Sunday, January 21, 2007

FOOD: Christy's Ristorante

After the concert, Bill and Leo took us to a very nice dinner at Christy's Ristorante in Long Beach's Broadway Corridor, where we met up with their friend Kate. It was our first time at the restaurant, but they'd been there many times before. We thought we could waltz in at 6:30pm on a Saturday night and get seated, but even at that early hour a reservation was needed. The restaurant, spread out over several rooms, was buzzing. So we hunkered down in the bar, and ordered some cocktails and appetizers, visiting and letting the time pass. The bar displayed an interesting collection of libations, and I spied a whisky I'd never heard of, a 16-year-old Tomintoul. Having been stomping around Aberdeenshire recently, I knew where Tomintoul was, a gateway village to the Speyside region, so I figured it had to be tried. It turned out to be light and very aromatic, not unlike a Dalwhinnie. Off to a good start, shortly confirmed by the arrival of our appetizers. An architecturally arranged pile of diver scallops, lightly scented with cumin, with carmelized cippolino onions, was perfectly cooked. And the shrimp skewer came with a delicious very lemony butter sauce. Fortified by these, we settled in to the back room of the bar, where a homey couch and chairs arrangement allowed us to visit and sip comfortably. A table turned up sooner than promised, and the dinner that ensued was every bit as good as the beginning promised. The menu was Italian, with a nice balance of pastas and meat and fish dishes. I had some New Zealand lamb chops that were tender, juicy, and a perfect medium-rare, roasted with rosemary (and presented with a aromatic sprig to enhance the effect), and complimented with a sweet pinot noir and pomegranite reduction. I couldn't resist picking up the bones to get every last bit of that delicious meat, and then licking my fingers. Bill and Leo both had a hazelnut-encrusted sea bass with tomato-basil risotto and asparagus, of which no evidence remained when they were done. Nor was there anything on George's plate, which had contained king salmon roasted on a cedar plank (on which it was also served), adorned with a mango salsa, sauteed broccolini and also the tomato-basil risotto. And Kate, who claimed to be not a big clam fan, nonetheless ate up her linguine con vongole. This feast was finished off with some sorbets (they had some interesting fresh fruit flavors, including pomegranite and mango), a gluten-free creme brulée for George, and a deliciously rich chocolate banana bread pudding with five spoons. We will be glad to visit Christy's again.

MUSIC: Claudia Calderón at the Museum of Latin American Art

Yesterday afternoon we met our friends Bill and Leo down in Long Beach for a concert by Venezuelan pianist Claudia Calderón. We knew nothing about her, but the concert was being put on by the Da Camera Society, who arrange chamber music concerts in interesting sites (churches, architecturally significant buildings and private homes), and whose taste is impeccable. This concert was at the Museum of Latin American Art, a museum I'd always been interested to check out, but never had. We got there early to check out the museum before the concert. There was a special exhibit called "UnbrokenTies: Dialogues in Cuban Art", featuring paintings and photographs. Some of them pointed out contrasts (a pair of photos showing a government official's house and a similarly styled citizen's house, the first immaculately maintained and the second one falling apart -- at first glance it looked almost like "before and after" pictures of a renovation), while others pointed out similarities (a pair of photos showing a group of old men playing dominos in Havana, and a group of old men playing dominos in Miami). And of course many had poignant symbols of the "bolseros". One painting titled "Saltida de Temporada Alta" (something like "high season for leaving") showed two figures carrying a flotation life-ring, decorated with compass points, some pointing to success and some pointing to death. The permanent collection had many interesting paintings, photographs, sculptures and other media, but two paintings in particular stayed with me. "Exodo" (exodus) by Mexican-trained painter Arnold Belkin, portrayed a man and woman in the foreground of a crowd of people, the man looking forward with grim determination etched on his face, and the woman holding his arm while looking back with a face full of sorrow and loss. The emotions were vivid, and the style made me think of Van Gogh or Munch as much as the Mexican muralists who Belkin had studied under. "Vendedora de Ayote" (woman selling squash) by Nicaraguan painter Sergio Velasquez had a voluptuous woman (think Gaston Lachaise proportions) with some large gourds, and the most amazing light in it. The woman literally had a glow coming from within her that was so powerful that I looked around to see if it were being aided by an external light source.

