|Today, I gave Flame-Haired Angel a haircut. Astonishingly, she doesn't look like a shorn sheep. She's quite startlingly beautiful. But not because of the haircut.|
|Today, I gave Flame-Haired Angel a haircut. Astonishingly, she doesn't look like a shorn sheep. She's quite startlingly beautiful. But not because of the haircut.|
|I hoard hotel stationery.|
Some people take the soap. I take the stationery.
I have quite a collection in the drawer beside me. I always think I'll write letters on it but, somehow, it seems a sacrifice to let these momentos slip away from me in the post. But that's just wrong. Most of the sheets bear logos of the kind of business hotel whose over-thought design subtly communicates rigor mortis rather than coziness or class. An old McKinsey friend of mine once said that he'd been on the road so long he was beginning to expect that everyone's home should have a marble-clad lobby with high ceilings and unemotive abstract art.
But I don't think he collected the stationery.
|I'm in Den Haag, just now, and am not even sure how it's properly spelled in Dutch. The road (or, more accurately, the railroad) has greeted me -- so much more civil, I think, than me "hitting the road" -- to listen to some stories about the future of the telecommunications industry. I find it very easy to play the stand-up for most Europeans. The Dutch, as an audience, however, look too much like Americans to sound as silent as the Japanese, but they pull it off. They have going for them, however, both height and, on the days when it is not raining, beautiful sunsets. Today was one of those days. And they weren't even silent. They even laughed at more than the minimum number of jokes and generously indulged my brash anglo-saxon enthusiasms.|
The venue for the speeches was an actual theatre. Not one of those terrible made-up hotel auditoria with doinky chandelliers. No, this was a little black-box, art-house theatre. I hadn't been under fresnels in so long, I felt a rush of youth flush my face even as I had to compose myself to talk about Convergent Service Delivery and IP Multimedia Subsystem Architectures.
Darn good thing I didn't break out into "When you're a Jet you're a Jet all the way from your first cigarette to your last dyin' day!"
Because, you know, I didn't have the right outfit.
I met Andrew in 1982, growing up in a suburb of Toronto.
Andrew was a weedy, pale kid with greasy hair and a late-onset growth spurt that hadn't yet took. I didn't look any better. He also had the air of a kid with too many older brothers: smirking with premature, second-hand knowledge, yet a bit off-put that he'd be expected to live up to the reputations of others. My mother didn't like him.
I did. We would stay up late, after everyone else's curfews, share pineapple-topped pizza, listen to records, and ride our bikes home through the snow.
We've been friends ever since. Which mightn't be exceptional if I hadn't moved away two years into knowing him. Not many fourteen-year old boys are dogged correspondents. Andrew was. Not frequent, just dogged.
But this isn't actually supposed to be a story about Andrew. It's a story about wine.
I went back to Toronto about fifteen years after our first pizza. Work had me living downtown for a few months. It was like a paid-for extended homecoming vacation. I was still in touch with only a few people from those early high-school years, but as soon as I was back in town, Andrew was as constant a companion as our respective professional distractions would allow.
In the intervening years, Andrew had gone from being someone my mother didn't like to someone she might have tried to set up with my sister. Tall, handsome, and gentlemanly in a sophisticated and knowing, yet deferential way. He was now a rarer thing than a dependable adolescent pen-pal: a good-looking and intelligent man who was also modest and sweet natured. The pasty kid had become suave.
He had also become a professional sommelier. People call them wine waiters, but that's not even close to right. A well-qualified sommelier is an absolute expert: a portal of vast wine knowledge, and the ultimate afficionado of enjoyment. A midwife of sparkling, sensual gustatory experiences. If a restaurant has a good sommelier, putting yourself in his or her hands is the smartest wine decision you're ever likely to make.
Well, that was Andrew. His profession was wine, and he was as passionate about it as he was under-stated. Watching him, one day not long after our reunion, he struck me as everyone's fantasy wine guy: the sort who would guide you toward the perfect bottle while making you look like an expert in front of your date.
