Thursday, May 11, 2023

Life After Turkey's Earthquake

I signed up for five weeks here - arriving with the first of the volunteers - and I plan to stay for the duration of my three-month visa. The physical devastation is widespread, as I have witnessed spanning at least from our base of operations in Kahramanmaraş to Antakya. In the case of the latter, it appears an entire city will need to be rebuilt. 
The human devastation is hard to explain or even fathom, but surely every tented family has their own story, and we just offer our labor, time, and what we can in the way of compassion to make life a little better for those we can reach who find themselves in this holding pattern.
I suppose the tent living for us is a blessing in disguise in that it offers us some shared experience with the Turks and Syrians who have been living in the elements for some time now without the comforts of home. And in working close to where these people reside, we are fortunate to gather some sense of the struggle of humanity - in its imperfections, setbacks, disappointments, and simple joys. Being a part of this is probably why I stay, though it too is a difficult picture to capture.

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

I Hate Valentine's Day

It is understandable why people love the holiday centered around romantic love - especially if you are accustomed to getting things. Heck, it's probably like a second birthday, without the aging requirement! 

However, for many singles, this day is like not being invited to the party. And the people who do get invited want to tell you all about what you missed! Perhaps it is akin to Thanksgiving if you are too poor to afford a meal, but even then, there are people and organizations giving out food. Nobody cares about the lonely on Valentine's Day.

Of course, for decades, it was quite normal for me to work on the evening of Valentine's Day. So, it was my job to help make your night even more special. Champagne for you... and you... how about a chocolate dessert for two? Me? I'd probably have a slice of pizza and a whiskey around midnight after you all get out of the restaurant.

It's an annoying holiday, and you will probably still rub it in on social media how great you've got it. And even though I hate Valentine's Day, still... ugh, still... buy the flowers, buy the chocolate, write the poem, get that fantastic bottle of wine... hell, buy the ring. If love is in your life, you ought to try to keep it. And if you're smart, you'll do that every day and not wait for a special occasion to prove to someone what they mean to you.

Friday, September 16, 2022

God's Song Through Sister Camillus

The morning the ambulance came to take Sr. Camillus to the hospital, in spite of her severe illness, she began to sing the hymn "The Bells of the Angelus." This was certainly a new experience for the two paramedics. Both were stunned and amused!! The singing continued as they gently secured her in the ambulance. One of the gentlemen commented, "she could conduct a choir!" 

Kathleen Gavigan was born in Weekfield, Co. Roscommon, Ireland on August 12th, 1925 to Joseph and Sarah Gavigan and became the eldest of four girls. She was a bright young girl, and in her senior year of schooling heard God’s call to religious life. 

Kathleen entered the novitiate of the Sisters of Mercy in Ireland and became Sister Camillus - named after Saint Camillus, an Italian priest who founded a congregation dedicated to the care of the sick. After her years of spiritual formation, she attended college to pursue her chosen profession of teaching. On completion of her training, Sr. Camillus was assigned to a new high school and contributed greatly to its success. Her students still recall her great teaching methods, her kindness and understanding, her musical talents and her love of God and all God’s creation.

Sr. Camillus had volunteered for a mission, and in 1968 she came to America and San Bernardino. She was assigned to St. Anthony School, which was predominantly African-American and Mexican–American students. Sister immersed herself in school and parish life, teaching Grades 7 & 8. There were no half measures with Sr. Camillus; whatever the need, she was there. She was a wonderful teacher and later assumed the role of principal. Her knowledge and love of music was a big plus. Before too long, she became familiar with soul music, negro spirituals, many Mexican favorites and loved Mariachi bands. Sister was also involved in catechetical work and in liturgical events. There just weren’t enough hours in the day for her to do it all!

In 1987 Sister Camillus was transferred to Our Lady of the Assumption School. She taught part-time and was also involved in liturgical renewal, visitation of the sick, mission programs and other outreach activities. Sister also worked with bereaved families in preparing funeral liturgies. She devoted much time and energy to working with Mercy Associates, the Fellowship of Catholic Christian Women, and of course, the school choir.

Sister played the harmonica, violin and guitar - the life of every gathering! One evening, this brave woman ventured out on the roller skating rink with students. Sadly, she fell and broke her wrist. After that, the violin and guitar were too much of a challenge, but the harmonica was played up to a week before she was hospitalized. Among her memorable musical accomplishments was the production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," which she directed at both schools much to the delight of students, staff and parents.

Sr. Camillus had great admiration for Pope Francis and with great care guided the study of “Laudato Si” with the Mercy Associate Members.  One of the Pope’s letters, after his election in 2013 was “The Joy of the Gospel."  By her prayer and total dedication to duty, Sr. Camillus made the joy of the Gospel come alive throughout her 97 years. May she rest in peace and may all of us who were blessed by her presence keep her memory alive - a beautiful song of praise to God - by being a faithful disciple of Christ.

