Showing posts with label Blog Off. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Blog Off. Show all posts

08 May 2012

Guess it's over: a Blog Off post

Every two weeks, the blogosphere comes alive when bloggers of all stripes weigh in on the same topic. After a great run, the Blog Off as it exists now will end of this week. The topic is essentially wrapping things up and saying goodbye. Here's my take:


The Blog Off has been winding down for the last six months or so and those of us who put this thing together every two weeks have been facing that incrementally. After the last post, my partner in crime Dog Walk Blog and I were discussing what to write about today.

For the last six months, he and I have had a "next topic" conversation every two weeks and I'd start each one with the suggestion that we place a "For Sale by Owner" banner ad on the Let's Blog Off landing page. I was only partially kidding.

Like everybody else on the internet, we'd hoped to have this thing make some money somehow. Despite our shrewd minds and marketing acumen, we never did figure out a way for this thing to pay for itself. Putting this together every two weeks took a lot of energy and time and for the last few months it's become clear that the Blog Off was turning into a time and energy black hole.

We're busy men, but so is everybody. When we started this thing we were both established internet presences. Our goal was to help people expand their audiences and in that regard I think we succeeded. It was a singular thrill to watch as the Blog Off participants went from the circle of our online friends and expanded to include new bloggers all over the world.

My goal over the course of this program was to reach out across borders and it was an amazing thing to see participating posts come in from places like Venezuela,Canada, Portugal, Scotland and Italy. Even though the Blog Off is winding down, our connections around the world mark a really interesting path forward. Not just for us as internet people but for people as a whole.

It's been a great ride to read other peoples' perspectives on subjects like art and autumn and I hope we provided a forum where people could flesh out their internet personae. It's one thing to be an architect, but when an architect writes about the topic of home or the legacy he or she inherited, it provided a window into the soul of that architect. I'm using architect as an example only. Our participants have ranged from architects to teachers to waitresses and everybody's perspective has always been welcome.

I guess this means that I have to start blogging again.

24 April 2012

The edge of the world: a Blog Off post

Every two weeks, bloggers of every stripe weigh in on the same topic in an event called a Blog Off. This week's topic is "The Edge of the World" and we're being encouraged to write about an event where we pushed past the boundaries of what we knew to be true at the time. Here's my take:


The Bahamas is known the world over for a geographical feature it shares with just a handful of places around the globe, blue holes. The Bahamas' blue holes are essentially sink holes that lie submerged in salt water. In most of them, fresh water and salt water coexist in an uneasy truce. The salt water sits in a clearly defined and visible layer on top of the fresh water and diving into a blue hole is a really wild experience because you float between the two extremes.


The photo above shows Dean's Hole near Clarence Town on Long Island, The Bahamas. Dean's Hole is the world's largest submerged blue hole. This aerial shot explains pretty clearly why they're called blue holes. Dean's Hole is 202 meters deep, that's 663 feet. The water surrounding it is at most a meter deep, so that's a pretty profound drop off.

Not too far from Long Island is Cat Island, a nearly deserted paradise I've been running away to for the last five or so years. I've written about it extensively in the past and I have a story to tell that dovetails into this Blog Off Topic perfectly.

This photo shows Fernandez Bay, the beach where I stay when I'm on Cat. The first arrow shows the location of the cottage that welcomes me back every time.

The second arrow points to a salt marsh and the location of an unmarked blue hole referred to as "Boiling Hole" by the locals because when the tide goes out it bubbles and gurgles and when the tide comes back in it forms a whirlpool over its entrance.

Kayaking in a salt marsh can be tricky.

In a kayak, you're sitting right on the water and it's difficult to get any kind of perspective on where you are.

This means that it's difficult to judge distances and it's hard to see underwater features until you're directly over them. Add to that skewed perspective that you're in one of the most hostile environments you can find and not getting lost becomes a huge priority.

Salt marshes are full of dead ends and the advice my friends and I had to work from consisted of "Stick to the deeper channels, watch the tides and look for a wide spot of shallow water." Deeper is a relative term because the water's incredibly shallow everywhere. Keeping an eye on the tides is vital because getting stranded in a receding tide is a recipe for disaster when outside help is non-existent. Monitoring the tides was important too because the only way to spot the blue hole was to watch for bubbling or a whirlpool.

After a few hours of looking for our blue hole, we realized that there were all kinds of wide spots of shallow water.

Here are a couple of shots of my friends and I taking advantage of being lost and putting ashore during that first trip back into the marsh.

Would that Boiling Hole were as readily identifiable as Dean's Hole on Long Island or any of the other blue holes on Cat. But alas, we were looking for the hardest one to find and I always like a good challenge.

After around three hours of paddling and exploring, we were about to call it a day and admit defeat. We couldn't find Boiling Hole and that was that. Everybody was exhausted, hungry and more than anything, thirsty.

I am more persistent than my friends I guess' because I insisted that we explore one more stretch of marsh before we called a day. By this time, there was a slack tide and I knew that if we were going to find that blue hole we were going to have to paddle over it directly. The slack tide too told me that we had to get out of there within an hour or we risked being stranded when the tide finally started to go out.

We were at the edge of the world and I wanted to reach just a bit past it to see what was there.

Within about five minutes we paddled over this:

We'd stumbled over the mouth of Boiling Hole.

Boiling hole drops around 100 meters straight down and the water surrounding it is at most 40 centimeters deep. It was the wildest thing to suddenly not see the bottom of the water after having scraped against it for the previous three hours.

Boiling Hole is connected to a spring and about five feet under the surface, the water turns into the best-tasting spring water you can imagine. Within seconds of our discovery, my party donned masks, snorkels and fins and our trek turned into one of the coolest things I've ever seen underwater.

The blue hole was some kind of an interzone and the salty parts of it were full of reef fish. The freshwater parts were filled with water plants that could never survive in the sea. There were crabs and other invertebrates that had evolved the ability to move between the two zones. I'd never seen an environment like it. That we couldn't see the bottom of it was a bit unnerving and knowing that if we stayed there for much longer we'd be sucked down into it when the tide turned made us hurry our exploration. Slaking my thirst while still underwater was a pretty wild experience too.

