Breaking Bread: Friendship and Barbecue in Austin

“I think they’re pretty interchangeable, in that respect,” he said. My friend Dylan and I were chatting about the similarities to Portland and Austin. The two cities, it would seem, are enjoying a bit of a renascence, if renaissance, in their respective images. Both of them, while quite different in feel, presently hold the creative class of Generation Y in a tractor beam with the promise of exposure and networking amongst likeminded individuals. Dylan and his wife Carissa moved here for these reasons about a year-and-a-half ago. And while I prefer Portland for the weather, I was in Austin for Dylan—and, subsequently, for the food. That’s one way in which Portland and Austin are not “interchangeable”, in my opinion.

Last month I took a road trip from my hometown of Medford up to the tightly-packed urbania of Portland. Stumptown may be best known for being weird but Austin has a similar clarion call (“Keep Austin weird.”—interchangeable). The culinary draw for Portland, however, is its selection of microbrews. That being said, I had one of the best grilled cheese sandwiches of my life while there. From a food truck called “Grilled Cheese Grill”, I walked a block or two away from the crowd near the long row of food trucks and proceeded to savor each crispy, gooey bite under the eaves and out of the rain. They garnished it with a dill spear and a handful of ridged, salt-and-pepper kettle chips. Delicious. In contrast, the food to get in Austin is barbecued meat, plain and simple (again, it’s more about the beer than the food in Portland). About a week prior to flying out, Dylan had asked me to think about things to do while there and local cuisine was about all I could come up with. Of course we would walk and talk as we’re wont. Grab an Americano—two shots for his, three in mine—and unburden our hearts to one another. This had been the hallmark of our friendship over the years: deep conversation over coffee. I was the guest in this case and he would show me some good places for joe and that was fine with me. But my next request was that I’d get to sample some of what makes Austin famous. Texas has cows in abundance. So much so (I’m assuming), their school named their team after them. The shade of representative orange the exact color of the grease after a day in the fridge. And so, I suppose, beef would be what’s for lunch. My imagination showed me a shredded mass of sauce-sodden meat between robust bun halves. I knew what I wanted.

My flight arrived in the early afternoon. “You picked the perfect time to come out,” Dylan exclaimed as we pulled in to his apartment complex. “South by Southwest is done.” We were stopping at his place for a moment to drop off my bags and jacket and say hi to Carissa. Dylan took this opportunity to find a place to eat, commenting to me that Franklin’s would be closed by this time and that if one wasn’t in line by 7 in the morning—for lunch—that person wasn’t going to get any. Stiles Switch, however, was doable. Lamar Street runs the length of Austin and as we drove down, I commented on the abundance of independent, non-franchise-looking shops and businesses lining both sides of the wide, washed-out looking road. Indeed all of Austin was cast in a bright, neutral-tone palette. Warm, rough-hewn stone. Even the streets were a bleached, light-gray under the Texas sun. And here we were at its heart, the sky a cloudless blue.

We walked into the restaurant and took our place in the short line at the edge of the dining room. I ordered a barbecue sandwich and he got the same. He opted for a side of potato salad and I the mac-and-cheese and as I knew he would driving, an IPA. Upon trying the first bite after taking a seat at a long bar near the door, I saw the light. The beef was cooked to perfection: warm, moist, smoky, and full of flavor. A minor downside to this particular meal would be the cheap bun wrapped around this near-perfect specimen of Austin barbecue. They proffered a side of sauce and I drizzled it in and among the pieces of meat I’d forked onto the bun. I hadn’t eaten yet and so proceeded to hungrily devour my lunch. This was day one and my vacation was off to a great start.

The main appeal to any vacation, I would have to say, is the food. Wandering around and taking in the sights will only get you so far. And on an empty stomach, the slightest whiff of something to eat makes one want to turn in and get some grub. One place at which I always stop in Portland is the Rogue Brewery. Located at the edge of the ivy-shrouded brickwork of the Portland State University campus, they’re famous for a number of beers (7 Hop IPA, Dead Guy Ale, et. al). The thing I enjoy most, however, is their Kobe beef burger. It is, to my mind, the gold standard of burgers, with utmost umami engagement on the part of my tastebuds. The horseradish mayo and savory, thick-cut bacon serving only to complement the experience. The time before last, I asked for it medium, a little pink inside, and found it too soft for my taste. This time around I would get it well done. Furthermore, I was pleasantly surprised by the sample of double-chocolate stout. So good was this dessert beer that I elected to take a bottle with me, opting instead, to enjoy a sharp, tangy red cider with my meal. More tart than sweet, the apple flavor almost an afterthought. But the burger. The burger was amazing. However, the culinary appeal to Portland (for me) is more about the beverage than the food. Coffee and beer. Outside the Kobe, there isn’t much I’ve eaten that begs me to go back.

