Thursday, January 28, 2010

Thank You

To appreciate the good, you have to experience the bad.

The Charleston Marriott will be my fifth Marriott property. Prior to that (where hotels are concerned), I worked for Millennium-Copthorne and an independent. The best job (as far as enjoyment and camaraderie) was on the River Thames in England – it didn’t pay squat, but I had more fun there than anywhere else. I’ll come back to that on another entry.

As far as hotels – I’ve worked at a unionized property, where I was not allowed to cross-train or pick up shifts in other departments (the theory being, I was taking work away from others, even though they didn’t show up for their shifts – which they were allowed to do a few times a year per contract). Had there been a strike, I would not be allowed to return to work, and would likely miss rent. Mandatory deductions were taken from my already-Lilliputian paycheck. Yes, I will spew an entire blog on hospitality unions here very soon, but not today.

I worked at an independent property attached to National Historic Landmark, (the Inn was for-profit, and the Landmark was non-profit). So I could pick up banquet shifts and other sundry duties for 40 hours over at the Landmark, and 40 hours at the Inn, and they were not required to pay overtime. In fact, the operations director admitted this advantage to my boss, who – being my friend, later relayed that information to me. It was a stunning place to work, with a rich history and full of the best scenery one could ask for on the drive in. On the drive in mind you, at 5am (Spanish moss and live are only so nice at 5am). It was even nicer to see when one left, at around midnight some days.

Within my Marriott properties, I’ve had a variety of experiences. My first one was a boutique property than enabled me to cross-train in every department except accounting and engineering. We had a very close-knit group there – I lived with several of them. But then came the next Marriott property. I won’t go into too much detail, but it wasn’t always the most positive experience, though I adored our General Manager. Following that were nearly three years of probably my least favorite job of all time. To say communication was lacking and half the team were living in the mid-eighties would be an understatement. Morale was never more than slightly above that line that causes people to walk out and return later with weapons.

Then came Greenville. I won’t go into detail as to how I got there, (as I have in previous entries), but that’s irrelevant here.

When I first arrived in Greenville I immediately liked most of the people I worked with. However, after a few weeks, one of the team members exhibited signs that – well, that perhaps that they were not quite the right fit for that particular position. However, eventually they were – um – (I have to be careful here – but think doves at a wedding). After that happened, something amazing occurred.


The team had solidified. A new event planner was brought in as I was promoted, and she turned out to be not just a perfect fit for the department, but someone who is quickly becoming a good friend. Another sales manager was brought in as another coworker was promoted to our director, and those changes could not have been better. We gelled as a department better than I have experienced since the time on the boats in England – maybe a little more so. We’re a solid team, and it shows.

Outside of our department, we have a stellar front office, a talented banquet team, and a banquet manager who can run circles around any banquet manager I’ve ever known. This guy is truly gifted. Then there’s the kitchen, who has stepped up their game and their menus with a new Executive Chef (that started the week before me) who is the most even-keeled, mild-mannered, pleasant, (if a little sarcastic) culinary talent I’ve seen. I have never once seen that guy yell or lose his cool in front of others. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but I’ve never seen it. And let me tell you, this food is amazing. It will lay to rest any preconceived ideas you may have about hotel food.

The restaurant staff is among the best I’ve worked with. It’s no wonder our scores are through the roof.

In a previous property, I worked under a General Manager who was a walking iron fist. He talked to people as if they were children, He humiliated department heads in front of their subordinates, and talked incessantly about how he studied other leaders, read books on leadership – (who, Machiavelli?) He bordered on completely dehumanizing at times, and voiced his political beliefs whenever he felt like it, in front of whomever he saw fit (Managing People 101 – don’t do that). He would yell at you with veins pumping in his forehead, and praise you in front of others when he found it politically advantageous. It was all very transparent, to pretty much everyone. It wasn’t respect he got from his team, it was fear. I saw two Executive Committee members in tears. I saw the most qualified, creative Event Manager with whom I have ever had the pleasure of working, nearly pull her hair out. It was a bad situation. To top it off, we rarely if ever made profit, and our guest satisfactions scores were consistently abysmal.

Let me compare that to the General Manager in Greenville. His door is literally always open, and when it’s closed, it’s for a meeting – and only for that amount of time. I can literally walk into his office and start talking away (a bad habit of mine) and he stops what he’s doing and listens. He’s respected across the hotel, and when he speaks, people listen. He commands the respect of the team by letting his feelings on a given situation be known without making anyone afraid of him. He gives constant feedback, both negative and positive, and in a way that lets you know that he truly understands the pulse of the hotel and the mood of the team. He is completely in touch, in every way. He’s open to new ideas, and solicits the creativity of the team and utilizes their input whenever possible. And here’s the thing – there’s no iron fist here, no one feels belittled or humiliated, and our satisfaction scores? As I mentioned before, they’re through the roof.

My department head, the Director of Sales, is incredible. She is a bit high-energy, perhaps a tad (see: majorly) ADD. She will text me at bizarre hours of the night – if I don’t respond, she doesn’t get upset, but she does look for a response around the time she thinks I should have woken up. This woman is working 24/7, and never asks anything of anyone that she isn’t prepared to do herself. Best of all, she’s become a friend as well. She is one of the best mentors I’ve had, as she truly understands the various nuances of her department. She has helped me to develop and foreword my career, and has done so as both a teacher and a peer. She is charismatic, has a wonderfully dark sense of humor, and genuinely cares for each member of our team. And if I have feedback on an opinion on which I differ? She listens to it, as she listens to all of us. Although we all understand that ultimately the big decisions are hers, we have never once felt as if we didn’t have a say in a given matter. We can give her our honest and frank opinions, and not feel that she will retaliate, and still have respect for her as our boss. Having managed a team, I can tell you that it is a rare and delicate balance – the difficulty of which those who have never managed people can never truly grasp.

Our controller is another great. This is not your typical bean counter. In fact, I’ve been living with him and his partner pretty much since I got here, and have gained two friends in the process. This is the first controller with whom I’ve worked who actually understands that he works in the hospitality industry. If you need money for something, he will ask the right questions, and then find a way to make it work. This is such a welcome change from the act of congress I used to have to wait for to get, say, pens. To top it off, I’ve never seen his door closed if he’s in the office.

The food and beverage director is as approachable as they come, and very much knows his field. He’s easy to work with (as long as he’s kept in the loop), and clearly has the respect and admiration of his team.

The housekeeping department is the friendliest, most cheerful group of rooms staff I’ve ever worked with. Along with the uniquely talented and colorful personalities of the housekeeping director and chief engineer, the rooms department is not the gloomy and downtrodden place I’ve seen in properties past.

I enjoy driving to work. I enjoy being there. And while I’ll never have a position that I enjoyed quite like the boats, this has been a very close second.

This property bent over backwards to keep me here when I was planning to return to Charleston several months ago. And though 2009 was probably one of the (if not THE) worst years of my life, the people at the Greenville Marriott got me through it, whether they knew that’s what they were doing or not. I lost a parent, I lost a partner. But as I get ready for my last full week before my transfer to Charleston, I realize now more than ever what I’m losing as I leave.

If the Charleston team is half as tightly-knit and talented as those in Greenville, I’ll be a lucky man. Back in the city that I love, but missing the colorful characters at the Greenville Marriott.

Thank you guys. I’ll miss all of you more than you know.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Seven People You Meet At Work

I know, I know - if I really wanted to allude to the book, it would be "the five people you meet at work." But having worked in various industries and in various capacities therein, I've narrowed down the list of common archetypes to no fewer than seven.

Now I want to make it clear, I absolutely adore pretty much everybody I work with (a first for me). In fact, my current team may be the most talented group of individuals I've ever had the pleasure to work with. They are so much more than the personality types I'm about to lay out. In fact, another first is that none of the below characteristics fit any of them very well. And to be fair, most of these traits are not even present in my current hotel. But my current property is the exception to the rule.

So to follow are the seven people you have, currently, or one day will work with. They exist in nearly every setting I've ever experienced, and I'm sure you know each and every one of them very well. Sometimes one person may fit more than one archetype, and sometimes two or more will fit the same one. But here they are, in no particular order:

1) The Soap Star

There is always at least one. Perhaps they were late to work because their neighbor was going into labor, about to give birth to their clandestine love child by way of emergency C-section in the back of their car. It may be that they "accidentally" hit reply-all to an email and revealed someone said something negative about someone else. Perhaps they are in tears over the fact that a client called, angry because what was promised was not delivered - through complete fluke, and absolutely no one's fault (unless of course fault lay in another department).

There is never a dull moment with the soap star. Not only do they have an completely fantastic, beyond-belief story for every mundane story you have, but they also know every interesting or curious facet of everyone else's lives. It may be that a story, when first relayed to them was in fact quite boring - but once it gets processed through the spin-cycle of the soap star's brain, every glitch becomes a catastrophe, every insignificant event becomes a juicy milestone.

