Saturday, December 11, 2010

Estelle's Dream

Early this morning, I awoke from a most unusual dream.  It seems that I was once again on a mission to find my old house in Charlotte.  As so often happens, the house I found did not physically resemble the house I actually lived in while in Charlotte.  I have had this dream fairly often:  for a two-year period in the 1990's, I lived in Charlotte in a wonderful house, but due to repeated acquisitions and mergers in the industry in which I was working at the time, I decided to resign from that position and take a new job in Atlanta.  We sold the house after living in it for only twenty months.  I believe that left me with a somewhat unresolved issue which, for whatever reason, continues to surface in my dreams.  But what made this morning's dream different was that its focus turned out to be not the house, but instead my grandmother's presence there.

My grandmother Estelle, my father's mother, passed away in the 1980's, but while alive, she was a true matriarch.  Several years ago, I published a short essay about Estelle on my Whole Bean website, and I commented there how Grandma had moved from Tennessee to California after my grandfather's death to live with my uncle and his family.  At first, she balked at the notion of moving out West, but in later years, she grew to appreciate the West Coast lifestyle and adopted it as her own.  (The last time I saw Grandma, she had abandoned her traditional signature flower print dress in favor of a lively orange muumuu.)

In my dream, it turned out that the house I was looking for was not in North Carolina but was rather in the hills above the San Fernando Valley in southern California.  It seems that this is a recurring theme in my dreams -- a familiar house is set in a different location.  (I'm not completely sure what this means, but I'll leave that to the "dream experts".)  It turns out that Grandma was living in this house and indeed, she was quite comfortable there.  She gave me a tour of the house and grounds, walking so quickly that I could barely keep pace.  She'd had a system of elevators installed, because even though she could walk fast, she occasionally had trouble getting up and down the stairs.  I cannot remember exactly how many people were in the house, but I do recall that at least a couple of her friends were there with her.  All in all, she seemed perfectly in her element.

I awoke this morning with a feeling of quiet contentment, knowing that Grandma, wherever she might be, was happy, and that made me happy as well.  Owing to the physical distance between us, I did not get to visit with her as often as I would have liked in the last few years of her life, so maybe this dream was a way of the universe telling me that things turned out well for her, or maybe Grandma herself was actually giving me a window into some kind of afterlife -- I'm not really sure.  But whatever the reason, I'm thankful that the spirit of a person seems to live beyond their years and that sometimes, when you least expect it, you receive a welcome personal visit.  

Yes, I miss you, Grandma, but I'm glad you are OK.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Pass the Port, Please

Back in the 1970's, the immensely popular comedy Monty Python's Flying Circus featured a skit titled "Spot the Loony". I fear that this phrase might be applied to me when it comes to obsessive reading behavior.  Hey, all you people in Atlanta...I know there may be other justifications for this title, but we're strictly talking about reading here.

Some years ago, I heard on the wind about a little book called "A Year in Provence".  In this whimsical tale, a British advertising executive by the name of Peter Mayle decides to move to the south of France to start a new life.  The book is divided into twelve chapters, each devoted to a month in the author's first year in Provence.  It has become such a favorite of mine that I re-read it about every two years, and I always find something which I had never noticed before...I suppose that's the definition of a truly good read.

Anyway, not being content to have read only one of Peter Mayle's books, I proceeded to "Toujours Provence", the followup to the first book.  "Toujours" focuses more on local customs, holidays, and traditions, and in its pages, I immediately found a delightful story about using just the right kind of pig to locate truffles.  I must admit that, prior to this, I had given absolutely no thought to truffles and little more to the porcine persuasion.  But I was enchanted by this book as well.

Shortly thereafter, I became intensely interested in the culture and customs of Italy.  I had become addicted to Rick Steves' "Travels in Europe" on PBS, and the more I watched, the more entranced I became, and consequently, the more travel books I acquired.  But because of the fact that we had recently moved from Atlanta to Charlotte and back to Atlanta, using most of our disposable income in the process, it was impossible to entertain any serious travel abroad.  Besides, I had no passport.

It seemed that the books all had a common thread: a person who appears otherwise stable uproots him or herself and the family (in some cases) and moves to a new home abroad, in the process purchasing a house which needs, shall we say, renovations.  The prospect of such a thing is daunting to me -- I can see a little paint here and there, maybe knocking out a wall or adding hardwood flooring, but the idea of casting one's net in a faraway place without reliable HVAC is a little scary.  But in a book, it's all okay, because someone else is doing it.

Hence, within a few years, I had amassed a stockpile of books dealing with relocation to other parts of the world.  And still, I had no passport.  Finally, on a spring day early this year, my (Atlanta) friend Tanya, having lost all patience with my lack of said passport, actually accompanied me to the post office where I applied for one.  Friends, I had reached the age of 54 without having a passport.  Yes, I might have known all about contruction financing in Portugal, the best exterior siding to use against the mistral wind of France, and how to waterproof a houseboat on the Seine, but acquisition of that little blue book had evaded me all those years.

Within a few weeks of application, despite my edgy reputation here in the United States, I was given a passport.  It came in the mail while I was at work, and my wife called me to tell me that "something" had arrived.  The next day, several of my friends from Macy's took me to Taco Mac for a "Passport Acquisition Lunch".  It was a divine moment.  Tanya had created a small golden "tree" decoration which featured the flags of many nations.  We put it in the center of the table and wished that we could drink beer at lunch.

Nowadays, no one picks on me for not having a passport.  My friend Tim, who has been all over the civilized and partially civilized world, loaned me a stack of travel books to get me started.  Now, it's just up to me to decide where to begin my explorations.  Hmmm, I think I just may pick Provence.


