Category Archives: Food

That month when I lived in Europe.

Tonight is my last night in Europe. It’s been a long day–a long week, actually–full of buses, trains, and long distances on foot. Considering this, the idea of being back home in Texas is actually rather appealing. I look forward to driving a car again; to playing golf; to going 2-3 hours without spending money on something. I look forward to Mexican food and AM Donuts. I look forward to seeing family and friends. And, finally, I look forward to slowing down, getting rest, and resuming normal life.

Of course, I have no doubt that once I’m back, I will almost immediately wish I was still here. There are many things about being abroad that are fantastic, and I will most certainly miss them. I will miss the ubiquitous, daily encounters with so much history and culture. I will miss never-ending options for beautiful places to sit and read. I will miss the peace that comes from, if even for a short and fleeting time, escaping certain worries and anxieties that come with “home.” And, strangely, I will miss walking everywhere. For real.

My students flew home last week, and I’ve spent my time since then on two quick trips in opposite directions. I first went or Cardiff, Wales for the weekend, and then I spent the last couple of nights back in Paris. Some of the highlights:

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^ The keep at Cardiff Castle, which is right in the middle of the city center.

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^ A view of Cardiff city center from the top of the keep. I got very lucky with the weather, as you can see.

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^ The lake at Roath Park in Cardiff. I unknowingly booked an AirBnB right across the street from Roath Park, which is a large, gorgeous, and very pleasant park in the northeast part of the city. This picture is of the lake, which is only a portion of the park. Beautiful landscaping and ample places to sit and relax run throughout the property. This turned out to be one of my favorite places in all of my European travels.

Once I got to Paris on Monday, it was starting to hit me how tired I was from the past month. Summer classes are quite busy, and once my students left I sort of had a moment of realizing that I had spent lots of time everyday doing stuff for the class (as well as the on-line course I was teaching). With that moment came an unexpected onset of fatigue, which really hit me once I got off of my EuroStar in Paris around 9:30pm on Monday night. I still made the most of my two days there, but I definitely didn’t do as much as I had planned.

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^ I got an up-close look at the Arc at night, which was so much bigger than I thought it was. I have no doubt that I’m far from the first person to sheepishly say that.

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^ The fatigue didn’t prevent me from returning to L’As du Fallafel. This time I went with the traditional falafel pita sandwich; it didn’t disappoint. This will be a place I always visit if I’m lucky enough to make more Paris trips in the future.

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^ An illegally-taken picture of me reading my favorite book in my favorite room of my favorite bookstore in my favorite city. This is the copy of The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy in the Sylvia Beach reading room at Shakespeare and Company. I sat down and read the first chapter, and then I realized that I couldn’t wait until I got back home to re-read the entire thing, so I went downstairs and bought another (I think this will be my 3rd?) copy.

I didn’t end up going to any more museums during this trip, but I did meet a few people with whom I shared a few drinks, which was great. Things start and end much later in Europe than in the States, and I found myself walking home last night at an hour that I haven’t seen in a very long time. This might have been the first and only time that I felt a bit unsafe while in Europe, but this is mostly because of how late it was and my lack of any phone service. I made it to my hostel in one piece, unscathed. But I had a few hours yesterday and today of simply walking through the streets of Paris, listening to music and soaking up the city. On paper, how I spent my last few days here don’t look very glamorous, but I’ve found that I’m simply not a glamorous traveler. And I’m totally okay with that.

The highlight of my last week in Europe, though, happened right here in Oxford a few nights ago. I got the chance to have a night of conversation and laughs with the owner of the pub down the street, the Rose and Crown. It’s claim to fame is being Thom Yorke’s favorite pub, which is something I talked to Andrew (the owner) about at length. He had a few stories about Thom and the Greenwood brothers, and he also gave me an eye-opening lecture on why Tottenham is undoubtedly the best team in the English Premier League. I have officially become a Hotspur supporter. At some point during the conversation, he asked me to get him a pint. I wasn’t quite sure what he meant, and then he pointed me behind the bar and told me to pull a couple. I, of course, had him take a picture of it.

