Parzen family is thankful for… (Happy Thanksgiving)

The Parzen family has a lot to be thankful for this year.

We’re thankful that our house didn’t flood and we were all safe in Hurricane Harvey.

Thankful that Georgia got into the music magnet school and she is enjoying her violin lessons.

Thankful that Lila Jane is enjoying her last year of preschool as she grows into a “big girl” who loves writing songs, singing, playing “guitar” (ukulele), and dancing.

Thankful that Tracie’s business is expanding and mine continues to thrive.

Thankful that everyone in our extended family is healthy (knock on wood).

But most of all, we are thankful to have each other.

Even as we have faced personal and professional challenges this year, we always know that we can come home to each other and to the loving, wholesome home that we share together in southwest Houston.

Even in the face of our nation’s ongoing political turmoil, the seemingly unstoppable rise of ethnic and religious intolerance in our community, and the continuing decay of civil discourse in our nation, every one of us — Georgia, Lila Jane, Tracie, and daddy — has each other to count on and to love.

It’s been the worst of years, it’s been the best of years. Happy Thanksgiving, everybody. G-d bless and G-d speed in fulfilling your dreams.

In memoriam: Pietro Cheli (1965-2017)

Photo by Giovanni Arcari.

Who Was Pietro Cheli
by Giacomo Papi
Il Post Libri
November 6, 2017
(translation mine)

At dawn on Monday, November 5, 2017, Pietro Cheli died in his bed as the rain fell over Milan.

“I’m fine,” he had told his wife Alba Solaro shortly before the moment arrived. He may not have realized that it wasn’t true.

He was born in Genoa in 1965. He was 52 years old. He often said he would pass soon. Genoa was his favorite soccer team. He was a cultural journalist, meaning that for his entire life, he had worked in publishing, reading and publishing books, appearing at presentations, speaking on the radio, on television, and editing culture columns at the newspapers where he worked.

First at Il Giornale and La Voce with Indro Montanelli; then at Glamour and Diario with Enrico Deaglio; and finally at Amica where he was the magazine’s deputy editor. He was one of the great “men-machines”: When it came time to close an edition, he had an incredible capacity to edit its pages with a level of concentration and attention that made it appear seamless and almost easy.

He was a voluminous man whose enthusiasms and aversions often overflowed. He was a generous and contrarian man who sometimes used his body — his belly mostly but also his hands — as his own language. He could use it to spark the interest of strangers, intimidate his adversaries, and embrace his friends. Going by appearances, he seemed a man unafraid of the world and a singular voice of culture. In fact, he struggled with his doubts as to whether he should join in or keep his distance.

He hid but also rallied behind the character he had created. His way of hiding was by taking up all available space.

After they met, Luis Sepúlveda put him in one of his books. He called Cheli “a portly detective nicknamed ‘the Brooklyn Bambino’ by the homicide squad.”

Even when he spoke ill or gossiped about some one — as he often did, especially when it came to those he felt had usurped a position of power they didn’t deserve — his perspective was shaped by his disappointment and his amusement at the human comedy. But he never grew angry. He wasn’t ever able to avoid fools and hangers-on because he knew that fools and hangers-on nearly always had stories to share. And I believe it was also because he didn’t want to hurt them.

He was an elegant man (years later, he still laughed about an article that appeared in a Genoa newspaper wherein the author wrote he had “the elegance of a Finollo,” an old men’s store that catered to Genoa’s upper classes). He was a man full of wit. He could lash out but he also knew how to protect.

When he liked someone, he always knew how to identify the perfect anecdote or mannerism to describe him. He would reveal it for everyone to see, whether he intended to screw that person over or make him a legend.

As he lay dead in his room, he was elegant and rotund, surrounded by his books. He was cherubic, like a peacefully slumbering adolescent’s big baby doll.


See this video of Pietro speaking (in Italian) about his recent book I’m A Racist But I’m Trying To Quit.

We’ll miss you dearly, Pietro.

