Monday, December 19, 2016

Homebound by reality TV

 My guilty pleasure is watching HGTV shows about home renovations. “Love it or List it.” “Flip or  Flop.” “Property Brothers.” “Fixer Upper.” “Tiny House Hunters.” Even my husband now watches, remarking on the strange and sometimes silly choices made, both by homeowners and renovators.

At this point, I’ve seen enough shows and refurbished homes that they’re all starting to look alike. I can predict with certainty that interior walls will come down, large islands will dominate new kitchens, hardwood floors will supplant carpeting, and subway tile will be the go-to choice for bathrooms and kitchens.

I could play house-hunting Bingo with phrases likely to be muttered by potential homeowners viewing properties:
  • “This kitchen is sooooo dated.”
  • “Ew, I don’t like the brick fireplace.”
  • “There’s no ‘wow’ factor in the foyer.”
  • “I don’t think having one sink in the bathroom will work for us.”
  • “White walls, how boring,” or “I don’t like the wall color; it all needs to be white.”
I get a lot of exercise rolling my eyes. Maybe it’s because decades of homeownership, and four houses later, I’ve learned that every single one needs work to make it your own. I’ve stripped my share of wallpaper, painted and repainted walls, changed out old carpeting for hardwood and new carpets, remodeled kitchens and bathrooms, and replaced windows, doors, and siding.

Still, I can imagine an HGTV host walking in the door and pronouncing my house dated. Corian instead of quartz countertops? A kitchen peninsula instead of an island? No shiplap or backsplash? A laundry area in the kitchen? How quaint and 1980s. They would definitely recommend ripping everything out and starting fresh.

“Have at it,” I’ll tell the next buyers, but I’m not going anywhere anytime soon. Rather than dated, I consider these timeless design elements. My house is functional, if not trendy. I did have subway tile in my first house, but after years of riding subways, I now associate them with the pungent smell of urine. So, no thanks, I won’t be choosing subway tile anytime soon.

The more I watch home shows, the less enamored I become of the result. Most look like showplaces or upscale hotels instead of cozy homes. Or they are the nth version of redesigns featured in previous weeks. Some even look just like the home section of retail stores. Maybe I would want a trendier look if I were buying my first house, but these days I’m content with tried and true.

My only comfort is knowing that today’s trends quickly turn into tomorrow’s outdated designs, which in time become vintage. All I have to do is wait.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Near misses and dodged bullets

'Tis the time of year when stuff happens – and not the kind of stuff anyone looks forward to. Most people have stories of an ailing parent or family member. Car accidents seem less accidental and more destined, especially with mobile-device-using drivers on the road. And there's always the unknowable and unexpected. If you’re lucky, the outcome is nothing terminal, chronic, or expensive to fix.

For me, last week seemed the perfect storm of potentially bad stuff happening. Respiratory symptoms recurred that should have been long gone. Friends reported strange ailments. Elderly moms (mine and others’) required immediate medical interventions. And our sports car took off on its own.

After a few worrying days, most things returned to near normal. Medical consultations occurred. Conditions  stabilized. And our car was successfully extracted from the neighbor’s backyard.

Oh, I guess that last one needs some explanation. It helps to know that my husband has lusted after this particular model sports car since age 14. Finally, in 2012, we bought a gently used 2005 Porsche 911. My one stipulation was that it be his everyday car. On Thursday he drove it to the store. Upon returning he asked: “Do you want the good news or the bad?” That’s never a good opener, and I opted for the good news. “No one got hurt.” The bad news? He had to show me.

I followed him into the garage, and I kept following him down the driveway, through the yard between two neighbors, down the terraced backyard of one neighbor, and to the creek bordering the local farm market. There it was. The Porsche. Looking perfect, but perfectly stuck in a ditch.

Funny thing about emergency brakes; when they fail, they cause their own emergencies. My husband had parked the car in the garage, set the brake, got out, and backed away. The car also backed away, slowly, on cat’s feet. My husband saw what was happening, but – luckily – didn’t make matters worse by attempting to stop a moving car.

He ran alongside until the car outpaced him. Then he watched it hop a curb, scamper down the neighbor's sloping lawn, and settle in the creek bed. It took 24 hours, three tow trucks and their operators, a winch, and the kindness of neighbors to get it unstuck. The professionals parked it safely on the flatbed and towed to the shop where the claims adjuster could have a look-see. Our insurance company, State Farm, couldn’t have been more responsive and even nice about the whole thing. And the neighbors were appropriately astounded and amused at our predicament.

We were lucky. Things could easily have gone sideways. Or, as the Brits say, pear-shaped. The car could have hit someone or something. It could have flipped or landed in the neighbor’s living room. Instead, it just went for a wander.

I consider last week one of near misses and dodged bullets. Things could have been a whole lot worse in a number of different ways. But they weren’t. And for that, I am truly grateful


Monday, November 28, 2016

Why I follow you…or not

There’s a lot made of the follows and likes on social media. Articles offer tips on ways to get more followers. Businesses of every stripe plead to be liked. Some social awareness marketing sites offer shortcuts to those who want to, in essence, buy followers, likes, and shares for their business, their brand, or themselves.

I started my blog in 2008 and joined Twitter in 2010 to see what social media was all about. I began to follow people I knew personally or professionally. I followed thought leaders and people who made me laugh. I looked for favorite news outlets and interesting sites.

There’s no great rhyme or reason to my following, or unfollowing, strategies. A follow or like doesn’t mean I’m a true-blue, faithful fan. And an unfollow doesn’t mean you’ve lost my confidence. There’s no analytic or deeper meaning here. I’m just a fickle consumer of social media.

I recently began following a number of local and national politicians on Twitter. No, wait. Don’t stop reading now. It’s not what you think. There’s an old saying, “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.” So I am testing a theory about listening to people I otherwise might avoid. I am trying to get more insight into differences, discover plans that may be in the works, and see if there is any common ground in uncommon areas.

So far, my experiment is proving only partly successful. I’ve had to unfollow a few who seem untethered to reality as I know it – and to those who post mainly platitudes and party lines, with little original thought to contribute. On the other hand, I am beginning to feel a little more informed about who is saying what or doing something for, or against, things that matter to me.