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^ My proudest Oxford moment: pulling a pint for the owner at the Rose and Crown. He wasn’t particularly impressed with my pint-pulling abilities.

Now that all of the trips, classes, and meals are over, I find myself a bit overwhelmed by the incredible opportunities I’ve had for the past five weeks and of all the places I’ve been and things I’ve done. I’ve made trips to Bath, London, Liverpool, Paris (twice), and Cardiff. I’ve been to countless museums and seen some of the most iconic artifacts and pieces of art in the world. I’ve been to the Open Championship, to the top of the Eiffel Tower, and to the ancient Roman baths. I’ve gotten to talk about Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Baldwin with an amazing group of students. I’ve been to two Oxford productions of Shakespeare plays. And I’ve gotten to sleep, eat, walk, learn, and live in a place steeped in culture and history. It’s been amazing, and I think that it will only become more amazing once time goes by and I truly get to appreciate how great the opportunity has been.

My biggest regret from my college experience is that I never studied abroad. I’ve never heard anyone say anything other than how great it was. Now that I’ve done it myself, I know firsthand how true this is. And part of me is glad that I never went as a student, because I think it made this experience even better. Although I was teaching the course, I was learning just as much about Europe as my students. I was right alongside them trying to figure out the metro system in Paris, or which coins to use to pay for our ice cream, or where in the world to go to find a public bathroom. I loved sharing these new experiences with my students, and I think they loved seeing their professor be as doltish and tourist-y as they felt.

Being abroad changes you. You learn so much about the world, how it works, and how it doesn’t work. You learn about other places, but you also learn even more about the places you know best. In order to really understand and appreciate home, you have to leave it. I am so glad I had the chance to do so. I just hope the lessons don’t fade away too quickly, and that I’m able to come back as soon as possible.

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Life after Paris

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“There were no problems except where to be happiest” – Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

I spent three nights and four days in Paris last week with my students. All of my travels, trips, and excursions in the States and abroad will hereafter reside in two categories: Before I first visited Paris, and After. After around 72 hours there, it is far-and-away my favorite city in the world. I’ll do a rapid fire of pictures, and then I’ll write a bit about why I loved it so much.

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^ The main entry-way of the Louvre. To say that the museum is big is an understatement. It’s scope and breadth is simply unbelievable. I was tired before I even got through security.

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^ A picture of everyone else taking pictures of a famous picture.

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^ One of the many looooong Louvre hallways.

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^ One of the famous panels of Monet’s Water Lilies at the Musee de l’Orangerie, which was my personal favorite of the museums I went to in Paris.

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^ Not sure why, but this one (Konto by Kazuo Shiraga) really grabbed my attention. I stared at this for a couple of minutes, completely perplexed yet totally captivated.

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^ The amazing stained-glass windows at Sainte-Chapelle.

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^ The best food I’ve had yet in Europe. The schawarma pita sandwich at L’As du Fallafel. Simply perfect.

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^ My students at our awesome, memorable evening picnic on the lawn right next to the Eiffel Tower. A couple of students and I simply walked down the street, found a butcher shop next to a bakery, and told them we wanted to have a picnic. They loaded us up with a variety of meats, cheeses, and breads, and we were not disappointed.

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^ The view from the mid-way point up the Eiffel Tower. From here, we made our way to the very top, just in time for the first twinkle at 10pm. It was a very long process from getting tickets to actually getting to the top (about 2.5 hours), but my students were thrilled and it ended up being worth it.

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^ And, of course, Shakespeare and Company, which might be the most famous bookshop in the world. I was in there three times during my trip, and each time I could have stayed longer. It oozes literary history, and the collection of books (although over-priced) is superb.

