Tomorrow my copy of Diablo II should arrive. I know all you hip kids think D2 is, like, so passe now, but I usually make my (rare) software purchases long after the hype subsides. The game was $16. (I eschewed the expansion set that lets you play a Druid or Assassin.)
Interestingly, I refused to buy any insidious computer games while I was in private practice and had a billable requirement; now I'm under the old Eagle, and I've bought one. Hmm.
I'm not too worried. If it comes to it, my house includes a couple of really inconvenient nooks where I can stash things I want to put out of mind.
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Guest Blogger Toby Stern's Guide to NYC Steakhouses
I [Plainsman] devote regular attention to the New York Times Dining Section because it offers the best weekly food journalism in the country. But I don't live in NYC. I live here, in a middle-sized city with some very nice (and cheap! don't get me started, especially about wine prices) restaurants that I'm unable to blog in any detail because of quasi-anonymity issues. The result is a certain deficit of you-were-there. For example, I mentioned Smith & Wollensky's move to an all-American wine list in a post below, but was unable to couple it with an observation about whether the chain's NYC outpost is worth your attention.
In the past, I might have referred you to NYC food maven and lawyer Steven Shaw, the Fat Guy, who compiled a magisterial steakhouse guide. But Shaw's website is temporarily down for redesign (man, that "redesign" has been going on for a long time ...), so we're all thrown back on our own resources here.
Solution: guest blogger. That's right -- I can pull down celebrity cameos, too. In your face, Volokh Conspiracy!
I've invited my Web chum Toby Stern, a.k.a. Mr. Poon of Sugar, Mr. Poon?, to give you all the lowdown on New York's top steakhouses. A native New Yorker, University of Pennsylvania 3L, golfer, Zoroastrian[*], and discerning carnivore, Toby has just completed three months of gratis dining on the town as a summer associate at a major Wall Street law firm. He is well primed (no pun meant) to tackle the topic. I give you Mr. Poon.
[*] WARNING: Not a Zoroastrian.
On NYC Steakhouses
Hi, I'm Mr. P. I'd like to thank Plainsman for inviting me to do my very first guest blogging.
This post is meant to be a brief primer on New York City steakhouses, taken from my experience as a steak eater growing up/living in the NYC area and as a summer associate for a firm in NYC this summer. OK, on to the beef...
...and still champion: Peter Luger (Brooklyn)
One baseball writer recently suggested that the National League Most Valuable Player award should be named after Barry Bonds (who has recently been so dominant that he's a no-brainer for the award each year) and given to his nearest competitor. This is how I feel about Peter Luger. It's way hyped-up... but meets the hype with sublime porterhouses and the second-best bacon in the city. So much has been written about PL... I'll just conserve space and say, "It's the best."
Best on the island: Sparks
I firmly believe that Sparks is the best steakhouse in Manhattan. First, and most importantly, the steaks are shockingly consistent -- medium is medium, rare is rare, medium rare is right in between. I've never dined there with anyone who had any reservations about the meat, which is more than I can say for any other establishments on the list. Second, the service is nearly flawless. These waiters seem like they've been there forever and have seen everything, including bloodshed. [I was wondering if you were going to say something about that. -- Ed.] They even change your tablecloth after your steak. Third, Sparks may have one of the best-priced wine lists in the city, especially for a big-name steakhouse. You have a good international selection as well as fine California juice to help knock down the 16oz sirloin. The only downside: the sides are solid, but unspectacular.
Others to consider:
Palm is an always-reliable joint, with establishments on both the west and east side of midtown Manhattan. Palm has that great steakhouse-y atmosphere (with caricatures covering the walls), and a fine wait staff. Where Palm really shines is with its sides -- they're all excellent and complement your steak nicely. As for the beef, I've had amazing steaks at Palm and not-too-good steaks at Palm. Sometimes the kitchen is a little inconsistent on cooking time, which is a problem (for a $50+ meal, at least!).
The common link among Alan Stillman's Restaurants is that you're getting the beef that Alan Stillman's restaurant group buys. Not that there's anything wrong with that! Smith and Wollensky is a national fave, but I'd suggest going somewhere that only exists in NYC. Maloney & Porcelli (named after his accountants, I believe) offers to possibility of outdoor eating. The Post House is a good choice if you're an Upper East Side-r. My choice, though, is an 8pm (or later) reservation at Cite, where you can do the all-you-can-drink wine dinner and throw back as much excellent wine as you want while the waiters hardly bat an eye (oh, and they include a great steak with that wine :) ). [This is on my to-do list next time I visit. - Ed.]
