Western Ghost Story

There’s no way of telling for certain, but if I am lucky to live a long life, at the end of my days when I look back, I think I will feel amazed at the number of true artists I have called friends throughout my life. Amazed and grateful.

I myself am not artistic, not really, not realistically. I take pictures purely as a hobby; sometimes I think that one or the other approaches what could be considered art. But I don’t pursue photography with the passion and dedication of a true artist, like my friend Shelley. Mostly because I don’t want to — because then it would no longer be spontaneous and fun.

I can’t draw or paint or make music. I am afraid to sing in front of other people.

I know what some of you are thinking, and I really appreciate it, but writing — at least the way I do it — is a craft, not an art. A lot of the writing I do is criticism (as in critiquing, not criticizing) of other people’s art. Does that make me a parasite? Many artists would say yes. I am totally okay with this. The joy and exhilaration I get from great art, and from writing about it, is enough for me.

That doesn’t explain how I got so lucky to have this constant privilege of being surrounded by people who have both talent and tenacity.

This is my friend Laura Gibson. The song is unlike anything else, and the video is like The Others transplanted to Depression-era West.

I first met her in 2006. She slept on the floor of the repulsive hovel we lived in on 19th Street in Brooklyn. She had only just begun to perform her music live.

That was only a little more than five years ago, but in terms of Laura-as-artist, it was a lifetime ago.

Her latest album, La Grande, also the name of the song in the video, is by far her best. To me, it seems conceived as a whole, rather than a collection of songs — like a novel rather than a book of short stories. It’s old-fashioned — which is why it’s called folk music — but it also sounds timeless and like nothing I’ve heard before.

Laura and I are from opposite sides of Oregon, but for this record, she took the eastern side, my side, as her inspiration.

La Grande (luh-GRAND) is a town in northeastern Oregon. When I was in first grade, my dad had to live there during the week. It was when Oregon’s logging industry had begun to tank, and as a self-employed log-truck driver, he had to go where there was work. I missed him so much. I didn’t trust my mom to hold down the fort without him; I felt worried all the time.

Laura’s album evokes the loneliness that I’ve always associated with La Grande, as well as its sense of mystery — a beautiful, small, isolated place that I’ve never been to. I have no idea about what it’s actually like there.

Now that we have ditched the moldy Jetta, maybe I’ll go there this summer, find out for myself. Even then, this timeless album will always be its soundtrack in my mind.

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My Favorite Movies of 2011; or Fassbender Was Robbed

On December 24, 2010, I diligently posted a list of my ten favorite moves of that year. I didn’t have to spend a lot of time on it; the list pretty much wrote itself. 2010 was a very good year for very good movies.

I don’t take back any of them; they were all fantastic.

For a while, I’ve been thinking that 2011 was a mediocre-at-best year for cinema. So many bloated-budget action-adventures and superlame superhero franchises (Transformers, Thor, Captain America — terrible, expensive time wastes). When December rolled around, I felt totally uninspired to create a top-ten list. That is, until Tuesday, when the nominations for the 84th Academy Awards were released.

This gave me a serious case of what the fuck, and I realized that I really did love a lot of movies in 2011. They just happened to be comedies, family, sci-fi and action movies.

I didn’t love a single documentary or foreign language movie, let alone one that was nominated for Best Picture. In 2011, my tastes ran completely populist.

The Ten Movies I Enjoyed Most in 2011

(in no particular order)

Jane Eyre
Best Period Piece; Best Movie as a Substitute for Reading the Book

When I was 15 years old, Jane Eyre was my favorite book ever. It was romantic, exciting, shocking. In college, it occurred to me that the story is terribly sexist and that locking your wife in an attic and pretending that she doesn’t exist because she has a mental illness is totally inexcusable.

Adult me understands that high school me and college me were equally correct.

The movie is gorgeous, and truly captures the spirit of Jane Eyre (Mia Wasikowska), as well as the brooding misanthrope Mr. Rochester, played by the dashing Michael Fassbender. I loved everything about this movie, including the art direction, the cinematography and each and every actor. Most of all, I loved Fassbender — and I am still in shock that he wasn’t nominated.

Rango
Best Kids’ Movie that Isn’t Really for Children

This is one of the weirdest movies I’ve ever seen. If the Coen brothers and Alejandro Jodorowski were to collaborate on an animated film, it would probably turn out looking and sounding exactly like Rango. The chameleon hero is a fast-talking schmoozing charmer, whose dialogue seems yoinked from half a dozen Coen movies. But he’s also the star of his own movie, both the one on the screen and the one in his mind, as in Jodorowski’s Holy Mountain. The movie makes great use of the surrealist possibilities contained in the stark vastness of a desert.

I honestly loved several other kids’ movies in 2011, namely The Muppets, Winnie the Pooh, Rio and Kung Fu Panda II. They are all great and much more appropriate for younguns. But for sheer bizarre, creative cleverness, I give my top spot to Rango.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Parts I and II)
Best and Most Beautiful Fantasy Movie

Part I came out toward the end of 2010, but the saga reached its glorious conclusion in July 2011. It is the third highest grossing film of all time, so chances are you’ve seen it. But if you haven’t, do yourself a favor and watch Part I first. Don’t worry if you haven’t seen the other six (!); the last two are by far the best. Together, they are better than any movie nominated for best picture.

For ten years and eight movies, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint held it together in the face of a constantly changing cast of directors and (excellent) supporting actors. A bad director could have made a bad movie out of The Deathly Hallows, but only three excellent actors could have allowed for a fantastic finale.

