A trip to the zoo

No rain? No dark skies? No 40-degree highs? Seattle seems to be have been suffering from a bit of spring weather over the past few days (although the rain is supposed to return Thursday).

A friend drove up to visit from Olympia, so we decided to take advantage of the nice weather Monday to head to the zoo. It was a nice walk from Queen Anne to Woodland Park; we went by way of Lake Union and stopped in Fremont on the way. I had never been to the zoo and, seeing as my next job could be almost anywhere, I’m trying to catch up on some Seattle locales I haven’t visited. She’s an animal lover, so it seemed like the spot to go.

The zoo buzzed with activity because of spring break. The sun shone and the animals seemed to want to come out and play. So why was the experience a little dreary? Well, I happened to be reading the signs on the enclosures. What you learn is that almost every animal there is facing an environmental apocalypse: Shrinking numbers, destroyed habitats and myriad other woes. You had the sense that some of the last of these species were there in those zoo exhibits and others around the world instead of in the wild.

I remember how much I loved going to the zoo as a kid to see all the animals. Did they not have as many of these animals-in-peril signs then, did I not read them or has the problem become drastically worse in the past 20 years? It’s probably a combination of the three, but it certainly made the day a little less joyful than the zoo visits I remember. Of course, the kids there were having a great time — watching the otters race around their pool, an arctic fox hunt for insects in a mound of dirt and a lovely jaguar give itself a tongue bath. I quite enjoyed the otters myself, but was disappointed the penguins weren’t on exhibit.

Exiting the zoo, one can check out a digital billboard that offers stark evidence that one species is facing no such decline: Humans. The board showed the human population — more than 6.7 billion and mounting every second.

Saving the earth, one box of wine at a time

So, I had an epiphany in the aisle of Safeway the other day. This was not a revelation one would likely arrive at in a Metropolitan Market or a PCC or a Whole Foods, but now is not the economy for boutique grocers, is it?

In fact, at the time I was suffering from the downwardly mobile aspirations of one who has just filed for unemployment and envisaged a future of nights spent at home with basic cable. I then stole a glance at an oenological display and pondered this once-unbearable question: I wonder what that box wine tastes like?

After a recent party, my wine cellar (more like a cupboard) had been depleted, so I went searching for my usual favorite: Yellow Tail from Australia. This tasty, spicy wine — which comes in shiraz, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and all combinations thereof — is so good that it sparked in my mind what I like to call the Kangaroo Effect.

In essence, any bottle of wine I spy on a grocery store shelf bearing the image of a marsupial must be of a certain quality. If someone were to tell me a vineyard with an opossum on the label made a fine syrah, I would have no reason to doubt him. This theory soon spread to bottles under $15 with any kind of cute creature: A giraffe with a fondness for pinot noir? Why not. Penguins pimping a Chilean varietal? Cool. Now, you protest, what are penguins doing hanging out in the warm climes of a vineyard? Well, there is always ice wine.

Of course, none of the boxes of wine have pictures of adorable animals on them. In fact, a couple had pictures of red wine in a glass of ice (gasp!) But they also don’t cost $12 for 1.5 liters, so I took notice. Here were five liters of chianti going for the same price. There’s a four-liter jug of Carlo Rossi “100% grape wine” for less than that.

While I couldn’t bring myself to go the Franzia route, I found a socially conscious vineyard from California’s Central Coast called Boho Vineyards. The name itself reeks of liberal pretension, which somehow makes me love it. I used to live in Santa Barbara, and that wine can get pricey. This box of Boho contained three liters and sold for $17 (with my Safeway club card). The reason they’re employing this kind of packaging is not only to appeal to the parsimonious, but the environmentally aware.

The packaging offers a 55 percent smaller carbon footprint than the same amount of wine delivered in four bottles. It also comes with a spout that keeps the wine fresh for six weeks (as if it will last that long!) The wine itself? Pretty good. Maybe not quite as good as my Yellow Tail, but certainly better than two-buck chuck (or whatever that sludge is going for these days. No offense to Trader Joe’s, which is one of my favorite stores, but I couldn’t drink that stuff.)

