Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Magic of Music

Patrick is lingering.  Even though I knew that it would take a long time for him to die when I met him, it's taking longer than I thought it would anyway.  I guess the truth of it is that every day he's been in that bed has been a painful one to witness, let alone live through, so he's caught in that awful eddy of time, with nothing to do, nowhere to go.  You know the time is limited, but what do you wish for?  A speedy end?  Another day?  I'd certainly choose the former, but it's obviously not up to me.  readers of this journal know that I've seen fast and I've seen slow, and fast is definitely better than slow when it comes to death.

It's not even up to Patrick anymore.  That's the sad fact here, is that he is no longer able to control any part of his life, including his bowels, but he is required to remain alive.  In a merciful society, there would be a way for Patrick to choose to leave, quietly, softly and painlessly.  It's not that our society is without mercy, but it seems our principles are misplaced in a society where we can treat our beloved pets with mercy but a not human being.  I understand that there is a difference between a dog and Patrick, but fundamentally the quality of mercy is--ought to be--not dependent on the species.  Might we not be more merciful to microbes if we could?

All that philosophy aside, there is the matter of Patrick lingering.  I cannot do anything but watch and wait at this point, having tried everything I know of to comfort him.  It seemed to me that the food they are giving him is awful.  One day he sent me to the store for some lemon juice--no easy task considering the nearest store is miles away--which he routinely puts all over his food and in his Diet Coke.  He keeps cans of soda in a little red fridge next to his bed, along with some chocolate-flavored nutritional drinks. I brought him some special food a couple of times.  I thought perhaps a taste of food from the outside world might help, so on successive weeks, I brought him a bbq chopped beef sandwich from Iron Works, then a spicy beef taco from Torchy's.  He ate a bit of both with some gusto, but in recent weeks, he's had no appetite.

It also seemed to me that even though I don't know how to play the guitar, here in Austin I ought to be able to find a guitar player (or two) who would come play for Patrick in his room.  I had no idea where to begin, so I started by writing an email to every famous guitarist I could think of.  Of course, that was not a very long list, but it included Joe Ely, Ray Benson and Willie Nelson.  Ray Benson's agent was the only person to write back, but he suggested I get in touch with Swan Songs, a local non-profit which does precisely what I was looking for.  They connect local musicians with folks like Patrick for a personal concert in their home or facility.  A couple of emails later and I had my first performer for Patrick.

Although I had no expectation that the person who was coming to play was famous, it turns out that he is, in fact, quite well known, both in Austin and out in California.  Bob Livingston, who, among many other things, has played with the likes of Michael Murphy, Jerry Jeff Walker, Gary P. Nunn and many others.  I had never heard of Bob, but that's not surprising, since I have no connections to the music world.  Nonetheless I was impressed that he was willing to come and do this for someone he didn't know.  I had no idea what to expect, but I had hopes for some rock-and-roll and blues, since those are Patrick's favorites.  Bob said quite modestly that he was not so much of a rock-and-roll man, but he felt he could do a good job with the blues and some Texas swing.

I met Bob and the representative from Swan Songs in the lobby of the care facility where Patrick now lives and told him a few things about Patrick, including the fact that he was at Woodstock.  I also told him that Patrick was an old hippie, like me, and it so happens, Bob, so that immediately resonated with him.  We all went to the room, and after a few introductions, Bob took out his guitar, a set of harmonicas and sat down to play.

It was magical.

Bob is a very accomplished musician, so he made it look effortless, the way I might drink a glass of water, without thought.  It happens that there is precious little grace in my downing a glass of water, but in Bob's playing the grace and elegance of the act elevated our little corner of a nursing home--Patrick's last stand--to another place.  The word sublime comes to mind, but it seems too high-minded to describe the scene.  Here were a few humans, engaging in a ritual as old as humanity itself, comforting and soothing each other with our presence and the life-affirming power of music.

This was such a success, I felt like I needed to build on this, or at the very least, do it again.  Surely, I thought, there is a nearly limitless supply of musicians in this, the 'Music Capitol of the World'.  It turns out that it's not as easy as I thought, but I did manage to arrange for one more concert for Patrick. The next week, I arranged for a friend to come and play for him.  Ian, kind as he is to do this, is not a professional musician, but he was willing to do for Patrick what I simply cannot, which is to play the guitar.  I told Patrick that since I can't play, all I can do is to find someone who does.  I an did this, and with such grace and aplomb that it felt every bit as magical as the moments with Bob.

I wish I could say that I have since brought any number of guitarists to play at Patrick's bedside, but as I said, the process is harder than i thought.  I've sent notes to guitar and music stores, and I have posted in online forums, looking for someone with the same spirit that brought guitars into Patrick's life, oh so many years ago.  Even if we just managed to do it twice, however, I feel that those performances made a small difference in Patrick's final days.  

Monday, June 30, 2014

Why I am Saturday night

A friend recently asked me just why I post "is Saturday night!" as my Facebook status on, well, Saturdays.The simple answer is that since I work in a restaurant, Saturday night is a big night.  As you may know, I love my job, so this is the best day of my week.

But there's more to it than that.  Here's an interesting fact about being in the restaurant 'biz':  Once you are committed to it, your Saturday nights are not like most folks' any more. Your friends will call you up and say, 'hey I am having a party on Saturday', and you'll say, 'oh that's too bad, because I work on Saturdays'.  This isn't actually a bad thing, as far as I am concerned, even though it is a workday.  If you love the business like I do, Saturday night is a party night, but not for going out.  We hold the party and people come to us.

There's also a back story here.  When I first got the job at Hudson's (now 17 years ago), even though I'd been 'hired' in October, technically, I was 'on call' so I called in every Saturday night for months, only to be told, no sorry not this week.  I didn't give up, though.  It was actually April before I got to work my first shift, and it was a Saturday night.  I wanted to make a good impression with the kitchen, so taking a cue from a old movie called The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, I brought along a twelve-pack of beer for the kitchen.  In the movie, it's a bottle of whiskey, I think, and it's for the chef, but here I tried to hit the lowest common denominator, thinking that if the kitchen didn't hate me, I'd be off to a good start.

It worked.  Well, I really don't think it was the beer that did it, but whatever the reason, I got to work more and more Saturdays.  And each time I came to work, I was so excited and happy to be there, that when I would arrive, I would kick open the back door to the kitchen and holler as I came in with my 12-pack: "It's Saturday Night!"  This would be met by a chorus of whoops and and occasional 'Sabado gigangte'.  This is a ritual I still do today, although I often no longer arrive in the afternoon when everyone is in the kitchen.  Now I even call it out to an empty kitchen when I arrive at noon, but it's still a symbolic moment for me--the moment when I am where I really want to be, in the restaurant.

So, when Facebook came along, I started posting my excitement as a status.  Back in the day, FB would put up your name and the word "is" next to the status box, so when you posted, you could just say, "at a party" and it would come out as "Phillip is at a party".  Eventually, FB changed, but I didn't, and the result is sort of zen-like statement about me and my week.

I am Saturday night!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

12 Things You Maybe Didn't Know About Restaurants

This post comes in response to a recent article I read about Things You Have to Explain to People Who Have Never Worked in Kitchens.  This is a good article and mostly true, but it leaves out the side of the restaurant that most people think they are familiar with, but are, in fact, not aware of at all.  Here are a dozen of my favorites, in no particular order.

1. Everybody does everything but we have different jobs for a reason.

In a busy restaurant, you'll often see the manager out on the floor, clearing and re-setting tables. Busboys may be called on to carry trays of food, and often waiters will clear the plates and refill the water glasses.  So, while it may look like you can order food from the busboy, wave down the waiter to clear your plate, or get a drink from a passing manager, it actually makes sense to ask the waiter for another glass of wine, and to allow the busboy to clear your plate when you are finished.

The manager can get you anything, of course, but keep in mind that they have waiters and busboys there for a reason--they do the work while the manager fills in the gaps and takes up the slack for the people taking care of you.  If you ask the wrong person to do something for you, not only will it take longer, but it might not even come out right.  The waiter knows the menu and keeps their finger on the pulse of the kitchen to your benefit in a way that busboys and managers do not.

2. The busboy cannot take a food order.

So, even though you'll see us all doing a lot of things, there are some things we don't do.  The busboy really can't take your food order.  Now, while he can take your steak back to the kitchen for a re-cook, it makes more sense to ask the waiter to do this, because the busboy can't actually talk to the chefs. That may seem surprising, but it makes sense in a crowded and busy kitchen.

It's not like the busboys are forbidden to speak to the chefs, but in the kitchen talking is limited and the waiters are constantly calling out tables and responding to their names when food is up in the window, so by custom, we don't let the busboys talk to the line.  Instead, the waiters are in the middle, talking to the line and the busboys, calling for food, coffee, and giving special instructions for tables that need something like butter or bread or need to be cleared asap.

3. Watching people eating is like being a voyeur, and can often be as disgusting.

A lot of people do not realize just how intimate and disgusting the act of eating can be.  That's because we don't observe ourselves doing it, and we politely ignore the more iffy moments that our fellow diners often subject us to, like chewing/talking with an open mouth or spilling food on the table.  We see you shoving huge hunks of buttered bread into your mouth and notice when you reach back in there and pick something out of your molars.  We see you blow your nose in the napkin then wipe your mouth with it.  We see you spit out food and we know when you are drunk.

