Ramble With Me.

Going Local.

chickenGoing to KFC for Nashville Hot Chicken is like going to McDonald’s for Japanese sushi. That’s the first thought that came to me when I saw KFC’s new offering and then I wondered if “Japanese sushi” were redundant. Aside from the difference in certain ingredients what differentiates sushi in Japan from the sushi I get here in Nashville?

If the recipe’s the same would it still be Nashville (Tennessee) hot chicken if it were made in Nashville (Indiana)? It’s not like KFC—formerly Kentucky Fried Chicken—is really from Kentucky, at least not anymore.

Nashville hot chicken, by the way, is spicy fried chicken that, I think, really started to come to prominence with the 2007 start of an annual festival, although it also got a mention in 2002 on Dave Attell’s show Insomniac. He stopped and got some of the very hottest chicken at Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack–where hot chicken is generally believed to have been invented–and sweated through several bites.

And that got me thinking about the fact that I can stand in my backyard and throw stones and hit restaurants that describe themselves as Thai, Vietnamese, Indian, Mexican, Chinese, and Korean. Although I wouldn’t do that. If I’m going to stand in my backyard and throw stones I’m going to throw them at the squirrels and chipmunks that insist on chewing up the wiring under our cars, but that’s another story.

It’s amazing to me that I live in a neighborhood—and that, for that matter—we live in a world—where such a wide variety of cuisines are available. I love being able to go just down the street for some pho, although it frustrates me that they won’t let me order the jellyfish salad. Admittedly I understand. The waiters don’t know I’m an adventurous eater and that even though I’ve never tried jellyfish salad and can’t say whether I’ll like it I’m willing to give it a try. But I’ve been in restaurants and seen somebody of my particular ethnic group order something exotic only to start yelling, “Yuck, I can’t eat this! Take it back!”

I’m sorry to say that’s a true story. And it’s why I don’t blame the waiters when they look at me and tell me, “No, you don’t want the jellyfish salad” and bring me chicken with lemongrass instead.

This also brings to mind another pet obsession of mine: eating locally. I’m not a locavore, but as much as possible I stay away from chain restaurants. When I visit friends in other cities I sometimes drive them nuts. “Let’s go to [GENERIC CHAIN]!” they’ll say, and if you’ve ever heard anyone speak in brackets you know how disconcerting it can be. And I’ll say, “No, no, no, let’s do something local!” When I’m in an unfamiliar place I don’t want familiar food. If I could get the same thing at home what’s the point of traveling?

And yet travel is a luxury that’s not available to everyone, nor is it possible for most of us to go everywhere we’d like to go. As much as I would like to I’ll probably never get to visit Sri Lanka, but a Sri Lankan restaurant is one way to experience the culture. Or is it? Is a Sri Lankan restaurant in the middle of a US city an authentic representation of the culture? And given the increasing interconnectedness of the world and the ease of travel it’s hard to say what authentic culture really is. Going to and from work every day I travel farther than most of our ancestors would in their lifetimes. Being able to share so much with the rest of the world is a wonderful thing but I also wonder what’s being lost. Should some things be kept strictly local?

Alternative title for this post: "This is a local blog for local people! There's nothing for you here!" (Source: BBC)

Alternative title for this post: “This is a local blog for local people! There’s nothing for you here!”
(Source: BBC)

Bring Back Some Beer.

hipsterbeerLast year my wife gave me a bottle of Black Belle Imperial Stout for my birthday. I saved it for a special occasion: this year’s birthday. It aged well–or maybe it didn’t age at all. Let’s just say it tasted fine. Better than fine, really–it was really, really good, but usually I don’t let any beer sit around for that long. Neither does anyone else, as far as I know, since beer isn’t supposed to be aged like wine or whisky, but recently scientists sampled a beer that could be as much as 143 years old. Jon Crouse was scuba diving near Halifax, Nova Scotia in November. In a rainstorm. Sometimes being a glutton for punishment pays off: he found a really old bottle of Alexander Keith’s Beer and now scientists have tasted it. For science, of course.

In spite of the description, or maybe because of it–“a little tree fruit note, a cherry note in there somehow — certainly a lot of sulphur, kind of rotten egg stuff going on” I would try it if I could. Hey, I’ve tried Edmund Fitzgerald Porter. It’s dark and rich, very malty with strong flavors of chocolate and coffee and it gives you a nice sinking feeling.