While others swear by it, I was somewhat underwhelmed by Ben Benson's Steakhouse (only been there once). I wish I could put a finger on it... but I can't. It was a good (but not great) steak, with decent sides, but I wasn't bowled over. The decor is almost hilarious in its manliness. Maybe that was it. (N.B.: Ok, the creme brulee bowled me over).
Many (if not most) restaurants buy their beef in the meatpacking district, so why not go to the steakhouse that's sat there since the beginning of time? Answer this question in the positive and try Old Homestead. This is a steakhouse-goer's steakhouse -- dark lighting, clubby feel, knowledgeable waiters, the works. The numerous big chops are succulent and near-perfect. Try the shoestring fries as a side. One thing: Not for the wife -- I half-expected to see a "No Women Allowed!" sign outside.
Ruth's Chris and Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steakhouse share a paragraph because they remind me of each other: they have amazing sides, excellent staffs, and great meat. They also share a downside, which is that I think they cook their steaks in too much butter. Don't let this deter you, because these are great establishments. They're a few blocks from each other just west of Rockefeller Plaza, and if you're going to choose one I'd pick Del Frisco's because it's not located in 20,000 other cities. [I also read -- I think from Steven Shaw -- that the DF chain's wine holdings are really impressive. -- Ed.]
Earlier I said that Luger's has the second-best bacon in the city. The bacon winner, so to speak, is MarkJoseph. The bacon is just that good... and they make a great steak and compliment it with a solid wine list. Right in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, if you'll be downtown.
And finally, a secret: Fairway Cafe
Everyone on the Upper West Side of Manhattan knows that Fairway is the place to shop. Not everyone has tried the Fairway Cafe, located on the second floor of the 74th & Broadway establishment. By day, it's a little cafe, but by night it's a steakhouse. A unique steakhouse. First, there are no tablecloths -- you're eating off of little, rickety metal tables. Second, the staff isn't particularly great. Third, the menu is like a chart you need to fill out -- you get a steak (you choose the cut) with a sauce and a side (that you choose) with an appetizer (again chosen from a list) with a dessert (pick your fave!). Why is this worth mentioning? Not only is the steak great, but.... it's BYOB. With no corkage fee. I can already hear Plainsman running to buy a plane ticket... [Dude, I'm going to Cite for that post-8 p.m. wine deal. -- Ed.]
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Getting more play than Rambo
To paraphrase EPMD, How Appealing is definitely outta control. Mr. Bashman got lengthy "comments box"-type e-mails yesterday from Miguel Estrada, Ninth Circuit Judge Michael Daly Hawkins, and Alabama Solicitor General Nathan Forrester.
Just remarkable. I'm waiting for Chief Justice Rehnquist to drop a line someday: "Hi! Love the blog. By the way, what we were getting at in U.S. v. Lopez and U.S. v. Morrison was ..."
UPDATE: D. has an interesting response to this post:
"[W]hy is the Alabama S.G. wasting his time arguing the merits of an important appeal on a blog? Could it be that he thinks that the panel (and its law clerks) read Howard daily too, and wants to make sure that they get his voice in? If so (and I think this is the likely explanation), does Howard owe the plaintiffs in the case a sur-reply? If I were the plaintiffs in the case, I would shoot Howard an email post haste, which praised him, and then offered some more arguments on the merits. Prediction: in one year, writing an email to Howard Bashman, hoping for a positive mention in the blog, will become part of what it means to zealously represent a client in a high profile appellate case. Yikes."
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A succulent week in the NYT Dining section
Ah, that's more like it. All sorts of enjoyable articles in this week's Wednesday diversion.
This week's restaurant reviews page is all-French. The principal review is Cafe Des Artistes, which even a bumpkin like me has heard of. I thought William Grimes did a nice job of communicating the vibe of a frumpy yet worthwhile restaurant. (If I were thirty years older and lived in NYC, I suspect I'd haunt the place. I love "compassionate conservative" restaurants like Chicago's Printer's Row and, at the top of the genre, Everest, both of which offer considerably higher highs than Cafe des Artistes appears to do, in Grimes's telling.)
