Sunday, December 19, 2010

Two Historical Perspectives on the Repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

"I'm aware that this vote will probably pass today in a lame duck session. And there will be high fives all over the liberal bastions of America, and we'll see [on] the talk shows tomorrow, a bunch of people talking about how great it is. Most of them have never served in the military or maybe not even known someone in the military. And you know? We'll repeal it. And all over America, there'll be gold stars put up in windows in the rural towns and communities all over America that don't partake in the elite schools that bar military recruiters from campus, that don't partake of the salons of Georgetown and the other liberal bastions here around the country. But there'll be additional sacrifice. I hear that from master sergeants. I hear that from junior officers. I hear that from leaders. So, I am confident that with this repeal that our military, the best in the world, will salute and do the best they can to carry out the orders of the commander in chief.[....]. But don't think that it won't be at great cost.[....]. I hope that when we pass this legislation that we will understand that we are doing great damage. And we could possibly, and probably, harm the battle effectiveness which is so vital to the survival of our young men and women in the military."

- Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), Dec. 18 2010, speaking in opposition to the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.







- telegraph from citizen Howard Henry Omohundro to President Harry S. Truman, following Truman's release of Executive Order 9981, which ended racial segregation in the U.S. Military, Sept. 30, 1948


There are, of course, many differences between these two expressions of discontent. But despite variations in language and sentence structure, the overriding philosophy is the same - attacking imagined liberal enclaves for dragging the pure minds of decent small-town citizenry into the muck and mire of anti-American machinations.

Such similarities shouldn't be surprising, though. Bigots never go away and never die. They only attempt to explain away their voting record when the past finally condemns them.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Offal Truth: A Chicken Liver Bruschetta Recipe To Convert The Skeptical

My interest in (and eventual love for) what has been dubbed "variety meats" has somewhat murky origins. No doubt, it helped having one parent born on European shores and therefore unapologetically fond of the more gristly and funky cuts of meat - my father's enthusiasm for old-world liverwurst and "blood/tongue" cold cuts from the German and Polish butcher shops easily found in our Wisconsin town must have rubbed off in some small way (I still find myself hungering for a liverwurst sandwich now and again, and when the small deli a few blocks from our apartment in Albany began offering kosher liverwurst with hot mustard as a lunch special, the man behind the counter remarked that I was one of the few people under sixty to regularly order it, and probably the only goyim). Of secondary and perhaps only symbolic importance is my possible 1/32 Native American heritage, or at least my inherent sympathy when reading of the horror experienced by prairie tribes after witnessing the waste of buffalo-slaughtering white men, leaving full carcasses to rot under the Kansas sun. Wasting perfectly good cuts of meat, I guess, has always seemed a tad barbaric.

But of utmost importance, I suspect, was the careful consideration I gave the option of vegetarianism or veganism once upon a time. While I ultimately ended up rejecting either option as a life doctrine, the impulses behind such choices are sensible and worthy of consideration. In an odd way, one does some sort of honor to the concepts behind adopting a vegetarian lifestyle by refusing to indulge in carnivorous activities while pretending what one is eating was not the result of an act of violence against a living creature. Put another way, saying it is perfectly acceptable to slaughter a chicken or murder a cow but please don't hurt that lamb or touch that rabbit is an odd act of moral relativism. Feasting hungrily on a plate of fish sticks but gagging at the sight of a head-on oven roasted trout is assuming a sort of willful ignorance. And tucking into a thick steak while turning up one's nose at a bowl of tripe or sauteed liver is to suggest that perhaps one would be better off attacking leeks or potatoes, rather than sacrificing an entire life so as to better pick daintily around the edges.

This is controversial ground, I'm aware, so time to back off the soapbox. But what never ceases to be surprising is how many supposed meat-lovers can't bring themselves to sample the rich variety and flavorful sections of those easily affordable cast-offs that butcher shops tend to refer to as offal. Perhaps it is our knowledge of anatomy that keeps so many from enjoying stewed kidneys or fried sweetbreads ("Enjoying your filter?" is how my wife tends to comment during the rare occasions I've been allowed to sample kidneys). One might suggest that if a hungry audience was simply not told what part of the body they were about to enjoy - if a variety meat-heavy stew was served up as simply consisting of "beef" - wary carnivores might clean their plates and ask for more. Tempting though such an approach is, I remain of the opinion that it's cruel and unfair to trick people into eating something they remain morally or digestively opposed to (except in the case of young children, of course - what they don't know can't hurt them).

So in the spirit of full disclosure, what follows is a recipe I whipped together after coming across a small container of organic chicken livers (one pound total) for sale at Whole Foods for $2.35. Any habitue of Whole Foods knows that there are very few items to be found on their shelves for $2 a pound, let alone anything of the meat variety. In the back of my mind, some sort of rich, onion-heavy, alcohol-laced dish began to assume formation, but the livers were purchased without a full mental inventory of what existed back home to help turn these cold lumps of chicken innards into something my lovely wife might sample. Call it a challenge.

The result was something I've named, for the sake of convenience, a Chicken Liver Pate, but don't think of this as an example of the traditional creamy, whipped terrine often found in better French restaurants. Rather, this "pate" was of the coarsely-ground variety, and rather than spreading it onto bread with a knife, toasted slices were instead topped with the crumbly mixture. It is a rustic yet elegant variation on bruschetta that incorporates diced scallions, drained capers, brandy, garlic and pancetta. The second most enjoyable part of making this dish was taking the cooked mixture from the pan, heaping it into a warm pile on the cutting board, and chopping the rich pyramid into coarseness, with glugs of olive oil added periodically. This was primal kitchen time. The most enjoyable part of making this dish was consuming it, and beaming with pride as my initially extremely-wary wife asked for seconds.


Chicken Liver Pate Bruschetta (or, if this sounds too gauche for you, try something like Terrine de Foies de Volaille)

1 pound chicken livers
3/4 cup olive oil
2 oz. pancetta
salt and pepper
3 garlic cloves, chopped
3 tablespoons brandy / Cognac
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
3 tablespoons chopped onions
2 tablespoons capers (rinsed and drained)
1 lemon, zest grated (and 1 1/2 tablespoons of lemon juice)
toasted bread slices

1) First, clean the livers - an easy task. I used a small knife to disconnect the connecting veins, as these aren't necessary for the completed dish. After lining a plate with paper towels, place the chicken livers onto the plate and pat them with paper towels to remove extra moisture (this will really help the sauteing go smoothly). Season both sides with salt and pepper, rubbing in.

2) Heat one-fourth cup of olive oil in a large saute pan over high heat. One by one, add the chicken livers until the pan is full. Cook the livers until they turn a deep brown, 2-3 minutes per side. It may be helpful to cover the pan with a lid if the oil begins to spurt.

3) Add pancetta to the pan, reduce heat to low. Cook until pancetta fat renders, 2-3 minutes. Stir in garlic, cook for a few minutes.

4) Stir in the brandy (hopefully good Cognac), stir to deglaze pan, and cook briefly. Add onions, stir several times until softened, and remove pan from heat.

5) Dump the contents of the pan onto a large cutting board, and scrape the bottom of the pan for additional flavorful scraps. Add parsley, capers and lemon zest to the mound, and drizzle with lemon juice and 1/4 cup olive oil.

6) Chop coarsely. Drizzle more olive oil, and continue chopping, gathering up ingredients into a mound periodically. Chop till you drop. Add olive oil as needed.
7) Serve immediately over toasted bread, maybe scattering diced parsley over the top. We ate our bruschetta warm, but one could also refrigerate it and serve it cold.

The leftover pate was very tasty a few mornings later served alongside scrambled egg whites and warmed tortilla, as seen below. Coffee mug from Sacramento's best record store The Beat not included.