There’s also the time Jacques Cousteau and his crew found and tried some wine that was approximately 2200 years old. It “tasted disgusting”. Lucky for me I don’t like wine.

In spite of being kind of a beer geek, in case you couldn’t tell, I’ve never tried any of Alexander Keith‘s brews. Maybe I should take a trip north of the border. For science, of course.



The Story Goes On.

image1Christmas is all about stories. Whether it’s A Christmas Carol or ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas or A Christmas Story or, well, you know, the original Christmas story the holiday is shaped by the stories we tell about it. One story I keep coming back to is Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas In Wales. I have a little copy that’s very special to me because I purchased it in Laugharne, the Welsh town where Thomas spent the last years of his life and did some of his best writing. The book was in my pocket when I stopped in Carmarthen, a Welsh town between Laugharne and Swansea, and attended the lighting of the town Christmas tree, so the story of how and why I went to Dylan Thomas’s home has, in my mind, become entwined with his Christmas story. I haven’t been back to Carmarthen since then but in the pictures I find on Google–something I couldn’t have imagined at the time–it looks very much the same. The Old Priory Guest House where I spent the night is still there, and still next to a graveyard. And when I read the story I still enjoy it as much as I did the first time, especially when young Dylan and his friends go caroling. Or maybe it’s the fire. Or the uncles. Or Auntie Hannah who has a few drinks because it’s only once a year and

So what’s your favorite Christmas story?


Kindness And Cruelty.

A friend of mine named Alex worked as a radio DJ back when radio stations were still run by people who lived in your neighborhood and you could call them up on a landline back when they weren’t called “landlines” because no one had cell phones and when you talked to the DJ you could request a favorite song or just chat with them for a while which some seemed to appreciate. One local radio station had a running gag of playing the call of the Tookie bird from George of The Jungle over a song and if you were the first caller you won something. One day my friend Jeff was talking to a DJ at that station and heard the Tookie bird in the background. He said, “Hey, I guess I’m the first caller. What did I win?”

But that’s another story.

One December day when Alex was working he had to play the hour’s news. When it was done there was a space of about thirty seconds before he could start playing songs so he filled it in by saying, “And we have some sad news from the North Pole. Santa Claus was badly injured when he fell out of his Norelco shaver. More on this as it develops.”

If you’re confused by that there was a long-running commercial of Santa Claus riding around the North Pole on a Norelco electric shaver. There’s a version of it below. It was cute although a little misleading. As soon as I got a chance I turned one of those electric shavers on and put it on the ground but it didn’t move. It didn’t even tear up the carpet which is probably a good thing, but I was hoping it would leave some trail marks.

Anyway the “joke” about Santa being injured or even killed while piloting his Norelco shaver was one I remember adults regularly told kids and it even inspired an Onion article, but I never did understand why it was supposed to be funny. All I got from it was that adults could be cruel. And weird.

For some reason though I found it hilarious when Alex did it on the radio because, well, because I’m weird.

A short time after Alex made his “announcement” he got a call from the radio station owner who just said, “Don’t do that again.”

That made me laugh too. That must be the cruel part.

Perdu Et Trouvé.

eiffel“Parisians are the rudest people in the world.”

“Paris would be a great city if it weren’t for the people.”

“Don’t bother asking for help. Even if you try to speak French they’ll just ignore you or laugh in your face.”

I try to keep an open mind but everyone I talked to about Paris had something negative to say about the people. There were no exceptions. Most of the people I talked to had never been to Paris themselves and were just repeating what they’d heard so it was easy to dismiss them but when I talked to people who’d been to Paris I heard the same thing. And they were speaking from experience. So when I stepped out into the streets of Paris I kept to myself as much as possible. If I had to buy something I kept my eyes down and if I had to speak I spoke quietly and in French, or at least the best French I could muster since I’d never actually learned the language.

