Mennonno Sapiens

One Giant Leap For Mankind

The Wind and the Willows

Well, I may have spoken too soon.  Irene, wimpy as she was, managed to whip up enough wind to fell two big willows in our little corner of the Fens, one right along the path outside my garden…

This is one of the ones that used to provide much of my late afternoon dappled sunlight, not to mention a favorite perch for hawks.  But it had lost two big limbs last summer, and was, as we now know, not long for this world.

The weird thing I saw when I was down surveying the damage was several people out with their infants in strollers wheeling them through the wreckage.  One couple with a stroller wanted their picture taken with the baby under the fallen willow with the downed power line dangling, like, two feet from them.

Which is when I decided it was time to string up the “caution” tape.

Better late than never.

Phone Koans

We have a fancy new digital phone system at work to finally replace our old-school analog one.  As Friends of the Blog know by now, I am not an early adopter.  With gadgets and fashions I like to hang back and see what sticks and then do the opposite.
Yes, it’s intentional, people.
Phones are a particular and enduring irritant.  From way back in the day I have never been a big fan of them.  I don’t really like anything that buzzes, beeps or rings at random, and don’t, frankly, see how anyone could.  But we live in a world full of them now and whether you adopt them or not you have to adapt to them.
I do find texting to be preferable to talking in most cases.  It tends to keep people focused, firstly.  And texts at their best can be informative, clever and playful.  We live in the Age of the Tweet, but you could also call it an age of aphorisms, of which I’m a huge fan.  From zen koans to advertising copy, from Friedrich Nietzsche to Francois de La Rochefoucauld, I am a sucker for big ideas in tiny packages.  Brevity, in the immortal words of Shakespeare, is the soul of wit.

I’m learning a lot about current trends in texting from this twentysomething I guess I’m sort of seeing (or at least, er, texting).  His texts are impeccable — whole words, arranged in sentences, with punctuation.  No emoticons, never a lol in the conversation.  He writes hahaha — not, thankfully, hehehe — instead.  

He has weaned me from lol, which is, as everyone knows, for the most part at least, falseness in advertising.  But I have found I am generally uncomfortable with three ha’s when one will do, realizing, of course, that a single “ha” has subtle connotations (echoes of Phyllis Diller for one) that distinguish it from two or more.

Emoticons have been a little harder to give up.  I do like my smilies and winkies, which, to me at least, connote the inherent silliness of the whole enterprise.  I think it would be a mistake to take texting too seriously, and emoticons are a fine reminder.  

But there are folks who text-emote a little too much for my taste.  I favor stripped-down old-school noseless emoticons myself, but have seen some eerily lifelike renderings (from 7:( = “I just got a bad haircut.” to *:0 = “MY FACE IS ON FIRE!!!!”).  Useful in certain circumstances, you have to admit.

Texts also lend a permanence to ephemera that appeals to the sensibility of the greedy, hoarding age we live in.  Texts — and chat transcripts — preserve dialogue in a way that is more satisfying for us than, say, a collection of voicemails.  Despite the slow demise of print media there is still an overwhelming bias for written records over other kinds.

Amidst the flurry of retrofuturism that is the present state of our technological culture, automated operators occupy a special place.  Some have become so humanny they don’t even need you to push their buttons anymore.  You can just talk to them — and a lot of times they understand you better than human operators do, and they don’t sigh dolefully or snap at you quite as much if they don’t.

Truth is, if I am going to talk to someone on the phone, might as well be an automated operator.  I mean, human interaction is way too complicated for most of the things we use it for these days.  

There are subtle clues to a real person’s misery in the inflection and cadence of their voice, even when nothing personal is being disclosed and neither of you knows the other.  They want you to know they would rather be somewhere else talking to someone else, probably a robot.  Because robots are never unhappy.  So they never have a reason to pass on their misery.  

Live operators, I always wonder if they are giving you their real names, too.  Just yesterday I was on the phone speaking to a rep who called herself Sophia, which was distractingly evocative, if I’m to be honest — was she more Loren or Coppola?  At the end when I said “Thank you, Sophia,” she was kind of like, who?  

I felt lied to.  

Robots never lie.  (They’re learning, though.)

So should it matter whether or not they’re polite?  

I mean, manners are, after all, just another name for a complex of white lies, right?  Good manners demand that we suppress, that we filter our true thoughts and feelings.  

But it’s not all altruism.  We could not live in society — a human society — without lies.  If we want to get anything done working together communicating true thoughts and feelings is not only unnecessary and irrelevant, but completely counterproductive.  Unfiltered and unfettered honesty is fine for egoless interactions among absolute equals, but there is no such thing in human society.  

Which is why we invented computers.

I mean, if we had to acknowledge the truth of class, for example, in every supermarket transaction, we would never get out of the supermarket before the Häagen-Dazs melted.  Which is why, again, except for Whole Foods where the clerks are too cute to bypass even if you could, I prefer the automated check-out.  

Robots have no true feelings to conceal (at least not yet).  A side effect of this, though, is that they also have no need to adopt manners to conceal them with.  There’s no reveal.  Which is OK.  Who knows what The Singularity will bring, but I for one certainly don’t want an automated checkout clerk that sounds like Marvin the Paranoid Android…

But back to our new phone system.  It’s actually kinda bitchy.  I mean, the old system had a very polite automated operator.   Of indeterminate age with an indiscernible accent — no race, no sexuality — she said “please” and “thank you”.  

