Monday, March 31, 2008

Road to Nowhere

Gas prices finally hit a point where my consumption pattern changed. After a grocery run on Friday morning I parked my Jeep Liberty in the garage and it hasn’t moved since. Luckily my option to occasionally work from home allows for this personal boycott of the local gas station but I know I cannot keep it up forever; there are very few places in the United States where is not a necessity and I live in one of those places. Eventually I’ll need to go into the office, head to the grocery store for milk, see a friend, take the dogs to the park, do any of a number of things that forces me to move my car from the garage and fill up the tank.

As a world traveler I have mixed feelings on our current gas price crisis. Honestly, we have been quite spoiled for years with our prices at the pump. Fuel was always more expensive overseas; I remember paying an exorbitant amount on a liter of gas in Spain circa 1998 while I was routinely paying about $.79 to $1.01 a gallon on my weekly drives from Delaware to either DC or NY. Whatever the reasons behind the price discrepancies, be it taxes, regulations, etc., US citizens became accustomed to gas prices being a non-issue in their everyday existences. No culture in the world has a love-affair with cars so intense as the United States. Compared to European and Asian countries, American history is still fairly young and undeveloped and the legends and folklore of this young nation revolves more around Henry Ford and automobiles then Knights and Kings in chariots and carriages. The French have the famous Champs Elysées lined with boutiques and restaurants and incredibly vehicle unfriendly. America’s Route 66, equally famous, but definitely not as pedestrian friendly as the grand roads of Europe.

The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, championed by Dwight D. Eisenhower and also known as the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956, was originally launched as a defense effort giving the United States Armed Forces the Infrastructure needed to transport supplies and troops for national security from coast-to-coast. While the complex and expansive road system is a huge strength of the United States Military it’s uses for non-military driving and growth of vehicle usage leading to a culture of commutes and road trips is probably the real reason why the Highway Act was heavily lobbied for by the US car manufacturers.

Supporting the construction of roads from sea to shining sea was only one way the auto industry created a culture so enamored of and depended upon vehicle transportation. One example of the automotive industry directly limiting the transportation options of a city is in Minneapolis which was once a hot bed of rail and streetcar activity. Economic reasons did lead to the demise of the early public transportation lines in the Minneapolis Metropolitan area but the city is one of many that fell victim to what is referred to as the Great American Streetcar Scandal. GM, Standard Oil, Firestone, Mack Truck and Phillips Petroleum purchased over 80% of the trolley and streetcar companies nationwide and systematically switched the services over to buses, ripped out the rail lines and made way for more cars. GM’s the president, Alfred P. Sloan said, “We’ve got 90 percent of the market out there that we can…turn into automobile users. If we can eliminate the rail alternatives, we will create a new market for our cars.” In essence, car manufactures and oil companies created a transportation monopoly in the United States. Infrastructure design nationwide still revolves around the construction of roads to get from here to there and it has only been in the last decade that cities outside the largest even considered true mass-transit options.

Beyond the car transportation being a monopoly in and of itself there is a very real business monopoly in the world of oil and gas. The same companies who own the oil wells also own the refineries and the gas stations; the suppliers, manufacturers and distributors are all the same people. Any other industry employing these practices would find themselves disbanded. Many automotive executives hold stake in oil and gas companies making it less then desirable to develop practical vehicles that get good gas mileage. Price-fixing and gouging is all too easy when everyone stands to gain so much. If the same company who owned the wheat fields also owned the flour mills and the bakeries our morning bagels would cost a hell of a lot more then they do today.

Many can claim American’s are lazy and should be offsetting the high gas prices by getting some more exercise. Sounds like a great idea but there are many obstacles in front of a person looking to use personal manpower for transportation. Zoning laws often prevent the construction of mix-use buildings meaning there are few places where a good bakery, restaurant and corner store is conveniently located on the first floor of a condo complex. Newer communities and well-established suburbs have vast distances between their residential zones and commercials zones. It is not a short walk to get eggs and milk. If distances could be covered by foot or bike often the roads were just not designed for anything but vehicle traffic; the Death of the Sidewalk, cross-walks, or paths. The obsession with the American dream of a large house with land in a nice neighborhood pushes people further and further away from their places of employment; the longer the commute the less likely there is an option besides a car to get into the office. Even in active and healthy Minnetonka, home of some of the best paths, parks and recreational opportunities around, my neighborhood just got a sidewalk, in the main road last year and this sidewalk falls about a mile short of the nearest grocery store. During the summers I like to bike to work at least once a week but last year's local construction projects made it impossible to get to work without getting on a highway and bicycles are illegal on highways! I can get to the Dairy Queen using this new sidewalk which is interesting given our obesity issue in the United States.

Our economy and personal lives are too dependent on fuel to bear the sharp rise in prices over the course of the past 8 years. While we should be paying more then a buck a gallon for fueling our car it is the sudden and rapid inflation on gas that is hard to swallow. We live in a country where people and supplies cannot get from here to there without the use of gas. Even if everyone had the option like I do to park their car for four straight days, outside of the most major cities it is nearly impossible to get around without a car. Sure I drive what many would consider a gas-guzzler but we made a conscious decision to pay more for a house 3 years ago and factor in gas savings from a shorter commute into the home price and it was one of the smartest moves we ever made (negated quickly by buying a house at the peak of the housing market). I might be boycotting the pump for a few days but my twice a month fill-up is really nothing to complain about at any price.

