Can We Take A Joke Anymore?

Kinsler

Did you watch this year’s White House Correspondents Dinner?  Comedian Michelle Wolf’s scorched-earth approach to roasting those in public service caused some to curl up in the fetal position, sucking their thumbs, and pondering why she was being such a meanie.  Others laughed their asses off.  What’s clear is that her performance fell squarely in the middle of our political divide.  Wolf took a lot of heat for her performance and it left me wondering…can we still take a joke?

I sat with improve comedian Jeff Kinsler to discuss the performance and our growing sensitivity when it comes to comedy routines.  Check it out on my Pop Life podcast here.

Listen and then share your thoughts on our pc culture.

Finding Purpose Through Work

I read a recent article from ABC News that reinforces what we’ve heard for years; that American workers work more than anyone in the industrialized world.  We take less vacation, work longer days, and retire later.

With that in mind and considering how other aspects of daily living keep us grinding, how can we possibly find time for meaningful community engagement?  One way is to be more efficient with our time and resources.  Consider getting involved in community engagement projects through your job.

As an Influencer

If you lead an organization and have access to resources, consider engaging in projects that connect your business to issues, events, or causes that are important to you.  It’s an opportunity to strengthen your brand and raise your profile in the community that you serve.  You’ll inspire your staff by creating team-building opportunities that bring multiple departments or constituencies together for a higher purpose.

I decided to do this in my own shop by introducing a project that met our mission, contributed to work productivity, and created meaningful community engagement.  We decided to use our capacity as a journalistic organization to spend a year reporting on the growing poverty rate in our community.  Having grown up in Section 8 housing most of my childhood, it is an issue that is near and dear to my heart.  The City Limits Poverty Project involves the entire staff from reporters and producers to development staff to marketing and communications to front office.  The team felt a sense of pride and purpose that combined professional and personal interests.  It has also generated positive press and professional recognition for the organization.

Choose a project, identify resources, and build a team for the greater good in your community.  Your customers and constituents will feel good about their support for your organization and your staff will appreciate the opportunity for community engagement without impacting the busy home life.  It’s far bigger impact than making an anonymous donation.

As a Team Member

Rose Garden
A group of volunteers maintains the rose garden at Thornden Park

You can help contribute to a positive company culture, give back to your community, and still make the kids soccer game on the weekend.  If offered the opportunity to participate, take it.  If community engagement is not a part of your company’s culture, introduce it.  While many companies large and small make annual contributions to local charities, there is greater value in organizing your own events.  The team-building, publicity, and goodwill can have a long lasting, positive impact beyond simple recognition for a cut check.  Make this case to your employer and offer to lead the effort.  Much of the work will be done during regular business hours (wink wink) and you’ll be telling your friends about it over cold micro brews after the weekend softball game.  Again, everyone wins.

Food or clothing drives, public park clean-up efforts, job shadowing for at-risk youth, or donating services to needy non-profits are great examples of how some businesses in my community choose to get involved.  An advertising firm in our town chooses a local nonprofit each year for a brand and awareness campaign makeover.  I think that is a cool idea.

Combining your community involvement and work activities creates life efficiencies that can alleviate your over-scheduled life.  Because of all the time that we have to give, “me” time is essential for a healthy, happy life.

 

A Bourbon to Call My Own

The Research

A few months ago, I decided to add to my growing list of vices by delving into the world of whiskey. Those who know me best know that wine is my passion and mixed drinks are my occasional side piece.

Why bourbon? Because I’m a “Zagger” by nature. When others zig, I tend to zag. My good friend David is a Scotch drinker and an enthusiastic one at that. The more expensive the Scotch, the more excitedly his tail wags. I tasted a few glasses of Scotch with him and I think they were pretty good. Think – because I really had no idea what I was tasting, what I should have been looking for, or what the standard flavor profile should be.

So when I decided to “zag” my way to bourbon, I had to know what I was getting into. The research started in earnest right off the bat. The first decision was to concentrate on Kentucky bourbon because of its historic lore and the fact that it is a truly American spirit.

Next I wanted to learn what differentiated bourbon from other whiskies like Scotch, Irish and Canadian whiskey. Here’s where YouTube became one of the greatest developments in the history of man. You can learn about ANYTHING on YouTube. Knowing the differentiators like ingredients, mash bills, aging process and time spent in the barrels helped me gain an understanding of what I should be looking for in flavor profiles like sweet corn, smoke, baking spices, burnt sugar etc.

Armed with a basic understanding of distilling process, technique, and flavors, I conducted some public polling via social media to find out what my friends and acquaintances were drinking. Bourbon heads are all too eager to welcome you down a path of debauchery so the responses came pouring in. Dr Fred G gave a shoutout to Makers Mark as did Kerry O. Two women chimed in; Michelle, suggested Larceny and Leigh proffered Woodford Reserve. Cousin Ian put a plug in for Knobb Creek. But responding to a Facebook post wasn’t personal enough for my buddy Matt H. He needed to chat by phone. The excitement and enthusiasm heard in his voice for my decision to cause further damage to my liver was…disturbing to say the least. It was as if a child were taking his first steps. Matt threw Makers Mark, Blanton’s, Woodford Reserve, Knobb Creek and many others my way.

I pondered all of the recommendations and, after careful consideration, made the most beginner move that I could. A flavored bourbon: Knobb Creek Smoked Maple. LOL! It’s laughable today but enjoyable at the time. I had enjoyed smoked maple Manhattans at a local restaurant so I thought…why not?

