Secrets, Confession, and Reconciliation

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I have been a reader of PostSecret for about seven years now, I think, if not a bit longer. PostSecret, for those of you who do not know, is a website run by Frank Warren, who solicits postcards not only from people across America but also from across the world. Warren asks individuals to write down a secret on a postcard and to send it to him. He takes about twenty of these each week and posts them on the site on Sundays. The posts are moving, amusing, lovely, painful, familiar, shocking, and almost always powerful. Rarely are they banal or mundane. Many people make their perusal part of their weekly rituals, every Sunday or Monday.

The directions that Warren gives for the project are rather simple. He hands out cards that read:

SHARE A SECRET
You are invited to anonymously contribute a secret to a group art project. Your secret can be a regret, fear, betrayal, desire, confession or childhood humiliation. Reveal anything – as long as it is true and you have never shared it with anyone before.

Warren encourages people to send a number of cards, but to always share the secrets anonymously. He began passing these cards out in the Washington, DC area about 10 years ago and soon people began sending the cards in to him and he began publishing them. He now gets tens of millions of hits on his site each year and it has become enormously popular. He has published five books of secrets and the latest went to #1 on the NY Times bestseller list. It’s been an impressive run for him.

In the last few years Warren has begun touring the country – and even overseas – talking to audiences about PostSecret and about secrets and his work. Well, when my friend and colleague Mark Rice asked me to join him in attending one of these events in our local area recently (Mark is also a longtime reader of the site), I felt compelled to agree to attend. It was a fascinating experience, but not in the way that I had expected it to be.

Warren began the event by talking about how he imagines secrets as a box full of postcards that we carry around. The question he has is what to do with that box? He wanted to encourage us to share the contents of that box, suggesting that there is something transformational in the act of sharing.

Warren was a good speaker, practiced in his anecdotes and his gestures. He clearly had done this a number of times – and by this I don’t mean to put him down in any way. He was a pro and he knew how to hit the right notes in his performance. But that’s part of what was interesting to me: it was a performance and I don’t think I expected that.

He showed us images and shared stories and personal details, including things about his relationship with his mother and even a message she left on his voicemail rejecting the offer of a free copy of one his books, a book she had called “diabolical.” He knew how to work the stage and how to alternate the pitch and tone of his voice, how to exhort us and how to quietly and intimately connect with us. He was selling books and his site, but the profits seemed to go for the good – much of what he does goes to suicide hotline and prevention centers, a cause he has taken up as central to his work on PostSecret and a cause we pretty much can all get behind.

Soon after Warren began, he told us he was going to share secrets that “the lawyers” wouldn’t allow him to put in the PostSecret books. It felt like we were being welcomed into the inner circle. Some of the “outlawed” secrets had potential copyright infringements in terms of their images, others had images or words that the lawyers deemed potentially upsetting or scandalous. The first secret had an image of a woman’s breast. It was a close-up, with a focus on the areola and a pair of tweezers plucking a hair from it. Apparently, this woman does not have perfectly hairless areolae and is admitting to plucking the hairs. Now I’m not sure how scandalous this image was, nor why it might potentially upset anyone – a bare breast? But still, the card was banned from the book. The postcard had one word on it – “Confession.”

During my drive home, as I thought back to the event, I connected that image of the breast and the word “Confession” with how Warren ended the formal part of his presentation. This ending was what Warren called his “testimony.” He spoke about the crucial importance of opening up, not only to others, but to ourselves, about what we keep as secrets. He suggested that secrets can be heavy burdens upon us and that it can be transformational to confess them. This ending had a Fundamentalist feel to it – he even ended it by asking of the audience, “Can I get an Amen?” He was both joking and not. For Warren, there is something deeply spiritual in what he sees as his project and this talks that he gave: even if he understood that this was not a formal church setting, he also recognized that there was something powerful going on in this space, something communal and shared and perhaps transcendent for those of us in the audience. This was also part of the performative aspect of the event, much as church itself is often a performative space – as is a classroom, if I’m going to be completely forthright. (Worth noting: Warren is currently working on something he calls “PostSecret: The Play,” holding auditions in New York.) Warren’s testimony was a performance of sincerity and authenticity, he returned to the story of his mother and gave us more insight into his childhood and his suffering and his path to where he is now and told us that he would not trade anything in what he had experienced. His journey is important to him, suffering and all, in helping him locate himself in this present time. And the rhetoric of suffering only reinforced the religious or at least spiritual undertones of the event and the value of the secrets revealed, confessed and spoken aloud in a moment that leads to transcendence. “Confession,” that early image had offered us as an audience, and confession was now positioned as something deeply valuable and communal for those of us in the room.

