January 31, 2010

The Weekend Trifecta 1/31/10

A trifecta is generally described as a type of bet where, in order to win, the bettor must pick the top three finishers in the correct order. Here, on yet another cold but beautiful winter day, are the weekend’s top three:

Filling the tank for 89 cents. Yep, that’s not a typo, we got 15 gallons of gas for 89 cents, because we shop at PriceChopper, use our rewards card, cut coupons, and earn money towards gas every time we shop. This is the best we’ve ever done; we’ve saved as much as $2.40 a gallon before, but this time we saved $2.80 per gallon. Now I know we probably spend too much money on groceries and I know our pantry is full, and I know it takes a while to save this much at 10 cents for every $50 spent. But I wonder, now that Tops has finalized their purchase of Penn Traffic and the local P&C stores, what kind of benefits they offer on their rewards card? Had the Golub Corporation, parent company of PriceChopper, been allowed to purchase the 22 stores they wanted out of the bankrupt Penn Traffic empire, others in Central New York would likely have had a convenient PriceChopper and would be able to do what My Sweet Baboo and I have been doing for the past couple years – saving on groceries and saving on gas.

Syracuse scratching out a win at DePaul. Holy three-pointer, Batman! How SU managed to pull this one from the jaws of defeat is almost unbelievable. Scoop Jardine and Kris Joseph both managed to drill baskets from downtown, after not having done that practically since the exhibition season. And the Orange come away with another win, this time after being down 18 to the Big East’s last place team. After having to bounce back from 14 down against Georgetown, they’re at least proving they can play together and do well against long odds. Whew!

Culinary adventures. I’m fortunate that MSB encourages me to cook with abandon. He’s always maintained that I’m the cooker and he’s the eater, so pretty much whatever I want to cook is fine with him. OK, there was that one time with the flaming macaroni salad, but since then everything’s been fine…So after our ‘fun food Friday’ where I throw together a host of different finger foods, mix up some dipping sauce, pour a nice glass of red for me and white for him and call it dinner, on Saturday we moved way up the gourmet scale to ginger-mango marinated ahi (yellow fin tuna), tri-color couscous with yellow and orange peppers, diced mango and pineapple, and chopped green onions, and rounded it out with some lightly sautéed zucchini. Today, we scaled back down to the comfort food range, with a turkey, mushroom and cavatappi casserole – the height of one-pot cooking. The fun of all this is that for me there are no limits in the kitchen – and on those days that I feel like stretching my wings, I’m welcome to, but on days like today there’s no pressure and the best food in the world is the simplest thing I can think of.

January 25, 2010

The Weekend Trifecta 01/24/10

A trifecta is generally described as a type of bet where, in order to win, the bettor must pick the top three finishers in the correct order. Here are the weekend’s top three:

Stuffed appetizers. The appetizers were part of the whole Stuffed Dinner we put together for my oldest brother’s birthday. Making them was made all that much more enjoyable – in fact the entire event was that much more enjoyable - because my nephew Sam helped.

One of the appetizers, tomatoes stuffed with tuna fish, Sam indicated he wasn’t really excited about, because while he really really likes tuna fish, he’s not a big fan of tomatoes.

The second appetizer was stuffed celery. I put my Mom in charge of this one. While Sam wanted to help with, he’s not allowed to use a sharp knife until he’s a little older; right now, he’s a few months away from his seventh birthday. He thought his mom said he could use a sharp knife when he was seven, but his dad said not until he turned ten. Turns out he had the parents backwards, but with a ‘safe’ knife and careful supervision, he cut the pieces to size, putting a tiny mark in the side of the celery, and then lining up the knife to make the cut. He stuffed the ones with peanut butter, Mom did the ones with cream cheese, and a careful count was taken to make sure we had the same number of each, along with a ‘tester’ for each flavor. Peanut butter was a hit, earning a big grin and many mmms and oh boys. The horseradish was a little too much for him, but the adults enjoyed it.

The last appetizer, stuffed potatoes, was almost too much for Sam to believe. I halved and roasted some small red potatoes, then we scooped out the inner potato leaving the skin intact; the innards were combined with some chopped green onion and some cheese, then put back into the potatoes and baked, served warm. Sam couldn’t figure out why I’d want to do this in the first place, but he helped scoop some and then he and Mom did the mashing – by hand – which he thought was pretty cool.

