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Thursday, April 30, 2015

No Land's Man by Aasif Mandvi

I have loved Aasif Mandvi for quite a while, but that is not why I picked up this book.  I have been alarmed since the Bush administration about the erosion of civil rights in America.  Social justice is no longer something that is legally safe, and at no point were we a post-racial society, so going down hill is a problem for me.  So when I read a list of the best books on being a person of color in the United States that came out in 2014, I took note, and this book was one of those books.

  So how well does a comedian and actor write?  Incredibly well it turns out, and with the humor that you would expect.  It is a mature look at the experience of being brown skinned when you live in a white society.  He hails from England, and moved to Florida as a child, so it is not just our country that has these problems, and I get that.  So while there is not new information here, his non-threatening treatise demonstrates all too well how things like police shootings of young brown skinned men go unpunished happens.  It is all too common; what has changed is that we as a nation are paying attention to it.  I highly recommend this to those amongst us who are not minorities.  It is valuable to hear this perspective, and this is an entirely enjoyable way to learn.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Grand Seduction (2014)

This is a remake of a French Canadian movie, the subtitled version of which was called Seducing Dr. Lewis from 2003.  The setting is a small rural harbor that is accessible only by ferry.  There is limited internet access and no cell phones.  Fishing has been so highly regulated that they can no longer sustain a living there, but they are not ready to abandon their community.  So instead they live on welfare, and over time that doesn’t go well for them.

Murray is a leader in Tickle Head.  He is unmotivated to change up until the point where his wife moves out.  She is tired of the culture of being on the dole, and while she lives the community, she needs to earn her keep.  At that point Murray becomes very interested in bringing a factory to the community so they have a source of income.  The barrier is that they need a doctor.  How to get someone to come?  They strong arm a physician into coming for a month, and they have to woo him to stay long term.  The problem is two fold.  The first is that they come to like him as a person—so now they have lied to him and they can’t take it all back. 

There are several take home messages for me from this movie.  The first is just how difficult it is to recruit and retain health care providers in rural communities.  The harbor would have been well served to send one of their own to be an advanced practice nurse.  The second is that when you fool somebody, it makes it nearly impossible to develop a long term relationship with them.  There is a message that work has rewards beyond what you do, including sex, but I think that is less well supported than the other two.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Green Beans with Sesame Seeds

This recipe is adapted from Mark Robinson's book Izakaya: The Japanese Pub Cookbook, and it is both reasonably easy and delicious.

1 lb. green beans, trimmed and cut to 2 inch pieces

Sesame Sauce:
2 oz. Sesame seeds toasted
1 Tbsp. white sugar
1 Tbsp. soy sauce
3 Tbsp. sake

Blanch green beans until they are crisp tender (about 5 minutes).  Drain and put in water with ice cubes.  Then transfer to a bowl of Dashi stock with soy sauce to soak. 

Mortar and pestle the sesame seeds.  Once they are in a paste, add sugar, soy sauce and sake.  Drain the green beans and toss them with sauce.  Delicious!

Monday, April 27, 2015

Displacement: A Travelogue by Lucy Knisley

I am not sure how I came to find this book, but it is a very nice introduction to what it is like to be a caregiver.  Lucy accompanies her elderly grandparents on a Caribbean cruise to allay the fears of her greater family that they cannot cope on their own any more.  She is at loose ends, and her grandparents are in their nineties so she realizes this might be it for them.  She enters the arrangement with the best of intentions, but as she is a single woman who travels and writes about it, she is woefully underpowered in the experience of being a caretaker.  She is still in the "having love affairs" part of her life, which usually translates to "don't do difficult when it comes to relationships".  Not always, of course, but the role of full time caretaker is not novel to a parent of young children, and she clearly hasn't had that.

