Thursday, April 30, 2009

Eco-driving: The Ford Fusion 1K Mile Challenge

You knew this was coming since the spork's debut -- the inevitable march of all things hybrid. And given our current feelings toward oil and gas, cars are leading the parade with many new models touting the benefits of greener, cleaner, leaner driving.

Last weekend, one such model -- the 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid -- hit the road in the 1000 Mile Challenge, a four-day road test designed to show just how far one tank of gas can take an eco-driver.

I couldn't join in the test-driving fun (I was carpooling to a wedding), but I'd like to report back on some of the very nifty results. From Nicole L. of Ogilvy PR, Ford's PR agency:
After 69 straight hours of driving (Saturday- Tuesday morning) by 7 different members of the Ford team, the car managed to go an astonishing 1,445.7 miles on ONE TANK OF GAS!!!! The team averaged 81.5 mpg despite a storm and 3 nighttime drives, and NASCAR driver Carl Edwards came in after Talladega to drive the car for the official 1,000 mile mark before holding a live Twitter session (he said he’s really into social media and his FlipCam).
There are plenty of test-drive videos covered by bloggers in attendance -- check out Lynn Miller's post at OrganicMania (complete with fuel economy tips), Scott Stead's video, or Donna Childress's write-up at We Love DC. Oh, and more videos from Ford and Ogilvy too.

The question now is, are drivers finally primed to choose hybrid models and help the product reach critical mass in the struggling auto marketplace? Or are they going to take my route and ditch the car altogether in favor of a public transportation/car-sharing lifestyle? I could see it going either way ... your thoughts?

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Introducing the Tazewell Garden Project

Alternate title: Julia, Julia, how does your square foot garden grow?

Spring means spring break planting, and planting means evidence seeds, and seeds mean sports term plants. Edible plants. Plants that save you money, keep you healthy, and bring you back to the land.

But what if you don't have land -- you know, like me? No matter. You can undertake square foot gardening in any limited space, as long as you have vision, creativity, and a handy roommate named Jacob who has two green thumbs to your black ones.

Thus I present to you a sprouting series on Italian Mother Syndrome called The Tazewell Garden Project. In this series, I will take you through our mini-farming adventure with plenty of photos, the occasional piece of actionable information, and a determination to make you hungry.

So what is square foot gardening anyway? Basically, you build a box, fill it with soil, mark off a square foot grid, and apportion your favorite food/flowers/herbs to each square based on their growing needs. It's perfect for people with limited space, poor soil, and/or no inclination to dig up their lawn.

Jacob was inspired to take up this cause after buying a used book on the subject and getting his old familiar feed-store itch to connect with the land. I was inspired to go along with it because I kill everything except cacti (remember the mum?) and want to break that trend.

So, this first round of pictures takes you through our earliest seed-starting and box-building about three weeks ago. (See FrugalDad for excellent box building instructions.) I'll do my best to keep you following in real time, particularly as the warm weather sticks around for good and everything (god willing) starts to grow.

Oh, and for the record, I will not call this a Victory Garden until I am actually victorious over it. You are my witness to the pledge. And in return, I'll mail you a cucumber.

Note on slideshow: Click on "full screen" icon in lower right and then "show info" in upper right corner to see the captions.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

They did the mash, the Moroccan mash

"I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you'll understand that. Now, now... Here's looking at you kid."
-- Rick, Casablanca

Casablanca is in Morocco. And I made up a Moroccan dish for dinner. But I forgot to take a picture of said creation. So you're getting a picture of beans from a Moroccan street vendor and a quote about beans from the movie Casablanca in my shoddy attempt to atone for my oversight.


Ok, onto the yummy bits. I devised this dish from random leftovers in my kitchen. It's easy, needs only one pot, and provides a refreshing break from my usual Italian routine. Note: The spice measurements are open to improvisation with whatever flavors and strengths you prefer.

Moroccan Mash

olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium zucchini, cut in 1/2-in. disks
1 medium yellow squash, cut in 1/2-in. disks
I can diced tomatoes
1 can chickpeas (drained)
1/4 cup raisins
1-2 tsp. fresh cilantro (or to taste)
1-2 tsp. paprika (or to taste)
1-2 tsp. cumin (or to taste)
salt (to taste)
pepper (to taste)

Alternate spice mix (a little stronger because of the curry, but balanced out by the sweeter fenugreek):
1-2 tsp. curry (or to taste)
1-2 tsp. fenugreek (or to taste)

Saute the garlic in the olive oil for a couple minutes, until fragrant. Add zucchini and squash; saute for 4-5 minutes. Add tomatoes, chickpeas, raisins, and spices. Cook on med-high heat, uncovered, until the tomato juices are mostly evaporated.

Serve alone, or over cous-cous, or with a side of meat (lamb was a good complement). Makes 4 servings and even better leftovers.

Trust me -- this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Photo by shadowplay

Monday, April 27, 2009

Prayer #63: Mating Season

When the service has ended
And the liquor is drained
And the food's packed as leftovers
And the music's last strain
Fades into memory
Like the flavor of cake --
The newlyweds leave you
Alone in the hall,
Holding a bouquet,
Wondering, is this all
That I'm destined for?
All that I'll earn?
All I look forward to,
All that I'll learn?

But the answers aren't there,
Just heel- and heart-sores
And petals that droop
And drift to the floor.

Prayer #63: Mating Season

What vow are You asking me to take, Lord?

