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October 2010

Mother-Son Quote of The Week

Mamamcnabb I know, I know, it's about moms and football again. But that's because I am knee-deep in my chapter on sons. I recently came across a blog written by Wilma Char McNabb, mother of football great Donovan McNabb. Love this quote: 

"As I watched from my home a game I normally would of attended, my heart pounded fiercely for the team and especially my boy. I had made up my mind before the season that I wouldn't attend this game. I figured a lot of Hoopla, and I didn't want the son to have another thing to worry about. But it wasn't the easiest game to watch either. This kind of game, the fans, my friends and distant family like because of its intensity and down to the wire. I can speak from a parents point of view. We like a large lead and the hearts get to slow down and beat rhythmically."

Bad Jobs

Images Ever so often someone does a round-up of the worst jobs in America. A recent CNBC poll included iron worker, garbage collector, welder - these estimates used criteria like the relationship between danger and pay. There are many jobs I would dread, including long-distance truck driver, toll collector on the Tappan Zee Bridge, not to mention sex worker.

But here's another to consider: how would you like to be Charlie Sheen's publicist? The much arrested television star - domestic violence is his specialty - trashed a hotel room at the Plaza earlier this week, ripping apart furniture, gashing walls and doing whatever else violent, drug-addled folk do. His publicist's explanation was priceless: he suggested Sheen had "an allergic reaction." 

To what? Civility and sobriety? I'm just sayin'....trying to polish Charlie Sheen's image and not sound like your kidding - not the world's easiest job.

Even Jane Austen Had A Tough Editor

Images-1 A literary scholar who edited a new digital edition of Jane Austen's fictional manuscripts says a heavy-handed editor cleaned up her grammar and smoothed out her prose. Et tu, Jane?!  The scholar, a University of Oxford professor, says that Austen, known for her "high degree of polished grammatical style," she of the "exquisitely placed semicolon," wrote much rougher drafts of her books.

Some Austen devotees prefer the original voice - much more interesting, with conversations reflecting how people really spoke and a lot more of an authorial bite. 

Well, well. What to make of this? First, it gives me great pleasure to know that someone had their paws all over the work of a writer as great as Austen. Second, it gives me comfort to know that even she didn't sit down and spin out flawless prose on her first go round. Third, I am still waiting to hear back from my own editor, and if her only issues were punctuation and patches of awkward writing, I would be very grateful indeed.

Moms and Football

Mcnabb_pic1 Have you ever noticed that you never see a professional football player who has pushed his way into the end zone smile into the TV cameras, wave excitedly, and say "Hi Dad!"

Nope, it's always "Hi Mom."

I have asked a couple of football players I know (not pros, mind you, but guys who played in high school and college) about the relationship between Mom and football - everything from the trash talking "Your Mama..." jokes to the end zone phenomenon. Here is a comment from one former college quarterback, now high school coach:

 "You're just full of joy. You just scored a touch down.  Who's the one person who is going to feel as good about this moment as you are? Maybe even better? Your Mom."

Bingo. I just love the quote.


Paying for My Teenage Sins

20061222_sunburn Yes, I used to be this idiot - I would rack up sunburns of this caliber  with frequency. And I am blonde and fair-skinned. So it won't surprise you to know that I have become a frequent flyer at the dermotologist's office. I've already had one skin cancer removed and by now dozens of pre-cancerous actinic keratosis. When I was in the doctor's office Monday, he looked carefully at my face and said, "Uh, are you planning on working at home this week?" It took a minute to dawn on me that he was suggesting I not go out in public after he was done with me.

Please, please, heed my word, youngin's. Use your sunscreen. You won't regret it.

Volunteer Commitments

Volunteering I was grumbling to a friend yesterday about my schedule today - which is punctuated with meetings and volunteer commitments, culminating in serving at the Food Pantry tonight.

"Just blow it off," she advised. "It's only volunteer work."

I let this comment go, but I can't "blow off" what she said. I do spend hours every week volunteering. I take it as seriously as my paid work. If I say I'll be there, I'll be there. If I promise to write a newsletter, chair a committee, serve on a board, it will all get done. I don't see any distinction between professional and volunteer activities in terms of commitment.

Of course, this is why I end up chairing so many things. You soon find out that in most volunteer-based organizations, depending on their size, the same 6 or 8 people do everything.  

I don't mean to be self-righteous and I may be a fool for putting in all this time. Perhaps I'll defer to the age-old American tradition of blaming my parents. Both my mother and father volunteered their time in a variety of organizations for as long as I can remember. They usually ended up running them. We were taught to give back to our community. And I suspect my kids are soaking up the same message. Which isn't such a bad lesson after all. 

