Thursday, December 27, 2007

Planning to succeed

This is the second column in the three years I've been writing for the News & Record that was deemed not-quite-right for the editorial pages. I'll take those odds.

I began this year with a column about how my husband, Rob, and I abandoned New Year’s resolutions in favor of a roadmap of goals, both professional and personal, to guide us through 2007. As I predicted in the column, we did not achieve the many goals we entered into our ridiculously elaborate Microsoft Project flowchart, both because we were overly ambitious in some areas, and because other areas became less interesting to us as the year wore on.

But the very act of creating the roadmap was enough to make this a year of unprecedented growth and achievement for both of us.

Mind you, we won no awards this year and we didn’t make our first million. But we did finish painting the interior of our house and delve much more deeply into our individual creative endeavors and even lost a little weight.

Rob and I are now looking forward to another New Year’s Eve brainstorming session to outline our hopes for 2008, which we plan to execute with a couple of minor modifications to our system.

First, I’m done with Microsoft Project. While a truly useful piece of software, it’s overly elaborate for our needs and I have neither the expertise to fully utilize it nor the desire to garner that expertise. Most likely, we’ll use OneNote which organizes information intuitively and will allow us to drop in any relevant digital materials, everything from Web pages to photo thumbnails, sketches and documents created in other programs.

We are also updating our check-in system. For the first few months of ’07, we sat down in front of our full Project flowchart each week to note any progress we made. But continuously seeing these lofty goals became overwhelming and our meetings petered out.

This year, we are borrowing an idea from our friend and colleague, Tamara McLendon, who has created an accountability system. Each week, Tamara identifies personal and professional micro-goals. For example, instead of the macro-goal of engaging X number of new clients over the course of the year, Tamara will commit to two networking meetings that week. Additionally, Tamara associates a pain, as she puts it, to failing to complete her weekly goals, which generally involves taking away something she wants, like an afternoon of reading at a coffee shop.

Like macro-goals, micro-goals should be achievable while also being ambitious enough to be challenging. Micro-goals should contribute to macro-goals, even if in incremental ways, and be specific enough to act as a guideline. So, for example, if one of my macro-goals is to keep my house tidier, then a weekly micro-goal of doing at least 30 minutes of housework five days a week is not only appropriately strenuous yet achievable, but its specificity will ensure that cleaning is a continuous and easy process; otherwise, I will procrastinate until I’m forced to do all 2 ½ hours of cleaning the night before my accountability meeting, or, more likely, simply fail to achieve that goal and be subject to the consequence du jour.

I must close with a word of warning: While a little self-imposed pressure can be just the thing to turn an aspiration into action, pushing yourself too hard can lead to overwhelmed inaction with the potential to derail aspirations for good.

As the neighborhood parent who occasionally drove me to elementary school would say, “Work hard and play hard.” Life’s too short not to aggressively pursue dreams, but it would be a mighty shame if those dreams became chores in the process.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Carbon on tour

My pals and yours, the ever gloomy and brilliant Radiohead, apparently hired a British company to analyze the carbon and ecological footprint of touring, including the impact of their fans traveling to the show.

While Radiohead says the report is tentative - just the beginning of the research they plan to do - they've already agreed to make changes to reduce their footprint, including sea freighting their gear, which is apparently 93% more efficient than air freighting. They've also asked fans to consider carpooling or using public transportation.

Activism is a frequent topic on the Radiohead site, so this move isn't entirely a surprise, but hopefully it will be instructive to the rest of the music industry, much like their recent In Rainbows release (despite the controversy).

Now, if we could just get Thom to smile...

Will blog for customers

I have been thinking more and more about the marketing potential of blogs. It's not a terribly new concept - using the random blog browse on Blogger, I've run into a handful of blogs as online stores. But it seems to me that artisans and smaller businesses could run free (excepting time and energy) marketing campaigns by starting a blog and linking it to as many aggregators as possible - or as are useful to the business.

For example, my buddy James, who I mentioned in my last column, is a metal artist - he makes decorative pieces, towel racks, candle holders, water art (think sprinklers but really gorgeous and intended more for beauty than functionality - he has one that's a ballerina with a metal mesh skirt - beautiful!). Though he's been working with metal for decades, he's just starting the business side of it and has no budget for any sort of advertising.

But a blog... he could post pictures of his latest creations and of himself working in his shop, posts about the (lighter) technical details of working with metal, of the contraptions he builds in order to work with metal, his inspiration for different pieces and even his musings as he works - and he is a guy with some seriously interesting musings.

I think a similar strategy would work for smaller businesses, like Rioja!/Wine Warehouse (they're owned by the same people). I was at Rioja! for happy hour yesterday, where I was again impressed by how knowledgeable and friendly the staff is (Jake, who explained to me a little of the growing conditions that lead to the wines I tend to like) and how relaxed and comfortable the atmosphere is. The same goes for the Wine Warehouse where I have never left without a wonderful recommendation and where I have never felt at all uncomfortable demonstrating my lack of knowledge about wines or asking for an inexpensive bottle.

But they don't advertise, and the vast majority of people to whom I mention Rioja! and Wine Warehouse have never heard of either. Again, a blog could act as a free marketing tool if they connected up with We101 and wrote posts on the latest bottles in, upcoming events, light technical info about wines (such as why some wines are so tanniny or how ice wines are produced), wine pairing tips and perhaps even the occasional wine-friendly recipe.

I think the things to keep in mind with a marketing-focused blog would be:
  • Give 'em what they want to read. Blog marketing will only work if people have a reason to come back time and again, and if you spend the whole blog being too technical or too braggy or anything like that, people won't bookmark you.
  • Post regularly. I think that for really specific blogs, like either of the above examples, people could get away with posting as little as once a week, as long as those posts are fairly substantive. But nothing turns me off faster than a blog on a business Web site that hasn't been updated for months.
  • Choose aggregators wisely. Both of the above examples would do well to connect with We101 because both are focused on a local target market. But when looking at other aggregators, remember that talking to other artisans or wine store owners is nice, but not a way to build business. Find your potential customer market and sculpt the content to appeal to them.
  • Take it seriously. Don't post when you roll in from the bar at 2am on Saturday. Treat it like a part of your workday, with the same attention to detail, particularly grammar and spelling, that you would a print ad you were paying thousands for. Use spell check; ask a coworker to give a look before posting if you can. And please, oh please, use polite language. Even if a wine does have some ass to it (my phrase, not culled from anyone at Rioja! or Wine Warehouse) think of a better way to say it.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Escaping abuse

I spent some time yesterday with a woman who has recently extracted herself from an abusive relationship. Just a few weeks out and she's already talking about it, which to me, shows bravery and resilience. It's also shows me that she's not dwarfed by the taboos suggesting domestic violence should be kept hush hush, even though she did, of course, protect her abuser for many years.

What seems to be haunting her most are the well-meant people who cannot understand why she would care at all about him anymore. She, like me and so many others, fell in love with a person with a rough history and low self-esteem. We think we can love them so much, they will eventually love themselves.

That's the change abused women talk about - not that we'll get them to stop hitting, but that they'll stop hitting because we've finally been able to show them their value, which will heal them of their self-doubt and self-hate. There are a dozen reasons why abused women go back after a violent bout, but one that cannot be discounted - and all too often is by people who, fortunately, just haven't been there - is that we truly and sincerely love the good things we see peaking through the monster. That doesn't turn off over night for abused women any more than it does for anyone else going through a break-up.

The love is also the answer to the question she and most of us asked, "What is wrong with me for staying, and for so long?" The mistake we made was not in loving them, or doing what we could to make the relationship work or any of the other things that with a non-abusive person would lead to a healthy, happy relationship. The mistake we made was thinking that our safety and happiness are necessary, and even worthwhile, sacrifices in the name of that love.

Finally, the trust issue. I heard myself in on the other side of a conversation 11 years ago when she asked me how she will learn to trust men again. The only answer I know is: one teeny-tiny step at a time. After the first argument I had with the first person I dated after my abusive relationship, I drove home watching the rear-view mirror, convinced that he would follow me home to hurt me. But, of course, he didn't because he was being a jerk, not a psychopath.

