Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Selling Wolf tickets

Although I wasn't a regular customer, I'm still a little sad to see Wolf Coffee, a local chain of coffeehouses, go the way of the passenger pigeon.

At one time, Wolf Coffee — whose home office was here in Rohnert Park — had eight locations in Sonoma County. But they could never really compete with Starbucks, which has, at last count, 42 outlets in the county. (That's a lot of coffee, when you stop and think about it.) Wolf began trimming back its operations a couple of years ago, and recently sold its last remaining store in Coddingtown Mall.

It's unfortunate to see locally owned businesses fail, but there are a lot of factors to consider. Wolf's coffee was expensive, even more so than Starbucks — my cup of choice, a king-sized vanilla latte, cost about a quarter more at Wolf than at the Sign of the Naked Fish-Tailed Lady. Wolf's locations were not, at least for me, as convenient as the plethora of Starbucks.

And, most frustratingly, Wolf's service, while unfailingly friendly, was often slower than molasses in Antarctica. I never dropped into a Wolf Coffee if I was in any kind of hurry. Or if I simply had plans for the rest of my day. Although the laid-back vibe was, for some customers, a selling point in Wolf's favor over the lickety-split corporate rush at the 'Bucks, when I want a cup of coffee, I want it now, not 15 minutes from now. I've got stuff to do.

To my taste, the coffee at Wolf wasn't significantly spectacular to offset these drawbacks. It was pretty good, but not better, than the java at the Green Monster across the street.

Here's where I lose patience with people who bemoan overmuch the passing of locally owned businesses. Ultimately, it's a business. If you can't compete, you'll get crushed. It's not my job to support a local outfit even if they charge me more for the same or similar product, send me out of my way to buy it, and keep me waiting longer than the big chain outfit. It's my money, my gasoline, my time.

All things being equal, then yes, I'd rather buy from a neighbor than some megacorporation in a distant land. But when all things aren't equal, I've got to serve Customer #1 first. That, or my neighbor has to deliver something sufficiently superior to the other guy that I'll spend a bit more, drive a bit farther, and wait a bit longer.

When it comes to a relatively generic commodity like coffee, that's a tough challenge. Sadly, it's a challenge that Wold Coffee couldn't — or, perhaps, wouldn't — meet.

Now, they've paid the ultimate price.

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Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Breakfast of cheapskates

Today's blogging is fueled by Don Francisco's Breakfast Blend coffee, a free sample of which I received in yesterday's mail.

You know your Uncle Swan's motto: If it's free, it's for me.

According to the Don Francisco site, their Breakfast Blend is "a gourmet blend designed to help the morning person start the day with gusto." Since I am the further possible creature from "the morning person" (if you look up "morning person" in the dictionary, I'm listed as an antonym), this clearly is not the coffee for me. Which may explain why I'm not enjoying it more.

It's decent enough for what I would think of as supermarket-grade coffee. The flavor profile is dark, not especially complex, and leaves a unpleasantly bitter aftertaste. Part of the problem, I think, is that the beans are ground much too fine. It might make a good espresso, if you like that sort of thing (I don't, particularly), but it's been pulverized too aggressively for use in a drip coffeemaker like my reliable Mr. Coffee.

I've actually purchased a fair amount of Don Francisco's coffee over the years. If you enjoy flavored coffee, they offer some nice varieties. Their Vanilla Nut and Butterscotch Toffee are both pretty tasty as a change of pace from the pure and natural. For the non-hardcore cafficionado, the Don's flavored coffees might be just the ticket. (Stay away from the Eggnog flavor, though. It's cloying and, for lack of a better term, peculiar.)

As for the Breakfast Blend, I'm only giving it two tailfeathers out of a possible five.

A good way to liberate your taste buds from a less-than-excellent free sample is the current featured coffee at your local Starbucks. I've been brewing Bella Vista F.W. Tres Rios (trust me, it's better than that ridiculous appellation makes it sound) every morning for the past few weeks, and it's much more along the lines of what I'd envision a perfect breakfast coffee to be. It's bright and tangy, with a clean, crisp, tropical flavor that finishes smooth and goes down easy.

B.V.F.W.T.R. (did you really think I was typing out that entire moniker again?) is available for a limited time, so get yourself on over to the Sign of the Naked Fish-Tailed Lady and pick up a bag or two while it's still around.

At least now I'm awake.

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Sign of the twin-tailed mermaid apocalypse

This is wrong in so many way that it's impossible to calculate:

Starbucks is now selling instant coffee.

Everyone into the bomb shelter. The end is near.

As the late Fred Sanford might have said...

"Hold on, Elizabeth! I'm comin' to join you, honey! With a venti nonfat decaf instant mocha latte in my hand!"

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Monday, November 03, 2008

I vote for free coffee!

In our litigious world, no honorably intentioned deed goes unpunished.

Just ask the people at Starbucks.

Last week, Starbucks announced a promotion that would provide a free cup of coffee on Election Day to every customer who told the barista that he or she had voted. The company pitched the deal aggressively via viral marketing, as well as through a spot that aired on NBC's Saturday Night Live.

Then came the call from the government.

Federal law forbids offering people any form of incentive to vote. Apparently, "incentive" can be broadly construed to include a tall cup of Pike Place Roast.

Rather than incur the wrath of The Powers That Be, Starbucks has decided to make the offer of free coffee open to everyone, including nonvoters.

