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Peter Marmorek [userpic]

The Proof of the Pudding

May 17th, 2016 (10:08 am)

I’ve always loved the thrill of exploring the unknown. My insatiable curiosity has manifested in all sorts of ways, whether heading into a unknown country in the midst of a civil war because they had incredible temples there that I might never otherwise have gotten to see, or plunging into a science fiction book in which a hapless ambassador from Earth finds himself on a planet where the natives shift from one gender to the other, or going to a restaurant where I had a great dish and ordering something different because I haven’t had it yet. Food offers so many possibilities to the intrepid explorer, and how can you know what you’re missing if you don’t try a bite?

For a decade or so I’ve been reading food reviews that talked about sous-vide cooking. Sous-vide, French for “under vacuum”, is a method of cooking food in air-emptied plastic bags in warm water (60ºC, 140ºF) for long periods of time. This cooks the food evenly, as opposed to traditional cooking in which the outside is always more cooked and the inside always less. The theory is that the food comes out moister and more flavourful. It sounded fascinating, though like many innovative ways of cooking the prohibitive cost of the equipment made it more fantasy than possibility.

But as Wikipedia notes, “Non-professional cooks are also beginning to use sous-vide cooking.” Anova, a big name in sous-vide, has introduced a home device for $165 Canadian. For that you get a tube, about two inches in diameter and just over a foot long, with a digital screen on its head. You attach it to a pot of water by a clamp at its waist, and in its foot is an immersion heater that heats the water up. You prepare a ziplock bad of veggies and flavours, submerge it in water to get all the air out, and zip it shut. The Anova app on your cell-phone lets you choose to heat the water to 142.5 degrees for 43 minutes, you plop in the bag and 43 minutes later the veggies are delicately cooked and ready to serve. What could be cooler than that?

Cervantes has a lovely proverb in Don Quixote, “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” I had used the sous-vide device to cook a few vegetables over the weekend with varying results: the carrots were undercooked (too large pieces), the asparagus only okay (though they were lousy asparagus to begin with), and the mushrooms superb (delicate texture and deep umami flavour). So overall, a tie game. Tonight I went for salmon, and Diana, Simon, and I sat down to taste what salmon (135º F/ 57º C for 20 minutes) was like. We all like salmon, and I got a standard salmon fillet, of a kind I cook fairly often to test out.

It was indeed moist, and unusual in that the outside and the centre were equally cooked. It was far softer than a grilled salmon would have been, and more tender than even poached salmon would have been. The texture was...unusual. Simon said it was gelatinous, cheerily adding that as he liked salmon it was okay, but with something he didn’t like he wouldn’t find it acceptable. He’s my nephew and a kind and gentle person who wouldn’t want to offend his uncle. “Inedible,” was Diana’s verdict and as she didn’t eat it, it clearly was for her. I might have been able to convince myself that this was a fascinatingly different take on salmon had everyone else been enthusiastic, but as things were I wasn’t sure if I was in denial when I said it was really good. It was a whole lot like nothing I’ve ever had before, which I liked, but while it wasn’t undercooked, it didn’t quite seem as though it was fully cooked either.

Both Diana and Simon emphasized that they admired the way I tried new experiments, even if those experiments didn’t always succeed. I do admit that based on these verdicts my plan to cook sous-vide salmon for the ten guests we’re hosting on Saturday is, as my GPS would say, recalculating. The time and temperature I followed was supposed to yield a medium-rare result, and with a better cut of fish, and slightly longer/hotter settings there may yet be hope.

I had a ski instructor once who always emphasized that if you never fell, you weren’t trying enough new things. Mr. sous-vide and I have had a few tumbles in the early going, but I remain hopeful that with some fine tuning and we’ll be wowing the guests in no time. And what are the alternatives? The instructions that came with the sous-vide tube were careful to emphasize that one should not use it to power a hot tub, so that’s out. A shame really, as the prohibition made me think what a fine idea a sous-vide hot tub would be.

Besides, ultimately problems are just interesting puzzles one hasn’t solved yet. Optimism is another of my characteristics, as you might have guessed. I’m sure I have many great meals ahead. And I remain hopeful some of them may even be made with my sous-vide cooker.

Peter Marmorek [userpic]

Colonoscopy IV: a Comedy

May 12th, 2016 (07:22 pm)


All societies have rites of passage, rituals that mark the formal transitions between one period of life and another. Universal examples are weddings, celebrations of a baby’s birth, mourning at a person’s death. The transition from child to adult is celebrated by Jews with a Bar (Bat) Mitzvah for a boy (girl); First Nations have vision quests; Catholics have communion. Informal rites of passage include going to the prom, getting one’s driving licence, getting drunk, losing one’s virginity. Cultures have a wide range of rites, but in most of them there are fewer towards the closing end of life than at the opening. In our medicalized world, a unique rite of passage to honour those who have passed 50 is the colonoscopy.

Ah, how I envy those of you who aren’t quite sure what that is! For your benefit, I’ll explain the simple version. A doctor sticks a camera up your bum and looks around. If you’re lucky, they don’t see anything. If they do see anything, you’re probably also lucky (though less so) because that means that your colon cancer has been identified sooner rather than later. Having had three friends go through colon cancer and its treatment, I’ll take the colonoscopy. My GP sent me, then a stripling of 50, off for my first but it was on my third when they discovered I have Crohns’ disease. That’s not because my spiritual tradition honours the wisdom of older women, but because my body carries a genetically inherited irritation of my bowel lining. About 70% of those who have it have to get operations that reduce their full colon to a semi-colon; about half of those wind up carrying colostomy bags.