The grandparents are definitely not able to be on their own.  The exhaustion of making sure that they aren't lost or scared every moment of the week comes through loud and clear.  So does the message of who they were and what they are now comes through.  I think it would be a good read for any grandchild whose grandparents are struggling with dementia.  And any child who is thinking of taking on the caregiver role full time.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Barton Fink (1991)

My spouse is not known for bursts of film nostalgia, but he has been on a couple recently.  First spaghetti Westerns, now the Coen brothers.  Having a film minor in the family has started to rub off on him, I guess.  I watched this one because I had never seen it before, and well, it was odd.

Barton is just a painful character to watch.  He is awkward, friendless and a bit arrogant, so the chances of any of that changing soon are slim.  Worse yet, he is by far the most likable character in the movie.  He movies form a successful Broadway play to Hollywood screen play writing, something he is ill equipped to manage.  It is period in time when writers are under contract to studios and pumped out Grade B movies once a month.  Not Barton, though.  He just can't get the hang of it.

These guys do weird like nobody's business.  I would not watch this late at night or home alone.  It has a creepy quality to it that is hard to shake off.  But or anyone who has had trouble with writer's block, or had to deal with difficult people, or had a mass murderer next door, you know how hard all that can be.  This is the movie for you.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Family Dinner

I continue to be very thankful to have all of my adult children in the town that I live in, but I was recently reminded to up my level of appreciation.  Since I have four children and they have close friends and significant others, when we have an intimate family dinner it invariably fills our dining room.  The level of noise alone from the crowd is enough to make it festive.  When I called for a reservation for the 10 of us last week they asked me if it was a special occasion.  No, just my family.

My parents were visiting recently and we had a number of these meals, both at home and out.  The noise level is impressive, I admit, but I like the chaos.  The conversation  doesn't come to an awkward end, it just keeps on rolling, and because it is family, if someone brings up a verboten topic then they are just shut down.  We are not going there.  That is the key--you have to steer clear of things that you know you disagree on because that is the kiss of death.  The rest is just merriment and nourishment and something to be reveled in.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Dreams of My Russian Summers by Andrei Makine

I am going to Russia this summer and I want to spend a little bit of time reading novels that take place in Russia.  I had a wonderful ride out to a dinner in a car stuffed with friends (many of whom I spent the evening talking to, despite knowing that we would also have an hour ride home together.  Sometimes you just don't have enough time with the people you really like, and it takes a car ride to really remedy that deficiency).  One thing that came out of the evening was a recommendation to read this book.

It is not an easy read, nor is it lyrically written.  What it does have is what I think of as the Russian experience.  There are tales of great imagination that are told against a backdrop of extreme violence and cruelty.  Makine, who fled the Soviet Union in 1987 when he was thirty, tells the semi-autobiographical tale of a young man who, along with his sister, spends summers in Siberian steppe country with his French grandmother, Charlotte Lemonnier.  She shares a world of memory with the children, memory of France prior to WWII and of Russia furing and after the war.  In the world of Soviet Communism, Charlotte's very Frenchness is deeply suspicious.  Her differentness does not save her from the horrors of war, but it does excuse her from some of the provincial niceties that a babushka would ordinarily be expected to do.  The book is not an easy read, despite it's petite size, but an entree into the complexities of Russians.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Boxtrolls (2014)

This movie is loosely based on "Here Be Monsters", a book by Alan Snow, and it is imaginatively put into stop action animation by LAIKA, who brought us "Coraline".  The town of Cheesebridge is very Victorian in it's class structure with the rich being unattractive and very few great role models to be found.  Then there are the Boxtrolls. The Boxtroll lair is a beautifully-imagined underground space: a gigantic cave, crammed full of found objects, gears, lightbulbs and toasters; things thrown away by the Cheesebridge residents. The Boxtrolls speak, but we don't understand their language, and there are no subtitles. The Boxtrolls exist as beautiful evidence of the sheer power and clarity of pantomime. They babble and gurgle to one another, and we understand every word.  Eggs, who lives amongst them, is quite clearly a boy and not a Boxtroll, but he is unaware of that, and he is also the hero of the story.  He brings many things to light, and changes Cheesebridge for the better as a result.

