Made in Manhattan

Photo Made Manhattan

Every Monday morning, she would greet us, walking fast and out of breath, her soft, Gucci leather carry-on swinging from her shoulder, her long, perfect hair swaying back and forth, her designer outfits perfectly accessorized. As she gracefully moved past us and flashed her “million dollar” smile, we would all take a deep breath in unison and inhale her expensive perfume.

We were fresh out of high school, still carrying the baby fat that once made us cute, and now akwardly settling in as college freshmen in New York City, hanging on to the promise that one day we would be career women.

It was rumored that she would jet in on her older boyfriend’s plane each Monday. She was an ex Ford model (then again, are you ever really an ex Ford model?) who was hired to mold us into confident, well-dressed, women of the world. I wondered if she realized just what a challenge she had in front of her.

We were given an appointment time and one by one, would meet with her for private consultations. Before my first meeting, I was taken aback when the door burst open and Callie, a beautiful blonde student from Texas, dramatically announced to us all in her Southern drawl that she had to call her Daddy immediately to tell him that an allowance increase was necessary, now having to trade in her white mink coat, knee socks and plaid skirts for a whole new business wardrobe.

My stomach churned (as it always did when I was nervous) as I shut the door, smiled faintly and sat across from her. She greeted me and started right in, suggesting make up products that were soon to be introduced (what other undercover information were ex Ford models privy to?) and what styles and colors to wear. She showed me how to pull back my long hair into a bun and suggested that I buy a braid and wrap it around the bun for a more polished look. She stifled a laugh when she tactfully suggested some exercises for me to do and I naively replied “…Do them now?..” Yes, I was her style starved puppet and would have dropped down and “given her 50” in a heartbeat.

One by one, we were all transfixed by her and happily settled into our new existences, leaving telltale signs all-around us. To the dismay of the posh deli owner down the street, we said goodbye to his famous roast beef sandwiches for lunch and instead “feasted” on her favorite brand of yogurt. We all ate with demitasse spoons and cocktail forks (hers were sterling silver), her secret for eating slower. We stayed up late to re polish our nails, so we were perfectly color coordinated the next day. We took extra time to dress and make up. We learned how to walk and carry ourselves properly. We were invited to attend social functions in order to practice the art of small talk and learn how to be a good listener. We were taught the social graces and how important manners were.

As it turned out that finishing school instruction was just as important as our formal education. When do you get the opportunity to just stand there and be constructively critiqued from head to toe? Just as in the military, it was a form of breaking us down and rebuilding us from the bottom up, in order to make us the best we could be.

I still think about her. I wonder if she knew just how important she was to the lives of us young girls. She taught us that if you look the part, you are the part. She transformed us from insecure, plain janes to confident, chic women. She was my first role model and all these years later, after I carefully dress and check my nail polish, I raise my cocktail fork to her and say a silent “thank you” from the bottom of my style conscious heart.

 

 

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They Don’t Supersize in Spain (And Other Extra-Large Observations)

Photo Spain

I am a Hispanophile. I have a strong affinity for Spain and all things Spanish. It is not only part of my heritage, but it’s also become my fascination.

When I visit, it always takes me a few days to fall back into the rhythm of the culture. There is a lovely, peaceful feeling there of having all the time in the world. Life has an elegance to it.

Food is considered something to be savored, rather than supersized. Meals are served in small courses, always with dessert. “Tapas” (Spanish for “hors d’ oeuvres”) are typically not large servings either. This offers a way to taste, but not to overdue (unlike the U.S., obesity is not a national problem there).

Nothing is ever eaten on the run. I’ve been mesmerized watching just how slowly a Spaniard can actually sip an espresso style coffee, making it last while reading an entire newspaper. You never see anyone running down the street with a to-go container in hand (are they even an option)?

Each meal is a gastronomic experience and if it seems as if Spaniards are eating and drinking all day and all night, that’s because they are. Here is a typical daily meal schedule:

Breakfast: Coffee and bread or pastry
Midmorning: Coffee and a quick bite.
2-3:30 p.m.:  Lunch is the main meal of the day. Most head home to eat during the
workweek; a nap (siesta) is optional.
Early Evening: A drink and/or tapas.
9:30-10 p.m.: Dinner is served (begins even later on weekends).
After Dinner: Nightcap anyone?