The soap star can be a good friend to have, and usually means very well. But it's best to give them something to chew on, or they'll seek it out themselves. Give them something about you to harp on, and usually they don't look any further. It's best to stay on their "good side" though - or you will be shot through the spin-cycle yourself, when you least expect it.

2) The Silo

This person knows their job, and knows it well. They've probably been in their position for a long time - long enough to figure out how to avoid relying on others for anything at all, except when absolutely necessary. Although you can rely on them for pretty much anything, they would prefer not to have to trust you enough to actually need you for anything.

They will sit in their office or cubicle, and generally work very hard. They refuse to go on group outings unless they feel it's mandatory, and will participate in as few extra-work activities as possible. Their job is important to them, but so is leaving work on time, and leaving work at work - which is probably very healthy.

The silo will be your friend, but it takes time to cultivate that relationship.

3) The Yoda

The Yoda has done every job in the department, and in some cases nearly every job in the building. They do not take sides, and are proficient at putting out most fires, if they feel so inclined as to get involved in your hurdles that they see as minor speed humps.

The Yoda could in fact run the department, or the entire operation, but I have yet to meet a Yoda who does. They have settled into their role, and when at home, they are at home. If there is a real emergency at work after hours, trust that if they felt the need to come in, would have the entire matter settled in a matter of moments. The Yoda can at any time become the Chuck Norris of any emergency.

You can confide in them with any piece of information, and know that it does not go past their office. You can come to them for help for any problem at all, no matter how tiny or immeasurably complex and if they deem you worthy, will have the answer to you in one sentence or less. It will likely be a pearl of wisdom you will hang onto for years to come. The Yoda knows you will eventually pass that wisdom on. The Yoda probably knows to whom you will pass it.

4) The Dr. Peter

Dr. Laurence J. Peter proposed in is 1969 book "The Peter Principle," that "in a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence." There is always one who fits this to a tee. They did so very well at their previous positions, that now they are trusted and required to do something very new, a task in which they are totally unqualified.

Unfortunately, the rest of the department will do it for them, until the Dr. Peter is fired or they leave. I've been fortunate enough never to work with one for very long, but not too long ago, (depending on how you define too long), I was subject to one of these people. They made life miserable for everyone.

They rarely admit that they do not know how to do their job. In fact, if they'd genuinely ask for help, or be honest about being unsure of something and willing to learn, they would slowly gain the respect of their peers. But the Dr. Peter is so interested in appearing authoritative in spite of their obvious shortcomings that the team usually works around them rather than with them.

I've also had the joy of inheriting a Dr. Peter as an employee. This individual had been doing the same job for - a long time (to protect the guilty, I am not saying for how long), but evaded dismissal in very creative ways. They maintained a positive personal friendship with the powers that be, and worked their fear of change and love of nostalgia to their advantage. They also did as little as possible that would involve any sort of risk, stayed below the radar at all possible times, and avoided taking responsibility for pretty much anything, or taking ownership of any situation in which they might fail.

Dr. Peter is probably the most aggravating of all the workforce archetypes.

5) The Cheerleader

You know this one. They break a daily sweat to ensure they embody each personality trait corporate culture teaches. Usually they're internal marketers of some kind, but more often than not, they're transparent to not only their peers, but their bosses in their perpetual attempt to be the teacher's pet.

They're at every fundraiser. In fact, they usually volunteer to make the posters and fliers, and are on (of not the sole member of) the planning committee. They raise their voices in agreement so often during staff meetings, that you half expect an "amen" and "hallelujah" after each Power Point slide has been presented.

They make the t-shirts for the bowling teams. They volunteer to take on special projects, (not that this is bad - but they do it every time) and will work long hours to ensure someone is impressed.

I'm not saying everyone who buys into corporate culture and works extra hours on side projects is a "cheerleader." In fact, being a cheerleader can be a good thing - so long it's done for the right reasons, and they recognize those times when the parameters need to be stretched, and the rule book needs to either be closed or re-written. The workplace archetype of which I'm writing here, does not know this.

Think Rain Man with pom-poms and an employee handbook in their back pocket.

6) The Expert

My sister recently blogged about this person, who was partly the inspiration for this post.

The Expert has done your job. The Expert has done your previous job. The Expert has long since mastered the job into which you're moving. They know your neighbors, and have done their jobs too.

They are champion name-droppers.

The Expert will stop to give you unsolicited advice on the most random of topics, for no particular reason. When they close their door, you just know they are Googling the details to some debate or interesting discussion they overheard in the next office. But they will never tell you that when they later casually bring up the topic over lunch. In fact, they will likely tell you the topic in question was the subject of their third Masters dissertation.

The funny thing about The Expert? Every single one I've ever had the dubious thrill of working with has either been fired or their position has been made redundant.

It's always fun to wait for a topic you're very familiar with to come up and let them dig their own hole before you correct them. But then, you know they'll just Google it later and revisit the argument some other time.

7) The Robot

This is the perfect employee. They contain none of the characteristics listed above. In fact, they instantly recognize each one, but will never tell anyone what they've seen in these people. No - they are above that. But they will never tell you that either, because they are humble.

This person is either a robot or an alien - but they are decidedly not human. They excel at their job, and they would likely excel at yours. But they would never admit that.

They do the best of deeds under the radar, offer quiet help to those around them, and never take undue (if any) credit. They appreciate corporate culture but do not preach it. They listen to gossip, (because they listen to everyone), but do not repeat it.

The Yoda quietly watches them, somewhat enviously. This person will be or already is either in charge of the entire operation, or multiple operations. If you do a good job, they tell you. If you do a bad job, they have a way of telling you that you quite possibly are the most incompetent person on the planet, and you will thank them for the advice. You suspect that they are worshiped in remote jungle societies.

I've worked with one of these in every position, and have always looked up to them, as everyone does. But I've always been a little too impatient to be this perfect member of the workforce. Like I said - I don't think they're really human, having come from the same planet as Martha Stewart, Anderson Cooper, and Meryl Streep.

So concludes my list.

There are many, many more common traits among coworkers, but generally, those traits mesh with one of the above. As I said, usually they're mixed and matched - multiple traits for one person, or more than one person with a single trait.

All except of course the robot.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Writer's Block?

I wasn't going to post tonight. But it's Tuesday. I post every night except Monday and Friday. Last week when I neglected to do so, I had the same feeling each day that you might get if you don't check your work email, forget to brush your teeth at night, or accidentally put on odd socks and realize it after you get to work. (Okay, maybe the last part is just me). But it feels like you forgot to do the one thing that you really should have done, consequence or not.

This blog has become compulsory. I realize that now. So at around 9:30, when I finally gave up my fight to have a night off, I couldn't settle on what to write about. I was going to rant about Andre Bauer, but I think there's enough of that already. Besides, he's been providing Sandlappers with water cooler jokes and eye-rolling quotes for years now - I don't think he's even begin to build his crescendo of absent-minded, asinine, thoughtless quibbles. I'll wait until he spews a really, REALLY good one - because he will.

So then I was going to lash Scott Brown. But then I kind of played those chips in Facebook earlier, and I'm not in the mood to rehash my rant. Besides, I have no desire to turn my laptop and this blog into a political soapbox - at least not every day.

Of course, eventually I'm going to write about being gay - I mean an entire entry, as I have some things I'd like to get off my chest. But then, I'm not keen on this blog being steered in the direction of the Ellen sitcom. I'll save it for another time.

But I couldn't not blog. I just couldn't. A friend of mind once made an analogy (though not referring to blogging) about biting into a golden apple and having your teeth caught in place. It feels like that. It's a nagging sensation that you can't escape.

Is it writer's block? I couldn't settle on a subject tonight, and every time I did, I shot down the idea before the first sentence was typed. Sure, I have plenty to argue about, plenty to rant about, but I'm not in a ranting mood. Besides, nobody wants to hear me gripe yet again.

My Unborn Child, (hereafter referred to as the D.F. - for Devil's Footprints) on the other hand, has begun to kick. It kicks hard. I'm waiting for several hours of alone time with which I can really start cranking it out, (as I need alone time to really write). But I've been squeezing some things in here and there. By here and there, I mean that at the end of each night, I've been pumping out ten to twenty pages. But I want hours - and hours - to really devote to it. The longer I write continuously, the better I'm able to put ideas into words. It's like when you haven't typed in weeks, but after a few hours, you're up to seventy or eighty words per minute.

So I thought about putting some of it on here. No, and huh uh. I started to, but for some reason I feel far more exposed when someone reads my fiction than I do as I write this blog. Somehow, I can put out in the internets what I was feeling when I lost a parent, or how I struggle with my identity - but when it comes to writing what Jamie Riley, David Easterly, and Nora Ramsey (three main characters in the D.F.) are up to, I clam up.