Eventually, I ditched the training wheels and watched several more YouTube videos to further my education. A favorite channel emerged in It’s Bourbon Night. I learned a ton from the channel’s two hosts.

I declared a mission: Find YOUR bourbon, Joe Lee. Find your “go-to” “Steady Eddie” everyday sipper. Over a two month period, and to my wife’s dismay, I purchased a bottle of Kentucky Straight Bourbon per week in an effort to find MY bourbon. Because a man without a bourbon to call his own is just a simple man.

The Bourbons

I purchased 10 bourbons: Woodford Reserve, Four Roses Single Barrel, Eagle Rare, Evan Williams Single Barrel, Rowan’s Creek, Willett Pot Still Reserve, Woodford Reserve Double Oaked, Buffalo Trace, Booker’s Small Batch, and Colonel E.H. Taylor, Jr. I tasted another 3 in restaurants and bars: Maker’s Mark, Basil Hayden’s, and Old Forrester 1920.

What I like

I like a somewhat balanced bourbon with stronger notes of sweet corn, coffee, caramel, butterscotch, and hints of tobacco leaf, cinnamon, dark fruit, wood, and floral notes. I’m not big on the more peppery profile that bourbons with higher rye content in the mash bill offer. Slightly higher rye is ok. And bourbons that are too well balanced where flavors that I enjoy don’t shine are a little too boring for me (like Woodford Reserve). The alcohol content sweet spot for me is between 90-100 proof.

Winner Winner Chicken Dinner

Before I get to the ranking of my top 4, I should say that a key criteria for determining MY bourbon is accessibility. That is, when I want it…when I need it…can I get it. For that reason alone, Buffalo Trace, an affordable, damn fine bourbon did not make the list. Damn it! It took more than a month of searching until I was able to get my hands on a bottle. They fly off of the shelf so quickly and Buffalo Trace is very discerning when it comes to distribution. So fresh off a tasting today, here are the 5 bourbons that occupy my top 4 and they are pictured with the music that I am most likely to listen to while drinking them.

#4 Tie Bookers Small Batch and Willett Pot Still Reserve

I enjoy these bottles equally but for very different reasons. Each is a very different experience. The Booker’s is small batch, cask strength and, therefore by bourbon making standard, high in alcohol content. At 129.7 proof, this is rocket fuel in a bourbon bottle. Kentucky hugs for days. It’s a viscous experience with caramel, oak, vanilla & baking spice notes. I have to drink this with a block of ice and something gritty like The Black Keys on the turntable. And honestly, I can only have one glass. On the other side, the Willett is smooth with brown sugar, molasses, and coffee notes. At 94 proof, I enjoy it neat with classic jazz, mellow Aretha Franklin. This is more of an everyday sipper for me while the Booker’s requires a special mood.

#3 Woodford Reserve Double Oaked

Double Oaked means that the bourbon was aged twice in charred oak barrels for a darker appearance and smokier flavor. It’s full-bodied with hazelnut, caramel, and fruit notes. It has a sweet and woody finish. Its 90.4 proof allows me to enjoy neat with something smokey and bluesy like Nina Simone. I could drink this every day.

#2 Four Roses Single Barrel

While I don’t typically like bourbons with high rye mash bills, I do enjoy the slight peppery experience that Four Roses SB offers. At 60% corn and 35% rye, the rye doesn’t overpower the sweet notes that I enjoy. This was probably the 2nd or 3rd bourbon that I purchased so it’s been King of the Hill for quite some time. Single barrel production means that each bottling comes from a single barrel and, therefore, will offer slightly different experiences with each bottle. I like little surprises. Tasting notes include sweet corn, cherry, brown sugar, and vanilla. It’s spicy like Solange, unpredictable like Solange, and sweet like Solange. At 100 proof, I can enjoy neat or with an ice ball depending on how rough my work day was.

#1 Colonel E.H. Taylor, Jr Small Batch

One taste of the Colonel and I was hooked on the vanilla, sweet corn, cherry tobacco, and chocolate notes with a long enjoyable finish. Bottled in Bond means that the bourbon was distilled in 1 season and aged at least 4 years. The “small batch” production adds some unique characteristics in that the flavors are concentrated from a small selection of warehouse barrels. This bourbon is 100 proof and I always drink it neat. You can find me drinking this to something groovy that puts me in my feels like Al Green. The pepper isn’t out front and it has less burn than the Four Roses which is why the Colonel enjoys my top spot for now.

I’m looking forward to tasting more to see if E.H. Taylor will remain my go-to bourbon. I’ll give my liver a break for a while, though.

If you have a favorite bourbon that you think I should try, I’m all ears. I’ll also entertain your arguments if you think Scotch is the more desirable whiskey to imbibe.

Cheers!

A Star Child Suffers Winter Blues

I am trapped inside a fishbowl which, in turn, is trapped inside a snow globe. Before moving to the Syracuse, NY area some 25 years ago, I never considered myself a son of “the south”. Having been born and raised in Baltimore, MD, we considered ourselves as a north-southern city if there is such a thing. But southern is now how I see myself. The further north I go, the more southern I become.

Winter is traditionally a tough time for me. I was a child of the outdoors, an explorer, experimenter, and a menace. During the calendar’s coldest month of January, the average high temperature in Baltimore is 41 degrees Fahrenheit. In Syracuse the average high is 32 degrees. When you add windchill and lake effect snow on top of that, the affects of winter are a harsher assault on my genetic code. And these winters are long. Much longer than my soul can bear.