So this Wednesday I was scheduled for Colonoscopy IV, my fourth insight into the world we all carry inside of us, and mostly hope to avoid having to get involved with. I wasn’t looking forward to it. You see, it isn’t the colonoscopy that is so unpleasant, it’s the prep. To get clear photographs, as all photographers know, you can’t have any shit on your lens. So the night before, after 24 hours of a clear liquid diet, I drank two litres of purgative. “Purgative” even sounds like something from the Middle Ages: “Use leeches to bleed the patient, then administer a purgative. Verily, he suffereth mightily from an excess of melancholic humour.” These purgatives take about twenty minutes to react, and the rest of the night gave a whole new interpretation to the phrase “game of thrones”, as I ran back to the toilet with horrific frequency. I mused how this was an ironic reverse of my university exam preparation: now I got to pull an all-nighter uncramming before my test.

Diana drove me down to St. Michael’s hospital the next morning; (they won’t do the test unless you have someone with you to help you leave afterwards.) I changed into those bizarre hospital robes. Now you have to wear two, one with the embarrassing gap in front, the other with it in back. Between them I was covered enough that I didn’t feel too exposed lying in a bed like 15 others, all of us here for a similar procedure, none of us making conversation. I was wheeled off into a tiny room with lots of fancy machines. There, my gastroenterologist explained the procedure, the unlikely things that could go wrong, and I signed a release that I had been told. Then they gave my rohypnol (the most common date-rape drug), which made a certain mordant sense as the two procedures are vaguely similar, absent the issue of consent.

I have a few woozy memories of the experience, watching the images the camera was feeding to the monitor above my head. I would have to say that “in” is probably not my best side. I will not post any screen captures, you’ll all be pleased to know. I then passed out, and returned to consciousness in the waiting room where some kind nurse brought me cookies and orange juice. After a half hour, they concluded I was as compos mentis as I had been when I started, and any further improvement was unlikely. So I got to get dressed, exit, and meet my doctor to get my test score.

Pleasingly, I passed. No signs of any cancer, and while the Crohns is still there it didn’t seem any worse than it had been last time. I got a new list of possibly helpful drugs to research, a series of blood tests to take, and then I’ll meet with my doctor and we’ll make decisions about what to do next. But in the meantime, Diana escorted me to a restaurant where I got to eat smoked salmon under hollandaise and home fries with coffee. The best part about rites of passage is the feast you get to have afterwards, and I really appreciated this one. And I’m good for the next five years....

Peter Marmorek [userpic]

The Traumatized Dog

April 19th, 2016 (05:50 pm)

Saturday morning dawned sunny and warm. It felt as though we’d finally moved out of the shadow of winter, and into the first rays of spring. I asked Rui if he’d like to go down to Humber Bay and walk along the shores of Lake Ontario, rather than doing the same walk we always do through High Park. He was enthusiastic about the idea, so we drove down and strolled the banks taking pictures (Peter) and peeing enthusiastically (Rui) as we went. The new season was intoxicating, though the clouds of midges prevented one from drinking too deeply.

Rui was clearly enjoying himself. On our usual walk he usually trudges along behind me, trapped as he is between the fences on either side of the path that deliminate the off leash area. Here he would run ahead or disappear behind, investigating the new smells. As is his manner, he happily wolfed down the newly grown spring grass, then happily regurgitated it a few minutes later. Dogs seem to enjoy this, and owners seem puzzled. It is how it is. But all went well, at least until we reached the stepping stones.

The Humber Bay park borders on Lake Ontario, but has a few slow and muddy streams that seep through it. One of them has stepping stones that go across it, and Rui has previously used them to cross over, and then to return. This time he looked into the swampy water, and leapt in. I knew this was not good; the water is filthy, redolent with mud and decayed vegetation and he would not be a fit travelling companion till he was much cleaner. But I was missing the real problem.

The stones are at water level, and the pond is fairly deep, with a bottom that’s pure ooze. Rui soaked happily in the mud, then put his forelegs up onto the stepping stones. But now what? The stones offered no purchase by which he could pull his mud-weighted body up; the swamp had no bottom off which he could push himself. He realized he was trapped and was clearly very unhappy about this. He whimpered, and as he tried unsuccessfully to scramble up, his whimpers became more desperate. I could easily reach his collar, but pulling on it would only choke him. So I reached around underneath him, into the guck, and got my hand underneath his bum. Together we got him hoisted up. He was utterly filthy, but so happy to be out that he shook mud all over me.

Rui realizes he's in trouble...

We walked back to the lakeshore, where I found a stick. I showed it to him, then threw it about ten yards into the lake, close enough that he could swim out to it, far enough that he would have to wash himself in clean water to do it. That was how he had learned to swim when he was under a year old, and he has always leapt into water after sticks with dogged determination. But now he didn’t go. He just walked in to knee depth, then stared unhappily at the stick, and barked mournfully. The stick ignored him and continued to float where it was. I urged him to go get it, but he was not going any deeper into any water. Instead he continued to bark, occasionally whimpering. I led him down the shore, to where the six inch waves were only four inches, and threw out another stick, but he was not fooled. Again, mournful barks were all he would do to get the stick back. This stick also proved indifferent to this approach.

So I gave up, and put him into the hatchback, drove home and told him he was going to have to get a shower. Showers are never Rui’s favourite thing, but he was still covered in mud between knee and shoulder, and there was really no alternative. But when I pointed at the stairs to the basement, where the shower is, Rui started to shiver and tremble, and refused to go down the stairs. He’s never done that. He clearly knew that he was going to get a shower and clearly did not want any more water trauma. I pulled him and he reluctantly went down the stairs, then tried to hide in the basement bedroom. When I made him go into the bathroom and closed the door, he stood and shivered and trembled and looked so utterly woebegone that I stroked him and tried to reassure him that showers rarely proved fatal, and that he could do this. But nothing helped.

One of my mother’s finer admonitions was not to cut off the dog’s tail little by little so it wouldn’t hurt so much. If there’s something unpleasant that has to happen, just do it. So I lifted his front paws and put them in the tub, and he sadly jumped in the rest of the way. I showered him and rinsed him, and told him he could get out. He jumped out very quickly and gratefully went to shake himself over my shirt, which I had taken off so as to keep it dry. Then he raced out of the bathroom and ran upstairs.

