Spread Your Wings and … Fly?

On a sunny day last May, the newly-minted graduates tossed their tasseled caps in the air with whoops and hollers. With that, my daughter Laurie and the other members of the Class of 2011 closed one door and turned expectantly toward another. What was on the other side? For some, the promise of a job or graduate school.

For others, the door creakily hinged shut, putting new beginnings tantalizingly out of reach.

The members of the Class of 2011 had been raised to believe that they could do anything with a college degree. Follow your dreams, we parents told them. The world is your oyster. With that diploma you will have opportunities galore.

The economy of 2011 told them something else.

The misery of finding a job in a sluggish economy was a lesson in Real Life 101.  Item #1 on the syllabus: there aren’t a lot of jobs out there. Item #2: you’re one of a gazillion vying for the jobs that are. Item #3: get used to trying your hardest and coming up empty. Get used to not having your calls returned. Get used to waiting.

Being the highly organized person she is, Laurie started her search months before graduation.  She sent out countless resumes. Checked job websites daily. Spent hours researching, reaching out to friends of friends whose cousin’s neighbor worked somewhere where they were hiring. And I won’t tell you that nothing, absolutely nothing came of it.

There were some clunkers offers along the way. Yet despite being in the throes of anxiety, Laurie trusted her instincts and was wary.

For example, she encountered:

* a “marketing/advertising” company whose website boasted its rapid growth, multiple office locations and plans for further expansion. She was interviewed for a marketing associate position. Sounded perfect, too good to be true. And it was. At the end of a long day of interviews, she was told she would be selling the services of a utility company. Door-to-door. In questionable urban neighborhoods. No salary, just commission. And no benefits. Um, no.

* a well-known international finance corporation that invited her to interview for a financial analyst position. The first interviews went well and she got called back. In the course of the second round, she was pressed to reveal her family’s financial circumstances, what neighborhoods her relatives and friends called home, which prominent families were in her circle from high school and college, etc. Noooo, thank you.

* an insurance company with locations throughout the country that offered her a position right on the spot. What was the catch? Again, no base salary. Strictly commission. :sound of buzzer:

Her dogged pursuit meant hours each day browsing new openings, following up with emails and phone calls, and continuing to network every which way. She tried to be positive, but sometimes it just got to be too much. The waiting was awful and it really sucked to be back at home, living with her parents, as if college had never happened. Thank goodness for friends like Cassandra who freely dispensed encouragement and hugs.

 

But I am happy to tell you that her persistence paid off. After many months and many interviews, she was offered the job she had wanted more than anything, in the city she wanted to live in. In the end it worked out exactly the way she had dreamed.

To the recent grads, and even not-so-recent, who have yet to land a job: hang in there. May 2012 will be a year of recovery, healing and promise. My CNN email alert just announced that the U.S. economy added 200,000 jobs in December with the unemployment rate falling slightly. Believe in yourself, and believe in your future.  Your college education was worth it. And the best is yet to come.

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Gobble Gobble

Word geeks like me get a kick out of the Oxford English Dictionary’s (OED) additions and deletions to our lexicon. This morning on my Twitter feed I found the shortlist for 2011’s word of the year, along with OED definitions (thanks @mashable), and among them are:

  • Bunga bunga: Used in reference to parties hosted by the former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, at which various illicit sexual activities were alleged to have taken place.
  • Clicktivism: The use of social media and other online methods to promote a cause.
  • Crowdfunding: The practice of funding a project or venture by raising many small amounts of money from a large number of people, typically via the Internet.
  • Gamification: The application of concepts and techniques from games to other areas of activity, for instance as an online marketing technique.
  • Tiger mother: A demanding mother who pushes her children to high achievement using methods regarded as typical of Asian childrearing.

FYI, retweet and sexting were added to the dictionary in August, and earlier this year, the terms LOL, <3 and OMG.

So this got me to thinking, as this Thanksgiving holiday weekend comes to a close, what items might the OED have missed? Here are some of my ideas.