This movie has a darkness to it—in both the images and the themes—a darkness that is practically existential in nature, but not very far removed from the dark themes of other children's stories.  The movie creates a hierarchical world, with strict rules governing that structure, and it introduces us to a cast of eccentric and often grotesque characters who live and breathe in the highly classist world that is not so far removed from many places that exist today. It's gloriously inventive, wonderfully funny, and gorgeous to look at, the screen filled with sometimes overwhelming detail. The universe "The Boxtrolls" gives us is one both strange and familiar: a town that exists in some kind of collective unconscious with its narrow streets, massive main square, teetering mansions and slimy alleyways. It's out of a fairy tale; it's medieval Europe; it's Dickens.  Very nicely done, with a lot to appeal to adults and children alike.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Surrogate Decision Maker

This is one of the last pictures I have of my youngest son before we all knew that he had a brain tumor.  It was taken in the summer of 2000 in a place that he loved, where his spirit ran free, as you can plainly see.

I just came back from a meeting of the Children's Oncology Group, where I get to lend my expertise to a group of people who are collectively responsible for the research that saved my son's life.  It is often rewarding, but not always.  Sometimes is is emotional and sometimes it is just hard to be back in that place where I feel the devastation. Things are never ever going to be the way they once were and while that has been true for many years, it can still pack a punch.  Having to make decisions for someone that you love is no picnic.  The theory is that the family makes the decision that works best for them, and that parents are the best people to do it, but it is a lot of responsibility.  And no fun at all.  Even in retrospect.

We are the lucky ones.  His treatment worked, he has grown into his 20's, and he is able to go to college.  It is complicated, no question about it, but let's face it, this is the new paradise.  But some weeks it is hard not to feel sad. 

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Your Child in the Hospital by Nancy Keene

I am the parent of a childhood cancer survivor and a physician.  I have logged many an hour in the hospital both as a professional and as a parent.  You would think that with all that schooling and on the job experience that being a parent of a hospitalized child would be a relative cake walk compared to the hospital naive adult.  It turns out that is basically untrue.  The only thing that being a doctor helps with is understanding the lingo and knowing your way to the cafeteria.  The physical terrain is entirely familiar, but the emotional terrain is new, scary, and filled with land mines.

That is where this book comes in.  It calmly, carefully, and lovingly takes parents through the entire experience of having a child in the hospital.  There is some excellent and highly reproduced research that shows that when under stress patients only take in about 10% of what is said to them.  Add the stress of a child being ill enough to require round the clock monitoring and having to juggle caring for siblings and what to do about work, and it is not hard to feel completely out of control.  When my son was first diagnosed I laughed out loud when someone told me to take it one day at a time. I could not for the life of me manage more than 15 minutes at a time.  I would spend 15 minutes with him, 15 minutes walking, and 15 minutes crying.  Wash, rinse, repeat.  It was a week before I could manage anything better than that.

This book can save your sanity.  It helps with every facet of the hospital experience.  It is readable.  The advice is practical, and it comes from parents who have been there.  This is wisdom that health care professionals lack, but every parent of a hospitalized child needs.  It tells you how to get through it and how to make it bearable.  It will brighten your day when you didn't think that was possible.  

Monday, April 20, 2015

A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

This is the movie that launched what was to become known as the  spaghetti Western.  It was not the first to be filmed in Spain or Italy, or to use a largely non-English speaking cast.  But it was the one that captured the imagination of those who love the Western.

The movie follows the story of Joe (a very young looking Clint Eastwood who demonstrates what is to become known as a life long gift for economy of emotion and speech), a mule riding loner who rides into the sleepy township of San Miguel and sets about using an existing gang rivalry to line his own pockets and ultimately free the town of its bloodthirsty overlords.  Joe is a man of few words but these words tend to communicate more than their sum parts. Early in the piece, soon after he has arrived in town to an unfriendly welcome, Joe stands on the balcony of Silvanito's cantina ruminating on the makeup of the town. "The Baxters on one side and the Rojos on the other and me in the middle. A man could get rich in a town like this". So saying, the entire plotline of the film is laid out, with Joe playing one side against the other in turn until everyone is dead and his pockets are bulging.
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Here was a new style of hero, as laconic and self reliant as his predecessors but with a cynicism and amorality that matched the contemporary mood of his 1960's audience. A hero whose speed and skill with a gun had reached a new and exaggerated level of artistry, and who was happy to utilize them in as cold and mercenary fashion as his villainous adversaries. Far from wearing a traditional white hat, his was decidedly dirty. In short, he was cool.