A perfect storm of gas dependence was created by businesses, individuals and government officials who continue to profit from the policies and practices put in place long ago. So much effort is going into finding alternative fuels but there is such little focus on what caused our consumption issues in the first place and addressing those. What is truly sad is people who are forced to change their driving and gas consumption habits due to their economics cannot quit driving to work, or heading to the store for groceries but instead skip out on things like traveling to family for holidays, attending events both locally and regionally, or seeing friends. Politicians can tout family values all they want but the weak economy but ultimately high gas prices and our lack of other non-gas dependent transportation options will only keep people from enjoying valuable time with family and friends.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

I am the It Girl

I've been tagged by Ron!

The rules are:
  • The rules of the game get posted at the beginning.
  • Each player answers the questions about themselves.
  • At the end of the post, the player then tags 5 people and posts their names, then goes to their blogs and leaves them a comment, letting them know they've been tagged and asking them to read your blog.
What I was doing 10 years ago:
I was living in Alexandria, Virginia and working for CSC Consulting on the DuPont project in Wilmington, Delaware. At the time I was sorta single, dating a bit but crazy for this tall, blonde, good-looking boy in Minnesota I had met the year before (and married 3 years later).

Five things on my To Do List today:
  1. Finish my laundry.
  2. Walk the dogs.
  3. Workout.
  4. Take down icicle lights (stop laughing, they are winter lights, not holiday decorations).
  5. Attend birthday party.
Snacks I enjoy:
  • Wise Onion & Garlic Potato Chips
  • Stacy’s Pita Chips with Hummus
  • Carrot Sticks with Spinach Dip
  • Anything with Caramel
  • Popcorn
  • Blue Corn Tortilla Chips (preferably with Flax Seeds)
Things I would do if I were a billionaire:
  • Give every member of my family and many of my friends One Million dollars to do what they want to better their lives (pay off debt, get an education, travel)
  • Get very involved in local animal charities
  • Buy a big house on the water and fill it with rescue dogs
  • Take a world cruise
  • Give a big chunk of money to my alma mater, make them name a building or fountain or something after me
  • Purchase the best camera equipment around
  • Hire a masseuse
Three of my bad habits:
  1. Biting my nails
  2. Overeating
  3. Controlling
Five places I have lived:
  1. Bronx, NY
  2. Carle Place, NY
  3. Fredericksburg, VA
  4. Wilmington, DE
  5. Minnetonka, MN
Five jobs I've had:
  1. Waitress
  2. Dress Saleswoman
  3. IT Consultant
  4. Residence Assistant
  5. Product Delivery Manager
Current position:
Operations Solution Design Manager

Five people I want to know more about (a nice way of saying TAG!):
  1. The Husband
  2. The College Roommate, Kira
  3. The Old Co-Worker and Friend, Nursedude
  4. The Best Friend, Stacy
  5. The Sister, Kristen

      Friday, March 28, 2008

      Take Me Out to the Broadway

      For the record, Operation Embrace Winter was an astounding failure. The weather did not cooperate with my goals and it was impossible to enjoy winter sports that are mostly dependant on snow, something we got in December when it turned ugly and icy and stayed that way until this week. The lakes were well iced over but walking on ice with the pups was not the best idea as my husband could not join us and risk further injury to his shoulder already in a sling. Luckily the nasty, long season that is winter is almost behind us and rather then focus on my winter recreation plans that did not materialize I can communicate instead another goal that I actually completed last night. My lack of enthusiasm for living in the mid-west is well known as I yearn to be closer to family and my east coast centric view of civilization. Since moving back east is not on the immediate horizon it became necessary to embrace some of the finer things the Twin Cities has to offer. As locals know, Minneapolis is second only to New York in the number of theatre seats per capita and for me personally the accessibility of downtown is the one thing Minneapolis does have over Manhattan. Through the years we caught a production here and there but rarely with any consistency which is why we decided to purchase Broadway Across America season tickets to ensure we had 6 show dates on our calendar. This week marked the end of our subscription season and the Hennepin Theatre District saved the best for last.

      The Wedding Singer was the first production on the schedule. The movie is in my top ten for romantic comedies and I was looking so forward to an evening of cheesy 80s music and a feel-good love story. Unfortunately the show left us wondering if our purchase of two tickets for 6 shows was one of the least wise investments ever made. The stage production of The Wedding Singer can be easily summed up in one word; horrible. All the music not written by Adam Sandler for the movie was left out of the show, more then likely because the rights to songs by A Flock of Seagulls, Spandau Ballet and Madonna would have sunk their production budget. Part of the movie’s appeal is the soundtrack and without those familiar songs the musical did not feel very musical. The Wedding Singer is a pretty simple movie but the chemistry between Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore was believable and instantly made the film a classic romantic comedy. The woman who played Julia was so sweet she was saccharine and Robbie had pipes but no personality. The one standout in the show was the Boy George lookalike character, George, who stole the show.

