Category Archives: Commentary

No Matter What Changes, I’m Home In Downtown Fort Worth

I wrote the following post a few months ago for a contest. The prize was something I didn’t want very much, so I didn’t win. At least, I guess I didn’t. They said they’d let me know. They didn’t. Now, you get the post — and I don’t get a prize.

After growing up in a small town near Fort Worth, I moved to an apartment on Camp Bowie as soon as I could. (Living downtown wasn’t even really an option two decades ago.) For me, identifying with Fort Worth rather than my small town roots was a choice.

Then the need for cheap housing sent me packing to Parker County more than a decade ago. But I still consider myself a Fort Worthian. This town is where I spend my money, spend my time and live my life.

Downtown is a great destination in its own right for many reasons – and when there’s nothing else to do or see in town or you don’t want to spend much money, there’s always downtown Fort Worth. You can explore the galleries or shops like a tourist, marvel anew at the Water Gardens or simply choose a restaurant patio where you can enjoy an afternoon or evening.

And as someone who likes to walk for exercise, the streets of downtown provide a nice occasional alternative to wandering around in a park, on a trail or at the mall.

Perhaps downtown Fort Worth’s best asset is its abundant free and cheap parking. When I’m on a weekend trip to Austin, San Antonio, Oklahoma City or some other distant and exotic locale, it’s always amazing to me how hard it is to park. How can I access what the city wants me to see and do if I can’t even park?

No matter where I go, it’s always good to get home to Fort Worth.

Like so many people who are from small towns around here or who have chosen to live outside this city’s limits for the space or the value, I call Fort Worth home because that’s how it feels. It’s hard to imagine how it could feel so special to me without such a diverse, interesting, walkable, accessible and ever-improving downtown.

I may sleep in Parker County, but I live in Fort Worth.

Gip Plaster identifies so strongly with Fort Worth that he calls himself the Fort Worth Copywriter, and you can find him online at fortworthcopywriter.com.

A Uniquely American Evening When Fear And Scarcity Seemed To Fade Away

What’s your idea of a pleasant evening in America?

I don’t watch reality television shows or participate in politics. I don’t spend hours endlessly looking through celebrity Twitter feeds or trolling Instagram. I even limit my time on Facebook.

Further, I’m not very patriotic. I’ll never fly an American flag because I don’t believe America is better than other nations or that my way of life is superior to another.

But I enjoy having unique experiences that make me feel good about myself and about the world. I like feeling proud to be part of the human race.

Yesterday evening in Fort Worth was a good one for me – something that’s perhaps only available f

or experiencing in today’s America.

It started at Chadra Mezza and Grill, a restaurant owned by a Lebanese couple where there’s pizza, pasta, gyro, hummus and Greek salad on the $8 Wednesday night buffet. There’s a beautiful patio where some men were enjoying a hookah and a family was enjoying the food. Inside, we ate plenty – and so do did the Catholic couple who prayed before their meal and then made the sign of the cross before eating lots of cucumbers, pita chips and mahummara.

One older woman enjoyed three plates of food while her husband worked his way through a single piece of pizza.

When we were done with dinner, we made a conscious effort to see what everyone else was doing by visiting Sundance Square Plaza downtown. There was a private party in progress apparently celebrating American Airlines and their new service to China.

We were surprised to see American success story Luke Wade headlining the party, and there was plenty of room for the public to have a seat and watch. Luke is a small town boy like me, and he has overcome physical illness and injury to find success, thanks in large part to, ironically, a reality show.

While he sang, Chinese businesspeople passed around cowboy hats, at fancy food from the Reata and stood around taking it all in. And people of all kinds stopped to sing along with the music and dance a bit.

One group of women particularly liked Luke’s version of “Lean on Me”.

In a shelter at the back of the pavilion, a group of young people played cards. A few tables over, a young man sat down facing Mecca and said his evening prayers. A few minutes later, his friends did the same thing. I was pleased to see that, especially since I had seen a Bible study group in that same shelter a few months ago. It just seemed right.

