Acoustical Magic

I was doubtful. My listening room, which is also my office, has all sorts of odd angles, so any sort of acoustic panel treatment would be based upon best guesses. You see, sound from loudspeakers has a tendency to bounce off all sorts of surfaces, and not just once. It bounces off the carpeted floor, but it’s also absorbed by the carpet. So we have — and every room has — a combination of reflective surfaces and surfaces that absorb sound. Mine was more complicated because the room sits under an angled roof, so the area above the stereo system and speakers, and the area above the listening area are both ceilings that come down at about a 40 percent angle. Then, there’s the unpredictable carve-outs for two window dormers, one behind each loudspeaker, and two more carve-outs, one on each side of the listening area — one for the entranceway and the other for a tiny windowed cove filled with a wooden rocking chair. And, then, there are lots of books and records and shelves and two closet doors. Any attempt to measure all of this and predict the sound patterns is folly.

And yet, somehow, everything sounds pretty good. Very good, in fact. Not because we got lucky, but because several skillful technicians assessed the room several decades ago, and got everything right. Well, almost everything. The missing piece has always been the long wall behind the listening position. The lingering question has been whether to add an acoustic treatment — soft panels — to absorb some of the reflecting sound behind my head. Associated with that question — would the addition of panels deaden the room, resulting in less reflectance, but also, less of a lifelike sonic presentation.

One way to find out. Try it. Obsess by staring aimlessly at websites that explain everything without resulting in my actually understanding anything at all. I kept reading, kept researching, but ultimately, I needed to experiment with sound panels in my listening space. I looked at lots of websites, but the one that seemed most accessible and the most, well, professional in its presentation, was a Florida company called Acoustimac.

Their acoustic panels come in lots of sizes, and you can custom-order any size you want. I started by thinking about 12-inch squares, and I figured I would space them an inch or two apart. The whole area is about 15 feet long, or so, so I started thinking in terms of, say, 12 panels across and maybe 3 panels down for a total of 36 panels. Then, I started thinking about the amount of work that would involve, and decided not to build a matrix of smaller squares (though I did have some cool plans for a range of colors, as I will explain below).

Ultimately, it made much for sense to go for just two panels, each one two feet high and four feet long. Big difference from my original plan. I asked the company whether I should go for the two-inch thick panels or the one-inch thick panels, and I went with their suggestion for the two-inchers. Now, the question of color and fabric. Lots of options, but for my purposes, the standard DMD canvas was fine, and I paid $5 more for beveled edges on each panel.

It’s easy to get lost in the options: photographs, graphics, abstract art — whatever you want to see on the panels, they can make it. After pasting samples of dozens of solid colors on my wall — it’s behind my computer, and I did not want to choose anything distracting — I chose blue.

They shipped two panels. I thought it would be easy to connect them to the wall. I was wrong. This is beyond my skill level. Why? Well, they’re not heavy, but they are bulky, and they need to land perfectly straight, not hang like a picture frame. The way this is done is with French brackets that sort-of slide into one another. All of this required a professional installer, and, as it turned out, their special laser beam because (who knew?), my walls are not exactly even. Once they figured it out, mounting came easily.

Special thanks to Jason Bobb and the Soundvision team for excellent work on the installation.

Once installed, everything was easy. With fingers crossed, we turned on the stereo, and hoped we would not hear a newly-created mess. Would the vocals sound crisp and alive? Would the bass be unenthusiastic? Would the… you get the idea. Was all of this a good idea or a bad idea, or no idea at all because we should have left things as they have been (for decades)?

Actually, it was kind-of perfect. More or less, we moved any distracting reverberation away from that back wall, so the performers all took their proper places on the sound stage in front of us — in sort of a 3D pattern around the front of the room, not just from the loudspeakers, but as a real presence with greater focus and clarity (which was pretty great before). Somehow, it worked, first time out. It sounds terrific and now, I’m recommending this bit of sonic experimentation to anyone who is serious about listening to two-channel stereo recordings. Fascinating and fun. And, of course, always helpful to be surrounded by professionals — both on the Acoustimac side and also from Soundvision for installation.

Post-Script: After I learned about acoustic paneling, I started to notice it everywhere. Two of the many examples shown on the Acoustimac website are below:

Galax, Floyd and Other Crooked Places

A little more than ten years ago, I read an article about music in Southwestern Virginia. About two months ago, I found it again, but this time, I decided do more than read and file the article in my “someday” folder. I decided to go, and see what The Crooked Road was all about.

Had I known, I would have first picked up Joe Wilson’s excellent and truly helpful book, A Guide to the Crooked Road: Virginia’s Music Heritage Trail. And I would have paid more attention to Barry Mazor’s book, Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music, sent to me for review in 2015. As I traveled, I caught up along the way, learned a lot, listened to a lot of wonderful music, figured out some of the history, and met some wonderful people along the way.

Let me begin at something approximating the beginning. Or what I thought was the beginning. Target: Bristol, which may be in Virginia and may be in Tennessee, depending upon where you happen to be standing at the time. Bristol calls itself “The Birthplace of Country Music”–but it’s not. It is one of the places where Ralph Peer, then a producer and A&R man, visited in the 1920s when he realized there was untapped opportunity in recording, and releasing, records made by, and for, local populations. Initially, he worked for Okeh Records, then for Victor, then for RCA Victor after RCA acquired the smaller label. (Nowadays, all of this is owned by SONY, but, remarkably, Peer’s own successor company (peer music, founded in 1928) remains independent, and a major force in the music industry. More about that in a moment.)

Bristol is about as far you can go heading west in Virginia before running into Tennessee. It’s near North Carolina, and an hour south of the part of Kentucky that was recently devastated by flooding. A few blocks from the warehouse where Ralph Peer and his recording engineer set up their portable, traveling studio, there’s a museum that tells the local story. Even better, you can drive about 40 minutes up the road to pay homage to The Carter Family, who recorded at the famous Victor Bristol sessions in 1927. The site is called the Carter Fold. The hillside location includes a one-room museum (previously the family-owned grocery store), and a lively amphitheater. That’s where they hold the annual memorial concert—with an ample, active dance floor. The distinction between old-time and bluegrass music isn’t always clear, but who cares? Spending an afternoon watching, and listening to local, live music is a wonderfully satisfying experience—this is the real thing, not a studio production, but music that’s been made around here for a century or more. Featured: Crooked Road Ramblers, Whitetop Mountain Band, and Hogslop String Band. All terrific. All captured on CDs that I now own. Along with a well-regarded Carter Family book, a biography of a complicated family that includes June Carter Cash, Johnny Cash, Roseanne Cash, and the fire chief who is married to a family member and helped me extract my car from a muddy parking lot.

It’s not easy to figure out where this mountain music began because it probably started in a lot of places in Virginia, West Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Texas, and lots of other places. Sitting and listening in and around Galax, home to a prestigious annual fiddle festival, and to The Blue Ridge Music Center, where the midday breezeway concert might feature the Fisher Peak Timber Rattlers. It’s fun to watch them because they are talented performers in a small and informal venue, but also because they bring the Music Center’s terrific museum to life. (Unfortunately, we missed The Steep Canyon Rangers in the adjacent outdoor theater—with local BBQ—the night before.)

