Thursday, December 22, 2011

My Christmas Card Inspiration

In this digital age we live in, I know a lot of people have given up on sending holiday cards.

Thankfully some of my friends still like them!

I'm not one those people, and designing my annual card is one of my favorite things about the holiday season. It's fun to look through photos of all my adventures from the year and decide which ones tell the stories I want to share with my friends and loved ones in printed form.

This year many of my adventures were made more special because I got to share them with my boyfriend Paul. He loves taking pictures as much as I do, and he even served as photographer on some of my favorite shots. Since he's such an important part of my life, I wanted him to be involved in the design of the card, so I asked him to choose his favorite picture of me to be the "cover shot."

I'm not including the photo or a shot of the finished card here so it will be a surprise to those that receive it, but I wanted to share the the story behind the photo he chose. Hopefully I can paint the picture well enough with words that you can visualize it for now.

Paul and I met over a year ago but didn't "officially" start dating until February. Then in April, he made his first trip all the way from New York to visit me in California. The photo he chose was taken during that trip, on a visit to the Santa Monica Pier on a gorgeous spring afternoon. It was a breezy that day, and random curls of my hair kept flying in my face or up in the air, ruining his perfectly planned shot.  Every time he saw a hair out of place, Paul stopped, walked over to me and put it carefully back in place. After numerous trips back and forth without a photo, I warned him that fighting Mother Nature AND my hair was probably more than any one person could handle, but he was undeterred. When he finally got the shot he wanted, he looked at his camera and smiled. Then he smiled back at me.

I was happy Paul chose that shot, because thinking about the moment it was taken reminds me all over again why I fell in love with him. Everyone wants to feel special, and he gives me that feeling every day, in big and small ways. My holiday card is one small way to celebrate that and hopefully give some of that feeling back to him.

Now to find some inspiration for the addressing and mailing....

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Beating The Holiday Rush, Apple Style

Not everyone digs the cult that Steve Jobs built. Some people feel Apple products, while well designed, are overpriced. They don't always play nicely with non-Apple products. They upgrade models a lot, making you feel like you're constantly having to spend a lot of hard earned coin to have the latest and greatest in toys.

Steve Jobs never cared about those concerns. Apple still doesn't. But Apple has a thriving business because when you DO choose to become their customer, they think about what you want and they give it to you.

For evidence of that philosophy, look no further than my Apple store shopping experience 5 days before Christmas. The store I went to was PACKED with people, but Apple knows how to handle that.

  • They put the most popular items right at the front of the store in a special express purchase section. No WADING through crowds.
  • Payments are completed with hand held card readers -- right where you stand. NO WAITING in line at a register.
  • Receipts get emailed to you, including gift receipts if you need them.
  • I was in and out of the store in 10 minutes -- less time than it took to park the car.

This is why I'm a happy and loyal Apple customer. Join the cult and enjoy your holiday.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Pearl Harbor

My first visit to Hawaii was April 2003 for a friend's wedding. Since my father was a World War II veteran, a visit to Pearl Harbor was at the top of my must-see list in Oahu -- right behind dipping my toes in the water on Waikiki and enjoying a Mai Tai at Duke's Barefoot Bar.

Many of my friends had visited Pearl Harbor before me, so I had gotten great advice on what time of day to go and other logistics when I started planning my trip. But nothing anyone can tell you about a visit to this sacred place prepares you for how you feel being there.

I visited Pearl Harbor on a cloudless sunny day, much like it was on the day the attack occurred. Standing at the visitors center and looking across the water where the remains of the USS Arizona lay waiting for me, I couldn't help but think how unfair it is that the universe operates on a system of balance, blending breathtaking beauty with unthinkable horror in the same moments of time.

On the boat ride out to the monument over the Arizona, you receive strict instructions on how to behave once you arrive. There is no talking while on the monument, for it is a place to contemplate the meaning of the sacrifice of the 1,177 crew members that died that day -- especially those entombed in the sunken ship below your feet.

One end of the floating memorial houses a marble wall with the names of the victims. In the eerie quiet, I read the names through a blur of tears. Talking may be discouraged, but tears are appropriate here.

On the boat ride back to the visitors center, I found myself unable to speak, and for once I was happy to be traveling alone. I am uncertain I would have found he right words to express what I felt even if there had been someone to share them with.

I thought not only of the lives that were lost directly that day, but the totality of losses sustained around the world from the chain of events that began that fateful day. Over 60 million military and civilian casualties world wide during World War II. Countless others, like my father, changed by the war forever in spite of surviving it.

On the 70th anniversary of the vicious attack on this peaceful island paradise, I think back to my visit to the USS Arizona, I think about my father and all members of The Greatest Generation that fought for the freedom I still enjoy today, and I shed tears of gratitude all over again.

Monday, December 5, 2011

What Is Your "Thing"?

Whether you've given it much thought or not, you have a "thing."

Maybe it's a hobby, or a place, or an activity. Whatever it is, it makes you unconditionally happy. You have complete confidence in your ability when doing your "thing" and never second guess yourself when you're knee deep in it. The world could be falling apart around you and doing it would make you feel better, more at peace. Your "thing" makes you smile without hesitation. It lifts your spirits.

I'm reminded every holiday what my "thing" is -- wrapping gifts.

I am never happier than when I am in the midst of rolls of shiny paper, yards of metallic bows and covered with a light dusting of glitter. I'd put my gift wrapping skills up against anyone on the planet, except maybe those people that work for Martha Stewart and dream up stuff like this. I've actually tried to think of ways I could turn custom gift wrapping into a career that could keep a roof over my head. No luck so far.  If you've got ideas or funding to help me out, I'm all yours.

Since I had an attitude in need of some adjustment this evening, I was glad to have some gifts that needed wrapping. Now I feel much better after spending some time doing my "thing."

What's your "thing?" And why aren't you making yourself happy and doing it RIGHT NOW?

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Heart of Iron

Some people have a harder road through life than others.

Imagine your life if you started fighting cancer at age 18. You go three rounds with Hodgkin's disease and beat it all three times. At 26, you discover the chemotherapy used to fight the Hodgkin's gave you leukemia, so you beat that too. But the chemotherapy gave you something else too -- cadiomyopathy -- which weakened your heart to the point where you need a transplant. You wait 5 long years to get your new heart.