The $25 and Under review is an improvisatory little modern restaurant called 360 in Brooklyn. Sounds truly inventive -- Spanish mackerel and sesame sauce, steak tartare molded in red eggs with cornichons. The "non-conformist" French wine list sounds particularly intriguing. (What does Grimes mean by "unknown grapes"? Rousanne? scheurebe? aligote? Weirder than that?) I admit it: a challenging little place like would be hard to find outside the five boroughs -- even in Chicago.
But enough of that Blue State bushwa, the coolest thing about this week's Dining section was the front page article on NFL tailgating feasts. Did I love this article because it focused on the pregame sights and smells at Kansas City's raucuous Arrowhead Stadium, home of the MIGHTY, MIGHTY 3 AND 0 KANSAS CITY CHIEFS!!, you ask? Not at all. I simply enjoyed the Times' exploration of a great populist culinary phenomenon. One guy had barbecued prime rib straight from the smoker; another, Croatian djumec. Love it. CHIEFS!! PRIEST HOLMES, BABY! Anyway.
Frank Prial reports that Smith & Wollensky is going to dump all foreign wines from its list and go pure American. Interesting, no? If this were an anti-French gesture it would bug me. I'm obviously no EU fan (see posts below), but the present Iraq war is far too sketchy[*] to justify the striking of ideological poses, no matter what Rumsfeld and the Weekly Standard say. However, that's apparently not the idea. S&W guru Alan Stillman says the move to an all-American list was in the works well before the shooting began. And there's certainly nothing wrong with celebrating America: having 650 domestic wines should enable S&W to offer great depth and range.
I'm not even done. Joan Nathan writes a slightly rambling but lovingly detailed remembrance of her mother's cooking, in time for Rosh Hashana (Times spells without the final "-h"; is that considered correct now? I get three times as many Google hits with the "-h" as without). There's also a visit to a timeworn Belgian ale tavern in a former ethnic Belgian neighborhood of Detroit. Nice regional reporting.
[*] Just to be clear: Given that our guys are over there, I'm rooting for them to kick ass, no question. I'm just not convinced yet that this war was a great idea from the standpoint of America's legitimate interests. I'm with Josh Claybourn, and Chronicles, and some of the Democrats in that respect.
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I Find That a Nice Big Zinfandel Goes Best With Corporate L&E
Sorry folks, it's been a few days.
I commend to your attention ProfessorBainbridge.com, the new blog of Prof. Steve Bainbridge of UCLA. It's "[a] corporate law professor's eclectic mix of law, business and economics, current events, and wine."
Professor Bainbridge has a great deal of interest to say about corporate law, economics, and the SEC, assuming you find these topics interesting, as I do. A decent place to start is with his law review article "Why A Board?", which tackles the surprisingly underexplored question of why the typical American business corporation is governed by a smallish, collegial committee -- the board of directors -- rather than, say, a Maximum Leader. He also has a one-volume treatise on corporate law and economics, which I cannot tell you about because I have just ordered it.
Drawing even closer to this blog's proclivities, Bainbridge also writes about wine. He is a port connoisseur who makes Dow's 20-year tawny his "usual tipple." I relish 20-year tawnies too, with their nutty, caramel flavors and their colors of autumn leaves. I usually favor W.J. Graham's , but that's partly because I can't always find Dow's. On the table wine side, sketchy early evidence suggests that Bainbridge's tastings may lean a little heavily on the California Cabernet side for my druthers (I'd like to see more zins and some pinots), but they are still useful.
Bainbridge is also that great rarity in today's secular legal academy, a Catholic conservative. He is a convert who writes, "I am the only person I know who came to Catholicism through economic analysis of corporate governance." That's just cool.
Coming up: redux of the NYT Dining Section (this week was better than last week); Why You Should Read the War Nerd; and D.'s strictures about my use of the phrase "Red America."
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An "eat your vegetables" week in the NYT dining section
Wednesday is New York Times Dining section day. My first reaction when I looked over the section this week was a sigh, for it featured an unusually non-sybaritic collection of articles. Most of the regular features were devoted to "off the beaten path" topics or cultural reportage, rather than the vivid and literate descriptions of the exquisite that keep me reading. The effect was like opening your window on a crisp October morning expecting a flourish of scarlet and orange, and seeing intead a field of rust-red. Not ugly, but not the foliage you were hoping for.
