Brutalist Birthing Center

Or: How I learned to stop looking to live with reusable project pieces

For a time, my daughter issued an edict: I could no longer say “mid-century modern” or any permutation thereof, including but not limited to MidCentury, MCM, or the diminutive “mid-mod.” She had grown tired of hearing me gush about this warehouse find or that junk shop purchase.

Growing up in my grandparents’ house on Forsythe Avenue was a mid-century fan’s dream. My grandfather was a designer by trade, and like pretty much everyone else drawing house plans or designing office parks from 1955-1970, he favored the clean, simple lines, the low-slung roofs, and the high, thin windows made so famous by designers with  names like Neutra, Saarinen, and Niemeyer. A good friend calls them “Brady Bunch Houses.”

I’m an unabashed fan of all things MidCentury, from coffee tables (I have a Dutch-teak with pencil legs and gull wing edges) to art. (A recent prized find is a 40-year-old knock off of a Rothko I found at Goodwill for $15. It’s hanging in the dining room.) Even the cars get my motor running, and I’d consider killing for a 1967 Lincoln Continental — the one with suicide doors. I spent seven years rescuing credenzas from dumpsters and refinishing a Red Lion table, and I was forever sending everything on the back seat — and more than a few times an unwittingly unbuckled passenger in the front — sailing to the floorboard for an emergency breaking after seeing a Pearsal lamp or George Nelson chair in a junk shop window. One of the biggest mistakes of my life came when I sold everything to move to Nashville.

Unfortunately, I failed to take into account the strange temporal anomaly that allowed Nashville to escape pretty much all design choices from c.1950-1970. In other words: there is precious little of my beloved Mid-Mod. One curious exclusion to this Whovianesque escapement of bright colors and roman brick seems to be Nashville’s West End neighborhood–where row after row of massive concrete hulks sit nestled in a city park.

The c.1965 brutalist building in which my current employer's offices lie.
The c.1965 brutalist building in which my current employer’s offices lie.

The particular school of architecture — brutalism — relies greatly on clean lines, poured concrete and, well, a brutal adherence to a design motif. My day job takes me to one such brutalist masterpiece (pictured LEFT) each day. Cool, subterranean parking beneath a five-story mass of poured concrete, complete with the signature, exposed anchor bolt holes and tell-tale 4×8 squares of the old plywood forms greet me each morning as I wheel my car into a parking spot.

Interestingly, this building has been the home to a number of businesses over the years–from lawyers to music industry professionals. These days, there’s a dentist, another ad agency and a record label on our floor. One of the stranger tenants, though, is the birthing center on the ground floor.

Before we go any further, I think it’s important to note that I’ve witnessed the miracle of childbirth twice. It’s an amazing, albeit somewhat messy, experience, watching a new life enter this world. Childbirth is a beautiful occurrence, and it in no way gives me the willies. On the other hand, knowing that the McHipster Family is downstairs in suite three of a decidedly not medical facility squeezing out Sporty McHipster Jr. is just a little much for me, and so usually, I ignore the birth center’s presence, and it only registers on my radar on those rare occasions when I happen through the lobby to walk to Dose or Tzaziki’s for lunch.

My biggest problem isn’t the birthing center per se, but where the birthing center is in relation to my beautiful, brutalist haven. More precisely, how the birthing center’s location itself came to be–and what it used to be before it was what it was before the birthing center.

When the building opened in the 1960s, the entryway over the parking deck was a wide terrace, railed and, presumably decked with tables and chairs and ashtrays. This is, after all, the era of Donald Draper we’re talking about. But as West End became more dual-use (apartments and houses edged up to the busy business district), restaurants came in. Sometime in the early 1990s, this happened:

The terrace was built out into a copper-roofed, large windowed and–most inexplicably–a clapboard sided restaurant location for an Outback Steakhouse. Overlooking for a moment the somewhat disturbing notion that a birthing center exists in a steakhouse, this architectural aberration infuriates the purist in me, and occasionally when I do notice the place, I find myself wondering if the architect lived long enough to see this abomination explode from the side of his masterpiece of brutalist form. What did he think when he saw “Outback Steakhouse” emblazoned upon the sleek lines he spent so much time and effort perfecting and unifying?

Then, I remember that I use a gutted 1959 Saba cabinet to house my media center and a 1960 Philco Television cabinet is the wet bar, and I wonder about reuse and how we become so comfortable with certain forms of reuse but other upcycling efforts irk us. Sure it’s okay that I stripped the innards out of a T.V. set for a place to keep the bourbon. But the outside remained unchanged. Slap a coat of paint on that sucker, though, and now it’s fighting time. This touch of internal inconsistency bothers me, and it makes me consider the other things we repurpose in life.