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It is obvious when viewing the films of Sergio Leone that he had a strong affection for the classic western films of his American predecessors and a clear understanding of their visual iconography. Clint shows up in the two sequels to this movie wearing the same serape that he is wearing throughout this movie. The movie showcased a whole range of possibilities for new direction in soundtrack, direction and cinematography: a European approach to an American tradition.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

En Via, Microfinancing Women in Oaxaca

I love this organization.  They loan small amounts of money to small groups of women, based on the model of microfinance in India.  They only loan to women, they must be in groups of three, and once they have paid the money back they are eligible for another loan.  Since it is realistically impossible for a woman with no credit history and little capital to get a loan at a reasonable rate, this is a way to make a real difference in people's lives.

En Via raises its money for loans by doing tours in Teotitlan, where a small group of people visit the businesses of women who have received micro loans from En Via.  The women talk about their business and what the loans have allowed them to accomplish in their lives.  As the visitor, you get the opportunity to walk into people's businesses and in some cases their homes and learn what it is like to start and run a  business in rural Mexico.  You can ask questions about many things that would be on the edge of indelicate to outright inappropriate to ask a business owner, and so you can really immerse yourself in the country for a day.  This is the second time I have taken this tour, and if anything it was better the second time than the first  And I bought a rug directly from the weaver, in her house. 

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

I have recently read a number of books that fall outside of the realm of traditional murder mysteries but which have a crime at the center of the novel, and this is one of those books.

My mother recommended this to me as one of the books that her book group read that she thought I would enjoy.  It made the New York Times 100 notable books list as well, which is always a good sign.  The book opens with the death of a young woman, and then goes back and forth between the present day without her and the past.  I like the non-linear format, which is not a technique that works as well with a murder mystery.  But this is not a police procedural, it is the portrait of a family where one of them is murdered.

There are two themes that predominate in the story.  The first is the theme of alienation of first generation immigrants.  The story takes place in small town America and echoes the themes of alienation and otherness that Jhumpa Lahiri has explored so well.  The second theme is the oft written one of family dysfunction.  When dreams are squashed rather than freely released, there is hell to pay.  It could be read as an anthem for psychotherapy--deal with your problems rather than passing them on to your offspring, but I doubt that will happen.  In any case, it is a well written book with messages for everyone, but parents most of all.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Words and Pictures (2014)

This is an unusual romantic drama with a dash of comedy that stars two actors that I have liked for many years. It is not a total success, but so many movies miss that mark that it is hardly worth mentioning, because there is something to be thought about in this movie and it is entertaining to watch.

San (Clive Owens) is a mess.  He is a burnt out alcoholic teacher at a private school.  He was hired for his past brilliance as a poet, but those years are long gone and he spends most of his time yelling at his class and embarrassing his son with his drunken behavior.  He is on the verge of losing his job because of the aforementioned behavior, which makes him sit up and take notice, trying to improve his chances of retaining his job, but the booze has too great a hold on him for that to really work.

Dina (Juliette Binoche) is a well known artist who takes a job teaching not because she has a gift for it but because her rheumatoid arthritis has gotten to the point where she can no longer paint the way that she used to.  She is frustrated and depressed, but she also is searching for a new way to express her creativity, a drive that Sam has either long forgotten or never had.  Together they form a very fragile alliance that gives each of them a bit of hope for the future.  it is not the sort of love story that inspires one to great heights.  It is a realistic alliance that can be healing for both of them.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Black Pottery in San Bartolo Coyotepec, Mexico

Well, it is true that black is my favorite color, so it is no surprise that I love the black pottery of San Bartolo Coyotepec.  I love to watch women carve floral scenes into the sides of the pots with household things like toothpaste lids.