I'm a non-food snob who likes snobby food. Even though I can't dine at Everest and drink Grand Cru Alsatian riesling more than once per Presidential administration, I enjoy learning about them, and about comparable displays of excellence. My idealized NYT Dining Section would feature William Grimes updating Jean Georges's four stars, or maybe telling us about a more accessible yet polished gem like Wallse. Then the Wine Panel would offer a critical tasting of, say, '98 and '99 Chateauneuf-du-Papes from good producers, or Pinot Noirs from Oregon (they did that one recently). And Eric Asimov would uncover a great little Hungarian restaurant, creperie, or sushi bar in Brooklyn for the $25 and Under column. Toss in Nigella Lawson and some chef gossip from the delightfully named Florence Fabricant, and you're platinum.
That's not what we get this week.
The main review is of Rocco's, the recent site of an NBC reality TV show. (I have never heard of this show, but that's what you get when you secede from TV.) Grimes calls it "New York's first meta-restaurant." Hmm, I guess that's interesting. Foodwise, it sounds like a pretty standard red-sauce Italo-American.
The Wine panel fulfills its coverage obligations with a tasting of stouts. Good stout is a fine thing, but beer cannot elicit the transparent, lyric tones that characterize the best wine writing.
Next, the "on location" article is about country ham producers in NC who are learning to market their pungent, labor-intensive product to yuppies by selling it as a domestic prosciutto. This is actually well-reported and interesting, but country ham is, let us say, an acquired taste.
And the $25 and Under review is freaking Chipotle Mexican Grill! One has opened in Manhattan. This enables Asimov to make observations about how a mega-chain can offer a decent product yet still be insidious and destructive -- Starbucks is his obvious example. Fine. But Chipotle! I mean, we've got one of those just up the street from my mom's house back in the ancestral homeland. They make adequate burritos. It is what it is, to quote my man D. I don't need highly-paid Manhattanites to parse the cultural significance of Chipotle for me. What's next, a meditation on the TCBY stand in a Jersey mall?
All in all, an austere performance. There are a few consolations. Nigella's column is fine. One of Amanda Hesser's food pairings with the wine panel's stout beers is charming: "sauteed bratwurst served with good mustard and rye bread." Very gemutlich. Bring on the snow.
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I'm away on business (back Thursday), so I can't post for long, but I do want to congratulate the Swedes for voting down the Euro last Sunday by a 58-42 margin.
The AP writer introduces a trickle of spin: the vote is described as a "setback for European integration," instead of, say, "a boost for Swedish sovereignty." The Brits, Swedes and Danes are described as "holdouts" from the Euro. And we get no quotes from locals praising the vote, just this:
"We have evidently not been able to firmly establish the European idea among the voters," said Alf Svensson, leader of the opposition Christian Democrats and a euro supporter. "People still seem to believe that we live in a Europe with national borders and national currency, but the reality is something else."
Not yet it isn't.
(To be fair, the AP does quote a Tory opponent of the Euro. He notes that the vote should embolden those who hope to keep Britain out of the clutches of "European integration.")
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Cool conference on state courts next Tuesday
(This post goes in the "law blogging, but not substantive law blogging" file, for those keeping score at home.)
Back in my Sub Judice days I did a little bit of posting about state courts -- in particular, about whether, and how, interpretive doctrines like textualism and originalism should govern decisionmaking by state court judges, who differ from federal judges in that they (1) have the power to make general common law and (2) often hold their offices by election. Such questions raise complicated issues about judicial review, separation of powers, and political obligation. I didn't sort them out to my satisfaction.
What's cool is that the Federalist Society is holding a conference on exactly this topic on Tuesday, Sept. 16, at Ave Maria School of Law[*] in Ann Arbor, Michigan: "State Jurisprudence, The Role of Courts, and the Rule of Law." I'd love to attend, but there's no way. Hopefully a transcript will be available.
Four different state supreme courts will be represented among the speakers, who include Justices Corrigan, Markman, Taylor, and Young of the Michigan Supreme Court, as well as former Howard Bashman 20 Questions interviewee Justice Kay Cobb of the Mississippi Supreme Court. Another notable speaker is Professor Stephen Presser of Northwestern, whose work I usually encounter in his role as legal affairs editor for Chronicles.
Any readers in the Detroit/Ann Arbor/U of M/Ave Maria orbit ought to check this out. Then send me e-mail.
[*] Steve (a/k/a Feddie) recently let us know that his former co-clerk on the Seventh Circuit has begun teaching trusts and civ pro at Ave Maria. Nice gig.
