SILENCE HAS A NAME - Poetry Chapbook and CD, with Music by Mark Hanley

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Chocolate, Good and Bad

It's hard to imagine there could be bad chocolate, but I just had a disappointing experience I'd like to tell you about. I'm not going to blame it on the brand. I think it was something else.

I've been fond of Lindt Truffles for a long time. I love the prettily wrapped balls of chocolate and the lovely bags in varying shades of blue in which they come. My favorites have been the white chocolate and the dark chocolate Lindor truffles with the smooth creamy filling. We had a perfect experience of the Lindor variety, then went for another two bags at the local Walgreen. Those bags remain open but untouched two weeks after being bought, their goods barely sampled. Those chocolates will probably never get eaten, as they were hard and unappetizing and the cream just wasn't there -- literally.

I'm not blaming this on our taste buds, but on the heat or combination of temperatures to which these particular chocolates were exposed. After being purchased, they sat in the car in heat while we were at a movie -- Fall had not yet spread its cold hands through our car interior. Later that evening, the now semi-melted chocolate went into our refrigerator, hardening into wrinkly, ugly looking things. You could also taste the fat in the chocolate -- This, I will blame on the brand or on the particular batch we bought.

We generally first cool these particular truffles in the fridge. But you can't mess with temperatures with the chocolate too much. We should have bought the two bags after, not before the movie.

I am ever mindful of chocolate. I have a charming little book on the subject sitting alongside my laptop to remind me of what I like whenever I'm bored or distracted. The book, by Sarah Moss and Alexander Badenach, called Chocolate, is part of The Edible Series.

Did you know that cacao beans were used as currency in the 1500s? In 1528, Fernando Cortez returned to Spain with beans from his plantation in Mexico. The Spanish would mix the bitter cocoa liquid with sugar, vanilla, nutmeg, allspice, cloves and cinnamon. In 1828, Conrad Van Heuten invented the cocoa press to squeeze out the cocoa butter, making for a more consistent, smoother beverage. Van Heuten was the first to treat cocoa with alkali. The very first milk chocolate was made by Swiss chocolate maker, Daniel Peter in 1875.

I love chocolate, but as someone who also likes pure foods, I'm a fan these days of Green & Black's Organic chocolate, which even includes a vegan dark chocolate variety. Each of the brand's types of chocolate has varying degrees of fat, which comes from the cocoa butter. Although you find fat in chocolate, it's a rich source of antioxidants, which help purify the system.

The best way to savor chocolate is to start with a clean palate, even though I have enjoyed it with espresso. Just place a small square on your tongue and let it melt slowly. The best chocolates taste silky and smooth. There are many varieties, but it seems to me a double treat when you find one that's not only good for you, purely made, but incredibly tasty too!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Getting Down with Palahniuk

I picked up a collection of Chuck Palahniuk's essays recently. I didn't know anything about his work, but the buzz in the back of my head was that he's good. Guys like him, I suspected. He wrote Fight Club, which became a movie that became a hit of sorts.

In Stranger Than Fiction, Palahniuk tells the story about the summer he injected himself with anabolic steroids and (for a minute) felt himself to be a super man; the story about his experience on a navy boat where being gay is an invisible elephant; the story about tractors ramming each other mercilessly; and the one about wrestlers all but killing themselves and each other. And that crazy Rock Creek Lodge Testicle Festival, where people get naked and weird. In one story, disquieting psychic friends see through to crisis moments in Palahniuk's and his friends' pasts, but he dismisses their perceptions. There are portraits too of actor Juliette Lewis and others who think they know who they are, but who remain shadowy, in psychic distress.

Like Palahniuk himself.

Chuck Palahniuk's background is ragingly dark. His grandfather shot his wife and would have killed his son, Chuck's father, if he'd seen him, but he was hiding under the bed. The grandfather shot his wife then himself. Chuck's father married and divorced Chuck's mother only to wind up getting killed years later, along with his girlfriend, by her ex. Palahniuk's memories of his father are like a horror show.

He's a brooding minimalist who skims over the surface of things, scrubbing an appearance fairly well with his words, calling it truth. But he's not interested in the truth of truth, but in being cynical and hard, much in the way Hemingway was, or got. He's interested in being manly too, but not so manly that it betrays something too deep in himself. Even though he gives the impression of daring and curiosity on his adventures, he's actually pretty cautious and doesn't dig so deep, but lingers on the periphery charting the course of a ball or a fist or rickocheting time until (you get the impression) he gets the feeling of a thing being done, and closes with a thoughtful epiphany.