The first night, undaunted and, to a degree, unsatisfied, I had looked online for good barbecue in Austin. The sandwich from earlier a distant, but quite pleasant, waking dream. Reading down the “best of” list—which included Franklin, and also Stiles—I spied Salt Lick and remembered a satellite location at the Austin airport. This being said, I had begun to think that perhaps playing it by ear would get me further in my quest for the sandwich of my imagination. Another item on my itinerary was to check out deep downtown: any city of size beckons me into its concrete and glass and steel canyons—the earlier the better, in my opinion. Either way, there’s always been something about a bustling heart of a city. Feeling its pulse and rhythms for oneself is an essential part of this life. Dylan knew I wanted this and so he suggested Houndstooth. They had exceptional coffee, he assured me, and we would hit up the one nearer to his place so as to have something to sip on the way downtown. My triple Americano proved up to par, with a complex fruitiness needing no cream. After finding a place to park on Congress, we walked across the Ann W. Richards “bat bridge” and into downtown. Right after Houndstooth, I had googled a purveyor of decent ‘cue nearby, understanding by now that unpretentious white bread was the traditional accompaniment to the meat. As the bun from the previous day’s sandwich had barely held up against the meat and sauce, a kaiser roll or hoagie seemed like a better fit. The search yielded Cooper’s barbecue and so we agreed on that for this day’s lunch.

Walking through downtown, I was struck with the evident similarities to the clientele and look of our fellow Generation Yers; Portland and now Austin. Arms not sleeved in business casual sported tattoos, every (male) leg sheathed in tapered trousers. The “interchangeability” spoken of by Dylan on full display. We walked up the ramp to Cooper’s and when inside took our place at the end of a long line of young professionals, out for lunch. A panoply of slogans and phrases (including “Cooper’s” rendered in Cooper Black—the font, strangely enough) were stenciled on the brick wall to our right. I wasn’t having it: white bread with my barbecue. So I asked the barkeep if they had “real” bread, she answered in the affirmative. This time, I got the potato salad. Dylan didn’t feel like barbecue and so decided to watch me eat. The layout was a little more upscale than Stiles and there were two open berths—a little darker orange than the Longhorns’—on one wall in the dining room around the corner from the ordering counter. Each one with its respective pots of sliced pickles and onions and a large, steaming vat of pinto beans, flavored with bacon. The “real” bread, spoken of by the barmaid, turned out to be the wheat variation of the ubiquitous Austin white. I chose the wheat and didn’t look back. Present, too, was a tangy barbecue sauce that wasn’t quite to my taste. If there is some ratio of food quality to atmosphere, those two things would have been radically inverted at Stiles: while it wasn’t much to look at inside, the food was exemplary. Stiles’ only downside, as I’ve said, was the quality of the bun and then the fact that my imaginary, perfect Austin barbecue sandwich still had a placeholder in my mind. As-yet unfulfilled. With Cooper’s though, the food quality would slide ever-so-slightly down the scale while the atmosphere would be just about opposite of Stiles Switch. Both meats were delicious. It was the sides and the bread that would end in causing Cooper’s to take second place to Stiles. Thank God I had one more day in Austin. Dylan suggested I google “barbecue sandwich” proper for our next (and final) day’s attempt as, really, any place is gonna have meat. It is bread, however, that makes a “sandwich”. As I had one more day to fill this need, I really wanted to sate my imagination. Dylan’s lunch was a thick, white bean chili at a restaurant whose bar was open to the corner of E 2nd and Congress. It was aptly named Corner with a simple logo belying a sophistication and swank to rival even Cooper’s. That night, the three of us went to dinner at The Asian Cafe. The beef lo mein was quite yummy and it was wonderful catching up with Carissa.

By this time, I already consider the trip to be a success. The main reason I went to Texas (I was born in Plano but my family moved a year later—hadn’t been back since) was to see my friend (Texas’ state motto is simply “Friendship.”). After a day-and-a-half of solid conversation and delicious food and drink (Corner had this pear shandy that was out of this world—don’t squeeze the lemon in it though), I could’ve left happy. I also got to get a break from work and from Medford. But that image. The one of the sandwich, dripping with thick, savory barbecue sauce, the beef inside packed tight and steaming beneath the brow of a substantial, whole grain bun that, much like the state of Texas, if I may, wasn’t going to give up without a fight? That was still unfulfilled. As Dylan and I are optimistic at heart and seeing how we’re both in the barbecue capital of the world, we were bound to find the perfect place. Thursday looms large.