I went to get him breakfast, but as his kibble box was empty, I went to refill it, from the barrel in the basement. As soon as Rui heard the sound of kibble being scooped out, he happily raced down into the basement and stood watching the kibble scooping process in much the same way the early Jews must have watched manna descending from heaven. It was clear that the basement itself wasn’t scary.

The next day we went for a long walk along the Humber river, north of the bay. There the water is fast flowing, and clean. Rui waded into it to drink, and seemed significantly more comfortable near water than he had been the day before. But he didn’t go swimming, and seemed quite happy to lie on the banks, with a stick, and stare curiously out at this peculiarly dangerous element. He may be an old dog, but he has clearly learned to be wary of water’s new tricks.

Peter Marmorek [userpic]

The Year the Music Died

October 29th, 2015 (11:31 am)
current song: Guitar Music Water Sound Beta Waves 432 Hz - Exam Study Classical Music Orchestra

I am a child of the sixties, a baby-boomer, and I come by my love of music honestly. I first heard rock and roll lying in my bed listening late at night to a crystal radio set my father had build for me, that somehow could pick up stations in the southern US, all the way up where we lived in Quebec. I can remember a song with the chorus It’s a treat to beat your feet on the Mississippi mud. I believed it. I wasn’t sure where exactly the Mississippi was, but I recognized a good beat when I heard it, even at age 6.

Later in 1964, I watched, hypnotized, as Ed Sullivan introduced the Beatles; two months later I sat in a box seat at the first Beatles concert in Canada, at the Montreal Forum. It was loud! For a shy introvert to be surrounded by thousands of hysterically screaming peers felt like some transcendent communal sacrament. Within a few months I had bought my first 45 (Roll over Beethoven) and my first album (JB and the Playboys, a Montreal band) and I had started my own music collection. More albums and 45s followed. quickly. Then came tape recordings, first hit songs recorded off the radio on reel-to-reel as I desperately tried to hit record and stop exactly the moment after or before the disc jockey patter spoiled the song. A year later at University, I started obsessively recording albums from other students. In those days music tied us together. If you were my age, you listened to the same music as me. It was a core part of who we were. Last Sunday, at my Unitarian Church, we sang The Times They are a-Changing, and I noticed that most of the people who were my age didn’t need to look up at the projected lyrics. We may be old, but we got to listen to all the great bands.

There were great concerts and rock festivals; I was at Hendrix’s last concert, followed the Grateful Dead, and was rejuvenated by Springsteen. But there was the inevitable splintering of a religion into different sects, as the music I loved gradually transmuted from hip into golden oldies. But I always kept getting new music, whether on album, or CD. I had CDs and vinyl upstairs, tapes in various formats downstairs. Then came mp3s, and ipods, iPhones, iPads, and the whole range of iMusic. I could take my music with me when I went out walking, or drove the car. I had to choose, but there was always enough. It seemed like a golden age. I could put together playlists, selections I loved, and burn them to CD for friends or just to have as a selection.

And now that’s all ended. Part of the ending was the inevitable decay of media. I decided to throw out my reel to reel tapes at about the same time that they had been destroyed by decay and damp where they were stored in the cold room, a fact I didn’t know until I went to trash them and found the white mold of entropy had beaten me to it. The cassettes I managed to throw out before they decayed, as they were in a drier room. But that wasn’t what really precipitated the end of my collection.

It was Apple Music. Others reached the same spot with Spotify, or Pandora, but the names don’t really matter. It’s called streaming music. Here’s how it works. I pay $15 a month, and my family (defined by Apple as any six people I choose) get to listen to any of the 43 million songs Apple has. I can listen at home or on an iDevice out in the world. I can listen to playlists I’ve made, or use the ones Apple has made. I can listen to thousands of radio stations: Tom Waits Radio? Mozart radio? New Age Meditation Radio? It’s all there. I can listen to all the music I used to have on my reel to reel tapes or my cassette tapes. When Buffy Sainte-Marie won the Polaris prize for the best Canadian Rock album of the year a month ago, I read about it in the paper, and then listened to it instantly on Apple Music. And it is pretty good. But– here comes the twist– none of it is mine. I only have access to this music as long as I pay the $15 per month. I can download it onto my iPhone, so that if I go somewhere where there is no internet (surely there must be such places, still) I have it with me. But I can’t make copies of it. I can’t share it with anyone who isn’t also on Apple Music who would therefore already have access to it.

It is very strange. My listening has deepened, both as I discover wonderful albums I’d never heard by musicians I’ve loved, or hear new music. My nephew, who is a sound engineer, is scornful of the low sound quality that streamed music has, but I remember my first transistor radios, and the cheap tapes of the past, and this is way better. And I’ve seen the frequency charts from my recent hearing tests, and know that age and front row seats for Who concerts past have demanded their toll, and my ears no longer carry the exact change. The sound quality doesn’t bother me.

It feels perhaps like the difference between living in your house, and living in the most luxurious hotel you can imagine. The hotel is more comfortable. Someone else cleans up your mess, and you can order food to be delivered, but it’s not yours. If you stop paying, you’re out of there. Maybe it’s the difference between your own car and a rented car, or your own library and a public library. Perhaps this is a residue of living in a capitalist society in which we define ourselves (in part) by what we own. Perhaps I should just celebrate the end of limits and the endless aural vistas that open around me. Isn’t this exactly the brave new world Caliban promises, in “The Tempest”:
Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices…

So shouldn’t I answer just as Stephano does, “This will prove a brave kingdom to me, where I shall have my music for nothing”?