Friday, November 12, 2010

15 Great Authors Who Just Happen To Be Female

I do my very best to dodge, ignore and otherwise avoid the social media games that surreptitiously appear in my daily Facebook feed, choosing not to sow seeds in imaginary farms or ponder my autistic tendencies on a gliding scale. But it’s hard for a lifelong reader and bibliophile to pass up a chance to list and/or rank the authors or works that have stubbornly lodged themselves into my skull and to compare my choices with those of equally enthusiastic friends boasting long lists of their own.

So when the following challenge appeared in the status updates of several acquaintances -

The Rules: Don't take too long to think about it. Fifteen authors (poets included) who've influenced you and that will always stick with you. List the first fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes. Tag at least fifteen friends, including me, because I'm interested in seeing what authors my friends choose. (To do this, go to your Notes tab on your profile page, paste rules in a new note, list your fifteen picks, and tag people in the note.)

- I had to play along, and not just because I had earlier in the week posted a photographic spread of unapologetic bookporn to my photo blog. It was an interesting exercise, because it forces one to set aside authors one merely respects in favor of those one truly adores, which can make for some interesting company. I discovered, for example, that the sports/psychological breakdown semi-memoir A Fan’s Notes by one-shot writer Frederick Exley has continued to haunt and trouble me since I stumbled across it midway through college - more so than other obviously important cultural touchstones like Joyce’s Ulysses or Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. And seeing how the decidedly ambiguous memories of reading A Fan’s Notes so easily and insistently entered my mind, Exley went on the list while Joyce and Pynchon did not. Crazy, I know.

I’ll stand by my fifteen choices, even as the lists compiled by friends reveals authors I skipped over that should have made the grade (how could I deny the impact made by Hunter S. Thompson or Franz Kafka on my literary sensibilities?). But more interesting to me than any list was the comment made by a friend as an addendum to her own list of fifteen favorites – “I need to read more female authors,” following a not-at-all-exclusively-male list (although still pretty male-dominated with 11 male vs. 4 female authors represented). I was struck by this because of similar thoughts I’ve been having about the role played by gender when evaluating works of art. The recent fracas over Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom brought this into sharp relief, especially when the fracas had less to do with Franzen himself and more to do with the critical accolades and reviewing attention bestowed upon Freedom while the works of other equally notable yet female authors went, so the argument went, unnoticed.

This debate seemed more than a little disingenuous, for several reasons, almost none of which have anything to do with the very real fact that female artists undoubtedly receive less attention and respect than their male counterparts. Had truly obscure or neglected authors stepped forward to point out the egregious double standards at play in the world of literary reviewing, the grievance might have proved easier to swallow. But when the put-upon wordsmiths inveighing against “white male literary darlings” arrive in the guise of Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner, one must take a step back. While neither Picoult nor Weiner could be easily dismissed as purveyors of tripe, to confuse them with engaged, committed, and challenging authors is to degrade the profession. With Picoult having sold 14 million copies of her books and Weiner an estimated 11 million, it’s difficult to conjure much sympathy for their tales of woe in a landscape where a small-press poetry publication is considered “respectable” if it breaks 500 copies in sales. And finally, while the argument is certainly worth having, Franzen seems an odd choice to attack when discussing the relative dearth of female authors in the canon, as he has repeatedly gone on record expressing the same concerns, has written several lovely essays or reviews filled with fulsome praise for neglected female authors (his lengthy June 2010 essay in the New York Times on the relatively forgotten Christina Stead and her unique 1940 novel The Man Who Loved Children is an impassioned rave), and tends to fill his novels with extremely remarkable and sympathetically crafted female characters – far more so than the vast majority of his male contemporaries.

I recognize that Picoult and Weiner were taking aim primarily at the fact that Franzen was reviewed twice by the same publication in the span of a few weeks, but again, I fail to see the outrage in this – after all, Franzen tends to publish large, multifaceted novels once every decade, while both Picoult and Weiner seem to deliver relatively slimmer novels every twelve months or so. Again, absolutely nothing wrong with that – Philip Roth does the same thing, as does Joyce Carol Oates (although her yearly efforts are far from slim). But to sit atop yearly successful releases and accuse a writer as thoughtful as Franzen of nefarious deeds in support of cultural patriarchy is pretty ridiculous. And upon further reflection, I was wrong about Weiner, at least (not so sure about Picoult). Her oeuvre actually does look pretty tripe-like.

And yet. To ponder how the literary establishment and critical gatekeepers evaluate the literary landscape – to examine who and what they corral off into “great works of art” and “admirable examples of craft” – is to observe a clear line of demarcation that tends to separate, shall we say, the boys from the girls. That is, the very notion of what certain critics and reviewers (and readers, it must be noted) deem as the hallmarks of a literary masterpiece are those very qualities that one might define, however imperfectly, as “male”. It goes without saying that many male authors and their heartiest backers maintain an obsession with length and girth that would seem to be little removed from their early encounters in the locker room. While female writers undoubtedly appreciate length and girth as much as the next woman, they also seem to have developed a healthier approach to winnowing out its limitations – how a hefty volume can sometimes obscure the relative emptiness inside, or the way an author may pad out two or three interesting ideas with hundreds of pages of extraneous and often less-than-enthralling detail. To glance over the handful of tightly-sprung, perfectly selected paragraphs of a Lydia Davis short story, say, is to marvel at the work of a master unafraid to pare subjects down to the bone. To flip through the one thousand and thirty pages of Adam Levin’s new McSweeney’s release The Instructions is to be impressed and also to wonder what Maxwell Perkins is doing these days.

I have no desire to venture any further into a topic as fraught with misstep as the perennial “how are male writers different from female writers,” and not only because I suspect it’s a useless discussion. It would be far more productive to instead list fifteen authors of the last century that have indeed been unfairly overlooked by the literary establishment and who all are amazing and talented writers who just happen to have the good fortune of being female. “Historical” authors have been left out of the list, which explains the lack of Jane Austen and George Eliot. I’ve also chosen to ignore those writers which have broken through the glass ceiling and regularly get tossed about with any number of male greats – Joyce Carol Oates, Virginia Woolf, Margaret Atwood. The list is in no way exhaustive or complete or anything other than introductory. However, all fifteen authors display stunning erudition and emotional complexity, possess unique and wonderfully composed prose styles, and tackle subjects ranging from personal psychology to ancient myth. They will all add immeasurably to your life. And they are all much, much better than Jodi Picoult or Jennifer Weiner (and Jonathan Safran Foer).

(ranked alphabetically, to avoid any sense of relative comparison)

1) Anne Carson

A professor of classics with equal interest in the world of graphic arts, anthropology, and literature, Carson is less a traditional poet than a translator who decodes existing texts into an artful whole, and less a traditional translator than a poet eager to dissect the imperfection of words into a messy yet enthralling cross-section of tradition. Her careful resurrection of the scattered fragments of the Ancient Greek poet Sappho is something to lose yourself in. Her accordion-fold collage-poem NOX, released earlier this year, is a facsimile of an art piece she created following the death of her estranged brother. She could be icy cool, with an intellectual sheen painful to contemplate. But she remains earthbound, generous, always mindful of the reader.

Recommended works: The Beauty of the Husband (2001); If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho (2002); NOX (2010).

2) Kathryn Davis

An American far more likely to channel Danish folk tales or the court of Marie Antoinette than contemporary yankee landscapes, Davis is a decidedly quirky – no, make that bizarre – chronicler of the uncanny and the just-slightly absurd. But her novels never devolve into mere whimsy. Think of her as having the heart of a Celtic balladeer who just happens to be working in prose and once taught at Skidmore.

Recommended works: The Girl Who Trod On A Loaf (1993); The Thin Place (2006).