Thursday, November 11, 2010

Feeding Your Caffeine Addiction

OK, to all you serious coffee drinkers out there in metro Atlanta, a good friend of mine has just launched a website,, which offers great deals around the Atlanta area.  Be sure to check out today's link, which gets you $20 worth of goods at Duluth's World of Coffee & Tea for only ten bucks!  Here's the link:

Enjoy!  :)

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Back in the I-Life

I'm one of those people who remembers things by the calendar year in which they occurred.  I will tie a particular event to its numeric year and then mentally index it, so that when that year is mentioned at a later date, it will elicit some kind of response in me, sometimes good, sometimes bad.  My friends and family know this, so when it's family storytelling time, I'm often asked to recall the year that some event or the other happened.  It's never anything as earth-shattering as the first moon landing (1969) or the year JFK was assassinated (1963), but rather something like the year our dinner preparations almost set the Point Mugu State Park campground on fire -- that was 1969.  Along these lines, I'm finding that 2010 has earned its own place in my personal history -- to me, it has become the year of Interstate Surfing, the year of the I-Life, as it were, and this is not a bad thing at all.

We tend to take Interstates for granted these days, but they weren't always fixtures on the landscape.  I can recall driving across country from Memphis to Los Angeles in 1959 in a '57 Chevy Bel Air, without air conditioning, with my parents, grandmother and grandfather.  Our road of choice was Route 66, which was colorful and scenic, a treat in those days.  But several days of driving on two-lane stretches was tiring, especially with temperatures so high that we had to put newspapers on the windows to shield us from the heat.  To add to the fun, we blew a tire in both directions when passing through Holbrook, Arizona.  Nowadays, we crank up the air and check the navigation system to see how long it will take us to get to the next Cracker Barrel.

Our daughter Hannah is at college in North Carolina, so several times a year, we make the trip up and back to help her move, to bring provisions to her and to her friends, and to lend a general joie de vivre to the entire college scene (which actually looks like it has plenty of joie).  We've developed a circuit of sorts: we have good friends in both Charlotte, North Carolina, and Johnson City, Tennessee, so we will typically make a roundabout type of drive, attempting to hit both cities in the process.  I-85, I-77, I-40 and I-26 make those trips possible.

About every other year, although not quite as often as in the past, we make the drive from Atlanta to Boston and back to visit my wife Karen's family.  I-85 is always a given, but in North Carolina, one must choose between I-77 to I-81 (the rural route) or I-85 to I-95 (the urban route).  New York itself is just a sublime adventure, and actually quite fun to drive through, I think, given that the roads are actually well marked.  Along such straits as the Cross Bronx Expressway, one can try to guess the make and model of cars from the stripped remains in the breakdown lanes.  Once you're in New England, just about anything goes, and it's all close together.  Generally for us, it's a scenic patchwork quilt of I-84 to I-90, then mainlining the Massachusetts Turnpike (lovingly called the "Mass Pike" by locals) into metropolitan Boston.

It's down to a science with Interstates -- truly, we don't even think about the specifics of our navigation, because it's all in the numbers.  Florida?  I-75 to I-10 over to I-95 (east) or straight down I-75 (west).  Along the Panhandle, it's I-10, all the way to N'awlins.  Headed to Memphis? I-20 to I-22.  Nashville?  I-75 to I-24.  Los Angeles?  I-20 to I-22 to I-40 to I-15 to I-10.  Oh, and I forgot to mention...just getting out of Atlanta often requires traversing I-285, the "Atlanta Bypass", as it is lovingly called on the overhead signs, and 285 is undoubtedly the quintessential driving experience in the South.

The point of all this rambling, and the central question, is: how does this all relate to what will become my future recollection of 2010?  Precisely because of all these travels.  This year, I seem to have spent a lot of time on the I-roads, and there was quality with the quantity.  I went to college a few times, returned home to Memphis for a trip that defined what "home" was all about, spent a wonderful weekend on the Georgia coast, made a bajillion forays into the city, and got to spend priceless time with friends all over the place.  And the whole time, those big green signs pointed me in the right direction, while the little blue ones told me where to find gas.

So it's bon voyage,'s been a fun year of travel.  By the way, I've been wondering...does every Cracker Barrel sell the same stuff?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Backout Plan

In the world of information technology, we have a term that we use quite often -- it's called the "backout plan".  The backout plan is what takes effect when a software installation has gone horribly wrong -- not that I've ever personally seen that happen, of course.  But lately, I believe the term could be extended outside the IT realm and into the world of motoring.

Consider the following: you've just completed buying $98.73 worth of miscellaneous home goods from Target (although you went into the store fully intending to pick up only pre-brush whitening rinse), and after placing the shopping bags into your trunk, you get into your car, put it in reverse, and begin to back out of the parking space.  Hopefully, you will be looking up and down the aisle of the parking lot as you back out.  But really, that will not matter, because here comes -- Z-O-O-O-O-M -- a vehicle whipping past the rear end of your car, intent on taking out your trunk and its newly acquired, precious cargo.  The thing is, believe it or not, this used to be a rare occurrence.

Back in the day (1950's, 1960's, 1970's, 1980's, 1990's), most people, when they saw a car backing out of a parking space, would actually stop the forward motion of their vehicle.  (Although many people do not know this, "stopping" can be accomplished by pushing down on the "brake" pedal, the rubberized platform located immediately to the left of the accelerator in most cars and trucks.)  In theory, this so-called "braking" would allow the departing driver the chance to safely exit his/her parking space.  But this now appears to be the exception to the rule.  Nowadays, there is a new backout plan -- if people see a car backing out of a space, they will try to get past that car as quickly as possible, regardless of whether the driver exiting the space even sees them.  This is, of course, a dangerous practice, but that fact alone has never stopped any Atlanta driver that I've ever seen.