* To love and to cherish till death do us part? [Then who's the other half of "us"?]
* To be obedient, chaste, and poor in religious life? [Then where's stigmata, my proof?]
* To consecrate my single status? [Then why do I feel lonely?]

Most of us have no clue how to answer that question. And in trying to answer it, we only feel more acutely what a rejoicing, sad, confusing, revelatory existence You gave us to stumble through.

Yes, You tell us Your love is enough. Yes, You tell us You are the ultimate partner. But You are not mortal. You are not my lovers. You are not my community. You are not my friends.

Surely these groups -- hallmarks of existence shared, our fellow stumblers manifested -- are divine in their own way. So why not reveal them to us sooner -- and with them, the answer of our vows?


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Earth Day: Help rewrite "The Story of Stuff"

The Story of Stuff, by Annie Leonard (full video here -- about 20 minutes). What better way to remind ourselves on Earth Day that our culture of consumption -- capitalism's not-so-secret ingredient -- is also our one-way ticket to a permanent landfill?

This of course amid the 8 million other reminders, tips, statistics, and grim warnings that come out of the woodwork on such eco-friendly holidays.

But what I like about "The Story of Stuff" is that it's firm, realistic, and thorough -- just the 'get things done' attitude we need at this moment in our global battle against climate change.

After all, the video says, we've used 30% of the earth's natural resources in the last 50 years alone. 99% of the stuff we use is trash within six months after we purchase it. And with our manufacturers bent toward creating planned obsolescence and perceived obsolescence, it seems impossible for us, the little consumers, to break the mold.

Ah, but what power we have! Especially if we all do the same thing at the same time.

So this Earth Day, let's do an environmental examination of conscience, and see if we can find good reasons to take one, some, or all of the following actions in the next year:
* Opt to purchase less clothing -- and when you do, choose more classic styles with high-quality tailoring that you can wear for many more years.

* Take care of your belongings. Forgo items purposefully designed to be disposable, and treat your longer-lasting stuff with care and consideration.

* Examine what you really need. Consider your basic needs -- food, water, shelter for example -- and make informed, economical decisions around meeting those.

* Question what you really want. No need to adopt a Spartan, monastic lifestyle. But you don't have to be bacchanal either. Prioritize luxury items, and go with only the ones at the very top.

* Buy fresh, unpackaged food. We introduce toxins to our body and landfill fodder to the earth when all our foodstuffs come prepackaged. Go for the natural stuff instead, and you'll go a long way in healing your body and the Earth's. (Extra points if you support local agriculture through a CSA.)

* Follow 'reduce, reuse, recycle' to the letter. It's in that order for a reason -- recycling should be the last stop, not the first. Do your best to eliminate waste on the front end to amplify positive impact.

* Investigate the CSR of companies who manufacture your favorite products. A little bit of due diligence will reveal how committed your favorite companies are to protecting the environment and supporting society at large. Who knew nail polish could help save the world?

Yes, these steps require some effort and attention upfront. But just think of the benefits. You save time and money, increase stewardship, declutter your life, eat healthier, avoid toxins, reduce your contribution to the earth's resource depletion, and perhaps my favorite one -- learn how little you actually need to be a fulfilled, content person.

In that light, are we really making a sacrifice? Not a bad way to keep our good ship Mother Earth afloat just a wee bit longer. Happy Earth Day, fellow globemates!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

I know how to make grown men cry

Sit them down in front of a dog movie where the dog dies.

Old Yeller. My Dog Skip. Year of the Dog. Any one will do.

I know this because I watched Marley & Me with my roommates last night. Both are male. Both grew up with dogs. And both were teary by the end of the movie.

I take that back. One of them -- the one who rarely gets emotional about anything -- was openly crying. He declared it the "worst dog movie ever" because the death scene at the end was so protracted. He said he hadn't cried that way since Homeward Bound.

This unusual scene reinforced what my father has said for years: "Wanna see me cry? Make me watch a dog movie. Horror film, war movies, romantic tragedies ... not a drop. But a dog movie? I'm done."

Note: This is the man who got upset at the My Dog Skip trailer and refused to watch it on a cross-country flight because he knew he'd be upset in front of other passengers.

So men, I ask you ... what is it about the man-and-dog narrative that socks you in the tear ducts? Is it any more or less evocative than buddy movies or sports films, and why?

And in return, I promise to answer any lingering questions you have about women's movie-watching habits. Let the explanations begin!

Photo by superrune

Monday, April 20, 2009

Prayer #62: Sunday Kind of Love

I want a Sunday morning with jazz on the radio and bagel crumbs in the bed
an open window and no reason to get up
the paper finished, but not my dreams.

Prayer #62: Sunday Kind of Love

Keep the Sabbath holy, you asked us. Mark this day as different. Mark it as sacred. A 24-hour cycle bound for reflection, designed for peace.

Help us put tumult to bed on this day. As we fall into Your comfort, shape our loose limbs into an embrace, no matter how tangled. And let us rest there, quiet, until You call on us to rise again.


Photo by katastrophik

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Burnt wedding toasts

Next weekend I am maid of honor in my dear friend's wedding. That means I get to adjust her train. And take pictures with her all by myself. And -- brace yourself now -- give a toast.

I know. Me, writing, marking occasions, speaking before large, anonymous groups of people? It's like opium to a Chinese whore.

But it turns out writing a toast is harder than I thought. On one hand, you don't want to be too schmaltzy and send everyone into diabetic shock. On the other hand, you don't want to downplay the significance of the day. And on the mutant third hand, you don't want to incur my father's communications wrath about the sad, sorry route to Hell most modern wedding toasts are traveling along.

