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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Uffizi Gallery, Florence

The Uffizi is the most important and visited museum in Florence. The Uffizi palace was designed and begun in 1560 by the architect Giorgio Vasari in the period when Cosimo de' Medici, first Grand Duke of Tuscany, was bureaucratically consolidating his recent takeover of power. Built in the shape of a horseshoe extending from Piazza della Signoria to the Arno River and linked by a bridge over the street with Palazzo Vecchio, the Uffizi were intended to house the administrative offices (uffizi) of the Grand Duchy. From the beginning, however, the Medici set aside a few rooms on the third floor to house the finest works of their collections. The Gallery was subsequently enriched by various members of the Medici family. Two centuries later, in 1737, the palace and their collection were left to the city by Anna Maria Luisa, the last Medici heir, and today houses one of the world's great art galleries.
The beauty of going to Florence in February is that you can be in one of the most important art museums in the world with almost no people. We got reservations (which were completely unnecessary at this time of year) for early morning to aid and abet our ability to view the Bottichelli and Titian rooms with a minimum of crowds, and we were very successful--there were more guards than museum goers for our two hours in the museum. The whole visit was incredible. The grandeur of the setting did the art justice, and while we had not idea who any of the hundreds of portraits that line the Uffizzi's halls depicted, we were impressed by their volume. And The Birth of Venus is worth the price of admission.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Drive (2011)

This movie has a modern noir feel to it with an L.A. back lit neon quality. It harkens back to the sort of calmness that characterized private detectives of the 1940's movies. The Maltese Falcon, complete with the sparse dialog and the questionable morals. Very little facial expression. Lots of violence--not unjustified, not out of place for the film's context, but voluminous, none-the-less. And tension--the tension comes not from the feat of getting caught, or law enforcement's presence, but from the unpredictable nature of the two sides involved. This is basically a movie about bad guys and worse guys. Setting all this off is the spectacular cinematography, showing L.A. off at it's gritty best. The colors pop and we feel like we are in the passenger seat of the car during the long driving scenes. Now, to the plot. Ryan Gosling is the driver in 'Drive'. That is what he does--he is a stunt car driver in movies, but he is also a wheel man for robberies. He maintains his cool under pressure, he always has a plan B, and he is smart. The one chink in his armor is his weakness for his next door neighbor. He falls for Irene, and her son, Benecio while her husband, Standard, is in prison--when Standard gets out, he has some significant debts to pay off. Gosling feels compelled to help him out, and that is when things start to spiral downwards for him, despite all his talents. It is an understated movie with almost no dialogue and an ambiguous ending. If you like noir, you'll like this.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Breakfast in Italy

I like to rent apartments when I am traveling in Europe. The reasons are many fold. When I traveled more extensively with my children, it was a must. We didn't feel comfortable leaving the kids in a room on their own when they we're little, so an apartment afforded the ability to be in one space but to have more personal space, and to be able to feed them as needed without having to find an appropriate eatery. A huge plus. We have all enjoyed our time in apartments, so much so that when I have traveled with my spouse in recent years we have considered whether an apartment made sense. If we are staying several days in a city, that is our first choice. One of the hidden pluses of apartment living in Europe is that there is not a breakfast included. We are incapable of skipping a European breakfast if it is offered. We love the pou pourri of options, from fresh fruit and vegetables, salads, Bread and cheese, and when salamis are a specialty of the country, we cannot resist them. While this all sounds like a plus, eating a big breakfast significantly impairs our ability to have lunch, which is a terrible shame in a country where the cuisine is one of the reasons to visit. But every once in a while one needs a small amount of sustenance in the wee mornings hours. Especially when lunch time is pushed back into the mid-afternoon. In Italy, where the food at lunch and dinner is routinely spectacular, there are also cafes on every block that serve enticing pastries and espressos. At a terrific price. My cafe latte and rice pudding tart were a mere two Euros, and so delicious.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Travelling by Train in Italy