I'm not sure what is the reason for this aberrant behavior.  Conceivably, drivers are all in such a hurry that they do not feel they have time to stop for another vehicle, or alternatively, passing a car pulling out becomes an irresistible game of chance.  Of course, it could also be that the whizzing driver is simply oblivious to his/her surroundings or is engaged in a critical mobile phone activity (i.e. ordering lunch using Chipotle Online Mobile) that limits use of the parietal lobe.  Whatever the reason, this is becoming an accepted practice, and I now see it in every city I visit.  It is so common that a recent automobile advertisement features a device specifically designed to detect when another vehicle is about to pass behind your car.

So, I've decided to take a new approach to the science of parking -- I'm only going to park in spaces where I can pull forward to both enter and exit.  If that means running into the Starbucks building in front of me, well then, so be it.  I'll just claim that I was trying to use the Starbucks Mobile iPhone application and was distracted.  I think they'll believe that in traffic court: "Honest, your honor...I was just trying to figure out how to add an extra shot to the Americano in the My Favorite Drinks list."

Boo-yah...mocha frappuccinos all around!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Clicking Pause in The ATL

I wrote this post back in the spring but only last night got around to publishing it.  Even though it's a little too hot for Merlot on the deck, I think you could substitute Cosmos and the effect would be the same.

Down here in the South, we have a monthly magazine which is aptly titled Southern Living. It's an institution...people all across the South rely on SL to give them the best recipes, gardening ideas, and potential travel destinations.  It's the Southern equivalent of Sunset or Yankee, I suppose.  And here in "The ATL", as we locals affectionately call our fair city, Southern Living is gospel.  As the Brits say, it's "spot-on".

Every year about this time, we become very grateful for living in a place like this.  Most evenings in the spring, summer or fall, we can dine al fresco -- in fact, as I write this, I'm downing the last few sips of my Two-Buck Chuck Trader Joe's 2008 Merlot while sitting out on the deck with my laptop.  As I look around, I see that I'm surrounded by a veritable forest up here.  If you don't tend to a piece of ground, something will start growing, and before you know it, you'll have to pull out the Roundup just to see through it all.  But the pervasive green is so calming, and I think we often take it for granted.  Take note the next time you fly into Atlanta, and you'll notice that there's green absolutely everywhere.

Even though Atlanta is a Southern city, there are times when we tend to forget it.  For example, our traffic is legendary, and our drivers are possessed of a certain, shall we say fortitude, that would allow them to compete in modern Roman motorsports.  According to a national study released several years ago, we have some of the longest commute times in the nation.  Yet, when we get home, we must revert to a state of happiness, because people keep moving here.  It's something of a paradox, but it's been like this as long as I can remember.

Yet even with the tremendous influx of people from other regions and other parts of the world, we retain something of the Southern charm.  You can still go into a store, and a perfect stranger will stop you and ask if you've tried a certain black bean salsa or some wild dark roast coffee, and before you realize it, you're fully engaged and making recommendations like a culinary Roger Ebert.  It's not that people don't have a sense of personal space, but rather that they're willing to make the effort to be outgoing, and that's very nice.

According to the last figures, we're now a city of about 5.5 million people.  Some days, I swear they're all driving I-285, which we call "The Perimeter" (ironically, since it runs through some of the busiest parts of the city), or navigating "The Connector", a downtown stretch where I-75 and I-85 wrap their arms around each other's waists for a 16-lane dance.  But there's something about this diverse mix of cultures and attitudes, combined with a very real sense of the here and now, that makes this place what it is.  I moved here in 1982, thinking that I'd give it two or three years, and except for two years away in Charlotte, I've been here ever since.  I don't know if and when I'll call another place home, but this one is good. 

I don't often take the time to thank my city, but that's exactly what this is.  Thanks, Atlanta, for opening my mind and still allowing me to find some good catfish.

Saturday, June 26, 2010


It's summer in Atlanta, and from all indications, this is going to be a banner year for the local insect population.  I thought it might be interesting to take an insect's point of view.

Hello, and thanks for reading my post.  My name is Chuck, and I'm a green grocer cicada, one of those insects that lives up in the trees and sings to you in the evenings.  You might call me a "bug", and that's fine, except you need to know that strictly speaking, "bug" is a general term used to describe more than just insects.  As a full-blown cicada (I knew my parents), I'm a member of the order Hemiptera, which is by definition a "true" bug.  For the purposes of this post, I'll relax the rules and use the term "bug" loosely, to describe all members of the insect world.

Now that we have that straight, let's get down to some facts that you may not know:
  • It has been calculated that there are probably about 148,574,965 bugs for every human on the planet.  That number will most likely have increased by the time you have finished reading this post...I'm just saying.
  • Although some of us live in colonies, most of us lead a solitary existence.  When we get stepped on, it's like no one notices.
  • We have brains and digestive systems.  They aren't as well-developed as yours, but please...most of us aren't even an inch long.
  • Some of us, notably wasps, actually have a sense of numbers and provide exact counts of food servings for our offspring.  I am not making this up.
  • Insects were the earliest organisms to produce and sense sounds.  Incidentally, we cicadas are the noisiest insects in the world.
I'm saying all this because, given the facts listed above, you would think we would be treated better by the human population.  Quite the reverse is true, as I shall endeavor to explain.