  • Bloatulism: That feeling just beyond exquisitely full that borders on nausea
    related: CranBeriBeri
  • L-tryptophantasy: imagining that the dishes will be washed and put away when you wake up the next morning
  • OccuPyCrustNow: Sitting around the kitchen table picking at the last crumbs of the apple pie
  • BlackFridaySaturdaySunday: When only black clothes, preferably with lots of elastic, will suffice
  • NordStromboli: Craving Italian food after a tough day at the mall
  • WeAreThe99% Fat-Free: Swearing off carbs for the rest of one’s life. Or until the December holidays.
  • WeightWeightDon’tTellMe: Stepping on the scale while covering one’s eyes
  • Maaloxandbagels: our Sunday brunch menu
  • FingerClickinGood: no more leftovers; ordering Chinese takeout online

What say you, OED?

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I am … Penn State

Lois was a doe-eyed brunette from Squirrel Hill, a soft-spoken co-ed studying child development. Irv was handsome and funny, an all-around great guy and proud member of Phi Ep, a science major full of ambition.

Irv was friendly with a hometown girl, Anita, whose dorm room was next door to Lois’. The girls helped each other out with phone calls: if the phone rang when one of them was out, the other would answer and take a message. Lois and Irv got to know each other over the phone, when she would pick up to take a message for Anita. It got to the point, Irv admits, where he secretly hoped Lois would answer the call.

“But he knew me by sight,” Lois says. “He just didn’t know that I was the person on the phone. I thought, well, he’s seen me on campus and hasn’t asked me out. But when he finally realized I was that girl and asked me on a date, I said yes.”

The rest, as they say, is history.

My parents, Lois and Irv, met at Penn State, just weeks before my mother would graduate. My dad had been in the army and was attending Penn State on the GI Bill, so he was a year behind her. Their first date was a basketball game and, afterwards, dinner at a club called Paradise in Bellefonte. Just weeks later, my mother graduated and moved back to Pittsburgh to work at Fineman’s, the family store in Turtle Creek.

My dad spent his senior year studying during the week and driving to Pittsburgh on weekends to spend time with my mother. The following June, he graduated, they got married and the young couple moved to Reading, his home town. They settled into married life, and after three years I joined the family, followed by my brother two years later.

I was pretty darn adorable.

This is my favorite picture of my brother, ever.

Penn State felt like another sibling, always referred to with love and affection. It was a presence in our household and in our extended family, since dozens of family members were proud Penn State alumni. Uncle Lew even had a life-size cardboard replica of Joe Paterno that sometimes appeared at family functions. My parents were always devoted to their alma mater, involved with programs at University Park as well as the Berks campus.  There was no question in my mind that, like them, I would be a Penn Stater myself someday.

Well, things did not play out exactly as planned. An indifferent student in high school, I did not have stellar grades or SAT scores. Penn State accepted me to a branch campus but in the end I decided to go elsewhere.

Fast forward many years. I was married, had children, pursued a career in marketing and communications. To my utter delight, an opportunity arose at what was then Penn State Delaware County, now Brandywine, and I became an official member of the Penn State community almost five years ago. At the same time, our youngest daughter, Laurie, started her freshman year at Penn State’s main campus in University Park. Both life events were thrilling and a source of pride.

Laurie graduated this past May after four fantastic years. She worked hard and played hard, made lifelong friends, participated in THON, spent a semester in Paris, had the college experience everyone should have. Her first job came about through a Penn State connection. Penn Staters look out for Penn Staters. This is a fact.

My three Penn State grads: Dad, Laurie and Mom.

Penn State is in my DNA. Penn State will always be family to me, a family member for whom I have enormous respect. Penn State is world-renowned faculty, unlimited opportunities for learning, international programs, internships, a Big Ten education. It is the fabulous students — bright, caring, talented, spirited, driven. It is brilliant professors, THON,  stickies and Creamery ice cream, singing the alma mater, the biggest alumni association in the world.

