Tuesday, December 1, 2009

An Ode to Coffee

"A fig for partridges and quails,
ye dainties I know nothing of ye;
But on the highest mount in Wales
Would choose in peace to drink my coffee.
- Jonathon Swift

Peace: That is what I find in coffee. I am probably addicted to caffeine, but also to the liquid warmth, khaki foam, and heavenly aroma that quiets my mind. For most people coffee is a stimulant, but for me it is calming. A shot (or two) of espresso in the morning brings clarity, another mid-morning sharpens my focus, after lunch it is a digestivo, and an after-dinner coffee gives me the strength to sleep.

One can not indulge in a cup of mediocre coffee. Only the good stuff has the ability to open the mind with its magical bouquet and quickening essence. Of course, one person's good coffee is another's undrinkable.

Starbucks has never impressed me with their coffee. A business plan that puts a store on every corner, gets suburban families to think of it as their other living room, and sells dirty water served by soulless baristas for $2 per cup – now that is impressive. I personally only buy coffee at Starbucks when there is no other option. No peace can be found in a noisy room full of strangers who have all paid too much for a cup.

In 1974, after graduating from high school, a friend and I travelled for six weeks around Europe. I can remember my first cup of Italian coffee (caffé normale, espresso). We were walking out of the train station in Florence and I stopped at a little stand and asked for coffee. Cue the orchestral music. One sip and the clouds parted. I was bathed in golden rays of Tuscan sunlight. Well, not exactly. It was difficult to drink; too strong and too bitter. Still, I will never forget the lingering flavor and toasty aroma. By the time we had made it to Rome two days later, I was hooked.

When the rest of America was buying their first Mr. Coffee, I was wearing out a French press. In 1980 I got my first espresso machine – one made by Simac. At the time, very few Americans even knew what espresso was. People called it eXpresso; like something drunk in a hurry. That first machine lasted over ten years making many cups every day. It was built to professional standards, probably because there was not yet a demand for cheap, crappy home machines. When it finally failed, un-repairably, Lori bought me a nice Krups from William-Sonoma. A company like that would only sell quality products, right? Within four months the thing was leaking. W-S was very kind to replace that unit – and five more over the course of the next few years! In 2000 we bought a new machine from (of all places) Starbucks. It is still going strong even-though we do replace a part occasionally.

Even harder to find than a trustworthy machine is good coffee. We prefer a dark-roasted African bean. There are a few local roasters who sell French Roast Kenyan AA, but it is very pricey. The coffee must also be ground to the ideal fineness; something inconvenient and inconsistent to do at home. So we started trying many different brands of ground coffee available at our local grocery. We have found the very best to be El Aquila. It is coffee from Latin America (which means it could come from almost anywhere). It is roasted and ground perfectly for espresso. It is very consistent. Best of all, 10 ounces only costs $1.79! That is less than one espresso at Starbucks.

During our stay in Italy last year we would stop on the way to the market and take a cup of coffee at the bar. Lori asked for machiato; that is, espresso 'spotted' with milk. What a pleasure to watch the skill with which a real barista sets little saucers on the counter, makes your perfect coffee, and serves it, all the while talking to a friend about last night's soccer match. It only takes a couple of sips to down the little cup, so you just stand at the counter beside the bankers, priests, and laborers and savor the best coffee in the world for never more than 80 centine (about $1).

Lori is encouraging me to write a book. It would be titled "Stop Star*ucking Up My Life!" In it I would point out how American society is replacing many good things (like a simple cup of coffee) with slickly mass-marketed, inferior products (or music, or art, or religion, etc.). When I imagine the first chapter, I hear the voice of Andy Rooney, or my mom, or my own interior curmudgeon complaining about this or that. That is not the voice I want to share with the world. The 'good-ole-days' were not always better, and I am all for progress.

Perhaps I just want people to spend as much time searching for peace as they do looking for a Starbucks. I think I need coffee.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Classical Music is Not Dead

"Men profess to be lovers of music,
but for the most part they give no evidence
in their opinions and lives
that they have ever heard it."
- Henry David Thoreau

Conventional wisdom suggests that classical music is dead. Public interest is at an all-time low with sales of concert tickets and recordings lagging far behind other entertainments. The few major orchestras that remain are programming 'audience friendly' concerts that feature film scores and the old (familiar) warhorses of the repertoire. Alas, the end is near!

Much of my adult life has been spent defending classical music as something meaningful – something that has purpose. Like the curator of a musical museum, I have tried to keep the dust from settling on great compositions by listening to, teaching, and performing them.

Pieces of classical music (and by 'Classical Music' I am referring generally to non-popular genres, not specifically to the Classical period of European music from the late 18th century) are like 'artifacts' of western history, culture, and religion distilled into sound. They are the most honest representations of sacred and secular thought and feelings. The best works manifest a mysterious phenomena, mediation between the temporal and spiritual worlds. Others are just beautiful, or joyful, or triumphant. I can not list all of the possible adjectives because music expresses that which transcends language.

