Friday, July 29, 2011

Friday Night Videos

Five consecutive days of 100-plus degree weather, prevented from being an entire month of 100-plus degree weather by a couple of 99-degree anomalies. The hottest June in Texas in recorded history. A crippling drought that may be the opening salvo in a 70-year mega-drought. I think I can safely say that It's Too Darn Hot.

I've been in a Cole Porter mood lately, but there's no performance video available online of Ella Fitzgerald singing this classic tune (which I insist is the best version of the song). The clip above is from the 2002 production of "Kiss Me Kate" in London's West End. Purists among you (I'm looking at you, Crider) will probably protest that the Ann Miller version is better, and while I allow that she gives a memorable performance with choreography that uses her legs to great effect, the fact that they censored the song by removing the telling references to the "Kinsey Report" is inexcusable in my book. Here's the Miller version so you can hear for yourself:

Previously on Friday Night Videos... "Weird Al" Yankovic.

Now Playing: The Kinks Lola vs. the Powerman and the Moneygoround
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Thursday, July 28, 2011

An imperfect analogy

So I'm seeing folks (and friends) online mocking the current battle over raising the federal debt limit. The general gist of the complaints fall along the lines of "Good! Don't raise it. It's time the government starts living within its means." Which is all fine and dandy (I've been a deficit hawk since I first earned the right to vote when I turned 18, have supported a balanced budget amendment, opposed Medicare Part D and came *this close* to voting for H. Ross Perot in '92) but is a naive, simplistic and even reckless view in this situation. Dismissing for a moment how an otherwise routine congressional action has been inexplicably politicized by this congress (the debt limit was raised dozens of times during the Reagan and both Bush administrations as a matter of course) let me try and illustrate, in very basic and grossly generalized terms, what a failure to raise the debt ceiling limit would mean.
Sam, our friendly uncle, lives in a nice house with a mortgage. He's making car payments and, unfortunately, has maxed out his credit cards through some irresponsible impulse buying over the years. Because he's kept up with his payments for the past 235 years, he's benefiting from some sweet interest rates--Sam pays only 5 percent, whereas a bunch of his neighbors are paying 10 percent. Some folks, like Zorba a few blocks over, have really botched their finances, bouncing checks all over the place, and now have to pay 40 percent interest if they can even find a bank willing to talk with them. Ouch!

Sam's got a pretty good income, but he was crunching the numbers one day and realized that he owes more than he's bringing in. In fact, by the 20th of every month, he's tapped out with most of those bills due on the 30th. He's known about the problem for years, but generally tried to ignore it with the vague idea that he'd win the lottery or discover a cache of pirate gold buried in the back yard. But those haven't happened, and the problem's too big to deal with anymore. Fortunately, Sam's on really good terms with his banker, who's already offered him a revolving line of credit at 5 percent interest that'll last the next two years. A good deal, right? Sam can use that time to prioritize his finances, cut up his credit cards and start living within his budget. His debt won't be gone in two years, but he's due a raise once the economy picks up and he can cash in some stocks options--the important thing is, his payments will be manageable and he'll be living within his means.

Except... Sam's got relatives telling him his plan is the coward's way out. Sam will never, ever live within his means if he accepts the Devil's deal offered by his banker for that line of credit. The only way Sam can break the nasty budget cycle is to live on his income. No more credit. If there's not enough money to pay his debts, tell his creditors "tough shit." Sam's been their best customer for 235 years, right? There is no way they'd risk offending Sam. They want to keep his business.

So Sam turns down the loan, vowing to only pay what he has on hand. The 20th arrives and he fills up his 15 mpg SUV because he's got his daily commute and fuel efficient cars are for wimps (as is taking the train to work, or biking). He's adopted a diet of baloney sandwiches and Top Ramen, dropped HBO and canceled his gym membership ($200 penalty!) and lawn service, so his budget is stretching out a little farther than before. He's nervous about all the foreclosures he keeps hearing about, so he pays the mortgage first. He's got enough left to pay 60 percent of the remaining bills. Damn! He forgot about the utilities! Okay, he decides to pay his highest-balance credit cards in full, while putting off the car payment and utilities until the first of the month. There's a penalty for that, but he can catch up at the first of the month when his paycheck comes in.

Next month, there's not as much money left on the 20th because of those penalties. He can't afford more penalties, so Sam pays the car and utility payments in full, and half on his other bills (he still pays his mortgage first--Sam ain't no fool).

