Saturday, June 30, 2007

Chef Francoise, Part II

Continuing the adventures begun in "Me O My O," below.

So it was 1986 or -7 or something like that, and my friend Bob Norton (I think it was Bob Norton) said, "You should check out the Cajun restaurant on south Louisiana. It's like nothing you've ever seen."
So where have I heard this before?
(I should point out that in this particular instance south Louisiana is a street, not a large swampy district of the U.S.)
So I go into the Courtyard Kitchen and there's this Waiter who resembles Fernando Rey, and every so often he stops everything to make a surreal announcement or do eccentric standup, and this is all beginning to seem very familiar. There are lots of old photos and whatnot on the walls, so I check them out and there are many pictures of Captain Greene chowing down at the Cafe le Cabotin, so now I know that my favorite restaurant from the Windward Islands has magically transplanted itself to Albuquerque.
Now how weird is that?
The menus change every day and are hand-written. On the bottom are instructions for paying. "Put your money in the cash box. Make your own change." (It has to be said, however, that the cash box is a looong way from the front door, and that the Baron regularly empties out all the large bills.)
There are no salt or pepper shakers on the tables. The menus inform us that "Your food is perfectly seasoned already."
There is, however, one salt and one pepper shaker on a table at the far side of the room. But again, it's a loooong walk, the whole time under the Waiter's disapproving eye.
(This eventually becomes a problem, because I often eat after having spent a sweaty hour at the karate school, and I'm dehydrated and craving salt, so everything tastes undersalted to me. It's a problem I never solve.)
So I have a cup of black roux gumbo, which is about the most perfect thing I've ever tasted in my life, and follow it with one of the lunch items, which is also damned fine.
They don't do vegetarian. They don't serve children. Sometimes you get complimentary wine. (Not a glass, a whole bottle.)
A day or two later I come back, and I bring the waiter a copy of the privateer book that I'd dedicated to Cafe le Cabotin, and the Waiter looks at it and says, "Why, that's us!" It takes him a while to understand that I'm not just some guy, I'm the person who wrote the book.
"I don't remember you," he says. I explain that, in person, I'm not all that memorable.
Eventually I dedicated the second Maijstral book to them, too.
The Courtyard is open five days a week for lunch, and Friday and Saturday night for dinner. For the dinners, the Waiter gives you the full-court press. He gives you your drink or whatever, and then he announces that this dinner is actually taking place at the Port de Cassis in France in 1923, and that we're now going to have a cocktail party. At the Courtyard Kitchen, what you do at cocktail parties is walk up to total strangers and kiss them on both cheeks while saying, "Ooh la la! Ooh la la!" And this goes on for five whole minutes.
We do this. Time after time.
So then you get the first course, which is usually black roux gumbo but may include another kind of soup, and then the Waiter announces it's time for the news. So you troop into one of the dining rooms where there's a TV set, and the Baron gets into this little studio he has in the back, and he reads you the news. It's the same news every week. (The Waiter doesn't do topical humor.) It's funny the first time. After a while you get so you can recite the news along with the Waiter. This does not matter.
Then you get your choice of beef filet in brown sauce or veal in Creole mustard sauce, unless you're one of Francoise's favorites (like me), in which case you get one of each. Then there's more standup, and dessert, which is usually bread pudding in whisky sauce. Oh my.
Then at some point you make the long trek to the cash drawer to pay, and then you go home, happy as an oyster Rockefeller.
How to describe the Waiter's style? Best let him introduce himself. Here's one of his rants from a hand-written menu that I carefully preserved. It's headlined "Day 982."
"This is not a good situation. Yesterday, 20 minutes after we opened we had 100 people in here. I had to put up the 'NO MORE FOOD' sign at 11:55. Francoise got 80 orders in 15 minutes. There is no way everybody is going to get served in 15 minutes or in 30 minutes. If is not the number of people, it's everybody coming at once. Somebody needs to figure a way out of this mess. I have put up signs. I have yelled at people. I tell people to go away. I 'hollar' and I curse but nothing seems to work for more than a day.
"So if it is real crowded in here and you have to eat in a hurry, it is probably best to go somewhere else where they serve food that comes out of a can. OR GO TO THE BAR and get some wine on me and drink it. DON'T worry about being late for work, you probably would be better off without your job anyway.
"At the CLUB 21 in New York, They serve approximately the same number of people in the same Length of Time we do. They have seven people in the kitchen cooking. Here there is one person in the kitchen cooking. Their food is good, but not nearly as gutsy and complex as what Francoise is doing. That is probably why Gable + Grey, Publishers, call the Courtyard Kitchen 'one of the 50 BEST PLACES in the world to have lunch.' Thank you."
Here's another, from the next week:
"[A HINT. If you walk in any restaurant in the world and it has a heat lamp OR salt and pepper shakers on the tables OR doesn't write their menu every day, you are not in a good restaurant. Don't care where it's located. A free tip from the waiter.]
"But I stray from my purpose.
"Anyway, last Friday, Francoise cooked and prepared 109 lunches in 75 minutes, which means that for 60 minutes she averaged, by herself, a lunch every 33 SECONDS. Even with that speed, SOMEBODY is going to have to wait 45 minutes.
"So The Waiter came uyp with the idea of a menu that just said 'FOOD' and then Francoise could serve whatever she wanted. But she rejected that idea with the words, 'I don't manufacture food.'
"Then the idea of two seatings of 50 came up. But by the time we institute that, it would probably get worse. So we are just going to let things go. That's why it's called 'WHITE WATER SERVICE.'
"As far as today goes, The Waiter's Gumbo Boy fell overboard last Friday in the middle of lunch and so The Waiter is alone today. So is the Chef, except for 'Zoom-Zoom Hill' who delivers her plates. So please don't bother him, but get ready when you see him coming.
"By the way, when you see '5 Star Service' or '3 Star Service' or whatever on the menu--- that doesn't have anything to do with what The Waiter does, he seems to do whatever he wants anyway. That has always referred to what the customer is supposed to do. I thought everyone knew this.
"The Waiter has also raised the prices. I could tell you that he did this to 'thin out' the customers, but he actually did it because he is an evil and greedy man and needs the extra money to bribe the Chef with the flowers and the customers with wine and champagne.
"One can always apply for the Dissatisfied Customer of the Week Award."
The Courtyard Kitchen was a successful restaurant, and Francoise could have afforded sous-chefs if she'd wanted them. But that might mean hiring someone who might compromise the food, and that would be wrong. So she did it all herself.
I took all my friends to the Courtyard Kitchen and they all became regulars, too. I took my editor, Beth Meacham, and she adored the place and came for the final dinner and had her picture taken with Chef Francoise. I took dates, but the women all fell in love with the Waiter instead of me. Except for one woman who hated the place and only said her dinner was worth ten bucks at most, and I dropped her like a ticking bomb.
I can see this reminiscence is going to require Part III: Legends of the Waiter. So stand by.

