A throat-clearing of sorts, to catch up on the various realities:
Last Restaurant Standing: This British import continues to be entertaining as the wannabe restaurateurs fail to master the most basic principles of running a restaurant. One pair purposely underbooks so as not to get too frazzled; not only do they fare poorly at the till, but their few guests look miserable sitting in a cavernously empty venue. Last week's challenge was to use as much of a pig as possible and idiocies ranged from: serving oversized portions, charcoaling the tenderloin and frying up bits of brain, heart and lung and serving them unidentified atop lettuce as a "pork salad."
The pork-salad cook is a lurching, somewhat dim, affable sort, the Gomer Pyle of LRS. His mystery-meat twist landed in him the elimination challenge, where he cheerfully mismanaged a special dinner for an Oxford dining hall. His theme: "Sir Walter Riley" (he meant "Raleigh"); his goof: serving a 50-cent chicken leg to the "high table" of dons; and his gobsmacker: passing around tins of snuff to the students.
Over in pro-cook land, Top Chef New York wrapped up last night. A fairly engaging season, despite the lack of personal drama. Italian cook Fabio deserved that huge bottle of wine he won and then some for being a TV-perfect bight spot. Get this guy his own show, pronto. And please -- send that odious British judge packing. His comments were canned one-liners, and since when does New American cuisine need a snooty Brit to dump on it?
But the finale was a disappointment. The late-in-the-race rebound of Kooky Carla gave us all hope that somebody other than the insufferable baldies -- Stefan and Josea -- might win. But Carla shot herself in the sous vide and it looked like even the judges were struggling to reward either of the two dudes.
There doesn't seem to be a single soul to root for on Hell's Kitchen -- this is one inept bunch of overweight, vulgar, ignorant chain-smokers masquerading as cooks. Hilariously, the "big prize" this year has been severely downgraded: The winner gets a gig at some Atlantic City casino. And just in time for the recession!
Meanwhile in the Brazilian hinterlands, a bunch of genuinely annoying people battle it out in Survivor. So far, the long-running show has taken none of my suggestions (chief among them: adding more old people and dropping the run-puzzle challenges) and has just made a few tweaks to the tribal configurations and immunity idols. I watch mostly because I love the spectacle of people doing weird things in filthy underwear -- last week's water-polo match had the digital-scrambler dude up all night blurring out naughty bits -- and because despite the hoariness of the concept, there's often a pay-off down the road. I only pray that it's horrible and it befalls that fatuous "Coach."
Tweaks have also been made to The Amazing Race -- less airport drama, younger teams. We'll see how it pans out, but after two episodes, I'm still coasting on the Giant Wheels of Swiss Cheese challenge which made me laugh and laugh. I much prefer these challenges that really are challenges -- tricky, tough work that is mastered by applying brawns, brains and teamwork correctly -- rather than the gimmicky passive things like zip-lines and bungee-jumps which simply require getting strapped in.
American Idol did some revamping, but so far that hasn't breathed much new life into the singing competition. I tuned in haphazardly to the city auditions mostly to see how the new judge Kara was faring: more articulate that Randy, nicer than Simon and younger boobs than Paula -- but meh. The judges' table needs somebody fresh, not a combo of the three already there.
So I skimped through auditions and Hollywood week, but have settled in for this stage -- the three rounds of 12 singers, plus wild card. Giving these lucky 36 a chance at the big stage has resulted in a nearly complete trainwreck, with only one or two singers not crashing and burning. Song choice, dude, song choice.
Last week's go-throughs were dull; this week, we're likely to get that floppy-haired Hot Topic model who went all High School Musical on "Satisfaction"; the teen-age belter; and who knows? I can't help but root for Nick/Norman, whose send-up of Idol and its pompousness, was a breath of fresh air, even if it was four seasons too late. Vote him through -- he's no bigger joke than Soul Patrol, who we had to pretend to was a "serious" artist.
Get it? "Comes Out"? Hahahahaha.
Just kill me.
Anyway, I've been overdue in noting this, but the Steel City Stonewall Democrats have released their endorsements for the May 2009 primary.