“Take up skiing,” they say. “Try ice skating or snowshoeing,” recommend others. For a Star Child born in May who believes the Universe’s greatest gift to mankind is the summer sun, you might as well suggest I swim with alligators. I remain obdurate in my refusal to embrace wonderland.

The deep cold of winter here has a profound affect on my psyche. It’s pretty enough; the snow that is. Postcard pretty even. But a 1 degree morning like this very morning in January is as equally disabling as it is beautiful. The near back-breaking snow shoveling and frozen limbs limit my exposure to 20 minuets of outdoor time. Enough time to shovel a path for my short-legged dogs to handle their business and enough time to create a trail leading to the bird feeders to care for my winged, wild pets.

Crestfallen with each snowflake settling on the ground, I’ve come to accept that I suffer from more than just “cabin fever”. That it is, more clinically speaking, Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD. I didn’t need to spend money on a shrink to come up with that one either. The associated symptoms of depression, social withdrawal, hopelessness, and fatigue align closely with my personal experience. The noticeable mood swings, the desire to opt out of holidays, the crawling out of bed when I’d rather stay hidden beneath the blanket all point to SAD. And the only thing guaranteed to bring me true joy is a sunny day with temps above 70. The kind of day that I can wander about, soaking in views, receiving all that my environment has to offer. A seat on a park bench. A songbird composing notes. Wind rustling leaves. A walk around the lake. These are spirit lifting experiences for me.

Treatment options for SAD include exercise (it helps a bit); medications (which I refuse); and therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy chronotherapy, and light therapy (none of which soothes my inner skeptic). Instead I chose a far more expensive treatment option. My wife Angela and I purchased a ocean-side condo in Florida. And while the holiday spent there this year was nothing short of magical, here I sit in Syracuse in January on a 1 degree day lamenting winter.

I plan to hit the gym at some point today for a pick-me-up, watch a soccer match later for mid-day entertainment, and begin planning for my next 2 therapy sessions in Florida this coming March and April. All in an effort to devise a plan to survive my 25th winter in the Winterfell of North America.

There is no real purpose to this post other than for me to finally, after 25 years, give voice to my sadness and acknowledge my difficulties.

My wife is inviting me now to get a manicure and pedicure and, at this point, I’m willing to try something new. If you also suffer from SAD and have words of wisdom to share, I’m all ears.

Thanks for listening.

Socially Awkward AF

Surveying the room with dread. Identifying traps and looking for opportunities. Safe zones in the corners. Land mines around the bar. I walk smiling and nodding. Looking for a hack. Crtl + Alt + Del. I need a reboot. Intercepted by man. I recognize him from the elevator ride up. “Wamp Wamp Waa”. He sounds like Charlie Brown’s teacher. I nod, feigning amusement. I chuckle with a sound I’ve been perfecting for years for these very moments. Another man touches his shoulder. Crtl + Alt + Del. Esc Esc. Just the hack I need to exit. Dipping in and out of uncomfortable spaces. Crtl + Alt + Del. Esc Esc. Made it to the bar. I sip bad wine and pretend it’s good. “Wamp Wamp Waa”. He found me using the same network pathway. We are joined by a woman. Small talk ensues. The man remarks on the extraordinary beauty of a young woman entangle in conversation among a pod of people next to us. He gives a foreboding glance and I wonder if he is conscious of #MeToo. “Wamp Wamp Waa”, they say to me. Reciprocity is expected. Crtl + Alt + Del. I need to hack this conversation. Esc Esc. A familiar face peers in my direction from a different pod of people and I make my way. Crtl + Alt + Del Dipping in and out of uncomfortable spaces. In familiar face, I’ve found a safe zone. Small talk ensues and again I am trapped.

Circuiting the room like a signal with no receiver. Page loading indicator just churning. That’s me in most social situations. Socially awkward as fuck. Conferences, fundraisers, meetings, it doesn’t matter. I tend to view the world through economic lenses. Inputs vs outputs. Risk vs reward. Investments vs returns. Gains vs losses. Over time, I have determined that the amount of energy expended during “small talk” is not worth the return on investment. For me…small talk is exhausting. I now know what the weather is like outside. The amount of traffic you traversed to get here. Your child’s school district. What’s my gain?

If nothing else, I am self-aware. I recognize this character deficiency. And I recognize the benefits of social capital. Yet still, social gatherings without my “wingwoman” are soul-crushing events without measurable personal benefit. This will come as a bit of a surprise for those who know me through my social media persona. The gregarious, opinionated person from Facebook is simply a personality construct for social media. A bit of personal branding if you will. The truth of the matter is that I am most comfortable sitting in a recliner with a glass of red wine reading a book or watching Netflix. Or getting caught up on the days events with my wife.

But I’m trying, friends. I’ve committed to getting out more in hopes of developing a set of skills that will help me survive social events. But the struggle is real.

The weather “Wamp Wamp Waa”. “How are things”? “What do you do”? Crtl + Alt + Del. Esc Esc….

Everyday Wines for Everyday People


The holidays are upon us and that means plenty of wine for sipping, socializing, and gift-giving.  There’s a way that you can enjoy the grape and give the grape without breaking the bank.  Simply buy tasty, inexpensive wine.  Easier said than done though, right?  No worries because I have you covered.

