Friday, December 3, 2010

Sunday, June 6, 2010

#56 Double Down THIS! ... Food-Pundit Persons


One last time--I guess almost literally ad nauseum--for the notorious Double Down aka KFCT = Kentucky Fried Church Triumphant. Because it got new life. A resurrection, if you will. Originally a limited-time promotional item, perhaps on the order of "Hey Madge, I'm sure as hell not gonna eat one--I promise, just the Colonel's new UN-fried grilled stuff for me on account of those love-handles you keep bringing up lovingly, Dear--but let's take the kids out for a bucket or two so's we can see one of them Double Downs in it's natural environment ... roamin' about maybe outside its cage. Should be a sight to behold."

So before its projected six-weeks of fame expired, the DD's run was extended (and presumably still going on) by dint of an outpouring of popular demand, or so we're told by the Colonel's representatives here on Earth. Not surprising. Our selfish CAVE-PEOPLE genes (in the Dawkinsian sense) know what's good for us; we just eat too much of it for our savannah-less lifestyles. Our DNA will eventually mutate and adaptively catch up with (in a few tens of thousands of years, say, at best--sorry, dieters) our light-speed cultural evolution. (See earlier KFC posts MM # 48-50.) For on the molecular level we're still a grab-and-gorge organism ... till the next meal, and our deep-dish, autochthonous programming can never be sure when that will be.

However, speaking of programming, here's another typical party-line food-nanny, like SFGate's Mark Morford in earlier posts (q.v.), telling us a couple of weeks ago just how very bad the KFC sandwich is for us. This time, though, Mr. Tom Sietsema of the Washington Post actually tastes the thing--Morford only imagined, wrongly, how oh-so-awful it would be. But it's in the eating--it's not clear if he spits, wine-taster-wise--wherein lies the proof of this fellow's hypocritical pudding. The video clip "Tom Tries the KFC Double Down" starts out portentously enough, invoking vaguely the authority of Michelle Obama, but then loses all credibility--take a look--when he admits to a "love" for McDonald's french-fries and a "soft spot" for Popeye's chicken and biscuits!

He obviously wants to dissociate himself here from the common run of food-fascists and be more one-of-the-guys, but it doesn't work. A dead give-away is when, before tasting it, he describes the sandwich as made up, first of all, of "two salty slices of chicken breast." Qua?! How does he know that yet? More important question: What kind of salinity does he think he's getting in his favorite McFries or his Popeye drumstick? Both also deep-fried, and the latter pressure-cooked to a turn. Sure enough, when the video gets to the point, the headless voice-over avers that
In the hand it feels like a greasy paperweight. As for the taste [chomp above camera angle] I feel my mouth flooding with salt and fat. This is not a guilty pleasure. More like an endurance test, best served with a gallon of water. I can see how these [hefting two of them for effect] might go over well at a frat party, but, seriously, there's nothing enjoyable about this sandwich. Thumbs down for the Double Down!

O ye Hypocrites! ... the Colonel might be heard intoning somewhere beyond the grave.
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Wednesday, May 5, 2010

#55 "The Bread Worked, Mr. Wilbur: One More Spring."


Or, Gaia Mater may have just skipped it all together--in deference to our suffering through so protracted a winter. We've been getting summer temperatures hereabouts, since April. Several: record-breaking.

I'm sure the record depredations of the Winter of 2010, which ended only a matter of a couple of weeks ago on the East Coast, had something to to do with the desperation behind "Ecclesiastes 11:1." This entitled poem appeared in the New Yorker about a month ago, and it is testimony to my slackitude lately that before I could get it to the Blog, the old man (89) has gone and done another one for this week's issue! (That one being a nice take on Arnold's "Dover Beach"--both of which recommended.) Twice Pulitzered Richard Wilbur has always been one of my favorites, noted for using traditional poetic forms--here the tercet stanza and even rhyme (a-x-a), of all things--to explore modern themes. (To oversimplify.) Thus:

We must CAST OUR BREAD
UPON THE WATERS, as the
Ancient preacher said,

Trusting that it may
Amply be restored to us
AFTER MANY A DAY.

That old metaphor,
Drawn from rice farming on the
River's flooded shore,

Helps us to believe
That it's no great sin to give,
Hoping to receive.

Therefore I shall throw
Broken bread, this sullen day,
Out across the snow,

Betting crust and crumb
That birds will gather, and that
One more spring will come.

It's a poem about spring, but mostly about Love, especially in the agape/caritas sort of way. Bread, birds, people connect transcendentally in the natural rhythm of give and take. Note the key word "sullen"--a people-adjective primarily, but here gloomily projected upon the natural landscape, "affective-fallacy"-wise. The speaker un-sullenizes himself and Nature by joining with Her in that very traditional love-gift: bread. An item, by the way, symbolically merging the Raw of nature's granary and the Cooked of the man-made world. And the birds mediate between the two.

For Sandro Botticelli and the Ancients, it was always the power of Love that moved the earth from fallow to fecund. The artist's famed "Birth of Venus" above (which I compared in a little different context to Farah Fawcett's immortal poster in MM #7) is really about the arrival of Spring. That's the titular Goddess of same offering Venus the cloak, and those on the left are the warm-west-wind Zephyrs blowing flowers all over the place.

The Greek mythos behind Aphrodite (= "foam-arisen") and transferred to the Roman Venus represented Love in the most primitive form. Not bread; rather the testicles of Uranus were cast into the sea by his son Cronus after he had so very Oedipally cut them off. Later, they emerged from the ocean on the shore of Cyprus quite logically in the fully-grown form of the Fertility Goddess herself. Spring in the mortal world could officially begin; Love had arrived. Sort of like:

Cast thy BROAD upon the waters, for she will amply be restored, after many a day.

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Monday, May 3, 2010

#54 Nashville/Music City Footnote Endnote


Well, whaddyaknow. Nashunal news. Worst rainfall in historic times befalls the Music City over the weekend. Flooded the place. Maybe I put a jinx on it. But here's the interesting thing, itself worthy of one last annotation: it's been put to music already!

More about that in a minute. Here, yesterday, is the very evacuated, very wet, and very east end of "Lower Broadway" in Nashville's downtown tourist-district mentioned in last posts. Cumberland River in background ... and foreground! To your right a couple of blocks up would be Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, and, further up a couple of more, the equally iconic Ryman Auditorium, spared any damage (I gather) to its refurbished but still-humble self. Across the river, however, its come-lately counterpart and new official home of the Grand Ole Opry, the mawkish Opryland Complex--including convention center, hotels, and amusement park (true Spamalot, if you will)--reportedly suffered the most flooding. Poetic justice there, maybe.

As for "Camelot" on the other side of town--Vanderbilt, Parthenon, etc.--it's not only high-brow, but also very high-ground. No damage that I could locate amongst the online news reports. For there's really quite a steep drop from the western "headlands" to the bottom-land around the river (you'll notice that at one point on the video I came across). It's Tennessee, after all. Hillbilly country. In a good way and all due respect.

However, while surfing the internet for news I ran across a YouTube piece that must be shared, because so much in the Music-City spirit. For if there's a tragedy in your life--usually of the boy-girl-heartbreak kind--simply write a sad and twangy song about getting drunk about it. You can think of examples immediately, I'm sure. My archetypal favorite: "There's a Tear in My Beer from Cryin' over You." But then there's the punnish "She's Actin' Single; I'm Drinkin' Doubles (for My Troubles)." Or the lyrical "Pop a Top ... Again." Oops ... a whole 'nother post, never to be written.

Anyway, a fellow identified as Michael Deppish put this video together (in apparently no time at all), chronicling the great Nashville flood of 1-2 May 2010, along with an instrumental piece (though not really Nashville-sound at all) entitled "Windows" by a band called The Album Leaf. Very much worth the watch and the listen. (Notice at 1:17 that the cops are barricading Broadway's lower reaches behind them and down off in the distance.) Here it is.
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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

#53 Nashville/Music City Footnote III


For any good shaggy dog story, or furry footnote, the teller must dilatate and attenuate the plot(less)line sufficiently to result in complete anti-climax. So far. so good. The bathetic conclusion is nearby, however.

