Thursday, January 22, 2009


I’ve been wanting to write about my trip to Washington this week, about standing among the nearly 2 million who witnessed Barack Hussein Obama take the oath of office to be the 44th President of the United States. I tell you it’s not easy to put this one into perspective. That’s how big it is.

I was going to talk about the day, how we got up early and made it down to the Mall and stood in line for hours and all the people we met and saw and how it felt to be standing there the very second President-elect Barack Obama became President Barack Obama.

But there was something else that happened Tuesday, to me and everyone who was there, bearing witness to a line in history that will mark the moment when America really changed.
It was the largest crowd for an inauguration in the history of the country. Why did so many people feel like they had to be there. I know many people were there because they wanted to witness an historic event -- there’s only one first African-American president – but I think there’s something bigger going on. A much deeper and broader cut into the American landscape.
I saw it on Tuesday first hand. It was on the faces of almost every black person I saw. I saw pride and joy, of course, but I also saw something else, a kind of ownership of the moment. One older black woman told me it was the first time in her life she felt like a real American. Which is fucked up, but it’s true for many American blacks.

For no matter how much progress we’ve made as a nation, discrimination, racism, ethnic stereotyping not only exists but it has many apologists. And while some people will always get advantages that others won’t, the dream that any kid could grow up to be President of the United States was an empty one if you didn’t happen to be white and male. Tuesday that all changed. For every child in America, it’s a brave new world. We don’t have to lie to them anymore. It’s not about equality as much as it’s about possibilities. Hope is here and its real and it’s taking up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. A black man is in the White House. You cannot make it any clearer than that. I love the portent of this moment in American history if only because it’s a rare, concrete moment where we can say without irony that the ideals of our nation, the building blocks of Democracy – fairness, openness, free debate, charity, tolerance and curiosity – aren’t just empty slogans. They’re real.

I imagine a scene that took place Wednesday morning in classrooms all across the country, where all the kids, no matter race or gender, could add a new story to their dreams. “I can do – or be -- anything. I can even be President of the United States.” Anyone who doesn’t think this makes the whole world a better place is just clinging to the past. A past that is dead and buried, relegated to the graveyard of history. It’s not a white man’s world anymore. Oh sure, they’re hanging on for dear life, but now even they know the truth. Rush Limbaugh knows – that’s why he said with glee how he hopes Obama will fail. Because if he succeeds, than Limbaugh is just another dinosaur soon to be extinct.

The moment right after Obama was sworn-in on Tuesday, it seemed to me that the crowd took a beat before erupting in cheers. A hiccup in time. I didn’t understand it at the time, but I think it was collective shock, disbelief at what had just occurred. Like we all needed a moment to let the gravity of it all sink in. President Barack Hussein Obama. We all needed time to pinch ourselves.

It was at that moment that I stood up and the man, a stranger, sitting next to me stood up too and we looked around like we were lost. And then I offered my hand and he shook it. And then we embraced. Two strangers in a sea of strangers holding on to each other, celebrating a shared moment that reinforced our shared humanity.


And it’s not temporary. There’s no turning back now. Because somewhere in America, there’s a little boy or girl who dreams of being President and nobody can tell them it can’t happen.

‘Cause it just did.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Bearing Witness

I'm too cold and tired to write anything much now but I didn't want to go sleep without posting a few photos of the day. It was a remarkable day, and wonderful and crazy, inspiring, awesome and a hundred words I can't think of right now. You just can't imagine what it was like to be in that crowd of humanity and have such a warm feeling of hope and possibilities. History, people. History.

I'll have more to say when I have a chance to gather my thoughts. Until then, here's a few photos (some of which were taken by my brother, who had a longer lens than I did and was therefore, able to get much closer to the action).

The sun rises on a great day in the nation's capitol.

My brother with Blanche and Bessie, two sisters we met from Detroit.
Bessie was at Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech.

Like father, like son.
The Capitol

The podium was right in front of that red draped doorway.
President Obama takes the Oath of Office.
The crowd. Wow, right? I mean wow.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Obama Nation

Okay, so I'm in Washington, DC for tomorrow's big swearing in. And I got great seats -- hella great. I mean I'm in the VIP section and I'm sitting down. Not up where the beautiful people sit, but pretty damn close.

