Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Fine Food Folly

This is a cautionary tale for those not in the restaurant business. Those who share my profession will understand; those who do not will do well to learn from the following story with accompanying screed. The lesson is simple. Do not order food "to go" from a fine dining restaurant.

While this does indeed require a bit of discrimination on the part of the diner, it ought not be difficult to tell the difference. Really. Wingstop and Domino's are definitely on the list of acceptable places from which one may legitimately expect food of a certain caliber--can you say fresh and hot?--whereas some place--a 'real' restaurant'--that serves food that relies not simply on the hot sauce that the wings are dipped in for flavor, but which instead calls on a whole host of sensory inputs--eye, nose, tongue and even ear--to produce the finished product; the food from these places should simply never be consumed out of an aluminum 'to-go' tin. This seems almost obvious, but in fact, people still do not get it.

Last night, at 8 o'clock--in other words during the rush--I took a 'to-go' order over the phone and had a waiter turn it in to the kitchen. Normally I am not happy to take these orders, even on a slow night, for the reasons I've outlined above, but it s always annoying to turn in a to go order at the peak of a rush on a busy night. The chefs don't like it and we have to pack it all up and label it as it comes off the line, so it takes up time and room in the crowded tray area. Nonetheless, we did it, and had it ready to go as promised, by 8:30.

They didn't show up till 8:50, at least, and it was only at about 9:15 or so that I got the follow-up call. She asked to speak to the manager. Not a good sign. Then she began to complain. The food, for which--I had to agree--they had indeed just paid nearly three hundred dollars, was "crammed into the to-go tins with no care", she began. "The steak was on top of the potatoes, and the sauce had run everywhere. This", she said, was "not acceptable". She wanted to know what I would do about it.

Before I could even begin, I really had no choice, of course, but I countered at least with some defense. In fact, I pointed out, the steak she was referring to is actually served on top of the potatoes, and the sauce goes on top of that. Though I didn't say this, it is also served on a proper Bernadaud china plate, mind you, with a linen napkin, Cristoffle cutlery and fine wine glasses that are hopefully partially full. For the to-go order in question, however, some sauces, which are served separately at the table, were placed in special side containers. I don't like it especially, but in general, it's fair to say that the presentation we are used to offering at table simply is not possible in the confines of a ten-inch round metal tin. What I don't like about it is that we do it at all, but I would never say that, even to the owner, alas. My weak defense notwithstanding, she was adamant that we should have done a better job, so there was no point in arguing.

The bottom line was that I was obliged to 'comp'--that is gave away--the entire meal. Note that they complained only about the entrees; the desserts were just free, apparently not unpleasant even to look at let alone taste. I daresay, the steak and potatoes probably tasted pretty good once they were free of the bitter taste of the expense.

So what I wanted to say, but didn't was: Well what did you expect? Ironically, this applies to me too.


I had a particularly dark day yesterday, the result of a snippet of a dream that lingered in my mind on awaking.

It was a vision of Pierre, dressed in simple t-shirt and jeans, hands shoved into his pockets as he leaned toward me in the manner of affection that he practiced as an adolescent. His hair was full and tousled, as though he just woken and emerged from his room and there was a gentle aura around his head. He stood there as I approached and he said, with such a simple sincere tone that I knew it was truly him, "I made a mistake, Papa. Can I come back now?"

I don't know if I weep when I dream, but I am unable to hold back the tears as I write this, now a whole day after the dream. Yesterday I could not even tease out the details of it; knowing only that it made me deeply saddened merely paralyzed me. Had I not been obliged to work at the restaurant, I would likely have stayed in bed the whole day. As it was I had a migraine and but for the miracle of my medicine I would not have been able to work.

I do not know how many more months and or years of this that I will have to manage, but it is particularly unsettling that my conscious demeanor can be so drastically upset by an unconscious thought. In this manner I am not able to control my grief, and find I am only responding to it, which as yesterday proved, can be unhealthy, both metnally as well as physically.

Really my best hope is to here write about these feelings, purging them and yet leaving a trace to follow for those who would someday wish to know. It's not much but it's the best I can do for now.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Hey Big Spender!

The holidays at the restaurant were fairly uneventful, given the fact that the stupid economy has everyone 'economizing' in some way and consequentially, the numbers--reservations, ticket-prices and tips--were down in every way. There was but one exception to this new rule this year, for the Big Spender was back.

There are other namers for these types of guys--yes, always guys--like 'high roller', 'baller', 'fat cat' or the simple and utilitarian, 'big tipper', but the bottom line is just that. It's about the money, honey. Usually, it is fair to say that this money comes at a price, which I have for some time found too terrible to pay, in spite of the apparent nature of our business.

I say this because in fact, while it may seem obvious in the situation that waiters find themselves in--being paid only after their work is deemed satisfactory by the client--they would go after every single penny they can wrest from the hapless diner, sometimes it's just not worth it. Techniques for running up the check and hanging around obsequiously angling for cash are legendary among waiters (and even more so among the public who think these are common occurrences) but often as not, we would rather get modestly tipped and generously treated than the other way round.

Indeed, waiters are good at angling for more money, but if they are really any good, they are also good judges of character. Consequently, they know that simply 'running up the check' is a) not easily done, because b) buying more stuff is something that the client, not the waiter will ultimately decide. If the patrons don't want another bottle of wine, they aren't going to get it, no matter how artfully and well timed the waiter's pour of the last drop is.

Then again, there are patrons who invite the very kind of ridiculous fawning and greed for which waiters are often justly caricatured, because they themselves are such foolish posers.

On Christmas Eve, we had one such fellow, a real Big Spender. He was with a group of six, and they sat at a large round table at one end of the small dining room. They arrived late and loud. The room was still full as they bulled their way to the table and loudly proclaimed that they had come to enjoy themselves. No one, least of all the other diners, would wish them otherwise, but at least the other patrons were allowed to leave shortly thereafter, while the staff was obliged to stay and take care of them.

Him, I should say, for the other five diners were actually polite and quiet enough. I do not begrudge folks the right to be a bit boisterous because, after all, I have been know to be that way in a restaurant from time to time. There is a line, of course, between loud and rude, and these folks stayed right at it--not quite over--from the first moment they arrived. One guy, that guy, however, was over the line.

"I am an ass", he told me later in the lobby as I checked the reservation book and he waited for his wife to come out of the bathroom. I didn't disagree, though I know he didn't pick up on the disrespect because it was perceived as such. I agreed because prior to that I'd endured an hour and half of his loud, rude and obnoxious behavior, culminating in his swearing at me:

"What kind of fucking restaurant is this? You don't have another magnum of Duckhorn?"

Honestly, I don't have a ready response to this type of comment, at least not one that is witty, so I remained firm in my assertion that he had already had the two magnums I had in the rack, and I offered him one of the single bottles I had in the cooler. In spite of the rest of the group adamantly declining this offer, the big tipper accepted, so, obliged, I served it quickly and made what I thought would be my exit from his presence for the evening and hopefully forever.

Sadly, yet profitably for me, this was not to be. Moments later, I came out of the kitchen to find him standing by the door. I made an abrupt about-face, but to no avail, as he had spotted me and called out a drunken yet compelling "Hey!"

Never failing to respond to this polite appellation--which I have heard often, believe me--I turned around and went back into the lobby. There, in the dark corner under the wine rack I literally ran into him, or more accurately, a hand out with money in it. I shook the hand, took the money, put into my pocket and went back in the kitchen, where I discovered that it was not just a twenty but a hundred dollar bill I'd just been handed.

Well, it was nothing special for in fact, I had only gotten one bill, but the other waiters and busboys who chose to hang out with the guy in the lobby all got at least two hundred dollars. Shameless might be a good word to describe the frenzy that ensued in the lobby, but I don't know because I left. The descriptions afterward were enough to make me uncomfortable with this aspect of my chosen profession. Oddly, I felt a bit guilty about my tip until the big spender gracefully absolved me with his keen observation about his character.

Later, I found out that he also tipped the waiter and hostess five hundred dollars each.

Friday, December 26, 2008

T.H.E. Cat

We have an orange cat in our household for only the second time in my life, and it is about the first that I elect to write about today because my brother David made mention of him in the context of our 'old' house in Abilene and it brought back a series of memories that are worth at least appending to that recollection.

David sparked the memory with a reference to him by his first name only and for a moment was that name so unfamiliar as to fail to even stir it when connected to an incident that I clearly recalled. The name of the cat was Thomas, and the event David so vividly remembers and now I do too, was the day Thomas killed the white cat.

It was not especially odd that the name Thomas would fail to ring the proverbial bell in my brainpan since I have known but two men of that appelation in contrast with countless Toms, and as I bounced that about in my head I couldn't imagine any of them killing a cat back in Abilene. Then I remembered Thomas and the rest of his name, Hewitt Edward Cat.

T.H.E. Cat. That's what Lynda called him, so Bill gave him that 'official' name. It made for a great story to tell visitors for Bill thought it especially clever and witty. I did too.

Thomas was also a true Tomcat. I lured him in from the street, or the back alley to be exact, where he was king long before he came to include our home and hearth as part of his dominion, and whose brutal laws led to his coronation and required his enforcement. As I recall, I convinced him to approach and be touched, petted thence tamed with a bit of discarded melon rind, though this was doubted I took as a sign that he was a special cat. And he was. He was the first.