But first, that other side of town. To the east past Music Row (the record companies), on to downtown and now all the way over the river to the Disneyish Opryland complex--here is represented the Nashville most associated in the national consciousness. Spamalot let's call it, to distinguish it from the highbrow western end with its Athenian pretensions.

More specifically, from the (now-restored) old cathedral of country music, Ryman Auditorium, and down a few blocks to the Cumberland River you've got the revitalized, just-like-the-old-days Lower Broadway. This was/is Nashville's Bourbon St., or Beale St. in Memphis--its blues with "twang" if you will--where you can walk and sample for free the "Sound" coming from little open-door bars lining both sides of the street. No cover but a beer to get into these living definitions of a "honky-tonk," because most nights are amateur ones. And they're all only a few doors down from the next, punctuated by arcades, fast-food places, and "museums"/fan-shops dedicated to one country-music star or another, or all of them. Apocalyptically tawdry ... and great fun.

And, de gustibus, good music. The wannabe Porter Wagoners and Dolly Partons who flock to Lower Broadway most often bring some talent with them. Tootsie's Orchid Lounge has always been the ultimate mecca for those pilgrims. The real-life proprietor Louise "Tootsie" Bess could be seen hovering around the bar in my day, and several years later be seen doing the same thing, cameo-wise, in Robert Altman's Nashville (1975). She was to aspiring country-singers what Johnny Carson was to would-be stand-up comics. As in Altman's movie--and in the under-appreciated W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings that same year, with Burt Reynolds and Jerry Reed, including a cameo by guess-whom--if you got a gig at Tootsie's, you got it made in Music City.

So it was for Ms. Parton, Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline, and Waylon Jennings, among others. Roger Miller reportedly penned "King of the Road" at Tootsie's. Porter Wagoner, on the other hand, was already a recording and television star when he hit Nashville in the late 50s. He had been featured on TV's Ozark Jubilee in his native Missouri for some years, had several hit records to his credit, and had earned the moniker, Mr. Grand Ole Opry, before Dolly even signed on with him.

He was almost a literal "hit" with me, too. Or call it a near-physical "brush" with celebrity. Enough. Here's the story. I'd been commuting to Vanderbilt from our place across the river for a couple of weeks before the fall semester had started, and could easily find parking on campus. But this was the first day of classes on that morning in 1968. Parking lots full. So back around to just off big 21st Ave., across from what was then the Divinity School, where I found a spot. Also across from campus on 21st was a pancake house--could have been an IHOP, but it shortly became a Lum's beer and hot-dog joint anyway--whose parking-lot driveway debouched into the side-street upon which I had parked, and upon whose sidewalk I was soon walking, carrying my briefcase, thinking intently upon the very new day ahead.

Gap in sidewalk ... proceed across driveway a step or two ... catch glimpse of bright yellow object in corner of right eye ... closing fast ... jump back ... see Cadillac convertible inches away sliding by and galumphing to a halt halfway into the side-street and already well into a right turn. Car rocks back and forth a moment ... driver with long, houn'-dog face, topped with flamboyant cowboy-hat, looks over shoulder of garishly embroidered jacket ... says in distinctive baritone:

Sorry about that, Pardner.
And drives off.
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Sunday, April 25, 2010

#52 Nashville/Music City Footnote II


Nashville ... 'tis a silly place. It's Camelot and, pace Monty Python, Spamalot both at the same time. Two separate but equal kingdoms. Wonderfully schizoid. On the one hand there's the city as the "Athens of the South," with an actual full-size replica of the PARTHENON in Centennial Park to prove it. (Another Greekism, hubris, might also come to mind here.) There it is, right across West End Ave. from Vanderbilt University. But the latter is only one of literally dozens--think Boston or the NC "Triangle" hereabouts--of higher-learning institutions dotting the landscape.

The crown-jewel, my doctoral alma mater, was founded by steamship-mogul Cornelius Vanderbilt, the "Commodore"--a strictly honorary title like chicken-mogul Harlan Sanders' Kentucky "Colonel"--in 1873. Might as well have been called "Vanity" U, because once he had bought up the little Methodist college on the west side of town; had donated his money and his name; he and his family had little to do with it after that. Unlike those other trickle-down tycoon-clans like the Carnegies and Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts have never been great philanthropists, even unto "poor-little-rich-girl" Gloria. For example-- sort of a "NEWS FLASH!"--the Obamas just visited the spectacular Biltmore House this weekend on their romantic getaway to Asheville. They were doubtless the only ones who got in without paying the pricey entrance fees. That monument to gilded-age excess nearly bankrupted that line of the Commodore's progeny, which has been trying to catch up ever since Biltmore was almost but never quite "built" to this day. They were always good at spending, not giving.

The University is most noted today for its top-ranked MEDICAL SCHOOL/med-center--two Nobel laureates (seven total, incl. other departments)--and its #1 ranking (last week's USNews) in grad-school EDUCATION, due in large part to the purchase and full incorporation a couple of decades ago of the venerable Peabody College for Teachers next-door. A long-time partner. Tipper Gore got her M.A. there; Al was Vandy Law. But in my day it was ENGLISH. It was the home of the still-influential New Critical School for the study of literature (Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren), and the "Fugitive Movement" in poetry, producing three U.S. Poet laureates: Alan Tate, Randall Jarrell, and Robert Penn Warren again. "Red" Warren is the only author, in addition, to win the Pulitzer for both poetry (twice) AND fiction: the novel, All the King's Men (1947). My "convention-buddy" James Dickey, Pulitzer-prized poet and movie-star-manque in his novel-to-movie, Deliverance, hailed from those heady environs too.

Let me pause over the former. He was no crowd-rouser like John Forsythe, but Robert Penn "Call-Me-Red" Warren was a hit nonetheless when we were able to bring my fellow Vandy alum to our little college in the late 70s. Still active, he was then working on a libretto ( !) for a collaborative operatic version of his famous novel (truly a man for all genres). Called Willy Stark, it was presented on PBS a few years later, and is now on DVD. During his visit to campus, we were able to screen the original, Academy-Award-winning movie-adaptation of All the King's Men (1949) with Broderick Crawford (Best Actor winner) et al., as yet unsullied by the disastrous re-make of several years ago, with Sean Penn (relation?) in the Willy Stark/Huey Long role.

As for my association with wild-man James Dickey, it'll have to wait for a later post. As for the luminaries on the other side of town--Nashville's Spamalot, if you will--I need to get back to the great clash/crash of cultures that occurred on that fall morning in 1968 where driveway + sidewalk + street met in near-deadly triangulation for the two people involved. And so I shall, right now. (more).
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Thursday, April 22, 2010

#51 Nashville/Music City Footnote


Make that a quarter-note; I'm still semi-quavering from the incident. A truly comic, Minnie-Pearl moment. Never thought, just because I wasn't particularly fond of Country Music--even though I will lay claim to deep Southern roots--that I'd be RUN OVER for it! Well, almost--if my reflexes hadn't been awake enough that morning in the fall of 1968, my very first day of class in Vanderbilt's Ph.D program. Grand Ole Opry stalwart Porter Wagoner was only a hair's-breadth innocent of vehicular manslaughter. At the least: mayhem and manglement. His speed wasn't Toyota-lethal.

Look at those "-dos"! His pompadour challenges the heights of Dolly's B-52. And look at his long, houn' dog face (and voice to match). The archetypal country singer--famous already for classics like "Green, Green Grass of Home" and others, but today more so for his early partnership with Dolly Parton ... both of her. She was a recent "replacement" (who knew then?) for Wagoner's former female sidekick/duetist on his long-time popular TV show. But before Dolly broke away some six years later to her own spectacular fame, they were the most adored couple on Nashville's famed WSM, the Opry's eyes and ears, which beamed country music around the planet.

So ... not surprising that theirs was one of the very first shows we happened to tune into on the motel TV-set during idle moments late in the summer of '68, before our arrival that fall. (We were in the process of scouting locations to accommodate our home at the time--a "mobile" one, the "grad-school caravan"--that we would be having towed from the environs of U. of Toledo to "The Athens of the South" in just a few weeks)

We couldn't have missed it. Their weekly, live-0n-tape show from the venerable Ryman Auditorium was repeated and syndicated every day and all over the dial, so popular was it. "Oh, no," we thought, "better find something palatable about country music. Were gonna get a steady diet of it." What the hell, we'd be halfway there--livin' in a trailer-park an' all (though an "upscale" one, complete with pool).

