Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Film Review: John Wick

I rarely post film reviews. In fact, this is only my second one (here's the first). However, I was
so taken by John Wick I felt compelled to write about it.

I'm not going to bother with recounting the plot. You can find that anywhere. Besides, plots are for graveyards. Also, consider this the official SPOILERS AHEAD warning. 

John Wick is another entry in the tough-guy-coming-out-of-retirement-to-wreak-havoc genre. What sets it apart from lesser movies of this ilk is the style and care that obviously went into it. 

Perkins enjoys a drink between hits.
The cast is top-notch. Keanu Reeves is so good it's almost as if he's a different actor. I don't know if it's because he's a bit older now, but he seems to have way more (cliche alert!) gravitas in this film. Mikael Nyqvist portrayal of crime-lord Viggo Tarasov brings complexity to what otherwise could be a standard villain role. Alfie Allen is at his sniveling best. Adrianne Palicki gives it her all as assassin Perkins. Equally good are the character roles: Willem Dafoe, Ian McShane, and John Leguizamo all prove the maxim that there are no small parts, only small actors. It was also great to see David Patrick Kelly on the big screen again. You might nor recognize his name, but you've surely seen his work.

There are several homages to classic thrillers. In one scene, an extra is seen reading a copy of Trevanian's Shibumi, which is one of the great hitman novels. The concept of The Continental—a hotel that serves as a sanctuary for assassins and where no "business" can take place—echoes the Abelard Sanction safehouses of David Morrell's book The Brotherhood of the Rose.

One of the most prominent homages involves the name of the club that serves as the setting
Inside the Red Circle.
for one of the film's best action sequences: the Red Circle. In French, the red circle is le cercle rouge, which happens to be the name of an excellent crime drama directed by Jean-Pierre Melville. Melville also directed Le Samourai, one of the coolest, most influential hitman films ever made.

The idea of the circle manifests itself not only in the name of the club, but in the film's dramatic arc. Early on, it is revealed that John Wick is largely responsible for creating the crime empire of Russian gangster Viggo Tarasov. Wick worked for Tarasov, but wanted to leave the criminal life to get married. Tarasov said Wick could make a clean break if he carried out a seemingly impossible assignment. Of course, Wick succeeded in his task, and from that Tarasov was able to built his extensive operation. Years later, Wick manages to destroy the same organization he helped to built. A red circle, indeed.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Recipe Wednesday: Pasta with Olive Oil, Garlic, Pepper, and Nutritional Yeast

This recipe is a slight variation on the classic Neapolitan dish spaghetti all'aglio, olio e peperoncino

I first had aglio e olio on a trip to (you guessed it) Naples, Italy. My wife and I were visiting our friend Mike, who was stationed at the U.S. Naval base in Naples. The first night we were there, we all went to dinner at a mellow family restaurant. It was called Angela's, or something similar. 

Still a bit tired and jet lagged, I wanted something comforting. Mike recommended spaghetti all'aglio, olio e peperoncino, a basic dish made with pasta, olive oil, dried red chili flakes, garlic, and Italian parsley. Heeding his advice, that's what I ordered. When the food arrived I took a few forkfuls and was instantly in a state of bliss. How could something so incredibly simple taste so incredibly good? By the time I finished my meal (and a few bottles of wine), I had a new favorite Italian dish.

On returning to the U.S., I started experimenting with different recipes and making my own aglio e olio. What follows is more or less my go-to method of preparing the dish. I say "more or less" because I don't put much thought into it when I make aglio e olio. I just sort of do it.

A major change I make involves switching out Italian parsley for nutritional yeast. To be honest, most of the times I make aglio e olio it is a spur of the moment thing and I usually don't have Italian parsley on hand. Plus, nutritional yeast gives the pasta a nice nutty, cheesy flavor. The  extra B vitamins are a good thing, too.

So here is my rough recipe. It's a one-pot dish:

Pasta with Olive Oil, Garlic, Pepper, and Nutritional Yeast
8 ounces pasta
4-6 cloves of garlic, finely minced
1/3 cup of olive oil (or more!)
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon dried red chili flakes

1. Cook the pasta until al dente ("to the tooth"). Right before you drain the pasta scoop out half a cup of the cooking water and put it to the side.
2. In the same pot you used to cook the pasta, add the olive oil and reduce the heat to medium. Add the garlic and stir frequently for about two minutes. Add the pepper flakes and continue to stir.
3. Just as the garlic begins to get soft but before it becomes too brown, toss in the pasta. Stir it around, and then add the reserved pasta water. The pasta water contains starches that will help the ingredients stick to the pasta. Continue stirring for another two or three minutes. Don't overcook!
4. Serve the pasta immediately topped with nutritional yeast to taste, fresh ground pepper, and cheap wine (optional, but recommended!)

