Thursday, June 26, 2014

Dinner, Bass, & Death



          I startle stupid easy. I also employ a certain level of stubbornness and feel -- for the most part -- that celebrating birthdays is for a) people between the ages of two and 10 and b) folks outside of that age range that are into themselves like normal folks are into sports and reading and morning bowel movements. Therefore, I have crafted three life rules for you category-b folks unfortunate enough to have to deal with me on a quasi-regular basis:

1)      If you sneak up on me I will punch you right in the neck. Hard. And not feel (too) bad about it.
2)      I like things my way, alright? Things one might store in folders called “Some Other Way”, “This Way, Perhaps”, or “Another Idea Is” have only one place they can call home: a shredder.
3)      If you’re way into your birthday (Editor’s Note: Look away if you want; we all know who you are.), you are only allowed to say one word on your celebratory day. You may say it as many times as you like. You are welcome to conduct orchestral phrases with varying uses of the word. Pen speeches with it. Utilize sign language to communicate it, but know that it is your only word for the day and each expression of it must be exclamatory. Here is your word: me.






      Anyway, I turn 40 this year. In December. And around February a few family whispers began to circulate regarding my birthday. News of such discussion was brought to my attention by my wife, and -- although she didn’t have to -- she clarified with me that I did not want to celebrate this anniversary in any fashion. My clarification on the matter is this:

      For most of my life, December was a badass month. For several years it has been the worst and the forecast shows zero signs that that will ever change. I’m not bitter about it for the duration of the calendar’s other 11 months, but what was once pizza and cake and presents and school vacations and free passes to get completely hammered have morphed into a watermelon-sized knot that sprouts in my guts around early October. Come Christmas Eve it is a bloated, weeping, pus balloon that could explode if an eyelash landed upon it. In essence, December is nature’s way of saying, Hey -- Try out this case of poison ivy in your asshole for a month and let me know how it feels.

      So, no: I do not -- on top of work stress and shopping and family birthdays and Christmas and weather and the pressure to “have a blast” (Note: Use of that phrase should come with a free weekend-long case of dysentery.) on New Year’s Eve (which is Saint Sylvestrian for “throw handfuls of money in the trash”) -- want to commemorate the close of my fourth decade on this planet. That sounds like a recipe for depression.On what was thought to be an unrelated note, some friends of mine began planning, a few weeks ago, to get together for the United States’ first World Cup game. I, knowing it would be a Monday, bowed out, as I knew I’d have the kids. I wasn’t too bummed about it since it was the first game and the matches would only get more exciting, but it was also against Ghana, who I think has eliminated the United States in the last two World Cup tournaments, and it was also on my current television night. Once the children are fed and bathed and in bed and the dishes are done and tomorrow’s coffee is prepped, I flop on the couch for “Louie” and “Longmire” and am never disappointed.

      Last Monday morning, though, I saw what appeared to be the evening’s pajamas laid out for my daughter, which was peculiar, especially since they sat next to fresh bed sheets. Later that morning I received a text from my wife saying that I only needed to pick up the boy; my sister and her friend had plans to take our daughter and her friend’s son to dinner. A quiet pleasure resonated on my inside as the possibility of an earlier start to my shows flickered in my mind.

      A few minutes after six o’clock that evening, I was heating the boy’s dinner on the stove when the front door beeped. It was my wife, and she startled me. The sequence is now lost on me, but I know the phrases “What is the matter with you?” and “Why would you do that to me?” came out of my mouth. She maintained a smile and told me she had a surprise.

      “You know I don’t like surprises,” I said.

      “Don’t worry,” she said. “This will probably be the last one.”

      Monday was hot. I’d seen the forecast and turned on the air, but it remains on an away cycle for the duration of business hours. I’d been home for a few minutes and had just peeled the sweaty work clothes off and gotten into some shorts and a t-shirt. The air ran full force trying to catch up with the now-home demands of my downward-arrow toggles. I stood, still sweating, at the stove.

      “We have a reservation in an hour,” she said. “You might want to put on some pants.”

