Thursday, March 29, 2012

Finally: Sane Settlement Talk From a Zionist

I'm Jewish, I suppose (really, it seems crazy to me to deem theology or culture as inheritable; I am what I am and believe what I believe out of conscious personal choice) but have never been a Zionist. For one thing, the settlements fill me with disgust - contributing to my dismay with the unreasonable assumption that my schnozz puts me in favor all that (I want to throw a brick at my TV whenever I hear someone refer to the Israeli regime as "The Jews").

That said, I don't like the Palestinian regime any better. I find provocation just as disgusting, and when I first observed that Palestinian bombers rarely attacked right-wing Israeli hawks in their synagogues, but usually left-wing doves in their nightclubs and shopping malls, I understood the game quite well.

But the settlements. Yeesh, the settlements. Back in 2010, I expressed my consternation that American Jews, who I suspect mostly despise the settlements, rarely spoke out.

So I was delighted with this Op Ed in the NY Times by Peter Beinart, a staunchly pro-Israel orthodox Jew. And I've heard - from multiple sources with multiple backgrounds and viewpoints - that his brand new book "The Crisis of Zionism" is a groundbreaking and beautiful work, even if you - like me - range between disinterest and nausea on the topic (here's an excerpt, and here's another).

With much of the world retracting, sickeningly, into neo-tribalism, it's inspirational to see someone break ranks with an act of conscience and integrity.

Cutting Through the Supreme Court/Obamacare Noise

The media, as usual, has done a horrid job of explaining the Supreme Court issue with Obamacare. You have very likely taken away this conclusion:
The personal mandate was a liberal initiative. If the court strikes it down, it's because the conservative justices are ideologically opposed.
No. Every part of that is wrong.

First, the personal mandate was a conservative initiative, and is intrinsically so if you'll think about it: There ought to be no free rides on government programs; since all may benefit, all must pay into the pot! But don't take my word for it; see the following illuminating six minute clip reel of conservatives blustering about how essential the personal mandate is:

When Obama championed the personal mandate, conservatives switched and railed against it. Not because Republicans are inherently evil hypocrites (Democrats do the same under Republican presidents), but because a competitive political system discourages opposition parties from granting legislative victories to the other side. At its worst extreme, this dynamic could make politicians prefer to wreck the country rather than let their opponents take credit for rescuing it.

So the outrage over the personal mandate is not philosophical; it's not liberal vs. conservative. It's political. Efforts to overturn Obamacare are driven not by disagreement over health care policy, but by the desire to thwart the opposition. And, once again, that move is not owned by the Republicans. The Democrats did much the same under Bush.

So if the conservative Supreme Court justices overturn this, it will not be philosophical, it will be blatantly political. And, what's more, they'll need to go out of their way to do so, as even the most conservative legal scholars (including uber-conservative law professor/blogger Orin Kerr, and Charles Fried, Ronald Reagan's solicitor general) insist that, whether one likes it or not, the Affordable Health Care Act is of course constitutional.

Our political system is what it is. Congressmen are just playing the game - doing their jobs, as it were. But the Supreme Court will have to go out of its way to blatantly cross a hard line on this one, and there's nothing philosophical about it.

Interestingly, Dalia Lithwick thinks they will decline to overturn...but only to keep powder dry for lots more political activism to come later in this term (a Texas redistricting case, the Arizona immigration case, a Texas affirmative action case, and a case Lithwick says "will question the entire existence of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act." Plus, next term, a gay marriage case).

Or, at least, Lithwick thought so before she heard this week's arguments, which left her feeling gloomy about the whole thing.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Toddler and The Steering Wheel

A toddler sits in the passenger seat as daddy drives, avidly pretending to control the car via his toy steering wheel. Deeply immersed in the task, he grows agitated as he wrenches the wheel to the right or the left without discernible effect. Though at some level he realizes he's pretending, it's nonetheless disconcerting that the car ignores his input, and then seemingly turns on its own. There's a queasy feeling of disconnect. There is stress.

Yet, once in a while, the car, by idle chance, seems to turn precisely at his command. Triumph! Fleeting instances of seeming control keep the toddler locked into his fantasy and eager for more.

We are all that toddler. We imagine that we self-determine our lives despite ample evidence to the contrary. And whenever our narrative minds take credit for having willed some errant result, the charade's grip is tightened.

The only thing to do is to let go.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Shallow and Self-Defeating Illusion of Competition

Explaining how to break into TV comedy writing, one of Craig Kilborn's writers sums up the situation:
There aren't many jobs. Less than 100 total talk show jobs, maybe another 50 asundry game show jobs.

And there are lots of people trying to get those jobs. We are a nation of 250 million or so. Of whom probably about 25 million think they can be comedy writers. Of whom maybe about 25,000 actually pursue a comedy writing career. Of whom probably 15,000 or so do some standup and even move to LA or New York.
 That's the layout of the comedy talk show occupation. You have a huge morass of people trying to get a few comedy writer jobs.

