nixonIf the band’s name is the name of a food, does it count as Plate Discipline material? I decided yes.

It’s hard to know how to sell people on Nixon, the Lambchop album the internet seems to agree was the career- or sound-defining album of the band’s oeuvre. I wouldn’t really know. I haven’t responded to their other albums like I do to Nixon, and I think I basically stopped being interested in Lambchop about eight years ago.

Nixon came out in 2000, quite some time ago now, and although the band is well-known around the world, it’s not as if they’re big stars. That’s got to be partly because Nixon, while a glorious and one of my favorite albums, is not exactly a hit-laden power pack of propulsive catchy tunes that get you up on to the dance floor etc. The word “languorous” is practically embedded in the album’s DNA. The songs are long, slow, repetitive. The playing is apposite and precise but unvirtuosic, all about soundscape and mood, full of ostinatos and washes. Featured instruments are pedal steel guitar, vibraphones, trumpet, “lacquer thinner can.”

The lead singer and band impresario Kurt Wagner alternates vocally between an ersatz Philly Soul falsetto and a froglike baritone croak, sometimes within the same verse. His voice is like his image: I always see him in those horn-rimmed glasses and trucker baseball caps he invariably wears (obligatory “plate discipline” adherence: he looks a good deal like Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon); and even though these accessories are unimstakably him, I feel like I still don’t know what he actually looks like–he always just looks like his costume. And I couldn’t tell you what his voice really sounds like, either, when it’s free of affect. He’s a character-actor singer. It’s like what Scott Miller writes about Jeff Lynne, whose voice was always heavily modified and half-buried in ELO’s “treble-rolloff rock,” as Miller writes. It’s “as if what I’m hearing is actually vocoder or something.”

Well, anyway, I just wrote all that journalistic stuff and that’s fine, but this is a blog, for one thing, and for another you can go online and read all about Lambchop and Nixon and its “legacy” and what Kurt Wagner thinks of it now and its reissue by Merge this year and all of that. I’m really just here to write about how I love this album for all the inarticulable reasons people should love albums–and I’m talking about albums here. It’s of a piece, sonically and feelingly. It adds up to more than the sum of its parts. I have no idea what Wagner is actually singing about most of the time (often I can’t even understand him) yet the message makes perfect sense to me, and I’m fairly certain it has nothing to do with Richard Nixon (see this, e.g.) even though the liner notes, which I don’t think I’ve ever read, apparently encourage this connection. But that’s like Eliot’s annotations to The Waste Land, which are a red herring. (Check out Wagner’s facetious Wikipedia page.) It’s also like what Scott Miller writes about Sgt. Pepper: Just because the Beatles didn’t intend Sgt. Pepper as a concept album doesn’t mean it isn’t one. Concept is not necessarily deliberate.

Nixon takes me into another world. That’s what an album should do. And I was in another world when I first heard it. It was August 2001. The ravagement of my life was total and I fled North Carolina to San Francisco, where my sister was living. From there I soon continued further west and ended up in Indonesia, but the three weeks I spent in the Bay Area were the disaster relief I needed just to get me to Southeast Asia.

Nothing explicitly therapeutic happened. We went hiking in Marin County a couple of times, I think. We went to Swan Oyster Depot, or whatever it’s called, and ate oysters. We bought vintage clothes on Van Ness. We kicked the soccer ball around on Crissy Field down at the Marina. And this was also the time when we went for that hike out somewhere near San Jose on a day when it was nearly 100 degrees, and Leah got so overheated that I had to run back to her truck and pick her up on the trail.

it might have been this same day that we went out to Torodell, which is the name of a family home out in the sticks of Silicon Valley. Leah was friends/involved with (I could never really tell) this guy named Jonny–I think that’s actually how he spelled it–who was one of the members of this family, and if I’m not mistaken he was also maybe the superintendent of the building Leah lived in, in San Francisco. For good and confusing measure, I had coincidentally gone to college with Jonny’s sister, so there was a twisted set of connections that seems in retrospect very Nixon to me. I didn’t quite know who these people were, how I should think of them, what my (and my sister’s) affiliation with them really was, or where exactly their house was out there in the farmlands or why it was called Torodell or what Torodell meant, since it wasn’t their name or the name of the town or of anything else I could discern. (The only thing answering to the name “Torodell” online is a Dublin-based business of an undisclosed nature.) I didn’t even think the word was “Torodell,” because when my sister pronounced it came out as two syllables, not three, that sounded vaguely like they should be spelled Twordell or maybe just Tordel. I was just along for the ride, anyway, in some sort of volitionless period of recovery.

My sister was in photo school at the time and had taken tons of pictures of Torodell, a kind of fond photoessay about the place. (We have a print or two in our house.) The images suggested an old, lovingly worn estate filled with strange artful relics, such as a mannequin dressed in costume jewelry and a gown and seated on a chair by a window, over which an old curtain hung and through which the California sunlight shone goldenly. That sort of thing. I had in my mind the image of a sprawling, peeling mansion, or mission, or hacienda, with goats all around chewing things to pieces and somebody wandering the property playing a guitarrón and a man reading William Dean Howells or Swedenborg and an old aunt in an inappropriately sheer peignoir unable to find her glasses while picking a lemon right off a tree and squeezing it into her glass of tequila at ten o’clock in the morning. A fantasy of ruined wealth, in other words, which is also very Nixon. The album is extravagant and even aristocratic in some way, but also dissolute, and there is debris everywhere. I think the first song’s lyrics talk about something that has gone missing behind an old speaker, and crushed pecans on the floor.

It turned out to be a much more modest ranch house, as I recall, although of a certain age that gave it a rustic comfort. The inside was brown and wood. Outside, there was an in-ground pool. The kitchen was small and there were a whole bunch of guests for the weekend and all of them, including us, had brought food and drink and so there was far, far too much of everything, which was satisfying. I remember virtually nothing about what we did other than sit out by the pool under an incredibly hot sky and sun. Did we cook out? Someone put on Nixon, and I can only conclude that they played it multiple times, because I fell in love with the album by the end of the night. I was probably drunk, the necessary condition for getting me through the summer. It is an album you can play over and over again, like Another Green World and Avalon and other atmospheric but rigorous albums.