At the restaurant and the plaza, I was among people who were enjoying themselves and each other.

As the show ended at the plaza, the Muslim guys headed to the same parking garage where we parked. And we all went on with our lives here in America.

It made me feel proud to have a great experience in a great American town. I didn’t see any flags.

And it enhanced my experience to see that others of diverse background, religions and ideas were enjoying the same evening in the same town – doing pretty much the same things we were.

Today’s America makes that uniquely American evening in Fort Worth possible. Freedom allows diverse people to come together and share their interests at the points where their interests touch and cross over.

Today’s America is a place where everyone can do what they like and others have no reason to interfere, judge or feel limited. It’s a place where there’s plenty for everyone and no reason to feel scared or concerned when others get their share too.

For me, being free in today’s America trumps everything else.

What Are Your Goals For Your Teeth?

I’ve been trying to find a good dentist recently, and that got me thinking about why I want to choose a new one. The one I went to last — years ago now — was competent enough, I suppose, but we don’t take the same approach to life.

And after I first visited him, I found out he is also a low-level politician. That turned me off.

Call me old-fashioned, but I’d like a dentist who is focused on his practice rather that on his political ambitions. But that’s not why I want to find someone else.

The political dentist from which I’m fleeing got off on the wrong foot with me the first time I visited him by asking the stupidest question I’ve ever heard from a professional: “What are your goals for your teeth?”

It was the first thing he said to me after telling me his name. Then he grabbed me by the forearm with both hands and shook me a bit, apparently avoiding the awkwardness of a handshake.

“I’d like to keep them,” I answered, perhaps too quickly.

Maybe he was trying to politely ask if I was interested in a whitening procedure since my teeth were looking a bit dingy. It could be that he was trying to ask if I wanted my crooked front teeth straightened. He might have wondered if I have some kind of higher ambitions in life and thought my

average-looking teeth were holding me back.

But instead of asking me to honestly discuss what I expected of him, he asked me if I had any goals for my teeth

Truthfully, I returned to him a couple of times after that first cleaning appointment. But I never felt right about him or his practice.

When I visited last, he has upgraded to digital x-rays. That’s actually a smart idea, right? But he and his staff had also started wearing little headsets so they could talk to each other without actually looking anyone in the face. It seemed like something right out of NASA — or the Taco Bell drive-through.

Could it be that this dental practice was more interested in gadgets, gimmicks and aspirations than in cleaning and repairing teeth? Or am I just being old-fashioned and judgmental?

Whichever is the case, I really need a new dentist. This guy put me off medical people — more than I already was. I don’t like dealing with these kinds of situations anyway. And there’s nothing I dislike more than disingenuous, disinterested and dismaying people.

The only health professional I’ve seen since visiting this dentist for the final time a few years ago is an optometrist who prescribed me low power reading glasses. He didn’t ask me about my goals for my eyes.

Still, though, the optometrist wears a very strange toupee, and I wonder how well he can see if he wears something that looks like that on his head. But that’s a story for another time.

Pledge Drives Are Disingenuous: Two Reasons I No Longer Donate To Public Television

For several years, I donated a few dollars every month to a local public television station. I loyally watched the British comedies and some other programs it broadcast, and I decided to donate because I benefited from the station’s services.

I no longer donate to public television, and there are two primary reasons I made this choice. Do you agree with my reasons? Should you?

I hope these points give you something to think about if you’re considering giving some of your hard-earned funds to support public television.

Here are the two reasons I no longer donate:

1. Public television is no longer in line with my values.

I don’t mean that the public television agenda is too liberal for me or that it promotes causes with which I don’t agree. I mean that I no longer live the kind of life where something as unimportant as television plays a major role.

My simple, deliberate life isn’t as restrictive as the lives of some who chose the simple path. I watch TV when it appeals to me, and I do so unapologetically. But it’s not very important to me. If it disappeared from my life, my life wouldn’t be any less compelling or complete.