It wasn't hard to become a fan. Particularly of the two pictured above. I firmly believe that the two of them, especially Parton's later celebrity, contributed to getting the Nashville Sound well into the mainstream. If it wasn't Robert Altman. Trivia-alert: If you'll recall, in that director's acclaimed movie, Nashville (1975), Henry Gibson (of TV's Laugh-In fame) was cast as "Haven Hamilton," a pompadoured country-singer, garishly clad in rhinestone vestmentage. Altman patterned him after none other than Mr. Wagoner, then added political ambitions to his character for plot-purposes. Trivium #2 (can't resist), same movie: Lily Tomlin was cast in a major role as an aspiring country-singer/song-writer; she's a divorced, working mother, waitressing till she gets her big break. (The actress actually wrote and performed her own song for the film.) Flash-forward to the great comic film 9 to 5 (1980), inspired by Dolly Parton's top-40 hit. Lily Tomlin, again playing a struggling divorced Mom, co-stars with Parton, who now has Tomlin's Nashville role as an aspiring country-songstress working office-jobs till she gets her big break. Cosmic.

Anyway, six years before her Hollywood breakthrough (Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, 1982, came soon after her success in 9 to 5--not to mention the very-close-to-home Rhinestone, 1984, the bomb which may have killed it for her) ... here she is with Porter Wagoner just before the break-up, clearly demonstrating why they were so popular. Take a look. Notice the good-natured banter, the blend of voices--very nice is the alternating of harmonics: she will descant soprano when he's baritone melody; he will provide lower-register "continuo" when she takes the melodic line.

Take a good look. Another six years prior to that show, he's the same guy who almost ran me down with his bright-yellow Cadillac convertible. (more)
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Monday, April 19, 2010

#50 In Praise of the KFC "Double-Down" III

Where and when could you purchase any and all items on the Kentucky Fried Chicken menu at HALF PRICE? Nashville, c. 1969-70. I was there. It was an offer we couldn't refuse, even though Minnie Pearl's Chicken offered an identical product for the most part, and just as good. And better coleslaw. For the year before, when our little family came down to Music City for the start of my doctoral studies at Vanderbilt, the countrified (/fried) comedienne had started up her own hometown-based, franchise-chain of fried chicken stores. She wanted to retire on it. Sadly--though not for her fans--she was back onstage at the Ryman Auditorium within three years. Broke. The Colonel's boys up in Louisville had gone for the jugular, right in her backyard.

I bring this up in connection with the Double-Down for several reasons. First of all, it's very hard NOT to make good southern fried chicken. It's no less than a divine delectation configured by Mother Nature herself. And the various fast-food incarnations testify to that fact. At home, cast-iron and Crisco are all you need. My Grandma Miz Lilla could make the delicacy in her sleep, sometimes literally, on our Georgia family farm--much helped by fresh ingredients, of course. This meant a full-feathered, fresh-"wrung" carcass from the chicken yard (no axe needed, just my Granddaddy's vise-like grip--all quite a sight for a young boy, especially the headless aftermath) ... and lots of McCormick pepper. She made the original Popeye's.

The Colonel's great innovation was to PRESSURE COOK them. Initially, this was to speed-up order-delivery time as business boomed at his original location. But the by-product--sealing in the fowl's natural juices--was what graduated an already magna dish to summa cum laude. Can't really replicate this at home, unless you're ready to risk life and limb with a volatile stove-top pressure-cooker (if even manufactured anymore), and high-G grease approaching the temperature of the sun's surface.

The smart, former debutante and Belmont College graduate in Theater and Dance, Miss Sarah Ophelia Colley (so different from the Minne Pearl persona), and her partners Mahalia Jackson (true!), and the colorful future governor of Tennessee, John Jay Hooker, ripped off the Colonel's idea--quick and safe away-from-home pressure cooking--and almost made it. The chicken was good, and so were the side-dishes. But the cut-throat tactics of the KFC boys, along with chronic mismanagement and some trouble with the SEC over stock-offerings, brought them down. Besides, they were just a bit ahead of their time by a scant few years. The whole Southern-fried phenomenon was in its infancy. That there was room for competition is proven by the ultimate success of such as the aforementioned Popeye's, plus Bojangle's, Church's. etc. (fill in your favorite). Setting aside the "secret recipe of eleven herbs and spices" ("secret"= monosodium glutamate), KFC and its rivals pressure-fry the chickens all in the same way, no matter the batter. This is why their product always tastes better than you can make at home, and why they all taste about the same; that is to say, very good indeed.

So let's go back to that "toxic zoo" of a sandwich, as Mark Morford's SFGate article would have it. He's well-intentioned, but I think the guy's reason is clouded somewhat by the fallacy of sum-of-parts. After all, the Double-Down comprises but chicken, pork, and processed dairy. Thus separately: nothing less "good eats"--as my fave-cook and fellow Georgia-native Alton Brown would say--by any standard. And, together: healthy enough, if you don't eat the thing every day of the week. (The Food-Police always assume we do.)

Again, I do believe there's a refreshing soupcon of whimsy, a little self-irony, along with (I'm sure) the requisite bean-counting market-research menu behind the debut of the Double-Down sandwich. Morford seems to agree when he says, "It's sort of hilarious. It's sort of perfect." However, in the next sentence: "And then it'll probably make you vomit." Puh-leeze. Scroll down and take another look. We know pretty much the taste-experience we're in for. Far from vomit-inducing. Moreover, Morford surely must know that Southern-style cooking has been identified by prominent Foodies as America's only truly indigenous contribution to the world's great cuisines, standing proudly alongside the Chinese, Italian, French, and your choice of only one or two others. Southern-fried chicken has always been the jewel in the crown.

What, then, is Mark Morford's problem? Here it is: he writes out of San Francisco, right? Well, he's jealous, and starving for good, honest, down-home food. Around 'Frisco, no Crisco. He's got too many culinary possibilities to choose from, in complicated foreign combinations, and all entirely TOO FRESH. I know. When I visited the soon-to-be-famous Chez Panisse in '75, we had the pris-fix dinner (same entree' for everybody and then only $10!) of freshly-caught "free-range" trout, poached, of course (fried forbid). Fresh bread, fresh greens, etc. After the meal, the fresh young chef/proprietor, Alice Waters herself (for-real), came around to the very small number of tables at that time--squeezed into the second floor of a residential home in Berkeley--and offered us fresh-picked fruit from (I'm sure) a freshly-woven basket. Oh, the surfeit of it! Makes you want to vomit.

No, wait. I know Morford's real problem with the Kentucky Fried Double-Down Chicken Sandwich. Yankee-bias. Yep. That's it.
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Friday, April 16, 2010

#49 In Praise of the KFC "Double-Down" II


Moreover, I like it because, truly ... 'tis a silly thing. A whimsy. Last post's Mark Morford suspects some dark capitalistic conspiracy behind its debut--analogous perhaps to tobacco companies spiking the addictive levels of nicotine in cigarettes to ensure future levels of consumption. In this case the "get-'em-hooked" agent would be FAT, along with the "God knows what's in the 'special sauce'"--as he puts it--KFC's way of slipping us a chemical mickey on the sly. Hate to give Morford this, but several recent studies that would have bolstered his case have found that "... eating foods rich in FAT and SUGAR can cause changes in the brain comparable to those observed in drug dependency"(here). Withdrawal symptoms, even.

No surprise. We're hot-wired genetically, I believe, to crave the agriculture-free Double-Down because of those couple-million years of hunting/gathering. Meat. Fruit. We've had only a blink of evolutionary time in the pastoral and agrarian departments, and are a little behind the Darwinian curve. Grain-gluten is a problem of genetic non-adaptation for vast numbers of people, depending on their DNA history, and the majority of the Orient is lactose-intolerant, unless the milk has been chemically altered. As in the fermented dairy-miracle, cheese. There it is, right in the middle of the Double-Down. As a popular advert says, "So easy, even a cave-man can do it"--eat the KFC thing, that is, without any fear of upsetting his hunter-gatherer tummy.