She is already leagues ahead of most women just weeks out of abuse. She has a lot of healing to do, and she needs to be extra vigilant during a time that is statistically the most dangerous time for an abused woman. But I'm guessing that sooner than later, she will looking people the the eyes again, and letting them truly see her beautiful face.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007


Rob and I tend to do a mid-season Hannumas gift exchange. Actually, we're both on the impatient side (more for giving the gifts we've purchased than receiving, though we like that an awful lot, too) so we tend to exchange gifts at our earliest convenience after we finally purchase them (we're also procrastinators).

Among other things, Rob gave me Google: The Missing Manual. That's right: 440 pages of pure Google optimization. And yes, that's right: I am a total nerd because I did practically jump up and down when I unwrapped it. Nerd is the new super-cool-ninja, though, so I don't feel too weird about it. (Don't tell the ninja v. pirate people, though, or there will be all sorts of opposition rallies and nunchuck fighting and "ahoy mateys" and all that brouhaha.)

Anyway, I tend to fail miserably whenever I announce on my blog that I'm going to do anything with regularity. (Exhibit 1: This week in the CSA bag seems to have lasted one whole post.) So, while I would like to share the creme de la creme of this book as I read it, I'd like to offer the warning that now, 37 pages in, may be the last time you hear about this. Oh, and this stuff might be totally obvious to you but it never occurs to me to do nifty stuff like read the Google search tips.

Now that my ridiculously verbose intro is out of the way, this is what I've learned so far:
  • It's better to ask for info in the form of an answer rather than a question. For example, if you want to know what size dress Marilyn Monroe wore, it is better to type "Marilyn Monroe wore size * dress" - if you ask as a question, you'll likely find message board with people who wonder the same thing but perhaps no answers
  • You can search within number ranges by using two periods. For example, If you want to know what Marilyn was up to between 1945 and 1955, search: 1945..1955 "Marilyn Monroe" and it will pop up answers that include Marilyn and anything within that date range, including the starting and ending years. This isn't just for dates, but any number range.
  • You can exclude results with certain keywords by inserting a minus before the excluded term. So if you want to know about Marilyn but are holding some strange grudge against Joe DiMaggio, just search: "Marilyn Monroe" -"Joe DiMaggio" (with a space before the minute but not between the minus and they keyword)
  • And, finally, if you're super-nerdy like me and think it would be nifty to have stats about who is searching for what, like how many people are Googling Marilyn daily, you can use the Google zeitgeist at
More later... perhaps... Just for the record, in the Marilyn v. Bettie Page debate (is there one?) I'm solidly for Bettie... Marilyn just popped into my mind... so darned searchable after all these years...

Monday, December 17, 2007

Survival of the fittest businesses

So, I may have made it obvious by now that I'm a bit of a customer service... snob? Maybe. Connoisseur? I like that idea better.

Whatever terminology you choose, I have another story for you. In my ongoing battle to have two eyebrows (rather than one long, furry caterpillar stretched above my eyes), I occasionally have my brows waxed, generally at one of those inexpensive nail salons that sometimes over-wax, giving me that ever-so-surprised look, but are generally filled with nice employees. Last week, though, I decided to try out a boutique place, the kind of place where I expected to pay a little more but, in return, receive great service and appropriately thick eyebrows.

I won't bore you with the entire story (as I have done to so many friends since last Thursday) but these were the parts of the experience that set off my customer service radar:
  • No Web site. I know this is picky, but I just don't see how any business in their right mind goes without some sort of Web presence, even if it's just a one-page site with business hours, basic services overview and contact info
  • A disinterested receptionist answered my initial call and insisted on scheduling an appointment immediately, even though I asked for pricing first
  • The waxer was 15 minutes late taking me for my appointment, though no other clients of hers came or went while I waited, and waxing generally takes a few minutes per client, depending on what area is being waxed
  • The waxer then offered no apology, explanation or even acknowledgment that she was late
  • She then left the door to the waxing room open; granted, it was just eyebrows but I never mind privacy when I'm crying in the name of beauty
  • A woman, who I now assume is an owner along with the woman waxing me, came to the door and the two proceeded to have a business conversation - including a discussion about blowing off a vendor - while I was being waxed
  • As I was leaving, the receptionist offered me a frequent waxer card which I turned down (because, of course, I won't be returning) and though she looked perplexed, she didn't ask me why
The inglorious end to this dually painful visit was that I had left my wallet at home and so had to return later to pay. Always fun.

My big debate, once the fiasco was complete, was whether I should give the business my feedback. An opinionated and business-minded friend offered an interesting perspective: businesses should be subject to natural selection, just like the rest of us. So, she gives feedback to businesses that she's invested in in some way - either they're generally great at what they do but have slipped up in one or two areas, or she just likes them for whatever reason. Businesses that are perpetually mediocre or she just doesn't like, she keeps her feedback to herself because she feels they are simply a substandard business and should run their course, eventually leaving the market more open for competitors who do a better job.

I see her point... and won't be filling out any customer satisfaction surveys for them... it's just too bad that my eyebrows look fabulous.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Instructive forgiveness

MAYANGE, Rwanda - The late afternoon sun gleams off the tin roofs of this small farming village, as neighbors Xavier Nemeye and Cecile Mukagasana watch their children play tag around the banana trees. The two friends were born here and share much of Mayange's daily life. They talk every day, pray at the same church and send their children to the same school, the only one there is.

They are also both recovering from the genocide just 13 years ago - when he hacked to death six of her friends with a machete.

Now, let's read that again: "when he hacked to death six of her friends with a machete."

Amazingly, it was a relatively straightforward government (with donors) project that transformed bitter enemies into friends. The idea is based on the premise that peace and prosperity are reliant upon one another. Or, in other words, when people have enough money to meet their basic needs - in this case $75 per person per year - there is no fuel to feed simmering intergroup tensions. Or, in Xavier's words, "If your stomach is empty, you will have to think of ways to fill it, and that will lead to disruption."

Meanwhile, Cecile, who once dreamed of exacting revenge on the man who personally and horrendously killed her friends, came to recognize that Xavier was a cog in the wheel of the Rwandan genocide. She found forgiveness and even friendship as she worked along side him building their village.

As I read this article, I couldn't help but think of a another I read earlier last week, about the abolition of the death penalty in New Jersey. A woman, whose husband was murdered by a death row inmate (whose sentence has now been commuted to life imprisonment), seethed that she wouldn't get her blood. And though I can empathize with her pain and need for some sort of resolution, it struck me as so sad that she had placed all of her hope for such in the death of the perpetrator. I suspect that had he been executed, she would still have not found that peace.

I am not suggesting we build villages in the U.S. to help prisoners make peace with their victims but, as Rwanda's innovative approach to avoiding the 10 year genocide cycle (wherein, according to the article, "most African civil wars re-ignite within 10 years of a cease-fire.") shows, it is insanity to think we can do the same thing time and again and get different results.

The death penalty was reinstated in the US in 1976 and yet our homicide numbers continue to grow. We have impoverished people in the US - granted, not anywhere near the scale or severity of poverty in Rwanda or other third world countries, but still, people who have to spend most of their time figuring out what they will eat next. We have neighborhoods across the country that are so unstable that its residents are in perpetual fear.

We have to reconsider forgiveness, and where the beautiful individuality that America affords stops and caring for our communities begins.

P.S. Rwanda now has the largest percentage of women in elected offices in the world. Just some food for thought.

P.P.S. I received an email this weekend from a woman who wanted to know if Del Ray Wilson, Jr. had been executed for killing his wife, Rebecca Ann, last December. I find that kind of reader mail so unnerving...

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Just Your Typical, Run-of-the-Mill Christmas Story

My high school friend, Dena Light, is an Emmie-award winning producer at Animax Entertainment. This is their holiday card:

Made anywhere but China

I received an email today from a husband and wife team that responds to my N&R columns fairly frequently. A thoughtful and well-spoken duo, they often add a perspective I hadn't considered, or provide ever-so-kind atta-girls when I've really poured my heart onto the page.

Their email today added another reason to motivate conscientious shopping: the China factor. Naturally, I realized I missed this essential and timely point a couple of days after I sent my column to my editor… but with a limited word count, it was probably for the best.

Be that as it may, these readers have opted to boycott Chinese made products for the obvious safety reasons. They noted that others have mentioned similar boycotts to them and wonder:
How many people are on this campaign and how important is this to our country?
It's a good, and multi-faceted question. How many people truly are attempting to de-China-fy their consumer purchases? How possible is it without creating an entire lifestyle of shopping? And what would it mean for our economy, nationally and locally, were more people to truly take up the cause?