I make this at least once a month. I recommend enjoying a cocktail such as a Martini or Negroni while cooking, and listening to this cool track by Nicola Conte.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Recipe Wednesdays: Babe's Bocadillos

Today I'm launching a new feature: Recipe Wednesdays. Here and there I'll be posting some of my favorite recipes.

A few quick caveats...
  1. I'm 100 percent vegetarian and 95+ percent vegan. This will be reflected in my recipes.
  2. Most of the recipes I'll be sharing are not my own. They will usually be from one of the many cookbooks I own and enjoy. Credit will always be given, as will links to the relevant cookbook.
  3. To be honest, while I am a pretty good cook, I'm still working on my food photographer skills.
Today's recipe is for Babe's Bocadillos. It comes via The 30 Minute Vegan's Taste of Europe by Mark Reinfeld. The 30 Minute Vegan series is one of my favorites, and are among the best vegan cookbooks available.

The bocadillos are a vegan version of a type of ham found in Spain.
Ready to bake!

Babe's Bocadillos
2 tablespoons tamari or other soy sauce
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon of smoked paprika or 1/2 teaspoon of liquid smoke (I prefer the liquid smoke)
1 tablespoon fresh oregano or 1 teaspoon dried
1 teaspoon pure maple syrup
1 14 oz. pack extra firm tofu

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
2. Place all the ingredients except for the tofu on a baking sheet (I actually prefer a shallow casserole dish) and mix well.
On rye with fries.
3. Slice the tofu into cutlets. The original recipe calls for 12 thin cutlets, but I often cut the tofu into four or six big, thick slices.
4. Place the tofu on the baking sheet and let it sit a few minutes. Then flip the tofu, put the sheet in the oven, and cook for 20 minutes, flipping the tofu again midway through.

And that's it. Babe's Bocadillos are excellent on sandwiches, or as a bacon replacement for a tofu scramble. If you are of a Hawaii state of mind, they also can be used to make a veganized Spam musubi.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Vodka Martinis for National Vodka Day

Raising a toast to your cat is optional, but I like to do it.
Did you know October 4 is National Vodka Day in the U.S.? Me neither. Apparently it's some sort of bogus holiday that exists only for marketing purposes.

That being said, it seems as if post-Vodka Day is as good of a time as any to discuss Vodka Martinis, aka Vodkatinis, aka Kangaroos (really). 

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I tend to prefer tradional, gin-based Martinis. However, sometimes I do opt for the vodka option. A Vodka Martini can be quite refreshing on really hot days, and it's a good choice to have with lighter fare, such as Japanese food. 

When I make Martinis with gin, I use the following recipe:

2 oz. gin
0.5 oz dry vermouth
A splash of orange bitters
Shaken over ice, served in a chilled cocktail glass with a twist of lemon

Alas, this recipe doesn't work too well if you are using vodka instead of gin. There's too much vermouth, and it will overwhelm the vodka. This is why many bartenders make Vodka Martinis with no vermouth at all. However, with no vermouth, the drink isn't really a Martini. I tend to go along with Esquire's suggestion of an 18 to 1 vodka to vermouth. So my recipe for a Vodka Martini ends up looking like this:

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

More on Back to Basics Training

Yesterday I posted about taking my fitness routine back to the basics. I quickly got a few requests for details about exactly what sort of workouts I've been doing. Well, as James Bond once observedthe first rule of mass media is "Give the people what they want." So here's a snapshot of what I've been doing for the past couple of months training-wise... 

Monday, Wednesday, Friday

I have a red neck, but I'm not a redneck.
Kettlebell Turkish Get-Ups: I was using a 20kg 'bell and doing about a dozen reps each side. A few weeks ago I moved up to the 53kg and have cut my reps down to three or four each side. I do single reps of TGUs, and do an easy set of Push-Ups in between reps. I'll do a TGU on my left, a few Push-Ups, a TGU on the right, a few more Push-Ups, and so on. By the way, doing Push-Ups and TGUs together makes my abs want to jump out of my body and run and hide.