So now you're 35 years old and healthy for the first time in almost two decades. You should finally be able to relax on the couch and do nothing but enjoy being alive after all that, right?

Not if you're Kyle Garlett.

If you're Kyle, you endure all those years of fighting cancer, get your new heart and promptly start training to tackle The Ironman World Championship. Then you do it a second time -- because you can.

Kyle's tells his story in his new book Heart of Iron: My Journey From Transplant Patient to Ironman Triathlete.

Before reading it, I knew some of Kyle's story because I am lucky enough to know Kyle personally and privileged to have had small "walk-on" roles at important moments in his life. Witnessing his excellent choice to marry my friend Carrie was my favorite -- and I still cry every time I think about that beautiful moment. In some ways, reading the book was hard because I constantly thought about the suffering Kyle endured in a more personal way than the average reader. I needed an entire box of Kleenex to get through the book -- but please don't let that stop you from picking it up!

I wish I had the financial resources to buy a copy for every single person I know, and not just because Kyle is my friend and I want his book to be successful. Everyone should read this book because it is about more than beating cancer or conquering athletic challenges. It is a lesson in how positivity can shape your life.

Of all the wonderful moments in Kyle's book, this is the passage that I've been reading over and over for inspiration lately:
"There will always be something big and important and stressful going on in your life. It may not be as serious or debilitating as a battle with cancer, but if it's the thing most dominating your life, it's imposing. To you it is everything, and for that you need offer no apologies. But in spite of its presence, you can always choose to be happy. It is your choice to remain positive, upbeat, and focused on the good. Your attitude is entirely within your control."
I firmly believe that attitude is what kept Kyle Garlett alive through insurmountable odds. That attitude is what makes him such an inspiration to others. And that attitude is what keeps him reaching for even higher goals each and every day.

I'm rooting for him to achieve each and every one.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

November Skies

Driving home it moved me
The colors of the evening sky
The twilight hours painting their rosy glow across landscapes of concrete and stone
And I think of him...

He who loves the twilight the way I do
Who understands the subtlety of light as it recedes slowly through the passing evening minutes
Appreciating each moment as unique and breathtaking
Knowing how it feels to be a witness to the unfolding magic
And I want him to share this.

So I take the long way home
Climbing through the hills for a glimpse of the unfolding drama
Walking to the places we have stood together, gazing in wonder
And he is there with me.

He loves this place as I do
For in all its flawed grandeur there is an irresistible magic
Painted across the evening sky in shades of smoke, gold and indigo
He is here, always....

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Kitchen Adventures: All Good Things Come From The Crock Pot

The crock pot is one of the most magical tools in a a kitchen. I'm always amazed how you can throw a bunch of roughly chopped stuff in it, turn it on, leave it for an entire day and come home to something yummy to eat. The food practically cooks itself!

It's also great for office potlucks. I work with people who love to eat together and cook for each other, so I pulled out my trusty crock pot for the office Thanksgiving potluck this week past week. I wanted to bring something warm to hearty in keeping with the occasion, so I pulled out an oldie but goodie from my 1990 edition of the Milford Memorial Hospital Auxiliary Cookbook.

Crock Pot Steak - by Marian Marshall
"Steak" is a bit of a misnomer in this case, because the finished product is more similar to a beef stew. Regardless of the name, it's easy and tastes great.

1 1/2 pounds chuck or round steak
1/3 cup flour
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
1 large onion
1-2 green peppers
16 oz. canned chopped tomatoes
4 oz. canned mushrooms, drained
2 Tbsp molasses
3 Tbsp soy sauce

1) Cut steak into strips (I cheated on this part and bought pre-cubed beef at the store -- different shape, same result).

2) Put steak strips, flour, salt and pepper in pot. Stir well to coat steak.

3) Chop onion and green pepper. Add all ingredients to the steak.

4) Cover. Cook on high for one hour then turn to low for 8 hours.

5) Serve over rice.

Rice it great, but I LOVE biscuits and I don't have enough legitimate reasons to eat them, so I made a substitution.

Who doesn't love a nice golden brown biscuit?  

The finished product served over half a biscuit at my office potluck!

If you're using a normal sized crock pot (3 1/2 quarts) the recipe is perfect as is. If you're feeding more people like me and using a larger pot, (5 quarts) you can easily double the recipe and it will still cook in the same amount of time.

So the next time you need an easy, satisfying meal for yourself or a crowd, give this a try! And if you're feeling brave, substitute chicken for the beef and let me know how it turns out....

What is YOUR favorite crock pot recipe?

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Reflections On A Thanksgiving Alone

When most people think of Thanksgiving, it's a group endeavor. Family and friends gather together, a huge meal is involved, football is on TV, games are played and stories get swapped. I've enjoyed plenty of those types of holidays in the past, but this year I decided to switch it up and try something different -- I went solo.

I've been on the go a lot lately, so part of my desire for solitude was simply to help maintain my sanity. But the other part was a sincere desire to spend some time reflecting on the past year and looking ahead to what is left -- which isn't a lot, at least in terms of time. Lately I've been feeling like I spend lots of time running around, always "doing" something but not accomplishing anything significant. I want that to change. So I thought spending some time alone with my thoughts would be the best way to sort through the clutter and focus on what really matters so I can get myself headed in the right direction again.

This has definitely been a year when I've learned a lot about what REALLY matters. Besides the myriad of challenges in my own life, I've seen friends lives turned upside down by terrible illnesses, family problems, break-ups, job losses -- you name it and it's probably happened this year. All of that made Thanksgiving an even more important time to reflect on the positive things that have happened this year and not get so bogged down in the things that didn't meet my expectations.

