The Hot Topic: The Death of Cooking

I was a smidge late in posting the last one, so this week's Hot Topic comes right on its heels.


From the fevered minds of a loose grouping of self-appointed cultural commentators comes a weekly side-swipe at the issues of the day, providing a pithy and often heated debate on pop culture as they see it. Welcome, friends, to The Hot Topic…

This week's burning issue: Do You Buy Into The Demise Of Cooking?

From: Bennett Dawson
To: The Hot Topic Team
Re: Microwave Foodstuff

In an age when it looks like microwavable foods are taking over the gastro tracts of the world, I wonder if I'm part of a vanishing breed that still cooks food the old fashioned way.

Not owning a microwave, it seems to me that these little radiation ovens have created their own captive market. A market based on reducing questionable concoctions into a sterile and banal fuel for the ever growing population of lazy lard-asses, and it makes me fear for the future of the classic, home cooked meal.

My local supermarket is devoting increasing shelf space to brightly colored packages of food designed to be cooked only in a microwave. The cooking instructions assume that you will use a microwave, and there are no directions for using a conventional heat source. In fact, many of them have the words "Oven or stove top – not recommended".

And I'm not talking about regular frozen vegetables here, 'cause I see nothing wrong with frozen corn or beans as a side dish if fresh veggies are out of season, and admit to being in love with Green Giant frozen Creamed Spinach. I can even go for the frozen oriental meals (just add meat) that come with an icy chunk of mystery sauce. The veggies end up soggy and bland, but sometimes the trade off (freshness for convenience) works out. I have to admit that the pictures on the boxes are first class, and make the food look so damn tasty! This is a marketing lie, as it never comes out looking like the picture.

But it's the new generation of microwavable main courses that gross me out, the precooked foods sitting on the shelves of the supermarket at room temperature. Some of these vacuum wrapped entrees have chunks of chicken or beef in 'em, am I the only one who finds this disturbing?

Meat – frozen or refrigerated, okay? Room temp for weeks or months in a plastic envelope? C'mon folks, this is a crime against nature! How is this different from a can of soup, you ask? From a purely sterile point of view, it's probably no different, but my mind rebels, knowing that a CAN is safer, more secure, physically impenetrable. How DO they sterilize those plastic bags 'o food?

Whenever I see a box with a plastic envelope containing "Chicken Goulash" or "Jasmine Rice With Raisins" sitting on an unrefrigerated shelf, it gives me the creeps. Check out the shelves, Rice-a-roni has a new line of precooked rice in little plastic envelopes, as if cooking up Rice-a-roni was a big chore in the first place!

The new development to all of this is that the CAN is on the way out too. Yesterday I saw little boxes of soup. The same package that they use for little kids "sippy juices" is now the package for tomato soup, beef soup, Hungarian goulash… In this room temp packaging revolution, what's next?

I was raised in a pretty healthy food environment. Microwaves hadn't been invented yet, and my mom was a health food nut when that sort of thing was just getting started. Raw milk, unstabilized peanut butter, real bread, and collard greens… Wonder Bread never graced the shelves in my childhood home. Instead, we had handfuls of vitamins to choke down, liver and onions, yogurt and granola. Ya know? It's a long road from that to "just microwave and enjoy!" This said, I have enjoyed my share of microwave burritos, to the ultimate distress of my lower GI tract.

If I owned a microwave, would I feel any different? Would I trust in "the rays" to make everything safe and harmless? Would I get used to bread that felt like shoe leather in my mouth? Sauces that separate and look wrong? Meats that show no evidence of being cooked?

My ultra-healthy brother claims that microwaves remove everything that is good, all sustenance, any shred of valuable nourishment contained in food. I'm not sure if I'd go that far, but I am deeply suspicious of the changes that take place in food that gets "waved".

How about you? Do you cook from scratch? Do you use your oven to prepare food? Do you buy your meat, vegetables and sauces separately and put them together yourself? Do you cook for the creative satisfaction? Do you cook for the flavors?

Or do you swear by the Microwave? Your culinary requirements satisfied by plastifoil envelopes of pizza pockets, eggrolls, chicken nuggets, and popcorn? Should I think about the time you're saving, or the rising rates of colon cancer?

From: Greg Smyth
To: The Hot Topic Team
Re: Microwave Foodstuff

You seem to be making two main points:

1. Microwaving food is potential unsafe

2. Convenience foods probably aren't terribly healthy.

As for the first, the anti-microwave stance seems, to my scientific eye, to be a load of superstitious radiation bunkum. Sure, the way microwave ovens work isn't perhaps conventionally 'natural' but, to my knowledge, exactly no studies comparing the effects of microwaved food against otherly-heated food in rats, humans whatever. Maybe there have been and I've missed them, but I'm sure that if they'd come out in the negative the popular press couldn't have waited to run another pseudo-scientific health scare-story.

Until someone proves that a problem exists, I'm cynical (although, admittedly, the testing should have been carried out before microwaves were introduced to our daily lives). As to whether they ruin most of the nutrients in food during the cooking process, my recollection is that it does and more so than other methods too. However, "is it safe?" and "is it healthy?" are two totally separate, though both important, issues.

Point two: are microwave meals, or any other types of convenience food, healthy? Hell, no! Even the so-called healthy options have been processed to within an inch of their lives and, I'd imagine, any nutritional content remaining is negligible. Obviously, what would be preferable is if everyone cooked low-fat, low-salt fresh food every day. But, in today's increasingly stressed, no-time lifestyle, that's unlikely.

