Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Last Table

Have you ever been the last table to leave a restaurant? If so, why?

Now, I don't mean to suggest that being the last table to leave a restaurant is necessarily a social faux pas, but if you can recall a wonderful romantic dinner with your significant other that seemed to stretch on forever as you gazed into one another's eyes and for so long reveled in the anticipation of a night of blissful love that by the time you regained your senses and looked up, you found that all the other patrons had long since gone, the candles on their tables extinguished along with the lights in all the dining rooms except yours, then you, my friend, have been an integral part of my 'other' waiter nightmare.

The most common waiter nightmare, or the 'dream' as I have referred to it in other entries to this journal, is the one where the waiter has too many tables, patrons and orders and not enough hands, legs or time to take care of them all. Every waiter and waitress, without exception, has this dream. Many still have it long after they've hung up the apron.

Though far fewer have it, the 'other' waiter dream is the one where it is the end of the night and all the customers have gone but two. They sit, wrapped up in each other's gooey gaze and murmuring soft phrases of endearment, oblivious completely to the fact that their world has come into conflict with the world of the waiter and perhaps the kitchen staff, who've been there all day. Of course, it's a little much to ask that patrons think of the welfare of their chef or server while engaged in the activity they came for, especially considering that they will be asked--no, expected--to make explicit concessions to the server's welfare by giving him or her a tip. So, in a sense, they are renting the space, and if they pay their rent, why all's fair.

The rent analogy is good one, but there is an element to the transaction that is often overlooked in the special case of the last table of the night. That is, rent is due at a certain time. Now, granted, we don't decide to give the landlord a little extra for being so patient as to wait an extra week for payment, but the landlord rightly charges us a late fee for our dalliance, and we therefore learn--hopefully--to go ahead and pay on time.

For most patrons in a restaurant this isn't an issue. Most people want to leave as soon as they've finished their meal, so it is up to the waiter to deliver the check in a timely manner in anticipation of that desire to depart, and if there is a problem, it is when the waiter delivers the check too late or takes too long in processing the payment. In the case we are discussing--the last table--however, even the delivery of the check does not signal to the oblivious patrons that it is time to go.

I won't pretend to be innocent of this petty offense, but that doesn't diminish my frustration as waiter when this happens again. And it happens about once a week, at least. So, you'd think I'd be over it by now, and to a large extent, I am. This is especially true during these lean days, but even when business is/was robust, every patron is important and needs to be treated with respect--so that they will return.

Even at H_____, which is now a 'destination' restaurant, we rely on our 'regulars' for the bulk of our business. And the way we get regulars is to feed them and treat them well. Thus, being rude to, or worse, asking the last table to leave is simply not an option.

Unwilling as I am to doing anything other than wait them out--as I did last night--I am forced to relieve the stress by dumping this rant on you, dear Reader.

So, the question to ask here at the end, having decided that we are all, at one time or another going to commit this callous act of disrespect to our servants, is why? Why are we the last table tonight? Is it because we made late reservations, then showed up late? Or worse still, perhaps we just showed up late?

Being late is not in and of itself a problem. Many people call up and ask; "What is your latest reservation?" or "How late can we come in?" I know that what they are really saying is: "We have some other plans before we come out to your restaurant. How should we plan so we don't miss the dinner service?" This is perfectly reasonable and understandable, but phrased in the former fashion it becomes an annoying question for the restaurant.

The restaurant might ask in return: "Are you asking this because you want to be the last people served by the kitchen this evening? Are you asking the chefs to stay late to accommodate your inability to make reasonable plans? Or perhaps you just don't care about how your food will be prepared and served because you think that we just love to serve everyone, no matter what time of day or night, and no matter how rude or insensitive you manage to be?

Now some people have been known to come in early and outlast every other customer in the restaurant. Truly in the throes of a 'romantical' entanglement of a serious nature, it is hard to be hard, so to speak, on these (usually) young lovebirds. But then, they are not really the subject of this little screed. After all, a restaurant is where one comes to be 'restored'. In the most literal sense, this is why I do 'it' (service), have done 'it' for so many years. I truly love seeing people caught up in 'their' moment. All I'm asking is that if you look up and see that you are the last to leave, it's time to be on your way.

You've heard the saying (it might even be a country song): 'You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here'.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Scammer Scamming: Chapter II

So, dear Reader, here is chapter two in my now-ongoing attempt to scam a scammer.

Here is what "David Dowson" wrote in response to my first email:

On Tue, Mar 24, 2009 at 11:27 PM, George Dowson wrote:

Dear Phillip,

Thanks for your mail.
Please I need to be sure that am dealing with the person my letter was addressed to – therefore I will like you to write your contact phone and fax number on the letter and send me a copy by fax or by email attachment.
If you can to support or back up your address, you can also forward any document that reflect your name and address on it – it can a copy of your bill, a payment receipt – whatever that shows your name with the address.
Thereafter – I’ll send you detail information about me- myself, Mr.M.K.Dubov,the investment detail and how I intend to carry out the transaction with your name.
One more thing please – can you confirm the complete name of your father.
Yours truly,

And here is what I wrote back:

Dear Mr. Dowson,

First of all, let me apologize for misspelling your name. I know how frustrating it can be when people don't pay attention to details, and as we enter into a significant venture together, it is important to be accurate and thorough, don't you agree?

Next, I want to thank you for your prompt response and again for simply making contact in the first place. As I related in my first letter, this is a moment of great hope and anticipation of a new life for me and my seven brothers and sisters. I haven't told them, of course, but when I do, I know they'll come to regard you as I do: our saviour!

Thanks also, for being so careful about verifying my identity, for as I think about it, it would be a real tragedy if someone else with my same last name were to sneak in and claim to be our father M.K.'s rightful heirs before we can complete this transaction. Of course, I would be more than happy to send you some proof of my identity but darn it, I couldn't find a return address in the letter you sent me. Silly me, I thew away the envelope without writing it down. So, if you'll just send me your address, I can send you something right away.

Now, what should I send you? As for proof of my identity I'm not sure what would be the best. I could send you a copy of my latest gas and electric bills, but I was thinking that if I send you a copy of my latest bank statement (with the total amount blocked out of course--I don't want you to know how much I have:), why then you'd have all the necessary information for transferring the eight million dollars right straight into my checking account! Of course, I have a savings account too, but I can be honest with you and tell you that I really just have the five dollar minimum in it. I can just never seem to save any money, can you believe it? But all that is going to change now, and thanks to you David! That is your name, right? I ask because I see that the email comes from a "George" Dowson, but I'll bet that you are doing just what I did, and create another email account just to keep this whole thing on the down low. I like it that you are so smart! And, we seem to think alike! It is no wonder that fate brought us together like this.

The only problem I have is getting the bank statements to you. Like I said in my first email, I don't have a fax machine, and since I use a computer here at the public library, I don't have the ability to scan it and send it to you as an email attachment. Even then, I'm not sure I could even do that. I don't know computers so good, and I only get to play on it for a little while every day because they always kick me out when I start looking at porn. The try to block the sites, but as you know there is so much of it out there it's real easy to find.