We made a couple of rookie mistakes on our February trip to Italy. Our only recent with trains in Europe was when we took a train from London to Glasgow last summer. I booked not just the train we would take, but also the actual seats we would sit in before we left home. The train was on time, we had comfortable seats that had wireless access and power points, and there was frequent food and beverage service throughout the trip. The same could not be said of Italian train service. We arrived in Florence last in the afternoon and were planning to travel to Orvieto the next day. In an effort to avoid problems, we made our way to the train station that night and bought round trip tickets from a machine that was track-side. We were falsely reassured by this, it turns out. The next morning we arrived in good time to make our train, only to find out that it was cancelled. And it had been cancelled for some time. Why, we asked, were both the web site and the self-service train ticket machines not up to date? Unknown. Our return train was also cancelled. But not to worry, there was a regional train that was on almost the same schedule, at half the price. It was comfortable and more or less on time. So all's well that ends well, but I would recommend going to the station and getting the train they have, not necessarily the train you planned on.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Ora d'Aria, Florence

My spouse and I enjoy dining at one star Michelin restaurants when we travel abroad--not as a rule, but on occasion. We usually prefer the one star to three star places, because the food is well prepared, interesting and delicious without being too unusual or too expensive. Oria d'Aria is the best priced one Michelin star restaurant that I have been to. We were so impressed with our Valentines Day lunch that we made dinner reservations before we left the restaurant--it is one of the few times that we have eaten at the same place twice when we are on a short trip.
The restaurant is named for the hour that prisoners are out to exercise. Why would you name your restaurant that? Up until recently Florence's prison was located right across the street--so while the dining room is sleek and modern, with glass doors to the kitchen that allow you to watch every step of your meal being prepared (try to get the table that allows both diners to see into the kitchen), as well as highly attentive service, they do have a sense of humor. Pictured above is the bacalao and below is a suckling pig shank--both were superb.
Chef Marco Stabile has created innovative menus for both lunch and dinner (the photos are from out lunch), At lunch time you can get tapas sized portions for 6-7 Euros each, and as the waiter pointed out, you could order one of each if you had three diners, or two particularly hungry folks. We ordered five options (it was hard to figure out which four options we were not going to try), and it was incredibly good. Even the bread basket was delicious, innovative, and unusual. When we returned for dinner we have the fixed price seafood menu, which is four courses plus dessert. We were offered a wine pairing with each course, which was reasonably priced considering (25 Euros) and very pleasurable. The most unusual dish of that meal was a baby calamari dish, with the squid served in a potato fennel soup broth pushed through a chenoix, with salmon roe mixed in. Sn would would get an unexpected bit of an egg, tasting like the ocean, every bite or so. The best dishes were pasta (just a personal preference). This is a place that I would go back to, and it is perfect for a special occasion.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Renting an Apartment in Florence

After spending a week in Florence, I would highly recommend having a very centrally located apartment, which means as close to the Duomo as you can get, but on the Arno River side. The Renaissance part of Florence is very walkable city, relatively flat and reasonably small. So if you are big walkers, it really doesn't matter where you stay. But for me, especially early i the stay, when I have yet to fully acclimate to the new time zone, being able to easily walk home after dinner is a huge plus. That is the compelling reason for me to be centrally located. Here is where we stayed: It was perfect. The building was one from part of the Medici family's sprawling Florence houses--so not unique, per se, but old, and all that that entails. It had a gorgeous entry way, and this picture is for a first floor apartment that is under renovation (our apartment on the second floor was significantly less grand). It was nice to be able to amble back to our place after extensive purchases and off load them. Since we were in the heart of the Chianti Classico wine region, we did feel compelled to try a a number of them, and carrying several wine bottles around takes it's toll after a few kilometers, so it was very nice to be able to detour back to our apartment between museum and shopping trip.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Guard (2011)

I saw this film on a trans-Atlantic flight, and had never heard of it before I found it on my menu of possible options. It didn't even come up as a 'recent movie' and I would have missed it completely if my spouse hadn't been perusing the comedies (having exhausted the attractive action options already)--well, happy I am that he found it. Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle star in this quirky Irish darkly comic movie. I am a huge Cheadle fan, and I would seek out a Brendan Gleeson movie in the future. Gleeson stars as Sgt. Gerry Boyle, a police officer in County Galway. If we are lulled by the beauty of the scenery, any romanticism is quickly squashed in the opening scene--an intoxicated driver has a grizzly crash, and when the responding police officer finds drugs in his pocket, he removes them, ingests some, and chides the dead man for leaving evidence on a corpse that would make his mother less than pleased. So this is no paradise. Enter Cheadle as a visiting FBI officer Wendell Everett, who is charged with tracking the entry of a large cocaine shipment en route from Latin America. They have identified the local players, and are some what surprised to learn that one of them has already been killed. The two make an unlikely couple of crime fighters who are both hilarious and effective. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