One evening, while enjoying cocktails at an outside cafe, I noticed a large family congregating. As each new member joined the group and received a kiss on each cheek, the circle was made larger to accommodate the newest arrival and the conversation didn’t miss a beat. The children played quietly next to the circle. You could sense the level of respect shown to the older family members, as everyone leaned over to hear what those wise sages were speaking about. When we passed by after dinner at midnight, the group was still there, now inside at a table, and did not look like they were heading home any time soon. This all took place on a weeknight, which made me wonder: doesn’t anyone around here have to go to work tomorrow?

I was told by a Spanish friend that what I had viewed was called a “sobremesa” (Spanish for “chatting over the remains of the meal”) and can sometimes last for hours. Spaniards tend to work to live (rather than live to work) and are very respectful of both their work time and their leisure time. Vacations are taken and time off is enjoyed.

In times past, townspeople would ride their horse and carriages up and down the main thoroughfare to see and be seen. The tradition continues today with the “paseo” (Spanish for “a leisurely stroll on a public walkway or boulevard”). It’s a lovely ritual, as people of all ages promenade and meet up with friends and family, stop for a drink, tapas or a sweet and chat. The plaza in each town’s center also brings people together and the impromptu live music creates a celebratory feeling.

There is an unspoken dress code that does not include sweatsuits or sneakers. You can’t help but notice that every man, woman and child is smartly dressed, donning a stylishly tied scarf (very European chic). Even the style of the baby carriages are impressive, as they chauffeur their well-dressed passengers around, all decked out in their little leather shoes that match their outfits and hats.

It was while walking the Camino that I had the chance to glimpse into the daily rhythm of Spain’s smaller towns (the tiniest with a population of 18). The contentment shared by the townspeople made me question if maybe less is more. I began to learn to appreciate the abundance of simplicity, a concept that I hope to never forget.

Each time I say goodbye to Spain, I promise myself that I will try to incorporate another part of their lifestyle into my own and create my own version of the best of my both worlds.

 

 

 

 

 

Bend, Don’t Break      

Photo Bend Dont Break

I always have to stop and marvel at a tree whose branches are so strongly bent. Unaware of its peculiarity and against all odds, it just keeps growing.

I liken that to our sense of self. Life’s twists and turns may throw us a curve now and then, but we need to be able to know when to stoop down just enough to be able to handle the extra weight. It’s our strength that keeps us in a constant state of balance.

Those trees always remind me not to be so rigid. I need to learn to go with the flow, ride the wave, be more patient. That little bit of bend can be a great source of inspiration.

Consider Mother Goose’s dilemma as the baby was rocking away in the treetops propelled by the wind. The bough breaks and the baby falls, cradle and all. M. Goose, just one question: If the boughs would have had the decency to bend just a little, couldn’t this whole disaster have been prevented? But, then again, the fates of Humpty Dumpty, the three blind mice, Miss Muffet and Jack and Jill were all also met with an inflexible turn of events.

So, let’s keep in mind that it’s sometimes all right to acquiesce, accept that new kink in the plan, bend it a bit and just run with it. But consider those Mother Goose rhymes and remember not to run too fast; accidents do happen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Resolute About New Year’s Resolutions 

Photo Resolutions

Doesn’t anyone make New Year’s resolutions anymore? Each year, when I suggest to my family that we all share ours together, there always seems to be a lot of eye rolling and a change of subject.

Call me crazy, but I like the idea of wiping the slate clean and starting from scratch (I’m told I’m a neatnik, so give me a reason to clean a slate and I’m in). According to The New York Times, here are some uplifting predictions:

  1. “…Whatever you hope for this year — to lose weight, toexercise more, to spend less money — you’re much more likely to make improvements than someone who hasn’t made a formal resolution.
  2. If you can make it through the rest of January, you have a good chance of lasting a lot longer.
  3. With a few relatively painless strategies and new digital tools, you can significantly boost your odds of success…”

One year, I read about the idea of a one word motivational plan and liked the sound of that. I came across the word “ataraxia” and that was my motto all year long. That one small word was packed with a lot of power behind it. If I could be inspired and motivated by its definition (a lucid state of robust tranquility, characterized by ongoing freedom from distress and worry), how could I not be even just a bit better than I was the year before?

I keep a log of my yearly resolutions handy in my phone (the subject of many a family joke). It’s interesting to see that, from year to year, they haven’t changed much. It’s not that I’m not working on them, it’s that I am in a constant state of working toward perfection. This in itself is a frustrating endeavor and requires constant monitoring, so that I do not go overboard, which is why, ironically, one of my resolutions is to not focus on perfection.

