Thursday, April 30, 2009

Peering into the Dark

I feel a bit like what an early astronomer might have felt. I am searching the metaphorical skies to try and determine where I--my writing--fits into the 'Gutenberg Galaxy'. Alas, that Galaxy is so vast and my size so small that it makes me realize that any determination is no more than a guess, and a poorly educated one at that.

Odd to think, I guess, that I am poorly educated and basically illiterate, even after two degrees and much reading. A close look in the mirror confirms the fact that the combination of the American educational system and my own inherent laziness have yielded a curiously false appearance of literacy.

For example, when contemplating the number of books that I have read versus the number I actually possess, it is clear that I am not very well read at all, relying instead on books to retain the information that I can't or don't want to keep in my head. And, though I have read a few famous works of fiction, thanks to college literature classes, that number is small indeed when compared with real readers.

Furthermore, when comparing the number and diversity of books I have read with those people in my life that I have known well, like Lynda, Stephen, Lynda's good friend Len Radoff and my old college professor, mentor and friend Francesca Weinmann, it is even more obvious just how poorly read I am. Yet, somehow, by comparison with those people who are not part of the book culture, I would actually be considered literate!

How funny is that?

I guess that if 'literacy' were a class, and the professor was grading on a curve, I could, just maybe, get an A. That illusion might satisfy some parents--not mine--and most students, but even (especially?) C students like me know just where we stand compared with the folks who got a 'real' A. I know that the difference between me and the truly literate looks very small to those who are even less well-read than I am. However, by any measure, the gap between someone like Lynda or Len and me is actually huge and consequently, very significant to my effort to be a writer.

That I would be struggling to figure out where I fit as a writer speaks of an absence of vision for my 'work' and reveals my dilettantism. The irony of this fact that must have been acute for Lynda, considering that though she raised me to be a part of the book culture that was her perceived heritage and gave me thus an opportunity to get a good education, that chance was squandered. How did this happen?

Lynda, could we ask her, might have blamed TV. I would accept this (escape from) judgment readily, but for the fact that others who also watched the 'boob tube' as she called it were not similarly affected. My brother David, for example, managed to watch (still does) his fair share of TV without abandoning books the way I did. I wonder how it might have been if we two had been in reverse order. How might David have thrived and grown being raised in a bookstore the way I was? I was literally raised in the Abilene Bookstore, crawling around on dirty gray carpet in the aisle, pulling out and up on books from the bottom shelf. Book boxes and piles of books were everywhere. Both my parents read to me daily and conversations at dinner were invariably about one book or another.

Ironically there was even a brief intersection between the worlds of TV and books in the early days in Abilene. As a small boy of six or seven I accompanied my parents to the local TV studio where they had a small 'About Books' segment that aired live once or twice a month. I can recall seeing them on the black and white monitor in a room somewhere off set. To keep me quiet the studio techs gave me ice cream in a small paper cup with a wooden spoon. This was in the days before we actually owned a television set, so my experience with medium went no further than seeing those grainy black-and-white images while downing a couple spoonfuls of vanilla ice cream at that point. My parents were just forward thinking enough to believe that television could be used to extend literacy.

Perhaps Bill and Lynda were just too forward thinking, or just naive, embracing the new technology in its most innocent day, fully believing it could be harnessed to advance the cause of literacy. In fact, it was just the reverse. It is just now, after a long, often toxic formative period, that we have some television programming that even Lynda might think worth watching.

Now, while it isn't at all clear to me that television has been entirely deleterious to my literacy and hence, my writing, it is fair to say that the rise of electronic culture--for which TV is both the earliest and still best spokesman--is the primary reason for my inability to follow in the footsteps of truly literate individuals like Lynda.

This isn't a bad thing. I'm just saying it is just the way it is. Life and culture are in constant flux. So what if I'll die before know just where my star will sit in the firmament? That won't keep me from scanning the sky every night looking for a place to put it.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Bad Days of the Heart

I can't predict them. I can't explain them. Bad days of the heart.

Yesterday was a beautiful day. It started soft and warm with the threat of rain, but soon cleared up for one of the brightest most delightfully fragrant warm early summer days this year, or perhaps ever. But the clouds which passed from the sky remained in my heart.