Friday, June 29, 2007


So is this chicken perfect, or what?

I was inspired by Jeffrey Steingarten's rapturous description of rotisserie chicken in his book The Man Who Ate Everything, and so I got one for my new grille.

The chicken tasted as good as it looks, though the cleanup was a little messy.

Apropos roasting, it's what I've been doing for the last few weeks. As of Tuesday, we've had 12 days where the temperature hit 100 degrees or more. Then we had a new front move through that cooled things down for a couple days, but now the temp's climbing again. By the weekend, much of New Mexico should resemble the skin of that chicken, only crispier.

And speaking of overheated, check out Interior Desecrations, featuring home and office interiors from the 1970s. Chill to the lavish use of Harvest Gold and Avacado Green! Quail at the ankle-deep shag carpets! Cringe at the--- at the--- what the hell is that, anyway?

From the same folks who gave you the Gallery of Regrettable Food, featuring grilled potatoes in cream, melon balls floating in Squirt, and Many Things to Do with Velveeta.

Oh, and on Karen's recommendation I checked out Hum Aapke Hain Koun, hours of endless Bollywood froth with a punch in the eye in the last 20 minutes. Elder Brother is in an arranged marriage with Low Forehead Girl, but it's okay, since they love each other. In the meantime, teen idol Younger Brother meets spunky Younger Sister, and they fall in love instantly. Naturally, this being a Bollywood film, nothing actually happens for about three hours, except that Younger Brother and Younger Sister get a lot of screen time in which they sing, dance, flirt, and dress in increasingly outrageous outfits. Huh!, I thought. A movie totally without conflict! Never seen that before!

Despite these two committing musical comedy with one another for hours, no one else in either family notices that they're in love. Which becomes important in Act VIII, when Low Forehead Girl trips on her sari, falls on the stairs, and actually dies!

Holy fcking Krishna! They killed off the second female lead in a musical comedy!

Which means that hey, Elder Brother has to remarry, because he's a busy executive, and he and his father, cousins, in-laws, Younger Brother, and a houseful of servants can't possibly raise the baby on their own. And who should he arrange a marriage with than Younger Sister, who is in love with Younger Brother but will sacrifice her happiness for the little baby's sake!

What this family clearly needs is a seminar on communication.

Anyway, thanks to Krishna, things work out, and in the meantime everyone gets to wear more fabulous outfits. The end.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Montserrat Stories

Before I continue with tales of the Baron and Francoise, I thought I'd relate some tales of the island that I picked up during my brief visit.

Approaching Plymouth, the capital, one couldn't help but notice the large and very modern pier that was incongruously attached to the old Georgian town. And, having got onto the pier, one couldn't help but notice the pile of twisted girders that lay in the water next to the pier.

