Encountering versus Constructing

I'm asked quite frequently to lecture on nonfiction long form journalism, of which I do a lot. The picture here and below is a sub-lecture in itself. I remain bad for forests in what I do, because for these more intense features - like the one I'm presently writing about Fred Herzog for Canadian Art, I find it impossible to actually write without all my research laid out for visual access. Six monitors would probably work as well, but there are cost issues associated with that.

What's notable about this is that for all the research, at this stage in the process the article is quite entirely unwritten. I've populated this information environment, but nothing has really happened in it. I liken what happens next more or less to how one of Herzog's most ardent collectors desribed the photographer's own work. Herzog knows how to construct a scene, or a setting (in the compositional sense), but ultimately he has to wait in that environment to encounter the content as it happens, what Cartier-Bresson would have called the perfect moment.

I'm not sure every Herzog picture incorporates that blend of construction and encountering, but many do notably this one below, the shooting details of which I'll describe in the piece.

Of course, one thing I'm quite sure Herzog (or Cartier-Bresson) never did in that waiting period between construction and encountering is blog about the experience. But such is the self-exposing, content-hungry nature of our networked day and age.

In any case, on the more prosaic level, what's laid out here are each of my interviews plus an index of everything quotable organized under topical or thematic headings. As I start to write, this messy constructed environement is relied on to release content for me to encounter.

Or at least, that's the best laid plan.


 

 

 

Posted: Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012 10:57am
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Music in the City and the Psyche

Update: 28 August 2012

The editors at Harpers have assigned the story. So this piece will be appearing in an upcoming issue of that great magazine. We're very much interested in the story of PTSD and how it is illuminated by Christian Ellis's story and the remarkable opera inspired by his experiences. That's both sides of the story: what makes battlefields ever more virulent breed grounds for the types of trauma that induce the syndrome, but also what cultural evolutions in contemporary civilian life contribute to the problem when the vets return home.

It's a thorny issue. And some recent online posts I made about PTSD prove that feelings are very strong on the topic. It touches more people than I realized. But that only makes the potential for this article greater, and I'm glad to be working on it.

Thanks to Jeremy Keehn at Harpers for the assignment. Great to be working with him again.

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I had coffee with a fimmaker friend John Bolton recently, who'd been hired to video a remarkable event: the Vancouver City Opera's full rehearsal of an opera based on the combat and post-war experiences of gay former Marine Seargent Christian Ellis.

The opera, called Fallujah, isn't remarkable because Ellis is gay or even because he was a Marine. It's remarkable because, in writing this work, Iraqi/American Heather Raffo and Canadian composer Tobin Stokes (with crucial support of Charles Annenberg and his Explore.org foundation) have done something that nobody has previously. They've written a musical work about the Iraq War and what is arguably its most deadly inheritance: Post Trauma Stress Disorder (PTSD).

PTSD is a huge and increasing problem for nations engaged in modern conflict. Read "A Veteran's Death, A Nation's Shame", written by Nicholas Kristoff in the New York times earlier this year, and you may be horrified to learn that there will be a suicide by a veteran every 80 minutes in 2012. Yes, you read that correctly. 25 times the death rate of soldiers in actual conflict.

I mention this story because I'm developing a magazine feature about Ellis. And I'll say more on that project, hopefully, as weeks go by.

But in the meantime, I wanted to mention how - just after a recent discussion with a friend about Ellis and his story - I found myself sitting at my desk, trying to get my mind back on other assignments, and I had the strangest sensation.

I thought I could hear music.

Of course, I laughed at myself, thinking this was a brain image carried over from my conversation, something that Ellis' story had somehow burned onto my imagination.

After a moment or two however, the auditory reality of what I was hearing could not be denied. Somebody, somewhere, was playing a brassy, orchestral tune, that was dancing along the light Vancouver breeze, from somewhere down on the streets, and was wafting up in strands and disconnected phrases to me, at my computer, in my office overlooking the city.

I went downstairs to investigate.

And it turned out: I hadn't imagined the sound. In Victory Square there were a dozen plus horn players, a couple of percussionists and a conducter. And they were rolling through an improvisational jazz number that I learned later was the work of long time Vancouver jazz player Brad Muirhead.

The piece is called "What's the Idea?"

So beautiful. I was glad to be there, glad to be alive.

Thanks Brad Muirhead. And if you want to hear it yourself, the show rolls again Tuesday July 10th at noon, and again on Thursday July 12th at 5pm.

What's the Idea? Here I'll go all romantic on you: the idea is music in the city, in the psyche, in the wind, in the heart.

 

Posted: Tuesday, Jul. 10, 2012 11:36am
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Creative Chaos Now Available in Paperback

Two things are happening right now that have an intense and resonant connection.

1. The Blue Light Project is published in paperback at the same time as being selected as a contestant for a reality-television-styled vote-based Bookie Award.

2. The Red Gate artists' collective has found a potential new home, but needs City of Vancouver approval to move in as the City owns the property.

The connection is forged by my knowledge that The Blue Light Project might never have been written were it not for the Red Gate.

This is the piece of art that started my whole creative process.

It's called Rise Fly Land and the day I first saw it, I stood in that alley for a good twenty minutes staring at it. At that point in my exposure to graff and street art, I didn't know enough to recognize that signature at the bottom, which is that of the legendary Canadian graff writer (and almost equally legendary train-rider) Take5. All I knew was that there was something mysterious and entire in the image. Rise. Fly. Land. There is a echo of eternity in the phrase. A bass note of wisdom, of peace.

I had only very recently seen Les Blank's oddly captivating film Werner Herzog Eats his shoe in which Herzog makes the following slightly enigmatic statement: "We need adequate images. If mankind doesn't develop adequate images, we're going to die out like the dinosaurs."

Somehow standing in that alley off Hastings Street, I felt like I was confronted with an authentic attempt at an adequate image. It was a moment both warming and chilling, if that makes any sense.

Of course, like I said, I had no idea who had made the piece. Until I talked to Jim Carrico at the Red Gate, that is. And he introduced me to Take5 who then told me that he and the artist OTHER had made Rise Fly Land. Take5 also gave me my first glimpse into the world of the street artist in a long and fascinating conversation in the original Red Gate location. From there, literally branching out from the Red Gate and into this hidden community of artists, my interest in the area and my ideas for the book began to surge and take shape.

The Red Gate always was a chaotic place, with no particular central plan or manifesto. But it was from that environment that came the sparks of original idea.

When the Red Gate was threatened with shut-down last year, I lamented the prospect in a Vancouver Review essay called Chaos and Planning. In that piece I argued that the Red Gate was the source of creative chaos that all cities need. Kill these sorts of institutions - out of some hyper-vigilant sense that everything has to be planned centrally in coordination with official messages - and you kill the organic creativity on which all cities depend.