We couldn’t stay all afternoon. We were on our way to Floyd. This is one of many towns, villages, hamlets with a regular weekly community jam session. (To learn about many other community get-togethers, check The Crooked Mile book.) The Floyd Country Store is busy from Friday night (starts after 10pm, goes on well past midnight), Saturday afternoon, Sunday afternoon, and more. The weekly jamboree—with plenty of dancing—is the big deal. We caught the Sunday afternoon show. Relaxed, informal, fun, players of all ages, each one choosing the next number, endless improvisations, lots of love.

Floyd is a one traffic light town (in fact, the traffic light is the only one in the entire county), and the store is a community gathering place. There’s a lovely little cafe (try the apple or key lime pie), a candy store from barrels, of course), and a gift shop. Two doors down, there’s a good brick oven pizza place with, yes, another busy performance stage. After the community jam, the store re-arranged the chairs, and we watched another band—High Fidelity, with an orientation toward bluegrass old time gospel—evocative of an earlier era, but completely fresh and modern. That night, the crowd was a bit thinner than usual because Fries, Virginia was running another popular music festival, Galax was starting its big summer event the very next day, and Clifftop, in nearby West Virginia, was just winding down.

I could easily spend an entire summer meandering from one place to another, just listening, taking pictures of old farm buildings and mountain landscapes, getting to know each local community and the people who live there. It’s tempting to look around and make assumptions about people’s lives, to discount modern times, but that’s unreasonable. The history is rich, and very much alive, but the 21st century is as much a part of life in Damascus or Independence, Virginia as it is in Chicago.

Which brings us back to Ralph Peer, and now, his son, also named Ralph. Dad brought roots music to a much larger audience. He started with blues (then called race music), then mountain / hillbilly music (including an early popular act called the Hill Billies, from these parts). Then, as variously music publisher and manager, for the Carters, Jimmie Rodgers, but that’s just the beginning. He published and produced Mexican and Latin music—working closely with Walt Disney, who became a personal friend. Lots of Latin music was featured in Disney films, MGM musicals, and other mid-century Hollywood features, with Ralph Peer’s handiwork evident through. Peer’s story includes Ray Charles, Buddy Holly, Louis Armstrong, The Rolling Stones, classical composer Charles Ives, and many more contemporary artists. The company’s current work includes Lizzo, Justin Bieber, Nicki Minaj, Sofia Reyes… the list goes on and on.

Driving The Crooked Road means driving through stunning mountain scenery, hardscrabble farms, fast food sprawl, crossroads with tumbledown buildings and possibly the only gas station for many miles, no place to eat lunch and spectacular farm-to-table cafes in out-of-the-way places. One Confederate flag in 500 miles of roads. Lots of Baptist churches. People of all ages enjoying the music. Family farms, double-wide trailers, some places with no cellular service, people who could not be more helpful to a stranger in need. People who volunteer because the music matters, so they spend all day lending a hand to the current generation of Carters, keeping the legacy alive. The occasional entrepreneur, too, who sees big opportunities in this music, as Ralph Peer did 95 years ago. As he dreams of what could be, I want to stay close to this story.

Creating a Prime Time Television Series

Kelly Edwards is an executive, producer and a writer who knows how to do that. In fact, you know here work: Girlfriends, Clueless, Malcolm in the Middle, and more. Her new book is called The Executive Chair: A Writer’s Guide to TV Series Development. It is published by Michael Wiese Productions, which is, hands down, the very best publisher of books about the making of movies. The book is only about 140 pages long, so you might think about as a private lunch with Kelly, not a textbook, though it serves that purpose, too.

She begins by explaining how the industry is organized–the role of, say, the Senior Vice President vs. the role of an Executive Vice President, who does those job, and how they work their way up from Assistant to Manager to Director to Vice President, and so on. She explains how the year works: shows are developed by the networks during Development Season, which runs from July to November. Pilots are produced from January through May. Series pick up orders happen in May–but not always. This is the entertainment business, after all, and rules are constantly being broken. Still, it is helpful to understand how things normally operate. She explains how the cable networks operate on a different schedule, and how streaming follows its own rules, too.

Most important, she explains how the executive’s mind works–not just seeking any show, but a show that will fill a specific time slot, for example. A show that will pull a scheduled prime time evening out of the doldrums. A show to pair with a hit series to build a stronger schedule. Netflix may not be thinking the same way networks do–it’s not aiming for a particular demographic so much as a “taste cluster.”

She jumps over to a chapter on breaking into the industry–which is nearly impossible, but someone, everybody who works in the industry has done it, and, if you follow her instructions, you can, too. She recommends internships, volunteering, and other good ideas. I would add: doing your own projects, meeting people along the way, especially in major markets where those people are likely to recommend you for a job in the industry. (This doesn’t work so well in Fort Wayne, Indiana, but it can work very well in Seattle or Chicago, and, of course, in Los Angeles–but don’t forget Miami, Vancouver, Atlanta, and other 21st century production centers.)

The heart of the book is a chapter called “Your Game Plan.” Now, you really are a writer, a serious writer, but you need a break. How many scripts do you write on spec (speculatively)? Do you try to demonstrate that you can write in lots of different genres, or do you choose one lane? How do you tell your own story in a way that executives, producers and other writers will pay attention–and recommend you for a gig?

The adjacent chapter is about pitching. This is a difficult process to understand because it seems so subjective. Kelly breaks it down. For example, you should know what the executive has bought in the past, and why. You should know the reference points–by now, you should be very familiar with the series that executives often reference in their wants and their criticisms. Homicide, but also How I Met Your Mother; Mad Men, but also Dawson’s Creek and Ally McBeal. The Handmaid’s Tale and The Queen’s Gambit, but also Ugly Betty and The Twilight Zone. If you’re going to write for television, you must watch a lot of television–and nowadays, a lot of YouTube, and a lot of old shows on a lot of different streaming services, too.

She talks about how to behave during a pitch meeting. She talks about the difference between having a good idea and being able to deliver an actual script, and a series of scripts, on time, in ways that match the buyer’s needs. A tight pitch should run twenty minutes. “Tops.” Also: reading the room, reading executive body language. Lots to consider besides the idea itself.

Also, how to actually write the pilot script. For example, limit the settings; open with a bang…

And then, there are the inevitable notes from the executive team. How you handle those notes may be critical to your success as a writer.

Finally, what happens if you actually sell the script…what happens next?

This is a very solid book about a difficult profession. If you’re going down this path, or you know someone with the dream, it is essential reading. And equally essential re-reading, especially the night before your first big pitch.

Sunday in the Park with James (and Stephen, but Mostly James)

When Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters sang “Move On” for the very last time, I was in the audience. There were tears on stage, tears in the aisles. It was their last performance in the lead roles of a most unusual Broadway musical, Sunday in the Park with George. The first act of the musical tells the story of impressionist painter George Seurat and the women who figures so prominently in the famous painting, the one with the parasol, walking a pet monkey.