And that's still you and me, really. Further, this is why, in terms of weight-loss, the high-protein/never-mind-the-fat/low-carb diets seem to suit us best. The old/new Atkins Diet WORKS, and so do its knock-offs like The Caveman Diet, The Paleo, The Stone Age, etc.--much to the chagrin, amazingly, of most of the Medical Establishment, some of whom, not so amazingly, can be caught promoting their own dietary falderal. Decade after decade, in one clinical test after another, the late Dr. Atkin's (heart-attack, no comment) has beaten his rivals every time. For weight-reduction and sustainability.

For, although we've attained sapient homo-hood, when it comes to food we're still Homo Erectus. In fact, it was none other than our expanding, energy-sapping, nutrient-demanding (requires about 25% worth) BRAIN that necessitated such high-protein nourishment, way back in the day. That meant big animals, and lots of running to get them. There's your truly sustainable diet-regimen! And once our efficiently bi-pedal, whiz-kid ancestor finally caught up with the exhausted, out-classed, four-legged auroch or ibis ... he gorged. Next meal could be a long way off, in all senses. But he also made sure to take home a doggy bag for apres-diner gorging by the stay-at-cavers. Before the hyenas showed up.

Today, no need to be the long-distance runner. We modern cavepersons can find our quarry at the neighborhood food-court. The KFC Double-Down "sandwich" is the perfect hunter-gatherer meal--that is to say, unmitigated MEAT--rich in quick-burning animal fat for the chase, and just the right kind of high-octane protein to feed the brain that plans and executes it. However, after you've gorged (that genetic imperative that we haven't yet gotten over), after the finger-lickin' and doggy-baggin'--it would be nice to have a savanna nearby, and a willing antelope handy ... to work it all off. (more)
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Thursday, April 15, 2010

#48 In Praise of the KFC "Double-Down"


The ultimate Atkins Diet sandwich. Finally got rid of any deference to unhealthy bread-bunnage altogether--that white, overly- refined, gluten-laden, fattening abomination used traditionally as a mere convenience to stabilize the real food inside. And keep your hands clean. What? Not really necessary, considering that the Colonel made his fortune touting the animal residue left behind on our upper-phalanges. Finger-lickin' Good!

In fact it was kind of an apostasy that Kentucky Fried got into the "chick-fillet" competition a few years ago. A sandwich? At KFC? Shoulda stayed pure; it was enough they "chickened"-out to the food-police and buried "Fried" under innocuous initialism. (It's rampant: BK? DQ?--someone needs to inform me as to the offense borne by any of the words replaced. "Burger"? "Dairy"?--well, maybe "Queen." Taco Bell daren't follow the trend. Or Boston Market.)

With the Double-Down at least KFC is back to tradition: you're hands-on with cooked chicken-carcass again, and gonna get fried-chicken-grease on your fingers, unless you go prissy and use knife and fork. Or a napkin? Yes and no. EVERYBODY KNOWS that if you use a paper napkin directly following a good chomp on an "original-recipe" skin-crusty thigh-bone, say, then those icky-sticky (oh my) patches of napkin-fiber will be permanently epoxied to the tips of your fingers. The result is worse cosmetically than un-etiquette-ly inserting fingers in mouth first. Then the napkinning. Everybody knows that too.

I come to the D-D's defense because all the whiny food-nannies on the planet are against it. Even to the point of attacking the innocent barnyard creatures whose dead flesh (or fermented products therefrom) go into the making of it. Specifically, one Mark Morford who asks us, in his subtitled "One Sandwich To Kill Us All"--

Did you notice? How in in one pseudo-food item, you are consuming not one, not two, but the mutated, chemically injected flesh/by products of fully THREE different distended, liquefied, industrially tortured creatures? Feel the love, pitiable animal kingdom. (SFGate/HuffPost 4-11 here)
Great article, actually. Pretty much a pitch-perfect rhetorical rant, but you can see his sub-textual agenda. Not so much concerned with OUR health as that of industrialized food-fauna. Along the way, he also gets around to the evils of processed food, and, yes, capitalism. These are points to be made perhaps, but his stalking horse--that the D-D is a "fistful of nausea" in your mouth and a "toxic zoo in your colon [love it]"--just doesn't argue well at all. In fact, the guy may be a little muddled with some sort of anal retention/obsession about the whole thing. Listen to this:

For well I know this horrible CRAPBUCKET OF CHYME [wow!] joins a very long list of fast-food nightmares you should never put anywhere near your MOUTH, unless you deeply hate yourself and don't give a damn anymore, and you want to die fat and stupid like that rotting thing you found in your rain gutter.
Now, I must say, not much NOT to like about that. How about the nasty way he's got the whole alimentary canal covered, literally or allusively? He even attacks the digestive hygiene of your house! Problem though with the "chyme" analogy. If you're not familiar, chyme is "the semi-fluid mass into which food is converted by gastric secretion and which passes into the small intestine." You would definitely need a BUN for that. (more)
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Sunday, April 11, 2010

#47 John Forsythe: "Grandpa" III


For me and mine, beyond that memorable afternoon at the races, the remainder of John Lincoln Freund's visit (apt birth-surname: "friend") was perforce anti-climactic ... except for simply everybody else on campus and hundreds of miles around. Trustee Del Mann couldn't have picked a better Hollywood guy to enchant an entire community. Natural charm. No effort whatsoever. (His teeth were entirely too big for his mouth, by the way. A curious anatomical fact, up close, but may explain his incredible smile, on- and off-camera.) And of course that VOICE! Notwithstanding these easily ingratiating qualities--he could have just basked in adoration the whole stay--no, like a true professional, he came to work.

First of all, he schlepped his own prints of his two personal-best films across the continent to showcase on the two successive evenings of the official gig. (No money for this, by the way; just good will by way of Tinseltown connectivity.) SRO both nights. After each screening it was simply Q&A between actor and audience, which would have lasted all night if I hadn't capped it at about a half-hour (we knew the autograph-stampede was yet to come). They were mainly Bachelor Father and his later-TV-series fans, and they were rabid, especially the women--he was no "Grandpa" to them. (Some threw panties and motel keys ... okay, wished they could--Bible Belt, you know.) Then autographs, which seemed to last forever. We didn't want any broken hearts.

His hardest work though was in the remaining daytime hours he was with us. For the next two days John Forsythe must have met every important supporter of the college there was--already at one formal dinner, then another, a couple of luncheons, a morning and afternoon tea or two, whatever. He was game for all of it. Never flagged for a moment. Of course he charmed everybody, and they in turn had their brush with celebrity. Also, we needed their money. We were struggling financially at the time (again, my first year), after a difficult transition from women's college to co-ed. But its fortunes began to improve significantly after Forsythe's visit. For all I know, he might have saved the college.

I got the clear impression that he was not at all bothered by the fact that his fame up to that time was primarily due to television. A come-down for the true actor, conventional-wisdom-wise, from stage or film. After all, he started out in the prestigious, hometown (for him) Actor's Studio alongside Brando and other future luminaries. He was even featured in several famous Broadway productions, including Teahouse of the August Moon and Mister Roberts. Then he went "downhill" into the new medium of television? Tsk.

It's also a fact that doing live TV drama is about as demanding on an actor's craft as anything else could be. Consider: it's a one-time shot. No second-plus shows, or takes. Everything rides on those scant and incorrigible 90-120 minutes in front of faceless millions. Forsythe paid those kind of dues in such classic TV franchises in the late 40s (!) and early 50s as Studio One, Kraft/Ford/Chrysler/US Steel/Goodyear "Theaters"--a dozen more--including Philco Television Playhouse where he worked with Delbert Mann. I count upwards of a hundred one-time performances, always in the leading or co-lead role. A hard-worker even then. So what if he was able to redeem those dues later on with the less-demanding but certainly more-fame-and-regular-paycheck-generating Bachelor Father (he was a real, bill-paying one), The John Forsythe Show, and To Rome With Love. And in the next two decades, as a real grandfather, Charlie's Angels and Dynasty?

