Thursday, October 29, 2009

Persimmon Bread

Not quite half a "mess" of persimmons that will soon be bread.

Jennifer doesn't always have the time for it, but she enjoys cooking and baking. We are fortunate to have several persimmon trees on our property and in recent weeks they have become heavy-laden with ripe fruit.

A heavy rain or wind is enough to knock many off the trees. You just have to go around and gather them near the base of the tree. Often, however, the ripe fruit is so soft that it more or less explodes upon impact with the ground, becoming rather messy with sticks and leaves sticking to the juicy innards. This makes for more work in cleaning it all up so you can make bread (among other things) out of the fruit.

The optimum method for gathering persimmons is to take a few old bed sheets out with you and spread them out around the base of the tree, covering the persimmons that have already fallen. The sheets serve to cushion the fall of the fruit remaining on the tree so fewer of them burst open upon impact with the ground.

Persimmon trees are just med-sized trees, growing maybe 25 feet or so in height. They have slender trunks, especially the younger ones, so they are fairly easy to shake. A vigorous shaking during these few weeks of optimum ripeness causes plenty of persimmons to land on and around the sheets. You just gather the sheets, clean out a bit of debris, and pour the fruit into your gathering pan.

We have some older trees that require me to actually get a ladder and climb up into a point where they usually Y-branch. Like a monkey, I then rattle the top of the tree. This yields plentiful results.

A pan of persimmons will make about 3-5 loaves of bread, depending on the size.

Jennifer's persimmon bread is a real treat this time of year. She makes it with spelt flour which gives the bread a very substantial quality. It is moist and slightly sweet, almost like eating cake. A small piece (or two) after dinner makes for a filling and satisfying experience. It makes for a great snack too.

Jennifer's bread is actually good for you. Nothing artificial, only the best ingredients, nothing transfatty, just wholesome, delicious, and as fresh as anything can be.

Persimmon bread is best consumed warm right out of the oven a couple of hours after harvesting the fruit. This gathering and baking and consuming of fresh foods makes country life incomparable to the poor, cultured city and town folk that rarely know how a fresh tomato tastes, or fresh creamed corn, or fresh crowder peas. Buying from your local grocery or farmer's market just isn't the same thing at all. Fresh means eating it with hours of gathering it. Anything over 24 hours, while still healthy, just ain't the same.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Biden and Russia: All Things Reconsidered

A few weeks ago I wrote a post praising President Obama's handling of Iran's potential nuclear enrichment program with clever geopolitical finesse (see September 26 post). At the time, my view was that Obama had offered some degree of appeasement to the Russians in the form of withdrawing plans for a ballistic missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic in exchange for Russia's agreement to help pressure Iran on its rather defiant nuclear posturing.

Seems I was wrong.

For years, I have read George Friedman's work in STRATFOR, an online publication. Friedman has a great deal of expertise in foreign affairs and often gives me insights I had not considered. An great example of this is in an email he sent out to prospective subscribers teasing us with an article he had just completed entitled "Russia, Iran, and the Biden Speech."

Last week Vice-President Biden was
touring Central Europe, directly challenging Russia in a series of highly publicized speeches. According to Friedman, this is not another incident of Biden going rogue or off-message. This was something calculated by the Obama administration, although exactly what that political motivation might be is a bit vague.

According to Friedman: "(Biden) reasserted American commitment to their security and promised the delivery of other weapons such as Patriot missile batteries, an impressive piece of hardware that really does enhance regional security (unlike BMD, which would grant only an indirect boost). Then, Biden went even further in Romania, not only extending his guarantees to the rest of Central Europe, but also challenging the Russians directly. He said that the United States regarded spheres of influence as 19th century thinking, thereby driving home that Washington is not prepared to accept Russian hegemony in the former Soviet Union (FSU). Most important, he called on the former satellites of the Soviet Union to assist republics in the FSU that are not part of the Russian Federation to overthrow authoritarian systems and preserve their independence."