Dona Rosa, pictured, is credited with developing the technique that gives black pottery its shine, and that led to black pottery being collected around the world.

For millennia, black clay pottery remained essentially unchanged and undramatic. Its function was basically for the manufacture of simple storage vessels. It was dull and unremarkable in its appearance.

Then, in the 1950's, Dona Rosa discovered that by burnishing the unfired clay using a quartz crystal, it produced a lacquer- like, silver glisten. This single discovery transformed the pottery into a new art form.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Privledge to Pay

Ever since the video of Mitt Romney and his multi-millionaire donors bemoaning the fact that that they pay taxes while others do not, I have felt the need to invite controversy by saying that one should be thankful that one is paying taxes.  It means that you are making enough money to pay taxes.  Rejoice! You are compensated at a greater than living wage!

In my eyes, the fact that only 47% of people are paid enough money to pay income tax is an enormous problem that needs to be talked about.  Why has the minimum wage not been raised?  No one thinks that you can support yourself, much less a family, on a 40 hour a week minimum wage job.   Or 50 or 60 hours.  It is just not possible to have a mortgage, a car, and insurance.  We cannot be the greatest nation on earth if we fail to cover the minimal standards of living for everyone.  So be happy today if you are sending some of your hard earned cash to Uncle Sam.  Try to overlook the fact that public servants who make more than you are not earning their keep, and focus on the good that is in your life.  For one day at least.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Whiplash (2014)

This movie is about a battle of will between teacher and student that is intense and emotional to the point where it is painful to watch at times, and the ending is not self evident.  Which you have to admit is a bit unusual for a film that is not billed as a thriller.

JK Simmons plays an infamous teacher at a well respected music school.  He is demonic in his obsession with quality and abusive in his treatment of his students.  He is convinced that his way is not just the right way but the only way to produce a musician who is of exceptional quality, and he has almost no interest in producing anything else.  It is the opposite of training musicians to make their living with their art.  He humiliates everyone in his path, and the more talented you are the worse the abuse.  He takes on Andrew, a talented and obsessed young drummer played by Miles Teller.  Andrew is  socially awkward, a kid who bluntly tells his would be girlfriend that she is going to get in the way of his practicing and that if they continue to see each other he will just end up resenting her.  Oops.  That did not go over well.  But the thing is that Andrew has the ability to fight back and that ends up making the battle so tense.  Well worth watching but not what I would call light entertainment.

Monday, April 13, 2015

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

This is a difficult read, not because the writing is dense, but because it is full of unending violence.  And as one reviewer pointed out, it is misnamed.  It is not the least bit brief, clocking in at pretty close to 700 pages.  It is a woe filled tale of the losers in Jamaica, going back to the years of the Cuban revolution.  The legacy of slavery is an unhappy one, but no where is it as devastating as it is in the Caribbean.  Haiti is just one example, but apparently there are many more.  Women are routinely raped and every one is threatened with gun violence.

The center of the book’s massive orbit is a 1976 attempt to assassinate reggae singer Bob Marley. In the mid-1970s he was building up to release his great album, “Exodus” (1977).  Meanwhile, the island that made Marley was coming apart at the seams. Food shortages dominated, and guns were everywhere. Following the departure of the British overlords, infrastructure had deteriorated. In the 1970s, as his star rose abroad, Marley was caught between these two parties and their increasingly violent enforcers. James easily could have told us that story alone, the tale of a man wrestling with that responsibility, his life in danger, his dream collapsing. Indeed, there are scenes to that effect. But mostly James has focused on doing something far more interesting by jumping from one voice to the next.  It is brutal and very real.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Travel Tribulations—Accept Them or Stay Home

I have been on the road more than I have been home the last couple of months, and there are several things that I have noticed.  One is that it is possible to travel too much, especially if you aren’t in one place for more than a few days at a time. I settle well into hotel rooms.  I have a travel backpack with all the things that I need when I am on the road.  I am good about living out of my suitcase, and I don’t require a lot of variety in clothing.  I have been known to come home from one trip, dump all my clothes into the washing machine, dry them, fold them, and put them right back in my suitcase.  But at some point, the lack of continuity of place gets to me. 