While shopping for holiday gifts this year, I put back several kids' toys because they were made in China. Time and again, I picked up a toy, scanned the box and returned it to a shelf… until…

It's true, I admit it. I bought a China-made toy for my great-niece - a bilingual driving toy.

Once the internal debate was had (not that it's over by a long shot), I remembered that these incremental pieces of citizen activism - the little things we do every day to make the world just a little better - follow the same logic as dieting. When I was younger, I would go on these "diets" and end up gaining weight because I constantly felt deprived and figured that since I was on a diet, I could afford to splurge and have whatever it was I felt deprived of… including stuff I would never eat when not on a diet. As I've gotten old (and a little wiser, I hope), I've changed my eating habits incrementally, starting with visiting the farmers' market more, then weaning myself off diet soda, then ceasing to buy junk food, and so on until I have reached the present, when the majority of my food comes from the farmers' market, I enjoy what I'm eating, I never feel deprived and I'm pleased with my weight.

Now, I’m focusing my attention on our household products. I started with switching from Clorox to Seventh Generation for our kitchen cleaner; now I'm working on finding a low-impact dish soap that we like. And so on.

Avoiding Chinese products is on the list, as is switching to low-impact/low-chemical skin care products, environmentally sound clothing and more. But there's no point in making dramatic wholesale change if it's not sustainable; I'd rather give myself time for lasting change.

So, bravo to these fine readers and all the other amazing people who have taken their citizen activism efforts to the China realm. I'd love to hear more about the resources you've discovered for finding everything you need without resorting to the land of the toxic toys. I will thank you in advance for you efforts now, which will surely make my efforts later even easier and more successful!

A call for conscientious consumerism

By the time you read this, the last of the Hanukkah wrapping paper will have already been cleaned from living room floors and siren-producing toys will have been rigged for eternal silence. But as with many Jews, my interfaith marriage means that my holiday season is still ramping up for round two: Christmas with my in-laws.

Also like many people, I find myself torn each year between my concern that the meanings of both Hanukkah and Christmas have been distorted by consumerism, and the desire to take advantage of the opportunity to spoil my loved ones with treats. Each year, my family and I debate whether we will buy presents or redirect our monies to charitable causes. Inevitably, we decide on donations and then can't resist treating one another — a cushy pair of hiking socks here, a KitchenAid food grinder there.

The most recent Triad Health Project newsletter reminded me that there is another option: conscientious consumerism. The Guilford County HIV/AIDS support organization has partnered with, a Web site that connects major retailers to local charities nationwide; the charities then receive a portion of every purchase made. Target, for example, will donate 2.5 percent of every purchase to THP; Turbo Tax has offered up 5 percent. These percentages then come directly back into our community and the food bank, HIV testing, counseling and other services that THP provides.

If keeping your charitable dollars local isn't a top priority for you, has options that will benefit communities in need worldwide. Better known by it component sites — including The Hunger Site, The Breast Cancer Site, The Child Health Site and more — the online store includes everything from clothes to jewelry to household décor, with profits going to everything from free mammograms to rainforest preservation. Additionally, the artisans who produce the products are paid a fair trade wage, making the purchases doubly impactful.

Of course, if supporting artisan works is important to you, look no farther than my favorite spot in Greensboro, the Greensboro Farmers' Curb Market. Between the stalls of hearty winter foods, like greens, eggs and baked goods, are an increasing number of craftspeople. Jewelry, purses, aprons, gourmet teas, pottery, wooden toys and even metal art pounded into existence by my good friend James Quinn are all available at the market. Some products, like the soaps by Mermaid Says, pack an extra punch by being both locally made and environmentally conscious.

There are no distributor fees or overseas shipping in these products, just raw materials and the elbow grease of those who made them. These kinds of purchases not only keep your money in our local economy, but they also personalize gift giving by replacing our typical off-the-rack gifts with one-of-a-kind handcrafted goods.

The gifts I gave for Hanukkah and will give for Christmas are a blend of donations, conscientious consumer products and good, old-fashioned American spending. Had I known about a few weeks ago, I likely could have directed all of my holiday shopping through charitable organizations.

One of the joys of this season is treating our friends and family to physical reminders of our affection for them. Still, there's no need to sacrifice the Christmas morning mad dash to the tree (or weeklong eyeballing of the gifts by the menorah) to preserve the bigger picture of giving during the holiday season.

Monday, December 10, 2007

'The pornography of violence'

There are a couple of movie scenes that have been stuck in my head for years: the scene in which Edward Norton's neo-Nazi character kills an African American man via curb stomping in American History X, and the scene in which Hillary Swank's Brandon Teena is murdered in Boys Don't Cry (I suppose that would be a spoiler if Teena weren't a real person, buried 15 years this month).

But despite the true story underlying Boys Don't Cry, these are movies, featuring actors I've seen in romantic comedies, who donate money to progressive causes and have messy love affairs that my husband gobbles up on gossip blogs. (He just loves celebrity gossip.)

Reporter John Barry has a Newsweek Web Exclusive this week reflecting on another kind of violence that haunts his thoughts: videos of actual torture he watched decades ago. In it, Barry suggests that Jose Rodriguez destroyed videos of CIA torture because it is easy for us to turn a blind eye to such acts when it remains hidden in euphemisms, pretty language that we can debate, like "water boarding." After all, it is pretty much impossible to suggest that drowning is "enhanced interrogation" and not torture.

I'd like to believe that a mass broadcast of the CIA torture tapes would have created such outrage that everyone but the backwoods militiamen would pour into the streets and demand that our leaders relocate their moral centers. But I worry that when movies pack such violent punches - and as we, as a society, allow violence to seep further into all of our forms of entertainment - that images of actual torture will be anticlimactic.

I wonder this as a cynic, someone who has always believed that violent television doesn't make kids violent if parents give appropriate background on fiction versus reality and appropriate versus what-the-hell. Headlines today make me wonder if I have been wrong to doubt... or if, worse yet, morality guidance has fallen from many parental priority lists...

Friday, December 07, 2007

Vocab for rice

An old high school friend of mine (now an English teacher at Weaver Academy) sent me a link to today. The site is one of those concepts that is elegant in its simplicity. It offers a multiple choice vocabulary quiz. For each word you correctly define, 20 grains of rice are donated to the United Nations World Food Program - and you get a harder word. For each word you incorrectly define, you get an easier word. The site will even track your top score.

For a geek like me, this site has endless appeal - vocabulary building AND good deeds?!? If I could get Rob to bring me my meals and an occasional glass of wine, I'd never have to leave my desk!

Blog savvy N&R

It was curious when Rob went to get the paper this morning and it wasn't there: not in the monkey grass lining our driveway or the prickly bush surrounding our mailbox - none of the usual mis-throw spots. By the time Rob got home from his first client visit, our darling paper was nestled in the driveway safe and sound.

The interesting part of this story is the email that arrived in my inbox just moments ago. Sent to me and eight reputable bloggers, the email is a press release explaining that the delay in delivery was due to mechanical problems that occurred while printing. And the interesting parts of that are:
  1. The fact that the News & Record seems to realize that the quickest way to distribute information is through this city's bloggers - of course, the N&R, with their staff blogs and participation in Converge South has certainly proved itself to be a blog savvy organization
  2. That their blog savvy doesn't preclude putting all email addresses in the "To:" line rather than using a BCC
  3. That the N&R possesses such blog savvy but still doesn't seem to realize the full, and essential, potential of its Web site (my apologizes to everyone who was involved in the recent redesign - it's a start)
So, happy reading. If your paper still hasn't made its way to you, rest assured that the fine folks in the N&R circulation department would very much like for you to know that it is on its way.

True Hanukkah miracle

Last night, Rob and I celebrated the third night of Hanukkah with my mom, my sister and her family. It's a minor holiday but kind of interesting nonetheless, celebrating a war victory in which a small group of Jews defeated the Greeks using guerrilla tactics. The Greeks had been oppressing the Jews and using the Temple for Hellenistic practices, like pig sacrifices (that'd be a pretty major no-no in Jewish law). The eight nights come in when the Jews rededicated the Temple after their victory, finding oil that seemed as though it would last only one night. But in the miracle of the holiday, the oil lasted eight nights. Praise Yahweh, pass the potato pancakes.

