Dinner tonight at Spice Modern Steakhouse, just a block down the street from Karl and Susan’s condo. We called ahead, because after all it’s Friday night, and they said if we hurried right down immediately we could get a table.
So we jumped up, slipped into our shoes and hot-footed it to the restaurant. They gave us a table on the back deck, overlooking Lake Eola, out in the evening breezes. We did notice one important thing, though.
That’s right–the place is empty. They just lied about needing to hurry in. Karl and Susan live here; they’re regulars. The hostess should know better than to lie to them. Karl doesn’t forget. Strike One
The concept of this restaurant is strange. They advertise as a steak house, and they have a sushi bar. I think they need to decide what they want to be, because they can’t do both.
We ordered. There was much confusion. They have chili. Or maybe they don’t. They do! No, they don’t! Eventually, we got an order in, but then the waiter had to come back because he hadn’t gotten Gail’s order down right.
The wedge salad came. It was good:
We ordered the edamame, and liked it. Steaming hot with just the right amount of sea salt.
We ordered the chicken-spinach flatbread. It was so-so.
I ordered the warm goat cheese and cranberry spinach salad.
I got a plate of pretty good salad, replete with cheese, cranberries, spinach and glazed walnuts. Everything about it was good except for one thing—no warmth. I think it’s just the cheese that is supposed to be warm, but it wasn’t. Did the chef forget? Did it sit on the counter too long and cool off? I can’t tell. I just know that I ordered a warm salad and got a cold one. Strike Two.
Gail ordered a hamburger, medium rare. She got a hamburger, well done. Karl’s burger was medium rare, why couldn’t they both be? Strike Three, but not out yet.
The manager came over when Gail told a busser about the burger. He wanted to make it right, but in his mind that meant cooking another burger. Gail wanted to eat with us, no wait 10 minutes for another plate. It took her quite a few tries to disabuse the manager of the concept of just replacing her meal and instead of comping it. I don’t think he was really listening. Strike four.
Karl wanted a slice of onion with his burger. One, single, simple, whole slice of onion. This turned out to be impossible to achieve. They brought him a single ring of onion. They brought him many rings of onion, but could not wrap their heads around the concept of a single, complete slice. If you can’t master the simple things, how can anyone expect you to be good at the hard stuff? Strike five.
I ordered a rainbow roll from the sushi bar. They served it at the same time as my salad. Who eats his entree and his salad simultaneously? I eat things sequentially, like most people do. Strike six.
A rainbow roll is a California roll with slices of various raw fish on top. A California roll is comprised of crab, cucumber and avocado. Spice uses krab, not crab. That’s the processed fish substitute that costs less. Because it’s worth less. Or worthless. Krab comes in either long sticks, presumably like the meat from a king crab leg, or all shredded up, like the meat you pick from a Dungeness crab. The shredded up kind is much better, both in taste and in texture. Spice used the long solid chunk version. Why would a pricey joint on the lake use the cheap version of the cheap substitute of the real thing? Because they don’t give a damn, that’s why. Strike seven.
Four year old kids playing tee-ball don’t get seven strikes, and I’m sure as hell not willing to give a hip, slick and cool downtown lakeside hot spot seven strikes. Spice Modern Steakhouse is out of the game as far as I’m concerned.
This is the way to make a movie. Get a good script and let the visuals tell the story. Use the special effects as something, well, special, not the reason for the movie’s existence. Build characters and let the audience relate to them. Have the good guys win and the bad guys lose and virtue triumph. The end.
Director J. J. Abrams does exactly this in Star Trek Into Darkness. The first 10 minutes of the film contain almost no exposition, just imagery, and you let the story unwind itself into your consciousness. Then everything opens up, you get involved in the characters (who you already know, which does make it easier for the director), the story takes over and you are on a whirlwind for the next 2 hours and some, hurtling towards a predestined happy ending that will leave you breathless for the next episode in 3 years or so.
We saw STID in IMAX 3D, which is surely the best way to enjoy one of these booming blockbusters. Two days ago we saw The Great Gatsby in Real 3D, which is some other kind of projection technique that doesn’t compare. The first movie always seemed to be reminding me “Hey!! This is 3D!!”, while the Imax production is completely immersive–you don’t much think of the process, you’re just in the movie. The sound system is magnificent, although excessively loud. I almost always wear earplugs in the theater, but they are a stunning necessity here. Even with the best earplugs I can find, it was exceedingly, painfully loud. I can’t imagine how anyone could sit through this movie without ear protection, but I know why we are creating generations of young people with premature yet profound hearing loss.
