Mchel'...ma tu addò stae?
Literally: Michael where are you? (In the dialect of Bari)
I am not sure if my very dear friends in Puglia are asking that question today as so many magical things are unfolding in this amazing region at the beginning of the busy season, but I am most certainly wondering why I am here and not there this week typing this blog over a caffe' at Bar La Nave. It is Apulia Week on my very good friend Jeremy Parzen's outstanding wine blog Do Bianchi and he will be sharing some of the best information available on what is happening in the exploding wine world of Apulia. As for me, I am missing my second home; a place where I have spent almost a year of my life since 2008 and along with one of the most ambitious and talented people I have ever met, Antonello Losito, founded the most successful tour company to date in Puglia: Southern Visions Travel. Antonello and I worked together for Backroads in 2006. While working for one of the most successful American tour companies Antonello and I became fast friends, in many ways because we believed we could do more than just take people on well-organized cycling trips through Italy. We truly believed and continue to believe that seeing a country for better or worse through the eyes of the locals, and in the culture of the native habits is the best way to authentically and hopefully even soulfully understand a place.
In the wine world sense of place and all things that go with it are referred to as terroir. Yes, wine friends I know I am oversimplifying so just keep reading my story and we can argue semantics over a bottle of bourgueil at my house later. Travel is basically the same recipe and the terroir of travel is why I am in the game in the first place. The place, people, soil, climate, cuisine, religion, common and divergent ethos(es), and even the time of day that people typically have sex are all part of the algorithm that calculates terroir. I have been asked on so many occasions, "if you love Puglia so much then why the hell did you sell your part of the company?" This blog today is my attempt to answer this involved and very personal decision I made in August of 2010. Today I will share reasons that only some, and perhaps none of my readers, friends, or family know about why I chose to part ways with something that was very much like an incompletely nurtured child. For the sake of the reader who prefers to stop after this paragraph I will say it was an Obi Wan decision. I knew that if I removed myself from the job that I could become a more powerful ally than Puglia, Southern Visions, Antonello, or my family ever imagined...
I was 5 years old and my entire kindergarten class had just been ordered to nap by Ms. Barnes our kindergarten teacher. Poor Ms. Barnes had no idea that I did not roll naps, and that my poor mother had only recently struggled through her pregnancy with my brother because her older son (me) would not take naps under any circumstances. Basically a nap is like fasting but much worse. In a food fast one simply must give up the joy of taste; leaving smell, touch, sound, and sight well intact and in many ways heightened. A nap shuts everything down but the occasional dream and given the window of time that most naps last who really gets to enjoy the dreams anyway? Naps are for the sick and the bored and rarely am I either of those and this was especially true in Kindergarten. So, while my classmates sleepily and sonorously sounded off in their sacks I would lie on top of my towel (no cute little yoga mats in those days) and create scenes in my head and act out the stories on my fingers. Yes, my hands were opposing space fighters each with a unique finger position and political agenda. Of course, it would only take moments for me to be lost in the scene and launching into sci-fi inspired sound effects and gratuitous crash and burn sounds that drew the ire and sometimes even the paddle of my teacher. Can you believe they would beat me on the ass with a board for being creative? "If you don't eat your meat, you can't have any pudding." Ahh the Ennis Independent School District for future public servants, order-takers, and pedants. How I loathed school even from the outset.
Now, this same creative energy I used to create space scenes was mirrored and perhaps even intensified by sheer curiosity. On the first day of Kindergarten I walked into class and saw this whole model kitchen complete with appropriately sized pots, pans, stove, oven, sinks, counters, and more. My mom and I walked into class and I immediately sprinted to the dream kitchen I saw laid before me and before I could lay my first happy paw on the first fake dial on the first faux appliance I was pulled away by the teacher's voice saying that these things were only to be used at the appropriate times and now was not that time. In fact, in one full Kindergarten year, it was "that time" exactly once. One fucking time I got to play chef and show these little cretins what it was like to make imaginary pear preserves, chicken fried steak, fried pies, and of course redneck gourmet staples, fried shrimp and steak. I had one chance to show the world my latent culinary passion and it was gone in the swat of a board upon the ass of the unruly. I am sure Ms Barnes is somewhere today watching re-runs of Growing Pains and tugging on her central line trying to hurry her daily dialysis so she can get to Braum's before they close. I am sure if she read this she would be proud and think to herself, "if it wasn't for me and my Draconian (she would never use that word) sense of discipline this little unruly hick might have enjoyed school too much and gone on to be a lawyer and been an upright member of an uptight community. She might very well have a point. Thank you Ms. Barnes for hating a loud, obnoxious, and persistently curious kid so I could get the hell out of your town and leave the Sam's Club-sized Doritos all to you and your kind.
Thank God for a man named Walter D. Alexander. Mr Alexander as he was known to me my whole life was the principal of Travis Elementary and a shining testament to tolerance. Mr Alexander, as an African-American principal in 1976 was no stranger to overcoming adversity and injustice as achieving the status of principal and leader a few years removed from the segregation of schools was quite an accomplishment in a small and conservative Texas town. In fact his wife worked as a dietician at the EISD administration building that only a few years before had been the "black school" in Ennis. I could sense even as a kid there was something genuinely inspiring about this man and although I pretty much hated almost every other school principal I met in my 13 years under the thumbs of fools Mr. A was an exception.
I met Mr. Alexander on the first day of classes and over the 5 years I matriculated at William B. Travis elementary I was in and out of his office frequently for reasons ranging from my father renting the gym to play hoops with he cronies, to numerous near-death sicknesses, twice as many feigned near-death sicknesses, and of course an array of troublesome parent conferences and the honor of being on the flag-raising team in only the 4th grade. Basically, I assumed Mr A saw me as a bright example of the kind of kid he wanted at Travis; curious, studious, and perhaps not willing to accept the social conventions of the time, or any time for that matter. I was content being at odds with my teachers so long as I had Mr. A looking out for me and my self-proclaimed genius. Mr A. was very aware that kids like me did not grow on trees nor could they be easily fooled by the ruse of authority initiated for control of the willing and the stupid and he spoke to me with care and maturity which to this day I have tried to emulate when speaking to any child.
