Archive for the ‘Community’ Category

The frosting on the cake

October 11, 2017

When I moved to Boston for graduate school 35 years ago, I landed just outside Inman Square. In other words in Rosie’s Bakery Territory. My friend Jane and I would break from our studies to stroll to Rosie’s and drool as we awaited our Chocolate Orgasm or Boom Boom. These were the delectable decisions of distraction. The chocolate sour cream layer cake with the smoothest frosting around was legendary and an event in itself.

My husband and I wanted to feature a Rosie’s cake at our wedding, but we were getting married in New York State, and they advised us that the travel from Cambridge across state lines would not go well for the cake, the frosting in particular.

Now thirty years later, planning our anniversary party, we realized we could indeed serve the San Remo (chocolate and golden layers with raspberry and chocolate frosting in between). Seeking clarification about the size options, I picked up the phone to call. The owner herself answered. Completely not expecting this, I was a bit flustered to find myself addressing a family celebrity. I handled this with my usual cool and collected aplomb.

“Oh wow!” I screamed. “I’m so excited to talk to you!” Mistakenly assuming it was Rosie, the original owner, I blurted out, “We’ve used your baking book for years. It flops open to the chocolate sour cream layers and is totally Jackson Pollack spattered with batter.”

“Ah, as it should be.” I could hear her smile.

“Yes, it is well loved.” Next I launched into the story of how my daughter and her friend at nine years old passionately disputed who made the best chocolate cake, each loyally and confidently declaring her own mom the clear cake maven. It turned out that both moms were diligently following Rosie’s precise (i.e. “set oven to 345 degrees) recipe. I had given her mom the cookbook. Having moved out of easy buying range of the store, the book is an exceptional substitute. The recipes enable the careful follower to duplicate the rich texture and mouth watering flavors from the bakery itself. Patiently hearing me out, she responded, “Oh that’s sweet, such a sweet story.” She also explained that Judy Rosenberg had sold her the business a year ago.

We discussed the various cake size options, the advantages of a sheet cake for ease of serving versus a round cake’s decoration, the double layer versus the single and once I sort out how many people will help us devour the cake I will easily be able to decide which is best.

“So is the book still available?” I asked. “I have given it as a gift so many times. Both of our daughters have their own copies, as do a number of their friends.” We chatted about e-books, and the challenge of having the right number of paperback books on hand. Having published a (non cook)book of my own several years ago, I had ideas about ways to affordably get books on demand. Thrilled to perhaps make a small contribution to getting this vital book out to the public, I sent the link right away.

I considered how many birthday parties over the past thirty years have featured the sour cream chocolate cake, not only for our own family of four, but for my parents, sister and for friends as well. Sometimes with raspberry in the middle, at times with whipped cream, always with colorful decorations, berries, and packed with the delight of sharing moist, tasty cake with people we love. It is impossible to conceive of our lives without the joy that has emanated from this book. The new owner, Galina Laffer, is infusing the business with new energy and the same loving care that characterizes Rosie’s products. What a treat to know that she is as personable and approachable as the Rosie’s creations she represents.

The New world of feedback

September 27, 2017

I have long been a proponent of feedback. Years before my training as an executive coach or social worker, I believed in the importance of letting someone know of my appreciation for a job well done, or if there was a big disconnect between my expectations and whatever job was at hand. It felt like a responsibility, as I know I would want to know if there were some way I was not meeting an agreement, and I love to hear when I’ve got it right. How are people supposed to grow without it?

The feedback I learned in my organizational consulting training was much more about description than our perceptions of “good” or “bad,” so that people could listen and decide for themselves what needed tweaking or a complete do-over. This was a challenge in itself, but an important skill in encouraging someone to evaluate his or her own performance without the clouding overlay of someone else’s judgement.

In the last few years I was at first really pleased at the increase in surveys after some experience —- at the doctor’s office, the car dealer, or retail store. Given my philosophy, I was diligent about taking the time to fill out and mail back these earnest attempts to improve service. However, recently there has been an explosive upsurge in requesting this “feedback,” particularly with the ease of sending email, and resending and resending til it feels like a screaming (but politely worded) demand.

