Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Return Of Jim Dandy

As part of my now-monthly ritual of getting this blog to 12 posts a month, I offer up my second helping of random, gathered thoughts that have little bearing on each other.  The good news? It's like getting 8 blogposts in one!  The bad news?  Some of these thoughts are probably outright pointless or stupid.

1. Are my fingerprints on file somewhere?  I don't have any crimes or arrests to my name so far, but I've been wondering if there wasn't some kind of Cub Scout project way back when and we went to a police station and got fingerprinted.  And it probably would have seemed pretty neat at the time, if it happened.  Now, of course, if they are still my prints, I'd just as soon they stay mine.

2.  If you drive in southern Georgia, you may encounter a billboard in I-75 that reads "#Secede."  I suppose I could have tracked down the website to see what the sponsoring organization, Society Of The South or some such, but is there any need?  154 years after that first secession, states like Georgia and those that surround it, like mine, want to restrict rights in the name of the Federal government, by God, can't tell us what to do.  Progress?

3.  One of the pleasures of spending a few days in a more tropical climate is encountering the unique flora.  One humid morning, we paused in front of a Bird Of Paradise plant, that origami-like creation of bright reds and yellows, and greens that makes you wonder if the Creator Of Plants felt more creative in warmer climes.

4.  Human adults have a genetic disposition against carpooling.  You can see it in a city like Atlanta if you get in the HOV lane ( which means you have bragging rights for at least two people in your car) and pass car after car after car in the afternoon morass and you start working math problems in your head, like, if there were two people in each car instead of one, how much would speed increase on the crawling highway?

5. HBO's Vice, which I must claim has either been under marketed or mis-marketed, is a brilliant representation of Szymborska's lines: "We're extremely fortunate/ not to know/ precisely/ the kind of world we are living in."  In two 15-minute reporting vignettes each episode, the show illuminates how some trouble spot of the world is far worse than you thought it was.  While you might be inclined to think, why would I want to watch that, like any impressive wreck, it is hard to look away, and you come away oddly amazed that the whole human endeavor is even holding together as well as it is.

6.    The most amazing aspect of the NCAA tournament for me each year is how I, like so many others, can get so caught up for one team that I am living and dying during every possession of a game whose teams I don't really know and have previously cared about even less.  I watched no college basketball game, other than silent visual in the background in a bar, the entire year.  I know none of the players.  I can't explain the phenomenon.

7.  Many people like to shop when on vacation.  I suppose I am no different, except that I am.  All of my purchases are comestibles-- cheeses, tomatoes and other produce, grapefruits, vinegars and wine musts, Trader Joe's staples, jams and pastes, etc.  I've discovered that my vacation "souvenirs" tend to be items that might allow me to recreate some of the tastes of the vacation place. It's a strange habit that fills cupboards, refrigerators, and freezers.

8.  Here's a study in human nature:  a large pink ball of the type you would encounter in a large wire bin in a Wal-Mart, a cheap toy, shows up in the yard of a house where four boys live.  Being boys, their home and yard are filled with sports balls of various sorts--soccer, basketball, rubber balls, dodge balls.  But this plastic pink ball, this mysterious visitor, suddenly holds sway over all.  Each boy wants to hold it, bounce it dribble it.  Each boys wants his time with it, while all other balls lie fallow.  Arguments spring up endlessly, with grabbing, wrestling, poking, trying to tip the ball away.  Because no boy has ownership, all have both full rights and none.  The smooth pink ball has disrupted the entire home.  One suspects that when the boys get home from school, they will each look for it.  Perhaps one of them has hidden it, but as soon as he emerges with it, all will want time with it.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Lazy Business

If you owned a business, which I don't, would you allow that business to slip into complacency, into a  harried or bare-bones operation that did not show your best "product"?  I observed just that in a couple of establishments down here in Florida.

The first was a sports bar, a pretty popular one, at least during these final stages of the NCAA tournament.  We watched both "Sweet Sixteen" and "Elite Eight" games there, and so experienced the operation when it should have been hitting all cylinders.

It didn't.

In my personal experience, the potato skins were bland and swamped in cheese, the fries were cooked in old oil, the chips that came with the salsa were slightly stale, the salsa itself was overwhelmed by grated onion, the pizza was okay, the beer came pretty regularly.  Of course, there is a deeper question: is the restaurant always like this?  Is the salsa always heavy on the onion juice?  Were the "Harbor Fries" or whatever they were called always holding excess oil?

The other business is a deli down the road.  We entered it for a Sunday lucn and encountered an all-teenage staff who, as my wife kept saying, were "very nice."  No argument here.

But they couldn't really work the cash register, especially when the paper ran out.  They couldn't quite process that my wife just wanted a cheese hoagie, didn't know what to charge for it. They talked me into adding a number of things to my chicken cheesesteak, and then discovered that they were out of most of them.  And when it came time to make the sandwiches, which we could watch, there was no "assembly line," no plan, just three people haphazardly assisting with different parts of two sandwiches.  How, my wife wondered, would they handle a lunch rush?