By the time of my Toronto home-coming, I had been living in Australia for a while, and had developed a taste for wine. I didn't know much about it. I just liked it. So, I was keen to learn a bit from Andrew: enough to stop wasting my money on vacuous wine with pretty labels.
As that autumn edged into winter, Andrew and I would dine out on my expense account and he would teach me about wine. He got a free dinner; I got a free wine course; we both got to hang out with our oldest friend. Occasionally, on the weekend, we'd raid the local wine shop, together. And that was where it happened.
Andrew pointed me toward an end-of-stock special on a wine with an unprepossessing label. “Buy as much of that as you can carry,” he advised. I had never heard of the wine before. It was an Italian red. The biggest word on the bottle was “Amarone.”
That specific wine was a 1988 Boscaini “Ca' de Loi” Amarone, and I think it cost $15 Canadian. Not sure what Andrew was going on about, I think I only bought a couple of bottles. I didn't know if I'd like it, I couldn't carry much wine with me when I eventually went back to Australia, and, you know, I didn't want to buy a lot of 15-dollar wine.
It's hazy, now, the circumstances under which I opened the first one. What's crystal clear is my reaction. I was immediately hooked. It was a massive thing, with a nose-grabbing, head-spinning perfume, explosive flavour, and layers on layers of nuance roiling beneath its power. The first sip lingered in my mouth for minutes after I'd swallowed. I had never had anything even remotely like it. It tasted like a love affair, and it became one.
I went back to the wine shop the next day. Smarter folk had snapped up most of it. I bought what was left: less than a case. A $15 dollar Amarone, I soon learned, is a rare thing, indeed.
Amarone is made differently than every other wine on the planet. It's a finicky, labour-intensive process, that takes ages and produces low volumes. The best grapes in the vineyard are hand-selected and harvested a little earlier than those used to make the region's other, lighter wines. The grapes are then laid out – again, by hand – in wooden baskets, to dry for three to six months. By then, they look more like raisins than grapes, so, when pressed, they don't give up much juice. You'd be challenged to engineer a higher-cost wine-making process. The pay-off, however, is that the dribble of juice that comes out of the dried grapes is dense, super-rich stuff. And that makes one hell of a wine.
For almost ten years since that first experience in Toronto, I have bought Amarone whenever my budget would allow. I'd reach for my wallet and feel like I was tithing at church. But it isn't just price that adds gravitas to the purchase; it's also time. Amarone can't be quaffed lightly. The temptation to drink it is almost irresistible, but even an 8-year old Amarone is still a baby with a full life ahead. Drinking it is infanticide. The older Amarones get, the more magical, the more entrancingly layered and nuanced they become. They begin to beguile.
You can tell, can't you, that in the years since plying Andrew with free dinners in Toronto, I've succumbed fully to oenophilia. I returned to Sydney, and the seed Andrew had planted grew to full-blow passion. I watered it on a steady diet of big Aussie reds. To taste and learn in Australia is to trellis your palate to the particularly sumptuous, bold flavours of its native wines. The bottles are full of startling sun and Aussie brashness somehow turned into liquid music. I left behind a cellar full of them, aging, when I moved, yet again, a few years ago. I hanker for them often, even now, living in France, immersed in vinous splendour. Yet, in all that wonderful wine awaiting my return, the most treasured, the brightest dark gems, are still the Amarones.
Given the sustained passion of the love affair, I recently decided it was high time to meet the parents. They are Boscaini, Masi, Alighieri, Bertani, Speri, and more, all in Valpolicella, the region in Italy's north that is Amarone's birthplace. I had never been, but the itch had festered for years. Whenever someone I knew would go to Venice, all I could think about was its close proximity to Valpolicella.
So, at the back end of a recent trip to the Piemonte region – no slouch, itself, in the wine department, being home to Barolo, Barbaresco and others – Flame-Haired Angel and I hopped a train to Verona, then made for Valpolicella in a rented car. It is a symptom of my disease, I presume, that my heart actually beat faster as I began to see the pergola-trellised vineyards particular to the region. When the discreet signs on the gates of the most storied Amarone cellars began to pass, one after another, I nearly had to pull over.