TV is, at best, something about which I’m ambivalent now, not something that I want to support with my money.

Besides, most of what I watch on my television screen these days is on DVD, not broadcast on public television. So it’s just not that important.

2. Because of the way pledge drives are handled, public television often doesn’t do what it usually does.

Public television pledge drives are more frequent than ever before, and they’re handled is more intrusive — and less interesting.

On KERA, the public television station that serves North Texas, pledge breaks are no longer centered around regular programming and haven’t been in many years. They’re based around specials that attract a different, wealthier audience than the station’s regular programming. And increasingly, these programs are highly targeted health or self-help programs aimed at a very narrow but statistically significant group of givers

There are specials aimed at people with arthritis, programs for people with memory problems and things about hormones I don’t want to understand. There are special cooking pledge programs and shows aimed at teaching people to play hack piano. And of course, there are all those classic music specials.

These pledge programs focus on older people because old people are perceived to have more money to give away. But I think it’s disingenuous of public television stations to prey on older citizens for their money, then return when the money is secured to children’s programming and home repair shows.

I still watch public television when my local station offers something I want to see, but it offers fewer quality programs and I watch less TV than ever, so I find myself watching it less and less.

Still, I like the idea of public television in theory. And I suppose I’m glad it’s there to offer an alternative voice — a voice that is less influenced by advertisers, even if it is biased at times in favor of other groups with money.

Public TV is nice to have around. It’s just not an idea I care to support anymore.

Referring To Companies As “It”, Not “They” May Explain A Lot

As I was finishing up my post about Sweet Tomatoes specifically, buffet restaurants in general and my not-so-fond memories about how I used to live, I realized something. It explains a lot about why I feel so strongly that we’re eating ourselves into despair.

Toward the end of that post, I wrote this sentence: “I won’t be visiting Sweet Tomatoes again, and I unsubscribed for the company’s email list and unliked its Facebook page.”

Actually, I first wrote that I “unsubscribed from their email list and unliked their Facebook page”. Then I remembered that according to most writing style manuals used in the United States, companies should be referred to in the singular rather than the plural.

I always want companies to be plural, perhaps, because I watch too much British television. Or perhaps I want companies to be plural because I like the idea that there are real people running them.

When you refer to a company in the singular (“its Facebook page”, for example), you suggest that the company is an entity of its own. Referring to a company in the plural (“their Facebook page”), suggests to readers that the company is made up of a collection of real people. Don’t all companies have real people behind them somewhere?

This could explain my dissatisfaction with the way many of us eat. When every item we consume comes from a faceless corporation with no one apparently representing it, how can we feel any real connection to the source, quality or healthfulness of the product? There are people involved in our food production at every level — even if machines are doing much of the work.

If I were running a food company, I’d rather be mistaken for a “they” than considered an “it”, I think. I’d like people to understand that a collection of real people are really responsible for what my company puts out. Wouldn’t you?

In fact, the world might be better than it already is if we would recognized the people behind and within every company, organization or process in which we become involved. We might feel more connection, more empathy and more respect.

We might even all get along. But perhaps that’s too grand a point to make in a simple post about an interesting little grammar rule that few people follow.

Sweet Tomatoes And Other Buffets Depress Me Too

I’m generally a very happy person these days, but the quality and quantity of food we eat does make me sick at times.

When I wrote a few weeks ago about Why Trader Joe’s Depresses Me, I also had another depressing food experience in mind. We recently visited the Fort Worth location of Sweet Tomatoes, an all-you-can-eat soup, salad and bakery place that we had visited at other locations before.

The food when we visited for an early dinner a few weeks ago was dried out, stuck to its serving utensils, overflowing from its containers and generally looking terrible from lack of care and attention. But never mind that the quality and presentation at this location was inferior to the others we had visited, it was the experience in general that bothered me.