My article didn't help. The Red Gate lost it's fight and were evicted. It was a real loss to the city.

Now we come to another turn in the story. The Red Gate has a chance to reopen. The building they want to use is empty. They're willing to pay rent. And the whole situation is in the hands of the City of Vancouver, as they own the building.

Is it possible that our civic leaders will miss for a second time the contribution that the Red Gates of this world make to the cities where they're found?

On the cover of the paperback Blue Light are three eyes, by the artist Rich S. For awhile prior to the Olympics in Vancouver, these could be found widely through the downtown east side. I loved those eyes. What a lot they managed to say in one image about the hovering reality, good and ill, of our governments and leaders.

What will our leaders in Vancouver do now?

Posted: Monday, Mar. 19, 2012 12:41pm

The Stock Market with French Flaps

The Blue Light Project has been nominated for a CBC Bookie Award. Thanks to the CBC producers who included me on a list with Patrick deWitt, Esi Edugyen, Brian Francis and Elizabeth Hay. Those are amazing writers! I’m truly honored.

That said, it’s fascinating that this particular novel would be nominated for this particular prize.

The Blue Light Project is the story of a lone street artist, Rabbit, who pulls off a city-scale installation so beautiful that it stops chaos in its tracks. The chaos in question is a hostage crisis. A man storms a TV studio where they’re taping a cynical reality show called Kiddiefame. The man has a bomb. He seals the studio with a bunch of kids inside. The surrounding city descends into bedlam as confusion mounts. The power of Rabbit’s installation is that it umbrellas the city in a moment of intense splendor. But the work also mesmerizes people by magnificently opting out of the intense rivalries that animate shows like Kiddiefame and the broader culture the show reflects.

Rabbit’s art rises above. And dazzled by the vision of it, people are moved and changed.

Obviously, Kiddiefame wasn’t an arbitrary choice. It represent entertainment in our era. What television show isn’t “reality” now? Check out food TV. Five years ago Mario Batalli was sharing recipes. Now he’s battling to the death in Kitchen Stadium. But the whole television product has shifted that way, as television critic John Doyle recently lamented. Everything on the tube now seems to be about people getting chopped and eliminated and dragon-denned into submission.

Literature used to stand aloof from all this mano-a-mano action. At the Giller Prize ceremony with Stanley Park, I recall feeling real sympathy for my fellow nominees. We were all in the same boat, tossed together on the seas of fate. Competition between us was purely abstract since there was nothing we could individually do about anything.

Online voting competitions change that dynamic completely. You can choose not to self-promote (more on that in a minute). But candidates can absolutely influence results. If a vote is your objective, the Tweetiest and most Facebookie candidate can indeed win. Klout = clout.

The Bookies are precisely tuned to the cultural moment, in other words. And their impact will compliment other developments which now extend the writer’s job far past merely writing the book. Post-publication is now the busiest season, where the author needs to be out there working the networks, pumping hands and kissing babies, on the stump, looking for love.

In all of that activity, however, it’s worth pausing to reflect that literature in a contest for votes is just the stock market with French flaps. Art might save us, as it promises in the conflicted world of my novel. But there aren’t very many people left in our real and conflicted world who think the stock market can save us now.

None of which should be taken to mean that I feel above it all. I set up a Facebook page for Blue Light. I’ve been nominated for Canada Reads, previously. I Tweet (@Timothy_Taylor_). I’m part of the phenomenon.

Do I sit this one out, then? Well, I won’t email the universe. I won’t Facebook or Tweet anything other than this post. Not because I don’t want to win. Of course I want to win (although I’m pretty sure Patrick will nick the prize for his wonderful book). But it’s academic, because you can’t very well ask people to make you the most popular for a book that ruthlessly criticizes that very social impulse.

I could vote for myself, of course. I have already. I discovered that by opening and closing Firefox I can vote for myself endlessly. I could probably squeeze in several thousand votes for myself before the month end. I could RoboCall my way to a win!

And I was tempted, I confess. After all, I’ve been nominated for book prizes and never won. A favorite magazine editor once said to me: dude, you better win one of these soon or you’re going to go down as the Susan Lucci of Canadian letters.

But I won’t. I promise. I will vote only as many times as there are days remaining in the contest, as per the rules. I’ll enjoy the irony and go on to what I now think of as the blissful part of the publishing cycle. I’ll just get busy on this next book.

It’s going to be a winner.
 

Posted: Monday, Mar. 12, 2012 5:31pm

The Accidental Local

First published EnRoute Magazine

We’ve been motoring seaward for about an hour when Roberto finally cuts the diesel. Brazil is a bare pencil line on the horizon, Monte Pascoal a tiny bump, as it must have been when Portuguese explorers first came across these cobalt blue waters 500 years ago, and I’m feeling more here than I have since arriving. Roberto yells at his mate, Uruca, to drop the anchor. Then we wait as the hook sets in the rock far below. With a flash of a smile, Roberto indicates that it’s time to fish.

We use strictly traditional techniques as those are the rules in this part of Bahia, even for visitors: thrown nets, single lines or spears with no scuba. We choose lines, and down they go: high-test fishing wire unwound off Styrofoam spools, hooks baited with bits of white fish that Uruca produces from a cooler. And up come, in what seems like mere seconds, the struggling ariocó, big red-flanked fish with yellow stripes. No Portuguese required for this moment; fishing is its own common language. “Olá! Look at this!” I shout. Roberto ribs Uruca, pointing at me, and says something like “He’s catching more than you! Maybe I’ll hire him!”

The idea isn’t so far-fetched: Trancoso is famous for swallowing foreigners alive. Since the local population – Pataxó aboriginals, Portuguese settlers and African slaves – first mingled in this seaside town in northeastern Brazil, a steady stream of outsiders like me have come to visit, and many never left, becoming immersed in the landscape almost instantly.

Back on land, Roberto and Uruca sell their catch on the beach in minutes. I bring mine to the Uxua Casa Hotel, where chef Bernardo shows me how to cook the fish in two classic Bahian styles: first steamed in banana leaves with olives and black rice, simple and clean flavours; then in a fabulous moqueca, which Bernardo insists I help him make. He guides me through the various steps, sautéing the onions and garlic and peppers, then bringing the fish to a boil in coconut milk in a clay pot, to be served bubbling at the table. Bahian perfection as the sound of a weekend-long soccer match drifts in and the pink-tinged clouds float seaward overhead.

