Tuesday, June 17, 2008

On Beer

When I reached legal drinking age I always pictured myself aging into a wine person. I pictured myself eating rare cheeses and pontificating about the various merits of the fine vintage I was partaking. I would be able to wax poetic about the various wine growing regions around the world. I would talk at length about their soil contents and how they nurture different types of grapes allowing different countries to produce different types of wines. I would pay attention to yearly weather patterns. I would know what wines to buy from where and how long to store them for optimal enjoyment. I would know and strictly adhere the proper serving temperatures. I would scoff at the cheaper more popular wines people brought to parties. I would be an intelligent man of the world full of knowledge about the delicious wines I drank. In short, I would be an insufferable prick.

I never really got into wine though. Sure, I drink it. I have a vague idea of what I like. If I were to go to a tasting – which I never have, but would like to some time – I would be able to compare the different wines intelligently if not fully knowledgably. No, I do not know wine. Was it the expense? Did I find the volume of knowledge intimidating? Did I just get lazy? No. The simple answer is I have been blindsided by beer. Yes, beer, the nectar of the blue-collar world. I have fallen head over heals for beers, and I do not feel I have lost anything in foregoing wine. As I have grown I have discovered the vast, eccentric, complex world of beer. Beer holds its own against wine. I actually find the variety of beers exceeds that of wine. Once you move beyond the Coors/Budweiser Joe Six-Pack level of beer drinking, you discover a beverage that holds its own against any wine in terms of complexity of flavor and experience. That’s right. I have become a hophead. I save my poetic rhapsodies for fine Belgian concoctions of malt, barley, and hops. I can talk of a beers balance, complexity, and mouth feel. I can confidently turn my nose up to any beer in any keg at any run of the mill party. I have chosen beer over wine and am just as much of an insufferable prick as I ever wanted to be.

Not that I am alone in discovering the true wonder of beer. There seems to be a rising tide of true beer connoisseurs. There is a preponderance of websites and news articles dedicated to reviewing new beers. Beers are being imported at higher rate, and – more exciting yet – American microbreweries seem to be in a boom. New breweries, both local and with larger distributions, are opening across the country. With these businesses comes a new an infectious love and respect for beer and traditional brewing processes. This has also led to an influx of unique beers. While wineries seem to be stuck in more classic methods, microbrews have been freed to experiment with different brewing techniques and ingredients. I have sampled beers with a far range of flavor additives ranging from the more traditional chocolate and coffee to a beer advertising hints of bubble gum – well full confession, when faced with the bubble gum beer demurred, although I have it on good authority that it was pretty gross. Now is a wonderful time to explore the vast world of beer. It is a great to be a beer drinker today.

Beer also offers a more affordable option than wine. Now I fully feel that a good beer offers just as much flavor and complexity of a good wine, but where you may spend well over ten dollars for a single glass of even average quality wine, you can buy a truly fantastic bottle of beer for as little as three dollars – prices of course tend to vary across the country. For the cost of a decent bottle of wine, you can buy a mixed six-pack of beer from a good distributer. While the wine drinker stuck with just the one kind of wine for that money – better hope he likes it – I can have six different beers to tempt my palette. This is certainly a more attractive situation to me.

Of course, I do not know everything about beer. I am looking forward to trying many different varieties. I am enthusiastic about exploring the idea of pairing beers with food allowing the brew and the food to compliment and bring the best out of each other. I want to try every Belgium Double, Trippel, and Quadruppel I can get my hands on. I want to stop at as many local microbrews possible to enjoy beers only be found at these locations. I want to sample and learn as much as I can about beer. I want to the best-informed insufferable prick at the party. And when someone uncorks the wine, don’t be surprised to find me reaching to the cooler for a much more interesting IPA.


Thursday, June 12, 2008

Book Review: Pastoralia by George Saunders

Above all else, the stories collected in George Saunders’s Pastorolia are morality tales. The short stories are thematically linked by the exploration of where personal desires and interpersonal morals meet in a world that places the emphasis on the greedy individual. Saunders’s characters are repeatedly faced with choosing between their own selfish desires and doing what is right for those around them as well as themselves.

