Books and Beyond
As I have gotten older I find my brain does not serve me as well as it once did. I have had to resort to a number of tricks and tools just short of tying a string around my finger. I figured this was just part of the aging process until I read about some work the Centers for Disease Control is doing called the Healthy Brain Initiative. It turns out you can exercise your brain just like you can work on your abs, or gluts, for a stronger, healthier body.
The CDC estimates that Alzheimer’s disease is now the 6th leading cause of death among American Adults aged 18 and older, and the 5th leading cause of death for those aged 65 and older. If current trends continue, by 2050 as many as 16 million people may be living in the United States with Alzheimer’s disease.
According to the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation there are 6 things you can start doing right now to reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s or dementia and to protect your brain. The six pillars for a brain-healthy lifestyle are
- Regular Exercise - include balance and coordination exercises.
- Healthy Diet - have a cup of green tea.
- Mental Stimulation - Learn something new, or try something you think you are not good at.
- Quality Sleep - establish a regular sleep schedule.
- Stress Management - schedule daily relaxation activities.
- Active social life - commit to spending time with friends and family every week even if it's just a telephone conversation.
The library is a natural fit to support many of these activities. It's a great place to meet your neighbor, get a book to read with your grandchild, or learn about something new.
Now if you will excuse me, I am going to put on my sweats and do a crossword puzzle!
Like a lot of people, my love affair with Ramen began when I started living in a dorm. Hot pots were the appliance of choice, the work horses of our shared kitchen and a guarantee of something salty and caloric within minutes. My gateway noodle was pretty standard: Maruchan ramen, chicken flavor. But soon I was running with some serious instant ramen connoisseurs. I eventually moved on to everything from kim chi ramen to miso ramen to the unknown pleasures of chili oil and freeze-dried beef packets. I consumed a lifetime's worth of sodium in four years, but I was in paradise.
I became aware of ramen as a rich and complex culinary tradition much later in life, but after my first bowl of chashu ramen with hand-pulled noodles, I was hooked. I've become as obsessed with the methods as I am with the food, and I've been hitting the books trying to create the perfect bowl in my own kitchen.
There is no shortage of ramen-related cookbooks out there. In the past year or two, the market seems to have become saturated. At one end of the spectrum is David Chang, whose Momofuku is probably in the vanguard of haute cuisine's take on Japanese street food. Chang is a fascinating personality, and a brilliant chef, but for a home cook, I found that a lot of his recipes bordered on absurdity. I felt like the poor woman in the movie Tampopo, getting things wrong over and over again with catastrophic results. I like Chang better in his role on Mind of a Chef. His digressions into different variations and techniques (an entire episode is devoted to the egg) are a source of endless inspiration.
One of Chang's guests on Mind of a Chef was Ivan Orkin, an American chef in Tokyo who uses an aromatic, high-protein flour blend for his noodles and a fatty, chicken-based broth for the soup. His new book Ivan Ramen is written in painstaking detail, but home cooks are very much the intended audience.
So far, I've actually gotten some of the best results from Tadashi Ono's and Harris Salat's Japanese Soul Cooking. Their recipes are simple, but they are easy to play with once you've got the basics down and they yield big, intense flavors.
And what about the noodles, the most important part for many Ramen fans? Orkin definitely wins points for providing a clear chemical explanation for his alkaline noodle dough. He came to his recipe empirically and walks through things so that you could probably repeat the recipe without the book the second or third time. Tadashi and Ono just recommend finding good fresh-frozen noodles to build around. My kitchen recently became gluten-free so I'm still trying to crack the code with some different flour blends. I've found some brown rice ramen noodles that make a good vehicle and in a pinch a great soup base can dress up a packet of instant noodles pretty nicely.
One of my favorite albums of 2013 was recorded at the bottom of a well on the same three-track used to record the first 13th Floor Elevators songs. The tapes were buried in New Zealand for 30 years, thrown in a lake, dried on top of a space heater, then released as an album. I don't think any of that is actually true, but Unknown Mortal Orchestra's II always sounds like it's traveled great time and distance. The sounds are instantly familiar, but never derivative. This is more difficult than it sounds with some of psychedelia's cliches pretty well entrenched in a lot of the past decade's garden-variety indie pop.