There was also a very large concrete mooring buoy--- or maybe not a buoy, but a stanchion--- set in the water a short distance away. It looked like a sort of pimple in the water. This was originally one of a pair.

The story of the pier and the pile of girders and the pimple is this:

The government of Montserrat had lobbied for the pier and a large crane to be placed atop it, theorizing that this was exactly what was needed to modernize the island. Once the pier was built, they thought, large container vessels would magically appear and offload Toyotas and refrigerators and air conditioners and food processors and all the wonderful stuff of modern civilization, and the good citizens of Montserrat would be even happier citizens of the British Empire. (The British Empire, by the way, had been trying to get rid of these happy citizens for years; but the islanders stubbornly refused to throw off the last remaining shackles of imperialism. Or the oppressive burden of collecting welfare and unemployment checks in a hopeless economic environment, which is perhaps more to the point.)

In due time, H.M.G. was persuaded to vote the funds to construct this pier, and build an enormous crane on top of it. And one of the Royal Navy's finest, fastest destroyers was sent to the inaugural ceremonies.

So the dignitaries were gathered, the citizens were enjoying their holiday, the flags were flying, the band was playing "Rule Brittannia" or maybe "Ah Feel to Party Tonight," and the destroyer hove over the horizon and headed straight for the pier. A beautiful ship, racing in at flank speed, the white bow wave in its teeth, the beautiful wake spread out behind . . . .

And gradually it dawned on the crowd that the destroyer just wasn't stopping.

What the captain apparently had in mind was this: he would race in at flank speed, then at the last second throw the rudder hard over, throw one engine into reverse while the other continued at full speed forward, and then gentle up to the pier "easy as kiss my hand," as Captain Jack Aubrey might say.

But the captain was no Jack Aubrey. He mistimed his maneuver, and he rammed the pier at flank speed. Before the stunned eyes of the islanders, the giant crane wavered, teetered, and fell in a great ruin into the ocean.

And while the band played "Rule Britannia" or maybe "Hold Up Yuh Foot & Jump," all the dreams of the Toyotas, and the refrigerators, and the air conditioners, and the food processors, all vanished like so much smoke.

And as for the concrete pimple? It was once part of a pair, where boats could moor temporarily if the pier was occupied by giant container vessels delivering Toyotas.

One day the mail boat moored at one of the pimples. After delivering the mail, the skipper went to one of the local bars and got totally drunk. When he got back into the boat, he drove off without bothering to unmoor, and dragged the heavy concrete object behind him as he went. He was in mid-channel before the cause of his slow progress dawned on him, and in a drunken panic he cut the mooring line, thus dropping the mooring buoy, or pimple, into deep water where it remains to this day.

Montserrat was not a place where good luck gathered.

And less than twenty years later, the Soufriere volcano blew and buried Plymouth, and its pier, and the wrecked crane, and the remaining pimple, under tons of volcanic debris. The Toyotas got buried too, assuming they ever showed up.

This was my first exposure to the Third World, where these sorts of things are normal (except maybe the volcano).

Montserrat didn't surprise me, though, because I'd already been to Nevis, the island where Alexander Hamilton was born, and which he had the good sense to leave as soon as he was physically able.

On independence, Nevis was made part of the government of St. Kitts, Nevis, and Anguilla. This made a degree of sense for St. Kitts and Nevis, which are separated by a strait, but not any sense at all for Anguilla, which is a considerable distance to the north, and which considered itself slighted by its larger, more populous brethren. After a couple of rebellions, the British sent the paratroopers into Anguilla and re-annexed the place to the British Empire, where it resides to this day. This happened in 1969.

When I was on Nevis in 1979, ten years afterward, the island was still in a high state of alert. There were rumors of Anguillan Separatist Guerillas said to be living on Nevis's volcano. The St. Kitts-Nevis ferry, which was felt to be under threat, was placed under armed guard. (I chatted with the guard, who with his beret, battle dress, and FN assault rifle resembled a somewhat more genial version of Idi Amin.) The customs people on the pier were ordered to hassle visitors, who might after all be Anguillan sympathizers taking supplies to those guerillas hiding on the volcano.

(Captain Greene bribed the customs guards with an exotic American beer, Pabst Blue Ribbon, to leave us alone, and we wandered on and off at will.)

All the security hassles over a rebellion that had ended ten years earlier, and fear of an invasion that never happened and never would happen, more than prepared me for Montserrat and its pier, its crane, its pimples, and the Cafe le Cabotin, which after all that seemed not so much a haven of sanity, but a reflection of its surroundings in a fun-house mirror, and with good food.

As our own country begins more and more to resemble a banana republic, we should look to places like Montserrat and Nevis, where we can see what awaits us in our future. Pointless security hassles, wanton destruction of infrastructure, important decisions left to the inebriated, the mindless, and the insane. That's life in the banana republic, and soon it will be our life.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Me O My O

I owed some folks, so I thought I'd cook them dinner. I made Jambalaya with Creole Sauce, from the recipe of Chef Francoise Auclair le Vison.