A couple errands led us first to the pet store and then to Game Over in order to sell some rarely-touched video games collecting dust on Dylan’s bookshelf. As we talked with Davide, the subject of food came up and he suggested Valentina’s. It sounded as good a place as any and as I hadn’t yet scoured the Google for the “barbecue sandwich” of my dreams, we figured we’d try a local’s take (“He’s more local than I am.” Declared Dylan on the way out). Turns out Valentina’s is a food truck about ten minutes out. We drove over and upon seeing the scene, something reminded me again of the food quality/atmosphere ratio. In retrospect, I think I subconsciously realized that with no atmosphere (picnic tables) but the aforementioned blue sky of Texas above us, the food was bound to be superlative. It was my turn to pay and so after ordering the chopped beef sandwich (the prior two had been brisket), I thought I’d see what I could find to drink at the convenience store toward the end of the strip mall. With nothing inside to quench my thirst and as it wasn’t all that hot outside, I came back out. And there it was. The sandwich of my imagination. Please understand, it was as if the intangible image, produced mentally by neurons and synapses and several-images-from-God-knows-where, had been rendered in three dimensions by whomever was working the barbecue pit hitched up to Valentina’s food truck. It had been dragged into reality: the apotheosis of “barbecue sandwich”. I sidled up to the table, sat down, and then we said a brief prayer. I hefted the thing from the paper and eyed a hunk of dill pickle nestled beneath the top bun, a bun that I somehow knew could go the distance. Strands of meat hung off the sandwich and chunks of it fell into the paper tray. The first bite was like nothing I’d experienced, if only for the simple reason that a circuit had been completed. Here I was in the state of my birth enjoying exactly what I had wanted. You can imagine how it tasted. Mission accomplished.

I feel it. As a writer and member of the “creative class”, I feel the draw of the two cities. In that sense, they are indeed “interchangeable”. In fact, it was the people-watching on the way into downtown on Wednesday that began the discussion of the two cities’ “interchangeability”. Taking in both cities in as many months, I do see some distinctions. The grackle with its obscene call and broad tail (“Everything’s bigger in Texas!”), the sparrows and doves that aren’t pushy but that don’t fly away with the wave of your hand, the weather. The barbecue. Many things in Austin have no match in Portland. And while the food in the latter is, well, there, Austin wins out, hands down. In closing, I would have to say though that I enjoy Portland just a little more. Something about the coziness (to say nothing of Dylan and Carissa’s hospitality) and the gray of the Northwest speaks to my soul. After a day of driving around Austin, I realized what was so markedly different: the space. In that respect, Oregon has nothing on Texas. Different zoning laws or something. Wandering this vast expanse is bound to make someone hungry.

A Shot in the Dark

I’m sitting in a little coffeeshop (called “Main Street Bistro and Coffee”) in downtown Silverton. There’s a blinking traffic signal off to my left. It’s not swaying in the breeze but it may as well be. I sip my “shot in the dark”—so-named as it’s a shot of espresso in a cup of brewed, black coffee—and listen to Clean Bandit’s “Rather Be”, featuring the same expression in the lyric. It’s all coming together. The coffee shop takes up the first two floors on the corner of the Wolf Building on E. Main and N. Water St.

I was given the last week of February off from work. I had forgotten I had the time but as my boss is decent, she made sure I didn’t lose something that was rightfully mine. I wonder, had I not been given the time off, how I would have been able to hold up under the slow landslide of homework that marks the end of the semester. But I got the time and so I was able to give my assignments their due and then think about and plan a mini vacation.

So I drove up to Portland and stayed the night at a hostel on SE Hawthorne. It’s amazing how a couple hundred miles removed (as opposed to the “thousand” spoken of in the aforementioned song) from one’s “comfort” zone serves to “switch up the batteries”, if recharge the ones that lay dormant in my heart and mind. The hostel felt the same and so did the neighborhoods through which I ran this morning after I got up. Downtown Portland yields itself up after a brief stroll here and there: gray. But it’s a good gray. And thank God it wasn’t raining like it was yesterday when I arrived. I took a stroll then as well and got soaked to my socks. My shoes are still drying out. I was effectively cleansed from the grit and grim of the quotidian and the mundane that silted up in my soul while in Medford.

I subscribe to Multiverse Theory, but not in the way you might think. There’s such a thing as “distance” and then something altogether different called “time”. Though in the case of the latter, the difference from the former is a metaphorical one. Here’s the thing: both distance and time are covered through movement. And if one spends the necessary time to get where they’re supposed to be with reference to activities and responsibilities (like in the case of my homework), then they’ll get to a place where time will still flow the sixty seconds to a minute and sixty minutes to an hour. But alongside this, another dimension will open up of possibility and potential. All the beautiful things that lay dormant in your heart and mind will begin to unfold like the moist wings of a butterfly emerging from the cocoon. Let them stretch in those minutes and hours. You don’t necessarily have to be removed geographically but take that time and make it work for you now. Everything else that you temporarily leave behind will be waiting for you, don’t worry about that. But give it up for a few moments and give yourself time and space to breathe. Try it. It’s a shot in the dark but trust me, it sounds great.

It’s also delicious.

