Friday, April 18, 2014

An Easter Treat

Every once in a while, if circumstances allow, you need to pick up all your pennies and put them to good use. The rainy day plan is always a worthy cause, but the here and now needs attention as well. Sometimes, especially during the hard times, it is important to take a step back – as the case may be – and allow yourself a small treat.
If it is beyond your control to fix everything that is bringing you down, then take a moment to celebrate life at its best, to remember that this moment (like everything else in life) shall pass.

Of course, holding on to the philosophical idea might be a little too conceptual for some. If thought experiments do nothing for you, nor fantasy bring a smile upon you, then do what my great grandmother always promoted: living well is the best revenge!

She had relatively simply needs but the idea was a potent one, and it has carried through the generations.

Sometime in the next three days, to celebrate Easter (or Spring, if you prefer), I will be making flounder stuffed with crab meat. I have no idea what the side dishes are just yet, but the fish will be the main attraction. There are beautiful jumbo sea scallops, lobster ravioli, and the seafood blend that Mom loves (it contains shrimp, calamari rings and bay scallops).

There are adorable heirloom tomatoes that may top one of these in a Caribbean salsa. Which? I have no clue. I'll let Mom call it because this is her Easter gift from me.

I got her the chocolate covered dried fruit she likes, one of her favorite movie snacks.

There is a roasted garlic hummus and pesto sauce, either of which may become part of the weekend meals or used later in the week.

The best moment came at the register. The young man looked at my garlic mustard aioli sauce and then the Dijon, whole grain, and spicy brown deli-style mustard jars. He asked if I was from Sunset Park (I guess he has seen me in the neighborhood). Properly introduced, he felt comfortable switching to a confessional mode. 
He leaned in and whispered to me in Spanish, “I didn't know there were so many kinds of mustard! I thought it was just the ballpark stuff.”

He meant French's Classic Yellow. Then he told me he tried a spicy one that he really liked and we geeked out over mustard and all the wonderful things you can create with them. Just a neighborly moment at Trader Joe's...

My bus ride home was uneventful and, other than struggling and eventually slaying the puzzle, spent considering that I just found a ramen shop in downtown Brooklyn that I cannot afford at the moment, but automatically becomes another tick mark in the “pro” side of my list on why I must find work in this area (again).

Despite the horror in Manhattanites' faces when I tell them where I live, Brooklyn is very civilized. I decided I wanted to spend the rest of my life here my first summer. Nothing has changed. 

I love Brooklyn!

Friday, April 11, 2014

I Ain't Got Nobody

I was watching Mad Men on Netflix, and at the end of the episode, as I usually do, I let it run through the credits while I listen to the music. Usually I recognize the song, although I cannot claim an encyclopaedic expertise in '60s music.

I do pride myself in the fact that my grandparents, my Mom and assorted adults in my life – as well as important people like friends – have done an impeccable job in introducing me to a variety of music styles through the years.

Age, gender and, racial and cultural background have led to the odd moment when I have recognized a tune – not necessarily pop – and someone has looked at me askew and said, “HOW do you even know that?!”

At any rate, we were watching Mad Men and at the end of the episode, as the end credits rolled, Louis Prima sings “Just a Gigolo.” It took me a few bars, but soon I was singing along and my mother turned to me and said the words I have heard so many times before.

How on earth do you even know that song?”

I was aghast.

David Lee Roth!”

Duh. (This went unspoken because I may be fresh but I ain't crazy.)

Her eyebrow did that thing George Hamilton does.


It quickly dawned on me, there is no reason she should know. For a better part of the '80s we had a tiny TV which lived in my bedroom. The first half of the decade, she rarely watched television. 

And while David Lee Roth, and indeed the video for “Just a Gigolo” touched on a lot of detail that defines the 80s, there is no reason she should know because she was busy trying to do the million and one things single mothers do to keep homes afloat.

For one thing, Mom's radio was nothing more than an annoying alarm clock. That was its sole purpose. It would play Lionel in the Morning.

