Thursday, February 22, 2007

Getting in shape...

Cows outside Windsor

THE FIRST DAY hurts, always. Two days ago I proved this yet again, striking out across the neighbor's vineyards, along a shale road, then another neighbor's asphalt driveway to his locked gate.

Couldn't begin to think of trying to open it. Couldn't begin to get across the fence. Still, where there's a will there's a way, and before long I was out on Starr Road.

From there an easy walk into town — in my case, Windsor. Here there's a pretty nice coffeehouse, where I waited with a decent cappuccino for Lindsey to drive in and pick me up.

That evening, the familiar ache in the thighs, and a little footsore too, and next morning a stiff back and knee. Just as had happened six years ago when we began walking the Pieterpad in The Netherlands.

Only thing to do, of course, is walk through it. Today I set out a little before noon, walking along the road this time, and got into Windsor — nearly eight kilometers — in a little over an hour.

That's very good time, and sitting here over a mocha I feel fine. It's perfect weather: cloudy with a threat of showers; a light dusting of snow on Mt. St. Helena and the hills south of the Geysers.

The plums are in bloom, the "wild plums" as the women in our family call them, though I think they're more feral than wild; rootstock volunteers recalling the days when this country was all planted in prune orchards. As you walk past them you smell them, sweet yet pungent. It's a breezy day; the air is fresh and clean. It's good to be walking again.

Of course walking here is not like walking in The Netherlands. Here I'm forced to walk on pavement. There are places where there's a bit of a shoulder, gravel for the most part; but it's so steeply raked that you feel like you're walking on a roof, about a twenty-degree angle — not good for your ankles, knees, or hips. So I keep on the asphalt, and even that's rounded.

Approaching Windsor, once past the site of the World War II prisoner-of-war camp, once past the cows in the photo above, you're on sidewalk. Here the footing's flat, but the pavement's concrete: hard on the feet.

It's almost exactly eight kilometers from our front door to the middle of Windsor, where the Café Noto rewards me today with a mocha, and I whip out my folding keyboard and write this on my Palm — connected to the Internet via the free wi-fi that permeates the businesses bordering the "Town Green." Windsor's an odd place, its commercial architecture phony as a Hollywood sound set, all developed within just a few years (and still ongoing), but better than the shopping plazas set off by their enormous parking lots.

Eight kilometers in eighty minutes: a good clip, faster than we'll be doing in Europe in a few weeks, where the sights will be less familiar and the footpaths, I hope, less unforgiving. I can hardly wait.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Bog-man cereal

I THINK I'VE MENTIONED it before, but in case you weren't paying attention, this is how it's done:

Buy equal parts of red (hard) wheat, white (soft) wheat, oats, and rye — all in the kernel, not rolled or chopped into groats. Mix them all together.

I use the same pan every day, and don't measure anything. Water up to the rivets. Then pour in the grain: I use a little scoop, and pour it into a heap, just enough so the top of the heap breaks through the surface of the water. Add a handful of raisins.

Bring the water to a rolling boil, put a lid on the pot, and let it sit overnight. Do this just before going to bed. It takes about five minutes.

Next morning, uncover the pot and bring the cereal back to a boil. Then turn off the heat and toss in a couple or three tablespoons of oat bran, stirring it well in afterward to be sure it doesn't clump up unpleasantly. Put the cover back on and let it stand.

Some of us like to sprinkle a bit of sugar on the cereal, perhaps brown sugar; others like it just as is, with of course a little milk. Either way it's very cheap — the wheat costs about fifty cents a pound, even organic; the oats maybe three times that — and a bowl of this cereal will keep you going all day, or certainly to lunchtime.

Oh: the name. When I made this for Pavel it was just the time that a thousand-year-old body was found in a Danish bog, with some wheat kernels still in his mummified stomach. Bog-man cereal, Pavel called it.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Young Flamenco; Young Caesar

SEVENTY-TWO HOURS, more or less, over the weekend, sort of a typical jam-up for us — the jam-ups alternate, thankfully, with more tranquil times here on Eastside Road.

Friday night to the Flying Goat in Healdsburg, there to attend una noche flamenco: "La Eva" dancing, "La Vainilla" singing; David Carroll playing guitar — a chamber group, you might say, in an appropriately informal coffeehouse setting.

