Month: November 2014

Restaurant Review – Flint Creek Steak House in West Siloam Springs, OK

I get a little nervous when someone says the words gambling and fine dining in the same sentence. At any rate, I decided to “throw the dice”, if you will, and dine out at the Flint Creek Steak House. This establishment is located at the Cherokee Hotel and Casino in West Siloam Springs, Oklahoma. I should have known I’d be pressing my luck with this place. When my group showed up on Monday night we discovered it was closed. They’re only open Wednesday through Sunday. That makes sense. It’s not like they’re in a CASINO where A LOT OF PEOPLE WILL BE HANGING AROUND. At any rate, on that evening we dined at the buffet. I’ll have more to say about that later.

When Thursday came around, my entire group decided to go to back to the Steak House. This time, we called ahead to make sure they were open. They told us we needed reservations. Why? They were very busy. I’ll have more to say about that later, too.

*

Upon entering the Flint Creek Steak House the dining room ambiance impressed me. I found it spacious and rather elegant. I liked the blue color of the walls and the drapes in front of the window to the casino. It gave the establishment an air of sophistication. It had the appearance that a fine dining establishment should have.

It’s a harbinger of bad things when something like ordering an iced tea raises red flags. The menu listed it at $2.50. Before Starbucks customers tell me what a deal that is, I should point out that the casino had a “free” soda fountain. I helped myself to an iced tea while waiting to go to dinner. The brand the restaurant served tasted exactly the same. So, when I drank it while walking around the casino, it was free. When I ordered it with dinner they charged me for it. Hmmmmm.

I ordered the Seafood Chowder as an appetizer. I liked it, but not to the point of justifying the $6.00 price tag. That’s an awful lot to pay for a small bowl of soup. For that kind of money, I could stop off at the supermarket and buy enough to last me a week.

As readers can guess from my choice of appetizer, I’m a big sea food fan. Even though the place billed itself as a steak house, I decided on the Seafood Lafayette. The menu described it as, “Shrimp, Scallops, Sausage and Spicy Cajun Cream Sauce.” I like my meals with some zest to them. I licked my lips in preparation for the perfect dinner.

Here’s where I started losing my temper. It’s never good when that happens in a “fine dining” setting. The Steak House’s web site clearly reads, “At Flint Creek, you’ll be pampered by our accommodating staff…” Yeah. I’m not sure how long my group waited for dinner. The server took our orders at 6:17 PM. My best estimate is that we didn’t receive our meals until sometime around 7:20 PM. I dined with a group and enjoyed the opportunity to converse with everybody. Still, that’s a long time to wait for food when you’re hungry. After we finished eating, we had to wait a while for the bill, as well.

Remember earlier, I wrote that we needed reservations because the place was “very busy”? While I sat there, most of the tables in the dining room were empty. To irritate me even more, I witnessed two staff members standing around talking to each other most of the night. At least one other server worked the dining room, as well. For these reasons, I found the lengthy waits completely inexcusable. The fact that the establishment added the gratuity to the bill was even more intolerable. We practically had to hunt down our server to pay her. This did not meet my criteria for fine dining.

With respect to the meal, I thought my dinner good, but ridiculously overpriced. They charged $22.00 for something that fit in a medium sized bowl. Once again, while I thought the food decent, I didn’t think the quality or size justified the high cost.

I wanted to end this review with the line, “If you’re planning on dining at the Flint Creek Steak House, save your money and hit the buffet instead.” I may have pointed out already that the restaurant was closed on Monday. On that night, my group tried the RiverCane Café/Buffet. Once again, I found the food adequate, but I didn’t like the price. If diners sign up for a player’s card (which is free) they save $1.76 on the buffet. Everyone in my group took advantage of this deal and got to eat for $10.70. Obviously, I can’t complain about the portions in this case. The lack of variety did disappoint me, however. They served Italian, Chinese, and Mexican food. I didn’t see any high-end meals, though. (i.e. Steak, fish, etc.) To be fair, they did offer a diverse desert selection.

My point of reference for a “real” buffet is the Hibachi Grill in Cinnaminson, NJ. For $9.99 diners have their pick of Rib-Eye Steak, Salmon, Crabmeat, and a host of other fine foods, in addition to the kinds of things the RiverCane Café/Buffet served. I expected similar quality fare from the casino.

I bet the house that I’d get a good meal, but came up craps. I still can’t believe the prices. Doesn’t the casino want diners to have at least some money left to blow in the machines? The real issue I had involved the poor service. As anyone in business can recite, “you’re five times more likely to lose a customer over bad service than bad quality.” I can personally assure the Flint Creek Steak House just how accurate that is.

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Restaurant Review – La Huerta Mexican Restaurant in Siloam Springs, AR

The food makes any sojourn south of the Mason-Dixon Line well worth-while. During a recent business trip to Arkansas, I had the pleasure of sampling some Mexican food prepared there. What an experience!

For those journeying through Northwest Arkansas, La Huerta is conveniently located off of Route 412. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it’s very tough to locate from the road. The building’s plain white exterior makes it very easy to miss. When I first saw it, I mistook the place for a hotel. It’s located in a small strip mall, as well. Some of the people in my group had dined there before. They almost drive past it.