After TGU's and Push-Ups, I move on to Pull-Ups and Push-Ups. For the Pull-Ups, I vary my grip on each set. My favorite grips are neutral grip (palms facing each other) and mix-matched grip (one palm facing me, one palm facing away from me). I seldom do more than 5 reps in a set. I usually do at least 50 Pull-Ups total, and do about a quarter of those wearing a 20lb. weight vest.  

As seen on TV!

For Push-Ups, I aim for 100 total. I keep the number of reps per set around 7 to 10. As with Pull-Ups, I vary what type of Push-Ups I do. Mostly I do standard Push-Ups, but I also throw in Diamond Push-Ups, Hindu Push-Ups, and Push-Ups using the surprisingly effective Perfect Push-Up handles.

If I'm doing Goblet Squats, I do them on TGU day. I use a 44kg kettlebell and keep the numbers of sets and reps a bit low, because my legs have already gotten a workout from the TGUs. Plus, Goblet Squats are biomechanically a bit tricky for some one who is 6'3" with an inseam of about 36".

Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday

An arty Swing photo.
I do a Kettlebell Swing/Push-Up routine inspired by something I saw from coach Dan John. It's simple. Do 10 (or 15 or 20) Swings followed by 10 Push-Ups. Repeat the same number of Swings, but do 9 Push-Ups. Work your way down to just one Push-Up. Keep rests periods as short as possible. Right now I'm doing sets of 20 Swings with a 53kg 'bell, for a total of 200 Swings and 55 Push-Ups. When I'm done, I do 45 more Push-Ups to bring the total up to 100. (And no, I have not found that doing 100 Push-Ups a day six days a week leads to overtraining.)

After finishing my Push-Ups, I usually do a short core routine based on Dr. Stuart McGill's Big 3 Core Exercises.

I always start my workouts with a few minutes of meditation and some dynamic stretching. I always conclude with about 10 minutes of yoga based on the Eischens yoga sequence I learned at Monkey Bar Gym.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Back to Fitness Basics

Kettlebells are a fantastic training tool. Not only are they incredibly effective, but they are also a lot of fun and versatile. There are countless exercises you can do with them.

My cat Ziggy likes kettlebells, too.
Ironically, the fact that kettlebells are so fun and so versatile can pose problems. At least, they did in my case. I found myself changing up my kettlebell routines far too often, just because I wanted to try new things. While variety can be a good thing, it can also work against you. There's something to be said for doing the same things over and over. Consistency counts.

Swings in the park!
In an effort to cure by Kettlebell Attention Deficit Disorder (KADD?), for the past several months I've only concentrated on a few basic kettlebell and bodyweight exercises...
  • Push-Ups
  • Pull-Ups
  • Turkish Get-Ups
  • Swings
Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I do Turkish Get-Ups and Pull-Ups. 

Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday I do Swings and Dr. Stuart McGill's Big 3 Core Exercises.

I do Push-Ups and about 10 minutes of yoga daily.

Occasionally, I'll throw something else into the mix; usually Goblet Squats. But the above has been the basis for my workouts for the last six months or so.

TGUs in a faux gangsta environment.
There's a reason I chose the exercises I did. They work. And doing them a lot and often makes them work even better.

Have I become bored? No. In fact, I've grown to love the grind of doing the same things over and over. There's something almost Zen-like about it.

Am I still getting results? If by "results" you mean getting stronger and leaner, then yes.

I plan to stick with the basics for the foreseeable future, adding moves such as Snatches and Goblet Squats here and there. But since I'm still improving, I have no intention of making any drastic changes anytime soon. As they say, if it ain't broke...

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Finding Real Life Inspiration from Fictional Heroes: John Rain

Barry Eisler is, in my opinion, the best thriller writer since the genre's glory days in the '60s, and his half-American/half-Japanese anti-hero John Rain is probably the coolest assassin in fiction, and one of the best characters since James Bond.