      Disney’s The Lion King was the next show to roll into town. We decided to take our “niece” Sophie to see the production. We discovered in the first 30 seconds of the show that poor Sophie had a small fear of the dark and I quickly learned how skilled I was running up an aisle filled with actors dressed as animals on the African plains with a 3 and a half year old in my arms. The theatre staff got us a seat to watch the show on their hallway TV and we realized Sophie just wasn’t ready for the show and her Dad came to get her. That is where the whole Minneapolis being accessible thing really came in handy, can anyone from Long Island imagine running to Manhattan to pick up their kid so Aunt Shelf and Uncle wadE could catch the rest of the show? We did catch most of the show and it was… okay. Like most Disney shows it was visually spectacular; the costumes, the lights, the special effects. I think my disappointment was a case of high-expectations that just were not met. My only experience seeing a Disney Musical was a production of Beauty and the Beast at the Kennedy Center which was amazing. The Lion King was good but it was not as well done as other shows and the story is really not among my top Disney favorites (and you cannot believe how upset I am that the Broadway version of The Little Mermaid received terrible reviews). We did learn from very sympathetic parents in our section that we should take Sophie to the Minneapolis Children’s Theatre where the lights are always on.

      Avenue Q is Sesame Street for adults, but only adults who can handle songs with somewhat uncomfortable topics and puppets having sex. Songs like “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” "What do you do with a B.A. in English?,” “It Sucks to be Me,” and “The Internet is for Porn” teach more valuable life lessons “C is for Cookie” or “Sign, You’re a Friend of Mine” ever could. Of course the musical did have me question what was really behind the Sesame Street classics “Rubber Duckie” and “Doin’ the Pigeon,” but I digress. We loved the show; the concept of Sesame Street for Adults, the provocative songs, the performers. The only thing we loved more then the show was the audience reaction to the show. At 32 years old we are not your average theatre patron. Playbill has a section called “The Playbill Reader” so advertisers know the type of audience they can target. The average Playbill reader is 45.9 years old, has an annual household income of $132,240 and a median home value of $476,315, so the average member of the audience was slightly appalled at some of Avenue Q’s content. The row of older women in front of us and their gasps were almost as entertaining as the show. During intermission they were talking and horrified that “Gertrude was seeing tomorrow night’s performance and she’s going to faint.” After the final curtain I was personally appalled at the number of people who got up and left without even so much as a golf clap, rude! Kudos to the writers of this edgy show, if shows don’t start looking at capturing different audiences theatre could find themselves without patrons in another 20 years.

      Sweeny Todd is one of my favorite shows, and the last production I saw at the Kennedy Center was nothing short of haunting. We avoided seeing Johnny Depp’s screen version so The Husband would not have the show spoiled. The cast was amazingly talented but the show again fell short of expectations. The director’s interpretation and translation of the script was awful. The sound was off. It was hard to follow, difficult to hear and overall seemed disjointed which was a shame because the actors were Tony winners straight from Broadway which we thought would make up for a “Law and Order” free cast. Through the years we have read the Playbill and the number of actors who appeared on “Law and Order” has a direct correlation on the quality of the show; more “Law and Order” guest appearances means a better stage production. So even though the stage was packed with Tony Award winners our “Law and Order” Theory remained strong.

      My Fair Lady was the one show The Husband was fighting me on, even going so far as to pawn the tickets on girlfriends who would enjoy the show more then him. I tried to persuade him to go based upon his need to expand his cultural literacy through seeing this classic and timeless show but ultimately he went because we mixed up the date on our calendar and realized about 7 hours before show time that the show was not the following week. I am happy to report that The Husband enjoyed the production which was professionally done with great costumes, stage direction and a top notch cast. We were fortunate to attend an evening where Eliza Doolittle was being played by an actress participating in a actor exchange program; she plays Eliza in the production in London’s West End. The pompous and arrogant Henry Higgins fast became a new hero of The Husband and suddenly I was being referred to as “you impudent hussy!”

      Jersey Boys, the story of The Four Seasons, was a huge award winner on Broadway and some of the cast was straight from the original production. Upon entering the theatre I had an instant good laugh at the warning posted at the box office; “Jersey Boys is not recommended for children under the age of 12. The characters use coarse ‘authentic Jersey’ language throughout, and the show also includes sexual situations.” As I speak fluent “authentic Jersey” I didn’t need subtitles. Songs that are instantly recognizable does enhance the theatre experience but the intense energy of the cast and fast-paced script were nothing short of incredible. As a season ticket holder you actually begin to recognize and have conversations with other season ticket holders and by the sixth show we knew many of the people around us. The woman sitting next to me had been trying to figure out for 4 shows what actress I looked like and finally declared “Sarah Michelle Gellar” as she took her seat; we had given her that name as a possibility early in her struggle to find the name but she needed to catch some old Buffy re-runs to make the connection herself. This same woman wondered if we would enjoy the show nearly as much as the rest of the audience who had followed Frankie Valli long ago. While I’m not sure if I left the production with the same level of nostalgia felt by the baby boomers among us the songs were all recognizable; my parents are baby boomers with a love of music.
      A quote from Jersey Boys which I instantly adopted as my own:

      "I'm maybe the one Italian out of a hundred who's not into the drama!"
      - Bob Gaudio, The Four Seasons
      Before Jersey Boys we questioned whether we were going to renew next year’s subscription and much of that will have to do with what shows come to The Hennepin Theatre District, but the final show was so good that chances are good we will get some ticket package even if it is not the full season. After 6 plus years of marriage it is easy to fall into a boring routine and forget to explore all the fun in your own back yard. Buying season tickets forced us to have unique and fun date nights on our calendar and the quality of the shows, although mostly good, were not nearly as important as making sure we continue doing things that improve our quality of life and strength of our relationship.

      Thursday, March 27, 2008

      Quote of the Week

      I never worry about diets.
      The only carrots that interest me are the number you get in a diamond.
      - Mae West

      Wednesday, March 26, 2008

      Fit or Trimmed

      People were watching what I was putting on my buffet plate and this is not just paranoia or a woman wrestling with a serious eating disorder speaking. At breakfast eyes burned into me as the line moved past the yogurt and onto the pastries. The pastries, bursting with sugary goodness, called my name but there was no way I could enjoy even a bite with an attentive audience. Then there was the French fry bar at lunch, oh how I love French fries with toppings like cheese and chili; as if the fries are not unhealthy enough on their own. Alas there was just no way to enjoy grease laden potatoes when everyone anticipated a plate full of fruits and veggies before me.

      Recently I had the pleasure of attending a conference for companies looking to improve the health and well being of their employees with a major focus on programs and incentives geared towards physical and mental health. My reasons for attending the conference were quite different then most of the attendees; I was looking to learn what health issues companies were struggling with and what competitors were doing to address them. At any other conference an eye would nary be batted at a person loading their buffet plates and ordering a fourth beer but this was neither the time nor the place to test the limits of my stomach or tolerance; I was now representing my company as an example of our commitment to personal health and wellness.

      Referencing the press conference playbooks of fallen sports heroes, I was not looking to be a role model; just looking to play my game. Like those sports heroes caught in scandal I felt any wrong move at snack and meal times and I would bring shame (and therefore less business) to my employer. This is something I have struggled with over the previous year or so and this conference made it all too apparent that moving up in this business meant working hard in the office AND at the gym. A very subtle evolution at work that those not sensitive to the struggles of the overweight would even notice is occurring; to be the face of the organization you must physically portray the mission of the company. Our mission is to improve the quality and affordability of healthcare through providing care and support to people, empowering them to make better decisions about their health and care. Our nurses and coaches touch the lives of millions every year by coaching them to make better personal choices; find who will give them top quality healthcare, determine what is the best course of action for better health outcomes, schedule when and where to see the best doctors and educate callers on how to take better care of themselves whether they are chronically ill or trying to live a healthier lifestyle. Moving up any organizational chart often requires an increased amount of client facing time. As many sales people know there is an intense pressure to look good when in front of clients and this pressure is extra intense when trying to sell health. Our clients are looking to see if we practice what we preach and any indication of an unhealthy lifestyle, like smoking or carrying a few extra pounds, does not align with our mission to promote a culture of health and is ultimately a poor reflection on our commitment to promoting healthier lives.

      Executives and benefit coordinators from companies nationwide are seeking ways to decrease their healthcare dollar spend and increase workforce productivity through promoting a healthier workplace. In the past our business worked on helping sick people take better care of themselves but that is only a band-aid which did not help people from becoming sick (read: expensive) in the first place. Our customers are now looking to promote a culture of health to keep people healthy before their healthcare becomes expensive and their productivity decreases due to increased absences and disabilities. Smoking programs aimed at getting people to quit are quite popular with employers and for good reason; according to the Centers for Disease control smokers cost employers and extra $1,623 in medical care. The Center for Health Promotion reports that smokers have a 50% higher absentee rate then non-smokers and are 15% more likely then non-smokers to be out of work on a disability. For those employees who keep on smoking employers are increasingly likely to place an extra insurance premium on them to make up for the costs.

      In the world of healthcare the focus on smoking is so 20th century. Those who think that they are immune from pressure to live a healthier lifestyle and lose that extra weight at work are ignoring the similarities between smoking and weight in our culture. The days of smoking being chic and accepted in the workplace and beyond are long gone, replaced by smokers hiding their habit for fear of extra insurance premiums or job loss. It was not long ago (although before my time) where people would sit in a board room with heavy smoke wafting through the air; can you imagine that now? Now it is socially acceptable to attack smoking due to the unarguable health issues associated with it; weight will become the next target.