As social media has evolved, it has gained far more impact and influence than most could ever have imagined. Where it goes from here is just as unknowable. The only thing that seems certain is continual tinkering with technology so that today’s hot networking sites will one day be leapfrogged by something even hotter.

Me? I can’t wait to follow what’s next.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Driven to distraction by direction seekers

#ThrowbackThursday: Originally published April 25, 2007, in the Sports section of the weekly paper "News of Delaware County."

It often happens that when I’m running along the streets of Delaware County, people will stop their cars to ask for directions.

What they really need to do is pull into a gas station, but I guess that’s like admitting defeat. By asking someone on the run, they must think our more casual encounter doesn’t count against their navigation skills. What they don’t know is this: They’re asking the wrong person.

My running buddies and I meet in Media, in Upper Providence, in Springfield, in Swarthmore. Occasionally, we run in Collingdale, Aldan, or Secane. We know the courses because we’ve been doing them for years. What we don’t know are all the street names. Or where a certain business is. Or the nearest ATM.

Even if I did know, it would take a few minutes for that knowledge to break through the mental fog as I get my bearings. I first have to catch my breath, figure out where I am, see if I know where the target location is and then try to simplify the directions between Point A (where I’m standing) and Point B (where they really want to be).

I might be able to do all that given enough time. But when traffic piles up and horns blare, my mind jams. Even if I do know the way, I have a hard time translating my backstreet routes and shortcuts into the roads most traveled.

What drivers don’t seem to realize is that if I’m running, I’m not going to be too happy about unplanned stops. Yes, it’s nice to help strangers find their way, and I’m most eager to be of service when I’m walking around town. When I’m in mid-run, it can be hard to stop and equally hard to start again. 

That’s not just a personal problem, that’s the law. According to Sir Isaac Newton’s first law of motion, the natural tendency is for a body in motion to remain in motion—and a body at rest to remain at rest—unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. I don’t know how balanced these drivers are, but they certainly are clueless.

Never before in history have there been so many tools available to help people find their way. Haven’t they heard about the online mapping sites of Google, Yahoo or Microsoft Live? Didn’t they stock up on printed maps at AAA? Can’t they navigate by satellite with GPS? There are now global positioning systems available for any car, motorcycle, boat, laptop computer, mobile phone or wrist.

When you consider the near ubiquity of mobile phones, there’s really no reason to ever be lost. I’ve seen people use their phones to find loved ones on crowded streets in Singapore and busy arcades at the Jersey Shore. You would think drivers could pull over and call their destination for directions as easily as stopping a crazy runner on the street.

Some coast-along drivers won’t even take “No” for an answer. They follow you at low speeds, even as you shake your head and shrug your shoulders—the universal sign for “You got me.” There are times when I don’t even slow down for drivers’ questions. I’m not being rude, I just know that I won’t be of much help. There’s also the strong possibility that I would end up sending them in the wrong direction—unintentionally, of course.

There are no take-backs once the driver pulls away and you’ve suddenly remembered that he should be on Route 252, not 352 or 452. A simple misspeak in numbers can put someone miles off course. The only bright side is that by the time he realizes that he’s way far from his destination, he won’t be able to find me either.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Yes, wardrobes have expiration dates

It has been more than 16 years since I left the corporate environment. And it has taken me about as long to purge my closet of corporate attire.

The first few passes culled items that showed wear, poor buying choices, and extremely out-of-date clothing. (Think shoulder pads.) The next few passes were harder.

It was much easier to make choices when, as a kid, I simply outgrew things. No such luck anymore. Growth spurts stopped in my teens. And, luckily, I’ve been relatively consistent in weight, so my wardrobe still fits. It just may not fit the latest style.

It’s not that I’m a fashion maven or trendy. I buy for the long term, preferring pieces that mix and match with what I already own. What I rarely think about is expiration dates on wardrobe items. And I should.

Case in point: I recently attended a wedding wearing clothing of different vintages and a pair of pumps that had seen many a corporate hallway. It wasn’t until I sat down at the ceremony that I noticed a chunk of outsole missing from my shoe. I quickly shifted my position to hide the flaw and all was well. Or so I thought.

At the first dance, the harsh reality of shoe failure hit. Just a few step-touch, step-touch moves and both soles cracked and crumbled. Chunks of sole resembling cake icing were left in my wake. I beat a hasty retreat to the table and, soon after, to the car.

At least it wasn’t as bad as the great pantyhose failure a few years ago. I had tapped my stash of stockings, a holdover from when they were a corporate necessity, for a night in the city. Things were fine through the movie and dinner, but quickly unraveled on the walk back to the car. (For those of you old enough to remember Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In, think of the Ruth Buzzi old-lady character with stockings pooling around her ankles.)

They say things come in threes, so I can only imagine what my third wardrobe failure will be. I can only be more vigilant in inspection whenever I pull something out of the closet to wear.

I have long respected expiration dates on medicines, food, and beverages. Now I’m adding shoes, stockings, and other clothing items to the list. Apparently wardrobes have expiration dates, too.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

It's my race, and I'll cry if I want to

#ThrowbackThursday: With the annual Delco RRC Cross Country Championships this weekend, it seems appropriate to republish this column, which originally ran December 1993 in the Road Runners Club newsletter. 

Some people get more out of running than others. Devotees go on at length about the many advantages, both physical and mental. A few even talk about a spiritual side of running. But you don't often hear about the crying.

I don't know whether crying makes you run faster or if it just takes your mind off the mindless repetition of left-right-left-right-left-right. I've never tried the crying technique because I've had such success with my "bitching and moaning" training program (where you run while complaining about everything and anything.)

I was first introduced to crying runs a few years back at the annual Delco RRC Cross Country Championships at Rose Tree Park. Each year, I've seen the number of disciples grow until this year it reached a new high.

I'd like to avoid saying that crying is gender based, but so far only the high school girls have been spotted sobbing their way through the 5K course. (The boys have their own idiosyncrasies: I've heard cursing in cadence and seen far too many "recycled" lunches.)

Not all the girls cry on the course, just a few. But those few are so good at it, it's like watching a new art form emerge. When they go by, you don't know whether to offer a tissue or applaud the effort.