The museum was a nice prelude to the concert, which was phenomenal. Claudia Calderón is a pianist and a musicologist who has studied extensively the musical styles of Latin America, particularly the plains of Venezuela and Colombia, a style called joropo. (In introducing her, the director of Da Camera called her the Bela Bartok of Venezuela.) She has taken this music and arranged it for piano, accompanied by a trio of traditional and modern instruments: the cuatro, the maracas, and a double-bass. The joropo music typically has a fast lively beat, that Calderón compared to galloping on a horse. It was true: as they performed, I felt transported to the Orinoco plains, galloping across the free open spaces, wind and sunshine on my face. It is ambiguous whether the piano is a string instrument (it has strings) or a percussion instrument (the keys cause hammers to hit the strings), but under Calderón's hands, it was clearly a percussion instrument. Her hands flew vigorously over the keys, striking percussive beats while bright melodic notes flew. I wondered how so much sound could come from only two hands. Her band were all incredibly talented, and they played with the feel of a longtime jazz combo. You could see the communication among them, as they watched one another, exchanging looks, and feeding off one another's musical energy. And like a jazz combo, the focus would shift from one to another as they took featured riffs and solos. Like Calderón's piano, the cuatro (a small Venezuelan guitar) played by Henry Linarez was as much a percussion instrument as a string one. This small instrument produced a prodigious amount of sound, as he strummed and picked the strings, while tapping the resonant body. José Alberto Pérez was masterful on the maracas, producing a surprising variety of rhythmic patterns, a rattlesnake one second and instantly silent the next, then clearly articulated triplets the next. Roberto Koch played his double-bass like a lover, sometimes tenderly and sometimes pumping hard. The rhythms were thrilling, with much syncopation, and even one merengue piece in 5/8 time, with alternating twos and threes energetically driving the music. This ensemble produced such music that the audience was rapt, and leapt to our feet at the end. And then stood in line to buy a CD.

Friday, January 19, 2007

I've Been Tagged -- Five Fun Facts

My friend and college roommate Hal Stern has "tagged" me in a blog meme game, where he has revealed five little-known facts about himself, and has tagged five others to do the same. So I'm supposed to reveal five things here, and then tag five others, and so it goes. This was a bit of a struggle for me, as I am a very open person, and there's little about me that I haven't published in some form. (Just Google me and you can assemble a fairly comprehensive picture of my interests, hobbies, views, and professional career.) Heck, I was blogging on the Internet since before the word was coined, and my old personal website (created before I met my husband) included a fairly complete chronology of my lovelife and other adventures. But taking all that off the table, here are five fun tidbits that might actually surprise some people who know me.

  1. I played intramural hockey in college. To those who knew me before college, when I was completely athletically inept, and to those who knew me later, when my chosen athletic outlets were more typical yuppie sports like bicycling and skiing, hockey may seem an unexpected choice. But this is a hat tip to Hal, who was responsible for encouraging me onto the rink, where I actually had a lot of fun, at a time in my life when I was just discovering that I wasn't so athletically inept after all. I actually played for a year on an amateur league here in LA in the 1980s, and even once attended a coaching session with Luc Robitaille and Rob Blake. But didn't have the exclusive passion for it that would motivate me to go to weeknight games and practices at the absurd late-night hours that were the only time we could get ice time. Now, alas, with bicycling and snowboarding as well as hockey, I'm a "former great" (as my friend Ann Marie would say). My primary athletic achievement these days is walking three-quarters of a mile each way to Starbucks in the afternoons.