The sandwiches, when they came, were fine.  By then, another man was waiting for a to-go order, while two of the three employees were huddled over a laptop, charting out their hours for the week, blocking the drink machine.  And everything was getting done, albeit casually.

Maybe this what Sunday at a deli is like.  Maybe when a sports bar is super busy, they throw quality control out the window and just get the food out, trusting that as long as the beer is cold and delivered regularly, no one will say much about the rest of it.

And, actually, if you checked either of these places on Yelp or Trip Advisor, you would confirm that what I witnessed is kind of business as usual, perhaps not the result of off days and busy nights. Lots of comments on the bar food as being "kind of average," on service at the deli as "slow."

I just wonder why.  We live now in a world that will tell you what it thinks of you whether you want to know or not, often publicly, sometimes cruelly.  Is it an acceptable response to not even try when problems are pointed out?  Many of us say yes.  Many of us say "F--- it."  We see, perhaps correctly, people as trolls, criticisms as unfair.  We live in a defensive posture.

But I don't see how a business can take that approach.  To accept your own status quo as a subpar establishment, presumably because you are making enough money or unwilling to invest in making yourself better will eventually spell doom.  Maybe you even find the quirks of your small, local business charming.  Just know that there is someone larger, more corporate, with a business plan eyeing your establishment and planning to satisfy every dissatisfaction of your current customers.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Working Weekend

Some work feels good.

I had a working weekend last weekend, and though it took me a couple of days to recover from it, it felt good.  Why?  Because Spring is in the air and Spring means going outside and tending to external things--yards, plants, fallen branches, new plantings.  In short, all of the ways that Sping, in Nature, is a rebirth.

That first cutting of grass was a joyous occasion, though I promise myself that feeling will not last.  We hired some people to take a "scorched Earth" approach to our back yard, and now, missing trees and seedlings and months later, we have both sun and grass back there.  So cutting the verdant grass and clover and alfalfa back there, taming it for the first time, if you will, had a special feel to it, almost like a welcome.  You are now a yard.  Before you were weeds sprouting in the shade.

Sun also means, for me, that I can grow things to eat.

And so, raspberries.  And blackberries.  For the first time ever, besides a fig tree set backwards by outrageous temperatures the last two years, I am planning to grow fruit.  I bought five plants at Ace Hardware, as well as the requisite soil and peat moss, and I started some berry vines on the path of what I hope will be a long and beautiful friendship.

To do that, I needed a fence and some holes that I would have to dig.  And dug.  And if you are not used to digging holes, mixing peat and soil, as I am not, you are going to feel it for a few days.  Some work feels good.

Each day since, I have walked to the edge of my yard to look for evidence that those roots have taken hold.

Oh, and a garden in the backyard, where there was none.  Early ambition had me renting a tiller and digging up a 22 x 12 plot, but then I thought, what if it doesn't all grow?  What if rushing to prepare the soil undercuts my effort?  So I took the old shell of a sandbox that has languished in my backyard for over 20 years and maneuvered it to what I hope is a prime location (not yet confident about the path of the sun) and, while looking around, focused on all of the dead leaves,vs ticks, and pine needles covering parts of the yard, and thought, why not rake up all of this and let it provide drainage on the front end and rich, organic material down the road?  (Actually, my wife raked it up and I spread it inside.)

Yes, a weekend of bending and lifting, digging and lifting, carrying and planting, pulling and yanking, digging and hauling, gathering and spreading.  All using muscles not used much during the cold months, muscles that would alert me to their fatigue for several days.

But no matter, for all of this work points to one thing and one thing only:  hope.  We never know if what we put in the ground will yield anything.  But we hope.  And that makes some work feel good, at least for now.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Is Love Greed?

Love, love, love,
Love is just greed
It's almost taken me
But now I can see
Love, love, love,
Love is just greed
A selfish little need
You follow or you lead
If we really love ourselves,
how do you love somebody else?

-- Love Is Greed, Passion Pit

Passion Pit is an annoying younger step-brother of my music collection. I wrote less kind words about Gossamer when it came out in 2012, but my appreciation for Passion Pit has… matured. In small doses of one or two songs, they can be downright palatable. (By contrast, more than two measures of Owl City stirs in me a deep nausea.)

Last week, this song played while I was randomly shuffling through my collection, and it caught my ear. The chorus is catchy enough, and then the lyrics sort of spit out at you, daring you to pay attention. And I found myself annoyed.

The last song I remember having such a defensive and frustrated initial reaction to was Admiral Fallow’s “Isn’t This World Enough?” While that song expresses their stance that notions of a deity are foolhardy, “Love is Greed” goes one step more brash and attacks the notion of love itself.

That chorus is enough to turn a lover into a fighter. The song has the unmitigated gall to question the very engine that makes the world go ‘round, according to almost everything in the Western canon of literature, music and marketing!

Having listened to the song several dozen more times since rediscovering it, and having engaged in many internal debates about the song’s message, I’ve come to a number of conclusions:

ONE: Anyone old enough and experienced enough knows that Love Isn’t Any Single Thing. It’s lots of things, many of them contradictory, some of them vague, a small few of them specific and concrete. As such, Love is not Greed, at least not in a singular exclusive sort of way. Love Is Not Merely Greed.