Think about our kids. From the beginning, we pour ourselves literally and figuratively into making these little facsimiles of ourselves. We raise them up by staking them to a pole with discipline and instruction, guiding them, we hope, into fully realized humans. In essence, we’re designing the idealized versions of ourselves. Then, sometime in their teenaged years, they discover hormones and sexual attraction, their brains shrink by half, and they start globbing on new bits to the lovely façade of civil perfection we parents have created. Roof-top Rock-n-Roll delivered courtesy of Dr. Dre’s multi-colored plastic bits and a too-tight teeshirt showing off this muscle group or that set of curves we may kind of prefer not be there at all. Girls slap on a new coat of paint, coloring their eyes and lips, and boys move away from seersucker shorts and cute bib-shirts with Pokemon characters on it to shirts featuring what you hope is the name of a band but secretly suspect might be the name of a new terrorist cell instead.

Organic growth drives modifications to our handiwork, and in the end, we’re little more than that architect, driving down West End and trying to ignore the scores of people filing in and out of the post-modern Outback Birthhouse.

At least we have grandkids to look forward to.

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Mojo Binders

Or: Fetish and the Art of Writing

I remember reading, where I don’t know, that Hemingway used pencils to write in his notebooks. It must have been in A Moveable Feast, because I remember it was in his own voice, so strong, authoritative, and direct. The comment was almost a throwaway, the kind of detail a writer uses to bridge the space between two competing actions. Yet it stood out, because he described sharpening the pencil with a penknife and jotting a few notes in a Parisienne café.

The humble pencil, two slivers of wood glued around a slender needle of graphite, a little metal cap — it’s called the ferrule — a little tin bridge between the commission of the act and its reversal. You see, I’m one of a rare breed of individuals who, in dark corners of coffee shops and commiserate about  lead viscosity, body weight and heft, and rubber densities. Yes, I’m a pencil worshipper.

My pencil of preference, in fact the only pencil I’ll use, is the Dixon Ticonderoga No. 2.

Absent my trusty Ticonderogas, I default to a pen, sometimes a fountain pen or a ballpoint, and in each instance I have preferred models. I write longhand on AmPad’s Dual-Pad evidence model, because I enjoy the weight of the paper and the way in which it soaks the words in so effortlessly while the tip of the instrument floats across the surface nearly free of friction, providing just enough resistance to make me pause and think about the next word, but not so long as to break my concentration.

I’m hardly the first writer to fetishize the pencil, much less any other of a few hundred other, equally ridiculous aspects of committing words to the page. Poet Nikky Finney uses Blackfeet Indian pencils in her writings, which presents a special challenge as the Blackfeet Indians ceased making pencils in 1992. Yet, devoted is she to those pencils, and who can blame her? How the poet justifies her obsession, too! A YouTube video (below) highlights her love of this particular anachronism, and before you judge any fetishization of a tool offered up by writers, remember this: Nikky Finney won the National Book Award for Poetry–three years after this video was made.

There are other fetishes we writers fall into, at varying degrees over the long process of beginning, working on, and completing any particular book.  Sometime after I begin to fill pages of an AmPad with character sketches, outlines of scenes, or notes about the semiotics of rhythm, and right before I begin the second or third chapter, I go on a hunt for the Mojo Binder. This is the implement in which I will compile those pages of notes, printed Wikipedia entries on some historical figure or obscure arcania of music, and the news stories that inspire me to plod onward. There is nothing outwardly special about the Mojo Binder, and this binder looks (and in fact is) just like any other binder. It might be plucked off the shelf at Staples or rescued from a trash box at the school. I’ve even found a Mojo Binder at Goodwill on occasion.

Photo Credit: Frances Micklow/The Star Ledger

The act of finding the Mojo Binder takes me on a journey. Once, as I stood in an Office Depot, a helpful clerk circled around three times to find out if I needed help as I stood in front of a 12′-tall display filled with 1 1/2″ binders.

“Are you looking for something?” he asked helpfully.

“Yes, a binder.”

“Well, you’re in the right place,” he said on the first pass. A few minutes later, he circled back again. “Is there something in particular you’re looking for?”

“Yep. I need a particular binder.”

He glanced at the wall and then back at me, wandering off. A couple of minutes later, and now quite concerned, he returned a third time. “Maybe I can help you. What features are you looking for?”

“Couldn’t tell you,” I said. He began, helpfully, attempting to demonstrate the angled rings of one binder and the subtle double-click of another.  This binder had a window on the spine for helpful filing later, and that one has the sheet lifters. There’s even one over here that has specially shaped rings with ribbing to deter paper tearing and pulling.

I eventually bought a binder at a garage sale the next Saturday.

The book that particular implement assisted in producing went on to be the first runner up for a Faulkner Medal. Once “The End” was committed to the final page, the hundreds of sheets of canary paper, the countless magazine ads, and more than a few beer napkins, were removed, unceremoniously shoved into a large manilla envelope, and filed away. The Mojo Binder, its job done, was retired to the pile, ready to be given to some student or other when they need one, sent off to college with my daughter, or left to collect dust in the box in the back of the closet.