In the end, it made me realize I shouldn’t be so snobbish about packaging. Two years ago, I would have sneered at any bottle that came with a screw cap instead of a cork, but those screw caps are easy to deal with and keep the wine fresh after it’s opened. This method is just as good.

The best part? I’m not a cheapskate. I’m a steward of the environment.

The Osbourne Ultimatum

Just when you thought nobody could lower the standards of broadcast programming any further, leave it to Fox (the masterminds behind the lie-detector-and-ruined-lives game show “The Moment of Truth”) to unleash “The Osbournes: Reloaded.”

Did anyone watch this repulsive display Tuesday night after “American Idol”? Yes, it was even more repulsive than “Idol” front-runner Danny Gokey. The Osbournes, of course, have already  contributed more than their fair share to the decline of Western culture through their eponymous MTV reality show. But this sequel — with a title that aptly references weaponry — delivers what can only be interpreted as a hopeful death blow.

How else can one explain the following? … A ghoulish Sharon Osbourne with blindfolds and dogs (is this German fetish porn?) tricking a man into kissing a grandmother for cash (the horrors! He made out with an octogenarian!). A man blackmailed into marrying his girlfriend live on TV (after he thought he was picked at random from the audience to appear in some “Price is Wrong” challenge with a goth Bob Barker). The Osbournes appearing in painful skits that mainly involve the family members berating innocent citizens with bleeped expletives and — in the case of an Osbourne takeover of fast-food drivethru window — flying French fries.

It’s not just the fact that the Osbournes seem to be rejoicing in their degeneracy, but they’re utterly boring in doing so  — I think Jerry Springer might even eject these dull profligates from his oft-flung chairs. Give us something shocking, but give us something entertaining.

I’m not sure Fox’s timing stunt worked, either. The network geniuses started the show at 9:25 after “Idol,” heading off the viewer’s move to another channel. The problem is people could watch five minutes and glean the incipient idiocy of this endeavor, plenty of time to flip channels. Had they started 10 minutes later, other programming would have already commenced; more importantly, we would have been spared another 10 minutes of this mind-numbing refuse.

One can only imagine that after this quick cancellation — or am I giving the viewing public too much credit here? — that the Osbournes will be searching for their third debauched act on the boob tube. A dating show, perhaps? The bat-chomping paterfamilias can pick potential partners for his two kids. Or how about a “Nanny 911″ ripoff in which Ozzy and Sharon stride into viewers’ home and tell them how to raise their children?

If all else fails, maybe they’ll let Ozzy try out for “American Idol.” No doubt Paula and Randy will call him pitchy, but Ozzy would certainly be able to hold his own in a war of words with Simon. Whether any of them will be allowed to air uncensored will be another question.

Anti-American Idol

Welcome to “American Idol, Season 8: Revenge of the Judges.”

You did it America: The tuneless stylings of Taylor Hicks. The tacky alt-rock aspirations of David Cook. For every trend-setting Kelly Clarkson and chart-topping Carrie Underwood, you chose a forgettable entity such as Jordin Sparks or a case of chart poison like Ruben Studdard.

So, it shouldn’t be a surprise — at least not with the music industry devolving annually to a new low point — that the producers and judges (Simon Cowell is both) have decided to stage an insurrection and wrest as much control as possible from the viewers this season. It’s not just a talent show; it’s a multimillion industry, and so it makes sense from a financial standpoint — if not an artistic one — that the judges want to safeguard their investment and try to secure a path of victory for the musicians in which they see the most dollar signs.

The most obvious example of this is the addition of songwriter-producer Kara DioGuardi to the judging panel. Kara likes to frame her critical approach not in terms of musicianship, but through the search for “package artists,” code for: “You’re hot, and we’ll fix your horrid vocals in postproduction.” She genuinely seems surprised when contestants she has advanced through several rounds of judging can actually sing.

