Month: May 2014

The Poodle Professor – Part I

There’s an old saying that goes,

            No man is my friend

            No man is my enemy

            Every man is my teacher.

            The same aphorism could be applied to some of our four legged friends as well. My experience came from an 18 year old Miniature Poodle named Paris.

            Paris belonged to my step mother. When she moved in with my dad and me, Paris joined her. I hadn’t lived with a dog in over twenty years. I looked forward to it. I’m a dog lover, but never spent enough time at home to get one, myself. When Paris joined us, I treated her as my own.

            My last dog was a male Cairn Terrier. Paris was roughly the same size, but female. This would be easy, I figured. There are some drugs on the market that come with an FDA Black Box warning. I quickly learned that miniature poodles should come with a similar one. Most people think of poodles as “girly” dogs. Not so. A poodle is the kind of dog you work your way up to after getting bored raising Rottweilers and Pit Bulls. Miniature Poodles can be quite the temperamental hand full.

            Paris loved my step mother. I didn’t always think of it as a healthy kind of love, however. On occasion, it crossed over into obsession. I remember one day my dad and I watched her during the football playoffs. She behaved like a little canine angel. When my step mom walked in the door, she became a different dog. Paris stared at her and barked and barked and barked as she talked to my dad. I tried petting Paris, but my efforts seemed to make her crave her owner’s attention that much more. She flicked my hand off with her head. My step mother picked her up and cuddled her for a few moments before putting her back down on the couch. She then went out to dinner with my dad.

            Hell hath no fury like a poodle scorned. As Paris was too old to jump off the couch I set her down on the floor. She walked around the house, searching every room looking for my step mother. When she realized she’d left Paris laid down in front of the couch and cried FOR A WHOLE HOUR! Not being proficient in the field of canine psychology I did my best to ameliorate her. I brought out her toys, I petted her behind the ears, I brought over her dinner, but nothing seemed to work. I finally gave up. I tried turning up the television so I could at least enjoy the game, but it didn’t help. You know it’s bad when you’re watching playoff football, the home team scores and you can’t hear the roar of the crowd over a small dog’s lugubrious lamentations.

            As upset as Paris would get at the departure of her owner, she’d show the same degree of cheerfulness upon her return. Due to her advanced age, Paris had difficulty hearing. She sensed people’s presence through smell. When we’d walk in the door she’d lay quietly in her bed for a few moments. Her nose would suddenly face the ceiling. She’d sniff madly picking up my stepmother’s fragrance. Her feet would then move so fast a visitor would’ve mistaken her for a puppy. Her paws would move rapidly in various directions as she tried to sit up. After tripping over herself several times, she’d finally get into a sitting position. Then she’d howl. You read that right. She wouldn’t bark. She’d howl. She’d continue wailing until my step mother picked her up and showered her with attention.

            I think had Paris been born human she would’ve been an engineer. She certainly would’ve bested me at Tetris ®, that’s for sure. She had a number of plush toys in her doggie bed. Every now and then she’d sit up and start crying. Her front paws moving as fast as Buddy Rich’s hands during a drum solo. She’d re-arrange the toys to make a surrogate mattress for herself. That’s a pretty good accomplishment for a small animal. I’ve known engineers over the years who couldn’t make something work with the benefit of blue prints and manuals.

            One May, my father and step mom took a trip to the New Orleans area to visit her family. They asked me if I’d watch Paris. I reveled in the opportunity. I got along well with her. She seemed to like me. What could go wrong? There’s an old Jewish saying: “One parent can raise ten children, but ten children can’t raise one parent.” During that month I discovered that one single guy can’t house sit one poodle.

                                                To Be Continued  

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Book Review – On Writing by Stephen King

There’s nothing scarier than when somebody who’s successful at something writes a book to explain why. I felt a bit of a chill as I opened this offering from “The Master of Horror”, Stephen King. As I read on my fear subsided. Mr. King presented an excellent work that served as part memoir and part guide to proper writing techniques. I give him tremendous credit. Of all the books I’ve read regarding the craft On Writing was the only one I couldn’t put down. Most works on the subject tend to be rather dry and clinical. Mr. King penned a very witty and entertaining take on the subject. That alone showed me this author earned the right to write a how-to on the topic.

