Three days in Chicago

“I’m going to Chicago. I’ve never been there before…”

I sometimes overhear this phrase, and it flips a switch in me that unleashes a flood of nostalgia and engages my instinct to offer my unsolicited opinions to the prospective visitor in florid detail. Incidentally this is the very same instinct that has rendered me a writer and filmmaker and general producer of unsolicited content of all stripes, which is another story altogether.

But as a native of the region, Chicago’s downtown, that crosshatch of stone, steel and glass canyons on the shore of the magnificent inland sea known as Lake Michigan always sets my heart atwitter and my stomach to rumbling. Washington Irving once wrote that we are defined by the geography of our youth. For him it was the mighty Hudson River. But for me, it was that vast, featureless plain of prairie country and the human geography, the home of the skyscraper, that captured my imagination. I eventually moved west, seeking real mountains, and as stunning as I find the volcanoes of Oregon’s Cascade Range today, there’s still a piece of me that can’t help but marvel at the manmade mountains built so audaciously on the swamps at the edge of that greatest of the world’s sweetwater seas.

I’ve typed up a novelistic advisory email on how a prospective visitor should spend a few days in Chicago so many times that it seems more efficient to finally memorialize that information in a blog post. So here you have it, your thumbnail guide to a weekend in the Windy City. So enjoy your time in one of the greatest, food, sports and cultural cities on the planet, and my sweet home, Chicago.


Gino’s original deep dish.

Any visitor to Chicago is required to sample the signature dish. You may think of New York or Napoli when it comes to pizza, and that’s fine, but what Chicago produces is several styles of actual pizza, which is a different thing altogether. It’s closer to a religious experience than it is a meal. Below are the establishments where you can sample examples from each of the major classifications of Chicago pizza.

1) Deep Dish at Gino’s – Cheese on bottom, sauce on top. An entire layer of Italian sausage in the middle. Gino’s is the original of the “deep dish” style. Some people prefer Lou Malnati’s. Giordano’s is fine, but only if you’re in a pinch. If you only try one style of pizza on your visit, this is it.

Joe Aurelio is a holy figure for many in the south ‘burbs.

2) Aurelio’s – This style of pizza is driven by the soft crust and the sauce. It’s also smothered by a continuous layer of cheese…sheets of it, not shredded, baked until it’s golden brown and pitted with pools of pure cheese oil. This is my preferred variety. It’s known for its suburban locations, where it originated in the outer ring in the 1950s and is typical of the style now served all over in the suburbs. I believe it’s also the nation’s very first pizza chain. The Homewood location in the South ‘burbs is worth a pilgrimage by train for the true pizza aficionado, but there are locations downtown as well. 

3) Home Run Inn – This style features a flakey crust and lots of Italian sausage. This is a classic North Side style where the sauce plays a lesser role to the textures of the other ingredients. Its legacy is tied closely to the Cubs and the legendary ballpark of the formerly hapless team, though now recent champions.

4) Vito and Nick’s – This variety has an intense sauce and a very thin cracker crust cut into squares. It’s the polar opposite of the deep dish and very typical of the South Side style. Calvin Trillin, food writer of the New Yorker rated it best in the country, and indeed it hearkens back to the early days of American pizza. Old timers will find themselves reminiscing about pies shared with high school sweethearts, and it’s not just because of the Old Style on tap and the shag carpet on the walls. It’s like stepping back into the 1960s.

Other Food

Portillos –

Try the Italian beef combo (or just a regular Italian beef). This sandwich is a pure celebration of meat. Served with thin slices of marinated roast beef and giardiniera peppers and smothered in the spicy au jus, it’s what a humble “French dip” sandwich dreams of becoming when it grows up. Add some mozzarella and insert an entire butterflied, grilled Italian sausage for the “combo” experience and you’ll experience life as a true Pleistocene carnivore. The Maxwell Street Polish sausage harkens back to the flea market days of the near West side and features grilled onions. The Chicago style hot dog takes a humble Vienna sausage to its pinnacle by the addition of a poppyseed bun, sport peppers, hot mustard and a garden’s worth of vegetables.

Laschett’s –

Laschett’s is a hole-in-the-wall German restaurant. There used to be a million just like it, but they’re mostly gone. Lincoln Park was primarily German speaking until the 1970s. They had their own Chicago newspaper printed entirely in German (the publisher ran for Mayor in the 1800s but lost) and even the public schools taught the German language first. Now, most of the Germans have assimilated. There’s also a decent German deli a few blocks away called Gene’s plus a few German shops. Anyway, the food is solid and cheap and the whole place is typical of a bygone immigrant era that most tourists won’t ever see.

Things to See

Chicago’s architecture is one of the greatest, most audacious feats of human endeavor. Marvel at the Taj Mahal or Notre Dame Cathedral if you’d like, but nothing compares to the landscape that Lewis Sullivan, Daniel Burnham and Mies Van Der Rohe crafted out of stone and steel on a swamp at the edge of the great lake. “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s (and women’s) blood,” Burnham famously said, and if your breath isn’t stolen by a glimpse of the magnificent mile and the museum complex, this edifice of magnificent buildings at the edge of the great, blue expanse, then you lack the proper capacity for awe.

True, awful glass structures dominate today’s skyline (including the Trump monstrosity, complete with the asshole’s name gaudily slapped on the outside) but if you look between the seams you can find the real glory of Chicago’s grand history of classic sckyscrapers.

To take a tour of Chicago’s architectural heritage, just download the app featuring Geoffrey Baer of the local PBS station. Or pony up for an architectural river cruise to go in style.

And here are some other sights you shouldn’t miss –

  • Museum of Science and Industry (only building still remaining from the White City world’s fair) – on the South Side in Hyde Park.
  • The silver bean/Grant Park – Walking the lakefront and looping back through the museum campus park is pretty amazing.
  • Navy Pier – Kind of touristy, but the Ferris wheel is definitely worth it for the views.
  • Hancock Building – this is the coolest example of modern skyscrapers. None of this blah glassy garbage they build now…it’s graceful and elegant and special when you look up from below. Go to the 95th floor Signature Lounge for an overpriced drink or two, and you get the views without the hassle of the Sears Tower observation deck and it’ll wind up being cheaper. I like the views at night, seeing the grid of the city stretch out, and best of all the Sears Tower is in the view. And the best view is from the women’s restroom…or so I’m told.
  • Garfield Park Conservatory – Cool 18th century building. Indoor botanical garden. Nice place to spend indoor time if the weather sucks. Neighborhood is rough and tumble, but the Conservatory is an amazing building.
  • Museum of Contemporary Art – Right near Gino’s! Great museum and not too pricy.
  • The Chicago Water Taxi is a cheap way to cruise the river. At 10 bucks for an all-day pass you can plan some boat trips into your walking tour and get a river view of the buildings.

Of course there’s so much more to see. You could spend weeks exploring and not even begin to scratch the surface. But this will make for a great start to exploring the Windy City.

Oak Park

The suburb of Oak Park is right off the Green El line. It has an amazing cluster of Frank Lloyd Wright houses and buildings. You can do a walking tour of the neighborhood and see most of them. His home and studio is well worth the full tour. If you’re into literature, Hemingway’s home and birthplace is here, too.

Blues and Jazz

Kingston Mines in Lincoln Park is a classic. Kind of touristy, but they get all the best acts. Usually multiple bands every night.

Buddy Guy is a Chicago legend and his place has been a home for great blues for generations.

The Green Mill is a classic, seedy jazz club on the North Side.


Here are a few books you can read on the plane to get a little flavor of the city before you land.

Chicago  by Brian Doyle – A Portlander got it right in this nostalgic and magic recreation of his life on Chicago’s North Side in the 1970s.

Devil in the White City by Eric Larsen – Follows Daniel Burnham’s audacious quest to create a World’s Fair in Chicago that could outshine the legendary Paris exhibition, launching the new era of modernity, told in parallel with the story of that other modern creation, the serial murder. Fascinating, inspiring and horrifying all at once.

So Big by Edna Ferber – The author of such classics as Giant and Showboat offers glimpse into Chicago’s rural past. This book captures the city and its architecture right at the moment where it grew from a prairie town into a world-class city.

Native SonRichard Wright’s classic novel of race, poverty and crime is set in a divided Chicago of the 1930s, remaining as heartbreakingly real today as it was seventy-five years ago.

Watching ‘Saving Atlantis’ in the belly of the beast

Douglas County, Oregon has been scraped and burned and riddled with bullets. It green and lovely and economically struggling and scrappy and rich with rivers and forests and angry and hopeful. It’s timber country and salmon country and covered with old growth and clearcuts, a patchwork of contrasts.

We were invited to screen our documentary on coral reef decline, Saving Atlantis, in Roseburg, the county seat and metropolitan capitol (pop. 20,000) in this sprawling and wild county that stretches from the rugged Oregon coast in the west to the needle-like spire of Mt. Thielsen on the crest of the Cascade Range to the east. Part of the deal when you make a film is traveling to support it. It’s easy to get burned out and write off screenings in smaller towns. But every audience you can pull together is a step forward. It’s why you made the thing in the first place. And having a filmmaker present at each screening increases the impact and adds media opportunities, extends the reach. This is all especially vital with films about critical issues like Saving Atlantis.

I’ve done screenings and readings for my various film and book projects over the years and you never know what you’re going to get. It’s always awkward. I don’t like being the center of attention, which is strange because isn’t it the ego that drives us to create these things in the first place? I once did a reading in Napa for my novel Vintage and only one person showed up. The manager of the book store felt bad and invited me across the street for a bottle of wine. It was expensive and we split the cost. For our hometown screening of Saving Atlantis, a thousand people showed up. I figured Roseburg had to fall somewhere in between.

I decided to be the one to attend the Douglas County screening to represent the film. Co-director Justin Smith sometimes goes, or our co-producers Darryl Lai and Daniel Cespedes. Sometimes it’s our film’s subjects, Dr. Rebecca Vega Thurber or her PhD student Ryan McMinds. But I like small towns and rugged country so I volunteered to go to this time. Plus there are a number of trout streams down there that I hadn’t fished yet, so it would give me an excuse to set up camp next to the Little River and see what its waters had to offer.

We had been invited down by a fellow named Stuart, who called our office one afternoon on behalf of the Douglas County Global Warming Coalition. I had never heard of Stuart’s organization: indeed, I wouldn’t have suspected that it existed. Douglas County isn’t known as a hotbed of progressive grassroots organization. So this struck me as an opportunity. When Justin and I first started planning Saving Atlantis, our goal was to get a hypothetical farmer in landlocked Kansas to care about the plight of coral reefs, a threatened marine ecosystem thousands of miles away. We hoped that our imaginary farmer might even be willing to change his behavior to help them. Our strategy was to turn the focus to the ecosystem services that reefs provide to humans and show the plight of people and communities that depend on them. Douglas County, Oregon isn’t Kansas, but from a political standpoint it may as well be. So this would be a good test case.

Audience at Roseburg screening

I drove down and met Stuart, who turned out to be something of a character. With thick glasses, an unruly beard and a tee shirt that said something about UFOs, he seemed the idea eccentric figure to take on the cause of climate change in a notoriously conservative county. This is timber country. It’s the place where you expect to find jacked-up monster pickup trucks tweaked to burn more gas than necessary, the local youth spending their precious money specifically as a giant “fuck you” to environmentalists. A generation ago you would have seen lots of “Save a Logger, Eat a Spotted Owl” bumper stickers. Douglas County’s latest conservative effort was voting down funding for their local libraries in an act of self-destructive, anti-tax zealotry. It’s amazing how politicians can whip up a frenzy to get people to vote against their own self-interests and take on self-destructive acts, like depleting their local forest resources for the primary benefit largely of multinational companies, paying  way too much for gas and directly harming the fish that are a point of local pride or shuttering cultural institutions like their very town libraries. But this right-wing movement politics is gospel here. So I thought it might be a tough place to draw a crowd for a science documentary about the impacts of climate change on ecosystems on the far side of the globe.

The board of the coalition, lovely people who offered counterpoint to the assumptions I had about Douglas County, showing the citizenry is much more diverse in thought and belief than you expect. They offered to take me out to dinner with the group, which was made up mostly of retirees who’d worked as teachers at the high school or the local community college, plus former scientists from the local forest service offices. I was offered a ride (in a Prius, of course) to the local Thai restaurant. The food was excellent. It blows my mind how you can find good food almost anywhere these days, largely thanks to immigrants. Even in Douglas County.

One of the board members told me over dinner, “you’re in the belly of the beast, now,” a reference to the fact that Douglas County might just be ground zero for climate change denial. This despite the fact that the region’s totem species, the salmonids, have been on the decline for years. The waters in the local streams are getting to warm to support anadromous fish. Anadromous is a fancy way of saying these fish spend part of their lives in the ocean and then swim back up their home rivers rivers to spawn at different points of their lives. It’s one of the more epic journeys in nature. And it’s happening right in Roseburg’s back yard. In so many ways, what was happening to salmonids in Douglas County is analogous to corals.

With dinner out of the way, the Board threw open the doors to the auditorium which was at the local Extension office in an old church. They served cookies and lemonade. About thirty people showed for the screening. I’m not sure if the experience convinced any lumberjacks or timber cruisers to take action on behalf of climate change. But it felt good to show the film there. We had audiences of 300 and 1,000 in Corvallis and Portland, decidedly liberal towns. Preaching to the choir. I figured 30 people in Roseburg had to have a proportional reach in the community.