Many authors have written about the allure of Paris. I’ve read so many of these, and I’ve never been able to quite understand what it was about this particular place that was so special. Now that I’ve been there, I still don’t quite understand it completely, but I know exactly what they mean. There’s simply something about the city that is perfect for someone like me: someone that appreciates food, art, literature, and more food. Paris is a huge city, and I know that residents do not spend every day walking along the Seine, reading great novels, and eating expensive meals. They have jobs, they have problems, and they have the same daily aggravations that we all have to deal with. But, as a tourist, the city is absolutely perfect. The options for places to eat, drink, and/or read are endless. I spent time outside of cafes right next to the Louvre eating cake and reading; I spent time in the Tuileries Gardens sitting by a fountain enjoying lunch; I spent hours walking down the river, listening to music and browsing through the bouquinistes stocks of old books and random posters. All of this time was peaceful, and somehow I was able to feel comfortable, unhurried, and even uncramped. I don’t know how this is possible, because there were people, cars, and movement all around me. But something about the river, the old buildings, and the cafes creates some sort of subconscious peace for someone like me. To put it simply, it was exactly what I’ve always hoped for in a foreign place.

Most of my students are equally enamored with the city. We didn’t see a fraction of what Paris offers, and most of what we did fits squarely into the “classic tourist-y things in Paris” category. That didn’t matter. We all loved it. We did a Fat Tire bike tour; a boat ride up and down the Seine; and we went to the top of the Eiffel. We ate lots of great food, walked around 35 miles total, and overpaid tremendously for canned sodas. We were able to sit in the same spots and walk through the same door frames as the people we’ve been reading in class, like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Baldwin. All of these experiences together created something that I will never forget. I hope they don’t, either.

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This is our last week in Oxford. The plan:

  • Tonight: Dinner and then Much Ado about Nothing at Wadham College.
  • Tomorrow: Walking tour of New College.
  • Wednesday: A visit to Wheatley to find a specific sandwich shop, and then an attempt to find C.S. Lewis’s house and/or grave.
  • Thursday: Farewell dinner at the Trout.

Once my students head to Heathrow on Friday morning, I am catching a train to Cardiff, Wales for the weekend. I have absolutely nothing planned, but I’ve been told that it’s a great city. Back to Oxford on Sunday afternoon, and then one final trip before I return to Texas: I’m heading back to Paris for two more nights. I simply didn’t get enough last week, and I couldn’t resist the chance to go back. More reading. More walking. More food. And, this time, ample libations.

Cheers.

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I should have been a restaurateur.

I spent the last eleven years as a student in higher education, but none of that education taught me anything about how to participate in our capitalist society. When it comes to knowledge about making money, I’m no better than a high school graduate. But where I lack in economic prowess, I make up for it as a consumer–specifically, a consumer and purchaser of food. I don’t really know what it takes to start a restaurant, but all successful businesses start with a good idea. I’ve got a few. On that note, consider this post the beginning of my lucrative career as a restaurant mogul, starting with the following three establishments:

1) “The Gravy Boat”

My first venture, and the one that I think will end up defining me as a restaurant icon, will be built upon one common menu item: gravy. Not many foods can traverse the broad landscape of flavors and build bridges between diverse ingredients like the beauty that is gravy. For me, gravy is it’s own food group. It’s way too substantial and important to be considered a condiment or topping, yet it isn’t limited by the normal parameters of things like fruits, vegetables, or meats. Gravy lives in a culinary world of its own, with unlimited possibilities and applications. The Gravy Boat will pay homage to the greatness that is gravy.

Similar to how craft beer has re-defined the standard domestic taps of most restaurants and bars, The Gravy Boat will transform the common perception of what gravy is. Gravy Boat gravy is much more than “either cream or brown”; this is craft gravy, using nothing but the best ingredients and made fresh daily. Every menu item is paired with a specific gravy flavor, and every guest will have multiple options from which to choose. No matter what you order, we have a gravy that pairs perfectly. We even offer gravy flights for those that can’t choose just one, and we have a do-it-yourself gravy bar during happy hour. At the Gravy Boat, we believe that gravy isn’t something you put on top of your food; instead, vegetables and meats are things you put underneath your gravy.

The restaurant will be designed with a nautical motif, with me as it’s captain. My name is Todd Womble, and I’m the captain of The Gravy Boat. Come see me and I can guarantee you’ll be pleased, because here, it’s all gravy!