La Bottega di Rosa, Florence

We would never have picked this place out if it hadn't been the first day of our trip, we were more than a little sleep deprived after our trans-Atlantic flight, and it was recommended by the owner of the apartment that we had rented as an option that was on the block. I read reviews on Trip Advisor and while it is rated about a third of the way down the voluminous number of Florence restaurants, nothing outweighed the proximity--and the fact that they open at 7:00 pm instead of the more usual 7:30 (on a night where another 30 minutes sounded overwhelming). The food was wonderful. My absolute favorite of the four things that we got was the polenta ravioli. I love polenta and I wouldn't have thought to stuff it into ravioli, but it was an inspired marriage. My spouse's favorite dish was veal cheeks, which were served with a roasted onion that was drizzled with reduced balsamic vinegar after being cut in sixths. The veal cheeks are a wonderful example of what Chianti and a long afternoon on the stove can do for a tough cut of meat. They were full of flavor, and the combination with the sweet and savory onion was excellent. The third place item was tagliatelle with asparagus--which were both cooked to perfection, and if we had only this we would have been very happy with the meal. The atmosphere of the restaurant is very romantic, with candle light on every table and encircling the room. I love a fully lit candelabra, and they were in abundance here. Very nice.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Brunelleschi's Dome

In preparation for my trip to Florence, I read Ross King's book about the building of the Duomo. The finished product is so impressive. You can see the dome from all over the Renaissance parts of the city, and it is so massive that it appears closer than it actually is. It was the first dome built in Europe in modern times, and is considered to be what heralded the beginning of the Italian Renaissance.
Brunelleschi is best remembered for his architectural and engineering skills. He was born in 1377, and he started off as an artist as well as an engineer. When the Florence Cathedral (Santa Maria del Fiore) was being built, there was a competition to design it's dome--luckily for posterity--and Brunelleschi--his design for the Baptistry doors was bested by Lorenzo Ghilberti, so he was free to study dome construction. He went back to the ancient Romans and how they built the Pantheon as a start for his plan. He sifted through rubble and used his mathematical skills to design a dome within a dome, and the results are history. Very impressive. My single favorite non-engineering skill that Bruneschelli demonstrated was a sense of what his workers could tolerate--he brought them food and winde on their breaks so they did not have to climb up and down the scaffolding every time they needed a break--he realized that that would be wasted energy, and judging from the peposo I had in Orvieto, said to be based on his recipe, the workers ate very well.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Dogs: They Know Us Better Than We Know Ourselves

I was really intrigued by an article in the New York Times that noted that through breeding, dogs have become finely tuned to humans. They know our emotions--better than we know them ourselves at times. And they like us--more than we like each other. This struck a chord with me. I have three dogs currently, and have had between 2 and 4 dogs my entire adult life. In other words, I am a big fan. When I am home alone with them, they form a semi-circle around me, and whenever I move, they all get up and follow me. To them, I am fascinating. The center of their world. Nothing can distract them from their task of being with me fully. There is nothing in my life that gives me that kind of single-minded attention. Their companionship is silent but sincere. How do they do it? Well, apparently we made them that way. It is by now generally accepted that the dog is a wolf modified through 15,000 or more years of sometimes intensive breeding to live in human society. In Darwin's terms, the dog is a product of artificial selection, or "selection under domestication," while the wild wolf is subject to the laws of natural selection. They come from the Middle East, and we have co-habitated as species ever since. Such a lovely long term relationship :-)

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Father of My Children (2009)

This is not a feel good French movie. The story is said to be inspired by the life of the real-life producer Humbert Balsan, who made Lars von Trier's “Manderlay” (2005). Balsan had considerable success, making nearly 70 films, including three by James Ivory. He committed suicide when his business imploded. Our hero is a man is named Gregoire (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing). He is a French film producer, an honest hustler, a loving father and husband, confident of his powers, enjoying his work. Over the course of the movie we watch this man's livelihood unravel. It is not a dark movie, despite what happens. It is the story of a good man who is well-loved at home and at work who runs into a dead end that he cannot see a way out of. He has always been the optimist, but that strategy isn't going to work any longer. What happens? He has been in debt, his current projects are not working out, he is not exactly the best man with numbers, and everyone likes him so much they hesitate to say no to him. He is surrounded by supporters and enablers. Gregoire's office also serves as a family, in a way, and his employees share his vision. When calamity strikes, even his wife pitches in to help salvage his dream. The film's second half is about picking up the pieces after disaster occurs, and it shows that our lives are not merely our own, but also belong to the events we set in motion.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Spicy Laquered Chicken Wings