This whole enterprise has been a victory — for good children’s literature, artistic production, exciting storytelling and for all of the fortunes it has made. Maybe that should be the real takeaway: You need not make bad movies/books to be wildly popular and make tons of money.

X-Men: First Class
Best Franchise Reboot

X-Men: First Class is a superhero movie that strikes a perfect balance between the bleak depths of The Dark Knight and the sunny silliness of Iron Man. It also helps that, excepting January Jones, the cast is rock solid … and there’s Kevin Bacon. (I know what you’re thinking and don’t worry: This is one of the rare times that Kevin’s bacon stays safely tucked inside his trousers.)

The movie traces the long-lost friendship between Magneto (Michael Fassbender, still sexy) and an unparalyzed Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and his adopted sister Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, always amazing to watch).

Rise of the Planet of the Apes deserves a serious honorable mention in this category. The part where Caesar opens his mouth and speaks for the first time made for the best collective gasp I’ve ever been a part of.

Super 8
Best Dose of Alien Nostalgia

Something I know from riding the subway is that middle-school boys (and also girls) are just as big of ass-faces now as I remember them being. How are they always so adorable on film? Sweet, sensitive, creative, misunderstood little dewdrops instead of the farting, ass-grabbing sociopaths I know them to be. Maybe it’s because of this massive suspension of disbelief required, but any movie starring a squadron of grubby, brace-face tweenlets is bound to excellent. Add a genuinely terrifying alien and some old-fashioned family melodrama, and we’ve got a real keeper on our hands.

Super 8 is a star. Even on a first viewing, the movie is like a smash in the face of your childhood. I wasn’t even born when this movie takes place, the late ’70s, but it seems so familiar: inconsistent parental supervision, an entire family sharing one phone, a bike that can take you anywhere you want to go.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Most Stylish; Best Use of Gary Oldman

Understated, stylish and supercool, this modish spy drama will only appeal to Americans who have a strong, embarrassing affinity for British things. And it wouldn’t hurt if you have read the book, written in 1974 by real-life spy John le Carré. The book is long, and the movie presupposes a passing familiarity with le Carré’s world, something most British people probably have.

The cast of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy couldn’t be better (Firth, Cumberbatch, Hardy, Hinds). But the one thing that makes this movie is Gary Oldman, who, thank Ebert, was nominated for Best Actor. Of course, we know him as a chameleon actor who can disappear (to the point of being completely unrecognizable) in roles as diverse as Sirius Black in the Harry Potters, James Gordon in The Dark Knights, Sid Vicious, Lee Harvey Oswald, Count Dracula and especially as the scary and gross Drexl Spivey in True Romance. The repressed spy-bureaucrat George Smiley might be his best ever.

Contagion
Best Thriller; also, Elizabeth Bennet

Contagion is a horrifying movie, one of the scariest that I’ve ever seen, for the simple reason that it’s entirely realistic. What would happen if a new virus, more contagious than flu, but less than measles, were to descend upon the world? What would happen if about 20 percent of the people who got it died?

Contagion answers these questions, and friends, it doesn’t look good.

It’s so fascinating, well-acted and visually stunning that you forget to feel too bad. Like an episode of Nova, say. Amidst the panic and confusion, a few heroes emerge. They are, of course, the people who retain their decency and humanity when everyone else starts behaving like monsters. And the the biggest hero among this all-star cast? Jennifer Ehle (holla!).

For the geeks: Contagion is the first movie to be shot using the RED MX digital camera. And I’ll tell you what, it looks fantastic. I’m still reeling that this wasn’t nominated for anything, either.

Bridesmaids
Best Comedy

There was absolutely no contest when it came to the funniest movie of 2011, but there were two other great ones that not enough people saw: Cedar Rapids and Our Idiot Brother. They are both terrific.

Bridesmaids is based on a simple premise: Women aren’t so different from men — not when it comes to things that are funny. Humor is based on a shared culture, not shared privates. This isn’t news to people, such as Kristen Wiig, who make their living from being funny. She wrote Bridesmaids with Annie Mumolo, also a woman, and it was directed by Paul Feig, who seems to be a man, but who has nevertheless directed numerous episodes of hilarious TV shows, such as Arrested Development, The Office, Weeds and Bored to Death. It would be easy and convenient to compare Bridesmaids to its cinematic brothers, to call it a female version of such and such Apatow etc., a raunch-fest “for the girls.” But that would be unfair to the movie and to male viewers, who may think that the movie is off-limits to them. Boys? It’s okay. You can see this movie. It’s good.

The Adjustment Bureau
Best Guilty Pleasure; Best Romance (that Men Can Enjoy)

The Adjustment Bureau is a sci-fi fairy tale set in New York City. It’s kind of lovely, surprisingly funny, very well written — and in no way should it be taken seriously.

Oh, please don’t take it seriously! Because then it will just seem lame. Likewise, if you’re expecting a mind-screw along the lines of The Matrix or Inception, no, that’s not what this is either.

I’ve seen it like, four times. I think partly because it was playing over and over on the TV when I was imprisoned on a luxury ocean liner over the summer. But after so many viewings, I realized that I liked it just as much as the first time. That says a lot for a silly movie.

I’ve seen Matt Damon and Emily Blunt have terrible on-screen chemistry in other movies, but together, they crackle. They are attractive and sexy, but most importantly, we believe their relationship.