King established dual theses in this book. He explained that good writing entails mastering the fundamentals of the craft (such as vocabulary, grammar, and the elements of style) and stocking one’s “toolbox” with the right equipment. He also emphasized how it is possible to turn a “competent” writer into a “good” one. (Page 142) While he didn’t consider it one of the major goals of the book he referenced that writing solid fiction entails telling the truth. (Page 158) It may sound counterintuitive, but his explanation made it sound lucid. All writers, regardless of genre, should write about what they know.

King presented many great ideas in the book, some of which, I felt happy to read, as I do them myself. I thought his suggestion of writing in a room “with the door closed” fantastic. (Page 155) It sends a message to others, and especially to the person writing, that it’s work time. This is something I practice, and agreed with him. I also liked his suggestion to “write the first draft with the door open and the second with the door closed.” He meant that only the author should see the first draft. Several beta readers should read the second and comment on it. I haven’t done this personally, but King got me thinking. I may need to re-evaluate my current process.

Ironically, the best piece of advice on writing in the book wasn’t one of King’s original ideas. He cited a comment he received on a rejection letter. I’ve heard other writers tell me the same thing, as well. I thought it interesting that a writer presented it in the form of an equation. King wrote, “2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%.” (Page 222) As I’m familiar with the way many writers choose to hash out their first drafts, I took this as very sound guidance.

King provided many prudent observations on grammar and craft that writers at any level would be foolish to ignore. After all, he made his living as a high school English teacher before writing novels full time. I thought his witty asides served as the true highlight of the book, though. They made it much more understandable and fun to read. If I had to select a most memorable one, I’d cite the following thoughts on back story.

The most important things to remember about back story are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting. Stick to the parts that are, and don’t get carried away with the rest. Long life stories are best received in bars, and only then an hour or so before closing time, and if you are buying. (Page 227)

King’s candid acknowledgment of his own challenges as a writer impressed me most about this book. He reached the absolute pinnacle of his field and even he’s faced tremendous obstacles. He explained how he struggled to complete On Writing following the accident that nearly ended his life. In the memoir section of the book he detailed his battles with drug and alcohol addiction while a working novelist. He wrote Cujo during this period, but couldn’t remember doing so. (Page 99) I thought it remarkable that someone with these kinds of issues could still have the discipline to write every day, let alone end up successful at it.

I’m embarrassed to acknowledge that On Writing is the first Stephen King book I’ve ever read. I found it surprising that someone famous for writing horror novels could have such trenchant observations regarding the craft. He pointed out that to be a writer one must read a lot and write a lot. (Page 145) I’ll be taking that advice and adding some of King’s works of fiction to my reading list.

Restaurant Review – Zio’s Tuscan Grille

Zio’s Tuscan Grille in Cinnaminson, NJ does Italian right.  They offer a wide variety of appealing dishes. They prepare so many, in fact, that it took me several minutes to get through the entire menu. As a huge fan of Italian cuisine, I would’ve struggled to select one from the multitude of options. The tyranny of choice ended up giving way to rather easy decision for me. As an even bigger fan of sea food, my eye locked on the Linguini with Shrimp and Crabmeat. With the ability to combine my two favorite types of food at one meal, I relished the opportunity to try it.

 The quality of the meal lived up to my expectations. The shrimp tasted good and juicy. It’s been a long time since I’ve had crabmeat, and the kind that came with this meal made the wait well worthwhile. The sauce had just the right seasoning. The chef prepared the pasta flawlessly. The server brought over some hot pepper seasoning and parmesan cheese. As I had the option of how much pepper to add, I gave my meal just the right kick. The dish tasted fantastic. I’d highly recommend and would be delighted to try it again.

Seafood dishes always cost a bit more than other meals. I thought the quality of the meal justified the price on its own. However, this one also came with salad. I thought the lettuce very fresh and tasty. I added Zio’s balsamic dressing. When my server offered it, I thought I’d be receiving a balsamic vinaigrette house dressing. Not so. The one she served me had a thicker texture and possessed a brownish hue. I found this dressing much more flavorful that I expected. The proper amount of vinegar gave it the right tangy taste. I don’t typically go out to eat and comment on the quality of the salad dressing. For this I give Zio’s major kudos.