My friends and I were miles from other people and hundreds of miles away from modernity. Being back in that salt marsh provided a blissful isolation I've found in few other places. But at the same time, that isolation came at a cost. As fascinating as it was to explore that environment for the first time, it was uncomfortable and exhausting.

However, in the intervening years I've explored that salt marsh countless times and have been back to that blue hole frequently. I don't get lost back there anymore and it's a real thrill to guide people back to a blue hole that feels like it's mine somehow.

And now that I feel comfortable back there I can concentrate of paying attention to the lemon sharks, the green sea turtles and the mangrove jellies that call that marsh home. What's hostile to me as a Homo sapiens is welcoming to may other forms of life and it's a real treat to see the world from their perspective from time to time.

I pushed past the edge of the world that day and I'm a better man for it. Because of that experience, I can relate to other people's frustrations and fears better, I can understand my need to know everything better, and I can see how different organisms co-exist in an environment that completely foreign to my own species. Frankly, that's why I explore.


As the day goes on, a table will appear here like magic. It will list all of the participating bloggers in today's event. Click on the links to see how other people approached this topic.

10 April 2012

Flowers: a Blog Off post

Every two weeks the blogosphere comes alive when bloggers of every stripe weigh in on the same topic. This week's topic is flowers.


Most of the Let's Blog Off staff live in climates more temperate than mine and they're out every afternoon enjoying the riots of tulips and daffodils that explode across the north at this time of year.

I remember well those spring flowers and I'd be lying if I said I don't get a pang for them from time to time. Things like tulips and daffodils can't grow in places where there aren't true winters. I live in such a place and if the price I have to pay for not having to endure winter is that I have to give up spring bulbs then so be it.

Ponce de Leon landed in Florida on Palm Sunday in 1513 and named my adopted state "Pascua de Florida," that means "The Feast of Flowers" in Spanish. He certainly named this place correctly.

Though we may not have tulips and the rest outside of a florist, those of us in this part of the world get a consolation prize that's nothing short of one of my favorite things about life down here. Namely, there's always something in bloom according well known florist from this website. And I mean always, year-round.

Between the orchids I grow on my patio to the jasmine and jacarandas, I'm surrounded by flowers now in ways I never knew were possible when I was a kid in Pennsylvania. Despite the fact  that I've been a Floridian for 20 years, every time I come across something blooming in January or February I react to it as if it were the most exotic thing I'd ever seen.

The novelty of tropical plants never grows old. Nor for that matter do the flowers I see every day. Here are some photos I've taken of my neighborhood over the last few years and flowers are forever figuring into my photo safaris.

So put me down as a fan of the flower.


As the day wears one, a list of participating bloggers will materialize below. Give everybody a read. And while I'm telling people what to do, leave a comment below if you have a good flower story or observation.

27 March 2012

Cookies: a Blog Off post

Every two weeks, the blogosphere comes alive when bloggers of all stripes weigh in on the same topic in something called a Blog Off. The topic of the current Blog Off is "cookies."


I love shortbread with something that borders on an obsession and I played around with if for years until I perfected a recipe that produces a buttery, somewhat salty, somewhat sweet and perfectly sand textured shortbread. The ingredients couldn't be simpler, the art to this one comes from the perfect oven temperature and time spent therein.

I used to try to make these with a spoon, but they have to be of a uniform thickness or they won't have the right texture. On a lark I bought a cookie gun one year and it yielded the perfect shortbread cookie. Who knew? Some people call them cookie presses, but I call it a cookie gun. It makes me feel more macho that way.

Anyhow, I bought a Wilton Cookie Press (gun! it's a gun!) Pro Ultra 2. It's perfect --plenty of shapes and it's easy to load and clean.

My Ultimate Shortbread


1 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup confectioners' sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour


Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C).
Whip butter with an electric mixer until fluffy. Stir in the confectioners' sugar, cornstarch, and flour. Beat on low for one minute, then on high for 3 to 4 minutes. Drop cookies by spoonfuls 2 inches apart on an ungreased cookie sheet.
Bake for 8 minutes in the preheated oven. Watch  them like a hawk. Pull them out of the oven at precisely 8 minutes or they will scorch. Once they're out of the oven let them cool for a couple of minutes and then transfer them to a cooling rack. Sprinkle them with powdered sugar while they are still hot if you'd like.

That recipe will make enough shortbread to feed an army but fear not. Take the extras, throw them in a food processor, grind 'em up and make an amazing crust for a cheesecake.


As the day wears on, there will appear below a table of all of the participating bloggers in today's Blog Off. Give 'em a read!

13 March 2012

We, ourselves, have grammar pet peeves: a Blog Off post

Every two weeks, the blogosphere comes alive when bloggers of every stripe weigh in on the same topic. The current topic is "Grammar pet peeves." Here's my take:

I have too many grammar pet peeves to list, so I'll pull out a few that work my nerves the most. As an intro, I pride myself on my knowledge of the English language. I'm not a grammar purist and I don't correct other people, not any more at least. I love English because it's so flexible and it allows its speakers to take all manner of liberties with its structures and norms. However, in order to break a rule of grammar, one has to know the rule he's breaking and do so intentionally in order to avoid looking like an illiterate clod.

My knowledge of English grammar is a direct result of my studying other languages. I never "got" my mother tongue until I learned how to compare it to other languages. It's a bit of a paradox, but the best way to understand English grammar is to study another language. A good grammar handbook helps too.

I still have my copy of the Little, Brown Handbook from college and I say it's the best guide to English there is. Pick up a copy, it's worth the investment.

On to the pet-peeves. (Yes, I know that's a sentence fragment.)

The first one out of the gate is the blatant misuse of reflexive pronouns. Modern English has eight reflexive pronouns. They are: myself, yourself, himself, herself, itself, ourselves, yourselves and themselves. Reflexive pronouns refer the action of a verb back to the subject of a sentence. A few examples:

I saw myself in the mirror.
You drove yourself crazy.
He worked himself into a frenzy.
She grew that rhubarb herself.

