Thursday, November 30, 2006

Decadent But Delicious

Several of us met an old friend for dinner Wednesday night a Fleur de Lys, home of the great chef Hubert Keller and one of the classic restaurants of San Francisco. I don't know how to describe it except to say that it's more than a full day since the meal, and I still don't feel hungry. Probably best to let my menu selections speak for themselves (yes, I asked for a copy of the menu to take home).

Fingerling Potato & leek, corn, lobster and black pepper skillet bread

- Chilled salsify Vichyssoise and oestra caviar
- Warm oxtail consomme glazed with foie gras
- Hot Maine lobster bisque, veal sweetbread "croutons"

Rhubarb coulis, corn fondue and truffle sauce

With a ravioli of squab leg confit, Sauternes ginger sauce

PARSNIPS, Young leeks & foie gras, lightly smoked tarragon jus
And yes, I had dessert, not to mention the several extra mini-courses that were included in the meal. And I've nearly recovered...

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

It's Annual Conference Time

When you work for an Association, the annual conference is an integral part of the year's activities. Our annual conference is held the week after Thanksgiving, and consumes staff for most of the Fall and certainly the few weeks that follow Halloween. We're in San Francisco this year, poised to set attendance records and with the usual thousand things going on at any given moment. Add 3 1/2 days of leadership meetings prior to the conference proper, and you've got the recipe for an exhilarating and exhausting week.

The benefits of being in San Francisco include the proximity of Union Square, the numerous wonderful restaurants that beckon, and general fact that the city by the bay is one of the coolest around. With the holiday decorations at full throttle, it's may be the best time of the year to be here.

Tonight, we dined at Kuleto's Italian Restaurant. The food was wonderful, the atmosphere was perfect, and a fine time was had by all. Many of the restaurants around Union Square fall into the "tourist trap" category, but Kuleto's has been around for a while, and judging by the fact that folks were still streaming in as we were leaving around 9:30, it remains a perennial favorite.

Outside my hotel window, I see a sliver of the Bay Bridge, the Museum of Modern Art, and can hear the city that remains vibrant and alive at this hour, on a Tuesday evening. In just a few short hours, the next long day will begin.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

All You Need Is LOVE?

Most folks are probably aware that Cirque du Soleil is performing "a Beatles show" at The Mirage in Las Vegas. According to their official web site, the show - LOVE - "brings the magic of Cirque du Soleil together with the spirit and passion behind the most beloved rock group of all time to create a vivid, intimate and powerful entertainment experience." OK, I can buy that - Cirque du Soleil is cool, and the project was partly George's idea, and was blessed by Paul and Yoko - so, no problem there.

I was prepared to completely ignore the soundtrack album, until I saw the favorable review by Robert Christgau in the most recent issue of Rolling Stone. Even then, I probably wouldn't have bought it, but when it went on sale for the holiday weekend, my defenses were shattered. Part of me felt a little embarrassed, to be honest.

But damned if the thing doesn't work, and magnificently well in some places. Sir George Martin and his son Giles have done a brilliant job of creating a Beatles pastiche, using a few dozen Beatles songs (most are credited on the packaging, but others serve only as "audio filler") to create an "audio collage." But it's more than that - in some instances, it's a re-creation of the songs - on Strawberry Fields Forever, you hear the very basic track on the first verse, one that adds a few of the background instruments on the second verse, and then the fully orchestrated version on the final verse - with the transition between the three being totally seamless. On Octopus's Garden, you hear Ringo singing that song, but the background orchestration at the beginning is from John's beautiful lullaby, Goodnight. Within You Without You and Tomorrow Never Knows are blended to magnificent effect - the list goes on and on. And I could be wrong, but I would swear that the mixes on I Am The Walrus and Back in the U.S.S.R. (and a few others) are far superior to those on the original albums.

It's absolutely terrific, but the ironic thing is that most of the people who buy it (I'm just assuming that most of the market will be folks who weren't around when the Beatles were in their heyday, but I could be wrong) probably won't "get it" - they won't be familiar enough with the source material to know that things here are any different. That's their loss, and also a reason to familiarize themselves with the originals.

Thanksgiving Weekend

In the previous post I made a comment about Thanksgiving being a time to reflect. That can be a little hard to do when you have 30 guests for Thanksgiving dinner. However, with the help of two turkeys (almost 40 pounds worth), 31 potatoes mashed to perfection, seemingly endless tubs of stuffing (traditional and oyster) and enough gravy to sink a ship, a fine time was had by all, and everyone left in a happy, having-overeaten-type-of-stupor. The weather was perfect; not a cloud in the sky. For a group this size, the china was left in the cabinet; this was strictly a paper-plate dinner.

My personal holiday weekend got off to a rough start on Wednesday when, while running, I was stung on the top of my head by a bee. I wouldn't have thought such a thing was possible, but I can attest that it is not a pleasant experience - what I imagine having a nail driven into one's head might feel like. Fortunately, with the help of a couple of beers that evening, the pain began to dull and was completely gone by Thanksgiving morning.

Lots of football...the suddenly resurgent Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving; the suddenly mediocre Texas Longhorns on Friday; the renewing of the historic USC-Notre Dame rivalry on Saturday night. When I was growing up, college football boiled down to two rivalries - the Trojans vs. the Irish, and Ohio State vs. Michigan. From roughly 1969 until 1977, those four teams were always in the thick of the national championship race, and there were an inordinate number of classic games stemming from the rivalries during that period. This year, OSU-Michigan played a game that might join those ranks, but once again the Trojans just mopped up the field with the Irish. So now, we likely have a national championship game - Ohio State vs. USC - that by all rights should be played in the Rose Bowl (to heck with the BCS - give me the old, traditional bowl lineup any day of the week).

On Saturday night, we attended the annual Christmas parade through downtown Elk Grove, to see son #1 play with his high school band. Going through old town, the parade feels like one might have, say, during the era of "A Christmas Story." Kinda corny, but fun - and over in time to watch the second half of USC-Notre Dame!

Today, a truly desultory drive from Sacramento to San Francisco in a driving rainstorm, turning what should be a two-hour drive into a 3 1/2 hour endurance test. For the next week my home is the San Francisco Marriott, resplendent with Christmas decorations for the holiday season. My view from the 27th floor includes a sliver of the Bay Bridge, and if the papers are correct, the weather should be improving over the course of the week. Stay tuned...

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving seems to have become the lost holiday, stranded in that nether-world between Halloween and the onslaught of the Christmas season, which begins for most retailers at 12:01 a.m. on the morning of November 1. As Loudon Wainwright III once sang, "Suddenly it's Christmas/Right after Halloween/Forget about Thanksgiving/It's just a buffet in between..."

More than any other holiday, Thanksgiving is a time to reflect, relax, and of course, eat until you can eat no longer. One of my favorite essays is a reflection on the meaning of Thanksgiving by Garrison Keillor; I never tire of reading it. It originally appeared in TIME Magazine in 1995, and pops up every now and then on the Internet. So, to help get in the mood...

With All The Trimmings

It is a wicked world in which the power of any individual to cause suffering is so great and the power to do good is so slight; but here we are, the week of our beloved national feast, our annual homecoming, and signs of loving Providence are everywhere around us.

I am thankful to be alive. In Minnesota the lakes are freezing over in late November, and some men who envision a leadership role for themselves take their snowmobiles out onto the thin ice and fall through and drown in the cold water--their last thought in this life: "Boy, was this dumb or what?"--and so far I have not been one of them. Caution was bred into me: I never played with guns or made a hobby of pharmaceuticals or flung myself off a cliff while clinging to a kite. I read books instead. I read books in which men hearken to wild imperatives, and that is enough for me.

I am thankful for living in a place where winter gets good and cold and you need to build a fire in a stove and wrap a blanket around you. Cold draws people closer together. Crime drops. Acts of kindness proliferate between strangers. I have been in Los Angeles on a balmy day in January and seen the glum faces of people poking at their salads in outdoor restaurants, brooding over their unproduced screenplays. People in Minnesota are much cheerier, lurching across the ice, leaning into the wind as sheets of snow swirl up in their faces. Because they feel needed and because cold weather takes the place of personal guilt. Maybe you haven't been the shining star you should have been, but now is not the time to worry about it.

I am thankful for E-mail, which allows us to keep in touch with our children, and for the ubiquity of fresh coffee, the persistence of good newspapers, the bravery of artists, the small talk of sales clerks, the general competence and good humor I encounter every day. None of us is self-sufficient, despite what some politicians claim. Every good thing, every morsel of food comes directly from God, who expects us to pay attention and be joyful, a large task for people from the Midwest, where our idea of a compliment is, "It could have been worse."

I am thankful, of course, for Thanksgiving, a joyful and simple day that never suffered commercial exploitation and so is the same day as when I was a boy and we played touch football on the frozen turf and came to the table sweaty and in high spirits and kept our eyes open for flying food. My sister had good moves; you'd look away for an instant, and she'd flip her knife and park a pat of butter on your forehead. Nobody throws food at our table now, but in the giddiness of the festive moment, I have held a spoonful of cranberry for a moment and measured the distance to Uncle Earl, his gleaming head, like El Capitan, bent over the plate.

As I grew up, Thanksgiving evolved perfectly. It used to be that men had the hard work, which is to sit in the living room and make conversation about gas mileage and lower back pain, and women got the good job, which is cooking. Women owned the franchise, and men milled around the trough mooing, and if any man dared enter the kitchen, he was watched closely lest he touch something and damage it permanently. But I bided my time, and the aunts who ran the show grew old, and young, liberated lady relatives came along who were proud of their inability to cook, and one year I revolted and took over the kitchen--and now I am It. The Big Turkey. Mr. Masher. The Pie Man.