Perhaps the most notable outcome is that Patrick Dowd edged out Luke Ravenstahl for the mayoral endorsement. If it's any consolation to Ravenstahl, who has reached out to the LGBT community repeatedly, Dowd was "recommended" rather than "strongly endorsed." That means he got a simple majority of the group's votes, rather than the two-thirds margn required for a strong endorsement.
City council candidates Natlia Rudiak (District 4) and Bill Peduto were both "strongly endorsed." Georgia Blotzer in District 2 was recommended, while Tonya Payne receieved an "honorable mention."
For those interested, Sue Kerr has an excellent write-up of the proceedings last weekend. The Stonewall questionnaires are also worth a look. In the mayor's race, I was interested to see Ravenstahl give no answer for a question about needle exchange. He also didn't respond to a question about whether he'd ever supported an openly gay candidate.
As one would expect, Ravenstahl's answers are much terser than those of Dowd. But the distinction for weirdest answer goes to Carmen Robinson, who when asked to "describe your familiarity with Greater Pittsburgh's LGBT Community," answered thusly:
I am a fan of Poet Gertrude Stein and Allegheny County and I am aware of their democratic party.
With that, I guess, Robinson has locked up the vote of all the fans of Tender Buttons who live in Pittsburgh. If the merits of experimental fiction come up in this primary season, look for Robinson to score some quick debating points.
In council action, the District 2 questionnaires are also worth a look: Smith, the incumbent in that race by virtue of a special election earlier this year, did not respond at all. But both Blotzer and Rob Frank gave solid answers. Which is nice, unless you support Blotzer and suspect -- as some others do -- that Frank will peel off votes for your candidate. In District 4, meanwhile, a crowded race got thinned out in a hurry: Rudiak was the only person to respond to Stonewall's questionnaire.
Over in District 8, Christine Stone's game response wasn't enough to overcome the fact that Peduto has years of street cred with the LGBT crowd. One suspects a similar dynamic in play -- in more muted fashion -- in District 6, where both incumbent Tonya Payne and challenger Daniel LaVelle make the right kind of noise. (With the possible exception of a query on abstinence education, where neither had a comment.) Payne's "honorable mention" means she polled more votes than her rival, but without making the 50 percent mark.
Other endorsements and candidate questionnaire's can be found at the Stonewall site. I'll just add that Pittsburgh has come a long way in a short period of time when even the candidate for sheriff, Bill Mullen, feels obliged to respond to the questions and concerns of LGBT groups. True, he didn't say a lot: His support of needle exchange was understandably conditional, and his assertion that "I do not believe abortion should be used as birth control" was a little weird. But it speaks volumes about the community's increasing influence that he said it at all.
Tags: Slag Heap
I thought it was just me at first, but apparently Schultz saw it too: One high point of President Obama's speech was watching him blow off US Rep. Tim Murphy whilst entering the chamber for his speech before Congress last night. I wish I had video -- can anyone point me toward some?
Did Murphy take offense? Here are excerpts from Murphy's response to the speech:
We must get our economy moving again, but we can't move forward if our first step is to go further into debt, overspend and raise taxes ... I heard from one small business owner who said he was not sure if his business would last through the year. Sales are down and he is now using his savings to pay the bills. But, like everyone else, his savings and investments have fallen and he has barely enough reserves to continue. He told me, 'If you raise my taxes I won't make it.'
That, my friends, is some convincing evidence. Some guy somewhere told Tim Murphy something about how he doesn't like taxes. Tim Murphy supposedly went out and found "one small business owner" who told Murphy exactly what he already believed. What an amazing coincidence!
If this is how Murphy researches important questions, it's no wonder he and other Republicans found that WMD-in-Iraq evidence so compelling.
More from Murphy:
[W]e have to work together on fixing healthcare in America, not just financing a broken system. We need to reestablish the doctor patient relationship that is focused on affordable, accessible, quality healthcare. Neither side of the aisle will get this right if we keep arguing about who pays the bills instead [of] what we are paying for.
So it doesn't matter who pays the bills? A government-run system for all then!
In fact, the evidence for the popularity of such a system is overwhelming. A small business owner I know recently told me that because of high healthcare costs, he's not sure his business will last through the year. He told me, "Unless you nationalize the healthcare system -- giving me and my employees the same kind of government-provided health insurance that Tim Murphy (R-PA) enjoys -- I won't make it."
And who is Tim Murphy to question the wisdom of the people?