      The stats cannot be refuted; overweight individuals cost and average of $1,400 more a year in healthcare costs then people who are at a healthy weight. Beyond direct healthcare dollars us overweight people (I do fall into that category) miss more work (I wish!) then our thinner counterparts. With more sick days, higher medical claims, more workplace injuries and the risk of weight related chronic diseases it is estimated that a person costs their employer and extra five-dollars per pound overweight each month. With stats like these, the inability to hide a weight problem and the sheer number of people who are deemed overweight (66% of our country) is it easy to see how weight discrimination claims are on the rise. The discrimination is hard to fight; the obese are an unprotected “group.” Only one state, Michigan, the District of Columbia, and a scattering of cities have laws making weight discrimination illegal. Then there is the difference between blatant discrimination, like being fired because you are fat, and the subtle discrimination like receiving lower raises, being passed over for a promotion or new job, or being put into positions with little room for advancement, that are hard to prove. People generally support anti-smoking legislation because of tobacco’s cost to our overall society. When people realize their overweight co-workers are costing the company more money and effecting raises and healthcare premiums will they rebel against the overweight for affecting their personal finances?

      The pressure to practice what we preach and become the outward picture of health that aligns with our mission and vision is overwhelming but also motivating. Even as an overweight person I found myself looking around the room at the conference and wondering if I would take a few of the morbidly obese people representing other health and wellness companies seriously; were people looking at me and wondering the same? I was also dumbfounded at the number of executives who did not understand why their wellness campaigns and incentives for smoking cessation and weight loss were not working while they were sucking on a cancer stick and shoving a cookie into their pudgy mouths; ever hear of leading by example? It is sad that this career pressure to be thin is a more effective motivator in losing weight then my health and well being ever was; knowing all I do about healthcare I am still like most Americans and pay more attention to my job then my own health. Beyond just the job pressure to be thin studies that conclude that overweight people earn less over their lifetime due to subtle discrimination, limited advancement opportunities and increased cost of health related issues; weight is bad for your health and wealth. But as the cost of healthcare rises beyond the rate of inflation and contributes to recessionary times the time is not far away where everyone, not just those whose career is in the healthcare field, will feel pressure to eat, or not eat, like their job depended on it. So long as your employer, or the government, is paying towards your healthcare then weight, like smoking, is fair game and no longer a personal lifestyle choice.

      Saturday, March 22, 2008

      A League of My Own

      Today is the annual fantasy baseball draft hosted (mostly) in our living room. I say mostly as this year the decision was made to continue a live draft, bringing friends together for hours of unhealthy food and beer, but also including friends who no longer live locally through a teleconference and web-ex. It should be amusing especially since I am just an onlooker this year. While my unique drafting strategy is the source of great amusement in our league I realized my participation was nothing more then throwing $40 away each year; I do not have a routine or lifestyle that lends to daily roster checks and injury reports. My team, the Pabst Smears (formerly known as the Multiple Scoregasms), might not be playing but I still put together a fantasy lineup for everyone’s amusement. Using my long standing and legendary drafting strategy focusing on players with suggestive names yielded the following lineup for the 2008 MLB Fantasy season:

      Starting Pitchers
      • Randy Johnson
      • R.A. Dickey
      • Rich Harden
      • Ben Sheets
      • Matt Palmer
      • Adam Eaton
      Relief Pitchers
      • Brian Slocum
      • Mike Koplove
      • Kazuo Fukumori
      • Brad Ausmus
      • Rod Barajas
      First Base:
      • Kyle Blanks
      • Richie Sexson
      Second Base:
      • Scott Sizemore
      • Freddy Sanchez
      • Matt Bush
      • Jemel Spearman
      Third Base:
      • Brandon Wood
      • Zelous Wheeler
      • Barry Bonds
      • Chris Dickerson
      • Quinton McCracken
      • Rocco Baldelli
      • Jarred Ball
      • B.J. Upton
      Rather then spending weeks pouring over the countless resources available to assist people with their fantasy draft this method saves time with the end of season results just about the same whether I prepared with stats and spreadsheets or used the juvenile corner of my mind that still giggles at things like sexual suggestive names. It is a much more objective methodology then trying to determine who looks better in their pants and after a few beverages even the gentlemen in the league can appreciate the humor of the suggestive name fantasy baseball draft strategy.

      Tuesday, March 18, 2008

      Drip Trip

      San Diego is often touted as the US location with the most beautiful weather. One long standing joke is that the easiest job in the universe is a meteorologist in San Diego; just say “It is going to be 78 and sunny” and repeat sentence daily. It is only appropriate that I sit shivering under an umbrella by the pool of the famous and classic Hotel Del Coronado wearing jeans and a sweatshirt while watching the rain drops (and hail!) hit the water’s surface. I possess a special “gift,” apparently handed down by one if not both of my parents, to bring unusual weather to any vacation destination. Ten straight days of rain and mudslides in Hawaii, frigid temperatures during Sydney’s normally sizzling New Year’s celebrations, snow in Orlando and a monsoon in Arizona are only a few examples of the strangeness that is weather on a typical vacation. To survive this lifelong “blessing” from the weather gods I developed a pretty good sense of travel humor and the ability to make the most of a wet situation. After all these years of inclement traveling I consider myself an expert on how to make the most of a vacation when Mother Nature decides not to cooperate.