As waiters, we see it all--that's our job--and we don't say a word.  We certainly don't pull you up the way your parents would have if they'd seen you do that. We clean up your mess and wait until you finish the mouthful you were working on so you can tell us you want another glass of wine.

4. Regulars get better service.

This may seem obvious or not, depending on the type of diner you are.  Many people do not frequent one restaurant often enough to be recognized by the staff as 'regulars'.  This doesn't mean that we don't remember you, but there is a big difference between the person who comes in once a week or every two weeks, the person who comes in once a month and the person who comes in once a year.

You might think it's about the money, that we prefer regulars because they tip us more, but that's not the case at all.  We like the regulars because they come back.  It's really that simple.  We get to know you, where you like to sit, what you like to drink.  This is what we do best, taking care of people.  But if it's your first time in the restaurant, we don't know any of that, so we can't give you the kind of personalized service that we do for the regulars.

5. Special orders are a pain.

This not because we are too lazy to do it, but has a lot to do with the relationship between the waitstaff and the kitchen.  In some cases, a special order is not so difficult, but for the most part, these kinds of requests cause the kitchen to pause their routine and a) listen to the special request and b) take care of it. This causes friction between the waiters and the chefs, and the waiters are reluctant to engage in a long conversation with a hot and possibly annoyed chef just to get you a piece of broiled fish.  And if you are asking for 'this sauce' on that 'item', you might think you are being clever or inventive, but in fact you are insulting the chef, who took a lot of time and care to make and pair the sauce with the item. Forcing the waiter to go do this bidding just makes them and the chef annoyed and the result, no matter what you think, just won't be as good.

In fact, we have a menu for a reason--this is what we make and what we do best.  Seriously, when someone has an allergy, we can deal with that.  Shellfish, nuts and some kinds of fruit can cause serious problems.  Lately we are even accommodating the gluten-free folks. No problem.  But if you just don't feel like our style of food that evening, what are you doing in our restaurant? If you ask for a 'plain steak' or 'fries' or a 'nice piece of broiled fish', you should have eaten at home.

It's worth mentioning here that the common stereotype (Ramsay comes to mind) of the angry chef who despises the waitstaff and treats them like stupid children is just that, a stereotype and therefore nothing like the real world.  In fact, we couldn't tolerate a chef like that in the small quarters that we dance in, so even though tempers are sometimes tested, and there are sharp words spoke, there is no cursing or yelling and we often actually chat with the chefs as we garnish the plates and load trays at the window. Now when you have to stop the process and talk seriously to the chef, the dynamic changes, and it slows down everything down the line.  That's the pain part.

6. You can send the wine back if you just don't like it.

Speaking of pain, for many (especially young) diners, there can be no more awkward or painful situation in a restaurant than ordering a bottle of wine that they just don't like.  A lot of people think that if you order a bottle of wine that you don't particularly like, you are stuck with it.  Now, setting aside the issue of whether or not some wines on the list are 'bad' (they are not) this causes many people to go into a sort of paralysis when ordering wine.  If they are uncertain about their choice, they will freeze up and go with the 'known' and stay away from those 'unknowns'.  This in turn leads to the choice of the wrong wine. Far too many people pick a familiar California cabernet instead of trying an old world wine because they are afraid the French or Spanish wine will be 'bad' and they'll be 'stuck' drinking it.

In fact, all the wines on the list are good for what they are (style, region, price) but if you simply happen to choose a wine that you don't like, then you can return it (before you drink it, of course)--that sounds obvious but I've had folks try and return a bottle after they've had half of it already. We'll even do that, but not necessarily happily.

If, however, you order a wine, taste it and decide it's not what you want, you may return it, really!  Of course, if you decide that you really want something else, though, it's time to trust the waiter or wine steward's suggestions.  Then, if you return a second bottle you will not be required to pay for it either. You'll have more trouble retiring the third bottle, but of course, you may do that too.  By the way, don't expect more than three times at bat, however.

7. Don't ask 'what's good tonight?'

This kind of question is very awkward for the waiter.  Asking for their favorites is a much better approach because answering the first question carries with it the implication that not everything is good tonight.  We operate on the basic principle that everything is good, every night.  We might have preferences, and it's fair to ask about these.

You can ask the waiter what they would have tonight, and they'll likely tell you that tonight, they feel like having fish or steak.  So, it's same as you, they have preferences and they actually change from night to night.  But it's all good.

8. Other people are celebrating their ______ too.

This may come as a shock to most people, but when you are in a restaurant, there's a very high likelihood that other diners will also be celebrating their birthday/anniversary.  I know, your birthday and anniversary are unique--to you, but not to us.

We see dozens of special occasions every night, and while we try to make you feel special about it, the fact is, that we can only do so much.  We are not capable of 'making' your birthday special--that's the job of whomever is taking you to dinner.  We can make a fuss over you, if that's what you want, but don't expect us to sing to you.  Or join in when the family sings, please, no.

And, while it seems logical that you should get a free dessert because it's your birthday, if we did that, we'd give away more desserts that we would sell.  Recall that we are in the business of making and selling food, and that includes your piece of cheesecake even when it has a candle in it.

9. Don't ask for the 'best table in the house'.

You would be amazed how often we get this request, on the phone and at the door.  And, while the old saying that you can't get what you don't ask for is certainly true, it's also a fact that unless you are a regular and/or very nice about it, we have no reason to give you 'the best table'.  An aside here--just like 'what's good tonight?' this request implies that there are good and bad tables in the restaurant.

So, while no one will deny that some tables are more prominent and perhaps have a better view of the restaurant and are therefore 'better' we really don't have any 'bad' tables.  In our restaurant, for example, there are two tables that are in the proximity of the restrooms, and one that is close to the kitchen door, but in truth, when the restaurant is busy and full, it's a table and you will get fed if you sit there.  You may indeed ask for a 'better' table, but all you are going to get is a different table, and it may take a while to get it.

10. We value nice people more than we value big tips.

Most people think that giving a big tip will get you good service, especially next time.  Well, this is true only to a limited extent.  For one thing, unless you give us an unbelievable tip (like 100%) we will be grateful, to be sure, but we will not necessarily remember you just because you gave us 23% or $20 on an $80 tab. The fact is, we often get some good tips.  While this thrills us (really, you have no idea how nice it is to open the book and see an appropriate tip in there) we aren't going to remember you fondly just for that.

Now if you are also nice, you smile and listen to the waiter, are patient with him as he manages the other people at the other tables in his section and thank him for taking care of you, we will rememeber you if you come back in a reasonable amount of time.  In fact, you can actually leave a less-than-average tip and we will remember you for being nice.  The next time you come in, we'll think, 'oh they are nice' and not even recall whether or not the tip was 20%. See #4.

11. Punishing the waiter for a problem with the food is bad form.

Of course the flip side to this is the $0 tip, or the stiff.  It is almost never appropriate to stiff a waiter. Even if they have been rude, you have to give them something.  It's certainly appropriate to tell them why you are unhappy, and even to complain to the manager when you feel you've been given less-than-average service, but it's not cool to say, 'well, you made a mistake so I am just not going to pay you'.

If, when treated poorly at the doctor's office, would you be permitted to say, 'that was painful.  I'm not paying for that.'?  And I do believe I've gotten worse treatment at the hands of doctors than I've ever gotten from a waiter.  This isn't to say that you cannot give a waiter a low tip if they've been unresponsive or rude in some way, but you can't just stiff them altogether.  It is also a good idea to tell the waiter that you were unhappy with them and that they need to improve. While that may not be welcomed, it is more useful than simply leaving a low tip with no explanation.  And it's always good to provide feedback, since they can't be expected to improve without it.

A waiter won't always get it right, but for the most part they are trying to do the right thing.  Give them credit for that, and tell them when they aren't doing it right.  We expect that. The thing is, we remember folks who are stiffers.  Those folks are unlikely to ever escape their reputation, even though we continue to accept their patronage.

12. We remember when you treat us (and your guests) badly.

This might seem obvious, but you'd be amazed how often people come back to the restaurant completely oblivious to the fact that they were raving a-holes the last time they came in.  This is not the same as a bad tipper (though stiffing comes in here) because it isn't the money that we remember, it's how you behaved.  Insulting or cursing the waiter, demanding things from the busboys that they can't do, sending back food repeatedly, these are all things that we find to be troubling, if not downright out of line.