Seeing Gatsby, we received our glasses in individually wrapped plastic packages–although they had been worn before, they had been processed, cleaned and re-wrapped. Going into the IMAX theater, they just handed us these. They claimed that the glasses are cleaned and sterilized between wearings, but I wouldn’t bet my lungs on it.
Only a heel with the soul of a Klingon would reveal the plot, and that isn’t me. What is fascinating is that this is a re-work of the second Star Trek movie, The Wrath of Khan. The plots are most certainly different, but there are some brilliant similarities and echoes of the first movie in this one.
Chris Pine, as the new James Kirk, does a creditable job, but the real star, to me, is Zachary Quinto as Spock. Or maybe I’ve just always loved Spock the best. Zöe Saldana is just too pretty to be Uhura, as far as I’m concerned. I think they build her part up to justify her paycheck; she strikes me as much less important to the story than the producers want her to be.
There are a couple of first rate bad guys here, but I can’t tell you who they are, that would give it away.
Any movie of this genre depends on great special effects, and Star Trek Into Darkness succeeds mightily. Importantly, though, the special effects never overwhelm the story or the characters. This director knows the effects must support the story, not the other way around.
Since this was opening day, we thought there would be a crowd. Surprisingly, there were only about 25 people in that huge theater at Universal here in Orlando. I know the crowds will turn out for this movie, just wondering why there weren’t more ardent fanboys for the early showing.
If you are a Trekkie at heart, you will already be planning to see this. If you aren’t, go see it anyway, and then you will be a Trekkie. It’s a really good movie and you’ll like it. Bring hearing protection.
The party continues.
Getting a pleasantly slow start to the day, we trundled off to play bridge. Gail played with Susan, I played with Martha, a bridge teacher/director/club owner who is a good friend of Susan’s.
The game was small, 8 tables. We came in 2nd by only 1 miserable point, which we never had any opportunity to pick up. Yeah, that’s it.
The big deal was dinner. Peter Parker becomes Spiderman, Bruce Wayne is Batman and Clark Kent changes in phone booth to become Superman. Karl decided some years ago to start cooking, and has become quite the gourmet chef. When Karl slips on his custom made chef’s coat, he becomes Julian, chef de cuisine at his own private palace of fine dining, 530 on the 18th. Julian doesn’t just leaf through a cook book, he researches each recipe online, knowing the history and background and concepts behind it. We spent the day playing cards; he spent the day cooking. All day.
We were 7 for dinner–Karl, Susan, me and Gail, Martha (you have to give people dinner to get them to play with me), another friend Jerry (a fiesty female type) and Frances. Lovely, wonderful Frances.
The meal was a major Karl extravaganza. We started with crackers and cheese and artichokes with the pre-prandial drinks, then moved to the table for the main event.
First off, an homage to Gail, her favorite starter, beef carpaccio:
Next was a perfectly prepared composed guacamole salad:
To make a meal a feast, you just add frog’s legs:
Finally, the main course. A sweet potato gratin, salmon with miso sauce and asparagus avec hollandaise.
There was no dessert; we were left with the sweetness of the sweet potatoes as a perfect finish to the meal.
There was another purpose to this dinner party: a large box had arrived at the Rowleys house, and needed to be dealt with:
Well, Gail was there, but she declined to open the box, because it was a present for Susan. The box cutter was quickly applied:
Susan dug down in the packaging and figured out what was inside:
Then raced over to hug her best friend in the whole world:
Then had to go to her husband:
What was in the box, you wonder? Art. We have a piece of sculpture that Susan particularly admires, by Kevin Nierman.
Gail asked Kevin to make a similar piece for Susan, and it came out beautifully.
So that was our dinner–the best company, fantastic food and some tears. Life is good.
The bottom line: Gail says it’s hard to follow Robert Redford.
We saw the movie in 3D, which may have been a mistake. This movie features too many scenes just to show off the 3D effects. Visual pyrotechnics don’t substitute for character development.
Being a director is a huge power trip, spending many millions of dollars, marshaling the efforts of hundreds or thousands of talented people in search of your own, specific, particular vision. The great directors, like Hitchcock or John Ford, leave an indelible stamp on a movie but let the story shine through. In the old days, there were studio executives watching over them to keep the production in line. These days, though, sometimes the director gets so enamored of his vision that he lets it overpower the story and the acting and there is nobody to rein him in. I think that’s what happened here.