So anyway, that's why I won't be able to send you the proof of my identity by email, and until I get the advance from you to go buy the fax machine, I won't be able to do that either, darn it! But I do have some good news for you about that fax machine. You remember how I told you that I could get one for a couple of hundred dollars? Well, I rode over to check them out at Office Deport yesterday and discovered to my surprise they have one for just $139.99! It's a floor model, but that's ok because we just need it for a couple of times, right?

Now even though I can get a good deal on the fax machine, I'm still going to need the whole five hundred dollars in advance, because like I said,I have some other important expenses to take care of right away. Just for example, one thing I have to do right away is pay my P.O. (oh sorry, that's slang for my Parole Officer) because it won't help either of us if I'm back in jail, now will it? Don't worry, as soon as I get the money, it's the first thing I'll do. I promise I won't go drinking with it the way I did the last time my Uncle George lent me fifty dollars, but then that was just so little money that I couldn't actually pay my fine! However, when I get the five hundred from you, I'll have enough for the fine, do some drinking and buy the fax machine! Just teasing--I promise, no binge drinking till we seal the deal, ok?

Ok, it is so good talking to you and making this kind of personal contact. I feel really good about this and I know you do too! I know we can make it happen as soon as I get the money and the fax machine. You already know my home address, of course--where you sent the first letter--so you can just send the check there. If you prefer to wire the money so we can get started right away, please just let me know when and where I should go to pick it up. Western Union has a branch downtown on Sixth Street, I think. Anyway, you can google it I guess. Just let me know and I'll be there waiting for it!

Well, I can't end this note without thanking you again Mr. Dowson! You are truly an angel of mercy and goodwill. I know your family must be very proud of you, if they even know what a wonderful person you are and the amazing things you do for complete strangers. IWell, at least we were strangers till you wrote me. You know, I'll bet you are the kind of person who doesn't want to take credit for your actions, but that's because I know you have my best interest at heart. Oh, trust me, that will change if I have anything to say about it. Don't worry, of course I'll keep this quiet until we have the money safely tucked away, but then I will want to tell the world about your wonderful, generous character. You mustn't hope to hide all that light under a bushel!

Oh yes, and the last thing--my father's name was Miehtigh Koehn Dubov (I think that's why everyone knew him as M.K.:)

Take care,


Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

I am going to be a millionaire! An eight-millionaire to be exact!

Now, before you start sending in your funding requests, keep in mind that I haven't actually collected the money yet, but I expect to, very soon. It's just a matter of completing the paperwork. Here's what happened.

Yesterday I received a letter in the mail from a Mr. Dawson, who is an account manager with a large investment banking firm in Hong Kong. He informed me that recently a relative of mine named M.K. Dubov had passed away in Hong Kong, leaving behind a sum of sixteen million, five hundred thousand US dollars in a bank account under his supervision . Being a man of integrity and possessed of a desire to help me and my family, he has offered to split the inheritance with us in exchange for our help in extracting the funds.

You see, even though I don't have a realtive named M.K. Dubov that I know of, Mr. Dawson has cleverly deduced that the account will in fact go to the first heir to claim it, and as M.K. left no other relatives, that 'heir' could in fact be me! I'll need Mr. Dawson's expert assistance in claiming the money because he has extensive knowledge of the company banking system and the laws regarding the transfer of large sums out of the country, so I think it's worth the half of the sixteen million. In fact, I even offered to give him the extra five hundred thousand just as a finder's fee. Heck, with eight million in the bank, what will I do with a few extra hundred thousand bucks?

Yes, that's right, I did write him back. I know, I've heard that if an offer sounds too good to be true, it probably is, but in this case, what have I got to lose? I figured that even if he doesn't deliver the entire eight million, I'm going to get a at least a million or two, right? That's more than enough to get us out of debt and provide a security blanket, so to speak, for the upcoming recession/depression.

Now, I had to fib a bit to get his attention and to make sure he would give me the money as promised, so when he told me that I shouldn't tell anyone, I said I was keeping it hush-hush, even though I always intended to tell you, dear Reader, about it so you could share in my great good fortune! I also told a little white lie about needing money for a fax machine, (I could use the one at work) but if he's really got his finger in that sixteen million dollar honey pot, I figure he can send me just a bit to prove it's real. Clever idea, huh?

So, here is what I wrote to him. I created a fake email address that goes to "John Smith" but since he already knows my name and address, I went ahead and signed it like I always do: Take care, Phillip.

My letter to Mr. Dawson:

Dear Mr. Dawson,

I received your wonderful letter and offer today in the mail and want to write and thank you.

Although your generosity and concern for my welfare greatly warms my heart and fills me with enthusiasm and hope, it is not simply the prospect of financial security and freedom that has me so excited. It is, rather, the fact that you've filled a very important gap in my life and the life of my family.

You see, Mr. M. K. Dubov was my father! At first, I couldn't believe it, but as I read your wonderfully detailed letter, I realized that this was indeed the man who left my me, my mother and my seven siblings just over twenty years ago. Although we didn't know where he'd gone--he said he was going out for a pack of cigarettes--we knew that as an investment banker, he had likely gone off to the Far East to start a new life. After all, he'd made frequent trips to Hong Kong and China in the years running up to his disappearance, so it makes sense that that's where he moved after leaving us.

The sad thing is that my mother died, in abject poverty, last year, still not knowing the whereabouts of my father, M.K. (as he was known) or how we children would fare without any money after she died. We spent the two thousand dollars of her insurance money on the funeral, so she had a nice coffin and good headstone, but alas I still have no money to support myself or my siblings.

Then your letter arrived. Hallelujah! I don't know if you are a religious man, Mr. Dawson, but even if you are not, I think you can appreciate how grateful we are to the Lord for delivering you and your wonderful message of hope to me and my brothers and sisters. Just thinking of what we will do with the eight million dollars makes me all warm and happy already, and we haven't even received a cent! Imagine our joy the day the check arrives.

Now, about that check. I know there are some legal hassles we'll have to go through to get the money, but as you said in your letter, that will be your job. You are so amazing! I don't know how you will do it, but I think that since you are doing so much for us, you can keep the extra two hundred fifty thousand dollars and just give us the eight million. After all, it's the least I can do for such a good friend!

I realize also that you are taking a big chance with your company to do this for us, so I have been very careful not to tell anyone about the letter--though I know everyone would be thrilled to discover that Dad had left us so much money--and will keep it under my hat, so to speak, till we have completed the transaction. Imagine the surprise on their faces! You must enjoy your job very much, bringing so much happiness to us, thank you!

