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?



Sunday blog: The Roches sing “Moonswept”



I have loved the Roches for a long time. There are three of them, if you don’t know their theme song: Maggie and Terre and Suzzy. They performed together for a while in the 1980s and into the 1990s, then broke up, and have since reunited. They have a knack for writing and singing songs that make me laugh, and others that make me cry.



Their 2007 “Moonswept” album has a couple of things that (right on cue) make me cry.



The title song is the best on the album, I think. It is about the way things used to be, and about relationships, and shared memories, and growing older.



Or maybe it’s about the burnt heart of a small witch.



Doesn’t matter. It’s just one of the songs that pretty much always makes me cry.



With us, its isness was obvious

And the ones that followed, they knew of it too;

But the broomstick fell behind the moon . . .


04_Moonswept.m4a Listen on Posterous


Getting old with Sara Teasdale


Partner and I have lots of interesting retirement schemes. Most of them rely on non-traditional methods, like keno and Powerball.



One plan is that I win big on “Jeopardy!,” the TV game show. I’ve auditioned four times. I have high hopes.



But I didn’t get called for an audition this year.



I know I did poorly on the online test. I used my laptop, which was a mistake; I skipped over a couple of questions just because the keyboard was balky.



But I can’t blame it entirely on my laptop. The truth is that my memory is deteriorating very rapidly.



Once, not long ago, I was encyclopedic. I knew who was in what movie, and who wrote what, and what characters were in what books, and what year who did what. I was unstoppable. The other night, however, I was watching “Jeopardy!” while on the treadmill in the health club, and presumably my blood was pumping to all relevant sections of my brain, but my recall was patchy at best.



It happens, they say, with age.



You know the Sara Teasdale poem about climbing the hill?



I must have passed the crest a while ago,

And now I am going down –

Strange to have crossed the crest and not to know,

But the brambles were always catching the hem of my gown.



All the morning I thought how proud I should be

To stand there straight as a queen,

Wrapped in the wind and the sun, with the world under me –

But the air was dull, there was little I could have seen.



It was nearly level along the beaten track,

And the brambles caught in my gown;

But it’s no use now to think of turning back,

The rest of the way will be only going down.






Irish castles


When Partner and I went to Ireland in 2007, we saw (and clambered through) no less than three castles in our seven short days there:



  • King John’s Castle in Limerick. Early 13th century, honeycombed with tiny staircases and wee little low-ceilinged rooms. (People were evidently mighty small in King John’s day.) Lots of dungeons, of course; you can never have enough dungeons. And a nice young handsome well-muscled Irishman was forging coins down in the Mint, and made both of us a Limerick shilling on the spot, for a couple of euros.

  • Cahir Castle, in Carrick-on-Suir. We passed through Carrick en route to Cashel, and had a couple of hours to kill, and – well, wasn’t there a castle right over there? Cahir Castle is lovely. Mostly 15th – 16th century, with a few earlier bits. A nice big rack of Irish elk antlers on the hunting lodge wall. (The Irish elk was a monstrously big fellow, with antlers the size of the average modern playground jungle gym, who got hunted to extinction.) The castle has iron gates, and a big ugly iron eagle on one of the parapets. We had a wonderful time tromping around on around the ramparts and looking down on the town of Carrick, which is itself a charming little Irish town. (Here’s a tip, though: we made the mistake of eating in an Italian restaurant there. Do not make the same mistake we made.)

  • Cashel. The Rock of Cashel is something out of Tolkien: a gigantic crag in the middle of the green valleys of Tipperary. A castle – actually a whole bunch of castles, built over centuries – guard the top of it. We wandered through them, and saw St. Patrick’s Cross, and I picked a shamrock from the grass. (But, frankly, the Rock looks better from a distance; close up, the buildings are in desperately bad shape – the guide told us that one of the chapels was full of poisonous mold. )



One last tip: if you go to Ireland, you will do well to stay off the beaten path. The little towns are really the best. I’d never heard of Carrick before we went to Ireland, and I ended up having a lovely time there.



Just don’t go to the Italian restaurant down the street from the castle.




RuPaul’s Drag U., season two


Entertainment Weekly’s PopWatch recently said that summer television is a) not gay enough and b) suffers from a RuPaul deficiency.



That all changed on Monday, June 20, 2011.



When “RuPaul’s Drag U.” premiered last summer, I was prepared to sneer it off the airwaves. I liked Drag Race very much, but the “Drag U.” concept – having drag queens give makeovers to straight women – was too much. Add to that the conceit that this was a “university,” with “faculty” (actually, Ru pronounces it “falcuty”), and “deans” and “draguation” (!).



