Monday, March 29, 2010

Random thoughts and bon mots

I am always amused by individuals who can pause in mid conversation or during their commute to jot down their random thoughts. Some pull out elaborate journals from their backpacks to record their thoughts while others rely on Post-It notes when an idea or thought occurs. A graduate professor of mine went a step further and used a pad of Post-It notes mounted to the dashboard of his BMW. I know he never forgot an idea or lost a thought.

Now, I've become one of them ~ one who jots down thoughts and ideas. I regularly jot down song titles that pique my interest while listening to Morning Becomes Eclectic via kcrw.com. This helps jog my memory when using the iTunes library to fill up my iPod with music. I know it's no longer a laughing matter but, rather, a matter of practicality.

Have you ever wondered how much time and brain energy is devoted daily to random thinking? Probably more than you would imagine. Now, if only we could discover a way to market our random thinking ... now there's a thought.

In the spirit of random thinking ~ and spring cleaning ~ here's a few random thoughts and bon mots. Some are old, some are new, some are, well, just well worth sharing. So, in no particular order:

Music: Is there a more distinctive, contemporary singing voice than Neko Case when she sings the Harry Nilsson song, "Don't Forget Me"?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V9KrotLtC-Y

More music: A song I never tire hearing is "Like An Angel Passing Through My Room," sung so eloquently by Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie Von Otter. It appears on the album Anne Sofie Von Otter Meets Elvis Costello - For the Stars. On this version, it's Anne Sofie accompanied on piano by Benny Andersson, who co-wrote the song with his ABBA partner Bjorn Ulvaeus.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lA7-JvKMSwg

Still more music: I would love to see Elvis Costello and Alvin Toussaint collaborate on a follow-up to their The River in Reverse album ~ one of my all-time faves ~ which includes their outstanding duet on "Ascension Day":

http://www.wikio.com/video/elvis-costello-allen-toussaint---day-2728772

Not a soul was stirring
Not a bird was singing, at least not within my hearing
I was five minutes past caring
Standing in the road just staring

Thought I heard somebody pleading
I thought I heard someone apologise
Some fell down weeping
Others shook their fists up at the skies
And those who were left
Seemed to be wearing disguises

Now there's a queen in waiting
Not enough loving and too much hating
For the prince hidden within her man
Always seems to be hesitating

He said, 'Let her go, let her go, God bless her'
'She hasn't been gone long enough for me to miss her'
'Except every minute of every hour of every day when I wish I could possess her'

40 days passed by
40 alibis
So carry on... that way
And in time... you'll pay
But we'll all be together
Come Ascension Day

Not a hound was howling
Or whimpering or prowling
Now the wind had departed
Not a leaf was hanging on the tree like when it started

But I know they will return
Like they've never gone away
Come Ascension Day


Moving on to sports: One of the joys of listening to a San Francisco Giants spring training baseball game on the radio is hearing their talented broadcasters. The game is secondary, the storytelling is priceless.

I caught an inning of a recent broadcast while running Saturday errands. I don't remember any particulars from what happened on the field. However, I do remember the storyteller going on in the broadcast booth. The trio of Jon Miller, Duane Kuiper and Mike Krukow floated the idea of having under performing Major League teams be relegated (like English Premiership League soccer) to the minor leagues for a season. One of them suggested, as an example, the Kansas City Royals swap places with its top minor-league team in Omaha. In between batters, they also shared tales about the iconic-but-allegedly haunted Pfister Hotel in downtown Milwaukee, where many teams like the Giants stay while playing the Milwaukee Brewers.

It's no surprise that Miller is being honored this summer with induction in the broadcaster's wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. He is a master among masters when it comes to the art of baseball storytelling ~ and, he also is very dead-on with his impersonations of other baseball broadcasters like Vin Scully and the late Harry Kalas.

Onward to technology: Am I dumb for not having a "smart" phone? For that matter, do "smart" phones have IQs? Am I a bad person for preferring to use a digital camera instead of taking photos with my cellphone? Is the day approaching when I'll be considered a Luddite because I use my cellphone only to make and receive phone calls instead of using it as a defacto MP3 player, camera, or to send text messages?

Speaking of TV: I can't wait for the new HBO series, Treme, from David Simon ~ the same David Simon who brought us The Wire, simply one of the greatest TV shows of our generation. It's got music, it's got New Orleans, it's got wonderful acting talent. What more could you ask for? Wendell Pierce, Clarke Peters and John Goodman form the nucleus of the stellar cast. Make a date with your TV for the show's premiere on Sunday night, April 11. In the meantime, I urge you to check out the trailers for Treme on HBO's website ~ www.hbo.com/treme.