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Fantastic album: found
I've finally managed to track down a used CD copy of The Good Earth, by the Feelies (1986), one of the great out-of-print indie rock albums.
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The Guardian on the Swedish Euro vote
Really interesting rundown of the deeper issues behind the Swedes' vote on whether to scrap the krona for the Euro currency. (Link via Andrew Stuttaford on NRO's The Corner.) The vote is set for Sunday, and will go forward as planned despite the terrible murder of Anna Lindh, the country's foreign minister.
Lots and lots of Swedes don't like the Euro, or even the EU, which I find heartening. The issue seems to break down along the line that is far too typical for issues of consequence in the contemporary West: "There has been a problem. While the ruling business, media and political elite has been marching towards the single currency, the majority of the voters . . . have been marching in the opposite direction."
You don't say. Cf. race-based affirmative action; cf. US immigration policy; cf. religion and civic life.
"And what should make Britain's political establishment sit up and take notice is that opponents are not divided, and allies not united, along traditional, right-left lines. Something remarkable emerged in Sweden's euro debate, the crystallisation of a new set of political dividing lines, in which right-wing and left-wing activists find themselves in alliance against powerful, cross-border, private-public bureaucracies. On one side, the small, the local, the personal, the individual, the accessible, the familiar, the inherited; on the other, the big, the transnational, the impersonal, the mass, the remote, the alien, the acquired."
That is nicely put. Some days I think this is the only political division that matters anymore.
Media vibe is that "No on the Euro" actually has a chance of prevailing this Sunday. If the Swedes say no, the odds that the Brits will continue to say no to the euro (and EU consolidation) improve as well. Americans should find this a hopeful prospect. We need our friends.
UPDATE: Speak of the devil. The notion that Blair wouldn't allow the British to vote before undertaking such a concededly massive surrender of sovereignty is just amazing. It's scary and it's contemptible. Give them a referendum.
You know, I recall that around 230 years ago, a certain population of Englishmen got so angry at the depredations of their increasingly non-representative government that they took to the streets, raised a massive ruckus, dumped tea in the harbor ... Here's to another surge of the spirit of English (and Scottish) liberty.
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Gregg Easterbrook's new blog
I'm not a big fan of The New Republic, tending to share Father Neuhaus's view of it as a capable magazine that "has a Christian problem, and, more specifically, a Catholic problem." Better the crunchier liberal Weltanschauungen of a Mother Jones or, for that matter, a Commonweal.
But TNR's done something promising: they've given their senior editor Gregg Easterbrook a blog, as yet unnamed. I became a G. Easterbrook[*] fan during the shooting phase of the present Iraq War, when he penned a valuable series of Web dispatches on military matters called "Best Laid Plans". They were full of insight and technical detail. Easterbrook is probably my second favorite Web military pundit.
(Who's #1? That would be the War Nerd, a prodigy whom I'll plug at length in a later post. He's a self-described bitter, fat thirtysomething guy with a Subaru who does data entry in Fresno. His ferocious, hilarious columns kick most mainstream war pundits' asses five ways from Friday. Where is his radio deal?
The vastly more civil Phil Carter, ex-soldier and UCLA law student, is also worth your time.)
But I digress. Check out Easterbrook's inaugural post. Something I hadn't thought of:
"My colleague Peter Beinart contends that it's an outrage that the civil-rights movement has not gotten behind the campaign of Republican Governor Bob Riley to overhaul Alabama's state tax laws. The big change would be to exempt anyone earning less than $17,000 from state taxes, a boon to poor blacks.
There is a second outrage, which is how the national media ignore the religious impetus of Riley's attempt. Not many Republican leaders lay it on the line for a tax increase [. . .]. Why isn't this effort being lavished with praise by the national media? Because the reason Riley is pushing the initiative is that his Christian faith compels him to do so. [. . .] "According to our Christian ethics, we're supposed to love God, love each other and help take care of the poor." Have you heard much about how a Republican leader is using a Christian appeal to advocate taxing the rich to help the poor? Of course not.
In the same state, Alabama, the national media have given nonstop coverage to the crackpot judge with the Ten Commandments statue. [. . . ] Why does the crackpot judge get 24-7 coverage when the noble governor gets almost none? Because the snarling judge and his intolerant followers show Christianity in a bad light; by granting them attention, the media make Christianity look bad. Gov. Riley's crusade to help the poor shows Christianity at its luminous best. Therefore the media ignore Riley."