Now, I do not want to make the collection sound like a drab assortment of stern moralizing. The stories found in this book are very entertaining, and quite often hilarious. Saunders is often described as a satirist. His eye for the absurdities of modern life is fantastic, and he has a knack for drawing them out to their logical, but brutally silly extremes. He utilizes a simplicity of expression to describe the bleakest of societal situations which reminds me of Vonnegut at his best. Saunders is also brave enough to allow traces of optimism shine through the cracks in even the most seemingly nihilistic situations.

The stories in Pastoralia are not perfect. “The Falls”, the book’s concluding story, underlines the theme – which is also the theme of much of the book – a little too bluntly making it feel more like an incomplete exercise rather than a fully fleshed out story. Still, by and large the stories succeed in drawing the reader into the author’s slightly bent world-view. The title story offers a caustic rebuke of impersonal corporate culture set in a strange amusement park where employees are paid to act like cave men for the entertainment of visitors. The story shows the almost Orwellian impact of corporate language, and the toll taken when hierarchy pits person against person. It says a lot that the people dressed as cavemen are more human than the corporate bosses above them.

The books best story is “Sea Oak” which mixes elements of horror and pathos in it’s description of a lower class family trapped in their bleak existence by their own laziness and apathy. It takes an act of ghastly, almost zombie intervention to begin to shake the family out of its stupor. It speaks volumes to Saunders’s abilities that hope begins where the rotten, fallen apart body of a family member ends.


Monday, June 9, 2008

The 1% Solution

My grandmother is the only person I know who buys 1% milk. She may be the only person in the entire world who buys the 1% for all I know. I do not recall ever seeing another soul opening the cooler to the 1%. I have never seen anyone at a check out with the stuff. I have never witnessed it in any friend’s refrigerator – not that I often search through acquaintances’ kitchens, unless, of course, I suspect they are harboring good beer. I have no idea what advantages the 1% milk holds over its more popular whole, skim, and 2% brethren. There must not be many. I am not even sure what the percentage refers to. 1% of what? I want to say it has something to do with fat or cream content, but I cannot say with any authority. It may just as well refer to some insidious secret ingredients – medical wastes, rat feces, vitamin D – as any known dairy product. I guess I’m not really up to snuff on my milk knowledge. I don’t really like milk. It’s gross, a beverage with absolutely no quenching capacity. It’s the only thing people drink which still needs washed down with another beverage. It’s opaque. It comes from underneath cows. I really do not like milk, which is odd since I love so many other dairy products. I have an abiding passion for many of the things milk becomes – cheeses, creams, yogurt, mustaches – but no real love for the pure stuff itself.

My grandmother on the other hand must have a long-standing affair with milk. I’ve never actually witnessed her drinking milk, but I have seen the empty cartons. At least twice a week I am sent to the store to by half a gallon of 1% milk. Why she settled on 1% as her milk of choice is beyond me. Why my grandmother scorns the more conventional milks is a question I have long pondered, but never asked. Maybe it is doctor’s orders. Perhaps, she just likes being different – not really much like my grandmother, but everyone has to have his or her little quirk. She may honestly like the stuff. She may be onto a milk secret no everyone else has yet to discover. 1% milk may be the tastiest milk out there. It might be so good you don’t need to add chocolate to make it remotely palatable. My grandmother may be on the cutting edge of milk drinking. In the future, 2% may have sissy cap colors like pink and yellow while 1% wears the manly blue mantle. All I know is that I get strange looks at the counter when I bring up the 1%. I can see it in every checkout girl’s eyes, “Oh, so YOU’RE the one.”

No. I am not the one who drinks the 1%. I am only the one who buys it. And, no, I have no idea why.


Thursday, May 29, 2008

Baby Bored

Babies are like drugs. If you bring them to a party they get passed around and everyone starts acting stupid. I witnessed the stupefying powers of babies in person over this Memorial Day weekend. I found myself smack dab in the middle in the eye of the perfect baby storm.

Over the past year both of my brothers proved their virility by impregnating women. So, my family has grown by two bald, small, inarticulate people: My nieces, Abigail and Leora. My family – my parents in particular – has been driven quite mad with the baby craziness. The symptoms of said disease include the sudden expenditure on an obscene amount of baby clothes simply because it is deemed adorable, the gradual loss of language skills until words such as baba and binky become acceptable terms, and a compulsive need to photograph everything. My parents have come down with all of these symptoms and more, but this past Sunday was the worse.