Understanding that taste is subjective and is as unique as the individuals doing the tasting, I hesitate to make recommendations to people based solely on what I like.  So I reached out to a couple of friends to join me in making some wine recommendations for the holidays.  I asked each to give me 3 wines under $30 per bottle that they enjoy and to tell me why they enjoy them in hopes of passing along some everyday gems to you.

First up is Joe Rustad.  Joe is a technologist from California now living in Toronto.  My wife Angela and I met Joe and his wife at a tasting at Nickel and Nickel Winery during a recent trip to Napa, CA.  He learned to love wine around his in-laws’ kitchen table, adjacent to the vineyards deep in Niagara wine country.

Here are three wines that Joe enjoys without stressing his wallet:


Napa Cellars Cabernet – Joe says this is everything that he wants out of a Napa cab.  It’s big and smooth, without too much fruit or oak.  “It’s a great example of Napa wine and taste like it costs twice as much.  Cost is about $24.

Hitching Post Gen Red – Joe says. “I normally associate Hitching Post with Pinots (because of the movie Sideways), but the amazing St. Rita Earth is rarely available under $30.  The Gen Red is a medium bodied blend under $20 and has a great balance and is just plain tasty.”

CMS Columbia Valley Red – According to Joe, CMS is a blend with a bit more oak and tannins that the other two he’s listed.  It’s a great wine for blind tastings, or to introduce to people who think that you are a wine snob.  The blend emphasizes the differences of Washington state from California.  You can score this tasty vino for about $19 a bottle.

Next is my longtime friend Rita Roane Blackwell.  I’ve know Rita since I was a teenager and her husband, Bobby, since elementary school.  Rita’s  bona fides run deep.  She is a Wine Consultant, Speaker and Planner who spends much of her time tasting wine.  For business and pleasure I assure you.  Referred to by her friends as “That Wine Girl”, Rita earned her Certification for Wine Studies from the French Culinary Institute in New York City.

Rita has tasted everything from “plunk” to the sublime.  Here are 3 wines that she enjoys without jeopardizing her son’s college fund:

2011 Bulgariana Cabernet Syrah Blend – For $17 a bottle, Rita claims that it is a super value without tasting like it.  This wine from Bulgaria has nice intense flavors of black current, cocoa and coffee with a smokey tobacco intensity.  It pairs well with a Gaucho Chili Coffee rubbed steak or a juicy burger with caramelized onions and smoked Gouda cheese. (I’m going to side-eye Rita here because she’s showing off).

Bailey Lapierre Cremant, Brut, Blanc de Noirs – A sparkling wine from Burgundy, France, Rita says, “It’s a bottle you can enjoy everyday that you want.  It’s made with all Pinot Noir grapes, and is fresh with lush fruit and a full-mouth feel.”  Average price is $24.

2015  Mouton Noir, O.P.P. –  The O.P.P. (Other Peoples Pinot Gris) from Willamette, Oregon is a Pinot Gris that Rita loves to drink during the holidays.  It’s fruit forward and well balanced.  Notes include apples and pears, and it has a tart and slightly creamy finish.  The average price is around $18.

Those who really know me know that I am a big fan of California Cabernet Sauvignon.  But I enjoy other wines too.  When I don’t want to tap into my collectibles, I turn to tasty, affordable wines that I can sip guilt-free. But first, a little about me.  I’m a drunk.  You know that.  End of story.

My 3 under $30:

2014 Conundrum  Red Blend – From the Wagner Family of Wines, the inky 2014 Conundrum is surprisingly bold.  This full-bodied wine is my everyday go-to wine.  Made of Zinfandel and Petite Syrah, Conundrum offers layers of rich flavor that include dark fruit, vanilla, burnt sugar, and cocoa.  It can stand up to a good steak or juicy burger. I had it last night while snacking on some Korean BBQ flavored beef jerky.  ‘Twas very good.  Enjoy, slightly chilled, for about $22.

2013 If You See Kay – Originally attracted by the funky label, this quickly became one of my favorite Italian wines.  It’s rich, deep purple, full-bodied and great for cold winter nights.  Notes of blackberry jam, plumb, and spice grab me by the collar and yell, “drink me”! When entertaining, I enjoy it with a homemade lamb bolognese and pasta dish or a plate of cheese and olives while watching Netflix.  80% Cab, 10% Petit Verdot, 5% Syrah, and 5% Primitivo.  It’s a steal at $20 a bottle.

Owera Vineyards Semi-Dry Riesling – For my third wine, I’m going to stay local.  Owera Vineyards is a lovely little winery located in Cazenovia, NY just a few short miles from my home.  It’s beautifully decorated and the food that they serve is outstanding.  And so is their semi-dry Riesling.  Not too sweet, this Riesling is crisp with notes of grapefruit and peaches.  It’s a good representation of New York State Riesling.  It averages around $17.  Hopefully you can find it in a shop that features a New York State wine section.  If you live in Central New York, put it on your “must visit” list.

So there you have it.  9 different wines from 3 distinctly different wine enthusiasts.  I’m sure there are dozens and dozens of wines that could be on our lists, but we want to preserve opportunity for you to go out and find some gems of your own.  I know that my future wine procurement activity will begin in earnest starting with the recommendations from Joe and Rita.  I can’t wait to discover what they enjoy about those wines.

What’s your 3 go-to wines for under $30?  Please feel free to share them here and I’ll pass along to my wine-drinking friends.

A very special thanks to Joe Rustad and Rita Roane Blackwell for generously sharing their passion for wine with us.