      Explore Indoors: To the defense of the fine city of San Diego the weather was fantastic during the time I spent holed up in conference rooms attending a healthcare conference; my true reason for the trip. But like every conference related business trip I like to take the little spare time that is available to explore and discover some of the local culture and attractions. While San Diego has so much to offer I thought it was more important to make the most of my time in Coronado, specifically to enjoy the location of the conference. My life to-do list included a stay at the famous Hotel Del Coronado, backdrop for Marilyn Monroe’s “Some Like it Hot,” the inspiration for the movie/book “Somewhere in Time,” vacation destination of stars and dignitaries and among the most beautiful and recognizable hotels in the world. I could easily spout out dozens of adjectives in an attempt to explain this hotel but I will try to wrap it up in just one word; captivating. A walk into the lobby is like stepping back in time to an era where architects paid attention to detail and employed craftsmen who took great pride in their work as artists with pallets of wood, stone and iron rivaled any painting on earth. Hours could be spent discovering every nook and cranny of the expansive hotel and still not see the minute details of the building. Especially beautiful is the iron birdcage elevator in the lobby, the Otis company’s 61st elevator build in 1888, which is run by a uniformed operator.

      Good Eats: Discovering new cuisine and local restaurants is a highlight of any vacation and quickly becomes the main highlight of a trip when weather prohibits outdoor activities. Al fresco dining was out of the question which changed the usual ambience of Coronado dining but did not limit the dining options which are plentiful and diverse. The Brigatine came highly recommended by the concierge and the fresh seafood options did not disappoint. Island Pasta was equally impressive, packed with locals enjoying their simple Italian menu bursting with the freshest ingredients and the most reasonably priced good meal found on Coronado Island. Every restaurant visited highlighted their menus with locally grown produce served at their peak flavor, something sadly missing in winter cooking back home in Minnesota.

      Long and Unwinding Road: Long walks power walks on the beach would not provide a pleasant exercise experience so hitting the gym became a necessary way to burn off all the fine-dining calories. Since I already was at the gym I decided to take a tour of the Spa at the Del and quickly booked an appointment for one of their signature facials. As much as I enjoy facials in salons back at home nothing beat the luxury of a treatment at a full service spa in a resort setting and one of the best ways to make the most of a rainy day. Although my facial was only 50 minutes I spent well over 3 hours enjoying all the spa had to offer; eucalyptus steam room, hot tub, heated infinity swimming pool, hot tea, cucumber water, fresh berries and massaging showers. My only complaint was the outdoor fireplace was not on or I would have spent many more hours baking by the pool without freezing my behind off.

      Suck it Up: Rain or Shine there are some places that must be visited no matter what the weather and in San Diego that place is the zoo. Bundled in a hooded sweatshirt, I stood out in a crowd of locals who wore their warmest winter coats complete with wool hats and gloves. The one positive thing about cold weather is the animals were all out enjoying the cool breezes and the baby animals were playing before the arrival of the next storm. The weather made it impossible to see much of the 1800 acre complex but I did manage to see the baby panda Zhen Zhen (so cute!), polar bear and gorillas before thunder and lightening drove everyone from the San Diego Zoo.

      After a terribly long and brutal winter it was disappointing that my escape to San Diego ended up all wet but it was not a surprise; put me up in your nicest hotel and it is all but guaranteed bad weather will follow. It is this foul weather consistency that has be considering a new career as a Rain Maker. Attention local and world leaders looking for drought relief: for a nominal fee I will come for a visit and your water problems will be a thing of the past. Renting out my personal black cloud to others might be a very lucrative career move allowing me to travel for a living which would make me happier then any sunny day.

      Monday, March 17, 2008

      Quote O'Theday

      Happy St. Patrick's Day
      Here's wishing you the top o' life without a single tumble.
      Here's wishing you the smiles o' life and not a single grumble.
      Here's wishing you the best o' life and not a claw about it.
      Here's wishing you the joy in life and not a day without it.
      - Irish Blessing

      Wednesday, March 12, 2008

      Kama Spin Cycle

      A recent study concluded that couples who have their better half take on the brunt of the household duties have less frequent sex then those couples who share household chores. This news circulated around my office about 8 times just before an email from my dear husband arrived informing me that he would be home cleaning the house for my post-work arrival. On the surface this looks like another of those “No shit, really? Someone gave you money to research this?” kind of studies addressing the obvious; in this case if you take away some of the factors, like housework, that cause people to be too tired or busy to engage in sexual activity that more sex happens. No ground was really broken with this study and much to the chagrin of men nationwide doing a load of laundry is not an automatic ticket to more sex.

      The report opens up with the exciting news that men's contribution to housework doubled over the past four decades. Wow, great! Except 40 years ago only brings us to the late 60’s when the women’s movement just started gaining some steam. The use of “doubled” is accurate but misleading; men contribute to 30 percent of work in the house, up from an abysmal 15 percent. Can 30 percent really be considered a sign of increased household equality? The study did conclude that couples where both work outside are more apt to split household duties making the 30 percent contribution by men seem very low; one would assume with the rise of women, who are now contributing to family finances through full-time work, there would be a greater balance in sharing household duties.

