Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Definitely More Fun Than The USS Cleveland

As many of you well know, my wife was deployed for a seven-month period on a Navy ship (technically an LPD or amphibious warfare ship) from November 2007 to June 2008. You may have heard some tossed-aside reference to this being the "worst deployment ever". Jane had little to compare her deployment to, but others around her had made several journeys to distant lands, and they were the ones capable of pointing out how the mighty USS Cleveland, at one point destined for donation to the Mexican Navy, was steaming her way into one of the lamest supposed-to-be-a-six-month-then-it-became-a-seven-month journey of seeing bits of the globe and passing by a great many more bits. All were grateful that the deployment was largely uneventful and safe - aside from a brief adventure chasing pirates off the Horn of Africa, there were no acts of aggression, and as ship's doctor, Jane was relieved to make it through the entire ordeal with no fatalities. But the good ship and true did manage to bypass the beckoning ports of Singapore and stay clear of the likes of the Mediterranean Sea. Most of the deployment was spent making wide turns in the Persian Gulf. Extended port visits to Dubai, Bahrain and, later, Brisbane helped cushion the blow. But seven months in a bobbing tin can among the oil fields does little for the soul and less for the mind.

And then there was the matter of dining. Again, as you may or may not know, my wife has a bit of a palate when it comes to food, and long before the ship set sail, we had carried on several anguished conversations revolving around how on earth she was going to withstand the steady and unrelenting crimes against cuisine she would be forced to confront. I had the dubious honor of sharing several meals with my wife and her Navy guys (and they were really almost all guys - Jane was one of a dozen females on board), and I can report back to you that while the food was not inedible, it was neither a large improvement over what I remember from my cafeteria lunches back in Catholic school days. Of particular notice was the coffee - little more than a brown crayon dropped into scalding water. While nosing around the beverage dispensing units, I was a little touched to discover that some enterprising executive had turned the "French Vanilla" option to "Freedom Vanilla". Your tax dollars at work, folks.

The logistics of cooking multiple meals for a ship full of hungry individuals hundreds of miles out at sea is complex enough that I can't be too hard on them for failing to offer sumptuous feasts. And at $3.50 per meal (yep, the poor saps have to buy their chow), it's clear that Thomas Keller isn't whipping up variations on truffled risotto. But try and wrap your mind around the fact that the ship was on a 21-day menu cycle - meaning that one had less than two dozen distinct dishes for a period of 210 days. My wife insists that the most egregious offender was the chicken cordon bleu, which "squeaked" when you cut into it and which she ceased eating somewhere around its third appearance in the galley. Mexican night and burger sliders were a rare highlight. Copious amounts of salt were required to turn the meals into something possessing small amounts of flavor, to the degree that sodium packets were practically a side dish. And she never ceased wondering how on earth $3.50 could buy you a full plate on the legendary "Steak and Crab Legs Nite". She stuck with the salad bar and lost weight.

One of our good friends was a fellow shipmate on the mighty Cleveland, and he recently was sent off for yet another deployment, this one to Iraq and Kuwait for an ever-shifting mission that sort of involved working with the Iraqi navy. Our fellow food enthusiast is of Peruvian heritage, and thus boasts an iron stomach that allows him to consume not only variety meats of every shape and consistency, but also sees him consume entire apples - core, seeds, stems and all. There were many things he was dreading about this year-long trip to the Middle East. I'm not sure how high military food ranked on that list, but I'm guessing it had a excellent vantage point. His early reports from the field were not positive. He alluded to "zero consistency" of morning reveille, noting it might take place "anytime between 0345 and 0700 daily". Of the weather, he allowed that "hell is at least 20 degrees cooler than this place". He painted a picture of his drab surroundings, pointing out the lack of a post office, PSD/RSO, or store. There were several gyms and a galley, and even a bar. Yet our friend told a sad tale of how after the British troops had pulled out of Umm Qasr, the American forces had been ordered to, as he put it in all caps, "DESTROY ALL THE BEER". While British troops are apparently trusted to indulge in a little imbibing now and again while risking their lives and combating boredom, American troops are given no such benefits. It is, in fact, a hallowed tradition in the American military to observe zero tolerance of alcohol on board ships and bases (binge drinking on weekends back home in the states, of course, is fully endorsed). And so as soon as the Brits had vacated the premises, a higher-up ordered all the remaining cans of beer to be placed in a vacant car park and for an armored vehicle to be driven across them to crush the living daylights out of every Stella Artois, Guinness, Strong Bow and Tetley's (oh yeah, pretty good stuff - these are Brits we're talking about). 7,000 cans, worth $50,000. Our friend referred to the act as a "travesty". The Times Online was a bit more bemused. At the time, I quipped, "The US military - keeping the world safe from terrorism and fermented beverages since 1775".

It was some time later that a mournful distress call was sent from the desert, reading simply, "I miss beer". And yet, three days later, a new telegram ripped through the Internet, again in all caps and displaying a noted uptick in morale. "I AM NOW ON HER MAJESTY'S ROYAL SHIP AND THERE IS BEER!" In a still somewhat mysterious move, our friend had been plucked up and placed inside the RFA Cardigan Bay and was reaping the benefits of suddenly becoming, for all intents and purposes, a member of the British Navy. And let me tell you, folks - monarchical nonsense aside, it sounds like a much better deal for all involved. Facial hair is "fully authorized". Alcohol flows freely on board. Cheese plates are served before dinner. Sailors are blessed with countless hours - nay, days - of leave. Our friend chatted with us via Skype from a hookah bar one night, in which he calmly gave praise to our royal partners from behind billowing clouds of hookah smoke. He even sent us a menu through the mail to give us a glimpse of what they enjoyed nightly on board. I've included a scan of Sunday 20th December 2009's offerings below.