But it isn't just how you treat us, either.  We see how you treat those with you at the table.  And again, you would be amazed at how many people are rude or insulting to their companions.  This isn't just awkward for the waiter, it becomes a form of abuse, and no one is better of for it.  Of course we can't keep you from making your girlfriend cry or your dad turn red from apoplexy, but we certainly feel it and remember it.  Do you really want us to say 'Oh here comes that a-hole?' as you come to the door? What kind of service do you think you'll get?  See #10.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Breaking

Filling the gaps
In a broken web
Droplets as big as goblets
Reflecting the whole world in a single curve
Light bends even in the tiniest drop
My eyes can only see so much
My breath can only last so long
Turn from your broken vessel
Leave the safety of the cockpit
Dive in the water and swim for home
Like an amoeba to the light
Light to the mirror of your damn soul
In the image of man good loses his goodness
Forgetting that what brought him here
And mistaking the cage for the world
There are too many minutes to spend
In argument
And too many kisses wasted on babies.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Swan Song

Patrick is dying.  Of course, he's been dying of emphysema since the day we met, now a year and a half ago, but now he's really dying.  Not actively dying, which is still to come, but he's entered a strange interlude that many dying people find themselves in--bed-bound, waiting for the end, but not there yet.  He's lost interest in the television and he was never much of a reader, so mostly he just sleeps.

About a month ago, after a visit, I sat in my car, wondering why it always feels like I've done nothing, even after visiting him when it occurred to me that this was because I really was doing nothing.  Of course, sitting with him and talking is good, but I wanted to do something more, something that would mean something to him, to Patrick.

Honestly, I don't know a lot about Patrick.  I know he's an old hippie, about my age, maybe a little older.  I know he lived in Austin most of his adult life, but he grew up in North Carolina, the son of a shoe salesman (seriously, a real life Willie Loman).  I know Patrick went to Woodstock, not just because he told me so, but he showed me pictures.  He was there, and at many other less well known festivals and outdoor concerts on the East coast and here in Texas.

Mostly what I know about Patrick is that he is guitar crazy.  One of the first things he asked me--after discovering that I was unable to solve his computer problems--was if I played guitar.  I said no, I have no musical ability, and he immediately offered to teach me.  Anyone can play, he said.  Perhaps he's right, but I never actually tried, and sitting in the car at the senior care facility, I found myself wishing I could play for him now.  Then I thought, even if I can't play guitar, maybe I can find someone who does.  it shouldn't be hard, I thought, here in the 'Music Capital of the World' to find a guitar player for Patrick, right?

I immediately conjured an image of Joe Ely, striding into the room wearing black boots and carrying an electric guitar and a little amp.  He'd plug in the guitar and put his foot up on the amp and say something like, "Anybody here want to hear a couple of guit-tar songs?"  Most visions are just that, but this one seemed like something I could actually make happen.  I mean, why not just write Joe Ely and ask him?

This reminds me of the time Lynda suggested I write that 'Bill Gates guy' and ask him for a job.  I bet he reads his email, right?  Right mom.

I don't know if Joe Ely reads his fan mail, but I wrote to him, and Ray Benson, and Willie Nelson, and every other famous guitar player I could think of.  It turns out that this list is not so long--not because there is a shortage of guitar players, but my musical knowledge is so limited that I didn't get very far.  I guess I wrote about eight or ten emails. I got one response.  This was from Ray Benson's agent, who told me very politely that Mr. Benson could not respond to individual requests, but often donated his time and talent to Swan Songs, which is a non-profit agency that arranges for musicians to go play for terminally ill people in their homes and institutions.

I filled out the online request form at Swan Songs website, and soon was in contact with the very kind folks who organize and coordinate these visits.  She said they had a musician who was willing to donate his time--fellow named Bob Livingston.  The name honestly did not mean anything to me, but Kate told me that he was pretty well known, and had played with a number of famous bands, including Jerry Jeff Walker's Lost Gonzo Band.  He also played with Michael Murphy, Gary P. Nunn and practically every other musician of note in the Texas and L.A.  All this I found out later.  At the time of Kate's call, I was more interested in making this happen for Patrick.  I felt sure Bob was going to be a good musician, but frankly I didn't care if he was famous or not.  The fact that he could play and was willing to give his time to Patrick was more than enough for me.

It turns out, of course, that Bob could really play.  I don't quite know how to explain this, except perhaps by way of a weak analogy.  We taste things all the time, just the way we hear things all the time, but when you taste something especially good, whether it's food or drink, you know it's somehow materially different that the 'usual' stuff.  This is how I felt about Bob's music.  It was simply exceptional, yet so natural that it was no different than listening to someone talk. The music emerged from his hands and instruments (he also brought a set of harmonicas) in such a way that it was like water, flowing in and around and through us.

There were four of us in the room that day, but no one enjoyed it more than Patrick.  He can't talk much and doesn't have a lot of energy, but I could see his eyes sparkling and his head moving almost imperceptibly to the beat of the music.  He knew who Bob was, by the way, but I don't think that mattered so much as the fact that Bob was there to play guitar.

Afterwards, as he was drifting off to sleep, I told Patrick with some pride--'Hey, I never learned how to play the guitar, but I found someone who does.' It's the least I can do.

Friday, May 2, 2014

The Future of Photography

What, if any, is the future of photography in the digital era?

Photographs haven't been with us all that long, but they may already have become virtually worthless. When they were new, cameras were used to document many things that had never been recorded previously, and photographs were, in and of themselves, works or art.  Over time, with the help of folks like George Eastman, photography became the province of the masses, and photographs were reduced to 'snapshots'.

Still, some of these snapshots were still in an of themselves works of art, even if they lacked some of the original rarity of the first photographs.  Admittedly, many were nothing more than pictures of people in poses and places that seemed scene-worthy.  And while many of the pictures of people and even more shots of scenery ended up being important documents about the time and place they were taken, most of the photographs through the end of the 20th Century were destined to be lost forever, trapped and simultaneously falling out of old leather bound books with crumbling black paper pages and fading gold ink.

These albums are in hundreds of thousands--if not millions--of bookshelves, in closets, attics and basements in virtually every corner of the earth.  It is amazing to think about how many photographs have been taken since the first daguerrotype, and even more amazing to realize that most of these are simply gone, victims of of nostalgia, neglect and finally just basic chemistry.  What hasn't been thrown away or put away has likely simply faded away.

Too many pictures

But if we think there were a lot of photographs taken in the 20th Century, no matter what that number is, it will be dwarfed by the number of digital photographs that will be taken in the 21st century.  In fact, I'd venture to guess that even today, just a few short years after digital photography became so widely available and used, there have been more photographs taken since 2000 than in the approximately 150 years before that.  And we are just getting started.  By the end of the century, the number will be several orders of magnitude larger with no signs of slowing down.

Of course this excludes end-of-the-world scenarios, including those that expect the world's electrical grid to fail--and thus result in the irreversible loss all of digital files, including photographs--not because I don't think this will happen, but because for this particular thought experiment, we need to suppose that the taking of pictures goes on uninterrupted for decades and even millennia.

That's because I want to think about not just the number of photographs, but I want to contemplate what will happen to subject matter itself in such an extreme situation.  In other words, if we keep on taking pictures at the rate we are today (assuming no increase in the rate of increase) will there be anything to take a picture of in 3001?  Will we have taken every picture of every flower and bee and mountain and sunset?

Why bother?

It's natural to say, no, of course not.  There will be a new sunset every day in 3001, and plenty of bees and flowers and cats and oh yes, each other.  There will be no way we can have taken every picture.  I can agree with this on one level--purely numeric--but on another--symbolic--I have to wonder what the point of taking pictures of those bees and flowers and sunsets will be as we go deeper and deeper into the new millennium.  Can we imagine a time when you don't need to take your own picture--just pick out one that you like and use it, make it your own.  When you need a picture of a sunflower, you don't need to take it, just take it from the net.

Of course, this is already happening, and the meaning of many photographs has been reduced to virtually nothing because of the ubiquity of the subject matter.  Even the now-famous 'selfie' has been diminished and demeaned by overuse, and it isn't going to get better in the next few years, that's for sure.  It's one thing to use photographs as documentary evidence, but quite another--and some would argue, rather useless--to use photographs as unique art objects.

Or is it? Will the value of art prevail in a world where reproduction is so common that originality is lost?  Can that even happen?

Three ways up the mountain

I think so.  In fact, I think we already have the evidence of what photography will become--as an art form--in the coming decades.  I have three examples to work with, all from friends who are photographers.  These are individuals whose work points the way for photography in the future.

Tom ~ Mosaics

Tom is a photographer who is also a painter.

Or perhaps he is a painter who is photographer.  We've had many discussions about this, because this chicken-and-egg conundrum is relevant to his work in particular.  He started off as a painter and turned to photography because it was easier to take pictures than it was to paint canvases.  So he began to take pictures.  And with a digital camera in hand, he began to take a lot of pictures.  But his instinct, his desire, was to make something more than just a photograph, another snapshot.  Meanwhile, the pictures began to add up.

At some point--and you can read about his whole discovery and process in a series of essays that he wrote as a result of our conversations--Tom found a way to bring these two processes--painting and photography--into a kind of synthesis: mosaics.

Again, I will defer to his description of the creative process to explain how this works and why he settled on this particular form at this particular point in his career as an artist, but I want to observe that his method points toward a way that photography can be used in a meaningful way in the digital era.  I can summarize his technique, I think, by saying that he uses individual photographs as brushstrokes in a larger whole that can be described as a painting.  Of course, it's still a digital image, but it has been transformed from a snapshot--or even a series of such shots--into something that is no longer 'photographic' but is more basically 'graphic', in the same way that a pencil mark or a brushstroke is a graphic.