My honorable mention in the Guilty Pleasure/Romance category is nominated for all kinds of Oscars. It’s called Midnight in Paris, and it’s also a fun fairy tale. But I’m positive that I would be tired of it after four viewings.

Beginners
Best PrettyHappySad Family Values Movie

This is the category most loved by the major awards committees. Take The Descendants — a very good, humorous, sad, gorgeously shot movie; it has been nominated for around ten million awards so far. Beginners is a much better movie — it’s funnier, sadder and more creative. Best of all, it left me thinking something that The Descendants did not: “This is art.”

Christopher Plummer was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this movie, but it deserved a lot more recognition.

Beginners is strangely gentle and visually beautiful and I highly recommend it — unless you are one of those people for whom the sight of two men kissing makes your skin crawl (also known as a “closet case” in the parlance of our times). It seems strange to say that Beginners feels old-fashioned, given its highly new-fashioned subject matter, but I haven’t seen this kind of father-son devotion in a movie since the Lion King.

The father and son in question are played by Ewan McGregor, as a nice man who prefers the company of his dog, and Christopher Plummer, as his father, who at the age of 75, has just come out.

The funniest parts in the movie are those that revolve around Plummer’s character, with his elderly out-and-proud attitude, naively trying to explain aspects of gay culture to his son, Oliver. Being a sophisticated LA artist, Oliver, though straight, is in many ways more in touch with the gays than his dad: His father can’t believe that Oliver knows who Harvey Milk was or that the rainbow flag is a widely known symbol of gay pride.

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Gutters Overflow & People Aren’t Objects

After the driest December on record and a cold, sunny beginning to January, the rains have finally descended on Portland. That’s fine. Rain is important and, for me, always preferable to snow. Now there is mold growing in the backseat of my car.

The Jetta is literally rotting.

My parents’ divorce was finalized yesterday, just over two months after I found out they were separating. That’s some quick work! I learned of this fact via a text message at 2:46 a.m. — one of them is doing better than the other, clearly, and it’s not the one who knows how to send a text. This happened the same week that Dooce and Blurb, two people I’ve never met, announced to the universe that they have separated.

Sometimes it’s easier to relate to people you don’t know. They are more malleable to our imaginations, and we’re generally less aware of their shit. This explains why the Dooce/Blurb news made me feel so sad. After seven years of reading about them almost every weekday, they are still more like fictional characters than actual humans in my brain. But I know my parents. And I know what caused them to break up. Part of me thinks it could be for the best; maybe both of them will be happier in the long run.

I don’t know the secret to a happy marriage, or if there is one, but I think one key is never to treat the other person like an object or as an extension of oneself — the way I’ve done with the bloggers Dooce and Blurb.

This can be harder than it seems. Even the people we love most are always profoundly separate from us, and to forget this is a recipe for unfair expectations, disappointment and irrational anger. True intimacy can lead to a deceptive level of intuition for what the other person is thinking or feeling. But only sometimes. None of us can ever really know what is going on in another’s mind.

I know it sounds obvious, but think about this the next time somebody you love really, really upsets you because you think he or she should have anticipated how something would make you feel. The expectation that a loved one can or should mind read is an indication that we have stopped viewing him or her as a distinct person.

portrait

She, her, who or whom; but never it or that. (Photo by Hans van den Berg)

One of the most basic ways we distinguish between people and objects (and even nonhuman animals) is through language. A person is a he or a she (usually), but a plant is always an it, even if it has a sex. The Associated Press Stylebook maintains that animals should always be referred to as it; though usually, in the squishier articles about a specific dog or cat or polar bear, the copy editors bend the rules.

There is no longer any doubt that the words we use are not only a reflection of our thoughts, but actually affect the way we perceive ourselves and others. This is why there are laws against bullying and why parents say “I love you” to their children 56 times a day.

He, she and it are pronouns that are really easy for most native English speakers. We would never make the mistake of saying, “Patricia looked at himself in the mirror” — or itself, for that matter. Some people with autism and people whose first languages (e.g., Farsi) don’t have gender-specific pronouns can have trouble with this.

However, there is another set of pronouns that many people don’t understand at all — who and that. It’s interesting that people get this wrong so often, because who is almost the same as he and she, and that is first cousins with it.

This tells me that people already know the difference, they just don’t realize it.

A few days ago, the following stupid thing was trending on Twitter: #ILovePeopleThat

So dumb, even if it would have been correct, but in this state it became distractingly annoying. One of my favorite things about social networking sites is the presence of people who are even bitchier about grammar than I am. King Henry VIII (@KngHnryVIII, he of the many wives) responded: “#ILovePeopleThat know this hashtag should actually read #ILovePeopleWho

Me too, Henry!

Henry Tudor was a notorious narcissist; he treated everyone around him, especially his wives, as spiders that could be squashed (or beheaded) according to his whim. But even the person behind his fake Twitter account knows that people should never be referred to as that.

New York City Marathon 2009

So many people WHO ran the New York City Marathon.

I suspect that so many people ostracize who because they find whom confusing — when do you use one and not the other? They are the same word, it’s just that who is the subject and whom is the object. But that is always the same, so maybe it seems safer? Who/whom isn’t too complicated when you remember that you can almost always substitute she/her or he/him.

Who went to the store?”
He went to the store?”

“You went with her?”
“You went with whom?” or “Whom did you go with?”

But even if we use who when we should be using whom (I do when I’m speaking, almost always, but not when I’m writing, which has a much higher burden of correctness), it’s still better than using that when we should be using who! Why? Because humans aren’t objects.