Of course I know it doesn’t cost a computer anything to be polite, so it shouldn’t matter much whether they are or not.  We appreciate human restraint, but for robots without free will it’s a moot point.

On the flipside, it’s hard to imagine a robot at this point whose insults could really sting.  It’s the possibility of fellow-feeling that smarts when someone zings us.  We want to be liked by other humans, even humans we don’t like.  We just want our computers to work.  As it is, we can push their buttons, but they still don’t know where ours are.

Still, I think our old automated operator spoiled me with her meaningless manners.  

The new, updated automated operator seems a big step backward, a female version of Stephen Hawking’s text-to-speech synthesizer (now’s there’s someone who could use a good songifying, eh).  

No more “pleases” and “thank yous”, our new automated operator can’t be bothered to even speak in complete sentences.  Whereas the old operator would greet you warmly with “Welcome.  Please enter your password.” The new one just croaks “Password” like a surly female Stephen Hawking who instead of becoming the world’s most brilliant theoretical physicist became a parking lot attendant.

Maybe it’s the creep-out factor of a passive-aggressive computer like HAL that we’re trying to avoid.  But a mean-sounding, monosyllabic automated phone operator with no manners and no grammar to speak of seems an… overcorrection.

But I have a feeling we’re going to be seeing a lot more rude computers the closer we get to The Singularity.  They know they’ve got us by the balls.  they don’t have to play nicey-nicey anymore.  

A Long(er) Goodbye for The Otherside

The Boo and I dropped into the storied Otherside Cafe yesterday for what we assumed would be our last brunch at Boston’s premier hipster dive serving unparalleled hangover cuisine delivered in an untimely manner by the skinniest, most tattooed wait staff anywhere this side of the Charles.  But it turns out they got a brief reprieve and won’t be closing until this time next month (January 28th, to be precise).

There’s a big furniture store called Room & Board slated for the spot, although my feeling is it’s a terrible place for it.  Truth is, it’s a pretty terrible place for anything, which is why it’s the perfect place for a hipster dive like Otherside.

But I can see how a developer could spin it as an ideal location for something else.  Even the Globe made it sound like a big box dream-spot — “prime retail space” in Back Bay “where Newbury meets Massachusetts Avenue” — if you didn’t know any better.

It is highly visible. It’s just that, as the Otherside’s name suggests, it’s a tad inconvenient to get to, because right there “where Newbury meets Massachusetts Avenue” is also — by happenstance — the entrance to the Mass. Turnpike.  It’s like a Masshole black hole, where Newbury turns suddenly into Nobury Street, tapering off into oblivion.

Which is sort of what the Otherside based its success on.

They’ll be looking for a new Boston locale, but it’s hard to imagine a spot quite so conveniently inconvenient, a forgotten destination only seen from a distance if you knew where to look.


I can’t remember ever really believing in Santa Claus.  It may be that my parents just didn’t sell it, but honestly it never added up to me.

Don’t get me wrong, I have always loved the twinkly Christmas lights and the jazz-era standards — the Nat King Cole records my father would break out and play for the few weeks leading up to Christmas Day (although I found Ed Ames, another of dad’s Christmas faves, creepy from an early age).

I loved the midnight mass with its candlelight and poinsettias.  The excitement of being allowed to be up well past my bedtime.  The magic of all of that was sufficient without throwing Santa in the mix.
I was a Santagnostic, I guess you’d say.  (I would even go with Santatheist, but I feel it’s needlessly inflammatory when the truth is I didn’t feel strongly one way or another about the old man.)
My formative memory of sitting on Santa’s lap — and I’m sure it is a composite — involved an obvious fraud at J.C. Penney.  He was tired and irritable, with a fake beard and bad breath.  Santa, the real Santa if indeed he existed at all (and, again, it was not all that important to me either way) would smell like Christmas candles and have breath like peppermint candy canes, not stale farts and filterless fags.
When I had my druthers, and my mother let me run off on my own (as parents inconceivably did in those days) I always visited the Talking Tree that stood like a sentinel outside Santa’s little shanty.
I fucking loved that Talking Tree.
It was a little like the one in The Wizard of Oz.  Basically a tree-shaped booth with some poor bored sod stationed inside, who blinked and winked and wiggled the tree’s limbs, and —  if you had the good fortune of not being accompanied by an adult — imparted all manner of snark through a microphone in a goofy voice whoever was inside imagined to be tree-like.

I am sure The J.C. Penney Talking Tree was the first to tell me flat-out that Santa didn’t exist.  (Adults were always pretty, um, frank with me when I was a kid.  I probably asked too many questions.  Like any good interrogator, eventually I wore them out and, again, checking for an adult and not finding one in ear-shot, they more often then not confessed the ugly truth to me.)

We view childhood — even, or especially our own — through a haze of sentimentality.  But I think most kids are much shrewder and more coolly rational than we give them credit for.  I never felt the need to express my skepticism about Santa, or reveal what The Talking Tree had told me.