The good news is that now all Americans — including convicted felons on parole, and anyone too lazy, conflicted, or forgetful to have registered to vote — will be able to drop by the Sign of the Naked Fish-Tailed Lady tomorrow and slug down a tasty snootful of gratis Joe.

Make mine Biden.

Not the plumber.

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Friday, October 03, 2008

Flying tigresses

Today's Comic Art Friday is being composed under the influence of Starbucks Burundi Kayanza. Most East African coffees tend toward the bright and tart, but this varietal boasts a dark, complex, almost wine-like flavor palette. Nice.

At the conclusion of last Friday's post, I promised you additional "Bombshells!" entries from artists Terry Beatty and Dan Veesenmeyer. As Jim Lange used to say on The Dating Game, "And heeeeeeere they are!"

Because my "Bombshells!" commission series focuses on superheroines from the Golden Age of comics (basically, the 1930s, '40s, and '50s), I'm constantly searching for characters from that period to feature. Neither Terry Beatty nor I had heard of the Purple Tigress before I assigned Terry this commission, but she sure makes a terrific Bombshell!

Although she's all but forgotten today, the Purple Tigress starred in her own six-issue backup strip in Jo-Jo Comics, published in the mid-1940s by Fox Feature Syndicate. Fox offered a diverse variety of comic books, including what came to be known in the industry as "headlights comics" — series showcasing skimpily clad heroines with prominent... umm... "headlights." Fox's best-known creation in this latter genre was Phantom Lady, made famous by the art of "good girl" specialist Matt Baker. The most enduring hero in the Fox stable, however, was male — the Blue Beetle, a pastiche of the Green Hornet. A modernized Blue Beetle appears in DC Comics to this day.

Wonder Woman may be as renowned as the Purple Tigress is obscure. My affection for Princess Diana of the Amazons being what it is — and Comic Art Friday fans know that Wonder Woman is my all-time favorite comic book heroine, bar none — I took great care in selecting the artist who would draw her "Bombshells!" entry. Dan Veesenmeyer's previous contributions to the series sold me on the notion that he was the perfect choice.

Wonder Woman's costume has undergone a few tweaks over the decades — hey, you can't expect a gal to wear the exact same outfit for nearly 70 years, can you? For several years in the late 1960s and early '70s, she even dispensed with the bustier and star-spangled bottoms entirely, in favor of an ever-changing wardrobe of all-white mod fashions.

I've always remained partial, though, to Diana's original togs, which Dan depicts here. The lower portion of the costume, which looks like a skirt (and is often drawn that way in contemporary renderings), was actually a set of pleated culottes. Over time, these morphed into snug-fitting bicycle shorts, before becoming the increasingly brief, often thong-like panties Wonder Woman wears today. (To their credit, the artists who've illustrated the current WW monthly series — most notably Terry Dodson and Aaron Lopresti — have taken care not to overexpose Diana's hindquarters.)

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Tuesday, September 09, 2008

I gaze, therefore I drink

Today's edition of SSTOL is fueled in part by Starbucks Gazebo Blend coffee, which the folks behind the Sign of the Naked Fish-Tailed Lady describe as "created for summertime."

It seems a mite peculiar to be quaffing this particular brew on the first truly autumnal day here in Wine Country — dark, densely overcast, and downright chilly (only 57 degrees, and it's almost noon) — but it's what I have on hand.

Atmospherics aside, it still drinks quite well.

Gazebo Blend is an amalgam of East African coffees, which suits my tastes perfectly. Kenya, my all-time favorite Starbucks coffee, is native to the same region (and likely includes some of the same varietals). Gazebo shares some of Kenya's bright, acidic, citrus-like character, but it strikes my palate as richer, deeper in flavor, and slightly less sharp than Kenya. That makes Gazebo neither better nor worse than my old standby; it's merely a similar-yet-different sort of contrast.

What it lacks in Kenya's distinctive tang, Gazebo more than makes up in comforting drinkability. Starbucks suggests that Gazebo translates nicely into iced coffee, and I can well imagine that it would — although it seems a waste to me to suppress the flavor of excellent coffee by burying it in a blended drink. That's what the house blend is for.

Alas, Gazebo Blend is one of Starbucks' seasonal offerings, and I don't believe it's available at this moment. (I'm working toward the end of a bag I bought last month.) But toss a note in your Google Calendar to watch for its return next summer. If you like your coffee snappy and sunny, you'll get a kick out of Gazebo Blend.

Even if you don't own a gazebo.

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Thursday, June 19, 2008

Going to a hukilau

Among my delightful Father's Day gifts was a bag of this delectable new coffee from the Sign of the Mermaid: Starbucks Kopelani Blend.

According to the package, kopelani means "heavenly coffee" in Hawaiian. Although I've retained a fair amount of local-style pidgin from my childhood in the Islands, I can't vouch for the veracity of this translation. For all I know, kopelani means "empty your wallet" in the mother tongue.

Whatever the name means, this sure is some heavenly coffee. I'm celebrating my half-birthday with a gently steaming mug even as I type. (I believe the word is multitasking.)

Despite the Hawaiian handle, Starbucks Kopelani Blend contains only 10% Kona coffee, that savory varietal from the leeward shores of the Big Island. The balance of the beans comprise a blend of African and Latin American coffees, resulting in a tangy, fruity, slightly acidic flavor palate that's perfect for early-morning quaffing.