Baz Luhrmann has directed 5 feature films, and they have gotten progressively more overblown and visually overpowering. I loved Strictly Ballroom, a small Australian film from 1992. Moulin Rouge was a tremendous spectacle, and cemented his reputation. Australia was a dud, as was his version of Romeo and Juliet. This garish, flashy, overdone testament to cinematic wizardry may end his career.
Gatsby has been eagerly awaited by the Luhrmann faithful for some time, yet only managed a 50% on the tomatometer. Given one of the great books of American literature, Luhrmann has chosen technical wizardry over solid storytelling everytime. It looks great, it just isn’t great.
DiCaprio does a decent job as Jay Gatsby, the lovesick bootlegger. Carey Mulligan plays Daisy in such a fashion that I never felt I had any idea what she was thinking, she just drifted through her complicated romantic situation. Tobey Maguire plays Nick Carraway as much more Peter Parker than Spiderman, which is probably apt but not very riveting.
Gail expected from the tattered reviews that she would like the cars and the clothes more than the movie itself, and she was right. The costuming and the sets are excellent, the cars are just delicious. Again, a case of the director putting more emphasis on the look of the film that the story. Will Hollywood never learn that characters drive box office?
The new Star Trek movie opens Friday. Now there are characters I can root for.
Life in Orlando, for us at least, is just one continuous party. It starts with the raucous meeting at the airport, and just goes on and on.
Today, we slept in a bit to get accustomed to the time change, then played on computers for a while, then went shopping. I was hoping to find some new shorts–the selection here is better than it is at home. We went to the local mall and were stunned by the lack of customers–you could have shot a cannon through Dillards, hitting neither customers nor clerks. Nor size 44 shorts, sad to say. I knew I was the largest man in Ethiopia a couple of years ago, didn’t realize I’d have the same problem in Florida.
Lunch was at a chain sushi joint, Bento Cafe. One of the most unpleasant meals of my life, because of the incredible noise factor. There was an air conditioner, or ice maker, or Kenworth semi-tractor in the corner of the room which was so loud and intrusive I would never consider going back. The food was decent, not great. They only use Krab®, the imitation crabmeat, not the real thing. I’d pay more to get the good stuff. The tray with sugar had only the pink sweetener, which I think is ghastly. The design of the place is uber-modern, including a series of hanging lights in front of the kitchen area. Three of these lights were very obviously burned out, which looked really bad. Bento was a definite loser, even if they did give Karl a (small) piece of red velvet cake in his bento box as dessert. I stole it.
We were on our way to the movies to see The Great Gatsby, and were early. So we took a peek into the Corona Cigar Company, better known locally as Scotch and Stogies. This is a bar that only serves Scotch, with a huge selection of the expensive single malts. They sell cigars, too.
The Cuban influence is strong here in Florida; I’ve never seen a store with just cigars before. Hundreds and hundreds of boxes of cigars, ranging from $1.00 to a small fortune.
I’m not a smoker, true, but I just can’t imagine that a 54 year old cigar would still be good, much less worth $450. This would be an ego purchase much more than a true connoisseurs delight. The serious cigar smokers have their own, locked humidors on site:
The name badges on the lockers show a lot of law firms and financial counselors. More high-testosterone behavior.
Then it was movie time. The theater is one of the very fancy modern types, with heavy leather seats that lean back, lots of arm rest space and you can even bring in wine, which they sell along with the popcorn and Milk Duds at the concession stand. Surprisingly, the wine is priced similarly to what you would pay in a decent mid-price restaurant–they don’t try to soak you like they do with the sodas and candies.
Susan and Karl have a friend, Tim, who lives downstairs in the same building. Tim lived in Ethiopia as a kid, where his parents were missionaries. When Susan suggested that we should go with Tim to an Ethiopian restaurant for dinner some day, I pushed for today. Now. Right away. I’ve been thinking about a plate of shiro and doro wat lately, and this was too serendipitous to pass up.
Picking Tim up at the apartment, we headed out to the most touristy area of Orlando, International Drive, and the Nile Ethiopian restaurant. It looks just like everyplace I ate in Addis Ababa, down to the TV screens playing Ethiopian music and dance. I loved it.
Although I am well known as a non-drinker, I make a huge exception for Tej, the honey wine of Ethiopia. It is served in a small glass flask you drink from, and I was ordering one as we walked in the door.
We let the expert order for us, and got a huge platter of assorted food–this is exactly the way you would get it in Ethiopia:
There are no forks or spoons. You take the bread (injera), which is more like a wet washcloth, tear off a piece and scoop up some food from the platter. There are lentils and cabbage and beef stew and lamb stew and chicken stew and spinach and some other lentils and salad and some things you will never identify. All of it is spicy, some of it is very spicy, none of it was as spicy as it would be in Africa. There is injera on the platter under the food, which you eat last. It is soaked with all the juices and is the best part of the meal.