I have been blessed with a lot of positives.
  • This month I celebrated 17 years working for a company where I've always managed to find opportunities for growth and development, all while working with people I'm lucky to think of not only as co-workers but friends.
  • Thanks to the wonderfully connected digital world we live in, I was able to share my friends Thanksgiving celebrations on Facebook, chat via phone and even Skype with people I love. As a result I never once felt "alone" even though no one was with me at dinner. In fact, those connections are with me all year long, helping me stay close in spite of sometimes less than desirable geography.
  • I've lost people this year too, some by choice and some through terrible circumstances. As sad as it is to lose people you care about, I was reminded by a Facebook post from a friend that everyone who passes through your life contributes to your story in some way. The reason they are gone is because their part in your story has ended. I am grateful to everyone I lost for making my story a better one through their presence in my life.
  • I've been blessed with the constant support of the best group of friends in the world through the struggles I have experienced. They help me find the silver lining in every situation when I'm too bogged down in my own negative thoughts to see the way out of the darkness.
  •  I am beyond blessed and lucky to have found true love in my life -- the kind that is not only romantic, but kind, supportive, steadfast, honest and true. That love is the one thing I am most thankful for this year.

My time spent reflecting turned out to be a wonderful way to spend Thanksgiving alone. And even though my path to all the things I hope to accomplish in the coming months and years is still unclear, remembering how much I have to be grateful for taught me that there is still hope for all of it to happen. And even if it doesn't, I already have what really matters.

Monday, September 19, 2011

John Mayer's Voice

It's been a while since anyone has heard from John Mayer.

Several of the interviews he gave during his last tour showed a less than favorable side of his unique personality. In fact, I liked him a lot less because of those words even though I could still appreciate the brilliance of his music. Apparently so did a lot of other people, including some current and former band mates. After some public apologies, things calmed down a bit but he wisely let his music do most of the talking, hoping silence would start to repair the damage done.

More recently, I heard he was working on a new album and he always drops off the radar for a while during that process. Up until a few days ago, he had plans for two upcoming concert performances, both of which I was dismayed I wouldn't be able to attend.

When I read the news this morning that he's been diagnosed with a throat condition, it knocked me back a few steps. John Mayer doesn't have the most perfect singing voice in the world, but no one else sounds like him. Imagining the thought, even for a second, that his voice would be silenced was unbearable.

Then I heard this song on the car radio during my drive to work, and the floodgates opened and tears steamed down my face.

You see, John Mayer is not just another musician to me. He's been a huge part of my life for the past 10 years, ever since Room For Squares came on my radar. Since my first show at The Gorge in 2002, I've seen John in concert 25 times. I've cruised the Caribbean and Pacific Oceans with him. I followed him around the entire state of California for two weeks in 2006. I have three scrapbooks full of concert tickets, print interviews, photos and memories.

I became a huge fan because of that voice, and especially because of the lyrics he sang. He was the first songwriter that spoke to me as if he knew my life, understood my joy and pain, and knew my every desire ("I'll never let your head hit the bed without my hand behind it..."). And he put them all in words and set them to beautiful music.

As I was trying to find a Kleenex and not wreck the car, another thought struck me that gave me hope. Music can speak volumes without words. John already knows that.

As long as John Mayer has his mind and his heart, he'll always have a voice. And I'll always be listening to what he has to say. In the meantime, I'll be waiting patiently to hear him sing again.

Sunday, September 4, 2011


Have you ever caught yourself thinking, "If I could just get some peace and quiet I'd be able to focus?"

Silence is a tough thing to find these days. Noise is everywhere around us, from the blips and beeps of our computers and smartphones notifying us of comments, updates, requests and pokes to the subtle electrical hum of refrigerators, TV's and all other other machines that make our lives comfortable. Even when we get away from the man made  "noise" and "back to nature," the quiet is punctuated by the sounds of nearby living creatures, water lapping against a shoreline or the wind in the trees. It's nearly impossible to escape all sound in our physical environment.

But all these atmospheric distractions are a drop in the bucket compared to the sounds in our heads. Our internal "noise" is what really keeps us from thinking straight. Self-doubt, fear, anxiety, competing priorities, overburdened schedules, and too many demands from too many directions all chatter away in our consciousness, at times making it impossible to "hear" the positive thoughts that help us stay focused on good things.

Midnight, lock all the doors
And turn out the lights
Feels like the end of the world
This Sunday night

There's not a sound
Outside the snow's comin' down
Somehow I can't seem to find
The quiet inside my mind

"Quiet" - John Mayer

We often forget we have the ability to control the noise. Just like we can turn off the computers and cell phones and remove other physical distractions, we can remove the clutter in our heads as well. The key is taking time to listen to our inner voices and reflect on what they're telling us. Reflection is what helps us get past the noise and open up our minds to a whole host of better options for positive action.

The more thinking I've been doing lately, the more aware I am that I'm not great at reflecting. The first step in solving a problem is admitting you have one, so I'm off to a great start. Now to work on fixing it. Here are some things I'm going to try to get better at reflecting and controlling my inner "noise.'

1) Set aside time for reflection. Sunday will be my day, and I'm going to shoot for an hour to start. If it takes me more or less time than that, I'll learn as I go.

2) Remove as many physical distractions as you can. For me, the iPhone and laptops are the big ones. So if you're calling on a Sunday and I don't answer, I'm probably reflecting.

3) Take inventory of the thoughts in your head. Taking notes is helpful. A good old fashioned pen and paper will do just fine. Make a list of what you're thinking currently, what has happened in the previous week and even what you're thinking about the upcoming week.

4) Look for patterns in your thoughts. Are most of the things you're struggling with work-related? Or is it a person or relationship that's occupying your mental space? Once you identify the drivers of the noise in you head, you can figure out how to address them.

5) Acknowledge your thoughts. After you've sorted through everything in your mental inventory, write down at least one positive and one opportunity you discovered during your reflection. This gives you a place to not only start quieting the noise, but acting on the root causes of why it's in your head in the  first place.

How do you spend time reflecting?

Monday, August 29, 2011

Rediscovering My Happy Place

Back in January of 2004, my life was pretty much a mess. I was enduring my first career failure and changing jobs, unsure what my long term future held and debating on leaving my California life completely behind and just moving back to Delaware to start over. My dear friend Tanya saved me from making a hasty decision and dragged me to Mexico for a vacation instead, giving me a much needed break to get away from my troubles and gain some perspective.