Tags: Slag Heap
In a feisty press release, Blotzer noted that while she was compelled to run in the special election as an independent, this time around she'll "run as the Democrat that I am, representing the party of working families, job creation, and civil rights." She also notes that Theresa Kail-Smith, who won the special, "garnered just under half of the vote in an election notable for exceedingly low turnout."
Blotzer pledged to offer "specific plans for realistic improvement" in the district, and promised to conduct a "Listening Tour." I've fretted before that it may be a little late for such efforts, but Blotzer clearly has heard the "forgotten neighborhood" lament loud and clear: "Why is it that Pittsburgh's scarce development resources aren’t touching District 2?" her release asks. "[F]ar too many feel their particular neighborhoods have been ignored or forgotten."
In other campaign news, Patrick Dowd and Luke Ravenstahl are entering the debating-about-debates phase of the campaign, which by tradition follows close on the heels of the announcing-plans-to-announce phase and the actual announcement.
Dowd is playing this just right so far, asking for a series of nine debates -- one for each district, see -- and saying it's unacceptable that Ravenstahl "demands a near month-long gap (April 20th- May 19th) between the last proposed debate and the actual election ... Surely, if we instruct our staff to find mutually convenient slots of 90 minutes each week ... they will."
Give Dowd credit for not adding something like, "After all, there are no Steelers parades scheduled this spring, and I understand Snoop Dogg is busy recording."
Way to take the high road, councilor!
But there is a slightly worrisome trend for Dowd backers. Just before Dowd formally announced his campaign, supporters began an online fundraising effort to scare up $5,000 for their guy. As I write this, the campaign is 58 percent of the way to its goal. Which sounds great ... except when I first checked the site shortly before hopping on the bus to Dowd's kickoff event, the campaign was already 42 percent of the way to its total.
Which means that in the space of 4 days since Dowd's announcement, the campaign has raised about $800.
Before Bram starts yelling at me, I counsel neither panic nor despair. At his campaign event, Dowd said that he didn't expect a lot of money to start rolling in until he proved his own seriousness. And for all we know, contributions are coming in by the bucketfull offline.
In District 8, meanwhile, Bill Peduto has put out his call for volunteers to help with signature gathering this Saturday. Volunteers are urged to meet at Peduto's campaign office (5830 Ellsworth Ave., Suite 102) at either 10 a.m. or 2 p.m. A Sunday drive kicks off at 2 p.m.
If you prefer your politics to involve as little human contact as possible -- and really, who can blame you? -- you might check out tomorrow's CEOs for Cities event, a discussion of stimulus plans and what they could mean for Pittsburgh. Peduto and others will be there, but you can watch it from the comfort of your basement in your fleece jammies by watching it here.
Tags: Slag Heap
I doubt whether I can bear to drag myself to this venerable video shop's liquidation sale, which continues through this Sat., Feb. 28. I moved to Pittsburgh in 1991, and the place quickly became one of my cultural way stations -- then as much for its used-book annex (called the Bookworm), quality magazine rack and little vinyl-record selection as for its VHS rentals. (OK, also for its proximity to the Squirrel Cage -- but I digress.)
It was then still in its original location, in the basement of the Squirrel Hill building by Gullifty's where it had once also sold water pipes. I remember descending those steep stairs into that sizable lair, packed with shelving and all the foreign-language and cult titles you could imagine. The counter was on your right as you entered, the videos on the left, books in back.
I had actually rented my last VHS tapes from Heads not long ago, maybe only a month before owner Dee Sias announced that she was closing up shop. The store, for the past couple years, has occupied a second-floor walkup space further down Forbes it shares with Jerry's Records. The picks were two groundbreaking documentaries of their respective days, Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line and Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North.
Heads' departure reminds me of other unique video stores that disappeared in recent years: Oakland's Classic Video, whose selection of classics and art films was unparalled (I still don't know how they fit it all in that little Craig Street storefront) and Incredibly Strange Video, your cult-film source in Dormont. Both were as much victims of their long histories -- which came complete with giant VHS stockpiles, quickly obsolescing in a DVD world -- as they were of Netflix or downloads. (It's no coincidence that the city's lone remaining indie video shop, Dreaming Ant, is young enough to be all-DVD.) I can't imagine either that it helped Heads to have virtually no streetface presence ... though I guess it didn't have much when it lived in a basement, either.
