Saturday, October 31, 2015

Radical Listening

It used to be that the hardest thing to do was to stand up for your principles. It was the stuff of legend: the individual who resolutely believes in something, who faces scorn, ridicule, estrangement from friends and family, all for saying "This is what I stand for." No more; that's easy. Whether right or left, you likely travel with a like-minded crowd, listen to media which parrots and reinforces your views, and consider those with opposing viewpoints somewhere between well-meaning-but-misguided and nut-job.

No, the hard part these days is changing your mind. In our hyper-partisan environment, where compromise is a dirty word, your compatriots expect you to stand with them shoulder to shoulder. Any crack is perceived as a path to the dreaded slippery slope, which can only lead to total disaster. In this telling, even expressing second thoughts or open-mindedness is tantamount to treason, no matter how benign. And if it involves any of the central tenants of the faith, then damn you all to hell.

In that context, "The Armor of Light" is a remarkable documentary about one such public soul-searching. The directorial debut of Abigail Disney, great-niece of Walt Disney, it focuses on the Reverend Rob Schenck, an evangelical minister and founder of the Christian outreach organization Faith and Action. Schenck was also a founder of Project Rescue, an anti-abortion activist group, and was one of the leaders of large scale demonstrations in Buffalo in 1992, where he carried a preserved fetus as he marched. His devotion to that cause is unquestioned and absolute.

But when some in the movement started shooting and killing doctors who performed abortions, he saw a conflict. Anti-abortion also means pro-life, or as he says, "Pro-life means life at conception and for many, many years after till natural death." That led naturally to the topic of guns and gun control. But if there is a third rail of the far right and evangelicals, that's it. And Schenck wasn't ready to touch it.

Meanwhile, while Disney's past films as producer had taken on social issues from a liberal perspective, she wasn't planning on jumping into the gun control debate, "at least not till after my fourth child left for college." But then Sandy Hook happened, and she decided she couldn't not act. She saw the inherent conflict between pro-life and pro-gun, and approached a number of evangelical ministers. Many agreed with her point of view, but declined to be involved due to the danger to their standing, reputation and even livelihood.  

She approached Schenck, expecting him to be a "fire breathing dragon." Instead, she found a "thoughtful, intelligent, nebishy man," who was willing to listen. His reaction after hours of conversation and discussion: "I swear to you, I'm asking and praying and thinking and trying to find a way to not speak. But I can't." And so he signed on to allow Disney and her cameras to follow his public coming out as a second amendment heretic.

The film follows his anguished journey as he goes through this conversion, and confronts his natural allies. Along the way he finds common cause with Lucy McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis, an unarmed teenager who was shot and killed in Jacksonville in 2012 by Michael Dunn, who claimed Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law as his defense. And he confronts and engages not only other ministers and congregations across the country, but in an astonishing sequence, other leaders of the anti-abortion movement including Troy Newman, leader of Operation Rescue, at a private lunch. The confrontations over sandwiches and salads are anything but civil. Disney said even she couldn't stay calm behind the camera: "I hate the gun metaphor, but I went ballistic and stood up and started yelling myself."  

All and all, the film is a remarkable look at someone who dares to listen and question the orthodoxy that he had taken as gospel. Disney is quick to point out that there are those on the left who, while they hold views more in line with her own, are as intransigent in their positions as Schenk was in his, and who would do well to follow his example: to at least be willing to question and listen and confront that which divides us. "The Armor of Light" shows that whatever your views, radical listening can lead to reasonable discussion and common ground. And that is a location that we all need to visit more often.


Marc Wollin of Bedford tries to listen as best he can. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at Glancing Askance , as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Screened Out

The venue was first class: Yo-Yo Ma has said of Bass Hall that it was one of those "rare halls in which the music heard by the audience is the same as that heard by the performer." The performer was world renown: Marc-André Hamelin is a pianist with 9 Grammy nominations, a performer about whom The New York Times wrote, "Is it possible for a pianist to be too good?" The program was ambitious: Mozart's "Sonata in D Major," Debussy's "Images, Book II," Schubert's "Sonata in B-flat Major," plus Hamelin's own "Variations on a Theme by Paganini." And it was as pure a performance as possible: on the stage was a Steinway, a piano bench and nothing else.

But there was a screen.

