These Are a Few of My Favorite Things


Christmas season is the traditional time to take stock of the year’s events and to reflect on the "big picture." Since there’s been no shortage of things worrisome and downright ominous this year, it’s important to occasionally focus on the positive. After all, one can’t go through life perpetually angry or depressed. While toiling in my daily routine, I’ve stumbled upon a variety of little gems that made me smile and remember what a wonderful world it really is.

So, with that in mind, here are a few of my favorite things:

Favorite New Artist: Carmen Monarcha

An acquaintance recently gave me a DVD of classical music’s preeminent gadfly, Andre Rieu, performing with his Johann Strauss Orchestra in Tuscany.

I should confess that I received the gift with well-concealed trepidation. Although Rieu is undeniably a talented violinist, there’s just something about him that rubs me the wrong way. Nevertheless, since I didn’t want to slight a friend, I eventually sat down and watched the concert.

As always, the music was wonderful. The musicians looked magnificent in their gowns and tuxedos, and the special effects were delightful.

Unfortunately, Andre was his usual self too.

But about twenty minutes into the concert, the lights dimmed and Andre announced the next piece, which was to be "O Mio Babbino Caro" from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. He then proceeded to introduce the soprano, one Carmen Monarcha. I sat, mesmerized, as she glided onto the stage like Venus rising from the sea foam. The song, which I contend is one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written, became nearly ethereal in her hands. Her voice resonated with almost perfect pitch and timbre. Each of her movements revealed that subtly coquettish yet paradoxically innocent sensuality that women of Mediterranean extraction somehow find instinctive. By the time her last note had echoed away, the audience was eating out of her hand. Young girls were twirling in their chairs. Couples were snuggling together. Old men were crying.

Her performance was nothing short of miraculous.

Later in the concert, she sang several duets with Carla Maffioletti (another Italian-Brazilian soprano who tours with Rieu), including Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.

Each song was more astonishing than the next.

Since seeing this concert, I’ve scrounged around for Monarcha’s other performances. For whatever reason, she hasn’t cut any solo CDs (what kind of a twisted world is it that permits a major talent like hers to be without one, but that simultaneously rewards huge recording contracts to bozos like Snoop Doggy Dogg and Kevin Federline?).

But she does, thankfully, appear on several of Rieu’s other DVDs.

If you enjoy classical music, you will be literally blown away by this young soprano. Hopefully, she will move past Rieu’s orchestra and into more mainstream opera circles, because she has talent and stage presence that appear only once or twice in a generation.

Favorite New Wine: Ridge Monte Bello 2000

Every Christmas season, I gather with a small group of friends who, due to our divergent schedules, I rarely see during the course of the year. We’ve made it an annual ritual to enjoy fine cuisine, share the year’s stories, and imbibe in adult beverages. This year, we chose a restaurant that is well known for its outstanding chef and its extensive wine cellar.

Upon arrival, and much to my chagrin, I learned that this establishment’s "extensive wine cellar" was limited to American labels only. While I don’t begrudge the owner his right to stock whatever wines he chooses, I’m not a big fan of American reds. Although Californian whites (especially Chardonnays) have a considerable international reputation, I don’t like most white varietals and seldom drink them.

Since Californian reds are not, in my opinion, very good, I was in a bit of a bind.

After I explained my dilemma to the group, one of my friends made a suggestion. I should, she claimed, set aside my prejudice and try a bottle of Monte Bello from the Ridge Vineyards (of Santa Clara California).

She promised I wouldn’t regret it.

I hemmed and hawed…and even considered ordering a pinot grigio. But, again not wanting to slight a friend, I grudgingly followed her suggestion.

It was an eye-opening experience, to say the least. This winery produces one of the smoothest and most delightful cabernets I’ve ever tasted. It left me literally flabbergasted. Later in the evening I sampled their zinfandel, which was also extraordinary. (NOTE: I have no financial interest in this product whatsoever.)

I don’t know what they’re doing at this winery, but they’ve smashed my bias against California reds to smithereens. These wines are as good — or better — than anything coming out of Europe or Australia.

Give them a try…you won’t regret it.

Politician of the Year: Representative John P. Murtha

Stretching back to my days in elementary school, my hometown’s congressional representative has been one John P. Murtha. He was a constant presence in our community, and I grew up regularly seeing his face on the local news.

Since familiarity with politicians often breeds contempt, I never really had a high opinion of him (which isn’t too surprising, given that I don’t have a high opinion of anyone in Washington). He is a liberal Democrat in the old Tip O’Neill/Dan Rostenkowski mold. He never met a tax hike he didn’t like. He slings more pork than a cook at Bob Evans. I’ve even suspected he has a secret desire to turn the entire country into a giant version of the Tennessee Valley Authority.

But all that is forgiven.

Over the past year, John Murtha has embarked on a one-man crusade to end America’s involvement in our Iraqi quagmire. Almost alone among congressional leaders, he has withstood the neocons’ smear campaign and has stuck by his convictions.

Given that he is a reserve colonel in the Marine Corps and a decorated Vietnam veteran, he has the credibility to call for a withdrawal without being disregarded as an anti-American liberal. Even more importantly, his well-known connections with senior brass at the Pentagon have sparked whispers that he has taken his cue from the generals, who think it’s time to end the war.

The social and political nature of his district makes his stand even more astonishing. He represents an area of southwestern Pennsylvania that is populated by hard-nosed, blue-collar workers and small town conservatives. This is a region where schools close on the first day of deer season and the only sushi you’ll find is in bait shops.

San Francisco, it is not.

The mere fact that Murtha could come out publicly against the war and not suffer a political debacle back home is a measure of just how low support for the Iraq war really is.

Nevertheless, the nation desperately needed someone of military stature and political prominence to stand up and speak the truth.

So, despite a lifetime of tax-and-spend liberalism, I applaud John Murtha for that rarest of Washington commodities: the willingness to speak out and risk one’s career to advance a noble cause.

Gadget of the Year: Flash Drives

For too many years, I’ve been struggling with the inadequacies of floppy disks.

Since I’m usually working on several columns at any given time, and I’m also finishing my first novel (if there are any agents or publishers out there who handle genre fiction, please feel free to drop me an email), I use a lot of memory. Back in my floppy disk days, I’d often run out of space while trying to save new data or while updating a large file.

Worse yet, the data would sometimes disappear altogether, for no apparent reason.

And if those perils weren’t bad enough, my toddler daughter took a mysterious liking to floppy disks and frequently absconded with them. Days later, I’d find the pilfered disk stashed inside a doll house or jammed into her toy music box. She had a peculiar fascination with tearing the little metal things off the end and bending them into modern art masterpieces (don’t try that at home…it leaves the tape exposed, which usually results in an unrecoverable data loss).

These tribulations came to a screeching halt when an employee suggested I switch to flash drives.

Since I’m conservative by nature, I was suspicious and skeptical. Are these gizmos reliable? Do I need to load a lot of complicated software to use them? Am I really ready to make this sort of commitment?

Thankfully, I went ahead and gave it a try…and I’ve never looked back.

These things are absolutely amazing.

My first flash drive only cost 25 dollars and had 512 megabytes of memory! I can remember PC hard drives with less memory than that! The thing is the size of a butane cigarette lighter, plugs straight into a USB port, and requires no additional software (if you’re using Microsoft XP).

On top of everything else, they are lightening-fast compared to old floppies.

So if you’re having portable data storage problems, run out and get a couple of these wonderful gizmos. They’ll make your life a lot easier.