Being assigned to night tree duty, I have most of my mornings free, so earlier today, I sneaked into one of your home improvement stores.  I won't mention which one, because heaven knows that if I do, they'll come in and fumigate the place, and that will not accomplish much, given the fact that we outnumber you by 148,575,988 to 1.  Nevertheless, while I was flying above the "pest control" (a matter of opinion) aisle today, minding my own business, I noticed that there appears to be a concerted effort on the part of your species to take out mine.  Using a tiny digital camera specially designed for my compound eyes (yes, we've come farther than you think), I was able to take the following pictures:

Do you see a problem?  Where are the insect "treats"?  These are lethal substances, which if ingested by our kind will most certainly result in our imminent demise.  The first product, "Home Insect Control", appears to be some kind of generic potion designed to wipe us all out at one fell swoop.  This "Black Flag" company, with its cutesy retro name, is well-known among our bug tribes for enabling the deployment of veritable nuclear weapons.  The "Fogger" in the center picture represents an insidious approach that sneaks up on us; we don't see it, but the problem is, neither do you, so it doesn't help either of us.  Try eating a turkey sandwich in a room that's been fogged, and you'll see what I mean.

The last product pictured above, "Termite Killer", well...I can go with that.  Termites have their own highly developed social hierarchy, but other than that, they have few friends in the bug world.  Along with fire ants, termites consider themselves "badass" bugs who will stop at nothing to get the next meal, regardless of whether that means eating hardwood flooring, wall studs, grass, or even smaller insects.  Their collective conceit is beyond belief, even though in my humble opinion, they are among the ugliest bugs ever to roam the planet.  Entire human companies have sprung up just to rid the world of the termite population, and personally, I say have at it, Terminix.

Cockroaches get a bum rap.  Most of them are just hard working stiffs, but they have a common tragic flaw -- they prefer the dark.  They are practical jokers to a fault, and this is why they delight in hiding in your kitchen late at night, waiting until you flip on the lights, when they can begin the furious waving of their antennae.  Roaches, somewhat vain by nature, don't do this unless they have an audience, and they take great delight in the resultant screams that emanate from humans upon seeing their pretentious, over the top displays.  This risky behavior gets many a roach killed in the prime of his or her life, generally with a shoe.

Ants can be a pain to humans, but they are essentially harmless, except for the aforementioned fire ants and their mammoth cousins, the carpenter ants.  One thing most humans don't know about the average ant colony is that the overwhelming majority of its residents are female.  The few males that do inhabit the farm are so-called "drones", and they are not worth much of anything other than the use of their reproductive organs.  When the female ants have spare time, which is rare given the inherent laziness of the male ants, they catch up on the colony news, shop, and meet their sister ants for lunch at local park picnics, where they delight in amusing small children by performing Busby Berkeley dance routines while stealing the potato chips.  Seriously, they could have so much more fun without the guy ants.

So there you have it, the world from the eyes of a bug.  I know it's not much to offer, but hey, I don't get paid for doing this, and actually, since we don't live very long, I'll be lucky if I'm still here in August, assuming I don't get squashed, poisoned or eaten by some foolish predatory bird.

Enjoy your summer, my human friends, and give what I've said some thought the next time you're hanging out on the deck. That voice you hear from above, lulling you peacefully to sleep, just might be mine.

Oh, by the way, the ratio is now 148,796,293 to 1.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Would You Like Fries With That?

Time has forced me to come clean.  I am hopelessly addicted to french fries.  Yes, the same person who loves martinis and city dining has a weakness.  You're going to find out sooner or later.

I had my regular annual physical the other day, and all the cholesterol and fat numbers look okay, but deep down, I know that I eat too many french fries.  It's not anything intentional, but rather a habit.  My wife says that she saves up her fries allotment for places that really prepare them well, but I cannot claim such purity; rather, I am trashy when it comes to pommes frites.  I don't exhibit good behavior around them.  And apparently, neither do many other people -- according to a recent study, the average American eats about sixteen pounds of french fries per year.

As an example of how bad I can be about this, my friend Tanya and I sat down yesterday to have lunch at Taco Mac, one of our favorite local establishments.  Since neither of us figured that we needed "all the calories", we decided to split a burger.  Let me just say that up until this point, our intentions had been very good.  However, I ordered a small basket of fries, because as I said, I'm bad like that.  When the order arrived, not only did we each have half a burger and this shared basket of fries, but fries had also been added to each plate.  If each fry had represented a person, we would have had the population of Shanghai between us.  But did we complain?  I think not.

Here in the United States, we are generally offered fries as an accompaniment to (sometimes) otherwise healthy meals.  A chicken caesar salad wrap, say, will come with fries on the side.  Yes, you have the right idea with the salad thing, but the fries take you over the top.  I have a tiny bit of willpower when it comes to fries, but I will admit to none when it comes to fries from any of the following establishments:
  • McDonald's
  • Chick-fil-A
  • Bojangles
Let us examine each of these in turn.

McDonald's is arguably the king of french fry production and consumption worldwide.  I believe that the pairing of a Quarter Pounder or a Big Mac with Mickey D's golden russet fries is probably a divine inspiration.  People have been known to lose their minds over a craving for McD's french fries.  I once knew a girl who would quite literally go into spasms unless they could be produced for her on demand.  Otherwise sensible people wax prosaic about the fries and become violent unless their craving can be satisfied.  I have seen this happen, although I will not divulge any names.  Some of them are probably reading this blog entry.

Chick-fil-A produces an exquisite form of waffle fries, which are typically models of crispy perfection.  Yes, you may opt for the grilled chicken over the fried chicken, but nine times out of ten, I'll bet you choose the waffle fries as your "side".  Come on, let's face it, they're not a "side", they're the core of the meal.  And Chick-fil-A is closed on Sundays, which gives the entire chain a validation of sorts.

