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Archive for June, 2010

I can not remember exactly when it was that I first went fishing.  We had gone to visit my mother’s aunt and uncle, who lived on a farm in rural New York, in the Neversink River Valley.  Aunt Laura and Uncle Arthur were folks who lived simply, feeding deer by hand as they came to the farm house through the meadows.  Arthur had made copper still moonshine years earlier with his brother, Willard (we still have a little in a large jug) and blueberry bushes were everywhere, providing a sweet summertime treat (and an activity to keep me busy) during my visits.

But it was that first fishing trip that has stayed indelibly in my mind.  Arthur and Laura had a small lake on their property, as I recall, and one day Uncle Arthur, my dad and I went off fishing.  Arthur had a cigar box in which he kept hooks and bobbers, and we dug some worms (which I have always found intriguing – don’t ask me why) for bait.  We took bamboo poles, got into the boat, and rowed out into the lake.  Someone baited the hook and handed the pole to me, and I practiced throwing it into the water, and then waiting.  Not very patiently.  My dad explained that fishing takes patience.  So we sat, and Dad and Uncle Arthur talked.  I watched that bobber like a hawk.  Not much happened for a long, long time.

Then, I felt a little tug, followed by a larger one.  I thought I had something, but the hook had become stuck in the muck on the bottom of the lake. We tried again.  Another tug, and more persistent this time.  Uncle Arthur helped me jerk the pole a little, and sure enough, up came a catfish!  This was so exciting to me – I had to try again.  We spent the next few hours fishing and pulled up some sunfish and a few more catfish.  When we were done, we rowed back to shore, carried the fish to the house, and although I don’t remember this part, I imagine they got cooked for supper.  The sure thing is that I, too, had become hooked on fishing.

Years later, I lived in Stony Creek, CT, a part of Branford that, despite some pretty fancy real estate, feels like a small Maine community that got dropped into Long Island Sound.  I’d take my fishing pole — I had acquired several by this time — and go out of Branford or East Haven on a boat owned by the radio station for which I worked.  While doing occasional boating reports was my penance for hitching a ride on the station’s boat out into the water, it was a pretty small price to pay for a day of sunning, picknicking, and occasionally hooking something.

Even better were the days spent on the dock in Stony Creek.  It was the best place to catch up on the local news, as I watched the comings and goings of fishermen, folks taking an excursion out to the Thimble Islands, or people responding to an emergency.  I remember well the time when a bunch of men jumped in their boats to go out to Governor’s Island, where part of cartoonist Garry Trudeau’s roof had fallen in — the day before he was to marry Jane Pauley.  The residents responded to the emergency, and the wedding went off as planned.

My favorite catch off the Stony Creek dock was the baby blues that ran in August – small and not too fishy.  My uncle Irv, a physician, who also loved to fish, had taught me how to clean them, and without much ado and a little butter and lemon, I had a fabulous summer dinner.

But saying you’ve gone fishing is also a metaphor, of course, for vacationing…and it could be anywhere.  That’s what I’ll be doing, starting this weekend.  I’ll head to Rye Harbor, then out to the Isles of Shoals and Star Island.  I’ve fished in Gosport Harbor many times (mixed vegetables make fabulous chum to attract the pollack and flounder that one most often finds there) and I may or may not put a line in the water.  But I will let go, relax, and — at least emotionally — go fishin’.  I hope you have the same opportunity in the coming week.

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This may be known as the key week where highly visible officials in business and government took themselves down by opening their mouths and inserting both their feet, or by managing to be somewhere they shouldn’t have been, all the while forgetting that someone might actually be noticing.

First, there was Tony Hayward, BP’s CEO.  He’s made a number of gaffes since the Gulf oil disaster began, including this one:  “We’re sorry for the massive disruption [the oil spill has] caused … There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do, I’d like my life back.”  Joining the ‘pants on fire’ club, Hayward later asserted, “There are no plumes” (of oil, under the water)…only what’s floating on top.

Then there’s the little matter of the yacht race Hayward attended over the weekend, showing empathy once more for the “small people” on the Gulf Coast that his boss, BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg, has lifted up so sensitively.  Is it a surprise, then, that a speech Hayward was to give for a gathering of the World National Oil Companies Congress in London was delivered by Haward’s chief of staff?  Hayward is now more or less in hiding, and we’re all the better for it.

And, of course, there’s General Stanley McChrystal, the top US commander in Afghanistan, who’s come out in Rolling Stone criticizing the “wimps in the White House,” including the President and Vice President.  He’ll be explaining himself to Obama today, and I’m betting that we’ll be hearing from Robert Gibbs by late afternoon that McChrystal’s resignation has been accepted.

I have spent a fair amount of time over the course of my career helping to sort out institutional and individual responses to less-than-favorable publicity.  I have studied at the knee of a number of brilliant communication strategists, most notably Helio Fred Garcia, who reminds us that the media are looking for five key elements in a story.  They are conflict, contradiction, controversy, colorful language, and a cast of characters.  Given the connection of the rubric to almost all ‘juicy’ stories, you would think that officials – whether they are in corporate, government, or non-profit settings — would ‘get it’ and think before they open their mouths…even when (as, apparently, is the case with Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings) the reporter gets stuck with you for nearly a month.

A former colleague of mine, preparing to work with a congregation that had more or less self-destructed out of lack of planning and forethought, said that the first thing she was going to ask them when she saw them was, “Now what was going on in your mind when you said that?”  The challenge — and it does seem to be one, given the large number of communication disasters witnessed recently that have been brought on by people in very high places — is to have a thought before you open your mouth, not after.

Why is this such a challenge?  People are motivated, by the urgency of the media cycle and the irresistible urge to talk about what’s really on their minds, to say something to the press.  Lawyers often caution witnesses, in preparation for testimony, to not volunteer information.  Just answer the question, they say.  Keep it simple.  The same thing is true for interviews.  Remember the story you want to get out there.  Don’t offer what isn’t asked for.  Stay focused on message.  Remember your talking points, and remember that people will be watching, and listening, and reading.  And resist the urge to run your mouth in order to be a celebrity or a pundit.

McChrystal, Hayward, and others remind us, vividly, to think before talking, to remember that wherever you go, there might be a microphone or a camera waiting.  Forgetting this puts public officials in jeopardy, and bad things can happen:   when you open your mouth, for instance, you might find that your feet are in the way.

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If life had unfolded the way it has for the last twenty-three years, I would now be en route to the site of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly, getting a crew of fifteen or so volunteers ready to report, blog, video record, produce podcasts, and photograph this annual conference.  But since I was laid off in March, things are different this year.

Mostly I’m finding that I don’t mind the thought of missing GA — at least, not too much.  I will be sorry to miss the presentation of the Association’s Award for Distinguished Service to the Cause of Unitarian Universalism to a good friend; I am sorry I won’t be on the plenary floor for what promises to be a really interesting debate on whether to move the 2012 General Assembly from Phoenix to another location.  And God knows, I will miss the friends and colleagues I’ve connected with all these years.

On the other hand, I don’t mind the break:  I have had a delightful spring, filled with planting my garden (and now, beginning to harvest), engaging in yoga at a level far deeper than before, re-connecting with friends, blogging (yes, this blog), and finding out what the rhythm of my life is like when it’s not driven by very demanding and pressing deadlines and complaints.  This sabbatical has been a real gift and I am grateful to my core.  I feel like I have gotten a part of my life back.

And this weekend will bring something else I haven’t had in four years:  a trip to the Isles of Shoals and Star Island, for a full week of vacation.  The last time my husband and I were able to attend a full week of the Star Island conference we are most connected to, was 2006.  Since then, the General Assembly schedule and the island conference schedule have not agreed, and Ben and I have had to send our daughter out to the island with friends, and content ourselves with a short half of a week in which to try and relax and rejuvenate.  Not this year.

So on Saturday morning, we’ll get on a boat with friends, bring a gourmet picnic with us, and get ready for a wonderful, music-filled week in the place I love best in all the world.  Ben and I met on Star when we were four years old, and we have raised our children on this island as well.  Our daughter, Emily, has worked on Star for many summers, as Ben and I did when we were young adults.  Our daughter, Abby, looks forward to the time – in just a couple of years — when she, too, will be old enough to join the summer staff and experience Star from the ‘inside,’ for a whole summer.  We have to content ourselves with this one precious week, and a long weekend or two through the rest of the summer and fall.

Much has been written about Star Island, by famous writers and poets, and ‘just folks’ who fall in love with the place.  For me, there is something remarkable that happens about ten minutes after the boat I’m on leaves the harbor headed for Star:  the mainland releases its grasp, the news headlines and concerns of the world fade away.  The cold, crisp air fills my lungs.  My hair gets tangled in the wind, the salt spray mists my clothes.  And I realize that I am there, in the now, on the sea, and it is all that I care about.  Docking at Star, I walk up the path to the old hotel, past the flowers and the flagpole that I see with the eyes of the child I was…it is all the same now as it was then.  The bell on the long piazza rings to announce events of the day, the voices of children and adults drift in and out on the breeze, there are no cars or TV’s or billboards.  And, seated in a rocking chair or on the rocks themselves, I look out.  Across Gosport Harbor, I watch the sailboats slip in and out of port, the rowboats moving as folks explore the coves of Smuttynose Island across the way. Life has slowed like heartbeats that calm after a half-hour of meditation.

I want no more than a Lime Rickey, a conversation with Ben or a friend I’ve known since childhood, back on the island with their family as am I.  Life moves at a completely different pace here.  It is all very, very simple and very, very good.

This is Island Mind…a time to reclaim the calm and peace and beauty that lives mostly in our imaginations, but too rarely in reality.  Others find this bliss in different places:  mountain tops, canyons at sunset, fishing on a placid lake.  For me, Star is the place.  I yearn for my island mind, which sits, somewhere inside me, waiting for its release.  And I will, once more, be carried away.

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Looking for more about food?  Visit Deb Weiner’s catering company — named, of course, The Delicious Dish!

Years ago, in Connecticut, I went through a period where I was underemployed.  In addition to being a radio talk show host and a freelance arts fundraising consultant and events producer, I decided to diversify.  First, I started working with friends who had opened a flower shop in New Haven.  I had always had a flair and a passion for flower arranging, and here were friends who needed help.  I learned about the proper way to cut stems, take the ‘work leaves’ off roses, names of things like lisianthus and tuberose and bear grass.  I made lovely arrangements and bouquets for folks;  I had a great time.

Then I decided to branch out a little more.  Another friend was starting a catering business out of her little gourmet store.  She needed some extra help, so I came in and started making things.  First, buckets of fruit salad and fruit skewers.  Then, palmiers, chicken almond salad, wild rice salads, cookies, and then some of my own ideas.  It was fun — but not all the time.  We started doing events.  I enjoyed making the harvest table displays out of veggies and dips and fruits, and the charcuterie and cheese tables, featuring different kinds of baked bries and more pates than I had ever known of before.  But fighting the drunk party-goers who positioned themselves right outside the kitchen door at a party so that they could snatch handfulls (I am not kidding) of hot hors d’oeuvres — not so much.

The most challenging gig was a wedding reception which took place at a home, on a wickedly hot and humid Connecticut day in August. Not only was there no air conditioning, the kitchen was about the size of a postage stamp…and there were about fifteen stairs going down out of the kitchen to get to the yard where the wedding reception was taking place.  Back and forth the wait staff went, schlepping trays of hors d’oeuvres and bowls of salads and grilled tenderloins.  The mother of the bride wouldn’t stay out of the kitchen, the circuits blew from our convection ovens, and it was so hot that the small chocolate mousse balls we had on plates as a ‘before the cake is cut’ treat, melted in the heat.  I remember coming home, where the air conditioners were blasting, and dropping one item of sweaty clothing after another, as I walked like a zombie toward the shower…where I stayed for a very long time.

Still, it was fun to produce good food that people enjoyed, and so I kept it up.  After I moved to Massachusetts, I would do occasional gigs for friends, or to pick up a little extra money at holiday or vacation time, and I took to ‘selling myself’ at our annual church auction — for a respectable fee, of course. I didn’t have a name for my little company, though, until I saw the Saturday Night Live skit about the two NPR reporters who have a food show.  This was the famous interview with Alec Baldwin as Pete Schweddy which had me on the floor crying with laughter.  That was it:  I would call my company “The Delicious Dish,” the name of the NPR show in the skit.

Since The Delicious Dish has started, I’ve done a number of engagements over the years, and I continue today.  I’ve catered parties for 100, cocktail parties for 20, surprise birthday events, and more.  They’re fun, creative, and a great way for me to share some of the recipes I’ve developed with others.  Some of you have read my rant about bad food, cheap.  What I enjoy is making good food, at reasonable prices, knowing that others appreciate it.

I view catering as part of my portfolio of other interests…it’s not the main thing that I do, but something I enjoy, that uses my creativity, and that I do pretty darned well.  When the local produce comes in and my garden starts to ramp up, I start thinking:  what could I make out of that item that people would enjoy?  So if you have an event coming up, you might want to make a date with The Delicious Dish.  I hear she’s great at a party!

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Being American

This morning’s news brought the story of a Harvard student who was born in Mexico, left the country at age 4, and has been raised in the United States.  He remembers nothing of his former country; his mother lives in San Antonio.  While traveling recently Eric Balderas lost his Mexican passport and was detained at the airport.  A TSA (Transportation Safety Administration) search turned up his Mexican citizenship and his illegal status.  Next month he is to go before an immigration judge who will determine whether he will be deported.  He will be represented by Harvard Law School attorneys and, although he says “my spirit has been broken,” he hopes to be allowed to remain in the US and at Harvard.

My grandparents, Isidore Weiner and Tillie Rosen Weiner, came to this country on ships through Ellis Island.  They landed in the late 1800’s, connected with cousins who had come a few years earlier, and started life in America on the lower East Side, where Isidore was a tailor.  Although I do not know for sure, I feel certain that neither Isidore nor Tillie had passports — they scraped up money from their families to get on a boat after leaving their homes in Russia, traveled to Ellis Island, and proceeded with the arranged marriage that their parents had set up in their homeland.  They scratched out a life at or just above the poverty line, in Manhattan, later in Beacon, and then in Newburgh, New York.

Their six children worked hard.  Josie, the eldest, was a housewife and mother whose husband was a brakeman on a streetcar.  Morris (or Maurice, as he was later known) opened a haberdashery, married and had two children, and later, his father was employed there as the resident tailor.  Freda opened a five and dime store (a “Ben Franklin” store) in Goshen with her husband, Arnold, and had one daughter. Lewis (later known as Louis) was an itinerant businessman (sometimes working for his brothers), who married (twice).  He and his wife had no children although they became foster parents to two girls.  Irving was the first of his siblings to not only graduate from high school but go to college.  He worked in various jobs to earn enough money for medical school – sometimes having to drop out of college for as much as a year at a time to build up enough cash to go back to school – and became a highly respected general practice physician in Newburgh.  He married and had one child.  And then there was the youngest, Oscar, my father.  Oscar worked as a button-marker and at other hourly-wage jobs until he had enough money to go to college (after Irv had finished medical school).  He became a teacher and then (after he earned a Master’s in Social Work) a social worker, married and had one child – me.

All the members of the Weiner family worked to send Irv, and then Oscar, to school; the fact that these brothers earned college degrees was a huge source of pride for all the family.  All worked to help support their parents when infirmities struck.  All had deep pride in being American.  My father remembers his father telling him, “You shall always vote for the star” — the symbol, at the time, for the Democratic party.  This family believed in the American dream, even if they were near the bottom of the economic ladder.  They loved their country and the promise that was extended to all who came here.  And, of course, had the doors of Ellis Island not been open, I would not be writing this post.

How is it that the tides have turned so dramatically?  Have we really become a country so focused on scarcity (“I want what’s mine and you don’t get any”) that we have lost sight of the dreams my ancestors held when they came to our shores more than 100 years ago?  Are we hiding behind the threat of terrorism, or the bureaucracy of laws meant to exclude people, as a way of protecting our self-interest?

Eric Balderas has, according to Harvard officials, already shown his potential to perform admirably in the rigorous Harvard academic community.  And some who are supporting the Balderas case seek to promote the proposed DREAM Act – a proposed federal bill supported by Sens. Orin Hatch and Dick Durbin –  that would allow illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship via college enrollment or military service.  Surely Eric Balderas is not the enemy.

In another part of my life, I’m part of Revels Repertory Company, the touring and educational wing of Revels, Inc., which brings music, theatre, and dance productions to schools and organizations throughout New England.  One of the shows we offer is “An American Journey,” a look at the American immigration experience in the late 1800’s/early 1900’s.  Several years ago, we had the thrill of performing that show in the Great Hall at Ellis Island.  As I stood there costumed in my immigrant’s garb, in front of a huge photograph of people who had been welcomed to America in that hall, I looked out the window.  There I could see the lady with the lamp, and I realized that this might have been what my grandparents saw when they first arrived.

I never got to meet Isidore and Tillie Weiner — they both had died by the time I was born.  But I was flooded with their spirit that day at Ellis Island, as I am now.  They came here in search of a better life, and this country opened its doors.  Eric Balderas came, with his mother, years ago as she, too, hoped to embrace the promise of America.

Being American should stand for something:  for affirmation of the potential we all hold to contribute to the melting pot-greatness that built this country, and that continues to feed it.  The lady with the lamp remains at the mouth of the harbor, and so, too, should the promises she offered so many, more than a century ago.

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The news cycles have been filled with debates about feminism in recent days.  What is a feminist?  Does Sarah Palin qualify?  How about Carly Fiorina?  Is there a glass ceiling any more?  What are women fighting for?  On and on go the discussions.

At the risk of putting myself into a niche, let me say that I came of age after “The Feminine Mystique” had been published, and was always led to believe that I could pretty much be anything I wanted to be.  On the other hand, I had the misfortune of finding that, during my first  job with the Hartford Stage Company, I was groped by a jerk who I had stopped to ask directions from, and dismissed by an arrogant middle-aged managing director who was overheard to say, “I don’t want any stupid little girls working for me.”  So much for entry-level positions and on the job learning experiences.

I have worked hard to achieve goals throughout my career and have been rewarded by awards and promotions.  I have never felt the need to join the chorus of women who are angry at men for the perceived advantages they have in the job market or the world — I found that the doors I wanted to walk through were open to me.  And since becoming a mother, I’ve tried to instill in my daughters the belief that the world is similarly open to them and that, if they work hard, stay focused, and are motivated, anything is possible.

So over the last eighteen months I’ve been somewhat mystified as I watch Sarah Palin and the many reactions she stirs up.  On the one hand, Palin’s politics and conservatism apall me.  Sometimes I can not believe what comes out of her mouth, nor can I believe how stupid her handlers and communication consultants have been in preparing her for public remarks or photo shots (who can forget the interview in front of the turkey slaughtering operation just before Thanksgiving?)  On the other hand, she and her operatives have been very smart in picking political races and locations for her to show up for.  She’s been speaking before crowds who are excited to see her, and like ’em or not, she’s endorsed some winners.  I have to believe that her appearances and endorsements are going to help provide the basis for another political run in the near future.

Palin sure isn’t my kind of feminist, but I wouldn’t ever exclude her from wearing that label.  She’s worked hard to develop her career while parenting her children, and like her or not, she’s certainly helped elevate the visibility of women in politics.  Then there’s the politicians in California.  Meg Whitman, who will run for Governor against the ubiquitous Jerry Brown, has reportedly sunk more than $60 million of her own fortune into the campaign — earnings that came from her founding and development of the online auction site eBay.  While there have been complaints about how much money Whitman has spent (I gasp to think of how many people could have received health care for that money, or how much economic subsidy could have gone to unemployed fishermen and women on the Gulf Coast, for instance) the fact is, she worked hard to earn it, and it’s her right to spend it as she chooses.  And more power to her.

I have more trouble with Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO who will face off against Barbara Boxer for Senator from California, who lately looks like a catty doofus.  Ms. Fiorina, who dropped $8 million or so in her primary battle, joins the “please send the communication consultants over” club, for having sat there prior to a TV interview while she offered opinions on Boxer’s hair and other big topics through an open mic.  Please, could you do a little better than this as you move through your campaign appearances, Ms. Fiorina?

Nevertheless, it seems to me that Palin and Whitman, and even Fiorina, get to wear the feminist label, even if we don’t like their politics.  Feminism does not require a liberal political position — it’s about making change in political, economic, and social arenas that establish greater rights and protections for women.  And while it’s true that some of these candidates hold social positions that are counter to women’s legal and social rights (the fact that they are opposed to reproductive choice, most notably) they are out there and, by their commitment to advancing the status of women, I believe they share something with feminists of many ages, including Hillary Clinton, Alice Walker,  Abigail Adams, Emma Goldman, Sojourner Truth, and Mary Wollstonecraft.

I’m not saying I like what I’m seeing.  These women don’t offer up the social values that I want my daughters to see and embrace.  But I do want my daughters – and yours – to know that they can run for high office if they want, or start a company that transforms our understanding of how things are bought and sold online, or run a major international corporation.  Just don’t spend time talking about your opponent’s hair or tweeting about Mama Grizzlies and pit bulls with lipstick.

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…so begins the chorus of Pink’s song, “Who Knew,” which my sixteen-year-old daughter, Abby sang last night in Lexington High School’s (LHS) spring a capella jam.  I love the song, and I love that Abby is part of an a capella group (there are six at LHS).   Ben and I were in a capella groups in our colleges, and we know that the camaraderie that develops, not to mention musicality, is powerful and rich.  We’re glad that Abby is having a chance to experience this as well.

But if someone had said three years ago that Abby would be up there singing this solo, I would have doubted them.  The fact that she did it, and did it beautifully, is a tribute to her and the community in which we exist, giving credence to the African proverb, “it takes a village to raise a child.”

Abby was an extraordinarily outgoing small child.  She was known for walking up to complete strangers and kissing them on the knee, or starting up a conversation.  When we would travel, she would work the room at a restaurant, moving from table to table, chatting.  It was charming and engaging.

Like many kids, I suppose, she learned as she grew that one should not always be so fearless.  She became unsure of herself, painfully shy, afraid to take risks for fear of criticism or failure.  She also knew that she didn’t want to live life afraid, and so she committed to confront her insecurities.  With the support of those around her, breakthroughs occurred, sometimes small, sometimes huge.  She loved music, and in her freshman year in high school, she dug deep for the courage to audition for an a capella group.  She didn’t get in, but she worked like mad and tried again as her sophomore year began. Lo and behold, two groups wanted her.  She was over the moon, and chose the one she thought was the best fit.  Synchronistically,, the group’s called “Euphoria.”

Abby’s worked and worked on her singing, on having the courage to try out for a solo, on forming relationships with her co-singers.  And last night, there she was, singing the solo in “Who Knew.”  But there’s more to the story, more that makes me celebrate and want to shout to the heavens with gladness.  It turns out that the cause of the hoarseness and difficulty hitting some notes which she has experienced over the last several months is a cyst on her left vocal cord.  It’s treatable, but the diagnosis couldn’t have come at a worse time, right before the concert.  With the help of medical  professionals and again, a terrific circle of community and friends, Abby decided she wanted to go for it and not miss this opportunity.  Her a capella group worked out an arrangement of the song that included a harmony part, with another singer adding in the high notes and Abby staying on the melody.  The arrangement worked.  Beautifully.  Most of all, she had the guts and commitment to get up there and make it happen.

If someone had said three years ago that I’d be watching this girl stand in front of 600 or so people and sing a solo, I would have told them they were wrong.  And it’s a triumph.  Who knew?

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