The fact of the matter is that Jews would probably pay little but passing attention to this holiday were it not for its proximity to Christmas. It's hard enough for adults to ignore the gift receiving opportunities housed in the season; imagine a kid trying to do it while all his public school classmates rave about their Christmas booty. As a kid, I actually felt a little bad for my Christmas-celebrating friends - all their anticipation was spent on one anticlimactic morning, while we had eight days to draw out the suspense, eight days to wonder if we should have chosen the small package the night before - maybe tonight...

Though Rob and I were given some lovely gifts last night, my favorite gifts of the night were spontaneous gestures by my nephews - an unexpected kiss on the cheek from the 8-year-old and an invitation to cuddle in an oversized chair with the soon-to-be-5-year-old. Corny, I know - just thank me for not writing my next column about it - the thought did cross my mind. But c'mon - in the midst of the mall flooding and kids asking for dinosaurs and computers (as one friend's kids did), gestures of love from children and all the wonders housed within their tiny little bodies are their own miracles... certainly miracles I believe in a hell of a lot more than magically regenerating oil.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Disaster and dine

Some nights, dinner appears effortlessly out of a seemingly empty fridge, sometimes as simple as a baked sweet potato and a pile of roasted green beans. Some nights, I like to put a little more effort in, perhaps even following a recipe, like the night before last when I set out to make a scrumptious sounding Hazelnut & Chard Ravioli Salad from 101 Cookbooks.

So, I had beautiful goat cheese ravioli from Giacomo's, and appealing substitutions of pine nuts and mustard greens from the market. It's a rather long recipe - not complicated, just plenty of steps involving plenty of pans. I started with the butternut squash croutons... which never quite crisped... but no worries, butternut squash is one of the candies of the veggie world regardless of texture. Moving on.

Sauteing onions, check. Ravioli slowly boiling themselves to the top of the pot, check. Time to wash the greens.

Dirt, my friends, comes part and parcel with shopping at the farmers' market. You wouldn't know it from a grocery store, but most of our food does, in fact, originate in soil. Washing greens, then, is an endurance test: dunk the torn, de-stemmed leaves in a bowl of cold water, swish to dislodge dirt, lift the greens into a colander, clean out the wash bowl and repeat (and repeat and repeat).

As I tore these mustard greens, however, they seemed a little dirtier than usual, with large flakes of dirt shooting across my counter and sticking to my hands. I covered the first bowl in cold water and saw all the flakes float to the surface... some of them looked a little frayed at the edges. I scooped up a palm-full of dirt, held my hand practically to my nose, and realized that the specs of dirt I had been diligently attempting to wash away were in fact tiny bugs, millions of them.

Now, I have certainly picked a bug or two out of my produce before and continued my merry meal prep because it's like the slow foodies like to say: the only thing worse than finding half a worm in your apple is eating apples no self-respecting worm would bore into. I'm paraphrasing.

But millions of tiny bugs coating each of my dozens of mustard leaves? My apologies to the farmer who sweated over that greens patch (and only charged $1 for the entire grocery bag of greens - come on, guys - ask for what your food is worth!!) but everything was swept into the trash. I submerged my dishcloth in water to drown the remaining bugs, then had Rob give me a full-body scan in the hopes that being reassured by my one true love that bugs were not, in fact, covering every inch of my body would keep me from having to take a scalding shower where I scrub myself with a brillo. Beyond a couple moments of feeling imaginary pairs of miniature legs climbing me, it worked pretty well.

Once the bugs had been dispatched with, I decided that sauteed portobello mushrooms would be a workable replacement for the missing bulk of our dinner. These were also a farmers' market purchase but a week and a half old so the shrooms had already lost a good bit of moisture, on their way to becoming dried shrooms. But it's getting late (even for us, who eat after 9 more often than we'd like) and we're hungry so I just chop them and throw them in a lightly oiled pan.

Shortly thereafter, as I was grating lemon zest and parmesan for the garnish when I noticed the acrid smell of the mushrooms burning. Not just a little scorched but beyond repair and taking my pan with it. Yup, an operator error stole my last ditch effort at salvaging our meal.

So there we were with six large, cooked raviolis, a pan of sauteed butternut squash and caramelized onions, toasted pine nuts, grated lemon zest and some shredded parmesan cheese, proving yet again that some of the best meals (and ideas in general) are borne of mistakes. The greens or mushrooms would have added a lovely and nutritionally-packed element, but by piling all the ingredients on the ravioli, we had an amazing meal filled with distinct, light flavors.

Hurrah for happy culinary endings!

Monday, December 03, 2007

Christmas debate season

Yup, it is, indeed, that time of year again, when we must debate the extent to which it is appropriate to celebrate Christmas in public. Shall we treat this season like a throw-back to 2004, when people were horrified that non-Christians were largely unwilling to put on a happy face and play along? Or shall we make this one of those years where we embrace the amazing diversity of our country and allow room for the many non-Christians to abstain from celebrations without feeling conspicuous and bad?

A Jewish woman recently told me that every office door in her place of business is covered with Christmas decorations. Every door but, of course, hers. So, she is left to react in one of the following ways:
  1. Decorate her door with Christmas stuff, which, as a person who is proud and uncompromising in her Jewish heritage, she would never do
  2. Decorate her door with Hanukkah stuff, which would also be a compromise since Hanukkah is a seriously minor holiday without any inherent decor (i.e. anything she put up would be some sort of imitation of Christmas stuff, like blue and white twinkle lights or a Hanukkah bush)
  3. Leave her door undecorated and therefore remain conspicuous for the remainder of the season
Of course, there is an unfortunate lack of room for compromise here. Either the majority of the staff doesn't get to publicly display their Christmas cheer or this one woman must spend an uncomfortable couple of months. I suppose as a Jew, it would be hard for me to understand why such a holy Christian holiday would be reduced to a debate about inflatable desk ornaments and faux-pine door wreaths... But, as Penelope Trunk said today on her blog, "The only people who think Christmas is not religious are Christians."

Winter Walk 07

I've written about the Winter Walk for AIDS a time or two before. With yesterday's temperate weather and the shortening of the walk from five to three miles a while back, this year's walk stood in stark contrast with the first time I participated in 1996. The walks were still in the morning then, and that particular morning was nearly freezing with a mist of drizzle. We had fun walking that day - we felt good about walking - but the bitterness of the morning seemed to suit the disease we were fighting. It felt like an appropriate challenge (though a symbolic and, of course, terribly minor challenge) to brave the weather.

This year felt more like a stroll with friends. It was, in fact. We arranged to meet with several friends and found several more along the way. One friend picked me up and swung me around, a reassuring reminder of his strength and health (I'm nowhere near petite) even in the face of his relatively recent HIV diagnosis.

People are living longer, healthier lives with HIV/AIDS than ever before. It is a testament to the scientists working towards better treatments and the agencies, like the walk organizers, Triad Health Project, that provide support services for those living with the disease. But, as we were reminded with the reading of a list of THP clients lost in the last year, people are still dying of this preventable disease.

Those who walked yesterday give me hope, though. The crowd was diverse in age, ethnicity and (presumably) sexual orientation, but the bulk was made of area college students - a group of people that I believe has the most power, right now, to spread the message of prevention through safe sex (abstinence being only one method of prevention). Perhaps some of them will even enter the labs to continue the work towards a cure. I was also pleased to see a contingent of young Jews from the American Hebrew Academy and Temple Emanuel. I was raised to believe that social action is an important part of Judaism; it seems these kids have been taught the same.

We did miss the A&T drumline starting the walk, as they have done every previous year I've participated, and Cakalak Thunder, who also usually makes an appearance. (No offense, UNCG drumline - I admire the chutzpah the seven of you showed.) I was also disappointed to see that at least one local anti-war group decided to exploit the gathering to spread their own messages. While I would love to see impeachment be the first of many punishments Bush has to suffer, yesterday wasn't about politics or personal agendas - it was about supporting people with a disease, and raising money for the agencies that help keep them living longer, healthier, happier lives. I think if HIV/AIDS activism were as high on their priority list as their sign and flyers would have the crowd believe, I would have seen them at previous Winter Walks, but, alas, no.

All in all, it seemed to be another successful Winter Walk, hopefully bringing a little more awareness to the local community and acting as a reminder that it is through hope, not fear, that we will conquer HIV/AIDS.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Four-legged babies

My mom likes to remind me that the word "children" is in reference to small humans, not the four pets that roam around my house. She could say it until she was blue in the face and it wouldn't change the fact that Rob and I are among the growing number of people who are choosing four-legged babies instead of miniature-me's.