      In the next few moments, I didn’t do a whole lot other than circle the house in a pout pattern that was only fueled by a) the fact that she turned off the boy’s dinner, ignored his heating bottle, and took him upstairs to nurse him; b) the knock of her parents upon our front door, which caused c) the dog to bark and run around like a maniac; d) my father-in-law’s immediate curiosity/ensuing frustration/ultimate euphoria regarding the closing minutes of the soccer match, which reminded me that e) I was not at the bar with my friends.By the time we were in the car and en route to an unknown destination, we were running late, which cemented my decision to stew. I can be late to 11 out of 10 functions and (sort of) tolerate that internally, but the minute my wife makes us late to something, she may as well flee down Pamplonian streets, from my ire. Here, however, is where it gets tricky. I take plenty of digs at my wife, many of which are in some vein of sarcasm, or via a distortion of my own chagrin. Strip all of that away and insert an objective lens and I can only say this: She drives like her father. This can be a good thing if you are, say, wounded and en route to the hospital, and have no anxiety regarding potential collisions.

      If you are not a fan of lane drifting, aggressive accelerations, delayed braking, and general disregard for traffic safety and vehicular preservation, I suggest you drive, in which case you will be -- without exception -- told of the inferiorities of your route selections, and hissed at when potential danger (other cars, pedestrians, litter) enters the zip code in which you drive. In essence, the Emeril Lagasse in my head had taken my stew up a notch to simmer. My Tupac lyric for the moment could have been, Picture me folded (arms crossed, lips pursed at the ends), I got no love for surprises, Just want to kick shins.

      Anyway, we were northbound on Oak Street before making our way to Grand. When we slowed near Crown Center, two things occurred to me: 1) We were going to The American; 2) I am an asshole. Before kids we made it a point to have a high-end dining experience a couple or three times a year. Our goal is still that, but we hit it with less frequency, namely because parenting his hard and expensive, but also because months like December (and its current rival May) create a crust around the aforementioned assholery, making it hard to plan anything with your spouse if you are unfortunate enough to be married to me. For various reasons, The American -- until last Monday -- had continued to be a runner up in our dining-experience decisions.

      Turns out those reasons were unfounded.

      We began the evening with a cocktail. I can’t remember what my wife’s was called, but I enjoyed the red concoction -- in both flavor and title (“The Beet Goes On”) -- with the Rosemary sprig in it.




I opted for the seven-course chef selection; Anna went a la carte. What follows is a pathetic attempt to capture the presentation of each plate; in a few cases, I was too hyped to dig in and remembered the photography portion too late:

      Jarrod provided top-tier service from the beginning of our experience and never faltered. In fact, several parties were involved -- a runner, an expediter, a busser, the manager on duty -- and each of them exuded poise and professionalism. At the table to our left, however, was what I can only call the opposite of the guests I presume us to have been.

      It would be inaccurate of me to use any form of the verb celebrate to describe their purpose in the dining room that evening, but we know this much: their 58th wedding anniversary was a factor. He wore a suit; she a dress, along with extensive makeup and hair product. The table to our right involved a man and two women discussing a sort of business and being hard of hearing to begin with, I had neither the desire (Note: I’d only just pecked my way out of the sulky eggshell.) nor the ability to eavesdrop. Such was not -- and seldom is -- the case for my wife. She was quick to alert me to a production of some sort by various faces of disproval and all-but-invisible head nods in the direction of the couple’s table.

      Like a pitcher shaking off signs from his catcher, I indicated that I was not picking up what she was putting down. She figured as much and mouthed me a question, which required a repeat with whisper.

      “Is she pouting?” It was difficult for her to battle the urge to grin.

      After shrugging, I stole a peek at the woman’s face, which -- no sugarcoating -- was hideous.

      Meanwhile, we were presented with an amuse bouche of some delightful, cream-based soup with mushrooms in it. It went down our hatches faster than I could even think about cell-phone photography, and it was delicious, even to a guy that hates mushrooms. Anyway…

      It’s not that this woman was ugly out of biology; rather: mood. As quick as I was to discover the accuracy in my wife’s theory, the same swiftness afforded me my own hypothesis: Her presentation had little to do with this evening, but perhaps had a large association with the previous five-plus decades of her life. Once more a speedy thought arrived and this one was a two-parter: They would soon request the check; that moment could not happen soon enough.

