Sunday, September 30, 2007

Garfield Gets Meta

As both I and other more astute readers of the funnies have noted, comic strips often go through impossibly strange and/or implausible set-ups in order to include aG punch line that the artist was unable to shoehorn into his strip through conventional means. This generally doesn't work very well because the punch line usually isn't even all that funny to begin with.

Today's installment of Get Fuzzy is essentially a joke about this shtick. It mixes a contrived set-up (Bucky's sudden interest in religion, or at least, religious hucksters) with a lame punch line (Garfield is a sell-out) and yet it's still funny. I'm not as big a fan of Get Fuzzy as some, but it's certainly one of the better comic strips out there.

In other comics-related news, thanks to the gross negligence of his "friend" Herb, Dagwood is now a quadriplegic.

Spare Change

Thursday, June 21st: We arrived in London on a beautiful sunny morning. This may be the first time that anyone has ever written that last sentence. After taking care of all of our travel related business, we hit the ATM to pick up some local currency. The notes are similar to Euros in that each denomination is a different size. I can understand how this might come in handy for blind people, but it's a mess for people like me who carry bills around in a money clip. If I ever relocate to Europe, I may have to invest in a new tri-fold wallet. Our withdrawal came out in a mixture of £10 and £20 notes. I was not surprised to see Queen Elizabeth II's face on the notes, but I was surprised to see another face on the back. The new £20 note features Adam Smith on the backside while £10 note depicts Charles Darwin. Think about that for a second. The guy on the back of England's £10 note is someone many Americans would rank somewhere between Satan and Hillary Clinton on a scale of pure evil. It's a small but poignant example of the little differences between the US and England.

I could do without a picture of the Queen on every government issued document, but I'm definitely a fan of decorating currency with the likenesses of great intellectuals. I don't know think that's going to happen anytime soon over here, but all in all, we could have done a lot worse. Ben Franklin adorning the $100 bill, which is arguably the most useful piece of money on the planet, is remarkably subversive, at least by American standards. Another thing that we won't be seeing over here anytime soon is a legitimate $1 or $2 coin. I've always viewed our failure to embrace a coin denomination worth more than $0.25 as an example of the dark side of American exceptionalism. On this trip, however, it dawned on me that high value coins are more useful on vacation than in day-to-day life. I find that I make small purchases and interact with vending machines more often when I'm on a trip than I do when I'm at home. These are the types of transactions where high value coins excel. Of course, once we switch to an entirely electronic currency system, this entire discussion becomes moot.

From the airport, we hopped on the Heathrow Express train and headed into London. Alan was waiting for us at home so he could give us the keys to his flat before heading off to work, so we went for the quickest ride into town. Fifteen minutes later, we pulled into Paddington Station. One of my favorite things about visiting a somewhere for the first time is the ride from the airport to wherever I'm going. It's a time to get a first impression of the city, state, or country you are visiting and start picking up on the similarities and differences between your destination and other places. It's a chance to turn a generally mundane or tiresome event like a train or taxi ride into an adventure. The strangest thing about the ride into London was how the view never really changed. The view alternated between industrial sites, farmland, and dingy apartment blocks the entire ride. The view become more residential the closer we got to Paddington, but it never felt like we were entering a great metropolis. The train ride was a preview one of the more surprising thing I learned on this trip, namely, that London doesn't really feel like a huge international city. Or, more precisely, it didn't fit my preconceived notion of how all big, international cities look and feel.

Alan's flat is only a 10 or 15 minute walk from Paddington station, and we managed to find it without too much trouble. I was a bit surprised to see how pedestrian unfriendly London is. After thinking about this some more, I realized that I was actually disappointed by how hostile it is to jaywalkers. We encountered numerous fences set up around sidewalks at intersections that forced pedestrians to use the crosswalks. As a lifelong jaywalker, this cramped my style, but it probably was better that way since it prevented me from walking into oncoming traffic after looking the wrong way. I did appreciate how most pedestrian crossings had markings indicate which way to look before crossing. As a kindergarten graduate, I know that one should always look both ways before crossing the street, but it's harder than one might expect to get used to traffic coming at you from the opposite direction. Any time you need to react to something quickly, you fall back on your instincts.

Despite getting a decent amount of rest on the flight, I was still a bit tired. We took an hour and half long nap at the flat, which only made me feel more groggy, but we we had places to go and people to see, so I pressed on. We grabbed lunch at a tiny lunch counter around the corner from the flat. I suppose that it would be wrong to visit Britain and not have at least one barely edible meal. We managed to get that one out of the way first. After finishing lunch, he headed over to Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens are part of a large, contiguous green space so it's hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. My favorite thing in either of the parks was the Prince Albert Memorial, which happens to fall on the Kensington Gardens side of the park. We first caught a glimpse of the top of the memorial over the tops of the trees lining the flower walk, and at first it appeared that we were looking at the spire of an ornate cathedral.

