Saturday, September 11, 2010

On the road again: San Francisco, day 3

For the second day in a row, I slept quite a bit more than my usual four to five hours, and it was a delicious treat. After some work, I headed out to indulge in one of my favorite San Francisco treats: the Ferry Building Farmers Market. Just walking among all the produce and cheese and meat, taking in the smells, tasting the samples, and simply viewing the amazing array of fruit is a wonderful experience.

Lunch was at 4505 Meats, where I sampled both the bacon-stuffed, all-organic hot dog (really more a sausage than a hot dog) and the deluxe cheeseburger (extra local cheese, bacon, sauce, tiny locally made bun). They were both very good; the hot dog may, via the magic of mail order, make an appearance soon on my grill.

After a little shopping to pick up a pair of black walking shoes that would also pass in dressier settings, such as restaurants, I indulged in a little work.

Evening brought the SF in SF event, at which Amelia Beamer and I read, moderator Terry Bisson ran the show, and critic Gary K. Wolfe joined the panel for the Q&A portion. Oh, yeah: Rick Kleffel interviewed first Amelia and then me for a later podcast. The discussion ranged over a broad variety of topics, all of which were interesting. The audience of almost thirty folks stayed for the whole show, and overall, it seemed to go quite well. It was great to get to meet and spend time with Amelia, Terry, and Gary.

It's entirely too much fun for most writers, including me, to talk about their work. It's nice when folks actually want you to do that. I have to thank Rina Weisman for inviting me to the SF in SF event. I'd definitely do it again in a heartbeat.

Dinner afterward was at Flour+Water, where the pancetta pizza was to die for: light crust, light cheese, small bits of pancetta and summer squash, and just a touch of lemon zest. The place deserves the accolades it has garnered for its pizza.

Friday, September 10, 2010

On the road again: San Francisco, day 2

Morning and into the early afternoon was work, as was most of the evening, but between those two times my friend, fellow writer, and blog comment poster, Griffin, led a private walking tour of parts of San Francisco that he knows very well. Along the way, we got to spend some time visiting with friends Alan Beatts and Jude Feldman of the wonderful Borderlands Books and the equally lovely Borderlands Cafe; I could happily spend all day in those two places.

Lunch was at the Ti Couz Creperie, where I enjoyed an orange drink and a crepe with ham, cheese, and egg (the "complete").

We walked for hours, pausing in the middle for sinfully delicious and old-fashioned milkshakes at the St. Francis Fountain, another place I could happily park for long periods.

Dinner was at celebrity chef Chris Cosentino's place, Incanto. The food there is rich and marvelous. We began with a salumi plate, and then I had a special dish of pork-blood pappardelle--yes, broad noodles made from pork blood--with trotter meat off the bone and foie gras. I couldn't finish it; in fact, I didn't even try. It was just that rich.

Tomorrow night is the SF in SF event at which Amelia Beamer and I are the two guest writers. If you're in the Bay Area, you should definitely come by and say hi.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

On the road again: San Francisco, day 1

There's no way a day can start well when I have to get up before eight a.m., as I did this morning to begin my travels. Once I hit the airport, however, everything went absolutely as well as one could reasonably expect: quick check-in, good bandwidth in the Admirals Club, first class upgrade, bandwidth on the plane, and, amazingly, landing and taking off from the same gate in DFW. That never happens.

I scored an exit row seat for the second leg and again had bandwidth, so I worked almost all of the time I was in the air, which was great.

The weather out here is on the chilly side, which after the summer we've experienced is an absolute treat.

Dinner was at Alice Waters' famous Chez Panisse, which I had never visited before. We opted for the main restaurant, in which you eat whatever the fixed menu of the day happens to be. The highlight of ours was, in my opinion, the quail: every single bite was tender and tasty and perfectly cooked. It was a very good meal, though I must confess that it did not show me why the place has earned in multiple years a spot in many lists of the top ten U.S. restaurants. Still, I enjoyed both it and the company very much. A good evening.

The American

I somehow managed to skip Monday's blog entry, so now I feel as if I owe you. To repay this debt, I'm going to do two posts today: this movie review, and then my normal one, which will address my travels as I begin a nine-day California trip.

Warning: spoilers ahead.

When the studio didn't offer previews for The American until only a few days before its release, many wondered if the film was a dud they were trying to hide. The real answer, as many critics have observed, is that this movie is a European art flick that happens to star George Clooney. That heritage is evident in both the film's strengths and, unfortunately, its many weaknesses.

On the plus side, the movie is beautiful, with every shot worthy of closer inspection. The acting is uniformly strong and understated. The themes are serious and worthy of consideration.

The problem is, the movie is so stereotypically an art film that you can predict almost everything about it.

What does every character do before taking any action? Sit, stare into space, and think. Every reaction shot is twice as long as it could be.

With what character does Clooney fall in love? The prostitute with a heart of gold and a bangin' body who dresses in Eurotrash chic she could never afford.

Who is the main antagonist? The life Clooney has chosen, as personified by the man who pays him.

Right up to the last shot, in which an endangered butterfly slowly flies upward as Clooney dies, his soul similarly ascending from the redemptive power of hooker love, The American embraces every art-house cliche. At this tender ending, most of us in my group were laughing and exclaiming, "No! Really? The butterfly?"

By every traditional metric of film quality, The American is a much better movie than the other flick I caught last weekend, Machete, but, man, I don't care if I never see The American again, while I've already asked Amazon to email me when the DVD of Machete hits the market.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

You are strong, and you are not alone

The lessons from a militarized childhood and the entries about child abuse have prompted more than a few messages from readers who were themselves abused, or who served in the military, or who got PTSD in other, usually awful, ways. I've answered all those messages, of course, but for them and for those in similar conditions who haven't written, I wanted to say two simple things.