Thoughts on a President-elect Trump

trump

The mood on the morning of Wednesday November 9, 2016 was not what I expected or hoped it would be.  The results of the 2016 Presidential election brought immediate heartache; though the tossing and turning in the wee hours served as a harbinger of dark news.

The result brought about a profound depression that I won’t shake for sometime.  A depression, not rooted in the flip side of contested ideology, but one rooted in the selection of what I believe to be a truly vile human being.  A person who is not morally fit to hold the highest office in the land.

I’ve been on the downside of ideological contests before.  Reagan and both Bushes have bested my guys in the past but the choice was always between  differing political ideologies. You take your lumps and move on. But 2016 was very different.  2016 offered a referendum on good vs evil.

Donald Trump’s movement reached into the deepest crevasses, darkest corners, and jaded hearts to coalesce around fear, hate and ego.

Great disappointment comes when high expectations and delicately placed faith are not met. I put my faith in the American electorate. I believed that good people, fine Americans, when put to the test, would set aside party politics to prevent a misogynistic, petty and vindictive man from occupying our most sacred public office. The gut-punch on Wednesday morning was all too visceral.

Yes my friends, this one will linger for sometime.  When your oldest daughter tells you that she cried on the subway, it alters your psyche. When your youngest daughter spends a sleepless night thinking that she will inherit the potential harmful impact of this presidency, your heart withers.  These young women’s visceral fears have rocked my foundation.

This one will sting for a while.  There are those that are celebrating the Trump victory.  Celebrating like their team just won the Super Bowl.  Only there won’t be parades down Main Street and championship rings to gawk at. It will be an oppressive Supreme Court, harmful immigration policies, and global isolationism sitting on a shelf in the championship case. And no checks and balances to protect any of us.

I’ve had to sever connections with people in my life, both real and virtual, who supported Trump.  Men that I know with daughters.  Men who put a “pussy-grabbing” mental midget and party politics before the interest of their own children. People who voted for a man who considers his daughter “a piece of ass.”  Evangelicals who inked a deal with the devil.  People, who with a single vote, invited racist hate to saunter from the shadows and into the light of day.

Most times, I am generally tolerant of the differing views of others. This just can’t be one of those times.

I don’t like this choice but I will abide by it out of respect for our democracy and the office of the President of the United States.  I suspect, though, that this nauseous feeling will continue for four long years.  I invite Mr Trump to prove me wrong.

Death and Wood: An East-Coast Urbanite’s Foray in the Mid-West


Ahhh…the mid-west. I’ve been here thrice before but the visits were to major urban areas like Kansas City and Denver, and a more culturally diverse college town in Greeley, CO. But this is my first time in the sparsely populated heartland.

I made the trip to visit my dad and his wife, Erika, in Bloomfield, Nebraska where they relocated to some years ago. I got my first taste of mid-west flavor while people watching as I awaited my flight to Sioux Falls, SD in Chicago Ohare airport the day after the Cubs won the World Series. If I had a dollar for every dude that I saw sporting “dad jeans” and hiking shoes, I’d be Mark Zuckerberg rich.

Big agriculture is the name of the game in Nebraska. The landscape is gold and tan hued peppered with brown and black cows and accented with sprinkles of modernity in the form of giant white propellers.

 

Dry fields stretch as far as the eye can see and trees are small islands of green that pool around homes or separate property lines. It would be fair to say that I did not come across a true forrest the entire time that I visited.  And it is dusty. Extremely dusty. Tractors kick up clouds of dust so thick that it lingers still in the air if the wind isn’t blowing and the cutting down of end-of-season crops delivers pestilence to the doorstep of man. The flies, beetles and grasshoppers overwhelmed me. Acreages and acreages of trees and grassy plains displaced by crops of corn grown to fuel ethanol production and grazing cattle to satisfy Americas demand for beef unveils miles of barren vista. A sad sight for my urban eyes.


Bloomfield is a town with a population of 1,126 and it is what you would expect of a small Mid-western town. The pace is slow, the people are friendly, and the opportunities for fun and employment are scarce. Quaint is the adjective I used most often to describe the place. The convenience store owner, the real estate agent, and newspaper publisher that I met were all so friendly and accommodating. And they all seemed to have a great deal of respect for my dad and Erika.


Trips like these are often moments of self-discovery for me. The things that I frequently complain about, like crowds and traffic, are among the things that I miss the most about the east. You can drive for miles without seeing another car and move about the day missing human interaction as long stretches of road separate residential properties. The isolation is as depressing as the failing economy here.

The emerald green of the east with its tree covered hills, sparkling lakes, and massive traffic jams call to the urbanite in me. There are many reasons why the left and right coasts are so heavily populated. Buzzing restaurants, live music, walkable cities and communities, public art, the diversity of life itself…these things matter to many.  And yet there were some pleasurable discoveries and experiences in Nebraska. I ate an elk burger full of flavor. I shot a gun in an open field without fear of disturbing the neighbors or risk of being shot by the police for possession of a weapon. I discovered a winery that rivaled many on the Seneca Lake wine trail. These things I will long remember.  Still, my values won’t play well out here. A pair of Ferragamo shoes would be as useless as tits on a bull as they say.