On June 12, 1982, James Lapine met Stephen Sondheim for the first time. By that time, Sondheim’s credits included eleven Broadway shows including Company, Follies, Sweeney Todd, West Side Story, Gypsy, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Lapine had written and directed two plays and one musical, March of the Falsettos, but it was one of the plays, Twelve Dreams, that Sondheim had seen and liked. At that time, Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along was perceived as a flop, and the Broadway legend was considering a new career, designing videogames. Lapine was a former graphic artist and designer. Instead of following tradition–building a musical from the foundation of a story, a book, a biography–Lapine started with a series of images.

Sondheim: “I thought, this guy is so avant-garde. The way you find a musical idea is, you pick a book up; you read the book; you say, that would make a good musical; you get a producer; he buys it; and then you write it. The idea of coming in with a lot of disparate photographs and showing them on the floor and saying, “Does any of this strike your fancy?”–I thought, I’m the wrong generation for this guy; I’m just the wrong generation. I’m so traditional.”

Over the next few months, Lapine and Sondheim began to meet once a week. Lapine started writing. Sondheim completed the first song (the opening number, if I understand the book correctly.) By the following June, in 1983, there was enough material to run through a first act, at least in a workshop form. Lots of pieces missing, but the structure of the first act was beginning to take shape.

And here, before casting begins, before Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters and the music, design, costume teams arrive on the scene, we ought to pause and take stock.

“Before I read this book, I classified Sunday in the Park with George as one of many wonderful Stephen Sondheim musicals, but that’s a strange way to think about the work. In fact, it was James Lapine who wrote and directed the story, and put it together from scratch. Mostly, the actors hated the process because it took shape in a somewhat disorganized workshop. The production may have been clear, at least in some abstract sense, in Lapine’s head, but it wasn’t at all clear for the actors. “An audience was coming and watching a completely unfinished piece. All kinds of things weren’t written for my character, explained Mandy Patinkin, who played the lead character, George Seurat. And still, the majority of what I had to do was say noting, just draw, sit on the stage, say “I’ve got to finish the hat,” walk to another part of the stage, and say something else. I was in quite a state.”

Certainly, the title and the conception of the show–Putting It All Together–suggests the way that Seurat painted, not with strokes and outlines, but with dots. The dots don’t form a picture until the do. And then, the picture is magnificent.

It’s always interesting to learn about the making of a Broadway show from the individual perspective of those who contributed pieces and parts. For example, Scenic Designer Tony Straiges explains, “We had to figure out the rake of the stage to give the painting a certain perspective in the final tableau. We never did get the rake that would have looked the best because the actors would have gone crazy–it would have been too steep. So , our rake was a half-inch to a foot, an incline that actors could work with.”

Details matter. “Having players with the ability to change instruments within a few bars allows variations of color,” explains orchestrator Michael Starobin. “Because Sondheim stylized the song, ‘Beautiful,’ with a Ravel-like accompaniment, the use of a harp seemed like it might be called for. That was my first time using one, and I learned the often-ignored fact that a harp is not a piano and cannot be scored like one…(We chose to) use a French Horn for brass. Actually two French Horns: a regular F-one and a high-D horn, which, when you press a certain button, gives you high notes. We needed that for the final calls at the end of each act. I earned a reputation for not knowing how to write for French Horn because what I wrote was way out of range of the regular horn and very hard to play…When it worked it was great, but…I held my breath at the end of every show when a sub was on…We choose to use a trumpet in the original cast recording.”

On most shows, professionals do their jobs, solve problems, learn a few things along the way. On this particular show, Lapine was the student who learned the most, in part because he had never done anything remotely like this before, in part because of Sondheim’s stature and his constant need to provide what a partner would reasonably expect, in part because this was a most unusual show because it was based upon images and a light story, and and in part because it was so unusual for Broadway. When everybody behind the scenes learns a lot–saying things like, “I learned more on that show than…”–it’s an indication of something happening that’s outside of the routine.

It’s also an indicator that not everything is going to work. Sunday in the Park with George won a Pulitzer Prize, and it certainly appears on the list of forever favorite Broadway shows for many fans (myself included). But the second act still feels as though it ought to return to Playwrights Horizons for more workshopping. Both Lapine and Sondheim are responsible, of course, as this structure was a decision they made together. Early on, they decided that the second act would look at what happened after the painting, but the choice of situating that concept in the midst of a vaguely satirical view of the contemporary art world seems obvious, too on-the-nose, and ultimately loopy. I shudder when I hear the term “Chromolume Machine,” but I melt when I listen to Mandy and Bernadette sing, “Move On.” I love the opening number of the second act, which begins with the lyric, “It’s hot up here…” and goes on, full-cast, in the painting, where they were when the first act ended, with no place to go.

And so, a suggestion…James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim are still alive and well, still active, still capable. Wouldn’t it be fun–and unique in a way that’s consistent with this show’s history–to go back into writing and workshop, and rebuild the second act? Clearly, just about everyone involved with the show was interested enough to tell their stories to Lapine for this book. And they’ve all endured questions about why the second act plays as it does. Let’s get Bernadette and Mandy and the whole crew together again and make things right.

It’s been long enough. And we don’t have much longer. In the play, the future is 1984. Forty years on, maybe things look different.

More Than One History

Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam during their 1955 trial

So here’s the problem. When we talk about history, we usually refer to one particular story, and one particular point of view. In 2021, that’s woefully inadequate, but the additional material makes history nearly impossible to teach within the confines of a well-organized school curriculum. In 2015, TIME Magazine wrote about “25 Moments That Changed America.” When I browsed the article, I wanted to know more about all of those moments. For example, one paragraph in the article is entitled, “Emmett Till Is Murdered (Aug. 28, 1955)” It’s easy to list the basic facts, and some of them are probably true, but there’s a lot we still don’t know about the story, the people involved, and precisely what happened in and immediately outside Bryant’s Grocery in Money, Mississippi. And in order to understand the story and its related circumstances, we ought to know more about Carolyn Bryant, and her husband Roy, and Roy’s half-brother, John W. Milam, and the other people involved. It’s a dreadful story, but its importance is diminished when it is simplified. And yet, that’s precisely what teachers must do because they are not likely to spend a full week on the Emmett Till story. As a result, it’s just one more story, one more starting point for the Civil Rights movement in the United States, one more thing for students to remember until the test passes, one more distant memory that’s mostly forgotten when the school year ends.

Here in 2021, we’re attempting to add context to achieve a more truthful, more complete telling of history. In the case of a new book called FOUR HUNDRED SOULS: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019, I don’t recall reading anything about Emmett Till, and I don’t see his name in the index. That doesn’t mean his story is not important. Instead, it suggests that there are just too many stories to tell–and the editors determined that 395 pages of storytelling was as much as even the most interested readers could bear. And so, we’re reminded about just how selective the teaching of history will always be.

