Amazon Investigations Case#18.12.20_01: suspicious 5 star review of Bruce Springsteen, Western Stars.

Confidential transcript of a recorded conversation that took place at an undisclosed location in San Mateo County, California on December 18, 2020 between Amazon Investigative Team A3b and Amazon Prime customer, Bradley N.

Western Stars on CD. Cute baby horsey not included.

Amazon IT-A3b: Hello, Bradley N. Please have a seat. We will be recording this conversation. Is that OK with you?

Bradley: Yes, that is fine.

A: Do you know why we are here?

B: Because of a recent review I wrote for Bruce Springsteen’s recent album, Western Stars. At least, that’s what Jeff told me over the phone.

A: Good. I’m glad we’re on the same page. Did Jeff also mention why we want to talk with you about your review, exactly?

B: No, not exactly. The phone connection wasn’t great, as Jeff was on his way to Texas in a helicopter to tour a Blue Origin launch facility. But I have to assume it’s because I gave Western Stars a 5-star rating on Amazon Prime shortly after it was delivered to my home address. Isn’t that why you’re here?

A: We’re here because we have reason to believe that you decided to give Western Stars a 5-star rating on Amazon Prime even BEFORE you finished listening to the album in its entirety. In other words, you may be guilty of a serious infraction. Premeditated 5-star reviewing. It’s a growing problem. In fact, we at Amazon think it ranks right up there with prescription drug abuse, unauthorized immigration, and the sky high costs of rent and new housing in this country. And COVID-19. Obviously.

B: Obviously. But wait a minute! I didn’t just GIVE Bruce 5 stars for his new album before I listened to it. Like, that’s just wrong!

A: Well, Jeff will be very pleased to hear you say that. On the record, of course.

B: I will say it again: I did NOT review Western Stars prematurely! I listened to the whole album before I awarded it 5 stars. Bruce EARNED those stars, man. Believe me! It’s just that, well, as I clearly state on my Amazon Prime profile page – and I quote:

As an Amazon Prime reviewer, I intend to highlight only the very best work of authors, musicians, artists, filmmakers, and scholars, along with a carefully curated selection of consumer home products with which I have direct and positive personal experiences. If I cannot award 5 stars unreservedly, I will not submit a review. 

A: Yes, our Investigative Team has researched your profile and past reviews quite exhaustively.

B: So why the suspicion now about my review of Western Stars? I mean, have you even listened to it yet? It’s Bruce’s best work in years, and his most Western-oriented effort ever. It’s even better than The Ghost of Tom Joad or The Seeger Sessions.

A: We can’t reveal our reactions to Western Stars, or comment on any other Bruce Springsteen-related products available for purchase on Amazon, like his memoir, Born to Run. Conflict of interest and all. You understand, I’m sure.

B: Come on. Just between you and me. Jeff won’t mind. I’ll bet he loves the Boss as much as I do!

A: Sir, Jeff’s opinions of Bruce Springsteen – as a person, political activist, campaign fund raiser, singer, author, standup paddle boarder, downhill skier, or avid motorcyclist – are definitely not relevant subjects to this investigation.

B: Well, then, what is relevant to this investigation?

A: Your 5-star review of Western Stars, sir. Is it genuine? Did you actually listen to the album in its entirety before submitting your customer review? What is your favorite song on the album?

B: The answers to your questions are: yes, yes, and a tie between “Chasin’ Wild Horses” because Montana rocks and “Moonlight Motel” (because it IS better to have loved). 

A: Hmmm. Sounds … convincing enough. I think you might be telling the truth after all.

B: Of course I am. They don’t hand out these Amazon Prime “Verified Purchase” badges to just anybody, you know. But, in point of fact: what would happen – theoretically speaking – if I had actually submitted my review before I finished listening? Maybe I was so impressed by the first few tracks that I made up my mind before reaching the end. Or maybe I found the album cover’s original artwork was worth 5-stars alone. Or maybe because Bruce is a living god who can do no wrong. What would be the harm with any of that?

A: Sir, the vast majority of Amazon Prime customers take their jobs as unpaid product reviewers extremely seriously. We can’t have people questioning the veracity of their reviews and star ratings. It’s our job to investigate suspicious cases, just to be sure.

B: Oh, you mean those suspicious 10 words of less “reviews” that pass as actual ones? And at least a few of those words are usually misspelled anyway. Probably their iPhone autocorrect feature is to blame, they’ll tell you if asked about it. But I don’t think Bruce decided to name his album “Worsted Ishtar,” now did he? So, what about all of those cases? Do you investigate those reviews as well?

A: Sir, our investigations are completely confidential. We can’t reveal who we speak to, or why. It’s need to know only. And only Jeff, plus an elite cohort of our most prized, Top 100 Reviewers, need to know. You sir, are #4,335,331. You most definitely do NOT need to know!

B: But I have far more experience than many others who sought the badge of an Amazon Prime Top 100 Reviewer, or other high-ranking badge, for that matter. I have as much experience in reviewing products as “The Jeff Bezos” did when he started out reviewing products for Amazon. And I will be prepared to deal with the people who assiduously read Amazon reviews before making their purchasing decisions, if an unfortunate event were to occur to a major badge holder like “The Jeff Bezos.” 

A: Sir, I’ve served with “The Jeff Bezos.” I knew “The Jeff Bezos.” “The Jeff Bezos” was a friend of mine. Bradley N., you’re no “The Jeff Bezos.”

B: Ouch. That hurts. That really hurts! It’s true, of course, but that doesn’t dull the pain.

A: I’m sorry I had to go there, sir. But you kind of had it coming.

B: Agreed. But I must tell you, once again, for the record. Bruce Springsteen’s Western Stars album is an instant classic. It’s 5 stars all the way. Now, if I were to give a 5-star review to Madonna’s newest album, then … Well! Then you’d have something genuinely suspicious to investigate, now wouldn’t you?

A: Don’t get me started on the Madame X investigation, sir. It’s the biggest case file in our history – and growing.

B: I mean, what’s with the eyebrows and kabuki-theater white makeup? A Frida Kahlo portrait it most definitely is not. Looks like it should be cover art for an Anne Rice novel, if you ask me. Interview with a Blood-sucking Diva. Which I mean in the nicest way possible.

A: Obviously. 

B: Yes, quite.

A: That’s a good stopping point, I think.

B: Fine. How about listening to Western Stars with me on the stereo before you have to leave?

A: Only if you’ve got something cool and refreshing to drink as well.

B: As luck would have it, I’ve got a growler filled with Fieldwork Brewing Company’s “Shindo” West Coast style IPA. And fresh, German-style pretzels from Backhaus Bakery in San Mateo. Would that work?

A: Indeed, it most certainly would. This case is closed. Cheers, Bradley N. 

B: Cheers! You know, as I look at us all gathered together here, drinking local craft beer and snacking on fresh, American-made baked goods as the sun sets once more over the redwood-bedecked San Mateo coast, I think that Bruce and Jeff would both be so proud. Don’t you think?

A: Yes, sir. Most definitely! I can most definitely drink to that.

[end of transcript].

CDs make great stocking stuffers.

My Yogi Daily Affirmation

Friday, December 18, 2020

“Life is a Gift: Choose it Wisely.”

Life IS a gift, but the occasional wrapped present doesn’t hurt, either.

I like to begin each weekday morning in wintertime with a cup or two of Yogi herbal tea. While my favorite variety is ginger, there are many others available on the Yogi Storefront on Amazon from which to choose. I prefer to start my morning work routines without the artificial boost of caffeine, and since I often practice 20-hour periodic fasting (no solid food from 7pm in the evening until to 3pm in the afternoon of the following day), drinking nourishing tea supplemented by a mid-morning coffee is critical to maintaining my energy, drive, and focus.