Worse, creativity isn't necessarily rewarded in a toast. Have you ever heard a wedding toast haiku?

Congrats on the hitch!
Don't get her pregnant too soon --
it kills all the fun.

Let's talk honeymoon.
We all know what they're up to,
But we'll turn blind eyes.

Love, many splendored!
Cupid's arrow did not hurt?
Shoot one my way then.

Or a wedding toast limerick?

May you always be true to your wife,
And spoon with her all of your life.
But don't be a dork
And go off and fork
Another, or she'll slip you the knife.

At the risk of inducing a coma,
I now hand you both "Love Diplomas."
You've earned nothing but praise --
Just look, Ma, all A's! --
Now get thee to Oklahoma.*

* You try finding a rhyme for diploma.

Or wedding toast Facebook statuses?

LINDSAY is OMG, soooo000OOOO00ooooo happy for her friends! You guys are the best -- guess you're the real BFFs now, LOL. Keep it real! ;););)

BRAD just wants to say hey man, I love you, and I'll never tell Janet about that hooker outside Wichita. Or was it Boise?

Or wedding toast tweets?

We all know what Bob is doing right now ... SYLVIA! Oh snap! Best man FTW. ;)

Bawling my eyes out on the altar. Kelly's so beautiful. Wish I had stuck some tissues in my bra. Oh wait, I can't wear one in this dress.

Or wedding toast skits (acted out by the bridal party)? Or wedding toast stand-up (performed by the drunkest guest available)? Or wedding toast Powerpoints (in case the food's not ready or the DJ is suffering a heart attack)? Or wedding toast text messages (because love ain't free)?


I could just write a regular toast, I suppose. You know, talk about how I never worry about the health and longevity of their commitment. How they give me hope that good, kind, well-matched people can still find one another in our hyper-networked yet sorta lonely world. That they exemplify for me the most enduring, constant elements of a mature adult relationship -- trust, faith, friendship, good humor, and humility.

That I love them both, and love that they love each other even more.


Nah. It'll never play. Wedding toast interpretive dance it is!

Image by ceoln

Friday, April 17, 2009

Word on the street: "We called it the clap"

The scene: St. Matthew's Cathedral, Good Friday service 2009, front pew of the back section on the left. Two senior Southern gentleman -- brothers? friends? partners? -- sit in front of me.

The first one is dressed in a white turtleneck sweater and blazer, very WASPy. The second man has on a tweed jacket and green corduroy pants. The first man talks from the minute he enters the church, and not in a church whisper.

Man 1: I want to sit up front. (they move to the front pew) Have you ever heard them play that organ? (gestures to the huge pipe organ off to the right) This is a good spot, I don't want to get dizzy. (stands up and down to illustrate lack of dizziness) Would you look at how everyone's dressed. (points out young men in jeans and ratty shirts) No nice clothes. That's because Friday is dress down day at offices. Did you know that? Yeah, they can wear sweats if they wanted.

At this point, two elderly religious sisters take the seats next to them.

Man 1: Excuse me, ladies, but am we correct to assume that you are sisters?

Sister: Yes, we are.

Man 1: (very excited) Oh, what order?

Sister: The Sisters of Charity.

Man 1: Ah! They took care of the soldiers in Virginia during the Civil War.

The sisters are impressed by his historical acumen. I wonder how he knows this. Was he there?

Man 2: And they took care of my great aunt during her "nervous breakdown" in New Orleans. (pause) But we called it the clap.

Man 1: (turning to stranger on his other side) Have you ever heard them play that organ?

End scene.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

What does "experience" really mean?

The error of youth is to believe that intelligence is a substitute for experience, while the error of age is to believe experience is a substitute for intelligence.
-- Anonymous (the oldest, wisest Greek philosopher)

What defines job experience?

Calendar years? Quality v. quantity? Attitude? Track record? Management positions held? The authority to decide? Not being entry level? Getting to define "entry level"? Age? Maturity? Wisdom? Expertise? Indispensability? Irreplaceability? The ability to hang on?

Sometimes employers don't really want experience. Sometimes they want to train a fresh-off-the-boat graduate to their liking. Sometimes they need a grunt, not an expert. Sometimes they believe everyone should just pay their dues.

Yet sometimes they hire someone who has experience anyway. This circumstance can come as a pleasant surprise, a nice value-add. Sometimes it becomes a threat. And sometimes it isn't even in their control, because the decision to accept a position that appears "beneath" them falls squarely on the shoulders of the so-called experienced person -- not the employer.

Let's say, then, it works out. Everyone learns, everyone flourishes, everyone advances. And let's say it doesn't. Then it collapses, as some stumble, some grumble, and some advance anyway.

Either way, the Rubicon is crossed. The expert, the manager, and the grunt -- no matter their ages or background -- must coexist. They live, fight, and die by the same organizational sword. They can choose to merely protect one another. Or resent one another. Or develop one another.

The thinkers and doers -- those who can't help learning, who want to learn, at every stage -- will become "experienced" in the only way they feel truly free: by trying, and failing, and occasionally succeeding in a way that pushes them in the direction they want to go.

But if they are grunts in experts' clothes ... well, then their path is doomed to resemble an occupational bedpost -- plenty of notches with no true passion.

