The Voice of Cheese

1. I had picked Michigan State to win the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament this year, which is why they got bounced last night. As a nice measure of vindication, their men’s hockey team lost 3-1 this afternoon to tiny Union College of Schenectady, New York. When we first moved to New York in 1993, my office was a couple of blocks from the Union campus, and when the weather was nice, I would go buy some bread and cheese at Perreca’s Bakery, and go sit and eat on Union’s lovely campus. That was just after Union stepped up to Division I in hockey. So, go Dutchmen! I’m pulling for you to replicate your arch-rival Rensselaer’s stunning national championship from 1985, and it’s always a delight to see little colleges knocking off giant state universities, especially when they mess up my brackets.

2. I am so excited about this that I can hardly stand myself. As noted here, I would claim Jethro Tull as my life-time favorite band, so having Ian Anderson revisit one of their greatest albums is quite the treat for the Tull geek. That being said, I suspect the absence of Martin Barre and the fact that this album is being billed as an Anderson solo means that this is probably the end of Jethro Tull, some 44 years after the group’s birth. Oh well, if that’s what it took to get Anderson writing album-long suites again, then I will take it.

Dining room at Wasabi Chi.

3. I’ve written about the exceptional food we’ve had in Des Moines in a variety of posts here, and both Marcia and I have to add another favorite to our collective list: both of us agree that the prawn pad thai at Wasabi Chi (in our neighborhood) is the best pad thai either of us have ever had. And let me assure you, between the two of us, we have eaten a lot of pad thai over the years, in many cities. Wasabi Chi’s version is light, not greasy, with fabulous Asian basil flavor, perfectly grilled tofu and pork, dynamite shrimp, and consistently great quality over time, since we’ve had it more than once each. They also have exceptional sashimi at Wasabi Chi (especially the yellowtail), again demonstrating the surprising available of outstanding and fresh seafood in the middle of the continent, as noted in bullet two of this post. I give them bonus points for lovely preparation, as I generally order sashimi a la carte, and they always make it look like an exotic treat when it arrives at the table, over ice. And did I mention that Wababi Chi is in our neighborhood? Yay! This is a very highly recommended restaurant, with a lovely dining room and a great bar, where I’ve caught a basketball game or two with a nice appetizer sized portion of seared ahi tuna and a good glass of Shiraz. See you there?

4. I was very sad to hear the news of Ernie Williams‘ passing this week. I saw him perform many times during my years in Albany, and he was the quintessential bluesman, a born entertainer who made everyone who worked with him better. Marcia and I saw him open for Buddy Guy once at the Starlite Music Hall in Latham, which has been shuttered for years, and is now crumbling back into the wetlands on which is was built. Ernie’s band, The Wildcats, at that point featured drummer Rocky Petrocelli, guitarist Mark Emanatian, and teen prodigy keyboardist Jason Ladanyi. They more than held their own against their much more famous headliner, and they actually probably produced the evening’s most transcendent moments. Bless you, Ernie, your work here is done, and you did it so very well. Yes, yes, yes . . .

Driving Beyond the Nanny State

I’ve spent a lot of time on the road during my first four months in Des Moines, visiting all 99 of Iowa’s counties by highway, and making forays into all of Iowa’s neighbor states. It has been quite a different experience than I had driving around Upstate New York for all those years, needless to say, though not necessarily in the ways that you might expect.

First and foremost, there’s far less regulation into what and how you drive out here. Speed limits are higher on both Interstate and State highways, cars don’t have to be inspected annually for emissions or basic road-worthiness, helmets aren’t required for motorcyclists, permits and  licenses are available to kids at a younger age, massive farm equipment and Amish or Mennonite horse-drawn buggies are welcome (and common) on many roads, you can talk on your cell phone while driving, and the Iowa State Department of Transportation is far less inclined than its New York counterpart to spend money putting signs up all over the State telling you things like “It is the LAW to turn on your lights while your windshield wipers are operating!”

