A Special Disappointment…

It was going to be a special shared birthday; drive to Portland for an upscale getaway dinner during a particularly bleak time of year in the Northwest. We enjoy everything from dive bars to special occasion restaurants so long as they’re unique. In September, we ate at four very different restaurants in New Orleans, all James Beard award winners, so when I told a friend of our birthday plans he suggested we try Jory, the restaurant at the Allison Inn and Spa, a luxury wine estate, near Newberg south of Portland. 

Several days before the trip I went online to make a 6:30 reservation using the Open Table link on their website. I was given 5:45 or 8pm as their openings. Neither was good, but of the two, 5:45 seemed like better timing. It was the first in a series of disappointments. Not a great start.

In an earlier life I owned a small upscale Italian bistro called Piccolo in Sun Valley, and when I was new in the business I was mentored by Wolfgang Schmidheiny the Swiss CEO of Napa’s Cuvaison Winery. Early in our friendship I asked him to talk to our staff about wine. He agreed but redirected the discussion to what it takes to give the customer a good overall restaurant experience. With respect to wine, he told us to keep it simple; let the waiter in the tuxedo down the street talk about “notes of blackberry and chocolate on the nose.” He suggested the waitstaff say the wine in question was “representative of the varietal, well reviewed by the experts, and one of our best sellers.”

Then he talked about the restaurant experience itself. He told us that there are four things to consider in evaluating a restaurant – food, atmosphere, service, and “recognition.” Food preparation, he told us, may be simple or complex but all restaurants worthy of a review use high quality seasonal ingredients and prepare them well. Consequently, food was the least important of the four considerations on his list. The most important was recognition, by which he meant how the customer was treated. If he was a returning customer, he should be recognized and greeted warmly by name. If new, he/she should be welcomed cordially and made to feel comfortable? Service was the second consideration, essentially an adjunct to the first, and atmosphere was third.

This leads me to the crux of my review of Jory, the Allison Inn restaurant. On Tuesday, M and I drove to Portland. My friend told us to take a “bag full of cash,” but cost wasn’t going to determine our restaurant choice. We had looked at the menu and knew what to expect.

Sadly, the evening didn’t measure up – but it wasn’t the food that disappointed. When we arrived at the Inn, in driving rain and heavy traffic, we gave the car to the valet and presented ourselves to the maître d’hôtel. His welcome was cold and unsmiling. He seemed distracted, surprised to see us, and asked “Would you like to wait in the bar until your table is ready?” Really? Does ten minutes early mean you have to sit in the bar when the dining room is empty? We told him we preferred to be seated, and with reluctance he led us to our table in the totally empty dining room. Not long after we were seated another couple came in and the four of us sat alone in the room until just before 7pm. There is nothing less enjoyable than watching the wait staff fidget while you wait for your food in a large empty dining room. I wondered why my 6:30 request had been denied. If we had been seated at 6:30 our orders would have been in the kitchen queue before the 7pm arrivals. Were they understaffed and unable to handle a full dining room? Didn’t they realize an empty dining room always raises questions about a restaurant?

Despite the bad start, our servers were attentive and there were a couple of nice surprises including a mushroom amuse bouche with our drinks and sorbet between courses. Our waiter was knowledgeable, and when I asked about a local Pinot Noir his recommendation turned out to be just right for the octopus and chorizo pappardelle starter and later with the seared Pacific scallops with a pomegranate garnish. Marilynn’s Australian Wagyu striploin was cooked to a perfect medium rare but delivered to the table on the cool side. Not fatal but not up to her standard. The service was competent throughout and, all in all, the food part of our meal was good. Unfortunately, the overall experience was degraded by the 5:45 start, the empty dining room, and the imperious greeting by the maître’d. On the way back to our hotel we didn’t discuss the excellent food flavors. Instead, the conversation turned on how ridiculous and condescending the maître’d had been. Our special occasion dinner experience fell flat, and though we got away for $200 we would rather have spent more for a memorable birthday dinner.

