Friday, December 12, 2014

Lights, Camera, Christmas

Last week, when we returned from Pittsburgh, after a Thanksgiving break filled with family fun in my hometown ...
... the sun was setting, the world was dimming, and the twinkly lights of Christmas started to shimmer around our neighborhood. Then, and there, the immersion started.
Those are Christmas lights, Mary - aren't they pretty? 
Christmas. Pretty. Pretty Christmas. Lights. 
And day after day, the neighborhood didn't disappoint. By last weekend, almost every house had illuminated their signature light display, Christmas trees gleamed through frosty windows, planters were overflowing with expensive evergreen displays, and my toddler discovered the only thing scarier than the ghosts on our block - Santa. Day by day, Mary has been decoding new associations with America's favorite holiday. 
See the tree in our neighbor's window. 
Want to sit down and let the nice elf paint something on your hand? 
Elf. Happy Star. Christmas.  
Want to ride the train to the North Pole. 
Mary rides train. Choo choo. Train. More. More. More. More. Christmas.  
Jingle Bells. 
Scared. Crying. Christmas. 

On Saturday night, as we were getting into the holiday spirit and out of Dora's world with a little Charlie Brown, I had a moment of panic. As Linus eloquently recited the story of Christ's birth to remind the Peanuts what Christmas was all about, I realized that I too had gone commercial. I was teaching Mary about Christmas in the exact way I didn't want.

At Church the next day, I made an extra effort to tell her about Advent; I pointed up to the star that my parish projects onto its domed ceiling all season long and told her about the shepherds and wise men who followed it to find baby Jesus. She looked up, arched her back, and peered straight up to the faux sky. 
'Christmas,' she said. 
Yes, Christmas!! 
I was overjoyed. 

When you have children, the magic of Christmas is enhanced; all the glitter and gold shines a little brighter; the parties are more festive; the songs are sweeter; the cartoons are cuter; and you can almost hear the prancing of paws on the rooftop again. In the 24 days in December leading up to the big one, you want to cram every childhood memory you had into your toddlers experience set. And you can easily lose sight of why we are celebrating in the first place.

But just as quickly as you can derail, you can get back on track. And I think this train is headed the right direction again.


Monday, December 1, 2014

A Journal Entry

The other night, my parents and I were sitting around the dinner table reminiscing about our family vacations; Palm Springs and France became focal points. There were holes in our memories though - gaps that I knew I could fill, because I had documented my perspective on these journeys.

In the spring of 1993, when I was a fifth grader at St. Edmund's Academy, I started writing in a journal. The habit continued on a semi-regular basis through the remainder of my elementary education, into high school, through college, and then ultimately found a home online in 2009. In essence, my scripted archive of memories dates back 21 years.

My diary entries, especially those associated with the elementary years, were less eloquent and more illegible, more candid and uncensored, but just like my blog, they have the uncanny ability to bring stories, words, and images from the past to life.    

I spent several mornings over Thanksgiving break reading through various editions of my Diary. And through the laughter, I noticed some patterns in my documentation. My entries always seemed to have four main parts: The greeting. Good morning. Today was an [insert] amazing / terrible / boring day. The day's headline activity / lesson / lament. Skiing, first day of vacation, got the lead in the school play, field hockey game, Tribal debauchery, etc. The meal or rather meals. Today I ate 25 shrimp cocktail and 3 crab legs for brunch! And the sign off. Well until tomorrow, or the following month when I remember to write again ...  

It made me want to document Thanksgiving weekend in a similar fashion, focusing on the events, activities and food that made my time in Pittsburgh so special. So here's my holiday entry. 

Dear Blog. And Readers of the Blog.   

Thanksgiving and the days leading up to it and following it were wonderful. 

Peter, Mary and I split our car ride from Chicago to Pittsburgh into two parts: Chicago to South Bend on Tuesday night and South Bend to Pittsburgh on Wednesday morning. We hadn't taken Mary on a long car ride since she was two months old, so I was dreading it. To my surprise though, she was quite the road warrior and I'd venture to say even liked the seven plus hour trip across three states and into Pennsylvania. Both there and our direct trip back she was good as gold.    

We got to my parents house on Wednesday afternoon, welcomed by Opa's loving embrace and the heavenly smells of Thanksgiving, simmering in the kitchen. Home was just as I'd left it. And Mary's curiosity about all that lied behind closet doors and down long hallways made me want to undust my favorite toys: Fischer Price Guys, Molly and her tea set, big bears and beanie babies once worth a collector's fee, games, puzzles, and sheet music that demonstrated just how rusty I was on the piano. We played our way through every nook of Nanny and Opa's house. And Mary loved it.
Concentrated play time was aided by the fact that I spent the long weekend disconnected from work and a Yahoo! mailbox loaded down with Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals. While at first I panicked at spending four days in the only house in Pittsburgh without a working WiFi system, it was really what I needed. 

As it should have been, the holiday celebration was centered around food. First, my Dad's epic, traditional turkey feast on Thursday.
Then the Golf Club's Lobster Buffet on Friday where Peter was crowned king of the sea as he downed two whole lobsters as well as everything else on the buffet tables. Saturday brought a smoked brisket game watch or opportunity to avert your eyes if you were cheering for Notre Dame at my brother's house. Every day boasted leftovers that seemed to get more flavorful with age, pies, cookies, cakes and more pies, and for me, a whole lot of extra strength Tums to cure my third trimester indigestion. 
Mary, my Mom and I also supported the small businesses of Walnut Street on Black Friday; the whole family soaked up Mary's expressions as she watched the trains at the Phipps go through tunnels, over bridges, and up hills on Friday evening;  I got my hair cut for the first time in eight months on Saturday; and Mary walked out of the Carnegie Museum on Saturday afternoon with a new piece of vocabulary: T Rex.
But the best part of the Thanksgiving holiday, was being surrounded by family, and Mary getting to spend so much play time with her cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. When we packed up and left Pittsburgh yesterday morning, I had to wipe away the tears in my eyes. Like all the holiday weekends that had come before it, the things I was looking forward to had too quickly turned to memory.  
After assessing all that I am thankful for this year, I'm calling out 32 years of memories with my ever growing family; those documented and those imprinted in the back of my mind, stirred through dinner time conversations that ebb and flow with laughter. And this Thanksgiving certainly added to my archive.


