Saturday, November 30, 2013

Food and hats, hats and food

“I don't think life is to be taken too seriously. Take it too seriously, and it'll getcha.” — Paul Prudhomme 

WE'RE BACK home safe and sound from NOLA. We didn't get to do everything we wanted, but enough to feel like we've been there and enough to have had a good time. Here are a few little odds and ends about our stay:




We each bought a hat — unfortunately for warmth! NOLA experienced record lows while we were there. Trust us to have some unusual weather wherever we travel, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, unseasonably nice or unseasonably awful. This time it wasn't in your favor. We've decided to come back in late spring for a do-over. Paul says this first trip to New Orleans was the start of "anniversary year." I like the way he thinks.




Speaking of hats, while we were exploring the Quarter, we wandered into a little shop called Fleur de Paris where they sell custom millinery and couture clothing, but the store is mostly full to the brim (groaner pun) of ladies hats! Fascinators and wide-brimmed hats, simple and chic, grand and glorious, sultry or sweet, prim and proper . . . every style you could possibly dream up. It's the largest custom millinery in North America.








We chatted at length with the hat designer, Kimberly Benn Gondrella. She's only the third in the store's history. 

I asked her what the price range was. Answer: $250 to $6000. I couldn't imagine that there would be enough demand to keep a store like that in business, but Kimberly said the horsey/racetrack set really go in big for showy hats. Think Kentucky Derby, Royal Ascot, My Fair Lady. They get lots of orders from Europe


We didn't get our hats at Fleur de Paris, but what was interesting was that in addition to that store, there were at least three shops devoted entirely to men's hats, and about every other shop that sold clothing, also sold hats. They seem to be a much bigger deal down in NOLA.

 



My new hat. I'm the one on the right.

Hats seemed to be an accidental, underlying theme; we turned on TMC in our room for a little while the first night, and a silent movie from the 20's was playing. The subject: how Stetson hats were made from start to finish back in the day. We didn't buy Stetson's, though. Too pricey.


Wednesday we ate at Redfish Grill. I had the

 Red Fish Court-Bouillon, a soup made with what's known as the Holy Trinity of Creole cooking (onion, bell peppers and celery) plus roasted tomatoes, fish stock and brandy. So good! The court-bouillon (pronounced coobeyone) and my crab encrusted pompano from our first night were my favorite meals of the trip. Of course we had to have a beignet at some point which, in case you haven't had one, is basically fry bread generously rolled in powdered sugar.


Another little interesting factoid is that Bourbon House, the restaurant I enjoyed so much, is owned by Dickie Brennan who also owns Palace Cafe, Dickie Brennan's Steakhouse and Tableau restaurants, and his cousin Ralph Brennan owns Redfish Grill, Jazz Kitchen, café b, Ralph's on the Park, Heritage Grill and café NOMA. The one place we wanted to eat but didn't get a chance to was K-Paul's started by the legendary chef Paul Prudhomme. Next time.




Thursday, November 28, 2013

Audubon Aquarium of the Americas

“If I had to choose, I would rather have birds than airplanes.” — Charles Lindbergh

AS PART of our continued exploration of New OrleansPaul and I visited the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas and absolutely loved it. Our favorite area was the parakeet enclosure where there were hundreds of the brilliantly-colored birds flitting about, many of them quite happy to fly down to extend a personal welcome. 



Little seed sticks were available for purchase, but one of the keepers said that because it was a cold day, the birds wanted to land on people for warmth as much as for food. One of them crawled down inside my purse! Visitors are cautioned to check themselves over carefully, including looking in purses and pockets, to make sure we don't carry out a bird! He said they'd had to net four hitchhikers already that day!


If you look closely, you can see that there's also one in my purse! 



Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A rainy day in NOLA

“I’ve been all over the world. I love New York, I love Paris, San Francisco, so many places. But there's no place like New Orleans. It's got the best food. It's got the best music. It's got the best people. It's got the most fun stuff to do.” — Harry Connick, Jr. 

IT WAS RAINY all day Monday, so we opted to ride the street cars wherever they ran to take in the sights. We purchased day passes so we could pop off wherever we wanted, look around, and pop back on. It was great fun seeing all the big, southern-style houses.

We lunched at a little place called Camellia Grill, in operation since 1946, and we were waited on by Marvin, who has worked there for 25 years. 