There are no toll roads in Iowa, and few fully controlled access highways once you get off of the pair of Interstate Highways that cut Iowa into quarters (I-30 and I-85), with Des Moines as their crossing point. While people may assume that driving around out here in “flyover country” would be tedious, I can tell you categorically that there is no highway in Iowa as skull-crushingly boring as the New York Thruway, with its cookie-cutter, controlled-access rest areas, endless, unchanging screens of trees blocking the views of anything interesting, and complete lack of any sort of roadside vernacular available to keep the eyes and brain engaged.

Highways of Madison County. Do not drive off their edges.

Regarding the New York Thruway, it is mind-boggling to me how much toll money I spent over the past 18 years to travel on a highway that I hated, simply because the alternatives seemed to be designed with one purpose in mind: to slow my trip down so much that I would be forced back on to the Thruway in desperation. Which worked, most of the time. Iowa, on the other hand, does a much better job of making the transit through most of its towns pleasant. In rural areas, in fact, many of the town centers are situated slightly off the highways, for easy access if you want it, or easy passage if you don’t. Good deal.

The State of Iowa’s more permissive approach to driving also extends to highway engineering itself. There are very, very few guard rails out here, for instance, compared to New York, so if you want to get careless and drive off the edge of the road, well, Iowa’s usually going to just let you do that. While this isn’t a dire problem much of the time, since a lot of the state has relatively wide shoulders that bleed into relatively flat fields, I have seen some pretty hairy highways (see U.S. 52 between Clinton and Dubuque or U.S. 169 in Madison County, for example) where the road bed sits high above dells, valleys, gulleys, ravines, or other low spots, so that an inadvertent adventure off the edge would result in some serious airborne excursions onto tree tops or through open space. I can’t swear to this, but it seems like the primary factor in guard rail placement is whether or not an airborne car would hit something else on its way down . . . so if a silo, or a train, or a cow, or a house is in danger, then you get a guard rail. Otherwise, though, keep your eyes on the road and your hands upon the wheel . . .or else . . .

There is one flip-side to this where Iowa offers a road safety feature that didn’t exist in New York: rumble strips in front of stop signs at rural intersections. Since it’s pretty easy to drop into a state of driver’s narcosis on long, straight, rural highways where your horizon is so far in front of you that you don’t really see anything closer unless it’s moving, stop signs tend to sneak up on you when you’re roaring down a two-lane at 68 miles per hour. To alleviate this potential disaster, most rural cross intersections have three sets of rumble strips in the road bed as you approach them, so you see a sign saying “STOP AHEAD,” then you get a three-part sonic warning as you approach the point where you have to stop, its pitch changing as you slow: BRRRRRRRPPPPPPPPPPPPPPP . . . . . . Brrrrrrrrppppppppppp . . . . . . . bbbbbbrrrrrrrppppppppppp . . . [and . . . stop]. At this point, it almost seems weird to come to a full stop without those familiar three rumbles.

For a guy who likes to drive (which would be me), Iowa is great fun, and the grid layout of much of the State means that there are almost an infinite number of (almost) equally good ways to get from Point A to Point B. I’ll be headed back to Dubuque on Thursday, and will undoubtedly take at least a dozen roads that I haven’t driven before, just because I can. As long as you can keep your cardinal points straight (which isn’t hard, when the sun is up), it’s easy to know when you’re headed in the right or wrong direction, and the long horizons give you plenty of time to adjust, when necessary.

I won’t have to pay any tolls on my way to Dubuque, and I won’t experience a barrage of signs explaining the arcana of State Transportation Law. I will, however, be able to get off the road wherever I want, and choose my own gas stations and restaurants, rather than being limited to ones that hold State contracts. I think this is a better world to drive in, and am sorry for those of you who only get to fly over it.

Art Talk and a Desert Double Feature

Our visit to Manhattan’s Neue Galerie last weekend reminded me why it takes more than a great collection to create a stellar arts operation.