The first of the month, Sam gets a bunch of notices in the mail that his interest rates on all his credit cards have gone up to 10 percent since he is now a credit risk. His minimum payments have doubled. Sam spends all day on the phone arguing with his various lenders. Because of Sam's sterling credit history and being a loyal customer, one card generously lowers his interest rate to 9.5 percent. Then he gets a notice that his mortgage interest rate has increased to 10 percent as well! WTF? Sam's furious! He calls his mortgage banker arguing that he's paid on time, every time, but it doesn't matter. Their records show that he's not met his other credit obligations, which means he's a greater risk, reflecting the higher rate he now has to pay.

Sam's frantic. His paycheck is gone by the 12th of the month. Ramen is now a luxury. And he's got 50 kids to look out for! Idiot Texas fell out of a tree and knocked a tooth out--the dental bill's astronomical, but there's no way to pay it. Sam tries to find a car pool to work, but everyone claims to be full up. The first of the month, there's not enough money to pay the utilities. Sam looks into public assistance, but he earns too much to qualify. Sam finds the irony grating. The lights go off on the 15th. Water is shut off on the 25th. Sam's relatives are now calling him an idiot and moron for not paying his bills and ruining his sterling credit rating.

Grudgingly, embarrassed and humiliated, Sam goes back to his banker (who mysteriously hasn't been returning Sam's calls). When Sam finally gets in to see him, Sam's upset to learn that his promised two-year line of credit at 5 percent is now down to one year at 25 percent! The banker's apologetic, but points out this is essentially an unsecured loan and Sam's not exactly shown the best fiscal discipline in recent months. Feeling he has no choice, Sam accepts the loan and heads home, hoping to win the lottery or discover a cache of pirate gold on the way. He passes Zorba's house on the way home. Zorba, kind, understanding soul that he is, points and laughs.
I'm sure some armchair economist out there will poke all sorts of holes in my analogy (I already said it was imperfect, okay) and others will invoke the politics involved. Fine. Go ahead. But the long and short of the whole mess is that refusing to pay our debts will have negative consequences. Just how big these negative consequences will be can be debated until the cows come home, but the inescapable fact is that they will be negative. Our country can't afford that.

Now Playing: The Dave Brubeck Quartet Time Out
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Saturday, July 23, 2011

Captain America

I've been a fan of Captain America for as long as I can remember. Steve Rogers is far and away my favorite Marvel hero, probably my second-favorite comic hero overall, behind only Green Arrow. So this summer--already featuring a big-screen adaptation of perhaps my third favorite comic character, Green Lantern (a decent but by no means great film)--has me rolling in clover. That is, if Captain America: The First Avenger turned out to be a decent flick. As enjoyable as Green Lantern was, even the most die-hard fans came away with a feeling of disappointment about the sloppy narrative and missed opportunities in that one. Suffering the same indignities with Captain America would be too much to bear.

Thankfully, Captain America is pretty much everything it should be. It is a very different movie than what Hollywood normally puts out in this era. Not necessarily a throwback to 1940s feel-good propaganda flicks, but one that evokes that era. There's no post-modern cynicism here--this is probably the most earnest film I've seen in years, but it never devolves into schmaltz. The whole "Captain America's USO tour" is note perfect, and I--yes, uber-cynic that I am--teared up a little at the gosh-wow of an era when all American were united and we were never so unambiguously on the side of the angels. Director Joe Johnston, whose career output has featured films of erratic quality, turns out to have the perfect touch for this sort of film. He helmed the excellent period adventure Rocketeer, after all (wouldn't a comic team-up featuring Cliff Secord and Steve Rogers be the bee's knees?) and the woefully underrated October Sky. His work for George Lucas on the first three Star Wars films (Lucas, let him direct that Boba Fett feature now!) and Raiders of the Lost Ark serves him well here. There are multiple visual and verbal references to Raiders in Captain America, enough to make a case for this film to exist in the same universe as the good Dr. Jones. There's even a blink-and-you-miss-it moment when Rogers uses the famous shield as a windscreen for his motorcycle, a hilarious, and very deliberate reference to the wretched 1970s Captain America TV movies.

The plot unfolds at a deliberate pace, taking its time to tell the story, but is thankfully never boring. The camera lingers. The action sequences are well-orchestrated and very easy to follow. Let me repeat that: There's no hyper-active quick-cutting in this film, so the audience can always tell what's going on. I can only hope other directors out there are taking notes. The attention to detail is extremely impressive, epitomized to me by the extensive use of the triangular shield originally designed by Jack Kirby in the comics, which quickly morphed into the more-familiar round shield when a competing comic threatened to sue. In the film, Cap's triangular shield is damaged during his first encounter with the Red Skull, necessitating the adoption of the prototype vibranium disc. Very nice.

