leo brown weekly response (2011-2013)


A friend and I are thinking about starting a business. It’s really wrong to call it a business. We don’t know what will happen. We have no plan to make money. We want to build something. What else are we going to do?

Even pursuit of a PhD is considered an impractical, luxurious diversion. There simply aren’t enough jobs for all of the qualified candidates. But do I hold an unassailable advantage over most others as I blithely ignore that reality?

Will we run a restaurant where carbohydrates are not sold? An odd bookstore where one can find only those books of interest to us? Will we write greeting cards unfettered by market testing?

I’m not talking about a start-up here. Start-ups are smart, innovative, and useful. They rock industries and shift paradigms. They may not make money at first, but the successful ones do eventually. (Even Twitter does now.)

It would be nice to make money, but we’re thinking about breaking even. Don’t get me wrong; we would prefer to make money. There’s nothing tragic about this proposition. We need money to pay for rent, food, our children’s education, retirement, and charity. Rather, the issue is that if we do what we want, we probably won’t make money.

Really, we want to create something that’s beautiful. Wouldn’t then others see that beauty? Perhaps not. Will we have the guts or the nerve? Perhaps not.


a #marathonmonday to remember

I began by biking out to mile 17 in Newton Falls. That’s just where the runners make a sudden right-hand turn onto Comm Ave. It’s the beginning of “Heartbreak Hill,” a long, steady incline. We were careful not to utter the word “heartbreak” within earshot of the runners. We referred to it as “Hill of Happiness,” among other fun names.

The spectators hooted as wheelchair racers whizzed by, military veterans walked in full uniform, and rogue fans darted across the street. As the morning unfolded, several of us assembled on a blanket, ready with signs for Joe. It was our post.

The first woman sped by amid wild cheers, followed closely by a sizable pack of her peers in vigorous pursuit. Several minutes later, a motorcade ushered the first man. We knew Joe would be soon to follow.

Every moment that ticked by, every dark-haired runner in yellow, our collective anticipation mounted. We were ready to pounce, like cats.

Why Newton Falls? We knew that several supporters would be spread along miles 23 and 26, and it seemed fitting that Joe could have a pick-me-up a bit earlier on. Spreading the love. Also, it was right before the Hill of Happiness.

When Joe loped by (behind a mere two runners dressed as hot dogs), he looked strong and happy. It was hard to believe that he had already run 17 miles!

Shortly after he passed, all smiles and hugs, as expected, I set off for Brookline. My old digs. Sacha was waiting there for Joe, and I made it just in time! He ran by only five minutes after my arrival. I think he was very confused by the reappearance of Leo, but his stride remained fluid. By now, the sun had peeked out, and the day was pleasant and warm.

This was going to be tough. I wanted to make it to the finish line, both to see Joe and to revel in the madness of the Boston Marathon’s glorious, fabled conclusion. But I knew that Beacon wasn’t passable, and to cross it was definitely not an option. So I set off on a journey that was not sure to succeed; down through Brookline Village, along a veritable detour, well out of the way. It was my only chance.

By that point, I had ridden nearly as far as some people ran. So I was feeling accomplished. “Feeling my oats,” as they say.

Traffic thickened as I approached the finish line, as I expected. I saw a few ambulances. The sort of scene you would expect as droves of runners complete their long, mad journeys.

All at once, traffic stopped, horns blared, sirens wailed, and ambulances flooded the streets. Pedestrians and drivers began to yell, confused and irritated. Many were uncommonly aggressive, even by Beantown standards.

The flow of runners, spectators, and bystanders quickened, and I braked my bike to a halt. At this point, a minute or two after 2:50 p.m., I first heard the word “bomb.” I was a block from the finish line.

I tried to call Megan, because she was thinking of watching at the finish. No service. Then, I tried to call Joe, but I didn’t have his number. I checked on Twitter, then Google, for news, but my data was gone. A woman shouted to a small crowd that two buildings had exploded. Another woman shook her head derisively, saying that no, there had been gunshots. Most everyone was worried and desperate for information, as you would expect.

The sidewalks were impassable, so I backed against the buildings to assess the scene and stay out of the way. By this point, the stream of motorcycles, ambulances, and police cars ran uninterrupted. Runners that had recently finished or been diverted passed by, disoriented and disturbed. Several people asked me what happened, and all I could say was that I didn’t know.

I realized that it wasn’t safe to stay there, so I moved a few blocks away from the scene. I didn’t know if the violence had ended. From what seemed like a safer distance, I checked my phone, and though my data was back, the news was sparse and vague. Two explosions right by the finish line, dozens injured.

By now, I was receiving and sending text messages to make sure people were safe. The streets were still chaotic, but I wanted to go home, and I could start to make my way slowly. I wanted to watch the news, even though I knew it would just be repetitive and speculative.

The police aggressively directed traffic, deftly managing uncooperative pedestrians and frantic drivers. Once I was a few more blocks away, the masses thinned, and I was able to ride the rest of the way home. I stopped a few times on the way to check texts and take calls. As I rolled into Jamaica Plain, all was astoundingly calm.