These are adapted from the New york Times, and are really delicious. 3 pounds chicken wings Salt 3 tablespoons soy sauce 3 tablespoons rice wine or sherry 3 tablespoons brown sugar 1 tablespoon grated ginger 6 garlic cloves, minced 1/2 teaspoon five-spice powder 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper 1/2 teaspoon grated orange zest 1 small cucumber, diced (about 1 cup) 6 scallions, slivered 2 or 3 small hot red chiles, sliced 2 tablespoons crushed roasted peanuts 1 teaspoon sesame oil 1 handful cilantro leaves 2 navel oranges, sliced. 1. Rinse the wings, pat dry, season lightly with salt and put them in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together the soy sauce, rice wine, brown sugar, ginger, garlic, five-spice powder, cayenne and orange zest, then pour over the wings and massage well. Let marinate for 1 hour at room temperature or refrigerate (overnight is fine) and bring to room temperature. 2. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Arrange the wings in one layer in a low-sided baking dish or roasting pan (or use 2 pans) and place on middle shelf. Every 8 to 10 minutes, brush the wings with the marinade from the pan, adding 3 or 4 tablespoons water to dissolve the juices as necessary. Continue until well browned, glazed and cooked through, about 40 to 45 minutes. 3. Pile the wings on a warm platter. Quickly assemble the garnish. In a small bowl combine the cucumber, scallions, chiles, crushed peanuts and sesame oil. Season with salt, toss lightly and scatter over the wings. Sprinkle with the cilantro. Surround with orange slices and serve.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Border Collie Puppies

What is it about puppies? I was visiting my friend's farm recently and they have 7 border collie puppies that are ten weeks old. They have outgrown the guinea pig phase and are full on mini-dogs. They crave attention--human and otherwise--and they have boundless enthusiasm to devote to the task of interacting. You enter the room and you are instantly the star. You have celebrity status. You are on the red carpet. It is hard not to love that. They can also literally bowl you over. They are not subtle in their adoration. You have to brace yourself and establish some sort of limits with them or you will have puppies in your hair and you will not remain upright. The thing that is particularly attractive about border collie puppies is that very early on you can see their alertness and interest in you. They look you in the face. Early on they acquire face recognition. They track where you go and what you do. I can see why they are such good herding dogs. They are sizing people, and presumably other beings in their spheres, right from the get go. Keeping up with that kind of energy is no small challenge, but they are impressively smart dogs.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Happy Ever Afters (2009)

This is a straight ahead British romantic comedy (ok, in this case, it is Irish, but the genre is similar), so if you do not enjoy this genre, steer clear of this movie. I have a weakness for the genre generally, and I am particularly fond of both the British and the French take on the subject. Just so my biases are know up front. There are two parallel weddings in this movie, and we see each of them progress until they meet at the place where they are both having their receptions. There are a lot of improbable things that happen along the way, but there are some truths hidden under slapstick comedy, that are delivered in a palatable way. Sally Hawkins (who I especially liked in 'Made in Dagenham') is the star of this show. She plays Maura, a single mother who is fending off the wolves at the door and parenting her charming (but mouthy) daughter. The movie opens with their furniture being repossessed and an eviction notice being served as she goes out the door to her wedding to Wilson. It turns out that she is marrying not for love, but for money. Wilson is an illegal immigrant about to be deported, so she is giving him a means to stay while getting to keep her house. The heart wrenching part is that Maura's daughter really thinks she is going to get a dad out of this deal and is none-too-happy to learn otherwise. A child who is so desperate to have a father that she is demoralized that a stranger will not fill the role tells you something about the lives of single parent children. The other story is equally instructive--a couple who are marrying for the second time because their first marriage failed and they are looking to fix that, to have a second chance...but for no good reason. They love each other, but they are not friends. It is just a disaster waiting to happen that everyone can see but them. Unfortunately, these things do happen. So amidst all the accidental punches and improbably overlaps between the two weddings there are some kernals of truth about relationships that are easy to swallow in this comedic vehicle.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