For those unable to make out the graphics, it looks like the RFA Cardigan Bay supplies its sailors with a "soup of the day" (green pea and sippits, by which I think they mean "sippets," which is small pieces of bread used as a garnish), a "sushi-grade" salmon and mackerel salad, a serving of "Chicken Cleopatra" (with baton carrots, cauliflower and bombay potatoes), "fresh cold cuts and assorted salads," some cheesecake, and the ubiquitous cheese and biscuits (crackers to you, Yankee). I suspect this is a fairly typical menu offering. I received an email from him last night in which he mentioned the ship was observing Robby Burns day and he was just finishing up a scrumptious meal of haggis and mashed swede (or "bashed neeps," which I think I like even better).

Before his current deployment, our friend spent his nights on a personal sailboat that bobbed in the placid waters of San Diego Bay. Like all proud boat owners, he decided to give his vessel a name. He chose "More Fun Than Cleveland". At least one commanding officer on board the mighty USS Cleveland got wind of this ironic baptism, and expressed their deep displeasure at such disrespect. As one can see from the top of the menu he sent us, official censure did not lead to a name change. In fact, he is loudly proclaiming now that "words cannot describe how much more fun than Cleveland the RFA Cardigan Bay is. She is ridiculously awesomer to the Nth degree. BEST LPD EVER."

Ooh-rah, my friend. And Bravo Zulu. But I still think you owe my wife some bashed neeps.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Dubious Honor of the 41st No

With health care reform chances currently swirling around a very deep drain (I'll avoid the clichéd "life support" analogies no doubt peppering other blogs and columns) in the wake of this week's magical transformation of Massachusetts from blue to red, and with the breaking news of a landmark Supreme Court case effectively handing next year's election over to the party of corporations and multinationals, it would be surprising if those of the liberal persuasion were not stumbling about with shell-shocked looks and offering vague mutterings on "retrenchment" and "soldiering on". Tuesday's special election undeniably dealt a devastating psychological blow to the Democratic Party, but, as always, both the losers and the winners are breezing over the myriad reasons fiscal conservative, waterboarding-supporter and 1982 Cosmo nude centerfold hunk Scott Brown swept into a Senate seat held since 1962 by Ted Kennedy and assumed to be sacred ground by left-leaning New Englanders. Sure, "populism" played a role, as did Tea Party anger and independent voter concern over deficit spending. But this wasn't simply a national referendum on health care reform - not if the battlefield is the state of Massachusetts, where health care reform was already passed in 2006, with support from the Senator-elect. And not when the opponent was the likes of the hapless Martha Coakley, who ran an incompetent, elitist, tone-deaf campaign that failed to energize whatever base she apparently believed she owned and angered or annoyed everybody else. And knowing Boston baseball culture, I suspect that Coakley's she-says-it-was-a-joke / I-say-it-was-a-gaffe pronouncement that Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling was a "Yankees fan" cost her as many votes as any single issue at play in the election. It would be a plot worthy of a great satirist if Curt Schilling could be considered to be the major reason health care reform failed in 2010, but there's no reason to discount the possibility. Whatever the causes and whatever the reasons, this off-year election would seem to have cost the nation yet another shot at tackling the health care situation in this country. For the second time in my relatively short life.

There are plenty of logical arguments to be made against specific or even broad provisions of the current health care bill, mostly rooted in fiscal or economic concerns. Details, one notes, continue to be rather shadowy and vague. Yet, arguments for fiscal restraint (seemingly the most obvious and clear-headed reason for opposition) have been employed less often then a frothy mixture of outrage, taunts of communism, accusations of death squads and pandering to pharmaceutical and insurance companies. There's a reason such tactics are used - they are much easier to digest than a painstaking deconstruction of financial realities. And so we have been treated to the spectacle of politicians and public alike wringing their hands over illegal aliens receiving medical attention and Nazi squads taking grandma out with suicide machines. I could point out that very few of the individuals raising their voices over the utterly fantastic charges of "death squads" made any kind of objection when our previous leaders sent very real military squads across the Atlantic to lay waste to the cities of Baghdad and Tikrit.
But it's always easier to get behind a vague military course of action than a vague health care overhaul course of action.

Rational discussions concerning specific concerns and highlighting limitations of health care reform would have been quite welcome and probably rather enlightening. Instead, we were treated to road blocks and obfuscation. And as the news percolated throughout the blogosphere and the pages of Facebook that health care reform was, in its current manifestation, dead, an odd smugness and glee pervaded the messages of many. Political victories should always be relished, and far be it from me to deny anybody an opportunity to enjoy a thick slice of schadenfreude. But when people react to the news that millions of their fellow citizens will likely not receive medical coverage with whoops, cheers and even a "ha ha!" (this from a physician, no less), you'll have to excuse me if I suspect they never had any rational or persuasive arguments against the movement in the first place.

But why should anybody expect empathy from a national movement that still finds some sort of inspiration from that emblem of compassion Rush Limbaugh, who, in an attempt to clarify an earlier comment made concerning aid and donations to earthquake-stricken Haiti, suggested this week, "Nobody here ever said don’t donate. We just pointed out you already contribute to the government with your income taxes". If one subscribes to the chilliest brand of pragmatism on the market, then it does become easy to mock liberal pieties as soggy, immature and fiscally reckless. I've been known to mock certain liberal pieties myself. Yet empathy remains that rarest of human traits - one of the few characteristics that firmly lift us beyond the lesser beasts, childhood and barbarity. Of course, one can't be aware of every misfortune or painful truth currently afflicting most of humanity. I've had the misfortune to share seating space with these types of individuals, and their inability to rationalize why bad things happen to good people, while perhaps noble and certainly compassionate, results in a near paralysis of action. So I'll take a good dose of cynicism with my compassion. But there is little nobility or pride in choosing a path that always sets up opposition, closes one's eyes to the plight of others and looks out for number one.