The thing is, I don't care if he's good. I can sniff out a good truth teller and a good liar and he's neither, and for me, you have to be one or the other to be a good storyteller. He sees things only partway, offering up only glimpses of himself, doing the best that he can to avoid what a thing is completely, and perhaps who he is too. Even if a great writer never gives details about himself or herself, you know who they are at heart in their work, well enough to like or despise them. I come away with details but no sense of the man save as a shadow like the Hulk.

Anyway, he revels in these worlds of men. There's the story about the summer he injected himself with anabolic steroids and (for a minute) felt himself to be a super man; the story about his experience on a navy boat where being gay is an invisible elephant; the story about tractors ramming each other mercilessly across a vast field; and the one about wrestlers all but killing themselves and each other. And that crazy Rock Creek Lodge Testicle Festival, where people get naked and weird. In one story, disquieting psychic friends see through to crisis moments in Palahniuk's and his friends' pasts, but he dismisses their perceptions. There are portraits too, of actor Juliette Lewis and others who think they know who they are, but who remain shadowy, in psychic distress.

Like Palahniuk.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Punk Activism Brings Down the House

I love Patti Smith's poetry. I wasn't a part of the punk rock scene of the 70s when Smith's music first began blowing away people's minds. I was too busy hiding in the Berkshires. I'd heard of Smith, but didn't start getting into her work until I chanced upon her poetry, which happened to be published alongside mine in The Cafe Review in the late 90s. From that moment on, I couldn't stop digging her music and poems. I believe she's also an artist, multi-dimensional, and that's no surprise.

I had the chance to film her tonight, performing, as part of a special benefit event for the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives (ALBA), hosted by the Puffin Foundation at the Museum of the City of New York. She followed the great Pete Seeger and Guy Davis (who is the son of Ruby Dee and Ozzie Davis), a powerful Blues artist and musician.

One can't say enough about Seeger, whose commitment as a musician to peace and social justice causes defies description and belief. He's been around as a professional more than 70 years, and has been singing about the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and its struggle to save Spain from Franco for 60 years. As someone said at tonight's event, Seeger is "America's own troubadour." He sings because he loves it and loves America. And he makes everyone sing along with him. It's really beautiful to see all that history skimming across his face when he performs.

But here's the thing, although I was there as a professional to film the event, as a fan, I was really there to see Patti. Afterward, I got to meet her and chat with her a bit about her book, Just Kids, which was just nominated for The National Book Award. The book chronicles her coming of age as an artist with friend Robert Mapplethorpe, the photographer who died of AIDS in 1989. The 2009 film, Dream of Life, an intimate portrait of Smith's journey as an artist, was also nominated for an Emmy.

Smith is more than a poet, artist, singer, performer and songwriter. She's humble, calm and graceful and wouldn't allow herself to be classified an activist, but dedicated her performances to activists, starting with Seeger. She read from Auguries of Innocence, her most recent volume of poetry, and sang for protesters, prefacing, "The thing is, with activists, they're not getting out there to win, win, win. They're getting out there, knowing they're going to lose, lose, lose."

Poetic and punk, dramatic and low key, Smith is larger than life, an ageless rebel. I especially like that she hasn't let time or trends, opinion or praise compromise her power and grace.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Birthday Thoughts and Wishes

Oct. 15 is my birthday, and I share it with Nieszche, P.D. Wodehouse, Barry McGuire, and, well, as my sister Marcela put it in her voice note today, "the list goes downhill from there." So, on this occasion, I'm going to indulge in a highly personal post. It's my privilege, after all.

Today my niece Kerry's second son, Bode, arrived. How can you beat that for the greatest birthday present ever. I went out to a wonderful dinner and received plenty of thoughful calls and cards and highly personalized and lovely Facebook messages, some from friends I haven't seen in way too long. And there's an invitation to a premier on Oct. 25th, extending my birthday well into the future. I'd like to keep celebrating like that.

