Saturday, February 05, 2011

Doing It Right

I took Ava to basketball practice yesterday. Church gym where they only allow water inside. As in water, nothing added, nothing extra, nothing else. I was aware of the policy, Gwen had mentioned it before, but left to my own devices and rushing to get out of the house and get there on time I haphazardly put some POM juice into the plastic bottle to flavor the water and ice.

When we got to the gymnasium door, an older security guard stopped us, pointed at the plastic container (now tinted red) and served as a physical reminder of the rule.

"Sorry, can't bring that inside," he said. "You can leave it here on the table."

I didn't protest, somewhere in the deeper recesses of my mind the message he was delivering had already taken up residence. I guess my face must have registered some distress over the fact that my 8-year-old was now going to have to run around in a sweaty room for an hour without a drink, as a result of my mistake, because he immediately said, "Hold on, I can give you some water to bring in."

He moved to a nearby utility closet, reached in and produced a bottle of Poland Spring. I was amazed, and appreciative, and struck by the fact that a 30-cent bottle of water and desire to think ahead and anticipate the moment completely transformed it. A small thing, with a big impact.

They had no obligation to provide us that water, I knew the policy and should have remembered it. This was completely on me, reminding me of the restriction and giving me a place outside the gym to hold our contraband beverage was all they had to do, more than they had to do and - in the current economic environment - all anyone could expect.

But somewhere, at some point, someone decided that given the intractable non-water beverage ban, maybe it might be a good idea to have some water hanging around for those who forgot, to turn a negative stop sign into a kinder and gentler reminder that will not soon be forgotten. It definitely had that impact on me.

(Look, Ma, I still know how to push the "publish" button. And I wasn't so sure. Success!)

Monday, August 16, 2010

Summer Revelations

At least two revelations so far this summer, one a city and the other a grill accessory.

First, the city. I had briefly visited Chicago seven or eight years ago for a work conference, but shuffling between the hotel, convention center and assorted dinners and receptions was not exactly conducive to connecting with the place. Not sure I even got a slice of deep dish on that trip, let alone went to a restaurant owned by Rick Bayless or experienced the timeless charm and ivy of Wrigley Field. These were serious errors of omission that needed to be addressed.

So, with a week of vacation scheduled for mid-July, and our default summer destination (Vermont) in mind, I called a last-minute audible and suggested a little family road/food trip to Chicago instead. To my surprise and delight, the girls were on board - all of them - and we booked a three-night/four-day excursion that was nothing short tremendous.

We had the pizza we had mail ordered from Lou Malnati's right out of their oven, and appreciated the difference. We saw the Cubs beat the Phillies. We were the only people to bring kids into a packed and awesome Paul Kahan "scene" restaurant that looked like a narrow sauna called avec, and the food, atmosphere and accommodating staff turned it into a highlight of the trip.

We found no shortage of family-friendly activities and attractions, including the Shedd Aquarium, Field Museum (where we were happy to meet a boy - or a girl - named Sue), Willis (formerly Sears) Tower, The Ferris Wheel at Navy Pier, Lincoln Park Zoo, Museum of Science and Industry. It was all great, and I know we just scratched the surface. We were all blown away by how clean and beautiful the city was, which was particularly evident during an unforgettable Chicago Architecture Foundation Boat Tour on the Chicago River.

We are huge fans of Mexican food, and one of the driving motivations for the trip was visiting what has to be the pinnacle of Mexican dining in this country, the expanding empire of culinary authority and authenticity at the corner of North Clark and West Illinois - three incredible restaurants owned and operated by Rick Bayless.

We had a lunch at Frontera Grill, followed by homemade hot chocolates and churros at the casual cafe XOCO next door, and it was all phenomenal, but we saved the best for last. Dinner at Topolobampo the next day was nothing short of extraordinary and was, Gwen and I agreed, one of the best meals we'd ever experienced. We ate inspired food that only could have come out of that kitchen, and then we went back and met the man himself, Rick Bayless, who was a familiar face as a result of his excellent PBS show Mexico: One Plate at a Time. He gave Ava a signed cookbook after she spontaneously told him that she wanted to be a chef, "just like you," when she grew up. We all left stuffed, happy and amazed by the experience on many levels. And the meal stayed with us, floating around in our heads, like a great film, song or novel. We were still talking about little details a week later, and we will find a way to get back to that corner, and to the incredibly gracious and talented chef who made it what it is, before too long.

We opportunistically did a few days in Washington, D.C. last summer on the front and back ends of a drive to see relatives in Tennessee, and think we're onto something with this little "introduce the girls to a great city" summer trip concept. Boston and Los Angeles are in contention for next year's installment.

The second revelation of the summer so far has been the Weber pizza stone Gwen and the girls gave me as a birthday present, which we have been using to crank out some of the best smoky crust creations we've ever produced - with the added bonus of not subjecting the house to a 500-degree oven in July/August, or scattering corn meal and flour all over the place.

I have to admit I was skeptical at first, it didn't seem like something we needed, but making our own version of perfect food outside has actually elevated the experience. Long-time readers will know that pizza at home is one of our favorite weekend meals, and the additional flexibility of the grill option has been a highlight of the summer, which is still - I'm happy to note - not over yet.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Household Zeitgeist

Madison does a good job expressing ours, on the blackboard that lives right off the kitchen.

Happy summer, everyone.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Still Life, Afternoon Hydrangea

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

New Life

This has undoubtedly been the season for new life in the grass and greenery around our house. Over the last several weeks we've noticed two active birds' nests, an army of chipmunks and a couple of adult rabbits scampering about.

But the visitor really captivating our attention is the baby bunny, pictured above, who Gwen and the girls first saw munching on the lawn near the row of Hosta plants that line our backyard sometime last month, maybe four or five inches from nose to tail when spotted.