I can’t tell you which of the dozen or so binders I still own helped me produce The Patriot Joe Morton, but I know one of them did. That’s the nature of writing, though. It’s not just a craft. It’s a ritual. And in that rite of committing the words to the page, we hope we find something worth reading. Otherwise, we’re wasting binders with Mojo and Blackfeet Indian pencils.

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The Apple Tree and the Gazebo

An Allegory

So this farmer has a section of low-lying land that is perpetually flooded with water, land that came as part of his family’s original grant more than a century ago. Right in the middle of it, miles away from anything, is a hill that rises up above the swamp. Getting to the hill requires mucking through the swamp, and chances are you’ll die in the process. So difficult is getting to this hill that no one in the farmer’s family has ever visited the hill. As far as the farmer knows, no man has set foot on this earth.

One day, his neighbor realizes he can see this hill from the breakfast nook of his own home. He believes the hilltop would make a suitable place for a picturesque stone gazebo and, say, an apple tree. Understanding that the land is neither accessible nor useful to the farmer, and knowing he will only ever visit it this one time, the neighbor approaches the farmer and arranges to purchase the hill for a small sum, leaving to the farmer the swamps, which are somewhat valuable as a backup source of irrigation water.

To build his gazebo, the neighbor charters a helicopter and flies out the crew, the materials, and a seedling. They work through the morning and into the night to build the stone gazebo and plant the small seedling. Then, their work done, they leave on the same helicopter that delivered them.

Years pass. The apple tree grows. The gazebo weathers, and sure enough, the neighbor possesses a completely private view of this hilltop. He has attained his goal.

One day, the sheriff realizes that the appearance of the gazebo coincided with the disappearance of a load of stone from the quarry. He believes the neighbor stole the stone and used it to install the gazebo. This is a grave sin, and the sheriff approaches the judge. The judge agrees it’s likely that the gazebo and the stone theft are related, and he grants the sheriff’s request to search the hilltop.

The sheriff goes to the farmer, who owns the land surrounding the gazebo. “Take me to the gazebo,” the sheriff demands. The farmer informs the sheriff he has no means of accessing the hill, has in fact never been to the hill. “The neighbor is the one who put that there. He owns the gazebo and the hill. Perhaps you could speak to him?” The sheriff is incensed. He demands again that the farmer take him to the hill, to the gazebo. “It is your land that surrounds this hill, and it was your land that made this gazebo possible. Take me there.”

The farmer hangs his head. “Sheriff, I’m sorry. But we have no way to the gazebo. There is not a road across the swamp.”

“So build the road,” the sheriff says.



Image credit: Naik Michel. See more amazing photos here:

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Pressure Cooker

Or: How to Make the Perfect Pot of Beans for a Cold Tennessee Day

It wasn’t so long ago that I didn’t own a pressure cooker, had never used a pressure cooker, and to be honest, wasn’t too sure I knew what one was. Jessica changed that on my 35th birthday, when she and her mother presented me with an amazing (and thankfully automatic) cooker marketed by Wolfgang Puck.

For those who don’t know, pressure cookers are amazing feats of engineering that capitalize on the laws of physics to create these time vortexes in which the impossible happens. This morning, that impossible comprised rinsing beans, browning from frozen some sausage, seasoning the lot, and cooking the beans–from dry–in less than an hour. That’s the miracle.

What the TARDIS is for the Doctor, a pressure cooker is for the DeVault household, and a Wolfgang Puck automatic pressure cooker doesn’t require coming to terms with an over-animated British Oscar winner popping out from time to time and screaming, “Run, Clara!” Though, you may want to run if you accidentally open it too early. As I rushed through my pot of beans this morning, I got to thinking about how amazing it would be if we had a similar device for the Congress, for our employers, or for postal workers. If only the Senate could be forced to understand the urgency of voting on this spending bill or that appointment. If only our bosses knew the emotional turmoil we found ourselves in when that two-hour meeting produced no substantive answers as to whether or not we were going to get the new assigned parking. And for the love of Pete, why does it take five days for a single envelop to move from Tennessee to Massachusetts? What if that envelop contains something important, Mr. Postman? Please, ignore the Brits and do not wait a minute!

The miracle of the pressure cooker is that it heats the water, but it gives it no place to go as it tries to expand. Come to find out, cast steel is much stronger than the small amount of steam that would be released, so the water is forced into whatever you are cooking rather than out of the cooker. Applying the same pressure to the U.S. Congress would require locking the door and putting a tent around it that blocks all wireless signals in and out. Without public attention, they might be forced to act.

I don’t know what to tell you about your employer. Do what I try to do, channel your inner Shonda, and remind yourself “He who has the gold….” And it’s their gold. In that moment, chances are you’ll realize something. You’re the one in the pressure cooker, and the brilliance is that you won’t be in there for very long.


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Veblen was Right

Or: Gravitational Waves and the Complex Economics of Higher Learning in America


(Author’s Note: I began this post last night, but events of the day — namely a deadline and work followed by the governor’s speech mentioned below–conspired to delay completion. I’ll post twice today.) 

