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Friday, September 30, 2011


First off, I really like that the Denver airport displays banners about getting a higher education--I don't know if the college pay for that space or not, but it is great to see something 'advertised' that is wholly good for you. But secondly, I really like the Colorado School of Mines message--my son is a sophomore there, and while I know that it is a straight-ahead engineering school (if you can't cut it as an engineer, your only option is to be an economics major--we are not talking broad educational options here), I wish that a liberal arts education included a strong emphasis on earth, energy, and environment.

We face big issues in the future. The globe is heating up and weather is becoming more violent and more unpredictable as a result. We need an electorate that understands at least the basics of the choices we will be forced to make if we are going to continue to be the energy consumers that we have established ourselves to be. The connections between each of these three things, the legs of the stool, so to speak, are important to think about and consider as we make choices.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Purple Pig, Chicago

This was the best meal we had on our recent trip to Chicago--it was spectacular and I can't wait to go back, because there were double the number of things on the menu that we did not get a chance to try, including two things that they are well known for but only have on the dinner menu (deep fried deviled eggs and bone marrow) and two things they are known for that we elected to skip (Pig’s Ear with Crispy Kale, Pickled
Cherry Peppers & Fried Egg and Pig’s Tails Braised in Balsamic). It's location on Michigan Ave. makes it convenient if you are shopping or in Millennium Park, or at a nearby museum--we had just gotten off the architectural tour of the river, and it was a short two block walk.

We had to wait for a seat, but we did manage to score a table (there is pretty open seating at bigger tables, which is good, because it helps with the turnover, but when you are on a getaway vacation with a husband you don't see enough of, a table of one's own is highly valued). We opened with fried olives stuffed with Spanish chorizo and served with aioli. These are not on the healthy eating list, but there aren't too many of them, and they are bit-sized. A forgivable sin, surely. The dish is a nice balance of salty, crunchy, and spicy.

Next up was my favorite dish of the meal--a calamari salad, the squid tiny in diameter and sliced razor thin and cooked to perfection. The other salad ingredients were a pasta the size and shape of Israeli cous cous that was lightly toasted, and teeny tiny pieces of cucumber, radishes, corn, and toasted pistachios. It is the sort of salad you could put together at home, but it would take a lot of knife skills to get the vegetables just right. It s finished with a mayonnaise sauce )I would guess), some finely minced herbs, and a spritz of lemon juice.

I was thinking the razor clams would be my favorite, but they came in third--not because they weren't delicious, they were (I had high hopes when I saw a woman at a neighboring table literally licking the clam shells clean)--but everything else was great, and took more preparation, that these kind of paled. If you like shellfish, this is a wonderful dish. I wanted my food to be more something that I would have to really fuss over at home to replicate. This preparation is simple--butter, garlic, parsley, and I would guess broiled.

Our finale was a porchetta sandwich with a salsa verde sauce slathered right on top of the bread, and some slightly sweet pickled vegetables on the side. Our waitress had recommended 2-3 dishes per person--well, this one is enough for two people, with just a couple of other dishes (not that we had any trouble finishing it--we left nothing edible on any of our plates). It is substantial, and the pork is delicious.
My husband had a glass of rose to accompany the meal that was perfect, and the wine list is extensive, and had quite a few reasonably priced options, so you do not have to pay a fortune to drink wine with a meal here. We can't wait to come back.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011


One Saturday morning my husband took it upon himself to buy more tomatoes than you could imagine using and recapturing our youth. We used to can all of the tomato products that we used. We were young and cash was scarce, and produce was plentiful and cheap at our local farmer's market by the time fall got into full swing. We would spend one or two full 12 hour days preparing and canning tomatoes for use over the next year. This time around he wanted to make his own ketchup and while I was skeptical, it really is a delicious condiment.
1 bay leaf, broken into pieces
2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
5 lb. ripe sauce tomatoes; such as Roma, San Marzano, Heinz 1350 VF
1 cup red wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1 head of garlic, roasted
1/4 cup capers with brine
1/4 cup hot sauce
2 Tbsp. soy sauce
2 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp. paprika
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. allspice
2 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper

Toast the coriander, cumin, and mustard seeds in a dry skillet over medium heat until they are several shades darker and very fragrant. Finely grind the seeds with the bay leaf in a spice mill.

Heat the oil in a large heavy pot over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Add the onion and cook until well browned; this will take about 10 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients, including the ground, toasted spices. Bring to a simmer and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables have broken down. This will take about 45 minutes. Puree the ketchup in a blender or food processor, then return it to the pot. Return ketchup to a simmer and continue to cook until it reaches a pastelike consistency. This will take 1 1/2-2 more hours. Toward the end of cooking, stir the ketchup more frequently to prevent scorching. Season the ketchup with salt to taste.