From what we can tell, this little guy (or girl) has spent its entire young life in our corner of the world, enjoying the bounty of Insta-Lawn as a primary food source. It's been nice having him/her around, an outdoor pet who shows up unannounced at regular intervals - mainly in the morning or around dusk, to feast - and without any litter boxes to clean.

We find ourselves looking for him/her when too much time passes between sightings, and are always happy to spot the small brown figure again, moving slowly and deliberately from one blade to the next, a reassuring part of the scenery and welcome ambassador of our favorite time of year.

[Full disclosure: there are at least two members of our family who do not share these feelings of welcoming benevolence, and have been spending an inordinate amount of time staring out the windows as the mercury rises and little darting movements on the other side of the glass abound.]

Friday, June 04, 2010


As I've noted on here before, the profession that keeps our family in San Marzano tomatoes and Apple products is media relations, and as a longtime student and practitioner of this work, I'm always fascinated by public events on the big stage. How they develop, what the players do and say and how their actions and words are perceived by the public.

So this week I've been intrigued - like many others - by this Jim Joyce and Armando Galarraga blown call/perfect game that wasn't situation and, particularly, how well and admirably Joyce (the umpire) handled himself in the aftermath of an event that had the potential to turn him into an enduring national demon, fair or not. I'm not getting into whether his wrong call should have been reversed, the record corrected and the achievement formally awarded, that's a debate for another blog.

Here is a link for anyone who doesn't know what I'm writing about.

No, what struck me on Wednesday night was Joyce's stark and perfect reaction to a moment that was rewound and replayed, over and over again, his error more glaring with each passing frame, infuriating millions.

"It was the biggest call of my career and I kicked the *#+&$ out of it," Joyce said, after basically fighting his way off the field at the end of the game and immediately asking the clubhouse attendant to show him a video replay. "I just cost that kid a perfect game ... I thought he beat the throw, I was convinced he beat the throw, until I saw the replay."

In the world of after-the-fact public messaging, you can't do much better than that - full acknowledgment and ownership of not only the mistake, but also the impact it had on the other guy, stated clearly and with obvious emotion and empathy. Now, to be fair, this was a relatively simple and straightforward situation - one official, one play, an event without complex or developing machinations, impacts or other directly-involved participants.

But there are still about a thousand other ways it could have gone. "I don't watch replays ... I don't comment on my calls ... I saw what I saw and I've been doing this for 25 years, so back off!" He left the stadium immediately following the game, after refusing to speak with the media. Can't you imagine the lingering impact of this one moment if Joyce handled it differently? You wake up, go to work and before the day is done become a national pariah, as a result of throwing your arms open, yelling "SAFE," being wrong and getting truculent about it.

And the pitcher, Galarraga, who achieved perfection on the field and then took it to another level in his own gracious and accepting response to such a clear injustice. Denied the ultimate mark of personal performance for his position, a rarefied spot in the record books - wrongly and unfairly, for everyone to see - he chalked it up and moved on. If a player ever had cause for a wild-eyed Robbie Alomar-style freakout it was Galarraga, but he didn't go there. "He probably felt more bad than me," the pitcher said after the game, when the shock had passed and his sense of bitterness could have been assumed to have been cresting. "Nobody's perfect."

Everyone did and said the right things in the aftermath of the call. Throw in the events that followed - Joyce rejecting an offer from MLB to sit out the last game of the series and instead taking his spot yesterday behind home plate in a hostile ballpark, Galarraga bringing him the line-up card at the start of the game and formalizing his forgiveness with a friendly tap, which was returned to produce an organic and emotional moment - and you have all the icing on the cake needed for co-produced ESPN/Lifetime Original Movie.

"The Pitcher, The Ump, And The Imperfect Game"

Check your local listings.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Going Negative

We had a family wedding in Maine last weekend, with some time to shop, eat and explore in places like Freeport, Boothbay Harbor and Augusta. We hit the L.L. Bean Flagship Store, had a lobster roll at the Harraseeket Lunch & Lobster Co., and at one point stopped off for lunch at a place on the water that had gone up against Bobby Flay in one of our favorite Food Network shows, Throwdown.

We found plenty of online and on-premise promotion of that notable event, and near the end of our very satisfying lunch the owner (who we recognized from the framed photos and press clippings hanging on the wall) came over and asked how we were. Great, we responded, and then got to talking about his experience with Flay and generally having dropped out of the corporate world with his wife a decade ago to begin a very different life owning and running a restaurant.

Turns out he lost the battle with Bobby, which anyone who watches the show could tell you puts him in pretty rare company, and as a result seemed to be carrying around some baggage associated with the judging process. Fair enough, but as we continued to talk about our trip and the places we'd eaten, he had something negative to say about every one. When we mentioned that the lobster bisque at Harraseeket was extraordinary, he brought out a little taster cup of his to prove to us that it was better - it wasn't - and proceeded to trash the place, and others where we'd encountered long lines and good food.

We left the restaurant with a bit of a bad taste in our mouths created entirely by this guy's negative attitude and need to know better, be superior, in his own mind and rhetoric if nowhere else. We had a perfectly fine meal, we'd found our way to his beautiful spot, after all, there was really no reason to try to sell us on how great his stuff was, we were eating it. And, still, for some reason the decision to go negative, to try to solidify or elevate his standing in our eyes (or his own) by knocking down his relatively far-flung, and maybe more celebrated, counterparts.

At 7 and 9, we're starting to bump up against this dynamic with the girls, in the form of people around them - even close friends - at times seeking to build themselves up by diminishing the landscape, and those who are part of it. Cross words, hurt feelings, yesterday's "best friend" who for some reason today decides to snub them on the bus. Our messaging in these situations invariably revolves around focusing on yourself, on everything you are and all the great qualities you bring to the table instead of what someone else decides to call it, or how they happen to feel about it, on any given day. Hard conversations, with pain and the potential for at least passing damage meted out for no reason at all other than, maybe, to seek to elevate by putting someone else down.