You may disagree, but I suspect our national distrust of socialized medicine has little to do with those truly informed individuals capable of laying out specific fiscal concerns and sociological ramifications of national health programs. Rather, there exists a murky and perhaps unconscious mélange of thought that combines quasi-biblical notions - of the rewards of hard work, say, and a suspicion that misfortune only impacts the unrighteous - with a well-worn copy of Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations. Do we still, as a people, view the afflicted as ultimately reaping the price of some earlier sin? Scoff if you must, but in this intensively religious nation, no practice lies untouched by some aspect of theology.

So, who knows what may eventually become of this drifting health care bill, already declawed and neutered beyond anything resembling true reform? I would respectfully note that despite all the hushed tones concerning the loss of the fabled 60 votes, as long as that farkakte schnook Joe Lieberman was on the case, there were never 60 votes in play anyway. But I'll conclude by suggesting (and here comes the liberal piety bit) that it is always important to remember the human cost when somebody gleefully runs as, and somebody gleefully votes for, "the 41st vote" to kill health care reform. I'm not normally inclined to cite entertainers, but Vic Chesnutt isn't an ordinary entertainer. A witty yet bleak Southern singer-songwriter, he first gained fame in the 1990s with a series of moody acoustic albums that were produced and praised by members of R.E.M. While it was never the main focus of his music, the 1983 car accident that left him partially paralyzed seeped through every aspect of his work. He spoke to Terry Gross on NPR early last December, an interview that included this brief, passionate and ultimately very sad discussion over his health struggles. Chesnutt committed suicide later that month through an overdose of muscle relaxants at the age of 45.

GROSS: I read that you're in debt like $50,000 because of health insurance issues.

Mr. CHESNUTT: That's right.

GROSS: So - and this is because you had a series of surgeries and although you pay a lot for your health insurance, it didn't cover all of it. Is that - do I have that right?

Mr. CHESNUTT: That's exactly true, yeah.

GROSS: Uh-huh. So, what are your thoughts now as you watch the health care legislation controversy play out?

Mr. CHESNUTT: Wow. I have been amazed and confused by the health care debate. We need health care reform. There is no doubt about it, we really need health care reform in this country. Because it's absurd that somebody like me has to pay so much, it's just too expensive in this country. It's just ridiculously expensive. That they can take my house away for a kidney stone operation is -that's absurd.

GROSS: Is that what you're facing the possibility of now?

Mr. CHESNUTT: Yeah. I mean, it could - I'm not sure exactly. I mean, I don't have cash money to pay these people. I tried to pay them. I tried to make payments and then they finally ended up saying, no, you have to pay us in full now. And so, you know, I'm not sure what exactly my options are. I just - I really - you know, my feeling is that I think they've been paid, they've already been paid $100,000 from my insurance company. That seems like plenty. I mean, this would pay for like five or six of these operations in any other country in the world. You know, it affects - I mean, right now I need another surgery and I've been putting it off for a year because I can't afford it. And that's absurd, I think.I mean, I could actually lose a kidney. And, I mean, I could die only because I cannot afford to go in there again. I don't want to die, especially just because of I don't have enough money to go in the hospital. But that's the reality of it. You know, I have a preexisting condition, my quadriplegia, and I can't get health insurance.

GROSS: Is it true you can't get good health insurance?

Mr. CHESNUTT: I can't get - I'm uninsurable. The only reason I have any insurance now is because I was on Capitol Records for a while. And I had excellent health insurance there. And then when I got dropped from Capitol, I Cobra'd my insurance for as long as it was legally possible. And then -which was insanely expensive, to Cobra this very nice insurance. And then, when that ran out, the insurance company said they could offer me one last thing and that is hospitalization. It only covers hospital bills. That's all it covers. And it's still $500 a month. So, it doesn't pay for my drugs, my doctors or anything like that. All it pays for is hospitalization. And yet, I still owe all this money on top of that.

GROSS: Wow. Well, I wish you the best with your health and your music. And I really want to thank you...

Monday, January 18, 2010

All Praise To Ye, Mighty Moules

Apologies to those who live far from our salt water coasts and to those of the vegetarian persuasion, but I need to offer up some praise, admiration and love to the lowly bivalve known as the mussel. We first attempted preparing mussels back in our New York days, when fresh seafood entered our lives, and we quickly became hooked - on the taste, the presentation, the sheer versatility. What proved most delightful was how mussels responded effortlessly to whatever preparation one decided to use. As long as the mussels themselves were fresh, the rest was up to the cook.

One could argue that the French eat escargot not because they love the flavor of snails, but because it is such a fantastic excuse to enjoy potent spoonfuls of garlicky butter. In much the same way, one doesn't necessarily serve mussels only for the taste of the sea critter itself, but also for the wonderful broth that comes as a result of the steaming process. In fact, whenever I serve mussels, I always make sure we have a large serving of crusty bread to serve alongside - the dunking of warm bread into rich moules broth is a pleasure I'm sure will one day be taxed.

This is not to deny the flavor of the mussel itself, which is a truly lovely mixture of brine and richness. And the quality of the moules dish is often wholly dependent on the mussels. But let's not kid ourselves. What distinguishes a superior dish of mussels from its lesser neighbors are the ingredients used to flavor and steam them with. And it seems that the possibilities are nearly endless. This brings up the other fascinating thing about mussels, which is that it would be difficult to think of other dishes that have such slight differences in presentation between "pub grub" and haute cuisine. That is, a bowl of mussels steamed in a rich white wine and parsley-based broth is pretty much going to taste as good coming out of the most humble French seaside bistro as it will during a seven course tasting meal (provided the mussels were properly scrubbed free of grit, of course). A bowl of moules can be both the food of the people and the dinner of kings.

