Sunday blog: The late Amy Winehouse sings “Rehab”


I had a different song planned for today, but when the sad news of Amy Winehouse’s death came around yesterday, I wanted to do a little tribute to her.



She was 27. Others who died at 27: Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain.



As of this writing, cause of death is still unknown. But I think we all have a pretty good idea of what might have happened.



I love this song: I love Amy’s whiskey voice, and the chimes, and the horn section, and the quiet backup group that comes in on “No no no,” and the strings that creep in so stealthily at the end.



They tried to make me go to rehab; I said No no no . . .


Amy_Winehouse_-_Rehab.mp3 Listen on Posterous




Spoiler alert!


“I was watching ‘Lord of the Rings’ last night,” Apollonia told me not long ago. “And don’t get me wrong, it’s wonderful. But twelve hours! And then I was lying in bed and thinking about it. And all of a sudden I thought: Why couldn’t one of the eagles just have taken the ring and dropped it into Mount Doom? Wouldn’t it have been simpler?” She grimaced. “And then I realized that I have no imagination. I could never have written that story.”



“The goal is not the point of the story,” I said. “The journey is the point of the story.”



She rolled her eyes. “Yeah, yeah. I thought the point of the story was getting rid of the stupid ring.”



“Well,” I said, “now you know why I always read the last page of a book first. I can’t stand suspense. I want to get it over with.”



She recoiled, as if I’d told her something truly horrible, like “Robert Pattinson and Tilda Swinton are actually the same person,” or “’Twilight’ was actually co-written by Glenn Beck and Michelle Bachmann.” “How can you do that?” she squealed. “It goes against nature.”



“That’s me all over,” I beamed. “Against nature.”



Seriously, I can’t stand suspense. I like mystification and puzzles, but I noticed a long time ago that most dramatic situations end up having unsatisfactory conclusions at the end of the day. Remember “Twin Peaks”? I loved it. But then the writers thought that they actually had to explain what was going on, and everything fell apart. Ditto “The X-Files.”




Speaking of “The X-Files”: I was talking to my student assistant Noah the other day about the show. He’s never seen it, but he loves fantasy and science fiction and crime drama, and is planning to stream the whole series on Netflix. (These kids these days and their technology!) “There was this terrific sexual tension between Mulder and Sculley on the show,” I said. “And they never really resolved it, until -”



He covered his ears with his hands. “Lalalala!” he screamed. “Don’t tell me! I don’t want to know!”



See? Another one. Just like Apollonia.   




But sometimes I find an innocent victim.



Years ago, I was attending a Film Society event at Brown, and the girl taking money at the door had the Penguin edition of “Sense and Sensibility” lying on the desk in front of her as she made change for people. (This was back in the 1980s, before every single Jane Austen novel was made into a film.) “Enjoying it?” I said, nodding at the book.



“I really am,” she said earnestly. “She writes so well. And, you know, I’m only about halfway through, and I really don’t know what’s going to happen. I assume they’re both going to get married, but – ”



“Elinor marries Edward,” I said smoothly, “and Marianne marries Colonel Brandon.”



I have never forgotten the incredulity on her face. “Why did you tell me that – ”



But it was too late; I’d escaped.



This is one more thing I will have to account for on the Day of Judgment.



I’m against nature, remember?



Harry Potter and the slam-bang finale


Finally, after all these years, it’s over.



And this final movie, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part Two,” is the best of the lot.



All of the young actors know exactly what they’re doing now. (It’s been ten years, so they’d better.) It’s wonderful to see Emma Watson as a calm and very confident young woman; Rupert Grint isn’t goofy anymore, but stalwart and funny and sort of cute if you squint at him the right way; and dear Matthew Lewis as Neville Longbottom, the Wimpy Kid of Gryffindor, has matured beyond all recognition, and is now handsome and brave and pretty much the tallest kid in his class.



Daniel Radcliffe. Okay. He’s excellent. But he’s a place-holder. He’s you, you see? He’s your foothold in the story. You’re supposed to identify with Harry, so they couldn’t really cast anyone really dramatically distinctive in the role – not a funny redhead like Grint, not a zombie albino like the mutant who plays Draco Malfoy. Radcliffe is perfect in this regard, sort of like Elijah Wood over in “The Lord of the Rings”: he’s got an interesting face and a pleasing personality, but he mostly reacts to stuff. Picture him in your mind. You’re seeing him looking at something and reacting to it, aren’t you? And that’s perfect. I foresee a long and successful career for Mister Radcliffe, and more power to him.