I'll be getting up at the crack of dawn and walking three damn miles to the Capitol in the freezing cold. I'm psyched though. Hella psyched.

And I'll be posting from the event (if I can) and putting up photos and (I hope) video with my new tiny HD video camera.

I'd love to blog live but having lived in California forever, I have a feeling I'll be too cold to be typing anything on my iPhone. But stay tuned -- I'm sure I'll have plenty to say and post afterward when I'm back at my brother's house, watching the parade on TV. In front of the fire.

The pictures on this post are of the official program and my ticket. It also came with a photo of our new President and Vice President. (Pardon the lousy iPhone photos. I'll have real pictures from tomorrow. )

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Cover This and That

My musical education began among the stacks of my parents' record collection. They had a pretty good mix of stuff, a wee bit of classical, a whole bunch of 20th century vocalists, dixieland, some straight up jazz (pre-1950), show music of course, and a nice collection of American folk music. Names like Bessie Smith and Leadbelly, Pete Seeger, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Ella, Dinah Washington, Bobby Short and Billie Holiday, Judy Garland and Mezz Mezzrow, Louie Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Oscar Levant, The Weavers, Odetta and The Kingston Trio. They had one Beatles record.

My favorite time to listen to them were the rare days I'd stay home from school and have the living room to myself. I would pretend to be Judy or Ella or even Frank and then belt out tunes to the empty room. The dog didn't care that I sang off key.

Eventually I moved on, but I didn't move on completely. I had a brief relationship with AM radio pop music until I discovered FM radio and it blew my world to pieces. From there, I found my own little two-lane blacktop road to outlaw country, then bluegrass and off into whatever hip hop, pop or rock caught my attention. The thing is that no matter what anybody says, it's all connected. Rap to country to show music to pop to R&B to bluegrass to punk to hip hop and on back to rap and every other kinda way you want to play it. Seriously, there ain't no Kanye West without Kurtis Blow and their ain't know Kurtis Blow without George Clinton and no Funkadelic without Little Richard and no rock and roll without Hank Williams and no Hank without Leadbelly and no Dylan without Odetta. Round and round you can go.

My tastes run pretty wide, but I'm a sucker for great lyrics. Must be the writer in me. I think this also comes out of my formative music education -- the stuff that had the greatest impact on me, from the 60s anti-war folk music to the songs of Gershwin and Cole Porter to Dylan and Springsteen, was as much about lyrics as melody.

The one test of a good song lyric is how often it is successfully covered. Back in the day when the songwriters mostly worked for hire, it was not uncommon for popular songs to covered by many different singers and bands. When I was a kid, I used to make a game of finding as many recordings of a particular song as possible. I would collect them on one cassette tape (remember them?) and note how each singer interpreted them. It can be an interesting education in how to sing a song when you hear how two different great singers do the same song.

In today's music world, of course, singers write their own songs and those who do are at the top of the food chain, Covering a song takes on all sorts of mechanization's. It's not so easy -- or even marketable -- to cover a big artist's big song. You're bound to be compared to the original. And almost always not in a favorable way. But occasionally, just like the sequel can be better than the original, so can the cover of a good song.

With that in mind, this is going to be the first in an occasional series featuring interesting cover songs that are markedly different than the original.

The first of these is a song by Radiohead, called "Black Star." Radiohead is, of course, a major British band, one of the most critically acclaimed of recent years. Full disclosure: I tried to get into them but I never really got their thing. Frankly, I find them a bit pretentious. But they are enormously praised by music critics so they must have something going for them. It was their second record, Bends, that brought them critical acclaim and launched them into the stratosphere of big-league bands. The last track on Bends was this little song called "Black Star," which you can listen to in my Vox Stash here.

It's a fine song with a nice riff, very typical Radiohead, somewhat overwrought and maybe slighly over-produced, filled with the requisite guitar mashing. In their hands, it's just a notch below power-pop rock and roll, the kind of songs that precursed bands like The Shins, The Decemberists and Death Cab For Cutie.