I had done my best to master a few words and phrases I thought might be helpful, or at least help me avoid getting yelled at: “sil vou plait”, “merci”, “excusez-moi”, “cruddite”. From reading I’d picked up a little bit of French even if I couldn’t pronounce any of it. I memorized “Je ne parlez pas Français. Parlez vous Anglais?” even though I was sure it was going to get me yelled at for being a typical stupid American tourist. And I also made sure to memorize “Je suis perdu. Ou est les…?” I knew it would also get me yelled at but I was pretty sure I’d get lost and I figured it was worth a try. Since I thought it was only polite to try and speak the native language the one thing I was determined to do was not speak English to anyone unless they offered to speak it first.

I spent the first day checking off my Parisian wish list. I’m crazy about art history, especially the Twentieth Century with all its Isms, so it felt like I was breathing in greatness just walking around Le Bateau Lavoir where so many famous artists worked alongside each other. The building had seen so much history–I’d heard a story about the intersection of art history and global history that may have happened there. At the height of World War I Picasso and Braque stood in the doorway watching soldiers march by. Picasso noted the camouflage they wore and said to Braque, “We invented that.”

It was amazing to go to the Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay and stand in front of paintings and sculptures I’d only seen in books, to see the real things. I also tracked down Milan Kundera’s apartment building and actually met his wife, but that’s another story. Other than that I’d managed to avoid people for most of the day but I’d fallen in love with the city itself. My mind was buzzing with famous names and famous events. As I just walked the streets I knew I was following the footsteps of artists and writers and philosophers who’d also come to Paris, people whose art I’d seen and whose words I’d read, even if only in translation. Or in the original in some cases. Gertrude Stein lived there. So did James Thurber. Edward Hopper studied art in Paris.

Late in the evening I decided it was time to stop wandering and turn in. As I stepped out of a Montmarte Metro station I suddenly realized I had no clue where my hotel was. I’d set off without bothering to make any mental notes. Or physical notes. I’d been too excited to get going. It could be in any direction. There I was in the City of Light and literally and figuratively in the dark. At least I had a card with the name and address. I was terrified but I approached an older woman waiting to cross the street.

“Pardon. Je suis perdu. Ou est les…?” and I held out the card. She looked at it then gave me a half smile. Then she started pointing and rattling off directions in French. The light changed and she motioned for me to follow her. So I walked alongside her. A light rain started to fall. She asked me something I only partly understood–at least I got the word “parapluie”. “No,” I said, and she popped out an umbrella and held it over both of us. We crossed the street and walked a block. She then pointed and said something. There was my hotel.

“Merci beaucoup,” I said. She gave me a little wave then said something and was gone.

Why hadn’t she yelled at me, laughed in my face, or just ignored me? Well, I thought, even in Paris there must be exceptions.

The hotel lobby had the obligatory stand with pamphlets of touristy things. One caught my attention: a Dali museum. I had no idea there was a Dali museum in Paris but I was a huge fan. I grabbed the pamphlet and set off. Two Metro stations later I stepped out and started climbing a long flight of stairs. It seemed like the right way to go but the map was kind of confusing. There was an old man coming down the stairs so I stopped him.

“Pardon, ou est le Place du…” I stopped, afraid I’d mispronounce the name.

“Tertre” he said matter-of-factly.

“Oui.” I pointed up the stairs and also showed him the pamphlet.

“Oui, oui,” he nodded. “La haut.” He pointed up the stairs and then motioned off to the left. He said a few more things. Then he set off.

“Merci!” I said. He just waved and kept on going.

As far as I could tell the Dali museum was right where he said it would be.

This pattern continued over the next couple of days. I’d get lost or I’d be unsure where I was going. I’d ask someone on the street for help and they’d help. I started to look people in the eye. I smiled. People smiled back. I went into cafes and ordered food without just pointing at the menu. For all I knew the waiters called me a stupid tourist but they seemed friendly. I spent most of a Metro trip talking to a young woman with a guitar who’d overheard me asking for directions. She told me she was thrilled to be able to practice her English. I was happy to have a conversation where I could understand most of what the other person was saying. I bought a cassette of her music. I wish I still had it. She’s probably famous in France now and I could say I met her back when she was still busking for centimes.