It's easy to do. There's a reason political candidates attack and demonize their opponents, because it works - at least in the short term. But it's ultimately unsustainable, and it's a heck of a way to try to live for all but the most insecure and vicious walking among us. I think about this little restaurateur we met the other day. All he had to do was thank us for picking his place and enjoying the food, maybe something on the pride he takes in his ingredients and staff, the care he takes to make customers have the kind of enjoyable experience that brings them back. Instead he went on his edgy little "here's why the other guys stink" riff that turned us off and, more than likely, cost him our business if we ever return to the area.

But he did succeed in providing a valuable and instructive lesson that can be applied in a thousand different ways. He may have felt better about himself in the moment, but he lost in the end.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Loving What You Do

Maria Bartiromo has been on a little publicity tour to promote her new book, in which she reveals the "10 laws of enduring success" she has identified over a career spent succeeding and talking to some of the world's most successful people.

I've happened upon a few of her interviews and one of the laws I keep hearing her talk about is this: you have to love what you do, because if you don't love what you do you'll never put in the time and commitment necessary to really be successful.

Hard to argue with that, but the concept was just stark enough to get me thinking, do I love what I do? Do the people I work with love what they do, and how many of our friends, neighbors, family members could pass this test?

I asked a colleague recently whether or not she "loved" what she did and after a few moments articulating all the benefits and positives of her job and position she seemed to get there. I asked an older relative at a family function the same question and got a "no" before the words were even clear of my mouth. "It's a living," he said, and - apologies to Ms. Bartiromo - I have to believe this reflects the majority view, especially among older generations.

I wonder what percentage of the workforce "loves" what they do, five percent, 10, 25? And is it higher when you move from blue collar to white collar? That seems obvious but it doesn't feel exactly right. Are the accountants, actuaries and lawyers filing into cubicles in corporate offices across the world any more likely to "love" what they do than day laborers spending their days out in the fields under the sun, contractors who know how to use their hands to build new living spaces, fire fighters? Not sure about that.

You can see how someone who makes millions each year talking about business on television and flying around in private jets would love what they do, same thing a movie star, musician, professional baseball player or John Grisham. Anyone who has the money, success and freedom to live pretty much as they want would be expected to love what they do, or was it the love that got them there in the first place? How about the woman who quit a lucrative marketing job to open a Main Street bakery and focus on a personal passion to create the best breads, sweets and pastries the world has ever known - a true labor of love - does she qualify, or does she wake up at 3 a.m. every day cursing the alarm clock, the uncertainty of her economic situation and wondering how she got there?

Steve Jobs, in his celebrated commencement address at Stanford University a few years ago hit on this concept, to some extent, when he said:

When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: "If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you'll most certainly be right." It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: "If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?" And whenever the answer has been "No" for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

Sounds great, but how many people who aren't the CEO of a preeminent computer company are really in a position to apply this daily "last day" mirror test as Mr. Jobs describes it?

I think this would be a fun and interesting thing to open up in comments and really get a dialogue going. Are there parts of your job (stay-at-home Mom qualifies, without question) that you enjoy and others you dislike? Where do you come down, on balance, and would you be able to pass Ms. Bartiromo's test?

Do you love what you do?

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Slaughtering Darlings (a.k.a., Writing)

When I watch awards shows on television, I sometimes like to rewind the DVR (used to be the VCR) multiple times in order to focus in on the immediate reactions of the people who didn't win, sitting in their little picture boxes and taking in the unfortunate outcome, and on the winner as they share "real" moments with a cherished few on the way to the stage, where they will stand and speak in the spotlight to everyone. So, in addition to making me a bit of a maniac, this demonstrates my endless and enduring fascination with the nuance and subtleties of throwaway moments. Offstage asides. Honesty, whether intended or incidental.

The same dynamic and curiosity is in play when a historic or notable document is found, or celebrated or offered up for sale. I look at the words that are familiar, like everyone else, but in many ways am even more interested in the cross outs and scribbles, the ideas that didn't make the cut, that were abandoned or thought better of at some point as part of the creative process.

There were a number of stories this week about John Lennon's handwritten lyrics to "A Day in the Life," going up for sale at auction. I thought the news was interesting, but really appreciated the ability to see the precious artifact myself in a pop-up window on a computer screen, thanks to Reuters. The style of the handwriting, what the paper looked like and, notably, the visible edits, the twists and turns that occurred on the road to a song that would eventually take up permanent residency in the minds of millions.

And there it was, right near the top:

He blew his mind out in a car
he didn't notice that the lights had changed
and all the people turned away...

Only that last line was crossed out, the people weren't turning away, in fact, "a crowd of people stood and stared, they'd seen his face before."

That lyric is, of course, the one that made the cut and was ultimately recorded. But I'm still stuck on the little 180-degree flip that went through John Lennon's mind and caused him to reverse course. The people were going to turn away, but instead they stood and stared. Why? What made them change their minds?

Struck me as a great example of writing and the creative process, and how ideas and concepts are built up and knocked down into a "final" that is shared and, if it's good enough and lucky enough, celebrated and remembered.

A day in the life. Of a writer.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Nature, Nurture And Fostering Greatness

There was an interesting story in yesterday's New York Times probing the connection between natural talent and superior achievement. How much are we inherently born with, how much is a product of our environment and what are the other factors that create a word class athlete, musician, artist or scholar?

The conclusion, or at least much of the current thought, credits determination, persistence and a commitment to at least 10 years of serious and regimented practice as the driving factors in rare and notable success, above and beyond God-given gifts and abilities. Malcolm Gladwell hit on the same point in his recent book Outliers.