Experience is in the heart of the beholder. It has as many definitions as there are people and goals and decisions. So the real question is -- what do you want your heart to hold?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Grey Gardens: I think this is the best blog post for today

I rarely win anything. Contests, sweepstakes, lotteries, tournaments ... you name it, I'm its kiss of death. So imagine my pleasant surprise when I was one of 50 people who got free passes to see an advance screening of HBO's upcoming TV film Grey Gardens, the story of Jackie O's eccentric aunt and cousin, both named Edith Beale.

This means I got to strut into the theater without paying a red cent (courtesy of my fave mag Entertainment Weekly). I waltzed right up to the table, gave them my name, and behold! it was on a list. A list, I tell you! A special list! With my name on it!

Who cares if Jacob and I ended up in the second row with our necks perpendicular to the floor for two solid hours! And who cares if I forgot to buy popcorn! The delight of two free movie tickets and a sense of exclusivity would have satisfied me even three theaters over.

Oh, and the movie was pretty good too. Ok, more than pretty good. It was odd, sensitive, funny, moving, curious ... lots of traits that combined for a most entertaining evening.

Remember as well, you're talking to someone who has never seen the original documentary about these codependent women who create an offbeat, delusional world for themselves at their home in East Hampton. So I went in blind to both story and precedent -- and enjoyed the tale immensely.

Anyway, I don't want to give too much away if you're not familiar with this saga. If you have HBO, catch the film this Saturday at 8 pm. Or Netflix it later. Either way, you'll question just what defines crazy ... and wonder if maybe you should go a little crazier yourself.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Don't fear the crayons

"They’re only crayons. You didn’t fear them in kindergarten, why fear them now?"

That's from Hugh MacLeod, also known as "person I idolize who doesn't know he's a mentor to me but keeps sharing great stuff anyway." And this particular nugget is from Chapter 7 of his new book Ignore Everybody, in which he examines creativity and how to live it out.

But that's not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about the fact that I think I have finally made a critical step forward in my own fear of crayons, aka my creative energy.

First, some historical context:
1983: Julia is born. (In this instance, it was her parents' creativity that got her here.)

1984: Julia's first word is cheese. Not mama, or da-da, but cheese.

1988: Julia writes her first book despite not knowing enough vocabulary. It is the riveting saga of an Indian princess living on the high plains and waiting for her true love. The illustrations are noteworthy only in that Julia draws a buffalo. (It's also evident that Julia's future talents lie in storytelling and not drawing. She has found her right crayons.)

1988-2001: Julia keeps writing. She turns every school assignment into an essay, story, skit, poem, or song. English is her favorite class. And she tells everyone, everywhere, all the time, that she's going to be a writer.

2001: Julia chickens out. Instead of studying creative writing, she studies TV/Radio/Film and Marketing. She never stops to wonder why her screenwriting courses are the happiest hours in her week.

2005: Julia gets a second chance. Her first boss gives her the writing education she always wanted but was too afraid to ask for. With her first job being solely a writing gig, Julia feels her career has been reset, and she digs it.

2008: Julia chickens out again -- that is, until she starts up her blog in earnest and remembers how happy writing makes her.

2009: Julia gets over her fear of failure (for now) and decides to really make a go of it. She embraces the unknown. She commits to writing. She sets goals of getting published. And she puts it all down in a blog post so her readers can hold her to it when if she chickens out again.
Of course, I have questions and fears about all this. Is it possible to be a responsible artist -- in essence, forgo the garret and work twice as hard? How will I keep from overbooking myself and not leaving time to write? What if I get tons of rejections? What if my brother is more famous than I am? What if I'm told I'm not good? And the very scariest scenario: What if I learn I don't love this as much as I thought?

It's pretty damn frightening, pursuing what you feel called to do ... and assuming all the risk that comes with it. But it's also liberating, because you know you're going to enjoy failing more in this pursuit than you enjoy succeeding in others.

So this writer is getting back to basics -- scrap paper, tumbling-out ideas, and a whole new box of crayons. The Crayola 96-count. With the sharpener. Because my dreams deserve only the best.

Photo by 123 look at me

Monday, April 13, 2009

Prayer #61: Roll Away the Stone

I love wearing contacts. I hate wearing my old glasses. So imagine my personal torment when allergies forced me to revert to my high-school pair of four-eyes last Thursday.

Holy Thursday, to be precise. Which meant I had to attend Mass with these nerdy specs on. Which meant they'd itch my face. And make me look 12. And blow my cover as a somewhat cool person.

Not to be outwitted, I removed the offending spectacles the minute I picked a pew. However, considering I can't see a person's face when she's standing right in front of me, not having them on rendered me practically blind. (A small sacrifice to maintain my fashion integrity.) So I "looked" around the church -- at the blurred mosaics, at the dot of the priest, at the smudges in my songbook -- in an attempt to look normal.

A curious thing happened, though, as the service began. I realized my sight didn't matter. I knew the responses; I recited the prayers; I remembered the songs. I did not need to see any of it to experience it. Everything required to celebrate and pray was already within me.

They say seeing is believing, and I don't doubt it. But I learned in that moment that seeing isn't necessarily a prerequisite for believing. For such is faith -- the ability to participate without proof.

Prayer #61: Roll Away the Stone

When they couldn't find You in the tomb, they panicked.

"Why is he gone? Who took him? Where did he go?"

Why, who, where. The same questions I ask for each tomb I encounter in our daily lives, for each dark corner of grief and pain I venture into.