Personally, I'd love to spend time making proper meals and, hell, I enjoy cooking. But, by the time I get home from the day job, cook a lovely meal from scratch and then do the washing up, exactly when do I get to have a life outside of work and eating?!

There's another advantage. of sorts, to ready meals, and one that might be of interest to the tubbier amongst us: portion sizing. Put simply, a ready meal is an easy way of taking in a known amount of calories, fat, salt, whatever, enabling the slower amongst us to make slightly more educated and sensible choices. That, to me, is no bad thing.

From: Mark Saleski
To: The Hot Topic Team
Re: Microwave Foodstuff

Hmmm, well…i'm not sure that the microwave is the culprit.

I say that only because it wasn't, food historically-speakin', the first step toward 'convenience'.

TV dinners were probably the first….followed by all sortsa stuff that you could boil in a plastic pouch.

That said, there are all sorts of modern factors that push hard (maybe 'relentlessly' is a better word) against real food. this one is the worst:

The Demise of the Family Dinner

Kids have amazing and maddeningly complex schedule these days. A soccer practice here, a drama club rehearsal there. Couple that with the fact that both parents often hold full time jobs outside of the home and whole reason for owning a dining room table goes away. It's kinda sad, really…though i don't have any answers there.

So if kids never get into the habit of sitting down to dinner with the family, they're not likely to value such activities later in life. Why go to the 'hassle' of buying flour tortillas, beef, cheese, lettuce and whatever when you can just pop a frozen burrito into the microwave?

Me, i sure as hell cook from scratch…with as much locally grown food as I can get my hands on. But of course I feel attached to the whole "slow food" movement in part because the family dinner was a big part of my little kid-dom and the social aspects of hanging around in the kitchen are very important to me.

Then there's the evil of 'corporate food' (Chili's, TGI Fridays, Applebees, McDonalds, KFC…blah blah blah)…lets not even go there today!

From: Mat Brewster
To: The Hot Topic Team
Re: Microwave Foodstuff

I'll take my cue from Greg and divide this into two sections covering those points.

Personally, I love my microwave. The convenience far outweighs any negative aspects. Now, I'm not one of those eats every meal via the microwave guys. In fact, I don't really do much cooking with it at all. In a pinch, it heats the water for a cup of tea in the morning. It gives a little defrost to the meats coming out of the freezer. I prefer my soups to be cooked on the stove, but during a fast lunch break, the microwave does it just fine. And then theres leftovers. I've never met a leftover that didn't love a microwave.

I've heard the rumors that microwaves kill all the nutrients out of a meal, but I've never seen any real documentation on this. Not that I've really looked that hard for it. But given the choice between a micrwaved bowl of minestrone that's been zapped of all its healthiness and a Big Mac, I'll take the minestrone every time.

As far as cooking goes, I've got about four good meals. Some people say they really love to cook, I'm not one of those people. It's just too much work. Luckily I married a lovely lady who enjoys the art of cooking. She's got shelves full of cook books and enjoys spending an evening reading them and coming up with something new. I'm kind of a finicky eater, so I don't always love the zucchini sandwiches, but I'll suffer through a few not-so-tasty meals for the succulent surprises.

We're slowly trying to get more natural and organic. It helps that the in-laws have a nice sized garden and often visit with bountiful bundles of fresh vegetables. They also order in bulk from an organic co-op and fill our pantry with the overflow. The local farmer's market also provides some healthy, tasty treats. Man, we still eat our share of convenience foods, but it's nice to be able to eat something that isn't so full of preservatives it will outlast the cock roaches after a nuclear disaster.

All of this reminds me of something my Belgium friend Daniel used to say.

"In America they eat to live, in France they live to eat."

And though it is a broad generalization, it does sum up a large chunk of our cultural concept of eating. We're so busy with EVERYTHING these days. We work long hours, the kids have soccer, scouts, chess club, fencing, always demanding to be driven to practice, and cheered on, and on and on, and on. Many a day I get home and the last thing I want to do is spend an hour cooking a meal, only having to clean up afterwards. It is so much easier to zap a frozen pizza. It even comes in its own little throw away plate.

Even our restaurants are convenient and fast. And I'm not just talking about McDonalds here. Even your nicer, sit-down restaurants get you in and out quick. The food is pre-prepared, the cook ready to fix the plate in under 15 minutes, the waiters move quickly. On your lunch break? Try the Speedy Gonzoles. Catching a movie afterwards? You can eat and have the check in half an hour.

Everything is prepackaged, ready to serve. They've mixed the jelly with the peanut butter. Heck, they've even got premade PB & Js now. Soup in a bowl, frozen pizza, hamburgers, nachos ready to go. Hit the drive through, eat while you drive. I'm waiting for new meals in an IV. Inject straight into your stomach. Saves all that chewing and swallowing. I don't know, it all seems a little crazy. I mean I understand how it happens. We are busy, the food is convenient. I'm part of it. I'd like to say I cook all of my meals. I'd like to say my pantry is filled with fresh, organic foods straight from the local farmer. But that stuff aint the truth. I'm working towards that goal, but I'm a long ways away.

So, do I buy into the demise of cooking? No, there are some lovely, wonderful chefs out there. Good people, cooking marvelous foods for their people. It's more like a little secret society these days. But they are out there. Like everything else in this world, the meals can get better, but it's gonna take work.

From: Eric Berlin
To: The Hot Topic Team
Re: Microwave Foodstuff

I'm part of the first generation that took for granted the convenience of the microwave. Whereas my parents grew up in the age of the icebox and stovetop, the "nuker" was an omnipresent fixture of my early years and remains a vital cog in my daily life.