The interior décor didn’t impress me. Keep in mind that I’m color blind, have absolutely no artistic ability and was very hungry when I walked in the door. The place seemed a bit cluttered. The many customers in the building had something to do with shaping my perception, though. I also didn’t care for the table design. I’m sympathetic that restaurants need to sell advertising space to add additional cash flow. Typically, they put local business ads on placemats. La Huerta sells space on its tables to advertisers. I have to admit: staring at an ad for plumbing supplies didn’t exactly help whet my appetite.

I applaud the gregarious nature of our server. The guy was a born salesman. He informed our group that many people call La Huerta’s sweet tea, “the best in the area.” I’m a big tea drinker, so I had to try. I have to give the guy credit: I had my share of sweet tea during my week in Arkansas, and I would call La Huerta’s the epitome of Northwest Arkansas brew.

In lieu of putting out bread for customers, La Huerta, being a Mexican food establishment, gave us tortilla chips. We (meaning predominantly I) ate so many that our server kept re-filling the bowl. I’ve never been a big tortilla chip fan: until now. These were the best I ever had. They weren’t too heavy or too light. The preparer added just the right amount of corn flavor. They came with the traditional dipping sauce as well as a cheesier one. I’m old-fashioned, so I preferred the standard sauce, although the other tasted just fine. The flavor and texture reminded me of eating a pizza.

For dinner I tried the Enchiladas Razorback. In essence, it was an enchilada that substituted seafood for meat or beans. It had a distinct taste that I enjoyed. The more I ate, the more I noticed just how salty the meal, though. I didn’t mind so much at the beginning, but about half-way through it became very perceptible. Someone else in my group commented about the abundance of salt in her dinner. I wondered if they made the tea so sweet to balance out the brackish meal. While I would dine at La Huerta again, I’d suggest the chef go a little easier on the salt next time.

I received fantastic value for my money. They served my entree on a huge plate that I couldn’t see under all the food. And the part I really liked: my final bill came to a grand total of $11.39. Coming from the Philadelphia area, that’s one phenomenal deal.

I would describe their service as without peer. My group arrived just after 5:30 PM. The place started to fill-up with the dinner crowd. They still sat our group of seven people right away. I couldn’t believe how quickly they delivered our dinners. While I wasn’t watching the clock, I’d estimate between the time we ordered and the time they served, it must have been about ten minutes. That’s a remarkable accomplishment. A large group walked in unexpectedly. They still managed to serve us that fast. That’s an outstanding accomplishment.

The next time I’m in the Northwest Arkansas region I look forward to sampling some of the other dishes La Huerta has to offer. The service and quality of the meal made dinner well worthwhile. They pulled this off without leaving my wallet in a world of huerta.

Thanksgiving Memories

People will describe numerous signs of aging to you. To my mind not wanting to have Thanksgiving dinner at home makes the top spot on that list. After all: it takes days to prepare and possibly twice as long to clean-up. I had the pleasure of spending this past Thanksgiving with my Dad and Step-mom. We went out to a local Charlie Brown’s for the “All You Can Eat Turkey Special”. (If I may put my food critic’s hat on for a moment: it lived up to its name. The limitless supply of turkey, potatoes and stuffing couldn’t have been better. The unlimited amount of vegetables, I could’ve lived without, though.) Knowing I could gorge myself to capacity without having to help with the tidying afterwards enhanced my turkey day enjoyment. So did the company. We all live busy lives and dinner gave us the opportunity to catch up on things.

During the course of our conversation, our thoughts drifted to those no longer able to join us for dinner. My Dad brought up my favorite holiday story. Our Uncle Tom Connelly (my paternal grandmother’s brother) had an interesting tradition. When he felt full during Thanksgiving Dinner, he’d excuse himself from the table and take a walk around the block. Upon his return, he’d sit down and resume his meal. I didn’t have the privilege of meeting him personally, but family members all describe him as “thin”. Uncle Tom must’ve had a pretty good metabolism. I’ve been jogging for over 25 years, but nobody describes me that way.

In the course of discussing Uncle Tom’s Thanksgiving weight loss routine, I remembered my grandmother, Marguerite Stephany, telling me about him. I recall her sharing that story every Thanksgiving. She lived for that holiday. It seemed like she spent all year getting ready for the last Thursday in November. I wouldn’t be able to see the dinner table because of all the food she’d put there. While I was only 12 the last time she cooked dinner at her home, I remember at least three t.v. trays full of vegetables. Granted, at least eight people showed up for Thanksgiving dinner, but there were still plenty of leftovers for everyone. They lasted us close to a week after the holiday.

Several years ago, I started working for a gentleman who purchased my grandparents’ home from the couple they sold it to. While living there, he refurbished the place. When he found out that the house belonged to my grandparents, the first thing he asked me about was the oven. I felt a tinge of sadness when he mentioned removing it. “A lot of great Thanksgiving Dinners got cooked in that stove,” I told him. While writing this I could still smell the scent of my grandmother’s turkey and stuffing wafting through the cool autumn air.