The struggling relationship ... the bad work day ... a night of despair ... a helpless situation ... the search for meaning. Each time I meet them I rush in, expecting to see and feel the sorrow I'm certain is there. But these tombs are empty and echoing, just like the one your followers discovered on Easter morning.

If only I could remember that the mystery which frightens me -- the vanished body, the empty fear -- also consoles me. That each disappearance promises deliverance. And that tombs are nothing but dark rooms with light a mere wall away.

Lord, help me remember all this when the dark is most impenetrable, so my Easter faith stays bright.

Alleluia, Amen!

Photo by Untitled Blue

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Funny Baby Pictures: Cute enough to eat

Because nothing says secular celebration of Easter like a living Peep.

Just don't put her in the microwave.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Seder manual for ones unable to ask

1. Kaddesh: Sanctification
A blessing over wine in honor of the holiday. The wine is drunk, and a second cup is poured.

The "kids" table has three open bottles of wine on it. No little ones here. Just adults of the older/younger, mature/immature variety, though not always in the combinations you assume. The leader opens the bursting binder -- her homemade haggadah -- and begins to remember.

2. Urechatz: Washing
A washing of the hands without a blessing, in preparation for eating the Karpas.

The kitchen sink and one set of hands suffices. The guests buzz. Stomachs growl. We follow along in our bound copies, entranced by the watercolor illustrations. Half at the table know these verses and prayer in two languages, know it by heart. The rest of us listen, lost and admiring.

3. Karpas: Vegetable
A vegetable (usually parsley) is dipped in salt water and eaten. The vegetable symbolizes the lowly origins of the Jewish people; the salt water symbolizes the tears shed as a result of our slavery. Parsley is a good vegetable to use for this purpose, because when you shake off the salt water, it looks like tears.

It tastes like summer garden -- pungent on the tongue. Some take handfuls, other a sprig. (In the modern age, and in America, lowly origins are self-selected, I suppose.) The Jewish people understand salt water heals, be it tears (check), sweat (check), or the Red Sea (double check).

4. Yachatz: Breaking
One of the three matzahs on the table is broken. Part is returned to the pile, the other part is set aside for the afikomen (see below).

The leader points out the lack of young ones. Those of child-bearing age shift in their seats. So the afikomen is not hidden for later discovery, and instead stowed away beneath the chair. The unspoken promise is, we will act surprised anyway.

5. Maggid: The Story
A retelling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt and the first Pesach. This begins with the youngest person asking The Four Questions, a set of questions about the proceedings designed to encourage participation in the seder. The Four Questions are also known as Mah Nishtanah (Why is it different?), which are the first words of the Four Questions. This is often sung. See below.

The maggid is designed to satisfy the needs of four different types of people: the wise one, who wants to know the technical details; the wicked one, who excludes himself (and learns the penalty for doing so); the simple one, who needs to know the basics; and the one who is unable to ask, who doesn't even know enough to know what he needs to know.

At the end of the maggid, a blessing is recited over the second cup of wine and it is drunk.

The re-memories are in full swing, memories of times, places, atrocities, triumphs never and always experienced. You taste the desert's sand and fear. You hear the soldiers' boots clicking at the ghetto doors. Every plague is personal and global. The frogs that rained down are now just funny toys scattered on our table, but the pain of not being allowed to be who you are is still real.

I am unable to ask where we are in our haggadahs. I am lost until I hear a familiar Old Testament phrase I know well from our pulpits. So many familiar words and phrases, but now in a different context, given new heft and significance. It jolts me from parrot to prophet.

Then our hostess asks, "Is that the sound of matzah?"

And we realize the dog has discovered the afikomen.

Now the steps accumulate, punctuated by chewing (from human and dog):

6. Rachtzah: Washing
A second washing of the hands, this time with a blessing, in preparation for eating the matzah.

Again, the kitchen sink, a new set of hands. Cleanliness by proxy.

7. Motzi: Blessing over Grain Products
The ha-motzi blessing, a generic blessing for bread or grain products used as a meal, is recited over the matzah.

The toy frogs fascinate the guests at one end of the table (we won't reveal which one). For no little ones, there's significant play.

8. Matzah: Blessing over Matzah
A blessing specific to matzah is recited, and a bit of matzah is eaten.

Matzah crumbs everywhere. There's no elegant way to divvy up a sheet. So we pass and crack, pass and crack, until 2/3 is in our stomach and 1/3 is on the table. The flour does not seem to be missed.

9. Maror: Bitter Herbs
A blessing is recited over a bitter vegetable (usually raw horseradish; sometimes romaine lettuce), and it is eaten. This symbolizes the bitterness of slavery. The maror is dipped in charoset, a mixture of apples, nuts, cinnamon and wine, which symbolizes the mortar used by the Jews in building during their slavery.

Note that there are two bitter herbs on the seder plate: one labeled Maror and one labeled Chazeret. The one labeled Maror should be used for Maror and the one labeled Chazeret should be used in the Korekh, below.

Everyone's sinuses clear. Those who took too large a spoonful think maybe their desert-wandering ancestors had the better deal.

10. Korekh: The Sandwich
Rabbi Hillel was of the opinion that the maror should be eaten together with matzah and the paschal offering in a sandwich. In his honor, we eat some maror on a piece of matzah, with some charoset.

Hand-eye coordination falters. Historical significance is missed.

11. Shulchan Orekh: Dinner
A festive meal is eaten. There is no particular requirement regarding what to eat at this meal (except, of course, that chametz cannot be eaten). Among Ashkenazic Jews, gefilte fish and matzah ball soup are traditionally eaten at the beginning of the meal. Roast chicken or turkey are common as a main course, as is beef brisket.