I hadn't made the recipe in a number of years, and I'd forgotten how much sheer work is involved. I spent over an hour just chopping up four pounds of sausage, three pounds of ham, and many many pounds of vegetables.

The result was worth it, though. The dish is beautifully layered, with lovely complex harmonies in the jambalaya set off by the fiery spice of the sauce. My friends disposed of all of those pounds of food in jig time.

Which brings to mind the first time I met Chef Francoise. It was 1979. I was on a steel schooner in the Windward Islands, researching my privateer books, and we stopped by the island of Montserrat. Captain John Greene recommended that I stop by the Cafe le Cabotin for dinner. "It 's like no place you've ever been," he said. In this judgment he was right.

That morning I had my first scuba lesson, as part of your basic resort course. (I had my first dive later, off Antigua.) I spent the afternoon admiring the island's black volcanic beaches, and noting the fact that the local fauna (like the substantial crab population) had turned black in order to match the color of the sand.

Late afternoon I went to Cafe le Cabotin, in a big old sprawling colonial-looking building, and soaked up some of the local rum while waiting for dinner time. I was joined by Captain Greene and a group of travelers, and we had a creole dinner that couldn't be beat. The Waiter, who bore a strong resemblance to the suave Spanish actor Fernando Rey, kept interrupting the meal in order to perform what I can only describe as "eccentric standup."

"Cabotin," by the way, is French for ham actor.

And then at 7pm, it was Star Trek Time. There was no television station on the island to play Star Trek or anything else, but the Waiter had a TV set and a primitive reel-to-reel video player that used, I believe, 1.5" video tape. So while digesting and consuming more of the local rum, we, and everyone else in the dining room, all watched an episode of classic Trek.

Sometime later the Waiter brought out the Chef, to general applause. He also announced that Cafe le Cabotin had seceded from the British Empire (Montserrat was, and still is, an imperial possession), and then declared war on the imperialist powers, Great Britain, France, the U.S., and Russia. He published a newsletter called the War News, in which his victories were documented, and also issued passports and inducted folks into his military.

I acquired a passport and the rank of Colonel in the Eleventh Periscope Group. (I was later promoted General.) The EPG later hit the beaches in Antigua and annexed the island, and our victory was duly reported in the War News. I lost the passport shortly thereafter when my hotel room was burgled in New York, something I have always regretted.

The cook was Chef Francoise. The Waiter was her husband, Baron le Vison. The skewed world-view displayed at le Cabotin was very much a part of their style.

Later that night we were entertained by the Whoop-Wop Band, who later backed up Jimmy Buffet on his Volcano album. It was the first time I'd seen a vacuum cleaner hose used as an instrument. Cap'n Greene passed the word: "Don't smoke anything weird. These people are all off-duty cops." My nose, and my lungs, were therefore kept clean.

I was sufficiently entertained by the Cafe le Cabotin crowd that I dedicated the second privateer book to them.

I never returned to Montserrat. The balmy political atmosphere that had resulted in the creation of the restaurant soon changed, alas, and became less friendly to foreigners and foreign capital. Captain Greene smuggled Francoise off the island in his schooner. The Baron left in the dead of night on a motorboat for a neighboring island, with $60,000 in cash duct-taped to his middle.

Cap'n Greene left the sea and now does something Down Under with computers.

As if in retribution for the lack of hospitality, Montserrat's volcano blew in 1995 and resulted in the evacuation of the entire island. A few people have now returned to the north end of the island, but most of the evacuees were given a few hundred pounds by the British government and told to fuck off.

Francoise and the Baron later opened restaurants in Washington, D.C., and London.

And then they turned up in New Mexico. But that's Part II of this memoir, to be continued at a later date.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Nemesis Farewell

Farewell to Tractor Beam, my nemesis of the last twelve years.

Shortly I will offer it on Craig's List, perhaps as a found art object. (It would be difficult to offer it as an actual useful piece of equipment, except to a devoted and rather masochistic tinkerer.)

The new wee tractor arrived this week. It operates wonderfully. It has an automatic transmission, and it cuts weeds so smoothly and wonderfully that I was transfixed with admiration. Beam wouldn't so much cut weeds as hack them into slimy gobbets, and while doing so, it would create enormous dust clouds that would cover the landscape, and me with it.

While the new tractor does not operate in a dust-free environment--- this is New Mexico, after all--- neither I did not finish my chores today looking like an extra from Invasion of the Mud Men.

It operates so smoothly that I'm tempted to call it Tractor Cream.