Stuffed Dinner. This is what started us off on the whole mission of stuffing stuff into stuff. My brother requested stuffed peppers for dinner, and we then got carried away. Sam, watching me stir the hamburger, rice, and secret ingredients, thought stuffed peppers was kind of weird. I explained that even Grandpa (my Dad, gone three years now) loved them and not only that; he called them stuffed ‘poopers’. Well, this was almost too much, peals of laughter as Mom and I explained that Grandpa always did the grocery shopping and he’d write down the week’s menu, always putting poopers instead of peppers. We mentioned that we missed little things like that.

Sam said, very honestly, “I miss him too. And I don’t get to have Boost anymore either, because it makes Grandma think about Grandpa and get sad”. Somehow, Mom and I managed to maintain our composure – not really sure how, but we did. I had forgotten that Dad used to share a Boost – called it a milkshake – with Sam, and was amazed that he even remembered. After all, he was three when Dad passed. Mom explained very reasonably to Sam why they don’t buy Boost any more, and that was good enough for him, and we moved on.

In addition to the regular stuffed peppers, we also had stuffed poblano peppers with Mexican corn, into which I had stirred a little hot mustard.

Sam’s job with all of the peppers was to do quality control. Since he couldn’t help (a sharp knife being the key tool), he inspected all of the peppers to make sure there were no seeds left in them. He found a few that I had left behind, fewer that Mom had left behind, and then declared them "ready for stuffing stuff into."

We also had stuffed salad, a delicious fruit salad that Mom put together, then stuffed back into a halved pineapple and two melon halves. A little orange juice, brown sugar, and balsamic vinegar on the fruit helped bring out the flavors.

And for Sam and my teenaged niece, we stuffed some hotdogs inside crescent rolls, ensuring that there was something stuffed for all ages.

Stuffed dessert. This one was the silliest of all. I made a rectangular Bundt cake, then we removed most of the cake and stuffed it with a mousse made with Cool Whip, condensed milk, and chopped pineapples and their juice. Getting the mousse into the cake was easy; flipping the cake and mousse onto the platter without making a horrendous mess turned out to be fairly easy as well, once everyone left the kitchen. For Mom, the official family dessert server, it was a little more challenging getting everything served; next time, I think I’ll freeze the mousse.

It’s rare the Weekend Trifecta all occurs on one day, but Saturday had it all – it was a day stuffed to the brim with three generations of family, good food, and lots of fun. And I can’t wait to cook with Sam again!

January 21, 2010

Squirrel Appreciation Day?

I’m taking a break from the news of the day to focus on something a little closer to home. Very close to home, in fact: right in our garden, just off the patio.

We're talking squirrels. That there are only three in this picture is really a testament to my bad timing. Sometimes we'll have half a dozen or more lurking in, on, or around the feeders.

I had no idea there was such a thing as Squirrel Appreciation Day, which is celebrated (if that's the correct word) each January 21st. I shouldn’t have been surprised, really. After all, last year I learned there were two national societies focused on possums. So, nothing in the backyard creature world should really be a shock. (January 21st is also National Hugging Day
although no one’s really recommending that anyone go out and hug a squirrel. I don't think).

Here in The Valley, every day is appreciation day for the little monsters. They appreciate My Sweet Baboo and the generous donations he makes to their good health and well being; they appreciate the birds who stay away, or get out of the way, until the squirrels are done eating; and they appreciate that Michael T, our only outside cat, is not at all interesting in getting himself a nice pair of squirrel mittens. They also appreciate the little maple, and the quince, that provide vantage points and launching pads up towards the feeders.

My Sweet Baboo, on the other hand, doesn’t appreciate the squirrels anywhere near as much as they appreciate him. They eat too much, they bother the birds, and they laugh at Michael T. We got some hot red pepper and MSB’s been adding it to the bird seed, but apparently it’s not hot enough to wean the squirrels off the feeders, or even to really slow them down.

The average squirrel needs to eat about a pound of food a week to maintain an active lifestyle. Our squirrels, all above average (think Lake Woebegon effect), are likely getting more than that...with a little kick to help keep them warm.

Take a look - I took these the other morning.

January 20, 2010

The Day After Massachusetts

I didn't get any emails from the President today. I did hear from Mitch Stewart, the director of Organizing for America, who basically encouraged me to continue the good fight, and thanked me for being a part of it, the fight for change. As are many people, I'm still digesting the results, the commentary, and what it all means for us.

On the one hand, some contend that the vote means Americans don't want health care reform. Which we weren't really going to get anyway -- we were likely looking at health insurance reform, which is a different animal all together.

There are those that say the vote was an Obama referendum, and clearly signals that his policies are wrong for the country, we're headed in the wrong direction, and that coupled with the Republicans taking the governorships in New Jersey and Virginia, that the Dems are in big trouble in the mid-term elections.

