Impossible Nation

Things have been relatively quiet and uneventful here, as Sacramento’s rainy winter shifts into spring.  I recently spent a couple of weeks in Québec City, visiting my in-laws and their two sons (one and a half and one month old, respectively).  I discovered that newborns love pats on the back…lots and lots of pats on the back.

Matt and Kristy rent a place from a couple of québécois professors on sabbatical, who left behind an extensive book collection.  A couple of days before heading back to California I picked up one of the books on their shelf, Ray Conlogue’s Impossible Nation: The Search for Homeland in Canada and Quebec. Conlogue, an Anglophone Canadian who has lived for the past few years in Montreal, wrote the book in reaction to Quebec’s 1995 independence referendum (which nearly passed). He surveys English- and French-language Canadian literature for evidence of Canada’s struggle to come to terms with itself as a bilingual country.  Conlogue’s book reads like the best sort of literature-inclined interpretive essay, a well-written textual commentary in the tradition of Octavio Paz’s The Labyrinth of Solitude and Sérgio Buarque de Holanda’s Roots of Brazil.  I came away from Conlogue’s book with a long reading list of Canadian novels, poetry collections, and histories, as well as the stark realization that Americans, even American literature professors, know next to nothing about Canadian literature, remaining oftentimes totally unaware that those Canadian writers (Margaret Atwood) or critics (Northrop Frye) whose work we are familiar with are not American, or English, or something other than Canadian. We know even less about Canadian current affairs (who’s the Prime Minister, again? Answer: Stephen Harper), though we’re pretty sure we know which Hollywood celebrities are Canadian (Michael J. Fox, Jim Carrey), but there are some we’re just not sure about.  “Isn’t Hugh Jackman Canadian?  I know he’s something or other…”

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Rob’s commentary

I’ve got nothing substantive to add to the site as far as full-length, single topic posts, but here are some tidbits you all might find interesting:

Miserablism: Sacramento made Forbes’s Most Miserable Cities List, coming in at #5.  Rounding out the top five were three other NorCal/interior cities, Stockton (1), Merced (3), and Modesto (4).  As the Sacramento Bee reports, “Forbes gauged each place’s pain by looking at 10 factors: unemployment rate, violent crime, home prices, foreclosures, sales tax, income tax, corruption, weather, commute times, and local sports team performance.”

Now I love badmouthing Sacramento, and I can understand nailing the city on its horrendously high unemployment rate, surprisingly unaffordable real estate, and the Kings’ pathetic performance this season, but commute times?  My commute to Davis is never longer than 20 minutes, and you can get to Berkeley in 45.  This isn’t the Bay Area, folks.  And on the upside, our location (between the Sierra, wine country and the bay) is pretty unbeatable, as is the fact that I can run in shorts and a t-shirt all winter, and never have to shovel snow.  Also, I just categorically refuse to believe that Sacramento is more miserable than Flint, MI, Detroit, or Cleveland.

Fugazi it ain’t: Steven Hyden at AV Club is finishing up a pretty excellent series, “Whatever Happened to Alternative Nation?”, which is part personal reflection, part rock criticism, and not nearly as boring or self-indulgent as “part personal reflection, part rock criticism” sounds.  You should check it out:

Whatever Happened…

Dynamite Steps: Speaking of 90′s music – which it always seems that I am – Greg Dulli’s awesome Twilight Singers have a new album, Dynamite Steps, coming out.  As is to be expected, the first single, “On the Corner” – which knowing Dulli’s music nerd proclivities, must be a Miles Davis reference – rocks.  Dulli is a master of big-sounding, moody rock, and “On the Corner” is in the tradition.  Listen here:

\”On the Corner\”

Freedom: I just finished Jonathan Franzen’s mammoth new novel Freedom.  I’m not sure if y’all are into literary realism or fiction about middle class angst.  If so, you should really check this out.  It’s an Anna Karenina for the 2010s!  While I’d like to think of myself as more of a Richard Katz, I’m afraid I’m a Walter Berglund.

Cracking down: Apparently Tokyo has adopted an ordinance that restricts the sale of manga portraying pre-pubescent girls in sexual situations.  While there are two sides to every story, I can’t imagine that there’s anything wrong with cracking down on this kind of smut.  Anyone with more comics/manga knowledge than I do have anything to add?