California wine needs us now more than ever before…

As Houstonians, we know all too well that recovery from a natural disaster is long and hard — even after media attention has shifted elsewhere. Please read my post today for the Houston Press, “California Wine Needs Us More Than Ever Before.” I was wrong about California wine and California wine needs me and you more than ever before…

Above: the selection of California wines at the Houston Wine Merchant is excellent, with a wide range of styles and price points. The Signorello winery in Napa was one of the estates destroyed in the northern California wildfires, “the most destructive wildfire in the history of California” according to the Wiki.

Last week, Sonoma resident and leading California wine writer Elaine Brown published “After the Fires” on her blog, one of the most moving posts I’ve read about the aftermath of the deadly California wildfires.

I highly recommend it to you. In it she writes: “Please help the North Coast rebuild in whatever ways you can. Keep buying California wine, especially from Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, or Lake County, all of which were impacted by these fires. If you ever travel through the region, please consider buying gift certificates for your favorite locally owned businesses so they can get the funds now, and you can enjoy them when you next visit.”

Her call to buy California wine echoes what so many people on the ground in Sonoma and Napa have been writing in their e-blasts and blog posts: nothing helps more than purchasing and consuming California wine.

This week, I made a run to my local wine shop, the Houston Wine Merchant, for a mixed case of California wines. Tracie and I generally drink mostly Italian, some French, and the occasional Californian and Austrian. But last month, as we followed the news from the Golden State (my home state), we turned our focus to the west.

Every bottle that you or I purchase (every “depletion” as we say in the trade) delivers much needed support to the industry — from the vineyard worker to the tasting room staffer to the trucker who hauls the wine eastward. All of those people have been affected by this natural disaster. And that’s not to mention the hospitality workers (wine bars, restaurants, hotels, etc.) and the service employees who reside in Napa and Sonoma.

“I hate to say it,” said Antonio Gianola, one of the senior buyers for the Houston Wine Merchant, “but if you buy the wine directly from the wineries, you’ll help them even more.”

He was referring to the fact that direct sales deliver the best margins for the wineries.

Not all California wineries are registered in Texas and Texas has some of the most restrictive shipping regulations in the country (thank you, Texas wholesaler lobby!). But there is ample availability of great California wine in Houston: please visit Spec’s, the Houston Wine Merchant, and Vinology for nearly every style and price point.

Matthiasson, Ceritas, Bedrock are some of my favorites and they are all available at the Houston Wine Merchant. And if you want to go with a bigger-style California Cabernet Sauvignon, I recommend the Frog’s Leap (also available at the Houston Wine Merchant). I tasted the wine last summer as part of the Slow Wine Guide to the Wines of California tasting panel (I’m the guide’s coordinating editor and Elaine is our senior editor). Our panel awarded the winery one of our “best value” prizes: at around $56 a bottle (compared with $80-120 for similar pedigree and quality), it’s a steal for how good it is (organically farmed, btw).

Wherever you live, I hope you’ll join me tonight and in coming months as I pull a cork and enjoy a wine from northern California.

Thanks for reading and for enjoying Golden State wines. Please check out my post today for the Houston Press.

LA Times coverage of the Confederate memorial in Orange, Texas

Last night, someone texted me asking about the Los Angeles Times article “As monuments to the Confederacy are removed from public squares, new ones are quietly being erected,” which was published yesterday in the paper and appears today on the homepage of its website.

As the title reveals, the piece examines communities in the U.S. where new Confederate monuments are currently being erected, even as the controversy over the removal of memorials — mostly from the 1910s and 1920s — continues to rivet the nation.

The centerpiece of the story is the Confederate Memorial of the Wind in Orange Texas, where my wife Tracie grew up and where most of her family still resides. Over the nearly nine years that I’ve lived in Texas, I’ve visited Orange countless times. I took the above photo of the memorial in November of last year, not long after the presidential election.

Anecdotally, I can tell you that most Orange residents (at least among those I interact with) just shrug about it when asked. When I’ve brought it up, nearly everyone concedes that it’s an unfortunate eyesore. But everyone I’ve talked to points out that there’s nothing that can be done about it because it sits on private land. I’ve never met anyone in Orange who has spoken out against it publicly or done anything to have it removed.