By all accounts it should have been just in my head. Friends who get the migraines as I do, told me it had for them been a day for a real pounder, but my head was mercifully clear all day. Of course I should be thankful for this, but typically, selfishly I was unconscious; hurting elsewhere. It was my heart which hung heavy and dark, impervious to the gentle sunshine bathing my skin. I am not sure about this state of being. How does this work? How can I be happy and anguished at the same time? Is there no end to this contradiction; is this unpredictable haunting eternal?

In many ways, the metaphor of the migraine seems apt to describe these bad days. It is not an irony that light should weigh me down so; quite fitting that my dark heart should be aching so bathed in light, for my eyes want to burst when pulled inward by the pain of a headache. Unlike the pain of a migraine, the pain of grief is invisible to the world. So I press on. I am keenly aware that my head and heart do not define this world, but only serve to make it that much more precious to me.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Drowning in Debt: The New Socialism

...a small number of Americans, who believe that Obama is the new Anti-Christ, are arming themselves to the teeth, fully expecting to have to defend their property from marauding gangs let loose by the recession and a grasping government.

A political commentator for the BBC, Matt Frei, made the above comment in summing up a recent essay on polarization in American politics since the election of President Obama. Is he exaggerating? Not so much.

In an NPR interview the other day, I heard a gun store owner in San Antonio attribute the current nationwide shortage of ammunition--of which I was blissfully unaware till I heard the story--to the election of Obama because gun owners fear that a) their rights to bear arms will be eroded; and b) they will be victims of a crime wave generated by material needs of the millions of 'lazy and irresponsible' people who have lost their jobs due to negligence and subsequently don't want to work because they are already being bailed out for free by the new socialist government.

I exaggerate, but you get the idea. It's no joke, really. I genuinely believe that the thought of 'marauding gangs' is not ruled out by many ignorant and therefore fearful individuals who are stocking up on guns and ammo for 'the day'. This might be dismissed as the simply the reaction of the far right wing, but what disturbs me is the fact that though this group be but "tiny minority" of Americans, they actually comprise a sizable chunk of the members of the political community in the far right wing. In turn, this group makes up a considerable portion of the center, to which I ostensibly belong. Is that possible? Indeed. We've seen this pendulum go the other way; just because it's going one way now is no reason not to be vigilant and prepare for the return path.

Quite rightly, I think, Frei has observed that Obama, like his predecessor, has staked most if not all of his administration's ambitions on a single issue--in this case, the economy--on which his entire platform will succeed or fail. It's a big gamble. It's better than the gamble Bush took on the 'War on Terror' but similar in it's all-or-nothing approach to the game itself. Like it or not, Obama is 'all in' over the economy. And the conservatives are taking the bait and going in over the top in a effort to ensure that no compromise is possible and increase the probability of failure.

Frei says, "If the economy fails to expand, the rest could turn to ashes and America's children will grow up drowning in debt."

Really? That seems to make sense when you say it, but how does that actually work out? For example, what I don't understand is just how this ocean of dept will swallow up our children and their future. After all, the National Debt has been incomprehensibly large and getting larger during the whole of my lifetime. How will that change?

And what has the National Debt ever done to me? I have been able to work, own a house, a car and eat, travel and all the rest in spite of 'my' mounting debt. Ostensibly, I inherited that debt from the previous generation, but I don't see how or even if it ever diminished my opportunity. Nor can I see that there is any harm in simply passing this debt on to the next generation. I mean, all they are going to do is the same; turn it over, warts and all to their children. Here you go kids. It doesn't look any prettier than when I got it, but at least it didn't do me any harm.

So the fear of socialism and concomitant 'high risk gamble' we are supposedly taking with out children's futures just doesn't make sense. Much more likely, as we've seen, is the scenario in which (if I may borrow the gambling metaphor a bit more) someone stops to think about foolishness that underlies the whole damn house of cards and pulls up stakes. Then, before you know it, the game has gone to hell. Even now that this has happened, all we need is for everyone to get up, take a break and pick a new seat at the table when you get back.

We'll get, gee, what could we call it, a new deal? Or is that just the 'old' socialism? I ain't skeered.