It's one of the things we think about as parents, especially as the girls get older and more focused on the various activities they pursue. How much to push, how much expressed or demonstrated interest merits professional or structured guidance, and when to just let things run their course. Like everyone else, we believe our children are extraordinary people, and we want to make sure we're giving them the tools, training and support, on a whole host of levels, to achieve everything they want in life. We are absolutely and consistently striving to create and foster an environment of "you can do anything," as opposed to "what makes you think you can do that?"

And it's been interesting to observe their talents, natural abilities and interests evolve in sometimes unexpected directions.

On paper, Madison should have been an excellent soccer player. Lean and fast, with good coordination, she played for three or four years and never really moved beyond being the kid who followed the pack and was content to never really dig in or drive the ball. She progressively lost interest and ultimately said she didn't want to play anymore, a decision we accepted.

Around that same time, she tried lacrosse, loved it and has continued to dedicate herself to that game and develop as a player. She takes pride in it and looks forward to it in a way that never kicked in with soccer. She asks to go outside and play catch or drill, appreciates her games and any opportunity to get out there on the field. She's always been extremely verbal and intrigued by words and what they mean - writing stories and reading. As an offshoot of this, or maybe because of it, she loves acting has already done a number of local plays. She relishes rehearsals and small moments that would seem intolerable to most, spending hours working on her lines, or just watching others run theirs, anything to just be around it.

Ava excels at soccer in a way Madison never did. Understands the game, fights for the ball, leads the pack and scores goals. She recently joined Madison with a minor part in one of those local plays and enjoyed it, but her real thing is music - which seems fortunate to us because she has a beautiful voice and an uncanny knack, at 7, for coming up with lyrics out of thin air and then wandering around singing them. She rattles them off stream-of-consciousness, me sitting at the computer keyboard trying to capture the lines through my own amazement. The other night she built a song off this concept: "I fell in love with the Moon in the Moonlight."

She can't play the guitar yet but still carries her miniature acoustic all over the house, strumming along to her songs, when she's not sitting in front of our electric keyboard. Clearly there's an interest, bubbling up from some source of natural talent, and the question as a parent is how to foster it without killing it, how to provide enough encouragement and formal training without turning it into work or tedium, snuffing out the flame just as it starts to take hold and move down the wick.

Ava has lately been wanting to know how people get famous, how people wind up on Nickelodeon and on records and when she can start. We don't have great answers to these questions, because the last thing we want to message at this point is how enormously hard it is, how long the odds are, how much you have to give up along the way and how rare it is for that kind of lightning to strike. Our answers revolve around staying interested, staying at it and continuing to do the things you love and want to pursue and the rest will take care of itself. As noted above, we like to live in the land of "you can do anything," and we're committed to that approach - for confidence building and self esteem if nothing else.

The piece in the Times, and Gladwell's book, make me think that we're on the right track. If you are willing to work at it and be persistent and really put the time in, maybe doing extraordinary things is less a function of the crap shoot and breeding than many of us were brought up to believe. Rare, to be sure, but a path that can be followed by those willing to really commit themselves to something. And, as a parent, that seems better than having to credit genetics and lucky lottery tickets as the overriding factors in extraordinary success.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

iPad, Therefore I (Almost) Am

I hadn't really planned on buying an iPad, and I certainly hadn't planned on adding to the millions of words that have already been written about this revolutionary product. But I got one on Saturday - because as an unabashed Apple fanboy I ultimately realized that is what's required - and I've spent the last few days playing around with it and thinking about it and have come to some early conclusions that seemed worthy of a post.

First off, it's an amazing device. Aesthetically beautiful, typical minimalist Apple design (some people are saying it's too heavy, it feels solid to me) and able to do incredible - OK, fine, magical things for what it is. At the same time, it comes up slightly short of where it needs to be to really occupy the space Steve Jobs seemed to be gazing at in the Reality Distortion Field of announcement day.

I thought typing would be the biggest drawback or required adjustment, but it's not. The iPad is actually decent to type on, especially in landscape mode. I'm writing this post on it, home row and all, because anything short of that would feel like cheating - even though the process would be faster and easier on my laptop, and I had to run to our iMac to embed the screen shot above. It's good and functional for e-mail, Web surfing is fun and tangible, given the large touchscreen. Watching movies or TV shows is great, as expected, a huge upgrade over the smaller displays of the iPhone or iPod touch, and the early applications developed or optimized for the device are stunning - The Weather Channel, Bloomberg and Flight Control HD to name a few. Photos are gorgeous and the "digital picture frame" mode was a nice surprise. I never went down the Kindle road, but the book reader looks cool and interesting - with color illustrations! Good battery life. In short, it's an extremely capable piece of technology, in a beautiful box.

When he first unveiled it, Jobs talked about creating a new category, and that's certainly possible, but the iPad occupies a slightly odd and difficult space (as evidenced by the dearth of tablet success stories) that this first incarnation hasn't quite cracked. Consider the iPhone as a point of reference. Everyone carries a cell phone today, it's part of modern living. The genius of the iPhone was that it also did all these other things you never would have thought possible, based on its size and your previous expectations in that space. Legitimate Web access, music, video, e-mail, a universe of amazing applications. You carried it with you and couldn't believe how much more you got, how much additional and unexpected capability you had along for the ride in that tiny package.

The iPhone gets you further than you ever thought you could go on a cell phone. For those looking for real computing power and functionality, the desktop (or notebook) gets you all the way there. The iPad, or I should say this generation of the iPad, does neither. I love it, and yet find myself looking for reasons/opportunities to use it. At this point it's another 1.5 pounds in my messenger bag, and everything else is still in the bag. I'm not ditching the connectivity of the cell phone, and to really feel like I'm not going to get caught short on the ability to do something, I need the laptop.

The girls watched a movie on the way to my parents' house on Easter Sunday and it was tremendous, so much better than that old portable DVD player we used to lug around, and far superior to staring down at the screens of their respective iPods. The iPad elevates that experience. So as a media player, kick around an application or two, play a game, surf the Web or check in on e-mail, it's amazing. If that's what you are looking for, and the definition of what you need, it's already here.

