Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Ice cream, yard sales, and 70's nostalgia

I grew up in a Washington, D.C., suburb that had incredible ice cream. There was a famous frozen custard stand at Jefferson Village, a Gifford's at Bailey's Crossroads, and one of the first Baskin Robbins stores (with flavors like creme de menthe) just down the road. My family spent summers on Cape Cod (with the incomparable Kreme 'n' Kone in Dennisport) and in Boston, which boasted Brigham's (with the Fribble ultra thick frappe), Bailey's (an old-fashioned ice cream parlor just off the Boston Common) and Howard Johnson's, which in the 1960s had great maple walnut, butter pecan and coffee ice creams.

In the mid-1970s, while I was in college, electric ice cream machines came into vogue. My gourmet friend and New Haven housemate Mike Maffeo aspired to having one, and it was on our list of things look for at yard sales. Sure enough, we found a Waring Ice Cream Parlor, new in box, for $5. "My daughter-in-law gave it to me to keep me fat!" the seller told us. "Take it away!" We made off with it and spent the summer churning strawberry ice cream (using fresh berries, cut and sugared to make a nice syrup) and banana frozen yogurt.

Twenty five years later, I'm living in Seattle, a city apparently oblivious to ice cream. One gourmet option, Fran's at University Village, makes ice cream in mind-boggling flavors, but it's just too rich. The soft ice cream found at cheap stands is, for the most part, sickeningly sweet and glossily artificial. Nowadays Baskin Robbins is hardly a sure thing; quality varies by store-by-store because it's a franchise. The only supermarket ice cream that's at all distinguished is from Dallas' Out of a Flower, which offers flavors like Fresh Nutmag, Texas Goat Cheese, Marc de Bourgogne, and (for the more conservative) Dark Chocolate and Rum. But the only place to buy it is Larry's Market. [ NOTE: As of March 2003, Out of a Flower's web site appears to be offline. Their phone is (800) 743-5696.]

Last weekend I spotted the Waring Ice Cream Parlor in the pantry, still in its original box, having followed me through at least seven moves. [NOTE: Here are the much-requested operating instructions for the Waring Ice Cream Parlor.] Tonight I noticed a pint of heavy cream in the fridge, left over from my husband's recent truffle project. Obviously I was meant to make ice cream. Soon the Ice Cream Parlor was grinding loudly away just the way I'd remembered, ice cubes and salt gently sloshing outside the rotating metal cream container. Forty minutes later I was putting two containers of spectacular tasting vanilla into our freezer. (I have to admit, the ice-cream-making process was a lot easier now that most refrigerators have automatic ice makers; years ago in New Haven I can remember running short of ice and dashing to a neighbor's to scrounge some.)

Since we rarely indulge in ice cream, or keep heavy cream around the house, I suspect the Waring Ice Cream Parlor will last me for the rest of my days. Wish you had one of these culinary workhorses? Act now: I spotted three of them selling on eBay, for $15 each.

Monday, July 21, 2003

Shock tactics

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Relations with our neighbors got tense this past winter when Sheba darted after their cat and pursued it around the block, cornering it and socking a few times along the circuit.

I had the flu, and was chasing them in my slippers, and had great difficulty catching up with them and prying Sheba off of her victim. I promised my screaming neighbor that we would get a shock collar to train Sheba not to go onto their property. I did research, purchased a collar for training small dogs, but just couldn't bring myself to put it on the little white cat who looks so fragile and dainty when she isn't eviscerating her fellow beasts. The box with the collar sat in our front hallway for months. Fortunately, Sheba, who is nearly four, mellowed out in the interim. When we saw her trespassing we punished her by taking her indoors (a time in, instead of a time out), and she got the message.