While Neue Galerie’s collection is indeed remarkable, no question about that, their $20 per head admission fee, small exhibition space, densely-packed hanging of the art, and lack of curatorial exposition on what we were seeing made the Galerie feel like it was something of an elistist, high-brow, insider operation. I’m well-studied in the arts, so I understood why some of what I was seeing was quite special, but I don’t think that an arts novice would be able to walk into the Neue Galerie unprepared and glean such an appreciation. And absent such a sense of deeper understanding after viewing the collection, I think a lot of people might leave feeling like they had not gotten their twenty bucks worth of illumination and inspiration. I didn’t myself, truth be told. Compare and contrast that experience to our last visit to a New York museum, when Marcia and I both felt like we got our money’s worth, and then some, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Mirό: The Dutch Interiors exhibition.

Value for money notwithstanding, I tend to most highly value arts organizations that make it a priority to not only acquire great collections and traveling exhibitions, but to present them as widely and openly to the public as possible, while also providing expert curatorial context for those who may desire a deeper understanding of what they are seeing. During our many years in Albany, the magnificent Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in nearby Williamstown, Massachusetts provided us (and many others) with such value-added programming. In Iowa, I’ve been thrilled to discover that the Des Moines Art Center is equally adept at, and commited to maintaining, that community-enhancing balance between outreach, accessibility, education and illumination — all in support of an outstanding collection of fine art.

Simon of the Desert

Here’s a current example that, as it turns out, just happens to involve two of my very favorite films. Art Center Senior Curator Gilbert Vicario has organized a wonderful single-artist exhibition called Miguel Angel Ríos: Walkabout that will be on display in the Center’s Anna K. Meredith Gallery through April 22, 2012. Admission is free (though, as always in the nonprofit world, donations are appreciated), the curatorial value-added is high, and the art presented is evocative, both visually and in terms of the themes that underpin the exhibition: rites of passage, spiritual awakenings, and the self-awareness that come from solitary encounters in the desert landscape. It’s not just a collection of “important” art, but rather a holistic presentation that works on a variety of creative, intellectual and intuitive levels. Well done!

But it gets even better: this Sunday (March 18) at 1:00 PM, the Art Center will present a double film feature of Luis Buñuel’s Simon of the Desert (1965) and Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971) — both of which are films that I adore and highly recommend, either for first-time or repeat viewing. The Buñuel film is a mischievous satire from the father of film surrealism, based on the story of Saint Simeon Stylites, who lived atop a pedestal in the middle of a desert for years to show his devotion to God. Walkabout depicts an unexpected chance encounter in Australia between an aboriginal boy, who has embarked on his solitary rite of passage into manhood, and a pair of European children who are stranded in the Outback.


In both cases, the films’ protagonists set forth into the desert seeking purification and transformation. In both cases, they achieve those goals, though not in the ways that they might have expected or desired. While both films feature strong performances from their actors (especially Jenny Agutter and David Gulpilil in Walkabout, the first major film for them both), the true star of both movies is the desert itself.

Nicolas Roeg had a long career as a cinematographer before he began directing his own films, and his painterly, attentive and radiant images of the Outback capture both its uplifting and destroying power, and its role as a crucible in the lives of those who enter it. Buñuel, still working in black and white when he made Simon, captures most effectively the gritty, grey, dusty and dirty aspects of the desert experience, where wind shapes the environment more than water, and the land is ever-changing and unchanging, at the same time.

The combination of these two powerful films, the strong curatorial effort by Gilbert Vicario, and the exceptional art and vision of Miguel Angel Ríos should make Sunday afternoon at the Des Moines Art Center a transformative desert experience for all those who participate. Plus, it won’t cost a nickel to attend — although I always encourage people to make contributions commensurate with the value of their experience, and their ability to give, as they leave nonprofit arts organizations’ spaces.

Personally, I’m thinking the experience this Sunday will feel like it’s worth well more than the twenty bucks we each spent last week in New York . . .