My dad is nearing 78 and is as obdurate as you would expect a 78 year-old to be. He and his wife have settled in nicely in Nebraska and have become an integral part of the social fabric of Bloomfield. I amused myself, during this visit, with his obsession with wood and death. Not long ago they lived on a farm and partially heated their home by burning firewood. During this period, he collected a lot of fire wood. And although that is no longer the case, his tour of the area included areas where he collected the fire wood. Private property where he was given permission (and sometimes not) to remove fallen trees. A drive by of the old farm house revealed where he chopped the tonnage of wood collected over time.  Passing other homes I learned of the families fates including who died. Collecting and burning wood was a significant part of his life for such a long time that he now suffers from “wood envy”. He showed me properties where the homeowners had enviable stacks of wood. Piles of wood gathered in anticipation of the winter to come. The irony of a man’s obsession with collecting wood in a woodless land was not lost on me.

I am happy that they have settled into a place that they can call home. A place where neighborly connections are meaningful even in a place where people are scattered like sand in the wind. This place is good for them. It was a pleasure visiting the two of them, but the east calls to me now…and I must answer.

An Open Letter to My Daughters

ClintonObama
President Barack Obama and Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton wave together during the third day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia , Wednesday, July 27, 2016. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

My two loves. I come to you in this forum because, as you well know, my fingers are often far more eloquent than my tongue. I want you to realize that you are living in extraordinary times.

You have witnessed the election and presidency of our nation’s first African-American president and the selection of the first woman to receive the presidential nomination of a major political party and potentially the first woman President of the United States. These are extraordinary accomplishments that should not be taken for granted.

I am very happy that you two watched Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech as well as the speech given by the nation’s first African-American First Lady of the United States. These are not ordinary women.

If you follow this presidential election, you will undoubtedly hear a range of opinions on Hillary Clinton. You will hear that she is just another politician. You will hear that she cannot be trusted. You will hear that she is self-serving. These are not your father’s beliefs.

The truth of the matter is that Hillary Clinton (just like our First Lady) is a phenomenal woman. A woman who devoted her life to public service because of early childhood experiences and the political climate of her youth. Both of these women have achieved greatness and I want you to know that you do not rise to this level without waking your inner phenomenal woman.

As a girl, Hillary Rodham was profoundly affected by the stories of her mother being abandoned as a child. A child often left to fend for herself. Who was there to protect this child? Who was there to shield her from harm? Or coach her potential? And if this could happen to her mother, how many other children in our society must suffer from similar circumstances and neglect? A phenomenal woman takes that kind of experience and internal dialogue and turns it into a calling. Ask yourself, why was Hillary Rodham selected to be the first student in Wellesley College history to deliver a commencement address? She was not of privileged stock. It is because she was identified as an extraordinary, passionate individual… a phenomenal woman.

I am here to tell you that there is nothing particularly special about Hillary Clinton. The phenomenal woman exists in every girl. You just have to wake her up. And I see her in you two already. Imani, you have been identified by your employer as a woman worth investing in. It is because you show promise and rise above expectations. You are awakening the phenomenal woman. Hadiya, you are driven by your desire to exceed as a student. Your being singled out in your summer program as the student who showed the most promise in your major is an awakening of your phenomenal woman. The two of you must recognize her, nurture her and bring her to life.

Being extraordinary is not inherent to special people. It is an individual choice. It requires effort and discipline. It is conscious action. Most of all, it requires belief in yourself and the belief that you can transcend the obstacles that would consign you to mediocrity. It is summoning your phenomenal woman.

I mention our First Lady and Hillary Clinton as examples of extraordinary women and there are hundreds of others. But you need not look any further than your own home for the greatest example of all. Your mother is exemplary. A black girl from a small Virginia town and a non-traditional educational path does not become a Vice President of major company without awakening her inner phenomenal woman. At home, we jokingly say that we know when mom has taken her BB pill. It is just a different way of saying that her phenomenal woman is in action. Just know that when she pushes you, she pokes your dormant phenomenal woman. When she challenges you, she challenges the phenomenal woman in you. She knows, as do I, that you have the ability to be extraordinary in whatever you do. You need only breathe life into your phenomenal woman.

You both have asked me at different times in your life if I was ever disappointed that I did not have a son. I understand the question because I understand the value that our society places on male children.  But my response has always been the same. I have who I am supposed to have. The lives that I helped bring into this world are the lives that I have been entrusted to shape and mold. You are my destiny and my purpose in life. You are beautiful, talented young women who can be and do anything that you want to do. You need only exercise your imagination, remove your limitations, and awaken your phenomenal woman. And always remember that our love for you knows no boundaries.

Dad

Thoughts on Napa


With the recent trip to California wine country, I have successfully checked off another item on the bucket list. It is certainly a must visit spot for lovers of food and wine.

In lieu of boring you to death with a chronological narrative of the getaway, I thought I’d rank the experiences to give you an idea of the highlights and lowlights. 

First…we eat!


Given that Napa is one of the leading wine producing regions in the world, it stands to reason that the culinary scene would be just as competitive.  While Napa is home to the French Laundry, one of the best restaurants in the country and perhaps the world, it also boast a number of fine eateries that are far easier to get a table in. Running through the alphabet and not getting far beyon the “b’s”, we dined at the following: Botega, Bouchon, Bouchon Bakery, Bistro Jeanty, Brix, Gott’s Roadside, The Grill at Silverado, Lucy’s, and Morimoto.  And our favorite dining experience was…

#1 – Actually not a restaurant at all.  It was the Delicacies and Cave tour offered by Del Dotto winery. It’s not something that they do often but when they do…oh boy! The post cave tour delicacies pairing was prepared by Del Dotto’s head chef, Joshua Schwartz, in their state-of-the-art kitchen. The chef brought considerable culinary skills to the party as he is a former chef at the French Laundry. The small bites included a lobster roll on toasted Brioche, caviar and sweet corn egg mousse (pictured lower left), pasta with collard greens and pork shank Pastrami, and an American Wagyu Beef and Black Truffle slider all perfectly paired with delicious wine. There were two other food and wine-loving couples in our tour group which added to the positive experience. Our Del Dotto wine ambassador was knowledgeable about the wine, wine making process, company history and the food. Del Dotto surpassed all of our restaurant experiences. The total cost was $190 for the two of us.