We were using a timeshare that belonged to a friend of Tanya's, so we got the royal treatment because the resort was hoping we would buy our own timeshare. The room was enormous and included a hot tub and outdoor shower in addition to the huge bathroom inside. The resort was all inclusive, so we got used to 24 hour room service, cocktails on demand and all the other amenities paradise could offer two single ladies.

But the part I remember most was the view from our room.

When I came back from vacation and worked to piece my life back together, I remember discovering the concept of having your own personal "Happy Place." It's a place you go in your mind to relax, get away from your problems, quiet your thoughts and focus. At that moment in time, the spot I photographed from my hotel room was the happiest, most peaceful place I knew so it became the one I used. I had copies made of the photo and hung one on the wall I faced in my office, I even carried a copy in a small album in my purse. Every time I looked at that photo, I felt a sense of peace and calmness that always helped me get through the negatives I was dealing with at the time.

I thought of that happy place again today. I've been nursing a headache for 3 days amid the stress of non-working DSL lines, non-functioning car transmissions, worries about friends and families safety and not enough hours in the day to deal with it all. Sadly, this spot in Mexico seems to have lost some of it's magic for me, so I'll have to put some thought into my next happy spot. Or more likely, the perfect choice will become clear to me just like it did before -- right at the time I need it.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

How "But" Can Help You Turn A Negative To A Positive

I am a pessimist by nature. When bad things happen to me, my first reaction is always wondering how bad it will get next, who I have to fight to avoid being taken advantage of or how much the situation will cost me in terms of money, time or other resources.

I think that pessimism is part of what makes me so controlling at times. If I can just organize enough, prepare enough or manipulate a situation enough, I'll somehow see the trouble coming, or at least have the resources to battle it. Better yet, hopefully problems will avoid me altogether because they don't want to deal with a controlling, pessimistic witch.

It would be great if life worked that way, but it doesn't. Nothing you do can prepare you enough to completely prevent bad things from happening. Life is a zero sum game in that respect, the outcome of a balanced equation that ensures for every plus there is a minus, for every yin a yang, every up a down. The only thing you really get to control is how you manage your emotions through the ups and downs, and a big part of that control is finding perspective wherever and however you can.

My car broke down today. It was the most recent headache in a week fraught with them. Because I'm hard-wired for pessimism, my mind immediately started with the "why me, what did I do to deserve this" thoughts. I began focusing on the massive monkey wrench in the plans for my day, worrying about what the problem could be and what it would possibly cost me and how many other things would be turned into a mess in the coming week because of massive dip in the roller coasted track I didn't see coming. I even had the irrational thought that somehow this is my fault, some grand karmic payback from the universe that would strike me with the only freakish problem NOT covered under warranty that could possibly happen to a two year old car with only 30, 000 miles. I almost had a Sally Field-style breakdown.

Then voices of reason gradually crept back into my head. I was reminded that many of the people I love most faced a hurricane in the past 24 hours and made it through with no serious damage or injury. Other friends were still without power from the storm while I sat in comfortably in my air conditioned 73 degree apartment. I wasn't sitting in a hospital day after day watching my daughter fight for her life like another friend. I'm not fighting a terrible disease and I'm not dying -- and I know people doing both right now. In the grand scheme of things, my problems are so small I should be embarrassed at being so upset about a little thing like a car.

As I listened to all the negative voices in my head, I put a "but" at the end of every statement and continued my mental sentence with a counterpoint argument. It's a little trick I learned some time ago that when you use the word "but" as a transition between two thoughts, the "but" negates the first statement so the only thing you hear is the second part. Here's how it works:

"I can't get to work without my car, but I can work at home from my laptop like I did on Friday."
"I'm completely out of food, but I'm in walking distance to plenty of places to eat so I won't starve."
"I don't have much flexibility to go out right now, but I really have everything I need here at home."

I may still be a pessimist, BUT I still have some good things going for me.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

How NOT To Provide Customer Service

Customer service is a critical piece of every successful business, so it's always surprising to me when otherwise successful businesses treat their customers poorly. When I came home earlier this week to a suddenly non-functioning DSL line, I was reminded once again what an art good customer service really is -- because even a company with resources like AT&T can't manage to do it well.

Sadly, the communications giant and I have a history. I could have written a book on all the customer service mistakes they made trying to get my DSL service connected. To be fair, they don't always screw up. But when they do, they make the mistakes huge.

My first step was pulling out the instructions for my DSL modem and rebooting it. After three times without success, I called AT&T tech support and spent almost 20 minutes on hold getting to a live person who could check my line remotely. When they couldn't find the problem, the call got a lot longer.

Needless to say I wasn't happy spending that much time to work on a problem with no resolution.

I work in a customer service driven industry and understand full well that problems happen in the course of doing business. I also know what it's like to be on the receiving end of dealing with an angry customer. If I've learned one thing from those experiences, its that just because a customer is angry doesn't have to mean irreparable damage to the relationship -- if you manage the complaint the right way. The true test of a business is how they treat their customers when things aren't working well. By that measure, AT&T fails miserably in my experience.

If I could give advice to AT&T -- or any company for that matter -- on how to avoid providing poor customer service, here are some places to start.

Avoid repetition whenever possible. 
Information like a name, address, account number and so on are obviously important to ask at the start of the process, but nothing is more maddening or impersonal to a customer than asking for the same information over and over. The same goes for having people explain their problem again to every new person who becomes part of the complaint process. It makes them feel like nothing is moving forward AND you don't care enough about their problem to listen and comprehend the problem. If you have to transfer a customer to another department or involve someone else, do a warm transfer and provide the next representative with the account number or any other information your company needs to do your job.

Repeating unnecessary steps to troubleshooting the issue is even worse, especially when it didn't work the first time. Remember, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting a different outcome. Don't provide insane customer service.

Give your customer options to communicate. 
Many customers still prefer traditional phone calls, but I find them the least efficient way to get things done. I'm on the go and often in environments where taking a call isn't feasible. Missed calls are frustrating, as is having to make multiple calls to address an issue.

Email is a great option for more and more customers, but I think many companies are hesitant to use it because it creates a paper trail, which means they have to be accountable. Companies that provide bad service (and know it) don't want to be accountable. The important thing here is to ask the customer what works for them.