But I know that when I was young and I had only a few albums and had been to a few concerts, I used to dream a lot about rock stars. They would wander in and out of my unconscious and we’d have long conversations. Lesley Gore told me once that I should drop Latin. She was probably right, too. John Lennon made about a half dozen appearances in my dreams. Now music comes and it goes. I liked that Buffy Sainte Marie album, whatever it was called, but I haven’t gone back to it, because there’s always new music. Fast music, like fast food, feeds us. But it doesn’t linger. That McDonald’s hamburger was a lot like this one. Once even the scratches on my albums were part of my history. I would know to get up and move the stylus when it got stuck right at that moment in Dear Mr Fantasy. Now it’s all polished. Now I have everything, and to my surprise, it feels as though I don’t have nearly as much as I once did.

Peter Marmorek [userpic]

A Man of Very Little Taste

October 17th, 2015 (10:50 am)

I started cooking when I was 18 and in my first year at university. It seemed a useful skill to acquire, as I enjoyed eating and the meal plan I had been enrolled in wasn’t cutting it, or in the case of the steel-belted veal parmesan, wasn’t possible to cut. I bought myself a rotisserie oven and a hot plate and started enthusiastically preparing food for myself and others. I had a fervent, though misguided, belief that if I really tasted a dish in a restaurant there was no reason why I shouldn't be able to duplicate its preparation and spicing at home. After six years I decided maybe it wasn’t a total copout to use cookbooks, and things started to seriously improve. There were some spectacular dishes that preceded that decision, as my surviving friends would testify. A duck a l'orange for example, in which I tried to thicken an orange sauce without knowing that the sauce needed to be heated for the corn starch to work. So I added more and more corn starch, and when I finally did heat it, it did thicken, to an adamantine degree.

My diet took its first major shift in my mid-thirties, after an unpleasant period in which burning agony prevented me from cooking, or writing, or doing much of anything that involved flexing my wrists. Arthritic tendonitis, the doctors decreed. I had tried anti-inflammatories, cortisone injections, acupuncture, and deep electrical massage, all to no effect, when a friend’s suggestion to give up meat proved efficacious.  I really liked meat, and still do, even if the amount I’ve eaten in the past thirty years could fit on a plate and still leave ample room for the rest of a meal.

This change forced me out of the meat/ salad/ veg vision of a meal, and and led me to Newk’s Interprovincial Salvage, a quaint store in which you might find anything, and were certain to find things you’d not expected to find, ever, anywhere. I found 12 copies of Julie Sahni’s 700 page opus  “Vegetarian Indian Cooking” in Newk’s book section, and Newk happily sold me one for a dollar. It not only had recipes, but explained the philosophy and ingredients of vegetarian Indian food, putting the foods into a context. The next day I raced back and bought the other eleven. Newk shook his head sadly, “Guess I underpriced those.” He went out of business not long thereafter.

Indian cooking led me to Thai cooking, (as well as to India, Thailand, and many other south-east Asian countries, each of which had its own wonderful vegetarian tradition.) I quickly leaned in Thailand that saying, “I like it spicy,” translated quite differently than it did at home. But I did like it spicy (assuming you’re not from Thailand,) and I cooked every non-meat dish in Cynthia Wine’s “The Hot and Spicy Cookbook: Food So Good It Hurts”. Frequently, in many cases.

But I had a secret, which was that as my mouth’s tolerance for and delight in spices increased, my digestion’s tolerance for it, which had never been great, decreased. I found out why when my gastroenterologist greeted my return to consciousness after a colonoscopy with the good news that I didn’t have colon cancer and the bad news that I had Crohns Disease, an inflammatory bowel ailment that is triggered by spicy foods. Denial seemed an increasingly ineffective bulwark from what we Chronies call “flares”, and I tried desperately to find flavours that would serve as a satisfactory substitute for chilli heat.

I was successful through a thoroughly requited love affair with Yotam Ottolenghi, whose weekly columns in The Guardian introduced me to a richer world of fusion food than I knew existed. Full disclosure: there were a number of cooks with whom I had fallen in love between Julie and Yotam, Deborah Madison being the most notable.  Yotam's column is my first website every Saturday Morning, and what I read there is often what we will eat Saturday night. With a recently renovated kitchen giving me a work area that actually worked with me, and a new stove that generated a heat that actually seared when I wanted it to, I was enjoying cooking more than ever.

The problem that I didn’t smell so well first became obvious with things that didn't smell so good. I noticed on dog walks that unpleasant smells seemed less unpleasant to me than to everyone else. When Saatchi got sprayed by a skunk, Roy assiduously washed her in a variety of skunk cures. I thought they'd worked, but no one else did. When Diana happily pointed out the beautiful fragrance of the new rosebush she had planted, I could only detect a faint whiff of rose. Strangely, the cabinet of 43 essential oils with which Diana and I scent the jacuzzi all seemed to have grown weaker at the same time. And I couldn’t taste as precisely as I once had, back when I prided myself on being able to identify individual flavourings. My mother had started to lose her sense of smell at about my age, so I was clear on what was happening. A quick google search let me know that some of the causes of anosmia were likely to be imminently fatal, though as Mom is still eating meals 28 years later, I avoided panic.

But I did go to see my GP, who referred me to an ENT (not a talking tree from Tolkein, but an ear-nose-throat specialist).  I had vaguely anticipated a set of vials that I’d sniff till I couldn’t detect anything, but I discovered there is no standardized test for your smelling ability as there is for your hearing or sight. The doctor did shove a pointy rod with a camera in its tip up my nose into my skull, and was pleased to report she saw nothing there. I would have much preferred a conversation with a wise talking tree, but this was what the medical system offered. She said, unhopefully,  that I could try spraying prescription drops into my nostrils; I did; nothing changed.

So here I am, trapped between the need to increase the intensity of food flavours so that I can detect them, and the inability to happily process the dishes that satisfy mouth hunger. I can see a future in which I become a Beethoven of the kitchen, cooking marvellous dishes whose flavours my guests savour but which I can no longer detect. Sic transit gloria foodie.

