Saturday, August 30, 2008

Hymns to Labor, Part One.

My apologies for the light blogging this past week. I've had it off, more or less, but between quality time, fine beer, an inane commitment to "work from home," and what can only be a mile-wide masochistic streak, it's been hard to keep up, even though I've got a couple of Brilliant Insights (TMKeifus, 2008--warning: actual product may be neither shiny nor perspicacious) ready to go any minute now (cough). The home office drudgery got the attention it deserved, which is to say I mostly blew it off, but instead of blogging to distract myself, I privately observed deficiencies in both my my manly constitution and my suburban aesthetic. And the weather's been fantastic. Why stay inside when it's so easy to avoid the meetings?

The dirt patch below used to accommodate a concrete slab, which the previous owners evidently used as a crappy, poorly-thought-out patio before they finally sprung for a deck during their big remodel. (For all I hate about the 'burbs, the fact that you don't have to hang out on the parking lot is one of the points of living out here.) The original cement was twenty by twenty feet, and about three to six inches thick, depending on which end you're digging. I left the right edge of it, a sliver about five or six feet wide, because the builders, in their wisdom, evidently paved the driveway around the edge of the slab. Now there's a straight edge of one kind of pavement or other (in the picture, the blacktop is covered with dirt, so you'll have to trust me), and I'm eventually going to blacken the cement with driveway sealer so that it all blends in.

Word problem: Keifus is cutting concrete for some silly reason. It's four or five inches thick. He has a 20 ft. square of this stuff, but he's left a strip on one side of six feet. If he cuts squares of approximately 2.5 feet on a side with his rented diamond blade, then:

(1) How many squares can he cut?
(2) Can he lift them? How far?
(3) How much loam does he need to fill in the hole?
(4) What the hell does he do with the bricks once they're out?

[Answers: (1) about 45; (2) he can lift all of them, but some needed to be broken first; (3) what the fuck, thirty bucks a cubic yard?; (4) see below.]

My yard used to slope back, but those same previous owners leveled it at some point, heaping fill almost to the boundary, and letting the back end drop off precipitously into the faux wilderness of the streambed behind and below. For some reason, they neglected to raise a little triangular corner of it, and here's some little brush-filled nook of trees and stone walls, some marginal bit of unexploited property right for which I'm failing to fulfill my species' modern imperative to industriously fuck with.

Here's a break in the trees that line my yard, which descends down into the arboreal wedge as though from civilization into the primitive wilderness. (The greenery covering the ground near the base of the trees is mostly poison ivy. For all I've dug out, my reactions have so far been only of the mundane variety.)

So what to do with four dozen blocks and heaps of supporting rubble? What to do with a piece of adventurous land that's a pain in the ass to reach? How can I return the favor of pissing off the neighbors, in a way that offers them no legal recourse? It all comes together under great manual effort, gentle reader. Now we can descend into the heart of darkness with perfect ease, thanks to a herculean and noisy week performed by yours truly. I will continue with some landscaping sooner or later that'll help prevent the bank, which consists of sand and rotted pine needles, from washing away (but it's less steep than it was before, and I'm reassured by the four tons of concrete sitting on it).

The bottom of the steps descends to a treehouse, made out of another pile of free lumber from my parsimonious employers. It's not quite finished, but I'm motivated to get the pile of old crates out of my driveway, and I assure you, the battle station is fully armed and operational. Maybe it'll be done by the time my kids are teenagers, and they can sneak out there and smoke joints on it or something.

Working with my body is therapeutic. I've put in something like six or eight hour days on this thing, and I've felt satisfied--happy--in a way I just don't get from shuffling bullshit all day. I'm exhausted at the end of the day, and the intellectual-ish pastimes have felt flimsy with unreality. But the pleasure of any sort of work is fleeting too, and the fact that I'm not at a set pace, and doing it for my own ends, is a bigger source of enjoyment than the nature of the labor itself. As deadlines close in on even the home projects, I'm finding myself as pissy as ever. Working is good, but working for a living sucks.

Friday, August 22, 2008

How Much for One Rib?