The seasoned french fries of Bojangles, a regional chain quite popular in the Carolinas, are remarkable in that they contain trace amounts of addictive narcotic substances, or so it seems.  Bojangles' fries are sliced into beautiful, svelte hunks of potato, then sprinkled with a seasoning that is so good it can be bought online.  Bojangles is the perfect accompaniment to a day at Myrtle Beach, an ideal companion to beer drinking while watching people dance to beach music.

A few years ago, I went on a serious diet, and I was forced to forego fries for many fortnights.  After a time, I found that I could substitute other foods without too much anxiety, so I know that going fryless is possible.  I did learn from my diet that compensation is in order when fries are consumed -- if I've had a heavy meal with fries at lunch, I'll typically have a light dinner, sometimes even a salad.  But I find that within a few days, I'm craving fries. 

I need to get better about this.  The first step is admitting you have a problem.  I have a problem.  :)

Monday, May 10, 2010

Barbecue and City Lights

OK, I have to take a nostalgia break here.  I grew up in the Highland Heights neighborhood of Memphis, Tennessee.  For those of you who have never been to Memphis, you may think that the city was a bastion of country music, with tentative hints of bluegrass.  Not quite.  Memphis was, at least from 1950 until 1980, home to rock and soul -- people like Elvis, Big Star, B. B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sam & Dave, and Isaac Hayes.  The Memphis music scene was original, for lack of a better word, and if you were a musical kid like me, it was a great place in which to grow up.  Our popular radio stations carried a heady mix of rock and roll, soul, and Motown.  Occasionally, you might hear a country wonder like Charley Pride, but for the most part, this was the land of "Shaft".  Can you dig it?  On Beale Street, Memphis doesn't have a rock 'n roll museum, but rather a Rock 'n Soul Museum, and that says it all.

Memphis was two cities by day and by night.  Days could be hot and humid.  I remember that back in those days, I played a lot of tennis, and we would hit the John Rogers Tennis Center at the medical center by 8:00 AM in order to avoid the worst of the heat.  One day when I was playing a match there, I saw two police cruisers overheat within an hour outside the courts.  Late afternoons, you might spot a couple of older guys fishing down by Tom Lee Park.  But at night, when things cooled down, we relished being on the river.  Sometimes we would take our girlfriends across the river into Arkansas, just to say that we had "crossed state lines".  I'm almost postive that we were breaking some law by doing that, but that was part of the fun of it.  At night, there was a Unitarian church with a walkway down to the banks where you could see the city lights reflecting off the was magic.

You know, it does seem to me that I'm ready for some barbecue.  I know I probably won't find Leonard's on Bellevue, but maybe I can at least grab a Tops sandwich or go in style with red wine at Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous.  Either way, I think I'll be listening to me a little Isaac Hayes "Never Can Say Goodbye" on my iPhone.  Yeah.  Good night, y'all.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Who's the Boss?

Many moons ago, during the days of album-oriented rock, I was a pre-med at Northwestern University, just outside Chicago.  For four years, I took all the coursework, except for physical chemistry, required to gain admission to medical school, but in the end, I opted for a career in information technology.  (That's a long story, but it's not truly the focus of this posting.)  Suffice to say that I do still recall quite a lot about human physiology and how all the pieces fit together.  However, one thing they didn't teach us, but that I have come to realize through repeated practical experience, is that the brain is not the true "boss" of the body.  The big cheese, the head honcho, the true Corporeal CEO as it were, is the stomach.

Yes, the brain, often considered the Grand Poobah of the Body, is a wonderful, intricate thing.  True, it misfires on occasion, but for the most part, it just clicks right on along.  You can throw Ambien in there to put it to sleep, dance like a whirling dervish until you can't stand up, even bump your head now and then, but generally, unless something very serious happens, the brain makes rather light of it all and goes on about its business.  You might see colors and patterns, but that can be fun, admit it.

Not so with the stomach.  Just try hitting that buffet line after downing too many Cheez-Its and a bottle of Kalbarri Merlot, and you'll see what I mean.  The stomach is somewhat patient, in that it allows you to fill it full of stuff, and then it waits until you least expect it to stage a revolt.  The brain in this case runs far ahead of the stomach, directing the eyes to those last few chicken nuggets, then the olfactory kicks in with the smell of those double chocolate cookies, and the next thing you know, you've cleaned your plate -- several times.  At roughly 3:00 AM, after you've left the party and have settled comfortably in your bed, the stomach will quite convincingly let you know who's truly king of the castle.

Of course, this whole pecking order has provided a fertile ground for the introduction of Philips Milk of Magnesia, Tums, Pepto-Bismol, Mylanta, Di-Gel, Pepcid, Pepcid AC, Pepcid DC, Pepcid NYC, all of them, up to and including that old standby paregoric, itself a tincture of opium...yes, in the dens.  Of course, none of these products offer immediate relief, because the stomach, in its infinite wisdom, is intent on proving a point.  And it's very good at doing just that.

So the next time you're tempted to overindulge, remember that rule they teach you in dieting classes: eat a little, then allow the stomach a few minutes to catch up and tell you how full it is before you proceed further.  That's good advice, and who knows?  You might just stay on the good side of the boss. moderation.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

All Your Ducks in a Row

Yesterday, my wife and I ventured out to one of our favorite local garden centers, Scottsdale Farms in Alpharetta. Scottsdale was busy, so much so that for a moment, it was easy to forget about the recession and its deleterious effects on our humble gardening efforts. We have watched this business grow from a semi-rural startup to what now appears to be a full-service green entertainment center, complete with a chic little cafe, a perpetual Christmas mini-shop, and tons of unique specimens that are hard to find elsewhere. In short, Scottsdale is a success story, and I think I'm beginning to understand why.