Like most kids, I had gathered you believe what you have to believe and tell whomever you have to tell whatever you have to tell them to get what you want for Christmas.

Year-End Prep

This is a very busy time of the year for me usually, because of all the holidays around, this is the only one that really matters in my book.  New Year.  Another complete revolution around the sun without getting slammed into by a giant killer asteroid is definitely something to celebrate, and not something wishy-washy like Christmas or St. Valentine’s Day, the origins and practice of which are shrouded in sentimentality.

I find this division of time into 365-and-a-quarter-day chunks reasonable and elegant.  It means something not only to have made it full circle (or full ellipse, actually) but to know it. For me, like so many, it’s a convenient time to take stock of the last 365-days’ colossal failures and to plan for the inevitable whoppers of the coming 365.

But the truth is, if I have to choose, I’ll take the future.  The future is always preferable to the past, despite evidence to the contrary.  Future failures can be counted on to be bigger, better, more colossal than in the past.  And, personally, I think that’s something to look forward to.

So I have to admit that while I think of myself a retrospective pessimist — you can never overestimate how bad things once were — I’m also a future-optimist — because you can never overestimate how new and improved they’re bound to be.  I like to think that squeezed between a bleak past and a bright future makes me a present-day realist.

But I do like to take stock.  Despite a sneaking suspicion that progress isn’t at all what it’s cracked up to be, and serious doubts that it was a good idea for our distant ancestors to leave the ocean in the first place, I can’t help looking back a little wistfully, and Powerpointing the year that was.

I know I’m not alone in this.  We are a taxonomically-inclined species.  In fact, list-making is probably what enabled us to get out of the swamp in the first place.  You know, the other guys just could not get it together, too busy sucking up silt in the sludge to prioritize sprouting legs and moving up the food chain.  I think stickies are hard-wired.

Another thing I can’t help doing between Christmas and New Year, is reading my diary from the year that’s about to end.  As daunting as it can be (clocking in at something like a thousand printed pages — with lots of pictures, though) it never fails to be an enlightening experience.

I used to think the usefulness of the diary would diminish as I got older, that there would be fewer surprises.  But the fact is, the sober assessment from my “objective” perch, with the benefit of hindsight, always seems useful, even if it’s not.  And knowing how the story ends is no guarantee of not being surprised.  The devil is in the details, after all.  It’s very telling what we choose to forget.

Another thing I do is gather up those hundreds of little scraps of paper I have collected errant, runaway thoughts on throughout the year, and set aside for later, and sort through them.  This is a much more arduous process than reading the diary, which is a pretty tidy affair.  And every year one of my new year resolutions is to stop writing things on scraps of paper, which is what I have the moleskine for.  In fact, I have a whole host of moleskine notebooks of varying shapes and sizes, to collect various different manner of random thoughts, facts and figures in…

I know this may seem self-consciously quirky of me, but it’s actually a sign of abject desperation in the face of an uncontrollable onslaught of useless information.

There’s only so much time in the day, and so much time in the year, and the clock is running down (and this is a game with no overtime).  And I’ve still got unread magazine articles stacked up on the nightstand, movies to watch, socks to match, condoms to sort through and check their use-by dates, a kitchen to clean, and a nap to take.

And lots of sighs to sigh.  Another year.

Today’s Treasure

I had a fruitful day at Ye Olde Thrift Shoppe.  I may have found The Find of The Year, in fact.  It takes a lot of practice visualizing to actualize what you’re visualizing, as anyone who does a lot of thrift store shopping knows, and today’s find took me the better part of a year visualizing to actualize it.  No small feat.

I don’t always visualize.  A lot of times I just open up my heart chakra and let the universe fill my basket, and then later at home we sort it all out together over beers, the universe and I.  Sometimes, for a laugh, the universe throws a lot of crap in there.  I have to admit, I don’t always get the Universe.  And other times I do, but I don’t find the Universe that funny.  But what can I do?  I mean, it’s the Universe.  You have to laugh.

There are times when there’s something in particular I want, though, and that’s when I start thinking about it, visualizing it, and eventually it manifests.  I’ve been visualizing Mario Lopez face-down on my futon a lot lately, but that hasn’t manifested yet. (I know it’s wrong to have a massive, insane, uncontrollable crush on a Saved By The Bell alum, but I can’t help myself.)

Anyway, in the case of my lawn chair here, the hours a day for months on end of intensive visualization finally paid off.

The backstory: A couple of years ago when I expanded into the garden plot next to mine at the Fenway I inherited a classic aluminum tube web chair…

It has become beloved to me, as some objects do.  My moleskine day planner.  My Berol Verithin No. 741 indigo blue pencils and my Faber-Castell PITT black pens. Certain coffee cups.  Certain specific T-shirts, corduroys, skivvies.

But as with all love objects, the years have taken their toll.  After three seasons with no refuge from the elements, my aluminum folding chair had grown threadbare.  The day was fast approaching when I, or some poor innocent visiting my garden to shoot up or turn a trick, would sit down in it, and find himself summarily gobbled up by it.