No snooze. You had to get out of bed (get up, walk to the other side of the room, and manually turn the sucker off), or listen to Lionel whine. And he whined! Some brilliant mind hired him for the morning news on channel 11 in New York – which is cruel and unusual punishment just so you can get traffic and weather.

His commentary isn't always asinine. I disagree with some of his political views, but it's the voice that grates on me. It's the kind of voice that could easily be played out of loudspeakers if you wanted to cause mass suicides. 

Here's his commentary on Tesla (my favorite moment comes at :59).

In his radio career, Lionel got more political and more extreme in some of his views so that the sheer offensiveness of his words fueled her mornings. Of course, she was living that whole Wolf of Wall Street thing (she worked on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange), so there was a lot of self-hate going on...

Still, my point is she rarely listened to the radio. Billboard charts meant nothing to the woman and DLR as a pop culture phenomena (including “JaG”) bypassed her altogether.

So, late night Saturday night, after a mini-marathon of Netflixing Mad Men, partly in horror and partly in hysterics, my mother watched David Lee ham it up on the 1985 video.

Her innocence is lost... I blame THIS guy:

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Eleven Days of Service

Eleven days...

Day One was a quick orientation and getting picked to a panel. That is how you start your service into the Grand Jury.

Participants are reminded that the Grand Jury is not at all like most juries. It does not determine guilt or innocence. A Grand Jury is a tool by which charges are brought to parties or dismissed, if there appears to be no cause to charge. A Grand Jury simply determines whether there is cause to continue with a judicial action, in so many words.

In the borough of Kings, we have several kinds of Grand Juries (the shortest is the ten-day, or two-week, service and the longest is the year-long service). The year-long Grand Jury usually follows one major case, whereas the ten-day Grand Juries tend to dip into a variety of cases ranging from drug, vehicular, criminal, and a variety of social faux pas that are heavily legislated and which fall under stringent laws that must never, ever be infringed upon.

My service was not extraordinary, it was quite probably typical. We began with a group of 23 which quickly became 22. We had a quorum for every case we heard and we closed well over 90% of the cases we heard. We indicted the majority – good work on the part of our Assistant District Attorneys and police officers. We dismissed when it was reasonable to do so.

I withheld a vote on two cases – one that angered me and the other that broke my heart.
The group I worked closely with was a good cross-section of what Brooklyn represents in terms of age, race, and social status. We were of different faiths, political affiliations, and sexual orientations; and yet, we did not find our differences to choke us in coming together for the common good. That alone made the experience well worth it!

In general, my impressions were positive. 

There was a moment when I watched a very young ADA do pirouettes on the podium, like a cat in heat, and make a spectacle of what seemed to me a very inappropriate attachment to the court reporter. But it wasn't her awkward flirting that bothered me -- or even her child-like enunciation where it seemed she exaggerated her lisp for ultimate cuteness -- it was that she was incapable of completing a reasonable thought. Her narrative was a mess and left me to write in my notes, “Don't they teach rhetoric in law school anymore?”

She did not return and I hope the accused simply copped a plea and put themselves and the state out of the misery of hearing her argue the case.

There was, as well, an unfortunate incident when the lawyer of a defendant got into a screaming match with the ADA -- though the ADA followed protocol and did not speak directly to the offending party. It was almost juvenile and it did not help his client in the least. It simply left an ugly image in our minds and a clarity of whom we were discussing when his client's testimony was examined closer and found to be completely detached from reality in this dimension.

Some cases were perpetrated by the next generation of Stooges, including a fool who upon seeing the police converging on him yelled out, “Oh shit!” and threw the contraband for which he was being charged into traffic – as if this would make it all magically disappear. The fact that the arresting officer carried his firearm strapped to his upper thigh made him a badass in my mind.

Some cases are based on such minute details that they can unravel like sand castles in an earthquake – but lies unravel faster...