So he wanted us to know for those two nights that he was a respectable screen actor as well. I'll vouch. Though never to be ranked with the acting greats, he had distinguished himself by that time in about a half-dozen memorable films, four of which helmed by the very best directors. Sad to say, these really represented his cinematic peak, all before his later, strictly TV-movie and sitcom success that kept him busy for the rest of his long and satisfying career.

Aside from the popular Kitten with a Whip ('64) opposite Ann-Margaret and Madame X ('66) with Lana Turner--both of which he preferred, he told me, NOT to be so damn memorable--he had starred in two films with Hitchcock: The Trouble with Harry ('55) and Topaz ('69); and two with Richard Brooks: In Cold Blood ('67) and The Happy Ending ('69). For her work in the latter, Jean Simmons (above)--director Brooks' wife at the time--was Academy-Award nominated for best actress in a leading role. (She just died this January.) We screened this one on the second night. A very brave pick, for John co-starred as Simmons' loveless and philandering husband, woefully dys-named "Fred"--a stretch for the usually nice-guy actor. Do you think the audience forgave him?

Harry and Happy were the actor's favorites. Moreover, he admitted to me that Jean Simmons' powerhouse performance brought out in him what he thought was the best job of acting he had ever done in his life. (more)
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Saturday, April 10, 2010

#46 John Forsythe: "Grandpa" II


We picked up "Grandpa" John in Charlotte after his cross-country flight in "our" corporate jet. (The college was founded by Civil War "Major" J.L. Coker who founded the still family-owned Sonoco Products, a Fortune 500 company and major subsidizer of the school.) That was fun already. To add to the fun, it was a homecoming of sorts for the actor. He was familiar with the territory, having spent--surprise-- his only two years of college at UNC-Chapel Hill (right down the road from me lately). Smart guy. Even a bit of a prodigy. Only son of a NYSE broker, he was graduated from his Brooklyn H.S. at 16, and, after two years in the South, returned to his hometown to begin, at a mere 18, his career in show-business. As guess what? ... a VOICE! "Charlie Michelob's" smooth baritone was in demand already--in this case as a public-address announcer for the baseball Dodgers at Ebbets Field.

Conversation was easy with John, and we had a lot of time for it, in between events. It didn't hurt that the Blogman was already a semi-pro, pop-culture media and cinema freak, and had seen most of his work up to that time. Important work, that is. That included his best films, and, though I never watched a minute of his TV sitcoms, I remembered his starring spots on several of Alfred Hitchcock's weekly programs, which I never missed, or forgot. In fact, the actor had a long collaboration with my favorite director, and brought one of them along (of two films) to screen for his soon-to-be-revealed multitude of adoring fans that evening (and the next): 1955's The Trouble with Harry (above).

But first, it turned out that we had a lot of time to kill. His flight connections had got him to our general environs quite early in the day. He would have public exposure enough beginning in a few hours, but indicated that he didn't want to be motel-bound--rather, he wanted to go someplace private to relax, chat some more, and have a beer or two (he had just started his job with Michelob) to wind down before the spectacularities commenced. Since all the appropriate college mucky-mucks were occupied, frantically preparing for the high-toned Hollywood evening to come ... I just took him home. Heineken would have to do.

It was late spring, and my youngest, Andrew, was already back from a half-day at school, while his older brothers were still on full. So the six-year-old got all the Forsythe largess that afternoon. He was a cute and cuddly kid, and they hit it off immediately. As far as Andy was concerned, he became indistinguishable from one of the family. And it obviously was just the tonic, aside from the beerage, that the actor needed.

At one point in the lap-sittage, my son began fiddling with "Grandpa's" wristwatch. It was one of those big elaborate sports-watches (he was an avid tennis-player, and getting started as a breeder of racehorses) with several dials on its face, as I remember. These had really just hit the market, and were rather fascinating, even for grown-ups. "How about a RACE, Andy?"--taking off the watch in preparation. (We were in the backyard.) "We'll TIME it! You start here and run as fast as you can to that tree just before the driveway. Then run back to me and we'll see how you came out on this little dial here. Then we'll see if you can beat it. Okay, ready ... " Or words to that effect. He'd played this game before, no doubt with his same-aged granddaughter.

So it was off-to-the-races at our improvised Forsythe Downs, and the heirloom snapshots were taken. A "good time" was on record for all participants ... until too soon the time on his magic watch ran out. (more)
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Thursday, April 8, 2010

#45 John Forsythe: "Grandpa"


His peers in elementary and high-school wouldn't believe it, so my third-son Andrew (named after my paternal Grandpa) had to bring periodically a couple of snapshots to the school-grounds to prove it. Yes, he had really sat on John Forsythe's lap as a tow-headed young boy of six in the spring of 1972. Played "race-against-the-second -hand" with him. Even called him Grandpa, because there was a strong resemblance to my father, and the child got a bit confused. Little kids will do that, and it didn't help that Forsythe, who died last week at 92, was so very grandfatherly. He had practice. His granddaughter, Deborah (from a short first marriage--his second lasted 51 years), was exactly Andy's age at the time.

Additional proof was required as the actor's fame grew back in the late 70s and 8os as the off-screen voice of Charlie on TV's Charlie's Angels (ironically: his very last acting jobs were to reprise that role for the Drew Barrymore movie-versions in 2000 and 2003), AND as Blake Carrington on Dynasty, enormously popular no doubt with many of the parents of my son's classmates as they progressed through school. "I've become a sex-symbol in my sixties," he was quoted as saying.

When he made his 3-day, 2-night appearance that spring at our little college in South Carolina, he was sort of in between careers, in a bit of a slump, really, as far as media-fame goes, which was one reason we were able to fetch him to such an un-commercial venue. The overriding reason, though, was this happy quirk of fate: Our new President was good friends with AA-winning director--for the landmark Marty '55--Delbert Mann. (Also did other notables like Separate Tables, That Touch of Mink, oodles of TV movies.) They were fellow Vanderbilt alums (like me, coincidentally), and Mann was recruited to be on the Coker College Board of Trustees. Hence Forsythe. They had in turn been best friends since TV's "Golden-Age" days when Mann had directed the actor (always with one foot in regular-paycheck television and the other in modest movie success) in several live-broadcast dramas of the day.

Trivia note: not in "Marty" though, which I remember vividly as a 10-yr-old in 1953 watching live on Philco Playhouse with my parents. Mann directed and Rod Steiger starred. Usually I was a captive audience for these high-cultcha TV events; however, this was first "adult" drama that really impressed, but which I didn't quite understand until pubescence had fully set in about two years later, when I saw Mann's movie-version with his fellow Oscar-winner Earnest Borgnine in the lead. Had no idea, then or now, why the great Rod Steiger lost the film-role, or why-in-the-world Borgnine won an Oscar.

But back to Forsythe's visit. Despite his relative downturn at the box-office and in TV fame, there was no lack of rabid fans in Hartsville, SC. Hundreds of middle-aged women flocked to our little campus to see the still-super-handsome star of the long-running Bachelor Father (through 1961, pictured above) and a couple of short-lived series in the 60s like the lately-canceled To Rome with Love. Their husbands too. He was currently narrating the popular the popular nature series, World of Survival, and was just starting his fifteen-year stint (!) as the voice of Michelob Beer--the "Weekends-Are-Made-for-Michelob" era. A lot of voice-over work during this period, culminating a few years later with Charlie.

Anyway, he was almost as big a smash as when the first McDonalds opened in our town that same year. And I was in charge. No fault of my own. New faculty are notoriously elected--as some sort of cruel initiation rite--the chairperson of whatever committee they happen to fall into. Mine was fortuitously that first year the "Special Events Committee." John Forsythe became my very special event. He lived up to his reputation--then, and right up to his death--as one of the nicest guys in Hollywood. (more)
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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

#44 Haiku ...

On the occasion last week while on a walk after all the Feb/March snow had melted except for a few little self-insulating piles pushed off the sidewalk and observing the following which can only be described as some sort of divinely miraculous advent or at least darwinianly mysterious e-vent because it was at least a vacant square mile from any domesticated beds and these spring-harbinger perennials of the genus Narcissus and whose name is a playful corruption of the original pastoral nymph Asphodel need prior im-bulbing of some kind preferably underground by a few inches or so by someone or other of the non-plant kingdom to accomplish this and no sign of hominid habitation in evidence so that I'll entitle it simply "Daffy"--

Lone daffodil blooms

In a dingy railway ditch.