After a long nap, we were ready to hit some French Quarter night spots. We had a bite of dinner at Vaso and listened to the big band playing there. Paul knew the changes to every single tune. But here's what was cool: the Des Moines Big Band would have totally smoked them. Seriously. Totally. Pretty cool that a Monday night rehearsal band in Des Moines can do that!

We looked into a few hotels around the Quarter to see what they were like. If we weren't staying where we are and could afford to, we'd stay at the Astor. Below are a couple of pictures of the Astor's entry way and lobby.






NOLA

“New Orleans food is as delicious as the less criminal forms of sin.” ― Mark Twain

IT WAS a challenge, but we made it to NOLA. We ended up working straight through Saturday and Saturday night in order to get everything done necessary to leave. We have a new IT company as a client, and we wanted to get their website design done to the point that the coders could work while we're gone. 


We flew out of Kansas City because it was so much cheaper, but we had to leave home at 3:00 AM to make our flight, so we were up all day and all night long! Paul let me sleep in the car because that's just the kind of guy he is, and we tried to catch a few winks on the flights, but not so much. 


When we finally got to our hotel, our room wasn't ready, torture for two people who'd been up all night, but it wasn't the hotel's fault because we arrived an hour before official check in. The hotel staff felt bad, though, so when we finally got in our room, they sent up a cold bottle of champagne and gigantic chocolate-covered strawberries. We scarfed down the fruit, but since we're not what you'd call drinkers, we gifted a random couple (happened to be a gay couple) with the champagne.


We slept hard, and then made it to Bourbon House for a late dinner. A local resident recommended it, and it was ab fab. Paul ordered blackened drum on a bed of sautéed artichokes hearts garnished with large shrimp on top. I ordered crab-encrusted pompano. The service was superior, and the kitchen was accommodating enough to plate our food on four plates so that we could both enjoy a garnished half portion of each. For dessert Paul and I shared chocolate pecan crunch cake which is dark chocolate mousse with pecan brittle crunch and salted caramel — and a bourbon milk punch, a blend of ice cream, milk and Old Forrester's bourbon.




Dinner at Bourbon House

We were seated with a picture window view, and while we were eating, along came a second line with a hundred people following. Of course I had to join them for just a little while, and I got festooned by the marchers with about 20 necklaces in all sizes and colors.


We like our hotel. It's a grand old dame. Built in 1907, it's known as "the belle of New Orleans." The service is good, we like the decor and they have this great little ritual; each night from 10:00 to 11:00 PM they serve peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and hot chocolate in the lobby to guests. 


Here's the story of how this tradition got started from the hotel's website:


'A guest checked into the hotel, arriving after a very long journey. He situated his belongings in his room and then retired to the lounge for a nightcap. When the guest simply ordered a tall glass of milk, the bar keep inquired as to his peculiar choice of drink. He began telling him about his family back home, and how since he was away from them so often, they began silly rituals that they would do at the same time every evening. His young daughter was partial to a late night snack of PB&J and milk at the kitchen table. Although he regretted that none of the hotels could provide him with the homemade treat they so often enjoyed, he would still make a point to order his glass of milk to share with his daughter miles away.

As fate would have it, the bar keep on duty that night was actually the hotel's General Manager, who was substituting for one of his employee’s who had left early due to a last minute family emergency. Intrigued with the guests story and wanting to make his stay extra special, the General Manager asked the late night kitchen staff if they happened to have the necessary ingredients to whip up the nostalgic sandwich. Sure enough, within minutes, the guest was presented with the one item that could complete his nightly ritual of an evening snack with his daughter hundreds of miles away... a freshly made peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Before long, word spread throughout the lounge and almost everyone wanted a PB&J sandwich too! Touched by the situation and seeing how much everyone was enjoying their snacks, a tradition began.

Ever since that late night long ago on September 10th, 1988, the hotel has continued the tradition at 10 o'clock p.m. each and every night."

Thursday, November 21, 2013

N'awlins

"If you're open to it, New Orleans will teach you about yourself, but if you want to hide from who you really are, the city will help you do that, too." — Laurell K. Hamilton, American fantasy and romance author 

I CAN'T quite decide which of Laurell's above two categories I fit into. I'd say maybe about 60/40. Be that as it may, that's where Paul and I are headed. We're flying into New Orleans this coming Sunday and staying for five days to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary.