But if you really want to replace your laptop computer, even if only for light use, there are some enhancements needed. I have some business travel coming up in a few weeks, and as much as I would love to make it an iPhone/iPad only trip, I already know I'm going to need to lug along my MacBook Pro as well. Here are some iPad features that would have made for a considerably lighter excursion:

1. A front-facing camera. This is a miss that seems almost inexcusable, given what Apple's accomplished on the much smaller iPhone and on all of their other computers. I don't necessarily see people running around snapping two-handed photos on their iPads, but enabling video chat alone (even if only in WiFi mode) would be a major step in allowing people to "connect" with others on this device. We recently joined the Skype revolution in our house and enjoy video chats with friends and relatives. I'm definitely looking forward to using it to feel closer to the family when I'm away. Not on the iPad.

2. The ability to run multiple applications. Here's another one that just feels like it should be a given. But then again it feels that way on the iPhone, too. If people are really going to commit to a device of this type they are going to need to be able to do more than one thing at a time. The iPhone sort of gets a pass because the phone is the default background app - it's always there, waiting and available and active, and you can also do all this other stuff. The iPad only lets you do all this other stuff. One. Function. At. A. Time.

3. More robust document management. I'm just starting to play around with the Pages application, and was actually pleasantly surprised to see the Word/PDF integration - via incoming and outgoing e-mails - but every time I try to import a previously-created Word document into Pages I get a "Document Import Warning" pop-up, typically related to fonts or formats, which doesn't really instill confidence when doing mission critical and collaborative work. Again, is this an issue for a large video player with Web access? No. Is it an issue for a device that could be considered a laptop/netbook replacement? You bet. Being able to import documents to the "desktop" screen and see them there as icons, or in one folder, to open and edit and save or send would be a major enhancement.

I thought celebrated VC Fred Wilson posted a good (if slightly negative) take on the iPad earlier today, and I agree with much of what he said. At this point, I'm glad I have it, I'm amazed by the things it can do, and I'm looking forward to seeing the applications developers will devise for this new and - in many ways - much more capable platform.

But my MacBook is still coming on the road with me, along with my cherished iPhone, as much as I would love for it to be otherwise. If I had to guess, I would bet the iPad actually winds up coming out of the bag - relatively soon - and becomes the thing that's hanging around the den or bedroom, there at the ready to do a little morning or late-night Web or book reading, send an e-mail or two and check the weather. Chalk it up to being what it is and make sure it's in the car and loaded with age-appropriate movies for the girls when we're starting off on a long drive.

"Are we there yet?"

No, Steve, not yet. But close.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

By In A Blink

There's a great line in a not great movie called "Meet Joe Black," spoken by Anthony Hopkins, who plays an an aging media mogul/family patriarch.

At the end of an elaborate birthday party that will cap an elaborate life, he says to those gathered around him, "Sixty-five years... don't they go by in a blink?"

The line was so perfect it almost saved the movie, and while I'm (thankfully) not yet into my seventh decade of perspective, I can say without question that the years do, in fact, go by in a blink.

When I started this little writing project Madison had just turned 5 and Ava was 3. Next month they will be 9 and 7. The growth, development and changes we have experienced are hard to put into words, even after a few hundred blog posts trying. They've become people, fully-fledged little people, and as has been the case since the first of two times we left a hospital carrying a recently-arrived passenger in a bucket seat, they basically define our lives.

I've been focused lately on the blink, and particularly on not having my eyes closed for too long while it's happening. There's a difference between showing up and being present, and in an age of cell phones, e-mails, information overload and increasingly round-the-clock work and life demands it can be easy to lose track of that.

Taking Madison to lacrosse practice and spending most of the hour staring down at my iPhone is not the same as sharing her experience. It's not really watching TV with Ava if the show is a background track to go along with an open laptop. And even if we're sitting right next to each other and her eyes are glued to the screen 95 percent of the time, the other 5 percent - when she turns around to see if I saw the thing that just made her laugh - matters. I'm trying to remind myself to lock into those moments, to see them as opportunities instead of just incremental or incidental interludes, because one way or another, one thing is certain. Soon enough, they'll be gone.

The other side of the coin sometimes feels interminable, hearing the word "Dad?" uttered pleadingly from some distant corner of the house for the 42nd time in the hour since I got home from the office. Hitting the couch after a long day and an extensive reading/bedtime process only to be confronted with a "can I have some water?" request rattling down the staircase just as I become one with the cushion.

Those moments don't feel like a blink, but they quickly become part of it, hours that turn into days that turn into years and, ultimately, a life. And there is one thing that's for sure and that should not be allowed to fade into the background, a central truth that can be applied in a thousand ways whether you are an aging media mogul/family patriarch or not.

It really does go by in a blink.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Snow Set

Got some shots of one of my favorite "blizzard" subjects this morning, the swing set in our backyard.

And I do understand a couple of photos don't really make up for a six-week blog abandonment. Let me just say that this little corner of the Internet has been on my mind and, for those who still care to look, I'll be back with something more substantive soon.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Foregoing The Sand

Well, we held firm to last year's prediction and elected not to participate in the annual family pilgrimage to Aruba. Ultimately it came down to trying to live one year (or at least most of one year) within the confines of the school vacation calendar, but the decision turned out to be prescient because 2010 began with an explosion of activity at work, and had we booked the trip I'm not sure the girls wouldn't have been going alone.

Talked to my parents yesterday morning about 7 a.m. while they were waiting at the gate to board their outbound flight. Other relatives are already down there, including my 90-year-old grandmother, who swore up and down that last year was going to be it for her, too. The lure of the beach and open-air bingo ultimately won out, I guess. Other family members will join early this week.

I'll confess to a few visits to the Playa Linda Webcam over the last couple of days, just to get a real-time sense of what we're missing. For a more nostalgic sense I only have to click through some previous posts.