How exactly Thomas came to be adopted by us is not really clear after all these years. My recollection is that we had no animals until that time, and that it took some convincing to get my parents to allow him to stay. But the truth is, since he was essentially feral, it was his choice to stay with us, not the other way round, and from my parent's perspective, feeding it and absorbing the expense thereof was the equivalent to 'keeping' it. In any case, it was, or so I thought, my cat, and though I doubtless had less contact with him than I might have claimed, he was at the very least, always hanging around the back porch.

He was not allowed inside, as far as I can remember, but even if I don't recall him sitting inside on anyone's lap, I do know that Bill, as much or more than me, was a genuine 'cat' person, and it would have been his indulgence that outweighed Lynda's disdain to the benefit of Thomas should he have wished to stay inside.

But in fact, he was meant to stay outside and preferred it too, for that was his kingdom, as I have said. I didn't understand this in any real sense, however, till the day that I first saw him defend his territory with a primal ferocity that was unexpected, to say the least, and one of the most unsettling moments of my early youth. It turns out that David witnessed the event as well, and I think that he was similarly affected, for, despite being four years younger and therefore less likely to recall this time in Abilene, he is the one who brought this incident back to my mind.

It happened right next to our back porch. I don't know if I encouraged it or not, but I do remember a fluffy little white cat with gold eyes approaching me as I sat on the porch facing the street. Given my nature, I'd say it was likely that I was encouraging the white cat to come up to me, for I do remember getting up and standing in the yard, near the old mesquite tree by the driveway just before it happened.

What happened was a blur of white and orange, a ball of bouncing, rolling and twisting cat fur moving at what seemed like light-speed around the yard, accompanied by a terrible shrieking and hissing that made me believe that both cats were killing each other. In fact, it was Thomas who had the upper hand, instantly, by virtue of his weight and age, and it wasn't long before the ball broke up and the white cat fled into the side yard and turned down into the alley, with Thomas in hot pursuit. More screaming a shrieking ensured, though now out of sight. Then, silence.

In the yard in front of me was a mass of white fur, and the blood on it was likely the first animal blood I'd ever seen. It isn't fair to assign to this any more weight than a simple memory, but it was a moment of heightened awareness; a sudden shifting of gears, so to speak, that left me in a different place and moving at a different pace. My recollection is that Thomas actually killed the little white ragdoll cat, but how I know this I am not sure. I seem to recall finding the white cat's lifeless body in the alleyway later, but this could be an invention, quite honestly, of my story-teller's ambition. What I do remember is that I had a new appreciation for my 'tame' cat.

Cats are killers, even if they are raised by hand from birth. Odd then that I forgot not only this story, but also this simple lesson till recently, when Diablo reminded me just how narrow the line between me and meat really is.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

An Open Mind

What does it mean to have an open mind?

Although it is a highly lauded state, I think that many remarkably intelligent and articulate individuals have yet to make the distinction between keeping an open mind and deciding from experience what, after all, is actually impossible. While being encouraged to keep an open mind about something we do not yet fully understand may indeed lead to knowledge, more often than not, this notion of seeking knowledge by remaining 'open' to every possibility is used as a smokescreen for those who wish to do the exact opposite: obfuscate the very knowledge we are seeking and keep us from separating the clearly impossible from the probable and possible.

This is because those who would keep an open mind often do so for the purpose of including 'facts'--for convenience's sake, they remain unsourced--that are not proven or do not even fall into the realm of the remotely factual, like 'astral planes' and 'alternate realities'. With no solid definition because these terms are examples of vapid inventions meant to look like fact, if we have no,knowledge with which to counter them, we are forced to accept these false 'facts' on face value, as presented.

Worse still are twisted versions of actual facts, like the attributing healing powers to magnetism and/or electrical currents. Why? Because this sort of mis-information can actually be harmful. By removing the safe restraints of doubt to these physical powers, a naive 'understanding' can actually lead to injury or an exacerbated condition due to the absence of logical care.

In other words, when someone who has cancer believes that wearing a copper bracelet will cure their cancer, they might say to a non-believer that the non-believer is not keeping an open mind. Further, when this fails, as it must, the disappointed believer might add that the reason for the failure of the 'cure' has to do with the wearer's failure to believe fully, rather than the absence of physical properties in the copper bracelet that have anything to do with, let alone cure, cancer.

Personally, I think that having an open mind bears a certain responsibility to seek the truth no matter how difficult it might be to hear the real answer. Having a genuinely open mind would cause the hopeful seeker and serious skeptic alike to ask, "So, just what is it about wearing a copper bracelet that cures cancer? Please explain what exactly happens between the copper bracelet and my cancer. How, exactly, does it work?" Our questioners should expect to have the phenomenon explained to their satisfaction, in a manner that is both logical and credible.

For some, those standards might be rather low, understandably, for most of us aren't really interested in the exact details, just the gist of it, but for me the standards of logic and credibility are quite high and certainly uncompromising. If I am told that science can't explain it, or that I wouldn't understand it anyway because it's just too complicated to make easy sense of it, then my open mind would be unrestrainedly racing, questioning, searching for something, anything more on which to base my understanding. I would, in fact, not be satisfied at all.

Even less satisfying, almost annoying to me anyway, is to be told that it is God's will, or simply a factor of the intersection of alternate forms of physics. It may be fashionable or sound serious, but in the end, this sort of facile and false reckoning is often masked as personal experience or worse, something which was revealed by a higher power. Either way, it is to me clear evidence that the teller has not yet learned the truth.


Twisted thread.
Tied. Swen.
Bind together
All I've known.

A narrow book
But empty not
A closer look
Yields a stain,
A blot.

There is but time to
Read or write.

Not both.

There is but time to
Set out or stay in,
Travel or observe,
Dream or create.

The circle is narrow.
Aim well.


A seaside dance
Time and space
Elemental circumstance.

A left-hand gyre,
A living, replicating wire.

Tangled. Mired. Mud.
Moving rhythmic,
Heatbeat's thud.

Monday, December 15, 2008

304 Grape

The house I grew up in is still there: 304 Grape Street, Abilene Texas. I know this because I was just 'there' last week, via the magic of satellite technology and the amazing toy known as Google Earth.

To be sure, the photograph of the old two-story wooden frame structure at the corner of Grape and Third Streets is old. It was taken from space two or three years ago, but I have every reason to believe that the venerable former prairie homestead, like the gnarled old oak in the side yard, is still there.

I did actually see the house as an adult, during a visit to Abilene a few years back with Pierre, when he was about five or six. So, though I am not relying solely on the pictures, even those grainy high high contrast images can call quickly to mind a flood of memory. Each wave in that tide is kicked in motion by but a few pixels of an oft-changed, yet not-lost thing. After all, a place is also a time.

The time was a long ago in my life. We moved to Abilene when I was just nine months old, which means that it would have been May or June of 1956, just before the opressive heat of our first collective Texas summer enveloped us. This experience affected each member of the newly transplanted 'Yankee' family in radically different ways, of course, though my own is more subject to conjecture because I am only just now recalling how and why I felt growing up there.

For my parents, Lynda and Bill, the move to Abilene was an exciting new beginning. For Lynda in particular, buying a bookstore was something of a dream. I am sure that she did not specifically think of one day owning a bookstore when she was growing up, but knowing Lynda's love for books and reading, it must have been something she suggested and pursued rather than Bill. Over the years, Lynda and I talked about the bookstore some, but never in the sort of detail that I would now like to relate, so these memoirs are an assembly of speculations based on lots of general conversations.

One thing of which I am sure, the bookstore was at once both the greatest hope Lynda had up till then allowed herself, and it was destined to be her biggest failure, if that is, you don't count her relationship with Bill. The bookstore was her greatest hope because it was a genuine life change, filled with promise and expectation. It was more even than a business, for it was also a move, physical and spiritual, to unknown territories and a new climate.

In many ways, this new climate defined the territory more than they realized at the time. Consider, if you will, the background. My parents, along with Stephen and Anne, aged thirteen and ten, moved to Texas from upstate New York. In the only winter that I spent in Deansboro--the one just before we moved to Texas--the snow was at least four or five feet deep. This I know from one of the home movies my father made over the course of my childhood.

What I remember, of course, from those same images, was the snow. Whenever I saw these movies--which was rarely, when we could convince Bill to hang up a sheet and drag out the old projector--I was understandably transfixed by what seemed to me to be immense quantities of the white stuff. Yet my own memory yields no direct connection with snow.

I am, despite having been born in New York, a Texas boy through and through. I love, even thrive in the heat. But for Lynda, Bill, Stephen and Anne, it was like moving to the desert, physically as well as intellectually. It wasn't just the absence of snow that they found in Abilene, for that much was expected, even hoped for. No, it was the absence of culture and open-mindedness in this town that was such a cruel shock for them.

I was, fortunately, too young to be shocked. That house was, after all, my starting point. Free of the comparison with any former life, I simply created a good childhood for myself out of pecan shells, horny toads and a lot of digging in the dirt. Of these assets I had plenty, and it seemed natural to enjoy life. Why not?

Now, it seems incredible to me that the house at 304 Grape is still there. By all rights, in Abilene, it should be lost. In Abilene, you can lose things like a school. When I was in fifth grade, St. John's Episcopal built a brand new Day School across town. It was a modern low brick building and they planted an oak tree right in the front yard. When Pierre and I made our trip, I went looking for the 'new' school. After much searching, consulting the map and finally talking with a clerk at a nearby Seven-Eleven, I discovered that not only had the school been torn down to make way for a shopping center, but that the shopping center itself had long since failed.