Just like the times that I have fallen (literally), picked myself up and dusted myself off, each Dec. 31, some of my old resolutions get scrubbed and polished for their new introduction so that I can present them to myself again for the coming year.

Though It might seem to some like too much time spent on an intangible concept, I greatly look forward to this personal tradition that I have started with myself. Each new year, full of confidence and excitement, I am once again newly inspired. I give myself permission to forget about yesterday’s failures. I invite positive thinking along for the ride, hoping we will partner and accomplish something. I cross off day one and know that I have 364 more opportunities until it’s time to say “Happy New Year!” and begin again.

 

 

 

 

Pasteles: Unwrapping a Family Tradition

Photo Pasteles

Pasteles and I go way back. They’ve been a part of my life every Christmas that I can remember. Why then, did I have such a complicated relationship with this family ritual?

A traditional Latin American holiday food, a pastele is similar to a tamale. The dough (masa) is usually made with plantains (cooking bananas) and root vegetables (yautia or yucca) and the filling is a mixture of diced pork and spices in a tomato base. Completion is done in assembly line fashion, placing some dough in the center of a piece of parchment paper (sometimes a banana leaf is placed down first). Then, the pork mixture is added on top and the paper is folded, wrapped and tied with string, ready to be boiled and enjoyed.

As a child, I always looked forward to the arrival of the strange looking vegetables. They would not win any veggie beauty contests, all gnarly and odd shaped with what looked like long hairs sticking out of them, and I’d delight in rolling them around the kitchen table and watching my younger brother and sisters scream when they’d come their way. The kitchen was always a buzz, as my Latin grandparents methodically worked all day long, leading the group. With no Cuisinart, a manual grinder that attached to the end of the table was used to grind the meat and the hard vegetables had to be grated manually. My siblings and I were at the end of the assembly line and allowed to place one green olive on each pastele before it was wrapped.

During my teen years, the whole concept of pasteles embarrassed me (but, then again, I was at the stage when anything family related was embarrassing to me). Once, when a friend payed an unexpected visit, I worried that she would think us Gypsies. I once tried unsuccessfully to get out of working the assembly line by sarcastically mentioning that there were child labor laws in New York state, until my grandmother gave me the evil eye (her dark piercing eyes sparkled when she was happy and burned a hole into you when she was not). I quietly went back to work and stopped looking at the clock.

As time went on, my parents took over and the whole process was turned into a party. Family and friends were invited over in the afternoon and guests were greeted with an apron and chef’s hat, then asked to wash their hands and report to the kitchen for their assignments. Latin music played in the background, as wine and hors d’ oeuvres were served to the assembly line workers. The big laugh every year was who would be demoted to string cutting.

As a young woman, I knew that the day would come when I would have to introduce any serious marriage candidate to this atypical way to spend a Sunday afternoon. Not surprisingly, Mr. Wiz* was an eager participant. Even with strong Midwestern roots, he took to the process so naturally that my dad announced happily to all that he must be the lost child of the Count of Monte Cristo, left on a doorstep in Michigan. The crowd all agreed with a rousing toast and I wondered if there was still a New Years’ Eve date in my future.

Things went from bad to worse when, at the end of the afternoon, Mr. Wiz noticed a black stain on the palms of both hands, which soap and water was not washing off. This was due to his willingness to take on the difficult assignment of peeling the hard skin of the plantains off with a knife and then pulling them off with his hands. The crowd tried to alleviate his concern by reminding him that the discoloration would eventually wear off. The problem was that he was flying out in the morning to give a big sales presentation.

Before dinner was served, my grandmother quietly took Mr. Wiz into the bathroom and closed the door. Afraid to interfere, I could see my future changing before my eyes (not for the good). A hush came over the crowd as they exited the bathroom together with Mr. Wiz looking a bit wide-eyed. As he held up his now clean hands, the crowd cheered and more wine was served. No one ever spoke as to what may have occurred, but it was rumored that she scrubbed his hands with a solution of lemon juice and baking soda while whispering a Spanish prayer that would guarantee that he would not leave me for a gringo.

Now, my siblings and I are scattered all over the U.S., but the tradition continues. Here in Texas, our assembly line included a new friend. Ohio reported in that their veggies were already prepared and the process would be starting at 5:32 p.m. that evening; finish time was anyone’s guess. New York decided that they would await their March visit to Texas and partake then.