Did I buy the album immediately afterward? I don’t remember. I seem to have had it ever since that day, though.


I had no idea what to expect from the live show at Baldwin Auditorium last night. The first thing is to marvel at what Duke did with that place. It is spectacular and I’m looking forward to hearing something like a string quartet or a piano recital there. I love that they didn’t try to make it a multi-use venue or anything remotely accommodating to most of what the world wants. It’s just there to make music sound great, and it happens to be very beautiful as well, although I don’t guess the beauty was the result of anything other than the residue of trying to make Baldwin a lovely place to hear music.

Lambchop were playing Nixon in its entirety, nothing more or less. This was to open Mergefest and celebrate Merge’s reissue of Nixon in commemoration of the label’s 25th birthday. It occurred to me that this was the second time I got to hear a cherished old album played live, in sequence, in the Triangle. The last one was the Big Star Third event at Cat’s Cradle a couple of years ago. But Third isn’t really an album except by accidental genius. Alex Chilton was very obviously drugged way out while he was making it, and a lot of what makes it cohere is its production, much of which I suspect he didn’t do. Radio City is the true album in his early-career run. Still, that show at the Cradle was magical, and Chris Stamey, who was obviously the organizer of the project, even ginned up a string section, and Mitch Easter and Mike Mills and Jody Stephens etc. etc. etc.

I didn’t think Lambchop doing Nixon was going to rival that, and it didn’t. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t put me into a deeply happy, deeply fulfilled place. I was nervous when the band came out onstage with no string section, because the orchestral stuff is a big part of the album. And I was nervous when five of the seven players took seats in a semicircle upstage. Oh, they were just going to sit there. It was possibly all going to be so polite and so tasteful, which is quite the opposite of what Nixon is–there’s something a little sleazy about it. Mount Moriah had played before Lambchop, and they were tasteful and also dull, even when they were trying to coax feedback out of their amps. “This is for Merge, so sit back and relax,” the lead singer said by way of introduction–ugh: the last thing I want to do at a rock show is sit back and relax. Before Mount Moriah played there was a kid who noodled around pleasantly on an electric guitar for half an hour (where was, say, Jeff Buckley to wail over this stuff? I thought), and I worried that this was all going to be decorous and middlebrow and that this was how Lambchop wanted it and perhaps I had misunderstood their purpose and character all along, all these years.

The two non-sitters in the band (bassist and lead guitarist) stood in their places in the semicircle, so it went (left-to-right) drums, bass, lead guitar, rhythm guitar (and Moog), horns, keyboardist, Wagner. They started into the first song, “The Old Gold Shoe,” and even had a sample of the ambient sound file that opens the album. They played the song perfectly, pretty much note for note, with other instruments filling in for the strings. So I felt like I was in good hands, after all.

The second song has a lot of falsetto, kind of relies on it, in fact; but Wagner apparently can’t sing up there anymore because he’s been smoking too much for too long. So while I was perfectly content to listen to it, it didn’t really fire on all its points for me.

I should add that I didn’t know that this song was called “Grumpus” until I looked it up just now. I’ve heard it dozens if not hundreds of times, but I have no idea what most of the songs on Nixon are called; this is part of its greatness, for me. These things need no names. I couldn’t tell you the titles of many of my favorite paintings, either, and I wasn’t surprised to learn today that Wagner was actually going to be a painter before he was going to be a musician.

Another part of Nixon‘s greatness, as on all great albums, is that there is a moment when a sort of compact with the listener is made. After a lead-in, a wind-up, an extended welcome or working up to a first peak, that first peak comes: the moment when you realize the album means serious business and has more in its tank than it has perhaps initially let on–and, most crucially, has the (lamb)chops to deliver it. Then is does deliver it, and you go, oh, I see, now it’s on.

Come to think of it, this is what good baseball games are like; and just like in good baseball games, there’s no telling where this first peak will come. I recall a game in 2009 when the Durham Bulls put their first three runners on base in the bottom of the first inning and Justin Ruggiano, batting cleanup, followed with a grand slam: a peak, right away–but the Bulls lost the game, and in front of what was then the largest crowd ever to see a Bulls game at the DBAP. They also lost the one last year where Craig Albernaz hit a grand slam off Ye Olde Snorting Bull in the second inning. Good games, like good albums, will of course have multiple peaks, and they will foil your expectations. The first one on Sgt. Pepper comes, for me, in “Getting Better,” when what I believe are congas are added into the mix just before the final verse (“I used to be cruel to my woman…”), along with a strange soft drone that I would guess is treated sitar. The Pernice Brothers’ Live A Little, which is probaly their best album, has a peak that’s so great I wrote an entire homage to it.

Novels can have them, too. I wasn’t sold on Humboldt’s Gift, which I’m currently reading, until (for some reason) the lines, “Mystery was one of his little rackets. This was harmless and in fact endearing. It was even philanthropic, as charm always is–up to a point. Charm always is a bit of a racket.”

The third song on Nixon has such a peak, one of my favorite in all pop music. The song is six minutes long, and the peak comes at the 4:00 mark, approximately. The song is called “You Masculine You” (I have just discovered). It goes along lullingly and pleasantly under Wagner’s falsetto and a lush string section, neither of which we heard last night, so it was a little deflated. But I was just waiting the song out till it hit that moment. Then it did, and it was magical. The song comes to the last of its full stops–there have already been a couple–but this time instead of returning to the verse, it leaps into an extended coda. This coda is anchored in a twelve-note guitar arpeggio, to which eventually accrues a near cacophony of other sound: horns, a thick-sounding guitar part, heavier strings, some sonic texturing underneath it all, and a general rising in intensity and build until Wagner starts singing, “Don’t follow me” over and over. I can’t really tell if he’s warning us against this bad idea of following him–even though you of course just want to follow that repeating coda phrase for the rest of your life–or if he’s being pursued by something menacing. And I also don’t really care. When that first moment of the coda hits, it hits like the hit of a drug, and I just want to stay in there forever. If they were still playing it right now, I would still be there in Baldwin listening to it, dying happily of thirst.