Now that I’ve liked all of the Facebook posts from my safe friends (including Megan and Joe), I am going to make olive oil rosemary garlic chicken wings with two of my closest. A la Clover. It is relatively sane here in our apartment, except that I inexplicably put the yogurt in a cupboard and left it there for a half hour, which I’d like to blame on being distracted from normal affairs.

new friends from new york

Home from a weekend in New York with a few new friends:

A bowl. It’s glass and from the Chobani store. This morning, I had their Greek yogurt with e.v. olive oil, dill, lox, salt and pepper, fresh dill, and lemon juice. It all came in the glass bowl, and I get to keep it! I’m going to bring it to work and eat all of my yogurt out of it. I can’t promise that it will be Chobani every time, but at least I’m repping.

Inspiration. I will now commence creating and consuming savory yogurt concoctions.

Remy. I played music with Rachel, a friend from way back, and Remy, a new friend from this weekend. We played in the subway, and while we didn’t make much money, people were obviously into it.

The Lucky Star. Now that Fung Wah has been shuttered by the Feds, I pay $10 more per ride, which assures drug and alcohol tests for drivers and bus frames without cracks. I’m a Lucky Star man.

Nick. He beatboxes and croons and loops, and I jammed with him for like 20 minutes while waiting for the G train. I’ll post some video as soon as Rachel sends it to me. We were basically soul sisters.

what insulin does

For anyone who’s wondered. I usually explain it without inaccuracy but also without a totally clear understanding. One of my goals is to wrap my mind around the details of this stuff. I’d like to know what goes on inside of me. Wouldn’t you? (I mean, wouldn’t you like to know what goes on inside of you.) (I guess maybe you wouldn’t.)

Insulin, which is made in the pancreas, plays a key role in regulating the body’s fat and carbohydrate metabolism. When we eat, our digestion breaks down the carbohydrates in our food into the simple sugar glucose, which is absorbed into the blood stream. Too much glucose in the blood is toxic, so one of insulin’s roles is to stimulate transfer of glucose into our cells, thereby removing excess glucose from the blood. Specifically, insulin is required to move glucose into liver, muscle and fat cells. It also blocks the process of burning fat for energy.

Source: “Circadian clock linked to obesity, diabetes and heart attacks”

your groove

From time to time, it is instructive to entirely switch up your music-listening groove.

You spend weeks cultivating, exploring, and growing a new playlist or genre. Groove. Then, the creep of stagnation. Your groove deepens. You know all the words now. For a time, you rock out. What could be better? It feels so, so right. Then, the sidelong glance. You never know how long it will last — it depends on so many factors — but we’ve all been there.

Stay for as long as it feels good and right. Stay excited. But once you start to get down on yourself for being in a rut or having the same old playlist, step back. Take a break.

It’s like garlic or nuts: get it off the heat on the brink of brown.

Can be a tough lesson. Something that seemed so right, so beautiful, exhilarating, what you’d been waiting for, exactly the prescription you needed, the groove that you always felt, just waiting to feel your latent inklings blossom.

So when you hear that stuff again, the memories will flood you, and you might even feel ecstatic. You might not want to go back to that place, but you’ll feel it like you never could have.

It’s a fucking metaphor, all right?

buckwheat (kasha) again

It smells like Russia here. No, not cigarettes and rickety elevator, though a waft of that does rush me back. It’s my apartment this time, because I made kasha.

Toasted buckwheat, if you’re wondering what kasha is.

I cooked it for too long — I’m way out of practice — so a few of the kernels burst, and it turned out mushy. But my roommate (my new roommate!) is a buckwheat virgin, and she was none the wiser.

Actually, she knew exactly what happened, because I explained it in detail. But yes, it was equally tasty, just not exactly the texture I had planned.

Kasha — at least, in this century — is Russian, through and through, first and foremost. (In fairness, a shout-out to soba noodles!) Apparently, it used to be popular all over, including in the United States, until farmers learned how much corn and wheat nitrogen fertilizer would get them. But in Russia, kasha stuck. Walk into any Russian cafeteria and you’ll find a proud vat of buckwheat. Have it in a bowl with milk for breakfast. Or with your sausage.

I bought a bag of kasha for $0.75 or so, and it lasted me a month in St. Petersburg as the base of every meal. The stuff expands when you cook it, and then some more in your belly. It’s got a low glycemic index, so I can eat rather a lot of it!

Buckwheat is not a form of wheat or grain, but a relative of the rhubarb.

In support of buckwheat. Full stop. Can’t say enough. Now I’m getting emotional.

you’re grammar —

Are you unable to tolerate people who can’t spell, don’t know the difference between there, their, and they’re, and write incomplete sentences? Or do you only find them annoying? Perhaps you are one of them. Or perhaps I am. Who knows.

Is it somehow wrong that I find it refreshing and charming when someone writes a thoughtful, articulate email with commas in wrong places? Or without commas at all? I think it might be wrong on some level. Condescending. Or maybe I just admire and aspire to such irreverence and confidence.

English is so awkward, anyway. For every elegant solution, there’s a situation that can’t be resolved nicely. Like, elsehow should totally be a word. And what about neither/nor if you want to talk about more than two things, which really isn’t that unlikely.

