Wednesday, January 26, 2005

My Books Are Out There

As an author and journalist, I see myself in print frequently. Having two books on the market may feel good, but stacking 31-pound boxes of these books in the garage can sometimes get tiring. I've always felt content to be most important, hence I now have transferred one of my in-print books and two books that have never seen paper, all non-fiction, in their entirety, to the web. makes available my complete guide to American life for immigrants and students. You're sure to disagree with some of my take on American life, but I'm also certain much of this material will stimulate you. is my published book, Building Yourself: Putting Your Success Together One Piece At A Time. I've recently revised this guide to living the successful life, first published in 1994. is my never-before publication of Human Action: Ambition, Ability and Achievement, Finding and Using the Passion Inside. I have indeed been ambitious in creating this philosophy of human achievement. I want to know what you think. is my food writing site. These are largely articles that are published in Albuquerque, NM where I live, in the Crosswinds Weekly newspaper's In The Kitchen column. There are additional culinary book reviews, airport restaurant reviews and more.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Albuquerque Album

I’ve lived in Albuquerque now for more than two years; it’s the type of place that grows on you. If you are not a native of the place, you cannot prevent yourself from viewing the city through the filter of your own origin. I’m from New York City. Oh the ideas people have about that! In New York, I have little discernable accent, but here my speech patterns mark me. I only speak this way for the same reason you speak the way you speak: it was the way people around me spoke when I was a child; I imitated them. There’s nothing else to be read into it.

Albuquerque is called the “Duke” City. This has nothing to do with Edward Kennedy Ellington or the former Edward VIII, but rather with the Duke of Alburquerque, yes note the extra “r,” who was Viceroy of New Spain back when. If you have no familiarity with the region, Albuquerque serves as little more than one of those funny town names like Kalamazoo or Walla Walla; once you live here, the four syllables roll off the tongue with the ease of a “San Francisco” or “Kansas City.” The two “k” sounds are particularly definitive, functioning as a double cadence to the initial “l” and “b.” English speakers tend to pronounce the first “u” as a short “a,” but my French friends use their distinctive French “u” with pursed lips, and only accord the city name three syllables: “Al-bu-kairk.” This phonetic spelling harks to something Arabic; it may well be they liken the place to an oasis in North Africa, where they once had influence.

When you make homebound airline connections—and you usually must since we have few direct flights to any major city that doesn’t also function as a hub—you just by habit look to the upper left of the cities list on the “Departures” screen. You feel important then, especially as the length of the city name gives it such impressive screen presence. The real shame is that most eyes scan on to better known names: Denver, Phoenix. Speaking of those two western cities, it’s a fact that areas of Albuquerque—such as my neighborhood at 6,000 feet—are indeed higher than the so-called “Mile High City.” Phoenix, a huge agglomeration, is only half the altitude of Albuquerque and hence often fifteen degrees hotter in summer. Albuquerque is a high desert city; mountain chains surround the city, and the daily sunset is…forget adjectives.

The crux of Albuquerque, beyond the physical beauty and marvelous climate, is the city’s variety. It’s not a coincidence I get to speak French here with some regularity. There is a large and proud Hispanic presence here. I meet people who trace roots directly back to Spain, 500 years ago. There is a cowboy Albuquerque, a Native American Albuquerque, a hot-air-balloon-enthusiast Albuquerque, a military Albuquerque, a Route 66 Albuquerque (the storied road bisects the city), an Asian Albuquerque, and there are a lot of scientists here who are rarely allowed to tell me what they do (our minor league baseball team is called the “Isotopes,” if that’s any clue). It’s easy to drive by a strip shopping center and think it’s no different from any other, but these hyper-American icons never cease to surprise me. Of course we have a Turkish delicatessen; it goes without saying that we have an English tea-shop. Of course there’s an Alliance Française and an Irish-American Society (I’m a member of both). There are plenty of places to get your electric guitar fixed, or to hear real jazz (in small rooms). Other people—not me—point out that the city is filled with art galleries and studios, but my legs have little tolerance for shuffling around those kinds of places. Ditto with Neiman’s, Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s or Saks, which we also lack, and which have never motivated me.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Susie Essman--Yes, I'm Related!