      A few spoken highlights linger from their neighboring presence:

      Her: “Everything about this menu is fucking bizarre; there’s nothing but complete shit on it.”


      Her again: The price points associated with the alleged garbage was deemed “highway robbery.”
Her again: “I’ll bet they don’t even have crème brulee.”

      The manager was alerted and quick to appear, apologetic that there was nothing suitable for them in print. Sometimes, when I try to eavesdrop, I hear even less than when I had yet to attempt. My conclusion of their exchange was that they’d dined at The American on some years-past evening, and were less than pleased that their same entrée from that night was not still available. The manager tried to execute an emotional come-about with this vessel, but rock, reef, or land, this ship would man its course. He was ordered to remove the plate in front of her -- the contents of which she’d shoved to and from with a fork that maybe once touched her lips -- and hustle back with a mug of black tea.


      Meanwhile, I was served my first course, which consisted of mango and Dungeness crab with a little bit of olive oil, an English leaf known as “rocket”, and sous vided mandarin oranges.



          Anna had white-asparagus soup with ramp, sourdough, miso, and -- as it were -- a perfectly poached egg.



Back at the other table, the man said something to his wife once she’d dismissed the manager.

      Her response: “Did you really just go back 50 years for that? Fifty years? You just brought up something that was 50 years old? Don’t speak to me anymore.”

      Her husband made some murmur of a plea.

      Her response: “Do. Not. Speak to me. For the rest of the evening.”

      Upon Jarrod’s return to our table, I shot him my own version of facial cues, to which he smiled. Being the stubborn mule that I am, I pressed him for his thoughts transformed into words. He handled my coax with precision.

      “I think,” he said, “that perhaps this menu just isn’t for them.”


      Meanwhile, I fixed us bites from my dish of foie gras, olive-oil cake, mustard seed, and several forms of rhubarb.


      The couple had another discussion that involved the absurdity of not having their salmon dish, the preposterousness of a crème-brulee-free dessert menu, and the abomination that was an establishment she’d once visited that did not serve black tea. There was then an exchange about nuts; his love for them countered the degree to which she loathed the topping. Upon his next visit to our neighbors, Jarrod recited the dessert offerings.

      “Read them to me again,” the man said.

      After he’d listed to a couple, the man interrupted.

      “Let me tell you what I want,” he said.

      “I want a scoop of vanilla ice cream,” he said. “And I want it covered with nuts. I don’t care what kind of nuts you have; I want a ton of them.”


      Meanwhile, we all but drooled over my dish that featured caviar, toasted specks of pumpernickel, waygu tartar, and smoked béarnaise (which apparently is done by placing the sauce in some sort of hand-held food-smoking gun).


(I just thought this was cool; the smoking-gun caviar's below.)


For the remainder of their time in the dining room, the woman stared at the city view the four of us shared. When the sorbet for which the man had to settle was presented (in the same dish as Anna’s soup), the three-ounce portion yielded audible scoff.

      “You’ve got to be kidding me,” he said. “I want another scoop.”

      “Another scoop, sir?”

      “Yeah,” he said. “Another scoop. Take it back and get me another scoop.”

            Meanwhile, we dined on squab two ways with house-made yogurt, hummus, and roasted carrot tops, which may have been the chef’s tasting’s highlight.


     Anna’s dish of stinging-nettle gnocchi was also a home run. It featured lemon balm, sabayon, ricotta, and porcini mushrooms.


     It was impossible to imagine where they would go upon the conclusion of their transaction, but only two scenarios came to mind: a) a hotel room, in which their disgust would be confined to some sense of face-to-face, or b) an enormous home of numerous rooms and corridors and stairways across which their antipathy could travel, touching every corner, like the aroma of a servant-kitchen roast reaching the master suite. Their existence frightened and saddened me, and I attempted, once again, to convert it to humor.

      “Tell me,” I said, “that the entire staff is back there discussing those folks.”

      The expediter smiled.

      “Oh, yeah,” she said. “Everyone in the building is aware of the table from hell.”