I get sentimental every Thanksgiving. The last time I ever saw my grandfather, Ed Stephany, was on Thanksgiving of 2003. At the time, we had it at my Aunt Marguerite’s house in Reading, PA. (She lived half-way between my parent’s home and my grandparents’ new residence up the Poconos, so we opted to have dinner there.) I remember my grandfather lamenting his health. I didn’t believe him. The guy was a machine. Rarely, and I mean very rarely, would he sit still. He served as an officer with the Kingswood Lake Association, he volunteered as the treasurer for a local branch of the VFW and held the rank of Captain of the Kunkletown Fire Police. He did most of these things in his late seventies! Apparently, years of eating all the vegetables my grandmother cooked, really paid off. Sadly, he passed away of Christmas Eve of that year at the age of 81.

Thanksgiving of 2012 was one of the last times I saw my grandmother. On the cusp of turning 90, we’d retired her apron for her. We had dinner at the Inn in Reading. As my aunt went to get her dinner, she told my grandmom, “You gave us so many great Thanksgivings, let us wait on you.” My grandmother volunteered her time in many of the same organizations as my grandfather. In spite of raising two children and working as a supervisor for a publishing company, I thought she worked harder after she retired. She passed away in September of 2013, just two months shy of her 91st birthday.

I really miss my Mom on Thanksgiving. Her birthday sometimes falls on the holiday. This past November 24th would’ve been her 70th birthday. I vividly remember visiting her grave on that date the year she passed. In the distance I noticed a school bus drive by. It reminded me of my youth. I’d get home from school early and would look forward to spending Thanksgiving with the whole family. For the first time I realized that many of the people I spent Thanksgiving with were no longer part of my life.

Eugene O’Neill once wrote: “When you’re 50 you start thinking about things you haven’t thought about before. I used to think getting old was about vanity – but actually it’s about losing people you love. Getting wrinkles is trivial.” Ironically, this Thanksgiving Day marked the 61st anniversary of his passing.

A lot of people complain about the frenzied nature of the holiday season. Some with large families tell me that they have breakfast at one of their kids’ homes, lunch at another’s and then dinner at someone else’s place. They don’t realize that’s a good problem to have. The end of the year may be a little hectic, but it’s a great opportunity to spend time with loved ones.

Whenever I reflect on Thanksgivings past I’m reminded of an expression from Dr. Seuss. I like it so much that I quoted it when I eulogized my Mom. “Don’t be sad because it’s over. Smile because it happened.” While I miss kicking off the Holiday Season by breaking bread with my Mom and grandparents, the times I did enriched my life. I’m a better person today for having the opportunity.

I had a great time with my Dad and Step-mom yesterday. I’m already looking forward to next Thanksgiving.

Book Review – How Wars End: Why We Always Fight the Last Battle by Gideon Rose

It’s difficult to find both a more challenging and somber topic to analyze than American foreign policy. In 2010’s How Wars End, Gideon Rose displayed an exceptional grasp at explicating various diplomatic foibles. He framed his narrative through poor decisions policymakers made during wartime. Their paucity of acumen led to choices with harrowing unforeseen consequences. In the cases of World War I and the Gulf War, these assessments germinated the seeds that grew into much larger conflicts.

I’ve never written this before, but what really stood out about this book came before the actual narrative began. Rose’s dedication, “To the victims of bad planning”, summarized the entire story in just six words. Hemmingway once said he could write a novel in that many terms. Fortunately, for us foreign policy junkies, Rose included an additional 287 pages of actual text.

I discovered Rose’s choice of an opening quote quite telling, as well. He chose a line from military theorist Carl von Clausewitz. It read:

No one starts a war—or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so—without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.    

In essence, this re-phrases his dictum that, “war is politics by other means.” I liked the way the author approached the subject. Regrettably all of the examples he cited demonstrated leaders not following von Clausewitz’s advice.

One observation deeply troubled me. The author described how a number of wartime leaders didn’t base policies on informed assessments. Rose described Franklin Roosevelt as a capricious decision maker.

FDR once admitted, “I never let my right hand know what my left hand does…I may have one policy for Europe and one diametrically opposite for North and South America. I may be entirely inconsistent, and furthermore I am perfectly willing to mislead and tell untruths….” In foreign as in domestic policy, he was addicted to improvisation, creating a system that concentrated decisionmaking (sic) power in his hands and gave him the utmost flexibility. (Page 76)

            FDR also took a cynical approach to foreign policy.

