Phoenix is pretty much as I remember it from my last visit about 10 years ago: very blue sky, very brown ground, very hot. My cousins keep telling me how humid it is here, but at about 30% it still seems extremely dry compared to the average 70% we're used to in Seattle. The heat of course is what you notice first; even in the relatively cool atmosphere of Sky Harbor airport, it still overwhelms the massive air conditioning system, but that's only a hint, a taste, a frisson of what's to come. Stepping into the parking garage was like pushing through some membrane of temperature differencial; a cool 76 or so inside, and about 110 outside.
There's been a huge amount of new development since my last visit. A new freeway system that rings the entire Valley Of The Sun, which makes getting around pretty easy compared to the awful meandering through surface streets I recall from before. Fortunately, the gas pipeline shutdown we all heard about has been resolved, and prices are pretty much back in line with national averages; which is a good thing, because "public transit" down here is ridicuous to the point of being an oxymoron. There's also been a huge explosion of new housing all around the edges of the valley. The area where my cousins used to live northeast of Scottsdale was at that litterally on the edge of the desert below the northern foothills; today it's in the middle of a sprawl that goes on for miles, and even has started to advance up the sides of the slopes themselves, pushing right up to the edge of what's supposed to be a protected nature reserve. There are easily 3,000 new homes filling the flats and even creeping into the arroyos, and from what I've been told, this has happened all around the outer edges of the Phoenix/Scottdale/Mesa/Tempe metro area. And in keeping with local sensibilities it's all build low to the ground, and thus covers the landscape like an adobe stucco carpet.
It's a weird color pallet here too, one that takes a bit of getting used to for this mossback. The sky is the same, but that's about the only similarity. Everything else is a variation on a pinkish-orange hue that gives the whole region a sort of mono-chromatic look. While there's a surprising amount of greenery, most of it natural desert vegetation, it only shows up significantly in the close perspective. Because there are very few tall building, intervening hills (like Camelback), and no tall trees, you can see pretty far into the distance from just about anywhere, and mostly what you see is khaki, beige, adobe orange, a bit of grey, and Italian tile red.
And of course, since it's so bloody hot here during the day (and the evenings -- I always think of deserts as getting fairly cool at night, but the Valley seems to just trap the heat and so the overnight lows tend to only drop maybe 10 - 15 degrees below the daytime highs), that nobody wants to be outside, and so while Seattlites are flocking to outdoor events like Bumbershoot by the hundreds of thousands this weekend, most of the locals here will be hunkering inside their air-conditioned concrete & stucco bunkers like lizards under rocks. At the most, a few will venture out to their ubiquitous swimming pools to lounge for a few minutes, bronzed water lillies floating in an a pond of robins egg blue, and the aroma of sizzling human flesh will mix with the slightly pungeant tang of SPF 40 sunblock, and just the barest hint of desert pine and sage. Later in the evening, when it cools down into the low 90's a few hardy souls may venture to the outdoor patios at a local watering hole, where they'll be further cooled by 22 ounce beers served in frozen mugs and by the jet sprays from the overhead misters that seem to be a standard architectural feature.
On the plus side, the barristas at the local Starbucks don't freak out when you order a "short" latte instead of one of those stupid made-up-and-focus-grouped-to-death fake drink sizes some corporate marketing numbskull at the SODO HQ came up with. Plus, they actually consider it a welcome challenge when you ask them for a "ristretto"...
(The above image was composited from 10 separate images taken by the Hubble Wide Field and Planetary 2 camera's during a 52-minute exposure early this morning.)