But I was also heartened by the basic fact that Douglas County even has a global warming coalition. They’re a ragtag collection, to be sure. But it makes me think of the motley group of rebels from Star Wars, the allegorical fable that defined my childhood. An old man, a stubborn kid, a smuggler, a Sasquatch two robots and a princess, and they took on the Evil Empire. And they even won, depending on the episode. The coalition members in Douglas County also have a grand vision. They want to help reverse climate change, a global problem. Locally, they’re working on protecting thousands of acres of local watersheds for the dwindling salmonids and all the other species that depend on them. The forests in this region contain the headwaters for the Deschutes, Klamath, Umpqua and Rogue, some of the most legendary trout and salmon rivers in the world. Like Obi-Wan Kenobi, this motley collection of rebels is our only hope. So hats off to ragtag groups of activists, misfits and rabble rousers like the Douglas County Global Warming Coalition. They’re on the front lines, fighting to win hearts and minds deep inside troubled territory. They exude a certain stubborn energy that we all need in times like these.

The next day I screened the film at Umpqua Community College in a 100-level science class, an event that had also been arranged by the coalition members. That was the first time I’d been on that campus, and when I arrived, I couldn’t help but think about the gun violence that took the lives of students and faculty in an English class there three years ago. Then while I was waiting for the students to show up for the start film, I made the mistake of checking news on my phone. Another shooting had just taken place at a Texas high school that very morning. I was suddenly demoralized. It struck me as an absurdity, given everything going on in the world today, to screen Saving Atlantis in front of one small group at a time and trying to build momentum around a movement to protect coral reefs seemed pointless. This community was struggling economically and also trying to recover from a horrible act of violence. They had other problems greater and more pressing than trying to understand and protect tropical reefs. What was I even doing there?

On top of all that, the projector and sound in the classroom was less than ideal. We’d mixed the film for large theaters, and here we were using available electronics. The film would project much less epic than it actually was. I was sure it would flop.

But the screening still seemed effective. The students watched film attentively and followed up with good questions. It was a science class for mostly non-science majors. One of the students wanted to be a journalist. Another, a marine biologist. Their thoughtful questions and their careful attention gave me hope as well. The future will be in their hands. Maybe one of those students would take up the cause, carry it forward.

After the community college screening I returned to my campsite heartened. I pulled out my tenkara rod and caught a half dozen little cutthroat trout that afternoon. There may be fewer salmonids than before. But for the time being they’re still running the Little River. When you hold a trout in your hand and release the hook, it’s a sort of magic feeling. The fish hold still at just the right moment, as if they know you’re about to set them free…a brief instant of trust. Their fate is in your hands, and they seem to understand this. A trout feels slippery and cold, but also vibrant and alive and thrumming with energy. Trout, like corals, will die if the water gets too warm. And the core issues that threatens both species, as well as our own, is exactly the same: our relentless consumption of fossil fuels, the pollution and nutrients we put in the water, development of land around their habitats and overfishing.

Scrappy little cutthroat trout

It’s probably not fair to call Douglas County, “the belly of the beast.” There’s a lot of talk about red and blue states and counties. But there are always people on both sides of every issue. And there are good people on all sides who value the right things. I still believe that reaching people with a story can bring folks together and make people care about the future of this world we’re leaving to our kids. You can only do what you can do, and for me that’s making films and showing them to people and then talking about them afterward. And maybe it’s selfish, but I win some hope for myself from people like the members of the Douglas County Global Warming Coalition and the students who are still doing their best at UCC even on the heels of tragedy. And it brings me a moment of serenity to discover that scrappy little cutthroat trout still hide in the cool pools and riffles on the warming rivers of Douglas County.

Losing Mesopotamia

The old saw is that modern art is as absurd as it is easy. It’s a “racket” as your bitter and often intoxicated Uncle Lloyd might say, if not a certain president. The system is rigged, it seems, if random bottles dangling from a string or a blank white canvas is considered fine art.

“I’ll paint me a circle like that and make a million dollars.”

Of course, embedded in that statement of ignorance is the larger absurdity, the notion that artists make millions of dollars. Some of them may, but most teach or work dull gigs for health insurance.

Such anti-intellectualism, to an extent, is instinctual. I’ll admit to being skeptical about modern art, which is probably why I don’t recall ever visiting a modern art museum before now. This despite having a fine arts degree myself, fashioning myself as a person who reads Thoreau and Joyce for pleasure, and being a filmmaker and aficionado of foreign cinema. Under the hood I’m only a hair less reactionary than old Uncle Lloyd.

On a recent trip to Chicago, though, I was granted my first modern art museum experience. We went there with the family. It was a the brain child of my daughter, whose primary ambition (at fourteen) wasn’t to revel in the mind and vision of artists striving to understand the meaning of being human in our age, but rather to take “artsy” photos for her Instagram and Snapchat accounts. And perhaps this is evidence that social media isn’t entirely rotten, despite the president’s, pornographers’, alt-right trolls’ and marketers’ efforts to make it so.

So we made a family trip downtown. Fortunately, Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art is an amazing place, something that was made evident as soon as we entered to find Maurizio Cattelan’s fanciful skeleton of a cat rendered in dinosaur proportions. I snapped a poorly composed photo that has the cat creature positioned to devour my niece Emma’s head.

I’ll spare you the play-by-play. But there were on exhibit some of the oft-ridiculed blank white canvases and also a collection of drinking glasses nailed to the wall, plus some bottles hanging from strings looking like some half-finished bird feeder project dangling in a tree behind Uncle Lloyd’s place. Too, there were Andy Warhol’s soup cans. Most of the pieces required the context provided by written descriptions on cards next to the works for me to be able to grasp the profundity of what I was seeing. But overall the impression I left with with was that of art that is current, alive, relevant and more vibrant than anything I’d viewed in a museum before.

As a writer, I’ve used the word ‘museum’ plenty of times as a metaphor for something dead, old and perhaps no longer relevant. Museum can pejoratively seen as warehouses for things, cultures and civilizations whose time has passed. But the MCA in Chicago was filled with works that shimmered, electric with the issues that are central to our time.

Most impactful for me was an exhibition called “Backstroke of the West” by Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz. Central to the exhibit was a series of recreations of Mesopotamian  artwork lost to looters of the Iraqi National Museum during the Iraq War. These recreations were fashioned out of food packaging materials, gaudy bits of paper and cardboard covered in Arabic script. Again the context cards were essential: each description contained a quote from a curator of the museum who witnessed the looting, things like, “I feel like my soul is being ripped away.”

I’ve heard the story of the looting of Baghdad’s historic treasures a number of times, but nothing I’ve experienced has made me actually feel what it might have been like for those involved. And this the key difference between information and art. As a video producer and a writer, I’ve written articles and shot interviews. But I’ve also dabbled in filmmaking and fiction writing. And I believe the true difference is in how the story is told. As a filmmaker, you try to make something that extracts an emotion from the viewer. It’s beyond facts. It’s more than well-crafted scenes and beautiful imagery.

And here is where Rakowitz’s exhibition hit home. He had used art as a vehicle that allows me to slip through time and experience a fraction of what the Iraqi curators must have felt at seeing their life’s work dismantled before their very eyes.

It was alive, suddenly, and happening before my eyes as well. Another part of the exhibit featured stone recreations of ancient books that had been lost in wars: some were Jewish texts burned by Nazis and others were German works destroyed by British firebombing. And what was most fascinating, perhaps, was that these stone replicas were fashioned out of rock quarried from where the Taliban destroyed sixth-century statues of the Buddha in 2001. The mind-bending beauty of that notion, of one lost culture memorialized out of the detritus of another, was breathtaking.

I learned that, like literature and film, great visual art is alive. A notion that was no less revelatory for me than it also is banal. I once again managed to wrangle the obvious into novelty, if only in my own mind. Contemporary art is a powerful conductor of emotion. It makes us relive history. It allows us to experience loss in a way we never imagined possible. And I was immediately able to connect this dramatic sense of cultural loss to another ongoing obliteration that we’re living through right now.


For many, museums are sacred. They house the things most valued by a culture. That’s certainly true for those Iraqi curators, who, despite living under the iron fist of a hideous despot and then surviving an onslaught and ham-fisted invasion by a reckless foreign empire, could look with pride upon their heritage and history as the most ancient of cradles of human civilization. The evidence had been alive for them right there, in their museum. It was what helped them to endure. And our culture facilitated its obliteration.

For me, my museum (as well as my church and refuge) has been the natural world, whether a remote alpine lake or a copse in a city park, I’ve always looked to the natural world for inspiration or comfort. And like the looted antiquities of Iraq, that natural heritage has been steadily pillaged throughout history. I’ve recently completed a film, Saving Atlantis, which I co-directed with Justin Smith, about the loss of the world’s coral reefs. We are losing these reefs as a careless byproduct of the human hunger for fossil fuels. Just as if you were to ask George W. Bush if he intended for his invasion to dismantle the cultural heritage assembled in Baghdad’s museum, he certainly would have denied it. He may have even expressed dismay. Cheney and Rumsfeld may have shrugged it off as an unfortunate byproduct of a necessary action. But I don’t think any GOP (or Democratic) supporter of the war would have sought that outcome.


And too, I don’t think there is a single GOP voter or politician who actually, deep in his (and less often her) heart, wants to destroy the world’s coral reefs. But through their thumb-in-the eye politics, where they simply define themselves as being against whatever cause those who lean left find pressing, they are pushing mightily to destroy what remains of these fragile ecosystems. Indeed, we are all culpable, by our carelessness. Our reckless use of carbon. Any solution requires us each to act. To do what we can. Travel less. Take the bike. Choose chicken over beef or leave the chicken out altogether. Pay the extra ten bucks a month for clean energy. Put up solar panels. &c, &c. But solutions mostly require the might of nations to move entire populations, and our nation and its current regime, not so different from the one that destroyed Baghdad’s museums, is the only one in the world to proudly wear the antagonistic cloak of denial.

And so, my museum. My church. The glaciers. The keystone predators. The bees and insects. They’re being dismantled. Willfully. Our environmental legacy, so hard-won after the enlightenment of Sand County Almanac, Silent Spring, The Sixth Extinction, the films of Jacques Cousteau and the revolution in thought that produced, as if almost by accident, the Endangered Species Act, first of its kind in the world, the National Park System, first of its kind in the world, the ideas that arose out of Thoreau and Muir and Man and Nature, American ideas championed largely by Republicans…and now look at where we are today.  The world’s greatest power has smashed the gates and now stands back as the vultures circle. Our Mesopotamia is being looted. And we mostly watch with a shrug.

So this is what I felt as I drifted through the Rakowitz exhibit. And that sickening feeling, that seed of despair that I carry with me everywhere, was identified through the art. The art made me look at it, understand it. Deal with it.

On its surface, contemporary art can still seem absurd. A controlled form of insanity. Bottles hanging from strings. Looted Mesopotamian artifacts reconstructed out of trash that make you think of the ongoing dismantling of the natural world. Does it make sense at any level?

To me it does. Now. After a lifetime of not really getting it. And I hope that it won’t take me another forty-seven years to revisit it.

Films premiering in 2018

When I am involved in the production of feature documentaries there is often a sense of disorientation as we begin to wrap things up. And in 2018, this confusion is heightened by the fact that I have two films scheduled for release. Questions arise in my mind. How did these things get started? How the hell did we manage to finish them? Will people like them? And then I start to wonder if these will be my last films. It’s a difficult, draining, expensive process. But then it’s also addictive. Not making films is probably not an option for me.

But now, finally, we’re standing in the precipice of the moment of truth, the first screening in a darkened theater, where these projects will finally be realized. We have secured premieres for 2018. Whatever happens next is a bonus as far as I’m concerned.

Cinematographer Justin Smith captures a coral wall in the Red SeaOne thing is for certain, amid this thicket of thorny questions: documentaries turn out well  because of collaboration and the efforts of a whole lot of people. It starts with the willingness and selflessness of the subjects themselves who open their stories up for the camera. And then there are the filmmaking partners, donors, technicians and the occasional words of encouragement from an army of people.

For Saving Atlantis, which starts with sneak previews in Portland, Oregon on February 15th, with additional previews in Corvallis and Newport on the 20th and 21st, it was a four-year journey driven largely by the energy of Justin Smith, my co-director on the project, who pushed us to learn underwater cinematography from scratch, not to mention a whole host of researchers who shared their work, lives and their passion to save vanishing reefs. Camera work and post-production by Darryl Lai and Daniel Cespedes have brought this project to new heights.240

Three Days of Glory will premiere at the Newport Beach Film Festival in Southern California in April. It was co-director Scott Wright’s deep love and knowledge of Burgundy that allowed us to explore and understand the region and its end-of-harvest festivals in a way, we believe, that hasn’t been done before. The magic and spirit of the region and the people we interviewed is what really brought this project to life.

So 2018 should be an interesting year. Right now it’s hard to say where these films will land. But I hope they will find their audiences, because they are both important stories about a changing world. Each of them, in their own ways, address issues of what type of society, culture and planet we want to leave our children.