Place ketchup in sterilized canning jars while still hot, then cap jars and process in boiling water for 10 minutes. Let the jars cool at room temperature until they seal.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Bed Sitting

I was recently sitting in a hospital room with my third son, who was recovering from a pneumothorax, and got to thinking. It was so exhausting to be there--why is that? I had gotten a good night sleep. True, my son was in the hospital, but by the time I got there, the worst of it was over. He had a chest tube (the painful part) already. He was breathing comfortably. He's young, so recovery should be swift and complete. So not terribly stressful in the spectrum of hospital visitation. Yet I was so exhausted that I could hardly keep my eyes open.
The environment of the hospital is just bland. We are about to embark on a campaign to make my home hospital a more patient centered place. What would that entail? I think a large entertainment center would be useful--something to draw your attention and keep it. The patient is almost literally tied to the bed, so other methods of occupation are challenging. I was recently in a hotel that had internet TV--you could access your Netflix account to stream movies, read the newspaper on line, watch cable TV, listen to music, or pop a DVD in to watch. That might help pass the time and keep one alert. A room of one's own was very nice, but I needed more. Thankfully, I only had one day to contemplate this problem--lung improved and son was discharged, more aware of his mortality but largely recovered.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Chicago Architecture from the River

On a recent weekend in Chicago we took a tour of the city from the Chicago River. It was a late summer day, not too hot and not too humid--so it was a beautiful day to sit in the sun on the river for an hour and a half to learn more about the architectural history of the city. The Chicago Architecture Foundation has tours that occur quite regularly throughout the day on a comfortable boat at an affordable price.

The tour begins under what used to be known as the Michigan Ave Bridge, but what was recently renamed the DuSable bridge, after the Haitian Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable who is credited with being Chicago's first resident. He settled on the north bank of the Chicago river near where it opened into Lake Michigan sometime in the 1780's. He is surely not the first man to live there, but he is first that we know about, so he gets the credit. Then the river ran into Lake Michigan, but in the 19th century the flow was reversed--too much pollution locally for. It was not noted how those who now lived downstream of Chicago felt about being on the receiving end of their waste, bt one presumes they were not altogether pleased.

We learned about four styles of architecture that are prominent on the river--beaux artes, art deco, modernism, and post modernism. The style that I like the best is the art deco and the style I like the least is the modernist style--which is essentially a rectangular box in the skyline--the less it sticks out the better. Mies van der Rohe is the man who brought this uninteresting style to Chicago and perpetuated it--the buildings he designed are not quite Soviet era dreary, but they come very close to that. My very favorite art deco building on the tour was the Carbide and Carbon Building--it was far from simple--it has a green tiled exterior with gold highlights around the top, but it was a graceful and memorable building.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Man in the Gray Flannel Skirt by Jon Jon Goulian

I picked this book up because it was on an NPR list of 'Funny Books to Beat the Heat' this summer. Not funny is how I would characterize this. It is passive aggressive kind of humor, which is more angry than mature, but that didn't bother me. I can laugh at that, even though I am not particularly proud of it. Not wasn't it. I found the book perplexing in a way that no other review of it mentions.
So first off, the author really can wear a skirt well. I am not sure how I feel about out-there cross dressing, but I definitely don't hate it, and unlike so many people, he can really pull this off. He looks good.
He describes a life long love of female clothing, make up, and has had concomitant life long questions about his sexual orientation--he says he is straight. Great. But he never has sex. He claims a woman he had sex with over the course of two weeks is the person who he had the most sex with ever. And that wasn't his idea, it was hers. She was convinced she could convert him to a more age-appropriate sexual appetite. She failed at that but probably wouldn't have predicted her actual accomplishment. What is up with that?
The thing that jumps to mind is childhood sexual abuse. Not to sound like too much of a shrink, but if the shoe fits....what I can't figure out is why none of the reviews I read thought it was odd. It is as if burying it amidst all kinds of titillating revelations would hide it, and if no one noticed that it would go away, or at least be ok. Well, it's not. I just wanted to scream "Get help! Life can be so much better than this!"

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Toilet Paper Origami

There was a somewhat whimsical New York Times article on the growing phenomena of folded toilet paper in restaurants, hotel rooms, and random places in between. I have noticed this although I wouldn't have had the where-with-all to write up a whole article on the subject) and was modestly surprised to find that there is a whole genre of origami instructions made especially for the toilet paper role. I really need to spend more time in Asia--the attention to detail is impressive and fun. This was my favorite iteration of the art form.

1. With the toilet paper still attached to the roll, pull out about 2 or 3 squares worth of TP and stretch it towards you. Fold raw edge under about ½".
2. Continue to fold the TP in an up-and-down, accordion fashion. Make at least 7 to 10 folds, the more the better. Compress the pleats into a tight stack.
Fold the stack of pleats in half towards you.
3. Squeeze the stack together pressing the creases firmly.
4. Release the stack of pleats and allow the folds to relax. Find the two pleats that are closest to one another (shown with arrow).
5. Expanded view; only two layers shown: Hold the two layers closest to one another and fold the corner to form a small triangle. Fold this corner once more to lock the two halves together.
6. Gently layer the pleated TP onto the roll. Arrange and fluff the TP until you have an inverted fan-like structure.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Compass of Pleasure by David Linden

The book has the intriguing subtitle ' How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Vodka, Learning and Gambling Feel So Good'. A little of each is pleasurable, a lot leads to addiction, and this book is here to tell us why that is. Linden is a nueroscientist and he does a good job of making a complex body of reasearch understandgble to those of us who do not wade through the science everyday.
Linden explains that there are variants in genes that turn down the function of dopamine signaling within the pleasure circuit. For people who carry these gene variants, their muted dopamine systems lead to blunted pleasure circuits, which in turn affects their pleasure-seeking activities, he says.
While most people are able to achieve a certain degree of pleasure with only moderate indulgence, those with blunted dopamine systems are driven to overdo it, just to get to the smae degree of pleasure. Understanding the biology of the pleasure circuit helps us better understand and treat addiction, Linden says. It is important to realize that our pleasure circuits are the result of a combination of genetics, stress and life experience, beginning as early as the womb--there but for the grace of god go I is the take home message.
This is more of a pleasure book (double entendre intended) than a text book. Linden does take us through the scientific method that was behind the research, so we are able to see the balance--the things that are more certain and those that are lees so, what the scientific method is that allows conclusions to be drawn, but it is more chatty and less dry than you would see in a more scientifically rigorous book.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Zucchini Fritters