TWO: Anyone who has listened to enough music knows that Love, in all of its complex mystery and glory and horror, cannot be easily summarized in a single song, not even one of “Bohemian Rhapsody” length, not even by a lyrical poet like Bob Dylan or my favorite champion of grown-up wisdom, Lori McKenna. As such, Love Is Greed is one part of the elephant, and just about as much of the elephant as a single blind man can touch.

THREE: The song frustrates and makes me defensive because much of what it claims is, on some disturbing level, true, especially in how we often approach our notions of at least four of “the Six Greek Words for Love”: eros, ludus, philia, and philautia. Arguably even agape and pragma. Eros (lust) is often very selfish, but it was also supposedly feared by the Greeks because it was so closely associated with a loss of self-control. In that way, Eros is the heroin (not heroine) of Love and is arguably the kind of love most clearly in the target sites of this song.

FOUR: Any song that inspires me to go back and review all of the Greek words and meanings for love, that gets me thinking about how much of love is about selfishness and greed, that has me taking inventory of my own life and how my expressions of these various forms of love might be received and perceived, is a song that deserves to move higher on my playlist.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Searching for Woodpeckers

In this, my 57th year, I realized that I had never seen a woodpecker.  It didn't just hit me for no reason, and, now, it is no longer true.  But it came about because each day, in these weeks leading up to spring, I could hear the woodpeckers out on a tree, their short, staccato bursts of beak work carrying across the yards whenever I was outside.

And then I realized that it was my tree, my yard, where the woodpecker was working.

Woodpeckers, I think I remember, like to hammer into dead bark and wood, looking for insects to feed upon.  In my backyard sits a large, old Black Walnut tree that continues to bloom and produce nuts ( which will stain your hands something awful), but which has plenty of dead, rotting limbs, too.

For the longest time, I could hear them, but not see them.  The tree reaches way above the roof of the house, and even with no leaves, its web of branches against the sky gave me a hundred different places to look.  And the pecking, with its repeated stops and starts, didn't allow me to use my ears to locate the birds.

There were two of them, I thought, because one sounded like a wooden toc toc, and the other what I imagined to be a more classic, wood pecking sound--flatter, like knock on a door.  And they took turns.  Maybe one stood guard while the other one pecked.

Usually, though, if one has the patience to look long enough at something, he will see what he is looking for.  I was looking for movement, because that was my only chance of finding the bird.  And one time, I was staring close enough to where I needed to stare, noth through any system or zeroing in on the sounds.  And there was the woodpecker.

It skipped nervously around a branch in the front of the tree (from where I stood, front and back often not applying to nature), a branch whose bark had mostly fallen off in those half-cylinders I'd find when cutting the grass.  I could see at least its head, could see that piston-like beak dip and hammer nine times, by my count.  Then again, and for as long as was apparently fruitful, and then it disappeared to the back side of the branch.  And there the sound changed, hollowed.  It had been just one bird, after all.

They are much smaller birds than I had expected.  I had been thinking Cardinal-sized, not sparrow, especially to produce that deep sound that I had been hearing from some distance, a species with the constant twitches of smaller birds, ever vigilant, ever moving.

While I has assumed that their habitat has some exotic quality to it, it was really nothing more than an age-worn tree, too large and expensive to be pruned of its spent limbs.

Mostly, it was the seeing that has stuck with me.  I hear the woodpeckers most mornings and afternoons, but I haven't been trying to locate them.  It is as if I needed to find them once, to know their size and how they work, and to be able to fit that into my small understanding of the confines of my yard, to know what I needed of what and who is here with me.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015


You are missing out.  I'm pretty certain of it.  You have settled into a world where classical music serves as background for upscale grocery stores, where two friends each share a pair of earbuds to get a low level dose of a song, where the baby is sleeping or the spouse is on edge, or where Steer Smart is telling you that you are going to get broadsided by a fire truck if you listen to music in your car at a decent volume.

Or, maybe you are one of those strange humans who is indifferent to music, in which case, stop reading now.

But, chances are, you are missing out.  Music is meant to be heard at volume.  Meaning, at the volume it was recorded at, or something close.  If you have ever heard an orchestra, a symphony, live, then you know what I am talking about.  The lightest Debussy melody, the heaviest Beethoven, while it may not "rock," has the same volume sensibilities as any other concert.  Meaning, it should not only move you; it should move within you.

Me, I judge it all on the bass.  If you are listening to modern popular music, make your volume decision based on the bass.  You should be able to feel the bass in your body, maybe not punching you in the solar plexus, like I like it sometimes, but at least challenging your body rhythms with its own.

Because I wrecked my car in the snow several weeks ago, I have been driving a rental car, a Ford Taurus, for a couple of weeks now.  For the first week or so, I was all about the Sirius XM radio, and, specifically, E Street Radio, the All--Bruce-Springsteen-All-The-Time station.  And then one day, inexplicably, the subscription or whatever it was ended.

