Thursday, April 28, 2011

How I Stole Your Heart (And Ate It!)

Ok, so maybe not your heart in particular, and no, I didn't steal it, but bought it from Jim, along with a freezer chest full of other locally organically raised meat. It was a calf's heart. Riss and I had eaten heart at a couple of fancy restaurants and really enjoyed it, and in our persistent quest to prove to the world that we're not sissies, we felt we couldn't pass up the opportunity to make some at home.

Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of heart at home is there is no hiding what it is. Most of the time the meat we eat at home looks like, well, “meat”, solidified animal protein that could have come from just about anywhere on just about anything. It's a very abstract experience. In general, and with no personal interest in learning butchering, I have no problem with this, but if you're going to eat meat, you should be comfortable with meat's status as former animal. Every now and again, just to maintain a meaningful relationship with your food, you should look it in the eye. And if you can't, well, you should make friends with Deborah Madison and Didi Emmons (they'll be good to you). When we unwrapped the package, there was no hiding that we had a heart on the kitchen table.

Here's the video we watched to learn how to clean it.

Even though we were only going to cook half of it for the meal we cleaned the whole thing, but it was kind of a pain. The chef in the video makes it look fairly easy, but he's had practice, and what isn't easy with practice.

But that effort is part of the point of cooking anything challenging. It obviously relates to flavor, but not inherently; complexity does not equal tastiness. But complex meals or cuts of meat that take 40 minutes to clean help build a relationship with food too many of us lack.

Once cleaned, as with anything butchered, the heart looked like a really lean steak or perhaps venison. We used a basic recipe from Fergus Henderson's cook book “The Whole Beast.” Henderson is the head chef (and lead personality) of St. John's Bread and Wine, in London, the restaurant Riss and I were determined to eat at while we were in London. Here's the (abridged) recipe:

Cut heart into 1 inch cubes up to ¼ inch thick. Toss the pieces in a “healthy splash of balsamic vinegar,” salt, pepper, and fresh thyme. Marinate for 24 hours. Cook on a hot caste iron skillet for three minutes on a side.

The heart, ultimately tasted almost like really good steak tips, or perhaps a beefier version of venison. It wasn't as good as the dishes we'd had at these restaurants, but for our first try, I was pretty proud with the result. What was perhaps most interesting was that the heart managed to be both rich and lean. This is probably why you generally see heart served as an appetizer (at least that's how we've seen in restaurants) as you don't need to eat that much of it to feel satisfied.

With heart at home done, we have liver and tongue to try in terms of less than typical meats we've only thus far enjoyed in restaurants. Hopefully, I'll have come up with clever titles for each of those meals.

Friday, April 22, 2011

There's More Than One Way to Read

In general, I read four books at a time (not counting books I'm reviewing for various websites or that I'm reading for research on a project); a serious fiction (meaning I'm taking notes and really thinking about the work), a serious non-fiction, another work of fiction (that I'm not putting significant effort into reading), and another work of non-fiction. I do this because I have different reading moods, I try to get as much as I can from the works that I read, and I also enjoy reading for relaxation and entertainment. It also allows me to be, at the very least, familiar with a lot of books in case I need to answer questions about them or feel they would fit what a customer is looking for at the bookstore. For the most part, this is a really satisfying to me. When I want to stretch my imagination through the interpretation of a challenging work, I've got my serious fiction; if I want to learn something that challenges or changes my understanding of the world, I've got my serious non-fiction; if I want to kick back with a good story or maybe give an advance reader copy a try, I've got my other fiction, and if I just want to absorb some true information, I've got my other non-fiction. It means I'm constantly cycling through books and notebooks, but those cycles match with whatever it is that puts me in the mood for a particular reading experience.

But not all books fit in this cycle, or rather, my standard reading cycle doesn't work for all books. Two of the books I haven't finished, I didn't finish because they demanded reading styles that didn't fit with mine at the time I tried to read them. The thing is, they're both good books (one of them might have been the best novel of the year it was released) and the problem was not with them, but with me. I applied the wrong reading technique and my struggles came from that.

