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Friday, February 28, 2014

Grandma’s Lost Donuts

Yulia Tymoshenko, with her signature peasant braid.

Until she died, my grandmother wore her hair in the peasant braid popularized by Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister of Ukraine just released from prison in the wake of the recent uprising in Kiev.

But, unlike Yulia, Thecla Smytana was an actual Ukrainian peasant. In 1911, at 19 years of age, she spoke no English and possessed no skills. But this illiterate farm girl somehow got herself 6,000 miles to the United States, where she found work cooking and cleaning for well-to-do families in Manhattan -- and tasted meat for the first time.

Namesake St. Thecla, the first female martyr.

She was a hard-as-nails, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps woman who loved me dearly and had an immense influence on my life.

While my parents were at their jobs, I spent long days in her Staten Island kitchen keeping her company as she cooked and baked. She told me the folk stories of the old country and sang the songs she learned as a girl. She’d let me use an overturned tumbler to form dough circles that she formed into the stuffed patties called pyrohy in Ukrainian.

At sunset, she went about the house turning on lights and reciting in a loud whisper her prayers against the night, which she’d memorized as a girl.

But more than anything, she shared with me the central mantra of her own life: Treba zmusyty sebe. You have to push yourself.

Calvin Trillin once joked that, “The most remarkable thing about my mother is that for thirty years she served the family nothing but leftovers. The original meal has never been found.”

That wasn’t true of my grandmother.

She cooked a stable of Ukrainian dishes, most centered on vegetables that grow in or close to the soil -- potatoes, beets, cabbage.

Peasant cuisine, you say? Ha! A rose may look prettier, but cabbage makes a better soup.

When my aunts and uncle returned home from their office jobs in Manhattan every evening precisely at seven, a fresh meal was waiting for them.

And for dessert were the jelly donuts. Pampushky.

Grandma made them from scratch. Deep-fried and sporting a thick coat of granulated sugar. In my little-boy eyes, they were as big as softballs.

James Beard may have said that good bread is the most fundamentally satisfying of all foods. But I say stuff it with jelly and see what happens. 


My idyllic time alone with Grandma ended when I started kindergarten. I began the business of growing up, and it wasn’t until I was a young man and Grandma was gone that I realized I had never thought to ask her to teach me to make the pampushky.

Her three daughters never asked, either. As first-generation immigrants, they distanced themselves from their eastern European heritage because they so wanted to be “American.”

Pre-school Peter with my mother, Grandma and aunts.

I know Grandma would have given the recipe to me if I had asked for it. But I never did.

Zora Neale Hurston, an African-American writer of the Harlem Renaissance, describes the way I took things for granted in those long-gone days as a chubby child:

“You don’t take no steps at all, just stand around and hope for things to happen outright, unthankful and unknowing, like a hog under an acorn tree, eating, grunting, with your ears hanging over your eyes and never even looking up to see where the acorns are coming from.”

Grandmothers as a species don’t write down their recipes. After all, as author Linda Henley says, “If god had intended us to follow recipes, He wouldn't have given us grandmothers.”

My grandmother’s dishes were not written down because she didn’t know how to write.

But whatever magic yielded those unforgettable donuts, it went to the grave with Grandma.

In my next post, “An Amazing, Awesome Blog”

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Lighting the Match

It will be 50 years ago Tuesday that a 22-year-old boxer named Cassius Clay won the world heavyweight boxing championship.

He was challenging Sonny Liston, who had never lost a match and was considered perhaps the best heavyweight boxer in history. In a poll of sportswriters before the fight, 43 of 46 picked Liston to beat the trash-talking upstart easily.

But it was Clay’s moment. Against all odds, he won.

Cassius Clay takes the heavyweight title, February 25, 1964.

The only reason I am mindful of this anniversary is that I came across it while researching a speech for a client who is delivering the talk to his company’s sales organization on Tuesday.

One of the benefits of being a speechwriter is the continuing involvement I have in the thought processes, experiences and ambitions of the intelligent and interesting executives I write for. These are successful people, and by vicariously getting into their minds, my own life gains added dimension.  

This time, a speech I was writing to stir a group of strangers was speaking to me.

In thinking about the way Cassius Clay seized his moment, I questioned why so many of us sleepwalk through life.

Marcel Proust recognized this common malady in his 1927 The Past Recaptured:

"In theory one is aware that earth evolves, but in practice one does not perceive it, the ground upon which one treads seems not to move, and one can live undisturbed. So it is with Time in one's life."

Didn’t I need to be shaken awake -- like the young men on the 1980 U. S. A. Olympic hockey team? They were thought to have no chance against the powerful Soviet Union team. But the U. S. A. coach told his amateurs:

“You were meant to be here. This moment is yours.”

I’m not going to hit the ball out of the park every time I’m at bat – I understood that.

Mickey Mantle of the New York Yankees.