Monday, April 20, 2009

April Foolishness: A Proposal for the NBA

It's that time again. March Madness has given way to April Foolishness. The NBA playoffs are underway.

Now, I know this because I saw glimpses of some of the meaningless games in the first round on the television in the kitchen at work the other day. Had coverage of the Stanley Cup been on it would have been my first glimpse of that, too, but fortunately--even if the Dallas Stars are in contention--we never have, erm, get to see the NHL on 'regular' TV. Really now, it would be hard for me to decide which is more boring, professional basketball or hockey. Of course neither is as boring as soccer, which, just beats out basketball for a time-wasting activity.

After all soccer is the game in which, though the players energetically run back and forth on the field non-stop, there if often no score after an entire hour of play and thus the game is forced to end on a exciting 'free' kick from about ten feet away from the goal. The only thing slightly more exciting than this is watching basketball players run up and down the court doing nothing but scoring for an entire hour resulting in a two-hundred point tie that is decided by a single missed free throw in the last second. Yawn.

I will not enter into a basketball versus baseball or football debate here, for it can be argued that every sport has its level of boredom and I have certainly slept my way through more than one game as a result. Nonetheless, I can't even be convinced to take a nap in front of a basketball game. Give me golf or a Law & Order re-run for that. But I do have a suggestion that might make professional basketball more interesting and, dare I say it, challenging for the players.

Right now, the most difficult action for an NBA player would have to be the free throw. While it is readily acknowledged that no one is dumb enough to risk their health playing defense in the NBA, most players practice on their fan-pleasing, tv-replay-getting slam dunk. This bit of show is almost always aided by a one or two step travel and the courteous behavior of the 'defense' whose job is to either get out of the way or tack on a gratuitous point by 'fouling' the offensive player with a slap at his wrist while he is going up for the basket.

And spite of the generosity of the defense, the offensive player often forgoes the extra point by missing the free throw. In fact, the average NBA player is no more likely to make a free throw than I am, and I haven't even practiced. Of course, neither have they, for there is no glamor in standing still and tossing a ball at a still target from twelve feet away. No, the real glory is in the three-point shot, whether it be in charging up through the paint or arcing down from the perimeter. Never mind that both of those are low-percentage shots that usually 'leave' points on the floor; the points left by poor free-throw shooting are almost invariably greater.

I have commented before about the ability of certain famous basketball players to make free throw shooting look hard, but for the first time I think I've come up with a remedy for this malaise.

A missed free throw should be a point for the other team.

As in a similarly relevant sport like ping-pong, where the other player can score from a mistake, there be a penalty in basketball for failing to make what should be the easiest shot of all. Missing it should cost you. In golf, a missed shot always costs you because you are playing against a standard, and the expectation is that no mistake should go unpunished. Even baseball has strikes and outs to measure this failure, but basketball is all reward and no punishment. Oh sure, there are 'fouls' but this is a false punishment since it merely gives the opponent a chance to score but does not actually punish the offender. Even worse, it requires the offended player to do nothing more than make a feeble attempt at a free throw. Oooo!

So, by changing the rules so that a missed free throw actually gives a point to the other team this way, the ever-popular-among-players grandstand-pleasing three point shot that results from a bucket in the paint plus a gratuitous foul might just turn into a measly meager one point shot instead. Oh that would cause some trouble and even cause players to re-think their shots. Missing the free throw would make it much harder to justify all the pounding and elbows required for the inside shot, and the fans would groan instead of cheer when the darting, cutting bullying player on the inside finishes it up not at all, showing instead how much touch he really has by weakly clanking the ball on the front of the rim like your sister in the driveway last Thanksgiving.

Now, lest someone complain that this interferes with the 'purity' of the game, I remind them that many artificial devices, like the shot-clock--for example--are placed into the game to make it more 'exciting'. To make it really exciting, though, I think that a change is needed. The modest change I'm suggesting would the game a real one, something a bit more interesting than an exhibition of high-flying self-centered and overpaid offensive 'superstars'.

Then, maybe, just maybe, some player would practice his free throws. And, maybe, that could actually be the guy on the team who scores the most because he makes the easiest shot of all with the consistency you'd expect from a guy making a million dollars a game. Enter defense and strategy and you might have a game worth watching.