Judging a Song by its Cover part one

I was reminded, aurally, of The Fugees’ suburb rendition of Roberta Flack’s Killing Me Softly two nights ago while out with a friend. I bought it the next morning. Lauryn Hill brings her strong persona to a song about an unassuming woman who goes to see a celebrated young musician only to find herself undone by the end of the evening. Flack must be acknowledged as the initial purveyor of the song—the one who introduced into the public consciousness—but Hill’s expression is, in my opinion, much, much better. She may have been “miseducated” but she is in consummate control on this track. She knows what she’s doing. Her melodic vocalization from 3:12-3:48 against a simple R&B backbeat is worth the price of admission–it might leave you undone as well, be careful.
How can an artist take an original track and improve on it? I mean, the vision was birthed, so to speak, in the heart and mind of the initial performer and yet, somehow, someone can catch that vision and bend it ever-so-slightly and produce something familiar, yet altogether refreshing, and in some cases, better. Consider Aretha Franklin’s exceptional version of Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water. The original has long been a great strength to me: one of those few songs in my phone that will actually clear up any mood in which I may find myself—should I remember to listen to it amidst the bustle of a miserable day. Franklin opens with a little-bit-different introduction (“Still waters run deep…if you’ll only believe”) then proceeds to express a minute-or-so long ditty on the piano with a somber organ accompanying; this is the Gospel according to Aretha. She says towards the end, “sail on Silver Boy” (as opposed to “Silver Girl” from the original) and it feels like she’s speaking right into me. Then again, as I take in the original in contrast, I am reminded of one of the purest expressions of selfless friendship I know. Either one, however, is pure poetry set to music that heals the heart.
Then there’s Cream’s reimagining of the seminal blues tune Crossroads. While it’s mythologized in Americana that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil for a little musical acumen (it could be that he stole it from Satan, who knows?), Eric Clapton takes it one further in adding his Sixties rock sensibility to one of the greatest blues songs of all time. Taking on such a heavy responsibility as representing the flagship song of an entire genre is sobering and Cream pulls it off with aplomb. Going further, Rush’s rendition from their 2004 album Feedback is even better and, dare I say it, the live album from that year’s tour features a performance that edges out the studio version ever so slightly.

What about those songs that may not have been given the best polish in subsequent recordings? I was impressed with Guns N’ Roses Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door when first I heard it. Upon discovering Dylan’s original, however, that admiration was broken. I don’t mind the aforementioned cover but Bob Dylan is that total package of hopeless yearning somehow extruded in an honest way and that Axl Rose and his crew cannot hope to touch. Dylan’s Maggie’s Farm is done up right by Rage Against the Machine but again, his resignation and subtle carelessness is not to be found in De la Rocha’s complaint over working for a tyrannical family. Doesn’t mean that either cover is bad, just that in my opinion, Dylan’s emotional vein was not tapped and therefore the author’s original intent may not have been conveyed as well as it could have (or was).

For lateral covers—songs that are reimagined without respect, so to speak, to what the first artist had in mind—nothing impresses me more than The Punch Brothers’ Bluegrass take on Radiohead’s Packt Like Sardines in a Crush’d Tin Box (Amnesiac, 2000). Thom Yorke said it well when he said “I’m a reasonable man, get off my case”. And yet the Punch Brothers take the original and imbue new life into what is essentially a song about a crazy man coming to his senses a little after the fact (this is my interpretation). The way The Punch Brothers translate Radiohead’s gamelan-sounding (Indonesian orchestra) first track to fiddle, guitar and banjo (and upright bass) is brilliant.

The Right Way to Do a Christmas Song

I was listening to Alice In Chains’ Christmas album* the other day when I realized some traditional Christmas carols are best served by certain artists. Seen another way, it might be best to express that one particular artist put his or her stamp on the song and it maintains a synergistic relationship with them and their career. The best example I have is that of Bing Crosby and “White Christmas”. Vince Gill does a good cover, sure, with his stellar electric guitar picking—good enough not to sing it after the instrumental, honestly. But Bing is White Christmas, if I may.

I love Christmas music and look forward to mid-Autumn re-downloading what tunes I have in the cloud. I have about thirty handpicked Christmas songs with exceptional holiday staying power, and while I’m not one for the gimmicky, department-store background noise, the versions and covers of which I’m fond warm my heart during the Christmas season. Here’s a few from my own personal Christmas playlist.

Take, for instance, Enya’s Gaelic rendition of Silent Night (Oíche Chiúin). One may not understand anything she’s singing but the warmth in her voice and the drawn out tones make for an altogether refreshing take on a Christmas carol standard. Then again, if you need a standby “Silent Night”, you really can’t do better than The Temptations’ take. They go from high to low in a lush Motown version you’d want to fall asleep to (but in a good way). Sleep in heavenly peace indeed.