Is there any hope, you ask? From the scenario I've set so far, you wouldn't think so. But there is a rub, and here it is:

Most of the people applying for these very few jobs... suck.

It's refreshing to see this truth spoken publicly. And it's true for more than comedy writing. There's a natural tendency to confuse massive competition with tough competition. We all know how enormous the competition is for actors. Well, is every actor you see on tv and in movies, like, awesome? It's hard to get a book published. Is every book brilliant?

But much more importantly, consider the larger view. Are any of these people truly competing with each other? Is the primary goal to beat out other authors? Or to write something great? The former will likely lead to a crappy book, published or not, and quality oughtn't be a side effect! (To paraphrase one of my heroes, Banksy: doing creative work in order to get famous is like eating a great dinner in order to take a shit.)

As a high school senior, I auditioned for a top conservatory. The morning of the big day, I was informed that over one hundred trombone students would be vying for three spots, and this statistic completely psyched me out. I blew the audition. But I later came to know the three kids who got in. Two were so-so players, and one was "good", but no genius. How did they get in? Well, all the others sucked!

If I had simply played my best, instead of tensing into "competition" mode, I'd have easily passed. When I realized what had happened, the world shifted its magnetic poles. I saw that competition is a silly, abstract, mental notion with no productive bearing on anything. The key is to do your best, and let the chips fall (and, as a corollary: work your ass off to be so unbelievably good that anyone who fails to appreciate you must be a total chump (and, critically, recognize that there'll always be chumps!).

After that realization, I have not, in my mind, ever again competed with another human being. Even in ping pong or tennis, I prefer to bat the ball around, trying to make great shots, and to inspire the other player to do likewise. I'll only play an actual game if absolutely forced to.

For one thing, I don't get satisfaction from seeing others lose. For another, I've observed that competition's addictive. Victory brings scant satisfaction, and the skeevy neediness immediately reappears. I'm not a hamster, and I don't engage in Skinneresque reward systems. Life's deeper than a mere video game.

If I could travel back in time to advise my high school self, I'd say: don't get psyched out. Don't compete. Just do everything you do with love and caring generosity and ingenuity, and let the chips fall where they will. And if someone fails to notice, or care, or reward you....fuck 'em!

See also this.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

iPhone-Less Wednesday

Yesterday I went out without my iPhone. It doesn't sound like such a big deal, and, indeed, as the fact dawned on me, it seemed, at first, only a small lapse. But over the next few minutes an an icy panic built as the full magnitude hit me:

• I didn't know the address of Rubirosa, the restaurant I was headed to for lunch.

• The restaurant was in Soho, where I'm not so familiar with streets and subway stops (and I'd built in no extra traveling time).

• I didn't have my well-researched list of dishes to order.

• I wouldn't be able to take notes at my lunch meeting.

• I didn't know the address of the Chinese herbalist I'd planned to visit afterwards.

• I didn't know the train schedule for commuter trains out of Manhattan.

• I wouldn't have anything to read on the train.

• If my friends were doing anything fun, I'd have no way of hearing about it.

• If emergencies were to arise, no one could contact me for help.

• If I experienced an emergency, I wouldn't be able to contact anyone for help.

Concerns crashed in dreadful waves, until I'd made myself nauseous with the conviction that I'd done something insanely reckless, and had no choice but to backtrack, get the damned phone, and arrive half an hour late for lunch.

But I got a grip on myself, remembering I'd survived life prior to 2005 perfectly well with no mobile phone at all, and pushed on, resetting my perspective to make a fun challenge out of it.

Surprisingly, iPhone-less Wednesday seemed to sharpen my mind. I plotted strategies: buy gum at the station to make change for the pay phone. Find a Zagat guide in the news stand, look up the restaurant's phone number, and call for subway instructions. Pay close attention at lunch so I'd retain a laundry list of things to do and remember afterward. Walk to the herbalist, even though it's more or less a straight shot bus ride down Canal Street (I could use the exercise, plus the visual landmarks would help me find the destination). Buy an actual newspaper to read on the train, and during the wait for its unknowable departure. I considered stopping midway at an Internet cafe for an email check, but resisted. It would somehow ruin the purity of it all.

Musicians on tour quickly infantilize. Your logistics are handled for you, there's little strategizing, you progress through your pre-determined daily tasks as if your life were on rails. I realized I'd essentially been on tour since 2005, with a road manager/personal assistant cushioning it all, reigning me in, and rescuing me from missteps. For the first time in years, I felt in full moment-by-moment control of my own fate. Every choice mattered, because there was no safety net. It was an invigorating challenge!

I got home fine (glumly recalling that past a certain age one's friends don't often call with last minute fun, anyway). I felt somehow changed, in the same way one feels changed when the lights come back on after an extended power blackout.

It dawns on me that this may be one of those times when I look like a ditzy idiot going on and on. But it's my Slog, and I'll self-indulge if I wanna...

I should add that Rubirosa rocked (here's a good Chowhound thread).

...and here's a cute blog post by Dan Lyons (the former Fake Steve Jobs) on tech addiction. The article he's responding to is worth a read, too.

