Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Freddie Hubbard, 1938 - 2008

With the passing of trumpeter Freddie Hubbard yesterday, another jazz great departs the scene. Hubbard was a fascinating example of how individuality could function across multiple styles. His early sound stemmed directly from Clifford Brown and Lee Morgan, two of the major figures of hard bop, but his work as leader and as a session musician brought him closer to the divide separating mainstream jazz from the emerging avant-garde. While Hubbard never fully embraced the New Thing on his own records, his roles in landmark free jazz albums of the 1960s cement his reputation as a key player in the avant-garde jazz world.

His early solo albums on Blue Note, especially Hub-Tones from 1962, display an impressive bold tone and an interest in modalism, then in vogue thanks to Miles Davis' earlier Kind of Blue and John Coltrane's ongoing experiments in the field. By the mid-60s, Hubbard had started to explore boogaloo beats and soul-jazz (as evidenced on Atlantic's Backlash, 1966). But it was with his early 1970s albums, especially a series recorded with Creed Taylor, that Hubbard achieved his greatest commercial success. Red Clay (1970) and Straight Life (1970) are strong offerings in the early fusion genre - Hubbard sidesteps the many pitfalls of the style by emphasizing vamps (thanks to sideman Herbie Hancock on an ethereal Fender Rhodes) and traditional soloing rather than middling about in technological overkill. 1971's First Light is often referred to as Hubbard's finest solo moment, but it remains a little too drenched in the hallmark tastefulness that arranger Creed Taylor was (in)famous for at the time. All credit to Hubbard for tackling Paul McCartney's "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey," but it portended a growing interest in the pop market. His later Columbia albums of the decade were atrocities, the worst example of fusion vapidness.

In later years, Hubbard suffered from poor health and a severely damaged upper lip, which prevented him from performing much of the time. The heart attack he suffered on Thanksgiving Day of this year led to his death yesterday at the age of 70.

Perhaps ironically, despite the many solo albums in Hubbard's name, I think his true legacy can be found sprinkled among the countless albums he served as a supporting player on, specifically those contributing to the emergence of the avant-garde. It was a testament to Hubbard's skill and his open mindedness that he can be found gracing so many free jazz and experimental albums of the 1960s, despite his reputation as a hard bopper of the classicist variety. He blew up a storm on Ornette Coleman's epochal 1960 Free Jazz, was a featured player on two of John Coltrane's modal masterpieces (Ole Coltrane and Africa / Brass), and served as a major voice in Oliver Nelson's 1961 Blues and the Abstract Truth. He served as a surrogate Miles Davis to two of Davis' sidemen on their finest albums - Herbie Hancock's Maiden Voyage (1965) and Wayne Shorter's Speak No Evil (1964). He smoothly handled the complex compositions of Eric Dolphy on his fantastic swan-song, 1964's Out To Lunch. And he proved his mettle by participating in John Coltrane's ensemble piece, Ascension (1965), still one of free jazz's finest and most overwhelming moments (well, forty moments).

Hubbard was never as comfortable in the free realm as, say, Don Cherry, who was much more technically limited than Hubbard but felt less obliged to follow set rules and chord changes while soloing. There are times during Free Jazz and Ascension when one can hear Hubbard holding back some, unsure of whether to plunge headfirst into the maelstrom. But in a way, that's what I most admired about him, as a player and as a human being - his willingness to experiment and challenge himself, to insert himself into situations in which he was uncomfortable, and to serve as hard bop's ambassador to the world of experimental music. No jazz library is complete without owning several albums on which Freddie Hubbard is featured. The world of jazz is much the lesser without him.

Monday, December 29, 2008

A Prickly Garden of Delights

In what will be the last in a series of posts on our trip to Baja California (I promise!), I thought I'd offer a few examples of the astonishing diversity of plant life found along the peninsula, the vast majority endemic to the region (80 of the 110 cactus species found in Baja grow nowhere else on the planet). The lack of development on Isla Espiritu Santo meant we were able to witness vast unfolding areas of untouched ecological wonder. My growing familiarity with the vegetation of the Southwestern deserts of the United States left me unprepared for this new array of plants. While San Diego's deserts hosts a few groves of elephant trees, Baja's plains and hills are covered with them. The varieties of cholla far outstrip the Colorado Desert's selection. And what look like saguaros were actually a completely different species, the cardon. I ended up snapping as many photos as possible, pestering our tour guide for names, and looking up images later. Here are just a handful of images of the uniquely adapted trees, shrubs and cacti we enjoyed during our island stay.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Marooned on Espiritu Santo

Jane and I have returned to a chilly San Diego, but we still have suntans and bug bites from the southern Baja coast keeping us company. The 43,000 acres of the uninhabited Isla Espiritu Santo was our home for four wonderful days, as we camped on a beach overlooking a beautiful bay and set out each day for kayaking and diving around the island. Espiritu Santo is a treasure in an area overflowing with treasures - recently purchased by the Nature Conservancy and recognized by UNESCO as an ecologically important biosphere, one must receive special permission to visit or explore the island. We went with a small group sponsored by a La Paz outfitter, complete with guides and specially-prepared food (despite the lack of running water or fire, we weren't exactly suffering - not with nightly cervezas and local specialties made available). Our main guide was an expat named Peter who took us into mangrove swamps and on steep hikes through cactus groves. We were also assisted by The Lovely Alba, who Jane has heard quite enough about from me.