More TV: In the land of 500 channels and nothing's on, it's always a delight to find a show that renews one's faith in the medium, like Slings and Arrows. This Canadian import aired a few years ago on The Sundance Channel and, recently, has resurfaced on Ovation TV. I like Slings and Arrows because it's a "dramedy" ~ part drama, part comedy ~ that deals with the behind-the-scenes happenings of a fictional-but-contemporary Canadian Shakespearean theatrical company. The ensemble cast includes Kids in the Hall alum Mark McKinney and Rachel McAdams. The first season, which is also available via Netflix and can be found on YouTube, has a raucous opening theme, "Cheer Up, Hamlet" that's performed in a pub and sets the right tone for the show:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BvmMt_xG1tI

Cheer up, Hamlet
Chin up, Hamlet
Buck up, you melancholy Dane
So your uncle is at hand
Murdered Dad and married Mum
That’s really no excuse to be as glum as you’ve become
So wise up, Hamlet
Rise up, Hamlet
Buck up and sing the new refrain
Your incessant monologizing fills the castle with ennui
Your antic disposition is embarrassing to see
And by the way, you sulky brat, the answer is “TO BE”!
You’re driving poor Ophelia insane
So shut up, you rogue and peasant
Grow up, it’s most unpleasant
Cheer up, you melancholy Dane


Finally: Here's a few random but quotable thoughts from a couple of columnists whom I admire to make us all take a moment to think:

"Complex problems sometimes need manpower thrown at them, not an IT solution." ~ Tyler Brule, Financial Times Life & Arts columnist, writing about his favorite air carrier ANA (All Nippon Airlines).

"There is a lesson here: There is a nothing tragic about attempting a great leap and falling short. The tragedy is not even trying." ~ William C. Rhoden, New York Times sports columnist, writing about NCAA basketball Cinderella Cornell ~ the upstart Ivy League champion ~ which lost to perennial powerhouse Kentucky in the Sweet Sixteen of this year's men's NCAA basketball tournament.

Happy random thinking ~ and, remember, keep those Post-It notes handy.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Joys of Good Wine

OK, I'll admit it: Like so many novice wine consumers, I'm easily influenced by the artwork of a wine bottle's label. The more colorful and clever a label is, the more likely I'm going to be tempted to buy the wine and try it. Fortunately, more often than not, the price for colorful and clever usually fits most novice wine consumers' budgets like mine.

I'm also influenced by wines produced in non-traditional locations ~ like Croatia, for instance. Sure, I'm highly aware of the American influence of the northern California wine country in Napa and Sonoma, living in close proximity to it. I'm also somewhat familiar with the various wine regions of France and Italy, thanks to purchasing many bottles of French and Italian wines at Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant in Berkeley. Croatia? Not so familiar.

Following are a couple of instances where artwork and a non-traditional wine-producing location factored into my wine purchases ~ and, I'm happy to announce, both produced wonderful results.

On a recent weekend, while shopping for produce at the Berkeley Bowl West market in Berkeley ~ http://www.berkeleybowl.com ~ my wife and I came upon the wine aisle on my way to check out. One particular bottle of wine immediately caught our attention ~ Goats Do Roam, a 2008 South African Red, produced and bottled by the Goats Do Roam Wine Co. ~ http://www.goatsdoroam.com ~ and imported by Vineyard Brands, Inc. of Birmingham, Ala. Its price hit my sweet spot ~ under $10.

Of course, the joy and pun of the wine's name, Goats Do Roam, is a play on words after the Côte du Rhône wine region of France. Ha! Ha! Not only were we immediately hooked by the artsy label, but also by the wine's name as we're big fans of the Côte du Rhône wines.

The bottle's label touts the 100 percent balanced South African red as: "The art of blending creates many of the world's greatest wines, with only a perfect blend of grape varietals making a wine of true balance. Our timeless goat icon, inspired by an ancient Mesopotamian artefact, symbolises the importance of balance and composition, the core of our winemaker's art."

OK, so not only is it balanced, but we also get a bit of a Classics lesson, too!

It is with this same spirit of adventure that brought us to purchase a bottle of 2007 Bibich Riserva, a Croatian red wine, during a recent visit to one of our favorite wine shops, Vintage Berkeley ~ http://vintageberkeley.com. I had never heard of the wine and, quite honestly, didn't realize that Croatia was a wine-producing country. When you think of European wine regions, you think of France, of Italy and of Spain ~ not Croatia.

We had the occasion to enjoy a first taste of Bibich Riserva the other evening with our dinner, which consisted of turkey burgers, greens salad and sliced fresh fruit. I'm happy to report that it was a very enjoyable tasting experience.

Here's what we learned about our newly-found red from Croatia:

Bibich Riserva is produced by the Bibich Winery in Skradin featuring an eclectic blend of grapes native to Northern Dalmatia that are related to Zinfandel. According to the label, "it's aged for a year in American oak, light, smooth with lively acids and aromas of cooked dark fruits and spices and black pepper. Serve with meats, tuna and cheese."