We loved it. I had three flasks of Tej, which doesn’t have much alcohol but if you try hard enough, you can get a buzz on. Three glasses is hard enough.
Then we drove home and had frozen yogurt. Now I’m writing. That’s enough fun for one day. Tomorrow we’ll do something else.
Dallas. Yet again.
We are on our way to Orlando to visit Susan and Karl. Just had the best possible connection. Landed at gate A15, took the train to C terminal, boarded our next plane.
This little one is on her way to see Mickey and Minnie.
We’ll be here five days, then home, then more adventures.
There is always excitement when Gail and Susan get together. Stay tuned.
Living around here, I’m surrounded by baseball fanatics. Giants fans, A’s fans, even the odd Boston fan. I don’t much care for any of it–I was raised with Vin Scully calling the Dodger games my mother loved, but it didn’t take root.
Now I’ve found some baseball I can get behind–we were in Fresno to watch grandson Beaux play Little League. Not only is the game fun, but I finally got some sports photos I’m proud of:
Beaux is 12. He’s allowed 80 pitches a week in competition, and the pitch count is kept right on the scoreboard. What they aren’t counting are the pitches thrown in practice. The night before, we went to his private coach, in a pretty big facility with lots of coaches helping lots of kids get better—even one 8 year old girl who was so small she looked like she was 6. But she could take some might cuts at the ball…………….
The grandson took about 20 minutes of pitching coaching and 20 minutes of batting. This kind of intensive work is often the difference between good and great, and who doesn’t want their kids to be great?
Pitching isn’t everything–somebody has to hit the ball, too. Beaux reached his pitch limit, so they moved him to 3rd base. Then in the bottom of the sixth (and final) inning, with the team behind 4-3, Beaux came up to bat:
Beaux got on base, the next kid doubled him home and the Cubs won the game. That just has to be baseball I can learn to love.
Okay, that sounds like a self-cancelling phrase, but it is indeed possible to have fun in Fresburg.
Last week we spent 2 days there, and I’m finally getting around to talking about it.
On Thursday, we had to get out of the house early so we could be there before noon. We were going to some property Gail’s son Ross owns just north of town, the Historic Cobb Ranch. Yes, “Historic” is part of the name–it’s a smart way to get your own personal adjective, like the arena in Philadelphia named “The Legendary Blue Horizon” or the boxing announcer whose professional name is “The Classy Jimmy Lennon”.
The event was the annual growers lunch Panoche Creek Packing puts on for the almond farmers they buy from. Ross is an independent almond broker, buying from the farmer and selling to users all over the world. You can’t sell what you don’t have, so it is important that he keeps his supply channel full and his growers happy.
A farm machinery manufacturer brought a few models for display, and I was fascinated. These are very specialized machines you would never come across in suburban life, so I had to explore and ask lots of questions:
Almonds are harvested by grabbing the tree with the white arm of this behemoth and shaking the hell out of it. In the old days, big strong men would hit the tree with hammers to accomplish that task; they were known as “almond knockers”. Sometimes a big stick is still used for particularly recalcitrant nuts.
The sweeper collects the nuts and puts them in a long pile extending the length of the orchard between the rows. Then a harvester picks them up, they are transferred to trucks and off to the processing plant.
These machines cost over $100,000 each. Some farmers own them, some contract with harvesting firms. Either way it’s big money.
Even the humble farm tractor is a modern piece of technology. With a low center of gravity and a tiny turning radius (due to a hinge in the middle of the machine), this tractor is much more efficient and capable than the John Deere of old.
The growers weren’t entertained solely by machines: there were speakers. Got to start with some sports celebrities and the inside dope on next years teams:
There was a presentation from an industry insider who gave us the industry outlook for the year. The short answer–we’re gonna grow a lot of almonds. Everybody was happy.
A buffet with steaks and chicken and jambalaya filled everyone up. Prizes were raffled off, by Ross’s partner Frank and his kids:
There were plenty of prizes, to be sure, but I didn’t win any, as usual. I don’t really need a farmers coat, anyway.
Friday morning we drove out to the processing plant. Health regulations require proper attire:
Almonds arrive at the plant in large packing boxes. They have a few:
The almonds have to be cleaned and sorted. There are machines that can look at tens of thousands of almonds a minute and reject stones and wires and branches and obviously bad almonds. Sorters separate the big from the small. Finally, though, it requires a human eye to to get the job right. We went into the sorting room where the final inspection occurs:
And that’s life in the almond processing business. Keep the growers happy and full of steak. Own a lot of big old boxes and make sure the product is cleaned and sorted properly. It sounds easy, but I don’t think it is.