Now, I don not have a fax machine yet, but I will go buy one. The only thing is, right now, I don't have any money, so I was thinking maybe you could advance me some of the eight million in order to buy the fax machine. They cost about two hundred dollars, but I have some other expenses right away so if you could send five hundred dollars, that would be great! Of course, you will deduct it from the final amount, and I think you should take a little extra for yourself while you are at it. The question is, how do you want to send it to me? I can give you my address to send the check, but I was thinking that a wire transfer might be faster. I can go to Western Union downtown on my bike to pick it up as soon as you give me the word. Then, I'll go buy the fax and we can get to work! This will be so exciting!

Ok, I have to go now, but I look forward to hearing from you very soon.

Migraine Man

I had another migraine yesterday.

Last week I had four. Since yesterday was only Monday, it isn't looking good for this week either. Fortunately I have a 'magic' nasal spray--a prescription medicine--that literally cures the headache in about twenty minutes, but they cost five dollars apiece and I have to wait two days for the prescription to be filled every time I run out, so I am hesitant to use them unless absolutely necessary.

To understand what that means, you might have to be a migraine sufferer already. If there is a greater type of pain, I don't know about it, and even though I haven't--and won't thank goodness--have the opportunity to experience childbirth without benefit of an epidural, I can seriously challenge any woman who might think otherwise. Lucky for me, there are plenty of women who've felt both types of pain and they--we--all agree: head hurts most.

Hmmm, most, what does that mean? Well, when you go to the emergency room is some sort of pain--never happened to you? You may quit reading here and go back to heaven.--the doctor will ask you, "How bad,-- a scale from one to ten, where one is no pain at all and ten is the worst pain you've ever felt,--is it? The migraine slides in at a twelve to fifteen. It's so bad that I can't stand up, look at the light, hear a sound, or even drink a sip of cool, cool water because I will throw it up. I might as well drink because I throw up anyway, every ten to twenty minutes, sometimes for hours--as in three to six. If I go more than eight hours I have to go to the emergency room. I've done this twice. That's where they ask you about the pain number and in between heaves, I tell them what they already know: thirteeen.

Having established that the migraine is the worst pain I've ever felt and hope to feel, in all honesty, I will say how happy I am that the magic spray exists, for it has changed my life. This is a claim often made in hyperbole, but here I can safely say that my life is changed--for the better, obviously--by the drug, despite the expense and hassle of getting it and keeping it 'in stock'.

What's been disturbing lately has been the frequency and 'grade' of my headaches. They have become much more frequent, while at the same time becoming less 'violent' or of a lower 'grade'. 

Traditionally I get a migraine in the early hours of the morning, like around four or five. I wake up around six with the beginnings of a headache and if I don't do something then, I'll have a full blown, raging, puking, desperate day. Doing 'something' used to mean eating 2000 miligrams of Tylenol then going back to bed till ten or eleven, but even if I staved off the full blown attack, it still meant staying home from work and staying in bed and close to the bathroom. Still, being semi-disabled was better than the whole nine yards. Often, though, this didn't work, and it was only the introduction of the magic spray that enabled me to actually treat the headache and still go to work an hour later.

Now, however, I find that after I wake up with the headache, it is not so severe as to warrant using spray and the 2000 milligrams of Tylenol manages to keep it from blossoming but does not eliminate it.  So I can function, and even if I am uncomfortable I am not debilitated.

So, despite the discomfort, I am able to get up and go to work, and this past week that has been the pattern.  There are so many triggers for my migraines that it is hard to pin a single one down, but certainly this latest series is linked to the weather and the changes in it this past week. All migraine sufferers know that the weather--especially rain--is a big factor.   It has been unusually dry here in Austin for the past ten months to a year, so I am especially sensitive when we have approaching rain.  Alas, that's all that the rain has done here in Central Texas--it approaches but never arrives--so I've been cursed with a balloon head without being blessed by water falling from the sky.

I shouldn't be complaining since I am no longer a complete prisoner of my head, but I do wish I could get through a single week without dealing with it.  That's not too much to ask, is it?

Monday, March 23, 2009

On Being a Journalist

I consider myself to be a journalist.

By this I mean that I have a habit of writing something on a regular, almost daily basis. Keeping a journal is something many people do, yet they don't necessarily consider themselves to be journalists. In the strictest sense , the term 'journalist' describes someone who writes a journal, but the definition has been narrowed to describe someone who writes for--and is, therefore employed by--a printed publication, like a newspaper or a magazine.

Everyone knows that the digital age has blurred the boundaries between the professional 'journalist' and the 'e-writer' or blogger, but with increasing rapacity, the professional writer is being overtaken and devoured by hordes of repressed journalists eager for access to the world of publication --even if those words never get printed on paper.

This change is more than a redefinition of the term 'journalist'; it is the opening of the inner temple and casting out of the personality cult that professional journalism has become. With the green curtain pulled aside, we habitual writers can push the little man aside and fiddle with the controls ourselves.

Of course this situation is decried and derided by the priesthood. It is supposedly a sad day every time another newspaper goes broke or just online, but I suppose it was a sad day when another buggy whip or punch card or pda maker went belly up in the past. We lament the loss of the past but neglect to appreciate the gain in the present.

Well I, for one, have gained something. I can be--I am--a journalist. In high school, I was co-editor of the newspaper and consequently drew up plans to become a newspaper journalist. Fortunately, sometimes the best laid plans never come to pass.

I believe that I am a writer today explicitly because I did not pursue a career as a newspaper journalist. Now, I will not claim that I did not fulfill this ambition because I was unable to break into the secret society of print journalists. What I will say is that it was obvious to me immediately that my ambition was going to be a serious challenge--as in, not what but who you know--to get a job as a serious journalist.

In addition, the pay and working environment were--as in low and lousy--as undesirable as the serious jobs were unattainable. I soon learned that I could--and, of course, did--make a lot more as a waiter than I would have made working my way up to reporter by writing 'classifieds' and 'obits'. Curiously, the former job, despite the fact that it made money, was never considered serious by my Mother, but the latter job would have been acceptable even had I been perpetually broke. Oh wait, I was anyway...

Well, in the end, my skills as a waiter were indeed more lucrative than my lead and copy skills would be if I'd had a mind to try and live off them. But I don't, thank goodness. I have my 'real' jobs for that.

Fortunately, my desire to write is undiminished as the opportunity to write opens up before me. That opportunity, it seems, has been exponentially increased thanks to the very revolution that has left so many former journalists looking for work as waiters.

Suffice it to say, I rather be a waiter becoming a journalist than the other way round.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Fight Club

When I saw this item on the news wire this morning, I was amazed but not surprised.

I was amazed because I thought this sort of thing didn't happen any more. Then I thought about it for a moment, and I was not surprised because I know from experience that this sort of thing has been going on--at least here in Texas--since I was in high school.

In fact, I've been to several of these cage matches when I was attending junior high school in San Antonio. It's no excuse for the behavior, but there is a social context for it which bears some explanation. We lived in a very poor part of town and the school was, to say the least, a tough one.