The epicurean’s gift

As a product of the world’s greatest capitalist endeavor, that mythic and crumbling experiment we know as America, born in the consumptive shadow of a shopping mall, I come pre-programmed with my idea of what a gift should be. It’s a material good, packaged tidily, gaudily wrapped and placed under a tree. It’s not some home-fashioned artifact, a poem or a meal lovingly prepared, but instead something that is mass produced and hawked in a sophisticated advertising blitz that has been strategized with military precision and targeted specifically at the demographic I happen to inhabit. As we age, our notion of a gift might transform from the novel plaything into the gleaming luxury car with a giant bow parked on a snowy drive near some suburban castle. Or perhaps it’s the castle itself.

Lolo rolls out the barrel as he opens his cafe for lunch.

Whatever the case, the gift is stuff, made by others. And we don’t seek the gift out, but rather it finds us. We are told what to want. Brands win our affinity and then we ask for those brands, regurgitating them in lists to those whom we expect to buy things for us in the elaborate, suggestive mind trick that is marketing.

Those of us who give gifts are mere steps delivery logistics process, wedged between the UPS truck and the intended target. Thoreau said we are the tools of our tools, which is how someone in the Nineteenth Century would indicate our role in the business-to-consumer supply chain. This all goes to say that there is clear evidence that culturally we’ve ignored en masse Linus’s monologue about commercialism in the Charlie Brown Christmas special.

But there exists, in some places, cultures and times, examples of purity in the gifting process. There are those who adhere to ancient, hunter-gatherer roots, inhabiting that restless impulse of incipient humankind that drove us from the warmth and abundance of the savannas to the barren, frigid and rocky north. That restlessness to explore, that joy of discovery, that inherent drive to discover and then bring evidence of our curiosity back to those whom we love, the quest for something new, strange, an exotic flavor, a rare and precious item that piques our curiosity and senses, not some mass produced nonsense we’ve been programmed to desire: that restlessness still exists in in the hearts of a few.

And one such person is Lolo.

Traveling is a great way to remind us that where our own culture may have failed, others have manage to survive, thrive and adapt in the face of the global commercial onslaught. I’ve had the great fortune to spend time in Burgundy to work on a documentary about the plight of small wine producers there called Three Days of Glory. And during my travels, I met Lolo, who is the proprietor of La Dilettante, a cafe and wine bar haunted by local winemakers, epicureans and a few tourists in the know. It’s a cozy refuge from the gloriously overwrought, five-course lunches and seven-course dinners one tends to take when visiting that glorious province of Burgundy where so many marvelous restaurants are tucked into every corner of forgotten, stone-walled villages.

Entering Lolo’s cafe, you always have the feeling of coming home. It is cozy and unpretentious. He and his family are genuine and friendly, but not in any excessive, artificial way. He offers light plates of cheeses and charcuterie that he sources himself both from the local market and on long trips across France and Spain he spends searching for the perfect hams and the most sublime cheeses. When he sets a plate of cold cuts and a basket of the world’s most exquisite bread on your table you hear angels ringing their bells just like George Bailey’s daughter in It’s A Wonderful Life. If there is meat that is more candy than actual candy, then it is the stuff that Lolo shares with you in his cafe. I was introduced to Lolo’s cafe by Scott Wright of Caveau Selections, my partner on the film project and someone with a knack and passion for uncovering the real Burgundy and sharing it with others.

I recently had the chance to introduce my daughter to Lolo’s cafe. We had the opportunity to attend a sneak preview of our film at Les Ateliers du Cinéma in Beaune, a film school run by legendary French director Claude Lelouch. At my wife’s suggestion, I brought Bailey along as a sort of combined Christmas and Birthday present. Not a bad gift for a fourteen-year-old girl: a trip to France and bragging rights that come with a series of photos in front of the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame for Instagram and Snapchat. She’d seen me march off to France for this film project a number of times throughout the year. “I’m working,” I’d tell her, she didn’t believe it. In truth, making films is more of an avocation than a vocation, and thus the need for a day job with benefits. But the upshot is that she always asked to come along and I had demurred, telling her “next time” so often that it would have been criminal for me to return again without her.

One of the stops on the itinerary, which included shopping in Paris and a visit to the Dior exhibit at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, plus a series of iconic Instagrammable locations, was Lolo’s cafe in Beaune. I’d been telling Bailey for years in a poor philosophical translation of Thoreau’s notion of the supremacy of experiences over material goods. This was self-justification: a trip is a superior gift to a thing. An expensive meal and bottle of wine and the transient nature of it and the eventual memory of the flavors is, in my not so original philosophy, on a higher plane than, say, an expensive belt, purse of piece of technological nonsense that will be worth next to nil once the new version comes out. She’s been hearing this lecture since her toddlerdom: it’s the curse of being the only child of someone who reads enough to make him pretentious.


I was hoping that bringing Bailey to La Dilettante for a light meal would be a transcendent experience. We’d seen the sites and eaten crepes and she was developing a hankering for pizza and “McDo’s,” but I thought she needed at least one true epicurean experience. We’re taught to fear stinky French cheeses and scoff at lean, simple meals. Our culture has trained us to admire restaurants for their excessive portion sizes. Smothering items with cheese or bacon or both tends to still be the preferred culinary tactic even after our supposed American food revolution.

But that’s not what Lolo does. His menu is blissfully simple. Along with one of the more carefully crafted lists of wines by the glass, as well as a wall of personally selected bottled wines and beers, each served with an optional story about its provenance and discovery, Lolo’s selections include plates of cheese, charcuterie or a few stalks of wild asparagus. Perhaps it will be a few rows radishes, butter and salt. Everything is market-fresh. And his meats and cheeses are selected on his journeys along the back roads of France. He describes the joy he feels when he comes across a new ham or sausage and he imagines slicing it and providing it to his customers. He views his customers not like a target market or brand prospects; for him they are like his family. He comes from a family of restauranteurs. They refer to their customers as “guests,” implying an interpersonal connection, face-to-face relationships, not some disembodied consumer demographic. And when he finds a new menu item to share on his travels, it’s a thrilling experience for him. “You consume eighty percent of the pleasure when you buy and you think [of] the people [to whom] you will give.”

This gift of flavor, which Lolo has been providing to his customers since opening the cafe, was something I was hoping to present to Bailey, my American teenager steeped in the lore of or brand economy. Well, we all want people to love the same things that we love, but unfortunately that’s not always the case. And never is it more rarely the case than when the thing is loved by the father of a teenage girl. That formula makes the subject immediately dubious. The cherished thing is instantly suspect. We were in the middle of a blitz tour of France. Bailey was wanting McDo’s. She wanted stories of how French McDonald’s were different, better or inferior to our own domestic varieties. She wanted a relatable experience. Instead, she received two cutting boards of translucent slices of meat and suspiciously smelly cheese, and then a few tiny pickled cucumbers.

It took us nearly an hour (and three baskets of sublime bread) to work through the meal, and Bailey didn’t say much. I was worried as we listened to the chatter of voices, mostly French with a smattering of German tourists. I tried not to over-analyze her reactions. She sampled everything, going back for seconds and then thirds of the perfectly ripe example of the notoriously odiferous Epoisses cheese. We finished our meal. We left. Because the evening light was low and golden, I embarrassed her by making her pose extra long for a series of photos outside the windows.

I wondered for a long time if she had connected with that food. For me, cafes like Lolo’s, their authenticity, the sincerity of their owners, the quality and curation of the ingredients and wines the provide are profound, sublime. It’s hard to explain and convey, and the best way to communicate is to share it. I’d showed it to her. I hoped that she understood.

I wondered if she appreciated the range of flavors, the artisanal quality, the ripeness of the cheeses. I thought that she might perhaps be too young to understand. Maybe she was too much of a teenager. Maybe she’d only be able to appreciate it when she was older.

But, of course I was wrong.

I realized this some weeks later when we were reviewing photos with her mom. A lot had happened in between: the screening of the film, another visit to Paris before a jet-laggy flight back home to Oregon, the launch of her team’s ski season, Thanksgiving, her birthday. The memories of the trip were fast fading, artifacts, it seemed, from an earlier life. But when we came across the photo of the plate of charcuterie, Bailey exclaimed, emphatically, pointing at the table in La Dilettante in the photo: that’s the best ham in the world!

She got it. The joy that Lolo first experienced when discovering the ham in some out-of-the-way village in the Basque country as he imagined sharing it with his customers, sliced carefully and presented simply alongside bread and cheese on a board, became a flavor experienced and then recalled weeks later. A great meal, a simple taste is a conversation that starts on a farm, is transferred to Lolo as he drives around the countryside in his role as the chasseur des produits – the hunter of the products – and then passed along to us.

I wonder how long that memory will last. Maybe the experience won’t rank as highly on my daughter’s list of memories as it does on my own. But reading the enthusiasm in her voice, the rare moment of unguarded, unbridled glee as she recalled those flavors for her mom, is certainly evidence of the power inherent in a carefully chosen and presented gift.

You can’t quantify that experience. I’ve had good, lousy and excellent plates of charcuterie at restaurants all over the world, including France and my own home town. All those plates cost roughly the same. I’ve paid more for a plate of cold cuts that come straight from the package. Lolo can’t mark up the care and effort he puts into the curation of the products he sells at La Dilettante. But what he gets for all of that extra work is the feeling of discovery when he finds the perfect ingredient to put on the plate, imagining his guests’ pleasure and thus deriving his own. And we get a photograph, a memory, a story and maybe all three. And that’s not something global brands can manufacture no matter how hard they try.


At first I didn’t understand this summer’s rumble and buzz about the Great Solar Eclipse of 2017. And I must admit that my skepticism while camping across the route of totality in Eastern Oregon: it looked  like a desperate attempt for struggling communities to cash in an astrological phenomenon. Every gas station and convenience store stocked eclipse glasses, tee shirts, mugs and bumper stickers. Small quadrangles in city parks, fields and deserts were advertised at $200 per night.

For my part, I wasn’t so interested in the eclipse. I didn’t understand the fuss. So, the light goes out, I thought. And then it goes back on again. I’ve experienced any number of power outages over the years, and this, frankly, sounded less exhilarating than riding out a blackout during a low-pressure storm while playing Parcheesi in the cellar by lantern light, something I did any number of times growing up in Tornado Alley.

But news outlets predicted (and likely hoped for) all sorts of madness bordering on  armageddon. There were warnings of shortages of fuel and fresh groceries. We were advised to stock up on drinking water. We were cautioned not to drive and my employer, Oregon State University, shuttered the campus, giving it over to the expected hordes of eclipse tourists.

But I was unable to join the gawkers on the grassy campus quads because I was assigned to film another aspect of the phenomenon. A group of students were launching a weather balloon equipped with a camera and tracking equipment. It would climb to eighty thousand feet and capture dramatic images of the eclipse shadow making landfall. Then the students would track it via satellite signal and share the dramatic high-resolution images. My job was to record the process.

As a media producer for the university tasked with creating videos and documentary films, I have to admit that I’m lucky to receive any number of cool assignments. I’ve been to tropical reefs and European forests on assignment with camera on hand. I’ve interviewed crusty oystermen and brilliant scientists working on the defining issues of our time. So in the project lottery, I sometimes draw the lucky straw, and getting a chance to be among the first Americans to observe the eclipse seventy miles off of the Oregon Coast seemed, at first, to rank among the best of them. Perhaps my eclipse experience might actually measure up to all of the hype after all.

But then the details started to come in. Suddenly the assignment started to slip in the rankings.

First, we learned that there was to be cloud cover out at sea and that we likely wouldn’t even see the eclipse. What’s more, we might not even be able to launch the balloon at all, rendering the whole cruise for naught. Next, high seas were expected, meaning our thirty-hour ride would be on stomach-dropping swells. Finally, many of the students and guests had never been to sea before. Anyone who’s crossed the bar in Oregon can tell you how newbies tend to fare on their first trip to the high seas.

While science is often exhilarating and fascinating, it’s also often a tedious and challenging grind. This was shaping up to fall into the latter category.

Oh well. In the name of science I packed up my camera gear and headed to the coast three hours before departure to fight the expected eclipse traffic.

Only there was no traffic. A few cars were streaming away from the ocean to flee the expected clouds and fog, and I arrived with plenty of time to spare. I’d brought a novel and a lawn chair, something I always keep on hand for trips to the coast, and I relished having a couple hours to kill by the surf with my feet stuffed into the cold sand. But a short stroll out on the beach was like walking into a sandblaster. A north wind was ripping spray from the tops of the breakers rendering beach reading impossible even with the wool blanket I’d brought along, so I hunkered down in a coffee shop and took my emergency dose of seasickness medicine.

We left the eerie calm of the port dock at sunset. The diesel engines on the Pacific Storm—a refitted fishing trawler with an impressive resume indicating that it should be nearing retirement—chugged us toward the clouds that were racing impossibly fast out past the bar. I found myself wanting to utter some movie cliché: it’s quiet, too quiet.

Sure enough, the first great drop over the lip of an incoming swell caused widened eyes and nervous sidelong glances. There were twenty of us on board, mostly crammed into the ship’s small lab. There were five members of the crew, more than a dozen students, a faculty advisor and a pair of reporters.

The seas were strong enough that the crew decided to secure the hatches. If you’ve ever been bounced around on the ocean for an extended period of time, you know how stuffy it can get in a crowded ship when the doors and windows are sealed. Add to that a half dozen weak stomachs, the odor of diesel fumes and the always distressing smell of marine heads and you have a recipe for mass sickness.