It was no wonder that we couldn't find it. Where I'd hoped to find the brown brick school building and that oak tree--which I hoped by now would be tall and so big around that I couldn't reach round it with both arms--I found only a weed covered parking lot stretched out like a desolate sea before the crumbling abandoned ramparts of false fronts and boarded up windows.

In many ways, this image--an abandoned strip mall built over a 'new' school--is symbolic of Abilene, but I am only just realizing this. As a child, I completely missed the desolation and desperation that the intelligent inhabitants--especially my parents and older siblings--of the cruel little West Texas town were forced to endure. Their experiences were quite different from my own because I knew nothing else, and had no expectations for that time and that place. Why should I have? As a result, I had what I have always considered to be a 'good' childhood.

This opinion about the quality of my childhood was the subject of some debate between Lynda and I over the years. She was adamant that the time spent in Abilene had been a failure. Not only did the bookstore fail to thrive, they had to sell it as a loss, and separately from the house because they could never find a buyer who was interested in both. Selling the bookstore was a humiliating experience for Lynda, symbolizing as it did, their best aspirations, gone wanting for what could have been. It might have been successful, had they lived in another town, like Austin, but there has never been a time when Abilene was the kind of place to own a liberal bookstore.

Though I knew about these issues--they were the subject of loud and extended arguments between Bill and Lynda as the collapse occurred--they certainly didn't result in what I would call a 'bad' or even difficult childhood. Naturally, for what ten year old boy is really interested in how his parents actually make money, I had no clue that we were often on the brink of eviction, or that we came close to have our furniture and car repossessed on more than one occasion. These facts I learned later, as Lynda was attempting to convince me that it really had been a bad time and that I just didn't know it.

Sadly for Lynda, however, because I didn't know any better, I just went ahead and had a happy childhood. I did all the things that any boy would have loved to have done, in our backyard, at the Glenn's house in the 'country'--it all seems like 'country' to me now--at school and in our big old two-story house. I played with BB guns and rode my bike and played sandlot baseball and football. There is a popular book on the shelves today called The Dangerous Book for Boys, and it is a good recap, if you will, of the life that I, typical post-war boomer boy that I was, enjoyed until we moved to Austin in 1968.

So, while my memories may be shrouded in the mist of nostalgia, from a few pixels on my computer screen today I can return to something that resembles that place and time. Using the 'street view' function of Google maps, I have actually been able to re-create my walk to school. Of course, it's sheer nostalgic folly, for the school is no longer there. But the church in which the school was housed is a venerable old stone structure and has not given way to a shopping mall. So, silly though it may be, I am today able to 'walk' from our 'old' house at 304 Grape to my 'old' school, all right from my desk!

Now, many things have changed about Abilene, but one thing has not, and I can now prove it, thanks to Google maps. It is still ten miles and uphill each way. Plus it seems to have been snowing the day that they took these pictures. Just the way I remember it.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

It's the Stupid Economy

I sure wish I could figure out who the idiot was that screamed fire in this crowded theater we have come to know as the economy, or at least figure out whose bright idea it was to simply stampede for the exits on hearing what well could have been a false alarm because I would get some small satisfaction out of throttling them, though certain I am that this would now have no positive effect on the vicious cycle they've wittingly or not--it makes no difference--unleashed upon us all.

Business at the restaurant is literally half of what it was last year at this time. I'm not to be quoted on this, as I've not seen any numbers and, as readers of this journal may well know by now, I am not to be trusted when it comes to the reporting of numbers in any case. This, therefore, is merely apocryphal and second-hand at best.

But as I have written of before in describing the Waiter Index, or WI, there is some crude, yet clearly visible measure of politics and the economy of the whole to be found in a waiter's tip. It is, perhaps, more accurate to speak of the average check size, or the percent of seats occupied on any given night, especially the weekends, but no matter how you measure it, the blind men will all have to agree that there is now an elephant in the room. It's the stupid economy.

We are seeing this phenomenon causing stupid changes here at the University as well. For example, here in our Office, I have forever been accustomed to going down to the vending machine and buying a bag of chips or a candy bar, then getting a soda from the Office fridge for a mid-morning pick-me-up. On my more frugal days, I'll even bring the chips or cereal, etc, but I always expected to be able to take advantage of what is my 'perk' here in our office, a free soda when I want one.

Well, that may I say modest expectation came to an end last month, when I discovered a sign on the door of the fridge allowing us the privilege of bringing our own sodas in and storing them gratis in the fridge, but disallowing us the privilege of taking one of the fifteen-cent cans for our personal use. I have been told that we may continue to offer them to guests, so I urge you, if you plan to come visit me at work, to come by around noon, as that is when I am the thirstiest.

Sadly, I may not, however, offer you a trailmix bar, as the large glass container in the conference room that used to be full of them, also serving as an occasional treat for a screen-weary web warrior, is now empty. No sign is needed. There will be no more treats, for me or you.

Nor will there be the electric car that our Office just purchased. It is deemed extravagant, though it does mean people will be using hydrocarbon powered--ok, gas--vehicles at least in part. That there will be more walking, there is no doubt, but to what end? Appearances can be deceiving, even when they are meant to be sincere. The motives for closing the barn door after the horses are out need some serious examination.

I know that I for one, will not remain silent in a meeting if called on for cost-saving ideas. I'll suggest that we quit cutting false corners and pretending to save money by plucking it from the pockets of the staff and address the issue of over-hiring of faculty and lack of facility planning on the part of previous administrations, here unnamed. Releasing a single--or even, heaven forbid, two-- faculty member from a long-term commitment might be enough to ease the pressure of both staff and the limited facilities--ie classrooms and offices--at our disposal.

Stupid economy.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Writing in Books

I was looking over the titles of the books on the shelf over my dresser last night and noticed a book that I had not read in a while, The Artist's Way, by Julia Cameron. I pulled it down, thinking it was the copy Lynda gave me many years back, but surprisingly, it was actually her copy, annotated in very nearly every margin of every page.

This leads me to an aside, which may well be the point of this essay, about writing in books. I was not simply raised in a bookstore, I was raised in a book culture, if you will, one in which books were treated as sacred objects, to be respected and cared for. Turning the pages of a large book was to be done from the corner, not the middle of the page, lest thosed pages be forever bent, depriving subsequent readers of the privilege that we had just enjoyed. That is, a pristine book, without bends, or tears or folded pages. One should never dog-ear a page, for example, and one must never, one would never, ever write in a book.

I know this may sound strange to most people, who, in my experience anyway, seem to not only feel no compunction about marking a book up irrevocably, but really regard it as their right. A book is, after all, simply another object, owned and cared for--or not--by that owner. For most everyone, I expect, a book is naught but property, subject to the vagaries of its owner, not, as I have bizarrely come to feel, that it is somehow precious, animated even, so that even minor mistreatment is akin to abuse.

It's preposterous, I realize that, but isn't that what neurosis is all about? It shouldn't be surprising, I guess, to know that I am but an assemblage of neuroses, this being among the milder and less noticeable or disabling of the host that pretends to be me. In this case, it's led to a real love of books, and this may be seen in my newly re-awakened desire to write and make books for the rest of my life.

But that was an aside, as I said. What prompts me to write is the feeling I got when reading Lynda's annotations to her copy of The Artist's Way. Not simply copious, they are intensely personal, revealing, as a diary might, some of her longest-held and deepest-felt thoughts and feelings. To those who are not familiar with the book, I can say, without prejudicing the reader overly much, that it is a self-help book, one of a whole genre that sprang up in the post-sixties artistic 'me too' maelstrom that so dominated popular culture through the turn of the century. If this wasn't the book that coined the phrase, "your inner child", it certainly uses it freely without attribution.

In this case, the self-help is obviously directed toward the artist, but it in many ways was just one of the many the 'pyscho-cybernetic' or 'what-color-is-your-parachute' sort of 'positivistic' mind-sets and, dare I day, cults that emerged in the wake of some of the groundbreaking social developments at mid-century. Think scientology or EST. L. Ron Hubbard or Werner Erhard anyone?

The Artist's Way, though it emerges from that thread, is not so demanding nor jealous as the many for-profit endeavors mentioned above, which were self-serving to their creators, and merely thinly disguised as pseudo-self-healing methods. It does start with the premise that we are all hurt or wounded in some capacity, and that we are all in need of healing as a result. Certainly this is what attracted Lynda to this work, and clearly, from her own notes, it resonated with her in a way that I find now is much stronger than I suspected. She was, in hindsight, a gravely wounded artist, for whom art itself was both a source of pain and a release from it. In these notes she says that she felt that most of her life had been wasted thus, spent on supporting others and enabling the parasites who drained her daily of the money and will needed to become the fully-flowered artist she ever longed to be.

Sad to say, though I enjoyed a special place in her life and heart, at some level I was yet just another of those parasites; one whose needs were ever superceding her own and draining her reserves without end. This is not a lament, for in fact I was close enough to her to understand this; she in fact told me on a number of occasions that I was among the chief reasons that she considered herself to be an artistic failure. This 'failure' was not, however, entirely, or even principally about me.

The burden of supporting a long line of family members, beginning with her mother and sister and ending with me and my children, was to Lynda's mind, I believe, one of the chief debilitating factors in her artistic career. She was not shy about sharing this opinion with me, especially in moments of acute crisis. But I would be exaggerating my role in this process if I claimed to be more than a passing annoyance to her. It was my father, Bill, for whom the real anger and resentment were reserved.