You have likely already seen something like this.  The photograph of Lincoln, for example, that is made up of thousands of images of soldiers from the Civil War.  From a distance, say ten or twelve feet, the image looks like the portrait of Lincoln we are all familiar with, but get up close, within a foot or so, and you can see that it's really a mosaic.  What looked like pixels from a distance are actually photographs in and of themselves.  It's a clever trick, and it is an impressive display of the power of digital photography.  It allows for a layered experience, one where the viewer first sees one level and finds themselves drawn into a far deeper, more intimate place on closer inspection.

In many ways this is a long standing goal of art, specifically painting.  To show or hide the brushstrokes has been a debate among painters since first two people held a brush side-by-side.  One argues that showing the strokes invites the viewer into the world of the work's creation, after they have experienced the illusion of the image; hiding these strokes falsely denies the true nature of the work by pretending that the painter somehow didn't exist. The other argues that hiding the brushstrokes enhances the illusion, which is the point of the painting in the first place; showing how it was made would destroy the illusion and render the work useless.

This debate will go on, of course, but the essential issue, is that photographs can be pixels in an of themselves, and as such, can be part of a larger whole.  Right now, the practitioners of this art form are primarily focused on the naturalistic representations (like the Lincoln portrait) but the trend, in an artistic sense, is toward the abstract, or at least to the re-interpretation of naturalistic subjects.  When the pixels are photographs, is the resulting work a meta-photograph?  I prefer to think of it as Tom does, as a complex object, with nuances and suggestions that go far beyond a photograph or a painting, but combining elements of both forms.  This is how new forms are created.  This is how art evolves.

Chris ~ People

Chris is a professional photographer and a teacher of the same in a small private school.

He has been working as a professional since he was in college, shooting just about anything and everything for pay.  That means weddings, bar (and bat) mitzvahs, family portraits and even commercial properties and products.  Since he is now in his fifties, this means that he has managed to sustain himself as a professional for decades, which is no small accomplishment, considering how many things, small and large, go into a professional photo shoot.

In other words, he must be good.  And he is.  He is a careful and meticulous photographer, paying attention to the various elements like lighting, exposure and composition, but he is also a creative photographer, which means he sees and pays attention to many details that we--the viewers--might not notice, but which certainly affect our perception of the finished work.

These details have to do with people--specifically how people act and react when a camera is pointing at them.  Many people think that the camera is doing the work, after all it's right there, in between the photographer and them, but in fact it's the photographer who has the most do do with the outcome, especially when taking pictures of people.

Pictures of people are what Chris does best.  Somehow, he manages to capture something unique and compelling in his portraits.  You might say that he captures their 'essence' or their 'spirit'.  However you define it, the intangible quality is noticeable.  These are not snapshots, nor are they carefully composed still lives.  They are somewhere in between, and therein lies the magic of his art.

Lest you think it is easy enough to point a camera at someone and get a good photograph of them--that is, one that represents them in a way that you, as someone who knows them, will recognize, and if you don't know them, it will resonate with you anyway, because you know someone was there, in front of that camera, and that you can really see them, not just how they are standing or what they are wearing.  In fact, you might not notice any of that, as you are focussed instead on the person who's image is literally filling your field of view.

In this way, Chris' photographs of people point to one of the ways that digital photography can remain relevant in the face of an overwhelming crush of images. For no matter how many times we point the camera at a person, there always exists the possibility that we will see them in the photograph in a way that is more than simple recording.  We feel them as real people, living just beyond the frame, on the paper but in our head.

And what makes this difference?  The photographer.  No one but the artist can find this space.  Selfies will never replace portraits, and no matter how much someone loves you, if they don't understand photography, just pointing a camera will not result in a portrait.  It isn't just a mechanical process--it's an emotional one.  What we feel as an observer of a good portrait is the relationship between the photographer and his subject.  This can be timeless and eternal, which are the very qualities that we seek from good and lasting art.

Valery ~ Detail

Valery is a photographer who never thought she would be a photographer.

She was never all that interested in photography, in spite of the fact that her brother is a professional photographer and her husband has been an amateur shutterbug for many years.  He brought digital photography to the house and gave Valery her first camera, a hand-me-down that he had set aside for a newer, better model.  His interest was in the device, so despite the fact that he had taken many hundreds and thousands of photographs, very few of them held any interest for Valery (or anyone else, for that matter).  They were more snapshots, dinners, nights out and stuff around the house.

But when Valery picked up that same camera, a couple of transformations took place.  The first was for the camera, which had been used in a sort of straight-up point-and-shoot way that it was designed.  But in Valery's hands, the camera became a recorder of a world not often seen and seldom photographed: the world of detail.

Most of us look at the world around us as a pretty familiar place.  We seen things we recognize and take them for granted.  But how often do we really look at the things around us?  How much detail are we missing on a day-to-day basis?

The answer is, a lot.  In fact, we see so little in our everyday lives that it's fair to wonder if we really 'see' at all.  Mostly we just sail, swim or dig (pick your metaphor) through our lives, seeing enough to keep us from running into things and preventing other things from running into us.  It's almost like an obstacle course, and we don't really look at the obstacles as we climb over and under them every day.

These details can be natural, and most often these are the sources of Valery's inspiration.  Looking closely at a vine, for example, or a flower or a piece of wood or rock, Valery sees what we are missing when we step over them, or see them as a vague green, brown or grey blur that must be avoided.  But Valery doesn't avoid them.  She steps up closer and looks at them as if they've never been seen before.  This isn't hard.  Many things we think we've seen have really never been seen by us before.  I am talking about detail, the stuff that we see when we stop and look closely.

This is what Valery does in her art, and again, I think this points to a future for photography in the coming millennia.  The world is full of details, and our lives are made richer and more interesting as we see and understand this world.

The reach and depth of this particular approach to photography is both broad and deep.  There is so much about this very planet that we do not see, so much that we do not know, as intriguing as a photograph of the deep space field might be, the images of microbes and the world that they inhabit is much more fascinating and visually rich.  Images of our world necessarily resonate with us, and photographs of the detail can be a way to extend, enhance perhaps the experience of being in it.

Resonance

So, what do these three examples have in common?  What is it that forms the basis of photography as an art form in the 21st century?  The answer is not simple, but it may be paraphrased for the sake of remembering why we pick up a camera in the first place.

Photography is art, which is essentially about enhancing the experience of life.  It allows us to do much more than simply remember what we can no longer see with our eyes.  It allows us to see what we might never have seen at all with those same eyes.  We resonate with it and are changed as a result.  

Friday, April 25, 2014

The Treacherous Khumbu Icefall

Militant ice extremists
seracs share not
your selfish human ambition

Climbers are not lifters
mistaking their own war with gravity
for human effort

In the Death Zone
blood betrays those
climbing on the crushed bodies
of servants

Is there no challenge
at hand?
no need to push the limits
of the mere here and now?

All around are loads to be lifted
lives to be made better
at an elevation ho higher
than the ground floor of a nursing home.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

This Day - That Day

Well, it's that day again.  One of the hardest things that I had to accept, in the very moments after Pierre died, was the certain knowledge that I would have to face this day, every year, for the rest of my life.

Just knowing that was a burden I was not sure I could bear.

But bear up I have.  I don't know that I've marked the day publicly as much as I expected to, but then I haven't been able to simply ignore it the way I hoped I might.  My first thought has held true, alas, and even if I say nothing to anyone, the day has a meaning that I cannot escape.

So, I don't even try to escape.  Nor do I allow myself to wallow in self-pity and sorrow.  I have to find some path in between the polarizing emotions of grief and apathy.  The day will never come that I do not grieve, just a little, nor will there be a day on which I no longer care.  Pulsing, vibrating, oscillating always between these two poles, there are days when I go a whole hour before I think of him and then there are days like today, when each moment is its own bubble, rising slowly through my viscous consciousness in a seemingly endless stream.

Knowing that things will get better makes it easier to get through days like this.  Meditating helps. Sunlight helps.  Love and friendship helps.

It's a day that I hesitate to mark publicly, but I have hopes that someone else will remember.  Even if they say nothing, those who remember Pierre on this day add meaning and purpose to my life and I am grateful for their love.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

I Will

I will walk to the top of the mountain
on all four paws
outrun the wind
sleep on water
sound like a shadow
all things are mine to take
with blunt tooth and sharp claw.

I will glide through the forest canopy
on long wings
with feather tips
to cut
and wheel silently
lifting light from the moss
with golden eye and the curved daggers
in my toes.

I will dive deeper in the ocean
than light
with lungs stronger than steel
a massive body
uncrushed and unyielding
to the water's insidious press
mine is the siren's call
luring unseen and unwilling partners
to dance in the jaws of the dark.

I will march through acres of blades of grass
lift and wrestle boulders of sand
cross chasms a thousand times my size
strength is my purpose
work my life
relentless in a world of obstacles
nothing is large enough to stand
against my will.

I will grow and double in every corner
of every thing on the planet
doubling again
so quickly
I appear to be still just
before I am countless
infinite
to all but time
faceless death is my heartbeat
live forever I will.

I will eat and shit
cry and fall
I will crawl and kneel and stand and walk and run
I will make a fool of myself
before I learn
to laugh
and love.

