Thursday, June 30, 2005

Authentic Argo

A friend sends the draft of a paper on authenticity. It relates to something that’s been preoccupying me for a while; let’s call it Separation Anxiety. I’ve been noticing that increasingly in the last few months; I suppose it’s an inevitable part of aging.

Equanimity is better than anxiety, don’t you think? But maintaining equanimity in the face of approaching death is a difficult matter. (Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think my own death is right around the corner. But all around me there are friends and acquaintances brushing up against it, and it can’t help but be on my mind.)

The human preoccupation with Death — or, more often in our culture, evasion of it — is a logical result of the preoccupation with Individuality. I think this may be a key factor in our puzzlement at the willingness of religious fanatics to die for their various causes. We Americans cannot really comprehend the minds of suicide bombers, as I imagine the ancient Romans must have been perplexed at the complacency of many early Christians as they went to martyrdom (though self-death in battle was, I’m told, part of The Roman Way).

But I digress, as blogs so often do. What I’m thinking about this morning is Authenticity, which has always seemed to me a function of Place. Separation anxiety has to do with losing our place, because we identify with our place — our extended Place, which includes our family and friends, our home and things, our ideas and opinions.

Authenticity has to do with our objectification of Place, our hope, probably sentimental, that an expression of Place can continue even from one generation to the next.

This brings us to Sustainability, which is the gathering of attention and use toward the realization of that hope.

On the social level, now famously global, Sustainability requires heroic political measures. I’ve argued that these measures must begin locally and ripple outward.

And I think the social and political drive toward Sustainability is an outward counterpart to an equally desirable inward drive: toward Equanimity.

Authenticity and sustainability and equanimity are three faces of a single thing, and have to do with equilibrium. There are two constants whose tension defines the public or political neurosis of our time, and the individual separation anxieties bedeviling so many of us. One is the apparently universal human desire for Individuality and with it security. The other is Heraklitus’s famous statement: The only constant is change.

Equanimity, on a personal scale, must have something to do with willingness to modify individuality to accept the inevitability of change. Sustainability, on a political scale, requires a similar discipline when dealing with environmental factors.

The result is authenticity, a human expression of Place as it responds to Change. It occurs to me that the ancient expession of this riddle is Jason’s boat, the Argo, which remains always the same boat though over the years every one of its parts has been replaced.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Ascraeumque cano...

...Romana per oppida carmen. (Georgics, II, 176)

A dear friend urges me, now that I’ve read Cato and Varro, to turn again to Virgil and the Georgics. I know I have the Slavitt translation around here somewhere... where? Where do the damn books go, the favorite ones, the ones you’d never lend or sell? Hesiod’s Works and Days, and Virgil’s Georgics and Eclogues, both in the Slavett translation... nothing easier to find on the shelf .. I see how big they are, their white spines with the “handwritten” lettering: where the hell are they?

What does turn up, at least, is the C. Day Lewis translation, in the bilingual edition (Doubleday Anchor Original paperback): and when I open it, at random, that’s the line that jumps out at me:

Ascraeumque cano Romana per oppida carmen...

And I see it again on the blackboard where my enthusiastic TA in Latin wrote it out, with the strokes and horseshoes marking long and short syllables, and I remember his excitement at the line, long, long short short longshort /

- - uu - u / u - u u - uu - u
I’ll sing of farm things throughout Rome and her towns and her cities

C. Day, writing twenty years after the end of World War II, says:

The fascination of the Georgics for many generations of Englishmen is not difficult to explain. A century of urban civilization has not yet materially modified the instinct of a people once devoted to agriculture and stockbreeding, to the chase, to landscape gardening, to a practical love of Nature... It may, indeed, happen that this war, together with the spread of electrical power, will result in a decentralization of industry and the establishment of a new rural-urban civilization working through smaller social units. The factory in the fields need not remain a dream of poets and planners: it has more to commend it than the allotment in the slums.

How idealistic; how quaint. How very English, recalling Prince Charles’s speech to the assembled farmers and stockbreeders last October at the Slow Food-produced conference of smallholders from around the globe, when he addressed this very topic — though in a tone not quite so optimistic, closer in fact to despair.

Since Lewis wrote those lines industry, agriculture, indeed virtually all of modern civilization has become not rural-urban but urban-global. And if China can think of buying Unocal today, there’s no reason to believe she won’t soon be offering to buy General Foods, Monsanto, Archer Daniels Midland.

Is it just the Berkeleyan in me that thinks the only path of resistance is increased opting-out? I was encouraged a week ago to find, in Wisconsin, vital and apparently healthy producers of sustainably raised, chemical-free (or nearly so), seasonable products of local terroir eagerly sought by thousands of purchasers at Madison’s Sunday morning farm market. But of course this is a very special clientele: educated, discriminating, relatively prosperous. Privileged, in a word.

What must be done next is to extend these “values” beyond that circle: to the young, to the blue-collar, to people of color. I think such action must begin locally, starting in the rich suburban farms near college towns, demonstrating their economic viability, their healthfulness, and the joys of their flavors and fascinations to their own neighbors.