I hope you don't get the impression that I'm hard-hearted or cruel. I do my duty as course marshal and make sure the runners are all right. But you have to stand in awe of a physically fit, well-built junior at the back of the pack who can crank up the decibels every time her male team members cheer her onward. That's what got me thinking this was more a theatrical performance than a physical phenomenon. 

It also reminded me of my 18-month-old nephew who only likes to cry when he knows people are watching. He'll screw up his face, let out a few howls, take a few deep breaths, and then peek to see if he's got your attention.

One of the reasons I'm attracted to running is that anything goes. You can wear what you want, run when and where you want, and there's no single form that's right for everyone. So, if crying helps some people to run better, who am I to question? And if it becomes a trend, just remember where you heard it first.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Exercise is taking off, but will commitment follow?

 #ThrowbackThursday: Originally published January 4, 2006, in the Sports section of the weekly paper "News of Delaware County."

Pick up any magazine or newspaper and you’re bound to find a story touting exercise. It used to be that 30 minutes three or four times a week would do the trick. Now the experts are saying daily exercise is best. Well, maybe you can take a day off every now and then, but you better have a really good reason.

Thirty minutes doesn’t seem too onerous, considering it takes me two hours to complete my gym workouts. Okay, 90 minutes, if I cut out the chit-chat, although that’s the charm of going to the gym. With Power Yoga, we’re still getting warmed up after 30 minutes. We’ve barely touched on the balance poses and abdominal work. It’s a 75-minute workout on a short night.

It’s hard to justify jogging, or even aqua-jogging, for only 30 minutes. It doesn’t seem worth the effort of changing clothes, showering and the load of laundry that follows. It’s a good thing I have a flexible schedule, or I’d have to give up my day job to fit everything in. For those who actually have to be somewhere 40 hours a week, it may be tough to find time to exercise. But it’s not impossible.

One of the hottest franchises around is the express workout, typically a single-gender facility with a circuit of machines. It’s the exercise equivalent of musical chairs, only no one gets kicked out when it’s time to switch. In 30 minutes or less, you’ve got yourself a complete workout.

If you can’t make even that much of a time commitment, there’s something else you can try. It’s called a Range of Motion machine, or ROM. It promises a complete workout in only four minutes. Honest. All it takes is a willingness to both suspend disbelief and pay the incredible sum of $14,615.

A ROM looks more like a time-machine chassis than any Nautilus, Cybex, NordicTrack or StairMaster equipment you might stumble over at your local health club. It has pedals and handles and who knows what else, because you really can’t figure out how it works by the picture. It appears to be a purely mechanical device, but it magically adapts its resistance every single second to match your ability. I guess when you’ve only got four minutes, every second counts.

Does it work? I won’t even guess. The company makes the amazing claim that 97% of all rentals become sales. But just as amazing to me is where it chooses to advertise. In Scientific American. How is it that scientists have gotten to be a target audience for this sales pitch? Are they too busy thinking great thoughts to spend anything but the minimal amount of time exercising? Do brainiacs have such deep pockets that they’d spend for a workout machine about what it costs to buy a new PT Cruiser, Ford Focus or Mazda 3 sedan? I guess scientists are used to thinking outside the box; who knew they also think outside the budget.

When it comes to exercise, it doesn’t matter whether you go to a gym, buy a machine or strap on a pair of sneaks. If you can squeeze in 30 minutes of walking, biking, kick-boxing, whatever, that’s great. If you have the time and inclination to extend your workouts, you can extend the benefits, too.  

If you only have four minutes and beaucoup bucks to spare, there’s a solution out there waiting for you. I only hope you don’t spend $15k for a high-tech clothing rack, which is the fate of too many home exercise machines.

It doesn’t take money or equipment to become fit. It takes commitment. Find an activity you can stick with and make it a regular part of your day. Every day.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Ta-da! moments work against ruts

#ThrowbackThursday: Originally published May 3, 2006, in the Sports section of the weekly paper "News of Delaware County."

Exercise is all about repetition. Doing something over and over again to get faster, better, stronger. To build stamina. To stay in shape.

Think about runners putting in their miles. Swimmers doing laps. Weight lifters pumping iron. Yoga students practicing poses. Why else do batting cages and driving ranges exist? Repetition is the way to perfect your form and improve your game.

All this repetition takes time, and to make sure it gets done, you have to establish a routine. I know someone who sets his alarm clock for 4:20 every morning so he can get a full workout in before his paying workday starts.

I know many others who devote certain days to specific exercises—or to exercising specific parts of the body. If it’s Monday, it must be upper body weights; Tuesday, speed work on the track, and so on.

Some people carve their routines in stone, they’re that inflexible with their schedules. They’re like Billy Murray in the movie Groundhog Day, doing the same things in an endless loop.

That’s one of the dangers of routines; it doesn’t take much for them to turn into ruts. Then you find yourself becoming bored, losing momentum, hitting a plateau.

Routines, by their very nature, are hard to change. That’s why they’re called routines. For those who can’t, or won’t, change their routines, it helps to find new ways to inject fun into workouts. I do it by imagining Ta-da! moments.

These are the small breakthroughs that let you know you’re making progress. They can come when you truly get lost in what you’re doing or when you visualize a positive outcome and it happens. Batters who are hitting well often say the ball looks bigger. So do tennis players. Basketball players say the hoop seems so big, they can’t miss. It’s a mental phenomenon with an impact on reality.

Ta-da! moments are intrinsically motivating. I don’t even have to say the word aloud to smile and feel the energy. Think of the finale of every magic trick ever done. The woman who had been sawed in half moments earlier climbs out of the box in one piece, and Ta-da! The only thing left to do is bow.

I started thinking about “Ta-da” moments after visiting the chiropractor. Like a magician, most of his work is staging. You’re brought into a room, you answer questions about how you’re feeling, you climb onto the table, maybe get a heating pad while you relax and wait. Then, at the right moment, the doc sweeps into the room for the main event. He performs a few quick, expert moves and— Ta-da!—you’re back in alignment.

Once I applied the Ta-da! concept to exercise, I began noticing moments everywhere. Keeping up with the boys on a weekday run. Finally being able to balance my entire weight on two hands in a squatting yoga pose. Finding that my aqua jogging has improved my road running. Moving up in weights at the gym. All Ta-da! moments.