Maybe the D.F. is still incubating. Maybe I'm afraid that if I expose it to the world before it's ready, it will die, drowned in my self-consciousness. So why do I not mind writing about political situations of which I am only half-aware, about feelings that I wouldn't necessarily openly divulge to my closest friends without the application of much Chardonnay, and yet - I don't want to share a made-up story?

I'm not sure if this is writer's block, or my brain telling me that I need to focus on the D.F. and get it out of my head for good. I'm not sure if I get more out of writing fiction than non-fiction. I have no idea why I feel so much more vulnerable having anyone else read the D.F. than a personal blog I put out there for all to see.

I don't imagine I'll answer any of these questions soon, but one thing is certain: For all the catharsis and emotional release I get from writing five blog entries, I get twice as much from writing a single page of fiction. After a few hours of writing I feel immensely better, as if I've just had a marathon workout.

But I'll continue this blog. I'll write it five times per week as often as I can, and hope that eventually, maybe as I get better at it - I'll start to get the same release here.

Thanks for listening. I'm hoping my "block" is cured by tomorrow.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

*Broward County, Florida Bail Bondsmen Thrive on Taxpayer Sacrifice

With less than 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States has nearly a quarter of the world’s prisoners. We jail people for writing bad checks, driving with a suspended license and smoking marijuana. In most countries, offenses such as these would garner slap on the wrist, at most. When did we become so jail-happy? At four times our population, China - coming in second to the US in prison population, still only reaches 18% of American's prison rate.

And how much do we spend locking up everyone who steps just a little out of line? According to the United States Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) $68,747,203,000 was spent on corrections in 2006. That is twice the Gross Domestic Product of Kenya. The BJS reports: "The average annual operating cost per state inmate in 2001 was $22,650, or $62.05 per day; among facilities operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, it was $22,632 per inmate, or $62.01 per day."

Just a few years ago, Broward Country, Florida jails were so overpopulated, a judge referred to them as unconstitutional. The county was about to spend $70 million on a new jail, but instead decided to expand its pretrial release program. Broward County consequently saved $20 million a year, and an entire wing of their jail was closed.

Under the system, non-violent offenders would be released after arrest and monitored via call-ins or GPS monitoring device. It costs Broward County taxpayers $115 per day, per inmate, non-violent or not. Conversely, the pretrial release program costs the taxpayers about $6 per day per person. According to records, defendants still showed up for court, and they were able to see their families, maintain their lives and keep their jobs. It was a win-win for everyone - except the bail bondsmen.

So what did the bondsmen do? They lobbied. For a year, the bondsmen of Broward spent about $23,000 on the Broward County Council. $5000 alone was given to then-commissioner (and now Mayor) Ken Keechl, just five days before a vote that cut the program dramatically. Taxpayers in Broward are once again spending millions on incarceration. Non-violent offenders are losing their jobs, watching their lives fall apart over petty offenses. But for the bail bondsmen, I'm sure business is picking up again.

The bail bondsmen lobby is now working in states across the country to squash similar pretrial release programs, and they are having successes. I'm left to wonder if they even pretend to be doing this for anyone's well-being. Here is a business that preys on the downtrodden. A Florida county stepped in and did some good for a time, but that time is ending. The bondsmen are willing to sacrifice the good of the community at large so the desperate will open their wallets. To say this is outrageous is an understatement. But it was all done legally, if barely.

An industry is saving itself, but at what cost?

Saturday, January 23, 2010

More Revengist Politics, and the Case Against Pelosi

In response to a lost-cum-aborted argument over a few drinks when I was cornered about why it was I did not like Nancy Pelosi, I've done some research. I still don't like her. I like her even less now. I was aware of a few less flattering facts, and discovered a few more.

When I started my research, all I found at first were lists of reasons people hated Pelosi that included "she has lying eyes" and "she's a snake." These were not facts. And yet, even when I Googled "Nancy Pelosi Facts" these "facts" were little to no more factual. And then of course I stumbled upon op-eds and articles from both the extreme left and extreme right, neither of which are prone to fact, at least not in its pure form.

So I had to keep digging. I checked her voting records, and I have to say that I am in agreement with many of her stances - if I could believe for a minute that they really were her stances. Unfortunately, her vote is purely - and I mean PURELY Democratic. Not even necessarily liberal because she's liberal, but because clearly she fits the description of "rank-and-file."

Since January of 1989, she has sponsored 75 bills. 61 of these haven't made it out of committee. Now I really need to do some further research to make some comparisons, but is this average? I'll have to find out.

My initial reasons for disliking and distrusting her came shortly after she assumed her role. Mind you I really did like her at first. I was excited that a woman had been appointed Speaker of the House, and was happy to see a Democrat in a prominent position. At the time, I was even willing to ignore the fact that she voted for herself - the first Speaker to do so, when typically they either do not vote or simply mark "present."

I was no fan of Dubyah. I even thought he should have been arrested at one point. But when you have a lame duck president, coupled with a Republican minority, why, oh why, must we waste time bickering. There was work to be done. Much mess-cleaning to be attended to. And yet - it wasn't cleaned up.
Early in her new role, Pelosi pledged a "new spirit of cooperation in Congress." This quote appears within a year of stating about Dubyah - "he must be stopped." Sound familiar?

Not too long ago, I blogged about my dislike of revengist politics. So many bills have been blocked by the Republicans out of spite and bitter wound-licking. And yet looking back, it appears Pelosi did the very same thing. This is one of so many reasons why I can no longer associate myself with either major party.

Of course there was also the recent CIA debacle, in which Madame Speaker was cornered (after attacking the previous administration for torturing Gitmo and other detainees) when it was revealed that she was given a briefing in September of 2002 explaining the coercive measures used. She explained that she was told that the CIA and the Department of Justice reviewed the techniques and determined them legal. Okay, I have to point out that at least one of these agencies is not known for its forthright nature, though she claims to have been deceived by the briefing. Okay, let's give her that one - the facts were not all present in the briefing. It turns out that in 2003 she was implicitly informed of a detainee's waterboarding. No evidence exists for her objection.

In 2002, Pelosi attempted to block Dubyah from entering Iraq - most of her reasons were in fact valid. However, one such reason given was that Iraq assuredly had weapons of mass destruction, and that our troops would be put into danger. Why then, state later that "they had to make up that story about weapons of mass destruction because that was the only thing that would sell the American people." That statement may be true, who's to know? But you can't argue opposing facts to support your aim du jour and expect people to buy it.

We are in a mess, as a country. We have a broken two-party system and a stalled government that is more interested in revengist character assassinations than in actually getting anything done. The right has moved too far right and the left has moved too far left.

I am neither right nor left - [pointing my finger diagonally upward toward the southeast] - I'm over there.

Sometimes I Think I Can Cook - Holy Mole! Turkey Chili

The first time I saw Giada use dark chocolate in a savory recipe, I was confounded. But as soon as I started researching and discovered Mole sauce, I was itching to try it out. The first time I tried it, I made a variation of spaghetti marinara, and it was - okay. So then I decided to go back to the basics, and try the Mole in its traditional form. I served it over baked chicken on farfalle- yummy. I realized I should have tried it in its pure form before mixing it into a recipe, and immediately knew when I tasted it that it was perfect to blend into my turkey chili recipe.

I also thought that since it's cold and/or rainy and/or snowy over much of the country, this was a perfect time to put in a warm, hearty recipe.

You'll need:

2 tbl Olive Oil (Don't use Extra Virgin if you use organic, as the olive bits will burn and you'll get bitter black bits)
1 lb. ground turkey
1 chopped red oinion
1 cup chicken stock
1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
1 14.5 oz. can diced tomatoes
1 16 oz. can kidney beans, drained
5 cloves minced garlic
2 tbl chili powder
1 tbl paprika
t tbl dark chocolate shavings, packed (90% cocoa or above)
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp cumin
t tsp black pepper
salt to taste

Sautee the garlic and onion in olive oil in a pot - as soon as the garlic turns just slightly golden, add the turkey and cook through, breaking up the turkey as you go along.

Pour in the stock, tomatoes, and stir until heated through. Let it come to a boil, then reduce to simmer. Add the chili powder, paprika, cumin and chocolate - stir through, then let simmer another five minutes.

Stir in the salt, pepper, and kidney beans, and let it simmer for ten minutes. Add the oregano, and let it simmer another five minutes. You're good to go!

(Hint - the later you add the oregano the better - as it cooks, it can take on a bitter taste - especially if you opt for fresh rather than dried, in which case add at the very end).

Serve with polenta or cornbread, and a Malbec.

Thursday, January 21, 2010


Good Morning!