And I fully admit that I'm addicted to the thing. From heating water in the morning for the first of two mugs of instant coffee to late night heating of whatever happens to be lying around the old refrigerator, it's hard for me to imagine life without easy access to heating stuff up.

My current addiction is Lean Pockets – as brilliantly over-processed and under-priced a food item as one is likely to find (someone should do a study, I say!) – particularly the Pepperoni Pizza variety. Here's how I break it down: three minutes for the two luscious pockets (inside their cozy "protective sleeves"), then the frozen mixed vegetables for 1:45 (if I had two microwaves I could double productivity at this stage). Combine the two items and add marinara sauce (note: the sauce comes straight from the fridge, which provides a reaction in which the sauce warms up and the aforementioned and partially completed entrée cools down.

Perfection – a Blue Plate Special of the Gods, served to man for a reasonable fee on the quick.

But seriously, the processed food thing is over-the-top and a serious problem in gluttonous, convenience-addicted America. As you can see, I'm a card carrying member of the club.

But to address your disgust of room temperature foods, Bennett: are you sure that these are items meant for the hallowed halls of microwavity? There are a bunch of products put out for campers and outdoorsy types nowadays that only require heated water. You boil water, throw it in the bag, mix up and seal, and a few minutes later you have yourself quite a tasty little dish. Seriously, I've had curry and stews whilst camping that are far better, dare I say, than my lovely Lean Pockets could ever aspire to.

The bloggers have had their say, now it's your chance to chip in!

Do you cook your own food, or do you 'wave' your tasty morsels? Is what you eat important to you, or would you prefer to take a pill and get on with the party? Do you care? Or perhaps more importantly, could you care less?

In the Middle: The CIA Leak Case

My blogcritic friends Eric Berlin and Phillip Winn have been writing a very intelligent, interesting, and bi-partisan political column for several weeks now. I normally don’t get political in this space, but it is so nice to see two intelligent people debate current issues without resorting to muck raking and name calling that I just *had* to post it.

Read it here.

The Hot Topic: Coffee and CDs

The Mondo Gentlemen's club has started a group discussion. It will hopefully run weekly and be on every topic under the sun. It will be hosted each week by a different member of the club, and the topic is to their choosing.

Parental Warning: This weeks topic, and probably future topics, contain some filthy curse words you aren't used to hearing around these parts. The Mondo Gentlemens club is for adults only, so if you are under age, or offended by humorous use of four letter words, tune out now. Brewster's Millions is usually a family friendly affair, but we don't believe in censorship, so The Duke's beautiful, filthy tongue remains uncut.


From: Greg Smyth
To: The Hot Topic
Re: Coffee and CDs

Dear Gang,

I've been hanging out in my local Starbucks way too much lately and I was perusing some flyers for their latest exclusive CD offering (a hideous slight on Herbie Hancock's genius). That set me wondering about if, were they actually selling anything I might want to purchase, would I be willing to buy my music from a coffee company?

Starbucks' appeal is that it sells you back the very thing you can get for practically no dollars right in your own living room – a cuppa joe in a homely environment. Setting aside the deep and potentially disturbing personal problems that might make you feel the need to buy into this fake lifestyle in the first place, part and parcel of the patented Starbucks experience is the idea of fitting into this Americanized, homogenized idea of respectable alt-cool. The idea being that, if you're in Starbucks, you're Hip and you Belong.

So far, so much bullshit. Now, to me, Starbucks selling music isn't actually the most devilish thing Corporate America has foisted on the world (a CLOWN, selling HAMBURGERS!? WTF?) and it fits with the whole Middle Of The Road aspirational lifestyle that also brought us GAP. The thing is, while Starbucks keeps plugging a new Alanis Morrissette album, I really couldn't give a rat's ass. I wouldn't buy it if they paid me. Likewise, the whole Dylan pseudo-controversy left me nonplussed, simply because (as good as he is) Bob Dylan is part of that whole Pasteurized American Monoculture.

So, when would it start bothering me? Well, call it cultural snobbery if you like (*hands up in surrender*) but the very second they start trying to flog me something cutting edge or indie or FUCKING GOOD, then I'll be pissed. If, assuming it ever sees the light of day, I was to walk into one of Newcastle's multiple Starbucks and find the debut album by Babyshambles going for a tenner when you buy a Venti Decaf Mochalocofrangipanifuckaluckachino with Soya Milk. THEN, I won't be responsible for my actions.

Good day.

From: Eric Berlin
To: The Hot Topic
Re: Coffee and CDs

I'm thrilled to be taking part in this little (dare I say alt-cool?) experiment. That said, let me hereby dish some chips as per request.

A great topic you've hit upon, one that's strangely and nearly disturbingly universal: Starbucks and monoculture and coffee (ah, an item close to my heart, that) and world dominion. And music! You had my head spinning, what with memories of crisscrossing the American south in the '90s and seeing the same set of megastores at every stop (Wal Mart, Old Navy, K Mart, Waffle House, next!), the first brilliant third of Fight Club, and many an afternoon huddled over a scribble pad (oh, how dark and mysterious he is, they think – writing a novel no one will ever read, let alone pay for – and drinking coffee in public, all at once!) at my local Starbucks. Well, there are technically two local Starbucks in my neighborhood, but I think you get my meaning.

