Sunday, December 29, 2013

I Will

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I will write this poem.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Day President Kennedy Died

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 7, 2013


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

Civility is compromise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For these people, we have rules and laws.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Me and My Microbiome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me and my microbiome.  It's all good.

Sunday, August 18, 2013


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

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

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

They'll fake you
make you
break down and cry

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

What the heat brings

withered ragged hand
why do you reach so?

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

be still now

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

in the morning you'll have your rest

earth cool as its gonna get
till you see them shadows
like something you
wouldn't even notice
like a bug
with a shadow
tall as itself but
like them shadows that
come at the high heat of the day
when even a bug
got sense enough to lay low

be still now.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Weight, weight don't tell me...

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

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

Here's how it breaks down:

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

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

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

Thursday, August 15, 2013

A Day Without Windows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

All That

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

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

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

Simple as a bridge
Complex as a stair

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

Timeless as an idea
Fresh as young love

Supple as skin
Brittle as a cigarette ash

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

Touch me and you will remember me.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Secrets of The Wine Guy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


How many restaurants are there in the US?

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

How many restaurants are ‘fine dining’ establishments?

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

Wine Lists

How many restaurants have wine lists?

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

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

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

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


How many certified sommeliers are there in the US? 

According to "The Court of Master Sommeliers" website,

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

Who grants certification?

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

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

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

What others do

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wine pairing - People not Food

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Dear Senator

Boy, I am angry today.

I just wrote to both Texas senators (Cornyn and Cruz) and four of the five Democratic senators (Baucus, Begich, Heitkamp, Pryor and Reid) who recently voted against what was a very moderate  and reasonable gun-control measure.  Although 9 out of 10 Americans supported it, not even 6 out of 10 senators voted for it.  Particularly disturbing is the fact that these five Democrats decided that their particular political futures were worth more to them than their responsibilities to the American People.  As I understand it, Ried voted against it so he can bring it to the floor again. I am not sure about that, but I give him the benefit of the doubt--for now.

Interesting side note:  In order to "Contact Me", all senators require that writers fill out a form, giving name, phone, address, and email--all required fields.  However, the "Subject Line" drop-down menu for four of the six that I just wrote did not even include "Gun Control" as a possible subject!  In one case I was able to choose "Crime" (seems like one, doesn't it?) and the other I had to choose something like "Other".  Pfft.  One included "Your suggestions for deficit reduction", like that is more important than preventing the criminally insane from murdering children in cold blood.

I know the senators themselves won't read it but you can be sure their staff will not be getting a break for a few days if everyone were to write them and let them know how we feel. Senator Gabrielle Giffords said it best when she called them out in the New York Times.

Here is what I said:
Dear Senator Cornyn, 
I am disappointed and ashamed of you for your willful disregard of the will of the American public and for abandoning the children of Sandy Hook with your no vote on the recent legislation that would have prevented guns from being sold without restriction to felons and dangerous individuals.  
You say that you are interested in protecting the Constitution, but have you forgotten that the Constitution serves the People, not the other way around? 
I urge you to do the right thing and vote for some reasonable protections for those of us (that's nine out of ten) Americans (that's The People) who feel that some measure of control is needed for the horrible epidemic of gun violence that is gripping our nation today.   
If the recent death of twenty innocent children is not enough for you to change your mind; if seeing and hearing the raw grief of the families who lost their children is not enough for you to change your mind, what will be?   
Shame on you.  Have you no heart?  

Monday, February 18, 2013

Opening the Door

I was sitting in Kerbey Lane Cafe on Guadalupe on a recent Thursday, having lunch with my brother when a man came up to me and asked if I was an actor. I said no, but then he asked if I was interested in being in his film. He said I have "the perfect face".
Naturally I was flattered by his request, and just a bit skeptical, since I had no idea what kind of film he had in mind.  Curiously I didn't even ask.  What I did ask, to his surprise, was whether or not he would have picked Stephen, had we been sitting in opposite seats, since I have the idea that we look so much alike, but he averred that I was his choice.  
The director, a young man whom I'll call JP, told me he was an MFA film student at UT and this was going to a short film for a class he was taking.  He seemed nice enough and I was just egotistical enough to think that I could pull something like this off, so I said yes, I'd give it a try.  He was pleased and offered me a notebook in which I wrote my email address.  He said thanks, we shook hands and that was that.  I had no idea what to expect.  To be honest, I was excited and flattered, but really didn't think it would come to anything.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Super Bowl Sunday 2013

It is Super Bowl Sunday, about four o'clock in the afternoon.  Kickoff is at 5:30.

SCENE: Interior.  FRONT ROOM of Patrick's apartment.  Only 10 by 12 feet at the most, the back wall (opposite the front door) is almost completely covered in bookcases stuffed full of vinyl record albums.  An antique dresser is along the narrow wall of the room, (to the right of the door), covered in dusty nicknacks.  Light comes in from a window in the wall next to the door, and from a window in the KITCHEN, which is essentially the far end of the front room.  A sink and fridge are out of sight around the corner to the right.  In the center of the back wall is a door that leads to the back room, PW's BEDROOM.  The door opens.  PD enters.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Winning on the Way Down

Did Lance Armstrong ever have cancer?

This question was in my mind even as Lance walked through his stiff 'confession' to 'P-Oprah'.  I heard him admit, candidly, to having taken some kinds of 'performance-enhancing' drugs during his entire cycling career.  Apparently, he started 'doping' as they call it, even before he won his first race.  It seems that he started experimenting with drugs long before he won the Tour de France for the first time in 2001.