Friday, September 21, 2018

A Window Above: Can I Kick It?

Song: "Can I Kick It?"
Writers: Lou Reed, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, J. Davis
Original Release: April 17, 1990
Group: A Tribe Called Quest
Album: People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm

So, we need to talk about hip hop.  I first heard rap on the school bus back in the mid-'80s, long before the music became mainstream.  The first song I remember hearing was "Roxanne, Roxanne" by U.T.F.O., released in 1984.  My experience of the music was also, of course, tied to break dancing. In the beginning, I was more drawn to the dancing than I was the music.  Couldn't do it but I sure loved watching.  When the dancing faded away as fads do, I assumed the music would, too.  Not so.  Run DMC hooked up with Aerosmith and the rest is pop music history. 

That said, I would never have gone so far as to say that I actually liked hip hop.  I didn't actively hate it the way a lot of rock purists did and still do.  Those who argue it's not real music or it's junk are kidding themselves.  Not only is it here to stay but for those who yearn for music that "says something," hip hop has been delivering for a long time.  No genre has had a greater impact on the industry over the past 30 years.  It's not even close.

The blatant misogyny in some of the music is certainly a turn off and I am frequently annoyed by the fact that so many deeply White adolescents only seem to like it for the swear words.  But in the end, I have no one but myself to blame for my ignorance.  I never spent enough time with hip hop to fall in love with any of the songs.  Pandora changed that.

Over time, I did gain appreciation for some of the fusion acts: Us3 and definitely the Fugees.  In fact, I liked them enough to include them as seeds when I started building Pandora stations.  Somehow, "Can I Kick It?" had evaded my notice for 19 years.  Of course, the Lou Reed sample (see last week's post) hooked me instantly.  The beats did the rest.  The song's just fun.  Is it about addiction?  If not, what's he trying to kick?  The line about dropping your pants is a bit off color.  Man, what is this song about exactly?  Does it really matter?  No.  Just get over it and dance, silly White boy!

Sampling has been a part of hip hop from its earliest roots and that, in itself, has been a long-standing objection from the purists.  Mind you, established rockers have not been shy about cashing in on the breaches of intellectual property law.  Thanks to his attorneys, Lou Reed claimed all of the profits from the "Can I Kick It?" single.  Interestingly, the single version of the song features "Walk on the Wild Side" less than the album version featured here does.

There's certainly an interesting discussion to be had over all of this.  After all, haven't White musicians - not to mention recording studio executives - been profiting from the appropriation and even direct theft of Black music for several generations now?  What goes around comes around.  I can't deny that it bothers me sometimes.  I couldn't stand it when Vanilla Ice lifted the bass line from Queen/David Bowie's "Under Pressure."  But that's mostly because the song he made with it sucks.  There is plenty of room in my heart to love both "Walk on the Wild Side" and "Can I Kick It?"

The Icelandic rap duo Bent and 7Berg made a cover called "Má Ég Sparka?"  Need I say more?

Want to hear all of the songs I have featured in a convenient playlist?

Enjoy: A Window Above

What are you listening to these days?

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Squid Mixes: Hanky Panky

A hanky panky combines gin and sweet vermouth with a couple dashes of Frenet Branca, a bitter Italian digestivo, orange peel garnish.  It was invented by Ada Coleman, head bartender at the London Savoy Hotel at the turn of the 20th century.  My recipe came from a new book for me: 3-Ingredient Cocktails by Robert Simonson.

3-Ingredient Cocktails has a beautifully simple premise.  Simonson asserts that the best cocktails are based on an old-fashioned formula: base liquor, sweetener and bitter.  Ice and garnishes don't count against the three ingredients.  It's a stunning book with exquisite photography.  Simonsen also provides lots of cocktail history, unfortunately not always accurate.  He mistakenly listed the inventor of the Hanky Panky as Ada Calhoun.  We certainly enjoyed the drink.

However, I was hoping for a book that emphasized simple ingredients as well as simple recipes.  Frenet Branca is a little on the exotic side.  It was only by luck that we had a bottle in the cabinet.  He even occasionally goes so far as to list specific brands.  I'm not above substituting, of course, and the book might provide inspiration when we are inclined to explore above the lower middle shelves at the liquor store.  I was just expecting something different.

Friday, September 14, 2018

A Window Above: Walk on the Wild Side

Song: "Walk on the Wild Side"
Writer: Lou Reed
Original Release: November 8, 1972
Album: Transformer

Surely, someone out there in academia has written a master's thesis about this song.  To be sure, there's plenty of material.

To say "Walk on the Wild Side" was ahead of its time lyrically is an absurd understatement.  In 2018, references to oral sex and transgender people don't seem like such a big deal but early '70s mainstream radio had never seen anything like it.  All of the characters mentioned in the song are based on real people, all of them regulars at Andy Warhol's New York studio, The Factory.  Though listeners may have blushed, they still bought the record.  "Walk on the Wild Side" peaked at #16 on the Billboard charts.  Today, it resides comfortably among rock's all-time classics.

There are great stories on the musical side, too.  If you've never seen the documentary Classic Albums: Lou Reed: Transformer, it's well worth your time.  In fact, the entire Classic Albums series is pretty amazing.  My favorite story is the creation of the extraordinary bass line.  Herbie Flowers recorded both the acoustic and electric basses on the same track.  Flowers has admitted in interviews that he did it for purely capitalist motivatons: by playing two instruments, he would be paid twice.  No matter.  The final effect is hypnotizing.

Want to hear all of the songs I have featured in a convenient playlist?

Enjoy: A Window Above

What are you listening to these days?