This version of history takes it slow, and keeps things fairly simple: there’s a brief essay about a particular era, event, trend, group or person, each written by a notable historian or cultural expert, and each one is a well-presented article. For the first hundred or two hundred pages, it’s a mosaic, a puzzle with pieces more and less familiar. We begin in the era of 1619-1624 with “Arrival” by Nikole Hannah-Jones (her own book about the 1619 project is forthcoming in November; her own story is now part of the narrative as she chose to work at Howard University, an HSBC, instead of the University of North Carolina after some discomfort related to the tenure process). She talks about the ship, The White Lion, which takes its place in history beside The Mayflower. I’m interested; I want to know more. A student might be curious, too. How much time should a teacher devote to these ships and a comparison between them? Context…we need to return to Africa to begin the story. Now, we’re in the remnants of African kingdoms and the kidnapping of Mandinka, Wolof, Pual, Hausa and other people from the remnants of the Ghana, Mail and Songhay kingdoms. Now, I’m beginning to realize how little I know. I have heard of these tribes–if that’s the correct term–but I don’t know much about them. And I know something about the Europeans who perpetrated those kidnappings, but my details are flimsy. And I need a map. Not one map, but an animated magical map that allows me to hear the words, see the eyes and the faces of the people involved–not groups of people but individuals who fought with their lives, who thought so little of the locals as to treat them as goods to be traded and sold.

Quickly, the location shifts to the American colonies, and the kidnapped people are forced to do labor without little if any meaningful compensation. They are deprived of rights, but they form families, and build new lives. There are slave markets, slave codes, slave rebellions. This part of the story is not often told, not in much detail beyond abusive and sexually active slaveholders and unfair practices. There were full lives here, and we get a glimpse, but again, I want more. I want an entire book, historical fiction where historical fact is unavailable, about the lives of these people and how they interacted within the confines of the plantation, the town, the state, the nation.

But we need to keep moving. We touch upon the sometimes-unexpected, such as a few pages about “Queer Sexuality” by Kiese Laymon, but by the halfway mark, the Civil War is over, and a few pages later, we’re on to Plessy v. Ferguson. Twenty pages later, we’re celebrating the Harlem Renaissance. Argh! We need to slow this down! I’m grabbing bits and pieces of a story that must go deeper and wider.

And then, I think of myself, in a parallel life, as a high school Social Studies teacher, who desperately wants the students to know and understand these stories. I now have a spectacular resource in my hands by some of the best-credentialed historical storytellers in the whole U.S.A., but the tool is insufficient to the task.

There is the generally accepted history of the United States of America, but it includes only a small portion of what I’ve read in this book. And there are emerging stories that also need to be told–the Japanese perspective on the World War II internment camps, for example–and the perspectives of those in power who were so uncertain about the decisions they were making, and the exploitative practices of non-Japanese who took over their neighbors’ farms, homes and businesses without compensation. And then, there’s this whole other story–which also needs to be told–about the people who came from Africa, not from Europe, and lived an entirely different reality during the 400 years of U.S. history. And then, there is the story of the people who lived here in the first place, the ones that the Europeans massacred in various ways, hundreds of tribal groups whose parallel lives over these same 400 years are no less significant.

I want to know the whole story, or as much of it as possible, but when I read an excellent survey, a community history as good and solid and inspired and sad and uplifting as this one, I see a challenge. How do we teach our children, or how do they learn, about the complicated story of the past 400 years? Do some of them choose a single path, say, through African American history to the exclusion of Japanese American history? Or do we take bits and bytes of the African and American stories, but ignore the Vietnamese or Cuban stories? Or do we attempt to tell all of the stories–pouring so much information down the throats of our poor students that they are bound to remember nothing at all, and pray for the history lessons to end? Or, do we guide them in some other way? Do we opt for “yes, we sometimes mistreat some people,” which reduces every story to an unimportant bump in the road? Or do we encourage some other approach, one that allows a student, or several students, to collectively study and tell the story of Emmett Till so it can be shared with others, not only in their own class or their own school, but with other students around the world–and the adults, too? That’s the deep dark secret here–children are beginning to learn history with context and connection, but adults were never taught that way. This book is a start, and for a few thousand adults who buy and read the book, it’s a step in the right direction. But I want much more.

LAND, from the prolific Simon Winchester

Simon Winchester has taught me a great deal. Including: in any given used bookshop, there will always be at least one nonfiction book by Simon Winchester that I have not read before. Past encounters, each one a pleasure, include: Outposts: Journeys to the Surviving Relics of the British Empire; Hong Kong: Here Be Dragons; Korea: A Walk Through the Land of Miracles; Pacific Rising; The Map that Changed the World, or was it A Crack at the Edge of the World; Atlantic (or, maybe, Pacific); Oxford; and probably several more. I believe The Map That Changed the World and The Professor and the Madman are patiently waiting for my attention.

So why another? And why this book? Mostly, because he’s interested, and, as a rule, if Simon Winchester is interested, then I am, too. The new book is called LAND: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World. If my count is correct, this is his 33rd book, but even the publisher is reluctant to name a number (“the acclaimed author of many books).

His fascination begins with his own land, formerly owned by “a plumber named Ceasare,” a “second-generation Sicilian-American.” The tract is “123 1/4 acres of forested and rocky mountainside, located in the hamlet of Wassaic, in the village of Amenia, the town of Dover, the County of Duchess, in the state of New York.” That’s quite a lot to unpack, a string of political decisions organized, in part, to claim title to land that once belonged to nobody, but was certainly taken, in a series of shameful acts, from the natives who once relied upon the area for sustenance. Before British royalty determined that their might gave them the right, long before, there was a long history, dating back over hundreds of millions of years–“geological turmoil executed on a titanic scale…a tortured and spectacular history that begins with volcanic land formation, and is given over to eons of sudden fracturing, splitting, compressing, heating, pummeling, twisting, folding, and breaking, followed by millions more years of inundations by tropical seas…” (you get the idea).

The author is British but based in the United States, and so, there is a lengthy discussion about North American natives and how they were stripped of their land. Happily, Winchester’s view is global. And one of the most important questions about global land use is just how much of it exists–and how it might be measured. And mapped. The mapping of the earth is a very complicated project, a crazy idea promoted by glacier expert Professor Albrecht Penck, who nearly succeeded in mapping the entire planet at a scale of one to one million. Penck’s design would have resulted in a scale model about the size of a house. And it would have disallowed the likes of Terra Incognito, or Here Be Dragons. But there were fierce arguments between governments that would need to cooperate–the French, for example, insisted upon the Metric System, and the English refused to go in that direction. Remarkably, the project moved ahead, albeit nearly two decades later than planned. Remnants remain, including the use of Greenwich (Prime) Meridian), and an abundance of really good maps–“France mapped much of francophone Africa. Germany made maps of all German-speaking countries in Europe. The entirety of the Roman Empire was mapped.” There was a fifty-sheet series on Brazil, and 107 sheets on Hispanic America, and more. It took eight years of trekking and wandering to map Mongolia and Chinese Turkestan; it was done by forty scientists from six countries protected by thirty infantrymen and more than three hundred camels, plus a large number of local helpers. Mapping 37 billion acres of land, without much technology, was an amazing accomplishment, but the job was completed. Still, the project remained alive, if on life support, until December, 1986. By that time, airline maps (which were simpler, easier to produce and update) served global needs.

