Monday, June 13, 2011

UB 40 and the Arizona connection

I am a sucker for coincidences and puns. I find them all the time. Today I have a perfect example.

Even as I sit here monitoring my screen for the legislature to commence the second day of the trainwreck otherwise known as the special session called by the Governor for the purpose of extending unemployment benefits from 79 weeks to 99 weeks, I am being serenaded by the reggae channel I have created on my Pandora account (what was life before Pandora-I can't even imagine it anymore). And what should come on but one of my all time favorite songs by UB40 "Red, red wine." Popular in the 80's I remember it well.

Here is the coincidence: according to the Pandora bio: UB40 is:

Named after a British unemployment benefit form, pop-reggae band UB40 were formed in a welfare line in 1978, and their multiracial lineup reflected the working-class community their members came from.

And in further coincidence:

In 1988, the group performed "Red Red Wine" at a Nelson Mandela tribute concert, and a Phoenix radio station trotted the single out for a second go-round. Listener response was far more enthusiastic, and "Red Red Wine" reentered the charts and went all the way to the top.

Now, I am not sure what all this means, but maybe this problem is unlikely to get solved without a hefty dose of red, red, wine. I would totally recommend Total Wine for the perfect selection. It, like Pandora, is another 21st Century development that I would argue is making us that much more civilized, much like Pandora.

In any case, they are currently voting to sine die, which means end the session without any action. Raise your glass.....or not!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Play's the Thing, Huckleberry

Was it mere coincidence that after spending the week basking in the theater of what passes for democracy in the morally and intellectually arid zone of the American Southwest I should pick up this month’s Harper’s magazine and find the post-millennial master of sarcastic socio-political analysis, Louis Lapham, waxing warmly about the post-civil- insurrection master of satire, Mark Twain against the background of an America that is at pretty the same low point on the well-being graph as it was 100 years ago? [Aside: Should I find it even more eerie that the 100 years coincides with the Arizona centennial?] I think not.

Even as the production numbers morphed from the dance floor to the stadium and the playbill was tossed in the bin leaving the audience to gape in wonder of what would happen next, I remained much more naive than those masters of the big picture, for I was cut to the quick upon learning that the denouement would reveal that even more earnest among us are merely mortal in the end.

Lapham relates his interaction with the initial dose of Twain’s autobiography, held under wraps for 100 years after his death, in the context of being asked to conjure some soothing words of salvation by the gentrified set who were panicked at the complete disarray they had made of each and everyone of our institutions. Apparently, in desperation, they were looking to Lapham to drag them back from the precipice with some raw but soothing words of hope. Oddly, they came to the one fellow who, unlike everyone else, has no compunction for telling it like it is and was (for he surely knows his history, unlike most of his contemporaries) --at least as he sees it.

Likewise, Twain has the same reputation, but his autobiography smashes the facade that Twain now admits never really separated him from the “poor, cheap wormy thing” that is humankind. Turns out, he could not even write the story of his life as the introspection became an exercise in disgust; instead he chose to dictate the multi-volume work, which apparently kept him from staring back in horror at himself from the written page.

Lapham chooses Twain’s take on Teddy Roosevelt to illustrate the point. Twain never takes out after the otherwise likeable fellow, Roosevelt, for his spin-doctoring of the massacre by General Leonard Wood of the Filipinos during the American occupation. In a letter to his daughter years later, Twain regrettably confesses that his own moral fortitude failed him as he succumbed to the pressure of a favor paid him by Roosevelt and as a result was never able to honestly speak to the acts of the man, rendering him disgusting to himself (and, worse, causing his superb command of the art of sarcasm to lay fallow).

    Lapham’s selection of Twain’s summation of the source of his shame  is well-taken if not poetic:

       “The gods value morals alone; they have paid no compliments to intellect, nor offered it a single reward. If intellect is welcome anywhere in the other world, it is in hell, not heaven.”   

How fateful that I should read this article right after reviewing a draft editorial my husband wrote  about the role of Grant Woods in the Arizona scandal du jour, the Fiesta Bowl fiasco.

Serendipity surely played a role as well in the fact that April Fools Day 2011 saw the hottest temperature on record-- breaking 100, spoiling the diversion of gambling on the exact moment of that first occurrence for the year and providing a Twain-like backdrop for the next act in the state of degradation otherwise called Arizona.