Why offer to pull out the BMD system and then present a newly threatening policy to Russia? According to Friedman there are three possibilities. One, the Obama administration was disappointed by Russia's less than clear appreciation of the US attempted BMD appeasement. Two, the administration did not appreciate the negative effects the appeasement would have in Central Europe, so they sent Biden out to calm the concerns of nations like Poland and Romania. Three, the administration "might not yet have a coordinated policy on Russia."

Obama is often difficult to read but he does seem to be
presiding over an coordinated missile policy. As often happens with Obama, what seems to be lack of coordination and vacillation, turns our to be actually a rather sophisticated strategy.

Any way you slice it, however, what I took originally as a smart geopolitical move by the administration has turned out to have
a rather polarizing effect on Russia, particularly if the original intent was play Russia (and China in its turn) off Iran. (Which now looks like an incorrect interpretation on my part.)

In fact, according to Friedman, Russia has been pleased for years that the US has gotten itself bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan and has used this opportunity to attempt to reassert itself in Central Europe. Now, the US is seeking to reverse the situation by politically challenging Russia's would-be hegemony in Central Europe.

But, where does that leave us with the Iranian situation? Something has changed over the past few weeks in the way Obama's foreign policy advisers view Russia in regards to Iran. Friedman suggests that the determination might have been made that the US doesn't need Russia in dealing with Iran. "Biden might be trying to get the Iranians to take American threats seriously," Friedman writes.

He concludes: "The American decision to threaten Russia might simply have been a last-ditch attempt to force Tehran's hand now that conciliation seems to have failed. It isn't likely to work, because for the time being Russia has the upper hand in the former Soviet Union, and the Americans and their allies -- motivated as they may be -- do not have the best cards to play.

"The other explanation might be that the White House wanted to let Iran know that the Americans don't need Russia to deal with Iran. The threats to Russia might infuriate it, but the Kremlin is unlikely to feel much in the form of clear and present dangers. On the other hand, blasting the Russians the way Biden did might force the Iranians to reconsider their hand. After all, if the Americans are no longer thinking of the Russians as part of the solution, this indicates that the Americans are about to give up on diplomacy and sanctions. And that means the United States must choose between accepting an Iranian bomb or employing the military option."

Anyway, what I initially took as finesse looks more like a shifting experiment by the Obama administration today. It is certainly a complex situation. We apparently believe we have enough leverage with
France and Britain on board for possible sanctions (or something more serious) against Iran and that we can now disrupt Russia while facing down Iran at the same time. If correct, it is certainly a more ambitious agenda, but far removed from the broader consensus building I expected from Obama.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Back to Boston: Art and War

The Old North Church still towers against the contemporary skyline of Boston. This is the view from the docks at Charlestown across the Charles River.

Note: This is the final essay of a three-part travelogue on our recent vacation to the Boston area.

We slept later the next morning but were up in time to watch large snow flakes falling outside mixed with light rain. It had rained more heavily during the night and the ground was soaked, not frozen. The snow didn’t last and certainly didn’t qualify as snow at all by New England standards.

Our breakfast at the North Bridge Inn featured French toast and sausage with plentiful coffee and juices, cranberry muffins and other homemade breads. All prepared right there in the house’s standard sized kitchen. By the time we had packed up the rain had stopped. This was fortunate as we had to tow our roll-on luggage and book packs several blocks back to the Concord commuter rail station. We managed to board the train back to Boston and take the subway over to the Harborside Inn on State Street without getting wet, though the wind had picked up a good bit.

This took a couple of hours so we decided afterwards to enjoy a few draft beers and an early lunch across the street at The Black Rose. We conversed and enjoyed the fact that we didn’t have any quick tourist timetable to meet that day. It was more relaxed, though the weather kind of sucked.