Personally I never had a problem, but this is where I learned to keep my head down and stay out of the line of fire, so to speak. I passed quickly through the crowds in the parking lot on my way in and knew where to hang--or, more importantly, where not to hang--out during lunch. Gangs were a known quantity, not threatening but present. Conflicts were infrequent but unavoidable, and when a fight broke out during P.E. the coaches would 'settle it' with a cage match.

The first time this happened, I was appalled but, in a sort of typical male adolescent way, intrigued by the idea of seeing two thugs--whom I likely didn't like anyway--pound on each other, especially because they were not beating on me. So, after separating the two combatants on the dusty field, the coaches dragged them into the clubhouse and lined the rest of us up at the door for admittance to the spectacle. I lined up with everyone else. At first, I was uncertain as to why we had to line up and go in to the clubhouse one at a time, but as I got closer to the door I saw the reason.

The coaches were charging 'admission' to the fight of one 'lick' with the 'board of education'. Now, for those unfamiliar with it, this thing is a two and a half foot long 'paddle' that resembles nothing so much as a cricket bat with holes drilled into it to reduce the air resistance as it descends upon the ass of it's victim. The purpose of this 'tool' was ostensibly to enforce discipline, but in fact, no one that ever took a lick as punishment ever really minded it, while those of us who were mortified at the thought of being beaten with a bat would never place ourselves in harms way, so to speak, in the first place. I never did. That is, until that day.

Standing in line, watching the rest of the guys bend over and grab their ankles while the coach swatted their asses with the board, I was overcome with disgust and anxiety. It's not like the thought of being smacked with a wooden plank was so terrifying that I could not handle it, but the whole situation resembled nothing so much as a prison movie and as such had a surreal quality to it that I have never forgotten. I took the lick that day, and watched the fight with a still sore ass from on top of the lockers. Though they were given gloves, they two boys beat each other down pretty good. Both had bloody noses at the end. I wonder how they explained that to their parents, but then again, this was the sixties in Texas.

The next time a fight broke out, I set myself up for humiliation but comfort by refusing to take the lick and therefore entrance to the fight. Apparently no one had ever done this before, so at first, the coaches didn't know what to do with me. Eventually they settled on making me run laps around the track and sit in the bleachers while the rest of the class took their licks and presumably enjoyed the fight. In spite of the ridicule heaped upon me by my classmates at the end of class, I figured I'd made out alright.

After all, my intent then and there, as at other times and in other places in my life, was to avoid violence, whether given or received.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Bonuses, Contracts and Life. Oh My!

The current 'scandal' surrounding the multi-million dollar 'Retention Bonuses' paid to executives of the recently bailed-out insurance 'giant' AIG has drawn my attention not so much because it is the number one topic in the news for the past two days, but because it raises some interesting questions about ethics, obligations and the role of a contract in a relationship.

First of all, I think that the issue suffers from some tangible difficulties with semantics. The very name of these payments seems designed to inflame and anger everyone except those who actually received them. By calling them "bonuses" rather than simply "payments" implies that they were extra, over and beyond the actual compensation that these individuals received. Thus, when we discover that the compensation may not have been "deserved" because of the failure of the individuals to live up to their fiduciary "end of the bargain" hearing those payments described as "bonuses" only serves to infuriate us. After all, aren't bonuses supposed to be an incentive for good performance? Even if they had been called the more neutral and potentially accurate term, "payments" the fundamental issue of competence--or the lack of it--is still inescapable. Whom are we rewarding, and for what? hat if there had been penalties for poor performance instead? I'm thinking of a good flogging, but that's not the point of this essay.

The other word that gets in the way, though less so in the media because it is deliberately obfuscatory and therefore hard to understand is "retention". This is as in "to retain" the 'valuable' services of the individuals who are making the bonuses. This is presumably because in spite of these guys' talent, the company is still failing! In order to keep the rats from jumping ship before it crashes onto the rocks, other individuals--who are ironically receiving the very same retention incentives themselves--have asked the hard working but unlucky losers to stay on and 'almost' go down with the ship.

I have to say 'almost' because in fact many of these highly talented and therefore sought after executives actually bailed after being bailed out. That is, many simply left in spite of being paid hundreds of thousands--in some cases, millions-of dollars to stay. So much for incentives.

Aside from the semantic difficulties posed by the AIG 'bonuses', there are some real-world issues that are raised by this backward state of affairs, not the least of which has to do with the very nature of contracts, why we write them, sign them and how we break them.

Quite simply, contracts are written to be broken.

In this brief essay I will not have time to comment on the law surrounding contracts, but in fact it isn't time or space that constrains me on the topic but ignorance. I really know nothing of contract law, and have to cede to 'authorities' who say that contracts form the basis of our civilized society. What I will not concede to these same authorities is the notion that failing to live up to a contract--any contract--amounts to the disintegration of the laws underpinning society itself. The claim made all too frequently is that abandoning even a single contract sets a 'dangerous precedent' that will undermine all other contracts, past present and future.

This is just too dramatic a claim to be supported. Even if breaking a contract does seem, on the surface, to be at the very least unfair to one or more party in the contract, in fact, this is the very condition anticipated by the document and is one of the principal reason it would have been drawn up in the first place.

A principle element to the concept of a contractual obligation is the underlying assumption that one or more clauses in it will not in fact be honored. The expectation is that the contract will be broken. It isn't a case of if the contract will be broken; it's just a matter of when and how. It is why we draw them up and why we spend so much time in court resolving them. It's why there is whole section of the law devoted to it.

Consider another contractual obligation which is supposed to be sacred, so important that we not only sign a document, but enter into an oath with God and those around us to honor that contract. I am talking about marriage. Of course, more than half of all marriages end in divorce, so where is the sanctity of the marriage contract? It isn't on the paper or in the words, for the paper can be destroyed and the words, well, that's just a semantic challenge, avoided with such terms as "irreconcilable differences" or "unnecessary hardship." In other words, despite it's sanctity and it's importance to the moral structure of society, the marriage contract is not inviolate. It can be, often is, broken.

So too can the financial obligations 'we' taxpayers have to the shady and incompetent money managers at AIG (and the others like them) be broken. So sad, too bad. The walls of society will not come crumbling down as a result. The failure of say, General Motors (and there are other companies like this) to pay their rank-and-file workers the pensions and insurance that was in those workers'labor contract while they worked is a far greater failure--ethically and in human terms--of our legal and financial systems. In the end, the failure of these large companies to honor the obligations to pay their employees fairly is far more likely to engender the breakdown of societal fabric so publicly feared these days.

After all, it is the protectors of these outrageously undeserved payments to the white collar criminals who got us all into this mess in the first place. No wonder they are claiming that the sky is falling.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Joy of Coding

I love to write code.

Funny, saying that, for though I am thinking of 'current' code, like html, css and php, but the feeling goes a long way back into my childhood. I can recall 'inventing' a code by mixing up the letters in the alphabet when I was about six or seven. I painstakingly transcribed the code onto s series of index cards, then wrote two or three 'encrypted' messages to my dad before I realized how much effort it required for even the simplest of notes. Then, too, I had no information that required a secret transfer, though I don't think this would have been too serious an impediment given my imagination.

