Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Billy the unconventional candidate

Billy Jones, a.k.a. Billy the Blogging Poet a.k.a. Billy the StreetPlanes co-founder and operator a.k.a. Santa Claus, has added a new alias to the mix: Billy the Blogging Write-in Candidate. Jones (no relation) announced his candidacy via his Web site,, less than a month before the Greensboro mayoral election.

With one massive blog post, Jones threw his quill into what has already been a compelling two-person race between long-time local politician Yvonne Johnson and downtown developer Milton Kern. His position statement, on its way to becoming a novella-length tome, has a particular focus on gang-related crime, prevalent in the east Greensboro neighborhood in which Jones lives, and touches on water conservation, alternative transportation, waning trust in the police department, business incentives and more.

Winning as a write-in candidate, though rare, is not unheard of. Michael Sessions was still a senior in high school when he won the Hillsdale, Mich., mayor's office as a write-in candidate two years ago. In fact, mayors from Long Beach, Calif., to Waterbury, Conn., have won offices as write-in candidates; Strom Thurmond even won his first seat in the U.S. Senate as a write-in candidate — and a Democrat!

Be that as it may, Jones is fighting an uphill battle. It may seem like a small thing to ask voters to be able to recall a name rather than simply recognizing it, but psychologists would say otherwise. Even with a name like Billy Jones, we are simply better at recognizing things (like names) that we've seen before rather than conjuring those things from memory. (I'd be curious to know how many write-in votes are placed for candidates named Bob Smith or Dave Jones or other creations of people attempting to recall Billy Jones.)

For this very reason, Jones has to work double-time to cultivate the kind of name recognition his opponents have gained over the years. But like an illusionist who insists on being not only blindfolded but also handcuffed before performing his daring escape, Jones has asked that supporters not send him the very thing he needs to accomplish that end: money. To avoid campaign finance issues, he is asking that people make donations or use grass-roots channels to spread his message. Suggestions on his site include do-it-yourself yard signs, letter-writing campaigns and arrangements to speak to groups.

Of course, grass-roots is passé, and Jones has its replacement, netroots, in the bag. He's not Billy the Blogging Poet for nothing, after all. Recent history has certainly brought plenty of examples of netroots propelling dark horse national candidates to near victory. Perhaps, in a city our size, it could be enough to win.

The fact that Greensboro is historically lackadaisical about local elections may actually work to Jones' advantage. In the last mayoral election, only 19,000 ballots were cast, making individual votes even more significant. Between the adoration of Greensboro's blogging community and the eye-catching advertising that is his StreetPlane, Jones could well reach enough people to give Johnson and Kern a serious run for their money.

That is, of course, if voters are willing to put their ballots where their mouths are. Though Americans make a sport of distrusting the baby-kissing, image-conscious, power-grabbing stereotypical politician, we seem largely unwilling to take a chance on those who don't meet that image. From his Saint Nick-inspired tresses to his notable lack of politicking, Jones is a significant paradigm shift from his opponents and outgoing Mayor Keith Holliday.

Whether or not Jones's vision for Greensboro appeals to its citizens, his candidacy allows us the rare opportunity to see how unconventional candidates and low-budget campaigns impact races.

Election Day is Nov. 6; let your vote act as your voice in determining the future of our city.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Billy the Blogging Write-In Candidate

Billy Jones, the blogging poet, is putting himself up as a write-in candidate for mayor. I have to say that I can find no fault in his platform - in fact, there's a lot in there that I would love to see happen and I particularly love that he's taking no contributions. Of course, I thought a lot of Yvonne Johnson when I saw her at the League of Women Voters mayoral forum. Seems I have some research to do before election day...

Customer service gone right

I can't remember who originally recommended Wear Yours to me, but they've been doing my embroidery since they stitched the logo from my personal chef company, Dining with Ease, onto my first chef's jackets. It's exactly the kind of place I like to shop: not only are they the only embroidery shop I know of that doesn't charge a digitizing fee (trusting that repeat business will make up for that loss-leader), it is family-owned, with a serious emphasis on personal service and pride in workmanship. That pride stretches so far, in fact, that one employee spent a week mulling over our Jones CAN logo, which is complicated by a grid design, because she felt confident that she could do an even better job on it than the sew-out we had approved. She was right: her modifications made it absolutely spot-on.