As I wandered through the store and around the property, I could not help but notice the pervasive symmetry of the place. Everywhere, pots were lined up in measured rows. Even the buildings themselves adhered to a balanced structure. And it dawned on me that one of the primary factors which gives this place so much appeal is that very symmetry, which is consciously or unconsciously displayed everywhere. The eye is drawn to the straight lines of trees, the grid-like groupings of plants of the same type, and even the roofs of the greenhouses. The whole effect is very calming in a way.

Of course, our attraction to symmetry is not limited to garden center displays -- symmetry in human faces and bodies has a similar effect. Researchers have postulated that the degree of symmetry possessed by a person provides subconscious clues to that person's genetic health. We are programmed in the womb to be perfectly (externally) symmetrical, to develop two sides with the spine as the center. Nevertheless, various factors such as genetic abnormalities, poor nutrition, or mild infection can morph our initial symmetry into the features with which we are eventually born. Perhaps that is why a wink or a sly, crooked smile catches our attention. Is it that one-off introduction of asymmetry that makes us take a second look?

Architecture is, obviously, full of examples of symmetry dating back as least as far as the Roman Empire. The traditional Federal-style architecture so prevalent in the late 1700's and 1800's continues to influence design of both commercial and residential structures, even today. Federal architecture was employed to a great extent in Eastern cities such as Charleston, Savannah, and Boston, cities where we typically regard the homes as "grand" or "stately". There is no getting around the fact that the careful symmetry of these buildings is a large part of what makes them so appealing to us.

And of course, symmetry is found everywhere in the natural world, from the shape of a maple leaf to the antlers of an elk. There's no escaping it, and that is probably a good thing, for without it, the world would be dangerously out of balance. Would you eat a lopsided cheeseburger or find yourself attracted to a person with a third eye on the side of his or her head?  Well, okay, maybe you would, but that's fodder for another blog entry altogether. For now, just relax, enjoy the balance of nature, and try to sit up straight. Someone may be watching.

Monday, March 15, 2010

For Lack of a Better Word

I recently heard a friend say that language evolves and adapts to fit society, implying that it is not a static entity.  I suppose that there is some truth to this, despite the desires of linguistic purists.  I find the polymorphism of English intriguing, but often, I am dismayed that certain words appear to aggrandize their time in the limelight to the total exclusion of their peers.  Let me provide a few examples.

Relevant - This word appeared to gain significant momentum in the 1970's, when many people were emerging from the hippie haze into a time of increased accountability.  People suddenly began referring to anything they wished to advocate as "relevant".  The word appeared to connote a sense of validation, as in, "What we discussed in the staff meeting today was not a waste of was relevant."  I don't think anyone was sure what relevant meant until sometime around 1992, when it became irrelevant.

Awesome - People have forgotten this, but prior to the 1980's, this word was used almost exclusively with the word "spectacle".  A typical sentence of that period might sound something like this: "We saw Lake Mead, and it was an awesome spectacle!"  The word was always used as a proper modifier, never left to fend for itself at the end of a sentence as it often is today: "We saw Avatar, and it was awesome."  This is perhaps the most overused word in the English language.

Diaspora - Although this word in its strictest sense refers to the movement of human populations, it was for a brief period in the late 1990's and early 2000's used to refer to almost any kind of scattering of items, be they people or M&M's.  Thankfully, usage of this word appears to be on the decline.

Vet - This interesting word, having come out of the blue only a few years ago, once was generally used to refer to a veterinarian, but its secondary definition, to review something in detail for approval, now appears to have emerged from the shadows to mask the traditional meaning.  Nevertheless, when I hear that someone has "vetted" something, I cannot help but think that spaying or neutering, perhaps both, are involved.

Disingenuous - Come on, people...let's just say "insincere".  Why do we insist on using these words that in and of themselves appear to conjure up a double negative?  This word is a favorite of in-depth cable TV news analysis programming, and I often hear it used by people as their longest word.  Maybe that is its true calling.

This whole idea of wearing out certain words has indeed given me pause for thought.  In the future, I will be careful to vet everything I say, so that I do not appear disingenuous.  After all, what I am communicating is relevant and is not to be lost in the diaspora of the blogosphere, which is, after all, awesome.

Monday, March 8, 2010


Last Thursday evening, I tuned in to Tom Brokaw's two-hour special titled "Boomer$!".  A fellow Baby Boomer had told me about the program several days before, so I made sure that it was scheduled on my DVR (in case I fell asleep), and then I settled in to watch.

It's odd to realize at some point that there are so many people younger than you, but eventually, it happens to all of us.  I am very fortunate to have many close friends who are still in their twenties and thirties, and they energize me without even knowing it.  Yet, after this program was finished, I felt as if I had added at least five years to my elapsed time on Earth, regardless of the median age of my friends.  The upside of this was that I actually stayed awake for the entire program.

What Brokaw was trying to say was that this particular generation had withstood, and in some cases, acted as a catalyst for, significant social and economic change, while at the same time refusing to admit that it was indeed aging as a group.  Perhaps that is true; after all, there has historically existed a certain optimism among Boomers, due in large part to the ups and downs we have experienced in relation to the world in which we now live.  Regardless of what people say, as a generation, we recall that the Sixties, often glorified in historical perspective, were often quite scary times.  By comparison, we currently have no Cold War, no Berlin Wall, and no 20% home mortgages.  Overall, many good things have happened, and we never had to experience the Great Depression, as did our parents and grandparents.