This is happening here in Healdsburg on Saturdays and Tuesdays; in Windsor on Sundays; in Sebastopol also on Sundays. There are farm markets in Santa Rosa and San Rafael and, famously, in San Francisco’s Ferry Building Such optimism can be contagious, I think. But then I’m perhaps as innocent as C. Day Lewis.

And I can’t find those Slavitt translations anywhere. Or my desk glasses either.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Frank Lloyd Wright Duplexes

Frank Lloyd Wright Duplexes
Originally uploaded by charlesshere.

These duplexes, many now needing a little attention, were built in 1916 as low-income housing in what had until then been a celery farm on the outskirts of Milwaukee. Photo: C Shere, June 2005

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Mixed use urbanity

A friend asks me to think about town planning, knowing my enthusiasm for the villages and provincial cities in Holland, where we plan to spend two or three weeks again this fall, walking from one to the next. He lives in Healdsburg, and like us is concerned about the changes there.

He suggested I blog about town planning, and that I use last week’s trip to Chicago and Wisconsin as a sort of trial run. It didn’t work out quite that way, as you’ll have seen. Chicago and Milwaukee have little in common with Healdsburg. They may have things to teach San Francisco and San Jose, but the problems and opportunities of a town of 9,000 are a very different matter.

Still there were urban impressions on this trip that may be worth passing along, especially today, in the wake of what seems to me a truly horrendous decision by the Supreme Court in the New London decision. It’s painful to find Rehnquist, Scalia and Thomas on my side, for a change, but there it is: the “liberals” on the Court ruled that the city of New London may seize houses that have been occupied by a family for generations, pay the occupants market value, and turn the property over to private developers, because the resulting hotels, shops, and offices will contribute to “the public good.”

Milwaukee has been busy turning its Third Ward — sixteen or twenty blocks of crumbling brick warehouses, often of strikingly handsome design, built as much as 120 years ago — into a gentrified area of restaurants, art galleries, offices, and upscale shops. We had dinner at Coquette Cafe there Tuesday night, and while the sauce espagnole on my steak was a tad burned, I wouldn’t mind eating there again. After dinner we strolled a few blocks in the balmy romantic urban night, and the ambiance was delightful, though there were few other strollers to be seen.

The development here is much like that in Portland (Oregon)’s Pearl District, if smaller and so far lacking the residential component that would make it much livelier at night. And I suppose it’s much like what New London has in mind. I’m glad to see the old buildings saved and turned to good use, and I’m glad to see residential use folded into what was formerly a blight on the margin of the urban center.

This is Mixed Use at its best, and Mixed Use has become a mantra of contemporary urban planning. Mixed Use is in the air here in Healdsburg, even, and well it might be. I have nothing but good things to say about it.

But salutary as it is in its efficient and conservational address to the city, or the village — I find I can no longer use the word “conservative” in its true sense — Mixed Use does not address a fundamental problem in towns and cities of every size: the accelerating polarization of American society between the poor and the prosperous. There seems to be no place, any longer, for the materially poor. We don’t want to see them.

We don’t want to recognize their existence, perhaps because they remind us of a terrible failure of the last fifty years of relative national prosperity — bought at the price of caring for those who haven’t been able, for one or another of a million reasons, to participate in that prosperity.

In Milwaukee we were fascinated to see a block of pre-fabricated duplexes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and built in 1916 and ’17. They’re in pretty sad shape at the moment, and a couple have succumbed to misguided re-sheathing since — shiplap siding over previous asbestos shingle in one case. But one, at least, is slowly being restored to its previous appearance, and even improved, I suppose, by being turned into a single-use residence.

We struck up a conversation with a young couple who lived downstairs in one of these duplexes. I asked about their history, and was told that in 1916 this area had been truck farms: a celery garden had given way to this series of apartments.

Wright designed units for low-income families at the same time that he built the impressive Bogk House, across town in an elite neighborhood, for a prominent local politician. Who is doing that today?

And why can’t New London’s developers build their malls and office complexes around the eight or ten houses whose owners simply want to finish out their days in the homes they’ve known all their lives? Surely they could be put in good shape, landscaped if necessary, and allowed to stand as a bit of history, an example of the kind of comfort and domesticity that can be achieved without needing three thousand square feet and a quarter acre of lawn.

It wouldn’t be a bad example, seems to me.

Wisconsin architecture, 1

(Posted hurriedly. Maybe tomorrow or Saturday I’ll be able to finish this, and add some photos.)

Here’s the architecture we’ve looked at on the trip:

Monona Terrace, Madison: perhaps Frank Lloyd Wright's last public design, this is a convention center and parking lot complex perched above Lake Monona, linking that beautiful lake with the equally beautiful capitol building that sits high above the isthmus separating Lakes Monona and Mendota. In Wright's late style, the building recalls the Marin Civic Center: Wright clearly was intent on his architecture mediating urban humanity with the natural environment.

In Marin County the form of his Civic center replicates the gentle dome-shaped hills, bridging between two of them; and his colors refer to the golden fields of summer and autumn and the clear blue sky. In Madison he layers the parking structure, the convention center, and the rooftop "garden" in terraces, referring now to the isthmus itself; and a broad terrace-mall links the streets in front of the Capitol to the Terrace. It's a striking and, I think, fitting adjunct to the Capitol itself, again mediating between conventional (but superb) Beaux-arts Federal style and his own idiosyncratic Modernism.