City of Tiny Lites

1. Thursday was Family Birthday-Day: Marcia and Katelin share March 8th as their big one, and this year was a particularly big year for Katelin, as she turned 21. We all met in New York City for a nice three day weekend together. Marcia and I flew in via Newark, and got a great suite in Jersey City, a couple of blocks from the Newport-Pavonia PATH Station. You get twice the room at half the price there, compared to Manhattan, for the cost of a $2.00 train ticket and a couple of extra subway stops. Highly recommended, since you can see more of the Manhattan skyline from that side of the river than you can from within it. Katelin rode down from Geneseo to Peekskill with a friend, then took the train into Grand Central Station, where we met her, before heading out to an exquisite dinner at Salute.  While Marcia and Katelin did spa visits and shopped on Saturday, I did about an 11-mile walkabout in Manhattan, including The High Line, Central Park, Times Square (where my Dad once ran the Marine Corps Recruiting Depot), and various streets and avenues in between. I stopped for tasties and wine at La Nacional, which Time Out New York had dubbed the best tapas restaurant in the City. Very traditional, in a cool walk-down dining room, where I was the only person not speaking Spanish. I am a sucker for bacalao (traditional Spanish-Basque salted cod), and they made it divine here, along with some fab albondigas (meatballs in sofrito sauce). Later that night, the three of us met a good friend and returned to Barbes, a great Mediterranean/African restaurant where Marcia and I had eaten a couple of years ago. It was worth the return visit, and my brochettes de merguez were to die for, again. On Sunday, Katelin went to visit a high school friend, and Marcia and I walked uptown to see the Intrepid Museum and the Neue Galerie. I’m a sucker for anything involving planes, so the former was a big hit for me, needless to say, especially since they have an A-12 (precursor to the SR-71 Blackbird) and a Concorde there. I used to watch the Concordes coming in overhead to JFK when I lived at Mitchel Field in the 1970s.  The Neue Galerie has an amazing collection of (mostly) 20th Century German, Swiss, Russian and Spanish art (think Klimt, Klee, Kandinsky, Picasso, etc.), though the gallery was small, the art tighly packed and oddly lit, and with little to no curatorial insight provided. It’s a great collection, but still a work in progress as a museum, I think. We met up for dinner, and hit La Nacional again, since it was good enough for an immediate return visit. Today, we scattered: Marcia flew to Detroit for a work conference, Katelin and two friends flew to Aruba for Spring Break, and I returned to Des Moines. As I crested the hill on Fleur Avenue and saw the Des Moines skyline after four great days away, it felt like I was home. That’s a good thing. Here are some snaps of the trip:

South End of The High Line

South End of the High Line.

My father’s office for much of the late 1970s.

A-12 and I. Mmmmm . . . speedy . . .

Business end of a Concorde, including the “oops” wheel that kept the pilots from inadvertently dragging the tail.

Bridge tower of the Intrepid. Love the way the light hits the flag at center!

2. I did not watch the NCAA Selection Sunday show for the first time in many years, and I might never do so again, since I am quite pleased with the results, as a whopping eleven Mid-Major At Large (MMAL) teams made the field. This is the second largest MMAL draw since I started tracking this facet of the tournament in 1998, when twelve made the field, a feat which was repeated in 2004. Per my ongoing Cinderella Point analysis, this should result in a Sweet Sixteen with a lot of low seeded teams in it, which makes for great fun in bracket busting. And that means you definitely want to join the Indie Albany-Indie Moines hoops pick ’em contest, since I will be putting my money where my mouth is with all sorts of crazy person Sweet Sixteen picks, so the opportunities for mockery are likely to be bountiful and ripe.

3. Des Moines is host to one of the four regional finals in the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament this year, and we purchased tickets for the local games before the field was announced, just on principle. So imagine how delighted we were when we realized that, if things go according to seed, we are likely to see undefeated Baylor and Brittney Griner, national high-scorer Elena Delle Donne and her Delaware team, the legendary Pat Summitt and her Tennesse team, and Georgia Tech of my beloved ACC. Normally, I root for underdogs, but in this case, I want to see all four of those teams play. And if that wasn’t great enough, the women of both of my almae matres (Navy and UAlbany) made the tournament this year too! Go Danes! Go Mids! In those games, I will be rooting for the upstart upsets.