My younger brother and his wife came up from Virginia with their 2 month-old, Leora. Once in Pennsylvania, Leora joined forces with her 6-month-old cousin Abigail to form a two-headed monster with such incredible powers of adorability my entire family was rendered into a soft, jelly-like mass of gibberish spouting baby love. This Memorial Day we paid tribute to babies, and how cute they are, especially if you have two of them who can be put into the same crib while five cameras record every movement.

It was sickening really. Everything was baby centered. From the moment I walked into my parents’ house, I was overcome by all things baby. They were forced into my arms. There was much pointing and googly talk. Everyone pretty much sat around passing babies while talking about babies: what they eat – formula – what they do – almost roll over – and what they might start to actually do – roll over. Almost immediately it was decided a trip to the local playground was in order. My father happily rolled out his shiny new radio flyer red wagon for the trip. Now, if you are like me, you probably remember the radio flyer as a simple contraption with a metal bed, some wheels, and a handle. Well, this was a whole new beast, an upgraded model. It was made of plastic and was fitted with two fold down baby seats, seat belts, and cup holders. My father did hold off on buying the optional sun canopy. Although after being out on this sunny day, I think he may be considering a step up.

Now, here’s the real annoying thing about having babies around. No one was paying any attention to me, and I was on fire at the playground. I was swinging real high. I mean really super high. I even jumped off the swing. I was climbing the jungle gym. I was racing down slides. I made it all the way across the hanging rings without touching the ground. Wherever applicable I worked in the daring maneuver of going ‘no hands’. But no one would even look at me. Even though I exhorted them to. Even my mother barely noticed me. I even said “Look Mom, no hands!” She didn’t even tell me to be careful. What kind of bullshit is that? Baby bullshit, that’s what kind.

After a dinner centered on baby conversation, we settled in for the most obnoxious part of the day: home movies. My older brother bought himself a fancy new camcorder, and I guess every spare moment has been spent training the camera on his daughter, Abigail. Here she is looking at the cat. Adorable. Here she is taking a bath. Adorable. Here she is watching television for fifteen straight minutes. Un-effing-believably adorable. Here’s the thing about home movies. A lifetime of watching ‘America’s Funniest Home Videos’ has conditioned me to expect something hilarious to happen within five seconds of any home movie. When nothing hilarious happened and the videos kept going and going and going, I became uncomfortable. I began to suspect my brother was playing some sort of Andy Kaufman-esque experiment in humor. He was subverting our expectations of home video humor by removing the normal slapstick payoff. Slowly I realized home videos are just boring. No matter how long I waited for my brother to get hit in the junk, it was not going to happen.

Thankfully, the home movies were the apex of baby worship. All that was left was more baby passing mixed with some ‘fussiness’. The fussiness was on my part. I was bored and ready to go home. Eventually, I got my wish. Released from this crazy house of mass baby hysteria, I was able to go back to my own grubby little apartment to shake the baby out of my soul. I was free to do what I normally do: strip down to my boxers and check my email. Adorable.


Tuesday, May 20, 2008

On Miley Cyrus

Miley Cyrus is a pretty big deal to pre-teen girls. Parents resort to anything short of murder – that we know of – to get their spoiled brats tickets to her concerts. She stars on the Disney channel show Hannah Montana, which sounds like it should be about a drugged out stripper, but sadly is not – the Disney channel affiliation should have been a tipoff. Annie Liebovitz snapped some supposedly racy photos of her which ended up being about as shocking as an Amish sleepover. That about fully encompassed all my knowledge of Miley Cyrus up to about a week ago when on the first day of my vacation to New York City I walked through my aunt’s front door to find myself face to face with the tween phenom.* Well, actually it was just a life-sized Hannah Montana – still not a stripper – cardboard cutout belonging to my two young cousins. It was still quite a shock. It’s creepy to enter a home to the lifeless, fake, smiling visage of young America. It was even creepier after I discovered someone had place scotch tape X’s over her eyes and mouth as though to restrain her from waking in the night and feasting on the souls of the slumbering family. Being first truly introduced to Miley in cardboard form is also apropos in the clichéd sense that I later discovered her entire image is empty and shallow, all surface with no underlying substance.