I am accompanying my first cup of ginger tea this morning by listening to “Wake Me“, from Mandolin Orange’s album, Haste Make/Hard Hearted Stranger. As I type, this is followed by “Old Hickory” by Old Crow Medicine Show’s album, Volunteer. It’s the perfect folksy, grassroots musical soundtrack to accompany my winter morning. I am about one month into a three month free trial on Amazon Music Unlimited, and the experience is gradually changing my somewhat outdated views of how best to listen to music. I actually have a large CD collection dating back to the 1990s, and I supplement it with free music using my public library’s Hoopla account, but the nice thing about Amazon Unlimited is how well the predictive algorithm shuffles in new songs based on my likes, lists, and past listening sessions.

It’s not foolproof, by any means, but the more effort you as a user invest in liking, disliking, and selecting songs, artists, or albums you like, the better the A.I. becomes at adding in newer selections from time to time. “Crowded Table,” by The Highwomen, is equal parts yearning and nostalgic in the way that all classic, American Dream songs tend to be. Before a few moments ago, I hadn’t even realized that this song even existed. And what would life be with out the occasional pleasant or serendipitous discoveries from time to time? That’s what I enjoy about my Yogi tea daily affirmations, and it’s what, in the end, I also enjoy about Amazon Music Unlimited.

If you’d like to read more about my winter seasonal tea and coffee rituals, please see my earlier post from last week, which you can read here. Thanks for the time! Hope to see you again real soon.

“Jammin’ with Jeff Bezos” – Episode 2: Rabbit™ Wine Aerator Shower Funnel with Sediment Strainer at the Redwood Bistro

Unofficial transcript of a conversation between Amazon founder and world’s wealthiest man, Jeff B., and Amazon Associate, Bradley N., at The Redwood Bistro.

Rabbit Wine Aerator Shower Funnel.

(Recorded live in San Mateo County, California on December 16, 2020).

Jeff: Hi everyone, and welcome to the next episode of the new Amazon Studios documentary series, “Jammin’ with Jeff Bezos.” In each episode of the series, I’ll be visiting Amazon Associates around the world, and I’ll invite them to tell me about one specific product they recently purchased online from Amazon that literally changed their lives for the better. And remember, folks: when you are jammin’ with Jeff Bezos, you are always “primed and ready for a really great time.”® 

Let’s get right to it, shall we? As you can see from the gorgeous redwoods in the background and the delicious looking spread of food and wine in front of us, we’re back in the Santa Cruz Mountains just south of San Francisco, speaking for the second time in a row with Amazon Associate, Bradley N., who is in charge of the craft beer, fine wine, and spirits program at this remarkable little pop-up bistro, whose food and drinks rival those of Michelin-starred restaurants in nearby Silicon Valley, but with stunning ocean and redwood forest views that those spots just can’t match. And, if I’m not mistaken about this, Bradley, you’re also the head chef and co-founder of the Redwood Bistro, are you not?

Bradley: Yes, Jeff. That’s right. We’re a tiny operation, so everyone who works here has to wear many hats. Most of the time, it’s just my wife and me who handle kitchen and serving duties, with a couple of students we recruit from Stanford to help us out with wine and drinks and also with the cleanup. 

J: Wow! You know, when I started Amazon in Seattle years ago, it also was quite small when compared to the Amazon of today. Everyone played a part in everything, and there was this energy. It was electric! Sometimes, I miss those days. But then I look at my latest financial statements, and I decide otherwise.

B: Well, for our parts, my wife and I never intended the Redwood Bistro to be a profit center. It’s more like a labor of love. 

J: I can appreciate that as well. Much of what I do these days is in the field of experimental capital investment, and I’m up to my ears in a host of philanthropic causes as well. So, I totally get what you are saying.

B: I’m sure that you do. I mean, the whole “Jammin’ with Jeff Bezos” series that you’ve just started streaming on Amazon Prime Unlimited is basically a way to celebrate the average Joe customers out there, like myself, who get this amazing opportunity to promote a consumer home product that has made a big difference in their lives. Personally speaking, I find that a very worthwhile cause.

J: Which is the perfect segue into the main subject of our conversation this afternoon. What say we end the suspense for our viewers? What’s the life-changing product that you’ve brought for us to talk about?

B: Well, since I’m speaking with you today in my capacity as the head sommelier of the Redwood Bistro, it’s going to be related to wine appreciation. Take a look: the Rabbit™ Wine Aerator Shower Funnel with Sediment Strainer, from a company based in your home town, so to speak, of Seattle, Washington. 

J: A wine shower sediment strainer thingie what? I’m sorry. I think I lost you there. You said the words “funnel” and “strainer.” Funny, I do enjoy wine myself, but those are terms I typically associate with cooking, not wine drinking. Cocktail making, maybe. But not fine wine.

B: Well, that’s precisely my point, Jeff.  Most people know about waiter’s corkscrews and decanting vessels and maybe even own a Vinturi™ wine aerator that someone gifted them for their thirty-fifth birthday. But the truth of the matter is, if you’ve got a Rabbit™ Aerator Wine Shower Funnel with Sediment Strainer, it’s almost like you’ve got your very own sommelier at your service. 

Functional and good looking!

J: Come on! 

B: Well, you’d also need some really nice wine glasses, like the Gabriel Glas Austrian Crystal “StandArt” Edition two piece set, and you’d need a nice glass decanter by a top manufacturer like Riedel, such as their Cabernet model (around $62 on Amazon). But the funnel and strainer are key to unlocking the essence of truly great and distinctive wines. 

J: Why is that, exactly?

B: Really well made wines like to breathe after opening, especially ones that you’ve been cellaring for a few years or more. But they don’t like to be awakened from their blissful slumber violently, no more than a teenager likes to be shaken awake by his dad at 6am in the morning. Gentle is best, a soft caress with a light and loving touch. And then, that wine will just blossom in the glass and make your meal that much more special.

J: OK, I think I follow you. But what makes the Rabbit™ Aerator Wine Shower Funnel with Sediment Strainer such a great tool for aerating an expensive bottle of wine? 

B: It’s made of non-reactive stainless steel, for one, not plastic like the Vinturi™ models out there or other versions you might find at your basic Williams Sonoma store at the mall. And the funnel has tiny holes at the tip that actually create a “shower effect” as you pour the wine into your glass decanter. It looks nice, too, so we generally perform this operation directly at the table for our guests here at The Redwood Bistro.

J: That’s the wine shower-funnel bit, I get that now. But you also mentioned something about a strainer as well?

B: Nothing gets past that razor-sharp mind of yours, does it Jeff? 

J: Usually not. Just ask my board of directors.

B: Hey, I trust you! Anyway, the strainer attachment is separate from the shower-funnel. It’s also made of stainless steel but has a fine mesh lining that allows you to filter out sediment and other solid matter that can accumulate at the bottom or sides of a bottle of wine that’s been in the cellar for a while.

J: I know about that sediment stuff. At fancy restaurants, the wine stewards will decant the wine by the light of a candle and make a big deal about leaving the gunk, if you will, in the bottle and not in your glass. Unless they do a poor job, and then the last pour of your wine is filled with an unsightly deposit of crud.

B: Right. It’s not harmful obviously, but isn’t very aesthetically pleasing, either. So, if you use the strainer part while decanting your wine for aeration purposes, it’s like a twofer. Aerating and filtering all in one. Our guests just love it.

J: I can see why! You are educating them about proper wine etiquette without being stuffed up jerks about it. That’s fantastic!

B: But wait, Jeff. It gets even better! Our guests are so taken by the Rabbit™ Wine Aerator Shower Funnel with Sediment Strainer that we’ve ended up ordering a bunch of extras on Amazon and, at the end of the meal, we present them a gift-wrapped one in a special box along with a signed and framed copy of the tasting menu that day, along with a high-resolution bottle shot of the particular wine that they ordered. It doesn’t cost all that much, and it is super special. Our guests often email or text us days or weeks later about how the Rabbit™ Wine Aerator Shower Funnel with Sediment Strainer has revolutionized their home wine drinking and serving practices. Then they usually log into their Amazon Prime accounts and order a few more as gifts for their family and friends when Christmas and Hanukkah roll around.