Then one day it all seemed to come crashing down as I went to Mr Alexander to what I deemed, very reasonably ask for the head and job of Mr. Duncan, our gym teacher, after he unjustly paddled me because of wretched lies told by fellow 4th graders Russell Caldwell, Damon Betik, and wussy Nick Roney whom I was attempting to help at that moment. Nick wavered in his own defense of an insidious crime committed against him by Russel and Damon and his reticence got me fucking beaten by a yin-yang two-toned paddle that Mr Duncan carried about like a loaded .357 magnum. Anyway, that little shit Nick bailed on me like a star witness who when staring into the eyes of Capone in a court room melted from fear and pled the 5th. Only moments before Nick has been reduced to tears as Russel and Damon ripped down his size 1 jeans and slapped him around a bit as his private parts flailed about for the whole of the student body from K through 5 to witness; and as the 1st bell rang Nick began to wrangle his pants up much to the delight of he attackers.
I stared in disbelief as Nick was just going to meander to class without even considering punitive retribution for his assailants and I was simply not having that. I grabbed Nick by the arm and walked him up to scary ass Mr. Duncan's door, which was always kept closed so kids like Russel and Damon could carry out their nefarious undertakings in peace. We knocked on the door as the 2nd bell rang and Mr Duncan answered the door as cigarette-laden air filtered out through the crack and he simply looked down at us with a "what the fuck do you want 4th graders?" look in his eyes. Just before Mr. Duncan could fire off his trademark "Siiit DOOOoooowwwn" I spoke right up and said, "Mr Duncan, Russel and Damon just pulled Nick's pants down and beat him up in front of everyone and they should be punished." Russell and Damon had spotted us as we approached the door and once they saw that Duncan might actually listen to us they ran to intercede and plead their cases. They seemed to speak in unison as Deadly Duncan spied their approach, "Mr Duncan, Mr Duncan, Michael pulled down Nick's pants!" I was floored, I had not touched poor Nick, nor did I ever bully, torture, or fondle any classmate in all my years in school. "Nick, tell Mr Duncan I did not touch you." Nick just stood there sniffling and looking over at R&D. Mr Duncan asked Nick again if this was true and Nick stayed silent. "Little boy, did these boys, including me with his sweeping gesture, pull down your pants?" "Yes," whimpered Nick. As I sat there with a lump in my throat as big as Mr Duncan's fist I could not help but think this was not happening and my impetus at the time was to run out of the gym and down the street into traffic as surely that would be better than this.
As it was, I watched Russel and Damon each get 2 licks from the paddle and with each wind tunnel swat they screamed at the top of their lungs and jumped up and down writhing in pain. The images still disturb me to this day. Almost as much as I am disturbed to remember that for grades K through 3 Damon Betik had been my best friend in school and we were always in the same class. In 4th grade Damon was in Mrs. Kitchens' class and Russell was a transfer from another elementary and also in Mrs. Kitchens' class and their new friendship became elementary tabloid headlines. I, with just a hint of irony, was in Mrs. Caldwell's class which was also Russell's last name. The irony runs deeper as after 4 years of teachers I would have preferred to have been eaten by a lion at the petting zoo (if petting zoos had lions) I finally had a teacher I loved, but some distant relative of hers cost me my ass on this horrible morning. My licks came swiftly and without nearly so much pain as to have made me jump up, scream, or hop on one leg. In fact, I wanted more than anything to grab Mr. D's paddle and beat that ginger-haired bitch Nick on his naked backside! I went to bat for him and in return I got a beating.
I never spoke to the Nick kid again and as I watched him over the years turn into precisely the kind of insular and socially removed person I expected him to become. I am certain if that day in front of Demon Duncan's door had gone differently and Nick would have demonstrated a modicum of courage, then years later the poor ginger teen in green army fatigues with ninja stars in his notebook would not have been voted most likely to gun down the joint, and may have even gotten laid at some point. Instead I am sure he mated with a 4-legged creature and somewhere they are happy little sheep awaiting a comfortable slaughter. Seriously, I could respect Russell and Damon for lying to save their own asses; however, I could not condone Nick's inherent weakness when faced with the rare opportunity of black and white justice.
So, when Mr Alexander heard my pleas, smiled his unmistakable smile in his brilliant plaid poly jacket and perfect teeth then basically told me that just because I said what happened was unfair does not mean that he would fire Mr Duncan. I was crushed. I had just been egregiously wronged by a weak kid, a thug who stole my best friend, Mr damn Duncan, my former best friend and now this!? Et tu Mr. A... At that point I was basically truant from class, my whereabouts unknown to most as I sat there in the principal's office and cried my eyes out in disbelief that this man who had supported me all these years would let this kind of atrocity go unpunished. I thought that Mr A knew I was special. I knew he knew I was telling the truth, yet he simply told me that life was not always fair and how could he fire Mr. Duncan when the boy who was victimized told him that I was part of the crime as well. Mr Duncan was a long-standing quality educator and Mr A. knew that he would not have chosen to paddle all 3 of us had Nick told the truth. Nick had not told the truth and I had just learned a lesson that I would re-learn time and time again. In life we have to make careful judgements and leave our help to those who want it and to also be mindful that an offer of help or altruism can very often come with painful consequences. This lesson was no more clear than on that fateful day in 4th grade and later in my life as a partner in Southern Visions Travel...to be continued