Last week, I decided it was time to put the collar (never opened) up for sale on eBay. It was purchased right away and today I shipped it off to the buyer, a woman whose street address is 71 Doberman Lane. That certainly got me thinking, as I bade farewell to the collar at the Post Office. Is Doberman Lane part of a development, with Pit Bull Place, and Corgi Court? Could you live on Doberman Lane and own a couple of toy poodles? Somehow, I doubt it's a route favored by joggers or postal carriers. Come to think of it, the buyer's address also included a box number...

Friday, July 18, 2003

Summer songs

This morning our local NPR station's call-in show was about summer songs--Springsteen, Led Zepplin, the Beach Boys, Patty Larkin, and classics from Alice Cooper's "School's Out for Summer" to the Lovin' Spoonful's "Summer in the City."

As I thought back on songs from my summers over the years on Cape Cod, at Andover, and in New Haven, I stopped when I got to 1984. We were living in Sardegna, near the shore in Alghero, in a furnished apartment complete with a TV. One of Italy's public TV stations (Rai Due?) aired the Rainer Werner Fassbinder film Lili Marleen. It's the story of a cabaret singer who rises to fame based on her performance of the love song "Lili Marlene." (Note: The film's name is spelled differently that that of the song, whose lyrics are from a 1918 poem by German soldier Hans Leip, with music by German composer Norbert Schultze, and English lyrics by British songwriters J.J. Phillips and Tommy Connors) The singer's recording of "Lili Marlene" sweeps Europe, its popularity growing until the song becomes the theme of the German army. By the film's end the singer is a dolled-up plaything of the Nazi brass and the love song has been corrupted into a grotesque, ominous march.

As you can imagine, Fassbinder's film deeply affected Italians who'd lived through the war under Mussolini, and it fascinated Italians of my generation, who were troubled by and curious about their country's Fascist past.

The movie played in July, and all summer long, in cafes in little villages, on the streets of Rome, you'd here "Lili Marlene" murmured and whistled, particular the refrain "...for you, Lili Marlene." Like the memory of a bitter love affair, the song had returned from the past to haunt an entire country.

Juxtaposed in my own memory with "Lili Marlene" is the only other song I remember from that bright, hot summer in Italy. It was the number one pop tune, an American import, blasted from beachside gelato stands and car radios: Stevie Wonder's "I Just Called to Say I Love You."

Both songs are readily available at Apple's iTunes Music Store. There are two versions of the Stevie Wonder song (I picked the less orchestral) and three of "Lili Marlene." The Carly Simon version (!) did nothing for me, but I bought the two utterly transcendant Marlene Dietrich versions, one in German, the other in charmingly accented English.

Thursday, July 17, 2003

Getting rid of bamboo

My bamboo is on its way to Burning Man, and good riddance.

Two years ago I knew nothing of bamboo except my husband's tales of the bamboo at his ex-wife's house in Pennsylvania; he claimed it could grow 11 inches in one day.

We'd been househunting for six months when we spotted the clapboard Tudor that is now our home overlooking the Olympics. We loved everything about it--except the backyard, which was overshadowed by a huge hedge of dark green bamboo nearly 30 feet high.

Our first summer in the house we found ourselves avoiding the backyard, which even on hottest days seemed cold and uninviting. In midsummer, the bamboo began to shed ugly dry leaves all over the yard. I called in a bamboo specialist who informed me our bamboo was "the wrong bamboo." Plus it was badly in need of pruning, and it was diseased. He could remove it for $2,000.

$2,000? We decided to let it continue to loom for a while. "I hope it didn't hear you," my husband muttered.

In November, I took drastic action. My favorite concrete contractor, Mike, who had done the driveway at our previous house and poured our neighbors' foundation, was coming to put in a concrete pad for my garden shed project. He agreed to bring in a jackhammer and have his team take out all the bamboo.

"I'll never do that again," he said, after two days of jackhammering and digging. He suggested that I pour Roundup weed killer into the 20-foot-long trench after he'd removed the bamboo. I put my little environmentally correct nose in the air, and declined. Big mistake.