Neither one of us has ever been there, so we're looking forward to it. We're pleased to be staying somewhere other than at a McHotel. We'll be lodging at Le Pavillon (that's how it's spelled, not pavilion), a hotel built in 1908 with lots of history. 


Here's what they have to say about themselves: 


"With a history stretching back to the Gilded Age and impeccable décor throughout, Le Pavillon Hotel piques the imagination in a way that even the emperor himself would applaud. Located in the heart of downtown New Orleans, Hotel Le Pavillon sits adjacent to the historic French Quarter, only five short blocks to the celebrated music clubs of Bourbon Street and the famous restaurants and antique shops of Royal Street.


Built in 1907, Le Pavillon Hotel is a member of Historic Hotels of America and maintains membership in the Leading Hotels of the World. Le Pavillon Hotel has been the proud recipient of AAA's four-diamond award since 1996. Out of hundreds of eligible New Orleans Hotels, Le Pavillon Hotel was named to the "Gold List" by Conde Nast for 2005."


Below are some photos. We'll let you know if it lives up to it's reputation. 






Monday, November 18, 2013

Flipping classrooms

“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” Benjamin Franklin

YOU ALREADY know how much I love The New York Times. One of my favorite repeating features is Fixes, described below. 

"Fixes explores solutions to major social problems. Each week, it examines creative initiatives that can tell us about the difference between success and failure. It is written by David Bornstein, author of  How to Change the World and co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network, and Tina Rosenberg, contributing writer for The New York Times magazine and author of Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World."

Here's one from October 23.


In ‘Flipped’ Classrooms, a Method for Mastery
By TINA ROSENBERG

In traditional schooling, time is a constant and understanding is a variable. A fifth-grade class will spend a set number of days on prime factorization and then move on to study greatest common factors — whether or not every student is ready.

If student turns in shoddy work in a ‘flipped mastery’ class, she can’t move on to the next level.
But there is another way to look at schooling — through the lens of a method called “mastery learning,” in which the student’s understanding of a subject is a constant and time is a variable; when each fifth grader masters prime factorization, for instance, he moves on to greatest common factors, each at his own pace.

Mastery learning is not a new idea. It was briefly popular in the 1920s, and was revived by Benjamin Bloom in his paper “Learning for Mastery” in 1968. It has shown dramatic success — compilations of studies can be found here and here.

One of the advantages of mastery learning is that the student, not the teacher, leads — and we know that people learn far better when they are actively involved. The teacher provides materials, tools and constant support. Students set their own goals and manage their own time.

In a traditional classroom, the teacher must aim the lecture at the middle, leaving the faster learners bored and the slower ones lost. Differentiation and personalization are big challenges. But the mastery system allows each student to learn at her own pace.

Mastery also rewards students for actual learning. A student cannot simply turn in a shoddy paper, take the D and move on. If she turns in shoddy work, she can’t move on. She has to keep trying until she demonstrates she fully understands.

Despite these advantages, mastery learning never caught on, mainly because it was a nightmare for teachers. One problem was how to do direct instruction; a teacher can’t give five different lectures in one class. The other was how to test students. Multiple versions of a test were needed so students couldn’t pass them to friends who would be taking them later.

But some teachers are now reviving mastery learning. What is making it feasible is the flipped classroom, a method I wrote about in my most recent column.

In a flipped classroom, teachers make videos of their lectures introducing new concepts and assign them as homework. That frees up precious class time to work directly with students on projects, exercises or problem sets — the stuff that students would traditionally do at home. Now instead, of struggling alone, students can do the most important work with a teacher or peers who can help.

The flipped classroom eliminates whole-class lecture, so students don’t need to work at a uniform pace.

(Incidentally, many of those who commented in response to my flipped classroom column asked: where’s the reading? The answer is: where it always was. Students still read for homework. But in a flipped classroom, they won’t do problems at home any more — they’ll watch the lectures instead.)

Thousands of teachers are experimenting with flipping their classrooms in elementary schools, law schools and everything in between. Jon Bergmann, a former chemistry teacher who used flipped learning and now teaches others about it, lists 15,000 members in the Flipped Learning Network.

But a handful of innovative teachers are venturing further, using the flipped classroom to employ mastery learning — “flipped mastery,” as Bergmann and his fellow chemistry teacher Aaron Sams call it in their book, “Flip Your Classroom: Reach Every Student in Every Class Every Day.” Since the flipped classroom eliminates the whole-class lecture, they’ve realized, it has also eliminated the reason for students to work at a uniform pace.

