Saturday, November 28, 2009

Always Good

One of the challenges that I face in my job at the restaurant is being a good host. I try to smile and be nice at all times, but I know there are moments when I am busy or frustrated and my pleasant veneer will wear thin or crack altogether. It's pretty much the same for all of us in service. We all have our moments.

If, perhaps, you find yourself thinking that you would not have such a moment, ask yourself if you could greet and seat six hundred guests in a ten-hour period with a smile, a kind word and without cracking. Sara did just that, this past Thanksgiving Day. I, for one, am not foolish enough to claim that I could do the same.

There is just one other person that I can think of that never had one of those moments.

This was Ben Breiger, the host and long time manager of the Headliner's Club. Certainly in the ten years that I worked with him, he never lost his temper, he never made a Member feel bad or even awkward. And, while he might have had a few choice words of observation about the Members, he never complained openly about them either.

Now, my use of the term 'manager' is a little generous, since that title and responsibility at the Club actually fell to someone else, but as far as the Members were concerned, when he was on the floor, he was in charge.

And he was in charge, so to speak, of the Members. His customary seat was on a bench beside the front desk, which was situated at the entrance. When the Members got off the elevator, they would first check in with the hostess at the front desk.

As those formalities were being taken care of, Ben would rise and greet the Member with a broad and genuine smile. He would offer his hand and with the slightest bow, he would acknowledge the rest of the group. Often he would greet the Member's wife and children by name.

When asked how he was doing, he would always give the same response.

"Always good," he would say with an even intonation that made it feel true, "Always good." He always said it twice, too, as if that were part of the blessing that made it so.

When I started at the Headliner's Club back in 1983, Valery was the night hostess, so the day I met Valery was also the day I met Ben. I was working on the day shift back then. On my first night shift, I saw Valery immediately, of course, but made no note of Ben till later in the evening. About nine o'clock, when things had calmed down enough for me to go chat with that cute girl at the front desk, well you know that was the first thing I did.

That conversation sealed my fate. It was love at first sight. I am not sure if there is such a thing as 'true' love, but I do believe in love at first sight, because it's happened to me. Ben was my witness.

After talking with Valery for the first few precious moments of a lifetime, she got up to go deliver a message to someone in the kitchen. This may have been deliberate for all I know. I do know that it gave me the opportunity to change my life forever.

As Valery walked down the hall, past the elevators to the kitchen, I watched, naturally, completely smitten. Then I turned to Ben and said--most uncharacteristically for me--to a man I did not yet even know, "I'm going to marry her."

Ben laughed. This should have been expected, had I but known more about either my intended or him, but it seemed like a challenge to me. Again, uncharacteristically, I said, "I'll bet you $50.00"

To my surprise, Ben took that bet. To his surprise, he lost it.

I never did collect my $50 from Ben. It never seemed appropriate, since I was more than happy with my end of the deal anyway. Considering how much I've gained from these past twenty five years with my bride, Ben's fifty bucks was better off in his pocket than mine.

But I have gotten my money's worth, in just my recollections of Ben's demeanor. While I cannot model his personal style for many reasons--not the least of which is girth (he was a BIG man)--I can and do try to remember that when I am 'in charge', no matter how it's going, as far I am concerned, it's "Always good. Always good".

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Infinity of Zero

In a universe where matter and energy can neither be created nor destroyed, the only thing that is infinite is life.

From a finite number of atoms emerges a process of infinite transformation and consciousness. However improbable or temporary it may seem, consciousness is evidence that life is inevitable and infinite.

The proof of the inevitability comes from our thought existence ('I think,...'), while the infinite nature of life's force is the very constant by which all mathematical and empirical constructs are created.

In other words, life is like the c in E=mc2. Without it, even this simplest of calculations is impossible, but with it, the universe it describes acquires meaning.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Fun of Losing

The weekly football pool at work is a funny thing. We all want to win. Yet to listen to us talk about it, you might think that the real fun is in losing.

After all, the losers are in the majority and have much more to talk about than does the winner. Each loser has his or her story that details the unique circumstances that led to their demise, and each is eager to tell the others the tale.