We would never say, “You went to the store with that?” when we mean “your sister” or “your boyfriend” — not unless the intention is to be particularly demeaning, which is exactly what happens when people are treated like objects.

Portrait, Jongkhar village

He, him, who or whom; not a that, not an it.

A quick Facebook search for “people that” reveals the extent of this problem, as well an even more pervasive issue: People who create groups on Facebook are massive idiots.

Clearly, all of these people have much bigger problems than not understanding the difference between who and that. The last one is patently false, in addition to its other obvious issues; the one about “old couples” is grossly condescending; and the rest are passive aggressive, which seems to be one of the main purposes that drive people to use Facebook in the first place. Still, all of them would seem ever so slightly less dumb if that was replaced with who.

The point of this is: Don’t use that when referring to people; it’s the same as calling a person it, which is mean and dehumanizing at a very basic level.

  • “Thanks to all of my friends who came to my birthday party!”
  • “I hate people who don’t use turn signals.”
  • “Co-workers who take 15 smoke breaks per day can suck it.”
  • “Customers who don’t tip are asking for bad karma.”

Will knowing the difference between who and that guarantee a long and happy partnership? Probably not. But it can’t hurt.

Best not to risk it.

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Strike Against SOPA & PIPA

 

Today, we are striking against censorship.
Join the largest online protest in history: tell Congress to stop this bill now!


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Please, Sir, Can I Have Some More?

If you’re getting tired of reading about beans, do I have good news for you: This post is about split peas.

I know — only a botanist makes the distinction. In most of our imaginations, the various peas and lentils occupy the same nutritional and culinary space as beans. There is one important difference, though: cooking time!

The non-bean legumes don’t have to be soaked, and they cook up in a comparative hurry. They have innumerable uses, from spicy Indian food to that bland crap they try to feed you in the more hippified vegetarian restaurants.

Yesterday was cold, at least for Portland, and the morning was foggy (see above). So my thoughts turned to split peas, naturally.

When I was young, our heat and hot water was provided exclusively by firewood, which we would get from one or the other section of the pine forest in the Central Oregon High Desert. This was hard work for the entire family; a shocking amount of our lives revolved around fetching the wood, splitting it, stacking it in the big pile out back and then hauling it to the small pile on the porch. And we had to pay for the pleasure: Apparently, the authorities view taking dead wood from a forest without a permit as stealing.

During the cold months (nine or ten months per year in Bend), we kept the stove going all the time, but sometimes it would go out when we were gone during the day. As the first person home in the afternoon, it was my job to get the fire going again, either by tossing the glowing cinders with newspaper and kindling or starting from scratch.

Lest you think I am like, 80, I would then go play Nintendo till everybody else got home.

Frequently on cold weekend mornings — here’s where the peas come in — I would wake up to the smell of split-pea-and-ham soup simmering on top of the wood stove in a giant cast iron dutch oven. If it got too hot, my dad would lift it off the stove for a while, letting it cook slowly all day long. Everyone pitched in with the firewood, but the peas, as well as most of the better food in our house, were entirely my dad’s scene.

The two wood stoves have been replaced by propane ones, and I haven’t eaten a chunk of pig friend since 1995.

That doesn’t mean I don’t hanker for a big hearty pot of smokey split peas. And I’m happy to say that I made this happen.

The biggest downside to split peas (especially the green ones) is that, when cooked, they closely resemble what a kind person would call orphan food — as in the slop they feed poor Oliver in that dumbest of Charles Dickens novels. An unkind person would say it looks like baby diarrhea. So no, we didn’t eat our smokey split peas out of china teacups with twee little garnishes.

Full disclosure: I set dressed this to detract from what the dish actually looks like.

Aesthetics aside, it’s really good. And anyone would swear there was pork in it.

Secret Smokey Split Peas

Set dressed

I used

  • One large onion, chopped
  • Half a clove of garlic, diced
  • One turnip, peeled and chopped
  • Three chopped carrots
  • Two tablespoons of olive oil
  • One tablespoon of thyme
  • One-quarter cup of Bragg’s (or soy sauce)
  • Two generous tablespoons of vegetable bullion paste (or Marmite or miso paste or three bullion cubes)
  • Three cups of split peas
  • Five or six cups of water

and for the secret smokey ingredient:

  • A tiny can of very cheap chipotle peppers in adobo sauce — like this — don’t buy expensive dried ones! Yes, they are spicy. I am pretty sure you can find other, milder peppers in a smokey preparation, however (chipotles are made with jalapenos).

Here’s what I did

You guys, this is super easy. Saute the vegetables in olive oil on medium-low heat for twenty minutes. Add the thyme toward the end of this. Tear up about half of the chipotle peppers (they come out of the can on the verge of falling apart, no reason to use a knife) and add them, along with three tablespoons of the sauce, and saute for about five more minutes. Turn the heat up to high and deglaze with the soy sauce. Add the peas, add the water, add the bullion.

The water should cover everything else by one or two inches. After the soup comes to a boil, turn the heat way down (peas have a tendency to stick, which is why a slow cooker is ideal for this), cover and stir from time to time. The peas will turn mushy, as will the turnip and carrots after an hour or so. That’s how you know it’s done. If you want a thicker consistency, take the lid off and let the fluid evaporate.

Hearty, filling, vegan, gluten-free. (Don’t worry, I’m still a huge fan of cheese and biscuits.)

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Also, Brunch

Turns out? Last night’s chili makes for some top-notch brunch.