You get the picture. The use of a reflexive pronoun is only correct when it's used in similar ways to the examples above. Reflexive pronouns have to have a verb between them and their antecedents.

I hear reflexive pronouns being massacred all the time and the one that gets beaten up more than the others is the first person singular reflexive pronoun, myself. It's usually misused thus: "I, myself, think that this is the best rhubarb pie I've ever tasted." Wrong, wrong, wrong; and using a reflexive pronoun that way makes the speaker sound like a boob. Don't do it. "I, myself..." doesn't add emphasis in the least; that's why English has adverbs and other parts of speech. "I think this is the best rhubarb pie I've ever tasted." is already making a statement. If you want to drive your point home even further, just add another clause to the end of the sentence. "This is the best rhubarb pie I've ever tasted and I've had some of the best."

Next out of the gate is the misuse of the first person plural pronoun "we." We indicates that the speaker is including other people in the statement he or she is making. For example, "My family and I were on vacation, we went to Paris." See how the first clause of that sentence limited the scope of the second person pronoun in the clause that followed it? It's imperative that a speaker limit the scope of second person pronouns to avoid dragging in innocent bystanders.

Writers from independent blogs to the New York Times misuse that all the time and it goes through me like a knife. When Sarah Palin's not putting her foot in her mouth, she's always making statements like "We're sick of President Obama." Who the hell is we? Please don't include me in your delusions.

If you have an opinion or a statement to make, stick to the first person singular and stand up for yourself. Say "I'm sick of President Obama." Use plural pronouns only with clearly defined groups. If you can't define a group clearly, then use an indefinite article and a noun. Here's an example, "Some people are sick of President Obama." Using an indefinite article in this way is not only correct, it's polite and it's a more accurate description of what's so.

The last one I'll get into here is a disregard to English's subjunctive mood. Modern English has four moods: indicative, imperative, infinitive and subjunctive. I've you've ever studied a Romance language, you know that those languages make ample use of the subjunctive. English reserves it to a handful of uses.

A quick primer:
Indicative is the default mood in English and example is "The dogs are barking."
Imperative is a command, "Don't  just stand there!"
Infinitive mood describes a state of being without referring to a subject directly. Infinitives always have the word "to" in front of them, so a statement such as "He came to see you." is using the infinitive mood.
Subjunctive is a whole other animal and it needs a bit more explanation because it requires a different conjugation.

A verb uses its subjunctive mood when it expresses a condition which is doubtful or not factual. It is most often found in a clause beginning with the word if. It's also found in clauses following a verb that expresses a doubt, a wish, regret, request, demand, or proposal.

The most obvious example is when someone is expressing a thought that's contrary to fact. "If I were a rich man, I wouldn't have to work hard." Collectively, wishes such as this one are called "if clauses." By starting the sentence with "if," the speaker is setting the stage for a statement that's not true.

The subjunctive comes into play in other cases too. If someone asks to you come into his or her office but doesn't specify a time, the correct response would be "Is it necessary that I be there at ten?"

Did you catch that? It's not "Is it necessary that I am there at ten?" Because there's an element of doubt involved in the interaction, the sentence calls the subjunctive mood. In the subjunctive, "I am" becomes "I be."

The subjunctive mood is a lonely thing in modern English and many speakers are all to eager to ignore it. On behalf of the subjunctive mood, I will vouch for the fact that it likes company and it misses the attention it deserves.

English is a remarkably nuanced and flexible language and everyone who speaks it bends it to his or her own will. That's a good thing and I take liberties with it all the time. However, English is a language that's capable of incredible precision. That precision's only possible with a thorough understanding of the many, many rules of English's grammar and the widespread agreement that its speakers abide by the same rules.

I have been studying and trying to master my mother tongue for most of my life and it'll always a work in progress. I'll never have it fully mastered and that's one of the things that makes English so appealing to me. English has as many exceptions as it does rules and I have an incredible respect for anyone who studies it as a second language.

Native speakers have no excuse however. Grammar rules and guidelines are easy to find and though it takes a bit of effort, a facility with English isn't so difficult. If you're someone who writes, speaks or thinks for a living; you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy of the Little, Brown Handbook.

Your audience will thank you.

These are my top three and rest assured, there are plenty more. If you're not participating today, what are some of your pet-peeves?


As the day wears on, the other participants in today's Blog Off will appear today in a table. Click on their links and leave a comment.

28 February 2012

That song that's stuck in my head: a Blog Off post

Every two weeks, the blogosphere comes alive when bloggers of every stripe weigh in on the same topic. This week's Blog Off is about songs that get stuck in your head. Here's my take.


I fly in and out of the Tampa airport with alarming regularity. According to FourSquare, I've checked into that airport 28 times in the last six months. It's a great airport so far as airports go and obviously, I spend a fair amount of time there.

via The Decorating Diva

Every time I retrieve my car and drive home I pass a stand of oak trees at the entrance to the airport. All of them have a yellow ribbon tied around their trunks. A yellow ribbon tied around an oak tree has become the de facto statement of hope for the men and women who are in the armed services. Those ribbons are a stand in for "supporting the troops." I understand the sentiment behind those ribbons, but wouldn't it be better if the United States kept young men and women out of harm's way to begin with? Had the US not invaded Afghanistan and Iraq in the first place, there'd be no need to tie yellow ribbons around trees. If the energy expended in those ribbons were directed toward electing politicians who didn't buy into the idea that the US is the world's police force, we'd be a better country. If you want to "support the troops," work to bring them home.


Anyhow, every time I pass that stand of beribboned oak trees, it's 1973 all over again and this song bores its way into my brain:

The only thing I can do at that point is crank up my Twitter buddy Joseph Calleja's E luceven le stelle from Puccini's Tosca. He's also my favorite contemporary tenor and a good guy. Even if you don't get opera, the man has a voice that won't quit.

I cannot get enough of his singing. So far as I can tell, Calleja's the only cure for a Tony Orlando and Dawn earworm. I've seen him perform twice by the way, each time in New York. On my bucket list is seeing Calleja in Tosca at La Scala in Milan. One of these days...

What songs bore into your head? What prompts that boring and how do you get rid of them?