The lesson is obvious; if your business depends on the customer experience, the staff needs training. You never know who that customer is going to be. The Jory didn’t know I was a freelance travel writer or that we had restaurant chops. My friend Wolfgang was 100% right; with three of the four factors on the right side of the ledger the experience was still disappointing. Even with special touches like the suite of chocolates on a Happy Birthday plate (below) we left the restaurant wishing it had been better. It’s a shame that Open Table and a condescending host can turn a special celebration into a disappointing occasion. It takes such little effort to do it right.

Laugh it Off…

I feel like the fabled frog in the fabled pot of hot water. I know it’s getting warm and there’s a danger my frogish ass will get cooked if I don’t get out of the pot… but where’s my lifeline?

Here’s my problem: The heat of impeachment is rising. Congressional committees are working through the night. Both parties are stewing in their juices. Temperatures are climbing, voices more strident. Articles of Impeachment have been drafted, and pundits are frothing at the mouth, and just this morning, Rudolph Giuliani returned to the White House to report on his latest escapades in Ukraine, and they’re all driving me crazy. 

Republicans are screaming about “process” while the House Dems are rushing to impeach without exhausting their legal remedies – something every first-year law student learns not to do. Good lawyers don’t litigate without all the evidence they need, and they need Bolton, Pompeo, Mulvaney, Kushner, and Giuliani under oath before they take it to the Senate. The old impeachment cake is half-baked without their court-ordered testimony and all the documents the White House has been holding back.

It’s painful to watch, so I’m working on an alternative survival strategy. Last week, I wrote about weaning myself from the daily news cycle. So far, those results have been marginal, but I’m on the right track. I’d rather be hiding out on a beach in Southeast Asia, but that’s not in the cards at the moment. Maybe later. Instead, I’m going with the strategy laid out by Norman Cousins in his groundbreaking 1964 book, Anatomy of an Illness.

Cousins was an American journalist and editor of the Saturday Review. In 1964, battling a life-threatening disease, he wrote a book that changed many lives, including his own. After conducting research on the biochemistry of human emotions, he developed the theory that laughter could be an effective tool in a patient’s recovery. The book was an enormous success and survival strategy for Cousins and others. Told by his doctors that he had one chance in 500 of recovery, he recovered and lived a full life, dying 26 years later at age 75.

Faced with 11 more months of breathless reporting on Trump’s lies, impotent protestations from impeachment-obsessed Democrats, righteously truth-denying Republicans, and the frenzied Fourth Estate, I’m planning to treat my own emotional health with a heavy dose of humor in the hope that I’ll be able to laugh my way to the 2020 Presidential election. 

My emotional recovery began with the documentary Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins. I confess my education was deficient until two years ago when M and I spent three weeks crossing the great state of Texas with Gar and Mollie Lasater, two long-time friends from Fort Worth. They introduced us to Ivins’ humor and to Lawrence Wright’s God Save Texas, a rollicking ride through the Lone Star state’s oil, cattle, and government history. We’ve been laughing hard ever since. 

Molly Ivins was a take no prisoners political humorist whose books include You Got to Dance with Them What Brung YouPolitics in the Clinton Years and ShrubThe Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush. One can only imagine what she would have done with Trump (see above). Unfortunately, she passed away in 2007 at the age of 62, but she left us with a treasure trove of political humor.

You’ve got to love a woman who names her dog Shit. She was definitely a Texas original, but from a strain of Texans with Eastern roots. Like our friends, Gar and Mollie, who are 3rd/4thgeneration Texans with legacies to Vassar and Princeton, Molly Ivins left the River Oaks neighborhood in Houston to attend Smith College, the Institute of Political Science in Paris, and earn a master’s degree from Columbia University’s School of Journalism. She paid her dues at the Minneapolis Tribune and New York Times before returning to Austin as a syndicated columnist for the Fort Worth Standard.

Her comments on Texas politics and politicians were classics, e.g. “If you took all the fools out of the Texas legislature it would not be a representative body anymore,” and “Every two years, one of the most hotly contested elections in Texas is the poll taken among members of the capitol press corps to determine who are actually the ten stupidest members of the Legislature. Two years ago, there were thirty-seven official nominees and several write-ins.” 