I love this author, and this book does nothing to change that. But this book was particularly fun because it takes place where I went to college and when I went to college. The author went to my alma mater, and graduated the year between me and my husband, so it is a marriage plot for us as well. Everything about the first 2/3 of the novel is a walk down memory lane for me. The streets, the movie theater, everything was known to me. The story itself is not a unique one--it is a love triangle. Two men love the same woman, and she loves only one of them. But it doesn't go incredibly well. That is a given. But exactly how it doesn't go well is the story and this is a good one. A main character has bipolar disorder, and the description of the natural history of it, as well as the treatment and the side effects, and the consequences of non-compliance, are all very accurately described and sympathetic. Overall, a great read.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Pink Guns

As a part of the increased scrutiny that Komen for the Cure has been under the past couple of weeks, it turns out that while it was the pink Bibles and the anti-choice groups that hawk them that led them into the Planned Parenthood debacle, it was the realization that they were partnered with a hand gun company to make a pink gun that really got my goat. I do not have a problem with charities partnering with manufacturer's to raise money and awareness for their cause. I think it is a win-win situation. The effectiveness for Komen for the Cure has been phenomenal--they practically own the color pink. So that is a good thing. I also do not inherently object gun ownership as a choice. What I object to is an organization whose core mission is the health of women advocating hand gun ownership. Why do I object? Because owning a gun increases your risk of dying. There is a weighing of personal safety against risk of dying at the hand of your own gun--either by your own hand or by the hand of another--and unfortunately the later risk is greater. It has been shown time and time again, if you won a gun, you are 2-4 times more likely to die of suicide. If you are a veteran, the risk is 9 times greater. It is not that a gun makes you suicidal. It is that it presents a ready and effective means of killing yourself, should the urge come over you. There is a high association between alcohol intoxication and suicide--people get drunk, get morose, and think about killing themselves--if they have a gun, they have a way to accomplish that, even if sober they wouldn't have made that choice. Suicide is the 4th leading cause of death for people 18-65. Not quite the killer that breast cancer is, but up there. I know, guns don't kill people, people do,but guns do make it easier. So why would you want your name associated with something like that?

Monday, February 13, 2012

Artisanal Cheese

Green Dirt Farm's Bossa cheese was recently featured on the vegetable menu at Per Se, Thomas Keller's upscale New York City restaurant. Keller is a phenomenal chef--his four cookbooks are works of art, and Per Se has three Michelin stars. So this is a feat, getting your cheese on the menu. It is like a stamp of approval from an internationally respected chef. So congratulations Green Dirt Farm! I recently visited the farm and saw the wonderful renovations they are doing on their cheese kitchen--it is incredible to me how much chemistry is involved in cheese making. The other thing I did there was tour the lambing rooms--at that point they had 150 lambs, and 10 were from that day--two were from the hour that I got there. Very cute, and also very well cared for. That is the thing I love about a place that is not a factory farm--the animals look happy. I left the farm with a good feeling. The hard thing is that they struggle to break even. The factory farm is the one that makes money. It is a sad thing, one that will hopefully reverse.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

50/50 (2011)

This movie is billed as a comedy, and there are definitely laugh out loud moments, all of them attributable to Seth Rogan--no surprise there. But it is essentially a very serious story told by a man who faced his own mortality in his mid-20's and retained a sense of humor about the ordeal. Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a writer for Seattle public radio. He has some nagging back pain, which he seeks care for and finds out that he has a neuro-fibroma-sarcoma-schwannoma. Not only is it a mouthful to say, no one knows what it means, but when he looks it up on the internet, he finds out that at best his chances are 50:50. His girlfriend is initially supportive, but a few too many nights of vomiting after chemo, and she is sleeping with someone else. She stays out of pity and guilt, and when Adam's best friend Kyle reveals her true colors, he kicks her out. She did get him a rescued greyhound, which was a good move, because the dog is definitely a comfort to him as he slogs through chemo--which doesn't work, and he needs to have surgery as his last chance at cure. Throughout the experience he is in therapy--with Katherine (Anna Kendrick), who he quickly susses out to be a rank amateur, and gets her to admit that he is her third patient ever. She makes every mistake i the book--including getting personally involved with him--so not a good example of therapy and what it can do, but a good source of hope for Adam. The mom is Angelica Houston and she is not a particularly sympathetic character here, but as the parent of a childhood cancer survivor, I did feel her pain. There were several tear jerking moments, but I have reason to be hit hard by them--others might sail right through them unscathed, but this is about the most uplifting movie about cancer that you could ever see.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Year of the Dragon