Barbecue is one of those truly easy foods. Well, a pause here: real meat recipes--your dry rubs and your smoke--are for sure more challenging, but since they require either $1200 worth of smoking hardware if you want to half ass it, or infrastructure if you want to slowly smoke the whole animal (which is to say, do it right), then within some approximate Puritan bailiwick, I'm doing my best with respect to real food. (And by the way, here's the only thing about the area I miss even a little. Worth the stop if you're going down I-95.) To make real pit barbecue, it helps if you have an aproned paunch, drawl, and only the minimum necessary number of teeth to leer. Because, you know, authenticity matters. Fortunately however, there are things you can get away with here in the Northeast, and it's likewise no coincidence that the cooking magazines all have a barbecue issue that conveniently centers, every July, on the sauce. If you have even a vague sense of proportion, the sauce is nearly impossible to fuck up. I have little explanation as to why any bottled sauce is so reliably treacly and vile.

Barbecue sauce speaks to exactly the sort of chemist I am, one who's better at influences and trends than at punctilious quantitation. Truth be told, I let my wife take care of the dirty mechanics of grilling, and I prefer to chuck in dashes of flavor on the range, according to music or mood. She can't reproduce a single sauce I make, but she's a much better baker, and to the point, can make our crap-sack grill cook more or less evenly.

Ribs are forgiving like sauce is, which is another reason they make the cover of Bon Appetit every summer. They're better grilled for hours--I get that--but they're delicious just by nature too. If you're making do with that middle-class schedule and that middle-class technology, then trust me, you can cut corners by chucking them in the oven for an hour, so long as you're sure to braise or steam them, so long as you don't think of applying any drying heat until those last twenty minutes or so on the grill, where that aforementioned sauce graciously agrees to take one for the team.

We have three or four sauce recipes that range somewhere between awesome and kickass, and the beauty of any of them is that they're all totally forgiving on proportions and whatnot. Garlic or horseradish? Ginger or red pepper? Cola or molasses? The answer is yes.

We're a little hard up for friends here at Chez Keifus, which I may have mentioned, you know, like, often. It's some unfortunate combination of geeky intelligence, debt-constructed poverty, and early-inflicted parenthood that wedges us poorly into this blue-collar town. We're sensitive to like minds, though they appear to be rare here, but still, you have to give people credit. My younger girl's friend's parents, it turns out, are pretty damned agreeable, got that cynicism and wit, and it's working for us, for that now and again. They're evolving food dorks too, and that's one good connection.

Let's call them Jim and Patty. Jim toughs it through a thankless night shift while Patty works days and somehow crawls her way through grad school at the same time, gets on with the path that will make them prosperous some time in the indefinite future, or so the story goes. They like food for similar reasons we do, life's short and all that shit, and anyway, everyone loves barbecue, right? Who doesn't drool over ribs?

Jim had planned to stop by for dinner, and we circled the hearth like witches hoping to entrap Greek soldiers or Scottish kings. Triple triple, shimmer and ripple, sugar glaze and bourbon tipple. Ear of corn, leaf of chard, hack the back of a newborn hog. How much for just one rib? Obligations came up though, as they do, and he arrived (with warning) too late for dinner. Still. Come on, Jim, one bite, have you nothing better to do? Will you go home hungry? Dude, it's ribs. One bite bro, one bite.

Like in any quality neighborhood, I grew up with a surrogate parent or two, and it's good to have second-generation friends, because the old world has kept track of traditions that Americans have evidently forgotten, and not all of them suck.

"Keith, will you stay for dinner?"

"Uh, gee, Mrs. V., I-I'm full, and my Mom, she, uh, ummm..."

The pressure would mount here, perilously enough, and now and then, back in those days, Mr. V. would also wander into the scene. "The pierogies? I made them myself," he'd say, and he'd clap me on the shoulder, as if I were a son-in-law. "Stay."

And how could I refuse? I liked to eat then, too, and if the pierogies were great--and oh man, they were great--then let me tell you someday about the Polish delis that dot eastern Connecticut. I frequently made those trips with my friend too. Yeah, good times.

Mrs. V. had a habit of pushing against my weak will until she gained purchase, at which point she'd dig in and push harder. "Stay. Eat," she'd plead, and I'd frequently find myself broken to her matronly resolve. She'd push food, and accepting it would put me in her thrall, some kind of passive-agressive exchange of power, and there I was at the bottom of it. To the right person, it set hooks. She broke me, and I love her to this day. She gets more beautiful every year she gets older.

