Nobody’s Byzness but the Turks’ : Norwich Proves Human History Looks Ghastlier When Condensed
Oh, the humanity! Oh, the inhumanity! Oh, the beheadings, pillagings, assassinations, blindings, intrigues, tonsurings, tongue-splittings, nose-slicings, banishments, castrations, buggerings, fornications, tonsurings, infanticides, icon-smashings, and war, war, war, war, WAR. And you get all of that even before the First Crusade is launched.
I didn’t have the time or the stomach for all three volumes of John Julius Norwich’s acclaimed history of Byzantium. I like to hand-pick my Emperors and Empresses (like a fiendish little imperial court conspirator) and buy door-stopping tomes written specifically about those favorites. I have studied a considerable amount of Byzantine history in my day but in light of a few upcoming projects thought that an especially taut “refresher” compendium was in order and, with a click of Amazon Prime, Norwich’s A Short History of Byzantium was in bed with me, right next to the cat and directly underneath the icon of Theotokos Hodegetria, who should have blushed at the things leaping from those pages below her mystical gaze, things that were very much part-and-parcel of her past, seeing as she was paraded around the walls of Constantinople often enough in times of crisis. Of course, we do not hold her responsible for any of it.
Rarely do I find myself reluctant to parade around the walls of a history book to the bitter end — particularly when the subject involves so many things of great interest to me — but Norwich’s condensation of Byzantium’s story, while handy and certainly written at-a-clip, made for grim and reluctant reading these past few weeks. Perhaps I was simply in one of my uber-cynical moods, given the pervasive degeneration of human civilization today, as attested … well, as attested anywhere one might care to glance. Perhaps I did not want to be reminded that the Cradle of Christianity was infested with bedbugs and that the Baby was, very nearly, thrown out with the proverbial bath-water. Now that I come to think about it, I conclude that my distaste for Norwich’s account is probably rooted in one discouraging realization: human societies never learn from their mistakes and are doomed to repeat their atrocities century after century after century. Rise and fall and Rise and Fall on loop, if you will.
To be certain, it’s not exactly as if I have been unaware of these realities heretofore. I guess I did not want to be reminded of them in such acute fashion, not this week, not via Norwich’s slightly hypnotic “Let’s have a cigar and a Madeira in the drawing-room and chat about it, shall we?” prose. After the umpteenth Emperor whose name was some derivation of ‘Constantine’ had had his nose shorn off and his tongue ripped out, and after yet another scheming Empress and her screaming daughters had been shaved and shipped to a nunnery on some bleak island, I started to think that there might just be something redemptive about these Kardashian maidens with whom all the world seems smitten.
Then I snapped out of that nonsense, washed my entire brain clean with some Tolkien, and got back to steeling my nerves for the imminent Nebraska-sized asteroid.
Buy Norwich’s A Short History of Byzantium because you deserve to feel better about your own beleaguered era or because Downton Abbey has made you go far too soft around the midsection. Buy it because you deserve likewise to know how the West was really won and what’s going to happen next. Pick up a copy of Rowan Blaize while you’re at it. Wizards make everything better … until there’s nothing left to be made better.
My dear grandfather (God rest his soul) loved nothing more than being surrounded by buxom-if-blowsy waitresses with names like “Lurlene” and “Brenda-Bob” in that creme-filled cholesterol-boosting wonderland known as Dunkin’ Donuts. During visits to my grandparents’ Florida retirement home, I opted to humor old Gramp, especially after his third heart attack, and tag along to attend his version of High Mass every Sunday afternoon, where the acrid smell of watery, metallic-tasting coffee mingled in an almost mystical symbiosis with the grunts of truckers as they wolfed-down heaps of Pure Corn Syrup-Glazed NUTRITION! Gramp enjoyed the Dunkin’ Donuts atmosphere and ambience while I enjoyed the fact that he wanted to include me on these relatively pointless Old Man Expeditions. As I recall, the donuts were not bad, even if they were served-up on Sunday mornings by haggard women still reeling from Saturday night’s Jim Beam and Bacardi Extravaganzas — women who could heat the coffee pots with nothing more than the searing flame-breath of their leftover halitosis in the event of a power-failure. Dunkin’s products had nothing on Crispy Creme’s delectables, as I would discover not long after moving to California, but it was not a grievous cultural shock. It was not as jolting as, say, the discovery of In & Out Burger after a lifetime of believing that Wendy’s was the apex of bun-clad beef-patty mastication. That’s when one really begins to harbor a resentment toward various childhood deprivations. Anyhow, Dunkin’ Donuts were edible treats and even a debilitated fellow like Gramp could crumble one up after drooling over it for a minute, or dipping it in his industrial strength paint-peeling java, which always steamed from cups that appeared to be made of toilet bowl ceramic. Gramp never, ever needed to take sharp objects to his donuts. Not to my knowledge. Not like this disillusioned but resourceful consumer of indelibly American baked goods.
