Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Hurricane relief efforts

With the hysteria that the media creates over every impending snowfall and gust of wind, the recent catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina shows that is possible to underestimate the destructiveness and tragedy unleashed by Mother Nature.

The storm passed days ago, yet it is still nearly impossible to grasp the full impact of the damage left in its wake.

Hundreds, possibly thousands, of people in New Orleans, Mississippi and Alabama are dead. Countless homes destroyed.

A major American city seemingly is wiped off the map.

My mind cannot grasp this. New Orleans, home to 500,000 people (about the same population as Boston) is under water. For all the coverage on the internet and the cable news channels - there is no way this can be overplayed. A city is, for all intents and purposes, gone. Picture Boston evacuated, flooded and destroyed.

So what can we do about this tragedy?

Carrie called me at work this morning with what she called a "crazy" idea that came to her after deciding to donate money to the Red Cross. I don't think it's crazy at all.

Here's the e-mail she sent to the Putomayo record label, it explains the idea a lot better than I can:

"As a huge fan of both the music and corporate philosophy of Putumayo World Music, I thought that I would share the recent impact that your music has had on me.

My paternal grandfather was a native of New Orleans, and I often find myself thinking of him when I listen your “Louisiana Gumbo” collection. In fact, the sounds of “Louisiana Gumbo” and my memories of my grandfather have become intertwined since he passed away several years ago. The catastrophic effects of hurricane Katrina have left me not only thinking of the unfortunate people of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, but also of how devastated my grandfather would be to see his native home submerged under water and destroyed. This morning I put on “Louisiana Gumbo” in attempt to keep the spirit of New Orleans and its people alive in me. The soul of the album moved me to make a donation to the Red Cross in memory of my grandfather. I also intend to write letters to my relatives encouraging them to do the same – I thought I would include “Louisiana Gumbo” in the letters in hopes that the music stirs their hearts and minds the way it has mine.

This brings me to my suggestion, perhaps for a limited time a portion of the proceeds from your “Louisiana Gumbo”, “Zydeco” and other like collections could be donated to Mercy Corps, or another charitable organization that is supported by Putumayo World Music, to go to assisting the people affected by Hurricane Katrina."

This tragedy deserves everyone's attention. While donating money is a great start, we should all also take that extra step to think of ideas that might be crazy.

Monday, August 29, 2005

In this humble vineyard, my love for wine began

Okay. In my last post, it may have been implied that maybe, just maybe, I could, with the right amount of knowledge, turn into a wine snob.

To keep myself in check on the snobbery front and to lay down my street-cred as a wine drinker of the people, it is probably important to go back to my more humble beginnings as a connoisseur of fine grape beverages and show how my love of fine wines evolved over the years.

Which would, I think, bring us back to the summer following my senior year of high school.

At this point, I had "experimented" with beer, and that was proceeding along nicely. My friend Peter had introduced me to my first beer, which was basically half of a longneck Budweiser bottle that I managed to get down by devouring a package of Saltines. Tasty.

By the time we had graduated, I could more easily finish off a couple of beers without resorting to a massive amount of carbo-loading. Unfortunately, being 18 and lacking anything resembling a reasonable fake ID, my friends and I could not reliably count on swimming in an endless river of hoppy goodness.

At which point Peter found a case of wine hidden underneath, most likely, a large pile of Ken Stabler memorabilia in his cellar. Although the passage of time, and likely the consumption of the wine, has made the details a little hazy, I'm pretty sure that this wasn't just any wine. This was a case of homemade wine. There were no labels that I remember, and I have a vague recollection of the corks having been hastily jammed into the bottles. For alcohol-starved teenagers, this was truly a gift from Dionysus (We, and Peter especially, had that customary Jim Morrison fascination. Still, I'll say good ol' Jim's music has held up better than most). Unfortunately, we were not prepared for what happened when we uncorked this magical wine find. Nearly 20 years later, I'm not sure if it was a lack of a sophisticated palate, or if it was because the wine was not fit for human consumption, but I am sure that everyone who had a first taste of that special cellar vintage spit it right back out.

But this would not stop us, oh no. We were young, and there was perfectly potent alcohol right in front of us. We may have been underachievers in the classroom, but when it came to drinking, we could be pretty damn resourceful. I'm not exactly sure whose idea it was, but I think Peter knew that there was a metal can of Hi-C fruit juice in his fridge. The old-school, metal can that you opened up with a can opener. I even think it was the Ecto-Cooler. Out comes the Ecto-cooler, out come the plastic tumblers, in mixes the slightly-off homemade cellar wine.

Now this was something we could handle.

I think the good times lasted for about a month. Peter's parents probably wondered why we walked through the door every weekend with shopping bags full of metal Hi-C juice cans. Although we didn't realize it at the time, we were getting loaded every weekend on trailer trash sangria.