Don't try to engage your customers via social media of you aren't prepared to do it well.
During my disastrous experience getting my DSL hooked up initially, I took to commenting on Twitter about my difficulties and promptly became acquainted with @ATTCarolyn. We took our "relationship" from Twitter to an actual phone call, which then put me in touch with a complaint management person who eventually got things done for me, but not without a whole lot of effort. This time around, Twitter got me no response, making me wonder if I'm on some kind of AT&T Twitter "blacklist."

A friend of mine suggested I try AT&T's Facebook page, so I posted on their wall and got a response from "Robert G." He provided me his email and requested I send some information about the problem, which I did -- including my case number and a recap of the hour long phone call process I started with. He then responded by asking me to email my account number, address, etc. I responded by asking if he had access to the case number which should include all those details. No surprise that he did not.

In the end, both of AT&T's social media engagement strategies failed because the people managing them don't have the power to solve the problem. They were just another middle man passing along information without any real result -- AND no positive impact on my customer experience. Customers in the internet age are far to savvy for this kind of behavior. Do social media well or don't do it at all.

If you set an expectation, you have to deliver.
I finally got a service appointment the morning after I initially called about the problem (why it took THAT long is a whole other story). After arranging to work from home for the day, I waited. And waited. When the appointment time came and went, I called and spent another 30 minutes on the phone only to get excuses in response. "We're running behind. We're very sorry. We might get to you later today, but more likely it will be tomorrow." I was obviously not happy my Saturday was getting ruined, but I was even more upset AT&T didn't care enough to be more proactive when they knew there would be a problem. Reaching out to a customer to reset expectations when things go wrong is always better than forcing them to follow up and reacting later.

Apologizing isn't enough. You have to mean it.
When AT&T missed my appointment, I received an automated call later than evening apologizing for the delay and confirming the rescheduled appointment for the next day. By automated, I mean pre-programmed robot voice. As a customer, I can accept that mistakes get made and expectations have to be reset, but the fact that a company doesn't care enough about our relationship to have a live person call tells me a lot about the value they place on relationships. This isn't one that will be continuing much longer.

The one positive about my currently horrible customer service experience? Plenty of material for the next customer service class I teach! Maybe I should invite some AT&T employees to sit it.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Not Every Recipe Is A Winner

I made plans with a girlfriend of mine for dinner this week, and rather than go out like we normally would, we decided to cook at my place. We hadn't had the opportunity to shoot the breeze in a while and we wanted to be comfortable and just hang.

I've been trying to build up my main dish recipe repertoire, so I cracked open a new cookbook I hadn't really looked at since I got it and found what looked like a light and appealing main dish. In some cases I get nervous cooking for someone else when I'm not sure how the dish will turn out, but my guest was a friend who's seen me through much worse stuff than a failed dinner, so I wasn't worried. Plus she brought a great bottle of wine so I knew there was no way the evening would be a total loss.

The protein choice of the evening was chicken breasts stuffed with spinach and ricotta. Here's the recipe as written.

8 single boneless chicken breasts, skin on
1 tablespoon butter
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 package fresh spinach, chopped
2 cups ricotta cheese
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
pinch of pepper

1. Heat butter over medium heat in a large skillet. Add onion and cook until soft (about 4 minutes). Add spinach and cook for about 2 minutes, just until spinach has wilted and moisture evaporates.

2. Combine spinach mixture with ricotta cheese, salt, pepper and basil in a food processor and pulse four or five times to blend.

3. Trim excess fat from chicken breast. Loosen the skin from one side of the breast and stuff 1/4 cup of the ricotta cheese mixture under the skin. Tuck the loose skin under the breast, forming a round dome shape. Repeat with remaining breasts. Put the stuffed breasts close together in a buttered baking dish. Brush with melted butter.

4. Bake breasts in 350 degree oven until golden brown (about 35 minutes). Chicken breasts can be served whole or cooled to room temperature and sliced into 4 pieces each for a pretty presentation.

The result was a resounding.....meh. It was just bland. Ricotta is very light, but it also doesn't have a ton of flavor, and there wasn't quite enough onion, basil, salt and pepper in the stuffing mixture to really give it any oomph. I was also hoping for better crispiness in the chicken skin, but it ended up not having much of a purpose in the dish other than holding the filling in place. It probably would have been just as effective without the skin by just cutting into the chicken breasts and stuffing them the old fashioned way.

I did the panzanella recipe Leah discovered as the side dish so at least that was a hit. Making it was slightly bigger adventure than I expected when I discovered my vegetable peeler was missing. My knife skills are mediocre at best, so let's just say it's good the salad tasted awesome because I quite frankly butchered one poor cucumber trying to peel it the old fashioned way.

But the chicken dish still bothered me. So much potential, but definitely in need of tweaking. What did it need? Garlic? A more robust cheese? Stronger onion? Bacon? Bacon DOES make everything better....hmmmm.....

How would YOU make this bland chicken recipe sing?

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Downside of Birthdays in the Facebook Era

Celebrating your birthday has positives and negatives in the age of Facebook.

On the plus side, you get hundreds of messages from people who, under normal circumstances, would never even know you were having a birthday, much less do anything to recognize it. But the downside is significant if you're old fashioned like me and still appreciate birthday cards.

It's a bit of work to send someone card, which is part of what makes it special to receive. The sender had to plan in advance, choose the right card with the right words and even think of a personal message to write in their own hand. They need to be close enough to you to care about having your mailing address and organized enough to find it. Then they need to find stamps. That's a lot to ask, even for a day as special as a birthday.

Sending a quick electronic message is easier. We're all busy, and using tools to gain efficiency can still allow us to be thoughtful towards our friends. And while an email, social network message or e-card is thoughtful, it just isn't the same.

A card is an ongoing message of joy for the recipient. Because if that person is like me and saves things like cards, it's a gift that will keep giving one day in the future when closets are cleaned out or drawers are reorganized. It gives when that card is opened again for the first time in years, and the memories and emotions you feel reading it are as fresh as yesterday.

Unlike Facebook messages, birthday cards have a timeless quality. And in certain areas of life, quality still trumps quantity any day.