      It is easy to question the accuracy and statistical viability of this study when “household work” can fall within very loose interpretations. What is the definition of household duties used by responders in this study? To the defense of many men women often forget to include some of the contributions that are considered “men’s work” in the realm of the household. It is a massive generalization but men are often the ones carrying the burden of the outdoor work; lawn, shrubbery, asphalt, trash removal, grilling. On the flip side are other tasks that both men and women forget to include when assessing their list of household chores. These are referred to by sociologists such as Pamela Smock of UMICH as “invisible housework;” scheduling children’s doctors appointment (er, vet appointments), purchasing holiday gifts, arranging family gatherings, remembering birthday cards. These activities certainly take time and are contributions to the family unit but were doubtfully remembered by respondents as they estimated how much work they did thus leading to inaccuracies in the assessment.

      Disparity between the contribution of men and women in the household can also be attributed to a choice made by many couples for one member of the family to take on greater responsibilities in the home versus working outside the home. Did the study take into account that women stay home more often than men and purposely take on a greater percentage of the household work through roles and responsibilities well established in the relationship? An imbalance of who cooks and cleans does not automatically denote gender inequality in a relationship. Housework is only one component of marital equality and all the labor it takes to keep a house running, inside and outside of the home, should be included in the workload equation. Where inequality does exist is in the disparity of which half of the couple gets saddled with running the home versus who finances the household operation; men still make up less then five percent of the stay-at-home parents.

      The widespread media attention of this study is pretty sad. We are well cemented in the twenty-first century and we continue to discuss, debate, and deliberate the role of men and women in the house. Reading through comments posted by readers of various news sites were nothing short of heartbreaking. Far too many people saw the study as nothing but “feminist propaganda” aimed at “womanizing men” and giving women excuses to forego their “wifely duties.” There were actually comments focused on the virtues of marrying a less educated woman who would be more than happy to attend to their needs; apparently the fall of marriage and the world started the moment “fathers allowed their daughters to go to college and get jobs.”

      After cleaning the vomit from my keyboard triggered by hundreds of comments from Neanderthals espousing their views of “women’s work” I could not help but wonder what kind of women these men were in contact with. Somewhere along the line these men were given permission, either overtly or tacitly, to believe that their role as a man was superior to women. These men learned not only that household duties were women’s work but also that these duties were not as important as their role of household “provider.” This view of women is perpetuated by women themselves who allow their role to be belittled, who see themselves as less worthy since they do not bring in a paycheck, who brush off help from spouses in their attempt to control the house, who see a father’s role as babysitter and not hands on parent, and who praise men for helping around the house as if it is above and beyond the call of duty.

      Marriage is a partnership and a balance of tasks is a crucial element to successful relationships but shouldn’t have a tick sheet of who is contributing more or less to the union. Contributions ebb and flow and over the course of time the most successful marriages find a balance that allow both parties to thrive. Anyone who has played sports knows that successful teamwork includes each player doing a part in which they personally excel, understanding their roles and responsibilities, and respecting everyone on the team as equal contributors; a successful marriage is no different. Inequality on a team might win a game or two, but it's the team working together that wins the Super Bowl. Chances are if day after day, month after month finds one person ready to play in the sack and the other just wanting to collapse in it then there are greater marital imbalances then just who does the laundry, although gentlemen it might be worth a try to see what a little extra housework could get you.

      Tuesday, March 11, 2008

      Quote of the Week

      I'm heading to San Diego tonight to attend a conference and hope to make up for lost writing time on the airplane (yay 3 hour laptop battery!)... stay tuned for a writing blitz and a report of the trip.

      They turned the country up on its side, and everything loose fell into California.
      - Author Unknown

      Wednesday, March 05, 2008

      Quote of the Week

      Once the game is over, the king and the pawn go back in the same box.
      - Italian Proverb

      Sunday, March 02, 2008

      Roll out the Crate and Barrel

      Nearly seven years ago my family and friends began showering me and the husband with lavish gifts in celebration of our upcoming nuptials. Any bride and groom can attest that one of the most fun parts of wedding preparations is creating the wedding registry. It is like being a kid again as you walk around the store creating a list that even Santa would shutter at. I was reluctant to share my bridal registry lessons for fear of offending those who were so generous in showing their love for us. The years taught us some very valuable lessons on shopping for the home and if we knew then what we know now we would have dropped a better part of our day and tax return on pots and pans. This is not meant to offend, but enlighten anyone who is registering or just making purchases for their home. We thought we choose wisely but made mistakes because we did not ask ourselves the following questions; will we use it, can we replace it, will we like it in 10 years, and will it last.

      Lesson 1: Will we use it?
      After purchasing our first home we had a “been there, done that” attitude around living on our own and what it took to make a home. Like many couples today we had a cornucopia of his and hers items that needed to be shuffled through and discarded to make way for the “ours” items. These discussions (arguments perhaps) present a great opportunity to understand each other’s personal style and how different we do simple things; just choosing which drawer should contain the flatware led to some discoveries on the interesting baggage we each brought from our own families. Compromise became a key component in registering to settle the conflicting viewpoints on everything from glasses to gadgets.