It doesn't stand out as being great. In fact, I don't think I ever played it again after listening to it the first time. And I would have completely forgotten it if not for Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.

Welch and Rawlings are what I like to call modern throwbacks. Welch was born in New York and raised in Santa Monica, California but her musical style is firmly middle-of-the-country. Combining traditional forms of folk, bluegrass, country with a dose of rock and roll, she and her musical partner Rawlings, have developed a signature style all their own. In her four studio albums (and one live one), they have performed original material, traditional songs and covers by artists like Emmylou Harris and Neil Young.

Welch has a distinctively beautiful voice that is at once angelic and just a little rough to be interesting. But if it's her voice that brings their songs to life, it's Rawlings' guitar playing that gives them a soul. The guy can seriously pick. I don't like to throw the word "genius" around too much but if anyone deserves the title, it's Rawlings. Even if you don't like their style, it's hard not to appreciate just how great a musician he is. And his star shines extremely bright on their cover of "Black Star."

The live recording is included on an EP from last year (and available through iTunes). Their version bears almost no resemblance to the original. It's almost as if it's a completely different song, from a teen-age emo piece to a sweet, achingly soulful folk tune. Welch sings it with a pathos that seems forced in the hands of Radiohead's lead vocalist Thom Yorke and Rawlings, well, listen to his solo guitar stuff -- he tears it up. (Seriously, even if it's not your flavor, listen to it all the way through -- that's how you play acoustic gui-tar).

Check it out here, on my Vox stash.


I'm traveling this week and next. Came down to Florida for a stopover to visit my parents before a trip north to D.C. for Obama's Inauguration ceremony.

Anyway, already been on two jets, about to hop on a third before taking a train to New York City for a day and then another flight back to the bay.

I don't travel that much these days. I don't like to fly. I used to love it but I lost the love for it after spending five years as a sportswriter which is the same thing as living on planes and sleeping in hotels every night, in cities that all look so alike half the time you have no idea where you are when you wake up. Believe or not, I let a shitload of frequent flyer miles expire just so I didn't have to get on another airplane.

When 9/11 happened I wanted to give up flying completely. Not for any reason except like the rest of us, I went through this period of thinking that the world is a fucking dangerous place and if I'm gonna bite the big one, I'd rather it be on familiar ground. Ground being the operative word.

So anyway, a couple hours ago, my brother and his two young children arrived on a US Airways flight into Sarasota, Fla, airport. They arrived safe and sound and I'm kinda still amazed that my bro's kids are so damned cute. It's all so very weird to me, I'm telling you. Whatever. My folks don't have internet access (well, they do but it's something from another planet that's called "dial-up") and so I rolled on over to the local Starbucks to log on to the world wide web before I went into shock from withdrawal (and I'm not talking about coffee).

And the first thing I see is this amazing story on the front page of the New York Times' website. Holy fucking shit. I mean, really. I'm one of those people who thinks I'm going to survive a plane crash. I swear to God. These people actually did. Ditched in the damn Hudson River. How many times have you been in a plane and read that "Your Seat Cushion May Be Used as a Flotation Device" and could not even imagine that? Motherfuck, right? I mean I grew up along the Hudson River. There are fish that would breathe air just to get out of that water, but man, who doesn't think that it was the best fucking sight those 148 people ever freaking saw?

The full story is here, though there's obviously more details pouring in. I hope it's true. I hope everyone made it and I think they should give that pilot and his crew a freaking medal.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Old Timers, New Songs

There’s been a minor cottage industry over the past 20 years or so of so-called over-the-hill artists making CDs of modern cover songs. I’m not a music historian but I think it all began with the Rick Ruben-produced American Recordings by Johnny Cash.

Cash was 62 when he made the first of a series of CDs ("American Recordings" 1994), containing mostly cover songs by a wide range of artists from Nine Inch Nails to Gordon Lightfoot and U2. The CDs work in part because Cash did them in a spare, mostly acoustic style, one that Ruben recognized was his strength. They are credited with not only reviving Cash's career but for starting a trend of imitators.