On page after page, in the margins of this diary appear recriminatory comments and anguished laments about her relationship with my father. Time and time again she literally calls him out for being the source of so much of her inability to thrive as an artist. Never mind that she had had a studio of her own for about fifteen years, and that her moments of greatest productivity and creativity came well after his death had released her, in theory at least, from the burden of his faintly damning praise or outright disdain for her needs and artistic desires. Odd as it is to me that her obsession with his criticisms and/or absence of concern for her needs as an artist were so long-lasting and pervasive in her personality, it is not surprising that it amounted to a crippling condition, one that didn't necessarily dissipate, even long after his death.

Bill died in 1981 and the book was published in 1992. Yet her feelings about him were still sufficiently charged that she felt compelled to write them out copiously in the margins, on page after page, in context after context. Another dominant theme for Lynda's notes in this book, intertwined with the notes about her second husband, was money. Now, let it be said that this is no surprise to anyone who knew her, for during her lifetime, there was no subject more painful, no conversation more fraught with peril and anguish than one about money. Money, as much as art, defined her youth, her middle and old ages.

In short, money was the ever-close-to-the-surface yet unspoken motivating factor in her life. Quite simply, there was just never enough of it. In her youth, during the depression, she was so scarred by the poverty in which she was raised, that ever after she was unable to escape the tyranny that the absence of financial security imposed early upon her. Even later in life, when she had officially retired to receive annuity checks from John Hancock and Social Security and thus had enough monthly income to afford the rent on both her apartment and the studio that she kept here for so many years, she still worried and dithered over expenses, especially for herself.

Money was in and of itself a dominant concern of hers, and consequently, I believe, most of our most severe conflicts came over money. Curious, though, is the fact that despite the widely differing perspective that we two had on this subject that was to me also of considerable concern, it did not rise to the level of a neurosis in me as it did for Lynda, and thankfully so, as I have enough of those already.

You see, I recall that many of our conflicts arose from the fact that Lynda wanted to give us--me, really--more help than I needed or was prepared to accept. I must here at the outset of this thought make it clear that I did accept her help, however grudgingly, for many more years than I by rights ought to have, but I also hope to make it clear that I was forever caught on the horns of a unique dilemma, one from which I never successfully extricated myself. Only Lynda's death has at last quieted this anxiety, and it should be clear from this entry that even now I have thoughts about it.

The dilemma was this. On one horn, Lynda wanted to give us financial support as an expression of her love. It is fair to say that I enjoyed a special day-to-day friendship with her that was born primarily of proximity and differed from her relationships with my siblings for that reason, but that relationship came at a price. To Lynda, it was not merely enough to tell someone that you loved them. Though she was never hesitant to tell me that she loved me, it wasn't the sort of thing that came up in conversation, or even at the end of a visit. I was the one who said, "I love you Mom" and who initiated the hug with which we parted ritually. For Lynda, the evidence that she loved me--us--was not in the words we exchanged, but our actions, specifically in her actions, i.e., in her ability to 'help' us.

Now, as I've said, we needed--and received--a lot of that help. She bought our groceries, clothed our children, and helped us buy our house. In fact, she bought it for us and it was only when I was in my forties and working at a fairly high level at UT that we actually undertook the purchase ourselves. She saved and gave us money for our children's education, took them to plays and operas and concerts, paid for our plane tickets to Michigan and New York. She bought gas for our cars and brought food every time she ever came to our house, save when she was disabled at the very end. It was not simply a symbolic statement to her. It was the essence of her life, giving. She would say over and over how important it was to her to able to give to us, rather than a charity or worse, but here arises the difference of perspective that I spoke of earlier.

Here then, was the other horn of the dilemma: declining her offers to help as I became more financially secure somehow seemed damning her to generosity. Reading the margin notes of her book, it would seem that her largesse was in some ways tied to our failure; that whether we took advantage of her desire to help or declined it, she was somehow deprived of the opportunity to succeed as an artist. The hidden disappointment and unspoken resentment that she held for me was in apparent contradiction with her outward appreciation for what I perceived to be my constant support of her ambitions.

It seemed to me like it was fair trade, my support for hers, but to her it was an apparently very complicated accounting problem. Yet to be fair, we must consider much more. With Lynda, I know from experience, there were many facets to the gem, so to speak. To focus only on one of these facets is unfair, for the the jewel is best appreciated as a whole. I admit, I was a bit surprised by the negative assessment she gave to her artistic ambitions and the role I played in that difficult dance but it certainly makes sense.

Why? Well, in my own way, I came to be caught up in those ambitions. I did what I could to her her realize them, and I thought she enjoyed a fair bit of success, in the most practical and mundane of ways. I helped her set up and move her studio three times, stretched canvases, stacked paintings, hauled boxes, bought canvases and paint, mats and frames. I helped her organize, photograph and annotate the three dozen Voices of The Ghetto series, which I had made into a book under her direction. She and I and hauled the fifteen boxes full of those drawings to Dallas, Houston, Temple and San Antonio, and we even sent them to Georgia for a show. I printed up countless copies of her resume and her Artist's Statement; printed labels for slides that I assembled in sheets and mailed them to dozens of galleries, collectors and workshops. We made a business of her art, and it kept us engaged and active together.

I enjoyed this time, and I know she did too. It was a wonderful flowering of her long held desires and we shared many moments of appreciation for her long life and good fortune at the end. I came to eat lunch with her in her studio as often as twice a week when she was in her last studio, at the Artplex. This busy and vibrant community was the background for our many conversations about art and life. Of course, this meant especially my life--though we referred to hers frequently as well--and rarely did we talk about money. My experience with the subject and a reasonable income--hence, financial independence from her--after so many years of struggling at the University had made that conversation superfluous, or so I thought.

In all that time, I assumed--perhaps wrongly, of course--that we had, over time, reached what I could call a 'good point' about money in our relationship. This point, I felt, had now for many years allowed her to offer support and for me to politely decline it without serious consequences. Over time I had come to understand that she was happy with what she had done for me and my family in our early years, and that she was satisfied with no longer having to help us financially. Though that may well be true, it might be hard to discern that from the notes in the margins of this book. Recall, if you will, that this only one of the several faces of Lynda.

It is interesting to me, ironic ultimately, to find these thoughts in a place I've never ventured to go myself--even with all my interest in self-examination and writing: the margins of a book. Shocking it is, really, to discover that it is in fact Lynda--whose admonition against this practice still today deters me from doing the same--who has revealed to me some of her most closely held thoughts by engaging in it. It sure makes me wonder if I should also be so bold, or if these long passages will suffice.

Monday, December 8, 2008

St. Valentine's Day Massacre: Part I

Every waiter has 'The Dream'.

Whether you are still waiting tables or your last table was decades ago, you know the dream I am talking about. In fact we even call it 'the Waiter Dream' even though it is better described as a nightmare. For those who do not instantly know the substance of the dream, and thus may be identified as someone who's never been a waiter, I will explain, but rather than give an abstract invention to illustrate I will use a quite concrete, most 'real' example; a sort of nightmare-come-true: The infamous St. Valentine's Day Massacre at our restaurant (name omitted because you ought to know this) in 1999.

I have, in other essays, addressed the interrelated factors of seating capacity, seating efficiency, time spent at table and the weather on exceptionally busy days, like Thanksgiving. Of these factors, recall that while the weather is the least predictable, it is out of our control; the reservation count and timing are supposedly within our control. Clearly these factors will have a big part in our story.

First, though, I must address the day itself. Again, fortunately for the Gentle Reader, I have elsewhere written a particularly vehement screed condemning this day as a Hallmark-invented hell-producing day for restaurants across the country and socioeconomic spectrum, so I will refrain from here repeating that frothing tirade. It must, however, be said here by way of context that we have several 'big days' on the calendar every year, rain or shine, hot or cold, ready or not, here we come days. They are Thanksgiving, Mother's Day, Easter and Valentines Day. Christmas Eve and Parents' Weekend at UT are also big, but belong in a second tier because, unlike the big four, they are 'night only' while the biggest days include a lunch and dinner seating.

Except, that is, for Valentine's Day, which is really just a single dinner seating, but deserves a spot in the top four because it is such a big deal to our patrons. Honestly, we do a lot more business on Thanksgiving and Mother's Day because the parties on those days tend to be larger family groups while the reservations for Valentine's Day come in a la Noah's Ark: two by two. So, recalling that seating capacity is one of our key factors, we know instinctively that if every table holds but two patrons, we will leave something like half of the potential seats in the restaurant empty. Even if the tables are re-arranged to be more efficient by placing many more two than four-tops, there is still a gap where guests would normally be, and this results in an odd, crowded-but-not sort of feeling in the space.

Then, there is the occasion itself which, although I promised not to belabor, requires mentioning for two reasons. First, it is perceived be, by it's most insecure and therefore desperate and willing-to-do-anything proponents, a 'must-be-done-at-all-cost' event, lest they fail to assuage the fickle heart of their lover.

With this irrational thought in mind, the men--and make no mistake, it's mostly men in this category of pitiable creatures--will do anything, say anything, pay anything to get a Valentine's Day reservation. Well, almost anything. If we didn't require payment in advance by taking a credit card number at the time of the reservation, it would also be our number one day for 'no-shows' not because of broken loves, but because of broken promises: double--and triple--bookings.