We formed a vague plan. Jennifer wanted to do some more shopping in the merchant district. I decided to visit the Bunker Hill Monument since I did not have the opportunity to take that in during our 2000 visit. She would shop while I took the ferry over to Charlestown. We would stay in communication by cell and meet up later in the day at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

The ferry over the Charles River to Bunker Hill afforded me a nice view of the city from waterway (including the Old North Church - see pic at top of post). From the Charlestown Naval Yard I picked up the northern end of the Freedom Trail and followed it past the historic shipyard up to the Bunker Hill Monument. After a bit of orientation at the visitor’s center I ascended what is, in fact, Breed’s Hill, where much of the Bunker Hill fighting took place.

The monument is of a rather impressive height. It houses a 294-step winding stairway to the top made entirely of stone. A vigorous workout that I actually enjoyed after playing fat and happy for a couple of days. I only paused once on the way up. I figured this was an acceptable vacation substitute for my otherwise fairly regular 3 mile jogs. There was an impressive view (see left) from the top through a small opening back toward Boston Harbor overlooking the historic Charlestown docks and the entire area of the British assault onto the hill, now covered by small offices and residential development.

Taking the Freedom Trail back to the docks, I paused long enough to explore the museums there, to see the USS Constitution from a distance as well as the USS Cassin Young positioned near Dry Dock One (see right). The dry dock is the second oldest of its kind in North America. The USS Constitution is the oldest battleship in the world that is still afloat.

Communicating by cell with Jennifer I discovered she had purchased a couple of pair of pants that she liked and was now en route to the Art Museum, located at the other end of town near Northeastern University. I negotiated the ferry back to the subway and took it over to meet her in the museum’s magnificent rotunda.

It was an interesting contrast in my mind. Moments ago I was exploring the site of one of the most famous battles of the American Revolution on a breezy gray day. Suddenly, now I was surrounded by the muted echoes of visitors exploring a comfortable domicile of great Art from literally all over the world.

The highlight for both Jennifer and me was the impressionist section of the exhibits, featuring several works of Manet, Monet, and a famous painting by Renoir (see right). Both of us have always appreciated the impressionist period and style. We lingered here for a bit, time and weather no longer being an issue.

Back at the Hotel we rested a short while, conversed about the happenings of the trip, reviewed our pics on our laptop. It was really too windy to enjoy being out in the cold city streets that evening so we made our way over to the nearby Cheers Restaurant for dinner. The beer was fine, of course, the food was just OK. Cheers is a contemporary Boston institution and we simply wanted to say “been there, done that.” Both of us had been fans of the television show back in the years when it was one of America’s most popular programs.

I almost bought a commemorative t-shirt that read “Cheers: I don’t even know my name.” We laughed.

Our final day in Boston dawned sunny but very gusty and cold. The deep city chill bit to my bones. We had a late checkout and flight so we decided to walk through downtown. We considered the option of having lunch at the famous Omni Parker House (foundry to the famous Parker House Rolls and Boston’s Original Cream Pie) but the restaurant only served in the evenings. Instead, we had to be content with hanging out in the ornate lobby for awhile (see above). Afterwards, we visited a downtown bookstore before gathering our luggage and taking the subway back out to the airport.

I’ll spare you the details of our delayed flight back home. We got back to the house about midnight after waiting several hours extra at Logan International Airport for our plane to arrive. The reason for the delay was never explained to us. I guess the groove of the first day was spent and now some sort of karmic balance had to be attained.

The Boston area is a terrific mix of history, urban sophistication, intellectualism, art, and architecture. The people are almost universally friendly toward tourists. It is a fairly compact town best viewed by walking. The downtown area is highly concentrated with interesting shops, restaurants, and places of historical note. It was a thriving city in a time when New York was just a town. All this makes it a special place situated somewhere between the hustle and bustle of the Big Apple and an enduring rural landscape recalling more tranquil colonial times. An interesting contrast and a rich experience to those lucky enough to Be there, whether residing or just passing through.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Concord: A Transcendental Colonial Style

The Old North Bridge near Concord looking from the Continental side toward the British side.

Note: This is part two of a three part travelogue on our recent vacation to the Boston area.

We got up about 6am the next morning in order to negotiate Boston’s subway system over to the separate commuter rail network and out to Concord by 9am. We caught an egg muffin from Dunkin Donuts, wirelessly checking emails at the central commuter rail station feeding trains in and out of townships many miles outside Boston.