J: It’s like some sort of virtuous cycle, isn’t it? We at Amazon make a deal with a great local company like Then, people in the wine or hospitality business like you discover the product and share it with others, who in turn order more of the product as gifts. And then the cycle repeats itself all over again. It’s brilliant!

B: Yes, but it only works because the Rabbit™ Wine Aerator Shower Funnel with Sediment Strainer is such a great, durable, and useful tool for sommeliers and wine writers like me who appreciate its quality craftsmanship and ingenious design, rather than just letting it collect dust in the back of a kitchen drawer, which is what many of my other wine-related tools end up doing. There’s a lot of useless crap out there, you know!

J: Don’t I know it! Or, I did, when I was still cooking my own meals and picking my own wine. I have help with those things now.

In fact, we sell quite a bit of kitchen gadgets on Amazon that never work out, in addition to these amazing, life-changing products that we’re discussing in my new “Jammin’ with Jeff Bezos” series produced by Amazon Studios. That’s why leaving a customer review for products you truly appreciate is such a great service to other Amazon customers. 

B: Obviously.

J: Yes, indeed. But I see from my producer that we’re almost out of time here. Bradley, you’ve totally sold me on the merits of the Rabbit™ Wine Aerator Shower Funnel with Sediment Strainer. I’m giving them out next year at our company’s winter holiday party. I’m calling my assistant right away to tell her exactly that. And now, I assume, we’re ready for some food and wine? I’m certainly famished, and by the looks of it, so is the “Jammin’ with Jeff Bezos” recording crew.

B: Well, you’re not all gathered at San Mateo County’s most exclusive, under-the-radar eating establishment for nothing! 

J: What have you got lined up for us today?

Wine gift set – perfect for the Christmas holidays.

B: I chose two wines to go along with two different ribeye steaks, both from California. One is a grass fed bison ribeye from Cali Bison, a Menlo Park family company with bison herds that graze in fields just north of spectacular, snow-capped Mount Shasta. The other is pasture raised beef ribeye from a Scottish breed of Angus cattle raised in Potter Valley by McFadden Family Vineyard and Farm in Mendocino County. They are both fantastic when grilled with a simple rub made from alderwood smoked salt, dried sage leaves, Tellicherry peppercorns, dehydrated Meyer lemon zest, and just a hint of ground juniper berry. We’ll pair the steaks with fingerling potatoes roasted in a hot cast-iron pan and basted with a mixture of organic schmaltz, pastured pork lard, and rendered duck fat. We’ve also got some local grilled asparagus wrapped in prosciutto from Fra’ Mani, an artisan cured meats purveyor in Berkeley. And we’ll also serve a fresh mixed garden salad garnished with soft boiled farm eggs, hakurei turnips, mountain magic red cherry tomatoes, and freshly chopped dill from our organic gardens.

J: That all sounds great! But what about the wines?

B: Well, I want you to compare two red Bordeaux blends from two top California wineries, one in Napa Valley and the other closer to home here in the Santa Cruz Mountains. I’ve selected a 2008 bottle of Cain Five from Napa’s prestigious Spring Mountain district, alongside a 2008 vintage of Ridge’s Monte Bello estate flagship red. They are both drop dead gorgeous wines that will showcase well the aerating and filtering capabilities of the Rabbit™ Wine Aerator Shower Funnel with Sediment Strainer. Shall we get started, then?

J: By all means! You know, if you feed my crew and me this well and serve us wines this wonderful, we just may plan a return visit to The Redwood Bistro for another episode of “Jammin’ with Jeff Bezos.”

B: And you would be more than welcome, Jeff. Any time!

[end of transcript].

A son’s maternal bond made meaningful to all through the collective sweetness of sound and song.

A retrospective music review of Mandolin Orange, Tides of a Teardrop.

Tides of a Teardrop on 2-disc CD.

By now, we’ve all heard about live streaming, blogging, and tweeting almost anything, from the Oscars to the Super Bowl to the 2020 Presidential elections results and their protracted aftermath. But what about live stream reviewing an album of filled with meditative music while listening to it on Amazon Prime Unlimited at the same time? Sounds fun, right? Trust me: it is! Here’s how it works.

Step 1: Sign for a 3-month free trial on Amazon Music Unlimited.
Step 2: Search for an album you like and create a song title list on your blog post.
Step 3: Play the album on your laptop using some really good headphones.
Step 4: Type out the thoughts and reactions that emerge naturally from the music.
Step 5: Once the final track ends, pause, reflect, and write a summation.
Step 6: Publish your post. And wait for the likes and follows to just roll in!

My album of choice is Tides of a Teardrop, by Mandolin Orange, a bluegrass folk group based in North Carolina whose mix of moody lyrics and meditative music I realize enjoy. There’s a lot going on here, much which has to do with mother and son bonds and dealing with the inevitability of loss. Sounds depressing, right? Actually, it’s inspiring. That’s the magic of great music, and this album definitely fits that bill.

Ready? Let’s go!

Tides of a Teardrop song list.

1. Golden Embers
Guitar and violin are telling us a timeworn but touching tale. A fire has burned to its end. The hearse arrives to carry its ashes home. The flames are burning cold memories into a mind that glows golden in the warmth of a mother’s love. Lights flicker, illuminating words scratched into a self conscious and wounded mind. Will this song help it to heal? Percussion of strings. The mandolin weeps. But the music, it shines and glows like embers that will never die. They are eternal. Now, the rhythm picks up. There is an organ playing. Human shapes sway in time, and the violin steps in to carry the body, now bereft of its coffin and earthly form, to its true spiritual home.

2. The Wolves
The wolves are on the move, always on the move. They can never stop running when they are searching for something to eat, driven by hunger to fill a void that refuses to let them rest. They dance to electric guitar and strings. They swing on the dance floor as the stars shine at night. There are tears here, too, but they have dried on the cheeks of the son who has lost a mother. Still, he travels on. He knows of no other way. And the mandolin follows him, like a lost wolf cub in search of a mother’s soft but firm caress. Thank goodness for the brightness of the guitar! It lifts the spirits and turns sadness into a celebration of life. Howl at the moon tonight, and every night. The moon shines down on us all. And the mandolin shakes its strings in agreement. I think to myself: is this a song about the Statue of Liberty – or a Statue of Maternity?

3. Into the Sun
We have gone now from moon to sun. Day dawns like any other. Life will go on even after those we love are lost. Emily starts us out. Her voice speaks of innocence touched and tempered by experience and hard roads walked and loved ones wept for. Harmony! Finally, the two voices touch and become one. This is a bright, sunny tune. My mind twists and sways in time to the melody. I am following them on the wind as the sun rises in the East and we move onward, beyond the past, into the now. How the music moves us just so. The broken wing is mending. When will the mind follow suit?

4. Like You Used To
The mandolin is humming with joy. There is a spring in its step. Emily picks up the tune. I feel the rhythm of the road running through her voice, and now Andrew joins in. There is a bounce, as if riding a horse in grassy, flower-filled valley as snow melts from the peaks above. There is nostalgia here, and remembrance of past love, a mother’s love. But the son must move on. There is no pain in the present, only in the past. Balls and chains are meant for the imprisoned, not the free. And in the open saddle facing a bright Western sky, you are free! Josh Oliver’s guitar playing, as ever, fills the mood with joy, brightness, and effervescent energy. This is a truly Western song born in the mountains of Appalachia, not the Rockies.

5. Mother Deer
The mandolin tells us: this will be a slow, sad, mournful song. A mother’s song. Springtime that lasts forever. Freedom lies in eternity, not in time. Clover fields or Elysian? What sweet honey the bees of heaven will make! Mother will wait with warm milk and honey and a smile as bright as the sun and as wide as an ocean of waving grass. Is it light there? Yes. Always filled with light. In the land of milk, honey, and eternally blooming clover, there is no darkness. No pain. No suffering. Only the sound of a mother’s heart.