And I hear you, as an avowed Starbucks junk fiend, with regard to purchasing music there. I suspect you'd agree that it would be akin to more securely and precisely positioning one's soul over the corporate hell pits. Just one Ray Charles & Friends compilation away from eternal damnation, right? We're all forced to tow the line in this scrambled advertisement-rich modern culture, I suppose.

The weird thing (the temptation, perhaps?) is that some of the music played at Starbucks is good. I've heard some great reggae and jazz and African rhythms that I'd likely never get the opportunity to experience otherwise, I'm (very) sorry to say.

So on the one hand, I might boil the Big Picture question to: how much of our souls are we willing to sell?

But then I'm forced to counter myself, Devil's Advocate-like, with: it's just coffee and music, so chill out, eh?

From: Aaron Fleming
To: The Hot Topic
Re: Coffee and CDs

It's hard not to repeat the frequent rhetoric espoused by anti-corporate activists and, well, anyone in the condition of sanity, but let me begin by saying corporate powerhouses (like Starbucks) will commence with any proceedure that has the chance of increasing profits, the bottom line is the most, and only, important unit in this equation. You could argue about governmental laws (national and international) but that only goes so far, and it could be easily stated that subliminal methods used in advertising/marketing/etc are much more powerful tools within the intention of profit maximisation (to which I'd agree).

With vast departments of employees working in these areas, the corporations are constantly evolving and developing new strategies, no demographic or sub-culture is safe from it's roaming tentacles. If I were feeling particularly anarchic right now I'd call for a major uprising to combat the machine, or at least for people to continue to strive for constructing a wall of defence against it. Of course there is plenty of that evident in society (anti-globalisation groups etc), but clearly far from enough to have any substantial effect, and, as corporate power expands, it only increases in difficulty.

So to Starbucks. This company has clearly hit gold with its image, the proliferation of music retail is just another part of this. Eric says that he has heard decent music in the outlets, consider that another success bestowed on the heads of those advanced marketeers. It's all image construction, as is the entire "Middle Of The Road aspirational lifestyle" that Greg discusses.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not faining some personal invincibility here, I too have heard commendable music in Starbucks, and have enjoyed sitting within it's stylish interiors (planned down to miniscule detail no doubt). I probably wouldn't buy music CD's in there, that's simply due to my musical tastes, but to use a hypothetic situation and assume there were a CD of liking seen to me, then I guess if it were a favourable price then I might indeed purchase said item.

Eric asks: how much of our souls are we willing to sell? The writhing consumerist chunk out to attain a bargain is my answer.

From: Mat Brewster
To: The Hot Topic
Re: Coffee and CDs

My initial, gut reaction is, why would anyone buy anything from Starbucks at any time? It's a giant corporation trying to pretend it is a local, place for hip cats. It's a faux-trendy mega-store selling brown sludge with a 200% mark-up.

Confession #1: I don't like coffee. I hate the look of it. I hate the smell of it. I hate the whole hipster-trendy feel of it. And I certainly, without a doubt, hate the taste of it. And for all you people out there ready to offer me the new vanilla/caramel mocho-choca-froca latee-achino with a twist, claiming it tastes just like hot chocolate and you can't even taste the coffee – stop wasting your time. It tastes exactly like coffee, and it is all nasty. Guess what? If I want something that tastes like hot chocolate, I'll buy some freaking hot chocolate.

The confession comes in because not liking coffee kind of puts a damper on actually wanting to go to a coffee shop. I don't think I've ever actually set foot into a stand alone Starbucks shop.

Confession #2: I have actually made a purchase at Starbucks. It wasn't at a stand alone Starbucks, but one of those coffee bars inside a Barnes and Nobles, or Borders or whatever giant book corporations they set up shop in. And I know, I know, giant book selling corporations are evil too. I do frequent my fabulous local book shop, but I still like the big corporations for the lounging, browsing opportunities they provide.

Sitting in those giant leather chairs with my Calvin and Hobbes collection, or the complete works of Raymond Chandler, I often feel the desire to have a warm, chocolaty beverage. When this happens, I have to admit, I pay way too much for a little cocoa, and sometimes that cocoa comes from a Starbucks.

Confession #3: I bough a coffee at a Starbucks just yesterday. I went through the drive through, thus not falsifying my "never been to a stand alone Starbucks" schpeel, and the coffee was for a friend, whom I happened to owe a couple of bucks.

Enough ranting and onto the question at hand, would I ever buy music from Starbucks? Not frequenting the franchise that is hard to answer. I honestly, didn't even know they sold music. So, I think I'll change it around to something like:

What if the Antichrist herself, Oprah, put one of my favorite authors books in her book club, would I buy it?

In both cases, I think it comes down to whether or not the product is available from any other market. I'm not buying a rehashed Ray Charles greatest hits package from Starbucks, because I can get his music elsewhere. I don't need to buy any Steinbeck from Oprah, either. There are plenty of other copies around. But if Lyle Lovett puts out a Starbucks only disks, then I guess, I'd have to start drinking coffee.

In the end if Starbucks, or Oprah are bringing wonderful artist to a broader audience than they'd ever get without them, that's a good thing.

From: Bennet Dawson
To: The Hot Topic
Re: Coffee and CDs

You gotta look at the birthplace of Starbucks (the rainy Pacific Northwest), and the original market of the super-strong coffee industry to understand a bit about why this phenomenon has taken hold. During my days in Seattle, the chill, the numb, and the gray and cloudy week, after week. It sucks the life outta your day and you need stimulants or you will die. After a year my personal Cobainesque urge to end it all was barely held at bay by the six caffeine-charged bevvies that I picked up at whatever chichi outlet happened by, and there's one on every corner. Double shots of espresso mixed into frothy hot milk, plain dark coffee, or some choco-latte richness that sustains and excites both my body, and my weather dulled synapses.