A 6 or 7 block walk from the Concord rail station got us to the North Bridge Inn, our bed and breakfast for the night. We stowed our modest luggage and headed out for Walden Pond. The sky was completely overcast. Along the way we saw something I never thought I’d see in Concord. The remains of a summer cotton field.

At Walden Pond we entered the visitor’s center just to warm our faces a bit. It was cool and breezy outside, without sun. It chilled you while walking the mile or so out to the pond. I mentioned to Jennifer how I was struck by the fact that the pond was not someplace far out in the wilderness. In truth, Henry David Thoreau’s modest, self-built cabin (see pic of replica at Walden Pond on left) is only about a 30 minute hike from downtown Concord. He could have (and probably did) walk home for supper anytime he chose and could then walk in the twilight through the woods back to the cabin. Thoreau, in fact, writes about the stirrings of things in the woods around dust and early evening quite a lot in his Walden.

Here is much of the inspiration of my youth. The fall color was beautiful in places, reflected on the mirror-like stillness of the pond under gray skies. I considered how this place indirectly affected my life, having read Walden and Civil Disobedience in high school and several times since, most recently last winter. The insights and appreciations gained in Thoreau’s year-long experiment of living at Walden Pond are very much my own, living in nature surrounded by farms growing up, transferred to my Being so vividly in through the written word based on an intimacy earned.

My love for nature has always been with me and my exposure to the writings of Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson (a fellow resident of Concord) accentuated this inherent admiration, giving it a voice within me that might have otherwise never been so articulated. The legacy of transcendentalism.

We bought long-sleeved t-shirts sold by the Thoreau Society at the visitor’s center.

The forecast was for rain the next day. So we had to forego a brief walk around one side of the pond to where the cabin was thought to have been. No one knows the exact location where Thoreau built it. I find that interesting because it means that the cabin vanished during a time when people took the structure for granted. It was a mediocre thing rotting in the woods in the years following Thoreau’s death. Otherwise, we’d know exactly where he placed it. The four cornerstones approximating the position of the shrine were placed after the alter had long since vanished.

Originally, Concord was going to be a two-day affair with Walden Pond and
Emerson’s home on the first afternoon. Sleepy Hollow Cemetery and the North Bridge were supposed to be the next morning. But, the impending rain meant the next morning’s activities would be wet and cold. Future hikes supplanted the Now in the name of efficiency. We did not linger.

Back in Concord we enjoyed our lunch at the
Walden Grille, a local diner and bar. Another sampling of chowder proved to be excellent, though not as good as that offered by the oyster bar the previous day. Then we settled into our room - a spacious bedroom, living room, bath, and small kitchen (which we didn’t use except for making coffee the next morning). I rested on the bed and almost napped but got myself together enough to get Jennifer and me out the door toward the North Bridge.

The hike was but a half mile or so. A bit further since we crossed the bridge to where
the first Continental militia formed and executed “the shot heard round the world” (see pic of marker at site set in 1836 on right). We admired the wonderful individual trees surrounding the visitor’s center, which we visited. Our attempts to capture the vivid color on the dull afternoon with my old Nikon digital just frustrated us. It was gorgeous out in spite of the sunless day.

On the way to the
North Bridge we took pics of the Old Manse House. A place where Emerson had lived for a time. Magnificent maples turned bright yellow with half their leaves completely covering the green lawn like a sunburst at the base of the trees themselves.

I took a pic of where the first British soldiers were buried in the American Revolution. Three bodies killed by a couple of volleys from the local militia.
The revolt against the King started right here in Concord.

Next we hiked over to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, which was very near our bed and breakfast. Using a local cemetery map, a ten minute walk directly through the hilly, colorful wooded section of the huge cemetery took us up to Author’s Ridge.

There we found Emerson,
Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Thoreau all marked and buried. Another photo opp.

Ralph Waldo Emerson's headstone at Sleepy Hollow.