This should make some sense for longtime readers of the website. PostSecret is a deeply confessional space where people admit their fears and their weaknesses, their love of others, their shames, their hopes. In sharing these they share something that feels essential about themselves. The readers of the site recognize this and often feel part of something larger – it’s what readers of the site call the PostSecret Community. That community has only gotten larger with the lecture tours and the publication of the books. Visitors to bookstores often leave secrets in the books for others to find, continuing Warren’s project literally beyond the pages of his books.

But my response also led me to a few questions. Warren has called PostSecret “a group art project.” What about it is “art”? I’m not sure. He certainly has an archive of artifacts, though he seems less interested in them as artistic representations or as artifacts as he is about them as secrets that have been revealed. The postcards can certainly be creative, but other than his selection as to which secrets to publish on the site or in the books, we don’t really have a sense of what about their creativity Warren values. The criteria of his subjective preferences remain hidden. Will he unveil these criteria? What will he do with the artifacts that he has collected? What will come of the archive? Finally, and in a somewhat different direction, are the secrets that the public doesn’t see as fully realized as confessions as those published? This last seems important, as Warren goes out of his way to present the secrets and his own stories as “authentic.” That authenticity is part of the performance of PostSecret, and don’t get me wrong, I’m not necessarily against it. But the performance of authenticity is something that viewers and listeners and readers should be aware of. There is no way to know whether someone is lying or fabricating a secret. Warren’s acceptance of all the postcards and his publishing of them suggests not only that he takes them all at face value but that they all are somehow equivalent to him.

And this idea of equivalency is my last point. On the site, all the secrets are posted by themselves, with no commentary from Warren, though with an occasional comment from a reader that he has placed as an accompaniment. For the most part, each secret stands alone, all equal in importance and potentially in impact. I thought of this aspect of the site when Warren told us the story of how he was approached by the band, The All-American Rejects, about using postcards from PostSecret in the video for their song, “Dirty Little Secret.”

At first Warren rejected their request before eventually agreeing to share thirty of them. In the video, though, Warren told us, the band ended up adding three secrets of their own, all of them anonymous like the ones Warren had provided. He then showed us one of these three. It read, “I cheated on the SAT and got a scholarship.” Many people in the audience laughed, perhaps because they found the idea of cheating familiar, perhaps because they found it shocking or ironic or funny. I had a different response, however. I found the secret deeply upsetting. By cheating and getting a scholarship, this young man was certainly angling for something better for himself, but he didn’t seem to understand that there was a cost for someone else. Colleges and foundations do not have an endless supply of scholarship money or opportunities. When someone gets one, another person does not. That scholarship that went to him was refused to someone else, someone who may have needed it to attend college, someone who may then have had to go to a different school and may have had a painful or difficult experience. I’m not claiming to know, but I am claiming that his cheating had consequences, and consequences beyond himself. And I’m claiming that his secret is not the equivalent of others, like “I’m a virgin” and “I’m afraid that no one will ever love me as much as my dog does” that show up in the video and on the site. Those secrets reveal something powerful about the individuals who wrote them, elements of their lives that they have chosen to share. The band member’s confession of cheating is not the moral equivalent of these.

This isn’t to say that there might not be value in the confession – value for the confessor. The testimony might be healing and cleansing for him; it might make him feel better to get it out there. But I don’t feel closer to him for the confession. I don’t feel something communal or transcendent. I feel angry and frustrated at his selfishness. The confession doesn’t allay that; in fact, it seems to me to be rather a continuation of the same selfishness. He feels better. Great for him. Wonder what he’d say to the kid who he blocked from getting that scholarship, the one who didn’t cheat? Make THAT confession to THAT person and maybe I’ll start to feel something for you and not just about you.