2) “Comfort Food”

This one re-defines the idea of the bed-and-breakfast. There are two stages to this restaurant, and I envision each guest following along a specific trajectory in order to get the full experience. In a nutshell, this restaurant offers high-quality comfort food with immediate access to a luxurious, clean, and private napping experience. Basically, people in the front half of the restaurant will be dining, and in the back half they will be snoozing. It’s undoubtedly true that large meals often lead to deep snoozes, so why not offer both in the same location?

People will have the option of choosing from a specific set of dining-and-sleeping experiences, with packages ranging in terms of the quantity of food and quality (and duration) of the proceeding nap. Along with classic selections such as chicken-fried steak, meatloaf, and roast, we also provide a choice of recliner, couch, or twin mattress. For an added charge, patrons will also have the opportunity to arrange for a television permanently set to their choice of TNT, TBS, or a Sunday afternoon golf tournament to assist in their slumber. For someone dining on a budget, we offer a quick Dine-and-Doze option, which includes a corndog, tater tots, large soda, and 15 minutes on a semi-reclining refurbished airplane seat. And, of course, each napping chamber will also include private bathrooms to accommodate other post-gluttony activities.

At Comfort Food, our mission is to provide the feel of the in-home dining experience–and all that comes with it. We provide tasty, classic comfort food, and private, comfortable places in which to let your body fully enjoy that food. Come on down–we provide the silverware, but feel free to bring your own pillow!

3) “Nothin’ but Cornbread”

Once I’m established and wealthy from The Gravy Boat and Comfort Food, I’ll use my status to start a food truck specializing in cornbread. There’s nothing better than freshly baked cornbread in an iron skillet, and Nothin’ but Cornbread allows patrons to enjoy this greatness while also adding their own twist. Similar to a yogurt shop that allows guests to choose whatever toppings they want, Nothin’ but Cornbread gives customers the chance to create their own slice of cornbread, infused with a wide variety of ingredients. Jalapenos, bacon, fried green beans, and pulled pork are just a few of the options. When a guest gets to the front of the line, one simply indicates which “fillers” he or she would like to be in their slice. The specially-trained cornbread chef then mixes those ingredients with our secret-recipe cornbread batter and proceeds to bake the slice on the spot, resulting in a hot, fresh, perfect piece of personalized Nothin’ but Cornbread.

We will have specialized Slices of the Month, along with Chef Selections and On the Trail promotions in conjunction with local events. Nothin’ but Cornbread brings the iron skillet experience to the average person looking for a quick bite to eat.

I’m currently looking for investors, if anyone is interested. My only demand is that I keep creative control over each restaurant; all other business decisions are completely on the shoulders of whoever wants to make them.

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Along with spending time thinking of my future millions in the restaurant business, I’ve also had some rather major things happen in the past few months. 1) I finished and defended my dissertation, and I’m happy to say that I passed with distinction and am officially Dr. Todd Womble; 2) I received and accepted a full-time, tenure-track position at Abilene Christian University. Starting in August 2015, I will be an Assistant Professor in their Department of Language and Literature; and 3) I ate at an amazing hole-in-the wall restaurant called Thai Thai on lower Greenville.

It’s hard to say which of these three things was the most life-changing.

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Revisiting a Classic — Ruidoso — Books and Books

There are lots of things that I enjoy doing: playing golf; spending time with friends and family; eating at Taco Bueno; these are just a few. But I’ve come to the realization that there are few things I enjoy doing more than watching and re-watching movies from my past, movies that seem to get better and better each time I watch them. I consider myself a seasoned veteran of watching the TBS, TNT, and USA version of movies like Shawshank Redemption and Lord of the Rings: Two Towers. In fact, I could probably tell you exactly when to expect commercials if you were to ever decide to watch Independence Day on TBS (right after President Whitmore [Bill Pullman] ask Major Mitchell [Adam Baldwin], “Is that glass bulletproof?” and the Major proceeds to kill the alien at Area 51). I love watching syndicated movies. Old School is on FX next Tuesday at 7:15? Count me in. Wait, ABC Family is showing all eight Harry Potter movies back-to-back this weekend? Consider my DVR full. I can’t get enough.