But in the meantime, farewell Beam! May you rust in pieces.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007


When you comprehend the gist of this post, you will be thankful at the restraint I excercised in choosing a title. Really.
My old grill died of metal fatigue: the hinges that held on the lid snapped right off. So I've been on a quest for a new grill, and asking myself whether I wanted to be a charcoal purist or a far more serene and untroubled gas griller.
I decided to go for the convenience of the gas grill, and figured if I really hankered for the taste of something charcoal-grilled, I could buy myself a little hibachi.
The grill was delivered today, already assembled. (I bought the floor model.) With it I purchased a rotisserie, so that I could spit-roast meats the way God intended. I also bought myself a whole chicken, so that I could get started on the very first day.
The grille was delivered at nearly 6pm, and I hooked up the LP cylinder and started preheating. Then I began the business of assembling the rotisserie. It was only then that I discovered that assembly was not simple, and furthermore I had to assemble and bolt stuff to the grille, which was already hot.
I was hungry and didn't want further delay, so obviously I needed another way to cook my chicken.
It was then that I bethought myself of Beer Up the Butt Chicken, in which an open can of beer is jammed up the chicken's ventral orifice, and the chicken is cooked standing up. (About now you should be thanking me for my restraint in titling this post, as I predicted above.)
On the one hand, Beer Up the Butt Chicken sounds like a frat boy prank. But on the other hand, I've been told it produces a really good roast chicken.
I'll cook anything once, nearly, but I decided to give myself some insurance, and rubbed the chicken inside and out with salt, garlic, and butter. Another problem showed itself: I had no beer. But I decided that Wine Up the Butt Chicken sounded at least as good, so I filled an empty soda can with white wine, inserted it, and then tried to balance the bird upright on my grille. No go. So I fetched a dutch oven from the pantry, stood the chicken upright therein, and put the whole thing on the grille. Eighty minutes later the chicken was beautifully cooked, the skin brown and crispy, and the juices sizzling. I took the chicken from the grille and grilled some vegetables, and also cooked some asparagus.
The chicken was wonderful: melt-off-the-bone tender, moist, and full of flavor. I ate far too much of it. And I'll probably eat too much of it tomorrow, and the day after.
By which time I'll have the rotisserie installed, and a series of grand experiments may begin.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Flemish Dancing

"Flemish dancing" doesn't sound very interesting, does it? But call it flamenco and it's a whole other story.

Albuquerque is one of the top locations in North America for flamenco, largely as a result of the Festival Flamenco Internacional that's been running there for the last 20-odd years. The festival is largely the work of Eva Encinias-Sandoval, who also started the National Institute of Flamenco, which is also in Albuquerque, and who is also the head of the flamenco program in UNM's Department of Fine Arts, the only undergraduate flamenco program in the U.S. In other words, she's one of the best contemporary examples of the Great Woman Theory of History.