As with all great records, the more I listen to it, the more I'm immersed in its atmosphere, unable to stop humming the hooks, and reminded that some of the best pop music draws unapologetically on other sources to create something unique. This is the perfect record for a claustrophobic Colorado winter and its sometimes surreal periods of thaw ("Swim and Sleep Like a Shark" is right up there with George Harrison at his most melancholic), and almost every song on the album is a different point of departure. When I'm not wearing out II, these are some of the records it's sent me back to:
T-Rex: Electric Warrior - Singer Ruban Nielson often channels Marc Bolan pretty convincingly, albeit in a more lo-fi mode. "So Good at Being in Trouble" has more than a few things in common with "Cosmic Dancer." "No Need for a Leader" wouldn't be out of place alongside a track like "Jeepster."
The Clientele: Suburban Light - The Clientele's early output hits the perfect equilibrium between songwriting and sonics. The intentionally reverb-drenched sound of these early singles makes the songs sound timeless, like forgotten Donovan or Nuggets-era one-offs blaring out of a transistor radio.
Shuggie Otis: Inspiration Information - Otis gives these songs a sense of huge scale, despite the fact that much of it was recorded at home with him playing all of the instruments. It's worth a listen not only for the endlessly soloing guitars of the famous "Strawberry Letter 23," but also for some truly weird experiments with an early drum machine.
Jean-Michel Jarre: Oxygene - I enjoy "Dawn," a brief synthesizer piece towards the end of II, more than I should, perhaps because I have a soft spot for the self-indulgence the instrument has encouraged in everyone from Genesis to Daft Punk. Jarre was one of the best at making moody pieces that take themselves a little too seriously, a vein that's still mined pretty heavily by the likes of Daniel Lopatin. In this case, it comes at just the right time and sticks around just long enough to set the stage for the standout "Faded in the Morning."
Ty Segall: Goodbye Bread - Garage Rock. Plain and simple. And as on many of UMO's more upbeat tracks, Ty Segall's band get as much out of the formula as they can. "My head explodes"could be a description of the sublime, or a just a mission statement.
Some traditions continue for longer than they should. Take New Year’s resolutions, for instance. You get some poor sod, already tired and penniless from the holidays, and catch him at his weakest moment, when he’s least like himself. Then you make him resolve something. It’s like a mean-spirited joke.
The farce is completed by the fact that New Year’s resolutions are made, but are rarely kept. Whatever you’re giving up (be it booze or desserts) or taking up (whether fresh vegetables or regular exercise) rest assured that no one expects you to be doing it come March. New Year’s resolutions are a hypocrite’s delight.
I don’t usually go for resolutions, but this year, I’ve broken with custom and decided to make a vow of my own. My resolution happened spontaneously, last Sunday, as I was watching the series premiere of Downton Abbey with my partner. At the precise moment that Lady Edith’s profile dissolved into a commercial for unsalted butter, my wife looked at me and posed the fateful question that plagues viewers everywhere; namely, why does Downton Abbey suck so badly? And better still, why on earth are we watching it?
All excellent questions. Why indeed? Based on three seasons of careful viewing, let’s sum up what we know about Downton Abbey. Well, for starters: every day on the Grantham estate is like New Year’s Day, and the dialogue is like being stuck inside a greeting card. Set in a historical period that no living person can remember, Downton indulges genteel stereotypes about the British class system as benign paternal order, where accidents of birth carry the weight of fate, and your place as lord or servant is no less inevitable than tradition itself. In the drawing room, the men are self-important and the women are bored. Downstairs, the staff is courteous, hard-working and self-doubting, the “noble poor.” Every now and again, the writers put a curt phrase in Maggie Smith’s mouth, and we laugh, as we are meant to. It’s all so familiar. After all, she played this exact role in Gosford Park and Tea with Mussolini.
Traditions are meant to give us comfort. We watch transatlantic costume dramas and see a mannered and preternatural calm that passes for life, one that gives us the sense of an unchanging world. The years go by without anyone having aged a single day. The years go by without anyone having changed his mind. Someone takes tea. Someone’s title is passed to his offspring. Someone is born. There’s another commercial for unsalted butter. Another why are we still watching this?