Warren started a PostSecret app last year and it was enormously successful for a number of months, but then he had to shut it down. His insistence on anonymity for the users of the app – similar to how he advises submissions to be anonymous – actually led to abuse and bullying and other sorts of behavior on the part of users, which got so bad that he decided that he needed to stop it. I can understand the anonymity – it’s somewhat freeing, after all, and allows for some to feel comfortable sharing. At the same time, it also operates as a permission to say whatever you want knowing there will be no punishment, no consequences. Warren wants the project to be about community and about forgiveness and about transcendence and these are honorable goals. But he needs to think harder about how this operates. Not all secrets are equivalent, at least not morally or ethically, and not all experiences are either. That’s okay, actually, and really only a problem when you present them as such. And when you offer whoever confesses absolute reconciliation, which maybe isn’t your place to do.

I’ll keep reading PostSecret and I’m sure I will continue to laugh at some of the cards, and tear up, and stare in amazement, and wonder about the things that connect us. But I’d be lying if I told you it’s ever really going to be the same for me. The secret is out.

The Dearth of Common Sense and the Dead Heart

Just last week, a federal judge in Virginia overturned the ban on corporations making political contributions. This was a natural extension of the ruling last year from the United States Supreme Court in the Citizens United case. The justices in that case declared that the government may not ban political spending by corporations on candidates seeking political election. The decision did not address whether corporations can give directly to candidates – that’s what the federal judge in Virginia has now said is a natural extension of the logic of the Supreme Court.

The ruling in the Citizens United case was that the government did not have the right to impede on ability of or limit the amount of corporate funding that could go toward independent political broadcasts in candidate elections. The conservative group Citizens United sought to overturn the law that had limited their ability to show a documentary about Hillary Clinton close to the Democratic primaries in 2008. This law was part of the McCain-Feingold Act, passed by Congress in 2002 as part of the campaign finance reform undertaken in Congress at the beginning of the last decade.

The disturbing thing for me, as for many others, was the logic that the Supreme Court applied in its ruling in the case, where it ruled in favor of Citizens United because it found the limit to be a violation of the First Amendment. In the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy argued, “If the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.” This might seem fine at the heart of it, but that’s simply a facile reading of the First Amendment, which reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Is Kennedy suggesting that Citizen United’s wish to put out a documentary on Hillary Clinton and to influence an election is somehow tantamount to “the right of people…to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”? The documentary isn’t a petition TO the government – it’s a petition (if you want to stretch your definition of the term) to citizens. Or is Kennedy arguing that Citizen United has a right to free speech? I find that curious, to say the least, in that Citizen United is an entity and not an individual. How does a corporation have free speech? Corporations themselves do not speak; individuals do.

I know I’m not the only person who finds it difficult to fathom how a corporation has the right to free speech. This is certainly stretching things further than common sense would allow. I don’t really want to get into a liberal/conservative argument here, or even debate just what “strict constructionist” might actually mean (though it seems to mean one thing in Bush v. Gore and something undeniably different in the Citizens United case). I’m more interested in the lack of common sense applied in the case and how it will have a strong and clear impact on elections and on the country. I understand the need to protect free speech, but I’m not sure corporations actually “have” speech; I’m also a bit unclear on what exactly corporations need to be protected from. From individuals? From other corporations? From the government? It seems that Kennedy and his associates believe the latter, but this seems asinine to me and actually besides the point of the case.

Justice John Paul Stevens, in his dissent in the Citizens United case, argued that the decision in the case did not need to reference the First Amendment at all. The attorneys for Citizens United had actually abandoned their challenge to the constitutionality of the McCain-Feingold Act. The Court pressed on, however, and used the case to overturn McCain-Feingold. In his dissent, Stevens argued that the Court had ruled on a question not actually brought before it and had “changed the case to give themselves an opportunity to change the law.” He went on to argue, referring to rather plain-old common sense, “few outside the majority of this Court would have thought [American democracy’s] flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.” Funny yes. Sad, even more so.