The festival includes eight days' worth of performances, but mostly the festival takes place out of sight, in dozens of workshops and master classes running for over a week.
During the last performance, the teachers themselves come out for a night of performance. A night of world-class flamenco by some of the best artists in the world? We went.
We had intended to go with our friends Pat and Scott and visitors Esther Friesner and her husband (known hereabouts as The Other Walter), but an illness in the family forced them to cancel their vacation early, and so their tickets were given to Mike and Yvonne.
Beforehand we met at La Isla, a Mexican seafood joint. By which I mean Mexican, not New Mexican or Tex-Mex or Yuppie Mexican or Sonoran or whatever. This is a place run by immigrants, where your waitress very likely will not speak English, and which serves hearty, rich dishes with wonderful, complex, fresh flavors. And not only that, but they serve Coca-Cola imported from Mexico, made with white sugar, in beautify frosty half-liter bottles. My guess is El Patron can't stand Standard American Crap Coke with Shitty Corn Syrup any more than I can. (Those of you who live outside the U.S.A., be thankful your government isn't subsidizing Midwestern corn growers while simultaneously giving price supports to Cuban exile sugar farmers, so when you order The Real Thing (TM) you actually get the real thing.)
Normally I find seafood Veracruzana insipid, but not here. I also envied Scott his whole fish with onion and garlic sauce, and Pat her camarones with queso. (Seafood+cheese=kiss of death normally, but not at La Isla.) I envied them, that is, until I got my Caldo para El Patron, a wonderfully complex broth filled with oysters, shrimp, and scallops, brightened with the addition of raw cilantro and finely-chopped raw onion, and served with homemade corn tortillas. Aiee!
It's the sort of glorious rich down-home cooking you can get in practically any Mexican port town, but it's awfully rare in this part of the world.
So I was perfectly set up to travel half a mile down the road and see flamenco at the National Hispanic Cultural Center's Roy Disney Theater (Good on you, Roy!), which is swiftly becoming Albuquerque's premiere concert theater.
I should make a series of disclaimers at this point.
I don't speak Spanish.
I know jack about dance.
I know jack about flamenco.
I know jack about music. (I know that flamenco is in the ancient Phrygian mode, as opposed to modern Gregorian modes, but I otherwise wouldn't know a Phrygian mode if it bit me.)
I know jack about flamenco history. (It sounds Moroccan as hell to my untutored ears, but as Byron remarked, to be even slightly Arabic in Spain is "a kind of a sin.")
(I'm sure Ned could explain it all to me, though.)
I know jack about any of this stuff, but I'm still prepared to give you my opinion. Because, by God, this is America!, where even ignorant peckerwoods are allowed to rant for hours on publically-regulated media and are encouraged to run for public office.
(An aside to Roy Disney: great theater, dude, but turn on the air conditioning. I know it was the first hot day of the year, but it was sweltering in there.)
So first up was Yjastros, otherwise known as the American Flamenco Repertory Company, who warmed up the audience very nicely with a kind of tag-team dance. Then came Ivan Vargas followed by "Vero La India" (flamenco artists tend to use assumed names, like kabuki stars). The contrast between the two stars pointed out the distinction between a showman and an artist.
Vargas was all over the place, with dramatic flying long hair and with virtuoso leaps and kicks. In Scott's words, he was "more of a diva than the divas." He was in his own world much of the time, and turned the orchestra and the audience into his pawns.
Vero La India, on the other hand, turned the orchestra and the audience into her partners. So violent was her movement that combs flew from her hair like plewds.* She was in perfect synch with the music and with los cantes. Dances should tell stories, even if you can't tell for sure what the story is, and La India told a great story.
After the company finished--- in fact after every company finished--- the musicians stepped forward to mingle with the dancers, and engaged in good-natured parodies of the stars. I gather this is traditional. (I would like to see this in, say, grand opera, where the second oboist comes out to make fun of Maria Callas while she is forced to watch. Wouldn't that be fun?)
After intermission, in which I went outside to gulp great amounts of 80-degree air before returning to the 90-degree air inside the theater, we had Compania Javier Baron. The musicians were unusual in that they included a violinist, who added an additional soulful note to the proceedings.
"Javier Baron" was first, dressed in an ordinary grey suit. Phenomenal. He followed his solo doing a duet with the violionist--- the violinist would do increasingly complex glissandi on his instrument, which Baron would then duplicate with his steps. Splendid. Virtuosic. And very funny.
Next up was Isabel Bayon, who alone of the soloists was not dressed soberly--- she had a brilliant red skirt, which she used very well. (It should be observed that flamencas have an advantage over their male counterparts, in that they have the ample skirt to use as a prop. The guys may have a jacket or a vest, but it's not as versatile.) In addition to her splendid footwork, Bayon specialized in the elaborate, stylized hand and arm gestures that added an additional power and complexity to her performance.
Lastly came Juana Amaya, who performed dressed in black widow's weeds. I don't know what her character's story was, but she was definitely not a happy woman. The audience had been beaten into a course paste by the heat and by over two hours of percussive performance, so it took her a while to win us over, but eventually she trampled her way into our hearts, and we gave her a standing ovation.
I don't know whether it was the heat or the dancing, but I was wrung out. After downing a quart of orange juice in hopes of regaining some of my lost body mass, I got in the car and drove us home.
Flemish dancing. I like it.
*plewds. The beads of sweat that fly from the faces of cartoon characters.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Saat Phere

So I'm embarked on the new novel, most of which so far consists of a description of an elaborate Hindu wedding taking place in Bangalore. For background I've been taking advantage of numerous Hindu wedding sites available on the net, as well as reminiscences by Steve Stirling (who--- through sheer coincidence--- happened to attend a Hindu wedding in Bangalore last month).

The short form: they really do all that Bollywood stuff at the weddings. The women of one family dance for the women of the other family, then the women of the other family dance for the women of the first family, then the women get to dance with the guys. And they do a lot of singing, too.

I've been having a terrific time at the wedding, describing all the elaborate ceremonies with all their color and vivacity, and my character's reaction to them. It was when I was transcribing the chants in their original Sanskrit that I began to wonder, Is this too much damn detail? Which was followed, naturally enough, by the question, Am I obsessing about the wedding because I'm too uncertain about the chapters that follow?

Dark thoughts ensued.

But here's a lesson for the new writer: when you start filling your narrative with a lot of cool, intricate, colorful detail, you have to ask yourself why. Is this actually relevant to the story that you're telling? And if not, why is it there? Because it's cool can be a valid answer, but only if it really is show-stoppingly cool.

In my case, there are reasons why Bangalore and why the wedding, but they're not major plot reasons, they're background reasons. (The wedding isn't a part of this story, it's a part of the previous story, which I'm not telling. So it's a way of not having to write the prequel.)

But anyway: the wedding is cool enough, but only just. So in the pages that follow, I'm going to ease off on the wedding descriptions and start jumping into the plot.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Shorter Work

The mail brought my copy of Locus, which I seem to get later than anyone I know. (Do they mail them in alphabetical order, I wonder?) This issue contains no less than two favorable reviews of my story in Alien Crimes, a new anthology available from the SFBC. My advice is to buy it before the SFBC is canceled, along with its editor.