Kopelani Blend brews up light and aromatic, not at all overpowering. It's a pleasant accompaniment alongside your favorite breakfast fare, or just for smooth and easy sipping. It would make a nice, summery iced coffee, perhaps for serving at your next hukilau.

Now, if you'll excuse me, my ukelele awaits...

We'll throw our nets out into the sea
Where all the ama-ama come a-swimmin' to me
Oh, we're goin' to a hukilau
A huki, huki, huki, huki, hukilau.

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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Tigers and jaguars and coffee, oh my

This week's Hump Day is being fueled by Starbucks Organic Sumatra-Peru Blend.

Mmm... tasty.

This coffee has a nicely rounded flavor — slightly sweet, with a hint of chocolate in the finish. It also possesses one of the loveliest bouquets I've savored in quite a while, more herbal than floral or earthy. Must be that organic thing.

I'm not sure why there's a drawing of two cats — that's actually a Sumatran tiger and a Peruvian jaguar — on the bag. My barista assures me that this stuff is 100% cat poop free.

When I think of Sumatran animals, I think of orangutans. I've had coffee made by orangutans, and trust me — their brewing skills leave something to be desired.

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Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Pike Place... is that near Boardwalk?

This morning's activity at SSTOL is powered by free coffee from Starbucks. Because you know your Uncle Swan's motto:

If it's free, it's for me.

In case you didn't get the memo, the New York Yankees of coffee are giving away free cups of their new Pike Place Roast today, starting at 9 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time.

I was the first patron to queue up at my neighborhood 'Bucks to claim my gratis brew. The friendly barista enthusiastically pulled a cup of Pike Place Roast for me, and didn't charge me a penny. (As it happened, my coffee bean supply was running low, so they got a sale out of my visit anyway.)

I'm giving the new blend a moderate thumbs-up. As coffees go, Pike Place Roast is on the milder, mellower end of the flavor spectrum, with chocolate as its primary undertone. It's a smooth, easy-drinking coffee, pleasant but unremarkable. Clearly, it's designed to be quaffed in mass quantities rather than savored. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

As a coffee connoisseur, I tend to favor a sharper, brighter element — like that of the Kenya I bought today — so Pike Place Roast wouldn't be my java of choice. But if you usually guzzle the standard Starbucks house blend, and you're looking for a subtle alternative, Pike Place Roast just might be your cup of coffee.

If you run down to your nearest Starbucks in the next few minutes, you can get a freebie dose and decide for yourself.

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Thursday, March 06, 2008

What were once vices are now habits

I have often said that it is a very good thing that I grew up in a household where neither of my parents used tobacco or drank alcohol. Given my tendency toward compulsive personality, I would likely have smoked and swilled myself into an early grave by now.

If you look up "creature of habit" in your Funk & Wagnalls, you'll find my photo there. (Assuming you still had a Funk & Wagnalls. Which, considering that the venerable encyclopedia ceased publication at least a decade ago, you probably don't.)

Take, for example, my morning coffee ritual.

Now, coffee itself has been a part of my daily climb toward sanity more or less since my college days. During my career in the corporate world, I was fortunate enough to have worked for employers who supplied free coffee for their minions, so I never had to actually purchase coffee.

But when I just the ranks of the self-employed, I had to begin stocking my own java. This meant, of course, that I not only needed to buy coffee, but a machine in which to brew it. I'm now on my third Mr. Coffee in the past six years. It comes in handy on the days when I am either too cheap or too lazy to swing by one of the bazillion caffeine-dispensing outlets I can hit from my house with a smartly flung stone, and pay a college student with a nose ring to brew my coffee for me.

What happened recently, however, is that I have begun grinding my own coffee beans fresh most mornings. This process evolved when a client gave me a gift box of whole-bean coffee from Starbucks last Christmas. My nascent ownership of whole-bean coffee required that I obtain a device that would pummel the brown nuggets of joy into usable powder. So with the aid of my nearby Wal-Mart, I became the proud possessor of a Black and Decker SmartGrinder, a marvel of 21st-century technology that whips tiny roasted pods to a frenzy in no time flat.

Before too long, of course, I had exhausted the supply of Christmas coffee. But now that I owned a coffee grinder, I couldn't simply allow it to lie fallow on my kitchen counter. "Feed me, Seymour!" it cried — remarkable in that small household appliances do not usually speak to me, and also in that my name is not Seymour.

But I digress.

So now I find myself trekking every couple of weeks to Starbucks to buy more whole-bean coffee, thus justifying my ownership of the grinder. The beneficial side effect is that I have frequent opportunity to sample different varieties of coffee, broadening my palate even as I flatten my wallet. The less positive result is that every morning after I drop my collegian daughter at her academic institution of choice, I must engage in the elaborate alchemy of coffee-making: grinding the beans, rinsing the carafe, loading Mr. Coffee with water, replacing the filter, filling the basket with newly ground coffee, initiating the brewing, cleaning the grinder, vacuum-sealing the canister where the beans are kept to ensure freshness...

It's a lot of work.

And the scary thing is, I almost enjoy the ritual.

Which means I won't be able to stop doing it anytime soon.

In case you're curious, this morning's grind is Starbucks Ethiopia Sidamo — "From the Birthplace of Coffee," or so the label says. It's rich, complex, slightly acidic yet not overpowering, and it leaves behind a bright, refreshing, almost lemony aftertaste. It does not, however, inspire me to want to run 10,000 meters or convert to Rastafarianism. Take that, Haile Gebreselassie.