Anthony Bourdain (who somewhat famously frightened many readers away from ordering mussels in restaurants after revealing the often-sloppy attitude taken by many back kitchen employees) has it right when he characteristically insists that mussels are excellent "bang for your buck" food - "dump stuff in a pot, cook for a few seconds, and drop into a bowl". They go very well with french fries. They pair excellently with both beer and wine. They fill you up slowly, have very little fat, and lots of selenium and Vitamin B12. They look pretty in the bowl. They are the rare aphrodisiac that would be consumed without the sexual side effect promise.

Bourdain's enjoyable Les Halles Cookbook has several pages of competing moules recipes, all of them sounding mouth-wateringly good - moules normandes (with bacon, mushrooms, apple and Calvados), moules a la portugaise (chorizo and lots of white wine), moules marinieres (utterly basic, with only butter, shallotts, white wine and parsley), moules a la basquaise (roasted bell peppers), moules a la grecque (secret ingredients fennel, lemon and coriander). I've enjoyed a Greek preparation from the Attica region called midia saganaki, or "mussels au gratin," which involved first steaming the mussels open, then removing the meat from their shells and baking in the oven over a thick tomato/feta sauce. And let us not forget Asian approaches to the mighty mussel - the intense flavors of geng hoi malaeng puu mangkrut (or "mangosteen and mussel curry) come from the fiery blend of red chilies, shrimp paste and galangal. I'm sure we could go on and on.

But my moules gift to you will be from the wintry lands of Norway, in a preparation utilized just last night. It's a rather straightforward approach, but with a surprising addition of cinnamon sticks (or bark). Let me assure you - it's utterly lovely.

Finally, I can neither confirm nor deny that I suspect the dire warnings made by each and every food handler in these united states regarding unopened individual mussels - namely, that way there be danger - is poppycock. The reason I'm remaining mum on this point is that I'd hate to be responsible for something as dreadful as food poisoning. But read these words of wisdom from the good folks at San Diego's own Sea Rocket Bistro on the matter, and ponder the adventures of David Dale. Then make your own decision. If you're still too skittish to consume the stray unopened mussel, do as I do and order slightly more than required when next at the fishmongers (or, ok, the grocery store). And happy steaming.


Moules a la Cannelle

2 pounds fresh mussels, scrubbed & debearded
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 garlic cloves, crushed and chopped
1/4 cinnamon stick
fresh or dried thyme
1 cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
grated orange zest

Heat oil in a pot just large enough to hold all the mussels. Saute the garlic briefly. Add the cinnamon stick, thyme and mussels. Pour in the wine.

Cover and let steam for 6-8 minutes, until the shells have opened. Transfer to a serving bowl.

Bring the cooking juices quickly to a boil. Cook for several minutes until thickened. Stir in butter and mix. Pour broth over the mussels. Sprinkle with parsley and orange zest. Serve immediately.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Eric Rohmer, 1920 - 2010

If the passing of a young talent comes as a shock to admirers and followers, the passing of an aged master may be less surprising but no less disheartening. When word of filmmaker Eric Rohmer's death this week at age 89 became known, one could only respond with a bitter smile. The smile recognized his accomplished and thankfully healthy long life, which allowed him to spend nearly the past sixty years crafting personal cinema. The bitterness acknowledged that he may well have spent yet another decade adding to his work if given the chance. Prolific and profound until the end, he leaves us with an amazing contribution of twenty-seven full-length works, plus television and shorter films, all stamped with his individuality and none marked by compromise or overtures to marketplace trends. To work successfully and prolifically in one's chosen medium for sixty years would be a triumph for any artist - to do so in the cutthroat world of the cinema is nearly miraculous.

I have special feelings for Rohmer's cinema because it was through him, and specifically through his 1970 film Le genou de Claire / Claire's Knee, that I first discovered and fell in love with a certain type of arthouse cinema. It was college, sometime in my sophomore year, during a period in which I began scouring our university library's media collection for video cassettes (yep, that long ago) of intriguing movies. I had long been interested in what I had thought was serious cinema, which at that time primarily meant violent and morally ambiguous crime narratives and the like. Scorsese was a favorite, as was Michael Mann. Tarantino was a god. Kevin Smith seemed audacious. With the exception of Smith, who I now find unbearably smug and completely tone-deaf in his camera work, the above filmmakers are all serious, committed individuals working creatively, intelligently and doggedly in their line of work. But Claire's Knee was something else entirely. I'm not sure why I picked it up or what I thought it might offer - it could be (no, it was almost certainly) that the cover, with its perfectly framed bare leg of a coltish young woman on a ladder, and the older protagonist gazing up towards her bent knee, gave a hint of some decidedly continental eroticism that might become more pronounced in the final act. In fact, the eroticism was palpable throughout the entire film. Yet, it was eroticism of a type I'd never before witnessed or thought possible - an eroticism of glances and conversation.

Claire's Knee was dialogue-driven, yet not merely wordy. It was calm, but not complacent. It was complex, but not pretentiously so. To offer a brief synopsis is to risk making the film sound foolish or simply banal - an aging ladies' man on the brink of marriage travels to the Swiss border and Lake Annecy for a July vacation, in which his eye falls upon the charms of two tempting and ripe teenagers, the younger of whom is intrigued by this bearded rogue, the older of whom barely notices him. While the younger girl, Laura, is by far the more interesting and delightful of the two, our protagonist finds himself drawn to the slightly more sullen and traditionally beautiful (although slightly boring) Claire. Unwilling to derail his approaching marriage or perhaps simply fearful of rejection, he sets his sights on something more easily achieved than the girl's affections - her knee.

This type of storyline could easily lend itself to either broad comedy or pathetic tragedy. If left up to some Hollywood hack, no doubt the film might turn into a hysterical indictment of predatory lust or some kind of romantic comedy mush in which his fiancée shows up at the end and they fall back into each other's arms while the teenage temptresses grin knowingly. Rohmer chooses neither comedy nor tragedy. We may smirk at the deluded and foolish behavior of our unlikely protagonist, but most viewers would never think to condemn his actions. Indeed, he barely commits any action at all, and certainly doesn't wallow in crassness or mere leering. We simply watch with interest as he talks his way around his desires, while the women remain above it all, wise, insightful, toying and clever.