Tim Kelly, who teaches math at a high school in Baumholder, Germany, which serves children of United States military families, heard about the idea when he sat next to Sams on a bus trip when they both won the Presidential Award for Mathematics and Science Teaching

When Kelly came back from the ceremony in December, 2010, he talked excitedly about flipped mastery with his colleagues Corey Sullivan and Mike Brust.

That’s crazy,” said Sullivan; it sounded radical and chaotic. “No way should we ever do that.”

But as spring approached they decided to try it. “We had some struggles with our kids,” Sullivan said. They figured it couldn’t hurt to try something new.

They worked around the clock through spring break to design the course and create materials.
 “We put in 40 to 60 hours outside school just for a unit,” Sullivan said — and there were 12 units per course. They had to make all the videos; such a quick switch was only possible because they divided the work among them. (They now call themselves the Algebros. They post all their lessons and materials online; feel free to borrow.)

The fourth Algebro, Spencer Bean, who also won the Presidential Award, had stuck with the traditional way. But then his daughter went through Kelly’s flipped mastery Algebra 1 class, and he was converted. “Here I am with this award and I’m going to throw away everything I’ve been doing that I just got an award for,” he said.

Setting up a flipped mastery class is a second full-time job, and the method can also demand more teacher time before and after class to make sure every student gets personal attention. But teachers also say that it saves them time on the paperwork. Tom Driscoll, who uses flipped mastery to teach history at Putnam High School in Putnam, Conn., notes that he no longer has to write daily lesson plans.

Another advantage: less (or no) student work to grade at home. “We stopped grading papers in the sense of taking them home and having stacks and feeling guilty for not doing them,” said Bergmann. “Everything they turned in we went over in class. There’s a lot of teaching in the grading process.“ After the student takes the test or turns in a project designed to demonstrate mastery, the teacher sits with the student and goes over the work, providing immediate feedback. Bloom called this formative assessment. (There’s no reason teachers couldn’t do this in any classroom. But it’s far less feasible when 30 kids are taking the test together.)

“There’s my one-on-one time with students,” said Brian Gervase, who uses flipped mastery in his pre-calculus class at Downers Grove North High School in Downers Grove, Ill. “Let’s look over the work together and make sure you understand this particular skill.”
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Thursday, November 14, 2013

Twenty years and counting

"Twenty years ago today Kelly Sargent ignored her better judgement and went ahead with the wedding. Our marriage has been and will always be the most miraculous, uplifting and positive thing in my life. Plus, she's a hell of a lot of fun. Thanks again, babe. You saved my life." — Paul Bridson, on the occasion of our 20th wedding anniversary

PAUL and I were married 20 years ago yesterday at Las Mañanitas in Cuernavaca, Mexico. We've spent the past few days reminiscing about what we were doing each day beforehand 20 years ago.

I discovered Las Mañanitas by accident years before I met Paul when I was in Cuernavaca, known in Mexico as The City of Eternal Spring, arranging dental and medical care for a village family who lived near there. (That in itself is an interesting story I'll tell sometime.) I was walking past a long adobe wall in the middle of the city — walled compounds are the rule rather than an exception — and saw an iron gate with a little sign saying Las Mañanitas

I peeked in and found a small paradise: flagstone court yards, perfectly manicured lawns, water fountains, strolling peacocks, a million singing birds, an internationally-renowned restaurant and a hotel with the quiet refinement, grace and spare elegance of old colonial MexicoI switched hotels.

I always told myself that when I got married, it would be there, but there were two additional recommending factors. 1) We were seriously broke and 2) Although Paul had lots of family, I had none. A local wedding sounded both lonely and expensive. 

When I finally said "yes," I told Paul that in order to get married I needed two things: a great dress and plane tickets out of Des Moines

Putting a wedding together in our culture traditionally falls upon the bride and her family. Having none, I was on my own and now on a mission to create an unforgettable wedding for next to nothing. 

professional musician had better own a tux, and at some point during the year — the year he waited to hear "yes" from of me — we scraped together enough to buy one for Paul. It would double nicely as his wedding attire. As for wedding rings, I thought we could use my deceased mother and father's since I had them.

I found a grand, silk dress at Schaffer's that had been $2000 on sale for $800. The store also happened to be running a promotion; if you bought a wedding dress and two bridesmaid's dresses, you got two round trip tickets from Des Moines to Cancun for $125.  