Monday, March 19, 2012

New Orleans Trip #10: Various Ingestion

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Around 400,000 calories remain to be covered in my New Orleans trip, and we've already used up nine installments. So it's time to pick up the pace! Note that quantity of verbiage is not necessarily proportional to deliciousness. Some "quick hits" were gems, (I'll either tersely say so or else hope the photos do the talking). On the other hand, anything I'm bothering to tell you about is worthy of attention and ingestion, unless otherwise stated.

Tribute was paid to the celebrated barbeque shrimp at swanky Mr B's Bistro (201 Royal St; 504-523-2078). Great bartenders here; I befriended one while eating at the bar, and asked whether there are any other must-eat dishes. After a weighty pause, eyes sparkled ruefully, and I was told no. Not really. But that's absolutely fine. Oh, my lord, those shrimp:

Charlie's Seafood (8311 Jefferson Hwy Harahan; 504-737-3700), an old-timey place owned by the Brigtsen's people, was a bit of a trek, but I heard they serve a nearly extinct dish: shrimp callas. These are fried balls of fluffy yeasty rice and shrimp. Something like an Italian arancini, or rice ball, only better.

Very good gumbo, too:

Kim Anh's Noodle House (6624 Jefferson Highway Harahan, LA; 504-739-9995) was passed on the way back from Charlie. I caught a vibe, we stopped in for a bite, and were wowed by the bbq pork. Nice freshness to the noodles, too. Very short menu here, but it's good.

A tale of two breakfasts:

New Orleans Cake Cafe (2440 Chartres St; 504-943-0010) was disappointing. There are many online raves for this place, but their baked goods looked "meh" (a few tastes confirmed the impression), and breakfast was merely solid:

Great cool relaxed ambiance and lots of extremely good-looking customers, though. Geez, I hope parameters like those don't color chow impressions in a food mecca like NOLA!

Much better breakfast at Elizabeth's Restaurant (601 Gallier St; 504-944-9272) in the Bywater district. This place is no secret find, however. We waited a long 45 minutes for our table. But It was worth it for incredible praline bacon:

And callas! Not shrimp, but still a nice surprise:

Exemplary home fries, "grit fries", eggs and catfish:

Not pictured: really outstanding coffee, Community brand (which includes chicory).

I stumbled across a glamor photoshoot of an underaged pig, glimpsed through the window of Cochon (930 Tchoupitoulas St; 504-588-2123). There was no appetite left to actually get a bite there, alas, but this place is a top priority for next trip.

"C'mon, baby, gimme somethin' here!"

Read the next installment (#11)

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Arrogance is Elective

Like most people, I always assumed arrogance was the inevitable trait of smart, accomplished, distinguished, successful people. After all, why wouldn't superiority be palpable?

But I kept meeting really smart, accomplished, distinguished, successful people who weren't arrogant. Nor were they falsely modest (which is just another sort of arrogance). They were just....people.

If arrogance isn't inevitable, then it must be strictly elective. People actually choose to act this way! And ever since I realized this, I've found arrogance hysterically funny. If you thunder imperiously at me about whatever narrow slice of the world you happen to have mastered, I won't be able to stop giggling. It's awful. It gets me into lots of trouble.

And it's only gotten worse as I've come to be seen as an expert on a thing or two, myself. Hey, I'll freely admit that I know a bunch about food, beer, jazz, online communities, and a couple other realms. But everyone I've ever met knows tons more than me about at least one of the countless topics where I'm ignorant. Yup, I've authored books...and my mechanic can rebuild a transmission. He comes to me if he needs to know where to eat, and I come to him if I need help with my car. Should either of us - or both of us - be stuck-up? The very question's hilarious!

Richard Scarry was right: it takes all kinds, and by contributing our respective expertise, we create a utopian whole (which liberals romanticize as cooperation and which conservatives theorize as competition - a false dichotomy that was the "original sin" of political theory). We're each holding up one end or another of it all, experienced at some things, and pathetically helpless in most others. And it's impossible to feel unworthy in the presence of a thunderous Wizard of Oz once you realize there's always a helpless little dude behind the curtain!

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Foxcon Dude Lied

It's been revealed that "monologist" Mike Daisey, who was first to ignite popular outrage about Apple's factories in China, actually made up a bunch of his stories. He's been struggling to explain himself over the past few days - with surprising difficulty, considering that explaining things would seem to be a monologist's stock in trade.

Listen to this painful episode of This American Life (devoted entirely to retracting a previous episode about Daisy) wherein the guy shamelessly weasels, hedges, and triangulates.

What Daisey is so ungracefully trying to explain, as he goes on and on about "truth in the context of theater" and spews doublespeak about artistic intent, has been very articulately expressed by Werner Herzog, who speaks of a deeper truth - an ecstatic truth, far more moving than a mere pile of facts - which can be conveyed through great art.

