Monday, January 30, 2006
Ella & Louis
IF YOU DON'T KNOW the recording Ella & Louis, you should order it now. I was lucky enough to hear Ella Fitzgerald when she sang at my father's twenty-fifth college reunion. As freshmen, his class had voter her their favorite singer. As middle-aged men, they got her back for a concert in which she gave ten encores to the enthusiastic crowd. It's as if my class had the Beatles for their reunion (if they were still alive, and if they got better with age).
Ella was the consummate professional. She was famous for getting the recording right first time every time, but "right" in the highest sense of the word. Every one wanted Ella to sing their song with her perfect voice, timing and interpretation.
Louis Armstrong was obviously a great trumpeter, but no one would accuse him of having a perfect voice. His range was limited, but what character, timing and interpretation.
You can listen to their recordings over and over. They're so comfortable they become your old friends. If your friends were among the greatest musicians of all time.
Sunday, January 29, 2006
Garrison Keillor on Bernard-Henri Lévy
“'Any American with a big urge to write a book explaining France to the French should read this book first, to get a sense of the hazards involved. Bernard-Henri Lévy is a French writer with a spatter-paint prose style and the grandiosity of a college sophomore; he rambled around this country at the behest of The Atlantic Monthly and now has worked up his notes into a sort of book. It is the classic Freaks, Fatties, Fanatics & Faux Culture Excursion beloved of European journalists for the past 50 years, with stops at Las Vegas to visit a lap-dancing club and a brothel; Beverly Hills; Dealey Plaza in Dallas; Bourbon Street in New Orleans; Graceland; a gun show in Fort Worth; a "partner-swapping club" in San Francisco with a drag queen with mammoth silicone breasts; the Iowa State Fair ("a festival of American kitsch"); Sun City ("gilded apartheid for the old");a stock car race; the Mall of America; Mount Rushmore; a couple of evangelical megachurches; the Mormons of Salt Lake; some Amish; the 2004 national political conventions; Alcatraz - you get the idea. (For some reason he missed the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, the adult video awards, the grave site of Warren G. Harding and the World's Largest Ball of Twine.) You meet Sharon Stone and John Kerry and a woman who once weighed 488 pounds and an obese couple carrying rifles, but there's nobody here whom you recognize. In more than 300 pages, nobody tells a joke. Nobody does much work. Nobody sits and eats and enjoys their food. You've lived all your life in America, never attended a megachurch or a brothel, don't own guns, are non-Amish, and it dawns on you that this is a book about the French. There's no reason for it to exist in English, except as evidence that travel need not be broadening and one should be wary of books with Tocqueville in the title....”
“Thanks, pal. I don't imagine France collapsing anytime soon either. Thanks for coming. Don't let the door hit you on the way out. For your next book, tell us about those riots in France, the cars burning in the suburbs of Paris. What was that all about? Were fat people involved?”
January 29, 2006
American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville,' by Bernard-Henri Lévy
On the Road Avec M. Lévy
Review by GARRISON KEILLOR
Any American with a big urge to write a book explaining France to the French should read this book first, to get a sense of the hazards involved. Bernard-Henri Lévy is a French writer with a spatter-paint prose style and the grandiosity of a college sophomore; he rambled around this country at the behest of The Atlantic Monthly and now has worked up his notes into a sort of book. It is the classic Freaks, Fatties, Fanatics & Faux Culture Excursion beloved of European journalists for the past 50 years, with stops at Las Vegas to visit a lap-dancing club and a brothel; Beverly Hills; Dealey Plaza in Dallas; Bourbon Street in New Orleans; Graceland; a gun show in Fort Worth; a "partner-swapping club" in San Francisco with a drag queen with mammoth silicone breasts; the Iowa State Fair ("a festival of American kitsch"); Sun City ("gilded apartheid for the old");a stock car race; the Mall of America; Mount Rushmore; a couple of evangelical megachurches; the Mormons of Salt Lake; some Amish; the 2004 national political conventions; Alcatraz - you get the idea. (For some reason he missed the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, the adult video awards, the grave site of Warren G. Harding and the World's Largest Ball of Twine.) You meet Sharon Stone and John Kerry and a woman who once weighed 488 pounds and an obese couple carrying rifles, but there's nobody here whom you recognize. In more than 300 pages, nobody tells a joke. Nobody does much work. Nobody sits and eats and enjoys their food. You've lived all your life in America, never attended a megachurch or a brothel, don't own guns, are non-Amish, and it dawns on you that this is a book about the French. There's no reason for it to exist in English, except as evidence that travel need not be broadening and one should be wary of books with Tocqueville in the title.