Back in the 1980s, the Australian band Midnight Oil put out a song entitled “The Dead Heart” about aboriginal rights in Australia and about the limited power aborigines had in that country. Essentially it was about money and the manipulation of the law to benefit the few who had the power. Near the end of the song, the lyrics grow as simple and as clear as the band could put it:

Mining companies, pastoral companies
Uranium companies
Collected companies
Got more rights than people
Got more say than people

In Australia, the rights of corporations are weighed above the rights of the aborigines, all because of the vast financial potential of the land – for mining, for uranium, for raising livestock. (If you don’t know the song, take a listen. This description of it sounds rather dry and academic. Actually it rocks out and is incredibly catchy – the acoustic guitars and Peter Garrett’s growl are unstoppable!) The context is different in America, of course, but  it seems we are moving in that same direction. The Supreme Court has decided it needs to protect the rights of corporations. The notion that corporate entities have the right to free speech, which protects their ability to influence elections and lawmakers, belies all common sense.

The potential for corporations to have a huge influence on elections is now there and justified. That began with Citizens United. It will grow even larger now that we are moving toward overturning the ban on corporations being able to give money directly to candidates. How many shell companies will be formed to provide cover for corporations to shovel money toward the candidates they will be able to influence once in office – all of which will now be protected? The limitations on individual spending allow the financial contributions of those of us who are not rich to have as much potential influence as those of wealthy individuals. But the wealthy will be much more ready to devise ways to spend their money through corporate shells to candidates, and of course, have more money to spend in the first place. Their influence will only increase, and at a time when the division of wealth in this country is only growing worse and worse.

What Is Your Life Motto?

I went to court today to do my duty – jury duty.  I didn’t much want to be a juror.  There’s no particular fascination there for me.  My Dad was a lawyer, as is one of my brothers, and I’ve seen enough of the law to have a pretty good sense of what it’s like and even have a pretty good sense of what court and trials are like.  They’re kind of going to the doctor’s office for a checkup – something that needs to be done, with the possibility for something interesting happening, but generally and overall, rather boring.

But I went.  You have to go.  You can postpone it a little bit, but your time comes in the end.  It always does.  And it wasn’t a bad time to get it over with, actually, so into the courthouse I went, with my computer and my book to wile away the time while I waited.  I was assigned to a particular case, with a specific judge, and after about 90 minutes our jury pool eventually went upstairs to meet the attorneys and the plaintiff and the defendant in the civil case that was before the court.  It was time for jury selection.

There were about 21 of us.  We had already filled out a questionnaire detailing our occupation and our possible relationships to anyone in the legal or medical or insurance professions, and where we lived, and how many kids we had, and all of that rigamarole.  The attorneys reviewed these while we waited outside and then we came back in the plaintiff’s attorney started explaining the bare outlines of the case and then told us he would be asking each of us a series of questions.  I was potential juror #2, so the second to go.

He began by asking the woman to my right about her ideas about the court system and about any history with car accidents and certain medical procedures and doctors, explaining to us that this was a case that was focused on a car accident and the injuries that resulted from that accident.  These were all fairly straightforward and I could tell that he would plan to ask me these same questions, so I began to formulate some answers in my head. (Honest answers – I wasn’t going to lie to get out of jury duty.)

But then he asked the first potential juror what she thought her strengths were and what she thought she could improve about herself.  Jesus, I thought, what the hell?  All of a sudden it seemed as if I was expected to write a college application in there – “What three words best describe you?  Tell us about a formative experience in your life that has changed how you view the world?”  She did a pretty good job with these, considering she seemed as surprised as I was with the questions and considering she clearly had no idea what to say to him.

And then he pulled out the clincher, his final question.  “What is your life motto?” he asked her.  She looked at him.  We all did.  “My life motto?” she said.  “Umm, I don’t know.  Live life to the fullest?”  It was plainly a question, not an answer, but he was more than satisfied.  He smiled in recognition at the words.