At 2:51 a.m. PDT this morning the planet Mars made its closest approach to the Earth in nearly 60,000 years, at a distance of 34.6 million miles. This occurs due to several factors dictated by simple Newtonian physics. First, the orbital differences between Mars and the Earth means that about once every 26 months, we "lap" Mars, due its greater distance from the sun and hence its much slower orbit -- roughly twice that of ours. Also, at certain points in the two orbits, both planets are on the same side of the Sun, an occurance known as "opposition". Finally, since the orbits of the two planets are not perfect circles, but are more eliptical about once every 15 years Mars comes into perihelion, meaning that it makes its closest approach to the Sun, while at the same time the Earth is at apehelion, meaning we're at our furthest distance from Sol. When all these factors come together simultaneously, we get a situation where the two planets are as close to each other as they can get, which is what we're seeing now. It'll be roughly another two hundred years before they line up this closely again, so enjoy the view while you can.
BTW, astronomers have not reported any eruptions of incandescent gas-jets on the surface of Mars during this period of close approach...
If you're into Barbeque -- the REAL thing, not what most of us do each weekend on the Webber (that's grilling - completely different beast) -- today in Seattle you were in heaven. The Pacific Northwest Barbeque Association's "Low & Slow 'Light' Barbeque Cookoff" is taking place, even as I write this up in The University District. Aside from the usual competition in all the meat categories: Beef (tri-tip), Chicken (thighs), Pork (baby ribs,) and sausage, there were demonstrations, cookbooks to buy, and of course lots and lots of free samples. What makes this more than just your average barbeque fest, however, was the presence of some of the acknowledged giants of the field. Steve "Barbeque U" Raichlen, Rick Browne, host of the PBS series "Barbeque America", and Bruce Aidells, of Aidells Sausages. These are people who know their way around a smoker, and it was great to watch them in action.
Bruce Aidells Talks With A Fan
Steve Raichlen (on R) Preps Before His Cooking Demo
The title above says it all: the secret to great barbeque is all in the low temp, slow cooking methodology, as opposed to the typical backyard "grilling", which is generally a high-heat, quick cooking method. Aside from those two basic cardinal rules, the permutations are virtually endless. Some people use a water cooking method, which helps to retain moisture, others prefer a more smokey process using hardwoods such as hickory, apple or cherry woods. Some go strictly with the hardwoods, while others use the standard store-bought charcoal briquettes. The cookers can range from something as simple as a mini-Webber (for tender cuts of meat like the tri-tip, which doesn't require a lengthy cooking time) all the way up to contraptions looking like something that would have pulled freight cars back in the 1800's and that are capable of slow cooking the equivalent of an entire cow's worth of meat. But, that's one of the other great things about barbeque, anyone can learn the technique, and you don't need a lot of fancy equipment to become good at it. And of course, EVERYONE has their own secret sauce (either a "mop" that is brushed on during cooking, or else a dry "rub" or a marinade, both of which are applied pre-cooking) that can be either tomato, mustard, fruit or even pepper based. Notably, most of the entrants here didn't go for a high degree of chili "heat", preferring a milder, and generally sweeter flavoring, although one contestant I spoke with admitted that, "I miss the endorphins from the chilis. They make me very happy when I eat them!" But, when you're putting your Q up against some of the Northwest's best, AND you're being judged by some of the greatest BBQ grillers in the country, you gotta do what the judges like, and today it was mild.
A Typical "Mop" Style Sauce -- With Real Mop!
And you know what? It STILL tasted great!
(PS All these photos were taken with my Zire 71 PDA -- Gawd, I LOVE that little gadget!)
According to my friend Lisa (for whose Birthday Celebration this past weekend I created this amazing "Party Patio"), I have a future renting my vehicle out as a portable outdoor lounge. Among the many features: 100 Watt CD four-speaker stereo system, tiki torches, chili and flamingo lights, a fully-stocked wet bar, tables, chairs carpet and cushions. Had it been necessary, a double hibachi grill and propane stove was also on-hand.
Haven't spent much time lately talking about the Iraq situation, as I figure by now everybody either is already bored by it (despite the fact that U.S. troops are suffering one fatality per day on average, dealing with 120 degree heat, short-rations, a disgruntled and highly suspitious civilian population, ongoing harrassment from guerilla insurgents, not to mention constant extensions of their already overly extended tours of duty). Regardless of how you may personally feel about whether or not we should even be there at all, or about the disingenuous methods BushCo. used to make their so-called "case for war", even the most die-hard peacenik understands that the poor grunts on the line are doing what they enlisted and trained for, and that they deserve our support and respect.