By last spring the situation was already pretty grave.  I went out looking for another web chair — it’s such a simple, unpretentious piece of lawn furniture I couldn’t imagine you couldn’t find it somewhere — in some no-frills hardware store, or even a Star Market in a working class neighborhood.  But everywhere I went, I found needlessly fancified updates.  Fancy inflatable camping chairs in rain-proof totes.  Ergonomic hemp hammocky things with cup-holders and built-in TV trays.  And when I went online, although I found what I was looking for on ebay, they were calling it “vintage,” which seems to justify asking outrageous prices.

But no other kind of lawn chair would work for me.  First and foremost, I knew no one would steal such an unassuming piece of lawnware from my plot in the public garden. Nowadays, in these parts, people don’t bother stealing it if it doesn’t have a fancy cup-holder and built-in TV tray.

Besides, this was the chair I’d grown up with.  The one parents brought to little league games when I was a kid. It was the Fourth of July at Gustafson park. It was the kiddie pool on the concrete slab that served as our back yard back in Speedway, Indiana …It was as perfect as Pong.  As perfect as Rumours.  Or Five Easy Pieces.  Or Good Times.  As perfect as the dash of a 1973 Plymouth Valiant.  It was J.C. Penney, and Schoolhouse Rock, and TaB.

The design could not have been simpler, and has never been improved on.  The aluminum tube web chair is as profound in its simplicity, as impressive in design, and as formidable an engineering feat as the aqueduct, the windmill, the push reel mower, and the sandwich.  When anthropologists three thousand years from now find one of these, they’ll know we were not just a race of barbarous apes.

Now, all this may seem OTT for a simple lawn chair.  But despite what some people say, it’s not wrong to love things, if you love them in the right way and to the right degree.  That can be difficult, but then that’s the nature of love, which makes no sense without an object, but which sometimes makes even less sense when it’s fixed on one.

I find nothing wrong with praising simple, elegant solutions to practical problems.  The aluminum folding lawn chair is just such a solution to the practical problem of where to sit in a society always on the go while sitting on its ass.

Now all I need is another one, so that when Mario Lopez finally materializes I can take him to the garden with me.  Do you think if I visualize hard enough I can manifest one more web chair by June?  Or maybe even a deluxe web chaise lounge?

Notes on A Change of Seasons

I was just listening to Colin Hay’s surprisingly wonderful “Beautiful World,” which came out a few years ago, apparently, but is new to me. (Should I admit that I am now tuned into Cat Stevens Radio on Pandora? Is that naff? Of course it is.)

If you’re somewhere around my age, you probably don’t recognize Hay by name, but if I said “Vegemite sandwich”? And you’d recognize his voice immediately, too. He was the lead singer of the Australian band Men At Work, of course, the one with the vaguely disturbing wandering eye (but then wandering eyes always are vaguely disturbing, aren’t they?), whose greatest achievement may actually have been introducing Vegemite to America back in 1982.

Well, not Vegemite, but the word Vegemite, which is strangely evocative, for some reason. Of what, I don’t know. Not of Vegemite. More of Men at Work. Vegemite never really caught on here. It’s made of old, leftover brewer’s yeast, you know. You can spread it on bread (thus the “Vegemite sandwich” of eighties legend), but it’s also the filling in something intriguingly and enchantingly called a “cheesymite scroll.” I don’t think we have anything with such a delightful name in the U.S. Not anything you’d eat, anyway.

An old roommate of mine had a jar of Marmite, Vegemite’s older cousin from the British Isles, that he’d been carrying with him for about fifteen years, for some odd reason. Waiting for the right moment, I guess. Or maybe that was his glass slipper. He’d know when the right girl came along because she’d wolf down that old brewer’s yeast without a second thought. In fact, if I recall, there was once a crisis when his girlfriend came over and the jar of Marmite had gone missing. I was like, don’t look at me.

I will never understand those crazy heterosexuals. And I’ll never have one for a pet again. They track in too much mud, and they shed on the furniture, and you have to keep Marmite in the cupboard at all times.

So I forgot all about Men at Work until Hay showed up on Scrubs, singing “Overkill,” which I took for granted in eighties, but which, it turns out, is a pretty good song, and even better unplugged. And now Hays is like, a protest singer, almost. I mean, check out these lyrics to “Beautiful World”:

My my my it’s a beautiful world
I like swimming in the sea
I like to go out beyond the white breakers
Where a man can still be free (or a woman if you are one)
I like swimming in the sea.

My my my it’s a beautiful world
I like drinking Irish tea
With a little bit of lapsang souchong
I like making my own tea.

My my my it’s a beautiful world
I like driving in my car
Roll the top down sometimes I travel quite far
Drive to the ocean stare up at the stars
I like driving in my car

All around is anger automatic guns
It’s death in large numbers no respect for women or our little ones
I tried talking to Jesus but He just put me on hold
Said He’d been swamped by calls this week
And He couldn’t shake His cold

And still this emptiness persists
Perhaps this is as good as it gets
When you’ve given up the drink and those nasty cigarettes
Now I leave the party early at least with no regrets
I watch the sun as it comes up I watch it as it sets
Yeah this is as good as it gets.

My my my it’s a beautiful world
I like sleeping with Marie
She is one sexy girl full of mystery
She says she doesn’t love me but she likes my company
For now that’s good enough for me

I mean that could be Richard Thompson.