Earlier this week I had one of my favorite re-watching experiences when AMC had a “Story Notes” version of the 1984 classic, The Karate Kid. [By the way, if you’ve never watched a “Story Notes” version of a movie on AMC, I highly recommend it. Great stuff.] Man, I had definitely forgotten how great The Karate Kid is. And I don’t mean “great” in the same sense as I do when I say “Pauly Shore was great in Son-In-Law,” or “Fabrizio’s ridiculous Italian accent in Titanic is great!” In reference to The Karate Kid, by “great” I actually mean that the movie is fantastic. I loved it. I don’t think I’d given the movie enough credit in the past. The characters are great. The story is great. And the perfect mix of 80s cheesiness and dramatic sincerity is great. The perfection of the chemistry between Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita has been talked about before, and I can’t imagine a better goosebumps-inspiring ending to a movie. But I found other things that really made the movie for me:

1) The scene of Daniel (Macchio) and Ali’s (Elisabeth Shue) first date. Since he doesn’t have a car, Daniel has no choice but to get his mom to drive him to Ali’s house to pick her up. The awkwardness of Daniel’s encounter with Ali’s parents is good enough on its own to make the scene a classic, but when Daniel and his mom have to get out and push their car while Ali waits to pop the clutch to get it to start is one of the better movie moments I’ve seen in a long time.

2) This guy:

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My brother and I have referenced this character many, many times, mostly for his ridiculously over-the-top depiction of the over-zealous cronie of the main antagonist. The character’s name is Tommy, and he’s a member of the Cobra Kai karate team, Daniel’s main enemies in the movie. Tommy doesn’t have much of a role, but his depiction stands out from the rest of the Cobra Kai jerks during the final fight scene. He’s the one standing next to the Cobra Kai sensei during the fight, and all he does is make ridiculous faces (like the one in the picture above) and say things like, “Finish him Johnny!” and “Get him a body bag!” I could rewind and rewatch this guy multiple times and never get tired of the ridiculousness.

3) The depiction of the experience of a high school kid in the 80s. I love the clothes; I love the social drama; and I love the scenes at the local hotspot: the putt-putt and arcade hall. Greatness.

Not all 80s movies hold up for me, and many of them aren’t nearly as good when I watch them the second time. But The Karate Kid is definitely an exception. I recommend it highly.

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Last weekend I joined my family for a trip to Ruidoso, NM. We made a long weekend of it, and I have to say that I really enjoyed the town. I’ve spent ample time in many ski towns in both Colorado and New Mexico, and I think that Ruidoso might be my new favorite. I can’t speak about going there to actually ski–in fact, I would probably say that it’s not even close to the best place to go for a ski trip–but for a summer trip involving good food and plenty of activities, it’s perfect. My recommendations:

1) Go to the horse races at Ruidoso Downs. I had a blast. Where else can you make $1 and $2 bets on horses you’ve never heard of while eating low-quality nachos and french fries in a cloud of low-grade cigarette smoke, all while actually having a great time? It’s like going to a trashy bowling alley that lets you gamble. Perfect.

2) If you are going to play golf but don’t want to spend tons of money, play The Links at Sierra Blanca. I loved this course. It was in perfect condition–the greens were some of the best I’ve ever putted on–and it only cost us $49 plus tax on a Friday. It helps that I played some of the best golf of my life, but I still would have loved it even if I hadn’t.

3) And, of course, eat a bunch of local food. My two favorites from the trip: Lincoln County Grille, a small, crowded, greasy breakfast spot that had large portions and was heavy on the good stuff (butter, cheese, and grease); and Farley’s, a seemingly normal-to-average American restaurant that turned out to have fantastic food. I simply got the turkey sandwich, and they somehow found a way to turn turkey, cheese, and bread into something unique and memorable.