This was also the moment in the concert when the show itself took off. The players started leaning into it a little more. The guitarist, who I understand has rejoined the band after a long absence, was visibly getting into it. Wagner was, too, and if I’m not mistaken he let the coda go on longer than it does on the album. Each player even got a little solo inside the coda, or most of them did, anyway, it seemed to me; and when “You Masculine You” finally skidded to its finish, the crowd’s applause was heartier and more sustained than what they had given to the first two songs. There was no doubt that something had just snapped into place, and that it was going to stay there.

The fourth song is not called “Progeny” or “Come on Progeny,” as I had long assumed. It has the much goofier title of “Up With People.” I don’t know what the connection is to the vaguely scary nonprofit of the same name, or if it’s supposed to tie into the nominal Richard Nixon album “concept.” All I can tell you is that it’s a surprisingly bouncy number, kind of something I imagine the Muppets covering. The bassline slightly resembles that of Joe Jackson’s “Stepping Out.” And here the whole band was grooving more. The horn player was slapping his thighs during the intro, the rhythm guitarist was hand-clapping (I was a little disappointed that the audience didn’t take his cue). The song took the energy from the coda of “You Masculine You” and parlayed it into the next innings of the show.

I was fibbing a little when I said Lambchop played “nothing more or less.” They returned for an encore. Wagner stood briefly downstage, without a microphone, and opened his comments with the line, “Nixon was a bitch.” (He had not spoken, as he warned us he would not, during the performance of the album.) The audience laughed, as they should have, because that was funny, but this was such a simple and true line. A lot of work went into Nixon, and you can hear it, yet the album gives off that languor, that effortlessness, even carelessness: that Torodell charm. It’s a bit of a racket, yes, and so is Torodell, I suppose, but it kind of saved me.


Oh, you picked me up and we went home and for “dinner” we ate the tomato and cucumber salad I’d thrown together to marry before the show. It’s summertime, and the eating is easy. This was: tomatoes, cucumber, a little red wine vinegar, sliced red onion, two whole cloves of garlic (removed before eating), basil, parsley, salt and pepper. I blanched the rest of the yard long beans and threw some in. Eaten over rice. Delicious.

We could get away with that because we had had a piece of Pie Pushers pizza at 5:30. Pie Pushers is my favorite food truck, although I admit I only like two food trucks, with a third almost qualifying. I’m happy for Pizzeria Toro that they reopened, but you’d have thought it was the second coming, the way people were all agog about it. Toro is very good, but it’s expensive, and a bit of a production (a bit of a racket?), and Pie Pushers gives you a big slice of pizza, and a good big slice–in this case topped with a pea shoot salad (!!)–for $4. Sold.

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Tasty & Alder is my kind of restaurant, even if I found it mostly to be very good rather than great. The varying dish size — everything from a single (warm) donut to a life-sized Bi Bim Bap — the many brunch-friendly cocktails, the zingy wine list (with a couple of surprisingly old Burgundies on it): all of this appealed to me. In its freewheeling spirit, the place reminded me of the old Liberty Bar in San Antonio. I have a fondness for restaurants that are slight scofflaws. Liberty Bar was in a listing-to-one-side house practically underneath highway 281. It had two rooms which were quite unalike. On Mondays, bottles of wine were half off, and they had good wine, so you could really take advantage. I went there in 2002 and then again in 2008 and had the same waitress. They had really good, wheaty bread. The menu was a bit all over the place, and good-not-great: shaggy, unusual. I get really tired of restaurants that are standard-issue, even when they’re good: things cold and raw to start, big hunks of protein on starch and hot vegetables after. Too much of everything. Too much fat and salt. I keep coming back to Jim’s line: “Restaurant food is a caricature of real food.” (I even had that response to Mateo, which I found tasty but often inelegant, heavy, over-seasoned).

At Tasty & Alder, which is real food (at least, what we ate), we basically had dessert first. There was the single donut, a warmed-up improvement on Phoebe’s donut muffin (which I have always found too granular because of all the sugarcoating), with creme anglaise. Then roasted strawberries with mint chèvre. The smoked trout was really good, and the waitress persuaded us to get both the Korean fried chicken and the Bi Bim Bap. She told us the latter was her favorite dish, and it was much better than the fried chicken, I thought. I admire waiters who will tell you what they really think. I liked her casual demeanor, her apparently genuine indifference to how long we sat there taking up a table. And I got to have some “cask” wine from two Oregon producers I had never heard of, although they don’t seem to have been at all obscure. Both were very good, especially Mahonia’s Chardonnay, which was a little like a Macon. Sometimes you enjoy a wine because you’re in a really good mood, and I was in a really good mood that morning. So it was probably nothing special, but it went perfectly with the environment: T&A’s big, bright, airy, loud room, which seemed to call for young, fresh wine.

A little plate discipline of our own: on the coast, one night we had take-and-bake pizza for dinner, and another night we split a deli sandwich. We were on vacation. It sounds fun to cook extravagantly when you’re in someone else’s getaway house, but in fact no, it’s fun to eat quickly and then go back to relaxing. Should we do this more often at home, will that ease our lives by some small degree? I wrote an entire new piece of fiction on “vacation,” easily, while struggling back home in “work” mode to get “work” done. Maybe take-and-bake pizza is a part of this ease of work. I recall reading that Guy Davenport claimed to have subsisted his entire life on fried baloney sandwiches and Snickers bars.

When we went to buy fish in Garibaldi, we stopped on the way back out of town at Parkside Cafe(not near a park), ostensibly for coffee to go, and then ended up sitting there and eating a TBLTA sandwich made with real roasted turkey. This was one of the better sandwiches I’ve eaten in quite some time. We chatted with the fifty-something sisters who run the place (one was a school bus driver for a quarter century) and I gawked while the bus driver assembled a three-layer cake of such stupendous buxomness and icingness and stickiness that I felt almost as if I shouldn’t be watching. Her daughter was hanging around in the tiny kitchen during this. There was, paradoxically, something wholesomely Rockwellian about this very meretricious, even lewd, cake-making. In other words, Parkside was about as American as food gets, including the eggy coconut custard pie slice we took home. It wasn’t all that great, but you just had to admire the sheer richness and shamelessness of it.