We had a couple of awfully late nights that felt like torture! We stayed. We did exactly as we needed to, but it took a physical toll. 

And I will never forget the morning, halfway through our service, when one of my newfound friends told me she'd been stopped at the metal detectors every single morning and she finally told the police officer manning the wand, "It's my nipple ring." I wish I'd seen his face redden as she described it to me later, while we chugged very large cups of coffee and giggled.

To mark the experience, we ordered Cuban food and literally broke bread together. The teacher made delicious cupcakes, and one of the elders offered a non-denominational grace as we started. Some took pictures and others will, surely, maintain friendships beyond our service.

Most of the lawyers behaved with dignity, and the warden and his staff were fabulous human beings. In fact, I started and ended my adventure with a laugh and with the same gentleman.

When asked if I'd volunteer to be the assistant foreperson, I told him, “Nooooooo, I have a real bad attitude!” He didn't buy it and I did not fight it.
As I wound down to our last few moments together, I walked up to him and said, “When I write about this experience, and I will, I shall refer to you as Chocolate Batman.” 

The lighthearted cackle was full of joy and I thought a good way to put an exclamation point on it to close things out.

I'm back to being an unemployed civilian now...

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Crisis Management


The last couple of weeks, we have all been riveted by the mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370's disappearance.

Everyone and their mother had a theory. Some were simple and others were ridiculously complex and paranoid (including terrorism and aliens, black holes and "Lost" like scenarios). The biggest disappointment for most, I believe, is being forced to acknowledge that this is real life and tech doesn't work as conveniently as it does on film and TV. 

If this was "24", Chloe O'Brian would have triangulated the plane's location from its distant pings and all of the passengers' easy-to-acquire cell phone numbers, hack into the Chinese spy satellites and redirect them to the Indian Ocean, and come up with the longitude and latitude within a few degrees. Because that's how Chloe rolled.
In the real world, looking for something as big as a jetliner in millions of square miles of ocean waters is extremely difficult--virtually impossible and it may take weeks and weeks. For Chloe, there was a deadline inside a 24-hour day, so she usually started shortly after a commercial break and have a positive resolution within two commercial breaks (so, 15-20 minutes at most).

Throughout this ordeal, my interest was focused on the way the Malaysian government handled the ongoing crisis.

When I was working on my bachelors degree, crisis management was one of the things we studied as part of the curriculum for a marketing degree, and from time to time, I will follow a crisis to build the case study in my head – purely as an intellectual exercise.

The first thing that struck me was the apparent snub when Malaysia's government decided they did not need the Chinese help being offered. They pretty much turned their nose up, haroomphed and pretended they did not hear a word of it.

Then the comedy of errors began – and they ran with allegation after thinly-veiled innuendo to unsubstantiated speculation and voiced it all! The more they said the more I cringed. Sadly, I thought, they have no one wise enough to advise them to STFU.

And so weeks pass and any reasonable person has to realize that the odds of finding the plane and survivors starts to dwindle quickly, because their more ridiculous suggestions are too preposterous to entertain, and when you've exhausted all the more fantastic ideas, the simplest explanation works best – to paraphrase Sherlock Holmes, with a twist and a half.

A friend suggested that the PM was under extraordinary pressure, and I do appreciate this. Nevertheless, the ethically correct thing to do when you don't have an answer is to be honest. "We do not know enough yet to make a determination." It ain't that hard to do. This is exactly what should have come out of their mouths, press releases, text messages until they had something concrete.

Finally, yesterday came word from the Malaysian Prime Minister that their data points tot he flight “ending” in the Indian Ocean and all souls are lost.

(Oy vey, double facepalm!)
Again, look at the damage his words are causing. I think it is pretty clear that if the plane went down in the middle of the Indian Ocean, hope has dwindled to virtually zero. BUT they don't know, he cannot claim this with absolute certainty and now it looks like every other time he and his people have speculated then they were wrong and wasting time. 
So now it is only a matter of time before somebody fires back and accuses their government of dragging their feet and possibly causing the deaths of possible survivors.

