A Night on the Town By Ourselves

I really don’t like Dallas. It’s nothing personal, though, because I’m not a big fan of Texas’ other cities, either.

My wife gave me and my two sons Mavericks versus Clippers tickets as a Christmas present so we could have a “guys’ weekend.” When we ordered the tickets, she told me “Maybe you guys could do this every year” and I could almost see the parenthetical (because then I can control the remote for 24 hours). My wife loves to travel and she loves her boys, but there’s enough gas in a middle-aged, slightly out of shape man and two teenage boys to give America energy independence if we just knew how to harness the power. I feel certain she’s at home with the windows open and Sleepless in Seattle on a continuous loop on the t.v.

It’s a win/win for everyone.

We booked a room within walking distance of American Airlines Arena in the historic West End. The Springhill Suites off North Lamar is a quiet, serviceable hotel with nice spacious rooms. I can’t speak for the full buffet breakfast yet but the coffee is decent.

The problem with Dallas isn’t the truly awful traffic, made worse by the least helpful road signs and exit notifications in the country, but the way the city is spread across miles and miles of space. Houston, San Antonio, and Austin, in many ways, suffers the same emphasis on suburban development. All three cities are simply hubs for the residential areas that surround them and none of them have any kind of public transportation system.

The problem is, I think, most clearly symbolized in the placement of major sports venues. While our hotel is a 12 minute walk from American Airlines Arena, we are a 30 minute drive (if traffic is okay) from the Dallas Cowboys $1.2 billion facility and Rangers Ballpark. Last night, Dallas had two winning basketball teams playing and the Cotton Bowl, a game with 80,000 fans packing the stadium to watch a very exciting game between Missouri and Oklahoma State.

Yet, when my two boys and I went out to eat, we walked across the street into Ellen’s Southern Kitchen. It’s Friday night in the historic West End, five blocks from Dealey plaza with two major sporting events in town and we walked in, sat down, and finished our meal 45 minutes later. No wait, no fuss, no rush.

Don’t get me wrong. It was nice, but it was also a little depressing. The excitement of going to a sporting event is the critical mass of people cheering and connecting within the moment. When Blake Griffin, Deandre Jordan, or Dirk Nowitzki make a great play, the entire crowd cheers (or groans, depending on the score). Colleges subsidize sports programs and cities utilize taxes to build stadiums to both help draw people to their campus or city, but also in order to create that intangible, difficult to measure emotional connection to place.

Sports, like churches, marriages, and family reunions, give us a chance to be part of something bigger than ourselves and, as disturbing as many people might find the claim, sports engenders a loyalty that supersedes almost every other community. Later today, 85,000 people will pile into Lombardi Field in almost sub-zero temperatures to watch the Green Bay Packers play a football game. I doubt most people would suffer through such conditions to listen to the minister talk about Paul’s Letters to the Romans and if you would do that for a family reunion, your Aunt Suzie’s fruit salad must be pretty damn tasty or you have better looking cousins than the rest of us.

And, let’s be honest, when you cheer for the Packers (or Cowboys/49ers/etc) no one cares about your sexual orientation, who you voted for, or your stance on the Affordable Care Act.

About five years ago, my family and I went to a Yankees game. I hate the Yankees, but riding the subway with thousands of strangers and then walking down the street, heading into the ballpark was, to use the easy cliche, electric. Two years ago, I was in Atlanta riding the wave of fans heading into a Georgia Tech/Clemson football game. Seattle has both its baseball and football stadiums next door to each other, allowing bars, restaurants and street vendors to line the curbs. Even Detroit, the largest bankrupt city in America, had enough sense to build their football, baseball, and basketball arenas within walking distance of each other. These cities help create a kind of carnival atmosphere that helps its fans form an emotional bond and develop an irrational loyalty as a community.

Last night in Dallas, fans drove in, had fun, and drove off. There was no large communal moment in the streets, in the bars, or even in the hotel hallways. There was no sustained emotional connection drawing strangers together because all the venues are so far apart and disconnected from the city itself.