Saturday morning down to Berkeley, there to have lunch at Eccolo with an old friend, John R., recently retired from a distinguished career in journalism, thinking of a solid book on Die Zauberflöte, wondering how to arrange a more leisured life. Not a difficult matter, say I.

Saturday evening a quick supper at Zax in Berkeley, and then to San Francisco to see Lou Harrison's opera Young Caesar in the premiere production of its apparently final form — more masque, I think, than opera, but affecting and often quite beautiful.

Sunday morning to a screening of a friend's video Eat at Bill's, a winning, laid-back, fond documentary on Bill Fujimoto and his (Berkeley) Monterey Market, surely a unique institution dedicated to the small farmer, the demanding restaurant, and the canny shopper.

Then back upcountry to Sebastopol to see a second performance of that flamenco program, and finally to eat at the French Garden.

Home at midnight. Whew.

FLAMENCO FIRST. I don't pretend to know anything at all about flamenco; I only know that I am agitated and impressed by its performance, especially when done as well as this, especially when done by my own granddaughters. Eve, 23, has been dancing more than half her life. I have seen her balance on the heel of one foot for five minutes, tapping the toe of that foot with unbelievable force and rapidity, and then switch to the other foot for another five minutes, and continue for several such alternations — this at her school in Seville, in an exercise class that would land its instructor in prison in any country concerned about the health of its youngsters, it seems to me.

Flamenco requires that kind of discipline and focus, of course, and the skillful technique that may come of such training. But it requires more, and this is where Eve has evolved from a dedicated student to an expressive artist. She danced her own choreography on this program, alternating power and grace. To call attention to any one of her graces risks minimizing others: but the power of her percussive feet; the precise grace of her hands and arms; and her supple but muscular spine seem to me to be particularly remarkable.

Her sister Emma, 16, has been singing for years — I remember her parroting the Queen of the Night's aria "Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen" when she was only five or six years old, her voice carrying across the field as she walked back home from our house. She's been studying the flamenco style for six or eight years, and her voice has moved from the Queen of the Night's stratosphere toward Tamino's tenor. What particularly impresses me at the moment are two things: her long long breath, which can support amazingly long phrases; and her ear for microtonal inflections.

They're both off to Jerez and Seville in a couple of days, Eve for a number of months, Emma for only two weeks. I'm sure there'll be more Flamenco Nights this fall: if so I'll keep you posted.

ECCOLO: well, a perfectly delicious Eggs Benedict, rich and pointed with delicious egg, a bit of tang from lemon in the Bearnaise, first-rate bacon. If I were younger I wouldn't mind eating this every morning.

ZAX: a strange meal, I suppose, but those eggs Benedict had given me all the protein I needed,Since we were about to see an opera about the adolescent Caesar, the Zax version of his salad seemed appropriate: everything's there but the raw egg. With it, a side order of Swiss chard. Gotta have your leafy greens!

LOU HARRISON WROTE Young Caesar first in 1971, in a version for puppets, singers, and gamelan, which we saw that year at the Cabrillo Festival. In 1988 we saw a greatly revised version performed by the Portland Gay Men's Chorus, for whom Lou composed a number of strongly affecting choruses; the orchestration was also considerably changed, transfered to conventional Western instruments; and singing actors had replaced the puppets.

This so impressed John Rockwell, at the time the director of the New York Festival, that he asked Lou for yet another revision for a performance to mark his 85th birthday in 2002. In the event the production was not achieved, so last weekend's performances were the premiere of this latest version — the final one, since Lou died in 2003.

I wish he'd had the chance to workshop the piece a bit more, though I can imagine he was heartily tired of dealing with it, special as it was to him. The subject is close to everything Lou loved: the young, unsophisticated Caesar, a product of a rigid but hypocritical Roman (read European) upbringing, meets King Nicomedes of Bithynia, an experienced, sensuous, subtle Asian. Well, Asia Minor: but still Asia.