This news is still speculation until they find the wreckage, the recorders, bodies, etc... the responsible thing would have been to say that they estimate the flight went down over the Indian Ocean, along this passage, and all lives are presumed lost.

Instead, by phrasing it in the way he did, he gave a crass finality to weeks in limbo to people who want to believe fervently that the Malaysian government was earnestly looking out for their family and loved ones. 

In accepting help from the Americans, the Australians and Europeans but ignoring the Chinese (again) makes for awkwardness because if they did not take notice before, they will now... Whatever political reasons there may be for their reluctance to engage the Chinese, the fact remains that a good portion of those on board were Chinese nationals and, well, this is yet another detail badly handled.

We have not seen all the repercussions to this crisis nor the end of it by any means. Seriously, shovel meet hole -- you ought to be properly introduced since the Malaysians just keep on digging.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Bella Venezuela

I have been to Venezuela just once. It was a beautiful place. The beaches were beautiful, the port city was beautiful, the men, the women, the children . . . even the stray dogs were beautiful. The food was delicious, the service friendly and inviting, the weather perfect, the trip memorable.

We went for Spring Break and although it was quite a bargain, the trip there was brutal. We had a flight from New York with a layover in Martinique. Hours and hours of travel culminated on a functional but closed airport because it was Good Friday and everybody was supposed to be at Church.

I remember picking a phone book and looking for any Watleys in the island. I was just curious, and it turns out there was at least a couple. We joked I could call and say, “Hey, you don't know me, cousin from New York. At the airport. Bring a sandwich, please.”

It was hot. That's pretty much all I remember about Martinique. We headed back into our refueled plane and headed to Caracas. There we switched to a tiny DC-8. As we moved along the hot asphalt on the runway, I spied a silver haired man.

Oh my god, it's Leslie Nielsen!!!”

Mom grabbed me by the arm and told me to chill. I was exhausted and paunchy after a full night of partying and hours of flying (coach).

On the tiny plane, I fell asleep again. I awoke when I felt the plane dip, hard and fast, I opened an eye and saw the most extraordinary thing. The plane was almost entirely on its side, coming in fast and falling at an alarming rate, there was a small tower and I distinctly saw a man in a white shirt with a bright red tie.

I had no time to articulate it, but in my head, I distinctly heard my inner child whine, “I'm gonna die with Leslie Nielsen...”

Airplane meet Airport.

I knew I was going to die and there was nothing else to be done. Mom was squeezing my hand and I closed my eyes again.

We rounded the tower and landed behind it on a small runway. People broke into applause – probably grateful to be alive at that point. I wanted to go into the cockpit and explain to the pilot how his driving may need a little professional development, but Mom dragged me off for at least the second time that day.

As we moved through the parking lot, in Caracas, to the van that would transport us to our all-inclusive resort, Leslie Nielsen was putting some bags in the trunk of a car and bickering with his partner. It turned out Leslie was an old Cuban queen, which at the time struck me as hilarious, and Mom grabbed me by the elbow and dragged me away. Again.

What followed was a week of great memories.

There was the night we went to a local eatery and were thunderstruck when the head waiter came to serve us and we were face-to-face with a man that looked like a young Armand Assante (in a tuxedo and in Spanish!)

And this was only after witnessing the mesero's heart break when I told him I did not want any more water (I'd take a sip, he'd run over and replenish my glass). Not only did I break his heart, he gave me puppy eyes. Puppy eyes! Mom called me Cruella... The fact that he looked like an old Colombian boyfriend made it even more pathetic, but adorable.

There was a night we went drinking with a bartender we'd befriended – whose name was Jose but whom we called “Asi se llaman todos” ("They're all named that”). That made all three of us cackle. Every time. We dragged a Yuppy couple who'd been fighting at this really classy restaurant we met our friend Jose after his shift.