It all makes me feel like I did when Homestead's legendary Chiodo's Bar closed a few years back, combined with how I felt in the late '80s, when it became almost impossible to find new music on vinyl: wistful at the passing of an era; angry at the public's lemming-like embrace of new technology; vaguely guilty that I can't do anything to stop it.
In my own miniscule way, I do share blame for Heads' demise: I patronize video stores way less than I did a few years ago. But it's not because I'm mail-ordering or downloading. I just don't watch movies at home much these days, except stuff I'm writing about for CP and for which I therefore get press screeners. And of the handful of titles I am interested in, many are available free from the Carnegie Library.
So dwindles the census of physical locations where humans of like mind once congregated. Now Squirrel Hill acquires another empty space where you won't see certain heads together any more.
Tags: Program Notes
Well, here's a shocker: the Tribune-Review carrying water for its publisher in the news section.
The Trib has some talented folks working for it, but their efforts are often undermined by the agenda of its owner, Richard Mellon Scaife. This happens so often as to be nearly a dog-bites-man story (or, as the Trib might report it, "socialist cur bites invisible hand of free-market capitalism" piece). In fact, I'm not even sure what good it does to point out stories like this piece from yesterday's paper. But the issue -- Barack Obama's efforts to overhaul the nation's healthcare-delivery system -- is important, so what the hell.
Rick Stouffer's "Obama pursues universal health care," opens up with some play-both-sides-against-the-middle back and forth. But soon enough, we see the telltale signs of a reporter held hostage to his boss's agenda:
"Everyone agrees on the need for affordable, quality health care," said Sally Pipes, president and CEO of the San Francisco-based think tank Pacific Research Institute. "There are two camps: one that favors a market-based plan that empowers physicians and patients, and another that wants to expand government's role." The president's proposals fall under the second camp, Pipes said.
Well, of course it does. Stouffer doesn't -- can't -- tell you this, but in 2007 alone, the Pacific Research Insitute received $200,000 from the Sarah Scaife Foundation. As you might expect, that grant-making organization is controlled by Richard Mellon Scaife.
This is par for the course at the Trib, as we've written previously. The paper's news and op-ed sections often cite stories by right-wing think tanks bankrolled by Scaife, without identifying the connection: The process, which has been called "information laundering" by at least one Tribble I know, is a way to sneak the publisher's agenda into the paper without telling readers what's going on.
This particular piece, though, scores a somewhat more unusual twofer, witness this passage:
"Obama is aiming to get universal coverage, which is good during a time of economic crisis when people are losing their jobs," said Regina Herzlinger, a Harvard Business School Business Administration professor, and an acknowledged health care expert. "But he relies excessively on the government, the care provider and the regulator."
Again, the Trib doesn't say so, but Herzlinger isn't just a professor at Harvard. She's also a scholar at the conservative Manhattan Institute. Which -- guess what? -- is also supported by Scaife. In 2007, the Sarah Scaife Foundation gave $240,000 to Manhatta.
Just looking at Scaife's 2007 spending -- the most recent year available -- his investment in this article appears to be nearly half-a-million dollars.
In fairness, the Trib piece does talk to a couple folks who are more open to Obama's plan, among them Pitt professor Beaufort Longest, an expert on health policy. Beaufort says he likes Obama's proposal: "Expanding health care coverage is much needed, particularly with what's happening with the economy, and simultaneously, he wants to make the system more efficient."
On the other hand, by this point we've already been told -- by Bob Laszewski, head of Washington, D.C.-based Health Policy and Strategy Associates -- that Obama's plan "is more about cost shifting than it is making the system more efficient ... Insurance is more affordable because [Obama] spends billions of dollars subsidizing access for everyone."
Laszewki, I'm happy to say, is one government skeptic who can't be accused of taking money from Scaife. He gets it directly from the healthcare organizations themselves. The HPSA Web site notes that among its clients are "health insurance companies, casualty insurance companies, HMOs, Blue Cross organizations, hospitals, and physician groups."
And of course, the piece closes with this dire warning from Herzlinger: If Obama's plan goes through, "The federal government will control all expenditures for health care, a board will tell people what they can and can't buy."