The wine, imported by Fruit of the Vines, Inc., New York, N.Y., consists of 34% Babich, 33% Lasin, 33% Plavina. A total of 2,000 cases were produced. We paid $19.00 ~ a very reasonable price when you stop to consider that we bought the wine from a small wine shop and not from a large resale outlet like Beverages & More. Importantly, the Bibich Riserva enlivened three dinner meals last week.

In a year in which we have tasted many reds and whites from near (Napa) and far (New Zealand and South Africa), we decided to travel outside of our comfort zone. Like the famous Robert Frost poem, "The Road Not Taken," puts it:

"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I --
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference."


Sunday, March 14, 2010

Scratch My Back

Comes a time in many a musician's career to record a cover of another artist's music. Whether paying tribute, a throw-away statement (as described by New York Times critic Jon Parales), or to fulfill a lifelong dream, it happens all of the time.

Just do a song search on iTunes for any Beatles song ~ like "Hey Jude" ~ and you'll see what I mean. Dozens of covers are out there in the music stratosphere. Some covers do justice (Norah Jones singing Joni Mitchell's "Court and Spark" on Herbie Hancock's award-winning The Joni Letters comes to mind) and some are just plain painful to listen to (Tony Bennett covering The Beatles' "Something" before his '90s comeback was agonizing).

Along comes Peter Gabriel, a favorite singer/songwriter of mine ~ with one of the most distinctive and recognizable voices on this planet from his own songs like "Sledgehammer" and "Big Time" (described by Parales as ancient-mariner baritone) ~ who has turned recording covers topsy-turvy thanks to his creative and thoughtful muse. His new album, released earlier this month, is called Scratch My Back and its title comes from his interest in interpreting other musician's works ~ and, in return, hopefully having that artist record one of his songs.

On Scratch My Back, Gabriel pays homage to Paul Simon, David Bowie, the Talking Heads, and Neil Young as well as to younger artists like Arcade Fire, The Magnetic Fields, Bon Iver and Regina Spektor. And in doing so, he has stripped away all guitars and drums ~ a self-imposed restriction in the creative process ~ and re-scored 12 songs, adding chamber strings to some, piano to others. Thus far, in this social networking experiment, Simon has returned the favor by recording the Gabriel classic "Biko" and Stephin Merrit of Magnetic Fields has covered "Not One of Us."

One song in particular from Scratch My Back immediately caught my attention from first listen two weeks ago: Gabriel's interpretation of Simon's "The Boy in the Bubble."

A great pop song in its own right, "The Boy in the Bubble" first appeared on Simon's 1986 Graceland album and is very lively and upbeat when performed in concert. In an interview with NPR, Gabriel called "The Boy in the Bubble" one of the "great pop lyrics of the last century."

"It was a slow day,
And the sun was beating
On the soldiers by the side of the road,
There was a bright light,
A shattering of shop windows
The bomb in the baby carriage
Was wired to the radio,
These are the days of miracle and wonder,
This is the long distance call,
The way the camera follows us in slo-mo
The way we look to us all,
The way we look to a distant constellation
That's dying in the corner of the sky,
These are the days of miracle and wonder
And don't cry baby don't cry
Don't cry."

Taking a very upbeat and vibrant song as written and recorded by Simon, Gabriel transformed "The Boy in the Bubble" into a slow and somber ~ almost dirge-like ~ minor-key work with just the barest piano and sparse string accompaniment. It's the tone and shape of Gabriel's voice ~ whispery but full of theatrics ~ that struck a chord with me. I gain something new each time I re-listen to it.

"We sort of sucked out all of the African elements, and you're left with the skeleton, which is an extraordinary thing in itself," said Gabriel in the NPR interview for Weekend Edition Sunday. "And I think a lot of people, myself included, heard the lyrics in a different way, in a new context."

Stripping a song down to its bare melody and lyric ~ desperate and exposed ~ can be a thing of simplicity and beauty. Sometimes empty is better than full.



Saturday, March 6, 2010

With Glowing Hearts

As the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games glowingly concluded Sunday evening, there's enough energy overflowing from Team Canada's 3-2 overtime victory over Team USA in the gold medal men's ice hockey match to light up the British Columbia province.

Hockey is Canada's national sport, their birthright ~ so you can imagine how important winning the gold medal was to the face of this wonderful North American nation ~ and young Sidney Crosby, who scored the winning goal for Canada, represented the face of these Winter Olympic Games.