Some have argued that “both before and during the war, what best explains Roosevelt’s foreign policies was his inclination to mirror American public opinion.” Clare Booth Luce expressed this view succinctly. “Every great leader” during the war, she was once described as saying, “had his typical gesture—Hitler the upraised arm, Churchill the V sign. Roosevelt? She wet her index finger and held it up.” (Page 77)

            Other leaders also displayed unorthodox styles. The author described George W. Bush as such:

“I’m not a textbook player, I’m a gut player,” Bush told journalist Bob Woodward in 2002, and in retrospect this seems a crucial fact about the Bush presidency. As one of his press secretaries would later put it, “President Bush has always been an instinctive leader more than an intellectual leader. He is not one to delve deeply into all the possible policy options—including sitting around and engaging in extended debates about them—before making a choice. Rather he chooses based on his gut and his most deeply held convictions. Such was the case with Iraq.” The problem was exacerbated by Bush’s temperament, which prized certitude and resolve and scorned second guessing and dissent of any kind. Throw in a penchant for bold, “consequential” decisions rather than “small ball”, and the result was an accident waiting to happen. (Page 263)

            Decisions have consequences. Rose attributed the postwar break-up of the Allied coalition to Roosevelt’s management style. He failed to plan what would happen if the Soviet Union left it following the end of the war. Bush’s demeanor led to the Iraq War. I don’t know whether the author intended to do this or not. I recognized some parallels between Bush 43’s optimistic view of the Iraq situation and that of Bush 41. The latter “planned” that “someone” would overthrow Saddam Hussein after the Gulf War.

I also thought Rose espoused some original and erudite analyses. He wrote the following about the end of the First World War.

In later years, it became a truism in many circles that the harshness of the Versailles Treaty and American failure to join the League doomed the world to a cycle of instability, tyranny, and war. With generations of hindsight, however, the treaty seems more balanced now than it did then, a mixture of discordant elements that was neither Carthaginian nor Metternichian .(Page 48)

Whenever I read or hear about the Treaty of Versailles, text from John Maynard Keynes’ scathing criticism in The Economic Consequences of the Peace enters my mind.  I’d like to learn more about Rose’s views on it; perhaps in his next book?

I personally recall the acerbic press condemnation of the Coalition Provisional Authority’s performance in Iraq. While acknowledging its failings, Rose presented a more balanced view of it.

The CPA, in short, was an improvisation. As Ali Allawi bitingly comments, it is “only explicable in terms of a cover for sorting out a post war ‘Iraq Policy,’ when none had existed prior to the invasion,” Nevertheless, for such an ill-starred, ad hoc, and perennially under resourced operation, Bremer’s outfit actually accomplished a decent amount during its brief life span. Despite all the mistakes it made and the bad press it received, it was in large part a well-intentioned, serious attempt to run the country, and a marked improvement on the administration’s previous efforts in this regard. (Page 250)

            I found How Wars End to be a masterful study of the tragedies of deficient planning. Modern policy makers ignore it at their peril. While nothing can be done to ameliorate the mistakes of the past, the next crisis is always on the way.

Book Review – Therese Desqueyroux by Francois Mauriac

Count Tolstoy opened Anna Karenina with one of the most memorable lines in literature. He wrote about all unhappy families possessing their own unique brand of misery. In Therese Desqueyroux, Francois Mauriac pushed the envelope. In the introduction, Raymond MacKenize described the author’s approach to the subject as such:

First, it is a revolt against the idea of the family, revealing it as not the nurturing center of the individual’s life but instead a claustrophobic, repressive, vindictive social unit. (Loc 176) 

Mauriac created the impression that smoking served as the sole source of joy in the protagonist’s life. She partook in this past time rather liberally throughout the book. At one point in a clever bit of foreshadowing, the author wrote, “But she shouldn’t smoke so much; she was poisoning herself.” (Loc 849) I have to acknowledge that puffing on a cigarette much more exciting than her husband Bernard’s personality. His disposition conflicted with Therese’s self-acknowledgement that, “She might die of shame, of anguish, of remorse, of exhaustion—but she would not die of boredom.” (Loc 588)

Throughout the book, Therese’s life fluctuated from the prosaic to outright gloom. Her marriage left her feeling unfulfilled. Even her pregnancy didn’t elevate her mood.  Mauriac wrote,

She had counted the months left until the birth; she would have liked to know some God she could implore that this unknown creature, all intertwined with her insides already, would never show itself. (Loc 1020)

It’s pretty bad when those were the character’s good days. Not long after:

As much as Therese suffered during that time, it was only the day after giving birth that she really ceased being able to tolerate living. (Loc 1308)

Pretty progressive material for a novel published in 1927. Unfortunately for her husband, all of these elements contributed to Therese’s decision to attempt his murder.

What drove Therese to want to kill her husband? From Mauriac’s description, I have to honestly admit I didn’t feel any empathy for him.

Bernard, the most precise of men: he classified all feelings, separating them off from each other, unaware of the complex network of passages through which they were joined together. (Loc 582)

And

But he left nothing to chance, and he took pride in his well-organized life: “Bad luck only comes to those who’ve earned it,” the somewhat too-plump young man liked to say. (Loc 647)

Mauriac went even further,

Nothing is ever truly grave for those incapable of loving, and because he was without love, Bernard had never felt more than that species of joy that comes from having eluded a great peril, the sort that a man might feel when he learns that he has been unknowingly living for years on intimate terms with a dangerous maniac. (Loc 1508)

Okay. Bernard wasn’t the type of person who could write greeting cards for a living. He didn’t come across as a bad person, per se, but I didn’t like him. Still, the question remained. What drove his wife to poison him?  