1 pound (about 2 medium) zucchini
1 teaspoon coarse or Kosher salt, plus extra to taste
2 scallions, split lengthwise and sliced thin
1 large egg, lightly beaten
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
Olive or another oil of your choice, for frying

To serve (optional)
1 cup sour cream or plain, full-fat yogurt
1 to 2 tablespoon lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon lemon zest
Pinches of salt
1 small minced or crushed clove of garlic

Preheat oven to 200 degrees. Have a baking sheet ready.

Trim ends off zucchini and grate them either on the large holes of a box grater or, if you have one, using the shredding blade of a food processor. The latter is my favorite as I’m convinced it creates the coarsest and most rope-like strands and frankly, I like my fritters to look like mops.

In a large bowl, toss zucchini with 1 teaspoon coarse salt and set aside for 10 minutes. Wring out the zucchini in one of the following ways: pressing it against the holes of a colander with a wooden spoon to extract the water, squeezing out small handfuls at a time, or wrapping it up in a clean dishtowel or piece of cheese cloth and wringing away. You’ll be shocked (I was!) by the amount of liquid you’ll lose, but this is a good thing as it will save the fritters from sogginess.

Return deflated mass of zucchini shreds to bowl. Taste and if you think it could benefit from more salt (most rinses down the drain), add a little bit more; we found 1/4 teaspoon more just right. Stir in scallions, egg and some freshly ground black pepper. In a tiny dish, stir together flour and baking powder, then stir the mixture into the zucchini batter.

In a large heavy skillet — cast iron is dreamy here — heat 2 tablespoons of oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Drop small bunches of the zucchini mixture onto the skillet only a few at a time so they don’t become crowded and lightly nudge them flatter with the back of your spatula. Cook the fritters over moderately high heat until the edges underneath are golden, about 3 to 4 minutes. If you find this happening too quickly, reduce the heat to medium. Flip the fritters and fry them on the other side until browned underneath again, about 2 to 3 minutes more. Drain briefly on paper towels then transfer to baking sheet and then into the warm oven until needed. Repeat process, keeping the pan well-oiled, with remaining batter. I like to make sure that the fritters have at least 10 minutes in the oven to finish setting and getting extra crisp.

For the topping, if using, stir together the sour cream, lemon juice, zest, salt and garlic and adjust the flavors to your taste. Dollop on each fritter before serving. These fritters are also delicious with a poached or fried egg on top, trust me.

Do ahead: These fritters keep well, either chilled in the fridge for the better part of a week and or frozen in a well-sealed package for months. When you’re ready to use them, simply spread them out on a tray in a 325 degree oven until they’re hot and crisp again.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Extra Man (2011)

This is a quirky movie, and entirely suited to the Sundance Film Festival, where it made it's premier. It is a movie that may be seen as lacking focus, or veering dangerously off message, but I found it endearing, entertaining, and unlike anything I have seen this year (in a very pleasant way). But it lacks the universal appeal of a 'Little Miss Sunshine'--so beware.
Paul Dano ('Little Miss Sunshine') and Kevin Kline ('Emperor's Club' would be a comparable role) become roommates. Dano is a confused, immature young man who has remarkable luck getting a job that suits him, but that is where his luck ends. He is remarkably unsure about everything in his life, including his sexuality, and he lacks the basic skills to figure any of it out. Kline is a smart but failed man, scrambling to keep his apartment and his next meal, but loath to admit it. They are really not in any way alike. Worse yet, they don't bring out the best in each other. But they develop a relationship with each other, and have an effect on the other that is largely good (Kline more than Dano, but they each change a micrometer as a result of the other). The story goes almost nowhere--the progress is so slow that it is hard to even measure it, but at movie's end, I wanted more, so it entertained me and made me think in such an outside the box way as to be amusing, despite the movie's flaws.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

I loved this book--it was long listed for the 2011 Man Booker Prize, which is great because I always try to read those books, and I would not otherwise have picked this book up.
My husband calls this book 'When Bad Things Happen to Bad People'. Which is true. The book is set in the mid-19th century and is about two brothers who are contract killers. It is set in the American West, where this was more the norm than it is today, but the personalities are the same. Cold-hearted killers who will do whatever it takes to get out of a situation--and usually the situation is one of their making. Eli Sisters is the narrator, and he is a bit less sociopathic than his brother Charlie, whose first murder victim was his own father. Not that the man didn't deserve it, he did, but Charlie didn't feel any remorse, even for that.
The book is essentially one contract killing from start to finish, but as these things go the Sisters brothers do tend to get into trouble wherever they go. It is tongue-in-cheek clever and funny despite all the loss of life, and the story that is told, start to finish, is a very good one. Highly recommended.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Creamy Polenta