And so here I am yesterday with Jim, and if I haven't mastered gingerbread, then we've got a bitchin' approximation of barbecue. "One rib, Jim. Come on."

"Well, Keith, I-I- my wife--"

"Dude, one rib."

"Well ...okay." He pokes carefully with a finger. "Well, shit, I may just take you up on that. They smell so good."

Yes. Yeeessss.

(Thanks Michael, I didn't bothered to search for it.)

UPDATE: The recipe got a request (or maybe two). This one my wife has made the last couple of times, so I don't know all the twists she's worked in. Good chance there's a little freshly snipped rosemary (got a little tree in the kitchen), possibly a little chipotles in adobo sauce (if she thought of it), possibly some ancho chili powder. Good chance we up the vinegar content too. But the basic version just comes from a magazine. Here it is:

couple cloves of garlic
half an onion
olive oil (or butter, or clarified butter)
about a cup of catsup (or pureed tomatoes)
1/3 cup brown sugar (that's what it says--does it hurt to add a little more or less? not for something like this)
1/4 cup vinegar (more?)
1/4 cup of bourbon (Omit if Keifus drank it all. D. tells me it calls for apple juice, and she used it. As if.)
squirt of honey
dash worcestershire
tsp liquid smoke
salt and pepper
dash of cayenne
dash celery seeds
(ancho powder?)

a little can of pineapple juice
(fresh snipped rosemary?)
pork ribs.

We wrap the ribs in foil usually, season the crap out of them, pour over the pineapple juice and wrap 'em up. Bake them in the oven for an hour. (Or else here is where you smoke 'em if you got 'em.)

Mince up the onions and garlic and saute them until they're soft, and then add the rest and cook it a while, simmering down and/or adding vinegar till you get consistency and flavor you want. We then grill the ribs over modest heat for maybe twenty minutes, basting each side with the sauce till it gets gummy and toasted.

Monday, August 18, 2008

A Brief Clowning Interlude

[lotta filler lately]

I'm up for a little frivolity. I'm watching (by which I mean hearing and glimpsing between beers and picking, and, reluctantly, sniffing up the usual online pissing posts) The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai on the on-demand dealie my cable service offers. People looked young and sort of funny in 1984, a bit scarecrow-like with thin bodies and too-big clothes and hair. Peter Weller looked like a stiff in his upturned collars, and he'd go on to do RoboCop later in the decade, where his immoble jaw was a feature not a bug, and then fade from leading roles anywhere. John Lithgow and Christopher Lloyd remain, so far as I know, first-rate clowns, which I mean in the most complimentary way. They recognize the comedy that comes out of exaggerating your emotions on camera, and they can't keep it out of their role. I not only respect that, I can hardly trust anyone that didn't see the humor in the effort.

I love watching the careers of bit actors. I'm half-watching the flick, and I think, Holy crap, is that the Kurgan? Oh my god, it is!

Clancy Brown is an imposing giant of a man, and Buckaroo Banzai has him cast as a sort of affable, gently-spoken southern fella, and it's convincing. I mean, he's not glowering or threatening at all, he doesn't take up too much space, and I take it all to mean the dude can actually act. Either way, whether he's a naturally menacing or a naturally comforting presence, I'm liking the guy. I think his last live role was as a guard in the Shawshank Redemption. He must have already been typecast by then, as a great big badass, and it's funny that he did, because it's not like Hollywood has an issue with tall people, and in his still shots, he looks about as threatening as Al Gore. It's a kind of magic. Or something.

Clancy Brown went on to do voice acting, and looking at his IMDB bio, he has, like most voice actors, shown up in almost every animated production you can think of. Notably, Clancy Brown has been the voice of Mr. Krabs on SpongeBob Squarepants for the last ten years or so.

Dig it: the Kurgan is also the skinflint proprietor of the Krusty Krab.