The example is Mickey Mantle, one of the most revered baseball players ever:

“During my 18 years, I came to bat almost 10,000 times. I struck out about 1,700 times and walked maybe 1,800 times. You figure a ballplayer will average about 500 at-bats a season. That means I played seven years without ever hitting the ball.”

But my every action should be aimed at some worthy outcome, shouldn’t it?

Isn’t opportunity for achievement embedded in each day? Whether it’s career or lifestyle or love?

As I pass through my days, shouldn’t I be as alert to opportunity as a stalking cat?

Didn’t master American architect Eero Saarinen counsel us always to “think of the next larger thing?”

The act of identifying or imagining or fashioning the next larger thing in our lives is itself a form of fulfillment. A life can be a work of art, constantly being shaped and reshaped like a kaleidoscope that must be constantly touched to bring forth its beauty.

Olympic Gold Medalist Mia Hamm.

Mia Hamm was the brilliant 2004 Olympic soccer Gold Medalist. I read and re-read the quote I had included in my client’s speech until Mia’s words sounded like a haiku:

I am building a fire.
And every day I train, I add more fuel.
At just the right moment, I light the match.

It’s not too late for me to start maintaining this kind of positive attitude in the game of life, I think.

Remember the old joke about the Little League team that was losing 10 to nothing?

One of the fathers who was sitting behind the losing team’s bench quietly called to his son, “Don’t be discouraged, Buddy.”

The boy turned and answered, “I’m not. We haven’t been up to bat yet.”

In my next blog, “Grandma’s Lost Jelly Donuts”

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Un-Maintenance Men

I once had an acquaintance of many years whom I thought I knew well. But when his wife died, I was startled to learn that this guy didn’t know how to do his own laundry or book his own travel or even manage his own checkbook. He was a partner in a thriving medical practice, but he couldn’t care for himself.

When I was a young man studying for the Catholic priesthood, I was fortunate to have as our seminary rector a farsighted monsignor who instilled self-sufficiency in us in preparation for the solitary life of a parish priest. So we spent each Saturday laboring to maintain our “house” (from the Greek oikos, the root of “ecology”). I learned to make up my bed in military fashion, to wash windows without leaving streaks, to handle a bulky floor-buffing machine.

I know an untold number of men – at least in my older age demographic -- who require someone to take care of their day-to-day needs because they cannot or will not maintain themselves.

These are the “un-maintenance men.”

On the other hand, all the women I know are highly self-sufficient. Not one suffers the malady of un-maintenance.

My widowed daughter, for example, can jump a car, install appliances and make sense of the snake’s nest of cables that link cable box, monitor, DVR and DVD.

I spent most of 2009 alone in Vieques, house-sitting a friend’s place while our house was being built. When I first moved down to Vieques, my wife was concerned that my nutrition would suffer because – although I could make a mean chili, bake hearty breads and serve up a full Ukrainian Easter dinner -- I was not in the habit of preparing three meals a day.

But I learned – and learned well enough to open a bed-and-breakfast and see my guests posting Trip Advisor photos of their plates.

Guest Mary Fisher’s snap of her breakfast at my Vieques B&B.

Caring for yourself, cleaning up after yourself, taking responsibility for managing your daily living – these are salutary and enriching practices that form what I call the “Ecology of Self.”

They also are precepts of the ancients.

Confucius, for example, warned that the father who does not teach his son his duties is as guilty as the son who neglects them.

The Buddha engendered the worth of taking responsibility for ourselves and for the environment we occupy.

St. Paul counseled the Galatians – and us -- that “each will have to bear his own load.”

Now, take heed. There might be a downside to all this.

The New York Times a couple of weeks ago discussed a study showing that when men did certain kinds of chores around the house, couples had less sex.

Specifically, if men did all of what the researchers characterized as feminine chores like folding laundry, cooking or vacuuming — the kinds of things many women say they want their husbands to do — then couples had sex 1.5 fewer times per month than those with husbands who did what were considered masculine chores, like taking out the trash or fixing the car.

It wasn’t just the frequency of sex that suffered, either — at least for wives. The more traditional the division of labor, meaning the greater the husband’s share of masculine chores compared with feminine ones, the greater his wife’s reported sexual satisfaction.

After I read about this study, I informed my wife that I wouldn't be doing any more housecleaning because it might adversely affect our sex life.

She says she doesn’t mind a dirty house.

In my next blog, “Lighting the Match”

Friday, February 7, 2014

What’s Not in a Name

“It is salutary to be careful in choosing names that identify with the great saints who have gone before us. The first pope to change his name upon election was John II in 533. He did so because his father had named him for the pagan god Mercury. The more pagan a culture becomes, the more it lapses into pagan and even downright silly names.”
George William Rutler

In the paradise that was the Garden of Eden, Adam was assigned two essential tasks:
  1. Procreate the human species
  2. Name what he saw around him

Adam obviously exceeded expectations on the first item.