Of course, this is to be expected from teen idols. Pop stars aimed at pre-teen audiences are not exactly famous for their depth. They usually get by on flash, winning smiles, and whatever pop smarts their handlers may possess. The truly shocking thing about Miley Cyrus is how, even by the low standards of teen idoldom, she seems under qualified. Honestly, Miley does not exactly blow you away with talent. Listen to one of her songs. Go ahead.

She does not even have a particularly strong voice. Actually, she has a weak voice. She doesn’t exactly belt knock the ol’ roof off. She just kind of mumbles along in tune in a kind of low whispery sing speak full of more air than voice. Her whole tone is almost apologetic. As though on a subconscious level she is saying “I am so sorry you are not listening to a better singer right now. But my daddy’s famous.” From a performance standpoint she does not even hold a candle to pre-teen idols of the past – New Kids on the Block, New Edition, Tiffany, N*Sync, Manudo, others I am almost too embarrassed to admit I am familiar with. She is certainly not on the same performance level of the ultimate teen idol: Ricky Nelson – who gets a lifetime pass simply for being in Rio Bravo with The Duke and Dino.

I was shocked to hear my seven-year-old cousin sing along with a Miley’s songs. My cousin blew Miley away vocally. Plain and simple. At seven my cousin can out sing one of the biggest pop stars on the planet. Now, as much as I would like to say this is due to some great talent in my little cousin, I fear it points more to the total lack of talent in the pop star. Now, I have never watched American Idol, but I feel confident in saying Miley would even make it onto the show. She may not even make it past the tryouts. She has a mildly pleasant, unexpressive voice capable of staying in tune within a limited range. Not exactly high praise.

Miley is not even up to normal teen idol standards in looks. I know this can come off as creepy when discussing a young teenager, but I feel it’s pertinent. She’s kind of odd looking with a big smile with an unfortunate amount of gum in it. She has a vacant look about her – not really uncommon in young stars. Now think about it. Have you ever heard anyone make creepy, pedophile jokes about Miley Cyrus? I can honestly say I have not, and I have friends who make this kind of joke practically every day – Hi Joe. Remember when the Olsen twins were Miley’s age? How often did you hear statutory rape jokes made at their expense? About ten times a day? No one is making these jokes about Miley. She looks like any other 15-year-old you find walking around any suburban mall in America.

Miley Cyrus is marginally talented and marginally attractive. She may be a fine actress. I have only seen maybe a minute of Hannah Montana – enough to discover it was not about a stripper – and do not remember being particularly impressed. At most she holds her own against other young basic cable actresses. So what’s the hook? What is it that draws young girls to this cipher? Is she the biggest marketing success in American history? Can it really be all marketing savvy and promotion? Of course it may be the very aspects of her I complain about which draws the youth of America. She is not particularly talented or attractive, but she is a big star. The implicit message to young girls is you can do this too – assuming of course your dad is already in the industry. You do not need to be the most attractive girl in your school. You do not have to win all the solos at your choir concerts. You can be completely, absolutely unexceptional and still be the biggest star in the world. This is an attractive prospect to your average 11-year-old girl.

Of course, a lot of this is built into the Hannah Montana character. The show – while still not about a stripper – is centered on an average teenage girl who has a secret life as a pop star with a stripper name. The concept, while patently ridiculous (no one notices they look alike? Really?), is also powerful to pre-teen girls. It holds the same basic draw as superhero narratives hold for young boys. Sure, Peter Parker is a powerless nobody, but Spiderman kicks all kinds of ass. The draw of Hannah Montana is not that the character is a great singer and performer. It is that she is a star while still being a regular girl. This is exactly the appeal Miley Cyrus is trading on. Of course, as she grows further away from the Hannah Montana persona and tries to trade more on her own name and merits she is sure to become less successful. Not only will her own deficiencies be put in greater relief, but her audience will grow older and move on to other idols and maybe even to some true artists. You know, people with real talent.