In New Orleans, a young woman takes off her clothes on a balcony as young men throw Mardi Gras beads up at her. We learn that much of the city is below sea level. At the stock car race, Lévy senses that the spectators "both dread and hope for an accident." We learn that Los Angeles has no center and is one of the most polluted cities in the country. "Headed for Virginia, and for Norfolk, which is, if I'm not mistaken, one of the oldest towns in a state that was one of the original 13 in the union," Lévy writes. Yes, indeed. He likes Savannah and gets delirious about Seattle, especially the Space Needle, which represents for him "everything that America has always made me dream of: poetry and modernity, precariousness and technical challenge, lightness of form meshed with a Babel syndrome, city lights, the haunting quality of darkness, tall trees of steel." O.K., fine. The Eiffel Tower is quite the deal, too.
But every 10 pages or so, Lévy walks into a wall. About Old Glory, for example. Someone has told him about the rules for proper handling of the flag, and from these (the flag must not be allowed to touch the ground, must be disposed of by burning) he has invented an American flag fetish, a national obsession, a cult of flag worship. Somebody forgot to tell him that to those of us not currently enrolled in the Boy Scouts, these rules aren't a big part of everyday life. He blows a radiator writing about baseball - "this sport that contributes to establishing people's identities and that has truly become part of their civic and patriotic religion, which is baseball" - and when, visiting Cooperstown ("this new Nazareth"), he finds out that Commissioner Bud Selig once laid a wreath at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington, where Abner Doubleday is also buried, Lévy goes out of his mind. An event important only to Selig and his immediate family becomes, to Lévy, an official proclamation "before the eyes of America and the world" of Abner as "the pope of the national religion . . . that day not just the town but the entire United States joined in a celebration that had the twofold merit of associating the national pastime with the traditional rural values that Fenimore Cooper's town embodies and also with the patriotic grandeur that the name Doubleday bears." Uh, actually not. Negatory on "pope" and "national" and "entire" and "most" and "embodies" and "Doubleday."
He worships Woody Allen and Charlie Rose in terms that would make Donald Trump cringe with embarrassment. He admires Warren Beatty, though he sees Beatty at a public event "among these rich and beautiful who, as always in America . . . form a masquerade of the living dead, each one more facelifted and mummified than the next, fierce, a little mutant-looking, inhuman, ultimately disappointing." Lévy is quite comfortable with phrases like "as always in America." Bombast comes naturally to him. Rain falls on the crowd gathered for the dedication of the Clinton library in Little Rock, and to Lévy, it signifies the demise of the Democratic Party. As always with French writers, Lévy is short on the facts, long on conclusions. He has a brief encounter with a young man outside of Montgomery, Ala. ("I listen to him tell me, as if he were justifying himself, about his attachment to this region"), and suddenly sees that the young man has "all the reflexes of Southern culture" and the "studied nonchalance . . . so characteristic of the region." With his X-ray vision, Lévy is able to reach tall conclusions with a single bound.
And good Lord, the childlike love of paradox - America is magnificent but mad, greedy and modest, drunk with materialism and religiosity, puritan and outrageous, facing toward the future and yet obsessed with its memories. Americans' party loyalty is "very strong and very pliable, extremely tenacious and in the end somewhat empty." Existential and yet devoid of all content and direction. The partner-swapping club is both "libertine" and "conventional," "depraved" and "proper." And so the reader is fascinated and exhausted by Lévy's tedious and original thinking: "A strong bond holds America together, but a minimal one. An attachment of great force, but not fiercely resolute. A place of high - extremely high - symbolic tension, but a neutral one, a nearly empty one." And what's with the flurries of rhetorical questions? Is this how the French talk or is it something they save for books about America? "What is a Republican? What distinguishes a Republican in the America of today from a Democrat?" Lévy writes, like a student padding out a term paper. "What does this experience tell us?" he writes about the Mall of America. "What do we learn about American civilization from this mausoleum of merchandise, this funeral accumulation of false goods and nondesires in this end-of-the-world setting? What is the effect on the Americans of today of this confined space, this aquarium, where only a semblance of life seems to subsist?" And what is one to make of the series of questions - 20 in a row - about Hillary Clinton, in which Lévy implies she is seeking the White House to erase the shame of the Lewinsky affair? Was Lévy aware of the game 20 Questions, commonly played on long car trips in America? Are we to read this passage as a metaphor of American restlessness? Does he understand how irritating this is? Does he? Do you? May I stop now?
