Ramble With Me.

Tourist Season.

Just once I’d like someone to ask me how to get to the Ryman Auditorium so I could say, “The same way you get to Carnegie Hall,” although the Ryman is also a former church so I could just as easily say, “Preach!”
I do get stopped frequently by people asking for directions. Once, less than fifty feet from West End, a guy asked me if I knew which way was West End. I just told him instead of being a smartass and saying, “West.” Another time as I was waiting to cross the street on my way back to work a car stopped next to me and a woman leaned out and asked how to get to the riverfront. I was a little surprised by the question–I thought it was fairly obvious. You just look for the skyline and head that way. Even though Nashville suffers from a great deal of sprawl–decades ago the city’s government merged with Davidson county to form one metropolis–the downtown area is pretty compact. The Tennessee Performing Arts Center, the downtown branch of the public library, Riverfront Park, the Centennial Sportsplex, and even the Ryman are within easy walking distance of the section of Broadway where you’ll find the infamous Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge and other honkytonks. Downtown Nashville has become a thriving tourist attraction which still tickles me. I remember when lower Broadway was a much seedier place where you’d find ladies of the evening in broad daylight, but that’s another story. Anyway I just pointed to the tall buildings that make up the skyline and told her to head for those. It reminded me of the time I was in Cleveland and left my directions to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in my hotel room. Rather than go back for them I remembered it was on Lake Erie so, like a baby sea turtle, I headed for the water. It was nice to be able to look around where I was going rather than looking down at directions.
And it’s lucky for me I get people asking me for landmarks rather than street names because I’m terrible at street names. This is partly my own fault. Decades of not driving and relying mostly on public transportation I haven’t really focused on street names. I can get around really well but if you ask me for directions to a place I’ll tell you, “Turn left at the building that looks like Batman,” but I couldn’t tell you what street its on. This is also partly the city’s fault. I’ve mentioned both West End and Broadway–two streets I do know, which is easy because they’re both the same street–one turns into the other, and if you head west on West End it then becomes Harding Road.
The only time I wasn’t really able to help someone who asked me for directions was when a young woman carrying a tuba case asked me where the Blair Music Library was. This was just outside JJ’s Coffee Shop, just a block away from Vanderbilt University. The Blair Music Library is part of Vanderbilt but on the farthest side of the campus from where we were. I gave her directions and was tempted to offer to help her carry her instrument, but I thought this might seem creepy coming from a complete stranger. And I figured a tuba player is prepared to go the distance, whatever it may be, even as far as Carnegie Hall.

 

This Is Getting Out Of Hand And Hand And Hand…

My fascination with octopuses must be an inborn trait. It’s not something I learned because as far as I can remember I’ve considered them amazing creatures and if, with their remarkable intelligence and dexterity, they were to replace us—unlikely, I know, since their copper-based blood makes them tire easily, and true oceanic blue bloods—I for one would welcome our new octopus masters.

The first time I ever went to a library I wanted to find a book about octopuses and checked out Octopus Lives In The Ocean by William and Peggy Stephens. Then I kept renewing it so many times I wonder why the library didn’t just let me keep it. And it was a terrifically honest and detailed book that led to me explaining octopus sex in great detail to my grandfather. He was impressed but unsure what to say so I added, “That reminds me of a joke. What did John Lennon say to the octopus? I wanna hold your hand and your other hand and your other hand…” He chuckled and said he preferred The Rolling Stones, so we listened to Let It Bleed together, but that’s another story.

There wasn’t a lot of cephalopod swag in those days because you can’t always get what you want, but octopuses finally seem to have gotten a hold in the public consciousness. Almost every aquarium I’ve been to has an octopus t-shirt so I’ve built up quite a collection. And one of these was a gift from my mother. Yes, I have enough octopus t-shirts to wear one every day of the week without repeating.

shirt5 shirt4 shirt3 shirt2 shirt1shirt6

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Thanks to the Aquarium of the Pacific, the Dauphin Island Estuarium, the Florida Aquarium, the Tennessee Aquarium, and my mother. I would thank the Oklahoma Aquarium but their octopus t-shirt was the same as one of the ones from the Aquarium of the Pacific and they also didn’t have a real octopus on display, but I do want to thank The Happy Octopus, also in Dauphin Island, even though they don’t have any real octopuses either. And now–true facts about the octopus.

The Romanians Of The Day.

romaniaThere’s getting off the beaten path and then there’s getting way off track which is what Snoop Dogg did when he posted to Instagram while visiting Bogota, Colombia, and, due to a misspelling, promoted the small Romanian village of Bogata. It was the biggest pop promotion of non-tourist destination since Iggy Pop’s tribute to the Sri Lankan city of Kandy, but that’s another story. Inhabitants of Bogata have been quick to capitalize on their accidental fame with a website that promotes the local stew, a few local attractions, and its natural setting as perfect for “chillin’”.

