Saturday, October 23, 2010

Duck Soup & Dead Bodies

 This is a potpourri posting of reviews for things totally unrelated, but which gave me pleasure, and by inference, may give you pleasure as well, should you choose to partake of any of the opportunities described herein.


Persistence pays.  I have been advocating for duck pho on the menu at Soy House for a long time, and my persistence has come to fruition, sort of.  After weeks of tinkering with the recipe, they finally introduced it to the menu.  As their unique and delicious pizza was in the beginning, this item is an 'experiment', for now.  You need to ask for it, and it isn't available every day--yet.  I suggested they make a Facebook post on days it is on the menu, and trust me, you will want to try this.  This pho, like all of their soup offerings begins with it's own broth.  Most restaurants (including a lot of very pricey haute cuisine joints that should know better)  use a 'base' as a short-cut for broth or stock.  Imagine that little bullion cube from the red or green can on steroids and you get the idea.  Not so at Soy House.  I have actually seen  roasted bones heading for the stock pot for the beef pho, and each broth is carefully constructed for fabulous flavor to enhance the principal ingredient in a given dish.  This duck is delish, full of rich but nuanced flavor.  Served on the side is fresh lime, jalapeno slices, mung bean sprouts and leaf lettuce (instead of Thai basil, which isn't really suited to this soup). Made with your choice of rice or egg noodles (get the egg noodles, they work with the flavor profiles better) this is a must-try for lovers of pho.

Now, let's take a moment to ponder the humble duck, and dispel a couple of the myths surrounding the eating of same:

1.  Duck is gamey.
     WILD duck can be a little-or even a lot-gamey, but farm-raised duck is just a rich tasting dark poultry meat.  It can, and should, be served medium rare when prepared as a grilled duck breast, something you dare not do with chicken.  But grilled, smoked, marinated or roasted, it opens up your taste buds to a bevy of palate pleasing classics of cuisine.  Don't be afraid, embrace your adventurous tendencies.  Order the duck-forget the veal.

2.  Duck is fatty.
      The muscle meat of duck is nearly fat-free.  Ducks and geese reserve almost all of their fat in their skin, which is what makes rendering out the fat possible, and yields--when done correctly--a fabulous taste, and far less fat and calories than the generic burger and fries you have no problem pounding down for a quick lunch.  What little fat remains become about the best flavor-transport mechanism every designed by nature.  Eat the skin, it's tasty!

Their innovative Vietnamese influenced pizza made it to the regular menu (read my review in an earlier post Mason Jar Madness ) after a long introduction period, and I remain hopeful the same will be true for the duck pho.  Asian cusine without duck somewhere on the menu is like BBQ without ribs.  You can do it, but something important is missing.


'RED' is entirely implausible and predictable to a fault, and yet it has an irresistible element of big explosion, high body count, wry comedy and an almost believable May-September romance element to it that I found fun.  Bear in mind, this will not be laden with statuette nominations from the Academy, nor will it get much notice from snooty reviewers, but people of a certain age and gender (male boomers, for instance) will not feel cheated.  There is lots of Wile E. Coyote v Roadrunner violence, just enough CG to be entertaining and a star-studded passel of cast members with their tongues planted firmly in their cheeks while delivering their lines.  The locations are interesting enough, mostly edited in from second-unit-no-principals-in-sight footage, and enough shell casings are scattered to keep an armorer reloading for about five years.  This is 'Space Cowboys' recast in CIA garb.  Great movie making?  Not so much.  A lot of fun for men of a certain age (and the women who love them)?  You bet.  It was for me, anyway.

Fatalities  (ok, I couldn't come up with a decent alliterative for the last book I read, so sue me.)

Damage Control by Robert Dugoni.  Bob is quickly becoming one of my favorite contemporary authors.  Mostly writing legal thrillers, his characters and situations--while sensational and intense, as a thriller should be--also have a ring of truth to them.  Dialogue is natural, plot lines flow evenly, leading to a crescendo of action with a finely crafted resolution leaving the reader fulfilled.  This is not an easy task, so as a writer myself, when I encounter it, I particularly enjoy quality .
Damage Control is Dugoni's second book of fiction and yes, yours truly, ever behind the curve, is commenting on a book published four years ago.  There are two reasons for this:  One, I opted to start at the beginning of his series when I gave a brief thumbs up to Jury Master in an earlier post, Reading to write right, right?  I met Bob at a book signing and writer's discussion sponsored by the Pacific Northwest Writers Association, to which we both belong.  He was signing his latest, Wrongful Death, (a shiny new copy of which awaits my attention) and I was a boy on a budget, so it was paperback for me.
Two, I wanted to try reading a thriller on my new Nook e-reader, and again, being on a budget it was the perfect choice.  $7.99 for the download, forever available to me, and not an inch of already groaning bookshelf space occupied.  I finished the last hundred pages of the book during a two-hour back up at the Canadian border waiting to get back into the U.S.  I won't spend any time recounting plot details or characters, that was done by the NY Times years ago, I'll just say I was fully engaged by the book, enjoyed it for what it was--a diverting drama full of the requisite protagonists in peril, dead bodies piling up and mischief and malfeasance in high places.  It was a great read and, after all, isn't that what most writers hope for when they put their babies out for the world?  Thanks, Bob.  Keep 'em coming.


Saturday, October 2, 2010

Why Liberals Fail

After the primary a few weeks ago I was chatting with a liberal friend about the post-election washout of candidates.  I imagined out loud that since her candidate had not advanced, she would be supporting the Democratic candidate that had moved on to the general election.

"No," was the firm reply.  "He voted to fund the war [in Iraq & Afghanistan].  I can't support that.  I have to vote my conscience.  I am for peace, I will write in the name of my [failed] candidate, and vote for him."

"So," I said, "you will cast a ballot that indirectly favors the candidate whose party started the war under false pretenses.  The party that offered no apology or even reasonable excuse for same, whose executive leadership created a torture camp in Cuba and under whose lack of supervision crashed the most vital economy in the world?"

"I have to vote my conscience."  End of discussion.

This is why liberals fail.  It is a political truism that liberals fall in love; conservatives fall in line.  My friend has fallen in love with the candidate and been blinded to the forest by a single tree.  This phenomenon has had many names over the political years:  Peace & Freedom, Green, Progressives, the Mary Janes and others of a similar splinter mentality.  They, and others like them, succumb to the siren song of the 'protest vote', somehow imagining that those votes will be seen with all seriousness in Washington or at the state and local level at least.  They are correct in one assumption:  They will be seen all right, and promptly dismissed as a constituency that can, and will, be ignored.

As a group, liberals have an astonishingly short collective memory.  Only one election cycle ago the most diverse group of voters in my living history accomplished what many believed impossible; they elected an avowed liberal black man to the Presidency of the United States of America.  With him they swept into power a huge Congressional majority of Dems and between them--in spite of fierce and almost unanimous opposition from Republicans--managed to enact some of the most important fiscal and social legislation in half a century.

But, alas, Barack Obama proved to be human.  He didn't march into office and sweep away 220 years of political bickering with a single blow.  Don't Ask-Don't Tell still lingers, as do dozens of left and far left honey-dos.  The agenda is incomplete and you are an impatient and fickle crowd.  You liberals have lost your understanding of the power of incremental-ism.  Like children, you want it all now, or you will sulk in your room.

Republicans are counting on this.  The RNC is collecting and spending hundreds of millions of dollars on candidates, that in any other cycle, wouldn't merit a one line obit buried deep in the political pages.  They hold their noses, open their checkbooks and fall in line.  Most of the mainstream Republicans seeking election, or re-election, are espousing views they cynically don't believe themselves, in order to appeal to a general anxiety amongst the electorate.