I first discovered useful code--and I never did count Morse Code in this category, nor did I ever learn it, Cub Scouts notwithstanding--as a senior in high school when I took what was a the time a very nerdy and rudimentary introduction to computer programming. Programmers and coders today are fond of recalling the 'old days' when they first started, engaging in a sort of one-upmanship game like that game called the "Dozens"...you know, where you say: 'yo mama is so ____'. Alas, I am no different, but I do think that it's more than a bragging game because it does give a sense of how far we--as individual coders and as a society of the same--have come since we started. It's like looking back at the trail you've just walked; a satisfying if not terribly useful exercise.

At the risk of sounding like one of those grumpy old men who claim to have walked ten miles to school uphill in the snow both ways, I did start out programming at what today seems like the most primitive level possible: punch cards.

Odd it is to think that some people actually managed to eke out a career as a 'punch card operator' even though such a career had a very narrow window in the sixties and seventies and is now gone the way, literally, of the buggy whip. Not only do we no longer use punch cards, no one but a historian could be expected to even know why. Goodness knows it was a very crude method for say, adding and averaging a set of integers, often requiring a set of several dozen--up to several hundred--carefully punched and even more carefully stacked paper cards. Get one card out of order and the 'program' no longer works. Drop that stack of cards on the floor and, well, just start over.

I went from punch cards to FORTRAN and BASIC in college, writing a 'Star Trek' program for my semester project that 'ran' on computer the size of a refrigerator with an 'interface' that was nothing more than a teletype machine. After that, I had no use for the 'skills' gained from that grand experiment, and my code brain went dormant.

I might have thought my desire to code was dead, but the day that someone mentioned that "html might be what you are looking for" in response to my query about how to build a BBS (Bulletin Board Systems: precursors to websites) was definitely a turning point for me, even though it was another three years before I was actually introduced to html and the www.

I like elegant code, like poetry and cuisine. To me elegance is a function of simplicity. Simple code is the most beautiful because like poetry or food, it gathers strength of meaning from all things necessary and nothing that is not.

To code well, beauty must be the muse of the present and skill the servant of the unseen eye of the future. Any good craftsman knows he will be eventually be judged by the eye of future just as he has judged the work of the past.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Working for Tips

It is safe to say that Franco and I got along very well, right from the very first. As I consider this after not having seen him now for so many years I wonder how is that we have lost touch, but 'there it is' as he would say.

I broke the ice by asking him, shortly after he came down to interview me, if his father was the owner. This might have been annoying to him if it had not been so innocent. After all, Franco was only twenty-six or eight at the time, and he knew that his ownership of a restaurant at such a young age was a mark of considerable success.

As I said, he was an entrepreneur in what was then for all intents and purposes, a socialist country. This more than any thing else attracted him to me, for he saw in me the prototypical 'Yank', full of optimism and desire to work. In one regard he was correct, for I have, since the age of nine, been ready and willing to work. My first job was at fourteen and I've rarely had a period longer than six months of unemployment in the years since.

Getting work in England, however, was hard, as I've said, so I was indeed anxious to work, and my energy and willingness had more to do with my youth and my lack of money than my citizenship. Nonetheless, it suited Franco to think he had in me a potential protege, for at the time he had little hope for the future of his business if he had to rely solely on family as he had in the past.

I have not yet mentioned, though it might be obvious from the name, that this was an Italian restaurant and therefore, an Italian family. To say that they were a 'tight-knit' family is to employ a cliche that in this case has considerable merit, for the workers at Sorrentino's were Franco, his Mother (whom we called, quite naturally, Mama) who was the 'chef', his sister Anna, who was the 'sous-chef', his cousin Maria, who did the 'washing-up' and his younger brother Tony, who was ostensibly the waiter.

I say ostensibly for a reason; he was having serious difficulties with the job about the time I showed up, which turned out to be a blessing for me. For the first time since Franco had started serving Vitello Sorrentino from a roadside (lay-by) trailer (caravan) on the highway (motorway) outside Bedford, he was considering hiring someone from outside the family. Me.

All of the above was of course unknown to me when I entered the restaurant to apply for a job. Had it been, I might not have had the courage to apply, but youth and ignorance will get you a long way, I've come to find out, and in this case, my naivete paid off.

For starters, asking Franco when I could meet the owner was amusing to him, and the fact that I came with an unusual offer gave me his ear for the critical few minutes I needed to get hired. Oh, and it didn't hurt that Franco was really pissed off at his younger brother Tony that day. The prospect of having a waiter--any waiter--that would actually come to work was likely the most appealing aspect of my offer that day.

I knew going in that it was illegal for anyone to hire me. I knew also that I had no real experience as a waiter. The only advantage I felt I could offer therefore, was to work 'under the table' and for tips rather than a salary, which is how waiters are paid in the UK and Europe in general. I reasoned that since Sorrentino's was obviously a very busy and popular restaurant, they could use the help.

Being a small family owned business, I figured that they might be likely to hire a Yank to work if it didn't cost them anything, so I proposed to Franco that instead of paying me a weekly salary--as he did his brother--he could just pay me the difference between the salary and what I made in tips--above and beyond the ten percent that was automatically added to every check.

Franco thought this was a novel idea, but that it wouldn't work. I countered by saying that Brits just hadn't had the opportunity to get good service, and that if they knew that they were paying for my service directly, as opposed to creating a slush fund for the owner from which he is supposed to pay his workers, they would not only do it, but they would pay me more than a mere ten percent. I predicted I'd earn at least fifteen, if not twenty percent. This was in 1975, remember, when the 'standard' in the US was fifteen percent. So, I bluffed a bit, and Franco called me on it.

When can you start?

It's not the first time I've bluffed a bit when applying for a job, but I certainly say that it was the first time that it worked. No doubt Franco knew well that I was inexperienced, but he was intrigued enough by my offer and what he perceived to be my brash 'American spirit' to overlook my shortcomings. This was a good thing, of course, mostly because it kept me in a job even after I'd broken a few dozen wine glasses during a wedding party on my first day.

Franco's interest in my 'American-ness' extended beyond my skills and ambitions as a waiter, however. He and I spent a great deal of time talking about the differences between the American and British cultures. Being an Italian in England made him feel a kinship, I think, with the American ideal; as an expatriate, he just never felt comfortable with his adopted culture and would have, if given the choice back then, have emigrated to the US to give the same dreams and ambitions he felt were being suppressed in the semi-socialist British environment a good and proper chance.

As it was, he was quite successful in the UK. He opened a second restaurant while I worked for him, and even though he eventually visited me in the US many years later, it was just not in the cards for him to become an American. Nor was it in the cards for me to become a partner in Franco's business, though we often talked of it. Because I ended up going to to the American College in Paris in the fall of 1975, I only worked for Franco for about six months.