But fortunately, most stomachs held. The students, with sober looks of concentration and greenish casts, set to work. They checked equipment and tested systems. They reviewed their respective roles. One student was in charge of helium to inflate the balloon. Another, the satellite tracking system. Yet another was in charge of sealing the camera for when it crashed back down to the sea.

I liked these students. Most of them were studying engineering at the local community college with designs on transferring to the big university. They were serious. Realists. Several were older than average. They had day jobs and financial concerns. Some were making course corrections after a false start in the wrong direction.

I have interviewed a lot of impressive students, and I’m always humbled by their accomplishments. But community college transfers are an especially gritty and determined lot.

After a dozen hours of motoring west and a night of fitful sleeping curled up under a table in the lab, finally adjusting to the rhythm of the lurching swells, we rose bleary eyed as the boat neared the launch point. The students made their way to their stations, and before long they’d assembled on deck ready to inflate the balloon and its equipment, which consisted of a two and a half gallon bucket filled with electronics.

There was a tense moment when the fog and cloud cover was too thick for launch. The team only had clearance to proceed if the sky was at least 50% clear. Dawson, the team’s lead, took charge and tried to call the authorities via satellite phone for special permission to launch, but all channels were busy, reserved for eclipse emergencies.

Bt then the clouds parted. Maybe it was divine will or fate but more likely luck.

The skipper drove the boat into the wind so that the upper decks would provide some shelter while the students inflated the balloon on the ship’s bouncing stern. And then once they were ready, he turned broadside to the wind and the balloon was tugged skyward, ripped from the hands of the students. They cheered. Months of their time and effort drifted into the soup of intermittent clouds.

Now we had only to wait until the the balloon ascended to the determined height. Once it rose high enough, or was aloft for a set amount of time, the system was programmed to drop the bucket of equipment which would descend back to sea via a parachute for retrieval. Ingenious, really. Why hadn’t I volunteered for things like this in college? It made me regret my extracurricular activities of either working in the cafeteria or rehearsing with my 80s metal band. I also wrote lots of bad poetry. But then I also did plenty of fly fishing and camping along the shores of Lakes Michigan and Superior, which I don’t regret, so it wasn’t a total loss.


Next came the eclipse. We watched through the veil of drifting clouds as the moon slipped in front of the sun. I wasn’t expecting much, and indeed the sight was underwhelming. A crescent began to form, much less impressive than a waxing or waning moon and a star-studded night sky.

But then totality happened. We pulled off our glasses as day turned to night. The corona was evident even through the patchy clouds. There was an eerie chill and a sudden stillness on the sea. The students cheered. There were oohs and ahhs, and it was wonderful, in this age of modern marvels and mind-bending technology, to be able to stare in wonder at so ancient a phenomenon. And to be out to sea to share the sight with this beleaguered and weary group of travelers, short on sleep and tired of bouncing across the swells yet suddenly thrilled by the passing of our moon in front of the sun. To be light and then dark and then light again became a thrill that is hard to describe, so I’ll stop trying.

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And now for the spoiler. The balloon…it didn’t reach its apex. And we weren’t able to retrieve it. The system suddenly began to descend. Students tracked its location via satellite, but once it lowered to three thousand feet they lost the signal. They valiantly used mathematic formulae to calculate its direction and speed of descent to try and discern its landing point, but after several hours of motoring along the path and scanning the sea they decided to call off the search and head to port, hoping that the system would wash ashore or a fishing boat might find it.

Experiments fail, and I think that’s a good thing. In some ways its better than when they succeed. You can insert any inspirational quote here about the path to success  being paved with failures. Clichés all but also true. I think of my first film and my first unpublished novel and I’m actually quite happy that more people didn’t see them. I learned a lot, but they weren’t ready for prime time. The students seemed to take the loss of the balloon in stride. It was clear they gave their best efforts, though the return trip was more somber than it might have otherwise been.

The sight of the eclipse, and the surge of the swells, reminded me of the raw, uncontrollable forces of nature. I’d been on that ship a number of times over the years and seen various successes and failures by both students and expert researchers who are in the top of their fields. No amount of expertise can control the raw power of the natural world. Failures remind us of that.

But I was also reminded of another experiment, one in which we are all participating. There are plenty of people who deny the climate is warming and changing and that the ocean is becoming more acidic. We are pumping a crazy amount of carbon into the atmosphere in our hunger for fossil fuels. And I doubt any of those in denial over the human causes of climate change and its threat to the future of this planet and the humans and other species that live on it have ever been on a research vessel or spoken directly with students or faculty who study these things.

That we’re pumping enormous quantities of C02 into the air and that it winds up in the ocean is undeniable. We’re heading into uncharted waters. It’s kind of like performing experimental surgery on ourselves. If we screw up the oceans and weather of this planet, nobody will escape the consequences.

I’ve seen first-hand the damage caused to coral reef habitats. I’ve seen retreating glaciers. I’ve seen the affects of changing ocean chemistry. It’s happening. The world knows it. And I think the Republicans even know it, deep in their hearts. But they’re more interested in sticking a big middle finger in the faces of their political opponents and the rest of the world than admitting that they’re wrong. For many people, delusional thinking is easier than contrition. There is no such thing as the principled denial of climate change.

As we returned to port after thirty hours at sea, I stumbled to my car without breaking news. I had no successful experiment to report on. I didn’t have headline-making images of the moon’s shadow racing toward the Oregon.

But I was impressed by the commitment of the team. None of them were paid to be there. They weren’t even receiving class credit. They were volunteers in a club. Their curiosity was boundless. If we are to have any hope for a successful solution to the climate crisis that is in full swing, and the threats this crisis is subjecting to our oceans’ health, then these kids will be the ones to come up with the answers.

When President Trump decided to be the lone holdout and pull our nation out of the Paris Agreements, I felt shame but not surprise. What do you expect from a guy like that? A party like that?

They called this the Great American Eclipse 2017, as if it is something we owned. But we don’t own the sun or the moon or the ocean. I was on a boat with the first Americans to see this phenomenon, bouncing on the waves, at the mercy of great forces. We don’t own any of it.

But we do have the power to break it. And to save it.

And being out on a research ship that morning, I can say I was with a few of the people on the side of the debate that has a shot at fixing it.

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Old books and ecosystem services

Losing libraries in America.

The Douglas County Library system in Roseburg, Oregon is shutting down. If you go to their home page today, you get the following message:

Welcome to the Douglas County Library System!
The LAST DAY to checkout materials will be Saturday, May 27th.
Final due date for all items will be Wednesday, May 31st.
Items not returned may be subject to collections.

A tax levy to sustain the libraries was voted down. The Randian culture of anti-tax fervor and its virulent contempt for anything that serves the public good has chalked up its latest victory.

A library closing for all time, leaving an entire community in a bookless vacuum, is a shattering thing to consider for bookish people like me. A stab at the heart of who we are. For what we understand a decent society to be. Making free books available, largely to kids and students and retirees on fixed incomes, is the very least we can do to provide for the common good. Supporting your local library is a no-brainer. But now libraries have become endangered ecosystems. The conditions of the world are changing and libraries are dying. My only hope is that they can evolve to survive in this new and more hostile climate.

Usually I go to the library to check out books for my daughter, who devours them. We like to buy books outright, but sometimes it’s hard for the pocketbook to keep up with the literary appetites of a thirteen year old. I try to imagine a world where that’s not possible, a dystopian hellscape where my kid finishes the second to last book of a series and I can’t dash down the road and breeze in and check out a free book five minutes before closing time on a Saturday afternoon so that she’s not stranded bookless for a rainy Sunday afternoon, left only with Mindcraft and Netflix for companionship instead of the magical, well-worn pulp of the last installment of a well loved children’s fantasy series.

I check out books for myself less frequently, but it still is a sort of magic when I do. I can’t believe such a glorious system exists in our often bleak world. The last time I checked out a book it was from my local university library. It’s easy to forget that books are the heart of the magic of these places, that libraries exist essentially as temples of the written word. The libraries that are surviving are having to evolve.

Like most modern libraries, it’s the work and study spaces that now take center stage here. Libraries have become community centers more than anything. This isn’t a bad thing, because it keeps them relevant. There are meeting rooms, computer banks and coffee shops. The largely vacant aisles of books seem to be an afterthought instead of the heart of the matter, some archaic and labyrinthine furniture that you weave through on your way to something else. The stacks of books, with their colorful spines remind me of swimming through the channels and aisles of a coral reef, with its rows and columns of randomly brilliant life arranged according to some mysterious plan. If this metaphor seems awkward, perhaps it’ll come clear when we get to the book in question.

As a writer and someone who loves books…the feel and smell and pattern of them when they’re stacked neatly in rows, the countless possibilities and dangerous secrets that can spill out of them…I’m worried that these habitats are endangered: the library, the bookshelf and the crumbling pulp of the books themselves. I worry that even in the great libraries of the world, even if those in more populous areas that manage to survive the callus indifference and neglect that killed off the Douglas County Library System, books will begin to disappear, giving way to computer labs and server farms, acres of smart classrooms, LCD screens and study carrels sporting power plugs and USB adapters.

But, for now at least, there’s still magic tucked away in those forgotten aisles, beyond the smell of dusty old paper and the textured landscape of spines.


The book I reserved that started this rumination was Darwin’s The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs. It’s his classic text on the subject. I’m doing research for a documentary film I’m working on about the heartrending destruction of coral reef habitats: half of them have disappeared over the past fifty years, mostly due to human indifference and greed, not unlike the factors that contribute to the destruction of Roseburg’s library. And of course, among the first victims in such a slow-rolling tragedy are the people who live closest to them.

I’m also doing research for a collection of novellas I’m writing that are all set in some of the reef-dependent communities I’ve visited around the world. Novellas seem to be an appropriate medium. I’ve been told by agents and others that this form is largely unpublishable and not worth pursuing. But I’m stubborn, so I’ll finish the project regardless. I’ve been reading my Jim Harrison and Katherine Ann Porter, both of whom did well by this obsolete format, and whose books still fill library shelves. For now. Still, it strikes me that novellas are basically a part of a vanishing landscape just like reefs. They’re artifacts from the dusty stacks. So this seems to me all the more reason to write in this form.

I’ve been so lucky to see some of the world’s reefs. I’ve seen vast stretches of corals, many of which are now gone. I wrangle with this knowledge…that our species can wipe out an ecosystem on the other side of the planet through our thirst for energy a half world away, that my simple act of plugging in a laptop at the university library will suck power that is generated by sending carbon into the skies, which in turns warms the ocean or sinks back in the sea to turn it more acidic. The slightest change in Ph, one degree difference in temperature can destroy the magical, resilient yet finicky corals, these tiny creatures that build the massive submerged cities we know as reefs. It’s kind of like how the simple act of filling in a circle on a ballot, or failing to, can destroy a pillar of a community like Roseburg.

As a writer, having had the privilege of seeing these landscapes that will soon disappear requires that I write about them. That’s what writers do, I suppose.

Back to Darwin’s book. Maybe because I’m lazy or because this is just how it’s done now, I reserved the book online rather than try to hunt it down in the stacks. More flickering electricity. More carbon in the atmosphere. Then a few hours later an email appeared telling me the book awaited me at the checkout desk.

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I went to the circulation desk, maybe a cellophaned and sterile reprint, but what I received was pure magic. It’s not so much a book as it is a work of art. An antique. An ancient treasure.

It’s a third edition, an 1897 print of Darwin’s book. The cover features a leather spine and edges around a marbled textured stock. There’s no image on the cover, but the pattern and colors evoke a topographical or aerial view of reefs. Indeed, this was printed long before flight or even the notion of space travel, yet it seems the perfect texture to conjure the concept of the massive reef systems, built by tiny polyps, structures that grow so large they can be seen from space.

The pages are yellowed and fragile. And perhaps the biggest surprise are the fold-out three-color prints that show the reef systems of the world as well as some of the specific atolls that Darwin describes in the book. These maps are delicate. Even the tape that someone applied sometime over the past century has mostly cracked and crumbled away. I applied some more tape in hopes of holding it all together long enough to survive my read and maybe a few more.

The embossed stamp on the title page reads, “Oregon Agricultural College,”  the name that our university held from 1890 to 1927, so it’s likely that this book has been in the library stacks for a good century or longer. It’s also a good reminder of the power of books…how a single printed volume can outlast the transient nature of the massive, multibillion-dollar, corporatized institution that our university has become.

It’s inspiring and humbling to read the work of these early naturalists. Darwin is at the same time tedious, meticulous and wide-eyed in reverence and wonder at the natural world. In the great scientific age before the narrow silos of expertise fractured the world of science into specialized fragments, writers like Darwin and Humboldt studied, categorized, wrote, painted, philosophized speculated and reveled in the unfathomable puzzle that is nature. In the book, Darwin carefully categorizes his every observation of a coral atoll.

What’s missing from the book, though, are people. Human beings. Our species. Darwin wasn’t concerned with people in relation to coral reefs. His mind roamed over his theory of subsidence, the wave-driven causes sedimentation and the selectivity of coral species. He explored the texture of the mud or clay in the floor of the coral lagoons. He measured depths and distances. But there’s a sterility in his work. And maybe that’s why I’m working on a film and now a collection that focuses on human side of coral reefs.