Wtiz by Joshua Cohen is a big, challenging, brilliant, wonderful novel. It's the story of Ben Israelian who is the last remaining Jew after a mysterious plague wiped out all of the others. He is eventually taken by a shadow government cabal whose plans for him include marrying him off to the daughter of the current President of the United States. Cohen does a lot with this conceit, examining politics, celebrity, the tension between ethnic and religious identity and other big topics, but even with the plot, the real force of the novel is the language. Wild, vibrant, chaotic, (in the scientific sense) challenging, beautiful sentences. With a book like Witz, two reading styles really work; either you give your life to the work and completely inhabit the language, learning its idiosyncratic structures and rhythms the way you would memorize the lyrics of your favorite new album and immersing yourself in the world and the characters that inhabit it (and Witz is a world); or you wander in and out, pick it up, read a few pages, in chronological order or not, and then put it down again, keeping it always within reach, but never on your reading schedule. Witz should be read either as one moves to a new city or as one flaneurs through their neighborhood.

Of course, I was over halfway through and exhausted with it, through the application of my standard style before I figured out what I was doing wrong. I haven't given up on it though. It's within reach if not on my schedule and every now and again I move the bookmark a little further in the story.

Teju Cole's Open City is another book that is best read as one wanders around a city. You see, the protagonist is a Nigerian immigrant working as a psychiatrist in New York City, who finds himself coping with the challenges of his job by taking long walks. Essentially, we should read the book as it is written, like meandering wanderlustful walks. Pick it up, read it, and then take the ideas and images in the passage for a walk. Sometimes it's a quick stroll around the block and sometimes its an epic walk you need to call a cab to get home from. Regardless, it shouldn't be read with an eye towards “finishing” it. Luckily, I spotted the appropriate method before I'd invested too much ill-advised effort. Unluckily, it was a library book on a 7-day loan and there was no way I would be able to wander through the book in 7 days. (Incidentally, great book for an intelligent teenager. The English-as-second language diction means the prose is very accessible, but the thinking the narrator does is intelligent and compelling. It's perfect for a young intellectual still discovering how to use their intelligence.)

It's one of those statements once said, looks obvious; there are many different kinds of books, so there should be many different ways to read. But when we learn to read, that range of reading is drastically limited by the structure of our schooling. You can't really wander through a novel when you have a reader response due on Wednesday about chapters 1-5. Nor can you create an idiosyncratic order for your reading as, rather practically, the teacher needs everyone on the same page to teach. (Which makes Unfortunates, one the 20th Century's great works of English language fiction unteachable as it has no stable page numbers.) And some works are too long to fit into the semester or quarter schedule, especially given that nearly all literature courses demand the teaching of multiple works. And then there are the works that really need to be re-read to be appreciated, leaving teachers and professors scrambling to convince their students of a depth that is inherently invisible to them. ("Waterproof!") And as anyone who's gone to school knows, you can't give your intellect to a single work without really hurting your grades in other subjects.

Great works of literature find ways to tell readers how to read them. Whether it's a line about interacting with art, something even more direct like a character talking about reading, or an aspect of style, great authors find ways to suggest the best perspective from which to view their work. But sometimes its a process of discovery and sometimes that discovery comes later than others. But part of the joy of reading for yourself is the freedom to discover, not just new books, but new ways of reading. In that case, you're not just transported to a new world, you're transformed into a new person.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Why the Bruins Will (or Won't) Win the Stanley Cup This Year

I'll start with reasons why the Bruins won't win the Stanley Cup this so I can end this post as positive a note as possible after a loss. So without further ado. (though, how often does one actually insert “ado.”)

Speed Kills: The Bruins defensive structure is based on ceding the perimeter of the ice in order to mount tighter defense in areas closer to the middle where goals are more likely to be scored, while keeping one forward high in the attacking zone to prevent odd man rushes coupled with aggressive backchecking by the other forwards. It's an extremely effective system; the Bruins gave up the second fewest goals this season. But really fast teams can beat this system, simply by out-skating the structure. They can get behind the defensemen, skate passed the high forward, and beat the backchecking forwards to the front of the net. In fact, teams with nothing going for them but speed, like the now-golfing Toronto Maple Leafs, can consistently beat the Bruins, even though much better, more well-rounded teams, like the Washington Capitals or the Vancouver Canucks, can't. This is a problem because they face Montreal in the first round and Montreal is fast. Consequently, Montreal was one of the few teams that consistently beat the Bruins this season. (Damnit Carey Price, going all Halak on us.)