I guess they just don’t mass-produce mediocrity like they used to. Maybe that’s an encouraging sign.
A waitress at an Appleby’s in Colorado walks up to take an order at a table of young women who’ve got their drinkin’-dresses on for an evening of FUN! The waitress, Brianna Priddy (a name you literally want to pet), asks these good-time gals for their IDs. They oblige. Brianna looks at the IDs and is a tad stunned to discover that one of them … is her own.
Yes, Brianna’s driver’s license had been stolen at an undisclosed time before this particular Girls’ Night Out and, lo and behold, the criminal mastermind who apparently ripped-her-off handed it back to Brianna, right there at the four-top. Why? Because that slice of brilliance was mighty thirsty and them Appleby’s margaritas just taste so delicious. Tangy. A girl can have a lot of laughs when she knocks back a few margaritas purchased via her actual waitress’s stolen identification.
Brianna reportedly “played it cool” (the Priddy Family raises no airheads!) and pretended to take the woman’s order when what she really did was march herself right over to the nearest wait-station, knock some dawdling busboy out of her Priddy pathway, and call THE LAW. Officers arrived. The woman who had stolen Brianna Priddy’s license was arrested and taken to jail, parched and pining for the sweet taste of tequila and cheap sour-mix, her glad-rags undoubtedly askew, her worldview dashed for at least the third time that week.
You know, when people lament the current state of American intellectual standards or bemoan the mercurial nature of contemporary attention-spans, I like to remind them that dynamic, highly analytical and dazzling minds are all around us. Not just here in the USA but in places like Zimbabwe, too! I do not fear for the future, for I know that, seated just one table away at any given chain-eatery on a Friday night, I am more than likely in the presence of GENIUS.
I’m not an author/artist of terribly brazen ambitions, at least not in terms of the entire “Fame-game, ho-stroll, dumb-it-down & sell your soul” paradigm. No. No no no no NO. I would like my work, my efforts, to be recognized or just basically enjoyed, and I would like to make a reasonable living in the process. But fame is not one of my desires, not for its own sake. In fact, I’m surprised that so many human beings still apparently hunger for fame, that so many seem to ache with growling bellies for the chance to satiate themselves with it. It’s always been a bit of a psychological disease, fame, but at least it used to be a somewhat fascinating disease. These days, fame strikes me as possessing all the mystique and attractiveness of some sort of venereal infection. Anyone can “get” it, if they’re reckless enough, and it’s the kind of malady that I imagine prompts sufferers to stutter and stammer in the presence of indifferent, overworked doctors in the closet-sized examining rooms of dreary clinics across the globe:
PATIENT: “Oh, God. No. What is it, Doc? Is it as serious as I thought it was? Have I caught a bad case of the Kardashians? I knew those bugs weren’t going to just clear-out overnight. Tell it to me straight.”
DOCTOR: “Actually, I’m afraid it’s worse than Kardashians. You’ve got a particularly nasty Honey Boo Boo on your Bieber. I must say, I haven’t seen a case of fame this virulent in quite some time. But calm down. There’s a slew of new pharmacological treatments for grotesque infestations like this. In fact, I have about a dozen free samples in my cabinet right now. Name brands, too. Would you like to try six or seven of them? I’ll throw in some Oxycontin for the indignity of it all.”