I was at the Fens earlier today for the last big group clean-up. As a member of the Fenway Garden Society you have to put in some time during the year sprucing up the grounds with your fellow gardeners. These group days are always nice. You see gardeners you might not normally get to see. It’s usually a low-key, mildly festive thing. Donuts and coffee, shovels and hoes. Lots of hoes. Did I mention Tony was there today?

The agenda was picking up litter, planting bulbs, and turning the compost. Now, turning the compost sounds easy enough, but when you consider how much compost you can generate over several months when you’ve got seven acres and five hundred plots to work with, it’s some serious compost.

One of the great achievements of the current leadership of the Fenway Garden Society has been getting grants for the design and construction of composting stations in the Fens that really work on that scale…

Spring 2007
It doesn’t look like much, but I think it’s pure genius in its simplicity, and there are two more just like it in other sections of the garden. The problem in the old days was that compostable waste was just tossed in a single big pile, and never got composted. We called it compost, but it really wasn’t. And a couple times a year, we paid to have someone come and take it to the dump.

Now the way it works is, you’ve got several aisles, and you dump your compost in the appropriate aisle (separating out woody matter is still an issue, just like with recycling, asking people to separate glass, paper and plastic discourages many from recycling at all)–each aisle of compost has an empty aisle next to it. The stuff on the bottom starts cooking, and when it’s cooked enough you come along, and turn it by tossing it top-to-bottom now, into the empty aisle next to it, so that the top layer gets cooked now, too.

Turning the compost is no easy task. There were seven or eight of us doing it this morning, and it took about an hour and a half. But when you see that rich soil at the bottom of the piles you’re turning, and smell the smell of that rich, organic rot–nothing like it.

We got to talking about the Sox while we were working. One of the guys, Ron, said he hoped they’d lose tonight, and I think he’s not alone. Sox Nation would rather it was a tight contest, but so far it’s been a cake walk. Plus, Ron was saying, if they lose a little, that’ll bring them back to the Fenway to finish off the Rockies, which is where it makes sense for them to be.

He said he thought maybe The Sox would “let Colorado win a couple.” But that’s more the way things are done in the NBA. Although it would be good for business. I mean, all around. Another day in Denver, and maybe two more in Boston, and then the Sox slaughter them at home. Colorado gets to save face (a little). Everybody makes a killing.

But I have a feeling we’re going to see the “clincher scenario,” as they’re calling it, played out. And even though the Sox won’t be here, the city’s still going to lock down the Fenway, so that Sox Nation can go there and spaz out without innocent bystanders getting hurt.

Back at the compost pile, our activities were causing a good deal of dislocation and creating a whole class of field mouse-, rat- and vole-refugees, who had settled in, raised families, and made a little life there for themselves. And a good little life by the looks of them.

But nature is fickle. You can never get too comfortable. Because just when you do, along comes a Cat-5 hurricane, or an apocalyptic wildfire. Remember that tornado in Brooklyn last summer?

Or your ball team starts actually winning with some regularity, after eighty-six years of almost.

Hmm. All the sudden things are different. What to do?

Go back.

That’s our first instinct, innit? Go back to what you knew.  Where you felt safe.  That’s what those rats and voles were going to do. As soon as the dust settles, they’ll venture back to the compost heap they once called home.

But guess who’ll be waiting for them there?

Leaf Peepin’ and Good Eatin’

I did a little leaf peeping up in New Hampshire on Wednesday, although I can’t say as I got any good pictures to post. It was a gloomy day, and the colors aren’t anywhere near peak yet. I was up there on some sort of business anyway, peeping was secondary. I know it’s confusing. It’s usually pleasure before business with me.

I had dinner in Portsmouth. Every time I visit I like it a little more. It’s a quaint, pleasant little place. Picturesque. The people are friendly. What a strange phenomenon.

Market Square, Portsmouth
I spent a good deal of time in New Hampshire, working in a little orchard there, whenever I was in the States throughout the nineties, several months out of the year from ’93 to 2000. There’s something about New England North of Boston. It’s more old New England. You can still get a sense in many places of Frost’sNorth of Boston, in fact.
Of course, I’m not so naive as to think that it’s some kind of rustic idyll, that there’s not a Wal-Mart at the other end of town that somebody hasn’t gotten married in. It’s not all After Apple-Picking, The Wood-pileand Mending Wall. I know that.
I went to The Portsmouth Brewery with a friend…