This impressive observation betrays a smidge of TNR-itis. Easterbrook should offer us some substance to justify that "intolerant" -- one place to start might be with an explanation of why Everson was correct as an original matter.
(I express no opinion on that question. This isn't law blogging. It isn't!)
Gregg's blog is still a strong prospect, and I plan to follow it.
[*] Gregg Easterbrook is the brother of the Hon. Frank H. Easterbrook, a well-known judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. Say what you will about Judge Easterbrook, I can't be the only lawyer who has sat at my desk in a muddle, grinding out bootless Lexis searches in pursuit of some desultory question of law; then sighed with relief as -- aha! -- an Easterbrook opinion popped up in the window; dumped it to paper, and leaned back in the expectation that someone would finally explain my mess to me.
(This isn't law blogging either!)
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Julia Child's critical faculties are fine
So I was in the airport seeing off a relative and I impulse-bought a copy of Gourmet magazine. It's OK. I hadn't realized the extent to which it was a "Food Lifestyle" magazine rather than a food magazine, much as the Wine Spectator has more "wine lifestyle" elements (check out this rich dude's mega-cellar in the Caymans! Three-star restaurants in Barcelona!) than, say, Wine & Spirits, a relatively utilitarian mag focused on reviews.
One of the enjoyable articles was a little profile and interview of that quintessential bright Yankee, Julia Child. She's 91 now and retired in California. What struck me about the interview was that every critical judgment that the nonagenarian Child expressed was sound.
She dislikes "vertical food," check, and anything no-fat: "It's not food, ... it's a process." But these are Child positions of long standing.
However, she next praises In-N-Out Burgers. Yes, aren't they great? I once lived in Los Angeles for a few months (it is a long story). I don't miss much about Southern California, but I felt a yearning for one of those elegant concoctions when I read Child's comment.
Next the interviewer shows Child a tape of some contemporary TV food stars. She pegs every one:
Nigella Lawson she finds "very appealing." [You can say that again. -- ed.] Tyler Florence "seems like a real person, very attractive." ... Barefoot Contessa Ina Garten? She "hasn't any charm," [Child] says, "though I'd probably eat her food." [Exactly! Garten tries to be breezy but she's really standoffish. I saw some silly article comparing her to Martha Stewart, acting like she was all kinder and gentler compared to the tense Martha. I don't see it. But I do suspect she can cook.] As for Jamie Oliver, she is baffled. "The show moves so quickly, and I just can't see what he has to offer."
* * *
"Yeah ... you're pwobably wight"
If that last outburst of theorizing wasn't enough for you, I urge you to check out this brief essay on "The Meaning of Homestar Runner", originally posted on the HR forums. Very thoughtful. The stuff on Strong Sad as Alienation and Homsar as The Other is particularly poignant:
"Strong Sad and Homsar together represent the apotheosis of meaning in HR. The story "Where's the Cheat ?" is a must-see for any fan because it represents this apotheosis. We see in two occasions Strong Sad and Homsar playing Connect Four. The game is a microcosm of HR, and the views of Homsar and Strong Sad clash in a dramatic battle of wills. See how affected Homsar is, as he proclaims : "you shank my Jenga ship !". Who can remain unaffected by his plight ? For it is their very purposes that are played out on the game board, forced by the communicative plight that is endemic to HR to confront in this manner.
Strong Sad plays games in many occasions, as is made clear in that story. Alienated, he devotes himself to "winning" in such manner, instead of participating in the real world. Homsar probably sees the game more as another occasion to observe, but surely he grasps its gravity as well. The rejection committed by the HR characters against him is nowhere more cruel than in this crucial scene, where Bubs point-blank tells him "don't you talk to me !". This is radical, but necessary."
* * *
Going Through a Tight Wind: Punk Rock and the Supernatural
Turns out my new city has a splendid record store not far from my house. I paid it a kick-off visit this evening. Foreign DVDs, racks of vinyl, posted notes with inside jokes for the staff: it's all good. Even the posters are impressive, though in the end I decided that a large Misfits or Pussy Galore wall hanging was not exactly what I wanted for my sparsely furnished pad.
Instead I left with a bagful of CDs. Inter alia:
* The Fall, Early Fall 77-79 -- idiosyncratic; I go back and forth about Mark E. Smith's, uh, performances, though he's excellent with words
* De La Soul, Timeless: The Singles Collection -- three complaints: the "Timeless" title is cheesy; not enough cuts from 1993's Buhloone Mindstate, a truly organic album; and everything after Stakes is High (1996) sucks. That aside, this is great material.
and, as relevant here:
* Ramones, Ramones. I already had most of the songs on one of those Warner compilations, but I wanted to own the debut album, as such. It was actually a little hard to find.