On the grassy central Quadrado in front of Uxua, a cluster of old-timers sits with instruments in circled chairs under the shifting leaves of the amendoeira tree. Red and blue lights wink, and people clap and sing along while the stars swirl overhead. To hear samba in its birthplace is so perfect, I wonder briefly if the Uxua concierges, who seem to know everyone in the region as personal friends, arranged for it. (They didn’t.) The scene is just Trancoso doing what Trancoso does, in this case celebrating the life of a beloved local, a midwife they called Dona da Glória, who passed away a month before. And so we stand, swaying with the sweetly wistful music, sipping glasses of potent batida handed to us by a smiling woman in colourful beads and flowing skirt. And the distance between this moment and regular city life spools out into the night with song and drink and laughter.

The next morning, Romualdo, a baiano who runs canoe trips down the Rio Trancoso, shows us Bahia from the water. He drives us up craggy clay roads into the singing jungle so we can float downstream. It’s a voyage from the town’s private to its public face as we make our way past residences toward the beach. The dark green waters swirl under hanging vines; low-flying birds race overhead through clouds of mutuca mosquitos as big as your thumb. No dengue or yellow fever, Romualdo assures us. But the mutuca can bite through the hide of a donkey, so we slap on bug spray all the same.

Down the snaking, close passage of water, we glimpse into Trancoso’s backyard. Kids paddle in the elbows of the river next to leaning docks and brightly painted fishing boats. A man snorkels with a spear in search of the robalo fish among the mangrove roots. This is Bahian life in its natural rhythms. As we near the ocean, Romualdo describes how in decades past, it wasn’t unheard of for a lingering foreigner to receive land from locals through trade, although usually it was along the beach, which wasn’t as highly prized as land on the riverfront, with its access to fish and transportation. He says this as we glide past a magnificent gameleira tree, soaring to the forest canopy, braided around by seedling offspring that will eventually consume and replace the original trunk.

Then we’re out of the bush and into the final stretch of river before the beach, separated from the ocean by only a single orange sand dune. The river water is turquoise here, where the locals swim. Two boys do cartwheels across the grass, vaulting into the water in a tangle, a foaming eight-limbed river monster with two mouths laughing.

Someone across the Quadrado is holding a communal Saturday meal, and we’re invited. That’s how we learn about feijoada: a 24-hour stew of black beans, pork shin and salt beef, served over rice with farofa and couve and yet more batida to sip. We sit on the concrete floor of the casa festiva with families savouring a delicious moment. And when a pregnant dog wanders in and finds herself a half-finished plate on a low table and digs in, nobody looks twice. We were welcomed; so is she.

Chatting with locals comes naturally in Bahia, whether it be with men burning leaves in the square, a schoolteacher or an 86-year-old woman named Gida, who leans out her front window to offer us cajú fruit. We find shade at a café and sip foamy white cacao juice, watching a huddle of people drinking beer under a sign that reads “Ponto dos Mentirosos” (liars’ place). Gilberto Gil trickles from overhead speakers – his famous song “Toda Menina Baiana” about how all baiana girls have charm and spirit. There’s a certain way he sings, with a smile you can hear. Meanwhile, the men throw their nets in the river, and the wind applauds.

Samba closes our visit, as it surely should, this being its home. I’ll always remember the dark knot of people under the tree, the sway of bodies and the mingling of conversation and song. One song about taking the last train from São Paulo. And another where the haunting refrain is “Não Deixe O Samba Morrer.” Don’t let the samba die. The people were made of samba, the famous song says. Don’t let it die. And listening in the Trancoso Quadrado, that moon still very much on its rise, I’m embraced by the scents and rhythms of the essential Bahia, feeling glad to have been shown it so intimately, and quite confident that it will survive.

 

Posted: Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2012 9:07am

The Adventures of Generation F

 From the November 2010 Issue of Cooking Light

A couple of hours after setting foot in Brooklyn for the first time, I find the heart of the action. It's 7 p.m. on a hot summer weeknight, and I'm hanging with a group of fashionable young people, all good-looking and under 30, who favor the uptown stylish look (pressed shirts, nice shoes) or that of the ubiquitous Brooklyn hipster (beard, plaid accents). They're socializing, having a laugh, and I'm hanging with them. We are not, though, in the latest hot restaurant and bar, nor are we listening to a painfully obscure band. No, we're standing in the commercial kitchen attached to a store called The Brooklyn Kitchen, canning pickles.