My sons and I have had a great time. The Mavericks lost, but we saw some exciting basketball and some acrobatic dunks. Ellen’s Southern Kitchen is worth a dinner date. My younger son had the Big Ole’ Breakfast (eggs, bacon, sausage, biscuits and gravy and “the best hash browns ever” he told us). The older boy, suffering from a head cold, had the blackened catfish that looked delicious and with enough spice for him to actually taste and just enough so it didn’t taste like fish. My prime meatloaf was loaded with crispy onions, red, and green peppers. Too often, meatloaf can be too moist and the vegetables get hidden by tomato sauce, but at Ellen’s they pour just a little pan gravy on the top. Dipped in the mashed potatoes, each bite allowed four different, complementary flavors to mingle and linger on the tongue. Even better were the green beans sauteed in bacon and tomatoes. I think even the most hardcore carnivore would eat those vegetables.

I can imagine turning a Mavericks game into a family tradition for the Wegner men. American Airlines Arena is a nice venue and there is a balletic quality to 7 foot men running the court and leaping through the air in what should be physically impossible things to do. But, I kind of hope next year we have to wait longer before we eat and there’s a little more chaos in the streets after the game.


I Can Hang Up Without Uncle Sam’s Help

The wireless phone is, as far as I’m concerned, one of the world’s great inventions. Back when many of us were kids, we consistently tested the laws of physics, uncoiling that phone cord to the outer limits of physical possibility, hoping, praying even, for every inch and that the small plastic connector would hold long enough to make our secretive, teen-age plans or to express our undying love and commitment to that week’s love our life without our parent’s hearing us. We were electronically tethered by a kind of communicative umbilical cord: parents, brothers and sisters, and your crazy Uncle Joe who visited every Thanksgiving, listened in, offered advice, added commentary, or made little kissing noises at the worst possible times. We were veritable oral prisoners, maneuvering cords into hallways and under door frames, performing acts of flexibility that might make a contortionist envious, as we struggled to move outside our family’s auditory zone.

Shout out to Terri Pall and George Sweigert for giving us the cordless phone. They saved teenagers across the world embarrassment, angst, and future back problems from lying on the floor talking on the phone by their closed bedroom door.

And, more importantly, they saved parents from having to listen to the mindless, meaningless conversations our children have with their friends. I’m more than happy to let my kids go to their rooms, outside on the back porch, out to the car–anyplace so that I don’t have to listen to two teenagers have a conversation. If Dante were alive, there would be a special place in the Inferno where sinners were trapped listening to “dude,” “like,” and “whatever.” For eternity.

Unfortunately, though, I now have to listen to equally mindless conversations by people whose lives mean absolutely nothing to me as I walk down the street, sit in a restaurant, walk the grocery aisles, and, after the FAA ruled cell phones are safe in flight, perhaps on airplanes.

Sure, I care that your mother has never appreciated you, your boss is a uncaring jerk, or you can’t decide which toilet paper to buy. Feel free, I say, to share your foibles with the world. I especially like it when you get so wrapped up in your conversation you take longer in the check out line because, of course, I have no place else to be and your life is oh, so important to me.

Listening to your conversation in the grocery store (or at Lowes or the mall or simply walking down the sidewalk) is, though, part of the cost of a free and open society. If, for some odd reason, HEB or Best Buy gets over run with cell phone users who impede my ability to go deeper in debt, I can go someplace else to buy milk, electronics, or other equally unaffordable things.

Because, last time I checked, I am free to shop where I want.

More importantly, stores are free to decide if or when people use cell phones while shopping. McDonalds might think its fine, but the Malibu Kitchen and Gourmet Country Market won’t let you order until you turn off the cell phone.

And, surprisingly enough, they can make that decision without any help from the government.

As I mentioned a few weeks back, I’m no fan of shopping on Thanksgiving day, but Walmart has every right in the world to participate and contribute to America’s seemingly endless appetite for avarice, greed, and unbridled capitalism. In much the same way, Hobby Lobby and Chik-Fil-A can stay closed Thanksgiving day or Sunday or any other day of the week.

If I don’t like those policies, I don’t have to shop there. There are plenty of businesses willing to separate me from my dollar bills. Heck, I still don’t buy Exxon gas because of their unconscionable, irresponsible response to the Valdez oil spill, and I avoid Walmart because their hiring practices are, to put it mildly, questionable at best. Sure, I might pay a little more for Susie’s first bike but it’s my money and I’ll spend it where I want. You do the same. Don’t like Starbuck’s liberal, pinko free trade coffee policies? Get your Peppermint Mocha Frappuchino someplace else.