The strong coffee addiction persists to this day, even though I've moved on to sunnier locales. French roast brewed strong enough to melt a plastic spoon, a Krupps Mini-Espresso Machine for those all night jitters of creative madness, the *click* of my brain turning on (after only a half a mug) in the wee hours of the morning, and the unparalleled ability of a strong "cuppa joe" to push the haze of too many late-night beers into the distant past.

All hail Caffeine! And to the purveyors of ultra-strong brews I say Thank-ya! Turkish? Oh yeah.

Living in a rural area, the closest Starbucks is now a distant hours drive. It's tucked into the streetside corner of a Barnes & Nobles, and I see it only when looking to expand my library. But the allure is gone. The hapless yearning to meet someone interesting no longer drives my life. The biscotti beckon, but the corporate atmosphere pales when compared to the warmth and comfort of my own private place. Alas, I hear no music as I chase the register down and scoot out of the store with something guaranteed to provide hours of pleasure and escape. CD's? Music? If they're selling, I'm not buying.

Years ago, perhaps. But only if I was still single, still looking for the One. And only if the gal behind the counter looked like a potential snuggle. "Alternative? Sounds great!" But she'd have to smile real purty, and suggest that the purchase would bring us closer to the love, closer to the end of the numbness that comes with living in Seattle.

From: Duke DeMondo
To: The Hot Topic
Re: Coffee and CDs

What this whole brouhaha has me remembering is the time I was sat in Starbucks back in the day, sippin some gargantuan mug a foam and reading some toss or other about zombies. What happened was that next thing I knew, holy shit, it’s Cold Roses by Ryan Adams And The Cardinals blaring out the speakers!

(Well, whispering out.)

What in fucks name to do?

It felt odd, and this gets back to Greg’s concern. I don’t mind shite or at least Old Stuff That Everyone Knows fillin the airwaves in these places, but hearin the new Ryan Adams record in such a cripplingly bland, safe, pseudo-BoHo hive, it did the arse of my soul a good deal of frazzlement.

In the end, what I did was I made sure everyone could see that I knew every word, and the smugness afforded by this, well, it made it all worthwhile.

But you have to start worrying when Starbucks are endorsing records, because not only does it mean that said records have become incredibly hip amongst the kinda vacant terrors who yack about “World Music” (yeah, I’m with David Byrne on that one), but also, it means they’re probably fairly safe and unthreatening.

But part of me also thinks it’s a good thing that these cats are getting turned on to Dylan and the like whilst huddled round the tables sharing a thimble-fulla yak’s milk on account of they’re all school-kids and broke.

It’s the old Us And Them thing. I fucking hate the thought of Our Stuff being bounded ‘pon by these faceless fucks, but at the same time, I’d rather hear Ryan Adams when I’m sippin an overpriced milk / mint / caffeine abomination than, say, 50 Cent.

It would, however, pain me to find out the next Todd Snider record was only available at Starbucks, for example, because not only does it mean he’s gone back on all that leftist pot-soaked banter and instead focused on making money offa leftist-for-a-day pot-soaked posers, but it also means One Of Us has gone gotten snared by the fuckers.

It’s bad enough that Jack White’s writing songs for fucking Coke.

I mean I exist on nothing BUT Diet Coke, but God Almighty, I don’t want Jack White writing the advert music.

(And yeah, it pains me also that Ryan Adams did the GAP ad, that Dylan did Victoria’s Secret, and the whole Bill Hicks “Off the artistic roll-call forever” thing would apply if not for the fact that fuck my eyes, it’s Dylan and Ryan Adams! They can do whatever the hell they want.)

Still, I never did buy that Starbucks Dylan CD. I woulda done had it been the complete Gaslight tapes, but ten tracks when I already have the 17-track bootleg seems like a whole lotta nothing. Even WITH enhanced sound.

And I must point out that I have yet to see that Morissette record in a Starbucks, but it’s in the HMV in town. Curious…

Alas, I can’t go into the why’s and wherefores of how come I can’t get a fucking “large” anything anymore, on account of the ladies at the door needin a crate of speed for the weekend.

(Being sober has it’s advantages, since the ladies know they can trust a fella to get the job done efficiently and with little or no puke.)

The Great Pumpkin

It is tradition that Amy and I throw a pumpkin carving party around Halloween. It started as a party of two, me and her carving our own pumpkins. In time roommates joined the festivities, and eventually we decided to have real parties.

It has become quite an annual event with lots of people, food, drinks and prizes given for the best pumpkin.

After a year off, via Strasbourg, we were very excited to host a new party this year. It was different this year for a few reasons. For the first time since dating we are both living in an apartment instead of a house. This keeps the carving located in smaller areas inside our living quarters. Our previous home had a very large covered porch in which all types of participants could go wild.

This was also the first time I’ve invited anyone from my work. For years I’ve kept my business life apart from my personal one. But for varying reasons, mainly the lack of any friends in the outside work world, I decided to invite a few folks I work with to the festivities.

Inviting people at work is harder than it appears. I don’t have the space, nor inclination to invite everyone I work with. As a supervisor I can’t show favoritism to anyone while working, and this has the potential to spill over into my personal life. So I had to carefully choose a few kind folks, and then secretly invite them.