The difference is that this cheeseball's no Herzog. And, more importantly, Herzog's no activist. The use of artistic license to create artistic impressions among audiences who've come seeking artistic experiences (e.g. a Herzog film) is one thing. The use of artistic license to stir up civic action among audiences who've come seeking facts is quite another. That's just lying, manipulation, and demagoguery. Fox News. Michael Moore. Infomercials. Senator Kyl and his "non-factual statement". Artists all, of a type, laboring in their fecal medium.

Then again, the whole issue was pretty trumped up in the first place.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Obama's Top 50 Accomplishments

This list of Obama's Top 50 Accomplishments is a useful political resource for everyone.

It's easy to be partisan in the big picture, but it's in specifics that actual policy gets done, and that's where binary thinking might give way to nuanced and thoughtful evaluation. I suspect moderate Obama boosters will find things to dislike just as moderate Obama detractors will find things to admire.

And everyone can use this to judge just how liberal or moderate the president really is. We tend to make such judgments out of the ether - cobbled together from half-forgotten blustery speeches and media-framed characterizations. Poring over the actual policy decisions is a wonderfully clarifying exercise, and the authors have done a great job of making this list tersely coherent, so it can be read through in just a couple of minutes.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Gas Price Shame

Find yourself in a hotly contested primary battle, which will be followed by a very tough general election? Is the economy turning around (damn it!), evaporating your linchpin issue from that general election?

Well, here's what you do: rattle your sabers as aggressively as you possibly can re: attacking Iran, until you've helped whip up extreme apprehension in the oil markets. Then, as the price of gas rises, rail at the president for the shamefully high gas prices.

I'd say this was a new low, but I don't suppose I'll ever see, in my lifetime, a lower low than the debt ceiling debacle.

Friday, March 9, 2012

New Orleans Trip #9: Demonic Pear Almond Tarts

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I can't stop thinking about this pear almond tart at Satsuma Cafe (3218 Dauphine St., New Orleans, LA; 504-304-5962), in the laid-back, treasure-strewn Warehouse District Bywater District. God. [Do not click above photo. You've been warned.]

Here's demonic tart poised innocently next to a very good lemon muffin and two exemplary citrus juice blends (blood orange/satsuma, and satsuma/lime)

The morning after I die, if I don't wake up to a sight like this right next to my cloud bed, please send me to "the other place", where at least the music's good.

Satsuma Cafe is the bomb. And I didn't realize until this very moment that they offer dinner. Gotta try it. Bet it's good.

I must say, though, that it's possible the tart's the only great thing here - in which case you've just been given an incredibly skewed view. That's why blogging is a very different thing from restaurant reviewing, which involves much more thorough and objective treatment. Blogging's fun, but no one in their right mind would ever do serious, disciplined restaurant reviewing for free. For one thing, it requires trying menu items you know won't be the best things. What fun is that?

Moving on...

My philosophy with po' boys is a bit complicated. First, they're really just sandwiches. Subs. Hoagies. Grinders. Same thing! Second, they have nothing to do with any of those other things. Nothing. A proper po' boy is a whole other thing...though I'll be damned if I can figure out the distinguishing factor (again, place inevitably gets into food).

NOLA Grocery (351 Andrew Higgins Dr., New Orleans, LA; 504-302-9928), near the convention center, looks like a generic deli. But while these guys aren't show-offs, they're incredible sticklers, and in-the-know locals go here for variations seldom found elsewhere. Such as the "fried shrimp and debris" po' boy (debris being the stuff that falls off a cooking roast beef). Behold:

Yup. This ain't no sub.

NOLA Grocery offers another miracle: real, honest-to-goodness boudin (sausage; it's just sausage....leave it at that). Normally you must trek to Cajun country to find good ones (New Orleans is notorious for it's execrable boudin), but these guys go to the trouble of bringing in the good stuff. But, alas, they were all out that day.

Read the next installment (#10)

Thursday, March 8, 2012

New Orleans Trip #8: Lodgings

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Tourists mostly stay in the big hotels at the south end of French Quarter, which is noisy, dirty, and overrun with tourists and drunks. Rooms there are generic and expensive. The better area is at the Quarter's northern edge, bordering on the Marigny. There are no hotels thereabouts, but plenty of B&Bs, and they are leave-you-the-heck-alone B&Bs (diligence not being one of the local fortes, anyway), so they amount to rented apartments more than a room in someone's quaint house.

After much research, I settled on Banana Courtyard B&B, which is in a quiet, residential, charming, tree-lined street that's an easy walk from the main interests (the Quarter, and Frenchman Street for music), and a manageable walk from everything else (Treme, up-and-coming hipster-rife Warehouse District, Downtown).

Banana Courtyard's web site (and their emails...and the many files they sent me) are like Dr. Bronner labels, crammed with non-linear compulsive musings and disjointed details. I like that. And their accommodations are well-reviewed online, and reasonably priced. Unfortunately, they were sold out, but offered, instead, nearby Camelback Townhouse, a property they manage for friends.