  2. I proposed marriage to a woman, but was turned down. Back in the 1980s, I grew very close to a woman who might well have been the "right one" if I weren't gay. She is Chinese, and a national of Malaysia, and it troubled me to see the outrageous bureaucratic obstacles our government throws in the way of persons who are honest, hard-working, productive and in every respect the sort of immigrant we ought to be encouraging. Not to mention employers who sponsor immigrant employees on a temporary work visa and then take advantage of them because they know they have them over a barrel. So I proposed a marriage of convenience as a path to citizenship for her. I cared for her very much, and was willing to live in a "real enough" marriage for enough years to get her citizenship. But she had more integrity than that, and turned me down. (I'm glad to report that she's now happily married, has two great kids, and works for the World Bank where national status isn't an issue.)

  3. I've rapelled down a waterfall. To those who know me well enough to know that I'm afraid of heights, this will be impressive. This came toward the end of hiking and splashing our way down a deep river gorge in the Blue Mountains of Australia, where we had to grab a rope and step backwards off the top of a 150-foot waterfall. I'm afraid of heights, but am also thrilled by them (like a moth to a flame, one might say). I've also jumped out of an airplane from 13,000 feet, but more people know about that one.

  4. I almost had a bar mitzvah. My (a)religious upbringing was a mostly-secular hodge-podge. Our family had no religion at all (we celebrated Christmas and Easter, but it was about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny). I sang in a Methodist church choir as a boy, because our neighbors (one of whom was my piano teacher) attended there. I also inherited a bit of Jewish identity from my mother, even though she was never religious, and was herself was the product of an unreligious mixed marriage. But Judaism is more than just a religion, it's an ethnic identity. It's about a way of talking, a way of thinking, a way of eating, and much more. My inherited Jewish identity came from Mom hand-in-hand with my sense of being a second-hand New Yorker. So when I went off to college, I fell in with a Jewish circle of friends, started attending Friday night Sabbath services regularly, studied Hebrew, and nearly went through with a bar mitzvah at age 18. (College turned out to be harder than high school, and I didn't have the extra time I'd have needed to fully prepare to go through with it.)

  5. I've eaten whale meat. Friends are well aware that I'm adventurous in my eating. I eat pretty much anything I'm served, and generally enjoy it. And if there's something strange or unusual on a menu that I've never tried before, I'm all over it. (Much to my husband's horror, who is inclined to stick with tried and true.) When people ask me the strangest thing I've eaten, the bee larvae that I ate when trekking thru the jungles of northern Thailand is usually the first thing that comes to mind, so a lot of people have heard that story. I also ate iguana on the same trek. But I seldom think to mention the whale meat that I ate when visiting Norway. That one should score points not only for the ewww-factor, but also the un-PC factor. Whale meat, in case you're curious, tastes nothing like chicken. It's much more like beef liver.

So hopefully you learned something interesting about me. Now, I hereby tag: good friends Chris and Thommy because they're both thoughtful bloggers who should have some interesting things to reveal; Dave and Robert who are also good writers but whose blogs are a bit stale and need prodding; and Kip, who always has lots of interesting things to say about politics, and only recently has been revealing a bit more "inside the vault".

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Stimson Should Be Sacked And Disbarred

I'm a day or two late to the outrage party on this one, but I'll add my voice to the chorus of people suggesting that Charles "Cully" Stimson, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs, should be sacked for demonstrating profound and dangerous ignorance of the American legal system. Making comments during an interview with a Washington DC radio program, Stimson expressed dismay that lawyers at some of the nation's top law firms were defending Guantanamo detainees on a pro bono basis. Stimson suggested that he'd like to publish a list of these law firms, and that business clients should consider boycotting them. This is simply outrageous. A vigorous defense in an adversarial trial system with defendants presumed innocent until proven guilty is at the very heart of our American legal system. The tradition of pro bono work on the part of American lawyers is an essential part of insuring that quality representation is available to all. It's vital to the system to mount a proper defense, for the integrity of the system, otherwise the process becomes a mockery of justice. Even Saddam Hussein got some top lawyers defending him, which was as it should be, so that the process of the trial is demonstrably fair. To be sure, some of the detainees at Guantanamo may well be dangerous threats to our nation, but that remains to be proved. The government should make its case against those people, and they should be entitled to a quality defense. To suggest that it is somehow "un-American" for lawyers to volunteer to defend detainees is to fundamentally misunderstand the American legal system. And to suggest that law firms supporting such pro bono work should be targeted for boycott is actively hostile to the integrity of our legal system. Having demonstrated such reckless contempt for our legal system, Charles Stimson should not only be immediately sacked from his government appointment, he should also be disbarred.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Final Surge? Or Staging For Iran?