#reesesplease @ReesesPBCups and The Hershey Company: stale pbcups are not delicious


Whenever the JCC swim team went to Friendly’s after a meet, I ordered the decadent, oozy Monster Mash Sundae. I horde Reese’s. I mash peanut butter cups into ice cream whenever possible. I could go on.

But I’m not here to write about my love, because I know it is hardly unique.

Reese’s cups are almost universally idolized and beloved. Americans abroad have it tough, as Reese’s are virtually impossible to find in most countries, though citizens of the world clamor for a nibble. Here in America, we stow Reese’s in cubicle drawers, pantries, and coat pockets, rewards at the end of a tough day, or just because.

I’ll cut to the chase: Reese’s has a serious problem with quality control. As blissful, as divine as a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup can be, too often, the chocolate is coated in a sickly, white film and sticks to the wrapper. When you remove the wrapper, chocolate peels away from the interior, and a dry, static peanut butter cake is exposed — like a hour-old McDonald’s patty, dour and aimless. You bite anyway, but it is tough and resistant. It does not melt on the tongue; it waits for you to chew and swallow. Why? Why can’t these cups just be delicious?

I believe it is because they are stale.

As I said, this is only sometimes; and that’s just it — you never know what you’re going to get. Now, I have diabetes, so I really shouldn’t be eating these ever (but that’s another story). I mention my medical condition because, since I only indulge in peanut butter cups once in a while, the disappointment — and frustration — when they are so unappetizing is crushing. It’s also a waste of a dollar (usually more). I could go back and buy another one, but it might be just as repulsive and useless. It’s remarkable how such an exquisite, delicious treat, left to wither and decline, loses its entire appeal. Quite truthfully, I’d rather have my dollar than the aging puck.

I’ve discussed this with friends and acquaintances, and they usually know what I’m talking about, and they tend to agree that the dilemma is a real shame. But no one seems to talk about it; often, it’s as if it never occurred to them. To me, this is, perhaps, the most remarkable aspect of the whole phenomenon.

I began this post with a happy childhood memory of Reese’s cups, and on that note, I’ll suppose why this all is a veritable non-issue in the popular mind. Precisely that dreamy childhood experience, combined, of course, with savvy marketing messages, has built such staunch loyalty to Reese’s cups as to transcend regard for taste, quality, or physical experience. The positive associations we harbor are overwhelmingly powerful. Because really, if we lose Reese’s, if Reese’s is flawed, if Reese’s is not divinely delicious, we have truly lost something of ourselves. It’s like learning that a favorite schoolteacher has been embezzling money meant for the book club. We just keep buying, just keep chewing, just keep moaning in ecstasy as the chocolatey, peanut-buttery goodness melts in our mouth. To borrow a turn of phrase from Reese’s, it’s perfect. We don’t want to disturb that; we don’t want to believe that it’s not true, and hasn’t been for a long time.

We already have lost that which we crave, and we need to wake up. There is no reason The Hershey Company can’t provide fresh goods on the shelves of supermarkets across the nation, let alone in major metropolitan areas. It is the responsibility of Hershey to solve this problem, but I will outline a few simple — obvious — steps below.

  1. Spot-checking. On a basic level, if Hershey is not aware of this problem, they have failed to conduct the most fundamental assessment of product quality and user experience. Go to the stores, buy a peanut butter cup, and see what happens. Now do that 1,000 times in a variety of locations. Record what you see. Because quality control needs to occur at the storefront. 99.9% of consumers (probably more) don’t give a hoot about how the cup tastes when it shoots out of the factory. They care about how it tastes at 4 p.m. on Thursday at the convenience store next to the office. Or at the gas station. Whatever.
  2. Sell-by date. Really, this is the entire issue. If I am buying a cup prior to its sell-by date, it should not be stale. Reese’s could likely solve this entire debacle in short order by conducting basic research into the aging process of cups under certain circumstances and adjusting the sell-by date accordingly. No change to packaging, no adjustment to the supply chain. Nothing. Just find out how long Reese’s cups last under current circumstances and print a sell-by date based on that.
  3. Packaging and supply chain. Now we’re getting processy. Maybe there’s something wrong with the packaging! This includes the little orange wrappers as well as larger packages — boxes, trucks, bags. Are they at the right temperature? Are they disturbed during their transit? And about those little orange packages. Some of them seem to be wrapped up like a little present, but is that the most airtight option? Would they last longer if they were sold like most other candy bars? What about minis — they are just bundled up in foil. No wonder. Cute, but it doesn’t do the job. Of course, all of these minute packaging questions could be brushed aside if the sell-by date were calibrated properly.

So those are my suggestions. I’ll be posting more about this, and if anyone has ideas or insights, please do comment, tweet #reesesplease, or otherwise share. Send your tweets towards @ReesesPBCups — I invite you to retweet mine as well as write your own. I plan to set up a letter that we can all print and send, and I think a petition is in order once we have some momentum and, perhaps, a more concrete platform.

This is one issue that, however unimportant, can be solved, and we will all benefit.


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