Friday, April 17, 2009

On Hearing Women Laugh

I love to hear women laugh.

Not that there's anything wrong with hearing men laugh, mind you. I would be remiss if I didn't mention here that the sound of my brother David's gentle laughter is one of my earliest and most treasured sensations, and my father's chuckle is something I hear coming from my own throat daily, but I have lately realized that it is the sound of a woman's laughter that most pleases and intrigues me; a lifelong addiction I have blissfully been able to satisfy.

The principle source of this bliss is and has been for now more than twenty-five years, the sound--no, range--of Valery's delightful and compelling laughter. It's fair to say that I have been trying, in one way or another, to tease a bit of that melody from her throat since I first cracked a corny joke and heard her beautiful laugh in response. It's safe to say that part of the pleasure comes from the fact that she will actually laugh at my jokes, lame though they be and have been, I assure you--if you don't already know this first-hand.

Valery's laugh is meldodious, to be sure. It is also the truest expression of her personality--more, I think, even than tears, of which we have had far less, in spite of trying times. Her laugh can be loud enough to hear acorss the restaurant, yet when she is really amused, her silent wry smile is enough to send me flying.

Lucky then, for me, Valery's willing response to my efforts at humor and irony have in turn made me more addicted to the sound. Over time I have become more at ease in trying to make her laugh. This is such a central point of our life and relationship that I cannot imagine it working any other way.

I often see colorless and silent couples in the restaurant and think how opposite we are as a couple, and how different we must appear to others like them, always laughing at some silly thing or another. I am grateful that Valery accepts that silliness, not just without critique, but with an energy and enthusiasm that energizes me, enables me to find pleasure. It's selfish, really, for the pleasure seems to be mine, even if the intent is to please her.

I would be remiss here as well if I did not say that I selfishly derive this pleasure from the sound of other womens' laughter as well. Lynda's for example, was a uproarious laugh, one that exploded instantly in a wide show of teeth. I saw little of this laugh until we were both much older and enjoyed our best moments together in her studio, laughing about silly people, things and ideas.

Reaching back into my childhood, my Aunt Rae has a wonderful laugh that I can call to mind with ease. Funny it is that sound is so deep yet so close to the surface that these primal sorts of sounds are as fresh in my memory now as the very moment I first heard them. On childhood visits to her home I remember that Aunt Rae laughed often and with such glee that it's hard to say whether I enjoyed her laughter or her cooking more. Probably both.

Looking back a bit but not so far, my friend and mentor Francesca has a deep and tender laugh that hints at great happiness tempered with great sorrow. It is that way with laughter for everyone I guess, so much and so close to tears that that the two expressions are often necessarily simultaneous. When I met her as a young man, it was as a student eager to learn and please her for another chance to hear her laugh. In spite of great emotional pain she laughed often, and it always energized me . I heard it last with Lynda when we two visited Francesca at her home in Italy now five years ago. I'd love to hear it again.

Another laugh that I'd love to hear again--and will, soon!--belongs to Valery's mother, Billie. She laughs with the ease of her daughter but without the Italian timbre of her offspring. Hers is a gentle laugh that speaks of wisdom and restraint, caution and encouragement and I have heard it often around the dinner table, hers and ours, in Texas and Michigan alike. Her laugh is as different from her sisters, Mary, Joan and Sally as their personalities, but they all share a tenderness derived from their mother, Dorothy, whose soft and toothy cackle I often heard on the cottage porch swing on long Michigan summer days.

I hear Dorothy's laugh in Maddie's laugh now, for hers too is mostly a soft one. Madelaine can, however, have what I call the 'Italian roar' when something really strikes her as funny. Her laughter is spontaneous and with rich with abandon, just for the sheer joy in it. I am reminded by her laugh to be as innocent as I can, taking from life the pleasure not just the complicated jokes, but in simple observations as well.