And of course there are those who say that this is really a vote against business as usual in Washington, that people are sick and tired of not being listened to and are not going to take it any more. John McCain referred to 'unsavory sausage-making', and odd description of the legislative process.

For a unique perspective, there's this take on things from Brian McGrory of the Boston Globe. I've never read any post-election column quite like it.

So which of these is correct? Likely a little bit of all of them. People are angry; they're scared about the economy; they're frustrated with nothing being accomplished in Washington, and with the general tone of what passes for debate; folks are growing tired of handouts and bailouts and wars and everything else, and I think the voting booth is one way to ensure that someone - anyone - listens. And while the party in power always loses ground in the midterm elections, this could be a sign that the hits will be harder come November than might have been imagined a year ago.

My question though, is this. All these years, were the folks in Massachusetts really that liberal? Or were they really simply satisfied with the status quo, a guy named Ted Kennedy?

January 19, 2010

The 'Kennedy Seat' Falls

This morning I received this email from President Obama:

Sue --Right now, the polls are open to elect a new senator to the seat that my friend Ted Kennedy held for 47 years.The choice could not be more stark, and the result could not be of greater consequence -- for Massachusetts or the nation. The Bay State can send progressive champion Martha Coakley to Washington to fight for everything we believe in -- health reform, getting all of our money back from Wall Street, and holding corporate interests accountable. Or the Senate can get one more person already walking in lockstep with Washington Republicans.The polls are still open, the choice has not been made, and you still have a crucial role to play by calling voters in Massachusetts. In a low-turnout special election like this one, every single voter counts.
Please sign up for a phone bank for Martha Coakley near you on this Election Day. Opponents of change and progress have been pouring money and resources into the Commonwealth -- they want to keep things just as they are. The most important thing you can do to stand up to them is call other voters and urge them to get out to vote for the leader we need representing Massachusetts. In a race as close as this one, no matter how many voters you call, you could tip the balance. So please make sure you do everything you can today. Click here to find an Election Day phone bank near you:http://ma.barackobama.com/CoakleyPB. If you were fired up in the last election, I need you more fired up in this election. Thanks for everything you've done, and for your efforts in this final push,

President Barack Obama

Paid for by Organizing for America, a project of the Democratic National Committee, www.barackobama.com. Authorized by Martha Coakley for U.S. Senate Committee.

Tonight, this was the headline at boston.com, the online Boston Globe: Brown stuns, surges to Senate victory.

I can honestly say that I did not donate to the cause, nor did I help man a phone bank for Martha Coakley. While Obama personally campaigned for her, I'm not a big fan of folks sticking their nose or their money in other people's elections.

I think the pundits will have a ball with this one, as will the special interests who now will have renewed vigor in their efforts to shape health insurance reform to their liking. I'm sure health insurance companies, such as the one I work for, will be no exception. And it's not just health insurance reform, it's the entire legislative agenda for Obama that is (theoretically) at risk now that the 60-vote majority is no longer.

How big a hit does the President take for this loss? How smug will Republicans be now that they've handed him this defeat? Will Democrats feel free now to not toe the party line, without fear of repercussion? Or will we see even more wheeling, dealing and bribing, more discourse and discontent, than we saw last year?

Going to be an interesting year...

January 18, 2010

The Weekend Trifecta 1/17/10

A trifecta is generally described as a type of bet where, in order to win, the bettor must pick the top three finishers in the correct order. Here are the weekend’s top three:

Wicked: Thanks to our brother-in-law’s very generous Christmas present, My Sweet Baboo and I enjoyed a sold-out presentation of Wicked, the story of Elphaba (the wicked witch of the west) and Glinda (the good witch) in the time before Dorothy and Toto ever got to Oz. The acting was great, the singing was great, and we enjoyed the story. It wasn’t like some musicals, where you walk away with a song in your head or your heart, but it was a great production and a lot of fun.

holding on by the skin of their teeth to beat West Virginia . This was another classic Big East game, made even more important by the fact that it was two top-10 teams fighting it out. As often is the case with SU, a 10-point lead is never safe, and these games truly aren’t over until the final buzzer. We’re off to Notre Dame tonight, and hoping we can end the road trip three for three.

Reading for the fun of it. I managed to knock off a book on Saturday and another one on Sunday. The first was
Judge and Jury, another reliable collaboration from James Patterson and Andrew Gross. On Sunday, it was Elaine Meryl Brown’s Playing by the Rules, the story of a community in the Blue Ridge Mountains that has a set of very strict rules to live by. The book explores what happens to folks in the community when faced with the unexpected.

What made your top three?

January 15, 2010

'Touchdown' Schumer?