It's difficult to pick highlights from such a trip, but our final evening kayak was something special. The Gulf of California (por favor, not the Sea of Cortez....no need to name anything in honor of Cortez the Killer if one can help it) was as calm and still as a northern pond, and the silence was such that we could hear pelicans diving for fish as if they were gunshots echoing across the waters. Schools (pods?) of bat rays, a smaller species of ray than the mighty manta, were visible off on the horizon as they leapt out of the water to breach loudly on the surface, seemingly propelled by cannon from underneath. The slap of their bodies on the water, and the image of their perfect forms as they flipped through the air, was almost comical. Later, a large pod of bat rays swarmed near our kayaks, breaking the surface gently and revealing their undulating forms before submerging just ahead of our skiffs (due to shyness). The silence of the Gulf was such that we heard the breathing of a whale from far off, long before we spotted its plume of spray. After some time of watching, Peter determined it was a pilot whale. A second whale circled far behind us, moving northwards. We sat in our kayaks and watched nature create a vibrant tapestry around us - a wonderful vision of what untouched earth is capable of sustaining.

Too much of Baja California is falling prey to development, resorts, greedy Americans wanting even more Mexican real estate in their pockets. Last year, I read a wonderful book on the Baja Peninsula by William W. Johnson, part of a series on American wilderness areas (now out of print, but available in many libraries). Written in 1972, the book was published just as the Mexican government completed the Transpeninsular Highway and linked Cabo San Lucas to the rest of Baja and, by extension, Southern California. Throughout the book, Johnson wonders often about Baja's future and inevitable destruction. "Baja," he quotes, "is a splendid example of how much bad roads can do for a country". There are still plenty of bad roads along the peninsula, and the region remains too dry, too hot, and too isolated for the kind of development many beautiful areas have faced. But Tijuana on the far northern extreme of the peninsula and Cabo San Lucas on the far southern extreme are warning signs of how quickly isolation can disappear.

The natural beauty of the coastal lagoons and the warmth of the people of La Paz (and the tacos, mustn't forget the tacos - our favorite was undoubtedly the oyster tacos from MC Fisher) made this trip an extremely memorable one. Hiding on the deserted beach as Christmas raged all around us only made it even more special.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Jumping to the Islands

Tomorrow morning, Jane and I head off by boat to the island of Espiritu Santo, where we'll spend four days on the undeveloped wilderness preserve. To get a little taste of what's in store for us, we took a boat ride this morning around the bays and beaches (or bahias and playas) to the north of La Paz. Our guide was the son of our b&b hostess, a friendly young man named Antonio who is very proud of his boat and offered to dive for fresh clams for our lunch. Along with us came two other guests of the b&b and Antonio's visiting uncle and cousin. The water was extremely warm - Antonio said the waters will start noticeably cooling off in January. We snorkeled around a guano-streaked rock island filled with seabirds and huge sea lions. Little stingrays and schools of fish swam underneath us, a large sea turtle broke the surface of the water, and Jane spotted a slow-moving pufferfish far below. Later, Antonio dove to the sandy bottom for clams, which we brought ashore to a quiet beach before he pried them open, sprinkled them with lime and hot sauce, and offered them up. They were wonderful.

As always, I battle seasickness on such trips, but the scenery was too beautiful and pristine to stay sick for long. The contrast between the Caribbean-like blue of the waters and the desert-scorched rock slabs of the surrounding hills was especially wonderful. We're now packing up for our four days without electricity or running water, and soothing our sunburns.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Road to Todos Santos

After several days exploring the lovely and oftentimes noisy streets of La Paz, Jane and I rented a car to check out the small but growing town of Todos Santos, lying an hour south and just a mile or two shy of the Pacific shore of the Baja peninsula (for those unfamiliar with Baja geography, La Paz is situated on the Sea of Cortez). Driving in Mexico will never be my favorite activity on earth - as soon as I had finally gotten accustomed to motorists blowing through stop signs, I had to deal with motorists passing on hills over solid yellow lines. But the endless stretches of pristine desert and the distant vistas of the magnificant Sierras de la Laguna make up for any white-knuckle moments.

Todos Santos is a city in flux. With 6,000 inhabitants and a sleepy atmosphere, the city has recently become a draw for American expats, especially artists and organic farmers. The galleries and art halls in Todos Santos are open and full of light, and suggest what Taos or Santa Fe must have been like a few generations ago. Yet the town hasn't been totally destroyed by gringos, despite large numbers of tourists sporting crocs and bad hats. I sensed an uneasy jostling between long-time locals and newly-arrived Americans, and the multiple offices devoted to hawking coastal Baja real estate was truly disheartening (lots are going for $300,000, quite a deal compared to north of the border, but a stunning increase from the $30,000 lots of just five years ago). We enjoyed wonderful carne asada tacos and tortas pollo at a tiny taqueria along a main drag before heading off in search of the legendary beaches of the southern Baja coast.