Yeah, that would suck all right -- imagine having some faceless bureaucrat deciding what kind of medical procedure you can or can't get. What a betrayal. It'd be almost as bad as a publisher trying to insert a partisan agenda into your news coverage.
Tags: Slag Heap
This week's MP3 offering: "Off-White Noise," by local band Mariage Blanc, from their October EP, Broken Record. The band doesn't plan to record anything new until this fall, but there are plenty more listens left on this fine debut.
Here's what I said about the song in my review of the EP:
"The second song, "Off-white Noise" immediately recalls Wilco's "War on War" and "Jesus, Etc." with its electric piano, organ and touch of early Steely Dan; a nice breakdown dominated by Wurlitzer and strings (played by Liam Cooney and Jim Walton) leads into an extended vamp."
This space marks the passing of Clarke Thomas, the Post-Gazette senior editor and editorial writer who died this weekend. His voice was considered, considerate, and always worth listening to: steeped in a love for Pittsburgh, but never afraid to call upon us to be better than we were.
He was also one of the most generous and genuine souls I've ever known.
I knew Clarke Thomas long before I ever met him. I'd interviewed him for a review of his book Front Page Pittsburgh, a history of the Post-Gazette -- but more than that, I'd been reading his op-ed pieces for years.
I doubt anyone has ever been on the right side of more issues than Clarke Thomas. He was a thoughtful progressive on as many issues as you can name -- the environment, labor questions, race, justice for the glbt community.
And he wrote without rancor, wrote with an optimistic belief that once we sorted ourselves out, we'd find a solution to the most vexing problems. He was the liberal elder statesman of Pittsburgh journalism. His was an informed, open and conversational voice that -- thanks to ideological scolds like me on both sides of the debate -- is almost lost now.
But despite my long appreciation for his work, I didn't really meet Thomas until a few months back, through one of those only-in-Pittsburgh coincidences.
Years ago I bought a book, titled The Christian as Journalist, off the discount table at a used-book place. It was sort of an inside joke between me and myself: I figured a book about the intersection of Christianity and a cynical trade like journalism would have wide margins and lots of empty pages. As often happens when I make such purchases, I brought the book home, tucked it away on a shelf, and never looked at it. Then, a few months ago, I pulled it down on a whim and flipped through it. Inside was something I hadn't noticed before -- a note, written on the stationery of an Oklahoma newspaper, from a managing editor recommending the book to "Clarke T."
The book had, of course, belonged to Thomas years ago. I got in touch with him, and Thomas surmised that his wife had probably given it to some charity in hopes of reining in the epic sprawl of his reading material. I'm that sort of husband myself, and we both agreed it would be amusing for the book to suddenly reappear on a coffee table in his home -- years after the spouse thought she'd gotten rid of it.
About all I can tell you of our subsequent encounters is that Thomas was every bit as gentle and affable in person as he was in print. That can be a rare thing in journalism. And he was indeed a practicing Christian -- at age 83, he sang in his church choir -- but with an open, tolerant approach to his faith and his fellow person. That can be a rare thing in religion too.
Like I say, I never read The Christian as Journalist. But having known Clarke even a little bit, I probably no longer need to.
And he never stopped working. Just a few weeks ago, I interviewed Clarke and his wife Jean for a story I'm working on ... and on the table between us was a manilla file filled with clippings about a column he was writing. It was going to be about the impact Barack Obama's election would have on our perception of African-American families.
I wish we'd gotten to read it.
Tags: Slag Heap
When announcing his candidacy today, Pat Dowd offered up an intriguing role model for the kind of mayor he'd like to be:
Following in the footsteps of a mayor that I've come to admire as a result of the people that I've met and heard stories from -- Pete Flaherty -- I stand here today to say that I am 'Nobody's Boy.' I'm just like that -- nobody's boy.
Of course, in a campaign where your rival is 29 years old, it's never a bad thing to use "boy" in the pejorative sense. Especially when you plan to run on a platform of reform and transparency, and accuse your opponent of being in the back pocket of campaign contributors.