As I learned this morning, there is still quite a bit that I don’t know about the distinction between, say, a republic and a nation, or a nation and a country. All the same thing? Although the author does not address the question directly, he did cause me to look more closely at Apple’s Maps application when I was speaking with a colleague in Armenia. Yes, Armenia is a country, because it is a nation with its own government which occupies a particular territory. The part about a nation is related to people with common interests, and this is certainly true of Armenia. It’s a republic. It’s located west of Azerbaijan, which is also a republic–but part of Azerbaijan is separated by the rest. That is, Armenia is both east and west of Azerbaijan. Armenia also borders Iran, Georgia, and Turkey. But if you look just a bit further north, you’ll find a bunch of republics with unfamiliar names: the Kabardino-Balkarian Republic; the Republic of Karachi-Cherkessia, The Republic, of Adygeya, The Republic of North Osetia-Alania, and the Republic of Dagestan. There’s also the Republic of Chechnya, which is familiar. CIA Factbook to the rescue: “46 provinces (oblasti, singular – oblast), 21 republics (respubliki, singular – respublika), 4 autonomous okrugs (avtonomnyye okrugi, singular – avtonomnyy okrug), 9 krays (kraya, singular – kray), 2 federal cities (goroda, singular – gorod), and 1 autonomous oblast (avtonomnaya oblast’) Ah, but just what is a republic? Wikipedia’s definition: “Kabardino-Balkariya is a ‘Federal subject’ of Russia.” As Winchester points out, there are often stories that explain what happened and how we found ourselves in the present situation, but there are so many conceptions of land, ownership, colonization, nations, and so on, with such a long and twisted history, not much of it is guided by reason or consistent practice. This is unfortunate for social studies teachers who are already overburdened, and fortunate for those of who live in 2021 because there are online resources that can, at least, clarify these stunningly complicated ways to say, “this is my land” or, perhaps as often, “this is not your land.”

If you begin with the assumption that nothing makes sense except power, it’s easier to navigate the strange story of Japanese farmers in California who made unproductive land productive, but were then chased from their land because of World War II paranoia, never to return. Or the complexities associated with Scotland’s potential as a new country, independent from the British Empire after all of these years. Or, perhaps this book provides the framework to comprehend the ways in which colonists redesigned Africa’s borders to form countries whose borders still exist, but rarely make sense. And then, there’s climate change and the potential for natural borders to wash away, for productive land to become useless, for icebound land to become productive.

The book is filled with stories, some familiar, some astonishing, all useful in gaining a contextual understanding of how humans interact with land. The book is, in essence, a really good course in global social studies, written for adults who really ought to know enough about the subject to teach our children. Most of us cannot do that. I know a lot about geography and I cannot do that. Simon Winchester can, did, and I hope he’ll do it again. I want to read Land: The Saga Continues or whatever he decides to call his second book on the subject. If he’s not working on this book just yet, perhaps we can encourage him to do so.

A Surprising Solution to a Deeply Disturbing Problem of Our Own Making

Let’s begin with Heather McGhee. She’s the right kind of troublemaker. I heard her interviewed on NPR, got her book, read it carefully, and determined, as she did, that we’ve been wrong-headed about a whole lot of important stuff. She’s the former president of a think tank that focuses on inequality called Demos, and now, she’s both an important spokesperson for clear thinking, and the chair of the world’s largest online racial justice organization, Color of Change.

She’s making trouble because she requires readers to see everyday life from a radically different perspective. Not radical in the political sense, though she does that, too, but radical in the sense of eradication of old perspectives.

On the cover of her new book, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Proper Together, there is an abstract paining of a white boy jumping off a diving board into a swimming pool. Ah, but the swimming pool is a mirage. It was there, at one time, but it’s been filled with cement. Why was it filled with cement? Because, in 1971, Jackson, Mississippi’s city council decided to fill swimming pools with cement so they could not be used by both Black and White swimmers. It was a way to avoid integration. The decision deprived the Black kids from swimming during the ridiculously hot Mississippi summer, but it also deprived the White kids from the doing the same thing. Better that nobody benefit!

If this thinking–roughly, the opposite of public good, so perhaps it’s public bad–was unusual, there would be no book and no reason for Heather McGhee to focus here. Instead, public bad (my term) is the basis for a great deal of public policy in the United States–and not only on hot summer days, not only in Mississippi, and not only in swimming pools. We use this theory of good decision making to work through where people live, how much money they earn, how their kids are educated, how we tax, where we place our roads and highways, and how we make a surprising number of important decisions. Roughly, the theory plays out as follows:

If a policy is a good idea, we should go ahead, but if it benefits Black folks, or equalizes the situation, then we should not go ahead. (Same, roughly, for other minorities.) And if not going ahead harms White folks along the way, that’s just too bad because that’s the decision we’re going to make.

Sounds like something from the 1950s in the American South, or maybe the 1910s. Then, McGhee explains how much of this thinking provides a framework for everyday life for everyone–especially people in lower income areas. The term “shooting yourself in the foot” comes to mind quite often. This is a completely crazy way to govern, to set policy, to run a county or a country. And yet, that’s what we do everyday. And it doesn’t seem to change. That is: the news coverage on George Floyd is extensive, and Black Lives Matter, but the hardcore reality of daily life in the U.S. receives very little coverage. Hence, this book.

She sets the stage with considerable skill. Then, she surprises by telling one story after another, each illustrating the impact of racism in ways that aren’t often considered. For example, “Many of the nation’s biggest and most respected public colleges were tuition free, from the City University of New York to the University of California system. The massive public investment wasn’t considered charity; an individual state saw a return of three to four dollars back for every dollar it invested in public colleges. When the public means ‘white,’ public colleges thrived.”

And then… “That’s no longer the case. Students of color comprised just one in six college students in 1980, but now they make up over four in ten. Over this period of growth among students of color, ensuring college affordability fell out of favor with lawmakers. State legislatures began to dramatically cut what they spent per student on their public colleges, even as the taxable income base in the state grew….By 2017, the majority of state colleges were relying upon student tuition dollars for the majority of their expenses…”

Or, to put this another way, the reason why so many public college students now carry so much college debt is connected to racism. Yes, it’s a bit of a leap, but more examples from other sectors add credibility to this line of thinking. The ripple effect is powerful, and not just on minority populations:” In 2018, the Federal Reserve reported on what most of my generation knows: student debt payments are stopping us from buying our first home, the irreplaceable wealth-building asset.” A rather complicating story of sub-prime mortgages, mostly rooted in racist practices, is the next story she tells, and certainly that has affected, and continues to affect, much of the U.S. population. Weakening of labor unions? Another example of similar practices, similar thinking, similar destruction of the American dream for the majority, not the minorities.