But the show won me over instantly. It was – surprise! – goodhearted. It reminds me of the old “Queen For A Day” show, on which tearful housewives told their stories in return for washers and dryers and blenders. But the real prize on “Drag U.” is self-esteem. The women dress up in Marilyn Monroe wigs and sequined frocks, and they do kindergarten-level lipsynch in front of a supportive audience, and you watch them realize that this is fun.



The first show of the second season was wonderful. The contestants arrived looking tired, uncertain, and bedraggled, and ended the show looking fabulous.



They’re retooled the show a bit since last year. It’s sillier and has more stupid jokes. But it has a lot more Lady Bunny, for which I praise all the Drag Gods. And, as I was watching the wrap-up of the first show of the season, it suddenly hit me that Ru (in his most elegant suit-and-tie drag) was wearing a white suit with a pastel Hawaiian print, with a lilac shirt and an iridescent lime-green tie.



He looked wonderful.



And isn’t that the point?



It’s only a shame that there can only be one winner.



Ru: can’t you figure out a way for everybody to win?


Mount St. Helens


The other evening, I was eavesdropping on the science program Partner was watching in the bedroom. “The biggest volcanic eruption in North America in a hundred years,” the narrator said. “It was once a perfect cone-shaped volcano.”



Ah. Yes. I know the one.



I grew up with Mount St. Helens almost always on the horizon. Our house was on the wrong side of the hill from it, but you didn’t have to go far to get a pretty spectacular view of it. For most of my school years, it sat right outside my classroom window. St. Helens was perfect. It was always snow-capped (in the 1960s and 1970s it seldom lost much snow, even in the summer), and it had the most perfectly graceful shape.



The Native Americans (so I’m told) had a story about St. Helens and the other big volcanic peaks in the area. St. Helens was the daughter of Mount Rainier; she was fought over by two suitors, Mount Adams and Mount Hood. The fight was violent enough to destroy the Bridge of the Gods that spanned the Columbia River. (Evidently Mount Adams won, because Adams and St. Helens are right next to each other now, with Hood glaring at them from across the river.)



St. Helens was mostly invisible in the winter, hidden by clouds. In summer it was like a nice big scoop of ice cream on the horizon. It was refreshing to look at, and strangely demure.



And then one morning in 1980 Mount St. Helens went WHOOMP.



I’d been living in Rhode Island for a couple of years by that time, but I was in touch with my family. To be fair, everyone out there had lots of warning. My mother had told me that the whole mountain was swelling up; you could plainly see the huge lump in the side of the mountain from Interstate 5, thirty miles away. And if my mother could see it, it had to be pretty evident to everyone.



The authorities tried to evacuate the area. They really didn’t foresee the real problem, though: huge floods and mudflows which swamped the Toutle and Cowlitz Rivers, washing people away.



We never dreamed it’d blow up.



Now, thirty years later, when I visit my old hometown, I look northeast and see a sulky misshapen blue-white lump, half-hidden in mist, with a big bite taken out of one side.



The things we remember from childhood are all taken away from us, one by one.



Gautama was right: all things pass away.



I am Ganesha, the remover of obstacles


Kids love to play superhero games, like: If you were a superhero, who would you be?



Well, speaking for myself, I wouldn’t want to be any of them.  They have to wear tights and capes and things and fly around and save people.  What a nuisance!.  It would be more fun, I think, to be maybe an Egyptian or Indian or Chinese deity: you’d get to wear a lot of jewelry, in addition to dancing and playing the flute and riding your peacock and smiting people.



So let’s rephrase the question: If you were a mythological character – any mythological character – who would you be?



No question for me. I would be Ganesha.



Dear elephant-headed Ganesha, the Lord of Beginnings and Remover of Obstacles.



I remember when I was in grade school, I couldn’t open my locker. I was in tears. Mister Glass, the tall crewcutted threatening-looking assistant principal, approached me, asked me in clipped tones for my combination, and in short order opened my locker for me, while I watched, slack-jawed.



But apparently, he passed some magical power to me. And, ever since, I’ve found that I can pull off the same trick.



Can’t open a package? Just let me! Door sticking? Doesn’t stick when I open it! Computer isn’t acting right? Gee, it’s fine when I use it!



It is little short of miraculous. Correction: I am little short of miraculous.



The other day at work, a co-worker came to see if I had the key to a locked closet. “No,” I said. “That’s padlocked, and they never gave me the key for it. But you never know.”



I rose from my desk, secure in my power, and glided down the hallway, with him (awestruck) in my wake. We got to the closet, and I touched the padlock –



And it lifted away. It wasn’t even locked.



I am Ganesha, the remover of obstacles.



Pray to me at the beginning of your endeavors, and I will bless them.



I am also partial to sweets, so the occasional box of chocolates, or even a Snickers bar, couldn’t hurt.



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