And you are letting it happen.  You are so busy feeling sorry for yourself that the entire country isn't on board with your goals, that you have fallen into a malaise, that in just a few weeks, threatens to undo what you worked so hard to achieve.  If you are disillusioned and frustrated now, imagine how eviscerated you will feel when a cadre of elected representatives come into power that have the avowed goals of re-instituting school prayer, rolling back abortion rights, eliminating Social Security and Medicare, trying to deport millions of undocumented aliens and expanding tax cuts and deregulation to the wealthiest companies and individuals in the country. Don't be misled, these are the central tenants of their governing philosophy.

As a moderate Republican, sidelined by my own party, I find myself watching this slow-motion train wreck in the liberal wing with horror.  Oddly, the best hope I, and millions of center-righters like me, have of regaining the reigns of a GOP careening madly out of control to the reactionary right, is a united liberal front.  If you throw up your hands and walk away from the process it may be two generations before equilibrium can be restored, and reclaiming sanity in governance likely won't return in my lifetime.

Think about this; after the dust has settled from the upcoming election, states will begin the process of reapportionment and redistricting.  It is a little-understood, but critically important, constitutional process that affects the makeup of the House of Representatives and subsequently influences elections not just for ten years, till the next census, but for a generation or more, as Members become the ruling class, and re-election becomes a foregone conclusion for 90% of those running.

I'm trying to regain control of my party one blog at a time, but liberals, I need your help.  Don't screw this up, get out the vote.

Moderate Republicans and Independents are counting on you.

Ironic, no?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

I have been absent from this blog for some time now.  Not from lack of material, or even desire, but initially from a balky computer which was finally retired and replaced, and lately as the result of pressing family considerations.  I don't, as a general rule, do a lot of writing about personal matters on these pages, though I do see fit from time to time to make an exception.  This is one of those occasions.  

On September 7th my father-in-law was called home from the frailties of this corporeal life.  While at 93 years of age and having suffered a broken hip barely a month before, his release was not wholly unexpected, it was nonetheless an occasion of great loss for the family and friends who had the privilege of knowing Jack Brown.  For those who are interested in a description of the ceremony honoring Jack, please follow this link, 
to my son's blog.  It has been requested by some that I post my remarks for the occasion.  To honor Jack's memory, my comments are posted below.

I met Nancy on a December 12th.  I had been invited to a holiday party by a business associate.  We arriving unannounced at her home, I was tagging along with her date for the evening.  Unannounced, because we all lived in Central California, where in the winter if three people sneezed simultaneously while it was raining the power or the phones went out.  In this case it was the phones.  For you younger folks, this was before the internet & personal computers, phones still had cords, and the keypads only had numbers and no color touch screens or cameras.

Our first official date was on December 17th, and on December 19th I put her and her three children on the train in San Jose, ultimately headed for Florence, Oregon where they would spend Christmas with her parents, Jack and Dorothy.  They returned December 29th.  By the second week in January we were engaged to be married, scheduled for late June.  That was nearly 28 years ago.   

I tell you that story so I can tell you this one.  In mid-February Omi and Opa as they are affectionately known, contrived the flimsy pretense of bringing a used sofa to their daughter.  Of course, it made perfect sense, drive nearly 1,300 miles round trip in the dead of winter to deliver a piece of furniture that $50 would have purchased locally.

Although they never admitted it, I’ve long suspected that a thorough inspection of this son-in-law in waiting, that had so completely swept their daughter off her feet, was the true object of this odyssey.

By any measure, Jack Brown was a big man.  6’5” tall, size 14 feet, that gravelly, baritone voice, firm handshake and welcoming hug.  I was more than a little nervous, I’ll admit, but as we talked, I discovered he had a way of putting people at ease.  We shared interests in baseball and fishing.  We could talk about politics from differing points of view without rancor.  He listened thoughtfully; spoke respectfully with someone less than half his age.  He laughed at my jokes.  A deep, rumbling laugh that revealed his great sense of humor:  And finally, he asked the question, ‘Do you love my daughter?’

I told him the truth-then and now; ‘Yes, I do; with every beat of my heart.’

We sat silently for a while as he contemplated.  Finally he said, ‘Then welcome to the family, son.’  It was that simple.  He took me at my word, gave me the benefit of the doubt, and just like that I was swept into this remarkable family.

I'm a small-town, conservative, adoptee from Idaho, mostly self-educated being embraced by a liberal, college educated California family.  I owned guns, they owned ukuleles.  My genetic family consisted of a few names on a sheet of paper yellow with age.  Their family history can be traced back centuries to the clan McDougal in Scotland.  But the patriarch, with a firm handshake and a six word sentence invited me into the warp and weft of the tapestry of his family-my family.

Over these years it has been my great privilege to know Jack Brown. His generosity, his wise counsel, his unconditional love and affection and most of all his leadership by example will be sorely missed.  Ever the educator, he taught me that the stature of a man isn’t measured in feet and inches, but in tolerance and forbearance, grace and kindness, and courage and respect.  Jack is standing tall in the presence of God now, and with his permission I’ll close with this:

Rewarded in Heaven is Jack.
Kudos from life, he’ll not lack.
For a goodly long time,
He enjoyed a good rhyme,
And now, he’ll be watching our back.

It should be noted that Jack was famous for his limericks, sometimes composed on the spot, and always displaying his humor and affection for the target of his poetry.  In many ways he was the father I yearned for at an intellectual level.  Intelligent, thoughtful and conversant with the diversities and dilemmas of life, and always ready to lend an ear (if you spoke loud enough) and offer his advice when asked.

I will miss much, but most of all his unconditional love and affection for everyone he could touch in his remarkable life.  Fare thee well, Dad.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Techno Blues

For the last month I have been dealing with technologically fatal problems with my old computer.  After a great gnashing of teeth, and a considerable financial expenditure, this problem should resolve itself by the end of this week.  My new computer should be up and running with mind-numbing speed (far outstripping my capacity to utilize same) and I should be back in the rumination business forthwith.

It's not that I haven't had anything to say, I just lacked the ability to make the posts.  Thanks to all my faithful, and casual, followers for your patience.  I'll be back soon.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Warts And All

Last night I watched an awards show.  Not a glitzy Hollywood production (although there is a tragic connection to that fabled city of dreams), but a PBS presentation of the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Songwriting.

Onstage, Sir Paul McCartney-son of a midwife and jazz musician-from humble beginnings in Liverpool, England became the third recipient of a prize named for the Brooklyn-born son of Russian -Jewish emigrants who fled pogroms in their homeland for the promise of a new chance in America.

George died tragically young-at the height of his compositional powers and popularity-from a brain tumor, in Hollywood at the Cedars-Sinai Hospital on Fountain Boulevard.  He was thirty seven years old.

Stevie Wonder-second winner of the prize last year-was born blind in Saginaw, Michigan-the product of a broken home in a racially charged era.  He performed 'Ebony & Ivory' with Sir Paul, who had written the song as a duet specifically for the two of them.

The evening was filled with high profile musicians performing McCartney's songs, him singing a few of his own, and even Jerry Seinfeld poking some gentle (and very funny) ribs.

All-in-all, it was very entertaining, and the sort of thing that makes me think about who we are and what we have become as Americans.  And how far we have yet to go to perfect this union.

Imagine, the first bi-racial President of the United States, presenting an Englishman with the most prestigious popular music award America has to offer.  An award named for a Russian Jew, George (and his lyricist brother, Ira) children of an immigrant family.    Onstage was the blind boy from Saginaw with family roots in slavery in Dixie.  