I have become irritable with not only the volume and frequency, but often the length of the freaking surveys, which should be commensurate with the service. When I had my rotator cuff repaired, there were a lot of moving parts (so to speak) to the procedure, and it was extremely important to me and my health. I was happy to answer questions about the various aspects of this treatment.

However, if I’m buying a tee shirt online, I am not willing to profess at length about my experience. I shopped, I bought, I checked out. Yes, I suppose each one of those phases can be parsed and evaluated, but really?! If it were a complicated order, or required customer service to figure out sizing or a color match for a wedding, I might comment.

At a recent oil change, the gentleman who processed my paperwork leaned in confidentially and advised me that I will be receiving an email survey and that it didn’t really count unless he had five star ratings, so would I please consider that. Talk about getting a bee in my bonnet! The service was fine, and everyone was pleasant, but I am not going to be coerced into handing out a five star rating. In fact the time before I had an unusual light on in my car, which took extra time to fix, but they went out of their way to keep me posted and threw in a free oil change because it took so many hours. That’s worth rating, but if we’re supposed to comment on every pack of gum we purchase, or bag of dog food we run in to pick up, we’ll be spending as much time commenting on our experience as living it. Good intentions have gone out of balance.

As I was thinking about writing this a couple of weeks ago, I peered out at the torrential rain and realized that every day but one looked like rain for our upcoming week’s vacation. Determined to enjoy being outdoors in Provence, I started looking for rain boots. Too late even for Amazon Prime, I called LL Bean when I spotted low yellow boots that looked perfect. They did have my size and color there at the store 20 miles away. “Do you need them tonight?” asked the salesperson.

“No, but I need them when we leave tomorrow afternoon,” I replied.

“Well, do you have to come here? Where are you coming from?” I interpreted this question literally, not philosophically and told her where I live and she exclaimed, “I live the next town over, right on the border!”

“Oh you’re right on my bike route!” I blurted out.

“Hey, I’m leaving here in a few minutes. I’ll drop them off at your house.” I protested that I would be out, and she brushed that aside, asking where she could leave them. We completed the purchase over the phone and indeed when I returned home that evening my yellow boots were tucked near the back door. Free delivery. Now that’s what I call exceptional (and completely unexpected) service. And no survey has hit my mailbox, electronic or otherwise. But I will go out of my way to let Bean know that their employee went above and beyond, with grace and good humor. That’s what I call feedback.

Heaven in Patagonia

May 3, 2017

After driving for four hours from El Calafate, Argentina through mile after mile of rolling desert, or steppe, our driver pulls into what appears to be a completely arbitrary turn, although I did notice the Tierra spiral trademark on the sign. The landscape had been dotted with the customary guanaco, with occasional cattle and sheep interspersed.

The driveway leading to the hotel is a circuitous three quarters of a mile with ostrich-like rhea grazing and a grey fox circulating nearby. The fox is small and adorable, almost domestic cat size. We pull up to the entrance which is dramatic in its low impact on the environment. It is a low graceful curve in brown wood, set a hundred yards back from Lake Sarmiento with the jagged snow tipped mountains of Torres del Paine framing the entire view beyond.

The simplicity of the exterior emphasizes the beauty in which it is set, and focuses the eye on what lies ahead, just as a frame highlights what is within it; your eye is not drawn to the frame itself. This homage to the land and the deep respect that is conveyed in every aspect of the design sets one immediately at ease as the mountains and shimmering turquoise lake cast their spell on every viewer.

With its low profile, the expanse of the entryway is startling with its twenty foot ceilings and undulating curve of glass that features once again the lake and mountains. The “living room” area, adjacent to the round bar and dining room beyond create one hundred horizontal feet of window in which to drink in the view. It appears to be the only show in town and every one of the forty rooms has its eyes set on that arresting piece of landscape, as do the infinity pool and jacuzzi at the far end of the second floor where one enters.