The laughter of good friends derived from observation is also something I am fortunate to enjoy on a weekly basis at work. We laugh at each other and the patrons with equal abandon. Sara is of course the ringleader. Her deep and energetic outbursts are so spontaneous and so genuine that not just I but everyone on the staff seeks to say something to her to make her laugh, and she frequently obliges us. The result is a near constant high energy, happy presence in both the front and back of the house. It is but one thread in the tapestry of sounds that make up a busy night in the restaurant, but an important one for all of us.

No less important to the energy at work, but far different in tone is Nora's quiet and gentle laugh. She can be serious and silly rapidly in turns and is one of those kind souls patient enough to hear a silly story through to the punchline and even rewards the teller with bright eyes, a wrinkled nose and a truly genuine laugh. Kelly too wrinkles her nose and smiles with her eyes when she laughs, which is more of a giggle than an outright outburst. I have heard heard her break out, so to speak, though and it is an infectious sound that can be heard through the din of service, lifting us up even when we don't know how or why.

So this is the need that a woman's laughter fills in my life and considering my 'sunny disposition', I consider myself lucky to have had my fair share of it. To those women I've left out of this brief account--and all the men--I ask your forgiveness.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Lunch with Merry Edwards

Although my work schedule does not often allow for it, I am nonetheless frequently invited to lunch with wine makers who are in Austin as part of their 'Texas Tour'.

These lunches are held by the distributors who hope to sell (more) wine, of course, but often it's just a way for the wine maker to meet and even thank the people who are already buying their wines. Such was the case for the lunch with Merry Edwards and her husband Ken at The Mansion on Judge's Hill restaurant yesterday, and it was surprisingly good.

Of course, the surprise had nothing to do with Merry, who is a wonderfully intelligent, warm and humorous woman with a ready smile. I first met her, thanks to Steve, several years ago when she came to H______ for a wine dinner, which featured many of the wonderful pinot noirs for which she is so justifiably well known.

Interestingly, even though she's been to H______ and I've had her wine on the list for years, I had no idea just how well known she is until this visit. After hearing the story of her professional career, I realized that she is indeed one of California's premier wine makers; an artisan of the highest order. Though I certainly gained more respect as I learned of how she had been able to become one of the first women to break into the field, I already knew from her wine itself that she is a great talent. Having already met her I knew, of course, that she is a delightfully warm individual as well, and for that reason, I was most pleased to see her again.

Actually, what was most surprising about the event was the quality of the meal. In fact, at most of these affairs, the food is dreadfully dull if not downright poor. Even when they represent the best effort of the chef--which they often do not, the task of preparing the meal is relegated instead to the lowest order of the kitchen, and as a result, the food served at these wine lunches is rarely even edible, let alone attractive and inviting. And yet, I know there are pleasant surprises that may be afforded to those who step out occasionally, so I took the chance and fortunately, was not disappointed.

We started with a crab cake, served with a warm purple cabbage slaw and a bit of creme sauce to soften it up. The cake itself was unremarkable, but crumbly and when taken as part of the whole set on the plate, it was actually quite good. The soft sweetness of the cabbage played off nicely against the crunchy texture of the outside of the cake and yet the flavor of the crab still came though. Too much slaw I thought, but I just left most of it while devouring the delicate little crab cake.

Next up was a grilled quail served with a wedge of dense potato cake and fresh sauteed haricots verts. The quail looked a little anemic but had a wonderful flavor because it was not overcooked nor over seasoned. The bit of sweet sauce drizzled on it and around the edge of the plate was sufficient to give it some complimentary fruit flavor without getting heavy or cloying. The potato cake was indeed quite dense, but buttery, and perfectly cooked to satisfy the tooth with a firm texture. The beans too were perfectly cooked, and the best proof of that is the fact that I ate them all, something quite rare for me. But they were very tasty; with a bit of butter and the perfect snap to keep me pegging them till they were all gone. I wrestled the last bit of meat off the tiny bird bones and piled them up to the side, leaving a clean plate in a restaurant for the first time in a long time.

Dessert was a bit overpowering but good nonetheless. A massive cube of chocolate cake was drizzled with a blackcurrant syrup and topped with a canelle of black pepper ice cream. The combination was quite nice, even if we had to wait for it while Merry had us taste more pinot noir.