We've been so happy working with them that when our most recent batch of shirts arrived and were unusable, for both size and quality reasons, I felt pretty strongly about talking to the owner about it. My hope was that she would offer some sort of apology and suggestion for getting a better result next time - after all, they're a small business and had all sorts of expense outlays to get our shirts done, and with our logos embroidered, it's not as though they could hope to recoup any of that money from the company from which they bought the shirts.

She exceeded my hopes by a long shot: she deducted one shirt that wasn't embroidered and split the difference on the remainder. I'm guessing that she didn't just eat the profit, but is actually losing money on the deal. I take no pleasure in that piece, but I do truly appreciate that she stepped up to the plate so firmly and graciously. She has changed me from a satisfied customer to a loyal customer and I can't encourage everyone enough to give them a try for any embroidery or screen printing needs.

Hurrah for construction workers

Yesterday, I saw the smashed, ricocheted aftermath of a nasty wreck on the corner of Tate St and Spring Garden (no, I didn't see the wreck itself, just heard the noise then saw the SUVs as they came to their belated stop). As unnerving as that is, the impressive part was the hoard of construction workers who immediately left their Aycock Auditorium posts to make sure everyone was okay and keep people calm.

Well done, fellas - talk about personal responsibility!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

The power of one person

I often find it decadent to watch movies in Carolina Theater, despite the fact that Movie House was one of its earliest identities. Watching Bogie slap Peter Lorre surrounded by crystal chandeliers and armless statues feels like eating pizza in a formal living room. Last Wednesday, however, I saw a movie befitting its surroundings: I have never forgotten you: The life and legacy of Simon Wiesenthal.

Simon Wiesenthal, concentration camp survivor, famed (and sometimes notorious) Nazi hunter. There are so many striking things about Wiesenthal as a person: his dedication to justice, not revenge; his ongoing insistence that he was not a hero, but a survivor; the way tears so easily pooled in his big eyes, showing a comfort with the tragedy he embodied; and the fact that, despite carrying the memories of the roughly 11 million Jews and non-Jews killed, he still found great pleasure and hope in life.

But, perhaps more than anything, Wiesenthal was a model of personal responsibility. In the film, Wiesenthal’s wife, Cyla, said that she begged her husband to leave his work in Vienna and move to family and safety in Israel. But from the moment of his liberation from the Mauthausen concentration camp, Wiesenthal knew he that if he didn’t carry the memories of the dead, if he didn’t push for justice, no one would.

I’ll go ahead and admit now that to compare Wiesenthal’s work to anything happening within the Triad is ludicrous. But in a way, that’s exactly what makes his sense of personal responsibility so instructive. Here, taking responsibility doesn’t mean risking having your house firebombed, as Wiesenthal did. It doesn’t mean tracking criminals across the globe while earning almost no money. It doesn’t mean depriving your spouse of a wanted life because you cannot simply resume life-as-usual after witnessing unimaginable horrors.

We should count our lucky stars that, here, taking personal responsibility is comparable to child’s play. Even the rising gang violence and widespread distrust of our police department in the wake of the Wray drama is blissfully benign in comparison. So, why, when we can fulfill our responsibilities as individuals so easily, was there a seven percent turn-out at the City Council primary last week? Why did I see a business pressure washing its parking lot and a private home running a fountain during this drought? Why would parents allow their children to ride unrestrained in cars, as I have seen with unnerving frequency lately?

Ideals are meant to be attempted but never reached. I’m sure that not every recyclable material makes it into the brown trashcan at my house, just as I am sure that Wiesenthal was not able to track down every criminal he would have liked. But not achieving perfection did not deter Wiesenthal from his mission, and it should not deter us from attempting to make positive change every day, in efforts everywhere on the spectrum from minuscule to monumental.