It's a bloody difficult job, under some of the worst circumstances imagineable, and yes mistakes have been made, and we should be investigating these, and if necessary punishing those responsible for conduct unbecoming. On the other hand, when I read something like this, I'm amazed those GI Joes and Janes are exhibiting enough discipline not to point their M-16's on their own commanding officers. Now, the good news is that The Pentagon has seen the light -- or more likely heard the rumbling groundswell of public opinion (not to mention the sounds of tens of thousands of already impoverished military families standing outside the gates with torches and pitchforks) and decided not to push for rescinding the combat pay increases. But, what does it say about the Administration's committment to our troops that it takes this kind of outpouring of anger to get them to back down on something that by all rights should have been a no-brainer in the first place?
Current estimates from the Congressional Budget Office indicate we are pouring roughly $1 BILLION per month into the Iraqi incursion, but the Pentagon (and presumably the White House, which has their fingers in every other pie, so why NOT this one?) says they "couldn't afford" to cough up a measely $300 mm per YEAR (BTW this works out to an average of about $225 a month additional per enlisted person in the Theatre of Operations, which includes Afghanistan as well as Iraq) for Imminent Danger Pay and Family Separation Allowances for those most at risk? Are they freaking kidding us??? So the military has to make due with six fewer F-18 Hornets next fiscal year, big deal. Just means less opportunity for AWOL to jump into his custom-tailored flight suit for another photo op, so far as I'm concerned. For crying out loud, when the Army's own official newspaper, The Army Times comes out with an editorial against the proposal (which is an almost unheard of occurance), you know somebody's FUBAR'ed this one big time.
Last night I was the big winner at "Match Game 75", a hilarious rehashing of the classic Goodsen-Todman gameshow of the '70's & '80's, done as a fundraiser for Bald Faced Lie and Open Circle Theatre, at what is quickly becoming the de-rigeur locale for theatre-related benefit events, Re-Bar.
As a teenager, I remember watching this show with the sort of devotion others have for daytime soap opera, Star Trek, or professional wrestling. It came on at 4:00 in the afternoon, before the folks got home from work and was one of the first network TV programs in my memory at least that dealt with adult subject matter -- like drinking and sex, as if these were things that adults actually did. Plus, it was the first place I heard the mysterious and exotic name Regis Philbin ("Match Game" was shot at the CBS studios in New York, and of course nobody outside the northeast seaboard probably even knew who he was at the time).
Of course, this version of the game was even more "adult" than what in hindsight today looks like pretty tame shenanigans. The "celebrities" were all portrayed by local performers of note, including BFL regs Ian Bell as MG75 Host Gene Rayburn, and the always lovely Karen Gruber as Betty White, plus such local luminaries as Imogen Love, Cory Nealy, and of course the nearly ubiquitous Brandon Whitehead doing a disturbingly dead-on Charles Nelson Reilly.
I was matched up against an old "Mys(t)ery Cafe" friend Lisa Gayton, as a fellow contestant, but I have to say I did kind of blow her out of the water competition-wise, then scored all three prize levels on the "Super Match" finale, for which I was awarded a gift certificate to a local restaurant, a charming photo of Rayburn, Reilly and an aparently inebriated Brett Somers, a home edition of "Password", and an 8-track tape of "Glenn Campbell's Greatest Hits", all obviously in keeping with the mid '70's theme.
To top things off, it was also my friend Roy Stanton's 40th birthday, so as a present I gave him all of my remaining raffle tickets (which were used to select contestants) -- and he got picked for the second round of "taping", then went on to score two out of three prizes in his own "Super Match" round! So, yay to him! And welcome to the "Over The Hill Club"!