Penn State is bigger than the actions or inactions of a few. We Penn Staters will get through this crisis because we are strong and resilient. We will do what we can to right the wrongs, to give back as Penn Staters do, to heal others and ourselves. Our reputation as a university with the highest ethical standards will be restored. I am so proud to be a Penn Stater. We are … I am …   Penn State.

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A Foray to the Four Seasons

I am not going to blog about what has happened to my beloved Penn State this week. There is a post to be written, but now is not the time. It is too soon, too raw, and sadly, the horrific stories continue to unfold. Let me just say that all of us who are members of the Penn State community are reeling with the awfulness and grieving for the victims and their families. There are a lot of red-rimmed eyes around my campus today.

For the few minutes it will take to write this post, I am going to pretend that it has been a week like any other, with one day routinely following another and filled with moments of ennui, episodes of fielding minor curve balls and sparks of unexpected pleasures.

One of these took place yesterday when my friend Alyse and I attended an event at the Four Seasons Hotel in Philadelphia to tour the kitchen facilities and observe a cooking demonstration. This was especially fun for us since Alyse and I once owned a catering business called Fete Accomplie when we were young with better backs. Fete Accomplie is no longer, but Alyse and I still love to cook.

We were met by the hotel’s sommelier who offered us a glass of wine, and then it was on to the kitchen.

Our first course was Autumn Mushroom Soup with Lancaster Goat Cheese Foam and Rosemary Oil. Yum!

Mushroom Soup

1 lb. button mushrooms
1 lb. shiitake mushrooms
1 lb. crimini mushrooms
Clean and slice all of them.
1 leek, washed and sliced
2 cloves garlic, chopped
3 sprigs thyme
2 T. butter
3 T. olive oil
1/2 c. white wine
1/2 gal. chicken stock
1 pint heavy cream
salt and pepper to taste

Heat large pot over medium high heat. Saute mushrooms in oil in three batches til golden brown. Remove.

Reduce heat to medium and saute leeks and garlic in butter until soft, about 5-7 minutes. Add wine and reduce by half. Add mushrooms back to pot and cover with stock. Add thyme and season with salt and pepper; simmer on low for 20 min. Add cream and continue to cook 10 more minutes. Remove thyme stems, puree, pass soup through sieve, and season to taste.

The chef put a dollop of goat cheese in the cup before pouring in the soup, and then drizzled it with rosemary oil.

Next up: Butternut Squash Risotto. The chef served this with a seared scallop on top. Delish.

Butternut Squash Risotto

5 c. chicken stock, at a simmer
1 c. Arborio rice
1/2 small onion, diced
2 c. diced butternut squash
4 T. olive oil
2 T. butter
1/4 c. white wine
1/4 c. grated Parmesan
salt and pepper to taste

In large pan, saute butternut squash in 2 T. olive oil over medium low heat til soft. Reserve. In large pot, sweat onion in 2 T. olive oil for 5 minutes over medium low heat. Add rice and cook 1 minute. Add wine and reduce til dry.

Add 1 c. stock and stir continuously til absorbed. Continue adding stock til all is absorbed and rice is tender. Add cooked butternut squash, cheese and butter. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Next up: Beef Shortribs, served atop a Parsnip Potato Puree.

Beef Shortribs

4 8oz. boneless beef shortribs
2 carrots, large dice
2 stalks celery, large dice
1 large onion, large dice
4 cloves garlic, chopped
4 sprigs thyme
1 c. red wine
1 quart beef stock
1 T. tomato paste
salt and pepper
3 T. olive oil
2 T. butter, softened
2 T. flour

Season meat liberally with salt and pepper. In large pot, sear ribs in olive oil til browned on all sides.Remove from pot. Add vegetables, garlic and thyme and cook for 10 minutes over medium heat. Add tomato paste and cook 2 minutes. Add red wine and reduce by half.