America is changing, he concludes, but America will endure. "I still don't think there's reason to despair of this country. No matter how many derangements, dysfunctions, driftings there may be . . . no matter how fragmented the political and social space may be; despite this nihilist hypertrophy of petty antiquarian memory; despite this hyperobesity - increasingly less metaphorical - of the great social bodies that form the invisible edifice of the country; despite the utter misery of the ghettos . . . I can't manage to convince myself of the collapse, heralded in Europe, of the American model."
Thanks, pal. I don't imagine France collapsing anytime soon either. Thanks for coming. Don't let the door hit you on the way out. For your next book, tell us about those riots in France, the cars burning in the suburbs of Paris. What was that all about? Were fat people involved?
Local Is The New Organic II
REMEMBER when you went to a new Whole Foods market and thought it was the best supermarket you'd ever seen? Well, after you get used to New York City's Union Square Farmers Market, you go into the new Whole Foods on the south side of the square and wonder where all the good food is.
In New York restaurants, and good restaurants all over the Western world, local is the new organic, but markets seem to be the last place to catch on. So I was interested to see the following article in the Times. Stores like the New Seasons should make a fortune. The question is why there are so few of them.
SIX years ago "organic" was the next big thing in grocery shopping, but the term has begun to lose its luster. It has been co-opted by agribusiness, which has succeeded in watering down the restrictions of the definition. Today "local" and "sustainable" are the new culinary buzzwords.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the six New Seasons markets in and around Portland, Ore. At New Seasons, "homegrown" is not only the coin of the realm, it's the heavily promoted mantra.
Considering how eating has changed over the years, stores like New Seasons were almost inevitable. First came the tiny natural food stores and the local farmers' markets selling organically grown food. They marked the beginning of an interest in artisanal foods and in the desire for quality and a sustainable environment. Restaurants followed, and now schools and colleges have joined the movement as a way to get their students to eat more healthfully while supporting local farmers and food processors.
"I think there is a gathering sense that organic and local are not the same," said Michael Pollan, the author of a forthcoming book, "The Omnivore's Dilemma," and a frequent contributor to The New York Times Magazine. "Buying national organic products does very little for the local economy. Local food chains are very, very important. Organic has important values having to do with pesticides and how land is treated, but now that it is industrialized, buying organic doesn't necessarily support living in a place that still has farmers consuming less energy."
He added: "Moving organic food across the country uses just as much energy as conventional. I think this is becoming more important."
Kristen Crittenden, a technical writer for Cascade Microtech, is the quintessential New Seasons shopper. "It's nice to know where our food is coming from because you know how it was raised," she said. "It makes you feel good about supporting your local farmer and your local fishing industry."
These services come at a price. "I feel at times it's a little more expensive than it has to be," said Justin Miller, a mediator, public radio fund-raiser and New Seasons customer.
Brian Rohter, chief executive of New Seasons and one of its three founders, says the company conducts monthly surveys and has found that its pricing does not vary more than 3 percent either way when compared to national chains, including Whole Foods.
The company's definition of homegrown is food grown, caught or processed in its region, the northwest, including Northern California. Locally grown items carry yellow shelf tags. Of the 30,000 items on each store's shelves, 8,142, or 27 percent, have yellow tags. The company, which was founded in 2000, sells conventional items like Oreos and Velveeta, but about 75 percent of its inventory is either natural or organic.
All produce and meats carry country-of-origin labeling. Because the overwhelming majority of the milk is local, very little of it is ultrapasteurized.
Staff members make frequent visits to farms, ranches, dairies and farmers' markets, looking for new products. And farmers who sell to the chain can deliver directly to the stores without going through a central distribution warehouse.
The opportunity to sell locally has kept some area ranchers from going out of business in Oregon and nearby states. Doc and Connie Hatfield, who founded the Country Natural Beef cooperative in 1986, said the co-op now has 70 ranchers, who raise beef on a vegetarian diet free of hormones, antibiotics and genetically modified feed.
"Nineteen years ago we were going broke," Mr. Hatfield said. "Now we are paying income taxes."
Mr. Hatfield was just as pleased about an unexpected byproduct of selling locally: the bond forged between rural and urban residents.
