Part of The Parent Series on how my parents have influenced my life and writing. This story was originally written in February, 2010, for a pilot project about tiny online bookstores, singular in focus and curated with love…in my case, a love of cooking (and cookbooks) inherited from my mother.

I always think of my mother in the kitchen. She’s herself there even though she doesn’t cook much anymore.

With her Southern roots and a Home Ec education, she could make anything. (Except pastries. That class was cancelled in WWII due to butter rationing and I think she’s still a little miffed about it.) But we ate like kings. I remember just one meal my family refused to eat and that’s only because it looked odd. She took it pretty well.

Then there were the books, shelves of them. Tangible bits of a cook’s life. She fell asleep at night reading recipes instead of novels. “Of course,“ we thought. “Isn’t that what all moms do?” She started my book collection with a few basics, leaving me to add nuance according to my own experiences.

As I look at those shelves now, I finally get it. My mother’s cookbooks are her personal narrative. There’s a chronology to it – family, geography, friends, travel and decades of cultural change. I especially trust the books with her notes, like the dog-eared church cookbook with a scribble by a friend’s name that says “anything she makes is good.”

I started with fudge. I’m surprised my mother said yes considering it entailed high heat, molten sugar and a short 8-year-old. But it worked and I was hooked.

My cooking life ranges from Alabama to Colorado to Italy, France and Asia. I love fruit stands and farmers’ markets. I believe amazing wine is best on a random weeknight. I think dinner guests like to help. I like beautiful plates and cookbooks with photos. I wash dishes as I go. I swear by mise en place. Someday, I’ll update my knives.

I design.
I run.
I cook.


The Parent Series came about when I realized that my Mom and Dad often influence my writing. They didn’t share a lot of personal stories so, like most introverted children, I simply observed them. This post was written in August 2007 as part of a project to promote local music through video. Big Ear Music has since evolved into Elastic Lab (but we still love music).

When people are curious about my accent I tell them I grew up in Florence, Alabama. That answer usually gets me a blank stare. “Have you heard of Muscle Shoals?” I ask.

By the time I was aware of my surroundings in the 1960s, the fledgling recording industry in the Quad Cities of northwest Alabama was already shaking things up. We listened to WLAY in Tuscumbia, a rare station that played a fabulous, unrestrained mix of country, R&B, Southern soul, and rock and roll. From The Shoals movie theater in Florence, we looked across the street to a room over the City Drug Store where Spar Music opened in 1959 with the proverbial egg cartons stapled to the walls, second-hand sofas, a 15-speed tape recorder and one piano. Rick Hall was a partner in Spar for a couple of years before heading out on his own, renting a tobacco warehouse in Muscle Shoals and taking the name Florence Alabama Music Enterprises (FAME). FAME’s best-known rhythm section—Roger Hawkins on drums, Jimmy Johnson on guitar, David Hood on bass and Barry Beckett on keyboards—developed a rich, unmistakable sound and artists came from all over the world to get it. Remember the lyrics to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama?” These guys are The Swampers. Eventually, they left FAME to start Muscle Shoals Sound in a former casket factory on Jackson Highway in Sheffield.

The list of artists who have recorded in this unassuming place is staggering. Percy Sledge, Aretha Franklin, Arthur Alexander, Clarence Carter, Wilson Pickett (check out his cover of The Beatles “Hey Jude” with Duane Allman, a FAME session player at the time), Etta James, The TAMS, Tommy Roe, Jimmy Hughes, Cher, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Allman Brothers, Bobby Womack, Mac Davis, Mary MacGregor and on and on. They stayed at the Florence Holiday Inn or in trailer parks, and were seldom recognized on our streets. They came to work, not to play (it was a dry county in the early years). They came to make hits. A sign at the edge of town read, “Welcome to Muscle Shoals, Hit Recording Capital of the World.”

My dad was an architect, artist and closet musician. He designed the Alabama Music Hall of Fame late in his career. On opening day, I watched Percy Sledge fairly dance out of his white stretch limousine, belting out “When A Man Loves A Woman” like it was 1966. Dad worked with Jimmy Johnson on that project and became friends with Jimmy, David and others in the business who welcomed him into a world he loved. I hope they know how happy they made him.