However, the world has indeed turned upside down in recent years.  Despite the plethora of communication alternatives, people are often out of touch with one another.  Sound bites have taken the place of meaningful dialogue on TV, and for all intents and purposes, FM radio has gone to hell in a handbasket.  The economy...who knows?  But it's not all doom and gloom.  Many of us in the Boomer generation do seem to dwell on the past or get stuck in the Seventies, but just as many of us are actually much more connected with modern times that you might imagine.  Sure, I'll listen to Neil Young and Grand Funk Railroad, but I'll also download Crystal Method and Midival Punditz.  I don't know how many Apple products I've purchased, but Steve Jobs owes me some kind of kickback, of that I'm certain.  And I no longer wear polyester shirts, unless they're easy care Calvin Klein with a tailored look and a natural fiber feel.

There are some days when I think I'm going to go nuts if I hear the phrase "aging Baby Boomers" one more time.  For heaven's sake, we're all aging. Yes, there are a lot of Boomers out there, but just remember:
  • We didn't all go to Woodstock.
  • We weren't all hippies.
  • We are typically very social.
  • We miss the space program.
  • We are striving to live life as well as our parents did. 
That about sums it up.  No, you don't typically see posts like this from me, but Tom Brokaw made me realize that I'm actually rather proud to be a Boomer.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Visitor's Guide to Atlanta

A number of my friends have asked me to post my Visitor's Guide to Atlanta from my Whole Bean website ( to my blog. It follows...enjoy!

This site is based in Atlanta, an interesting and sometimes challenging city, physically located in the South and yet not quite there in all respects. If you're considering visiting Atlanta, please remember the following salient points in order to make your visit more enjoyable and less stressful:

  • The city is not laid out on a grid system. "Blocks" do not exist per se. This makes navigation something of an adventure.

  • Almost no one has a Southern accent. Rumor has it that there are fewer than 100 native Atlantans in the whole place. I met one in 1983, but she moved a few years later.

  • Atlanta's I-285 = Washington's Beltway = Boston's Route 128. That sign over I-285 that says "Atlanta Bypass" -- ignore that -- you'll see what I mean.

  • Dress is casual -- you can wear shorts almost anywhere. I have friends who wear shorts to work in January.

  • It is far easier to find Thai food than hush puppies.

  • We've had Krispy Kreme donuts for over 60 years now. Glad all the rest of you have finally joined the fold! What took so long?

  • Three primary potions constitute 97% of the daily beverage consumption: Coca-Cola, sweet tea, and beer. Ordering anything else may raise an eyebrow. Don't say I didn't warn you.

  • It is humid here most of the time, except every few years when we seem to experience summer droughts. Despite the humidity, there is a perpetual water shortage.

  • We have a subway (called MARTA) which people actually ride. Buses, not so much. There's a new suburban bus line with pretty blue and white buses, but no one ever seems to be riding. I'm not even sure anyone is driving.

  • If you want to find a cheap used car, look on Buford Highway. You may not find the kind of car you're seeking, but you will experience tremendous entertainment value. Being bilingual will land you a far better deal.

  • It is fairly obvious upon arrival that large amounts of caffeine are consumed here. This will become self-explanatory once you drive within 20 miles of the outskirts of the outer suburbs of the far reaches of the city.

  • Everyone seems to be in a perpetual hurry to get somewhere, regardless of the time of day. Even at 1:03 AM, someone will be in a hurry to get to the local Kroger supermarket. I know -- I've done it myself!

  • Many town names end in "-etta". This is equivalent to the "-ton" or "-ville" suffixes appended in other regions and carries no other connotations.

  • There are numerous automated signs posted above the expressways stating helpful information such as "IT IS A NICE DAY -- SAVE GASOLINE -- TOMORROW." Sometimes (and this is for real) the signs only read "." (a lone period). No one knows what this means.

  • We still hold reverence for Moon Pies and RC Cola.

  • If you don't know what Moon Pies are, please visit the Moon Pie website for details prior to your arrival.

  • If you don't know what RC Cola is, then you may need therapy.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Passing the Bar

My Facebook profile lists "dining out" as one of my favorite activites, and indeed, it always has been. I can recall from my childhood many evenings dining with my parents at any of a number of family restaurants that dotted our Memphis and West Tennessee landscape. We spent countless evenings at Shoney's or Bonanza, feasting on hearty meals that by today's standards were simple, but overall were a great value. We ate fabulous barbecue from vintage restaurants with formica tables and spent late nights at classic grotto-like Italian establishments such as Pete and Sam's or Grisanti's. In fact, dining with my family at these places is collectively one of my favorite memories.

When I moved away to college to Chicago, I appeared to have landed in Gastronomia. I had never seen the likes of some of this food -- deep-dish pizza, mouth-watering kosher deli sandwiches, and authentic Czechoslovakian delicacies. My circle of friends and their families introduced me to a vast array of new food and broadened my eating horizons in a way that I had never anticipated. Suddenly, there was no better treat than a hand-scooped Italian ice from a corner grocery in Berwyn.

Atlanta is a dining mecca. We can go from country fried steak to foie gras to massaman curry to tandoori chicken to spaetzle all in the blink of an eye. It makes eating out quite an adventure, and many of the restaurants are surprisingly affordable. The diversity of the city's neighborhoods and ethnicities makes for a schooled palate, if you're willing to experiment a little.

But despite my affinity for dining out, there is one corner of this world that has never truly captured my affections, and that is the bar. Yes, I know -- bars are the places to meet people, hang out, do business, or whatever, but for some reason, I have trouble with them. I'm not saying that I don't think they have their place, but they're just not for me. I have no aversion to the concept of alcohol, as witnessed by many of my earlier posts regarding wine and spirits and the dubious stories related thereto, but I'm picky about the venue in which I libate.