In the end, nothing is forever, not even Downton Abbey. I read the other day that next season, Downton Abbey’s fifth, will be its last. When it comes to television, I’ve always admired the British ability to know when enough’s enough. If Downton Abbey were an American show, it would not be permitted to die. It would limp along like a grotesque Vegas lounge act, crapping out gold ingots for ten, fifteen, even twenty seasons.
But me, I'm going to get a head start on Downton's demise by stopping my subscription now. Whatever else the new year needs, it simply must have better television. Check with me in March, when New Year’s resolutions will be nothing but a distant memory. I’ll probably be watching Glee, and wishing it was January, so that I could make myself another promise.
Irony happens. Just after writing about the possible mafia-related history of my house, I came home to find I'd been burglarized. It ranks among the top five scariest experiences of my life. I left work around 8:15 pm, stopped off for some groceries, and then walked through the front door. Nothing seemed odd until I entered the kitchen. The light in the adjoining laundry room was on. Then, after staring for a few moments, I saw the debris on the floor and realized the side door which leads to my deck was wide open.
It had been kicked in.
You’re not alone in this house.
I heard this thought as if spoken to me by another person, and I ran like hell to the front yard and called the cops. Thornton’s finest showed up a few minutes later and we re-entered the house.
“Damn, they really trashed this place,” the lead officer said as we went room to room. He was referring to the clothes, dishes and junk mail scattered everywhere. I blushed. I live alone and sometimes my housekeeping skills go a little . . . unused. So I grunted in agreement rather than explain the mess was mine. If anything, the untidy state of affairs probably caused the burglars to work extra fast, fearing they’d catch cholera if they loitered too long.
In the end, only one thing was stolen—my 50” plasma TV. I have little else of value, and often joke that thieves breaking into my place would actually leave me stuff, along with a note promising to return when I’m better off.
I doubt I’ll ever make that joke again.
I spent the night in the house, though it was the last place I wanted to be. I couldn’t leave because the ruined door was impossible to secure. I stayed up pondering the situation. Why was I targeted? Was it a crime of opportunity? Had someone been studying my schedule? Creepy.
By dawn, fear turned to anger. I resolved to upgrade my home security. I’d been stupid. I have a fence with two gates and hadn’t locked either. The door that was kicked in had a protective storm door, but it never locked or closed properly. I knew it was a problem, but I never bothered to fix it. After living in the house for five years without incident, I ignored how easy a target I’d become.
Hardening my defenses has now become a fetish—50 Shades of Home Security. Monitoring system installed? I’m aroused. Tall, firm locked gates? You turn me on. Motion detection lights and security cameras? Yeah, baby, let’s make a home movie. Reinforced steel entry doors? You make me want to shoop!
But these are just conventional improvements. I want barb wire. I want land mines and remote controlled gun turrets. Over the holidays, I watched Home Alone ten times in a row. Let me tell you something: you can’t watch Home Alone and not learn a little something about innovative home security. Hey, burglars, make sure to step on the third kitchen tile. It’ll be a real treat when the ceramic snaps and plunges your foot into a bed of spikes!
I want mutated grey wolves patrolling the perimeter. I want DNA-altered bottle-nosed dolphins that can walk on land and paralyze thieves with sonar blasts. When not walking on land, they’ll hang out in the moat. Did I mention the moat? Having one really increases the value of your home. Of course, these upgrades are pretty costly. It’ll be decades before I can afford a replacement TV all the additional security measures will one day protect. But like I said, irony happens.
For years I have been trying to pawn off a favorite book on family, friends and unsuspecting library patrons. Some took the bait, but others looked at the title, raised an eyebrow and said, “Gosh. I really have an awful lot on my plate right now. Maybe next time.”
So, imagine my delight when I saw Gathering Moss by Robin Wall Kimmerer, mentioned in the acknowledgements at the back of Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest novel, The Signature of All Things. I couldn’t believe that anyone other than Kimmerer’s publisher, friends, family and me knew about this book. (Okay, I’m exaggerating just a little – Gathering Moss won the John Burroughs Medal for an outstanding book of natural history writing in 2005.) Still, it felt as if Gilbert and I were part of some secret society, a clandestine clique complete with knowing winks and special handshakes.
