This vs. That

Early morning, hot coffee, flipping through a food magazine and I noted some food-porn pictures of glorious edible artwork served at some of the nation’s best restaurants. Really, looked like the kind of stuff that people always say, “it looks too good to eat.” I’d be afraid to eat some of them, afraid in the same way I’d be afraid to to touch a painting in a gallery to check out the texture. These chefs go to great lengths to display perfection, using tweezers and paint brushes, sometimes creating food that doesn’t look real, other times putting something that seems casual and random but is actually choreographed chaos.

And then there was the picture of a roasted maple-miso salmon head (this was in Bon Appetit), adorned only with a few sliced radishes and scallions, a dusting of sesame seeds and a brush stroke of white sauce and a few dots of red (each of those last two might taken a little too much thought, but you get the idea). Bold. How dare a chef put such food on a plate? The outright balls of it! The audacious, mad genius!

Somehow, that picture reminded me of a trip to Paris, 10 years too long ago, when after trying this pretentious restaurant and that, we stumbled on a bistro and after a few glasses of wine, I found myself facing down a bowl filled with incredibly rich and simple lentils topped with a pork shank. Bread on the side. A jar of grainy mustard on the table. More wine. That was it, in all of its enlightened simplicity.

So I’ve been thinking about differences this morning, differences between simplicity and complexity, chaos and order, overrated and underrated, boldness and subtlety. For example, Fred Gwynne was funny and bombastic and over the top in “The Munsters,” but he was controlled, understated and far superior in “The Cotton Club.”

Are flaming Thai Bird Chiles really better than jalapenos, or just hotter? Is truffled lobster mac-and-cheese better than a grilled lobster with lime and butter? Is a short rib/brisket/sirloin burger with foie gras, a fried egg, edible gold leaf, guanciale and wine-braised ramps on a house-made pretzel roll better than a ground chuck burger with American cheese on a potato roll?

“Voodoo Chile” or “Little Wing?” “Born in the USA”or”Nebraska.” Buck Cherry or Jeff Buckley? The Jam or Pearl Jam?

“The Lords of Discipline” or “The Prince of Tides?” “Twilight” or “Dracula?” “The Beach” or “At the Shores?” “The Good and the Ghastly” or “Brave New World?”

Does any of this make sense, yes or no?


Thirty years gone… but the loves, the friends, and the music are still with me

Time flashing back and forth in my mind today, slicing shards of memories, disjointed, out of context and questionable in accuracy.

Tomorrow night — yes, I think it’s tomorrow night — I will attend my high school reunion, again, this time the event will mark 30 years since graduation.

Thirty years. Impossible.

I can’t say that I think of my entire high school tenure fondly or remember everything all that well. There are names disconnected with faces in my memory, now thrust at me via social media as the information flies through my eyes and my ears ahead of this… this… thing.

And as I ponder my high school years now — Did I know him? Why don’t I remember her? Did we really do that? — I can thankfully, blessedly, fortunately ease back into the comfort of knowing two things, deep and softly into what have become pillows upon which I can rest my weary mind, tired heart and aging body.

  1. Without realizing it then, I had already met my future wife in high school. It took decades to find her, find us, but it happened.
  2. To this day, I can count on four men as my closest and most important friends. We have known each other for 33 years; a few of them have known each other even longer. Loyal. Vital. Absolute.

Saturday night, 30 years and about a month later, we will gather. There will be small talk and big talk. There will be laughs and, due the saddening and maddening realization that we have lost too many of the class already, there could be tears. And there will be the attempt by many to relive the lost glowing and out-of-focus days of our youth. People who barely spoke those years ago will be, for a night, friends.

Someone asked me the other day if I was popular in high school. Hell no, I said. But I had my friends, and we were popular to each other, easily shifting between the cliques and the sides and the groups without fitting into just one. We were our own group, our own armada of teenagers looking out at the world with varying degrees of wonder.

My high school served grades 10, 11 and 12. I moved into the town in time to begin that first high school class there, the one that joined two other junior high schools and transfers like me. Many kids already knew each other, but not all. There was a definite, palpable division between those who attended Junior High School A and Junior High School B. I floated between the two, which was good since there were no preconceptions and no baggage. Of course, I was also new, so no one really had to care about my presence.

What did she say, the kid sitting next to me asked.

I have no idea, I replied. We have been friends ever since.

Struggling now. Get the brain moving again, deeper, clearer…

Funny, what sticks out in my mind the most about high school — other than the obvious  wife and friends thing— is music. I picked up my first guitar in high school, and my appreciation of music deepened with their help and diversity of thought. As an even younger boy, well before the big move, I used to dig through my parents’ album collection to find Sinatra, Doo Wop, Carole King, James Taylor, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Big Band. High school brought the blues, more jazz, alternative rock, heavy metal, what was becoming the New Wave. I opened up to it all, and we took it all in, happily finding sanctuary.

Again, that was all 30 years ago. As much out of curiosity as out of a desperate need to refresh my memory, I sought out listings of albums released during my senior year of high school. And while some of you might remember that Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical” single, a hang-over release from 1981, was the Number One single of ’82. If you liked it, so be it… but, yikes.

I also found that Rick Springfield felt it necessary to release his follow-up album to “Working Class Dog,” which gave the pop world the simple but everlasting “Jesse’s Girl.” Why he and his record company every thought that 1982’s “Success Hasn’t Spoiled Me Yet” was a good idea, I’ll never know.

I have to confess that I never liked Michael Jackson’s music, but in 1982, the kid from the Jackson 5 put out the iconic “Thriller.” In hindsight, I commend that album, but still don’t like it very much.

There were some fine albums released that year, ones that changed the music industry forever. Some of them directly altered my personality and the way I would look at life.

Here now are the 10 albums dropped on the world 30 years ago, the ones that mattered, to me if no one else:

10. The Jam, “The Gift” — I never heard anything like “A Town Called Malice” before.

9. Sonic Youth, “Sonic Youth” — They didn’t need to say anything more with the title, and I, too, have nothing more to say.

8. The Talking Heads, “The Name of this Band is The Talking Heads” — A game-changer.

7. Modern English, “After the Snow” — Maybe not the greatest album of the alternative era, but “I Melt With You” is still with us and still great in its painful honesty and simplicity.

6. The Clash, “Combat Rock” — Maybe this was not The Clash’s best entry. Fair enough, though it was still very good and among the best of the year. I mean, come on. “Straight to Hell” is this one.

5. Bruce Springsteen. “Nebraska” — When we really got to know the real Bruce Springsteen. He changed his image forever here.

4. Marshall Crenshaw, “Marshall Crenshaw” — “Someday, Some Way” isn’t enough?

3. The Psychedelic Furs, “Forever Now” — The title track and “Love My Way” open this killer post-punk classic.

2. X, “Under the Big Black Sun” — L.A. punk at its finest. I had never heard such music, such poetry, such anger before.

1. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, “Long After Dark” — Life-altering music from a band of artists already molding my taste and appreciation for perfect execution, melody, harmony and musicianship wrapped around distinctive voices and approachable lyrics. Thank you, Tom.

Thirty years is a long time. I’m happy, lucky to have been able to carry many treasures with me along the way.