Then there are the things that you can’t control, and when you are reliant on plane travel, that is a lot of things.  They include weather, not just where you are but also where your plane is coming from, mechanical issues, flight personnel, and airport amenities.  Why is there not WiFi everywhere?  How come you can’t get a nice variety of food when you are stuck in a terminal?  Well, accept what you cannot change.  Run for a close connection because while you will miss some, you will also make some, and that is such a great feeling.  Be nice, it goes a long way.  Carry your own food at all times. If you pass a nice looking salad, get it.  You never know when you are going to be stuck and what your choices will be.  For me personally, an expensive chocolate bar and a bag of mixed nuts can go a long way to making an unexpected stranding go better.  And never count your chickens before they have hatched.  Just because you are on the plane doesn’t mean it will take off.  Be prepared for the worst because it will help you revel in your good luck when things go well.

Ode to the Ideal Cuban Sandwich

There are many things that I like about Cuban food, and many of them are encompassed in the Cuban sandwich.  I hope that the normalization of the relationship between Cuba and the United States progresses without a hitch, and that it will be entirely without comment for my children to hope down to Cuaba for a weekend getaway of music and beaches at sometime in the future.  I also hope that the food in Cuba achieves the level of deliciousness that Cuban food outside of Cuba has attained.

We celebrated the recent thawing of diplopmatic ties this weekend with a family dinner of Cuban sandwiches.  My eldest son made an excellent ham over Easter weekend and smoked a pork loin in order to address two of the major components of the sandwich.  The bread is a third, followed by sliced dill pickles, swiss cheese, and yellow mustard.  Simple ingredients that when stacked together attain something greater than the sum of their parts.  

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Longest Week (2014)

This movie stars two people I enjoy watching in movies--Jason Bateman and Billy Crudup.  It is a not very deep, not very romantic, not very funny film about a man who wants for nothing in his material life but has little in the way of a personal life.  His parents have no discernible affection for him and left him to be raised by the staff in a hotel they own.  It is like a children's story in that way, but the outcomes is neither funny nor charming.

The story of love lost and found unfolds over the course of a week, which is a very short time, except of course the story in a movie is always told within the confines of a couple of hours so it isn't all that different in some ways.  There is a Wes Anderson wanna be component of the telling of the tale that does not add to it's charm, but doesn't detract enough to make it unentertaining.  A nice diversion.

Friday, April 10, 2015

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Einear McBride

It is hard to know what to make of this book.  It is not at all surprising that it took the author ten years to get it published.  It is surprising that it has a wide and largely warm reception, winning a number of awards and being generally well received.  One reviewer said that if Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch represents a book beloved by critics and audience alike, this book is a complete disconnect.

The book is an unrelenting shower of bad news for the protagonist from beginning to end.  She is a young woman whose life is characterized by unending emotional betrayals and physical abuse. Her father abandons the family in the opening pages. Her mother is a religious fanatic who swings between the extremes of between begging the Virgin Mary for blessings and shrieking at her daughter for being a slut. Her brother has brain cancer. Her uncle begins sexually abusing her when she’s 13. Later, strangers rape and beat her. She turns to more incest and anonymous sex can blot out the pain of her life. But it is the writing style that makes the book stand out.  It is the elliptical and hard to follow narrative that sets the book apart from others with equally distressing trajectories, and makes it emotionally raw and real.  Give it a whirl.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Street Art, Oaxaca, Mexico