I sat with David Hood a few weeks ago, sharing stories and watching the Tennessee River roll by outside the studio, and was reminded of some things. Music flows here. Any gathering warrants a bandstand. Live music plays every night. It’s empowering to be part of a community that believes.

I don’t have the music gene. What I have in its place is an unwavering belief that talented musicians anywhere, given lots of heart and half a chance, can be wildly successful. I’ve seen it happen.

On slowing down

At the end of a particularly harried work day, we ran into nice friends we hadn’t seen for awhile. “What have you been up to?” they asked. A predictable question that always surprises me. I think we made small talk about work and a smattering of personal stuff…whatever sat on top of the mental clutter. It bothered me that what sprang to mind that day was negative and trivial. Slow down, I thought. Give the good moments a chance to rise back to the top, then ask the question again. This time, it may be the answer that surprises you. What have I been up to?

I touched the Great Pyramids.
I walked through Père Lachaise in the middle of winter.
My only child got married. In Berlin.
I started running again.
I heard my brother-in-law speak from Sam Shoemaker’s pulpit.
I saw Marina Abramovic perform at MOMA.
I read two great books.
I watched an amazing movie.
I got hooked on House.

And that’s just since January. Continue Reading »

After 2½ years, I was recently reminded (more gently than deserved, I thought) that I hadn’t written anything here for awhile. A lot has happened. So I’ll begin again…again. Some would say retroactive blogging is not a proper use of the medium, but two things work in my favor. 1) My INFP personality has never been constrained by chronology. Ask a non-INFP what they did today and you’re likely to get an orderly review of events. Ask an INFP and you’ll get a string of anecdotes that seem completely unorganized but are actually in some order of importance to the storyteller. 2) I’m a basher. Thank you, Kurt Vonnegut, for putting a label on this affliction.

More to come.

Flying to Frankfurt

Wednesday, we fly to Frankfurt. It’s a short break from work and, more importantly, time with Literary Rapture before she returns home in December. We’ll eat vegetarian meals on our flight, chased by Tylenol PM, and hope to arrive fairly rested. I’ve flown into Frankfurt several times—and stayed one night in its worldly airport hotel—but always quickly traveled on to final destinations north or south. I’m interested to explore this city with its open-air markets, historic districts, public gardens and business energy. I look forward to meeting Literary Rapture’s workmates at the Frankfurt Book Fair, and having her show us around a city she’s come to know on her own terms. You can find the local time in Frankfurt here:

Time in Frankfurt, Germany

provided by
World Time Zones

Alabama Lit

Literary Rapture sent this to me today. The Books of the States: Alabama (9 electoral votes) is my home state’s contribution to Amazon’s ongoing blog series by Tom Nissley. Each state is limited to the number of its electoral votes in honor of the upcoming elections. A little skimpy for southern states, in my opinion. Fewer votes maybe…but all those great writers!

Other states with family ties:

Mississippi (6 electoral votes) clearly needs more slots for its literary contributions. I give Tom a lot of credit, but even he acknowledged this post was an exercise in omissions. Still an impressive list.

Ohio (20 electoral votes). Plenty of room here, from Toni Morrison to Erma Bombeck to Zane Grey, my Ohio grandfather’s all-time favorite author. Probably both grandfathers’. Between them, I think every Zane Grey novel ever written sat on bookshelves in West Chester, Ohio and Fayette, Alabama.

Colorado (9 electoral votes) hasn’t been posted yet. But that’s OK, we’ve been pretty busy being a swing state.


Yesterday I flew to Pittsburgh for PodCamp, an Unconference for people involved in social media. A friend who is helping organize the event invited me to attend on behalf of Elastic Lab. So here I am…in Pittsburgh for the first time in my life (except for driving or flying through which don’t really count). While I’m likely to be one of the oldest people in attendance, I’m told that Podcampers are exceedingly friendly and helpful. I expect to learn a lot from my new, young friends. More to come.