Thoreau's simple marker on Author's Ridge. Visitor's have offered fruit, small stones, and pine cones to the grave.

We did not remain there for long. The day’s breeze was making us colder now. So we headed back to the town. I took a short hike to photograph Emerson’s house while Jennifer did some window shopping. We then visited a cheese shop together and enjoyed organic fruit drinks. My pressed apples were tasty.

The evening meal was simple. Especially by the standards of The Lenox. Two plentiful salads, mine with cranberries and walnuts, and splitting a large chicken pot pie. Jennifer had wine while all I wanted was water and more apple juice. We were too full for key lime pie.

Concord is a special place. I compare it with other places I’ve been where I felt I could happily live. New Market, Virginia. Lake Crescent, Washington. Around Denali, Alaska. The people there appreciate what they have and they possess no desire to allow “progress” to touch it except in terms of creature comforts. Otherwise the space is a sacred pleasant permutation of what it has always been for generations. A bastion of freedom and progressive thought preserved in a distinctly colonial style.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Boston: Great Chowder and Dead People

The Washington Monument in Boston Common
Note: This is the first of a series of three posts regarding our vacation to the Boston area.

Jennifer and I recently returned from a four day vacation to Boston and Concord, Massachusetts. It was our second trip to the area. Way back in 2000, she attended a business seminar up there and I tagged along for the ride. While she spent most of her time in meetings I scouted out the environs, venturing as far westward as Concord to visit Walden Pond and Henry David Thoreau’s grave. She didn’t get to make the trek outside the city but I knew she would just love the atmosphere of Concord. So, this year we went back. And this time it was all pleasure.

Unlike our Alaska trip last year (see July 2008 entries), I was more actively engaged in the planning of this trip. But, our best laid plans were affected by the weather forecasts. Rain was predicted for the last full day of our trip, forcing us to rearrange our schedule, making things less relaxed than they might otherwise have been.

Our flight arrived in Boston late morning to give us basically a full day to venture out. We knew this would be our only sunny day there, so we took full advantage of it. We did not rent a car, choosing instead to walk and use public transportation to get around.

Boston is a terrific town to walk in. It is a comparatively compact urban area. Just walking 4 or 5 miles allows you to cover a huge chunk of the city. After checking in to our hotel, we immediately headed toward Boston Common, a large, beautifully landscaped public park more or less in the center of town. It is the oldest public park in the America.

It was a gorgeous sunny day. We passed people speaking all sorts of languages, reflecting the international character of the town. But, wherever people might be from, Boston itself is very much an Irish Catholic city. A patriotic Yankee flavor. Culturally it is not quite as diverse as the many different national origins of its tourists and citizens might indicate.

This is the military birthplace of the American Revolution and that very much controls the style and expression of this great international insurance and financial center, the intellectual haven of New England.

After enjoying Boston Common we came to the Freedom Trail, a two and half mile walk from the Commons, winding through the older part of downtown Boston and ending across the river in Charlestown at the Bunker Hill Monument.

We didn’t do the entire trail, only bits and pieces which were of particular interest. We spent a long time at the famous Park Street Church cemetery (known as the Granary Burial Ground). Here is the final resting place of the victims of the Boston Massacre, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, “Mother Goose”, and Paul Revere.

The lighting in the cemetery was perfect. Large maples and oaks filtered the sunlight as it descended on the aged headstones, making for some nice photo opportunities. It was a strangely tranquil feeling, being there with famous people from the Revolutionary era laid to rest, the way the soft shade of the autumn leaves filtered the sunlight, knowing this was a place acknowledged as sacred by human Being in a time long before the first white men began to settle the area of the south where my home resides.

As macabre as it might sound, connecting with the feeling of time drifting back so far has a unique, inspiring quality.

We ventured on along the trail until we reached one of my goals for the trip – the Union Oyster Bar, the oldest restaurant in America. The restaurant serves some excellent Clam Chowder among many other delicacies. We were served upstairs, our old-fashioned, straight-backed, booth nested under a softly lit oil painting of Daniel Webster.