A word of caution is always shared with a reminder of the dangers of letting the pasteles out of your site, as a family story is retold each year. JC* was dropping off pasteles to a friend. When no one answered the door, she left them outside in a small shopping bag with a red bow on it. She was surprised to find out later that her friend had never received the package, but the friend deduced exactly what had happened. The houses in the development all looked the same and JC had left the package at the wrong door. The residents arrived home and alarmed to find a package with such strange contents, called the police. The bomb squad arrived, inspected the odd khaki colored squares wrapped in paper and declared it a non emergency. The friend received another pastele shipment under the cloak of darkness and a lesson was learned, never to be forgotten.

My tumultuous relationship with pasteles has now matured into a wonderful Christmas tradition that I hold so dear. I dream of my whole family getting together and recreating that assembly line, while the teenagers feign annoyance, the children add the olives and we all toast each other, as the music plays in the background (always just a bit too loud).

 

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.

 

Remix Your Own Music

Photo Remix

Yesterday, while listening to a remix of a classic song, it struck a chord. Aren’t we constantly also remixing ourselves? Altering media by adding, removing or changing it from its original state is much the same as us reinventing ourselves.

As a teenager, my thoughts were a blend of the sights, sounds and experiences around me. Not growing up with the influences of technology and social media gave me a chance to quietly reflect inwardly.

I remember very specifically thinking that it was time that I started to decide who I was going to be. I looked around me for role models and put together a composite of what I liked about different people; JC’s* spunk, my father’s work ethic, my grandmother’s tenacity, a friend’s compassion all came into play. I’m sure that JC knew exactly what she was doing the afternoon she took me to New York City. We visited Greenwich Village and the Upper East Side and I remember deciding to myself on the train ride home that I would be an “Uptown Girl” rather than “California Dreaming.”

What I may have not realized then was that I would be constantly evolving. Just like the DJ that is continuously mixing sounds and music into innovative arrangements, I would be on an endless search for the best version of myself.

Life’s rhythm may be affected by a decision that we wouldn’t necessarily make again, but just like the crescendo that announces its existence softly at first, we can listen and grow along with those choices.

Our lives are a never-ending score in search of harmony somewhere between the relentless thundering beat of a rock and roll song that makes us feel invincible and the calming, tranquil classical piece that we can close our eyes and dream to. Ring a bell?

 

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.

 

Hawaii: Party Like a Millennial

Photo Hawaii

You’ve got to love those millennials. They work hard and they play hard. They are fiercely loyal to family and friends. I’m not sure when they actually sleep, but they always look as if they have just walked out of the pages of a trendy fashion magazine, with not a hair out of place. They have an air of confidence about them and are sometimes blamed for being a bit too self-absorbed. Given the fact that they are the first generation to have so much technology at their fingertips, they are not entirely to blame.

According to Forbes Magazine “…No generation has been as publicly reviled, praised, misunderstood and analyzed as the millennials. And, with good reason. By 2025, millennials (also known as Gen Y or those born in the 80s and 90s), will make up the majority of the workforce…”

Having a millennial for a son and getting to know his wonderful group of friends so well, I feel as if I can speak with knowledge and can safely say that they are a powerful force to reckon with and that I would like to be a millennial when I grow up.

So, it was with much excitement and delight that we (Mr. Wiz*, JC* and I) accepted the invitation to join Big A*, his best friend, Casey and his wife, Hannah, on a trip to Hawaii. The trip would coincide with the Maui Invitational, a basketball tournament in which their alma mater, Marquette University, would be participating. As luck would have it, Casey had lived in Hawaii for a time while growing up, so he would be our official tour guide.

I have to say that I felt flattered that they would want to include us on their adventure. But, then again, JC (aka Nanny and affectionately renamed Nene during this trip after the state bird, the Hawaiian goose) was the titleholder at the beer pong championships held during Marquette’s Family Weekend, back in 2011. Mr. Wiz and I were just riding along on her coattails.

Never having traveled together, we soon found that we were all on the same wave length and really enjoyed each other’s company. The six of us were a well-oiled machine, flying from island to island, making our daily plans and then heading out each day.