For the next three days, Flame-Haired Angel and I did little in our waking hours but taste Amarone and eat food matched with it. The eating part is more heroic than it sounds. Amarone is a big, powerful, shovel-in-the-head kind of wine. All that thick juice from the semi-dried grapes does more than just produce thick flavour. Having lost so much of its water to evaporation, the juice is viscous with sugar and, since fermentation turns sugar to alcohol, the final product is boldly alcoholic on top of being bold tasting. It pulverizes most food like a bug under a boot heel. So, to stand any kind of chance, meals have to be robust and hearty. We had already been in Italy for a week. We'd hardly been eating light. Three days of Amarone-strength meals – with a bottle split between us at each sitting – took some stamina.
But the wine was worth it. We drank and drank, walked through vineyards and olive groves, watched the late harvest, fondled drying grapes, ate home-made salami proffered by one winemaker's mother, shook sticky purple hands, and drank and drank some more. Our enthusiasm was rewarded with every new meeting. I wasn't so much drunk from the wine – okay, there was one night – as giddy from the stupid joy of it all. Every day began as if waking from a happy dream and still being in it. It felt like the continuation of a long passion, which, of course, it was.
And it felt like being with a very old friend. Thanks, Andrew.
* * * * *
Below is a partial list of the Amarones we tasted. (This doesn't include the other Valpolicello wines tasted on the trip, including Ripassos, Passitos, Reciotos and, of course, the Superiore and Superiore Classico wines.) I'm not much on tasting notes, but a few impressions are too indelibly redolent to escape mention.
Le Ragose Amarone Classico, 1995. One of my favorite Amarones. A beautiful wine at 10 years, and looks to get better for another ten.
Serego Alighieri Vaio Amaron, 1999. Another favorite. Young, but beautiful.
Masi Campolongo di Torbe, 1999. One of the classic examples, along with its sibling, below, and showing every bit that it deserves its laurels.
Masi Mazzano, 1999.
Nicolis Amarone, 2000. Fine, but unexceptional.
Nicolis Amarone Ambrosan, 2000. This wine is a real victim of international marketing: over-oaked and showy. It's been so over-worked in the winery, to give it panache, that it just doesn't smell or taste like an Amarone.
Monte Faustino Amarone della Valpolicella Classico, 2001.
Villa Espinosa Amarone, 1998.
Sanzenel Amarone, 2000. A less muscular, more feminine wine.
Bertani Amarone, 1998. A monster of a wine from one of the most famous producers. So tight and closed up, even at almost 8 years old, that it's virtually undrinkable. In another 15 years, I bet it will be fabulous.
Speri Amarone Classico, 1998. Another old favorite. Gorgeous even in its youth, will only get better.
Corteforte Amarone Della Valpolicella, 1999. Attempts to be more than it is. Rustic and a bit harsh, astringent in the mouth.
Domini Veneti Amarone, 1999. A very competent example, but not a singer of arias.
Le Bertarole Amarone, 2000. Another wonderful find from the trip, made by a father/son team.
Boscaini Paolo Amarone, 2000. The worst wine we tasted on the trip, incredibly rustic. It was 8 Euro a bottle, and tasted like it. It's too bad, as the people who make it are lovely.
|Piemonte isn't silent, but I have been, because Flame-Haired Angel and I have been in Piemonte. |
Hiking. Wine. Food. Lovin'. Nappin'.
But no bloggin'.
I didn't turn on my computer for 10 days. Picture the smile on my face.
Missed the blog, the writing, but not the computer.
So much to write, but just a check-in, for tonight. To say hi.
If I didn't work the kind of job I do, I think I'd like to stay up all night and write and write and write about the trip, all the while with Sniff 'n' The Tears blasting in my headphones.
But it's not to be. Not tonight. But you never know.
(Yeah. Driver's seat. Pick up, pick up, pick up your feet.)
Democracy is a device that insures we shall be governed no better than we deserve.