#2 – For me it was the French centric Bistro Jeanty and their succulent Coq Au Vin (pictured upper left). Angela was less than pleased with her menu choice which happened to be sole. In her words, “it was extraordinarily bland.” Her second favorite was the chic Bardessono hotel’s restaurant Lucy. I had the lobster risotto (pictured upper right) and it was fabulous. Super chef Michael Chiarello’s Bottega restaurant was also excellent  and ranks pretty high but the meals were a bit heavy for us after a day of wine tasting.

#3 – Morimoto located in downtown Napa had tasty food and offered more than the chef’s famed sushi. Angela’s porkchop (pictured lower right) was huge and delicious and I was more than happy to help her finish it. The restaurant was large and energetic which made it a poor choice for an intimate evening.

Special mention goes out to Gott’s Roadside. Their California burger is one of the best burgers I’ve ever had.  Thanks to my friend Matt Martucci for pulling my coattail on that one.

Thumbs down goes to the Grill at The Silverado resort. The food was fair, the service lousy and the clientele…were mostly in polo shirts, golf shorts and in their 70’s. Honestly though, I blame myself for coming up short on the research.

Best Wine Tasting Experience


The experience offered by a winery is a very important part of the overall wine country vacation experience. Seeing a bit of how the wine is made, understanding the variety of soils used, distinctions in growing areas, wine-making philosophy, and even the history of the vineyard and personality of the owner help inform the wine-tasting experience.  The best experiences were those that offered tours of the facility, seated tastings, and education. These are of course at additional cost and most require advanced reservations. My least favorite are the ones where you plop down $25 bucks on the counter, get your 4 or 5 pours and a little conversation with the staff as they flutter between customers. With so many wineries and vineyards in the Napa Valley, it is impossible to visit them all even on a week-long holiday. We visited Charles Krug, Joseph Phelps, Plumpjack, Stags Leap, Cliff Lede, Opus One, Caymus, Silver Oak, Chateau Montelena, Hall Wineries, Del Dotto, and Nickel & Nickel. Here are our top 3 favorite experiences:

1# Del Dotto Estate Winery & Caves (St Helena) – Founded by infomercial king, Dave Del Dotto, Del Dotto Estate Winery offers the kind of Vegas-styled production one would expect from a media and entertainment savvy owner. Del Dotto attacks the senses with aggression upon approach. You immediately get the not-so-subtle nod to Dave’s Italian heritage. And it’s more of the same as you enter the lower level of the building. All of the decor including tile, lighting fixtures etc. are imported from Italy. The tour starts with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc and an introduction from your assigned Wine Ambassador. And with the yank of a velvet curtain, you are ushered into the “wine cave” (more of a basement than a hill-side cave). Here is where our experience gets elevated. Unlike other tours that we booked, every taste of wine (about 5 in total) was directly drawn from the barrels. You get to taste the differences in vintages, types of oak, barrel toasting grades, and regions.  For example, we were able to compare the exact same wine aged in two different barrels – one in French oak and one in American oak from Minnesota. The French oak offered sweet vanilla and burnt sugar flavors while the American oak delivered smokey bacon notes. Once done with the cave tour, our group was escorted to the private dining area for sensory overload with the delicious delicacies previously described in the dining section (pictured upper left)…and another 5 pours of wine! Overall, the wine was very good, the tour entertaining and the food/wine pairing exceptional. And that’s why it gets our top spot. If you sign up for the Delicacies and Cave tour at Del Dotto, make it your only stop that day. The tasting pours are larger than average and 10 of them pretty much knocked us on our asses. 

#2 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellar – Located in the Stag’s Leap district, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellar is a gorgeous facility with knowledgeable staff. Our tour started with a taste of Sauvingnon Blanc and an introduction to the facility, types of soil Stag’s Leap’s grapes are grown in, and their wine making methods including how the wine gets moved around the facility. The tour proceeds with a stroll through the vineyard’s hill-side wine cave. It was a gorgeous facility, beautifully decorated with touches that indicate the founder’s interest in the cosmos (pictured lower left). The cave temperature was cool and full of fresh oak aromas. The tour ended back in the main building’s tasting room with beautiful stone-covered walls and floor-to-ceiling windows behind the tasting bar that overlooked grape vines and mountain vistas.  And of course the wine was exceptional. The Estate Wine Tasting and Cave Tour is $60 per person and well worth the money.

#3 Hall Wines – Hall Wines in St Helena pays as much attention to pleasing your sense of sight as is does your sense of taste.  Founders Kathryn and Craig Hall blend their love of contemporary architecture, art, and wine-making to create one dynamic experience. After a quick trip to Hall Wines red bathroom (Kathryn’s favorite color) the HALLmark tour, like others, started with a refreshing Sauvignon Blanc. The $40 per person 45 minute tour exposes you to some eclectic modern art (pictured upper right),  contemporary architecture, and advanced wine-making techniques. A stop in one of the temperature controlled barrel rooms allowed us to taste a remarkable Cabernet Sauvignon straight from the barrel. After passing a beautiful infinity reflecting pool where club members can enjoy a glass of wine and extraordinary vistas, the tour ends with a seated group tasting of 4 outstanding wines (6 total taste from start to finish). Some of our favorite experiences occurred when we were grouped with other wine enthusiasts as was the case here. Good conversation and a shared love of wine is always a recipe for a good time.