One commenter responded to Snoop’s error with “there is a lot of hemp there” according to Balkan Insight but the attractions of Romania may be subtler than that. As a country it’s had a difficult history. When the dictator Ceaucescu was overthrown it was the poet Marin Sorescu who was asked to make the announcement because Romanians have a profound love of and respect for poetry. And the TV show Dallas, which the country’s communist leaders broadcast in the hope that it would create disgust with western decadence, may have helped foment rebellion. Ordinary Romanians fell in love with the glamour of the Ewing clan. What I’m getting at is that rap and Romania have some surprising things in common.

Snoop Dogg may or may not take the next flight out of Bogata to the other side of the globe, but if he doesn’t I’d like to make this offer: bring me over there and I’ll promote Bagata. I’ll sing the praises of the local attractions, rave about how perfect the countryside is for chillin’, and, seriously, that stew sounds delicious. Even if we can’t work this out please send me a recipe.

I’m not famous but why should that stand in the way of what could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship?

I understand if we can’t work it out, but the offer stands. And if anyone from Bagota comes over here let me know. I know some great places for chillin’.

 

Please Drink Responsibly.

guinnessIt’s St. Patrick’s Day, a day some Americans commemorate by dyeing beer green and drinking it, as opposed to the other 364 days when they just drink un-dyed beer. I’m tempted to make a cheap shot about the poor quality of American beer but I’m not going to because American beer is not what it was when I was growing up. When I was growing up it was all thin, watery pilsners. The joke “Why is American beer like sex in a canoe?” wasn’t funny because it hit so close to the mark.

When I was four or five my father let me try a sip of his beer and I said I liked it because I thought beer was a grown-up thing to drink, sort of like coffee, which I also pretended to like because I thought it was a grown-up thing to drink. At least with coffee I could get away with adding three or twelve heaping spoonfuls of sugar but if you try that with beer the guys look at you kind of funny even though deep down we all know it would improve the flavor greatly.

I’m a fan of beer now as my friends and waist can attest, and for once in my life I was actually slightly ahead of the curve. It was Ireland that made me love beer and specifically Guinness that started it all. I was in a pub in the fair city of Dublin and a friend who’d been exasperated by my avoidance of beer said, “Chris, you’re in Dublin, capital of Ireland, the emerald isle, home of Yeats and Oscar Wilde, of Cuchulain, a land of sweeping history, great beauty, of magic and fairy tales, and some pretty damn good beer.”

This was the same guy who, earlier that same day, convinced me to go into the Judge Roy Bean Tavern—which is apparently still a going concern in Dublin–and eat nachos and drink tequila, but that’s another story. I like to think it was the Guinness that made him change his tune from Home on the Range to Molly Malone.

Anyway I tried a sip it tasted like very bitter, burnt coffee. I was looking for the sugar when he said, “Take a large drink.”

I took a gulp and it was good.

For weeks afterward I only drank Guinness. I still labored under the impression that there were only two types of beer in the world: Guinness and thin watery pilsners. I was oblivious to the fact that Britain and Ireland had done for beer what the French did for cheese. Not to mention what Britain and Ireland have done for cheese. Seriously. Stilton is delicious.

Then one night the same guy and I were in Edinburgh, in a pub. They didn’t have Guinness.

“Chris,” he said, “you’re in Edinburgh, capital of Scotland, land of the kilt and thistle, of Robert Burns, the Scottish crown jewels, of your own ancestors the Murrays, sweeping history, great beauty, magic and fairy tales, and some pretty damn good ale.”

He handed me a pint of Scottish ale. And it was good. My eyes and throat were opened. After that my answer to the question, “What’ll you have?” was usually, “Whatever I haven’t tried yet.”

So I’m thrilled with the whole craft beer movement, and happy to be in one of the top ten cities leading the way.

Today, though, out of respect for Irish tradition, should be celebrated with Guinness.

Or coffee, if you want something you can add sugar to. Or some cheese. You can have anything you like, really, as long you don’t need to add dye to it.

Guinness posters adorn JJ's Coffee Shop. You can also get beer there.

Guinness posters adorn JJ’s Coffee Shop. You can also get beer there.

It’s Just A Phase.

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Source: Weather Underground

It’s still dark in the mornings when I get up, but the days are gradually getting longer at both ends. In a few weeks I’ll be getting up after the dawn rather than before it. And Venus is getting harder to spot as it drops closer and closer to the horizon in the southeast but for now when the sky is clear I can still pick it out through the trees. Soon I won’t be able to see it at all. And maybe that’s not a bad thing.