Molly’s gone now, but her equal-opportunity political observations remain as do her successors – Jon Stewart, Maureen Dowd, Bill Maher, SNL, and Stephen Colbert. I’ll continue to go back to Molly’s well, but there is plenty of fresh material and I plan to laugh until November of 2020 when the Trumpian circus folds its tent, pardons all its felons, and stuffs its pockets on the way out of town.

“I dearly love the state of Texas, but I consider that a harmless perversion on my part and discuss it only with consenting adults.”

Advice to Self…

Screen Time

Remember when “parental control” was a euphemism for discipline. We invoked it when we thought the kids were watching too much television. Now parental controls are built in to their devices. A much better idea – no nagging – way to manage their “screen time.” That’s great for parenting but we parents need to limit our own screen time. We’re are drowning in TMI, too much information. We need self-discipline to control the deluge.

John Lennon told us, “Christ, you know it ain’t easy.” And it isn’t. Look around. Watch people on the bus. Nobody’s talking. Everybody’s staring at their phones. They’re consumed. TMI. Look at all the morbidly obese people the next time you go to Starbucks. Too many Frappuccino’s. TMF. I probably shouldn’t wade in these waters, but too much political news is just as bad for your health as too many Frappuccino’s.  

Sometimes the effects are hard to grasp. I didn’t know how liberating it was to go without news until it wasn’t available. In 2011 M and I were living in Saigon where the only American TV we could get was American Idol, Glee, and Suzy Orman. No news is good news – no CNN, no MSNBC, no Fox News. It was liberating. 

That was in 2011 during the run-up to an earlier presidential election, and in that far off land without cable news our heads weren’t cluttered with polling data and other political detritus a year before the election date. Our days didn’t revolve around the daily squabbling between Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, Michelle Bachman, and Mitt Romney. Remember them? Romney is still a player, but the rest are part of a long forgotten sideshow. Today, there’s a new cast of characters jockeying for position on the Democratic side. I doubt we’ll remember their names 8 years from now.

Back in the USSR, I mean USA, as another election year rolls around the media blitz is in full swing again, and as curious as I am about the impeachment drama, the Democratic death spiral, and what should be the slam dunk burial of Donald J. Trump, I’m determined to exert my inner parental controls.

A basketball coach friend once told me, after winning his first three games, “Jack, it’s a long season.” The same holds true in politics. What I learned in 2011 is that the American elections last too long and cost too much. I don’t want or need to know Nate Silver’s daily rankings of the primary candidates. The election is a still a year away.

M and I take two newspapers, four magazines, have two TVs, two computers, two smartphones, two e-readers, and two radios plus Sirius XM in the car. The day starts with Morning Joe and coffee and ends with a glass of wine and Colbert’s LateShow monologue. I know Clint Watts and Nicolle Wallace, George Conway and Maggie Haberman as if they were old friends and cringe when Tucker Carlson or Sean Hannity– emissaries of an Evil Empire made of their own polyester hold forth. By the time I’m tucked in bed watching Colbert, I’m too exhausted to appreciate how brilliant he is.

Colbert Musing

Here’s my Advice to Self: 

  1. Get a life.
  2. Stop obsessing over Trump’s tax returns. Yes, he cheated.
  3. Tell Nancy Pelosi to cool her jets over impeachment. It’s a long season.
  4. Keep the faith. Big Macs may do the job for us.
  5. Limit screen time on Fox News and MSNBC.
  6. Go to the gym.
    1. Do Cross-Fit or MUV Training. You’ll be too tired to change channels.
  7. Binge watch The Crown or Chef’s Table
    1. Don’t cheat and look back at cable news.
  8. Plan Date Night with M. 
    1. Drink a martini…maybe two…on Date Night.
    2. Talk to the people at the next table. She does it anyway. 
    3. Don’t ask about their politics.
    4. Call Uber for a ride home.
  9. Plan a vacation. Foreign travel helps you reset.
  10. Go for a walk or get a dog. Both will get you outside.
  11. Go an independent bookstore. Buy a book.
  12. Sit down to drink your latte.
  13. Disregard… it’s an unlucky number.
  14. Spend more time with your kids and friends.