Kimmerer’s book is a collection of essays about, as the title suggests, moss. I know – it sounds like a real snoozer. But, well-written essay collections are one of my favorite things to read and well-written essay collections about natural history topics are this girl’s idea of heaven on earth. (A disclosure -- I majored in Biology in college, with an emphasis in Botany and a special interest in the bryophytes – those nonvascular oddities of the plant world that include the liverworts, hornworts, and mosses.)
Kimmerer’s book combines not only fascinating explanations of the ecology and lifecycles of various moss species, but weaves in her take on motherhood, the environment and Native American traditions (Kimmerer is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation), as well. She expertly takes what, on the surface seems minute and mundane, and infuses it with universal meaning.
By the way, Gilbert’s book is a winner, too. It’s her first novel in 13 years and from the first page, I was hooked. It’s the story of Alma Whittaker, a fictional 19th century botanist and explorer who becomes an expert in moss taxonomy and biology. (Another disclosure – while I’m not a big fan of Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert’s earlier work of nonfiction, The Last American Man about Eustace Conway, a self-proclaimed survival expert, is a personal favorite. The book was a National Book Award finalist in 2002.)
While we’re on the subject of women in science, I must share a recent online discovery. Emily Graslie is the Chief Curiosity Correspondent for the Field Museum in Chicago and as such, hosts an absolutely delightful digital blog called The Brain Scoop. She was recently featured on NPR responding to the sexist comments she’s been receiving on her blog -- more specifically the comments posted by viewers who, shall we say, pay more attention to the messenger than the message. (Honestly though, Emily is smart, perky and cute as a bug, and if I were a guy, I’d want to date her, too!) For a good introduction to Emily and The Brain Scoop check out the video about her favorite science books.
And if you just can’t get enough science news and views, check out the Real Clear Science website and their list of the Top Ten Science Bloggers. You’ll find more time-sucking blogs and websites than mosses have spores.
Some things you want to like more than you do--like the novels of Tolstoy or the administrations of Democratic presidents--but in the end they conspire to disappoint you. Dissatisfaction of this sort is not unlike the sensation of having a phantom limb: you imagine something that reality can’t support and then wonder how you ever imagined it in the first place.
I had a similar experience as I made my way through the acclaimed graphic novel Blue is the Warmest Color. I should start by admitting that I’m an infrequent reader (or is it viewer?) of comics. In my limited experience, the most interesting comic book artists are the ones who collaborate with writers. But even as I write this, I realize there are countless exceptions: Robert Crumb, Ivan Brunetti and Alison Bechdel are three that come immediately to mind. But most often, the writing of the best comics cannot compete with the best prose fiction, and if it’s narrative I crave, I’ll sacrifice nifty graphics for a better storyline every time.
A few months back, the film adaptation of Blue is the Warmest Color took top honors at the Cannes Film Festival, winning the coveted Palme d’Or Prize. While I haven’t seen the film version, I did lay my hands on the graphic novel by Julie Maroh. It tells the story of two young women, Clementine and Emma, who become lovers. Having been raised in a judgmental environment that eschews homosexuality, Clementine questions her orientation and slowly learns to accept her sexual identity, a process mirrored in the experiences of countless young people the world over.
When Clementine meets the cooler, ineffably hip Emma, it’s classic love-at-first-sight: can’t sleep, can’t eat, can’t live without you. The comic also depicts the many instances of homophobia that those coming out must endure: many of Clementine’s classmates, as well as her indignant father, treat her with contempt, and this causes her no small amount of anguish.
What so disappoints me about Blue is the fact that, minus the story of Clementine’s coming out, it is little more than an angsty teenage love story. From the viewpoint of an adult reader, it lacks the ability to surprise. Young woman has questions about her sexuality, check; young woman meets another young woman and falls in love, check; the two young lovers quarrel, check. And so on and so forth.
Maybe the failure of Blue is a failure of marketing: if directed toward a teen audience, it might have greater impact, particularly to those undergoing struggles similar to Clementine’s. Adolescents are forever grappling with questions of identity: sexual identity, cultural or ethnic identity, gender identity. The list goes on and on. Part of transitioning to adulthood is accepting one's identity, and being equally accepting of the identities of others.