I find the Year of the Dragon to be a bit of a divergence from the rest of the Chinese astrological animals--they are all real things, this is something mythical. And why is the pretend animal the one that everyone considers so lucky? I would think you would want to have the intelligence of the monkey, for example. Maybe I am just jealous. I was born in the Year of the Pig. Not exactly the sort of animal that conjures up inspirational thoughts, to be sure. But it is an adaptable animal, one that is purported to be smart. It is versatile, it can survive on anything, and so maybe not terrible, but certainly not awe inspiring to look at--more of a beauty-is-skin-deep kind of an animal. The dragon, on the other hand, is spectacular to look at. It has all the cool qualities of a snake, with the added panache of a fictional character--the flowing main, the elegant snout, and the whole fire-breathing aspect is very nice. The dragon is considered to be a very lucky year to be born in--in China, couples delay childbearing to have a child in the Year of the Dragon. I didn't know that when I was having children, so I just lucked out to get one. Time will tell what great qualities he will bring to the world, and to fellow Dragons.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta

The title of this book refers to the people who were left behind. The story unfolds in the wake of an event very much like the Christian Rapture and revolves around those left behind. This Rapture — the simultaneous evaporation of an untold number of people — appears to have nothing to do with faith or goodness. It is not so much reward as it is an eeny meeny miney moe, you must go kind of event. This adds a layer of uncertainty to the world Perrotta describes. "As far as anyone could tell," he writes, "it was a random harvest, and the one thing the Rapture couldn't be was random. … An indiscriminate Rapture was no Rapture at all." The idea of a Rapture that may not be the Rapture is vintage Perrotta; he's a satirist who likes to poke fun at the vagaries of contemporary life. The response people have to it is predictable and yet very inviting as a story. There are those who ramp up their piousness, in the hopes of being chosen in the second go round. They are ever more convinced that their faith will bear fruit, and they are much more invested in proselytizing, as well as pointing out the sins of others. There are people who are just trying to cope. As you would imagine, husbands lose wives, children are gone, there is a lot of grief following such an event. The loss is enormous. And there are a lot of people who are suddenly single who didn't expect to be, so there are relationship opportunities. The possibilities are endless, and Perrotta does a good job of plumbing them.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Long Term Relationships

Today is my anniversary. Three decades, three music formats, no matter how you you look at it, it is a long time. And for the most part, I don't think much about it. It just happens. Amidst the kids, work, friends, family, all the things we do together, and all the things we do apart, I don't usually pause to contemplate. But it is remarkable that you can meet someone when you are 20 who you will still enjoy as much when you are 50. The reasons change, the connections change, but the fact that I don't even think about it on a day to day basis amazes me when I do stop to contemplate it.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Slacklining at the Super Bowl

Madonna brought Andy Lewis and the sport of slacklining to a mainstream audience at the Super Bowl half time show. The woman is incredible. Forget that she is 53 years old (I know, some people said she looked old, but as someone who is her age, she looked unbelievable. Not to mention the physical aspects of her act and how she sailed through them. Judging from a New Yorker article that interviewed her persoanl trainer a decade ago, the woman works out 6-8 hours a day--but still, it is impressive. Then on top of her glitz, she introduced people to the new hipster sport. My third son is a slackliner, so I knew what it was immediately, but I was not in the majority. What is this sport you ask? It is the new parkour. Slacklining is the act of balancing along a narrow, flexible piece of webbing that's low to the ground and usually anchored between two trees. Tricklining pushes it further, with professional athletes performing flips, twists and other students and competing for titles. But above all it is very cool (especially when people are doing it relatively close to the ground, as opposed to over great gulches, where the risk to life and limb is considerably greater). A big round of applause for Madonna, a middle aged woman bringing the latest to the rest of us.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan

As is so often the case, this werewolf story has a lot of sex associated with it. Sometimes it is subliminal, but not so here. Jake is our hero, and at 201 years old he is quite vigorous. He has lots of sexual partners, and has only one rule--he pays for sex. Not because he is so desperate, but because he invariably kills his mate. He just doesn't want to take those kind of risks with someone he has had to woo. I can see that. Jake is the last of his kind--for some reason the bite of the werewolf usually turns the victim into a werewolf themselves, but it just hasn't been happening. And the problem is that vampires are in need of werewolf blood, so he is being hunted by the maestro of all wolf killers. He's perfectly willing to give it up without a fight. But that doesn't happen. Jacob is swept up by so many other plots — one of these involves an ancient book said to explain the origins of werewolves — that he can't get back to the simple business of dying. Best-laid plans of wolf and man go awry here. The book is so well written that you can quickly forget that it is werewolf literature and just go about the business of enjoying this clever, eloquent, elegant, darkly humorous story from cover to cover, and not catch the wave of the occult it is reflective of.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Planned Parenthood