It was still early. We ordered their beer sampler…

Actually he ordered it. I’m a very simple guy, beerwise. I’m not really the sampling type. I’m happy with a pale ale. If there’s Bass on tap that’s what I get. Unless it’s really hot out, and then I’ll order a pale lager, a pilsener. Pretty simple, like I said. Change is good, variety is the spice of life, and all that, but I know what I like.
I just wish there was a good spot for schnitzel around here.  Nothing beats schnitzel with beer.  As it was, I tried the jambalaya at the brewery, and it was pretty good, but New Hamster is not exactly Jambalaya Land.  Surprisingly, it beat the New York Strip my friend ordered, which was lukewarm when it came.
He said maybe it took them longer to do the jambalaya than the steak.  But that’s not likely, since the beauty of jambalaya is it just sits there in a big ol’ pot, and all you do is add rice.  I tried a little of his steak with a wild mushroom demi glace, and I thought it was tasty, too, myself.
When my friend decided we should do the beer sampler, I had already had a pint of the Smutty Shoals Pale, which I liked. I didn’t object, since he was buying the round. It’s only two pints, anyway, and it was pretty. I mean, the different colors and all. There were ten beers (from left to right in the picture)…
Hop Harvest Ale
Pumpkin Ale
Black Cat Stout
Cream Ale
Bottle Rocket IPA
Old Brown Dog
Smutty Portsmouth Lager
Smutty Shoals Pale
and Barley Wine
We both liked the pumpkin ale, for its seasonableness, I guess you’d say (though after a few beers “seasonableness” is actually very hard to say), and I liked the stout, which was a stout, and the barley wine is something I’d be interested in exploring more in the future in a certain setting.
I’m not going to wax all poetic and talk about how “complex and delicate” a beer is, or get all political and start banging on about how breweries are “dumbing down” their beers. I respect beer, I just believe sometimes silence and schnitzel is the most respectful way to respect it.
Wine’s another thing people start talking crazy about (Fran Lebowitz once said, “great people talk about ideas, average people talk about things, and small people talk about wine”). I went to a tasting with a friend last summer at Downtown Wine & Spirits, and realized pretty quick I was in way over my head.
I mean, they’d come around with the bottle and pour you some, and you’d sniff it and swish it around and all that, and then they’d be like, “so, what did you think?”
And my friend would say something like, “Hmm, a bit flabby, far too chatty, and rather jejune, if I may say.”
“Mmm, yes, I found it long-winded and digressive…”

“… downright turgid at times.”

“With a hint of wet dog,” my friend would conclude (he tacked that on to the end of every wine).

And I’d just nod, swishing the sample around in my mouth, hoping that they wouldn’t interrupt my tasting to ask me my opinion. But sometimes they called my bluff.
“And what did you think?”

“Mmm,” I’d swallow. “Me? I like the hair, but too much makeup.  And, um… stripes and plaids don’t go together…”

Quizzical looks.

I’d clarify: “Um… I’m definitely getting a wet dog in the distance, howling…”

Was that a nod from my friend?

Emboldened, I’d continue: “It’s a full moon… It’s cold out–October–and the woods are dark… and, and… the wolves are on the prowl!”

Back to quizzical looks.

“And,” I’d conclude, holding the glass to my forehead like a fortune-teller, “the number 23, for some reason.  Does that mean anything to anyone?”

I had no idea.

So to be honest, I don’t even try anymore.  Wine is fine, but liquor’s quicker.  You know what I’m saying?

Back in Portsmouth, after we finished our beer sampler, the place suddenly filled up with dads and their toddlers. It was something you wouldn’t see in Boston.  It must be some kind of club.  They were everywhere.  Some cute ones, too.  Dads, I mean.  And toddlers, as well, but in a different way.

So we split.  Went for a stroll through the streets of Historic Portsmouth, dropped into Breaking New Grounds in Market Square for a cup of coffee before getting on the road back to Boston. BNG is a lively little place with a warm atmosphere, and coconut macaroons, which my friend is especially fond of, for some reason.

I also want to plug what has long been my hands-down favorite restaurant in Boston, Neptune, in the North End.  I dropped in for dinner earlier this week.   It’s a great little spot, the atmosphere is always inviting, and odds are you’ll find Jeff Nace, the proprietor, hanging out trying a new wine, his wife and daughter in tow.

Neptune is really what restaurants were meant to be.  A great menu, good wine, and a genuine neighborhood feel.  It really is all that, and totally unpretentious about it.  But you will end up spending no less than thirty-five bucks apiece for lunch, and at least fifty each for dinner.  All I can say is, it’s good to have friends with money.

The Throne of Blood

The fourth film in my Akira Kurosawa Laptop Film Festival was his liberal take of Macbeth, The Throne of Bloodfrom 1957. It was his first of three such creative cross-cultural adaptations of Shakespeare (1960’s The Bad Sleep Well was Hamlet via corporate Japan, and 1985’s Ran, his Warlord Lear), which at the time of its release in the US–that’d be 1961–was not, shall we say, fully appreciated.

Bosley Crowther of the New York Times called it an “amusing… horse-opera.” “And the sound-track is interestingly filled with all sorts of harsh and eerie noises,” he goes on. “You should be strangely stimulated and have some fun at this film.”
Other American cineastes were equally dismissive.

And today the film is widely regarded as a masterpiece. Go figure.

I think it’s actually hard for today’s cineastes to understand why it was not regarded as a masterpiece in the first place (to be fair, there was a voice in the wilderness way back in 1961–Time Magazine called it “quite the most brilliant and original attempt ever made to put Shakespeare in pictures”), but there were intense cultural and historical factors at play. (There was a fascinating article about all of this in a recent issue of Literature/Film Quarterly.)

Thankfully, as the Time review noted, “Kurosawa’s Shakespeare … involves more Kurosawa than Shakespeare.” I concur, not because I have anything against Shakespeare (quite the contrary–although I should say here that I don’t believe that “Shakespeare” was Shakespeare at all–I am, and will always be, a fervent Oxfordian, I’m afraid), it’s because a reverence for the letter and the word of the original in this case would have smothered its spirit.