We had good fish. I was delighted to discover that the reason “chinook” salmon was so expensive (and delicious) was that “chinook” is what the locals call wild king salmon. It was running: fresh, in season. We had some ling cod — neither cod nor ling (discuss, as Linda Richman would say) — and I think that was actually my favorite fish that we cooked in the house. But I think the most fun was the fish and chips we had in Rockaway while the guy filleted the black bass we took home to cook. The fish we chose for the fish and chips was halibut. I say disparaging things about halibut on a regular basis, because it’s so bland, but it made really good battered fish. They didn’t over-batter it, it was light and crispy. I like tartar sauce a lot and so I’m glad we rarely have occasion to eat it because it’s terrible for you.

More plate discipline. Number of restaurants we ate at in Manzanita: 0. Was a single one of these restaurants really even tempting? (We could have gone to the pizza place, which charged $25 for an 18″ pie. No, thanks.) Instead we found an organic grocery, a neighborhood grocery (with the sandwich counter), and a perfectly good IGA. There was even a Friday evening farmers market. The discipline in place like Manzanita is in reading your options and making shrewd choices. The best of these, to return to the thesis, was in spending our energy doing vacation things like resting, walking on the beach, etc., and not caring too much about food. We ate Pirate’s Booty, dream bars, hummus.

Just making sure to mention here Wheeler Station Antiques, whose deco collection was so astonishing (and large) that the place seemed unreal. (The most recent review on Trip Advisor begins, “I almost cried when I walked in…”) The owner was chatty and very calculating. He made sure to lodge his name — Greg Nichols — in our minds by telling us that we wouldn’t remember his name. Sheer ego is very important in the creation of a life, I note. I’m watching the Wimbledon men’s final as I write this.

Back in Portland on our last day as we waited for our redeye, we went over to Division St. in southeast Portland. This is a lovely neighborhood, and they’re doing food and retail right. Sure, it’s getting built up, but a block away on Clinton St. there are old Arts and Crafts houses in fine uncorrupted shape. We walked into a godawful expensive yoga-clothes store (and studio) — that seemed very Portland to me, if not Portlandia, which I have never seen. But I know enough about the show to appreciate the ways in which what Portland is doing tips over into parody. The municipal trash cans have solar-powered compactors. There are clean public water fountains, bathrooms, etc. It can seem a little precious. (But what to make of the teeming homeless?)

Yet at base, the whole blue-state project of a place like this is in the spirit of what urbanity should be striving for. Maybe it’s too easy to say that, after visiting as a tourist for just two days, I don’t know. But I saw ultimately how livable Portland was — okay, in June, in beautiful weather (same with Buffalo last year) — and to me that is what cities should make their top priority: places that are comfortable to live in despite all the forces working against that comfort: noise, pollution, trash, traffic, crowds, and the necessity of ugly conveniences. Portland has its own plate discipline. When you carp that all these prefab new condo/apartment complexes in downtown Durham are devoid of ground-floor retail, that’s an example of the builders’ failure to think about urban life. These complexes are discouraging foot traffic and the natural conviviality they foster. They’re promoting car culture, exclusivity, dead spaces.

We ate at Whiskey Soda and Pok Pok, two of Bear Award-winning Andy Ricker’s places, practically right across the street from each other on Division St. While we waited for our table at the latter, we had appetizers at the former. Then a waitress told us when our table was ready across the street. This was a nice touch.

The fish sauce wings are apparently famous: “Yes, these are the wings you’ve been looking for,” the menu boasted, and then backed up the boast. They were the best wings I’ve ever had, the secret weapon being the little nuggets of chili-garlic rub that fell off the wings — which were enormous, justifying the $14 price tag (same as the halibut fish & chips in Rockaway). We kept picking up the nuggets and eating them, like pop-rocks granola. And we gnawed on the bones, the cartilage, etc. The wings were smartly served with a side of wet naps.

The little wraps we got were filled with southeast-Asian staple flavors: ginger, dried shrimp, chilies, etc. They were great at first and then began to cloy: too much palm sugar in one appetizer, maybe. We were sitting outside on a beautiful evening. Durham doesn’t have enough places to sit outside and eat. Vin Rouge is okay but doesn’t quite count because that’s a back patio. The only street eating that comes to mind are Scratch and Toast, which are not dinner places, of course. I guess there’s Dos Perros and Pompieri. It never quite occurs to me to go to those places, though.

I was pretty curious about Whiskey Soda’s name and drink list. Okay, obviously the idea is to have whiskey with this food. So I ordered a glass of Rowan’s Creek, neat. I was pretty skeptical of all that alcoholic burn with spicy food, but it was a great pairing. The food brought out the fruitiness in the whiskey, and the spice, too, of course. So I stayed with the theme at Pok Pok, which had much the same menu (but much more expansive) and drink list. I wanted a glass of rye, so I asked the waitress which of two ryes was spicier. I was pleased to hear say she didn’t know, because I hate waiters who bullshit. She volunteered to ask the bartender, which I appreciated, and brought me a glass of Willets (or maybe Willits). It was really good, and especially right with the smoky wild boar under a sauce that was as close to the flavors of Laos as I’ve had since I was there 13 years ago — I had a slightly emotional reaction to that dish. The gaminess of the boar matched my sense-memory of the gaminess of much of the meat I had in Laos.

The noodle soup was excellent, and a reminder that curry doesn’t have to be spicy. The waitress messed up and brought us the wrong salad, which we didn’t quite figure out until we were more than halfway through it. It was pretty good, but not what we wanted, and here’s another item of good (disciplined) service: the waitress took the salad off the bill and didn’t say so — just quietly comped the salad, which was actually kind of expensive because it had tuna in it. I really admired this, because telling us about the deletion would have been angling for a better tip. That sounds like a contradiction, since she had made a mistake, but the way the psychology works is that instead of a $56 bill we had a $43 bill, so we could afford to express our gratitude for the comped item by upping our tip. Which I did anyway despite her not having said anything.