At the end of the book he directly asked Therese for a reason. Yes, you read that right. Even after surviving a poisoning attempt, he remained on speaking terms with his wife. You read that right also. The two remained married. Therese told Bernard,

“I was about to tell you, ‘I don’t know why I did it,’ but now I think perhaps I know—imagine that! It was maybe to see some disquiet, some curiosity in your eyes—some trouble, essentially. I’ve just discovered that, just this second.” (Loc 1908)

Did the guy really deserve to die for being an emotional wasteland? That’s some reason to want to take someone’s life; especially, that of one’s spouse.

My version of Therese Desqueyroux also included Mauriac’s first draft of the story. He titled it “Conscience, the Divine Instinct”. It differed significantly from the completed novel. The narrative took the form of a letter. Obviously, this limited the author to First Person Point of View. Removing the Omniscient POV gave the story a completely different dimension. I enjoyed the great opportunity to delve into another writer’s creative process.

The character descriptions served as the strongest aspect of Therese Desqueyroux.  While I found the people Mauriac wrote about reprehensible, I still wanted to read more about them. I’m also not used to seeing such a pessimistic portrayal of family life. Few authors could write a book about a topic this depressing and including such depraved characters. While doing so, he still crafted an engaging read. While perhaps not suitable for all tastes, I’d still strongly recommend this book.

Burlington County (New Jersey) Murders and Executions 1832 – 1906

A love of violence plagues American society. Our kids watch rough sports like Football and Hockey. Then they play video games that make the Wild West look like something out of a Charlotte Bronte novel. Thinking about this made me long for the idyllic days where we didn’t have these vicious past times. I longed for a time in our recent past when parents and children could pack up a picnic basket. Together they could go on a family outing and watch the county hang somebody. This past mischief night at the Moorestown Library, local historian Marissa Bozarth allowed me to relive this halcyon era. She delivered a lecture on Burlington County (New Jersey) murders and executions that took place between 1832 and 1906.

Who would’ve thought people executed by the county could be so remarkable? On March 23, 1860 Philip Lynch met the hangman’s noose for the murder of George Coulter. Mr. Lynch’s behavior upon hearing the jury’s verdict was, well, not good. Following the pronouncement, he told the judge, prosecutor and sheriff that he would return from the grave to haunt them. (No evidence suggests that he ever did.)

While reassuring that Mr. Lynch believed in life after death, history would recall his reputation better had he followed the example of freed slave Eliza Freeman. In 1832, she earned the ignominious distinction of being the first person executed by Burlington County. When she murdered her husband, she showed no remorse. Her last words, however, displayed a much more respectable demeanor. She warned those who attended her execution against the dangers of alcohol. (Remember that. You’ll be reading about it again.) Then she prayed for her prison caretakers, all of the 3,000 – 5,000 people who attended her hanging as well as for her fellow African-Americans. Incidentally, the number of spectators fell well short of the 10,000 who watched Wesley Warner’s execution on 9/6/1894.

As only first degree murderers faced execution, Mr. Warner argued he committed second degree murder. Why did he murder Lizzie Peak? In essence, he claimed he didn’t kill her: his drunkenness did. The prosecutor convinced the jury that he “got drunk on purpose.” In an unusual occurrence for the 1890s, Warner appealed his sentence six times. They didn’t help. Fortunately, this didn’t drive him to drink.

Without comparison, I found Joel Clough the most intriguing person to meet the hangman’s noose in Burlington County. As difficult as this will be for readers to believe, he attended Ms. Freeman’s execution. Apparently, it impressed him so much that he decided to make the transition from audience member to participant. Following a tumultuous relationship with Mary Hamilton and an even harsher one with the bottle, Clough decided to permanently end his dealings with Ms. Hamilton on April 5, 1833. He returned a dagger she gave him as a gift by plunging it into her chest eight times. Following his arrest, he became the first person to ever escape from Mount Holly Prison. Cough didn’t excel at getting away from things. He unsuccessfully attempted suicide at one point, too.

During his trial, Clough tried to prove “temporary insanity” at the time of the murder. He even brought in experts on mental illness; something very unusual in the 1830s. In addition, he blamed his upbringing for leading him to kill. The jury didn’t agree. The county executed him on 7/26/33. For reasons that mystify me, he personally put on the hood and placed the rope around his neck.

The American spirit of innovation applied to some of these executions. Instead of having a door drop, the county used a 364 pound weight attached to a rope and cross beam on Philip Lynch. In 1907 the State of New Jersey took over the role of executing prisoners. In 1906, the county knew this would be its last time and decided to make it memorable. Deputies tied Rufus Johnson and George Small back-to-back and hanged them for the murder of Moorestown resident Florence Allinson.

In his play, Justice, John Galsworthy had a prison guard utter the prescient observation: “If it wasn’t for women and alcohol, this place would be empty.” The same observation could be made for many of the executions that took place in Burlington County between 1832 and 1906. The fascination with violence stood out more, though. The number of people who attended these executions in person boggles the mind. With that in mind, the voyeuristic violence in our society makes our era seem like the idyllic one.