During that time I became a much better waiter, and Franco and I became good friends. I often went over to his house for dinner and when Valery and I were married in 1985 and took our honeymoon in Europe, one of our first stops was at Franco's house, where we had dinner with he and his wife Anne and their two daughters. Just young girls then, they must be by now beautiful women with families of their own.

And the experiment with the tips? Well, it worked out in my favor. I had to be careful about talking too much to my tables, for once my American accent was detected, I had to have a plausible explanation as to why I was working in a British restaurant. Not everyone resembled an immigration officer, though, and to some folks I could be honest about my origins and the deal I had made with Franco. Knowing this, customers often gave at least a twenty percent tip because they knew the money was going directly in my pocket. They were happy to pay for my service, and I am happy to say that the service they received was not simply better than they would have gotten from Tony, but better than the service they'd received in any restaurant, anywhere.

I'm not saying that my success at Sorrentino's was due to my remarkable, sunny disposition, but I do believe that is was a function of treating people with respect and courtesy while serving them. People like this and will pay for it.

Furthermore, I conclude that people who aren't willing to pay for good service perhaps haven't really had it. I'm just sayin...

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Waiting Tables in England

I have to admit, dear reader, that I was rather snarky in my previous entry about the Mechanics of Tipping, and that this fact--as much as my convoluted prose--detracted from the message.

In fairness, my very best restaurant experiences were in Europe, though not in the UK, ever. And, though I can recall most if not all of them, these marvelous French, Italian, Vietnamese, Chinese and Greek meals, their accompanying service and the charming restaurants in which I had the great pleasure of dining were not the intentional subject of my petty diatribe. Alas, the collateral damage the from the tone of my explosive charge has rendered my original argument less effective than I’d hoped but I will nonetheless press on.

In spite of the deliberately irritated (and irritating) tone of my retort, I intended only to suggest that the relatively few superlative experiences notwithstanding, many if not most of my encounters with service in Europe and the UK were not only unsatisfactory but were often unpleasant, made so by a waiter either burned out or prejudiced against Americans. While the French have a somewhat deserved reputation for being, shall we say, short? with their patrons, they do not have a lock on the behavior. Not surprisingly, I had my share of rude waiters in every country, and the the UK easily tops the list.

Note that this is not to say that all my experiences were bad, just that enough to make me wonder why service in the US, even with all of its superficiality and false friendliness is so often better. This is in spite of the fact that in Europe, the waiter is considered to be a professional. Sadly, though, this makes sense. Like a doctor or lawyer, the waiter feels comfortable treating his customers with impunity because he knows they have no recourse. Don't like the service? Don't complain. It won't get you anything but worse service.

Rather than continue to bellow and complain in the manner of my most boorish customers, I will refrain from more insults but illustrate my point by relating a real story, for I have actually worked as a waiter in a restaurant in the UK. Though it has been a long time ago, I know whereof I speak, and can prove it here if you believe what I relate.

The year was 1975 and I was living with my parents and brother in Bedford, England. Lynda had taken a job selling insurance to American GIs on the Air Force bases in a region that is known in England as the Midlands. Circumstances--to be explained in another entry--had brought me to "back home" to live for a while before I went to college, and it wasn't long before I knew I had to have a job in order to maintain some independence and dignity.

The only skill I had at the time was welding, which I'd learned in the job just prior to moving to England, and this wasn't something I wanted to pursue. What I did want to do was work in a restaurant. I'd already gotten the bug, so to speak, when I worked as a busboy at the Barn in High School, but I really didn't have any experience waiting tables at the time. This didn't deter me, as I knew that I could do it. It was just a matter of convincing someone to hire me.

In England, this was not--still isn't--an easy, or, for that matter, legal thing to do. Labor laws are tight today but they were tight even back then. Hiring an undocumented worker--dare I say alien?--would have had serious consequences for the employer. No one could imagine hiring an American because we--yes, even I--stuck out like such sore thumbs that we could never effectively pass for a Brit. One word, especially 'tomato' or the like, would blow our cover, and there'd be no going back after that.

This meant that I could work in the kitchen, and I did, at first. I got a job on the overnight shift at the Golden Egg, a fast-omlette and chips (french fries) place that served more grease than actual food. We did virtually no business during the night, so three of us sat around and played cards. At first, I couldn't understand anything the others were saying, but after a month or so, I picked it up.

After a month or so of working nights and I was burned out, so to speak. I quit and went to work for a vending machine delivery driver on one of the American bases, Chicksands. This was about as boring as it sounds. I couldn't stand listening to the driver talk endlessly about the minutia of his life--for example, he expounded daily about the benefits he accrued from buying toilet paper, mayonnaise and peanut butter (American staples all) on the base, in bulk-- so I began to search, eagerly, for another job.

As it happens, my parents had already discovered the restaurant where I ended up working. Called Sorrentino's after the owner, it was a tiny little two-story affair tucked into a corner of a little "mall" (an open space with shops around) just off the High Street in Bedford. It was a superb Italian restaurant with a cozy feel and food that tasted like it came from Italy. The 'Vitello Sorrentino' was a delightful dish of cubed veal sauteed with marsala and cream and mushrooms; the invention of the owner, Franco Sorrentino.

The day I met Franco was the day he hired me. I went to the restaurant in the morning, around ten, as I recall. Inside it was warm and and delicious smelling already. A woman with two small girls was seated at one table near the kitchen and a large Italian woman was standing over them apparently yelling at them to eat, eat! When I told them that I'd come to apply for a job, they told me I needed to see the Franco and they sent someone to fetch him from upstairs.

When he came down, I thought he was the owner's son, because he looked so young. I don't recall how I began, but it was awkwardly, as I asked him who he was. To his eternal credit, Franco took this as a compliment and smiled. I told him I was looking for a job, and again, to his credit, he didn't reject me out of hand, but asked me to sit down and tell him why I wanted to work for him.

I explained that I wanted to be a waiter, and I'd chosen his restaurant because I'd eaten there and loved it. This sentiment appealed to him but he told me that it didn't work the same way it did in the States, that waiters here didn't get tips the way they did over there. Franco was clearly interested in America and I was a perfect person to tell him about it, so we talked for what must have been an hour or more about the differences in our two countries, especially about what he saw as the American spirit of entrepreneurship. As a small business owner, he'd had so many difficulties with the government that he imagined he would not have had to endure had he been in the US.

To be continued....

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Mechanics of Tipping

I've just read an article from the BBC web about the "Mechanics of Tipping, American Style" which has me so charged up, so to speak, that I just can't refrain from responding.

Alas, there was no comment section as there often is at the bottom of BBC news stories because, I guess, this was a 'commentary' not 'news' and as such the content isn't supposed to be subjected to the scrutiny afforded facts. This makes sense, since much of what the correspondent writes is opinion which has at it's root many cliches and shopworn conventions, not just about tipping, but about the service for which it is supposed to pay.