As it stands, there is little in Blue that I could rightly call revelatory. It’s two kids in love, trying to make their way in the world. As one who barely survived the graphic novel of his own adolescence, I wish Clementine and Emma all the happiness in the world and send them on their imaginary way. With any luck, Blue will enjoy modest success, but not so much that it demands a sequel.
Blue is the Warmest Color by Julie Maroh. Vancouver, BC: Arsenal Pulp, 2013.
A librarian’s wages won’t buy any mansions, but I thought I did okay when in 2008 I found this dump out in Thornton and became a home owner.
Intrigue soon entered my life. Two weeks after moving in, I’m doing yard work when this elderly couple comes by.
After confirming I bought the house, they expressed both surprise and pity. The man fished through his jacket pocket and I waited in expectation of receiving some Werther’s candy.
Then his wife said, “You know this house was built for Don Smaldone.”
As a transplanted Kentuckian, my forte was not Denver's history. “Who’s Donald Smaldone?”
They gaped at me like I’d asked, “Who’s Jesus?” or “Who’s Todd Helton?”
The man cleared his throat and said, “The Don.”
After a few seconds, I realized he meant some sort of mafia character. I almost laughed in his face. What pathetic Godfather would live in my crappy home? If you crossed him, did you find a decapitated guinea pig in your bed?
This must be a joke.
But later, a second, somewhat younger neighbor told me that as a boy he played inside the house with the Don’s children. He said there were always rumors of money hidden within the walls. (Come winter, I discovered there was nothing hidden in the walls. This unfortunately included insulation).
I decided to investigate. Over the years, whenever patrons asked me how to research the history of their home, I blithely told them to go the County Assessor’s Office. Patrons following this advice probably burned me in effigy later, because home research actually is pretty challenging. My house was built in 1952 and the earliest digitized records at the Adams County Assessor’s Office began in the mid-1970s, forcing me to delve through these massive grantor-grantee books. Two hours later I’d learned all kinds of neat stuff, but none of it had anything to do with my house. It was as if my property never existed. This both frustrated and fillibiated me. Could the story be true? Was my house built for a mafia Don and somehow kept off the records?
Or was I just a bad researcher?
Other resources yielded no clues. Then I thought of History Detectives, that PBS show featuring people with small historical mysteries on their hands. Wouldn’t my house be a good candidate? I wrote them an email to explain my story.
But I just couldn’t send it. I realized I was in love with the possibility my house had been built for a mafia Don. Confirming it would be awesome. But what if it was easily debunked? What if the story was as leaky as the roof? I decided to pretend the tale was true. This was simple enough—from romance to religion, I’ve been a professional pretender for years. Now I'm building on the mystery. I’m remodeling my house and turning the den into a crime memorabilia room. All my future Halloween parties will be gangster themed. You’re looking at one contented guy. It's like Josh Groban says: “You have everything you need--if you just believe.”
People of a certain age cannot help but love Robert Redford. Like many others, I first encountered him in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), alongside the equally entrancing Paul Newman. Ever the impresario, Redford segued from leading man to director to founder of the Sundance Institute, which holds an annual film festival that has grown into something of a prestige event for emerging and established filmmakers.
Every once in a while, Redford still takes on an acting role, and this past weekend, I was eager to see him star in The Company You Keep (2012), based on the novel by Neil Gordon. For me, the film’s title is telling, because Redford is only a small part of the film’s appeal. The cast consists of a veritable who’s-who of accomplished actors, including Brendan Gleeson, Susan Sarandon, Stanley Tucci, Terrence Howard, Nick Nolte and Chris Cooper. With all of that world-class talent, the movie can’t possibly suck, I thought to myself.
The first ninety minutes are promising. Redford stars as Jim Grant, an Albany lawyer whose true identity as a fugitive member of the Weather Underground—and if you’re old enough to know Redford, you don’t need a history lesson on the Weathermen—is exposed by a newspaper reporter played by Shia LeBeouf, who looks less like a journalist and more like he should be worrying about who to take to junior prom. For those who object to my characterization of young Shia, I have but one word: Transformers.