4. At 10:08 AM last Wednesday, I drove into Benton County, Iowa, and completed my Full Grassley: I have now spent time in all 99 of the State’s counties. I drove myself through every one of them, never using NAV or GPS, but instead depending on an old school, folded paper map, and keeping my eyes open for happy accidents and interesting detours. I conclude that the politicians who do it while sitting in the back of campaign buses, having drivers plot the optimal courses, really don’t achieve any sort of meaningful sense of the State as a whole. It’s the happy, unplanned accidental discoveries that really make Iowa special, I think. The best part about doing the trip in deep winter is it gives me a great sense of the parts of Iowa I want to revisit when the weather is nice, and also which regions I’ll probably not need to return to, unless work takes me there. It was a great exercise, which I started on something of a whim, but which I am now grateful to have had the chance and time to complete. Here’s the route map of my travels, which most often included one or two day loops from Des Moines and back to different corners of the state, zig-zagging along the way to visit towns and attractions of interest:

My Full Grassley: November 2011 to March 2012.

Iowa is Not Vertically Challenged

Alleman, Iowa is a town in the northern part of Polk County (the same county I live in), with a population of 432 souls and a 774,000-bushel grain storage facility operated by the Heartland Cooperative. The town has a nice welcome sign at its central intersection, too. Here’s a picture of it:

Downtown Alleman, Iowa.

Oh, and see that tall, skinny thing off to the left of the picture, above the gas pumps? That would be the eighth tallest man-made structure in the world, at 2,000 feet, top to bottom. If it wasn’t surprising enough to have one such formidable world-class structure in humble Alleman, this tower actually has a 2,000 foot tall twin, just a mile or so away. Here’s a photo of the pair of them, with a standard water tower (probably 150 to 200 feet in height) in the middle to provide perspective.

Alleman, Iowa's 2000-foot tall broadcast masts, giving the town's water tower a serious inferiority complex.

For what it’s worth, Iowa also boasts two other 2,000 foot towers, one in Sioux City and one in Rowley. It’s quite hard to capture a sense of scale on objects so large, with so little nearby to offer perspective. Here are a few shots to (maybe) give you some sense of how overwhelmingly gigantic these things are:

On its own, the tower at right would look impressively tall. Here, though, not so much.

Service facility at the base of the eastern tower. Those are big truck doors, though they don't look it.

Guy wire anchors of one tower, with the other tower in the background. You can see the building from the prior picture, looking tiny, at bottom right of the frame.

While transmission masts are the tallest structures in the state, and Des Moines boasts eight buildings of 300 feet or greater (the tallest is 801 Grand, at 45 stories and 630 feet from top to bottom), most of the vertical sightlines around the state are provided by four other types of structures: water towers, wind turbines, silos, and grain elevators. Pretty much anywhere you are in the state on a clear day, if you do a 360-degree scan of the horizon, you’re likely to see at least one, and probably many, many more of those items. You find them out in the middle of the country, and you find them right smack in the downtowns of many cities. I love this shot taken in Indianola, for example, which shows just how short the distance from farm to market is in Iowa:

Indianola's Heartland Cooperative grain storage facility towers over the city's biggest grocery store.

And while we’re talking about verticality, let me dismiss one other notion about Iowa for you: the state is not flat. True, the total vertical distance from its highest location (1,671 feet at Hawkeye Point) to its lowest (480 feet at the junction of the Mississippi and Des Moines Rivers) is only a modest 1,191 feet, which is about a quarter of the prominence of New York’s Mount Marcy, for perspective. That being said, the state packs a lot of long, undulating hills within that brief vertical envelope, and the major river valleys in Iowa also tend to have steep bluffs or gorges along their paths. As many bikers who come to Iowa to ride the seven-day RAGBRAI no doubt discover, much to their chagrin, it’s not such much the amplitude as it is the frequency of the hills here, and over a long day, you can log a lot of grinding, fatigue-inducing climbs in Iowa.

But at least you have some impressively tall structures to admire as you grind your way up your 25th 200-foot climb of the day, so be thankful for that, at least.