It’s hard for me to acknowledge Donald Trump’s feral genius, but he has us all wringing our hands and chasing our tails, and jabbering about him. I’m opting out. I don’t care whether he’s impeached or defeated at the polls. I want him gone one way or another. I hope it’s humiliating, but he’s so shameless it’s probably too much to hope for. Regardless, I’m going to get on with my life and hope the internal controls keep my media/screen time within bounds.

It’ll be hard to wean myself from Nicolle Wallace’s Deadline: White House, but truth be told I’d rather read an Alan Furst or David Ignatius novel anyway. I might catch Brian Williams’ 11thHour but hope it’s after an episode of The CrownChefs Table or The Kominsky Method

Lately, I’ve been watching Book TV.  It’s my guilty pleasure. Who else do you know who watches Nerd TV? I love it. It feeds the inner nerd who loves books and author talk – but please Lord save me from the Donald Trump Jr. Jackie Gingrich drivel. Some people’s children shouldn’t be allowed in print.

Bottom line:

Live your life as if CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News didn’t exist. You’ll feel better, sleep better, and live longer.

Movies, Marriage, and Metaphor…

Every year around Thanksgiving M and I anticipate the release of new films hoping for an Oscar nomination. This year is no exception. In the last two weeks we’ve seen three – Scorsese’s The Irishman with Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino, Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood with Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio, and Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story starring Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver.

I was prepared for gory violence in the first two, but nothing prepared me for the pain and emotional violence of Marriage Story. I knew it would a roller coaster. I had seen Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale (2005) nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar and Francis Ha, his 2012 film starring his muse Greta Gerwig. Still, the characters in Marriage Story broke my heart because they and their story were so mainstream and tragic in their normalcy.

M and I are hopefully beyond the tragedy of Nicole and Charlie, the characters played by Johansson and Driver, but we’ve been there with our own divorces and children. We often look at each other and say “marriage is hard” – a heartfelt expression of reality and irony.

There are so many uncomfortable but familiar scenes in the film. I was especially uncomfortable watching the posturing, caricatures of Los Angeles lawyers played scathingly by Laura Dern and Ray Liotta. Been there, done that… escaping their fate by virtue of having an alternative profession before I was in too deep.

The film chronicles a tug of war between two bright, talented artists and two distinct lifestyles symbolized in the film by New York and Los Angeles. Everyone engaged in their tug of war is a loser – especially their young son, Henry, who is loved to distraction by both but a victim and pawn in their private battle. 

Both Nicole and Charlie try to be reasonable when the rift between them begins to look inevitable, but different needs take them from wanting to work things out amiably to alienation and hurt feelings. Enter the lawyers–whose scorched earth tactics amplify the feelings of hurt and division but have nothing to do with fairness or the well-being of their clients. Soon, everyone is in tears except the lawyers.

There are many memorable scenes, but one near the end is especially poignant. Visiting a jazz club with friends, Charlie takes the open mike and sings a version of “Being Alive” the Stephen Sondheim song from Company. It’s done in close up, with the ending refrain “But alone/is alone/not alive.” I could hear people in the audience crying, and watching Charlie’s face felt like someone was rubbing sandpaper on an open wound.

It’s not much of a stretch to see Marriage Story as a metaphor for America today. Both Republicans and Democrats love the country and its promise, and both mean well. They want things to work out but disagree on how. They hope we’ll soon be able to patch things up and get back to business. But other forces, the lawyers (Republicans and Democrats in Congress and the White House) acting in their own self-interest are pulling them apart. Do we dare to be optimistic?

Donald Trump is a short sale. He’ll be gone before you know it, and when he’s gone the two sides will have to settle, divide the property, and get on with patching up the American marriage. Henry is collateral damage in the film, and our grandchildren are collateral damage in the American metaphor. 