Last night I met some friends in Columbia for dinner and drinks, and then drove back up to Greenville. Tonight is our hotel's end-of-year party, and tomorrow I'll be driving to Summerville after work.

So, this week I'm kind of taking off of blogging until Saturday's recipe.

That being said, I was called out last night on why I can't stand Nancy Pelosi. Back when I called myself a Democrat, (no worries, I am most assuredly NOT Republican either) I was regularly embarrassed by Pelosi. But I haven't thought about her for so long that when asked for specifics, I completely blanked - remembering only her intent to ignore all the repairing of Bush's catastrophic presidency and instead pursue him legally. When cornered, I completely failed to support my own argument.

So, over the next few days, I'm going to be doing my research. Normally I'm able to back up my statements - but in this case I wasn't. This is not sitting well with me.

Therefore, my Sunday * this week is going to be replaced with what I find out, rediscover and ponder when it comes to Nancy Pelosi. I'm looking forward to this.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


I like Green Day.

I really liked Crystal Pepsi. And Velveeta. I claim to be a foodie, but I love a slice of cold Velveeta.

I like video games, I love going to the movies by myself, and I sing along to my iPod on road trips. Sometimes I turn the volume down a little to see how I sound. I don't care if the car beside me can see it - if they laugh, then I've made somebody smile. Go me.

I love little more than sitting on the sofa with a Jack and Coke in hand, a bowl of chips with some salsa in front of me and a set of Battlestae Galactica DVD's.
Sometimes I rock out to the Statler Brothers. I haven't quit smoking yet because I still enjoy smoking. I used to groan when Eric wanted to watch his soaps, but I got into a few of them. Actually, I started looking forward to a few of them. Even now I'll check the covers of the soap magazines while I'm in line at the supermarket just to see what's going on.

Yes, I have secrets, and the above are a few I don't mind sharing. Everybody has secrets. It's a part of life, a fact of the human condition. But when recently I discovered a blog entitled "Everyone Blogs," I had decidedly mixed feelings. This is a blog where, essentially, anonymous contributors publish secrets. Sometimes they're confessions, sometimes they're venting, sometimes they're lashing out. But nearly all of them have one thing in common - they're depressing as hell.

I read one or two entries, deciding that I would rather file this one away as a sad place to discuss sad situations. But I found it addictive, in that guilty way that one watches an automobile accident from the side of the road (and later lambastes the "rubberneckers). I found I could relate all too well to a few of these anonymous bloggers, and they reminded me of things I'd rather not think about, situations not entirely alien to me. I actually almost cried once, one post seemed so familiar. That was when I stopped reading and went on to view something else.

But later on I realized something - this is what writing is supposed to do. It's supposed to speak to us, not just on the surface but to those aspects of ourselves we'd rather not think about. It's supposed to lay all these troubles out, on the table for us to relish, to ponder. Good writing does this in the guise of characters, takes unsightly character flaws and paints them eloquently onto a canvass for you to look at long enough to not turn away when you realize you're staring into a mirror.

The writers on this blog were blogging anonymously, but they were still brave - brave enough to bring these secrets to the surface for others to see. They know that once something has been said it can't be unsaid, that once something has been seen, it can't be unseen. I suppose this is healthy - it's a way of dealing with these issues, a way of acknowledging the stigma of their mistakes without attaching the stigma to their person.

Partly I want to see a positive entry - and there are a few, though they usually involve sex. I suppose that is just another facet of the human condition, and an area of peoples' lives they don't feel comfortable sharing with everyone in an open fashion.

In this, maybe this blog is a healthy outlet for some. But there's another side to it. I like my secrets. I like having parts of myself that are mine, and mine alone. They're secrets because I keep them that way. Once I tell someone a secret, it's no longer a secret. Yes, there are some people I share some secrets with, and other people I share other secrets with. But, I know of no one in my life, past or present, that has been privy to absolutely everything. And I'm very comfortable with that. In fact, it makes me feel safe, guarded. Maybe one day I'll let the entire guard down for one person, but then - I think having these things inside of me makes me in part who I am.

So what are the reasons people keep secrets? They may be afraid of changing others' perceptions of them, but this is innately odd, since no one really knows what others' perceptions of them are. There's the protection of those around them from experiencing some negative emotions they'd rather no one else face, but that just assumes the other party is empathetic. Some people are far more empathetic than they're given credit for, and others far, far less. There's really no way to know, not really. Some people keep secrets for selfish reasons, the need to have that last bargaining chip in their back pocket. Some secrets are kept because of a promise made, to a brave soul who let one out in an act of honesty and trust.

Why do I keep mine? Again, quite simply - I like them. I like having them. I keep others' secrets as closely as I keep my own. Maybe this is selfish - in some respects it is. Are any of my secrets kept due to the reasons in the above paragraph? Maybe one or two. But if I told you that, then I might as well tell you everything, right?

But I'm not. My friends, my family, trust that I am who I say I am - and they're right to do so. One does not need to examine every piece of a puzzle to determine the picture. And as long as there isn't a completely different picture beneath the puzzle, one in which people can see through the missing pieces, then you are doing nothing wrong.

Here are a few more secrets. I'm putting them here because if I'm going to tell any secrets, it's these - and I'm going to do it with my face plastered on my profile picture.

Sometimes baking and cooking is pure therapy for me. Sometimes I do it to please people. I love pleasing people for several reasons - one is that I was picked on mercilessly as a small child, and crave the acceptance. Don't feel sorry for me - I don't. Just enjoy that cake, or be glad I've helped you out in some task or another. I spent much of my life turning myself into a freak - in this I gave people something to pick on, I claimed the freak for myself. I knew I was gay by the time my hair turned purple, and it was easier for me to be picked on for that reason - because I did it on purpose. I relished being different, or being different would have made me a hermit. I'm attracted to men, and pretty much only men, but I was in love with a woman once. Sometimes I'm afraid to tell my family that, or they might have false hope that I'll end up with a woman. Sometimes it hurts to know that is how some people in my family would rather see me - with a woman, or with no one at all - though they'd never tell me that, and I know ultimately they want me to be happy. Most of them don't care how I go about doing that. Sometimes I still hate myself a little for being gay, but I'm getting over it.

Okay, enough of that. And let me tell you that none of those things are complaints. They're not pleas for help. They are what they are. I am who I am. And secrets are a part of that. If you want to hear somebody whine, check out the above blog. Me, I'm done with whining, I have been for some time. But those are the secrets I want to share, and have no problem sharing. Maybe I'll vent a few more here and there, from time to time, but not all at once.

As my coworker and friend said to me in her first week, "I'm just acting normal so you won't think I'm completely out there. I like to dole out the crazy over time."

This was when I knew we'd be friends.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

*Religion and Spirituality In The DotCom Age

I realize there are live feeds of sermons going on, it's the natural progression from televangelism. I also realize there are numerous blogs, websites and myriad interactive online religious communities. For those who wish to practice their faith from home, or are otherwise required to do so for whatever reason, it's a wonderful thing. (You may not believe it based on previous posts, but I'm a proponent of people openly practicing their faith so long as their beliefs do not include infringing on others' rights, violently or otherwise).

But this is new. This is a story that at first made me laugh, and then made me scratch my head in disbelief. Apparently an Orthodox Jew in Brazil believed (or claimed to believe) that a Dybbuk had entered his body. His family contacted Rav Chaim Kanievsky, a well-known Kabbalist, in hopes of having an exorcism performed. The only problem was, Kanievsky was in Israel. So what was the solution? Attempt to perform the exorcism via Skype.

Kanievsky himself was skeptical, believing there was a critical need to actually be physically present. but he attempted the digital rite anyway. Check out the story and video here.

It seems the Brazilian man will now be traveling to Israel to have this done in person. I wonder if the airline will charge him for an additional passenger.

Oh yeah (almost forgot) - there were no reported sightings (that I could find) of Bubba the Brown Bear this week. Maybe he's moved on - somehow I'm sure he'll be returning.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Sometimes I Think I Can Cook - Tiramisu Cake

I stumbled on this recipe a while back, and added my own twists to give it a little more "kick." I love mascarpone and have found it to be so versatile - you can blend it with Bailey's and sugar and pipe it into profiteroles, you can (obviously) make tiramisu, or you can use it as an ingredient for a savory spread. Make sure you get it without the Kahlua added, or you might have to adjust this recipe. I made this once with the "Tiramisu" mascarpone, and it's just not the same.

You might roll your eyes when you spot the first ingredient, but I'm all about not having to measure dry ingredients, sift, wipe paste off the counters, etc...