Except for gravy and pie crust, which take patience and practice, Thanksgiving dinner is as easy to make as it is to eat. You're a right-handed batter in a park that's 150 feet down the left-field line—it doesn't take a genius to poke it out.

Years of selective breeding have produced turkeys that are nothing but cooking pouches with legs. You rub the bird's inside with lemon, stuff it with bread dressing seasoned with sage and tarragon and jazzed up withchunks of sausage and nuts and wild rice, shove it in a hot oven; meanwhile, you whomp up yams and spuds and bake your pies. The dirty little secret of the dinner is melted animal fats: in all the recipes, somewhere it says, "Melt a quarter-pound of butter."

Think of the fancy dishes you slaved over that became disasters, big dishes that were lost in the late innings. Here's roast turkey, which tastes great, and all you do is baste. You melt butter, you nip at the wine, and when the turkey is done, you seat everyone, carve the bird, sing the doxology and pass the food.

The candles are lit in the winter dusk, and we look at one another, the old faces and some new ones, and silently toast the Good Life, which is here before us. Enjoy the animal fats and to hell with apologies. No need to defend our opinions or pretend to be young and brilliant. We still have our faculties, and the food still tastes good to us.

Walt Whitman said, "I find letters from God dropped in the street, and every one is signed by God's name." Thanksgiving is one of those signed letters. Anyone can open it and see what it says.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 13, 2006

Highway 99 Entertainment

Seen while driving from Sacramento to Visalia this afternoon:

- A hand-written sign reading, "Praz the Lord. Jesus is Coming. 88.1 FM." Gosh...not even "Praze the Lord?"

- A notice on the Chevron gas pump that had been altered to read "Cash Stoners Must Pay Inside Before Pumping." Probably a wise move. Those cash stoners could never be trusted.

Saturday, November 11, 2006


The dream may not be over, but it's certainly on life support after the Cal Bears gave one away today to the Arizona Wildcats, 24-20. Aside from DeSean Jackson, who once again played a game that will make him either a Heisman contender or a first round NFL draft pick next year, none of the Bears' stars looked sharp - particularly Nate Longshore, who threw what was probably his worst pass of the year in the 4th quarter, when he locked onto his receiver and threw it right in the hands of the Arizona defender, who easily returned it for a touchdown.

A Rose Bowl trip could still be secured with a win at USC next week, but right now that's not looking too likely. Oh well - a few short years ago, 8-2 would have been reason to rejoice.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Winter Reading Challenge

I may end up regretting this, but I'm taking the "From the Stacks" challenge and going to read, and then write about, 5 books that have been sitting on my shelves for some time but I've never gotten around to reading (hat tip to Sheila). Five books, between November 1 and January 30.

Here they are:

- The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion
- Atonement, by Ian McEwan
- Ordinary Heroes, by Scott Turow
- The Two-Minute Rule, by Robert Crais
- Train, by Pete Dexter

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Thankfully...Just Five More Days

California has now suffered through five consecutive Fall campaign seasons: the gubernatorial election of 2002; the gubernatorial recall election of 2003; the presidential election of 2004; the governor's special "reform" election of 2005; and now, another gubernatorial election. Most of the fun in following election night results was done in by the reapportionment of 2001 (hard to get excited when fewer than 20 of your 120 legislative races are competitive); just about all of the fun that was left has been drained away by election fatigue. There are critically important issues on the California statewide ballot next week, but the desultory tone of the entire campaign season has bled from the populace any enthusiasm for having a serious discussion about those issues. Just get it over with, everyone seems to be saying and/or thinking.

In the bluest of blue states, Democrat Phil Angelides is heading towards a defeat of historic proportions at the hands of Governor Schwarzenegger, and may drag several other statewide candidates down with him (which in some cases is not necessarily a bad thing, and I say that as a Democrat). At this point, one can only hope that he doesn't drag the infrastructure bond package down to defeat.

But even Angelides is not the most hapless candidate of 2006; that honor falls to former state legislator Dick Mountjoy, who will be annihilated on Tuesday by Senator Dianne Feinstein in the race for U.S. Senate. Tony Quinn, long-time political pundit and election analyst, penned a piece in today's Capitol Morning Report speculating on whether Phil and Dick will actually end up being the poorest performing gubernatorial and Senate candidates in California history. Discussing Mountjoy, he makes this highly amusing observation:

Mountjoy's non campaign is so hopeless that the right wing blogger Jon Fleischman, in one of his sillier blogs, asked his readers to pray for Mountjoy, including with his prayer appeal a picture of a kneeling George Washington entreating God before the Battle of Valley Forge.

I was so moved by the Mountjoy prayer request that I composed a prayer and sent it to some friends, begging a gracious God to bestow upon His servant Mountjoy sacred campaign contributions. Apparently God was deaf to my entreaties and Mountjoy has had no money whatsoever to run a campaign.

Quinn closes with the following: "...we might also ask ourselves, how is it possible that we ended up with candidates such as these for the top public offices in our state?"