Friday, July 24, 2015

Traffic -- wine notes -- Socrates -- and a supreme beauty (Genevieve Bujold)

2013 Champalou dry Vouvray; a fleshy but not creamy mouthfeel. Drinking the wine is like drinking the flesh of peaches, only in a bracing, stony sort of way. No sweetness. Very good and very gulpable, Retail, about $15.

Just a few other things, my fatheads. I am puzzled to know what explains traffic patterns and traffic congestion. We are driving home, let's say from a professional wine tasting. Let's say also we're driving an expressway crammed full of cars all traveling at 10 miles per hour when they should be going sixty. We see no problems or construction delays in sight. Sometimes the traffic breaks up and we speed along smoothly. Why? More often, we are bumper to bumper, and we speed nowhere. Why not? Do those of us heading to 'Indiana' just huddle in the left lanes, because we fear missing an exit amid all the trucks? Do we thus create congestion ourselves?

Alone in your car you sigh, resigning yourself to the two hour "rush." You look forward to a peaceful patio and a cocktail very soon. My most recent favorite, cocktail that is, is a simple little something that I will call "The Smallest Cocktail in the World." It's equal parts -- let us say, a jigger each -- of iced tea, which you have made yourself from scratch properly of course, and gin. Ransom "old Tom" has a fine effect.

After you get home and sit on the patio savoring your Smallest Cocktail in the World, you begin to look about you. You keep pondering the plot twists of that mystery novel you have determined to write. Why would the murderer sneak into the wine shop in the middle of the night, to correct the grammar of a note left by the stock kid, asking for the next day off? 

And should a magnolia tree throw off freak, April-worthy blossoms in July? It did.

Now, my fatheads, one more thing. About the Socratic method. Our instructor at the wine tasting used it, to ill effect I am sorry to say. This sort of thing aggravated me even in high school, but since I am encountering it more than thirty years later, I feel I must protest.

The Socratic method of teaching -- asking questions of the people around you, in the collegial search for truth -- is fine if you are Socrates, and if you are exploring huge topics. Socrates' point in using it was that the truth exists and it can be found out by anyone, by any group of people honestly thinking questions through and puzzling answers out with friends and fellows. Or among the household slaves, for that matter. This was significant: to get a slave to expound philosophy simply by answering questions was proof of cosmic truths being with the rational reach of all. At the close of one of his "dialogues" Socrates says that whatever answer he and his friends have found for query x, today, might be a very different one from the answer that satisfies them on query x tomorrow. This is not because the truth changes or is unknowable, but because faulty human beings may not be able to arrive at the truth on such and such a day or with such and such companions. Tomorrow, they may do so. It is the questioning that matters, and the understanding -- we'll repeat this -- that truth exists and can be discovered. In our own age of total moral relativism and its accompanying horrors, that must never be forgotten.

The problem is that far too many teachers use the Socratic method, not to unveil truth, but to tease an unprepared audience into spitting out minor information which they, the teachers, have crammed for. Their questions stun the audience and make everyone feel stupid and shy. When Teacher gives the answer, it only seems, in retrospect, that since he knew all along, he has only been withholding information out of spite. This is what annoyed me in high school. Also, I came to know much later, this is not Socratic. This is ... well, fill in the blank. Ever wonder why your classrooms are full of sullen teens glancing at their phones? You must all stop it.

2012 Domaine Serge Dagueneau et Filles Pouilly-Fume. Nutty, almost sherry-like. "Nervy"? I wouldn't say that, but a colleague I met at the wine tasting introduced me to that word, nervy, as a wine descriptor. He claimed that all pinot noirs fall into two categories, and are "trying to do" either of two things. (Before we go on, we remark that of course the Pouilly-Fume in the photo above is not a pinot noir. This colleague just happened to start talking about them, because we tasted them next. Also "Jack" tended to ignore Teacher's pointed and pointless questions.) "Jack" nearly broke my hand in his handshake, and then said, "Pinot noirs are my passion." He has worked retail liquor for fifteen years, lives within walking distance of his job, and worked in a California vineyard before that.

What are pinot noirs trying to do? One of two things, Jack said. Either they want to be linear, seamless, seductive, or they want to be slightly unfocused and "nervy." I'm flattered the man spoke to me as if I had experience of that, too. I suppose my reaction means my own "trickle-down," as he put it, from our conversation was basic human self-absorption. Gee, he must think I know wine. And how long is it going to take me to get home?

2013 Stoneleigh Latitude sauvignon blanc. Just what New Zealand delights in being: Steely, limey, and kiwi-like all at once. Few California examples compare, in my view, although French ones certainly do. Remember the time I actually tasted the famed "cat p -- " in a French sauvignon blanc?

Sometimes, you know, when you get home from a long day or a long commute and maybe some frustrations about being delivered the Socratic method by people who don't understand what it ever was, you just relax any old how. The Internet has made it possible to do that, and how. I happened to follow some favorite Tudor-themed links to the old movie Anne of the Thousand Days, and from there to considering Genevieve Bujold.