Hanging upstage center was a large 16-foot projection surface, white with a black border. It provided an otherwise unharmonious note in the beautiful cream and rose colored hall. I had bought my ticket knowing it would be there, but hadn't really thought about the implications. Yet it was both the reason I could go, as well as the reason I wouldn't have gone.

It was the reason I could go in that it made it possible to buy a cheap ticket for such an event. You see, my seat was in the ninth row of the orchestra, but on the right hand side of the house. When I stopped by the box office, they offered me that location for the ridiculous price of $20. When I expressed surprise, and inquired if it was somehow obstructed, they told it had a clear view and was acoustically as good as any in the house. But with the piano oriented left to right, that put the strings towards me. Translation for those less musically inclined: I wouldn't be able to see the pianist's hands.

For a true aficionado, this would be unacceptable. Hamelin is a master, and watching his technique is part of the experience. While I would be able to hear perfectly, all I would be able to see while he performed was his body swaying side to side, his face focused on what I could not see. It would be as if you went to a golf match, and had a waist high fence between you and Phil Michelson. You would certainly know what was going on, but would never see it with your own eyes. For all I knew, Hamelin could be kneading taffy while his latest CD was tracked in the hall.

But no matter: for me it was about the sound. The girl in the box office told me in order to make the seats on the right more attractive, there would be a screen on which to see his hands. I assumed it would be in some location where it didn't intrude on the performance itself. What I hadn't counted on was it being front and center, attracting my eyes like a moth to a flame.

I've hit this before. At basketball games or rock concerts, screens give the audience perfect close-ups of all that happens. To be fair, they usually give you a much better view versus the live action. But if you watch it, you begin to wonder why you are there in the first place. Arguably, you can get the same experience, and at far less cost and with easier bathroom accessibility, by watching at home. True, you miss the smell of spilled beer and people walking in front of you and obnoxious fans screaming next to you. But at least you can say you saw it live.

As Hamelin sat down, the screen dissolved to a close-up of the keyboard. He began to play, the music rolled over the hall. I tried to focus on him, but I kept getting drawn to the screen. Yes, his hands were amazing. However, watching them removed me from being there. I kept thinking that since the concert was being webcast, I could have just stayed in my hotel room, and seen and heard the same thing.

I had an idea. I reached into the pocket of my jacket, and pulled out my baseball cap. I slipped it on and adjusted it low in the front. Now when I looked up, I saw a massive black piano, a man in a jacket, and nothing more. No screen intruded. And without that distraction, at least to my ears, the music suddenly sounded better.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves any live music. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at Glancing Askance, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Big, Bigger, Biggest

With my unexpected day off in Fort Worth, I could have just stayed in my hotel room. I could have walked around downtown and poked my nose into a museum or two. I could have seen a movie, or taken a bike ride, or caught up on some work. But it was that 24-day period when there are cattle to be judged, barbeque sauce to be sampled and Snickers bars to be deep fried. And so I went to the Texas State Fair.

Like everything in the state, the Fair is defined by its scale. If you go to your local carnival, you expect to see a few rides, some hot dog stands, and a couple of games of chance. Supersize the above, throw in some livestock judging and handicrafts competitions, and you've got most State Fairs around the country. But inject all that with steroids, add a massive 400 vehicle auto show featuring pickup after pickup, two grudge-match college football games (Grambling vs Prairie View A&M and Texas vs Oklahoma), corn dogs, turkey legs and deep-fried everything, and you've got the Lone Star version.

Held every year since 1886 with a few time outs during World Wars, the fair surrounds the Cotton Bowl stadium on nearly 300 acres. But the above listing is just a start: there are museums, 7 concert venues, pig races, an Aquarium, a Sky Tram, and a 55-foot-tall Big Tex talking statue, to name but a few of the other attractions. While officials don't bother to tally day to day figures, they generally host over 3 million people annually, making it the biggest such exposition in the nation.

Everything is on a colossal scale. The midway takes a full 30 or 40 minutes to walk down, with games of every stripe beckoning to be played. You can win prizes ranging from the typical small stuffed animals to plush toys bigger that you, from electric guitars to furniture. There are easily a dozen fun houses and 70 rides, with at least half of those designed to induce nausea. Some are versions of ones you've likely seen, like Scrambler and Roundup, but rocket fuel injected in both scale and action. And some are simply death defying: one called SlingShot looks like a massive construction crane that simply straps two people to the end, and then flips end over end. That privilege cost 70 tickets, or $35 dollars, but you do get a POV video of your terrified reaction as a souvenir.