This is not just another guy caught up in a scandal. Unlike the majority of today’s “leaders” Grant was one part politician and one part regular dude. About the same age, we both grew up in what nostalgia now informs us was a carefree, romantic and quasi-rural lifestyle of mid-century Valley of the Sun; a sparsely populated but multicultural spot still in its formative stages as a place for people to actually live, air conditioning being a relative newcomer. [Aside: My pre-a/c grandfather opened every story–and there were many–with: “It was hot; god damn it was hot....”].

Our Dads were both in construction and we were the first people in our families to go to law school. Being a small place, people who were not honest, hard workers did not have much of a chance of lasting in business if they wanted to stay around. Our families and the unfettered freedom of our unique Southwestern childhood instilled in us a common sense approach to the bigger picture and a strong sense of fairness, a socially liberal attitude and a fear of too much government. These traits immediately attracted me to want to align my legal career in his direction. I was thrilled to be a bit player in Grant’s first big political solo (he had previously worked with McCain) as Arizona Attorney General.

He is consistently a straight-talking, pragmatic and principled guy who loves music and having a good time. He gained a national reputation as a go-to person on several issues and knows how to pick the battles that would put him on the moral high ground. And he had the right idea about public service. Get in, do a great job and get out. He returned to the private sector and was doing his second act as a solo as well, but always remained in demand at the political level. Almost every time a political leadership opens up, his name appears at the top of list.

Although a star, he never forgot his regular guy roots. This came through in his banter on his radio show and the glimpses into his personal life one would get from his Twitter and Facebook posts, and through his musings on music and sports. And in his disarming approachability. He loves his wife and his kids and takes great joy in just being a regular person.

But for the larger audience, while he was the theater usher who would always be there to get you out safely if the building caught on fire, he would also cackle as hard as anybody at the goofball in the back row creating a sideshow by falsely yelling that it is on fire. At a time when the building is starting to smolder and the entire crowd is part of the joke, the laughter is starting to fade and we are groping for someone to show us the exits.

But Grant is no longer that guy. Taken down by the hubris that spreads like a cancer among those with even the slightest legitimate reason to have a slightly elevated ego, it is a tragedy that could have been a delightfully meaty comedy. Like Twain, Grant is no god, for he is a mere intellectual.

And for me, he can never again be my Huckleberry.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Noshing Can Be Fun and Healthy

I invented a new dish for a party last week, The theme was Fiesta. I was rummaging through my fridge and found a pile of Belgian Endive leaves. So I filled them with a spicy white bean dip that had a bit of olive oil and lots of flavor. There was literally no fat and very few calories in this dish. And even better, it was pretty cool looking when I was done:

Here is the recipe:

Cook about 1 cup of white beans as you normally would but include a couple of dried chile peppers, a couple of garlic cloves and  a teaspoon of oregano (about a Tablespoon if using fresh) during the cooking process.
Mash the beans with about 1 tablespoon of olive oil, use a good extra virgin and if it has a flavor all the better;  I used Harissa from Yavapai Olive Oil Mill, some salt, lemon juice and chile powder if it is not hot enough already. I used my mini food processor to get the right consistency.

Pipe into the rinsed leaves of fresh Belgian endive and top with a section of roasted red bell pepper.
I used tepary beans but any white bean will do, such as cannelini (and canned would work as well).

That is all there is to it.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A Capitol Proposition

A casual observation at the State Capitol on this International Day of Women, later became a chilling realization that makes me very sad about where we are in the evolution of human beings. In the very place where our laws are made by the people who we as voters have sent there to represent us, I witnessed an appalling site that is probably representative of a number of tragedies; however, I am focusing on only one of them in this piece.

There on the mall between the Old Capitol, the Senate and the House were two single-file lines of visiting students, a commonality at the capitol. They caught my eye when they were being directed to place their hands on top of their heads-something often seen in groups of prisoners of war.

I have fond memories of taking similar field trips. I usually had a relative working around there somewhere and got to go off on a side venture, which always made it fun. The sight of these kids did not evoke that nostalgia, however.

At the risk of sounding like an old person, I was completely appalled by the attire of these children. A large percentage of the girls were dressed in very short jean shorts. Although in my day this mode of dress was reserved for the beach or park, even then we would not be allowed to leave the house in such things for any event at the tender age of these children.