Amy invited a few folks from the French department making it a unique mix of French, French-Canadians, intellectuals, and the working stiff.

It’s always funny to me that Amy and I spend a large quantity of cash buying food and prizes, hours of our time cleaning the house, preparing food and making the proper musical arrangements, all for what amounts to a couple of hours of fun.

The party started at six and by five we had already had a few call outs. Surprise visits by grandparents, deaths in the family, and horribly late veterinarians all were keeping folks away from our party.

Around seven we had enough people to call it a party. We munched, and drank and mingled. We then spread out the plastic coverings and got down to business. Amazingly, several people confessed to having never carved a single pumpkin.

An easy victory, I would have thought had it not been for the appearance of Travis, my arch enemy in pumpkin carving. Travis has been carving pumpkins for as long as he’s been able to hold a miniature blade and usually beats the pants off of everyone.

Patterns were chosen, stem cut out, and pumpkin guts were strewn into bowls all over the flat. Some chose to trace their patterns with marker, others tapes the patterns on and cut through them, and still others used the poke tiny holes method.

Half-way through I realized my legs had fallen asleep while sitting on the floor. I have rather poor blood circulation and my appendages have a tendency to go numb if I sit still for too long.

Standing up, I realized I could feel neither leg as my right foot literally bent all the way over to the ankle. Trying to rebalance myself I felt the world turn as I fell towards it. Like an old man I crashed against our big CD shelf and prayed that neither it or the clock on top would come crashing down.

With a good thump I landed on the floor. Embarrassed and with the entire house looking at me wish shock, I managed to yelp out and “I’m Ok” and get back on my feet.

With that excitement over we all finished our pumpkins and were ready for the judging. Through secret ballot we all vote on our favorite carvings. Travis did a marvelous hanging bat that got a whirlwind of oohs and ahs. I must admit though he was my nemesis, I voted for him.

I, myself, went for a complicated scary tree, that Amy dubbed Treebeard. I was a little hesitant as I cut him out, worrying that my year off had atrophied my ability to carve something more than a smiling face.

But with candle inside, Treebeard won me the victory! First prize in my own home! Being the host I let Travis, second prize winner, have his choice between the prizes: The 10th anniversary edition of Toy Story, and the complete works of Curious George.

Book Review: The Simpsons One Step Beyond Forever: A Complete Guide to Our Favorite Family…Continued Yet Again

I am, what the kids call, a Simpsons fan. It easily falls in to my All Time Top 5 Television Shows ever list. It has a rotating slot with Cheers for the Number 1 spot on that list.

When The Simpsons moved from it's Sunday night slot to Thursday night, throwing the gauntlet at The Cosby Show in a no-holds bar grudge match, it split my family apart. Mom and Dad stayed in the living room in front of the main TV with the Huxtables, while my brother and I huddled together in the back bedroom watching the Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie.

I’ve been taping The Simpsons for as long as they’ve been on. I’ve got a shelf dedicated to warn VHS recordings of the show. New episodes, syndicated reruns, with commercials, commercial free and several dubbed in French from the time my wife spent in Montreal. It was with great pleasure that I met the news that FOX was releasing each season on DVD.

When we spent 10 months in Strasbourg, France and were without television, we spent our lunches, suppers and free time watching DVDs on the laptop computer. Only the first four seasons were out at that time and we wore them out. Having already spent the last 10 years+ watching these episodes, we continued to watch the Simpson shenanigans on an almost daily basis.

I must admit that after about 6 months of those episodes we did get a little tired of them. At about two dozen viewings of each episode though, that’s not a bad track record for a TV show.

For any fan of the show the Complete Guides to Our Favorite Family series is indispensable. Each book has covered several seasons of The Simpsons in the minutest of details.

The Simpsons One Step Beyond Forever: A Complete Guide to Our Favorite Family…Continued Yet Again covers seasons 13 and 14. It is the best companion piece you’ll ever find to the series, and nearly as good as having every episode, uncut and restored on DVD.

The layout is similar to the previous books. Every episode for these two seasons is fully covered giving plot synopsis and the best quotes. All of the movie/music/TV/literary references, both obvious and obscure, and listed as well as a section dedicated to “the stuff you might have missed.”

The Simpsons are what creator Matt Groening calls the first VCR television show. There are so many quick sight gags in each episode – be it a church marquee reading “if you were pastor you’d be home right now” to the Simpsons staying at the Second Best Western hotel – you have to rewind and pause the VCR, er DVR to catch them all. That is, unless you have this book which captures every gag in every episode.

Along with episode guides there is the completely listing of every uttering of Homer’s “D’oh” or “Mmmmm” (mmmmm…unexplained bacon), couch gags, song lyrics and virtually anything you’d ever want to know about the show.

Sure, seasons 13 and 14 do not contain the best episodes ever. They even generated an influx of jumping the shark accusations. I certainly yelped out a few groans over less than stellar episodes. However, there are still a good number of classic episodes in these season (The Blunder Years where, under hypnosis Homer regresses back to his 12th year and winds up screaming like a child – for hours; or How I Spent My Summer Vacation with Homer going to Rock n Roll camp – Mick Jagger “Homer, its only rock n roll camp” Homer “But I like it” – immediately come to mind.

One Step Beyond Forever continues the excellent tradition of documenting every nuance of one of the greatest shows to hit television…ever.