You'll need:

1 box Duncan Hines Classic White cake mix
1 16 oz. can cream cheese frosting
8 oz. package mascarpone cheese
3 squares baker's white chocolate
3 squares semi-sweet baker's chocolate
appx. 1 cup confectioner's sugar
3 egg whites
2 tbl vegetable oil
2/3 cup freshly-brewed coffee
2/3 cup water
20 oz. bottle of Kahlua
cocoa powder

Preheat the oven to 350F.

Flour two 8-inch pans. Blend water, coffee, and egg whites for about 20 seconds, then at low speed for about 2 minutes. Pour immediately into pans, and lightly "drop" onto the counter five or six times to release some of the trapped air. it will make for a more compact sponge. This will hold the Kahlua better, as you'll be drizzling it over the sponge later. The mascarpone mix is also very dense, and a heavier sponge will be far easier to ice.

Bake for about 25 minutes. While it's baking, mix about 1/4 to 1/3 cup Kahlua into the mascarpone. Beat on low with an electric mixer, slowly adding the confectioner's sugar until you get a slightly thicker-than-frosting consistency.

In another bowl, mix the frosting and another 1/4 cup Kahlua - add a little confectioner's sugar to that, and mix until it's smooth. Place both mixtures in the fridge.

When the cake is done, (the toothpick trick works, but I usually pat the top with my hand - it's obvious when it's done) turn them over onto cooling racks. While they're cooling, use a double-boiler or the microwave to melt the white chocolate. I would describe the process here, but just read the box. It won't mislead you. Once the cakes have had a chance to cool, (usually about fifteen minutes), flip them over and shave off the top with a long serrated knife, giving you a flat surface.

Place the first layer on a cake plate, and drizzle with Kahlua. Don't go crazy, just place your thumb over the top and give it a light sprinkle. The sponge will distribute it over time.

Take the mascarpone mix out the fridge and spread half the mix over the first layer, leaving about a half-inch from the edge clean. Drizzle the white chocolate over the mascarpone - don't cover all of it, just give it some lines - once it cools, this will give it a nice light crunch later.

After about five to ten minutes, place the second layer over the mascarpone and white chocolate. Drizzle with Kahlua again, and spread the other half of the mascarpone over it. Drizzle the remaining white chocolate over then, and place it in the freezer for about ten minutes. While it's cooling, melt the semi sweet baker's chocolate.

Take it out, then ice with the cream cheese mix. Drizzle with the semi-sweet chocolate, then dust with cocoa powder. Drizzle whatever remains of the white chocolate, and chill for at least four or five hours (overnight is best).

Serve with port or Banfi Rosa Regale. It might be tempting to serve with coffee, but if you do that, the coffee may just be a bit overwhelming.


By the way - some die hard may notice that I didn't shave the edges - I don't tend to. Unless you're making petit fours, I don't see the point, and the edges are far easier to ice - plus, I for one like the texture.

This can be converted to cupcakes as well - just drizzle the Kahlua over each one, spread the mascarpone over the top, then drizzle with white or semi-sweet chocolate (or both) and ice once the chocolate has hardened.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Night Thought of a Tortoise

The world is very flat--
There is no doubt of that!
-E.V. Rieu

The above is one of my favorite poems. (That's it in its entirety - concise, isn't it?) What it highlights is how everything in your reality is determined by your perspective. Two people who look at the same point in space at the same time must - as determined by the laws of physics - be looking at that point from two different angles. They will not see the same thing. That does not change the thing at which they're looking, nor does it make it more than one point - but each viewer has a different experience. Your perspective is your reality.

Yesterday morning I woke up dreading the looming weekly three-hour commute. Not the commute to Summerville mind you, but the commute back to Greenville. (Those who may just be tuning in, I split my time between Greenville and Summerville, South Carolina - about three hours away from each other). I dread it because for the past nine and a half years I've been living in permanent shift. Everything I've done has been temporary. In the past year alone I've called three cities in two states my home, (you could almost add a city and state to that, but it only lasted three weeks) and each with the mindset that it was temporary. While in Rhode Island I thought we were eventually moving to Charleston. While in Summerville caring for my Dad I thought perhaps we would move to Savannah - and later Charleston - then later Greenville. And then I became single, and everything changed - again.

Prior to that I was in DC, thinking I would soon be back to Charleston (prior to moving to Rhode Island of course) and in Charleston I wanted to go to Atlanta or DC. In Summerville (for a brief while anyway) I wanted, and was even making plans, to move to St Thomas. And before that, I had hopes of returning to England for a while, and while in England I thought constantly of going home (until the end, when I wanted to stay).

It would suffice to say that I'm ready to settle. I'm ready to build my life in one place, and travel whenever possible. The travel would be temporary part, not my home. And I'm ready for that place to either be Summerville or Charleston, or somewhere in the half-hour drive in between. So I dread the early-morning back to my temporary Greenville home, and look forward to the return to my Summerville home, even though the home itself is temporary - at least it's closer to where I want to be.

So I woke up yesterday already thinking of the return commute, days ahead, to where I already was. I was even thinking about how innately silly that was, when I opened my laptop and saw the devastation of Port au Prince unfold before my eyes. Suddenly all thoughts of what I was missing had vanished. My stomach turned as I saw ruined square miles and people reporting bodies lining the streets.

Flashing back to 2005, I was annoyed with being in a basement room outside DC, in a job I hated, with a psychotic room mate, when I woke up to see New Orleans under water. Once again, my life seemed very much okay.

Back on September 11th 2001, I woke up aggravated that the dishes were piled in the sink, that my room mate had been getting on my last nerve for weeks, that I lived in a dodgy (at best) neighborhood, and I was managing a steakhouse and bar for restaurateurs who had only ever owned and operated a butcher shop (another blog some day maybe). That day I drove over to my restaurant to get my paycheck. I had no idea what was happening, and once I got to the restaurant, I even thought the kitchen staff was having a laugh at my expense. Once again, my worries were nullified by the realization of so much pain and suffering going on elsewhere. That afternoon and into the night I sat at a bar in downtown Charleston with my room mate (not the one who annoyed me) drinking beer and watching CNN.

I do not have it bad. In fact, I'm pretty damn lucky. My gratitude for what I do have is only fortified by the knowledge that disaster could strike at any time - right where I'm sitting, typing this blog. Charleston could be hit by another devastating earthquake while I'm down there. A landslide could happen in the mountains on one my drives while I'm in Greenville. A plane could crash into this neighborhood right now. Someone could bomb my hotel. My nieces, nephew, sister, Mom, Bio-Dad, friends, could all be stricken with severe illness. Those are my worst fears - and yet, right now, none of that is happening.

So here I am, in my room, typing on my laptop, on my bed, with warm air flowing through the vents. I cannot complain.

So this, the first of my Almost-Friday gratitude posts, is about the big things for which I'm grateful. It's about not being the tortoise on the lawn. It's about not waiting for the next calamity to remind me that I have so much.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Synchronicity And The Devil's Footprints

Sometime in the wee hours of the morning of February 9th 1855, in Devonshire, England, a set of hoof prints appeared in the snow. The prints extended from Exmouth, up to Topsham, and across the River Exe to Dawlish and Teignmouth. This was a track of over 100 miles. But that wasn't the unusual part. The trail of prints was reportedly unbroken. It went through gardens, up the walls of houses, over their rooftops, and back down again and on to the next property. The prints went to the banks of rivers, appearing on the other side. They literally went up the sides of fences and back down the other side. Apparently no other prints appeared near them. The phenomenon has become known as the Devil's Footprints, and was the inspiration for the title (and much of the plot) of my recently referred-to "Unborn Child," the story over which I've obsessed for over a decade. But that story was just the beginning. In fact, it wasn't the first story that got this ball rolling.

In 1930's Detroit, a man by the name of Joseph Figlock was walking by an apartment building when a baby fell out the window from above. Figlock caught the child, and both were unharmed. A year later, the same baby fell out the same window, and Figlock was again there to catch the child - and both were unharmed.

Nebraska, March 1st, 1950. Every member of a church choir was late to practice, all for different reasons. A gas explosion destroyed the church shortly before they arrived.

Jim Lewis and Jim Springer were twins, separated at birth, named by their adopted families independently. Both were trained in law enforcement. They each married a woman named Linda, and had a son each - James Alan and James Allen. They both had dogs named Toy, and before they were reunited, had divorced and remarried women named Betty.

London, November of 1971. A gifted architect, still recovering from a nervous breakdown, threw himself onto the tracks of an oncoming train. The train stopped before it could kill the man. This was not due to the conductor's quick timing - in fact, the conductor would not have had time to react in such a way. It turns out a passenger - on a complete whim and unsure why he did so - pulled the emergency cord, seconds before the architect took his leap.

