The Do Over 04: Goals

The Do Over 04: Goals

Is 56 the new 26?  It seems that way for me as my current professional and existential quandaries mirror the ones I faced 30 years ago.  These posts are a series of ponderings trying parse the difference between now and then.

Most of the things that were easier at 26 than 56 are physical.  For instance, my first apartment in the East Village in the ‘80s was a fifth floor walkup.  I owned a bicycle and 13th and Avenue B wasn’t the sort of place where you left a bike on the street, not even with a heavy chain or a guard dog or perhaps armed militia (though I never quite went that far), so there were days where I happily lugged the two wheeled creature upstairs and down many times.  Nothing to do it!

One mental thing that was substantially easier then than now is maintaining faith in my narrative.  When I was a young adult I was ascending the ladders of my chosen professions, journalism and artisan cheese.  I expected bumps and bruises along the way.  I knew that progress at best was two steps forward and one step back (this was the ‘80s, long before the dotcom concept of 17 steps forward, sell and retire).

At 56, I’m familiar with a more complicated sequence of success: say two steps forward, one step back; two steps forward, six steps back (yes the Gang of 4 knew what they were talking about); two steps forward, hold; two steps forward, one step back; three steps forward two steps back.  In other words to travel the same distance entails a much more arduous path and sequence.   And of course by this age, I’m keenly aware that this *is* progress.  I’ve now spent far too many years where the only options were holding ground or moving backward.


The soundtrack for this dispatch was the new disc from Johnathan Finlayson and Sicilian Defense

And of course even in the process of a little forward, a little regression, there’s a different feeling.  When I was younger, the steps back were part of the game, something to note and be aware of next time.  Now, a certain panic sets in.  A weary, “oh no, I’m still not doing it right!” set of anxieties flood my body.  On the one hand, my businesses, winning over editors then winning assignments is the same, selling food—or rather now, beverages–to New Yorkers is the same, but the stakes are different.  When I was 26, I figured I had a decade or so of struggle ahead of me.  Now, I’m struggle fatigued after more than a decade of scrambling to survive.  I tend to think that there’s no way I can endure another five years like this, but then again, I’m sure I thought the same thing five years ago.

I often regard the survival strategies of my youth as foibles of a younger iteration of Martin.  However, I’ve begun thinking that one habit needs revival.  When I was younger-not necessarily 26 but maybe 34, young enough still to bound up several flights of steps repeatedly with a bicycle in hand—I used to frequent Starbucks Astor Place by day (at that time it was a nice coffee bar not an emblem of the corporatization of Manhattan) and d.b.a by night (it was the city’s leading beer bar at the time) and gameplan.  I’d both plan my time for the coming days, but far more importantly, I’d weigh my short term endeavors against my long term ambitions.

That I reached those ambitions should be a triumph that I celebrate but because they fell apart with alarming speed, first during the media crashes of the ‘00s then during the less well publicized cheese job squeeze of the ‘10s, I tend to regard the successes as failures.  It’s made me reluctant to game plan toward an actual goal and rather simply game plan to not be where I don’t want to be.  In other words, rather than playing to win, I’m playing not to lose.  You don’t have to be a legendary sports coach like Gregg Popovich to recognize the weakness of that strategy.

The revelation occurred to me last week.  A customer brought me gifts of beer from Russian River and described a vacation he took that involved driving the PCH from L.A. to Northern California.  It was a vacation, I’d thought about in my bike lugging days.  I thought it would be a great trip to take in my 40s as some sort of emblem of having made it (I did *make it* but not long enough to plan cross country vacations).  That’s when I realized that I no longer think of my life very much in terms of what I want it to be.  I have short term goals like resuming yoga and spinning classes by the end of the year, but long term ones seem to have been obscured if not forgotten amid the struggle to avoid ruin.  Maybe it’s the PTSD that comes from enduring years and years of personal economic chaos.

As I shared my bottle of Blind Pig with a buddy that evening, I began to think about *what* I want to do and *how* I want to get it done.  I can see a difference already, not in a swelling bank account (ah, wouldn’t that be nice) but rather at night, in my dreams.  I’m far less prone to have bad dreams about being out on a ledge, and instead I have pleasant ones about doing some of the things that I’ve thought about doing but didn’t regard as attainable goals.

I have no idea if embracing a larger range of possibilities will make them into realities, but I’m pretty clear that not embracing them wasn’t.  I think my 26 year old self would have known that, and I’m happy the middle aged iteration is catching on.