I wonder sometimes what the ancient Greeks and Romans were thinking when they named the planets. Was it just a lucky guess that they named the largest planet in our solar system Jupiter? Maybe not—it’s the fourth brightest object in our sky, after the Sun, the Moon, and Venus. But since Venus is brighter why didn’t they call it Jupiter? I guess they named it after the goddess of love because they thought it was so beautiful. Looks can be deceiving. If they knew about the nightmare landscape below those clouds where the temperatures average more than four-hundred degrees Fahrenheit and there are blizzards of sulfuric acid snow they might not have thought it was all that beautiful. In Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama almost every planet in the solar system has human colonies. Even Neptune has an outpost on its moon Triton. The exception is Venus. Oh, and Pluto, since it was still considered a planet when the book was first published, but that’s another story.

That’s science fiction. Here’s a little science fact: when Galileo turned his telescope toward Venus he noticed it, like the Moon, had phases. That was his first clue that the Earth revolves around the Sun rather than the other way around, something that was a slightly controversial idea at the time.

Anyway as our own planet spins around the Sun and the mornings come earlier Venus will disappear from my morning sky and I won’t think about it so much anymore. I’ll have to think about other things, like maybe putting on some pants in case the neighbors are looking.

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We’re Not Idiots.

So the B-52’s are playing at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center here in Nashville on February 4th and 5th, which is really cool in many ways. I remember when the song Love Shack appeared on MTV as a “smash or trash”. This was back in the day when the “M” in MTV stood for “music” and not “an odd assortment of reality shows and other garbage and hey, kids, come back!” At the time “smash or trash” was also something radio stations did, back before the local DJ’s were replaced by robots in a facility deep in a Wyoming mountain. They’d play a song–or in the case of MTV a music video–and ask people to call in and declare it a “smash” or “trash”. It was a groovy thing, so much better than the robots who now say, “We’re gonna play this and you’ll like it!” Other notable smash or trash songs included Bobby McFerrin’s Don’t Worry, Be Happy and She Drives Me Crazy by Fine Young Cannibals, but that’s another story.

The Schermerhorn is an amazing building and I love that the B-52s are playing there, but it also reminds me of this commercial for the Nashville Symphony. I really dig this commercial except for one part that annoys me so much it ruins the whole thing for me.

Did you spot it? Maybe you had the same reaction. If you’re not sure it’s at the 12-second mark, when Giancarlo Guerrero is demonstrating what the symphony isn’t and one of the things it isn’t is…

symphony2Really? The guy speaks about thirty languages. Or at least two. Surely he knows what “soporific” means. And that makes me think they’re making fun of the audience, chuckling and thinking, “Hey, these rednecks couldn’t possibly know what that word means, so let’s make a joke about it.” And maybe most people–even educated people–don’t know what it means. It’s not a word that comes up in everyday conversation unless you hang around with S.J. Perelman even though most of us sit through soporific meetings and sales presentations regularly. And that’s okay. Why not turn it into an educational opportunity? Oxford English Dictionary, help us out here!

symphony3Yeah, seeing Guerrero stretched out snoozing on the stage would have been both educational and funny. But then the commercial goes from trash to smash when he chugs a Yazoo Dos Perros.

symphony1Clearly the man has taste. I’ll bet he’s gonna dance this mess around.

Going Local.

chickenGoing to KFC for Nashville Hot Chicken is like going to McDonald’s for Japanese sushi. That’s the first thought that came to me when I saw KFC’s new offering and then I wondered if “Japanese sushi” were redundant. Aside from the difference in certain ingredients what differentiates sushi in Japan from the sushi I get here in Nashville?

If the recipe’s the same would it still be Nashville (Tennessee) hot chicken if it were made in Nashville (Indiana)? It’s not like KFC—formerly Kentucky Fried Chicken—is really from Kentucky, at least not anymore.

Nashville hot chicken, by the way, is spicy fried chicken that, I think, really started to come to prominence with the 2007 start of an annual festival, although it also got a mention in 2002 on Dave Attell’s show Insomniac. He stopped and got some of the very hottest chicken at Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack–where hot chicken is generally believed to have been invented–and sweated through several bites.

And that got me thinking about the fact that I can stand in my backyard and throw stones and hit restaurants that describe themselves as Thai, Vietnamese, Indian, Mexican, Chinese, and Korean. Although I wouldn’t do that. If I’m going to stand in my backyard and throw stones I’m going to throw them at the squirrels and chipmunks that insist on chewing up the wiring under our cars, but that’s another story.