At first we tried The Bell in Hand Tavern. The oldest tavern in America. It’s nice, corner architecture reminding you of horse drawn days. But, they have turned the place into a sports bar with loud music and flat screen televisions everywhere. Jennifer and I immediately left. That’s when we chose the Oyster Bar, a place I had eaten at in our 2000 trip. Nice, rich and thick Chowder with a Red Brick Sam Adams on draft. With Daniel Webster looking over me. Come on, how much more cliché could it have been? But, that’s what happened.

The whole day was in a nice groove like that. The sun and the open park, the satisfying photo shoot, now great chowder exquisitely experienced. Every time we came to an intersection the crosswalk lights all changed to walk. We didn’t have to wait on traffic. It just worked out that way. Amazing. Maybe once were we caught in a “no walk” situation. It was one of those easy karmic grooves.

Across the street from the Oyster Bar, immediately across, is the New England Holocaust Memorial, a fascinating and poignant piece of modern art and architecture. Several square glass columns with numbers etched into the glass. The numbers represent the ID given to Jews who died in concentration camps at the hand of the Nazis. Each column chamber would occasionally emit some mist that drifted through the height of the column and enshrouded anyone standing inside. Apparently, the mist - while no doubt refreshing in the summertime - actually represents the gas of the chambers that killed millions of human beings.

So, strange to find this monument in the oldest part of the Boston, across the street from the oldest tavern and bar. The Holocaust is truly in the heart of Boston, its most international cultural expression.

Jennifer was amazed by the monument and took some great pics.

We ate under Daniel Webster's gaze after she took the pics. Then, we walked back. The shadows were getting longer. The Common had more business suits in it as we returned to our hotel. The work day of which I had so rarely been oblivious was over. That was something else, happening to other people. A few beggars hit us up along the way. We gave to no one.

The Lenox Hotel downtown is a terrific old Bostonian style hotel. Nicely attired bellhops await you with white gloves at the door. They carry your bags. By chance – as was the general groove of the day – the hotel’s restaurant had completed a recent renovation and was reopening the night of our stay.

We dressed up a bit for dinner and decided to have drinks. I chose a single malt from a massive list of about 40 different kinds of scotch. An Irish whisky for Jennifer. Her choice was limited to 12-15 labels. The servings were generous. I had two, Jen only one.

We talked about how contemporary and urbane the remodeling effort felt. I had no idea what the restaurant looked like before but the subdued lighting and dark wooden interior had an old hotel feel with a jazz flair. Really very nice. Even better with two single-malt scotches chosen from a very long list.

The highlight of the meal was the Caramelized Potato Gnocchi with braised veal and small potatoes in a heavy plum and tomato sauce with chunks of pear and portobello mushrooms. It was an epicurean triumph and we complimented our short, plump Portuguese waiter who pleasantly conversed with us over the remodeling and even details of how the Gnocchi had been prepared. I gave him a huge tip.

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Prize, Non-Confirmation

Surprising, almost shocking news, today. Obama wins the Nobel Peace Prize. All sorts of opinion about this. Some say he deserves it but now he must earn it. Some think it's absurd. Obama himself wants to accept it "on behalf of aspirations."

I think there's a chance the prize (
the only one of all the Nobel prizes to be given by Norway, all others by Sweden) is a bold attempt to keep Obama from necessarily (in my opinion) escalating the war in Afghanistan. To keep him from committing 40,000 more US troops to the troubled region. Maybe I'm being too cynical or shallow. But, it's almost a bribe or a dogie treat. Down boy.

The strange thing about it is that I work and interact with many bright people who take an interest in the news and today not one single person talked to me or emailed me about the award to Obama. This rather unprecedented historical honor, right or wrongly given, doesn't merit any discussion, not even a simple utterance of acknowledgement.

About 9am Jennifer phoned me at my desk and wanted to know if I had seen the news. I told her I had. She and I discussed it briefly. Other than that, stone silence from everyone I know.