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A Lifetime of Rooting for the Cubs


People sometimes wonder how I can root for a baseball team that hasn’t won a World Series in my lifetime, and I tell them it derives from growing up in Chicago in the mid ‘60s and early ‘70s.  During my formative years as a sports fan, I endured the disappointments of the ’67 and ’72 White Sox, the ’69 and ’73 Cubs, the ’73 Blackhawks and the ’73 and ’75 Bulls.  I had moved twice, once to Dallas (where I was told by a cousin that they have real sports teams not like the losers of Chicago) and then to New York, and graduated college by the time that the Bears broke this presumed glass ceiling after their momentous 1985 season.

I held a Super Bowl party that year and needed to make a beer run at halftime, by which time the Bears had the game comfortably in hand with a 23-3 lead.  It felt like my feet weren’t touching the ground; I recall my pal Dan, a Cowboys fan noticing my glee and saying “so yeah, this is what it feels like.”   I’ve enjoyed that feeling often since then, notably the 2005 White Sox and nine—yes, count ‘em nine—different editions of the Bulls and Blackhawks.

Yet, it’s not the lack of ecstasy that feels defining about rooting for the Cubs and their Chicago sports siblings.  Instead it’s a sort of hyper-rationality.  I can’t turn on the game and feel entitled to see my team win.  I may have as a kid, but I understand all too well that there is a team on the other side and sometimes they are really good too.  As painful as it was to see the dreams of October 2003 slip away, it was balanced by a sense of wonder about those Florida Marlins, a team chock full of young players who would go on to accomplished careers.  After they rallied to win that series I warned all my Yankee friend pals about the Marlins, their opponents in the World Series that year.  The usual response was something like “thanks, but we’re not the Cubs.”  A week later  after losing the series to the Marlins four games to two, they were telling me that the real World Series was beating the Red Sox in the ALCS; I politely hid my schadenfreude.

It’s that rationality that makes the beginning of this Cubs postseason so anxiety ridden.  On the one hand, the Cubs go in as the unequivocal best team in baseball; they won103 games in a year where the next best total was 95.  With the exception of a pronounced slump in June, they have dominated since Opening Day.  If this was a Bulls or Bears team, I might begin planning a championship party.  But this is baseball.  For one, only a few of the teams with the best overall record have won the title in the wild card era of baseball’s postseason.  For another, dominance in baseball is different than it is on other sports.  Just transliterate the won loss records to an NFL season.  In that scenario, the 10-6 Cubs would have to face a gaggle of 9-6-1 or 9-7 teams to advance.  By contrast a similarly dominant NFL team would be 13-3 facing teams that went 10-6, a 20% differential.  It’s hard to expect regular season level dominance from a leading baseball team in the postseason.  The matchups usually are thisclose. It also explains why some of the great baseball teams of my youth, the late ‘60s/early 70s Orioles and the early ‘70s Oakland A’s, didn’t win every year, and why the Big Red Machine Cincinnati Reds took five years to win a World Championship after their emergence.

Those numbers and that history make my rational side seek some sense of calm and equilibrium or perhaps a 10% ABV Imperial Stout.  OTOH, my emotional side has some data of its own.  The ’85 Bears, ’91 Bulls, ’05 White Sox and ’10 Blackhawks were each the best teams in my lifetime to that point, and they won titles.   The ’16 Cubs are also best squad in my lifetime.  So as I watch what might be a weeklong playoff disappointment or a three to four week long drive toward a title, I’ll be churning inside with part of me trying to stay calm and understanding while entitlement and certainty builds in the rest of me.


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What’s the Difference Between Working in Cheese and Working in Beer

So what’s the difference between working in cheese and working in beer?

I get that question about once a week from my regulars at the store, and my answer depends on how much time I think they have.  If they are in a hurry, then I’ll hit ‘em with a quip “beer doesn’t get moldy” or something like that.  If they have some time, then I’ll give them a longer answer and it’s drawn from the below.

Evil Twin

A beer that pairs well with really strong cheese

First, here’s some background.  About two years ago, I shifted from cheese into a position where I dealt mostly with the craft beer program at the store.  The primary motive was financial.  After nearly 30 years of working in cheese and significant notoriety from the NY Times, NY Magazine and Wine Spectator, I was looking for work and most of my cheese contacts told me to go get work that paid somewhere around $15 an hour.  They weren’t being mean (well maybe one guy….), but rather that’s the artisanal cheese economy in NYC (there’s a discussion for another time about whether the business model is broken).  My potential employers readily acknowledged that my purchasing and marketing skills could probably increase sales by 2K a week; it didn’t matter, that was the going rate.  I figured it was time to get going and see what the world of craft beer was like.  I’d put together a nice small program where I worked from 2011-2014, a place on Columbus Avenue.  At my new gig at Westside Market’s East Village location I’d have a chance to apply my philosophies to a large outfit.