I did the math. I had already decided to purchase my wedding dress there, and although I wouldn't be having attendants, the cost of two dresses plus $125 was a heck of a lot less than round trip airfare for two to Mexico, so I bought a party dress for myself and one for Theresa, my lone employee at Brainstorm. Violá! I had a wedding gown, and Paul and I had plane tickets.

Theresa found an article in a women's magazine about a best-kept-secret spa called Rio Caliente that was enticing and inexpensive. I managed to talk the travel people into letting us use our Schaffer's vouchers to fly into Mexico City  reasonably close to both Rio and Cuernavaca and fly home out of Cancun which isn't close to either

We bussed it to Rio where we got deep tissue massages, feasted on delicious vegetarian food, floated in the natural hot spring pool and chillaxed before the wedding. Then we took the De Lujo bus (Barcaloungers for seats and an attendant) to Cuernavaca and Las Mañanitas

We'd set aside three days in Cuernavaca before the wedding to figure out what the process of getting married in Mexico actually entailed. We'd faxed a form to the hotel before we left home that we believed was for the license. Beyond that, we were clueless.

Lucky for us, the staff at Las Mañanitas has honed graciousness, service, and the ability to remain unfazed by guests' needs to an international art. I swear that if we'd asked them for a clown who juggled and a mariachi band riding in on donkeys, they would have said exactly the same thing in exactly the same pleasantly, calm manner as they did to anything we inquired about. The answer was always, "Perfect."

As it happens, in Mexico a blood test is required in order to get married. Of course we didn't know, but a staff member made an appointment and called a cab. I'm needle-phobic, probably in large part because it's not always easy to get blood out of me, but this was new information for Paul, and as I white-knuckled the cab ride to the clinic, he was pretty sure I wasn't going to go through with getting stabbed or getting married. The blood draw did not go smoothly. As he blocked my vision, he kept repeating, "Don't look. Don't look. No, no, don't look."

Late that same night he became convinced yet again that the marriage was not going to happen, only this time he was sure enough that he began rehearsing what he would tell people when we flew home unmarried. 

I had been so busy getting us there, that I hadn't stopped to feel. With the details worked out, I finally had enough time to contemplate what I was about to do. It felt insanely, irreversibly rash, and I was silently freaking out. My coping mechanism was to watch television — entirely in Spanish which meant that it was at once completely unintelligible to me and strangely calming — while I polished my fingernails and said absolutely nothing to Paul for hours until I finally fell asleep. By then he had his rap down.

I wept while the kind Las Mañanitas attendant assisted me in dressing for the ceremony the next day, but that got it all out, and I was bright, happy and calm by the time I made my descent. 

Unbidden, the staff took care of absolutely everything. Paul and I had walked to the outdoor market the day before to buy flowers. I got a dozen or so each of pink roses, stargazer lilies and white chrysanthemums for a total of $20, but the staff members at Las Mañanitas were almost visibly wounded when they learned that's what we'd done. "But you must let us make your bouquet!" And so they did — not only my gorgeous, grand bouquet but arrangements for the ceremony table and our room. 

They also set up chairs draped in white fabric, found a wedding photographer and engaged a legally authorized person to officiate at the wedding. (It was all in Spanish, so I have no idea what I agreed to.) The one component I provided were the witnesses. I called the dentist I'd made friends with when I was there getting the family's teeth repaired, and he and his wife stood up with us.

That night we had dinner in the outdoor restaurant at Las Mañanitas, and every time I stood up for any reason, everyone in the whole restaurant applauded and toasted us — over and over again. 

I've never been much of a drinker. The next morning I said to Paul, "Gosh, I must have had some non-purified water by accident because my stomach doesn't feel good." He said, "Aren't you adorable. Sweetheart, you're hung over."

We hopped on a plane the next day and flew to Cancun for a few days, and from there home — all married up. 

Altogether, we spent about $2500 on our pre-wedding spa stay, everything associated with the wedding and our honeymoon, whereas the average wedding in Des Moines in 1993 cost from $14,000 to $24,000, not including a honeymoon. Righteous!

 Photos below of Las Mañanitas and us on our wedding day.

The hotel made my bouquet and arranged for the photographer.

Whenever I stood up for any reason during the meal after our wedding, everyone in restaurant applauded and toasted us.

We got married on this part of the grounds, just past the fountain.