Lord help me if I ever get hooked on espresso.

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Playing catch-up

I apologize for the paucity of posts this week. What with KJ's return from her lengthy hospital stay, plus a flood of business-related projects, blogging time has been nigh onto nonexistent.

But fear not, friend reader. Your Uncle Swan has been taking faithful note of the happenings of these past days, and plans to deliver his customary pithy commentary on these goings-on over the weekend. So be sure to drop around.

In the meantime, Grasshopper, be patient.

While you're waiting for maximum bloggage...

Starbucks' special of the month is a delightful Guatemalan coffee called Casi Cielo. It's a little bit citrus, a little bit chocolate, and a veritable cornucopia of coffee flavor. I'm quaffing a cup even as I type, and man, is it ever yummy.

I highly recommend that you bop down to the House of the Green Mermaid — you know it's never more than two minutes away — and grab a pound of this rich caffeinated treat. Uncle Swan gives this one five big tailfeathers out of a possible five. (And no, I don't work for Starbucks. I just dig great coffee.)

Remember: The Swan loves you.

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Friday, December 21, 2007

Just your average pre-Christmas Comic Art Friday

Today's Comic Art Friday is powered by Roy Yamaguchi's Pacific Roast coffee, one of the fine products in the Hawai'i Chef Series from Royal Kona Coffee.

According to the Royal Kona Web site, this is the same coffee served in Chef Roy's world-famous restaurants. It's a nice medium-dark Vienna-style roast, rich and full-flavored but not overpowering, with just a hint of citrus finish on the back end. It's made with "not less than 10% Kona coffee" — at least, that's what the label says.

As they say in Hawai'i: Mo' Kona, mo' bettah.

Speaking of which, what could be mo' bettah than a pair of dynamic drawings of our favorite Marvel Comics superheroines? Not much, really — unless Chef Roy Yamaguchi dropped around and cooked dinner at my place. And brought a pot of his Pacific Roast for dessert.

Both of today's featured items flow from the pen of artist Gene Gonzales. Gene has worked on a number of indie comics over the past decade or so, but I'm mostly familiar with him as the artist on a late-'90s iteration of Mike W. Barr's Maze Agency. (Maze Agency, a mystery comic featuring stories in the "fair play" style made famous by Ellery Queen, is a terrific concept that Barr resurrects every few years, most recently in 2005. Its chief claim to fame is as one of the earliest projects to showcase the art of now-superstar cover artist Adam Hughes.)

In this first drawing, Gene presents a powerfully dramatic scenario starring Ms. Marvel.

I love the subtle way that Gene sketches into the background the victims of the subway disaster. The woman holding the infant is precious.

Here, Gene gives us a more traditional pinup-style look at our favorite climate-manipulating X-mutant, Storm.

Gene's clean, simple approach makes excellent use of light/dark contrast. He's able to suggest a lot of detail without a superfluity of fussy rendering. It's a technique that many of the great comic artists of yesteryear mastered to beautiful effect... and one that far too many of today's bravura artists disdain.

Since we already have Storm on the brain, let's take a peek at this jaw-dropping piece by Ron Adrian, which juxtaposes the Black Panther against a background image of his weather-witching bride. We've displayed the raw pencil art on a previous Comic Art Friday — now we reveal the finished version, with inks by Bob Almond.

As an art collector, I'm fortunate to have access to the services of several talented inkers. The inkers whom I commission frequently — Joe Rubinstein, Geof Isherwood, and Bob McLeod, in addition to the ever-reliable Mr. Almond — share in common an openness to my suggestions. In the case of the piece above, Bob made a slight alteration to Adrian's original design that, in both my opinion and Bob's, improves the drawing immeasurably. This one currently occupies a prominent spot on my office wall.

Next week: Our annual Best of Comic Art Friday, the 2007 edition. You'll want to be here — and that's the truth, Ruth.

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Thursday, October 18, 2007

Cream-colored ponies and crisp apple strudels

The raindrops should be hitting the roses at any moment now here in lovely Sonoma County (what the heck ever happened to our customary Native American summer?), so here are a few of my favorite things, at least for today:
  • Dead animal flesh cooked over charcoal. I grilled a tri-tip on the old Char-Broil tonight that was sublime — perfectly marinated and done to a turn. Too bad you weren't here to eat some. Then again, there wasn't enough for you anyway. And you weren't getting mine. Take that, PETA.

  • Former Yankees manager Joe Torre, for having the gumption to tell George Steinbrenner to stick his 33 percent pay cut and one-year lame-duckitude where the Times Square neon doesn't shine.

  • My new Dr. Scholl's everyday walking-around shoes. They're comfy.

  • The Highwaymen, the rollicking Wildstorm Comics miniseries cleverly written by Marc Bernardin and Adam Freeman and drawn with razor-edged gusto by Lee Garbett. Of course, because I love it, it didn't sell worth a tinker's dam, and the fifth issue of the cycle marks the last time we'll see engaging mercenaries Monroe and McQueen ("One drives; one shoots"). If Wildstorm publishes a trade collection (which I doubt they will, given the lackluster sales of the monthly), buy it.