Ava is about to turn seven and this would have been our seventh year in a row, she - alone among us - actually broke down in tears over the fact that we weren't going. Gwen looked into flights as recently as a couple a weeks ago in response to that blast of emotion and a general sense of aspirational curiosity, but it never got beyond the land of "wouldn't it be nice?"

It would have been nice. Maybe next year.

Sunday, December 20, 2009


Friday, November 20, 2009

The Weight

For most of my life, I've carried around extra weight. I'm not talking about the kind of poundage that would, say, require a rented motorized three-wheeler to navigate around Disney or anything, but over the years I've generally been overweight. Plump. Husky. You can pick your word.

I've gone through thinner phases and heavier phases, lost some pounds - sometimes for years at a time - and then put them back on. When I say I have suits and other clothes in various weights I'm not talking about fabric thickness or the seasons. I haven't done a wide variety of exotic diets, mostly when I've trimmed down it's been a result of getting disgusted with myself, resolving to "watch it" in some relatively formal way, and committing to regular exercise.

I remember one particular health class in high school, the teacher stood at the front of the room and said he had a diet that was guaranteed to work. He played with us for a while, solicited guesses around what it might be, and then wrote these words on the blackboard in big bold letters, I can still see it in my head - YOU MUST RUN.

He was right, of course. I ran through college and beyond and they were some of my leanest years, but the dedication to getting out and pounding the pavement did not last. I experimented with the Atkins diet years ago, at the height of its popularity, and it worked, but for most of my life I have steered clear of red meat (a challenge on that plan) and generally could never get past how inherently unhealthy the mix of foods and fats that were "allowed" seemed. The amount of plaque a dental hygienist scraped off my teeth after eating like that for just a few months told me everything I needed to know about the bad things that had to have been happening on the inside, regardless of what the good doctor wanted to tell Larry King on TV. Ketosis and pork rinds were not going to be my yellow brick road to health and happiness.

Of all the various regimens and plans I've come across in my life, the South Beach Diet was the one that made the most sense to me, on many levels. Most of all how it made me feel when I was on it, how it didn't seem like a "trick" or a way to game reality. I don't believe there will ever be a pill that doesn't come with serious side effects, or an effortless, no-cost approach to getting your body into shape. There's no free lunch in this world. I think people with my metabolism - which naturally defaults to "puffy" - will only really be able to preserve leaner and meaner for the long haul by making fundamental and sustainable changes in the way they eat and live.

This has been my experience, in a life filled with upswings and downswings that always seem to settle a good 25-30 pounds north of where I'd ideally like to be. I'm currently in a downswing, a slow and steady downswing and one I hope and believe will endure. Here are some of the things that have worked for me, five key pillars of a successful weight loss program. There is no rank order here, for success all five elements need to be in play.

1. Portion control. This is so obvious it seems barely worth mentioning, but it's fundamental, has been one of my key issues from the beginning, and clearly plagues many others as well. You could talk about the expanding amount of food offered in dining out environments, the pervasive "Supersize" mentality, but in the end it's really about how much you put in your mouth, how reasonable you are in what you consume. There's a difference between a handful of potato chips and a bag, a healthy helping of pasta and a pound. I've never been big on measuring and weighing servings, it always seemed like too much work, although I think at times - especially at the start of a new way of life - it can be helpful for illustrative purposes. Another natural enemy on this front is an inalterable adherence to the three-square-meal approach. "Sure, it's 10:45 a.m. and I'm a little hungry right now, but I'm going to hold off and wait for lunch and then I'm really going to EAT."

We still plan around three main meals a day, but there's nothing wrong with a handful of pistachio nuts an hour before lunch to tide you over, or an apple or cup of lowfat yogurt at 4 p.m. to make you less ravenous when the feed bag gets strapped on at the dinner table. In general, the deny-to-reward dynamic is does not seem to be a good or sustainable way to operate. It also breeds rationalization and excess.

2. Physical activity. My high school teacher was on the right track with the running. Being active in a dedicated way is an essential part of being healthy and losing weight. We have a Precor machine in our basement, and if I can find the discipline to run on the thing for 30-45 minutes 3-4 times a week it makes a tremendous difference in how I look and feel. At work I take the stairs instead of the elevator, eschew the intercom in favor of getting up and walking around when possible. I saw Frank Bruni, who eats for a living, on the Charlie Rose show recently and he talked about exercise as making a "down payment" on the food you were going to eat. That makes a lot of sense to me, and - in addition to helping maintain a healthy weight - working out or just being active will help mitigate the damage when you decide to indulge, because we all do, and should, at times. I have never in my life regretted a decision to exercise at the end of a workout. But that doesn't make it any easier to lace up the sneakers. You just have to find a way to get there.

3. Emphasize fresh foods (vegetables and fruits) and whole grains, the "good" carbohydrates, and avoid white flour, processed foods and refined sugars. This is the piece I got from South Beach and it works. It's also not absolute - we still eat pasta from time to time (although Barilla Plus carries the day much more often than our "old" favorite, De Cecco) and I still bring home pizza for the family on most Friday nights, I just have two slices instead of four, or five. The bread in our house that we use for toast in the morning is sprouted wheat from Alvarado Street Bakery or Ezekiel, when we make pizza dough we go heavy on the wheat flour and sparingly, if at all, on the white. It is easier than ever today to choose whole grains and fresh/minimally-processed foods, and I firmly believe that's helpful on multiple fronts. If it comes in a bag or a box with any kind of significant shelf life, it probably should not be eaten in volume. We eat potatoes rarely and sparingly. Same thing with white rice.

4. Plan ahead.
This goes hand in hand with #3, because in a pinch it's easy to make bad choices, when you haven't taken the time to stock supplies that allow for smarter ones. A helping of raw almonds out of a bag you keep in your desk is a much better mid-afternoon snack than a trip to the vending machine. A pomegranate or some sliced strawberries a better antidote to a nighttime sweets craving than a chocolate bar or scoop of ice cream.