Great classical music is more available now than ever before. There are thousands of beautiful recordings on-line. The world is full of amazing, charismatic performers. For ten dollars you can buy all of the Beethoven piano sonatas on CD and enjoy them for a lifetime. There no laws forbidding you from listening. There is no punishment for over-indulging. So what is missing?

Time and attention. Most classical music was written before the age of television. People had a different concept of time then. A long evening in the concert hall was a special occasion. Instead of waiting for a sonata to end, the listener would wish it could go on and on. Their attention also had a different scope. Classical music was enjoyed because the listener could focus on shifting tonalities and developing musical ideas over several minutes. That is how the composer gave the music 'form.' Musical memory was more persistent too. Audiences would leave after the premiere of a new work humming the tunes. Not now.

Music today, as a whole, is much more disposable. We do not invest much attention in listening because there is always another 3-minute song waiting to follow. Very few popular songs have engaging melodies and interesting harmonies. Music has stopped being about pitches, rhythms and timbres. It is about words and 'the beat.' Society has lost the ability to understand music that is not patently 'dumbed down' to the most common audience.

Not only does it seem like fewer people have any interest in classical music, but many actually make a point of criticizing those of us who do. Classical music has unfairly become a symbol for 'cultural elitism.' It should not be. Like the inner-city kid who wants to learn and is ridiculed by the other kids when he makes good grades, there is disdain for those of us who truly enjoy classical music. Hollywood makes a point of associating classical music with snobs and socially inept characters.

Maybe our modern lives are so hectic, fragmented, and over-saturated with popular music, there is too little time to indulge in something antique – like a classical symphony. Because classical music relies on subtle expression to evoke deep emotional responses, it is out-of-place in an impatient, superficial world. As a late baby-boomer, I have lived through the golden age of rock music and fully recognize popular music for its fun, commercial, and entertainment value. Here in Nashville, country music is king. But classical music can transcend the social/economic matrix that shapes listening habits and opinions. It can speak to all of us, universally, and across generations.

It can also be very exciting. Live music is (by its nature) ephemeral. During a classical concert the performers and the audience share a sublime intensity that is, at any split-second, both tangible and transient. Classical works are cleverly designed to engage the listener and hold them breathless, supported only by an invisible thread of sound. Even if the music is familiar, the listener feels a curiosity about how the orchestra will interpret a phrase, or how a soloist will execute a cadenza.

Maybe in a major metropolitan city with a fine professional orchestra, and an audience of wealthy patrons, there are enough ticket sales to support classical music. But across most of America this is simply not the case. Following a decline of interest in classical music comes the decline in economic support. Large professional ensembles struggle to pay their bills. Talented players end up in jobs that have nothing to do with making music.

The legacy of classical music is carried on by willing (and unwilling) music students and a few amateur adults. I play with several dozen other amateurs in a community orchestra. Not every note is perfectly in tune, nor every rhythm articulated with precision. For those music lovers who rehearse and perform solely for the joy of making music together, for those of us who keep our iPods loaded with Haydn and Schubert, classical music is still 'alive.'

Friday, November 13, 2009

Essays on Italian Food: Part I

So much has been written about Italian food – the tradition, the culture, how to select ingredients, how to prepare dishes, what wine complements what food. To start a series of essays seems the height of conceit. I am not Italian. I did not grow up in the kitchen beside my nonna making tortellini from scratch. In fact, until I was 45 years old, I thought all Italian restaurants specialized in heaps of re-heated pasta swimming in over-cooked sauces.

My understanding of real Italian food has changed over the last few years. Time in Italy spent rubbing elbows with local contadine has a way of changing a person's perspective. I returned to the U.S. an evangelist for authentic ingredients and preparation techniques. My credo is that cooking Italian right yields many benefits: it simplifies food buying and preparation, it is cheaper, it is healthier, it has endless variety, it is delicious, and (above all) it satisfies. Those of you who have eaten at our family table know how passionate I can be about what makes the meal Italian.

Think about this. When was the last time you ate anything and felt really satisfied – not just stuffed or full, but truly satisfied? The average American adult eats out 7+ times a week! When they do eat at home, much of the food is pre-packaged. Everyone spends too much when they eat at a restaurant or grab a frozen entree from the freezer. Perhaps they feel pressure to eat a lot to justify the cost. I believe they eat too much because the food delivers very little satisfaction.

So here goes. I'm one more voice in the wilderness promising salvation if you just shop, cook, and eat according to my food gospel. Anybody listening? A few foodies perhaps. Does the world really need another food writer? I would be the first to say, "No!" Words can never substitute for the smells, colors, textures, and tastes of good food.

One approach would be to simply re-state gems of cooking wisdom penned by other authors, and then add my own commentary. That does not seem very original, but it might be the best way to bring authority to my discussion. First I must sort through all of the really bad Italian food writers out there and draw only from the best sources. This is really not so difficult. I start by eliminating every text with the words 'Quick, ' 'Easy,' or 'Low-fat' in the the title. Then skip over anything written by Rachel Ray, Giada de Laurentiis, or Mario Batali. That does not mean that their advice is always bad, just that it is distorted by commercial interests which have nothing to do with good food.