The leader rewards our prayer with a feast. Books and bitterness set aside, we relish the only certainty left to a persecuted people -- the fleeting grace of here and now. It wasn't brisket in the past, and it might not be brisket in the future. But for now, the annual dish carries with it recipes, smells, tables, and the understanding that just as it vanishes from the plate, so too will this contentment.

This satisfaction.

This peace.

12. Tzafun: The Afikomen
The piece of matzah set aside earlier is eaten as "desert," the last food of the meal. Different families have different traditions relating to the afikomen. Some have the children hide it, while the parents have to either find it or ransom it back. Others have the parents hide it. The idea is to keep the children awake and attentive throughout the pre-meal proceedings, waiting for this part.

We act surprised. And try to forget that the dog got there first.

13. Barekh: Grace after Meals
The third cup of wine is poured, and birkat ha-mazon (grace after meals) is recited. This is similar to the grace that would be said on any Shabbat. At the end, a blessing is said over the third cup and it is drunk. The fourth cup is poured, including a cup set aside for the prophet Elijah, who is supposed to herald the Messiah, and is supposed to come on Pesach to do this. The door is opened for a while at this point (supposedly for Elijah...)

The dogs scurry to the screen door. For a moment, we are expectant. Can Elijah make his way to a cul de sac? Will he mind that some of us believe the Messiah already came? Will he shake his head and say it's impossible -- after all, where was he this whole time?

The cool night air leaks in. The street is quiet. We don't realize it, but we have held our collective breath.

No footfalls.

We exhale (sigh?) and continue. Maybe next year.

14. Hallel: Praises
Several psalms are recited. A blessing is recited over the last cup of wine and it is drunk.

The guests have lost track of the wine count. The leader compares song notes. The end of the table sings harmony, while the middle listens. I hum where I can and attempt pronunciation.

15. Nirtzah: Closing
A simple statement that the seder has been completed, with a wish that next year, we may celebrate Pesach in Jerusalem (i.e., that the Messiah will come within the next year). This is followed by various hymns and stories.

May we all celebrate next year in this house, with this group, with this theology, with this mayhem. Yet as we push back our chairs and express our thanks, we know it will never quite be like this again.

The bitter herbs and matzah and salty tears and saltier history combine in my bloodstream. I feel tragic and hopeful for no reason. I want to stay at the table, shield myself in its sanctity, draw the other guests in and say out loud, "No! Don't go! Not until Elijah comes."

And I say in my heart: And if he doesn't come ... if I keep my family close ... if I keep eating ... if I keep tradition ... will I keep safe?

But these are questions I am unable to ask. It's time to go, anyway. Tomorrow is a work day, and that leaves no time for the bread to rise.

Seder order and explanation from Judaism 101

A once and future belief system

The liturgical nerd in me is still processing all the beautiful ritual and symbolism of last night's Seder meal (more to come on that later), but I couldn't let Good Friday begin without at least a mention.

As the most somber, sobering day of the Church calendar, Good Friday can be tough to swallow with its stark, funereal tone. I looked back on what I wrote about this day two years ago, and found that I hold the same thoughts and reflections this year -- indeed, every year.

Because for all its grief, Good Friday is also about re-discovery and re-commitment. It takes an active, evolving, and brave faith to absorb the significance and then live it out.

Young Adult Catholics blogger Becky Chabot put it beautifully in her thought-provoking post about Good Friday when she said we are asked to "recognize that suffering often comes out of love and to not be afraid to love, even if it means we’ll suffer."

May we all recognize that today and every day.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

It's Wednesday night, and I'm not in a show

* Our reinterpretation of Iwo Jima.

It hit me at 9 pm tonight: I'm standing in my kitchen. Not onstage, or backstage, or in the dressing room, or in a green room, or in any room other than one I pay rent to stand in.

In short, I'm no longer in a show. And that fact makes me itch.

Yes, I have my evenings back, after a gnarly month of starting a new job, performing five nights out of seven, fitting in family and friends' visits, crushing all chores into one evening per week, and communicating with my roommates solely through email.

But I don't have my newfound friends. You know, the ones who wriggle on the floor to get into dance tights and break into showtunes and hug you in that overly sexed show-person way that makes you feel slightly icky but mostly scintillated.

* The cast and crew of Hexagon 2009.

Worse, I have all these catchy, original lyrics running through my head, but no one to harmonize with. I can now kick my leg to eye-level without injury, but no can-can skirt to highlight the accomplishment. And I can prove I fit into bunny outfits, but now can't wear my work clothes because they're falling off.*

* Seriously, I am forced to safety-pin every pair of pants I own right now. The result: diaper butt.

* The final can-can pose. This is after the 37,000 counts of kicking that led me to not fit in my pants.

Sure, the boys were glad to see me again. But after a couple nights, I can see they're already taking me for granted. I don't understand why they don't laugh or applaud the minute I enter a room. Obviously, we need to have a little chat.

I've tried thinking on the bad times -- like the night the A/C broke and it was 95 degrees in the theater, so we started the show an hour late, which was helpful because the sound was also broken and we had to fix it, and let's not mention the fact that a toilet overflowed in the women's room.

But that was only one night. Out of 23 performances. So I'm back to thinking about the good times -- like all the local celebrities we met in the dressing room, and the free cookies, and the opportunity to feel loved and liked and appreciated every night by friends and strangers alike.