I spent a year or two, fifteen or twenty years ago, writing a biography of Lou — yet to be published; perhaps never to be published. I was and am fascinated by The Making Of Lou, which is analogous I suppose to Act I of Young Caesar: Lou grows up on the West Coast, develops his chops, studies with Schoenberg, performs with dance companies, meets music of all sorts. Lou Harrison: The Second Act did not interest me, so I never wrote that part of the biography, the part coming after his fiftieth birthday, his marriage to Bill Colvig, his turn toward composing almost exclusively for gamelan. I love and enjoy the mind of Lou; I don't understand and am not interested in his sensuality. My shortcoming: I freely confess it.

But the intellectual component of Lou's music, nearly all of it, and certainly including Young Caesar, is as rewarding as almost anyone's. In a curious way he's an American Anton Webern: his gestures are bigger and his "playground," to use his own term, vaster: but there's the same precise marriage of intricately intelligent and effortlessly lovely composition in both of them.

The premiere was produced by the Ensemble Parallèle, with tenor Eleazar Rodriguez perfectly capturing the title role, baritone Eugene Brancoveanu strong and winning as Nicomedes, and John Duykers at the peak of his powers in the important role of the Narrator — a sort of Harrisonian version of Mozart-Da Ponte's Don Alfonso.

Wendy Hillhouse was a fine Aunt Julia; Sheila Willey did well in the small role of Caesar's wife Cornelia; and the fairly large number of much lesser roles was consistently and even memorably performed.

Nicole Paiement conducted with energy and lyricism, and the small big band — two woodwind, to brass, five percussionists, harp, keyboards, and bottom-heavy strings — did a fine job of conveying Harrison's uniquely Handelian-flavored, gamelan-inspired opera orchestra.

Dance was central to the production, and Lawrence Pech and Peter Brandenhoff were amazingly successful at conveying love, lust, and lyricism without looking merely silly — as could easily have happened. Pech choreographed the action, working with Brian Staufenbiel's stage direction.

I'd like to see the production again. Lou's music is so effectively written for the voice: no one else seems to be writing opera in this country with his understanding for the voice. He knows how to set English, too; and how to write melodically without simply writing major key-minor key. There are no unpleasant leaps; but neither is there a predictable "tuniness." I'd like less recitative, more aria; but I'm happy with what Lou's left us.

EAT AT BILL'S— but that's enough for today. I'll get around to that in a couple of days.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Ibsen Valentine

photo: Michele Perella

YES, ST. VALENTINE'S DAY is over for the year. This is next-day journalism. I live in the country; we read yesterday's paper at breakfast. So I got to thinking about Couples, and What We Did On Valentine's Day.

We went to see the opening of ACT's production of Hedda Gabler, is what we did.

Ibsen't play about a neurotic woman unhappily married to a bland academic is probably not the right vehicle for the occasion. It reminds me of the French government's campaign, a few decades back, to instil reverence for the glories of the Gallic culture in every French new household; among the national gifts to each newlywed couple was a copy of Madame Bovary. Not A Good Idea.

I'll tell you about the show in a few moments, but first let me think about couples a bit. Yesterday I bought a half gallon of milk (Straus, of course), at a little market in Santa Rosa, and the nice young man at the cash register (do they still call them that?) looked at me a little dubiously, I thought, and then said in a friendly manner Have a nice Valentine's Day. Thanks, I said; you too; I hope it works out well. He looked at me a little more closely and said Oh it will; you don't need a girl to have a nice Valentine's Day.

Well I wouldn't know, I said; I have a girl; I've had this girl fifty years.

There we are above, on a fine summer day at least a decade ago, at Grindstone Joe's, where we used to go every summer for a party at Bumps and Bea's boat, an exercise in alliteration that's always pleased me. Dear Bumps was a fine man, handsome and capable; a kitchen architect is how I think of him professionally -- he supervised the installation of the kitchen when we rebuilt the Café at Chez Panisse after the fire.

But like so many fine and fascinating men and women Bumps was much more than his professional self; he was active and generous, thoughtful and intelligent, kind and sympathetic. He loved to have a bunch of us from the restaurant up to his boat every August, where he always grilled a dozen chickens (or two) and made a fine big loaf of campstove bread.

Alas poor Bumps passed away last year — or was it two years ago? — and we haven't seen his handsome Bea since, though we hear from her from time to time. Our own fiftieth anniversary approaches, and I think of the couples who no longer are couples, whether for death or divorce; how lucky we are to have one another; how sad yet apparently certain it is that others no longer do; and what's to be done?