I still wanted to listen to music, and, being me, I still wanted to listen to music I had some control over.  But, being me, I didn't want to bring some CD into the rental that I would forget and regret forever.  So I trolled through my extensive CD stacks and picked out a Freedy Johnson CD, his third one, in fact, which I had never paid much attention to after the first song.  "On The Way Out," the opener, was a straight ahead, guitar+bass+drums rocker that I played over and over in the rental, just as I had done years earlier when I first bought the CD.  As I would drift into later songs, I was ho-hum about them, as I had been when I first bought the CD.  It was too quiet after that first song.

But then something happened.  Maybe I forgot to turn the sound down when the first song ended.  Maybe I was in a groove.  Whatever took place, all of a sudden, I was listening to the whole CD,that I had dismissed, at a pretty aggressive volume.  And, all of a sudden, songs I had tolerated at best suddenly had punch and grooves and bass that mattered.  For ten or more years, I had not listened to the CD at a volume that displayed its merits.

Now, I still think it is a lesser work than the first two, but with a few notches upward of sound, I could now tell what Johnson was trying to do, and how these songs might sound live.  A song like the Raymond Carveresque "Gone To See The Fire" suddenly leapt from the embers, its obtuse lyrics suddenly making sense, its quiet intro building into a power chorus suddenly making sense.

I can't think of the music that was designed to be the background of our lives, and I certainly don't want to hear it.  Even the solo folksinger with just her guitar deserves for you to hear what she might sound like on a windy, cool spring day as you stand before her stage, her acoustic punched through a compressor and a chorus and anything else that make her steel strings confront you in that open field.

Volume matters.  If you can't decide whether or not you like a song, a CD, trying playing it a bit louder to where it takes over your aural universe, and then decide.  Give it the chance of no competing noise, including the words inside your head, and then see what it has to say or do.  Music deserves to be heard as if it is just you and the performer(s).  Anything less would be like you judging a home decorator's work in the dark, or near dark.  You would be handicapping yourself.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Full Circle

The last time I saw him in person, he was a senior in high school, and he was graduating, and he was bound for his Jefferson Scholarship at the University of Virginia. He was full of promise and full of adolescent flaws and naivete, and his brain was probably too big for his britches.

Nine years later, he’s in the first years of his lengthy residency in neurology in New York City.

Stolen from a brilliant site that merged "Common People"
lyrics with panels from Archie & Friends:
One of the first things he mentioned to me when we met over dinner and beer was the CD I made for him and a handful of his graduating classmates. He said it was a part of almost every college road trip he ever took.

“I think it was only a year or two ago when I realized you weren’t just sharing music you liked. You were preaching.”

I corrected him. “Well, part of it really was just sharing music. But I wasn’t preaching. More like… expressing gratitude and offering warnings. Some food for thought thrown in for good measure.”

“So… preaching,” he replied and shrugged.

The CD got “scratched beyond playability” and trashed, but he remembers “a lot of the songs.” Mostly the bona fide “classic” hits like “Surrender,” and “Under Pressure” and “Peace, Love and Understanding.” But a few of the less predictable songs as well. Seal’s “Crazy” and Drivin’ ‘n’ Cryin’s “Straight to Hell.”

And “Common People.” The William Shatner and Joe Jackson cover version. Produced by Ben Folds. The improved version of a brilliant, caustic song. He sought that song out on Spotify and played it for his fiancee as they drove toward Tennessee.

“When you first gave us that CD, I thought you were making fun of the girl in the song. But she’s us, isn’t she?”

“Not necessarily, no. But possibly. Potentially. She’s sort of a worst-case scenario.”

"Yeah," he said, "I didn't think you were trying to insult us or anything. But you always seemed worried about us losing our way."

"Or making a foolish mistake that costs more than it was worth," I said. "Yeah, I worry about that with everyone, myself included."

Perhaps this is a sign of just how out-of-whack my perspective and priorities are, but I can think of few things he could have told me that gave me the same kind of unexpected joy as the proclamation that he appreciated, and played to its death, my CD.

Call it a “love language.” Call it a “mash-up letter by way of song.” Whatever you call it, when someone values it in the way your gift was intended, a selfish, self-satisfied, self-affirming sort of joy ensues. They got it. They get it. In that moment, it feels even more important than, It was helpful. It changed their lives.

And then the moment passes, and you take another sip of beer, and you celebrate that this once-young immature kid will soon be a frappin’ neurosurgeon, and you hear about the nine years of his life since he left your care.

Time, don’t let it slip away
Raise your drinkin’ glass,
Here’s to yesterday.

Billy’s 2006 Movin’ Out CD
  1. Rocks - Primal Scream
  2. 911 is a joke - Public Enemy
  3. crazy - Seal
  4. surrender - Cheap Trick
  5. Peace Love And Understanding - Elvis Costello
  6. full circle - Aerosmith
  7. Good Times - INXS
  8. A Southern Thing - Better Than Ezra
  9. She's Gone Back to Whoring - Roger Alan Wade
  10. Straight to Hell - Drivin' N' Cryin'
  11. whole lotta trouble - CRACKER
  12. under pressure (w/David Bowie) - Queen
  13. Rewind - Stereophonics 
  14. Waiting For My Real Life To Begin - Colin Hay
  15. ordinary girl - Rick Springfield
  16. Common People - William Shatner featuring Joe Jackson
  17. tied down and chained - The BoDeans

Monday, March 9, 2015

The Hurt Zombie Locker

The latest season of “The Walking Dead” has somehow managed to take advantage of record-breaking viewership to add its best and, arguably, most relevant allegorical flourish yet. It is my favorite allegory-in-your-face television since Season 3 of "Battlestar Galactica."