What's not to like? A few things. This isn't a perfect movie, and the flaws are concentrated at the end. First of all, the decision to make Cap's entire World War II career the focus of the movie ties the filmmakers' hands. The finale of Cap's ongoing battles with the Red Skull--preventing the destruction of New York by sacrificing himself over the Arctic--is something of an anti-climax. Let me explain: In movies, preventing massive destruction is much less dramatic in a visual medium than causing massive destruction. Think Star Wars. The Death Star going BOOM is much more euphoric than the reverse. Add to it the fact that Steve Rogers intentionally crashes the Red Skull's long-range bomber for no really good reason (he had control of the plane, the Red Skull had turned on Autopilot earlier but there was no indication the thing was going to automatically bomb the U.S., and besides, the "Buzz Bombs" needed pilots to direct them and Cap had already dispatched them. Finally, Rogers was offered assistance by the U.S. forces on the ground but dismissed this because "There's no time." No time for what?) and you get the feeling events happened only because the scriptwriter needed to get Cap frozen in the Arctic, not because made any sense. Which is a pity, because most of the rest of the plot had clear and logical underpinnings (even if some of them were of the rubbery "comic book logic" type). The other big letdown I had came when Steve Rogers woke up in 2011, broke out of his recovery room and met Nick Fury in downtown Manhattan. After all the style and finesse of the previous two hours, this sequence felt rushed and tacked on. Monkey Girl, who had no familiarity with the character prior to seeing the film, didn't know what was going on--Nick Fury's comment that Cap had been "sleeping for 70 years" baffled her until I clarified that he'd been frozen in the Arctic, at which point she connected the dots between the super-soldier serum and suspended animation. But Rogers, who'd suddenly become Rip Van Winkle, came off as nonplussed about being displaced in time. I didn't want him to break down crying, or scream "NOOOOOO!" or somesuch silliness, but the whole present-day setting had an air of indifference about it that I found jarring. Far better to save that for the opening of The Avengers in my opinion, than to shoe-horn it into a movie where it doesn't really fit.

When we saw Green Lantern, there was a little boy behind us that bought into the movie completely, which increased my enjoyment of the film significantly. For Captain America there were two little boys in attendance with their fathers that made me smile. One wore a plastic Captain America mask and shield, while the other wore a full-body Captain America costume, complete with wings on the mask. There were a couple of bloody scenes that I think might have been too much for a child that age, but overall I couldn't help think that Captain America is a great movie for a father to share with a child. There's not a better role model anywhere than Steve Rogers, who does what's right because it's right--even when it's difficult--who stands up to bullies and is loyal to his friends. America is greatest when we live up to our ideals and do what's right, as opposed to the idea that anything we do is automatically justified merely by the fact that we are America. There's a big difference there, and Captain America symbolized everything that's good and pure about this country. I expect I'll watch this many, many more times in the future. Cynic that I am.

Now Playing: Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook vol. 1
Chicken Ranch Central

Friday, July 22, 2011

Friday Night Videos

This is the genius of "Weird" Al Yankovic. It's like he has been spying on me for the past decade, and stealing all my best rants. The Snopes urban legend debunking? Yeah, that's me. I'm so merciless with people who forward that kind of crap without taking 10 seconds to check if it's legit or not (hint, a scathing "reply all" with links debunking the B.S. works great) that happily a bunch of people now go out of their way to not email me. Which makes me very happy indeed. The more I think about it, the more I'm convinced that this is, without a doubt, my favorite Weird Al song of all time. Yeah, ranking higher than even "White & Nerdy" and "Mr. Frump in the Iron Lung." And doggone it, the wordplay and animation in the video is inspired as well. Enjoy, and remember, "Stop Forwarding That Crap To Me" is not just a catchy song, it's a call to action.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Nick Gilder.