The mythology of democracy is an easy target: from the Founding Fathers through the present, unequal representation, loopholes, workarounds, and other means have been used to elevate a relatively small upscale male white population and to keep everyone else in their place. We’re breaking through, but only a bit, because the status quo is immovable. It’s woven throughout our laws, our political boundaries, our voting districts, our school districts, our tax system, and so much more.

No surprise to find a chapter about redlining–the practice of geographic segregation. No surprise to find the ugly practices of destroying neighborhoods by making decisions about the location of public roads, either. “The economic imperative (of the first half of the 1800s)…set the terms of racial understanding: in the South, Blacks were seen as inferior and servile but needed to be close. In the North, Black people were job competition, therefore seen as dangerous, stricken with a poverty that could be infectious.” Beginning in the later 1880s, and “for the next eight years, segregation dispossessed Native Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, and Black Americans of land and often, life. No governments in modern history, save Apartheid South Africa and Nazi Germany, have segregated as well as the United States, with precision and under the color of law. These truths are self-evident, but easily overlooked when viewed through the nonsense of “justice for all” and “the land of the free.” Time after time, McGhee hits hard, almost always with evidence and legal history that is difficult to dispute. She is a very convincing advocate of the big picture.

Is K-12 school inequitable. You bet. Here’s a theory on why that’s true, and what might be done about it. “Today, the majority of public school students in the United States are children of color. Why? Because of disproportionate number of white students are enrolled in private schools, comprising 69 percent of K-12 private school enrollment…The pricing up and privatization of public goods has a cost for us all–white families included. A house in a neighborhood unencumbered by systemic racism found in public schools will cost significantly more.” Summarizing a complicated idea, white households pay a 77 percent premium on housing in areas where public schools are “excellent.” (This was written before the housing boom of 2020-2021, so we’re probably looking at 110% today.) On the plus side, when the home is sold, there’s a premium, but there’s also an issue in choosing a home in one of these places. “In order to chase these so-called good schools, white families must be able and willing to stretch their budgets to live in increasingly expensive, and segregated, communities… To be clear, “These white parents are paying for their fear because they’re assuming that white-dominant schools are worth the cost to their white children.” And (yikes!) they are essentially reinforcing the worst possible decisions: that segregated schools are best.

It’s now 2021, so it’s nearly impossible to write a book about any subject without at least one chapter about climate change. And so, we learn about the impact of poor pollution management, how the minority neighborhoods suffer most, and how the pollution spreads to other neighborhoods, too. As with, “The United States is…the biggest carbon polluter in history, but we have one of the strongest and most politically powerful factions opposed to taking action to prevent catastrophic climate change…the key players waging war against environmental protection were reliable white men, from industry executives to the politicians to the media commentators.” She theorizes that our society has taught a lesson: there are winners and losers, and the losers will be the ones who most suffer from climate change. The winners believe they will be fine. Of course, this is faulty thinking, wholly unreasonable and illogical, as evidenced by the frequent droughts that threaten our agribusiness, or the floods that disabled New York City’s subways, or the scary rise on the coastlines that will somebody make beachfront property worthless (regardless of how much wealth is poured into temporary solutions). Basically, the climate change opposition works this way: “we won’t risk the economy for this dubious idea.” And so, we believe, or lead ourselves to believe, that climate change is somebody else’s problem, and that it can be managed in the same ways that we manage school or neighborhood segregation.

Then, McGhee tells the story of Lewiston, Maine. The whole story begins to change. There is hope, and it’s real. Lewiston lots its manufacturing jobs, then its economy, then spiraled into almost no economy at all. There were few jobs, little opportunity, and on Lisbon Street, once Maine’s second largest commercial district, half the stores were vacant. So what happened? Refugees from the Somali Civil War led immigrants first to Atlanta, then to the less expensive Portland, Maine, then to Lewiston where “quiet streets offered more peace and the low rents offered more security. Other African refugees followed”–from the Congo, Chad, Djibouti, and Sudan. They rented the vacant storefronts, and started new businesses. They built a new economy. In the whitest state in the country. They paid nearly $200 million in local state and local taxes in 2018–and I’m guessing the number continues to grow. This story is found in other places–Kennett Square, Pennsylvania (outside Philadelphia) “is now 50% Latinx, mostly from Mexico and it’s a community given new life by the families of migrant workers at the mushroom farms.” McGhee tells similar stories about Storm Lake, Iowa, and towns in the Texas Panhandle once considered hopeless, now beginning to thrive.

“Even in the face of anti-immigrant policies and the absence of vehicles for mobility such as unions and housing subsidies, today’s immigrants of color are revitalizing rural America.” In the first decade of the 21st century, nearly 83% of the growth of rural America is people of color. America is changing, but many us are missing the big story.

I’m grateful to Heather McGhee for opening my eyes. So far, The Sum of Us is the book I have most recommended to friends and colleagues in 2021. I’m feeling as though this might be essential reading for the early 21st century.

Indonesian Food!

Now is not the very best time to try new restaurants, but it is a very good time to try new cookbooks, and perhaps, new cuisines as well.

Let’s begin with Eleanor Ford’s Fire Islands: Recipes from Indonesia. Like many of today’s cookbooks, this one is visually beautiful, with photographs for each of the dishes and locales. Indonesia is one of the world’s largest nations–it’s just behind the U.S. with 270 million people, making it the world’s fourth-largest country. We don’t see a lot of Indonesian restaurants, but the numbers seem to be growing: according to Yelp, there are 4 in the Boston area, 10 in the Philadelphia region, a half dozen in and near Seattle (some are food trucks, others are mixed with Malaysian). Indonesia is an archipelago, and it emerged as a unified nation coming out of World War II, but the islands were previously unified as the Dutch East Indies, a colony in 1800. Indonesia is a very large country–with more than 17,000 islands.

Start in the west (above left) with Sumatra. Aceh, on its northern tip, was “capitol of a spice empire”–if you remember your world history, Columbus and others were in search of spice islands, and Sumatra was one of the largest, a source for cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, fennel, star anise. “The Minangkabau people…have developed a sophisticated cuisine that has traveled to become Indonesia’s most popular. No town in the archipelago is without a Padang restaurant, named for the region’s largest city. They serve delectable dishes, rich with coconut and scented with kaffir lime. The crowning glory is rending, beef or buffalo that is slow-cooked until caramelized and infused with chili, lemongrass, turmeric, and ginger.”

Next, on to Java, “the center of Indonesian politics, economy and culture.” Here, you’ll find the mega-city of Jakarta. Try “asinan, a…pickled vegetable salad swathed in peanut sauce.” Or, fish in a banana leaf with the scent of basil and lemongrass.

The island of Bali is a tourist center, where you might try Babi Guling, which is a suckling pig steam with hot stones in an earthen oven. Order it with lawar, a green bean dish with coconut dressing.

And we’ve begun. Let’s cook something.

“It starts with bumbu — “the bass note to almost every Indonesian recipe is a spice paste called bumbu. This gives depth and resonance with a combination of heat, sharpness, and space. Candlenuts are often added, which give body.”