There has been a lot of hoopla surrounding Susan G. Komen for the Cure this past few days. I had been very impressed with their ability to successfully brand themselves, and become *the* name in breast cancer. It probably didn't hurt that breast cancer incidence was rising, early detection allowed more women to be successfully treated, and that up until them, cancer hadn't seemed very attractive. They dressed it in pink, made it their color, and mobilized money and brand recognition. They were a force to be reckoned with. When they made demands, policies changed. Even if they were not all that great an idea, medically speaking. And then, all of a sudden, they put themselves under the public scrutiny microscope in a big way. They abruptly changed their granting criteria, and announced they were withdrawing support for Planned Parenthood. It was a disaster in public relations. I think if they had rolled out a plan that had access to affordable health care for low income women that equaled that of Planned Parenthood, and explained their rationale, it might not have been so bad. But they did not. And it seems that isn't why they did it anyway. Instead, Planned Parenthood looked like the good guy--they had donations rolling in and the role they have played in filling the gap between the haves and the have nots made them look squeaky clean. The fact that they perform abortions, in addition to the myriad of other services they provide for women wasn't persuasive to a majority of people. That must have come as something of a surprise to the Komen people. They weren't expecting that. Pink was suddenly a dirty word. Unexpected scrutiny started to explode. All the while Planned Parenthood raked in good press and played the jilted lover. Lesson learned? Time will tell.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Ides of March (2011)

This is not about 21st century twists that have been added to the mix--there are no discussions about smear campaigns with commercial blitzes, how getting big money is the only way to make it in the modern political landscape. Nope, this is straight ahead politics that could have taken place 50 years ago. The central character is Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), who as a press secretary is required to more or less lie as a living. He does it very well. He works for Pennsylvania Gov. Mike Morris (George Clooney), an idealistic liberal. Philip Seymour Hoffman is Paul Zara, his seasoned campaign manager; Michael Mantell is Sen. Pullman, Morris' opponent, and Paul Giamatti is Tom Duffy, Pullman's campaign manager. Rahel Evan Woods plays a college student, the daughter of a powerful man, who is interning on the campaign, and she provides the opportunity for sexual scandal and she is the naive one who thinks that good will triumph over all. It is a very strong cast and the script does them justice. No matter how you feel about the message and the ending, you will be impressed by how well it came across. Clooney as a director brings a perfectionism to the final product that is very impressive. He is not just another pretty face. All of the men, except young Stephen Meyers, are realists. They're cynical, compromised and often underhanded, but all in the cause of something they believe in. The Gosling character believes mostly in himself. Like many staff members of powerful men, he confuses reflected glory for the thing itself and dreams not so much of Gov. Morris winning as of being able to rise in the staff ranks and take over Zara's job. The movie is kind of like the process of turning out a prostitute--once you get them to take money for sex, you have them well on the path to hooking, and this is about Gosling going through the political equivalent of that psychological process. What would you do?

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Dance Marathon

Dance Marathon at the University of Iowa is quite something. So many dancers, all giving their time and energy to a cause--childhood cancer--that no one really wants to talk about. I should know. I have a childhood cancer survivor, and there are so many things that I would rather talk about than the role that catastrophic illness in one of my children did to my world view. The money it raises is serious cash--over a million dollars to devote to research and making the lives of children with cancer better. Now that is a cause that is easy to get behind! Let's try to decrease the chance that it will happen to someone else, and in the meantime, try to make the lives of children who already have the disease a little better. It is an impressive undertaking. Not only do the dancers dance, they also spend a lot of their time fund raising. Which has the secondary benefit of raising awareness about childhood cancer. I know that there are a number of genetic cancers that manifest themselves in childhood, but the rise in children with brain tumors is something of a canary in a coal mine scenario in my mind. What we do with our environment, especially things that endanger our water supply, makes me think we should really pay attention to some of these warning signs. Another benefit of the involvement of many kids is that they know that people their age and younger get cancer--maybe it helps to raise their personal awareness and allow them to participate more in their own health. Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to thank my son Tucker for the efforts he has made on behalf of children with cancer and their families. He has been a camp councelor at the summer camps for children who have had cancer and their siblings ever since he graduated as a camper himself. But this year he took the big step of being a part of Dance Marathon leadership. It has been a big time commitment, and he has done a great job at it!