While the producers have put their perennial tricks to good use — giving a feast of screen time to a few favorites while the remainder of contestants go hungry — the judges have simultaneously moved on several fronts to boost their profiles. Not only are they now being introduced on performance nights as if they were hosting the Oscars, but they played a stronger role this year in choosing who you’ll see on the big stage. Season 8 marked a return to wild-card night; this time, the judges held total power and were able to determine four of the Top 13 (because Jasmine Murray’s vocals were apparently so compelling they couldn’t limit it to 12).

In addition, the judges have awarded themselves an ace up the sleeve. If America decides to vote off one of their favorites, they have the ability (though, thankfully, only once and just through the Top 5) to grant a reprieve to a singer America has sent to death row. When announcing this decision, the judges framed it in altruistic terms — they heard from us about contestants who were sent packing too soon, such as Jennifer Hudson and Chris Daughtry (though the new rule wouldn’t have helped the latter, as he made it to the Top 4). In other words, the judges are saving the viewing audience from itself.

Sure, we (and by we I don’t me — I love the show but have never felt compelled to race to the phones) have made some dumb decisions, but do they really expect Randy and Paula to do a better job? If so, do consider those the judges have pimped from the start:

• Danny Gokey: Dubbed “ghoulish widower” by some because he and the show took pains to point out that Danny’s wife died shortly before he tried out — and those early, creepy appearances left an impression that he had been waiting patiently for years for a dead relative to complete his emotional backstory — the focus has since returned to his singing. While he has some ability, it’s vastly eclipsed by the breathless hype bestowed upon him by the judges. And the songs (Mariah Carey’s “Hero”? “Jesus Take the Wheel”?) aim for inspiration but find regurgitation instead.

• Lil Rounds: From the first word out of her mouth, the judges have declared her a perfect singer, the season’s top diva. In other words, Fantasia: The Sequel. But Lil Rounds is no Fantasia. Where the “Idol” champ brought emotional depth and vocal nuance to her belting, Lil seems to have one approach: Scream as loud as possible. Her bombastic take on “I Will Always Love You” from the audition rounds was a shot across the bow that has been followed weekly by the senseless beating of a song into submission. Someone get a restraining order.

• Adam Lambert: I’ll give him this — he is interesting. Whether shocking Randy Travis with his emo grooming (Heavens to Betsy, men with black nail polish!) or turning “Ring of Fire” into a sitar-drenched dirge, he never bores. Maybe that’s why Simon (rightfully so) attacked the country night performance as indulgent. But it was less so than Adam’s self-fondling rendition of “Satisfaction.” I’m hoping that if the show has a ’90s night, Adam will choose Divinyls’ “I Touch Myself.”

Such offenses would be easier to overlook if the show didn’t have several other contestants who can sing. Despite this fact, the following didn’t get much judge love before making it to the Top 13: Kris Allen (singer-guitarist), Allison Iraheta (young rock chick), Anoop Desai (the “sexy nerd”) and the divisive Megan Joy (I’ll take her quirky style over the bombast of the others any day). Surely they deserve more praise, but I’m writing about what’s wrong with “Idol” right now. It suffices to say these artists tend to favor good songs and understatement. Thus, I could not imagine any of them inspiring the judges to fork over their “Get Out of Music Oblivion” card. No doubt they’ll be saving that ploy for their three favorites. And it’s safe to presume that should none of the favorites make it to the finale, the judges will have to invoke special powers and declare Martial law live on American television.

Imagine Randy Jackson with a submachine gun and Paula Abdul in guerrilla attire (but still dancing mindlessly and sipping from her Coke cup) telling you that it’s time to vote, and you have one number to call as a picture of Danny Gokey stares you in the face, agitating for you to not declare him an inspiration to humanity and secure his place as an “Idol” champion.

Absurd perhaps, but that’s what it feels like on “American Idol” this season.

Staff affections

So, it has been a week since I have been out of work, and I finally got around to writing letters of recommendation for former P-I staff I worked with. The funny thing — I didn’t have to BS. These are truly talented people, and I was so lucky to work with them.