Don't get me wrong - I love human children. My nephews and nieces are truly the apples of my eye; as far as I'm concerned, they are the most brilliant, attractive, talented people to grace this planet. But in my home, the furry babies reign supreme.

The downside to this arrangement (or at least, the downest of the downsides) is that pets, of course, are going to predecease their owners the vast majority of the time. Rob avoids thinking about it; I like to pretend that knowing that will somehow make it easier when the time comes. Ultimately, neither approach is really going to help.

Two friends are currently facing this with their pet-children. As a society, we want them to suck it up, keep it in perspective, shed a tear or two only then march forward.

But how?

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

My customer service top 5

If I could have had a Great Customer Servers sidebar attached to my column today, it would have included (in no particular order):
  1. Dr. Margaret Szott and her entire staff. Margaret is my dentist. I recently referred a friend to her (quite an easy recommendation to make) and she hand-wrote me a very personal, warm thank you note. Not that I was surprised - her office is marked by over-the-top warm interactions - her staff inevitably remembers who people are, our interests and if and how we're related to other patients. They actually make it a pleasure to go to the dentist.
  2. Gene at Arthur's Fine Shoes. The owners of the store, Stan and Judy, are lovely, too, but I've grown quite a bond with Gene. He took great care of me the first time we met, even though I went into their swank store in my grungy food service get-up (back when I was working at Great Harvest Bread Co.). A year and a half later (truly), I went back in a second time to replace the Danskos that had saved my feet and Gene not only remembered me, but also the kind of shoe he has sold me AND the style of sock! Now, the time or two a year I allow myself to go in there (even I have a hard time resisting their shoes), we talk about our families and share a hug - I'm often tempted to go in when I'm just having a bad day...
  3. Gary at the Costco gas station. I've had conversations with random people about Gary before - he's just the kind of person who really stands out for people. I call him my Five-Minute Philosopher because I can have a better conversation with him in the five minutes it takes to pump my gas than with the majority of people given hours. An intellectual and a kind-hearted man.
  4. The crew at Amalfi Harbour. The first time I walked into Amalfi Harbour (only earlier this year though I've wondered about it for as long as I can remember), I wasn't sure what it's dismal exterior was hiding. But by the end of the appetizer, I was not only sold on the food, but felt like family to the wait staff.
  5. Sean at Muse. An inclusive snob (in a good way), who provided the best fine dining service we've experienced. But I've already written about him.
There are plenty of other worthwhile mentions, I'm sure. Who doesn't love the "Hello!" at Pita Delite? Or Masoud's way of working the dining room at Zaytoon? Or the earnestness of the sales staff at the Great Outdoor Provision Company?

I'm a sucker for a great customer service experience...

Everyone should wait on customers at some time in their life

Young Israeli men and women serve in the military after high school. Whatever you think of the geopolitics of Israel, the fact is that they are frequently in a state of war, making compulsory military service consistent with the needs of that country.

Americans are frequently in a state of shopping. We shop because we had a bad day or because Timmy’s birthday is coming up or because we simply must get in on the formal shorts trend before it passes. As you may have noticed, we are currently in a shopping frenzy to celebrate the birth of Jesus, or the miraculous longevity of the Maccabees’ oil, or because we care about someone who celebrates one or both.

At this point, we could have a series of conversations about whether we should be so involved with shopping, or the ethics of choosing to whom we give money through our purchases, or even the long-term environmental impact of what we buy. Or, we could acknowledge that ours is, in fact, a capitalistic society, with a free market economy, and therefore shopping can, will and arguably should, on some level, happen. That accepted, would it not be in keeping with the needs of our kind of country for our young men and women to be drafted into compulsory customer service after high school?

I served my time: first at an alternative medical practice, then on and off for years in food service. During my service, I learned that I wouldn’t find that kind of work interesting for long, and should therefore truly apply myself in college. But I also learned about the customer/server relationship: exactly how much discourteous behavior I would accept from a customer before peeling off my service smile and the kind of service I needed to provide in order to feel good about my job and allow the customer to have a pleasant experience.

Additionally, I now have a very clear picture of what kind of consumer I want to be: I tip big (when deserved), I don’t enter businesses within 15 minutes of closing time and I treat customer servers like human beings rather than automatons created to fulfill my every whim.

Of course, I now also have a very clear picture of what kind of service I want: I want to be treated like a human being, not like an automaton created to inconvenience customer servers. I want the barest of greetings, or at least acknowledgment, when face to face with a server. And I’d like to believe that the servers I encounter have some sort of pride in doing their job well, or at least don’t show outward signs of being in excruciating workplace pain.

So, you see, the draft I propose is not one of ensuring that my favorite stores are well-staffed, but of giving Americans the opportunity to think more about how we interact in our most widely used gathering spots: stores. I would be pleased as punch if our youth chose to instead spend time in the Peace Corps or working at community service organizations across the Triad – anything that reminds us that even our me-first society would function more smoothly, and be a greater pleasure to be a part of, if we made a little more effort to consider one another.

‘Tis the season to truly indulge in the great American pastime, shopping. ‘Tis also the season of caring, giving and love. Perhaps this year, we can work harder to marry the two.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Shattering airpot

I was just washing my coffee carafe after a truly lovely Thanksgiving meal, when I had a vivid memory of the tinkling sound an airpot makes when its glass liner shatters - also truly lovely. Memory is a funny beast.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

(Un)Comfortably Numb

Is there anybody in there?
Just nod if you can hear me.
Is there anyone home?

When we were first dating, Rob was apparently pulled aside by a friend of mine who warned him to never play Pink Floyd in front of me. I would have told him eventually.

I don't remember the song that was playing on the radio the night I totaled my car, though the person in the passenger seat cringed at the opening chords for many months. I never remember the actual words spoken in the most heated of moments (the average marital argument, for example, comes no where close to reaching that temperature) but remember only the gist and feel of the words. Auditory details just seem beyond my memory's interest.

I also can't remember which Pink Floyd song was the one that turned my stomach to a band whose tee-shirt I likely would have worn otherwise - just that Pink Floyd was playing while my then-boyfriend rocked himself on the floor of our bedroom, his knees pulled to his chest. I left to sit on the sofa, next to the woman whose apartment it was, and listened as he tore apart our room. Of all that was destroyed, the most notable was a photo I had taken of him in which he was torn into two jagged pieces. It wasn't a particularly traumatic evening, particularly in comparison to other moments with him, but it's always remained vivid to me.

Years later, as the assistant leader of a Girl Scout troop, I found myself lost in a corn maze with the teen-aged staff playing Dark Side of the Moon from start to finish. I gladly followed one of the teens down the quitter's path to the exit. No hives, no sobbing - just discomfort and a willingness to end its source -the worst of my reactions to Pink Floyd, but why bother with even that, I thought.

But as each year that passes, being song-averse increasingly strikes me as a waste of time, an unnecessary thing for Rob to have to be vigilant of (as he slowly reaches for the radio and presses the first available button, often before I've identified the song)... as plain old stupid.

So, last week, Comfortably Numb came on the radio, Rob did his usual hubby-to-the-rescue swoop-and-tune, and I insisted we turn back. We sang along (I don't think a lifetime would be long enough to forget those lyrics) and, in a turn of Alanis Morissette's version of ironic, I've had the song stuck in my head since. It's arguably a better situation that the song I used to get stuck in my head: the theme song for Three's Company, but I'd still rather not. My usual remedy, singing the theme song for Inspector Gadget (two theme songs for shows I watched as a kid... I wonder what that says about me...), has failed miserably, though I've had some temporary success by singing Claypool's Up on the Roof ( I'm up on the roof again/Watchin' the sparklers dance and play/Up on the roof again/Please don't take my ladder away)...

As a last ditch effort to exorcise the Pink demon from my head, I've decided to write about it. Writing, for me, if often a brain-dumping exercise - I roll a topic around in my head until I can write about it and then I don't have to think about it anymore. I often even draw a blank when people ask what I've been writing about lately... I don't know; I already wrote about it.

Thanks for being a part of my experiment; hopefully I won't have to write about this again...

