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Tag: Anthony Bourdain

The Critical Mass

I read the Sunday New York Times, so you don’t have to: Dec. 27

1, The word for the world in today’s front section of The Times: Uncertainty. First, what was behind the 23-year-old Nigerian who attempted to light a fire on a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit? Second, what are we to make of this secret new strategy in which American commando units are taking out Taliban members in Afghanistan and Pakistan? We don’t really know, yet, on either count. But there is one commonality here: The top-secret special operations, a strategy that insiders and common sense suggest seems to be working, sounds more like a police operation than the military strategy that is sending  30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. Likewise, the attack on the airliner was thwarted by passengers and the air crew, not a government edict that we remove our shoes at the airport. These are nationless attacks, and not ideological, when we see the forest, rather than the trees: the 19 men who hijacked four jets on 9/11, Timothy McVeigh, the Unibomber, any of the armed men who have been shooting up our schools. We’re not fighting nations of terrorists, but a world of terrorism.

2, “Kim Peek, Inspiration for ‘Rain Man,’ Dies at 58.” The obituary for the Utah man who inspired Dustin Hoffman’s socially inept savant in the 1988 film is loaded with astonishing feats. Peek could read two facing pages of a book at once, and apparently remembered everything of the estimated 12,000 books that he read. Yet he could not dress himself or brush his teeth without help. He was a man of facts and numbers, purely a linear thinker who could not understand a metaphor. He was born with a brain abnormality that perhaps, two doctors who had worked with him wrote in Scientific American, allowed the left and right halves of Peek’s brain “to function, in certain respects, as one giant hemisphere, putting normally separate functions under the same roof.” Initially diagnosed as severely retarded, after Rain Man Peek emerged as a celebrity whose social skills grew to the point that he comfortably traveled the world, giving talks on himself and playing Stump the Savant for audiences. This was one of the most-remarkable men of the past 50 years.

3, Today’s Week in Review is actually a Year in Review, and a Decade in Review. “The Decade We Had” hands each of the last 10 years to an accomplished writer. Ex-chef and globetrotter Anthony Bourdain notes that, in 2007, the Food Channel began replacing real chefs such as Emeril Legasse and Mario Batale with “a personality with a saute pan.” Bourdain has put his finger on a decade-long, across-the-board dumbing down of culture and society.

4, The lead story in Sunday Styles ends the debate on how badly we’ve dumbed down: Lady Gaga is the year’s “enduring style phenomena.” Indeed. And the Black Death of 1348 was that year’s persistent medical puzzle.

5, The Simpsons 20th Anniversary Special – In 3D! On Ice!, to be broadcast on Jan. 10, includes an  hour-long documentary by Morgan Spurlock, best known for eating nothing but McDonald’s food for a month for his acclaimed Super Size Me. The new documentary includes such memorable moments as George H. W. Bush lamenting, “We need a nation closer to The Waltons than to The Simpsons.” OK, setting aside the fact that Will Geer – Grandpa Walton to the 41st president – was a gay liberal activist who liked marijuana in his strawberry tea, let’s remember that Bush has himself to blame, in part, for The Simpsons‘ longevity. It was the evil spawn of his loins, George W. Bush, who certainly kept show’s writers going with plenty of fresh material.

6, “Deadly Style: Bauhaus’ Nazi Connection,” explores the uncomfortable association between artists and deadly regimes; in this case, artists sent to Nazi death camps sometimes became uneasy collaborators. Franz Ehrlich was a leading name in Germany’s modernist Bauhaus school, shut down in 1933 as its founders declined to work with the Nazis.He was imprisoned in 1935 at Buchenwald as a Communist. The story concedes it is difficult to know who was a collaborator, and who was forced labor. But among other projects, Ehrlich designed and built the death camp’s entry gates, with its Bauhaus-inspired lettering.

7, The author of more than 30 books, Arthur Koestler gets his own from Michael Scammell, whose Koestler: The Literal and Poltical Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic is examined in The Book Review. “Like many people concerned about ‘humanity,’ he was contemptuous of actual humans…,” Scammell writes. “What made him such a creep? Perhaps alcohol – Koestler threw tables in restaurants and was arrested for drunken driving on many occasions. Perhaps insecurity – he was tormented by his shortness (barely 5 feet 6 inches) and used to stand tippy toe at cocktail parties.” An editor told Koestler that his inferiority complex was actually an inferiority cathedral.

8, In the second Bauhaus story this day, and in yet another portrait of a curious intellect, The Book Review says The Bauhaus Group: Six Masters of Modernism reports that the artist Paul Klee “was more involved in communicating with birds and plants than with human beings.” Author Nicholas Fox Weber dwells “on Klee’s sexual ambivalence. His subjects included cross dressing and hermaphroditism, dominatrixes and evil androgynes.” Weber also reports that Klee ate “more cauliflower than anyone else in history.”

9, An interesting quote on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency from the review of Michael Belfiore’s The Department of Mad Scientists: How DARPA is Remaking Our World, From the Internet to Artificial Limbs: “Once you can operate an arm wirelessly, you don’t need it attached to your body. You can control it from anywhere.”

10, The Book Review also checks out When Giants Walked the Earth: A Biography of Led Zeppelin. Author Mick Wall seems a bit dismissive of the band’s skills (Ricky Moody, who reviews this review of the band, does not agree, and neither do I), except when it comes to excess. The unfortunate drummer, John Bonham, died after drinking 40 shots of alcohol. “The thing is, it wasn’t new to us to see Bonzo drink and pass out,” guitarist Jimmy Page says. “I knew a lot of people who used to do that.”

11, Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue remains No.1  on the non-fiction best-seller list (Some would say it also deserves a slot on the fiction list). You deserve her as president if you paid full price for your copy. I haven’t seen it yet without a big 30 PERCENT OFF sticker on the cover. If you’re smart enough, you can get it for $4.99.

12, Year’s end is traditonally a remembrance of who we’ve lost. The New York Times Magazine celebrates these lives, including that of the Detroit Tigers pitcher Mark “The Bird” Fidrych,” the 1976 Rookie of the Year known for talking to baseballs. “No man ever seemed happier playing baseball,” Nicholas Dawidoff writes. The death of the pet Travis the Chimp, shot after he bit the face off of a neighbor in a famous incident this year, is chilling reading. While Oral Roberts passed too late in the year to make this edition, Reverend Ike did not; I remember watching Reverend Ike on TV with my brother, probably in the late 1960s or early ’70s, fascinated by his extravagant words and grab-bag of gilded religosity, and that James Brown processed hair. I’d never seen anything like him; certainly not Oral Roberts.

The Critical Mass

World’s Least-Interesting Dinner Party Announced

 Barbara Walters’ new “The 10 Most Fascinating People of 2009” list includes Michael Jackson’s three children, who are 12, 11 and 7 years old. A 7-year-old, most fascinating? Where’s Balloon Boy? Perhaps what Walters meant to say was “10 People Caught in the Most Fascinating Circumstances.”

Also joining the Walters dinner-party game  is bird nest-headed pop star Lady Gaga, overexposed mom Kate Gosselin, American Idol curio Adam Lambert, Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre, comedian-filmmaker Tyler Perry, conservative pundits Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin and Jenny Sanford, apparently advancing to fascinating levels when her husband, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, went hiking on the Appalachian Trail and ended up in Argentina. On the celebrity meter, Gosselin is already feeding on leftovers.

And no, you’re not as crazy as Walters. That does add up to 11.

My list, which comes with a dinner invitation: Barack Obama, alt-country chanteuse Neko Case, documentary bomb-thrower Michael Moore, David Grann (author of The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon), The New York Times columnist Frank Rich, MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow, Congressman Barney Frank, wiseass singer-songwriter Todd Snider and world traveler/ex-chef Anthony Bourdain. And – I don’t know how Walters could have possibly overlooked them – the couple that crashed the last party Obama attended, because I can always use some smarmy, polo-clubbing, reality-show wannabe, high-society fame hookers to kiss my celebrities’ asses and explain why they’re getting more cable-news time than that adorable Balloon Boy. At lease Balloon Boy can vomit on cue.

OK, that’s 11.

The Critical Mass

Palin vs. Bourdain

Anticipating Sarah Palin and Anthony Bourdain both coming to town last weekend, my crowd immediately cooked up a satisfying fantasy; that the two celebrities would get trapped in the same hotel elevator for an hour or two. What words would be exchanged? Would cutlery be wielded?

But the logistics gods were against us. After he spoke Friday night at the Auditorium Theater, Bourdain was off to his next engagement in Ohio. Palin didn’t even get here until Saturday afternoon before she was swooshed off to another stop on her strange journey.

Going Rogue is taking a beating from fact-checkers and John McCain staffers alike. Palin, a half-term Alaska governor who’s now blogging and Facebooking for a living, has a shaky resume for a public figure, yet she’s getting political-Messiah treatment. “Tour energizes Michigan,” read a headline describing the scene at the first stop of her book tour.

Reality check: Of national politicians, only Dick Cheney ranks lower than Palin’s current 23 percent approval rating. The only groups that seem obsessed with Palin are the media and uber-conservatives who agree with Palin’s assertion that health-care reform means Obama’s gunning for grandma. Approximately 1,132 people had their copies of Going Rogue signed here; that might make a decent crowd for a high-school football game, and is pretty typical of the turnout on Palin’s book tour. If that’s “energizing” a state, then what are we to make of Bourdain easily drawing what appeared to have been a larger crowd? Not only more people, but Bourdian’s audience paid anywhere from $37 to $72.50 to hear the infamous ex-chef. Palin’s event was free, if you enjoy the kind of lifestyle that allows you to spend endless hours standing in line.

Bourdain’s energizing, two-hour talk included a carpet-bombing of the Food Network’s roster of celebrity chefs. “None of these people can cook,” Bourdain declared, and as proof directed his acolytes to search YouTube for “Sandra Lee” and “Kwanzaa Cake.” I did as instructed. The result produced a video of a comically inedible-looking creation by the legendarily self-superior Lee. Bourdain also dropped the piece of gossip that Lee is dating State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo;  it takes nerve to go after the girlfriend of the guy who will likely be your next governor. Maybe it was a good idea that, as Bourdain confessed later in the show, he’d long ago dropped his taste for heroin and crack cocaine.

Bourdain also showed disdain for filet mignon: “The Paris Hilton of meat, living without fat or personality.” And the marketing of fast food: “Worldwide, more kids recognize Ronald McDonald than Jesus or Mickey Mouse.” He doesn’t understand why so many people turn up their noses at the time-tested traditions of other cultures. “Dogs running around your feet in the dining area, that’s a sign of quality,” he proclaimed. He does stop short of recommending, however, the “unwashed, sand-encrusted warthog rectum” he was served in Namibia.

In Bourdain’s world, appreciation for culture is not a narrow road. “If you don’t like music, you don’t like food,” he said. Asked by someone from the audience his idea of a romantic dinner, “C’mon, it’s alcohol,” Bourdain insisted. “Stick with the classics. Booze.”

Quite frankly, I’d rather have the worldly Bourdain running this country than the myopic Palin. If for anything, because I’m sure he writes his own books.

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