These beaches can be hard to locate, given the rough state of Baja roads and lack of signage. Still, after twenty-minutes of jostling down dusty rutted washes, we found ourselves along a high ridge of sand dunes and a long line of newly-erected beach homes boasting a wide array of architectural styles - from bauhaus to post-minimalist. There was no swimming here, despite the warm temperatures, as the drop-off was extreme and the waves ferocious. But walking along the completely empty and vast beach helped us forget the massive development wreaking so much havok on both the native cultures and environment of Baja California.

Later in the day, heading home in the dusk, Jane spotted the plumed-spray of migrating gray whales far off to sea. We'll have a few more days here in La Paz before we kayak to the remote and unsettled Isla Espiritu Santo, which a friendly chef last night told us was one of the last great untouched areas on the continent.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Hola from La Paz

I'm writing tonight, and for the next ten days, from the balmy shores of La Paz, Baja California Sur, one hundred miles and a world away from the resorts of Cabo San Lucas. On our first extended vacation together in some time, Jane and I opted for the less touristy and more authentically Mexican city of La Paz. Our plan is to spend the week in the city, eating our way across the malecon, before taking a kayak trip to the nearby uninhabited Isla Espiritu Santo for some camping and snorkeling, The little bed and breakfast we're staying at is located on a cramped and bustling little street, and until the nearby Movistar cellular company shut off the obnoxious nortena pop music a half hour ago, I thought we might have some real trouble from a certain exhausted physician. But we have some tacos in our stomach (my pulpo (octopus) taco was a highlight), a cute bottle of tequila on the kitchen counter, and a plan to explore this city of 200,000 more fully tomorrow. Favorite moment so far: either when our cab driver made a remarkable manuever to avoid swiping the very large cow ambling across the highway ("Cow," he calmly said) or when the emotion-dripping ballad singer at an outdoor cafe paused mid-verse to answer his cell phone.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Juvenilia (Stuff From the Attic)

A few readers have expressed interest in seeing images of the mythical Garbage Pail Kids knock-offs I created back in the summer of 1986, but I'm afraid they're long gone. However, plenty of other examples of my juvenilia exist, and some are much funnier than any GPK attempt.
Basically, my pre-1990 artistic output consisted largely of:
- recreating the layout and exhibits of zoos and amusement parks.
- personal versions of satirical magazines like Mad and her cheaper cousin Cracked, neither of which I was allowed to purchase. My monthly magazine was entitled Goof, and I made multiple versions to give to grandparents, cousins and friends.
- guides to the supernatural, occult and unknown. The public library could barely keep up with my need to explore the worlds of cryptozoology, UFOs and ghosts. When I ran out of books to check out, I made my own. And like any good fabulist, when I couldn't come up with any catalogued examples of the unknown, I made some up.
Above are three scanned images from a ghost book I made sometime between 1984-1986. The images have faded a little, so they may need to be clicked on and enlarged to make out everything that's going on. Basically, the book was a spooky Baedeker, entitled Ghosts of the World. Broken down into continental chapters, my goal was to showcase 100 examples of ghosts from across the world. I started out strong with the "North America" chapter, from which I've excerpted "Rise of the Dead" above, a Spirit Lollapalooza overseen by a frightening personal creation named Spookaver. When "Europe" rolled around, I started getting a little winded on inspiration, as one can see from image #2 above. "Ghostly Dinner" was an intriguing concept, but my commentary betrayed what was about to become an almost crippling reliance on the phrase "people say" (as in "people say she still roams these halls" or "they say one can still hear his bark..."). When I finally finished with "Australia," total creative fatigue had set in, and the entire chapter is little more than the ghosts of antipodean animals. Image #3 shows how far we've fallen from the heights of Spookaver - "Koala's Ghost".

Monday, December 15, 2008

Fire Pits Follow-Up

In a wonderful piece of news announced this afternoon, a private and anonymous donor has put up the required cash amount ($259,500) to keep the city's beach fire pits intact for the next year and a half. The twelve fire pits that have already been removed will be re-instated. The donor said they did not frequently use the fire pits themselves, but wanted to ensure others would be able to enjoy them.

This is exactly the kind of generosity and selflessness San Diego and other cities need more of. I'm often struck by how recessions bring out the best in people, rich and poor. I talked to a woman this morning who told me that instead of buying people Christmas presents this year, she and her family were paying off their brother's mortgage. She then gave me a hug and told me to "spread the wealth". How nice to hear that phrase reclaimed from the likes of Joe the Plumber!

Copia, Round Two : A Reader Responds

I was fortunate enough to receive a long and thoughtful response to an earlier post on the bankruptcy of Copia, the Napa wine and food museum. A fellow blogger and wine enthusiast, and somebody who knows much more about wine than I do, Catie had this to say:

In regards to Copia: I never paid a visit, so it's tough for me to judge it. However, I would like to think there was at least one member on the board and/or building committee who really believed it would be an honorable monument to American food and wine history. Perhaps even a monument to like the food you wrote about at your own Thanksgiving table - foods that reflect our heritage.

