When disaster strikes “someplace else,” first send money

Over the years, I have written about many natural disasters and the human toll they’ve taken. I believe social media, writ large, make such events more personal to us all — a shared phenomena, even for those of us not on the scene.

When we start to see the images of these disasters, our first impulse is “go help.”

However, I’ve also learned from writing about these disasters (and having one occur in my hometown) that it’s always better to give the local citizens and experienced officials and non-government agencies a few days to address the immediate needs and to assess what the longer-term needs will be.

salvation army logo

As I’ve written before, in the first days of any disaster, for those of us not on the scene, the best way we can help is always: first, send money.

This is especially true when a disaster is so widespread as Hurricane Sandy appears to be.

Personally, and because of advice I’ve been given by individuals who have been on the front lines of such disasters, I contribute, in a designated way, to the Salvation Army as it is supposed to be one of the most efficient ways to support first-responder, essential needs efforts.

Of course, there are many groups through which you can make such contributions.

Sidenote: I have a daughter who lives and works in “Zone A” in New York. Thank you to those who have asked about her. She’s with friends on higher ground (despite being just a few blocks away).

Related links:

The Perfect Panic Pusher Storm

From the front of Weather.com, a perfect storm of threat, alert action and red-ness.

Man, did I get this 2012 prediction wrong back at the beginning of the year:

“People will start growing tired of being panic junkies, so they’ll do one or both of two things: 1. Stop listening to panic-pushers. 2. Seek self-treatment for their panic addiction. Here’s my theory: One doesn’t necessarily have to be optimistic to make it through challenging times. However, if one responds to challenges with panic, failure is a sure bet. Some form of plodding realism, moving through challenges rather than away from them, is the only way I know that works. Yet we live in an era when lots of people seem to be panic junkies. Perhaps to the point where they seek out not-just real panics, but also crave artificial panics, like when you buy a ticket for a ride on a roller-coaster. Fox News and the New York Times are equally at fault for dishing out news in the form of outlier-anecdotes about new diseases or some obscure regulation that make the exception appear to be the norm. There are no longer mere storms — there are killer-storms. The word crisis is applied to anything that can be scrawled across the bottom of a TV screen. Perhaps this is more a wish than a prediction, but at some point, we’ve got to stop puffing on this panic. I’m voting that 2012 be the year this starts.

Oh well, at least I labeled it “wishful thinking” and not “a prediction.”

The current panic-pushing build-up by the usual suspects (Weather Channel, CNN, Fox, et al) related to Hurricane Sandy is so over-the-top it will take a storm of apocalyptic proportions to live up to the hype.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m concerned with Hurricane Sandy. According to a Facebook app created by Weather.com, I can access a list of friends who are in the pathway of the storm (anyone east of the Rockies, apparently). And without Weather.com, I know my daughter is in its path, along with every other resident of Manhattan. A daughter in the path of Frankenstorm is enough to engage me, so I’m not pretending this is merely a spring (fall?) shower. (I’m tracking the news via Twitter friends in its path, the Hurricane Sandy Wikipedia entry, and this list of Hurricane Sandy resources being updated by my friend at Laughing Squid, Scott Beale.

But, people. Are we such wimps? Do we need to live in such a perpetual state of fear, flitting from one crisis to another?

Even if the storm is as bad as predicted, causing human tragedy and economic loss, I promise, we, as a nation and human race and galaxy and universe to infinity and beyond , will survive.

Life as we know it is not over. Really. I promise.

I mean, really. Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?

My review of The Catbird Seat (and why it took me a year to write)

The Catbird Seat, moments before opening.
[Photo by chef Josh Habiger on Flickr.]
This blog post took almost a year to write. It started when my blogger friend Joe Stirt, the Charlottesville, Va., anesthesiologist who maintains the cool-tracking website BookofJoe.com, the website I described eight years ago as the blog I would take to a desert island, called me out on Twitter for not reviewing the Catbird Seat, the Nashville restaurant Joe noted the New York Times claimed “diners in Nashville and beyond (are) abuzz with its bold, daring approach to high-end cuisine.” Joe expected me to be on top of such “abuzz-ness” in my hometown.