Add meat back to the pot and cover with beef stock. Cover pot and simmer on low heat for 2 1/2 – 3 hours til tender. Remove ribs and strain braising liquid into a sauce pot, skim off fat and reduce liquid by half.

Mix flour and butter til paste forms (beurre manie), whisk into braising liquid to thicken sauce, and simmer for 10 minutes.

Everything was so flavorful and the presentation was beautiful. On our way out of the kitchen, we passed by a few other stations. Here is a tray of mini pizzas topped with spinach, tomato and feta, just about to be popped in the oven.

And finally, on our way out, we were handed this sweet little bag of madeleines to eat on the way home.

It was a lovely way to spend an afternoon, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.

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Mom Revisited

I nod with a knowing smile at my young mother friends who throw up their hands at the latest crisis with their children. Is it bed-wetting, pink eye, inability to play nicely with others? Mark my words, I say, you will blink and all of a sudden they’re grown up. This is what older women used to tell me when I was a young mother and I thought they didn’t know what they were talking about.

How fleeting those years would be I could not understand, not with a fretful, colicky infant who screamed himself into exhaustion night after night. I remember wishing those years away, wanting him to grow up.

Now I would give anything to go back in time to savor every moment a bit longer. My little boy grew up way too fast, and now he lives halfway across the world. I miss him so much.

Evan is here for a visit now, and as an added bonus, three of his buddies flew in for a few days. The house has been  bustling with 24/7 hubbub: deep guy voices talking football and trash, late night pizza deliveries, ping-pong matches, clothes and electronic devices scattered throughout. Tantalizing aromas of home cooked hearty casseroles and peanut butter cookies waft through the house. I fill the dishwasher, empty it. Rinse and repeat.

I have loved every minute. Gerry, Mike and Dan are now officially our adopted sons and have an open invitation to come back anytime.

The guys holding tickets to the Eagles/Cowboys game — Gerry, Evan, Mike, Dan

Evan gave them the grand tour of our fair city, Philadelphia. They sampled cheese steaks and hoagies until they could eat no more. They also went to a Halloween party.

My son, the rabbi, second from left

Today, as they all board their various flights, I will be straightening up the house, throwing a few loads of laundry in the wash, reheating the leftover baked ziti for dinner. And missing the guys a lot.

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In the Company of Writers

I'm Going to BlogHer Writers '11!

BlogHer Writers was a one-day conference for … well, writers who blog. Two hundred of us gathered for a day of education and sharing, and if the enthusiastic conversations on Twitter are any indication, the other 199 enjoyed it as much as I did. All the elements of an awesome conference — knowledgeable and articulate presenters, well-designed sessions and workshops, and relevant topics yielding many takeaways — were in place. Best of all, this was a community of smart and savvy women (and a few good men) who also happened to be NICE PEOPLE. What a pleasure it was to spend the day with them.

I’m a writer because I love to write. Always have. Yet my unfinished novel sits waiting for me to complete it. What’s my problem?  Oh, I have a million excuses, like working full-time and being too tired at night and not having the time, blah, blah, blah. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking and time marches on. How much longer can I procrastinate? The time has come to stop kvetching and start producing.

I started this blog, booksiswonderful, to flex my creative writing muscles which were mightily in need of the exercise. A writer needs to write (a recurrent theme at the conference). Most successful writers will tell you that they produce something every day. It doesn’t have to be perfection. It just needs to get typed on that Word document. That is what I need to do.

The well-spoken presenters at BlogHer Writers talked frankly about the publishing process, the challenges to the industry (increased costs, disappearance of Border’s and Oprah’s Book Club, growth of self-publishing, among others) and the even more intense competition for writers. But the good news is that new talent is still being sought, and literary agents often read blogs to discover that talent.

What else did I learn? Here’s a smattering:

Using the f-bomb in blogs is OK.

Getting rejected by a gazillion agents is normal and does not mean your book is worthless. Nor does it mean that you are without talent.

It is important to get rid of toxic people in your life.