Enya continues with her otherworldly “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”. She opens the song with her signature mezzo and ends the first verse with two utterances of “Rejoice”—clear as ice. Then the high druidic background vocals enter to complement and also add depth to what may have become a long-forgotten and no-count carol that carries the weight and seriousness and message of the Christmas season. At least, this is my interpretation.

I fell in love with Vince Gill’s Let There Be Peace On Earth when I was a kid and digging the early nineties country scene. And while I still have a few affectionate holdovers from that era, my musical tastes have matured and refined and now my internal playlist features music—Christmas and non—from across the spectrum. This being said, his rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is still stellar. Move over with me, however, a little to the Northeast and take on James Taylor’s version. The soft brushes on the drums and spare piano chords highlight  Sweet Baby James’ yearning for a little peace during “the most wonderful time of the year”. It’s wistful, hopeful and realistic in equal measure.

Sawyer Brown’s Christmas album is one of the aforementioned holdovers from my time as a Country fan. Released in 1999, I purchased it in full for old time’s sake a number of years ago. Throughout the album, they talk (okay, Mark Miller sings) all around the story of Christmas from the perspective of the wise men (“The Wiseman’s Song”) to Mary (“Sweet Mary Cried”) to the children in awe at the wonder inherent to the season (“Where Christmas Goes”). The title track “Hallelujah He Is Born” and the musical reworking of “O Little Town of Bethlehem”, however, are worth the price of admission. They also take on “Little Drummer Boy” with aplomb as well as the not-too-stuffy, if quite elegant “Angels We Have Heard On High” (pronouncing “Gloria in excelcis Deo” without a hint of Latin inaccessibility). I met keyboardist Greg Hubbard one day and personally thanked him for what the album meant to me. He asked for my address and I received a signed copy of the cd a number of weeks later. Great guys.

If I had to label my favorite Christmas song, it’d have to be “Away In a Manger”. I realized this year that I hadn’t ever purchased a copy and only the few bars that resounded in my head were the ones that I sang, or hummed, to myself as the Christmas season approached. In light of this, I hunted around about two weeks ago for the perfect version, one that would not displace the sweetness of what this simple song meant to me, and happened upon a version curated in the Celtic Woman holiday album. Something about the nameless singer’s Irish lilt lends a new and welcome flavor to what I consider to be the humblest of the Christmas carols.

There’s really so much you can do with this, so many places to go. In much the same way that Bing Crosby imbues White Christmas with what makes the song a classic and a standard, Nat King Cole’s seminal version of “The Christmas Song” is about all you need. The sense of urgency at about a minute-and-a-half is rendered with pitch-perfection—that hush of wonder at whether or not reindeer are able to go airborne of their own accord. I remember having received my Super Nintendo for my ninth birthday and playing Super Mario World with this particular “The Christmas Song” playing in the background against the soft glow of the Christmas tree. It is one of my favorite Christmas memories of all time. This being said, Celine Dion’s offering of the same song shines with a beauty that about equal’s Cole’s. As an aside, I’ve never seen a Christmas compilation (I don’t think) featuring “Feliz Navidad” done by anyone other than José Feliciano.

I have a soft spot for The Eagles’ “Please Come Home For Christmas”. Aaron Neville does it well as well but if one had to judge an album by its cover, they couldn’t do better than a bunch of guys sitting poolside with a cheapest sub-Charlie Brown-looking, plastic Christmas tree alongside. The midwinter LA sky looks beautiful and that palm tree in the foreground as well. The simple piano notes that open the track draw you in to a (potentially) lonely season in a poignant way and then bid you goodbye.

The Christmas after my Nintendo memory I received my brother (December 28th). As he was severely jaundiced upon parturition, he remained in the hospital for a week. Mind you, Christmas had come and gone (and, at least that year, was effectively eclipsed with Ian’s coming forth into this world) but my dad and I would go back and forth across town to visit both he and my mother. My dad had what must have been a Christmas mix tape featuring Gene Autry’s exceptional “Here Comes Santa Clause”. For me, no other version will do—not even Elvis’. This is one song I haven’t obtained yet because the memory stands out with such beauty and stillness and wonder that the actual object of the affection (in this case, a digital MP3 file) would only serve to blunt and/or sully something deeper. The line about “[giving] thanks to the Lord above because Santa Clause comes tonight” has always made me chuckle.

Karla Bonoff’s “The First Noel” is awesome and the award for best instrumental that may or may not have anything to do with Christmas beyond the title goes to Ryuchi Sakamoto’s “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence”.

In closing, I know I said that “Away In a Manger” was my favorite. It’s my favorite due to its sweet innocence and simplicity and the Celtic Woman cover, as I mentioned, does nothing to supplant the memory I hold in my mind. But if there was one song on the list I’d keep, barring all others, it would be Peter, Paul & Mary’s medieval-tinged “A’Soalin”. If “Away In a Manger” renders the Christ child in all his helpless glory, “A’Soulin” identifies the plight of those whom he came to save and to serve. The hope is palpable (“the streets are very dirty/my shoes are very thin/I have a little pocket/to put a penny in”). The “reason for the season” comes around full circle with both songs. I’m sure other artists have covered the song but the holiness of the original is enough to not even desire to search out other interpretations.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you.