Now Playing: Miles Davis Birth of the Cool
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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Last fall, the show-biz bug bit Fairy Girl. She was cast as the Princess from "The Princess in the Pea" in a Fractured Fairytales-style mishmash production at her school. After getting herself so nervous she almost threw up before the show (she had thrown up and missed her previous opportunity to debut on stage a year earlier) she calmed down enough to deliver her lines perfectly, and showed that not only does she have impressive delivery and animation for a 10-year-old who'd never acted before, she also had pretty darn good comic timing. This summer, she got into a summer theatre camp at Circle Arts Theatre, where they'll be staging a trimmed-down version of You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown this Friday. She's begun clamoring for us to take her to auditions in the area--television, movies, theatrical, it makes no difference. When she was only 3 years old or so, on a lark we submitted her photo to the folks casting for the John Lee Hancock Alamo movie, and actually got a call back. We had a scheduling conflict The Wife and I have begun some tentative searches of Austin and San Antonio talent agencies online, cautiously separating the wheat from the chaff, so to speak.

All of which is how it came to pass that Fairy Girl found out that I did some acting in my misspent youth. My junior and senior years of high school I participated in One Act Play, once I finally built up enough nerve to walk away from Columbus High School's painfully dysfunctional football program. Of my brief theatrical career, a single VHS tape remains as evidence. Fairy Girl wanted to watch.

The quality of the 24-year-old tape left a lot to be desired. The audio track was poor to begin with, but the image has color shifted over the years and lots of distortion crept in as well. That's to be expected, since the tape hadn't played for at least 15 years. And damn, but I was skinny back then! I've never been svelt, but 60 pounds accumulated over the course of two decades make a big difference. All in all, it's hard to watch, but Fairy Girl sat through it like a trooper.

The play was a truncated version of A Midsummer Night's Dream. It was a wildly uneven production, but what we lacked in polish we made up for in enthusiasm. I played Lysander one of the four star-crossed lovers who suffer from an accidental application of love potion. The other roles my fading memory can recall included David Herrera as Demetrius, Danette (Glueck) Cantu as Helena, Jill Whitcomb as Hermia, Chris Novosad as Oberon, Carrie Speck as Puck, Matt Theut as Egeus, Don Koslosky as Theseus and Camille Hunt as Hippolyta. Watching the lot of perform on stage more than two decades ago, it was sobering to realized that Matt and David--both younger than I--are no longer with us. A feeble memorial to their lives, I suppose, but we were all having fun and that has to count for something.

I tried out for Midsummer Night's Dream on a whim, mainly to get out of the drudgery of cleaning the athletic field house every day (my punishment for walking off the football team a month or so before--long story for another time). I showed up for the reading oblivious to the source material and was thoroughly clueless about the importance of the Lysander role until I started highlighting my lines and realized I was in pretty much every freakin' scene (there's no Bottom or Titania in this version--the one-act plays were limited to 35 minutes or thereabouts). That got my attention real quick, I assure you. Taking on such a role was challenging for me, since my previous stage experience was limited to the Sheriff in a third-grade production of Cowboy on the Moon and one of the playing cards trying to paint white roses red in our first-grade presentation of Alice in Wonderland. Complicating matters was the fact that Whitcomb, who played my ostensible love interest, Hermia, viewed me with the contempt most civilized folk reserve for gum accidentally trodden upon. She was a fine actress, but off stage there was nothing I could say or do around her that wasn't met with a sneer or eye roll from her. I can only assume I was considered too uncouth and lowbrow for her taste--the fact that her sister, Jo Helen (who also displayed no great affection toward me), presented as a class assignment the following year a argument that people should "only buy clothes from Nieman Marcus instead of Wal Mart so they don't feel poor and dirty" goes a long way toward affirming my suspicions.

At the district competition, my first stage performance in front of an audience made up of people who weren't mine or my friends' parents, I was probably on the verge of barfing just like Fairy Girl. I don't remember much about the lead-up to the play, other than the fact that Sealy put on a production of Everyman that impressed the heck out of me. I do remember what happened after the curtain fell, however. I'd given it my all on stage, figuring this might well be the only time I ever play Lysander, so I might as well make it memorable. Whitcomb snarled at me afterwards, accusing me of ruining the play. A significant portion of the cast lined up behind her for their turn at denigrating me as well. "You blew it," said McDonald Ruffino, our lighting tech. "You over-acted way too much." Once all the other schools had wrapped up their shows, everyone filled the auditorium to receive individual awards and find out which play would advance to regional competition. I don't know if our teacher/director Charlotte Tilotta was aware of the backstage drama going on--if she was, she didn't let on. All I know is that I wanted to curl up and disappear. My humiliation grew as they went through the Honorable Mentions, then the All-Star Cast. Lots of actors and actresses from Columbus as well as other schools were raking in the awards, but we wouldn't advance because I'd ruined it for everyone. Then they announced overall best actor, and it took me a minute to realize they were mispronouncing my name. I'd like to say that I went from abject misery to elation in the space of a heartbeat, but in truth I was too much in shock to really feel much of anything. Later on, Ruffino was the only person to apologize for jumping on me earlier. That was a classy gesture on his part, but then again, he and his family have always been classy people.