Actress Susie Essman is constantly asked if she's related to Elliot Essman, me in other words. Now and then, I am asked a similar question. I have to answer, yes, I'm her big brother. Yes, during her formative years, Susie, who stars in HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm, routinely bounced her developing comic protoplasm off me. Ouch! I was recently asked from which of our parents we inherited our sense of humor. I answered, from neither; we developed our bite based on the abiding need to manufacture humor out of familial grimness. This is called survival., a site I maintain, follows the career of this quintessential iconoclast. Of course I have to censor many of Susie's gems for general public consumption. We don't include an email link on Susie's site, since she got tired of hearing from people who knew her way back in fifth grade in Mt. Vernon (New York) where we grew up, but you can always get in touch with me, if it's important, through my own home page

Susie recently had her moment on the podium at the Friars club for a roast of Donald Trump. See for a few shots of Susie with "The Donald" as well as Susie's inimitable remarks.

Susie, being a dedicated New Yorker, thinks I have betrayed my origins by moving to Albuquerque, New Mexico, but I am unrepentant, as further posts will indicate.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

For The Love Of It - The Only Way

New careers are like hungry stray dogs for me: they scratch on my door; I feed them; they rapidly become permanent psychic residents. As an adult I studied the French language for my own stimulation—no business connection—until one day at an intensive school of languages in Europe, over champagne no less, I discovered I’d become the school’s North American sales representative. Hobby turns into profit source. I set up a web site. Inquiries came in. I quickly learned to separate the real prospects from the lookers and time wasters. The “real” people would tell me: “I’ve been studying French for years. I try to understand movies. But it’s so frustrating: I just can’t carry on a conversation. I love the language. Can your school help?” The time wasters—the college students and the young executives working on building their credentials—would ask questions like “How long will it take for your course to make me fluent in French.” While of course I’d take any customer as long as they could manage a bank transfer to the school, I understood quickly that “for the love of it” was the real hot button. Isn't that always the case? It's just unfortunate that often we convince ourselves otherwise.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Everyone Should Try Being Dead

Phew! It seems I bailed out of Pfizer, taking a small end-of-year loss to offset gains from other investments, just days before the stock plummeted on news that the company’s Celebrex may follow Merck’s Vioxx into prescription drug anathema-land. There’s nothing quite like a close call to make you think and think again.

A few years ago I had a really close call when I gave blood for the first time. It turned out to be the last time as well. Toward the end of the bloodletting I felt faint, struggled with that state, then completed blacked out. They tell me that at the same time my face and body turned completely white, my pulse went to zero, my respiration was non-existent, and my blood pressure reading was zero. Medical science has a technical term for this condition: dead. Apparently my brain was still going, and was it! I remember intense activity. Did I see a white light? No, I’m afraid not. My theory, and this is only a theory, is that those people who have religious experiences during near death events have the predisposition or brain-wiring for that kind of thing (and that I don’t).

Obviously, since I am writing this, I was revived. Spiritual and religious questions aside, this type of experience makes you think. If I hadn’t been brought back, I would have died without even a split second apprehension of death. Alive one moment, dead the next, nothing in between. It can happen that way.

I have to add after some thought that "near" death experiences involve an apprehension of death. If you narrowly avoid a car crash that would have been fatal, your thoughts race with "what if." When you really go to the other side, even if briefly, the opposite may occur: you are taken up by the experience and have neither time nor occasion to reflect, except after the fact.

Horse In My Wine

The words “wine” and “wit” may each begin with the same letter combination, but it doesn’t take long to exhaust reasons to connect the two concepts. Wine writers tend to be a serious bunch, as if the least literary lightness could compromise the ethereal stature of the subject. “Yes, my subject is wine, so my writing must be…grim? It’s not as if a subject so rarified could ever truly be…enjoyed?”

Enter, wit. Enter Jennifer Rosen, whose Waiter, There’s a Horse in My Wine, pops the cork on the notion that wine writing needs to be as dull as that case of merlot your brother-in-law has been aging all these years—next to his furnace. I have been following Rosen’s effervescent wine columns for years; it’s a comfort to finally own a distillation of her wit and wisdom in book form. Horse is the type of literary offering that only improves with age, its scope the stuff of permanence.

Take the concept of global warming, for example. Does it affect wine? You bet. Can you imagine…gulp…next season’s fine English vintages? Start imagining, and imagine as well climactic changes capable of taking that je ne sais quoi out of something expensive and French. Or contemplate—and this is not for naïve eyes—the absolute truism that wine contains alcohol? As Rosen writes, “It’s almost bad taste to admit you’re aware of it, let alone praise it. Yet it’s tremendously responsible for all that’s good in wine.”