Zio’s served two different types of bread: both outstanding. The one circular in shape had a cheesy flavor to it. I liked it because I could taste the cheese without feeling like a Danish exploded in my mouth. Once again, Zio’s found the right combination. The flat bread contained some Italian herbs on the outside and the flavor of olive oil on the inside. I liked this bread, but would’ve preferred just a touch of some kind of spice. That would’ve made it perfect.

The only criticism I can offer of my visit there involved the beverages. I thought the iced tea too watery. I didn’t care for the quality of the water, either. It tasted like regular tap water. As someone who drinks a lot of bottled water, I found it significantly different from what I’m used to. Zio’s doesn’t serve alcohol, they are a BYOB establishment. Obviously, there’s a very easy way for patrons to deal with the beverage issue.  

I enjoyed my trip to Zio’s Tuscan Grille. They served Italian right and at the right price.      The service, atmosphere and quality of the food all impressed me. The next time I can’t make up my mind between eating Italian or having sea food, there’s one place that will be on my short list for dinner.

                       

Restaurant Review – Iron Hill Brewery (Voorhees)

It’s never a good sign when I’m out for an evening of fine dining and lyrics from a Weird Al Yankovic song keep running through my head. I wish I’d filmed my visit to the Iron Hill Brewery in Voorhees, NJ. It would’ve served as an excellent video for Yankovic’s classic parody of Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” titled “Another One Rides the Bus.”

Another one rides the bus, another one rides the bus
Another comes on and another comes on
Another one rides the bus
Hey, he’s gonna sit by you, another one rides the bus

I would say the claustrophobic would enjoy a visit to the Iron Hill Brewery even less than I did. However, I’m not sure such a thing would be possible. I went with a group. The staff set aside two tables for us. They crammed us in so tight that I had difficulty lifting my elbows to eat my meal. Although, with the “quality” of the entree, I would’ve been better off.

Being a health conscious seafood fan I decided to try the Fisherman’s Stew. The menu described it as “shrimp, scallops, mussels and cod simmered in a garlicky tomato white-wine broth.” I often criticize restaurants for adding an unnecessary abundance of garlic to their meals. I won’t do so this this case because I couldn’t detect any kind of flavor to comment on. Every once in a while I’d take a spoonful that tasted very hot and spicy. The rest of the time I tasted spoon. To put a positive spin on this experience, I thought the white rice more savory than the actual entre. I guess they deserve some credit for pulling off this feat.

And then there was the issue with the price. They billed this dish as under 600 calories. It cost $19.99. By my count that comes to $0.30 per calorie. I’m reminded of all those commercials that claim they can provide people with enough nutrition to survive on $2.00 per day. Not at the Iron Hill Brewery, they can’t.

Now comes the part of my review where I have to write about the things I really didn’t like. The Iron Hill Brewery serves myriad beers that they brew on-site. As a tea-totaller I opted instead for the Raspberry Iced Tea. I tried it without any artificial sweetener and thought it very watery. When I added sweetener the flavor reminded me of this cough syrup my mother used to give me as a child. While I’m not averse to nostalgic memories of my youth, the Iron Hill Brewery went about it the totally wrong way.

And then there was the bread. It tasted very doughy. Keep in mind, I love soft pretzels. I like them so much I would eat them all three meals a day if I could. I didn’t like the bread at this place because I found it too “doughy.” I can’t believe I’m writing this. I love soft pretzels, but I didn’t like the bread this restaurant served because it was too “doughy.” I just re-read this paragraph three times. My neck hurts from shaking my head.

To be fair, our server was very helpful and friendly. I went with a group of over twenty people. Everyone received his/her meal at the same time. As we requested she kindly provided everyone with separate checks. She impressed me by how quickly she did so.