  • Rubio's Fresh Mexican Grill. The langostino "lobster" that earned the chain all that untoward publicity a while back is on the menu again for a limited time. Get 'em while they've got 'em.

  • My daughter KM, who's enjoying her first semester of college. She's also taking her driver's license test on Monday — wish her luck!

  • Christopher Walken, who demanded — and supervised the auditions for — a bare-butt double for his latest film, Five Dollars a Day. I have no idea who thought anyone wanted to see Walken's pasty, 64-year-old glutes writ large on the silver screen, but good on Crazy Chris for refusing to drop trou.

  • The matching "Phoenix" and "Arizona" pictorial mugs I brought back from my recent trip to the Valley of the Sun.

  • Costco. It's the only place in town at the moment where regular gasoline is still less than three bucks per gallon.

  • Guy Fieri, our culinary local boy made good. KM and I spotted him and his family walking north of his downtown Santa Rosa restaurant, Tex Wasabi's, one day last week. Nice to see that with all his Food Network fame, Guy still hasn't lost that hometown touch. (Or the board shorts and flip-flops.)

  • The daunting new charts my chorus is learning. Just today, I downloaded an eight-page holiday arrangement that I have to familiarize myself with between now and Tuesday, on top of two others we've received in the last couple of weeks. Fun, complex, challenging music to sing, but the memory stick in the musical corner of my brain is filling up fast. (Yes, I'll get over it.)

  • Good coffee. You can never get enough good coffee.

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Monday, October 01, 2007

I was standing on a corner in Phoenix, Arizona

Notes from my weekend junket to the Valley of the Sun with my chorus, Voices in Harmony:
  • My first observation about Phoenix, from the air approaching Sky Harbor International Airport: Brown. Everything is brown. The land is brown. The buildings are mostly brown. Would it be too much to ask to broaden the color palette just a touch?

  • High marks for the Wyndham Phoenix Hotel. My 18th-floor room was nicely laid out and well appointed. I especially liked the bathroom, with its separated vanity and toilet/shower areas, full-length mirror (mighty handy when one is donning a tuxedo), and spacious closet with ample hangers. The bed may have been the most comfortable I've found in a hotel. All of the staff I dealt with were friendly and helpful. The one meal I ordered from room service arrived in a timely fashion, and was palatable to boot. My sole request: More (and faster) elevators to the guest rooms, please.

  • The Wyndham has a Starbucks right in the lobby — that's a gold star all by itself. In case you were curious, a vanilla latte at Starbucks tastes exactly the same no matter where in the world you drink it.

  • My hotel room window overlooked the Chase Tower, Arizona's tallest building, across the street. In its mirrored windows, I could watch jet aircraft landing and taking off.

  • I was surprised by the number of homeless people wandering the streets of downtown Phoenix. (Almost as many as in San Francisco. But not quite.) Although, after I thought about it, this made perfect sense. If you had to sleep outdoors, where would you rather do it: in Phoenix, where it's dry and warm (if not downright hot) most nights during the year, or, say, Minneapolis?

  • For a city relatively close to the border, I would have expected to find better Mexican cuisine in downtown Phoenix. Both of the meals I had in Mexican restaurants, however, were unimpressive. If I had a ballista in my backyard, I could hurl a boulder and hit three or four better Mexican joints.

  • Phoenix Symphony Hall makes an excellent venue both for performing and for enjoying a performance. Attractive environment, great acoustics, and surprisingly comfortable seats.

  • If you want to know what's really going on in a community, read the alternative weekly newspaper. Phoenix has a terrific one: Phoenix New Times. (So does Sonoma County, by the way. The folks at the North Bay Bohemian do an outstanding job.) Although I have to admit, I didn't know that a single locale could boast as many adult entertainment options as are advertised in the back pages of the Phoenix New Times. I suppose that when you live in a city where it's hot most of the year, it's easy to find people who are eager to get naked.

  • The best business to be in right now, apparently: Urban infrastructure. In both of the major cities I've visited in the past few months — Denver, and now Phoenix — half the streets in the downtown area are undergoing major construction. Somebody's making a killing in that racket.

  • The big story in Phoenix over the weekend: A would-be traveler wigged out at Sky Harbor Airport on Friday, after arriving late for her US Airways flight and being denied opportunity to board the already-departing plane. The 45-year-old woman from New York City later died while in police custody. I hereby affirm that I personally did nothing to provoke this incident.

  • On my flight coming home, I ran into the world's greatest vocal percussionist and live-looper — the astoundingly gifted Andrew Chaikin, better known these days as Kid Beyond. The Kid and I hadn't crossed paths since he was performing with San Francisco's a cappella pioneers, The House Jacks, a decade ago. (Frankly, I was stunned that he remembered who I was.) If Kid Beyond comes to your town, you owe it to yourself to buy a ducat and check out his act. In an era of talentless pretenders, this guy's is the real stone-cold deal. Drop by his Web site while you're thinking about it, and get a taste of his awesomeness.

  • I'd been saving a book for the plane trips to and from Phoenix, and it rocks like a house afire: Promise Me, the latest novel by Harlan Coben. It's Coben's first book in seven years to headline his favorite protagonist, former basketball star turned sports agent Myron Bolitar. If you enjoy a crackling suspense read in the modern style, hie thyself over to Amazon and pick up a few Cobens. You'll be glad you did.