Imagine my surprise when we reached the end of the walk and discovered that it was not a cathedral, rather a massive, almost rococo memorial to the a 19th century prince. Prince Albert died of typhoid fever at the rather young age of 42 and his memorial is a testament to both the tragedy of his death and the grandeur of the British Empire, which reached its peak during the reign of his wife, Queen Victoria.

As soon as we reached the memorial, it began to rain. Fortunately, a temporary structure had been erected next to the memorial for the Royal College of Art's summer show. We ducked into the exhibit to dodge the rain and check out the art. Most of the works on display were industrial design pieces. There was some interesting stuff there. I was fairly disappointed with the automotive design pieces, but I guess no one should be surprised that the Brits can't put together a good car anymore.

The weather soon cleared and we were back on our way. We soon came upon a memorial to another royal, this time, it was the Princess Diana Memorial. The Princess Di Memorial is as subdued as the Prince Albert Memorial is ostentatious. It's a concrete ring on a gradual slope with a stream of water running around it. Michelle was very fond of the memorial. I enjoyed its simple elegance, but I was still more impressed with the Prince Albert Memorial. I suppose that it's hard for me to appreciate a memorial to a person who died in my own lifetime, especially in a city with as much history as London.

We headed back to Alan's flat, where we met up with him and went out to dinner at an Italian restaurant near Paddington Station. The food was nothing special, but it was much better than lunch. After dinner, we headed over to Alan's local watering hole, The Swan. It was there that I got my first taste of real cask conditioned English ale. I was really looking forward to drinking real English ale in a real English pub. My favorite beers in the States are English-style ales. I've found a few places over here that serve real cask conditioned ales and I've always enjoyed them. So it came as a surprise to me that I was initially not that impressed with real English ales. We visited a different pub each night we spent in London, and I always found the real English ales somewhat disappointing. My working theory is that while a flat and slightly warm pint of ale is a novelty in America, it's not all that exciting in England. I also think that American microbrewed ales, like American wines, have bolder flavors than their old world counterparts, and have desensitized the American drinker's palette to the subtleties of the original beverages. I have to stress that while the ale didn't meet my perhaps unrealistically high expectations, it was still beer. I can't think of a better way to spend the evening of the longest day of the year than sitting in an outdoor beer garden in the northernmost capital city of the English-speaking world with good friends and a couple of pints. Darkness finally fell around 10 pm, and we soon headed back to Alan's flat.

Friday, September 21, 2007


I've been feasting on some treats from the Iberian peninsula recently that I felt inclined to write about. I'm by no means a wine connoisseur, but I was quite impressed with the bottle of Charamba that I just finished. Charamba is a red wine from Portugal. I don't know if it's a hard and fast rule that Californian wines tend to be fruitier than their old world counterparts, but Charamba definitely bucks this trend, if it is even an actual trend, with its bold and fruity taste. The bottle found its way into our house via a friend who brought it over for a get together last month. When I looked it up online, I discovered that in addition to being a great tasting wine, Charamba is also quite inexpensive ($5-$6, according to a couple websites). Look for it the next time you stop by the liquor store, though I'm not sure how widely available Portugese wine is in the States. I assume it's pretty easy to find in Rhode Island, beyond that, I'm not sure.

The other Iberian treat that I have recently rediscovered are Marcona almonds. Marcona almonds are only grown in the Mediterranean region of Spain. If you've never tried a Marcona, you really owe it to yourself to find some. I'm not a huge fan of regular almonds, so don't worry if you're not a big almond or nut person, Marconas are in a league of their own. We got a big can of them at a Costco in Seattle for a very reasonable price. Unfortunately, we don't have a Costco near here, so I don't know how I'm going to get my fix once I finish off the can.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Pollination Time

September 2 | 1:01 pm | Snohomish, WA

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Fast Citizens

Keefe Jackson's Fast Citizens
Fraternal Order of Eagles Lodge - Hyde Park, MA
Thursday, September 6th

I finally made it up to Boston for one of the Music Workshop shows. The workshop is organized by at least some of the same people who ran the artists-at-large series a few years ago. I didn't know much about the Fast Citizens going into the concert. Being a Chicago-based group, I was familiar with a number of the musicians, but I had never even heard of the band leader and with the exception of cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, I had never seen any of the musicians play live in concert.

The first thing that struck me about this group was their age. Most of the guys in the band looked pretty young. With the exception of Lonberg-Holm, who has been on the scene in Chicago since before I started following it, all of these guys are part of the new generation. The "young lions" of the Chicago free improv scene, if you will.