3) Lydia Davis

One could spend most of this space extolling the virtues of Davis’ eye-opening translations of Proust and Flaubert, but to ignore her equally great achievements in the realm of short stories would be obscene. Perhaps astonishingly, Davis seems to effortlessly straddle the world of unique, scholarly translation (in French) and unique, postmodern prose (her short stories). Blasting the tradition of 80s minimalism clear out of the water, her stories at times are less than three sentences long – “some of them among the shortest ever written,” as admirer Dan Chiasson noted. But never glib. Think John Cage, think Samuel Beckett, and hope that someday she easily coexists with those giants. With her entire short story output now available in one volume, there’s no reason she can’t.

Recommended works: Swann’s Way (2004), trans.; The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis (2009).

4) Joan Didion

Another uncategorizable writer, whose output has veered contentedly between journalistic essays and piercing fiction, we have no better voice on the contradictory nature of the state that is California than Didion. Her political essays are impressionistic pieces nevertheless immersed in detail and detached outrage. And her exploration of death and mourning in The Year of Magical Thinking has few equals. Long after the metafictional experiments of the big boys from the 1960s have faded away, Didion’s work stands as some of the finest prose put to paper during that heated decade. And in many ways, she’s only gotten better.

Recommended works: Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968); Play It As It Lays (1970); The White Album (1979); Where I Was From (2003); The Year Of Magical Thinking (2005).

5) Elaine Dundy

Given her tumultuous childhood and lifelong struggles against domineering men, Dundy could be forgiven had she chosen an output of morbid observations. Lucky for her and lucky for us, she chose morbid wit, instead, and her cult 1958 novel of an American girl abroad, The Dud Avocado, seems to trickle back into the mainstream every generation or so. She wrote other equally admirable books, including a 1985 mock-bio of Elvis that ranks up there with the best, but it’s her creation of Sally Jay Gorce that she’ll be remembered for. This charming novel is the unacknowledged genesis of Sex And The City, and while that might not sound like much of a recommendation, it stands as one nonetheless.

Recommended works: The Dud Avocado (1958); The Old Man and Me (1964); Elvis and Gladys (1985).

6) Deborah Eisenberg

While Raymond Carver casts a deep shadow across the short story landscape, I suspect the form would be in much healthier straits if writers swapped out Carver’s easily-copied brand of minimalism for the unique approach of either the aforementioned Lydia Davis or Deborah Eisenberg. For the past twenty-five years, Eisenberg has been calmly releasing masterful collections of stories brimming with novelistic detail and utterly believable character studies. Her work celebrates the individual nature of people and families while always acknowledging the darkness and pain that comes along with such individuality. Her eye for the emptiness of American landscapes and the ways in which Americans hope to fill them places her obviously in the contemporary literary scene, but she has set an equally large number of stories in South America – an “exotic” setting that never feels strained. The recent collection of her entire output into one affordable volume is cause for celebration.

Recommended works: The Collected Stories (2010).

7) Mary Gaitskill

Try to forget that one of Gaitskill’s characters was the inspiration for the 2002 sado-lite film Secretary, starring Maggie Gyllenhall – if only because the film timidly approached then scurried away from topics Gaitskill fearlessly tears into. Quite frankly, she’s a writer who says things other writers won’t, unless those other writers are Michel Houellebecq or, um, Michel Houellebecq. She disdains the prettified metaphor, draws unforgivably brutal portraits of scarred young women, and thinks sex is dirty and really fun (and at times really awful) because it is dirty. She is not for everybody. She is one of my favorites.

Recommended works: Bad Behavior (1988); Two Girls, Fat And Thin (1991); Veronica (2005); Don’t Cry (2009).

8) Tove Jansson

Damion Searls recently attempted to explain to American readers how remarkable the career of Swedish / Finnish novelist Tove Jansson really was. She was not only one of the most gifted and beloved illustrators and composers of children’s stories from the last hundred years, but an equally legendary master of adult fiction. Searles writes, “It is as though Jonathan Franzen not only admired Charles Schulz but was Charles Schulz, retired from comic strips and deciding to try his hand at a family novel”. Perhaps you’re already familiar with the magical world of the Moomin books, perhaps not. At the very least, readers suddenly enthralled by Swedish fiction in the Year Of Stieg Larssen would do well to seek out Jansson’s novels – Scandinavian prose of a far calmer yet equally unforgiving bent.

Recommended works: The Summer Book (1972); The True Deceiver (1982); Fair Play (1989).

9) Pauline Kael

As the tradition of film criticism slowly slumps off to the great beyond, it can be hard to imagine a time when an idiosyncratic writer was allowed to explore at great length opinions running sharply counter to the grand narrative of the day. Here was a feisty and disarmingly witty woman capable of catching the whiff of bullshit emanating from the artiste and exploitation salesman alike – she gagged at both The Sound of Music and Michelangelo Antonioni. She embraced onscreen brutality when she found it to be earned (some Peckinpah), denounced it when she found it contrived (Dirty Harry). Her colorful curses were edited out by William Shawn, her celebration of feminine carnality tsk-tsked by New Yorker readers. If you only watched the films she praised, you’d be missing out on some great cinema. And yet there’s more honesty, passion, and insight (not to mention wonderful writing) in her criticism than can be found in the efforts of Clement Greenberg and Theodore Adorno combined.

Recommended works: For Keeps (1994)

10) Lorrie Moore

Leaven your writings with too little wit, and you stand in danger of being dismissed as mirthless. Become too fond of the bon mot or the witty aside, and you stand the equal danger of being damned with faint praise as a humorist. Moore has managed to walk the tightrope of comedy and tragedy through a small yet impressive body of work that stands alone in American fiction for its self-deprecation and an almost tourette’s-like inability to avoid a good pun. Her latest novel suffers only when Moore tries too hard to sweep current American history along with her mannered oddities. But the short stories remain sublime.

Recommended works: Who Will Run The Frog Hospital? (1994); Birds Of America (1998); A Gate At The Stairs (2009).

11) Iris Murdoch

A philosopher who deigned to write fiction, or a fiction writer eerily adept at philosophy? Dame Murdoch was perhaps both, and one would be hard pressed to nominate fellow writers equally capable of composing luminous, thoughtful fiction while pondering the weighty matters of 20th century philosophy. Sartre, maybe? Camus? At any rate, it’s not a long list. Where to begin with a writer with over twenty-five novels to her name, novels that both parody and celebrate such matters as religious faith, erotic obsession, poverty, domination, and intellectual wonderings. Why not start at the beginning, and work forward?

Recommended works: The Bell (1958); A Severed Head (1961); The Black Prince (1973); The Sea, The Sea (1978).

12) Flannery O’Connor

You can keep Stephenie Meyer and her young-adult vampiric concerns. If I want a jolt of Gothic horror, I’ll take Flannery, thanks. If Edward and Bella romantically swoon to the rhythms of the undead, O’Connor’s doomed characters crawl out of a fetid mixture equal parts southern backwoods and Catholic guilt. Prosthetic limbs get stolen post-coitus, bulls gore hapless victims among blades of grass, and oversize statues of racist iconography loom out of the kudzu. It’s wrong to focus on the grotesque nature of O’Connor’s stories and novels at the expense of her very real concerns of the possibility of achieving divine grace, yet even these aspects are colored with a unique and deeply morbid sense of humor. In the end, she towers above both regionalism and southern gothic. She belongs to literature, full stop.

Recommended works: Wise Blood (1952); A Good Man Is Hard To Find (1955); The Violent Bear It Away (1960); Everything That Rises Must Coverge (1965).