It's been a tremendous 17 days and nights of Winter Games in Vancouver in so many ways ~ for so many reasons. I had the privilege of going to these Games wife my wife, Jodi, for six days (from Feb. 16-21), where we rendezvoused with our long-time friends from Seattle and, together, we experienced first-hand thrills of a lifetime ~ victories on ice and in the curling rink; the exciting and fast-paced short track speed skating starring Apolo Anton Ohno; a live taping of "The Colbert Report" in Creekside Park; and graciousness, lots of it, from the host city, Vancouver, and the host country, Canada.

These friendly and polite folks ~ Canadians, eh ~ are sports fans just like us. Oh, sure, their English may sound a bit funny at times (pronouncing words like about a-BOOT), but their voice and diction is superb; and they showed their patriotism in the form of wearing their Team Canada hockey sweaters (what we refer to as jerseys they call sweaters) all about town ~ some wore white, most wore red, but they all rallied about their national symbol, the maple leaf, and many draped themselves in national flags resembling capes and shawls.

Canadians also love to play funny games and eat funny food ~ to wit, curling and poutine (medium-cut fries topped with cheese curds and smothered in brown gravy). Yet, that's the spirit of these Canadians and what makes visiting Canada uniquely inviting. And, Canadians ~ both fans and athletes alike ~ love to sing their national anthem, "Oh, Canada" if you give them a chance. During the medals ceremony following their gold medal hockey victory, every player on Team Canada joined the fans in attendance in singing "Oh, Canada" loud and proud. It was a very proud moment in this country's history ~ and, not surprisingly, the gold medal game between Canada and the U.S. was the most-watched TV program in Canadian history.

So many things stood out from my visit to the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games, which I plan to blog further about in the near future. In the meantime, in no particular order here's a short list of five:

1. Robson Square ~ In downtown Vancouver, corner of Robson and Granville streets, where a sense of international community could be found day and night, whether watching the Games on a large-screen video display, trading pins or skating at the outdoor public rink. Robson Square captured the spirit of the Olympics ~ it was Ground Zero for the celebration following Team Canada's gold medal hockey victory over the U.S. ~ and it's where we lucked into seeing a skating exhibition by the gold medal Chinese pairs Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo just two days after they won gold.

2. Efficient light-rail transportation ~ We lodged in suburban Coquitlam, about a 45-minute train ride from downtown Vancouver. So, we became quite experienced in riding the rails each day ~ and it allowed us to gain a feel for the surrounding area as well as to see the snow-capped mountains north of the city. We rode free on days we had Olympic event tickets. On days we had to pay, fares were reasonable, all-day passes were available, and the honor system prevailed ~ and, best of all, I don't think we ever had to wait more than 3-5 minutes on a platform for a train.

3. Canadian TV coverage on CTV and TSN networks ~ After watching CTV and TSN Olympics coverage on Canadian television for six days, it made me yearn for more of it when I returned home. Unlike NBC, we weren't bombarded with commercials every five minutes and major events such as figure skating and alpine skiing were allowed to be shown in its entirety. Whereas NBC's coverage of the Olympics was that of a prime-time dramatic mini-series with hints of a reality series, CTV and TSN's approach was to cover the Olympics as a sporting event complete with lots of live coverage throughout the day. It makes me wish that some day our own ESPN will gain the U.S. broadcast rights to the Olympics because they will approach the Olympics as a major international sporting event and not as a prime-time drama.

4. Canadian currency ~ With the exchange rate essentially 1:1, I didn't worry about figuring in my head the cost of everything in U.S. dollars. What I did like ~ and wish we would adopt in the States ~ is the use of dollar (loony) and two dollar (toony) coins. Canadian paper currency starts at the five-dollar bill.

5. The sport of curling ~ Next to hockey, curling is a sport near and dear to Canadians and they take it seriously ~ and cheer appreciatively ~ especially when the Canadian Olympians are on the rink. One of the events we attended was an afternoon session of women's curling at an intimate make-shift arena in a residential area south of downtown ~ four matches being played simultaneously on side-by-side rectangular rinks, including: Canada vs. Germany, Japan vs. China, Great Britain vs. Russia and the U.S. vs. Denmark.

Think part shuffleboard, part darts, part bowling and you've got the sport of curling.

The Canada-Germany match was closest to us and we were surrounded by a spirited bunch of Canadian fans, ages 6 to 60. Quickly, I came to appreciate the skill and determination of the 43-year-old Canadian skip Cheryl Bernard. Showing both quiet determination, beauty and charm, she's the one who, while down on one knee, put "the stone" in play by rolling it down the rink and letting her sweepers guide it toward "the house" (the bull's eye). Steady under pressure was Ms. Bernard throughout the competition.

One thing I learned from my afternoon at the curling rink: there's a bit of luck involved and a lot of skill that goes into playing the sport well. And the women competitors aren't afraid to yell "hard, hard, harder!"