Ely Place, Madison: This is an upscale residential quarter atop a hill overlooking the Madison campus and out onto Lake Mendota. We parked at the one Wright house here, got out, photographed and admired it; and then struck up a conversation with a woman out gardening in front of her house next door. Her house was also a beauty, also landmarked; and she went inside to find a brochure describing a walking tour of the area, and lent it to us so we could walk for half an hour admiring the homes built in the first twenty years of the 20th century for the early faculty of the university.

Near here, too, we saw a splendid big shingle house, dark under wide eaves and eccentric, elaborately projecting lookout beams: one of the very few residences designed by Louis Sullivan. This was built for a private owner, subsequently bought by a college fraternity, badly burned a decade or so ago, and very nicely restored. It is vaguely reminiscent of such Greene & Greene buildings as the Gamble House in Pasadena, but more eccentric and more visionary.

Farmers and Merchants Bank, Columbus: an hour or so north of Madison the small farm-county seat of Columbus hosts one of Sullivan's eccentric bank designs, reminders of a time when the small-town bank took seriously its role of community idealist in substance. This was Sullivan's last such building, and he called it his "jewel box," and so it is -- a small twostorey brick building sitting at the northeast corner of a main intersection, across from a vaguely Gothic Victorian City Hall built in 1892.

An annex was built next to this bank a few decades ago, to my eye a fairly sympathetic one; but it's scheduled for demolition soon, to be replaced by another, supposed to be equally sensitive to the significance of the original Sullivan building on the corner. The entire block, both sides of the street, is handsome and (except for the annex-in-progress) all of its period. (One storefront houses an amazing collection of horse-drawn vehicles: coaches, gigs, buckboards, delivery vans, and sleighs, all as bright and spiffy as new.)

Wausau, Wisconsin: Two buildings here: a fine, late, low, flat house with Japanese shoji influence, built as a private residence overlooking the artificial lake on the Wisconsin River south of town, now occupied by a broadcast media company; and a marvelous private house in an upscale residential neighborhood on a forested hilltop at the other end of town. We were in Wausau on a Sunday; the radio offices were closed and no one was about, so we walked around the building, peering through the windows, taking photos, and marvelling at the casual lack of "security" -- this would not be the case, I think, in California.

We were content to admire the private home from the sidewalk, listening to a pair of Scotties yapping at us -- friendly, their mistress assured us from her patio chaise-longue. This house might have been in the redwoods south (or north) of San Francisco, or the eucalyptus in the Berkeley Hills.

Fox Point, Milwaukee: another long, low, elegant private residence, this one on a vast lawn on a shady road in an exclusive suburb north of the city and on the lake. The broad driveway led between low concrete-block walls with signature glass-block lanterns built into them on either side the drive, which made a dog-leg around a planting of trees screening a tennis court from the street. We couldn't get closer than say two hundred feet of the house, but could readily admire its low, Japanese-influenced form. It's amazing how similar these houses are to all those Sunset Magazine shake-roof ranch bungalows of the 1950s, and how different -- owing simply to Wright's sense of proportion, and the unity he imposes through decorative treatment and plays of symmetry and slight asymmetry, and his careful sense of scale.

Milwaukee Art Museum: This building perched at the edge of Lake Michigan recalls, through its site, Frank Lloyd Wright's Monona Terrace in Madison. It too stands white and bold against the blue waters and sky; but its design is very different. There are in fact two equally fine buildings here, the older one by Eero Saarinen, boxy but wonderfully proportioned and ideal for its purpose: the exhibition of art. (And the collection is something to boast.)

Five years ago, in 2000, this was enlarged by the construction of an equal-sized hall designed by Santiago Calatrava, the Spanish architect. This is splendid enough inside, but particularly dazzling from the outside, topped by a symmetrical "brise-soleil" or sunshade, two enormous wings which close at the beginning of the day to shade the interior, then open at the end of day, like some fantastic bird methodically opening and closing its wings on a diurnal rhythm.

The building is linked to a plaza by an elevated stay-cable pedestrian bridge spanning a crosswise-oriented lawn and fountain, and it's hard not to imagine Calatrava's delight when he replicated this trick in the recently built pedestrian bridge in Redding, spanning the Sacramento River.

The Blogk House, Milwaukee: One of the earliest of Wright's masonry residences, a big, vaguely Mayan, twostorey cube of a thing, with a low hip roof whose projecting eaves proclaim Prairie Style but whose vertical slits of windows look forward to the Imperial Hotel he would design a few years later for Tokyo. This sits among other fine if architecturally less emboldened neighbors: across the street there's an interesting Italianate Dutch-Colonial home, of all things, that manages to combine its loggias and its bell gables with a degree of integrity.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Downing street in the internet cafe

It's funny: the cheaper the motel, the more likely to find free high-speed Internet access. Here in Milwaukee we're at a Hyatt, and the wi-fi costs ten bucks a day, so I said the hell with it.