Christopher Kimball changed the playing field when in America's Test Kitchen he and his crew developed a no-stir stove top polenta--I served this with roasted vegetables in a pomegranate molasses sauce--unbelievable!
* 5 cups water
* 1 5 teaspoons table salt
* 1 pinch baking soda (most important ingredient)
* 1 cup coarse-ground cornmeal
* 2 oz Parmesan cheese, grated (about 1 cup)--this is optional, and one substitution is mascarpone cheese, which adds a different flavor profile--or nothing if you are vegan
* 1-2 tablespoons olive oil
* ground black pepper

1. Bring the water to a boil in a heavy-bottomed 4 quart saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir in salt and baking soda.
2. Slowly pour the cornmeal into the water in a steady stream while stirring back and forth with a wooden spoon.
3. Continue constant stirring until it comes to a boil, about 1 minute.
4. Reduce to the lowest setting. (See note above.)
5. After 5 minutes, scrape the sides/bottom of the pan while whisking the polenta to smooth out the lumps, about 15 seconds.
6. Cover and continue to cook for about 25 minutes, steam should be coming out is wisps, not bubbling. It is done when the polenta is loose and barely holds it shape, slightly al dente.
7. Remove for heat and stir in the cheese and the olive oil. Season with pepper to taste.
8. Cover (off heat) rest for 5 minutes. Serve with the remaining Parmesan to garnish on the plate.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Cedar Rapids (2011)

Our hero is Tim Lippe--he is an insurance salesman from Brown Valley, Wisconsin, and he gets his big break--to go to the region's annual insurance convention.
Seriously. This really is a film about a Midwestern small-town insurance agent's journey of self-discovery. But it is good. What helps make the movie good comic relief is that the writers have a great affection for Tim, a very decent sort, and they're not afraid to show it — rare in an age when acerbic comedy is more the norm. If anything, the filmmakers have taken a calculated risk in creating characters to laugh with, rather than at.
Tim arrives at the convention and ends up having to share a hotel room with Deanzie (John O'Reilly), a man he has been warned to avoid, and a straight-arrow Ron Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), the first black man Tim has ever encountered. Added to the cast are Anne Heche as the hot insurance hotshot and Alia Shawkat as the working girl working the convention are the crew that help Tim muddle through the series of disasters that are about to unfold.
FoWhich consists of pretty standard stuff. They rely on a mix of sex, drugs and karaoke, along with some double-dealing betrayals to propel the plot forward. All old tropes to be sure, but they do a decent job of keeping our hero off balance and the rest of us mostly entertained. If that all sounds like a lot of good, clean fun, a word of warning. There is some shockingly smutty talk thrown in--but most of the humor is old school, rooted in classic fish-out-of-water situations as Tim swings between absolute delight and total dismay at all this brave new world holds. Even Deanzie, in Reilly's good-hearted hands, grows on you after a while. It is just a nice feel good, laugh appropriately movie that skates on the edge of completely inapporpriate while maintaing itself upright and enjoyable.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillip

I wish I was brainier because this book is complicated.
In a lengthy fake memoir that is supposed to be the “Introduction” to a fake Shakespeare play, Mr. Phillips pretends to be a fictional version of himself.
He has an intense love-hate relationship with his father. He feels his dad repeatedly abandoned him and his twin sister, Dana, during their childhood because he could not resist committing petty crimes that kept getting him sent to jail. At the same time young Arthur hungers after his absent father’s approval: he wants his Shakespeare-loving father to love and admire him.
In recounting the tale of his fiction, the author does a clever job of orchestrating well-known Shakespearian themes--contingency of reason and love, the difference between appearance and reality, and the ever popular problem of twins, doubles, and confused identities. He mixes tragic and comis elements into one novel.
Then comes the fake play--which has a dissatisfying plot, but was convincingly Renaissanse in tone to my most undiscerning ear. It is very clear from start to finish that the author had a blast constructing this sneaky novel that deftly showcases his own versatility and shiny literary panache.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Windows on the War at the Art Institute of Chicago

These posters on exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago until October 23rd were produced by TASS in the Soviet Union during World War II.  They were hung extensively throughout Russia, but they were also mailed to the United States as a way of keeping their Allies up-to-date on what was going on.  Russia lost an estimated 20 million citizens during the war, including three million soldiers who were starved to death as prisoners of war.  They paid the highest price of all, and it their stenciled posters allude to an all out brutality--they needed to meet this fierce force with equal ferocity or they would be consumed.
These are not high art--what sets these images apart was that they represented the first time that Soviet poster art embraced “voyeuristic depictions of human suffering.” Odd mixes of eroticism and sadism was expressed in posters that showed beautiful women apparently ravaged and killed by grotesque Nazis. Bloody deaths by fire, hanging, or gunshot were vividly colored and drawn. The posters also reinforced anti-German rather than simply anti-Nazi sentiment: the editors were called upon to arouse hatred and mercilessness in the viewer. They demanded the deaths of Germans in general, and it is a rare poster that also shows the oppressed state of German citizens. German cartoonists and artists were at least as harsh, of course. A German poster depicting a dozen men, all of obviously different races and ethnicities, asks, “Serbs, Are Those Your Brother Slavs?” This collection at The Art Institute Chicago, however, demonstrates how similar propaganda techniques were in Russia.
It is a moving, thought-provoking, eye-opening, and worthwhile exhibit.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch

We meet Jaffy Brown, the hero of this wonderful book, when he is only eight and is being rescued from the jaws of a Bengal tiger being transported through the London streets by its owner, Mr. Jamrach, who rewards him for his bravery – and, one suspects, to quell any hint of scandal – with a raspberry cream puff and a job cleaning the animals' cages at his menagerie.
Mr. Jamrach plays an important role in Jaffy's life, but the one thing he does that he probably regrets is to send young Jaffy aboard a ship in search of a dragon. The mythical best is found, captured, and his care in captivity is left in Jaffy's capable hands. Only it does not go very well, and as is so often the case , the dragon is a tipping phenomena. Once he is on board, one thing after another goes wrong until the ship is sunk, and a handful of the crew survive to float upon the open sea with few provisions, little water, and diminishing hope of rescue, they resort to the worst case scenario tactics and poor Jaffy is haunted by his actions in those days before the few that remain are rescued for the rest of his life.
All this trauma is juxatposed by having to reintegrate into a life of family and friends who are thrilled to have him back--it is like soldiers returning home from war--their loved ones may hear the details of their ordeal, but no one can make such horror rreal for them, so there is a division between them that cannot help but persist. The grizzly details are bouyantly delivered in an unforgetable tale. This is the first of the 2011 Man Booker prize long listed books that I have read, but it is spectacular.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Book Versus The Movie

Which is better, the book or the movie? I usually stay out of these arguments. Books and movies are different mediums and things that work brilliantly in the book need to be removed from the movie because of either time (the movie has significantly less leeway on details when compared with the book) or because the way it happens in the book just wouldn't work in a movie. The 'Harry Potter' movies are an extreme example--there is so much going on in the later books that the context has been removed form the movie, and by the fifth one, if you hadn't read the book, you would have no way of following the story line at all. And sometimes the book is so luminous that no matter how strictly the movie adheres to it, the viewer is disappointed ('A River Runs Through It' is a great example of a good movie made from a spectacular book--no way to win with that).
I am going to make an exception and lodge a complaint. The movie should not totally and completely ignore the book's take home message. I read 'Something Borrowed' by Emily Griffin and then recently saw the movie. No comparison. The characters are the same, and many of the events co-occur in both book and movie, but the transformation of one character that made the book so appealing was removed from the movie. How annoying. Call it something else if you have to make the movie so dramatically different. Do not make those of us who know one story have to suffer through watching it ruined in another medium. The movie might have been just fine in and of itself, but I couldn't really concentrate on that because of the distraction that it missed the point of the book.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Hairspray in Coralville

City Circle out did itself in their current production of 'Hairspray'--it is fun, splashy, well sung and danced, and the message is about doing the right thing. It is staged in their new home, the Coralville Center for Performing Arts, which is an almost 500 seat brand new theater space that just opened it's doors--the matinee performance we saw over the weekend was the first matinee ever in the space. It is gorgeous--great views for everyone, and the stage and theater design are functional and up-to-date.
Chris Okiishi is my link to City Circle, and he really is an inspiration in the world of community theater--City Circle strives to bring professional quality theater productions performed by community members--the vast majority of the roles, both on stage and off, are performed by volunteers. People who love plays and making them available for others. City Circle encourages children and teens to participate, and gives many people their first theatrical experience. There is something wonderful about knowing that all the people you see before you in a performance all have day jobs, that they are doing this because they love it, and the enthusiasm is infectious. My son has been invovled over this past year as a set builder and fly man, so very much a behind-the-scenes guy, but it has been grand for him. Do not miss this production of 'Hairspray' and get your season tickets!

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Conspirator (2010)

'Dull' has been a word commonly used to describe this movie by reviewers. Others are kinder--'uninspired' is th eword they used. I, on the other hand, enjoyed it (leaving me feeling that perhaps I too am dull and uninspired!).
It is an historical drama, and it is more like something the BBC would do than what typically comes out of Hollywood. There are no daring escapades, the main character may in fact be guilty of the crime she is accused of, and it has a decidedly unhappy ending, no matter which side you are on.
Its theme is the rule of law in the aftermath of a national tragedy, in this case the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The basic ethical and political problems are laid out as neatly as the chapter headings in a civics textbook. The murder of the president — and simultaneous, coordinated attempts on the lives of Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward — throws Washington into panic. After John Wilkes Booth is killed in a shootout with soldiers, his fellow plotters are arrested and tried, not by a jury of their peers but by a committee of officers. Among those on trial is Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), a widow whose boarding house was a meeting place for the conspirators and whose son John (Johnny Simmons) appears to have been one of their number.
On trial for her life, Mary is defended by Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a decommissioned captain in the Union Army. An ambitious young lawyer, Aiken is initially reluctant to be the advocate of a suspected traitor, but he is cajoled into taking the assignment by Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), a powerful Democratic senator from Maryland. And as he becomes acquainted with Mary and her daughter, Anna (Evan Rachel Wood), Aiken becomes passionately dedicated to proving Mary’s innocence, or at least saving her life. Which is quite a challenge, because the trial is manipulated from the beginning. The key question is: Is this justice or is this revenge? What would Lincoln do? Would he want the basic rights afforded all defendents to be subverted? Is that the country he died for?
There is a subtle knife at work here, because many of these issues are indeed contemporary. The actors in this are excellent, and the historical context that asks a question that is pertinent today is appealing to me. Call me dull :-)

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten Year Anniversary

It has been a decade since four planes were hijacked by terrorists. Ten years since the World Trade Center twin towers were collapsed, and the Pentagon was assaulted. It has also been ten years since Ethan got his last chemotherapy. Joel and I were lying in the empty patient bed in his hospital room watching the events of the morning unfold while Ethan was watching 'Mulan' for the umteenth time and had cytoxan running in to him for the last time.