By Sister Betty McGovern and Mark Porter

Thursday, September 8, 2022

The American Hospitality Industry Has a Hospitality Problem

It's 9 o'clock on a Thursday evening and Norm walks into a bar. No one looks up from their phones nor shouts his name - not even Diane, the attractive but aloof and over-educated waitress closest to the door. He finds a seat at the bar. The bartender Sam pretends not to see him for nearly five minutes, wanders his way as a tease, then goes back to the end of the bar where his buddies are sitting. Woody is busy sawing a giant block of ice into smaller, still large, blocks of ice oblivious to anything else going on. Carla... is being Carla, only not funny - just unimpressed, loud and obnoxious. Cliff's incredulous stories are drowned out by the occasionally vulgar stylings of rap music, and Coach (I know he and Woody never worked together) doesn't speak much English, yet he is the most likeable, although least expected to take an order or make a drink in the establishment.

Something has happened to good service in America.

Recently we went to a breakfast restaurant and was quoted a 20-30 minute wait. I figured we would go across the parking lot to the store to kill the time. By the time we had noticed the text message and made it back to the restaurant we were told our table had been given away. The lady next to us had the same problem. I pointed out to the newest gentleman to arrive to book a table that he should not go too far as to risk having his given away as well. The host started laughing. Soon he taunted me to go outside and fight him.

I had been looking for some food in DC and remembered a spot known for their soul food take-out. The door was open, the lights were on, and some people were inside. A man quickly got in my face and shouted, "we (sic) closed!"

I had been looking forward to the first meal out since working on my birthday and then flying across the country. It was a well-respected seafood restaurant with a great view in Anchorage, Alaska. We were rushed through dinner, not even offered the dessert menu, and the staff busily and conspicuously broke down the dining room around us (we were on time for our reservation) to suggest we were no longer welcome. 

These are just the most egregious examples that came to mind in three different parts of the country. However, if you eat out as much as I do, and not always at your town's Cheers, you may have noticed that service is not what it should be. Bartenders are more interested in their craft than they are of their patrons. Servers are aloof or outwardly uninterested in adding any kind of value to the experience. Issues are unresolved or just go unnoticed. And now you have to look at the menu on your phone and perhaps have no say in the tip that will be automatically added to your bill.

And before you ask, I'm not anti-hospitality (or COVID new norms necessarily); hospitality has been my life. And so have the new COVID norms.

I could be jaded by DC - which has some really terrible employees in all sectors - but I have noticed a trend of mediocrity over the years in a business that is meant to exist by making clients feel good. Many places get it right and are pleasant surprises as sporadic treats. It could be that I just know too much and it is easy not to meet my expectations. However, how many times do you actually feel cared for when you choose to pay to have people bring you food and drink? 

The restaurant and bar businesses are hard, but it's not rocket science (I often wonder if rocket scientists say their job is not making dinner), but I have noticed a few things making it harder. Training is often unplanned and thoughtless. Managers have stopped being coaches and guides. Bartenders have stopped being bartenders - either dedicating all their energies to the mixology and/or not having ever developed the skill of conversation. The ubiquitous tip pool essentially guarantees your best servers are not making their potential and your worst and laziest are making more than they should. Customers have lost most of the traditional concept of table etiquette. But perhaps worst of all, in a business designed around caring, many actually care little about anything outside of themselves. In over two decades in the hospitality business, one constant is that there are employees who not only don't care but have contempt for those they serve. Likely that is true in other industries, but I always looked at the gratuity as some measure of thanksgiving that incentivized actually giving a damn. Hospitality is a social science; there is a lot to it, but its core curriculum recognizes that Norm is celebrated when he walks in that damn door and his beer is cold and waiting for him.

Friday, December 10, 2021

Meeting Bob Dole

It was 1997 and DC was a very new place for me. Luckily I had my charcoal Pierre Cardin double-breasted suit among my scanty supply of possessions as a recent transplant from California when my older brother Tom, then a congressional staffer, called me and said, "hey, do you want to meet Bob Dole? Come downtown and wear a suit."

Bob Dole had recently retired from a lengthy career in the United States Senate and just lost the presidential election in 1996 to Bill Clinton but would remain active politically for two more decades as it turns out.

Tom briefed me ahead of time to shake his LEFT hand, as he had lost full function of his right arm having been injured in World War 2. We met and got our photos taken. Senator Dole was tall, engaging and pleasant. He spent a few minutes getting to know us, and I shook his hand as instructed. Looking back, it certainly has been one of the highlights of my journey here in Washington, DC (so far), and I am proud to have met such a statesman and American war hero. 

While our visit was brief, it was an honor to meet you on the path. Thank you for your service and your time.

Rest in Peace - Bob Dole.

Monday, September 20, 2021

Monday, September 13, 2021

An Alaskan Adventure - My 50th State

More of my best Alaskan scenic photos 👉 link here!

Along Glenn Highway between Anchorage and McCarthy

The idea of an Alaskan vacation can be daunting. How much warm clothing to bring? Will I need to know how to build an igloo or forage for food? Will I get eaten by bears? Typical.