I also received my contributor's copy of The New Space Opera, with my story "Send Them Flowers." This story got a favorable review in the last-Locus-but-one, which referred to the story as a "jape." When I workshopped the story last year, the adjective most used was "romp."

I am often happy to write romps, or even japes, but that wasn't what I intended with this story. Nothing funny actually occurs in the narrative. There are no jokes. There is a suicide attempt, some crime in which the narrator is implicated, serial infidelity, some (offstage) deaths, and a rather sordid bordello scene. I intended a rueful semi-tragedy, with blackly amusing asides.

I have clearly miscalculated with this story, but how?

Please read it and let me know.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

A Time of Gifts

I'm finishing Patrick Leigh Fermor's A Time of Gifts. I mentioned a couple months ago that I was reading the book, but you shouldn't take the length of time between then and now as a criticism of Fermor. Rather the opposite: the book is too rich, and too finely wrought, to read with anything less than full attention. I was either obliged to read other works in the interim, or I didn't have the time and patience to work my way through Fermor's highly concentrated prose.

The story of the book is this: in the winter of 1933, the eighteen-year-old Fermor dropped out of his cram school (he was aiming at Sandhurst), and then walked across Europe from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, living on a couple of pounds per month. (He got to Constantinople, but not to Sandhurst.) Along the way, he slept in barns and jail cells, was taken up by the aristocracy and feasted in castles, and broke bread with Gypsies.

1933 was also the year Hitler took power in Germany, and set in train the events that eventually destroyed the world that Fermor passed through on his way to the Golden Horn.

Fermor later distinguished himself as a guerilla leader, fighting Germans on the island of Crete: he captured the German general commanding the island, and after hiding with the general in a cave and exchanging Horacian epigrams in the original Latin, he smuggled General Kneipe off to Alexandria in a fishing boat. This episode was later made into a film, Ill Met by Moonlight, in which Fermor was played by Dirk Bogarde.

The book, which was written thirty-odd years after the events depicted, possesses an ironic distance that would have escaped the original eighteen-year-old, hard-drinking, and over-educated young Paddy Fermor, had that bumptious young man turned his journals into a manuscript in the Thirties. Fermor avoids condescending to his younger self, as he avoids elegy for the Mitteleuropa that no longer exists, but he can't help but add a few more decades' worth of wisdom to the feast of observation within his pages.

Nor can Fermor resist showing off. He goes through the whole Cretan general episode, including the Latin epigrams, even though it's entirely out of place. He wants you to know that the young man of the narrative became a war hero, and that the journey was a part of all that.

And my God! The prose style! Here's a piece picked out at random:

"In cold weather like this," said the innkeeper of a Gastwittschaft further down, "I recommend Himbeergeist." I obeyed and it was a lightning conversion. Spirit of raspberries, or their ghost--- this crystalline distillation, twinkling and ice-cold in its misty goblet, looked as though it were homoeopathically in league with the weather. Sipped or swallowed, it went shuddering through its new home and branched out in patterns--- or so it seemed after the second glass--- like the ice-ferns that covered the window panes, but radiating warmth and happiness instead of cold, and carrying a ghostly message of comfort to the uttermost fimbria . . . "


These spires and towers recalled the earlier Prague of the Wenceslases and the Ottokars and the race of the Premysl kings, sprung from the fairy-tale marriage of a Czech princess with a plough-boy encountered on the banks of the river. The Czechs have always looked back with longing to the reigns of the saintly sovereign and his descendants and to the powerful and benevolent Charles IV--- a golden age when Czech was the language of rulers and subjects, religious discord unknown and the rights of crown and nobles and commons and peasants all intact. These feelings gained strength during the Czech revival under the last hundred years of Habsburg ascendancy. Austrian rule fluctuated between unconvinced absolutism and liberalism soon repented and it was abetted by linguistic pressures, untimely inflexibility and all of the follies that assail declining empires, for knavery was not to blame. These ancient wrongs must have lost much of their bitterness in the baleful light of modern times when the only evidence to survive is an heirloom of luminous architectural beauty.


The book never actually gets to Constantinople, nor does its sequel, Between the Woods and the Water. A third volume has been promised, but so far not delivered. (Sir Paddy--- he was knighted--- is probably having too much fun in his Peloponnesian villa.)

Ave Fermor! May your ninety-odd years sit lightly upon you.

From the Mountain


"Steak Tartare and the Cats of Gari Babakin Station," by Mary Turzillo.
Novel excerpt by Karen Joy Fowler.

Because we had no power, we ate out. By all accounts, the trout, the duck fajitas, and the mango chicken enchiladas were all very good.

"Emperor of the Clouds," by Geoff Landis
Excerpt from Implied Spaces, by Walter

By Walter:
Shrimp and/or hearts of palm in remoulade sauce.
Black roux gumbo a la Chef Francoise Auclaire le Vison.
French bread.
Chocolate torte by Miss Leslie.

