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.