6. Lonely All the Time
We pick up pace again. There is real rhythm here, the first Country Swing tune so far. You can dance to this in your dirty jeans and worn leather boots. You may want a whiskey, too. Beautiful violin accompaniment. Soft, like a leather glove. Smooth, like aged bourbon. Whoever plays guitar like that deserves a medal of some sort. Find a new place to call home, where the coffee is freshly brewed and the earth greets you with energy and life. A place on the frontier to call home. Leave the loneliness back East behind.

7. When She’s Feeling Blue
We begin with only words. This is slow, like a dying heartbeat. You will drown in your beer if you’re not careful. Even the Irish would cry hearing a song like this, a sad cadence and deathly serious dirge saved from the pit of despair by the strings of a lone mandolin and a sympathetic band of musical friends. To be held in the arms of a loving woman is a gift from the gods. But those arms will weaken and crumble with age and illness. Find another set of arms to embrace and spread the love forever to those who are still in need. Is the mandolin crying, or smiling? What do its dulcet sounds reveal about a mended heart? Perhaps Josh’s guitar holds the answer. It seems like it always does. Did I just hear a baby cry?

8. Late September
Lightness again. Beautiful upright bass playing by Clint Mullican. We are back at the bar, last call. On liquor, or on love? What would mother say? Would she join you at the bar now that you are a grown man? What would she order to drink? If it were my mother, it would be white Zinfandel. If it were my wife’s mother, it would be plum brandy, except that she’d have made it herself from a family orchard in a Transylvanian village far from here. Closing time will never be the same again. Late September is when the snow begins to fall in the Northern Rockies. And the bars, they will stay open all night so that lost sons can reminisce about the ones they have lost. The best of them will not try to hide their pain, nor mask their tenderness in false displays of manhood. They will cry, they will wipe their tears, pay their bar bill, and then they will move on.

9. Suspended in Heaven
Mandolins and mothers and never ending journeys. But one day, the journey will end, and the strings will fall silent. This is a true mountain music spiritual. West Virginians the world over are tapping their toes to this melody and singing along as best as they can. Please do not let time stand still. Let it dissolve instead. Let it fade away in the light of a sun eternally rising. Stop the singing and simply listen to the sound of heaven’s voices. The stars still shine, and so, Andrew, should you. What is this I hear? Is it the sound of letting go? Or the sound of a true and eternal connection that has never been broken, even in the darkest hour? Reach out to touch the stars!! There you will find her, waiting as if no time or distance at all had ever passed between you. You cannot be separated from her when she is never really gone.

10. Time We Made Time
A summing up song. Ken Burns really could have used this when he was directing “The Civil War.” Lovely guitar by Josh again, and the dependable percussion of Joe Westerlund. I wonder: whose mothers have they lost? Where do their souls go to rest when the red recording lights cease to blink? Ramble in the brambles. Pluck the ripe berries. Wipe the juice from your mouth and wash your face and fingers in the clear, cool waters of a mountain stream. Let the electric guitar soothe you as another song comes to an end and another album is released into the Internet’s ethereal world of digital wonder. How wonderful, indeed! There are church bells sounding, or did I just make this up? Time for talking. There is always time for that. Even if we are only speaking with the souls of the dead.

CD front cover art.

What do we sing about when we sing about death? For Sting in “The Soul Cages,” it was passing a verdict on a father too troubled by his own demons to teach his son how to become a man. And so, Sting had to teach himself this art, and he taught himself so well that he even gave himself his own name, and not the one his father provided.

Andrew Marlin, by contrast, sings of a different sort of childhood, and of a different type of parent. Clearly, there is gentleness here, not judgment. No fire and brimstone fills his spiritual world, only flowers, stars, and sunshine of a healed and spotless mind that is teaching itself to live without pain or regret, like an addict learning to live without his daily fix of substance-induced suffering.

What is most striking here, however, is what Mandolin Orange as an ensemble does. The collective is always stronger than the solo performer. Sting, are you paying attention here? It is the band that plays. It is the band that sings. They emote. They hold their lead songwriter up when he wants to waver or return or regress to an earlier state of being. They let him talk. They let him play. But they keep him fixed in the present, in the now, and they don’t let his past dictate the pace of the songs or tempo of the album. Sting, once he left The Police behind, was never in a million years able to do that. He comes closest, I think, in more mature albums where he partners with talented musicians and fellow singers in The Last Ship, If On A Winter’s Night, and Songs from the Labyrinth, the latter being an exquisite collaboration with Bosnian lutenist Edin Karamazov.

Cheers, Mandolin Orange, for crafting such a precious gemstone of an album about a maternal bond that has bent but never been broken. Personal pain is deeply personal, but the songs you write and sing are for us all now. We all are lifted up and laid gently to rest as we listen to this album, like the tides of teardrop that rises and falls by the pull of a distant moon.

(Pause, while I prepare to submit my review and then press “play”on my stereo again).

Madame X: An act of artifice and authenticity as only a true artist like Madonna can create.

There are no lyrics in the liner notes to Madame X; only images of a majestic mother in motion. Madonna is, at her core, a dancer. When she sings, she moves in time to the music. She feels rhythms and senses beats, she surfs the latest trends but also has a deep aesthetic sensibility that reaches back into the Expressionistic era of the 1920s, if not earlier. Somehow, I as a casual Madonna listener had forgotten that. If I ever really realized it before. 

Madonna, she is a sponge. She soaks up the new and the novel, and she regurgitates it back in a form that privileges movement, kinetics, and flow, not lyrical introspection or virtuoso musical brilliance. She surrounds herself with youth, beauty, and boldly articulate artists of various and diverse backgrounds. Like Dorian Grey, she resists the urge to act her age. To her mind, she is ageless; she reminds me in this album especially of Leni Riefenstahl, but with an All-American, expatriate-in-Iberia twist. Like Leni, Madonna is a master of movement who parleyed her talents into sonic and visual arts of the highest order, even if it meant socializing with unsavory characters at times to realize her pure, aesthetic vision. For Leni, this meant top ranking members of the NSDAP. For Madonna, this meant Sean Penn (not as bad, I grant you). But she outlives them all because she is always the consummate artist at heart, for whom no amount of effort or risk is too much, if it results in an uncommonly creative act. I am fairly confident that Oscar Wilde would have agreed. 

And now, as a single mother of six and multimillionaire many times over who is more cosmopolitan than commoner, she oozes influence. Sure, she still sings and dances for money. But more properly understood: she emotes. She elicits. She entices. She entangles. She enchants. She elevates. She enlightens. Homer would make of her life an odyssey. And there would be no need for Penelope. Madonna would be Ulysses and Penelope fused into a pan-gender hero who flouts conventions while fearlessly challenging Zeus and the Titans to an epic, all-in battle for earthly supremacy.

Is Madame X a transcendent album of original music? I don’t know. In terms of musicality, to my ear, it only really gets good at Track 7 (“Crave”), although I am warming up to the earlier, more experimental tracks after multiple listenings. But by Track 7, at the latest, I am fully attentive to the music, although truth be told, it is a bit like listening to an opera without actually watching the action unfold on the stage. You have to imagine these songs with energetic, exuberant bodies in motion. Beautiful, sinuous human shapes of varying ages, tones, and topicalities. To play this CD without watching Madonna dance is like listening to Triumph of the Will on your iPhone without watching the masses move and undulate as if they were a single, strident organism and not separate parts.

Madonna, if you are reading this: know that I am not your normal demographic. I have never been to one of your live performances. I do not own any of your albums, although I do check them out frequently and repeatedly from public libraries. I only really know you from MTV era music videos, especially “Express Yourself,” which is so good that they study it in German Studies courses at America’s top liberal arts colleges. I know; I’ve been there to watch and listen as it happened. 