In that amazing season, the intergalactic pilgrims found themselves living under the military rule of Cylons in a turnabout that put “the good guys” in the position of Iraqi citizens and Cylons playing the dangerous “wiser,” nation-building, Only-One-True-God interlopers.

While I watched every last episode of BSG, the future seasons never had a chance of holding up. It could only hope to hold onto some majority of its potency in that stretch. When you watch BSG S3, you know you’re watching science fiction television at its finest and most ambitious. There’s no doubt about it.

I’ve never thought TWD was superbly acted, or superbly plotted, or superbly much of anything (BSG was better-acted, but the plotting was frequently full of WTFs). In fact, the show often feels to me like the TV version of “Casablanca,” a concept and chemical combination of factors so wonderful that not even a bevy of dysfunction and malfunction cannot derail it from being watchable. Better, there are times when I think lots of people watch TWD to see what they try and screw up next.

But like most great science fiction, there’s just something irresistable about a show whose message is this: no matter how awful, evil, and indomitable the Others we must face, humanity’s greatest foe is humanity. (Example: This is why “Aliens” is awesome and “Independence Day” is cheesy.)

The second half of the current Season 5 finds our ragtag band of survivors stumbling into the closest thing to non-dysfunctional normal they have yet encountered. Their previous run-ins with “community living” involved evil dictators or evil cannibals, leaving the group unable -- or unwilling -- to trust much of anyone.

But this newest community, located somewhere in Virginia, is almost certainly the real deal, full of mostly well-intentioned humans doing everything they can to survive with their humanity in tact. They have created a safe environment. Everyone has a reasonable job. No one is a slave or being abused. It’s not heaven, but it’s something almost like Life Before The Zombies. Normal, not extranormal, dysfunction.

And many of our intrepid survivors, the characters we’ve grown to admire and love despite their flaws, cannot adjust. The roots of distrust and suspicion have dug in too deeply. The lifestyle of always being at the ready has become too ingrained.

This season is, unsubtly, an allegory for American soldiers coming home. It is "The Hurt Locker" and half a dozen other "returning from the horrors of war" films, except with zombies and some cute ass-kickin’ women. At the conclusion of the latest episode (TINY SPOILER ALERT), the newly clean-cut and clean-shaven Rick Grimes walks up to the wall separating the idyllic small town normal life from the evil undead. Rick can hear a zombie on the other side. Rick raises his hand to the metal and caresses it. You can tell how much a part of him wants to be out there, fighting instead of hiding, no matter how much safer and better the small town life would be for his son and infant daughter.

That’s not Rick’s only sign of struggling to accept the concept of anything less than Defcon 1, and Rick’s not the only one struggling. I won’t spoil any other details, but at least four of "the family" can’t blend in, and their actions and words run a gamut from mere PTSD to borderline sociopathy.

I’d be surprised if TWD can hold onto its ratings, tackling such a tough topic and sacrificing some of its war and gore in the process. Which makes their tack all the more ambitious and worthy of praise, that they’re taking advantage of this peak of pop culture attention to do something beyond merely creative and fun. They’re not preaching, either. They are simply showing us, the viewers, what can happen when people we love have knifed through one too many skulls -- living and undead -- for any sane person’s good health.

Interview With Myself

So celeb-obsessed are we these days that even the cooking world will do anything it can to attach itself to that cult of stardom.  When mega-chef Mario Batali toured Spain for a book a few years ago, he took Gwyneth Paltrow with him.  And, seriously, when is the last time Gwynnie ate a full meal, let alone a lusty, full-bodied Spanish one?  But the monthly cooking mags are even more pandering.  They do a back page on some star who doesn't cook a lick, but either pretends to or waxes poetic about her mother's fried chicken, even after you find out that the only thing in her fridge is coconut water.

But, oh, that chicken!  Back when she used to eat it.

In the spirit of trying to make Hollywood people normal, I am here to proclaim that I am "normal," too, and so, I am going to ask myself some questions about my eating life to prove it so.

What is the earliest meal that you remember preparing?

Actually, I remember my brother preparing it.  My first year in college.  He had a dinner party.  I was the only guest.  He served Cold Strawberry Soup and Beef Bourginone and something else, all recipes that came out of The Three Rivers Cookbook, a Pittsburgh cookbook that my mother had given to him and which he later gave to me.  Two years later, as a junior, I was living with him and three other guys in an apartment, where we took turns cooking.  I made a lot of dishes out of that cookbook.  It was the only one I had.

What is your favorite kind of food to cook?