The second? Well, that’s the reason for this blog.

Today, naming is at least a multi-million-dollar industry. At the same time, naming a child is something every parent wrestles with.

Entrepreneurs with a small or start-up business, for instance, might invest anywhere from $25,000 to $50,000 for a name and logo created by a reputable branding agency.

What about the big drug companies that throw at you catchy names like Zyprexa, Xarelto and Prostaglandin?

A drug has three names as it’s brought to market:
  1. The “New Chemical Entity” name based on the compound's chemical structure
  2. A “Generic” name to identify the drug during its clinical lifetime
  3. And its “Brand” trademark, to identify the drug during the 17 years the manufacturer has exclusive rights to make and sell it

According to Aswath Damodaran of NYU's Stern School of Business, a brand's value fuels its ability to sell at the highest price. He cites brand as “the most sustainable competitive advantage known to business.”

In Coca-Cola's case, branding accounts for 80% of its value.

"You can put whatever you want on the outside of the can, but there is really no difference between a cola and another cola,” Damodaran says. “Taste is irrelevant. Brand is the illusion.”

Example: In1985 Coca-Cola rolled out “New Coke,” based on consumer research showing that the new formula tasted better.

Coca-Cola learned the hard way that it wasn't about the taste. It was about the intangible emotional connection consumers felt toward the brand. The original formula was returned to the marketplace, branded as "Coca-Cola Classic."

In light of all this, what’s a parent to do?

Baby name expert Laura Wattenberg has tracked and tallied almost 1,500 viewpoints of Internet postings abut baby names and published The Most-Hated Baby Names in America.

Her conclusion?

The "audience" for a baby name is shifting from the inward-facing target of your own family and community to an outward-facing focus on the way the name will be perceived during the child's “life marketplace.”

People said, for instance, that the name Hunter, "should only be a last name" and is "too violent."

The names we choose for our children send signals that are received loud and clear. Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio demonstrated this when he chose Francis as his papal name.

Ms. Wattenberg:
"It's a stark illustration of the power of names: the ability to express an entire philosophy of faith and leadership in a single word.”

The question for new parents? When you choose a name you believe will make your child stand out, are you naming -- or branding?

In my next blog, “Un-Maintenance Men”

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Making Life Work Best

Intimacy with God and solidarity with all people are two aspects of dwelling in the present moment. We are brothers and sisters, not competitors or rivals.”
Henri Nouwen, Here and Now

It’s unfortunate that so many of us wait until we retire before we take the time to truly dwell in time -- in the current moment.

Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now, says that by paying “alert attention” to what is, you give something of yourself in return for something you value more.

Since I built a house on this island off an island -- the spit of sandbar known as Puerto Rico‘s “Little Sister Island” of Vieques – I’ve discovered that something about snorkeling transports me to the present moment. 

There are few experiences as meditative, contemplative and inspiriting as simply observing fish go about the mesmerizing kaleidoscope of their silent lives.

I’m not talking about the kind of snorkeling that has you dashing about from reef to reef and rock to rock in pursuit of the next sight, underwater camera in hand.

I’m talking about “hovering.” 

It’s a matter of finding a suitable spot where the mystical creatures of the southern seas are likely to congregate – and just floating there, as motionless as you can manage.

Like the cradled infant you once were, you are rocked by the waves and lullabied by the rhythmic sounds of your deep breathing. All else fades, and you dwell in the currency of the moment. If you do this, if you just linger -- fully there in expectant anticipation -- they come to you.

As accustomed as we are to conducting our human activities on a horizontal plane, there is something profound in viewing the subaqueous world by means of a downward glance, from above.

Melon Dash created an innovative self-discovery course in swimming and has taught it to more than 4,000 adult students. Here’s how she sketches the connection between the presence of snorkeling and applying its lessons to making life work best:

What makes snorkeling most magical – hovering -- is the same thing that makes other activities magical: being fully there. In snorkeling, if I stop not just my body but my self, and let moments unfold, out come the creatures and out pops what's already there that I had missed. 

Hovering as I snorkel is a metaphor for what makes the rest of life work best, too. 

One example that's happened to me countless times occurs when I'm arranging flights. There, "hovering" has become my M.O. The agent says, "You can't get there from here for that price. It'll cost you $2,000.” I say, “Let's think on this a bit. How about if I go through this city? How about if I leave at this time instead?" And by slowing everything down, suddenly possibilities emerge that otherwise wouldn't have. We figure out a way, and I get what I want -- what was "impossible" 15 minutes ago.

Slowing down is the key. As I say in my book, the only cause of problems is skipping steps. If we slow down, we can make sure we don't skip any. If we don't skip any, we have no problems. 

Melon Dash’s book is available at:

In my next blog, “What’s Not in a Name.”