The light and variated Lenga wood with which the interior of the hotel is composed creates a warmth that is reflected in the way the staff greets the guests. This includes the general manager who leaves a hand written greeting in the rooms as well as providing a personal tour upon arrival.

It is the most luxurious camp one can imagine with a bevy of excursions designed to meet every hiker’s needs, and staff to help guests navigate a program of hikes depending on how much time and energy one has allotted this paradise.

Meals are included, as there are no restaurants within miles of the hotel, and lunches are packed for all day excursions.

It is all about enjoying this bold, commanding and unforgiving landscape while being swaddled, fed and cared for with a smile.

This rare treat feeds the soul while nourishing the body, my favorite combo for being away. I drank my fill of this delicacy, and though we did a number of the possible hikes, I know that they would be completely different on a different day, with less wind, or more, cloudy, or more sunny. There would be different animals, a different feel to the landscape; it would be hard to get enough. The guides live nearby and spend the season here. Though I imagine it could be isolating, for a few months it is hard to imagine anything more compelling. Put it tops of my list of “possible jobs for a future life.” It’s good to dream.

Yoga on my mind…

December 13, 2016

Although I have practiced mindfulness for over thirty years, I have not instituted an active yoga practice until the last couple of months. For years I have been asserting that yoga would be a great addition to my winter Zumba and dog walking regiment but it took my daughter’s discovery of New England Yoga to get me to the studio.

I was immediately comfortable in the open space with high ceilings and skylights, and even on the occasions when there have been twenty people there I have not felt claustrophobic.

I seem just a tad competitive with myself about being able to do the positions. However, there is no rushing this. One cannot (mercifully) force a split. I cannot even pronounce most of the postures yet, but I know that I will eventually be able to discern a Chattanooga from a chaturanga. I mostly don’t even mind being a beginner. Everyone has aspects that are easier and those that are more challenging. Some can make spectacular pretzels out of their arms, but their legs will not succumb to such a mold. Others can stand on their head quite handily but cannot easily balance on one leg.

It is a relief to have someone else leading the session, making it a place I am responsible for no one but myself. I have caught not a single person smirking, snickering, or most likely even noticing let alone caring whether my palms are flat on the floor. I am certainly too preoccupied with my own efforts to give a hoot about what anyone else is up to.

Each of the instructors is professional and encouraging. He or she might correct a hand or foot position (for which I am grateful) or help me stretch to the next level. I love that some of it is out of reach. It gives me more to look forward and aspire to, even when I am frustrated that I am not there NOW.

On Sundays, Sue Pendleton, the owner, brings Singing Bowls and at the end of the 75 minute session, she induces magical harmonics by running the baton around their edges. Their sounds shimmer and glow, deepening our collective state of rest and meditation, particularly after sweating through the contortions the class requires. Sometimes she will strike the three large gongs at the very end, whose resonance continue to reverberate, fostering the peace that falls over the class. There is a discernible shift that happens as we all settle and let the rest of our lives drift on their own for a little while.

My daughter is surprised that I am hooked. I guess I am too, but I cannot get around the fact that much as I like to bicycle or Zumba my booty through an hour, my body is benefitting from the strength and flexibility that is slowly building from yoga. I have not yet completely coordinated my breath to all the movements, but I can see where this will also serve to sharpen the focus and my practice.

It is all humbling. We support one another by showing up, by doing what we can on any given day and by following the instruction of the teacher whose experience and tone set the course for class. This is an addiction I am happy to pursue. Turns out all those folks across the millennia had some remarkable notions about the body/mind/spirit connection. If only I can follow them.

Indian Hill Orchestra shines in Lincoln’s Legacy

February 26, 2016

I grew up the daughter of a professional musician. My dad played principal oboe in the Hudson Valley Philharmonic Orchestra for many years, as well as in chamber groups at the college where he taught Music Theory, Piano and Jazz. I attended many symphonic concerts growing up, reluctant as I was to give up The Adams Family, or an evening with friends. I took piano lessons, initially from him, and then from my favorite teacher of any subject, Robert Guralnik, who was passionate about music and teaching, and who taught me so much about listening to the melody line while simultaneously producing accompanying chords, arpeggios, or a counterpoint line. It was a place I could expand as much as I wanted or needed, and my musical vocabulary blossomed with age, time and exposure to more music.

