Category Archives: Essay

Rock Me

I’m eating my second push-button pancake in the hotel breakfast room. On the television I can see something festive is happening. It’s a bicycle race or a foot race, or a parade.

The pancake is not a pre-cooked, warmed-up, ersatz mistake. Inside a machine the size of an old-fashioned breadbox, is a plastic bag of pre-mixed pancake batter. You push a button on the left, the box emits a quiet hum, and after three minutes, a perfectly round, medium-rare comestible gradually rolls out of the side of the machine. Think pancake fax.

With push-button yogurt (plain low-fat Greek or vanilla fat-intact American), push-button juices, and push-button coffee, you can make a good start on the day.

Glancing up again at the tv, I realize, it’s Earth Day. I’m looking at how they celebrate Earth Day in Arizona.

Who doesn’t remember their first Earth Day? On April 22, 1970, first Earth Day ever, I was six weeks from high school graduation. It had been three years since the Summer of Love, a year since the Tet Offensive. Eight miles north of town, Dow Chemical, naplam producer and unfettered polluter of the Tittabawassee River, and Dow Corning, plastic wrap and breast implant manufacturer, were reminders that the earth belonged to us, too, and Earth Day had a purpose, an urgent one, even.

It was a bright sunny day, I remember that much. And a number of us walked out of school, though whether we had the blessing of Mr. Haenke, the school principal, I do not recall. I would like to think it was an act of civil disobedience.

This morning I’m grateful for the good hotel breakfast because our room last night was challenging.

For some reason we were checked into a handicapped room, which means oddly located light switches, a closet with hangers and rail at waist level, no visible electrical outlets (how that helps a handicapped person I do not know), and a wheelchair-friendly shower. (Our friends, for the same price, got the room with a fireplace, with a small sitting room, with frontage to the desk facing red rock buttes.)

“No water pressure,” I hear my wife say from the shower. “And the thingie doesn’t work.”


It’s the hand-held nozzle attached to a hose, an accessory she absolutely requires. I have a look. It’s a bad situation. She not taking a shower. She’s taking a dribble.

I ought to be able to fix that. Three consecutive years I took people to a moderately crappy, extremely affordable hotel in Florence, ridiculously named Hotel Versailles. Everyone had private bath but me. I didn’t mind. I was by myself. But the bathroom I used, up five steps and down a hall, had a showerhead that was almost totally stopped up. It squirted and fizzed.

The first year I stayed there, I found a hardware store and bought a showerhead. Problem solved. Every year I took the showerhead home with me and took it back with me on the next trip. The fourth year, Versailles went under.

In our handicapped shower, the problem eludes me.

I call the front desk, they offer to send a plumber. For one night? And who wants a plumber in their hotel bathroom?

The mild irritation I feel at the altered space and accommodations in the room must be nothing compared to what handicapped people have felt their whole lives, in spaces not made hospitable to them. This room indicates we’ve made progress, I don’t know how much, but when I reach down into the closet for a hanger, I tell myself: get a grip.

And outside, at 7:00 a.m. in Sedona, is cloudless blue sky, red rock towers, arches, buttes, mesas, a place and a planet that still need Earth Day, need it every day.

Last Food

Over the next few weeks my wife and I will be traveling with friends from Italy. We’re doing a tour of the canyon country in the American Southwest. The night before she and her husband left Italy for the U.S., Adele posted this photo of her last pizza.

“Whenever I take a trip,” she says, “I always go out for pizza the night before.” She wants a good pizza because wherever she’s going, it’s a safe bet the pizza will not be as good as the ones at home.

“That’s not all,” she says. She holds up a hermetically sealed foil lunch bag. “I always bring Parmigiano-Reggiano.” Her cheese man at the market in Rimini vacuum-packs slices of cheese for her. “If the food is terrible where I’m going,” she says, “I can always eat some Parmigiano. It’s my salvation.”

For anyone on the road, in varying degrees, food becomes an issue. Can we find something we like? Can we stomach what they’re serving? What do we miss from home? What’s the first thing we want eat when we get home?

Spoon University lists the 24 foods Americans miss most when they are abroad. High on the list are foods in the dog family, like hotdogs and corn dogs; also certain cheesy delights make the list—fried cheese sticks, mac and cheese, Cheez-its, cheeseburgers; then come ethnic foods like cheap sushi, tacos, Chinese take-out, deep-dish pizza; and popular members of the bread family, such as waffles, bagels, and pretzels; bacon, of course, lots of bacon; and finally, something called In and Out, with the specific recommendation, and this is not a joke, of having it Animal Style (not my caps). And this accessory: ice. Americans require large amounts of ice and are often starved for it abroad, especially in Italy.