*Alice In Chains doesn’t actually have a Christmas album

Year In Review

2015 was without a doubt the busiest year of my life.

A year of singular events and signal turning points. While I got to see my favorite band on their farewell tour (Rush), they didn’t play my favorite song (Limelight). No matter, it, and they, will always be my favorite. They did, however, play my second-favorite song (Subdivisions) on the 21st of July in Portland. And speaking of “turning points”, I had to get my car’s power steering motor replaced before going up to see them—totally worth it, and essential I might add.

I also got to see my second-favorite band (Collective Soul in May) on the unofficial first stop of their new tour. Ed Roland announced partway through the concert that the red tape tying up the release of See What You Started By Continuing had been cut the day before and that the Lincoln City audience (of which I was a member) was first privy to what the rest of the world would soon hear. They released the album in October, only one of whose songs I’ve genuinely warmed to (Without Me), okay two (Exposed).

It was a year of music for sure. I got to see, not just my favorite bass player, but also the world’s preeminent: Victor Wooten. Got to meet him, too. He’s an extraordinarily humble and kind individual.

My brother came out to the West Coast, not once but twice. During the latter visit, he treated me to an evening at the Britt festival in Jacksonville; we watched The Punch Brothers. While they didn’t play my favorite song (a stellar cover of Radiohead’s “Packt Like Sardines In a Crush’d Tin Box), they did play his (Another New World).

Two other musical honorable mentions would be Enya’s new album (Dark Sky Island) which features the exceptional “Echoes In Rain” and Seal’s 7 which has another single I appreciate (Daylight Saving). It’s always cool to see an artist whose catalog you happen upon while they’re in their heyday, so to speak. As time goes on, you continue to warm to them and appreciate them and catch up to them (as I did in the case of both Seal and Enya in the mid-2000s) integrating them into your internal playlist. And then when they release new material that’s in keeping with the quality of their early stuff, the stuff they put out when they were hungry, you feel a circle has been completed. Music is one of the most subjective things in this world. Consider that the root of the word, when you rewind back to Indo-European, means “to think”. It’s a broad correlation from one reference title but our musical tastes are as varied and unique as are we.

William Gibson became my new favorite author in February. My other brother Jesse had read Neuromancer for his “Introduction to Cybernetics and Cyberculture” class. He loaned it to me after finishing it and while he didn’t really dig it, I did. I continued on with All Tomorrow’s Parties. Having seen that Gibson was prolific and that his dense, yet highly descriptive style reminded me of someone else (me, though I suppose this was somewhat subconscious), I elected to sink my teeth into his body of work. While All Tomorrow’s Parties thrilled, I learned it was the third in a trilogy. No wonder so much of it didn’t make sense. I shrugged my shoulders and soldiered on.

A number of years ago, I had seen his book Zero History at The Dollar Tree and thought (having seen and heard of but never read him): “Odd that an author of his caliber would have been relegated to a buck on the bottom shelf.” I remembered this and so went for a copy. I picked it up (it was still there, after all these years) and cracked it open. I found that Zero History was likewise third in a trilogy—The Blue Ant trilogy, so-named for the design firm that features throughout the three books—and I began to see a pattern. My next Gibson outing, then, would be the first in said trilogy: Pattern Recognition. So enjoyable was Pattern Recognition that I ordered hardbacks of it and its sequel, Spook Country, to complement that hardback of Zero History I’d picked up for a buck. I also read that one again, just to round out the storyline. It all made sense now. While I was reading this trilogy, I had this epiphany. I slowly realized that this trilogy, this story arc had been waiting out there in the media ether—to coin a phrase—for nearly ten years and that I was just now coming into its knowing. I took it upon myself to buy up all the copies at Dollar Tree and distribute them to passersby, unsuspecting and non (over a dozen). Needless to say, Gibson is not represented there anymore. I continued with Virtual Light and then Idoru before reading All Tomorrow’s Parties again. He published his most recent standalone novel last October and by the time I was done with his excellent essay collection Distrust That Particular Flavor (and after a little respite from his universe), I was ready to read The Peripheral. Though the paperback edition I happened upon at the book exchange in Ashland (same city in which I saw Victor Wooten) was from the UK. It was still a week before America would get to read it in that format. Good stuff!