"If New England hadn't gone for it on 4th and 2... If Roy Williams had just caught that ball... If Denver could just win one at home..."

If, if and more ifs. That's the fun part though. Think of the poor winner.

If the winner tries to talk about how it was just amazing that Indy came back to beat New England, or how clutch it was that Williams dropped not just one but three balls or how he just knew that Denver wasn't going to beat a bad team at home this weekend, well, we just don't want to know.

It's not that we have to deal with insufferable braggarts; so far every winner in our group has been, thankfully gracious about it. We certainly don't begrudge the winner the money. No, that's the goal and we all know it. Often there's a few words of congratulations, especially if it's their first win, but underlying that expression is the unspoken certainty that it will be us next week.

Now, if only Dallas...

Friday, November 13, 2009

Dream Weavers

Great chains of causation are milled into fine threads over time and woven into intangible tapestries of meaning by our minds.

While it is not always obvious that causation and correlation are not one and the same, it is even less obvious that correlation did not exist before the mind, and that it will it cease to exist after humans have been erased.

The relationships between the actual threads of causation are created only in our minds. Without the mind, correlation would not exist.

The predisposal of the individual mind to believe in correlation appears to be supported by data recorded by others in a collective society. We write, then repeat history because the misperception that we have sufficiently woven the threads of causation into tapestries of meaning allows us to think we can predict the future.

Acting on the fundamentally false perception that we have successfully woven a tapestry of meaning inevitably leads to what we will eventually claim to be unexpected outcomes, better known as mistakes. Often they are the same ones.

These tapestries of misperception also allow us to pursue that fatally futile activity known as planning. Not so pretentious as prognosticating, planning nevertheless presupposes the hubris necessary to ensure that the outcome of our endeavors will always vary from the prediction.

Even if the plan and the outcome are close enough to allow us to travel to the moon and back, we should never lose sight of the fact that even on our best days, we are just fooling ourselves when we think it all makes sense.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

I'll Stay

I'll stay
Till every ember's burnt away.

I'll stay
Till all the dust has blown away.

I'll stay
Till every dish is put away.

I'll stay
With you forever and a day.

Friday, November 6, 2009

I Fought the Law

I am proud to be an American.

I know it's got to sound geeky when I announce that after having just returned from a Formal Property Tax Protest Hearing at the Travis County Appraisal District, but that's just the way it is.

On a day when I have my list of Americans (including Rush Limbaugh, Joe Lieberman and Glenn Beck, just to name this week's top three) who make it difficult to find these feelings, it comes as a welcome relief.

With so much inane and destructive rhetoric coming from the right over the government's proposed health care reform, some might conclude that the three above named individuals no longer want to live in a country where their government is in control. As in, the American government. As in, 'I pledge allegiance to...'

Well, I've just come from a situation where my government, the American government is in control--I lost the hearing--but I in no way feel that I am being oppressed by it. Quite the opposite, actually. I am, as we liberals say, empowered.

I scheduled the Protest Hearing back in March, when we got a bill from our mortgage company for unpaid taxes. Since the money for taxes comes from an escrow account that we pay into monthly, we should never have a shortfall. Yet, when our taxes increased nearly 35%--in the middle of the Bush regime's skillful management of the trickle down theory of economics, by the way--we were caught without enough money in the escrow account.

In the goverment, they call this deficit spending. In real life, we call it you-owe-us-two-grand-so-we-are-charging-you-more-every-month spending, and believe it or not, nothing trickled down to save us. So, because we have no printing press in the basement (or even a basement) we have to pay more every month for a year to make up for the shortfall.

Hence the protest.

I went early, thinking I'd get caught in traffic, but I sailed right up I-35 to the Travis County Appraisal District building in far North Austin. I went in about a half an hour early and was directed to check in. There were a few people waiting in the hall, but not the crowd I was expecting. They asked my name and asked me to wait.

I hardly waited five minutes. Now, those loud complainers like Beck, for example, who claim that the government is not capable of serving it's citizens in a timely and organized manner just haven't been to one of these hearings. Or to vote, I suspect. Perhaps his last contact with the government was at the impound lot (he did have some sort of surgery, you know, 'down there'), but mine was in a government building. They came to get me early.