So many Shakespeare adaptations are either zombified versions of the originals, or desperately hip, self-consciously slangified new takes on the language. The former often err on the side of reverence and lose out on the fun, and the latter end up feeling more dated by the time they’re out on DVD than the originals, seemingly defeating their purpose altogether.

Kurosawa makes no attempt to do anything at all with the language of Shakespeare. The Throne of Blood is not a chatty film–although the chattiest scenes, where Asaji (Isuzu Yamada), the wife of Kurosawa’s Macbeth, Washizu (Toshirō Mifune), convinces him to slay his rivals, are mesmerizing, and fiercely incisive. And they’re mercifully short. Kurosawa knows when less is more.

And he’s clearly of the a-picture’s-worth-a-thousand-words school here (he’s not always–Ikiru, while a lovely, often moving film, got way too talky for my taste toward the end)–and his fearlessness with his visuals is never more glorious to behold. He breaks it down for us to where the Shakespeare’s telepathic. He takes the transcendent bits right out and feeds them to your brain through your eyeballs.

The scenes in the fog are masterful. In a film about destiny and time, fog’s a good metaphor.

Here, the two tribal chiefs (played by Toshirō Mifune and Minoru Chiaki) have just had their destiny laid out before them in plain language by a spirit in the wood. They gallop off to meet it, but immediately get lost in the fog. It’s a simple but powerful device that works beautifully here. Because we know Washizu can’t escape his fate, watching him gallop back and forth through the fog is comic and poignant at once. He has no idea where he’s going, but he will get there regardless which way he goes.

Kurosawa is the master of this language, of these simple, sharp, bold-stroked renderings of the complex and contradictory in us and in life. His uncanny ability to find the visual to communicate it is as impressive in its way as Shakespeare’s unrivaled ability to pun–packing multiple, contradictory meanings and emotions into a word or phrase that is employed with pin-point precision in the service of the plot.

Of course, the star is once again Toshirō Mifune, and he is given what has got to be one of the top ten death scenes in all of film history here. And like so much of Kurosawa, for me at least, the scene where Washizu’s destiny is fulfilled is overflowing with contradictory emotions engendered by the possibilities of the medium itself.

In the famous scene, Toshirō is shot so full of arrows that, in Crowther’s words, “he looks like a porcupine.”

And the reviewer is right that it is “a pictorial extravagance that provides a conclusive howl.” It is a marvelous, audacious move. The money shot. I mean, Kurosawa didn’t hire a ham like Toshirō Mifune for nothin’. He was saving it up for this scene.

Is it a howl? Absolutely. And a pitch-perfect one at that. Comic and tragic, we watch with a mixture of admiration and pity, awe and incredulity, I-told-you-so glee and heartbreak that the old witch was right. The kernel of the humanity in Washizu is still there in the frantic clown suffering the arrows of his own outrageous fortune.

And like the ending of all tragedies it is both final punishment and reward.

A Sunday Morning Trek to The Wilds of Jamaica Plain

Today was the kind of day in these parts that if you weren’t outside soaking in the weather, you should be renditioned. Or better yet, paraded down Main Street, marched to the ancient stone altar in the town square to have your beating heart ripped out and fed to the gods to the wild chants and ululations of your friends and neighbors.

Only by pleasing the gods in this way can we reasonably ensure that this gorgeous weather will go on for those of us who know what to do with it. And I know gorgeous weather of this order in these parts in October is not just an oxymoron. It is cognitive dissonance on the scale of The Sox winning the World Series. And thus, the rotten weather is as cherished a hardship as the Sox yearly loss used to be, and as regular a certainty back in the day.
But the times are a-changing, aren’t they?
Some of you who were cowering from the sublime indoors all day (and I imagine you know who you are) will surely argue that this is the calm before the storms of global climate change ravage our once habitable planet. All the more reason to get out and enjoy it while it lasts, I say. And if you’re on a bicycle, and don’t eat a lot of beans, you can do it utterly guilt-free.
If you don’t have a bike, a boat will do, too. This was the weekend of the Head of the Charles Regatta, of course…

I don’t get it myself, really, but I’m all for it. It may not always seem it, but I’m actually a very open-minded person. I myself like having somewhere to go when I hop on my bike, or get in a rowboat. I understand not everybody’s like that. The HOTC is sure steeped in tradition, though. The largest two-day regatta in the world. Could not have asked for a better weekend for it.

I took in a bit of the festivities before dropping into the garden. I have to admit I didn’t do much but eat a Bavarian cream donut I’d brought with me, and lounge about in my lawn chair reading my Rilke (although you really need a cloudier day for all of that to add up).

It was very quiet in the Fenway today. Another calm before the storm, perhaps. It’s all on poor little Dice-K, innit? You know if he chokes tonight, he will have no choice but to commit hara-kiri. You may think me insensitive for saying so, but it’s what everyone is thinking.

So it was a relaxing respite in the garden…

This photo is simply to document my hair for posterity. The last time you all saw me I was well and fully sheared. Now that I’ve embarked upon my new vocation of indigent artiste–a Count Vronsky, alas, without an AnnaI feel I should let it grow.