      I didn’t think of the couple again in a forward sense once they’d gone, but they were with me as background noise for every course, the image of them a scalded mirepoix unscrapped by an overworked chef de cuisine whose time was too valuable to start the soup anew.

They didn’t affect me as we ate lamb with black garlic, lemon, peas three ways, wasabi, and “lambcetta.”


     Nor did the image of their now-clean table phase us as we consumed our cheese course:




a pale-ale pretzel with pickled honey mustard, decade cheddar for Anna; 



cherry mostarda, bitter chocolate cake and a blue cheese dubbed “creamy sexy” for me.


The couple’s bitterness was absent from any of Michael Corvino’s superlative ingredients, impeccable execution, but their presence lingered in the dining room and will forever remain a part of the evening.

 It didn’t slow us in our coconut palate cleanser.



And we tore up pastry chef Nick Wesemann’s Nickers Bar (torte, cashew caramel, bacon candy, nougat wafer, sea-salt ice cream).


But when I put my head on the pillow that evening, I sent intentions into the universe. They sought for the energy of that couple to serve as a reminder of what my crabbiness could become were I not cautious of it.

      Late the next afternoon, I had retrieved my son from day care and was en route to my daughter’s preschool. My iPod is, as they say, on the fritz, and the day’s events had left me too weary to fumble with CDs, so I hit scan on the FM dial of my car stereo. The first place I landed was the oldies station which had just started playback of my favorite Wings song:



I don’t need to do any digging around to know that there are probably more than one billion published, legitimate words in print that discuss and analyze The Beatles, so I won’t pretend to be an equal scholar to those authors. Suffice to say though, that they were a pretty dope outfit, and time has told us that -- if you had to pick one -- Paul McCartney was probably the most prolific in terms of career musicianship. I don’t have any interest in breaking down the discography of Wings, but I do remember my cousin Bob asking for one of their albums for Christmas one year, and I was surprised -- then pleased -- to learn about this outfit. That is, I’d heard the hits, but had assumed them to be solo McCartney endeavors. It’s always fun to make little discoveries like that.

      Anyway, “Silly Love Songs” came on the day after we dined at The American and given the previous evening as well as the fact that what’s usually available on the radio is garbage, it really resonated with me. What I discovered this time around is that I never knew that McCartney played the bass. And did so left-handed (Note: Guinness-commercial voice: Brilliant!). It’s not just that he played the bass, though. It’s the fact that he did so (at least in this number) while singing, which I’ve always found admirable, be it on the six- or four-string. And, boy does that bass jump on this cut. His execution in it is like a choral echoing of frogs en aria, afloat in the baritone swamp. It’s got zip and flare and a roll to it that make the bass line its own song within a song.

      And of course the rest of the piece is magnificent. The string arrangements, the quattrain of horn players, the tongue-in-cheek vocal refrain are complements of a most harmonious nature, and they set up the song’s first interlude -- an elegant display of introspection in the round -- with a touch of compositional craftsmanship seldom seen. By the time the second interlude arrives, you’re one of two places: a) at the audible-journey point where you don’t want the ride to end, or b) watching this video and acknowledging that -- while mulletriffic, this footage, run spliced with intentional concurrence for the music and lyrics -- captures the human element of devotion, be it to craft, individual, or the universe itself.


      On my Tuesday-morning hustle to get out of the house, I remembered the previous day’s luck in catching a good tune on the airwaves and knew it wouldn’t be repeated. In haste I fumbled through the embarrassment known as my CD cabinet and snagged Radio Latino when I came across it. This is a various-artists release from the Putumayo label that was an impulse purchase in a Starbucks some eight years ago. I bought it along with The Oliver Mtukudzi Collection; both proved solid acquisitions. One track from Latino, however, has always stood out: “Me Ensenara” by Bebe.



I once played this number in the basement of our old house while my wife and I were trying to clean and organize, and she complained about it, so I know it isn’t for everyone. I think it’s beautiful. Bebe’s voice is refreshing and enticing, as I have little familiarity with contemporary Spanish musicians. More so, I have the pleasure of being able to understand the words, even with all of those cute lisps with which the Spaniards speak. For those of you that don’t, this is my translation:

“The air calms,
Smells of wet earth.
My dog sleeps at my feet,
He looks after my home.