One of the great things about America is that I can develop whatever illogical, contradictory economic morality I so desire.

And one of those desires would be to never, ever, in a million years, fly on a plane that allowed people to talk on cell phones in flight.

But just because I don’t want it, Senator Lamar Alexander and Senator Dianne Feinstein, doesn’t mean we need the Commercial Flight Courtesy Act to ban in-flight phone calls. Let’s forget for a moment the horror we should all feel that Congress wants to legislate courtesy of any kind and skip the irony of a self-professed small government Republican proposing legislation with a big government Democrat, and remember that if airlines, travelers, and passengers are all troubled “over the idea of passengers talking on cellphones in flight,” then United, American Airlines, and any other airline can simply choose not to allow talking on cell phones in their planes.

Certainly, we’re all very happy the FAA has banned weapons, cigarettes, and 8 ounce bottles of shampoo since these all constitute a health hazard and a danger to other passengers. We can’t have terrorists with full, bouncy, and healthy hair after all.

If, though, American Airlines decides to let Chatty Cathy talk on her phone in flight from New York to Seattle, I (and this might shock some folks) don’t have to buy a ticket on American Airlines. I can let my wallet do the talking for me and fly with a different airline.

Left to their own devices, airlines might develop a variety of options for passengers: no talk seats, free talk sections, buffer aisles near the exits, or even talk free flights. In the meantime, while I’m tickled pink that Congress seems to have found some semblance of bi-partisanship, I don’t need Uncle Sam’s help hanging up the phone. And neither does anyone else.

Baltimore Isn’t All Crab Cakes and Harbor Tours: Smoked Duck Pizza and Cold Beer

Baltimore isn’t all crab cakes and harbor tours. I was on my way out the hotel door Friday night when, on a whim, I decided to ask the front desk for a dinner recommendation.

Wearing my baseball cap and Angelo State baseball hoodie, I clearly wasn’t in the mood for upscale and high class.

I probably should buy some lottery tickets because I’m on a hot streak, getting rock solid suggestions here of late. The guy in New Orleans pointed us to Coops and the woman tonight sent me up Federal Hill to the Metropolitan.

“It’s my favorite place,” she said looking at my clothes, “and definitely casual.” I decided to take her comment as an observation not a judgement. I was, after all, wearing my cleanest hoodie and my least stained cap.

Federal Hill, if you don’t know Baltimore very well, is the area where Nora Ephron filmed parts of Sleepless in Seattle. Meg Ryan and Rosie O’Donnell eat dinner in the Mount Vernon area, Ryan has her apartment in an area near Federal Hill, and they hang out on S. Charles Street. (Ephron, just as an aside, was an underrated screen writer and her films captured a simple but important romantic sensibility in contemporary America. What, Ephron’s screen plays asked, does it mean to be in love in the face of shifting social ideas regarding relationships in America? If you don’t know her works, you owe her movies a viewing.)

But romantic comedies can be a post for another day.

Federal Hill is one of those rejuvenated areas so common to American cities this day and age. If you travel to St. Louis any time soon, head over toward Washington University or St. Louis U and walk among the town homes and old industrial areas. Like so many places, governmental investment in the inner city areas in the form of tourism, professional sports teams, and tax deductions have revitalized run-down neighborhoods, rescuing them from crime, poverty, and drug infestations. These are areas that began as working class family homes but fell into ill-repute as the blue collar jobs fled to China, India, and anyplace else corporate bosses could find cheap labor.

With a little spit and polish (and a healthy dose of police, money, and hotel taxes), though, these areas have been transformed into homes and communities where the pretty people live. I was worried I might get kicked off the streets as an interloper. Cool and groovy I am not.

The Metropolitan is about 3/4 of a mile off the harbor down a tree lined S. Charles street. The coffee house and wine bar sits across the street from the Federal Hill Wine and Spirits Liquor store and in the midst of townhouses and walk up apartments. The streets have that vaguely European-feel, reflecting their architectural birth as homes for immigrant, industrial workers. The Metropolitan is a true neighborhood bar and restaurant.