Tonight, I finally had my “date” with The Stranger’s outgoing Managing Editor/Food Critic Min Liao, hosted at the home of Annex Theatre’s esteemed Artistic Director, Bret Fetzer. This was the date I won at the recent Annex Fundraiser, which astute readers will recall resulted in my having only a vague recollection of the later portions of the evening. But, given the quite enjoyable aftermath I must say I’m very happy with my alcohol-fuel perseverance.
While by no means a date in the traditional sense -- blind or otherwise -- it nevertheless turned out to be a most pleasant evening. Mr. Fetzer is of course an engaging host, and since both he and Min have a prior working relationship from his days as The Stranger’s Theatre Editor, he was the perfect person to “chaperone”.
In actuality, the deal was that Min would prepare a gourmet luncheon, however, due to logistical snafus it turned into a dinner instead, and that was fine by me. The menu was simple, yet elegant: mixed greens wilted in an olive oil balsamic vinaigrette, pan seared pork chops, with sautéed eggplant and a tomato salad with endive and marjoram, and lemon sorbet with fresh raspberries and shortbread for dessert. The wine was a 2000 Chateau Comte (how could I resist?) Canon-Fronsac. Bret’s sister Isolde (and please forgive me if I got that wrong) joined us for a portion of our repast, and the conversation was light, centering around Min’s impending move to NYC for graduate school, Isolde’s recent trip to Florence, some Annex shop-talk and of course boating.
Needless to say, the food was marvelous, the conversation equally so, and although I do feel just a tad guilty about standing around Bret’s kitchen while Min washed all the dishes, as they explained – it’s what I paid for after all, so what choice did I have but to accept my station gracefully.
Now, I’m very full – AND I have an extra pork chop to gnaw on later.
The 53rd annual Seafair Festival has come and gone, and except for some lingering Monday morning hangovers being dealt with by a significant percentage of the local population, we’ve survived the yearly paean to waterborne excess relatively well.
Seafair, for you non-natives, is a sort of odd amalgam of civic boosterism, retro nostalgia, military homecoming, noise, drunkenness and revelry – a controlled bacchanalia for a city that normally prides itself on its reputation for being staid, stoic and well, a bit boring. Part Mardi-Gras, part neighborhood festival, part near-religious adoration of all things fast, loud and smelly, it is probably unique in the sense that it’s neither fish-nor-fowl, a completely made-up event that connects the city, however tenuously to it’s blue-collar, industrial and seaport roots, while conversely giving the newbies one more thing to look down their overly long noses at, all the while tut-tutting to themselves that, “the (Insert name of local civic festival) is much better than this!”. It’s Seattle’s old-school way of celebrating the impending demise of summer, and if it seems a tad corny or hokey to the more sophisticated tastes of Californians or a bit excessive to the even more conservative tastes of Midwesterners, well so be it. It’s our festival dammit, and we’ll celebrate it as we please.
Now, with all this you might get the impression I’m a big Seafair fan – far be it. I haven’t been to a Torchlight Parade since Annex Theatre closed shop on 4th Avenue along the parade route about three years ago, and haven’t been to the hydro races (the crowning event for the Festival) since I was an undergrad in college. But, there’s still something sort of infective about the whole atmosphere that surrounds Seafair. Even if you never set foot on one of the flotilla of naval vessels that arrives the week prior, even if you cringe a bit whenever one of the U.S. Navy “Blue Angels” F-18 Hornets flies by your office window at eye-level, even if you couldn’t tell a log boom from a sonic boom, or have no idea who Stan Sayres was, or why old folks around here still mention the name of Tex Johnston with hushed reverence, if you let yourself be caught up in the giddy mid-summer hoopla that is Seafair, you can’t help but bust out in a goofy, lopsided grin.
Because that’s what Seafair is really all about: a chance for us reputedly provincial, uptight, superficially-friendly-but-secretly-resentful, gortex-encumbered Seattleites to let down our hair a bit, expose our pale bodies to the warmth of the sun and inhale deeply of the aroma of burning flesh (both human and animal), sunblock and jet aircraft fuel.