* Garters. Also known as thigh size indicators.

Not to mention that we made people laugh in hard times. That we skewered the very pols and situations causing all the angst. Oh, and that in doing so, we managed to raise 25,000 smackaroos -- in the midst of a recession, at a much smaller theater -- for Rebuilding Together.

Perhaps you see now why I'm less than enthused about having time to try out new recipes.

So, what next? Well, I start the slow process of reclaiming my life. I'll sleep more, eat more, gain more weight, volunteer again, restart voice lessons, return phone calls, and do all those other normal things normal people who don't require constant validation do.*

* Buying a personal bunny outfit does not fall into this category. I don't think, anyway.

And then, in a year, I'll be ready to audition for Hexagon again. And it will begin anew. But for now ...

The end(s).

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

How to write quotes of note

"It's embarrassing," said Julie Leicht, executive director of the Missouri Alliance for Animal Legislation. "We're the meth capital. And we're the leader in puppy mills. Welcome to Missouri."

This quote is provocative. Memorable. Believable. Everything a good quote should be. It's been banging around my head for five hours now.

Why? Because it's REAL, spoken by an actual person with actual authority in an actual AP story. Not an overly edited, processed, manufactured piece of dribble dreamed up by PR flacks in so-pale-it's-transparent imitation of their flesh-and-blood clients.

Exhibit A (identifiers removed to protect the innocent):
"The [] Partnership is pleased to welcome [] as a regional network stretching across the islands of the South Pacific where sustainable tourism is so vital to the future of the small developing island nations," said [Blah di Blah, Director of Blahhing at Blah Inc.].
Exhibit B (from same release):
"Sustainable tourism can continue to be a key economic and social development tool for the Pacific Islands, with meaningful linkages to other productive sectors, such as agriculture and handicrafts," said [Boredy Bored, VP of Boring at Bore Corp.].

Oh. I'm sorry. Those were my nerves being struck. Could you tell?

And thus we arrive at the subject of this week's copywriting post: HOW TO WRITE GOOD QUOTES THAT DON'T MAKE ME WANT TO STICK MY EYES OUT WITH A FORK.

Seriously, people, bad press release quotes are my major pet peeve. They waste space, paper, energy, and my time. Serious sins, one and all.

What's more, nothing exposes an unimaginative writer faster than a quote that uses six three-syllable words in succession and industry jargon so thick you could lay it as grout. So, in my ongoing attempt to make you stronger/faster/wiser, here are some rules of thumb (thumbs?) to keep in mind when crafting PR quotes.

1. Listen to people and the way they talk in real life. Brilliant, I know. Who would have thought that taking down people's actual expressions, turns of phrase, vocab level, cadence, etc. would lead to more authentic statements? Working remotely from your client is no excuse, either. We have phones, blogs, email, Twitter -- and unparalleled access to people's off-the-cuff, natural, concise patterns of speech.

2. Screenwrite your way out of the quote. Imagine your clients as movie characters. They're tied down in a dimly lit bar, surrounded by thugs, their lives hanging in the balance. Is now the best time to say "Clearly, by utilizing the sharp object ensconced in my sleeve, I can procure my own freedom and spring to safety"? No. You'd write this instead: "Look out! I've got a knife!" And while none of your clients' scenarios will ever be this exciting, lending a little drama and color to otherwise dry subjects will win your readers' appreciation.

3. Drop the jargon. Loyal readers know the intense and abiding hatred I have for excessive jargon use, particularly when one's audience is comprised of folks outside one's industry. Inside baseball terms are the fastest route to Hell in a quote, full of bloviation and devoid of meaning. Put words of substance into your client's mouth, and you increase the chances of the readers actually retaining something.

4. Advance the narrative. Do not repeat points you make elsewhere in the piece. At least, do not repeat them verbatim. Refer back/ahead, sure, but build the idea out. Let your client talk about the concept or topic with such excitement, depth, and candor that the audience feels they are privy to an incredible insight or revelation. And if you can't advance the idea ... well, then you've just found a good litmus test for whether you really need a quote.

5. Make your clients sound better and smarter than they are. This, after all, is your job. If your clients can't explain their own ideas, no one will trust or listen to them. My mentor calls this "polishing the turd" -- taking bad ideas and giving them worth and legitimacy. Tough, I know, but one that leads to stronger copy AND stronger client relationships.

And yes, you can quote me on all of the above.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Prayer #60: Hosanna

What does it say about our Easter faith that we bookend a solemn, sorrowful, even scary Holy Week with celebrations?

Prayer #60: Hosanna

The palms belie us.

You enter, exultant, and we wave, leap, stumble over ourselves in excitement, clutching the leaves in our sweaty hands.

We've found, however, that our swaying and shouting blocks the view. Yet we keep it up anyway. Because in truth, looking upon You scares us more than losing sight of You.

This holiest of weeks, grace us with the courage to step out from behind the palms, and face You with the same joy in our hearts that we profess with our lips.

Help us approach You -- you who thirsts for company, yet often stands alone.

Help us talk to You -- you who eschewed godliness so we might be peers.

Help us understand You -- you who wants a quiet conversation, not a parade.

And together, we'll reach a celebration worth having.

To You whose journey has begun again --

Friday, April 03, 2009

Friday Fun: A virtuous cycle

Before you head into your weekend, consider this graphic wisdom from Hugh MacLeod of gapingvoid :

What other virtuous cycles exist in your life?