Okay, I told Joe. I’ll eat there and write a post about it.

It took me a couple of months to fulfill the eating part of that promise. But it has taken me almost a year to do the blogging part. I have an unwritten rule that blog posts  are never supposed to be “chores,” rather they must be easy to write — 15 minutes max to put together the framework of what I’d like to say. “Easy to write” is another way of saying, “something I actually want to respond to, observe or share.”

Had Joe not continued to publicly (and friendly) taunt me about this missing post, I may have given up. But last month, when I heard that Bon Appetit magazine included the restaurant in its cover-feature about the ten best new restaurants in America — added to the long list of accolades the restaurant has received — I started once more and attempt to discover my inner Calvin Trillin.

But alas, it was not to be.

Why has this been so difficult? Here’s my guess. I am neither a “foodie,” nor is this a foodie blog. In fact, my only shout-out for writing anything related to food was once having my Yelp.com review of Nashville’s Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack chosen as “Review of the Day.”

I have no vocabulary or foundational understanding or creator’s appreciation to write anything more than a ham-fisted comment (pun somewhat intended) about how something tastes (“the chicken was so spicy, it numbed my taste buds for a week”) or what a place looks like (when I say, “hole in the wall, I mean, literally, there’s this wall that has an opening through which you place your order.”)

The Catbird Seat is a restaurant that outstrips the words I know or my ability to string together such words to explain why the restaurant is so special. It’s about something far beyond food and taste and place. To use the restaurant as a trial-run to test my food-writing skills is akin to a 15-year-old testing ones driving skills using a Porsche.

This is just over my head.

Notice how, despite this being a restaurant review, I’ve avoided that topic up to this point. So, focus, Rex, focus. Here goes.

The first thing I discovered was that it takes about a month to get to sit in one of those catbird seats, and about that long to save up for the bill. Spoiler: The wait and the saving-up are worth it. There are only about 30 seats in the restaurant, most of which are at a u-shaped counter surrounding the island kitchen where the chefs work (see photo). If that arrangement makes you think of Benihana, let me be clear: I know Benihana and Catbird seat is no Benihana. In other words: Leave the kids home. Bring a working credit card. The restaurant has a fixed priced for a nine (or 10, we lost count) course series of sampling portions of food that, as I’ve already admitted, left me speechless. When my wife and I ate there last January, the price per person was $100 for the food and two fixed-priced drink-paring options: $35 and $65. We chose the $35 one and found it plenty special. So the entire price was $135 per person, plus tip. And this is an experience where you actually want to tip.

While the NY Times and others are accurately describing the Catbird Seat as a high-end restaurant, it’s not the most expensive restaurant I’ve been to in Nashville — you can spend more at the steak places that cater to professional athletes and expense-account client diners.

And compared to what I consider a “high-end” restaurant to be,  it’s surprisingly casual. Strikingly casual, in fact. No coat and ties or linen tablecloths.

The setting is casual, but the food is very precise, as in great attention is given to its preparation and presentation. However, there’s a whimsy to it that I can’t quite explain. It’s like the chefs are seriously great cooks but they are playing with the food. And they want you to play along.

The menu for a meal at the Catbird Seat is provided at the end of the evening. [Credit: Mike Fabio, via: Flickr]
Back to the tasting menu concept. This is one of the reasons the restaurant is getting such a national buzz. The concept is daring for both the restaurateur and the diners. It’s like being invited to dinner at someone’s home and you’re going to be served what you’re going to be served. There’s a menu, but you receive it at the endof your meal (see photo).