This morning we're at the very fine Stone Creeek Cafe down on East Wisconsin St., where you park on the street at a meter for two hours and have a decent latte (and a power pastry, we all need power), and I finally get a little mail.

Much of the political stuff centers on the Downing Street Memo, and P. sends two stories that seem really important to me. The first concerns the recent meeting of the House Judiciary Committee, whose Democrats are apparently considering a Resolution of Inquiry. Don't get too excited, but that could be the first step in a pre-impeachment hearing. Wouldn't that be nice?

Steve Cobble writes about this at The Nation: Opinion

But an even more important link takes you to an article in The (online) Nation about the Washington Post's handling of this emerging story. It shows the Democratic congressmen still have some spunk: The Nation: report on Washington Post story

Speaking of the media, crucial reporting, and truth, Robert Parry has a provocative column on which not only suggests what the Left needs to do to correct the sad state of press coverage of the Iraq war and its inception, but also analyzes clearly and efficiently the reasons for the present largely Rightist tilt of the mainstream media. It's worth reading.

I've been meaning to mention, too, a Washington Spectator column that ran a while back. (At the website you'll have to dig a little to find the original report; I left our hard copy back in the hotel.)

It's fascinating: it covers the panel of luminaries, including Jimmy Carter, James Baker, and Tom Daschle, into voting irregularities in Florida, Iowa, and Ohio, resulting in discrepancies between exit polls and the official count. Why is this interesting? Because they're just like the discrepancies that were discovered in the Ukraine and in Georgia, where election outcomes had to be reversed.

(Of course this raises, or "begs" as American English is beginning to say, a question: If a president is unseated because it's proved his election was fraudulent, what happens to the officers he appointed while in office?)

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Barista at l'Etoile

Barista at l'Etoile
Originally uploaded by charlesshere.
This is the barista at the cafe-bakery at l'Etoile in Madison, pouring as good a head of foam as I've seen recently.

Friendly people

That's what they say you find here in Wisconsin, friendly people. And we have, and do.

Yesterday morning the bakery-cafe at l'Etoile, in Madison, had a good-sized line trailing out the door. The farm market was on, ringing the capitol building across the street, and I'd guess there were thousands of shoppers milling around. Some of them were bound to want the same coffee and croissants as us.

In line we struck up a conversation with a local woman, who was our first source for the information about Odessa Piper's recent sale of the restaurant to her chef Tory (see entry below). The line moved forward, bringing me to the barista at the espresso machine. I struck up a conversation with him, watching him pour a perfect heart shape into the head of a cappuccino. (That's his photo, just above this entry.) I told him about Starbuck's reported revision of foamed milk on cappuccinos. Oh, he said, well, there's two ways of doing it, the Starbuck's or California method, and the Italian method. Please, I said, don't equate California with Starbuck's; I'm from California. Oh, I'm sorry, he said, I didn't mean all Californians do it that way, it's just what we call it out here.

We got our lattes and croissants and took a table. At the next table another friendly woman said hello. She turned out to be from Palo Alto, and we kidded back and forth about Stanford and Cal. Lindsey was wearing a bright red dress, but I said that didn't mean she favored Stanford. We talked about kids and grandchildren and l'Etoile and the like, and then we packed up and hit the road for Lindsey's family reunion. I won't write about that; that's family stuff.

This morning we visited Columbus, Wisconsin, to see a building by my favorite architect, Louis Sullivan -- more about him another day. As we were photographing it a car drove up and double-parked. A woman got out to make a deposit in the old-fashioned brass pull-door beside the front door. I complimented her on her bank, and asked if there were a Starbuck's in town, using the word generically. No, she said, we don't have one. She actually apologized; then got in the car, which drove away.

We went on taking a few more photographs, and then the car pulled back up again, from anothe direction, and the driver, a man, rolled down his window. You're looking for a Starbuck's, he said, We don't have one, but there is Julie's Java, across from the train station.

We thanked him and headed for the train station. Julie and her assistant told us about the newspaper situation in Madison, where the conservative morning paper and the liberal evening paper are both published by the same outfit. Then they got started on Starbuck's, and we rehearsed all that all over again. The lattes at Julie's weren't as rich or strong as we generally like, but they had more presence, in a way, than Starbuck's.

And then we hit the trail again, to visit a couple of Frank Lloyd Wright houses further upstate, and visit a cousin and her husband on their dairy farm. And now we're in a Residence Inn in Green Bay, with kitchen, couches, desk, high-speed internet and all that, for sixty bucks. Thanks again, Priceline.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

l'Etoile, Madison: still one of the best

Dinner last night at l'Etoile, that first-rate restaurant in Madison, Wisconsin. In fact l'Etoile was the reason for making the sizable detour between Chicago and Fond du Lac, where we're headed.

Odessa Piper started l'Etoile perhaps twenty years ago -- I'm writing this without checking facts, since it's so easy for the interested reader to do his own fact-checking these days (and I'll comment on that separately one of these days) -- inspired, I believe, by Alice Waters and Chez Panisse. There are differences, especially two: l'Etoile is a bit bigger (and has a hard-liquor bar), and it's in Madison, home of a very large university campus, rather as if UC Berkeley, Davis, and Los Angeles were all put in one city, the only city for miles around.