Alaska is one of those destinations that if you overthink it, you may never go. Sure, planning is essential, as you don't want to be hunting for hotels and tours last minute. There are a variety of activities from sea life viewing to hiking to culinary and craft beer enjoyment. There is something for everyone from the rugged adventurer to the family of four. The important thing is to think ahead, choose your own adventure, and just go.


Early morning walk to the Anchorage train depot 
Supposing you fly in, your adventure launch point may likely be the city of Anchorage. To allay some of your packing concerns, if you find yourself lacking anything, it is likely you will find it here. There is an array of dining and lodging options, and it is very convenient to rent a car, access intrastate flights, or board a scenic train ride. While not terribly exciting in itself, Anchorage is a great base of operations and complete with most comforts you might expect to find in modern civilization. Try Kriner's Diner for biscuits and gravy - where locals go and service is friendly.

Ride the Train

Alaska has its own railroad, and it is a magnificent way of taking in optimal scenic beauty per minute by way of icy blue rivers, lush green forests and majestic mountains. We chose the trip to Seward in a railcar that surrounds you with large windows to take in all the views. The premier class serves a meal in the dining car and offers an open-air deck to feel the wind in your hair and get all the great photos as you zip through the countryside.

Seward Sea Life

Your plans really should include going out on the water in some fashion. We chose Major Marine Tours' three-hour cruise that took us out on Resurrection Bay where we were pleased to see many animals in their natural habitat up-close, such as bald eagles, puffins, sea lions, and humpback whales. The town is small enough to explore on foot.

Seeking out a delicious seafood dinner at one of the various restaurants, we walked past the marina and witnessed some salmon swimming up a nearby stream. Seeing the few campers nestled along the picturesque shore, we imagined a perfect evening might just be cooking up our own fish over one of the nearby fire pits.

Girdwood and Flightseeing

Along the same train route back to Anchorage is the town of Girdwood. While we could have planned to make that a rail visit, we instead rented a car for the day after returning to Anchorage. This allowed us to make various stops along the way, such as Beluga Point to do some light rock climbing and whale viewing. Also we made a quick excursion to beautiful Portage Lake before our dinner at Double Musky Inn - a local favorite that fills up upon opening at 5pm, serving New Orleans-inspired meats and seafood complemented by an extensive wine list.
Portage Glacier and Portage Lake

However, the primary purpose of our Girdwood visit was a ninety-minute Alpine Air helicopter flight which lands on a glacier high up in the mountains. Do this! The chopper was big enough only for a pilot and three passengers and provides an unforgettable journey through the clouds, over peaks and valleys to a giant piece of ice that looked a bit like Superman's home. Looking around we were in awe of the glistening bright whites and blues under our feet and streams of water carving their way around us. The trip may seem a bit pricey in planning, but if you can fit it in your budget, it will be sure to be a highlight and one of your best trip decisions.

Road Trip to McCarthy

On the advice from my friend Carrie, we rented a car and drove out to an old copper mining community at Kennicott and McCarthy. You should budget a whole day of driving each way from Anchorage and have a rugged vehicle to navigate the bumpy and gravelly McCarthy Road. In fact, national brand car rental companies do not allow their vehicles to be driven on this and several other unpaved roads in the state. There are other rental agencies that specialize in 4x4 vehicles, but require that you have your own primary insurance. I suggest staying at the peaceful and cozy Wrangell Mountain Lodge along McCarthy Road - log cabins on the edge of Chokosna River in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve. While there are many activities and tours in and around McCarthy, we chose a self-guided tour of Kennicott and were quite content to stroll around the old mining town (in the rain) and dip into the various buildings showcasing displays of life there in the early 20th Century. Luckily for us, it looks like the miners left here like Joe Biden left Afghanistan, so there I still a lot left to see from that operation.

We found a really cool spot for an early dinner at The Potato in McCarthy, which had a live band, delicious food (smoked salmon mac 'n cheese!) and a craft beer list into which I would have loved to delve further into had we not a substantial drive ahead of us.
Smoked salmon mac 'n cheese (The Potato)

Craft Beer in Alaska

Double Musky Inn serves local Girdwood Brewing

We were excited to see that Alaska is home to some great small breweries! For our last dinner of vacation we visited the very popular Glacier Brewhouse in Anchorage for Alaskan alder grilled salmon and herb-crusted Alaskan halibut with both the Tangerine and Blackberry IPAs. However the brewery highlights of the evening were at Midnight Sun Brewing Company with their "I Said Never, But..." pale stout and the "Panty Peeler" Belgian tripel; also a nightcap of "Passionfruit Permafrost Pucker" sour at 49th State Brewing was a fantastic last beer of the trip. In Girdwood, we visited Girdwood Brewing for a flight and great conversation with a couple from Utah visiting for a wedding. Favorites from there were the "No Woman No Cryo" Northeastern IPA and the "Hippie Speedball" oatmeal coffee stout.

Midnight Sun Brewing Co. Loft

Thanks, Alaska! It was a great birthday celebration exploration! I hope we meet again.