Peter Marmorek [userpic]

Rui @ 9

September 29th, 2015 (01:48 pm)

Rui, our labradoodle, has turned nine. The book, The Year of Living Doggedly, which chronicles his and my first year together has been out for four years, and it describes events that had happened four years before it came out. In human years that makes him about 63, to the extent that one can translate such things. And yes, there is a distinct change in him that parallels the changes I see in myself, as we become approximately the same age. I write these words at 7:36 pm, and he has just trotted up the stairs to go to bed. He used to stay up later, but didn't we all?

I look back on my anxieties of that first year, my worries about whether that puppy energy could ever by tamed, about whether he was a "bad dog", some punkish urban equivalent of a sheep killer, and they seem hilariously naïve. He was a puppy, and that's what puppies are like. If a friend confided her worries because her 6 month old son couldn't write yet, it would be similar. First dog, new parents: what can you do?

His maturity manifests in a number of ways. He stopped playing with other dogs about four years ago, for the most part. The one exception is puppies who are bigger than him physically. Rui is generally submissive, so we suspect he enjoys dominating bigger dogs, and he can only do that safely if they're younger. At the dog park, he enjoys chasing Pepper, a 14 months old great Dane. He always preferred people to dogs, but while he'll enthusiastically greet anyone who comes to our door, he becomes uninterested in them in a few minutes. Happily, he rarely leaps up any more; non dog-people used to seem displeased by a 30 kilogram dog leaping onto them, even if it was affectionately. Stuffed toys, which he used to tear at until they were completely destroyed now warrant only a few minutes attention, and then are discarded.

But from the beginning, before Diana and I had even come to live with Rui, I'd had a dream. That was of being able to walk with a dog off leash, calling him when I needed to, not worrying that he'd run off. And that's come to happen, though not where there are cars, or houses. Rui retains his curious disposition, and will happily try to learn what’s inside any open door, which is how I have made a number of new friends with whom I share a common alleyway. Ella, a four year old who lives three doors south, came shyly to our door last week and asked if she could give Rui a dog treat. That was very kind of her, as her first meeting with Rui had come when he dashed through the garage in which her mother was working, ran across the backyard and into the house, grabbed one of her stuffed dolls, and dashed back out of the house, “like a Navy Seal on a mission”, as Ella’s mother admiringly noted.

So Rui and I walk together on paths through parks, and in Toronto ravines. Rui has always been benign towards nature, and has become more so at nine. He doesn't chase squirrels or birds, and has never shown aggression to any one, so I don't have to worry about what he might do. He might eat something disgusting, or lie down in mud, but he is a dog, and I've come to accept that is what they do.

He has become a delightful companion. He has expectations of me: there is a time for food, and a time for walks. Should I stray outside of the acceptable bounds of either he will come and stare intently at me, till I remember and do what I am expected to do. But he rarely barks, unless he wants to be let in and the door is closed, or a stranger is arriving. He is an easy dog to be with, and he accepts that humans are in charge without resentment.

Rui and I both have a fairly cavalier attitude towards rules about leashes. There are a few dog walks on which a dog can be unleashed, but we very often walk elsewhere. We walk in school yards that have "No Dogs Allowed" signs. We walk, unleashed, in ravines that warn "All Dogs Must be on Leashes". We walk though the gates in High Park that say "You are leaving the off-leash area. Please leash your dog". Rui stays on paths, which he understands. He doesn't chase fauna, and he doesn't destroy flora. I can't think of any damage he does that he wouldn't do equally if he were leashed, and as we walk at different speeds it is much more pleasant for me to walk at my slow amble, while he'll sniff something of interest and then catch up with me. Or perhaps, he'll dash ahead, and then wait for me to catch up. Should the path fork, he'll wait to see which tine I choose, and then follow unquestionably.

There is a minimum fine of $360 for having a dog off-leash in a prohibited area, and for a while I was concerned about that. But the bylaw officers who enforce that law rarely get out of their cars, as many dog owners have noticed, so as long as we remain out of sight from the road we seem to be safe. If I consider how many fine walks we've had illegally, and divide that into $360, the average cost per walk seems quite reasonable, certainly less than the cost per walk of a dog walker. Like other practitioners of civil disobedience through the ages, I believe there is a higher law than the law of man; for me it is the law of dog.

Over this Edenic bliss, of course, a dark shadow looms. A dog's life is far shorter than a human's. Rui continues to be quite healthy, but the average life span for either standard poodles and Labrador retrievers is about 13. Both Diana and I notice how empty the house is on days when Rui’s staying with friends. There will come a time when he is staying with a different set of friends, those who have passed on, and that is hard to imagine. But that is not today's problem, and one of the many lessons Rui has taught me is to remain more solidly focussed on the present.

Pets age faster than their owners. That means that they start out younger, and end up older. So it logically follows, according to what I once learned was called the intermediate value theorem, there must be a day on which they are the same age. I have calculated that April 25th, 2016, is that day for Rui and me, and that will clearly call for some sort of celebration. I don't know what it will involve for me–perhaps a very long walk– but for him meat will certainly be part of the festivities. In some regards, he hasn't changed at all.

Peter Marmorek [userpic]

What is this Socalled Music?

May 26th, 2015 (09:16 am)

Josh Dolgin, called "Socalled" is this guy from Montreal. He does things, including but not limited to, journalism, film-making, magic, puppetry, and cartoons. And he makes music, most notably People Watching, an album he's just released this past month. It's a great album, but trying to pin down its genre is even tougher than describing its creator. A lot of it is hip-hop, blended with reggae, dance-hall, funk, soul, rock and roll, klezmer, jazz and classical. And it meanders, smoothly, from any one of these into any other, such as in the title song which starts with a vaguely Klezmer choral wave, becomes a folky female vocal, moves into a funk rhythm, a soul chorus that alternates with hip-hop verses that suddenly become Jamaican dance-hall, which transmute into a call-and-response with Punjabi singer Kamal Chamkila. Bootycaller brings in French-Canadian singing from Josey Wales and Frank Lambert part-way through, and so it goes.