For tens of thousands of years, coral reefs have sustained our species. They provide “ecosystem services” to the human communities that live on or near them. They protect villages and cities along the shore from storm surges, providing a barrier that absorbs storm energy before it makes landfall. They attract and sustain vibrant fisheries, feeding hundreds of millions of us. They hide ancient chemical secrets that scientists are just now learning how to turn into medicines. The proverbial cure for cancer could lie somewhere in the microbial soup of a vanishing coral reef. And plus they’re just astonishingly beautiful. Corals are the original eye candy. They’re nature’s art. No digital screen, no photo, no video, no story and not even a beautiful book like the edition on Darwin’s Coral Reefs can do them true justice.

But we have to try. I’m scratching away at my novellas even though I’ve been assured that publishers won’t be interested. I’m working on a documentary film that may have more promising prospects of finding audiences and sharing them the miracle and tragedy of humankind’s interaction with these tropical ocean habitats. I’m not always sure why I’m compelled to do this. But there is a clue in this ancient volume of Darwin that I discovered with very little effort at our university library.

This book is a reminder that words and stories live on. The library is an ecosystem in its own right. It may be equally as threatened as an institution as the reefs are. This is a world where greed is good. Where sharing is frowned upon and the institutions that serve the public good are regarded with suspicion, especially by Republicans. It’s a world where healthcare is a privilege and poverty seen as a deserved sentence for moral failings. Where the humans who depend on reefs have no more rights in a global sense than those habitats on their doorsteps that are daily disappearing from our recklessness.

But libraries still persist. In a world where climate change is denied in order to pave way for maximized corporate profits and where half-penny library taxes are routinely voted down in forgotten counties around the nation, libraries still survive. You can still go to them and inexplicably read something for free while simultaneously sticking your thumb in Ayn Rand’s eye. The public good still persists in forgotten corners of the world just like those few remaining reefs that manage to survive the onslaught of human pressures. The only requirement to check out a book is that you are alive and you show up during library hours. And if you have an address you can even take as many books home as you can carry.

That this system even persists in today’s world is a hopeful sign. Libraries provide so many ecosystem services to our species. Built on the individual polyps of the books themselves, they’ve grown to provide digital resources, community spaces, galleries of art, classrooms and even just a warm place for homeless people to hang out for a while. They’re a symbol of the good things that societies can produce when they look past individual greed and narcissism.  The incomprehensible beauty of the system that landed Darwin’s book in my hands is, in itself, a sign of hope. As long as you can find this crumbling book in the stacks, then maybe coral reefs also still have a chance, too.


Words and Walls

The Berlin Wall serves as example and warning.

A number of years ago, when I was a boy visiting my grandmother in West Berlin, I escaped from the apartment. I loved my grandmother, but an eight-year-old can only stand so many hours of lace doilies and plumb cake. As I was exploring the cobbled streets of her quiet neighborhood, an elderly man stopped me to ask directions to a store. I answered that I didn’t know. He noted my accent.

“Where are you from?”

“America,” I said.

“What are you doing in Berlin?”

In my best pidgin German, I told him the story of how my father had served in the Air Force and married a German girl, and now I spent summers visiting my mother’s family in Berlin.

The man, in turn, told me how wonderful America was, how Americans are such great friends to Berliners. The conversation stirred in me a funny feeling of national pride over something I didn’t earn.

Read the whole post in Inside Higher Ed.

The Heroic Reef

Varadero Reef Colombia
Valeria Pizzaro explores the reef called Varadero near Cartagena, Colombia.

The corals of Varadero have endured five hundred years of human conflict, but they may not survive Colombia’s fragile peace.

It’s 2013, and Pizarro, a Colombian biologist specializing in marine coastal ecosystems, is diving at the mouth of Cartagena Bay, one of the most polluted in all of South America. It’s busy, crowded and filthy, one of the oldest seaports in the hemisphere. Its waters are turbulent from the constant traffic of massive freighters. Visible in satellite photos, the plume of the discharge from the Canal del Dique spills into the bay leaving a brownish smudge that fans out into the brilliant blue of the Caribbean. It’s the last place you’d expect to find corals.

Valeria Pizarro releases air from her vest and breathes from her scuba regulator as she sinks into water the color of pea soup. Though the sea floor lies only a few meters below, she can’t see it. Sediment and algae give the water a brownish-green hue. Through the murky gloom, she can’t even make out the shape of her dive fins. She is on the hunt for corals, but she knows these fickle creatures prefer pristine waters and optimum conditions; her hopes aren’t high.

[ Read the full article in Terra Magazine ]

Five books that helped me survive 2016

(Image: 1856 lithograph by Edward Hildebrandt depicting Alexander von Humboldt in his study.)

The best five books I read this year? A tough choice in what’s been, globally and personally, a very challenging year. If there’s any redemption at all in a year where we lost David Bowie and Jim Harrison, where Europe lost Britain and trucks driven by nihilistic zealots shattered lives in Nice and Berlin, Syrians continued to be relentlessly pummeled, and in our own country a tawdry and dangerously ignorant television celebrity who eschews reading somehow beat a smart, capable woman even after losing to her by three million votes, it lies in the fact that there are still books to read. As long as there’s a spine on something to crack open there’s a reason to muddle forward.

It’s been the hottest year on record, and I saw first-hand evidence of the devastation that a changing climate is wrecking on the world’s most storied vineyards. I visited several coral reefs on the brink of total destruction. Despite all of it, I still believe that stories give us hope. And these are a few that provided the solace, insight or righteous fury needed to brace for whatever 2017 holds.

I could probably list twenty or more, but for the sake of brevity I’ll give myself a limit. These are the ones that stuck, that changed the way I think, that left me floored, angry, repentant, inspired, devastated…or all of the above.

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, Andrea Wulf

I can’t think of a historical work that’s opened my eyes more than Andrea Wulf’s biography of Humboldt, probably since Roger Kennedy’s Hidden Cities: The Discovery and Loss of Ancient North American Civilization. Both books are rollicking tales of Enlightenment thinkers and their pursuits of knowledge history, both natural and human, and the spawning of ideas that have changed the way we think about the world. But they’re also stories of loss. In Hidden Cities, it was the knowledge of North America’s ancient history that was lost and then paved over by progress and racism. But in The Invention of Nature, it was Humboldt’s life and work itself that was lost, overtaken by the works of Darwin and Muir and other thinkers whom he inspired. Humboldt is brought to life as a vibrant, often vain, always curious and restless intellectual who captivated audiences, worked incessantly and inspired the next generation of naturalists. He described the impacts of climate change at the beginning of the nineteenth century and warned about the impacts of slavery and colonialism and unchecked global development. If only we’d listened.

Still, if Humboldt inspired the golden age of science and sewed the seeds  what would become a global environmental movement, his life’s work is clear evidence of the power of literature. Maybe 2017 will bring us a new Humboldt to help light the way for science.

Dead Man’s Float, Jim Harrison

I’ve been slowly reading this book since the time of Jim Harrison’s passing, relishing each poem.  I’ve looked to Harrison a lot over the years, and drawn inspiration from his life and work. You can only read something for the first time once, so this last volume from Harrison, made especially poignant in its themes of bodily decline given the knowledge of his recent death, is something of a labor of love on my part. As always, Harrison finds solace, if not hope, in the natural world. But it’s also heartening to see that while his body may have been betraying him, his spirit remained larger than life, his last book of verse showing that he was in top form as one of the greatest writers and poets of his generation right up to his final moments.

Half a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi 

It’s War and Peace in Nigeria. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi is one of the best writers around, and she demonstrates her virtuosity in this book. This is a sweeping, multithreaded story, and she pairs this grandeur with her ability to write sentences so sublime that they make you smile, even as your heart rends as you watch the world collapse around her characters. Gosh, it’s good.

And if there’s any hope in this heartbreaking story of human folly, it lies in the fact that she captures the dynamism and vibrance of the continent with the world’s youngest population. If some of the idealism that fueled the ill-fated Nigerian revolution can be channeled in the right direction, perhaps Africa, with its rich history and boundless human and natural resources, can begin to lead the world in a better direction in 2017.

Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta, Richard Grant

A white British journalist buys a crumbling plantation house in the poorest county in Mississippi on a whim, and he soon finds himself delving into the roots of the deep divides between black and white, middle class and dirt poor. It’s a picaresque series of nonfiction vignettes that starts off reading like a Sherwood Anderson novel of small town life, but it plunges into a deep exploration of the racial divide in the Mississippi Delta, and by extension our entire country, seen through the eyes of an outsider.

Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates

A father’s letter to his heartbroken son, trying to explain the overwhelming injustice that serially acquits killers of young black men in our society, and by extension, the ongoing assault on black bodies by the state, society and culture. Coates’s exploration largely traces his own autobiography. It’s bittersweet, heartfelt, bleak, hopeful, enraging and thought-provoking. All in 150 pages. Oh, and plus the National Book Award.

In post-fact America, stories still win

(Photo: the retreat of the Eliot Glaicer on Oregon’s Mount Hood)

“What’s the bravest thing you ever did? He spat in the road a bloody phlegm. Getting up this morning, he said.”

– Cormac McCarthy, The Road

You may wonder why I’d begin a blog post about communications in higher education with a quote from the apocalyptical novels of Cormac McCarthy. I’ll give you a couple reasons. First, I’m an English major. And second, it’s starting to feel like the end times are upon us. On November 9, many of us awoke to the feeling that we are now all living in a Cormac McCarthy novel.

Some have dubbed this post-fact America. A place where polls failed to predict outcomes and facts and data failed to sway huge swaths of voters. We’ve seen a deluge of fake news. A representative of the incoming administration recently claimed that, “there’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.” The distressing thing about this statement, beyond the awkward use of commas, is that we in higher education hang our hats on facts. Universities are all about peer-reviewed science, academic rigor and a piece of paper that is a bulletproof assertion that a student has mastered the basics of her discipline.

Read the full post in Inside Higher Ed…

Back to Burgundy – Three Days of Glory

(Photo: filming a vineyard on the edge of the village of Volnay, Bourgogne)

I’ve been partnering with Burgundy expert Scott Wright on a new documentary about the greatest wine celebration on Earth, Les Trois Glorieuses, or the Three Days of Glory. It’s a series of events that take place after harvest each November. I wrote about this event in my novel Vintage, tackling it in fiction largely because I never thought I’d get the chance to go.

But here I am planning to shoot the event. I’ll be behind the camera and probably won’t be sampling most of the amazing wines that get uncorked for this celebration. How it works is that the winemakers who attend the events bring bottles from their cellars…amazing stuff made by their ancestors and that you wouldn’t be able to find anywhere this side of a Sotheby’s auction block.

We’re raising funds now for the campaign. Independent film isn’t cheap or easy, but it’s always an adventure. We’ve already interviewed a number of winemakers and experts, and a fascinating story is unfolding due to this year’s challenging weather.

Here’s a look at the trailer:

A visual storyteller’s guide to active consumption

I once was the sort of luddite who believed television killed creativity. I agreed with Edward Abbey when he famously called tee vee the “great American lobotomy machine.” When I was studying in hopes of being the next Great American Writer, I believed in the supremacy of the written word. It was a simple equation: reading = good, TV = bad.

So it’s not without some irony that I now find myself an independent filmmaker and media production professional. How can I condemn television (and its online video analog) when I actually make the stuff? Ah, the hypocrisy. And what’s more, we’re in the Golden Age of Television, right? With unlimited choices, channels and outlets from large-production epic series to micro-budget indie films, there’s more amazing content on the flickering rectangle than at any point in history. And it’s only getting better.

“It’s more important than ever for creatives to handle their consumption with care.”

But for filmmakers, media producers and visual creatives, there’s a downside to this wealth of inspirational content. As creative professionals, we walk a fine line between being either producer or consumer. And it’s easier than ever to drown in the passive side of that equation. So while it’s certainly overkill to demonize video, film and broadcast content no matter the screen size as a creativity killer, it’s more important than ever for creatives to handle their consumption with care.

Here area  few tips for remaining in balance:

Consume with a purpose. Don’t just watch television, YouTube, Netflix, Vimeo or what have you. You should approach the consumption of video and film content with at least as much ceremony as it takes to wander over to your local multiplex. That’s why theatrical screenings always feel more special: you physically remove yourself to a new and strange location in order to immerse yourself in the experience. You think about it on the way home.

Turn your consumption by a more powerful experience by analyzing what you watch. Become the student again. Deconstruct what you see. Think about how you can apply the techniques to your own work. Take time to reflect after watching something instead of just launching into the next video. Take a break, a walk, cook a gourmet meal or work out, and use that time to reflect and make your media consumption more active and analytical.

Veg out carefully. Hey, we all need to decompress. A few idle hours of channel surfing or binge watching never hurt anyone, right? And plus, isn’t it all research? Won’t watching hours of screen content make you a better filmmaker?

Well, actually, if you do it every day, it will leave little time for your filmmaking endeavors. Most of us have full-time jobs, and magic rarely happens between 9 and 5. You need every hour you can squeeze away from work or your family, and sitting in passively in front of some screen, when you should be making spreadsheets, writing a scene, cleaning your camera or what have you, will do little to help you launch your next project. So schedule a few hours each week to blow off some steam and shut down  your brain. Better yet, schedule that time with your spouse, partner or kids and watch it together. Talk about it afterward and turn it into a more active experience. Then when it’s over, get back to work on the production side of the equation.