It is important to always include at least one good recipe in each of my essays – paying forward, if you will. Passing on lessons learned is a very important (and traditional) part of being a great Italian chef. It is not unusual to see two little Italian women at the market arguing with loud voices and shaking their fists at each other. If you listen carefully, you will realize that they are just debating the proper way to wash spinach or to slice prosciutto. They are not mad – they are taking a stand on a matter, probably because their teacher took the same position. Real Italian cooking is a living tradition. So much for literary authority.

The author I would like to paraphrase today is a favorite of mine: Marcella Hazan. Her cookbooks include very intelligently written introductions, even though some of the recipes are a bit esoteric. One thing she wrote in her Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking has stuck with me, "Real Italian cooking never uses one ingredient too many, nor does it require one additional step in preparation." I have tested that theory again and again, and it holds up every time.

Today's topic: Braising. Marcella was the first to introduce me to braising as a specific method of cooking meats. Actually, I had been doing this for as long as I can remember (i.e. pot roast), but never called it braising. It is a combination cooking method using both moist and dry heat. Typically a food (most often meat) is first seared at a high temperature and then finished in a covered pot with a variable amount of liquid, resulting in a particular flavor. Braising relies on heat, time, and moisture to successfully break down tough connective tissue and collagens in meat. Many times the added liquid is acidic (such as wine), helping to tenderize as the food simmers.

Many classic braised dishes such as Coq au Vin (cooking a tough rooster in wine) and Boeuf Bourguignon are examples of braising. Slow cooking in a crockpot is also a form of braising, I guess. Vegetables and seasonings are added to the liquid to enhance the flavors. The remaining liquid is often reduced to make a sauce.

Marcella Hazan is quick to point out that braising is not a fancy way to cook. It originated not only as a way to make cheap cuts of meat more tender, but also to limit the amount of fuel needed to cook a lot of food for a big family. In Italy, one avoids heating up the oven to roast meat. It wastes energy and makes the kitchen hot (not good during a Sicilian summer). Once the food is seared and the added liquid begins to simmer, the lid of the pot is put on to keep the heat local. A very low flame is enough to keep it cooking for several hours.

My wife Lori makes an irresistable lamb fricasee by braising shoulder chops (not the most tender cut) in white wine and veal stock. She finishes it by whisking in an egg and lemon juice. Wow! Lori learned this recipe from chef Donatella at Azienda Fontelunga just outside Cortona in eastern Tuscany. This may look like a complicated recipe, but after you have done it once, it will become an easy model for all kinds of meals. Here it is.

Agnello Fricassea

2 tbl good olive oil
1/2 tsp dried red pepper flakes
1 sprig fresh rosemary
2 cloves garlic, peeled
about 2 lbs misc. lamb cuts
1 tsp plain flour
2 cups dry white wine
2 cups veal or chicken stock
1 egg
juice of 1/2 lemon

Prepare the rosemary by stripping away any older, more bitter leaves from the base of the sprig. Prepare the lamb by carving the meaty portions away from the bones (but keep the bones).

Heat a large frying pan, heat the oil until very hot (shimers but does not smoke). Add the dried red pepper, rosemary, and garlic and gently move them around until they begin to release their aromas (about 1 minute). Add the lamb, bones (a lot of flavor there) and all, and sear all sides turning often with tongs (about 7 minutes). Toss in the flour and stir to cook it in the pan drippings. Add the wine, partially cover, and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat, but keep the liquid bubbling.

It will take at least 10 minutes to cook off the wine. Try to reduce it to a sticky film, but not burned. Add the stock, stir, and cover again. Go do something else for 20-30 minutes.

Just before serving, take out the garlic and rosemary and throw them away. Break up the egg in a small bowl and then whisk in the lemon juice. Remove the lamb from the heat and pour the egg/lemon over the top stirring as you go. Season with salt and pepper.

Spoon the lamb out onto a large platter and garnish with rosemary and lemon slices. This is beautiful served with sauteed wild greens. You will want plenty of good bread to fare la scarpetta, that is, to 'make a little shoe' for mopping up every drop.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Careless Use of the Word 'Retarded'

'Hate Speech' is defined as speech that attacks or disparages a person or group of people based on their social or ethnic group, such as race, gender, age, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, disability, language ability, ideology, social class, occupation, or appearance (the list goes on). The term applies to written as well as oral communication and some forms of behaviors in a public setting. Definitions can extend to patterns of harassment that are hostile or offensive.

For most Americans, hate speech has become unacceptably immoral, at least in public. Of course, not everyone feels this way. So various institutions have developed codes to limit or punish the use of words or phrases deemed to express hatred towards a group of people.

This blog entry is concerned with one particular example of 'hate speech' – insults made by calling someone 'retarded.' Years ago, I heard 'retarded' used as a juvenile barb between high-school students. Now I am hearing it used often by thoughtless adults!

