Sunday, July 04, 2010

The Month That Was - June 2010

The Month That Was - June 2010: A sunny and warm 4th of July. I'm delighted to say that I've had a healthy share of outside time so far this summer, which is what one should be able to say.

I have yet another hard-copy formatted galley of Misspent Youth. At first glance it looks pretty much correct and I am trying to work up the enthusiasm to unsheathe my fine-toothed comb. I've also managed to get together my ideas and some examples of cover graphics for the designer. Sometimes it seems like I'll be baby-stepping to my grave.

Two trips this month, both described below. No photos, though - they weren't really new locales. My eternal travel planning has slowed, mostly because I have decided it's time to buy a house. I have lived (quite happily) in a small-ish condo for well over a decade. It has been a completely hassle free situation, but the combination of exceedingly low interest rates and a deeply depressed housing market suggest that it might be a wise investment for me to embrace some longer-term hassle. That means having as much ready cash around as possible, which in turn means limiting my travel excesses. So what you will miss in terms of future travel narratives will hopefully be made up for in tales of house shopping follies.

[Travel] Memorial Day in NYC
[Books] Book Look: Norwegian Wood, by Haruki Murakami
[TV] Breaking Bad And You
[Travel] Ft. Lauderdamndale

[Travel] Memorial Day in NYC

Memorial Day in NYC: There are few things in the world cooler than being in Manhattan. (There are also few things more expensive.) If you are feeling dead and defeated, Manhattan will almost certainly change your outlook. This is especially true on Memorial Day weekend, on the cusp of summer. The weather was perfect. The city not too packed -- despite the fact that it is Fleet Week, a healthy portion of locals take the opportunity for a long weekend to get away, leaving the city not especially overcrowded. I hope to make this a Memorial Day tradition.

A strangely uneventful flight on Delta and an equally uneventful cab ride from LaGuardia brought me to the Doubletree Metropolitan in Midtown East: a decent enough hotel -- friendly and courteous staff, the rooms generic, but functional, although the concierge was not particularly accurate. After checking in I engaged in my standard re-acclimation of hoofing it over to Times Square.

I mentioned how expensive Manhattan is, yet one of the things I enjoy most about it are the options for cheap food. In the past I have salivated over the Bahn Mi at Saigon Bakery. Bahn Mi is a Vietnamese-style, pork-based, submarine-sized sandwich. Saigon Bakery is one man a carry-out operation on Mott St. in Chinatown in the back of a crap jewelry store. A Bahn Mi is about $4 and it's one of the tastiest things you will ever eat. A good choice in Midtown is the gyro cart on the corner of Sixth Ave. just across and down from the Museum of Modern Art -- awesome fresh lamb and rice, big enough for two at a whopping $6. The Hidden Burger Joint in Le Parker Meridien hotel used to fall into this class, but it has been packed from open to close every time I have tried to go there in the last three years, so I'm taking it off the list for now.

The first of two discoveries this trip was Xie-Xie, a sandwich shop on 9th and 45th just a block off Times Square. Just a small place next to a painfully hipster-looking nightclub, they serve up a handful of different sandwiches -- fish, lobster, pork, beef, chicken -- all with a delicious Asian twist. I had the BBQ Beef with carrot kimchi. Seriously good. Sandwich, bag of chips, and soda for under $10 in most cases. I would be very surprised not to see these places nationwide in a couple of years.

Anyway, as always, the journey across Midtown to the neon carnival spectacular of Times Square at night makes everything seem just right. The world is OK when I am in Manhattan.

Next day, Miss Kate rolls into Penn Station on the Acela from DC and in short order we are walking Park Ave towards the Upper East Side, eventually settling into a brasserie called Bistro 60, for a tasty light late lunch. From there, a lovely spring stroll through Central Park.

Central Park is always a joy. A lovely place in and of itself, the fact that it is an island of wooded quiet (relatively speaking) surrounded by the majestic contrast of the skyline and activity of the city just outside makes it unforgettable. It's easy to spend a day just wandering in the Park. We didn't spend and entire day but cut a somewhat meandering path over to the West Side, pausing briefly at the boathouse to watch the peddle-boaters the ambled past the hippies at Strawberry Fields and exiting near The Dakota. From there a long hoof back to the hotel, but not without a stop at Whiskey Blue in the W where Miss Kate vowed eternal devotion to the espresso martinis.