Tuesday, November 25, 2014


The other night, Mary noticed the rough patches on my feet. The meteoric callouses which tell the tale of triple ball changes and time steps, cleats and turf burn, strutting in stilettos, and mile after mile of treading, bitterly stood in contrast to Mary's perfect little paws. She turned to me and said, 'yucky.' 

Similar to other adjectives in her growing vocabulary, I started to lay the framework for the word a while ago. Touching her diaper pail: yucky. Sticking her finger in her nose: yucky. Digging through the wood chips at the park to get to the mud: also yucky. But at this point, she's claimed the concept as her own, iterating within its synonyms. 

The stingrays at the aquarium: 'ew.' 

The snail at the library: 'gross.'
My feet: 'yucky.'

In thinking about the yuck factor and Mary's more or less natural ability to discern ick from okay, I remembered reading about the notion of disgust in Michael Pollan's book, Omnivore's Dilemma.  He states, "while much of what people deem as disgusting is culturally determined, there are certain things that disgust us all. Disgust is intuitive microbiology." 

Perhaps knowing this, I've tried to keep Mary away from the disgusting. Like the sad and the scary, disgust is an emotion that I don't want my little girl to feel. If I can keep the cold out, turn the light on, wipe a tear away, unstick the 'stuck', or avoid the snails, then I will. I want her sweet smile and innocent laughter to last a lifetime.   
I want Mary to grow up in a world that is yummy, not yucky. 
And I want her adventures and explorations to reveal beauty, present in people of all races, and religions, and climbs.  
But naturally, I can't always be there. And although I will try to show Mary tracks that are safe, I know she will wander from my charted path. She will end up scraped and scratched; her pristine little feet will get bumped and bruised; and she will have to find her own hero, much like the strong women who have come before her. I in turn will have to look to my Mom and Dad to once again extinguish my fears. 

I just hope and pray, that whatever callous Mary carries with her, isn't as yucky as it appears. I hope it is filled with the sweet memories associated with mine: bows, victories, breathtaking views, proud steps down the aisle, and ultimately a finish line.  


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Big Burger Trek

They say if you went to a different restaurant for every meal of the day, you could never exhaust the list of possible eateries in New York City. My question is, if you tried six restaurants each day, and peaked in a couple more for good measure, could you then say you've been to every eating establishment in the Metro area? I'm thinking you'd get close if not all the way there.

Yesterday, I spent the day eating my way through the meatiest parts of Manhattan with five chefs who support the menu pipeline for my company.

Gabby. Our tour guide and Filipino burger fanatic.
Jess. The model of the culinary world.
Eric. The Green Bay cheese man, but Minnesota Vikings fan.
Michael. The flavor expert.
And Chris. The tattooed meat grinder.
Together, we trekked through the city to identify trends in the burger industry and explore what consumers are looking for in an indulgent dining experience. Over the course of six hours, we visited five burger establishments that could easily boast best burger in town and several other concept restaurants that further proved just how many options consumers have.

I ate my way from Umami Burger, to Shake Shack, to Ramen Co., to Jeepney's and finally to Whitman's, from midtown, to downtown, to the East Village, and along with a very full belly, I came across some consistent themes.

First, New Yorkers are willing to pay a hefty price for a good burger.
Second, although my company invented branding, these new fast casual competitors have reinvented it in unique, artistic ways. 
Apparently, there are a whole lot of unemployed Millennials in New York City - or at least quite a few who have enough time to wait for a made to order burger at Shake Shack at 3:30 in the afternoon.
Service with a smile goes a long way. 
Deliciously messy burgers are not so much stacked up with ingredients, as melting together with fresh flavors. The delineation between cheese, sauce, and glaze is absorbed into the enhanced juices of proprietary beef blends, ground and molded in-house. And when you bite into something that looks a lot like a shard of bone, you are willing to forgive it because the rest of the bites thereafter were so scrumptious. 
Burgers with noodle buns are weird and not craveable / one bite was enough. 
Filipino gastronomy is delicious. And according to New Yorkers enables the best burger in the city. Ingredients like banana ketchup, kamote fries, kewpie mayonnaise, sugarcane vinegar, and longaniza sausage were heavenly discoveries. 

Service by stoners is a less desirable. But we decided to give the folks at Whitmans a break because of their proximity to a rather odd herbal shop who was shuttering its doors for a 'class' right around the time we peaked in. 
Noodle shops can be the perfect palette cleanser for someone who has red meat pulsing through their veins. And Momofuko was packed with clean eaters. 
I also learned that dining with chefs is awesome; their knowledge of the ingredients, preparation, and history that contribute to a good dish enlightens the whole meal.  I quickly came to the conclusion that tattoo removal is really painful; that burger patties made up of sirloin and longaniza sausage are incredible; that New Yorkers are spoiled rotten when it comes to food; that I will be fasting for the rest of the week; that baby Bobby is going to love red meat; and that I could always use more time in Manhattan.