Carl Jung wrote in The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche: “A young woman I was treating had, at a critical moment, a dream in which she was given a golden scarab. While she was telling me this dream I sat with my back to the closed window. Suddenly I heard a noise behind me, like a gentle tapping. I turned round and saw a flying insect knocking against the window-pane from outside. I opened the window and caught the creature in the air as it flew in. It was the nearest analogy to the golden scarab that one finds in our latitudes, a scarabaeid beetle, the common rose-chafer (Cetonia aurata) which contrary to its usual habits had evidently felt an urge to get into a dark room at this particular moment. I must admit that nothing like it ever happened to me before or since, and that the dream of the patient has remained unique in my experience.”

Google "synchronicity" and it's amazing what you can find. Of course, back in the late 90's, there was no Google (in today's form anyway) and I didn't have a computer - so I just kind of collected these stories. I found more and more of them, and was fascinated by each one. I understand that there are billions of people in this world, and the hundred monkeys will write a sonnet. But I was also looking into the theory of the cosmic trickster at this point.

Most major religions feature the trickster. Greek mythology's Prometheus always held fascination with me, stealing fire from the gods and giving it to humans. He, more than any other of the world's tricksters provided the most inspiration.

But what do the cosmic trickster, synchronicity and the Devil's Footprints all have in common? I happened on this one after the story had already taken shape and I was in England. I stumbled on the story of the Devil's Footprints while I was researching the Trickster in various religions. It was, one could say, a coincidence that I hit the wrong link on the search engine page. Before I could hit the back button I began reading on the incident in Devonshire, and a new cord was struck.

I immediately wondered what the consequences of such an event on these communities would have been at that time. Did a man, frightened back into religion suddenly start going to church and meet his future bride? If so, what became of his children and their children? Did an unknown journalist get a name for himself in writing about the hoof prints? Was a child forbidden to go outside and play the day after the events - thus keeping her from falling through thin ice on a nearby pond? What were all the effects of this one peculiar incident? There had to be many - every cause has an effect.

So I then began thinking about it in reverse. What are the causes of each event happening around us all the time? Think about where you work. Why do you work there? What prompted you to apply? Why did you go to school to work in this vocation? What was your inspiration? You can trace it all back to your birth, and your parents' conceiving of you - why did they do so on that night? How did they meet? Why did they live where they did?

Every event has a birth in a previous event. Such a massive network of events would eventually, following their leads, form larger and fewer branches. The branches converge at the base - the trunk - that itself can be traced to a seed, the birth of the universe itself.

And starting from the moment of the universe's creation - the instant the big bang began - each particle had a path written for it, based on its trajectory, itself written by the ambient temperature and the particles around it - themselves following the same rules. Each particle's path became the stuff that formed stars, and eventually - us. We are all made of the same thing, born of the same instant.

Is this an argument for preordained existence? I'm not really sure, as I go back and forth on that one. But it is an argument for the existence of a pattern in nature, and synchronicity as being part of a very real, unimaginably large-scale structure.

Everything you do - every action you take - affects the world. Every automobile accident that slows the travel of hundreds or thousands of individuals has somehow changed their lives. They were late for appointments, had time to ponder decisions. In fact, every time you take a step, the Earth itself moves - however immeasurably - in the opposite direction. It's the ripple of a small pebble in a lake that changes the shape of the entire surface.

A few people asked what this story I've obsessed over is about. Well, this is why it's so hard to explain. I'm trying to take the big picture and repaint a microcosmic version of it onto the canvass of a few lives.

The rotting wood in a forest, giving a home to millions of bacteria and hundreds of insects, was once a seed - itself possibly carried in the belly of the bird whose descendants will dine on those very insects and bacteria. I have no idea how to paint such an immeasurably large picture onto such a tiny canvass. There's no doubt that I cannot begin to capture its complexity and beauty. But I'm working on it anyway.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

I'm Not Qualified To Review - Pretty Much Anything, On Second Thought

The idea for Tuesdays (see Saturday's post) was to write a review - of anything, be it a restaurant, novel, film, anything at all.
Well, as much as I'd like to, I can't think of anything I'd like to review. The things I would like to review are books, movies, other creative work that I admire and respect. Well, that's such a subjective thing, and I don't imagine many (if any) people care to read once a week why Will Shealy likes something. (This is assuming of course this blog holds more than three peoples' interest - and that may be an overestimation). As far as what I don't like is concerned, I don't believe I'm nearly as skilled in the creative process of any medium to critique.
I like what I like, I don't like what I don't like. I'm happy to discuss these reasons among friends, but I don't feel qualified to write essays on them, at least not now.
So, I will spend the next week trying to think of something else with which to fill Tuesday's slot. Any ideas?

Sunday, January 10, 2010

*Tahoe Area Bruin's Answer to Suburban Encroachment

It's common knowledge that as sprawling McMansion complexes and strip malls move further and further into what's left of "undeveloped" land, the locals can get a little restless.

Last Summer I was walking down a trail (later I discovered it was a private trail, but that wasn't the only reason I never came back) and happened upon a gazebo overlooking a lake. It perched just above the water, and I could see fish, minnows, turtles, quite clearly beneath the surface.

I was minding my business, enjoying the rare quiet, when a moccasin side-wound its way just beneath the surface of the water, a couple of feet from where I was standing. It slowed down as I backed away, and as I snapped a few shots with my phone, it coiled back - even as it swam. (I previously didn't know snakes were capable of this kind of multi-tasking). I backed away onto the gazebo deck, and it continued to stare at me from under the water. Had it struck,it would have had to aim at me from between two foot-thick pieces of wood that made up the rail - however, anything with no arms or legs that can simultaneously tread water and coil to strike should not be underestimated. Just as I was working out my next move, (as if I'd gotten that far), it swam toward the bank.

I have no idea if it made its way onto land or swam off. It would suffice to say I went to some effort to avoid that area as I left.

Walking back to Mom's that day I encountered a deer, and later saw an alligator meander by me in the river alongside the trail. It was only a ten-minute walk. I felt like Rudy Mancke. Only I wasn't about to approach any of these creatures, who were living right next to a budding new housing development.

I was left to wonder where these animals would go when the houses came. After all, they were there first, though that's hardly a reason in the corporate world to give wildlife their space.

In fact, I would imagine that the new property owners and the local species may happen upon more than a few chance meetings. There may even be a subtle territorial dispute. The animals will not win. They'll be trapped and relocated at best, and at worst killed unceremoniously so the manicured grass will be safe and nature-free.
Surely there is bound to be wildlife out there that doesn't go quite so quietly. (Ever seen "Over The Hedge?" If not, see it soon).

That evening I relayed the story to my Mom's neighbors. It was then they informed me this was private land, and to be careful - as I could be arrested for trespassing. The irony was not lost on me.

Sure you hear stories of animals learning to "coexist" with humans (with or without human cooperation) in large cities perched near the wilderness. But what about here in the US, where urban sprawl is spilling uncontrollably into the landscape that drew people there to begin with?

Such a story surfaced this week, and I am very much pulling for the wildlife in this case.

The San Francisco Chronicle has reported that a brown bear, estimated at 700 lbs, has figured out how to break into homes and raid the fridge.
While no one has reportedly been killed by a brown bear in the past 100 years, the locals are terrified. When animal control is called and actually manages to approach the beast, it casually walks off.

Some have reported shooting the bear, which does not seem to have had an effect. In fact, these tales are corroborated by apparent scarring on the animal's face.
The citizens of Incline Village have come to call him "Bubba."

Since Bubba is a brown bear, he does not hibernate, and will continue to feed year-round. He has figured out when garbage pick-up days are, and walks around traps as if they're nuisances to be casually avoided.

"I have a refrigerator in the garage. He opened it up, drank a gallon of orange juice, opened the freezer above and munched two frozen pizzas and snacked on frozen chicken," Philpott said. "He broke all the shelves and racks out of the refrigerator, bit into some fruit punch and squirted it all over everywhere, then dragged the trash can outside and took a crap the size of a basketball on the front lawn." The Chronicle reports local Bill Philpott as saying. Apparently Philpott replaced the garage door a few months ago, and Bubba has already made light work of it.

I want to make one thing clear - I realize that with a booming population comes the need for housing. The only way around our population growth is controlled reproduction, which will not be a fact of life in this country. However, there must be a means of coexistence in place if we're to continue to enjoy our environment. That's an easy thing to say, I know. But it makes it no less true.

I want our suburbs to be safe for children - if an alligator were within ten feet of my nieces or nephew and I thought it was aggressive, I'm sure I would be looking for a way to kill it (as much as I love those animals). But the alligator and its ancestors were there long before any of us. Who are we to impose property rights? There must be a solution somewhere, though I can't claim to know what it is.

As far as Bubba is concerned, I don't imagine his outlook is too bright. I'll be "rooting" for him. I'll follow this story and let you know how it turns out.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Sometimes I Think I Can Cook - Baked Spinach And Artichoke Dip

To follow is the first of a series of recipes I'm hoping to put out every Saturday. This is one of those recipes that's almost always a hit. I've varied on this a few times, but this formula seems to work best.