You are strong.

You really are. You may not believe it, but you are. The proof is that you are alive, working, going about your days, holding it together most of the time--and all while precious few people in your life know or even want to hear the traumas you've suffered.

You are not alone.

We're out there, lots of us, vastly more than you would ever realize, and we're dealing with similar issues. No two of us are exactly the same, of course, nor are any two groups. My cop friend fights different shit than my vet friend; my physically abused past is not the same as that of my sexually abused friend; and on and on. Yet we all share a basic understanding of and damage from a darkness we hope most people never experience. We all share variants of the same sad lessons I've been recounting.

I think I've posted both these videos before, but I don't care; they suit the mood, so enjoy...

...a little John Lennon, tackling a classic...

...and a song that's romantic in intent but still feels right.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


is the most fun available at your local megaplex this summer--as long as you can appreciate this type of movie. The night we saw it, the audience spontaneously erupted with applause and raucous laughter many, many times throughout the hundred and five minute film.

In case you're not sure what I mean by this type of movie, let me give you a few example moments: Danny Trejo hacking off the heads of bad guys in one sweep of his machete. A naked girl stabbing Trejo with that same machete and then pulling a cell phone from her personal area. Trejo naked in water with Lindsay Lohan and an actress playing her mother. Michelle Rodriguez in a leather eye patch, leather bra, and leather pants dual-wielding pistols as she kills the border-patrolling vigilante bad guys. Seventies porn music playing every time Trejo improbably hooks up with a woman. The immortal line, "Machete don't text."

If you're not already hooked, you won't be, so you may want to stay home.

If you're expecting a good movie, one with believability and character development, you should definitely stay home.

But, if you love bad movies that go so far they turn good, then absolutely do not miss Machete.

(If you still can't decide, check out this red-band trailer. It should sell you one way or the other.)

Monday, September 6, 2010

A sense of belonging

I rarely feel like I belong in a group. Even in those, such as my company, to which I possess an inarguable membership, I still find myself wondering what it's like to be part of the others, to belong.

Tonight, Sarah's symphony orchestra played its annual Labor Day pops concert on the lawn in a quad. We went, of course, both to support Sarah and because I found last year, to my surprise, that I quite liked the show. Part of what appeals to me, of course, is that this is not in any sense a stuffy gathering. Instead, as you can see in this picture, it's a very informal event, which only contributed to my enjoyment.

The weather was perfect, a hint of the coming fall lacing the air, sunny at the beginning and then darkening gently as the sun descended behind the buildings to my left.

People of all sorts sat on folding chairs and blankets, alone and in couples and in groups, and listened to the joyful music.

Some were there to support friends and loved ones. Others came from their love of the music. Still others wandered by or heard the sound and came to check it out.

Many brought snacks, some full meals. We nibbled on cherries and strawberries, grapes and raspberries, figs and blackberries.

No two people, no two clusters of chairs, no two groups of folks stretched out on blankets were doing exactly the same thing.

Except listening. We were all enjoying the same music, all gathered around a group of performers and taking in the show, as people have done since they huddled in caves to escape the rain and the wild.

About two thirds of the way through the concert, I found myself smiling and genuinely, simply, without specific reason or impetus, happy. I was happy.

Of course, analysis always follows emotion with me, so I wondered what it was about this and similar events that made me happy, and then it hit me: yes, the music brought me joy, but the real source of my stronger happiness was that for a very brief time, I belonged.

I was just another human gathered for a performance, and for most of its duration, I belonged.

As the orchestra closed with "Stars and Stripes Forever" and the conductor had us lend our clapping to the performance, I smiled and I clapped and I belonged.

Wonderful, wonderful.

Sunday, September 5, 2010


When News & Observer food critic Greg Cox gave four (of five) stars to this hotel restaurant, I was both intrigued and concerned. I've been disappointed by the quality of several of Cox's four-star picks, and we are talking a restaurant in a Raleigh hotel, not some big-city establishment, but I ultimately decided to give it a try.

Walking into the Renaissance Raleigh North Hills provided another of those "my town is growing up" moments. The lobby is lovely and on par with what you'd expect from a Renaissance anywhere. Flights sits at the back of the lobby. My first impressions upon entering it were that it was surprisingly small but also quite nice, with a view out the rear windows of trees and lush, green life.

Executive Chef Dean Wendel's menu is similarly lush, rich with strong flavors and full of locally sourced ingredients. Every dish we tasted was at least both good and interesting, and some were much more than that. The pork belly initially struck me as overcooked, but when I ate it with the accompanying sauces, it proved to be perfect. The mac and cheese dish was a delightfully playful and upscale take on comfort food, baked with truffle oil into small cubes of cheesy goodness that sat on a tomato puree that combined with it to evoke memories of grilled cheese sandwiches with tomato soup on fall days.

The playfulness continued throughout the meal and included such treats as shrimp and grits turned into lobster and grits with a tasso ham sauce, as well as a pork shank whose rich, dark sauce and fork-tender texture was the barbecue you always wish you could have.

I'm definitely going back, and after a chat with the sous chef, who previously held that role at The Mint back when that place was interesting, I left convinced to return and have them create a tasting menu for us.

All that good stuff said, the experience was far from flawless. The portions are too large, though that's a forgivable flaw and one that results in yummy leftovers. The real problem was the service, which just was not up to the food. Every single person on the wait staff was nice and trying hard, but they seemed to lack the training necessary to make the entire experience enrich the meal. Again, though, their niceness made up for a lot of the inexperience.

If you live around here, definitely check out Flights.


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