Some of the beltway tea-leaf-readers are seeing dark signs. The "surge", they warn, is really just about keeping our foot in Iraq as a stepping stone to going into Iran. The evidence? For starters, there were some stern words for Iran and Syria in the President's speech the other night. Then the very next day, we appear to have attacked what some are claiming was an Iranian consulate in Iraq, and captured several Iranians. Meanwhile, when Secretary Rice was asked whether the current war authorization would extend to going into Iran, she clearly dodged the question, refusing to say no. And then there's the announcement that we're sending a second aircraft carrier group and several Patriot anti-missile batteries into the Persian Gulf. This was casually dropped into the President's speech, as if it were connected to our efforts in Iraq. But how exactly does an aircraft carrier group or an anti-missile battery help in Baghdad or Anbar? No mistake, that move is aimed at Iran. It seems there are still some glassy-eyed neocons impervious to reality who think that escalating the current debacle into a wider regional conflict would be a good thing. Frightening.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

FILM: Notes on a Scandal

Notes on a Scandal was a twisted movie, albeit an engrossing one (engrossing in the way that watching a train wreck is engrossing). Judi Dench portrays Barbara, an old battle-axe teacher in an English middle school who befriends Sheba, the new art teacher, played by the suddenly-ubiquitous Cate Blanchett. Sheba senses something missing in her life and keeps trying to figure out how to fill it, while Barbara is a confidante to many but shares her own dark secrets only with her diary. The twisted tale is something like Dangerous Liaisons as it might have been written by Radclyffe Hall. To say more would be to spoil the plot, but suffice it to say you shouldn't see this film if you're looking for a feel-good comedy. The characters were excellently portrayed, and the story unfolds with precision to its end. It was fascinating to see life as one person would like to see it, parsing words and events to fit her view, and ultimately confronting a reality that won't fit. Director Richard Eyre deftly weaves subjective and objective viewpoints, such that the subjective seems objective, until dramatically shown otherwise. But I have to say that I was a bit disturbed at the end of the film, recognizing that I'd been manipulated into feeling more sympathy for a child molester than for a manipulative closet-case who preys on adults. And what is it lately with emotionally warped homosexual teachers in English middle schools? We didn't see the recent film The History Boys, but I read some blog discussions of it, and one person commented that if he were just starting to come out, and hadn't had any positive images of what a life for a gay man could be like, and saw that film, he might have gone home and slit his wrists. Young impressionable lesbians might be similarly cautioned against Notes on a Scandal.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

New Congress' New Year's Resolutions

The newly-empowered Democratic majority in the House of Representatives had promised to deliver in their first 100 hours (a gesture one-upping the "first 100 days" of the 1992 Republican Contract With America), with ethics reform at the top of Speaker Pelosi's agenda. Well on one significant measure, they have indeed delivered. New rules enacted on Friday require all "earmarks" to be published on the Internet, and for Congressmembers to certify that they have no personal benefit from the earmark. ("Earmarks" are the legislative maneuver by which pet projects like $234 million bridges to nowhere are inserted into spending bills with no real scrutiny or review.) They say sunshine is the best disinfectant.

Congressional veterans expressed some surprise that the Democrats actually had the cojones to do this (especially since Democratic leaders, including Pelosi, have benefited from earmarks as much as Republicans). So it's encouraging to see the new session starting out with some bracing integrity. The boldness and integrity of the move was underscored by candid comments from some notable conservatives. Rep. David Dreier (R-CA) is reported to have urged his colleagues to support the new ethics rules, noting that the change was something the Republicans themselves had proposed. "They had the guts to do what we didn't," said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ). And Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), the Jeremiah of fiscal conservatism in a heedless Senate, said "I salute the House for attacking this problem."

Good start!