It’s also worth the walk. The bartender downstairs sent me up the stairs with a friendly wave of her hand. I scored a seat near a window propped up by a liter beer bottle. Necessity and invention is always a good sign.

The music sets the tone. Neil Young, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Dylan, Hendricks–I heard them all but they weren’t dominating the scene. A group of folks sat at the bar holding a conversation. They didn’t have to yell to beat out the music and, in what probably says more about me than the bar, I didn’t hear a single cuss word while I was sitting there. It’s an odd thing to notice, but I’ve grown weary of language that shows about as much imagination as a football locker room.

Don’t go to the Metropolitan if you only drink Bud Light, though. They serve craft beers from around the world. The waitress brought me samples since my palate tends toward Schlitz and Lonestar. I never really know what kind of beer I like. I did reject the Pumpkin Beer. If I want pumpkin, I told her, I would order pie. No one has ever accused me of being a beer snob. I thought about just asking for more samples, but instead I started with a Green Flash Saison Diego. It’s a lighter beer with just a hint of hops. Crisp and clean.

Like so many things in life, our moods are a product of the historical and contextual moment. I was tired of big meals and the waitress, to her credit, didn’t try to sell me the most expensive thing on the menu. And take note that the Metropolitan has a full menu for such a small place. When I told her I just wanted something light, she pointed me to the Smoked Duck Pizza and a house salad.

“It’s better than it sounds,” she told me.

She was right. The pizza is about 8 inches, the size of a medium size plate, with a thin, fire cooked crust. They use a pesto sauce with basil covered in mozzarella and a slice of smoked duck sitting on top. There is just enough of the smoked flavor that each bite carries the meaty duck taste as it blends with the cheese and pesto. Importantly, they keep the pesto mild enough that it helps keep the pizza moist without getting too wet as it sits on the plate.

Combined with the house salad, it was just enough food to satisfy my hunger but not leave me waddling back to the hotel. And that’s good because I’m not sure waddling is allowed among the young, good looking people in that area.

Don’t Let the Neon Sign Fool You: Eat At Phillips

All I really know about Baltimore I learned from reruns of the Wire, Edgar Allen Poe stories, and watching Cal Ripken, Jr. play baseball. It’s easy to forget that Babe Ruth was born here, Baltimore is the home of America’s first umbrella factory, and our first post office system began right here in Charm City. (It is also easy to admit that I looked up everything after Babe Ruth. Thank heavens for google.)

This isn’t my first foray into the city, though. About three years ago, I stayed in the inner harbor area for a conference. During that trip, I spent most of my time exploring the area around the harbor with an evening walk to the Federal Hill area. Supper one night at the Rusty Scupper, breakfast each morning at Bohemes, and a late meal at an Irish Pub near Federal Hill park. I’m headed to the Scupper tonight to see if it is as good as I remember, Bohemes is closed, and for some reason Federal Hill seems way too long a walk this time around. You know you are getting old when after one beer and a good meal you start wondering what cable channels you have in the room.

As a general rule, I try to avoid chain restaurants when I’m in a city. Sure, Outback makes a decent steak, but I can get that steak in any city in America. I want, if at all possible, recipes built on local traditions with, I hope, quirky hometown twists. It’s no guarantee the food will be any good, mind you, but at least my taste buds will be disappointed in new and unique ways.

And they were let down my first meal this time around. The M&S Grill looks promising. It faces out toward the harbor, sits across from my hotel, and provided easy access after a day flying and sitting in airports. The front staff was friendly, the waitress, like so many people in cities these days, was from someplace not Baltimore (with an accent that screamed Boston)–they did live up to the Charm City slogan, though.

But friendly workers don’t make the food taste good or excuse the fact that M&S Grill is part of the Landry’s seafood chain.

Now, I’m sure Landry’s is delicious, but too often chains aim to democratize their dishes, ensuring they can please the family from Indianapolis while not offending the couple from San Francisco. They might use local seafood, but the spices and approach is the same.

Nonetheless, the beer was on the table before I knew what I had gotten myself into and a friendly wait staff and a cold beer can go a long way to helping food taste better.