In Oahu (Honolulu), we strolled Kalakaua Avenue (Hawaii’s answer to New York’s upper Fifth Avenue) and stopped for a drink at the Moana Surfrider, the island’s elegant, historic hotel. As we listened to the live Hawaiian music, we watched the lovely dancer and the palm trees sway in unison. We toured Pearl Harbor and shed a tear for the lives lost that day. We left our hotel at 6 a.m. to hike Diamond Head and watch the sun rise. Nene opted to explore around the hotel instead and we teased her that she missed all of her favorite things: uneven terrain, plenty of steps and drizzle once we reached the top. Big A did all the driving in our rental car, Casey was the navigator and Hannah was the culinary consultant, making sure we did not miss any of her favorites. We shared in Casey’s excitement as he made sure we saw all the sites, including where he had lived and where he went to school. We jumped in the waves at his preferred beaches, ate at his favorite restaurants and gasped at the amazing views from the lookout points he liked the best.

Kauai is known as “the garden isle” and our hotel, the Kauai Marriott Resort, lived up to its expectations. The exquisite art and sculptures shared the peaceful harmony with the lush grounds and gardens. We fed the koi fish at their early morning feeding in the hotel’s pond. We toured the island by car and agreed with Casey that the charbroiled burgers at Dwayne’s were the best we’d ever had. After visiting the lighthouse and another of his favorite beaches, we strolled through the little town of Kapa’a. We snorkeled off a catamaran and were surprised to hear Capt. Jim thank Hannah over the loud speaker for reminding him to play the theme from Jurassic Park when we passed by its filming locations. There was not a peep from our fellow passengers when the captain asked if anyone could name the state fish of Hawaii. Big A enjoyed his 15 minutes of fame and won a T shirt when he was able to answer the question correctly and respond with humuhumunukunukuāpuaʻa.

In Maui, while Nene and I stayed poolside (I actually broke my own record, making 12 consecutive trips down the big slide), the others were up early to attend the Marquette basketball games. Fortified with a breakfast of champions, POG Mimosas (passion fruit, orange and guava juices with Champagne), they cheered for their team, who ultimately came in third. We met more of their friends later at the Marquette luau.

On our last day, back in Oahu (Honolulu), we started our turkey less Thanksgiving with a bloody mary brunch, one last swim at the beautiful Lanakai Beach and a short drive to some last spots on Casey’s list.

I’m still not sure how we were able to keep up with the younger three of the group as they ate and imbibed their way through each day. Casey made sure that we tried all of his favorite Hawaiian specialties. I may have shied away from the Musubi (Spam sushi), but I eagerly ate the poke (seasoned raw ahi tuna), edamame (seasoned soybean pods), purple sweet potatoes, butter fish and pork. Casey made a special stop to make sure that we all tried one of Hannah’s favorites, Meat Jun, a thin, batter fried steak. At breakfast, I tasted the Loco Moco (rice, beef patty, eggs over easy, brown gravy and avocado) and feasted on macadamia nut pancakes and fried rice with eggs and Portuguese sausage.

Sometimes forgetting that lunch had already presented itself with a mai tai opportunity, it was Nene that would remind us each day that cocktail hour was approaching. Our biggest dilemma was where and when. We finally realized that we should be buying some wine in order to save on expenses, especially when most of the group were gathering around the fire pit for nightcaps each evening after dinner.

A group meeting was called one late morning before a flight to discuss what was to become of the two bottles of wine somehow leftover. While ideas ranged from pouring the contents into plastic water bottles, drawing straws and having the loser pack the wine and check their bag to just giving it away, Casey came up with a simple solution: let’s just drink it. We all stepped into action as Hannah, who, after asking for plastic cups each evening had a special relationship with the bar staff, ran for cups, Nene and I secured a lovely table with a view, Big A found us six chairs and Mr. Wiz retrieved the ever-present corkscrew from his shave kit. As luck would have it, we were three white wine and three red wine drinkers. We toasted to Casey and the fact that his MBA was important, not only to his career, but to his cognitive decision-making skills in the cocktail category. Nene slept all the way and said it was the fastest 45-minute flight she had ever experienced.

During this trip, we were introduced to some interesting millennial rituals. One night at dinner, we shared a novel experience called credit card roulette, whereby everyone at the table throws their credit cards into a bowl. Then, with lots of fanfare, the waitress picks out the cards one by one. The last one left pays for dinner.

Based on my personal observations, these bon vivants live fast and get all they can out of each day, only slowing down for social media updates. They are hard wired for this life and consider its pace natural. And while I need complete silence in order to concentrate, I know that we all share that same joie de vivre.

While we all wished we could just keep island hopping until our credit cards exploded, all good things must come to an end and our airline tickets dictated that it was back to reality for us all. As we said our goodbyes, I couldn’t help but smile to think that the only Gap that existed between our generations was that we would choose to shop in-store, while our three millennials would always purchase online.

 

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.