If you want a hardcore skiing weekend, don’t go to Ruidoso. If you want a place that’s a shorter drive than Colorado (at least from central Texas) to play golf, eat good food, and have plenty of stuff to do for reasonable prices, go to Ruidoso.

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A quick rundown of books I’ve read recently:

A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers (2012): I’ve always been a big Eggers fan, and I’ll continue to read whatever he puts out. This one was a quick read, which I appreciated. And I found myself liking it. It’s a pretty simple story, and it’s quintessential Eggers in that below his simplicity he has some rather deep points about our culture and our world. Hologram for the King has something to say about what’s going on in our economic and industrial world right now, and I think that it’s something worth hearing. It doesn’t hurt that it’s being made into a movie with Tom Hanks, either.

Your Fathers, Where are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? also by Dave Eggers (2014): I didn’t even know that Eggers had put out a new novel until I randomly saw this one on shelf at Barnes and Noble. How he managed to put out three novels in the past three years is beyond me; nevertheless, this most recent one is without a doubt the most unique book Eggers has ever written. The entire thing is dialogue; this alone makes it worth talking about. I’m still not quite sure what I think about it, but I do know that I’ve since planned a dissertation chapter on books consisting entirely of dialogue (Roth’s Deception is another example). Your Fathers, Where are They? is another very quick read, and I recommend it for anyone looking for something outside of the normal book.

The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta (2011): I picked up this book because I watched the first episode of HBO’s adaptation and decided that I would much rather read the story first before I watched the (seemingly) confusing adaptation. I really liked Little Children (the book and the movie), and I appreciate the clarity and humor of Perrotta’s style. He is an enjoyable author to read, and his prose doesn’t require the same density of other author’s in order to make very important commentary. The Leftovers is strange in many ways; I was reminded a lot of some of Jose Saramago’s books like Blindness and The Double in that Perrotta’s book, like Saramago’s, is a rather “normal” depiction of the world after an undoubtedly abnormal occurrence. I think that Perrotta could have done a lot more with many of the characters, as some of them seemed a bit flat to me. But there’s enough in there to make it worth it, not the least of which is Perrotta’s signature voice of candid depictions of the “normal” human being, complete with all sorts of perverted and crazy thoughts that go hand-in-hand with humanity.

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My favorite place to: EAT

Next stop on my favorite places in Dallas: Company Cafe.

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This has been one my favorite spots in Dallas since I moved here four years ago. They recently re-located the Greenville location a couple of blocks south (right across from the new Trader Joe’s), and the new building is a big upgrade. It’s a great spot for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the menu. Company Cafe is the epitome of a local restaurant in that the majority of their ingredients are from local farms and dairies (which they list on the menu), including their consistent selection of local beers on tap. They serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner (brunch on weekends), and I’ve never ordered anything I didn’t like. For my first couple of years, my go-to order was the seasonal salad with salmon. I’ve never been a big salmon guy, but something about the smokiness of the salmon and the mix of candied nuts, cranberries, and vinaigrette was absolutely perfect. I’ve since changed to the Company Burger, made from grass-fed beef and with your choice of local cheeses. It’s served with a choice of regular or sweet potato fries, and I recommend the latter.

Company Cafe is the spot where I take friends that come in town, which I was able to do last week with a friend of mine in from New Orleans. Luckily the weather was very un-Dallas like, meaning it was cool, sunny, and not too breezy, so we were able to sit on the patio. This time, I decided to switch it up: I went with the spare rib sandwich with a side salad and sweet potato fries.

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The picture really doesn’t do it justice. Although the bun wasn’t much to speak of, the spare rib was really great. It reminded me of some of the bbq sandwiches I’ve had in West Texas–something that is hard to find in Dallas. And, of course, the sweet potato fries were fantastic. My friend ordered the salmon salad, and she too found it to be perfect. Here’s the after shot:

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If a burger or salad isn’t your thing, they also have unique takes on dishes like chicken fried steak and chicken and waffles–theirs comes with pancakes that have bacon and jalapenos baked into them, which is as good as it sounds. All in all, it’s a great spot that I highly recommend. It’s in a really cool location in an area on Greenville that has been revamped and has lots of offerings, and if you’re in Dallas it’s worth stopping in for a beer and some local food.