That's because normally courteous men, who would ordinarily be considerate enough not to make a reservation that they did not intend to keep or at least cancel prior to the day, lose all sense of rational respect for others in their self-centered drive to procreate. It is the mass spawning that Valentine's Day not-so-obliqely represents in our present day culture that I find distasteful, if not downright ridiculous.

These wanna-be lovers will literally jump a dam, cross an ocean, double book and pay four times what it would cost the next or previous nights in their desperate desire to spawn. It's pathetic and embarassing but only to us, those who must watch. Worse, we must pretend that we share their enthusiasm for the ritual, as if we too had a stake; as if we were going to get laid; as if we would ever want that which they find attractive. Well, no wonder. If anything, we are secretly delighted to know that they have to grovel just to get some of that. Honey hush. Go on with your bad self and do the nasty--just not here for godsakes.

So, with that bit of groundwork laid, I may begin to build up an account of the event, blow by blow, so that the severe scars that I carry as a result of my participation in it can be revealed and hopefully healed as my reward for finally revisiting it long enough to write about it at last. Even now I hesitate, writing toward it but not yet about it.

So, the essence of the waiter dream is impossibility. The most important thing a waiter does is to bring the food and drink from the kitchen to the patron. Simple, really. And it is, so long as the waiter has enough hands and time to do that simple task, everybody's happy. But it should be immediately obvious that one one the most basic limitations to this key element in our formula for good service is the number of hands that the waiter--any waiter--really has at their disposal. This is, you'll doubtless have calculated by now, somewhere between one and two.

This limitation, though obvious, is not the most restrictive factor to good service. It is Time that really determines how many patrons a good waiter may be reasonably expected to care for. The reason for this is simple: there are many ways to carry many plates and glasses to the table, but the time it takes for a waiter to greet their guests, exchange pleasantries, answer questions, take and record the order is not only considerable, when measured in seconds, hopefully. But, given that at least half the exchange is up to the guest, who often has no interest in the efficiency of their inquiry, minutes can elapse while the waiter is effectively trapped in a time-space warp worthy of Kirk and Co.

That's because, in the 'real' world, while Time drags along at half or even quarter-speed for the waiter, it continues to barrel forward at full speed for all the other patrons. They can not only see the time distortion, but are visibly annoyed by it enough to punish the server for his inabilty to adequately control time, instead of being in awe of his frequently superhuman ability to defy gravity and alter space. No, sadly, it is not enough for a waiter to get your steak to you medium-well; it has to be on (your) time and hot, or we don't get paid. Of course, there is no other profession that operates under that presumption, but that's another topic altogether.

What concerns us here is the fact that no matter how good and efficient the waiter is, if he has too many tables, he just won't be able to get to the kitchen quickly enough or often enough to take care of them all. It's just impossible. Especially, that is, if any of the patrons is even the slightest bit demanding; requesting, say for example, more bread and water, or worse, another, presumably even more complicated cocktail than the last one, with a ending like 'sling' or 'tini'.

Each new demand, though it seems tiny to the patron and perhaps even, for a while at least, to the waiter, accumulates like mud on the tires of an atv in a swamp, and before you know it, the waiter is in that dense and life-threatening--ok, life challenging--place known to us in the business as 'the weeds'. I am uncertain about the origin and even the literal meaning of the term, there's no doubt as to it's definition from a waiter's point of view. It means you are hopelessly behind; too many things to do and not enough hands or time to do them all.

Now, there is only one way for a waiter to get out of 'the weeds' without asking for help. That is one task, one diner, one table at a time. Though the waiter's mind is overloaded, he knows he can only do these tasks sequentially, and thus someone's something will not get to them in a timely manner or, in exteme cases of the weeds, not at all. Whether this is because the waiter just can't do it or because the patron finally gives up, the result is the same: the patron is unhappy and the waiter is underpaid, at best.

Well, the waiter dream is about being in the weeds, and, because it's a dream, it possesses the nightmarish exaggerated qualities that we can only enjoy while sleeping. Except, that is, for one certain Saturday in mid-February 1999. On this day came true the very Dream I had had for years leading up to that fateful night, and now it is simply the standard Dream that I have whenever my brain decides that it is again time for me to have 'The Dream'.

Knowing the date for Valentine's Day, would, you would think, allow us time to prepare for it and plan accordingly. In 1999, however, this knowledge did nothing to help us plan or prepare, even though we certainly thought the opposite. We thought we were ready. We thought we had it planned out. But we did not.

For one thing, we had way too many reservations, and to compound that error, we had way too many reservation in every time slot, especially the most popular, 7, 7:30 and 8. Without going into numbers, suffice it to say that they is obviously only so many seats in any given time slot, but no one taking reservations for the month prior to th event had seriously taken this bit of common sense into consideration.

Now, whether we were operating under the naive assumption that there would be plenty of seats and plenty of waiters at all times or simply had no idea that this could turn out to be overwhelming if not managed adequately it doesn't matter. Either reason would suffice for the disaster that ensued, and it would be pointless to try and assign blame.

Everyone who put yet another reservation in the book at 7:30 was in some small way responsible. This would be everyone who answers the phone, and that is everyone who works in the front of the house, as we all 'share' the responsibility of answering the phone during busy times like service on a Saturday night. So, this account is in no way an attempt to assign or even discuss blame for the event; we all shared equally in it's lingering effects.

Part II: They start coming...

Friday, December 5, 2008


Thanksgiving was a good one for the restaurant--and me personally--this year, so alas, I have no horror stories to tell, but it's worth it to me to set down an account of the event if only to serve as a memoir; a reminder that not every year is a disaster on the order of the St. Valentine's day of 1999. That is a story worth telling, for sure, but not here.

I can set the context for this year by recounting the events of last year, which, though it did not qualify as a true disaster (see above) it was not the most pleasant of days, to say the very least.

For one thing, this was the day, in 2007, that Lynda died. This in and of itself would have made for a bad day last year, but that wasn't what made it so tough. Mostly, it was the weather. It was cold, grey and rainy; conditions that do set up the anticipation of a wonderful meal by the fire--leisurely and relaxed. Well, let me tell you right now that that fantasy belongs only in your head, for it isn't even close to reality of dining out at a very good, and therefore very popular restaurant on a day when hundreds of other like-minded 'gastronomes' are inclined to do the same. Even discounting for the fact that Thanksgiving is typically portrayed as an at-home affair, many more people that you might think will have this same idea. Last year, in our restaurant, it was 638.

A curmudgeonly chef known to me personally but who will here remain unnamed once remarked that there is "...only so much shit you can shove through a tube." Were truer words to exist I doubt, for I have, with my own eyes, seen how this phenomenon plays out in the real world, and I need only look back a year to find a suitably impressive example. No I won't relate the 99 Valentines Day massacre here, I swear, but just so you know that no tale of restaurant horror will approach that day. Obviously, I am marked by that event, and often use it as a benchmark. Hopefully, by the time you are reading this, I will have related it and you'll understand.

As I said, it takes but a quick comparison with last year to put this one in context, so I must outline at least the elements that comprise the event and explain how they interact, variously. First, of course is the amount of, erm I mean the number of guests that you anticipate serving. This number will be arrived at by virtue of two factors, the number who reserve and the capacity of your restaurant to both seat and serve a given number of people in a given time.

You only have so many seats, and even if you seted them perfectly efficiently, which you can't, you can not make people eat at much more than a 'standard' pace, which I estimate to be faster than a 'leisurely' pace but slower than fast food pace. And, to eat a two or three course meal at our restaurant at a reasonable pace requires about an hour and a half to two hours. Our six course tasting menu takes about two hours to complete; with wine it costs two hundred dollars and I've seen more than a few folks who've simply fallen out halfway through. So, those two constraints, seats and time are the primary limitations on how much, erm, how many people we can and do serve on Thanksgiving. If either one of those numbers gets too big, we are in trouble.

Another factor in our formula that affects the other two is the weather. Of course, we should be able to control the number of reservations, and we should be able to pace them out so we have enough seats for everyone at any given time, but we can't control the weather. Note that I said 'should' to qualify my first two factors, because there is an art to the arrangement of the reservations in the book that we will have to address presently, but it is the weather and the fact that we have no say in the matter than can be the most limiting factor of all.

When, for example, the weather is cold, we cannot seat people outside, and when seated inside on a cold day, people are simply inclined to sit longer without spending more. So, in essence, the dollar-per-seat average drops off when it's cold, and any errors in judgement concerning the number and timing of the guests are quickly compounded and the whole situation becomes unbalanced and can easily spin out of control. As it did back in '99, on, won't go there.

Well, it was a quite cold and damp last year. Add to that a record number of reservations, and you have a formula for, at the very least, a long and discomforting day. What makes a day this way is not so much the effort required, for that remains relatively the same. It is the mental stress of waiting on people who are dismayed for having had to wait so long for a table, or who are disturbed by the sight of a lobby full of guests, hovering, just waiting for a table that makes a waiter's life stressful.

Now, imagine that people were not simply sitting around the three or four tables in the lobby, but they are standing in every available square foot and spilling out into the patio seating area, where they hover next to and often over tables but a few feet away. Even complimentary cocktails are not enough to convince folks that they should be paying all this money for the chance to stand and wait a half hour or more for a table they thought was reserved. People were remarkably understanding about this at the end of the day, however, and we managed to serve everyone in a reasonable amount of time.