13) Cathleen Schine

Yet another example of the lengths to which the literary establishment will go to shut out those authors daring to tread in the semi-bastard zone of comedy and farce, the comic novels of Cathleen Schine deserve wider acceptance and adulation. Who but a comic writer would think to pen a novel of a nineteen-year-old girl’s lengthy stay in a hospital and rehabilitation center’s bed, and actually make it funny? Without a dose of self-pity? And entitle it Alice In Bed? Likewise, a story like Rameau’s Niece, in which a historian translating Diderot becomes overtaken by the manuscript and begins to view life through sex-obsessed lenses, might only be conjured up by a writer willing to embrace farcical convention and unafraid of the so-called “happy ending”. One races enjoyably through her books, only later stopping to consider Schine’s powers of craft and storytelling.

Recommended works: Alice In Bed (1983); Rameau’s Niece (1993); She Is Me (2003).

14) Muriel Spark

Standing proof that a-new-book-each-year need not imply endless chaff or gristle, Spark’s releases flew fast and furious, and her mid-life religious conversion led her to embrace an odd and unique worldview – a worldview that seemed ever mindful of the spiritual goings-on in a world not quite unlike our own, yet far more interested in the upheavals of the Final Judgment than any paradise in the hereafter. Which is not to say she was completely nihilistic. Call her cruelly refined, or just a little warped. Throughout her long career, she never ceased marveling at the indignities humans heap upon one another, and it would take an obnoxious little Pollyanna indeed to fend off the accuracy of Spark’s barbs.

Recommended works: Memento Mori (1959); The Public Image (1968); The Driver’s Seat (1970); The Abbess Of Crewe (1974); The Takeover (1976).

15) Christa Wolf

If a reinterpretation of the Battle of Troy as a decisive shift away from matriarchal tradition sounds to you like the keynote speech at a literary critic’s conference, I wouldn’t disagree too strenuously. But seeing how the former East German writer Christa Wolf is not only a literary critic but a gifted novelist, you’d be wrong to dismiss it as a dull conceit. One might describe her as rather ponderously aware of history, until one notes that anybody spied on by the Stasi for over thirty years would do well to remember the more ponderous lessons of history. Yet she never despairs, and she never condescends. Among the corpses of East German literature lies her warmly beating heart.

Recommended works: Divided Heaven (1963); Cassandra (1984); What Remains (1990).

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Copyright and Copywrong: Marx V. Warner

I'm in the midst of penning a long-ish entry concerning domestic politics and supposed voter apathy, but in an attempt to briefly lift my spirits (and quite apropos of nothing), I thought a few words from a great American might suffice. The simple re-posting of other's words is something I try to avoid here at Cerebral Decanting, but there seems little reason to apologize when the words in question are as witty and enjoyable as the following. The excerpt is from a letter Groucho Marx wrote in 1946 to the top honchos at Warner Brothers Studios after receiving rumblings of legal action and cease-and-desist orders after the Marx Bros. set to work on a spoof on the then-four year old film Casablanca. Characters for the planned A Night In Casablanca included Humphrey Bogus and Lowan Behold. As the good folks at Chilling Effects note, Warner Bros. found this letter a good deal less funny than you probably did, and requested a formal outline of the film's premise. The overview supplied by Groucho was utterly absurd and un-filmable, leading to a follow-up Warner Bros. letter requesting more details. Groucho's third letter offered even more ludicrous plot points, at one point claiming that the role of "Bordello, sweetheart of Humphrey Bogus" would be played by himself. The record notes that after this communication, "Warner Brothers did not respond".
Dear Warner Brothers,

Apparently there is more than one way of conquering a city and holding it as your own. For example, up to the time that we contemplated making this picture, I had no idea that the city of Casablanca belonged exclusively to Warner Brothers. However, it was only a few days after our announcement appeared that we received your long, ominous legal document warning us not to use the name Casablanca.

It seems that in 1471, Ferdinand Balboa Warner, your great-great-grandfather, while looking for a shortcut to the city of Burbank, had stumbled on the shores of Africa and, raising his alpenstock (which he later turned in for a hundred shares of common), named it Casablanca.

I just don’t understand your attitude. Even if you plan on releasing your picture, I am sure that the average movie fan could learn in time to distinguish between Ingrid Bergman and Harpo. I don’t know whether I could, but I certainly would like to try.

You claim that you own Casablanca and that no one else can use that name without permission. What about “Warner Brothers”? Do you own that too? You probably have the right to use the name Warner, but what about the name Brothers? Professionally, we were brothers long before you were. We were touring the sticks as the Marx Brothers when Vitaphone was still a gleam in the inventor’s eye, and even before there had been other brothers—the Smith Brothers; the Brothers Karamazov; Dan Brothers, an outfielder with Detroit; and “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” (This was originally “Brothers, Can You Spare a Dime?” but this was spreading a dime pretty thin, so they threw out one brother, gave all the money to the other one, and whittled it down to “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”)

Now Jack, how about you? Do you maintain that yours is an original name? Well it’s not. It was used long before you were born. Offhand, I can think of two Jacks—Jack of “Jack and the Beanstalk,” and Jack the Ripper, who cut quite a figure in his day.

As for you, Harry, you probably sign your checks sure in the belief that you are the first Harry of all time and that all other Harrys are impostors. I can think of two Harrys that preceded you. There was Lighthouse Harry of Revolutionary fame and a Harry Appelbaum who lived on the corner of 93rd Street and Lexington Avenue. Unfortunately, Appelbaum wasn’t too well-known. The last I heard of him, he was selling neckties at Weber and Heilbroner.

Now about the Burbank studio. I believe this is what you brothers call your place. Old man Burbank is gone. Perhaps you remember him. He was a great man in a garden. His wife often said Luther had ten green thumbs. What a witty woman she must have been! Burbank was the wizard who crossed all those fruits and vegetables until he had the poor plants in such confused and jittery condition that they could never decide whether to enter the dining room on the meat platter or the dessert dish.

This is pure conjecture, of course, but who knows—perhaps Burbank’s survivors aren’t too happy with the fact that a plant that grinds out pictures on a quota settled in their town, appropriated Burbank’s name and uses it as a front for their films. It is even possible that the Burbank family is prouder of the potato produced by the old man than they are of the fact that your studio emerged “Casablanca” or even “Gold Diggers of 1931.”

This all seems to add up to a pretty bitter tirade, but I assure you it’s not meant to. I love Warners. Some of my best friends are Warner Brothers. It is even possible that I am doing you an injustice and that you, yourselves, know nothing about this dog-in-the-Wanger attitude. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to discover that the heads of your legal department are unaware of this absurd dispute, for I am acquainted with many of them and they are fine fellows with curly black hair, double-breasted suits and a love of their fellow man that out-Saroyans Saroyan.

I have a hunch that his attempt to prevent us from using the title is the brainchild of some ferret-faced shyster, serving a brief apprenticeship in your legal department. I know the type well—hot out of law school, hungry for success, and too ambitious to follow the natural laws of promotion. This bar sinister probably needled your attorneys, most of whom are fine fellows with curly black hair, double-breasted suits, etc., into attempting to enjoin us. Well, he won’t get away with it! We’ll fight him to the highest court! No pasty-faced legal adventurer is going to cause bad blood between the Warners and the Marxes. We are all brothers under the skin, and we’ll remain friends till the last reel of “A Night in Casablanca” goes tumbling over the spool.