At regional, we advanced again. I was named best actor again. The wheels came off during the state semifinals, though. My timing was off, my delivery was off. I wasn't feeling it, as the cliche goes. I can't presume to speak for others in the cast, but it felt like the entire rhythm of the show was out of sync. In the end, our production was named Alternate to State, and our great run ended. I was named to the All-Star Cast. Everyone was disappointed, but proud of what we'd accomplished. The next year, we undertook an ambitious production of MacBeth, sticking with the Shakespeare theme. David Hererra got the showcase role of MacBeth, Danette Glueck was Lady MacBeth, Glen Harper was MacDuff and Bobby Horecka was Malcolm. I played three roles--Banquo, the drunken porter and one other which I no longer remember. The production was spectacular (for a pre-Glee era 3A high school effort). Tilotta spent probably the entire budget on elaborate costume rentals. There were sound and lighting effects. The finale, when a dying MacBeth descends into unambiguous madness, was enhanced with MacBeth's enemies--both living and dead--returning to deliver key, portentious lines from earlier in the play. It was breathtaking (relatively speaking). At district competition, after we finished, actors from rival schools lined up to congratulate us and say they were in competition for second place. Were we overconfident? Maybe, but with good reason. It all came crashing down when the sole judge, a drama prof from Sam Houston State, castigated us for not being just like the Orson Welles' version of MacBeth, because that was the only good version. We did not advance. Tilotta, in a fit of emotion, packed up all the costumes and shipped them off the next morning. We never had a public performance of the play. Our family and friends never got to see what we'd spent three months perfecting. We didn't even have a video copy of a dress rehearsal, because Principal Simmons (who delighted in meddling and exerting his power where he had no business) forbade Tilotta to video any rehearsals because "It would make the students self-conscious and they wouldn't be any good." All these years later, it still makes me sad. A lot of students worked hard to make that play the best it could be. They deserved better.

My own acting skills were enough to earn me try-out invitations for theatrical scholarships at a few universities in state. Those same skills were not enough to actually win me any scholarships. I learned quickly in the one acting class I took in college that there are talented people out there that I'm not worthy to do line readings with, much less act. But my stage experience did lead me to a deep appreciation of Shakespeare on both stage and screen (Ian McKellen's version of Richard III is inspired) and the hard work real actors do to make it seem so effortless.

So Fairy Girl has my whole-hearted backing. As long as acting is an interest to her, we'll gladly shuttle her to local theatre programs. If her interest holds, then by golly we'll consider shuttling her to the occasional TV commercial audition in San Antonio, or indy film casting call in Austin. And when it comes time for her to go to college, I know some folks in the Texas State Department of Theatre and Dance, so she'll get a fair shot to impress the folks there with her talents. What she does with those opportunities is up to her.

Now Playing: The Cars Greatest Hits
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Friday, July 15, 2011

Friday Night Videos

Before seeing this video, I was never quite sure if it was a woman or a man singing "Hot Child In the City". And you know what? I'm still not sure. Enjoy.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... David Bowie.

Now Playing: Duke Ellington Ken Burns Jazz
Chicken Ranch Central

Monday, July 11, 2011

Now bring us some figgy liquor...

For those of you following along at home, back in May I started a 6 gallon batch of honey mead. I used slow-fermenting Red Star Cotes des Blanc yeast, which is said to be good at preserving fruity characteristics. Since I've learned that fermenting with wine yeasts at high temperatures (70 degrees plus) creates fusel alcohols (perfectly safe to consume, but they impart a harsh medicinal flavor to the mead) I set the fermenting mead in a water bath, added ice nightly and wrapped the 6-gallon vessel with wet towels so that evaporation would keep the temperatures lower than room temperature. While I'm several weeks tardy in racking that mead, I sampled some today and have to say that my water bath efforts appear to have paid off. The mead, as-is, has a faint tinge of sweetness, definite honey flavor and almost no "rocket fuel" harshness. All those years of fermenting high-temperature ales kinda undercut me on the learning curve here, but I'm finally catching up.

So, what to do with six gallons of mead? I'm not one to be content with a simple show mead, you know. A fruity melomel is in order. Be warned: What follows is a tale of woe. Last weekend, The Wife asked me to clean out the deep freeze. Way down deep I found several bags of frozen plums from last year, two big bags of figs and about 15 pounds worth of skinned prickly pear fruit. I was very proud of those prickly pear. I'd hunted for them all summer, keeping an eye on various cactus patches around and swooping in when they ripened to that gorgeous deep black-purple. Then I skinned them. The juice, an intense magenta-maroon, is gorgeous but stains everything. The tiny, hair-like thorns invariably prick me (despite leather work gloves) and are a hassle to remove. So you can imagine my despair yesterday, a full week after I cleaned out the freezer of other, unwanted foodstuffs, that The Wife asks what I had in the leaking bag sitting on the other side of the freezer. Yeah. I'd set a 10-pound bag of prickly pear aside and completely forgotten about it. It was completely ruined. All that effort, literally down the drain. I could've cried.

The good news is that I found 4 pounds of frozen and skinned prickly pear that I hadn't thoughtlessly left out of the freezer for a week. I put these in a covered pot and let thaw overnight, then mashed with a potato masher to release more of the juice. I took the 7 pounds of frozen figs, sliced them up, then did the same in a separate pot. Some homebrewers only use fresh, unfrozen fruit, but not me. I always freeze it. One reason is that I rarely have enough fresh fruit at any one time to start a batch of homemade fermentables, but the biggest reason is that freezing ruptures cell walls like nobody's business, and the fruit pulp sheds juice so very, very easily. Take a look at these figs. By morning they were swimming in a thick, golden syrup, even more than you see here:

sliced figs for honey wine mead melomel homebrew

I have to say, the figs smelled wonderful. They should pair with the honey mead very, very with with complementary flavors. The 4 pounds of prickly pear was more challenging, but egads, what gorgeous color that juice produces:

prickly pear fruit for honey wine mead melomel homebrew

Prickly pear isn't an entirely cooperative fruit. You have to cook it before fermenting, otherwise it will foam up and create an unholy mess. But if you bring it to a boil, the fruit pectin will set and you've got prickly pear jelly. So I simmered the fruit for 45 minutes, keeping careful track of the temperature, stirring often and never letting it come to a boil. Cooking released more juices, and once it cooled, I strained the whole mess through a nylon mesh brewing bag. When all was said and done, I had approximately 3 quarts of prickly pear juice--a far cry from what I'd planned for before ruining those other 10 pounds of fruit, but enough to work with at least. So, here are the recipes for my latest experiments:
Fig Melomel (4 gallons)
7 lbs. sliced figs
2 tsp. yeast energizer
1 tsp. yeast nutrient
2 tsp. pectic enzyme
3/4 tsp. grape tannin
fill with honey mead

Prickly Pear Melomel (3 gallons)
3 quarts prickly pear juice (4 lbs. skinned prickly pear fruit)
1.5 tsp. yeast energizer
1 tsp yeast nutrient
1.5 tsp. pectic enzyme
1.2 tsp. grape tannin
fill with honey mead
If you can do math, you'll see that's a grand total of 7 gallons of melomel now racked up in various containers. The volume of the figs and prickly pear more than made up for what I lost to the dregs during racking. The residual Cotes des Blanc yeast suspended in the mead has woken up in both batches, and is generating steady amounts of CO2 as it consumes the fruit sugars from the figs and prickly pears. It's not an aggressive fermentation, but relaxed and steady, just what I want. A slow fermentation will preserve more of the fruit flavors in the long run. If I can get them to ferment out dry, or at least semi-dry, then I may well have some real winners once I bottle them up.

Now Playing: Peter Gabriel Secret World Live
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Friday, July 08, 2011

Friday Night Videos

Someone asked last week if David Bowie's feature film, "The Man Who Fell to Earth," made any kind of sense at all. The correct answer, of course, is "Not much." You've got to hand it to Bowie for his consistency--despite a career that spans four decades with countless hits and a tremendous influence on popular culture, he has resisted the impulse to make sense at pretty much every turn. Case in point, the video for "Day In Day Out" off his Never Let Me Down album. It kinda sorta has a coherent narrative if you squint hard when listening to the lyrics, but the video tosses that all out the window. Good angels! Bad angels! Roller skates! Conveyor belts! Bad hair! Yes, this one has it all.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Dan Baird.

Now Playing: ZZ Top ZZ Top's First Album
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Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Monkeyshine (1997-2011)

If you've owned a dog long enough, there is a certain dread that comes with the certainty of knowing that if you take the old girl in to the vet, she is never coming home. Back in 2004 I had to go through this with Sigfreid Sebastian Bach, which was a horrible experience, but one softened somewhat by the knowledge of what was coming and that his medications gave him an extra four (mostly comfortable) months. Monkeyshine didn't have that luxury. Last Thursday I noticed she had a little bit of bloat to her belly. By Saturday she was eating only sparingly, and by Monday she was very swollen in the gut and barely moving. Beagles aren't prone to twisted stomachs, and the slow onset was ominous. Tuesday I took her in to the vet, already knowing the final diagnosis--only the details were in question. Congestive heart failure. Internal bleeding. Pancreatic cancer. She was 14 years old, and any one of those conditions was enough to kill her on its own. I buried her in Bastrop today, alongside Sigfreid and two of the family's cats.

This is my favorite photo of me with my dogs, back in younger days of all of us. Sigfreid's the one on the left, Monkeyshine's the one on the right. She was never quite as beloved as Sigfreid. She was the first joint pet The Wife and I got after we were married, a pound rescue that almost didn't happen. We were notified when she arrived, a hyper, 6-month-old puppy, and she took to us immediately. But the pound had a 48-hour waiting period in case the owners stepped forward, so we couldn't take here then. A less diligent animal shelter employee wasn't so strict with the rules, though, and came close to adopting her out later that same day before the boss intervened and pointed out she was already promised to us.

Once we got her home, it didn't take us long to figure out why her previous owners never claimed her. She was an escape artist. Every home we've owned, no matter how much I've dog-proofed the yard, she's gotten out. She could jump higher than any beagle I've ever seen. She even taught herself how to climb 6' chain-link fences. I kid you not. Back when we were trying to sell the Temple house and not living there full-time, an idiot realtor left the gate open and she disappeared for two weeks. We gave up, never expecting to see her again, but then got a call that she'd been found--miles away, across two large highways, including I-35. I've heard that God looks out for the innocent and fools, and that's probably why she ended up with us.

She wasn't a dumb dog by any means, but she didn't have the sense the Good Lord gave the goose. When I'd take Sigfreid to the park to let him run, he'd make big, looping circles, checking in every so often to make sure I hadn't left or that it wasn't time to go. Not so with Monkeyshine. The instant she was off the leash, she was running full-tilt and I'd be lucky to catch up with her three counties over. Sigfreid, the big lug, always thought this was some great new game and couldn't understand why I was so put-out afterwards. She also had issues with housebreaking. She didn't want to be broken. She finally grasped the idea that we did not want her to do her business inside, so for several days--maybe as long as a week--we thought she'd finally learned proper potty behavior. About that time we noticed her sneaking off behind the living room furniture. "Hey," she probably would've said had she been able to talk, "out of sight, out of mind." She was a full-time outside dog after that.

She settled down quite a bit after we lost Sigfreid. She got too fat to jump or climb fences. She played well with Precious and served as a pretty good role model until Precious was stolen from us a year ago 4th of July. Polkadots proved a little too frisky for her--for all his smarts, he's still a nipper--and they would squabble more than Monkeyshine did with any of our other dogs, but give them a few minutes and they'd be playing chase again.

She wasn't the best dog, but she was a sweetheart. Even as miserable and pained as she was, she never so much as whimpered. She even wagged her tail for The Wife before I took her to the vet. She deserved a better ending than what she got, and I pray I never again have to take another pet to that last trip to the vet.

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Tuesday, July 05, 2011

The 2011 Griswold Family Vacation pt. 8

Fifteen years ago, The Wife and I made a spur-of-the-moment decision in Phoenix to turn east instead of south, so as to pass through the UFO mecca of Roswell, New Mexico, on our way home from our honeymoon. It was an opportunity to take in some silly kitsch while avoiding endless monotonous miles of travel on I-10. It turned out to be one of our best random choices ever, not because of Roswell, but because of this:

Very Large Array, National Radio Astronomy Observatory, false color infrared composite, New Mexico

Driving through the flat desert way back when, we spotted something on the horizon. Something pretty big. "What the heck is that?" As we got closer, we saw more appear, and eventually it dawned on me--we had stumbled upon the Very Large Array. Talk about happy accidents! At the time, we didn't know if it was open to the public, and hadn't planned for the visit, but we drove past in awe, marveling at the enormous dishes. This year, we did plan ahead, and turned off the highway to the small, unstaffed visitor center.

Very Large Array, National Radio Astronomy Observatory, infrared, New Mexico

Very Large Array, National Radio Astronomy Observatory, New Mexico

Having just driven past the ominous and harrowing Wallow Fire, with the massive smoke cloud still blotting out much of the western sky, the VLA was a welcome respite. There is a self-guided walking tour that leads you through the observatory's grounds, and the complex is mighty impressive (not to mention isolated).

Very Large Array, National Radio Astronomy Observatory, false color infrared, New Mexico

One misconception we had dispelled right away is the idea that the dishes are permanently mounted on the railroad tracks. Not true. There are rail cars that move the dishes, true, but when in place for observations, the dishes are disengaged from the rail cars and mounted semi-permanently on concrete pylons. The railroad tracks, I have to say, appear to stretch out forever. In the movie Contact, the filmmakers digitally copied the dishes to make the numbers look more impressive. After standing there and looking the place over, we could understand why--the distances are so vast that even the enormous dishes appear tiny so far away.

Very Large Array, National Radio Astronomy Observatory, infrared, New Mexico

Interestingly enough, I saw more pronghorn antelope this day than I've seen the rest of my life combined. In that, the pronghorns and Lubbock dust devils from day 1 share something in common. We saw several herds of pronghorn along the side of highway 60 approaching the VLA, and this one was content to trot along in the shadows of the dishes, stopping every so often to graze or watch the silly tourists take its picture. We saw many more pronghorn herds after we left, and after nightfall even saw a gemsbok oryx grazing beside the road (sadly, no photos of that one).

Very Large Array, National Radio Astronomy Observatory, pronghorn antelope, New Mexico

Amazingly enough, the kids didn't fight or squabble or cause one of the multi-million-dollar dishes to collapse in a pile of ruined scrap metal. They were duly impressed, although the wonder of it all did gradually fade to be replaced with a desire to go. Personally, I could've spent hours and hours there, shooting from all different vantage points. We saw the dishes change direction twice, which is a spooky and amazing scene to watch when those massive machines pivot in unison. They're remarkably silent when they do it as well. The Bug even found something to keep himself entertained--he captured a wild tumbleweed, and named it "Signal" in honor of the VLA. He's since tamed it and plays with it on occasion, although he warns me not to pet it if he's not around, because "Signal may bite."

Very Large Array, National Radio Astronomy Observatory, New Mexico

After that much scientific spectacle, we needed something to cleanse the palate, so to speak. After pulling into Roswell close to midnight and crashing at the hotel, we got up the next morning and hit the UFO Museum, which is very straight-faced and serious, followed up by the Alien Zone/Area 51 Museum, which is infinitely less reputable and a hundred times cheesier than its counterpart a couple blocks down the street. Having partaken in our daily allotment of cornball rubber aliens, we headed for home. I'm happy to report that the final leg of our trip was uneventful, except grass fires every two miles the final hour we spent in New Mexico, and a blowout on I-10 just south of Comfort at 11 p.m. that I had the rare honor of changing in the dark with cars and trucks whizzing past at 70 miles per hour. So, where should we go for vacation next year?

Alien Zone/Area 51 Museum, Roswell New Mexico

A full gallery of road trip photos can be found here.
The 2011 Griswold Family Adventure pt. 1
The 2011 Griswold Family Adventure pt. 2
The 2011 Griswold Family Adventure pt. 3
The 2011 Griswold Family Adventure pt. 4
The 2011 Griswold Family Adventure pt. 5
The 2011 Griswold Family Adventure pt. 6
The 2011 Griswold Family Adventure pt. 7

Very Large Array, National Radio Astronomy Observatory, panorama sunset, New Mexico

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Friday, July 01, 2011

Friday Night Videos

With all the weeping and wailing and beating of breasts over the "Oxford comma" that's been going on lately (they should just shoot the darn thing and put it out of our collective misery, if you ask me), how could I not feature the incomparable Dan Baird on today's installment of Friday Night Videos? Who is Dan Baird you ask? Surely you jest! Dan Baird was the driving force behind the southern rock group Georgia Satellites, best known for their catchy hit single "Keep Your Hands to Yourself." Personally, I recommend their second album, In the Land of Salvation and Sin, which shows maturity as songwriters far beyond that of their debut album. But Dan Baird released a solo album in 1992, and the first single bowled me over with its goofy charm, witty lyrics and obsession with proper punctuation. I Love You, Period:

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