We once frequently visited buffets and other all-you-can-eat restaurants, and I often ate way too much. While I’m sure Sweet Tomatoes — which focuses on salad and soup and offers no entrees and few meat choices — would object to be lumped in with other buffets, it’s still an accurate term for this chain that serves big bowls of sloppiness rather than carefully prepared portions of whole foods.

We had visited looking a rare treat, the kind of high-end experience we had found at the chain before. What I got was a stomach ache and strong sense that even being in the place was a betrayal of my commitment to simple living.

Although few people were in the restaurant when we visited, the ones who dined near us reminded me of the overweight, undereducated people I remember from my years of buffet dining.

I was upset about the high price (although I didn’t pay), upset about the low quality, upset about the old memories and especially upset that visiting had been my idea. My stomach felt like I remembered it used to feel every day, my brain seemed less sharp and my head ached.

I was overfed on low-quality food, and I was depressed.

As I said in my post a few weeks ago, we deserve better than what we’re getting. We deserve good food made by people who care, and that means we deserve food prepared in our homes by hands that serve us with care and compassion.

This post isn’t about Sweet Tomatoes or any other buffet chain. It’s about how sad our way of dealing with food makes me.

I won’t be visiting Sweet Tomatoes again, so I unsubscribed from the company’s email list and unliked its Facebook page.

That company is no longer part of my life, and I’m a better person because I’ve moved on.

Recycled Books In Denton, Texas Hangs On, But…

I was about to say that bookstores around here are dropping like flies, but I don’t see many flies anymore — and there aren’t many bookstores left to drop in the Dallas /Fort Worth area.

Surely the largest and most well-known of the remaining independent bookstores in Texas is Recycled Books, housed in a large light purple semi-historic building on the courthouse square in Denton, Texas. Despite the failure of many independent bookstores in recent years, it hangs on.

But why? I can’t imagine that the store could be profitable, and it’s hard to see how the dilapidated building can hold together under the weight of all those books for much longer.

I visited Recycled Books on September 4 for the first time in at least a year. Or maybe it’s been a couple of years since I stepped through that old glass door. Time flies when you’re out in the fresh air rather than in a stale old bookstore.

A few things have changed in the multi-floor, multi-room space since I was there last, but the general vibe is still the same: old-fashioned, quaint, tired and somehow still a bit inspiring.

Since I made my living selling books online for several years and still move a few volumes when I can find some worth selling, bookstores have a special place in my heart. I used to spend lots of time in Half Price Books locations around the state, and I watched as they changed from quaint and fun to corporate-chic and soulless. That chain is based here in the Metroplex and has been a part of my life for at least two decades, but it’s declining as a place of interest for me.

I can see that Recycled Books is declining too. The first thing that caught my attention was the stench when I walked in the front door. It used to smell old and used, but now it smells moldy, damp and unsanitary.

As I looked around the place, I noticed that a particularly nice little room at the back of the shop with a window that looked out over the town had been closed off. Was the weight of the books too much for it? Did the leaky roof finally cave in? Did the owners need the space for something else? I didn’t ask, but it was a disappointment to see a part of the store unavailable.

In the huge basement, the stench was unbearable. I managed only a brief walk through this subterranean dump ground before I had to move back into the relatively cleaner air upstairs. While I was down there, however, I noticed that many metal shelves had been added since I was down there last, making it more difficult to navigate and a bit less interesting to explore. Is the store still selling books or has it turned to only collecting them?

I also noticed that some doorways seems to sag or twist more than when I last visited, and some floors squeaked in new places and slanted more than I remember. I concluded that the old girl isn’t just showing her age, she’s falling down. I wondered if it was even safe to be in there anymore. What will have to happen before the building is condemned?

Still, though, the dedication of the store’s owners and the idea of an archive for antiquated printed information is a bit inspiring. Like libraries, bookstores aren’t really necessary anymore, but I admire those who maintain them against the odds.

I’m inspired by people who take deliberate and definite actions guided by their souls rather than by common sense. The willingness of some people to go against common sense is responsible for some of the world’s most remarkable — if ultimately pointless — creations.