By 10:40 I was seated in a room with four individuals. There were three 'citizen judges' and a representative from the TAD. The center judge was an older man, and to his right was a middle aged woman and another man was on his left. The older man explained the process.

I would be given the opportunity to explain why my taxes should be changed, while the TAD's position would be taken by their representative. It would be a formal hearing, recorded and under oath. I raised my right hand and we got started.

The TAD had a simple position. They maintained that their number was right. The fellow said so and turned it over to me.

I had two points. First, I maintained that our taxes had unfairly jumped from 2007 to 2008. Second, I maintained that our house was unfairly valued as compared with our neighbors.

This information is public and available on the internet, so I downloaded it and created a spreadsheet as one of my exhibits. Other exhibits were tax records and photographs of the other houses and our house in '07 and '08 to prove that it hadn't changed substantially.

Well, I had my day in court, but they ruled against me.

In the first case, our jump in taxes had to do with our Homestead Exemption (another story) and it took place last year so we couldn't address it today, which was looking at 2009.

And on my second point, using real-time data--which I could see on a screen in front of me--they patiently showed me how our house is actually valued like others in our neighborhood--almost exactly down to the penny.

It was a good example of how, in America, transparency in government can and does happen. Giving citizens the right to have information about how they are being taxed is the way we work. In the end, I have to pay the taxes--just as I will have to die--but I don't begrudge the government any more than I do the Reaper.

I have to say, though, Death isn't nearly as polite nor as helpful as the citizens who served on that panel. They were most gracious and took all the time needed to make sure I understood and was comfortable with their decision. Then down came the gavel and I was shown out.

But not before the older judge took me downstairs to see if we could do something about the Homestead exemption. He took me to the right person and introduced me before leaving me to sort it out with her. It didn't change anything, but it did demonstrate the humanity of the process.

Like I said. I am proud to be an American.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Taste

Author of Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer, who is described by the New York Times in a review of his book recently as "Vegetarian activist", has some very compelling arguments about why eating animals is not in our best interest.

Unlike many such activists, not all of Foer's reasons have to do with our health. A lot of it has to do with the power of the meat industry in our society today. While he identifies and explains some of the important social and economic reasons for the dominance of the meat industry in our society, other authors such as Michael Pollan have been down this path already. It is the moral question that clearly concerns Foer the most.

He offers up the case of eating dogs--or, rather, why we don't--as a clear example of the role morals seem to play in food consumption.

Foer writes that, "Despite the fact that it's perfectly legal in forty-four states, eating "man's best friend" is as taboo as a man eating his best friend...Our taboo against dog eating says something about dogs and a great deal about us."

Indeed, it does. I cannot argue that our sense of morality has a great deal to do with why we don't eat dogs, but I do maintain that there is another, even more basic reason that "man's best friend" is not and never will be on the menu no matter how many free pounds of dog flesh go begging every day.

Taste.

It's the same reason that early European arrivals to the Great North American Plain slaughtered the buffalo for their hides and drove the cattle to market for their meat. Buffalo just don't taste very good.

Considering that free range cattle that had been just been driven a thousand miles or more must not have tasted particularly good either, it is a clear testament to the fact that taste is literally a force of human nature. I think that taste is often simply overlooked when it comes to why we eat what we do.

I don't think we are just hardwired to eat anything and everything, nor do I think that morals alone is a force powerful enough to dictate what we will and won't eat. What I do think is that other less obvious factors such as taste guided us through the evolutionary maze. This idea has been explored by other scholars such as primatologist Richard Wrangham, who wrote Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human.

The taste imperative isn't just about dogs, either. Though it won't please their egos, nor is it about cats. Consider rabbits. I know that they are a staple food source in many places, but the fact is, even though they multiple like, well, rabbits, we just don't like the way they taste enough to make them a major part of our diet.

Pigs on the other hand, benefit from being smart but are severely handicapped by the fact that they taste so darned good. I know Charlotte was "One Fine Pig" but I've also had some mighty fine pork ribs in my day.