The first honoree was the Newark-born son of Hungarian immigrants.  His name is Paul Simon.

We have come so far, yet the road is longer still.  The immigration debate will go forward, let's hope the policies to come don't lead us to a darker past, best left to the dustbin of history.

Still though, last night I was reminded again just how great it is to be an American.  Warts and all.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

I'm sorry, so sorry....

...are the opening lyrics to a classic country-western song, and express my sentiments for the lengthy delay since my last posting.

 In my defense, I have been crazy busy in the month of July, and August looks pretty jammed too, but I will have more pithy-ness in the future, I promise.  As soon as I finish repair projects, editing projects, video projects, and a performance doing the announcing and foley (sound effects) in a re-creation of an old radio drama.

 Then in August, I get really busy.

Monday, June 28, 2010

My Pixar Moment

My range oven hasn't worked since it went crazy Thanksgiving day last year.  It's electronic brain just couldn't take it any more, so the default setting became EVERYTHING ON ALL THE TIME!!!  This turns out to be a very fast method of cooking, which would be fine if you planned on having dinner at 9:30 a.m.  We hadn't.

Most people opt for a meal time in early to mid afternoon on Thanksgiving.  The perpetual parade of football bowl games sometimes lingers in the background; the soundtrack of an American holiday.  This timing gives all gathered a chance to gorge, unbuckle, swoon & eventually head back to their own humble abodes down ribbons of highway engulfed in the gloom of a Pacific Northwest November.  I work on holidays, and by the time I got home, the frazzle effect on my spouse of the recalcitrant appliance was fully deployed.  Her immediate solution had been to turn off the breaker for the stove.  Then turn it on again when the oven cooled some, then off, then on.  Ingenious to be sure, but not very efficient, and it deprived her of practical use of the stove top, which otherwise worked fine.

I should mention that I am the go-to-guy for fixing things in my family.  I have tools of every description and actually know how to use them.  Upon arrival I deployed my diagnostic skills to great advantage and tackled the problem.  After several quick tests I had reached my conclusion:  "It's broken", I announced.  Apparently that had already been ascertained by the assembled hungry hordes.  My assessment was greeted with stifled yawns, glances at watches and an exhortation of exasperation from my beleaguered wife.

The immediate fix was to deploy some portable gas burners left over from our catering days, and fire up the BBQ to use as a makeshift roaster.  Dinner was achieved, gorge ensued, and the day ended happily enough.  The aftermath was this:  To repair the oven by replacing the computer board-$400.  Disconnect the oven elements-$-0-.  No-brainer, we now have a range-top with a large central storage capacity.

I told you that story so I can tell you this one:  For reasons irrelevant to this post, we don't own a microwave.  We do, however, have a toaster oven.  A nice toaster oven with a convection function we never use.  Another relic from catering.

A couple of days ago I was giving this little gem a thorough cleaning.  The sort of OCD cleaning that guys who fix things occasionally do, with the lingering notion of a full restoration.  OK, I'm probably not going to get the '63 Caddy Coupe deVille I've always wanted to make better-than-showroom, but I will by-gawd get this '98 Cuisinart Convection Toaster Oven pristine.  This is when I had my Pixar moment.  

I found myself imagining the toaster oven as Woody in Toy Story 2.  Paint worn, arm coming un-stitched,  stuffing falling out.  Then the oven chimed in.

"Oh, sure," it huffed.  "Little Miss Cuisinart gets the royal treatment.  Look at you, shining her chrome, polishing her glass.  I had one little problem and now I get the cold shoulder."

"But she's earned it!"  I exclaimed in my mind.  (I get enough crazy looks from my wife without trying to explain defending a toaster oven to a range.)  "She's never let me down.  She's done so much more than just toast.  I've even used her to cook ribs low and slow overnight.  And bread pudding!  Don't forget the bread pudding."

The stove just sat there and stared at me.  Then quietly it said, "I know what you're planning."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"You're gonna trade me in.  I know, I'm not a youngster anymore.  I'm not as stylish as I once was."  There was a wistfulness in her voice that was hard to miss.

 "No, I'm not," I said a little too quickly, trying to hide my guilt at having had that thought exactly.  "It's that your repair just isn't in the budget right now.  There's just Nancy and I, and we simply don't need a big oven all that much."

Stove eyed me closely, trying to decide if I was telling the truth.  I could see the doubt in her burners.

"Truly, we'll get you fixed before the next big holiday.  Besides, you know we cook outside a lot in the summer.  Think of it as a vacation."

"Ooooh, listen to her!"  The shrill voice of Cuisinart broke in.  "Those big, bright burners on top.  They're so showy, but she can't control herself when it really counts."

Oh, great, I thought, a feud between my range and my toaster oven.  This isn't going to end pretty.

Stove pulled in her bottom drawer a bit to draw herself up.  "You listen here, pip-squeak, you may be Ms. Reliable, but you can't cook a pizza.  You're too small, dainty, even." 

 "Okay, that's enough!  This discussion is closed," I announced.  I went back to cleaning Miss Cuisinart, and Stove sat fuming in silence.

When I had finished, I returned the toaster oven to its customary place of honor.  I plugged her in and set her clock, then stood back to admire my work.

"You know," I mumbled sotto voce to the little appliance, "Stove is right.  You can't handle a pizza."  Her clock flickered with a passing shiver of fear.

As I left the kitchen I thought I heard Stove say, "You just wait, both our days are numbered here."  Must have been my imagination.

Yesterday I was strolling the aisles of BB&B, looking at the housewares, thinking about sushi plates and wasabi bowls when I happened to wander through the small appliance sectionSitting there among her lesser rivals was Cuisinart's granddaughter.  She was sleek, modern, sexy.

"I can cook a pizza," she cooed as I walked by.  I stopped and turned to look at her.  I fondled her price tag.

"Ooooh, shiny!"  I said.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Reading to write right. Right?

Among the things of which I am sure-and those diminish at an alarming rate as I age-is that writers read.  Good writers read a lot, great writers read obsessively.  I daresay you could ask any serious writer what they are currently reading and most would give you a laundry list of novels, non-fiction, magazines, blogs, newspapers, cereal boxes, trade publications, political opinions and even other peoples' shopping lists.  This would most likely be in addition to the material dedicated to research on whatever projects are ongoing in the writer's own work.

Writers read for the same reason non-writers do:  To inform themselves, to derive entertainment, to escape from their own work and world for a moment to inhabit another, and often, for inspiration.  Most of us in the writing life have the requisite number of How-To books, Strunk & Whites, dictionaria, thesauri, Bartlett's Quotations, a few atlases, and sagging shelves of classic and contemporary authors.  We also read for the sheer pleasure of seeing the language used gracefully; for that sweet turn of phrase and, of course, to see where we might pilfer an idea or just steal a grand metaphor.  Unlike most businesses-writers don't have trade secrets-we pour our recipe ingredients onto the pages of our work and pray that the world will come to taste our creation.  The cruel reality is that many deserving writers will labor in obscurity.  Their work will never go beyond their circle of family and friends not because it unworthy, but just because it is unlucky.

I have long since abandoned the notion of 'catching up' on my reading.  There is just too much.  I won't have the time to get to everything F. Scott Fitzgerald or Jane Austen wrote.  I'm particularly fond of Dickens and Shakespeare, but can't imagine I'll ever finish my studies.  My imagination was fired and illuminated by Bradbury and Asimov;  educated by Chekhov and Poe on the short-story.  Harper Lee and Upton Sinclair kindled a modern social conscience.  And these were all writers of fiction.  I haven't even begun on the writers of biographies, science, politics, history and music.  Nonetheless, writers have fans, and are fans.  In the contemporary writers of fiction category I'm a fan of Ken Follet, Khaled Hosseni, David Guterson, and two fellow laborers in the literary garden, Robert Dugoni and Mike Lawson.