And taste pinot noir we certainly did. I think we must have had eight of them, plus Merry's wonderful sauvignon blanc, which won a number of prestigious awards this year, apparently. I wouldn't know, of course, as I don't really read the trade mags with any interest because my focus is on H_____' food, not industry fashion. Now if, perchance, I have chosen a wine that I like and it happens to be chic, well, so much the better. And, it turns out, Merry Edwards is very chic these days, so don't I feel like the Queen?

No, it is Merry who is known as the 'Queen of Pinot Nior' in her home state, and I was happy to be allowed to attend her traveling court this week. If you've never had one of her wines, I obviously recommend them to you now. They are a bit expensive, but this is because of their quality and rareness, not a marketing campaign or Parker points, though those points may now make her wine even harder to find and more expensive.

I can also recommend the restaurant at the Mansion, as they more than acquitted themselves in the service of Merry's fabulous creations.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Fifth Gear

The restaurant business can be a tough, even brutal one to break into, whether it be in the front or the back of the house, fine dining or fast food. I've been in it for so long and have done so many different jobs that it comes quite naturally now, but like everyone else who has stayed long enough to consider it a profession I've had to pay my dues in an apprentice based system that has remained relatively unchanged for centuries and across continents and between cultures. It isn't a perfect system' of course, or all our meals would be like those who prepared and served them--dare I say like us, the patrons, ourselves: perfect.

So while not good enough to save us from bad meals in 'good' (read: high-priced) places, the apprentice system can, has and does provide the best restaurants with the best talent. Especially, I think, in American restaurants, where the competitive nature of service is often harnessed to drive profitabilty in the form of increased sales. The old-world system often rewards endurance with seniority and thus encourages incompetency and strangles creativity.

In any case, while it is true that it is easier to get into the business in the US because there are more points of entry, once in, the entrant faces a far more difficult challenge: staying.

The system here takes on it's darkest aspect here, for it knows no quarter and none is given. Many well meaning individuals have faced the challenge that the grueling and seemingly capricious nature of apprenticeship embodies but very few have lived through it. And the test by which any apprentice lives or dies is what I call Fifth Gear.

It's just my term, not like '86' which is accepted lingo almost internationally, I think, but a term I came up with to describe to newbies, usually those who are on the bubble, so to speak, of bouncing on to another career. And since I've outgrown the need to learn the names--let alone the stories of--newbies until or unless they introduce themselves, the ones with whom I will even have a discussion is small and the individuals to whom I give advice about Fifth Gear is a number I can still count on a single hand.

It's simple advice, really, born of necessity in the heat of service. With a full section and a lobby of waiting customers, the order of the day is 'turn and burn'. Now as callous as that sounds, it's simply shorthand for not drawing out the meal any longer than necessary. And while yes, the reason for this strategy is to accommodate more customers, it's also so more customers can be accommodated. If we are quick and efficient, it's good for everyone.

Now one thing that many young professionals in the kitchen do not yet realize is that they are a part of something larger--like theater--that requires of the audience a certain participation; a suspension of disbelief. The front of the house is especially cognizant of this illusion and the bulk of their efforts go toward creating and maintaining it. The customer expects--demands--it and especially in a crowded restaurant on a busy night, is a willing participant, even if the pace of the meal is slightly faster than might be expected on a slower night in a less crowded place. It's like being at a good party, where the pace of the night goes quickly, like the music and the beer.

So even though we are 'turning and burning' it feels good and right, not just to us, but to the customers as well. Unless, that is, someone, somewhere in the chain can't--or wont--get into Fifth Gear. By this I mean that they simply cannot get moving fast enough within the boundaries of their work area to get all the work done in a timely manner.

This we call simply 'being in the weeds'. It can--will, does--happen to everyone, at every position in the restaurant from hostess to dishwasher at some time or another. To some, it happens often and if it happens often enough, well, you just are not cut out to be in the business. Time to go. It's simple and quite frankly, unemotional. That's what I meant about brutal.

Why? Well, if you are not able to step up the pace of your work and let your tables (in the front) or tickets (in the back) pile up; if you do not get enough tasks done in the small window of time between the moment that the people are seated or the ticket is placed in the window the time they are served, then they won't get served properly and you won't have a job. Most people think that bad waiters don't get good tips. True, but more often, slow waiters--like slow cooks--just don't get good jobs.