I also read the Zanders’ Art of Possibility, a Self-Help-by-way-of-the-Business-section title on remaining open to that abstract. While possibility is all around us, if I had to posit my two cents, I would have to say that we as adults (assuming you’re past a certain age) subconsciously seek to remain in control to the neglect of what is possible. The Zanders (husband and wife) open their slim, bright yellow volume with the fiat: “A book of practices.” Twelve chapters exceptionally detail a way of thinking—illustrated with the authors’ own anecdotes and narratives, of course—that ensures the reader hold a better objective standard in their own life with reference to events and relationships. Chapter three (titled, “Giving an A”) is worth the price of admission. He (Ben) is the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and she (Roz—Rosamund) is a therapist and each brings their discipline (music, counseling) to bear on the subjects addressed. Check it out (or buy it, whatever) if you feel so inclined. I probably wouldn’t have read it had it not been in the Business section, just so you know.

I lost my father this year. If all that came before were the high points, this was certainly the low. There are still people who ask how he is when they see me, not knowing he’s not with us anymore. The two offerings I give when answering that question and upon the querier’s (one who queries) hearing of his passing are: “He’s not suffering anymore.” and “He’s in a better place.”  These two statements hold true to this day, five months after the event. My time in Portland seeing Rush was a welcome relief to the busyness and stress of what happened. This was the first time my brother flew out to see me; we miss our dad.

I started college. About four years ago, I met my best friend and he and I shared coffee and conversation every week without fail (unless he was out of town) for three years. He and his wife moved away last year. While our mutual brainstorming sessions yielded the first stirrings of an unformed idea resembling a “creative center”, the horizon would look a lot different. I came to realize that without some formal education, something like that would never get off the ground. In light of this realization, I felt like the best approach to still doing what Dylan and I had discussed was to become a teacher and see where that takes me. Everything’s goes well on that front.

I drink black coffee now; this happened around Spring. My morning usual had been for years a 12 ounce americano with an artificial (pink) sweetener and about an inch of half-and-half. I had long wanted to cut out artificial sweetener from my diet and so I took that plunge, switching to one raw sugar per cup. This tasted about right, not quite that saccharine high I’d been accustomed to since God-knows-when, but more even, mellower even.

But then I had another morning-cup epiphany: why not cut out the sweet altogether? I mean (reasoning to myself), isn’t coffee meant to be enjoyed on its own? It may well have been the fact that I was probably just ready for a change, yeah. So now I got half-and-half, only, in my joe. This winnowing would continue with the elimination of cream to just black. Coffee is the bitter element in the drink and the milk fat balances that bitterness (I came upon this in a book, it makes perfect sense). Then the sweet only serves to complement that balance. This isn’t to say—barring the other two elements in my morning coffee—that I am content with bitterness, no. I appreciate the subtle distinctions to be found in each cup of black coffee (I also stopped drinking americanos, I’ll get one now for every ten cups of black, drip coffee) and I seek to savor each first sip. It is a ritual that I enjoy every morning. Thank you very much.

There remain about two-and-a-half weeks before the year ends. As awesome and momentous a year as this has been, it’s not over yet. We’ll see how it turns out! If I had one piece of advice for the closing of one season and in light of the next, it’s this: be grateful. Appreciate what you have and remain bright in the face of what comes.

Happy Holidays!

Oh Darn

Seth Godin does your counterintuition know no bounds?!

I posed this question to my Facebook friends one evening. Hoping to draw out a response and start a little friendly conversation, I instead ended up hearing nothing but crickets. My hope, as I did have one, was to point out that he had said in a blog post (http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2007/08/just-in-time-fo.html) that he wore mismatched socks as part of his daily attire (!). I thought this was brilliant, a work of true sartorial/social subversion, as it were. And so, my estimation of him and his approach to the things of life as they related to marketing (he is a marketer, after all) only increased. I had long been a wearer of the crazy sock, or two. The benefit of having something so utilitarian-yet-essential as our feet swathed in something not only hidden but also bright and colorful and above all personal diffusing into my person over a particularly vexing season of rich personal growth. So I got the crazy sock thing; candy-striped or patterned with cartoon characters of yore, flying pigs, etc. You get the idea. What I couldn’t get over, however, was the act of wearing two different socks as part of this non-statement (remember, you can’t see them if you’re wearing pants) of individuality.

