“They told us it could be from three weeks to six months.”

The West 87th Street block party still went ahead, thanks to a neighbourhood that had the foresight not to decorate too early. It was a little more subdued than previous year but the spiders, webs and ghosts that climb the brownstones between Riverside and West End Avenues each year were still out in force. Locals still dressed up and socialized on their stoops, dishing out candy to the hundreds of kids who run from step to step.

A father and son team had set up a hotplate over their fence and were grilling hot dogs for anyone tired of candy. Their neighbour two doors down offered “spiced wine for the moms?” while his giant St. Bernard dozed next to  a cauldron full of candy and kept its owner’s feet warm.

Sunday

The Marathon was cancelled.

The unofficial marathon: with flights and hotels booked and miles of training behind them, there was nothing stopping runners getting their time in the sun with four laps of central park.

I feel for the runners who psyched themselves up to run 26.8 miles. But everyone, runners included, felt for the people on Staten Island who were still chipping away at the debris around their houses. They could really use those generators, space blankets and bottled water earmarked for the marathon route. I didn’t see any animosity from the runners in letters to the editor in the days afterwards. The only real malice came from the New York Post itself, which had launched the campaign to cancel the event in the first place.

Poor Bloomberg, he did a good job last week, he willed the Marathon to go ahead but there was no win-win in this one.

Tuesday – Election Day

Two candidates spent $6 billion convincing 57 per cent of the population to vote. Some of those voters spent 40 minutes (in Bloomberg’s New York electorate) to four hours (South Carolina), lining up to use as many different voting systems as there are states. From a the broken voting machines in South Carolina, to a touch-screen system in Pennsylvania that relies on an election official to dip his or her ID card every time someone votes, in order for that person’s vote to be registered (requiring an official to accompany every voter to their ballot?) to a six-page paper and pencil ballot in Florida.

My local Fairway Supermarket electoral system seemed entirely reasonable in comparison!

Never mind Ohio: Who won the Fairway Cupcake Election? Republican vs. Democrat cupcakes were sold through Nov. 5 for $1.49 each – buy as many as you like, as many times as you like – citizenship not required!

Special Places

It’s been a while since I’ve tended my blog. Unlike my houseplants, I hope it’s hanging in there! I’ve been busy being with my mum, who is staying with us this month.

Last week we checked off one of the few things on her ‘to-do’ list and went to the theatre district.

I took her to see Peter and the Star Catcher at the intimate (by Broadway standards) Brooks Atkinson Theatre on 47th Street. The actors were fantastic, the play was great – a kind of scripted theatre sports of a kids story for adults (it’s about how Peter Pan came to be). Then she took me to Sardis. The theatre district stalwart would not have been my first choice but for mum, it was part of a package. She and Dad had been when they came to New York in 1998.

“I’d just love to Go to Sardis and See a Show while I’m here,” she told me several times before she came.

“It doesn’t matter which show.”

At 9:45 we walked into an almost empty restaurant. Most of the staff were hanging around the Little Bar, a cloak-room/ entry-way/ bar at the front, watching Obama’s second debate with Romney while a handful of diners finished up their theatre-district dinners. The huge round room was carpeted red, lined with dark red wood-panel walls crammed with characatures of broadway actors. It was just the way she remembered it.

We sat at the table in the back and mum looked over my shoulder to where she and dad sat last time. An older couple from Texas were shown to a table so close, the four of us felt we’d been dumped on a communal table, which was odd considering the empty restaurant. But they were enjoying each other’s company so much it was hard not to enjoy theirs. Full of contentment and southern charm and with their Lion King Playbill between them, they only stayed long enough for a glass of wine each and a dessert for the wife who was celebrating her birthday. They were having a wonderful evening and so were we.

Our supper: a more-than decent malbec, oily and too-rich french onion soup and an entirely forgettable dessert, was probably the best either of us will have this visit. Special Places being what they are, it was never really about the food, or even the place. I wish dad could have been there as well, or in my place (there’s a long post about U.S health insurance, to tackle another time). I’m sure mum and dad both do too, but we walked out to the cab-flagging frenzy on 8th Avenue and I felt that between the three of us and 14 years, it had been a great night.

By the time we left, the restaurant had filled almost to capacity with the post-show crowd, half of them tourists ticking off their New York guide book’s ‘must do’ list, some of them older New York show regulars, who come because they’re regulars, and a few like our new friends from Texas, who will go home and remember where they sat when they had that lovely evening at Sardis.