That's right: hipster picklers. Because whatever you may have read about being on the inside track of cool these days, for these New Yorkers, it's all about brining vegetables.
As the evening—which is basically a pickle seminar—unfolds, considerable ground is covered by affable expert Bob McClure, 32, co-owner of Detroit-based McClure's Pickles and a poster boy for a phenomenon sweeping North America: artisanal food production.
"Now for relishes," asks one pickle pilgrim, who looks like he might be a securities analyst when not brining, "do you use finished pickles or chop up the cucumbers fresh?"
Fresh, apparently. There is much head-nodding and brow-furrowing.
"Artisinal" is the big word in food these days. It attaches to a staggering range of producers, from cheesemakers to chocolate crafters, bakers, condiment producers, sausage curers, microdistillers, and quite a few more picklers than I would have thought the economy could support. The essence of the ethic—more than an idea, it's an ideal—is independent ownership, hand-crafted food, small-scale (often urban) production, fealty to real or imagined culinary heritage and, often, savvy packaging, canny marketing, social-media outreach and, sometimes, wacky experimentation with flavors (hot-chile-pepper ice cream from Ohio, for example, or jerk-flavored cheese from Seattle). Genuine handmade artisanal food production is a tiny part of the 60 billion dollar "specialty" food industry, but the artisanal movement thrills those who dream of beating back the industrialization of food. It is catnip to foodies, trend-sniffers, and those who survey and supply them: Martha Stewart and Williams-Sonoma both being well aboard the artisanal train by now, along with the Food Network and especially its new expansion effort, the Cooking Channel. At its heart is the conviction that a young country can both recover and invent the sort of real-food heritage that the Old World—whether Europe or Asia—built its cuisines upon. A tall order, but one the indie-food generation is excited to tackle.
Four years ago, Bob McClure was an actor in New York City, working temp jobs on the side. One jar of pickles made from his great-grandmother's recipe, brought to a dinner party, changed his story arc. McClure's Pickles now produces 800 to 900 jars a day out of a small Detroit facility run by Bob's doctoral-candidate brother Joe, and where both their mother and grocery-industry-veteran father are now employed. That's 800 to 900 quart jars, retailing for 8 to 12 dollars each, of what Brooklyn's Bedford Cheese Shop proprietor Charlotte Kamin describes as by far the most popular pickles they sell.
It's easy to taste why: The pickles are a crisp and tangy-fresh delight, and McClure's pickle-juice-infused Bloody Mary mix is bloody good (it won a Cooking Light first-annual artisanal Taste Test Award last month). Although the factory is where the family is—ravaged Detroit—McClure does new-product development in his Brooklyn "laboratory" and epitomizes the Big Apple small-food movement, selling his product locally in boutique food stores, larger stores such as Whole Foods, and at a pair of curated food-and-collectibles markets called Brooklyn Flea.
Four new picklers have popped up in Brooklyn alone in the past few years, along with chocolatiers, distillers, bakers, and meat-curers. "There are a lot of people out there trying to get in on this food scene," says Eric Demby, cofounder of Brooklyn Flea. Demby tells me he sorts through thousands of e-mail applications for spots in his two markets, only a fraction of which he can accommodate. The most common applicant is a small jewelrymaker. Second most common is someone making artisanal baked goods.
The bottom line, Demby says: "If you are young and have some business savvy, then you're starting a food business right about now."
I tasted artisanal foods and met their makers in two areas, New York and the Seattle-Vancouver corridor in the Pacific Northwest, which is my home (Portland's thriving food scene will be described in an upcoming issue.)
In New York it was mostly Brooklyn, a borough of 2.5 million people where immigrant foodmakers have long plied their trade—fresh mozzarella in the "pork stores," kielbasa in the Polski shops—until this new-generation scene really started heating up a few years ago.
In the west—where both the coffee and microbrew beer crazes originated, and where Alice Waters still presides as Queen of the Locavores—there is much ferment as well: There are 23 licensed craft distilleries in Washington State alone, and 20 more area applications are pending. There's been a microburst of salami makers out there, as in the east. Foraging, smoking, and small-scale urban gardening are booming. And then there are the indie choco-artisans—west, east, and everywhere in between—who have shaped an improbable alternative national cacao economy in less than five years. Every American city, small and large, has gotten at least a taste of the artisan movement.
Which is good news for anyone who loves good food. I like having new local cheese, preserves, and wine options from the region just around my own city—Vancouver—every year, and I like that every other month another chef seems to decide that he simply must make his own charcuterie. More Americans are awake to the pleasures of the local and the handcrafted, and seem willing, even in lousy times, to pay more—which is absolutely crucial to the artisanal economy, because none of this small-scale foodmaking comes cheap, or easy.
"It's the hardest work I've ever done," says 30-year-old Shamus Jones of Brooklyn Brine, who used to be a chef, not exactly a slacker's job. His superb asparagus with lavender, along with his carrots with chipotle and garlic, are flying off the shelves. He's working around the clock. He's had a relationship go south and troubles with a business partner. He shows me the burns across his forearms from handling the hot brine pots.
Yet he's absolutely committed. "I'm from here and I want this company to become a New York institution."
Handmade food is hard work. Brad Sinko, the head cheesemaker at Beecher's Handmade Cheese in Seattle (whose flagship cheddar won an artisanal award from Cooking Light last month), is up before dawn to stir vats of fresh milk by hand. The Mast brothers of Brooklyn, Rick and Michael, roast cacao beans themselves after traveling to bean-growing countries to meet the farmers who grow them. And Mast Brothers is, after all, a tiny business.
It's very time-consuming," admits 37-year-old Robert Belcham of Vancouver tells me, concerning his much-loved Vancouver salami and cured ham business, The Cure, which he runs out of his restaurant, Campagnolo. Curing meat the old-fashioned way also has old-fashioned risks that your average foodie may not think about. "Making charcuterie can also be quite dangerous," Belcham reminds me. Painstaking care is needed. "You have to follow the time-honored traditions and use the right formulas or you could end up hurting people." By hurting, of course, he means poisoning.
What keeps these people going? What inspires them? A taste-bud epiphany, usually, plus, in the newer generation, the addition of a thick dollop of youthful idealism.
People who enter the artisanal game later in life tend to have had an aha! moment on the heels of an established career. Wade Bennett, a 54-year-old apple and pear farmer in Enumclaw, Washington, discovered Calvados (French apple brandy) and suddenly began to see his trees in a whole new way. His company, Rockridge Cidery, now makes a range of apple- and fruit-based wines and spirits. Dennis Robertson, the 53-year-old founder of Soft Tail Spirits, in the town of Woodinville, Washington, supplied stone to the construction trade until he discovered grappa while on a business trip to Italy and began to dream of a second act. In 2008 he decided to start a grapparia, and after only a year, his grappa, made from Yakima Valley sangiovese grapes, won a silver medal at the 2010 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
These are stories of people who had a mid-life awakening and the means and drive to redirect their lives.
Among younger artisans, I heard epiphany stories, too, but there was evidence of something else there, a deep yearning—and a lot more tattoos. When Belcham arduously tracked down a source of heritage-breed pigs on Vancouver Island and started making salami and cured hams, the objective was partly to get a better product than you can buy at the average supermarket. But it was more about reconnecting with lost virtues of self-sufficiency and labor.
"I wanted to make things the way my grandfather and my great-grandparents had done," he tells me, speaking of his pioneering ancestors who had made similar products with pigs from the interior of British Columbia, where they'd lived. "People living in cities have lost those traditions over the years."
The fabric of "the small, the local, and the beautiful," as Eagle Street Rooftop Farm's Web site describes the emerging ecosystem of Brooklyn restaurants, food growers, and artisans, is complex. Eagle Street takes compost from Brooklyn Brine. Its produce goes to a few local-food restaurants. It hosts "lecture series" featuring people like "locavore heroine Leda Meredith." One of the farm's cofounders, Annie Novak, came to artisanal city farming via a family tragedy. Her father was killed in an auto accident in Chicago five years ago. "I started vegetable gardening and began to realize the benefits of working on something very immediate, with your hands, but understanding that it has a long-term focus."
Brad Estabrooke, 31, realized that something more than a career had gone astray around the time he lost his job on the bond-trading desk at Deutsche Bank (there are more than a few ex-finance people in the artisan game now). It might not be the first thing that would pop into your mind, but Estabrooke decided he was going to make something of his life by making gin. "What was missing was the fact that I wasn't actually producing anything. I wanted to make something. I wanted to work all day and end up with something delicious at the end of it."
Estabrooke's new gin, named with the Dutch spelling of the place it's made—Breuckelen—is superb, flavored with five botanicals. There is, naturally, an artisanal tonic water to go with it, too—Q Tonic, made with Peruvian bark.
A skeptic might ask how much soul-searching a good gin and tonic requires. A can of Schweppes perhaps has more sugar than you need, and Bombay Sapphire is owned by Bacardi, which sells about 5 billion dollars worth of booze a year, but I've never poured the two of them into a glass together with ice and lime and had anything less than a satisfactory experience. Still, over at Q Tonic, founder Jordan Silbert recalls that his eureka moment pivoted around a glance at commercial tonic and feeling what he described as "aesthetic retching."
It's emotional, being an artisan, clearly. Matthew Tilden, founder of SCRATCH-bread, which is featured weekly at the Brooklyn Flea, waxes new-age-y: "Bread could be one of the world's most naturally modest superhuman powers," he says. "Locally defined, handmade bread, enough for and made in communities all over the globe. It could potentially change our entire beings."
Your third-generation challah baker in Williamsburg might snicker at this, and it might amuse the ancient Berkeley bread artisans who founded Acme, way back in 1983. But the less giddy artisans make it clear: Big ideas are in play.
"The attraction to craft food is the result of the public wanting authenticity in identity and tradition," Rick Mast of Mast Brothers Chocolate tells me, stroking his long red beard and staring me straight in the eyes. "This is not a trend-art project. Our goal is to reinvent the family-owned craft business. And we'll consider ourselves successful when we pass this business on to another generation."
Or as Kurt Dammeier, founder and co-owner of Beecher's Handmade Cheese, tells me: "Our mission statement is to change the way people eat."
Does a sip of Rockridge raspberry wine or a slice of SCRATCHbread have the power to reconnect us to lost values? Can a bottle of corn whiskey by Kings County Distillery or a slice of Flagship cheddar from Beecher's transform the culture?
Generation F will try.
In the meantime, they're at least eating better than most of us did in our 20s or early 30s. When I talk to Daniel Sklaar, the 30-year-old founder of Fine & Raw Chocolate in Brooklyn (and a former financial analyst), he tells me that dinner parties have gone potluck in his social scene these days. Before each meal there's a flurry of Facebook activity as people compare notes on what they're bringing. That is, what they're making with their own hands and bringing to the table. "People want authentic food," Sklaar says. "Food that connects them to other people. They want a communal experience."
May these artisans thrive; may their numbers grow. We'll all eat better for it. Some foodmakers, of course, will learn that idealism is not the same thing as expertise or business sense. As Dammeier, in the business for seven years, says, a lot of "wash-out" will happen. "It's not good enough just to make something yourself. It has to have the quality and the consistency." And the market, and the business plan. One goat-cheesemaker described to me how many farms fold at the critical moment when the goats multiply to the point that you have a business-sized, not a hobby-sized, herd on your hands. At that point, some dreamers run away, bleating.
And small doesn't always mean tasty, either. Handmade chocolate turned out to be gritty chocolate on several occasions, and one taste left a burn in the back of my throat like I'd just dry-chewed an aspirin. Not all indie pickles are created equal. Some I tried were murky-tasting and over-flavored. I brought home a handmade cookie that my kid wouldn't finish, drank coffee just as burnt as any Starbucks ever produced, and ate at least one artisanal sourdough baguette that could have broken a tooth.
There's also the matter of price. Mast Brothers chocolates, purchased online, including shipping, will cost you $92 for 10 (2.5-ounce) craft bars, which works out to about $60 a pound. Compare that to as little as $8 per pound for Dove chocolate from Amazon.com. Pickled beets can be $2 in a supermarket, $8 or $10 from an artisan. Add a big carbon footprint if you buy artisanal foods by Web and Fedex.
But if this were an investment market, I'd be bullish about continued growth. Artisans, like chefs, drive taste in a nation that simply gets more hungry for fine food and new (read old, authentic) flavors. Expect big brands to explore ways to make themselves seem more artisanal, like the McDonald's ad campaign that stresses that every French fry in fact comes from a potato (grown in the ground!). In 2009, Starbucks opened an unbranded, artisan-ish coffeeshop in Seattle called 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea.
Meanwhile, the successful artisans will continue to push the definition of authenticity. Bob McClure has considered moving some of his booming pickle operations to a 200-acre farm in Latvia, where his wife inherited some land. Going back to the old country: That's keeping it real! The Mast brothers are so keen to reduce their carbon footprint that they plan to take part of their early 20th-century production practices back into the 19th century—and bring in their cacao beans from the Dominican Republic by sailing vessel. (Thereby reducing their carbon footprint to zero from what a container shipping insider described to me as "unmeasurably infintesimal" due to the miniscule volume of their shipments.)
8 A.M., Pike Place Market, Seattle. I watch as Brad Sinko makes cheese, mesmerized as he stirs the milk, checks temperatures and gauges, then trots over to a second vat where he has added jerk spices to small curds (yes, jerk spices, for a tasty cheese cleverly called No Woman), getting ready to pack the curds into the presses. The cheesemaking operation is surrounded on three sides by wide glass windows, and crowds of people look in, some shading their eyes for a better view, a couple of kids with their noses pressed right to the glass. How curious they all look. How engaged. How interested. They remind me of Bob McClure's pickle pilgrims.
"It's a show!" Sinko quips, noticing me noticing the crowds, which of course he hardly does anymore because they are here almost every day.
It's a show about cheesemaking, but also about how curiosity can shape our understanding of real food and the appetite for it.
Later I click around the McClure's pickle Web site, which gives off a fine tang of artisanal character, looking like woodblock on craft paper, containing charming bios of family workers, and holding forth, I notice when I click the "buy" box, a gorgeous bit of slow-food irony in this Web-fast world: You can find McClure's in 0.32 of a second on Google, but if you want to order a mixed-case online (and they only sell by the case), keep in mind that "It will take approximately one business month from order date to get your product."
That's because tiny McClure's is busy shipping to a growing list of retail shops across the country. It's no Heinz, but it's getting a little less local all the time.
Posted: Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2012 4:21pm