On Chat, Lead Poisoning, and FBI Raids

Ok, I have several stories that I want to tell involving a job I had several years ago. The problem is, that to make any sense of those stories you have to have some information concerning the job and what I did. So the first half of this post may be a little tedious, but it is completed with a grand tale of intrigue. Tell me you like it and I'll fill some later posts with crazy, mad tales from the same time.

Between the years 1999-2000 I worked in NE Oklahoma, a desolate, desperate, depressed area. . For the better part of the last century this section of the country was mined for various metals, including lead. The lead mining in this community was so enormous they say there is enough underground tunnels that if you laid them all out in a straight line you would drive halfway across the country.

The displaced soil from these tunnels, what the locals call chat, and which consists mainly of small bits of rock and lead, has been placed on top of each other forming great mountain like piles. There are large sections of the area that look a lot like parts of Arizona and Nevada that you can see in old John Wayne movies. It was really quite beautiful and spooky.

Loads of chat from these "mountains" was used throughout the community to fill in drive ways, roads, and to smooth out yards. This added to the already high levels of lead contamination in the soil, causing extensive health problems for the community.

We've all heard about the dangers of lead poisoning from old water pipes, paint and even old dishes. Well this community not only had lead in all of those places, but in the very ground they walked upon, and the air that they breathed. Children are especially susceptible to lead contamination, and in fact, there was a high rate of related health problems in the area.

The EPA (that’s Environmental Protection Agency to you non yanks) moved in and decided they needed to do something about it. Through the US Army Corps of Engineers they hired the company I worked for to do the clean up. We went to each property, tested the soil and if the soil was contaminated we removed it and backfilled with clean soil.

My job was insurance. I came to the property before any work was done and documented any pre-existing damage to the homes inside, outside and underneath. I took digital photos, shot video and filled out a long checklist documenting any damage that existed to the houses, land and anything sitting on the land. So, if a homeowner decided to sue my company because we caused some damage to their home, we would have proof that it was damaged long before we go there.

And believe me, there was often plenty of pre-existing damage. Like I said this was a very depressed area. The mining companies had long since left, leaving the few members of the community who wanted to remain with very few means of surviving.

Even though we were doing about $30000 worth of work to these properties and charging the homeowners absolutely nothing (it was a superfund site meaning the $$ didn't come from tax dollars, either, but rather from donations to the EPA and from fines they had levied upon various companies) some of the homeowners hated us. To them here was big government coming in to take over their lives. Or to a few others here was big money government whom they could sue and get rich off of. After a few months with the local paper writing semi-weekly articles on how we were causing water damage to the houses we worked on (in my inspecting I found that more than half of the homes I inspected had inches of water standing under their crawlspace) the complaints from homeowners became more frequent. I once literally had to take a complaint from a lady who said there was water in her yard that morning….it had poured some 4 inches of rain that very morning!)

At any rate tension were pretty high between the townspeople, my company, and the federal government.

One day, while out on assignment, I heard over the walkie-talkies we used to communicate a call to one of the foremen that he needed to head back to the office. A few minutes later a similar call came to the other foremen. Then one of the Army Corps of Engineers was called back to the office.

I felt all this was peculiar, but I was a small fry in the company and continued with my work. I needed to head back to the office a bit later and did so with no worries. I imagined there was some kind of onsite accident that needed the attention of the bigger wigs.

Since it was construction work, our onsite offices were noting but a group of trailers. As I drove back to the office I noticed a large number of cars lining the sides of the street. This, too was a bit unusual, but not that rare. A funeral home was located nearby and periodically the streets would be line down the road for a funeral. There were a number of people also standing by the side of the road, and though unusual, I didn't see anything completely askew at this point.

I slowed down to make the turn into my office complex. Just as I was turning I noticed one very large man walking across the street towards my building. On the back of his jacket, in bright white letters read:


Holy crap! What is that guy doing here? I wondered.

I parked and headed to my friend Sandy's trailer, expecting she would know something. I walked into her office only to find that Sandy was no there, but instead, two more, very large men with even larger pistols strapped to their sides were searching through the office.

One of them turned to me as I entered and asked very abruptly, what I wanted. I timidly said I was looking for my friend and U-turned it straight out.

When I entered my building, which was the main trailer on site I was greeted by Sandy, the project Engineer, my boss and various other office workers. They were all lined against a wall, sitting on the floor.

Moving like ants whose hill has just been stomped on, a variety of FBI, IRS and Federal Marhsalls were zipping throughout the building. One, enormous male, stopped long enough to tell me to join the others against the wall. They were digging through all of our files, and collecting them for removal. They were even downloading everything off of our computers and confiscating the hard drives. No one would tell us precisely what they were looking for.

We were told we could not leave the premises until the search was complete.

Outside the line of cars I had seen previously, grew. Large masses of people stood across the street, staring at this circus. Media from Joplin, Missouri and Tulsa came up with their video cameras.

At around 7 that evening the officers finally let us all go home, still not willing to tell us just what they were looking for. They had essentially stripped all of our offices of every piece of data we had used over the last couple of years.

It was several months later when I found out that one of the top folks from my company had been bilking the government out of huge sums of money. Apparently this guy filled out work orders for things never completed. Added fake names to work lists, etc.

I believe they finally gave up on the cleanup and simply paid for everyone in the community to move.

DVD Review: Suicide Club

Fifty four Japanese school-girls stand on a train platform, holding hands, singing and laughing. As the train approaches they clasp their hands tighter, and in sing song fashion start to count. As the train arrives, the counting stops and all 54 of them jump in front of the train. Buckets of blood and guts spray the train, the passengers and the people passing by.