At a recent Northwest Pacific Writers Association event I had the opportunity to meet both of these authors and introduce myself to their work.  I'm glad I did.

Robert Dugoni is a New York Times bestselling author of legal thrillers that should put Scott Turow and John Grisham on notice:  There's a new voice in town and he's taking no prisoners.  Introducing attorney David Sloane in his breakout work The Jury Master, Dugoni showed that, well defined characters, crisp pacing, relentless action and page-turning excitement is just the beginning of a well-plotted, suspenseful series.  In this case I decided to start with the first book in the series.  Robert followed with Damage Control, Wrongful Death and is well into the promotion phase of his fourth, Bodily Harm, with this character--and now I have a new must-read author on my list.  Thanks, Robert, for the encouragement in my own work, and the entertainment I derive from yours.  Now all I have to do is catch up.  Sigh..a reader's work is never done!

Mike Lawson, also a New York Times bestseller, was gracious enough to sign and gift an ARC copy of his latest political thriller, House Justice, (ARC is publishing-speak for advanced readers copy-what is usually sent out for reviewers prior to publication).  This time I found myself engrossed in established characters, with back-stories I now must explore from his previous books.  Political intrigue in high places, shadowy figures, dead CIA operatives, bodies piling up, all linked to the mysterious 'unnamed source' of a journalist desperately trying so salvage a failing career, add up to a splendid yarn where no one in the book is quite sure who all the players are until the dramatic conclusion.  His style is straightforward, filled with tension, insight into the machinations of Washington D.C., and a firm grasp of unremitting motion in plot and characterizations.  Unforgettable and another fun read for thriller fans.  I highly recommend it, and look forward to catching up with his series, starting once again at the beginning with Inside the Ring.  From there I'll move on to The Second Perimeter, House Rules and House Secrets, while the rest of you are reading his latest.  Again, my appreciation to Mike for his motivation and kind words.

There you have it, this is just a peek at what writers do to write right.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Art of Dining Fine

You can tell a lot about a restaurant without taking a bite. These days that can start without leaving your computer screen. Does the eatery in question have a web site? Is is professionally done with great photos and enough information to make an informed dining decision? Great looking interactive websites are important since this is increasingly that 'first impression' every business owner wishes to make. If reservations are recommended, is the phone answered promptly and courteously? When your preferred time and/or day isn't available, do they have an alternate suggestion? It may seem counter-productive to suggest a competitor to a caller, but I certainly remember and appreciate that effort. And I reward it by making sure they get first chance the next time I'm looking for a dining spot.

Discounting multi-nationals that crank out dyspepsia by the bucketful or palatable but entirely predictable chow chains, let's focus on local establishments with maybe six or fewer locations (wherever you are) and how to ferret out the good from all the others. After all, it's your hard-earned money, and now, more than ever getting value for the bucks is important.

Some things are obvious: Well cleaned, pleasant appointments, prompt attention upon arrival and adequate lighting both inside and out are essentials. I can't tell you how annoying it is when I find myself trying to peruse a menu by the light of a single guttering candle. I'm all for ambiance, but unless the Maitre d' or waiter offers a flashlight, forgo cave-like interiors. Who knows what else the dim lighting may be hiding?

So now we're in the door and in our seats. That seating should be comfortable and appropriate to the price point. A high end restaurant should extend guests a leisurely pace. Done perfectly, the dining experience will seems to flow seamlessly, taking exactly as long as it should. Not rushed; well attended but without having staff hovering like bees pollinating a flower. In a casual dining setting expect things to move a bit quicker, but if it ever feels like you're getting the bums rush, cross them off the futures list.

A well designed space will try to avoid having tables next to swinging doors from the kitchen and work space for waiters. The higher up the $$$ list you ascend the more important this becomes. Casual dining is sometimes done in small spaces and accommodations should be allowed. But in the bleak midwinter they should simply take down tables within leaf-blowing or Arctic blast range of the entry door.

I should admit to a pet peeve. When my spouse and I dine out we don't appreciate being referred to as 'You Guys'. I've earned my gray hair and my lovely wife is certainly not one of the guys. Well trained wait staff should NEVER say that phrase unless confronted by a bunch of college frat boys at a pizza joint. Please don't misunderstand, I don't mind an informal greeting, or even a little kibitzing if I open that door, but 'you guys' is just plain laziness in training and reflects poorly on management. It's just one of those things that starts a dining experience for me with a clunk.

By now you should be ensconced in a comfortable seat, with adequate lighting, out of the flow of work space with a menu and beverage list in your hands. If the menu is decoupage on a plank two feet square, this is not a good sign. Neither is it encouraging if it is laminated plastic with fading photos of food and in a corner somewhere tiny letters with something like: 'rev 2/3/91'. The words 'No Substitutions' suggests a less than accommodating kitchen and now, before any commitment has been made, would be the time to reassess your choice and flee.

Menus should be clean and in good repair. Menus should be limited. If the selections available are a laundry list that looks like it is trying to be all things to all diners, chances are excellent that it will present a mish-mash of frozen, dehydrated, concentrated, reconstituted box-o-food.  It will, for the most part, miss the mark entirely. Local restaurants should focus on doing a few things very well. Two cases in point here in Bellingham are Flats Wine and Tapas Bar and Tivoli. Both places focus on great food and warm service, yet are miles apart in ambiance and offerings.

At Tapas in Fairhaven cozy seating and tasty treats are styled on that most casual, yet culturally important aspect of Spain, the tapas bar. In Spanish cities there might be dozens, even hundreds of little places, each specializing in one particular item. Patrons can make a quick lunch (mostly standing up) or make a leisurely evening tasting tour.

In Fairhaven that tour is taken from your chair. The menu evolves continuously, taking full advantage of what is best both locally and from afar and in my experience always produces a superior result. Fine dining should be a fully rounded sensory experience engaging your eyes and olfactory first and paying dividends on the palate. The El Greco, bright red Spanish piquillo peppers stuffed with seasoned lamb and rice arrived on a plate with a roasted yellow pepper sauce and was topped with feta and fresh mint then bracketed by garlic yogurt and a balsamic reduction. It stole the show for me, but my partner was equally smitten by the pan-seared divers scallops served on pureed cannellini beans with caramelized onions, allioli and hazelnut pesto. There was more, including a nice wine list of both bottles and by-the-glass selections, but you get the picture. It was a great meal at what is becoming an institution on the South Side.

Tivoli in downtown, on the other hand, has a decidedly more Continental flair. It is a casually formal bistro (about as dressy as Bellingham ever really gets is a jacket and slacks, but an REI inspired outfit would fit in just as well). Service is superb. the wine list subtle yet accessible, the menu limited and the execution of the dishes spot on. On my last visit I began with a silky duck & chicken liver pate' (something not seen nearly enough in my opinion) then placed myself in the hands of the Chef d'cuisine.  I was rewarded with a succulent duck breast cooked to medium-rare perfection and sauced perfectly. Haricots vert and a fascinating cauliflower mash rounded out the plate. My partner, opting for the classic Coq au vin, found it a treat for the eyes and sensation on the tongue. I finished my evening with a dessert of pear, poached in zinfandel wine.

What both of these fine places have in common is a well trained staff, a few selections done to perfection and an ongoing effort to re-invent and improve themselves periodically. Any eatery standing on its laurels is losing ground.

Lest you imagine everything is up to the beanery for your dining experience, let me suggest a few ground rules for the customer to follow.