  • As for the competition: Voices in Harmony came in second, as expected, with a score of 89.7%. That's a full two percentage points higher than our sixth-place score at International three months ago. (We'd have been fourth with these numbers.) Not bad for a contest set that included a ballad we began learning only eight weeks ago. Sweat equity pays off.

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Friday, June 22, 2007

Birds, bees, and arrows

Today's Comic Art Friday is brought to you by Folgers Vanilla Biscotti coffee, a tasty morsel of caffeinated goodness from the company's Gourmet Selections product line. It's subtle, slightly sassy, and smoooooth. I don't know how they get the cookie flavor in there, but it works. If you favor a hint of vanilla with your Columbian brew, I highly recommend that you pick up a bag.

"Sassy" would be an accurate description of this latest addition to my Common Elements theme gallery. Artist Dan Veesenmeyer, who boasts an extensive list of credits in the animation field, told me when he accepted this commission that he wanted to do something different with his Common Elements contribution. I'd say that he succeeded in that mission. Dan's cheeky "birds of a tail feather" are Black Canary and Mockingbird.

Black Canary (real name: Dinah Lance) can currently be seen starring in DC Comics' popular Justice League of America monthly, as well as in an upcoming miniseries of her own. Although current DC continuity is as convoluted as quantum theory, I believe that I'm still correct in stating that the present-day Black Canary (Dinah L. Lance) is the daughter of the original Canary (Dinah D. Lance), whose adventures date back to the 1940s. Given that understanding, the Canary ranks alongside Wonder Woman as one of the longest-serving heroines — at least, in one form or another — in all of comics.

Artist James E. Lyle catches Dinah in reflective repose in this striking portrait. I love Lyle's potent spotting of blacks here.

Mockingbird (real name: Barbara "Bobbi" Morse) was a staple of Marvel's West Coast Avengers series in the 1980s. Like Carol Danvers (Ms. Marvel), Patsy Walker (Hellcat), and a few other Marvel heroines, Bobbi was introduced as a supporting character years before she donned a costume and secret identity and began a superheroic career. (Make that two careers — becoming Mockingbird, Bobbi made several appearances as the Huntress, no relation to the DC heroine of the same name.)

Sadly, Mockingbird was killed off in the 100th issue of Avengers West Coast (note the ridiculous title switcheroo), back in 1993. She's somewhat unique in that, unlike the plethora of comic book characters who have died at various times only to be miraculously resurrected later, she's actually managed to stay dead for more than a decade now. (She still looks pretty good in Veesenmeyer's drawing, though.)

Black Canary and Mockingbird share several "common elements," including their avian code names and hand-to-hand fighting expertise. (Canary is an expert martial artist; Mockingbird used a two-piece dueling staff, which you see her holding here. You did notice that she was holding something, didn't you?) But the shared factoid I had in mind when I thought of bringing these heroines together is the fact that they each served as the romantic interest of their respective universes' archer superhero.

Bobbi was married to Clint Barton, aka Hawkeye, the former bow-slinging stalwart of the Avengers. He's seen here in a Common Elements teamup with Western heroine Lady Rawhide, drawn by industry legend Ernie Chan.

Dinah, for her part, is the longtime lover of Oliver Queen, aka Green Arrow. Ollie — seen below in a familiar pose captured by penciler Mike Grell and inker Joe Rubinstein — finally proposed marriage in the 75th and final issue of his current series, published just a couple of weeks ago. The events leading up to the wedding of Green Arrow and Black Canary will be featured in various DC titles over the next few months.

"The birds and their bee-hinds." That Veesenmeyer cracks me up.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Spring me, baby

As the great Tom Lehrer once sang:
Spring is here, spring is here;
Life is skittles, and life is beer --
I think the loveliest time of the year is the spring.
I do. Don't you? 'Course you do.
Except for the fact that I don't either play skittles (the English bowling game) or eat them (the colorful fruit-flavored candies), and that I don't drink beer.

I baked some snickerdoodles to celebrate, instead. (I'm a snickerdoodle dandy. Snickerdoodle do or die.) I'd offer you a couple, along with a mug of steaming hot Hills Bros. Original Blend, but alas, you're not here. So I'll eat your snickerdoodles and drink your coffee for you. Mmmm... that's tasty.

Happy Vernal Equinox to all our friends in the northern hemisphere!

Happy Autumnal Equinox to anyone dialing in from the southern hemisphere!

And to anyone in, say, Ecuador or Equatorial Guinea (the latter of which, oddly enough, isn't actually on the equator — it's entirely north of it)... Happy another sweltering day of tropical heat!

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Monday, February 26, 2007

Departed: All hope of Oscar excitement

Was that the most boring Academy Awards telecast in history, or what?

I almost need a major jolt of cat poop coffee to wake up after that snoozefest. Great gravy, McGee. I had thought Oscar couldn't get any more dull than last year's low-energy ceremony, but last night's show was like mainlining Lunesta.

To the commentary, quickly, while we're all still reasonably coherent:
  • Ellen DeGeneres once again solidified her reputation in my mind as the least funny big-name comedian I've ever seen. Ellen seems like a charming person, and I'll bet she'd be a delightful best friend and boon companion, but she doesn't make me laugh. A show as big as the Academy Awards needs a huge, room-filling personality at its center. That's why Bob Hope and Johnny Carson were so terrific with the hosting duties. Next year, bring back Whoopi.