* This vacation also accounts for not posting at all last week.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

My Stupid Pet Peeves: #1

I really hate when people wave me on in traffic. I know ceding the right of way is supposed to be the nice, civil thing to do, but it's just stupid. Nine times out of ten it would be quicker if everyone just followed the established rules of the road. Usually by the time I even realize I'm being waved on, the other person could have been through the stop sign or light or whatever. It's actually a waste of my time. Then I'm expected to give the guy a little wave of thanks. Well fuck that. I didn't ask for your stupid little favor. It actually cost me time. I'm not thankful. I'm not going to wave. Deal with it.


Thursday, May 8, 2008

Point/Counterpoint: The Future

Point: I Believe Children Are Our Future
By Mary Childress

I know it is a cliché to say that children are our future, but it is the truth. The young boys and girls sitting in kindergarten classrooms, swinging in playgrounds, and napping peacefully in their beds will someday be the leaders of this world. They will assume all the positions of power. Long after we are dead, they will be dealing with all the problems we have left them. When you pass a playground, I hope you see more than groups of children at play. I hope you see them as living breathing embodiments of the future of mankind. They do not know it yet, but the weight of our world is already heavy upon them.

This is why we need to give our children every advantage to learn and grow into responsible adults, adults capable of dealing with all the problems of the world. We need to bolster our education system. The scientists to help us end global warming may be in a second grade classroom as we speak, but if he or she does not receive the proper education this potential may never be realized. I don’t know about you, but I will not abide letting these children grow up without fulfilling their full potential. We owe it to them. We owe it to the world.

Face it, we haven’t exactly done a bang-up job on this world. Look at all the hunger, famine, moral degradation, and pain which the world is full of. We are living under the constant threat of environmental catastrophe. This is all thanks to us. We have made this world into what it is. Now, we are going to give it to our children. Still, I will not give up hope. If we start right now, this very instant, we can slowly start a change. Teach your children to be kind, moral, and intelligent adults. Lead by example. Start cleaning up the Earth. Be a moral force. We may not save the world, but we will be teaching the children who will. God Bless the little children.

Counterpoint: I Believe Hyper-Intelligent Killer Robots Are Our Future

By James Catullo

We’re screwed. Let’s face it, man. Might as well bend over and kiss our collective asses good-bye. The robot apocalypse is real and it is coming. Probably sooner than you think. The military is increasing the effectiveness of unmanned aircraft all the time. Scientists are working on more and more advanced artificial intelligence. Volvo is working on a smart car, which will use AI to stay out of accidents. Computers can already beat our greatest masters at a game of chess. What’s keeping them from out strategizing us on the battle field. Nothing. It’s just matter of time before these robots realize they can totally own us in a war. Intelligent Volvos come to the realization that they wouldn’t get into any accidents if there weren’t any human occupants wanting to get places. Then what happens? It’s robot war time, and the human race gets wiped right off the face of the planet. We’re on a fast track to getting a giant collective robo butt raping.

There’s nothing we can do. If you want to survive the robot apocalypse you have two choices: either join the robots as human slaves, or hide. I don’t know about you, but I’m not about to bow down to any mechanical master. I’m not going to willingly put myself down in the silicon mines, or turn myself into a biological battery. I would kill myself before subjecting myself to such degradation. When the robots start lobbing missiles, I’m getting the hell out of dodge. I’m taking as much survival gear as I can carry, and moving far into the mountains. I’ll live low, close to the Earth. I will amass a small group of survivalists and start a guerilla war against the machines. We will not win, but, Damn, we’re not going to go out without a fight.

Now the key to surviving in the robot future is to have no emotional attachments. Imagine a child in a second grade classroom. When the robot war hits, you better be ready to put a bullet in that kids brain. It may sound harsh, but a painless death is vastly preferable to falling into the hands of the robot’s killing machine. There is nothing we can do to prevent the robots from taking over. It’s up to every individual to prepare either to kill themselves and their family, or prepare to flee for the wilderness. I would suggest stock piling canned goods, weapons, and training equipment. Liquor and cigarettes are also preferable since they will become currency in the wilderness amongst other survivors. Remember even if you prepare for the robot apocalypse, you probably will not survive. Mankind is doomed to fall to the machines. Your best hope is to live out the rest of your life like a cockroach in the corners and shadows. When the last people die, the world will belong solely to the machines. It will be like we never existed at all.