This would be vaguely notable only as eclecticism run amok were it not for the extraordinary skill with which Socalled blends the different threads. Katie Moore, his long time singer creates lovely waves of female vocals; Fred Wesley (ex-James Brown and Funkadelic) brings in serious funk credentials on his trombone; and Oliver Jones plays a jazz piano that reveals new depths on every listening. And just when the first time listener thinks they've gotten a sense of the kind of musics this album holds, something comes flying in from out of the blue: such as Fire on Hutchison St., a solo piano and voice song (folk/klezmer, basically, but.) that alternates verses about the Friday night fire in his apartment ("An audience assembles across the street to watch/ lots of Hasids to see the fire blazing/ movies and tv forbidden so this is the show to watch...") with a chorus about the end of a relationship ("Well I'm sorta sick of saying I'm sorry/ I'm sorta sick of feeling like I kinda never know"). Is the titular fire on the street the external or the internal? Like all good poets, Socalled doesn't give you answers, but leaves you to admire the question. 

The references resonate throughout. The album opens with a chant, "Went through all the good books, learned from every tale; it's not enough that I succeed, everyone else must fail", which (as if you didn't know) was originally said by Attila the Hun. And ten cuts later the closing number, (Curried Soul 2.0), is instantly recognized by any Canadian listener as the theme to the CBC Radio 1 evening news show, "As it Happens". Originally written by Moe Koffman. Socalled's version won a CBC competition to update the theme two years ago. 
One of the things I love about living in Canada is the blend of cultures that cities like Montreal and Toronto offer, a potpourri of flavours, styles, foods and people. It's that love of mixing things that are considered separate that has led me to become a slavish follower of Yotam Ottolenghi's cooking, for Yotam is happy to mix an Israeli grains with Mexican spices and Italian accents. (Full disclosure: my refrigerator features a banner, WWYD: What Would Yotam Do? It helps me to break free of wimpy recipes.) And I realize that is exactly what People Watching does. It takes elements that have never been juxtaposed, because they so obviously belong to different worlds, and mixes them together in a way that not only works but makes the blend seem inevitable.

Another Montreal band, Arcade Fire, sang a few years ago about how "Now the music divides us into tribes", and it seemed true. In any high-school cafeteria, every student can identify which tables the hip-hop crew sit at, and which ones are reserved for the metal-heads. Once, in the 70's, I used assign my English class to play a song and talk about the lyrics. I liked the assignment because it let them value their culture, as opposed to teacher culture. I stopped doing it sometime towards the end of the 80s, because it had become too divisive. The tribes were pretty intolerant of each others' musics. People Watching  might retie those disparate stands. Perhaps that's claiming too much, but it sure sounds a whole lot like nothing you've ever heard. Ot maybe, a bit like everything you've ever heard. 

Peter Marmorek [userpic]


November 29th, 2014 (01:46 pm)

DakhaBrakha is a Ukranian quartet that might remind you of no one else, or maybe of everyone else. It’s hard to say.There’s a fierce percussive drumming on bass drums that puts one in mind of Kodo, the demon drummers of Japan. There’s a chelloist who produces a screeching background drone reminiscent of John Cale in the early Velvet Underground. Tabla playing suggests India, bird calls suggest the jungle, and the high keening vocals takes one back to 1990 and “Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares”, the Bulgarian folk choir that first introduced many of us to that sound. No wonder that DakhaBrakha refer to their style as ethno-chaos!

And then there’s the visual impact. One man, off to the side, and three women, wearing wedding dresses and tall black lamb-fur hats. One of them, Nina Garenetska, plays the cello, sometimes with a bow, sometimes plucking notes as though it were an acoustic bass. Iryna Kovalenko plays piano, jaw-harp, accordion, and drums; Olena Tsibulska plays tom-tom; and Marko Halanevych plays accordion and tabla. All of them played a variety of percussive instruments that come from India, Arabia, Africa, Austrailia, and Russia. Their name, DakhaBrakha, means give/take, and they do. They take from all over, and they give back a distillation of sonic energy that is astounding.

They have been around for a decade, having started in in 2004 at the Kyiv Centre of Contemporary Art with an original focus on Ukrainian folk music. The piercing vocals are sometimes in Ukrainian, sometimes in English, and can be, for example, from a traditional Carpathian song about a prospective bride’s less-than-stellar suitors (thank you, NY Times) or laments from funeral songs. But the sound is based on the intertwined harmonies of the three women’s voices, keening in a manner that is utterly haunting. Much of the music doesn’t have tunes, but rather works through complex rhythms and tempo changes. Part of that is the deliberately minimalist sound of the arrangements, which are percussive. That’s clear from the central role of the drumming but the accordions and piano were largely played rhythmically without many note changes, creating intricate frames for the heart of the vocals.

The audience, in Toronto’s stunning new Aga Khan Museum, reflected the diverse appeal of the band: in a full range of ages and ethnicities they ranged from a fully bedecked Eastern Orthodox priest to a pair of punkishly pierced lesbians. There were many Ukrainians who recognized traditional songs, even in their new clothes. Still, it would be wrong to think of DakhaBrakha as simply ethnic. They’re complexly ethnic: Rolling Stone hailed them as the Bonnaroo Festival’s “Best Break Out”, at the four day rock festival last year. At the Aga Khan Museum, they drew a series of standing ovations at the end of their show. The music is transcendent in two senses: it crosses the barriers of language and culture, and it moves the listeners beyond normal experience. DakhaBrakha may have roots in the soil of traditional Ukrainian folk music, but its powerful branches extend deep into the modern world. The Aga Khan Museum has as one of its goals to foster dialogue among different peoples, and DakhaBrakha is a classic example of how music can do just that.