With the evening came a Broadway show: Promises, Promises. It's a fun, musical, romantic comedy starring Sean Hayes, who you'll remember as "Just Jack!" from Will and Grace, and Kristin Chenoweth, who you'd probably recognize from somewhere if you saw her, most recently she had a role in a couple of episodes of Glee. The story is based on the classic Billy Wilder film, The Apartment, and was scored by Burt Bacharach, the most prominent song being "I'll Never Fall in Love Again." It's all very nicely done. A solid B+ performance that's kicked up for a couple of scenes at the start of the second act when Kate Finneran steals the show with her hilarious portrayal of a lascivious barfly.

Broadway shows are prohibitively expensive -- to the point where you don't want to risk seeing a dud or being disappointed. The cost is too high. Promises, Promises is a safe bet. I can't imagine anyone being disappointed other than by their inability to get "I'll Never Fall in Love Again" out of their head for the next few days.

Post-theatre dinner was at Bar Americain, a Bobby Flay joint with some delectable variations on American-style bar food. Bobby Flay is sometimes disdained by serious foodies, but I've never had less than a great meal from his restaurants -- either Bar Americain or Mesa Grill in Vegas. (Are you getting the impression that this trip was all about food? Strange.)

The next day it was up bright and early to journey to Brooklyn for a walk across the bridge. The bridge walk is a great way to start the day. It only takes about 20 to 30 minutes and gives you a beautiful view of the Lower Manhattan skyline, but it's important to do it in the morning so as to have the sun to your back and the oblique light on Manhattan. (The reverse walk is less desirable as the Brooklyn skyline is nothing to write home about.) You can get a subway there; it lets you off a couple of blocks away but there are signs indicating the way. A quicker but more expensive alternative is to cab it over which actually results in a longer walk since the cab will likely let you off a bit deeper into Brooklyn that the subway. (Aside: this was one of the things our concierge screwed up.)

As you exit the bridge in Manhattan you are essentially within shooting distance of anything in Lower Manhattan. A good choice is the Seaport, which will be off to your left. Been there, done that for us, so we chose to dash west and troll around Soho and the Village past NYU and Washington Square Park.

Which leads me to my second cheap food find: Joe's Pizza, generally considered to be the best place in the world for a walk-in slice of NY pizza. I don't have a full spectrum of experience with NY-style pizza to judge that claim, but Joe's was awfully good. Top notch ingredients and noticeably exceptional crispy crust. In fact, while we were sitting there, some tour group stopped in for a slice -- perhaps it was a "taste of NYC" sort of tour. It's a place of that sort of renown. It goes on the cheap eats list for the rare occasions I make it down to the Village.

Time for one more espresso martini before bundling Miss Kate back on the Acela south. As for me, I didn't have to leave until the next day, so I was off to Birdland to catch a jazz set. (How's that for hip cat lingo?) Hilary Kole is a terrific vocalist with a healthy dose of Ella Fitzgerald in her style. She got hot band, a weekly gig at Birdland, and fine CD called "Haunted Heart". Recommended if you like vital takes on standards mixed with newer and original material. I prefer her swing numbers to the ballads, but you may differ. Good show, and the $20 cover is a deal in NYC.

The next, and last, morning I was feeling unambitious so I grabbed a Jamba Juice and walked to the park where I found a nice sunny spot on the grass and spent an hour watching life pass in the center of the world. I followed this with a brief visit to the Apple store just to see what the techno-hip were up to -- it was packed, not an iPad was going untested.

Another surprisingly uneventful plane ride from Delta got me home. If it wasn't for the pain and suffering in the wallet, I would be spending a lot more time in Gotham. I've really got to figure out a cheap way to do this. For restoration of the soul, it can't be beat.

[Books]Book Look: Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

Book Look: Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami: I've read the bulk of Murakami's work by now, and I've enjoyed and admired it, but I really don't know why. He commits many transgressions against my list of "what I like in novels" yet I still find myself engrossed by his writing. Norwegian Wood is no exception.

The story is quite simple. A young college student, Watanabe, already given to detachment and remoteness, is further isolated when his best friend commits suicide. (The contemporary world would probably refer to him as clinically depressed and hand him some Prozac.) Months later he has a chance meeting with his late friend's girlfriend, who is quite troubled, and they get cautiously involved. After consummating their relationship, the girl disappears into a sort of sanatorium. They maintain fleeting but heartfelt contact. Meanwhile, he finds himself thrust into a relationship with another girl; a free spirit --slightly wacky, this one. One relationship ends tragically, the other continues happily. That's the core story.