Hedda Gabler would have none of this: sentimentality was not for her. Drama, yes; sentimentality, no. The metaphorical Vine Leaves In The Hair — the sense of heroism and nobility that came with a Great Gesture — meant more to her than domestic comfort. Some of see domestic comfort as nourishing, supportive, pleasant; the daily context that enables individual productivity. (I'm sure that's what Tesman had in mind, in Hedda Gabler.

Others, though, seem to think of it as a trap, stifling the individual, draining his resources (or hers, to stay to the point), a distraction from the truly glorious possibilities of an individual human life.

So it was useful, finally, to see Hedda Gabler on St. Valentine's Day; and particularly in the company of another couple, friends who like us find nourishment in their domestic couplehood for the flourishing of their individual gifts and enthusiasms. (Writing, in this case; but also extraprofessional pursuits: travel, birding, gardening...)

Well. To the "review." We saw the production from the very top balcony, so our perspective on the production is not ideal; but physically it seemed quite effective -- a tight, obsessive drawing room to suggest the stuffy opulence of the provincial bourgeois life Hedda could not face. Fine set, slightly removing the play from our own time, as if placing it on a Petri dish. Effective costumes.

The cast: René Augesen was a brilliant Hedda, flinging herself about the stage, mercurial in her verbal outbursts, simultaneously fragile and abrupt, complex and mysterious, and handsome as the Devil — indeed, her portrayal of the role suggested that Hedda perhaps is the Devil. If Finnerty Steeves was not quite up to her brilliance as an actress, in the role of Thea Elvsted, well, perhaps that's appropriate: the role can run away with the show, and Lockwood kept it focussed and clear without pushing it too far forward.

Anthony Fusco was a fine, witless, sympathetic, enthusiastic, ultimately dull Jorgen Tesman — the role's not terribly rewarding, I'd think, but absolutely central; the play might almost have been called Jorgen Tesman; that would have made the play Ibsen's only comedy. (Oscar Wilde would perhaps have done this.)

I wondered about Jack Willis's version of Commissioner Brack, at first; drawling and stodgily slimy, not the male Malevolence that counterbalance's Hedda's Evil in many productions. (Oregon Shakespeare's fine production a few years ago comes to mind.) I think he does throw away the crushing final line of the play, robbing this sudden moment of some of its horror (but leaving quite enough of that horror to nail down Ibsen's masterpiece). But the Commissioner's minor-league nastiness does seem appropriate; it's one of the key components of the drab mundane society that sets Hedda off.

Sharon Lockwood was affecting and credible as Aunt Juliane, and Barbara Oliver was wonderful as the maid Berte; both did much to anchor the production in its time-and-place and, more important, its mood.

That leaves the difficult, perhaps impossible role: Ejlert Lovborg, the brilliant, poetic, weak genius whose failures and impossibilties inspire Hedda to her own insanity. Stephen Barker Turner took on this demanding assignment, and seemd — on opening night, remember — a little bit tentative. Attractive; capable; sympathetic; but a little bit tentative.

I think Ibsen puts a bit of himself in this role; a bit of the impossibility of being an Ibsen in the Norway of his day. The weakest moment in the play is always his precipitous relapse — Lovborg's, I mean, not Ibsen's — into Old Demon Rum, or whatever it is Hedda tempts him with in that crucial moment. I've never seen an actor really bring this off: but maybe that's meant to show the impossibility of ever really finding Vine Leaves In One's Hair.

All in all, a wonderful production and performance.
Henrik Ibsen: Hedda Gabler, directed by Richard E.T. White for the American Conservatory Theater; runs through March 11.
* * *

En route to the city we stopped, the four of us, for a Valentine's Day dinner at 868 Kitchen in Novato, where between five and six o'clock you can have a three-course fifteen-dollar dinner quite nicely planned and served — but not, it turned out, on February 14. My fault: I should have known.