If Copia was hoping they would stay afloat by droves of limos, as you say, they were sadly mistaken. One important thing that the Walla Walla wine industry learned early on is the "wine-slurping limo crowd" will not gladly plunk down $25 - let alone $5. Typically, limos are not full of buying passengers. Let's put it this way: buying wine is not their objective.

And because of that, implementing tasting fees during wine weekend events have really assisted us in weeding out the "wine slurping limo crowds" from the serious wine aficionado and student. Wine sales have continued to climb while the head count has declined. Which means = serious sales by serious wine consumer.

My hopes are that Copia can pull itself out of their financial problems and in the future take a simple approach with an emphasis on traditions and education and less cloying pretense and glam. I feel strong about this as I believe in the beginning, Copia had all of the elements to succeed and if they cannot succeed, then what will our future hold for other programs regarding American food, agriculture and it’s history. As you know, programs like this are especially important to new generations - as it is, we have generations who think food comes from a sack brought to them by a clown. And who knows, even a basic, but broader appreciation regarding food, such as the slow food movement, could even bring to future generations different shopping values - less instant gratification.

Part of my reasoning for attacking the pretensions behind Copia (apart from just being a brat in the Tom Wolfe / social satire sense, of course) had to do with the entire aura of exclusion that sometimes hovers over sections of the wine world in general and the Napa Valley in particular. In some ways, Napa is to American wine what Hollywood is to American film - both the largest producer and the market dominator, but in no way the most accurate representation of the art form or the best exemplar of its possibilities. The ostentatious displays of wealth found among the Napa wineries may not be the sole fault of the wine makers, who do offer incredibly nuanced creations that (sometimes) justify the price tags bestowed upon the bottles. But the wineries certainly do their best to cultivate an image of respectability, refinement and exclusivity.

There's no arguing that low yields and limited growing zones for wine force higher prices onto the product than that of, say, beer, which so often gets shoved into foodie ghettos due to its relative affordability, and not for any lack of craft or skill involved during creation. But wine makers and wineries do seem culpable in stoking the class-war divide that has unfortunately dominated much of American eating habits. And part of my disagreement with the Copia model is that it offers little alternative to an either / or food philosophy in our culture - fast food for the masses, gourmet fusion for the wealthy. This is a gross oversimplification, of course, but the middle ground between food-as-fuel and food-as-ostentatious-display-of-wealth seems left out. Perhaps a focus on lost or vanishing recipes and traditions, or a greater emphasis on urban gardening and non-industrial agriculture, might prove more essential to food education than a Napa monument to refined dining and world-class wines?

I wonder if there is a way to bring a venture like Copia in line with the slow food movement, or if the two suffer a fundamental opposition? For deeply embedded within the Slow Food philosophy is a concern about class manipulation and a strong anti-capitalist and anti-globalization platform (as befits a movement begun in Italy, where they still read political philosophy). I'm personally convinced of the destruction capitalist systems wreak upon local cultures and traditions, and find my conscience often conflicted when enjoying a wonderful bottle of wine that I know has been priced out of the vast majority of my fellow consumer's budgets.

At the risk of turning this blog entry into a draft for a thesis project, I guess I'd note one last thought on the intersection of food and class. Wine seems to many to be a private club, requiring inside information, sophistication, jargon and cash for entry. Given the immense costs and skill required to produce wine, the product practically begs to be used as a class barometer. Yet, given the alcoholic makeup of wine, it also begs to be used as a means of getting sloshed. This lethal combination - basically, social mobility in drug form - is partly what requires tasting fees at wineries. Yet this implementation necessitates leaving out individuals curious to explore the world of wine yet unwilling or unable to sacrifice $5, $10, $15 for a few small pours. As somebody who takes wine seriously and has little but disdain for the rowdy bachelorette parties I've had to elbow past at certain tchotchke-laden wineries in Riverside County, I understand the necessity of tasting fees. But I've also seen these fees and a reliance on stoppers and "drink chips" turn off many a potential wine enthusiast.

I'll close with a memorable encounter in a Walla Walla winery in which a certain local lawyer, his professor wife, their lovely daughter and I sampled some decent reds in a luxurious and calm tasting room. Not necessarily fully sympathetic to the world of wine, this lawyer had occasion to glance over the tasting notes for the various pours, and came across ROAD TAR as a descriptor for a luscious syrah. Needless to say, this lawyer got a big kick out that. "Road tar?" he said to the extremely poised pourer. "You're telling me people look for road tar in a wine? That's what they want to smell and think of when they put down $40?" He even went so far as to sniff the glass and exclaim, "Ahhhh, road tar!" I feel at this point the pourer (who had been trained in the wine world for many years, we had been told earlier) could have used the opportunity to educate on the variety and complexity of wine - to agree that, yes, I suppose the notion of road tar being listed as a flavor profile might seem a little odd (maybe even laugh along for a minute), but that part of building a mature palette and nose is to trust one's senses, make unlikely observations, and go beyond the standard and the safe. Instead, she shut down, looked nervous, refused to crack a smile, insisted the wine and many others smelled like tar, changed the subject. When he pressed the issue, she grew testy. Rather than foster a welcoming environment, she presented a humorless facade - suggesting the man making jokes in front of her was unworthy of entry to the wine world.