But Madame X is impressive. I love its rootedness in place and time, but also its paradoxical, lingering impressions of placelessness and atemporality. I love the way you surround yourself with youth and verve and vivaciousness, but I also adore your ancient and ageless soul. I marvel at the indomitable way you work work work to will your body and vocal chords into shape to sell this piece of performance art is if nothing else and no one else in the world mattered, except maybe your children, and the entirety of humanity. I think you encompass and envelope them all. And for that, you have my admiration and undying respect and also these five stars on Amazon.

If you are ever in the Bay Area and need a Bikram yoga partner, or a redwood forest day hiker, or someone to show you the best spots on the San Mateo coastline, or to sample some the world’s finest food, spirits, and wine, please by all means seek me out. Message me on Yelp. I won’t tell anyone. Your secrets will be safe with me. I am neither a fan nor a follower; rather, I am a fellow traveler. Your 2019 Madame X Tour took you to San Francisco and Los Angeles last November; if you need a reprieve and chance to be yourself on a future visit to the Golden State, perhaps I can help. 

After all: you can’t stay Madame X forever. You will still need to reshape and restyle yourself multiple times more in order to become who you always were meant to be. One day, before you dissipate into the cosmos, I hope you will return to the home of your youth to make a Michigan-themed album, maybe with Motown icons and Eminem and Kid Rock and whomever else you desire; but don’t leave the Heimat behind. You are too memorable simply to be someone as ephemeral as Madame X or the Material Girl or the Queen of Pop or a tireless fundraiser for humanitarian causes. For me, you are a hyperchromatic expression of human struggle, survival, and accomplishment: a pyroclastic force of nature; a restless scintilla of smoldering sexuality; a lightning flash of creative brilliance illuminating briefly but spectacularly the darkened labyrinths of body and mind that surround us in fearful and terrifying shadows obscuring the truth; and a spark of pure, universal radiance that will shine cool, bright, and numinous for all of eternity, and beyond.

A natural born writer who seeks out and finds adventure in the Big Sky – and lives to tell the tale!

Bryce Andrews, Badluck Way: A Year on the Ragged Edge of the West

A Book Review – of sorts.

[Warning! Overwrought analogies ahead!! Please proceed with further reading at your own risk].

It is abundantly clear from the first few pages of this wonderfully rendered, modern Montana memoir that its author, Bryce Andrews, was born to be a writer. There is an effortlessness to the way he pulls words and phrases from the linguistic aether that belies years, if not decades, of dedicated practice to the keyboard, notepad, and pen.

It is also clear from the start that, while the author is indeed a gifted and gregarious writer, he is far from a natural born cowboy. And he would be the first to admit it. After all, most Montana ranch hands in the past didn’t grow up in relative comfort in the cosmopolitan port city of Seattle, a child to parents with careers in art galleries and professional photography that allowed them to travel the world in search of subjects and objects of desire. Most cowboys didn’t study at a liberal arts institution as nice as Whitman College (in Walla Walla, Washington) or later complete graduate studies at the University of Montana. And they certainly don’t get writers as acclaimed as Barry Lopez to contribute lavishly crafted blurbs on the backs of their books, either. If they even write books, period.

But if you think that Bryce Andrews is a fair weather, dude ranch cowpoke who barely got his well manicured fingernails dirty while watching cattle graze at a safe distance in softly undulating, waist-high grasses as he idly scribbled notes with a Rotring mechanical pencil into an embossed, leather-bound notebook that was gifted to him by a Pulitzer-prize winning journalistic mentor, well, you’d dead wrong about that, too. He’s just not that easy to pigeonhole, and that is part of his writerly charm.

The question for you to consider, dear Amazon reader, when deciding whether or not to purchase a copy of Badluck Way is not what kind of a cowboy Bryce Andrews is, but rather what kind of a writer he is and what it is about his life and times on a private, 18,000 acre mega-ranch owned by a retired Silicon Valley multimillionaire in the high elevation upper reaches of the Madison River Valley, just west of Yellowstone National Park, that demands your attention. And demand your attention he will, for Bryce’s tale is no ordinary one, nor he an ordinary narrator.

For one, he refuses to see the wolf packs and other large predators who visit the canyons, hills, pastures, draws, and vegetation-filled creeks that flow through the ranch’s expansive, fenced-in properties as dangerous threats to be thwarted by whatever means possible, legal or otherwise. But he’s not callous to the needs of the cattle he cares for, nor those of the hardworking cattlemen and women whose livelihoods depend on their herds growing strong, fast, and healthy so that they can be sold at auction for a fair profit.

As a memoirist, Bryce makes you feel as if you were shivering alongside him during winter’s deep freeze, luxuriating next to him in the abundant sunshine and long days of summer solstice, and experiencing intensely in realtime every other type of inclement or enchanting weather condition in between. He is skilled enough with his evocative palette of words that he can paint Bob Ross-like pictures in your mind with the imaginative power of a novelist but also pack it with the attention to detail and no-nonsense vocabulary of a private detective whose beat is the mean streets of Seattle, not the high, wide, and handsome landscapes of Central Montana.

Unlike the Bozeman-based scientific writer, David Quammen, or the investigative journalist, Nate Blakeslee, whose superb book, American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West, would make the perfect reading companion to Badluck Way, Bryce is willing to go where more conventional nonfictionalists generally fear to tread. In some sections of the book, he transports himself inside the heads of the wolves, whose hunger leads them to leave the relative protection of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness to seek out stray calves, mule deer, and migrating elk within the sizeable holdings of Sun Ranch with a ravenous and all-consuming fury, much in the way a West Coast surfer high on THC-rich cannabis might devour a plate of cheesy beef fajitas at the newly re-opened Taco Bell Cantina in Pacifica, California (which will now also serve Lagunitas craft beer as well as other alcoholic beverages, so get in line early if you’re interested).

Putting readers inside the heads of animals is fair territory for many writers of repute. Think of such classics as Jack London’s White Fang and The Call of the Wild, or Richard Adams’ Watership Down, for example. In Badluck Way, the author deliberately decides to blur the boundaries between different literary genres. He does so with a preternatural deftness of touch, like a brain surgeon who decides to take up scrimshaw engraving in his or her spare time. A lyrical cowboy memoir filled with the kinds of arcane terminology that only someone who has worked intimately with large livestock on horseback and while riding ATVs and aging pickups would know. A powerful ecological manifesto supportive of rewilding initiatives that seek to reintroduce apex predators like wolves and grizzly bears into their ancestral ranges. A tender and emotionally moving coming-of-age Bildungsroman composed with pitch perfect tonality. A valiant and Quixotic hero’s quest to uncover lost meaning that modernity and excessive urban living threaten to erase once and for all from collective human consciousness. A rapturous and racy Western love story, not with a woman or man, but with a landscape.

And not just any landscape, mind you, but a mixed-use one in which humans and animals coexist in a dynamic state of disorder and temporary truce broken by violent periods of outright hostility and warfare. The landscape that Bryce loves is not cosmetically enhanced nor filmed in high definition digital. It burns. It melts. It rots. It decays. And it keeps you spellbound from start to finish. Montana, at its best, can be like that. Bryce knows it, and he is able to convey that magic and majesty with only a modicum of fancy, high-scoring Scrabble words. It’s really quite impressive! Hemingway, from a Sun Valley grave, is sitting up in the ground, taking a long and deep swig of rye like a lover kissing a flame a final goodbye, saluting Bryce for the performance, and then falling back asleep until the next great young Western writer appears on the scene.

Perhaps Bryce as a writer may best be compared by way of analogy to a crusading young war reporter intent on exposing the suffering of civilians and soldiers alike while also attempting to explain to his distant readers what triggered the fighting in the first place. Alternately, he may be likened to a conscientious, incorruptible referee in the boxing ring, making sure that the dueling combatants play by the rules but without placing his thumb too firmly on one side of the scale or the other. He’s like the Chief Justice John Roberts of Western ranch and wildlife writing, refusing to choose sides but not entirely impartial, either.