The older actors – you know, the entire British acting community over the age of thirty – really only need to show up in costume. But it’s wonderful to see Maggie Smith’s deadly serious face when she’s wand-to-wand with her adversary, and later to see her irrepressible giggle when she casts a spell that she’s always wanted to cast. Nice to see Emma Thompson with her thick spectacles on; nice to see Julie Walters growling like a mother tiger, fighting with the terrifyingly insane-looking and insane-acting Helena Bonham Carter.



Hope I didn’t spoil the movie for you with those glimpses.



But I didn’t, did I?



And, see, that’s the thing. There are no spoilers here. You’ve either read the book, in which case you know what’s gonna happen, or you haven’t, which means that – well, you pretty much know how it has to end, right? (Hint: don’t get that Death Eater tattoo just yet.)



The cinematography is beautiful. I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie with night scenes in which I could actually make out what was going on. (We saw it in 3D, and there are a few worthwhile effects – some of the spells, some of the pyrotechnics. But, kids, save your three dollars. You really won’t miss a thing if you don’t see it in 3D.)



The movie actually improves upon the book in a few places; it omits some of the tedious flashback stuff, and straightens out a few of the more roundabout plotlines. And maybe things don’t happen quite like the book in a few places – but wouldn’t it be a bore if they did?



And I am so effing grateful to see the bloody quidditch stadium burn down. Because – you know what? – I think quidditch is stupid.



But this movie is not stupid. It is really grave and beautiful and solemn.



And a lot of fun to watch.



So. Imperio! See this movie!




Shula’s 347 Grill, Providence, Rhode Island


For a long time, Providence had only one steakhouse: the Capital Grille. It was expensive and very deluxe; I’ve only ever had dinner there once, for a colleague’s farewell party, and I felt like an orphan foundling at a Presidential dinner. The service was immaculate, the food excellent, the ambiance old-school: lots of wood paneling and wine bottles and waiters who shimmered up out of nowhere.



Now high-end steakhouses have popped up everywhere. Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse. Fred & Steve’s Steakhouse, up at Twin River. Fleming’s, which Partner and I visit every few months, and which has given us some really tremendous meals.



And we finally hit Shula’s 347 Grill on Independence Day.



We felt like trying something new, and I happened to have a gift certificate, and we had nothing else to do. We got there around 2:00 p.m., and there was – literally – no one else in the place. We had a server named Milton, who was perfect in that old-fashioned steakhouse way: very attentive without overdoing it and without intruding. We had appetizers and burgers, so we can’t speak to the high-end steak menu, but I can tell you that we had an excellent meal.



Partner’s big problem with the place, of course, had to do with the founder. “So,” I said, “Shula was a football player.”



Partner grimaced. “Coach,” he said. “Miami Dolphins. He won a couple of Super Bowls in the 1970s. Big deal.” (Partner is a New England Patriots fan.)



I pointed over to the entryway, where two huge metallic football-shaped trophies stood. “I assume those are Super Bowl trophies?”



He glanced over disdainfully. “Replicas.”



“Maybe, when you win the Super Bowl, they give you as many trophies as you want,” I said.



Partner grunted. “Bill Belichick won three Super Bowl trophies.”



“Well, he should open a nice restaurant too,” I said. “All the waiters could wear hoodies. And when you compliment the waitstaff, they can say: ‘I can’t take credit. It was a team effort.’”



Partner grunted again.



Well, it was an excellent meal, despite the fact that we were surrounded by photos of Don Shula shaking hands with celebrities I didn’t recognize.



As we were leaving, I spotted one last photo on the wall: Shula shaking the hand of Bill Belichick. I called Partner over to see it. Belichick had signed it, and written a long note to Shula on the photo.



And he signed it: Bill Belichick, SB 36 / 38 / 39 champions.



One more Super Bowl than Shula won, see?



Bill Belichick is a shady bitch!



The world is coming to an end, you stupidheads!


A report was recently released on the health of the seas.



Here’s a quick summary: it ain’t good.



Marine species are dying. The chemical composition of the sea is itself changing. There is reason to believe that we are in the first phases of the sixth great extinction in the Earth’s history, and that we – human beings – are responsible for it.