I can't quite put my finger on why it holds such appeal for me, but I very much love street art.  Maybe it is the big canvases upon which the artist works.  Maybe it is the day and night access.  You can go to see street art on Christmas.  It is always open.  And it is free.  No charge to enjoy it. 
This is the entrance to the studio of the master carvers in the Fuentes family.  I love it because it is brightly painted, not too complicated, and it gives the passerby a sense of what they are about to enter, which is a workshop of people creating fantastical animals, some of them imaginary, some of them replicas of things that exist in life, but all of them beautifully painted. 
Oaxaca is a city with many artists, and some cook things going on in art.  The churches in the region have been extensively renovated and the repainting of their interiors is nothing short of spectacular.  The artists who do that restoration are doing a very different art than those who are painting the sides of buildings in terms of their message and their appeal, but the desire to paint and paint big may be a shared one.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Rudderless (2014)

I have seen a number of movies lately that have music as something in the foreground rather than just in the background, and it has been good.  Between that ans Spotify it has become very clear to me that even at my ripe old age I can enjoy new music, whether it is within a movie or outside of it.

I have been a long time Billy Crudup fan.  Here is is a grieving father who discovers that his dead son was a really great song writer.  After his son's death he leaves his job, he drinks way too much, he has no friends, he works painting houses, and he generally stumbles around the bottom of the barrel, unable to even look up, much less crawl out of it.  And then he starts playing his son's music, and slowly, very slowly, he gets just enough better to look up and see the sun.  It is a bittersweet movie with a couple of twists and turns that I don't want to give away, but well worth a watch, and a lovely soundtrack if you like a ballad or two.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Tejate, the Drink of Royalty

This is not the bowl you pass in the market place and think "wow, I really want to drink that".  Add to that the fact that you are definitely cautioned not to drink the water in Mexico.  This prohibition is made somewhat easier by the fact that no one drinks the water, not even people who live there.  But the foam and the color of tejate if off putting to the uninitiated.  We tried it on our last trip to Oaxaca, and it was surprisingly delicious.

Tejate was the drink of Zapotec royalty, and the culture from the pre-colonial times is alive and well in Oaxaca.  It is made of precisely toasted corn, cacao, cinnamon, and the seeds and flowers of a fruit called mamey which has skin like a kiwi and the grainy orange flesh of a yam, but more chalky, and with a central seed the size of a large almond. The tejatera, the woman who makes tejate, several of whom told me all these things, toasts these ingredients perfectly each night before she uses them. Knowing how to do this is a skill passed from mother to daughter tejateras. The cleanliness of the seeds and bowls is vital. Grease or fruit stuck on the mamey seeds will render the whole stew the wrong color and all the other tejeras will scowl.

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Aprons of Oaxaca

I am not exaggerating when I say that every Zapotec woman wears one of these aprons.  They are everywhere.  The woman pictured here is at the Tlacalula market, a spectacular Sunday market that is a must see.  She is tending a grill where you can cook the meat that you have bought that day before you venture home.

The one thing that I regretted not buying on my first trip to Oaxaca was one of these aprons.  While I cook frequently, and I am messy.  It is not at all unusual for me to need to change clothing after cooking as a result of having gotten something, or many things, on my clothing.  Despite this I never ever wear an apron.  So why would I want to bring one home with me?  It is a connection to place.  I bought one on my last trip, and I may get one next time as well.  I love the idea of a uniform and that is what these aprons are, much more than a protection for clothing.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

St. Vincent (2014)

The modern depiction of family is taken to the extreme in this downbeat comedy, where there is profound sadness but also laugh out loud moments.  Much like life.