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Random Note: I’ve been playing on a softball team since I moved here with some old high school buddies, and as crazy as it sounds we’ve actually won the league a few times. Even crazier: someone from Dallas Morning News came out to take pictures of us and did a write-up. Here’s the link: http://www.dallasnews.com/lifestyles/health-and-fitness/fitness/20140519-how-to-create-a-winning-team–on-the-field-or-anywhere-else.ece

 

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See it; Read it.

Go see this movie:

Her (2013), directed by Spike Jonze.

I really, really loved this movie. Granted, I am usually a fan of weirder things, and this movie definitely has it’s share of weirdness. But it’s the good kind of weird–the kind that makes you think about things in a new way, not the kind that makes you cringe or that makes you feel like you need to take a shower. I’ve always been a Spike Jonze fan. Being John Malkovich was one of the first movies that made me really think about what I was watching (other than Home Alone, of course) and forced me to actually put some effort into figuring out what in the world was going on. I wasn’t a huge fan of Where the Wild Things Are, but Adaptation is just greatness. For me, Her might just be my favorite.

I don’t like to talk to much about plots, but Her is quite simply a love story, albeit a rather staunchly atypical love story. Rather than rely on strangeties in plot or narrative structure (see Being John Malkovich or Adaptation), this movie finds power in Jonze’s ability to somehow put a fresh, postmodern spin on what it means to be in love, and the emotional extremes that come with the territory, both positive and negative. I have read some critical opinions of Joaquin Phoenix’s performance, but I thought he was great. For me, Phoenix somehow found a way to portray the emotional experiences of love in a realistic but not melodramatic way. In a weird way, I almost feel like this might have been Scarlett Johansson’s best role even though she didn’t show her face, and Amy Adams was dependable as always. But for me, the most satisfying and fascinating part of Her is Jonze’s depiction of the not-too-distant future. The world that Jonze creates is mesmerizing in its simultaneously haunting and realistic foreshadowing of what’s to come, or at least what might be to come. It’s not a future of flying cars and laser guns; it’s a future of high-wasted pants and super-intelligent computers. In other words, it’s a future that actually seems like the future.

When Jonze won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and gave his acceptance speech, he seemed like a quirky guy displaying authentic sincerity and gratitude. For me, the same description applies to Her: a sincere–albeit strange–depiction of love in our postmodern age.

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Even if you don’t normally read books, read this one:

Ready Player One (2011), by Ernest Cline

I read this book a couple of months ago, and I’ve been recommending it to people ever since. Each person has since told me how much they enjoyed the book, how quickly they read it, and how much they wish there were more out there like it. I mean it when I say that even if you don’t ever read books, this is one that I think you should read. It’s probably the most fun I’ve had reading a book since Goosebumps, and it really didn’t even feel like reading.

It’s a dystopic novel set in 2045; the world is wasting away thanks to human irresponsibility, and everyone spends most of their time in the OASIS, a virtual gaming world where people exist as self-created avatars. Seventeen-year-old Wade Watts is one of these virtual inhabitants, and the novel focuses on a detailed, jigsaw-like adventure that Wade and others embark upon within the OASIS. The book itself reads like a video game, and I felt like I was working my way through levels and bosses as I turned the pages. I’m not even a big fan of video games, but something about this really clicked with me.

The most appealing part of the book for me is the astounding amount of pop cultural references. Each page includes an array of references to movies, television shows, comic books, novels, bands, songs, and any other form of media from the 1980s, all intertwined within the plot of the story to give new life to these mostly forgotten cultural relics. If you are a fan of movies like Back to the Future or Weird Science, or if you like watching re-runs of old television shows and quoting your favorite parts, or if you simply enjoy solving riddles and doing puzzles, Ready Player One is a book that you will enjoy. It’s simply fun to read, which in my world is a much-needed refresher. Of course, Cline does more than simply reference 80s culture, and there is a clear point in the novel about real life vs. virtual life and the dangers of our media-centered world; but these themes take a backseat to the adventure, and I have no problem with that at all.