A crisp brown lawn, a vote in the ballot box, an afternoon a month volunteering or door held for an overburdened parent – these are badges of personal responsibility, some of the often unacknowledged contributions to creating a better community.

The Constitution of the United States of America gives us the freedom to be individuals. We can choose to use that right to advance our own agendas, regardless of the effect on those around us, or we can recognize that our true power as individuals lies in the place where our needs intersect with those of our community and the coming generations.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

My lost jungle

When Rob and I moved into our home, we inherited what we have come to think of as a "grown-up yard" - the kind of yard the requires stuff like hedge trimming and lots and lots of weeding. It seems that we, however, are infants when it comes to lawn care, both in the effort we are willing to put in and the aesthetic that pleases us.

I suppose I should confess that one of my favorite yards in Greensboro is on North Elam (the piece that runs between Cornwallis and Pembroke) which is so overgrown that the house is barely visible except in the barren winter. In the spring, though, the mass of trees and shrubs erupts into a rainbow. That's our aesthetic: wild, lush, private.

Over the last four years, we've let our grown-up yard expand itself into a little jungle in our backyard. Enormous ferns and other assorted volunteers created a screen from our neighbors and a happy roaming ground for our dogs. Despite our love of the result, we've toyed with getting it back under control for a couple of years now, to make it more accessible for us (the necessity of which became clear recently when we were unable to reach the dogs through a patch of brambles as they dug a chipmunk from its hiding spot) and prepare for the day when moving enters our immediate game plan.

I hadn't really considered my emotional attachment to my little jungle, though. Yesterday, I came home from meetings to an empty gap in the yard where a dogwood once grew; as the leaves on our other dogwood faded to orange, this tree turned brown and crisp, a fact I tried to ignore until an arborist pronounced our poor water-starved tree dead. Today, our volunteers were removed, leaving a huge empty yard, populated by our sole dogwood, a few pines and one spindly sapling. The dogs seem confused. I feel exposed and lonely. I had no idea that my plants were keeping me company until today...

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Et tu, Radiohead?

Radiohead fans across the globes have their panties in a twist because Radiohead released its latest album, In Rainbows, in 160 kilobits rather than the expected (and previously used) 320 kbps. Being a music fan but not an aficionado, I can't tell the difference - the download sounds great to me. Regardless, Radiohead fans have them on a pretty high pedestal and expect more of their beloveds than what appears to be a marketing ploy.

Monday, October 08, 2007

A true dining experience at Muse

After spending a year baffled by the idea of a fine dining restaurant in Swenson's, Rob and I decided to finally give Muse a shot Saturday night. Now I'm left wondering how to write about the experience and its many layers - where to begin?

The dining experience started with the fine dining standard: a choice between tap water, flat bottled and sparkling bottled, which always feels like a restaurant personality test to me, as though the waiters know what kind of customer I will be (and what kind of tip I will leave) based on my decision to that question... which is always tap. I wonder what that tells them?

Regardless, it might be unfair to call that the beginning of our dining experience because at that point, we had yet to meet our waiter for the evening, Sean. Rob and I are pretty well invested in the full dining experience - the service weighs just as heavily in our overall rating of the evening as the food.

The food, before I get ahead of myself, was wonderful. It was on the heavy side, which I think was more a matter of what we ordered than a true representation of the offerings. The seafood tasted of the ocean in a clean, crisp, amazing way. The vegetables were crisp and bright; the flavors in the sauces was complex and spot-on. The presentation was beautiful - artistic without being overly engineered. We were also given an amuse-bouche which was tasty and beautiful and is one of those little things restaurants can do to really go the extra step.

But Sean made the evening. It was immediately obvious that he is not from Greensboro but I was surprised to find he's been here for only a month. He seemed too together (or something - not sure how to describe it) to be such a recent transplant.