Friday, February 3, 2012

Stormin' Norman at The Acme Oyster House

We made a trip to New Orleans in late December, and while we only had 24 hours to get all our eating in, we managed to stop at the Acme Oyster House in the mid-afternoon for a dozen oysters and a side dish of red beans and rice. We have been going to the Acme for about 20 years now, and over that time it has become a place of some renown. In our early days there you would never see a line. The place is far bigger than it looks, and the turn over is at a dizzying pace. It is not at all uncommon to get a seat, place your order within 5 minutes, and 10 minutes after that your food has arrived. The wait staff move about at a brisk clip, refilling iced tea glasses and inquiring about whether you need something more, without seeming rushed.
Now it is a place of some fame, and on our recent visit we waited about 20 minutes outside just to get a seat at the bar--the upside of the bar, besides that it is a great place to sit when you are by yourself, is that you get to watch the oyster shuckers shucking. We were fortunate enough to be seated right in front of Stormin' Norman Conerly, who has been shucking oysters at the Acme for longer than we have been going there, and has been featured on the Food Network. We always enjoy the food at the Acme, and the company is usually pretty good too, but watching a master of his craft is an added plus. Later the same day we watched the oyster shuckers at Luke's and it was so clear who the artist really is. Norm, hands down (pun intended).

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Maestro Empanadas

I have loved empanadas my entire life. They are a recurring theme throughout the world--a portable meal, completely encased in a container of dough. They are called different things--pasty's in Cormwall, calzones in Campania, bao in China, samosas in India, pierogis in Poland, vareniki in Russia, the list goes on--but they share common features. The highly seasoned filling is one. I like it when there are a number of vegtables that have been cooked in with some sort of protein for the filling. A little bit of heat is also a good thing--a chile or something along that line. The crust is equally important and also varied. The best option for me is something that is browned but holds together well under being consumed. If multiple cultures have a variation on this theme, it is a food that has universal appeal. What is it about them? They are savory, often filled with something that is inexpensive (or better yet, if you are making them yourself, with leftovers), highly flavored, and transportable. My favorite empanada experience was buying them on the street in Bolivia. So delicious, and sold for a song. Now there are empanadas in Iowa City. An Argentinian, making empanadas of the type found in northern Argentina, has a business whereby they make five different kinds of empanadas (beef, chicken, pork, cheese and zucchini) that you can buy at the Farmer's Market, or with 24 hour notice, they will deliver ( Once I knew about this, I immediately ordered up the full assortment of choices and had my family over for dinner. We have children who eat only meat, some who are vegetarian, and so there was something for everyone. The cheese were the most popular with my offspring, although my least favorite of the five. The beef have a nice blend of vegetables and meat of the three meat varieties, the chicken are much moister than you might expect, and the zucchini are remarkably good--all of them could use a bit more spice, but we keep a bottle of hot sauce on the table and that was easily remedied. I would highly recommend this new dining option.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

11/22/63 by Stephen King

Stephen King wrote a butterfly effect book. In a doomed diner in Maine, there is a rabbit hole that takes you back to 1958. Every time you go down it, you are in the same place at the same time, and everything you did before is erased. Jake Epping is a burnt out teacher with an alcoholic ex-wife. When he is told about the time travel option, and encouraged to go back and save Kennedy from assassination, maybe change the world for the better, he agrees. It is intriguing. If Kennedy had lived, would we have ramped up involvement in Vietnam? Would the civil rights movement have gotten so out of hand? Would Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy have been assassinated? The book is not so much about who killed Kennedy but what would have happened if he had survived. On the other hand, it is not at all about that. The bulk of this very bulky book is about a man out of his time fully engaging in the lives of those who belong there. He manages to fully engage in the life of a small Texas town, fall in love, be good at his job, and have people care about him. If he didn't have the whole Lee Harvey Oswald problem hanging over his head, he could be happy there. But it not to be. First off, it is not easy to pretend that you don't know stuff. He gets caught in small but repeated errors that make people suspicious. And then there is the job at hand. Jake is not a killer, and so it is not all about just finding the guy and killing him. There is a process he has to go through to establish Oswald's probable guilt. The story takes several turns before getting to an end--it is well written, and surprisingly quick to read--don't be daunted by it's size (this would be a great book to get on Kindle--much lighter that way).