I will watch reflections without seeing
Hear yesterday's echo in the wind
Taste only sweet fruit and sour tears
And be unable to sleep in the rain.

My teeth are small and I have no claws
My eyes are shortsighted and my fingers are soft
My lungs are small and my song travels moments not miles
My strength is momentary, my will unsustained
Grow beyond measure
Live forever I will not.

But I will write this poem.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Day President Kennedy Died

I was in second grade at St. John's Elementary Day School in Abilene Texas. 

I didn't see our teacher leave, but I did see her come back. Ms. Spain was crying. I'd never seen her, or, for that matter, any adult cry before. She was really weeping. I knew something was very wrong. 

She told us that the President had been shot. I didn't know what that--being shot--meant exactly. I didn't know what--and certainly not who--the President was. What seemed obvious was that getting shot was bad enough to make our teacher cry. As she sat and cried at her desk, the principal came on the loudspeaker. She said--though heaving sighs that sounded a lot like Ms. Spain's uncontrolled sobbing--essentially the same thing: the President had been shot. She added that school was being let out and that our parents would be here shortly to get us. 

For a second-grader, getting out of school in the middle of the day is a bewildering but exciting feeling. That feeling was already tempered by the discomfort of seeing Ms. Spain in tears, but it was on seeing my parents--in particular my mother Lynda, who was crying--that I started the long process of understanding what had happened that day. 

Bill and Lynda sure had a lot of explaining to do with a question-a-minute seven-year-old like me. With one eye on Walter Cronkite, they had to talk about Presidents, elections, then rifles, motorcades, the Secret Service, and most of all, the dark and, until then in my life, the invisible subject of of death.

Until that day, I did not know that anyone dies; after it I knew it would someday happen to everyone--my parents, my siblings and yes, of course, me. A defining moment? Yes indeed.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Civility

When most people think of civility, they likely think of being polite, or being courteous, or having good manners. But does being civil mean just being nice?  I think it's more important than that.

Civility is compromise.

We know what most people think of civility.  That's why it's commonly defined as politeness or some variation thereof.  But what does civility mean in practice?  I think it’s pretty simple.  Civility means getting along with others.  In a word, compromise. That’s a simpler notion than the Golden Rule, and as a consequence, it’s open to a lot more interpretation and variation.

That's it?  Just getting along with others?  Well first of all, it implies that we live with others.  If we lived by ourselves, civility wouldn’t be necessary.  As solitary individuals, we can do what we want, when we want, without thought of how that might affect others.  But as we gather into social groups, civility becomes necessary.  

The most basic example of this is walking on the street in a crowded city.  When people walk down a crowded street, they almost never run into each other.  Oh there are the occasional bumps and collisions by distracted pedestrians (especially with cell phones and music players) but for the most part, people manage to walk along without crashing into each other and starting fights.  Why?  How does this happen?

It has to do with several orders of control: norms, rules and laws.

Norms are the most basic forms of behavior control.  They are so basic, in fact, that we hardly even notice them and rarely seek to alter them once they are imprinted, often at a very early age.  These are the things that we learn in our earliest days here on the planet.

For many of us, those early days (at home but especially at school) are when we first learned to be civil.  For many of us, school is where we learned our norms:  how to stand in line, to wait our turn, to listen while others talk--in sum, how to respect the basic boundaries that we encounter in everyday life living with others.  Knowing and accepting these norms allows us to get along in a social environment like a school or a classroom or a job, or just walking along the street in a city.  It’s a skill we have to learn early or we risk being shut out.  

The consequences of failure to learn the skill of being civil are obvious--violence, abuse and crime. Not all people who are uncivil are psychopaths, but the absence of civility in an individual can often be traced to mental disorders or abuse.  People can become uncivil because they never learned how to do it in the first place.

To be clear, being uncivil doesn’t mean being violent, abusive or criminality.  It may be something as basic as withdrawal from society.  Knowing that they don’t know the rules of engagement with others causes many people to simply turn inward, away from others both mentally as well as physically. And, since it isn’t black-and-white but a spectrum of human behavior, this type of withdrawal can take many forms and have many (often unintended) consequences.  

Take rudeness for example.  Many people are rude and think nothing of it, literally.  These are the people who cut in line, speak out of turn and hurt others with senseless or even deliberately injurious actions.  They’ll say they didn’t ‘mean to’ but it’s ‘just the way’ they ‘are’.  And so they are, to the detriment of all around them.  They never learned the norms.

For these people, we have rules and laws.  

First, rules. Now, as everyone knows, rules were made to be broken.  In fact, that’s why they are there, because someone--lots of folks, actually--simply cannot abide by norms, and won’t moderate their behavior even when they know they are out of sync with others.  They think of themselves as eccentrics at best and of course, criminals at worst, but no matter what the label, they cannot be bothered with the norms and are therefore restrained (hopefully) by rules.

Rules, like norms, are unwritten.  I’m not referring to the rules of say, baseball, because those are more properly discussed as laws.  I am referring to the rules of human engagement, rules that we encounter in many, if not all, structured social environments like schools, workplaces, and of course, prisons.

At school, for example, a basic rule is to stand in line and wait your turn.  The rule says that if you cut in line and don’t wait your turn, you have to go to the back of the line.  The teachers are there to enforce this rule, but once everyone knows it, the other members of the group participate in the enforcement of it.  Cut in line and even if the teacher doesn’t see it, someone will holler about it in a hurry.

Norms govern our actions far more than rules, and rules govern our actions far more than laws, but when norms are ignored, and rules don’t work, laws are created and enforced to keep the uncivil in line--figuratively as well as literally.  People who cannot learn how to stand in line and wait their turn often end up in a place not unlike preschool in every way except for the absence of actual freedom at two o’clock.  In prison, people stand in line whether they want to or not.

Conforming to norms and rules is not required to be civil, but to the degree that norms and rules are ignored, the level of civility is reduced, and the likelihood of corrective action is increased. Maintaining civility is the function of government.  It provides a means--law--to enforce civil behavior on those who do not conform to norms or obey rules.

The consequences of being uncivil could be painful, so why be obstinate?  A simple bit of compromise is all that's need to avoid a collision. Yet people are obstinate and uncivil all the time in places where there isn’t time or space enough for norms to be completely effective.  Like traffic. Hence laws.

This isn’t to say that traffic isn’t governed by norms, just that norms are ineffective when it comes to protecting pedestrians from automobiles, and drivers from other drivers.  In a car, the norms we use to avoid collisions and problems as pedestrians are masked by the steel and glass curtain that surrounds us and insulates us from the tiny clues and signals we use on the street to be civil.

We exhibit many of the same modes of civility in our cars as we do on our feet, but the consequences of speed and mass are often not up to the task of mistakes.  Failure to compromise with other pedestrians on the street might annoy us (and in some cases start a fight) but for the most part we can brush it off because the consequences are frequently little more than surprise or modest embarrassment at the most.  But a mistake on the street in a car, even traveling at a low rate of speed, can have deadly consequences, as we all know.  Failure to compromise in a car can result in death.

But, as important as civility is to walking or driving, it is in the making of laws that civility plays the most important role in society.  Lately we've seen a sharp drop in civility amongst our lawmakers, who refuse to compromise with their ideological opponents, or worse, with their own colleagues of the same party. Sadly, this is by design and even sadder, the effect is deleterious (to say the least) on our society. Congressional obstructionists who outwardly maintain that they are simply standing up for their beliefs are in fact abandoning the norms rules and yes, even laws concerning civility.  Compromise is considered to be a weakness to be avoided at all costs, even if that cost is less what we pay without it.

In the name of a 'principle', these people have forgotten the basic reason for being civil: compromise moves us all forward. The result of failure to compromise is gridlock, and nothing gets done.  Without compromise, laws are not passed.  Regulation is ignored. Appointments are left unfilled. Work is left undone or done poorly.  In this situation, we all suffer. Think not?  What actually happens when the government is underfunded or deliberately hobbled by lack of leadership?  Where do you think 'red tape' comes from?

Compromise--particularly in government--is what enables our society to thrive and grow.  While walking down the street, or driving a car require civility in order to avoid unpleasant and often painful accidents, the consequences of uncivil behavior on the street are not as far-reaching as the breakdown of civility in the governing process can and will be.  When lawmakers refuse to compromise, we all suffer.

On any given day, we have to go along to get along. We must be civil--compromise--to get along with others who share the same norms, rules and laws. To get some of what we want we must give others some of what they want.  Civility is the oil in the engine of society. Without it, the engine seizes up and nothing can happen.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Me and My Microbiome

In the past year, I have struggled more with my health than at any other time in my life.  It doesn't seem fair, actually.  I'm aging, but I am not old.  I'm too young to have health problems.

For that reason alone, I hate to think that my health could already be in jeopardy, but something happened to my digestive system this summer that has made me re-think that assumption.  I don't know what it was exactly, but I have referred to it as a gastric attack because that's just what it felt like. That didn't seem to be a real problem until June, when this latest attack took me down.   Now, even though I had felt 'vaguely' discomforted in my gut as early in the year as April and May, it wasn't until June that I had the actual attack.