I don't really have a favorite ethnicity.  I guess I most like to cook small plates, to get together a bunch of different things that might be from any number of cooking traditions.  Based on what's in my cupboards and fridge.  Last night, for example, I had chicken salad-stuffed tomatoes, using the leftover Parmesan-crusted chicken from Carraba's, vegetable egg rolls out of the freezer, Rosemary ham open faced sandwiches with hot sweet mustard and pickles, a cheese board with New Zealand cheddar, Maytag blue cheese, and goat cheese with spiced plum jam and crackers, roasted beets with honey, black pepper, and blue cheese, and some other stuff I can't remember.  I like the challenge of seeing what I can come up with on a moment's notice.

What are three things that can always be found in your refrigerator?  

Well, beer and....actually, I guess I'd say carrots, celery, and onion because I am a regular maker of stocks, and they always call for those vegetables.  Or maybe add green pepper, because if you are going to make many New Orleans dishes, you need the "Holy Trinity" of celery, onion, and green pepper, plus garlic.  And I love New Orleans cooking.

Music and cooking--a good mix or not?

A great mix!  I think cooking is enhanced, and movement around a kitchen is enhanced, when there is music playing.  I also like the wall it creates so you can think about what you're doing.  But it can't be too loud or frenetic, or it will create anxiety, especially if you are cooking for a party that is imminent.  I like Van Morrison or the Dead or something else with a good beat that isn't too electric.  Steely Dan is very good.

I understand that you collect cookbooks.  Which one do you cook from the most?

Embarrassingly, the one I cook from the most is my own. For my 50th birthday, I collected recipes from friends, relatives, and my own cooking and gave it out.  So all of my favorites are in that one place.  My wife and I make a lot of cakes and coffee cakes for people who need a pick-me-up, and our go-to recipes are in that book.

What was your last diet?  How long ago? How did it go?

I tried a month-long vegan diet sometime in the last year.  I mostly made it through.  It was the no-alcohol piece that eventually broke me.  I have nothing against vegan.  It's an interesting cooking challenge.  If you are going to cook vegan, I think Mexican and Asian are your best options.  You can make really flavorful offerings.

What is the most important trend in modern cooking?  Local ingredients?  Slow food? Something else?

My most important trend, which I identified a long time ago, courtesy of my parents and grandparents, is to avoid chemicals and other food additives as much possible.  I am not the healthiest eater in the world, but most everything I eat, I make myself, so I know what is in it.  If you are going to buy anything that is not an original ingredient, like a vegetable, you have to read the label to see what is in it.  People are eating so many additives, and they either don't know or don't care about what kind of toxic stuff is in their food in order to extend its shelf life.  If you buy bread in a grocery, for example, you are making an unnecessary health mistake.

If you could have dinner with any 3 people from throughout history, who would they be and why?

Actually, it wouldn't be with anyone famous.  The dinner I'd like to have would be with my friends Billy, Tommy, and John.  It would be at the Acme Oyster House in New Orleans.  We would start with the chargrilled oysters.  The fact that we were at Acme would mean that it was the first night of our trip, since that is always our first stop, and that we had the whole weekend ahead of us, with all of the possibilities of that amazing city.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

The 20 Zone

My little neighborhood, its own municipality with its own elected government for some 120ish homes, has passed a new ordinance stating that no one may drive faster than 20 mph on our streets.

Now, I ain't no Sammy Hagar, but I can't drive 20.  Maybe 25 uphill, 30 if I had my druthers.  But I don't have that freedom.

Because they are serious about this.  So serious, in fact, that there is some talk of citizens in our hood getting in ther cars and following the perp to his (or her) home to inform that said speed limit has been exceeded.  This is but one of the proposals for dealing with violators.

If you know me, you know that I am not going to do well with this.  In fact, it rarely crosses my mind that I am supposed to be driving 20 mph.  But then, it didn't much cross my mind that I wasn't supposed to be driving over 30 mph on Germantown, after the traffic camera was installed, and I have 3 tickets and $150 in fines to show for it (which my wife, inexplicably, paid). Sugar Magnolia's got nothing on me.

I'd like to think that I drive pretty safely.  I'd like to think that other people believe that, but that is more of a stretch.  But, hell, a well-tuned vehicle will go 10 miles an hour without any foot on the gas.  And I get the reason--there are yardapes (pronounced "yar-dop-ehs", the Spanish word for children who are always lingering near the curb when you drive by) in our neighborhood, including some that are so omnipresent in the yard behind my friend's house that no one will buy his house.

In the 22 years I've lived in the neighborhood, no one has been hit by a car, and for many of those years, there were more open streets for outsiders to cut through, not just the one near me that funnels "wanderers" in the direction of my house and cars.

So I think the law is a bit excessive.  Yeah, err on the side of caution, but as is the trend these days, err too much.

I grew up a street kid, that product of the suburbs who was always outside playing one kind of game or sport or another, and when a car was coming, everyone knew it and would yell, "Car!" And the game would pause briefly.  And then we would return without hesitation.  Now, I suppose, that is too risky--we've got to rein in the driver who might be exceeding the limit.  It makes sense in the most logical way, but it does not make sense in a survival way.  If you are in the road and there is a car coming, you get out of the road.