Novelette by L Timmel Duchamp. (The title has flown my mind.)
Excerpt from The Price of Spring by Daniel Abraham.

Margaritas by Walter
Ginger chocolate chip cookies by Jay.
Tibetan momos by Jay
Roast vegetables by Maureen.
Tossed salad by Mary
Dessert by ??? (by Friday all energy and memory had gone)

We rested, except for shopping in Taos.
Due to a heavy storm, we ate leftovers, buffalo burgers or omelettes or more momos or other stuff.

Energy and memory has not yet returned. I am shopping for a new tractor, and a new plot.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Ten Writers, Very Cold

All was well until the wind storm began. Howling 'round the eaves, screaming 'round the corners, causing mighty ponderosa to sway like seaweed in the tide.

Dropping limbs, causing landslides.

And knocking out our power, from Wednesday afternoon on. No lights, no heat, no internet. No refrigeration. No way to cook food, no way to read in the dark, or critique.

As darkness came on half were huddled under blankets. Since everything was blacked out, we headed down the mountain to Taos for a restaurant dinner, and one car, having lost its oilpan to fallen rocks, didn't make it back.

We crawled back up the mountain, encountering a couple trucks from Taos Rural Electric Cooperative along the road.

We had flashlights, we had candles. Food satiation and wine failed to raise spirits. A glorious starscape, unimpeded by village lighting, failed to keep us from freezing our butts off whenever we looked at it.

No electricity came by night. In the morning I shifted critical foodstuffs to the freezer, which was still reasonably cold. Then went down the mountain in company, to buy ice and have a warm breakfast.

When I returned, the Rural Electric Cooperative had done its stuff. Heat, refrigeration, and hot water restored! Showers possible! Spirits improved! Critiques scheduled for later, after margaritas!

The wind continues to blow, alas. Which means it could all be undone in an instant.

If we can just get through dinner, all will be well.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Rustic Living

The Week So Far

Sunday Night (by Walter)

Assorted cheeses
Garlic-eggplant relish and India relish
Spaghetti in garlic and ginger sauce
Beef tongue in sweet and sour sauce (in honor of Miss Leslie)
Spring vegetable terrine

"The Naturalist" by Maureen McHugh
"A Water Matter" by Jay Lake

Dinner: by Miss Leslie
Grilled yogurt and saffron chicken
Rice with black caroway
Poached asparagus with orange vinaigrette
Grilled balsamic three-pepper skewers
Yogurt mint cucumber salad
Apricot almond torte in apricot sauce, with vanilla ice cream
Ginger chocolate chip cookies

"Grandma, of Blessed Memory" by Leslie What
"Off the Fire Road" by Eileen Gunn

Dinner by Maureen
Grilled ribeye steak with Italian seasoning
Gnocchi with homemade pomodoro and mushroom sauce
Roasted Italian vegetables
Low country bread pudding with ice cream

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Up the Mountain

My life has actually been packed with worthwhile incident lately, though as a result I've had no time to post about it. This won't change in the next week, as I'm off to Taos for a week of manuscripts, margaritas, and high cuisine.

Here's a summary of the last week:

We participated in Mayor Marty's free Memorial Day concert series in Albuquerque, and caught the Blind Boys of Alabama, Johnny Lang, Delbert McClinton, and Joan Osborne. I intended to tell you all about it, but haven't had a spare moment.

I've spent two days trying to fix Tractor Beam, and decided that twelve years of Tractor Beam is enough. Names for the new tractor are hereby solicited.

As I mentioned in the last post, I finished the novel and started a new one.

This weekend I helped to test and graduate fifty-odd Kenpo black belts from all over the Southwest. Sweat, dedication, blood, and tears were expended, and for the most part much admired.

Instead of the usual testing site high in the Manzano Mountains, the test was held in the mid-school in Bernalillo, a town north of Albuquerque. The gym featured air conditioning, flush toilets, and showers, none of which were available at the old site. Also there were no dust storms. I appreciated the comfort, but wondered at whether enough character-building filth and misery were available for the students.

The gym also featured the most amazing mural, which grew progressively more strange the longer I stared at it. There were Indians, giant hummingbirds and cranes, conquistadors, a football player, babes who may have been cheerleaders, a ferocious-looking Aztec-looking guy in hoplite armor, ICBMs, and a UFO.

New Mexico, in short.

I'm off, and will check in if opportunity arises.

Pages Awayyyy!

I've finished Implied Spaces and delivered it to the publisher.

Hurrah for me!

Though it scarcely makes any difference to my daily routine, as I promptly jumped into the next project.

Which brings me to a sort of useful idea.

It occurs to me that, since at least some folks out there will be offering congratulations (or conceivably condolences) on the delivery of my new novel, you should all do it.

I have no idea how many people read this journal. So if you all post something, I'll know.

So please post. Even if it's to plant a happy face.