Other old-timers have followed, some more succesful than others. But even the relative failures are noble -- if it’s the only way the kids get an introduction to, say, the Man in Black or Solomon Burke, it’s all good.

I think there's a bigger benefit though. The best of these CDs give artists a chance to reinvent themselves in a way they couldn’t or wouldn’t do when they were at the height of their popularity. Ruben produced a CD last year by by Neil Diamond entitled "12 Songs" that was critically praised for it’s expressive songwriting. I'm not the worlds' biggest Diamond fan, but I have no guilt that ‘’Hot August Nights’’ is in my music collection. Still, he made his rep as a pop showman and listening to the new work, even if it's not your flavor, is proof the guy has big-time talent.

It's these explorations into craft and style that make these kind of CDs so interesting and while I'll always give them a listen, no matter who's behind the mike. It's a real case of you never know.

And it's great when you're not only surprised, but pleasantly so. Like last year's “Meet Glen Campbell”. That’s right, the Glen Campbell. The guy who gave us "Wichita Lineman" and "Gentle on My Mind," and was a pretty big country star 40 years ago. Now in his 70s, he's not the first guy you might expect to make a record of modern rock songs. But he not only did, he did it well.

Not that he's not got the right pedigree. He toured with The Beach Boys, filling in for an ailing Brian Wilson for tours in 1964 and 1965. And he's the guitar player on their classic "Pet Sounds" record. Throughout the 60s he was in demand as a session player and sat in on discs by Frank Sinatra, The Monkees and The Righteous Brothers (playing on their hit "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling").

He later struck gold with "Rhinestone Cowboy" and "Southern Nights" and had his own CBS TV show, "The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour"

I am, to the surprise of my parents, a serious country music fan. Not the country music radio shit, but the outlaw singer/songwriter tradition that began with guys like Hank Williams and Bob Wills and rolls through Waylon and Willie, Billy Joe Shaver with side trips to Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark and Lucinda Williams. This is great American roots music with influences from blues, jazz, country, folk and rock and roll. While I wouldn't put Campbell in this group as a solo performer, from his other work, it was clear he was a serious musician, "Rhinestone Cowboy" aside.

Still, this record floored me.

First thing, it ain’t a country music record. Campbell and his producers came up with an interesting and quite eclectic mix of modern rock and pop songs that aren’t always readily recognizable. This is a good thing. Campbell does a fabulous job re-imagining stuff by the artists as different as Travis, John Lennon, Jackson Browne and even Green Day, his own without diminishing them. Even if you don’t like his style, you can’t argue that the guy doesn’t know what he’s doing. Instead of just covering the songs, he’s made them his own.

It’s a lesson a lot of younger artists would benefit from learning – the idea that you can pay homage to a good song by finding a way to put your own voice on it, literally and figuratively.

For this reason, I find myself going back to this CD a lot. There’s just a lot to appreciate about it. I especially recommend his cover of John Lennon’s “Grow Old With Me,” which is affecting but not overly sentimental, even when the arrangement almost takes us there. Campbell always had a nice voice but the miles he’s put on it have made it more interesting and expressive. He has an obvious appreciation for phrasing in that all of the songs sounds like he’s paying attention to the words. Clearly, this is a pro at work who is old enough to know what he's doing but not too old to get the new generation.

I’ve uploaded “Grow Old With Me” to my Vox stash, as well as his uplifting version of Travis’ “Sing” so you can meet Campbell again, too.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Football and flying

Goat Rock Beach, Sonoma Coast California
Goat Rock Beach, Sonoma Coast California. Dec. 2008

Well, that sucked. Big time. Always hate losing but I could live with it if my boys had gone out in a blaze of glory but that game was awful. Worst coached game of the year by far and I have no idea how or why this fabulous coaching staff was outcoached so badly. I think Plax hurt the Giants in this game more than any other this season. The D played well but they just ran out of steam.