Peter Marmorek [userpic]

A Moving Story, Chapter Two: The Days of Demolition

November 19th, 2014 (12:40 pm)

I think, yet again, of that classic scene in which Coyote walks out over the edge of the cliff, never looking down until he does. And then he falls, down into the abyss. Somehow I had imagined that once we had packed up everything, and moved out of our house, and unpacked in the new house, all the stress would be over. From time to time we'd check in to see how things were going, perhaps chose between two lighting fixtures, but our end of the work would be done. I'd have to write some cheques, but that would be the extent of the stress. Wouldn't it?

We finished moving out on Sunday, and Monday Demolition Man arrived. His job would be...you're way ahead of me… to take down the kitchen and study walls. Our contractor, John, had been to my mind slightly reticent in giving a final estimate for how much the job would cost. When I'd ask, he'd explain that he'd prefer to wait till the walls were down to brick so he could see "what we were working with". John is a hugely sweet man, and our friends whose houses he renovated swear by him, so I just figured that was the normal course of things.

Wednesday I went over to pick up the mail. John greeted me cheerily, explaining that he'd been about to phone me because he had some news. "I suppose", he said, "that it could be good news or it could be bad news".

"You mean," I responded, "that if I had a whole bunch of money that I couldn't figure out how to spend, it would be good news?"

"Yes," enthusiastically, "you've got it."

John led me into the room formerly known as the kichen, and pointed up at the ceiling. There was a cross beam that even I could see had the unusual feature of ending halfway across, with nothing holding it up." John explained that when someone had renovated the bathroom in the 65 years before I owned the house, they had just cut the floorboards and supporting beam to get the plumbing in for their bathroom renovation. "I don't really know quite why your bathtub stayed up there all those years," he observed, "and the bathroom's walls aren't really supported by anything.

I asked him when the good news was going to start.

"Well, that's the good news," he said. "Your bathtub didn't fall down." I agreed that was good, though it was hardly hardly news. Fortunately neither Diana nor I ever took baths upstairs, as the basement tub had jets and a cabinet full of essential oils. And some non-essential ones too, truth to tell. John went on, "And now's the perfect time to replace your bathroom, as we'll have to take all the plumbing out anyway."

I was puzzled. "Demo man couldn't slow himself down, or what?"

"Well, the pipes are all rotten, there are no vents, the trap is nowhere near code, and when it started to leak, someone just sprayed foam around it so all the insulation is wet and moldy and has to be replaced."

While the emotional term for what I was experiencing was panic, the technical term is "reno creep". It's like "mission creep" in Iraq, in that at every moment it seems logical to extend the original goal by small increments. But in for a penny, in for a megabuck, as Stephen Harper almost says. We agreed we will have a new bathroom.

Meanwhile Diana and I had purchased new appliances, a stove, a 600 ft per minute hood for the stove, a refrigerator, a dishwasher, and a clothes washer. We don't actually wash our clothes in the kitchen, but ours had died two days before we moved out, and while there isn't, as far as I know, a term "appliance creep", there probably should be.

Once the walls came down we learned a number of things. I had always believed there was a brick wall between our house and the other half of the semi-detached. I was wrong. That meant that the furnace chimney took up more kitchen space than predicted, so our original design wouldn't work. A dog walking friend (a commercial interior design when she's not dog-walking) came up with a clever new design that saved the island that was the core of the whole kitchen renovation.

I was amazed how shabby and frail the house looked once its walls were stripped away. In some places there were huge chunks of wall missing, where John and Blair had sawn away brick to make space for new windows and doors. It was a very good house not to be living in while this was happening.

There were a lot more decisions to be made than I had realized. I learned of a new and wonderful floor covering called marmoleum, and admired the complex and intricate designs that came up when I googled it. I chose one, found a store with both one foot by three foot "click tiles" and one by one tiles, and worked out a stunning two-colour design. I took it to the marmoleum store, and showed it to the installer. He shook his head. "Won't work."


"It's tounge and groove. You've put pieces running at right angles to each other, so they won't fit."

It was one of those observations that's incredibly obvious once you've been told. I did ask the next question, which was if I designed it the right way, with all one by one pieces, how much the more installation would cost than if I just had a flat roll of one colour.

"About $8000, roughly."

I started looking though the roll patterns. Some of them are very nice. Maybe I'll print out an 8 X 10 of my original pattern, frame it, and hang it above the desk.

New features keep sneaking up, things I hadn't known were possible. A roll up screen for the upstairs balcony door. Electronically synchonized fire alarms, so that a fire in the basement will trigger alarms throughout the house. A second heating vent in the kitchen. Today our kitchen got a skylight, though that's only a temporary feature due to our upstairs bathroom no longer having a floor. But I like the 20 foot ceiling from the kitchen's point of view– it really makes the room feel spacious.

And I've had a few conversations with the nice man who manages my money, explaining that there's about to be a lot less of it for him to manage. He took it well, and has been making money miraculously appear in my bank count, at a slightly faster rate than John is making it disappear. All the new appliances have been put on my visa card, which gives me airline points. Diana and I will be able to fly far and often by the time the kitchen is done. I suppose that too is part of the good news.

But the demolition is now all done, and the construction is about to start. We still need to select cabinets, tiles for the bathroom, and make several thousand other decisions. (Do we want knobs on our cupboards so we can open them? On the whole, I think we do. But apparently we have to then decide which knobs. So maybe not.)

But there won't be any new surprises now, and it will all be simple. I tell myself that, and keep walking onwards, being very careful not to look down.

Peter Marmorek [userpic]

A Moving Story

November 4th, 2014 (09:13 am)
current song: Silk Road Fantasy (Silk Road) - 喜多郎

Diana and I both like to cook. But our kitchen wasn’t designed for two people to work in, not enough counter space, so we constantly bump into each other.. And the peninsula juts out which means that when we come in there's no space for two people to sit down and take off boots, let alone to dry off Rui. So at some point we began the theoretical question of what a new kitchen might look like. And then there’s my study, directly above the kitchen, was once itself a kitchen, back when the house had an upstairs family and a downstairs family. When I moved in, 35 years ago, I tossed a plywood condom over the sink, and left all the pipes there, because that was the easiest thing to do. This is how I learned of the phenomenon called "renovation creep"– it just seemed so logical to upgrade the study as well. And I'd always thought that if I ever were going to do the study, I could replace its window with a door, and have a balcony. It would be a nice airy western vista, looking out over the backyard and garages. And this would certainly be the time to do it.