Yes, I’m going to mention them here because you’d be lucky to hire any of them. And none of them was hired for that sham Web site. That’s not a surprise, of course, considering it has no use for arts and lifestyle coverage. But these folks live and breathe culture. Let’s have a round of applause for:

  • Angelino Fernandez, Manny Lewis, Sara Loken: I’m going to mention this group first because these individuals didn’t get their names in the paper, but provided a very valuable service nonetheless. Want to know about the hot concert or arts event? These folks were the ones to tell you about it, and they did it with a good-humored calm and cool.

My reporters, in alphabetical order:

  • William Arnold: Bill has been a leading film critic in Seattle and across the nation for decades. He doesn’t always agree with the film-critic consensus, but I think that a contrary opinion is valuable. I doubt anyone in Seattle knows more about movies than he. His ultimate Northwest movie is “McCabe and Mrs. Miller.” How can you not love Robert Altman? (I would include “Nashville” in my top five favorite films.)
  • Athima Chansanchai: Tima attacks every story — as absurd as a feline “photographer” to such serious topics as the faltering economy — with gusto and pop culture knowledge. She also makes the ultimate sacrifice: Watching reality dating TV series for the job. She is equally adept at turning in a story on a light topic such as “American Idol” contestants as she is on working up an important story as the state of gay rights in America today.
  • Rebekah Denn: What a writer! What a passion for food! And, with the dying print product, she has thoroughly embraced the Web. Her P-I and personal blogs show that she’s not solely writing for an audience; she’s leading a conversation among food lovers. Her copy is sparkling, her attitude genial and collaborative. What I don’t attest to, the plethora of awards surely do. (http://www.eatallaboutit.com)
  • Leslie Kelly: Technically a freelancer, but I always thought of her as one of the staff because she wrote regularly — and with a special passion about her subject. Not one to let complacency stand with the local restaurant industry’s big names, she demands excellence of Seattle dining institutions and celebrates the smaller venues that offer exceptional value. And she does it all in a folksy, immensely readable style. (http://lesliekellywhininganddining.blogspot.com)
  • Gene Stout: Is there anyone in Seattle who knows more about pop music? His copy is authoritative and clean. I may be alone in this assertion, but I don’t think there’s a more important subject as far as journalism goes in Seattle than music. It’s the simply the lifeblood of the city — from Jimi Hendrix to Nirvana to Pearl Jam, Seattle is the home of music legends. As far as the legends of music criticism go, Gene is at the top of the list. (http://genestout.com)
  • I have also had the good luck to work with a knowledgeable, passionate group of freelancers: Sean Axmaker (movies), Winda Benedetti (video games), Travis Hay (music), Geoff Kaiser (beer), Richard Kinssies (wine), Paula Nechak (movies), Travis Nichols (movies, music), Andy Spletzer (movies), Shawn Telford (music), Mikel Toombs (music) and Bill White (movies, music).
  • Last but not least: A thank you to my fabulous boss, Chris Beringer, and colleague, John Levesque. I will miss working with you two immensely.

I’ll drink to that

At my first job, there was a period when I wrote a weekly cocktail column for our weekly entertainment section. (Click here to read some of them. )

Freely liberated from the working world and the money it offers for bar sojourns, I have refocused my home cocktail innovations. I whipped up a batch of bar syrups that can be mixed with fine spirits and fresh citrus for some beverages to rival any of the fancy cocktail lounges around town. In fact, I served a mandarin-ginger daiquiri at a recent dinner party and one of my guests said she would pay $12 for the cocktail.

It was awkward when she only had an ATM card on hand, but thankfully I had imbibed one of my concoctions and was feeling generous enough to mix us up another batch. I’ll share the recipe here and offer future cocktail blog posts for those hoping to turn a workless afternoon into happy hour without breaking the dwindling bank.

GINGER-MANDARIN DAIQUIRI

  • 1.75 ounces Cruzan or other light rum
  • .75 ounce lime juice
  • .75 ounce fresh mandarin or clementine juice, plus a bit of zest if desired
  • .75 ounce ginger syrup (recipe below)
  • Splash of cranberry juice (optional)

Shake all ingredients in a cocktail shaker filled with ice until outside of the shaker becomes frosty; strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with madarin wheel or wedge if desired.