We sat down to a special fixed-price four-course menu, $65, with three choices of first course, five of second, four of plat principal. I had
Lettuce salad with grapefruit, cucumber, pickled onion, watermelon radish, avocado, bacon, and Meyer dressing
Ahi tuna tartare with shallots, chives, truffled ponzu, seaweed salad, and nori crips
Filet mignon wrapped in pancetta with potatoes, broccolini, braised cioppolini, sauce Bearnaise

Others had lobster bisque or endive-beet salad, canapés of libster, trout, caviar, and smoked salmon, and lobster ravioli with black ear and hedgehog mushrooms; and they were as delighted as I.

My tuna tartare was particularly memorable. Everything on this menu looked, on the menu, too complicated and distracted, but proved on palate to be perfectly balanced yet pointed and stimulating. A perfect Valentine from a kitchen. We'll be back; but we look forward to the $15 specials!

Tuesday, February 13, 2007


SOME OF YOU have said you prefer reading books to blogs. Here's your chance to prove it.

I've vanity-published two sets of travel dispatches, and I'm pleased with the results. The first one I did, about six weeks ago, is called The Company of Strangers and contains the dispatches blogged here last October and November, when we were traveling in the Netherlands, Piemonte, and sojourning in Budapest and Vienna.

128 pages, 6x9 perfect-bound paperback, four or five black-and-white photos, available for purchase here.

I'm more pleased with the more recent title, Roman Letters, which gathers the two sets of travel dispatches sent from Rome in January and November, 2004. It's a bigger book, at 250 pages, and it has a much more beautiful cover. More to the point, it seems to me the writing is better, probably because Rome can't help but make one think. There are more black-and-whites, too, 21 of them, but they seem to go a little fuzzy. If you want photos, you can't beat seeing them online, I guess the moral is.

But for reading words, some of us still prefer books. 258 pages, 6x9 perfect-bound, order it here.

Both these titles were self-published online using It's a simple process: you lay out the book the way you like it, turn the result into a .PDF file, and upload it to Lulu. You do the cover the same way. There's no charge for this service; Lulu apparently makes their money by printing the results. When a reader orders a book it's printed and bound to order and shipped right out — in a week or ten days it arrives in the mail.

I recommend this process. I think it will revolutionize small-audience publishing — and finally, for better or worse, writers can publish without dealing with editors and designers. They have only themselves to blame for the results.

Of course there's no money in it...

Saturday, February 10, 2007


RAINY. Reading about Ives; thinking about food.
A small Savoy cabbage
a couple of carrots
a little onion
olive oil

Halve the cabbage, remove its core, chop the core fine along with some onion, not too much.

Brown this in a little olive oil with a little salt.

Chop the carrots and add them to the pan and sweat them a little, with a little salt, without really browning them.

Slice the halved cabbage thin and add it to the pan; sprinkle with a little salt; moisten with water; cover and steam until done.

Let's eat!

Friday, February 09, 2007

Pomegranate Roads

Those who were born during calm years do not remember their way. We are the children of fearsome years in Russia, we are unable to forget anything.
— Alexander Blok, quoted by G.M. Levin in
Pomegranate Roads

HERE'S A SLEEPER of a book, part botany, part memoir, completely fascinating, written in a style so direct and effortless you want to keep turning the pages.

The author, Gregory Levin, was only five when the Germans besieged Leningrad; his father and three uncles were killed in the battle; he saw people die of starvation all around him. A born scientist, he cured his mother's scurvy, during that siege, with pine needles. Turned away from the university he should have attended because he was Jewish, he perservered, studying botany, doing graduate work in Turkmenistan, eventually concentrating on pomegranates.

That fruit resonates particularly with me for its medicinal properties, but you don't need health problems to appreciate them. They have fascinated mankind for thousands of years. Levin makes a good case for their having been Eve's fruit, Aphrodite's reward. Their teeming interior suggests fertility; their permanent stain suggests fidelity; their flavor and color suggest sensuality.

Levin wound up with a collection of over a thousand types of pomegranate, having searched them out in gorges, deserts, and mountain ridges throughout central Asia, traveling on broken-down trucks and jeeps, on horseback, by foot. He writes simply and almost laconically about these travels, with the dry pen of a scientist and a Chekhov, for he's Russian to the core, well-read, resigned to his time and place but determined to make the best of them.

The ambiguities and ironies of the Twentieth Century are only one constant subliminal thread through this book. Levin's life work was centered on a remote agricultural station centered on the Soviet-Iran border. When the Soviet Union broke up in 1989, and Turkmenistan became independent, priorities changed, and he emigrated to avoid seeing his work plowed under.