Son of a bitch ...
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Friday, March 19, 2010

#43 Boulder Bolder? Not Even in Las Vegas


Salacious curiosity aside, here are a couple of outre' news stories that happened to collide yesterday in the Blogman's idiocyberspace having everything, or nothing-at-all to do with life vs. art, and the education of children.

I'll get to the Colorado story in a minute. First, pictured here is a small segment of an expansive graffiti-style mural adorning one outdoor wall of the Erotic Heritage Museum in Las Vegas. The "pasties" affixed to the nipple-age are not part of the artists' (incl. a couple of women) original design. Some upright (sorry) citizen must have called the cops, because sometime after the mural's inaugural "unveiling" adhesive pastie facsimiles were now seen covering the naughty bits. Turns out, right there in Sin City, there's a county sign-code that prohibits the "showing of the aureola of female breasts" (full report here), believe it or not. Too titillating, I guess. The county claims that the wall-mural is signage, advertising a strip-club which just happens to be next door. In rebuttal, a clever but politically-incorrect lawyer on the museum's behalf might--if the thing went judicial-- have directed the court's eyes to the figure on the left. (If these were live models, Clark County must also be a strict enforcer of EOE laws.)

Now here is the AP report of life-imitating-art in Boulder. Colo.--
A nudist in Boulder who was threatened with eviction last spring for gardening outside wearing only PASTIES and a THONG has caused another stir by gardening topless. At least four callers told police 52-year-old Catherine Pierce was in her yard topless on Wednesday. STATE law prohibits exposed genitals, but Pierce was wearing a thong and gardening gloves.

Police spokeswoman Sarah Huntley said an officer told Pierce to consider wearing a shirt because CHILDREN at the SCHOOL ACROSS THE STREET were playing outside.

Pierce's husband then complained to police. Huntley said a police supervisor agreed with Pierce wasn't breaking any laws.

Boulder is considering expanding its anti-nudity law. (3/18)
Note the fine distinction between pastie-bleeped nipples and "topless." No photos except after the fact, where ironically she's not only fully-clothed, but poses with mouth taped-over in protest of her free-speech = nudity being violated. (See full local reportage here.) However, only in their dreams could the prepubescent schoolboys across the street imagine such a randy sight: an obviously trim and handsome middle-aged mother-figure wearing only a yellow thong and pink (yes) gardening gloves (no coordinating color mentioned for the pasties). Otherwise, "sky-clad," as the new-age pagans might say. Youthful fantasies abundantly fulfilled.

And indeed there is some "signage"--some advertising going on here. Not for a strip-club, but for free-speech rights, and the LIBERTY to express one's way of life. "We're a naturalist family," says Mr. Pierce, "and we'll stay the way we are." Much to the relief of the young males on the playground across the street, I'm sure.

I'm also sure that there's some jealousy and fear involved too, resulting in a real test of parenting skills. For the most part, it's a flunk. Listen to Mary Ernest from across the street, who's not worried about her 5-year-old daughter seeing the naked lady--"That doesn't bother me"--but "If I had a SON, it might be a different situation," she said earnestly. How so? Well, a son or two might ask Mom some pointed questions that extend beyond simple nudity. Thus:
Lisa Sanchez who lives next door to to the Pierces, said she has mixed feelings about seeing the couple in public. "For me, I don't care," she said. But she is concerned that her two boys, 7 and 5, have ASKED her about the topless neighbor. "They say, 'Ma, that lady's crazy,'" she said. (Boulder Daily Camera 3/18)
Or did SHE explain it away that way? Okay, enough salivation over these two delicious stories of heartland-America's moral conundrums and insecurities. In fact, I've drooled over them so much as to cause "dry-mouth"--in medicalese: xerostomia = Gk. xero-, "dry" as in your office copier + stoma, "mouth" as extended to lower down the alimentary canal. Also called "cotton-mouth," and in many parts of the country: "the pasties."
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Sunday, February 28, 2010

#42 February Footnote II--Ides and Presidents


Before this arctic February passes into what looks to be a coming-in-like-a-lion Martius , one more thing:

"Well, here we are in Baaahth. Baaahth ... don't you know." My students just loved to drop their jaw to the ground in pronouncing--Englishy "ah"-wise--the city they were visiting on their study-tour of "King Arthur's Britain," an overseas-course that I taught some years ago. (I had to point out to them, however, that the Brits would have said the vowel just as we do for our sister-city Bath in North Carolina, Blackbeard's old headquarters, up until English RP/"Received Pronunciation" for it and related forms--called affectionately the "ass-words" among us professional linguinies in the know--shifted late in the 19C. Doesn't "ahsshole" sound ever so much less offensive than our version?) "King" Arthur/Arcturus--a real-life hero unadorned with myth in his day, who was more field-marshall than king--led his combined forces to their greatest victory here at Mons Badonicus (outside of town) in about 500, holding off the ultimately victorious Anglo-Saxons from the western half of Romanized Britain for another 50 years or so.

As a Romanized Celt-aristocrat, Arthur would have been "at Bath" regularly--it was probably one of his western strongholds--and especially on the Ides of Februarius. The 15th. Established during King Numa's reign and carried over into the slightly revised calendar of Julius Caesar--first Roman in Celtic Britain, incidentally--it would have been a holy day for the Commander-in-Chief. He would be celebrating one of the few highlights of a dark and dreary month, the festival of Februatio (see various last posts), in the very middle of the Month of Purification--more literally and practically the month of washing, cleaning, and ritual bathing before Spring Break and the beach. Otherwise, much like today, a most undistinguished month.

Another Commander-in-Chief, General/President George Washington (cheap trick, but etymologically righteous: Old English waesc; ultimately Proto-Indo-European *wat-; origin of all our "water-words.")--also achieved great success against the Anglo-Saxons of his day, and his birthday was just celebrated (by calendrical happenstance this year) on the Ides of February. The 15th. (Don't you just love wonderful coincidences that mean absolutely nothing.) As a matter of fact, this real-life hero, also celebrated at length in recent DM posts (q.v.), has birthdays all over February. Three of them this month, as it happens. All this and Abe Lincoln too.

First of all, the Federal Holiday is still since 1880 officially "Washington's Birthday." NOT Presidents' Day, as some states and every mattress-salesman would have it. Moreover, up until the 1971 Uniform Monday Holiday Act (yay!) his birthday was a one-day affair on every Feb. 22nd, no matter the day of the week, though most jurisdictions had by that time (incl. the Feds) thrown in Monday anyway, if GW's nativity-anniversary came on the weekend. But up until he was 20, the young Colonel (by that time) would have given his birth date as the 11th. And he would have been right--under the "Old Style" (O.S.) Julian calendar. It took almost two centuries for the Brits and their possessions to catch up with the rest of Europe and adopt the "New Style" (N.S.) of the Gregorian. By that time eleven days had been lost to that pesky, true-length of the solar year, one day more than the original ten excised from the "Catholic" calendar (the reason the Protestant English were so dilatory) by Pope Gregory XIII.

Finally, there's one more birthday that Washington is responsible for during this Month of Purification that is February. It involves those "washed" in the blood of war. The Purple Heart. That champion precedent-setter, whom Lighthorse Harry Lee called "first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen," established what he dubbed the "Badge of Military Merit" during the Revolutionary War. It was to be shaped in the form of a "purple heart," said his Executive Order in 1782, to be awarded to the soldier who had "given his blood in defense of his homeland." Though it fell into disuse after the Revolution, the medal was revived, again by Executive Order, and renamed simply the Purple Heart (after Washington's apt phrase) on Feb. 22, 1932, the 200th anniversary of his Gregorian birth, to honor the wounded in the Great War. Thenceforth it would bear Washington's profile.

This is what my Granddaddy was given in return for a low-profile portion of his hindquarters given up at the Second Battle of the Marne.
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Thursday, February 18, 2010

#41 Taking One's Temperature


Why was I feeling so blue?

Thought I had a clue:

The weather is bad,

So it must be S.A.D.

But now I know it's the F.L.U.