One of the big turn-offs of fine dining for Rob and me is the snob factor - the feeling that we should have achieved a certain familiarity with gourmet food and fine dining practices before attempting an upscale restaurant. We've only encountered that kind of snobbery a time or two but it always puts a big crimp in the dining experience.

Sean (and I mean this in an entirely positive way) was an inclusive snob - he clearly understands the food - not just what he likes, or key flavors, but also textures, complimentary dishes and appropriate presentation, both of the food on the dish and the dish on the table. But we never felt as though we were not a part of that experience, that we weren't living up to our end of the bargain. He answered even our silliest questions seriously without any reproach for not knowing culinary terms and he perfectly walked the line of being attentive but not intrusive.

Sean closed our meal by saying something to the effect of: There are many different kinds of waiters out there and, I can assure you, there are many kinds of customers. I really feel as though we worked well together tonight.

And that, my friends, was the best closing to a meal I've ever experienced. It reminded me of a story a therapist told me about a father/daughter trapeze team. The father says "if you look out for me and I look out for you, we'll be fine," to which the daughter replied, "No, if I look out for me, and you look out for you, then we'll both be fine." With his closing remarks, it seemed as though Sean was saying that he had lived up to his expectations of himself as a waiter and we had lived up to our hopes (of having a great meal and a great time) as diners and therefore we had all had a pleasurable experience. Beautiful!

I don't know if food is part of Sean's ongoing path, but if it is, I can see him becoming a maitre-d at a Michelin rated restaurant (a la JP in Hell's Kitchen).

(As a little sidenote, in case the fine folks at Muse end up reading this, the Web site, guys, looks like it was a template built for a fried fish joint - it doesn't come close to matching your elegance. Straightforward and simple wins that race.)

Friday, October 05, 2007

Does this happen in NC?

Texas state Senators are apparently in the practice of breaking their own codes by voting on behalf of other people. So much for one person, one vote.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Local meat links

A reader just happened to have received the following list yesterday and was kind enough to pass it along. I haven't sampled food from every one of these farms but the ones I have tried have been a pleasure - Wards' bacon is the best to ever cross my lips; Hilltop ostrich is great (and the flavor just isn't that gamy); and we just tried goat from Weatherhand this week and were pleased with the steaks we grilled - I'm looking forward to trying some braised dishes after buying more this weekend.

Baldwin Family Farms
Ca swell County


Back Woods Family Farm
Free range chicken eggs and meat& PORK
They are at the curb market on Sat

Hilltop Ostrich Farm
Forsyth County

Homeland Creamery
Guilford County

M & M Farm
Ca swell County

Moore Farm
Randolph County
pasture raised pork

Rising Meadow Farm
Randolph County

Rocking F Farm
Guilford County

Terrell Double TT Farms
Randolph County

Ward's Farm Fresh Pork and Eggs
Guilford County
336-697-0281(also at the curb market)

WeatherHand Farm
Randolph County
CHICKEN ,GOAT (Also at the Greensboro Curb Market)

Natalie Foster
Cornerstone garlic farm
(Okay, not meat but this woman seriously knows garlic - great stuff!)

Tabletop activism: The case for conscientiously raised meat

I became a vegetarian when I was in 6th grade. It was part of my earliest phase of activism, which largely involved nagging my family about their water usage and wearing tee-shirts with provocative messages. Though reports of amputated chicken beaks and pig tails were what drove me to a vegetable-based diet, it was only five years before I found myself indulging in a bite-sized tryst with a cooling pot roast.

Since then, I’ve reconsidered the many heath-related and ethical reasons why a vegetarian diet is arguably superior. It makes sense to stay lower on the food chain by eating grain rather than feed it to the animals we intend to eat. It feels good not to contribute to the demand fueling the Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) that supply most of America’s meat. And I would much rather save my artery-clogging intake for cheesecake than steak. Yet the steak keeps appearing on my plate, time and again.