I know I mentioned it before, but it bears repeating: the building was way too congested. I always get nervous when I go to The Pub in Pennsauken. The salad bar is at the front of the main dining room. I’m always concerned I’m going to drop something on a fellow diner or collide with a server. There is room to maneuver, however. The layout of the Iron Hill Brewery doesn’t give people a lot of room to move around. When I got up to go to the rest room I thought I was in a night club. It took some careful slaloming around patrons and some near collisions with servers to get there. Of course, then I had to carefully get back into my seat without the benefit of a hoist. All this while the following Weird Al lyrics echoed through my mind:

Well, I should’ve got off a couple miles ago
But I couldn’t get to the door
There isn’t any room for me to breathe
And now we’re gonna pick up more, yeah

After dinner I talked to several people in my group. They enjoyed their meals and liked the place. In spite of their views, I still thought the prices ridiculously high. Some people complimented the beer they sampled. My advice to would be diners is be to pick-up a six pack, take it home and drink it while listening to Weird Al’s first album. I think you’ll find it much more tasteful than the food I tried there. Plus, with the money you save you can buy his whole catalog.

Book Review – The India Way

After reading this book I felt that Eternal Paradise would be anti-climactic after working for a company located in India. Peter Cappelli, Harbir Singh, Jitendra Singh, and Michael Useem presented a detailed apotheosis of how managers in that country run their operations. The quartet of Wharton Business School professors analyzed the business practices they identified on the Indian sub-continent. They then distilled them down into four core principles that they termed “The India Way.” As many companies have adopted to varying degrees “The Toyota Way” and/or the “Six Sigma Way”, they now have a third “way” to keep their training staffs busy.

The authors defined “The India Way” as comprising the following four elements: 1) holistic engagement with employees, 2) improvisation and adaptability, 3) creative value propositions and 4) broad mission and purpose. (Pages 4 – 5) In essence all four of these principles can be summed up as follows: Indian business focus on values as opposed to rules, they emphasize financial profitability for the long run as opposed to short term shareholder gains and they are driven by a need to act in the best interest of society. Cappelli, et al. described this method as “an exportable way of doing business.” (Page 7) Before anyone asks, I assure readers they will find this book listed under “management” not “fantasy.”

I thought this book very thought provoking and timely. The Harvard Business Press originally published it in 2010, shortly after the financial crisis. Many authors have presented re-evaluations of modern business thinking in recent years. Michael Porter’s ideas on “Conscious Capitalism” come to mind. As I’m writing this, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century is a best-seller on amazon.com.  The India Way certainly added some valid concepts to the debate.

I thought the idea of “holistic engagement with employees” the most intriguing. The authors asserted that Indian businesses view employees as capital investments. In their view, this differs from American companies that traditionally approach employees as costs to be cut. Please note that’s their position, no my own. (Page 51) The authors went on to assert that Indian businesses place much more emphasis on employee training than do American firms. (Page 70)

Without doubt some elements of “The India Way” can be applied in any organization. From my own personal experience I’ve seen a number of them in practice. I currently work in a Maintenance Department where improvisation and adaptability serve as sources of survival, not innovation. As a co-instructor of a Human Resource Management class for local entrepreneurs, I concur that holistic employee engagement reaps benefits in terms of productivity. I ran a small volunteer non-profit organization for 3-1/2 years, though. Transformational leadership served as the only means of managing it. Through many challenges, I learned it works much better in theory than practice.

I thought the authors should have made their case more balanced. As the book advocated “The India Way” I could understand why they focused on success stories. From my reading, they seemed very dismissive of anyone who opposed their point of view. In the section on corporate governance they mentioned Satyam Computer Services, the company now known derisively as “The Indian Enron.” Why did Satyam fail with such stringent regulations in place? “The moral, then, is an old one: in business as in life, there are no guarantees.” (Page 175) I found that an awfully glib explanation of a US $1.47 billion accounting fraud.

India transitioned from a socialistic to capitalistic economy miraculously. The India Way detailed the means managers utilized to make this metamorphosis. I don’t share the authors’ view that the entire India Way can be transferred to any business. Much like Lean Manufacturing, though, elements of it can be applied in a variety of situations. With the globalized economy and companies facing tougher competition than ever before, all managers should take heed.