Special Teams: If the Bruins had an average, a mediocre, an adequate power play there is a good chance they would have won the Eastern Conference outright. They could go weeks without scoring a power play goal. It really is a testament to how good they were 5-on-5 (far and away the best in the league) that they could go over a month without scoring a power play goal and still convincingly win their division. They even had a shot at being No. 2 in the East up until the last weekend. But defense tightens in the playoffs. Goals are harder to score. A team can't let more than ten minutes of power play time go without scoring and have a good chance of winning a best-of-seven series. Furthermore, the Bruins penalty kill has been inconsistent this season, especially against the aforementioned faster teams. They can go a month without giving up a power play goal and then give up several in the course of a few games. A rough spell on the penalty kill combined with a rough spell on the power play could easily lose a series for the Bruins.

Mistakes Cost the Bruins: No team or player every plays a perfect game. But since I've had the ability to watch a lot of Bruins games, one absolutely eye-explodingly frustrating fact has emerged; if the Bruins make five mistakes in a game, they lose 3 to 2. Last night's game is a good example. They made many good plays (no great plays), played a solid game from start to finish, dominated puck possession and attacking zone time and really only made four real mistakes. They lost 2-0. I wish I knew why Bruins' mistakes so often turn into goals, but I don't.

It has to Click: There have been moments when the Bruins were the best team in hockey. I specifically remember an early Washington Capitals game where the Bruins made the Capitals (the Washington Capitals!) look like the JV team. The first half of the last regular season game against the Canadians (before the Habs gave up for the night) also comes to mind. But the Bruins have rarely clicked this season. They have enough talent and structure to beat teams even when not everyone plays their best, but it takes more to win the Stanley Cup. Everything has to come together and that hasn't happened much this season.

Now, why they will win.

The Only Truly Effective Fourth-Line in the NHL: Most teams shorten their bench in the playoffs, rolling three or sometimes only two of their forward lines in the game. But the Bruins don't need to do that. Their fourth-line is more than just a 45-sec break for the rest of the team; they can hit, forecheck, maintain attacking zone time, fight (well, two of them can), and score. Obviously, this means the Bruins will have more energy as a team as they playoffs go on, but this will also wreak havoc on opposing coaches trying to get favorable match ups. I would not be too shocked if the fourth-line didn't score in the playoffs, but if they continue to play 6-10 effective minutes a game, as they have all season, the Bruins have a real good chance to hoist the cup.

Scoring Depth: The Bruins have four players with 20 or more goals this season, spread out over two lines, and thirteen players with 10 or more goals spread out over four lines and a couple of reserves. Furthermore in that between 10 and 20 range is a future Hall-of-Famer (Mark Recchi), the fastest slapshot on the planet (Zdeno Chara), one of the game's best playmakers (David Krejci), and perhaps the best snapshot in the game (Michael Ryder). Their opponents can't just put their shutdown pair of defensemen out against the Bruins top line and expect to limit their scoring. If you're playing the Capitals, you've got a pretty good idea who will score the overtime goal to win the game, but with the Bruins, who knows.

Goaltending: Tim Thomas set an NHL record for regular season save percentage, saving both the relatively harmless shots the Bruins' structure allows and virtually sure thing goals. Oh, and Tuukka Rask was a contender for the Vezina last year, and has played well this year too. In short, the Bruins have two absolute top of the line goaltenders, when often, just one is enough to get you deep in the playoffs. (Really, Montreal? Halak made, like, a thousand saves in the playoffs last year, letting you beat teams you had absolutely no business beating and you trade him? This is not to knock Carey Price, who is probably the game's most underrated player, but seriously.) Not only could Tim Thomas win a series for the B's, Tuukka Rask could step in and win a game in that series.

At writing, the Bruins are down 0-1 in their best-of-seven series with the Canadians. (Oh, if only I posted on Thursday morning.) It was a frustrating loss in which the Bruins dominated the game, but couldn't beat Price. But it doesn't change anything. Scoring on one of the Bruins' powerplays would have changed the complexion of the game. And the Habs teams speed allowed them to take advantage of the B's few mistakes. And though the B's played well, they didn't click. But one game is one game. And well, see the above points.