Something inside of me was attacking me, and the result was literally debilitating. For about a week, I couldn't eat and couldn't keep anything inside me.  At first, it was just nausea, but it quickly became diarrhea as well.  I was miserable, to say the least. I don't want to get into the graphic details, so suffice it to say that I stayed close to the bathroom and the bed for a few days.  I took hot showers for relief and eventually used every towel we had several times.  Valery had to wash them as a batch just to keep up with me.

I completely stopped eating and drank almost nothing for days.  It was unpleasant to say the least.  I would get incredibly thirsty and then gulp down water, which would come right back up.  And if I had the discipline to sip it and keep it down, it just led to disruption in my gut and eventually, well, you know, back to the bathroom.  Another shower, another lay-down and it would start all over again.

But, after a week of this, I faced a couple of serious challenges:  my weight and my work.

Even though my weight was dropping, for many reasons, not least among them financial, it was imperative that I get back to work.  For one thing, I just couldn't stay in bed another day. I got restless and up and out of bed.  I managed to keep water down and even ate some chicken soup. Valery wanted me to go to the hospital, but I refused.  I just couldn't see what they would/could do for me, other than collect a co-pay and giving me a scrip for some kind of anti-nausea drugs.  I've been there and done that.

The toughest part was knowing that I had go to both of my jobs even though I had considerably less energy than I have been used to and a lot less than I actually needed to sustain myself.  For weeks I had just enough energy to get me from home to the office and back for days.  I found myself out of breath and needing a rest after simply walking to my car.

And the days that I worked at the restaurant were doubly difficult.  Not only does that job require more physical activity and mental energy than my desk job, but it also means dealing with food.  Over the course of the week that I was so ill, I could barely stand to look at food, let alone smell or eat it.

The actual attack was over by the time we left for Michigan the day after the Fourth of July, although I still had some lingering digestive 'issues' so to speak. I spent the time at the cottage eating well and getting better, stronger every day.  Slowly, I managed to regain a bit of my strength, if not my appetite, literally by forcing myself to eat as many bites as I could stand.  I felt like the guy who takes on food challenges on television.  It was me versus food.

But if it was me versus food, I won.  Or, at least, I'm winning again.

Now, that's something of an old story, actually.  I've been aware of my weight problem for my whole life.  I've just never been anything but thin. I've never been able to gain weight, probably because I just do not have the fat cells required to increase my mass beyond what is required to make a functioning frame.

That said, I think have a wonderful body, even if it's always been lean, because it's always worked so well.  I'm not an athlete, of course, but I have always had what I consider to be a great strength-to-weight ratio.  I've always been a lot stronger than I look, and I have a lot more endurance than anyone has ever really given me credit for.

Looking at me (especially today) it's always been easy to dismiss me as a scrawny weakling.  It's true, I am thin.  'Rail thin' folks say, if they're being kind, or 'emaciated' if they're not.  I've never weighed an ounce more than 133 pounds.  But I am not ashamed of being thin.  The fact is I am both lean and strong.

Working in the restaurant business for most of my life has influenced that.  Especially when I was younger, working as a banquet captain, I always led of my crew by example, energetically carrying heavy tables and stacks of chairs in and out of the dining room.  I brought out the first tray when we served a banquet and the last one too. I brought out the first table and the put away the last one.  The younger kids simply could not outwork me. No one could.  I always worked until there was no more work to do, and took great pride in my ability to be strong enough for that.

This personal history of strength and endurance is why I was so shaken, literally, by the gastric attack this past summer. This isn't the first time that I've had one of these attacks, just the worst.  It started a years ago.  As long as four or even five years ago something changed in my gut and it's just never been the same.  I became concerned about my health for the first time in my life.  In response, I resolved to eat more and gain weight by working out.  Neither of those resolutions were easy to keep, and like anyone on a diet, I just failed to stay with it.

Returning from Michigan in mid-July, as soon as I was able, I resolved to get better.  I knew this meant getting back to eating more and more regularly, but I also wanted to know just what had gone wrong in the first place.  So, I went back to the doctor to see if he could figure out what was wrong with me. I had become convinced that what I'd experienced was a parasite, and news stories in later July and August were describing an outbreak of a nasty bug called cyclospora that was making its way around the country.  Cases had been reported in north Texas, and I was certain that I was among the first cases in Travis county.  After all, it felt like an attack, and it made sense to me that I could have been under siege from this particular microbe.  Supposedly it came from eating fresh fruits and vegetables.

Now, while many think that I don't eat either, in fact I eat more fresh fruit and vegetables than I do fast or junk food.  This is because I primarily eat at home, where Valery makes dinner from fresh, whole ingredients. My 'natural' diet, if you will, has a considerable 'fresh' component to it.  It's true that I drink Dr. Pepper and beer more than I do water, and I have a sweet tooth, but contrary to common perception, I don't eat a lot of sweets.  I rarely eat candy or cookies.  I don't eat ice cream because I'm lactose intolerant (though I do cheat every now and then) and I don't eat a lot of baked goods, even though I love bread.

Thinking that I had at last identified the source of my illness, I went to the doctor to get tested.  I was actually surprised by his reaction.  He seemed dismayed by my concern about parasites, believing, as he told me candidly, that it was very unlikely that I had a parasite.  Nonetheless, he agreed to test me and I gave up a couple of vials of blood and went home with a stool sample kit to return the next day. Before leaving, he counseled me that digestive disorders were difficult to track down and that I might just expect to live this way for the rest of my life.  He explained that the 'critters' in my gut may have been 'blooming' and that caused my discomfort.  Eventually, he reasoned, they would subside and I would feel better, only to have them 'bloom' again sometime down the road.  He said that many people, especially those in 'third world' or impoverished places with poor sanitation and health care experienced life-long diarrheal conditions, which they treated with nothing more than rice water.

Needless to say, this didn't sit well with me, and this had nothing to do with my simmering digestive discomfort.  Even though I understood what he was saying, the doctor's advice to just get over it, so to speak, was not what I wanted to her.  I mean, this isn't the 'third world' and I am not an impoverished peasant with little to eat.  Not to make too much out of it, but I am a westerner, with health insurance. Rice water?  Really? The underlying expectation with my doctor is that I don't have to just live with an illness because I have health care.  That's why I'm here, right?

But the tests came back negative.  No cyclospora.  No parasites of any kind.  No disease.  Hmmm. Then why did I still feel lousy?

Critters? Really?  I'm starting to think so.

Last year I read about a study that has been done over the past few years, to try and determine how many microbes were living in a typical human body.  Not so much a count as a census, this effort was trying to establish a baseline for understanding how various microbes live and function in the human body.  Everyone knew going in that there would be a lot of critters, so to speak, riding along with us, but the result was actually pretty amazing.

In fact, there are dozens (if not hundreds) of different kinds of microbes, and they live, literally all over and in us.  There are so many of them that this survey just identified and counted the most obvious colonies of microbes.  It's a lot like exploring the jungle.  Every inch of the territory is occupied by something, and everything is working together to form an ecosystem.  It's incredibly complex and almost impossible to decipher, but just the diversity alone is enough to inspire wonder and awe at the power of life.

Some people take this news as 'icky', as if knowing about the creatures that live on, in and with us makes them feel unclean or overrun with foreign and dangerous micro-agents of disease and discomfort. This may be a natural reaction but it doesn't make a lot of sense.  What does make sense to me is just how complex we humans are.  Not only do we have amazing brains and highly adaptable bodies, we have also created a cooperative farm, if you will, where we provide food to the microbes in exchange for a variety of services that keep us healthy and, well, alive.

It's astonishing and humbling to think of my body as a vast universe for a variety of life forms.  We go hurtling through time and space together, clinging to each other and using all our abilities to stay alive. After all, the microbes are life.  They have the same basic motive we do.  Although things do go wrong and certain microbes can sicken and even kill us, for the most part, these critters get along with us, and we with them.  Now people are even suggesting that we add microbes to our guts using fecal matter from others.

Personally, I am not going to eat fecal pills, but this microbial universe goes a long way toward explaining my gastric attacks, the long periods of discomfort and malaise I have endured, and now, toward explaining why I feel better than I have in years.

The great thing is, today, in mid-October, I feel healthier than I have in so long I can't even remember the last time I felt this good.  After months of playing the weight gain game, I have reached a new plateau: 135 pounds.  Admittedly, I have not stabilized at the weight, just reached it twice in the past week.  But to see that number on the scale, especially after getting all the way down to 121 pounds at the peak of my illness this summer, is rewarding and encouraging for the long term.

Eating well and keeping on my weight is something I will have to work at for the rest of my life, but it's important for me to keep in mind what the goal is, and that's to be healthy.  While it can be a vicious cycle going down, it can also be a positive cycle going up.  The more and better food that eat, the more diversity and nutrients I have in my body for the host of microbes that depend on me.  In turn, they have rewarded me if more energy and strength, which I will turn back into nutrition and exercise.

Me and my microbiome.  It's all good.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Wait

They say they'll come to get you
But they won't say why.

They'll block you
stalk you
stab you in the eye

They'll say they want to help you
But you know it's just a lie.

They'll fake you
make you
break down and cry

They'll say they want to let you
But not until you die.