Henry

Let’s not fail him

Murderers Pardoned…

Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher

You’re not alone if you missed this news last week. It was hiding on Page 15 of the New York Times and Page 4 of the Seattle Times – far less newsworthy than the frenzied presidential impeachment inquiry – but, standing alone, it deserved Page 1 treatment. Three American military officers charged with and/or convicted of murder by military courts were given full pardons by President Trump.

“Unprecedented” is a term often applied to this Commander-in-Chief’s actions and commuting the sentences of US servicemen convicted of war crimes by a jury of their military peers definitely meets that standard. This president, who never served in the military and is not a lawyer, feels he knows better than the courts. His justification for the pardons was “War is chaos” – suggesting a different standard should apply, even though the Uniform Code of Military Justice explicitly covers the situation.

When told the president was planning to take this action, Four-Star Army General Barry McCaffery (Ret.) wrote an Op-Ed in the Washington Post cautioning Trump that, “A pardon for military personnel who have been convicted of battlefield crimes or are pending general court-martial would be enormously damaging to the values of the US armed forces. He should not take this action.” Nevertheless, he did it.

In our era, with an all-volunteer military and 18 years of consecutive war in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, it’s sometimes difficult to tell the good guys from the bad guys, but murder can never be excused or pardoned. In theaters of war there are articulated rules of engagement that can be confusing, but murdering unarmed civilians is always a war crime.

These three pardons were given to:

  1. Major Matthew Golsteyn, a Special Forces Green Beret, was indicted for killing an unarmed civilian he “thought” was a bomb maker in Afghanistan. Mr. Trump’s pardon of Golsteyn, prior to his court-martial trial, denied the Green Beret an opportunity to clear himself. Most of the facts in his case are undisputed but a pardon before the trial is unheard of.
  • 1st Lieutenant Clint Lorance, on the other hand, was convicted by a military court of ordering his men to shoot three unarmed Afghan civilians approaching them on a motorcycle without determining their status. His order was questioned by his men but he insisted and his men shot them. Lorance had only been in Afghanistan for three days and was inexperienced in battle. When pardoned, he was serving a 19-year sentence at the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas.
  • Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher, a decorated Navy Seal, is the third and perhaps most egregious case for a pardon. He was tried for a string of war crimes, including murder, but convicted of the lesser charge of posing over a dead combatant with a hunting knife in his hand. One of the original charges was stabbing the deceased in the throat with that knife. 

Recently, there has been widespread conversation about “the rule of law.” These pardons are in violation of that principle. In our democracy each of the primary institutions has a discreet role. The three branches of government may, at any one moment, be controlled by either one of the two political parties, but the military is by its mission and charter explicitly not political. Its mission is the defense of all Americans regardless of party. I proudly served the country as a Marine Corps fighter pilot. My son, Douglas, served as a Green Beret in Afghanistan.

Doug at Work

Mr. Trump’s pardons have tarnished the military image and smeared the lines. Like his pardon of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the convicted racist sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, and Scooter Libby who outed covert CIA agent Valerie Plame, Trump has, by his pardons, sided with those engaging in the lawless disregard of America’s justice system(s). Military jurisprudence is a specialized branch of a justice system uniquely equipped to administer justice for a complicated and categorically different American institution. It’s meant to deliver justice and promote discipline and order.

Dear Mr. Trump: Neither the Joint Chiefs of Staff nor I welcome your ignorant meddling in either of the parallel legal systems delivering justice in America. You don’t know anything about them and leaving your fingerprints on them diminishes the respect they deserve. Your only military experience was as a cadet in high school. You have zero experience or understanding of how a functioning military or how our justice systems work. With all due respect, leave it to the professionals.

Epilogue: The saga of CPO Gallagher continued following publication of this blog. Despite criticism from military leaders including the Secretary of Defense and Secretary of the Navy, Mr. Trump overruled their decision to proceed with a review of Gallagher’s demotion and ordered him reinstated. The Secretary of the Navy was then fired by the Secretary of Defense for negotiating a side deal with the White House. Following his firing, he posted an Op-Ed in the Washington Post decrying the decision to reinstate Gallagher, pointing out the impact on discipline and order in the ranks.