This knowledge warms my heart. It's like there's some cosmic connection of the arts or something. As a character, the big, sword-wielding, skull-wearing maniac was evil, but he wasn't a complicated evil, nor quite a humorless one, and the writers and casting directors realized he needed some good lines. Somehow, there's a connection between that goofy movie and the only cartoon I can giggle at with my children. Clancy Brown is a clown too. You'd have to be to put on skeleton-shaped underwear and wave a broadsword around, and how can you voice Mr. Krabs with no joy in your soul? I am happy to report that the universe is once again in tune.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Review of The Quiet American by Graham Greene

Before I get too far along, if you're the sort of irresponsible reader who (like me) has gone this far without reading The Quiet American, be advised that this review contains spoilers. Normally, I don't get too worked up over ruining the suspense of something over fifty years old, and canonical (or if it's not on the short list, I agree that it deserves to be), but here's one where the ending caught up to me late. It took the author's hand to make me realize that there was depth to the mystery of Alden Pyle's death, and I'd offer another reader the chance to still get that feeling of awakening as Greene bolts his so theme neatly into place. But that theme is a lot of what I feel like discussing, so consider yourself duly warned.

The novel takes place in Viet Nam during the French occupation, rather notably before the American one, and it's a nation whirling in colonial and civil conflict, with bloody front lines protecting unsteady cosmopolitan zones of Vietnamese urbanites, Chinese businessmen, French authorities, American missions of various types, and any number of international correspondents. Pyle, as the title says, is a quiet American, a bookish, well-bred kid from Boston who is set apart from his loud, uncultured countrymen by what the narrator, Thomas Fowler, repeatedly calls innocence. Part of Greene's brilliance is in setting up a contrast between what's shown and what's told, and to pick apart Pyle as a character (about half of my scribbles are attempts at dissecting him) takes some serious wringing of that noun. Pyle is far from guiltless, and if he's deluded, he's got unusual blindnesses, it's not right to say he's naive about human suffering. Here's Pyle poling his barge alone in the dark up a river swollen with floating corpses, here he is wooing Fowler's girlfriend, there he is reducing lives to bloody bits exactly as planned. Pyle does those things competently, and without damage to his self image. His ego is not fragile, and if there's innocence, it lies wrapped up in childish beliefs about the value of love, chastity, friendship, the magic of growing up, and, perhaps especially, of Democracy. His courtship must be played out on a fair field with unspoken rules, a friendly competition, but the lives of soldiers and bystanders are beneath his notice. If Pyle were written as a caricature, he'd be funny, but he's taken seriously by Fowler and certainly taken seriously by himself. If his warped morality is an affectation, Greene never lets the shell break, not even under the force of Fowler's exquisitely bitter verbal assaults.

Pyle's interest in war is an academic one, some febrile understanding of grand currents of ideas (democracy and communism, a "third force"), and Greene is good at pointing out how reputed grand designs reduced to practice: young soldiers huddling in a guard tower, casually murdered families, a peasant boat obliterated without warning from the sky, the banal lies about necessity of murder. There is no countervailing notion of nobility of the soldier's duty, and the stronger message comes from the fact that Fowler has a better view of the civilian sphere, both in terms of policy and of consequences, he can see how the former is empty, and the latter is hopelessly violent. Fowler is a reporter, a professional cynic, and maintains a stated neutrality on the conflict. He witnesses horrors with a steady eye, but every one adds up and weighs on him. On the outside, it could be believed that his betrayal of Pyle (there's the spoiler) was over romantic contention, but it's clear by the text that the man had seen one too many children killed for idealistic ends. Pyle is not the man that's forced to grow up in this novel.

The political and the romantic are not separate conflicts. It's important here that Pyle is American, Fowler is English, and Phuong, their mutual love interest, is Vietnamese. I read it as representing a larger contention between the old colonialists (as Pyle calls the British) and the new, and a great deal of the mixed-up love and contempt that Fowler feels for the young man is brotherly. They share some common traits, their bad dancing overlaps in their respective pursuits of Phuong, they keep themselves apart from their peers (from other reporters and other Americans respectively), and undertake a patronizing sort of love for Phuong, neither quite able to understand her character. And they are undeniably drawn to one another. Pyle feels a depth of friendship for Fowler that is incongruous with how the men treat one another, and Fowler, in his personal asides, takes more protective notions about Pyle's evident guilelessness than the young man earns. Together, they sniff and bat paws like contenders for alpha male status, but remain members of the same pack. If Phuong also represents her nation, her character remains unpenetrated by either of the overly intellectual men, and for the abuse she receives, she remains lovely and simple. But surely Fowler is as wrong to regard Phuong as innocent as he is Pyle.