This was one case out of other, more positive, encounters, and I wouldn't dismiss the suggestion that this certain lawyer has been known to take things a little far sometimes. But I've observed similar interactions at many wineries from the Walla Walla and Willamette Valley to Napa and Santa Barbara. And while it's silly to get hung-up on the personalities of individual wine pourers, I wonder what approach Copia will take if and when they regroup and begin anew - a temple to refinement, or a dirt-under-fingernails venture?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Ring of Fire

It may not be attracting the same attention as the mayor's move to shut down library and rec centers, but another piece of what makes San Diego special is biting the dust this week - or, the sand. In an effort to save $173,000 in what remains a $43 million budget gap, the city has begun removing the beach fire pits that were apparently sucking the city's bank accounts dry. The possibility of removing the fire rings had been raised a few months ago, but fell by the wayside as the debate over libraries and police funds rose to a fever pitch. And so, with little fanfare, the city has begun the long (and presumably not free) process of uprooting and transferring the 186 pits to some undisclosed and secure location, where no doubt they'll sit until another administration comes along and figures out some way to allow the citizens of the nation's 8th largest city to roast marshmallows and warm their hands along the shore without crippling the local economy.

This isn't the first time budget pinches have torn into the wasteful excess that is the San Diego Fire Ring. In 1990, the city boasted 450 fire pits. As I noted above, as of last week, we were down to 186 - the effects of previous initiatives to curb spending costs. The plan is for the Park and Recreation Department to remove 18 per week until the end of the year, by which time all pits will be gone from Fiesta Island, Ocean Beach, Mission Beach, Pacific Beach, Mission Bay and La Jolla.

$173,000 isn't a totally insignificant sum, but it does seem rather drop-in-the-bucket-ish compared to the $43 million the city's casting about for. One suspects that if city council members simply brought sack lunches to work for a few months instead of patronizing downtown San Diego's finer dining establishments, one might arrive at the same fiscal result.

With the banning of alcohol on the city's beaches passed into law last month, the city claimed it was staking a claim for making the beaches more family-friendly, a loaded term if ever there was one. With the beaches now safely cleared of any and all binge drinkers or romantics toasting the sunset with Merlot, the removal of the fire pits seems a double blow. I've spent several memorable evenings in front of bonfires on the sand, and Jane and I took an armful's worth of old bills and patient records down to the beach just last October to send them up in flames and smoke. It is truly sad to watch as this city removes more and more of the features that once made it special in order to avoid confronting it's own fiscal irresponsibility. I'm not sure if losing the fire rings could be labeled a tragedy, but it's certainly the pits.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Blast From the Past

I knew my sweetheart was going to bring me something cool back from her Seattle trip, but I had no idea it would be a dream deferred since 1985. Just outside the Pike Place Market, in a small comic shop, Jane found several packets of the newly-resurrected Garbage Pail Kids sticker packs. For those with hazy memories of 1980s cultural trends, back in the heyday of the Cabbage Patch Kids craze (I actually received one that first Christmas, although I don't recall asking for it - Tyler Bo, I think?), the wonderfully subversive folks at Topps released a series of trading cards in which the dimpled puttis were reproduced in various states of destruction, decay and woe. I later found out that the great Art Spiegelman, poised to gain eventual renown as the creator of the graphic novel Maus, was an original instigator of the Garbage Pail Kids series, after stumbling upon the idea in one of many variations on the legendary Wacky Packages series - see here for an image of the original prototype for what would become the GPKs. An eventual lawsuit forced Topps to alter the cartoon images so they were not so explicitly obvious as Cabbage Patch Kids parodies, and the series dwindled after releasing fifteen sets.

But all I remember in the days of 1985 and 1986 was how cool they seemed. My cousin arrived for the summer from South Dakota bearing the entire first and second series, with stickers peeled off and loving affixed to the pages of a small notebook. I remember spending literal hours giggling over them, whether poolside or on the living room floor. My cousin whispered to me that schools were banning them from recess yards and confiscating them from student desks.

My parents discussed the matter, and determined the Garbage Pail Kids were too morally depraved for me to own. I was allowed to glance at my cousin's growing collection, but told not to ask for any at the grocery store check out. Eventually, my cousin returned home to Sioux Falls, and my one lifeline to cultural sedition was snuffed out. My only recourse was to recreate them myself, using pen and colored pencil. Many a summer afternoon was spent in the basement, painstakingly drafting knock-offs of knock-offs. I believe I even created them using sticky paper so the images could be peeled off, just as in the original Topps line. It was a decent fix for a jonesing child, but I still craved the real stuff - when the family at the "trashy house" a few doors down tossed a couple Garbage Pail Kids cards into my trick-or-treat pumpkin bag, I had shivers of excitement. I hid them in my bedroom closet to ward off any chance of parental confiscation, and peeked at them throughout the day.