A camelback is a two story narrow house, with the second story receded back (legend has it that this is to escape the higher tax assessment of a second floor flush with the curb). Here is Camelback Townhouse's web page - abandon hope all ye who enter here. In addition to giving little actual information, the photos (e.g. the one I stole, above) don't do justice to the place, and include some features not actually there, e.g. the mosquito netting over the bed.

But it was awesome. Charming front parlor (with sleeper sofa), full kitchen and half bathroom, upstairs bedroom and shower/bath, and a lush private garden out back. No obnoxious drunken tourists anywhere to be seen. Quiet. Good vibe. And it's $140/night, including all taxes and charges. Minimum booking is three nights, and there's no maid service.

It's only reasonably clean, sheets and towels are fairly cheap and the hot water is mis-set to about 190 degrees (bring aloe vera gel for the burns). The tissue box held exactly one tissue, and I had no reason to think a new one would be forthcoming. Or new toilet paper. Or anything else, really, given that during my brief orientation meeting with the owner - a charming woman of a certain age named Angela, who, dressed to a "T", handed me a business card, and, when I asked "Is this the number to call if there are problems?', bristled, and replied "Honey, I hope there's no problems."

Got it, loud and clear. "Breakfast" consisted of a couple of iffy pastries and some cloying juice left in the fridge on the first day, never to be repeated. But the place? The vibe? The nabe? The price? Man, this was a score!

It's also booked up nearly always (I was very lucky). So if I can't get it nnext trip, I may resort back to Banana Courtyard. But a warning about them. As I said, they inundate you with prose - a profusion of quirky, wonderful, opinionated, messy, disorganized emails, web pages, and files about their rules, policies, philosophies, tips, and suggestions on every facet of your stay. Yet they have trouble remembering when, exactly, you told them you'd be arriving, or leaving, and what your name is, and other stuff like that. They don't read emails or really listen on the phone, and the various people in charge seem not to share information with each other. They all just sort of broadcast characterfully. Which, I'm starting to see, is not uncommon around here...

Read the next installment (#9)

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

New Orleans Trip #7: Buffa's and Bicycles

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Buffa's Lounge. I wryly repeat the name: Buffa's Lounge.

Entrance is through a happily claustrophobic narrow bar up front with friendly bartenders, and you'd swear that's all there is to the place. But you sidle through a narrow doorway, and suddenly find yourself in 1935. The atmospheric back room is an uncontrived, unspoiled, completely natural time capsule. I see no sign of recent renovation, nor is there dilapidation. You have been transported, and there's no better place to have a drink or four.

The back room bartender is usually a dude named D.R., and he's a character. D.R. is a decent honkeytonk pianist who knows everyone and everything, and will broadcast stories full of wit and surprise. I say "broadcast" because D.R. doesn't engage. On those rare occasions when he stops talking, he'll more or less pick up a word or two in whatever you're saying to him, and launch into his next soliloquy, which will more or less pertain to what he thinks you might have just said. Very little penetrates. But great stuff comes out. Just let the show play, like a TV set.

The kitchen operates 24 hours, as does the front room (the back room's only open evenings). Too full from previous meals to order anything but a bite, we ordered fried string beans. And, from my visual perspective at the time, this is how they looked:

A lot is made of very little. String beans, batter...that's it. And while they stubbornly resisted focus, the flavor was spicy and irresistible.

We returned the following morning for breakfast in the front bar: shrimp and grits. It (they?) was sublime (with, naturally, a good splash of hot sauce):

Unfortunately, Buffa's doesn't make corned beef hash around Mardi Gras time (this was the week before), which broke my heart.

Buffa's hosts an infamous open mic night Wednesdays from 8 to 11. There were the obligatory morose singer/songwriter duos, but also some quirky acts. It's actually way fun. I played in trio with some friends, and D.R. sprung up on stage uninvited to attack the piano and planted himself there throughout our performance (customers at the bar were left temporarily dry). Hey, it's New Orleans. Otra cultura. You go with it.

No tourists. Only locals. Great food. A couple good beers. Some other stuff I don't remember real clearly. The mixed bag that is D.R.. The unaffectedly old-timey ambience. Buffa's!

Here's a big insight: when you find yourself hungover three mornings in a row, you get a deep feeling that your life's made a certain turn. The next morning was early, as I'd reserved spots in a New Orleans bike tour. We'd been told it'd be led by a prominent, bawdy NOLA bartender, renowned for her riotous bike tours, which were rumored to include stops at local bars. Me and bassist buddy Josef arrived at the appointed spot, and found that the tour leader had been switched, and the replacement was a dude who was speaking extremely loudly to our hungover selves. Here's Josef's strained, frozen smile as he desperately wonders what we'd gotten ourselves into:

Neither of us was ever so ridiculously wrong. Cassidy just happens to be a natural-born bike tour leader - so much so that he can't turn off his bellowing biking voice (even pre-tour when he's standing feet away from you). The tour was spectacularly good. It was like having your smartest friend, who's read everything about New Orleans plus lived there his whole life, passionately taking you on a highly personal trip around town to make you love the place as much as he does.