Sometimes. I ordered the parmesan-encrusted flounder, mashed potatoes and seasonal veggies. Props to the folks in the kitchen because the potatoes and veggies where tasty. The potatoes had just enough flavor to make them worth eating and the vegetables were cooked just right without seasoning so I could taste the squash.

It’s good they were both so tasty because they must have forgotten the parmesan and just encrusted the flounder. Anything with parmesan should let the cheese dominate the first bite while the thing coated emerges somewhere near the back of the tongue. Maybe someone else’s fish got all the flavor?

The good news is another meal always awaits us.

I had been avoiding Phillips, partly because it has this massive neon sign and it sits next to the Barnes and Nobles. I’m a bit biased in favor of the understated and distrust blaring, garish signs.

I should probably rethink that philosophy.

Charm City again at the front desk and with the wait-staff. They were in the midst of seating a gigantic party of 48. I only know this because some grizzled guy standing near my table leaned over and told me he’s always wanted to just slide into an empty seat with these big company dinners and see if anyone notices. Since he was wearing a Phillips insignia on his shirt, I thought I might check his recommendation for dinner–get the inside scoop as it were.

He asked where I was from, told me he’s worked there for 26 years after owning a place on the beach, and then asked what I was thinking about eating. “What’s good?” I asked.

“The steak is great, but overpriced,” he said. “Beef prices are killing us and we have to charge too much for it.” He sat down at my table. “We are known for crabs so that’s a safe bet if you are hungry. Big chunks of crab.”

“What about the flounder stuffed with crab,” I asked.

“That’s one of mine. Delicious. Been making that for about 26 years.” He stood up, looking at the party of 48. “Gotta go. Hopefully, we can get these guys out of here by closing.”

The waitress stepped in, like a choreographed move, and asked what the executive chef recommended.

Yeah, it’s that kind of place, neon sign or not.

Practice makes perfect, by the way, on the flounder stuffed with crab.

Flounder, to me, is an interesting fish. Like most white fish, you have to be careful cooking it. Too long in the skillet or in the oven and you get a gloppy mess that feels like sawdust in your mouth. It’s one of the reasons you encrust it in something or pile lemon, tomatoes, or onions on it while it cooks.

At Phillips, they cook the flounder in its own cast iron dish sitting in what I assume is olive oil with garlic and other spices. The crab cake rests on top in the center of the fish.

Start on the edges as you eat, savor the fish that holds together long enough to chew. The fish definitely holds up on its own. Take a bight of the crusty french bread that is light and airy on the inside, and then make your way to the center. Before you begin blending the two, take a bite of the crab cake, let the flavors wash across your tongue and then eat the meal as the chef intended. The crab cake jumps out at you but the flavor lasts only until the fish’s garlic flavor and different consistency kick in. As the disparate but complementary flavors mix, there is (or at least should be) that almost inaudible sigh as your stomach knows you made the right choice for dinner.

I ordered the house salad and creamed spinach on the side. They recommended the season vegetables, but squash two nights in a row didn’t seem like a great idea. Plus, I’m a sucker for creamed spinach. In retrospect, the vegetables make more sense. Their spinach has a light, garlicy cream sauce. Combined with the fish and crab cake, I was definitely safe from vampires that night (and probably for another week.) I would have, as I say, been better off with a clean vegetable to avoid conflicts with the main course.

In the interest of fairness, I should warn you to take your appetite and your wallet. The meal is deceptively filling and the folks at Phillips aren’t cooking in the name of charity, but you will, I think, feel like it’s money well spent. After all, they have to pay for that neon sign out front.


Heading Down the Highway–Finally

My youngest son got his drivers license yesterday. While I’m not a particularly religious man, I just want to say

Thank you, Jesus or Buddha or Allah or Zeus or any other deity that helped make this happen.

Our joy, as you can imagine, was matched only by his. Those car keys, if I may wax both philosophical and delve into the cliched, represent freedom and adulthood. On a daily basis, he controls some measure of his own destiny in a way that is both exciting and terrifying. He knows, in the back of his mind, that he now has the ability to move around town (or anywhere else in theory) without supervision.

The world is his oyster. He is, in so many ways, one step closer to leaving the nest.