Here’s what’s similar in selling both products.  In each case you’re talking with customers who are aware of somewhat better product (in cheese the general public is familiar with fromage like Humboldt Fog and Cave Aged Gruyere and in beer the parallel is anything brewed by Lagunitas or Sierra Nevada) and introducing them to what’s on the higher end, say cheese from Neal’s Yard Dairy or the Cellars at Jasper Hill or beer brewed by Pipeworks or Stillwater.

In general the clientele welcome this counsel.  There’s a LOT of really great cheese and EVEN MORE really great beer on the market today.  It’s easy to get intimidated by sheer volume of deliciousness that is available.  The initial challenge was to give people more than a product; I wanted to give them a road map into case, so that the next time, they’d have clearer agenda.  That meant introducing an IPA lover to a brewery that does several really good ones and if they weren’t an IPA lover then my first tack was to get them on board with saisons.  With cheese lovers the game was to get them familiar with certain affineurs.  Even in a big pre cut and wrapped cheese case like ours there are cheeses from leading European affineurs like Rolf Beeler, Caroline Hostettler and NYD.

From there, however, things diverge.  Beer customers are much clearer on the connection between agriculture and flavor.  People seem to have little trouble grasping that beer made from oh say, Citra hops, will be much fruitier than beer made from Chinook hops.  OTOH, talk to people about cheese and bring up grass from different seasons or different breeds of cows and I see their eyes glaze over and a thought bubble over their head might read “ya know, Jarlsberg isn’t so bad.”

That situation is indicative of another key difference.  People are better at grasping the outline in beer than they are in cheese.  In beer you start with the style of beer, IPA, lager, stout, etc.  The next step is the producer and then the ingredients.  A parallel inquiry could be made into cheese but the general public is far less aware of how cheese is made much less how to parse the differences between cheeses.

Some of that may owe to the fact that every major American city has several breweries these days and many, if not most, give tours.  Dairy farms don’t typically exist in cities, so a tour involves a road trip, and there usually aren’t drink tickets in a tap room at the end.

One thing that cheese has all over beer is in the reputation of the experts.  Cheese experts like Max McCalman, Tia Keenan and others are known for being enthusiastic and articulate.  While Garrett Oliver, the public face of craft beer in New York is also enthusiastic and articulate, that reputation doesn’t filter down to the front lines.  The stereotype of a knowledgeable beer professional is of a hops snob eager to stare down their nose at you for not knowing the latest unfiltered IPA.  I see that all the time when people ask me on the beer aisle where the Corona is.  I don’t roll my eyes.  They aren’t buying it for me.  If a six pack of Corona makes their life a little happier, I’m fine with that.  Yet, that customer will grab their beer and scurry off the aisle as if they are avoiding a withering gaze.

I graduated high school 38 years ago, long enough to have a pretty good handle on the idea that life isn’t high school even if there are often striking resemblances.  The “cool kids” act of some beer geeks isn’t helpful.  Fortunately the beer information pipeline dwarves the one in the cheese world, and many craft beer consumers get their information that way and avoid snobs.

Whether I was running a beer department or a cheese department, my goal is create community.  I work in New York City; there are dozens of places to buy even the most rarified product.  If that customer feels an attachment to our place, it gives us a competitive advantage.  That community has been easier to build and maintain in beer.  First off there’s Instagram and second both my boss and I enjoy chatting with regular customers about beer.  Essentially, we’re succeeding in making an impersonal space, an aisle with more than 400 varieties of often crazily packaged beer, into a convivial area.

Do I miss cheese?   Sure, I miss Winnimere.  I miss Rush Creek Reserve.  I miss coming on to the counter on a Saturday afternoon and getting six different picks of the week from my fellow mongers.  OTOH, in 30 plus years of working in cheese, rarely did a customer bring me some.  It happens every week on the beer aisle.  It’s even better than drink tickets at a brewery tour.

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The Do Over 03: Class Matters

The Do Over 03: Class Matters

Is 56 the new 26?  It seems that way for me as my current professional and existential quandaries mirror the ones I faced 30 years ago.  These posts are a series of ponderings trying parse the difference between now and then.

When I was growing up, there were railroad tracks in the neighborhood, but the real class divider was the busiest east-west thoroughfare. I lived in Kenwood on the South Side of Chicago and south of 47th St. the area resembled Hyde Park, which was best known for the University of Chicago and its immediate vicinity.  North of 47th St. Kenwood was, well, let’s say it was a little rougher and tougher.