I suspect the silence reflects a deep-seated prejudice of which few of us are even aware. The prejudice is in me, even though I think Obama has worked wonders with US foreign policy since the disastrous era of George W. Bush. Surely there is someone more deserving of the recognition somewhere on this earth. People are dying for peace, literally dying, and the award goes to a political phenomenon, a global rock star.

Meanwhile, we now have a big, fat Dow Theory non-confirmation today.
The Dow hit a new high for this rally. The Dow Transportation Index remains about 140 points below it's most recent high. The Transports have been very week recently, especially compared with the Industrials. This signals trouble ahead if the Transports refuse to rise to a new high next week. I said originally I planned to be out by October. I'm still in. But, I'm thinking of closing my DIA and SPY positions, effectively leaving me in gold and gold stocks as far as stuff outside my 401(k). I'll see what Monday brings. Gold is looking very strong and I have a big position in it. Ride the Bull, dodge the bear. The usual coin toss.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Doctor Atomic

I am enjoying a couple of new classical CDs that I received last week. Recently, I have been reviewing Anton Bruckner’s symphonies. Though Bruckner’s body of orchestral work is certainly not of the same caliber as, say, Gustav Mahler, there are many fine moments in his symphonies.

Back in 1971 the great conductor Herbert von Karajan recorded what many believe to be a definitive performance of Bruckner’s Seventh by the Berlin Philharmonic. This classic recording was remastered in 1996 and makes a great addition to my classical collection.

The third movement Scherzo of Bruckner’s Seventh is definitely the highlight of the work. It makes ample use of the string section in a powerfully constructed, recurring theme, kind of a march. Despite being remastered, the recording quality of the CD is noticeably “thinner” than more recent digital recordings. Giving the volume a nudge helps but the depth of the bass just isn’t where it should be.

Nevertheless, this is – by many accounts - a masterful interpretation and I have enjoyed listening to the symphony recently three times over as many days. Overall, I would place Bruckner in the "second-tier" of great symphonic composers along with the likes of Robert Schumann and Jean Sebelius. All are entertaining and rich but not in the elite symphonic class with Beethoven or Mahler or even Shostakovich for that matter.

What I have been listening more frequently to, however, is the other CD that I recently received. John Adams wrote an opera on Robert Oppenhiemer (if you can image such a thing) entitled Doctor Atomic in 2005. In 2007 he composed a “symphony” based on music from the opera.

I have posted on my difficulties with opera before. Whereas ballets are a great extension of the classical art in my opinion (I enjoy the dance aspects of classical performances), I simply cannot make it all the way through an opera. It’s just not my thing.

At any rate, I am thankful for Adams’ orchestration of the musical themes from his opera. Although I don’t think the Doctor Atomic Symphony really fits together as a symphony in terms of development and transformation, it is an interesting collection of musical ideas, most of which are superb listening experiences.

I am particularly fond of the second movement entitled "Panic" (beginning at about 2:33 into this youtube copy of the recording). Adams shows amazing compositional range here. It begins with a swarm of strings reminiscent of Lutoslawski or Shostakovich. A racing pace that creates a sphere of sound (at about 3:25 in the above youtube recording link). Then it gradually meanders into a Copelandesque western motif (about 40 seconds into this part of the youtube recording) before easing into a complex, yet often subtle (see about 4:50 into the second youtube link), brass and winds section supported by the orchestra as foundation, bold and inspiring, almost heroic.

The entire work is only about 22 minutes long. Hardly heroic in that sense. Some single movements of Bruckner's symphonies are that long. Adams' latest symphony is more precise and efficient, partly a minimalist influence. Panic is about 14 and half minutes in length. That makes it a near perfect piece for me to listen to in the morning on my headset as I sit in my study having my modest weekday coffee allowance. It is ironic I chose Panic as my morning devotional lately. But, the piece gets my mind going and the shift down into a masterful quietness punctuated by uneasy orchestral stirrings makes it a nice framework for which to address the working day.

While not as great a work as The Dharma at Big Sur, the Doctor Atomic Symphony proves that entertaining, new classical music remains with us.