This film, like all of Rohmer's many films, revolve around what David Thompson has dubbed "modest action" - no sudden moves, no quick resolutions, just ideas, emotions, challenges and subtle thought patterns that unfold as gently as they do in real life. And yet there is tension in these films, even gripping tension, at times. We find ourselves caring deeply about these intelligent, flawed, unapologetically normal characters. At the same time, we gaze at the beauty on the screen, usually of young women but often the beauty of men as well. We wait for action, which rarely arrives. We find ourselves relieved that it does not.

This is a literary cinema. The majority of Rohmer's films were divided into structured tellings, such as "The Six Moral Tales," "Comedies and Proverbs" and "Tales of the Four Seasons". The moral tales were even written and released by Rohmer as a collection of short stories, and they are wonderful examples of short fiction. Yet Rohmer was not merely a novelist working in cinematic form or a great artist who chanced upon film and decided to use it as his medium. These are not filmed plays. Despite all the dialogue and the relative lack of action, Rohmer's films boast stunning settings and lush framing, and an often remarkable sense of place. The shimmering waters of Annecy, the brooding mountain ranges and the hazy July air are nearly characters in their own right throughout Claire's Knee (this, of course, has something to do with the wonderful cinematography of Nestor Almendros). Rohmer never settled for the lazy reliance on close-up face framing between speaking characters the way TV movies so often do. This may be a cinema of ideas, but to call it static is to miss a massive part of Rohmer's considerable appeal.

Perhaps my admiration for Rohmer stems from the fact that he always trusts us to watch, to ponder and to observe. Some of his films are long, many are intellectually taxing. But in response to our trust, he gives us images of utter loveliness, gentle humor, remarkable dialogue and a long career of remarkable consistency. Like Yasujiro Ozu, Rohmer offered film lovers his own world - Rohmer Land - a world instantly recognizable, that one can enter and re-enter any time one chooses. We should be grateful that he was given the opportunity to offer these cinematic gifts for as long as he did. I hesitate to say "Rest In Peace," because he seemed so at peace on this earth already.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Say It Ain't So: Notes On The Perennially Disillusioned Sports Fan

Mark McGuire's recent mea culpa had all the trappings of a media event, as sapped of spontaneity as an evening at The Oscars and so carefully rehearsed as to suggest pre-performance blocking and lighting cues. With his statement to the media, a series of interviews culminating with a live sit-down across from the ever-accommodating Bob Costas, and the dripping of a few salty tears, ten years of clandestine juicing was simultaneously revealed to the world and swept back under the carpet, with reputation and future Hall of Fame hopes possibly still written into the contract. It's little wonder that McGwire's daylong sackcloth and ashes routine came across as stilted and lifeless - the plan, we now know, had been formulated over the past month by none other than Ari Fleischer and McGwire's new boss, the St. Louis Cardinals. Fleischer's "crisis communications company" - creatively dubbed "Ari Fleischer Sports Communications" - had been crunching the numbers, typing up scripts, compiling contact sheets, and perhaps even conducting simulation exercises in order to present the worst-kept secret in Major League Baseball as a breaking story.

The entire concept of framing a steroid abuse confession as an exercise in "Crisis Communication Strategy" is, of course, disgusting. But one should not be surprised that more public figures turn to such approaches to handle the messier details of their private and professional lives. After all, so many celebrity athletes and entertainers have ceased to exist as human beings and must be more properly viewed as brands, corporate entities and intellectual property held under copyright. Viewed through this frame of reference, fallen heroes like Mark McGwire and Tiger Woods resemble a flooded warehouse or a buckled high-rise more than a sex addict or a substance abuser. And no doubt McGwire has learned from his fellow transgressors, such as A-Rod's earlier sold-out tour of confession and shame, sprung into action after lying bald-faced to Katie Couric.

Yet we may be forgiven if we ask what took the slugger so long to come forward and discuss what everybody already knew. After all, anybody unfortunate enough to witness McGwire's oafish performance five years back at the televised Congressional hearings knew firsthand the record-holder had something to hide - something that he was incapable of hiding. His stammering, shifty-eyed, "plead the fifth" appearance, in which the legal ramifications of his words led him to choose them carefully and refuse to discuss simple yes and no questions regarding personal steroid use, was a textbook example of a guilty man drowning in full view. His performance that day made Alberto Gonzalez look like a witness stand pro. This past week, declaring the time for storytelling to be over, McGwire produced the surest sign of authentic male remorse possible and shed some tears. One might be forgiven for suspecting Mr. Costas was holding up a sliced onion, just off-camera.

For how spontaneous can a bawl-session be that had been one month in the works? Had McGwire been coached by fellow crybaby Glenn Beck, or was he simply taking a cue from big baby Kanye West, who sunk as low as would be thought humanly possible when he allowed the likes of Jay Leno to induce a sobbing fit in front of a late night studio audience. I haven't surveyed all the sports writers and bloggers of note to see if others were swayed by McGwire's act of emotion, although the New York Times apparently thought the story was a big deal, even going so far as to suggest that the live interview "justifies what (the MLB Network) is paying" Costas. But I would hope that journalists and fans would see through McGwire's stunt for what it is - as ludicrous and as ineffectual a dog and pony show as airport security.

Poor Roger Maris. And poor Bud Selig, who must be wishing he had access to some good anti-depressants these days. Mr. Selig released a nearly incoherent statement that both referenced this latest admission and sort of made the announcement that the "use of steroids" has "greatly subsided," adding that "Marks' admission today is another step in the right direction". I'm not interested in reading it again, but Selig's statement would seem to suggest that the Age of Steroids is now over.