Turgenev and Jack London — and, perhaps, a certain detachment that comes with cultural isolation — seem to have taught him how to write. In a slim book that can be read in one or two sittings, he quotes literature, describes his childhood, portrays the vast central Asia, teaches botany, reveals Stalinist horrors — all effortlessly. You'll put the book down glad to have read it, to have met him, grateful to Barbara Baer for having found and published the book, eager to travel to central Asia, and thirsty for a glass of pomegranate juice. And, perhaps, a return to Mikhail Lermontov's great novel A Hero of Our Time.
Levin, Gregory M.: Pomegranate Roads. Forestville: Floreant Press: 2006

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Old Wine

TWENTY YEARS OR SO ago I needed to have a sixty-gallon oak winebarrel fixed up a bit. In those days there was still a cooperage on one of those narrow streets parallel to Mission, just north of the freeway ramp from the Bay Bridge. The place looked like it had been there since the 19th century.

In a couple of weeks I returned to pick up the repaired barrel. The guy who'd repaired it asked me if I ever cooked with wine. Sure, I told him. White wine? Yes; we often cook with white wine, especially when we're making a risotto.

Because I have some white wine someone gave me and I think it's too old to drink and I can't use it. Would you like to have it?

So he gave me a case of Chablis, a 1970 vintage. It was indeed maderized a bit, not very nice in the glass. But I made a risotto with it, and the result was delicious. From that day until last week there's almost always been a bottle of this wine in the icebox. Fridge, I mean; sorry.

Last week, alas, Lindsey used the last of it. It's gone, all of it. I will miss it forever, and remember the fellow who gave it to us forever.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Rome on my mind

The Tiber at dusk

A FRIEND ASKS HOW to spend a day in Rome. One day in Rome; the only day they’ll have there during a cruise they’re taking.

The immediate thought, of course, is Why go to Rome for only one day? Oh, how terrible, only one day for all of Rome!

But then, a day in Rome is better than a day in many other places, or even several days in many other places. So without really thinking too much about it, or looking anything up, here’s what I suggest:

Start at the Campo dei Fiori early in the morning. Walk down to the Ponte Sisto, cross it, then walk down along the Tiber to the Isola Tiberna, and spend twenty minutes or so walking around it. Then back to the Trastevere side and down to the Ponte Palatino.

Visit the Tempio Vesta and the Tempio della Fortuna Virile, stop in at S. Maria in Cosmedin to admire the floor (but ignore the Bocca di Verità), stop in at S. Giorgio in Velabro (my very favorite), walk the Circo Massimo, then the via di S. Gregorio to the Colosseo.

Have lunch at the Ristorante Nerone de Santis, via Terme di Tito 96. (Ah: I did some research after all.) Then take a cab to the Pantheon and stop in for coffee at La Tazza d’Oro nearby. Before or after the coffee go to the Gelateria San Crispino, via Panetteria,42, near the Trevi Fountain.

Take a cab from there to the Piazza del Risorgimento and then rest by taking a tram ride from there, through the Villa Borghese, getting off at the Piazza Buenos Aires to walk around the fantastic architecture of the Coppedé district; then resume the streetcar back to the Colosseo. Stroll through the Forum at dusk.

Have dinner at Perilli, in the Testaccio district, incredible spaghetti carbonara; or at Da Lucia in Trastevere, wonderful pasta cacio e pepe; or at La Campana, via Campana 18, marvelous borlatti beans with onion and celery slivers. If there’s music on, go to Ombre Rosse on the Piazza Sant’Egidio in Trastevere to hear a little jazz.

Don’t forget to have several coffees and a couple of grappas, and buy a hat, if possible. If it rains, get a haircut.

* * *

I think of Rome because I’m editing the Rome Dispatches from January and November 2004 for publication. Little by little some of those travel writings will come out in book form. One title is already out: The Company of Strangers, letters from The Netherlands, Torino, Monferrato, Budapest, and Vienna, from last fall.

128 pages, softbound, four photos in black and white. You can order it from or, of course, you can read it, blog by blog, right here in the Blogspot archive.