Repetition gives you the discipline you need to make progress. It can also dig a rut so deep you begin to feel stale. To keep things fresh and interesting, it helps to find a new perspective.

For most of us, no matter how hard or long we exercise, there will never be any first-place finishes or gold medals. But there are always Ta-da! moments to be found. You just have to start looking for them.
                                                                * * *

Friday, August 26, 2016

You gotta laugh

I have reached full saturation with negative, combative, downright nasty news. I can no longer stand to listen to political commentary. I am beyond disappointed with all the politicians, actors, and athletes who are being investigated, charged, and convicted of wrongdoing. I am disheartened with all the violence and disrespect against anyone considered different.

Life is too short, and too amazing, for all that. And so I am taking a holiday from the nastiness and looking for laughter.

Some of the comedy bits that have made me laugh lately include these:

From the late John Pinette
On working with a trainer at the gym to lose weight:

“Then he says to me, ‘Give me a situp.’ I said, ‘Oh, Nay Nay!’ I don't do ‘Ups.’ I told him that when I signed up. I don't do ‘Ups’. I do ‘Downs.’ Sit down, lay down, Black-Jack I'll double-down...Give me a cheeseburger I'll wolf it down. Put on a little music, I'll boogie down. But I don't do ‘Ups.’ Ups defy gravity...Gravity is a law...I obey the law.”

From the late Mitch Hedberg:
“One time I had a Jack and Coke and it had a lime in it. And I saw that the lime was floating. That’s good news, man. Next time I’m on a boat and it capsizes, I will reach for a lime. I’ll be water skiing without a life preserver on and people will say, ‘What the hell?’ And I will pull out a lime. And a lemon, too. I’m saved by the buoyancy of citrus.”

“I bought a house. I bought a two-bedroom house. But it’s up to me how many bedrooms there are though, isn’t it. This bedroom has an oven in it. This bedroom has a lot of people sitting around watching TV. This bedroom is AKA a hallway. This bedroom is over in that guy’s house. ‘Sir, you have one of my bedrooms. Stay out.’ I’ve got a king-size bed. I don’t know any kings, but if one came over, I guess he’d be comfortable. ‘Oh, you’re a king you say, well you won’t believe what I have in store for you. It’s for your exact specifications.’ When I was a boy, I laid in my twin-size bed and wondered where my brother was.”

From still-alive-and-well Kevin Meaney:

“We couldn't wear tight pants growing up in my family. ‘You're not wearing those tight pants out, Mister. Put your big pants on. Going outside with tight pants on. We’re big pants people. Get upstairs to your room and put your big pants on. The Loferman’s are coming over and you're wearing tight pants. Why? Your father doesn't wear tight pants.”

From sometime-local-resident and always a celebrity Wanda Sykes

“We all really should be organ donors. I mean, c’mon why are you holding on to it? You’re dead. Give it up. Let somebody else use it. Although, I hope whoever gets my liver, God bless ‘em. There aint gonna be much left on it. But I don’t understand why people don’t want to give. Some people say, ‘Well, it’s my religion.’ …You scared when you get to heaven your God gonna be like, ‘Where the hell are your eyes? Ain’t this a bitch. You up here with empty eye sockets. Where are your eyes? You can’t even see all this pretty shit I got up here for you.’”

So forgo the news and look for laughs. At least until the elections are over. If there's something we all could use more of, it's laughter in our lives.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

All the news that’s fit to print

If I hadn’t been at the breakfast table reading the print newspaper — or what we used to call the newspaper — I would have missed it. It was a piece about the stir John Oliver caused on his HBO show, “Last Week Tonight,” about the newspaper industry. The short version, as he later tweeted, is the industry “is suffering. That’s bad news for journalists — both real and fictional.”

In his video segment, he said it was bad news for the public, which will suffer because of “our unwillingness to pay for the work journalists produce.”

Oliver had well researched and reasoned arguments for his concerns. I only have my shallow preferences and self-interests to support his thesis. I happen to love newsprint.

It's not that I'm against digital news. I read that, too. Nothing beats the immediacy of breaking news or watching how stories develop by the hour. But a steady diet of digital is like having dessert for dinner. I can only consume so much digital news, maybe one or two screens' worth, which on my iPhone isn't very much. It’s like, SQUIRREL! Something else captures my attention.

In print, I see the complete story laid out and can decide what to read and what to skim. There are graphic and tactile qualities to the piece. And a nice rustle of pages as I flip forward and back.

I don’t mind spilling coffee on my newspaper; not so much my iPhone. I don’t mind leaving a just-read paper behind in my travels for others to read; again, not so with an iPhone. Well, you get the point.

Occasionally, when people find out I subscribe to the paper, they ask whether I still have a certain article or section. One woman was quoted in a trend piece and eager to see hard copy. She had read the story online, but having the real thing was special.

One thing that has never happened to me while reading a newspaper is being interrupted by a popup, asking, “Do you want to subscribe?” “Do you want a live chat?” “Are you dealing with male pattern baldness?” Yes, online publications do that.

To me, it’s not about print versus digital. I want print and digital. And while I’m always looking for a bargain, free news isn't always a bargain if it decimates the profession of journalism and the papers they work for. I still want real news, not crowd-sourced input or infotainment. I want critical, investigative reporting that brings important issues to light. And, yes, I am willing to support that work with paid subscriptions, which attracts ad dollars, which keeps papers afloat.

I love the work of "fictional journalists" like Oliver, but I also subscribe to print publications so I can read the work of real ones.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Size really does matter

There is a drawer in my mother’s refrigerator stuffed to overflowing with little packets of condiments. She gets them with every dinner served in her retirement community, and she squirrels them away.

I add to the cache with every visit. When I stop to get us sandwiches, I can’t resist adding a few of everything to my order. I just can't be sure she'll have, or be able to find, the exact condiment needed. Silly me. By now, she must have gallons of ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, and relish, all in single-serve packets.

On the other end of the spectrum are the colossal boxes, bottles, jars, and cans sold by membership-only warehouse clubs. Often, like potato chips, you can’t have just one. Products are packaged in pairs and cartons and, quite possibly, pallets.

I’ve walked those warehouse aisles with my husband, begging him not to stock up. Who can lift a gallon of liquid laundry detergent without spill or sprain? Won’t 88 ounces of ketchup (five-and-a-half pounds) pass the expiration date well before the two-pack bottles are used up? Am I the only person who can barely get a hand around the 1.5-liter-bottle of mouthwash?

Another place size matters is restaurants. Some feature “small plate” menus, with the idea being to order more and different things to share. It’s an approach that doesn’t work well for me. It's hard to share generously while still getting enough of the tasty parts and, with multiple plates, any sense of portion control goes out the window.

Other restaurants equate volume with quality, figuring an overfilled plate makes for happy customers. But more isn’t always more. If it’s not truly and amazingly delicious, less is more appropriate.

Sometimes I feel like Goldilocks. Some sizes are too small. Some too big. What I want  is something that’s just right – in size and volume – to suit the specific occasion. It matters. It really does matter.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

What kind of person are you?

There are no bumper stickers on my car. No tattoos on my body. I don’t wave flags indicating my heritage or wear jewelry with religious symbols.

I never gave my non-identification a thought until I received a gift that signals exactly the type of person I am: a cat person.

Actually, I am both a cat and dog person, but the gift in question was a handbag embroidered with cats. It was cute. Cats are cute. And so I stuffed my wallet, keys, and smartphone in my new handbag without hesitation.

Then the comments began. My running buddy immediately noticed the bag and claimed she loved it. Her husband, well known for his animosity toward cats, responded that he hated it. I gave little notice to either comment.

It wasn’t until I visited a new local restaurant that I began to recognize the conversation-starting capability of this handbag. My first visit prompted the hostess to ask about the bag and my cats, and then she told me about her cats. Several weeks later, when I walked into the restaurant a second time, she remembered me. More precisely, she remembered my handbag…and a fellow cat-lover.

I found another kindred spirit in the elevator of my mother’s independent living community. The woman wanted to know where she could buy a similar handbag and was disappointed when I couldn’t name a store. But in the minute or so we traveled vertically together, I learned she was a member of the community's Cat Lovers Club and had probably met my mother at a recent meeting.

The cat connection happened again last week on vacation. I walked into a store in Cape May, and one of the shopkeepers remarked about my cat bag. It wasn’t even the woman at the register, but a young man at the back of the store. He used it as entree into a broader discussion encompassing cats, handbags, vacations, home towns, and the weather. He was so friendly I felt bad about trying to escape back to the beach.

The power of pets to connect people is clear to me. Or maybe it’s handbags. I used to have an embroidered one from Ten Thousand Villages that got its share of comments, too. Either way, it’s nice to carry around such a convenient conversation starter. These days it works so much better than “How about those Phillies?”

Thursday, June 16, 2016

What do you do with old photos?

Binders circa 1930
My mother asked, “What will you do with all my photographs when I’m gone?”

Being her smart aleck kid, I said, “They’re going with you.”

The joke’s on me, though. After sorting through a small fraction of inventory during her move from house to apartment, I developed a sentimental attachment to quite a few.

The problem is she has several large plastic bins filled with family photos. I don’t know how she collected so many, because I don't recall ever seeing her with camera in hand. My brother thinks digitizing them is the answer. I don’t know if it’s worth the trouble and, even if it was, would we really be able to throw away the old prints?

This is more than a philosophical question for me. I printed my first black & white photos in a small science-class darkroom in junior high. In high school, I converted a closet into a part-time darkroom and continued printing there. For a few years, I worked for a pharmaceutical giant as a photographic specialist. There I furthered my skills printing photographs used, in those pre-PowerPoint days, in business presentations and also for product publicity and scientific test results. One perk of the job was the freedom to print my own work as well.
A recent and rare sighting: 35 mm film on store shelves.

Now I have a walk-in closet packed with slides, contact sheets, negative sleeves, and prints, prints, and more prints. Compounding the problem (or the riches) is the fact my husband is an avid photographer, and so we also have boxes of prints cataloguing his early years of documenting events for family and friends. If it weren’t for digital photography, we would have had to build an addition years ago to hold our growing collection of images.

Lately, I’ve taken to giving old photos to the people who are in them. I don’t know if I’m doing them any favors, as most focus on how young they used to look 20, 25, even 30 years ago. Seems no one likes to be reminded about time marching on.

And so my closet shelves will continue to groan under the weight of boxes of memories of years past, barely lightened by the few photos I manage to give away. If I can avoid adding to the stockpile, and not inherit my mother’s stash of photographs, I will consider myself a very, very lucky girl.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Are you smarter than your critters?

This gazania lasted one day before being chewed to the ground.
Some people are street smart. Some are book smart. Some know a lot about one or two things; others know a little about a lot of things. But few would be able to consistently outsmart the critters in my neighborhood.

Whether it’s the squirrels commandeering bird feeders, rabbits chewing garden plants, chipmunks snacking on flower bulbs, or carpenter bees boring into picnic benches, they are quick to adapt and find their way around any human-designed barriers.

Enter the search terms “squirrels” and “bird feeders” into YouTube, and you’ll get more than 50,000 results. Obviously, my household isn’t the only one trying to baffle one species while feeding another.

After the failure of several guaranteed squirrel-proof bird feeders, I have conceded that territory to the animal kingdom. Let the squirrels and birds duke it out for seed. I’m just there for the show.

My line in the sand is the garden. Here, rabbits are the culprit. Cute, yes. But there are oh so many. And they are oh so bold. I can be reading on the porch, only to look up into the round, black eyes of a rabbit nonchalantly chewing my flowers. He won’t stop. He won’t leave. And he ignores my pleadings to eat the weeds.

I am agreeable to compromise, willing to sacrifice a few plants as appetizers. What I hate is losing freshly planted plots of greens. Fences won't work in this area of the yard, and traps are out because I don’t want to cause bodily harm to bunnies.

After some strategizing and head-scratching, I came up with a plan to protect the latest batch of tender, young basil plants. The solution seemed plausible and possible, with the added bonus of finding a new use for my growing stack of old take-out soup containers. By cutting off the bottom, I was left with a plastic cylinder that would protect lower leaves and stems from easy rabbit pickings. Time will tell whether I’ve really outsmarted those rascally rabbits, and if I buy enough time, the plants will mature enough to survive a nibble or two.

Now my battles in the animal kingdom have moved indoors, where the contestants are cat claws versus lace curtains. The cats won round one, and I have since replaced the shredded panels. I also attempted to stack the deck for the inevitable round two by imposing tighter access to window sills and installing curtain holdbacks. But the cats are cunning, showing off their advantage by sharpening and stretching their claws whenever I’m in sight.

Forget about the TV game show “Are you Smarter than a Fifth Grader.” A harder challenge would be to find contestants who can prove themselves smarter than the average house cat or squirrel. These critters have proven their ability to outwit, outlast, outplay as well as any Survivor castaway, with clear evidence of their victories throughout my home and garden. 

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The truth about freelancing

People tend to think freelancers work in their pajamas. I’m sure some do, along with wearing bunny slippers. When I moved to New Hampshire, I was told most neighbors worked in their underwear. At home, I assumed.

Maybe that’s why I returned to the Philadelphia area quick enough to get my old phone number back. In New Hampshire, I had a corporate job. In Philadelphia, I turned freelance writer. Now that it was possible to work in my PJs, I wasn’t going to let that happen.

Years of answering to a higher manager left an indelible imprint on my work ethic. For me, work = getting dressed, although not necessarily in business attire. Every day can be Casual Day; forget about waiting until Friday. There also are times when morning workout wear carries the day because client calls and deadlines push back a shower and change of clothes until evening. Timing doesn’t matter. I work out; I get work done; and I get cleaned up, eventually.

The “free” part of freelancing translates into freedom to set my own schedule. This flexibility is crucial when juggling projects and client commitments. I may schedule a 10 a.m. call on Tuesday, but my client’s priorities can change in an instant – and often do. Some calls are rescheduled once, twice, third time’s the charm.

Projects may start with tight deadlines but proceed in fits and starts, awaiting client input or executive reviews. Some interviewees agree to participate in a story, but rethink their involvement. If I’m lucky, they let me know their change of plans. If not, I'll eventually get the hint after too many emails and calls go answered.

People tell me they often think about becoming a freelancer, but fear a lack of discipline. The draw of distraction would be too strong, they say. Netflix instead of networking. Playing instead of planning. Chats with friends instead of calls with clients.

I admit there are moments when work isn’t working for me. Either I persevere or schedule a break. It helps to remember life as a freelancer is fluid. Deadlines shift. Scheduled meetings are rescheduled or cancelled. Last-minute projects surface. And long-planned projects evaporate.

That’s the reality and the potential of freelancing. Any inconvenience is a small price to pay for the freedom of being my own boss.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Red pens poised? Change is coming June 1

As the vintage ad stuck in my head reminds me: “Styles change, tastes change, and I’ve changed, too.” (Tempo cigarettes, BTW.) Some changes are harder than others, especially when they involve writing style.

Language is a peculiar thing, requiring stylebooks for guidance on usage and punctuation. Many of the supposedly ironclad rules have been drilled into my head for decades; now they’re second nature.

Even senior executives tasked with reviewing copy suddenly remember what Mrs. Evans, their fourth-grade teacher, said about commas. Although, after years in corporate America, they often develop a serious case of Capitalization, convinced a Vice President is more worthy than a vice president.

Those of us who learned to type before the computer age were trained to add two spaces after a sentence-ending period. That's been a hard habit to break for many; and I frequently must do a global search-and-replace to eliminate that now unnecessary second space on copy provided by clients.

I try to stay current with style changes, but invariably some slip by or nag at my usual usage. That's why I keep renewing my online subscription to AP Stylebook, especially as digital-age language evolves. 

Over the years I’ve watched…
  • Web site become Website
  • Website become website
  • E-mail become email
  • Favorite defined as both a social-media approval button and the act of clicking that button (as a verb, to favorite)
  • The addition of meme (an idea shared widely, often in social media) and Swarm (a social network check-in service) to the official AP Stylebook
Such matters seem small in the grand scheme of things, but people can become quite adamant and unconvinced when their accustomed style changes, as the following exchange from The Chicago Manual of Style Online illustrates:
Q. Please help. I have confusion regarding the correct spacing after periods and other closing punctuation.
...About two spaces after a period. As a US Marine, I know that what’s right is right and you are wrong. I declare it once and for all aesthetically more appealing to have two spaces after a period. If you refuse to alter your bullheadedness, I will petition the commandant to allow me to take one Marine detail to conquer your organization and impose my rule. Thou shalt place two spaces after a period. Period. Semper Fidelis.
Style is changing once again, and we all need to be ready. Effective June 1, Associated Press is demoting “Internet” to “internet.” That said, World Wide Web remains capped – and, as AP reminds us, it is a subset of, not synonymous with, the internet and should not be used interchangeably in stories.

Got it? OK then. You now have the definitive word from this “must-have reference for writers, editors, students and professionals,” as the AP Stylebook website pronounces. Final answer. End of story. Until, of course, some future update appears “to reflect changes in writing style and new guidelines.”

Like cigarette advertising, language changes, too.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Taking steps and making them count

Could be because it’s spring. Could be because friends are doing it. For whatever reason, I have started tracking the number of steps I take in a day. I don’t actually count them because, as you might expect, there’s an app for that.

According to my daily tally, I average 10,779 steps and 4.83 miles. I usually do more than that, but after I hit the 10K mark I stop counting. No sense being obsessed with step count or tethered to my phone.

Back in the day, I wouldn’t have needed an app to entice me to walk miles a day. I had a dog. We had to walk. Regularly. Walks were necessary to answer canine calls of nature and provide daily exercise.

Now I have cats. Indoor cats. We like to binge-watch Netflix together. Regularly. That’s why an app that keeps me walking is just the thing. It’s the perfect complement to my regular exercise regime, which includes a few days of running, two more of strength training, and a morning of yoga. On paper, that should be enough for any normal person, but I find my workouts getting slower and staler over time. 

What I like about adding the 10K steps is there’s no pressure to pick up the pace, beat a certain time, or focus on getting faster. You do the steps. They add up. You hit your goal. Done!

Since starting up on April 1, I’ve made the rounds of local streets, chatted with neighbors, watched landscapers at work, discovered houses for sale, and seen new cars on the block.

This walking thing could definitely become a daily habit. Then again, it’s spring. It's hard to stay indoors when flowers are blooming, birds are singing, and trees are greening nicely.

Check back with me later in the year. As I've been reading in “Game of Thrones,” winter is coming. Maybe by then the HBO series will be available on Netflix. Then my walking will be to the couch, with my cats, to binge-watch together. 

Monday, April 4, 2016

My smartphone choice? Chicken

How’s the alligator? Tastes like chicken.
How’s the pigeon? Tastes like chicken.
How about kangaroo…or bullfrog…or snapping turtle?
Chicken. Chicken. Chicken.

Apparently, chicken is the gold standard in dinner entrees. It is the universal meal that appeals to virtually all meat-eaters. Chicken is a perennial favorite, a reliable choice, and a known quantity that rarely fails to deliver the expected experience. 
So when I finally, and sadly, decided to ditch my BlackBerry for an app-smart smartphone, I chose chicken, er, I mean, the gold standard. In the smartphone world, the iPhone is chicken. It, too, is a perennial favorite, a reliable choice, and a known quantity that rarely fails to deliver the expected experience.

I have resisted the iPhone until now because I was wedded to the physical keyboard experience of my BlackBerry. I am a big email user, and BlackBerry delivered. Also, I just wasn’t into apps.

But in today’s app-happy world, I was finding myself left behind. I couldn’t send pictures of checks for mobile deposits. I couldn’t easily contact my service provider about Internet outages. I couldn't Uber or Passport or Map My Run. Not to mention missing out on the millions of other apps offering convenient ways to connect with business, travel, or entertainment venues.

So I got over my physical keyboard attachment, just as in previous years I got over my IBM Selectric and other stone-age typing aids. And I dipped my toe into the worldwide shopping mart of smartphones, trying to gauge the merits of Apple vs. Android.

After comparing features and options of all the top-rated models, I was no clearer about choice than when I started. I suffered from paralysis by analysis. So I took the easy route. I chose chicken: the iPhone.

And you know what? I am perfectly satisfied. Some might say I missed out on the filet mignon or Kobe beef of smartphones; and some might say iPhones deserve those descriptors, too.

All I wanted was a solid, easy choice I wouldn’t regret. And that’s exactly what I got: my iPhone chicken. Anything more? Just desserts.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Beating the odds as a small business

By the numbers, AMY INK should be a fond memory by now. And I should have boomeranged back to a corporate office.  About half of all small businesses only survive for five years and only one-third make it a decade.

It’s a good thing numbers don’t tell the whole story. This April, AMY INK celebrates its 16th year, and the only time I think about returning to the corporate fold is when I’m having a nightmare. It’s not that I don’t love the work; I just don’t want to be confined to one workplace and one subject and the certain uncertainty of budget cuts and downsizings.

There have been a number of changes in AMY INK over the years, as annual reports and employee magazines – my specialties – fell out of favor with corporate budgets. These days I tend to write more marketing-oriented projects than corporate communications. Instead of financial performance and global growth strategies, I write stories about people that humanize the products and services offered by my clients.  

More changes have come with technology, allowing me to be efficient and productive. I remember early days of sitting near the landline phone, or in front of my desktop computer, so I wouldn’t miss a client message. Now all I need is my smartphone within reach to stay in touch wherever I might be.  

Microbusinesses like AMY INK – which have fewer than five employees, including the owner – have been called the mainstay of the U.S. economy, representing greater than 90% of all businesses. We’re an interesting group of mom-and-pop shops, one-person “solopreneurs”, consultants, specialists, artists, musicians, freelancers, tradespeople, and other SOHOs (small office or home office).

The one statistic that does ring true for AMY INK is that one-fourth of small businesses last for 15 years or more. I am thrilled to officially be in the “or more” category.

I extend my sincere thanks to all the clients I’ve had the privilege to write for and to the designers who have made me part of their team. My hope is to provide fresh thinking and effective writing for many more years to come.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Your money is no good here

Has anyone ever told you, "Your money is no good here"? If so, you would expect a freebie.
Someone else would be picking up the tab on your behalf.

That's what I used to think. Now I’m not so sure. Maybe there’s a more literal meaning, one having to do with the anticipated cashless society. The demise of cash and checks has been making headlines, as have the proliferating options for mobile payments. Below are just a few:

The Truth About the Death of Cash
“Will cash disappear? Many technology cheerleaders believe so…”

Is It Time To Write Off Checks?
“In the age of digital alternatives, checks are fading.”

Samsung follows Apple into Chinese mobile payment market
Mobile payment platforms use smartphones in place of physical credit or debit cards – and they’re now available on more phones and in more markets.

Then there’s bitcoin, the digital currency – virtual tokens – that can be exchanged for goods and services with those who accept them.

But don’t ditch your wallet or checkbook just yet.

Sometimes you need a little folding money for small purchases from local shops. Or to pay your share when splitting the check. Or, like me, your smartphone has compatibility issues with payment apps (think BlackBerry Q10 on T-Mobile). Or think about your grandmother, who still sends checks for your birthday.

What I like most about having every currency option available is choice. There are times when credit cards or online bill payment make sense, and others when traditional checks are best. I usually pay for purchases in stores using a credit card, but I keep folding money handy for when cash is the only payment accepted. At some point, I’ll spring for a new smartphone that will make mobile banking and bill paying more accessible, but I’m still weighing my options.

Maybe I can take a page from Popeye’s Wimpy, who claims: “I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.” Although, as we all know, Tuesday never comes. 

Monday, February 22, 2016

The ultimate driving experience is behind the wheel

I am now the proud owner of a brand new and increasingly obsolete horseless carriage. At least that’s what I fear as technology marches on.

While my car has the latest “innovative control concept,” with “intuitive and interactive” functions, it has me at the steering wheel. And, apparently, I am soon-to-be outdated technology. At least that’s the plan in a future that aspires to autonomous cars, also known as driverless or self-driving cars.

I already had one step in antiquity, with my preference for manual-drive transmissions in a world of automatics. Recently, a parking-lot attendant told me he was impressed I drove a manual. I was impressed with the poor timing of his remark, having just parked at a funeral home to bid farewell to a beloved aunt.

No matter. He may someday be as obsolete as me, once autonomous cars hit the road. And it may happen sooner than later, considering all those investing and developing the technology. Among the short list of players are Google, General Motors, Tesla, Apple, Mercedes-Benz, and Audi.

Just this month, driverless cars gained the same legal status as a human driver. No, I didn’t make that up. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration responded to a letter from Google asking for clarification on the word “driver.” The answer included, "If no human occupant of the vehicle can actually drive the vehicle, it is more reasonable to identify the ‘driver’ as whatever (as opposed to whoever) is doing the driving."

I don’t know what’s scarier. Sharing the road with human drivers prone to texting, applying makeup, shaving, and reading while driving, or relying on technology to never fail while barreling down the highway.

Maybe I’ll be more eager to give up the driving reins when I’m too old to navigate safely on my own. But that’s down the road a ways.

Until then, you can find me in my sport sedan, stick shift in hand, enjoying the ultimate driving experience.

 * * *

March 1 UPDATE: "Google says self-driving car hits municipal bus in minor crash"

Monday, February 8, 2016

CEOs as Social Media

Social media is the answer. What was the question? It doesn’t seem to matter.

The ubiquitous nature of social media has left corporate staffs scrambling. As they work to create a distinctive social strategy, they can find it’s like lacing up sneakers while running.  

Too often, they latch onto the idea of making the CEO the company’s chief social sage. While that may work in some industries, few CEOs will ever become top influencers on LinkedIn, trend on Twitter, or go viral on YouTube.

But every CEO makes an impact in person. From plant tours to Rotary Club speeches, employee meetings to business dinners, every face-to-face meeting presents an opportunity to engage and persuade. It is here, in front of stakeholders of all kinds, where CEOs can be their most social – and effective.

People want to see, hear, and talk with the chief executive. They want to be in the presence of the leader to get a sense of who this person really is. The company’s business may be conducted in the cloud, but its CEO needs to keep feet on the street.

It’s not a hard thing to do, considering all the opportunities to meet with different groups. Speeches can easily become the vehicle for CEOs to amplify their social impact. In minutes, they can influence a roomful of people using just words. This in-person, socially delivered communication can then become the springboard for engaging broader social media channels, as staff leverages the effort by linking, tweeting, posting, and blogging clips or transcripts to gain a broader reach.

For some CEOs, especially those in technology industries, it makes sense to have a higher profile in online social media. And marketing agencies often advocate for CEO involvement to establish thought leadership, strengthen brand credibility, and shape their company’s reputation, no matter what business they’re in.

While CEOs may feel pressured to jump into tweeting or blogging, it’s worth remembering social media is just one arrow in the communications quiver. Companies might well need to beef up their presence in online forums, but that doesn’t mean the CEO always has to be front and center.

The key for CEOs is to focus first on being social in the true sense of the word. In person. One on one, or one to many. Speaking from the heart. Sharing insights and intentions. Shaking hands. Creating community. The “media” part of being social can always follow. 

Sunday, January 24, 2016

What makes you laugh out loud?

Even before Saturday’s storm brought “much of the East Coast to a standstill,” as the headlines screamed, my getaway was planned.

It's an annual event scheduled for the short, dark, cold days of winter. The kind of days, and nights, where sheltering indoors seems preferable to venturing into the world. Too many days of this kind, with or without snow, and I begin to get cabin fever. I’m not the only one.

Years ago, after the world survived the previously unknowable outcome of Y2K, popular media began to focus on “Best of" lists of the previous millennium. Best movies, best songs, best films, well, you get the idea. A group of friends decided comedy was getting short shrift. Why not get together and devote a night to things that made us laugh. Timing was perfect, because it was winter, and dreary, and we all had cabin fever.

And so Cabin Fever Comedy was born. The participants are a small group of creative types, mostly in the video industry, who share clips, skits, and drinks (lots and lots of drinks). We tend to take over a quaint and proper B&B for the night, dragging in cables and equipment and media storage devices.

My biggest question each year, as I prepare, is this: What made me laugh in the past year? Deciding what was really funny is harder than you might expect. And with today’s political shenanigans, and volatile financial markets, I haven’t had a good laugh in a while.

I often find things amusing. Or clever. There are TV shows I enjoy, in which there are funny actors. And there are videos that make me smile. But what I’m really looking for are things that make me laugh. Out loud. And that have a good chance of making others laugh, too.

Occasionally, Cabin Fever Comedy presentations share visual tricks or innovations in the video trade. Or we watch really beautiful footage, while we “Ooh” and “Ahh.” But nothing says comedy like a loud, deep belly laugh. And those are hard to come by.

So I open the question to you, dear readers, hoping to crowdsource a little comedy. Things on kittens, practical jokes, and pratfalls won’t cut it. Nor will clips of late night talk shows or Saturday Night Live – been there, done that.

Got anything else that made you hold your sides, brought tears to your eyes, and had you begging for mercy so you could catch your breath?

I sincerely hope that you have…and will share. Cabin Fever Comedy is six weeks away, and counting.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Always on is not always best

I have become an eager consumer of quite a bit of technology, from mobile commerce and VOiP calling to streaming video, online chats, and Sirius radio. 

Technology keeps me connected to the larger world, allowing my small business to function seamlessly with global clients.

On a personal level, technology brings me more news and entertainment options than I could consume in ten lifetimes. Yet the best part of all these technologies is the most basic of features: the OFF button.

Less can definitely be more in this age of always-on communication and global news cycles. Enough can be plenty. And too much of a good thing can be a waste of time.

Case in point: I have on-demand video. I have Roku video streaming. I have Amazon Prime and Amazon Fire TV media player. I have Chromecast. I even have an old-fashioned antenna in my attic for over-the-air channels on secondary TVs. So, what did I ask for this holiday season? Netflix.

Don't get me wrong, I love the range of choice and new programming. But I would have to be laid up for years to see even a fraction of what's on my watch list.

Finding more time to watch TV was not among my New Year's resolutions. Instead, I was planning more days at the gym, adding an exercise class, taking advantage of this mild winter to hike the nearby fields and trails.

With technology, it seems that I can have it all, at least in terms of choice. But in reality, I should never expect to take advantage of it all.

Sometimes the best option is to turn off the TV, the laptop, the tablet, and the smartphone, and reconnect with the real world. Smell the coffee, or the roses, and take a moment to appreciate what's right here, right now.

No subscriptions, monthly fees, or updating required.