Notables – Joseph Phelps Terrace tasting was awesome. The tour was minimal (pictured lower right) but the outstanding wine tasting on a terrace overlooking the vineyard and conversation with a fellow wine-loving couple made for a terrific first day in Napa.  Also, the tasting at Caymus deserves mention. While you don’t need reservations for a tastings, the vineyard doesn’t leave you sipping at a counter. We were seated at a private table for two nestled in their stunning garden and served 5 wines from the Wagner family of wines…including Caymus.  And you can’t go wrong with Caymus.

Least Favorite – Silver Oak – sure it was only a walk-in tasting but I somehow expected more from this reputable wine producer. There wasn’t much interaction with the server and no real history or information offered. The experience lasted  only about 15 minutes but we did purchase some nice swag from the vineyard store. Additionally, Chateau Montelena (also a walk-in tasting) was underwhelming. Located in Calistoga on beautiful grounds with a pond full of crawfish, the landmark winery failed to deliver a meaningful experience worth the drive up RT 29.

Best Tasting Wines 


This a a tough one because the taste and enjoyment of wine is rooted in personal preference. It’s all subjective. Angela and I happen to love full-bodied reds that burst with jammy fruit and because the Napa Valley is one of the best regions on earth to grow Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, the competition to be king of cabs is fierce. Whether you prefer Bordeaux styled blends, wines that are 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, or something in between chances are that if you throw a rock while blindfolded, you’ll likely strike a good one.  While we were visiting Napa for a relaxing, flavor-filled holiday, Angela and I were also on a mission to find some unique wines to add to our wine room. Here are some of our favorites:

#1 Nickel & Nickel – Located in Oakville, Nickel & Nickel was designed to produce single-vineyard wines, and as such, a relative small number of cases are produced annually. The Cabs take on the personality of the different districts that the vineyards are cultivated in. These cabs are full-bodied and inky in color, and burst with ripe, dark fruit with long finishes and smooth tannins.  We loved all the wines that were a part of the tasting but purchased the 2013 Beatty Ranch Cab from Howell Mountain – exquisite! We also bought the 2013 Quarry Cab from Rutherford and their Darien Vineyard Syrah that our host was kind enough to introduce us to but was not a part of the official tasting.  All wine was served with 3 different cheeses in a private dining room in Nickel & Nickel’s charming late 19th century, historic farmstead.

#2 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellar – Many know of Chateau Montelena’s historic 1976 win for white wine at the Judgment of Paris primarily from the movie Bottle Shock. The movie’s focus was Chateau Montelena’s story but it also highlights Stag’s Leap’s historic win for Cabernet Sauvingnon at the same international competition. The excellence in wine making continues today. We enjoyed several pours of outstanding wine including Winery Exclusive 2014 Arcadia Vineyard Chardonnay, and 2012 & 2013 Estate Collection Fay Cabernet Sauvignon.  We bought them all and joined their club.

#3 Hall Wines – Hall produces some outstanding wines and, quite frankly, this list could easily be rearranged with Hall going #1 or #2. It’s that tight of a ranking. There wasn’t one wine at Hall that I didn’t love. The 2013 Bergfeld was rich and inky with super smooth tannins and tons of ripe fruit. We snagged a bottle for the wine room and joined their club.

#4 Joseph Phelps, Plumjack, Caymus, Del Dotto- all of them easy top 3 candidates and all of them represent some of our fondest wine tasting moments. Joseph Phelps has one of the most drinkable Pinot Noirs (we snagged it) and their 2012 Backus Cab could be my favorite wine of the trip (snagged that too).  Plumjack wines are fantastic as are the wines of its sister label, Cade. We grabbed 6 bottles in all including the 2013 Plumpjack Estate Cab and 2014 Syrah. Del Dotto also offers outstanding wine and I can say I’ve never seen a bottle in a store in NY state. Most of their wine is sold to club members and visitors. We bought a Sauvignon Blanc, a fantastic red blend, and a Cab aged in American oak. It will be interesting to see if the wines are as good coming out of the bottle as they were straight from the barrels.

Disappointments – Silver Oak and Chateau Montelena. The wines were just OK and neither were worthy of the price points that you typically have to pay for them.


A final note on the Hotel Yountville and the town of Yountville, CA. The room, grounds and services at the Hotel Yountville made for a perfect holiday. From the public art on the grounds to the relaxing pool to the nightly chocolates that Angela hoarded, bagged up, and brought home, the Hotel Yountville served as the perfect base camp for our daily excursions. I remarked on several occasions to Angela that Yountville has to be the most fragrant town I’ve ever visited. Bushes of rosemary serve as landscaping and olive trees line the streets. Mix that with the aromas of fresh baked goods emanating from Bouchon Bakery and savory delights coming from Bottega and Bouchon restaurant and you create a truly happy place.  The public art spoke to the area’s unique place in the wine and culinary universe. We are counting the days until we return.

If you’ve visited Napa and have experiences to share, I’d love to hear them.