By spring, the bamboo was back with a vengeance. I called several garden services, and they all assured me the only answer was Roundup. "Wait until the sprouts are 6 inches high, clip them, and shoot Roundup down the stems. You'll have to do it for two or three years, but eventually you'll get rid of it," one garden expert told me.

I bought Roundup and rubber gloves, and went to work. Faced with my hostile treatment, the bamboo headed north into my neighbors' yard, tunneling under a concrete pathway and popping up next to their foundation. When their house went up for sale, I took to sneaking over and applying Roundup there, as well. Since I was concerned about pets coming in contact with the treated shoots, I covered all my work with plastic garden pots.

Meanwhile, there was a clump of bamboo in our yard that Mike hadn't removed. The bamboo guru had said it was "good bamboo," in that it was more delicate, and only about 15 feet high. Plus it was contained by concrete retaining walls, preventing it from taking over the yard. Still, it was shedding vigorously, and the leaves were embedding themselves in our cedar decking and piling up unattractively in the garden bed.

I read up on bamboo and discovered that it needs to be pruned--one-third of the stalks removed--annually. I figured ours hadn't been touched for four or five years. The question was how on earth would you get a pruning saw into the thick clump? Eventually I purchased a hori-hori, and went to work on it, sawing the stalks and then tugging and dragging to get them out of the clump. After removing half of the stalks, I was amazed at how attractive the remaining bamboo looked. It waved and rustled in wind.

But now I had a heap of 15-foot bamboo poles drying out in the driveway. I put an ad on CraigsList, offering them for free, and was swamped with takers in minutes. I chose one, and sent an email to everyone else who'd inquired, saying it was spoken for and expressing my surprise at its popularity.

"I'll bet you it's going to Burning Man," one woman wrote back, and, sure enough, she was right. My bamboo turned out to be far trendier than I am.

Wednesday, July 16, 2003

More tales of marketing communications

The development of an effective marketing message is often like the emergence of a long-lost heir to the throne in a chaotic kingdom--it's born in secret, carefully nurtured and developed by a few courageous caretakers, and unveiled just at the right moment to save the day before the grumbling council of jaded politicians can have it brainwashed, dismembered, or sent to rot in the dungeons. Had the heir been raised by the politicians, he or she would be one of them, and the empire would truly be in trouble.

As a communications consultant, I've spent much of my career producing marketing materials bearing what's left of an organization's messages after committees have finished gumming them into pap. Is the scenario always that grim? No. Usually, but not always. Here's a story with both a good and a bad ending:

A few years back, I was doing marketing materials for....hmmm....let's call it a research center. Two teams in the research center liked my work for the director's office and hired me to design marketing packets for them. The scope of the work was similar, my proposals were accepted, and the contracts signed. One week later, I met with the point person from Group A; four weeks later, Group A was happily mailing out its four-color brochure to prospective clients. Seven months later, I was meeting with 11 members of Group B, and rewriting the descriptive text for their brochure for the umpteenth time.

Where do good messages go wrong? Right at the beginning, as a rule.

The ideal message would be one designed by an organization's leader, assisted by a communications professional. The leader's job is to ensure that the message genuinely represents the organization. The professional's job is to make sure it will make sense to a variety of audiences and will work well in a variety of media. A good communications professional will also give the leader feedback on the how long the message is likely to remain useful, and find out if it needs to be linked to messages about other organizational activities.

This is rarely what happens. For some reason, most leaders think they don't have enough time to focus on the topic for a half hour. They prefer to waste weeks of staff and consultants' time.

My all-time favorite tale involves a multi-billion dollar organization that decided it needed a mission statement. The leader asked the company's organizational psychologists to spearhead the effort. They designed a survey to determine what words came to mind when people thought of the organization. This survey was delivered--by the means of special publications--to hundreds of customers and staff. From all these results, the psychologists compiled a list of the 20 most frequently used words. Then they organized a retreat at which a committee of staff and customers wrote descriptions of the organization's mission that included all of the 20 words.