Time stands still here,
My love is just about to come home.
Time stands still here,
Here I find peace.

The highway’s curve
Invites me to travel.
There is so much to cover,
So much to know.

The map becomes smaller,
My soul asks for more.
My love arrives by turtle,
He will show it to me.

He will show me
The voice of the sea.
He will teach me
How not to cry.
He will teach me
To recognize that there are
Pains in life that teach you to grow
He will teach me to see his eyes
Even if he’s not here.”

      Like all pieces of art, meaning is open to interpretation, but these verses feel as though the writer’s partner died, and as she moves through grief and pain; the idea of the love they shared will strengthen her, expand her horizons. Maybe that’s not it at all, but it’s an idea. Perhaps the lover left her, or perhaps it’s literal: She loves him so much that she’s crippled in his absence and needs him present for her to flourish. Whichever way you choose to hear the lines, they sing of an idea of love that seems seldom seen in this country, a notion that the meaning of the word has lost all of the value it once possessed. Nothing, though -- And I do mean nothing -- makes this song the number that it is without the delicate, punchy bass-string plucks of Javier Rojas.

            The entry of his instrument in this recording is delayed until the 50-second mark, which sets a pleasant, serious tone. As Bebe transitions from the initial, somber feeling of the tune, Rojas comes aboard and, via his bass, takes the listener along the roads of which she sings. As this instrument tends to do, it becomes the backbone of the piece, carrying it in a necessary silence. By the time we hit the refrain, it moves to the foreground, taking over with a funk that would make even Bootsy Collins smile. The rhythm he keeps moves in and out of octaves with a cradling swiftness that makes the cut something much bigger than Spanish pop. It is in the final 48 seconds of the track, though, that the bassist lets loose with a rootsy innovation that -- again -- mimics the lyrics; life via the lover (or the bass guitar) is revived.


            I dunno if good things happen in threes, but let’s say for the sake of this post that they do. What could possibly be a better counterpart to Paul McCartney and Javier Rojas? Louis Johnson, I tell you. Louis Johnson. The man has been slapping fret boards for over 40 years and the list of folks with whom he’s jammed is longer than your average bass neck. You probably know him best for his fine-fingered work on this cut, though:



In the same sense I alluded to regarding The Beatles, I’m not going to dive into the nest of the late Michael Jackson. He was maybe the largest pop-music figure of all time and he did so many things right. In “Billie Jean” he writes about a different kind of love than the ones we encounter in “Silly Love Songs” or “Me Ensenara,” but it is (or was) love, alright. It’s a love with a purpose and Mr. Johnson, I would argue, made that song what it was. Yes, the lyrics were striking, and of course the synthesized shrieks give it that signature sound, but it was the bass work of Louis Johnson that brings us all out to the dance floor time and time again.

            While last week did feature amazing cuisine and groovy bass riffs, it wasn’t all delectable reductions and artistic collaborations. No, it began with Father’s Day, which I imagine to be one of the more divisive holidays on the calendar. Perhaps there are some children who don’t know what to do for their father on this day save for get him some golf balls or let him play 18 holes. I know there are a number of folks out there who no longer have their fathers with them in this world, and maybe just as many who never did. My guess is that there are plenty of children who have a fantastic time celebrating the day with dad, but on this particular Father’s Day, many folks in the Kansas City community lost a friend.

            It would be impossible of me to try and include everyone, so I can only touch on the few I know best. My friends Jayson and Richard Molnar spent the final hours with their mom Pam on Sunday, as her seven months of suffering from bile-duct cancer took her life. Their mom had a number of close friends who have remained in touch and part of one another’s lives since high school, one of which is my own mother. I have felt her pain as she’s lost several close friends to cancer over the years, two of which were in the last 17 months, and as the math shows, Pam’s was particularly aggressive. It goes without saying, though, that her passing was the toughest on her sons as they have said goodbye to their father, grandfather, brother, and now their mom, all in the span of about 10 years. Through each of those losses, Pam remained the anchor to her boys, dwindling as they were.