Willamette Wandering

It takes a while to reach the Willamette Valley in Oregon, but you’ll know it the moment you arrive. Out the interstate south of Portland, past King City and Sherwood, the strip malls and discount stores fall away and the fields open up to either side. Somewhere around Newberg – as the light grows golden and the air takes on a pleasantly farmy, smoky aroma – you feel yourself leaving the rest of the world and entering a rather special new one, where almost everything and everybody seems devoted to the pleasant, elemental rhythms of winemaking.

Protected by the Coast mountains to the west and the Cascades to the east, the Willamette Valley is a perfect vintner’s blend of cool nights and warm days. And most wine drinkers know that the pinot noirs from this area – first grown seriously by a handful of winemakers in the early 1980s – are now being turned into world class expressions of the heartbreak grape.
What’s less apparent about this rolling green fold in the Oregonian landscape, running from Portland about 100 miles south to Eugene, is just how necessary it is to come here to appreciate the most important ingredient in a Willamette Valley wine. Because while the bottles can be exported and sipped in any location, you really have to be here to experience the Willamette terroir.
It’s one of those high-foodie concepts people define in different ways. But in the Williamette Valley it’s a most approachable idea. That’s because terroir here is a product of the soil and the fruit, certainly, but also the characters and stories that live behind every vine and every bottle.
 