End of The Season in Long Lake

It's only mid-October, but Long Lake is shutting down. Of course, folks do live in this Adirondack town year-round, plenty of them. But they have to make do with a lot fewer businesses open until Memorial Day weekend rolls around again. First, let's take a look at how pretty it is up here:

House in fall
Nice, huh? But sadly, the grocery store is closing for the season. Also, the hardware store closed yesterday. The good news - a two-for one sale on a lot of stuff. The bad news - it was freezing in there! Evidently, they decided to turn off the heat a little early.

Grocery clearance Hardware store













The planes are still in the water at Helm's Aero Service, but today it's far too windy for the planes to go up.


Too windy better Planes on shore








Even Custard's Last Stand has closed down. But Long Lake retains its charm. And soon it will be time to take out the snow shoes.

Pumpkin Muffins With Streusel Topping

Pumpkin muffins
Perfect for a fall breakfast. And dessert. And snack. Well, you get the picture....


2 eggs, slightly beaten

2 and 3/4 cup sugar

3/4 cup oil plus one tablespoon

1 15 ounce can pumpkin puree

4 cups flour

1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons baking soda

1 tablespoon cinnamon

3/4 teaspoon ground cloves

3/4 teaspoon allspice

5 tablespoons flour

5 tablespoons sugar

3/4 teaspoon cinnamon

3 tablespoons butter


Preheat oven to 350

1. For streusel, combine 5 tablespoons flour, 5 teaspoons sugar, 3/4 teaspoon cinnamon. Cut in butter until mixture resembles course crumbs. Set aside.

2. Combine eggs, sugar, all of the oil and pumpkin in a mixer bowl. Mix well.

3. Sift together flour, salt, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and allspice in a different bowl.

4. Add flour mixture to the pumpkin mixture. Combine until just blended.

5. Fill greased or lined muffin tins. 

6. Sprinkle 2 teaspoons of streusel over the top of each muffin.

7. Bake in oven for 35 minutes.

8. Fight over warm muffins.

From the Mouths of Guys

Mom-and-son I'm enjoying going through my transcripts of interviews with sons. So many defy the stereotypes, particularly that of  mothers who view their son as princes, who they cater to and who can do no wrong. Many guys I've interviewed (and for the book, I've only interviewed men 18 and older) were brought up by Moms who kept them emotionally close but taught them to be self-reliant, and made limited distinctions between "men's work" and "women's work." Check out this guy, who grew up in a small Southern town:

"Mom was a nurse. She would work a full day, come home and make dinner for everybody. But we learned to clean up, because my Mom said, 'Look, I've worked a full day.' I'm the kid who knew how to sew in fifth grade. I was allowed to use the sewing machine at home. My brother and I would mend our own clothes, because my Mom wanted us to be self-sufficient. We knew how to do dishes. I could use an iron when I was 12 years old. We knew how to clean a house."

This guy, a military veteran who now lives in another state, just gave his Mom a cellphone for her birthday, so they could talk more often.

My Addiction Is Getting Worse

Images It's not drugs. It's not alcohol. It's not even cigarettes. It's these damn electronic word games that are sucking more and more precious time out of my life.

Long-time readers know that I already have a problem with two Facebook games - WordTwist and Pathwords. Pathwords has become a far greater problem, because you can play it without an opponent. That means trouble, as in..."OK, I'll play just one round and then I'll get to work on Chapter Six. Oh wait - I did really well in that round, which entitles me to another round..." and then I'm off to the races.

The only thing that keeps my Facebook addiction in check (other than such obvious inhibitors as a book contract deadline, a husband and children and the rest of my life) is the fact that these games can only be played on my computer. And while I do lug laptop all over the house, I do not take it to bed with me.

So imagine my mixed joy and horror when I discovered that my Kindle also has word games. And what's the harm if I want to wind down at the end of the day by playing a round of "EveryWord"? Except that each round is 3 minutes. And each game is 10 rounds, assuming you do well enough to progress to the next level. So two games later, an hour has flown by and it's past midnight. AUGH.

There is probably a 12 step program for this addiction, but the truth is, I'm just not ready to stop. Yet.

Christopher Columbus: No Mammismo

Images Since yesterday was Columbus Day, I meant to blog about Christopher's Mama. An initial search revealed little about her. Her name was Susanna Fontanarossa, and she was the daughter of a woolens merchant. Christopher was born in the Italian port of Genoa, and had three younger brothers, Bartolomeo, Giovanni Pellegrino and Giacomo, as well as a sister, Blanchinetta.

He took off from home in 1467 at the age of 16 to travel to Iceland. Later he moved to Portugal and then Spain. And we now know that the man was no homebody. As a great navigator and explorer, Columbus belies the Italian stereotype of the "Mammismo" or Mama's Boy.

