The Story of Life as we Know It

We write the story of our life one thought, one daydream, one word at a time. I'm on my 50th draft of a story called "Barry" and it's very much a work in progress - red pens and Post-it notes everywhere. The older I get, the more I enjoy the revision process, asking "What if?" and "Why not?"

Monday, March 23, 2009

What makes you feel grateful?

Traipsing through narrow streets in Tangier last week, I was bombarded by toothless street vendors holding wooden camels and tin bracelets in my face, all with prices dropping faster than my stock portfolio. “No thanks,” I said, smiling and shaking my head, looking away at rooftops and stray cats. Then I saw him at the entrance to our restaurant – a young man blind in one eye, selling an accordion postcard with images of Morocco. My mind jumped to a scene in the film Slumdog Millionaire, the one where the young, blind beggar knows Ben Franklin’s mug is printed on a U.S. one-hundred dollar bill. “No thanks,” I repeated as I passed this boy and ducked inside to eat couscous and drink mint tea and watch belly dancers. He was still there when I came out, smiling, trying to sell his postcard. I gave him coins to equal the modest asking price, but though I didn’t take the postcard, I left with a permanent image fixed in my mind, one that makes me grateful for films like Slumdog Millionaire and blind boys with the courage to smile at strangers.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Fake Rock and Styrofoam Chimneys: Casualties of a Recession

I’ve been involved in real estate development for 25 years, climbing a perpetual mountain, selling the American dream. Of course, in the last 18-months, I discovered the mountain has a sheer side. Oops. Don’t go that way …

This market “correction” is painful, like sliding down a razor blade into a vinegar salt bath, like bungee jumping with a cord that’s 10-feet too long. All this pain will eventually lead to gain, right? But what have we learned? What will the stabilized housing market look like? What will new houses look like?

Personally, I hope homes become real again, authentic places where our chimneys stay intact in a strong wind and our stone doesn’t fade to gray as our hair does. A few years ago, I was involved in a project in Louisiana where we attempted to make affordable townhomes look like mansions. Isn’t that providing a service to the common homebuyer, making the house they really can’t afford look like a house they really can’t afford? Doesn’t everyone want to come home to Tara, and shouldn’t Tara have twin chimneys?

It looked good on paper, but I wasn’t buying the architect’s suggestion that we place Styrofoam cubes on the roofs, smear them with stucco, cap them with galvanized aluminum and call them chimneys. This is the coastal south, where we have hurricanes. I had to step out of the room, laughing so hard, visualizing chimneys impaled by limbs. “Honey, I thought we had a chimney …” I joked, impersonating a homeowner, “or did I just dream that?”

We caved to the “aesthetic and classical symmetry” the architect was selling and stuck twenty or so of these faux chimneys around the project. Then a little thing happened called Hurricane Katrina, and some of those chimneys morphed into packing peanuts.

When I start building houses again (and eventually I will), I hope my homes will be at least as strong and solid as the bank that holds the mortgage. Something tells me both will look very different.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

On the Menu for Ash Wednesday: Recession-proof Gumbo Salad Dressing

This year for Lent, rather than give something up, I’m going to do something new each day. Why not? We’re in a recession and I’ve already given up every indulgence. Isn’t this a good year to flip the abstinence thing upside down?

White tablecloth restaurants are suffering. Grocers report a sharp decline in the sale of seafood and steaks. I’m from the coastal south where, to stretch the food budget, we throw everything in a stockpot and call it “gumbo.” Don’t ask what’s in there. If you make a good, dark roux to begin with, everything works.

Couldn't “gumbo” philosophy work in other areas of life? Are there ingredients I love (friends, family, hobbies, books) that I've left out of the soup too long? I’ll spend the Lenten season exploring the back shelves of my life's pantry.

Enough philosophy. Here's a practical suggestion from a professional chef buddy: when you get to the bottom of condiments (mustard, mayonnaise, 1000 Island, whatever), add a ¼ cup of white vinegar to the container, put the top back and swish it around. Shake it hard, to get every last drop of what you paid good money for but can't reach with a knife, and then use this as a tangy dressing for a salad or sandwich. Even better, start a house dressing jar you keep in the refrigerator, combining various flavors. The only downside is you may reach salad dressing Nirvana, only to realize you don’t know how you got there.