Anyhow, satire aside, the idea of fame (as it’s cut-and-pasted for humans today) ought to disturb anyone with a shred of soul. But I’m not here to judge the motives of others, necessarily. I may not want fame, but I’m also not stupid. A particular level of success brings a measure of notoriety. I’m okay with that, so long as matters don’t become tubercular. I think I possess enough emotional stability at this juncture to “deal” with it, but one never knows, does one? Our plans and self-perceptions are easily dashed and brushed aside by Fate. Blogging and tweeting and Facebooking and YouTubing is all a bit much, frankly, but I’m doing it because I realize that, in order to spread the word about my work without aid of a manic LA publicist, I have to participate. That’s okay, too, so long as I feel I can be honest and rational with potential readers. If it ever feels utterly manufactured, or even begins to drift toward the remote possibility of feeling that way, you can rest assured that I will cease and desist.
That is why I am revealing the true purpose behind my writing efforts, aside from the enjoyment I derive by sharing stories of my own creation and the desire to make a living doing something I very much enjoy. No hordes of adoring, clamoring acolytes, thank you very much.
I want hordes of lavender. In fact, I want an entire farm planted with the stuff. I don’t even want a big farm. Forty acres ought to do nicely. Lavender is my favorite plant because it is hardy and colorful. Its fragrance is like incense and, Catholic gent that I am, I love me some incense. Contrary to the somewhat effete reputation of lavender, I believe it to be a plant for both sexes. It’s fragrant enough for women who enjoy those little pillow sachets or what-have-you, but its fragrance is clean and almost antiseptic enough for a man to appreciate, as well. The earth’s most beguiling natural perfume, in my opinion. Bees love it and use it to create honey of extraordinary elegance. People can even cook with it, though it isn’t as versatile as its distant cousin, rosemary. I want to plant acres of lavender in some lonesome valley (it grows with admirable tenacity here in Central California), I want to tend it myself from sun-up until sun-down, if necessary, and I want to harvest it myself. I want to feel the dirt in my hands, friends. Maybe I’d open a little shed-sized store in the driveway and sell jars of the lavender honey, or perhaps jars of the lavender/sugar/and tea-tree oil body scrub I make. Or maybe I’ll just stand amid the fields on any given summer evening and be grateful that I sold enough books about magic to merit the magical pleasure of a good crop. That’s my real life’s “dream,” if you will.
So, buy a book or two and invest in a Future Farmer of America. Save a few bees, probably, too. I’ll handle any attendant fame as best I can and, if not, there’ll be plenty of bushes in which to hide. Thanks.
By the way, my good friends at AME configured my Amazon Author Central Page today. Have a look and have a great day. ~JK
Of course, I could be referring to the bewildering beverage of Yore in all its wormwood-infused notoriety. Absinthe (or updated, watered-down versions of the drink) has indeed been making a considerable comeback in Europe and North America over the past fifteen years. My first encounter with the enchanted tonic came in 2004 during a visit to Paris. A group of chatty expatriates were mingling in a particularly cramped hotel lobby and one of them whisked-out a bottle of the stuff, which could be purchased in a delightfully grimy market across the street. I forget the actual hallucinogen-content of that afternoon’s favored conversation-piece, but the liquid does have its meditative benefits. Moreover, I am first-in-line for anything exotic that boasts a hint of anise flavor (Sambuca, ouzo, Twizzlers, etc.) and it was a rainy day in the City of Light.
Absinthe the Brain-Rotting Elixir is not, however, the chief subject of today’s blog installment. Rather, I am going to render well-deserved props to Absinthe, the Brasserie and Bar located at 398 Hayes St. in San Francisco, on the corner of Hayes and Gough.