In return for all the love, I have a smattering of thoughts I'd like to share back. My current biggest concern is how to help youth, and really encourage and support them. Recently, a gay college student jumped off the GWB after being cruelly outed by his roommate on the Internet. His story made headlines around the world, and I wish he knew the care he catalyzed, and hadn't had to die to get people to care. It's a world where too much that is tragic happens to the young, and where it's harder than ever to grow up with hope. It's a world thriving with technology but struggling to communicate, where people often sit across from one another in restaurants texting on their cell phones or emailing other people while ignoring one another.

I ask myself often: What kind of a world are we ushering our kids into? Where is the intimacy, trust and love? We have to show it to them, support their sharing and creativity, demonstrate the humanity that is there and encourage them to have faith that it will be there for them when they need it most.

Two organizations that are doing truly valuable work with teens are worthy of mentioning here. One is The Trevor Project, dedicated to combatting suicide prevention among LGBT teens. It provides an online community, statistics and helpful resources for families and teens. The other, J.K. Livin, started by actor Matthew McConaughey in 1993, helps kids create healthy lifestyles. The Foundation has partnered with Communities in Schools (CIS), the country's largest dropout prevention organization. Celebrity support is helping these organizations grow, but they are looking for help from regular folks too.

Whether you have children or not -- and I don't -- you simply can't deny the importance of passing along a peaceful, kind and helpful legacy to the young, as they ARE our future.

Although I never had kids, I've been blessed as a teacher to know some of the most awesome students, kids I saw flower before my very eyes -- when they were encouraged and supported  -- and incredibly loving and blessed nephews and nieces. Their talents aside, they are loving and kind --they think of others; they want to help their neighbors -- even across the globe. They believe in the power of love and hope.

I don't worry about them so much as I do those kids without guidance or hope, turning to drugs or fantasizing about dying as if it's an ultimate high. Big news -- You don't come down or return when you jump off a bridge. These are the kids that worry me, and some are gay and some are not. But they are all burdened with tremendous pressure, more than ever before. We made their world, and we have to help them bear the burden of it in these very challenging times.

I'm convinced I have to help. Those of us who were delinquent youths, or drug or alcohol abusers, those of us who made it through into our adulthood know how challenging growing up can be. It's more challenging now, and it's not terribly complicated: The young need our help, and we can't turn our backs on them or let them grow up alone.

Please, if anyone has suggestions about how to help struggling youth locally, share your ideas with me. I know there's a lot one can do. But your suggestions and experience mean a lot and can add to the pot of caring.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Napa Valley Surprises

I had just finished saying two days before that you can't find a decent restaurant in a mall. Never say never. We stepped into Napa Valley Grille in the Garden State Plaza, after discovering to our chagrin that a favorite eatery blending the fire of cuisine from south of the border with Japanese dishes had closed. Who would have thought that turning then toward something new would lead to a kind of boon.

Napa Valley's interior suggests California's spaciousness with its vista of wide tables covered with white tablecloths; low lights add warmth and displays of California wines are everywhere, including racks set into the wall overhead. I was delighted to discover a very vegetarian friendly menu, and we approached ordering as if at a Tapas restaurant. Our water had just been poured, and we were promptly served a plate of delicious peppery breads with sides of olive paste and olive oil.

We ordered a few appetizers to sample variety. The grilled Portobello mushrooms served over chic pea fries with goat cheese and balsamic vinaigrette were my personal favorite. My partner preferred the dish of sweet roasted garlic with goat cheese and a subtle and sweet tomato chutney and Parmesan chips. Our waiter didn't blink when we asked him to substitute the blue cheese with goat cheese, and he was extremely helpful answering questions throughout our meal. We also ordered a satisfying plate of fresh mozzarella and fresh roasted peppers over baby arugula with balsamic dressing that is pretty much standard fare for me whenever I dine at an Italian place. We closed the meal with creme brule and a pistachio gelato with caramel topping -- both desserts were delicate and extraordinary -- and some very fine espressos.

Napas Valley Grille recently launched a Sunday brunch that runs until three and has been very successful, according to the manager. Sample small plates include waffles and cream, Grand Marnier French toast, and huevos rancheros burrito, to name three, and soon there will be jazz.

Try Napas if you want to enjoy some fine samplings of western and southwestern cuisine along with some good conversation. The menu is tasty, varied and generous.

Napas Valley Grille has a location in Paramus on the east coast, somewhere in the wiles of Minnesota and also in Los Angeles.