Even before this story made its way to the front pages, I had been thinking about making some kind of post exploring the multiple examples this past year of severe fan disillusionment in athletic icons. If McGwire had been a beacon of hope among steroid monsters to a small and retreating group of believers, what to make of the sudden plunge of former "Athlete of the Century" Tiger Woods? If anything, Woods was even more of a brand than McGwire, equipped with even fewer recognizable human qualities, less a flesh and blood athlete and really just a walking corporate logo. When a roguish red-blooded male with a taste for tail was inadvertently revealed beneath the soul-crushing banality of his false media personality, one logical response would have been for his enormous fan base to give a collective sigh of relief at proof that a beating heart lay beneath all that placidity. Yet jaws dropped almost as fast and as brutally as the endorsements. While it comes as no surprise that the likes of GM, Nike and American Express would prove to be as skittish as colts at any hint of controversy, one really must ask if what basically amounted to a fight between cheating husband and outraged wife really justified such public recoiling, or if it was the mere fact that Tiger Woods possessed a sexual identity which led to the quick disassociation.

And while it wasn't nearly as much of a fall from grace as the above examples, tongues were also set wagging last year when Michael Jordan ascended the stage to accept his no-brainer acceptance into the Basketball Hall of Fame. Even the most distanced observer of Jordan's career had to note that the greatest basketball player of all time was nearly (stay with me here) Warren Buffet-like in his mastery of skill and unwavering devotion to success twinned with a seeming inability to enjoy the results of said success. Any doubts as to Jordan's joylessness and petty nature were cleared up during his graceless, catty, accusatory and bitter score-settling farce of an acceptance speech last September. Sneering at a high school teammate by name who had been chosen for the varsity team over Jordan himself, swiping at college roommates, taking potshots at old coaches, and griping about that perennial villain The Media, he could have been described as the epitome of a poor loser, except that he hadn't lost a thing. Rather than acting like a figurehead, he came across as little more than some small-town high school quarterback who sprained his knee during Freshman year and spent the rest of his days gaining weight, brooding and taking out his anger on Pop Warner youth. Except he wasn't any of those things. He was Michael Jordan. Apologists and "I Wanna Be Like Mike"adherents insist it was all in fun, a locker room sparring session brought into the black tie arena by a driven competitor. I say, the ego has landed.

I won't even discuss the ignoble return to the professional stage of Michael Vick, whose actions were boneheadedly defended by some clueless fans who view any and all forms of criticism as "hating," while also attacked by others as a villain on the scale of Hitler and Pol Pot. Given the media hysterics and protests at play, one might have suspected Vick had flayed young orphans and impaled their bodies on stakes in his front yard in the Atlanta suburbs. No denying Vick's dog-fighting operation was loathsome. Yet I really must wonder at the universal condemnation when many of these same scandalized individuals raise nary an eyebrow when some other professional football player beats his wife or girlfriend to a pulp.

Why waste breath and ink on such a rogue's gallery? My interest is less in rehashing the sordid details or passing judgment on behavior (although that can be fun) and more in questioning why there is so much dithering and disappointment - even shock - when professional athletes behave badly? Why would anybody expect moral guidance and philosophical insight from bulked-up individuals who are paid millions of dollars to physically compete with other millionaires in front of millions of strangers? Without getting too relativist about it, morality has absolutely nothing to do with the cultivation of physical and athletic skill. It would be nice if it did, but it doesn't. Touchdowns and home runs are executed by individuals who have remained committed to a punishing and wearying routine of physical endurance, who have devoted hours towards practice and discipline, and have attempted to approach realization of their body's full potential. These are admirable goals. They are not moral choices. One need not examine one's soul or question how one's behavior may be impacting others to excel at competition. In fact, one might even argue that kind of stuff simply gets in the way.

My interest in sports has never been very strong, and what little existed has faded ever since I left central Wisconsin, where an addiction to football so permeated the air that even non-enthusiasts had to take part or at least have an opinion on the matter. I often wonder why I can't be bothered to care about something that so many millions of my fellow citizens care deeply about. I suspect it has something to do with the transitory and fleeting nature of professional sports, a disdain for macho behavior, my disbelief at the inarticulateness of post-game interviews and an avoidance of cheap beer. There's enough of a Green Bay Packer fan left in me, however, to understand how and why enthusiasts place great hope in a favorite player or a loved team. I need only think of the sagging shoulders of my family when such exemplars of the athletic code as Mark Chmura and Eugene Robinson met their sexual come-uppance to recall how easily one can feel real betrayal when a player lets you down. But it has been quite some time since an athlete wielded enough influence in my life to let me down, and at this cynical stage of the game, I wonder why anybody would place their moral and behavioral hopes in a famous athlete. And while McGwire's admission certainly stings because it negates his previous accomplishments (he cheated, no question), the same can't be said of Tiger Woods' latest adventure. His accomplishments stand no matter how many times he lies dazed on the pavement in front of his driveway. To be utterly crude about it, when it comes to ability and skill, a golf ball is the only item belonging to Tiger that we should care about going into a hole.

Kids need role models, sure. I wish they had better ones. We shouldn't be surprised that in a nation nearly driven to apoplexy when the president hinted at making an address to schoolchildren, people would strain to locate less controversial figures for inspiration. Why people think professional athletes fill this supposed moral vacuum is beyond me. I can't help but think of a crack Bill Maher once made when a guest grew hot and bothered about the infamous "wardrobe malfunction" that supposedly scarred the nation by revealing Janet Jackson's nipple shield, unforgivably televised. "It was the Super Bowl," the guest insisted. "Oh, right," Maher sneered. "Church".