Now of course we have all had the misfortune of being waited on by someone who is fast but still bad, so this isn't meant to imply that speed is the only dimension worth measuring in service. And those of us who have been on both sides know that there are plenty of people behind the line that are quick and good but not someone you'll want to talk to for long, at least not till the shift is over and he's had a few beers. Till then just shut up and keep your hands on this side of the line. Even if they are slow, they have the knives, remember.

So, the next time you are out in a crowded restaurant on a busy night and your food--and, perhaps, your waiter--is nowhere to be seen, know that someone in the great chain of effort that is being put forward to feed you has failed, for whatever reason, to get into Fifth Gear, and is now hopelessly in the weeds. Uh, good luck with that. Punish the server with a poor tip if you must. Certainly say something to the manager. And, know at least that the next time you come--if you come--that person will be gone. Hopefully, the guy who has replaced him knows how to shift gears.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Giants on the Horizon

We now live in the early part of an age for which the meaning of print culture is becoming as alien as the meaning of manuscript culture was to the eighteenth century.
--Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy

Interesting that as I was thinking of how to justify these journal entries as more than mere detritus in the vast expanse of an open ocean of words, a good friend and mentor was writing to explain why she does not read them. Quite naturally, she has no interest in the minutiae of my life, and both Readers of this journal know well that there is no end of that in these 'pages', but precisely because I have to put the word 'pages' between quotes, I feel strongly that there is something fundamentally different between my admittedly still-clumsy style and the writing I would be able to do if it were not for this medium.

As I tried to express in my earlier essay about being a journalist, I feel that I am part of a generation of writers that has not two but three worlds in which to live. Practically speaking this is what I mean by that.

First, I live in the manuscript world. I love to write by hand. I have since it since I learned to write, and, despite an endemic laziness that renders the script almost illegible even to me at times, it remains one of my favorite things to do. Of course some people loathe writing, or simply find it so difficult that this seems strange, even perverse to them, but to me it is nothing short of vital, in the sense that if I do not do it, I will not live. Well, live on I do, but not in the same way, as I found when I basically retreated from the pen for about twenty years.

The recently awakened desire--no, compulsion--to write has emerged from the grief over Pierre's death, and daily I seek to relieve the pressure of the words that build up in my hands. To that end, I keep a handwritten journal--several actually--to record my thoughts and ideas for writing larger pieces. While this works well to keep me from losing those thoughts and ideas to the daily maelstrom that is life, somehow they are trapped, like ants in amber, visible but hard to get to. If, when I find something 'worth' writing down in my head, it is slightly annoying to think that I cannot 're-use' those words without transcribing them first, and that turns out to be a simple but almost impossible task to complete. After all, the last thing I want to do after I write something is to type it out all over again.

Second, thus, is the typographic world. Born literally at the very end of the typographic era, it stands to reason that given my natural tendency towards words and the desire for self-expression, I would be happy to have the typewriter as a tool for improving the efficiency of that self-expression, and indeed, I was.

I took typing as a sophomore--two years 'early' in those days, when only senior girls took the class--and my parents bought me a typewriter as a reward. Never did Lynda learn that I actually cheated in typing class and looked at my fingers--a practice that continues even as I write this--because it really doesn't matter whether or not you can touch type when all I really want to do--have ever wanted to do, for that matter-- is bang on the keys as furiously as my fingers will go till all the words spill out. They bought me a royal portable, which I kept till I left college the second time, and which served as a wonderful contrast to the heavy old black Royals that we used in Journalism class and to put out the paper when I was a senior in high school. Later, when visiting my sister in New York, I discovered the IBM selectric typewriter, which, could I but have my wish, would be one of my tools today. The sheer power of the machines was awesome, but it was the ability to edit--to go back and erase with a ribbon--that was really impressive.

Just as the difficulty of getting words out of the manuscript into a typescript is enough to make it something not done often enough, so too the difficulty of fixing tiny little mistakes on a manual typewriter made it an exercise in frustration. Xing things out and erasers and white-out are all very unsatisfying ways to edit words and punctuation, so again it is simply a natural desire on my part to want the ease and fluidity that has come with the introduction of the electronic medium into my life as a writer.