Of course, one can find the entire arsenal of Garbage Pail Kid images online today, through several archive websites. And the new series seems a little more reliant upon vomit and snot imagery than the originals (which always depended heavily on the gross-out for their impact, but also used more sly methods). But ripping open the packs to rifle through the cards is something I've waited over twenty years for. I won't say the wait was worth it, but UMBILICAL COREY and SMELLY SALLY brought a smile to my day nonetheless.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Gray Lady Addiction

I should really be working on my finals, and I am, I am (pretty sure that AACR2 rule 24.1C is the reason we've given the PLO the authority record of Munazzamat al-Tahrir al-Filastiniyyah but do not list the Unification Church as T'ongil Kyohoe or 통일교회 ---- fascinating, huh?)..... but on a quick errand run up to La Jolla yesterday I walked into Warwick's Books and spotted a massive display hawking an 8-pound book entitled The New York Times: The Complete Front Pages, 1851-2008. The 450-plus page tome offers reproductions of over 300 notable front page editions, with some annotations and essays sprinkled throughout the book. And these front page displays are fascinating and of high quality. But the real motherload comes in the three included DVD-ROMs which offer every single front page of the newspaper's history - over 54,000 of them. And from each individual front page scan, one can link directly to the archived stories in full in their online database, something the Times has previously made somewhat difficult for non-subscribers. In short, this set is a massive collection of information and history - both a research tool and a cultural fun house.

A few caveats - there does seem to be a weird error that moves the 1st and the 18th of every month to the wrong place. Some of the front page scans, especially those before the Times went to color in 1997, are a bit blurry. And of course there is a bit of self-congratulation in such a project. I'm not sure how accurate a focus on front pages actually is to historical trends - the Times has always focused rather narrowly on Wall Street and the Beltway, to the detriment of many other issues and aspects (in that regard, the longer articles in the weekly magazine may offer a better representation of the march of history) - and any focus on headlines tends to skew towards an artificial dependence on narrative. But enough hemming and hawing - the addictive qualities of this stuff rivals that of heroin. Or caffeine, at least. If you don't wish to brave the holiday crowds and patronize better bookstores, you can find it here on Amazon and pay much less than I did at Warwick's. Either case, it's history-buff manna.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Off to Seattle

Jane's current job as a Navy physician involves overseeing numerous smaller ships and their medical departments. Any ship too small to support a full-time medical physician on board uses the skills of various IDC's (or, Independent Duty Corpsmen). Jane's job is to communicate with the IDC's, offer medical advice, check records, and periodically visit ships (and reprimand those IDC's consistently screwing up patient care, which happens more often than one would hope). She made a request to take on an additional duty of visiting ships in Seattle every few months, a trip paid for by the Navy (ok, the U.S. taxpayer), and one that allows her to visit family and friends when possible.

She left this morning for the second of these three-day trips up the coast, leaving me behind to fuss over exams and term papers during finals week like the good student I am. I'm jealous of the good Pacific Northwest food and micro brews and roasted coffee she'll be able to sample up north, and the possibilities of exploring the many excellent bookstores Seattle supports, like the wonderful Elliot Bay Book Company and my favorite anarchist bookstore, Left Bank Books, mere steps from the Pike Place Market (although I doubt she'll have much time for pleasure) . She also got to pack a winter coat, hat and scarf, as I hear it's winter outside of Southern California (we're supposed to brush 70 degrees later this afternoon).

Jane remarked as we drove to the airport this morning that we had less than two years left in San Diego, and wondered how I felt about that. As always, I feel conflicted. It's hard not to enjoy the perennial sunshine and mild air of the southern coastline. Yet the fog and chill of the northwest is equally appealing. Someday soon, we'll be packing up and leaving San Diego, heading to places unknown - Portland? Seattle? Santa Cruz? Someplace cooler and wetter, no doubt. But it's getting harder and harder to think about leaving the West Coast - despite my deep Midwestern roots and my nostalgia for New England, this place has a way of getting under the skin.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Number Crunching

Any potential schadenfreude from witnessing the Big Three CEOs down on their knees before the House, begging for money they're unlikely to receive, is tempered by knowledge of the workers who depend upon these deeply flawed corporations for their paychecks. The sight of Rick Wagoner and Alan Mulally posing for photos outside the hybrids they drove from Detroit in a massive publicity operation - even going so far as to admit the ultimate in shameful sacrifice; stopping at a Pennsylvania Quiznos along the way - only gives me momentary amusement. I'm far more struck by the belligerent tones taken by politicians as they heap abuse onto corporations they've defended for years, as they write off workers as expendable details, and as they blame the ultimate bogeyman in American politics - labor and unions - for the mess inside the Big Three. As somebody whose fervent dislike of the automobile industry and automobile culture stems from the countless crimes they've committed against the environment and city design, I will still take little delight in seeing them fall.