Eventually the wine ran out, we found better supplies for beer and wine coolers, and there would even be a period of massive Boone's Farm consumption.

But the homemade cellar wine mixed with Ecto-Cooler will always be my first wine drinking experience, no matter how many Cabs or Zins or Pinots I taste.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Red, red wine

I am not a wine snob.

Trust me, this is only because I don't know enough about wine yet. If I had the same knowledge of boutique California zinfandels as I once did of obscure 80s rock bands and Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, I'm sure I would be pretty smug and know-it-allsy about it. But alas, all I know is I like what I like, and I think I have good taste, but who knows.

I like red wines. Syrah and Shiraz, Cabernet, Cabernet Blends, Malbecs, and right now I'm giving a pinot noir a whirl. It's a 2002 Wild Horse Pinot Noir. My take on it? It tastes good. Probably be good with chicken or something. Other than that, I really can't tell you too much, other than that there are a lot of wines out there that I think taste good.

Oh yeah, I can also tell you not to be scared off by wine snobbery. If you think a wine tastes good, that should be good enough. Don't be scared by vintages, regions, varietals, and all that stuff. Find friends who like wine, try what they like. Find a good wine store with a helpful staff. Let them know what you've tried and like and they should be more than happy to help you out. For Carrie and me, Mark at the Cork and Cask in Beverly Farms has been patient and helpful. A couple casefuls of recommendations later, we have a pretty good idea of what we like and what we might like.

As always, the most important part of drinking wine is finding something you like, even if it is white zin. If that's your thing, don't let anyone stop you, but also don't be afraid to try something different every once in a while.

Some good red wines to try in the $10-15 range include Cline's Red Truck red table wine and the Stump Jump Shiraz. Both of these wines are affordable and we usually by at least one or the other every time we go into stock-up mode. How do they taste? Well, I think they taste good, and that's good enough for me.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Mead

I seriously doubt that the Harry Potter series will end with Harry and Ron in rehab, but the latest book in the series, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, sure does have its share of alcoholic spirits flowing freely through the pages.
Now for the average young reader of the book, the amount of booze in the book will probably take a back seat to the use of the word slut in the book. Now the use of a semi-bad word in a children's classic is nothing new. Twenty-five years later, I still remember that the word "ass" is firmly located on page 61 of the Wind in the Willows. Other than that memory, I remember that I really liked the book and that there was a frog or something in it. Just goes to show the power naughty words have on young minds, and I'm sure that the younger Potter fans will get just as much of a feeling of sneaking into the adult world from the use of slut as me and my friends got from finding the word ass in a teacher-approved children's classic a quarter of a century ago.

But it was not my intention to get bogged down with talk of sluts.

Beyond the titillation of a single word lies another issue that wouldn't necessarily seem tailor-made for a supposed children's book (even if it as one enjoyed by just as many adults as youngsters). Namely, there's enough alcohol mentioned in the Half-Blood Prince to make Hemingway proud.

Dumbledore especially seems fond of knocking back a drink or two. When he appears at the Dursley's house early in the book, he conjures forth a bottle of mead. Soon after, when Harry and Dumbledore visit Slughorn for the first time, Dumbledore invites Slughorn to have a drink with him. Later in the book, Slughorn and Hagrid will knock back more than a few at Hagrid's cabin, giving Harry the opening he needs to secure Slughorn's crucial memory. The only new addition to Dumbledore's office, which JK Rowling has described numerous times, seems to be an open bottle of wine on his desk.

And the drinking isn't confined to the adults, either. While the concept of "snogging" has been around for the past several books, the Half-Blood Prince is the first book where Harry and crew imbibe something stronger than butterbeer. One of those times, Ron gets sick after drinking a poisonous bottle of mead meant to do-in Dumbledore. I suppose you could interpret this as symbolizing the dangers of underage drinking, but this ignores the fact that earlier at the Weasleys, everybody enjoys some mead before making the trip back to Hogwarts and no one suffers any ill effects.

So what's Rowling up to with all of this drinking? Is it an attempt to make the stories seem more grown-up, much like the addition of teenage hormones a couple of books back? Or is it just an extension of the more enlightened European view of younger people drinking where children grow up in households where they are introduced to supervised social drinking in moderation?

It will be interesting to see if any of the uptight critics who attacked the Potter books for its witchcraft and sorcery (hi there, Pope Benedict) will take up a call for prohibition in children's literature. I suspect the fact that Rowling has the young wizards partaking in mead for the most part (a very delicious but not readily available honey-fermented drink) will keep many of thetippling-wizard critics at bay.

Of course, if the last book has Harry and Ron splitting a six-pack of Old Milwaukees and lighting up Marlboros, it could be a different story.