In our household, we were more than a little bit proud of our middle class status.  We’d moved on up—down to 48th St. from Lake Meadows to be precise–a solid decade before the Jeffersons ascended the same class ladder to the Upper East Side.  We made it clear to all visitors that we got there the right way: hard work, book smarts and savvy.  Anyone suggesting otherwise was cruising for a bruising.  It was usually but not always implicit that that savvy and those smarts were what separated us from the folks north of 47th St.

That familial pride in our um, stature moved with us to Dallas when my Dad’s job shifted headquarters there in 1974, and looking back, it was interesting to see how we clung to it even after the company went under a couple of years later.  Our brands didn’t change; it was pretty much business as usual with one income instead of two.   We weren’t the vacationing type, so that didn’t come into play.  I still wonder if the brands were less nostalgic than aspirational.   It didn’t matter.  My father found a far better, more lucrative new job about a year later.


Layla was the soundtrack to this essay as I’ve listened to this record enthusiastically at most points in my life.

When I was 26, after four years in New York City as a student then four more as a struggling bohemian, I began to find my middle class footing.  Rent ceased to be a chronic worry; NYC’s burgeoning food scene became a hobby both via restaurants and shopping, and since part of my income derived from work as a cheesemonger, fine food was also a professional as well as a class emblem.  When I was 27 I hosted Thanksgiving dinner in which I roasted a free range bird from a top butcher and then once it was done I roasted Kona coffee beans and ground them for the java to serve with dessert.

My income was often fitful but it ticked slightly upward through my 30s, crashing with a big thud after the dotcoms did the same.  In the fifteen years since then, I’ve battled and battled, scrambled and scrambled and as I take a moment to look back, I think I’ve done the same thing my parents did in the mid ‘70s.  I clung to emblems of a middle class lifestyle even if my income didn’t always justify it.   I work in the food biz so there are numerous stores where I receive a little discount.  I definitely should have frozen my gym membership at times, but it was a major aspirational emblem.  My brightest moments of self-identification came through the dance, cardio and yoga classes I’d taken, so even when I was walking around on a cane, the idea that a return to such endeavors was right around the corner was important to me.

The big place where I see my refusal to admit the realities of my income situation is in assistance.  2001, 2002, 2004, 2009 and 2011 feel so heroic in retrospect for my ability to bite the bullet, but they would have been much easier to manage with a little help from SNAP.  Currently, ACA offers assistance that I’ve not looked into either.  To do either would have made me feel like I was denying the savvy and book smarts that are just as much a core value as my workaholism.  It would have placed me on the wrong side of 47th St.  Also, I’m a New Yorker to the core:  I’m gonna hit it big tomorrow, just you watch.  I’ve probably felt that way since the plane landed at Newark Airport in August 1978.

Still, the larger meaning is that I fell prey to what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has poignantly called the dangers of the single story.   Each destination and moment has many routes to it and many routes out as well.  That results in many implications and future prospects.  My tendency to narrow it to one was an aspect of being 56 (or 54 or 52 even) and acting like I was 26.

When I was 26, I was a tennis player or a boxer or a marathon runner, a solo athlete on a solitary quest.  Now, even though I live alone in a small apartment, I’m more of a quarterback or a pitcher or a point guard, reliant on a team around me.   For instance, no quarterback succeeds without a solid offensive line and sure handed receivers.  I have come to realize how my life similarly interdependent and that as such class is malleable.  It’s helped me realize that sometimes you need emblems to fortify aspirational identification and that all the time you need teammates.  It makes tracks much more figurative much less of an absolute.


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At The Root on What it Was Like to Work in the Obama White House

As cool to research and write as it sounds.  I could have interviewed these cats all day long. The cutting room floor is another article in itself.

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At WSJ on the new Mehldau/Redman duet recording

‘Nearness’ by Brad Mehldau and Joshua Redman Review: Jazz Standards for a Modern Age

The new recording by pianist Brad Mehldau and saxophonist Joshua Redman defines what jazz sounds like today.

Joshua Redman and Brad Mehldau. ENLARGE
Joshua Redman and Brad Mehldau. Photo: Michael Wilson

In the mid-20th century, jazz went through several seismic shifts: the emergence of bebop in the ’40s, the arrival of free jazz in the late ’50s and early ’60s, and the synthesis that became known as fusion in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Since then there have been no structural shifts of comparable magnitude, which makes it hard to devise a shorthand label comparable to grunge in rock, minimalism in classical music or gangsta rap in hip hop. Yet jazz musicians continue to produce compelling music, even if it defies easy description.