Groucho Marx

Monday, November 1, 2010

Postscript to "Two Perspectives on Sports as Prelude to the American Football Season" - A Millionaire Speaks

Several Sundays ago, I reflected at length on the point of diminishing returns common to the expanding world of American professional sports, and while the season has largely managed to slip past our household unawares, only a true hermit could be oblivious to the cascading news reports of disturbing concussion research, a brutal body count as starting players fall to the wayside with season-ending injuries, and the ugly display of an aging quarterback stumbling under the spotlight as equally ugly news of unwanted naughty sex texts surfaced. There may indeed be something noble in the spectacle of an athlete past his prime valiantly struggling to stay upright and ward off a vicious defense. But the concept of nobility has clearly left the building when said athlete skips training camp, fires off endless interceptions, and gets busted sending shaky photos of his limp manhood while sprawled on a bed wearing Crocs.

One suspects that Brett wasn't quite ready for the big wide world when he tossed off a sneer in Green Bay's direction and decamped for New York, or at least he wasn't prepared to find available admiring ladies in much shorter supply than he was used to in the cozy environs of Brown County. I don't for one second believe that Favre's texting misadventures with Jenn "Gameday Host" Sterger during the 2008 season were the first or last occasion on which he's dropped his pants to impress somebody besides his dutiful wife of fourteen years. In all likelihood, it was Favre's celebrity that kept potential partners mum during his stay in Green Bay - a celebrity that was perhaps a little less impressive when dumped into the uneasily impressed world of The Big Apple.

But it's easy to get sanctimonious about a millionaire with a current quarterback rating of 69.8 percent and deluded enough to think a woman would be flattered and intrigued by grainy photos of an organ in a non-aroused state (not that said organ in an aroused state would prove flattering and/or intriguing, either. But it would at least offer something to, as they say, hang your hat on ). No prude myself, I'd prefer to let Favre take the reins and personally demolish his reputation, as he kind of does in this revealing post-game interview taken after the Vikings fell once again, dropping to a rather dismal 2-5 standing:

"I was shocked that I was able to play and move around the way I was. My prayers were answered. I wanted the chance to play. I wanted the chance to play and play at a high enough level to give us a chance to win. I didn’t want to play just to play. I didn’t want to come in for one play to get a start; I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to come in and help this team win. It was touch-and-go even before the game today. I think what would keep most guys out for a long time obviously hasn’t kept me out.”

For the record, that's ten "I's" in nine sentences, all of them glowing in self-adulation, none of them seemingly aware of the fresh loss or the 2-5 losing season or even the fact that he's playing alongside a team of players besides himself - in fact, a team that he's currently being paid $16 million to play for, which works out to one million dollars per regular season game. Or, if you want to be brutally accurate (and I do), about $500,000 per turnover (if he continues at his current pace, that is).

After penning my original post on the launch of the football season, I heard from a business partner of my father's and old family friend, who added these helpful statistics to my more abstract musings:

"The 2010 Green Bay Packer payroll for 53 players is approximately $126,000,000. On average a teacher earns about $50,000 a year. Is the value of 53 players really the equivalent of 2,520 teachers?"

Much as it pains me to say it, given the weekly spectacle of a vain and hobbled ballplayer yakking on about answered prayers amid picked-off lobs and pocketing $1 million per week between sexting sessions, it would seem to be that 53 players really do seem to have more worth and importance than 2,500 teachers.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

An October Parable

Strictly speaking, a parable is nothing more than a brief story detailing some kind of moral or religious lesson. They merely differ from the fable in that parables do not rely solely on animals or natural objects, but utilize human beings to convey the message. In this sense, what I'm about to relate is not actually a parable, as it is the retelling of an actual event - parables are fictional creations. But I'm going ahead anyway, because it seems to have at least something to do with getting at a conundrum particular to the human experience - the ways in which a good deed can harm another, and the means by which we measure the harm we dole out to others.

With a one-gallon plastic water jug in one hand and some coins in my pocket, I set out over the Vermont Street pedestrian bridge to the nearby shopping complex in order to replenish our water supply. The water in San Diego is not to our taste. The water dispenser charges 30 cents per gallon (a 5 cent increase from our old digs in Ocean Beach). I had counted out coins for what I thought was just enough to fill up the water jug.

On my way towards the water machine, I walked past a slouched, heavyset young man with a thick beard, a full mane and a tired expression. His backpack rested beside him as he slumped on a bench near the Trader Joe's. He was clearly down on his luck. "Can you spare any change, sir?" he asked as I walked by. The thought quickly raced through my mind that I only carried with me enough coins to fill the water jug, and had left my wallet at home. If I gave this young man even a nickle, I would then have to turn around and walk home without filling my water jug. In this case, my needs outweighed his, I reasoned. I said, "Sorry, man," and shook my head with what I hoped seemed a sincere grimace of regret. He said something to the effect of "have a nice day," and I walked on.

While filling up the water jug at the nearby water machine, I discovered to my surprise that I had actually grabbed an extra coin on my way out the door, and that four dimes lay inside my pocket, rather than the exact-change three. And while a measly ten cents wasn't going to make the difference in whether or not this down-on-his-luck fellow spent the evening outside, I could at least give him one coin and not pretend that I could not afford to help out a struggling individual. I felt pretty good about this, having gotten my water yet still able to give away.

However, as I turned from the water machine and walked towards the down-on-his-luck individual, I saw that a new, equally rumpled and down-on-his-luck individual had sat down on the bench immediately preceding the young man I'd earlier spoken to. This individual was older and rougher, and seemed to have been weathering the streets for a lifetime. He watched me approach and as I came near, he asked, "Can you spare a little change, fellah?"

And there I was, equidistant between this new individual and the other individual who'd previously asked me for spare change and to whom I'd said no. This previous individual looked up at the sound of the older man's voice, and could see and hear all. So the decision became : do I hand over the dime that I now knew was sitting available in my pocket, in full view of the individual I had just refused to hand any coins over to? Or did I say "sorry" to this newer individual and then give the coin over to the individual who'd previously asked me for help? In either case, I risked upsetting or insulting the other party, by seeming to suggest I had money for one and not for the other, or that I was choosing favorites in my decision to hand over money.

There was, of course, a third option, which was to say "sorry" to the new individual and then walk past the original individual, also without giving up my dime. In a way, this seemed utterly ridiculous, a real lose-lose situation. On the other hand, given the fact that I only had a single coin in my pocket (which couldn't be divided up in any way) and given the fact that in no way could I hand over the coin to one party without the other seeing me do so after denying them the same, it seemed perhaps the wisest choice. And so this is what I did. I said "sorry" to the newer individual and walked past the original one. The newer man yelled out something about how he wanted a "cheese-bugger".

So, did my decision not to give either individual my coin stem from a desire not to hurt or insult the other, which, in a way, is mostly just thinking about myself (i.e., this will be awkward and uncomfortable)? Or was it a legitimate response to a situation that was going to be impossible to resolve in a way that wasn't awkward or uncomfortable? In the long run, was a dime going to make any long-term difference in the lives of these two individuals? Would ten cents go farther in creating positive results than any negative results that might be created through a seeming act of disdain? Or was this the most brutal sort of social darwinism, avoiding the awkward social encounter deemed ultimately more important than committing an act of empathy or selflessness?

And this, of course, is why I have trouble sleeping at night.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Boosterism Will Get You Nowhere (or, Whatta They Got That We Ain't Got?)

San Diego may be the eighth-largest city in the United States (the ranking does keep moving around ) and the second-largest city in California, but even with a population of 1.3 million and the ownership of one of the most perfect climates on the planet, we've got a little self-esteem problem. Perhaps it's the combination of that perfect climate - which in and of itself, of course, counts for absolutely nothing in the grander scheme of Great Urban Attributes - and our self-identification as a Family Friendly Vacation Destination, which tends to rub off the hard-bitten gleam larger cities often aim for. Maybe it's a reflection of the fact that many of our residents are originally from places elsewhere, moving from much colder or much hotter places and settling in with gratitude at the ability to maintain year-long open windows while not being bothered to do much of anything to actually improve or challenge the city. It also probably has something to do with the larger and more cosmopolitan megalopolis of Los Angeles that lies just an hour or two up the coast.