Easy enough to begin by cooking up some street food. Begin with Peanut & Lime Leaf Crackers. These are super-crispy, and it takes some practice to ladle the batter so it slides into the hot oil and finds its way to the hot center of the pan for “final crisping.” What’s inside? Skin-on peanuts, garlic, candlenut (or almonds), coriander seeds, salt, rice flour, some black peppercorns, and two lime leaves. Nothing that’s difficult to find.

Still on the streets, IFC (Indonesian Fried Chicken) is very popular, and there are lots of different recipes, but the author strongly favors a Yogyakarta version (see map) with spice-scented coconut water. Other ingredients: Asian shallots, garlic, coriander, salt, flour. We’re seeing a pattern here. You know Chicken Sate from other Asian restaurants–this is a good introduction for the reluctant-to-try, and always a favorite with children because it’s fun to eat off a skewer.

Indonesia is influenced by many different cultures, including India, which is not very far away. No surprise to find a Lamb Korma recipe here–and a suggested recipe for golden lace pancakes as a suitable side dish.

Indonesia is an island nation–lots of fresh fish. Scallops gulai introduces gulai sauce, which is “spicy, sunny colored, and coconutty.” It’s quick to prepare (it uses bumbu spice paste, prepared in advance), and ridiculously tasty.

Clearly, one of the author’s favorites in Ayam tailiwang, which she describes as “truly everything you could hope for in a grilled chicken. The skin is burnished and glazed, contrasting with the succulent meat inside. There is a fiery smack of charred chili and deeply smoky savoriness from the garlic.” Her recipe comes from a local chef in Lombok, who got it from his mother.

Vegetable urap

Vegetable urap with fresh spiced coconut has its roots in Bali. It’s a salad with green beans, beansprouts, coconut oil, shallots, garlic, chili, black-eyed peas, and lime. She recommends pakis, which are fern fronds, but if you catch the time of year just right, you could probably pop a few fiddlehead ferns into the salad in addition or instead. For a variation, try Sweet Coconut & Basil Salad, which features kencur (it’s fun to experiment with unfamiliar ingredients; it’s are aromatic gingers).

“There’s not a tourist restaurant in Indonesia that doesn’t serve Nasi goreng, which is a “Unami-packed fried rice.” You’ll want to get to know your rices, too: there’s red rice, which is nutty and a bit chewy; black rice, also sometimes purple rice, high in antioxidants (the color comes from the same pigment as blueberries), often served in a pudding with salted coconut cream; white rice, which is brown when the bran layer is intact), best if you buy the long-grained Jasmine which carries a delicate perfume.

You’ll want to know about sambal, too: it’s a “spicy crescendo” and often a complement to bumbu. Sambal is a relish, not cooked into the dish but dropped onto the top. There are lots of variations from Padang Red Chili Sambal to Sweet Tomato Sambal to Strawberry Sambal.

For dessert, you could go for the Coconut Custard Pie, leftover from the colonial era, but ambitious bakers will give Terang bulan a try. It’s a street food sandwich “rather like a giant crumpet” and you choose your own filling. “A rubble of roasted peanuts and sesame seeds, frosted with lots of sugar and a little salt is good.” She also recommends a surprising combination of chocolate and cheese as a homemade filling. If you’re a fan of peanut brittle, give coconut brittle a try.

Magical World: Nom Wah!

If you happen to wander through Chinatown, in New York City or in Philadelphia, the name Nom Wah may mean something to you. Sure, it’s a Chinese restaurant, but not many Chinese restaurants date back to 1920–a hundred years ago! Nom Wah Tea Parlor has roots in the Chinese Exclusion Act, which restricted immigration to the U.S. from China. Mostly, the now-restaurant began as a bakery serving tea, moon cakes filled with red bean paste (a particular delicacy, made very well by Nom Wah), and as a pre-lunch meal, Dim Sum. In time, in accordance with the market needs of its times, Nom Wah was a popular supplier of Chinese baked goods to other restaurants, and eventually, the Dim Sum business became the center of it all. Not many U.S. restaurants do Dim Sum better. And now, there’s a Nom Wah cookbook (now begins a relative term, as explained below).

In a world without COVID-19, Nom Wah would be a place I would visit several times each year. A great place to bring a small crowd of co-workers, family, friends. For the best Dim Sum in town. Ordered off a menu, so everything is freshly made (most Dim Sum palaces serve off rolling carts, which is fine if the place is big and busy, but Nom Wah is neither big nor busy). And so, it’s a place where Dim Sum can be ordered on demand, not based upon what happens to roll by. And I wanted to eat some of that food, in situ, prior to writing about this cookbook.

Begin with the hardware. You’ll need a proper wok, a wok lid, a wok ring, and a wok chuan (a spatula with a curved end to make its way around the wok), and also a spider (a long-handled mesh spoon to fetch the dim sum from a hot liquid). Also, a bamboo steamer and a Chinese cleaver. In the pantry, your checklist includes dark and light soy sauce, toasted sesame oil, chicken powder, fermented black beans (which smells in a distinctive way), two kinds of rice wine, rice vinegar, rice flour, cornstarch, potato starch, and several other items. You can find everything online, or from a good Asian supermarket or grocery store. Much of it can be stored for later use.

Now, think in terms of two types parts of Dim Sum: the fillings and the wrappers. And begin to practice three techniques, all essential: steaming, pan-frying and stir-frying in a wok. Next, before you attempt to cook anything, just sit down and read about the history, ingredients, and processes associated with Bao, and the Bao dough that you’ll use to make, for example, Char Siu Bao, or House Special Roast Pork Buns–in your own home. To me, this seems like magic, but when I review the ingredients and try it myself, it’s not as impossible as it seems: oil, white onion, sugar, light soy sauce, oyster sauce, sesame oil, dark soy sauce, chopped pork, cornstarch, water and the basic ingredients of the Bao dough: yeast, water, flour, sugar, oil, baking powder. It’s all in the instructions–but it is neither easy nor simple to get everything right without a lot of practice and a fair number of mistakes.

Ah, but when you do get something right, and it either looks or smells or tastes as it does in the restaurant, there’s good reason to grin. And to practice by making even more buns, and more mistakes. Stay focused. Get the buns right, and the dumplings become that much easier, too.

That’s the next step: the master fillings associated with dumplings: pork, shrimp, and “no pork no shrimp,” a vegetable filling. There are a lot of different types of fillings here, distinguished not only by their preparation (fried, for example), but their shape and their color. Then, there are Har Gow, the dumplings made in a bamboo steamer. and the Shanghai Soup Dumplings (Hiro Long Bao), which contain liquid and just be managed just-so, lest you make a gloppy mess.

Everyone is familiar with fried rolls–egg rolls and spring rolls, for example, but the floppy and slippery version, sometimes called a rice roll, is far more difficult to control.

And then, there are the cakes. You probably know Scallion Pancakes, but there are other kinds, too, perhaps more familiar in Asian than other households. And, rice and noodle dishes–but you won’t be making your own noodles this time around.