Theater Review – Avenue Q at Burlington County Footlighters

Way back in my youth I often wondered how Sesame Street would’ve appeared if I’d been under the influence and listening to the Allman Brothers Band’s Live at the Fillmore East. Without the benefit of either of those, this afternoon I received my answer in the form of the Burlington County Footlighters production of Avenue Q. Spending a day listening to muppets curse, discuss homosexuality and internet pornography made me wish I’d put my idea into practice and made a little money off it. I have to admit author Jeff Whitty and songwriters Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx did a much better job than my meager talents could have.

Director Sean Flaherty, Musical Director Sean Mehlbaum,  and the BCF cast did a phenomenal job bringing this story to life. The cast performed superbly in presenting a pessimistic premise in a witty and entertaining way. The only times I recall the audience not laughing occurred during the musical numbers and the various applause periods.  

I’d never witnessed a community theater production before, and the level of talent I saw in the performers greatly exceeded my expectations. It takes a lot of skill to speak in different voices. It takes even more aptitude to sing in different ones while dancing and working a puppet. A special hat’s off goes to actors Matthew Holman (who played Princeton and Rod) as well as C. J. Kish (who played Nicky, Trekkie, and one of the Bad Idea Bears). I’d never seen either of these actors perform in the past, but I’d have to say I think either one of these thespians could be budding Seth MacFarlaines in terms of vocal skills.

While I would classify Avenue Q as a comedy despite the story’s pessimistic premise, the true highlight of the evening for me took place at the end of Act I. Actress Lindsey Krier’s (Kate Monster) moving performance of the ballad “There’s a Fine, Fine Line” almost brought me to tears. That’s a hell of an accomplishment for an actress playing a muppet. Before readers comment on my emotional reaction to such, here are some of the lyrics.

There’s a fine, fine line between a fairy tale and a lie.

As well as

There’s a fine, fine line between what you wanted and what you got.

And

But there’s a fine, fine line between love and a waste of your time.  

If I had to summarize Avenue Q in one sentence I’d select the first lyric cited above. In essence, the story described the tribulations of a group of people (and muppets) in their early twenties who discover that life isn’t everything they thought it would be while in college. The show included musical numbers to reflect this such as “What Do You Do with a B. A. in English?” and “I Wish I Could Go Back to College.” The characters lived on Avenue Q, located far away from the upscale Avenue A. The character of Princeton searched for a purpose, while his love interest, Kate Monster, searched for a boyfriend. Other dramatis personae included two human characters Brian (Derek L. Miller) an unemployed 32 year old want-to-be stand-up comedian and his similarly unemployed girlfriend with two masters degrees, Christmas Eve (Jillian Starr-Renbjor). The cast of characters also included former child star Gary Coleman as the building superintendent (played exceptionally well by Leilah Murphy). Rounding out the line-up were the two Bad Idea Bear muppets (C. J. Kish and Kori Rife) and Lucy the Slut (played by Rachel Kapulskey). Yes, you read that correctly. One of the muppets was named Lucy the Slut. The onanistic muppet Trekkie (C. J. Kish) rounded out the ensemble.  

It would be an understatement to write that characters this diverse and quirky made for a very interesting show. Prior to the performance the announcer declared that language some would find offensive would occur in the performance. Although the main characters were muppets, this was not a show suitable for children. With my maturity level, I felt a little surprised they let me in the building.

Everyone in the cast performed magnificently in their roles. I admired the way a number of actors/actresses also served as extra puppeteers. It took a lot of talent and hard work to make this show work.

I’d also like to credit the crew for weaving together the lighting, the projections and the set with the functioning windows. The live band sounded tight.  For a high tech show, it impressed me that everything went flawlessly without technical glitches.

Burlington County Footlighters billed Avenue Q as an “adult musical.” The script dealt with adult themes in many ways. Aside from the myriad comedic yuks, it addressed the serious side of growing up. It centered on when a person recognizes the gaps between youthful expectation and grown-up reality. (There’s a fine, fine line between what you wanted and what you got.) I can think of no better testament to the skill of the cast, director and crew at the Burlington County Footlighters than to say everyone left the theater with a smile on his/her face. The show runs through May 17th.