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

Googletastic

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 www.google.com/press/zeitgeist.html.
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 GiveBackAmerica.org, 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, GreaterGood.org 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 d├ęcor, 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 GiveBackAmerica.org 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 FreeRice.com 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.