Earlier today, I logged into the computer early, propped back on the sofa, and watched as a physicist announced the single greatest confirmation of the single most successful theory in science. With a flourish befitting the moment, Gabriel González confirmed the rumors that had been floating around for a few weeks. Gravitational waves are real and have been measured.

Understand this discovery and its importance to science doesn’t require a deep understanding of Einstein’s theory of General Relativity. Instead, it’s only important you understand the mechanics of what happened. Roughly 1.3 billion years ago, two black holes began their death spiral, orbiting one another at ever-increasing speed until each collided into the other near the speed of light. The effects were to produce a massive black hole and to warp the fabric of something called spacetime. Those effects move at the speed of light. Just a couple of months ago, a massive pair of instruments–one in Louisiana, near LSU, and one in Washington State–detected the effects.

Something that happened a billion years ago, more than 1.3 billion lightyears away, crossed across the planet and we measured the effect. And that effect was 1/1000th a proton’s width in size. Normally, this is the part of science communication where the author finds some analogy to underscore just how staggering that is, (the proverbial pencil thrown over the Empire State Building,) but in this case, the numbers are so staggering and immense that, given the infinite universe, it’s nearly impossible to come up with an analogy that isn’t equally preposterous.

Think about this: this is analogous to measuring the thickness of a human hair of an astronaut in orbit around Alpha Centauri from earth. But it’s not analogous to that. No. It’s analogous to counting the atoms in a single molecule of hair, buried in the sand, on a beach of a planet that we’re really not sure is there, that was shed by an astronaut a billion years ago. See? It gets preposterous–all the moreso because even that isn’t preposterous enough.

Yet, we did it. And Dr. González and her team announced the results–the blip of which appears below:

That this amazing discovery was taken in my native Louisiana, by my state’s flagship school, LSU, made this all the sweeter. So imagine my dismay when, around noon, I began to hear word that Gov. John Bel Edwards‘ new administration had stopped payments to the TOPS Scholarship Program as part of his administration’s ongoing efforts to cut almost $1 billion from Louisiana’s budget.

I won’t go into specifics, if only because the metrics tell me only about 1/3 of you are from Louisiana. Let’s just leave it at this. It’s sadly unsurprising that Louisiana is amputating entire limbs of its education system on the same day that one of its educators secured for herself and her team a Nobel Prize in Physics, given that this is the state that believes this belongs in the same classroom as this. (Don’t believe me? Click here.)

Let’s just say Thorstein Veblen was right to warn the American academy against allowing “business schools” into the academic realm. When we turn research colleges into job training sites, we reduce the value of knowledge and, maybe, we lose just a little bit of our capacity to awe.

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A Year in Review

Every year since 2005, one of the hallmarks of January was a “Year in Review” story for whichever newspaper or magazine I found myself writing at the time. What sounds like a herculean task–cramming an entire year’s worth of news or commentary–into a single article of no more than 2,200 words isn’t exactly the most taxing of efforts. In fact, it’s rather boring makework, an excuse to blow out all the year’s best pictures and, occasionally, to remind the readers that this breaking news or that investigative exposé was “first reported” right there in the very publication they now found themselves.

All told, I’ve probably written or contributed to a dozen “Year in Review” stories in my career, and every year, as I open that imposing, blank document in Word, I sigh. What happens next is almost comically predictable, and yet, like a Richard Curtis comedy, by the end, I’m still surprised by all the news that has transpired in the previous year. Sadly, this year, I found my January lacking this particular joy. So, dear readers, the few of you who remain, comes this–2015: a Year in Review–right here on this blog. And what a year it’s been, too.

First, I must apologize. I was more than just a little embarrassed when I realized I haven’t written a single word on this site since August, 2014. That the last post (“God Save the King!” – Aug. 26, 2014) was a defense of Burger King is a sin that, I hope, you will overlook. But, as this is Ash Wednesday and I am giving up “not writing” for Lent, I have faith that you will accept me once again into your RSS feeds, your list of bookmarks, or that nagging “I just read…” post all your friends keep sharing on Facebook.

These past twelve months have been a big year in the life of a writer. First, I took a major leap of faith and uprooted myself from the old home place after accepting a job in Nashville, TN. Deciding to become a publicist after a long-ish career in journalism can hardly be termed a huge leap, (I’m certainly not the first writer to make this career move), but for someone who had bookmarked the lion’s share of his days between eating breakfast at McDonald’s on 18th or at Lea’s of LeCompte and a few pints of Guinness at Enoch’s, moving to Nashville was a big bite to chew.

Tanya Tucker sings "Delta Dawn" to a crowd of thousands at the 2015 CMA Fest Riverfront Stage. It was her first Nashville concert in almost a decade.
Tanya Tucker sings “Delta Dawn” to a crowd of thousands at the 2015 CMA Fest Riverfront Stage. It was her first Nashville concert in almost a decade.

