How to Embarrass Your Son…

Remarks to son Julius Fox upon becoming bar mitzvah, January 20, 2018

Julius, I’ve been snooping in your bedroom. I felt like an anthropologist or an Attenborough, studying the habitat of a fascinating creature, the Julius Nelson Fox.

In that landfill of tennis clothes and camping gear, I found a boneyard of whacky gadgets you ordered from Amazon over the years: 3D pens, virtual reality glasses, and drones of all sizes.

Some of your purchases were brilliant. I mean, Alexa is like the daughter I never had. And some of them were “hashtag fails.” Waterproof iPhone case? Seriously?

Standing in a spaghetti tangle of phone, laptop and tablet chargers, I realized that, despite your parentage, you are an Early Adoptor.

Whether it’s a tennis racquet grip designed to trace the arc of your serve, or the remote control plane that enjoyed 20 seconds of flight before crashing into Elmington Park, you are always discovering, researching, and championing new technologies, then sharing them with the rest of us to improve our lives.

When you got a FitBit, I started counting my steps. When you got a 3D pen, the architect next door wanted one just like it. When you discovered wireless speakers, our house finally filled with music. When you got an Airsoft gun, Craighead Nation became a cheerful war zone. (And I see many of your sweet combatants here today.)

Being an Early Adoptor can be fun and so funny! You are so funny. But it can be very powerful. Because if you can lead your friends and family to new technologies and experiences, think of what else you can do: You can lead us to adopt new behaviors and attitudes.

In a world where new technology—particularly social media—is too often full of snark and pessimism, you can be a guy who adopts a positive attitude of empathy and gratitude. You can be a guy who builds people up rather than tears them town.

Your mitzvah project is a great start. Thanks to a website you and Dad built—and thanks to the generosity of all your friends in this room—you have raised a lot of money and awareness to support Harris Hillman School. I hope the success of your mitzvah project shows you just how much impact you can have on your community. More importantly, I hope it encourages you early on to adopt a lifelong mindset that you can help repair the world.

The Truth in Wine Might Hurt

(Originally published in Nashville Scene, July 7, 2016)

Cheers, y’all. We finally got what we asked for: wine in grocery stores.

Never again must we find two parking spaces or swipe a Visa twice in the dual pursuit of bread and red. No more trudging the sidewalks of strip malls to source both Pampers and pinot. This summer, we join the ranks of Americans who can plop sunscreen and syrah onto the same conveyor belt, and buy a tub of sorbet and a box of rosé, without having to leave one of them in the car with a window cracked and the guilty promise that we’ll be right back.

July 1, 2016, was a new Independence Day, when we dissolved the bands of outdated package laws. What better way to celebrate the end of anachronistic protectionism than with a one-stop shopping spree for all the Two-Buck Chuck we can pour into a wire buggy? It will taste like freedom harvested from the fruited plain, with the bold texture of free-market competition, and subtle notes of it’s-about-damn-time.

And yet, like so many cheerful binges, might the wine-in-grocery-stores bender come with a hangover? Is it possible that the morning after, as we skulk from the aisles of Kroger and Costco to make our walk of shame, disheveled and cotton-mouthed, past Grand Cru and The Wine Chap, we might feel a twinge of regret for going home with somebody other than the one who brought us?

I’m thinking of the steady Eddies who, since the end of Prohibition, have anchored the corners of Main Street, providing exactly the kind of mom-and-pop character we clamor for in all our bluster and bumper stickers about buying local. Time and time again, independent wine merchants have answered our pleas for just the right bottle — you know, something between $7 and $20, that goes well with chicken and has a label that matches the sofa. Time and again, they’ve provided the cardboard cartons for our family moves and given us wooden crates to improvise nesting boxes in our urban chicken coops. They’ve gone the extra mile to donate cases to our school parties and pour tastings at our nonprofit fundraisers.

But will we continue to support them now that we can buy protein and prosecco under one roof?

“We just don’t know,” says Richard Payne, aka The Wine Chap. His shop in the Belle Meade Hill Center carries a deep roster of esoteric wines that lure many collectors, but he knows wine at the Publix down the sidewalk will siphon sales of his mainstream bestsellers such as Meiomi pinot noir and Kendall-Jackson chardonnay, even though those products are currently a couple of bucks cheaper at his place. Payne is taking a wait-and-see approach before making changes to staff or inventory.

Woodland Wine Merchant Will Motley knew this day would come ever since he opened his store in East Nashville’s Five Points nine years ago. He always planned to compete with WIGS by specializing in products that grocers would overlook, such as natural and small-estate-grown wines. Still, Motley says he expects the deregulation, which paves the way for behemoth beverage chain Total Wine to open in Middle Tennessee, to put some local stores out of business.