Back home for your birthday, Crook’s Corner. I could be wrong, or maybe spoiled by Oregon, but I’m pretty sure that just about everything about this place was a disappointment. Oh, except the crab-and-shrimp “calas” (i.e. fritters). Not because of the fritters, which weren’t very crabby or shrimpy (though still pretty good), but because of the dip, which was basically tartar sauce.

Am I supposed to say something about baseball? Twice we drove right past Ron Tonkin Park, home of the Hillsboro Hops, just west of Portland. (This a short-season rookie-ball team.) Both times, we could have stuck around for an hour or so and gone to a game. Both times, this opportunity did not really occur to us. Vacation was a vacation baseball, a pass-time away from the pastime. Also, who wants to watch rookie ball?

Ron Tonkin field looks like a high school field, and it’s in a complex of athletic fields. There was a girls’ softball game going on right across the parking lot. The whole environment had a pleasantly suburban feel to it (is that an oxymoron?). We went into the tiny gift shop and you got yourself a nice Hops jersey. I forget sometimes that “minor leagues” = more than, or rather less than, just Triple-A. Hillsboro’s ballpark was a very nondescript, small, homely little place, lacking any kind of character. All around it were industrial parks and vacated flatlands. It was just a ballpark in which to stick juveniles and let them play rookie ball. I got much more of a sense of the minors as a place of development and practice and trial. In Durham, it’s almost like a finished thing, meant to stand on its own. Ron Tonkin Field, mixed into a cluster of other ballfields and looking like a training facility more than a friendly confines, did not pretend to that status. It almost looked like it could be dismantled like an erector set at any moment, loaded onto flatbeds and trucked to any suburb in the US for the training of ballplayers.

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Plate discipline

guilfordI’m forced inside by illness and watching the Bulls play on TV, which you can now do easily this season. I can’t imagine there are more than 100 people watching this game; does anyone really watch minor-league baseball on television? But there it is, on channel 323, just a few clicks up from ESPN.

It’s the third time in less than a week that I’ve watched a ballgame from somewhere other than my usual spot behind home plate at the DBAP. Plate discipline is sometimes about relaxing that very discipline, in order to strengthen it (as by letting muscles recover) or in order to interrogate it. Why do I sit here watching these games and recording the pitch-by-pitch action? I’m not covering the Bulls anymore. I no longer have a reason to sit behind home plate and make my obsessively detailed score sheet annotations. Discipline has to be organic; it has to belong to something beyond and above it; otherwise it’s just bureaucracy of sorts–rote, factitious, indulgent, empty. Maybe the best way to kick this game-reporting habit, which is at this point like the ghost of a limb, is to watch the games differently: from a different place, with a different set of tools–or without them.

Last Sunday, we took our nephew and niece to a Greensboro Grasshoppers game. We stayed in our seats behind the first-base dugout for just an inning or two, then got some crappy food and ate at a table on the concourse from where we could not see the game except to make sure no foul balls came flying at us. After that, we moved to the sloping lawn area down by the right-field bullpen and halfheartedly watched from there.

It was a Class A, South Atlantic League game. I didn’t keep score, and I refrained from trying very hard to know anything about the players. Actually, I barely even needed to “refrain”; I genuinely didn’t need to know who the players were. I looked up one or two of the players on my phone. Was the one who blasted the three-run homer to right field a prospect? No, he was just some guy whose name I’ve already forgotten, Kevitt McDentron, or something like that. I got curious about a guy with a Hawaiian name like Kawika Ensley-Pai or close to it, but he turned out to be yet another A-baller who isn’t likely to have a job in affiliated baseball within three years. Basically he’s Kyle Holloway, except that Kyle Holloway will be able to tell his grandkids that he reached Triple-A; it’s doubtful that the Hawaiian will be able to make the same claim.

The late afternoon was beautiful and it was mostly just fun to be with the kids, who both did and did not care about the game, depending on the moment. Your nephew didn’t know much about baseball, so his attention was vague; of course it was your niece, who is always engaged to the fullest, who wanted to go back to our seats with you so she could actually see the game for a while, even though she doesn’t follow baseball. But there it was, so she wanted to be close to it

I was pretty interested in observing the degree to which the kids were responsible for themselves. Quite a bit, as it turned out: they toted their suntan lotion in their bags and patiently let us apply it. They didn’t mind walking a few blocks from the car to the gate, and actually asked to hold hands when we crossed the street. They were quite clear on what they wanted to eat. I also discovered that I didn’t have to ask your nephew if he needed to go to the bathroom; he told me when he needed to go. He spotted the kid-height urinal himself and waited for that one to become available. He washed his own hands, unprompted. In the car on the way home, your allergy-ridden niece didn’t complain about her runny nose; she just said, with perfectly adult poise, “Can I have another tissue, please?”

Did I behave that way when I was their age, I wonder? I can’t imagine that I did. I carp even now when I’m sick. How comfortable and canny and practiced the youngsters were with their own needs and responsibilities.

Plate discipline: I’m working on this idea that home plate in baseball–that is to say, the strike zone–offers us a metaphor for the tiny but essential airspace (wheelhouse!), different for everybody, often unstable, susceptible to danger and subject to argument, for which each of us is responsible. Over and over again, countless times a day, we’re tasked with either putting our efforts into the proper quadrant, with life and movement, or with judging and reacting to what comes hurtling into those quadrants of our awareness. (Being sick increases my awareness of this, because every decision I make is associated with how it will affect my health.)

The other night, I did my usual thing behind home plate at the DBAP for six and a half innings, cluttering up my score sheet and paying really close attention to everything, like always, with the intent (if not the act) of having something to say about it afterwards. Then you went home during the seventh-inning stretch, and I went down the right-field line to hang out with my friend’s birthday party group. Chatting with them at this remove from the strike zone, which I couldn’t even really see anymore, suddenly became far more interesting than watching the game the way I normally watch it. We were right behind the Durham bullpen, and I tried not to make eye contact with the relievers so they wouldn’t think I was spying on them or something.