For most of the first six months here, I worked as a publicist at one of Nashville’s top PR firms. It was a valuable and challenging experience, and it was the kind of work that gave me the opportunity to use my people skills. Along the way, I got to know some pretty remarkable people, working with Jeremy and Kirt, and though I’m no longer there, I certainly value the friendships I made while trying my hand at this little endeavor. But thriving in the PR world takes a certain kind of soul, and while I enjoy the work, it’s not the career for me.

I will avoid a trap that many publicists (and former publicists) fall into, and that is to let this bit of the year turn into a series of gurmish name droppings or, worse, a bunch of photos of me with famous people. Instead, I will say this: as a lover of music, there was and is no better place to have spent a year consuming some of the best live music on the planet. It starts with the concert at the left, Tanya Tucker’s triumphant return to the music scene in a massively successful U.S. tour. Watching her wow an audience that was, at one point quite literally, hanging off the roof of the George Jones Museum and Acme Feed and Seed while belting out “Texas When I Die” isn’t something I’m likely to ever forget.

I confirmed yet again that Louisiana–specifically northern Louisiana–is the geographic center of the known universe when I met not one, not two, but three people from my neck of the woods. It’s interesting how quickly one bonds with someone who is familiar with their old stomping grounds. Whether it’s over coffee at Eighth & Roast or backstage at the Wild Horse Saloon before a benefit, stepping out of the daily routine and chatting about Sicily Island speed traps and Strawberry Pie from Strawn’s in Bossier is a hell of a nice respite from not knowing anyone.

I also enjoyed watching live performances of some of my favorite musicians. I let Pat Benatar and Spyder Giraldo “Hit Me with Your Best Shot” as I stood in the wings of the Ryman Auditorium. I got to see Vince Gill play a song off his new album as part of a command performance for one of my old Monroe buddies–in Vince’s dressing room at the Opry. At that same show, I learned that Jonathan Jackson’s 10 year old daughter can sing like an angel. And I got to watch Lee Greenwood relive the 1980s when he was invited onto the stage with the Oak Ridge Boys to sing “Bobbie Sue”–decked out in, well…here’s the video.

Then, I got the supreme privilege of witnessing the induction of the Oak Ridge Boys into the Country Music Hall of Fame, one of the rarest treats in all of country music. I listened to the Flaming Lips backstage at SoundHarvest, got to see up-and-comer Scotty Bratcher play live twice, and I even got to see Garth and Trisha sing a duet.

And such was my brief tenure in the music industry.

A smoking barn amidst the tobacco fields during harvest. If you look closely, you may be able to see the first hints of smoke rising from the ridge vent.
A smoking barn amidst the tobacco fields during harvest. If you look closely, you may be able to see the first hints of smoke rising from the ridge vent.

In August, I took a job teaching English at Volunteer State Community College, an opportunity that introduced me to the wonder that is fire-cured tobacco when I was asked to teach a dual-enrollment class at Jo Byrnes High School, which sits in the heart of “Kentucky Tobacco Country.” The most popular of these products is sold under the Fire Cured Kentucky Muwat label.

Tobacco leaves must be cured, I learned from one of my students who happened to be the son of a tobacco farmer, and to help it along, the broad, freshly harvested leaves are hung upside down in a vast, open barn. In the space beneath, workers stoke fires, smoking the leaves and imparting a pungent, rich color and flavor to the tobacco, which will ultimately become the wrapper of a fine cigar. Of course America’s contribution to the art of cigar making requires playing with fire.

September saw one of the most challenging projects I’ve encountered seemingly fell apart overnight. If you want to know what hell looks like, Google “Michael DeVault Seattle” and read a few pages in. Regardless of what happened with Galacticon 4, and overlooking the nearly weekly requests I still get for information about the events of that weekend, I got to spend time with Steve and Loribeth, Janet and Nate, Hailey, Tye, Laurie, and a bunch of other people too numerous to mention. I won’t talk about how pot is legal there or that, almost hilariously, you can buy it in a posh store, but you can’t pay for it with a debit card because that would be a Federal crime. There’s an ATM in the store, though, and that makes it okay.

In December, shortly before Christmas, and after putting off a couple of visits due to work commitments and, well, life events, I finally knuckled under and set off on a great adventure to the Northeast. Now, understand this southern boy has never strayed above the Mason Dixon Line since he was old enough to know better. But Loribeth and Steve insisted I come to their neck of the woods to spend some time on the mountain, enjoy some much needed R and R, and to watch the premier of Star Wars: The Force Awakens in IMAX. We had a wonderful week in New England, and I got to visit…well, here are some pictures to recap the trip:

Interestingly, in spite having lived just a couple of hours from the city, Loribeth had never been to New York. Bob Teague, an old friend from Monroe, proved a wonderful guide that made sure our single day in the city was the most it could be. And then, the next day, I went home. That was Vacation Part I, between the semesters. I counted up 18 states in 7 days, and the whole time, my Green Cheek Conure, Oliver, was a trooper. I think he enjoys car rides more than I do, and he definitely got to spend some quality time with Steve, who Loribeth calls the animal whisperer.

