July 2010
Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat Sun
« Jun   Sep »
 1234
567891011
12131415161718
19202122232425
262728293031  

Month July 2010

Reflections on the best bartender in America: Murray Stenson

Nicole and I didn’t go to Tales of the Cocktail this year, having between us two backlogs of work and wanting to save our money for trips this fall and next spring/summer.

But we did wander into Zigzag Cafe last Saturday night, knowing that nearly everybody in town was at Tales, but that Murray had decided not to go. So we knew we could get the best cocktail experience in town for an hour or so before we headed off to an outside table at Place Pigalle.

Murray wasn’t there. Erik served us, and we had a terrific experience and met new cocktail enthusiasts (as we always do sitting at Zigzag). A month or so ago, when I asked Murray if he was going, he smiled a secretive and sardonic smile and alluded to not wanting to get involved in all that, and being sort of pissed about the nominations. I didn’t ask further, but I assumed he was alluding to the fact that not a single West Coast bar made the nomination list this year (a criminal shame, given the quality of what Daniel Shoemaker is doing, not to mention many others).

After a delightful discussion about cocktails, Continental philosophy, and many other topics with Erik and our newfound friends at the bar, we headed off to Pigalle, and enjoyed a terrific dinner and sunset on the patio. Midway through, Nicole and I poked at our iPhones and told each other, “Murray won American bartender of the year.” Suddenly it all made sense.

Not only was Murray not at Tales to avoid the attention that seems to embarass him so much, but he wasn’t even behind the stick at Zigzag that night. Not that he won’t have to endure many, many nights of his peers and customers congratulating him, but in characteristic fashion he avoided spectacle.

I can’t add much to the rivers of digital ink now being spilt in adjective-laden paen to the local Hercules of the shaker and bottle. I haven’t known Murray for decades, except in the old days as a barely noticed presence at Il Bistro, in days when I was far more concerned about the wine list.

But for those who haven’t spent time at the counter with Murray, you’re missing something very special. The skills Murray possesses are not necessarily what you expect. With sufficient research and the willingness to chase down ingredients, and the near-OCD-ridden hobbyist attitude that comes naturally to those who work with computers or software for a living (especially those that write the latter), it’s not hard to mix a technically amazing cocktail, or wax loquacious about the late 19th century history of the Martini.

Heck, it’s not even hard to stump Murray by naming an obscure cocktail you just quarried out of some book. Nor does Murray follow any of the “rules” of modern craft cocktailing — I mean, good god, the man doesn’t even measure!

But none of us go to sit at his bar because we care about those things. Murray is a master of his craft, of course. But most of all, he’s a master of hospitality. Not only does he keep dozens of people happy with superbly made cocktails at all times, but he’s keenly and almost supernaturally aware of dozens of conversations happening simultaneously. More than once, Murray has been at the other end of the bar, mixing drinks for a different party, and someone I’m hanging out with will ask about an ingredient or ask for my preference in gins for this particular cocktail, for example. Just in passing, you understand.

Five minutes later, often after the conversation has moved on to other topics, Murray silently places glasses in front of everyone in our party and pours a tasting sample of the ingredient, or a comparison between gins so folks can see the differences. He heard the whole thing — the question, my answers, the interest level of the people — from across the bar while doing five other things. He heard *everyone* and their conversations, and is ready to expand horizons, satisfy curiosity.

And ready, always, to build loyalty, especially in those who are loyal customers in return. I suspect that many of us now think of ourselves less as “customers” of Murray’s, and more as “ambassadors,” our job being to find those friends whose interests and sensibilities will vibrate in sympathy to this peculiar and rare treat, and introduce them, so that they can begin their relationship with the place, with the staff, and most importantly, with the Best Bartender in America.

Thank you, Murray, and whether you’ll admit it or not, this is well-deserved. Expect to be congratulated a fair bit, because I don’t know anybody who doesn’t feel the same way.

Updated Personal History of Personal Computing

For a long time now, I’ve been keeping track of all the personal computers in my life.  I started on my original Radio Userland blog in early 2003 (now defunct, though I want to give a shout out to Dave Winer, a true pioneer), and continued here in various incarnations.  In that most recent 2008 post, I count roughly 27 computers I had exclusive use or ownership of, and 2 that were “categories” of computers I used (UW Computer lab, Wisconsin computer lab).

Since then, I’ve slowed down.  The MBP 17″ labeled “#1” is now sold on eBay.  The Mac Mini is decomissioned, awaiting refurbishment and redeployment, and the Air has turned into my “backup laptop,” quiet except in an emergency and resident in the laptop bag in my office, periodically refreshed and sync’d with Dropbox.  The current lineup is:

Macbook Pro 15″ Unibody, Core i5, 8GB RAM and SSD

This is the best laptop I’ve ever had.  I’m holding essentially a 4 processor, 8GB RAM machine with ultrafast disk in my hand, and if you measure the curve from here back to the beginning, it’s exponential.  When I became an NSF Graduate Fellow in 1989, part of the award in addition to tuition and stipend was a few minutes of supercomputer time on one of the NCSA supercomputers.  I’m pretty sure nothing I could have done with those minutes would be out of reach with this laptop, and more.  This thing is, pace Andy Clark, literally part of my mind.  I’m brain damaged without it.

Mac Apple TV

This replaced the Mac Mini downstairs, and does the job better, once you hack Boxee onto it and get used to the hacks to get third-party movies and video.

Mac Apple iPad

This really is the next-generation tablet and handheld we’ve been waiting for.  So if it bugs you that it’s an Apple fan product, wait for a knockoff that actually does all the functions well.  That’s Android to iPhone, by the way, so revel in your late-adopter ethos.  But the iPad really untethers computing from the traditional computer, and is pretty much what Donald Norman has been talking about for decades, not to mention Alan Kay.  And Gutenberg would have loved this fucking thing.