Brunch

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Paleo Schmaleo, I’ll Take the Chili

Chili

Apparently hunter-gatherers didn't eat stuff like this.

Have you heard about the paleolithic diet?

As a vegetarian, I’ve experienced more than my share of people not minding their own business about what I eat. In restaurants, certain family members and co-workers scour the menu for things I “can” eat before looking for themselves — even though I’ve been successfully ordering off menus for more than a quarter of a century. I really believe in not eating animals, and am always happy to answer questions, but I’m not a proselytizer. Vegetarianism is simply not a choice most people are going to make, and to assume otherwise is to be naive and annoying.

The paleo people are proselytizers. They believe that, since we are genetically identical to those hunter-gatherers, we should all be eating the same things that they did prior to the agricultural revolution that happened 10,000 years ago: vegetables, herbs, fruit, grass-fed animals. And that’s it. No dairy, grains, oils, salt, alcohol, coffee, sugar or, get this, legumes.

At a party over the summer, I was cornered by an otherwise intelligent-seeming Palestinian man who told me that my vegetarianism would lead to cancer and obesity (!). Granted, I was gorging myself on cheese at the time, which probably made him intensely jealous, but it was still really strange. I mean, we had just been introduced an hour before.

There is a lot of evidence that this method of eating is based on faulty assumptions and even more to suggest that it is downright unhealthy. I won’t go into those here. Mostly because my brain is stuck on that thing about no legumes.

Beans! What is wrong with beans?!

I agree, most of us would be better off with less dairy, fat, salt, alcohol, caffeine, sugar and fewer (though surely not zero) grains. But legumes? Lentils, peas, peanuts? Delicious and nutritious, they are very high in protein and fiber, contain almost no sugar and, except for peanuts, are very low in fat. As a protein source, they are sustainable in ways that animals, even free-range ones, will never be. Legumes actually improve the land they are grown on.

High bean intake has never been linked with colorectal cancer.

I have trouble buying into a dietary system that allows for bacon but not oatmeal; and for some reason, I just can’t accept that a steak is better for me than this chili that I made last night. (See where this is going?)

In addition to being incredibly easy and mind-bendingly delicious, this has almost no fat and is super high in protein. Also, it’s cold, it’s January and there are all kinds of sporting events on television.

Really Easy Non-Paleo Wintertime Chili

It’s also vegan and gluten-free.

I used

  • Two tablespoons of a high-temperature oil, like peanut or canola
  • Two onions, chopped
  • One garlic bulb, peeled and diced
  • One ghost pepper, one of the hottest peppers in the world. You can use a different pepper, or a few tablespoons of chili flakes or nothing, if that’s what you’re into.
  • One and a half tablespoons of cumin
  • Two heaping tablespoons of paprika
  • One tablespoon of garlic powder
  • Three 12 oz cans of beans (or equivalent dried and soaked; you’ll have to add an astonishing amount of salt if you do it this way). I used black, dark red kidney and pinto. You be the judge!
  • One 12 oz can of crushed tomatoes (or equivalent of fresh). I got a few cans of fire-roasted garlic tomatoes on sale, so I used one of those.
  • 36 oz of water (that’s three cans full)
  • One cup of brown basmati rice

Here’s what I did

I used a slow cooker, but a pot will work nearly as well. This is as easy as it comes. The only real trick is to sloooowly saute the onions, garlic and peppers in the oil to release all of their great flavors. I let mine sit in the slow cooker for two hours before I added anything else, but half an hour over low heat on a stove should work okay. Everything should be tender and smell amazing, with no hint of burning. Then add the spices and let them cook until you can smell them across the room.

If you’re in a hurry, add the rice at this point and turn the heat up to medium high. Stir until the rice barely begins to toast, about five minutes, then add all of the other ingredients. Cover and cook until the rice is tender, about 45 minutes. Then turn down the heat, uncover and let any remaining fluid evaporate until it’s the texture you like.

Personally, I like to add everything except the rice and cook on medium for an hour or so, so that the flavors meld, before adding the rice, which will then absorb the flavor. If you need more water, add some. If you need less, uncover your pot.

Chili is one of the main reasons why I will always have a slow cooker, even as I’ve learned to live just fine without a toaster or microwave. For one thing, it won’t burn, and it can be hard to keep something as gloopy as chili from sticking when it’s on a stovetop. And I’m pretty convinced that it tastes better when it cooks for a long time, even when the beans are from a can.

I garnished my chili with a dollop of plain yogurt, avocado slices, cilantro and a wedge of lime. A sprinkle of cheddar would be fantastic. This morning, I ate some cold, standing in front of the open refrigerator, shoveling it into my mouth while the coffee steeped. That was really good too.

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Resolution Hustle

IMG_8290

I have made only one resolution this year, and that is to hustle. You may have noticed that, unlike losing ten pounds or running twenty-five miles per week, this is unquantifiable. The precise meaning is also unclear.

Definition of HUSTLE

transitive verb
1
a : jostleshove b : to convey forcibly or hurriedly c : to urge forward precipitately
2
a : to obtain by energetic activity <hustle up new customers> b : to sell something to or obtain something from by energetic and especially underhanded activity <hustling the suckers> c : to sell or promote energetically and aggressively<hustling a new product> d : to lure less skillful players into competing against oneself at (a gambling game) <hustle pool>
intransitive verb
1
2
3
a : to make strenuous efforts to obtain especially money or business b : to obtain money by fraud or deception c : to engage in prostitution
4
: to play a game or sport in an alert aggressive manner

 

Let’s assume that, aside from becoming a hooker (out of the question, as I’m a regular blood donor), my resolution can refer to any or all of the above.

This isn’t about self-improvement per se. I accept that I am most apt to exercise every day if I don’t vow to run every day, that I hardly ever eat crap unless I determine not to, that sometimes I read five books per week and sometimes one book per month, that sometimes I will update this blog a lot and sometimes it will languish. I am okay with all of those things.

But I can be lazy on a much deeper level. I like being comfortable and comforted. I got no less than eight hours of sleep every night in December, but I didn’t come close to posting here on even half of those days. If I keep busy and am making a decent amount of money, I stop looking for new challenges — even if my work is highly unchallenging and most of my days are spent going through the motions.

None of this is a huge problem. I don’t think it reflects that poorly on me as a person, nor will it cause cancer or heart disease. I’m not unkind or lacking in compassion; my house is usually pretty damn clean. I have a good work ethic. But when I come to the end of my days, am I going to look back and say, “Hell yeah! I was a pleasant, well-rested person with a clean house who could rattle off the works of Jane Austen by heart!”

So boring. Being comfortable just isn’t worth it in the long run. It’s a surefire recipe for that most depressing of phrases, “could have.”

I’m not an aggressive person by nature, which means that when I’m at my most pushy, other people seem to think that I’m being tactfully assertive. If doing excellent work that I’m really fucking proud of means that I have to pull an all-nighter once a month, won’t that be worth having a meltdown the next day? I’ve had meltdowns before and I’m here to tell about them. And if I want to write books and expose injustices and have more than a dozen friends read the movie reviews that I write, I will probably have to engage in some level of self-promotion. I might even have to — but I really hope not — network. I don’t think I could actually engage in fraud, but I’m not above a tiny bit of deception from time to time (“Uh huh, I know that style guide like the back of my hand”).

As for shoving, I’m not going to do it. Not unless it’s to get some children or grannies out of my way as I flee a burning building. But I will work on being less deferential, less passive.

It’s not that I’ve never done these things before, but I’ve never consciously decided to do them consistently, to take on the challenge of being uncomfortable, to bust my ass after I’ve just finished busting my ass. In short, I’ve never been a hustler. So this will be my experiment for 2012. To find out if it’s worth it.

Oh yeah, I’ve decided to go back to reviewing movies! But this time, I’m going to care if people actually read them, more people than my circle of (very loyal) friends. Because it’s not just about getting paid.

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Eight Albums That Blew My Mind & Five That Carried My Soul

St. Vincent shreds

In our house, we’ve been talking a lot about music that strikes an emotional chord — what separates it from music that may be equally good (or better) but somehow falls short of that desert-island threshold? It’s the difference between intellectual engagement and visceral response, a distinction that’s often reduced to opinion and personal taste. But opinions can be surprisingly consistent: I was surprised to see that four of Pitchfork’s top ten are in my top eight. My surprise is silly and misguided, I recognize: If something moves me so intensely, there’s a good chance that it also moves other people. My ears aren’t more special than yours.

I know these end-of-year lists are the ultimate in December douchebaggery, but they are a way of finding great music I missed, and who doesn’t love to roll their eyes over other people’s terrible taste? Feel free to roll your eyes.

Like most people, I limited myself to albums that came out in 2011, even though some of the music I listened to and loved the most came out before then — R. Kelly’s Love Letter and Emeralds’ Does It Look Like I’m Here? top that list. They are both gorgeous and came out in 2010.

I’ve divided my picks into two categories. The first are those that astonished the living daylights out of me, that shocked me with their beauty and creativity. The second are those that didn’t blow my mind, but that I liked just as much. They still struck that ineffable something in my soul; they made me happy; in some way, I’m addicted to hearing them. What each of these thirteen albums have in common is that the first time I heard them, I immediately started the album over again. And then again.

Eight Albums That Blew My Mind

1. Kaputt by Destroyer
Recently, a dear friend mentioned that she could no longer listen to Destroyer because they are a favorite of her maggot-like ex-boyfriend. At this point, I considered flying across the country and punching him in the face. How dare he deprive someone I love of something I love? My intense feelings for this album might be getting a little repetitive, if not embarrassing. In the eleven months since it came out, I’ve written about it here twice, including one of my best posts ever and this one with a lot of pictures. It has remained my favorite album of 2011. If I could only listen to one of these albums on this list ever again, there would be no competition. Here’s the title track.

2. Self-titled by Anna Calvi
Is this the most underrated album of 2011? I think it is. This is mystifying to me. Calvi is a guitar virtuoso and an incredible, cinematic singer. She carries you along on a strange, fabulous ride populated with devils, fire and tortured love. Most importantly, it’s 100 percent pleasure. I wish this was what opera sounded like. My New Year’s resolution is to see her live in 2012. If you watch only one video here, please make it be this one: spines tingle. This is called “Desire.”

3. whokill by Tune-Yards
I first learned of Merrill Garbus a few years ago in the most unlikely of locations: a beige hallway in the extremely un-hip nonprofit where I used to work. Our department’s admin sidled up to me and said, “Hey, I know this woman from college, and I think you would love her music. It’s not like anything else.” She wasn’t kidding. Tune-Yards is probably the least pigeonhole-able musician around. She does whatever the hell she wants, and she does it to perfection. The first time I heard this album, I couldn’t stop laughing in amazement. If I could do a Being John Malkovich of anybody’s brain, it would be hers. Here’s “Bizness.”