Editors and book cover designers usually, but not always, get it right.

Scrivener is worth looking into.

Publishers really do look out for your best interests.

A blog is not a book. But good writing transcends all.

I hoped this conference would teach me HOW. How to get started, how to shake off the self-doubt. How to just do it.

I came away feeling inspired. I think I can, I think I can.

I know I can.

BlogHer Writers, I will see you next year. With book proposal in hand.

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Holy Baseball!

Sundown tonight marks the beginning of the holiest 24 hours on the Jewish calendar. The evening service, known as Kol Nidre, ushers in Yom Kippur, or Day of Atonement, a somber period of fasting, reflection and repentance, which lasts until sundown tomorrow night.

According to Jewish belief, God inscribes each person’s fate for the coming year into the Book of Life on Rosh Hashanah and waits until Yom Kippur to seal the verdict. We take a frank look at mistakes we have made in the past year, and what we can do to right those wrongs. We consider ways to become a better person.

This day of introspection and prayer is preceded by a hearty evening meal of challah, brisket or chicken, noodle kugel or other calorie-laden Jewish dishes that purport to stave off the hunger pangs tomorrow (note: it doesn’t work). After our bellies are stuffed with apple cake and rugelach, we will stagger from the table and leave for synagogue.

But … wait a minute. Isn’t there a baseball game tonight? The Very Important Game 5 of the National League Division Series between our beloved Phillies and the St. Louis Cardinals?

Oy.

This is a perfect example of religious beliefs and modern culture colliding in a most inconvenient way.

This dilemma has presented itself in the past, perhaps most famously in the case of Sandy Koufax. Jewish people are fond of recalling the decision of the legendary Brooklyn/ L.A. Dodgers pitcher who declined to pitch Game One of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur. A mensch (good person), say the Chosen People with pride. Really? question those for whom baseball IS a religion.

My friends, unlike the ancient scribes who pondered these things for a living, I do not have the answer. Nor will I judge you one way or the other, whatever your decision may be. I will leave you with a joke published in The Philadelphia Inquirer this morning:

A guy calls his rabbi and says, “Rabbi? I have a problem. I have tickets to the Phillies-St. Louis game and it’s Yom Kippur. What should I do?”

“No problem,” says the rabbi. “You can record it.”

“Oh!” the guy cries. “That’s great! I didn’t know you could record Kol Nidre!”

Shana Tova, and may all of you, no matter what your faith, be inscribed in the Book of Life.

And go Phillies!

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My Little Town

The lyrics of Simon and Garfunkel’s tune have haunted me this morning, especially these:

Nothing but the dead and dying
Back in my little town

With the news (read the New York Times article here) that Reading, Pa. is now the most poverty-stricken city in the United States, I am overwhelmed with sadness for my hometown, a place that seemed so idyllic as I grew up.

I had the best childhood, the kind every kid should have, filled with opportunity and fearlessness and life lessons that prepared me for adulthood. The children of Reading now have little hope of living the life I have led.

As a child, I had dreams that had every likelihood of being fulfilled. Today, the children of Reading don’t dare to dream, or hope. If current trends continue, only 63% of them will graduate from high school. Just 8% will get a college degree. Too many of them will have babies way too soon, and the downward spiraling continues.

On summer nights I was lulled to sleep by the sound of cicadas. The children of Reading are awakened by gunfire or other forms of violence.  Because with poverty comes desperation and lawlessness.

What happened to Reading? The factories left. The outlets left. The young people left. The minority population surged, along with it the rates of unemployment, crime and drop-outs from high school.

My high school friends and I have remained close, with treasured memories we love to share. We never miss a reunion, our most recent one having taken place just last month. We often comment on how well our classmates have fared. So many have gone on to have thriving careers, successful relationships, truly rewarding lives. We came from different backgrounds, but our parents and teachers gave us the gift of believing that the world was ours for the taking.

The children of Reading will not look back on their high school years the way we do, if in fact they last in school that long.