Monday, August 15, 2005

High cost of living

Back in the olden days, oh say, 1980 or so, it use to be a lot cheaper to live. I'm not talking about inflation or rising gas prices or anything like that - there were just far fewer things a person had to shell out his or her hard-earned dollars for.
Television - free (at least in Middleboro, Massachusetts, which in 1980 was still a cableless community.
Internet - nonexistent. Cell phones - what are those?
Today, hardly anyone lives without cable (or satellite) television, the internet, or cell phones. Even my parents both have cell phones and a high-speed internet connection. Making a conservative estimate, that's $150 in bills that didn't even exist 25 years ago.
It's not like I'm some sort of unabomber living in a shed who wants to do away with these modern conveniences. Take cable TV. I'm a random television watcher at best. Other than taking comfort in the ability to watch a Red Sox game on practically every day of the summer, there's little I plan on watching on television. Still, the myriad of cable television stations give me an almost round-the-clock chance at finding some documentary on World War II, or a classic Muhammad Ali boxing match, or a Barney Miller marathon. Is that worth $50 a month? Who knows. I do know that at a time when I was as depressed as I've ever been, I didn't have cable television. Most likely, feeling sad and not having the History Channel aren't related. Still, being one of the last living Americans struggling to adjusting rabbit ears and being force fed a steady diet of Dateline NBC and Law and Order reruns can't be healthy.
As for the internet, it opens up a lot of information and gives a voice to people like me who are free to express their opinions on any topic they want. Yet I find myself visiting about the same half-dozen web-sites regularly. Wouldn't I be just as well off reading the New Yorker and Newsweek every week for about the same amount of money as I'm paying for the internet? And couldn't my time writing be better spent working on new poems or hashing out a short story or two?
So what will we pay for in the future that we take for granted now? Satellite radio is making inroads. There's $10-15 a month. Some towns and cities that use to have free trash pick-up now charge homeowners a $100 a month or more.

Maybe some savvy tech company will figure out a way to charge us for using the toilet. New satellite high-compression toilets that zooms away your waste, never needs to be cleaned, and leaves the bathroom smelling like a fresh ocean breezes.

Who wouldn't pay $12.95 a month for that?

Friday, August 05, 2005

Shop 'til I drop

There are only two types of jobs that I've never failed to get in my life. Weekly newspaper reporter and grocery store stock boy. Several times in my life, I've even managed to hold down both jobs at the same. When I have, it has usually led to a spectacularly flaming disaster, but still.

My vast grocery store experience sometimes manifests itself when I go grocery shopping. (For the record, I have gone over a year without having to use my grocery store experience as a trump card for a full- or part-time job. Hooray for me.) Sometimes, I'll get the urge to pull forward the items on a shelf (Depending on the grocery store chain, pulling forward may also be referred to blocking or facing). Other times, I will be inordinately smitten with new products. Look honey! - Freeze dried Pringle ranch chips. They never had those back in my day!

Perhaps I still have a magnetic draw to the supermarket because supermarket jobs have represented both my longest held and highest paying jobs (even though the two did not overlap). It's in my blood. God knows I'd cut myself to let it out, but there are still some drops left.

Lately, when I've been shopping, I've felt sorry for the people working at the stores. Maybe it's a little snooty. I have a professional job. Boo hoo for all of you service workers. Partly though, I think I feel sorry for these people because I feel sorry for who I was, in part. I had that job and rationalized it to myself over and over.

But you know what? The only reason why I feel sorry for the me then is because I've finally come to appreciate the me now. Goddamnit, I like what I'm doing now, I love my life. If that means I feel sorry for people who don't have it as good as me, well, good for me. It's been a long, hard road, but I'm finally past the speed bumps.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Driveby bye to the old neighborhood

After nearly seven years of living in Lynn, hearing all the 'Lynn, Lynn, City of Sin' jokes, explaining to all our friends and family that we were in a 'nice,safe' part of the city, and mentioning how the city is undergoing an urban renewal, my wife and I packed our bags and left in February. Since our move, there have been three murders in our old 'nice, safe' neighborhood. Then today comes the latest bit of crime news from the Diamond District. Listening to WBZ during my lunch break, I hear breaking the breaking news - a road rage incident in Lynn, a mother and son shot.
How close will this one be to the old apartment? Here it comes...
Nahant Street - our old street itself.
Since our move, the only place our neighborhood has been quieter than is the Sunni Triangle. Still, in the almost seven years we were there, I swear Nahant Street was a safe place to live. Sure, there was the house that got firebombed down the street, but come on, Lynn and arson go together like peanut butter and jelly, Abbott and Costello.

But that's all in the past now. Instead of trying to convice people that we really don't live in a gang-infested, firebug loving semi-ghetto. If anything, it's now a 180 reaction I get when I tell people where I live.

Oh - you live in the Farms.

I gave Carrie some grief for telling people we lived in Beverly Farms when we first moved, rather than keeping it to the more proletarian plain old Beverly. But after all the bloodshed in our old neighborhood, I don't hesitate to say I live in the Farms.

Maybe I'll even run for a seat on the West Beach Corporation.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005