For one thing, it is practically impossible to get a drink at some of our Atlanta bars unless you are eight feet tall and can tower over the crowd standing and sitting at the bar. Oh, by the way, sitting...did I say sitting? I actually landed a seat at the bar at a Decatur restaurant this past weekend and almost fainted from shock to find that I was actually seated close enough to the bartenders to talk to them without screaming. In a way, it was nice. Typically, one must speak at a level exceeding ninety decibels in order to be heard.

I have noticed some regional differences regarding bar habits and etiquette. For example, New Englanders tend to gravitate toward the bar at lunch, something which is not so common in the South. Californians seem to be pretty chilled about the whole bar thing and favor a lot of wine, and it's fairly easy to place your mixed drink order in Chicago or New Orleans -- bartenders in those places seem to be up to the task. New York, I don't know -- I don't recall that I've ever been to the bar there, but perhaps someday...after all, I do have a certain weird fascination with the Apple, and servers tend to be attentive there.

Maybe part of the whole aversion I have is this phrase "belly up to the bar". Something about that just doesn't sound appealing to me. It implies that I am going to have to haul myself up there and place my belly against the bar, where more likely than not, something will have just been spilled. Now, honestly...where is the fun in that? Not to mention that, owing to my limited beer consumption, I do not have a "beer belly" in any sense of the word, and that's just fine with me.

But please do not take my lack of bar enthusiasm as any kind of deterrent to your own enjoyment, because heaven knows, I would not expect everyone to frequent my kind of third world hangouts, where I order my volcanic food and wash it down with martinis or an IPA. We all have different tastes, and that's what makes it fun. Nevertheless, if you do have any pointers on how to get a drink in under five minutes at a Buckhead bar on a Saturday night without an illegal exchange of cash, I'd certainly be interested to know your secret.

Now excuse me while I try to get this bartender's attention. Ahem.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Ripple Effect

If I toss a stone into a pond, I see predictable ripples fanning out in every direction. I've seen it in pictures, I've seen it in person, and yes, I've actually seen in the office. It's part of a modified groupthink phenomenon which I've lately begun to realize has always been there. Let me explain.

Have you ever wondered why on two consecutive days you can go into the workplace, feeling exactly the same when you walk in the door, only to find that one day you are a hero, while the next you are but a lowly protozoan? It is certainly because of the ripple effect. Let's explore some examples.

Assume that you work in an office building full of cubes. A certain employee, we'll call him "E" for short, is having a wonderful day. Maybe he purchased a new car over the weekend, found the love of his life, or even just downed the perfect cup of dark roast coffee. Whatever the reason, E comes into the office in a great mood. Before long, because of the proximity of people to each other and the native curiosity we all possess, all those sitting around him become infected with his good spirit. People make random comments among themselves and the vibe passes among the aisles. You, the innocent employee, enter this scenario and cannot help but be swayed by the positive sentiment echoing throughout the floor. People smile at you, say hello, and offer you donuts. That is a good day.

Alternatively, let us assume that E had car problems on the way in, got into a major argument with his significant other, or got bad coffee at the QT. When E arrives at work, he will not be a happy camper, nor will anyone who has to listen to him kvetching. Within minutes, a viral sense of doom spreads around and between the aisles. You, still the innocent employee, walk into this morass and cannot help but be swayed by the negative sentiment echoing throughout the floor. People frown at you, ignore you, and steal your donuts. That is a bad day.

I believe it is as simple as that. If, like me, you are a fairly social person, the ambient sentiment will undoubtedly affect you for better or worse. The trick is to realize it for what it is and go about your business, because this collective consciousness is very much like the weather: it can, and often does, turn on a dime. Basically, we're all just trying to get along. So bring your umbrella, your sunglasses, a box of donuts, and rock on, you working person.

Friday, January 1, 2010

In the Eyes of a Dog

We have an older dog named Copper who turned 15 several months ago. She's a sweet old dog, and having spent a few days here at home over the holidays, I've seen a lot of Copper. The poor thing does the best she can -- she is blind and for the most part deaf, so she navigates around the house by bumping into things and taking alternate paths in territory that is still, even in a limited way, familiar to her. It's sad to see this, but actually, Copper doesn't seem to mind in the least. And when it's dinner time, she still jumps around as best she can to show that she's still very much in the game.

But lately, I've been wondering what's going through her mind. After all, dogs do dream -- we know that because we see them kicking, barking and running in their sleep, chasing after something which only they can see. Yesterday, I watched Copper as she lowered herself gently to the floor to take what must have been her seventeenth nap of the day, and it almost looked to me that she was thinking of something, trying to elicit a memory.

Concurrent with this, my wife has embarked on a massive scrapbooking project, trying to catch up with our lives for the last twenty years, and in some of the pictures, I see a younger, more mischievous Copper. As I watched Copper yesterday, I wondered if she might be thinking of any of the moments in time captured in the old photographs -- hanging with her old canine buddy Cody, long since departed, or Tonto, her feline partner in crime all those years ago. I can't help but think that in Copper's little mind, some of those scenes are still vivid, and that she calls them back on demand at times, just as we recall the pleasant, and sometimes unpleasant, memories of our own lives. I wonder.

Of course, the sad thing about this, depending on your point of view, is that every year of a dog's life is worth seven of ours. We dote on our pets these days, buying them all kinds of crazy toys, special diets, and even college team sweaters, but in the end, we can't extend their lives to match ours, though often we wish we could. So as this new year starts, I think I'm going to add to my list of resolutions a reminder to put myself in my pets' place from time to time, to try to see the world from their eyes. After all, to our pets, we are the world.

Happy New Year, everyone.