The best evidence that I can offer as proof that folks were pleased with their experience last year in spite of the cold and the wait is the fact that many of them returned this year for what turned out to be one of the most pleasant Thanksgivings we've ever had. Given good weather, when we can seat outside on the patio and in the garden, and an experienced hard-working staff, we can shove, or rather, serve, many more people than the 600 or so that we did this year, but thankfully there was no need. While the waiters would have no doubt not objected had we done another 100 covers, it was enough to line everyone's pocket suitably.

For my part, I estimate that I opened about 40 bottles of wine. I broke a wine opener, which I've been known to do on busy days, but other than that, my day, while relentless, was relatively uneventful. I really do enjoy working on days like this because the experience is so all-consuming and challenging from a physical and mental standpoint. Really, even though we enjoy a busy night because we are all making good money, we waiters really enjoy a busy night most because it flows quickly and consumes most of the time without lapsing into the deadly boredom that comes with a slow night.

So, this Thanksgiving was the day from Heaven, not Hell. The weather was great, the pace leisurely and, at the risk of breaking an old rule of journalism, I can securely say here that "A good time was had by all." Alas, given the cyclical nature of the business, I expect this euphoria to last about one year. Anyone have a Farmer's Alamanac for 2009?

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Time & Place

I've been to a place
Without time
No seasons or songs
No reasons
No rime.

I come from a time
Without place
No marks or maps
No memory
No face.

In vain do I seek
To be here now
Too weak to be
Restrained by a vow
Retreat.  Be discrete.
Refrain. Disallow.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The End of Writer's Block

I rediscovered, yesterday, one of my very favorite authors, Isaac Asimov.

I picked up his book, The Left Handed Electron, in Powell's in Portland while browsing through the physics aisle, and in a moment remembered what a wonderful and engaging writer he was. I read many of his science fiction stories and books as a teenager. I went through my science fiction phase with my usual eclectic focus, reading the Foundation series and volume after volume of his short stories. Fortunately for me, and for many others, I suppose, he was very prolific, so there existed volume after volume for me to pick up. At some point I left him; I found Robert Silverberg and Arthur C. Clarke who were both sexier and more futuristic than Asimov, if not nearly so fecund.

He is, of course legendary for being so prolific, and for writing on a wide variety of topics. This I knew even then. I knew he was writing at a pace that was faster than I could read because I could see the list of books on the inside cover grow with each paperback purchase. And, though I knew that he actually wrote about 'hard' science and was vaguely aware that he was a professor of science--biochemistry--at a prestigious medical school, that side of his work did not especially interest me.

Well, it does now. And it is specifically his writing style that makes it all the more interesting, and, dare I say it, understandable. It feels like he is sitting across from me and speaking to me personally. I can hear, not his voice, but his emotion, his passion for science and the explaining of things that he does so well. For this reason, I love also the work of contemporary science journalist Robert Krulwich, but his primary medium is television and radio. Asimov is man of words. Maybe, even, too many words, but it is his passion for them, and their use in the wonderful process of explanation that defines his work that has inspired me to write on.

In spite of the fact that this very essay and so much of the rest of what I write is mere ephemera, of little use to anyone other than me as a therapy, I cannot escape the passion for words and my desire to tap them out in some selfish pursuit of explanation. While I am fascinated by science, it human nature that I wish to describe, in my poems, memoirs or essays. It may be a simple as what it was like to have been me. I know that I can always write about that.

Now, whether or not anyone that I know will read this or even care is not so important to me; it is the process of writing itself that liberates me and motivates me. Long has this been so.

When I was seven, I had the idea to write about my life. This idea coincided with two events: the assassination of President Kennedy and the felling--by storm--of a huge tree that had been in the school courtyard just outside our second-floor second grade classroom. My recollections of these events, I can recall reasoning, was something I wanted to share with others. Thinking about them, it seemed logical to set them in the context of my life so far, so I went home and told my parents--specifically Lynda--that I wanted to write the story of my life. From this experience, I learned two things. First, the wrod for it was autobiography. The fact that I remember learning it ought to tell you a lot about me. Second, I learned that it was foolish idea.

'Why, you have nothing to write about!'

I'm sure there was a good bit of bemused laughter at my chutzpah later in the evening, but her gentleness did not prevent her from telling me what she thought to be the truth. And that, of course, was that I had nothing to say, even if hadn't come out that way, nor been intended to hurt. And, I suppose, hurt is too strong a word. It simply closed me off to something I was intuitvely seeking, and like most things that I have sought for a lifetime, I have come to understand the value of writing in and of itself, for myself alone if need be.

The subsequent critique of 'too many words' was similarly offered as my oh-so-very literate Mother's reasoned--and, to her, reasonable--advice for any author who was to gain her favor. Later in life, a look at her bookshelf was enough to convince me that she valued dense prose, but at the time, to a young writer, it meant simply that I had nothing to say and, as if that premise needed proof, I had already used too many words in pursuit of that very vanity. How ironic, now, but honestly, dampening to the creative spirit necessary to write. No wonder then, that for most of my life it was Lynda who was the artist; my ambitions had been suitably tempered by the force of her flame early on.

But now that flame, her flame, is finally extinguished. At last her light no longer casts upon my own, so I may now emerge to write about that damn tree if if so desire, and everything that led up to it's tragic demise as part of my autobiography. If, that is, I could remember more than what I've just written. Imagine, if you will, what I might learn about myself if I written my first autobiography at age seven?

I'm not being deliberately critical of Lynda, but I am finally saying that this may just be the end of writer's block.

Maddie's Return

The trip to Portland was a very good one. As many of you know--Maddie may even have told you--she is unable to continue with Culinary School.

I'd be lying if I said that this wasn't a bit disappointing, but neither would I be simply rationalizing when I say, now, that it certainly isn't the end of the world. That much is to be expected, I guess, of a father who has recently experienced the meaning of failure in an absolute and very real sense, but to my way of thinking, the experiences are related but not congruent, and what Maddie has done cannot fairly be described as a true 'failure' because, in the end, the experience has been overwhelmingly positive even if it did not yet culminate in a diploma.

I recently wrote an essay about success and failure--I suppose in anticipation of this moment--in which I claim that those two terms are at best only marginally applicable to genuine human endeavors because they are relative and, at worst, simply relatively to each other. I believe that, as a self-referential system, the success-failure dynamic ironically represents the true meaning of the term 'failure' precisely in its inability to accurately describe human achievement. The metric that these two poles claim to represent is a false one, and of use primarily in monetizing social situations rather than describing with nuance the organic nature of the human experience. Said simply: we grow.

So, that's a long way of saying that while it sounds like rationalization--because, alas, it is, I know--there is still little about Maddie's experience that I would readily qualify as a failure. Not having the ability to complete all the work, which, while proof that she is not ready yet, is not evidence that she cannot complete the course in the future, should she decide that it is still what she wants to do.

We have to admit, however, that of this moment we don't know, really, what she wants to do. That is still perfectly ordinary for the majority of us who do not plan on becoming concert violinist or particle physicists. It's why we go to school. In a liberal arts college, a State teaching school or an engineering college, the year of discovery is often a lot longer than that. I, personally, was on the ten-year plan for my B.A. Of course, the degree has little to do with what I do today, but in the crucible of those first few years, I sifted through many options; choices that still affect me, mostly in a positive way, today.

So, although Maddie still maintains that she would like to be a baker, there are now some practical things she can and will do when she gets home to pursue that goal. Getting a job in a bakery would be a start, and likely even the little bit of training she's gained from school will be an asset sufficient to get her hired at least.

Maintaining her focus and improving her skills is another front, also one on which we have made some progress. She went to see a therapist last week and was prescribed some medication to help her focus and be more alert and open to improvement during the workday. Of course we are skeptical, given our experience, of offering drugs as a solution, even a short term one, but we are also compelled to help her if we can, and I do think the treatment has some promise.

Of course coming 'home' is a double-edged sword; it'll be good for her, but she can't live with us for too long because, in essence she's already made the key 'break' that the Portland adventure has defined. In short, she's ready to be independent, just with a little proximity to her long time caregivers.

Monday, November 24, 2008


I finished my first volume of poetry, Ink, this weekend.

Though I would like to say here that it was published, I can claim only to have assembled fifteen of my most recent poems and printed them in a hand-made book. There was a time, I suppose, in the history of books and book-making, when what I have done would qualify as 'publication', but even that broad categorisation requires some qualification. I think that, besides simply making the first copy, in order for it to be published, I have to a) make more copies, and b) disseminate them.

My goal in writing poetry is expression; my goal in publishing poetry is permanence.

I would be lying if I said that I don't care what happens to my work. I don't think I would even write if I thought it wasn't going to last; if I had no desire for it to represent me in the world after I am gone. It's not fame but persistence that I seek. There is ambition in my work, arrogance in the assumption of genius, hubris after all. But why not? Without the folly would anything ever emerge from this chaotic dance? Who among us creates but those without the sense to know better or the humilty to refrain from the desire to be God?

To the poet belong the spoils, for no greater act of courage won a battle nor a war averted. If, that is, said poet can manage to get published.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Driving to South Central LA

(Yeats comes to Amerika)

That is not a city for old men. The young
Men are armed, children in the street
--those dying generations--rap beat riding
The boulevards, and in the body-filled bars where
Crack, bullets or aids conspire all summer long.
Many are conceived, some are born, all die.
Trapped in that deadly dance they disparage
Treasure of their intellectual heritage.