I took a poll of the veteran people watchers and we determined these kids were 5th or 6th grade. I was not alone in my amazement that, besides the fact that this means of dressing was completely inappropriate for any field trip, much less one to the statehouse, the parents of these kids would even let them go to school like that. I was equally offended by the chubby girl who was wearing hot pink baggy basketball shorts with the MICHIGAN sweatshirt-a top I would obviously have an affinity for having sent so much of the funds I have toiled so long at that same building to earn to that fine institution.

Just a couple of hours later I attended a presentation by the Protected Innocence Initiative. Shared Hope International is a non-profit started in 1998 by a former Congresswoman, Linda Smith, to rescue and restore women and children in crisis through a worldwide effort to prevent and eradicate sex trafficking and slavery through education and public awareness. Through the Initiative, Shared Hope rates the various states on their efforts to attack the problem of sex trafficking.

Needless to say, after the introduction by the ever glib Pat McMahon, local TV/Radio host and emcee extraordinaire, Smith related some horrifying stories of young girls who are essentially kidnapped and placed into service by “pimps” who sell to men looking to do it with very young girls. Linda talked about a particular 14 year old girl who was eventually rescued from her confinement here in Phoenix and is not in a safe house. She was followed by a local prosecutor who has achieved nearly 100 convictions, only 5 of which were of customers. Then, a former child-victim spoke about her thoughts having emerged from the nightmare to now put together a pretty normal semblance of a life.

The whole time I was sitting there all I could think about was how those children just out front in the short-shorts were prime targets for this horrifying thing, which apparently occurs with much greater frequency than normal folks like me can even conjure.

I feel bad for those children because what is very clear to me is that their parents are complete buffoons. But should that be any surprise? In a culture that hangs on every word of a complete degenerate like Charlie Sheen while barely paying any attention to the massive budget crisis that is about to impact their very ability to fund the cable TV that feeds their entertainment obsession, how can we expect that these parents would have any insight whatsoever into what is appropriate dress for 5th grade students. What they are clueless about is how that puts them at risk of becoming the sad statistics that cause people to come together on the International Day of Women to bring attention to these barbaric human interactions that are occurring in our very own backyards.

A pretty lousy way to “celebrate” if you ask me.

Post script:  I just came across this article that says the extent of the human trafficking problem in our country is probably overstated.
If even one child ends up in this nightmare it is horrific; at the same time if the numbers in this story are correct a cost/benefit analysis may be in order when it comes to using public money to fight the problem.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Campus Life Circa 2011

 There are any number of reasons why Americans are behind in science and technology. Here is a retelling of a recent event on a major US campus that is illustrative of many things.

Today, as I was walking with a friend through the diag (the heart of the campus), I stopped to talk to a group of feminists that were picketing the new theater production that has come to campus: the 'Penis Monologues". Their issues with the production were numerous, but the main argument was that it was directly attacking and seeking to invalidate the 'serious message' of the "Vagina Monologues".
Now, I knew that by being brazen and snarky, I was likely to get myself into some trouble, but we were out in the public, in the diag, which is the Acropolis of the school--a place for open and interesting discussion. My first question was my first mistake:

Me: "Don't you think that by protesting a satire, you are making a public mockery of your original cause?"
Angry Feminist #1: "How could we not be infuriated by a counter-attack by the men that have been oppressing women since the agricultural revolution? We're fighting to save the message in our production."
Me (this is where I really go wrong): "But what would you say the overall message is?"
AF#2: "Obviously it's about the beauty and integrity of the female anatomy!"
Me: " Not the superiority?"
AF#2: "This production is a criminal attack on what women have worked for years to achieve! But still we find ourselves criminally oppressed, and "they" are allowed to criminally mock something that we find sacred. Just what are you getting at?"
Me: "Look, I just think that the militant feminist message just works against the overall good for the female population. Men aren't stupid, or evil or part of a giant conspiracy to keep women in the household and out of the workplace. In fact, women currently enjoy a greater employment rate than men, and those that are married--even higher incomes. Maybe a little satire and reflection would do your cause some good. Your argument is theoretically contradictory to the first amendment. Your outrage isn't going to accomplish anything. If you really want to do something about it, I suggest that you sue the author of the "Penis Monologues" for copyright infringement."
AF#1: "Do you even hear yourself? You're becoming a victim of their ideas!"
Me: "Of course I do, but as a woman, and not an arcane second-wave feminist, I'm capable of thinking through foaming-mouthed conspiracy theories fed to me by girls who got stood up for their junior-year prom."