Be back soon.
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Monday, February 8, 2010

#40 February Footnote--Taking a Bath


By way of taking a break from the more-or-less serious business of Obama's State of the Union over at the DM, here's the State of my Duck Pond (full-disclosure: a reasonable facsimile) on several occasions this January and February--and more on the way, evidently. The latter month could never be called the "cruellest" (see recent posts)--especially not in the Carolinas, where I have always fondly matched the nigh-arrival of Spring with my third son's birthday of Feb. 19th. Most years it works. The Dogwoods usually get the the signal at about that time to get a-bloomin' and flood the the lower woodland canopy with their own version of snowiness.

Not this year. But then, the only thing predictable about Global Warming is its UNpredictable effect on traditional weather patterns. On average though, it has surely been responsible for our extraordinarily warm winters on a pretty regular basis for decades now. I can recall extended periods of teen-ish temperatures and below in the late 60's and early 70's--in SOUTH Carolina. In contrast, over the last half-dozen years or so here in NORTH Carolina, our central heating was in full operation on average only about a half-dozen times during the winter months. I've kept track.

Or you can always take a hot bath. That's originally what Kalendis Februarius was all about. Maybe not the "cruellest," but it is for sure the curiousest among the named months, historically. (And the only one virtually unpronounceable as spelled, at normal speech-speed.) Well, the Romans were fair obsessed with cleanliness--something quite new in the development of Western Civilization. Public baths, and all that. Their friendly-neighborhood Barbarian Invaders were forever baffled by it, and the later Christian authorities--once the Empire was de-paganized--were offended by it. One of the first things done in post-Constantine Rome was to outlaw public bath-houses. (Second: amphitheater performances--which is exactly what happened to Shakespeare et alia and the London Stage when the Puritans took over in Cromwellian England centuries later. Too much fun for mortal men and women.) Because it smacked of pagan ritual, too much bath-time (like even once-a-week, and of course never in public) was condemned in the Christian world well into modern times, incidentally.

But the early Romans loved it, and ended up naming a whole month after their favorite pastime. As you recall from earlier posts, until the reign of Numa there were 60 or so days between the end of December and first of March--also the first of the year for the "Romulans"--which were so "unspeakable" that they simply had no name, month-wise. The Numaian regime for whatever reasons revised the solar calendar (which would be tweaked-only-slightly into it's present form by Julius Caesar and later Pope Gregory), by giving the venerable god Janus the first 31 days, thereafter also designated the first month of the year. Twenty-eight days left over. Oops ... unlucky. For some lost-to-history reason, even numbers caused mild discomfort for the Romans, and thus should be avoided whenever possible. Not possible here, because the remaining months, now including January, all had a good-luck numbers of either 29 or 31, and you couldn't very well stick a deity with an unlucky number of days.

(I know--you with calculator in hand--that still leaves seven, if you're going for a total of 365. Well, to oversimplify a bit, these seven were always held in reserve as intercalary days for special celebrations which may present themselves over the course of a given year. The festival-loving Romans invariably used them up.)

Anyway ... What to name these 28 days, a potential month's-worth, which already has not only the weather but the numbers going against it?

--It's getting late. Let's go down to the bath-house and think about it. Naked men and women rub-a-dub-dubbing together always gives me ideas.
--Wait a minute! That reminds me. We've got a huge festival that comes up during that period.
--But we can't name that "month" after a god. The numbering and all.
--No, no--it's the Februatio, the day of ritual purification, when simply everybody goes a-bath-housing.
--You mean the holiday we got from the Etruscans?
--Yeah, our word februare, "to cleanse, purify," comes from them, originally.
--We do a lot of spring-cleaning then too.
--And it rains a lot. Water, water everywhere.
--Well then, why don't we just expand the idea to cover the entire month? We'll fix Februatio at Ides (Feb. 15th), right in the middle, and sanctify the whole unlucky megilla.
--Excellent! But, remember, I thought of it first.
--Okay, but I brought up the bath-house ...
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Sunday, January 31, 2010

#39 January Jottings IV


But the truly old and original Romulan Calendar (you Trekkies out there) makes more sense, surely, in re-starting the 12-month Cycle of the Sun with a 4-week unit more attuned to Nature and Her new beginnings. Like March, or maybe just to make sure, the next one: Kalendis Aprillis, which meant obscurely something like "budding" or "flowering" time. Thus Chaucer and Eliot, but with two opposing views about that, as we have seen. During the reign of Roman King Numa, though, not only were the theretofore unspeakable days between December and March given names, but it was decided for some reason that the first one of them, January, should also become the first month of the Solar Year. For all time, as it turned out, and for all of Western Civilization. Thus ever the breathtaking quirkiness of History.

Speculation: Outside of the godless numbered months (four of which still survive as such), the deities Mars, Maia, and Juno had been honored already with one of their very own. "What about our even older and most venerated god, Janus, who stands head and halo with the best of these," the Janusite priests and lobbyists might be heard saying at Numa's weekly cabinet meeting, "as long as we're getting back into the month-moniker business. And, if it please Your Majesty, he's a two-faced god; that's right, two for the price of one--and he'd be simply fabulous as the month opening each new year because--get this--he's the divinity in charge of exits and entrances, endings and beginnings ... "

However it happened, we're stuck with it. So January has to this day, in an almost divinely-inspired way, been a month of taking stock, making resolutions, faking prophecies, etc. (Obama's State of the Union was last week.) All of this might have also been influenced by another Janus-month deity, Carmenta, a native Roman goddess of PROPHECY, but also in a very interesting way an Overseer of future female states as procreation, gestation, child birth (and midwifery), and the newly natal. Whew. Interestingly, she would also look out for the growing new-born's education, pictured above (in a quaint and typical no-sense-of-perspective medieval manuscript--love 'em).

Accompanied by her Carmentine nymphs, this simply divine lady was a nature-fertility god at bottom like Janus, but she had him beat with TWO feast days, Jan. 11th and 15th-- because, I guess, it took two of them to take care of her very busy goddess-hood properly. They were attended by women only, so the ancient sources say, and part of the celebrations included rice-dishes being offered the goddess, and cream-center pastries in the shape of male and female genitalia being feasted upon by her votaries! Ah, those long and dark winter nights.

(Some of this was cleaned-up by the Latin middle-ages, as you can see above, where the goddess is in school-marm mode. She's got a KEY [in left hand over her shoulder] like Janus, but here it's to open the tower of learning next door for the boy to whom she offers the primary-school HORNBOOK [you can just make out the alphabet thereon] in her right hand, rather than Janus' spear.)

So much for January.The "cruellest month"--with some qualifications and compensations touched on above. The god's 31 days end in a deadened whimper around these parts. (Sort of like this post.) It's an arctic 8 or 9 degrees outside, but in beautiful, bright sunlight. And I know that the lovely panorama of blinding-white snow around a solar-glistened pond filling my picture window can do naught but good for the "SAD" wintertime blues.
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Saturday, January 30, 2010

#38 January Jottings III


Janus has just shut down the last weekend of his month here in North Carolina, and most of the mid-Atlantic states. The god's reign of terror--sub-teen-ish, "wind-chill" temperatures, multi-inch snow, sleet, and freezing rain, cloud-darkened daytime hours--would seem to allow for little debate about the "cruellest month." On the other hand, the balcony view of my duck pond--white-blanketed banks, frosted trees reflected on its glistening mirror-like surface--has its own chiaroscuro beauty. Nothing at all, obviously, like Nicolas Poussin's technicolor fantasy, "Dance to the Music of Time" (1639)--that French Renaissance painter's Olympian version of Kalendis Ianuarius.

The drawing of Janus in last post (q.v.) is many more than a thousand years older and gleaned from a temple-frieze. In that ingratiating anthropomorphic form or others like it, this native-born nature-god was worshiped by the Latins for millennia. And most likely propitiated vociferously at his festival on New Year's day--"Father Janus, be gentle with us in your eponymous month to come" ... "Lighten up a bit" ... "How about giving us a break on this cold weather thing?" ... "Make it a real mensis misericordium for your humble votaries this year!"--or such like.