Why Trader Joe’s Depresses Me

Trader Joe’s depressed me because it’s about as good as it gets. And I think we humans deserve better than frozen turkey burgers, fried orange chicken pieces and mixed nuts with chunks of peanut brittle in them.

For the best combination of quality and value, I’m convinced that Trader Joe’s, a chain of cut-price gourmet grocery stores, is the best choice in areas where the company has stores. Products have no preservatives, colorings or other icky things and are available at lower prices than in high-end grocers.

But the company specializes in frozen ready-made meals that require little or no cooking.

Actually, it’s the chef’s case at Central Market in Fort Worth that first got me thinking about the miserable state of the food most people eat and its uncertain origins. Central Market is an upscale grocery store that prides itself on a large deli where people can buy cold foods designed to be warmed up in a microwave. Whole Foods Market offers something similar in its stores. Like Central Market, Whole Foods is praised for the quality of its fresh-made deli offerings.

Trader Joe’s, Central Market and Whole Foods all depress me a bit, however. I’ve tried frozen and prepared products from all three stores, and I’ve been disappointed by most of them. I find that I’m most satisfied by food when I cook it myself because I know that it was prepared to my standards and tastes.

The frozen products I’ve found at Trader Joe’s are, in fact, superior to similar products I’ve found at my favorite grocery store, Aldi. And there’s nothing wrong with the potato salad or fresh sandwiches at Central Market either.

But surely we deserve better than that. Don’t we all deserve freshly made foods prepared with love by our own hands or the hands of people we know? Don’t we deserve fruits that haven’t been processed by professional canning companies and veggies that aren’t pre-trimmed and vacuumed-packed?

Isn’t it time to turn our backs on prepackaged, pre-made and flash-frozen?

You see, it’s precisely because Trader Joe’s, Central Market and Whole Foods are so well regarded that I wonder how many of us are eating well. I know I struggle with this every time I purchase something that disappoints me.

When I sample an item at an upscale deli counter known for its spectacular quality and find it uninspiring, unappealing or even unpleasant, one thought runs through my head immediately: This is as good as it gets. There may be no better prepared food on the planet, and it’s only fair.

We deserve better than this — better than bland and tasteless food provided to us in biodegradable plastic-like containers or cardboard freezer-proof boxes. We deserve food that’s actually been in a real skillet, pan or mixing bowl.

As I stand alongside aging executives in tailored suits and young mothers dragging along small children, I see what they get from these cases and freezer cabinets and feel a bit depressed.

I’ve often had what they’re having. It’s the best in the world, experts say, and I don’t think it’s very good.

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Downtown Fort Worth And Sundance Square Are Sad Now, But Can They Recover?

No one disputes that the new development along West 7th St. in Fort Worth has stolen something from downtown Fort Worth and its Sundance Square development. But can the city’s central business district become a tourist destination and hangout for locals again?

Sure it can, but many, many things will have to change first. Downtown Fort Worth is a sad place to visit now, and that will be difficult for developers to overcome.

When I worked at RadioShack’s corporate headquarters in the late 1990s, Sundance Square was booming. My employer was even in on the act with its ill-devised and ill-fated Fort Worth Outlet Square mall. (Developing a shopping center with the idea of beautifying your corporate headquarters instead of attracting customers and filling underserved niches was a bad idea.)

Then, two movie theaters gave people a reason to come downtown. A thriving Barnes and Noble bookstore gave them something to do if they finished dinner 30 minutes before their movie, play or concert started. And a number of eclectic shops made wandering the streets an enjoyable part of every evening downtown.

Slowly, things began to erode. Even before ground was broken on the new 7th St. development, Sundance Square started to lose its luster. The rest of downtown never really had much luster to lose.

The destructive tornado that hit downtown in 2000 did plenty of damage, but the area recovered from that. It didn’t last long, however.

One of the movie theaters closed to become some kind of conference center. Iconic hamburger joint Billy Miner’s closed, but you couldn’t really blame the owner for wanting to retire. Other established restaurants came and went, and new restaurants went before anyone knew they had come.