Check out how other bloggers address this topic by clicking on the links in the following table.

14 February 2012

What smell takes you back? A Blog Off post

Every two weeks, the blogosphere comes alive when bloggers of all stripes weigh in on the same topic. This week, the topic is "What smells take you back?" Here's my take:


It's said that smell is the sense most closely tied to memory. I don't know how true that is but it strikes me as something that's entirely plausible.

There are smells of all kinds that take me back to different places and times. The first that comes to mind is this one, Old Spice.

The scent of original Old Spice after shave will always remind me of my Dad. I can't imagine ever using it myself but that smell reminds me of him as much as the words "Macht schnell" do.

Chanel Number 5 reminds me of my mother and Shalimar reminds me of my grandmother Stewart. The smell of polished wood reminds me of my Grandmother Anater's prized piano. Johnson's baby shampoo will always remind me of my nieces and nephews.

The scent of light machine oil will always remind me of my brother Ray's coronet. The smell of baking bread reminds me of my sister Adele, even when the baking bread's in my own oven. Wintergreen reminds me of the Skoal my brothers Matt, Tom, Dave and Steve dipped incessantly.

The smell of cow manure transports me back to my childhood home in Pennsylvania without fail, the scent of a pine tree right after a cool rain reminds me of my Ontario childhood summers and the smell of the ocean reminds me of afternoons at the Jersey shore.

Old Bay seasoning reminds me of crab boils with neighbors when I was a kid and the smell of celery and onion sauteing means my mother and grandmother are about to make stuffing on Thanksgiving morning.

Deisel exhaust reminds me of taking public transportation everywhere when I was in college and the smell of wet stone reminds me of Italy.

Jasmine and Jacaranda remind me of Florida, my current home, and roses smell like my brother Tom's yard. Wood smoke smells like my brother Dave's apartment in Pittsburgh and stale beer smells like the bar I worked in a lifetime ago. Golden retriever smells like my brother Matt's homes over the years and that's a good thing. Steve's houses have always just smelled clean.

My sense of smell and my scent memories remain with me permanently and there's not a day that goes by without my remembering a place or a time based on a whiff of something.


As the day goes on, more and more bloggers will contribute posts and I encourage you to read aech of them.

31 January 2012

Things my grandmother told me: a Blog Off post

Every two weeks the blogosphere comes alive when bloggers of every stripe weigh in on the same topic. This week, it's "Things my grandmother told me." Here's my take.


This was my grandmother Stewart, Guellma Gevene Flowers-Smith-Stewart, whom we called Gevene with great affection. Gram was a force of nature, her character was forged by adversities I cannot imagine but to interact with her while she was alive was a lesson in joy. You'd never know she'd been dealt so many blows.

Gevene in an unguarded moment, probably telling one of my brothers to go toss off (in terms less gentle than that).

She lost her mother to the Spanish flu and was the subject of a custodial tug of war between her father and her grandparents in the early 1900s. Her grandparents, my great-great grandparents won the battle, and my great-grandfather George took Gram's sister Dorothy back to Canada in about 1918 and Gram never saw either of them again. I know I have a fair number of Canadian readers and please, if you're from Edmonton and related to George or his daughter Dorothy Myrtle Flowers please reach out to me. Even if you're not related and you know somebody whose last name is Flowers please let me know.

Anyhow, Gevene was adopted by her grandparents who treated her as a domestic servant. My great-great-grandfather Harper Smith was an amazing man by all accounts. He was a physician who was the son of a physician and a pillar of his community. Still, he treated his grand daughter pretty shabbily but he made her who she was.

I idolized my grandmother Stewart and she showered the love she never got as a kid on my siblings and me. Though she could be thorny, we always knew that she was in our corner, no matter where we ended up.

In the late 80s my folks were in Orlando and we decided that it would be a good thing for me to take Gevene down to meet them for a couple of weeks. The complicating factor was her dog Joy, from whom she was inseparable.

Gevene, Joy and my niece Sarah. Sarah you were loved very, very deeply by your great-grandmother.

So we decided that I'd drive from Pennsylvania to Florida with my Gram (who was then 85) and her dog. Gram was up for it and looking forward to an 18-hour road trip. I'd never driven that far in my life and I was anxious to see how we'd do. I made hotel reservations at the halfway point and expected to take two days to make the trip.

We left Pennsylvania at around 6am and headed south on I-95. Within an hour Gevene started telling me the story of her life. I didn't even have to pry, she had some stories to get out of her system and I was an all-too-willing audience for them. Here's some of what she told me.

When Gevene was in her 20s she was working at a newspaper and she fell in love. The man she loved was as handsome as she was beautiful and as driven as she was. However he was a Catholic and my great-great grandparents decided that as a Catholic he was an unfit match and they made her break it off with a man she loved. My great-great grandparents had another plan.

Despite her heartache, her sense of duty and obligation compelled her to go along with their wishes. And really, what option did a woman in the 1920s have? Though it must have been a terrible time for her, I wouldn't be here if things hadn't panned out the way they did.

Gram with a very young Sarah

The man who became my grandfather Stewart was the younger brother of my great-Aunt Scharma's husband. Walker Stewart was out in San Francisco and seeking his fortune (Gevene's description was a lot less kind than that) when he got hauled back to Pennsylvania to marry the woman who became my grandmother. Though it was no love match at the start, there developed between them an affection that was as improbable as it was volatile. Together they had three kids.

She loved her two sons and her daughter, and a woman I'd never seen cry over anything teared up as soon as she started talking about her children. I couldn't get over her passion when it came to her kids. Bill, Ray and Nancy (my mom) were her life and in hearing her talk about what it was like to be a mother humanized that whole crew like nothing ever had before. She fretted over the mistakes she thought she'd made and shined in the the stuff her kids achieved.

Gram talked about her son Bill and how proud she was when he enlisted in The Navy. She told me about what it was like when she sent her daughter off to Germany to marry my Dad. She told me about her youngest son Ray, because he was the apple of her eye.

I can still hear Gevene's voice as she mimicked my mom's as a little girl when she talked about my uncle Ray, "He's good but he's bad but we love him."