All of this is the prelude to why we moved out of the house last weekend. As John, our renovator/designer had said to us, "I can do the work with you here, or with you out. But it will take longer if you're here, because we have to clean up every day, and you'll be happier if you're not." And two dear friends had an empty basement apartment about a ten minute drive away, that they offered to let us stay in, so once we talked them into accepting some money for that, it was perfect.

Packing everything up seemed impossible, though in the end we did get it done. Excavating my study felt akin to an archeologist burrowing down through the La Brea tar pits. The further down I went, the older the detritus. I found a 5¼ inch floppy disk, which must have dated back to the early 80s when I had a Commodore 64. There were handouts buried under the drawers in the desk that still had the perforated edges that pulled them through the dot matrix printer; all my photographs from the days when I had a darkroom; class lists from every year; video tapes I can no longer play because I got rid of my VCR years ago; cassette tapes for seminars I had done at IndEC in the 70’s; and there were books. Books I had loved, once. Books I still do. Books I held on to because I was proud that I had been the sort of person who could read those books (My MIT calculus texts fell into that category.) Books that I was sure that I had read, but that i no longer remembered anything about. Books that I genuinely had no memory of every having seen before.

And there was the computer stuff. Cables that connected devices I no longer had. Manuals for programs put out by companies that never made it to the 90s. A neat bag of mouse balls, which were very handy when kids would steal them from the mice in the mac lab, but are less useful now that mice no longer have balls. I gained a new and deeper respect for the extent to which I am in touch with my inner magpie.

The kitchen, pantry, and closet was another adventure. There was the can of mandarin orange slices that was now puffed out to the point that it was almost spherical. Once I had been fond of a salad that had spinach, toasted almonds, and mandarin orange slices. It was the late 70's, and it seemed very au courant. Unfortunately my taste for the salad had ended slightly before my tendency to buy cans of orange slices had, and this can had clearly been plotting revenge for a few decades.

We winnowed our 7 linear feet of cookbooks down to five, letting go of cookbooks that had been gifts that we didn't like, and a lot of cookbooks we had once been excited by but that we no longer ever used. Then we took two cookbooks each to last us through the next three months, and packed the rest away.We took a deep breath, and tackled the fridge.

There were things at the back of our fridge that had been evolving, and had nearly reached the point when, octopus-like they could unscrew the caps from the bottles they were in, and crawl out of the fridge. There were moulds that probably could cure diseases that haven't even been discovered yet. In the pantry there were spices with labels that told us what the spices had once been, before they had been left scentless and tasteless. There were spice mixtures that people had given us that we knew we hadn't wanted, so we put them into the pantry in case our tastes suddenly changed, and we did want them. That happens rarely. Ok, never.

Umbrellas are useful things. Diana and I feel that way, as do many other people. But for a family of two, it could fairly be argued that 13 umbrellas are too many. They ranged in style and size. There were the $2 umbrellas I pick up when it starts to rain, and I'm out without an umbrella so all I need is a cheap one to get me home. There were 4 of those, plus a few that had fallen apart, as you would expect from a $2 umbrella. I guess I kept them in the hopes they would miraculously heal themselves, which they might have had I applied some of the moulds from the fridge. There was the lovely red and white umbrella I won in a school lottery on my last day of teaching. It is large and powerful, and emblazoned with a Coca-Cola logo which is why I've never used it, and never would. Sooner get dribbled on by one of the broken $2 umbrellas, than walk around shilling for sugared water.

Rui was increasingly traumatized by all this packing. He's lived in our house for all his 8 years, and he gets nervous just when suitcases appear. So having everything go into boxes, and those boxes go into the living room so he couldn't get up on the beautiful feather stuffed couch he believes we bought just for him to sleep on was hard. When the mudroom that joined our kitchen to the back yard was removed he was incredulous. He scratched at the back door, as he does when it's time to go out and inspect the back yard, and when we opened the door, the mudroom and steps were gone. there was some concrete rubble and some 2 X 4 boards. Rui backed away slowly, and we closed the door. he circled the kitchen and scratched at the door again, and when we opened it, the mudroom was still gone. After he'd done this four times, we stopped getting up to go and open the door. But it was clear he was now an old dog, and this was a new trick. By the time we were ready to actually move, he would follow us around the house, never letting us disappear for a moment. He would stare with a passionate intensity at us, trying to communicate how desperately important it was that we not forget the dog.

What did I learn from the experience? I'd claim that I learned to let go of things that there is no possibility I'll ever use, but you might remember and embarrass me when I pull out one of the next crop of cheap broken umbrellas. What I really learned was to ask for help. I asked for help in moving boxes from young strong friends and relatives. I asked for help from people with big cars. I asked for help when I realized I was scheduled to be service leader at NUUC the same weekend we were moving, and went into my my panic place of omg I can't possibly do all this. But I asked, and one of the other service leaders offered to trade with me, and that was great. I learned to say when I was too tired to do any more. This is all new for me. I tend to be better at helping others than asking for myself. But asking for help is a useful skill, I have come to realize.

And our new home, for the next three months (at least) is quite lovely, and cozy. Rui seems surprisingly contented now that we've settled in, and he knows we didn't forget the dog. He was very excited to walk through a new neighbourhood (slightly more upscale than ours) and pee on all the hitherto unclaimed telephone poles he's never met before. We feel somewhat the same way, except for the part about the telephone poles. And we know, as he does not, that in three months we can go back, and it will all be better and newer. Except for the living room couch which will be the same, just as Rui likes it.

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