Airline Anxiety

“I was drunk and stole a case of beer from the liquor store. Then three cops came. I got one of them in a headlock. Then they tased me three times,” the gentleman seated next to me said.

Thus began my return trip to Philadelphia from Fayetteville.

I worry a lot when I travel. Did I forget something? Will I make my connecting flight? Is the dog going to have any wild parties while I’m out? Etc. While I don’t enjoy the surprises that always come up when I’m on the road, I’ve sure met some thought-provoking people. Last Friday, during my return trip from a week long training session in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, I met the most…well, I guess interesting would be the best word.

I boarded the plane and took my seat on the aisle next to a young man. From his boyish facial features and shaggy hair, I estimated his age somewhere around twenty-four. He looked like Keith Moon only with dark rimmed glasses. He reminded me even more of the late Who drummer with the first thing he said to me.

“Do they serve alcohol on this plane?” His voice sounded like Robert Mitchum’s in the movie Cape Fear.

“They do,” I replied. “But they charge you for the drinks.”

“Aw, man. I need a drink. I’m leaving Arkansas to get away from some trouble I ran into. I got out of jail because I’m crazy.”

Did I mention this was the first time I ever met this guy?

“No, you don’t have anything to worry about,” he reassured me. “I’m not dangerously crazy.”

Suddenly, I needed a drink.

As he proceeded to relate the details of his run-in with Arkansas law enforcement, my mind drifted back to his “crazy” statement. While trying to wrap my mind around why he would think large quantities of alcohol would be good treatment for a chemical imbalance of the brain, a young man seated behind us joined in the conversation.

“I hear when they tase you, you shit your pants.”

My interlocutor turned around, “Oh, yeah. I did.”

All of a sudden, my alcohol related mishaps didn’t seem as embarrassing to me.

He faced me and fidgeted. “Man, when are we going to get going?”

“I’m sure we’ll be taking off soon,” I assured him.

I introduced myself and he told me his name. For the sake of this piece, I’ll refer to the young man as “Mitch”. We talked about catching connecting flights and our final destinations. In order not to concern any Chambers of Commerce or Departments of Tourism, I won’t disclose Mitch’s.

After exchanging these pleasantries, I opened a book and tried to read. To my relief the plane taxied towards the runway.

“Aw, man. It’s about time.”

My fingers clenched the book as the crew delivered the safety instructions. For the first time while on a plane, I worried about my well-being. The cabin lights dimmed.

“Here we go!” Even with the seatbelt around his lap, Mitch bounced up and down.

The plane came to a stop. The captain then announced: “Our departure has been delayed for another eighteen minutes according to air traffic control.  Here are your tax dollars at work, folks. Just sit tight. In thirteen minutes we’ll be heading out to the runway.”

“Aw, man.” Mitch’s lugubrious lament filled my ears.

Sweat escaped from my pores. Was it because this postponement only gave me fifteen minutes to catch my connecting flight in Charlotte? Or was it because I worried how Mitch would handle this? I don’t think the later caused my anxiety. After all, this would defer the time until he’d have access to alcohol. He did say it took three cops and three tases, right?

The plane finally became airborne. Once the pilot turned off the “fasten your seatbelt” sign, Mitch asked me to move so he could use the rest room. He even apologized for inconveniencing me.  I thought that a nice gesture, but an unnecessary one. With him away from his seat, I hoped the drink cart would pass by before he returned.

I had no such luck.

Mitch quickly got back. Once again, he said he was sorry for my having to move. The minor disruption didn’t trouble me a bit. A far more menacing matter loomed: the drink cart ominously approached.

I took a deep breath as it parked next to my seat.

“Would you like something to drink?” The flight attendant’s words entered my ears like daggers. My pulse accelerated.

“I’ll have a soda.” Mitch replied.

What? Did I hear that right? Did he order a soft drink?

The sound of a loud “click” confirmed. Mitch got a soda.

*

As I prepared for the dash to my connecting flight, I wished him the best of luck with his legal troubles.

“Oh, it’ll be fine. I just need to pay a few things off and I’ll be good.”

Mitch’s financial problems would explain why he didn’t purchase an alcoholic beverage. Let’s face it: for the money they charge to drink on an airplane, it would be cheaper to purchase a liquor store.

I did make it to my connecting flight. In fact, I had enough time to get something to drink. Due to my dehydration from sweating so much, I got a bottled water. After looking at what they charged me for it, I could’ve made a down payment on that liquor store. At any rate, it shows that there’s no point in worrying about things. In retrospect, I don’t think Mitch such a frightening guy. He was a good person who made some bad choices and then chose to keep making them.

Book Review – Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Does the bureaucracy where you work seem out of control? Do you feel your company populated with dregs each more incompetent than the next? Do you often catch yourself lamenting the demons that drive you to return every day? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, read Catch-22. No matter how bad things get, they will seem the paragon of efficiency by comparison.