Bill Murray plays a he plays a grouchy, alcoholic ne’er-do-well who has lost lots of money at the track and regularly has sex with a pregnant Russian prostitute (ably played by Naomi Watts).  He is flat out broke, overdrawn at the bank, and in desperation he hires out to babysit the 12-year-old son, Oliver, of his new neighbor. In another movie, Vincent McKenna would be a tragic figure: As the movie opens, we see him stumble-down drunk, perilously driving himself back to his Sheepshead Bay home, taking out his fence in the process and passing out on his kitchen floor.  And there is definitely that element here.  But the whole point of the movie is for the audience to see where all that bad behavior comes from.  He is a decorated Vietnam veteran and a devoted husband to his demented wife who lives in a skilled nursing facility.  His lack of caring about himself belies his underlying nature, and Oliver, caught between his warring parents, susses it out.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Textile Museum of Oaxaca, Mexico

This is a small museum in Oaxaca dedicated to native textiles.  I read in a review that it is the only textile museum in Mexico, and if that is true, the preservation of native textiles may be in trouble, because while the items in the exhibits are of fine quality, there are not many of them, and I worry that the centuries old traditions of native women in the region will not receive the attention and study that they deserve.
The beautiful thing about the region of Oaxaca is that while the museum might be a little light on textiles, the women of the region continue to make and wear their native clothing.  The markets and the churches of various regions are both good places to see the artistry of clothing that is so prevalent in the region.  I recommend this museum if you know absolutely nothing about textiles, because it can teach you the basics.  Additionally, the gift shop has some excellent textiles to look at.  I would recommend looking in the market if you are interested in buying because the prices are very jacked up, but it is a good place to learn.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Alebrijes from Oaxaca, Mexico

One of my favorite stops in my last trip to Oaxaca was visiting the studio of Efraim Fuentes in San Martin Tilcajete, a village renowned for its carvers and painters. 
The art and craft of carving real and mythical animals from the wood of the copal tree is something to behold, especially in the Studio of gifted artists. The copal tree gives many gifts besides its wood and is best known for the resin which is used as an incense.  Pictured at right is Ivan with a branch in the early stages of being carved, and pictured above is Sylvia, the woman who does the painting on the alebrijes that makes them come to life.  The painting is a painstaking process that is done free hand and the final magical ingredient in the artistic collaboration.  It is hard to describe but these are fun and beautiful and special .

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Foxcatcher (2014)

I am pretty sure that this movie is supposed to come off as creepy, but it really surpasses one's expectations in that arena. 

The story is based on yet another true life sports story. The details may be lacking in veracity, but the basics are.  John Dupont (aptly played by Steve Carell) is the eccentric multimillionaire who had a passion for wrestling and some grandiose ideas about what his money could buy.   Mark and Dave Schultz were two brothers who won Olympic gold in Los Angeles in 1984 and are training for Seoul in 1988.  Dupont lured Mark to his training center on the rural Main Line near Valley Forge.  He invokes a lot of verbiage about love of country and patriotism, but to the audience thye sound like hollow platitudes rather than inspirational speech. 

The end result of Schultz' experience on the Dupont estate is the murder of his brother, his own descent into anger for reasons that are quite justified, and Dupont's arrest.  It is a painful movie to watch, with Channing Tatum doing an excellent job of portraying a moody wrestler and Mark Ruffalo being equally good as his brother.  Very sad, but well done.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Five-Spice Scallops with Lemon Sauce

I love this recipe--it is fast, easy and delicious.  I have been buying frozen scallops at Costco and they work beautifully for this dish.  They are not cheap, but when you want a treat, this is a good preparation.  And a 2 lb. bag of them is enough to easily feed 4-5 people and more affordable than eating out.

1 lb. scallops

1 1/2 Tbs. soy sauce
1 1/2 Tbs. rice wine
1/2 tsp. five spice powder
pinch of black pepper
1 Tbs. minced garlic

1.  Mix all ingredients, marinate the scallops for at least 30 minutes, as long as a day.
2.  Dry scallops on a paper towel when ready to cook them.  Dredge through flour.  Heat 2 tbs. oil in a skillet and cook until there is a golden brown crust 1-3 minutes.  Flip and cook an additional minute.  Take off the heat.

Lemon Sauce:
1/4 c. stock
1 1/2 Tbs. lemon juice
1/2 tsp. toasted sesame oil
 1 tsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. corn starch

1. Mix all ingredients and add to the hot pan you just cooked the scallops in.  Mix until thickens, then add scallops back in and serve immediately.