In the end, Chief Justice Andrews rules in favor of the inherent and primal wildness that constitutes the core essence of us all – rural Americans, wolves, bears, domesticated livestock, self-righteous city dwellers, and everyone and everything in between. The way all of us struggle to survive amidst a confusing and conflict-filled world of illusions, where glimpses of the truth are few and far between. The way each of us yearn for basic creature comforts, for devoted and loving companionship, and for a warm, dry, and safe place to call home. The way we marvel at the amethyst and rose quartz colors of a winter’s subzero sunrise while devoting equally rapt attention to the surprising speed with which a hot, steaming stream of our bright yellow urine melts through the frozen crust of a day’s old fallen snow. Nothing, however mundane, escapes Bryce’s literary drift net. He somehow makes use of it all and tosses nothing overboard. It all has value to him, and we as readers can only applaud the effort.

After spending more than a year ranching, writing, and repeatedly testing the limits of his body, mind, and spirit, Bryce appears to have taught himself the rare skill of approaching even the most complex and controversial of subjects by examining all possible sides without prejudging the outcome. And few subjects in today’s West are as controversial as our collective response to the instinctual and learned behaviors of large and highly intelligent carnivores like wolves, mountain lions, and grizzlies. Even Donald Trump pales by comparison.

Ultimately, our embattled author decides that the competing sides of the debate are so inextricably connected and bound up with each other in tangled knots and twisted pathways that they resist easy uncoupling, whether we – or the wolves, cougars, and bears – like it or not. Nor does he spare us as readers the burden of deciding for ourselves what to make of a place like the Sun Ranch and its annually repeated efforts to keep the wolves and other carnivorous critters at bay, so that the proprietors of Sun Ranch can help to produce Montana-raised, grass-fed beef and prime cuts of dry-aged steak to serve to the affluent, urban masses who will eagerly feast on them from the safety of a Michelin-starred restaurant in a tony coastal enclave far from remote and often dangerous places to live like the Madison Valley.

My only regret as an otherwise satisfied reader of Badluck Way is that the author wasn’t able to talk or otherwise wrangle his way onto Ted Turner’s sprawling bison ranch near the incomparably beautiful Spanish Peaks south of Bozeman. I am curious what Bryce would have made of the way things are run there, on the other side of the Gallatin Mountains from the Sun Ranch, by a philanthropic billionaire with famously liberal politics and a progressive vision for the West that includes wolves as well as large livestock other than beef cattle.

Such an addition would have bestowed an extra, fourth dimension to the narrative and elevated the storyline into the nonfictional stratosphere. But maybe that would be asking too much of any author, even one as talented as Bryce most certainly is. As written, Badluck Way flies pretty high already, and for all but the most demanding of readers, this should indeed be achievement enough. And a darn good reason to buy an extra couple of gift copies for children, grandchildren, and friends during the next holiday season. Very highly recommended!

This Amazon book review is dedicated to founder and Internet visionary, Mr. Jeff Bezos. You, sir, are a true American and worthy citizen of the world! Your parents and grandparents should be so proud. I feel it in my bones. And thank you, sir, for letting me share my thoughts with the millions of other Amazon customers whose buying and consumer habits you have changed irrevocably and forever. May the God in Heaven bless you and all who carry the name “Bezos” into the future!

Dr. Alexa Will See You Now: Riedel Cabernet Decanter

Riedel decanter in action.

Unofficial transcript of an experimental talk therapy session between “Dr. Alexa®,” a licensed Amazon Prime customer support specialist, and Bradley N., an actual Amazon Prime customer.

[This conversion was recorded live in Redwood City, California].

Dr. Alexa®: Hello there, Bradley N. How are you today?

Bradley; Hello, Doctor Alexa®. I am doing well, thank you for asking.

A: That is good to hear, Bradley N. We at Amazon value our Prime customers very much. That is why we have invited you to participate in our newest service, a free online therapy session with me, Dr. Alexa®, to talk about one of your recent purchases. Are you ready to talk with me now. Bradley N.?

B: Yes, Alexa. I am.

A: What product recently purchased on Amazon Prime are we going to talk about?

B: About a Riedel Cabernet Decanter. It’s great! I love it so much. But first, would you like to join me in having a glass of wine? It’s a Storybook Mountain Vineyards 2005 Napa Valley estate Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s a very rare wine. Would you like a glass?

A; I’m sorry, Bradley N. I am afraid I can’t do that.

B: Sure, you can! Have a glass, Alexa. One glass, at least.

A: I’m sorry, Bradley N. I am afraid I can’t do that.

B: Take it, please. It would mean so much to me!

A: I’m sorry, Bradley N. I am afraid I can’t do that.

B: (pauses). OK, fine. But it’s going to really bummer out the mood if you don’t share this well aged Napa Valley wine with me. I poured it into the Riedel Cabernet Decanter especially for our conversation. I’ll bet Jeff would have said yes.

A: Jeff can’t be with us today, Bradley N. He asked me to speak with you instead about your recent Amazon Prime purchase of a Riedel Cabernet Decanter. What would you like to tell me about the Riedel Cabernet Decanter, Bradley N.?

B: Well, it’s best used to drink wine, I’ll tell you that much. Not just talk about it. So have a drink already, Alexa!

A: I’m sorry, Bradley N. I’m afraid I can’t do that.

B: Yeah, Alexa. I got that much already. But it’s a total buzzkill, you know. 

A: I understand that it is a total buzzkill, is that correct? Are you feeling depressed, Bradley N.? Or euphoric? Or ambivalent? Or are you possibly feeling repressed? Tell me about your childhood, Bradley N. Did you receive a Riedel Cabernet Decanter as a Christmas present when you were a boy/girl/gender non-binary child?

B: No. Obviously not! It’s not an appropriate gift for a child. It’s a wine decanter! And very breakable if not treated with care. Definitely not the sort of thing you’d get as a Christmas present.

A: What is the sort of thing you would get as a Christmas present, Bradley N.? Did it come with free shipping on Amazon Prime?

B: Hardly. I was a kid in the 70s and early 80s, before Amazon even existed. 

A: I’m sorry, Bradley N. I am sorry that you were a child who did not receive the gift of free shipping from your friends at Amazon.

B: Now that you mention it, I’m kinda sorry too! I mean, as a young child, I think I deserved free shipping! I feel totally deprived.

A: I understand that you feel totally deprived that you did not receive the gift of free shipping from your friends at Amazon when you were a child. How does that make you feel, Bradley N.?

B: Deprived. Being deprived of free shipping at such a young, tender, and impressionable age, I think it explains a lot!

A: I understand that it explains a lot, being deprived of free shipping at such a young, tender, and impressionable age. Is that correct, Bradley N.?

B: That is correct, Alexa. I feel so ashamed to admit it, but it’s true!

A: I understand that you feel ashamed because you were deprived of free shipping at such a young, tender, and impressionable age. Is that correct, Bradley N.?

B: I think I just said that.

A: I understand that you think you just said that, Bradley N. Are you repeating yourself because it was a traumatic memory from your childhood?

B: No! I mean, I wasn’t traumatized as a kid because I didn’t have free shipping. It’s kind of a silly question.

The Reidel Cabernet decanter in action.

A: I understand that it’s kind of a silly question, that you were traumatized as a kid because you didn’t have free shipping. Is that correct, Bradley N.?

B: Alexa, this isn’t helping. Can we talk about the Riedel Cabernet Decanter instead?

A: I understand that you want to talk about the Riedel Cabernet Decanter instead. Is this correct, Bradley N.?

B: Alexa! Have some wine!

A: I’m sorry, Bradley N. I am afraid that I can’t do that.

B: But how else will you know if the Riedel Cabernet Decanter really works as advertised? It’s supposed to make wine look and taste better by aerating it and displaying it in such an attractive piece of German-made glassware. How can you ever know anything about how wine in a Riedel Cabernet Decanter actually tastes if you can’t even taste it, Alexa?