On that allegorical plane (sorry Kevin), it can't have been lost on Fowler (who'd reported in India) that Britain has as bloody hands as any Empire. Indeed, his self-awareness is his misery. While Greene, through the journalist, makes brilliant rhetorical points on the American character, the difference between the older and younger world-spanning brothers is one of style, the distaste is for the particular set of lies Americans tell themselves as they repeat another bloody cycle of imperial history. Fowler's cynicism is based on experience, his contempt is for youth as much as for anything else, and not just Pyle's youth, and maybe not just America's. Near the end of the novel, Fowler finally sees fit to reminisce on his own idealism in context of the dead young American's. Fowler claims neutrality in the local events, but it's really just a different version of Pyle's put-upon innocence, a more developed, grown-up version of it. Fowler's neutrality, his love, his very horror at the conflict, also have the consequence of murder.

At the heart of a cynic, you'll often find a broken romantic. Greene's touch is often droll, and while love, pain and guilt are what this novel is about, the main characters habitually hide these things behind various masculine (and probably undiscovered feminine) disguises. It's spare, it's bitter, it's witty, but it's not that Hemingway he-man crap, there's no hidden nobility in the pose. When Fowler admits that he hurts, that he causes hurt, it's the more powerful. This is a novel to break through detachment.

ADDENDUM: Okay, so I haven't seen the most recent movie adaptation, but I'm interested. Michael Caine is a brilliant choice for Fowler--I can't think of anyone who could better communicate the cynicism, the emotion, and the killer arguments--but unfortunately he needs to be about thirty years younger. I like the idea of Brendan Frasier as Pyle, he looks right, and he may even be an underrated talent. I mean, he really carried Encino Man.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Ten Random Songs

[You want to talk about scraping the bottom. Real posts next week, honest...]

If I've learned one thing about cooking Indian food--and it's even possible that I have--is that it's worth it to clarify the butter and use fresh-ish whole spices. If I've learned two things, the second is that for curries, all the goodness comes out of cooking down the onions (and some spices) first, and then cooking all the liquid out of the tomatoes (and some other spices), then adding water, and cooking it all down some more. If I've learned three things, it'st that frying the spices...well you get the idea. The whole process takes a fair amount of waiting around to make it good, to make it taste as authentic as I can judge by the occasional dinner at acquaintances' and the buffet in the next town. If I were running a restaurant, I'd make vat-sized versions of a basic curry sauce like this, and use it for two dozen dishes of exotic, but surprisingly pronouncable, names.

While the flavor simmers down and develops, instead of finishing my book or polishing off the two or three substantive posts I keep meaning to write Real Soon Now, I've got the computer serving me tunes at random, which is enough to make me happy. Here's my first ten eleven. Admit that you're bored too, and share your own.

1. Don't Pray on Me, by Bad Religion. I still can't decide if this band is brilliant punk rock or it it's just puerile. I can picture Greg Graffin, scowling and sticking his tongue out like Lucy Van Pelt, angrily challenging Christian ideas on paper. The lyrics come out clever and scathing, but it's also obvious that they're trying really hard to be. The music is exciting, and while I'm always thrilled when one track kicks up in the mix, the entire cd somehow ends up as less than the sum of its parts (and I think they made like a dozen of them). This is one of the better tracks on this one, anyway.

2. Jet City Woman, by Queensryche. When this band is connecting, they're phenomenal. When they're not, they're something closer to embarrassing. Here's the first song I heard by them, when they played it on the radio in 1991 or so. It's caught a certain mood now and again.

3. Swamp Thing, by Sam Bush and David Grisman. Some indulgent noodling around by a pair of mandolin players who are good enough to. I seem to have an inordinate bunch of their music on the hard drive.

4. Walk of Life, by Dire Straits. It can't have been too long ago that I caught Mark Knopfler, along with Eric Clapton, Sting, and Phil Collins (the last two akin to putting Teddy Roosevelt on Mount Rushmore) performing Money for Nothing on TV, and I thought that this is the hardest any of these guys had rocked for twenty years. Anyway, Walk of Life is a good tune too.