I stopped scoring the game just in time to watch Pawsox reliever Alex Wilson wet the bed and give up six runs in the bottom of the seventh inning. I’d look up from my conversation every now and then to regard the action from a serene distance: Oh, another hit; another run; a bad fielding play by a Pawtucket infielder, pity (they’ve made a lot of those in this series–glovework is not their strength). It was pleasant to witness this onslaught of runs from such a detached perspective, both physically and mentally. I’ve preached detachment at my readers for five years; it was salutary to practice what I preach, especially during a time when detachment has not been easy to practice in our lives.

Jeff Beliveau had an easy eighth inning with a three-run lead, but in the ninth, looking for a two-inning save, he had a total meltdown. He walked two hitters, gave up a single, and then got really lucky when Mookie Betts’s hot grounder went right to second base for a run-scoring double play. Beliveau was on the verge of getting out of it and locking up a 7-5 win.

But then he walked another hitter. Beliveau was up around 40 pitches (I later learned), and obviously struggling, so Charlie Montoyo took him out of the game. He went to the platoon advantage, if I recall (see, I wasn’t watching closely). He called on righty Jake Thompson to face another righty, and Thompson promptly gave up a game-tying hit. Pawtucket won in extra innings when Betts, the diminutive phenom–who A) was given the initials M.L.B. by his parents, and not by accident; B) is a professional-caliber bowler; and C) is the nephew of former big-leaguer Terry Shumpert (the things you learn)–hit one of Braulio Lara’s lame breaking balls for a long homer. (And I should add that I could not tell from right field that it was a breaking ball; I learned that from the article linked above. I should also add that in this case “diminutive” is 5-foot-9, 156 pounds, which are approximately my measurements. We operate on a different scale with athletes.)

Every now and then, one of these prospects comes along and shakes up the hypothesis I like to advance at times: that most Triple-A players are basically just as good as most major-leaguers, and that the only things keeping many of them out of the bigs are luck and circumstance. Then Mookie Betts, a baby, is promoted from Double-A and starts changing the game immediately upon touching down in Durham. And it’s his poise, for a guy his age, that jumps out at you. He’s like your nephew and niece, possessing uncommon command of his strike zone–which includes the expanded zone of Triple-A itself. Betts started in Class A last year; we’d have seen him in Greensboro had we gone to a game there last year against the Greenville Drive. In about a year, he went from the Sally League to playing with the bigger kids in Double-A  to rubbing wrinkled elbows with Triple-A vets; his ageless teammate Rich Hill, who first reached Triple-A when Betts was twelve years old, was pitching for Pawtucket by the time Betts hit his game-winning homer. Yet Betts wasn’t cowed or cautious. He just applied himself to his task. Discipline.

It was a good game to watch the end of from way down the right-field line, because I hate lack of plate discipline more than anything, and Beliveau and Lara were horrifically guilty of it. We know all  about Lara, of course. The Rays exposed him in the 2012 Rule 5 draft because he couldn’t throw strikes, and it was no surprise that he was returned to Tampa Bay by the claiming team, like a puppy that couldn’t be potty trained. Against Pawtucket, he threw balls, he threw wild pitches; barely half his 40 pitches were strikes. He hung breaking balls. He was hard to watch.

Beliveau, on the other hand, has been masking his control problems with an outrageous strikeout rate this year: 42%, which is even higher than last year’s 38%. But he walks nearly 15% of batters he faces. He has historically been wild, and this year is no different: he has more than half as many walks as innings pitched.

In other words, he was due for a disaster. No one maintains a 0.00 ERA this long without lots of luck, especially not with a high walk rate. Beliveau has a weird delivery, long and loopy, and those mechanics are asking for trouble. They’re also what generate all those strikeouts, of course; the flaw is built into the strength, or perhaps better to say that they come from the same source. Plate discipline: how to reduce one while maintaining the other. Look at Kirby Yates, who has cut the walks down while still striking out more than a third of the batters he faces.

I was glad not to have watch Beliveau’s struggles very closely. No one wants to see a guy lose it like that. Nathan Karns fell victim to it earlier this week. He have up a leadoff homer in the fifth inning; next thing you knew, he was walking the bases loaded and looking totally unhinged. He barely made it through the fifth inning, and did not return. A scout near me told me Karns “comes with baggage,” in an insinuating voice. Plate discipline is mental discipline. The strike zone is in the mind. It is what you make of it.

This being also a food blog (that kind of plate discipline), I should preface Friday night’s televised baseball experience by saying that although I was sick, I was not too sick to make dinner. A couple of days ago, before I got sick, I started marinating some split chicken breasts–oddly, my favorite cut lately–in a mixture of ginger, garlic, citrus, hot chilies… some other stuff. This is basic cooking, deliberately light-handed and even a touch imprecise. The seasoning is only there loosely, in order to highlight the chicken we like to buy from Sharon at the market.

Roasted the breasts tonight, sauteed some gai-lan with tons of garlic and more ginger (for the health benefits while under the weather). Easy and good. The trick is not to overcook the chicken, which too many people do, afraid of salmonella. The thing to add to the gai-lan, which I had quickly blanched first while the chicken was cooking, is mirin. For whatever reason, Chinese cooking wine mixed with sugar does not produce the same taste.

Then we switched on the television. The Bulls’ TV broadcast was kind of hilarious, but what was happening to Enny Romero was not. That guy is a mess. His mechanics are erratic, he jerks the ball across his body or lets it fly too early and it winds up in lefty batter’s box when a right-hander is at bat. Romero lasted only three innings, and we left to go for a walk and undo a little of our plate discipline at the table with a trip to [REDACTED] for [REDACTED]. Sometimes you just have to do that. Discipline has to be broken, especially when you’ve been working so hard to maintain it for an intense stretch of time.

The salient problem was not Romero’s bad mechanics, really. Those can be fixed, probably, if he’s humble and dedicated enough to fix them (also matters of discipline). What stuck with me was the last out he got in the third inning–which was the last out he got, period. (Merrill Kelly calmly threw six innings of one-run relief. He’s an even-tempered guy, but inside it must drive him nuts that he’s the team’s best starter but doesn’t even rate a spot in the rotation; instead, he bails out “prospects” who can’t make it to the fourth inning.)