Read, read, read, read, read. Or so says Werner Herzog. And it’s not just because he’s a bombastic auteur with a cool accent who quotes Virgil. He’s got a point. Reading is so much more active than watching television. When you’re reading, you’re doing work to create scenes in your mind. You’re dressing sets and blocking the characters in your brain. You’re making a thousand decisions on every page, filling in the blanks left by the writer, deciding on color palettes, hearing voices, deciding whether to speed up, slow down, reread or just lay the book down for a moment to revel in the funny way the words make your brain feel. And the whole time you are visualizing, which is probably the most important skill for a director.

Visualization is the ability to see the scene in your mind before you move the talent and crew on any set, or as you’re covering a scene for a documentary. You need to be able to visualize quickly, on the fly. And there’s absolutely no better preparation than reading.

Write, write, write, write, write. Filmmaking is storytelling. It’s narrative. It’s creating scenes and manipulating emotion. The same goes for writing.

Keep a journal. Write notes about the videos, films, books and media you consume and continue your analysis on the page. Write reviews. Sketch out sets and hack out scenes. List the ideas and techniques you plan to steal. Write plays, essays, short fiction, poems, whatever captures your interest.

Making films is as much or more about writing as it is about cameras. You start by writing pitches, fundraising letters, grant applications and end up writing emails to sales agents and distributors. You write scripts, treatments, scenes, synopses, outlines, call sheets, website copy, storyboard captions and interview questions. You use the techniques of narrative to develop and refine film structure.

Framing a beautiful shot is invaluable. Knowing your camera inside and out is fantastic. Being a decent person that plays well with others is also helpful if you want to successfully complete any project. But writing is the one indispensable skill that can bring a film to fruition.

“Film is the great literature of our time.”

I’ve come believe that film, and now some of the exquisite serial storytelling that’s happening on smaller screens, is the great literature of our time. That’s a tough thing to admit for someone who grew up loving Hemingway and Dostoyevski more than Scorsese and Coppola. But it’s just a fact that everyone watches and loves movies. Some people scorn sitcoms. Some don’t read novels. But around the water cooler you can always count on “seen any good movies lately” to prompt a passionate conversation.

But to be a great visual storyteller, you need to be a well-rounded creative professional. And you can’t get there merely through the passive consumption of other filmmakers’ and media producers’ work. With the floodgates of content open and the Binge Era in full swing, it’s easier than ever to slip into the passive side of the consumer vs producer equation, and for creatives, that’s a dangerous place to be.

So make it a point to consume with a purpose. Read and write often. Take the occasional break to revel in the medium about which we’re all so passionate. And then get back to work.

Plunder on the Spanish Main

I’m getting ready to leave Caratagena, Colombia. I’ve been here with Darryl Lai on a shoot for the film Saving Atlantis, a documentary about the decline of the world’s reefs. It’s our first trip to Latin America. Here, like everywhere else, the loss of reefs impacts the local people first.

coral head in Varadero

We’re following the story of Varadero, a newly discovered coral reef at the mouth of Cartagena Bay. As the drainage of for a city of a million inhabitants it’s needless to say that the bay’s water quality is not so great. Still, this reef thrives. But its future is uncertain. There are plans to build a new shipping channel through the middle of it.

Some scientists from Colombia, Australia and the United States are scrambling to study and document this reef. Part of their team formed by members of the local fishing community of Bocachica, which, like 500 million other people in villages around the world, relies on the surrounding reefs as their primary source of protein.

Two fishermen in canoes

The scientists working on the reef team up with local fishermen and boat captains to cover the reef, sampling and studying its extent and assessing the environmental impacts of a new channel. The consequences would be dire.

As part of their work, they connect with the local Afro-Caribbean islanders who’ve been living here for centuries, surviving off of their close relationship with the sea. While we were with the team, the researchers gave an impromptu class to local school children about coral biology. The kids know this ecosystem as well as anyone, having grown up swimming, diving and fishing the reefs. Scientist Alberto Rodriguez said that he learned as much from them as they did from him.

Alberto Rodriguez teaches a class to island students

Santa Cruz del Islote is a tiny fishing village two hours by boat from Cartagena that covers every square inch of the island on which it’s perched. The houses stand shoulder-to-shoulder, and the only open space is a tiny plaza in front of the church and school about a quarter of the size of a soccer pitch. Their backyard is the spectacular water that surrounds the island. But the area’s coral reefs are disappearing. Sediment from a new channel in Cartagena could impact all the reefs on this archipelago.

Santa Cruz del Islote

Now it’s time to head back to the studio to edit our footage and assemble images and stories. We’ll want to spread the word about this place, where so many people, like the corals, are clinging to the edges of survival. The scientists, the islanders and, one hopes, others around the world who learn this story will watch closely in the coming months for what happens to the reefs of Varadero.

Corals on the San Bernardo archipelago

As always, when researching a story like this, I feel like I’m leaving with a chest full of stolen treasure. The stories and images are priceless, at least to me. And if we can connect them in such a way that they bring some awareness and understanding to the issues at play here, and around the entire planet where reefs are declining dramatically due the carelessness and nearsightedness of our economy and politicians and businesses that drive it, as well as that of our own fickle habits, then maybe Varadero can survive to become a treasure that we all can share.

What to read this summer: recommendations from writers who teach

There are few things I can think of more pleasurable than bending back the cover of a new book. Doing it somewhere lovely, preferably with sand and water added to the mix and rendering it inconvenient to check email on a smart phone, tends to heighten the experience. We all need a day or two each year where the primary objective is turning pages.

The summer reading list might be a trope, a marketing scheme or a reason to write listicles, but it’s one cliche I embrace. Being someone who deals in stories for a living both on screen and the page, I also consider it a professional responsibility. “Read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read…if you don’t read, you will never be a filmmaker,” is Werner Herzog’s famous advice to aspiring cinema auteurs, and this applies equally to anyone interested in writing or telling stories in any form.

So in that spirit I decided to ask a pair of writers, friends who are also writing teachers beloved by their students, what their summer reading list looks like looks like. Here’s what they had to say:

Patricia Ann McNair


Patricia Ann McNair’s debut collection of stories, The Temple of Air, is filled with Midwestern grit reminiscent of vintage and contemporary classics like American Salvage and Winesburg, Ohio. The stories are at turns haunting, beautiful, dark and funny and bittersweet. It’s a book that would certainly add a dash of Heartland gothic to any summer reading list. Patty teaches writing at Columbia College, Chicago, and keeps her finger squarely on the pulse of work that feeds the imagination of incipient writers. Here are her thoughts on summer reading:

What’s on your “to read” list this summer?

  1. Horsefever, a fast-paced and beautifully written literary mystery by Lee Hope.
  2. The Telling, by Zoe Zolbrod, a memoir of family secrets and their effects.
  3. Excavation, by Wendy C. Ortiz, a memoir about a teenage girl’s complicated and inappropriate relationship with her teacher. (I have been drawn to memoir lately, the voice of the narrator, what gets told and what doesn’t, the way memory shines and fades)
  4. Miles Between Me, a collection of essays about family, home, and so many other things by Toni Nealie, a Chicago writer who is from New Zealand originally.
  5. The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway. I am reading this because I haven’t yet (I know, I know) and because I hope to be traveling to Paris this winter and haunting Hemingway’s haunts.
  6. Hey, Liberal, by Shawn Shiflett (out in September, that’s still summer, right?) A story about a boy who is among the only white students in a mostly black high school in Chicago during the turbulent late 60s.
  7. Whatever else I fall in love with on the shelves of my local bookstore!

Do you change up your reading habits for the summer, or do you stick to a regular routine all year round? If you do change, how?

I definitely read differently in the summer than I do during the rest of the year, but not so much in my choices as in my process. Since I teach and have much of the summer off, I can spend whole days reading (jealous?) and I often do. I also have time to read for the sheer joy of it in a way I might not while I am teaching and reading so much student work and re-reading texts, digging and trying to understand what the writers (student and published) are doing.

During the summer I am usually working on a writing project of my own, and so I look for books that I can learn from, even if I am not actively analyzing them as I might while I am teaching.

What novel would you recommend as the “ultimate beach read?

Besides David Baker’s Vintage? (A really perfect beach read with its misguided but funny hero, its mystery and twisting plot!) I think this summer I would vote for Chris Rice’s Swarm Theory (novel in stories) as the “ultimate beach read.” It is not a sunny book, but the writing is lovely, the characters are beautiful in their flawed ways. It is set in a fictional small town near Flint, Michigan, so it seems topical, too, right now. It puts me in mind of the work of Bonnie Jo Campbell and other fearless women writers.

You’re a writer who teaches, so in that regard, if you were to prepare a summer reading list for an aspiring writer, what books would make the cut?

I am going to assume my aspiring writers are relatively mature ones, all right? To challenge them, I would suggest Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf, and Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby. These books are very different in content, but to my mind, they are much alike in their musicality, their rhythms and the sound and beauty of their words, their sentences. Side-by-side I think they are really interesting.

Short story writers should read Interpreter of Maladies by Jhump Lahiri, The Best Short Stories of the Modern Age (anthology), Mothers Tell Your Daughters by Bonnie Jo Campbell, everything by Flannery O’Connor, Flashes of War by Katey Schultz. This selection holds a wide array of forms, of styles, of voices, of narrative content, of promises and payoffs. So much to learn from here. The Art of the Essay, edited by Philip Lopate. Gatsby. Everyone must read Gatsby. Just because.

This is a very abbreviated list, but if an aspiring writer were to read just these in a summer, she would see a great deal of what is possible when putting pen to page.

Daren Dean


Daren Dean’s debut novel Far Beyond the Pale is a headlong journey into youth and a mythic Missouri landscape. Following the misadventures of the child protagonist Honeyboy and his beautiful and tragic Mama along the bottom rungs of economic ladder. It’s one part Faulkner and one part Huck Finn with a dash of Larry Brown added to the mix. Daren also teaches writing workshops at Louisiana State University.

Here are Daren’s thoughts on summer reading:

What’s on your “to read” list this summer?

 My reading list is a real hodgepodge but I don’t have rules about this sort of thing. I’m even including a few books that haven’t come out yet and some I’ve already read: Zero K by Don DeLillo, A Tree Born Crooked by Steph Post; Bull Mountain by Brian Panowich; The Heavenly Table by Donald Ray Pollock; Blood, Bone, and Marrow: A Biography of Harry Crews by Ted Geltner; Heroes of the Frontier by Dave Eggers; Little Sister Death by William Gay; Desperation Road by Michael Farris Smith; Roberto Bolano’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe by Chris Andrews; A Feast of Snakes by Harry Crews; Refund by Karen Bender.

Do you change up your reading habits for the summer, or do you stick to a regular routine all year round? If you do change, how?

During the academic year I’m reading less fiction and more nonfiction. I’m always looking for content that I think might be thought-provoking to my students to serve as writing prompts since I teach almost all writing-related courses. I have some websites that have proven to be helpful in terms of the geniuses who write for and answer an annual question such as “What Do You Think About Machines That Think?” Also: BrainPickings. YouTube Channels: The School of Life; The What If Conference; PBS Idea Channel.

What novel would you recommend as the “ultimate beach read?

 Ultimate Beach Read? Wow. Tough one. One I’d recommend for anyone who lives in the south is Rivers by Michael Farris Smith. The Savage Detectives and The Third Reich by Roberto Bolano. If you want something more like a bestseller/beach read I want to read Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series because I’m a huge fan of the show–I’ve peaked at the books and they’re on my list. Van Gogh: His Life and His Art by David Sweetman; Sophie’s Choice by William Styron.

You’re a writer who teaches, so in that regard, if you were to prepare a summer reading list for an aspiring writer, what books would make the cut?

I’ve have to know a little about the writer in question. I can say the books that were inspirational to me were everything by Mississippi writer, Larry Brown; The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri; The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You by Frank Stanford; The Iliad; The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O’Connor; Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote.

Zester Daily – Burgundians dig deep to face climate change

My latest article features a return to the land that inspired Vintage:

“They say you can never step into the same river twice, and I recognized the truth in this statement on a recent return to Burgundy, France.

It’s been 20 years since I first stumbled across this glorious culinary corner of the world, which sparked an enthusiasm for wine. But the current is always rushing, the banks shifting, the river changing course.

Some things seem eternal: Pommard and Volnay are still sleepy little stone walled villages, Beaune is the vibrant wine capital, and the wines and the congregation of tiny producers who make them continue to be unparalleled.

But change is afoot. On April 27 of this year, the region was hammered by a spring frost, the latest in a string of devastating weather events. Year after year, it seems that Burgundy’s notoriously capricious weather grows more volatile, and the littlest producers are hit the hardest by the changing climate. One wonders how they will survive…”

Read the whole piece on Zester Daily

From disaster cassoulet to La Belle Époque

I’m not sure if it’s fate, contrast, climate change or bad then good luck, but I recently experienced the convergence of my best and worst meals ever in France, both on the very same day. I was heading home from Burgundy where I’d been working on a film about the plight of small wine producers during this very bad year in which a substantial portion of the harvest has already been lost due to freakish weather. Add to that all that had transpired in France since my last visit…the Bataclan, Charlie Hebdo, a surging Le Pen, &c, &c, and I was already out of sorts. What was happening? I especially love this region of Burgundy and the humble farmers there who make the world’s most sought-after grape juice. I’d visited many times before. I’d even written about it. It’s also something of a culinary capital, so to have a poor meal there is, frankly, my own damn fault.