Then I started running. I didn't stop until I was behind the counter at the cafe.
I really did just want to have some semblance of a level-headed discussion with a feminist, and I don't know why I thought that a picket was the time or place. I probably shouldn't have been so snarky, and the above is abridged from the 5-minute conversation that took place. I tried to reason with them at first, but when the argument was essentially a really annoying conspiracy theory that they are allowed to not only study but graduate with a concentration in, I just rolled my eyes and told myself that even something as silly as Art History has more intellectual integrity than the Women's Studies department, I decided to just be as snarky as I possibly could. Rude? Yes. Entertaining? Highly.

My end report: Feminists are ruining my chances at being taken seriously in my future workplace.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

A Few Thoughts About The Events of this Past Week

For me the entire Tragedy in Tucson was almost surreal. Our attempts to show our out of town guests some of the things we love about living here were punctuated with reports of the mayhem and mistaken information about the death of a young and vibrant Congresswoman.
 I learned, minutes after it happened (while talking on the phone and simultaneously looking at Facebook), that  Congresswoman Gabriel Giffords  and over a dozen others had been shot.  This was just a couple of days after the Chandler mall incident wherein a paroled convict went a little goofy and caused a major lock down and freaked out a bunch of people at the Baja Fresh. That was just a few days after one of our state legislators, Frank Pratt, was beaten and tied up in his very own place of business by another recent parolee.
These were all news making events. Each was in a different county. Two involved politicians. Two involved parolees. Two involved guns. The news each case was completely different.
No mention of political motivations in the Pratt case, barely any mention of the suspects parole status. No sheriff grandstanding (which is interesting given it happened in Pinal County where the sheriff has been quite visible on immigration issues).
Apparently in the mall case a covert investigation into the whereabouts of yet another wanted parolee sparked that mishap. No vilification of the system on that one.
But only seconds after the Tucson shooting, and in the same Facebook message where I first learned of it, the political vitriol started flying. And it spread like a virus, infecting everyone who came in contact with it. Perhaps status as a federal office holder is just that much higher profile than a state office holder, but the political tone is really not that much different at either level, so it is curious there was no political presumption firing an outcry in the Pratt case.
The fact is, all three of these incidents were crimes committed by troubled individuals. Period.
 In this age of community living we seem to be more interested in figuring out the often unanswerable question of why these things happen instead of just dealing with the fact that they did happen. It seems like everything these days in the gray area; there simply is no black and white, no good and evil (except in movies based upon comic books), no simple explanations.
This is not healthy. As we have seem from the ensuing political debate this week, when you focus on these gray areas then nothing is clear, no one is safe and everyone is at fault. In my view this is a symptom of our growing cultural indifference to personal responsibility. 
Maybe the most emblematic aspect of this theory was the crowd reaction during the Memorial Service, which featured one of the best speeches President Obama has ever given and the humble reaction of Daniel Hernandez who rightly pointed out that being is hero is a terrific burden. Made up of mostly college students, the collective response was inappropriate for the setting. Several people later justified it by saying that is what those people needed, to celebrate and move forward.
What it really showed is that our kids think it is all about them. We have failed to teach them civility (and civics but that is a topic for another blog), humility and critical thinking.  It is all about the moment, all about me and tomorrow we can move on to the next thing. You can see this theme in just about every reaction to the Tucson events except for those of the President and Mr. Hernandez as noted.
Our way of life is changing. The technological revolution is at the root of these changes. Either we can accept the heightened level of responsibility that comes with the wonders that it offers and access all that is positive about it and truly have a wonderful life or we can continue to generalize, distort and misuse our resources in the name of self satisfaction. The choice is ours and so far I don’t see very many people rising to role model these behaviors. Ironically, hypocrisy reigns as people race to condemn others for the very sin they are committing in the act of their condemnation. Sadly,I think those people are doomed to a life of gray.

Trina’s Elk Braised in a Squash

Continuing my penchant for cooking stews inside of vegetables (loyal readers will recall my frenzy over stuffed pumpkins of last fall), last night I served a slightly exotic dish that used wapiti for the meat.
Coming into possession of an elk roast this year was the work of my niece Trina. A 30-something beauty who happened to find herself in a family of avid outdoorsmen, she is no stranger to the massive elk hunt camp erected on a plot of land outside Williams, Arizona each fall. She can often be seen sporting perfectly coiffed hair atop an outfit of lavender camouflage.  She always looks gorgeous and like she is right where she belongs, no matter how primitive the setting.
And Trina loves the place they camp so much she got married there a couple of years ago, to a guy she met through the hunting adventures their respective fathers shared with their kids. A match made in heaven. 