If you're in to fitness and martial arts, the Rain novels are must-reads. Eisler lived in Japan for many years, where he earned his Judo black belt at the famous Kodokan. He also knows a bit about Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Kali, Sambo, and other fighting arts. The fight scenes in the novels are brutal, believable, and realistic. If you practice a grappling art, reading Eisler will make you want to put down the book and find a partner to roll with. In fact, sometimes before a hard BJJ session, I find myself thinking a variation of Bruce Lee's "Be like water." I think: "Be like Rain!"

Want more proof of Eisler's martial arts cred? Check out this quote from the great BJJ site OnTheMat.com:
Grapplers should be excited to know that going against the typical grain grappling techniques are vividly described in the books many action sequences (in both John Rain's "field" work and in a visit to the famous Kudokan).
(Quick Aside: Barry Eisler's great website features a fantastic article called "Practical Martial Arts Tips from Assassin John Rain" that pretty much sums up my thoughts on the subject.)

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Dark and Stormy: A Drink for Summer's End

Looking through my cupboards a while back, I discovered I had a half-full bottle (or was it half empty) of Myer's Dark Rum. I'd forgotten it was there, so it was like a mini-Christmas surprise.

I wanted to make something other than the standard, boring Rum & Cola, even though those are delicious. I decided to try something new. Since I love a good ginger beer, I opted for a Dark & Stormy.

I headed across the street to my local Whole Foods and picked-up a Reed's Ginger Beer, one of the true princes among soft drinks. I got home, turned on some bossa nova (Myer's is a Jamaican rum, so reggae or ska would have arguably been more appropriate, but hey... blame it on the bossa nova!), and proceeded to make my concoction. I filled a highball glass with a bunch of ice, added a generous 2 oz. shot of rum, poured in the ginger beer, and topped with a big squeeze of lime.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Finding Real Life Inspiration from Fictional Heroes: Quiller

There are two extremes of espionage fiction. On one hand, there is the glamorous, exciting, yet totally unrealistic world of Ian Fleming and James Bond. On the other, there is the believable, realistic, but occasionally dull realm of John LeCarré. Straddling the middle is Adam Hall (pen name for Elleston Trevor) and his flawed, vaguely neurotic spy Quiller.

Quiller a fascinating character. His creator describes him as "In his forties, he is as fit as an alley cat and his whole makeup is tense, edgy and bitten-eared." Unlike James Bond, he doesn't drink or smoke, nor does he engage in relentless womanizing. In fact, Quiller is quite respectful of women. In the words of Adam Hall...

Nor is he macho, and this may explain why more than half the people who write me are women. In Murmansk, where Liz is applying Tiger Balm to our bruised and bloodied espion, she asks him if he doesn't find it irksome to have his wounds licked for him by a mere woman. He scarcely understands her. "Where else would a man go, but to the earth mother?"
And while Quiller had few possessions and little wealth, anything he had was to go to a shelter for battered women should he die on a mission. This was a cause close to the author's heart as well. According to Elleston Trevor's obitituary, "Late in life he took up the cause of battered women, campaigned vigorously for that, and was generous with money."

Quiller hardly every uses a gun, preferring to use his wits or martial arts skills. (The author of the series was well-versed in both Shotokan Karate and Aikido.) Quiller is also the type of individual who relies on herbs and traditional Asian massage to deal with injury and illness. At one point he even mentions he once traveled to Tibet to meditate.

Often referring to himself as a ferret, Quiller had an affinity for animals. To again quote Adam Hall...

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Self-Hypnosis and Zen Breathing

My mom taught me many valuable things (such as standing up for myself, which helped save me from a would-be child molester). One of the the particularly useful skills she taught me when I was a child was self-hypnosis. 

It may sound like I'm about to veer into Derek Flint territory, but there isn't anything particularly weird or mysterious about simple self-hypnosis, at least not the method I use. 

Here are the basics:
  1. Lie down or sit comfortably.
  2. Close your eyes.
  3. Begin concentrating on your toes. Think about them. Then imagine them falling asleep. almost as if they are disconnecting from the rest of your body.
  4. Once you are done with your toes, move on to your feet, your legs, etc.
That's it. Often, you are either deeply relaxed or asleep before you ever make it to your face and head.

I've found self-hypnosis particularly useful on nights I couldn't get to sleep and on long airplane trips.

Where did my mom pick up this offbeat skill? I don't really know. She was an accomplished nurse, and accumulated all sorts of medical knowledge over the years. Self-hypnosis was probably just one of those things she picked up.