GINGER-CARDAMOM SYRUP

  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup sugar
  • Ginger root, peeled and julienned
  • 8-10 green cardamom pods
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1 tsp. chile powder

Simmer everything in a sauce pan 90 minutes to two hours, being careful not to burn. Cool and strain into a bottle. Refrigerate. (I based this on a recipe by cocktail maestro Alberta Straub.)

Other uses: Replace the simple syrup or sugar in a mojito with this mixture (and use ginger ale instead of soda water to top it off). Or take your Tom Collins up a notch by mixing 2 ounces gin, 1 ounce lemon juice and 1 ounce ginger syrup over ice. Top with ginger ale and call it a Ginger Collins. For a nonalcoholic option, make a ginger lemonade by using this instead of the traditional sugar syrup.

I also like to keep a simple syrup on hand. It mixes much better with cold ingredients than cane sugar (though fine bar sugar also works well). To make a simple syrup, simply cook together one part sugar and one part water. I generally use demerara sugar for a bit more flavor. For a citrus-flavored simple syrup, I add grapefruit, orange and lemon peels to a simple syrup mixture, along with zest from the fruit.

I make a vanilla sugar (place a vanilla bean in a small container of sugar) that I can use to make a vanilla syrup or use as the base for a syrup that I use for many tropical drinks. It’s similar to falernum (a rare, classic syrup that often has a rum base).

TROPICAL SYRUP

  • 1.5 cups vanilla sugar
  • 1.5 cups water
  • Zest of four limes
  • Ginger root, peeled and julienned
  • 1/4 cup thinly sliced almonds
  • A few whole cloves

Simmer ingredients together over low heat for an hour or so, then strain into a bottle and refrigerate. This can be used for a zombie (I’ll post a recipe for that next), a mai tai, a daiquiri or your other favorite tropical drin.

Cheers!

A new start

They say the Internet is responsible for killing off newspapers — Craigslist.com murdered print classified ads while the recent flood of free news content is certainly an accessory after the fact.

The latest victim of the Internet’s cold-blooded spree: The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the oldest business in the state of Washington (in fact, it’s officially older than the state) and my place of employment until last week. Its obituary was written on Tuesday, March 17.

An all-online operation lives on, but it’s but a ghost of its former self — a parade of crime, weather and traffic without culture or context, an amalgam of links masquerading as depth. To paraphrase my former colleague at the paper, the insightful art critic Regina Hackett: The future, according to this model, is journalism without journalists. That’s not any way to live.

A legacy of great writing and editing can live on in digital form, but you won’t achieve the same level of quality by denuding your product of the thing that made it great: People. More staff equals more voices, more care, more thought. Anyone with an Internet hookup can blog.

Speaking of which, welcome to my new blog here. If the Internet truly is the enemy of print journalism, then one could suggest that I’m now sleeping with the enemy (and the Web — as anyone who’s performed a Google search or received e-mail spam knows — is a very kinky partner). But here’s the truth: The Internet and me? It was love at first sight. How I can wile away the hours reading the entries of Wikipedia, watching videos on YouTube and wading through forums on any of my interests from journalism to rum. Of course, those go hand-in-hand for a traditional newspaperman.

So what’s a traditional newspaperman to make of the omnipresent new media? Embrace it. Those who remain among the “dead-tree dinosaurs” are urged to blog about their interests, forging a path to their future. So why not? I love pop culture, and I certainly have time to catch up on movies, albums and TV shows now that I am no longer working 50 hours a week. As the former Life & Arts editor at the Seattle P-I (I oversaw pop culture movies, music, TV, dining, food & drink, among other things), this is a career path I would love to continue, in whatever form it takes. As a former art director and copy desk chief, page design and copy editing are also near to my heart.

In addition to blogging about those entertainment and culture interests here, I am planning to use this site to post my résumé and clips of my past work should I need a handy place to direct potential employers. A quick link is certainly easier than sending out a stack of paper to all and sundry.

Whether my future positions involve printed words or words on a screen, in the end it’s the words that count to me. I’ll go wherever they go.