The two restaurants agree on food ethics, buying seasonal produce from local growers and preparing it with intelligence, cultural and historical awareness, and that unique taste that relies on the natural flavor of the raw material. And Odessa Piper, like Alice Waters, has extended this taste to her loyal clientele, who go on to look for it elsewhere, and so the ripples gradually extend.

And by supporting the farmers and gardeners and stockmen and dairy producers in her area Piper gave them a degree of assurance, of hope and perhaps confidence that since their work was appreciated an honored it would ultimately be supported.

Lindsey and I came through this way a couple of years ago -- almost the exact same trip: Chicago; Madison; Detroit. Last night and the night before duplicated a pair of nights in October 2003, when we ate at North Pond in Chicago and l'Etoile. Since then there have been changes at both restaurants, to judge by only these single experiences -- admittedly, not at all a fair basis from which to make a judgment. North Pond seems to have moved further in the direction of complicating its dishes, adding extra flavors as foils against their basic structure, accepting the prevailing taste for overly complex invention. Lindsey's salmon, for example, wild salmon with really nice flavor, poached gently to just the right texture, was oddly garnished with a scatter of shredded Parmesan cheese.

I don't want to overdo this criticism. North Pond is an excellent restaurant. The reception and service, the wine list, the selection of organic and local material -- all that is exemplary, in the tradition of Chez Panisse and l'Etoile. It's just that this one dinner suggested the chef may be losing confidence in the sufficiency of those virtues; may feel -- for all I know, justifiably -- that his clientele wants or needs something beyond them.

L'Etoile has undergone an even more radical change: Odessa Piper has sold the restaurant. But she sold it to Tory Miller, who had been her chef for over two years, and his sister Traci Miller; and it seems clear that he has no intention of compromising either the vision or the execution that had so distinguished her restaurant.

This morning we visited the Madison Farmer's Market, which completely rings the handsome State Capitol at the center of town, on the ridge above the resplendent Frank Lloyd Wright convention center. The market is perhaps awkwardly laid out, forcing shoppers into a tightly packed passeggiata circulating counter-clockwise on the narrow sidewalk around the Capitol. But it is immensely successful, with stands offering produce, bakery items, jams and jellies, honey and beeswax, smoked and frozen meats and fish, all apparently from relatively small local producers, much of it organic. There's Scottish beef and farmed venison, spring onions and asparagus, cut flowers and starter plants, ramps and mushrooms and wild greens, delicious strawberries, early tomatos -- all of it displayed beautifully, abundantly stacked up and moderately priced. It all makes you want to rent a kitchen and get to work.

We breakfasted at l'Etoile's bakery-cafe, on fine croissants slightly salty with their fresh delicious butter, and caffe-lattes whose froth was properly decorated in the Italian style, not dried and powdery in Starbuck's manner. And then we drove northeast through the green green rolling Wisconsin pastures, still thinking of the unforgettable twelve-year-old cheddar we'd had last night at l'Etoile, and could have bought at this morning's market, but which would have gone all oily and sullied in the car in this warm climate.

  • l'Etoile menu

  • North Pond menu
  • Friday, June 17, 2005

    Coffee outrage

    What is it with Starbuck's, anyway? What is it with "venti" and "grande"? We had breakfast at Starbuck's yesterday, and again today -- the first time I've been in a Starbuck's since February, and then we were in Madrid in a suburb where it seemed to be the only cafe. We had breakfast there because it was right across the street from our hotel, the Tremont, and we thought well, why not, who's going to see us.

    Both mornings the orders got scrambled. I think it's partly because of those ridiculous names for the sizes -- no grown man wants to order a "venti" or a "grande." I order "medium" or "tall," and of course they hear "tall" as "small," and so it goes.

    Giovanna tells us her favorite neighborhood cafe, the formerly excellent Torrefazione, is being closed. Torrefazione started in Seattle, as did Starbuck's for that matter, but distinguised itself on a number of points. The coffee, to begin with: excellent coffee blended and roasted in the Italian style, which seems to my taste not at all to be the case with Starbuck's.

    Then too Torrefazione served their coffees in nice faence crockery imported from Deruta, which gave the eye and the touch as much pleasure as the coffee itself offered the nose and the tongue. And Torrefazione seemed to find Italians to work the machines, or, barring that, training American kids to pay attention to what they were doing.

    Starbuck's bought Torrefazione, of course, as they have bought Peet's, and (I think) Seattle's Best. They seem to want to own it all. That would be okay with me, I guess, if they'd respect the differences obtaining among all these cafes. In Giovanna's neighborhood there were Peet's, Starbuck's, and Torrefaziones with a block of one another, and each seemed to find its own clientele. Viva pluralism!

    But one morning the beautiful heart-shaped design was not traced on the top of Giovanna's cappuccino -- the baristas had been told to stop doing that, because it proved that the milk had not been foamed dry enough. Never mind that every decent cafe in Italy makes its cappuccinos thus.

    Torrefazione had already been made to stop using Deruta. Too expensive, no doubt. And now the cafe is being closed altogether.