A central aspect of any hate speech discussion is the degree of offense. What is acceptable varies depending on cultural and religious backgrounds and historical context. Some words have, through use, become symbolic of broader hatreds and are proscribed now due to their acquired weight of offense. Others are more or less objectionable depending on context. A joke about an individual (one that hinges on some distinction) can be considered hate speech if it offends someone with a staunch ideological stance.

I have an ideological stance. My younger daughter is retarded. She was born with Down's Syndrome, and although very intelligent, will never be as mentally developed as other 'normal' girls. To use the name of her disability as a slur is very offensive to me.

To be clear, certain words carry such negative connotations that to use them in public is taboo (i.e. 'nigger' or 'fag' or 'hymie'). 'Retarded' is not that kind of word. It has many perfectly good uses including the most common – a diagnostic term for a generalized disorder characterized by significantly impaired mental or physical development. Perhaps the word 'retarded' would be better grouped with expressions like 'gypsy' or 'redneck.' These words can be used in acceptable speech or as an insult by making an analogy to a negative stereotype. In such cases, gross prejudice and general hatred is indirectly implied.

Compare these two sentences:
1) "We don't want that gook moving onto our block."
2) "Man, you're as stingy as a scotsman."
In both cases a decent person would be offended. Both statements are callous and hateful. In the first, the speaker is discriminating directly against a person of Asian heritage. In the second, the speaker is using the word 'scotsman' to insult via a negative stereotype (indirectly). 'Gook' is malicious (and unacceptable) in every case whereas we might use the word 'scotsman' in another context without implying any animosity. 'Retarded' as an insult is almost always used in the second sense, as an analogy. By extension, the speaker is revealing a disdain for all retarded people.

It is the hateful use of words that becomes troublesome, and here lies the real problem. What defines hateful? If two golfing buddies standing on the 18th green jokingly call each other 'retarded,' is that hateful? Perhaps not directly hateful, but it is insensitive, mean-spirited, and a clear display of indirect disrespect towards a whole group of people – good people who have no control over their disability (or race, or gender, or age).

Scholars who study discrimination in society will often explain hateful behavior as being "based in ignorance." They note that in even the most benign situation people tend to respond in two way to others who are different than themselves (that is, people of whom they are ignorant). 1) They laugh and ridicule, or 2) the become angry and hateful. I am sure that the jokes, careless derision, and even contempt exposed by the inappropriate use of the word 'retarded' is fueled by misunderstanding and ignorance about the retarded community.

I will reserve my observations (and admiration) of the retarded people I know, their families, teachers, and caregivers for another blog.

The United States federal government and state governments are broadly forbidden by the First Amendment of the Constitution from restricting speech (subject to a few recognized exceptions). I feel that free speech takes precedence over restrictions meant to limit verbal insults. But good citizenship and human decency trumps free speech when it comes to the use of pejorative labels that disparage and ridicule.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Partial Truths and Rhetorical Lies

Historically, Americans have had great respect for persons skilled at using language to persuade. Schools teach about Plato, Lincoln, Churchill, Kennedy, and Martin Luther King; men who spoke great words that touched emotions, inspired people to change the world, emboldened them to open their hearts, and helped them find resolve during desperate times. The list of important orators is long and impressive.

Another list of notable speakers might include Hitler, Jim Jones, or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. We wonder how so many people (even millions) can rally to less-than-virtuous (even evil) causes. Indeed, the gift for verbal persuasion is powerful. I now realize that the real purpose of those school lessons was not to train me to use persuasive rhetoric, but rather to 'discern truth' when listening to the eloquent words of leaders, commentators, teachers, and preachers.

Sadly, the critical ability to not be moved by every public utterance has been lost or forgotten by many Americans today. Fewer people think for themselves. More are content to parrot back the clever one-liner they heard some pundit deliver on talk radio.

Occasionally I stop mid-morning and have a cup of coffee. Sometimes I turn on the TV to catch a minute or two of mindless blather before getting back to work. This morning I heard a commentary by Pat Robertson on the recent health care reform initiative in Congress. This is a guy very skilled at telling an absolute lie by forming it into a partial truth. This kind of irresponsible and unethical public speaking would be laughable except that the American audience has become gullible. Robertson's motives are not at issue here (whatever they are), but using words to manipulate his audience is shameful.

In every crowd there are people who see what they want to see, hear what they want to hear, and believe what they want to believe. Perhaps we all do to some extent. Most have a reason; not always a good reason. In the case of Robertson, he can spout utter nonsense dressed up with careful verbiage and many listeners will believe because they can not imagine a charismatic Christian ever lying to them to promote his own perverse agenda. Shame on all who abuse language for their own selfish ends. Shame on America for giving these frauds an ear.

Too many of our elected officials practice rhetorical fiction with wreckless abandon. They forget that truth, not deception, is the begetter of free speech. Watch any Sunday morning political talk show and you can cut the partisan-double-speak-half-truths with a knife. Statesmanship is a high calling, one that only the most thoughtful and skilled speaker can pursue. To represent fellow citizens is the kind of work that requires tact, a willingness to appreciate other opinions, and above all, to express in clear and influential ways the view-points of one's constituency – truth as understood by the citizenry. Am I alone in wishing our representatives would stop dressing up their snake oil with words?