Sacramento restaurant idea: Al Pastor

Summary: Al Pastor would be an intentionally rough-looking, hole-in-the-wall cantina located in Sacramento, with maybe six to eight small tables for four, a bar with six or so stools, and an area off to the side and behind the bar, with space for two to three rotating vertical spits, where tacos al pastor are prepared.  For reference, tacos al pastor are a variety of taco made from marinated shaved pork, cooked on a rotating vertical spit.  The shaved meat is placed in small soft tortillas and garnished with some combination of onion, cilantro, pineapple, and radish.

Market rationale: Though the most popular type of taco in Mexico, tacos al pastor are for some incomprehensible reason almost entirely absent from California. My theory is that the vertical spits are expensive to man (hence lower profit margin versus regular tacos), with possible additional barriers to entry having to do with permitting and health code issues. What passes for a taco al pastor in California is generally made of marinated meat cooked on a grill, not on a vertical spit.  The grill variety is a pale imitation of the real deal.  I think that if exposed to real tacos al pastor, Californians would come in droves.

Hours: 12 pm-2 am.  Open late at night to draw in drunk hipsters.

Location: Hopefully in midtown Sacramento, preferably next to a bar (like the Press Club or Old Ironsides).

Food: The essence of Al Pastor would be the extreme simplicity of its menu: there is no menu.  The only thing to eat are tacos al pastor, prepared by three experienced taqueros whose sole responsibility is manning the spit.  Taqueros are skilled craftsmen, and their dedication to making exceptional tacos al pastor would be a main selling point for the Al Pastor. Hiring taqueros who are really exceptional at their job and providing them with great meat and equipment would be the key to the cantina’s success.  If possible, these should be grizzled, older guys who radiate the sort of uncompromising, weathered masculine authenticity that will (hopefully) appeal to hipsters.

But as far as I’m concerned, real tacos al pastor sell themselves. Maybe one of the spits could vary by day (i.e. a different meat, marinade, etc.), but for the most part, traditional tacos al pastor would be the only thing to eat.  There would be no other Mexican dishes, no concessions to vegetarians, no sides, and no tortilla chips.  Remember, the watchword is authenticity.  Instead, there would be cantina-style chili and lime crusted peanuts on each table.  A taco would go for something like $1.50 a pop, with the average meal between 3-5 tacos ($4.50-$7.50).  You order at the bar, and pick up at the bar.  No waiters.

Non-alcoholic drinks: Tap water and jamaica (hibiscus) juice made by someone’s grandma. Nothing else.

Alcohol: Mexican beer (Sol, Tecate), American beer (PBR, Anchor Steam), one brand of “house tequila” served in nasty looking jars, one brand of mescal, and Jack Daniels.  You can get your beer served as a chelada or michelada, i.e. served in a glass with lime juice, salt, and maybe Worchester sauce. There are no margaritas, there is no wine.

Décor: Dingy concrete with Mexican bullfighting posters on the wall.  There’s a TV, perpetually tuned to some Mexican soccer team no one cares about (Puebla, for example – this is appropriate, since tacos al pastor may have originated there).  If someone attempts to change the channel, a very large, tatooed Mexican bouncer will make sure he does otherwise.  There’s also a jukebox, which consists entirely of Mexican oldies, classic American country (Cash, Hank Williams, etc.), and old school punk rock (the Clash, Social Distortion, etc.).

The darker side of soft rock

First of all, I apologize for my utter inability to embed youtube clips in my posts.  I really can’t figure out why this is, but it’s safe to say that it has to do with some aspect of my computer illiteracy.  Hopefully Zach can show me how it’s done once he’s back from his transpacific jaunt to China.

Anyway, my more or less recent post on Steely Dan’s “Do It Again,” combined with the more recent death of musician Gerry Rafferty, has gotten me thinking about a curious feature of 1970s soft rock. If you construct a little mini-canon of some of the more sonically adventurous and less overtly annoying examples of the genre, you quickly discover just how dark and twisted some of the music you tend to hear while a dentist is drilling your teeth can be.  I’m going to punt, for now, on the question of why so much of this stuff tends toward the frankly depressing (and why the music-loving public gravitated toward it anyway), and just cite some representative examples:

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Do It Again

Commercial radio is truly a gold mine for unintentional irony.  I was cruising around Sacramento this morning listening to classic rock chestnut “Do It Again,” which in true Steely Dan fashion tells a disturbing story of bad decisions, dependence and obsession over a silky smooth jazz-funk rhythm track.  The last verse goes like this:

Now you swear and kick and beg us
That you’re not a gamblin’ man
Then you find you’re back in Vegas
With a handle in your hand
Your black cards can bring you money
So you hide them when you’re able
In the land of milk and honey
You must put them on the table

After unceremoniously cutting off the song’s outro, whatever meathead DJ was on duty around 10 am today enthusiastically announced the station’s exciting giveaway, for a weekend of fun in, you guessed it, Las Vegas.  Oops.