Everyone remarks how much Kya looks like the boys, even though they don't share DNA.
Everyone remarks how much Kya looks like the boys, even though they don’t share DNA.

Christmas back home was pretty awesome. I spent a few days with friends and family. And therein is, perhaps, the greatest part of 2015. Many of you know the stories of my daughter  and our adventures, of which I have written many many times here, in the magazine, in the newspaper, or on Facebook/Twitter/MySpace. What you don’t know is I have two sons. And this year, for Christmas, well…let’s just say there are going to be a whole lot of new adventures to talk about. And most of those will probably get revisited come next January, when I undertake “2016: the Year in Review.” This time, though, I promise I’ll keep you posted along the way.

You can expect lots of discussions about politics, as before, and my culinary adventures, as I find Nashville cuisine filling if unchallenging. I’m sure there will be more than a few vents about Comcast, a rave or three about Verizon, and other call center adventures. And there will be more than a few posts about poker. Here’s to the new year.


A side note: The practice of Lent, giving up indulgences as a sign of penitence,  doesn’t much make its way into Christianity outside of Catholicism and, to some extent I’m told, Anglican/Episcopalian practices. That being said, it is Lent, so I have given up the indulgent practice of not writing. That includes, Miika, the book I owe you from last November, a daily blog post here, and all those articles that I’m almost always late on.  I’m going to use this time to make sure that 2016 is one of my most productive years ever. -md

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God Save the King!

God Save the King!

Those are my sentiments today upon learning that U.S.-based Burger King, Inc. will buy Canadian donut slinger Tim Horton’s, a move that is charitably being called a “merger,” and then subsequently relocate the articles of incorporation to Canada. This move concerns me, especially given that the Right Wing media is establishing this as the new Boston Tea Party, a revolt against “higher taxes.”

At first, I had a knee-jerk reaction. I was pissed that an American company would flee the kingdom over a perceived higher tax rate in the United States. Then, as I was finding an image to attach to this post, I had a thought: will Burger King really save money on taxes? Or is there, perhaps, another reason behind this relocation? So I took a break from finding the really cool Arcas painting of the Boston Tea Party and read a couple of stories. Come to find out, the Right Wing media gets it wrong, again.

Burger King is buying a much larger chain. The Canadian holdings amount to a significant portion of the new company. Remember, most of those Burger Kings in America are franchisees. That’s not necessarily the case with Tim Horton’s. So Burger King is relocating its corporate structure to the place with the largest set of assets. Surely this isn’t something for which they should be faulted. If I bought a large quantity of something in Canada, I’d want to move there, too.

At the same time, Burger King is making this move for another reason: the American company might not be allowed to purchase such a seminal Canadian property. As one Canadian friend put it, Burger King purchasing Tim Horton’s would be about like Gazprom buying Walmart. This rips at a very real part of the Canadian national identity, a U.S.-based company buying a Canadian staple brand. So, they’re moving to Canada to ease both the public relations and the regulatory burden.

The English had a name for this in the 1700s. They called it “colonization.”

So, I’m going to back off my “down with Burger King” mantra a bit, take a chill pill, and enjoy that Whopper. Or maybe, a Whopper Jr., since I’m back on my diet today.

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Stopped Clocks

Stopped Clocks

Or: God’s been talking through Jackasses since the Book of Numbers
Ann Coulter is almost 100% wrong all the time. Anytime I see her appear in my newsfeed, I think to myself there she goes again. And I almost never read the linked story. I don’t have to. I know what she has to say and how she says it. But, earlier this week, she published this column, in which she blasts the notion of spending $2 million to save two Americans infected with Ebola and I made an exception. I went to her Web site, read what she had to say, and then sat there for a minute in stunned silence. Aside from missing a couple of non-salient details (e.g. his family went with him), she knocks the ball out of the park. I think I threw up a little in my mouth when I typed that, but I’m not afraid to admit it when someone I intensely dislike gets something right. Why do I say this? Why is it I agree almost completely with Coulter on this subject? For the same reason Coulter wrote it: there is plenty of missionary work that should be done in his home state of Texas, and I don’t think it’s wise to spend so much time and energy halfway around the world when there are plenty of poor, underserved, and quite deserving needy in his own backyard.

Before we go any further, please do not misunderstand: I think there is a very strong word in the English language that describes Ann Coulter, a label of which I believe she’s quite deserving. (Figure it out. It doesn’t rhyme with witch, either.) But she’s not wrong about a particular point: $2 million was spent to save the lives of two individuals who knew what they were getting into when they traveled across the globe to “save lives.” They were the beneficiaries of a miracle drug that is a.) quite expensive and b.) not available to the very people they were there to serve.