Obviously, Ramones is a classic. It sounds great. Thinking back on the garbage being played in 1976, you can instantly see why Bob Christgau, who was then an excellent rock critic, wrote rejoicingly that it "blows everything else off the radio." But there's something more in the lead cut, "Blitzkrieg Bop," than in any of the the other tracks. (Yeah, I know it's being used now for some bloody telephone commercial. Fuck that. That's why I'm trying to secede from TV.)
"Blitzkrieg Bop" is the goofy Ramones' Punk Rock Song. They had lots of great tunes (please, "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker" is a gem), but I don't think they had another Punk Rock Song. It's fitting that it would be about itself as a song and your reaction to it, rather than having a narrative subject.
Most of the great punk rock bands, I submit, likewise had The Song -- the indelible one where they said what, in formal terms, they had to say, where they touched the metaphysical essence of punk. The one that makes your nerves go nuts; makes you leap out of your skin. This illustrates something important about punk rock. Examples:
- "Rise Above," Black Flag.
- "Lights Out," Angry Samoans.
- "Minor Threat," Minor Threat.
- "Pay To Cum," Bad Brains.
- "12XU," Wire.
The Ramones' triumph was, if anything, a comparatively muted version of the phenomenon.
There are exceptions to the one-Platonic-moment rule. You could make a strong case for Minor Threat's 40-second "Straight Edge" as their second example of The Song; it's unreal, a freaking mystic Sufi whirlwind of guitars. Beyond a doubt the Sex Pistols got metaphysical in both "Anarchy in the U.K." and "God Save the Queen," at a minimum. Greil Marcus was on to something in his nutty book-length riff on Sex Pistols as mystical heresy, Lipstick Traces. (I always found the old gnostic stuff that Marcus discussed to be a way more convincing parallel to the Pistols' music than the snotty latter-day Left Bank Situationist nonsense.) Both "Anarchy" and "Queen" give you that crazy napalm feeling, like you just lit something on fire and are noticing that you're not reacting the way you thought you would, you're waiting to smell the first smoke ...
But that note of malice is not essential to the feeling. Not at all. Listening to "Pay To Cum," for example, is more like the feeling of turning into a lightning storm. It's harsh, but not cruel or wicked. Your perception accelerates so far beyond the subconscious limit of the human heartbeat that it's like suddenly you have a new biochemistry; like you're a silicon creature metabolizing electricity on the surface of Triton or something.
What the really essential punk songs do is to take you out of your skin, no question. An "out of body" experience, to use that unfortunately cliche-tarnished expression. That's the clue. But it doesn't follow that you make Greil Marcus's leap, that you leap out of your skin to nowhere -- antinomianism, radical negation, Free Spirit heresies, gnosticism, gnosticism, gnosticism.
I don't hear it that way. (Note that Allan Bloom's strictures about rock, too, miss the boat when applied to punk.) Maybe in the Sex Pistols' case, but they're an exception. It's Johnny Rotten's dark thoughts and snarled words that impart the transcendental force to the Pistols' great songs. It ain't the music; take away Rotten and the Pistols are a vigorous pub-rock band. But with bands like Minor Threat, Bad Brains, much of the force is bound up in what's being played; this visionary racket.
I'll show my cards: What the most extreme, beautiful punk forms seem to refer to, in a clandestine and analogical way, is the Resurrection of the Body. You leave your mortal body and go -- not nowhere, but into new flesh and blood, the drums as skeleton, quicksilver electric strings as tendons and sinews. Also, at a greater distance, perhaps the way that punk forms are frightening is not unrelated to the way that angels -- real Old Testament angels, not Hallmark cherubs -- are said to be frightening.
This relation of reference can be more or less distinct. "Blitzkrieg Bop" is much less formally radical than most of the songs I've named; the road that leads from it to the stuff I'm talking about is longer than the road that leads from "Pay To Cum." The reference can certainly be distorted, can indeed be cast in deliberately heretical forms. As should be obvious, it can also be entirely unconscious in the player's mind. (Bad Brains were explicitly God-centered Rasta punks, but Minor Threat-era Ian MacKaye was sharply secular. The Ramones were a bunch of no-nonsense guys from Forest Hills, from around the way.)