I recently read this iconic work by Joseph Heller for the first time. A gentleman in one of my writing groups recommended it on several occasions. Every time he discussed it he broke into laughter. I thought: a story about a bomber squadron during World War II. The commander keeps extending the number of missions air crews must complete before going home. What could be funny about that? Within a few pages I couldn’t restrain my chuckles. To borrow the opening line of the book, “It was love at first sight.”(Loc 211)

Heller’s use of absurdist humor impressed me the most. He fired off comic phrases like the bullets out of a machine gun. Here’s a segment of an address by Colonel Cargill.

“Men,” he began his address to the officers, measuring his pauses carefully. “You’re American officers. The officers of no other army in the world can make that statement. Think about it.” (Loc 592)
Another great sentence along similar lines read as follows.

Colonel Korn’s rule was a stroke of genius, Colonel Korn explained in his report to Colonel Cathcart. Under Colonel Korn’s rule, the only people permitted to ask questions were those who never did. Soon only people attending were those who never asked questions, and the sessions were discontinued altogether, since Clevinger, the corporal and Colonel Korn agreed that it was neither possible nor necessary to educate people who never questioned anything. (Loc 718)

While I found those humorous, the most comedic line addressed Colonel Cathcart’s view of the opposite sex.

No such private nights of ecstasy or hushed-up drinking and sex orgies ever occurred. They might have occurred if either General Dreedle or General Peckem had once evinced an interest in taking part in orgies with him, but neither ever did, and the colonel was certainly not going to waste his time and energy making love to beautiful women unless there was something in it for him. (Loc 3851)

One incident in the book, while embellished for comic effect, bothered me. Due to a bizarre snafu, Colonel Cathcart believed Doc Daneeka killed in combat. He sent the following letter to the doctor’s wife.

Dear Mrs., Mr., Miss, or Mr. and Mrs. Daneeka: Words cannot express the deep personal grief I experienced when your husband, son, father, or brother was killed, wounded or reported missing in action. (Loc 6281)

Granted, Heller used this to show the heartless and callous aspects of the colonel’s personality as well as an uncaring and inhumane bureaucracy. He certainly made his point, but even I thought this passage too harsh.

While Heller populated his prose with humor, he saved the real comedy for his character descriptions. While all of them riveted my attention, Major Major Major Major stood out at the most bizarre. Condemned to spend his entire career as a Major due to his name, here’s how the author described him.

Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them. With Major Major it had been all three. Even among men lacking in distinction he inevitably stood out as a man lacking more distinction than all the rest, and people who met him were always impressed with how unimpressive he was. (Loc 1571)

His moral character reflected his limited abilities. He advocated thrift and hard work and disapproved of loose women who turned him down. (Loc 1575)

My favorite line from the book entailed how Major Major always did what his elders wanted him to. I laughed while writing this section.

He was told to honor his father and his mother, and he honored his father and his mother. He was told that he should not kill, and he did not kill, until he got into the Army. Then he was told to kill and he killed. (Loc 1613)

While I enjoyed reading Catch-22 I thought the author could have structured it better. What I remembered most were the character sketches and vignettes. The overall story about Yosarian, the protagonist who longed to go home, got lost at times. His quest became impossible since the commander kept raising the number of missions for his crews to fly. I don’t remember much about this key portion of the book due to the digressions.

Due to the entertaining presentation of the story, I’d strongly recommend Catch-22 to anyone who enjoys satirical writing. Once I finished the book, something started to bother me, though. Heller served in the Second World War as a bombardier. It made me wonder just how much of this work fictitious.

Book Review – Corydon by Andre Gide

Andre Gide found Corydon so subversive that he only printed a dozen copies when he wrote it. You know there’s an issue when even the author thinks his work too controversial. To compound this, Gide kept those copies in a drawer. He didn’t release Corydon to the public until 1920: nine years later! He included the following quote in his preface: “’Friends,’ said Ibsen, ‘are dangerous not so much because of what they make you do, but what they prevent you from doing.’” (Loc 50) He went on to write:

However, I consider the considerations that I expose in this little book to be of the greatest importance, and I believe it necessary to present them. But, on the other hand, I was very worried about the public and I was ready to seal my thoughts as soon as I believed they could trouble good order. That is why, rather than by personal prudence, that I stuffed Corydon into a drawer and smothered it there for such a long time. However, these last months have persuaded me that this little book, as subversive as it might appear, is only fighting against lies, and nothing is unhealthier, for the individual and for society, then (sic) to accredit lies. (Loc 56)

Just what subject could be so disturbing and contentious for the public good? Corydon served as Gide’s philosophical justification of the then taboo topic of homosexuality.

While I’m heterosexual myself, I knew I had to read this book. I have monumental respect for those who willingly risk personal or professional well-being for the sake of their principles. I also admire people willing to fight for their civil rights in an intransigent society that refuses to yield. For those reasons, I dove into Corydon.

The unorthodox structure won’t appeal to all readers. Gide crafted it in the form of four dialogs between Corydon and an unnamed narrator. He broke the first into three parts, the second into seven, and the third into five. The fourth diverged from this pattern in that it had only one part. I didn’t care for the lack of symmetry.