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Poor Willie Gordon

Isabel Allende's husband, that is, the man whose being was filleted for the general amusement of those of us who gathered at War Memorial Auditorium last night. It worked; I was terribly amused, and my mom may have shed a laughter-induced tear or two as well.

Allende was in town as part of the Guilford College Bryan Series, the same program that brought us Toni Morrison at the end of last season. While Morrison used her platform to expound what seemed to be an anti-war message hedged in an analysis of Beowulf, Allende instead spoke of her life and her writing process, focusing particularly on the perforated line between privacy and story telling that most writers, and their families, face.

Rob has certainly taken more than his fair share of ribbing from friends after the publication of columns like this and this, and I happen to know that at least one family member is (wrongly) expecting some sort of public lambasting, whether covertly or overtly done. Indeed, there have been times that my mother, who proofs every column I submit, has asked if I really want to share that particular story with the 200,000+ reader of the News & Record: therapy, domestic abuse, personal vulnerabilities.

Last night, Allende said something to the effect of (and I wish I had written her exact words) our vulnerabilities lying not in that which we share, but the secrets we keep, and I couldn't agree more. The few topics that I have yet to broach with you, darling reader, are those which are too intimate, those about which I am unwilling to accept reader insight, commentary or criticism: kids, my belief system and my future all fall into that category, topics that I avoid in conversation as well.

Unlike Allende, the story matters less to me than the people that might be affected. My pensively waiting family member doesn't read my blog, so I don't risk giving anything away by saying that I have no interest in exposing the secret of those I love nor those who I don't love but would find too much gratification in being captured on the page. Still, I feel my own secrets pressing upon me like a warning: that which we don't share can do nothing but haunt us; there is no thunder stealing like honesty.

Lego robots wire kids for science

Back in February, I wrote a column about my fifth grade teacher, Mark Moore, a man who continues to be among the most influential educators to cross my scholastic path. His influence comes largely from his ability to bring the fun of critical thinking and practical application into any topic. In the column, I posed the concern that this separation of fun and learning is harming students’ future career prospects by turning them off to advanced learning.

It seems that at least one person was concerned about this long before No Child Left Behind made it a common topic of conversation. Dean Kamen, best known for inventing the Segway, began a program for exactly that reason in 1989: FIRST, an acronym for "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology". Initially aimed at high school students, the program has evolved to include divisions for kids as young as six, including the FIRST LEGO League (FLL), a division for nine to 14-year-olds.

I recently visited an FLL team at their Natural Science Center practice room. There, eight home-schooled kids tinkered with LEGO figures around a table. Banish from your mind, though, images of LEGO cars with bobble-headed drivers or even massive LEGO recreations of the Statue of Liberty; no, these kids have fashioned their LEGOs into two identical, kid-designed robots. Programmed via nearby computers, the robots traveled the practice table while attempting to complete tasks assigned by the international FIRST organization. This year, the theme of the tasks has a green tint: Power Puzzle, energy resources, meeting global demands.

Among the tasks was placing a LEGO solar panel onto the roof of a LEGO house. But without the assistance of a remote control, the kids must program the robot to move at precisely the right speed, in precisely the right direction, stopping in the right spot, dropping the panel just so AND returning to home base, all within a matter of seconds.

Marie Hopper is the coach of this team and the founder of the first Greensboro FLL teams back in 2001. As the kids tinkered and reprogrammed toward successfully placing their solar panel, she told me that she got involved not only in the hopes of engaging her son in science, but also because she appreciates the values FIRST emphasizes, particularly what the league calls Gracious Professionalism. As stated on the FIRST Web site, “Gracious professionals learn and compete like crazy, but treat one another with respect and kindness in the process.”

On December 1, the team will compete in the FLL state championship in which they will be scored equally on their robot’s performance on tasks including placing the solar panel; design and programming; teamwork; and a research project. The project takes laboratory concepts and gives them real-world application. This year, the kids are tasked with performing energy audits on local buildings from which they can suggest solutions for greater energy efficiency. So far, teams have audited the Children’s Museum, Belk’s, a highway patrol station and more.

Hopper said that in her six years of coaching FLL, she has seen kids reorient their future plans to include science and engineering, and she has seen kids who have little success in traditional school environments find scholastic accomplishment and inspiration. As Japan graduates more than twice as many engineers than the U.S., with less than half the population, it seems that though these kids think they’re building robots, what they are truly laying is the foundation for keeping America competitive in the global marketplace.


Want to see FLL in action? The North Carolina FLL State Championship is right around the corner!

When: December 1, 9:00 am to 5:00 pm

Where: Greensboro Coliseum Special Events Center

Cost: Admission is free, though there may be a charge for parking

Monday, November 12, 2007

A child's birthday

I have yet (and hope to never) reach the point where I dread my birthday. I enjoy the extra pampering - the dish of her special eggplant parm that my mom makes for me every year and Rob's ever-innovative ways of spoiling me. But though I am oddly excited about reaching my 30th birthday next year, that excitement pales in comparison to celebrating my nephew's eight birthday this weekend.

My sister's oldest son, a child I read to in the womb and spent countless hours with during his first couple of years, when my greatest obligation was completing my college degree and all non-studying hours could be spent watching his face change from the tiny wrinkled face of infancy to the round, baby version of the face he has now, a face that has recently become long and narrow, like his body. It's a mature face that makes me think twice about slinging him around and blowing raspberries on his neck like I did when he was younger; I still do those things, but I wait for the day that he lets me know he has become too old...

In the meantime, we'll play hide-and-seek as we did before his party yesterday. I will continue to be amazed when he says things that bypass age-appropriateness by a long shot, and relieved when he says things that are distinctly eight-years-old in mentality. And I will try a little harder to not see his future when I look in his face: the endless possibilities for what his life could become and he along with it. I believe he will be successful wherever his path may lead, but we have decades to hash that out and only this one precious year to enjoy him at eight.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Daily Lit

I don't think I've ever read anything by Charles Dickens. I'm not sure how I made it through public high school and an English-intensive college degree without reading any Dickens but there it is. I admit it.

But today, I read the first installment of A Tale of Two Cities via Daily Lit, a service that really kicks sliced bread's ass on the "best things" scale. The whole idea is that many (most?) of us spend so much time at our computers and yet seem to find so little to time to read offline. So, Daily Lit has serialized a pretty impressive selection of books - mostly free though some do involve a nominal fee to finish after a free trial - and emails a short section of your chosen book per whatever schedule you set.

The first section of Tale took me about five minutes to read and included a link at the bottom that will send me the next section immediately, should I want it. Otherwise, I'll receive future sections at 6:30 every weekday morning.

Now, if they could only join forces with Good Reads somehow...

(Thanks, Tam, for the heads-up on this one!)

Winter Walk for AIDS

It's almost that time of year again when conscientious citizens flood the downtown streets to show support for those living with HIV/AIDS, and raise money for the services that support them and are working toward a cure: Winter Walk for AIDS.

This is the 16th year of the walk that organizers hoped would be obsolete long ago. I attended my first walk on a rainy day in 1996, when it was largely a procession populated by the gay community. As the demographics of those most affected by the disease has changed, so too have the demographics of the walk. Increasingly, the walk is made of African-American college students, with amazing showings by A&T and UNCG.

You don't have to be personally touched by the disease to participate; you just need to acknowledge that this is a preventable disease for which the message of prevention must be as widely disseminated as possible; that this is a disease for which we must find a cure for the good of all humanity; and that those living with this disease are every bit as deserving of our support and care as those living with cancer, MS or any other potentially terminal illness.

Sunday, December 2, starting at 2:00 PM - come and walk. In the midst of a terrible disease, Winter Walk is an amazing morning of hope.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Election day musings

I love voting - I'm just a dork like that. I vividly remember registering to vote at Fun 4th 11 years ago, much in the way that I remember other landmark moments, like the mornings my sister's children were born, the day they announced Kurt Cobain's death (I still don't buy suicide) and the evening my hubby proposed (4 years Friday!). It stands to reason, then, that I get all atwitter when it's time to use my voting rights. I always want the poll volunteers to check my registration card or put me through some sort of rigorous identification process but the usual confirming my address from a piece of paper I can easily read as they do will do every time.