As a writer I celebrate the 1st Amendment. Free speech and all other forms of expression are essential rights that allow Americans to discuss, debate, sing, paint, and protest. So, I am not advocating restrictions of any kind. To me, false-speech is transparent. Yet the politicians and commentators continue to spin their jive unchecked. They must believe that America is really that stupid.

My children are on their own now; pretty much. Days of parenting, example-setting, and ethics-instilling are behind me. It makes me laugh to remember those times when my son would try to talk his way out of trouble by crafting some half-truth. Yes. He did think I was that stupid. I proudly boast that all of my kids learned, above all, that integrity is priceless. Honesty is inviolate. There can be no gray areas; no partial truths. Words can not be used to torture a lie into something it is not. Words will never change wrong to right no matter how cleverly the speaker arranges them.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Absurd vs Real Food

"You don't have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces,
just good food from fresh ingredients."
- Julia Child, 1912 - 2004

As I sipped my coffee this morning I watched a segment on the Today Show featuring two brothers cooking from their book 'Simple, Fresh, Southern.' I thought, "Perhaps these guys have something to offer." Then they smiled, turned on their best southern-mama's-boy accent and made Caesar Salad with Catfish Croutons. If there was ever a jumping-off point for a discussion about absurd food, this is it.

TV food advise is almost always extreme. Usually it is not really about taste, but rather about cooking fast, cheaply, or 'creatively' (read, combining unlikely ingredients in new and clever ways). My philosophy is that most of us have enough sense to know good food from bad. That ability to discern has been built into our bodies by millions of years of evolution.

This morning the cook stated three times that he was about to make a classic Caesar. He proceeded to mix mayonnaise (out of the jar) with minced garlic (out of the jar), buttermilk, and anchovy paste. He slopped it over some shredded Romaine. That is NOT how you make Caesar salad. (See real recipe below). Then he fried up some catfish nuggets, piled them on top calling them 'meaty croutons.' Finally, he topped the whole thing with Parmesan cheese.

At the outset let me proclaim two things: 1) I love real Caesar Salad and, 2) I love catfish, but not together. Caesar salad is joy. It is not an Italian recipe, as many people assume, but was first created by chef Caesar Cardini in his restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico and made popular in Hollywood in the early 20th century. Caesar salad is a balanced combination of ingredients carefully selected to excite as many taste-buds as possible. I personally believe it is also a good digestivo. That is, the ingredients aid digestion. Here is my real Caesar recipe...

Caesar Salad
1 clove garlic, peeled and halved
ca. 1/2 tsp sea salt
1 anchovy filet (optional)
1 egg + 1 egg yolk
Extra-virgin olive oil
Dash Tobascco
Dash Worchestershire Sauce
Dash wine vinegar
1/2 tsp. cracked mustard
1/4 tsp chopped flat parsley
Black pepper
Parmesan-Reggiano cheese
1/2 lemon
1 heart of Romaine, separated
1/2 cup croutons (optional)

In a large maple bowl use the back of a fork to macerate the garlic in the sea salt. Do the same with the anchovy if desired. Crack the egg and egg yolk into the bowl and break up with the fork. Start drizzling in the oil and whisk to make a mayonnaise. Add the Worchestershire, Tobascco, mustard, vinegar (if you are not serving wine with the meal), parsley, pepper, and a generous grating of cheese. Stir together. Squeeze the lemon between your fingers to strain any seeds. Stir well. Lay the lettuce leaves in the bowl and toss gently. Serve whole leaves on chilled plates. Garnish with a bit more cheese, croutons, and additional anchovies if desired.

Catfish does not belong on Caesar salad. Nothing does. To top a Caesar with salmon, or chicken, or shrimp is to diminish the beauty of the salad itself. Above all, do not add catfish.

Catfish is not the sexiest fish, but it is delicious when prepared correctly. The secret is to use fresh farm-raised fish and to cook it in clean, hot oil. River catfish tastes like it has been eating mud all of its life, which it has. Farm-raised is much lighter and does not have the 'musty' quality of wild-caught catfish. Catfish should be served with tart vinegar slaw, fried potatoes, and iced tea. This is not health food, so do not dress it up as such.

There are some flavors that intrinsically do not work well together. Have you ever tasted aged cheese with fried fish? If so, you know that that is the best way to ruin both the fish and the cheese.

I will return to this theme in future blog entries: The best food is prepared in ways that celebrates the innate beauty of the food, where and how it was grown, and the heritage that has made it part of our culinary tradition. Julia Child understood this. Too bad today's TV chefs don't have a clue.