I'm telling you Osi cannot come back soon enough. And let's get Plax back on the field if that's possible. The Giants need to bring back their defensive coordinator -- hopefully he won't end up coaching somewhere else -- and get another big target for Eli to go with Plax (or instead of Plax) and get the D healthy again. All the pieces are there for a dominant team for a few years yet to come. They just need to get their mojo back. Be back in a few days to talk more football.

I'm writing this from Oakland Airport, up way before my usual wake-up time. I'm about to get on a flight to the F.L.A. to visit the folks and then it's on to Washington for the inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama as the 44th President of the United States.

I'm going to be blogging more about that as we get closer, including photos and video when I can. So stay tuned. I recently found out that the tickets I got (via my very cool brother) are sit-down VIP section seats so we're going to really get a great view of history.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

More NFL Playoffs

I messed up and didn't get my picks up Friday. Last week, I got my assed kicked going 2-2 (1-3 against the spread) as San Diego and Arizona showed me they got something. So much for an all-Manning Super Bowl.

I'd be lying if I said I had the Cardinals to win at Carolina today but the truth is I wasn't buying the 10-point spread and took Arizona and the points in my local pool. I also had Baltimore over the overrated Titans (even with the best record in football) so I'm 2-0 going into Sunday where it counts anyway -- and that's in the ol' wallet.

Sunday I'm sticking with the Giants, though I'm nervous about my boys in a game they should win. They played so flawlessly at times this season, I stopped expecting them to screw up. But then they turned into the old nail-biting Giants and had me reaching for the Xanax every Sunday. Then came their thrilling win against the Panthers and I relaxed a bit. But now I'm back to nervous wreck. They better not fuck up - I hate losing to the Eagles.

I'm glad I have the Super Bowl highlights on my iPhone to comfort me just in case.

I like Pittsburgh in game two. I've loved the Steelers in the Big Ben era. What a defense. And the game is in Pittsburgh. And L.T. is hurt. Did I say the game was in Pittsburgh?

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Welcome to Foodieville

I do not cook.

Yes, it’s true. I am a woman who doesn’t cook. Deal with it.

This is not the entire truth. I can make something in a pinch. I could probably do something half decent if the moment called for it. I have some minor cooking skills. I can make a perfect béchamel sauce (one of the “mother” sauces of French cooking) for example. And I can make pasta dough.

But take a right turn past boiling water, homemade mac and cheese and sautéing your basic chicken breasts and I’m likely then not to drive off a cliff.

The big problem is that I love to eat and I love to eat really good food. I’m a few forks short of being a true gourmand, but let’s just say I know a good meal when I taste one and I know the secret of great food – fresh ingredients that don’t come out of a can.

And I’m damn lucky to be married to a guy who can cook.

And let me just say that statement hardly does the man justice.

He is one of those people who make food so good that people who have dined on his meals talk about them well after they’ve eaten here. He already has a rep in our little Northern California town which is nothing to sniff at I tell you. Not here, not where we live -- in the center of Sonoma County wine country, in the middle of what could very fairly be said to be Foodieville USA. It is a mecca of sorts for people who love great food and fabulous wine and the perfect place to live for artisan farmers, cooks, mixologists, grape growers and wine makers and every other kind of fresh food-related foods and drinks. We are friends with a number of chefs and foodie folks who love, love, love eating my man’s food.

Living with a great cook has been an education in the building blocks of good meals, that is the aforementioned ingredients. He will scour the internet, TV, food mags and other sources for the best place to get great spices, grains, meats, fish and eggs. He’s one of those annoying people that not only reads labels in the supermarket but freshness dates too. (I had no idea how many things have “good until” dates on them and how often even reputable markets will leave them on the shelf well passed them.

I know where to get the best corn meal and a place where you can get like 30 different kinds of pepper and who makes the best salt cod and a dozen other insights into the world of food. All because of the man of the house. Who’s one mean cook.

It seems wrong not to share what I’ve learned and am still learning and so I decided it’s time to blog about it. And since this year, I’ve resolved to spend more time in the kitchen myself, I thought it would be fun to take you along for my education.