My interests can be somewhat esoteric but I also love doing the typical tourist things. I’d been to all the major landmarks at least once but the one I kept going back to was the Eiffel Tower. It was incredible to stand underneath it. Pictures just can’t convey how big the damn thing is. And I went to the top three times: once during the day, once during the night, and one more time on my last day, just because. And then I went for a walk through a nearby neighborhood. I really didn’t think about where I was going. I figured as long as I could see the Eiffel Tower I’d know how to get back. I wandered down narrow cobblestone streets past apartment buildings. And then I looked up and realized I couldn’t see the Eiffel Tower anymore. It’s over a thousand feet tall. How could I possibly lose it? I wandered around looking up and only looked down just in time to avoid stepping in dog shit. Then I heard laughter. I turned around and there was an old woman in a brown dress. She laughed again and said something. Although I think I picked up the word merde I didn’t know what she said so I laughed too and said, “Oui.” And there we were both laughing.

Then I said, “Je sui perdu. Ou est le Metro?”

She laughed again then pointed and started giving me directions. I watched her hands and got the gist.

“Merci beaucoup madame” I said. I bowed. She laughed and then waved her hands at me, the universal gesture for, “Yeah, yeah, get out of here!”

As I was leaving the Metro station for the last time to go catch my tour bus I still had a dozen or so tickets. There was a guy coming in and I stopped him and handed him the tickets. He looked baffled, then he said something to me that I’m pretty sure meant, “This is too much. I can’t take these.” It was less than ten dollars-worth of tickets, but it still must have seemed pretty generous. And I guess I understand. How often in any big city does a stranger stop you to offer an unexpected gift? I said, in English, “I won’t be needing them anymore” and walked on. I don’t know if he understood me but I hope he used the tickets.

I’m sure there are rude Parisians. There are rude people everywhere. I just didn’t meet any of them. Maybe I was just lucky. Maybe I had some downtrodden look that made people take pity on me. I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I was polite and when I needed help from Parisians I put aside everything I’d heard about how they were supposed to be and just approached everyone with an open mind that they were kind to me in return. People are individuals which is why broad assumptions always break down at the personal level. It’s true everywhere.

Side Effects Include Everything.

chemistry2There was a time in the United States when drugs couldn’t be directly advertised to consumers. I’m talking about legal drugs, not the other kind, the kind that movies like Reefer Madness warned you about. The distinction has always been a little fuzzy, but I’m talking about the drugs you have to get through your doctor rather than your dealer. Okay, the distinction is still had to make because even if you talk to your doctor he’s going to refer you to a pharmacist, and if the drugs you’re trying to buy aren’t the legal kind you’re probably still going to have to talk to a guy who’ll refer you to someone else. Either way you’re going to end up in a basement sitting in a beanbag chair listening to Blue Oyster Cult, or I’ve been going to the wrong pharmacist all these years.

What I’m trying to get to is that the American Medical Association has proposed a ban on direct advertising of drugs to consumers, which I think is a good idea. It would mean the end of those commercials that always end with “Side effects may include dizziness, fainting spells, constipation, dry mouth, dry heaves, dry rot…okay, I’m going to quit now partly because Steve Martin already has a hilarious piece about potential side effects which I’ve included at the end of this post, but the scary thing is even though his essay is supposed to be humor this is an area where the line between satire and reality is just entirely too thin.

It’s like trying to make fun of the cooking competition show Chopped. It’s just impossible to come up with anything so ridiculous it hasn’t been done. The other day I told my friend that the basket for the entree round contained gummi bears, asphalt, liquid helium, and barracuda nostrils. And without blinking he said, “Oh, yeah, I’ve seen that episode.”

Keep Looking Up.

Source: Weather Underground

Source: Weather Underground

In spite of the end of daylight saving time I still get up before sunrise. I’m also still confused about daylight saving time and whether I should fall back and spring forward or spring back or fall forward and it doesn’t help that when someone tells me “We need to move the meeting time up an hour” they sometimes mean that the meeting scheduled for 2:00pm will now be at 3:00pm and sometimes they mean it will be at 1:00pm. And I would ask if we could stick to Greenwich Mean Time but I’ve been to Greenwich Village and time is a very fluid concept there, or at least it was in the days when bands played at The Electric Banana, but that’s another story.