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Wine: Thirst Wine Club

This is our first month as members of the Thirst Wine Club at Daedalus, a restaurant and wine shop in Burlington.  We get two featured wines each month as well as 10% off anything in the shop.  I don't know if it will be one red and one white each month but that's what we got this time.  With each, we get an info sheet including tasting notes and recommended recipes. 
The white is an Alsatian, Edelzwicker 2017 by Meyer Fonné.  Alsace is best known for its Rieslings and Gewurtztraminners, drier and more interesting than the German versions of the same.  An Edelzwicker is a blend of Pinot Blanc, Muscat, Chasselas and Riesling.  This one had a pleasant apple flavor.  My wife and I traveled to Alsace for a wine vacation many years ago - our last big pre-parenting adventure, actually.  Alsatians generally pair well with spicy food, including the paprika chicken my wife made that night.
The red is the Madiran Aydie l'Origine 2015, produced by Famille Laplace in Gascony.  Even while pouring it, my wife could tell from the scent, "This is going to be one of your wines."  I love a spicy red.  Years ago - again, pre-kid - we had an unforgettable Chateau Musar from Lebanon that set my mouth on fire, setting my standard for reds forever.  This Madiran wasn't quite so exciting as that but it was still awfully nice, a good match for the pizza chicken my wife prepared.  L'Origine is also a blend: 70% Tannat, 30% Cabernet Franc.

Friday, September 7, 2018

A Window Above: Diguedin

Song: "Diguedin"
Traditional Quebcois folk song
Perfomers: Les Charbonniers de l'Enfer

The Canadaphilia I have experienced over the past several years most definitely extends to music.  In particular, I have grown quite fond of Quebecois folk music, known as chansons.  The songs date back centuries, some of them probably back to France, though the style is different from that of the Acadians in Nova Scotia and the Cajuns in Louisiana.  Les Charbonniers de l'Enfer is one of many groups to have inspired renewed enthusiasm for Quebecois chansons, Le Vent du Nord probably the most prominent these days.  I prefer the more traditional, a cappella performance style.

Want to hear all of the songs I have featured in a convenient playlist?

Enjoy: A Window Above

What are you listening to these days?

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Squid Mixes: Vodka Cooler

A vodka cooler is exactly like a gin cooler (see this post) apart from the obvious replacement of gin with vodka.  My recipe came from The New York Bartender's Guide

"I feel cooler already," said my wife after the first sip.

Friday, August 31, 2018

A Window Above: Blue Train

Piece: "Blue Train"
Writer: John Coltrane
Original Release: 1958
Album: Blue Train

While my era of choice for rock music hovers around the late 1960s/early '70s, the jazz I favor generally came out of the late 1950s.  Charlie Parker, the Beethoven-esque idol of nearly everyone who came after him, died in 1955.  The trouble with bebop, the style championed by Parker, was that it was so darn fast most people couldn't play it.  It was the jazz equivalent of break dancing: undeniably dazzling but unsustainable as a dominant cultural force due to the high degree of difficulty.  So jazz's evolution after his passing, while maintaining much of bop's harmonic thinking, slowed significantly in tempo.  Miles Davis was the lead voice of the new trend and playing with Miles was a sure path to stardom.  Without a doubt, the most important musician to pass through Miles Davis's band was saxophonist John Coltrane.

There's still a lot of Miles's sound in Blue Train.  Coltrane would develop his own voice more fully with Giant Steps, released in 1960.  Most jazz seems esoteric to 21st century ears but I have found the title track to be relatively accessible for my students.  The opening hook is strong, evoking a spy movie or some such.

Want to hear all of the songs I have featured in a convenient playlist?

Enjoy: A Window Above

What are you listening to these days?

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Squid Mixes: Mimosa

As has been our family custom in late August, our daughter recently went to visit her grandparents in DC on her own, giving us a weekend just the two of us.  We miss her but we also enjoy taking advantage of the opportunity for some quality couple time.  This year, we planned a spa-at-home day: salt scrubs, foot soaks, face masks, hand massages and... mimosas!

There isn't much to a mimosa: orange juice and champagne in equal parts.  I got my recipe from The New York Bartender's Guide.  They were most refreshing.  For me, there is always something a little weird about the initial taste of orange and grape combined, as if one or the other has gone off somehow.  I guess my brain still expects to taste pure orange and it's not quite.  I always get used to it, a most pleasant beverage indeed.

Care to listen to our Spotify playlist for the day?

A Perfect Love

I crowd-sourced this one via Facebook, asking my friends to offer suggestions for the perfect love song.  I've gotta say, the resulting compilation is enjoyable.  Please feel free to suggest additions in the comments below.

Friday, August 24, 2018

State of the Blog 2018

“There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”
- Thorin's final words to Bilbo, The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien 

It's been a nice year at The Squid.   I don't have much tinkering in mind for Year 10, apart from digging deeper into the topics I'm already exploring.  Perhaps in so doing, I can do my part to help inspire a merrier world.

I'll definitely be continuing with the cocktails, furthering my own education in mixology and sharing what I learn.  I have a couple of non-fiction books about cocktails on my TBR shelves and some interesting looking recipe books on the wish list, including one for mocktails.  Our daughter's delicious non-alcoholic mixed drinks were a central theme of our Europe trip this summer and it would be fun to make more of our own.  I also need to be better at ordering cocktails when we're out.  I tend to be a beer man at restaurants, cold draft brew being so wonderfully refreshing.  But recently we were at Kitchen Table Bistro and I wanted a vodka martini instead with my oysters.  I didn't even understand all of the questions the bartender asked me about my preferences.  Thank goodness, my wife was on hand to translate.  Guess I need to learn the lingo while seeking out the best Manhattan in northwest Vermont.

As A Window Above enters Season 2, I am looking to bring a little more diversity to the mix.  I've gone pretty heavy with the classic rock and soul so far.  I genuinely love both, of course, but there's a lot more interesting music out there and I'm eager to write about it.  

Want to hear all of the songs I've featured in a convenient playlist?  Enjoy:

Finally, a little musical treat to kick off the new year:

Squiddies 2018

The Armchair Squid turns nine years old today.  It's time to hand out some hardware.  And the Squiddy goes to...

Biggest Surprise: A Willing Accomplice
There is always excitement in bringing a new cat into the house.  Every feline brings her own quirks.  One knows to expect the unexpected.  Who would have thought that The Scamp, newly acquired in February, would catch on so quickly to my blogging needs?  Getting a cat to pose for a photo, ever, let alone on command is unusual to say the least.  I make no claim to expert cat training skills.  The kid just gets it.  I set the drink down on the floor, she comes running over.  Hasn't even tried to sneak a sip.

Biggest Disappointment: Losing the Lug

One quiet Saturday, while my wife was out of town, I went down to the basement and heard the sound of suffering coming from the storage room.  Sure enough, there was The Big Lug, our beautiful Russian blue tom, lying on the floor and clearly struggling.  I rushed him over to the vet but he was too far gone.  They put him down upon arrival.  15 years is a long time to share a home with anyone.  He was well loved and sorely missed.

Best Read, First Time Category: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré

It is a classic of the genre for good reason.  There's no glamor at all in the tragic tale of Alex Leamas, a longtime British operative.  In fact, he wants out of the game.  But the Secret Service has one more job for him.  He's just an ordinary guy with an extraordinary job.  His girlfriend?  Just an average woman who fell in love with the wrong guy at the wrong time and so gets caught in his same trap.

Their story could have happened to anyone.  That's exactly why it works.  So good.

Best Read, Re-Read Category: Winning Chess Strategies by Yasser Seirawan
It was nice to end the summer with a chess book and Seirawan is always charming.  Now, if only I had time to play.

Best Comics Find: March by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell

Charlottesville was over a year ago now.  The story of race in America hasn't gotten any easier.  But at least people are talking.  March is the graphic novel, autobiographical account of U.S. Representative John Lewis's personal history in the Civil Rights Movement.  So far, I have only read the first book of three but the others are on the shelf and I'm looking forward to them.

Athlete of the Year: Stan Musial (1920-2013)
By nearly all accounts, Stan the Man was one of the kindest superstars baseball has ever seen.  Numerous players, stars and journeymen alike, tell stories of how Musial went out of his way to welcome them to the Majors by name, even those who played for the other team.  This really says it all: he earned his nickname not in St. Louis where he played for over 20 years but in Brooklyn, home to the Cardinals' most hated rivals.  The Man turned Ebbets Field into his private pinball machine and they loved him anyway.

Best Family Adventure: Europe

We took a two-week to Europe over late June/early July:  Paris, London and Edinburgh.  We have some dear, old friends in London so reconnecting with them was the highlight for me.  As cities go, though, I'll take Edinburgh: small, manageable, easy to get away from the tourists.  Just as important this summer, it wasn't so damn hot.

My wife and I had both been to Europe before but for our 14-year-old daughter, it was the first time.  Every place we went, she was sad to leave.  That was really what I wanted: to give her a taste of the adventure so she would be eager to explore more on her own someday.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

On the Coffee Table: Winning Chess Strategies

Title: Winning Chess Strategies
Author: Yasser Seirawan
A chess game is a story, protagonist and antagonist in a struggle both brutal and elegant.  Over the years, I have learned strong openings, the beginning of the narrative.  I can build a solid pawn structure, get my pieces to effective positions and protect my king.  But in every game, I tend to reach a point where I must ask myself: what do I do now?  I'm good at satisfying conclusions, too.  Give me an endgame puzzle and I can probably solve it.  But how do I get there?  The middle game has always been the source of greatest mystery to me.  I always marvel at superior players who know exactly what to do and how to do it.  Naturally, that's why they beat me.

The answers lie in strategy.  If one can understand the basics of strategy, and when to apply which appropriately, one can win the middle game.  Fortunately, Syrian-born American chess champion Yasser Seirawan is ready to help.  In Winning Chess Strategies, Seirawan builds on the force, time, space and pawn structure concepts he introduced in Play Winning Chess (reflection here).  New and expanded principles include making the most of a material advantage, stopping enemy counterplay and the creation of targets.  In general, positional play requires paying attention, formulating clear objectives and limiting the opportunities available to your opponent.

It struck me that winning a chess game is all about controlling the narrative.  After all, if your opponent is always forced to react to what you're doing, s/he stands no chance at furthering his/her own cause.  We see the same game played politically all the time.  Of course, it's one thing to know this, quite another to understand how to do it.

Seirawan, a positional player himself, includes a lot more of examples from his own games than he did in previous books.  While this could come across as arrogance, he humbly includes a couple of his games where his strategic errors led to his downfall and also admits when he failed to capitalize on early-won advantages.  Once again, I thoroughly enjoy the personality he projects as a writer.

I have to admit that I have not played much chess over the past several months.  With the school year about to begin, it's difficult to imagine that changing but I'd certainly like to get back to playing more.  Reading baseball books makes me want to watch more baseball.  Reading chess books makes me want to play more chess.  In the end, all I really wish for is more time to read.  Alas, summer is nearly over.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Squid Mixes: Gin Cooler

The cat days of summer...
A gin cooler combines gin with sugar and sparkling water, a lemon peel to garnish.  My recipe came from The New York Bartender's Guide.  The preparation was a little unusual in that one combines the gin and the sugar in the bottom of the glass even before adding ice.  Presumably, it's a nice way to keep the sugar from being too grainy and actually gets evenly mixed in with the rest of the drink, a frequent issue.  The end result tastes like a lightly sweet seltzer, certainly not as strong in flavor as the gin and tonic I made for my wife.

Monday, August 20, 2018

On the Coffee Table: George Vecsey

Title: Stan Musial: An American Life
Author: George Vecsey
Stan Musial was, by any reasonable measure, one of the greatest baseball players in Major League history.  Bill James, as close as there is to an objective expert on such matters, ranked Musial #10 all-time in his Historical Abstract.  The resume is breathtaking: 3,630 hits, 475 homers, 24 All-Star Games, 3 World Series titles, 3 MVP awards, first ballot Hall of Famer, All-Century Team.  And yet, he is typically the forgotten member of the War Generation's Big Three, the other two being Ted Williams (#7 per James) and Joe DiMaggio (#13).  In his Musial biography, Vecsey considers why.  Is it a regional bias?  Musial will forever be revered as a god in St. Louis - he has two statues outside of Busch Stadium, the larger a Hachiko-esque meeting place - but it's tough to compete with similar stature in Boston or New York in terms of national exposure.  Or was it Williams's and DiMaggio's larger-than-life and frequently obnoxious personalities while Musial is almost universally remembered as one of baseball's nice guys?  Probably both.

Biographies are a tricky art, particularly athlete biographies.  The book tends a little too much towards the hero-worship side of the spectrum.  But to be fair, Vecsey made an effort to dig up dirt on Musial.  There simply isn't much.  Vecsey never claims his subject was perfect and he doesn't sweep the less flattering stories under the rug.  Nonetheless, the evidence is overwhelming: pretty much everybody who knew Stan Musial loved him.  He was a committed family man, a gregarious restaurant owner, an idol to Polish-Americans, a devoted Catholic.  A towering figure in the sport, Musial made a point of welcoming new rookies, even those on opposing teams, to the big leagues by name.  Many of them never forgot that basic human courtesy in a world of untouchable superstars.  It's worth noting that he earned his nickname Stan the Man from the fans of the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Cardinals' arch-rivals.  Musial, who played his entire career in St. Louis and always made the most of Ebbets Field's hitter friendly dimensions, was elected to the Brooklyn Dodgers Hall of Fame in 1990.  Even the enemy loved him.

The warmth of the book comes from Vecsey's chosen method of research: personal interviews of those who knew the Man, drawing upon the yarn-spinning baseball culture I find so irresistibly charming.  There's a lot of waiting in baseball: waiting in the dugout, the bullpen, the clubhouse, the hotel, the airport, etc.  Plenty of time to chat.  As I watch games at our local minor league park, I want to believe the witty, shoot-the-shit atmosphere portrayed in Bull Durham is still real in 2018.  Have iPhones killed it the way they have undermined the art of conversation in the rest of society?  Now, an awful lot of that shit would be flying around in Spanish.  Is there intercultural exchange or is the typical baseball team lingually segregated?  I fear it is.

Overall, it's a lovely book.  I'll admit to not knowing much about Musial myself in the beginning but by the end, I loved him, too.  I can't say it offers much for the non-baseball fan but for those who love the game and enjoy its history, it's a must-read.

Friday, August 17, 2018

A Window Above: A Natural Woman

Song: "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman"
Writers: Gerry Goffin, Carole King and Jerry Wexler
Original Release: September 1967
Original Performer: Aretha Franklin

Where do you even begin?

I had a completely different post lined up for today but with Aretha Franklin's passing, what else could I do?  I am simply crushed.  76 years is a long life but pancreatic cancer is a terrible way to go.  Queen of Soul.  20 #1 R&B singles.  18 Grammys.  75 million records sold.

Never met a show she couldn't steal.  She stood in for Luciano Pavarotti when the tenor couldn't make the gig.  She sang at the inauguration of the first Black President because of course she did.  Why ask anyone else?  Had the best hat, too.

The best.  What more can you say?  She was the best!

Good luck watching this one without crying...

Aretha Franklin, 1942-2018

The Queen is dead.  Long live the Queen.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

On the Coffee Table: Paul Solarz

Title: Learn Like a Pirate: Empower Your Students to Collaborate, Lead, and Succeed
Author: Paul Solarz
I suppose it's time to let the blogosphere in on the action research project I am planning for my master's program.  Over the past few years, I've gradually tried to incorporate more student voice, student choice and student leadership into my classroom.  It started out of necessity with our middle school musicals.  Neither Drama Guy nor I is much of a dancer whereas many of our students are quite experienced.  So, we've given the choreography of our shows entirely over to them.  Not only are the kids happier with this arrangement but, in fact, we've had stronger productions as a result.  Win-win.  Obviously, we were on to something and expansion of the idea throughout my practice was a logical path to follow.

Unfortunately, teachers of my generation weren't taught to approach education this way and music in general has been a top-down world for centuries.  So, I need to figure out how to do a lot of this on my own.  Fortunately, this is a hopping trend in current education and there's a lot more how-to material than there used to be.  In working out the specifics for my research project, three different people recommended Learn Like a Pirate, so obviously I needed to check it out.

I have found my bible.  Solarz's classroom, as he describes it, is exactly what I envision for my own.  Students, with thoughtful early guidance, run the show.  They guide each other through the daily rituals, choose and design their own projects, they hold each other accountable, they ask each other questions before turning to the teacher, etc.  The book includes testimony from Solarz's own students and their parents so as not to make it seem he is painting a non-existent ideal.  He speaks from successful experience.

Now I need to figure out how to use it all.  Solarz provides a lot and it's overwhelming to take in all at once but I am eager to implement as much as I can.  My job at school is really two jobs with differing demands: chorus director and general music teacher.  There are aspects of the student-led class that will be easier to implement for each.  Probably best to sort out what those are and start there.  As Solarz points out, though, what you believe about your students and their capacities is just as important as the specific activities you plan for them.  It all begins with building the supportive atmosphere.

So, if you are a teacher and looking for some fresh ideas, I think you'd get a lot out of Learn Like a Pirate.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

On the Coffee Table: Ellen Oh

Title: Flying Lessons & Other Stories
Editor: Ellen Oh
This collection of short stories was our students' summer reading book.   As noted in Monday's post (see here), our community is working hard to confront racism and Flying Lessons was no coincidental choice.  Editor Ellen Oh is co-founder of We Need Diverse Books, a non-profit organization with a mission to promote diversity in children's literature.  The story authors are Black, Asian, Latino, Latina, Native American and White.

The selections are all good though, of course, some are better than others.  "Flying Lessons" gets top billing for a reason.  Soman Chainani tells of young Santosh who goes on a big trip to Europe with his larger-than-life grandmother.  The narrative is awkward, touching and humorous, just as early adolescence truly is for many of us.  It provides some poignant insight into love, platonic and otherwise, posing the question: are we drawn to people because we like them or because we want to be them?  I can say for myself that love is often tinged with envy.  Do we not expand our life experience by living vicariously through others?

There is a fable element to many of the stories, as well, mostly along the lines of self-actualization.  I'm not on board with all of the choices made.  Matt de la Peña's offering is written in second-person, future tense.   Odd.  Tim Federle describes scarfing down lunch in 22 minutes as a marathon session which seems the wrong metaphor - more an editing issue?  On the other hand, Tim Tingle's non-linear Choctaw tall tale is delightful as is Kwame Alexander's story-in-verse.

Overall, the book is a lot of fun and certainly a quick read.  I hope our students enjoy it, too.  I look forward to discussing it with them.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Food for the Occasion: Championship Sunday

This year, momentous events in each of my two favorite sports happened on the same day: the Wimbledon men's singles final and the World Cup final.  In fact, they overlapped a bit, the tennis beginning two hours earlier and not quite finishing in time for the soccer to begin.  I planned and prepared our mid-day meal with the two events as theme.  First, strawberries and cream for Wimbledon, then a Continental lunch platter in honor of France and Croatia.

The only part of the meal I technically "made" was the cream for the strawberries.  My wife found a recipe for Mock Devonshire Clotted Cream at RecipeSource.  Thankfully, it's a simple concoction easily thrown together in a few minutes.  The real deal is a multi-step process over multiple days.  It tasted yummy - in fact, too good to remember to take a photo before it was all gone.
I did remember a photo for the lunch platter (above): salami, baguette, sardines, crackers, gherkins (unfortunately sweet rather than dill) and more strawberries.

For the record, my rooting interests lost in both events.  The food was nice, though.

Monday, August 13, 2018

On the Coffee Table: Glenn E. Singleton

Title: Courageous Conversations about Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools
Author: Glenn E. Singleton
Courageous Conversations about Race is our assigned professional summer reading for work.  For unfortunate reasons, our school district has been forced to confront racial issues head on over the past 15 months.  In truth, the conversation is long overdue.  The minority population in our northwest Vermont exurb is small which creates its own problems for our few students of color.  Singleton's book encourages educators to consider race in isolation rather than in combination with economic and linguistic factors.  He argues, convincingly, that schools too easily shy away from blunt conversations of race, preferring to hide behind easier topics.  The fact is, the achievement gap for students of color is dramatic even when controlling for income or parents' education level.

While the topic is undeniably worthwhile, I do have a few issues with the book.  As with Daniel Goleman's Working with Emotional Intelligence (reflection here), there is a slightly uncomfortable commercial element.  What Singleton would truly like is for you to hire him to lead workshops.  However, unlike Goleman, Singleton offers plenty of how-to material to do it on your own.  One of the agreements of his process is to accept non-closure.  He promises no particular outcomes, stressing the importance of the conversation itself in all its uncomfortable glory.

The material is frequently dry but the best parts are the personal reflections at the end of each chapter.  Various contributors, including the author himself, wrote essays on their own racial experience.  As part of the process, Singleton encourages participants to do the same.  And so, my own humble offering:

I am White - deeply White.  My own olive-skinned wife calls me The Alabaster Kid.  All of my ancestry is northern European: Danish, English, German, Scottish, Welsh.  Most of the time, I don't give much thought to my own race which is, of course, the very essence of White Privilege.  Most of the time, I don't think about it whereas people of color rarely if ever have that luxury in American or European society.  I have nearly always been more aware of other people's races than my own.
The one period in my life when I was hyper-aware of my own race was the two years of my young adulthood spent in Japan.  Being a White American in Japan feels a bit like I imagine being a celebrity would.  You can't go anywhere without being noticed.  While certain parts of Tokyo are international enough to provide adequate camouflage, I stood no chance of blending into the crowd in my quiet Yokohama neighborhood.  Reactions from strangers on the street ran the gamut: fascination, curiosity, admiration, astonishment, fear and occasional hostility from those who knew enough to resent the American military presence in the area.  In the beginning of my stay, it was fun, even amusing.  By the end, it was tiresome.  I would long for time in Harajuku or Roppongi where I could enjoy relative anonymity. 
I know better than to believe my experience was remotely equivalent to that of a Black man in the United States - or even a Black man in Japan, for that matter.    Often, foreign men in Japan (gaijin) would compare notes upon meeting each other.  The Black guys would report a lot more fear in people's reactions than I ever saw.  To be sure, prejudice crosses borders and oceans effortlessly.
Here, I just don't think about it most of the time.  But Singleton's book forces me to look back on my life to times when I undoubtedly benefited from White Privilege in ways I wouldn't have considered before.  There were times when I struggled in school growing up, years when the grades weren't so great.  Everyone around me assumed I would bounce back even when I didn't believe it myself.  I realize now that may not have been the case if I had been a person of color.  The struggles might have suited the stereotype and the system might well have handled me differently.
For my students, I need to listen and be more aware of their challenges.  It can't be easy to walk into a school everyday where none of the teachers and few of the students look like you.  It's more than sticking out and people saying mean things, though that really does happen frighteningly often.  People's expectations for you are different.  Do you internalize those expectations?  Rebel against them?  A little of both?  Something else entirely?  I won't know until I listen and, as Singleton stresses in the beginning of his book, believe what they tell me.
I don't believe in "woke."  I fear it implies that awareness of racism is enough.  If I am woke to anything, it is to how much I have to learn.  
I do know I'm ready to listen.

Friday, August 10, 2018

A Window Above: Open Arms

Song: "Open Arms"
Writers: Steve Perry and Jonathan Cain
Original Release: July 31, 1981
Band: Journey
Album: Escape

It is the power ballad to end all power ballads.  For Journey, the gate to immortality is "Don't Stop Believin'" (see this post) and for good reason.  However, "Open Arms" was actually the band's highest charting single, climbing to #2.  It's a perfect match between singer and song.  The big leaps and soaring melody are perfectly suited to Steve Perry.  If ever there were a tune that cried out for an a cappella cover, this is it.  And yet, none of the ones I could find were quite right.  Boyz II Men and EXO, two of the most successful vocal groups ever have both covered it and despite admirable efforts, Steve Perry still wins.  

Judge for yourself.  First, the original:

I think I'd pick EXO as a close second:

That said, I'll happily listen to these guys harmonize anytime, and they're way better without all of the production garbage behind them:

Naturally, the Eastman kids are pretty good:

Thursday, August 9, 2018

On the Coffee Table: The Lives of Christopher Chant

Title: The Lives of Christopher Chant
Author: Diana Wynne Jones

The Lives of Christopher Chant is the second book of The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, according to the recommended reading order of the author.  This books actually serves as prequel to the first, Charmed Life (reflection here).  We get the boyhood story of the much-neglected Christopher who travels between parallel worlds in his sleep.  These are no mere dreams as Christopher is able to bring physical mementos back from his wanderings.  This ability proves useful to those with nefarious purpose.  Christopher, though the son of powerful musicians, believes he has no magical ability during his waking hours.  Somewhat predictably, he finds the truth to be quite different.  Shades of Xanth here.

All of Jones's usual charm is on offer here.  She's a wonderful world builder and with her, it's nearly always multiple worlds in the same story.  Christopher's visit to our own dimension is brief and terrifying.  He nearly gets run over by a bus. 

One can always count on Diane Wynne Jones for creating likeable characters, even among the baddies.  My favorite this time is Tacroy, Christopher's morally ambiguous, cricket loving traveling companion.  In fact, I've already cast him should there ever be a movie: Richard Ayoade, best known for The IT Crowd.

Great book.  Great series.  Great author.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

On the Coffee Table: Tony Isabella

Title: 1000 Comic Books You Must Read
Author: Tony Isabella
I have an inscribed copy of this book, gifted to me by Mock and Drama Guy for my birthday five years ago - just for a glimpse into how deep my TBR shelves run these days.  Isabella has been working in comics, mostly as writer and critic, for decades.  His proudest creation is the DC superhero Black Lightning, intended to address the lack of positive Black characters in the comics of the late '70s.  He was inspired, in part, by television's Welcome Back, Kotter, also a comic series for which Isabella had written.

I doubt this book will turn me into a collector.  Having dabbled in the genre for a few years now, I've got a pretty good idea of what I like.  That said, the history presented here is excellent and a lot of it new to me.  The titles are categorized by decade and each chapter begins with the historical context.  The first book listed is Action Comics #1, the first appearance of Superman, June 1938.  While Isabella acknowledges the existence of sequential art for millennia preceding, he submits Superman as the launch point of the industry as most American consumers know it.  The most recent publication featured is Bruce the Little Bruce Spruce, December 2008.

There's a decent variety on Isabella's list, though a more Squid-friendly selection would have featured more international titles, especially Japanese.  I have read several in his compilation and have a couple more on the shelves waiting for me.  I expect the book will be a good reference and will also be good for ideas should I decide to expand my horizons. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Squid Mixes: Vodka and Tonic

Sometime, it might be meaningful to taste a vodka tonic and a gin and tonic side by side.  The quinine flavor of the tonic water is so dominant that the base liquor hardly matters.  Mind you, both are lovely, refreshing beverages.  My recipe came from The New York Bartender's Guide.

Quinine came into prominent use as a preventative against malaria.  It is potently bitter so in the 19th century, British officials in India and other tropical outposts started mixing it with soda water.  What we know as tonic was born.  Adding alcohol was the next logical step: first gin, later vodka.

Vodka and tonics feature prominently in this Elton John classic:

Friday, August 3, 2018

A Window Above: Heroes and Villains

Song: "Heroes and Villains"
Writers: Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks
Original Release: July 24, 1967
Band: The Beach Boys

In truth, I've never been much of a Beach Boys fan.  I own Pet Sounds - practically obligatory - and willingly acknowledge that "Good Vibrations" is a masterpiece.  But as for their old school surf music, it just doesn't do it for me.  I know, practically un-American!

So, perhaps it's not surprising that my favorite among their songs is out of character.  "Heroes and Villains" was intended as a follow-up on the success of "Good Vibrations."  While it enjoyed moderate commercial success - #12 on the charts - it was widely panned by critics.  Jimi Hendrix famously referred to it as a "psychedelic barbershop quartet."  While that sounds awesome to me, Jimi didn't mean it as a compliment.

I will admit that from a production standpoint, the song's kind of a mess.  But I think it represents a nice mix of the group's older vocal harmony charm and their late-sixties trippy frolics.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Squid Mixes: Gin and Bitters

In our cocktail explorations, I have found that many of the drinks I enjoy the most include Angostura bitters.  This particular concoction is a good test of that affection.  For starters, it includes a full teaspoon of bitters whereas most recipes require only a few dashes.  The preparation's different, too.  According to my recipe in The New York Bartender's Guide, you pour the bitters in a cocktail glass, swirl it around, then add an unspecified amount of gin.  It is a strong drink, though tasty.  The recipe specified room temperature but my wife feels it would be better chilled.

The Scamp took the week off.  A big thanks to The Squirt for being willing to step in for her.

Friday, July 27, 2018

A Window Above: Ice Cream

Song: "Ice Cream"
Writer: Sarah McLachlan
Original Release: October 22, 1993
Performer: Sarah McLachlan
Album: Fumbling Towards Ecstasy

I don't get a lot of celebrity crushes but I fell hard for Sarah McLachlan when I first heard her back in the mid-'90s.  I wasn't even in it for the sex.  I just wanted her to sing me to sleep every night for the rest of my life.  My fondest memories of listening to her are simple ones, sitting on the couch of my dorm room senior year (ah, to be a second-semester senior forever...), blissing out to the voice of an angel.  While my interest has subsided over the years, my wife still refers to Sarah simply as my girlfriend. 

In the fall of '97, I saw Sarah perform live in Tokyo.  "Ice Cream" was her encore.  She sat down at the piano and said, somewhat regretfully, "You know, I don't have a lot of sing-along songs in my set.  Maybe this one will do."  And of course, we all obliged her.  It's such a simple little number compared to the lush production of the rest of the album, a perfect lullaby.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Squid Mixes: Gin and Ginger

Gin and ginger, as the name suggests, combines gin with ginger ale.  In fact, it's just like last week's drink except with ginger ale rather than ginger beer.  The result is sweeter and less gingery, perfect if you like a hint of the stuff without blowing out your sinuses.  My recipe came from The New York Bartender's Guide.

Friday, July 20, 2018

A Window Above: All Out of Love

Song: "All Out of Love"
Writers: Clive Davis and Graham Russell
Original Release: February 1980
Band: Air Supply

This is one of my favorite guilty pleasure songs.  I first fell in love with it while driving through the Mt. Fuji region in the summer of '96.  I'm pretty sure my companion and driver got tired of me playing the Air Supply tape over and over again but that's the risk you run when you let me pick the music.  Then again, it was his tape so maybe he didn't mind so much.  Now, if this song comes on the radio at the end of a drive, I won't turn off the car until it's finished.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Squid Mixes: Foghorn

A foghorn combines ginger beer and gin.  My recipe comes from The New York Bartender's Guide.  Ginger beer is a super heavyweight as far as flavor goes so pick one you like.  The gin doesn't stand a chance.

Monday, July 16, 2018

On the Coffee Table: Rohinton Mistry

Title: A Fine Balance
Author: Rohinton Mistry
Mistry, an Indian-born Canadian writer, has won a lot of literature's big prizes in his career: Neustadt, James Tait Black, Booker shortlist, etc.  It's the sort of resume that suggests he's likely to win the Nobel one day.   A Fine Balance, published in 1995, was his third book, second novel.

A Fine Balance covers a long, dramatic sweep of Indian history:  1947-1984, Independence to the aftermath of Indira Gandhi's assassination.  The story follows four characters: Dina Dalal, a 42-year-old widow born of a wealthy urban family but determined to make it on her own after her husband's death; Ishvar and Om Darji, two tailors from the countryside, their lives torn apart by inter-caste violence and Maneck Kohlah, student and son of a grocer in the far off mountains.  The four live together in Dina's apartment.  Their relationships initially fraught with tension, they eventually form a strong familial bond. 

The heart of the tale takes place in 1975-76 during Gandhi's Emergency.  In a society built on centuries-old social injustice (aren't they all?), the crackdowns on the poor are especially brutal during this time.  The tailors always manage to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Easy as it is to roll one's American, Caucasian eyes and think, "Oh boy, India...", it's not much of a stretch to imagine an African-American or Native American or Latino-American or most any other minority family in the United States feeling they have also been victims of history for generations on end.

Mistry's acclaim is well-deserved.  The text is elegant without overwhelming in detail.  Few characters truly disappear in the story, nearly every chance encounter coming around full-circle to play a meaningful role later in the narrative.  The symbolism can be a bit heavy-handed, especially with a quilt Dina produces. The fine balance of the title is between hope and despair.  Most of the narrative weighs to the despair side but the moments of hope are genuinely touching.  The ending is rotten and unnecessarily so.  Dazzlingly artful through nearly 600 pages, Mistry resorts to the worst of all narrative cop-outs just before the final curtain. 

Friday, July 13, 2018

A Window Above: The Final Cut

Song: "The Final Cut"
Writer: Roger Waters
Original Release: March 21, 1983
Band: Pink Floyd
Album: The Final Cut

After fully immersing myself in the Beatles for a year or so in my early teens, I was ready to explore beyond.  Pink Floyd was the next band I pursued with any depth.  While the heart of the group's opus is contained on three masterful albums - The Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here and The Wall - there are plenty of treasures to be found beyond those.  

One late album drew my early attention: The Final Cut, especially the title track.  Whereas far too many of Roger Waters's lyrics are devoted to former band member Syd Barrett's descent into schizophrenia, The Final Cut is instead dedicated to Waters's father.  Waters felt the ideals of his father and the rest of the War Generation were betrayed when Britain entered the Falklands War.  The album's material is the usual Pink Floyd dark but unusually political.  The title track, however, is deeply personal.

Here's the funny thing: until I started putting this post together, I'm not sure I'd actually listened to the song or the album in at least 25 years.  I owned it on vinyl back in the day and never upgraded to CD.  As closely as I connected with it in my adolescence, it's not exactly cheery stuff.

I didn't know a lot about love at that age but I knew enough to understand the fear of betrayal.  "The Final Cut" goes beyond the typical petty jealousy one finds in every fifth song.  Even now, I would say I am a fairly guarded man and easily relate to a reluctance to be vulnerable with people.  Over time, if you're lucky, you surround yourself with people you trust but I didn't really have much of that at 14.  Rather, I did but not in the places I was looking for it.  The line about selling "your story to Rolling Stone" is an honest appraisal of the pitfalls of love for a famous man, which Waters certainly was by 1983.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

On the Coffee Table: Kafka on the Shore

Title: Kafka on the Shore
Author: Haruki Murakami
Kafka on the Shore is really two stories intertwined.  In the first, teenage Kafka Tamura runs away from home in Tokyo to escape a difficult relationship with his father and find his long-lost mother and sister.  In the second, the aging Nakata follows a calling of his own which he doesn't even understand.  Both paths lead to Takamatsu on the island of Shikoku, a city I have visited myself.  Unfortunately my most prominent memory of the trip was getting brutally ill.  Kafka's story is a mix of Sophocles and John Irving with a touch of surrealism.  Nakata's is that of Buddhist pilgrimage. 

A library plays a prominent role in the novel, particularly Kafka's thread.  Libraries have become a big thing in our family, too.  Our daughter (14) went on a job shadow at a local college library.  Historically, she has been shy about expressing dreams for her own future but walking into that big building entirely devoted to books was definitely a wide-eyed, cathedral moment for her.  We just got back from a family trip to Europe and libraries were a major theme, along with oysters and ice cream.  We visited four in total: the British Library and the Wellcome Collection in London; the National Library of Scotland and the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinbrugh.

Music is important to the book, too.  Nakata's disciple Hoshino, a truck driver by profession, has an unexpected love affair with Beethoven's Archduke Trio.  Kafka listens to loads of different music over the course of his story but Schubert's Sonata in D Minor gets the deepest discussion.

Definitely a fun read and my favorite Murakami so far.  The story is weird but not over the top - just enough to draw you away from realism from time to time.  Not as much eye-popping prose as in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (reflection here) but I found Kafka more captivating.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Squid Mixes: Americano

My Americano recipe came from The New York Bartender's Guide: sweet vermouth, Campari and sparkling water with a lemon peel garnish.  It's sort of like a Negroni with bubbles, though sweeter without the gin.  The bitter/sweet balance is quite pleasant, in fact.