I get very tired of this battle between the right and the left in the United States: between the neo-cons and the liberals, the Republicans and Democrats. Of course, it is a battle I, myself, perpetuate as a combatant. The fight is tiring, but it is more the weapons used that leave me feeling exhausted by despair. Hypocrisy and spin are the tactical arms on a field of combat in which skirmishes are fought by rhetorical point-scoring rather than by any search for truth. The meaning of “winning” becomes unclear, but for leaving your opponent with a politically bloody nose.
Unsurprisingly, I believe one side to be guiltier of systematic legerdemain with the truth, but perhaps only because I'm a noisome partisan like all the rest. Or perhaps I'm right. Who knows? The battle is so pitched, at this point, it's hard to see for all the smoke, hard to hear for the din.
Yet, though we seem at war with ourselves, I am convinced Americans are of one in what we most want. We want America to be great. To be a great nation. To be a great place to live. To be a great exemplar of the truths we hold to be self-evident. Maybe even to be the greatest country on earth, whatever that means. In any case, and in this way, both sides of the battle are the same.
Much virtual ink is spent drawing the analytical lines that separate the factions. This once, however, let's focus a few paragraphs on Americans' common desire for the greatness of their nation. The political population, even while polarized, shares this, if little else. Some may articulate either an aspiration for America's continued greatness, others a belief that America can be great once again, but there is little difference at the core of the hope.
One of the things that tires me about the left's attacks on the administration, necessary though I believe them be, is that they miss the point. It isn't the administration that deserves our energies, in the end, but the American people. Because the United States is a democracy, the administration is doing what the American people let it do. And, yes, I genuinely believe that. And, no, I don't think it's naïve. Say what you want about money politics. I'm a marketer; I know money can buy market share. But if you're pissed off with the product, you don't buy it again.
Assuming the elections are legitimate, democracy is a popularity contest. The American people get the government they deserve. So, as someone who thinks this administration is doing the country terrible harm, I have to occasionally keep myself honest and wonder what the hell the majority – however slight – of Americans are thinking. (You can argue about the presidential election results all you want; there are still Republican majorities in both the House and Senate.)
So, as a single proud American, I sat down to this screed with the following long-winded question in mind, posed humbly to any other American reading it, and, by proxy, to the American people: You want the country to be great. In recent elections, you focused on looming threats to America's greatness: namely, terrorism (and the broadly defined war against it) and domestic morality. These are real issues. Yet, “greatness” is multi-dimensional. A nation can be great in one or several ways, yet remain mediocre, or even fail, overall. Almost any notion of national greatness is necessarily underpinned by several – not one or two – foundational strengths. We Americans, so universally concerned with our nation's greatness, nonetheless seem almost unconcerned that some of the foundations of our greatness are under threat: under threat, not from any external evil (like Al Queda), nor from internal abstractions (like the relationship of Leviticus to the political realm). My question is simple: With clear threats to America's future greatness, do you care how your government responds? If so, what are your demands of your own government? Which is to say, what are your demands of yourself?
A few examples:
High school education
I think it uncontentious that the United States, to remain great, requires well educated citizens. Fortunately, the nation has 17 of the 20 best universities in the world . It's high schools, however, are, in the words of Bill Gates, broken, flawed, underfunded and obsolete. American universities will not long be able to produce top-class graduates if high schools produce crap. Science education is already particularly bad by international standards and is under further attack by those who want to teach non-science as science. Furthermore, the number of our children that finish high school or college lags behind other industrialized nations. “No child left behind” doesn't make a dent in this, by the way. It only measures the US against itself, not against other nations. Are you content with 7th-rate education? More importantly, can the United States be first-rate great with 7th-rate, not-so-great education?
What do we demand of our government to ensure our children can compete with the best in the world?
A news item from the summer provides a convenient bridge from education to healthcare: “Toyota announced that it would open a new $800 million plant in Ontario. The company turned down hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies in the United States because, when compared to Canadians, US workers are too hard to train, often illiterate, and expensive to insure.” One way of reading this is that our education policies are making us less competitive, and health care policy isn't doing us any favors, either.