  • Oh, and Ellen? Lose the red velour tuxedo. You were just a bow tie away from a barbershop quartet in that getup.

  • Did Jack Nicholson and Britney Spears visit the same hairdresser?

  • I thought the opening film by Errol Morris was fun, but it sure could have used captions so that viewers could identify the participants without a scorecard.

  • What the heck was that huge red bow doing on Nicole Kidman's shoulder? Did she not learn from Charlize Theron's similarly ridiculous outfit last year?

  • When the annual "Dead People" montage concluded, my parting thought was, I'll bet the Academy is darn glad they didn't wait another year to give Robert Altman the Lifetime Achievement Award.

  • That, and — man, Jodie Foster looked smokin' awesome introducing that segment. She and her stunning blue gown deserved a cheerier slot in the program.

  • Speaking of Lifetime Achievement Awards — for pity's sake, people, if you're going to give (a well-deserved) one to Ennio Morricone, and you know that the man doesn't speak much English, hire a presentable interpreter. Don't embarrass him, or a two-time Best Director honoree, by leaving them both to flounder onstage, fishing for the grace note.

  • Good for Martin Scorsese, finally winning a Best Director Oscar. Scorsese is a masterful filmmaker who just happens to make movies that aren't generally to my taste. But as with a great opera singer, I can appreciate the artistry even if I'm not partial to the vehicle. Go back in time 25 years: Who then would have guessed that a quarter-century later, Clint Eastwood would own two Best Director Oscars to Scorsese's one?

  • For that matter, who'd have guessed that Scorsese's editor, Thelma Schoonmaker (who won her first for Raging Bull, Scorsese's breakthrough film), would own three Oscars to his one?

  • Although seeing Eddie Murphy — he of Velvet Jones, Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood, and "Buh-Weet" — win an Academy Award would have been a hoot of the first water, I was glad that Alan Arkin got one while he's still around to enjoy it. Thirty-seven years between nominations is a painfully long time.

  • Forest Whitaker should win something at every awards show, if only because his acceptance speeches this season always perfectly bridged the gap between thoroughly prepared and genuinely heartfelt. Nice guys should finish first more often.

  • Michael Arndt, the guy who wrote the screenplay for Little Miss Sunshine, gave a nice acceptance speech, too. Hopefully, that wasn't the only award-worthy script he had in him. Was he really Matthew Broderick's personal assistant?

  • Props to Jennifer Hudson for having the presence of mind not to thrust her Oscar at the camera and scream, "Suck THIS, Simon Cowell!"

  • Props also to Al Gore, for having the presence of mind not to snatch the Best Feature Documentary Oscar from producer Davis Guggenheim's hands and run off with it. You know, the way George W. did with Al's 2000 presidential election.

  • J-Hud has the pipes, and Beyoncé the publicity, but if you ask me, the hottest of the Dreamgirls is Anika Noni Rose. (Memo to J-Hud: Either get a red bra that matches the gown, or make 100% sure the off-white one you choose doesn't creep into your décolletage, girlfriend.)

  • I haven't yet seen Happy Feet, the winner for Best Animated Feature, but it's tough to imagine that it could be a better movie than the amazing Monster House.

  • Those little interludes where the shadow mimes formed themselves into visual references to the year's major films were weird, but at least they only lasted a few seconds each.

  • I can't help wondering how Helen Mirren's referring to the Queen as "Elizabeth Windsor" went over at Buckingham Palace.

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Sunday, February 25, 2007

The best part of waking up is cat poop in your cup

Here's the sort of thing that gets reported on CBS Radio on a slow news day in late winter...

The most expensive coffee in the world is Kopi Luwak, also known as civet coffee, from certain remote regions of southeast Asia. Kopi Luwak is ground from coffee beans that have been swallowed, then partially digested by a vaguely feline creature known as the palm civet.

In short, Kopi Luwak is cat poop coffee.

You know I love my coffee, but there's no way I'm drinking this.

Roasted Kopi Luwak coffee beans sell for between $120 and $160 per pound from an online outfit called Animal Coffee. For the truly adventurous, Animal Coffee sells "completely unprocessed natural Kopi Luwak" — in other words, with the beans still embedded in palm civet feces, "exactly as found when hand-collected in the jungles of Sumatra." Oh, joy.

And here I thought my grandmother's chitlins were disgusting.

Incidentally, the palm civet is the animal best known — aside from its coffee-excreting habit — as the original source of the SARS virus that caused so much panic a few years ago. Just in case it wasn't bad enough that people were brewing their morning cup o' joe from chunkies that came out of the darn thing's butt.

What I'm curious to know is, who's buying this coffee? Future Fear Factor contestants with money to burn? Apparently, one possible answer is the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, which, according to the Animal Coffee site, included Kopi Luwak as one of the freebies in the swag bags given to nominees and presenters at last year's Emmy Awards.

I wonder whether anyone told the TV stars where their coffee came from.

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

It's Fat Tuesday, and I'm a bit fluffy myself

As I sit here sipping my Starbucks Kenya from my Mickey Mouse coffee mug ("It's really swell!"), I'm thinking.

You know what happens when I do that.

Get on your bikes and ride: The Tour of California bicycle race kicked off here yesterday. The first stage concluded with a 90-bike pileup in downtown Santa Rosa. At our house, we're rooting for local hero Levi Leipheimer, who's currently wearing the yellow jersey — which means that he's either leading the race, or knows where the urinals are located.