But as Flaherty's own political career suggests, being nobody's boy can get pretty lonely. And in any case, some of the youthful supporters in Dowd's audience probably had no idea who Dowd was talking about. Or if they did, they remember Pete Flaherty when he was, in fact, Somebody's Boy: In the waning days of his political career, Flaherty was the quiet yes-man to county commissioner Tom Foerster -- whose name is practically a synonym for "Democratic machine."
In any case, Flaherty earned the "Nobody's Boy" appelation as mayor of Pittsburgh, from 1970-1977. And to a large extent, it's easy to see why Dowd would want to adopt the monikker for his own.
For one thing, Flaherty's tenure as mayor was defined by independence, sound fiscal management, and taking a hard line on expenses. As urban historian Roy Lubove writes in Volume 2 of his excellent Twentieth-Century Pittsburgh:
Flaherty had distanced himself from the Democratic party machine and run as an independent. He also distanced himself from the Allegheny Conference and corporate community. Flaherty was less concerned with corporate-driven development than with fiscal discipline, lean municipal government, neighborhood improvement, and reducing the tax burden of the ordinary citizen.
Lubove credits Flaherty with "balanced budgets and reductions in taxes and the municipal payroll [that] were an anomaly in the twilight years of the Great Society." It was, he contends, a prototypical rightsizing initiative -- "an early effort to adapt municipal government in Pittsburgh to demographic realities." Flaherty's devotion to fiscal discipline meant defying unions, and cutting the city work force from 7,000 to a little more than 5,200. He also embodied a backlash against the city's first Renaissance, which by the 1970s had lost much of its sheen. Flaherty argued that previous administrations had focused too much on developing Downtown, ignoring the neighborhoods.
All of which is going to sound pretty good to many voters today. What's more, those attributes jibe with Dowd's own personality, and with the circumstances of his campaign. He's not going to get much support from labor, or the business community, or other politicians, after all. And it's a lot more palatable to be "nobody's boy," when you suspect no one wants to adopt you anyway.
In other words Dowd -- who taught history not long ago -- has picked a smart, fitting historical antecedent for his campaign. Older voters will appreciate the reference especially, as they recall the happier days of yesteryear ... when the steel industry hadn't quite begun its swan song, your kids stayed in town, and no one you knew owned an imported car.
But a note of caution: There's a fine line between being "nobody's boy" and being the red-headed stepchild. And Flaherty's own tenure in city government suggests a potential downside.
To quote Lubove again: "To some extent, Flaherty translated personal idiosyncracy into public policy," and he had "a near obsession with independence and autonomy" that sometimes tripped up himself and his city. Flaherty's go-it-alone style resulted in long and fractious debates with county officials and other leaders, helping to precipitate the Skybus fiasco and endless debate over the old David Lawrence Convention Center, until the state nearly threatened to pull funding for the project.
Arguably, this side of Flaherty jibes with Dowd's personality too ... and in a less reassuring way. Dowd has played a fractious role on city council, to the extent that even natural allies -- like Doug Shields and Bill Peduto -- have expressed frustration with him. Bloggers too have been vexed by Dowd's idiosyncrasies:
Which Pat Dowd will show up to campaign? The earnest door knocker who listens to each constituent? Or the guy who stands up at the Council table and argues that other Council members should not get paid for their legal bills (even though they were helping Dowd out with that Lamar sign appeal) because they didn’t ask for money ahead of time?
Time will tell which Dowd shows up to campaign, of course. An equally interesting question, perhaps, is which side of Pete Flaherty would Dowd channel if he has a chance to govern?
Tags: Slag Heap
Here's a pick we didn't get in the paper this week that's worth checking out: Sunday night (Feb. 22) at the Thunderbird Cafe, Domino recording artist Benjy Ferree appears along with Tim Fite and Deleon.
DC's Ferree, in his new record, Come Back To the Five and Dime, Bobby Dee Bobby Dee, is channelling a boyhood hero, Bobby Driscoll (no relation, so far as we know, to our Bill O'Driscoll), star of Disney's Peter Pan movie. As the story goes, Driscoll was cut loose by Disney when he started growing up, and slipped into a life of drugs, dying homeless and unidentifiable to police at age 31.
In tribute to Driscoll, Ferree put together an album of beautifully produced blues- and R&B-influenced rock that could just as easily have come out of the early '70s. It's interspersed, of course, with interludes of pure weirdness, resulting in a vibe worthy of Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie.