Archive for July, 2012

I love to watch a show called What Not To Wear on the TLS Cable Channel.  If the producers weren’t really careful, it could end up being very mean…but instead, the two stars, Stacy and Clinton, plus their makeup and hair stylists, offer a little help to women who don’t know quite how to present themselves to the world in a positive, attractive way.   These women are nominated by their friends and family and when selected, Stacy and Clinton surprise them with an offer to go to New York for a 5,000 shopping spree and if they accept, the package includes sending their current wardrobe to the GoodWill Bin, and some tough love regarding their style choices.  In almost every case, the help turns out to be a heart warming,  positive life change.

In a word, Stacy and Clinton offer advice on:  1) how to select the right clothes for your body type,  2) getting the best hairstyle for the shape of your face, and 3) learning how to wear make up that compliments the skin tone and eye color.  Perhaps these things are considered fluff, but as humans, we do respond to these subtle details.   We like to see people who have it all together and who look happy and confident in their appearance.  It’s usually a reflection of what’s going on inside.

These candidates are generally women who have low esteem; the result of some sort of trauma that’s caused them to hide and sometimes downright disappear behind a bland exterior.   You know the type; stringy hair, no makeup, ill fitting, shapeless clothing, poor posture, no eye contact.  Generally it’s someone who is unable, emotionally, to make the effort to present themselves in the best light.

At some point early in the experience as Stacy and Clinton are evaluating the woman’s appearance, they invariably step into an emotional  minefield as they dig for the reasons behind the candidate’s lack of interest in themselves.  Tears ensue as we learn of traumatic childhoods, abusive husbands, failed relationships – dozens of reasons that have broken the person, beaten them down beyond recognition.  This is handled with kindness and empathy and a nice dash of humor to keep things positive.

Then begins the lovely, joyous rebuilding of the persons’ self image through clothing, make up and hairstyle and a bit of hand holding and cheer leading.  It’s often these things that the candidates haven’t experienced.  You know, we all need a little cheer and some positive reinforcement once in a while!  I invariably cry as I watch their broken spirits begin to heal when they see their new image emerging right in front of their own eyes.

It’s true that what’s on the inside is reflected on the outside.   If you haven’t been there, you can’t imagine how painfully difficult it is for these women to look in the mirror and say, “I matter.  I deserve this.  I’m attractive.”  

Bravo for a sweet little show that is simply doing something nice.   For these women, it is truly life altering.

We were looking forward to a favorite experience – a lovely new to us restaurant – the LaQuinta Baking Company, on the southwest corner of Washington & Highway 111.  Actually, one morning last winter I had a lovely cappuccino and pastry there, outside by their bubbling fountain.  I just hadn’t realized they were a full service restaurant.   

We had an early reservation, and good thing – the place was already full when we arrived, but our table was waiting.   One of our party is a vegetarian, another one has a sugar intolerance, so as a table we are a bit more particular, questioning the server about the preparation of our choices.   As an aside, I have never worked in the restaurant industry for a reason – I do not have  the temperament for it.  However, I fully appreciate how difficult the job is.  I tip well and expect good service, so may I suggest to all those out there who do work in this most difficult industry – please avoid the exasperated look when the customer begins the questioning process, even if it does seem a bit tedious?  We want and sometimes need to know.  Afterall, the customer spends his/her money for the culinary experience and if the server finds this “too much” perhaps said server should find alternative employment.   Agreed?   Good.  Moving on.

So back to our dining experience.  First up was a lovely spinach salad, fresh greens with walnuts and what we thought the menu said would be goat cheese.  Turns out it was bacon.  “Whoops,” the vegetarian says as she tries to signal the waitperson – to no avail.  Okay, we can deal with it.  Hubby was happy to indulge in the extra portion.   When one in our party ordered a mango ice tea, a chorus of “me too” arose when we heard they had our favorite beverage.   “Whoops,” we all said after the first gulp…it was so over the top with sugar that it was impossible to drink.   We tried to signal the waitperson – to no avail.

Two surprises, the bases were loaded. 

With trepidation we awaited our main courses which arrived without fanfare.  I had asked to substitute the Veal Marsala for Piccata since Chicken Piccata was on the menu.  No problem.  Two of our party had Fillet of Sole and Lobster Ravioli, respectively, served with a small portion of scalloped potatoes.  A sampling told me the chef knew what he was doing.  My veal, fried crispy on the outside but still tender, was served over a nice al dente linguine.   All of the portions were exactly right – not meant for a family of four. 

For dessert we opted to share one Neapolitan, which was a generous portion and made to perfection, chilled to facilitate the cutting/eating experience.  Anyone who has ever attempted to eat a Neapolitan knows they can be molto disordinato!  In this case,  it was heavenly and absolutely worth it.  With our coffees and espressos, all was forgiven.

Overall, this restaurant delivered surprisingly good food.  The china and the utensils were institutional, the glassware was plastic, the tables were crowded and covered with white paper and the service was uneven.   Afterall, it is a bakery and if it’s a wonderful pastry you crave with your morning’s coffee, I highly recommend it.  And for dinner, while you won’t get a fine dining experience, you will get delicious  food that is above the ordinary.

My first job was as a lowly public relations assistant at the corporate headquarters of a fortune 500 company which, at that time in the early 70s, was the largest retailer in the world.  That was pretty heady stuff for someone whose formal education had been predominately classical performance.   I needed to work to pay for further vocal studies after determining that my road to the Met was going to be a much longer haul than I had anticipated, so in a true stroke of luck, I landed my first real job in the business world.  I was hooked and never looked back.

My first three tasks were writing assignments:  rewrite all the executive biographies as obituaries (in case one them died), rewrite the histories of our stores, which had all begun as family run department stores at the turn of the century, and write a daily synopsis of current news.  On day one  the VP of Public Affairs (who just happened to be the former editor of the New York Herald Tribune – and my boss) stacked on my cubicle desk:  The Wall Street Journal, Women’s Wear Daily, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Barron’s, Time, Newsweek, Fortune and Forbes – none of which I had ever read.  I was to identify the relevant news items about which I thought our executives should know. 

Believe me, it was more ludicrous to me than it is to you reading it today.   And I was just egotistical and naive (what a deadly combination that is) enough to dive right in despite having absolutely no idea what I was doing.  Undaunted, I gathered up my courage and on a IBM Selectric typewriter, typed up a one sheet annotated summary which was then duplicated and distributed to what we referred to as The Mahogany Row – the executive wing where all the big VPs hung out. 

Can I just tell you that from that day forward, I was consciously grateful for the good fortune of having been educated in a superior school environment.  From my parents I got my basic intelligence but who knows where I found the chutzpah it took to tackle my new job.  My education had been extremely well rounded by teachers who were engaged and engaging.  They cared deeply about  our education and  the basics were hammered into our heads long before we headed off to college.  I also give credit to my home environment which fostered books and culture and very little TV.  It’s no exaggeration that I had worked my way through the twenty-four volumes of my beloved Red Book Encyclopaedia before junior high besides being on a first name basis with the county librarian.  But most important were those dedicated teachers who worked for the Upshur County Board of Education  that put the students above politics. 

I tell you this story to make two points.  First, all that “stuff” I digested during those school years suddenly came into focus.  All that random information that was floating around in my head made sense and with the tools that I developed at that first job I have been able to make sense of life every since.  I learned that with a solid, well-rounded education and good work habits you can figure out most anything and achieve success.  I learned to organize my work with to do lists and time lines; I learned to do the job once, slowly and carefully so I didn’t waste time.  I learned how to work under pressure; how to get answers by doing solid research (what I wouldn’t have given for the Internet back then); and how to hit my deadline with discipline and good humor.

Second, I learned that knowledge is power

Being informed is not just a right – it’s the responsibility of a thinking culture that is free to shape its future

My executives back then knew they had to stay informed and by following their lead I grew to be passionate about information.  We all must stay informed about things that matter – our government,  our community, our ever shrinking world and how that all impacts our lives. 

I get a sinking feeling when I see a television segment  where people on the street are asked random questions about simple things like  “Who was Thomas Jefferson or Alexander Hamilton?”  or “What does the Speaker of the House do?”  or “How many states are there?”  or “How are Senators and Representatives different?”  Wait, that last example is too hard.   It would appear that the folks who are answering these quizzes apparently don’t care about what they don’t know and in my humble opinion, that is a recipe for disaster.   We are sinking fast. 

As George Santayana so aptly put it, “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.” 

I realize that this is one small part of the difficulty we face today, and I don’t know that there are any short term solutions other than simply continuing to be informed and urging others to do the same.  Oh, and speaking out – political correctness be damned. 

So that’s what I’m doing.  Speaking out.   It does no good to be informed if we don’t put the information to good use.  That is our responsibility.

Benbulben Mountain, County Sligo

Ireland personifies the words magical, brooding and windswept.  Every vista was breathtaking, made all the more so by a lashing rain that vanished as quickly as it appeared, leaving behind a shocking panorama of blues and greens that defied my camera’s lens.  It’s impossible to capture the aching loneliness of the moors or the  mystical, misty clouds that shrouded the barren hills and bogs, hinting of faeries and such. 

This is not a country that embraces the whole of the 21st or even the 20th century – the best of the old is preserved while only some of the new is embraced.   Dublin’s modern architecture is right at home amongst the Palladian splendor or stately Georgian houses of the 18th and 19th centuries.  The modern DART rapid rail system, complete with WiFi, speeds past Dickensian row-house neighborhoods reminiscent of Billy Elliot.   It’s a country that is comfortable with contradictions and contrasts. 

There is something important to be said for the national pride that is so apparent in the Irish culture.  For me it’s a plausible explanation for why so many of Irish descent celebrate their traditions long after they have assimilated elsewhere.  Whether or not it’s appreciated is a separate  issue, but credit must be given to a people who have lived for centuries under the harshest conditions and who do not abandon their heritage.  As an example, the British tried in vein to banish the lyrical Gaelic language (which dates back to the 4th century) even going to the extreme of punishment during the 17th and 18th centuries if children spoke Irish at school.  Today efforts encourage its usage which is evident in signage throughout the country. 

Strokestown, County Roscommon

Two museums were standouts.  Yes, museums can be deadly dull, and these two – the National Museum of Country Life in County Mayo and the Famine Museum in County Roscommon, might have been so, had it not been for what I was willing to see with fresh eyes. 

 The Great Irish Potato Famine of the mid 1800s is a vague memory from our history books.  This museum in Strokestown, on the grounds of a typical example of feudalism, brings to life  heart-wrenching examples of how during the mid 1800s, crop failure and starvation impacted 2-4 million tenant-farm families.  Most died while the landlords did very little to help.  This devastating famine marked the beginning of the collapse of the landlord/tenant farmer system, which had existed from the 11th century.    

In America we assume home ownership.  In Ireland and indeed much of the world, it is still very much a privilege of the few.  We forget how very fortunate we are in America, to have the freedom to achieve, based on our efforts, not on an accident of birth. 

Example of Thatched Roofing

The Museum of Country Life is a four level example that proves that ingenuity is indeed the mother of invention.  Imagine living in a world where whatever you need you must create yourself.  No retail stores, no corner markets, few  tradesmen other than the blacksmith and the coppersmith,  no resources except the land, your hands and your creativity.   Imagine the harshest land left barren by glaciers;  clearing a field of its buried rocks with your bare hands; only the most basic tools to dig or cut; no wheelbarrow to haul the rocks away.  Need a basket?  Grow the reeds first and then weave the basket into a shape that will hold the rocks, or the potatoes, or the fish.  Need clothing?  Raise the sheep, gather the wool, spin it on your spinning wheel, then figure out some sort of loom on which to weave the wool into blankets and sweaters.  Need a roof for your stone cottage which you built by hand using the rocks cleared from the field.  Grow the thatch and then figure out how to “weave” the thatch into a waterproof roof that will last five to ten years. 

Home of Lord Mountbatten

It’s simply AMAZING what  humans can do with basic survival instincts.  I’m sure such examples are  found throughout the world, but my visit to Ireland gave me a new appreciation of the indomitable spirit of the Irish people. 

The country is beautiful, the roads are good,  the people are warm and generous, the music is charming, accommodations were luxurious and the food – mouth-wateringly delicious.  What more could you want?  The only negative was finding a wall plug for the electrical adapter — 220 electric you know. 

If you go:  Take the time to know the area you are going to visit, and use a good guide book such as Fodors, as well as engaging local guides such as Slainte Ireland Tours so that your time is well spent.  Our guide James Henry, part of the official Tour Guide Association of Ireland, has an encyclopaedic knowledge of his country, which he enthusiastically shared with us on a private day tour of County Mayo. 

Guide James Henry of Slainte Ireland Tours

During my previous life, (while a resident of Scotland, UK) I spent more than a few harrowing weekends in Belfast, Ireland.  It wasn’t uncommon to return to a previously visited shop or nightclub, only to find the place reduced to a pile of rubble.  And so it was with that thought, that returning to Ireland and the land of  “The Troubles” was never high on my list.  In a heartbeat I could rattle off five other countries that I’d rather visit. 

However, when the opportunity arose for my husband to participate in a two-week golf outing, which included being part of the American team in a tournament,  I did the good-wife-thing and hoped for the best.   First rule of travel:  Don’t hope for the best.  Insure your successful travels with good research.  Become familiar with the area you are visiting.  Leaving things to chance assures you that at least half of your precious time will be wasted backtracking, or discovering that museums are not open on Mondays, or that the distance between locations is not relative to American distances traversed on reliable, straight roads.    

Every country is interesting if you open your mind  and work at not being the typical American who judges all things by American Standards.  That is an exercise in frustration.  In my travels I’ve heard more than a few Americans shouting loudly at the shop clerk “How much is that in real money?”   So I steeled my usually prickly self to work at being tolerant of another country’s cultural complexities. 

Ireland is steeped in history and much of the country remains relatively untouched –  rural and wild.   What the Irish consider the highlights of a particular area, might not be your cup of tea but there are gems and surprises to be found in the nooks and crannies of a country as old as this one is.  However, the pristinely neat and clean country was more than refreshing.  Ecologically mindful, plastic bags and bill boards are almost non-existent,  smoking is banned almost everywhere, and the food was mouth-watering in presentation and delivery.

Our first week was spent on the east coast north of Dublin at the Portmarnock Golf Resort with our room facing the the Irish Sea.   The city of Dublin is full of the most unusual architectural elements, many of which are quite modern such as the Aviva sports arena, which had us gasping with surprise.  Click the link and see what I mean!

More about our trip and our visit to the West Country and the hunting estate called Mt. Falcon.

Sorry that we don’t have enough bandwidth to upload interesting photos…that will have to wait.   But honestly now, who expected any bandwidth at all???

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