And that’s not a bad thing. It is our job, after all, to slowly prepare our children to fly the coup, go out on their own, and hit the highway. Life, I think, is about movement and growing up not standing still and laying low.

Certainly, driving a car isn’t the only pathway to gaining independence, but we should note that the automobile holds a special place in American culture. We are, in many ways, a nation built on movement. The very infrastructure of our growth begins with rail tracks spanning the continent, followed shortly thereafter with interstate highway systems. Roads offered us a way to create new identities and opportunities to seek out new lives, new worlds, and new selves.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating that my 16 year old son grab the car keys and head to California next week, but I am recognizing that he is one more step closer to having that opportunity. If, as many of us might argue, where we live helps define who we are, he will have the opportunity to put that theory to the test.

And I’m glad.

But I’m also struck by the growing trend that many people my son’s age are not getting drivers licenses at 16. While we might definitely argue the world is a safer place with fewer teen drivers, I think we are also seeing an interesting cultural shift that begins to redefine the value and importance of physical travel and identity.

I recognize there are a myriad of reasons 16 year olds don’t get licenses. As city populations grow and we increase access to public transportation, owning a car becomes less important. We can, in many ways, move throughout most major cities without a car. Cars, like so many other things, are also becoming increasingly expensive. Gas, insurance, taxes, inspection stickers, maintenance–these all push the cost of ownership outside the financial means for some families.

It’s also true though, that those things all existed 20 years ago. We all knew friends who had a license but no car to drive or, for some, no real reason to drive.

But they could if they needed to.

We also know that cell phones and social media have created abilities to stay connected and to interact in ways unique to this generation of kids. They can text, tweet, post, and instagram, creating electronically tethered friendships–4G service means never having to face the night alone. Google maps offers a chance to see cities, towns, and even their own houses via satellite, all from the comforts of their couch.

There is no doubt virtual travel has an impact on the impetus to slide behind the wheel and roll down the road, but there are plenty of studies also showing us that this generation values human contact. We know, for instance, incoming first year students don’t like online classes. They want to be with live, real, honest to god people.

As with so many milestones, as my son prepared for his big day, my wife and I bored him with stories. In Texas, or I should say, in our high schools, drivers education was part of the curriculum. We both took the class, starting when we were 15, culminating in our learners permit. The clear message, then, was that part of our educational journey in public schools was learning to drive. Like writing an essay, doing algebra, and learning to read, driving was part and parcel of being an educated citizen.

Upon high school graduation, the system said, we should have the skills and mobility to move on and move out.

Somewhere along the way, that mindset shifted (perhaps in more ways than one) and definitions of independence and growing up became the province of individual families, something private and personal. “We just didn’t feel like he was ready to move out,” some parents tell us when they explain why their sons are still living at home.

I’m not judging. Part of me fully recognizes the value of treating maturity individually.

But it also feels like we have lost something along the way. I don’t want my son to jump in the truck tomorrow and head for Montana, work on a ranch, and call home once a week.

There is a part of me, though, that is glad he could if he needed to. Plus, I’m awful tired of driving him to school every day.


Hearing the Sun Shine–a poem

One of my favorite places in Texas is Caprock Canyon State Park. Palo Duro Canyon might be the Grand Canyon of of Texas, but sometimes regular canyons do just fine. Caprock, and I don’t mean this negatively, is manageable and navigable in a way that Palo Duro is not. Certainly, Palo Duro, like the Grant Canyon, is awe inspiring, but the size and depth create a kind of distance. At times, we see grandeur artistically and miss the ability to engage with the land physically.

Caprock, if you’ve never been, isn’t a small canyon, but you can put boots on the ground or bike on the trail and cover the area. When our kids where little and far less busy with friends, sports, and sleeping until noon every weekend, we camped out at Caprock in the fall on a pretty regular basis. Located out near Quitaque, about 15 miles west of Turkey (Home of Bob Wills), the sky is clear and in the fall the air is crisp.

I was thinking of Caprock this morning. We had a storm roll through last night. This morning is bright with a deep blue sky that goes on forever: we breath deeply and let the cool, crisp air cleanse our lungs on a day like today.