So I tend to ignore the local newspapers in their year-round attempts to highlight the awesomeness that is being a San Diego resident, 90% of which seems to involve the weather and nearly the remaining 10% the San Diego Chargers. Beach volleyball may take up a half of a percent. When the results of Most Livable City polls or Money magazine investigations are released, San Diegans eagerly peruse the rankings, looking to see where we've landed this month, how we've fared compared to the Bay Area, and keeping an eye out for new slogans to plaster along development corridors.

We're a catchy slogan type of city, after all, and our addiction to slogans is directly related to our low self-esteem. It was in 1972, for example, that our Republican Mayor Pete Wilson announced that San Diego was "America's Finest City," and set about launching a massive PR campaign to link the city with this newly-coined phrase, through a massive city-wide festival that August. The reason for this sudden pride in San Diego's national ranking was the result of the Republican National Committee rescinding their selection of San Diego as the host of the 1972 Republican National Convention, after months of careful planning by the city's Republican leadership. Miami became the replacement location, largely due to the fact that the Nixon White House anticipated massive protests for the occasion, and thought the city of Miami had an urban layout that would allow stricter control of access to the convention, although the official story at the time was that San Diego lacked proper convention facilities. Smarting from the public humiliation, and struggling to offset accusations that San Diego would never prove anything more than a second-tier convention town, Mayor Wilson conjured up both the slogan and the week-long festival of parades, half-marathons and a massive picnic in Balboa Park that directly coincided with the Republican Convention. The mayor's office was not merely a supporter of these celebrations, but the schedulers and the promoters. "America's Finest City" was thus born, and lives on today in the onslaught of advertising dollars dedicated to never again allowing our waterfront city a convention snub.

So it should come as little surprise that the recent release of the results from an almost charmingly-simplistic Harris poll - to wit, "Which American city would you like to live in or near?" - have set tongues wagging, at least in the editorial rooms of our struggling newspapers. For once again, the great metropolis that is San Diego has failed to ascend to the highest summits, and has placed a disheartening second, just under that pretender to the throne, New York. We beat Seattle, Los Angeles, Denver, Boston, San Francisco - Christ, we beat everybody except New York. And yet still we feel the pain.

The San Diego Union-Tribune has penned a short piece on the latest outrage that opens with the ominous phrase, "This is getting old". The article reads like the petty gripings of a Kaukauna high school newspaper taking potshots at the coach for Combined Locks after a third quarter fumble recovery. "What gives? New York has Eli Manning. We, thankfully, don't." Later, it is noted that, "In the winter, it snows in New York. In the summer, it’s muggy in New York." A kind of funny bit about TV filming locations (ie, New York has 30 Rock, San Diego has the "much better Terriers") suggests the editorial staff may be in on the joke, but then they go ahead and bluster, "Broadway? Well, San Diego has the Old Globe Theatre. And as the song goes, If you can make it there ... Over the years, more than 20 plays produced by the Old Globe have gone on to Broadway or off-Broadway venues," which comes off as humorless and pouty. A few comments from one-time New York residents who've moved out our way and a side panel query concerning, "What do you love about San Diego? Use the comments space below to share your favorite features, places, shops, spots or what have you," closes out this hard-hitting slice of journalism, along with a photograph of a bucolic San Diego draped in a thin strip of marine fog and surrounded by glorious sunshine. The available images of also-ran cities such as Los Angeles (a sky view of a cityscape cloaked in view-obscuring smog), Denver (a darkened figure huddled forward against the onslaught of snow and ice) and Atlanta (two people with their backs to the camera, standing in front of a giant CNN statue) make their final points.

It's not often that I turn to online reader's comments for sanity, especially not in this fairly reactionary town, but for once, I'll have to admit, the readers of The San Diego Union-Tribune can smell a load of horse manure when they're standing next to it. "I've lived here for 37 of my 45 years," one reader posts. "I left once, came back, and almost left again. San Diego is a pH-7, shoulder-shrug town. We're neither as great as our cheerleaders make us out to be nor as bad as our detractors do. There's nothing keeping me here except my job, and there's nothing driving me out of here." Another realist notes, "Both cities are great and both have their advantages and disadvantages. People who have never been to NY never believe me, but it's a lot easier to find friendly people there and strike up an interesting conversation than it is here." Someone who's obviously a big fan of the old L.A. hardcore band Fear pipes in, "New York's alright if you like saxophones... ". And some words of wisdom are offered up by somebody after my own heart, who calmly states, "Until you have spent some time in a real world-class city, you can't know how far short San Diego falls. There's a lot more to life than nice weather."

But how much fun is reasoned discourse and mild self-deprecation in this age of rage, rancour, suspicion, idiocy and miasma? So this is why my favorite "reader's comment" came not from any of the above individuals who no doubt love sleeping with the windows open but wish we had a few more Vietnamese cafes and a bookstore or two, but with the admirably focused individual who saw his/her opportunity and took it. Because when one hopes to dissuade fellow citizens on arguments regarding the supremacy of San Diego versus New York, you make a lengthy post regarding Unarius, the "sadistic rape suicide cult of El Cajon". Actually, you make two lengthy posts, each (again, admirably so) distinct documents with individual points and highlights.


Post #1:

What does New York have that San Diego doesn't?? It has a sane, normal code of business conduct that does not allow sadistic rape suicide cults like Unarius in El Cajon, San Diego to exist, let alone steal money from the public by pretending to have licenses or degrees or certification to teach or do therapy. Unethical amatuers cannot practice therapy or teach in New York. In San Diego, you can do any corrupt criminal activity you like and get away with it, just as Unarius set me up to be raped, stole my money and made me homeless. Read my lawsuit and you will see the truth of this million dollar cult who lies to the IRS in order to not pay taxes on their profits from their high prices books and classes. They should be shut down, but in San Diego, no one cares. In New York, they could never pull off their scams. Unarius 16 members are mentally ill, liars, promiscuous rapists, sociopathic predators, swindlers, unethical, corrupt ex-alcoholics, murderers who served time in prison, suicide indulgers, prostitute users, who continue to engage in Consumer fraud, False advertising, and sell their opinions as facts. They are amateurs posing as professionals; their fake school is a front for their illegal activities, for preying on the gullible public and finanically exploiting and sexually abusing innocent victims. {{personal email deleted}}

Post #2 :

New York does not have the criminal corrupt fake school Unarius, in the poverty town of El Cajon,San Diego run by 16 ruthless mentally ill, sociopathic, dysfunctional, sexually promsicuous, unlicensed swindlers, rapists, pimps and predators who are amateurs posing as therapists, teachers and scientists in order to financially exploit and sexually attack fragile, vulnerable, naive, gullible, susceptible pretty women and the throw them out. They are not licensed nor degreed nor certified by any state or federal agency or college to do therapy or teach science to the public and take money for it. They are sadistic con artists who ripped me off, stole my money, set me up to be raped by one of their unlicensed teachers who made me homeless. They generate a profit by selling their opinions disguised as facts, in their useless and dangerous classes and sell their diaries and fake outer space transmissions filled with violence, rape and murder crimes and fantasies. Unarius members are skilled criminals who use mind control, brainwashing techniques on their recruits along with their secretive suberfuges, ruses, ploys to hypnotically induce altered states of consciousness in their victims. They use their own manufactured hypnosis tapes to do persuasive coercive subliminal induction on their unwilling victims, without obtaining their permission or consent. Unarius was arrested for prostitution and solicitation to commit prostitution. They have a secret cult conspiracy of silence among their aging members and hide their true identities and home addresses from the public while ripping them off with their fraudulent useless classes. As one of their victims, I can tell you, they would NEVER have been able to pull off their scams in New York. Shame on San Diego for not shutting down Unarius, the rape-suicide cult of El Cajon. {{again, personal email deleted}}


Somebody grant this individual an editorial column. The reasoning and logic in the above paragraphs make at least as much sense as denigrating the island of Manhattan and the other four boroughs solely due to the existence of Eli Manning.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

An Autumn Cornucopia

As an unseasonably cool summer gives way to an already unseasonably wet autumn here in San Diego, our local farmer's markets show no sign of slowing with fresh produce, and those of us lucky enough to live on the 33rd Parallel against the Pacific can count on the appearance of newly seasonal fruits and vegetables as we begin our slow descent into a gentle winter.