A local company, Penn Traffic, is in the process of disappearing from the landscape. The parent company of P&C, Quality, and BiLo grocery stores is going through its third and final bankruptcy in ten years, and a court decision is expected within the next few days or so on how the company will be disbanded.

As with most cases like this, there are a number of competing interests: creditors, who rightfully want to get as much of their money back as possible; management, who (we hope) are trying to do the best they can under the circumstances; employees, in this case union employees, who want to hold on to their jobs and benefits; customers, who may not want to lose their local grocery stores; and suitors – those who would buy some or all of the company’s troubled assets.

In this case, one New York grocery chain, Schenectady-based PriceChopper, put in a bid for 22 of the 79 stores, signed a contract with Penn Traffic, and put down 10% a while back. (Dislcaimer: My Sweet Baboo and I get about 95% of our groceries at PriceChopper). They didn’t want the whole kit and kaboodle, but were interested in expanding into certain areas and wanted only certain stores. They were honest about the fact that they’d close the stores for renovation and rebranding, and they made no promises regarding retention of Penn Traffic’s employees.

Naturally, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union was not happy about the lack of commitment to keep the employees, and even less happy that PriceChopper is a non-union shop. And so, enter the last competing interest: politicians, primarily Chuck Schumer. New York’s senior senator got engaged in the process, and worked to ensure additional time was allowed for bidding, opposed a flat-out liquidation bid, and to some extent actually contributed to the process.

He also rallied with the union employees, pitted one New York company against another, and in the end the bid that he favored – that of Buffalo-based Tops Markets – was the highest bid; it’s the bid likely to be accepted by the bankruptcy court towards the end of the month.

In the process, Schumer made some really fun comments, in true over-the-top style:

  • “We are not across the goal line yet, but it looks like the components are all coming together to save thousands of jobs and dozens of grocery stores in Jamestown and across Upstate New York,” he said in one statement.
  • In another Senator Schumer said, "It's pretty much over. Tops is going to be the only bidder and that is great news. As I said we started out on our own ten yard line and now we're about to go over the opponent's goal line and score a touchdown."

Tops, like PriceChopper, admitted they would be closing "…a certain number of stores, a small — right now it’s a small handful…” but that the company expects to keep "the majority, if not all," of Penn Traffic's workers. This was great news for the union, and for Schumer, who if nothing else knows and understands the political power of organized labor.

The latest news, however, is that if the Tops deal closes, the local P&C warehouses will also close. The grocery distribution business run out of the warehouses is owned by C&S, a New Hampshire company, but the employees are Penn Traffic employees. C&S will be consolidating everything into their Pennsylvania warehouse, which is much closer to Tops headquarters, within 60 days of the closing.

I suspect that may be news to the UFCW and the hundreds of employees at the warehouse. Perhaps it’s even news to Senator Schumer… so, I wonder, in the end, how many points his ‘touchdown’ is really worth?

January 10, 2010

Seeds of Collaboration

Last week, I offered up several of my wishes for 2010. This was one of them:
  • Let 2010 be the Year of Cooperation between all levels of government including village, town, city, county, region, state and national jurisdictions. They should learn to play well with each other, consolidate services where possible, and think  about what is truly best for their constituents in these trying economic times.
Clearly I don’t pretend that I’m the first person who thought of that – like it says in the song, "...I know it's been said many times, many ways..." over the years. Some of the local folks who said it actually were sincere; others were more interested in being seen as favoring consolidation and cooperation, but less interested in doing anything about it. Sadly, when those two sides butt heads, the constituents are the losers.

But there is hope. A couple of interesting things occurred recently here in Syracuse that make it clear that kind of message is not lost on people.
  • Republican Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney and newly elected Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner, a Democrat, had lunch.

  • Greater Syracuse Chamber of Commerce President Darlene Kerr and Metropolitan Development Association President Robert Simpson had a press conference.

These are important events for the greater Syracuse and Central New York area for a few reasons.

If we are to move forward, and move forward well, it will require Joanie and Stephanie to come together frequently, reasonably, and without ego. It will likely require them to convince their parties, their employees, and both the County Legislature and the Common Council to give up territory, to give up power, to give up titles and likely even jobs, for the greater good.

And, if this level of discussion, collaboration, and progress can happen at the city and county level, maybe folks at other jurisdictions (towns, villages, etc.) would look to find ways to have similar conversations. Of course, they have to pick the right issues to collaborate on - police and fire services seem to be real hot buttons, maybe picking something a little less touchy to start might make sense.

Last, the reason why the Chamber and MDA seem ready to set aside long-standing power struggles and egos is mostly because they have new leaders who are able to see that shared opportunities can be better than separate accomplishments. This is a great lesson which can be expanded across governmental agencies, businesses, and educational institutions.