Lighting a fire

I didn’t want to dislodge “Birthday Sex” from the announce box, but this is the sort of post that should probably have gone there – oh well.  A question: what’s been getting into the Obama administration/lame duck Congress lately?  Here’s a summary of major legislation passed or signed into law in the last couple of weeks:

  • Health care for 9/11 emergency responders
  • Senate approval of nuclear arms reduction with Russia (approved by a whopping 71-26)
  • Repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell”
  • FDA Food Safety Modernization Act
  • Extension of Bush-era tax cuts/unemployment benefits

With the exception of the tax cuts, the Democrats in Congress seem to have railroaded the Republicans into passing their initiatives (including a landmark civil rights victory) with almost zero political capital, and after GOP lawmakers announced that they would dig in and resist passage.  Shouldn’t it be the Republicans doing the strong-arming, and the Democrats losing their backbone and caving in to pressure?  After months in the political wilderness, Obama seems to have gotten his mojo back.  It will be interesting to see what happens (or doesn’t) in terms of legislation when Congress reconvenes after the new year.  I’m hoping for serious action on deficit reduction and passage of the Dream Act, but I’m not holding my breath for either.

Stealing Ross’s Thunder: Going Out on a Limb

I liked Ross’s “Going Out on a Limb” idea so much that I’ve decided to cannibalize it, and collect some questionable opinions and bold, perhaps groundless statements I’ve made over the years, and see what you think.  Here are some of the ones that come to mind, with my own assessment of whether or not I was right:

(c. 1998) We will never see in our lifetime a U.S. president as effective as Bill Clinton.

While evaluating this rather depressing claim hinges in a rather Clintonian manner on your definition of “effective,” I think that I’ve been proven right so far.  George W. Bush, I think, will go down as a colossal failure, and Obama certainly doesn’t have the Clinton touch in dealing with Congress.

(c. 1998) I will major in economics in college.

Wrong.  I gave economics about two years of my life before realizing that my mathematical skills and intuitive grasp of markets were nowhere near where they needed to be in order to make it in this field (see also prediction #7).

(c. 2000) Man, the new Smashing Pumpkins album is awesome!

I’m pretty sure that Machina/The Machines of God was roundly panned by critics and is reviled by most Pumpkins fans, but I had never really been a Pumpkins fan prior to Machina, so there was nothing to prejudice me against this album, which I found refreshingly streamlined and well-played, with a nice balance of metallic rock and pretty, gauzy pop songs.  There’s something refined about the Pumpkins’ final album (pre-reunion), as if Billy Corgan had arrived at the final distillation of the band’s sound.  There’s something to be said for that.

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Rob’s Commentary

Killer Instinct: Kelley, Zach and I saw the first part of the French gangster epic Mesrine yesterday afternoon at the Crest Theatre.  Based on the exploits of real French criminal Jacques Mesrine, Killer Instinct (Mesrine part I) reaches its loony climax when Mesrine and his Quebecois fellow criminal try to bust some friends out of a Montreal-area prison in broad daylight (and not long after they themselves escaped) armed only with a couple of guns, some grenades, and a pick-up truck. A full review of Mesrine will follow after I see part II, Public Enemy Number 1.  The review may be combined with a review of a very different recent French film, the hilarious and strangely agonizing documentary Kings of Pastry, about a sadistically difficult pastry competition held every four years in France.

Dreaming of Providence: Lately almost all of my dreams have been of wandering through Providence, Rhode Island, where I lived for ten years and which I haven’t visited in over a year.  What’s so fascinating and disturbing about the dreams is my extreme familiarity with the area (the dreams mostly take place on the Brown campus and the intersection between Benefit and College streets, about halfway up College Hill), which is much more apparent to me in my dreams than when I think about Providence when awake.  That vividness gives me the feeling, when I’m dreaming, that Providence as I remember it is so familiar that I should be there and that I’m missing something by not being there.  I think that it’s taken these dreams to realize how much I miss the city where I spent almost the entirety of my adult life thus far (1998-2008).

More Miguel Torga: ”How we lose ourselves!  The language that I understand in my blood – is this. The food that my stomach craves – is this.  The land my feet know how to walk on – is this.  And yet I am no longer from here.  I seem to be one of those trees that when transplanted, suffers poor health in its new home, but that dies when it returns to the land of its birth.”