How he convinced the couple, especially the wife with the giant stick up her butt, to go “bar hopping” with us remains a mystery. I was freaked out by the fact that it was after 10 pm and the bar was three deep and over half of it was little kids. The bartender was wearing a clown's wig and a barrel. He rang a bell and the kids started screaming and jumping, and then I really started to freak out. I was cornered and really far from an exit. I felt caged. I was terrified for a few seconds.

That's when “It's a Small World” started playing in the overhead speakers and there was a parade of Disney and children's literature characters around the bar. One of the most bizarre experiences of my life... And I was stone sober!

It somehow turned from horror to the funniest thing I had ever seen when Tinkerbell threw pixie dust at me and handed me some candy. Tinkerbell. Not sure this is what Simon Bolivar had in mind. Ever.

I blogged about this dream trip before (slightly paraphrased from the original):
I'd wanted to visit the land of Bolivar since I was a kid. But of course, nothing ever comes easy where I'm concerned. So obviously, a week before our planned trip, there was a failed coup d'etat in Caracas.
This would seem like the sign from God that would make a reasonable person rethink the trip. I had non-refundable tickets. And I was fearless. Besides, I had a foolproof plan. For the duration of the trip I was to speak only Spanish and when asked I was Puerto Rican, no mention of American citizenship. As a double-redundancy safety strategy, I walked around with my Maple Leaf flag pin. I practiced this line over and over and over, "Don't shoot, I'm Canadian, ay!"
Nobody shoots Canadians.

The resort had some wild life that lived on site. This included a duck which would venture almost to the lobby, but never enter it. I befriended one of the cats and named her Clara, after one of the characters in Isabel Allende's The House of Spirits

Every morning Clara escorted us from our room, to breakfast and then to the edge of the beach. Every evening she escorted us out to the lobby and then waited up for us to escort us back to our room when we returned from town. 

I joked that if we came back truly drunk, the cat would lead us to our door. She knew the way!

A few days before we left, Clara had been hiding in the bushes and called out as we were coming or going. I managed to fit my small frame in the bushes and found the reason she'd been missing for a full day and night. She'd had kittens.

She let me handle her babies. One of the boys that worked the landscape was a little at awe that the cat had not scratched my eyes out. But Clara and I were friends. There was a fat tourist who was loud and rude and more than a little racist. I hissed at him in the middle of one of his racist tirades and Clara finished the job by chasing him out to the lobby. And good riddance, Charlie!

We were invited to the feast of the patron saint a few towns over and walked amongst the locals as if we belonged. But once everyone realized we were tourists, there was a little curiosity until we mentioned our Puerto Rican heritage and they embraced us as one would long-lost cousins. We were treated like queens and well protected. It was extraordinary and so fabulous!

The coup amounted to not much, then, although there were skirmishes in the capital. We went shopping (I still own a hand tooled leather bag and some jewelry, art work and amazing memories). We ate the best food and drank the sweetest liquors. We went dancing! We relaxed and fell in love with Venezuela. I got a great kick out of watching my mother try to decipher “Batman & Robin” dubbed into Venezuelan Spanish. 

Also, I am not ashamed to openly declare my unabashed love for arepas. 

The handsome maĆ®tre d'  moved to the US and we were friendly for some time. We lost track. I've have Venezuelan friends through the years and they were all lovely, generous, giving people, passionate and smart, and full of joy in their hearts.

I mourn their struggle now and wish I could turn back time and give them back their beautiful land full of plenty. My heart breaks for them and the apparent demise of the paradise that made me a queen for a week, because in Venezuela the men are Men and the women are all Queens.

Mi bella Venezuela:

The New Yorker just published a short piece
about the horrendous class divide in Venezuela.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Value of a Good Post-Mortem

When I worked in publishing, we would do post-mortem meetings after we'd put an issue to bed – after we'd brain-stormed, researched, written, edited, sent to production, and finally shipped the issue.

In forensic science, a post-mortem is simply an autopsy--a thorough medical examination of a body to determine its cause of death.