Although we never see them at Thanksgiving because it is always the beginning of elk season, they don’t miss out on the dinner. In their dining tent they hold a full blown turkey meal for the 30 or 40 folks on the hunt and include every detail, right down to the real dishes and cloth napkins. Quite a feat.
So we were a bit surprised this year to get a call from the camp right before our own relative-filled residential dinner. Trina asked to speak to her Grandfather and imparted the news (most fittingly from that location) that she is with child. The first great-grandchild is in the chute, so to speak. So fittingly, in a sort of circle of life kind of way, the next day she went right out and got herself an 800- pound 6-point elk!
Not the actual elk referred to in the story; this was my pal at the Thunderbird Lodge at the Grand Canyon as seen last fall.

Now elk meat is very lean and mildly flavored. I like the challenge of cooking it because for one thing it is free to me and for another it takes some creativity to take it from just OK to delectable.
Two of my favorite things are winter squash and braising, so I decided this would be the perfect solution for this meat.
Braising is favored because it involves a several steps that any multi-tasker can accomplish simultaneously, it requires a range of ingredients that can be used in endless combinations and, it results in the most tender meat and rich sauce. Even better, it is perfect for a dinner party because you can (and for best results should) make it in advance and simply reheat it in the oven so you can minimize kitchen time and maximize the cocktail hour with your guests.
 I must give a shout out to Tom Colicchio here. After about 4 seasons of watching Top Chef on Bravo I suddenly realized that the master braising recipe that I had practically tattooed to my right arm having found it in an early edition of Taunton’s Fine Cooking, was from him! He really is a great cook; he doesn’t just play one on TV.
So back to the Elk Braise, here is what I did:
Cut up an elk roast into long strips about the size of boneless short ribs. There was no weight on the package but I am thinking it was about 3.5 pounds.
Season with salt and pepper. Brown in batches in hot olive oil in a large dutch oven or deep skillet. Reserve the cooked meat in a bowl.
Meanwhile, roughly chop a large onion and about 6 cloves of garlic. Dice 6 medium peeled carrots. Thinly slice one fennel bulb and cut the larger circles in half.
Upon removing the last meat from the pan, add the vegetables and stir to sauté and deglaze the pan. As the onion is about to become translucent, add a 15- ounce can of diced tomatoes, three large sprigs of rosemary, about 2 teaspoons of fresh, chopped oregano and 20 halved prunes and stir for about 5 minutes more. This skillet will look gorgeous.

Add about 1 cup of coffee, 1 can of Guinness, 1 tablespoon of molasses, a box of whole mushrooms (about 15 medium sized ones). Cut the meat into bite size pieces and add back to the pan. Stir all the ingredients together, adjust for salt and cook uncovered in a 350 oven for 2 hours.
Note: I like to start the oven phase on convection roast at 300for about 45 minutes. The top gets a bit brown so I stir this back in and turn to bake and 350⁰ for the duration. Keep your eye on it and stir in some water or broth if the sauce is cooking down too much.
At this point you can remove the rosemary sticks, cover, cool and store in the fridge.
For the squash I used an heirloom variety that was about 10 inches long and fairly fat. Cut in half lengthwise, seeds and strings removed and a bit sliced off the bottom to allow it to sit flat, it offered two wells large enough to take most of the warmed braise. This fit perfectly in a roasting pan which I then baked for about an hour at 350⁰ to cook the squash, lightly covering the stew with foil.
Served over a bed of arugula sprinkled with steamed, diced Yukon gold potatoes, the diners self-served
using large spoon to dig out the squash with each portion. A nice wine, a crusty, airy bread with herb or blood orange infused oil for dipping (and to pour over the main dish) and a side salad of chopped pink grapefruit in its juices, with thinly sliced fennel and a drizzle of vanilla infused olive oil and voila, a satisfying winter meal.
Not only was this the essence of comfort food, it was beautiful to serve and easy to clean up, which is always a nice thing for my lovely dishwashing assistant.
So thanks to Trina we are living large off the land.