It’s amazing to me that I live in a neighborhood—and that, for that matter—we live in a world—where such a wide variety of cuisines are available. I love being able to go just down the street for some pho, although it frustrates me that they won’t let me order the jellyfish salad. Admittedly I understand. The waiters don’t know I’m an adventurous eater and that even though I’ve never tried jellyfish salad and can’t say whether I’ll like it I’m willing to give it a try. But I’ve been in restaurants and seen somebody of my particular ethnic group order something exotic only to start yelling, “Yuck, I can’t eat this! Take it back!”

I’m sorry to say that’s a true story. And it’s why I don’t blame the waiters when they look at me and tell me, “No, you don’t want the jellyfish salad” and bring me chicken with lemongrass instead.

This also brings to mind another pet obsession of mine: eating locally. I’m not a locavore, but as much as possible I stay away from chain restaurants. When I visit friends in other cities I sometimes drive them nuts. “Let’s go to [GENERIC CHAIN]!” they’ll say, and if you’ve ever heard anyone speak in brackets you know how disconcerting it can be. And I’ll say, “No, no, no, let’s do something local!” When I’m in an unfamiliar place I don’t want familiar food. If I could get the same thing at home what’s the point of traveling?

And yet travel is a luxury that’s not available to everyone, nor is it possible for most of us to go everywhere we’d like to go. As much as I would like to I’ll probably never get to visit Sri Lanka, but a Sri Lankan restaurant is one way to experience the culture. Or is it? Is a Sri Lankan restaurant in the middle of a US city an authentic representation of the culture? And given the increasing interconnectedness of the world and the ease of travel it’s hard to say what authentic culture really is. Going to and from work every day I travel farther than most of our ancestors would in their lifetimes. Being able to share so much with the rest of the world is a wonderful thing but I also wonder what’s being lost. Should some things be kept strictly local?

Alternative title for this post: "This is a local blog for local people! There's nothing for you here!" (Source: BBC)

Alternative title for this post: “This is a local blog for local people! There’s nothing for you here!”
(Source: BBC)

Bring Back Some Beer.

hipsterbeerLast year my wife gave me a bottle of Black Belle Imperial Stout for my birthday. I saved it for a special occasion: this year’s birthday. It aged well–or maybe it didn’t age at all. Let’s just say it tasted fine. Better than fine, really–it was really, really good, but usually I don’t let any beer sit around for that long. Neither does anyone else, as far as I know, since beer isn’t supposed to be aged like wine or whisky, but recently scientists sampled a beer that could be as much as 143 years old. Jon Crouse was scuba diving near Halifax, Nova Scotia in November. In a rainstorm. Sometimes being a glutton for punishment pays off: he found a really old bottle of Alexander Keith’s Beer and now scientists have tasted it. For science, of course.

In spite of the description, or maybe because of it–“a little tree fruit note, a cherry note in there somehow — certainly a lot of sulphur, kind of rotten egg stuff going on” I would try it if I could. Hey, I’ve tried Edmund Fitzgerald Porter. It’s dark and rich, very malty with strong flavors of chocolate and coffee and it gives you a nice sinking feeling.

There’s also the time Jacques Cousteau and his crew found and tried some wine that was approximately 2200 years old. It “tasted disgusting”. Lucky for me I don’t like wine.

In spite of being kind of a beer geek, in case you couldn’t tell, I’ve never tried any of Alexander Keith‘s brews. Maybe I should take a trip north of the border. For science, of course.

 

 

The Story Goes On.

image1Christmas is all about stories. Whether it’s A Christmas Carol or ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas or A Christmas Story or, well, you know, the original Christmas story the holiday is shaped by the stories we tell about it. One story I keep coming back to is Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas In Wales. I have a little copy that’s very special to me because I purchased it in Laugharne, the Welsh town where Thomas spent the last years of his life and did some of his best writing. The book was in my pocket when I stopped in Carmarthen, a Welsh town between Laugharne and Swansea, and attended the lighting of the town Christmas tree, so the story of how and why I went to Dylan Thomas’s home has, in my mind, become entwined with his Christmas story. I haven’t been back to Carmarthen since then but in the pictures I find on Google–something I couldn’t have imagined at the time–it looks very much the same. The Old Priory Guest House where I spent the night is still there, and still next to a graveyard. And when I read the story I still enjoy it as much as I did the first time, especially when young Dylan and his friends go caroling. Or maybe it’s the fire. Or the uncles. Or Auntie Hannah who has a few drinks because it’s only once a year and

So what’s your favorite Christmas story?

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