1. When you make a reservation--keep it. Don't double book, and if for some reason you can't make it, have the courtesy to call. They had the courtesy to save a spot for you, return the favor.

2. Don't take out your personal problems on the staff. If you are in a cranky mood or mad at the world save everybody the heartburn. Drive thru Burger Bomb then go home and sulk watching reruns of Seinfeld.

3. Choose your dining options with some common sense. A steak house is not the place to expect to find great local seafood. Do a little homework, see what's on the menu. If you have the time, call and ask what's fresh.

4.  Try something new.  I cannot stress this enough.  Expand your horizons, try something of which you've never heard paired with a wine you haven't tried.  Read recipes once in a while.  You cannot know what you don't know.  If you never swing you won't hit a home run.  (Insert additional cliche's here, if needed, as a prod.)

5. Don't get drunk and loud. Don't get drunk and loud. Don't get dru...sometimes this needs repeating.

6. Don't be a cheapskate. Dining dollars are dear these days for many of us, but workers in the hospitality industry generally make minimum wage and often cobble together two or three jobs to make a living. Most have families and don't get health care. Ante up a decent tip.

7. Remember to have a good time. Turn off the cell phone, engage in conversation with your partner, resist the urge to watch ESPN on the tube in the bar (okay, I still have trouble with this one). Relax for an hour or so and forget about your worries, they'll still be there waiting for you after dessert.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Verse...or worse.

April is National Poetry Month, so I thought I might reach back into my archives & give readers a glimpse of what was on my mind 33 years ago (gasp!).

Dietary Blues

If I act a little cross,
and for reason you're at a loss
let me put your mind at ease,
while I explain the dread disease.

Alas, I must admit
that I'm more than just a bit
shorter with my fuse,
'cause I got those dietary blues.

You see, I'm on a diet;
where you poach instead of fry it.
The eggs you eat are coddled
and your stomach's nearly curdled.

My open mouth now lingers
near a plate of Lady Fingers.
What tortures we endure
with our motives saintly pure.

We passed up ala'mode,
past gravy strongly strode.
But taste buds they did flutter
as the roll we missed had butter.

On we march past hot dogs,
no brownies or pecan logs.
I'm possessed of will of steel
when kept away from any meal.

Oh the things I now forgo
to keep my calories low
are not just simply a few
but fill a cookbook, or two.

There's pies and cookies and cakes
and other things you bake.
I passed up Duck L'Orange
and the BBQ at the Grange.

There's no end to my love of pasta,
and for soda, it hasta be Shasta.
No champignons in sauce,
no cotton candy floss.

The days are rolling by.
My mouth keeps getting dry.
Thinking one day in the park,
"Hmmm, I could eat that meadowlark!"

The fat friends cheer you on,
the thin ones think you're drawn.
Yep, got those dietary blues
from my head down to my shoes.

"It's worth it" my friends say,
the pangs I suffer through each day,
when I see myself much thinner
cuz I ate a lot less dinner.

Of this fact they're so sure,
but I wonder if the cure
isn't worse than the disease
of going without split peas.

So if you see me on the loose
looking for lettuce or some juice,
if I reach for something else
just give me a little goose.
Or turkey, or chicken, or rice, or spaghetti...perhaps a nice marmelade on a brioche.......

Okay, the L'Orange and Grange thing was just because there isn't supposed to be any way to rhyme orange, and I'm stubborn that way, and the pasta and Shasta works much better up here near Canada. Give me a break, I was a kid.

Happy doggerel month one and all.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Walls Have Eyes a short story

It's been a while since I posted a short story so it seems like a good time to lay aside political commentary and send along something completely different.

The Walls Have Eyes

Everyone is staring at me. All those eyes are focused directly on me. Well, not literally, of course, it's just an old photograph populated with long dead, unnamed, sepia-toned forebears peering at a camera lens. But somehow they seem to be staring just at me this moment: In this particular case it's professorial looking men with close-cropped hair. Pencil thin mustaches are in evidence here and there and each is clad in a crisp white lab coat with a row of buttons up one side. All in all a study in thoughtful superiority with just the merest hint of a condescending smile.
One frame over, similarly posed is an orderly assemblage of women in starchy white and gray nuns habits with large striped aprons and old fashioned nurses hats with crosses in the middle. Their countenance is solemn--almost stern--not to be trifled with.
Finally, the last old photo on this wall captures a sturdy brick building situated atop the knob of a hill. Telegraph poles fade into the barren distance. A wagon and a few flivvers are parked in front. The caption reads: 'Old Mercy Hospital, circa 1919'.
Like the photos of those who populated the halls of Old Mercy, the building itself reflects the no-nonsense utilitarian ethic of the time. Square, functional, devoid of unnecessary ornamentation.
I've seen these people before, thousands of faces and places staring unblinkingly at me from the past. Dust bowl farmers, gold rush prospectors, lumberjacks dwarfed by felled Sequoias, railroad section hands, coal miners, fish packers and factory workers. I've seen them all before, but never really looked at them. Like a tourist might see a famous museum. Idly curious, perhaps taking an extra moment or two on a few notable pieces, then checking it off the list and heading for the cathedral or opera house next on the tour.
But today I'm looking more closely. As I stand in the lobby of the modern Mercy Hospital, its air scrubbed clean and conditioned to a monotonous seventy degrees I notice windows open in the old photograph. A breeze is blowing a curtain outside. That couldn't happen here of course, the windows don't open. I try to imagine what it must have been like: Before chemistry and transfusions and antibiotics. Before x-rays, ultrasounds and CT scans, when anesthesiologists used ether or maybe bourbon on a patient before surgery. I picture surgeons, or perhaps nurses or technicians--I'm not sure, really--honing a scalpel on a razor strop preparing to make incisions big enough for two hands. Incisions replaced today with tiny punctures where remotely operated sterile instruments delicately perform routine miracles with a few days of discomfort replacing weeks of post-operative trauma. It's tough to imagine when anxiety about nature's capacity to fight raging infection was supplanted by a course of cheap pills.
The gulf seems too wide to fully comprehend. The past trapped in the photos is beyond my reach; too detached to have any contemporaneous meaning. So are the people. Not just the doctors and nurses behind glass on the wall before me but the others too, recalled from my memory. The soldiers posing by their tents, the fishermen hauling in their catch are all viewed with the same detachment an anthropologist might have for the ten-thousand year old skull found at a dig site.
The melancholy Dane could bemoan the fate of Yorick because he knew him, but I lack that empathy. The faces in all those old photos don't dress like me, think like me, live like me. They don't even look like me.
As my minds' eye shuffles through remembered images, like looking for an album in an iPod, a warm flush suffuses through me then it dawns on me, they don't look like me! Suddenly it becomes important to really focus my thoughts. Why don't they look like me? I'm straining to mentally recall the details when it hits me: All those eyes staring at me are attached to lean--even meager--faces. Beyond thin in the modern sense, most of them are skinny. Synonyms rush into my head: wiry, angular, sinewy, scrawny, gaunt and rawboned. Even the prosperous are mostly lanky with the occasional matronly woman or portly man tossed in the mix, but today's tabloids would be wondering aloud about eating disorders plaguing the richly famous among them.
Yet for all that they look healthy, vigorous even. Ready to tackle the great physical challenges before them; ready to chop down trees or drive covered wagons across the plains. Ready to walk or ride or run if need be to the next task in the conquering of a continent. They look ready to do what I cannot.
I am now uncomfortably aware of my surroundings; acutely attuned to the whisper-quiet rumble of the conditioned air and observant of the gleaming stainless and Formica surfaces. I feel small at the modern-ness of it all. My luxurious car is parked in a garage several stories below, just a few steps from the elevator. My era is a time of double bacon cheeseburgers, fries and soft drinks available from drive-up windows twenty four hours a day. Mine is a time of ergonomic chairs with lumbar support, computers and telephones without wires and televisions without content. Mine is a time of ridiculous paradoxes like driving to workouts and cheering athletic events with beer and chicken wings and chips; of food networks adjacent to exercise channels. Mine is a time when the leading causes of death are heart disease, cancer and respiratory disorders. Theirs was a time when the leading causes of death were accidents, childbirth and the flu. I'm beginning to empathize with the past, connect to their emotions feel their circumstances.
"Mr. Jenkins?"
The moment is broken, I turn and nod dumbly.
"They're ready for you now."
I kiss my wife and murmur reassurances. The nurse, clad in surgical scrubs featuring Sponge Bob Square Pants, tells her I should be in recovery in about three hours and that when she is done the doctor will be out to let her know how it all went. Crammed into a wheelchair I disappear behind the "Surgery Suites--Authorized Personnel Only" doors. I guess being a patient authorizes me.
The institutional beige corridors surround and form a maze of rooms stuffed with technology where eventually all the questions are asked and answered, the forms signed and the clothes exchanged for the ubiquitous hospital gown. I am wheeled into a chilled room inhabited by half a dozen or so people swaddled in sterile cotton and nitrile gloves. The last thoughts I have before slipping into drug induced sleep is wondering what all those fleshless people in the old photos would think about gastric bypass surgery.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Fear, Inc.