I'm particularly excited about this election due to the mayoral piece. Honestly, though I'm clearly a fan of Billy Jones, I'm not yet sure that I will write him in (sorry Billy). It's my Gemini nature (or something like that) - a big piece of me wants to vote for my favorite person, making the write-in a foregone conclusion. But another part of me, the pragmatist, is concerned that Billy is our local Nader, stealing votes from the viable candidate I like the most. With what will likely be a very low voter turn-out, will I feel that I've used my vote wisely if I write Billy in only to have Kern win?

I have similar concerns about the presidential primaries. Mike Gravel is my favorite, and I like Kucinich pretty well, but will I vote for one of them and risk taking votes away from those who could seriously challenge Clinton? I have a little more time to feel that one out...

Whoever you like, get to the polls today. Or quit your bitching. Your choice.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Necrophilia for readers

Well, folks, it looks like it's almost time for another spectacular round of Burn This Book! This week, Teacher Magazine (via my mom - thanks, mom!) has brought forth our new candidate: Child of God. I haven't read this filthy piece of Pulitzer winning smut but according to the article, the 1994 novel explores human degradation via a protagonist who is falsely accused of a crime then becomes a murderous necrophiliac. A young teacher, Kaleb Tierce, though apparently beloved by his students, has been placed on administrative leave and is facing possible criminal charges for assigning the book to his 9th grade class.

So the students are wearing armbands with Tierce's initials to show solidarity and the majority of the parents are asking that he be reinstated and yet the school board decided to keep him on leave because some small group of parents is displeased with a book.

Granted, when I tried to imagine my youngest bro, currently in 9th grade, or my oldest niece, just behind him in 8th grade, reading the book, I wasn't thrilled with the idea because that does have the potential for seriously disturbing imagery. But filing a police report because a piece of acclaimed literature was assigned? Fascism, anyone?

When the overly-aggressive parent didn't get the results she wanted from the school administration, she did have one option other than the cops: talking to her kid about the content. Heaven forbid parents speak to their teens about graphic images that involve sex and violence. I can't imagine her kid is getting similar images in less reputable places... like tv, movies or the bikini panties now sold at Limited Too (right next to the sweat pants that say "Cutie" on the tush, perhaps?).

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Billy the unconventional candidate

Billy Jones, a.k.a. Billy the Blogging Poet a.k.a. Billy the StreetPlanes co-founder and operator a.k.a. Santa Claus, has added a new alias to the mix: Billy the Blogging Write-in Candidate. Jones (no relation) announced his candidacy via his Web site,, less than a month before the Greensboro mayoral election.

With one massive blog post, Jones threw his quill into what has already been a compelling two-person race between long-time local politician Yvonne Johnson and downtown developer Milton Kern. His position statement, on its way to becoming a novella-length tome, has a particular focus on gang-related crime, prevalent in the east Greensboro neighborhood in which Jones lives, and touches on water conservation, alternative transportation, waning trust in the police department, business incentives and more.

Winning as a write-in candidate, though rare, is not unheard of. Michael Sessions was still a senior in high school when he won the Hillsdale, Mich., mayor's office as a write-in candidate two years ago. In fact, mayors from Long Beach, Calif., to Waterbury, Conn., have won offices as write-in candidates; Strom Thurmond even won his first seat in the U.S. Senate as a write-in candidate — and a Democrat!

Be that as it may, Jones is fighting an uphill battle. It may seem like a small thing to ask voters to be able to recall a name rather than simply recognizing it, but psychologists would say otherwise. Even with a name like Billy Jones, we are simply better at recognizing things (like names) that we've seen before rather than conjuring those things from memory. (I'd be curious to know how many write-in votes are placed for candidates named Bob Smith or Dave Jones or other creations of people attempting to recall Billy Jones.)

For this very reason, Jones has to work double-time to cultivate the kind of name recognition his opponents have gained over the years. But like an illusionist who insists on being not only blindfolded but also handcuffed before performing his daring escape, Jones has asked that supporters not send him the very thing he needs to accomplish that end: money. To avoid campaign finance issues, he is asking that people make donations or use grass-roots channels to spread his message. Suggestions on his site include do-it-yourself yard signs, letter-writing campaigns and arrangements to speak to groups.

Of course, grass-roots is passé, and Jones has its replacement, netroots, in the bag. He's not Billy the Blogging Poet for nothing, after all. Recent history has certainly brought plenty of examples of netroots propelling dark horse national candidates to near victory. Perhaps, in a city our size, it could be enough to win.

The fact that Greensboro is historically lackadaisical about local elections may actually work to Jones' advantage. In the last mayoral election, only 19,000 ballots were cast, making individual votes even more significant. Between the adoration of Greensboro's blogging community and the eye-catching advertising that is his StreetPlane, Jones could well reach enough people to give Johnson and Kern a serious run for their money.

That is, of course, if voters are willing to put their ballots where their mouths are. Though Americans make a sport of distrusting the baby-kissing, image-conscious, power-grabbing stereotypical politician, we seem largely unwilling to take a chance on those who don't meet that image. From his Saint Nick-inspired tresses to his notable lack of politicking, Jones is a significant paradigm shift from his opponents and outgoing Mayor Keith Holliday.

Whether or not Jones's vision for Greensboro appeals to its citizens, his candidacy allows us the rare opportunity to see how unconventional candidates and low-budget campaigns impact races.

Election Day is Nov. 6; let your vote act as your voice in determining the future of our city.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Billy the Blogging Write-In Candidate

Billy Jones, the blogging poet, is putting himself up as a write-in candidate for mayor. I have to say that I can find no fault in his platform - in fact, there's a lot in there that I would love to see happen and I particularly love that he's taking no contributions. Of course, I thought a lot of Yvonne Johnson when I saw her at the League of Women Voters mayoral forum. Seems I have some research to do before election day...

Customer service gone right

I can't remember who originally recommended Wear Yours to me, but they've been doing my embroidery since they stitched the logo from my personal chef company, Dining with Ease, onto my first chef's jackets. It's exactly the kind of place I like to shop: not only are they the only embroidery shop I know of that doesn't charge a digitizing fee (trusting that repeat business will make up for that loss-leader), it is family-owned, with a serious emphasis on personal service and pride in workmanship. That pride stretches so far, in fact, that one employee spent a week mulling over our Jones CAN logo, which is complicated by a grid design, because she felt confident that she could do an even better job on it than the sew-out we had approved. She was right: her modifications made it absolutely spot-on.

We've been so happy working with them that when our most recent batch of shirts arrived and were unusable, for both size and quality reasons, I felt pretty strongly about talking to the owner about it. My hope was that she would offer some sort of apology and suggestion for getting a better result next time - after all, they're a small business and had all sorts of expense outlays to get our shirts done, and with our logos embroidered, it's not as though they could hope to recoup any of that money from the company from which they bought the shirts.

She exceeded my hopes by a long shot: she deducted one shirt that wasn't embroidered and split the difference on the remainder. I'm guessing that she didn't just eat the profit, but is actually losing money on the deal. I take no pleasure in that piece, but I do truly appreciate that she stepped up to the plate so firmly and graciously. She has changed me from a satisfied customer to a loyal customer and I can't encourage everyone enough to give them a try for any embroidery or screen printing needs.

Hurrah for construction workers

Yesterday, I saw the smashed, ricocheted aftermath of a nasty wreck on the corner of Tate St and Spring Garden (no, I didn't see the wreck itself, just heard the noise then saw the SUVs as they came to their belated stop). As unnerving as that is, the impressive part was the hoard of construction workers who immediately left their Aycock Auditorium posts to make sure everyone was okay and keep people calm.

Well done, fellas - talk about personal responsibility!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

The power of one person

I often find it decadent to watch movies in Carolina Theater, despite the fact that Movie House was one of its earliest identities. Watching Bogie slap Peter Lorre surrounded by crystal chandeliers and armless statues feels like eating pizza in a formal living room. Last Wednesday, however, I saw a movie befitting its surroundings: I have never forgotten you: The life and legacy of Simon Wiesenthal.

Simon Wiesenthal, concentration camp survivor, famed (and sometimes notorious) Nazi hunter. There are so many striking things about Wiesenthal as a person: his dedication to justice, not revenge; his ongoing insistence that he was not a hero, but a survivor; the way tears so easily pooled in his big eyes, showing a comfort with the tragedy he embodied; and the fact that, despite carrying the memories of the roughly 11 million Jews and non-Jews killed, he still found great pleasure and hope in life.