Nevertheless, I think that's the underlying philosophical basis of punk rock as a form. I mean, if you look at it a priori, it is not at all obvious (though Plato might have guessed it) that guitars, amps and drums should be capable of doing the things we now know they can do. It is just another remarkable feature of the created universe that random, suburban humans can occasionally come together with these odd, silly-looking noisemaking contrivances, and generate a place in which the metaphysical shockingly appears -- still in analogical form, naturally, but exponentially more evident than it is in everyday life.
Hey, ho, let's go --
They're forming in a straight line
They're going through a tight wind
The kids are losing their minds
The Blitzkrieg Bop
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About the Format
This Blogger template is provisional. I like the look of it fine, but it's a variant of a red template that tends to cut off the body text by not allowing the reader to scroll down past the end of the side bar. A few experiments with long posts seemed to establish that this template works, but I may be wrong. If so, let me know and I'll make a change.
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Pleased To Meet You
And hope you guessed my name. Welcome to the blog. This inaugural post is an introduction to the nature of my game.
I'm Plainsman, a lawyer and a native Midwesterner. I currently work for the government in a medium-sized city somewhere in that big swath of continental real estate that the network brass assigned a scarlet hue on the maps of the 2000 election. I moved here last month after a stint in private practice with a big firm in a big city somewhere on the shores of Lake Michigan. I'm a believing Roman Catholic, neither especially good nor especially slack. I grew up Catholic in a working-class neighborhood but didn't attend Catholic school. The first time I left home for any length of time was to go East for school at age 18. What with college and law school, I've spent a lot of time in the precincts of the Ivy League.
I'm tempted to make a flip remark here, characterizing myself as a "recovering Ivy Leaguer" or something, but the truth is not so simple. I mean, look at the freaking entries in my "Recreations" section. A whole lot of cheesy neo-bourgeois tastes rubbed off over the years, I'd say. Besides, I met many cool and admirable people in my university years, and one never regrets that.
Still, it is true that a lot of the points I'll make here are rooted in a dissatisfaction with the insularity and homogeneity of what I'll go ahead and call our ruling class and its institutions. I'm likely to press some religious, socioeconomic, philosophical, political, and aesthetic positions that go neglected in elite precincts.
A few people on the Internet already know me because of Sub Judice, the law blog I ran until last month with the eminent "D.," my friend and law school classmate. I had to stop blogging there when I took my current job -- various ethical rules would make it sticky if I kept posting my opinions on substantive legal issues. But Sub Judice remains a going concern under D.'s solo management. He blogs there in between writing academic papers and billing mega-hours at his own big-firm associate job. You should check it out. D. is broadly liberal in outlook, much as I'm broadly conservative (more "paleo" than "neo," but with points in common with both camps). Thus the point/counterpoint quality of SJ is likely to shift to a more left-centered outlook with him in charge.
Anyway, I set up this solo blog because there are plenty of topics worth talking about besides law. I imagine that my posts will touch on culture, politics, books, the arts (especially popular music) and my favored recreation of good food and drink, all in vaguely equal proportions.
Let me close with a bit of measured personal description, consistent with the gauzy anonymity I'm pursuing here. I'm a pale Celt who wears thin-framed glasses. I'm a single guy, fairly young but not very young. I speak American English in a flat, slightly nasal voice with no accent. I'm of average height, neither thin nor fat. My favorite Supreme Court Justice is Clarence Thomas; my favorite magazines are Chronicles, First Things, and The New Criterion (links to the left). I like -- obviously, modulating through different keys of "like" -- indie rock, hip-hop circa 1988-1996, some Christian pop and country, Bach, Aristotle, the novels and essays of Evelyn Waugh and C.S. Lewis, bottles of red Burgundy and German Riesling, and really shitty television. To give you the flavor, I recently abandoned my cable subscription as a matter of principle, but I had a considerable fondness for Fox News, Food Network, late-night anime on Cartoon Network (some of which is not shitty), and the most terrible programming of Shop at Home Network.
So much for an introduction. In the next few posts I'll dilate on favorite punk rock bands and introduce you to some individuals of note from my collection of links.
Thanks for reading. I hope to make it worthwhile.
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Another test post
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Test post -- here's some text; and here's a link. Now, will the link work?
Thank you for your patience. Links are now up. Gala blog launch this weekend! Stay tuned.