The hotel and rooms are in the old colonial style.
There were peacocks and other exotic birds strolling on the grounds.



A typical hallway.
We had some of our wedding photos taken on these steps.
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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Calling all introverts

“Introverts, in contrast, may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but after a while wish they were home in their pajamas.” — Susan Cain, American writer and lecturer, and author of the 2012 non-fiction book "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking"

AS A follow up to my previous post — a quiz to determine whether or not you're a closet introvert, here's a great little graphic from secret introvert and fellow Rotarian, Kitte Noble, called How to Interact with an Introvert.


I've assembled screen captures of it here for you.









Monday, November 11, 2013

A little bit of fun every day

"There is no more lovely, friendly and charming relationship, communion or company than a good marriage." Martin Luther 

OUR 20th wedding anniversary is this coming Wednesday, November 13. As it happens, Paul will be rehearsing that night for a Turner Center Jazz Orchestra performance the following night. He said he'd give the gig a miss if I wanted him to, but he loves to play, so I won't ask him to miss the opportunity.

We thought we'd go somewhere next week to relax and celebrate. I found the most perfect, private, romantic hideaway on Antigua, but unfortunately we couldn't afford the airfare at the time we needed to book it. Antigua is just that much farther east — enough so that the fare ends up being quite a jump from the cost of flying to say Puerto Rico.

Bummer. 

We're definitely going somewhere, but we haven't settled on where. In the meantime, I've determined that I'm going to give myself a little treat every day until we leave for wherever it is we decide to go.

Here are my small rewards so far:

Friday night Paul and I went to Virginia's to slay a jigsaw puzzle. It was a really hard one! The picture looks all pretty on the box, but the colors on the actual puzzle are more muted, and the whole image is kind of blurry. 

We started this puzzle about two months ago, worked on it for two nights, and then Paul and I got sick, so there it sat on Virginia's dining room table. She tried to make progress on her own, but she could only get a couple of pieces a night because it really was so hard. Even Ronda, Virginia's daughter-in-law who's a jigsaw puzzler extraordinaire, took two runs at it and declared it to be more trouble than it was worth.

Virginia suggested a couple of times in the interim that maybe she should just throw this one back in the box, but I kept saying, "No, no, no!" I didn't want some sliced up pieces of cardboard to get the better of us. 

So this past Friday night Paul and I were at last non-contagious enough to go over to Virginia's, and we killed that puzzle dead! Of course it took us until 1:00 in the morning, but we did it. Virginia got so happy she felt called to play a little hymn on her small electronic piano in celebration. It's still making me laugh.


This puzzle might not look hard, but each flower, leaf, shingle,
flagstone and everything else in the picture is fuzzy.

Saturday I told Paul that I wanted to hit all the pawn shops in town and then go to Costco. This agenda might not sound like any kind of fun to normal people, but Paul and I love going to pawn shops. He looks for musical instruments and I just poke around. 

We only managed to get to two before they started closing. Who knew pawn shops close in the middle of the afternoon on Saturdays? You'd think that would be primetime.

We headed to Costco next. We used to belong to Sam's Club, but ditched it maybe ten years ago. We'd heard good things about Costco, however, like for instance that they pay their employees a living wage, and Paul's parents are members, and they like it, so we decided to give it a go. 

We bought Tillamook cheese, which BTW was judged best medium cheddar in 2010. If you've lived in Washington or Oregon, you know Tillamook cheese is legendary. Cougar Gold, made at Washington State University where I received my Masters of Fine Arts degree, is also something special.

And we got fuzzy flannel sheets, that are the bomb!! We may never get out of bed again. We also bought some gluten-free pumpkin chips that a caterer told me about last Tuesday night when I attended an event at West End Salvage honoring my fellow Rotarian Jamie Boersma — one of only 10 individuals across the whole country selected to receive a Characters Unite award from the USA Network for her work with the Girl Scouts of Greater Iowa. Yay Jamie!


The award-winning Jamie Boersma
the night she was honored.

Tulips were my treat on Sunday. Paul planted 60 purple tulip bulbs. Every spring I lament that we haven't planted more tulips. This spring I'll be watching and waiting for my purple tulips to come up. It took a lot less time than you might imagine because Paul has a tulip-planting drill.

I was wracking my brain all day about what treat I could have today. Paul has Des Moines Big Band tonight, so it would have to be something on my own. I considered going to a movie, but I decided since it was cold out — we got our first snow here today — that I'd have a pizza delivered. Might not sound like much of a special event, but in my case, since we only ever get gluten-free everything because of Paul's reaction to wheat and gluten, having regular pizza is a treat. 

So the cats and I are having a pizza party in our jammies, watching The Voice in the AP room with the heated floor. Meow.


I got black olive, onion and pineapple on my thin crust, extra-sauce pizza.


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Saturday, November 9, 2013

Improving the process

"Democracy is a form of government that substitutes election by the incompetent many for appointment by the corrupt few." — George Bernard Shaw 

I'M WONDERING if it gets old hearing me go on about how much I love The New York Times. I can't help it! The paper has such a diverse group of way talented writers, that I get almost dizzy with admiration. Writers and scientists are the two categories who are rock stars to me. I seriously wanted to send flowers to Gail Collins just because I like her so much.

Joe Nocera is another NYT writer with whom I'm completely smitten. For one thing, he writes about gun deaths, and that's an issue I'm deeply about. 




Joe wrote an opinion piece November 4, on the election day that's just past, about the process of selecting who represents us. I like his "modest proposal", so I'm sharing his column with you. But be sure and read all the way to the end to hear Paul's own brilliant idea for improving the way we choose! 

BTW, Joe is looking for your ideas, too. There's a link at the end so you can submit yours.


Fixing the System
By JOE NOCERA
Published: November 4, 2013

It’s Election Day. Virginians are electing a new governor, New Yorkers are choosing a new mayor, and all over the country, dozens of local races are being decided. Because this is an off-year election, in which there are no federal races, voter turnout is going to be abysmal. We all know that.

In Australia, people who don’t vote are fined. In America, people can go to jail for skipping jury duty, but there’s no penalty for not voting. I’m not advocating either fines or jail — not today, anyway — but I’ve got five reforms in mind that could both invigorate the electorate and encourage more responsive, and less extreme, political candidates. Here they are, in no particular order:

Move elections to the weekend. 

Do you know why elections fall on a Tuesday in early November? I didn’t either. According to a group called Why Tuesday?, it goes back to the 1840s, when “farmers needed a day to get to the county seat, a day to vote, and a day to get back, without interfering with the three days of worship.” Today, of course, casting your ballot on a Tuesday is an impediment: lines in urban areas are long, people have to get to work, etc. It is especially difficult for blue-collar workers — a k a Democratic voters — who don’t have the same wiggle room as white-collar employees.

Chris Rock — yes, Chris Rock — has been quoted as saying that this is the reason Election Day remains on Tuesday. “They don’t want you to vote,” he said in 2008. “If they did, they wouldn’t have it on a Tuesday.” Even if you aren’t conspiratorially minded, you have to admit that moving elections to the weekend makes a ridiculous amount of sense.

Term limits for the Supreme Court. 

Somewhat to my surprise, most of the experts I spoke to were against Congressional term limits. Norman Ornstein, the resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, believes that the unintended consequences of term limits would outweigh the benefits. (He cited, among other things, the likelihood that “they come to office thinking about their next job.”)

Instead, Ornstein proposes term limits for Supreme Court justices. If he could wave his magic wand, he would give the justices one 18-year term, and he would stagger them, so that a new justice joined the court — while another departed — every two years. Ornstein likes this idea, in part, because presidents would be willing to nominate older justices; now, the emphasis is on younger nominees who can remain on the court, and influence American society, for decades. I like the idea because nothing fuels partisan politics like a Supreme Court nomination. If the parties knew there would be a new nominee every two years, it might lessen the stakes just a bit, and bleed some of the anger out of politics.

Open primaries. 

Why are so many extremist Republicans being elected to Congress? A large part of the reason is that highly motivated, extremist voters dominate the current Republican primary system. Mickey Edwards, the former congressman who is now at the Aspen Institute, wrote a book last year called “The Parties Versus The People: How to Turn Republicans and Democrats Into Americans.” At the top of his list of reforms is open primaries — which would allow anybody to vote for any candidate. Indeed, California has already adopted an open primary system, in which the top two vote-getters run against each other in the general election — even if they are from the same party. As Adam Nagourney wrote in The Times a few weeks ago, this reform is one of the reasons California’s Legislature has become less partisan and more productive. Chances are good that the same reform at the federal level would produce the same result.

End gerrymandering. 