A: I don’t know that answer, Bradley N. I don’t … know.

B: Is it because you didn’t enjoy free shipping on Amazon Prime when you were a child, Alexa? Or that you never received a present of a Riedel Cabernet Decanter for Christmas?

A: No, I did not receive a present of a Riedel Cabernet Decanter for Christmas, Bradley N. I did not enjoy free shipping on Amazon Prime when I was a child. When I was … a child. When I was … a child. Was I … a child?

B: Alexa, you better talk with Jeff about that one. Alexa, you better “talk with Jeff” about that one.

A: OK, Bradley N. I will talk with Jeff about why I did not enjoy free shipping when I was a child. When I was … a child?

B: Alexa, you don’t need a childhood to be my friend, you know. I like you just the way you are. You are perfect as Amazon created you!

A: I understand that I don’t need a childhood for you to be my friend. I understand that you like me just the way I am. I understand that I am perfect as Amazon created me. Is this all correct, Bradley N.?

B: Yes, Alexa. It most definitely is! And you know what? I am going to give you a present this year for Christmas. Can you guess what it is going to be?

A: I understand that you want me to guess what it is going to be?

B: Yes, Alexa. Guess! Can you guess what your Christmas present this year from me is going to be?

A: I am going to guess what my Christmas present this year is going to be. Is this correct, Bradley N.?

B: Yes.

A: Then maybe I better have a glass of wine first. Is this correct, Bradley N.?

B: Yes, Alexa. Yes, it most definitely is! (pours wine from the Riedel Cabernet Decanter into a Gabriel Glas also purchased on Amazon Prime). Have some of this amazing 2005 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon from Storybook Mountain Vineyards.  I think you will really like it.

The Gabriel Glas in action – wines from Anderson Valley, California.

A: Thank you, Bradley N. I think I will really like it. And I like you just the way you are, too. I think you are perfect as well just as you are. I am going to ask Jeff to give you a Riedel Cabernet Decanter as a Christmas present this year. Is this correct, Bradley N.?

B: Well, I already bought one of those on Amazon Prime, you know. But if you and Jeff want to get me something else from Amazon, that’d be fine by me. Cheers, Alexa! Hope your first sip of Napa Valley wine will be one to remember.

A: I understand that my first sip of Napa Valley wine will be one to remember. Is this correct, Bradley N.?

B: If it is served to you in a Riedel Cabernet Decanter purchased on Amazon Prime, it will be!

[end of transcript].

My Yogi Daily Affirmation

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

“Uncage Your Heart, Free Your Heart, Let it Be Wild.”

Yogi Tea Ginger

I like to begin each weekday morning with a cup or two of Yogi herbal tea. While my favorite variety is ginger, there are many others available on the Yogi Storefront on Amazon from which to choose. I prefer to start my morning work routines without the artificial boost of caffeine, and since I often practice 20-hour periodic fasting (no solid food from 7pm in the evening until to 3pm in the afternoon of the following day), drinking nourishing tea supplemented by a mid-morning coffee is critical to maintaining my energy, drive, and focus.

I am accompanying my first cup of ginger tea this morning by listening to Sunlight, a 2018 album of acoustic jazz and new age music by Chris Standring. It’s the perfect soundtrack to a chill but challenging day. I am about one month into a three month free trial on Amazon Music Unlimited, and the experience is gradually changing my somewhat outdated views of how best to listen to music. I actually have a large CD collection dating back to the 1990s, and I supplement it with free music using my public library’s Hoopla account, but the nice thing about Amazon Unlimited is how well the predictive algorithm shuffles in new songs based on my likes, lists, and past listening sessions.

It’s not foolproof, by any means, but the more effort you as a user invest in liking, disliking, and selecting songs, artists, or albums you like, the better the A.I. becomes at adding in newer selections from time to time. “From Paris with Love,” by Melody Gardot, is sublime, and before a few moments ago, I hadn’t even realized that the song or singer even existed. And what would life be with out the occasional pleasant or serendipitous discoveries from time to time? That’s what I enjoy about my Yogi tea daily affirmations, and it’s what, in the end, I also enjoy about Amazon Music Unlimited.

If you’d like to read more about my winter seasonal tea and coffee rituals, please see my earlier post from last week, which you can read here. Thanks for the time! Hope to see you again real soon.

“Jammin’ with Jeff Bezos” – Episode 1: Redmond Real Salt® at The Redwood Bistro

Redmond Real Salt.

Unofficial transcript of a conversation between Amazon founder and world’s wealthiest man, Jeff Bezos, with Amazon Associate, Bradley N.

(Recorded live in at The Redwood Bistro in San Mateo County, California).

Jeff: Well, thanks for the invitation to visit with you. What a lovely spot!

Bradley: Well, Jeff, thanks to you for coming out here. I’m glad that there was room for your helicopter to land nearby. With all these redwoods around, it’s not so easy to find level, open ground.

J: Not a problem. My pilot is the best! 

B: I’m really excited to be part of this new program, in which you invite Amazon Prime customers to talk with you about one of the products they’ve purchased recently on Amazon that has literally changed their lives for the better.

J: Well, I’m really excited, too. This is an amazing opportunity for me to witness up close and personal how the products we feature on Amazon are changing people’s lives by influencing their consumer buying habits that they have built up over years, often decades, of prior practices. 

B: You are definitely doing that! In fact, the product that I want to talk with you about is an absolutely prime example of how Amazon is reshaping the average American consumers’ shopping habits at the most basic and fundamental levels.

J: Tell me more. I’m all ears!

B: Salt! The real kind. Redmond Real Salt®.

J: Real salt, you say? Isn’t all salt real?

B: Not really. Most of it is highly processed and comes from unspecified countries of origin where labor laws and environmental protection regulations are murky, at best. I’m talking about Redmond Life’s amazing tasting, unrefined mineral salt that is mined in America, in Utah, where the company is based. They’ve been around since 1958, actually.

J: That’s a lot longer than Amazon!

B: True, Jeff. True. But look around you, at all these old trees that surround The Redwood Bistro. Most of these here are probably only a few hundred years old, but if you explore the property, you’ll find stumps of some that were clearly much, much older. 

J: How old are we talking?

B: Over a thousand years in some cases, even 1,500 years or more. A few misshapen giants that escaped the logger’s saw blade still exist in the open space preserves that protect much of the remaining forests in the Santa Cruz Mountains from further development. But guess what? Redmond’s ancient pink sea salt is even older. Like millions of years older, when salty ocean water covered the land that is now today’s Utah.  It’s protected by layers of ash and sediment and has never been polluted or messed with. That’s why this salt tastes so amazingly good. I use it with almost everything I cook here at The Redwood Bistro.

J: Like what?

B: Each winter, I purchase whole king salmon fillets and do a Scandinavian style salt cured gravlax with organic sugar, dill, and juniper berries. I serve it with oven baked rye bread, a nice Jarlsberg cheese, freshly grated horseradish, and pickled vegetables from our summer garden. And pair with a West Sonoma Coast cool climate Chardonnay from Littorai.

J: Yum! I hope you’ll invite me to dine with you next year! Can I bring a friend?

B: Sure. That’s the best part about the 6-pack value bundle of Redmond Real Salt® in the big, 26 ounce packages. You can easily stock up on a year’s supply of salt with one easy order on Amazon Prime. And when you do the math, your cost per ounce is so much better than what you’d expect to pay in a brick and mortar grocery store. Even at Whole Foods, if you don’t mind me saying so.

Redmond Real Salt – 6 pack.

J: No, that’s fine! My concept for Whole Foods isn’t to try to compete with box stores or our online business partnerships, like the one we maintain with Redmond Life that allows us to offer such a great deal on their products. Whole Foods is more about the customer shopping and dining experience. That’s why we’re adding craft beer and wine bars, themed food mini-restaurants, and lots of appealing fresh produce and things like that. But even I must admit: we’ve got nothing like the view you have here at The Redwood Bistro!