**
 
People in these parts love to talk about wine. There are over 200 wineries in the area, according to the map I pick up from the Willamette Valley Wineries Association. All of these are scattered in the hills and along the ridgelines of the six distinct “American Viticultural Areas” or AVAs that make up the region, from the green sloped Chehalem Mountains  at the north end of the valley nearest Portland, south past the red-volcanic soil of the Dundee Hills to the southernmost AVA of Eola-Amity just outside Salem.
But don’t over plan. You might as well just get in the car and start driving because not only will there be a winery around every corner in every one of those you’ll meet someone keen to talk up favorites. That’s how I end up with a recommendation to visit JK Carriere Winery within hours of arriving for dinner at Jory Restaurant in the Allison Inn, complete with Google map directions to the hill-top tasting room on Parrett Mountain.
 
But it’s the same way I pick up a dozen other recommendations along the way. A tip at Adelsheim Wineries – where I sip (and spit) the delicious pear and apricot hinted Caitlin’s Reserve Chardonnay – to try the Riesling over at Bergstrom Wineries. Another lead at Bergstrom to check out an interesting single vineyard pinot noir made at Penner-Ash. And after tasting that one – elegant black cherry flavors with a hint of Asian spice, made from the Dussin vineyard right outside the winery’s front door – I emerge into the sunshine to find a note tucked under my windshield wiper by someone who’d overheard my conversation with the winemakers inside.
 
“While doing your research,” the note urges with friendly insistence. “Do not miss a visit to Beaux Freres Winery.”
 
**
 
Slipped into place by someone from the Beaux Freres Winery, perhaps? Lynn Penner-Ash chuckles when I show her the note later. She says: “That certainly sounds like Kurt.” Referring to the Director of Sales and Marketing Kurt Johnson at Beaux Freres, one of the owners of which is the influential Wine Advocate publisher and the 500-pound gorilla of the wine world, Robert Parker Jr. But whether it was him or another winemaker, the moment speaks volumes about the collegial willingness of locals to share with visitors what they love about the area.
 
“We’re probably not as competitive amongst ourselves as they are in Napa,” Thomas Houseman, the winemaker at Anne Amie winemakers tells me. Although, displaying a typical easy-going humor, he also  squints across the valley at this point and deadpans: “I mean except for those guys over there, of course. You don’t want to be going to the Dundee Hills.”
 
That cooperative spirit might have to do with relative size and fame. The mansion vineyards of Napa would mostly look out of place here. The Beaux Frere tasting room is very spare and shares space with some extra barrels. Bergstrom likewise, where you sample the wines in a room just off the main winery, with pleasant views out over the vineyards. Anne Amie itself is in a hilltop house that, with a bit of reverse remodeling, might be a middle class home. And when Houseman and I walk the fields – a glass of their pinot noir rose to sip as we go – he’s almost as interested in talking about the composting system and the vegetable gardens as he is about the vines. I nod as we look out over a vineyard of 30 year old Muller Thurgau vines, which many a winemaker would have replanted long ago with pinot noir given the profitability of that grape and the prime south slope acres involved here, but which Houseman left in place because he knew they could make something good with those old vines. And he did, too. Cuvee A, a fantastic crisp dry white, alive with green apple and white blossom. One of the real surprises of the trip. An expression of the Willamette terroir in flavor and attitude if there ever was one.
 
“We’re out here in the vineyards all the freaking time,” says Rebekah Bellingham, the young Beaux Freres tour and tasting guide, as we stand in the dirt furrows of the upper terrace sifting Willakenzie sedimentary soil through our fingers and discussing the ripe red fruit character associated with it.
 
Although, that naturalism noted, we can’t overlook the final critical element of terroir in Willamette. The people involved. It’s their willingness to let the land express itself that has made these wines what they are. And they do so because being first generation and so early on the enthusiasm curve, nobody makes wine in the Willamette Valley because they have to or because it’s part of a master investment strategy.  People get involved because they love the work.
 
Years back Houseman was a modern dancer. He got tired of living in an apartment the size of a “small box” in Manhattan. Scott Paul Wright of Scott Paul Wineries was a famous disc jockey, called Shadow Stevens, and later a senior executive at Epic Records. He left because of the stress. Lindsay Woodard, whose award winning Retour is made at the cooperative facilities of the Carlton Winemakers Studio, had a background in brand development before she came home – having been raised in McMinnville, minutes from Carlton – to make pinot noir.
 
It’s a familiar type of story by the time I finally reach to top of Parrett Mountain on my last day in the valley and visit JK Carriere, recommended to me within a few hours of arriving in the area. JK Carriere is the brainchild of Jim Prosser, who’d worked for Xerox and the Peace Corps, sold Christmas trees and travelled the world before coming home – having been raised in Bend, in the Cascades – to make wines that will, in his own words: “astonish you, spark you, and give you every reason to share that experience with someone else.”
 
When Prosser says this, of course, he’s standing in his vineyard in rubber boots, holding a pitchfork.
 
I drive down Parrett Mountain with a bottle to take home. The first wine I tried, as luck would have it, also ended up being one of my favorites. And when I sip it at home – sometime in the next ten years, when the occasion seems right – I’ll taste it remembering the golden light, the smoky smell in the air, the personalities and the enthusiasm. The terroir of Willamette Valley.
 
SIDEBAR
 
To stay:
 
The choicest accommodation, in the heart of the valley. Tranquil setting among vineyards and filbert orchards and a 15,000-square-foot spa. The restaurant Jory is named for one of the Willamette Valley soil types and has a dynamite wine list and sommelier.
 
To visit:
(A slightly arbitrary list of my personal highlights. Everyone should really follow their own path and the suggestions they get. It lends to the enjoyment.)
 
Beautiful, large tasting room overlooking the Chehelam Mountain vineyards. Excellent chardonnay as well as reserve and single vineyard pinot noirs from vines in Boulder Bluff and Ribbon Springs.
 
The Riesling really is excellent. But there is a range of good pinots as well.
 
A nice rose, Riesling and vigonier, as well as a single orchard pinot noir from a vineyard just outside the tasting room, the Dussin Vineyard.
 
Eight excellent and sought after small scale winemakers share winemaking facilities in Carlton. Andrew Rich, Hammacher Wines, and Retour are notable examples. Very small batch sizes and meticulous care in harvesting and processing make these wine elegant and expressive.
 
Around the corner from Carlton Winemakers Studio, Scott Paul is both a maker of several pinot noirs, and an importer of often-good-value wines from the Rhone. His own wines tend to the elegant and silky end of the pinot spectrum, away from the intensity and jamminess, for example, of some pinots from California.
 