At the heart of his essay is this premise: "...to me there is something un-American at the heart of the whole idea of tipping." What makes this laughable and worth the effort to refute is the fact that our correspondent is not only English, but proudly so, and the point of his essay is to prove that as a semi-detached 'European' he is both amused and appalled at the "moment of awkwardness" that sums up his experience of tipping in the U.S.

What is in some way frustrating to me about this is the fact that I am not convinced that the American style of tipping--that is, withholding payment for service rendered until satisfied--is all that "American" in practice either. Having experienced both the European style of service and tipping, I can say that the former is seldom better than the American style in speed, efficiency or courtesy (especially) and that the latter is just a cruel joke.

I can understand the writer's confusion about why he is might be expected to tip on an expensive bottle of wine that takes no more "effort or skill to serve" than a cheap one. Applying this logic, he might well conclude it's not worth eating out at all, since the food you eat could be purchased more cheaply at the supermarket, after all. His sense of appreciation for services rendered may be so low simply because he's never given any thought to how that food or bottle of wine got there and why they go so well together. Of course, being British, he's more likely to enjoy a five dollar cabernet--or is it warm beer?--with a packet of 'crisps' on the curb outside a convenience store than he is a nice bottle of wine served by a professional, in a clean glass, on a linen tablecloth, with fresh flowers for the eye and accompanied by good food.

What I cannot understand is the writer's notion that knowing that the waiter or waitress is dependent on us for their income makes the transaction some sort of robbery. Indeed, we pay a doctor and do not tip him or her, thankfully. But, we pay the doctor before we go in, first of all. And, even though you don't think you are giving him a "tip", consider that fact that from your "fee' and the hundreds of others he's collecting that day and the next, he's living in a house that is twice the size of yours, and the reason he's off next Wednesday afternoon while you are at work is because he's out playing golf on a private course with your money. There are no waiters on that course, believe me.

Yes, indeed, it would be a good world where the waiters and waitresses who don't just take your order, but also listen to your lame jokes, watch you as make a fool of yourself in front of your friends and/or family, and clean up you and your children's mess when you finally stumble out, get paid the same as the doctor who greets you coldly thirty minutes after you've been asked to strip down to your underwear and "wait right here". Or would it? Wouldn't you rather; don't you prefer, to be served?

Sure the American waiter greets you with potentially false enthusiasm and a lot of adjectives meant to enhance your experience as well as their tip, but would you really prefer to have your meal simply dropped on the table in front of you with no explanation or concern that your order is right? If you are British, apparently, you would, for that is the norm for service in the U.K.. Of course, this is where there is no expectation for actual taste in the food either. You get what you pay for.

I agree that it can indeed be a shameful experience watching a young waiter grovel for a few extra cents on your check, but it can be a downright frustrating experience having a waiter ignore you with impunity. However, if you are British, apparently you don't worry about the fact that you've just spent more on a meal than the waiter will earn in a day, since you consider payment for service to be "a kind of a private, self-imposed wealth tax, rather than a tip".

I won't go into the European economic caste system here, but consider the fact that a waiter in Europe has no expectation of doing anything but the absolute minimum required to serve your food. While he certainly will not be an aspiring actor bubbling over with false enthusiasm, more likely, your server will be a tired and burned out old man who could not care less about your experience and/or satisfaction. You will get what you pay for.

I will end this little rant by observing that I have had the displeasure of waiting on the correspondent in question. While I do believe that he gave me a wonderful lesson on American economic theory by leaving me just a little less than ten dollars for two hours of work, it's clear that I'd be better off waiting on Americans in Europe than the other way round.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

On the Use of Money

Since coming back from culinary school, Madelaine has been looking for work, but of course this may be, historically speaking, the worst time to be unemployed in at least two generations, if not more.

As I watch people lose their common sense along with their money, I can hear Lynda intoning softly, "I told you so" in the back of my mind. As a child of The Great Depression, she not only related (often) tales of the difficulties that even good, honest and willing-to-work individuals faced, but she, like so many of her generation, believed that such conditions could return--would return--because the whole economy, contrary to our belief that is based on solid principles and safe practices (thanks, in fact, to the Great Depression), is actually based on nothing more than peoples' collective consciousnesses. As such, the 'economy' is nothing more than a flimsy fiction that can be rent asunder by the slightest breeze of doubt and or the vagaries of the market.

So, she spent her life being cautious, saving money, saving paper towels, saving the soap from hotels and the sugar packets from cafeterias. She was careful about every dime. No, make that every penny, and never once did she feel secure, as if she had enough to weather the inevitable downturn. This was difficult for me to understand and, quite honestly, it drove me a bit crazy from time to time. Lynda and I could disagree about many things--art, religion, philosophy--but we fought about one thing only: money. The disagreement was so fundamental that, in spite of reaching a comfortable compromise when she came to Austin to live near us, we still sparred from time to time about the value and use of money, both in her life as well as ours.

Quite simply it came down to a difference in the perception of what money actually was to each of us, or, to be more precise, what it was to be used for and how often. Because of her conditioning during the bleak years of her childhood and early adulthood, Lynda was deeply inclined to save as much money as she could, in every way she could. But, because she was by nature a generous and caring woman, she also wanted to use her money to satisfy and make her family--specifically my father, Bill--happy. The contradiction between her innate desire to be generous and her conditioned response to money led to some considerable misunderstandings between my parents, and, even, me as I got older and, not surprisingly, to some rather unpleasant arguments and feelings of guilt all round.

On the other hand, in spite of Lynda's obvious inclination toward saving, I felt more inclined to emulate her desire to be generous, and use money as a means rather than an end. Consequently and ironically, I thus grew to adopt the notion that money was put here for us to spend, and that while we should be careful and certainly not spend more than we have, the basic role that money played in our lives was to improve them and make them more enjoyable.

Certainly, this is how I felt that Lynda was, in reality, using her money, though the inescapable conflict that she was undergoing made it seem often as if she was loathe to spend any of it, especially on herself. Indeed, she was loathe to spend it, but spend it she did. In a testament to her character and love for her family, her resolution to her internal conflict about the role of money was a good one for us, even if it did torment her. The fact of the matter was that she spent whatever money came her way on her family. It was as simple as a bag of groceries, she would often say.

She was frugal, yes, but she rarely denied us anything, and never anything that we needed, only those things we thought we wanted. Never did she let us go without good, fresh food or clean sheets or clothes. We were taught to restrain our urge to buy things we knew we didn't really need, and a result I have discovered that there are many things that I think I want and therefore somehow need, but eventually, there are only a few things that I really need or want, and there are even fewer that I actually need.

It's not just that I am older and wiser now, or even that as the economy gets worse I have less money, but I have way too many things in my life already, and spending money to get more makes less and less sense with each day and each purchase that fills the trash can with plastic and another drawer or counter top with something in or on it. I guess that eventually, we reache the point where, even if there is enough money to buy another thing, we simply no longer want it.

Quite simply, it's common sense. Money loses it's importance as we get older, and the things we own become far less precious than the moments we have left.