On February 15, 1898 the U.S. Navy's dreadnought battleship U.S.S. Maine sustained a huge explosion and sank in the harbor of Havana, Cuba with the loss of nearly 3/4 of the 364 man crew.  Shortly thereafter a photographer dispatched by William Randolph Hearst to take pictures of the 'war' complained to his boss that there was no conflict to photograph.  Hearst shot back this famous telegram:  'You provide the pictures, I'll provide the war.'

In the 1920's the press dubbed a gangland cooperative created by the National Crime Syndicate; Murder, Incorporated.  The NCS itself was a Board of Directors of sorts comprised of crime gang leaders from New York and New Jersey and served as a clearing house for airing grievances, settling turf wars, establishing a coordinated approach to dealing with law enforcers, and in the case of Murder, Inc., enforcing discipline.

Employees were paid a regular salary, got 'bonuses' of $1,000 to $5,000 for each killing, had a health care plan, the best lawyers money could buy and assurances their families would be taken care of should some harm befall them.  1 to 5 K may not sound like much now, but in the Roaring '20's, 5,000 bucks was enough to buy two Packard automobiles.  In modern terms, two Cadillac Escalades.  A thug could make a pretty good living fulfilling 'contracts'.  This, by the way, is when the term 'contract' first appeared in the context of murder.

In the 1950's, following WWII and concurrent with the Korean War, the Red Menace became the public veneer of a Godless empire with evil intentions growing as a cancerous  malignancy to blight the world.  Or so it was told by breathless commentators.  Suspected commies were rooted out by the House Un-American Activities Committee.  It was led by a self-aggrandizing pol with barely a nodding acquaintance to truthfulness, born on a farm in Grand Chute, Wisconsin as Joseph Raymond McCarthy.  His Chief Legal Counsel was a Duke law school grad from Yorba Linda, California named Richard Nixon.

In the 1960's there was George Wallace....well, you get the point.  There is always someone willing to use fear to manipulate circumstances to benefit their personal agenda.  Whether it is a complicit press seeking larger circulation (or I suppose, ratings or website hits, these days), a middling politician or union organizer with a taste for greater power and luxury,  a crusader led astray by fanaticism, or worst of all, a cynic just grubbing for money, someone always steps up to the plate.  So long as their has been human organization the powerful, or those aspiring to become so have unleashed fear as a primary weapon in their arsenals of aggression, or suppression.

But something has changed in the last twenty years accelerating the process and that something is technology.  Specifically, communications technology.  Vietnam was reported on film stock, edited and delivered days later.  Radio was faster but less visceral.  Newspapers got wire photos and reports from United Press International, Associated Press and Reuters, usually in time for same day publication.  Reactions to these images and stories were written and mailed, or telephoned.  Time elapsed between event and reaction.  War was distant but the threat was made ever present to suit the needs of the powerful or ambitious.

Today wars are waged in real time.  Depending on where you lived in the U.S. it was possible to watch Baghdad being bombed while eating your morning corn flakes before you went to work.  It also meant you could watch people die in real time.  Not a movie, though it seemed like it; real people--good guys and bad--died during my breakfast.  I could respond in real time as well.  If I was technologically savvy I could fax, phone or even email within seconds of seeing the event.  Time to think no longer stood between event and reaction.

I was told by those in power that it was the right thing to do.  They showed me evidence that evil doers needed to be rooted out, and indeed, following the horrifying images of the carnage at the World Trade Center (watched with incredulous disbelief as it was happening) it seemed clear enough they were correct.  I supported the effort to wreak vengeance on Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.  I was convinced, along with the U.N.,  by the Secretary of State that Saddam was in league with these killers.  I was afraid.  I was schooled to be afraid.  Buy duct tape and plastic sheeting and gas masks.  It was the cold war gone hot.  Duck and cover all over again, and I fell for it.

I'm nearly a decade older now, and more wary of scary.  Finally I am on to the tactics, and the rationales behinds these assaults.  I look more deeply; don't take things at face value when presented to me as frightening attacks on my freedoms, health care, gun rights, Christian values, Medicare, dot-dot-dot ad infinitum.  I get it now, fear is a commodity.

Fear as a commodity is a new concept for me.  I understood the manipulative qualities, and to my personal shame have used them myself from time to time.  But it is only recently that I stumbled upon the quantifiable monetizing of fear.  The packaging and sales of fear explains what seemed so inexplicable to me.  It illuminates the success of talk media, both from the left and the right.  The right tells me to fear the left.  They're Socialistas seeking to steal your liberty bit by bit.  They want to kill your babies in the womb and loose rapists amongst your daughters, raise your taxes and kill businesses.  Oil your guns, lay in ammo and supplies, get ready to go the hills to survive.  Could you donate $25 or more for the fight to preserve your heritage?

The left enjoins me to abjure my conservative roots.  Those rednecks want to impose their reactionary Christian Taliban views on us all.  They want the poor to perish in the streets, to be swept away with the rest of the rubbish.  They want to make diversity a foreign word and lock up all the fags and atheists.  They want Big Business left unfettered to pillage the citizenry.  Print up more posters, march on Washington, sit in somewhere.  Sing 'We Shall Overcome".  Click here to donate $25 or more now to defend against this onslaught to your liberty.

Fear has a price.  It is traded on the major exchanges.  Fox News, MSNBC, the EIB Network, Air America all profit from fear as a commodity.  Limbaugh, Olbermann, Beck, Maddow and a long list of grander and lesser players all derive their incomes (and tidy ones they are) from the packaging and sales of paranoia.  They are spectacularly successful and market the resulting no-time-t0-think frenzy as 'news' in a self-renewing cycle of profitability.  They play clips of each other with commentary designed to enrage without enlightening and then deftly slip in the fear mongering just before the commercial break.  Each has its cadre of experts, politicians hungry for media time, and pundits raking in a few bucks on the side by beefing up 'analysis' with their own opining.

But I'm on to you now, I see how and what you do.  What used to be healthy skepticism on my part has been transmogrified into vigilant cynicism.  I'll admit to losing my innocence long ago, now perhaps finally I bid adieu to my gullibility as well.  This is what Fear, Incorporated has sold me.  It makes me sad, a little, to lose that piece of wonder and nescience that every soul should retain.  It makes me angry too, with the perpetrators for their mischief and myself for my personal credulousness.  I don't want to become just another angry old white guy.