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

15 Notable Musical Releases of 2009

Summing up the year in popular music is a fool's errand, especially if said fool is not a gainfully employed critic on the receiving end of record company promo shipments. While some may argue that the age of the download has allowed any discernible music fan to stay abreast of developing trends and hot new acts, I find the shift from album format to compressed file a bit dispiriting. So, what follows is not in any way a definite list of "the best" music of 2009 - I imagine I'll be catching up on last year's various artists and (I'll say it) albums for quite some time. Such are the benefits of moving beyond the world of the eternal hipster and into the more comfortable realm of the skeptical yet enthusiastic pop culture consumer. Below, find 15 aural artifacts of the decade's final year, arranged alphabetically. All should be played loud on free-standing stereo systems.
1) Mulatu Astatke / The Heliocentrics - Inspiration Information Vol. 3
Astatke is an Ethiopian musician who's been exploring what he dubbed "Ethio-Jazz" since the early 1960s, both in his native Addis Ababa and in London. The Heliocentrics are a UK-based groove collective. Together, they've released a true collaboration of pan-Arab freak jazz that's tough enough to function as dance music and smart enough to reward close attention. Complex, yet never simply complicated, these artists understand that explorations in modality and scales needn't disregard paying homage to The One (we're talking beats rather than gods here). For once, a collective that proves to be more than the sum of their influences, which is to say I thought about James Brown, Sun Ra, Fela Kuti, Charles Mingus and DJ Shadow while listening but was rarely reminded of them. Guitar distortion and vibes paired alongside masengo, washit and begena -this must be what the proponents of globalization have been talking about all these years.
2) Cold Cave - Love Comes Close
Matador stepped in to reissue this blink-and-miss-it pressing of tunes from ex-hardcore and art-slop aficionados from Philly, and lucky for us (well, some of us). The chilliest of icy electronics dominate half-familiar melodies buried beneath layers of gauze that both shimmer and smother, and if several tracks shuffle awfully close to Bauhaus or Sisters of Mercy mope, Wesley Eisold at other times achieves some kind of genius mashup of bouncy hooks plus noise blasts - a mashup not without its own perverse and unsettling brand of pleasure. The title track boasts a life-affirming jangle that betrays this supposed misanthropic outfit's warmly beating human heart. Like Goth kids congregating for Bats Day at Disneyland, they welcome both sunshine and gloom.
3) Edan - Echo Party
Edan's been keeping the old-school hip hop flame burning in his native Maryland since his days at Berklee, and after a period of inactivity, the good folks at Traffic Entertainment Group set him loose on their hallowed vaults. Two years later, what he offers up isn't exactly what the South Bronx sounded like in the late 70s, but it might resemble how it felt. That is, there's plenty of vinyl crackle and pop, and the classic jams do ebb and flow. But Edan's more concerned with taking a decidedly bent take on block party rhymes - weirder, more chopped up, with added moog and guitar blasts punctuating the mic battles. Like an AM station going in and out of service with each passing bridge and tunnel, let the static drift by and you just might see the big picture. The single track ends after 29 minutes because any more would simply be pretentious.
4) Girls - Album
San Francisco duo, equal parts bohemian fog and afternoon sunshine, whose idea of a profound lyric goes something like, "I wish I had a suntan/ I wish I had a pizza and a bottle of wine". But if you've heard this line sung within the album's opening minutes, it won't soon leave your head. No denying that bands sporting such generic names or having the audacity to title a song "Lust For Life" rarely prove to be a band of ideas. Unless your concept of ideas includes collecting all of indie rock's better practices into one Elvis Costello / Paul Westerberg cocktail. If this sounds appealing (or if you like the idea that they've named the loveliest song on the CD "Hellhole Ratrace") you may be ready for Girls' charms. In which case, may I recommend playing them with the windows open? Not simply to share the melodies, but to feel the breeze.
5) Grizzly Bear - Veckatimest
The usual gripes remain - overly fussy arrangements, opaque lyrics, singer Edward Droste sounding like he's carefully balancing a saucer of milk on his head throughout. Yet why snidely deny pleasures and complexities when they strike home so successfully? Even if they have memorized all their connecting instrumental parts, they rarely sound over rehearsed, and they valiantly fend off the prog beast while never coming across as anything less than progressive. A little mud on their shoes would certainly improve their music. But all gripes aside, a single like "Two Weeks" is the "Penny Lane" for our decade - baroque, poppy, upbeat, melancholy, melodic, choir-boy vocals and all. And, yes, a bit fussy.
6) Mos Def - The Ecstatic
"We live in an age of extremism," intones the Malcolm X soundbite before opening track "Supermagic" slams into a deeply satisfying Bollywood groove. This isn't reactionary or lazy hectoring - it's a deliberate attempt to frame Mos Def's explorations of rhythms and melodies beyond black America into explicitly political terms. His dizzying yet firm grasp of the disparate strands of recorded sound is even more impressive when distilled to 16 short tracks, with only two passing the 3.45 mark. At the end of a decade which saw commercial hip hop sink ever-deeper into the synth-bloated morass of Dirty South imitators, he gives hope to crate diggers and quick rhymers everywhere. What would you expect but historical perspective from a rapper humble enough to use a frame from Charles Burnett's 1977 film Killer of Sheep as the album cover? And what can anybody expect but surprises from this Black Muslim who makes sure the above-cited Malcolm X clip includes the statement, "I, for one, will join in with anyone, I don't care what color you are"?
7) Nigeria 70: The Definitive Story of 1970s Funky Lagos