People thought I was going into music since I played violin in the orchestra, sang in the choruses and accompanied one of them on piano. I knew that I was not, as I was clear that I lacked the discipline necessary to put in the hours needed to really excel the way musicians need to who thrive professionally. However, my love of music was ignited and has never stopped, getting me to concerts of many genres in many cities. We required our own two daughters to be literate in music, one choosing flute and the other piano as her instrument to learn. How fortunate we were to have Indian Hill just minutes from our home- a place for lessons, to perform, and to hear others play.

This afternoon we had the great pleasure of listening to the Indian Hill Orchestra deliver a powerhouse of a concert which started with William Grant Still’s Poem for Orchestra. This lush orchestral piece with sometimes deliciously off center harmony gripped from the beginning and flowed over the audience in a giant wave of multicolored beauty. It was followed by John Williams’ masterful suite from the movie Lincoln and then Kristin Renee Young joined the stage to sing Pamina’s Aria from Mozart’s The Magic Flute and then after intermission the tender Previn’s Take My Mother Home, from Honey and Rue. She followed this with a virtuoso performance of four spirituals and the performance ended with Deval Patrick narrating Copland’s Lincoln Portrait. Taken as a whole, this was a most satisfying and filling afternoon. Truly I felt a kinship with everyone in that hall, as we had all taken in the language of hope, of toil, of respect and journey and love of humankind. It felt as though the concert ended in a sunrise, with thoughts of what is to come, and what we deserve and choose to be for one another.

I am grateful to have this professional and dedicated resource right here, literally in our backyard. There is no replacement for the grandness of music produced artfully and passionately by a symphony orchestra. The endless combinations of string, brass, woodwind and percussion, with solos from many of the wind and brass instruments created a palate so broad, yet responsive to the thin band held by Master conductor Bruce Hangen.
The attentiveness of the orchestra itself was matched by that of the audience as we sat spellbound by the intent and intensity of the messages being delivered as to leave us breathless and on our feet.

I will find out how I can listen to this music again, but a recording cannot match the electricity of a live performance where there is interaction between performers and listeners. I am just happy to have been among them.

Death is not convenient

January 29, 2016

Death is not convenient. It does not wait, tarry, ask permission, or discriminate against age, race or gender. The place and time are a secret agreement with every person and are revealed in its own time, in ways dramatic and quiet, public and private, violent and peaceful.

When I learned of the death of my childhood friend’s father, I was saddened for him and his brothers and their families. I was coming off a long week’s work with meetings after work on Monday and Tuesday, a day long out of town conference on Wednesday and a ten hour workday on Thursday. So when I learned Friday morning about Herb’s passing, and the service on Sunday, I did not immediately assume I was going. It was over three hours away, and I couldn’t imagine it. Even though Herb was 91, it was a surprise for them, as he had been in fine health, exercising regularly, and still living at home.

By Saturday morning, however, with a more typical day on Friday, I couldn’t imagine missing it. This was the husband of my mother’s partner with whom she ran a school for 25 years. Their son, Seth and I were founding (and dominating) students at age three, and I had spent countless hours at their house growing up. We laid out under the stars, filmed movies riding their St. Bernard, or in pretend cars on their long, steep, winding driveway. We played the board game Shenanigans by the hour and wolfed down lunches Shirley cooked up before running outside again. This was my second home and it has become a museum for the family, displaying photographs by my friend who became an internationally renown photographer, paintings by his older brother and family photos of the past fifty years.

It was the end of an era for me, but mostly for the three sons who stood together as each spoke about the dedication and steady influence of their father who I didn’t know as well. Their arms on each other’s shoulders, they were a living representation of that steadiness and of the respect and love that infused their relationships.