    It's just another demonstration of what's wrong with globalism, with NAFTA, with international cartels. More LCD, and I don't mean liquid-crystal display: Least Common Denominator. I say, to hell with Starbuck's. I'm not going back.

    Thursday, June 16, 2005

    Another day in Chicago

    Two girls playing bassoon duets on Michigan Avenue. I'd never expected to hear bassoon duets serendipitously, but now I think about it, how else would you hear them? Anyway there they were at the corner of Huron, I think it was, and Michigan, playing duets by not Mozart but an only slightly lesser composer (to judge only from this one piece: but of course it may have been the only piece he ever wrote) from about the same time, same place.

    Of course I had to stop and listen. When they finished we struck up a conversation. The bassoon was my instrument, I told them, but that was over fifty years ago. I bet I still have some fingerings in hand. I sang the beginning of von Weber's Rondo alla ungarese, and they joined in, both of them.

    One is a student at Eastman Conservatory here; the other is a high school student, only sixteen. But they pumped away at their bassoons like professionals, and more than one passerby stopped to listen. We dropped a buck in the open case and walked on up Michigan Avenue.

    At the next corner three girls with identical skin color and hairstyles were playing string trios. Well, not only trios: we heard the end of a double violin concerto by Vivaldi, and the beginning of Mozart quartet minus the viola. They were very good indeed, and Yes, their sign said, We are sisters; help us through music school. So another dollar got redistributed.

    I like Chicago. I like the youth, the architecture, the energy. I even like disliking the architecture, especially the incredibly ugly Gehry music shell at Millenium Park. We stopped there for a few minutes to listen to the Chicago Symphony rehearse Vaughan Williams's Sea Symphony. I suppose the performers were doing very well, but even when you sit only twenty rows or so from the stage -- as close as they'd let us approach during this rehearsal -- all you hear of course is music coming from loudspeakers.

    The shell is at one end of a "pavilion," really an enormous lawn overarched by steel trusses bearing loudspeaker clusters. I imagine twenty thousand people would easily sit on that lawn listening to those loudspeakers: but why? If you want to hear "classical" music from loudspeakers, aren't you better off at home listening to CDs on a system you've chosen for your own taste? And if you want to sit on a lawn with twenty thousand other people, aren't you better off listening to something other than Vaughan Williams?

    But of course I may be a grouch. I'm not at the moment: we're just home from dinner at North Pond. There are problems here, and I'll describe them (and, of course, the equally present virtues of the place) later on. It's late, and we leave tomorrow for Madison.

    And rain and earthquakes at home. What a strange summer we're having.

    Wednesday, June 15, 2005

    Meat and Tremont

    Woffa woffa woffa, as we sometimes say when we are particularly satisfied, as having just been dealt a nice hand of cards in a game of hearts, or having been brought an unexpectedly pleasing plate of victuals.

    What a simple-minded outlook we have on the world, to be sure.

    After an unusually slow and ordinary breakfast at the Sheraton Midway we drove into Chicago. I was nursing a regret or two. Specifically: Why on earth did we book an airport motel for one night, and a rental car; and then a downtown Chicago hotel for two more nights? Now we're just going to have to park the car for two days -- no reason to drive in downtown Chicago -- and pay for two days of car rental, and two days of parking. We should have booked this hotel for the three days, and taken the car on Friday when we leave town.

    Oh well.

    The Tremont, where we are today and tomorrow, turns out to be a very nice hotel. It's called "quaint" in one of our Chicago guides -- a cut above "Romantic," a cut below "Chic." Well, that's us, somewhere between Chic and Romantic.

    We spent the afternoon at Wrigley Field. I had trepidations: the Cubs beat the Marlins yesterday fourteen to nothing, and I expected today to be Retribution City. And it was, and I have photos of the scoreboard to prove it: 8-0 in the fourth; 10-0 in the fifth; 12-0 in the sixth; 15-0 in the seventh. But then the Cubs scored five runs, so the final score, while terrible and painful, was not a total disaster.

    I was excited as we walked into the park. I like San Francisco's ball park, where we watched the Giants satisfactorily trimmed on Sunday afternoon (and where we saw an amazing lost saved home run when an outfielder's glove lost its webbing, and saw an even more amazing rundown between first and second). But however fine these new backward-looking baseball stadia are they do not compare with the two surviving old-school parks, Fenway in Boston -- okay, I confess, I've never been inside it -- and Wrigley Field here.

    You get there by elevated. There's a Dixieland band, wearing Cubs uniforms, playing outside. Inside you walk past appetizing hot-dog stands and peanut vendors and up many ramps and out into a truly beautiful venue, no seat impossibly far from the field. There is no nosebleed "view terrace" here, unless it's on the rooftops across the street.

    And wonder of wonder we had marvelous seats behind and slightly to the right of home plate, under the roof in case it rains (but it didn't) but not too far back. I could even believe the batter might actually hear me when I call out the new relief pitcher's ERA to him: don't take any guff from him: he's pitching 6.90 ball. But the Cubs lost anyway.

    Dinner tonight at Fogo de Chao, recommended by Friend Who Eats Meat. It's a "churrascaria," specializing in the barbecued meats of southern Brazill -- a theme restaurant with a gimmick, one of a chain (other outlets in Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, Beverly Hills, Ssao Paulo (where there are three installations) and Porto Alegre in their native Brazil).