Anybody who knows me well will tell you that goat cheese is just about my favorite thing on Planet Earth. I put it in quiche, frittata, salads and sauces. I put it on steaks, in chicken, on sandwiches. As far as I'm concerned, it will go with anything (I'm staring with an arched eyebrow at my coffee as I type this).

To follow is my version of classic spinach and artichoke dip. I find the goat cheese adds a bite and creaminess that parmesan can't muster, so I've cut the parmesan - and added more garlic. There is - I repeat - there is no such thing as too much garlic, (so long as you don't have any appointments the rest of the day, and everyone around you is consuming just as much, or otherwise too drunk to notice your breath). This is not a good date food.

You'll need:

Two Tablespoons of Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Four Cloves of Garlic
1 Bag of Chopped Fresh Spinach
1 14 oz. Can of Artichoke Hearts
2 16 oz. Packages of Sour Cream
1/2 pint of heavy cream
8 oz. Cream Cheese
Half-log of Goat Cheese
1 1/2 (ish) Tablespoons of whole grain mustard
1/4 Cup Grated Parmesan
1/4 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese (sharper the better)
1 1/2 cup Panko Crumbs
Salt (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350F.

Mince the garlic and sautee' it in olve oil until it starts to slightly brown. Add the spinach and satuee until rich green and wilted. Set aside.

In a separate bowl, mix together the sour cream, heavy cream, cream cheese, goat cheese and mustard. (No, this is not health food - but then, would you be eating spinach and artichoke dip if you were on a diet?). Salt if you think it needs it, but keep in mind the parmesan will be on top.

Add the artichokes and spinach, and mix well. Pour it into a casserole dish, and bake for about fifteen minutes, or until it's bubbly around the edges. While it's baking, mix the parmesan, cheddar and panko.

Once your dip is bubbly, take it out and switch to broiler. Dust the top of the dip with the panko and cheese mix, and broil until it browns over.

I like to serve this with baked pita wedges. If you use anything salty to dip with, the salt kind of takes over.

Let me know what you think - enjoy!

Structure Might Be A Good Thing

So I've decided to give this blog a sort of fluid structure. Fluid in that I may change it after a few weeks, but structured so that I might write more frequently. I found that when I was doing my five rants of the new year, I made myself sit down at the end of the day and write.

If my unborn child ever sees the light of day, it will be because I'm in practice.

So, here's how I'm going to start - I've picked the five days I'm most likely to write, and five topics that I think I can actually stick to. ("To" being a preposition. I'm letting it go).

Tuesdays - "Not Qualified To Review This"
I'm going to review things. It could be a movie, a book, or a blog. Or it might be a city I've visited, or an airline. It might be a restaurant, or a wine. It could be anything - and likely I am not qualified to give a full review, though I'm going to do it anyway.

Wednesdays - "Wild Card"
Here is my "out" to write anything that doesn't fall into the other categories.

Thursdays - "Almost-Fridays." Remember what I said about being determined to be more positive in 2010? Well I will be, for at least one day a week. Or at least for the amount of time it will take me to conceive and write out Thursday's blog. This is going to essentially be something I'm happy about. I'm going to be very careful not to turn it into an exercise in sarcasm. It will be something for which I'm grateful, pleased, amused - something that brings a smile to my face, and hopefully yours.

Saturdays - "Sometimes I Think I Can Cook"
I'm going to attempt put out a recipe every Saturday. I'll start with the five or six things I do really well, family favorites (i.e. Spice Cake, Drunken Taramisu Cake, Spinach and Goat Cheese Quiche, etc...) These are established recipes into which I've put my own spin. These can be food or cocktail recipes, sauces and dressings, whatever. I love, love, love food, so this one should be really easy to keep up.

Sundays - "*"
This is going to be about something that caught my attention that I think deserves a closer look, maybe a buried news story or an peculiar website.

Okay, here we go. If one or more of these busts, I'll replace it with something else. I think the point is now just to make myself write and write some more. I hope to at the very least be some decent entertainment - a time-killer worthy of killing time.


Friday, January 8, 2010

Need Help!

Hello fellow bloggers (blogites? blogans? citizens of the blogosphere? blogospherians? - I digress, as I do).

I would very much like to clean up the look of my page - archive by relevance, maybe brighten it up a bit. I have some ideas, but can anybody recommend a good source of codes? Preferably free, and preferably something that will not require my posting a big giant link to them on my page, one that in turn gives tracking cookies to everybody who pops in for a parusal.

If such a place exists, please let me know. I think this page could use some sprucin' up.

Other ideas I have - I think I'm going to do the daily themes - they will keep me posting, and maybe I won't go from the five rants of New Year's Eve to climate change in 2.5. Or at least if I do, you'll have a warning - such as - Tuesday.

So, I'll be thinking up some weekly gems for you to dig through, if you guys and gals can point me in the right direction for improving the look.

Do we have a deal?

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

An Inconvenient "?"


 "Geologists Think The World May Be Frozen Up Again" 
                                              - New York Times, 1895

""Climate - The Heat May Be Off"
                                              -Fortune Magazine, 1954

"A Major Cooling Widely Considered To Be Inevitable"
                                               -New York Times, 1975

"Colder Winters Held Dawn Of New Ice Age"
                                              - Washington Post, 1970

"As for the present cooling trend, a number of leading climatologists have 
concluded that it is very bad news indeed."                                  
                                              - Fortune Magazine, 1974

"The discoveries of changes in the sun's heat and the southward advance of glaciers in recent years have given rise to conjectures of the possible advent of a new ice age."
                                              -Time Magazine, 1923

"Climatological Cassandras are becoming increasingly apprehensive, for the weather aberrations they are studying may be the harbinger of another ice age."
                                              -Time Magazine, 1974

"How long the current cooling trend continues is one of the most important problems of our civilization...the Earth could be plunged into a new ice age."
                                               - Science Magazine, 1969

"The cooling since 1940 has been large enough and consistent enough that it will not be soon reversed."
                                                -Science Magazine, 1975

"Scientists Says Arctic Ice Could Wipe Out Canada"
                                                -Chicago Tribune, 1923


 "Past Hot Times Hold Few Reasons to Relax About New Warming"
                                                 -New York Times, 2005

"[S]cientists no longer doubt that global warming is happening, and almost nobody questions the fact that humans are at least partly responsible."
                                                 -Time Magazine, 2001

"Polar ice caps are melting faster than any measure, Earth is at the tipping point...the climate is crashing, and global warming is to blame..."
                                                 -Time Magazine, 2006

'Higher spring and summer temperatures and earlier snowmelt are extending the wildfire season and increasing the intensity of wildfires in the western United States."
                                                  -Science Magazine, 2006

"The polar ice caps are shrinking, as are glaciers and mountain snow pack around the world."
                                                 -Chicago Tribune, 2009

About a year ago my sister and I were having a glass of wine, and the topic of climate change was brought up. I mentioned how annoyed I was that any time a cold snap occurred, I inevitably heard people say "so much for global warming." I thought this was idiocy in the extreme. After all, climate and weather are two completely different things.
Well, Mandy made a comment about the fact that is wasn't proven. At this point I was pretty convinced that it all but had, and a few days later set out to find some articles to send her on the subject. I was astounded at what I found. 
Well, I dropped it and never sent her the articles, as I got distracted (as I do) and forgot about it. However, I did find some compelling research supporting my argument - and some equally compelling evidence to the contrary.

What was fascinating to me was how convincing the argument was on both sides, and for the first time actually caused me to think about climate change as a question rather than a fact of life.