      One thing we did not need to compromise on is our love of the kitchen and how it would be a focus of our registering and purchasing which came as both a blessing and a curse. We danced around Crate and Barrel registering for everything from oven mitts (useful and used), to corn on the cob dishes (useful but rarely used), to a fragile olive dish (useless). The wedding industry is built around getting couples to buy the impractical and we were victims of the machine. The useful versus useless debate is very subjective and as unique as each couple. One couple’s cappuccino maker (ours only comes out on Easter and Thanksgiving) may be another’s fondue pot (we have blood running through our chesse system). Wedding or no wedding, we are each guilty of buying things we really don’t need and experiencing purchaser’s remorse. Two of the more useful gifts we received were an electric toothbrush from my friend Jules which we are guaranteed to use at least twice a day and a world clock from my bridesmaid Jooli marking time-zones so we always know what time it is where all our friends are living.

      Lesson 2: Can we replace it?
      It is important to research a product’s longevity to ensure replacement parts are readily available and if not back up supplies are purchased and stored. Many people experience the half-finished china collection after a patter is discontinued. We were incredibly cognizant of this with choosing our china (useless for some, often used for us). I was drawn to the very classic Lenox Solitaire, a timeless pattern introduced in 1965. This pattern was a bit too boring for my flamboyant husband (a trait not discovered or revealed prior to the engagement) and we chose Lenox’s Landmark Platinum, introduced in 1998 after my sister informed me that it was among Macy*s top sellers (many thanks to Kristen working in the retail industry and Mom for making sure my set was complete!). Unfortunately the matching Lenox Landmark Crystal Glasses were not as favorably received by the public and the patter was retired in 2004 leaving me and the other owners bidding against each other on ebay in an effort to accumulate enough back up glasses to survive a lifetime. Our flatware is also off the market which is very unfortunate as we recently discovered we were missing a fork.

      Dishes are often the culprit of the can we replace it dilemma and our everyday dishes gave us that issue. Officially dubbed “seasonal-ware” by Crate and Barrel and warned the pattern would be available for only a short time we decided to fill our cupboards with the blue and green mosaic dishes after I convinced my husband that I was not the kind of passionate Italian who would throw dishes around in a fight. However, I am one of those passionate Italians who frequently talks with her hands and accidentally smashes dishes so we did over-purchase to ensure years of enjoyment out of the dishes. Unfortunately we probably underestimated the power of my passionate hands tenfold and are hoping that Crate & Barrel re-introduces the patter soon or we will be left with the decision to replace all our dishes or pay their exorbitant retired piece replacement prices.

      Lesson 3: Will we like it in ten years?
      One of the interesting things about marriage is how some differences soften and couples create their own unique sense of style leading to some major changes to how the nest was filled and decorated early in the relationship. It is difficult to prepare for these changes as they naturally grow from years of marriage. We discovered long after saying “I do” that the color of our small appliances, white, was all wrong. It sounds like a minor change but we were suddenly surrounded by dozens upon dozens contraptions that did not fit into our new sleek black appliance motif. We are still replacing each of the stark white machines one by one and were quite happy we purchased our black Kitchen Aid mixer a couple of years after the wedding (frequently used, don’t know how we lived without it).

      Oddly enough one of our bigger regrets with our bridal registry was choosing a comforter for our bed. The style is not the issue, the comforter is beautiful, it is just comforters are just so hard to take care of and do little in actually keeping a person warm when sleeping. The comforter is now in our guestroom and unfortunately is the preferred puking location for each of our dogs and the comforter spends more time at the dry cleaner then covering people. Down comforters are now the bed covering of choice allowing us to change our colors and styles through duvets as well as washing those duvets at home when the dogs throw up a wad of grass in bed.

      Luckily we avoided registering for or purchasing any decorative items until well into our marriage, ensuring we developed a style of our own rather then regretting what we thought was art. Our home is filled with photos, maps, globes, local memorabilia and Snoopy art which reflect our personalities perfectly.

      Lesson 4: Will it last?
      Our first lesson in “will it last” was our foolish decision to register at Target; will it last long enough on the shelves for people to actually buy it. We were reluctant to register at the discount giant but thought their widespread popularity and coast-to-coast locations would lend to easier shopping for all our guests. What we did not realize was Target has a tendency of changing their merchandise several times a year, switching brands and colors with the seasons without informing those with registries that their items are no longer available. That, coupled with an unfriendly return policy requiring a gift receipt for any purchase over $10, left us unhappy and with three cappuccino makers.

      My grandfather used to say “you buy cheap, you get cheap” and we were penny wise and pound foolish with a few important items ultimately leading to our trip for new cookware today. We love to cook and in our years together have managed to go through 1 set of inexpensive cookware and another set of middle-of-the-road pots and pans. Today we finally began our Le Creuset collection and the cost of our two old sets easily equaled the cost of the high-end cookware with a lifetime warranty. Although in hind-sight it would have been more cost-effective to buy better cookware I am actually glad we waited; with age and anniversaries came the confidence to be a little crazy with color.
      It is hard to avoid strange impulses when given free-reign over a store with a scanner and almost impossible to know how your tastes will change. Sticking to timeless, functional and quality items assures that most things will continue to be enjoyed for years to come.