5. Focus on the big picture, changes and habits that can endure.
Keep your perspective on living, instead of losing or maintaining. I think that's the problem with most diets - they force people into phases that determine how they act. You have a start weight, and a "goal" weight, you work to reach your goal and - if you are lucky enough and determined enough to get there - you shift into some new mode in order to "maintain" that weight. Ease up about it. This isn't a Band-Aid you put on and expect to take off at some point, it's the way you are going to live, the mix of foods you are going to eat and a level of physical activity you are going to expect and demand of yourself. Forever.

If these five guiding principles are followed to a reasonable degree, the pounds will come off and your general level of healthiness - I believe - will increase. At least that's been my experience. The other thing I think is really problematic about the "phases" approach is that it leads to a rigidity and an obsession with the scale that is very difficult to maintain. If you can't take a bite out of a brownie some co-worker made, or a slice of birthday cake at a family function without feeling like it's going to set you back a week in your weight-loss regimen you're ultimately going to have a problem. At home we choose sprouted wheat bread, buns and tortillas, but that doesn't mean if we stop off for a ball of fresh mozzarella on a Saturday afternoon we don't buy a loaf of crusty Ciabbata to go along with it, because everyone knows leaving a pool of olive oil and balsamic on the plate is a sin. If forced deprivation is an underpinning of your weight loss program, it's probably not going to last very long. Build reasonableness and healthy offsets up around your indulgences, and enjoy them when they happen.


This is in no way complete, but here are some of the foods we focus on keeping in stock around the house as part of our healthy eating regimen, our staples.

Fresh vegetables and fruits, notably green and red peppers, celery, cucumbers, leafy greens (arugula, romaine, spinach), small cherry tomatoes, avocados, apples, strawberries, melon, blueberries, pomegranates, raspberries.

Beans - mainly black beans

Onions, garlic, shallots

Salsa, we like Herdez, also any kind of canned tomatoes, amazing flavor-to-calorie ratio here, on the good side

Olives, pickles - especially these

Olive oil

Low-fat cottage cheese, yogurt

Feta, Romano, sharp cheddar, fresh mozzarella

Lean proteins, especially chicken, also like soy-based products like Tempeh in a stir-fry


Wasa - I like these fiber-rich crispbreads, (full disclosure) Madison and Ava call them "rabbit food."


Water - drink a lot of it

But the key is not to constrict yourself to any limited set of foods, these are just the ones that work for us, and the list is ever changing. I do think the South Beach books are helpful reference guides, the Glycemic Index is something I believe in. A banana, for example, is not the same as an apple, it's closer to Wonder Bread than to an apple. Beer is a problem, in a way that wine is not - and I'm not talking about the alcohol. Anyone who has spent any time on this blog knows that we love food, and we love to cook, and this can all coexist with a healthy diet and lifestyle.

If you are like me, you inherently know when you are overdoing it, indulging yourself beyond the point you should, and there are times when you will want to make that decision - but do so sparingly, and recognize those moments for what they are. The easiest way to backslide, I've found, is to get sloppy and suddenly five extra pounds turns into 10, then 15 or 20. "It's OK," you'll tell yourself. "As soon as these holiday parties are over, or after all the summer BBQs, I'm going to 'start' again." That's the problem, the idea of having to start.

Never stop. Just live. The rest will take care of itself.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Air Up There

Saturday, November 14, 2009


Thursday, November 12, 2009

Backing-Up Disney

A couple of developments I want to get on-the-record, so to speak, on this neglected little parenting blog. First is our recent trip to Disney.

Long-time readers may recall our trip with the girls a couple of years ago, this time around we had my parents to blame - they came up with the idea, secured housing, coordinated with my siblings and basically facilitated a large family pilgrimage to the place where dreams come true. They also paid for everything, so we had that going for us, which - in the immortal words of Carl Spackler - was nice. Rather than try to do another full-on review/trip report, here are a few key truths and takeaways from what will certainly be our last grueling death march magical trip to Orlando for at least a few years.

1. Don Draper would hate the Magic Kingdom. For one thing, there's more alcohol in his desk at Sterling Cooper than in this expansive (and entirely dry) pre-fab environment. I also think he'd have a problem with the expanding army of guests who are so obese they can only navigate the park on electric three-wheel scooters, which Walt's minions are only too happy to rent to facilitate drive-up service at the nearest fried carbohydrate or refined-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life sugar stand. Granted, there are staple rides and attractions here that are essentially required reading for parents, especially with small children. Height and terror considerations are less of an issue in this walled garden than anywhere else in the Disney complex. If a Disney vacation in general is taking one for the team, the Magic Kingdom raises that dynamic to mind-numbing extremes. Plan carefully and try to survive. In the end it's only a day or two out of your life. As I wrote a couple of years ago, there's really no way to get through a trip like this unless you decide early on to live it from behind the eyes of your children. The more quickly you embrace this perspective, the better off you'll be.

2. Epcot is still the best park experience for adults, with enough for the kids to strike a pleasant and satisfying balance, especially during the annual Food & Wine Festival, which we've been lucky enough to coincide with on both recent trips. Soarin' is my favorite ride across all of the parks, Test Track is terrific, and there's always the Nemo attraction and Turtle Talk with Crush for the really little ones. It's also worth noting that you are more likely to come across physical matter that resembles actual food walking through the various countries at Epcot than anywhere else in the Disney universe. Not to mention the beer and the wine, which is overpriced but readily available. And everyone knows you can't focus on the prices at Disney - it's about the experience, and you haven't really experienced the wonder of parenting in this curious land until you've saddled up to a glass of chardonnay in France, or a pint of Bass in England, or a flute of champagne at one of the little stands you pass, or all of the above. And if you plan ahead and book a dinner at the nearby Flying Fish Cafe to cap your Epcot visit (a short walk away on the Disney BoardWalk) you have basically elevated a theme park experience to an adult-friendly art form.