When I lived on Hayes Street in San Francisco in the mid-1990s, the area was just on the cusp of a determined revitalization that would gradually transform the district from a slightly more ambitious and well-dressed, blowsy “drag-queen sister of the Tenderloin” into a teeming cultural hub replete with art galleries, smart bistros, fashion boutiques, and specialty markets. Absinthe proved to be one of the neighborhood’s most enduring gastronomic upgrades, though it did not open until 1998. While visiting San Francisco last week, I found myself in Hayes Valley and eager to reinvestigate the delectable offerings at the still-popular (and packed-out) brasserie. The menu, which is the brainchild of executive chef Adam Keough, is still a winner in every way. We popped-in at 6PM on a Tuesday without a reservation and were lucky to get a spot, since the joint filled-up swiftly right after our seating. I started out with a big bottle of sparkling water (gaseuse, merci beaucoup!) and ordered a triple-combo from their cheese menu. It was $24 and worth every cent. My selections were the Humboldt Fog with white-wine-poached apricots, the Blythedale Camembert with Marcona almonds and Fuji apples, and the Fourme d’Ambert, from Auvergne, France, served with acacia honey. Yes, you may commence drooling, Gracious Reader. The cheese selections were portioned perfectly and served with gently toasted slices of the house-made walnut-bread. Talk about ringing my particular bell.
I moved directly into a main course that was almost miraculously light yet satisfyingly substantial: the Potato-Crusted Artic Char, served with Little Gem lettuce salad, blue lake beans, red radish, and Niçoise olives, for only $27. Yes, I am featuring a photo of this resplendent dish above. The textures and flavors were Hallelujah-worthy, with the Alaskan char boasting a delicate, somewhat buttery cleanliness on the palate that was the perfect foil for Keough’s layer of golden brown, immaculately pan-fried Yukon Gold potato-slices layering the top of the fish like edible scales. The Little Gem salad was perfect, too, spun into simplistic greatness by a light vinaigrette and perfectly poached half-egg that tasted like a little nibble of dappled sunlight on some hallowed meadow in the Loire Valley. Yeah, it was that good. My dining partner hit the jackpot, as well, reveling in the Liberty Farms duck breast, which was ginger-soy marinated and served with roasted peanuts, fried black rice, Napa cabbage salad, and a citrus-soy duck jus. This, friends, was melt-in-your-mouth duck to savor amid a symphony of fabulous flavors, and you had better believe I got to try a bite (or three). A 2010 Brooks pinot noir from Oregon’s Willamette Valley was the earthy accompaniment the little duck would have been begging/quacking for, were he alive and not on the plate.
I took a big chance on dessert and ordered something I was not at all certain I would like, only to discover I had selected THE MOST FABULOUS DESERT I HAVE EVER INHALED IN MY LIFE. This may not be to everyone’s taste, but it was a worthy piece de resistance to the entire meal: a yogurt Panna Cotta with Tarragon Meringue. That’s right, tarragon. Served parfait-style in a glass, this offering is just one of the six tantalizing creations of pastry chef Bill Corbett, and the flavors of this masterpiece were by turns delicate and explosive. The panna cotta was rich and silky-smooth while being nudged perfectly by the fresh acid-sweetness of a layer of Red-Rio grapefruit, all of that deliciousness being topped by White Chocolate crumbles and then the subtly spectacular tarragon meringue. Deliriously compelling was this dessert, and it was scarfed-down more quickly than it deserved, given the complexity of character to be savored. But I couldn’t help myself!
The service was outstanding in every regard, as usual. A gent named Josh took excellent care of us and the bill for two ended-up being a mere $85 (before tip), which I considered a bargain, given the sterling quality of the fare. I have certainly paid far more for meals I have enjoyed much less. The ambience is classic, bustling “San Francisco brasserie” with a dark, cozy Parisian boite-type interior but plenty of elbow room and opportunity to peek at the goodies everyone else decides to order from the admirable kitchen of Chef Keough.