A welcome reissue of Strut's out-of-print 2001 compilation of funk from the greater Lagos area, this 2 cd companion to last year's Lagos Jump may have some tracks familiar to Afropop aficionados young and old, and may include some tracks of little interest to us non-fanatics. And what is there to say about Bongos Ikwue's "Woman Made the Devil" aside from the fact that it's worth hearing once, if only to witness the dumbest kind of woman hate wedded to what can best be described as Nigerian country and western? But only the most jaded of listeners will be bored by the 22 offerings of fresh beats, deep bass lines, spacey production and knowing voices within this jewel case. William Onyeabor's decidedly odd basement-production funk lecture on the crimes of the world may well be worth the price of admission alone. The last few years have been good ones for Afropop reissues and compilations. We can only hope the current generation of music consumers continue to listen with open and curious ears.
8) A Place To Bury Strangers - Exploding Head
More than a few pretenders to the shoegaze-revival throne have emerged recently, but while worthy outfits like The Big Pink make the mistake of placing their wispy voices upfront, masters like these New York soundwreckers knowingly bury their croons beneath layers of well-crafted noise. In doing so, they're the only (forgive me) Nu Gazers who suggest what My Bloody Valentine really sounded like to virgin ears back in the late 80s. But don't mistake this for merely academic exercises. "Deadbeat" opens with a perfect circa-1966 fuzz riff before leaping headfirst into syncopated sludge-thrash of the grain-silo acoustical variety, while Oliver Ackermann lazily and defensively mutters "what the fuck" over the din. This isn't just good shoegazing. It's good rock and roll.
9) Eliane Radigue - Vice Versa, Etc....
This French composer has been releasing electronic drone pieces, feedback loops and synthesizer works since the early 1960s, with an emphasis on Tibetan Buddhism since 1975. This 2 CD set is something else - preceding her discovery of the ARP 2500 synthesizer, it is a magnetic tape recording from 1970 of nothing more nor less than pulsing feedback drones. Ten copies were made, signed, distributed, urged to be played both forwards and backwards. Forty years on, those of us not Radigue's close friends can experience her project, with a bonus disc featuring the piece(s) played at differing speeds and both forwards and backwards. "Lazier listeners," according to the liner notes, can simply plow through. This one-time fetish item suggests there's plenty of unheard music waiting to find its way to the marketplace, and reminds us yet again that the mp3 file does not represent the most advanced format of audio communication innovation.
10) Real Estate - Real Estate
Stylistically and lyrically, breaks little new ground.These charmingly low key and echo-swathed Garden State boys dig surf guitar reverb, country rock, old REM, probably Modest Mouse, and did I mention echo already? So let those morbid hipster types squeeze into their skinny jeans and stand motionless at Lady Gaga record parties. These fellas think you should swing your arms while you sing along. So, hold on - relaxed country-surf dream pop from Jersey? Maybe they're breaking some new ground after all.
11) Sonic Youth - The Eternal
With one-time Pavement bassist Mark Ibold aboard and Kim Gordon assuming a larger role, this proudly New York band is now nearly one-half Californian. And this West Coast lineage shows in their increasing devotion to songcraft, trippy skronk, interlocking guitar figures, bong-soaked riffing. They give hope to greying bohemians and the rock faithful everywhere. May they continue to rumble and plink their way well into this century. 
12) Kurt Vile - Childish Prodigy
Funny guy, this Vile character. "Childish Prodigy" - oh, how witty. Except give the disc a spin, and you'll be struck by his encapsulation of Lower East Side grime welded to 3-chord proto punk, with more slap-back vocal echo than anything this side of Sun Records' mid-1950s heyday. And then he calms down and inserts devastatingly pretty acoustic guitar parts into the hazy mix. What is his deal? While indie types have long embraced lo-fi aesthetics for reasons ranging from the purely economical to the willfully perverse, Vile would seem to be the first one to go lo-fi because he's always wanted to hear Lou Reed take Dylan's place in The Basement Tapes. Call it moonshine - home-brewed, dodgy, even secondhand, but not without a bitter charm.
13) Where The Action Is! Los Angeles Nuggets 1965-1968
Rhino's second scene-specific Nuggets collection of mid-to-late 60s garage and jangle casts its eye and deep multi-label licensing powers to that other great California city that boasted a multitude of recording studios and lousy public transportation. Only the first two discs devote themselves to fuzz 'n stomp, and the entire project achieves balance by contrasting such pros as Love and The Doors with one-shots as varied as Fapardokly and Peter Fonda. The result is a 4-disc simulation of a slightly groovy, slightly square regional radio station, wheat and chaff in equal measure. And it's effortlessly enjoyable. For the past one hundred years, L.A. has been synonymous with hype, crassness, materialism and phoniness. There's plenty of that here. But there's also craft, enthusiasm, charming naivete, sophistication, intellect, experimentation and energy. How very Hollywood.
14) Peanut Butter Wolf - 45 Live
Bay Area b-boy and scratcher extraordinaire PB Wolf offers up an easy-flowing yet never easy-listening 18-track survey of the 7 inch era of hip hop. The sounds of The Treacherous Three, Fearless Four and Tricky Tee may seem archaic as rap enters its third decade, yet these stripped-down drum machine and simplistic keyboard dominated party jams in a way seem less dated nowadays than tracks from the sample-heavy late 80s and early 90s. Bottom line, it's all good. While rap fans and performers alike have proven remarkably fickle even by pop culture standards, believers like Wolf insist that older voices needn't be relegated to archaeological sites. All respect should be paid to his successful reminder that the old school managed to miraculously produce world-class dance tracks and avant-garde beat worship simultaneously.
15) The xx - xx
Sparse, spare, even haunting, a London quartet (now trio) makes music that is remarkable for being so seemingly tossed-off yet carefully arranged. Rare indeed to find a new group so sure-footed in their approach, so calmly unique. Even rarer to find an indie band with members whose knowledge of black music extends beyond dub and ESG - they're not kidding about those Rihanna and Aaliyah influences. With their gentle guitar strum, charmingly low-rent Casio drones, boy-girl vocal trade offs, apparently satisfactory sex lives, and lyrics like, "can I make it better/with the lights turned on," I suspect all those x's have nothing to do with mystery, death or obfuscation. They're kisses.