Meanwhile, Texas ranksfirst in the nation for the poorest counties, with 17 counties making the top 80 poorest in the nation–that’s almost 1/4 of the top 80 poorest counties in one state. Surely that $2 million and this doctor’s resources might have been well spent in Texas? Adding to that, there are the very real moral and ethical implications of providing the care provider, who just so happens to be a white dude from the United States, with a different class of service and treatment, which not only flies in the face of medical ethics, it also highlights the almost-dilettante efforts of the United States in global foreign aid efforts.

And yes, she’s absolutely on point when she calls out American Christendom for their “Christian narcissism.” Who the hell are we mere mortals that the Creator, who spoke Existence itself into being, needs our help in any way to accomplish His will on this planet? And why do American Christians, in particular, believe it’s their divine lot to mete out the Will of the Lord across the planet while carefully ignoring that same will on the homefront?

This is the same, twisted logic that dictates such gems as, “Christians Vote Republican,” and “We must take back our country from the Atheists, the Liberals, the insert invective here, as if the atheists, liberals, heathens, weren’t citizens and were, instead, some hoard of mongrel invaders who streamed across the Mexican border and rigged an election.  And while Coulter has posted more than her fair share of such nonsense, she doesn’t in this column, and instead she gets it 100% right.

Until our own house is in order, until our children are fed, our sick are nurtured, and our homeless are housed, we’ve got too many problems at home to worry about the problems of other nations. And before you disagree too vehemently, before you click reply and fire off an angry response, you’d do best to read the red letters of your Bible. Because these thoughts aren’t original to Ann Coulter any more than they’re original to me.  Sometimes, it’s tough looking at ourselves in the mirror and seeing our failures staring at us over our shoulders.

(Author’s Note: Let me be clear on something: I think doing “good works” is noble. I think it’s just. I think it’s necessary. But we must be careful to avoid, in our “good works” the establishment of that great evil, the Other, lest we further alienate the alienated. In the case of Dr. Kent Brantley, what we’ve done is confirm to Africans that, without a doubt, they are second-class citizens of the world in our eyes, from whom we are withholding ‘the cure’ for a deadly disease, reinforcing the belief that our efforts there are half-hearted and not to be trusted, and that we believe this to be “our” planet. This is the same “logic,” however flawed, that has led Islamic people to violent acts of terror and more than a few nations to the brink of war against Western philosophy. In other words: in trying to help save the world, Dr. Brantley’s efforts and the aftermath may just prove to make it that much unsafer, that much less stable, and that much more costly.)

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When the heat is a sulter?

Or: On Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner and the English Language

There’s an old joke that goes something like this:

Why did the broke writer pay $5 for a latte at Starbucks?

How else would everyone get to see him writing his novel?

Sitting in a Starbucks before the mountain of pulp totaling some 350 pages, I’m slogging through the task of entering line edits on Anything But Ordinary, my third novel, which will enter its second edition printing sometime in July. I’m making good progress and am on page 55 when I stumble upon the sentence you see in the image to the left.  And that’s when my ego deflates. I forget in that moment three key facts:

1.) This book was a finalist for a major literary award and that manuscript included the word “sulter”

2.) This book was published and people liked it well enough to read it.

3.) I wrote this sentence in 2002, when I was the ripe ol’ age of 25.

I’m not exaggerating, either, that “ spite of the sulter, the draw of the sun proves too strong,….” brought me to a hard stop. I know this isn’t a word. I don’t need Microsoft Office’s snarky squiggle to tell me that. And I don’t need my patient, serenely skilled editor’s gentle blue pen to confirm it. Sulter is not a word. Even WordPress’s rudimentary spell check and Apple’s overzealous autocorrect rebel at writing that word. (I’ve changed it back six times in this paragraph. Yet, there it sat, on the next-to-last line of page 54.

Given that I scored well on the vocabulary portion of every standardized test I ever took, that I have an above-average vocabulary, and that I work with words, I began a trek down memory lane. How did I come to write this sentence? I remember where I was when I wrote it: sitting at my writing desk that faced out the front window of 1107 D North Second Street, the apartment I was sharing with my friend, Brandi. I remember what was going on in my head: I wanted to confer to the reader the entirety that is a hot, New Orleans summer, the particular kind of heat that bears down oppressively on the city. And I wanted to do so with a flourish.

Sitting on that desk would have been a ragged copy of Roget’s Thesaurus and a decent Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Surely if I searched for the word, I would have looked for it in the thesaurus or the dictionary? Maybe, I give myself too much credit, I intended to create a new word, since none of the others seemed to fit. Yet, today, at 37 and a dozen years removed, without thought or reference, I immediately replaced “sulter” with “swelter”–which I know is an archaic noun used to describe an oppressive heat.

The word replaced, I cannot kill that embarrassment. Then I begin to wonder if Messrs. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner all felt the same way anytime a typo or poor word choice or grammatical error found their way into print. (And I assure you, a cursory search of the first editions of In Our TimeThe Great Gatsby, and The Sound and the Fury will reveal numerous typos…before even the end of the first chapter in the case of Fitzgerald’s “Gatsby.”) Those guys are of the kind of talent that makes writers stop writing–or to write harder, longer, and better until they reach the level of quality and literary integrity that puts them into that class.