Gram told me stories and things about that period of her life that I've never told a soul and probably never will. She did however, ask me to repeat the stories of who she was and where she came from. I do my best when it comes to that. I tell my nieces and nephews how much she loved them and all of them know her curiously-named family tree because I tell them. Every one of those kids knows that he or she had a great-great uncle named Le Purcell Mon Monier and a great-great aunt named Zorilla Y Marille. Brothers Reid and Walker Stewart had relatively normal names when compared to the Smith clan!

Gram, Sarah and Doggie Bruno

Gevene and I stopped at the halfway point between Pennsylvania and Florida and got as far as a lunch at Shoney's. I was all ready to stop for the night but she wanted to keep going, so we did.

We made it to Florida that day and my parents were thrilled. After all was said and done however, I came away from that drive with a sense of the people who begat me I never could have had otherwise, and in addition to that, my Gram told me all her secrets. Well, some of them anyhow.

Sixteen years after her death her fingerprints are all over my life. I look like her for starters, my red hair and blue eyes are pure Gevene. Every time I turn my mattress or scour my bathroom I'm reminded of her. When I see a cardinal, I remember her love of red shoes and hats. When I see my nieces and nephews, I think about how proud she'd be to have seen them growing up and turning into adults. When I see my great-nephew Xavier's red hair and blue eyes I can't help but to think some small part of her lives on in that little boy.

Sometimes when I'm walking though a department store I'll catch a whiff of Shalimar or Estee Lauder and it's as if she's there. Gram always smelled good and those two scents were her favorites. Every time I walk through a Macy's or a Dillards I get a reminder and a visit.

I've known more more people than I can count who are dead now, but I miss none of them more than I miss my Gram. Her hand may as well be pressed in to my heart. I am her grandson, through and through.

She lives on though me, I'm convinced of that. It's not so much Gevene the person so much as it it is Gevene the personality. My quirks and particularities, my obsessions and compulsions mimic hers and my impulse to laugh comes from her directly.

I never knew any of that until that drive down I-95 and I'll cherish that drive for the rest of my life. That drive introduced me to the person of my grandmother and it granted me something I never could have had otherwise.

Throughout the day today, bloggers will give their takes on this subject. click on 'em!

17 January 2012

If I could turn back time: a Blog Off post

Every two weeks the blogosphere comes alive as blogger of every stripe weigh in on the same topic. The topic for this iteration of the Blog Off is "If I could turn back time."

When my Blog Off partner in crime suggested this topic I bristled at the very idea of it. I'm somebody who makes it a point never to look back unless it's to learn from a mistake I made along the way. Heaven knows I've made more than my share of mistakes in my 47 years and lessons from those mistakes abound.

Wishing I could turn back the clock is about as big a waste of time as I can imagine. It's easy to while away an afternoon wishing I knew at 25 what I know now. Were that possible I'd spend the bulk of my days throttling my younger self. Don't fall in love! Don't take that job! Save your money! I'm already my own harshest critic and given the opportunity to berate my younger self would grant me a hobby the likes of which I've never seen.

But over the years I've learned that the past is just that, the past. I can't change or fix anything that happened then and wishing it were so is a fool's errand. My grandmother Anater used to say "You can't put an old head on young shoulders" and now that I'm tilting toward 50 I understand what she meant.

I like getting older and despite my bad back and crow's feet, I like most of what comes along with the aging process. It's funny that as my body starts to break down my mind has never been more alert and attuned to the world around me. Finally, I understand how the world works and I understand my place in it. I like who I am now and I'm comfortable in my own skin. That's not a statement my younger self could have made.

If it were possible to whisper all of this wisdom to the 25-year-old version of me, his head would have exploded. I couldn't have handled then what I know now.

So to answer the question  "If I could turn back time" my answer is I wouldn't.

To see how the rest of today's participants handled this topic, check back throughout today. A table with links to all of today's Blog Off blogger will appear below.

03 January 2012

Forward or backward: a Blog off post

Every two weeks the blogosphere comes alive when bloggers of every stripe weigh in on the same topic. The topic for today is "What are you looking forward to in the new year?"


The topic this week was my handiwork more or less. If you click on this link it will take to the official Let's Blog Off website and on it you can read my musings on Janus, gates, looking forward and looking back.

Pincian Gate, Rome

January gets its name from the Roman god Janus. Janus had two faces, one that looked forward and another that looked back. He presided over transitions and gates of all types and he had the ability to assess the past and the future at the same time.

St. Paul's Gate, Rome

I'll let Janus assess the year we just passed all he wants to, I can't be rid of it fast enough. For me it was a year of triumph and loss and more than anything, I'm looking forward to a great big leveling out in 2012. I expended a lot of energy at the end of the last year as I set things up for the new year and now that it's the third of the month already if feels good to have passed through the gate between the old year and the new.

St. Sebastian's Gate, Rome

Here's a partial list of what I'm looking forward to, though not in any particular order.

  • This year I'm looking forward to more travels, though just a bit less than last year.
  • I'm looking forward to more time at home and more time with my family.
  • I'm looking forward to making more money this year than I did last year.
  • I'm looking forward to deepening my friendships with friends, be they local or remote.
  • I'm looking forward to seeing my name in print and around the internet more than I did last year.
  • I'm looking forward to more great trade events and stronger relationships with the agencies that get me to them.
  • I'm looking forward to writing more blog posts and increasing the size of this audience.
  • I'm looking forward to my continuing presence on the Blanco Design Council and am truly excited to be sitting on GE Monogram's Design Advisory Committee.
  • I'm looking forward to becoming a great-uncle again this summer.
  • I'm looking forward to taking advantage of more opportunities.
  • I'm looking forward to turning 47 in May.
  • All in all, I am very much looking forward to 2012.

So there you have it, the things I'm looking forward to in 2012. What about you? What are you looking forward to this year? What milestones are you anticipating to pass?

Gate of the Angels, Vatican City


As the day goes on, a list of participating bloggers in today's Blog Off will appear as if by magic. Click on the links int he table to see how everybody else approached this topic. Happy new year!