    We had a reservation for nine o'clock -- I bet they simply don't take reservations earlier. The joint was jammed when we got there, and there were a couple of limos standing at the curb, one a good thirty feet long. I strode confidently to the podium and announced Shere. Two. Nine.

    The hostess gave me a small pager and a slip of cardboard. Have a drink in the bar with this credit slip; it'll be transferred to your table. We'll page you when the table's ready.

    We found stools at a table otherwise occupying three young men -- there was a surfeit of young men in the bar, most of them drinking Millers Lite and talking unnecessarily loud. I bellied up to the bar for two Caipirinhas, the national drink of Brazil, made I think with secondarily-distilled rum, limes, sugar, and lime juice. Julio, you'll correct me on that; you introduced me to this drink last year.

    As we sipped them we were approached by a young man who had detached himself from a group at the bar. He seemed a little drunk, very young, quite polite, immensely engaging. What's that you're drinking, he asked. I told him. I told him a second time. We struck up a conversation. He turns out to be working for an accounting firm, keeping corporate America honest. We talked about Social Security, a little bit. He kept looking at our drinks and at Lindsey. I'm Chris, he said after a while. I'm Charles, I answered, and this is Lindsey.

    Where are you from, he wanted to know; and, later, What are you doing here? We explained about the Cubs, and Lindsey's family reunion, and San Francisco, and all that. And then I added that this was a bit of a birthday present for Lindsey.

    And how old are you, he asked, clearly aware he was pushing things a bit, but genuinely interested, Fifty-two? No, Lindsey said, I'm older than that, I'm seventy.

    The poor kid suddenly looked just a little bit drunker, a little less capable of dealing with input. But he was sweet and congratulatory, and I explained that in fact Lindsey was a little unfair, she doesn't really go around looking like she's seventy. At least not to me.

    We were paged. At table we were given the drill: go to the buffet, take whatever vegetation you want, when you're ready for meat turn this little disc green side up. We did so, starting with salads -- a phony Caesar for me, good but lacking anchovies and egg. And then we signaled the meat-bringers, and they brought one thing after another, all of them on skewers from the grill, beef and lamb and pork and chicken, tenderloin and flank and sausage. The Caipirinha gave way to a glass or two of Argentine Malbec. It was a lot of fun.

    At the next table I noticed Chris was drinking a Caipirinha instead of the Miller's Lite I'd first seen him with. He was laughing and applauding and throwing his hands up into the air. He was having a lot of fun, seated there with three male friends his own age. They were in training, he'd mentioned at the bar, but training for what God only knows.

    And we walked the ten or twelve blocks home through the balmy Chicago night, trees silhouetted against the sky, people still on the streets, and I thought how much I enjoy these romantic nocturnal cities, the ones on this scale, streets only a couple of lanes broad, the occasional stone church or vestpocket park or odd Victorian watertower suddenly singing their old, plain, but vibrant song against the iPods and boomboxes.

    Tuesday, June 14, 2005

    Midway Hotel

    Before going off to breakfast Lindsey takes another look at the computer printout describing our 4 pm flight to Chicago.

    The plane leaves at 1:45, she announces.

    Impossible, I say; it leaves at four. Or a little later. Let me see that.

    She's right, of course. We go to Cafe Fanny for our usual cafe au lait (still creamy and rich after all these years), and go to our meeting, and leave early to get to the airport on time.

    When we check in we learn that our flight doesn't leave until 4:45. What's this, then, I ask, waving my printout in front of the deskclerk.

    This, well, why this, this is nothing, he says. We shrug, check our bags, and stroll the airport. We read the paper. We have a salad at a deli in Terminal One. The Caesar is okay, the Chinese chicken better, L. says. We read some more. We discuss things we don't quite agree about. I listen to the iPod.

    The plane finally takes off, with us in it. Some typing, some reading, and one act of a Mozart opera later -- Mitridate, if you want to know -- we're at Midway. We wait for the luggage, which never appears. Investigating further, I find it set aside. How did this happen, I ask. It came on an earlier flight, I'm told.

    We get the car and drive to the Sheraton Midway. The parking lot is full. I double-park, and an attendant tells me I can park it in the Office Depot lot, a couple of football fields away. I'll double-park while I'm registering, I tell him, and he shrugs. I nearly break my wrist trying to open the front door, which is locked. Then I find another front door. I look for the reception desk, cunningly hidden around a corner.

    After checking in I go back to the double-parked car. Two hotel employees are just ahead of me. They're annoyed: they won't be able to leave their parking spaces; my car is blocking them. I move the car; they leave; I take one of their places.

    The wi-fi doesn't work. I go to the debug routine on my web browser, a routine I've never used, and discover the wi-fi connection demands a username and password. The patient desk clerk furnishes same: Sheraton. Midway. So here I am, blogging.

    Tomorrow we go to Wrigley Field. We shoulda been there today! Cubs won, 14-zip! Tomorrow's game should be interesting; I hope it isn't too retaliatory.