Over the last few days, my wife and I have been lucky enough to sample or experiment with a number of foods that were either new to us or through presentations we hadn't previously been aware of. Some of this may be old news to home chefs and food enthusiasts. But I've heard enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that many others might be equally surprised by what we've found.

1) Roasted Butternut Squash Seeds Are As Tasty As Roasted Pumpkin Seeds

I've long suspected that one of the many reasons autumn is by far my favorite season has something to do with the smell and taste of roasted pumpkin seeds - a treat that the eight year old Jason would gladly bypass tubs of ice cream and bars of chocolate for. In the years since, heavily-salted crispy handfuls of pumpkin seeds have continued to ascend in my estimation. I cannot explain why it took so long to apply the most basic logic to the scientific facts surrounding pumpkins and question the direct relationship between pumpkins and what we Yankees call "winter squash". The fact that Australians and the British refer to winter squash as "pumpkin" should have been the tip-off that all members of the cucurbita genus (one of the highest gifts on offer from the New World) are filled with decent-sized seeds just waiting to be washed, dried, drenched in seasoning and roasted.

So, I'll ask - how many of you out there regularly sort out and save the seeds from a butternut squash for future roasting? If you've tended in the past to merely discard the seeds along with the stringy gops of squash flesh surrounding it, I caution you to set down your instruments and step away from the gourd. The only thing standing between you and a scrumptious small bowl of salty goodness is an oven cranked to 350, a handful of salt (and maybe a sprinkling of chili pepper or similar hot seasoning), and no more than 5 minutes roasting time. Turn the seeds to keep them from burning. And listen for the distinctive pop as they cook.

2) The Distinctive Pleasure of Fresh Black-Eyed Peas (The Legume, Not the Chart-Topping Pop Act From East L.A.)

This past Sunday, as we picked up our weekly CSA farm box, we were stopped by the farmer in charge of the entire J.R. Organics operation, who wanted to make sure we had a fresh clump of black-eyed peas in our plastic bin. Farmer Joe also wanted to pass along a recommendation on how to prepare the peas, an easy method involving only a few ingredients, all of which were helpfully already included in that week's crop. I've spoken before of the importance of speaking with the individuals who grow your food, but how cool is it to also receive cooking recommendations from these individuals as well? What follows is Jane's adaptation of Farmer Joe's recipe.

I suspect that 99% of Americans come into contact with black-eyed peas through the canned or dried variety. These being fresh from the fields, I had to set about shelling them, a task which wasn't nearly as arduous as I'd feared.

The freshly-shelled peas were a lovely shade of light green - a pleasant departure from the pale white hardness of dried varieties.

The large heap of leftover shells were destined for the compost pile.

Next, the shelled peas were simmered in a bit of water until they were just softened, then removed to drain.

In the meantime, we diced up fresh grape tomatoes, one garlic clove, a few green onions, added salt and pepper, and squeezed some fresh lime juice over the top. A little stock would be a nice addition, too, although we just used a bit of water.

Just before serving, we added the black-eyed peas back into the tomato/garlic/onion/lime juice mix, and stirred until heated throughout. The result was a small, simple yet flavorful dish.

3) The Attack of the Three-Foot-Long Armenian Cucumber

So, over the past month or so, we've been spotting these elongated, green, cucumber-like objects snaking their way around the produce stands of some of the local farm tables, and it didn't take long to start inquiring as to what exactly they were. "Armenian cucumbers," we were told, although we quickly discovered they weren't exactly Armenian and were not really cucumbers. Dubbed the "snake melon" for obvious reasons, this crisp fruit can grow upwards of 40 inches in length and is actually a type of melon (they cannot be cross-bred with regular English or garden cucumbers). We've found them to taste much like a mild cucumber, and have tended to consume it sliced (and peeled, although the skin is quite edible) and raw with a few tomatoes, basil leaves and/or chunks of feta. More difficult to grow than the regular cucumber, this may be another one of those rarer produce types that we're lucky enough to easily find in our own big backyard. But if you spy any in your produce section, don't hesitate to grab it up and use it just as you would regular cucumber.

The image below features an apple and an avocado for matters of scale. This was one of the smaller individuals.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Always Read For Content: The Stunted Candidacy of Carl Paladino

Take a good look at the asinine image posted above and ask yourself the following question: if I was running for the position of Governor of New York state, and I came across this Internet image in the middle of the campaign, even if for some reason I found it funny or witty rather than racist and stupid, would I be hapless enough to forward it on to friends, coworkers and associates? If you answered "yes" and would like to also forward some bestiality videos and a poster prominently featuring the word "niggers," then you, too, might be qualified to run for governor of the great state of New York.

As a one-time New Yorker, the ongoing tussle between Carl Paladino and Andrew Cuomo for the position of Governor is something I can't help but take some interest in, but the race and in particular the details surrounding Mr. Paladino's campaign would probably be of interest even without my four year sojourn to the Empire State. Because in the guise of Paladino I see the larger national pattern of insurgent candidates trying to unseat political careerists (not always a bad thing) by tapping into a vague populist rhetoric (not always a good thing) that ultimately masks their utter lack of either original or practical ideas (almost always a bad thing). Let's examine the evidence, shall we? Paladino's resume contains few surprises - real-estate CEO (and thereby a pure product from the bedrock of contemporary political expertise), Italian-American (certainly not the first Italian-American to espouse the conservative cause, cf. Justices Alito and Scalia), a prior registered Democrat (from 1975 until 2005), married with three children.

I won't dwell on this final point, but it should at least be noted that Paladino has had to grapple with the untimely revelation that he also has a ten year old daughter from an affair conducted with a prior coworker. And while the details of this act of adultery don't interest me in the slightest, it's worth keeping his cheating in mind as one details some of the stances and positions Paladino has taken in his race to the top of New York politics. This controversy was merely one of several to rain down upon Paladino over the past six months, and with each new outrage or pseudo-outrage, the pundits have definitively produced death certificates, only to be stunned by Paladino's resurfacing the following week, scarred but generally none the worse for wear.

Make no mistake, Paladino has committed gaffes that any reasonable outside observer might logically conclude would sink a governor's quest in one of our more consistently left-leaning states. Consider his pious announcement that, if elected governor, he would utilize the machinations of eminent domain to halt the construction of the Lower Manhattan mosque that has so captivated the minds of millions of American citizens who spend most of their time dismissing New York as a cabal of radical elitists but perk up their ears whenever a hack politician or talking head utters the phrase "scared ground". More specifically, Paladino insisted that members of the Islamic faith not be allowed to erect "a monument to those who attacked our country" and added that, "Ground Zero for me is the extended site over which the dust cloud containing human remains traveled" - a fallout zone where any and all traces of Islamic culture must not ever desecrate.