As Malcolm Gladwell recently wrote, “One of the great mysteries of political life in the United States is why Americans are so devoted to their health-care system.” Most industrialized nations – all? – have some form of national medical coverage. This is anathema in the US. The cost would be too great, we believe, and the quality of care would nosedive. But if that's true, why, to take an example, does Finland have a higher life expectancy, and an infant mortality rate half ours, while spending only 7% of GDP on medical care while we throw a lavish 15% at it?
The US system suggests people should get as much health care as they can afford, even if that means many get none. It implies that only the well-off should be long-lived. We, and a good portion of our national wealth, are consumed by anxiety over health benefits. As illustrated above, it has gone so far as to make our nation less competitive. In the end, Americans, for all our wealth, get less health care, and are less healthy, than the citizens of many other nations.
What do we demand of our government to ensure that we are healthy enough to compete with nations that are healthier than us?
We sigh with the need to reduce our dependence on Middle East oil. We know. We know. We are tired with knowing as we fill up our SUVs and pickups and Lexi. But there is something else. Oil is running out. Annual oil discovery peaked in 1964. It has been declining since. Oil production will peak – note: that means it will decline quickly thereafter – within a few years. And oil consumption is only increasing with China's demand.
(As an aside: It does not matter whether or not we drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And we will, my lefty friends; we will. Watch how much we care for Caribou when gasoline hits $5 a gallon. Never mind that ANWR will not make enough of a difference in supply to dent the price, nor that most Europeans have been paying prices like that for years.)
Our current energy policy has no answer for this. With its recent energy bill, Washington gave new tax breaks to already-profitable oil companies, marginalized alternative energy research, pushed back mandatory fuel-efficiency standards at American auto-makers' request, and put further faith in coal.
None of this will lower the price of gas, we know. But the threat is much graver. It is not about cars and gas mileage and the price at the pump. It is about the foundation of our economy. There is no scenario for economic growth that doesn't assume abundant, cheap energy. It is this tacit assumption that sustains Wall Street every day.
So, where are we on this? As the last century was dominated by the nation that most effectively mastered petroleum-based capitalism, it is possible that economic prosperity in the near future will rest with those nations that lead the world in the exploitation of non-oil energy. Japan currently has the lead in hybrid technology. China has vowed to develop the first commercially viable alternative energy vehicle within 9 years. France leads in nuclear power generation. (Yes, France.)
Can the United States be competitive if it continues to depend on an increasingly scarce, increasingly expensive source of fuel? Or, alternatively, can the United States be great as a customer of those countries that lead in non-oil energy?
What do we demand of our government to ensure that our nation's greatness will not be gutted by dependence on disappearing oil?
Federal fiscal policy
The United States is the largest economy in the world. It is the richest nation in the world. These are truly measures of greatness. Yet, the United States is now the world's greatest debtor nation, as well. Standard and Poors, no lefty think tank, projects US Treasury bonds will sink to junk status by 2026 unless there is a marked change in fiscal policy. Not great.
Healthcare (which, as the nation of baby-boomers ages, will suck up increasing amounts of wealth), Social Security and taxation are touchstone issues here, because they have such profound impact on federal finances. And it must be acknowledged that these issues are near the front of the current administration's agenda. Yet its approach on both healthcare and social security is to shift the financial burden to individuals. That is possibly a way to reduce government spending. In other areas, however, our government is spending freely. It has chosen to spend more than 4 billion dollars a month occupying Iraq (US Department of Defense) after a war that, it is now obvious, was optional. At the same time, it continues to cut taxes in ways that benefit mostly its rich constituents. (I am a successful expat living in Paris. I got a tax cut.)
More spending on less revenue has meant the United States has turned outside for more money. It has gone into debt by selling US Treasury Bonds, mostly to Japan and China. They are our bankers. They are also some of the largest exporters of goods to the US. So, they are lending us money to buy their goods. That makes the US pretty vulnerable. If you're a home owner, it makes you, personally, pretty vulnerable.