20 December 2011

If you can't afford the tip you can't afford the meal; a Blog Off post

Every two weeks the blogosphere comes to life when bloggers of every stripe weigh in on the same topic. The topic this time is If you can't afford the tip you can't afford the meal. Here's my take.

Since about 1980 or so, the United States and the whole of the developed world has been locked in a race to the bottom. Though it's most apparent in North America, it's evident in Europe, Japan and Australia too. Competition based on innovation and smarts seems to have been replaced by competition based on low cost.

We were sold a bill of goods called the Information Economy and rather than working in factories, we'd work with our brains and usher in a new era of prosperity. But in the course of exporting our manufacturing base, the so called job creators failed to bring about this new prosperity. What they did bring forth was the big box store and the promise of ever cheaper consumer goods.

But how cheap are those cheap consumer goods and what effect do they have across our economies? In Robert Greenwald's documentary Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, the film maker explores in depth how big boxes, and Wal-Mart in particular, depress wages, impose high social costs and gut local businesses. A 75 cent bottle of shampoo is a shiny object few can resist and the act of buying it sets in motion a whole host of unintended consequences.

The first consequence is that the margin on that bottle of shampoo is so low that Wal-Mart can't afford to pay the cashier who's checking you out anything close to a living wage. Another consequence is that the company who actually made that bottle of shampoo is making so little money that they have to cut wages, benefits or to leave for the developing world.

Every time that happens by the way, it's another job exported to Mexico or China; countries where living wages and environmental regulations are considered to be quaint ideas at best.

When manufacturing jobs go away, what jobs remain are positions as cashiers at Wal-Mart. A society can't support a robust middle class on the back of Wal-Mart or any of the big boxes.

Yet the draw of that 75 cent bottle of shampoo is so strong that municipalities fight to lure in big boxes. The suburbs in the US are covered with strip malls built around them. It doesn't matter if they're Wal-Marts, Targets, Office Maxes or Pet Smarts, they have the same effect. The promise of low prices brings with it a host of social ills that range from low wages to non-existent healthcare benefits.

Furthermore, the obsession with low prices extends out from the retail sector. It extends into government where gutted education budgets and calls to eliminate the postal service are met with applause. It extends into other businesses where staff reductions and increased productivity to accommodate them are considered to be normal. It bleeds into the professions too and everyone from doctors to designers feels the same pressure to compete on price rather than value.

So what is there to do? Well, for starters stop spending money in big boxes. I have never been a fan of them and I've always been suspicious of bottom line prices. I don't buy 75 cent bottles of shampoo. I buy $4 bottles of shampoo at a grocery store where the cashiers make a living wage and have health insurance. Now that we're part of a thoroughly consumerist culture, pay attention to how and where you spend your money. I consider it to be an obligation to spend my money locally and as painful as it can be sometimes, to pay full prices. When I buy anything I think about its repercussions. What am I supporting with my dollars? Where is my money going once I spend it? Is it staying in the local economy and helping to support my neighbors or is it swelling the coffers of someone far removed from me? What do you think? How far can the push for cheap go?


22 November 2011

Roasting a turkey; a Blog Off post

Every two weeks, the blogosphere comes alive with something called a Blog Off. A Blog Off is an event where bloggers of every stripe weigh in on the same topic on the same day. The topic for this round of the Blog Off is "It's Thanksgiving, so let's talk about food"

There are few things in life that give me the kind of joy that feeding the people I love does. One of my great pleasures is to prepare a meal from scratch and to share the fruits of my efforts.

It kills me that my sentiments about food aren't shared by everybody and seeing the endless displays of convenience foods arrayed in grocery stores at this time of year sends me over the edge. Instant stuffing, instant mashed potatoes and the nightmare that is green bean casserole aren't fit for human consumption and I can't believe that those sorts of things end up on Thanksgiving tables all across this country. Scratch cooking isn't difficult, all it takes is time and attention to detail. The result is a meal that requires effort but the reward comes in knowing exactly what you're feeding your loved ones. Read the ingredients on a box of Stovetop Stuffing some time. Is that really the sort of thing you want to feed to people you care about?

The centerpiece of any Thanksgiving dinner is a stuffed turkey. If turkey's not your thing, a capon makes a perfect stand in. In either case, stuffing and roasting a large bird is a simple operation.

All photos from Martha Stewart

When you're buying a turkey, allow a pound for every person you're feeding. Most frozen turkeys, and even some fresh ones, are shot full of heaven knows what so that they remain moist during roasting. This sort of idiot-proofing is completely unnecessary and introduces a bunch of things nobody needs in his or her diet. Find a fresh or frozen turkey that has one ingredient, a turkey. You get bonus points if it came from a local farm.

Defrosting a turkey in the refrigerator takes a couple of days. And if you're late to the game and don't have a few days, there's hope. You can defrost a large, frozen bird in a couple of hours using cold tap water. The USDA's website has some terrific guidelines on safe thawing.

Once thawed, it's time to prepare your bird for roasting and a large part of that preparation involves making stuffing. Two days before you need to use it, cube the slices of a whole loaf of bread and set them on a baking sheet. Let the bread dry out and get stale. Again, in the interest of knowing what I'm feeding my loved ones, I use bread I baked myself. But then again, I'm a purist.

Making stuffing is easy and Thanksgiving is no time to get cute. Holding onto traditions is what Thanksgiving is for. I make the same bread and sage stuffing my mother and my grandmother always made. I have no doubt my grandmother learned it from her grandmother and when I make it now, I feel like I'm honoring the people who came before me and upon whose shoulders I stand every day. I don't follow recipes or measure things, I tend to cook by instinct and sight. The following instructions are meant to be adapted, but if you follow them as written you'll get a good result.

Here goes. Remove the giblets and the neck from the carcass of the bird. Put them in a sauce pan with four to six cups of water and boil them for 45 minutes. Add more water as it evaporates. After 45 minutes, remove from heat and add a teaspoon of salt, a teaspoon of thyme and a couple good grinds of black pepper. You just made turkey stock, congratulations. Fish out the organs and neck and feed them to the closest dog. Let your stock cool.