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Quick hits:

– If you haven’t yet, watch the television series House of Cards (Netflix) and True Detective (HBO). Just two further bits of evidence of the growing power of television.

– Read Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist or Phillip Meyer’s The Son if you are looking for something a bit more literary than Ready Player One.

– If you are ever in Creede, CO, go eat at Tommyknocker Tavern and order the Tommyknocker Club sandwich. Unreal. Especially with an Alamosa Amber to wash it down.

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Questions and Constants

These are things I think about:

1) I have a new biggest pet peeve: the fake testicles that hang from the backs of vehicles. If there was a petition to make this a minor crime, I would make up various aliases in order to sign it multiple times. I don’t usually get mad about things, but nothing sends me into a rage-fueled rant quicker than seeing a vehicle adorned with these trashy, grotesque, and wholly gratuitous rubber genitalia. Seriously, what’s the point? The only thing I can think of is that it’s supposed to make people behind you stop and say, “Oh, look. Balls.” Apparently there are a variety of names for these items: Trucknutz; BumperBalls; CargoNads; Drive-Thru Danglers (my personal favorite); Trucksticles; and Bumper Bollocks in the UK. There are also multiple websites that produce and sell these things, which only makes me think that they are in high demand. I don’t get it, and I hate it. Why can’t someone design something like like a fake-glasses-and-nose to put on a muffler? You know, one of these:

You could even make it look like the smoke coming from the muffler was from a cigarette, with some cool name like Marlboro Muffler. That’s a car accessory I could get behind. Instead, we’re left with “Oh look: Balls.”

2) I understand my car alarm less than I understand screamo-music; that’s to say, not at all. I’m blessed with one of those cars whose alarm literally will go off for completely unpredictable reasons. I’ve tried to apply my analytical skills to figure it out: I’ve attempted to recognize patterns; I’ve gone through multiple trial-and-error sessions; I’ve even sneakily observed other Camry users and done some reconnaissance work. Despite all of this, I’m still the guy outside of Tom Thumb, frantically pushing all three buttons on my keyless entry in a desperate attempt to make my alarm shut up. When it finally does, my grocery bags are on the ground, my trunk is open, and my desire to understand this world is shot just a little bit more. Is it too much to ask a car company to make an alarm that is actually manageable by the carowner? I don’t get it.

3) Why are people acting as if the Washington Redskins’ decision to keep their moniker is an example of standing up for American values and traditions? Somehow this issue has been correlated with topics of free speech or the rampant onslaught of political correctness. And, amazingly, most of these people aren’t even Redskins fans. For me it’s simple: people are offended by the team name, and they have asked that it be changed. Is this a political coup or a subversion of classical American traditions and values? It doesn’t seem like it to me. In this country I feel as if we value not offending groups of people based on issues such as race–so why is this an exception? You can’t get a more literal example of a moniker talking about someone’s skincolor. My actual question is why people are so fired up and angry at the thought of it being changed? These are people that aren’t Redskins fans, and people that aren’t Native Americans. The comeback, of course, is for someone to say “Well fine then, I’m offended by the term ‘cowboy’ and therefore I believe that the Dallas Cowboys should have to change their name. Boom!” Surely we can have higher-level thinking than this, and surely we can look at this rather simple issue in a more realistic way. I understand that lots of things in our society have the ability to be offensive to lots of different groups of people, and that an attempt to somehow rid our country of all-things-offensive would be a futile effort. But can’t we at least try and do so for things on such a grand-scale as the NFL, the most popular sport in our country and the one that is even more and more becoming the symbol of American sports, which, of course, is a major part of the identity of American culture? I think this is more than political correctness.

4) I was reminded of a very important truth yesterday. Amidst the mysteries of this world, there are reliable constants: things I can rely on and things I can count on. Examples come to mind, but perhaps my favorite of these is CiCi’s Pizza.

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