I was very impressed with the rhythm section, especially the drummer, Frank Rosaly. I was most impressed with the way he accompanied the soloists during their improvisations. It was very subtle, but he seemed to have a real knack for working with the soloist. His ensemble playing was superb as well. His playing exuded an obvious enthusiasm that was immediately discernible to anyone listening to him or watching him. Anton Hatwich was a formidable presence on the bass. He takes a very aggressive approach to his playing, equally comfortable playing a bass line or a melodic line. Rounding out the rhythm section was the aforementioned Lonberg-Holm on cello, who played some incredible solos with some remarkable interplay with Rosaly and gave the sound a neat electronic edge with some of his sound effects.

I was also very impressed with the compositions that this band played. I tend not to pay as much attention to composition when listening to music like this since the majority of time is devoted to improvisation, but this band is more of an even mix of composition and improv. Keefe Jackson, the bandleader and tenor saxophonist, writes most of the tunes. This was my first exposure to Jackson and I was as impressed with his composition as I was disappointed with his improvisation. His solos primarily used short, clipped phrases that didn't really fit together and never went anywhere. I was disappointed with the entire horn section's solos to a certain degree. Most of the solos were lacking in direction. A number of solos simply trailed off instead of building to a conclusion. The horn section definitely sounded better in the second set, so perhaps it was just a matter of getting warmed up.

It seems odd that I would enjoy an improvised music show where the improvisation was only so-so, but I really did enjoy this show. It was my first exposure to a bunch of the newer faces on the Chicago scene and I really did enjoy the compositions and Frank Rosaly completely knocked me out on a couple of the numbers. If this group can stay together, I think it has the potential to become a really solid ensemble.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

In a Silent Way

I heard about the passing of jazz/fusion pianist/composer Joe Zawinul yesterday. I wasn't a huge fan of his music. I never really got into Weather Report, though to be honest, I haven't listened to very much of their catalog. I found myself on the road last night and the radio happened to be tuned to WGBH. It was their evening jazz show, which I usually don't listen to, but they were playing In a Silent Way in memory of Zawinul so I kept listening. I had forgotten that Zawinul played the organ on In a Silent Way. As it turns out, he also composed the tune. I've listened to it plenty of times, but I had never been able to really get into it. I have always been disappointed by Miles Davis' electric and fusion work. Not because it's bad or because I'm some kind of jazz purist, but because it never really lives up to its potential. His electric tunes all show these brief flashes of brilliance, but they never manage to sustain it for an entire tune. Anyway, something happened last night, because for the first time, I just 'got' In a Silent Way. I was just overwhelmed by the beauty of the piece. I've always felt that In a Silent Way stands apart from the rest of the electric Miles songbook because of it's ethereal and ambient undertones. This sound is largely absent from the rock and funk infused music that followed In a Silent Way.

Dang Quesadillas

Since I seem to be having trouble keeping this thing going, I thought it might good to go back to my roots, poorly thought out food criticism. I'll start with tonight's meal. Obsessive readers of this blog will remember that we have pear trees in our backyard. Those blossoms have matured into a bumper crop of pears this year and we've been trying to figure out what to do with all of them. I found this recipe for pear and prosciutto quesadillas and gave it a try tonight. I have heard that prosciutto and fruit is considered a delicacy by some, but I had my doubts. After feasting on these quesadillas, all of my doubts have been erased. It's a pretty simple dish to put together, as well. I didn't even bother with the goat cheese that the recipe calls for and I baked them for 10 minutes at 350 instead of frying them in a pan.

On Sunday, I grilled up a great piece of salmon. I used a Goan Fish Curry spice packet that Michelle picked up at the grocery store. It's from Arora Creations, who sell a full line of Indian spice mixes. We've tried a number of their spice mixes, and they taste really good. It's the most authentic tasting Indian food I've ever been able to make at home. This was my first experience with the Goan Fish Curry. I marinated a sockeye salmon fillet in the spice mixture, lemon juice, and olive oil for about an hour and a half. The last time I grilled salmon, I left it on the grill for too long and it got too dry. I was determined not to let that happen this time. I fired up the grill and grilled some bell peppers on it. Though I didn't plan it this way, it turned out to be a great move because it gave the grill a chance to get nice and hot before I put the fish on it. Once the peppers were done, I put the fish onto it (face down) and let it cook for about six minutes. I flipped it over and brushed the top with some of the excess marinade, then let it cook for another three or four minutes, brushing marinade on it a couple of more times. The end result was delicious. It was cooked to perfection and the fish curry added a great flavor to an already delicious piece of fish. If I could change one thing, I would have let it marinate a while longer to soak up more of the flavor, but it was still a very tasty meal.