There's also a clear distinction being made between organizations that employ thousands upon thousands of workers (namely, the automakers) and organizations that traffic in large amounts of funds (namely, the credit and banking industry). And while I wouldn't deny the centrality of a group like Freddie Mac or Fannie Mae to the economy, I don't recall David Moffett or Herbert Allison ducking rotten food during their begging sessions leading up to the federal takeover.

Still, corporate welfare lacks a representative Welfare Queen figure, and perhaps the recent mud-slinging was an early attempt by bailout-fatigued lawmakers to locate one amid the factories of Detroit, rather than Chicago's South Side. I think they may be barking up the wrong tree, and I'd love to see documented proof of, say, Richard Shelby's past calls and campaigns in support of green energy and fuel-efficient vehicle standards, since it seems to be such a major talking point for him lately. But the disdain for both the company CEOs and the auto workers seems equal and obvious.

I often look to the monthly Harper's Index for insights into current events and trends, and am struck by how numbers often speak volumes more than words. I came across the following three statistics, and now I'm trying to discern how they relate to the situation comedy (certainly not a Greek tragedy) taking place on Capitol Hill.

Percentage by which the $750 billion bailout exceeds the total U.S. GDP of a century ago, adjusted for inflation: 50

Percentage by which it exceeds the cost of the entire New Deal: 33

Percentage by which it exceeds the cost of the 1990 savings-and-loan bailout: 3

Thursday, December 4, 2008

It's That Time of Year Again...

There's no snow on the ground, and the early morning temperatures have barely gotten below 55 degrees, but it's clearly getting close to Christmas time here in San Diego. And while I haven't stepped inside any malls or shopping areas, I'm sure the interiors are filled with lots and lots of Xmas music, which, I must confess, might be my least favorite genre of music. I blame my folks for this, and a Midwestern culture that worships at the seasonal altar, but honestly, I spent so much of my childhood listening to Andy Williams sleepwalk his way through hyper-arranged versions of "It's The Most Wonderful Time of the Year," and so many evenings gritting my teeth through endlessly ponderous versions of "O Holy Night," that I can now barely stomach anything passing for background music come December.

However, I'll be attending several holiday-themed choir performances over the next few weeks, which says more about my affection for my wife than any desire to kick the Scrooge habit. Jane recently joined a community choir organization, the Peninsula Singers of Point Loma, and they're getting ready to initiate a series of local concerts. The schedule can be found here.

This weekend, December 6th, the choir will be performing free in Balboa Park as part of the city's annual December Nights festival, an ongoing event that often attracts 300,000 spectators. Between 1.20 and 1.50 PM (odd times, no?), they'll be performing inside the beautiful Spreckles Organ Pavilion, a local cultural treasure that I've wandered around during off hours but have never witnessed in use (I don't believe the massive pipe organ it's named for will be featured, however). On December 12th, the choir will perform at 7 PM at the North Chapel in the newly revitalized Liberty Station in Point Loma. Tickets for this show aren't free ($10), but they'll be performing Vivaldi's Gloria alongside the Southwestern College Choir and an 11-piece orchestra. There will also be a December 14th performance at Southwestern College and a December 15th performance at the Point Loma Library.

Jane worked up the courage to audition for a solo, and is excited to be singing a section in Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, which luckily happens to be one of the few Christmas songs I still have affection for.

Unfortunately, they'll also be spending some time with an old Andy Williams song, or at least a song I associate the dreaded Andy with - Happy Holidays, or It's the Holiday Season. They'll conclude with another perennial favorite, Baby, It's Cold Outside - a song neither Jane and I can stomach. I'd say I'm most fond of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Jordan's version, and wouldn't shut off the Margaret Whiting - Johnny Mercer version. The Jessica Simpson-Nick Lachey rendition, on the other hand, is one for the ages - just what age, I'm not sure.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Sign O' the Times

It's wrong to look for metaphors in contemporary events, but the novelist in me can't help but notice when episodes seem to take on lives of their own. In the midst of the financial crisis, I've been aware of those news items which stick out as being almost too perfectly symbolic - those events encapsulating more than just tumbling stock prices or crumbled businesses or cut jobs. The kind of event that, were it to appear in the narrative of an Upton Sinclair or John Steinbeck work, would be sneered at as too heavy-handed, too obvious, too outrageous.

The trampling to death of 34-year-old temporary worker Jdimytai Damour by 2,000 Wal-Mart customers stampeding for Plasma HDTVs sums up the moral rot and consumer addiction that now partly defines our culture. In a time of war, job loss and deep uncertainty, the mantra that shopping is patriotic has become an undisputed trope, and while the lines for the aptly named Black Friday deals were smaller than last year's, they proved no less frenzied. The incident has only heightened my disdain for Wal-Mart and other discount-retail operations, but it also heightens my disdain for both the marketing forces dictated by a nation dependent on consumer spending (currently 70% of GDP) and the citizens who respond so willingly to the call. Any tightening of the belts or movement away from overconsumption this holiday season will unfortunately be overshadowed, at least in my mind, by the gruesome events of last week. Unfairly or not, the trampling of Jdimytai Damour will serve as an apt symbol of America circa 2008.

