Category Archives: Personal Stories

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.

7 Things I Never Knew I Would Have

There are more than seven, of course. But these are the first things that came to mind. These are seven of the things I have that I never really thought I would.

Life takes mysterious and interesting turns all the time. As I’ve navigated the ride of my life, I’ve picked up:

A tablet computer. Don’t I sound old calling it a “tablet computer” instead of just a tablet? The original version of the tablet computer came and went in the late 1980s and early 1990s. No one found much need for one. Today, I own a simple $80 tablet I picked up at an electronics store. I can download YouTube videos and read Kindle books with it, and that’s all I need to do. I don’t have an iPad or anything fancy. That just wouldn’t fit my personality — or my budget. Besides, I do my real work on an old-fashioned desktop computer.

A George Foreman grill. I rarely give in to consumer pressure, but I wanted a George Foreman grill because I’d read how you can make great grilled vegetables using one of these machines. And supposedly, hamburgers take half the time as in a skillet. The problem is that I don’t like my food pressed down and dried out, and skillet cooking is actually quicker in many cases. So I’m having trouble figuring out what to do with this

well-regarded and carefully promoted device.

A beard trimmer. Who knew I’d ever be able to grow a respectable beard? It took a while. Every guy owes it to himself to get the best stubble trimmer, best beard trimmer and best hair clippers available. When I was a kid, stubble wasn’t in, but things change. Attitudes change. The large number of attitude shifts since I was a kid extend far beyond facial hair — and that’s a very good thing. Plus, my writing work has involved researching stubble trimmers more times that I care to admit.

A Weed Eater. I always assumed I’d live in an apartment in town. But when the rent on the apartment we lived in for 11 years went up by more than $100 a month, we decided to try out the semi-rural life. We spend just as much time in the heart of the city as ever, but we sleep a few miles outside the big city. And after more than a decade of that, I’m ready for something else. The weeds are taking over the house anyway — because although I have a string trimmer, I don’t use it very much.

A stable of websites. I can never remember how many websites I have, but I think it’s 21 or so. Each of them makes me money in one way or another. Many of them are Amazon affiliate sites, but one of them — Fort Worth Copywriter  — is simply a site that tells people I’m a writer. I haven’t been actively promoting it for very long, and it’s already brought be a few writing clients.

A writing career. I never thought I’d make it as a freelance journalist, but I did for a while. Then when I returned to writing a few years ago, I never thought I’d make it as a web content writer. But I have. It’s a great feeling to work every day doing something I really enjoy — and something that improves the world. Many websites need much better content than they have now, and I can help with that.

A good life. I never really saw much future for myself. But armed with my George Foreman grill, 21 websites and my clunky little tablet, nothing can stop me. That may not be exactly what you require for happiness, however.

Your life probably involves many things you never thought you’d have either. A bit of unpredictability makes life interesting, doesn’t it?

One of the keys to a good life is to shed the people and things that weigh you down and fill your life with things that matter to you. That’s not something to be taken lightly and is, in fact, serious business.

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.

Sure, I’ll Talk To You About Discontinued Deodorants

Want to have a conversation about all the brands of deodorant that have recently been discontinued or reduced in size? Sure, I’m up for that. But there was a time when I would have been very uncomfortable with that topic.

I think I was born with a misplaced or overactive propriety gene, but it’s effect on my personality has slowly been softening. I once shied away from any conversations about personal grooming, unpleasant bodily smells and other seemingly unseemly things.

In some circles, my aversion was enough to limit my ability to participate in the conversation. You have friends like that too, don’t you?

Today, no topic is off limits to me.

Why This Comes To Mind

Deodorants are on my mind because mine has been discontinued — as far as I can tell. I can’t find absolute confirmation that Arrid Extra Dry Clear Gel has been discontinued, but I’ve seen lots of evidence. A few people are talking about it online, and the product has disappeared from local Walmart stores and everywhere else I’ve checked.

There is apparently some major realigning of deodorants and the way they’re sold, and I’m caught up in it. The product I’ve used for more than decade is gone. And I would grieve for it if I didn’t have other things to do.

I’ve seen articles indicating that homemade deodorant is the way to go, but I’m just not ready for that. I’m not likely to smear on a cream deodorant either.

Signs Of Greater Ease

You may find this a mundane topic — and you may even find it slightly uncomfortable to read about deodorants. For me, however, this is a big step.

When I was a kid, I wouldn’t have entered into any kind of discussion related to personal grooming. It’s not that I found it embarrassing exactly, it’s just that I didn’t want people thinking about what products may or may not have been on my body at any given moment. Discussing foot powders, colognes and ointments was out of the question for me too.

Today, I’m fine with all of that. I think it’s a sign of greater ease with myself. I don’t know that I use the same products you do, but I’m relatively confident that no one is judging me for using one brand instead of another.

And even if you are, I just don’t care what you think. That may sound harsh, but this post wouldn’t have been possible if I still worried about people judging me.

In fact, most of my life wouldn’t have been.

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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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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Remember When Sidewalk.com Was Microsoft Sidewalk? It Meant $1,500 To Me

Do you remember a website from some years ago called Microsoft Sidewalk? It was located at sidewalk.com and aimed at competing with local newsweeklies. The site hoped to gain a foothold in the local search market, providing details about local events in cities around the United States.

Microsoft acquired the name in 1996, and by all accounts the company had high hopes for the success of the project.

I’m just wonder if you remember it because it meant a lot to me. In fact it meant $1,500 to me. Here’s the thing though: None of my work ever appeared on the site.

My brief association with Microsoft Sidewalk worked out fine for me, however, because it gave me a reason to snoop around quite a few libraries, movie theatres and other locations around Fort Worth. And they paid me the $1,500 despite never using my work.

How did I get involved?

The woman who was in charge of assigning Fort Worth community venue blurbs lived in Dallas, and she saw some of my work in The Texas Triangle, a now-defunct gay and lesbian newspaper founded by the late Kay Longcope. (Kay was important to me because she gave me my first freelance writing gig, then she and her editors as well as the man who bought the paper from her all continued to use my work for years.)

Since I had a website even then, the editor for Microsoft Sidewalk looked me up, contacted me and asked me to cover some things for her. She actually wanted me to cover some gay bars, I think, but I don’t go to bars, so I turned those assignments down. Instead, I took all the miscellaneous, boring locations around town that no one else wanted to bother with.

Microsoft was offering more money per piece for these quick blurbs than I was getting for thoroughly researched journalistic pieces at the time. In fact, for making several stops around a town I love exploring anyway, I thought $1,500 was a good deal.

I gladly accepted the offer, wrote the pieces, got my check and then saw the announcement that Microsoft Sidewalk was being sold to Citysearch. The 1999 sale of the project meant the site was completely redeveloped and my content never saw the light of day.

Oh well.

I can’t remember what I wrote about any of the places I reviewed, but I can’t imagine that I said anything very stimulating about the little library across the street from the old Seminary South mall or the dollar move theater on Granbury Road where a church now holds its services.

I got my $1,500 though, and I wish I could get some gigs like that again. It’s fun to get paid for exploring.

By the way, if you stop by sidewalk.com today, you’ll find something there. It’s not my content, and its not anything Citysearch put there either. The site has remained mostly dormant for a decade or so, and the content that’s there now isn’t likely to get anyone’s attention.

How much, I wonder, is the current owner is paying for interesting content about uninteresting places?

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