There was no hallucinating the still-sturdy, even spellbinding quality and character of Absinthe. The next time you’re in the city for business or for pleasure, taking meetings or catching a show in the nearby theater district or at the symphony, make a beeline for Absinthe and settle-in for an evening of relentless culinary contentment. In fact, invite me. I’ll guide you through that menu and maybe even perform a little song & dance. All you have to do is pay. ~JK
Three days in San Francisco were slightly jolting, given that my life (for better or for worse) has become increasingly reclusive in the past few years. All was well because it ended well, but I am mad with joy to be back home in the coastal woodlands, communing with the freakin’ abject silence. I was partially worried about Li’l Girl (my feral-turned-huggable cat) because this was the first time I left her for a few days since “adopting” her officially before Christmas. She apparently conducted herself like a lady and was happy to see me.
One of the interviews in the city was quite particularly a success, I thought, but you never truly know until something is printed or delineated. The young journalist, Cara, was refreshingly well-prepared and talented. That was nice to encounter. I tend to presume that people are going to be scattered and unreliable (because they usually ARE) but Cara was one of those sparkling sapphires that proved me wrong. YES! Many cheers for Cara but, again, I will have to see her write-up. Suffice it to say that the interview about the new books went well and that a great many ghosts were roused, rattled, and riddled. I’ll share Cara’s article when she completes it. She did send me a photo I have permission to use; hopefully I will be able to post it, given my neophyte status with WordPress. Anyway, I am home, it was not really a good day (I’m rather grumpy) and I am so ready for bed it is actually painful. Physically. Give me the weekend to exhale.
This is a most inauspicious beginning for my newborn blog, but it will simply have to do. Or, it will have to do, simply. I’m sequestered (like a belligerent budget-cut) in a business hotel in San Francisco, and it is not the hotel I usually prefer to grace with my dubious dollars. Oh no.That hotel was booked and this trip was a bit on the short-notice side of things. I’ll tell you more about what I’m doing in the city in a day or two, though I fear tens of people may be forced to swoon from unreasonable levels of anticipation and breathless curiosity. Suffice it to say that, for the moment, my current lodging, in the Civic Center district near Hayes Valley, provides “courtesy internet service” that is comparable to a slime-exuding garden snail with a thyroid problem, in terms of speed. I shall have to have a word with someone eager to serve at the front desk–a word that shall doubtless be received with the same interest and enthusiasm as might be expected of the aforementioned snail.
Never the less, perhaps it is poignant, even apropos, that we begin our journey together in humble surroundings, you and I. No slick photos, no snappy design upgrades, no sizzlin’ jpegs or widgets. None of these things will upload (and yes, I’m using Chrome), so we must count ourselves fortunate that I am even able to post this introductory message. The razzle-dazzle will come, I assure you, once I return to my cave-like (but Wi-FINE) existence in the mist-shrouded wilds near Big Sur. The purpose of this blog shall become apparent over the days, weeks, months, and centuries–like a grand unfolding, or a gruesome unraveling. Who can say? The title of the blog ought to give you a faint idea of the nature of what I’ll term the blog’s general “tone trajectory,” and my various projects (current and forthcoming) will be discussed at opportune times, because G-d forbid I avoid shameless self-promotion in this age of multimedia wallfowerism. I’ll be rolling a critical eye at virtually everything that can be critiqued, as well: books; films; prominent figures; obscure amusements; disturbing global events; potential signs of the zombie apocalypse; flotsam; jetsam. All commentary will be rendered with utmost delicacy, so feel free to bask in the revelatory exfoliation of our beloved society. I shall be promoting things with which I am inordinately impressed, too. Look your best, friends.
The title for this inaugural post is a swift kiss on the cheek, a riff on the title of the blog, to be certain, but it is also related to a new enthusiasm raging through the spas of America like fungus through the foot-bath of an especially disreputable pedicurist. Indeed, media reports are filtering-in about health resorts, fat farms, spas, and other self-improvement hubs that feature upgrade options involving IV-drips purported to rid patrons of those residual sunburn, hangover, and In & Out Burger discomforts that come with good ol’ American excess. I am making an appointment today for the “Bases Loaded” IV today and shall report back concerning its efficacy with remarkable urgency. Shall we meet by moonlight on the morrow? Let’s do. ~JK