"Most of the ranchers are rural, religious, conservative Republicans," Mr. Hatfield said. "And most of the customers are urban, secular, liberal Democrats. When it comes to healthy land, healthy food, healthy people and healthy diets, those tags mean nothing. Urbanites are just as concerned about open spaces and healthy rural communities as people who live there. When ranchers get to the city, they realize rural areas don't have a corner on values. I think that's what we are most excited about."
Locally raised meat is one of the things Mr. Miller said he liked best about New Seasons.
"I'm an omnivore, and the meat comes from nearby," he said. "Unlike a conventional market, where everything is packaged in plastic, this is more like an old-fashioned butcher, so I can talk to the guy and see what he thinks about the meat."
If there is any doubt about the impact purchasing locally has on nearby farms, the United States Department of Agriculture's agriculture census tells the story. In Oregon the number of farms has risen, from 26,753 in 1974 to 40,033 in 2002, the latest year for which figures are available.
The emphasis on local is not the only thing that distinguishes New Seasons from other chains. Its employees are given "get out of jail free" cards with the instructions to do anything a customer wants. Mr. Rohter said one young clerk opened 81 jars of mustard for a customer to taste. Then he went to his supervisor, handed the card to him and explained what happened.
Printed on the back of the card:
"Dear Supervisor: The holder of this card was, in their best judgment, doing whatever was necessary to make a happy customer. If you think they may have gone overboard, please take the following steps: 1. Thank them for giving great customer service. 2. Listen to the story about the events. 3. Offer feedback on how they might do it differently next time. 4. Thank them for giving great customer service."
"We never reprimand someone for helping a customer," Mr. Rohter said.
Phil Lempert, who identifies supermarket and consumer trends as the editor of Supermarketguru.com, praised the company.
"The New Seasons model is a brilliant concept because it brings back the days of food co-ops, the feeling of being closer to nature, to the food supply, to the neighborhood," he said. "What they are saying is, we are your store and we want to build a relationship with you. That lack of relationship has been the downfall of supermarkets.
"National and seminational chains are yesterday's news. There is no question people are willing to spend more on local just as they are on organic."
New Seasons's decisions about what it will and will not sell are based on a balance of its owners' standards and what its shoppers want. It does not sell cigarettes or farmed salmon, because, Mr. Rohter said, "some things are so obviously wrong."
Rather than ban certain endangered fish from their counters, the stores color-code them according to their sustainability: red means avoid. When I visited, the only fish with a red label was local red snapper. In an effort to persuade customers to make more sustainable choices, the company offers comparative fish tastings.
"We aren't trying to guilt-trip anyone," Mr. Rohter said. "We aren't the food police."
But the chain has stopped selling the Rockstar energy drink, and not because it is made with caffeine, sugar and corn syrup. Rockstar's chief executive is Russell Goldencloud Weiner, who developed the company with the help of his mother and his father, Michael Savage, the far-right talk radio host. Mr. Rohter said he made the decision because he vehemently opposes Mr. Savage's views. "We have a few products we choose to make a stand on to help influence the direction of our community," he said. Mr. Savage did not respond to a message left at his workplace and could not be reached at home.
Can people in other cities expect their own versions of New Seasons? Yes, Mr. Rohter said, but they will not be run by him or his company. "We give advice all the time," he said.
He said he and his partners, who have three more stores on the way, do not plan to open any beyond Portland's suburbs.
"I believe it would fundamentally change the way we do business," he said.
DEAN AND DELUCA
It was a red-letter day in our neighborhood when Dean and DeLuca opened where a Gristede's had been. Gristede's used to be an expensive New York market that had charge accounts, delivery when many places didn't, and, perhaps, better food. But the Gristede's was cramped, felt dirty, and sold things like Spaghetti-O's, Wonder Bread, and Hostess "baked goods" with two-year shelf lives.
The Dean and DeLuca was sleek and modern, airy, comfortably lit and had attractive, well-displayed foods. The staff was friendly and knowledgeable, and the food was excellent and well chosen. The prices weren't even too bad.
That was then, this is now: the food is still excellent, the store still pleasant, but prices have slowly crept up and up until they seem a good 30% or 40% higher than when they opened. Too bad.
The coffee and pastry bar as you walk in has a selection of baked goods from all over the city, from the best cupcake makers, the best croissant bakers, etc. But if you walk over to the Two Little Red Hens just three blocks over, you'll discover that Dean and DeLuca charges 80% more for the same cupcake.