What a supreme beauty she was in youth. Not only her dark eyes and hair and lovely pert face, but her slight French burr, and that demeanor of bright fearlessness, were all perfect for Anne Boleyn. No other actress has come close to her portrayal in any other production, except the late Dorothy Tutin in the BBC program of the early 1970s -- and though she was fine, Dorothy Tutin was already too old (past 40 I believe) for the part. And nowadays you will see blue-eyed actresses in the role! What, does no one in the "Continuity" department think to budget for brown contact lenses?

Anyway I read in a movie encyclopedia once the assessment that Genevieve Bujold is an under-appreciated actress, and that I believe. She continues to work, year after year "in small independent films," and God bless her for it. If her career has not been all she had hoped after the banner year of 1969, I hope she has been well adjusted and happy nevertheless. Given what Hollywood is, I imagine there is an inverse relationship between surface success and inner peace within the "TMZ."

Image from fanpop

Saturday, July 18, 2015

(Reinventing the wheel of) virtue

Years ago I read a biography of a lady named Lucretia Mott (Valiant Friend, by Margaret Hope Bacon), a once-fairly-well-known 19th century abolitionist and, I suppose we could call her, feminist. She was a Quaker, and so still used "thee and thou" in her speech. Or at least the book quoted her as doing. I once wanted to become a Quaker just so I could say thee and thou. 

The final line of the biography urged us all to look out at the world and its problems, and to remember that though she came from sunny, peaceful, ocean-washed 1790s Nantucket, Lucretia Mott, too, looked out at a world full of problems. Slavery in the American South was, for her, the main one. Her reaction, which we must take to heart her biographer said, was, and ever would have been, a brisk "Well, what is thee doing about it?" 

Only 'what is thee doing about it' is, you might say, a two-edged sword. If you have an issue you want to do something about, you want to see results for your work. Maybe all the really big issues are gone. (Maybe they have to be: as Calvin Coolidge put it: if all men are created equal, and endowed their rights by God, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final.)  All too often it seems the do-gooders' collective work now results in individual tragedy. Yet they still think they're Mott-esque. They never seem to want to be Coolidgian. You're appalled at shootings, let's say -- you insist on gun-free zones -- paste little no-gun decals on the windows of stores and public buildings. And naval training bases. What does the decal really say? "We're unprotected on principle. Do as you will." You walk away from the window feeling good about making a difference in the world. Somebody else gets killed.

All along perhaps the answer to the world's problems has lain, mostly, simply in the individual's behaving virtuously, having been trained in virtue by his  mother and father since infancy, and their mothers and fathers before them. "Thou shalt not murder." 

Just imagine: personal virtue as the final thing that matters. Talk about re-inventing the wheel.

The wine is Proximo by Marques de Riscal, a quite good $8.99 Rioja from the ancient producers of very fine $19.99 Riojas. Lately I have a yen for Rioja. I enjoy its simple, silky wholeness. No fruit basket metaphors, no vanilla and cream. It's a wine for grown-ups. Just wine. 

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Deliciously wrong (port in summer)

It's been open for months. I don't know what it "should have" tasted like.

It's the wrong season for port -- we want November afternoon sleet and a cozy couch, not a cool July night and a kitchen table. The New York Philharmonic is playing The Nutcracker. Alec Baldwin always sounds so pleasant and rational while narrating Thursday night's concerts. One can hardly believe he occasionally berates paparazzi, or throws telephones.

All, all deliciously wrong. Yet, one thanks God the open bottle did not burst its stopper and spill all over the interior of the car on the way home from work, just when one turned the corner and the bag holding this, plus the other three bottles, jostled just enough to fling it, neck down, behind the passenger seat. Yes.

One thanks God. (And one remembers the rebuke about port from Brideshead Revisited: "Sebastian, don't be an ass. You've had quite enough.")

Barao de Vilar, Porto Reserve. Sip in a little cylindrical glass, alongside crackers and cheese. When the New York Philharmonic is finished, listen to "Baroque and Before." Sometimes, WFMT gets it.

One loves porto.

Cooking for one -- with Timpune Grillo

After years of cooking for a family, I am learning to cook for one. It was a bit of a shock to look into my refrigerator on that first day and see it as an "old lady" fridge -- clean and empty except for maybe a quart of orange juice and a stick of butter. "Did you cry?" my friend perceptively and instantly asked. "Yes." I've stocked up on a bit more food since then, of course.