“Nearness,” the new duet recording by pianist Brad Mehldau and saxophonist Joshua Redman, is a fine case in point. Few records released this year better define what jazz sounds like today, even if there isn’t a hip noun to describe it. The recording is a collection of live performances from their 2011 European tour, and it features three originals and three standards. The standards— Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology,” Thelonious Monk’s “In Walked Bud,” and “The Nearness of You,” which was written by Hoagy Carmichael and Ned Washington—are the highlights; the duo present amalgams of the trends that define post-millennial jazz.

“Ornithology” begins with the familiar cascade of swinging eighth notes, but almost immediately there are tempo shifts and rapid mood changes. Mr. Mehldau’s counterpoint to Mr. Redman’s lead ranges from stern contrast to gentle complement. The rapid shifts are indicative of an age where information is received in 140-character bursts. First Mr. Redman and then Mr. Mehldau uses his solo to probe and abstract the familiar theme. With the exception of a brilliant reworking by piano great Bill Evans, “Ornithology” usually is faithfully covered, but Messrs. Mehldau and Redman manage to stay true to the composition’s spirit while taking it into new realms.

“In Walked Bud” slows after the first thematic statement, and for a minute the two musicians alter the notes. It is as if another Monk classic, “Bright Mississippi,” is edging into the picture, almost as if it were an electronically generated sample but done with acoustic instruments. Without abandoning the structure and melody, they take the piece far afield. Then both musicians solo, concluding the piece with an improvised duet that accents the myriad possibilities in the tune.

“The Nearness of You” is slowed to a glacial pace, even slower than Frank Sinatra’s definitive version and the extraordinary rendition by Bill Charlap 14 years ago. The pianist and saxophonist nearly turn the Carmichael/Washington ballad into a quiet meditation from a murmured entreaty and expression of longing, their solos more ruminative than extroverted. It’s at a tempo not often found in mainstream jazz but commonplace in trip hop and dance music not driven by the beat. The highlight comes at the end when Mr. Redman takes an unaccompanied solo that returns longing to the center of the song.

These standards offer valuable opportunities for comparative listening, but there is plenty to enjoy in the original works on the disc as well. They feature stellar, intuitive interplay between the musicians. It’s a likely product of their being on tour for several weeks with this repertoire. Most notable is their ability to blend traditions from across decades. Mr. Mehldaus’s “Old West” and Mr. Redman’s “Melancholy Mood” feature the serene, pastoral themes that became popular during the ECM recordings of the ’70s and ’80s, but each musician takes thorny solos, more characteristic of free jazz. This merger of styles did not become commonplace until this century.

Mr. Mehldau is 46 years old and Mr. Redman a year older. Both have been prominent figures on the New York jazz scene since the early ’90s, when Mr. Redman was the bright young star following his triumph in the 1991 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition. Mr. Mehldau was the pianist in his band on tours then and earned considerable acclaim. Mr. Redman’s recordings deftly moved from traditional jazz to fusions with funk and hip hop. On his recordings, Mr. Mehldau became well known for taking ’90s rock classics and making them into natural parts of the jazz fabric. “Nearness” is an impressive work that showcases two active minds smartly updating classics. Now, if only they’d devise a buzzword for their style.

Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.

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After the attacks, residents of lower Manhattan (maybe everyone, but I live in the East Village) started taking inventory.  Not of our figurative stockrooms but of our friends and acquaintances.  How could you not?  It seemed like every business in the neighborhood had flyers seeking information on someone who was missing.  There were vigils outside of Beth Israel and St. Vincent hospitals.    I found out the night of the attacks, Mike, the guy I usually talked NFL with on Sunday nights, was a firefighter….and missing.   So yeah, I took attendance of familiar faces everywhere I went, shopping, retail work, and fitness classes.  I was a regular in a Monday night led ashtanga yoga class at my gym.  It was a full class with a devoted student body for this rigorous practice, and the teacher Ghretta Hynd, was masterful.  About three weeks after the attacks, there was one guy missing amongst the regulars, and we had collectively begin to worry; he worked for Aon or Cantor Fitzgerald or some business located at the top of WTC.  Then on the fourth Monday after 9/11 just as the class was getting rolling, we were into our second or third sun salutation, the door opened and he walked in.  40 people came out of downward facing dog and stared in happy recognition.  A wave of applause spread across the room.  He smiled said he was on vacation when it happened and had been busy going to funerals since.  Ashtanga is no joke and the yoginis were known in the gym as this stern faced, barefoot brigade.  We all did our practice that night with smiles on our faces.

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