A fun place to spend an hour. Make sure to talk to winemaker Thomas Houseman if he’s around, and try the Muller Thurgau, which is excellent.
 
A small 20 acre all-estate winery with a fast rising following, Lenne is perched on top of a hill in Yamhill-Carlton. The soil is rocky and the wines are full of black fruit and rich textures. Lenne is the favorite wine of the wife of the President of Spain, apparently.
 
High end wines with a big reputation. Beaux Freres’ tasting room is only open on Fridays and by appointment, so call ahead. The Upper Terrace pinot is earthy, spicy and foresty.
 
Beautiful vineyard on the top of Parrett Mountain, just a few minutes drive northwest of Newberg. JK Carriere, named for Jim Prosser’s two grandfathers, makes wine from various Willamette vineyards and soon from its own Parrett Hill vineyard. The Gemini vineyard pinot noir is dark cherry, with brown spices and nuts, and a bit of sweet barnyard thrown in. Delicious.
 
To eat:
 
Go for “Whole Hog Wednesday”, when pork shoulders are on special. Slow cooked to a recipe Chef Jason Stoller Smith developed after an intense 10 day tour of Texas barbecue joints, it is served on toast with mustard sauce and sauerkraut, applewood bacon and onions. All you can eat.
 
Refined dining in a refined refurbished old house in Newberg, the tasting menu is inventive and light. Dishes reflect the region from Viridian farm asparagus salad with quail eggs and truffles, to the slow roasted Steelehead with Beet Chutney and Pinot Noir Gastrique.
 
Posted: Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2012 10:46am
Tags:

They're Everywhere

 

Holy stickers Batman. These things have hit Toronto, New York, Halifax... everywhere.

Now they've reportedly crossed the pond. They're going up in the UK now.

Move over Banksy. Or whatever. I have no idea what this means.

Posted: Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012 10:47am

Negative Empathy

Should writers of fiction review the work of colleagues? I avoid it personally, and my rational for doing is the basis for my side of a debate that was part of the CBC Literary Smackdown series recently. The other side of the issue was taken by esteemed Victoria-based novelist and nonfiction writer Robert Weirsma, who also writes a lot of fine reviews.

You can find our respective essays on the topic here, along with a link to the debate as broadcast on Sheila Rogers show Next Chapter.

I enjoyed the discussion because I enjoy talking to Robert. But I knew going in that arguing my side of the resolved was a thankless proposition. That's because I was arguing that the prevalence of competitiveness and envy in our culture and economy - magnified incredibly, in my view, by the migration of that culture and economy from offline to online - makes the review that one writer writes of another writer highly suspect. Consciously or unconsciously, in other words, insider reviews (positive or negative) end up being strategic, designed in their subtle and not-so-subtle ways to serve the purposes of the reviewer. Better that the writer withdraw from this toxic maeltsrom of mutual appraisal and measurement (as exemplified in our hysterical interest in our own online profiles) and leave reviewing to "professionals", people who write from within literature but not within the writing community.

Robert's argument for reviewing was from the standpoint of empathy. As a novelist, he could empathize more with the writer being reviewed than could a non-writer. Empathy, in this analysis, provides the novelist/reviewer with insights into the writing process and the significance of the literary accomplishment as it's ultimately delivered (or not) on the page.

That point is interesting because it shows that Robert and I come to our respective conclusions in response to our observation of what are closely related human capacities. Empathy, after all, is the mother of envy.

Here's Martin Amis putting his finger directly on the button in The Pregnant Widow:

"It was only Nicholas, his male flesh and blood, that Karl really envied. And envy, the dictionary suggests, takes us by a knight’s move to empathy. From L. invidere “regard maliciously,” from in- into + videre “to see.” Envy is negative empathy. Envy is empathy in the wrong place at the wrong time."

That's a very powerful idea: that "to see into" someone (their work, their tastes and tendencies, their condition) might "by a knight's move" lead us to "regard maliciously", wanting what the other has and quite possibly wishing them ill.

Powerful, but as I said, thankless. Who wants to hear that? It self-recriminates. And since we prize independence of mind and the idea of personal autonomy perhaps above all other things in our culture, that very idea that we are vainly comparing ourselves to others and finding ourselves wanting is bitterly distasteful.

Of course, my whole argument was also an abstraction. I wasn't saying Robert specifically was envious and therefore a strategic reviewer. I was making a point that is as inwardly directed as it is outwardly.

In an interesting Facebook disscussion that sparked to life after Canada Writes posted the essays, the downsides of taking my position were immediately plain, as I was asked to produce my evidence and provide an example from Robert's reviewing of the envy that I felt prohibited the novelist/reviewer from effectively reviewing a colleagues work.

Fair play. I was in the realm of abstraction. And while I won't take on Robert's work, I'll happily take on my own. Consider this review I wrote of Jason Anderson's 2006 novel Showbiz, published by ECW. It ran in the Literary Review of Canada, and I now regret writing it. Not because I don't stand by the points I made, but because I can hear my own strategic positioning in it. I was writing about celebrity myself quite a lot at that time. (The Blue LIght Project was in the works.) So I had criticisms of Anderson's approach. Far more important is the fact that Anderson and I were doing the same thing at the time. Literarily speaking, we were after the same prize. We were undifferentiated competitors.

Call me a wimp, then, but I still feel icky about that review. Maybe I even withdrew from reviewing books by colleagues because of it. But the story ends well, because in a turn worthy of, I don't know, Flaubert, my own 2006 novel, Story House, was then bitterly trashed and stomped only six months later *in the same publication* by a reviewer named Adele Freedman.

Story House is about architecture. Freedman is an architecture critic. And she tore me a new egress, to put it politely.

Let's agree to call that karma.

 

Posted: Friday, Dec. 30, 2011 12:49pm

Portlandia Update: Canada Days

I had the occasion to attend Canada Days in Portland, Oregon, not long ago. It's a week-long celebration of Canadian industry, arts and culture, but it also added up to being the strangest trip south of 49 I've ever had. Until I received the email invitation, I had no idea there was such a festival, despite the fact that it started in Anchorage and is now happening in various other American cities including Boise. In any case, it’s apparently the brain child of the Canadian consulate in Seattle – and as unlikely as such an event might seem, I was happy to be asked. Let's be honest, it was a chance for me, a Canadian novelist, to talk about the literary life in my country. I had a book to promote. And besides, the email promised a room at the Westin. I think I probably accepted in less than five minutes.
 