Among those who are into food in a big way, it’s apparently a big adventure these days to seek out these restaurants and experience what is happening. On the late January Saturday night my wife and I ate there, everyone seemed to be from some place other than Nashville: A group from Michigan and New York had flown in to dine together at the restaurant — you heard that right, they flew in for dinner; a couple from Louisville had driven down; and so on.

Starting several days before the meal, we received calls from the staff that not only confirmed the reservation, but previewed what we’d be eating — and sought out any information about allergies or preferences we might have. I strongly suggest that you limit your customization to the allergy variety. Even something that you think you may not like (my wife’s not a fan of oysters, for example) won’t be prepared in the way you had them when you decided you didn’t like it.

There’s an expression, “food porn,” on the internet (I guess offline, as well?) that refers to beautiful photos of chef-created dishes. The three hours you’ll spend dining at the Catbird Seat will consist of nine courses of live food porn that tastes as beautiful as it looks. (You would think I’d have come up with a better metaphor in nine months.)

While nine courses sounds like a lot, spread over three hours with each course being a small portion, I never felt over-whelmed by either the food or drink.  (If you want to see some Catbird Seat food porn, check out this Flickr set of photos taken by one of the chefs, Josh Habiger. Also, at the bottom of this post, I’ve embedded a slideshow comprised of Flickr photos that include the words “catbird seat restaurant” in their descriptions.)

As I mentioned, there are two options for drink pairings. With each course, there is a tasting portion of something that will make you go, “Wow, who who think that that this would go with this?” (Turns out, the answer to that question is, “Jane, that’s who.”) We had tasting portions of drinks ranging from a mead to a scotch beer.

By the end of the evening, you will know the names of the two co-chefs (Eric and Josh), the two assistants (when we were there, Mamie and Tom) and Jane, the aforementioned sommelier. The owner, Ben, was also in the middle of things, acting more like an assistant, than a proprietor. (Towards the end of the evening Ben left to check in on a couple oyf other places he owns, The Patterson House, downstairs from the Catbird Seat, is one of them.)

The people, set up and approach are all swell, but what’s causing the restaurant to have such buzz is the food experience (notice I didn’t say, dining experience — this place is about the food experience). I’ve never been to a restaurant where the focus was so much on celebrating each dish, and each ingredient of each dish.

Because the two chefs and their assistants and sommelier are preparing things and serving you, all within a few feet of you, each course is a chance for a conversation in which you can learn more about the food. Despite the chefs, yes, there are two, having a quiet but charming wit, I’ll take the word of all the people giving them awards: their recipes and food combinations are unique and creative and they seem thrilled that you are enjoying their creations. These are not the screaming, yelling, pan-throwing types of chefs you see on reality shows.

About mid-way through the evening, I remarked to my wife how I felt like I was experiencing Babette’s Feast, a reference to the Oscar-winning 1988 Danish film. I mentioned this to the staff and was surprised to learn that none of them or the people around us — the out-of-town foodies — had seen the movie. I would think foodies would consider Babette’s Feast their To Kill a Mockingbird or Gone with the Wind.

Now that I think about it, the reason I found this post so daunting to write was the same reason I would never try to use this blog to review 25-year-old Danish films that I have no idea why I saw in the first place . I just don’t have the vocabulary to explain why it is special — and I know that it is an outlier type of specialness that I don’t anticipate delving into enough to devote the time to truly understand and appreciate. (I have other topics that draw me in their directions for which I’ve dedicated such time.)

In my professional life of creating media that companies use to communicate with customers, we refer to the need of companies to “deliver value” — an MBA-sounding term that means that which a company provides to a customer beyond the product sold, that enables a customer to get the most out a product — to be, or become or accomplish that thing they had in mind when purchasing the product.

To do this, a company must become a teacher, a mentor, a coach and collaborator.

The Catbird Seat does that. I not only had a great meal there. I had a great experience and a glimpse at why others can find so much more to enjoy about food than I ever will.

The chefs, owner and staff are not just great cooks and entertainers. They are wonderful teachers who provided my wife and me something we still are marveling, ten months later.