Of course, with livestock being such a central part of Texas' legacy, there were heifers and goats and swine a plenty. I was there on Future Farmers of America day, and watched judging by the next generation of cattle barons. Where else could you hear 20-year old Blayze Bierschwale from Lampasas, TX explain about the Santa Gertudis cattle being shown: "Number 4 is a more feminine heifer that's smoother about her shoulders, a bit softer about her hardened flank." But she paled compared to his favorite: "Number 1 is little bit straighter about her hock, a really feminine good balanced female. And when you get behind her you can see she's light constructed and stout." Now, THAT'S pillow talk.

But if the Fair is known for anything, it's the food. The staples are corn dogs, piles of french fries that size of Stetsons topped with cheese, chili and barbeque sauce, and massive grilled turkey legs that look like they belong on the Flintstones. If it can be dunked in batter and fried, you can find it there: Oreos, stuffed olives, cheesecake, pumpkin pie, PB&J, spaghetti and even lemonade (No, I have no idea how they actually do that). And each year there are specials that go where no food has gone before. This year that included a Smoky Bacon Margarita, Deep Fried Cappuccino and the Krispy Kreme Donut Burger.

When they remade the movie "State Fair" for the third time in 1962, they moved the setting from Iowa to Dallas. And while there's still a Tilt-A-Whirl and maybe even a pig named Blue Boy, times have changed. If they went today, Pat Boone, Booby Darren and Ann Margaret might have some chicken-fried lobster, or a maybe a pork chop on a stick, but only if they left room for some deep fried chocolate bacon. Big Tex would expect no less.


Marc Wollin of Bedford had a turkey leg, some cinnamon Texas toffee and a lot of free samples. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at Glancing Askance, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Better Remembered

Some old friends were back in town, and suggested we rendezvous for dinner. The spot chosen was an old favorite, Dominick’s on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. If you’ve never been, the food is only part of the story. A noisy place set with long family style tables, they don’t take reservations, they don’t take credit cards and they don’t have menus. The waiter tells you a little about what they have (some veal, some fish, a little pasta), you order what sound goods, it comes and you eat. At the end of the night he looks at you, looks at the platters on the table, makes up a number that seems about right and gives you a slip of paper which is your check. Who’s to argue?

The food is nothing fancy, just solid, basic Italian: artichokes, mussels, everything parmesan, all served on huge platters to share. If you want your organic eggplant with heirloom tomato reduction and four-cheese blend on top, go elsewhere. If you want meatballs marinara with spaghetti, enough for an army, you’ve come to the right place. They don’t come more old school than this.

The six of us had been there any number of times, though none recently. And while we were looking forward to catching up, we were of course looking forward to the food. The experience was as we recalled, and the food came out in heaping quantities. But with one or two exceptions, it didn’t live up to our mental hype. Nothing really wrong; it just didn’t put us over the moon as we remembered. The sauce was not as flavorful, the veal not as tender. Bruce said it best: "I always thought having my last meal at Dominick's would've been OK with me, but last night I found the food somewhat disappointing. Oh well, times change, like it or not."

They do indeed. Or is it us? How many things do you remember as the best tasting, the greatest view, the most amazing band or whatever, only to be disappointed when your mental scrapbook didn’t live up to the current reality? For sure, things do change. The ingredients might have been substituted, new buildings might have been built, the singer’s voice might have gotten a little strained with age. As such, even a truly objective measure of that chocolate cake from your fifth birthday party versus the same formulation today might bring about a frownie face.

The corollary can also be true. Things that you didn’t take to way back when can be way better if you only give them the chance. Put another way, some things are most definitely an acquired taste: spinach, naps, Dean Martin’s singing. When you were smaller you didn’t quite get why anyone would pick them over almost any other available option. But today? Today, there are times when "King of the Road" just feels right.

And of course, some things stand the test of time, any time. Whether you take to it or not, Shakespeare will always be the paragon of English literature, just as the French Impressionists will always be the standard by which all paintings are judged. More prosaically, there’s a reason why "Seinfeld" runs in syndication 25 hours a day, why Mick and Keith will soon need wheelchairs to complete their next stadium tour and why peanut butter cups represent all that is holy.