What the heat brings

withered ragged hand
why do you reach so?

Cloudy eye in a cloudless sky
the heat curdles the blood
it's a good feeling
really
things slow down
breathe low
jump into the shade
lay there

be still now

You hear them cicadas
coming?  Theys too many
to count like them stars
just lay back
and let em scream
all the ways into the night

in the morning you'll have your rest

earth cool as its gonna get
till you see them shadows
small
like something you
wouldn't even notice
like a bug
with a shadow
tall as itself but
nothing
like them shadows that
come at the high heat of the day
when even a bug
got sense enough to lay low

be still now.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Weight, weight don't tell me...

Lately, my health has been more of an issue than ever before in my life.  Two months ago, I had another bout of illness that caused me to lose more than 10 pounds.  I dropped all the way down to 121 pounds, which really had me worried.  After all, that's something like ten percent of my total weight, which is significant because I really don't have anything extra to lose.  That is, when I get down below say, 125, I think I am starting to lose muscle mass, and that in itself is dangerous because it's not something I can get back very easily.

So, I was very worried, but eventually my appetite came back and with it, my weight went up.  That makes it sound easy, but in fact, it's been a determined effort on my part to gain weight.  At first, I started drinking those nutritional shakes, like Ensure or Boost, but even though they pack a lot of calories into a small bottle, I didn't see any results.  I think it has to do with the kind of calorie intake, not just the number, obviously, so I decided to try something else.  That turns out to be whey powder,  which offers the calories but in a form that is bulkier, and seems to have really contributed to my recent weight gain.  I combine the whey powder with soy milk, bananas, frozen strawberries and peaches, chocolate syrup, yogurt and wheat germ, blend it all up and drink it down.  It's fast to make and easy to eat, though it's really drinking more than eating.  It's loaded with calories, and lots of material to help me bulk up a bit.

Here's how it breaks down:

Whey powder  480
Soy milk  150
Banana 100
Peaches 40
Strawberries 40
Chocolate syrup 20
Yogurt 40
Wheat germ 20
Ice cream 110
Egg 75

Total for one drink is 975 calories.  Total needed for the day: 2500.  I don't keep a count of the other stuff I eat during the day, and I should, if I want to get a sense of how much more I need to eat in order to gain weight, but I rely on eating more than I ever have, more frequently and in greater quantities.  The result, after now nearly a month of intensive calorie intake, is that I weight above 133, flirting with 135.  My near-term goal is just that, 135, but my longer term goal is to get up to 140.

I can't do that, however, without adding some muscle mass, so I have also been working out.  Well, that's a bit of an exaggeration, since it makes it sound like I go to the gym and do an exercise routine.  What I actually do, however, is to lift a small (10lb) weight to build up my arms while I am watching television before bed.  When I started, just over a month ago, I could do 30 repetitions with my right arm and 20 with my left.  Yesterday, I got up to 75 with the right arm and 50 with the left.  Today my right arm hurts a bit, but that's a good sign.  As long as I keep up my calorie intake and maintain a regular workout routine, I think I can reach my goal.  It might take me a year, but I think once I get there I can keep it.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

A Day Without Windows

The day has finally arrived.  I am free from Microsoft.

This has been a goal of mine for some time, dating back to the days when Microsoft Word was the most important tool a writer could imagine having.  Those heady days were few in number, though.  I can't have tried to use MS Word for more than a few minutes before I became puzzled, frustrated or downright annoyed, and those same feelings--plus a few more--have been present as I've been forced to use MS product after product, on machine after machine.  Well, finally, I am off that merry-go-round.

I am writing this in my blog, of course, which is a Google product that I've used since the beginning of my online journal.  Back then, as I gradually decided which web services I thought would be useful to me, at one point it occurred to me that I could either select a variety of services that were hosted or backed by various entities--like Yahoo and AOL and MSN--or I could go with just one entity, Google, and hope that they would roll out those various services.  The analogy is often made with the Matrix, but yes indeed, I chose the blue pill (or was it the red one?) and went with Google.  My feeling was that someone has to run the world, and Google is a good candidate.  I gave them my email, my photos, and my blogs.  If they've shared them with the NSA, I don't mind.  My whole point was to make a public persona for myself, an online identity that one could recognize.  My image and my thoughts are on public display and I like that.  If I didn't I wouldn't be here.

So I chose Google, and this turns out to have been a good choice, at least from my perspective.  The most recent step has been to get a Chromebook and throw away my horrible pc at last.  I hated that awful machine so much.  It was noisy and hot, it collected dust and took forever to boot up.  Even then it crashed so often I could never rely on it.  Long ago I took my photos off the hard drive and put them on a portable drive.  Then I put them all in the cloud.  I'm still not sure how my photos in G+ (formerly Picassa) and those in Drive will sync up, but at some point I will have all my photos in one place, on the web, where I can see them and share them with my friends and family.  To do this, I don't need my massive pc, just this light little computer.  It's a lot like a book, in a way, but more so than the Macbook ever was, because it is in fact light and easy to use.

Easy to use doesn't really describe it, because in fact, it's just a browser.  Everything is done through the browser, or a couple of special tools, like the file selection window or the photo viewer.  It's fast because it doesn't have to boot up, and there's no hard drive to whine and heat up.  The machine is light enough to carry around and it sits on my lap without weighing a ton or burning my balls, but it's also nice and stable on a desktop.

But this is not meant to be an ad for Chromebook.  It is meant as a declaration of freedom, as in freedom from Microsoft.  Gone are the days of cursing MS engineers, and dreaming of meeting one in a dingy bar so I could rouse my fellow patrons to drag him out into the alley and beat him within an inch of his life with a useless pc.  Not unlike the printer-bashing scene from the Office, this is a fantasy shared by millions of people who've looked at their screen in disbelief, wondering what the hell just happened and how do I fix the mess I didn't even create?

Mysterious updates and missing data, long boot up times and repeated crashes, all these are things of the past.  Today I am free, free at last.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

All That

Invisible as a star in the day sky
Common as a grain of sand in an endless desert

Permanent as a graven stele
Inconsequential as a tear in the relentless flood of human sorrow

Old as an atom of oxygen
New as a day-old blood cell

Simple as a bridge
Complex as a stair

Fixed as a compass point
Wavering as the eye wall of a hurricane

Timeless as an idea
Fresh as young love

Supple as skin
Brittle as a cigarette ash

I burn like an ember
A coil of hidden heat in a dusty dress
A soft shroud to tempt a tender touch.

Touch me and you will remember me.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Secrets of The Wine Guy


I have what many people consider to be a dream job.

I am a wine steward at a small high-end restaurant.  By small, I mean that the restaurant has about 150 seats.  It's not a tiny place, but then, it's only big enough to be divided into eight sections, not counting the bar or the seating in the garden.

By high-end, I mean that it's a nice restaurant--what one might call a 'white tablecloth' or 'fine dining' establishment.  What that really means is that it's expensive.  Definitions of the term 'expensive' will vary by consumer and city, of course, but the average ticket price--not including tax or gratuity--is about $75.  That's not too shabby, even in a large metropolitan area, and in our city, that makes it one of the most expensive places in town.

I should add that the restaurant is pretty well known--if not actually 'famous'.  That's not just in our city, but across the state, the U.S. and even, to some extent, abroad.  It's been around for over thirty years, which makes it almost an institution anywhere, but especially in our country.  The key reason for this is the fact that owner/chef is something of a celebrity.  Slowly and with a great deal of personal attention to detail, he has built it into the icon it is today.

This makes it one of the top 'destination' restaurants in the city and perhaps even in the state.  Many loyal customers come in once a month or so, and many have been coming for decades.  We've seen generations of diners from the same family.  We've seen plenty of proposals, marriages, graduations, anniversaries, and yes, birthdays--too many to count.

All those people have been coming back--joined by many new ones every day--for one primary reason: the food.

The chefs create and serve some wonderfully delicious food every night.  We say that we are a wild game restaurant, but in truth, the game is not wild (farm raised, thank you USDA) and the menu consists of a lot of things, including beef and seafood.  We don't serve chicken, hamburgers or fries--even to the kids--but we do have vegetarian and gluten-free options alongside the elk, pheasant and rattlesnake.

Yes, rattlesnake.  It's on the menu, and very flavorful--it doesn't taste like chicken--because it's mixed with seasoned breadcrumbs, cheese and spices and served with a mango relish.  Honestly, it's more of a novelty dish.  For something really flavorful and interesting, you should try the elk backstrap (tenderloin) with a chocolate-chili-espresso rub, lightly smoked and brought up to temperature on the pecan wood grill, sliced thin and laid out on the plate with a creamy beurre blanc and crab meat garnish.  It's not your ordinary beef steak, but it is very good.

We also have a good wine list, with over 120 wines.  Although I inherited the basic list, by and large the list we have today is my creation over the past seven years.  I've had some help, of course, from friends, sales reps and, of course, customers.  It's a broad list, and fairly eclectic, including both big names and even some famous wines alongside many smaller, lesser-known labels.  I try to have something for everyone, and something for every taste.

Someone asked me recently how I manage to pair wines with exotic food, like rattlesnake and elk.  The truth is, I don't play the food-wine pairing game.