He turned to me and asked all of the same questions, which were easy enough and straightforward enough to answer.  At least until the strengths and weaknesses question, which just isn’t something I spend a lot of time thinking about.  Every year I do a summary of my work performance, like most people.  Part of this is by rote, to fill in the blanks of the “self-reflection” we are all expected to conduct, but some of it is real and valuable and engaged.  But job performance didn’t seem appropriate to the moment or what he might be looking for.  And it’s not that I’m not self-reflective or aware of my own faults – almost the opposite is true.  But this didn’t seem the right setting for those thoughts either.  So, I fudged my way through that part, not lying or anything but not saying anything particularly revealing or even “true.”

And when it came to the life motto part?  I almost just laughed. “I don’t have one,” I answered his question.  I said I try to teach my children to be kind, to not be cruel, to think of others.  A life motto?  No.  A philosophy?  Not exactly, but at least that’s closer.  I think I shrink away from the notion that “life” can be summed up in some type of motto, or that your philosophy can be, if you even have articulated one to yourself.  It just seems overly reductive to me, and I’m not willing to reduce the complexity of life to something that’s a credo that I can somehow cash in when called upon to do so.

I suppose, though, that maybe that’s what some people are looking for – simplicity, something they can carry around in their pocket.  But that’s just not something for me, not something I can buy into.

I found it depressing, just as I found most of the answers to this question clichéd.  He said back to me that perhaps my answer was “the golden rule.”  I smiled at him, noncommittal but not wanting to pursue it any further.  As he went along with the others, he continued this same line of questioning and some of the people came up with the usual fare.  Always he seemed pleased with the answers, and perhaps that had something to do with his overall strategy.  Or perhaps he really believed that our answer to the question told him something crucial about who we are and therefore how we might respond to the lawsuit that was taking place.

I personally find such a notion doubtful – it presumes we buy in to the supposition that one should have a life motto, as well as presumes that we have one.  Both of those seem wildly off the mark to me, at least in terms of a good portion of the general population.  Thirdly, it presumes we’d want to tell him.  We’re obligated to tell the truth, to not lie, but we’re not obligated to tell the whole truth about what we’re thinking.  (If so, I would have had to say what I found him to be supercilious and not very bright, that I think the law firm he is part of [the phone number for which is 454-2020, for those in the know!] is much more in it for the money than it is in it to represent those in need, or even that I found the opposing attorney to be strikingly dim, which has led me to a strikingly pallid view of lawyers, at least for today.)  In other words, all of his presumptions were silly, it seemed and seems to me.

Perhaps you’re wondering – wait, why did he want to know?  What did you find out about his strategy?  How did this question help him determine who should be on the jury and who should be dismissed, and therefore help rule in favor of his client?  I am sorry to report that I have no idea.

I was one of the ones dismissed.

The Word, Performance, and Performer of the Decade

On October 15, 2005, on the pilot episode of The Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert introduced a segment called “The Word.”  That first night his first word was something he called “truthiness.”  Colbert defined this term, not actually a word at the time, as something that a person knows to be a truth, even without evidence, logic, facts, or engaged thinking.  It was a truth, he said, that one knows in his gut.

Colbert’s reference to “gut” thinking that night and later when he used the term made clear that this word was meant to apply to a type of thinking that was valorized in the Bush Administration from 2000-2008. In his campaign for president in 2000 and during his administration, George W. Bush repeatedly referred to the value of thinking from his gut and proclaimed the worth of his instincts.  (Who can forget how he said that Vladimir Putin, longtime leader of Russia, was someone he could work with, someone who was a good man, because he had looked into Putin’s eyes and seen his soul?  Yikes.)

Colbert’s “truthiness” seemed most linked to the war in Iraq.  Whereas the war in Afghanistan was clearly connected to the Taliban’s support of Al Qaeda and the attack on 9/11, the war in Iraq never had a clearly articulated logic for why it should occur.  The Bush Administration offered an ever-revolving series of reasons for why we should invade – Saddam Hussein’s tyranny, a link between Irag and Al Qaeda and Hussein’s involvement in the 9/11 attacks, Iraq’s stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction, and other reasons.  Although the administration never offered concrete evidence of the link to 9/11, for instance, members of the administration repeatedly asserted a connection between planners of the attack and member of the Iraqi administration. When it comes to WMDs, of course, we’re still looking for those and the “evidence” that Colin Powell presented to the United Nations in argument for invasion seems a bit sketchy, to put it gently.