I was picked up at the Portland airport by Rudy, a public affairs officer in the Seattle consulate. He’s an American citizen, and on the way into town, all he wanted to talk about were the mid-term elections. These had gone pretty heavily the Republican way, and Rudy was aghast. Many people he knew were aghast. I'd just taken a 6:30 AM flight from Vancouver and frankly, I wasn’t fully awake, much less offended by American electoral developments. Sensing this, Rudy changed the topic. Be it resolved that Portland is a pretty city although, admittedly, Canadians has pretty high standards in this regard. No sparky debate ensued.
 
As it turned out, the Westin was too expensive, so we were put up at the Mark Spencer instead, which a Portland resident would later estimate to be the city's cheapest hostelry that does not rent rooms by the hour. This didn't bother me. Having a health care system to protect, I'm on side with cost-cutting measures. Besides, I told myself while walking up the six flights to my room (the elevator was broken) Rudy had me booked solid with readings. I’d hardly be in the hotel. Indeed, my first engagement was an hour later, at Portland Community College. Kevin, another cultural affairs operative at the consulate, and also American, called to suggest we meet at the Westin.
 
"But we're not staying at the Westin -- " I started, then the nickel dropped. That's where consulate staff are staying. Of course.
 
Kevin warmed up the 30-odd students at PCC with a quiz. How many of you know the capital of Canada? How many of you know the name of the President of Canada? Sullen silence. And then: how many of you have seen one of these before?
 
He reached into his briefcase, but for what? A maple leaf? A can of Blue? No. What Kevin pulled out was a Coffee Crisp chocolate bar. "It's from Toronto!" Kevin said, smiling indulgently and begging to distribute more of them to the class.
 
I'm not normally in favour of giving out candy before a reading. It smacks of bribery. Plus, I can't stand crinkling paper when I'm trying to emote. But I needn't have worried. So convincing was Kevin's portrayal of the Coffee Crisp as alien object that most of the students were reluctant to taste them. A girl in the back row gingerly peeled away the wrapper and sniffed the contents, frowning. After a minuscule bite, she grimaced and shuddered. First taste of whale blubber, you might think.
 
Happily, the reading went over well. The students asked many intelligent questions and I left feeling upbeat. But in the car Kevin, the quarterback of Canadian cultural imperialism in Portland, revealed that he’d been given one thousand Coffee Crisps by Nestle and was committed to the task of distributing them. Since all of my scheduled readings combined were unlikely to accumulate an audience big enough to eat 1000 chocolate bars, he was staging a Coffee Crisp Give Away in Pioneer Courthouse Square the next day at noon.
 
We read that night at the Portland Public Library. It's a beautiful building and my writer colleague and I enjoyed the literary ambience, the suggestion of a large crowd made by all the chairs (a Coffee Crisp set neatly on each one) though in fact, attendance just squeaked into two digits. And the Q&A afterwards got off to a predictably sleepy start when my reading partner announced that she was boycotting all future American readings in support of Rohinton Mistry.
 
At this point some background is necessary. There are two types of political Oregonians: "Dry-siders" (who live inland and are extremely conservative) and "Wet-siders" (Portland-based, typically liberal). Since Dry-siders are not well known for attending celebrations of Canadian culture, tonight’s crowd was a Wet-side crowd. And if you tell a Portland Wet-side crowd you're boycotting them because of their own federal policies – after these particular mid-term election results, anyway – you will be met with FAR greater enthusiasm than if you try to give them free chocolate bars. The small audience was practically on its feet with excitement at the opportunity to talk trash about US immigration and homeland security policy with the undisputed champs of self-trash-talking, Real Canadians. Literary discussion was derailed.
 
"What do writers in Canada think we should do?" one woman asked, poignantly highlighting a deep leadership crisis in Oregon.
 
Another man, misty with regret just hours into my colleague's first visit to his city, said, "All I know is that I'm sad you're not coming back. We're going to miss you."
 
I was tempted to announce my own boycott just to even things up. But all the egregious policy screw-ups I could think of were Canadian. And clearly these folks would not respond well were I to boycott Canada. I considered announcing a boycott of American accounting firms, but the audience would have sensed there was no personal sacrifice in it. And personal sacrifice, surely, is what gives moral rigour to my colleague's announcement.
 
The next day, I felt my zeal waning. I met Kevin at the Westin again and realised he still had a van-full of Coffee Crisps. I sensed the assignment was starting to weigh on him too. Maybe he’d just found out that Nestle was actually a Swiss company whose motto is: "The World's Food Company". In any case, yesterday's chocolate bar give-away didn't liquidate the inventory as expected due to a steady, torrential rain. And there are only so many Coffee Crisps the squeegee kids can eat.
 
We were scheduled to address another group of students, smaller but more political. I started to wonder if they thought this would make me feel at home, but I was hardly seated before the electoral lament began. Not even my benign presence – I was trying to silently communicate the forgiveness of all Canadians – nor even the Coffee Crisps, which I finally decided would be the focus of my own life-long boycott, could console them.
 
"We're so depressed," said an 18-year-old man, conscious no doubt that a life of statistically normal duration would grant him only 27 more opportunities to right these recent electoral wrongs.
 
We pressed on through our grief to questions about writing, losing ourselves briefly in discussion of character development and the creative process. No one even raised the issue of Canada as a feature of my writing until the instructor asked about the Canada Council. And I had to skirt this question, since I have not (as yet) enjoyed the benefits of that august and generous body.
 
On the drive back, Kevin showed an interest in the writerly side of things. He had recently, he said, read a freelance piece in the Wall Street Journal comparing hotel room service across America. "Just going from hotel to hotel, ordering room service," he sighed as we pulled up in front of the Westin. "That's pretty much the perfect job, isn't it?"
 
The climax of my visit was an evening reading at the Borders bookstore in central Portland. Not a soul showed up. Nada y puis nada. I'm not blaming anyone. It was my book they were ignoring. What was notable, however, was the guy browsing shelves who stopped me on the way out. He may not have wanted to hear us read, but he at least wanted to apologize for his lack of interest.
 
"I think it's a sign that an empire has grown too big when we forget our neighbours," he said, making earnest eye contact. "You'd think after 2000 years, this country would be a little more sophisticated."
 
I turned to leave. He put a hand on my arm. He wasn’t one of those Americans, he reassured me. He cared about Canada. He was a Vancouver Canucks fan. And a Chretien fan too. I stopped, fascinated by this quirky set of enthusiasms. He was especially impressed, he went on to say, when Chretien cautioned America about projecting her power in ways that might humiliate other nations. "That was insightful, that was wise," he said. "And simply extraordinary coming from a man who used to be a professional wrestler."
 
I thanked him, sincerely, for his comments. I had no chance to thank Rudy and Kevin, however. They didn't show up for the reading either. Rid at last of their Coffee Crisps, I concluded, our cultural officers had vanished into the Oregonian night.
Posted: Monday, Dec. 19, 2011 11:17am
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