Melt a stick of butter in a sauce pan. Once the butter's melted, add about a cup of chopped celery (with leaves), a chopped half an onion (not a sweet onion) and about an eighth of a cup of chopped parsely (stems and all). Saute for ten to 15 minutes until the celery's soft but still firm. Remove from heat.

See how loosely packed that stuffing is? That's how it should look.

Take your stale bread cubes and put them in a large bowl. Pour the butter and sauteed vegetables over the bread cubes. Take about half the stock and pour it over the bread cubes, but add a bit at a time. Stir the mixture as you add the liquid. You want the bread cubes to be moist and sticky, but not sopping wet. Save the rest of your stock, you'll need it later. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

Make a chiffonade from 12 fresh sage leaves and add it to the bowl. Then add around a teaspoon of fresh thyme leaves and salt to taste. Stir and mix everything thoroughly. Set aside for the time being.

Take your now thawed turkey and rinse it thoroughly. Salt and pepper the inside of the bird. Then stuff it with the stuffing you've already prepared. Don't pack it too tightly. The goal is to fill the cavity, not to pretend you're stuffing a sofa.

A trussed bird ready for the oven.

Once stuffed, prepare the roasting pan. Line the bottom of the pan with whole celery stalks to form a rack of sorts. Roughly chop the remaining half onion and spread over the celery stalks. Set the bird on top of the celery and onion rack. Truss the bird's legs with cotton string. If there's a pop up timer in your turkey, remove it. They don't work very accurately and food safety is very important if you're roasting a stuffed turkey.

Tuck the wings under the bird before placing it in a roasting pan.

Pour around two tablespoons of olive oil over the bird. I eyeball everything so that measurement is approximate. You want to coat the entire bird, so use your hands to rub the oil over all of its exposed parts. Tuck the wing tips under the body of the bird. Sprinkle a teaspoon or two of salt over everything and set the roasting pan onto the lowest rack of your preheated oven. Every half hour that the bird's in the oven, brush it down with your remaining turkey stock. Don't skimp on the basting, the liquid that rolls off the turkey is what you'll be making gravy from later.

Toothpicks are the perfect way to pin down the skin around the neck cavity.

Use the USDA's guidelines for cooking times. Regardless of the amount of time it takes, a turkey has to be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees. You have to have a meat thermometer to be able to read this temperature. No method other than a meat thermometer can tell you with any degree of accuracy when your turkey's cooked.

Take the temperature of the inner thigh and the thickest part of the breast, don't rely on a single probe and take care not to touch any bones when you're plunging in your thermometer.

About 3/4ths of the way through the roasting process, the bird will achieve the perfect color even though it's not fully cooked yet. Make a tent from aluminum foil and cover the bird, being careful not to let the foil touch anything but the roasting pan. The foil will keep the bird from browning any further and it helps to preserve some of the moisture being lost due to the hot oven.

When the bird gets to 165 degrees, remove it from the oven and set it aside. After five minutes, remove it from the roasting pan and set it on a warm serving platter. Let it sit for another 15 minutes before you carve it.

While the turkey's resting, take a fork and remove all of the celery and onion from the bottom of the roasting pan. Pour the remaining liquid into a sauce pan. Add a tablespoon of corn starch to the remaining stock that you made earlier. Mix in the starch and stock thoroughly. Keep stirring until the starch is dissolved completely. Add the stock and starch mixture to the sauce pan holding the drippings from the roasting pan. Bring to a boil while stirring constantly. As the liquid boils, the starch will make it thicken. Once at a roiling boil it ought to be done. Add salt to taste. Congratulations. You just made gravy. Turn down the heat to a slow simmer and cover.

Remove the stuffing from the now rested bird and put it in a serving dish. If you're planning to eat right away, set it out on the table. If not, cover it and put in the oven to keep it warm.

Carve the bird and you're done.

See? Easy. All you need is a willingness to put in the time and an awareness of what cooked food looks and tastes like.

It's these sorts of handmade meals that memories are made from and where traditions are born. As a personal favor to me this year; skip the prepackaged, cheater foods for Thanksgiving and make something from scratch. Thanksgiving's not a time for haute cuisine or edgy ingredients and techniques. Rather it's a time to eat the way your grandparents did. Simple foods prepared simply make for the perfect Thanksgiving dinner.

Late breaking addition: I've been told that how to carve a turkey properly is a sticking point for a lot of people. Here's a video that explains and shows everything.

As the day progresses, a list will appear below with all of today's participating bloggers as they weigh in on today's topic. It's going to be an interesting day and passions are running high. And not just mine. Check out what bloggers from all over think about food.

08 November 2011

What did I want to be when I grew up: a Blog Off post

Every two weeks, the blogosphere comes alive with something called a Blog Off. A Blog Off is an event where bloggers of every stripe weigh in on the same topic on the same day. The topic for this round of the Blog Off is "What did I want to be when I grew up?"


What indeed?

Family photo of one of my brothers and me in the summer of '69.

I am one of those people who never knew. I mean it, I never knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. The question would come up in elementary school and I would say anything just to have the question move along to the next kid.

As I got older, I'd have an occasional glimmer. At one point I wanted to be a physician, then a PR guy, then an attorney. But none of those things really had any passion attached to them.

So I suppose as a result of that, I've been a lifelong career chameleon. I've been a journalist, scientific copy editor, a waiter, a restaurant manager, a proofreader, a copy writer, a production manager, a case manager in a halfway house, a construction worker, a residential designer and now a PR/ marketing/ social media guy. That resume's not getting me a job at Bank of America any time soon but I can no sooner imagine me in an environment like that than I can see me teaching kindergarten.

To an outsider, my various hats worn over the last 30 or so years must look kind of schizophrenic but to me they follow a narrative that makes sense. They've also left me flexible and ready to tackle anything. Or at least that's what I tell myself.

Most of my peers and friends knew from an early age and they followed a path to get to where they are now. I took a path too, it was just a winding one. Part of me envies folks who knew all along and could follow a singular vision through life. But another part of me relishes the fact that I've had so many varied experiences and worn so many hats.