For the past couple of months I’ve noticed Venus hanging in the East. Since it’s the third brightest object in the sky I always recognize it, but I had to consult Weather Underground’s Interactive Star Chart to confirm that the other two planets near it are Jupiter and Mars. As the fourth brightest object in the sky Jupiter should be obvious but I’m never sure unless I pull out my telescope and see the four Galilean moons.

This morning all three planets were in an almost straight line. Mars is dimmer than the other two but still stands out. My sleep schedule is still a little off from the time change but what greets me in the predawn hours makes it easier to get up.

That One Place.

Ozone Falls.

Ozone Falls.

Within a few hours of being diagnosed with cancer, while I was still in the emergency room, I told my wife, “I want to go back to Ozone.” Ozone is a small town in eastern Tennessee that has some quarries and Ozone Falls, a state park around a picturesque waterfall formed by Fall Creek, and slightly northeast of Fall Creek Falls, another waterfall and state park that, in my humble opinion, isn’t as nice. I’d been to Niagara Falls, which was big and noisy and exciting, but Ozone Falls, formed by a creek, is smaller, quieter, and easier to understand. When I first saw it I was spellbound because this is what a waterfall should be. And unlike Niagara Falls which you can see from a distance Ozone Falls has to be approached from a distance that makes it come into view slowly. And then it’s a difficult climb down into the basin where, if you want, you can stand under the waterfall itself. Try that with Niagara.




Ozone Falls. Basin view.

Ozone Falls. Basin view.

Just up the road from Ozone Falls is Camp Ozone. It was a Presbyterian Church camp when I first went there at the age of eleven and went back over several successive summers. I’d heard people talk about Camp Ozone and seen older kids wearing t-shirts with the logo of a cross on a hill with the moon rising behind it, but experiencing the camp for myself was, well, special. It’s a very frustrating thing to try and talk about because I can’t really put it into words, and I’m not sure why I keep trying to talk about it. I think I could describe staying in the cabins, tromping through the woods, finding oddly colored mushrooms. I could describe the bath house where the light stayed on all night so in the morning we’d find the biggest most gorgeous moths clustered on the walls, moths whose names we learned, whose names were almost as weird and beautiful as the moths themselves: luna, io, cecropia, imperial, sphinx. I could talk about swimming in the lake. Ozone Lake is manmade and, I learned recently, was dug in the sixties by some people who didn’t know what they were doing. They just took it as a summer job. Its manmade nature explains why it’s no more than twelve feet deep at any point. You can even take a canoe out into the very middle and look down and if the light is right see the bottom, or even touch it. Radial water plants that look like green anemones grow there. It was my first experience swimming in a lake, which was very different from being in a pool or even the ocean. It was cold and murky but I still loved it. I could float or let my feet slip along flat rocks or over to silky mud. My toes would even sometimes touch those prickly water plants which kind of freaked me out.

Lake Ozone. The boat dock on the right is new to me but the rest is just as I remember.

Lake Ozone. The boat dock on the right is new to me but the rest is just as I remember.

I could even talk about the friends I made there in just a week and then never met again, or how the last night of every camp session we had a talent show. One year I did a stand-up comedy act and no one, not even the minister who was head of the camp, blinked an eye at some of the off-color Buddy Hackett jokes I told, although the laughter might have been a little bit forced.

For various reasons, mostly having to do with church politics, Camp Ozone closed when I was sixteen. From my very first year there—almost from the very first day—I’d hoped to one day come back as a counselor. That wouldn’t happen. My family and their friends would also take weekend trips to Camp Ozone for Memorial Day or at other times of the year. When we went to the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville we stayed in Camp Ozone, a little over an hour away. These trips gave me and my friends a lot of chances to explore the place without the normal camp schedule. There was also time for me to go off alone, to get to know the wilderness by myself. When the camp was officially shut down these informal visits also ended.