Going back to Dominick’s, there is no doubt that the experience helps to amply the food. But I would say, and I would hazard that Bruce might agree with me, that taken in isolation, either the food had gotten more pedestrian, our taste buds had grown or matured, or a combination of both. In either case, next time we are both likely to find our chicken scarpariello elsewhere with equal enjoyment and easier parking.

Thomas Wolfe said it this way: "You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood, back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame, back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory." Eloquently stated as it is, as we discovered that night in the Bronx, to that list you sometimes have to add ziti.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves a good dish of pasta. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at Glancing Askance as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Green Rush, Ground Floor

It's not like Laurie Wolf really planned on being in on the ground floor. A chef who trained at the Culinary Institute of America, she authored a number of successful cookbooks and worked as a food editor and stylist when she lived on the East Coast. Seeking to get out of the New York craziness, she and her family moved to Portland, Oregon, where she continued doing much the same, including authoring a well-received book named "The Portland, Oregon Chef's Table."

Laurie also has a seizure disorder which she found was treatable with marijuana. And with Oregon being one of the first states to pass a medical marijuana law in 1998, she was able to do something legally there that she was unable to do in the Empire State. Then one time at a dispensary Laurie decided to try some alternative forms of the drug, packaged as edible brownies. Her expert opinion? "They tasted horrible." And so she started experimenting, seeing if she could successfully marry the different highs you get from chocolate and pot.

Then this past July Oregon joined Colorado, Washington state, Alaska and the District of Columbia in legalizing recreational use of the drug. The so-called "Green Rush" was on, and suddenly lots of people were trying to see how they could have a finger in what is expected to be a multi-billion dollar brownie. And standing in the middle of it all was Laurie, having already baked it.

She started a company called "Laurie and MaryJane," and developed recipes for a variety of foods. All are organic, additive- and preservative-free, and have a consistent dosage of THC, the most psychoactive ingredient in Cannabis. There is a Fudgy Brownie of course, but also Almond Cake Bites and a Sweet n' Savory Nut mix, Peanut Butter, Cannabutter (a fusion of cannabis and butter), and Cannacoconut oil for cooking and baking. They have fun and funny sayings on the packaging like, "Go fudge yourself" and "Some of my best friends are nuts!." And not to brag or anything, but they are so good that the nuts placed first and the almond bites second in their respective categories at this year's Fourth Annual Dope Cup in Seattle.

Some might see Laurie's world as the ultimate kid in the candy store. She allows it's pretty great, but there are some downsides. "The testing and tasting has been challenging since I have gotten high when I need to be working. Aside from medicating for my seizure disorder which does not get me high, I only indulge in the evenings. Too many bad cases of the munchies!" Still, it's a business, and she has to make it work: "I can take a small taste or two and not get high. But just that. A whole one of our bites will be too strong. I know how much I can eat at this point." I asked her if she ever got tired of it: "I don't get sick of weed, so many different strains to try with different flavor profiles. In fact, I often make our products unmedicated for giveaways and demos, and never tire of the taste."

Aside from the product itself, one really unexpected upside of the new business is how she has involved her family. Her son's fiancé Mary does marketing, designs all the packaging and helps with production, while her husband Bruce, a well-known photographer, shoots the mouthwatering product shots. She smiled: "Having it all in the family is pretty terrific. I call us the Wolf Cartel."

I asked Laurie what she hoped people get from her products. Her answer echoes her own experiences: "I hope they get enjoyment from the high and the taste, but also relief from pain, anxiety, discomfort and life, if that's what they need." Beyond that, she's very proud of what is happening in Oregon and her part in it: "Portland is an amazing city and I love that it is so progressive. I hope that we do marijuana right. I was on the subcommittee for edibles for the Oregon Liquor Control Commission. My hope is that the OLCC will support small cannabis businesses and let the roll out set an example for the rest of the country."

There are precious few opportunities any person ever gets to see something truly cutting edge, be it a piece of technology or a new social movement. This is one of those moments, and Laurie doesn't just have a ring side seat, she is a player. She shakes her heads and laughs about it: "It is great. I am learning so much. And to see this happen in my life is fantastic."


Marc Wollin of Bedford often enjoyed Laurie's unmedicated cooking. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at Glancing Askance, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.