Please for the love of all things holy do not misunderstand me. I’m not comparing myself to those literary titans. Even my titanic ego knows bounds. I’m simply wondering how they reacted to what amounts to little more than poor copy editing.

And then again, here we are, at page 54 and the sulter of a summer sun on a patio in New Orleans. I review the passage again, try to jog my memory. Did I labor over the words of this sentence when I wrote it, or did I just set the paragraph in my mind and toss the words down onto the page, only to glance over them once or twice in galleys? I try not to blush too much at this small embarrassment. Again, I can always blame it on youth and inexperience. Or I can blame it on rushing through a particularly swift patch of writing. At the end, I finally arrive at a realization: what does it matter? It’s there, in print, and will be for as long as the paper of that first edition survives.

–he said, just as he clicked “Publish” on a medium that, if the Internet Archive and/or NSA is to be believed, will live forever in the vast, digital wasteland of the Internet.

Note: There is a single, hardbound copy of the first edition of Anything But Ordinary still listed on (link). You should buy it and save it as a collector’s item, in case one day I’m famous and it becomes valuable to possess the physical evidence of the time I attempted to create the word “sulter.” If you do, I’ll even sign it for you and initial “sulter” in the margin. – md

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The Best Part…

When I was 14, I met Joe DiMaggio. He was sitting in the front row of an arena, listening to a speech by then-Arkansas First Lady Hillary Clinton and chatting with Paul Harvey. This meeting and the subsequent autograph represented one of the biggest moments of my young life and, though I’ve lost the autograph I received from Paul Harvey, the framed DiMaggio picture and autograph still hang in my study today.

It’s funny how memory works, how the connections between something as benign as brewing a pot of coffee can trigger happy thoughts of sitting with my great grandmother, Mimi, in Miss Simmons’s kitchen on Gerald Street, and listening to Paul Harvey. But that’s what happens, isn’t it? That’s how our brain, in those dreamscapes, catalogues memories and files away sensations as recollections, to be triggered decades later by the trivial act of popping the top off a can of Folgers.

Before I go any further, it’s important for readers who may be unfamiliar with my peculiar culinary habits to understand something. My eccentric taste in gourmet coffee borders on a fetish. Whenever I enter a Starbucks in my hometown or in areas near here, the baristas almost without fail remember me as “the Casi guy,” a reference to their seasonal favorite Casi Cielo, which is only available in late winter. Or, if they know me by name, the baristas will immediately recommend something that’s “just as good as Casi, but a little insert descriptive here.” Casi Cielo is by no means the only variety of coffee I drink–though I do stock up a year’s supply of K-Cups and beans by the pound. Friends, too, encourage this predilection for good coffee by returning from vacations with local roasts. Connie Ryan brought back a pound of coffee from a store she visited, “because I thought you’d like it.” I did. That being said, those coffees that I consume by the gallon daily are not capable of transporting me through time and space, back to the formica table in Miss Simmons’s kitchen. This miracle of sensory overload is triggered solely by Folgers, which I keep in the cabinet precisely for this reason.

I came home this afternoon with a list of about a dozen work-related items to complete. The list includes magazine tasks (an endless stream of phone calls is in my immediate future), essay tasks (a call for submissions is perfectly tailored to an essay I’ve been tinkering with since December), editing tasks (another call fits my thesis collection perfectly, as well), editing tasks (at any moment, I anticipate receiving back an edited manuscript from Ann Smith), and fiction tasks (I still have novel stuffs to write). All of these tasks will require energy to complete, and I don’t imagine that I’ll finish even half of them today. Yet, I knew I needed coffee.

That’s where the rain comes in.

When I was a kid, it seems it rained almost every day. The rain didn’t linger, if I recall, but either in the morning or the late afternoon, a quick shower would wet the pavement and send the humidity to lung-stinging levels. In the winters, this gave me time to read a book–since this was before video games. In the summers, I would play outside in the rain. Alas, Jessie Tucker’s admonitions aside, I feel I’m too old to play in the rain. At the very least, my neighbors already think I’m a little touched. The sight of a 37-year-old writer bounding from puddle to puddle might scare them a little. So, I sit on the porch and reminisce.

Which is probably why, this afternoon, I bypassed the Mellow Joy, the Casi Cielo, and a handful of other coffees and went straight for that red plastic can of Folgers. Into the percolator (if you don’t own a percolator, you’re missing something special) went the water and the coffee. And out came the memories.

It’s funny how memory works, how the smell of Folgers percolating in the kitchen can transform me from the 37-year-old writer to a 12-year-old in the span of an inhalation. Paul Harvey hasn’t been on the air in years and DiMaggio’s long dead. But there is a puddle across the parking lot and I’m pretty sure no one’s looking. Maybe that work list can wait a few minutes after all.

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