Thursday, July 28, 2011


Yesterday started off like any other day -- until the crash.

I was getting out of the car at work, trying to get something out of the trunk while juggling too much stuff in my hands. When my iPhone slipped out of one hand and fell to the cement parking deck, I knew by the sound I was in trouble.

Up until now, I was convinced this phone had nine lives. I've dropped it numerous times before, even lost it between the bleachers and the boards at Toyota Sports Center. To this day Kings radio color commentator Daryl Evans walks by me and shakes his head in wonder that I'm allowed to play with expensive toys unchaperoned.

But all those other times, the phone landed on a corner or skipped around a few times before it finally fell to Earth with a softened blow. This fall was straight down to a hard surface, landing flat as a pancake right on the screen face.

I knew from the soft crunching sounds the news was bad. It was confirmed as soon as I turned the phone over. And in short order, my day was shot to hell.

I've had my current phone for several years, which makes it a dinosaur in electronic terms. But I was holding off on getting a new one because Apple has a new iPhone design rumored to be coming out in the fall. The phone still worked and I tentatively ran my fingers over the shattered touch screen to see if it was still usable (as embarrassing at it would be to be seen with a battered phone). But the glass was too jagged in places and tiny shards poked at my skin. Continuing to use it just wasn't an option.

After I got over the shock of realizing I had to replace the phone, I hopped on the Internet to survey my options. I learned that Apple stores have a machine that can pull out the screen and replace it with another one in minutes, which would cost around $200 -- just about the cost of a new phone. Other articles indicated you could send it to a third party for repairs but it would take several days -- also not an option. So I had to suck it up, say goodbye to my trusted Kings-customizes iPhone 3G and purchase a new phone.

Now that I've had a day to play with it, I love the new phone. It's faster, the camera is far superior and it even records video. Part of me wonders why I waited so long to upgrade it.

The new kid on the block, complete with purple protective case

Then I realized why. Memories. The old phone is full of them. Kings hockey. The Tequila Sisters. Alumni Band. New York City. Hundreds of Foursquare check-ins during my travels coast-to-coast. Texting in Canada. Random photos of ordinary things I loved enough to document. Long problem solving calls with my best friends. Connections to people I love.

So rather than throw it away, I cleaned the screen on the old warrior one more time, turned it off and put it away in a safe place. It may be retired from active duty, but it will never be forgotten.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Best Indoor BBQ - Ever!

After my most recent trip to Seattle, I was sorting through old photos and was reminded of another great weekend cooking with my friend Leah a year ago. Then I looked at my Blogger account and realized I started a blog but never finished it. So this is a year late, but good food is always worth sharing to I figured I would finish the blog now. First, let me set the stage a bit....

Barbecues in the Pacific Northwest are always a day-to-day decision, because you just never know when it's going to rain. And in spite of nice weather when I first arrived, on the day Leah had planned to cook it was definitely raining, and stayed raining most of the day.

At least Leah and I know how to improvise. So we just set the table inside and figured good food makes a good barbecue, not the location. We even used the checked tablecloth to make it feel a little bit like eating outdoors.

Then it was time to hit the kitchen and execute Leah's grand meal plan. All recipes are from the Cooks Illustrated recipe archive, so if you're already a member you can grab them online. If you're not, I've printed the recipes here for your convenience.

Gas-Grilled Tuna Burgers with Wasabi Mayonnaise
French Potato Salad with Mustard and Fines Herbes
Buttermilk Coleslaw with Green Onions and Cilantro
Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies

Gas-Grilled Tuna Burgers with Wasabi Mayonnaise
1 1/4 pounds tuna steaks (high-quality)
1 medium clove garlic , minced or pressed through a garlic press (about 1 teaspoon)
1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
1/2 teaspoon table salt
Ground black pepper
Vegetable oil


1. Chop tuna into 1/4- to 1/3-inch pieces. Using rocking motion with knife, continue to chop tuna until it is coarsely ground into pieces roughly 1/8 inch each. Mix with garlic, ginger, salt, and pepper to taste. Divide mixture into 4 equal portions (about 5 ounces each) and use your hands to press into compact patty about 1 inch thick. Place patties on parchment-lined baking sheet and refrigerate for at least 15 minutes.

2. Turn on all burners to high, close lid, and heat grill until very hot, about 15 minutes. Leave all burners on high. 

3. Lightly dip small wad of paper towels in vegetable oil; holding wad with long-handled tongs, wipe cooking grate (see illustration below). Grill burgers, covered, until browned on one side, about 3 minutes. Flip burgers with greased metal spatula. Continue grilling, covered, to desired doneness, about 3 minutes for medium-rare or 4 minutes for medium. Serve immediately.

French Potato Salad with Mustard and Fines Herbes
2 pounds small red potatoes (about 2-inch diameter), unpeeled, scrubbed, and cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices
2 tablespoons table salt
1 medium clove garlic , peeled and threaded on skewer
1 1/2 tablespoons champagne vinegar or white wine vinegar
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 small shallot , minced (about 2 tablespoons)
1 tablespoon minced fresh chervil leaves
1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley leaves
1 tablespoon minced fresh chives
1 teaspoon minced fresh tarragon leaves

Note: If fresh chervil isn’t available, substitute an additional 1/2 tablespoon of minced parsley and an additional 1/2 teaspoon of tarragon. For best flavor, serve the salad warm, but to make ahead, follow the recipe through step 2, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate. Before serving, bring the salad to room temperature, then add the shallots and herbs. 


1. Place potatoes, 6 cups cold tap water, and salt in large saucepan; bring to boil over high heat, then reduce heat to medium. Lower skewered garlic into simmering water and partially blanch, about 45 seconds. Immediately run garlic under cold tap water to stop cooking; remove garlic from skewer and set aside. Continue to simmer potatoes, uncovered, until tender but still firm (thin-bladed paring knife can be slipped into and out of center of potato slice with no resistance), about 5 minutes. Drain potatoes, reserving 1/4 cup cooking water. Arrange hot potatoes close together in single layer on rimmed baking sheet. 