But, perhaps more than anything, Wiesenthal was a model of personal responsibility. In the film, Wiesenthal’s wife, Cyla, said that she begged her husband to leave his work in Vienna and move to family and safety in Israel. But from the moment of his liberation from the Mauthausen concentration camp, Wiesenthal knew he that if he didn’t carry the memories of the dead, if he didn’t push for justice, no one would.

I’ll go ahead and admit now that to compare Wiesenthal’s work to anything happening within the Triad is ludicrous. But in a way, that’s exactly what makes his sense of personal responsibility so instructive. Here, taking responsibility doesn’t mean risking having your house firebombed, as Wiesenthal did. It doesn’t mean tracking criminals across the globe while earning almost no money. It doesn’t mean depriving your spouse of a wanted life because you cannot simply resume life-as-usual after witnessing unimaginable horrors.

We should count our lucky stars that, here, taking personal responsibility is comparable to child’s play. Even the rising gang violence and widespread distrust of our police department in the wake of the Wray drama is blissfully benign in comparison. So, why, when we can fulfill our responsibilities as individuals so easily, was there a seven percent turn-out at the City Council primary last week? Why did I see a business pressure washing its parking lot and a private home running a fountain during this drought? Why would parents allow their children to ride unrestrained in cars, as I have seen with unnerving frequency lately?

Ideals are meant to be attempted but never reached. I’m sure that not every recyclable material makes it into the brown trashcan at my house, just as I am sure that Wiesenthal was not able to track down every criminal he would have liked. But not achieving perfection did not deter Wiesenthal from his mission, and it should not deter us from attempting to make positive change every day, in efforts everywhere on the spectrum from minuscule to monumental.

A crisp brown lawn, a vote in the ballot box, an afternoon a month volunteering or door held for an overburdened parent – these are badges of personal responsibility, some of the often unacknowledged contributions to creating a better community.

The Constitution of the United States of America gives us the freedom to be individuals. We can choose to use that right to advance our own agendas, regardless of the effect on those around us, or we can recognize that our true power as individuals lies in the place where our needs intersect with those of our community and the coming generations.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

My lost jungle

When Rob and I moved into our home, we inherited what we have come to think of as a "grown-up yard" - the kind of yard the requires stuff like hedge trimming and lots and lots of weeding. It seems that we, however, are infants when it comes to lawn care, both in the effort we are willing to put in and the aesthetic that pleases us.

I suppose I should confess that one of my favorite yards in Greensboro is on North Elam (the piece that runs between Cornwallis and Pembroke) which is so overgrown that the house is barely visible except in the barren winter. In the spring, though, the mass of trees and shrubs erupts into a rainbow. That's our aesthetic: wild, lush, private.

Over the last four years, we've let our grown-up yard expand itself into a little jungle in our backyard. Enormous ferns and other assorted volunteers created a screen from our neighbors and a happy roaming ground for our dogs. Despite our love of the result, we've toyed with getting it back under control for a couple of years now, to make it more accessible for us (the necessity of which became clear recently when we were unable to reach the dogs through a patch of brambles as they dug a chipmunk from its hiding spot) and prepare for the day when moving enters our immediate game plan.

I hadn't really considered my emotional attachment to my little jungle, though. Yesterday, I came home from meetings to an empty gap in the yard where a dogwood once grew; as the leaves on our other dogwood faded to orange, this tree turned brown and crisp, a fact I tried to ignore until an arborist pronounced our poor water-starved tree dead. Today, our volunteers were removed, leaving a huge empty yard, populated by our sole dogwood, a few pines and one spindly sapling. The dogs seem confused. I feel exposed and lonely. I had no idea that my plants were keeping me company until today...

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Et tu, Radiohead?

Radiohead fans across the globes have their panties in a twist because Radiohead released its latest album, In Rainbows, in 160 kilobits rather than the expected (and previously used) 320 kbps. Being a music fan but not an aficionado, I can't tell the difference - the download sounds great to me. Regardless, Radiohead fans have them on a pretty high pedestal and expect more of their beloveds than what appears to be a marketing ploy.

Monday, October 08, 2007

A true dining experience at Muse

After spending a year baffled by the idea of a fine dining restaurant in Swenson's, Rob and I decided to finally give Muse a shot Saturday night. Now I'm left wondering how to write about the experience and its many layers - where to begin?

The dining experience started with the fine dining standard: a choice between tap water, flat bottled and sparkling bottled, which always feels like a restaurant personality test to me, as though the waiters know what kind of customer I will be (and what kind of tip I will leave) based on my decision to that question... which is always tap. I wonder what that tells them?

Regardless, it might be unfair to call that the beginning of our dining experience because at that point, we had yet to meet our waiter for the evening, Sean. Rob and I are pretty well invested in the full dining experience - the service weighs just as heavily in our overall rating of the evening as the food.

The food, before I get ahead of myself, was wonderful. It was on the heavy side, which I think was more a matter of what we ordered than a true representation of the offerings. The seafood tasted of the ocean in a clean, crisp, amazing way. The vegetables were crisp and bright; the flavors in the sauces was complex and spot-on. The presentation was beautiful - artistic without being overly engineered. We were also given an amuse-bouche which was tasty and beautiful and is one of those little things restaurants can do to really go the extra step.

But Sean made the evening. It was immediately obvious that he is not from Greensboro but I was surprised to find he's been here for only a month. He seemed too together (or something - not sure how to describe it) to be such a recent transplant.

One of the big turn-offs of fine dining for Rob and me is the snob factor - the feeling that we should have achieved a certain familiarity with gourmet food and fine dining practices before attempting an upscale restaurant. We've only encountered that kind of snobbery a time or two but it always puts a big crimp in the dining experience.

Sean (and I mean this in an entirely positive way) was an inclusive snob - he clearly understands the food - not just what he likes, or key flavors, but also textures, complimentary dishes and appropriate presentation, both of the food on the dish and the dish on the table. But we never felt as though we were not a part of that experience, that we weren't living up to our end of the bargain. He answered even our silliest questions seriously without any reproach for not knowing culinary terms and he perfectly walked the line of being attentive but not intrusive.

Sean closed our meal by saying something to the effect of: There are many different kinds of waiters out there and, I can assure you, there are many kinds of customers. I really feel as though we worked well together tonight.

And that, my friends, was the best closing to a meal I've ever experienced. It reminded me of a story a therapist told me about a father/daughter trapeze team. The father says "if you look out for me and I look out for you, we'll be fine," to which the daughter replied, "No, if I look out for me, and you look out for you, then we'll both be fine." With his closing remarks, it seemed as though Sean was saying that he had lived up to his expectations of himself as a waiter and we had lived up to our hopes (of having a great meal and a great time) as diners and therefore we had all had a pleasurable experience. Beautiful!

I don't know if food is part of Sean's ongoing path, but if it is, I can see him becoming a maitre-d at a Michelin rated restaurant (a la JP in Hell's Kitchen).

(As a little sidenote, in case the fine folks at Muse end up reading this, the Web site, guys, looks like it was a template built for a fried fish joint - it doesn't come close to matching your elegance. Straightforward and simple wins that race.)

Friday, October 05, 2007

Does this happen in NC?

Texas state Senators are apparently in the practice of breaking their own codes by voting on behalf of other people. So much for one person, one vote.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Local meat links

A reader just happened to have received the following list yesterday and was kind enough to pass it along. I haven't sampled food from every one of these farms but the ones I have tried have been a pleasure - Wards' bacon is the best to ever cross my lips; Hilltop ostrich is great (and the flavor just isn't that gamy); and we just tried goat from Weatherhand this week and were pleased with the steaks we grilled - I'm looking forward to trying some braised dishes after buying more this weekend.

Baldwin Family Farms
Ca swell County


Back Woods Family Farm
Free range chicken eggs and meat& PORK
They are at the curb market on Sat

Hilltop Ostrich Farm
Forsyth County

Homeland Creamery
Guilford County

M & M Farm
Ca swell County

Moore Farm
Randolph County
pasture raised pork

Rising Meadow Farm
Randolph County

Rocking F Farm
Guilford County

Terrell Double TT Farms
Randolph County

Ward's Farm Fresh Pork and Eggs
Guilford County
336-697-0281(also at the curb market)

WeatherHand Farm
Randolph County
CHICKEN ,GOAT (Also at the Greensboro Curb Market)

Natalie Foster
Cornerstone garlic farm
(Okay, not meat but this woman seriously knows garlic - great stuff!)