The partisan in me has to point out that while Republicans always accuse Democrats of being the “tax and spend” party, the Republicans turn out to be the “borrow and spend” party. Conservatives advertise themselves as the fiscally responsible ones. We now have the largest Federal deficit in history.
But where are we, Americans, on the topic of America's financial strength? I know most of us hear the word “fiscal” and tune out. But can the US be great when beholden to China for its solvency? Or does US greatness depend on being financially strong and independent?
What do we demand of our government to ensure that our nation's greatness will not erode in a wash of debt?
Moral legitimacy in the eyes of the world
(...and in our own eyes)
Since at least World War II, Americans have been proud that their nation has been a beacon of freedom to the world. At home, those who have died for our freedom are invoked to motivate the better angels of our nature in all manner of things. Globally, we legitimize our actions in the name of free nations, everywhere. But what freedoms, and whose freedoms, do we cherish enough to protect?
In the eyes of the world, the respective answers are, increasingly, not many and mostly just our own. The United States' government has waged pre-emptive war, has tortured its captives, has suspended the Geneva convention, has held prisoners without charge in Guantanamo Bay. The government justifies all of these things, even when rationales strain plausibility. At home, citing the need to protect us from terrorists who attack our freedom, our government has reduced our freedom. The cynically named Patriot Act has rolled back civil liberties and rights to privacy, and extended government's reach into our personal lives.
Does any of this matter? Even viewed solely from the standpoint of self-interest, it may matter a lot. As John McCain points out, when the United States tortures others we invite others to torture us. (McCain's anti-torture legislation is opposed by the White House.) We are not doing unto others as we would have others do unto us. More importantly, in this Christian nation of ours, we are certainly not loving our neighbors as ourselves.
Even more philosophically, it matters because, when we dilute “freedom” and “justice” with thin, expedient justifications, they are no longer moral causes worth defending. When we show the world a version of freedom and justice that doesn't appear all that free or just, then our leadership wanes simply because our example is uncompelling. Our influence in the world is compromised. We cannot lead if no one follows. This is no vapid vituperation. Two thirds of Americans perceive that the rest of the world thinks we're a bully.
During spates of national self-doubt, we reassure ourselves with the mantra that the cause of freedom is just. Freedom, fair play and justice are foundations of our national identity. They are the dais of our patriotic pride. They are, for many, the very idea that is America. I assume we believe they must remain foundations if we are to continue as a great nation. Many of us believe we are great because we are free.
But where are we, really, on this freedom thing? Almost 100% of Americans say it is important to live in a country in which they are free to criticize the government, but 68% turn around and, in the same poll, say the government should have the right to limit the press in reporting news. Just as a reminder, the First Ammendment says "Congress shall make no law..." How far can we compromise our own freedoms, even if in the name of security, before the beacon of the United States is irrevocably dimmed? How far are we willing to compromise justice when being just becomes inconvenient?
In short, what are we demanding our government do to uphold and reinforce America's greatness as a free, just nation?
* * *
Issues other than these equally threaten our nation's greatness. I've chosen these because they are so directly under our control. We cannot justly complain that deficits in these areas are caused by others' actions, or by abstract evil. Or, if we do, we should not expect sympathetic ears.
In the end, the position of the American people on issues such as these may be shifting. In March of 2001, President Bush said, “You can fool some of the people all of the time and those are the ones you want to concentrate on.” That number appears to be far lower than he believed, given his approval ratings are now lower than Nixon's during Watergate.
While I take some reassurance in that, the questions above will outlive him, his Presidency and his popularity. They will persist. And their answers will determine whether America, as a truly great nation, will outlive us.
* * *
I made my first notes on this topic some months ago. I still don't think I've done it justice. Just this week, I was moved to say something, however unready, after reading a remarkable essay in The New Republic: “ American Idle”, by Lawrence F Kaplan. In it, he uses a phrase I hope to keep close in any political discourse:
“...patriotism as an activity rather than merely a sentiment...”