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Executive pay cuts: A tale of two sectors

Unless you're getting cozy under that rock, you've heard that private holding company AIG received $182 billion in federal aid last month, only to turn around and deliver $165 million in bonuses to its executives.

Now compare that to this story in the Washington Blade that reviewed the salaries of nonprofit executives at GLBT orgs (emphasis is mine):
In submitting their information for the Blade’s survey, at least seven of the 30 organizations indicated that their executive directors had or would soon take a reduction in salary in 2009 due to problems associated with the nation’s economic downturn.

HRC’s [Joe] Solmonese took a voluntary pay cut of 10 percent, lowering his total compensation from $338,400 to $302,200, according to HRC.

Neil Giuliano, executive director of GLAAD, agreed to a $20,000 salary cut in 2009, from $271,034 in 2008 to $251,034, Giuliano told the Blade. He also declined health insurance benefits from the organization. [...]

National Youth Advocacy Coalition disclosed in its survey response that the current 2009 salary of its executive director, Greg Varnum, was $62,000, a reduction from the 2007 salary of his predecessor, which was $92,240.
Now, I recognize it's only 7 orgs out of 30. And GLBT issues represent only one segment of the nonprofit sector. Still, let's consider the greater imbalance these stories represent.

Nonprofit executive compensation already trails for-profit executive compensation. It comes with the territory when you're bootstrapping operations at a donor-supported 501(c)3 so you can help save children, protect women, reverse climate change, etc.

Yet as the economy worsens, what do these nonprofit leaders do? Instead of running for bailout money, they look to themselves and reduce the most personal overhead: their own compensation. Now, I'm not suggesting canonization here, but I admire the gesture, appreciate the symbolism, and abhor anew the fact that AIG execs acted in such greed.

Of course, this leads to bigger discussions about what value we place on which job sectors in our economy, what constitutes fair market value for any executive, and how organizations can creatively ride out the recession without stiffing their staffers ... none of which we'll talk about right now, for fear of writing a novel instead of a blog post.

But we will talk about them soon, I promise, so in the meantime, let me know your thoughts and impressions here about executive pay.

Oh, and just so you know ... I receive $0 in compensation for my role as Blogger-in-Chief at Italian Mother Syndrome. ;)

Photo by woodysworld1778

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Rembrandt in recession? The fate of the arts

If all the world's a stage, then nonprofit arts organizations appear poised for a premature curtain call.

With the recession painting broad red strokes over many patrons' disposable incomes, donor-, sponsor- and audience-supported arts programs around the country are increasingly fearful they won't make their '09 budgets. Worse, tens of thousands of arts organizations have already bit the dust -- a dire harbinger of others' fate as the recession deepens.

So what can a nonprofit arts org do? More than you might think, according to bloggers Katya Andrieson, Allison Fine, Beth Kanter, Brian Reich, and many more. Here's a sampling of the takeaways from their ongoing discussions (links at the bottom), with my analysis thrown in:

* Accept the fact that arts business models must change. Perhaps the answer lies in more performance broadcasting to keep overhead low and ticket sales affordable. Or maybe it's redistricting, so to speak, with smaller troupes fanning out over wider areas. Or having all-volunteer cast and crews. Or maybe it's a return to campfires and cave drawings for a year. The point is, arts don't necessarily need all the structures they have now -- which strikes me as a terrific chance to ...

* Have arts and audience alike contribute to the solution. After all, aren't we talking about one of the most creative sectors in the world? What a powerhouse group -- writers, thinkers, visionaries -- and all are trained to think outside the box. What's more, they have audiences who do the same, and who can also contribute a dose of common sense (as in, "I can't afford your ticket anymore. But if you did this, I could swing it." ). So, since no one solution has risen to the top yet, it's time to commit these group's collective brainpower to finding it.

* Prepare for greater competition. Brian Reich raises the excellent point that many arts groups are providing essentially the same service -- in which case, "shrinking the marketplace" will increase value (and thus, I'd think, make higher ticket prices more palatable). Yes, this still means loss of jobs, shuttering local hubs, and other emotionally tough times. But it's nothing that all other major job sectors aren't going through too, and it might be just the lancing this particular group needs to keep it on its pointe shoes.

* Keep social capital in the black. Arts orgs have long been our torchbearers for culture, and I don't think a recession exempts them from their unique responsibility to keep our creative flames lit. But how to do that? By making their content available and accessible, even if it presents a financial loss in the short term. Because in doing so, they'll satisfy past audiences, cultivate new ones, and position themselves for a profitable renaissance once the economy is on the upswing again.

As both performer and patron, I know what it feels like when an audience's applause thrills you to the core, and when artists send awe-struck shivers down your spine. We can't let such visceral responses go extinct, especially at a time when we need the release and rejuvenation they provide.

So I ask all art organizations -- from Hexagon Theater in DC to Avenue of the Arts in Philly -- transfer your passion for reinvention on the boards to reinvention backstage. Together, we can keep those standing ovations going for years to come.


Blog posts cited:

Allison Fine, A. Fine Blog: Greatest Loss of 2009: Social Capital

Katya Andresen, Nonprofit Marketing Blog: Why are arts orgs and newspapers folding faster than you can say A-I-G?

Beth Kanter, How Nonprofits Can Use Social Media: The Crumbling of Nonprofit Arts Organizations: What models will rise from the ashes?

Miriam Kagan, Generation Y Give: The Economy and Opera: a tragic end or new beginning?

Jocelyn Harmon, Marketing for Nonprofits: Social Media 101 for Arts

Photo by Zamario