Then we went to a Little League game, but that’s the topic of the next post.
Day 3 of the Art Guild Trip.
Packing up and loading the bus at the reasonable hour of 9, we drove to an industrial park to the studio of Richard MacDonald, a noted figurative sculptor.
I’ve seen lots of artist studios. They are usually cluttered, small, and overburdened with work in various stages of completion. Not here. This is a 24,000 square foot factory, employing perhaps 30 talented artisans, which cranks out a steady stream of bronze sculpture.
On Wednesday, we visited the Hawthorne Gallery, where they take pride in the fact that each piece they sell is unique. At the MacDonald Studio, creating an endless stream of copies of a few memorable sculptures is the raison d’etre. There is definite artistry here, but it is art in thrall to commerce.
Before we could enter, we were all required to sign confidentiality agreements, pledging not to reveal what we saw inside. Fortunately, there is really nothing to violate–we didn’t see anything special or secret, just a well oiled machine for the production of art on a schedule.
The art here tends to the monumental–MacDonald makes really big pieces to adorn public facilities like the Olympics or the London Ballet. Then smaller versions are sold to the public.
Although there is just the one factory, MacDonald maintains 2 other studios–one in Las Vegas, to sculpt the artists of the Cirque du Soleil, one in London to sculpt the dancers of the London Ballet. He shuttles among them week by week. It’s a rough life.
The marketing is relentless. We were offered copies of a book of MacDonald sculptures for $39.95, or $69.95 signed by the artist. I’ve never seen an artist selling autographs before. They held a raffle for one of the books; the entry was an information sheet so they could put us all on the mailing list. The great man himself was somewhere on the premises, but did not deign to meet with us. He said hello privately to our tour leader, but then she owns one of his works.
Richard MacDonald is undeniably a great artist–his ability to recreate the human form in bronze is exceptional. That he has chosen to leverage his talent to make a huge pile of money is certainly a valid choice. There is no particular virtue in being a starving artist, being rich and famous is a pretty reasonable way to go.
We had a pleasant lunch at Tarpy’s, named for a vigilante who got hanged for shooting a neighbor in a land dispute. Live by the mob rule, die by the mob rule.
Our final stop was the Monterey Museum of Art–which has more than one location, as we found out when we went to the wrong site. But that was just a minor glitch, we just got back on the bus and motored to the right building. We were there to see the work of Johnny Apodaca, who may be the nicest guy in the entire county.
Formally trained in the school of abstract expressionism, Johnny made a living as a hospital orderly for 25 years while continuing to paint. He has found a way to blend abstraction with realism to create his own very emotive style.
I really liked this work. I like the artist, I like the art, I like the museum it is hanging in. Johnny was a pleasure to listen to, and just to be around. He is warm and open and easy to talk to. I guess you can tell which of the artists we visited today I prefer.
Finally, back on the bus for the 2 hour drive to Oakland. We had a wonderful trip, beautifully planned and executed by Sharon and Bev. We saw some incredible art, and some very interesting places. If you want to explore the art world the easy way, come on a trip or two–most of the them are simple day trips, other excursions go all over the world. Broaden your horizons and let Pete do the driving.
Readers with good memories will remember two years and two months ago, I posted about Aaron Bandler receiving the highest honor in Scouting; he became an Eagle Scout.
Tonight, I saw Aaron again, at the ceremony where his brother Alec became an Eagle, too.
Alec’s mother, Melinda, is a professional scrapbooker, and has saved, sorted, categorized and preserved the ephemera of his Scouting life.
There were three young men being honored tonight–Alec, Casey Albert-Hall and Jacob Gee. The room was full of proud parents and relative and friends.
The mayor of San Ramon, Bill Clarkson, attended and presented a city proclamation to each of the new Eagle Scouts.
Becoming an Eagle Scout requires not just hiking and camping. The Scout need to earn merit badges, symbols of proficiency in a variety of areas. Alec won 23 of them. The prospective Eagle must complete a public service project–Alec worked with the Blue Star Mothers of San Ramon to solicit items to prepare care packages for our troops overseas.
Only about 7% of Scouts persevere to become Eagle. Two in the same family is even more rare. Mike has already told us to be ready to travel to Dallas in 3 more years for the next grandson. The honor will be ours to attend.
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