Fortunately, books like Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, and A Field Guide to Buying Organic by Luddene Perry and Dan Schultz, brought to light the solution that allows steak sans guilt: conscientious omnivory. This concept nullifies my every concern about meat eating… well, all but one. I’ll just have to live with the fact that were I required to kill what I intended to eat, I would end up with a collection of named farm animals living in my backyard on permanent reprieve.

What Pollan, Perry, Schultz and more point out is that most of the concerns are not linked so much to the actual impact of eating animals, but to the impact of our current food system, i.e. CAFOs - Confined, as in crammed together so that each animal must use its extremely limited space as its living room, dining area and bathroom at once; and Animal Feeding Operation, as in bringing animals to slaughter weight as quickly and efficiently as possible in order to maximize profits. (It often strikes me that “Animal Feeding Operation” sounds like machinery, as though what they meant was “Car Door Assembly Operation” and not a home for living creatures.)

I’ll use cows, our cute and delectable buddies, to highlight just a few of the differences between CAFOs and ethically-raised animals.

Because the emphasis is on profitability, CAFOs feed cows corn, grain and a mixture of cheap animal byproducts that often include things like chicken litter. Tasty, right? This mixture is not only inexpensive, it’s fattening, thereby shortening the time until slaughter. But cows were meant to eat grass; consequently, the CAFO feed can lead to sickness in the cows and creates a mixture of fats in the meat that is much more harmful than that found in grass-fed beef. In fact, grass-fed beef has less overall fat, and two to four times more heart-healthy omega 3 fats than CAFO beef.

As for eating lower on the food chain, every cow is able to turn grass, inedible for humans, into several hundred pounds of very edible beef. As they graze, they scatter their droppings which fertilizes next season’s grass, rather than adding to the waste holding tanks necessary on CAFOs.

We are lucky in Greensboro that between the Greensboro Farmers’ Curb Market and the Piedmont Triad Farmers Market, we can get conscientiously-raised meat of every variety, and some we may not have explored before: beef, pork, chicken, ostrich, bison and even Thanksgiving turkeys.

It will cost a little extra but consider it a deduction from future health care costs and a bit of tabletop activism in every meal.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Radiohead breaking ground again

Oh Radiohead, how I love your music and Thom's wonky eye. It seems that Radiohead is letting their listeners choose how much they will pay to download their latest album, In Rainbows, coming out next week.

To me, this seems like a great opportunity to vote with our money - sure, you could take advantage of their kind offer and download what will almost definitely be an amazing album (other than the iffy start that is Pablo Honey, have they ever let us down?) for free - or, you could pay an average album price or even a few buck more in the hopes of furthering the bird that Radiohead is throwing at the record industry. I, for one, am considering throwing a crisp (okay, digital) Jackson their way.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Healthy junk food

With scientists frequently vacillating between eggs as the ultimate health food and eggs as Satan's place at the breakfast table, and the relative benefits of fish oil, and just about anything else food-focused scientists have cause to disagree about, it's understandable that most people feel a little burned out on trying to figure out the ins and outs of healthy eating. Michael Pollan (of Omnivore's Dilemma fame) has the perfect advice that streamlines the whole process: if a food has a health claim on its label, skip it. You'll notice that apples come with no claims about what its fiber or nutrients will do for your gummed up digestive system, but there are brands of yogurt that do. By Pollan's system, the apple wins. It's not a flawless system, but it's a pretty good short cut.

Of course, this line of thinking involves a step backward - going back to what we have been eating for centuries, rather than allowing food scientists to create new "foods" with all the nutrients we need. And that, my friends, is downright un-American. Frito-Lay knows that: they've become the country's largest purchaser of pumpkins, as part of their program to create snack foods with beneficial fats and nutrients, a process that involves beakers and latex gloves and likely millions of dollars of R&D funds. I know all of that makes me hungry - and it makes Frito-Lay smart because we Americans have trained our palates to believe that foods created in labs are more delicious than foods plucked directly from fields or trees.

Frito-Lay may not make Kool-Aid, but you'll be the ones drinking it if you let them convince you that whole wheat fig newtons are just as good for you as a few fresh figs and a handful of walnuts.