Romero had already allowed three runs, the last two on a two-out double, as I recall–maximizing damage, as it were. The final batter hit a soft tapper back to the mound. Romero is big, soft and ungainly, and he had trouble fielding the ball, partly because he didn’t go down for it with much alacrity. He bobbled it for a moment; then he, yes, lollygagged the ball to first and it just barely beat the runner there for the third out.

So that’s discipline, then, or the lack of it. The damage was done, but you have to keep combating it, soothing it, with just as much purpose as you show when you throw a baseball as hard as you can, or when you try to keep your head down and your swing level and drive the ball evenly and powerfully, with all the body and mind working in instantaneous and total harmony. The work doesn’t end when the ball leaves the strike zone. Needless to say, it has just begun.


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Meals of the Week(s)

Just a bit of catch-up here. Wasn’t I supposed to say something about that risotto I made a couple-three weeks ago? The salient point was that it was made out of what we had on hand, which was not very much, including frozen peas. I don’t recall anything else other than saying, wow, that was good. Plate discipline is in a sense easy to practice when you’re working with limited material.

I was reminded of this the other day because I made a salad of the following ingredients:

  • julienned lacinato kale
  • parsley
  • green onions
  • radishes, sliced thin
  • lettuce
  • hard-cooked egg, slice on top

All tossed in a sherry vinaigrette. The key to this vinaigrette was that I warmed it up in a pan first. Warm vinaigrette is overlooked, and usually not necessary, but when dealing with something tough like kale, it helps wilt the vegetable a bit better. And the vinaigrette seems to penetrate a little better. The egg was because we had gotten Easter eggs from the family on Sunday. The rest was what we had lying around and I didn’t feel like cooking. It was really good.

Last night, our one meal splash of the week: boneless pork loin that I had marinated in red chili peppers, ginger, orange and green onion for a few days; with sweet potatoes cooked in the same pan, and then kale sauteed with garlic, also in that pan, after the pork came out of the oven. The marinade/sauce, which got help from the super-rich, highly-spiced chicken broth I made the other day, was part of the entire meal. The key to this meal, I felt, was not really the long marination (three days), although that helped. It was that I boiled the sweet potatoes in water for a few minutes, softening them; so when they went into the pan with pork (which I had started on the stove top), they were ready to absorb the sauce.

I’m starting to think that much of the key to flavoring food is preparing it to receive that flavor: warm vinaigrette; softened sweet potatoes. Under present circumstances, there is a joke I don’t feel the need to make here, partly because I don’t quite know what it is.

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How to Watch Baseball, Pt. 1: Wag the Dog

mayo-jarSome ballgames are like the opposite of ballgames. All the overdone nonsense about “the church of baseball” (Bull Durham) and “no clock” and Whitman and “national pastime” and “boys of summer” really sounds silly when you & I are sitting at the ballpark on a frigid April night with the temps plummeting toward freezing, maybe 500 people in the stands and the concessions kiosks closed on account of no customers left.

And it’s even sillier when the Bulls’ third-string catcher, Mayo Acosta, comes into the game to start the eighth inning–as the pitcher. Sure, this sort of thing happens in Triple-A at times. It even happened in the majors last night, or rather, early this morning. Former Bulls catcher Craig Albernaz carved out a little niche for himself as “short reliever” (Montoyo: “I only said that because he’s five-foot-two,” ha, ha), but only in blowouts. One time, Ray Olmedo–who was available to Montoyo last night, again, five years later, I might point out: the eternal Ray Olmedo–Ray Olmedo came into an out-of-gas extraneous-innings game; blew the tie, of course; then got the win in what remains the craziest game I’ve ever seen at the DBAP. (It turns out you were right: Reggy the Purple Party Dude is the creature’s name. Also, Deunte Heath, who lost that game, is still kicking around the International League.)

But when Acosta came in, the Bulls had just tied the score in the previous half-inning. While the Bulls were doing that, I looked down to the bullpen to see who was warming up (well, as warm as you can get on a night like that). Didn’t recognize the guy, thought it might somehow be starter Nathan Karns.

But then, no, it was Acosta who took the mound in the eighth. It’s too bad the Bulls weren’t leading at that point, not because they would have won the game but because a pun about hold-the-Mayo would be exploitable here. His real first name is Mayobanex, which sounds like a Mexican plumbing supply company. He had a brief stint in Durham two seasons ago and disappeared down to Double-A shortly thereafter. I thought we would never see him again, but on the other hand: Craig Albernaz. Acosta has been in the Rays organization his entire pro career, since 2007. It’s funny, Albernaz is five years older than Acosta, but he, too, spent the first eight years of his career, which started in 2006, in the Tampa Bay organization. Repetition. See below. Continue reading

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Mt. Fuji

Shrimp_Tempura-2It’s on the ground floor of your office building. We’ve only gone here a few times and the food is really pretty bad, but I really enjoy going there with you. Last night we both wanted Asian food and we got in your car in the parking lot by your office thinking we would drive to Kurama for a better version of the same food, but then we didn’t feel like driving so we parked the car two blocks from where we had gotten into it and walked right back into your building. it occurs to me now that Mt. Fuji is basically in a strip mall even though the strip mall is in a converted 100-year-old warehouse building. So the strip-mall quality of the food suits its location.

I like that the place is anonymous and usually near-empty when we go there, and that we don’t we see anyone we know other than Banks, the kid waiter whose dad was my first-grade teacher (!) — (did you know that?). Banks isn’t a kid anymore, either; he’s 27 or something. But he’s always nice and solicitous, and I like how he always asks us, while he’s clearing our plates, if we want one check or two, as though we aren’t married. It makes me feel like we’re still dating, which is fun. Actually, the whole experience of going there makes me feel like we’re still dating, perhaps because I still vividly recall that one of our first “dates” was at this place. We sat outside and at the end of dinner you kissed me on the cheek. Like it was 1958 or something.