I will eventually be posting about this on a new, separate blog about food – that is preparing it, eating it, talking about meals and ingredients and even an occasional restaurant review. Until it’s up and running (by the end of January), however, I’ll, um, wet your appetite with a series of food-related posts over the next couple of weeks.

The first one is a pictorial look at making homemade boar sausage. These were not made at our place but at a friend’s house, but it’s typical of the organic whole idea of how folks up here in Foodieville eat. The boar that we used for the sausages was from two that were hunted and killed on my friend’s property (they have 300 acres west of Lake Sonoma).

Wild Boars are pigs, feral pigs, that are the product of domestic farm pigs who ranged into the countryside and mated with wild Russian boars. They roam fairly freely around these parts and their meat is prized for having tastier and leaner meat than farm-raised pigs -- without the harmones and nitrates and other crap they put into store-bought pork. They benefit from being out in the wild because they eat better. Your basic farmed pig is force fed a diet of crap designed to fatten them up. Nothing wrong with a little pork fat, no sir, but I'd like to have some fat with my meat not vice versa.

I wasn’t there at the time, but my friends are expert hunters and they hunt as humanely as possible. I do realize that it’s still not easy for some people to deal with the killing of a living thing. I don't like it but then again, I'm not a vegetarian and I think it's healthier to know where the meat on your table has come from.

Let's face it, those of you who are meat eaters, the reality is that somewhere along the line the pork, beef, chicken or lamb on your plate was once a living, breathing creature that had its life snuffed out so that you could have a cheeseburger. This is not a bad thing per se. Not if done responsibility and humanely. Not if the whole process is handled with respect. Not if we use our resources judiciously and give back to the land and the earth as it gives to us. Not if we understand the cycle of life and don't abuse the privilege of being high up on the food chain.

Now that we got that out of the way, let's talk sausage.

Making sausage may seem like some big mysterious thing but it's fairly basic cooking. Not that it's easy to make good sausage. That takes skill and ability and the best sausage makers I know rely on recipes passed down from generations of cooks. Artisonal sausages are more common than ever and each is unique to the sausage maker -- it's the special spices each use that set them apart, as much as the quality of meat they use.

Your basic sausage is ground meat, fat and spices which you feed into a sausage maker that forces the ground mixture into “sleeves,” which are made from animal intestines. Before you go “ewww gross,” be aware you’ve already eaten them if you’ve ever had a hot dog or breakfast sausage.

I documented the process last weekend as we joined our friends a their house to make a batch of wild boar, apple and caramelized onion sausage. Unfortunately, I only had my iPhone so the pictures are not the best quality.

The boar meat.

First thing, you cut up the meat and fat for grinding.

Grind the meat through a meat grinder. It's important to keep everything as cold as possible so that it grinds well.

The ground meat and fat is mixed together.

Clean the grinder and then in go the onions and apples. Both were made ahead of time and frozen. The apples were dried naturally first and the onions were caramelized, squeezed dry of liquid and stored in the freezer. Both the apples and onions were grown in our hosts' garden. They look like this before grinding:

And add some garlic and spices

Everything gets mixed together.

We made our own sausage patty so we could check the seasoning. You don't want to eat raw meat. Seasonings were pepper, salt and spices.

The sausage "skins" ... Please, no East River white fish jokes.

The sausage machine. The meat mixture goes in and is squeezed out into the skins, then tied down at both ends and twisted in the middle to make links.

The finished product, prior to cooking.

Cooking them up

The moment of truth. Our wild boar sausages served with fresh broccoli rabe and oven-roasted potatoes. Yum.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Wild Card Weekend Picks

I have no time to do a write up today so I'm just putting up my picks for the weekend of NFL games. I'll be doing this for the entire playoffs, though y'all know where S.O.L.'s heart is.

Today's Games:
Atlanta over Arizona
Indy over San Diego

Baltimore over Miami
Philadelphia over Minnesota

More in a day or two. Have fun, football fans.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Why I Love Pugs

Reason No. 4: When they're bad dogs, they're very, very bad dogs.

Please note: no pugs inhaled in the taking of this photo.