Later, another group of teenagers sit on the roof of a school building during their lunch break. They are eating and laughing and looking like happy school children. Conversations turn to the 54 and how cool it would be to form their own suicide circle. Amongst much joking and good time having, a crew decides to end their lives then and there. Standing on the edge of the rooftop they hold hands and plunge their way to the bottom. Buckets of blood and guts spray all over the school grounds, teachers and students.

Amongst the bloodletting are some scenes about a tyke pop group whose Britney Spearesque pop wailings are irresistible to every teen. Adults everywhere do their best to quash any talk about the deaths being a part of a suicide club movement. All of which builds on a developing theme involving societies herd mentality.

Call it Japanese horror with a message.

The cops have to rule all of these deaths as accidents for there seems to be no foul play involved. That is until a bag filled with little rectangles of skin sewn together shows up. Then the suicides become the matter of detective work.

The detectives begin getting calls from a cyber savvy woman who seems to know more than she lets on, calling herself the Bat. She leads the detectives to an internet site keeping a count of the suicides before they actually happen. One of the detective's kids finds another site with some peculiar type clues.

Call it Japanese horror, detective thriller with a message.

Through all this shocking, blood splattering suicidal carnage continues to occur.

The detectives find a suspect who acts like a cross between Ziggy Stardust and Graham Norton. He's definitely a bad fellow, what with the squishing of animals, kidnapping and the random sexing with girls wrapped in pillow cases lying in a bowling alley. But he may not behind all the suicides.

Call it Japanese horror, detective thriller by way of a gay Asian MTV, with a message.

In the end we're left with nary an explanation of the suicides, but that's not really the point anyway. There is lots of gory violence if you like that kind of thing. And let's be honest if you are taking the time to search out a copy of a relatively obscure Japanese horror film called Suicide Club, you probably do. There are gobs of creepy, moody suspense, with some very dark humor thrown in. All mixed in with some pretty in your face, and spot on social commentary.

What's not to love?

Dinosaur Jr Announce New Tour, DVD

It was my freshman year of college, say August of 1994, my parents had just started the 800 odd mile trek back to Oklahoma. I didn't know a soul. After a few freak out moments, I sucked it up, threw on my lucky Dinosaur Jr. T-shirt, circa Where You Been, and headed down to the cafeteria.

While pressing my glass against the lever for some Mr. Pibb, a tall brunette also wearing a Dinosaur Jr. shirt, smiled and said, "Nice shirt."

"Thanks" I muttered. "You too."

My first serious, long term relationship was born. The band lasted longer than the relationship, but not much. The break up was about as bitter though. And to boot, she walked away with all of my Dinosaur Jr. records.

Dinosaur Jr. was born out of the ashes of the hardcore punk scene in the early 80's.Taking its cues from the Hardcore Scene with a little New Wave and Goth thrown in, Dinosaur released their first album in July 1995.

Not long after lead singer and guitarist dumped bassist Lou Barlow and drummer Murph and created a new trio, while keeping the name. This set a president over the next several years and albums where Mascis became Dinosaur Jr. while playing with an every changing roster of musicians. We didn't care though, for like Spin magazine declared:

J Mascis is God

In March 2005 coinciding with the re-release of the bands first three albums (Dinosaur, You're Living All Over Me, and Bug) Mascis announced that he'd be playing a few dates with original band mates Barlow and Murph. Unlike my relationship with that first girl friend, it seems these boys have reconciled. By all accounts it was a very successful tour.

New tour dates in Chicago and New York have been announced, along with the release of the very first Dinosaur Jr DVD. The DVD will be shot during the bands 2 night stand in New York City. It should include not only loads of live concert performance, but also never before seen footage of the band back stage, and one-on-one interviews. It is set to be released in early 2006.

As a sort-of preparation for the DVD filming, Mascis and crew will be performing two shows at Chicago's Metro.

Specific detais are as follow:

Tuesday, November 29th and Wednesday, November 30th
8:00pm (Doors @ 7:00pm)
3730 North Clark, Chicago
Tickets $28.50 / Ages 18+ Welcome
For more information please call 773.549.0203
Friday, December 2nd and Saturday, December 3rd
Special DVD Filming
9:00pm (Doors @ 8:00pm)
Irving Plaza
17 Irving Place, New York
Tickets $30.00 / All Ages Welcome

For more information please contact 212.777.6817
You can purchase tickets online at:

A Little Rudimentary Tinkering

Alright, so I made this big deal out of turning this blog into some kind of pop culture haven during my post France adventures.

Then I failed at producing it.

Turns out I'm tired. I mean like pretty stinking exhausted. My work schedule is nuts. I work some nights, some days, and some middle afternoons. In my time off I attempt to be a husband. For sure I've got plenty of ideas rattling around my brain, but when I sit at the computer screen I'm too pooped to even attempt to type out something of interest.

So, I'm rethinking my blog once again. I have no desire to type about my day. So don't freak out thinking you're about to get the details of my last bowel movement. But at the same time reviews are time consuming. I really put a lot of thought into them. I originally thought I could write two or three reviews a week. And I was really digging the concept of the classic movie review. But, alas, I've just not been able to pull it off.

What to do is the question. What the answer is yet, I don't know. A blog is pretty dang useless if there aren't regular updates. If its not reviews then it may be stories of old, or stories of new. But, still I gotta actually write it. Maybe this will go the way of the dinosaur, and I'll throw in reviews no and then, hoping to build up something in a few years.

Meanwhile, while you wait, check out this trailer for what appears to be a really upbeat flick.