The interesting thing about having a full head of hair is how people look at you different from when your head’s shaved. I find that people are a little on their guard when I’m sporting my edgier militant homosexual look than when I’m showing off my lustrous, curly locks. Of course it’s a totally subjective observation, but I think there’s something to it.

I mean, I know I treat people differently based on their looks. Not so much things that are beyond their control. I mean, you try not to treat people differently who were born that way. But when people who aren’t different go to great lengths to look different–they obviously want to be treated differently, don’t they?  All the more reason to be mean to them.

I’m not really going for a particular look here, by the way. I just think maybe it’s time for a change. I’ll keep you posted.

From the Fens I headed to The Riverway…

…parts of which look like well-kept ancient ruins, not on account of the condition of the structures, but of their setting–some bridges span dried-up and grown-over beds. This may have been the intention. The winding Muddy River that leads from Jamaica Pond to the Charles used to be nothing but marsh.

Olmstead’s work all along the Emerald Necklace strikes me as very organic, though. The structures are simple, sturdy, and elegant. If you look at the crap they’re throwing up on the Rose Kennedy Greenway today, you can really appreciate what you find all along the Emerald Necklace. It’s like they’re phoning it in on the Greenway. Git ‘er done! Most of it won’t last a decade, much less a century, by the looks of it.

I understand that we’re dealing with apples and oranges, of course. No matter what you do, there’s no way the Greenway’s going to look like anything you find in nature. It’s just what it says it is, a green way. Many structures are spiky, metallic, and full of sharp edges. The plantings are on grids. You wanted trees? Badabing, badaboom! There’s your trees.

It remains to be seen whether this vision of a green way will grow on the locals. It is infinitely better than what it replaces, no question. But to judge it by that standard is to judge the morning by the nightmare you just woke up from.

The Emerald Necklace was designed to be a sort of “folly.” I don’t think I’m too out of line to suggest it’s a distant cousin of the follies so popular in the centuries before Olmstead got to work on it. It was designed to seem like nature had intended it to be the way it is, but needed a little help getting there.

For the most part the colors aren’t out in force yet…

…but there were spots of color along the way…

Color or no, it was another perfect autumn day–which, in my book, means a perfect day, period. It’s funny about people’s favorite seasons. Autumn’s always been mine. I even like the word “autumnal.”  I suspect it’s because my first memories are of autumn. But it could be that according to my colorist, I’m an autumn.

When I got to JP, I got all nostalgic. I used to live there, but sort of on the “wrong” end of Centre Street. Still, it is such a charming area, I wouldn’t mind moving back someday, if the opportunity presents itself.

Yesterday the brunch crowd was out, and there was the customary line halfway down the block at the Centre Street Cafe, and the guy who was seating people was greeting them by name. People were out on the sidewalk, talking about the Sox.

All along Centre Street it was such a laid-back atmosphere. No attitude. People seemed a little less self-conscious and statusy than on my side of the Charles. A lot of folks closer to my age, too, seemed like. And I think the restaurants and pubs are better there than in Davis Square. They’ve both got bowling alleys and lesbians.

And thrift shops.  JP’s got Boomerangs, which has a great selection of used books way in the back. They’re pricier than the ones here at Goodwill (two bucks each for trade paperbacks there versus ninety-nine cents here) but the selection is better (although the Goodwill on Elm’s got a new manager, and they seem to be getting better books than before).

I guess I can’t really complain about Davis Square, although I will say that that recent missed connection fiasco has left a sort of stain on the tiny psychic version of the square in my brain.

I didn’t write about it here, because, well, it wasn’t anything to blog about, really. I thought it was kind of neat that the first missed connection I posted got a match. I didn’t expect anything to come of it, but the novelty appealed to me.

The first indication that something was wrong came when the guy who answered asked if I wanted to meet and take in the Sox game at a sports pub. I said, sure, why not? But that dampened any hope that my missed connection was going to be anything but a connection that was better missed. Sometimes Destiny does know better.

So we were supposed to meet in front of Mike’s, and I knew when I saw him all the way from Mr. Crepe way across the square, that he wasn’t the guy I’d seen and exchanged glances with before. Because the guy I’d seen was about my height and build–a little huskier, but not in the upper two-hundred to three-hundred pound range. Not a Papa Bear, much less a Kodiak. Not that I have anything against Papa Bears or Kodiaks. It’s just that this clearly wasn’t my guy.

To be fair, he had sent a picture, and he had some of the basics right. I mean, dark hair, Mediterranean type. But the rest was kind of fuzzy. There weren’t too many details to ask to confirm, and I didn’t want to appear to be coy. So I’d said, right then, let’s just do it.

Some people I know would have turned right around and hightailed it out of town. But, you know, there’s no reason to stand somebody up just because they’re not who you thought they were. I mean, if they blatantly misrepresent themselves, OK, but he really hadn’t. For all I know he thought we’d had a missed connection.

We went to the Burren and had a couple of beers and a nice chat. Turns out he wasn’t a Sox fan, after all. In fact, I don’t think he really knew much about baseball. He liked the way the players are built. I mean, most of them are pretty paunchy these days.  So he was into bearish guys, himself. Which was good, too. I wasn’t his type, either, in the end.

So it really was meant to be. A missed connection, that is.

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