The power of “truthiness” was in its resonance with current events and it announced The Colbert Report‘s intentions to be fully engaged with the world of politics and to take on the hypocrisy, the falsifications, the mismanagement, and the hubris of those in power.  The show, in other words, was a worthy follow-up to The Daily Show.  But whereas Jon Stewart had been hosting The Daily Show, with its take on daily political stories, with a not-very-repressed air of “Are you shitting me?” wonderment, Colbert built on the persona he had created in his appearances on The Daily Show.  In those appearances, Colbert had increasingly taken to producing knee-jerk responses to questions and events and a refusal to back down from those responses even in the face of factual evidence that demonstrated that his responses were overly partisan, wrong-headed, or just plain wrong.  When Colbert moved to his own show, this persona was the one he brought with him and the one he has stayed in for over four years.  “Truthiness,” then did not only refer to the Bush Administration, but also was meant to refer to Colbert’s persona itself, and indeed to the very ethos of The Colbert Report.  And that was part of the genius of the satire.  The show mocks the very thing that it refuses to ever abandon in terms of its representation.  Colbert does not go out of character.  Ever.  But the satire of that character is ever clear, and the satire of the type of thinking that this character embodies is just as clear.  And biting.

Which brings me to what I would call the performance of the decade.  This was not a musical performance, nor a stellar bit of acting, nor a dramatic reading of a poem or novel.  It was Colbert’s performance at the 2006 White House Correspondent’s Dinner on April 26, 2006.  At this dinner, at the invitation of the correspondents, Colbert gave a 16-minute speech and screened a 7-minute video for the guests at the dinner and a television audience.  Here is the performance:

There are a number of things that are amazing about this performance.  The president is two seats away from him as he presents this truly devastating critique.  Most of the media there don’t seem to get that this is a) really really funny and b) really really devastating.  Colbert never cracks character, he never leaves the persona, which makes the reading of the satire a bit more difficult I suppose, but doesn’t ever change its bite.  It is a brave and bravura performance.  He calls the president to task as he sits just feet away, but does it in such a way that the audience is left doubly uncomfortable.  They’re not sure whether to laugh or cringe.  Because they are also under attack in the performance, for their refusal or negligence in actually engaging with the Administrations lies and obfuscations and lack of evidence, the correspondents don’t seem to know whether it is okay for them to laugh or whether they should be insulted (they should feel both).  Colbert was out on the plank by himself but he never stopped or slowed down.  He kept going on.

The performance itself came under attack in the media as not funny, irresponsible, disrespectful, and inappropriate.  But it caught on virally through word of mouth and rather quickly became a sensation. It was the embodiment of speaking truth to power, as the saying goes.  Not “truthiness.”  Truth.  The performance had everything to do with truthiness, with thinking from and by the gut, with trusting your instincts even in the face of evidence to the contrary.  And the performance was, I believe, central in the turn again Bush.  Stephen Colbert became one of the most central political players on the national stage because he called “bullshit” when the media that was responsible for this refused to do the thinking or legwork required to do so.

That’s why “truthiness” is the word of the decade, and why Colbert is the performer of the decade.

Being Spoiled and Loving It

Seafood and Pigs.  Pigs and seafood.  And beer.  That’s always a good way to go.

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I was recently in Chicago for a night and decided I wanted to pursue an excellent meal, and so I began my planning with a previous experience.  A few years ago, during a conference in Chicago, I went with a friend to Blackbird and enjoyed a lovely meal.  Having recently watched Tony Bourdain’s No Reservations on television in which he went to Chicago, I knew that the proprietor of Blackbird, Paul Kahan, had opened another restaurant, avec, and that he was planning on a third in the same neighborhood.  This restaurant, The Publican, seemed interesting, and I called and made a reservation for a spot to eat at the bar.

A sidenote: When I lived in New York, I had often enjoyed eating a meal at the bar by myself, making small talk with other diners at the bar and those waiting for a table.  Sometimes I would go and nurse a good glass of wine and enjoy an appetizer and fantasize that I had received the full dining experience when I had only spent a fraction of the cost; no matter, I would say to myself, I would take what I could get – or afford.  I can now afford a full meal at a fine restaurant, but I still sometimes desire that same experience of eating at the bar for the camaraderie and the immediacy of the experience.