Friday, April 8, 2011

On Bad Games

Last Saturday I was at a Boston Blazers game at the Garden. The Boston Blazers play professional indoor lacrosse, a strange game that mixes aspects of regular outdoor lacrosse, with professional hockey to create something that manages to look both familiar (I played lacrosse in high school) and foreign (but that lacrosse never involved brawls and boards). It's fun and the tickets are cheap (especially for the Boston area) and abundant so I usually get a couple of games as Christmas and/or birthday presents. Unfortunately, Saturday was a bad game.

They were playing the Rochester Knighthawks, whose jerseys would suggest a lineage that dates back to the 1993-4 teal invasion. The game got away from the Blazers pretty quickly. Their top offensive player and captain, “Dangerous” Dan Dawson, never got his game going. He missed a lot of shots and the ones that were on net were right into the goalie's chest. The offense in general was sluggish, while the defense was absolutely porous. The Blazers goalie, All-Star Anthony Cosmo, couldn't seem to get his game going either, and whatever plays the Knighthawks were running, the Blazers were either ill-prepared for or just athletically unable to keep up with them. Every time the Blazers looked like they might be able to claw themselves back into the game the Knighthawks would score a quick goal (or 3). It was, unequivocally, a bad game.

This made me wonder, can I over-intellectualize the “bad game?” Of course, I can. It's what I'm best at.

Everything gains complexity under scrutiny. Though I could sub-divide and hyper-categorize, at the moment, I'll only identify three different types of bad games; frustrating, humiliating, and “ah, screw it.”

Frustrating bad games happen when the team isn't playing badly, isn't really making any mistakes, isn't really doing anything out of the ordinary, but still ends up losing, sometimes by a lot. Of course, in these games, you never really do anything right either. You might not make any terrible plays but you don't make any great ones. My senior year high school hockey was a team that would “play to the level of their opponents,” which is not good when you're a favorite to win the championship, as we were. One team, Falmouth perhaps, beat Lewiston for the first time in school history that year. We didn't play badly that game, but, well. Fans of the Bruins will be familiar with this kind of bad loss as so many of their bad games are hair-losingly frustrating. In some ways, this is the hardest kind of bad game to recover from because it's so difficult to learn something from the loss. You can't correct mistakes that don't happen. (If I hear “get our legs going” or its equivalent one more time from the Claude Julien coaching staff, I'll, I don't know, whine about it on the Internet.)

In a humiliating bad game, the opposing team is better than yours in every possible aspect of the game. I'm pretty sure that's what we saw at the Blazers game. The most recent Bruins and Canadians game, with the Bruins winning 7-0, was certainly a humiliating bad game for the Canadians. The thing about humiliating games is they can sometimes be the easiest bad games to recover from. Whether it's your team's incompetence or the other team's excellence, there is something to coach from in these bad games. The thing about humiliating games is they can sometimes be the hardest bad games to recover from. Knowing you can be beat so badly, makes you wonder if you can ever really win, and if you play that team again, you come into it with a horrifying mix of thirst for revenge and debilitating fear. About the worst emotional state possible for making good decisions.

Then there's the “ah, screw it,” bad game In some games, for reasons no one will every surmise, everything goes the worst way possible. No matter what you do, it ends up being the worst thing to do at that moment. Games like this can be frustrating and humiliating, but there's a point at which they become, oddly, freeing. If the universe has decided there's no way on this green earth that you will win this game, it's hard to be upset about not winning the game. No matter what the final score is, this type of bad game is the easiest to recover from. You can displace the badness into the realm of mystery surrounding all sports. You can say things like, “We just didn't have it today,” or “Today is just one game,” or whatever, and actually mean it. Then, it's like the game never happened.