Yet now, that is what I fear.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

R.I.P. G.O.P.

It's done, but not finished.  Health care (or more accurately, health insurance) reform is the law of the land.  A few minor fixes will survive the reconciliation process and the Obama administration will put a check mark next to this item on their to-do list.  To be sure, it will face an onslaught of misguided legal challenges; which it will survive, as the Republican party continues to Balkanize itself on the shoals of intolerance.

The GOP has allowed itself to become fractured in a way that I used to think only Democrats were capable of doing.  I suppose what is about to happen is best characterized as the ritual cleansing of those weaklings among the keepers of the True Faith that have succumbed to the demon of reason and common sense.  These purges take place historically shortly before a political party self-immolates.  It is a sad thing to see the party of Lincoln about to break itself apart upon the reefs of extremism.

Even Barry Goldwater wouldn't recognize this party.  However rigid his ideology, he still understood that engagement in the process--even in a losing effort--was important.  His successor from Arizona has decided instead, in a fit of pique, that he just won't join in anymore.  Former presidential candidate and Senator from Arizona John McCain announced on the Senate floor he would no longer participate in lawmaking this session.  He did not resign, or offer to return his salary to the Treasury Department, he just decided to become the laziest Senator in Washington.  That in itself is a pretty tall order.  He apparently believes he is up to the task, but I imagine he will walk that statement back.  Egos of that proportion don't stand in the darkness very long.  Perhaps the voters in Arizona will finally receive that for which they are paying.  Perhaps they will instead decide his retirement is appropriate this fall.

Fear mongering has an epic and sordid history in politics.  In long ago and recent times it relies on distortions, lies and ad hominen personal attacks to gain traction among the poorly informed.  Then it fans the flames of divisiveness with race-baiting and conspiracy theories that would be laughable if the intent wasn't so sinister.  In the infancy of this country tracts were published under pseudonyms and distributed by hand and reprinted in small presses.  Later, similar tactics were adopted by newspapers on a massive scale (notably Hearst publications) as yellow journalism flourished in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.  Since then the cavalcade of technology has brought us Father Coughlin, an anti-Semitic Nazi apologist; Sen. Joe McCarthy, a Commie hunter that almost single-handedly fomented the Cold War, and has led us from Joe Pine to Rush Limbaugh and the modern day successor to Hearst, Rupert Murdoch and Fox 'News'.  The saddest part of this, especially in recent times, is that for Limbaugh and his ilk stirring the pot is a cold calculation to make more money.  Make no mistake, theirs is not an act of conscience, it is show business.  With controversy--the more shrill the better--comes ratings.  With ratings comes cash.  End of story.

Watch carefully.  When the hubbub over health care dies down, as it will, and the value of the sideshow loses its ratings punch, the flabby arguments from the right will disappear and a new villainous conspiracy will emerge.  It's even money what it will be.  The Senate will take up regulatory reform of the financial industry next and you can be sure that the right will weigh in, but perhaps with caution, given the mood of the populace toward that industry.  My bet for the next cause celebre' for conspiracy theorist will be immigration reform.  Expect a comeback from Lou Dobbs for that effort.

Ultimately, when no reasonable middle course of action is acceptable to the extremophiles of a party, factionalization will doom it to the dustbin of history.  Without strong leadership and a reassertion of reasonable compromise that is where the GOP seems headed.

I suppose if I really wanted to reopen the conspiracy can of worms I could let it leak that all those water boardings Dick Cheney insists were are so important in Gitmo were done with fluoridated water, in Area 51 instead.

As Sarah Palin put it; time to reload, America.

Monday, March 1, 2010

My Dinner at Antoine's

I've had occasion recently to sup in some very fine eateries, and I have a few thoughts about the art of dining fine upon which I shall expound in the future.  But today I have one establishment particularly in mind for reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with great food, but instead for speaking to the essence of living a meaningful life.  But first you need a little history.

Antoine's in New Orleans is a much venerated institution.  It began as a pension' when 27 year old French immigrant Antoine Alciatore left a frustrating business effort in New York to come to New Orleans.  After a short stint as the chef in a nearby hotel he started his own place in 1840.  He brought his fiance' from New York and soon they were married and the wonderful aromas emanating from his kitchen enraptured the Queen City of the Mississippi and a legend began to bloom.  A charming story, and true as far as it goes.  Then steam displaced wind as the motive force for boats on the river, and predictable schedules for shipping reduced the demand for lodging in his little pension', but not the enthusiasm of patrons for his restaurant. 

Wishing to spare his wife the agony of seeing his slow death, and desiring to be buried in his homeland, Antoine took his leave in 1874 and sailed home alone to Marseilles where he died within the year.  Undaunted, his wife carried on, sending son Jules six years later to learn his craft in the great culinary centers of Paris, Strassburg and Marseilles.  He returned and assumed command of the now famous Antoine's at the end of the nineteenth century, where his genius in the kitchen demonstrated itself with creations such as Oysters Rockefeller, a moniker he laughingly applied to the rich sauce he created but which had no association with the person for whom it was named.  Jules fancied it a joke, but the name stuck.  Today it would be Oysters Gates, maybe.  By the way, that spinach and cheese concoction you may have been served elsewhere is a pale imitation invented by a jealous rival when Jules refused to disclose the recipe, still kept a family secret to this day.

Skip ahead three generations.  Antoine's, always guided by a direct descendant of Mssr. Alciatore himself has weathered war, prohibition, depression, war, changing style, war, and of course, the weather.  Until Katrina struck and everything changed for the Crescent City.

Huge swaths underwater, looting, death, inept relief efforts; all pictures we remember vividly.  Pictures for most of us, reality for New Orleaneans.  Mercifully, or more accurately because the founders of the tiny community on Isle d'Orleans, Mssrs. Iberville and Bienville built on higher ground, Veaux Carre' ( voe kuh RAY-the French Quarter to tourists) avoided the flooding, but not the wind.

Over the last one hundred sixty years of Antoine's growth it absorbed neighboring buildings.  It encased and enclosed cooking areas that were once open courtyards with coal fueled firepits and second story slave quarters.  It built a vast and enviable wine cellar in what had been an alleyway and inhabited each acquisition like a hermit crab making a home in a found space.  The storm toppled away a century old plus second story leaving areas exposed to the elements for three weeks.  A 1953 Chateau LaFitte Bordeaux wine does not like exposure to wind, rain and tropical temperatures.  An entire wine cellar becomes so much vinegar.  And from an insurers point of view, just some perishable reimbursed at the current market value.  A '53 Chateau worth maybe $2500 is replaceable with a 2003 Chateau worth about $35.

But more importantly, it left the employees and patrons scattered to the four corners; unemployed, separated from family--or worse, and homeless, mostly with just the clothes on their backs.

The easy thing, the business thing, the expedient thing, maybe even the smart thing to do would have been to take the insurance money, say it had been a great run and retire.  New Orleans, you could justify, is too wounded to recover, our people now like the diaspora.  We can't go back again.  But Antoine's isn't a legendary place just because the food is great.  Lots of nouveau cafes have smart young chefs churning out fabulous food.  Antoine's is a legend because of its people.  Like the family that owns Antoine's, employees stretch back through it's history too.  One generation assumes guardianship of the fine service and precious recipes from their fathers, mothers, grandparents, sisters and brothers.  Like New Orleans itself, the people of Antoine's are more than employees--they are members of the family.