A few years ago, I started working on a little poem about watching the sun come over the canyon walls, but I’m always struck by how inadequate words are to describe or capture the emerging sunshine and light breezes that start the day as the world washes over us. Our relationship with nature is such a personal thing, I think, that trying to articulate it almost misses the point. But we try to capture those moment anyway, right? We take photos, invite our friends, walk down memory lane as we try to express the inexplicable.

What you see below is a poem within a poem because, I keep thinking, why write one bad poem when you can offer readers a 2 for 1 special.

Either way, I recommend you just skip the poem and drive out to Caprock and feel it yourselves.

Hearing the Sun Shine

Sitting on the rim of Caprock Canyon, writing a poem that is doomed to miss the moment.

–The sun opens the
blood red canyon walls–

It’s 6 am or thereabouts: Dawn for an early morning hiker with no watch. A cup of coffee in my gloved hands wards off the chill.

–and other colors emerge
from the shadows of dawn.–

My legs dangle 100 feet above the canyon floor, ants, the occasional spider, and unidentified insects crawl around me. I break the silence and propose a truce that seems agreeable between nature and man. “I’m here for me, not for thee.” I raise my cup in thanks and we go about ignoring each other.

–On a shelf opposite the sun, 
a rock becomes 
something alert, moving,

My family still sleeps in the tent and secretly, I’m happy they are not here in the shadows with the noises of early morning: hesitant chirps, cricks, and caws as the night slowly stretches itself out of darkness.

–my eyes at a natural 
disadvantage as the 
sun glares through
the air–

The wind moving through the canyon sounds like traffic on a busy street or the highway miles away and I shake the wrong images from my head.

–and I’m distracted by inappropriate
from outside the
jets and cars in the 

wind and seeing 
trash instead of trees.
I close my eyes.
Open and breath.–

My coffee is gone and the sun is across the canyon. I shed the jacket, put the gloves in my pocket and stand, breathing deeply before the return hike.

–The canyon wall looks like 
Georgia O’Keeffe’s work
Deer and birds float across
the canvass and 
language fails to hold the 
I stop 
trying to
write and
I can hear the
sun shining as
dawn slides into day. 

Gluttony Is A Sin (Unless The Food Is Good)

My wife and I took a break from the politics of destruction in our nation’s capitol last weekend and made a quick dash to New Orleans.

The madness of Bourbon Street, fortunately, transcends political party. And it usually makes more sense. Especially after a Hurricane from Pat O’Brien’s.

If you’ve never been to New Orleans, you owe yourself a trip. If you are somewhere between the ages of 21 and 30, I highly recommend a Friday or Saturday when LSU plays an SEC rival. The French Quarter will be filled with partially developed frontal lobes and you will fit right in. There is a collective, Bacchanalian joy running up and down the street that is both infectious and exciting. Of course, I’m also fairly certain the seven deadly sins make a nightly appearance, although it’s sometimes difficult to tell the difference between sloth and just plain passed out. I’m not, I say in my most fatherly voice, advocating you participate in any of them, but they are definitely on display.

Those of us who have reached an age where we realize the night before isn’t worth the morning after can still enjoy ourselves. That Hurricane from Pat O’Brien’s tastes just as sweet to us as it does to them. We just know the calories will last longer than the hangover.

But the real joy in New Orleans isn’t the music, scantily clad women and men, raucous parties, cheap t-shirts, or daiquiris for sale on every corner.

It’s the food.

I should note that New Orleans’ recovery from Hurricane Katrina is a remarkable example of the collaboration between governmental aid and private entrepreneurial spirit. Low interest loans, tax abatements, and a willingness to take a chance on small business ownership can transform an area, even when it’s been washed out and devastated.

And thank goodness some of those small business owners can also cook.

We began our trip with lunch at Mothers, home of the World’s Best Baked Ham. They’ve certainly had a lot of practice. Mothers has been serving since 1938. Remarkably, after Katrina, the owners sought out employees displaced by the storm and brought them back to work. There’s something about that kind of consistently good employment that helps food stay tasty. My wife had the Ferdi Special, a roast beef po’boy with ham. It’s not for anyone with vegetarian tendencies. Unlike too many chain “food” stores today, Mothers lets the natural juices from the meat keep the sandwich moist. But not too moist. The bread stays firm and holds the meat. They are famous for their Ferdi, but don’t deny yourself the fried shrimp po’boy: pickles, shredded cabbage, a hint of mayo and fried shrimp with just a hint of cajun flavor. It was a veritable symphony as the flavors worked together.