If it feels like we’ve heard this story before, it’s because we have. Remember when big-box retailers and the internet choked out indie booksellers? It took an act of God — or at least a patron saint in the form of Ann Patchett — to rescue us from a cultural deficit born of our own thrift. (Maybe if we had more bookstores, we’d remember the destiny of people who don’t learn from history.)

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not suggesting we return to our corked liquor laws. Competition is good for consumers. And if a new audience of oenophiles encounters wine in groceries, then graduates to specialized boutiques, wine shops will benefit, too. But if it turns out that consumers don’t demand knowledge of vineyards and varietals as much as we want a convenient supply of chardonnay next to the chard, there’s potential for some stores to wither on the vine. That’s the risk we take with Adam Smith as our sommelier.

On my 21st birthday, my dad drove me to his favorite wine shop and introduced me to the guys behind the counter. He told them that, as of that moment, they were allowed to sell wine to his daughter. “But not too damn much wine,” he said. Dad was being funny, but he left us all with a silent shared accountability in the alcohol transaction. I’ve always planned to do the same with my kids. I can’t picture doing it at a Walmart.

If we’re not intentional about how and where we shop, that’s where we’ll end up, celebrating family milestones with rollback riesling in a superstore.

It’s easy to say we want to shop local and support small businesses, that expertise and relationships trump price and expedience. But the WIGS law challenges us to put our money where our mouth is. If we value local stores as much as we profess to, we have to support them — by walking the extra block, finding the second parking space, or sometimes even paying the extra dollar. Otherwise, we’re destined to discover that, when the Invisible Hand does the pouring, the truth in wine is an inconvenient one.

The Path to Enlightenment Just Might Be a Greenway

(Originally published in Nashville Scene, June 23, 2016)

Let me first explain that odd text I sent you, the one that said, “Häagen-Dazs celiac kringle.” That wasn’t meant for you. And the one about balloon animals made of chorizo? Not for you either. Sorry for the confusion. I was walking and texting, which makes walking and chewing gum seem like child’s play. I misfire a lot.

But the walking makes me feel great. It makes me think more clearly and sleep better. My walking thoughts tend to be more optimistic than my sedentary notions, so I’m happier when I walk.

When I’m walking is when most of my personal epiphanies occur. I was on a walk when I found the house my family now lives in. On a walk when I figured out what to name my baby. On a walk when I told my parents I wanted to be a writer.

Now I do a lot of my writing on walks. The rhythmic motion jostles ideas from the low points in the brain in the same way, I suppose, that it keeps lymph from pooling in the ankles. Balloon animals made of chorizo bubble up to consciousness in a most exhilarating way.

I’m not the first person to link pedestrian activity and deep contemplation. People have been pacing forever. That’s how the Philosophers’ Walk in Germany came about. And labyrinths. And courtyards. Long before Harvard scientist John Ratey wrote Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, the poet Wallace Stevens composed verses on the two-mile stroll to his insurance company office in Hartford. I’m not holding my Häagen-Dazs celiac kringle up to “The Emperor of Ice-Cream”; I’m just saying there’s a generous precedent for ambulatory cogitation.

Sometimes I walk alone. Sometimes with a phone. Sometimes I talk into the phone. Sometimes I use the phone to take notes, which I text to myself or, inadvertently, to other people, who text subtle replies such as “I think your message got autocorrected.” No. I was actually typing about chorizo balloon animals. I just didn’t mean for you to see it.

Sometimes, I get out of my own head and walk with another human. That’s the best. A walk on a greenway can turn an acquaintance into a friend more surely than any lunch in a restaurant ever will.

Women know this. We know that walking together has curative and inspirational power. That’s why we team up two-by-two with our aspirational jog strollers, to shed the extra pounds and sleep-deprived anxieties of early motherhood. But even when we return to our prenatal girth and relative sanity, we walk with friends to help us hold it all together.

I love my walking friends.

Sometimes on our walks, we buy stuff en route and call it shopping. Sometimes on our walks, we carry red Solo cups and call it cocktails. Mostly we just stride side by side and think out loud. About our husbands, kids, mothers. Our past, present, future. Lather, rinse, repeat. Nobody considers it weird. Or romantic. Or cardiovascularly subpar. It’s just what women do. We walk with our friends. On our best days, at least.