Zen breathing is sort of a cousin of self-hypnosis. It's also a rather fancy way of simply referring to the practice counting your breaths. 

I was introduced to the concept in the works of Robert Aitken.  Aitken (1917 - 2010) was the master of the Diamond Sangha, a Zen Buddhist society he founded in Honolulu in 1959. He advocated the counting of breaths to people who were new to sesshin, or intense Zen meditation.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Thomas Covenant, Martial Arts, and the Oath of Peace

Literary genre-wise, this blog has something of a tendency towards thrillers and mysteries. However, I am also a big fantasy fan. In fact, my love of fantasy predated my fondness for spy and detective stuff.

One classic series I never got around to reading until very recently was Stephen R. Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. I tried to read the first one, Lord Foul's Bane, when I was in high school back in the '80s. I wasn't quite ready for it, and quit reading it after a certain infamous scene involving Covenant and and a girl named Lena.

This January, I decided to give the book a second chance. I'm glad I did. I quickly devoured both it and the follow-up, The Illearth War. I am in the middle of reading the final book of the first trilogy, The Power That Preserves.

Leaving aside the trilogy's important contribution to the genre, the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant isn't just outstanding fantasy fiction; it's outstanding fiction, period. I really appreciate the complex moral and ethical themes, and the fictional setting of the Land is simply an outstanding and well-developed setting. Due to Donaldson's power of description, I—unlike Covenant—almost believe it is real.

In addition to being a novelist, Stephen R. Donaldson is also a martial artist, holding a Black Belt in Shotokan Karate. (As a side note, Donaldson didn't start training until he was in his early forties. He wrote a nice essay about "The Aging Student of the Martial Arts" that's worth a read.) I was surprised to learn that he was not a karateka at the time he wrote the first Covenant trilogy, as the books have something of a martial arts sensibility.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Martial Artists and the Arts

Enson Inoue.
I mentioned in passing to someone that mixed martial arts champion Enson Inoue is a talented jewelry maker who crafts very nice bracelets that he sells for charity. (Check out his website, Destiny Forever.) The person I was speaking to expressed surprise, saying that making jewelry "doesn't seem like something a fighter would do."

Enson Inoue's handcrafted bracelets.
Perhaps to a non-martial artist the idea of a fighter making jewelry seems odd, but it certainly doesn't seem odd to me. There is a long history of warriors creating art.

A self-portrait by Musashi.
One famous example would have to be Miyamoto Musashi. A 16th century samurai, Musashi is best known today as the author of Go Rin No Sho, or The Book of Five Rings. Musashi was a skilled fighter who is said to have fought over 60 duels and was never defeated. Yet Musashi wasn't merely a warrior. He was an artist,  excelling at calligraphy and classic ink painting. 

Musashi's 'Shrike on a Dead Branch.'
Today, there are professional fighters who also create art. Mac Danzig is a skilled photographer. Eddie Bravo makes music. Personally, I have had the pleasure of training with many individuals who are writers, artists, musicians, glass blowers, and so on in addition to being martial artists. 

I believe it is important to balance the fighting arts with the non-fighting arts. As much as one may talk about self-development, mental discipline, etc., the truth of the matter is that most martial arts at their core are essentially about destruction. On the other hand, fine arts are at their essence about creation. By balancing these twin impulses—destruction and creation—an individual becomes a more complete person. 

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

America's Best Bargain Bourbon

First of all... I'm back! I neglected this blog over the holidays due to work and personal responsibilities, but I plan to get back in the swing of things and post some new materials over the next few weeks.

Now that I've got that out of the way... A big recent booze-related news story is the pending purchase of iconic American distillers Beam Inc. by Japan's Suntory. Beam is famous for it's boring yet reliable Jim Beam white label bourbon, as well as the underrated Jim Beam Black, the excellent Maker's Mark and Knob Creek, and the unfiltered 120+ proof powerhouse Booker's. Jim Beam was also shilled by none other than Sean Connery back in his 007 days.

Suntory is a well-established Japanese beverage company that offers a variety of products, and is especially known for their whiskies, which are apparently rather Scotch-like. They also feature in the wonderful film Lost in Translation. Alas, I don't recall ever having any of their offerings. 

I'm not going to get into the controversies of the purchase. Instead, I want to use this news as a springboard to discuss my favorite bargain bourbon: Evan Williams Black Label.