Although scandalous at the time of publication, I found the narrative dry. Gide performed exhaustive research on his topic and cited many scientific studies on the subject of “uranism” as it was known in his day. Corydon, the character, did espouse some ideas that got my attention. For instance in regard to animal mating, “Fertilization is not what an animal is seeking, simply sensual pleasure.” (Loc 410) Corydon quoted Pascal’s observation that, “all tastes are natural.” The most jarring text read, “…sadism accompanies heterosexuality more than uranism does…” (Loc 358) Expressions such as the later helped to animate the book and make up for the “scientific” parts.

Walter Ballenberger did a good job translating. I did have a few minor issues. At one point Corydon removed a book by Rabelais from his shelf. He then read a passage to the narrator. In the e-book, only two and-a-half lines of periods followed; not the text the speaker cited. I also didn’t like the footnote layout. With most e-books, clicking on the number will take readers to the details. In this version of Corydon, I had to go to the end of the chapter to read them. It became cumbersome.

While Gide published Corydon as an effort to address bigotry, he included some of his own. He wrote the following virulent anti-Semitic remarks:

The Jews have become masters in the art of breaking up our most respected institutions, the most venerable, those that are even the foundation and support of our Western civilization, for the profit of I do not know what kind of license and what looseness of morals which fortunately is repugnant to our good sense and our instinct of Latin sociability. (Loc 1165)

It’s difficult to take the author seriously when he’s just as prejudiced as the target audience.

In spite of that, I thought Corydon erudite and interesting. It’s difficult to comprehend the context of the book as now homosexuals share many of the same rights as heterosexuals. At one point Gide wrote, “The most important thing is not to be cured but to live with the illness.” (Loc 181) Thanks in part to Gide, we now live in a more enlightened era where one’s sexual orientation isn’t viewed as a disease.

Theatre Review – David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross at Burlington County Footlighter

I spent this past Saturday with a group of bitter, middle aged men who drank and swore copiously. The entire conversation entailed lamenting how much they couldn’t stand their jobs, wanted to get even with their bosses and get rich in the process. Before readers get the impression I didn’t spend this weekend any differently than usual, I attended a theatrical performance. I had the pleasure of watching the Burlington County Footlighters present David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize winning drama, Glengarry Glen Ross. What a job they did!

Robert Hawkey did an exceptional job animating the character of Richard Roma; a role iconized by Al Pacino in the movie version. Mr. Hawkey made the personality entirely his own. When he first appeared on stage gesticulating in his gold suit, he scared me. I sat in the front row and worried that by the end of the play I’d be walking out the door owning a hundred acre time share in Florida. It takes great faith in one’s histrionic capabilities to take on a character that conniving and, yet, convincing, but he did so exceptionally well. According to the playbill, this run of Glengarry Glen Ross is his first theatrical performance in seven years. Upon discovering that, I respected him even more. Either he possessed natural confidence performing in front of an audience, or he’s so good at his craft he could act like he did. Either way, bravo.

I also enjoyed Breen Rourke’s rendition of Shelly “The Machine” Levine. I’ve always thought that character a hybrid of serious pathetic loser Willy Loman and comical pathetic loser Al Bundy: disgraceful and, at the same time, comical. Mr. Rourke displayed these dual characteristics throughout his performance. His emphatic pleading with Mr. Williamson (played by Kevin Esmond) for “prime” leads in the opening scene led me to empathize with the character. Moments into his spiel, however, I got tired of listening to his whining. I felt sorry for him, but wished he would go away. Rourke’s exceptional acting chops made me forget the later point shortly after.

In essence, Roma served as the archetype of the consummate winner, while “The Machine” embodied the pitiful loser. Hawkey’s and Breen’s superb interaction in the final scene really concretized this dichotomy. I give both actors credit for executing this so well.

Dave Moss (played by Daniel Brothers) and George Aaranow (Alan Krier) worked as great contrasts, too. These thespians brought out the subtleties in Mamet’s text through their interface. I’ve read the play, but didn’t catch the semi-humorous subtext of the conversation. Brothers’ performance of the devious schemer to Krier’s unwitting dupe allowed me to understand the underlying dynamics of the drama much better.

For those unfamiliar with Mamet’s writing, young children should not accompany parents to this performance. There’s a lot of freaking bad language: no bullsnot. While many will no doubt enjoy witnessing the characters swear at and berate their boss (kudos to Kevin Esmond for taking it all in stride), I’d recommend doing so in the company of a mature audience.

The stage crew did a great job with the set design. They converted an elegant Chinese Restaurant set into a trashed real estate office. I applaud how they managed to get it done during a short 15 minute intermission.

I thoroughly enjoyed the Burlington County Footlighters presentation of Glengarry Glen Ross. Intense tragedy populated with delicate interjections of dark humor, and foul language filled the evening. I just hope I don’t run into the cast the next time I’m in the market for real estate. If they can sell as well as they can act, they just might set me back a couple hundred grand for swamp side acreage.