There are so many man-made disasters, big and small. A recent episode of Halogen’s “Angry Planet” gave us the death of the Aral Sea and Chernobyl, in one brief half-hour program. Oh, and just for laughs, there’s a lab on an island in the Aral Sea where the Soviet government stockpiled – and weaponized! – things like bubonic plague and anthrax. Except that it’s not an island anymore; the drying of the Aral Sea (see above photo) has connected the island to the mainland. Rats and mice and vermin in general are probably carrying bits and pieces of all those deadly things to land.






I’m always pleased to bring you news of the apocalypse. One of these times, it’s bound to be true.



And it’s always best to be prepared.



So put your crash helmet on, buckle your seat belt, and start screaming now.



Imaginary hometowns

In Italo Calvino’s novel “Invisible Cities,” Marco Polo describes imaginary places to the Emperor of China. They are wonderful, and impossible.



This is at least partly because they do not exist.



Okay, Italo Calvino. How about this?



The town my mother was born in no longer exists. The town my father was born in never existed. And the town I grew up in doesn’t quite exist.



I will elaborate.



Bayne, Washington, where my mother was born, was a “railroad town,” with “houses” built for the railroad workers. When we took our yearly trip up to visit Grandma, Mom would point over into a field of yellowed grass and say: “I was born over there!” And all I could see were some burnt-out shacks lost in the trees and weeds. It still shows up on a few maps, but there’s really nothing there.



Glade, Washington, where my father was born, was a fiction: just a name that my grandparents chose to call their farm in rural Klickitat County, Washington in the early decades of the Twentieth Century. Dad was born in the Glade in January 1914. The weather was very cold. Grandma felt her water break (it was at least her third birth) and told Grandpa to hitch up the buckboard to take her into town to have her child. He took a long time about doing it, so Grandma (I’m quoting her, by the way) “mixed herself up a hot toddy to keep the cold away.”



By the time Grandpa got back in the house, Grandma was drunk on the kitchen floor, giving birth to Dad. She didn’t quite know what to do with the umbilical cord; she knew it was supposed to be tied off, so she tried to loop Dad around and through it, as if tying a shoe.



They never quite made it into town. But Dad got born anyway, right there in the house, in “Glade, Washington,” which you will never find on any map. There’s a Glade Cemetery, with a few markers. I dare you to find it.



As for me, I grew up in Venersborg, Washington. It’s on the side of Spotted Deer Mountain, in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. It’s not a real city or town; Wikipedia calls it a “census-designated place,” which sounds about right. Mom and Dad are buried in Venersborg Cemetery over by Finn Hill, and it’s always the first place Partner and I go when we visit the Northwest. Sometimes, when I’m very nostalgic, we drive all the way up the hill to look (from a distance) at the house I grew up in. It’s been remodeled, and it’s different now.



But it’s still there.



Children: be proud of your imaginary heritage!



North African food: Chakchouka


Writing about North African food a few weeks ago made me hungry.



So I made chakchouka. And it was delicious.



Here’s my speeded-up American version of the Tunisian recipe:



  • Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a saute pan.

  • Add chopped sweet peppers, onion, tomato, etc.: about two or three cups’ worth. Also some garlic. Also some salt and pepper. Also something hot: a can of chopped green chilies, a finely diced jalapeno pepper, or (if you have some) a teaspoon of Tunisian harissa. (Actually, Partner and I have been using Ro-Tel tomatoes lately, and I have to say that they’re pretty good, so you could add a can of those.)  Lacking any of the above, add a tablespoon or so of goyishe hot sauce.

  • Saute the above for about five minutes, until the onions are translucent.

  • Add about a cup of storebought marinara sauce, or a small can of tomato sauce, and allow to cook for about another five minutes.

  • Now: carefully break three eggs into the simmering sauce. Don’t mix them in; just let them insinuate themselves into the mixture.

  • Reduce the heat, cover, and let the eggs poach in the vegetable/sauce mixture for about ten minutes. Check from time to time for over/undercooking. Spoon a little of the sauce onto the eggs. Try not to break the yolks, but it’s okay if you do.

  • Prepare and eat a green salad while you’re waiting for the eggs to poach. (This is a very civilized recipe; it allows you to dine while cooking.)

  • When the eggs are cooked, serve your chakchouka piping hot, with a fresh loaf of French or Italian bread for dunking.  (In North Africa, the bread is actually the eating utensil.)



See how nice?



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