That was lunch day one. How, we wondered, sitting at the table with our bellies full, would we ever eat again.

We managed.

But we got smarter when we ate lunch the next day because we shared the Redfish Amer at the Star Steak and Lobster House. For lunch. Talk about living high on the hog.

Or in this case swimming with the fish. The little steakhouse seats about 30. I recommend you get there about 11:30 because our waitress said the chef cooks up her sauces about that time.

And you want this Crawfish Cream Sauce when it first comes out of the pot. I suspect this stuff would go well on anything, but I recommend you pair it with that lightly fried Redfish, garlic potatoes and broccoli. I’m convinced, by the way, that you can tell the quality of a restaurant by how they cook their broccoli. Best broccoli ever–The Palm in San Antonio. Star comes in a close second. The key to good, fresh veggies is they have to be steamed or sauteed so they are starting to soften on the edges but remain crisp enough to retain their flavor. Never, I insist, steam vegetables for more than seven minutes and for heavens sake stop drowning them in garlic. Broccoli, done right, is a deep green color and crunches as your teeth come together.

And Star did it right. With a light flour coating, sauteed just enough to brown the crust, the fish held together on the fork in the way only redfish can.  But the real culinary delight was that Crawfish Cream Sauce. I’m a big fan of letting food speak for itself. I understand the desire of restaurants to create distinctive flavors, although too often that simply means they cover the dish in pepper. That’s okay if you are serving cheap cuts of meat. Fajitas are spicy mostly because the meat would be inedible if we didn’t do something to it. Catfish is the same way. That’s food you eat to fill up.

A crawfish cream sauce, though, should let us feel the crawfish and complement the flavor of the redfish. The salt, pepper, and other spices should lurk in the background and surround the fish on our tongue.

You might imagine we were done in, but thank goodness there are three meals a day.

Anytime I check into a hotel, I ask for food recommendations. That’s a dicey game. I got sent to a restaurant in Atlanta once where they only served fruit flavored beers. I still have nightmares. If it can be turned into a syrup, it doesn’t belong with barley and hops.

Score one for the desk manager in New Orleans, though.

“You gotta head down to Coops,” he said pulling out the map. “It’s a little bit of a walk, but the Rabbit and Sausage Jambalaya can’t be beat.” He looked up smiling. “Best in town.”

Recommendations like that make you wonder if his brother owns the place. I should warn you that Coops isn’t for the faint of heart or those looking for a quiet, romantic getaway. The music is loud, the grill is sitting about 50 feet out the back door, and seating is limited.

And I don’t know if the jambalaya can be beat or not, but they have the best fried chicken I’ve ever had. Seasoned, the menu says, to perfection with Coop’s bayou blend and that’s not a lie. The chicken isn’t southern fried with that thick batter. When I fry my chicken, I dip it in the flour, eggs/buttermilk, then flour again. That creates that thick, hearty fry that crunches and fills you up.

I’m guessing Coops is an eggs/milk and then flour kind of place. Do it once, do it right, then fry it up. The outer edges had that crunchy, crispness with just enough cajun seasoning to let you know it was there, but it wasn’t interested in blowing your sinus cavities wide open. The chicken stayed moist under the crust, cooked all the way through.

But the real treat here was the Chicken Tchoupitoulas my wife ordered. Boneless chicken breast sauteed in a cream sauce with shrimp and tasso. It came with green beans cooked with that same attention to detail as Star paid to the broccoli, but who really cared that night. The cream sauce was able to balance a little cajun swing with the moist, perfectly cooked chicken breast below. “We’ll share,” she said. Until she took a bite. Some people just get greedy when the eating is good.

Let’s just say there were no leftovers. The entire weekend.

Because it was New Orleans and gluttony is only a sin unless the food is good.

Things I Read

And Things I Learned

Washington Monthly

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Joanne Jacobs

Thinking and Linking by Joanne Jacobs

Inside Higher Ed

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

NYT > Politics

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Balloon Juice

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Dilbert Daily Strip

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

The Full Feed from HuffingtonPost.com

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)