I know, this is betrayal of my profession.  What I am admitting to here is indeed heresy, but this confession may be just the beginning of my admission of apostasy.  Many people think that being a wine steward--or as most people try to say, 'sommelier'--is more than just a profession.  It's a passion, right?  Not necessarily.

Most people think that the guy who brings them their wine--especially if he's a bit older, like me--is a sommelier.  They think he's not only knowledgeable about wine in general, but they expect that it's a burning passion that has brought him to their table, eager to talk about all things wine.  Wine is supposed to be something that we wine guys live and breathe and just love talking about.

In my case, this is not the case, at all.

Say what?  No knowledge?  No passion?  True that.  Here's the deal:  I know a fair bit about wine, but I am not an expert, by any means.  I like wine, and have a good palette, but I do not drink wine every day.  In fact--and this is the dirty secret that most people will not realize, nor understand, I am sure--I don't actually drink wine.

Is that fair?  Is that even possible? A sommelier that doesn't drink wine?

Well, the truth is even uglier.  I am not even a sommelier.  I call myself a wine guy, or if pressed for a title, I say I am a steward.  "Sommelier is a title that I haven't earned," I tell folks.

So what is a sommelier?  How is that different than a wine steward?  And how many restaurants these days even have a wine steward, let alone a certified sommelier?  Does it matter? Let's look at some facts to put what I do in some context.

Restaurants


How many restaurants are there in the US?

According to the US census, there were 566,020 food service and drinking places in 2007.  Of that total, 424,101 are specifically classified as a restaurant.  The total sales from those classified in the food service and drinking places category was $433.4 billion.

How many restaurants are ‘fine dining’ establishments?

Also according to the 2007 Census, roughly half, or 217,282 of those restaurants were considered to be "Full-service restaurants".

Wine Lists


How many restaurants have wine lists?

According to Wine Spectator Magazine/Website, their annual Restaurant Wine List Awards recognize 2,841 wine lists that offer at least 100 "well-chosen selections" as well as "a thematic match to the menu in both price and style."

Another 876 lists typically offer 400 or more selections, along with "superior presentation, and display either vintage depth, with several vertical offerings of top wines, or excellent breadth across several wine regions."

And finally, another 74 lists offer 1,500 selections or more, with a "serious breadth of top producers, outstanding depth in mature vintages, a selection of large-format bottles, excellent harmony with the menu and superior organization, presentation and wine service."

That's a total of just under 3,800 restaurants with wine lists of 100 selections or more.

Sommeliers

How many certified sommeliers are there in the US? 

According to "The Court of Master Sommeliers" website,

"Achieving the distinction of Master Sommelier takes years of preparation and an unwavering commitment.  The Court’s intensive educational program guides aspiring Masters through four increasingly rigorous levels of coursework and examination, culminating in the Master Sommelier Diploma Examination, which only 197 individuals worldwide have completed successfully."

Who grants certification?

The Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) was established in 1969 to "encourage improved standards of beverage knowledge and service in hotels and restaurants."

According to the CMS website, the "first successful Master Sommelier examination was held in the United Kingdom in 1969."  By 1977, the Court of Master Sommeliers claimed to be "established as the premier international examining body."  Just how this was determined is not made clear.

Again, according to the CMS web, "[In 2012] There are now 129 professionals who have earned the title Master Sommelier in North America.  Of those, 111 are men and 18 are women.  There are 197 professionals worldwide who have received the title of Master Sommelier since the first Master Sommelier Diploma Exam."

What others do

I think it should be obvious from the above statistics that there are very few restaurants that even have a wine list, let alone employing a certified sommelier to build theirs lists and serve the wine.  Less than 2% of supposed 'fine dining' restaurants (217K) even have lists of 100 or more wines (3.8K), and of those, only 5% have an officially licensed sommelier.  By the way, that's less than one-thousandth of 1% (.0009) of all fine dining restaurants that actually have a sommelier.

That means there is a whole of of pretense going on.  Wine stewards are clearly posing as sommeliers, or worse, waiters who get a bit of training and read Wine Spectator are allowed introduce themselves as the "som".  But pretense is the name of the game when it comes to wine.

More than golf or polo even, wine geekery is almost the exclusive domain of rich white guys.  In a word, snobs. People who think that there is some sort of objective standard to tasting wine and food and that certain wines pair well with certain flavors--or worse, the converse, that there are some wines that will never go with some flavors--are just plain snobs.

There are a lot of snobs in the world--food, fashion and sports all come to mind immediately--but in my mind, the wine snobs are the worst.  I don't want to start a whole riff on how ridiculous these guys sound when they swirl around glass after glass, claiming to taste any and everything--leather, lace, lead, tobacco, rotting leaves--with their supposedly sophisticated palettes.  This is too easy, and it has been done to death anyway.

All this has gotten me to thinking about what it is that I actually do and don't do when it comes to the practical, day-in-day-out business of selling and serving wine in a restaurant.

What I don't do
  • Say that I'm a 'som'.
  • Pair wine and food.
  • Read about wine.
  • Go to wine tastings, trade dinners or on wine trips.
  • Belong to a tasting group.
What I do

When I approach a table to talk with someone about a wine selection on a busy Saturday night, I really don't have time to talk about wine very much.  Patrons may want to talk about the history of wine, or tell me about their last trip to Napa, but the truth is, I am not there to share their passion for the grape.  I'm on a mission.  When I am at a table, I have a clear objective and a very narrow time frame to achieve it in.

My objective is to help a patron select a wine that they feel comfortable purchasing.  There are two main elements to determine in order to achieve this objective: Style and Price.  It's my goal, therefore, in this talk with the customer to settle on a wine that meets both criteria.

I have such a narrow time frame--after they are seated but before the food is ordered--because the patrons really don't want to talk with me, or at least they shouldn't.  They are there with friends or family, and they should go back to that as quickly as possible.  The talk, therefore, must achieve the objective in as short a period of time as I can manage.  If I spend two minutes helping them make a decision, I've stayed way too long.

It's not because there are other tables vying for my attention--though there frequently are--but because two minutes--120 seconds--is a very long time to be talking about wine.  At the very least, it's a long time to spend trying to decide the answers to the basic questions of style and price.  Usually, I can close the deal in under a minute--often no more than thirty seconds if the patron simply takes my first recommendation.

Without being immodest, I can say that I am very good at this.  I rarely have a wine sent back, and I've never had a seriously dissatisfied customer.  I may not have exactly what they wanted, but we always find something they will like.  This is because my job is to pair wine with people.

Wine pairing - People not Food

That is, people will often tell me what their menu choices are--often the whole table will join in--with the expectation that I have just the perfect wine to go with those combinations of flavors.  But the fact of the matter is, if it's not a style of wine that people like to begin with, there is little chance that they'll like it just because I said it would go well with their menu choices.

In fact, all of the 120 plus wines on our wine menu all go well with our food, and I tell every table that.  Sometimes people will pick up on that and ask if I say that about every wine, and then I am very honest and I say yes indeed, but that's because we don't have any bad wines on the list.

It's all a matter of preference, I tell them.  And it is.

So, after all that, if you are still looking for the secrets of the wine guy, here they are:

Secrets of the Wine Guy
  • I know nothing about wine.  Really.
  • I have not tasted most wines.
  • I haven't tasted many wines.
  • I have not tasted all the wines on my list.
  • I drink beer.
What I think
  • More expensive wine is better--generally speaking
  • Famous wine is almost always overpriced
  • Even expensive wines are incredibly cheap for what they are and how hard they are to make well.
  • Wine always goes with food.  Expect champagne, which goes well with everything and nothing at all.
  • French wine is the best.
  • Most people over-think and over-talk wine.
  • Most people are intimidated by wine buying.
  • Wine ratings--especially point systems--are useless.
  • Wine magazines are just glossy advertisements.
  • Wine experts are just shills for the industry.
  • Winemakers--except the celebrities--are underpaid.
  • There is too much wine being made today.
Postscript: How I serve a bottle of wine
--Announce myself at the table, interrupting if necessary.
   "Hello.  I'm here with a bottle of wine."
--Make eye contact.
   "I have a bottle of _____"
--Find the person who ordered the wine.
--Show them the label.
   "Is that correct?"
--Wait for acknowledgment.
   "Thank you."
--Make eye contact.
   "This is a very nice wine."
--Cut the foil off the top.
   "I like it a lot."
--Remove the cork.
   "I think it goes very well with our food."
--Pour a splash into the taster's glass.
--If there are just two diners, pour a splash for the other person.
   "Tell me what you think."
--Remove the cork from the screw while they taste.
--Make eye contact.
--Place the cork on the table near the taster.
--Smile when the taster assents.
   "Isn't that nice?"
--Make eye contact.
--Nod with assent.
--Pour wine in guests glasses.
   "And that's just opened, too."
--Return to the taster and fill their glass.
   "That will get better as you swirl it around a bit in these big glasses."
--Make eye contact.
--Set the bottle down.
   "And I know it will go well with your meal."
--Make eye contact.
--Smile and nod with assent.
   "So I hope you enjoy that--and the rest of your meal!"
--Make eye contact.
   "You're welcome"
--Step away, slowly.