Unfortunately, that isn't how it works in our little burb.  There is a group of women, for example, who regularly walk the streets (yes, streets, not sidewalks, even though we have sidewalks) at any time of the day or night, and should you, as driver, come up on them, it is your fault, it is you who will get the glare.

What I can't tell, as I reflect on then vs. now, is have drivers become more thoughtless and careless and, therefore, require additional policing through cameras and ordinances, or have we, as a society, become more cautious?

I'm sure you can tell what my theory is.  After all, that Germantown Road, which has relieved my family of $150, only has a speeding camera in one direction.  So, if speeding is such a problem, is it only a problem one way?  Does no one speed heading away from the interstate?  I do.  Because I can, and I know I won't get a ticket.

Same with my neighborhood.  I understand that they want people to drive more slowly through our neighborhood, but how slowly?  And because, why?  And how was that limit set?  And, why, you might ask, don't I go to the neighborhood meetings where such things are voted on and decide?  I'll tell you why: because having lived here for 22 years without such an ordinance and without the apparent need for it, we seemed to make it just fine.  Had we not, it's a gossipy little place with its own email group, and we would all have heard of it.  And we didn't.  So what wasn't important back then, when we had more through traffic, is important now.

And now, are we more safe, or just more Salem, Massachusetts, 1692, with everybody keeping an eye on everyone else's business?  Are we the "neighborhood watch" that is watching its own, rather than unwanted outsiders?  And is someone really going to follow someone else home in order to chastise them in their driveway for their driving?

In a crazy Red State where people can bring their guns to all kinds of unacceptable (to me) places, including the streets of our neighborhood, I just don't see that ending well.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

This Is Why We Suck

Odds are you didn't come here prepared to invest 10 minutes of your life on a topic not of your choosing. Out of respect to your time, please know that the below post asks of a reader to watch a 4-minute song and read at least one of the many examples linked below. I ask this of you because the issue deserves our time, our meditation, our concern.

Troutking sent Bob and me a link to the following video the other day. It is no exaggeration to say it has haunted me ever since. It's a song by one of those comedian types who does entire routines around original music. So it's funny while also haunting. It's called "The Ballad of Billy John."

Here, watch:

The Homer "It's funny because it's true" line is apt here. You need go no further than the story of Gabby Schilling, daughter of (hopefully soon) Hall of Fame pitcher Curt. Proud dad Tweets about his daughter taking a college scholarship for pitching, and the Troll Universe swoops in to feed on it. Or, you can read the account from Curt Schilling himself, from his blog 38 Pitches.

You can be horrified by the initial collection of jerks who deserve to have their nuts placed in a vice for five minutes each, or you can be horrified at how quickly the tides can turn into a sort of over-the-top vigilante justice on those trolls whose actual identities can be shared with the world. If you have enough capacity for being horrified, you should be horrified by both the initial instance of collective a-holery of the Internet Borg, and then you should be horrified at how swiftly -- and with equal lack of perspective -- the tides can turn.

Serendipitously, mere weeks from now, So You've Been Publicly Shamed by Joe Ronson hits the bookshelves (or, for you young whipper-snappers, Amazon). Here's the general description:
For the past three years, Jon Ronson has been immersing himself in the world of modern-day public shaming—meeting famous shamees, shamers, and bystanders who have been impacted. This is the perfect time for a modern-day Scarlet Letter—a radically empathetic book about public shaming, and about shaming as a form of social control. It has become such a big part of our lives it has begun to feel weird and empty when there isn’t anyone to be furious about. Whole careers are being ruined by one mistake. A transgression is revealed. Our collective outrage at it has the force of a hurricane. Then we all quickly forget about it and move on to the next one, and it doesn’t cross our minds to wonder if the shamed person is okay or in ruins. What’s it doing to them? What’s it doing to us?
Ronson’s book is a powerful, funny, unique, and very humane dispatch from the frontline, in the escalating war on human nature and its flaws.
Esquire has an excerpt from the book which could be titled, "How an overheard off-color dick joke can lead to the loss of multiple jobs and death threats." It tells a tale similar to the Gabby Schilling incident, except without anyone who was ever in the limelight before their Brush with Internet Shame. No reasonable person can be happy with the course of events described.

In general, I'm fairly mindful of this, and I avoid most of the rush to judge and condemn. But not always. Take Brian Williams. While he seems like a swell guy and sells the news like nobody's business, I still can't quite accept that we should forgive a journalist who makes s*#t up, because it goes to the very core of his duty.

In my mind, a journalist who exaggerates facts for the drama quotient (or for self-endorsement) is no better than a President who invents (or allows to be invented) excuses for war, or two dread-locked singers who don't actually sing, or a scientist who can't actually clone a sheep, or a bicyclist who cheats and pulls everyone into his conspiracy and destroys them when they get crises of conscience. In all cases these are abuses that go to the core of their professional duties.

Yet, in every single case, it's one thing to be offended or even angry by these acts, but I still don't have bloodlust for them. I want the President to lose an election, the singers to stop singing, the scientist to stop researching, the bicyclist to stop being seen as a hero and making money from it, and I want the journalist to become the next host of The Daily Show. These are irrational thirsts for something like "justice" as meted out instinctively by a single flawed person, namely me. And I don't want to be judge and jury. I just want to drink my coffee and think Milli Vanilli sucked for not being real. I don't want one of them to kill himself.