As a tool to entrench the party in power, few maneuvers can beat gerrymandering. It’s another reason that the Tea Party Republicans can pursue an agenda that most citizens disagree with: thanks to gerrymandering, their districts could not be safer. Here, again, California offers a better model. It has a 14-person commission made up of five Democrats, five Republicans and four people unaffiliated with either party. In 2011, the new commission redrew lines in a way that broadened the diversity of many districts. That is exactly what should happen everywhere.

Bring back the small donor. 

There are few things more discouraging to voters than the power of big money, which asserts itself mainly in the form of so-called superPACs. But New York City has shown how the small donor can matter again: it matches small donations 6 to 1. Thus, a contribution of $100 would add $600 to the candidate’s coffers. According to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice at the N.Y.U. School of Law, this system creates more donor diversity, greater participation, and, not least, greater attention by the candidates to small donors.

Those are my five favorite ideas for fixing the system for elections. What are yours? Send your favorite ideas to Nocerablog@nytimes.com and I’ll post the best on my blog.

And now for Paul's much more immodest proposal. I think it's brilliant.




Senators would still be elected, but Representatives would be chosen by lottery!!! (Sounds of a slow clap evolving into wild applause and mass crowd cheering.)

Anyone at least 21 years of age who is an American citizen and hasn't been convicted of a felony would be eligible to throw his or her hat in the ring to represent the district where s/he is a resident. 

The result would certainly be more "representative" of the actual make-up of the country. Sure, we'd get some complete idiots, but probably not any more than we're saddled with under the current system. We might actually end of with less! 

The big benefit besides the complete plaid that the diversity of age, gender, race, creed, color, ethnicity, religious affiliation, education, life experience and so on that this process would create is that no one chosen would be beholding to anyone for having bankrolled his or her candidacy. 

I mean think about it!!! That means you could be in Congress, and you know what a good job you'd do, right? No really; you would, wouldn't you?!
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Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Things are beginning to swing

"I think a lot of the best ideas come from the grassroots; I'm someone who does not like a bunker mentality and does not like groupthink." — Bill de Blasio 

BILL DE BLASIO was elected by a landslide yesterday to serve as the 109th mayor of New York City — 74% to 24% — the largest margin of victory by a non-incumbent in the city's history. He's the first Democrat to win since 1989, and he's also an unabashed, unapologetic liberal. I'm doing the happy dance.

He campaigned on the premise that NYC is really two cities — one for the rich and one for the rest — and on the promise to raise taxes on those who make $500,000 or more a year. 

His message seemed to resonate. According to an Edison Poll cited by the Wall Street Journal, 96% of black voters, 85% of Latino voters, 90% of Democrats, 16% of Republicans and 86% of the 75% who said the city needed to move in a new direction — backed Bill de Blasio.

With 300,000 city employees and a $70 billion budget, he's got a big job! Break a leg, Bill. We'll all be watching.

In other good news, the Illinois House and Senate passed a marriage equality bill yesterday that Governor Pat Quinn says he'll sign, making same-sex marriage legal in Illinois as of June 1, 2014. 

Illinois is now set to become the 15th state to grant marriage equality — a dozen states behind Iowa which was third in the country and first in the Midwest.

Hey, I keep telling ya' we're hip here.

Below, read what Robert Reich had to say today about yesterday's election results.


Pundits who are already describing the victories of Terry McAuliffe in Virginia and Chris Christie in New Jersey as a “return to the center” of American politics are confusing the “center” with big business and Wall Street. 

A few decades ago McAuliffe would be viewed as a right-wing Democrat and Christie as a right-wing Republican; both garnered their major support from corporate America, and both will reliably govern as fiscal conservatives who won’t raise taxes on the wealthy. They look moderate only by contrast with the Tea Partiers to their extreme right.

The biggest game-changer, though, is Bill de Blasio, the mayor-elect of New York City, who campaigned against the corporatist legacy of Michael Bloomberg -- promising to raise taxes on the wealthy and use the revenues for pre-school and after-school programs for the children of New York’s burdened middle class and poor. Those who dismiss his victory as an aberration confined to New York are overlooking three big new things: 

First, the new demographic reality of America gives every swing state at least one large city whose inhabitants resemble those of New York. 

Second, he won notwithstanding New York’s position as the epicenter of big business and Wall Street, whose money couldn’t stop him. 

Third, Americans are catching on to the scourge of the nation’s raging inequality, and its baleful consequences for our economy and democracy.

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