The link to the future was evidenced in their children, ranging in age from 25 to 3, and as I watched them host a meal afterward in that historic home built in 1881, I thought about the joining links from parent to child, parent to child. Herb’s death marks a passage for them and others, but they will navigate this wave with the connection to each other, and perhaps the next time they collect from the corners of the United States will be a celebration: a graduation, a wedding or a birthday.

What will become of the seventeen room house that I remember as the most intimidating place to play hide and seek I could imagine? None of them live near there now. They are all ensconced in their lives in California or Florida.

As time warps, creating the topsy turvy disorientation following the death of a close and beloved family member I wish them time to sit with their thoughts, with the fullness of their feelings, and allow the length and breadth of their memories to float forward. May the waves of joy of a long life well lived waft in, smoothing the tearful bumps that will inevitably surface as well. Their straightforward relationships mean a deep wound that will heal cleanly with time. May this first holiday time bring some welcome distraction, if not quite yet the start of new traditions as they move forward in this next stage of life.

The joy of leaf blowing

November 23, 2014

I don’t believe that my husband was intentionally keeping me away from our leaf blower. Quite the opposite, in fact. I’m sure he would have been thrilled had I woken up one weekend morning asking whether it was gassed up and ready for use. In the division of labor that had been in effect regarding yard work, he was Leaf Blower Guy and I was Rake and Drag the Tarp-full to the Woods Woman.

This year, however, he is shoulder deep in our kitchen renovation, thereby leaving the task of leaf removal to me. Last weekend being a quintessential autumn weekend, I asked where to find the blower. He dropped what he was doing and promised to get it ready. A few minutes later he reappeared peeling off layers of clothing and muttering under his breath about some hose that had come loose, dousing him in gasoline. It was not a straightforward fix.

Undaunted, I headed out with the rake and my best whistling tunes. Our neighbor spied me and my slow progress against the tide of leaves in our yard, and offered up his industrial strength leaf blower. He showed me how to control the strength of the blast, and how to refill it, and helped me strap it over my shoulders. I was off! Hearing the noise, within minutes my husband appeared, thinking I had decided to use our own blower, unheeding of the fact that I would reek of eau de gas. He burst out laughing when he saw me, declaring that I had a huge ear splitting grin on my face.

I was not aware of this; I was just amazed at the power at my fingertips. Like a magic wand, each way I pointed it, the leaves would dance their way toward the spot. How incredibly satisfying. The blower would have relocated chipmunks and squirrels with no problem, but fortunately there were none in my path.

As I wove my way around the yard, creating piles to be carried off later, or sending streams of leaves into adjacent woods, I realized I had found my new vocation. I could rent myself out as a leaf blower and do this all day for weeks. Hours of delight with such tangible results.

Although the blower could remove layers of moss, create divots, or worse, one thing it did not budge, I realized, was bear scat. It took a moment to realize what this dense substance was, but no other animal around was large enough to leave gifts like this in our yard. Could the afternoon get any better? Evidence of our bear friend decorated several sites on the grass, thereby disproving the adage about where a bear, well, you know, eliminates.

I was out until night descended, reluctant to give up my fun, although comforted by knowing I would get another crack at it the next day. After first raking and then spending a happy hour blowing off other work on Sunday, I ran out of gas and returned the tool to our neighbor. Saying goodbye to my new buddy, I felt some releaf about what I had accomplished. And I could dream of new ballets to choreograph in red, yellow and orange with the magic of the leaf blower.

Meg Stafford can be reached looking at catalogues of yard tools at megstaf@aim.com

Not Standing on Ceremony

September 29, 2014

Weddings are always a reflection of the people starring in the ritual- large or small, formal or casual, with varying emphasis on music, food and presence of a religious tone. The wedding we attended on Saturday at the Crane Estate in Ipswich was no exception. What did take me completely by surprise, however, was the way in which the ceremony was conducted.

The bride and groom were the daughter of the Vice President and the son of the President of the company where my husband has worked for 22 years. They’re both close to 30, and everything about the wedding was driven by their preferences, their choices.