A post-mortem, in the sense we used it during our post-production phase, involved a clinical examination of what we did, when we did it, how and why; what worked and what failed; what remedies were taken and which produced the best and worst results.

It is not about assigning blame but simply a way to analyze the process, clinically, and adjust and improve it for future reference. In this sense, it attempts to stifle the instincts of participants – because human nature dictates that some people will automatically want to cover their butts, while others are naturally paranoid (probably because of bad experiences in their past) who feel safe only if they deflect...

For a post-mortem to be an effective tool, participants must be allowed to put in their two cents without judgment. The idea is that if you allow for complete frankness, it may be paired with constructive criticism to form honest solutions to problems which may arise.

Because many people are involved in any given project, doing an array of different things and interacting with different people, it is important to allow for each member to express their frustrations and their successes. This gives you a big picture view in snapshots – but ultimately, if you really listen, it will also give you the weak link in your chain so you can reinforce it.

When an honest accounting of the process is delivered, you move closer to a more efficient manner of optimizing your processes.

In order to get this point, however, it is important to stifle the urge to criticize, to assign blame, or to make accusations... Some people find this almost as impossible as breathing underwater.

A successful and effective post-mortem requires practice and complete trust – and this means that your staff must feel comfortable engaging and knowing that there will be no ridiculing, no blaming, and no vindictive consequences to them personally. It needs to be a truly open exchange of ideas with the only goal being to improve how you do your thing (whatever that may be).

The added value of this practice, beyond optimizing the way you operate, is that 1. it gives your staff a clear picture of how their effort relates to the common goal, and 2. it prepares your staff to grow and develop skills to move into other areas of your operation.

Basically it's something between applied process and systems engineering (but simplified for less complex operations). It is also good management. If you tweak it, it's also a good strategy to use in other areas of everyday life – if only to gain a deeper understanding of what makes you tick.

You should try it.

Friday, February 14, 2014

On to the Next Challenge

It is no secret that we have been gifted with the most challenging winter since 1994 in New York City. We have experienced an unprecedented number of snowstorms (more than doubling the total snow fall for the season in just weeks), ice storms, arctic windstorms, and below freezing temperatures. For those of us hot-blooded types, it has been torture!

Not only because of the snow build-up but also because I was sick and then passed it on to poor Mom. I was a cootie factory. Adding cabin fever to this is just cruel.

Still, we were safe and warm. We never lost power. We had food – including the proverbial chicken soup – and each other. Despite the less than stellar circumstances, we didn't have it so bad. I realize my life does have its blessings.

My IT internship has come to an end, which makes me a little sad because I enjoyed the daily interaction with my colleagues there. On the other hand, it opens the door to other opportunities, and already I have applied to a couple of very interesting positions that have a lot of promise – in terms of challenge and learning possibilities. I am closer to a bona fide career in IT – not just a qualified IT-related project!

The agency hasn't had anything for me these last couple of weeks, but as I recuperated and in the meantime, I followed up with my last client and made sure that they were okay with the work I left behind for them. I did a hands-on presentation and left them with a comprehensive users guide on how to manage the site, settings, subscriptions and content creation for the community we built for their higher education STEM initiative. However, it always makes sense in the immediate moment, the question is whether the client can recreate the desired actions on their own (without IT supervision, as it were). So far, so good – but for those of you new to freelancing or consulting, it is always a good move to follow-up a few weeks after your exit. It is good client relations but also reminds them that you've done good work for them. Keeps your name and work ethic fresh in their minds. Networking rules...

I will find out next week what my next adventure will be as my schedule gets shifted again. Looking forward to whatever new challenge the universe has in store for me! If you approach life as an adventure and the possibilities presented to you as opportunities to learn and excel, you'll always find a challenge and new passions. These are good things.

In the interim, until spring has sprung (so to speak), I can close my eyes and pretend I am walking barefoot in the sandy beaches of the Caribbean, colorful drink with tiny paper umbrella in hand... And happily embarking on creative pursuits.