So, even though they are more dogs out there than pigs, more pigeons than chickens, even though the pork and poultry industries are literally killing the Mississippi Delta and parts of the Gulf of Mexico, we'll continue to eat McNuggets and pork chops for as long as they are around.

They will be around, I believe, because taste may be an even more considerable force than the economic and social engines that Foer rightly identifies as driving the meat industry today.

Hunter

He comes to the door with a machete.
Did you think he'd bring a tranquilizer?

He has too much time for mercy.
Did you think he wouldn't want to play?

He burns, boils and bites.
Did you think it would feel like a kiss?

Monday, November 2, 2009

Disappearing

When the story about the 'balloon boy' all but halted the business of the nation for the requisite fifteen minutes last month, much was made of the fact that the boy 'disappeared' for six hours.

Six hours? When I was a kid growing up in Abilene, being out of sight for six hours was routine. On school year weekends and all summer long, I was a dawn-to-dusk outdoor kid. Checking in was a happenstance sort of thing, and, if I happened to eat lunch or dinner at a friend's house, it was common for me to be out all day. Not everyone had a phone nor was it common for kids to use it.

Times were different then, indeed, and though it was common for kids to be out all day unsupervised, given my particular propensity for wandering widely from the neighborhood, it's a wonder that the the police were not called in more than once to find me during my childhood.

There was one time that Lynda did call the police, however. I was nine. I had left the house early in the morning and did not return until after dark. I was gone for more than twelve hours.

I don't remember some very important things about that day, like what day of the week, or time of year it was, or why I even decided to do it that day, especially without telling my parents.

All I know is that one evening, I did decide to do it. It had to be in the evening, of course, because I know I planned it at least one day in advance. I know this because I am a planner. I plan everything; it's a habit that stretches back at least as far as this memory.

I remember that I was nine mostly because the story has been told over the years at family gatherings many times, reinforcing details like my age at the time and the fact that the police were indeed called. The fact that I never saw a policeman, either on my adventure nor when I arrived at home didn't raise any suspicion on my part till many years later, when it really better suited the story to have the cops involved than just a mad mom.

Oh and Lynda was mad. I'm getting ahead of myself here, but I can say that I've really only seen her madder at me one other time, and that time she hit me with a belt. That time (bouncing on the bed when I was six) was the one and only time she ever hit me. I didn't get hit after this incident, but believe me, I'd rather have gotten a beating with a belt than experience the angry tirade that faced me when I finally came home.

Given the admittedly casual oversight and potentially serious consequences that I was subject to, what then would have prompted me to stay out for more than twelve hours?

I was looking for a job.

I'll admit, today the thought of a nine year old boy making his way from business to business along a busy street akin to Austin's Burnet Road would today raise alarm bells for even me, but back then, it would have been merely amusing to all the workers in the gas station, pet shops, print shops, stationery stores, gift shops and heaven-knows-what-other kinds of businesses that I walked into and asked if they were hiring.

Even today I can recall their astonished reactions to my quest, which at the time only made me mad and more determined not to be rebuffed at my next stop. But the story was always the same. I'm quite sure I heard, "Are you kiddin' me kid?" more than once, and at least one guy said I should just come back when I was older. Boy, don't they wish.

Thinking back, I have no idea how I managed to eat or drink during that long day, but I do know that my only means of transportation was my feet, so it just took a whole lot longer to get home than I thought it would. Which means that it was well past dark when I got home to a fuming Mom, a bewildered Dad and no supper.

Actually, Lynda came and brought me supper in my room later. She probably felt guilty about having scolded me so harshly and was likely more than a little intrigued by my adventure. She quizzed me for what seemed like hours, then let me eat my dinner in my room by myself. Strangely I even remember the meal: cold fried chicken and mashed potatoes.

My reaction to the whole adventure has deeper roots than I have ever actually acknowledged before. I've long known that because of Bill's failure to hold a steady job and (thanks to Lynda) my awareness of our family's ever precarious finances I have always been obsessed with working, but I had forgotten just how long ago that obsession took hold.

Thanks to that obsession, I'm often still out of the house for twelve hours or more, but at least now my family knows where I am.