2. Press garlic through garlic press or mince by hand. Whisk garlic, reserved potato cooking water, vinegar, mustard, oil, and pepper in small bowl until combined. Drizzle dressing evenly over warm potatoes; let stand 10 minutes. 

3. Toss shallot and herbs in small bowl. Transfer potatoes to large serving bowl; add shallot/herb mixture and mix gently with rubber spatula to combine. Serve immediately. 

Buttermilk Coleslaw with Green Onions and Cilantro
1 pound cabbage (about 1/2 medium head), red or green, shredded fine (6 cups)
Table salt
1 medium carrot , shredded on box grater
1/2 cup buttermilk
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
2 tablespoons sour cream
1 small shallot , minced (about 2 tablespoons)
1 tablespoon minced fresh cilantro leaves
1 teaspoon lime juice
1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar
2 scallions , sliced thin
1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper


1. Toss shredded cabbage and 1 teaspoon salt in colander or large mesh strainer set over medium bowl. Let stand until cabbage wilts, at least 1 hour or up to 4 hours. Rinse cabbage under cold running water. Press, but do not squeeze, to drain; pat dry with paper towels. Place wilted cabbage and carrot in large bowl. 

2. Stir buttermilk, mayonnaise, sour cream, shallot, cilantro, lime juice, sugar, scallions, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and pepper together in small bowl. Pour dressing over cabbage and toss to combine; refrigerate until chilled, about 30 minutes. (Coleslaw can be refrigerated for up to 3 days.)  

Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies
1 3/4cups unbleached all-purpose flour (8 3/4 ounces)
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
14 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 3/4 sticks)
1/2 cup granulated sugar (3 1/2 ounces)

1 teaspoon table salt
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1 1/4cups semisweet chocolate chips or chunks (see note)
3/4 cup chopped pecans or walnuts, toasted (optional)


1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 375 degrees. Line 2 large (18- by 12-inch) baking sheets with parchment paper. Whisk flour and baking soda together in medium bowl; set aside.

2. Heat 10 tablespoons butter in 10-inch skillet over medium-high heat until melted, about 2 minutes. Continue cooking, swirling pan constantly until butter is dark golden brown and has nutty aroma, 1 to 3 minutes. Remove skillet from heat and, using heatproof spatula, transfer browned butter to large heatproof bowl. Stir remaining 4 tablespoons butter into hot butter until completely melted.

3. Add both sugars, salt, and vanilla to bowl with butter and whisk until fully incorporated. Add egg and yolk and whisk until mixture is smooth with no sugar lumps remaining, about 30 seconds. Let mixture stand 3 minutes, then whisk for 30 seconds. Repeat process of resting and whisking 2 more times until mixture is thick, smooth, and shiny. Using rubber spatula or wooden spoon, stir in flour mixture until just combined, about 1 minute. Stir in chocolate chips and nuts (if using), giving dough final stir to ensure no flour pockets remain.

I'm not gonna lie, I thought this step was borderline obsessive. We're mixing cookie dough, not making gunpowder! But Leah religiously kept the timer on me while I dutifully whisked the batter for EXACTLY 30 seconds, then timed it again as it rested. And while I wasn't completely bought into the process, I trust Leah and the Cooks Illustrated people. I think I added a pound of muscle to my arm doing the batter for these damn cookies! But it DID look pretty amazing....


4. Divide dough into 16 portions, each about 3 tablespoons (or use #24 cookie scoop). Arrange 2 inches apart on prepared baking sheets, 8 dough balls per sheet. (Smaller baking sheets can be used, but will require 3 batches.)

5. Bake cookies 1 tray at a time until cookies are golden brown and still puffy, and edges have begun to set but centers are still soft, 10 to 14 minutes, rotating baking sheet halfway through baking. Transfer baking sheet to wire rack; cool cookies completely before serving.

What can I say, we know how to put together a pretty nice spread of food -- and beverage!

All the food was delicious, but the star of the night was absolutely the cookies, thanks to a little spontaneous creativity. Leah had wanted to use the cookies to make ice cream sandwiches, but wasn't entirely sure how to make it the best presentation. I had seen an article in Martha Stewart Living a while ago about ice cream cakes, so I proposed softening the ice cream and using a cookie cutter to form it into perfect rounds.

Spreading out the ice cream before cutting....

The end result was absolute perfection.

Maybe it's time for us to open a catering business.....

Monday, July 25, 2011

Culinary Therapy

Cooking is like many things in life. You start of with an idea of what you want to accomplish, then make a plan to get there. Sometimes the work goes smoothly, and other times you have to improvise or even create something completely new on the fly in order to realize your vision. Most of all, your outcome is better when it's the result of a collaboration with others who bring their own strengths and perspectives to the table to balance yours.

That's probably why I enjoy cooking with my dear friend Leah Jacobs so much. We're a lot alike, but also different enough that our skills complement each other. So every time I get to visit her in Seattle, we use our love of food and the strength of our friendship as an excuse to cook together. It's part food and part therapy, at least for me.

Leah and I have an unspoken deal about how things work in her kitchen. She's the brains of the operation (recipe finder, shopping list maker, and ingredient measurer extraordinaire) and I'm the brawn (chopper, mixer and dish washer). OK, that's not totally true -- Leah washes dishes too. But I digress.

The Brains of the operation hard at work...

I also get to steal all the great recipes she finds, which is worth the sweat equity I put in. Plus I get to eat fabulous meals with great company!

On my most recent trip to Seattle, we cooked up another winning combination for dinner, so I have FOUR recipes to share! This blog post is gonna be a long one because I don't have links to most of the recipes -- but I promise it will be YUMMY!

Fig, Prosciutto and Mascarpone Bruschetta With Grilled Baguette
Tequila Marinated Grilled Skirt Steak
Italian Bread Salad (aka Panzanella)
Berry Cheese Torte

Fig, Prosciutto and Mascarpone Bruschetta With Grilled Baguette
  • 1 baguette sliced into 1/2" thick pieces
  • 1 cup mascarpone cheese
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil plus extra for baguette
  • 3/4 cup chopped figs
  • 4 ounces prosciutto sliced into thin pieces
  • 1 shallot minced
  • 2 cloves garlic minced
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  •  Salt and pepper 

1) Heat grill or grill pan. Brush sliced baguette with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Grill bread until marks appear (about 2 minutes). Leah and I actually toasted the bread in a 400 degree oven for about 10 minutes and it worked just as well.