Men are different. As far as I can tell, men fear walking. Unless they’re wearing fleece, in which case they call it hiking. Or carrying sticks and balls, in which case they call it golfing. Or following a dog greater than roughly 40 pounds, which somehow qualifies as a higher-order athletic endeavor. Maybe a holdover from the days of gladiators?

But in the absence of extreme gear, competitive handicaps and big canines, a lot of men regard walking as a remedial version of running, tantamount to giving up.

And if they’re not inclined to lace up sneakers and walk around the block, they sure as hell aren’t going to do it with a buddy. I’ve heard a man, sober for two decades, say, “Dude, you wanna grab a beer?” because that’s what men say to each other. I’ve never heard one say, “Bro, you wanna take a walk?”

But reliable sources tell me that’s changing. And not just on the campus of Twitter or Apple, where the late Steve Jobs was famous for his meetings à pied. I’ve heard rumors about men — in Nashville and beyond, in industries from science to finance — who are electing to walk together. No North Face, no nine irons, no labradoodles. Just walking and talking.

Men, it’s high time you figure out what women have always known: A long walk is better than just about anything, and walking with a friend is even better than walking alone. I hope this new trend catches on for you. And I hope our paths cross soon. Until then, Häagen-Dazs celiac kringle. Oops, sorry about that. I was trying to text you, “Happy trails. See you on the greenway.”

I Worry, You Know


Oscar’s Bar Mitzvah, May 14, 2016 (Photo by Tom Wood)

Remarks to son Oscar Fox upon becoming bar mitzvah, May 14, 2016

Oscar, ever since your dad and I brought you home—when your legs were the size of your grandmother’s thumbs—I have been perfecting one aspect of the role of Jewish mother: Worry.

It’s because I love you so much that I worry so much—about trampolines and hoverboards, high fructose corn syrup and bird flu, months without R’s, second-story windows, ladders, lice, screen time, ennui. You name it… Pesticides. Zika. If you need a longer list, ask Jessica Viner, she taught me everything I know about Jewish mothering.

And I admit that along the way I may have worried about how our family would merge two religious traditions.

While I share my worries about trampolines and hoverboards daily, it occurs to me, I have never given you a list of things I don’t worry about. So, here it is:

I don’t worry about your character, your intellect, or your integrity. Not once in this whole bar mitzvah process did I worry that you wouldn’t perform elegantly, eloquently, and in a way that is meaningful to you, your family, and your community.

If I ever did worry about merging two family traditions, I stopped the moment I saw you practicing your haftarah in the Temple library while wearing a Sewanee T-shirt. Your grandfather Billy Nelson, for whom you are named, once studied at Sewanee with plans to become an Episcopal priest. Along the way, he also studied Torah and learned to read Hebrew. Friends here today remember seeing your grandfather walk to shul on West End Avenue and recite the Hebrew prayers at their bat mitzvahs. And I’m sure my Dad’s interest in Judaism is in part responsible for the fact that I went out and found a nice Jewish boy.

When I saw you in the Temple library in your Sewanee T-shirt, I saw two family traditions, of scholarship and service, merged seamlessly, confidently, gracefully—in you.

So, I crossed one worry off my list.

Oscar, I love you so much. I admire what you’ve accomplished, and I look forward to seeing you grow as a son of the Torah, a role model in your family, and a young leader in your community.

But you’re still never getting a hoverboard.

Mad Lib: For this daughter of an Ad Age alumna, Mad Men helps fill in the blanks


(Originally published in Nashville Scene, May 7, 2015)

For the past eight years, I’ve felt like I was spying on my mom. Not on “Honey,” the doting grandmother who lavishes affection and jelly beans on my kids and helps with homework at the kitchen table, but on a sassy and unwitting trailblazer who, whether she knew it or not, was paving the way for me in the workforce.

From the moment Mad Men debuted, something about it rang familiar. Something more than the fact that chain-smoking, silver-haired Roger Sterling — pre-mustache — was a ringer for my dad.

The whole mise-en-scène of a 1960s advertising agency reminded me of something I’d heard about, in bits and pieces, from my mom, who worked at J. Walter Thompson her first year out of college.

Her memories are clipped and vivid, like the best 15-second spots. The time she saw a secret screening of the first Ford Mustang commercial. The time she plucked an original Charles Schulz Peanuts cartoon from a wastebasket in the art department. The time she saw Walter Cronkite cry live on CBS. Intimate moments with iconic brands.

Mom set out to make it in NYC in 1963, almost a decade-and-a-half before Old Blue Eyes sang about it, which tells me that she was ahead of her time. But she would disagree.

“Did you think of yourself as a feminist?” I recently asked her.