But the image of the Italian boy who won't leave home is so engrained that a few years ago, it came up in Italian politics. An astonishing 37 percent of Italian men ages 30 to 34 live at home with their parents, twice the number of Italian women the same age. In 2007, the economic minister offered a tax break if those men moved towards independence, saying "Let's get those big babies out of the house." His words and proposal were met with outrage - Italians like their boys to remain in the nest.

Well, good thing Christopher decided to leave home and eventually sail the Nina, the Pinto and the Santa Maria. Today is actually the real anniversary of the day he discovered the Americas. Ciao Cristoforo!

Book Group Follies

Bookclub It was kind of funny but kind of sad. Our book group meeting was drawing to a close last night, and it was time to choose the next book. We've never had much of a procedure for this - some people bring in ideas, there is a lively discussion ("I tried reading One Hundred Years of Solitude. I only got to 50 years of solitude.") and then we form a general consensus. We have vague sense that if we just read a book set in India, we don't want to read a similar one right away, ditto autobiography, history, etc.

The problem is that we are all middle-aged women. Therefore, we can't remember what we read. Last month. So ensue these ridiculous conversations: "We already read Faulkner." "Did we?" "Remember that book that had the guy...who had the problem..." "No, no, you're thinking about the other book. You know the one, where there was a woman, I think it was a woman..." "We never read that!" "We did. Or wait, maybe I'm thinking about the one that was set in Russia. No wait, it was Ethiopia."

Dear God. It's pitiful. One intrepid member of our group does keep a list of what we've read, but then, we always forget to bring it to our meetings. This book group has been meeting for more than 15 years - good Lord, my children were in elementary school when we started - so some of our forgetfulness is understandable. By the way, if you want to check out what we have read recently, check out the books tab on the left.

I just had a terrible thought. What if I've blogged about this before? I honestly can't remember!

Random Daughter Thoughts

Images Last night I went to see "Waiting for Superman," a documentary that addresses the poor state of public education in this country. I was particularly interested in the movie, because My Daughter works for a network of charter schools. I thought the movie was ok, but with that kind of portentousness that so many documentaries have. I'm not a big fan of that combination of earnestness, silly film clips from the movies, and cartoon-like graphic illustrations thrown in for good measure. Far better, I found, was The Lottery, which dealt with the same issue in a more intimate and straight forward way. 

Anyway, I have great admiration for My Daughter's professional Red-lipstick commitment and success. But Lord, how I love having a daughter for all those other gender stereotypic ways. For instance, when I was a kid there was a nasty spray dry shampoo called "Psssssssst" which contained God knows what chemicals. This weekend, My Daughter introduced me a new generation of dry shampoos - simple powders which do the same job and are a far better product. She also showed me that blondes can wear some red lipsticks. On top of that, she gave me a beautiful pair of earrings. If there hadn't already been hundreds of books about the mother-daughter relationship, I'd write one myself. 

My Cat Thinks She Is A Rooster

726rooster How else to explain her new habit of jumping onto my bed at the first crack of dawn and meowing plaintively until I get up, stagger downstairs (pre-coffee state) and open the door to let her out? After all, she has work to do. She has to trot outside and then look around blankly, turn around and meow plaintively to come back inside. GRrrrrrrrrrr.

Our vet once described this cat as "riding the short bus," meaning that this particular kitty wasn't the brightest bulb in the animal kingdom. It took her approximately four years to learn her name, and we're not sure she really has mastered it. So I guess I could look on it as great intellectual progress that the cat has now figured out that I'm the one who can open the door. But I think I'll go get some more coffee before I burst with pride over this latest breakthrough.

Pink - The Original Guy Color

Nfl_breast_cancer2_m So I'm watching the Redskins beat the Eagles yesterday (hah!) and I notice something odd. The players on both teams are wearing pink shoes. And pink gloves. They have pink towels tucked into their waistbands. And then I see the little pink ribbons on their helmets. Ah - it's breast cancer awareness week in the NFL.

That's all fine and good, but I was struck by how incongruous all that pink looked on that most macho of domains - an NFL playing field. Then I remembered some research I came across for my book that revealed that the pink was not always  a "girl color."  In 1918, the Ladies' Home Journal, America's most authoritative magazine at the time, gave this advice to mothers: "There has been a great diversity of debate on the subject, but the generally accepted rule is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl."

Anyway, the guys looked great with their pink accessories, and I'm sorry it's not a year-round affair.

Recalling the Glory Days of Reader’s Digest



Published: October 1, 2010

03BOOKWE-articleInline BY the 1940s, only one publication exceeded Reader’s Digest in sales. It was the Bible. And the Digest even put its stamp on that book, producing a condensed version in 1982 and presenting it to Pope John Paul II.

Starting with newsstand sales in 1929, the Digest became an instant success and ultimately a global phenomenon, as well as an exemplar of paternalistic policies that coddled employees. This fall, as part of the company’s recent restructuring, the last employees will be leaving the Digest’s former headquarters here — a sprawling campus perched on a hilltop — for offices in White Plains and Manhattan.