But it’s also just that whole environment, which includes the invariable circumstances of our going there. We never plan to eat there. It’s always a spur-of-the-moment, easiest-choice thing, which somehow makes the mood light and airy and pleasantly inconsequential before we walk in. We have no expectations of the place whatsoever, and yet at the same time it does manage to be amazingly consistent in everything, from its four-on-a-scale-of-ten food to a vaguely disaffected couple invariably seated near us and a group of Duke students chattering at a table of ten and Banks, always smiling and asking if we’d like separate checks.

And so, oddly, Mt. Fuji manages to feel both date-night-invigorating and comfortably midweek-familiar at the same time. It’s a fun place to feel married in, because it partakes of both. And it somehow lowers the sometimes anxious stakes of everything. We talk about my proposal and it’s easy and almost shrugging, like we’re talking about what we need from Target. We talk about our rather fraught Indy column without any fraught feeling. It’s all breezy, and part of that has to do with how uninteresting the food is.

Am I actually supposed to write about the food? Your “orange shrimp” was like General Tso’s Chicken, and in fact the shrimp was scarcely distinguishable from chicken. My udon soup with shrimp tempura, egg and fish cake:

  • was actually a bowl of broth with noodles and a batter-fried egg in it, garnished with scallions;
  • served with a side of shrimp tempura that tasted like what I imagine Applebee’s shrimp tempura would taste like if Applebee’s had shrimp tempura on the menu (which perhaps they do, I’m  not going to check);
  • did not have any fish cake;
  • was perfectly fine until some decisive moment about three-quarters of the way into the broth, when I realized it was incredibly salty and that I was basically just eating a bowl of saltwater with fat flavorless noodles and green onions in it;
  • cost $13.95 — probably more than a similar, better dish would have cost at Kurama.

We could have spent less money at [redacted] or [redacted] for far better food, but somehow Mt. Fuji made me much happier than either of those places would have. The best part of all this came after we were done, when we went right up the stairs to your office so you could put the leftover orange shrimp into your breakroom fridge and we flirted in the library. A perfect sort of married/unmarried hybrid activity.

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pompieriA few notes on Pompieri:

1) It’s funny that you said toward the end what struck me (silently) the minute we walked in: Pompieri took one of downtown Durham’s most beautiful available spaces and made the interior look really ugly, cheap and ahistoric. It reminded me of those crappy little delis all over lower Manhattan, like around Chambers Street, that have been squatting in nice 19th-century buildings for so long that everyone forgets to kick them out and do something better with them.

Anyway, if there’s a less inviting restaurant than Pompieri in the city center, I haven’t seen it. It was depressing to see that they did such aesthetic violence to the building. Once I looked around a bit, I appreciated that the basil plants were feeding the fish in the tanks, but why are there fish tanks at all? If they were anchovies, I could understand… (Wait: are they anchovies?) As it stands, it sort of looks like Pompieri took over a space that had a crummy Chinese restaurant in it previously and found it easier and cheaper to keep the tanks running (with an ingenious feeding system) than to get rid of them. The little bar shunted off into the corner looks like an afterthought, a way to add more seats to an otherwise unusable space off the kitchen.

2) I was amazed at the number of staff in there. Did we count nine people in that (open) kitchen, basically just making pizzas, three appetizers (one a salad) and some gelato? At [redacted], we have a kitchen staff of seven making far more food, in much greater variety, for more people. Can Pompieri possibly be making any money this way? Will they eliminate some staff once the ball gets rolling? There were four or five more floor staffers, one of whose job it apparently was to hand you the menu and explain it. This seemed like an awkward position, for us as much as for her, and a waste of an hourly wage. A good menu doesn’t need a preface–actually, she also just repeated out loud some specials that were easily spotted on the board–and this menu is just fine. It’s very simple. You don’t need a hand-holder. I got the feeling that the restaurant didn’t trust its clientele, or itself to relate to them.

3) The pizza was good, but not in Pizzeria Toro’s league. It’s not trying to be, and it’s cheaper, and I don’t want to judge the place based on one experience (and only of the Margherita–although, as you pointed out, a pizza place should be able to stake its entire reputation on its Margherita). The tomato sauce was really good. You could put it on pasta and I would be happy. The crust was tasty, although mushy in the middle: that problem that almost no one seems to solve. Each slice of mozzarella slid whole off the pizza when you bit it, a result of too much moisture underneath. That was unpleasant and bit unsatisfying, as you had to slurp down your entire mozz slice in one bite, so you felt kind of cheated.

4) About the cheaper prices: I appreciate them, but I do note that the size of the pie (12″) is awkward. For people our size and of our modest appetite, it’s too much food for one person and not quite enough for two. The best approach is to go there with three people and order two pies, but I’m damned if I’m going to organize my party size around Pompieri’s pie diameter. You could order two pies for two people, but then you’re either taking home a disappointingly small remainder or (more likely) eating two whole pies and regretting it.

5) About that basil that was feeding the fish: nice to have fresh basil like that! However: they just laid three leaves on top of pie after it came out of the oven, as though the basil was a garnish, not an integrated part of the pizza itself. I like the basil to be baked in, so it gets that little bit of char on it.

6) Did the reviewer from the Weakly really have a problem with the scissors? (I’m not going to go back and check.) I found them quite easy to use, and that they enabled me to cut whatever size slice I wanted. People complaining about the scissors are making a prima facie judgment about perceived “pretentiousness,” not bothering to actually try the utensil and see that it works pretty well and is even kind of fun to use. I can see kids getting into it, too.

7) I admired the size of the wine list, but it was far too large for what the place needs, given its limited menu. Part of plate discipline: matching the parts of the menu. If you sell a) pizza, b) salad, and c) gelato, you need about four whites and four reds. Maybe even three. This is largely because there’s no need for a large price range. If all of the wine is going to be glass-pour price, basically, you don’t need 15 of them. Cheap wine is generally indistinct, and this is just pizza.

8) We were still hungry, so we went to [redacted] as usual and supplemented our pizza-snack with a $2.69 second course. Cochinita pibil!

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