At the time, I was emotionally numb, so strung out from the year plus of chemotherapy and radiation, the multiple hospitalizations and the non-existent white counts, the worry. The stress was constant and long-lasting and I just couldn't feel any worse, despite being able to acknowledge that it was terrible and I would probably feel terrible later. Which I did. The one year anniversary of 9/11 I was in tears, feeling all the things I probably should have felt that day, minus the fear of the unknown, what might happen next. Since those early days I have been able to watch the passing anniversaries on a more even keel. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were upsetting and continue to remind me of bad solutions to bad problems, and I am unhappy about it, but not emotionally devastated.
So what now? Now is better. I am able to feel real joy about having a 17 year old boy, someone who survived what would have been unsurvivable 20 years ago and I feel less pain that it happened to him.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

February by Lisa Moore

The last of the long-listed Man Booker finalists from 2010 that I read (just in time to start on the list for 2011), and I did so while I was in London, which surprisingly added to the atmosphere of both the book and the place.
This is the diary of loss. A young woman lost her husband in an accident at sea. The story is told when she is in middle age, with her children grown, yet it is steeped in that moment in all their lives. It is mournful in a way that isn't depressing but rather buoyant at the same time. Cal, the lost husband and father, did not leave behind the feeling that others should suffer because of his loss. So while the family doesn't move beyond it--and have significant issues with intimacy as a result--neither do they dwell on his death. It is just there. They can't help but trip over it all the time. It is a beautifully written book that unfolds the layers of effect that such a dramatic loss can have, and shows quite subtly how that will ripple into the next generation.
Why did I like this so much? I think because it demonstrates the inevitability that trauma has an effect--you can't expect to go back to a tie when it hasn't happened. But you can go on to a place that is good.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Her Soup Kitchen, Iowa City

This is my current favorite sandwich place in Iowa City. They have 12 sandwiches on the menu (plus five breakfast egg sandwich combinations). I have tried 5 of them (the Cuban, the chicken salad, the sweet avocado chicken, the turkey club, and the tomato mozzarella) and they are all excellent. These are sandwiches that you would need to have an assortment of ingredients to build at home, so even if you are an enthusiastic cook it would be difficult to put together a sandwich of this quality, and almost not worth it for one person. Her SOup Kitchen takes making a sandwich seriously, and the dedication to detail pays off--these are spectacular.

There are an abundance of salads to choose from if you do not wish to have a sandwich, and I suspect they are well done as well, because the side salads are excellent. The restaurant is family owned and very friendly--the service is swift and cheerful. They serve a complimentary cucumber water that is delicious, and they do so with an eye to conservation as well as convenience--you get a small glass and a carafe of water--so you pour a small amount of water at a time and don't leave so much on the table un-drunk. The only problem, which is avoidable but regrettable given the name of the restaurant, is that the soups are not good--I have tried three of them, all sounding quite good and none of them coming even close to what I could make at home. They are thin and bland--this is fixable, I am sure, but for the moment, have the side salad rather than the soup, and try all the sandwiches on the menu--I am well on my way to that goal.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Day of Honey by Annia Ciezaldo

The subtitle of this book is 'A Memoir of Food, Love, and War'--and it is about all that. Fantastic in many ways, the thing I loved about it was that it gives a glimpse of what life in Baghdad and Beirut were like in the past decade--what people did in everyday life, what mattered to them, and of course, what they ate. While the book centers on the author, and is in every sense a memoir, it is beautifully written and broad in scope so that I was sad to see it end--I wanted more. The same can be said for the recipes that follow the writing--more! Here is one of them:
Batata Wa Bayd Mfarakeh (Slow cooked onions, potatoes and eggs)
10 ounces onions (about 2 medium-large), diced (about 2 cups)
2 tablespoons canola or olive oil
3 pounds russet or Idaho potatoes (about 4 medium-large), peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes (about 4 cups)
1-2 teaspoons sea salt, plus more for salting potatoes and to taste
Optional: 2 tablespoons chopped fresh herbs such as oregano, rosemary and/or thyme (I used parsley)
8 eggs

1. Saute the onions in the oil in a heavy or nonstick pot over medium heat. Stir frequently and do not let them burn. Once the onions begin to soften, after 2 to 3 minutes, cover the pot and turn the heat down to medium-low. Check the onions and stir every 10 minutes or so to keep them from sticking and burning. Do not let them brown at this point; you want them to caramelize very slowly. When they start expelling a lot of liquid and are turning translucent, turn the heat down as low as possible.
2. While the onions are cooking, sprinkle the potato cubes generously with salt, toss, and let them sit for about 5 minutes. Rinse very well under cold water.
3. After about 30 minutes, the onions should be starting to turn dark gold. Increase the heat to medium and remove the lid to evaporate as much of the liquid as possible. Add the 1-2 teaspoons of salt and the potatoes and mix. If you're using fresh herbs, add them now.
4. Turn the heat to very low and cover. Sweat the potatoes until they are soft -- usually 10 to 15 minutes -- stirring gently and tasting every so often. If you like the potatoes crispy, turn the heat up, add a bit more oil, and let them crisp for a few minutes between stirs. The potatoes are done when they just begin to disintegrate around the edges and you can pierce them easily with a fork. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
5. Crack the eggs into the pot. Stir until they just begin separating into creamy curds. Take the pot off the heat and keep stirring until the eggs are done (they will continue to cook for a minute or two in the pot). Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt, pepper or whatever else you like.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