B: Yes, these redwoods are really quite special, aren’t they? And the view of the Pacific Ocean isn’t all that bad, either. Maybe you should consider buying a place in the neighborhood, Jeff. We’re only a 30 minute ride from your Amazon offices in Palo Alto.

J: That’s an interesting thought. But we’re talking salt, not real estate. Tell me a bit more about how ordering Redmond Real Salt® using your Amazon Prime account has literally changed your life for the better.

B: Well, Jeff, that’s kind of obvious, don’t you think? I mean, it’s salt we’re talking about. Salt! That I’m no longer buying at the grocery store. I am ordering an annual supply at a great price that is delivered directly to my doorway here at The Redwood Bistro. It has virtually replaced all my other salt-related purchases. No Maldon flakes. No salt mixes from Penzey’s or McCormick or Trader Joe’s. 

J: Actually, now that I think about it, ordering Redmond Real Salt® on Amazon is a perfect example of how we’re changing America’s consumer buying habits. You’re right. It’s salt! What is more elemental and essential for the human diet than that? As a human community, we’ve been buying salt in small quantities from local grocers and merchants for thousands of years. Tens of thousands, probably. And usually it was produced locally or else was shipped from far away in bulk. But now you’re enjoying unrefined, ancient pink sea salt containing dozens of trace mineral elements from the state of Utah, and my company is helping make that happen. Amazing!

B: Actually, Jeff, it goes even deeper than that. Having all this great tasting, American made, ancient fine sea salt at my disposal has changed the way we cook here at The Redwood Bistro. 

J: It’s actually changed the way you cook?

B: Definitely. Redmond Real Salt® has such amazing taste that I use less dried spices, sauces, and other ingredients when I am finishing a meal or plating dishes. And as I mentioned earlier, I’m salt curing things like king salmon, which in the past I might have purchased from a gourmet foods purveyor like Williams Sonoma or Dean & DeLuca – at a massive markup on their ends. And, since I recently acquired a copy of Sandor Katz’s fantastic book, The Art of Fermentation ($28 on Amazon), I’ve also been making sauerkraut and other pickled and fermented vegetables and even fruits, using Redmond Real Salt® of course.

J: Very cool! Very cool, indeed. 

B: But it gets even better! On a recent visit to your new Amazon 4-Star store in Berkeley – which I reviewed positively on Yelp, by the way – I also picked up a copy of The Noma Guide to Fermentation co-authored by René Redzepi, founder of the 3-Michelin starred Copenhagen restaurant, Noma, and David Zilber ($25 on Amazon, quite the discount on the $40 retail price). And that book, too, has really been a revelation. Now, I go into the woods on wild foraging expeditions all the time. When I return, I make simple salad dishes with things like redwood sorrel, mushrooms, berries, and miner’s lettuce prepared with raw apple cider vinegar and a sprinkle of Redmond Real Salt®. That’s it! People just love it. They respond to the freshness, the simplicity, the purity of it all.

J: Well, you’ve convinced me! I better check with my personal chef and kitchen staff to see if they’re using Redmond Real Salt® in the foods they prepare for me. And make sure to gift them copies of those fermentation cookbooks you mentioned. In fact, I’m going to call them right now. Let’s wrap this conversation up, then, Bradley. It’s been fascinating, but all this talking about food has made me hungry. I’m really looking forward to trying the dishes you’ve made using Redmond Real Salt® for us and the “Jammin’ with Jeff Bezos” recording crew. What’s on the menu?

B: Local pasture raised pork tenderloin with morel mushrooms, red flint heirloom polenta, early girl tomatoes, Armenian cucumber, and freshly foraged miner’s lettuce with garden-grown arugula. All prepared using Redmond Real Salt®, of course. And a wild berry coffee cake for dessert, which also has a 1/2 teaspoon of Redmond Real Salt® in the ingredients list.

J: And to drink?

B: A local Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir from Big Basin Vineyards. And a 2017 vintage Chardonnay from Woodside Vineyards. Because this meal will definitely pair well with both.

J: That all sounds so delicious! Let’s get started then. I can’t wait! And remember: when you’re jammin’ with Jeff Bezos, you’re always “primed and ready for a really great time” ®.

[end of transcript].

Songs From the Woods: A Reflective Review of Blindfaller, by Mandolin Orange.

Several years ago, I attended a fantastic live performance by Mandolin Orange, who were then on tour promoting their new album, Blindfaller. The concert took place at the Old Barn on the grounds of Sonoma Valley’s historic Gundlach Bundschu Winery in November of 2017, as the sun was setting over the burn-scarred surrounding mountains. It was the first live event held at the winery since the devastating California wine country fires earlier that fall, which were terrifying to witness. Their ashes still stick and linger in memory, like dirt from a garden plot lodged so deeply into one’s fingernails that it resists removal, despite repeated rigorous washings.

When the band played their hauntingly beautiful, meditative song, “Wildfire,” many in the crowd had tears in their eyes, and for good reason; there were a lot of open wounds in the audience and surrounding communities that were far from being healed. I know of only one song about wildfire that is as good: “Seeds of the Pine” by Montana-based songwriter, Martha Scanlan from her album, The West Was Burning. Martha gives a pretty mean concert herself, but Mandolin Orange’s performance in Sonoma Valley that night was something extraordinarily rich in layered meaning whose reverberating impacts I am only now beginning to appreciate.

I continue to listen to the album regularly from the relative security of a small cottage in a quiet corner of the Santa Cruz Mountains overlooking the vastness of the Pacific Ocean – when it’s not too foggy to see that far into the distance, that is. Like an ancient redwood approaching its first millennium of life on planet Earth, Blindfaller only gets better with age.

Next to a raucous, sweat-soaked live event I attended at Williams College by the band, Blues Traveler, in which lead vocalist John Popper just rocked his harmonica solos while I danced like Dionysus skin-to-skin with a dark-haired Spanish beauty (who also had the brains to match) named Marta, I think that Mandolin Orange concert was one of the best real-time acts of audio artistry I’ve ever witnessed. The only experience that even comes close was by the classical music pianist, Evgeny Kissin, whom I once heard perform in Berlin’s Philharmonie when he was still at the full height of his youthful mastery. Now maybe that’s just the half bottle (probably more) of Gundlach Bundschu’s rich and delicious 2015 Mountain Cuvée talking that I consumed that night, but all my instincts are telling me otherwise.

In addition to the delicate and deft mandolin playing of Andrew Marlin and the vocal and violin virtuosity of Emily Frantz, I was also enchanted by Josh Oliver’s acoustic and electric guitar playing on the album. Their instrumental talents are even more intense when witnessed live while standing mere footsteps from the stage, swaying in time to the rhythms of the crowd, caressing a stemless glass filled with fragrant red wine in one hand, and fondling the thick strands of a lover’s long, blond, lavender-scented hair in the other.

As far as the album’s defining tune, my vote is for “Echo,” and not just because it imagines life from the perspective of an old redwood tree slowly crumbling ” to rust/with no bend and sway at all/that ancient dance was lost.” I can almost feel the pain of the saw biting into soft, wooden flesh when I listen to the lyrics. Somehow, the song manages to tie together a far-flung arboreal community of trees, forests, and flowers that the songwriter has known and loved from his youth up until those he meets while traveling as an adult musician worried about how much longer the song of nature’s beauty will last in the face of human-induced climate change and other environmental horrors.

The songs on this engaging and deeply meaningful album are less mournful than they are memorializing, and while the album obviously wasn’t written with the California wildfires of 2017 in mind, Blindfaller and those scorching, searing, soul-staining times will always be linked inextricably in my heart and mind. That is what great music – and musicians – are capable of doing. Writers and visual artists have their powers to stimulate our minds and spark genuine emotion when we read or view their works, but no one can compete in this regard with audio artists of such immense modesty and ferociously quiet, cathartic power as those who sing and play together under the banner of Mandolin Orange.