The men behind the memorial claim that it’s a homage to their heritage as descendants of Confederate soldiers. I don’t know any of them personally but they have spoken with a number of media outlets (including, and even before, the Times coverage).

Their narrative may be partly genuine. But after nine years in Texas and nearly 10 months into the Trump presidency, I can tell you that these men know exactly what they are doing. They know full well the fear that their memorial instills in the blacks, Mexicans, Asians, Jews (like me), and Middle Easterners that live or pass through Orange. As the author of the article points out, the memorial is “visible from the interstate and loom[s] over Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.” What she doesn’t note is the fact that a church stands just down the road from it.

The overwhelming majority of people who live in Orange are self-defined Christian conservatives. Regardless of denomination, churches in the South have had a far-reaching legacy of complacency when it comes to the intimidation of minorities through the display of symbols, icons, language, and gestures. The Confederate flag is the most recognizable of these but there are many others. I used to ascribe it to ignorance. But with the advent of Trump, I’ve come to realize that it’s not stupidity. In fact, the people who live there are not stupid at all. The majority of residents in Orange have embraced Trump despite his lack of Christian values — from his assaults on women to his abusive attitude toward people who aren’t white.

With his claims that there plenty of “nice people” among the champions of Confederate memorials, Trump has laid to bare not just their complacence but their willful acceptance of a segregationist ideology whose advocates use hateful symbols to intimidate and stoke fear. The residents of Orange can ruefully shrug and say there’s nothing they can do about it. But in Trump America, it’s now painfully and tragically obvious that their interests align with the authors of the memorial.

Today, too many conversations there start with “I’m not a racist but…” or “I have no problem with the Jews but…” It simply doesn’t matter to them that blacks may have a problem with the memorial or that Jews may have a problem with the memorial. Why should it? That’s not what’s important — at least to them — in Trump America. But then again, Christ and His teachings were swiftly tossed aside by those who support Trump. The common good (as espoused by Christ’s disciples, at least in the Book I’ve read) is trumped by the good that the president is doing for our country (at least for the white people in our country). Trump supporters can’t claim ignorance anymore. They know exactly what they are doing.

The deep-seated racism that thrives there is on the rise again, just like the flags being flown over Interstate 10. And evidently, the Christians who live there are okay with that.

In fairness to the residents of Orange, I have to point out that the author of the Times piece was wrong to mock, however subtly, the city’s motto — “Small town charm, world class culture.” As hard as some may find it believe, there is world-class culture there. The Stark family campus of museum collections and botanical gardens are wonderful cultural resources. When I worked as a bibliographer at the Getty Museum (nearly two decades before I met Tracie), I catalogued scores and scores of photographs of painted Medieval and Renaissance painted books that are conserved in the museum there.

I wonder if I might bump into the authors of the Confederate Memorial of the Wind the next time I visit. Wouldn’t that be something?

May your fast be easy and your year ahead filled with sweetness and health…

Tomorrow is Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, the last day of the Ten Days of Awe that follow Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year.

I’m not an observant Jew and we aren’t raising our children Jewish.

But each year, Yom Kippur is a day of reflection for me.

What a year it’s been… A year of some of our greatest joys fulfilled and a year of some of our worst fears realized.

Our sweet daughters are healthy and happy and are already enjoying their school year, ballet, painting, drawing, and music. My beloved wife Tracie and I are both working hard and our professional lives have been rewarding this year on many levels.

But all around us — literally all around us, in our neighborhood, in our community, and in our city — people are still suffering from the impact of the storm.

We are filled with hope but also deeply concerned about the year ahead: the continued fallout of the storm here at home, the ongoing and often challenging recovery from natural disasters across the world, the turbulent political climate, the threat of war, the seemingly unstoppable rise of intolerance…

Tracie and I will face many challenges in the year ahead but the blessing of our family fills us with joy and purpose.

May your fast be easy and your year ahead filled with sweetness and health…

L’shanah tovah: may you be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for a good and sweet new year…

On Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, we eat apples and honey as a symbol of the sweet year ahead we hope G-d will grant us.