But many of the glory days will stay behind, captured in a collection of artifacts and documents on view at the New Castle Historical Society in “Reader’s Digest: The Local Magazine That Conquered the World.”

The society is housed in the former home of Horace Greeley, the 03BOOKWE2-articleInline founder of The New York Herald Tribune, and a visitor must walk upstairs and through Greeley’s study, past his desk and old typesetting equipment, to see the exhibition. It seems fitting that one visionary publisher should play host to another.

DeWitt Wallace, the founder of the Digest, had what at the time was a revolutionary idea. In the early 20th century, he believed that people were overwhelmed by too much information and needed help sorting it out. He began culling what he considered the best stories from other publications and condensing them into easily consumable pieces.

Mr. Wallace was initially met with skepticism. The exhibition includes several panels that chart the magazine’s history, and the first, “Birth of an Idea,” includes a letter from the editor of The Red Cross Magazine, John S. Phillips, granting Mr. Wallace permission to excerpt an article. “I have looked over your little publication,” Mr. Phillips writes. “But, personally, I don’t see how it will be able to get enough subscribers to support it.”

03BOOKWE3-articleInline The early lives of Mr. Wallace and his wife, Lila Bell Acheson Wallace, are documented, as is their extensive philanthropy and art collection. Mrs. Wallace started collecting art in the 1940s, creating one of the first corporate collections in the country.

At one time, the halls, conference rooms and even the cafeteria at the Digest’s headquarters were decorated with paintings by Renoir, Chagall,van GoghDegas and the like. Mrs. Wallace believed it was important that employees be intellectually stimulated in their work environment. Alas, visitors to the exhibit will not see any of these works; most were sold at auction in the late 1990s. Instead, a small pile of 1990 calendars titled “Great Paintings From the Digest Collection” sits on a chair, with a handwritten note reading, “Free — help yourself.”

The value of this exhibition is less in what it offers visually than in how it captures an era. Evidence of bygone days of corporate largess is seen throughout the show. One case holds a silver compact with the Digest logo of a Pegasus engraved upon it. The compacts were given to women with 10 to 14 years of service at the company; men received a gold pocketknife. Employees who put in 15 to 19 years at the company got a silver traveling clock. For 20 or more years of service, workers were handed two tickets to Bermuda, with two extra weeks of vacation thrown in.

A 30-minute video includes testimony from former employees, who reminisce about the Digest’s baseball, bowling and golf leagues.

“At the end of every season was a party,” one man recalled. “You’d fill out a form. Did you want the filet mignon or the lobster?”

Another former editor remembered Mr. Wallace chasing everyone from their desks at 4 p.m., insisting that they go home. “He believed if you were smart and organized enough, you should get your work done by that time,” the employee said. It was hard to lose your job at the Digest; Mr. Wallace finally fired a man after he failed to show up for work for eight weeks.

There is also an online component to the show. At the Web site, former employees are invited to contribute their own memories.

Many write about their encounters with the Wallaces. Elinor Griffith, a former editor and a co-curator of the exhibition, said that both the site and show have attracted many Digest alumni, some of whom have reconnected with one another after decades.

The show chronicles many milestones of the Digest’s success. By the 40th anniversary of Reader’s Digest, the magazine had 40 editions and was published in 13 languages and in Braille.

A 10-foot panel shows a timeline of steady growth, beginning with a circulation of 290,000 in 1929 and leveling off in 1982 at 31 million. Books and record divisions opened, and the Reader’s Digest Sweepstakes was established. Influential stories — like a 1933 investigation about preventable car crashes, “And Sudden Death!” — are highlighted. Every issue of the Digest is available for browsing.

Correspondence from famous contributors is also on display. Charles Lindbergh requested in a 1939 letter that no changes be made “in text, punctuation, capitalization or title” in an article he contributed. In 1962, Richard M. Nixon wrote that he was “pleased and honored” that the Digest would excerpt his book. “I hope you do not catch too much ‘political flak’ from some of my never-say-die critics,” Nixon added.

Glaringly absent from the show is any mention of the company’s decline. Reader’s Digest filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in August 2009 and emerged from it early this year. The staff was reduced by nearly 8 percent. The company’s stately old headquarters is now the proposed site of a housing development. But the remnants of its past at the historical society give testament to a corporate culture that has indeed become part of history.


“Reader’s Digest: The Local Magazine That Conquered the World,” through January 2011, at the New Castle Historical Society, 100 King Street, Chappaqua, N.Y. Open Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday, 1-4 p.m. Admission is free. Information: (914) 238-4666.


A version of this article appeared in print on October 3, 2010, on page WE8 of the New York edition.