I’m pretty sure most of these American favorites will have Adele reaching for her Parmigiano.

Her photo and her cheese got me thinking about pre-departure rituals—about last food. Before a long trip, I’m most inclined to just try to empty the fridge. Finish off that last dab of yogurt. Make a soup from leftovers. Eat that last egg and crust of bread. If time allows, however, to put me right with the world, I will probably want a dish of pasta with ragu and a glass of red wine.

This week, my last food before flying has been more on my mind than usual, because of the disturbing story of an exploding engine on a Southwest Airlines flight, in mid air, and a passenger sucked out of a blown-out window. Who doesn’t fantasize about such disasters? For years, when the beverage cart rolled down the aisle and stopped next to my row, I ordered a double scotch. If the plane goes down, I would think, at least I will have enjoyed one last luxury.

There’s a fairly extensive literature on last food. But here I mean last meals, in which food and death go together. The practice of officially killing people has a long history in the U.S., and in western culture in general; part of that practice is the last meal ritual. The website Dead Man Eating documents final menus. Brent Cunningham, writing for Lapham’s Quarterly, remarks upon the curious paradox of the last meal, that we should “mark the end of a life with the stuff that fuels it.”

What would I want if I knew this was my last meal? Probably the same answer: a dish of pasta and a glass of red wine.

Perhaps Adele would want a pizza, though definitely not of the deep-dish American variety. I’m sure she would rather die than eat one of those.

On Wine Tasting and the Limits of Winespeak


How do you quantify a qualitative judgment?

“You taste wine the same way I do,” the guy pouring says.  “We all have the same equipment: nose, mouth, tongue, palate.”

Technically, yes.  And it’s nice of him to say that.

It’s my last day in Sonoma. I’ve had a head cold all week, so none of my “equipment” has been working very well.  Thus far I’ve had only a few sips of wine with lunches and dinners. This afternoon I’ve decided to visit some tasting rooms, to open my mouth and let the wine in. There are over 425 wineries in Sonoma County, 15 or so within a few miles of where I’m staying. This one is known for its chardonnays and pinots.

I’ve just tasted the third of three pinot noirs the winery is pouring today, and listened, amazed, to the wine guy’s description of the wine, a brief disquisition on its body (medium), its structure (supple), acidity (tangy) fruit (cherry pie) spice (an allspice matrix!) barrel time (old French oak) tannins (pliable) and finish (persistent).

“I don’t taste cherry,” I say.

Nor do I detect structure. I understand tannin but I don’t get pliable. I tell him my mouth is dumb. I’m just not a very good taster.

He asks, “Did you like it?”

“Yes, I did,” I say, and empty my glass into the spittoon.  On a scale of 0-3, 0 being never again, 3 being bring it on, I’d give this wine a 2.

These wines probably have Parker points and Wine Spectator ratings, both of which use a 100 point scale.  Suppose the third wine is a 92. I wonder: What would make it a 91? A little less pliability? Or a 93? A slightly larger slice of cherry pie?  This may be an example of effing in ineffable. How do you quantify a qualitative judgment?

woman drinking

Eons ago, as an undergraduate in a survey of 20th century British literature, I wrote a midterm essay in response to this assignment:

“Referring to at least two of the authors we’ve read in the course thus far, analyze the nature of metaphor in modern literature.  What, specifically, are the metaphors in, say, Conrad and Yeats? If the metaphors are vehicles for their ideas, what are the limits of metaphoric expression?”

Fortunately, or maybe unfortunately, it was a take-home test.  Over the weekend I thought hard about “the nature of metaphor in modern literature,” thought about it until my head hurt.  I poured over a handful of Yeats poems, with helpful annotations I had made, like these–Cycle of time. A vision of hope.  Mutability of experience. The body. I re-read my marginal notes on Heart of Darkness–Knitters of fate. Categories of defense.  The failure of language. Existential challenge–all the while trying to figure out exactly what “the limits of metaphoric expression” might mean. I wrote, I returned to my notes and annotations, I revised and gradually stopped writing.  My essay had a long finish.

Next class I handed in three closely written pages and waited a week for the professor to return my work.  When I got it back, I found a few phrases of my essay underlined, a few phrases double underlined, along with an occasional question mark and few trenchant exclamation marks in the margin.  Flipping to the last page, as we all do, I looked for the grade. It was an 87. I knew what that meant, a B. Okay, but 87? How had he arrived at that specific number, and not, let’s say, 86 or 88. Those underlines and double underlines, did they add to or subtract from 100? What could I have done, what exactly was he looking for that would have made my essay an 89 or 90? I suspect he might not have been able to explain how he arrived at 87 or what I could do to raise that number to 88 or 90, beyond telling me something like be smarter, make better connections.