“Oh, no,” she said, as if I were implying she would ever incinerate perfectly good lingerie. Then she added, “But I did read The Feminine Mystique.”

“Did you know at the time that advertising was the ‘It’ career of the era?”

“No. I just knew I wanted to be in advertising.”

Truth be told, Mom wanted to be a writer, but journalism was “too seedy.” Copywriting jobs at white-shoe firms such as J. Walter Thompson offered a sophisticated alternative for wordsmiths, if not exactly an easy path for women.

In fact, the dean of the journalism school at University of North Carolina explained to Mom that advertising firms would not recruit female students on campus. So, after graduation, Mom schlepped from Chapel Hill to Manhattan and finagled an interview — and ultimately a job — at the real-life rival to Mad Men‘s fictional Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.

In her description, Mom did not play the leading-lady role in J. Walter Thompson’s Midtown office. She was neither Joan nor Peggy, though as we watch the show on Sunday nights she frequently swears she “wore that exact dress,” or hairstyle, or necklace. She’s quick to vouch for authenticity in Mad Men‘s wardrobe.

There are other details that ring familiar in Mom’s experience. Smoking. Casting cattle calls. Office decor. There was an entire department dedicated to the interior design of management’s workspaces. Remember when Roger’s office goes monochrome? That stuff happened, Mom says.

She points out a few differences between the venerable JWT and the upstart SCDP. Booze, for one. At JWT, even the Christmas party was dry. And the offices had metal gates for doors, which afforded security but not privacy, to prevent closed-door shenanigans.

So maybe there wasn’t as much sex as in Mad Men, but there was plenty of sexism.

Mom earned $73 a week to pay rent ($75 a month), travel (subway) and clothing (sleeveless wool dresses, circle pins, pearls). While she knew her take-home pay lagged behind that of her male colleagues, what really galled her was the fact that a fellow new hire of the opposite sex got to go straight into copywriting, while she had to take a yearlong copywriting course first. Problem was, Mom couldn’t enroll for another year.

Why not? Because she missed the first week of the course.

Why? Because she got hired after the other recent college grads.

Why? Because the recruiter wouldn’t interview women on campus. Oh, right.

Consequently, it would be two years before Mom got to write copy. Until then, she’d be sentenced to copying — literally, with carbon paper — the writing of men. And shopping for their wives’ presents and their babies’ clothes. She decided $73 a week wasn’t worth the wait. Or vice versa. She gave notice and got a job at a magazine, where women were prevalent. (A half-century later, Mom writes for Nfocus magazine.)

In her exit interview, Mom explained it all to the personnel rep.

“Why didn’t you complain?” the personnel rep asked.

Reasonable question. I mean, if I thought for one minute that some guy was climbing the ladder faster than I was just because of his junk, there’d be more than complaining. There’d be hold-onto-your-hat, hair-on-fire hell to pay.

But not for Mom.

“That’s just how it was,” she told me. “And I wasn’t used to complaining. I guess it was a life lesson.”

Like so much about the women in Mad Men, it’s hard for me to imagine things were like that for my mom. Then again, I know things are so different for me because of Mom and all those Mad Men women.

Nashville Restaurants: The Cookery

The Cookery: Photo by Michael W. Bunch

The Cookery: Photo by Michael W. Bunch

This week the Nashville Scene visits The Cookery, where a culinary education program for homeless men results in a restaurant that nourishes customers and staff alike. Find that review and other recent restaurant columns at:

Nashville Restaurants.

Gnocchi Day Returns to Tango Grill

You might remember a few years back when Nola’s restaurant hosted Gnocchi Day on the 29th of each month. Here’s a snippet from a story I wrote about the ritual in the Nashville Scene:

Gnocchi Day stems from the early part of the 20th century, when many Europeans—particularly Italians—immigrated to South America. Caught off-guard by the region’s custom of paying out salaries only at the end of the month, many Europeans living in Uruguay, Argentina and neighboring countries found themselves in the final days of the pay cycle with empty pockets, bare cupboards and hungry bellies. The solution: scour the larder for staples such as potatoes and flour to make a simple, filling dish of Italian-style dumplings. And if there’s any stale bread hanging around, make a bread pudding.

Here’s the full story from May 24, 2007.

Nola’s closed a few years ago, but restaurateur Alexia Humphrey is reviving Gnocchi Day at her new enterprise, Tango Grill.

Tango Grill’s next Gnocchi Day is Friday, Aug. 29. A plate of housemade gnocchi with meat or tomato sauce and bread pudding for dessert is $14, lunch or dinner.

Tango Grill is located at 4930 Linbar Dr., 509-6654.