But they would have known he could be tough: notice his SPEAR, at rest, but right-arm ready. The KEY in his left hand is symbolically more benign, promising the opening-up of new possibilities for the coming year (his affixed double-visage had always, more practically, guarded Roman door- and gate-ways). The COCK is an obvious icon for beginnings of things. But as a fertility symbol it might also invoke in every supplicant's mind what certain things they ought to be doing during the long winter nights--things to be brought to fruition nine months or so later at about harvest time.

The old nature-deity is stylized almost out-of-existence--he's a statue--in Poussin's painting above, but it's fair throbbing with fertility nonetheless. Well, it throbs with just about everything--hard to find a more baroque conglomeration of classical images. Lots of fun. But to the point: Janus is well to the (sinistrum) left, so his backward visage mercifully looks at nothing in the past. All is forgiven. Everything in the frame is thus pictorially rightward and optimistically forward-looking. The voluptuous Four Seasons will be linked one to the other in cosmic and irenic harmony in tune with the rhythms of old Time's lyre, dancing their way through the coming Solar Year--which is personified over their pretty heads in the divine presence of Helios/Hyperion/Apollo and his train careering across the sky. Look for the golden hoop and halo.

But look especially at the foreground figures once again. To the rightest is Time, hoar-headedly-balding but buck-naked and buff, who stares lustily at three of the Seasons while playing on his crotch-clenched harp. The ladies glance approvingly and willingly back. The fourth one? That's right, her smiling gaze--MonaLisalike--is directed solely at YOU, the Viewer. How sly, but how joyfully seductive, is her over-the-bare-shoulder, come-hither look! And she's got to be Winter!--as far to the left and closest to Janus as she is. Dame Winter says silently: Alas, the cold, but think of the warm and snuggly potential of nights long and dark. A couple of rosy-cheeked cherubs like these playing in the corners might be the result.

Aroint thee, then, thou anti-depressants and 1000-watt light-panels, the prescription for Seasonal Affective Disorder is to gaze on the delights of Poussin's "Dance to the Music of Time" for an hour or so. (more)
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Thursday, January 28, 2010

#37 January Jottings II


What has granted the Roman calendar its hegemony over (almost) all others on the planet since literally prehistoric times is that it has always been SOLAR: THE timetable-template, despite inherent raggedy edges like leap-years, that the world runs on. LUNAR calendars were probably first in all cultures, however, because so easily validated by what's going on in the night sky. But the 28-29 day cycle of the moon--while a perfectly workable time-scheme for hunter-gatherers--forever falls short of calibrating with the seasons of the sun, so important to keep precise track of in the new agricultural/pastoral societies in the West.

(As for the Hamito-Semites, they're still moon-people. For Muslims, both secularly and liturgically. For Jews and by extension Christians, liturgically. That's the wherefore of days beginning at the literal sighting of the moon the "eve"-ning before, and "movable feasts" like Ramadan, Hanukkah, and Passover/Easter drifting through the solar year. Ironically, the only fixed feast-day in the Christian liturgical year is Dec. 25, stolen from the Roman solar calendar, which marked it as the pagan Saturnalia and the birth of the SUN-god Mithras. See earlier posts for more on this Grinchy Xmas story.)

But, as mentioned in last post, what I find truly fascinating is that for primordial centuries the Romans "dared not speak its name"--the name, that is, of those 30-4o days of deep winter following the happy-happy of Winter Solstice in the foregoing, quasi-named December. And here's the really fun part: THEY WEREN'T EVEN COUNTED--in terms of monthworthyness. And neither was the un-named month of milder--but still-not-spring-yet--30 days or so following. Notice "December," just mentioned. Means month number ten. Likewise our Latin names for the three months preceding. Usually the realization that, Hey! the numbering is off, comes about the time you get into the DECIM-mal system at school. Then you may-or-may-not get a knowledgeable explanation from your teacher.

Well, believe it or not--especially you Star Trek fans--those misnumbered months we still put up with today are from the Romulan Calendar! Way, way, way before the Gregorian; way,way before the Julian; and even way before the Numaian. Legend had it among the tribal Latins that in or around 8oo BC city-founder Romulus--along with doing other things like killing his brother Remus--this other wolf-bred orphan-twin officially set the calender at ten months, ignoring the inter-calary, un-named-as-yet Jan/Feb of course, and starting with his patron-god Martius (who, unlike his Greek war-god counterpart, Aries, had strong agricultural juju) as being the first month of every new year. Made sense. Why not mark the new year with renewed beginnings? Like spring-time. And surely the lower Italian peninsula would have been getting springy by March.

But before that I'm guessing it was pretty miserable. Except for the seven "hills" (barely noticeable as such), the Tiber valley is swampland, reclaimed but mostly unclaimed for most of its history. Given to malarial summers and cold, dank, sodden winters. Kind of like Eliot's London. Best to just ignore as far as possible that unpleasant winter period. To personify these two months by name, I'm speculating, might only further empower their nastiness.

For whatever reasons, however, under the reign of Numa the Lawgiver (c. 700 BC), two months were "added" to the Romulan Calendar by simply naming them ... while keeping the same not-so-simple, dysfunctional numbering system. MOREOVER, again for unknown reasons, it was decided that the "new" month Ianuarius should begin the new year, rather than Martius. The days following those of the god Janus were given the perfunctory name of Februarius = "washing, purification"--sort of a "spring clean-up," I would suppose, in preparation for its actual arrival.

Notwithstanding the fact that we are forever doomed in the Northern Hemisphere's temperate zones to begin the new year in the frigid depths of winter--what better choice to preside over it than the ancient, totally native (i.e. no Greek influence) , double-aspect Roman god of past and future, endings and beginnings, exits and entrances?! And cocks. (more)
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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

#36 January Jottings


As months go ... for the speaker in T.S. Eliot's
Wasteland"--
APRIL is the cruellest [sic] month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow ... (1922)
Winters in London (the double-"l" gives the poet's expatriation away) are somewhat milder in temperature than than those in the poet's native Connecticut, but even more uncomfortable due to the island's inherent (gulf-stream) foggy/flaky clamminess (think Oliver Twist here).

Okay, he's making a symbolic point--in fact one of the clearest in that famously obscurantist poem. In an obvious thought-inversion of the Canterbury Tales' opening lines, the pessimistic speaker sees in nature's promise of renewed fecundity only disillusionment, as compared with the human world. Memory reminds him that budding desire has been re-deadened in the past, as perhaps a late April frost might kill off the new Lilacs. Can't blame the guy. T.S. Eliot was in a kind of "green-card" marriage gone bad in and around the time of the poem. No small thanks to free-loving philosopher Bertrand Russell, who had earlier bedded young Tom's terminally-neurotic English wife, Vivienne, who he admitted later was the poem's primary muse. (For a pop-version of this interesting story, Netflix 1994's Tom & Viv.)

But give me the unambiguous optimism of Chaucer's April, thank you. It's the linchpin of the Prologue, appearing in first few lines of the classic eighteen that I always had my students commit to memory by the end the term:
Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes ... (c. 1385)
Here the sweet showers of April pierce to Eliot's dull and drought-ridden roots of March, and, by "virtue" of this, the spring rains will with absolute certitude engender those Lilac-flowers. As well as all the other tender crops, because Chaucer's warm west-wind's sweet breath will bring no frost. The clever word-choice of generic vertu bounces us easily into the human world, taken up the lines following those above. "Inspired" also are those spiritually dried-up pilgrims "from every shires ende of Engelond" seeking to get a virtue-fix at Canterbury Cathedral. A little holy water in the presence of the Martyr should do the trick. (St. Thomas still resides there, I'll bear witness, in a lovely effigy-topped tomb, easily accessible to the pilgrims who keep on a-coming, over 600 years later.)

So ... for want of a better segue in getting back to the point--and pace Mr. Eliot--Kalendis Ianuarius still has to be the mostest cruellest month of all. To body and mind. In fact, even in the lower-temperate zone of Mediterranean Rome, the early Latins found the 30 days or so of deep winter so unspeakably unpleasant that (in addition to the next 30 or so for good measure) they remained nameless in the Roman calendar for hundreds of years! Along with the "washing-up" month of Februarius, the name of the two-faced god Janus was a relative late-comer to the yearly time-keeping instrument that has ruled the West for ages. (more)
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