4. Let England Shake by PJ Harvey
I’ve seen Polly Jean exactly once, when she opened for U2, my favorite band in the entire universe at that time. That was in 2001. Ten years later, I no longer buy U2 albums and Harvey is making her most creative music ever. It’s inspiring that a 42-year-old female has made one of the best albums of the year (according to just about everybody), but the most important thing is that this album actually predicted everything about 2011; Harvey is obviously a rock-and-roll psychic. Or maybe she has a time machine. People can’t not use the words textures and timely when talking about Let England Shake, and for good reason. Textures, timely, timely textures. This is the title track.

5. Strange Mercy by St. Vincent
I think music critics (I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but they tend to be men) have finally reconciled themselves to the fact that Annie Clark is a rocker. See the picture up top. I know, boys, I know: She’s beautiful and fragile-looking. But if you’ve ever seen her go to town on a guitar, you know where she’s at — which is smack dab in the middle of making music. I’m afraid I’m sounding repetitive: Here’s another solo woman who is making rock music that evades comparison. But none of these ladies sound remotely like each other. The one thing they have in common is a seeming lack of boundaries, a determination to expand musical possibilities. Just, wow.

6. Self-titled by Bon Iver
Bon Iver’s first album is so beautiful and moving that once, after a very long day, it brought tears to my eyes as I was standing on the platform at the DeKalb Avenue subway station. There was no way a follow-up album could be as good. Except that it is, partly because it’s so very different. Every song on the album is named after a place, which is a straight ticket to the depths of my geography-oriented heart. My favorite song is called “Calgary,” but of course the one I’m posting here is “Holocene” — a music venue and bar here in Portland. It’s a great place, but nowhere near as pretty as this song. And the video is a little bit jaw-dropping.

7. Self-titled by James Blake
I don’t think that I’m typically a big fan of whatever genre of music this is, but the first time I ever heard the song “I Never Learnt To Share,” I began to see stars. This was because I had forgotten to breathe. James Blake is only 23, but everything is laid bare on this album. The best word we have for this in English is brave. This record is affecting without being the least bit affected; it’s passionate, but not overblown. RZ just yelled from the other room that this album is trendy bullshit and that I shouldn’t include it; but I don’t think anything this elegant and restrained could ever be classified as either trendy or bullshit. This isn’t a video, just the song.

8. Tassili by Tinariwen
That Muslim freedom fighters can become acclaimed psychedelic musicians is pretty amazing, but that they could transcend such extreme cultural barriers is nothing short of incredible. I’ve been a fan of this band for quite a while, and I’ve even seen them live. This album was recorded outside, in the Algerian national park of the same name. It sounds like the Sahara: sunny, dusty, remote. But it also totally rocks — and in a way that no Western psychedelic band ever will. And surely a bonus to being so acclaimed is having people like Nels Cline, Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone travel halfway around the world to play on your album.

Five Albums That Carried My Soul

1. Mirror Traffic by Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks
This band’s first album kept me company as I traveled around Europe for a summer and this one gave me the psychic strength to move across the country. I will forever associate it with my final weeks in New York City. I’m not sure if it’s my favorite SM&J record, but it might be. What can I say, I love them all. Tigers are my favorite animal, but that’s not the only reason I identify with this song so strongly. This is definitely the cutest video of the batch.

2. Self-titled by Wild Flag
The drummer on that last album is the drummer on this one, too. Wild Flag came in at number 26 on my friend Dave’s end-of-year list. He writes: “Will you be mad at me if I softly whisper that I like this more than any Sleater-Kinney record? Pure rock ferocity by four of the best in the business.” I won’t, dude, because, um, I feel the same way. And I promise that this has nothing to do with the fact that our house is featured starting at 2:56. For real, I love this album so much that I actually forgot of my domestic ties to this video until I started watching it again just now. Hi house! This is the album you want when going for a run, psyching yourself up for a job interview or anytime you need a dose of awesome.

3. Helplessness Blues by Fleet Foxes
There are certain first records that are so beloved that you almost don’t want to hear a follow-up. Second-album-itis is a very real and unfortunate malady, but thank goodness it’s not one suffered by Fleet Foxes. Compared to their first, this album is somber and restrained — and every bit as well crafted and enjoyable to listen to. They are a fleece blanket for my brain on cold, rainy nights, like the one that is happening right now.

4. We Are the Tide by Blind Pilot
I first heard the song “We Are the Tide” at least a year and a half before this album came out, at one of the many Blind Pilot shows I’ve seen over the last several years. And here’s the thing: In the interim, I would occasionally get it stuck in my head, usually while walking or riding my bike. And I would think, “What the hell is that song? Because I definitely don’t have a recording of it. I wish I did.” That is how good this band is: They work their way into your brain the very first time you hear them, and just grow better with time. Up at the top, when I wrote that I’m addicted to hearing all of these albums, this was actually the one I was thinking of.

5. Watch the Throne by Jay-Z and Kanye West
Unless you spent the past year under a rock, you probably know that 2011 sucked in a whole lot of ways. Really, it was a terrible year for many, many people. At times like these, we need pure escapism. It keeps us from going crazy. If the escapism takes the form of two members of the one percent entertaining the rest of the ninety-nine, making us forget for a little bit, so be it. Sure, we paid them for it, but at least they gave us something of real value. Listen with friends.

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Juniper, Pearls and A Very Old Bottle of 7 Up

Jane's "pearls"

Pretty, but not on me.