In a way I kept going back to Ozone, though. As a teenager I was taught guided meditation by some older friends and Camp Ozone was always where I went. I could, and still can, mentally walk all the way around the lake or stand in the waterfall basin. It was the place I always went to because it’s a place where nothing bad can happen to me. Maybe that’s why I was never afraid of going back, and while it took more than a year from that moment I told my wife it’s what I wanted she still managed to make it happen. I was prepared for it to have changed but the Ozone in my mind is a place I’ve been to so many times nothing can change it. And going there I was surprised by how little had changed. It’s now run by Children’s Bible Ministries and I was shown around by the current director. Most of the original buildings I remembered were still there, even if they’ve been repaired and renovated. He seemed to find it funny when I pointed to a large propane tank covered with green moss and said, “I remember when that was white.” He took me past where the hogans had been. The younger kids stayed in the cabins but when we got older we moved to the hogans which were canvas covered frames, open at either end, with wooden floors where mice lived. He showed me the top of the hill where I’d spent the night under the stars and then left me to walk back down by myself. What had changed didn’t matter. What was still the same made me happier than I can say.

And that’s the problem. None of this may have any meaning for any of you reading this, especially if you’ve never been to Ozone, because there are some things words just can’t convey. There is, however, something I think that can be shared. When I was in the hospital I was facing an uncertain and frightening future and while remembering a place that made me happy helped what mattered even more was the goal of going back. It’s not enough to say I didn’t want to die. I had something to live for.

So what’s your Ozone?



Lost And Found In Fog.

I know I’ve written about fog recently, but it seems to be that time of year when it’s unavoidable. What fascinates me is how much fog can change a view. As I looked out over this scene this morning I couldn’t get over how much was hidden, how much was literally lost in the fog.

008A few hours later the sun took care of that. Everything was revealed. Maybe too much was revealed.

005What I always think about whenever I see fog is how often when you’re in the midst of it you don’t realize it. The only time I’ve ever felt truly lost in fog is when I was a kid and we took a trip to Maine. One morning we drove through fog that was so dense we couldn’t see cars going in the other direction, only ghostly headlights shifting across a gray background. They must have seen us in the same way.

So too a person standing in one of those distant buildings obscured, from my perspective, by the fog could have looked in my direction. They might have seen fog where I stood. We could have been looking right at each other but unaware because all we could see was fog. There’s something revealing about that thought.

Leave The Ladybugs Alone.

ladybug1When I was four my parents moved into a new house. That same year they planted a maple tree in the front yard. A few years later I’d come home from school on fall afternoon to find the maple tree covered with ladybugs. Or ladybirds if you’re in Britain, although that name never made sense to me because they’re not birds. They’re not really ladies either, or at least not all of them are.

Source: Orlando Sentinel

I thought about all this when I spotted a little colony of ladybugs on my way to work. Here are some pictures.



Ladybug and larva.


Three stages: larva, pupa, and adult.

What’s fascinating is seeing almost their entire life cycle. Before I found that cluster on the tree I’d seen ladybug larvae lots of times without ever recognizing them for what they were and I’d seen their chrysalises chrysilae chrysalides I’d seen them in their pupal stage. The larvae attach their hind end to something and form a chrysalis and what’s hilarious is you can touch the chrysalis and it’ll bounce up and down like it’s yelling “Hey! Leave me alone!” And in fact that’s exactly what it’s doing.

It occurs to me that insects have a great advantage: they’re sealed inside a protective shell throughout puberty. I feel a little bit of envy over that. I know there were times when I wished I could be sealed in a protective shell until puberty was over and anybody who’s ever had or been around teenagers has wished for the same thing, but that’s another story.

Every time I see ladybugs I think of the nursery rhyme my mother taught me. She also played Peter, Paul, & Mary’s It’s Raining that includes this version of it:

Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home,

Your house is on fire and your children they will burn.

According to Wikipedia this rhyme may come from a belief that “it was unlucky to kill a ladybird, and that the verse would make them fly off”. So it’s unlucky to kill one but tormenting it with the idea that its house is in flames and its children will be charred embers by the time it gets there is perfectly fine. That’s why I could never bring myself to say that to ladybugs, although I did get a kick out of Roald Dahl’s James And The Giant Peach when the Ladybug marries the head of the New York Fire Department.

And when I found other types of beetles I did sing them a little song that went “Hummer hummer, little drummer, don’t you know/They’ll kick you out and replace you with Ringo.”

I haven’t been by my parents’ old house in a long time but thanks to Google I can find pictures of it. I thought it would make me feel old since it’s been close to a quarter of a century since I moved out, but the tree hasn’t grown all that much. Maybe it still occasionally gets covered with ladybugs in the fall.

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