3. The Rock 'n' Roller Coaster, alone, makes a visit to Disney's Hollywood Studios (formerly MGM) worth it, and not just because it's the only place Aerosmith is playing together these days. The only reason we returned to this park was the fact that last time around Ava wasn't tall enough to ride this memorable attraction (unlike her big sister Madison) and for some reason we collectively decided it was worth forking over about $300 to undo memories of the extended crying fit that ensued as a result. It was, and the mock American Idol show, during which actual park guests sing against each other and are rated by the audience, was a great little discovery the girls loved that did justice to the "real" version on FOX. We sat through three shows, including the grand finale at 7 p.m., and it was a genuine highlight, featuring real drama, fake banter between a poor-man's Brian Dunkelman in the house and recorded commentary by Ryan Seacrest and other Idol luminaries, and some legitimately good live performances.

4. SeaWorld is nothing to write home about - a smallish park littered with road-side carnival attractions and other money-making schemes and traps - with the exception of the Shamu show (which is incredible) and some epic roller coasters that (tantrum alert) young kids under 54" are not tall enough to ride. I tried to buy a popcorn at one point but was dissuaded by the sight of the woman on the other side of the counter meticulously picking skin off one of her hands. And, to quote Forrest Gump, that's all I have to say about that.

5. It may actually be easier to navigate your way out of Disney parks via trams and rental cars (driving to off-property housing) than staying on-site and dealing with their shuttle bus system. Last time around, we stayed on property at the Beach Club, and probably the single biggest frustration we experienced was waiting for the Disney buses to take us wherever we wanted to go, and back to the hotel from wherever we were. It was miserable. This time around we stayed at a Marriott timeshare my parents arranged, and while I have to confess I was resistant to being relegated to off-property steerage status, getting to and from the parks via rental cars and parking lot trams seemed easier than our memories of standing around waiting for branded conveyance. I've heard from others that our observations are not unique. Disney needs to fix the on-site bus situation.

6. We have had great experiences with limited crowds and virtually non-existent lines, even for the most popular rides, in early November. As anyone who has taken on a trip like this knows, especially with kids, managing waiting time is as big a consideration as eating, drinking or finding out whether your request for individual TARP funding was approved. Disney's Fast Pass system is absolutely phenomenal, they have developed something that really works, that gives everyone in the park the ability to feel like they are on a VIP list, within reason. But even better than Fast Pass is not needing it, and that was typically our experience on both this trip and the one a couple of years ago - both were in early November, and I'm not sure we'd consider going any other time of year.


The other thing that happened a couple of weeks ago was that the hard-drive on our two-year-old iMac died and we lost all of the data it contained. At some point we turned off the machine and it simply never came back - gave us a blank white screen for a long while, despite multiple on-off attempts, and then ultimately displayed a small file folder in the center of the screen with a question mark in it. Obviously not the most hopeful of signs.

I made a Genius Bar appointment, hauled the thing into the Apple store and it took them about five minutes to run a variety of diagnostics and arrive at one inescapable conclusion - the hard-drive was gone, no option other than replacing it. The repair was free, since the machine was under AppleCare, but as anyone who has been through something like this knows, cost is not really the issue - you just want your stuff back. I asked the Genius, while we were staring at my non-responsive screen, whether or not it was unusual for a desktop computer to fail like this after two years, and as the question left my mouth I actually felt like an idiot for having asked it. What is the chance this guy, who sells and supports Apple computers for a living, is going to tell me that this catastrophic failure isn't unusual?

"It's not that rare," he responded, which astounded me. "A little more unusual in desktops than notebooks, since they're basically stationary. But the drive is the only moving part in the machine, so they do fail, it definitely happens."

We have an external LaCie drive and I thought I had been regularly backing up our data, turns out I was doing it wrong, which is even more idiotic when you consider how easy Apple makes it with Time Machine - which we are now using, religiously, on all of our Macs. The service experience with Apple was about as good as it gets - surprise, surprise - every single person I talked to expressed (with credibility) how sorry they were to hear about our situation. More importantly, they took the time to help me rebuild everything it was possible to retrieve.

The iTunes store extended a one-time courtesy download of all of the songs, shows and movies we had purchased on iTunes since 2003 that were still available, and we'd long been in the practice of transferring priceless photos and videos to multiple machines, so the damage wasn't as bad as it could have been. Another benefit of having something like this happen in the Apple/Mac universe was that we had one (responsive and accessible) company to talk to and deal with. I can only imagine the hellish netherworld one would find themselves in while appealing to Dell, HP, Best Buy and Microsoft for assistance while each company took their own shot at "that doesn't sound like our issue" three-card monte.

Apple made it as painless as possible, but we definitely lost some data and the whole episode taught me one invaluable lesson, especially in the digital age we're now living in. BACK UP YOUR STUFF. It's all right there, until it's not, and then it's gone forever.

There are a ton of obvious advantages associated with the transitions and developments that have occurred in the way we take and manage photos, videos and other forms of content, the one downside is how easy it is for all of it to go away if your hardware fails. Don't let it happen to you, and the good news is it's easier than ever before to put critical safeguards in place, if you just take the time. It's worth it. Believe me when I say that the photo above, and all the other ones we took in Disney, are backed-up beyond all reasonable measure, and - with our recent experience as a potent reminder - we'll never have it any other way.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

No Such Thing

Wandered down to the basement this morning with Ava to get in a little coloring time, and discovered this line Madison had written on our blackboard at some point, probably when she was leading one of her spontaneous classes, usually with a student of one, namely her little sister.

I loved the message, whether applied to crayons on a blank sheet of paper or even more broadly. And of course the missed (and subsequently inserted) word, alone, made this worthy of a post.