.לשנה טובה תכתבי ותחתמי

L’shanah tovah tikatevi v’taihatemi.

.לשנה טובה תכתב ותחתם

L’shanah tovah tikatev v’taihatem.

May you and yours be inscribed and sealed [in the Book of Life] for a good and sweet new year.


Let us turn our heads heavenward and, while thanking Him for sparing so much human life, beseech G-d to restore health and wellbeing to those who are suffering!

Let us ask G-d for a Happy, Healthy and Sweet New Year for the entire universe! Our High Holiday prayers, we are taught, have an extraordinary effect on the year ahead – let’s seize the opportunity!

Let us make firm, tangible resolutions to better ourselves and increase our mitzvot, in both our interpersonal and our G-d-and-us relationships.

And let us all simply shower one another with blessings!

Thanks for being here. I’ll see you next week. Happy new year…

Where to donate to Houston relief efforts…

Above: Houston restaurateur Giancarlo Ferrara preparing lasagne for first responders.

If you’re not in Houston and want to help out with relief efforts, here are our recommended sites for donations:

Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund
(established by Mayor Sylvester Turner)

Houston Food Bank

Thanks, everyone, for all the notes, wishes, prayers, and solidarity. It’s going to be a long, long road to recovery. But we’ll get there together. #HoustonStrong

Orange, Texas disaster update: our families safe and dry but towns still underwater

I grabbed the above photo this morning from family friend Glynis’ Facebook.

That’s her house on the left (flooded) and Aunt Ida’s house (not flooded, miraculously) in an image snapped above Bridge City (one town over from Orange) using a drone yesterday.

Reverend and Jane Branch (my in-laws) got some water in their house — for the first time ever. But they are okay and still in their home with another family friend whose house flooded and memaw (Tracie’s grandmother) who is in her 90s.

The Parzen/Branch/Johnson family has been extremely lucky throughout the disaster. But our communities have been (literally) devastated. Most of Orange and the towns that make up the Golden Triangle are still completely underwater and nearly all of the towns north of I-10 have been under mandatory evacuation orders.

Thanks for all the wishes and the prayers. They went to good use. Now it’s time to take care of those who haven’t been as fortunate as we have.
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Please say a prayer for Orange and Southeast Texas: waters rising, residents trapped (including our family)

I came across the above photo this morning as I was scanning Instagram hoping to find images of my in-laws’ neighborhood in Orange, Texas on the Louisiana border (Google map).

Isn’t it beautiful, with the blue sky and clouds reflected in the floodwaters? The famous Shangri La Botanical Gardens (where our daughters often play) lie just beyond those trees on the right.

“It’s a beautiful day to save lives,” wrote the Instagram user, redbeard_mark, who took the photo yesterday. He’s a veteran who’s helping with rescue efforts.

Right now, as the Sabine River continues to rise and overflow into the surrounding towns, including Orange, Tracie’s parents are trapped by flooded roadways that offer no way out. And the floodwaters are only expected to rise through Sunday morning as the river level continues to get higher and higher.

We are watching the situation closely and I’ll post updates here and on social media.

But the nightmare of Harvey is far from over, I’m sad to say.
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Best ways to donate to #Houston #Harvey relief efforts…

Ever since we were able to travel beyond our block, Tracie and I have been working as hard as we can this week to aid our neighbors and fellow Houstonians: helping with clean-up and gutting houses, babysitting someone’s kids as they deal with insurance, washing flooded families’ laundry, gathering used clothing and purchased goods for shelters and relief distribution centers, etc.

If you’re not in Houston and want to help out with relief efforts, here are our recommended sites to send donations:

Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund
(established by Mayor Sylvester Turner)

Houston Food Bank

Based on our research, these are the best resources for contributing directly. As Tracie pointed out this morning, the Houston Food Bank can stretch a dollar a lot farther than we can by simply going to the grocery store and dropping off food we purchase. And by giving to Mayor Turner’s fund, you can be confident that the money will go directly to local relief efforts.
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