2) In a saute pan, heat olive oil over medium high heat. Saute shallot for 2 minutes. Add prosciutto and cook until meat starts to crisp (about 4 minutes). Add figs and garlic and cook 2 more minutes, then add vinegar and honey and season with salt and pepper to taste.

3) Divide mascarpone cheese and spread over grilled baguette slices. Top with fig/prosciutto mix and serve.

So pretty, super tasty, and SO EASY! The hardest part is the chopping -- especially the figs because they're pretty sticky! And there was not one morsel left so it's a crowd pleaser.

Italian Bread Salad (Panzanella)

I knew this had to be good since it was a Cooks Illustrated recipe. It certainly didn't disappoint, although Leah and I made a few minor adjustments.
  • 6 cups rustic Italian or French bread , cut or torn into 1-inch pieces (1/2 to 1 pound)
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 1/2 pounds tomatoes , cored, seeded, and cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 1 cucumber , peeled, halved lengthwise, seeded, and sliced thin
  • 1 shallot, sliced thin
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil

1) Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 400 degrees. Toss bread pieces with 2 tablespoons oil and ¼ teaspoon salt; arrange bread in single layer on rimmed baking sheet. Toast bread pieces until just starting to turn light golden, 15 to 20 minutes, stirring halfway through. Set aside to cool to room temperature.

2) Gently toss tomatoes and ½ teaspoon salt in large bowl. Transfer to colander and set over bowl; set aside to drain for 15 minutes, tossing occasionally.  So you'll notice in the ingredients is says to seed and core the tomatoes. We bought these lovely little plum tomatoes so we'd have an easier time cutting them into one inch pieces, but it took forever to seed and core them, and not much additional juice drained out of the tomatoes after the 15 minutes were up. If I had to do it over, I'd use regular tomatoes, not seed and core them so that the juice around the seeds could run out, and then run it through a sieve to remove the seeds.

3) Whisk remaining 6 tablespoons oil, vinegar, and ¼ teaspoon pepper into reserved tomato juices. Add bread pieces, toss to coat, and let stand for 10 minutes, tossing occasionally.

4) Add tomatoes, cucumber, shallot, and basil to bowl with bread pieces and toss to coat. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and serve immediately. We goofed here too and realized we didn't have an extra shallot, so we used a small amount of thinly sliced red onion and it worked just as well.

It's the perfect salad for summer. No dressing needed, very light and a colorful addition to any plate. It also disappeared.

Tequila Marinated Grilled Flank Steak
  • 3/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice (approximately 8 large limes)
  • 1/2 cup clear tequila
  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 1/4 cup minced garlic
  • 1 bunch roughly chopped cilantro, leaves and stems included
  • 1 Jalapeno pepper, seeded and diced
  • 1 Serrano pepper, seeded and diced
  • 1 teaspoon cumin powder
  • 1 tablespoon freshly cracked black pepper
  • 1 1/2-2 pounds flank steak

I knew this recipe was a guaranteed winner. Anytime you get to marinate meat in alcohol, it's a fun day in the kitchen. We also used skirt steak instead of flank steak and it worked just as well. Leah spent quite a bit of time chatting up the meat choice with the butcher so she knows the difference between the two. I personally have no clue. In my world, meat is meat and it's ALL good. Here's how you make it.

1) Combine all ingredients in s resealable plastic gallon bag. Confession time: Leah and I used bottled lime juice. Normally we're up to the task of fresh squeezing, but the limes we found at the store were TINY and it would have taken forever! We chose a shortcut so we could have time for a cocktail -- so sue us. Add the steak and let marinate in refrigerator for 2 hours. Remove and let marinate at room temperature another 30-45 minutes.

2) Prepare grill to medium-high heat. Remove steak from marinade, reserving marinade. Put marinade in a small sauce pot and bring to a boil, then strain and reserve.

3) Place steak on the grill. Cook for 4 minutes, turn 180 degrees and cook for 3 minutes more (to create cross grill marks). Flip over and finish cooking for 3-5 minutes, depending on doneness. Remove from grill and move to cutting board and let rest, lightly covered, for 5 minutes. Slice against grain and serve immediately with reserved marinade.

Now THAT is some tasty meat!

Berry Cheese Torte

This recipe was my contribution to the party. Leah was looking for something sweet that didn't have chocolate, and I had found this going through my recipe stash. It's published online, so I'm going to save myself some typing on this already long post and just link it for you, then follow it with some photos and notes.

So this is basically a fruit tart with a revised take on the typical graham cracker crust using vanilla wafers and ginger snaps instead of graham crackers. Major yummy! But the crust was the first issue I had with the recipe.

 It says to use a 9" springform pan, but the amount of crust mix was not enough to cover the pan AND go 1 1/2 inches up the side. If the crust portion of the recipe was doubled it would have worked. The other option would be to use a 8" pan.

As luck would have it, Leah's kitchen has this great little tool called a tamper so I was able to get the crust to work per the recipe, but with a lot more effort than expected. But after it baked, I was still a little worried because the crust wasn't sticking together along the sides of the pan.

We didn't have enough time to redo it, so we went with it, figuring the gelatin in the fruit portion of the recipe would help hold it together. Or the cream cheese filling part. All the pieces of this puzzle would come together somehow.

Speaking of gelatin, that brings me to the second issue with the recipe. You dissolve gelatin in grape juice, then heat it. It says that it should then set up in 45 minutes in the fridge, but it took at least twice that long. A couple of notes on the recipe site mentioned the same thing, so I know it wasn't just us. Next time, I'd probably try heating the grape juice before adding the gelatin so it would dissolve faster and hopefully activate better.

We really shouldn't have worried, because the finished product turned out just fine -- and was a tasty as we hoped!

HUGE thanks to Leah for yet another one-of-a-kind amateur test kitchen experience resulting in an amazing meal! Try any of these recipes and I promise you'll get raves.

Now go cook something, will ya?