The personal depth comes through Watanbe's evolution from post-adolescent indifference and disaffection to engaging with love, loneliness, and life. But it goes even deeper than that. Death, especially in the form of suicide (very Japanese), looms throughout. Death makes all things impermanent, especially for those that live only in eternally fading memory. Death impels urgency and bestows a cost on allowing months and years to pass in detachment. Mortality is the ultimate driver of all actions.

And that's why I like Murakami. He occasionally lapses into exposition, gets a bit too concerned with minutiae here and there, loses momentum at the very end, and is needlessly frank about the details of sex (that too may be Japanese -- or it's just me being a fuddy-duddy?), but he's always got his eyes on the bigger emotional and even spiritual picture. He's never over-sentimental, even in the most gut-wrenching scenes. A story about a non-descript college kid is actually a story about ultimate questions of impermanence.

Norwegian Wood was a monster best seller in Japan. It is one of the cultural markers that certain generation of Japanese all have in common. (An early translation of it was used in schools to teach English.) It is renowned for its portrayal of college life around 1970 and especially its countless references to Western literature and music. Apparently Western arts were cool in Japan back then, but this no doubt feeds its popularity too. But again, Murakami does something admirable: the social background is incidental -- what counts is the personal.

Should you read Norwegian Wood? Yes, probably. I can't imagine anyone not finding something to like and despite the dire undertone, there's plenty of good humor (especially in the character of Midori). I do want to reiterate my warning about frank sexual activity. It's not gratuitous -- in fact, it's fairly meaningful in the scope of the story -- but it can be a bit of a shock.

If you are thinking of reading Norwegian Wood or any other Murakami, I should point out that most of his novels tend towards imaginative fantasy and magic realism. Not here. This one is firmly rooted in plain old life. Choose your Murakami accordingly.

[TV] Breaking Bad And You

Breaking Bad And You: Season three of AMC's near-pantheon series just recently finished up and it was very well done. Short version: this is the year Walter White's slow flight into the dark side went hyperbolic. The show has turned into a fascinating exercise in reflecting on one's personal morality. At what point is Walter White no longer a hero?

When we started he was a hapless Beta Male. He barely provided for his family. His brother in-law was a hot shot hero to his mildly handicapped son. His wife was (and still is) a sanctimonious shrew. He was given a death sentence (cancer) against which his only hope was to beg for money from more successful friend and rival. He drives a Pontiac Aztek for god sakes. He was worse than a failure. A failure has at least tried for achievement. He was completely ineffectual. He was a dust speck -- an intangible being. His destiny was to die pointlessly and drift out of memory having just as well not existed.

So he starts cooking meth with the plan to make enough money for his family (including a baby on the way) to survive after he was gone. Is this the point he turned evil? This naturally put him into contact with violent criminals and at one point he had to kill one such criminal for the sake of his own survival. How about now? Evil yet? Or excusable? Or at least understandable?

Further on, to preserve his operation, and partially for the good of his "partner" in whom he has developed a father/guilt complex, Walter allows someone to die through inaction, which indirectly leads to the death of hundreds of innocents in a plane crash. How about now?

Or how about when his brother in-law is brutally assaulted and partially paralyzed when offered up as a sacrifice by Walter's drug patron to save Walter's own life? How about when he runs over a couple of street dealers to save his partner and almost casually finishes off a survivor with a bullet to the head? How about in the last scene of the season, when he effectively orders the death of an innocent to save his own skin? The black hat he was sporting in the final episode seems to indicate that the line has been crossed.

Here's the thing. Once you accept that the first step -- that desperate cry for some sort of value for his existence -- the devastation that follows just cascades inevitably along with it. Unlike, say, Tony Soprano, who was a vindictive psychopath from the start and who you rooted for only in the sense of a fantasy, Walter White could easily be you or me. Walter White, in an act of desperation, in an attempt to die with some sort of identity, when faced with the ultimate injustice of mortality, did something very few of us wouldn't do (however manufactured the situation). It led to destruction beyond his imagination, but how can we declare him a villain when we can only in our deepest hearts we understand him and suspect we may would have done the same thing.