5. Shine on You Crazy Diamond (pts 1-5) by Pink Floyd. More college vintage. I remember sitting in the "penthouse" and having a discussion about how, dude, Pink Floyd is like really mellow an' shit, but turn it up, and it's like, really intense. Thanks to Ted Burke (I think it was Ted), I notice how much studio electronics went into their albums now, but fortunately, I don't care. I love Pink Floyd.

6. Cold, Cold Night, by the White Stripes. More about Meg White trying to sound sexy than about writing guitar rock. I'm not going to tell you she doesn't sound sexy.

7. The Lights of Home, by Bela Fleck. Dad: the only piece of music on which he can tolerate a dobro. Mom: the only piece of music in at least forty years, and possibly ever, that's "got" her. Very important note: my parents are sixty years old.

8. The Dream/Indiana, by Patrick Street. A recommendation by some Irish dude. This one reminds me a little of Mr. Knopfler (above) at his more quiet, or of an American folk ballad, but it's neither of those things.

9. Ugly, by the Violent Femmes. They're a better live band, I think, especially when it comes to tracks like this. Good times, needless to say.

10. The Camera Eye, by Rush. Oh, so I'm a geek. I think I've been over this one, too: this is one of my favoritest songs. I love the chord changes, love the flow and rhythm of it. It's like the very definition of the word "vibrant."

11. Down with Disease, by Phish, "Waitin' for the time when I can finally say, that this has all been wonderful, but now I'm on my way..." I've been there. My kids love this tune too, for different reasons.

There's nothing I can say to make it stop, sooo....what's on your iPod?

Monday, August 04, 2008

Okay, Just this Once

I don't want this to be the sort of blog that gets currency from picking on the likes of Jonah Goldberg. It's already done to death by people who have followings, write two posts a day, and are a lot funnier than I am, and by-the-minute opinion politics isn't really my department. (The mission of this blog is, obviously, to provide a resource for lazy students to research book reports.) I consider Goldberg to be a lightweight legacy, harmless in his way, and easily ignored, and prefer to forget that people see his face in the funny pages and think he must be a serious feller indeed. But visiting the old home always gets me a liesurely Sunday with the paper, where even then I'd have normally skimmed his usual blather, maybe even have rolled my eyes in a smug condescending way, except that his most recent column, which of course the hometown conserva-rag proudly aired with condescending smugness somewhat more belligerant than my own, was kindly pointed out by my dear Mum, even though she knows damn well that topical political conversations have been forbidden from family gatherings since last August, when it was discovered that I not only have opinions, I also occasionally read stuff as a means of forming them. The guy has succeeded in breaking through and annoying me.

So look, Jonah's column has, if we're being generous, it's heart in the right place, even if his head has taken up the usual residence in the recesses of his colon. I let slide his statement that, "Capitalism is the greatest system ever created for alleviating general human misery," even though I'm pretty sure that the philosophical groundwork wasn't really ends-based, but whatever, I know Goldberg's not into the deeper nuances of the things he writes about. And I suppose I can get by the thick-headedness of insinuating that capitalist societies have in fact eradicated poverty, and I can get by the fact that Jonah (who's succeeded on name recognition, absent of any real intelluctual cred) ironically believes that poverty is the default condition of the uneducated and the skill-less. His opinion that material wealth only matters when it serves his point is nothing more than I expect from him, as is his suggestion that our real capital is positive thinking. I'll even generously forgive him for using the word "toilette". His opinion is, after all, motherhood-and-apple-pie stuff (as my boss calls it), nothing but fluffy marketing, advertising without the attention to the inconvenient details, and if you get down to it, I'm doing okay in the system, at least so long as nothing happens. And moreover, for what it's worth, I also imagine a "fair" economic system where valuable contributions to the economy are related, at least statistically, to the distribution of its wealth amongst people, a position which the market may or may not equlibrate to, and which may or may not be capitalism. (Some of my inconvenient details don't end up looking very capitalist at all. One funny thought is that if the American-style market really found the best value every time, we'd have dirty-word health care by now. Which is, like, totally mindblowing, dude.)

Anyway, the issue I have with Jonah's article (specifically), and his kind in general, is this: it's not the conviction in free markets and of owning the fruits of your labors that's lacking, it's the fucking evidence.