Friday, October 30, 2009

A Reflection on Art in Nashville

"The work of art must seize upon you,
wrap you up in itself and carry you away.
It is the current which the artist puts forth,
which sweeps you along in his passion."
- Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1841 - 1919

Last week I had the pleasure of attending an opening reception at Richland Art Gallery (Green Hills) where three of Nashville's finest artists were displaying new works - all representational paintings rendered in what might be called the 'neo-impressionistic' style. Typically, after making a cursory walk-through of an art show, I can easily identify the best and worst paintings. After all, I have seen a lot of art in the last ten years and have developed a reliable sense of good and bad. There are too many good works in this show to single out any.

It was only a few years ago that I avoided the use of prejudicial words like 'good' and 'bad' when discussing art or music or literature. Taking the high-road in an aesthetic argument required that I speak with an analytical - not critical - voice. By constantly squelching my own opinion I cultivated a very keen ability to hear music empirically, look at a painting technically, and read the sub-text (even if there wasn't one) in almost any book. Often at an art opening I could hear the muffled cries of my inner, honest voice just wanting to shout "Bad painting!"

My practice of expressing no opinion had turned my artistic taste-buds off. Worse, I had become an aesthetic pluralist. It became too easy to stand at a party and strike up a conversation with almost anyone about almost any topic because I had mastered the art of talking without saying anything of substance. Older now, and somewhat less careful, I trust my inner-critic more. Good is good. Bad can be bad.

Admittedly, I am not much for small-talk at parties, but when I do find myself in a discussion about art, I champion a favorite theme: Nashville is home to an amazing group of very skilled and well-respected artists. With a shared sense of artistic direction they are producing beautiful new works. At the same time, I feel the local community is clueless to the wealth of talent in their midst.

I am referring to professional artists. There are hundreds of talented amateurs in our city, but they do not approach a canvas with the same intent as a professional. A working artist can not wait for the muse to inspire their work. Instead, they consciously make a rational decision, indeed, thousands of mental choices when creating a new work. That does not mean that the art is un-inspired. Quite the contrary. It means that professionals bring their best effort to each new project, pushed by their growing understanding of the medium, light, color, and the world around them. They are business owners too; constantly keeping inventory, framing, shipping, and marketing their product. Mostly, they are continually educating the rest of us as to the importance of art in our lives.

Like so many aspects of American life, public understanding of art has suffered from the commercial exploitation of what used to be a clearly-defined idea - in this case, the word 'artist.' There should be no ambiguity here. An artist is not a person on an assembly line who paints one part of a mass-produced 'original' and then passes the canvas to the next factory worker. Nor is an artist the person who uses a limited (although often virtuosic) set of technical tricks to create hundreds of identical 'original' pieces. Oh, (BTW) every singer/songwriter who comes to Nashville to be the next big country 'artist' is not an artist.

'Starving Artist' sales have eclipsed the sale of real art in our town. Galleries are struggling to survive, and today their walls are hung with better work than ever before. Visiting the Frist Center to view masterpieces is important, but to own a real original work of art and to enjoy it every day is a much more meaningful experience.

With that said, I propose that every Nashvillian re-think their attitude toward original art. Seek out local galleries that feature paintings by Dawn Whitelaw, Roger Brown, Kim Barrick, Anne Blair Brown, Paula Frizbe, Lori Putnam, and Pam Padgett (to name just a few). Ask yourself, "Does this artwork touch me emotionally? Does it transport me to another place or time?" Listen for your inner 'art critic' voice as you ask, "Is it really good?"

I also offer these bad reasons people buy original art: Because it matches their sofa. Because they like the frame. Because someone told them the artist would die and become famous one day.

My wife is a professional artist. Many (if not most) of our friends are artists. My older daughter is studying art, art history, and art criticism in university. These professionals (all of whom are much more well-informed about this than I am) will remind me that art is not simple. Whether you are the creator or the consumer, art is a complex, dynamic system that interweaves individuals with society, with history, technology, psychology, and now more than ever with economics. But they would all agree that there is only one reason to buy original art - because you can not live without it in your life.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Purposeful Walking

"And the walking man walks
Doesn't know nothin' 'bout nothin.'
Any other man stops and talks
But the walking man walks.
Walk on by."
- James Taylor, 1974

Those of you who know me know how passionate I am about walking; in particular, purposeful walking. That expression has been used before by soccer players, prison officials, policemen, and others, but I propose a new more-general definition. Purposeful Walking: the act of integrating walking into one's daily routine whenever possible to accomplish usual and ordinary tasks. Exercise does not count as a 'task.' Visiting the market, the butcher, the dry cleaners (and such) does.

Where Lori and I now live there is very little opportunity to purposefully walk. We can carry the trash to the dumpster or check the mail, but it would be dangerous to walk to the nearest grocery, drug store, or bar (about 2 miles) because the only way is along a very busy street with no sidewalks. We do walk through the Warner Parks several times a week, but that is just exercise. There is no 'goal' at the end of our stroll. Nashville is building a series of greenways that are perfect for casual walking, but they do not lead from residential to commercial centers and, therefore, do not meet my definition of purposeful.