We figure Levi deserves a little applause, mostly to make up for what his parents did to his psyche by naming him Levi Leipheimer.

You really can find IT on eBay: For years, I've been hunting for a CD by an obscure '90s a cappella cover band from Washington, DC called Brock and the Rockets. The Rockets — four men, four women — performed at the very first Harmony Sweepstakes finals KJ and I attended, in 1993. In the years since, I've worn out my cassette tape of their sole album, entitled Out to Launch.

A couple of weeks ago, by sheer serendipity, I discovered a copy of the CD on eBay for just $3.99. I'm one happy Solid Rocket Booster. You haven't lived until you've heard Catherine Boland Hackett's hilarious rendition of Julie Brown's "I Like 'Em Big and Stupid."

Life begins on Opening Day: The Giants undergo their first full-squad workouts of spring training today. The wonderful thing about the first day of spring training is that every team is undefeated, every pitching staff looks like the second coming of Cy Young, every batting lineup looks like Murderers' Row, and every infield looks like Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance. Hope springs eternal in the spring.

Will this be the year Bonds breaks Aaron's record, if he's ever going to? Will Zito flourish in the National League? Will Durham prove he deserved the new contract? Anything seems possible. I loves me some Giants.

Our long national Monday nightmare is over: NBC has finally pulled the plug on Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Starting next week, the oddly titled drama The Black Donnellys (odd because, from what I can tell from the previews, none of the characters are black; but then, if they were, the show would probably be called The African American Donnellys) slips into Studio 60's timeslot, by all accounts permanently.

As one of the few hardy souls who stuck it out with Aaron Sorkin and company until the end, allow me to offer three quick insights about what went wrong here:
  1. Studio 60 was a show about comedy writers and comedians, but almost no one in the cast was a comedy writer or comedian. The scripts never gave the one real-life comic in the crew (D.L. Hughley) anything funny to say or do. The actor playing the show's comedy star (Sarah Paulson) was the least funny person in the cast. Why didn't Sorkin stock the crew with genuinely funny people?

  2. The show wasted tons of airtime on relationship stories that lacked chemistry. The romance between the characters played by Paulson and Matthew Perry was doomed from the start — you never believed those two people felt anything for each other that was hotter than day-old oatmeal. The late-blooming love story between Bradley Whitford's producer and Amanda Peet's network executive seemed sillier and creepier every week. The one truly intriguing combination — Nathan Corddry's geeky comic and Lucy Davis's shy English writer — never got off the ground.

  3. The writing, to put it politely, sucked. I can't remember a show that loved to pontificate as much as Studio 60 — unless it was Sorkin's previous effort, The West Wing. There, at least, the White House setting gave the pontificating some gravitas. TV writers and comedians pontificating just came off as gratuitous and self-important.
Mrs. Butterworth, I think I love you: Today is National Pancake Day, which means that you can stop in at your friendly neighborhood International House of Pancakes before 10 p.m. today, and scarf down a free stack of three buttermilk pancakes. In exchange, the IHOP folks ask that you consider making a donation to the Children's Miracle Network, or another charity of your choice. So eat up, flapjack lovers.

(Not that I'm quibbling or anything, but I hardly believe that serving French toast, English muffins, and Belgian waffles qualifies a restaurant as "International." But maybe that's just me. I definitely would not bring up this point with your waitress, should you decide to go for the free stack.)

Happy Mardi Gras! Remember: For some of us, every Tuesday is Fat Tuesday.

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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

It's a holiday somewhere

Someone gifted me recently with a whole bagful of assorted coffees — an offering always certain to warm the cockles of my heart. If indeed my heart has cockles. Or if my...

Well, never mind.

Anyway, today I'm sampling a rather tasty flavored blend called Holiday Cheer, produced by Gloria Jean's Gourmet Coffees. This seasonal variety marries a full-bodied Arabica roast with hints of cinnamon and buttered rum. (I might enjoy it even better if the flavoring was toned down just a smidge, but that would be nitpicking.)

As I've just discovered, Gloria Jean's Holiday Cheer drinks as nicely with a bagel as it does with a sticky bun. According to the package, Gloria Jean's Holiday Cheer is a kosher product. So I suppose Hanukkah might be one of the holidays for which it would be appropriate to brew a pot.

Or even St. Anthony's Day, which today happens to be. All I know about St. Anthony is that he is the patron saint of herpes. Seriously. (I guess old Tony must have been close to the tail end of the line when they handed out patronages.) He was also Egyptian, which makes sense — I might have figured they'd assign the herpes job to the African guy.

Some things never change.

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Monday, December 18, 2006

An elephant in my coffee mug

I'm not easily impressed, but today I'm making an exception.

A favored client, knowing my passion for all things caffeinated, recently gifted me with a selection of fine coffees. This morning I brewed my first-ever pot of Starbucks Kenya, and I have to say...

...this is some darned fine coffee.

The flavor is rich, but not dense. The aroma is redolent with tropical fruit, featuring notes reminiscent of pineapple, black cherry, and Concord grape. Each swallow finishes with an unexpected citrus tang. Although the packaging describes the product as "bold," it's much more rounded and mellow than that word might lead one to expect.

I can imagine this coffee making a wonderful accompaniment to a fruit cobbler or pastry. Appropriately, I'm drinking it from my Harry & David mug.

Harry, David, and I are all very pleased.