Never once was there the slightest impression that our guide had ever spoken a word of his patter before. It was the un-tour Tour. And everywhere we went, astonished locals (in white nabes, black nabes, and nabes both rich and poor) approached the group to take in Cassidy's world-class, brilliant, insightful, hilarious patter. They clearly wished they were on the tour themselves.

I don't care how familiar you are with New Orleans, or how much you hate tours. Do not go near New Orleans without taking one of these tours (they offer culinary tours, "history of drinking" tours, historical tours, cultural tours, custom tours, etc.). More info at the "Confederacy of Cruisers" web site.

Read the next installment (#8)

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

New Orleans Trip #6: Soul Trunks and Porky Pizzas

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Lunch was fried chicken, stuffing, candied yams, and collard greens for $10 at Praline Connection (542 Frenchmen St, New Orleans, LA; 504-943-3934) A great deal, and though, as you can perhaps glean from the photo, nothing was screaming love, I did get a sense of experiencing soul food's trunk rather than branches or twigs. Theme, rather than variation. I've eaten soul food all over the south, but never before in New Orleans (where I'd previously concentrated on Cajun).

It's subtly different. For one thing, it's somehow...light. Yes, a surprising descriptor. But grease well-applied - as every French chef knows - gives a certain refined buoyancy. Think lardy piecrust. This, paradoxically, is heavy food which gives an overarching impression of lightness. It made me recall a few previous soul food meals where I attributed the lightness to a lack of soul. Now I know better. Great soul food is light...and this is exactly the sort of "calibration" I came here to pursue!

This isn't great soul food, though, merely good. But it's right, just as even a so-so Brooklyn pizzeria has something to teach out-of-towners about New York slices. I do have better soul food choices on my list, but chose Praline Connection because of its convenient location (I'm doing lots of sitting in with bands on Frenchman Street this week).

Half-priced drinks and pizzas were enjoyed at the bar of Domenica (123 Baronne St; 504-648-6020) in the Roosevelt Hotel for happy hour (7 days 3pm - 6pm). The only thing I love more than dining at the bar is half-priced dining at the bar. Especially when the wines-by-the-glass list is carefully chosen, and the pizza's so terrific that photos require no further comment.

This place appears to do their own butchering/sausage making (a porcine killing field display room is dramatically lit just off the dining area, discordant in this otherwise swank/yuppie-looking joint). The only thing that could spoil such a find would be nasty, grim, supercilious bartenders. Oh, well. I'm getting used to it. Anyway...let's study the record:

Pizza Bolzano (roast pork shoulder, fennel, bacon, sweet onions)

Pizza bianca (toasted fennel, mozzarella, house cured lardo)

This was some sort of fried dough that comes with one of the dishes, and which we managed to score ala carte. That's all I remember. Here's where the drunken haze sets in and I start forgetting details. Drinking in NOLA catches up with you. I'm hardly some boozy college kid, and, indeed, I never became, like, sloppy drunk (it was more of a constant baseline of buzz), but I do recall remarking to my travel companions near the end of the week "Hey, I only had five drinks yesterday!" in complete earnestness, as a proud claim of healthful austerity. Yeesh!

Read the next installment (#7)

Lagniappe: I sat in with this cool street band. Really fun! It's shot from the back (musician's point of view) as I awaited my turn to solo. And, yeah, it's dark. But it conveys the scene faithfully.

Monday, March 5, 2012

New Orleans Trip #5: Freestyle Chowhounding

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I'm back in New Oreleans, and it's time to get serious. I have less than a week here, and there's work to do.

I don't like eating around on a scavenger hunt, following other people's tips. I never make out as well - and it's never as much fun - when I lose the serendipity of freestyle chowhounding. It's an irony seldom remarked upon that Chowhound, a site conceived to urge people to stop eating where they're told, is used mostly for people to be told where to eat.

I don't read Chowhound much. I never have. I use it when I get stuck (when I'm looking for something particular, or need to be explained stuff), or when I'm in a hurry or lazy (and need a specific sure-fire bite of some specific thing in some specific nabe). Other than that, I hardly track the conversation. Really, to me eating out is an adventure. A hunt. A quest! That's all the fun!

But New Orleans deserves special respect. I've spent too little time here, so there's catching up to do. I haven't eaten enough gumbo, for example, to know the difference between a very good one and a great one, so I need to calibrate on places known to be dandy for this or that. And so this trip will, alas, mostly be catch-up/calibration work.

Except tonight. Very late on a Tuesday night in the Marigny (the less touristic neighbor of the French Quarter), there's not much to eat. So I ducked randomly into a slightly shiny place, unknown to me, up the block from all the music clubs on Frenchman Street, called Marigny Brasserie (640 Frenchmen St., New Orleans, LA; 504-945-4472). I ordered linguini with charbroiled oysters, and it came pre-showered with plenty of sharp grated cheese, which is normally the last thing I'd want anywhere near oysters, but the combo was frickin' great. This dish scratched an itch I hadn't known I had:

When you've ferreted out your own deliciousness, the glow is that much sweeter. The effect seems deeply engrained in the human psyche, perhaps a legacy from the days when we speared our own wooly mammoths and such. It's likely adaptive to prefer your own kills, since they're more dependably fresh and well-chosen. And this dish, indeed, killed. Killing was achieved. Gaaaa!

NOLA's hometown brewery, Abita, makes a lot of blah products. Their single best beer, a strong "Select Barleywine", is almost impossible to find. But Marigny Brasserie had it on tap. And the servers are friendly, as were the customers that night.

Good. Happy. Gaaaa!

Read the next installment (#6)

One Way the Internet Is Broken

At least 25% of email I send is never read....because I follow the standard practice of quoting back portions of my correspondent's previous email and replying to each quoteback separately.

The problem is that a surprisingly large number of people stop reading when they reach the second quoteback....which is actually understandable, since many people quote back the entire previous email beneath their response, which trains everyone to stop reading once they come to a large section of quoteback.

My current solution is extremely clunky. I write, before each quoteback,

"Keep reading, please....I'll respond to the portion quoted back immediately below:

There's got to be a better way, but I honestly can't think of it. Suggestions?

Sunday, March 4, 2012

New Orleans Trip #4: Flipped Reality in Baton Rouge

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On my last trip to New Orleans, I was in my early twenties and played jazz in a club for kids my age who were dancing and smiling.

To you, that's an unremarkable statement. To me, it was mind-blowing. People my age didn't listen to jazz; I was accustomed to playing for oldsters and Japanese tourists. And those few my age who did tended to sit demurely and listen. They didn't have much life to them. The kids with any kind of verve were into punk rock, and, though I played a few gigs myself at CBGBs, I couldn't deny that, compared to that scene, the music I preferred seemed sleepy and quaint.

So playing for ballsy 20-somethings who behaved like they were at a Ramones gig was a heady experience.

Red beans and rice were served to everyone at intermission. I took my place in the queue, next to a couple of huge Tulane University football jocks, with whom I shared the geekiest imaginable discussion of proper red bean seasoning. We were kindred spirits, the football jocks and I. This was also, ahem, refreshing.

It was all so disorienting and wonderful. In the back of my head played the song "There's a Place For Me". Who knew there was a locale where everyday people shared my weirdo interests? Where everything was reversed, and the crazies were the ones opting for Pizza Hut and unswinging music?

Left was right, up was down. And that's why I was unsurprised, this trip, to find myself in a beery/frat-ish student hangout near LSU in Baton Rouge, with lots of sports on TV, ordering fried stuff off a slick laminated menu...and actually enjoying it. Chimes (3357 Highland Road, Baton Rouge, LA; 225-383-1754) is no temple of gastronomic revelation. But everything was damned good. For example:

Wonderful shrimp and (fried) grits, with worlds more flair than you'd expect in a college gin mill.

...and good boudin balls.

Our waitress - a homecoming queenish coed - appreciated my geeking out over the beer list, and was excited to try an especially esoteric one I'd ferretted out.Again, I found myself in an alternative universe where chowhoundishness is mainstream. Can't get too used to this.

The next morning, I had a disappointing breakfast at the wrong branch of Broken Egg Cafe (the one in Mandeville is supposed to be good), at 2531 Citiplace Court, Baton Rouge, LA; 225-615-8461. This is, after all, not a magical world where every bite's perfect - it's just that the preponderance is flipped.

Would you believe this trough of espresso, which even shows a bit of tidal movement, is a mere single shot? Ah, well. A swing and a miss...

Read the next installment (#5)

My New Hero

This kid is absolute perfection. I think this is as sublime as human beings get.

Every one of us is "disabled" in many ways, some larger, some smaller. Each of those factors is a tiny yoga asana - a puzzle that can only be confronted by calm release rather than aggrieved contraction. That's a very counterintuitive reaction for most of us. Our clarity is tested; can we full-on accept the unacceptable? Can we fully inhabit, and open into, a situation which might, at first, make us want to gnash our teeth at the injustice and difficulty of it all? Can we embrace without distinction, and build from there?

Hunter Steinitz is a little girl with a horrendous skin disorder making her life unthinkably difficult. But she's cool. In fact, she's better than cool. She's done the hardest thing a human being can do: embraced What Is, maintained the larger perspective, and found happiness even though all her ducks aren't nearly in a row, nor will they ever be. In fact, she's even starting to go forward and help fix the rest of us. One can only hope people listen.

My favorite part of the video is cut off at the end. It shows her handing out cards to gawkers reading "I have a genetic skin disorder called Harlequin Ichthyosis. Aside from this I am a typical kid. Please feel free to ask me any questions."

Hunter, you are my hero. If I were younger, I'd be your best friend. If you were my kid, I'd be proud as punch. As-is, I soak in your clarity, your kindness, and your creativity. I know you're too young to grasp the significance of what you've pulled off. It just feels natural to you.