And Joe, there it is.

The more words I use, the less I’m understood.

In his book, Worm: The First Digital World War, Mark Bowden describes a phenomenon called “The Glaze” that “every geek has experienced” when talking about technology with a lay person: The unmistakable look of profound confusion and uninterest that descends whenever a conversation turns to the inner workings of a computer.

A similar thing happens to people when I start talking with them about, well, lots of things (especially with co-members of my immediate family).

I guess that’s why I’ve been trying to brush up on my sketching and drawing lately. Less words, less seeing “The Glaze.” Here, let me draw you a picture, is what I’m going to say when I start seeing “The Glaze.”

Below, there is a sketch of a bicycle. I drew it on my iPad using a Cosmonaut Stylus
and the App, Paper, from the company, 53.

It’s just a quick sketch. It’s not even a metaphor.

It’s just practice for the next time I see The Glaze.

At least, if The Glaze is when I’m talking about a bicycle.

Loren Ipsum: My Review of the First Presidential Debate

Last night, I took a break from my extended vacation away from, other than Twitter, anything related to the U.S. presidential campaign. I used 90 minutes of my life that I won’t get back to watch the first Presidential debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama.

I avoided the punditry (other than Twitter) before or after the debate, but spent a few moments skimming through the tsunami of analysis earlier this morning. Apparently, the people who cover the day-by-day, slogging through each appearance, minutia of the campaign, have agreed upon this narrative:   Romney won because he was energetic and lively. Obama, on the other hand, was stiff and hesitant and seemed bored (although he never glanced at his watch). Frankly, to me, it seemed like what a tea party would be if the only guests were Bill Gates and Al Gore.

Romney supporters are rejoicing. Obama supporters are either: 1. Disappointed in Obama, or 2. Trying to argue that “Romney’s [fill in the blank]” is what is important, not his style. But deep down, Obama fans are disappointed like, say, when fans of Apple discover that the company is capable of releasing a product as bad as the company’s iPhone Maps app. That’s supposed to be Obama’s strong suit, the disappointed supporter would say.

Having avoided all campaign coverage and punditry to this point (except, as I’ve noted, Twitter, and, I’ll confess to reading about actual “issues,” like healthcare reform), I found nearly 80% of the words being said by the candidates to be complete gibberish. The remaining 20% of the words were sad stories that began like this: “Last week I met Jane, a mother of 2.3 children who lives in a tightly-contested county in Ohio, who said to me…”

In other words, the words used by both candidates in the debate last night were indecipherable to anyone not obsessed with things only important inside-the-beltway.

Without the ability to discern any meaning from the words, the pundits and those watching the debate were left with little else to react to but the style of the candidates. So Romney won because he was energetic and Obama lost because he sounded like a Ph.D. candidate in a political science symposium.

In the design world, when we want to convey a visual idea that includes text, the designer knows the person he or she is sharing the idea with — even if it’s another designer — will start reading the text instead of focusing on the style or formatting idea.

To avoid this, designers have learned it is better to use random letters lined up and arranged like words and sentences, but completely without meaning. (A bit like this blog, some might say.) The gibberish “sentences” and “paragraphs” are called “greeking,” as is the phrase, “it’s Greek to me.” The most used “greeking” text starts off with the non-words, but Latin sounding, “Loren Ipsum.” (That link goes to the Loren Ipsum Wikipedia entry where you can learn all about the history of a block of text that is supposed to mean nothing.)

Try reading the transcript of the debate last night and look for anything substantive, without a bunch of acronyms or platitudes, or something other than a wonk might care about. From that list, remove anything incomprehensible to a voter in some county in Ohio who’s actually going to elect the next president.

You’ll discover there is nothing left that is not a cliché like, “I love small businesses.”

Or, as a great pundit I once knew, wrote, “Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Aliquam vehicula consequat mauris a sodales. Etiam pharetra augue suscipit orci tempor ut tempus nisl dignissim.”