So, third, then, is the world of the 'electric field'. At first, it has resembled nothing so much as a giant electronic typewriter, with allowances for eventual elimination all the annoyances that plagued my attempts to write in the past. Having a computer with a word processing program should have opened the door to this flood of words that has merged from my hands in the past two years, but it did not. Just being able to write and edit electronically did not in and of itself do anything to my desire to be a writer. To be sure, I actually wrote the shell of a novel while working as a receptionist, but the absence of inspiration is why it languishes today. When I saw a copy of The Amber Room--written by someone else, of course--in the supermarket last year, I knew that inspiration would never come, but thankfully, I need it not.

That sounds a lot like sour grapes, but honestly I have my eye on the horizon. I believe that the reason I have no desire now to write a novel because I am convinced that it is not at the cutting edge of writing as an art form. I am not saying that this journal is on that edge, but there is nothing to keep it from being there either. After all, it is the first place I have ever found where I can write without repression, where though my words are 'published' they are still ready fresh and malleable enough to be re-worked into the larger whole I see on that horizon.

What is that on the horizon, a windmill or a giant? And what, pray, shall I do with it?

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

A Mediocre Meal

We've made our last trip to Vespaio for a while, I'm sad to relate.

We went out last night for the first time in a long time, and as a choice destination from the past Vespaio would have been on the list even if it hadn't been convenience rather than the food that brought us there. I had to get some night photos of the Mighty Cone for Texas Monthly and as it's directly across the street from Vespaio, it was thus a 'no brainer'.

Ah, I'll remember to use the noggin next time, for the experience was not something I will look forward to repeating any time soon. The problem is what affects almost every restaurant that lasts more than a few years; a loss of energy, purpose and most of all, flavor.

I don't know where the flavor actually goes. Sometimes, it goes away in the form of ingredients, like butter being replaced by margarine or fresh baked bread by store bought. Most of the time these are cost saving measures designed to save the profit, but in the end, customers do notice and the result is still less profit for the restaurant because the customers go away.

Sometimes however, flavor leaves the food in a restaurant because no one really cares about it. The original chef has departed and the new(est) one is merely carrying out standing orders, the owner(s)are less involved (if at all) and the service is reduced to food delivery rather than actual concern for the customer. And the customers? Well if they aren't State legislators spending the lobbyists' dime or bleary-eyed SWSX attendees from out of town, state and the country, they are going to notice the decline and will not return.

It's not like we were regulars at Vespaio, or that we go there in preference to any other restaurant, but I have in fact recommended it frequently to guests at H______ asking where they can get a good meal in town. Now, after last night, I am more likely to recommend they try out Parkside.

Our starter last night was spicy, broth-based tomato soup with a swirl of herbed creme fraiche. It was spicy alright, but excessively so, and the tomato flavor was far too acidic to be pleasant, even with the creme fraiche, which merely teased the palette with some round relief from the sharp bite of the tomato.

I had the Beef Short Rib Ravioli with garlic spinach, fava beans and parmesan bread crumbs on top. Recommended by our waitress, this would have been my choice anyway, and it wasn't all that bad. Now, this damning with faint praise is no actual criticism of the dish, for it was very rich and dark, if I may use that word to describe a taste. It lacked thus any sort of contrast; a conflict for the mouth similar to that proposed by the soup, but one that--unlike the starter--would be resolved in my favor. Alas no.

Valery's seafood platter was not much better. Certainly edible and even enjoyable--I tasted the crabcakes--it lacked any imagination in presentation and the flavor echoed the arrangement in boringness, if that also may be used as a food descriptor. Again, my accusation is not that the food was awful, but for what we paid (120+tip), and, even worse, for the difference between the anticipation and the realization of this meal was sufficient to keep us from returning.

After all, as someone recently told me at H_______: "At these prices, you only get one chance."

Mirage

As I walk to work
through the morning dew
I see a lad of about twenty-two.

Hair in bandana,
Head bent to task,
It's all I can do
Not to stop him and ask,

Is that you?

I don't.
I know it's not true.

Mirages are heartaches
not meant to last.

My heart explodes
as I walk right on past.