Which helps to explain why the newest generation of leadership didn't quit.  The great, great, grandson of Antoine Alciatore came back, rolled up his sleeves and went to work.  He wrangled with recalcitrant insurance agencies:  No, you can't continue your employees health benefits because you aren't open for business so they aren't currently employees.  Catch 22.  What could he do?  He could pay the entire cost of COBRA coverage out of his own pocket for every employee.  So he did.  He found where people were; in Arkansas, Texas, Florida and elsewhere and brought them back.  He found places for them to live, co-signed countless rental agreements, and put them to work cleaning and reconstructing.  He had them polishing silverware and reclaiming tables and chairs.  As soon as he could he opened the Hermes Bar, the oldest part of the location they have so long occupied.  He gave them something to which they could look forward:  He gave them hope and purpose.

When I asked the obvious question, why he would do such a thing--take such a huge risk--he looked at me without a moments hesitation and said, "How could I not.  They're family.  You do what you have to do."

"You do what you have to do."  It is a lesson all Americans should take to heart.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Sun Never Sets

I was standing on gravel beach by Hale Passage yesterday afternoon having some photos taken for use in a publicity campaign.  It was uncommonly warm for February 2, around 52 degrees.  The water was still and the sun shone brightly through partly cloudy skies.  Looming darkly in the background was Lummi Island.   Even a few friendly dogs, hoping to be in the picture, or more likely, hoping I would throw their sodden stick for them until darkness set it, came by to say hello.  My multi-talented friend Jeffrey B. Stiglitz was behind the camera.  My job was to try to make a good face for radio seem to be a good face for a book jacket too.  Needless to say I had lots of time on my hands.

With that time I reflected on my friends and acquaintances, on their many talents and how far flung they are worldwide.  Among this group are attorneys and car salesmen, real estate agents and photographers, ministers of the gospel and internet gurus.  I number among my friends physicians, printers, social workers, retailers, wholesalers and chefs.  I rub elbows from time to time with artists, film makers, movie stars and gardeners.  I know jewelry makers and jewelry sellers, writers, publishers, editors, agents and interior designers.  I count as dear friends cops (and probably a robber or two) and fly fishers.  I could go on, but you get the point.

Many of these people volunteer for and donate to multiple charities.  They think pink for breast cancer, donate for earthquake relief in Haiti--or go there by their own means to lend a hand.  They collect warm coats for the homeless in the winter and help abused children and women and do a thousand other things of which I'm not even aware.  And yet, with all that happening, from around the globe and across the street they still manage to visit my blog when I post something new.  They take a moment to send me an encouraging email while becoming fans of my Facebook page (!/pages/R-L-Paces-Rising-Son-Trilogy-Island-Dawn-Book-One/259112635667?ref=ts).  They ask when my book 'Island Dawn' is due out (summer 2010) and how they can get it. 

A few have taken the time to labor through early manuscripts and make cogent suggestions on how to improve the work.  Now, publishing contract in hand, I stand here on a beach on a mild winter day having pictures taken.  One of these photos will end up on the dust cover of my book.  I'm having a little contest on Facebook to have fans choose which one they like the best.  If you would like to vote, click on the link above and by all means do so.

The point of all this is how amazed I am by my friends.  And how appreciative I am that they care about me as much as I care about them. Scattered around the world in Great Britain, Malta, Hawaii, Japan, Austria, Vietnam, New Zealand, India and beyond are the brightest, most industrious people in their fields.  Winners of Oscars and Pulitzer Prizes and Humanitarian Awards find the time to say hello.

I'll steal a phrase from the nineteenth century and observe that the sun never sets on the talented circle of friends and aquaintances I have around the world.

That is something about which I am truly grateful.  Thanks and love to you all.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Mr. Brown Goes to Washington

A naive young man is appointed to fill the unexpired term of a U.S. Senator by a corrupt Governor because party leaders think he will be easy to manage to their liking.  The young man goes to Washington where he quickly learns that what is best for the country isn't always best for the Senate, and his efforts to pass a bill to help young people is met with resistance.  When he pursues this bill anyway, the state party boss resorts to a malicious and untrue scandal to undermine the young idealist.  The penultimate scene is a filibuster with an impassioned plea on the floor of the Senate to return to what's best for the country and not just cozy for the politicians.  They are swayed by the earnest young man and promise to reform.  The country is better for it thereafter.

That, in a nutshell, is a synopsis of the Oscar-winning Frank Capra 1939 film, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."  James Stewart plays Smith, and Claude Rains the senior Senator with the epiphany.  It's a great movie with a fabulous screenplay and terrific acting.  It could not happen today.  Mr. Smith might go to Washington, but the Senate would never let the filibuster play out on the floor.

Why, you may ask, is this so?  And while we're at it, why does it take 60 votes in the Senate to pass anything when 51 constitutes a majority?  Both good questions, and both answered the same way.  Senate rules.

A couple of decades or so ago most of the old white men that run the Senate concluded that real filibusters (the ones where members were required to stay on the floor, and the speaker held the floor by reading cookbooks and magazines into the Congessional Record) were inconvenient to their social lives, made fundraising more difficult and kept them up past their bedtimes.  So they changed the rules for a filibuster.  Now all that is required is for a Senator to state that he or she will do so and the Senate automatically moves to cloture (the move to shut off a filibuster, 60 votes being required).  No messy late nights.  No tedious actual lawmaking.  Dinner plans are intact and lobbyist's hours are not unduly imposed upon.  Very tidy.  Also lethal to progress for the American People.

Why, you may ask, doesn't the party with the majority simply change the rules?  They have that right, indeed, the power players routinely change rules to suit them when they achieve the majority.  But not this rule.  This rule stands, and will continue to stand for one very simple reason:  The party in power will not always be so.  Therefore a gentleman's agreement was reached wherein neither party will change this particular rule for fear of retribution from other members when the inevitable fall from the grace of the voters occurs.

Like what happened in the 2008 election.  Democrats took commanding control of the Senate and the House.  Republicans in the Senate need only write the word filibuster on a slip of paper and hand it to the Clerk and now 60 votes are needed to sneeze or take a potty break.  Bear in mind, this is not what the American People or the Constitution had in mind, but the Senate has its rules.

Herein lies the irony of Mr. Smith of Mass. going to D.C.  He was elected because Democrats exhibited that most enduring party trait;  internal meltdown.  The Dems managed to present to the voters an unappealing candidate so sure of her election she barely bothered to campaign until polls showed that defeat was imminent.  My liberal friends have asked me from time to time why I won't move to the Democratic Party, and instead choose to remain Independent.  In a phrase, it's party discipline.  However wrongheaded the Republicans are at this moment--and trust me on this one, they are way off the reservation--they at least know how to maintain a coherent (if inaccurate) message.  Dems on the other hand show an unfailing ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.  It's a wonder any of them can walk given how many times they have shot themselves in the foot.

So, Mr. Brown will go to Washington and will become a majority of one.  One man, one slip of paper and the wheels of government grind to a halt.  Ridiculous concessions will be made, laws will be written not for good governance, but to appease the ego of a single Senator to get that crucial vote.  It won't even be good sausage.

I think they ought to bring back the real deal.  If you want to filibuster, fine.  Bring in the cots, haul out the cookbooks and magazines and settle in for a few days of butt busting legislative work.  Talk till your voice is raw, wear a diaper so you don't have to relinquish the floor, get yourself and 99 other old men and women dead tired and wanting to go home.  Then start doing what you should be doing anyway.  Start making decent law and reasonable compromises.  Start thinking about country first and party second, or maybe third.  Ignore lobbyists for a change.  Do the right thing.

It'll never happen of course, but I can dream, can't I?