We’re about 2/3 done. There are feasts and various chef’s specialities, all wonderful, but I think of Dim Sum when I think about Nom Wah, I decided to concentrate my efforts on those dishes.

Perhaps I’ve given the impression that The Nom Wah Cookbook is a book filled with recipes from one of my favorite Chinese restaurants. Yes, it’s all that, but I’ve omitted the sub-title: “Recipes and Stories from 100 Years at New York City’s Iconic Dim Sum Restaurant.” Of course, the food is terrific, but the stories and the people and the places are so much a part of this book. There’s “The Man: Uncle Wally Tang,” a sixty-year employee who worked his way up from dishwasher to Dim Sum master. We learn about tea from “The Tea Guru: Timothy Hsu,” shopping in Chinatown from “The Queen of Pearl River: Joanne Kwong of Pearl River Mart,” and “The Grocery Store Goddess: Sophia Ng Tsao of Po Wing Hong.” And related: “The Tofu Kid: Paul Eng of Fong On.” All of this is a bit like traveling to a place that you’ve seen but never entered to explore. People who live and work in the community, who eat together, and share their food because that’s what friends and family do.

Many cookbooks attempt to combine technique, recipes and a sense of people and place in a single volume. It’s not easy to do, or to do well. Here, Wilson Tang and Joshua David Stein make it all work–and Alex Lau’s photographs make it all seem possible. For me, I love the book, but it draws me more toward the restaurant than to endless practice with results that will never be as good as the food I buy and eat at Nom Wah Tea Parlor. But that’s not exactly the point. For me, the point is owning, touching and feeling a part of Nom Wah, and, from time to time, attempting to conjure some of its magic in my own kitchen.

The Self-Important Year of 1974

A good friend told me about a new book called Rock Me on the Water: 1974, The Year Los Angeles Transformed Movies, Music, Television and Politics. He was excited because we experienced some of the adventures that author Ronald Brownstein described, at least tangentially. It’s interesting to write about this particular book and this particular era because I happened to rewatch Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe’s film about his adventures on the road with The Allman Brothers Band (as a sixteen year old journalist for Rolling Stone, late 1973).

The book tells the story–a very good story at the start–about Linda Ronstadt and the way she built her career. This leads to background about David Geffen and the evolution of community of musicians in and around Laurel Canyon in the Los Angeles area. In short, they shared just about everything–life, love, shelter, food, drugs, music, songs, recording sessions, and a gigantic creative heart. In time, this culture evolves into a big-money enterprise, as evidenced by, for example, The Eagles, and the played-out sensibility so effectively described in their song, “Hotel California.” Indeed, this is music journalism at quite a high level, pleasant to read, deeply connected with outside events, evocative of time and place, and, viewed from the distance of time, something quite important. At the time, or shortly afterwards, I happened to be working (at a very junior level) at Warner Bros. Records in New York City. It was clear that everything had shifted west, but when the opportunity to move to Los Angeles came up, I turned it down. But I could sense that 1974 was right around the time when New York City lost a lot of ground as the center of the entertainment universe, and Los Angeles had gained what NYC had lost.

I come from a television background, but I had never thought much about how the development of Norman Lear’s sitcoms and Mary Tyler Moore’s small empire were related to this shift. I suppose I figured that sitcoms had always come from Los Angeles–for a long time, anyway–but I did not connect the creative energy in music to the creative energy in television. But there it is, and again, author Ronald Brownstein lays it all out in ways that suggest a much larger story.

And yes, there was a lot happening in the movie business at that time, too. All in Los Angeles. There was the old guard and the remains of the studio system, and Warren Beatty who seemed to be able to play both in the old ways and in the new. And there was Jack Nicholson, who was a somewhat awkward fit (mostly as a writer) but a far better fit for the independent orientation of the new. This, too, takes shape at around this time (1974 is a loose peg, but a good one). And much of what Brownstein describes is deeply connected to the larger shift in creative power.

But then, we meander into the “I wish I cared” world of Jane Fonda, Tom Hayden, and the very specific strange politics of the Vietnam era. The national material is good, if well-known, but the California politics is slow-going, and although the author tries very hard to connect the dots, that felt like a struggle. The politics of this era were all about the Vietnam War, but Los Angeles was tangential to the story. Unfortunately, the long story of Jerry Brown extends the book’s dull middle section before we see the light at the end of the tunnel–which turns out to be yet another motion picture screen, this time featuring the work of young Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. The story of the younger directors–Brian de Palma and Martin Scorsese among them–lifts the story back to a higher level, but now, the connections between their efforts, Los Angeles and the year become more diffuse.

The first half of the book is great fun, and somewhat provocative reading (as provocative as pop culture goes, I suppose). The second half contains interesting stories, but I lose the point of the book. Yes, I enjoyed reading about the development and success of M*A*S*H*, and the struggles between Carrol O’Connor (Archie Bunker) and Norman Lear, but neither really illuminates how and why Los Angeles and 1974 changed the world. We begin to see female directors, but that happens, mostly, later on. Here and there, we see some non-white faces and some non-white directors, and we do see “two hundred movies centers on Black characters” from 1971 until 1975, but the shift in Hollywood takes shape, in a meaningful and sustainable way, much later. Similarly, there are non-white recording artists and the beginning of a new segment in the industry, but the action here is in Memphis, Philadelphia, and soon after, in disco capitals throughout the U.S. It’s not really an L.A. thing, not that L.A. isn’t part of the story, it’s just that the book promises a deeper and more long-lasting connection.

The book regains some strength when it returns to Linda Ronstadt, whose story about career development is also not an L.A. thing. Her work with Peter Asher is more about her own independence and versatility as an artist (one who made a lot of money, who started her career in Los Angeles but then became full-scale U.S. star). Again, worth reading if you’re curious about Ronstadt and because she happens to be a very smart, wise, and talented artist–and in part, because she comes up as several other smart, wise and talented women are blazing their own paths. This, too, is partly tied to Los Angeles (Sherry Lansing becomes the first head of a major studio), but it’s also happening throughout the world at that time–and quite slowly, everywhere.

By “December” (each chapter is titled with the name of a month, but the months have nothing to do with the order or organization of the storytelling), everything is falling apart. ABC has out-maneuvered CBS, so the Norman Lear shows are losing ground to the likes of the fluffy-but-fun Happy Days on a newly competitive network. JAWS introduces the blockbuster film, leaving the rich potential of independent film in an early 1970s bucket that would take a long time to find its footing, and shifting priority of studio executives to a much better money-making proposition. Stadium shows took the place of small rock club performances–shifting the creative power back to NYC as punk and other alternative forms suddenly seemed a whole lot more interesting than anything that was going on in L.A. Fleetwood Mac, once an interesting band with blues roots and a critically acclaimed take on progressive rock, added Stevie Nicks, and became wildly popular among the stadium concert goers, and simply irritating for those who reveled in the early 1970s creative culture that was once, for a brief period, the center of the universe.

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