The changes at the Barnes and Noble are among the saddest for me. I’ve spent many hours — in 15 or 20 minute chunks — wandering, sitting and sipping in that bookstore, but most of the furniture has been removed now. The number of books has been dramatically reduced as well. The upstairs area above the entrance was once a great place to overlook the happenings at the restaurant 8.0. With no furniture, the windows have lost their appeal. Never mind that 8.0 is gone.

And what were the owners of 8.0 thinking when they put that massive and ugly cover over their well-regarded patio? Now, the heat stays in, and young customers of the new Flying Saucer will never know how beautiful that big patio was before that monstrous plastic thing covered it up.

At least one supposedly positive sign for downtown Fort Worth turned out to be a flop. Oliver’s Fine Foods promised downtown the grocery store it never had but delivered yet another sandwich shop instead. My review of Oliver’s a few months ago expressed my disappointment, and things had not improved on a recent visit. It may be a successful sandwich shop at lunch, but rotten lettuce and single celeries don’t make for a great grocery store.

I attended two nights of the Colonial golf tournament after-party in Sundance Square recently, but few others joined me. The concerts were great, but the few vendors combined with the band members sometimes outnumbered the audience of paying beer drinkers. A walk around downtown both nights helped me see that there was no one downtown from which the party could draw.

The cartooned construction walls signal another chance at revival for Sundance Square, but a new plaza and some new buildings won’t necessarily bring back the energy the area once had — or the people, who will have probably found a good place to park on West 7th by then.

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How Grapes Call Into Question Life’s Unchanging Certainties

I like grapes.

What kind of a first sentence for a blog post is that? No search engine optimization techniques have been applied, and it doesn’t offer any lessons or advice to you that you can use to make your life better.

But I like grapes, and that’s an important statement about my life. A couple of years ago, I didn’t like grapes.

Things change.

Lives evolve.

Continued exposure creates awareness, acceptance and eventually celebration.

Important lessons about life emerge from the simple fact that once I didn’t like grapes, and now I do.

Most weeks, we stop by Central Market in Fort Worth, a high-end grocery store that balances hard-to-find and boutique grocery items with a nearly complete line of regular groceries. Many weeks during the warmer months, we take advantage of their free weekend concerts. In fact, we were once regulars at these events, so we were there a lot.

Sample of amazing food are always available, and grapes are usually among them. I started slowly at first, trying grapes only occasionally. I’ve also tried oranges, freshly made guacamole and salad with cranberries served alongside some salmon. I still don’t like oranges, and I’m starting to like guacamole. Cranberries don’t belong in salad, as it turns out, but salmon belongs on my plate.

At first, the grapes all seemed sour and unappealing to me. Squishy on the inside and chewy on the outside? Is that how they seem to everyone else? Why would anyone eat one of these?

But I kept trying them. I began to notice that the red ones were sweeter than the white ones. And the purple ones have more flavor. And some grapes are simply better than others.

Through repeated exposure to a variety of grape experiences, I began to realize that I actually like some of them. I don’t like bad grapes, but I like good ones. My tolerance for the mediocre ones has even increased.

A few months ago, I bought some grapes. That was a first for me.

What are the lessons from my long-term exposure to grapes? I see lots of them, and among them are these:

  • On a simple and direct level, people’s tastes change.
  • On a wider level, people’s preferences and opinions change.
  • Exposure reduces negative opinions, and that can lead to acceptance and perhaps even celebration.
  • Opposition can be based on sour grapes — a bad initial experience. But it can be overcome.

Because I take weekly walks through a high-end grocery store, I’ve learned that I like grapes, guacamole, salmon and a variety of strange salad dressings, ice cream flavors, breads and deli meats.

Learning about my taste for exotic or at least unfamiliar foods is a really big thing in my life.

It means that life’s unchanging certainties aren’t really set in stone at all. Exposure, though, is one of the keys to acceptance.

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