(They're are also proof that sometimes the folks that have been around the longest may not be the best ones to lead us forward. Hmm…in an election year…where we have lots of stagnant, long-term, short-sighted people in power… Getting any ideas?)

The other thing that’s really cool about this is that changing the way we approach economic development was the one of the cornerstones of Stephanie’s plan for the city. In her 50 Point
Plan for a 21st Century City, the first section of the Plan includes references to us “…need(ing) a new direction and a new approach…cogent regional economic development principles and practices…” The first strategy she outlined called for the city to “work with the County, MDA, Chamber, Convention and Visitors Bureau, MACNY and others…” This collaboration is shaping up to be easier that many thought it might be.

That we’re already seeing this level of cooperation is remarkable. That others besides just Stephanie and me see the benefits is a huge plus. That we're seeing immediate action on a critical strategic issue for the region is exciting. 

Hopefully it’s the real deal, and not just a flash in the pan.

January 6, 2010

Looking Forward to 2010

Before we get too far into the year, I thought I’d capture some of my hopes for 2010. I don’t do any kind of formal New Year’s resolution, but I do think about the future. With thanks to my boycat Galway who I happened to catch in this great pose, here are some of the things on my list:

  • Let 2010 be the Year of Cooperation between all levels of government including village, town, city, county, region, state and national jurisdictions. They should learn to play well with each other, consolidate services where possible, and think about what is truly best for their constituents in these trying economic times.

  • Let 2010 be the Year of Accountability. I’m less interested in what we call this year (twenty-ten, two-thousand-ten, two-oh-one-oh, or whatever the other options are) than I am in hoping that this is finally the year that people become accountable for themselves, and act accordingly, whether it’s professionally or personally.

  • Let 2010 be the Year of Not Defining Beauty by Dress Size. We need to focus less on how big a person is, and more on whether or not we’re healthy. There is a difference between the two, even if we’ve managed to convince ourselves that ‘healthy’ and ‘skinny’ are synonyms.

  • Let 2010 be the Year of Fiscal Responsibility. We cannot continue to spend our tax dollars the way we do. There have to be politicians out there who can see the bigger picture and help us find our way back to some level of sanity.

  • Let 2010 be the Year of Politicians Finding Ethics. That we need this is a no-brainer. If we have folks with the brains or the stomachs to fix it is a whole ’nother question.

  • Let 2010 be the Year of The Demise of Reality TV. OK, we can keep American Idol, The Amazing Race, and maybe Survivor, but the rest of it has got to go.

  • Let 2010 be the Year the Red Sox Regain the World Series title. I just never get sick of asking for that one.

We'll be talking about these again down the road, I'm sure. What’s on your list?

January 4, 2010

Happy birthday, veritable pastiche!

It’s true – the blog is one year old today. When I started, I wasn’t sure how long I’d stay interested in writing, or if anyone would be reading, but the VP is alive and kicking.

Here are some statistics for the first year:

  • Number of posts: Seventy-two. Sometimes I think that’s a lot, but other times I wish I had done more.
  • Number of (admitted) followers: Five. There are more, because I hear from them on Facebook, and via email either at home or at work. They just don’t put their pictures up on the blog. And they don’t comment on the blog either – must be shy.
  • Alternate names for veritable pastiche (that I’m aware of): virgin petroleum, virtual pirouette, Virginia peanuts, visible pantyline, and a few more I can’t remember or can’t repeat. Most of these are courtesy of my brother and my almost sister-in-law, who try to outdo each other with v-words and p-words. I hope they continue this going forward.
  • Most frequently viewed post: would have to be the one I wrote to my Dad on his birthday.
  • My favorite topic: politics. Got that from my Dad.
  • Topic on which I expected to post more frequently than I did: cooking. I cook all the time, make up recipes, and love to entertain, but for some reason, I didn’t expound on this much at all.
  • My personal favorite posts: other than the previously mentioned on for Dad, one from July about how Central New Yorkers have a poor attitude is up there; the one about computers of the future was fun; and my quandary of which I liked better, my garden or the smell of corned beef on St Patrick’s day, is another favorite.

So, what’s in store for this year? More politics, I’m sure. In Albany, as at the national level, this is an election year; and here in Syracuse, we have a new mayor, which should make things interesting. Of course I’m continuing my garden therapy this year;it continues to be cheaper than seeing a behavioral health professional. I’d also like to post a little more regularly…for me, as well as for you.

Thanks for reading, thanks for your comments, however you have passed them along, and hopefully we’ll enjoy the journey in year two!