Monday, March 2, 2009

My Mistake at Moissac

In her most interesting and challenging book, On Beauty and Being Just, author Elaine Scarry asks her readers to contemplate a mistake they have made about beauty. This is mine.

What sort of mistake is this? Whether it be seeing something one thought was beautiful and now no longer finds so, or realizing that something was beautiful when one didn't think it was beautiful before, this mistake is not something most of us would ever think about, since it would seem to pass so fleetingly as not to be noticed. Nor would it be something to be noticed by thinkers other than those who have already taken up the difficult question of the nature of beauty. But for those of us who have long pondered this subject--and I count myself among them--Scarry argues that this mistake is both inevitable and key to our perceptions of what it beautiful and why.

To be sure, Scarry's question to her readers is not so specific as I've just cast it. She asks the much more general--and therefore, engaging--question: "What is an instance of an intellectual error you have made in you life?" She makes no mention of beauty here, but perhaps conditioned by the subject of the book in hand, as I naturally and immediately thought of an example of such an error, it had to do with my perceptions of beauty.

In keeping with her suggestion: "It may be helpful if, before proceeding, the reader stops and recalls--an as much detail as possible--an error he or she has made so that another instance can be placed on the page..." this short essay is an effort to record that moment and thus use it as she suggests as I seek elucidation of beauty in her dense and engaging prose.

It is in part because she was so prescient as to know that "Those who remember making such an error about beauty usually also recall the exact second when they first realized that they had made the error." The resonance I feel in reading these words is no coincidence. Scarry has hiot upon something important here.

In fact, I do recall that exact second, and it was the very second in which I began contemplating beauty; it was the beginning of a lifelong quest to understand. The real revelation was profound to me indeed: If, I reasoned, I had made this mistake, what others have I made? Will--can--learning illuminate this dark world?

My moment--my mistake--was at the Abbey Church of Moissac, located in south-central France on a cold and windy November day in 1976. We stepped out of the bus on which we'd been riding all day just as the sun was beginning to set and crowded around the elaborate carved stone portal that filled the arch over the broad double-doors to the church.

Sadly, my first thought as we arranged ourselves about the portal so as to both have a view of it and hear the words of the Professor as she lectured on the history, style and meaning of the sculpted relief we were finally gazing upon was this: "That's it?"

I didn't say this, of course, not just because I would have been embarrassed to admit my ignorance in front of my peers or worse, the Professor whom I so admired that I had changed my schedule mid-semester just to be in her--this-class, but because I really wasn't sure if I "got it." For that matter, I wasn't so sure I'd ever "get it." In my mind's eye, the scene is recalled in perfect clarity. I even have a sort of 'telescopic' vision of the very figure that I was staring at when I had the revelation, but I must first put it in some sort of context.

For one thing, I recall standing practically in the street. It didn't help that the church was undergoing renovations which left all but the very portal we had come so far to see covered with complicated scaffolding, but that wasn't why were were forced to stand on the curb and even in the street to get a good view of the 12th century carved stone portal. It seemed like the portal simply opened out onto the street. Actually, the doors opened onto a very narrow sidewalk which of course allowed access to the church, but did not offer entrants much opportunity to see the magnificent art array above their heads as they came in.

However, as students taking Art History Professor Francesca Weinmann's Introduction to Romanesque Art course, the thirty or so Americans from the American College in Paris arranged in a semi-circle about the portal that November day were likely the only ones to be interested in the portal enough to seek a good vantage point from which to see it.

This being my very first time to see a Romanesque church and even to really gaze upon the art from that period and place, I was just becoming accustomed to the way in which the very old is incorporated with the new and very new in European towns and cities. So, the sight of the important portal simply being ignored by the populace took some getting used to. Later, I realized that the art wasn't actually being ignored, it was simply being accepted as part of the ever-changing tapestry of urban life. The people who passed it by or used the Church knew it was there; they had often seen it and now simply didn't need to look at it the same way we did that day, as tourists and students of an art and a history not our own.

So, part of what I felt was surprise that, after all the buildup from class and from my fellow students and even the Professor herself during the eight hour bus ride down from Paris, the 'great' portal was neither as large nor as glorious as I'd expected it to be.

Of course, my expectations had to be tempered somewhat by the fact that I'd only just transferred into the class like a week earlier, and hadn't done any of the background reading and knew absolutely none of the terminology. Words like "lintel", "trumeau", "tympanum" and even "arch" were as foreign to me as the French I was struggling to speak outside of the safe haven of class and the American ghetto in which I lived. Naturally, this ignorance didn't keep me--much to the chagrin of my fellow classmates, who had done their reading and had studied prior to this trip--from asking plenty of predictably dumb questions.

It is to her credit--and a principal reason that I so admired her--that Professor Weinmann did not dismiss my ignorance but actually embraced it, using it as means to educate and inspire her class. At least that's what it did for me.

So, that moment came as professor Weinmann lectured almost to me directly it seemed and my eyes were locked on one of the cramped figures carved in the trumeau between the doors directly under the tympanum. It was the image of a man, carrying a book in one hand and bent over, his entire figure hunched and forced into the too-small space he'd been given inside the narrow pillar separating the two massive wooden doors.

At first, I was appalled by the 'primitive' nature of the carving. It seemed so crude, so forced at the hand of an amateur carver, that I couldn't imagine that this 'thing' was considered to by anyone to be beautiful. My first view held that the artist couldn't have 'known what he was doing' or that this figure was carved before artists 'knew' how to render the human figure with 'accuracy'. My quotes in the preceding sentence are meant to highlight the false notions that I held then and there quickly; to show them here and now for the naive mistakes about beauty that I made.

For, somehow, in a moment--that moment--that carved figure of a man in the trumeau at Moissac passed from the realm of the not-beautiful into the realm of the beautiful.

Suddenly, I could see that it was not for lack of artistic skill that the figure was so compact, so forcefully hunched into a supplicatory position. However, the feeling I was having; the resonance that I felt with that tiny, even distant figure was precisely because of the skill of the artist. He hadn't misunderstood the 'rules' for drawing and carving; I had misunderstood the means by which his art, such art--all art, really--must be apprehended. In an imaginary magnified view, in a never-to-be-forgotten moment, in that sculpture, I could truly feel and understand the artist's expression of the literal and spiritual subjugation of man to the higher force of his God.

Bam. Somehow, some way, just like that, seven hundred years later, an eighteen year-old kid from Texas gets "it". He hears the message from an anonymous stone carver in medieval France, and just like that, an intellectual mistake about beauty, one that might well have plagued me all my life was, in an instant, corrected.

The impact of that moment on my life and thoughts is not to be underestimated, since it was from there that I began my quest to know (here paraphrased from the Phaedrus thanks to Robert Pirsig):

"And what is good, Phædrus,
And what is not good...
Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?"

That quest is ongoing, as is my effort to read the rest of Scarry's illuminating little book.