Once uncovered, Redford’s character goes on the lam. Having spent thirty years as a fugitive, he stays one step ahead of the feds, who seem forever on the verge of nabbing their man, only to be outsmarted by wily Sundance. Everything proceeds swimmingly until the screenwriters get lost on their way to the ending. It’s almost like they made aesthetic choices that they couldn’t retract, and decided that rather than backtracking, they’d just press on to the end. You know, like the Donner Party.
I don’t want to give too much away, but the ending of The Company You Keep requires some suspension of disbelief. I’m hard-pressed to think that other members of the cast didn’t have the same reservations about the script as I did, but maybe that’s the Power of Bob. You’ve certainly arrived when actors of note will drop whatever they’re doing to act in a mediocre film with you. Just ask Woody Allen.
The saddest part of this film is that it’s easy to see how it might have been good. A plot twist here, a meaningful supporting role there. But this one’s in the can, and as much as we might like to, there’s no taking it back. If indeed we’re judged by the company we keep, then a great cast was diminished by devoting their considerable talents to something that didn’t measure up. When one person makes a bad choice, it’s poor judgment; but when a whole group does it, you suspect there’s something in the water.
In Hollywood, the best way to wash off the stink of a bad film is to make a great one. And while I don’t doubt that Redford still has the capacity to do great work, I hope he has the good sense to invite back the cast of The Company You Keep, so that those who shared in his mistakes can also bask in his glory. But maybe I should be more magnanimous: after all, nobody’s perfect. But when choosing scripts, I think it’s good to ask yourself: what would Sundance do?
The Company You Keep. (2012). Starring Robert Redford, Shia LeBeouf, Chris Cooper, Nick Nolte, et al. Rated R.
*Photo of Robert Redford by Jemal Countess, cc2012.
To my mind, the greatest ninety seconds in the history of recited poetry happened in 1986. The film was Back to School, the actor was Rodney Dangerfield, and the poem was Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night."
Watch it and tremble in awe.
Of course, Rodney doesn't quite recite the whole poem, and his performance is helped by some soaring background music. Regardless, watching this scene as a teenager, I thought, Now this is what poetry's all about!
I was, in a word, stoked.
Subsequent opportunities to attend actual poetry readings never lived up to that magical moment. This devastated and frustrated me. I ventured to coffee houses at the ends of the Earth, hoping to duplicate that elusive experience. I would not go gentle into that good night. I would rage, rage against hearing poets performing badly.
Then after attending a few more lousy readings, I said to hell with it and turned my passions to bar trivia.
Still, I've never really lost my interest in hearing writers read their work. For instance, I just listened to Stephen King read some excerpts from Doctor Sleep a few weeks ago in Boulder. I've also heard Ray Bradbury, John Irving and John Updike. All of them were competent readers.
But Rodney Dangerfield's recitation still beats them all. Sorry. I've even found a recording of Dylan Thomas reading "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night." This excited me. If anyone could do the poem justice, it was surely the man who wrote it. And while he does a good job, even Thomas can't top Dangerfield's performance. I realize true poetry lovers are rolling their eyes right now, but I'm just being frank and fillibial with you about my tastes.
There are many places to find recordings of famous writers reading, but an especially intriguing one is Open Culture, which bills itself as providing access to the best free media resources on the web, including lectures, textbooks, movies and audiobooks. That's all impressive and worth your time exploring, but I gravitated to a section called Great Readings. This eclectic catalog of streaming audio includes T.S. Eliot reading The Waste Land, James Joyce reading from Ulysses, Hemingway and Faulkner reading stories for the radio, and various other oddities.
After listening for an hour, I pretty much concluded what I already knew: Rodney Dangerfield remains the supreme oral interpreter of Western literature. I mean some of these recordings leave no room for doubt. T.S. Eliot sounds like he's on the brink of death; Hemingway's halting voice makes it seem like he's translating his material live from Morse Code; and Flannery O'Connor reminded me of how my grandma might sound if she was doing a Clarice Starling impression.
Now I know at this point, most of you agree with me. How couldn't you? But a minority must be saying, "This guy needs to go back to school."
Well the joke's on you.
I never went to school at all.