I stayed through to the end of that Blazers game, long after it was clear they were not capable of a miracle comeback, long past the point where the game stopped being entertaining, long past the dramatic diminishing of the rest of the crowd. I'm a firm believer in staying till the very end of a game, no matter what the score is. Part of that is because I don't go to many games and want to get as much out of them as possible. Part of it is because I believe it's important to show a minimum level of respect to the athletes, by staying till the final horn and offering at least a modicum of applause for the their effort. But it's also because our lives are filled with their own equivalent of “bad games,” and how we deal with them will go along way in determining what we achieve (or don't). Frankly, I'd rather practice dealing with frustration in a situation where nobody's job is going to be threatened if I deal with it poorly. Often when sports are presented as methods for developing life skills, it is exclusively in the context of playing the sport, but I think there's an opportunity to everyone involved to gain from watching sport, whether your team wins, loses, or frustratingly, humiliatingly, ah-screw-itingly loses.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Leadership Lag in George, Nicholas, and Wilhelm

One of the best non-fiction books I read last year was George, Nicholas, and Wilhelm by Miranda Carter. It is a history of the reigns of Tsar Nicholas in Russia, King George III in England, and Kaiser Wilhelm in Germany. As if there needed to be more evidence, Carter's book explores one of the fundamental flaw of monarchies of any variety; the entire society is threatened when the ruler isn't up to the task.

None of the three rulers in the book were equipped with the intellectual, emotional, or character resources needed to rule effectively, let alone to cope with the massive technological, economic, and social changes happening in the countries they tried to rule, and their inadequacies were a significant part of the road to WWI. One of the triumphs of this book is that Carter doesn't use their inadequacies to turn them into villains. Not even Wilhelm, who of the three acted most like the despot he was accused of being, is denied the complexities of human character. Even though they were powerful people, they were still people. To continue with Wilhelm, Carter showed how childhood emotional traumas shaped his worldview and how that worldview shaped his rule. For George, she suggests he might have been a very successful boarding school dean. Nicholas was just one of those people, we all know some, who just didn't have a mind for the details of well, paying utility bills on time or keeping track of intramural registration deadlines, let alone the details of statecraft.

Carter doesn't psycho-analyze them into innocence either. She strikes a remarkable balance, showing us the complexities involved in all their decisions, without absolving them of the responsibility for those decisions. But, of course, the grand consequence of all of these decisions, the ultimate result of all these flaws, the looming event in history is WWI.

WWI is the problem war in the Western world in the 20th century. WWII is, of course, defined as a conflict against radically destructive nations. Every other armed conflict until the first Gulf War occurred in the context of the Cold War, and none of them, or any of the other subsequent Western conflicts in the Middle East, were anywhere near as destructive as WWI.

Read along with Barbara Tuchman's brilliant Guns of August, (one of the great works of non-fiction) you get the sense that one of the prime causes of WWI was leadership lag. The world was changing rapidly, in terms of economy, technology, and social structures. New ideas were changing the way people thought of the composition of government and the value of monarchs. And yet, there was a persistent idea that if somehow Europe's monarchs could all get together, without parliaments, dumas, or weimars muddling about, they could work out spheres of influence in the Balkans and balance power between France and Germany, and use their familial connections to maintain peace in Europe.

The thing was, though all three were cousins, the importance of those familial connections in European politics was rapidly diminishing. Essentially, the world changed rapidly and the leaders lagged behind. Even though everything was different, Nicholas, Wilhelm, and George ruled as if nothing had changed. Of course, the three kings weren't the only leaders lagging behind the world they lead. One of the motifs of The Guns of August, was the conviction among world leaders and diplomats that a war between France and Germany was bound to happen. Simply put, they assumed there would be a war between France and Germany, and so they made decisions based on these assumptions, decisions that, (you can see where this is going) contributed to the start of WWI.

The argument against monarchy, or anything that concentrates power in the hands of a single individual, has always been simple; monarchs are humans, and very few humans have the ability to see the grand swaths of history and society while maintaining an effective knowledge of the details, with a sense of one's own limitations and the wherewithal to delegate responsibilities to competent others, to effectively lead nations. (An argument against nations? I think so, but that's another essay.) What Miranda Carter does is tell us the stories of three human beings born into unique situations, and she does it in a way that includes those aforementioned great swaths. It's hard to say whether a direct lesson can really be drawn from George, Nicholas, and Wilhelm, (unless you previously assumed “archies” are viable) but Miranda Carter has told a compelling story of a time in history and the people in power, who were passed by it.