Of course, wandering is nice. Trekking around unknown hillsides, following paths blazed by generations before us (and their goats), and getting a little lost can be very rewarding. It cultivates a special kind of intelligence; the ability to read maps, to determine direction and time from the physical world around you, and it satisfies our curiosity about what lies beyond the next valley. But this blog is not about recreational walking, it is about walking as a way to live day-in and day-out.

Suburban sprawl in the 60s and 70s took many Americans out of their 19th-century cities (designed for walking). Subdivisions sprouted on lands zoned 'residential.' Shopping centers and malls surrounded by acres of asphalt-covered parking lots were build a safe distance away. It was a perfect time to re-invent walkable villages all across the U.S., but instead developers built single-family homes standing on quarter-acre lots where everyone could own their piece of America without having to be part of a community. America stopped walking with purpose.

The more I think about this, the more complicated those economic and social changes seem. When we were kids we walked to the neighborhood store to buy milk. We walked to the one-screen movie theatre downtown. We walked a few blocks to school. By the time I was in high school there were no longer any local stores, only one Kroger several miles away. The multiplex cinema was at the mall, and buses collected students from all over the county and carried them to the new 'consolidated' school. In most of suburban America the time we would spend walking was replaced with hours of stop-and-go driving. Hopping in the car to run a simple errand became not only habitual, but a major cause of impatience and stress.

Walking provides time to think; inwardly pondering big questions that require time to analyze completely. Less critical thinking has weakened our ability to make rational choices, hold complex ideas in our minds, and to be creative. Also, much has been written before about the declining fitness of Americans. Walking is a simple and effective way to incorporate physical activity into your daily routine without the expense of a gym membership. There is, I believe, a relationship between fitness and mental agility; the more fit we are, the more likely we are to think clearly.

In the big picture, America's disinterest in walking may seem petty. The old-world attitudes toward community, economics, time, and self-reflection that I associate closely with walking may be provincial. On the other hand, such a simple observation my be the spark that can improve many lives without undue effort or expense.

Taylor's song "Walking Man" (above) was released in June of 1974 and received lukewarm critical reviews. It was the first of his albums not to reach the Top 5 of the charts. The title song was considered by fans a major disappointment. Maybe this was a prelude to America's own diminishing respect for walking. Personally, I like it.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Rethinking the Mediterranean Diet

About twenty years ago an American (I believe someone at the Mayo Clinic) coined the expression "The Mediterranean Diet." It was a catch-all term for a way of life shared by millions of rural people living in southern Europe and around the Mediterranean sea. Before long the 'diet' was reduced to these over-simplified dietary guidelines:
  • high consumption of fruits, vegetables, bread and other cereals, potatoes, beans, nuts, and seeds
  • olive oil as an important monounsaturated fat source
  • dairy products, fish, and poultry are consumed in low to moderate amounts
  • little red meat is eaten
  • eggs are consumed zero to four times a week
  • wine is consumed in low to moderate amounts
Since then I have seen dozens of books, magazine articles, and countless TV interviews advocating the virtues of similar innovative health regimes; all of them riding the coattails of a centuries-old way of living. Then I look around, at others and myself, and realize that the Mediterranean Diet is really a myth.

Many of you are aware that Lori and I spent several months last year living in Italy. In September and October of 2008 we woke every morning to look out across the Adriatic ocean from our apartment perched high on a cliff in the historical center of Peschici. Every night we dined on local foods; fish, fresh vegetables, fruits, and simple wines. We could not help but observe how carefully the townsfolk selected their foods at the daily market. If the sea had been too rough for the fishermen to sail the night before, there simply was no fresh catch the next morning. Our butcher always trimmed a cut of meat before weighing it. There was no pretention about the quality of the wine. It was all very young, and very good. We prepared every meal at home; a diet of fish, and vegetables (especially greens and beans), but also rich in pork, lamb, aged cheeses, pasta, and lots of bread. I could (and probably will) write an ode someday on the joys of Puglian bread.

Then we moved to Umbria and found the same passion for eating locally crafted products; albeit very different choices prepared in very different ways. Friends in Tuscany (only a short drive away) shared similar recipes that demonstrated the variations in their local cooking. Before we returned to the US, Lori and I had tasted many different Italian cuisines; from the Ligurian coast, to the mountain valleys above Lake Garda, to the plains of Emilia-Romagna. They were all different... but in some way linked to the idea of eating well. Foods were prepared in ways that let the real flavors shine through; a simple saute, braised meat, and judicious seasoning. Olive oil is a treasure.

I ate a lot in Italy, and lost weight.

Then, last month we travelled to Greece. Lori was teaching a painting workshop on the island of Santorini (Thera) which left me with plenty of free time to explore the Aegean food and drink. To my surprise, the food was very different from that of Italy. The following are general observations and surely do not represent every case. In Greece the food is cooked much longer. Meats are roasted and vegetables fried. Herbs and spices such as oregano or cinnaman are found in almost every dish. Greeks use olive oil to deep-fry squid. Greek bread... forgettable. The servings were huge; enough for two (or more) people.