Reading, my little town, I weep for you.

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Slam Dunk

It is dark and the house is still except for my softly snoring husband. Not even the earliest rising birds have begun to ruffle their feathers in wakefulness. I am in deep REM slumber with at least an hour of delicious sleep yet to savor. Suddenly, my dreams are interrupted by an intensely cold wetness on the back of my neck.  My eyes fly open and I fling myself over to come face to face with a freckled white, not to mention cold and wet, nose.

I yawn. Duncan apologizes with his happy canine smile. I feel the flutter of a cooling breeze as his furiously wagging tail fans my face. “Dunk,” I whisper, as I glance at the clock in disbelief, “do you know what time it is?”

I feign indignation, but he knows he’s got me wrapped around his paw (or “pawsie,” the baby talk term I use with him. Yes, I’m hopelessly sappy). I rub the sleep from my eyes as he gazes at me adoringly while resting his head on my leg. I throw back the covers and head for the bathroom to pull on my sweats. Duncan does a happy dance and prances around the bedroom, which rouses Zoe from her spot in the corner. Arching her back in a morning stretch, she trots over to rub against my leg. The three of us make our way through the dark to the kitchen, and my two furry friends wait patiently for their breakfast.

I am a morning person and treasure this brief respite before my busy day gets fully underway. As the sun begins to rise, I make a pot of coffee and putter around the kitchen while Duncan and Zoe crunch away. After a quick scan of the headlines and a few moves on Words with Friends, I ask Duncan if he is ready for his walk. He has never turned me down.

My day begins with quiet “me” time, a chance to reflect and prepare, and best of all, expressions of unconditional love from two of the most adorable creatures ever. Who needs that extra hour of sleep, anyway?

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9/11 Ten Years Later

I was up earlier than usual that day, feeling reasonably peppy and up for some exercise. Hurriedly finishing my first cup of coffee, I laced up my sneakers, zipped my hoodie and headed outside for a run. It was pitch black and the sky was studded with twinkling stars. I inhaled the crisp September air and started to compile my mental checklist of what was on tap for this Tuesday, September 11. Drop off the kids a few minutes early, I reminded myself. Gotta get to work in time for an 8:30 meeting.

The streets were quiet, most houses dark with slumber. I jogged up and down the hills of my neighborhood to the beat of Bruce Springsteen in my headphones. As the sun began to rise, I reached the last leg and chugged toward home. My neighbor’s son stood on the corner waiting for the school bus. “Hey Ben!” I called out to him. He waved.

Aren’t we all reliving that day, September 11, 2001, and don’t we remember every tiny detail? The day that began like any other. A normal Tuesday morning, distinguished perhaps by the vivid blue sky. Normalcy turned into something too awful to have ever imagined. The disbelief that a plane, no, four planes, could be used to attack our country. The confusion, panic, not knowing if my city, Philadelphia, was next to be attacked. The surreality of a traffic jam in mid-morning as office buildings emptied with horrified Americans desperate to get home, to pick up their kids, be with their families. Looking up at that cloudless sky, so deeply blue, now devoid of planes. Glued to the TV, unable to do much of anything else, except cry.

I was in the midst of that 8:30 meeting. A colleague sat in my office. We heard a commotion out by the secretaries’ station. Someone had called with the news. Dumbfounded, we all rushed into a conference room and turned on the television, just in time to see the second plane crash into the south tower of the World Trade Center. Life changed forever for all of us that instant.

Today, ten years later, we remember this achingly sad day forever known as 9/11. Our country’s pain has not dulled, not really. That terrible day is so fresh in our memory, could ten years really have elapsed since then?

We grieve for the innocent men, women and children who lost their lives that day. We grieve for the families whose suffering will never end, the children who are growing up without the love of a parent, the parents whose children never came home.

We will never forget. Not ten years later. Not ever.

9/11 Memorial

9/11 Memorial (Photo credit: InSapphoWeTrust)

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