The drink was created by Gaspare Campari in the 1860s.  In Italy, it was originally known as a Milano-Torino as it combined Campari from Milan and vermouth from Turin.  The Americano name was an homage to the boxer Primo Carnera, the first Italian heavyweight champion in the United States.  The Americano, not the vodka martini, is also the first drink ordered by James Bond in the first of Ian Fleming's original novels, Casino Royale.

Friday, July 6, 2018

A Window Above: Sister Christian

Song: "Sister Christian"
Writer: Kelly Keagy
Original Release: October 1983
Band: Night Ranger
Album: Midnight Madness

Our daughter is pretty good at navigating the frequently divergent tastes of her parents.  There are interests she shares with Mom but not me: costume dramas, stinky cheese, mushrooms.  There are interests she shares with me but not Mom: Star Wars, superheroes, power ballads.  She was especially shocked when she found out her mother doesn't care for the song "Sister Christian."

"It's okay," I reassured her.  "Not everyone likes awesome things."  And so, a family running gag was born.

"Sister Christian" was by far the biggest hit for Night Ranger, a hard rock band based in San Francisco.  Lead singer and drummer Keagy wrote the song about his younger, teenaged sister, distressed about how quickly she was growing up.  The song title is the result of a mondegreen.  Keagy's sister was actually named Christy but guitarist Jack Blades heard it as "Christian" which stuck.

The song plays during an absolutely bizarre scene in Boogie Nights.  I love the fact that the tape stops in the middle of the song - a completely obsolete technological concept now.  Apologies for the adult material in the clip, definitely a leap beyond my blog's usual PG-13 standards but well worth it.

The band does a fantastic acoustic version:

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Squid Mixes: Gimlet

The gimlet is our first summery cocktail of the season.  My recipe from The New York Bartender's Guide indicates 6 parts gin, 2 parts Rose's lime juice.  A sweeter ratio is featured in the Raymond Chandler novel, The Long Goodbye:  "a real gimlet is half gin and half Rose's lime juice and nothing else".

As with many classic drinks, both the gimlet and Rose's lime juice have nautical pasts.  In the eighteenth-century, the British navy was eager to find ways to fend off scurvy and citrus was the answer.  Captain James Cook provided his crewmen with a daily ration of lemon or lime juice, both of which combined very nicely with their daily gin ration.  The alcohol preserved the juice and the juice improved the flavor.  This is also, of course, how British sailors came to be known as "limeys".  In 1867, Lauchlan Rose patented a method of preserving lime juice with sugar rather than alcohol.  Not coincidentally, he opened his first factory for the product right by the docks in Leith, Scotland.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Cephalopod Coffeehouse: June 2018

Welcome one and all to the Cephalopod Coffeehouse, a cozy gathering of book lovers, meeting to discuss their thoughts regarding the works they enjoyed most over the previous month.  Pull up a chair, order your cappuccino and join in the fun.  If you wish to add your own review to the conversation, please sign on to the link list at the end of my post.

Title: Dark Star
Author: Alan Furst
Dark Star is the second book in Furst's Night Soldiers series.  My reflection on the first book is here.  The series now totals 14, all espionage thrillers based in Europe, 1930s-40s.  Most of the stories have no direct connection to each other, though book #1 is referenced a few times in #2.  Like Night Soldiers, Dark Star follows the career of a single spy, in this case André Szara, a Soviet journalist of Polish/Jewish background.  The story covers Szara's life from 1937-40.  While most of the early action takes place in Paris, he also makes stops in Brussels, Prague, Berlin and Moscow.  He makes it to Poland just in time for the outbreak of war, when the story makes a sharp and desperate turn.

I enjoy Furst's style a great deal.  An early passage establishes Szara's character nicely:
What he remembered later was not that he had fought bravely, he had simply decided that life mattered more than anything else in the world and had contrived to cling to it.  In those years he had seen heroes, and how they went about their work, how they did what had to be done, and he knew he was not one of them.
Furst is not as gritty and believable as le Carré nor does his location research seem as exhaustive as David Downing's.  But the elegance of his prose exceeds both.  The portrayal of Poland just as the country is coming to grips with its historical fate is especially impressive. 

There are a lot of characters to keep track of which can get confusing.  At the beginning of part 2, there is a diagram of Szara's intelligence network, definitely helpful.  But it mostly pertained to the people below him on the chain, whereas I was more likely to mix up the people above him.  The characters are rich, though, and mostly likeable, especially his lovers.

Some of the pacing towards the end feels off, seemingly glossing over what could have been some interesting parts of the narrative.  I wonder if Furst initially had a longer series devoted to Szara in mind or if an editor simply told him enough was enough already.  There's also a weird plot summary passage, depicted as Szara's own musings, as if Furst didn't quite trust his readers to paste all the pieces together on their own.  

Even with a few flaws - or simply choices that I didn't quite agree with - I'm definitely up for book #3: The Polish Officer.

Finally, a shout out to Random House's customer service department.  In the midst of reading, I discovered my volume was missing a huge chunk of text: pages 53-84.  After a quick email exchange, Random House sent me a new copy, no fuss.  Well done!

Please join us and share your own review of your best read from the past month.  This month's link list is below.  I'll keep it open until the end of the day.  I'll post July's tomorrow.  Meetings are the last Friday of each month.  Next gathering is July 27th.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Squid Mixes: Yorsh

This concoction could hardly be simpler: pour the beer, pour the vodka over it, drink.  No need to stir.  "Sounds very Russian," my wife says.  My recipe came from The New York Bartender's Guide.  It tastes like beer and vodka. 

Not sure I really see the point unless you've simply decided your beer's alcohol content is insufficient to your needs.  According to tradition, one is supposed to drink the whole thing in one go after a toast.  We didn't.

Drink responsibly, folks.

Yorsh dates to at least the 17th century.  Is it referenced in an anonymous Russian poem of that time period: "Tale of Woe and Misfortune."  However, the earlier version involved mead rather than beer.

Na Zdorovie!