"Just Busted" (by a million different names) sells in convenience stores all over this great land. They're right there at the counter. They're the new National Enquirer except better, because we might actually know these people, and even if we don't, we can celebrate our superior wisdom and intelligence by merely knowing they are nearby.

We spend so much time and energy in our modern culture hungrily seeking out people to judge. Most of us know it's wrong to hate someone, so we seek out, like vampires, people who have done something just despicable enough that we can justify vomiting out our negative emotions on them. And the more people around us who are doing it, the more justified we feel. See? They're vomiting on that guy, so obviously he deserves it, so I'm gonna vomit on him, too!

The local mom who passed out in a parking lot, drunk, with her child in the backseat. The parents who left their children in the car while they attended a wine tasting a few blocks over. The pet owner who left their dog outside during the winter storm.

When oh when will this Winter of Our Outrage* subside? I look forward to the spring of our current zeitgeist, when hope overcomes fear, when empathy replaces judgment, when caring replaces condescension. (* -- From Slate, and one of the best and most damning special web features in the history of the Internets.)

But I just looked, and Angry Groundhog apparently saw its shadow. Spring could be a ways off.

Monday, March 2, 2015

"How Are You Doing Today?"

The lady quickly caught up with me. "I hate flying into Atlanta," she said. "They all like that. Shameful's what it is."

I landed in Atlanta hungry and tired and with only a small window of time to get to my shuttle, set to depart in 25 minutes and having to make an absolutely essential pit stop before being stuck in a van for two hours.

Worse, I took the "plane train" in the wrong direction, which added to my stress.

By the time I get to the top of the domestic baggage claim area, I had 10 minutes to find a restroom and also get to "Parking Space 13 or 14 in Ground Transportation." There were two wings to the baggage claim, and each wing had two exits to "Ground Transportation." My intestines and I knew we didn't have time to trial-and-error our way to the right location, not if we were to take care of other matters.

The first human beings you encounter at the top of the escalator to baggage claim are TSA officers, whose sole job, it seems, is to ensure that no ter'ists attempt to sneak into a terminal and onto an airplane via the baggage claim. Two TSA guards stood to my right, and one to my left. Because it's a fairly tedious job*, people like myself are inclined to think of them as "TSA security and/or Information." In fact, four people were lined around the guards to the right asking them questions. So I went left.

"Excuse me, ma'am, can I ask you for some help finding how to get to my shuttle?" I asked.

Nary a muscle in her body moved. Her eyes remained transfixed on her phone. And she said these words: "And how are you today?"

I paused. Seemed like an odd reply. And then I said, "Um, I'm good? I think?"

"No sir," she said. "That is how you might consider addressing someone if you want their help and they ain't gotta be helping you. A little courtesy."

She didn't stop there. This was the genesis of a sermon she was now preaching at a sinful congregation of one, which is to say me. When it dawned on me, that I was being sermonized to, I held my hand up and interrupted (except she kept talking).

"Okay okay thank you and nevermind. I'll find a decent and happier human being to ask for help. But I sure do hope your day improves, 'cuz it must not be going well." I walked backward away from her, a bit worried that this woman might have the authority to create serious problems for me.

An older black woman apparently witnessed the entire odd event walked up to the agent and said, "Woman, what is wrong with you?" Salt and pepper short hair. Sharply dressed. Confident and clearly in an upper or upper-middle status in life. Her words bounced off stone. She walked quickly to close the distance between us. She was pissed.

"I hate Atlanta," she said. "They all like that."
"I've never had an encounter quite like that one," I said.
"You must not travel this airport much."
"I mean, I get her point about politeness, but I don't see why that's -- "

"No no, honey. You didn't do anything wrong. You were plenty polite. She just a pissed off lady taking out her misery on you. They doing that here all the time. I'm tellin' you, I travel for my job, all over the country, and Atlanta is the worst. The. Worst. They oughtta be ashamed of themselves, but they're not. Shameful is what it is."

A lady from the next booth -- a different shuttle company -- was more than happy to help me out. I asked how she was doing today first.

Life went on. No big whoop.

I know this was about race. I just don't know how much of it was. Or which parts.

I know it was about unhappiness and the impact we can have for good or ill on others we meet only briefly. I just don't know how much of it was about that. Or which of us, or if either or both of us, failed.

I know it was about not knowing what she brought to the table in that moment. Maybe she had just ended a bad conversation or a fight, or there's a break-up pending, or maybe a death or illness in her life, or just some random news item that made her, in that moment, really hate the look of me. Maybe she was up all night drinking, or crying, or dealing with a sick baby or a disrespectful teenager.

I have no idea what she brought to the table. I only know she was either deeply unhappy in the oment or deeply unhappy in a more disturbing way. Regardless, my regret is not finding a way, in that moment, to do something more positive, to show some kind of patience or warmth or compassion. If she rejected it or responded with more anger, so be it. I only know that her anger felt like my failure.