            I’m not close with either of them, but we’ve known one another since childhood. I didn’t know Pam that well, either, but I know that she was a terrific friend, a funny, energetic presence, and a loving mother. Like that which has been written about The Beatles and Michael Jackson, I cannot use words from enough personal experiences to do Pam justice, so I will not try. I know, however, a portion of the pain that they -- along with Pam’s many friends -- feel and there’s something to be said for it and for the way that we treat one another. Differences will always exist and struggles will always surprise us. There’s no way around either. The only other truth I know is that we all will one day be gone, some in old age like Pam’s dad, others in disease like Pam and her sons’ father. Still others will see their lives end in a flash, like Jayson and Richard’s late brother, Matty.

      It’s hard to identify what’s hard anymore. In my profession there are dozens and dozens of moving parts that make it difficult to get answers, solve problems, achieve success. At home I have a hard time being patient managing the needs of two children, two pets, a spouse, and myself, especially when they all happen at once. In hockey it’s hard to skate faster, to develop endurance, to improve your skill level. And in writing it’s tough to use fresh language. Above all, though, I find it challenging to have grace, or to at least remember to try to.

      The world has gone from such a place of familiarity to a revolving door of uncertainty. We never knew what technology was going to look like until it crashed into our lives and became a massive necessity. Since becoming so, it has brought with it many sources of frustration and has set the new -- remarkably low -- mold for patience and tolerance. Even the way people think and communicate has all but transformed. It used to be okay to talk about a fantastic dinner, but now doing so is handcuffed to and anchored by anvils of privilege labels and the threat of judgment hiding behind most bushes.

      Like, I have to say that I was able to hire a neighborhood babysitter because I live on a block where people trust instead of fear. I have to announce that the only reason I was able to get to the restaurant was because my ancestral lineage put me in an advantageous position to find employment, and I therefore have the funds to purchase a vehicle and put fuel in it. I have to know that it is not appropriate to sit in a chair in the restaurant dining room, but rather hover, lotus-seated on a cloud of perpetual thankfulness that the establishment’s employees and other patrons aren’t staring at me and whispering about my gender identity, my sexual orientation, or my skin color. And I have to think, with every bite and each sip, about the people that aren’t enjoying the very experience I’m having because I’m so prosperous for having been born when I was born, how I was born, where I was born, and by whom beget me.

      Don’t get me wrong. I think small doses of each of those very things are important. It’s valuable to challenge the way we think. It’s enlightening to heighten our awareness of other people in our communities (and in others), in our country, and in our world. It’s humbling to know that my perspective is not the only one, and oftentimes not the right one. It’s rewarding to remember that life is about balance. Technology, however, has perhaps changed the definition of small doses, because that’s a heavy load to shoulder when venturing out for a rare experience of extravagance, and when you try to parse through it all, it’s easy to fumble graciousness.

      It’s also easy to get to deep in the murk associated with all of those thoughts and come out with a mess of questions, like, What is our purpose here in this world and in this life?, and Why is it hard to walk through it without (at least the illusion of) struggles?, or Have I been a terrible enough human being that the level of pain I feel is unjustified?, not to mention How come happiness is not easily obtained for some? And I think the answer is that we’re meant to feel joy and that joy is a symbol that life is a gift, that suffering was intended for us, too; it is our reminder that this life is not eternal.

      Somewhere in the middle is the bulk of our days and nights on this planet. They’re meant to encourage you to nod your head to the popcorn bass lines of Louis Johnson, Paul McCartney, and Javier Rojas and belt out the lyrics of Michael Jackson, Wings, and Bebe. They’re permission to savor your candied rhubarb, your smoked béarnaise, and your foie gras torchon. They’re a reminder not to walk through life in boots of disdain, to not fill the dining-room air with spite and repulsion. They’re an indicator that the gift of life and its accompanying joys are but, as William Shakespeare wrote, a “brief candle,” a “walking shadow, a poor player” whose tale, before long, shall be “heard no more”.


      So, while you’re out there, moving through the streets and the living rooms and the restaurants of your lives, smile at your bass riffs and enjoy your beet-juice cocktail. Manage your frustrations before you wind up taking them out on your server, and don’t forget to tell the ones you love that, well…you love them.