The woman on the phone when I called the restaurant told me that it could get crowded at the bar, and after asking when things picked up, I inquired whether it was possible to reserve a spot there.  Although they don’t normally do so, she relented after I told her I was visiting and just eating one dinner while in town.

Let me give you a sense of the place.  The Publican is spare in temperament and in décor.  The arrangement of the space reminded me of a Protestant church.  There were long wooden tables that dominated the room, with some smaller tables for four seats or so arranged closer to the door.  There were minimal table flourishes, and the chairs were high-backed wooden ones, with small and rather inconspicuous cushions on the seat.  The overall effect is one of virtual severity – the furniture calls to mind the wooden pews of old New England churches.  At the same time, the seating is in many ways democratic.  Different dining parties eat at the long wooden tables, so you may well sit directly next to someone you do not know.  There is little sense of hierarchy in the arrangement.

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The seating at the bar is very similar, with the same types of chairs and a bar that is rather industrial in its design and use of metal and wood and glass.  Diners there look up at the servers, seemingly beseeching them for a refill.

But there is no actual need to do this, as the service is outstanding.  Soon after arriving, and receiving an escort to my spot at the bar, a bartender joined me with beer and food menus.  She was incredibly attentive for the whole experience, though she never crowded me in the least.  She was well-informed about both menus, and like all the other bartenders quite generous with samples of beer to help me locate the one I would most enjoy.  The service rating would have to be truly excellent.  As a point of information, I would have to relate that the staff seems to truly enjoy working at The Publican, as they smiled often over samples of beer at the bar, egging one another on to try something new and discover a new taste.

The beer menu is extensive and includes local breweries and makes a point of emphasizing Belgium beers.  I decided on an Arctic Panzer Wolf and later tried a nice Wipeout IPA.  Both of these were very much further down the hoppy scale, which tends to be my personal preference, but I can report that the restaurant offers a very wide range of beers, as well as a broad selection of wines.

Let’s talk about the food.  Publican is a restaurant with an affinity for the pig and for the oyster.  These are two of the main themes of the menu, and the entrees almost all have some element of pork to them.  (To give you a full sense of its focus, there are four main artworks in the restaurant, one on each wall, and each is a portrait of a pig.)  As someone who enjoys oysters, I ordered the chef’s selection for my appetizer, and was not disappointed.  The chef chose three oysters from the East Coast and three from the West Coast.  Two of the three of the latter were from Washington state and reminded me of some I had enjoyed in Seattle about seven years ago.  The third was from British Columbia.

These three were nice, but I must say that I found that I was most attracted to the three from the East.  (Of course, I grew up in Massachusetts and have been to Cape Cod every summer for about the last 27 years!)  I loved the briny taste these three oysters, one of which was from Prince Edward Island, one from Nova Scotia, and one from Maine.  Great texture, great flavor.  And these went well with the beer.

For an entrée I ordered something not too large – a modest portion of Saucisson Sec.  This dish combined pickled green beans, endive, parmesan, and rough, thick-cut salami.  I had been a a bit curious how this dish would complement the oysters, and I can happily report that it did so quite nicely and that it really filled out what was going on with my palate in a complex way.  Overall, high marks all around.

Let me give you a bit of a sequel, though.  Upon the recommendation of the woman who was serving me, I went to Graham Elliot for a drink after dinner.  She told me that the mixologist working at the bar there was someone not to miss, and she was right on the money.  This young man was fabulous.  He listened to what I had told him about my meal and about the beer I had had earlier and what my plan was for the rest of the evening.  He then mixed me an excellent bourbon cocktail that I never would have imagined I would enjoy, let a long one I would have ordered following my meal.  A great drink, and an excellent end to the night.

It seems that this is also an excellent restaurant, based on buzz I heard at Publican and the vibe at Graham Elliot itself, but I did not eat here and so can’t say based on my own experience.  But have a drink there – you won’t regret it!