All things have not faded into thin air.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Of Family Reunions and Toxic Waste

Yesterday a family reunion on my mother’s side offered a great southern banquet (but no fried chicken!? - a sign of the times) which served as a nice change of pace from the usual schedule of buying groceries, yard work, house cleaning, and laundry. I only see most of that part of the family once a year – just frequently enough to get a few people’s names mixed up.

Topics of discussion at these things stay fairly benign, generally limited to how mockingbirds are bad to eat your tomatoes, an update on the latest aliments various distant family members are dealing with, trips taken over the past year, how’s work or retirement going, showing off photographs, etc. Randall (who I had initially mistaken for Gary) and I had what was for me the most substantive conversation of the gathering when he brought up the fact that five of his friends had fairly recently been diagnosed with various forms of cancer.

A physician had recently confided to him that he had never practiced in a place where there was a higher rate of cancer among the population than around here. I interjected that it was because of local industry and he immediately agreed. Years of illegal toxic waste disposal, little or no protection from various chemicals in the manufacturing plants, the subsequent deterioration of the quality of the drinking water were all to blame Randall said.

Randall used to work for the county road department and told me that several times through the years the crews would run into unknown, buried dumps while laying new roads. Construction would have to halt for a few days so that someone with environmental experience could be called in to clean up the illegal dumps which were usually comparatively small but nevertheless hazardous. Randall stated he believed that for years local industries had simply paid some farmers for the right to bury whatever it was they wanted buried on the farmer’s land. The sums of money were cheaper than other waste disposal methods and seemed abundant to the farmer who was likely told just to keep his mouth shut.

All those things add up over the years, Randall said, and they seep down into the water table. Randall is just a country boy. He’s certainly no eco-nut. And his story is one I have heard from others over the years. Whenever someone complains about the Environmental Protection Agency and government “red tape” with pollution controls and waste disposals, I think of stories like Randall told me. Honest stories from individuals with no agenda.

We know what this country would be like with government environmental laws and controls. It would be like all the little illegal dumps in my county. It would be like
Lake Erie dying. It would be like the uncontrolled pollution in China and India today. It would be countless little acts by random corporations and businesses that add up to freedom abused and a degradation of the quality of life on a massive scale.

Then we all sat in various groupings for photos and left after everybody had a shot at the desserts. Reunions aren’t my thing really but we do it for my mom.

Saturday was our first real weekend day of fall weather. Bright blue skies, cool, a bit breezy. Fall is my favorite time of year. No color around here yet – that usually comes around the end of October. But, just the feeling of fall is so refreshing.

Jennifer and I worked in the yard, mulching beds and mowing. We made sure to take a couple of breaks on the front porch to enjoy the day. No need to push ourselves. My daughter was out with my sister and cousin shopping. She went to a movie later and got home rather late.

Later in the afternoon Jennifer and I watched
the Braves lose to the Washington Nationals 6-4 despite a great job of starting pitching by Jair Jurrjens. What a terrific young pitcher. I hope the Braves are able to hold on to him when he becomes eligible for free agency. He reminds me Tom Glavine or John Smoltz when they were in their early 20’s. A different style of pitcher, of course, but very much in that same class potentially.

The loss was rather typical of the Braves season. Great starting pitching, some timely hitting but not enough of it, and an erratic bullpen. I really like our individual players but the team just didn’t jell for
Bobby Cox this year. Wait ‘til next year.

After the game we listened to music. I read until about midnight. All-in-all a relaxing day.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The Last Tomato Sandwich

Tonight I ate a tomato sandwich for dinner. It was three slices of a large juicy one placed in just the right amount (too much) of mayonnaise resting in two wheat-grained slices of bread with a large glass of milk.

There is little better than that first bite of a tomato sandwich in summer. After desiring one for weeks in late-spring, summer brings that foray into simple southern cuisine quintessence. The ultimate tomato experience.

Then, over the next weeks, you eat a lot of tomatoes. A lot of them. And the sandwich itself becomes a dull commodity. Only Time makes it precious again.