The fact is, Rosen is not afraid to step on toes (or to tickle toes, if that’s what delights you). “Beyond the way it makes you happy…beyond the buzz,” she writes, “lie respectable reasons to appreciate alcohol.” Drill beyond Rosen’s first few playful paragraphs and you’ll find the trenchancy you crave in a wine writer. In alcohol’s case, it serves the important functions of transporting odors and flavors. We learn that the Europeans—oh them again—manage to process the wines they drink at lunch without jeopardizing their work output at the office because, having less sun, their wines have lower alcohol content (or will at least until that globe warms.)

Any writer with a reasonable pedigree can be oh-so-clever, but the key to Rosen’s approach to wit, in the largest sense of the term, is her erudition. She covers the world, in time and space, giving us history, science, subjective qualities and taste all in a package that leaves, more than any other oenological analogy, a fine and satisfying finish. Her coverage of wine issues—even controversies—is exhaustive: tannins, the role of oak in wine production, appellations, yeasts, corks and much more.

Speaking of corks, Rosen is not one to accord reverence just for the sake of reverencing. Screw-tops, she writes “preserve, protect and re-seal beautifully.” Even though “the wine elite and the paper-bag set accept them cheerfully,” she stresses, “the mass of uncertain consumers in between…continue to be suspicious.” Her section on the new wine-stopping technologies—Metacorks, Zorks, and the like—is a perfect example of her penchant for digging deeper than most of her ilk, all with a strange supposition that the reader is both contemplative and intelligent. I’ve always felt the writer who meets the reader on a two-way street deserves unambiguous praise; in Rosen’s case, I raise a glass. Waiter, There’s a Horse in My Wine is the kind of rare read that deserves to be bought, kept, gifted, and—yes—ultimately splattered and spotted with the very beverage it exalts. page for this book

The Lure Of Luxury

All political revolutions occur because of a sophisticated array of underlying conditions, but the spark that ignites them has more often than not been food. The French people got really excited two centuries ago because of a ruinous tax on salt, one of the basics of life. The spark that lit the Russian Revolution was the people’s cry for bread, that perfect metaphor for the life force itself. In Chinese life, and in China’s various revolutions, the equivalent menu item would be rice. Then of course there is the American Revolution, which began due to irreconcilable differences over a minuscule tax on tea.

Hey, wait a minute, are we Americans really part of the revolutionary pattern? Have recent university studies proven that the human body needs tea as it needs salt, or basic grain products? Hardly. While I myself could not live very well without tea, I admit that, ultimately, it is a luxury item. At the same time I don’t believe the core of economic freedom has to do with the logistical control of staples like salt, flour or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. We don’t need to actually possess or enjoy luxuries to be free, but we do need to have the option. It’s against our nature to allow any imperious arbiter to decide what is necessary for us and what isn’t. We want to decide ourselves, even if we reject the luxury. Further, as a cranky opinionated bunch, we often ridicule other people’s luxuries while defending our own as necessities.

Take a random group of American people, strand them on a tropical island, and they will most likely be fairly efficient in making sure basic needs are quickly met. It won’t take long before they progress from filling their bellies with anything handy to pestering those who have volunteered to do the cooking to begin improving the palatability of the mix. The same phenomenon will occur with clothing and shelter; they will inevitably spend time making aesthetic improvements to both. It will also not be very long before those with artistic, musical or dramatic talent will be drafted to entertain.

In America, even necessities are luxuries, in this sense: our abiding need for choice gives us nearly limitless variety. How many types of sugar, salt, flour, or beans can you find in the average supermarket? It is no happenstance that as we become richer, we support a growing market for specialty foods, not to mention four-dollar cups of coffee. We were a comfortable, well-fed people in 1775, and yet we took to arms to protect our own economic destiny. Given our antecedents, it is not surprising that today we gravitate toward luxuries both great and small. There are deep non-materialistic and spiritual currents in our society, to be sure, but even those of us who live the simple life would be hard put to reject the panoply of choice we’ve come to depend on. It is not a coincidence that the same society that supports scores of religious and spiritual traditions offers an even greater number of infused olive oils.