At the end of this expensive process, the committee went to the CEO to present their sentences. The CEO looked puzzled and annoyed. "This doesn't sound right me," the CEO said. "I thought our mission statement would say 'We do X, Y, and Z for A, B, and C.'"

The company PR person, who had been an unwilling captive of the psychologists and the committee through the whole affair, blurted "That sounds like a good statement to me." Committee members shot him looks that could have stunned a rampaging elk.

"Great!" barked the CEO, getting up from the table. "Let's put it in the annual report."

Monday, July 14, 2003

Not for wimps

My dad fell last Friday, thought he was OK, but early Sunday morning he woke up with terrible muscle spasms and pain and couldn't get out of bed. My mom called 911, EMTs arrived and took him to the ER at the nearby community hospital, and he was admitted for evaluation. I visited him on Sunday and he seemed comfortable and lucid.

My mother insisted my husband and I come up and take away the 9x12 Oriental rug she thought he'd tripped on. We rolled it up and shot it lengthwise off their balcony onto his Forester parked strategically below. My husband used his mountaineering skills to hog-tie the rug to the roof rack!

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Friday, July 04, 2003

Clipping the price tag

I've always considered it rather gauche to ask people how much they paid for something--or to tell them how much I paid. And I'm an unabashed feminist. Those two facts, combined, make my engagement ring a problem for me.

I wear a plain wedding band all the time, indicating that I'm legally and spiritually in partnership with a spouse. No problem. But my engagement ring remains in seclusion because I'm uncomfortable with what it does--and doesn't--indicate.

The diamond makes an appearance once a year on my wedding anniversary to be worn, along with whatever is stylish, when I go out to dinner with my husband. When we get home, I put it away again.

Practically speaking, the engagement-style ring, with a stone in raised setting, is a bloody pain. It's right in the category with stiletto high heels, fussy little purses with rigid handles, and Brazilian waxing. The diamond snags on sweaters and upholstery, and you risk damaging it when you undertake any sort of respectable physical work like carpentry or gardening. Taking it off to protect it means you immediately forget where you put it, necessitating a panicked search.

But, practicality aside, wearing an engagement ring is like wearing your clothes with the price tag still on. Or painting the price of your house on the front door. Or wearing your resume pinned to the back of your shirt. Tacky, tacky, tacky.

Worse, the information conveyed by an engagement ring is not absolute. It's relative; merely an inviting starting point for speculation. When I got engaged and wore my diamond in to work at the downtown corporation where I was doing PR, female colleagues--even ones I barely knew--would dash over to check it out. The subtext of their interest seemed to be: "Did she hook a guy who's either really rich or really in love?" I felt invaded.

Those of you who can look at an engagement ring and not know if it came from a gumball machine or from Tiffany's (that's most men, and a small subsection of women who have my deep admiration) are now excused from reading the rest of this blog entry. The rest of you, read on--and admit you've entertained some of the following thoughts:

"They've got plenty of money, but that ring is a real loser. Maybe he's a cheapskate. Of course, maybe it's from back when they were starting out an she keeps it for sentimental reasons. Or is she just clueless?"

"Sheesh, that's one gaudy rock! But those two just got married, live in a cheap apartment and have entry-level jobs. So--are the parents helping them out? Are they in debt up to their eyeballs over that ring? Is the diamond a fake?"

"What a stunning ring. But they've always seemed so modest and unassuming. Are they secretly loaded and just pretending to embrace the "live simply" lifestyle like the rest of us? Maybe our non-profit should be hitting them up for a heftier donation. Maybe we should ask her to sit on the board..."

Thoughts to make you squirm, expecially if you're the subject, rather than the thinker. Thus my ring lives a quiet life, never getting lost in the garden or down the sink drain, and never providing tantalizing clues to anyone about my finances or social status. Anyone who wants to dig into my private affairs will have to take the time to get to know me, my family, and my friends. I've clipped my price tag.