And if anyone calls you "brave" or "heart-breaking" or any of the other things people condescendingly say to those who deserve emulation rather than condescension, I swear, I'll....well, I'll look right into their eyes and explain, in the friendliest possible way and with a kind smile, why that's not really an apt way to understand what's going on here.

It was comparatively easy for Shakespeare to write his sonnets, or for Einstein to develop his relativity theory. Hunter's done something more impressive: she's solved the big question of being human. And skin's got very little to do with it. The rest of us - with less conspicuous disabilities - ought to follow her example. In any case, I can't imagine someone less deserving of pity. Pity, instead, us!

Here's a good article from her hometown newspaper.

Here's another video.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

New Orleans Trip #3: Anita and Clarence and Coop's Place

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No restaurant is universally beloved. But that doesn't mean you can't ever get a general sense of consensus. Usually, if you disregard the fluffy admirers and the snarling naysayers, you'll wind up with a useful upshot.

But not always. Some restaurants get all Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas. Detractors seem perfectly knowledgable and solid, but so are boosters. You come away persuaded that the restaurant is a horrible pit admired only by complete ditzes...and it's also a treasured miracle gratuitously knocked by knee-jerk naysayers. One side's either lying or stupid, but damned if anyone can decide which.

Coop's Place (1109 Decatur St, New Orleans, LA) is the perfect example. Read Chowhound, Yelp, and blogs, and you'll see that it's a sloppy, crappy joint doted on by drunken tourists mesmerized by an evening spent away from the usual TGIFridays or Outback Steakhouse. And it's a temple for the sort of soulful real-deal Nawlins food snobs are sadly unable to appreciate.

Most AH/CT situations - not counting those where people are out-and-out lying, e.g. when insiders are shilling or aggrieved ex-workers are slamming - can be attributable to one or more of these factors:

1. Cuisine Miscomprehension
Typical examples: finding Sichuan too greasy or Thai too spicy; complaining about "burnt" crust with New Haven brick oven pizza or overly thick crust with Greek pizza. Not understanding that many cultures serve all dishes at once or have a more relaxed pace of service. Etc. etc.

This is always a problem with authentic eateries in areas where diners are accustomed to more gringo-friendly versions.

2. Personal Preference
Pizza crust must be thin. BBQ must fall off the bone. Grease is good. Dessert must not be sweet. Portion size either way. And, above all, pricing (I've given up tracking all the ways people assign value to restaurant meals, but one thing's certain: they never mesh).

3. Downhill
Places tend to decline over time, as kitchens get sloppy or bored, staff changes, owners cut corners, etc. Restaurants are moving targets, and people often chime in with highly outdated opinions.

4. Chef Roulette
When the top chef takes a night off, quality plummets. Or, even when he's there, only the stuff he himself prepares is worthy (i.e. other kitchen staff are poorly-trained and/or untalented).

5. Menu Minefields
You've got to know what to order. Some things are great, others wretched.

6. Refinement Snobbery
Thin, grilled hamburger patties, for example, with their fast food connotations, will never seem as high-status as thicker pub burgers. No matter how delicious one might be, it will always rate lower among certain eaters. There are innumerable ways in which cooking can telegraph status, and some people can't help but rate on that basis. Which, in turn, is why certain restaurants have always fallen all over themselves to telegraph status in every conceivable way. And it's why fussier places get taken more seriously, even if the fussing is mostly cosmetic.

(This, in fact, is a prime distinction between foodies and chowhounds. Foodies go crazy for pedigreed ingredients and spotlit sizzle. Chowhounds fully appreciate Niman Ranch pork, but we don't respect a fantastic mystery meat taco any less. Deliciousness is deliciousness...period.)

I'd seen photos of food at Coop's Place, and it appeared sloppily rough-hewn and great. There are plenty of refinement snobs in New Orleans, so I assumed that's what had turned people off. But I ordered a sampler plate (cup of seafood gumbo, shrimp Creole, Cajun fried chicken, red beans & rice with sausage, and rabbit & sausage jambalaya), and while nearly all of it was watery, careless, pukey garbage (I was too revolted to photograph straight-on, hence the peripheral shot above), the fried chicken was absolutely awesome. Spot-on. I could have gnawed the bone. Unsurprisingly, it evaporated before I was able to shoot a photo.

So let's call this a #5 with a strong likelihood of a fake-out dab of #6, only not really. On the other hand, plenty of knowledgable people rave over the gumbo and jambalaya and stuff, so maybe there's some #3.

The service was far worse than "bad". Here's a word I've never before used to describe service: sadistic. The bartender, who didn't seem to like the looks of me, treated me with blatant contempt. And, to make absolutely certain his aversion was clear, he went out of his way to give comically solicitous service to the patrons (both first-timers) immediately to my left and right.

It had been a long, long time since I'd stiffed a tip. But in the days ahead, I was forced to recalibrate. In retrospect, I'd rate the guy only slightly below average in a town rife with the nastiest, most unapologetically hateful bartenders I've ever run into (in local places as well as tourist haunts like this one).

Read the next installment (#4)

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