And I've learned one or two small secrets, I think. One is, stop stocking up on so much food. A package of three pork chops is two too many, unless you want to eat pork chops for a week and a half. Of course you can freeze leftovers and take them out in future when the idea of them seems fresh again, but a wise cookbook author once gently discouraged that habit. A freezer packed with yesterday's choices and yesterday's work is not necessarily any use, she said. (It might have been Julia Child, come to think of it.) As it accumulates, and boy does it ever, the prospect of all that rock hard food can be at once so boring and so daunting that -- be honest -- we would rather scramble an egg or order a pizza than cope with it. Then the weeks go by and you forget what it all was. Even if you remember what it was, or were dutiful enough to label it, it all becomes kind of gray. Yes, you are sorely tempted to throw it out. Another month and you do throw it out. So in what way was that economical and time-saving, as cookbook authors who love the freezer promise it will be? Shop fresh, the wiser lady countered. Cook fresh. Find a way. You'll be glad you did.

One more small secret might amuse you. Since kind people bought me groceries when I first moved in, I found myself well provided with, for example, rice. So I thought, why not use one pot, on a hot summer evening, to cook both rice and that entire bunch of celery I had to buy, because I wanted celery and no store sells it one stalk at a time for single people who live on the third floor? (Gad, tell me I'm not going to become one of those elderly ladies in the grocery store, anxiously tapping the gin or vodka bottles to see which are lightweight plastic and which are annoyingly heavy glass, and making sour faces and tsk-tsking as they hunt? "I live on the third floor, and it's so heavy to carry up.") Actually they're right. Twenty-five pound boxes of cat litter are heavy, too. I've learned to choose just the fourteen-pounders. Another secret for you.

As I was saying, a side dish of rice and chopped celery boiled together is very nice. By all means substitute any vegetable for which you have a yen, but do not wish to drag out a third pot. Drizzle over your rice-and-vegetable-boil the pan juices from your sauteed pork chop and you have what Madeleine Kamman (ah hah! I'll bet it was her who warned about freezing) called "a royal meal."

What wine to accompany? The most recent treat which kind people have sent to my mailbox is a Sicilian white, Caruso & Minini's (the producer) Timpune (a sort of proprietal name, like "Leaping Horse" or "Sunny Hills" perhaps? I must ask the nice publicity people) Grillo (the grape). The wine's aroma called to mind bread and figs, or some rich dry baked fruit, not sweet; its mouthfeel was lush and creamy, chardonnay-like without being all butter, all the time. Color, a beautiful champagne gold. I mention it because the color of a wine doesn't often strike me as anything remarkable, but this did. Bravo to Sicily, now making, or now more aggressively publicizing, wines beyond their revered Marsala.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Raising a glass to truth

No sooner do we decide we must carve out a larger space of life, free of politics, than politics intrudes anyway. Perhaps that's a definition of tyranny. I was going to write a long blog post on the Supreme Court's gay marriage decision, but after all what does the Court care? What does Tito's vodka care? That's not a non sequitur. Tito's sponsors Chicago's Gay Pride parade. Pandora has a an entire channel of "PRIDE" music. (I hope they include "Ballroom Blitz.") Sometimes I watch old reruns of Seinfeld -- what a dull show -- and in last night's episode, Elaine was already buying presents for a "lesbian wedding" in the mid 1990s. As Andrew Breitbart said, politics really does seem to be downstream from culture.

Our problem is to maintain individual dissent. That's a problem you have under tyranny. Boycott Tito's vodka? Pandora? What do they care? And one more thing occurred to me. What gay marriage does is to strip from all of us our right to the dignity of our observations of reality, the dignity of our reason. It strips from us, or it attempts to, human truth. Marriage is what it is, gays cannot marry and activists know it, which is why they don't pursue the logic of it to incest and polygamy yet. It would be the same as if some council of cave men ruled that we shall now hunt spears with mastodons, or agree that fire is cold. Human beings cannot live in a world in which reality is not permitted, unless all agree to be mentally ill. Isn't one of the sorrowful things about mental illness precisely the ill person's being cut off from truthful observations of reality? Don't we peer at them knowingly, and regret among other things the loss of dignity for them?

Luckily we have a store of wisdom from previous ages, in this case from every moment of every previous age there ever was on the planet, to fall back on. Here are two. I'm sure you could find your own, practically at random. The first is Shakespeare.

Which reformation must be sudden too
My noble lords; for those that tame wild horses
Pace 'em not in their hands to make 'em gentle,
But stop their mouths with stubborn bits and spur 'em
Till they obey the manage .... 

(Henry VIII, Act V, iii)

The second is Thomas Carlyle. He writes about the French Revolution, but reminds us in an uncanny way that we have other problems, too.

"Lies exist only to be extinguished; they wait and cry earnestly for extinction. Think well in what spirit thou wilt do it ...not with hatred, but in clearness of heart ... almost with pity .... 
"Honour to Bankruptcy; ever righteous on the great scale, though in detail it is so cruel! Under all Falsehoods it works, unweariedly mining. No Falsehood, did it rise heaven-high and cover the world, but Bankruptcy, one day, will sweep it down, and make us free of it. " 

Let's raise a glass to truth. Champagne. Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Reserve. Retail, about  $40.

Their faces move

It pleases me to imagine that, in a very small way, I understand the experience of St. Paul in the agora -- that is, in the public square, b...