I encountered the offending repast at the corner tavern near the train station in Beaune. It was nothing short of a high crime on my part given the fact that this Burgundian town holds more excellent dining options than just about any city its size on this great blue and green Earth. I must admit that the weather conspired against me, having flooded Paris and rerouted and delayed my train, forcing me to take the four-hour route via Lyon rather than the more direct connection through Dijon. Some say that you can’t attribute any single weather event, like said Paris flooding, specifically to climate change, but that it certainly increases the frequency and intensity of extreme events. Well, climate change had its fingerprints all over this disaster of a lunch. I found myself laden with luggage and filmmaking gear and with an extra hour to kill while unseasonably cold rain fell on a June afternoon in Burgundy.

With nowhere to stow my bags and with the passable restaurant at the Hotel de France still closed, I opted for the only other option. I dragged my things across the street and settled for the corner bar rather than make the trek into the center of town. The cassoulet on the signboard caught my eye, and I ordered it without thinking too deeply. This was an obvious misstep, ordering a regional dish from southern France in north-central Burgundy. It’s akin to ordering an Italian beef in New Orleans or jambalaya in Chicago. While fine examples of either can probably be found, why stray from the regional specialty? It makes no sense. But as I mentioned, I was shaken. Lovely France was under assault by the weather and so much more.


The cassoulet consisted of tepid to cold canned beans and Vienna sausages plus a leg of duck or some other fowl microwaved beyond recognition of species. The vinegar served as the house red wine was well past any prime, if it ever had any to begin with. I picked at the dish merely out of politeness, and all the while 80s music videos from the likes of Sade, Duran Duran and Bryan Adams played on the overhead television alongside offensively overproduced contemporary French pop hits, one video of which included the singer in ruffled shirt riding a draft horse in slow motion while swinging a rapier. I sank slowly into culinary and cultural despair. What had become of La Belle France?

Why hadn’t I stuck to the safety valve of Burgundian classics like oeufs en meurette or escargots à la bourguignonne, both of which were on the menu slate? Would the kitchen of this little bar have done as much discredit to these local favorites? I imagined the Burgundian cook having a scornful contempt for all things Provencal.

I stumbled back across the road to the station with an unhappy, churning stomach, dreading the four hours by train and regretting that I would be only blasting through Lyon, a legendary culinary capitol in its own right. As if to add insult to injury, once on the train I caught a glimpse of the Institut Paul Bocuse in Lyon from the window while my sad meal churned in my sorry belly.

I had once believed that even a bad meal in France was far better than the average American truck stop fare, but this conviction was resoundingly shattered by the offending cassoulet. Paris was flooding. Burgundy vineyards had already suffered devastating losses. And now I’d had a miserable French lunch.

My world, it seemed, was coming unraveled.

But Paris is a city for redemption. I arrived at the Gare de Lyon without having had to make use of the train restroom, already a risky proposition in that rattling second-class car where the latrines are typically cramped and foul to begin with, but it would have also meant temporarily abandoning my filmmaking gear while shifty characters lurked in the hallways on a car already overcrowded by the flooding and rerouting. One must thank the Gods of Travel, or perhaps St. Christopher, for life’s smaller miracles. My stomach had held true.

I dragged my gear across the street from the Gare de Lyon to the handy if ominously named Hotel Terminus (you can check out, but you can never leave). With only a dozen small hours until my flight the next morning, plus the June Parisian sunlight extending well into the late evening, I decided to put my feet to work in search of redemption. There was no way I could leave France on such a poor footing as that cassoulet provided.

While walking in the best of weather in Paris can solve just about any problem known to humanity, walking in a flooded Paris is only a tad lest restorative. It was devastating, sure, especially given the interviews we’d done in Burgundy to learn how that region is struggling with climate change. But to see so many legendary and familiar Parisian sites half submerged in the swollen Seine was surreal. That being said, the curiosity of hordes of both tourists and locals leant a sort of festival atmosphere to the scene. Lots of selfies were taken before streets descending into the swollen brown murk. Waters rushed under the arches of the Pont Neuf and Pont d’Austerlitz with a disarming fury. The river was now a lake spreading to bury streets parks, tunnels and barges that strained against their moorings. Had one of the apocalyptical specters from the Book of Revelation or even Clint Eastwood himself ridden in on a pale horse I would not have been surprised.


But still, it was Paris. It was late evening. I was on foot. I snapped the obligatory watery camera phone pics and kept moving up the Seine. The world was becoming better. The flood waters, I trusted, would recede. The memory of that bad meal was already starting to fade.

I stopped at Shakespeare and Company to buy a dual-language edition of Fitzgerald’s short stories, resolving to learn to read and speak French like a native once and for all for the eleventh time this year. I found a cafe on the Île Saint-Louis with a flood view, keeping one eye cocked on my studies and the other on the flow of people. Reading in a cafe in Paris is perhaps even more pleasurable than walking in that same city, meaning it’s more pleasurable than just about any activity on Earth.

Just about.

The one thing that can top either of these is eating well in Paris, from a crepe to a croque-monsieur or a multi-course bacchanal. The last of these was what I was after for this, my last evening in France. I was determined to redeem myself after the disastrous cassoulet. The hours ticked past. I had eight remaining, and some of those would need to be spent in slumber at the dreaded Terminus. I searched my brain. I had passed a number of promising restaurants on my hike, but then there’d also been plenty of tourist traps. It’s sometimes hard for even an experienced traveler to discern the difference. My own confidence was shattered by my earlier calamitous choice.

What to do?

One could, on such occasions, turn to the Internet. The Yelps and the Googles both offer handy star ratings. But crowdsourcing your opinions to others, while often safe, is also one way to remove any trace of your own individuality. It’s the surest way to become a culinary sheep, an ungulate, a lemming. Risk should always be a part of the equation. But then I’d had more than enough risk for one day, hadn’t I?

It was now that I recalled that my filmmaking collaborators, a pair of experienced Francophiles with much more sophisticated palettes than my own, had both recommended Le Train Bleu in the Gare de Lyon. I’d been hesitant because it seemed too convenient. It was inside the train station. It is a big, established, obvious choice. Even so, I knew little of it. I was tempted to pull out my smartphone to see if I could find wifi to corroborate their suggestion with the masses, but I restrained myself.

While outsourcing your research to the Internets may be a copout, taking the recommendation of a friend is tapping into an ancient French tradition established when the very first protohuman on the Brittany Coast recommended to the fellow in the loincloth next to him the best tidal pool from which to pluck the most flavorful oysters. From such humble roots have risen  the national French pass time of evaluating restaurants, eventually giving rise to the Michelin Guide


As time was ticking and safety was my primary objective, I followed the recommendation of my friends, walking home and then across the street to the imposing arched windows of Le Train Bleu above the main floor of the station.

This spot is not so much a restaurant as it is a harkening back to another, grander era. If you ever wondered what it might be like to dine inside the Louvre or perhaps the Musée d’Orsay , this would be it. It is a grand theater for haute cuisine, a dining palace trimmed in gold, with painted panoramas, naked cherubs, towering ceilings and windows, bright chandeliers and the gentle murmur of pleasant conversation. I carried in my Fitzgerald and happily sat on the blue velvet seat where the hostess pulled out the table and tucked me in again. I didn’t even look at the card, instead ordering the day’s full menu, the grand tour. I knew it would be a long meal, epic, even. For more than a hundred Euros, it had better be. But I wasn’t expecting the ensuing three-hour marathon of flavors that would follow.

Dining solo with a good book in Paris can be a great pleasure, relishing the steady, slow but inexorable progress of a multi-course meal. But I barely had to crack the spine of my Fitzgerald. There was so much to look at. Diners in intent conversation, polished waiters materializing out of the ether to fill my Champagne glass or brush aside the crumbs, those bones of the previous course, patrons pausing to gape at the glorious hall on their return from the restroom, even that brief respite from the grandeur enough to rekindle their awe at the spectacle.

The meal began with a handsome salmon crudo, rolled fillets that did their color justice arranged with cream, radishes and roe on a brilliant green aspic of mint and cucumber. Here’s where I get fuzzy. While I should have taken notes or at least snapped a photo of the menu on the way in or out, I was instead focused on redemption. And it was delivered, in course after course.


The Champagne continued to flow through the bread and foie gras course served with a rhubarb jelly and a single perfect strawberry. Then onto a fillet of sole, spring lamb with morels, sherbets, desserts and cheeses. I lost track, but when I looked up a pair of hours later, the dining hall was empty save for my waiter and a solitary cat weaving casually, elegantly in and out of the blue velvet chairs and under the white tablecloths. He was a pretty cool cat, paying me no mind, and he was a fine companion with which to end the evening. It was close to midnight. I had only a few hours to sleep before catching my flight.

I reflected on the evening after the last course was swept away, and before the final assault the check would make on my already straining credit card. It was like traveling back in time directly to La Belle Époque. I wouldn’t have been surprised to spot Matiesse, the Brothers Lumière, Curie, Pasture, Freud, Proust, Mann.

Then the dark thought again wandered into my brain: I wonder if there were any ratings online of this place. I decided I wouldn’t look. I still haven’t. It was a lovely evening. A perfect meal, especially given the circumstances earlier in the day, the poor lunch, the ominous weather. The threats of climate change, terrorism, tourism…everything that we do as a species that drags down the lovely, the perfect, the glorious and makes it less, everything that categorizes and ranks and tells us what to control, what to love, what to fear.


I left Le Train Blue quite satisfied. The last diner standing, or rather squatting on crushed blue velvet. I experienced a slight vertigo, perhaps from the entire bottle of Champagne I’d polished off, or the rum chaser with the final dessert. On wobbly legs I descended the grand staircase into the vast train station, empty save for a collection of weary travelers rendered temporarily or permanently homeless by missed trains, hard luck or both.

I reflected that Le Train Bleu was there for me, exactly what I needed precisely when I needed it. I stumbled across the place toward Hotel Terminus. I didn’t think about the flooding Seine. I didn’t think of the spring frost that had wrecked so many vineyards in Burgundy. I didn’t think about the Charlie Hebdo attack or the Bataclan, or everything else that had transpired in Paris since my last visit. This trip may have been ending. But my faith in La Belle France, its powers to destroy, rebuild, heal and delight, the magic of that capital of the human race with it’s gaudy, light-gilded tower and its swollen river and sunken streets and its flood of tourists, a flood which included me, was restored.

All this, with a meal.

Small wine clubs

There are few moods that can’t be lifted by the receipt of a shipment of wine. Every bottle that you unpack from the crate is clean and cool against your palm, with the capped or corked promise of flavor, dizziness of head and the meal and conversation you’ll enjoy alongside it.

I just received my biannual order from Cartograph Wines. They’re a small producer from Healdsburg, California, making delicate and distinct Pinot Noirs, Rieslings and Gewurtztraminers in the Burgundian and Alsatian styles, but with a specific Sonoma spin. The bottles come tastefully wrapped in blue tissue paper with an accompanying letter that serves as a primer of the vineyards and seasons in which they were grown and made, written by the winemakers themselves. And since the automatic billing is separated from receipt of goods, these shipments almost feel like gifts. Indeed they are. Gifts to me, from me. We should all spoil ourselves on occasion.

I can think of any number of reasons to buy good wine, chief among these the fact that our time on this great, green-blue, troubled Earth is all too short and thus best enjoyed with a splash of something magical in your belly.

Wine clubs are a great way to buy wine. You can find wine clubs anywhere. There are big, corporate wine clubs that assemble selections of bottles from all over the world, designed to your price and taste. But I like the little ones. Every small producer and winery has a wine club. Wine clubs are essential for the small wine labels in the States because they provide predictable, regular cash flow, and the proceeds don’t have to be shared with a retailer, wholesaler or restaurant. (Note: It’s kind of like buying a book for the cover price directly from an author, which I also encourage you to do. And if I happen to be said author, you can be sure that I’ll likely spend such cash infusion on wine from a small producer, and together we’d be creating our own little economy of trickle-down happiness.)

Other great wine clubs are run by small specialty importers. They hand-select wines along a certain style, curating a selection for their customers. I belong to a Burgundy club called Caveau Selections. Burgundy is a baffling, inscrutable region, and the wines you find in shops are usually pricey and cover a wide range of quality and styles. So it’s a great asset to have an expert select wines for you. When my Caveau shipment arrives, it is accompanied by documentation that helps orient me to this fascinating and puzzling region. They select a range of prices, so there’s usually a bottle in each shipment that’s far above and beyond the cost of anything I’d pick up in the store or at a restaurant, and then its surrounded with some bargain choices. It’s a great way to learn how quality and price relate, and also discover the pleasant surprise that some of your favorites are among the cheaper options.

You don’t have to be wealthy to have wine shipped to your house. The three bottles I receive from Cartograph twice yearly usually costs around a hundred bucks. A small price to pay for the three evenings of enjoyment that will come from a bottle and a meal shared with my wife or friends. My daughter even likes to smell the wines and take notes, referencing her wine aroma wheel. To my knowledge she’s yet to taste anything beyond a drop on her little finger, but she’s probably sniffed more good wines than most twelve year olds in this country.

Wine clubs are kind of like oenological Christmas letters. Usually your membership is inspired through an event put on by the importer or shop, or by a visit the winery on vacation or a weekend. You join the clubs because you liked the experience and connected with the owners. Your wine club purveyors become like your friends and family, but even better because they ship you wine to lift your spirits when the spring rains return or to help you steel yourself for the oncoming march of winter (most clubs deliver in the spring and fall).

If you live near the winery or importer, you’ll find that they often have events specifically for club members. There are other perks, discounts and benefits. If it’s a winery in a region you visit from time to time, you’ll automatically have a comfortable home base to start your touring and tasting. They’ll likely know your name if you’ve been a member for a while. It’s a nice feeling, and even though the relationships are forged by commerce, they’ll often evolve into friendships.

If you do join a wine club, one tip that saves frustration is to have the shipment delivered to your office. Alcohol requires a signature, and unless someone’s always home or you work from a home office, you’ll wind up chasing your wines to some delivery service warehouse.

Ours is a fearful age. We huddle in our houses and cringe when the doorbell rings. The 24-hour news cycle and its parade of gloom and tragedy weighs heavily on our minds. While we’ve grown more worldly, global and ubiquitous as a species, it also seems as if we’re ruled by our fears, biases and artificially heightened sense of stranger danger.

But wine clubs cut through all that. The announcements that shipments are underway brighten up our social feeds like a funny cat video but only better. They give you a reason to smile when someone knocks on your door. Perhaps the visitor is your friendly delivery truck driver with a shipment of happiness under his arm.

Libraries are awesome

“Oh, you wrote that book. I’ve been waiting to get it from the library.” Someone said this once. A more common refrain is, “I’m waiting for the paperback.” I must admit to feeling disappointment when I hear this. Vintage is my first book. Every additional sale counts for a lot in this stage of the game. But in truth, the mere fact that they’re considering reading something I’ve written, even if they’re just being polite, is an honor. And I can’t recall ever buying a hardcover from a debut author before, at least unless I knew the writers personally. And even then I felt like I was doing them a favor.

Which brings me back to libraries and that opening line: I’ve been waiting to get it from the library. The greedy, lizard-brain part of my author-self will automatically respond to such a potential reader by thinking, why don’t you just go buy it, you cheap bastard? Help me out a little here, pal.

But when I stop and think about it some more, checking out a book from a library is a great way to support writers, not to mention reading in general. I can think of no greater democratic (small ‘d’) institution on the planet than the public library. For those of us who read things, libraries are our churches. And to have a hardcover book with my name on it on the shelf, wrapped in crackly cellophane, is no small thing. It gives us a sense of permanence in a physical world where no single cell in our bodies lasts more than seven years. It’s our little flickering candle in the great big cathedral of letters. Granted, our book may flop, languish un-checked-out and destined for a sale price of fifty cents at some fundraiser book sale in the near future. But it can just as easily hide away on the shelves for decades, awaiting discovery.

The first work of fiction I recall discovering at the library was The Cave of Time by Edward Packard. I was five years old. While that Choose Your Own Adventure book looks slender now, I recall how huge it felt in my hands back then. At the time it was my War and Peace. I was proud of myself for reading something on my own that felt like a chapter book. The rest of the series soon followed, and from that moment on I eagerly combed the shelves of the Richton Park Public Library for all manner of books.

The latest book I discovered at a library was Arthur Phillips’s Prague. I was checking out travel books on the city of Prague for an upcoming trip. I always try to grab a novel set wherever I’m traveling to read on the way. The title of Phillips’s book was quite conveniently listed at the head of my search results on my local library’s terminal. Never mind that the book is actually set in Budapest and has nothing to do with Prague, it’s still a wonderful book with striking imagery and language, plus a character, an elegant, elderly jazz pianist named Nádja, who I’ll probably never forget. If libraries didn’t exist, I would never have discovered this book. And now that I have, it’s not unreasonable to assume that I’ll get another of Phillips’s novels someday, perhaps even paying for it.

So libraries serve as a vector of discovery as well as giving authors a quiet little slice of shelved permanence in a world of churning information overload. But they do a lot more. They also buy books. They buy hardcovers, which is very helpful for writers. According to the WorldCat, the global network of library catalogs, there are copies of Vintage in 354 libraries around the world. That’s a lot of hardcovers sold, at least it seems so to me. Some of my favorite libraries on the list are the Alexander Library in Perth, Australia, which is officially the farthest from my home town, at 9100 miles. There isn’t even an official Australian publisher for Vintage yet, but there it is, on a shelf on the other side of the world. The book’s also in the U. S. Army European Region Library in Heidelberg, Germany. How cool is that? And then there’s Singapore. And Kankakee, Illinois and Whangarie, New Zealand, both of which have such fascinating names.

Browsing through the list of libraries is humbling, and it’s a reminder what a huge service to writers and readers libraries provide. No writer should ever feel miffed when someone tells them that, instead of buying their book, they’re waiting to check it out at the library. And readers should know that, with every swipe of their library card, they’re doing writers a favor.

That being said, you can buy Vintage at any of the fine vendors below:

Home for the holidays

We visited family for the holidays in Berlin and Hamburg, with a quick stop in Prague. Maybe there’s no place like home for the holidays, but then I’ve always felt more comfortable and at ease on the road than at any address where I receive paychecks and bills. Plus, the itinerary included the small apartment in Berlin where my aunt and uncle have lived for the past forty years. Few places feel more like home. It was a nice escape from the usual consumptive hustle. Charlie Brown would be proud. Plus the food was amazing. In addition to gaining a dozen pounds and straining the bottom three buttons on every shirt I own, I also experienced a few things that were inspiring, puzzling and delicious. Here are some of them:



The Best currywurst in Berlin

Currywurst is a Berlin original, and while it can be found anywhere in the city, the best, according to the resident expert (who also happens to be my Uncle Manfred), can be found at a stand near the U-Bahn station in Stieglitz called Zur Bratpfanne (To Frying Pan). Currywurst can now be found beyond Berlin. I once saw a food cart in LA that claimed to serve authentic currywurst. It wasn’t, but it was still tasty and they get points for trying.

It’s a simple dish…sausage either whole, spiraled or cut into slices, smothered with a thick sauce and usually served with French fries. It was invented by a woman named Herta Heuwer in the neighboring Charlottenburg district after the war, and the unusual flavors of the namesake sauce were the product of postwar shortages. Local laborers clearing the bombed out rubble took a liking to it and the rest is history, or maybe it’s just another food origin myth.

The special thing that Zur Bratphanne does (in addition to turning a kitchen utensil into an infinitive) is offer quality sausage and take extra care with the sauce. The sausage has a finely ground texture, and you can get it with or without skin. The former packs a great crunch, but the latter is interesting because the skinless sausages develop a delicate, crusted outer layer during roasting. The curry sauce is molasses-thick, the consistency of concentrated tomato pace (its primary ingredient), and it’s served in such volume that it smothers both the sausage and any fries you chose to have on the side. All in all, it’s quite addictive, which is why we had to stand in line for ten minutes, with dozens of diners braving the cold to line the little shelf surrounding the cart or eating right on the top of nearby trash bins.

Venison Backstrap

Maybe it sounds exotic, something that hunters eat, but in Germany it’s fairly common to eat venison for a holiday meal. You can even get venison ‘schinken’ or prosciutto-like cold cuts. My aunt and cousin served roast venison backstrap with a simple brown sauce. It was rich with a bitter, nutty flavor that was complimented nicely by fresh pears and gooseberries. With a choice of noodle or potato dumplings it was a lovely meal. Makes me want to eat more deer at home, though I’ve learned that I’m too lazy to hunt. I’m sure I could order some from a butcher here. Much of the farmed venison comes from New Zealand, for whatever reason. Bambi, I’m sorry but you’re quite delicious.

Dinner for One

Germans do some unusual things during the holidays, such as hiding pickles in their Christmas trees. They also put their shoes outside their doors in early December to be filled with coal or candy depending on their behavior over the past year. But even stranger than eating foot-scented candy is the New Years Eve tradition of watching a short film called Dinner For One. It plays continuously on television, and they watch it ever year and know every word by heart. What makes it strange is that the film is all in English other than a brief introduction in their native tongue. It’s about a butler who serves an annual birthday dinner for an elderly woman. All of her friends have died, but the butler still sets places for them and he pours them each a round of wine, which he drinks himself, getting progressively more intoxicated throughout the evening from the quadruple helping. It’s amusing if not funny. I watched it twice and that was enough for a lifetime. Why an English-language sketch comedy from the 1960s is a German holiday tradition is puzzling. You can check it out here if you’ve got seventeen minutes to kill.

If you want to impress a German, drop this line on them: “Same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?” They’ll respond with, “same procedure as every year, James,” and you’ll instantly be on the inside track due to your knowledge of this baffling and arcane custom.



Refugees in Templehof Airport

While our politicians fearfully decry a plan to bring an additional 10,000 Syrian refugees (tired, poor huddled masses be damned) to the States and Virginian suburbanites are hyperventilating over an Islamic calligraphy in a world geography class, the Germans have allowed more than a million refugees into their country. It’s cost Mutti (Momma) Merkel no small political capital, but what struck me is the way that the vast majority of the people I spoke with across the political spectrum seemed to think it was necessary, if not always preferred. The images of drowned children left a deep impression on them.

There are hastily constructed tent cities and container colonies everywhere…in gymnasiums, sports fields, empty lots and even the old, shuttered Templehof Airport, designed by Albert Speer. Just think: five thousand refugees have found sanctuary in an old Nazi building. The recent assaults in Cologne are stoking anxiety, but the people I talked with seemed to agree that Germany should do something to help. While our Statue of Liberty, the Mother of Exiles according to the Emma Lazarus poem, is being put out to pasture, the Germans are beginning to build permanent housing for the world’s least-wanted people.

I went to Christmas Eve church service in Hamburg, and was moved by the minister’s message (or at least the 75 percent of it that I could understand). His sermon wasn’t the usually saccharine recounting of the Christmas story, but a lecture on fear.  He reminded us that fearfulness is not a Christian value and it’s certainly a poor guide (remember what happened seventy years ago?). He concluded by reading a passage from the Koran about Mary and Joseph, reminding the congregation that Muslims worship the same God (no matter what Wheaton College says) and maybe these strangers aren’t so strange after all.

Imagine if a Christian minister read from the Koran on Christmas Eve here in the States.



How could I not know these existed? As fan of all things breaddy, I should be ashamed of myself. We found these toasted sesame-covered rings in a cafe in a trendy mixed-Turkish neighborhood of Kreuzberg while visiting my cousin. Simits are larger and thinner than bagels, and they have a creamy, nutty flavor thanks to the seedy crust. A grape molasses glaze gives them a note of sweetness, making them an ideal breakfast bread. The outer shell with its toasted seeds provides a substantial crunch, but the inside is delightfully soft. I would eat one (or five) of these every morning if I could find them fresh. I tried to make them following this recipe, but they came out a bit hard and a little too bagel-ish, probably because I didn’t braid them as suggested. Those that I sampled in Berlin weren’t braided, so I’ll need to work this recipe over a little more and report back if I meet with any success.


If you need evidence beyond the welcoming of refugees that Germans are assuming the mantle of Leaders of the Free World (emphasis on free), then all’s you need to do is look out the window of a cross-country train. We rode the hyper-efficient Deutche Bahn from Prague to Dresden, Hamburg and Berlin. The ticket machine asked if I wanted to pay three extra Euros to ride carbon free, so I did. Evidently this is a popular program.

What you see when you look out the windows of a train gliding silkily and swiftly through the German countryside are rows of windmills and solar panels, the latter seeming a stretch at a latitude where the winter sun rises after eight in the morning and sets before four in the afternoon.

But something must be going right, because Germany now gets more than 27 percent of its energy from sustainable, carbon-free sources, most of the growth happening in the last decade. It’s an astonishing rate of transition.

Climate change is real, yet only one major political party in the world questions its existence or the fact that our consumptive ways are driving the shift. I’ve talked to scientists and subsistence fishermen all over the world who know that it’s happening and that we’re running out of time to act. But the Germans are acting, and signs of their Energiewende are everywhere, from the solar arrays alongside the railroad tracks to abandoned nuclear plants on the horizon.


Christmas Markets 

Finally, the main reason we went to Europe: Christmas markets. They’re splendid. They’re filled with food and hot spiced wine, honey wine, grog, all of the above available with an extra shot of something strong if you need it, which I mostly did. There are booths of food and crafts and crowds of people. The markets are a tad garish with all their lights and pine boughs and crowds, and from what the locals say they’re growing bigger, more commercial and ubiquitous every year.

But I think they’re wonderful and if we had some here I’d go every year. My favorite was the small neighborhood market in the church square above our metro stop in Prague.

Our favorite market treat (aside from the wine) were the Trdelniks in the Czech Republic. These are simple dough treats, tubes of sugar and cinnamon smothered goodness. They’re made with dough that is rolled into strips and wrapped around a metal tube and slowly rotated over a wood coal fire. Holding this steaming tube fresh from the fire before your face on a frosty evening certainly has to be one of the great pleasures of the holiday season. Add to that some carols from the Czech Christmas Mass and you have something glorious, another reminder of why traveling is a great reminder of what a magical place is this struggling, crowded blue and green orb that we all must share, this our only home.