As the day progresses, a list will appear below with all of today's participating bloggers as they weigh in on today's topic. It's going to be an interesting day, so check out what bloggers from all over wanted to be when they grew up.

25 October 2011

What is home? A Blog Off post

Every two weeks, the blogosphere comes alive with something called a Blog Off. A Blog Off is an event where bloggers of every stripe weigh in on the same topic on the same day. The topic for this round of the Blog Off is "What is Home?"


It's Saturday morning and I've been mulling over this topic since we settled on it last week. So much so that I decided to fly back to my homeland to see my family of course, but at the same time to do a bit of reflection on the very idea of home.

In my admittedly wild fantasy life, home looks like the photo above. An ancient, moldering pile of ochred plaster on an obscure viale somewhere in an Italian city. However, as a non-Italian, Italy could never really be home no matter how appealing the fantasy. But man, it sure is pretty.

Reality now looks more like this, an old bungalow in the American tropics. It has its charms and it's certainly exotic by the standards I grew up with but it's more rife with caveats than I ever thought it would be when I arrived here.

Right now it's Saturday morning and I'm sitting in my brother's kitchen in Southeastern Pennsylvania, the land of my birth and a place more than a thousand miles from where I call home now. He never left and I couldn't get away from here fast enough.

Coming back years later, I can't escape the fact that the place is beautiful. The photo above is what I can see from his kitchen window. My brother's home and the land of my birth spans the divide between rural and urban living as he does. My brother is a cultured, worldly man and he proves what I know to be true. That it's possible to be in the country without necessarily being of the country. That's a distinction I could never see when I called that rolling-farmland-within-easy-driving-distance-of-Philadelphia home. In my mind back then, the very sight of cows meant that I was a hayseed and I couldn't handle it. So I left to look for something else.

My ancestors called Pennsylvania home for hundreds of years and I mean that literally. They arrived in Philadelphia before the United States was the United States. The same brother in whose kitchen I'm sitting and I once stood in front of our earliest ancestor's grave marker and it hit me like a ton of bricks that he died right after the Revolutionary War. The ancestor in question, Sampson Smith, arrived here with two of his brothers and I can imagine them arguing about whether they should rebel from English rule. It has to have been similar to the arguments my brothers and I get into over current events. Though the stakes were undoubtedly higher in the 18th Century, haggling brothers are and will always be haggling brothers and thank God for that.

My roots run deep in this part of the world and life in Florida has always felt like borrowed time. The wild rhododendrons and maple trees I grew up surrounded by are in my DNA and I can no sooner purge myself of them than I can get rid of my blue eyes. As I get older, I have a harder time resisting the tug of my homeland and the biases and allegiances I grew up with stay with me.

When I hear a Philly accent, no matter where in the world I am, I feel like I've met someone I've known my whole life. No matter how long I live away from there, that eastern Pennsylvania variant of the mid-Atlantic accent just makes me feel comfortable. One of my nieces asked me for a glass of wooter yesterday and I could have hugged her for saying wooter instead of water.

Man, somebody's feeling nostalgic.

To make up for my sense of borrowed time, for the last 20 years or so I've been guided by a quote from the great American essayist/ poet/ novelist/ playwright/ screenwriter Paul Monette. Monette wrote in one of his earlier non-fiction books that "Home is the place you get to, not the place you come from." Despite any lingering misgivings I may harbor for having left, that quote is so true it hurts. It would be true had I stayed and it's most definitely true from a distance.

I'm not one to collect quotes, but that one hangs in a frame next to my bathroom sink. I look at it every morning when I brush my teeth. I believe it. Even though I live alone and I'm removed from the places the rest of my family calls home, my home is home. When I go see my parents or I come back to Pennsylvania, I call it "going to see my family." It pains me when I hear other adults refer to going back to the places where they were born as "going home."

For years, that idea of home, my home, has sustained me through thick and thin. When I landed in St. Petersburg around 14 years ago I found here a great community of friends. I felt very quickly that I belonged. My and our gatherings for holidays and card games and drop-bys were legendary. I felt then that I belonged in St. Pete, that my presence there mattered.

Even though I was surrounded by people who loved me, I was clear that they were just a manifestation of something I was generating. My sense of home started inside of me and worked out from there. My beloved friends and neighbors were reflecting back what I was sending out.

That started to change when the economy tanked a couple of years ago. Florida took it on the chin worse than a lot of places and opportunities to earn a living evaporated seemingly overnight. One by one, the people I was close to in St. Pete started to leave to pursue their dreams elsewhere, in places where they could actually make a living.

At the same time, I started traveling around the country and indeed the world as I sought to make a living of my own. So as friends left and I left with increasing frequency, something started to change. I found myself growing impatient with life in a third-tier city and started to pine for the bright lights bigger places. When I'd return home, there were fewer and fewer familiar faces to greet me.

My distraction and strange sense of isolation brought with it something else, namely a hesitation on my part to generate a home for myself. The last year has been a strange one and I blame my getting older though that's not entirely true. I don't quite feel like I fit in St. Pete the way that I used to. My sense of belonging there is a lot less intense than it used to be.

At the same time, I find myself seeking stronger connections with people who aren't in St. Pete. I miss my nieces and nephews, my siblings and their wives, my parents and my colleagues who are now spread all over the US and Europe. The critical mass of the people I once clung to used to be in Florida but now that critical mass stretches from the DC burbs to New York. There are pockets of of them in Florida, New Orleans, Seattle, London and San Francisco too, but my attentions have shifted to places other than St. Pete. This mystifies me. I always thought that St. Pete was going to be home forever, but I'm not so sure anymore.

So what to do about it? I don't know the answer and I'm in no great hurry to figure it out. One of the benefits of having survived to middle age is that I've come to suspect sudden changes, be they mine or someone else's.

Whatever happens, I know that it's up to me to generate an answer and a path forward. It's up to me to generate home, where ever that may be.

This topic has been a great one, and I'm glad to be able to vent my angst. Ten years ago I would have written that home was wherever I found myself but these days I'm beginning to think there's a bit more to it. So to try to address the topic at hand, home is where I love and where I am loved. Wherever that ends up being.