That's the high concept of Breaking Bad and it is a beaut. Oh there are sub-plots -- Jesse's various wars with addiction, Skyler's hypocrisy and potential complicity -- and the characters are wonderful, especially Better-Call Saul. But it's the high concept that has Breaking Bad knocking on the pantheon's door. There's still a bit too much dependency on contrivance and coincidence to let it in. (This tendency was on display at the end of this season as Jesse happened to find himself in a situation where he was facing down a couple of street dealers in the name of revenge and chivalry.)

The key thing now is not to drift in uncertainty. More than anything, creator Vince Gilligan needs to have the end in sight. He needs to know how he wants to finish it up and start getting there over the next couple of seasons. Right now, judging from recent interviews, he doesn't know where to go next and that's a problem. Complete the arc in your head, Vince, and work from there for two more seasons. Then close up shop. Call it a classic and move on to your next project. The key to the pantheon is in your grasp.

[Travel] Fort Lauderdamndale

Fort Lauderdamndale: The end of the month brought a trip to Ft. Lauderdale, to go through college orientation with Miss Anna. Orientation itself was what orientation is at just about any college: a diversity-oriented intro for the students, a safety-oriented intro for the parents, and a universal introduction to a confused administrative bureaucracy. By the third day or so they get around to registering students for classes.

Anna will be attending Barry University a small(ish) Catholic school just north of Miami. I have mixed feelings about it. Barry is overtly, unabashedly Catholic and I am an admirer of the Catholic educational tradition in principle but, more than most Universities, puts an awful lot of emphasis on "social justice" which, while not necessarily bad, is certainly a concern. (When principles of "social justice" are applied to individual interactions they are, invariably, unjust.) All this is, of course, yet another example of a lesson I re-learn everyday: It's not my world anymore.

No photos, because much of the days were spent shuttling back and forth between the Sheraton on the beach in Ft. L (not a bad place, but there are nicer choices) and Barry U., but we did manage some interesting excursions.

A run up A1A to Delray Beach was a winner. It remains my favorite beach town in Florida -- laid back, uncrowded, beautiful beach, perfect main street (Atlantic Ave.) to stroll. I'll take a lounge chair and full cooler here any day. Try Pizza Rustica for a slice of pure awesome.

We also made a dash into South Beach for a tasty dinner at Emerils, but not before making an attempt to walk down Ocean Drive until the restaurant barkers and gay boys dancing in their underwear drove us away. Good timing because as soon as we made it over to Collins Ave. what must have been the entire the Miami Beach police force descended on Ocean Drive to deal with some form of insanity. I'm too old to find such hooliganism entertaining anymore.

More enjoyable was walking through two Art Deco gems, The National and The Delano. Anna declared The Delano to be the most beautiful hotel she had ever seen, including the ones in Vegas. I had to agree. We decided to make that the official hotel of future college visits to Anna, but have yet to decide who's going to take out the second mortgage.

(Unrelated observation: Two places that used to be on my list for regular visits but that I have since gotten over: South Beach and New Orleans. That leaves Manhattan and Vegas and the recently added Chicago. There is clearly meaning in that, but have no interest in finding it.)

We hit Bal Harbour (north end of Miami Beach) a couple of times for dinner as it's the most convenient place to Barry. A decent little block or two for wandering with some decent restaurants but Bal Harbour is mostly just super-expensive high-rise condos and a shopping mall that charges admission.

After dropping Misses Kate and Anna off at the airport I had a couple of hours before my flight (which turned into six hours, thanks Delta) so I explored a bit more of Ft. L proper. I remain unimpressed. There is a long strip of beach bars and hotels with loud music and drunken revelers, but if you really want that, you're better off in South Beach. There is Las Olas Blvd., which trys to be a chilled out main street, but the traffic can be heavy and it's not really close to the beach -- if you really want that, you're better off driving up to Delray. That's the issue I have with Ft. L. It's just doesn't seem to be comfortable in its own skin. It's an odd mix of vibrant party center and laid back beach town, as a result it succeeds as neither. This is especially clear when there are better alternatives for either atmosphere less than an hour away.

Still, whether it's Miami Beach or Ft. Lauderdale or Delray there is always the joy of crossing the broad, soft sand of the beach and floating about in the summer-warmed Atlantic, which hasn't changed since I was twelve. I think I'm going to have to visit Miss Anna fairly often.