I am a liberal, on many issues. While reading up on this, especially over the past couple of days as I prepared to write this entry, it occurred to me that if “Dubya” had espoused the threat of global warming, I may have called some of the current conventional wisdom (no, that is not a redundancy) into question.
The fact is, conservatives read and follow conservative pundits. Liberals do the same on their end. So what we’re exposed to largely depends on, and is perpetuated by, our existing beliefs.
The more I dug, the bigger the question mark seemed to become. So many articles (if not most) that I found did in fact contain or reference raw data. But the facts that were backed up were intricately woven into the fabric of the article along with facts that were not.
Moreover, in multiple instances articles on both sides of the argument utilized the same raw data to support their respective arguments. In each case this happened, it practically nullified my confidence in the source study as a means to promote either stance.
What was really shown here, is that enough data can be effectively manipulated to accentuate whatever point it is you’re trying to make. In these cases, your perspective influences the outcome. This is much in the same way the perspective of a climate change denier (I use this term referencing CBS reporter Scott Pelley’s comparison of climate change skeptics to Holocaust deniers) reading more on the subject and picking out the articles that support their case.
Let’s say – for the sake of argument – (because I’m not taking a side here) that climate change is a very real, very imminent threat. What can we do about it? Many point to our failure to adhere to the Kyoto Protocol. Dr. James Hansen of NASA has estimated that the Kyoto Protocol would only affect temperatures by .13C by 2100, and that it would take 30 Kyotos to have an acceptable inpact on climate change.
Why so little impact? Well, one fun fact I turned up repeatedly is that 96.5% of all Carbon Dioxide emissions are from natural sources – water vapor, methane, (all mammals fart), volcanoes, even rotting vegetation, to name a very few sources. Mankind is directly responsible for about 3.5%. Only 0.6% of this comes from internal-combustion engines, meaning that if every car were to be plucked from the roads right now, it would have very little, if any substantive impact.
So why the impact in the other direction? Why have we seemingly caused so much of it? Well, here’s the question. If Carbon Dioxide levels cause global warming, then why did the Journal Science report recently that arctic ice cores record a shift in Carbon Dioxide after temperature fluxuations dating back thousands of years? Which is cause and which is effect?
By now you’re thinking that I could be attempting to make a case against climate change, and the human factor. That’s not the case.
I could reference the Oregon Petition, which boasts some 18,000 signatures from scientists around the world stating that there is no evidence to support man-made global warming theory. But then, I could also nitpick who those scientists are, and seek out motivation for signing such a petition.
All research is funded. Who pays the check can have a serious impact on the findings, or the interpretation of data. This is true on both sides of the argument. One has to think only a moment of the money that can be shifted one way or another to begin to doubt some findings.
One could say that the famous “hockey stick” graph, which “proved” carbon dioxide emissions were causing global warming, was erroneous  – the use of proxies prior to 1850, the use of thermometers in city-centers that recorded urban heat island effects… Or, one could point out that the data has been scrutinized on both sides of the debate and both sides come up with their own predictable results.
It is practically indisputable that something is occurring. What that something is, and what is causing it, are still in question. Scientists who publicly protest the current climate change theory and its causes are systematically vilified.
So what is my conclusion? Well, I’m not going to conclude with my opinion. It wouldn’t change anything – most people who will read this have already formed their own opinion, which is not likely to change.
I challenge you though – if you believe climate change to be a real threat, research the arguments. Conversely, if you believe climate change to be a fear-mongering fad, research the case for it. The more you dig, the more interesting the debate becomes – in fact, the clearer it becomes that it is still a debate, it’s just more fashionable to accept the crisis.
Just please keep this in mind: nothing affects the emotional state of a populace or an individual (and therefore their actions) more potently and effectively than fear. I am not trying to persuade anyone in one direction or another, simply to point out the big neon question mark hanging over the issue. Try as we may to ignore it (on both sides of the argument), and as inconvenient as it may be to some – it’s still there. Let’s talk about it.

I Haven't Disappeared

As much as I might try, I'm unable to write an entry every day. That being said, I am trying to write more often, if for no other reason than practice. But it's been a busy week, and when I write I really need to be alone, so please bear with me, I'm just waiting for a quiet time and place.
I am working on something though, that has actually required some research. Suffice to say, my next post is likely to annoy my more liberal friends, and just as likely will annoy my conservative friends. However, I think it's a topic that requires some real debate, all preconceptions aside (if that's possible).
Oh, and to Doc and Wah - I don't know when or if I'll be brave enough to post some of my Unborn Child here - maybe eventually!

I'll try to get something posted tonight or tomorrow if I can finish reading up on a few things.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

My Unborn Child

Eleven years ago I sat down in front of my room mate's computer and began conceiving a story. I even wrote about fifty pages, writing every night, only to forget about it when I moved to England. While I was there, my friend Mark let me borrow his old 386 after a drunk evening when I remembered the story, and told him about it. So once again I sat down to the story, and rewrote what I remembered of it, and added some things. It began to grow, to my surprise.

It was at this point that the story took on a name: The Devil's Footprints.
For the rest of my time in England I would go back to the story, drop it, then come back to it. The characters, though remaining the same in name, began to grow and take on lives of their own. It was while I was in England that for the first time something amazing and unexpected occurred - the story was changing as I was writing it. The characters almost seemed to act of their own accord.

It was at this point that I began reading the Dune series. I couldn't hep but think how wonderful it must have been for Frank Herbert to imagine, conceive, then give birth to his own universe. I enjoy the books surrounding the original series written by his son and a collaborator, but as entertaining as they are they lack the scope and vision of the originals. The depth they do contain was founded on the original idea. But I digress (as I do). The point is, I kept thinking of The Devil's Footprints as I read these books. So envious and enamored I was with Frank Herbert's sweeping vision, a world at once completely apart and exactly the same as ours. It was a funhouse mirror on our universe, one seen from a distance that puts our world in a new perspective by placing it 10,000 years in the future. I was then determined that one day I would let my own little universe out to let somebody else see it.

Fast forward a few years, and I was in Summerville, South Carolina working night audit at a plantation inn. The night audit would be done by midnight, leaving me with seven dark, quiet, lonely hours in the woods to essentially just be there if I were needed. I never was. So once again I picked up The Devil's Footprints right where I had left off. But this time I decided to begin outlining. I thought that by outlining, the synapses in my brain that represent each of these characters would stop veering off-path.

I began writing from the outline, and in each session the story seemed to take on its own life as I wrote it. More turmoil occurred in my life, and I set it down again, letting it collect dust in the back of my mind. I would never have suspected that it was still growing, becoming something of an unborn child.

Once I moved to DC, I began outlining again. I would walk around the monuments at night, go to the Smithsonian, wander, and think of the story - sometimes ending the day in a bar with a notebook and pen. Outlining was often the last thing I did before I went to sleep. At this point it was conceiving the story that became the fun part. It was as escapist as reading any novel ever had been.

So once again I set about writing it out. I've lost so many versions of the beginning of this story, that writing the first fifty pages had at this point been more clerical than creative. But here again, my life was uprooted and I found myself in Rhode Island.

In Rhode Island, Eric and I rented a house near Providence. This house had a back deck, and quickly I bought a table and some chairs, knowing that I had found a refuge for The Devil's Footprints to grow.
I spent so many hours those two and half years out there outlining, developing characters, creating maps (for my own use, to keep a consistent vision as this world grew). I made family trees, even wrote a few journal entries from the perspective of the main character. I have three notebooks in a box somewhere with the original outlines, and two or three binders still in Rhode Island with further outlines. (However, at this point I'm pretty much fine without them, I know the thing so well).

By my second year in Rhode Island I felt like it had become an obsession. I was writing as well as outlining, and probably wrote (if you include everything I ever deleted), around 350 pages, maybe more.
I find myself back in South Carolina now, dancing around the story, and still thinking about it all the time. I have ideas in mind for other stories, including one surrounding Summerville, stories that are not nearly as outlandish, and take place in the world as we know it, in the here and now. But as I sat down the other day to try to begin the story about Summerville, (after having done some light research), I realized that I couldn't write anything else until The Devil's Footprints is done.

It's become my favorite pet, this monkey sitting on my back. I hate it bitterly but love it. I can't write anything else until it's done, I realize that now.

As far as what I might do with it - who knows? At this point I don't care as much about that as I do completing this thing. I want to let it run its course and get the hell out of my system!
Sure, I have a few pipe dreams of publishing, but if I'm writing this for that, I think I might cheat myself, and the story. I need to let The Devil's Footprints unfold as it always has - on its own, my fingers the vessels.

Maybe I'll let my nephew Zach have it one day, (as my nieces are likely not as apt to enjoy this type of story. Aside from being a fantasy, it can at times get a little violent. Abby didn't even like the opening scene of Bolt). Maybe I should write it for him, and think only of his enjoyment when he gets older. In that I likely won't be as self-conscious and will love the process for what it is.

The Devil's Footprints is my unborn child. Only instead of nine months, I've been carrying this kicking, punching baby inside of me for eleven years. I think it's time to finally let it come on out.

I may ask some of you to help with the delivery. I might paste a few pages here from time to time and let you tell me what you think. Or I might ask your opinions, and maybe even ask for you to help in research. Though I don't think I need much in that respect, as I pretty much know the damn story from start to finish.
And it's grown. It's grown in scope, in number of characters, and in plot. I'm not even sure how I'm going to squeeze some of it in there, but there are things that must be squeezed in.

So here we go - here is my final new year's resolution - I am going to finish this damn thing, if for no other reason than so I can move onto other stories. It may give me the practice I need, and maybe I'll go back to it once and a while to polish it, help the child become an adult. And maybe then he will be ready for Zach.
As I close this post, I'm getting ready to start the process. No more hours and hours of outlining. It's time to start. Again. And finish.

Happy New Year everyone. Wish me luck.