An old man gets no respect.
Worn out values stuck to pride, unless
He goes to church and sings and sings louder
For every murder his children leave on the street
Abandoning the schools where all that is taught
Is that the System takes care of itself.
So I got in my car and drove today,
To the violent city of South Central LA.

O homeless mercenaries living on the street
Lost in the shadows around the neon,
Leave your cardboard box, stand by the curb
And come clean out that shit behind my garage.
Fill my heart with guilt; fat from indulgence
And inserted into an atrophied frame,
It has no feeling; let me just pretend
That I am helping you.

When I die I don't want to be
Brought back as a living being,
But with a Madonna body made by Chinese slaves
Of moulded plastic and pink lead paint
To keep a drowsy housewife awake;
Or set upon a taxi dashboard and wave
To the men and women of South Central LA
While the driver tells them all what it is, or what it
aint, or
How it ought to be.



Words fall from my eyes
like charcoal.

Black ink leaks from my heart,
Staining the page with blood.

Cataracts cloud my eye,
Salt coats my tongue;
Now too barren,
too shallow for words.

Shadows fall but are lost
in my eye.

Do not come back.
Turn from this desert.
Le me wander till night falls
And I am gathered up
To fill the space between the stars.



Bring me
A mountain of paper;
An ocean of ink.
A billion more words.
Will it make people think?

To shout down the tyrant
Don't act the fool.
Shut up. Pay rent.
Don't piss in the pool.

Words are mere shadows
Cast on the wall
Clever allusions,
Vapors, that's all.


Like meat
Dragged across concrete.

Like meat
Shriveled on the grill.

Pulse pounding still,

Like meat.

Thursday, November 20, 2008


Henry and I were talking about our dads last night, thinking of what we had saved, as mementos of their presence now passed.

I showed him what turns out to be the only object of his that I keep on display in my room, a small carved cufflink box that sits on my dresser next to the clay mask of Agamemnon and the crude little figurative clay statuette that still bear the fingerprints of Lynda. If Bill's imprint on my life is yet visible, it is most obvious in the mirror and the viewfinder, but an observant visitor would find it also in the eclectic collection of objects o n my dresser and my desks, all carefully arranged for my convenience and aesthetic pleasure.

He asked if it was ivory, which, though I told him it was not, it is. I stumbled on the answer because it's actually from an animal that one would not ordinarily expect to harvest the now politically incorrect material known as ivory: a whale.

One of the most interesting and possibly the grandest adventures upon which Bill embarked--literally--was his trip on a whaling expedition to the Antarctic as a free-lance photographer for LIFE magazine when he was in his early twenties. The carved ivory box, which sat on his dresser until I picked it up the day after he died, was just one of the mementos he had from that trip. He also had a piece of baleen--the krill filter in their mouth--and a bizarre looking shell-shaped piece of ceramic-looking material that was actually the inner ear of a sperm whale. He also had a lot of photographs, of course, and a yellowed copy of the magazine in which they appeared.

Now LIFE magazine is still around, I guess, but in the sixties, it was still a very famous and even important magazine, perhaps even the most read and loved by Americans--though LOOK was a stiff competitor--at the time. This made my dad, by association as a photographer, somewhat of a celebrity for me during those middle school years when I could, and did, bring my Dad in to talk about his adventure for show and tell. He would bring all the stuff, including a sperm whale tooth that was inscribed with skrimshaw and the little cufflink box carved from an even larger tooth. He'd answer every question, too, from facts about whales to the goriest details that the teacher would let him get away with. The stories at home were uncensored, thankfully.

His photographs of the expedition were quite good. Over the years, he would retell the adventure as we looked through the magazine or perhaps reviewing old slides one day, and I honestly never tired of it. I learned, first of all, that it was Ant-arc-tica, with the hard 'c' before the 't'. He told me about toilets flushing the opposite way below the equator. He talked about the equator crossing ceremony, the penguins that came to visit the boat and, mostly, about the hard work and rough conditions that the men who called themselves whalers endured.

I saw--over and over again--the bloody and brutal pictures of the whales being cut up and shoved into tiny--compared to their once majestic girths--holes in the deck of the ship and cannot still forget the grim faces of the men who did the hacking and slicing with long-handled knives, ropes and winches.

This was no modern day factory ship. It resembled, in many regards, what it really was: the last of the American whaling fleet to ever set to sea; a vessel not too far removed in time or size from the original Yankee whalers. The methods for catching, killing and cutting up these giants changed but little up to the end. Harpoons were not thrown by hand, but fired from a crude gun, and the final death blow was often not delivered till the ship drew up alongside. Bill took pictures of the whole process, but he concentrated on the faces.

When he talked about it years later in front of groups of gaping mouthed middle schoolers, we were interested in the blood and gore, but he was most interested in relating what it had been like to work with these tough and dedicated sea-going workmen. His photos resembled those of Weston's New York or Brassai's Paris; studies in dark and light, images of sharp contrast in the form of powerful human portraits.

He was, even then, outspoken in his opposition to whaling, and used his experience as a cautionary tale. This was long before 'Save the Whales' ever entered the American consciousness, and from his point of view, one that had little to do with saving the planet and everything to do with simply being humane. In some ways, his was an experience not unlike Upton Sinclair's, and he was never hesitant to speak about the injustice that he felt was being perpetrated on these wonderful animals.

I don't know what happened to the inner ear, not the scrimshawed tooth or the baleen or even the original copy of LIFE that he saved, but I do know where the cufflink box is, and, more important, where the photographs are. It's time I brought them out and collected them in a book. As the curator of these items, it is up to me to see that they are both preserved and documented, for his sake as well as mine. After all, my interest in photography links me directly to Bill, more than a mere memento on the dresser.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Once in a Lifetime

Three million people?

What does that look like? How can that many people come together in one place at one time? Where will they all stand? Sit? Eat? Erm...go to the bathroom, to use that most American of euphamisms?

We are going to the inauguration. These are just a few of the questions I've been asking myself.

Why, for crying out loud, would I want to be in the middle of that crowd? Well, for starters, it's no rock concert I'm talking about here. This event can accurately be described as something often ascribed to movies and television programs; a "Once in a lifetime event", but unlike mere entertainment, this event is one of some actual historical significance. The number of people at this event will be a powerful and delightfully tangible proof of the change that will finally come to our country and thus, to our belief that the political system, rife though it certainly is with difficulties and ripe though it is for fraud, as we have seen as never before, is both sound from a philosophical standpoint and self-correcting, from an emperical point of view, as we have, in fact often seen before in our history.

I find it both remarkable and inspiring to think that this country, this grand and humbly simple system, concieved by enlightened philosophers and indegefatigable pioneers and industrious rejects from Europe's stifling economic caste system and embodied in that elegant document we know as our Constitution, is so organic, so adaptable and humane that, despite the long odds, we find ourselves today in the remarkable situation of having elected a President who would have been ineligible to vote when that noble creed was written, simply because he wouldn't even have been considered to be a man at the time!

This alone is reason to hope, but there are many others. Thinking back to stories I've read about Andrew Jackson's inauguration, when the 'common people' were invited to, and subsequently ran amuck in the White House, I am tempted to believe that this will be one very wild party-- perhaps more than I really hoped for--but I also know that it will be a moment to express the relief and joy and optimism I feel with, literally, millions of others.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Making it Look Hard

He makes it look so hard!

A colleague recently reminded me of this observation I made during a basketball game long ago, referring to the free throw shooting 'style' if I may here briefly abuse that word, of the legendary Shaquille O'Neil.

My friend remembered this telling remark because, he said, it was to him a fitting metaphor useful for describing many forms of human behavior that transcended mere sports. Of course, professional sport is always a good metaphor for life, as we all know from advertisements and any corporate training sessions for self-esteem and team building that you've been unfortunate enough to endure, but wait, for the message is not always positive.

As usual, I am ahead of myself. The metaphorical implications notwithstanding, the actual incident was indeed 'a sports moment' if you will. Now, I am not a basketball fan, be advised lest you think I routinely watch the NBA, which I do not, of course, but I am also a not-so-closeted sports junkie and trvia collector and thus have the usual smattering of knowledge of the dilletant; enough to know a little something about whatever game, match or race is on the television in the restaurant kitchen on a given night.

Now this is usually football, of both the American and World varieties, which I still stubbornly and un-politically correctly refer to as 'soccer' but we watch any sport. Tennis, golf, horse racing, even, gulp, NASCAR. This all 'all sport all the time' even includes Ultimate Fighting Champions, which, to me, is simply at the level of nude mud wrestling, there's no other way to say it. It's obviously staged, in the manner of boxing and wrestling. Both of these testosterone-laden types of contests between sweaty men simply turn me off for that reason alone; sadly, for cable anyway, the entertainment value of boys wrasslin' just isn't up there on the charts for me. Of course I see plenty of that in the NFL, which has it's butt-patting male moments, to be sure, but I accept that because is still my favorite sport.

But to watch Shaquille O'Neil attempt a free throw in the course of a game, especially a playoff game, where the consequences for failure are magnified, is just plain painful. I mean, it looks like it hurts, the way he strains to put the ball up in a simple ten to twelve foot arc. Not to brag, or anything, but this is even something I can do. In fact, though I am still more likely to miss than make it on any given try, I would bet that over the course of even ten free throws, I could at least tie, if not beat Shaquille. Realistically, your thirteen-year-old girl cousin could beat him at HORSE in the driveway if he were to show up for a pick up game one Sunday afternoon while you are working around the house. She might not even get to HOR before he dinks the iron and backboard enough times to spell out FAILURE.