I ate a lot in Greece, and gained five pounds.

There were similarities such as the use of the grill to cook fish, and an affinity for tomatoes and pasta, but overall Greek cuisine lacked the satisfaction that we found in Italian cooking. To write more about the food would take too long and obscure the real point of this blog which is...

There is no one definition for the "Mediterranean" diet. Looking at a map I count at least sixteen countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea. Diets vary. In fact, because the people of the Mediterranean eat 'locally,' the cuisines between regions within each country are often very different. There is no such thing as "Italian" food, and I suspect the same is true of Greek, French, and Turkish cooking. Statistics about Mediterranean populations like reduced incidence of heart disease and longer lives can not be reasonably based on diet alone. Lifestyle factors such as more physical activity and extended social support systems also play a part.

To give our food choices meaningless labels may help sell books, but it does a disservice to those of us who truly value the importance of preparing good food and eating well. In a much more general way, the ease with which Americans contain their behaviors (dietary or otherwise) by adopting a particular label prevents many from looking deeply into their own lives. Such catagorization may satisfy a puerile need to belong, to be doing what is right, but labels (such as "The Mediterranean Diet") can be rife with ambiguity, allowing a person to live (eat) without direction or purpose.

Let us all think before we champion a fashionable trend. Perhaps we can stem the tide of fad foods and diets. As for me, I hope to eat and drink with purpose. All things in moderation... especially moderation.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Too Many Voices

"In the middle of our life's way
I found myself in a wood so dark
That I couldn't tell where the straight path lay."
- Dante [Inferno, Canto I]

Welcome to my blog. Perhaps it is a sign of my age (53), but it has become increasingly difficult for me to hold a idea, no matter how clear and simple, in my mind for more than a few hours. Occasionally something runs through my head that resonates with 'meaning,' but then I blink and the thought evaporates. In this blog I hope to record such musings, good or bad, before they escape my leaky memory.

In truth, the opening of Dante's Inferno overstates my own mid-life confusion. I am certainly not 'lost.' In fact, many, many aspects of my life are in sharp focus for the first time. Whenever I grow fearful or cynical or feel despair, I look around and recognize just how good my life really is. It has taken me this long to find solace in just being. However, there is something about the poet's honest longing for direction that appeals to me, now more than ever.

A century or two from now, when scholars look back on our time through the lens of history, their vision will be clouded by the clutter of words and images that inform (and pollute) our world today. It is entirely possible that too much information is like too much cholesterol; often tasty but also unhealthy. In my life the many inputs that assault the senses impair my own abilty to think critically. The more civilized (read 'people-filled') my surroundings, the less capable I am of thinking and acting rationally. It is a struggle to find a healthful balance when the scales of my daily routine are heaped up with aural and visual noise. This goes double for the special kind of sounds we call 'words.'

Do people really have that much to say? I do not think so. Is technology partly to blame. Maybe. Let me explore an analogy...

About twenty years ago, composers (I was one) wrote music by thinking about each note. We were precise, knowing that thoughtful combinations of pitch, rhythm, and timbre could transform a concert hall into a fantastic 'imaginary world' of sound. Even after the arduous process of writing the music, getting a new piece performed was difficult. It required copying parts, organizing musicians, finding a performance space, and (if you were lucky) rounding up an audience. The shear energy involved in making new music required that a work always represent a composer's best effort.

Then along came desktop computer generated composition; the marriage of computer automation with tone synthesizers. Overnight, anyone with a personal computer could cobble together sounds and call it a 'composition.' Many times the result was very, very pleasing, but superficial. The music sounded good, but it did not communicate anything 'meaningful.' The ease with which one could write hours of sonic pablum unleased a tidalwave of bad music. In a way, technological progress dulled society's appetite for meaningful music forever.

Now let me make the same assertion regarding language. Give everyone a mobile phone, with an unlimited calling/texting plan, and the importance of words will be washed away in the same flood that has robbed us of good new music. In general, people have traded the quality of speech, born out of the need to be economical with our personal interactions, with an emmense quantity of verbal noise.

OK. I admit there is irony in my having made such a claim in an internet blog. If you are bothered by this, I trust you will exercise your right to stop reading at any point.

At heart, I consider myself a careful thinker. Whenever my mind wanders or makes assumptions or skips around pointlessly, I experience a sense of failure, even shame. That is why I am beginning this series of essays; to see if writing about simple ideas will, somehow, replace the static of modern living with the peace that comes with having formed an idea well.

Therefore, this will not be a place for political rant; the antithesis of well-thought-out ideas. I do not pretend to offer up great philosophy, poety, or wit. This is not a memoire, although I will probably share many personal experiences and feelings. Please forgive me if the first-person pronoun 'I' is used too often; it is a voice more honest than literary.

It seems right to declare my intentions for publishing into the great-digital-abyss now rather than later, for no other reason than to give me something to look back on later and chuckle. My purpose will surely change along the way. Your reason for reading my also change. My best hope is that here you will discover something "Possibly Meaningful" in your own life.