A few years later, as a young teacher, I filled a gradebook every semester with marks (I decided on A through E) for 22 students in each of the five classes I taught.  Homework, quizzes, exercises, essays, midterms, finals. At semester’s end, for each student, I would see something like this: C, A, B-, B+, B-, D, E, A-, A-, C+, C+, C, B+, A-, E, E, B, B, B.  To arrive at a final grade, I laid a ruler across each row of marks, tracking student performance left to right, across fifteen weeks, and on the far right rendered my final judgment: B. Sometimes upon further reflection, I affixed a minus or a plus to that letter.  Never quite sure, except in my bones or in my heart or vaguely (very vaguely) in my head, if that grade with its plus or minus was a true value summarizing those letter grades.

This was long before the advent of spreadsheets and grading technologies, before primary trait analysis.  And I’m pretty sure this grading practice was widespread: impressionistic, holistic, supported mainly by the authority the individual who rendered the judgment. It was an 87 or a B+ because a full professor said it was. Nuff said. Much like a pinot is a 92 because Robert Parker or Wine Spectator say it is.

Words help. They name qualities, characteristics.  Words and categories enable dissection, which enables analysis and evaluation. The problem is, some things are easier to dissect than others.

I’ve been reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci. Thanks to Isaacson’s helpful descriptions of the great artist’s paintings, I now look for Leonardo’s use of shadow and “sfumatura,” for the characteristic depictions of water and hair and landscapes in his paintings. I imagine I see left-handed brushstrokes. Knowing something about Leonardo’s work helps me see the painting of other artists at the time differently. Huh, I might think, look at that pile of rocks. Did the artist even bother looking at nature the way Leonardo did?


As an undergraduate, even farther back than “the limits of metaphor,” I took a music appreciation class. I must have listened to Mozart’s Symphony #40 a hundred times. That symphony and that recording, by Sir Georg Solti directing the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, established my frame of reference. I’ve been startled by other recordings of that symphony I’ve heard since, by how fast the first movement runs, by the chug and lurch of another director’s minuet movement.  I’ve listened to other symphonies with, well, enhanced appreciation, noticing how the second movement in #40 compares to the second movement in Mozart’s #41 or, because of repeated, careful listening, how it compares to the amazing, mournful second movement in Beethoven’s 7th.

Seeing, listening, and tasting are not equal.

Seeing and listening lend themselves more readily to dissection and appreciation than tasting.  A Leonardo just sits there, on the wall or on a page or a screen. Pull back from the artwork, or move in close, or alter the angle of your viewpoint. You can take a very long look. It’s a freeze-frame experience.  Likewise, in music: rewind, replay, revisit the same performance, the same shift to a major key, the swelling of sound, the crescendo. Listen, take it in. Looking carefully, listening intently, you can make the experience last as long as you like.

people drinking

A taste, on the other hand, is brief, intense, and evanescent; a couple sips and it’s finished.  When you look and listen, you may get tired, but you don’t get full. Or drunk. And what about memory? Are memories of what you see (a sunset, a face, a painting) and what you hear (a bird call, a child’s laugh, a piece of music) more retraceable and detailed and vivid than memories of a gustatory experience?

There are super tasters, I know, sipping savants in the wine world, people endowed with if not supernatural equipment then with highly discriminating taste and deep stores of palate memory.  I bow to them. To communicate with us, they deploy a special language. They say things like this about wine:

“Already revealing some pink and amber at the edge, the color is surprisingly evolved for a wine from this vintage. However, that’s deceptive as the aromatics offer incredible aromas of dried flowers, beef blood, spice, figs, sweet black currants and kirsch, smoked game, lavender, and sweaty but attractive saddle leather-like notes. Full-bodied and massively endowed, with abundant silky tannins, it possesses the balance to age for 30+ years” (Robert Parker, on a 2001 Chateauneuf du Pape).

This is a pronouncement handed down from on high. It makes me want to taste the wine, but only after I’ve whiffed some beef blood and licked a sweaty saddle.

What sets the apprentice taster apart from the journeyman is years of experience and control of the language. Years ago a friend took me to his wine club dinner.  A dozen men descended upon a restaurant (oh, yes, all men). Serious guys, they each brought their own box of Riedel glasses. It was an evening of blind tasting, eight wines chosen to accompany a nice dinner.