White Wedding (2011)

tHe tensions of a man and a woman about to get married are universal-especially when the family and friends are not entirely sure this is the best match. In this movie, however, the specifics are strictly South African. Ayanda (Zandile Msutwana) urges her intended, a sweet lug named Elvis (Kenneth Nkosi), to hurry to Capetown from Johannesburg and Elvis thinks he has all the time in the world — five whole days to cover a few hundred miles — but he's not counting on buses that leave without him, a best man (Rapulana Seiphemo) whose girlfriend slashes their tires, and a granny who decides she'll skip the wedding but send a goat instead.
Oh, and then there's the hitchhiking English tourist (Jodi Whittaker) the groom and best man reluctantly rescue in the middle of nowhere. Having just discovered that her fiance slept with her best friend, she launches into a lengthy why-would-anyone-get-married? rant before discovering her rescuers are heading to Elvis' nuptials.
It's easy to imagine how wrong this movie could go: how it could become all about race, how the groom's misadventures could make it feel like The Hangover played sideways, how the five languages spoken in the film could make the story splinter into pieces.
But White Wedding is about connections, and it has the good sense to pull them together in a film that's sweet, inclusive and sunny, a charmer filled with people who seem every bit as surprised as we are when they manage to look past surface differences, and find reasons to bond. The movie is sweet rather than slick and that makes all the difference.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Oklahoma Joe's

This is it. The best place I have had BBQ. Ever. Anthony Bourdain put it on his list of "13 Places to Eat Before You Die' and he is not exaggerating. It is that good.
I read a review of it which said that prior to Oklahoma Joe's entry there were numerous arguments about what was the best BBQ in Kansas City--Arthur Bryant? Gates? Jack Stack? Now, there is no arguement--it is definitely Oklahoma Joe's. I have to agree. The ribs are great, as is their pulled pork, but their brisket is sublime. Smokey, moist, sliced microplane thin, and when mixed with BBQ sauce and put on a bun (the Z-Man sandwich piles a couple of fried onion rings on top, and while that might not sound appetizing, it was fantastic).
The only downside to this place is that the lines are long, no matter when you go. We called ahead for carry-out, which allows you to essentially avoid the line, and I highly recommend that strategy. We brought home a pound each of pulled pork and brisket and 2 slabs of ribs, and have been eating BBQ for a week. On the one hand, it has been fantastic--but on the other, it is probably just as well that we live 4 plus hours away. Occasional BBQ orgies are probably acceptable but as a steady diet it is likely to cause problems down the road.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Water for Elephants (2011)

This is a movie (based on a book that I didn't read, so anything that is irritating about it based on it's inconsistencies with that did not affect me) is about a number of things. The underlying theme is the desperation that came with the Great Depression, a time when 1 in 3 men were unemployed--something we would do well to remember as we struggle with the most recent financial debacle. Men who seek great riches are not about the greater good. Let's not forget that.
The story is told by Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson, of 'Twilight' fame--he is solid but not brilliant in this role). He drops out of vet school when his parents are killed in a car accident and he discovers there is no money left. So he hits the road and gets hired relatively quickly by a second rate circus run by the masochistic August (played with convincing anger and malevolence by Christoph Waltz), whose wife Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) is both the star of the circus and the victim of her husbands paranoia and violence.
The star of this movie is Rosie, and elephant that August purchases to bolster his show. She is presumed to be dumb as a post, and while August treats her with the same violence he reigns down on everyone else in his path, Jacob soon tumbles to the fact that Rosie is in fact quite smart. She wants some water that is across the tent from where she is tethered, so she uses her trunk to pull up the stake holding her down, ambles over for a drink, then goes back to her original spot, using her trunk to put the stake back in the ground. She isn't about to run away, but she is going to be comfortable.
She is the central character--she is the good to August's evil. He underestimates her, and he pays the price.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon--London