But my intent here is not to trash Shaquile, who could not only outplay me at basketball but likely every other sport as well, to say nothing of the damage he could inflict with but a tap of his little finger should I go around publicly calling him out for his lousy free throwing ability. Nor is it my intent to brag about my own prowess, obviously as one may not argue in favor of an absence of such an ability, but I do feel the point that my friend made about how some people manage to take the easiest things in the world and make them look hard is worth considering, especially since I seem to be one of those most afflicted by this degenerate condition.

We have all heard how some people make hard things look easy, by virtue of their talent, hard work or both, but have you ever considered how many people make the easy things look hard? In fact, we'd be hard pressed, any of us, to claim that this was not us, every day, making a mess out of what should have been an easy ans straightforward task. I know I do this often enough, but I tend not to notice it so much in myself as in others. For those things that I find hard--like math, and finishing task around the house, for example--I realize now that it is because I make them so, not necessarily because the tasks are hard in and of themselves.

So, it would seem that the biggest stumbling block would be my own preconceptions and tendencies to over-analyze my life and work. Introspection can be a good thing, but I have to learn to balance it with action. In other words, simply getting something done every day shouldn't be all that hard. Wish me luck, mockingbird.

Your Best Table

Although I have promised not to rant about the restaurant here because it is simply self indulgent to complain about what I choose to do for a living, there are moments when a situation has so aggrieved me that I am unable to escape it even the next day, so I write about it to in some way clear the awful vision from my head. So it is, today, a Sunday, and I have to tell the story about the folks from the big city.

Now, I could have called them something much worse, and, in fact, I did, shortly after my first encounter with them, even knowing that I would have to rid myself of this resentment because I still had face them again later in the evening. Of course, thanks to a combination of their personalities and my on-the-edge-of-burnout attitude, I was not able to accomplish this feat, and my second encounter with them went only slightly better than the first. But I am ahead of myself as, always.

Saturdays are my long day at the restaurant, often ten or twelve hours--beginning at noon. When I arrive, I immediately take responsibility for answering the phone and tending to guests who wander into the lobby, as did the foursome from H-Town that this story is about. I was packing cases of wine from the office up to the lobby when, on kicking open the door about two o'clock, I found my 'friends' waiting for me at the host stand.


A large man with obviously blow dried hair and a thick mustache that reminded me of the seventies greeted me with the kind of artificial enthusiasm and aggressive posture that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up; call it my 'waiter-sense'. With just a single word and his look, with a scan of the other three gathered round the stand I knew this was not going to be pleasant.

Can I help y'all?

We want to make a reservation. We want your best table.

Oh, now that's one of my favorite phrases, and a darn fine way to begin our interaction, but they have no way of knowing this is, so I will have to set them straight. I begin by setting down my case of wine and assuming my post at the reservation screen. At this point, the two women have a menu out and are perusing it, but one of them doesn't even have her glasses on, so I know she's just pretending to look.

Well, I begin, it's going to be a busy night. What time were you thinking about coming in?

Sensing my stiffness, this large seventies throwback decides to push to see how far he can go.

We've come a long way to eat in your restaurant. We want the best table you have. But not in with the crows.

Now, there is a crow 'theme' to one of our dining rooms. There are several bare varnished branches emerging from the wall on either side of the fireplace, and on the branches are several stuffed crows. There are some paper-mache crows that look fairly realistic on the mantel and a couple of paintings of crows by the Chef's ex-wife. Chef says it's for good luck; it creeped me out a bit at first but now I'm used it it, of course.

Now though mustache man and I may this this one thing in common, I am no ally. I do not like it when people tell me where they do or do not want to sit. I understand that people have preferences and we do try to accommodate them, but ultimately, for it's own sake, the restaurant has to set people when and where it must in order to maximize the space and time.

This whole thing about demanding--or even requesting politely--the best table in the house is something I've written about before, so I'll not belabor the point, but if it is simply annoying on the phone, dealing with the an individual who would ask for such a favor in person is downright maddening.

And, I think, they felt this. I have long known that mine is no poker face. I may control my words perfectly, but the eyes do not lie. Nor do I wish them to. I hope that sometimes people will read my thoughts beamed directly into their brains via the blue eye and act accordingly, but in this case, I don't think the jedi mind trick worked.

What time were you thinking about coming in? I repeated, ignoring, for the moment, the best table ploy.

Oh, I don't know. What do you think? He turns to his big buddy, who is eyeing me suspisciouly; he see my UT cap.

Don't matter to me, says buddy, in his best Texas country boy accent.

How bout 7:30.

Great, I say. I tap the computer screen to start the process that will, in the short term at least, get them out of my presence. Last name?

Say, where are you going to seat us? Inside I hope?

Yes, I say, but we have a big party coming in this evening, so two of the dining rooms--I gesture to the majority of the restaurant behind me--are occupied. the three rooms we will be using including this one--I point to the fireplace room, a la crow--and I am afraid I cannot promise any particular table.

He looks surprised, so I press on. We have the patio reserved as well, and quite a crowd on top of that, so let's go ahead and get you in the book.

We'll take this one! One of the women calls from the back room, having chosen a prime table in the middle of the dining room.

I cannot promise any particular table, I repeat, but I can make sure you are inside. Now, what was the name?

He gives me his name and phone number, but asks for my name in return.

Phillip. Thanks for asking. I smile, giving him the blue eye.

You the owner? He asks with just a hint of respect.

No, I just work here. Now a thoughtful person might wonder if in fact I was just being modest, but my mustache man sensed that he was in the presence of a minor player in his league and decided to press.

Well, we've eaten in some might fine restaurants. Your's seems good.

It is. I am in no mood to 'sell' them on the reservation. In, that's not going to happen. He is not reading my mind, but he does back down.

What time's the game, asked the oblivious buddy, proving that wasn't paying attention and worse, he had no idea nor interest in said game.

It's already on, I shot back. Now, I've got you down for four at seven-thirty, I say. We look forward to seeing you tonight!

Their departure is none to quick for me, as my blood pressure is skyrocketing by this point. The assumptions that the pseudo wealthy make about their position in society relative to those who serve them is just warmed-over and barely disguised antebellum elitism. At a time when that word carries more than a hint of pejorative subtext, I believe that use it fairly here to describe the sense of entitlement that allowed reasonable men and women to own slaves with a 'good' conscience.

Never one to give an entire village a bad rap for one of it's members, I'll nonetheless not resist the temptation to give an oily city a hit for producing and exporting something more pollutant than hydrocarbons and call them out for propagating a culture the racist undertones of Southern gentility with the most obvious materialistic morals of the carpetbaggers they pretend to hate but whom they secretly admire and not so secretly imitate.

Lynda once told me that she was eighteen before she realized that the South was not going to rise again. I think some of these folks have never grown up.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Fall is Here

This is about as much as we get, when it comes to fall colors.  And, sadly, this camera phone has a blue cast that distorts the true color, so I must add that these leaves were actually red.

Taken at Waller Creek.

Thursday, November 13, 2008


This from the BBC news wire:

"A recent study by computer scientists from the University of California, Berkeley and UC, San Diego (UCSD) found that spammers manage to turn a profit despite only getting one response to every 12.5m emails they send."

12.5 million? Damn, those are some amazing numbers! That makes cold calling look a bit weak!

Bit by the Devil

So, today I do not feel well, and I know exactly why.

One of our cats, appropriately named Diablo, bit me--twice--on the right wrist Monday night. Of course, it hurt pretty bad right after he attacked me; his bite, when delivered with intent, is very forceful. His teeth broke the skin in three places, and one tooth penetrated to deep muscle.

That night, it was hard to sleep because it hurt so much, and all the next day I tried to shake it off, to no avail. It just kept swelling and the infection was obviously spreading. So much so, that when I went to a long-standing dentist appointment Tuesday afternoon, he advised me to go straight to a doctor, which I did. The doctor at the minor emergency clinic told me that ninety percent of cat bites become infected, so it was almost inevitable, even if I'd cleaned the wound properly, which I had not.

I took the day off from work yesterday and though I expected to be active and not allow the injury to slow me down, in fact the infection has dragged me down further than I ever expected to go, especially considering that I got treatment fairly quickly. Last night was still a bad one, full of crazy dreams and fears, like I literally have bugs running around in my brain.

This is not the first time that Diablo has bit me, or others. He has bit us all at one point or another, and he doesn't stop with us. He regularly ambushes the other cats--especially the youngest, Peaches--who avoid him at best and are downright afraid of him at worst. In short, he is a bully. And, I think, he knows it.

I can't help wondering why he would attack me. The act was deliberate, even though the doctor was required to indicate that the attack was 'provoked' by me because I was petting him at the time. Had he crossed the room to attack me for no reason, it would be considered 'unprovoked', but to me the distinction is a false one. This cat really had no reason to bite me, especially twice, for we were not 'playing' nor was I teasing him. I sat down on the floor and he came over to let me pet him. No sooner than I touched his head, he turned over and seized my wrist with a force that would surely end the life of a small bird or rodent.

But I am not a bird or--depending on whom you ask--a rodent, so it seems to me that he had to know what he was doing. It is not enough to absolve him by say, 'Oh he didn't know what he was doing' because, I think, he did know what he was doing. It wasn't a simple scratch or warning; in fact it came without the warning I needed to protect myself.

So, I have a new way to keep from getting hurt; I will not touch him again for some time. It's his loss, really, but I haven't any choice.