I began, as a child, with solid colors, on the bold, or darker, end of the spectrum. My fashion-sense teeth were cut in preschool during which time I attended a private Montessori school in Southern California. Students adhered to a dress code which included khaki slacks and polo shirts. If it got too cold (which was rare, this was LA), you could wear a long sleeve undershirt but you always needed that collar-and-two-opaque-buttons showing. I usually left one unbuttoned—still do (though I rarely wear the polo shirt). This strict dress code, however, didn’t apply to my hosiery and as such, not much thought was given to their eminence, their importance for my daily attire. I suppose my mom purchased a bag of mixed-color socks at some department store and called it good. Let’s see, I remember burgundy and a dark turquoise/light teal, maybe black too. There were most likely a pair or two of black socks. I kept this pattern up through about third grade. We had moved to a new state and I began attending a new school, this time public: the socks stood out. It was the early nineties and while that statement may not say much about the state of the quality of the sock union, white was the sock-pattern patois. The coin of the hosiery realm, if you will. If you wore white socks, well, you wore what most of your peers wore. Of course there were the branded socks, Nike edging out Reebok and Adidas by several orders of magnitude. After a few days or weeks, the stolid, solid color sock order was just not going to cut it. As I was subconsciously looking to integrate into the fold in whatever way I could, white socks was just one of the many things I was willing to adopt in order to fit in to this new atmosphere of public school. I began to disdain the socks to which I had theretofore given no conscious thought and I became an adherent to the plain, boring white crew sock. No stripes if I had my say and socks-with-heels always took precedence over tube socks.

I carried on the white-sock tradition until my late teens when I started working at a place with a dress code. About the same as Montessori in that I could wear polo shirts but I had to wear slacks along with my dress shoes. The neutral colors to which I gravitated lasted a number of years until I began to feel that pull for more (and more) individuality. I would say that everyone goes through this at some point in their life, my vision quest holding a number of foci, one of which became my sock game. Gone were the boring grays (though I love gray as a concept) and beiges and blacks devoid of personality. I discovered the candy stripe in the sock weave and I was gone. I joined a new order. Socks were now on my radar as desirable articles of clothing, consumables to be spied out and purchased and be proud of. They only added, you understand. I was turning into a new person.

Today, my undergarment drawer (sorry, they don’t have their own drawer—at least not yet) holds only the finest in distinct sockwear. I’ll do a load of laundry and dump out the clean clothes. On days when I haven’t had time to pair up the socks (and fold up the shirts and briefs), I play this game (and remember, I have committed to only wearing matched socks regardless of whether or not I dress with the lights on). The game in question has no official name but it plays as follows: I proceed to pull a sock from the pile and continue pulling until I find the first match. I might go through half-a-dozen different socks before I find the day’s pair and while I don’t always do it, it provides a satisfying complement to the beginning of my day. Understand that there are more obscure, complicated equations that I employ on days when I really get serious about what socks to wear. All this aside, know that deliberate thought goes into each day’s sock choice and I peel them off at the end of the day with the same respect.

In closing, I leave Godin’s sock proclivities to him alone (and the toe-socks—like gloves for your feet—to those inclined to wear them) and appreciate what fellow hosiery connoisseur I have in him.

There are a number of things I’d recommend that would radically change, alter one’s life should they feel stagnant and in need of a course correction. But if you want a simple fix, one that won’t break the bank but will yield a positive (and interesting) return, start wearing some crazy socks. And whether or not any one responds to your choice, you’ll know.

The College Try part three Moves Ahead

So now I’m a student. I don’t know how it is with you but there are always certain realms and echelons to life that we observe from without even as we’re making our way toward such. And we might not understand the seriousness it takes to truly matriculate into said spheres but we certainly would like the benefits that come along with being a card-carrying member of those, uh, clubs (there aren’t any fraternities at Rogue Community College, but there are “clubs” and there’s an open invitation to start your own, whatever it may be). For instance, I would wonder as I had heard that students get a discount on a new Mac or, say, a cheaper movie ticket. And I told myself upon starting school that I would look into all the icing that comes with this new cake of college. But as I find myself three weeks in and just having nearly ascended this week’s mountain of homework (more of a hill, a nunatak, really), there isn’t any time to worry or wonder about the ancillary (some would say tertiary) benefits to being a college student. Because it isn’t all about the bennies, it’s actually about the grants (Hah!).

Growing up, as I was homeschooled (see part 2 of this series), my dad and I would mull over what I wanted to do and be and he would admonish me with this bit of wisdom: if what you want to do doesn’t require a college degree, don’t waste your time. Now, this is my paraphrase and he worded it a little more precise. But I see what he’s saying. The irreducible distilled wisdom that he won remains with me to this day. And yes, before he passed away in July, he knew what I wanted to do, to become. But I can’t just step out of my full-time retail job and into a classroom to “teach children”, no matter how passionate I am. This world doesn’t work that way, and thank God for that. But that passion: it’s what drives me to think however many moves ahead in order to plan, not just a future among the academe, nor, really among a teaching union. But a place where my gifts will be put to the test and pass. Yes, there has already been doors and horizons opened before me having been in school, like I say, for just three weeks, towards integrating into my chosen group: educators. But even that in itself may turn out to be stifling if I don’t sense in anyone the kindred drive to simply inspire understanding. Real quick, that’s what teaching is to me. The ability to explain. One of my favorite quotes comes from the late Edward Koch, former mayor of New York: “I can explain it to you, but I can’t comprehend it for you.” I feel that I can help people to comprehend. That’s my drive, that’s my passion and that’s what moves me ahead.