“Uncle” (at 80, actually the groom’s great uncle) became licensed to preside, and anyone connected with the company knew how this translated. For the many (among 400 guests) who were not so well acquainted with Uncle’s charms, what unfolded was nothing short of mind blowing.

Uncle’s demeanor was that of someone hosting perhaps a family reunion cruise ship talent show; he was informal, familiar, telling stories about the couple’s families, the company, letting us know when he was tired and would like to sit. In the middle of one story it occurred to him that he should sing a song. Impromptu, in a lovely baritone, he began, but after a few lines, could not remember the words. He asked for assistance when he lost his place in the program, and was happy to receive help about the timing of inviting the two people to do readings to take the mic. They each spoke for a minute or two, and the couple exchanged vows that they had written. In the middle of the marital pronouncement, he interrupted himself to announce that he remembered the words to the song. Our eyes popped imagining a digression at this point, but he refrained from singing a refrain.

We laughed, we looked uncomfortable, we dropped our jaws in disbelief at what we were witnessing. The two families, though, were clearly loving it, comfortable, welcoming. As my husband pointed out repeatedly, he is a known raconteur, and this was a conscious and deliberate choice.

The couple had invited a level of personalness and humor to what, judging by the storybook cover, had appeared to be a formal occasion. I had read too much into the grandeur of the Great House set atop 2,000 acres that rolled down to the sea.

They knew that they were getting 45 minutes of stand-up, delivered with love from someone they hold dear. They were confident that no matter where the service wandered, it was based in the heart, and would end with a legal and delighted pronouncement of their status as husband and wife. The rest of us were honored to be extras in the movie of their creation.

Meg Stafford can be reached at megstaf@aim.com

The More Things Change….

June 8, 2014

I’m someone who likes change. I enjoy variety in my food, in my work outs, in the music I listen to, the roads I take to different places, in my wardrobe, where I vacation, even what I choose to write about. Why then, was it such a blow to receive the news that the pet store that has been in town for 20 years (exactly as long as I have!) is closing its doors at the end of the month?

 

It is not just that I like to support small family run businesses, although that, too, is true. It is not simply that they carry the type of dog and cat food that our animals consume, or that they have the best greeting cards around. Certainly, it is not the $10 I save when I fill my punch card, and clearly I will be able to find pet products elsewhere.

 

But will I find the same friendliness, the willingness to listen to my latest lament about our most recent contact with the emergency vet, or the triumph of coming through what appeared to be the demise but turned into the recovery of our feline super pet? Will the next place offer to carry the 50 pounds of Black Oil birdseed, but be willing to let me carry 40 pounds of dog food if I state that it is my preference? I suppose they will be willing to dispense advice about cat litter, thunder shirts, and the difference between having hamsters or gerbils as pets.

 

What I have come to realize is that as important a role as variety plays in my everyday life, when it comes to people, it is the continuity and the relationships that I value. I love going to MY bank, MY salon and MY supermarket. To be fair, I do sometimes mix it up in the banking and shopping departments, but still there is home base.

 

I understand the reasoning, although that, too, makes me unhappy. That larger chains are pushing out the smaller, more personal stores makes me most displeased. Price and efficiency do not hold a candle to personal relationship.

 

Even the characters who everyone knew about town, walking the streets in all weather, even those people held a place in my heart. Though I had no direct interaction with them, I mourned their passing, because they were our neighbors, our fellow travelers on the block, a part of daily living.

 

It is a combination of needing the ongoing thread and connection with people that I find so grounding and joy giving that supports my fascination with difference and variety in so many other facets of my life. That, and the fact that (surprise!) I like to choose the changes, not have them happen to me willy nilly. We are unbothered by loud banging noises if we are the ones making the noise, but are incredibly irked by someone else making loud (and unpredictable) sounds. So, too, it is with change. If I choose the change, I’m all good. If it is someone else’s idea, I do not necessarily endorse it.

 

I suppose if there is nothing I can do to stem the flow of others’ choices, I must accept that this part of my world will shift at others’ behest. I can only hope to see the people from the pet store about town, or support their next venture, which with any luck, will become part of the evolving fabric of MY town.