For 2-3 hours, we tasted wines in pairs and talked about them. Two Amarone, for example, one a 2003, the other a 1999. I was given a notepad and pencil. After the pours we swirled and sniffed, sipped and deliberated. Then we went around the table and described the wines and our tasting experiences.  Compared to these guys, I was still in short pants. “Full bodied,” I could say. “Nice color.” But they would have at it, making little speeches, practicing the lingo, somming it up. I went to three of these dinners. Every night I finished at the bottom of my class. And every night, the same two guys identified all the wines correctly. When they talked, I took notes. The older wines were tight. Some wines’ tannins were grippy. They talked, but they didn’t revel in winespeak.


Those nights I was reminded of graduate seminars I attended in which students, me included, practiced speaking litcrit, making statements like this: “Deconstructionists have to be aware of the text’s shifts or breaks that may eventually create instabilities in attitude and meaning. At the verbal level, a close reading of the text will highlight its paradoxes and contradictions, a reading against the grain, in order to reveal how the ‘signifiers’ may clash with the ‘signifieds.’”


Words help. They can explain the 87 and 92. They also can get in the way. Did you like it? Yes. Do you want to more? Yes.

Most of the time, that’s enough.

wine pour


I’d Rather Be Writing

writingWriter in residence? I’ll give it a try.

I stayed four nights this week at the Moshin Vineyard in Healdsburg, in Sonoma county. The program, Writing Between the Vines, is directed by Marcy Gordon, from nearby Sebastopol.  Along with Moshin Vineyards, residencies were also offered this year at Tinhorn Creek Vineyards in British Columbia. You stay four nights, give a reading on the first night. The rest of the time is dedicated to writing and residing.


At Moshin I was welcomed by Jan Moshin and Julia Lander, and by Colleen, who has a expert pour. From everyone at Moshin, I felt nothing but all-around wonderful hospitality.

I showed up just in time for rain, which is an inducement to stay inside and keep your butt in the chair.  And I did. Still sleeping on Detroit time, I was awake every night at 2:00 a.m. That’s a great time for office hours.

Daylight hours, sprinkles notwithstanding, I got outside and toured around Sonoma, an area I had never visited. In the far west, at Bodega Head you can do some whale watching. The experience turned out to be whale waiting. Alas, no whales. No matter. All that northern California rocky coastline, the jagged western edge of the continent, never loses its mystical power.


From Bodega I drove north to Goat Point, then east to Guerneville and the Armstrong Redwoods Reserve.  Big trees in a quiet grove I had all to myself. I stood in front of a tall wide dude named Colonel Armstrong and looked up, hello there, at a tree 1400 years old, 300 feet tall. From there I cruised along the Russian River a bit, back toward Moshin, back to have a taste. Just a couple sips.

russian river

And writing. Take a sip, write a paragraph. Take a sip, write a sentence. Take a sip, add a prepositional phrase. Sip, ponder. More sips, more ponders.

Whales, redwoods, big stuff.  Many small details also registered, resonated. The old red rail bridge over the Russian River, a mile from Moshin Vineyards. Westside Road winding north from Moshin toward Healdsburg, past wineries with their gates and tasting rooms, their stately rows of vines, all such clean geometry, and further on, the road curving beneath canopies of shaggy trees and lengthening toward town. Other small details.  Good food: wild stinging nettle fritters, spiced and roasted fennel, raw ahi tuna tacos, tondini beans and roast pork.


Finally, and best of all, the company of good writers. Rebecca Gomez Farrell read from Wings Unseen, her gorgeously imagined fantasy novel that bursts with verbal energy. Marcy Gordon read from a future memoir, about the joys and comedy of living in Perugia, Italy. And Stephanie Rosenbaum, a prolific food writer, joined us at dinner after the reading, sharing her food knowledge and expertise, her love of Sonoma, and introducing me to Meyer lemons.

All in all, much to digest and be thankful for.

writing reading

Breathing, Speaking, Eating

g mask

They are adventurous, agile, adaptable. They will manage.

Today is another bad air day. This morning in Shanghai, for the half-mile walk to my grandson’s pre-school, we’re masking up. The four-month-old has not left the apartment in two weeks. In each room in the apartment, Blue Air purifiers do their job making the space safe for occupation.

Shortly after arriving here, I learned about Plume from my daughter.  Plume is an app that reports levels of particulate matter (PM), providing “full coverage from Alabama to Zanzibar.”

Plume labs rely on air quality data collected from cities and countries around the world–for example, Federation ATMO in France, DEFRA in the UK, EPA in the US.  Air quality data in China is reported by US embassies and consulates.  In China, Plume reports air quality, why I do not know, in PAQI numbers, short for Pakistan Air Quality Index. We look at the Plume report every morning, cross-checking it with data on the US State Department website. Continue reading