On my recent trip to the UK we had very few meals to eat, so we made each of them really count. For lunch one day we ate at this two Michelin star restaurant in the West End. We were seated at the bar, which startled me at first--the restaurant was empty and it seemed reasonable that we cold perhaps score a table--but I soon saw the error in my thinking.
At mid bar, you can see everything that is happening in the open kitchen--it is cooking as theater. And to begin with, everything that was being made was being made for us. So much fun to watch it being assembled before you, then you get to eat it.
The fixed price menu is a good deal, so I would recommend sticking with that. Here are the five dishes that we shared and what we thought:
*Egg cocotte topped with light wild mushrooms cream
Very flavorful mushroom sauce, and the egg appeared to be cooked sous vide--delicate, earthy and rich
*Razor clams from Colchester stuffed with shallot butter and flat parsley
These were my favorite, and they were very simply prepared--beautifully presented, but the contents are really clams, bread crumbs and shallots cooked in butter, and lots of fresh parsley. The flavor of the clams and shallots dominates, but the crunchiness of the bread crumbs works well with the chewiness of the clams. Very balanced seasoning as well.
*Langoustine ravioli with Savoy cabbage and foie gras sauce
The fois gras sauce was amazing--no liver flavor at all, and the richness of the langoustine married well with it.
*Pan fried scallop with ricotta cheese, romaine lettuce and basil
Scallops that are meticulously and individually pan-fried are marvelous--the rest of the dish was very flavorful, and added good textures, but the scallops themselves were the star of the dish
*Milk fed lamb cutlets from Pyrénées with fresh thyme
Served with fantastic mashed potatoes and green beans--delicious!
The amuse bouche was a fois gras custard with a fruit reduction sauce on top, with a fois gras foam-which was fantastic, maybe the most interesting dish that we ate. We finished with cheese that was served far too cold, but was otherwise nice.
I think I prefer the one Michelin star restaurant to the two, just because there is too much hoopla around the dining experience, but every once in awhile hoopla is kind of nice. I would go back!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Win WIn (2011)

This film is hard to categorize--it is part drama, part sports movie, part comedy, and not easily pigeon-holed, but it is wonderfully entertaining without being formulaic.
The center of the movie is Paul Giamatti as Mike Flaherty, an attorney whose life is unraveling because his business failing. When his daughter Abby (Clare Foley) is told by mom Jackie, the family's moral center (Amy Ryan), that her dad is out running, her immediate reply — "From who?" — and this is more on the mark than any of them know.
As if Mike's business problems weren't bad enough, he also volunteers as a coach for the remarkably unsuccessful high school wrestling team.
So what does he do? He does something sleazy. He petitions for guardianship of a client under the false pretense that he will do a better job than the state, but turns around and immediately turns around and does exactly what they would do, and pays himself to do so. How does this end up well?
Out of nowhere, Kyle, the client's grandson, shows up and he is one enigmatic, phlegmatic young man. His mother is in drug rehab, and her boyfriend has beaten him up, so he takes a chance on the grandfather he doesn't even know. All he has is that his mother hates him, so maybe he is actually a good guy. He has one ace up his sleeve (besides his genuine affection for the grandfather). Wouldn't you know it, the kid is one terrific wrestler. (McCarthy, who co-wrote the story with Joe Tiboni, took a chance and cast a real-life high school wrestler who'd never acted before, and Shaffer shows what a wise choice that was.)
Kyle moves in with Mike's family, they actually come to adore him, and he makes a real difference to the team by not only wrestling but coaching his teammates and playing the part of a leader who seemingly doesn't have any ego in the mix.
Watching all these permutations work themselves out is so enjoyable it is easy to forget that "Win Win" has adroitly hooked us into a story whose impressive moral trajectory deals with issues of fallibility, culpability and more. The director (who did the wonderful film 'The Visitor') puts over these big issues with a graceful feel for tiny moments, for a wealth of sly and subtle looks between actors. He manages to be respectful of and sympathetic to all his characters' diverse viewpoints while having a strong position of his own. It is a win-win situation indeed.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Two Fat Ladies--Glasgow

This is a wonderful restaurant--there are two in Glasgow, and we went to the one in the West End because the people who we were sharing our table with were staying in the West End--we wanted to be nice--and it was not a mistake to do so (isn't it great when you do something to be kind and it ends up being a win win?). The place itself is tiny. I mean seriously small. The kitchen is on the right as you walk in the door, and you can stand outside and watch them cook and plate every meal--which is a joy to do--kitchen as theater, I believe it has been called, and it is just that--dinner and a show--if you are inclined to be entertained by that. But size was the only thing small about this place--everything else was done on a large scale.

We arrived early, but we were seated without delay and without having a complete party (I really do dislike having to wait for everyone to get there to settle in for the meal, so appreciated this nicety). The menu is largely fish and seafood. I started with scallops on bacon and pea risotto--outstanding dish, and one that could be prepared at home (if you have access to good scallops)--pan fry the scallops with a bit of olive oil and put them atop the risotto prior to serving.
The main course that I liked best was the sole, which can be served on or off the bone, but we had it off--it was pan-fried in butter with tarragon and orange, then served with sections of orange on top, and a squeeze of lemon--simple and remarkably delicious. Highly recommended restaurant, plus some good ideas for things to make at home. I wish we had more fish....

Thursday, September 1, 2011

22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson

This very engaging and traumatic book is about the people from a country invaded, defeated, and occupied in WWII--Poland. Silvana and Janusz are young before the war, just starting out in their marriage, having a child when Hitler starts to eye Poland as his first invasion. The book focuses largely on what happens after the war, but it flashes back to the things that happened in the midst of it all. Those are the things that interfere with being able to go into the future with a clear and optimistic conscience.
Janusz left Poland early on--it was clear that Poland was falling and he traveled with other Polish soldiers to France, which also fell, and then he made his way to England where he established himself after the war as well and started to look for Silvana and their son, Aurek. Find them he does, but they are like prisoners kept in the basement without food for years on end. They have lived in the woods in Poland for what is essentially Aurek's whole life, and they do not adjust immediately to the safety of England.
But that is not the only problem--both Janusz and Silvana have big secrets that they are not sharing with each other. These secrets are very typical of protracted and brutal wars, but not talking about it makes the transition back to family life impossible. It is a well constructed story, well written, and well worth the time to read it.