At the beginning of the month, I posed these questions:

Possessions: What have you learned to live without this year? Have you acquired something(s) that has made your life better? Worse?

Over the past few years, unintentionally and without realizing it, I’ve become something of a minimalist. Not one of those morally superior, braggy types who profess to own only fifty items, including clothes and cooking utensils. Terrible! And nothing turns me off more than cold, stark modernism.

I’m not going to stop buying the occasional record or book, and I like things to feel cozy, which means that my home contains non-necessary items like pictures, lamps and several plants. But I’m not very sentimental about objects and I don’t want many of them. Owning lots of things weighs a person down.

I’ve mentioned that my parents are splitting up. Because this unfortunate event has coincided with my newfound proximity to them, I’ve acquired a bunch of their cast-offs. So far, they’ve made three 350-mile roundtrips to give me shit. The best thing, by far, has been my grandmother’s amazing 1926 player piano, which RZ has played every single day that we’ve had it. This has been an unqualified life improvement. It looks wonderful and sounds even better. We now have pretentious conversations regarding “tonal quality.” It’s great.

On the downside, the closet in my office, which had been blessedly empty, is now full of boxes of books from my youth and a bizarre collection of figurines that make me want to smash them every time I look at them. These include half a dozen miniature tea cups and saucers from Occupied Japan that may be worth hundreds, or even tens, of dollars. According to the Internet, only an expert can tell. There is also a hideous Delftsblauw statuette of a lady feeding some geese; ironic, because I love literally everything about the Netherlands except for its figurines. Again, this porcelain pile of poo could be worth a lot of money. Or not.

Ugh

The question is: Do I care enough to find out? Or do I take them to the nearest vintage store and trade them in for a nightstand so my books and lamp are no longer sitting on the floor?

But these considerations obscure the most important point, which is: Why are these items in my home? Do my parents think that I am the kind of person who wants these things? If so, I feel as if aspects of our parent-child relationship went horribly awry at some point.

I may not want the long-lost books, but at least I understand why they thought that I might. I do, after all, really like books and reading. On the other hand, what does somebody who is nearly 32 (and childless) want with the Judy Blume oeuvre?

 

Oh hey, third grade.

This question is not rhetorical and the answer is: a misguided excuse to procrastinate and relive the more pleasant aspects of one’s childhood. This, obviously, would be an enormous waste of time, as I’m still trying to get through Daniel Deronda, a masterpiece of English literature that I have not read eight times (or even once) before. Clearly I need to get rid of Are You There, God et al. And soon. (NB: Does anyone want a set of Judy Blume novels from the 1980s? Or Madeleine L’Engle, for that matter? Free, plus S&H.) But I may want to hang on to my Beverley Clearys, now that I live in Portland, as a matter of hometown pride.

But what am I saying? No I do not.

That’s the insidiousness of possessions. They breed necessity.

Take the electric can opener. This is a useful item if you have arthritis, cerebral palsy or paralysis. If you don’t have these issues, it’s the stupidest appliance on earth. Yet, it was one that I took for granted as a basic fact of kitchens until I went to college. At that point, I realized that a manual can opener takes up less space, is a lot easier to clean, can be used without electricity and actually does a better job of opening cans.

In the past year, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to discover that my life is better without other things that I had previously thought necessary: microwave, toaster, laundry basket, bureau.

Without a microwave, I must now boil water for my tea in a kettle. I must heat frozen veggie patties in the oven. Likewise with the toast. How awful. I traded a laundry basket for an actual in-home washer and dryer. Now, I put my dirty clothes straight into the washing machine. Oddly, I really appreciate not having a stinky basket of festering clothes in my bedroom. I admit that I may want to have a bureau at some point. For now, my closet and a few milk crates are doing just fine.

This soda is so old that it was made with actual sugar!

Christmas was yesterday. This gave my parents another opportunity to give us their old stuff. Surprisingly, it worked out okay. My dad gave RZ a 34-year-old bottle of 7 Up.

Not just any 34-year-old bottle of 7 Up.

No, this bottle — 16 ounces, unopened — commemorates the only time the Portland Trail Blazers have ever won the NBA Championship. That was before RZ (a huge Blazers fan) and I (a recovered Blazers fan) were even alive. Until three days ago, that bottle sat on the top shelf of the pantry for decades. It’s in mint condition. Now that is a thoughtful present, one worthy of the best gift-giver in the world.

For my part, I got another batch of my deceased grandmother’s (she of the player piano) jewelry. The first batch came two Christmases ago and comprised four gold necklaces, definitely more my style than this clutch of six pearl (or “pearl”) necklaces, which are lovely to look at, though I doubt I’ll ever be Ann Taylor enough to pull them off. There is also a tiny bracelet, one that doesn’t even begin to reach around my wrist. On one side, it has my grandmother’s name.

Jane

On the other side are my grandfather’s initials.

LLW

By the time I came along, they didn’t much like each other. This sweet tiny thing is a relic from a time when they did, very much so. I loved them both. I guess this is an object that I can’t help being sentimental about. Damn it.

The best thing we got this year is something that will keep giving for months, possibly years, to come. It is the gift of heat and light and fragrance: half a truckload of juniper wood, straight from the Central Oregon desert, to burn in our fireplace on the dark, grey Willamette Valley nights.

It’s not going to collect dust, we’ll never have to move it or worry about breaking it or losing it. After a while, it will be burned up. And in the meantime, it will make our lives so much warmer and brighter.

Fire

On the off-chance that you’re reading this, Mom and Dad, thank you.

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