    Sunday, June 12, 2005

    Antigone: an unforgettable production

    This is about an amazing experience in the theater, one you can perhaps share yourself if you see this in time, and you're in the right area.

    I'm writing about a production of Antigone, whose final performance is tonight, Sunday, June 12. In Dry Creek Valley, twenty minutes from Healdsburg.

    Lindsey and I agree on this. We've seen six professional productions of plays in the last five weeks or so -- productions in Ashland, Glendale, and Hollywood; of O'Neill, Moliere, Shakespeare, Shaw. The performance we saw earlier this evening was every bit as riveting as any of them.

    You will say I am distracted in this opinion by the fact that a granddaughter was in the cast, and I can have no argument against that suspicion. Emma did indeed play the role of the Sentry in Sophocles' tragedy Antigone. And she was, of course, extremely effective -- funny, dry, ironic, in the one character that Sophocles asked to mediate between the Chorus and those of us in the audience. Even so.

    This production stars an 18-year-old girl, Hanna Fisher, as Antigone. The rest of the cast are two or three years younger. There is only one speaking male in the cast, as Haemon; the rest of the cast are all girls in their mid-teens. The translation is by Robert Fagles; the director is Brent Lindsay.

    The performance is given at the Bella Vineyards, in Dry Creek Valley. The audience sits on chairs, one row deep, lining the three sides of a thrust stage in front of the entrance to a wine cave.

    Lindsey and I sat entirely mesmerized. What we heard was Sophocles's poetic, tragic, inevitable, inescapable lines. Tears came often to my eyes. The play is about the what happens when a tyrant, driven really only by his own self-importance, interferes with the right and proper way humans conduct themselves in the face of death and mourning. These adolescent girls spoke lines whose depth and universality express emotions, facts, and imperatives clearly far beyond any personal experience they could have formed themselves. The words, and the emotions and facts those words convey, are clearly true and universal: if adolescent girls can rise to such dramatic heights in speaking them, they can only be oracular.

    Of course Sophocles's play, like so many we've seen in the last few seasons by Shakespeare, is particularly relevant in the present moment. One hesitates to grant Mr. Bush an adjective like "Shakespearian," but there it is: his ambition, his error, and his arrogance reach well beyond his ability.

    But that's a digression. Even if we lived in a moment of peace and enlightenment, I would recommend this production of Antigone unreservedly. If it were given in a technological marvel of a theater, by a first-class professional theater, it would be no more compelling, no more exciting. If my granddaughter Emma were not in the cast, it would matter not the least for the purpose of this advertisement.

    This was a memorable theatrical evening. I am intensely grateful for it, and I recommend it to any of you who can possibly attend.

    It costs ten dollars. It is at Bella Vineyards, 9711 West Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg (tel.: 707.473.9171). The final performance is Sunday, June 12, 2005, at 7 pm. It plays outside, and you will want warm clothes.

    A final note: in a couple of days Lindsey and I take another trip, only a week this time, to Chicago and Milwaukee. For the occasion I'm trying out a new method of sending Dispatches describing hotels, restaurants, and (this time) baseball games. You can read about them at

    a new blog I've just begun.

    Do try to see this show -- you won't be sorry you did. And if for some reason you can't see it, re-read Antigone. It's amazing how relevant these ancient things still are.

    Saturday, June 11, 2005


    Big room, bare brick and plaster walls, their wallpaper removed, looking like wonderful paintings; at opening time (5:30 pm) light streaming in from the street; a row of austerely handsome booths along one wall; rables for four and six set generously apart; a small bar on the right with a fine selection of reds and whites, the rosé not omitted (nor the sparklers either); a spacious open cookiing line that ends at a handsome new pizza oven.

    And what comes out of that oven? The best pizzas I've had away from the Café Chez Panisse — not surprising, since the chef-owner of Pizzaiolo cooked there for a number of years. Our pizza was house-made sausage and broccoli rabe, and the flavors were complex, sharp, and deep, nutmeg and other spices standing out in the sausage to extend the flavor of good pork, bitter-earth flavors in the greens. We had a bowl of fish stew: halibut, I think, with clams and mussels, and fennel and onion, and aioli and a piece of grilled levain — Acme, no doubt. The affogato we had as dessert was made with the best coffee I've tasted outside of Venice (Doge) or Rome (Tazza d'Oro), and it was roasted right next door: Blue Bottle.

    I'll probably return to Pizzaiolo here on the blog; we'll certainly return to it for dinner. 5008 Telegraph, Oakland; tel. 510.652.4888; open Tuesday-Saturday 5:30-10;

    New Eastbay pizza restaurant!

    Just a quick note about PIZZAIOLO, a fine new pizza restaurant in Oakland, near the corner of 52d St. and Telegraph -- easy parking in the shoppiingcenter lot across the street.

    I'll post details later, when I have time. But I don't want to lose any time telling you that THIS IS THE PLACE for pizza. You'll see why. (Also a very fine fish stew, with clams and mussels, fennel and aioli. Perfect for this weather.)

    Under Construction

    Welcome to yet another blog. I'll try to post more actively here than I have previously at -- notes on restaurants and recipes, theater and travel, music and writing, and of course reactions to the political scene.

    Earlier accounts on such matters remain visible at