Basically, I’m going to call this 30 personal computers I’ve had during the course of my life.  I’m not counting the literally thousands of servers, or phones, etc that I’ve had, been responsible for, been around, or cursed at.  This 30 is a solid and serious trajectory of computing within one individual’s life.  And one I’m proud to describe and have.

Paradise Terrestre, Four Years Hence…

Sometime in spring, I start being aware that the anniversary of my move to the island is coming up.  In past years, I’ve held a big party on the closest weekend.  Something about this year was different.  This morning I remembered that today was the day after I woke up and was drinking a big mug of coffee on the deck.

Four years ago today, I loaded up the used Land Rover (bought off Craigslist), and headed to the Anacortes ferry dock, and sailed for San Juan Island.  I’d worked here the summer of 1987, part of the summer of 1988, and intermittently visited my colleagues in 1990 and 1991.  My mother and her twin sister (my aunt), had graduated from high school on Orcas Island (having moved up for their senior year to board with relatives while my grandmother ran off to Vegas for one of her marriages).  So I had history.  Of the places one could flee and reinvent oneself after a decade or more of hard work — six companies and four more as board/investor advisor — this called to me.

And so here I am.

That first day, I rolled off the ferry, familiar from past trips, into a town coated with nostalgia and memories, and stopped at Thane Bolger’s office and picked up the keys to my house.  The packing in Seattle wasn’t completely done, and the moving truck wasn’t arriving up here for another 3 weeks, but today was the day, because the house closed the day before.  I wasn’t willing to wait any longer to draw a line under the previous daily life I’d led, and start a new one.  By the end of the day, I’d set up a temporary futon bed in the room that is now my office, a card table in the dining room, Rockisland had installed my internet connection, and I had some minimal patio furniture.  It would turn out to be all I needed for the best three weeks I can remember.

Once set up, I headed to Friday Harbor for dinner at Steps Wine Bar and Cafe, run by my friend Madden Surbaugh.  I’d met Madden the day I found my house, while sitting at the former Pelindaba cafe across from his (then) front door.  I popped my head in, saw Madden wilting an utterly massive pan of greens, and much of my island life since then has been shaped and determined by that moment.  I sat at the window table, and had a terrific meal (documented, along with my impressions of that day, here).  I had a bottle of 1988 Vieux Telegraphe that I’d brought up for the occasion.  Later, sitting on the deck, I finished the Chateauneuf-du-Pape and enjoyed the sunset.

Today, four years later, after 1460 days on the island, I still love it here.

As I reread each of my yearly anniversary dispatches, I am struck by how I lived a relatively charmed life for most of the first two years.  I read, I studied, I enjoyed a bit of socializing and a lot of meals at Madden’s, but I had relatively little impact or influence, or was influenced by, the local community.

That all changed about a year and a half ago, when I ended up replacing my friend Cloud on the board of the San Juan Islands Agricultural Guild.  Our current project, the Permanent Farmer’s Market in Friday Harbor, quickly became difficult and contentious.  Increasingly I found myself puzzling about the community to which I’d moved.  I clearly didn’t quite understand the demographics, the political makeup, the needs and wants of this community.  I entered a period where my impressions of the island, quite frankly, were mixed at best.  I loved the physical setting but I was clearly rebelling and coming to terms with the community itself.  Tellingly, I didn’t even write a 2009 dispatch on my anniversary, a fact I didn’t actually know until I just went looking for it to link in the previous paragraph.

I’m not going to go into the FM project or other projects I’ve become involved with in depth.  Each deserves better than random reminiscences.

But suffice it to say that I’m starting to come out of the valley….which I now recognize as the “holy shit” reality check about the enormity of how I’ve changed my life…and am starting to be at peace again with my decision.  I’ll say it again, I love it here.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t grind my teeth about the difficulties of establishing a permanent downtown Farmer’s Market, or at the difficulties of simply disposing of one can of trash given the Solid Waste debacle, or at the regular delays and irritations of island life.  Those things aren’t temporary parts of adjusting.  They’re the grievances of an island resident.

But it does mean that I sit on my deck tonight, four years from the day I arrived, contemplating what the fifth year will bring, with something approaching optimism.  Much has changed — Madden is on Orcas at Rosario, I’m on the Library board and we’re selecting a new Director to replace Laura, and I split my time between here and Seattle in order to spend as much time with Nicole as I can — but much also remains the same.  I sit here outside with a laptop and a glass of wine, music playing, writing and watching the sunset build, and recall Lawrence Durrell’s words, that spell out my own affliction with such poetry:

Somewhere among the notebooks of Gideon I once found a list of diseases as yet unclassified by medical science, and among these there occurred the word Islomania, which was described as a rare but by no means unknown affliction of spirit. There are people, as Gideon used to say, by way of explanation, who find islands somehow irresistible. The mere knowledge that they are on an island, a little world surrounded by the sea, fills them with an indescribable intoxication….But like all Gideon’s theories it was an ingenious one. I recall how it was debated by candlelight in the Villa Cleobolus until the moon went down on the debate, and Gideon’s contentions were muffed in his yawns; until Hoyle began to tap his spectacles upon his thumbnail of his left hand, which was his way of starting to say goodnight….Yet the word stuck; and though Hoyle refused its application to any but Aegean islands….we all of us, by tacit admission, knew ourselves to be ‘islomanes.’

I can’t wait to see what Year Five in my very own Paradise Terrestre brings.