Yet I'm not sure if the Wal-Mart stampede alone can sum up the confused response to economic troubles. If the events of 2008 were unfolding within the satirical pages of a Tom Wolfe novel, his descriptions of working-class folks breaking down the doors at 5 AM to grab oversized television sets would no doubt be balanced with a reflecting-pool nod to the leisure class. And while examples abound across the landscape, a small and relatively unimportant news item caught my eye yesterday as particularly appropriate. Copia, the ambitious and oh-so-refined food/wine/art museum (or, as they've labeled it, "The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts," in that order, please) in the Napa Valley, shut its doors suddenly on November 21st, locking employees out and cancelling upcoming corporate events. Yesterday, it filed for bankruptcy protection. Costing an estimated $55 million to start up, the center had lost upwards of $4 million per fiscal year since opening in late 2001.

I'm not sure who or what the target audience for Copia originally was. One suspects there was a hope to draw in the wine-slurping limo crowd, who'd gladly plunk down $25 for admission and an additional $50 for a "how wine is made" demonstration if they thought it might be useful for their portfolio. Or maybe they hoped to suck in the rubes stumbling around Napa who don't know the difference between a Ravenswood and a Joseph Phelps, and might be suitably awed by the pretensions on display and an ability to indulge in a little Veblenesque conspicuous consumption? Or the Fortune 500 crowd, always on the lookout for a suitable backdrop for corporate getaways, and willing to invest the better part of a $50 bill for a pretzel stick dipped into local mustard (a detail gleaned from the comments section of this NYTimes article)?

In the end, what's most striking about the quick failure of this pricey monument to refined food and wine (and the linking of both to high art) is how wrong-headed the venture was from its inception - namely, how it approached fundamental aspects of life and culture from the vantage point of observation and preservation. To remove food and wine from the living environments in which they both grow and should be enjoyed in is more than just a smug act of refinement. It is to declare the one product we shouldn't feel guilty about consuming - indeed, the only products capable of being consumed - a museum piece.

Observe and ponder the food and fermented grape. Consume the electronic gadgets and flat screens. And ask where the line between metaphor and life should be drawn.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Blue Coast

Living in San Diego means having excellent access to a wide variety of California wines, yet for the most part lacking a local base of production. San Diego County does posses several wineries, some open for tasting, scattered throughout the back country (many of these may be found referenced on various vintners' association websites), especially in the hills surrounding Ramona. While I'm fond of Shadow Mountain Vineyards, tucked off of Highway 79 just outside Warner Springs, few of the other wineries I've visited or sampled wine from have proven very impressive. The closest wine region to San Diego is undoubtedly Temecula, just over the Riverside County line, which at last count featured over two dozen wineries within the valley. Unfortunately, Temecula wines are, by and large, a complete joke, the absolute antithesis of viniculture - outrageously overpriced, flabby, heavy on sickly-sweet whites and anonymous rose. The tasting rooms often revel in the very definition of kitsch, with more attention paid towards hawking puppy dog calenders and pricey bean dips than wine. And the area positively reeks of a bachelorette party / real-estate frat boy atmosphere - I once counted five Hummer limousines in one very long morning.

So, for all practical purposes, "local" wine in San Diego means Santa Barbara (still recovering from "Sideways"-inspired overexposure) or even Paso Robles (off the beaten path, and still an area where free tastings and a wine-as-agriculture mentality thrives). What often goes forgotten is that the closest wine region is actually south of the border, in the beautiful and largely undeveloped Guadalupe Valley of Baja. On the winding road leading between the beach community of Ensenada and the sleepy border town of Tecate lie numerous small family-run wineries (and a few larger corporate operations) offering rustic reds and old-world atmosphere. I've only once been able to sample these wines, and arcane border regulations limit American citizens to one bottle of wine per person per crossing. The wines are even more difficult to locate in area wine shops - I've spoken to several shop owners and distributors expressing frustration with their inability to import and make available these quasi-local products.

So it was with some relief that I stumbled across a wonderful bottle of wine that claims both Baja and California pedigrees. A side project of Christopher Cameron Vineyards, Costa Azul produces wine just up the coast, near Carlsbad, yet sources some of their grapes from the Guadalupe Valley (others hail from Sonoma - they do get around). I picked up their recently-released 2006 Grenache, of which a mere 150 cases were produced, and brought it home to sample (I'll admit that the beautiful label caught my eye - I have judged wines by their bottles before...). Both Jane and I were suitably impressed. I splashed a bit into a pan for a dark vinegar-based sauce, and we enjoyed the rest. The color was an attractive light red, the nose offered cracked pepper and hints of raspberry, and the mouth feel was warm and pleasing. We both agreed it was one of the more pleasant wine surprises we've shared in some time.

This release is quite limited, and can be found in only 5 or 6 wine shops or restaurants in the San Diego area. In both craft and availability, it represents the best in regional agriculture. I came across my bottle at Ocean Beach's Third Corner, the finest wine bistro in the city, hands down (and quite possibly the finest wine retail store, too). They're closed on Mondays, but I'll be heading down tomorrow to pick up a few more bottles, if any are left.