Even walking 20 feet in the store saves you money. Pastries at the coffee bar sell for 20% more than the same pastries in the pastry section. When customers started catching on, Dean & DeLuca eliminated a lot of the most sugary pastries from the pastry section. Most cupcakes, for example, are only up front.
Bewitched: A few months ago, my review said, "Why would anyone go see it? I didn't."
The answer to that question is that all the good movies were out that night at the DVD store.
The decision to make a movie out of the 1960s sitcom about a mortal married to beautiful witch was a bad one, and the movie never overcomes that decision. Nora Ephron comes surprisingly close to making it an enjoyable movie but still fails. While a lot of the movie is more sophisticated than you might expect, the typical Ephron touches don't mix well with the plot.
The one surprise is Nicole Kidman, who plays a part she's never played before — the perky 1950s Hollywood blonde — perfectly. She's a pleasure to watch, particularly when she starts dancing.
In the DVD special features, Michael Caine (the warlock father) says that comedy is difficult, and that if the actor tries to be funny, he won't be. WIll Ferrell (the husband) never stops trying and proves Caine right.
Kidman does her part to show a chemistry between the two, but Ferrell isn't up to his part. Mugging and yelling doesn't make chemistry.
He seems to be another esample of Murphy's Law: he was often very funny on Saturday Night Live.
The Constant Gardener: The most intelligent movie I've seen in months.
Match Point: London looks great. Scarlett looks great. Emily Mortimer gives a bizarre but enjoyable performance, the male leads are annoying, and the story is sophomoric nihilism. No good special features on the DVD.
Melinda and Melinda: I saw it in December. I don't remember much more about it than what we all know: Woody Allen tells the same story twice. I do remember that the comedy version wasn't much funnier than the tragic version.
He used to make such great movies.
Mr. & Mrs. Smith: Husband and wife, both trained assassins, try to kill each other. Watch Brad hit, kick and bruise Angelina. Watch Angelina hit, knife and shoot Brad. What could be more fun and entertaining?
Syriana: George Clooney's movies say much about the infinite complexity and unpredictability of people. Clooney is one of the world's most charismatic men. Beautiful women throw themselves at him. Movie studios throw themselves at him. He's rich and his own boss. His movies say that he's very unhappy in the world and uncomfortable being handsome.
War of the Worlds: The storytelling is an embarrassment. Further proof, for those who still need it, that Steven Spielberg is one of our most overrated directors.
Before Modern life, when we imagined other life forms, we imagined demons and angels. Thanks to the myopic materialism of Modernism, we now imagine giant bugs from Pluto instead. Few people are more materialistic, and incapable of imagining anything beyond materialism, than Spielberg.
West Wing, Season Three: The last consistently good season of West Wing includes some of Aaron Sorkin's best scripts. The best American network show since Seinfeld.
Saturday, January 28, 2006
Pitchers & Catchers Report In 19 Days!
Baseball on the radio and the joys of summer can't be far behind.
People ask me what I do in the winter when there's no baseball. I'll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.
Friday, January 27, 2006
Glücklicher Geburtstag liebem Herrn Mozart
Peter Eisenman said at Harvard:
"I am not preaching disharmony. I am suggesting that disharmony might be part of the cosmology that we exist in. I am not saying right or wrong. My children live with an unconscious fear that they may not live out their natural lives. I am not saying that fear is good. I am trying to find a way to deal with that anxiety. An architecture that puts its head in the sand and goes back to neoclassicism, and Schinkel, Lutyens, and Ledoux, does not seem to be a way of dealing with the present anxiety."
Consider Mozart's life: fatal disease was all around (Mozart died at 35), there was no "social welfare net," winter in Salzburg was bitterly cold (colder than today) and heat was expensive, inefficient and labor intensive. There was no indoor plumbing. Washing oneself and one's clothes was arduous. Going to the bathroom was inconvenient and often freezing. The days were short and working by candlelight damaged the eyes. There were no diversions like television, radio and records, of course, books were extremely expensive and there were no museums. Travel meant jamming into crowded, smelly, rough-riding carriages and sleeping in beds with strangers for weeks on end.
These were the conditions under which Mozart wrote the most beautiful, sublime music ever heard. At the same time, without the advantages of technology, craftsmen such as Stradivarius hand built instruments with a sound which we can not equal today.
Why does Eisenman think it was the Classicists who stuck their head in the sand? Look in the mirror, Petey.
January 27, 1756 - December 5, 1791