Who says we can’t eat well in a recession? Or, live well, for that matter.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

War and Recession

You've heard the story that Mother Teresa refused to attend an anti-war rally. "Hold a peace rally," she said, "and I'll be there." So what can you do when the world declares "war" on recession and you can't escape the gloomy news?

Be creative. Yeah, yeah, I know. Everyone has told you to look for the silver lining, but the lining is frayed. So how can we have fun with this? Why don't we create a network of tweets with imaginative ways to stretch a budget?

Here's an example: eat your pantry/cupboard/refrigerator bare before you grocery shop again. Be honest. You have a can of something at the back of a shelf older than you want to admit. I recently heard of a friend who found a can in his kitchen of LeSeur Peas dated 1986. He had moved it to a new shelf in a new pantry in a new home five times.

Make it a game. Pair things in inventive ways. Share outrageous recipes. See how long it takes you to reach bare naked shelves. Anyone up for this challenge?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

First Impressions

The week I started my first job out of college, I spent an afternoon creating appliance ads for the Gas Company, crawling around on a vintage 1950's metal desk in a tiny office (labeled a storage closet on the "You Are Here" emergency escape map by the elevator).

This was before the rise of electronic publishing, so I used press type (letters you rub off with a stick), tracing paper and border tape. Of course, I didn't intend to stay an "Advertising Assistant" for long, so, like all the other up-and-coming-twenty-somethings, I wore a dark suit, starched dress shirt and tie to work. At the end of the day, I rolled my sleeves down, put on my coat and tucked paperwork in my leather briefcase (a graduation present), shut the door to my office and joined a crowd waiting for an elevator. Thinking I looked very junior-executive-like, I nodded and spoke to everyone. People looked at me funny.

With a dozen co-workers, I made the trek through the lobby, out onto the sidewalk, across the street and over a block to the parking garage where everyone from the Gas Company parked, still getting a cold shoulder. Oh well, I was young and green and perhaps unaware that junior-executives just didn't talk much in transit. I tossed my briefcase in the back and slid into the driver's seat. When I glanced in the rear view mirror, smack dab in the middle of my forehead was the capital letter "A" coming along for the ride, a stray piece of press type. No wonder I got such funny looks. I'd made the A-list, after just one week on the job.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

There's a New Town in Kid

Every few years growing up, my family moved to a new state. Caravans with Mayflower moving vans and backseat pillow fights were family traditions. My brother and I developed a routine for telling our room good-bye: we'd stand in the doorway, spit on our palms, rub them in the carpet and then jump backwards out of the room. Pretty ridiculous, I know, but somehow cathartic for two boys with such shallow roots. There were "friends" I would have liked to spit on and jump backwards over, too, but that was not allowed.

The painful move came during Jim's junior and my sophomore year in high school. We moved from Hollywood, Florida, a land of sunny beaches and Art Deco hotels, to Wilderness, Virginia, to attend Spotsylvania High School. Pulling off I-95 between Richmond and D.C. at Fredericksburg, we saw a red barn by a silo. "That's the nicest hotel in town," Dad said. It was a Sheraton ingeniously built to blend with the pastoral setting. I sank low in the backseat. There was not a stick of chrome or a sheet of glass in sight.

Northern Virginia was a beautiful place, steeped in history. As we drove through the Revolutionary village, the Eagles' hit song "New Kid in Town" came over the radio; it was our theme song. Jim and I made a pact to talk less about where we came from, more about where we'd landed. Living in transient places like Atlanta and Hollywood, we'd heard our share of sob stories from homesick kids. I quickly grew to love those rolling hills, old farmhouses and the dirt roads of Virginia, as much as any sandy beach or palm tree. I also learned not to judge a hotel by its silo.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Rhythm of Rest

Recently, I rediscovered the benefit of having a rhythm to rest. I tend to push rest down my priority list, behind random emergencies, work and family, community and church. Sometimes, I push it so far down, it falls off the list. Last weekend, I “got off the carousel” to go to the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia, with two friends from Independent Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama. We’re part of a Spiritual Formation Group searching for ways to help our congregation move beyond intellectual study and "experience" God.

We went to five services a day, starting at 4 a.m. (appropriately called "vigils") and ending with the "great silence" around 8 p.m. (none of my friends believe I'm capable of great silence except while eating). There was something meaningful and authentic about setting these specific times aside for God, something reminiscent of a bell chiming the hour or waves crashing against the shore.