“The Definition of Stupidity is Doing the Same Thing 34 Times and Expecting Different Results”

K. Sonin is a prolific singer-songwriter-guitarist based in Albany, New York. In addition to serving as a member of Complicated Shirt, Che Guevara T-Shirt and other bands, he has issued a mind-boggling 34 solo albums over the past two decades, including his most recent disc, the fatalistically titled The Definition of Stupidity is Doing the Same Thing 34 Times and Expecting Different Results. While I can’t claim to have heard all of Sonin’s records, I have listened to a solid couple of dozen of them over the years, and I consider this latest album to be the best of the bunch. Maybe practice makes (more) perfect, after all.

K. Sonin

Sonin is a technically proficient guitarist, bassist, programmer and vocalist, capable of busting a move or rocking a riff when he wants to, on pretty much any instrument he lays hands on. But he’s also a skilled sound technician and math rock afficianado, so oftentimes his prodigious chops may be hard for the casual listener to perceive or appreciate, deployed as they are in knotty, sonically-challenging songs. On Same Thing 34 Times, though, he strikes a great balance between his noisy and melodic sides, and arranges most of the album’s eight songs in sparse, acoustic settings that really give these outstanding compositions the breathing room they deserve.

Sonin’s lyrics on this disc are dynamite as well, with the first 15 seconds of “Foralison” featuring one of those instantly classic lines that expresses so many complex feelings with so few words: “When I tell you I’d move the Earth for you, you say: ‘Go ahead, let’s see’.” This opening track features an engaging acoustic guitar foundation with a great bridge, in which electric guitar and barking dogs duel, followed by another haunting and wanting final line: “When I swear I’m going crazy, you say ‘Go ahead, go crazy for me,’ Alison, it’s killing me.”

“Feels Like” merges an over-amped guitar figure with a spacious choral vocal intoning “Drink all day / feels like getting by.” It’s followed by “Thousand Guitars,” an instrumental that ably showcases Sonin’s skill on that particular instrument; some of his sustained lead lines end up sounding and soaring like Robert Fripp soundscapes.

“Formel” initially presents itself as a relatively simple voice-and-guitar number, but it beats the pants off anything you’re ever likely to hear from most people singing with acoustic six-stringed instruments. “In your eyes, sometimes I see them coming from us,” Sonin sings, and the (justified?) paranoia of the number is striking and palpable. “NOR049” moves deeper into the noisy zone, with a gentle acoustic guitar figure that’s pillaged and eventually subsumed by highly-distored, reverb-drenched electric blurts.

The next track, “10 Years,” is the album highlight, a heartbreaking acoustic number about growing older in the working world, and not being exactly sure how you feel about doing so. “It takes ten years to dig your own grave,” Sonin sings, plaintively, in a double-tracked vocal over a sparse finger-picked guitar figure. “It takes ten years to convince yourself that’s safe. This is the safe way, this is the best way, this is the only way, to die alone in Albany,” he continues, before really sticking the stake in the hearts of thousands of cubicle-dwellers with these lines: “Ambition will only leave you wanting. Ambition will never get you any further. Ambition will only leave you waiting . . . another ten years.” This is a devastatingly powerful song, bleak in its words, but yet somehow hopeful, or at least wistful, in its music. Haunting, either way.

“Jordan By Way of 16 Horsepower and Papa M” is Same Thing 34 Times‘ longest and noisiest track, a sprawling construction whose inspirations are laid clear in its title, which references Slint guitarist David Pajo and post-No Depression noisy-country howlers 16 Horsepower. The albums closes with another melodic-acoustic number, “Long Day,” featuring Sonin singing sweet words of sorrow at the higher end of his vocal range atop a pretty finger-picked guitar figure. The song’s sole lyrics: “It’s been a long day, without you.” Can you boil loneliness and longing down into any fewer words? I don’t think you can.

All in all, this eight song set is simply magnificent, and deserves to widely heard. Nicely enough, the entire disc is available for free download or streaming, here. (An assortment of his other albums can also be downloaded on this page. My favorites of the earlier discs are We Take the Dead and the Snow and Make Soup and Jelly Legs/Bed Sores).  I’m tremendously glad to have had the chance to get to know K. Sonin’s music while I lived in Albany, and hope he continues to make records as fine as this one. I suspect that he will.