It's the kind of principled opposition that rouses the patriotism of a certain subset of voters, even if the calm certitude Paladino expressed during the above exchange almost instantly devolved into cringe-inducing absurdities (interviewer: That was a vast [dust cloud] -- if you recall -- it stretched all the way to Weehaken, to parts of Hoboken, miles from where this thing happened. Candidate Paladino: Well, I don't think it went out that far. It went out about a quarter of a mile, I think. Well, I don't know the exact distance. I don't mean to make out that I know the exact distance. But wherever it went, wherever that dust is caught in the crevices of buildings or in the crevices of sidewalks, that's human remains, and it should be treated that way).

I'm pleased to note there was much less backtracking when Candidate Paladino offered up his thoughts on the concept of a free press when he snarled at New York Post reporter Fred Decker his plans to "take you out". There was little in the way of outrage when he confidently suggested that the recent passage of health care reform legislation would prove a day that "will be remembered just as 9-11 was remembered in history". And when confronted with the undeniable reality of the explicit and racist emails he forwarded to friends and associates, he offered up an apology only to "the ladies" out there, coyly adding that he'd apologize to any man who never forwarded similar Internet outrages during their time here on earth. When pressed for a more specific explanation of why a candidate for governor was forwarding bestiality videos in the first place, he simply noted that he "was human". I'll admit, it's a potentially risky stance for a politician to take.

But let's look once more upon these forwarded emails, these proofs of Paladino's humanity. Not literally - aside from pasting the image of the President and First Lady as Pimp and Ho, I don't feel an aching desire to trawl the Internet for white supremacist propaganda or woman/horse love. But let the record show that Candidate Paladino did forward a video entitled "Obama Inauguration Rehearsal" that consisted solely of footage from an African tribal dance. Equally hilarious was a fake motivational poster of a small airplane crashing into a dusty field, with African men rushing out of the flight path. The legend for the poster reads: HOLY SHIT - run niggers, run! For those uninterested in the politics of racial antagonism, Paladino included a few instances of hardcore pornography and the aforementioned moment of tenderness between woman and horse.

What's that you say? Tsk, tsk, a man's previously visited websites history is his castle? Even if said man constantly offers up encomiums to his own identity as a guardian of the family?

Then what to make of his most recent public statement, in which he turned an address to Orthodox Jewish leaders in Williamsburg, Brooklyn into an anti-gay rant that dominated local and national coverage? His talking points were run of the mill - he spoke of innocent children being "brainwashed" by seditious homosexuals, noted that homosexuality was "not" a "valid and successful option" for life, and attacked his opponent for choosing to march in a recent Gay Pride parade. "That's not the sort of example we should be showing our children," he loftily concluded, later adding details on just the distasteful sorts of man-on-man gyrations he observed during the parade festivities in some major Canadian city.

We could reflect momentarily on the sheer audacity of a man who has publicly admitted to forwarding videos of a woman being mounted by a horse also claiming to be mortified by the image of a man dancing during a parade. And any discussion of the Williamsburg event must take into account the cold and tone-deaf timing of a politician choosing the first week of October to launch a preemptive attack on the gay community - a mere two days after the New York area was startled by the kidnapping and torture of three gay individuals by a Bronx street gang, and a few weeks after a Rutgers student committed suicide off the George Washington Bridge after being secretly videotaped and outed by fellow students. Advice columnist Dan Savage's response to the Rutgers case and other recent gay teen suicides was to start up the ongoing video project It Gets Better, in which grown individuals offer words of encouragement for making it through the horrors of high school. Paladino's response, apparently, was to speak of imperiled children and brainwashing.

And yet. I must admit to harboring a bit of sympathy for the hapless Candidate Paladino. Having actually viewed the video footage of his anti-gay speech to the Orthodox Jewish audience, it's difficult to argue with his eventual excuse that he had simply been handed a speech prior to taking the stage and that the views expressed within were those of the speechwriter, supposedly a member of the synagogue, and not himself. Being a bit of a public speaker myself, I'll agree that he reads the statement as if he was seeing it for the first time, with long pauses, mis-pronunciations and awkward phrasing. And news organizations have widely reported the fact that the original text of the speech included the sentence, "There is nothing to be proud of in being a dysfunctional homosexual. That's not how God created us". Paladino declined to read this particular sentence, and I suspect that this on-the-spot editing accounts for at least one of his long pauses during the video (see here to decide for yourself).

It's become immediately clear that the Williamsburg speech was actually written by Rabbi Yehuda Levin of the Rabbincal Alliance in Brooklyn, which should come as no surprise to anybody even remotely familiar with Mr. Levin's career. Yet another classic example of a fraud hiding behind the cloak of religious respectability, Mr. Levin is a former Pat Buchanan supporter who has routinely sided with Christian evangelicals over matters of gay rights. Most notably, he inserted himself into plans for a Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem, urging protesters to resort to violence to stop the event, warning, "I promise there's going to be bloodshed". This would not prove the first time Mr. Levin has advocated the spilling of blood to halt the outrage of homosexuality - he went on record blaming the gay lifestyle for the recent Haitian earthquake which killed over 200,000 individuals.

Paladino has since apologized for his Williamsburg speech, which promptly led to today's news flash that Rabbi Levin had withdrawn his previous support for the candidate. While claiming he did not write the speech in question, Mr. Levin noted that he did offer some "input" on the text and at any rate "stands ready to defend it". Whatever Mr. Levin's input did or did not consist of (and for the record, I'm guessing he wrote a considerable amount), the controversy is important for several distinct yet related reasons. Lest we forget, it's notable to acknowledge the existence of hateful religious rhetoric emanating from focal points other than Christian evangelicals, as in this case the bigotry spewed forth from Orthodox Judaism. And Paladino's decision not to read the "nothing to be proud of" line is to his credit. One might even note that during the whirlwind final month of a major campaign, a candidate might simply find themselves reading aloud speeches without first analyzing them for content (although it must be noted that Paladino had earlier complained of Gay Pride parade activity without any speech in hand. And, cough cough cough, that he also somehow attempted to compare his anger over the Holocaust with his anger over gay marriage - it's a deep pit you're digging there, Carl, better take a lunch break).

But more to the point, the Williamsburg controversy highlights the deep instability and confusion displayed by many politicians attempting to huddle under the Tea Party dome, from true libertarian Rand Paul actually expressing some examples of libertarian thought to the anti-onanistic absurdity of Delaware's rising star Christine O'Donnell. By aligning themselves unreservedly with reactionary figures on the religious right, the hopefuls of 2010 simply dilute whatever mildly interesting argument they might otherwise be capable of making in regards to governmental overreach.

I can't bring myself to condemn taxation, I don't shriek socialism when mild health care reform passes, and I have never prayed at the alter of the free market. But as a rational and open-minded individual with a keen sense of my own limitations and ignorance on many matters, I'm always willing to consider reasoned arguments in favor of reigning in spending or halting the growth of a steroid-injected government. While I don't sympathize or agree with their worldview, a true burst of authentic libertarian sensibility might prove a useful counter punch to the untrammeled greed and corruption at the heart of both major political parties.

But if the U.S. military budget is off limits for spending cuts, if attacks on gays and opposition to gay marriage continues unimpeded, and if unwavering opposition to abortion rights remains the rule of the day among the Tea Party crowd - well, you'll have to forgive me if I suggest that the members of our newest third party uprising brush up on their Ayn Rand and Robert Nozick texts. And I'd further recommend that Carl Paladino best rethink his campaign strategy of reading out loud a third-party speech handed to him by a superstitious bigot who thinks earthquake fault lines were put in place by an angry God to rid the world of queers (actually, I don't recommend he change his strategy at all, and therefore continue to flounder,but I digress). Prove to me and to any other moderately open minded individual that one can run a fiscally conservative campaign without resorting to culture war vocabulary, and without groveling at the feet of censorious crusaders wielding religious dogma and their own tax-free status as a weapon. That in itself might prove to be revolutionary.