Sunday, December 4, 2011

Wowwing: an informal book review

I've been obsessed with Tony Hsieh's 2010 book Delivering Happiness. I've been telling all my friends about it, even my car dealership service department about it (because they don't deliver happiness). I'd never heard of Tony Hsieh, or his book until 3 weeks ago. It was given to my small-business-owning husband from his business partner so I was sure it was one of those business books that only business people read or at least buy with the intent to read. Anyway, I noticed it was about Zappos. I know Zappos, I like shoes and like free shipping, even better, so I picked it up. But I still had no idea who Tony Hsieh is (he's one of the founders of Zappos).

I found Tony's informal style of writing easy to read and at times humorous. He tells of his childhood, raised by a tiger mom who wanted a doctor not an entrepreneur who was as creative as he was passionate about making money. Actually, I hoped that there was a bit more personal information throughout the book but it's not the point of the book. Even Tony mentions that it's not a biography. (Is he dating Jen??? Curious minds want to know.) So without the gossipy personal info, what drew me into the book? Tony's passion for what he loves to do - make a business successful. He wants to share his mistakes as well as successes with business owners, regardless of the kind of business. As it turned out, Zappos' success came about through, to be brief, two major avenues: 1) amazing customer service and 2) a creative, nurturing company culture. Until reading the book, I had never thought about Company Culture. My limited employment history includes ballet companies and a significant auction house. Neither environment fostered any sense of a positive company culture. Had they, I'm sure I would have been a happier employee.

I now understand why its important for my husband's company to have company retreats where for 4 or 5 days they ski or race go-karts or play team building games between seminars and presentations by guest speakers. Now I want my husband to read this book (just not the part about how business can be like playing poker, a serious hobby of Tony's - poker is just not something I want to encourage).

I can see why Zappos has been listed as one of the best companies to work for. It also makes me want to be a Zappos customer even more (even after the Amazon 'buy-out'). I've begun to compare every other company I encounter to Zappos' standard - to WoW the customer. I want to be wowwed. If Zappos can do that, everyone else can too. (Tieks by Gavrieli certainly achieved that!!! Thank you. Come to think of it, BlueNile did too. Excellent customer service.) And now, if and when I buy online, I will only buy if shipping and returns are free. If Zappos can do it, they can too.

Thank you, Zappos, for setting the bar. You spread happiness, not frustration. I hope more companies follow suit.

There, I've said it.

Monday, August 22, 2011


I live in an affluent suburban community. We chose this area primarily for the exceptional public schools (which means our taxes are ridiculously high) and the town's proximity to the big city. What I didn't realize 10 year ago was that with this combination often comes some seriously overprivileged people. Now while not everyone here is overprivileged, the high rates of consumption are more visible than more conservative spending behaviors. There is a great emphasis on the size of one's house, the brand of one's car, the label on one's jeans, the location of one's vacation. This is high school with grown-ups.

So I live in a more modest home compared to some of my kids' friends which is fine. I don't want to live in a house so large that rooms go unused. It's wasteful. We are comfortable and are fortunate to have what we have. However, my kitchen is small. Functional, but small. It's lovely, we had to gut the 1927 kitchen when we moved in so I got to choose the counters, cabinets and appliances. But like I said, it's small so when I visit friends or even just pick my kids up from playdates, well, I get kitchen envy. Pathetic, I know. I would love to have an eat-in kitchen. And a formal dining room. The house did have a formal dining room but I turned it into a library. That was my choice and it can't really be converted back as we closed up the doorway between the two rooms so that we could have the refrigerator in the kitchen. Oh, so where's the dining table? It's in the family room which acts as a great room. It reminds me of my days of living in a studio apartment in the big city. But yes, I'm fortunate to live in this town, in a charming house, and that my life is without major struggles. (But I'd like a bigger kitchen.)

While in graduate school many years ago, I became very interested in consumerism in the 18th and 19th centuries. I was studying the History of Stuff, and stuff is to be consumed. What was also interesting was learning about who was consuming all this stuff, specifically, furniture, silver, porcelain, fashion... well, it's all fashion really, just in different forms. Then there is the consumption of knock-offs and stuff made in lesser quality materials. Come to think of it, I've always been aware of what other people were consuming. When Calvin Klein and Sasson jeans and Ralph Lauren polo shirts were the rage (back in the very early 80s), my mother refused to buy into the trends. We didn't have the money to be so indulgent but just they same the idea of paying a company to advertise for them was antithetical to my mother's belief system. However, Mom would (and still does) shop at discounted clothing stores like Loehmann's and Syms and gets excited to find the designer labels for much less than retail. Ironically, she has also been acutely aware of labels but she finds ways to buy them without being subjected to extreme prices. It became a game. And so I hear my mother in my head... which isn't a bad thing. I think my question is why do I even care about what other people are consuming, today, in my neighborhood. There is no historical perspective here.

As an historian of stuff, I am drawn to things that are beautiful, or at least interesting - beauty isn't always necessary but quality is. So I find myself checking these local parents out, from head to toe, taking inventory from shoes to earrings. It's not that I want what they have, I really don't. I make an effort to be different enough (many women here have long hair, I cut mine short to be different) but still I find that sometimes I do want to feel like I fit in, in a way. When the Alhambra necklace became popular, I thought it was lovely but then everyone was wearing one. Now it's a trite bauble. I generally love Louis Vuitton bags and luggage (and now their clothing), the history and quality but the ubiquitous LV handbags scream "Look, I spent $1500 (or $2500 or more) for my purse that looks like everyone else's." I felt a Chanel handbag last week, what was it, kid? It felt like butter. Even though I never liked the classic Chanel bags, it felt gorgeous. But again, a ubiquitous status symbol. Diamond stud earrings. Hello, even the drug dealers are wearing them. They are so not special anymore. Personal style is non-existant, creativity, HA! We are sheep. My neighbors are sheep. I think one of the biggest hurdles I have is clumping everyone together. If they are so concerned with consumerism, how can they be interesting, nice, creative people? It can be so easy to pass judgement and I find myself guilty of it. I have a friend who has a passion for shopping. She has a new LV or Prada or Chanel bag each week. Shoes too. And she just got a 4 carat diamond ring (her previous 1 carat was too small). But she's smart, seriously smart, a doctor at the top of her field. She takes ballet and jazz classes too and is an accomplished pianist. Moreover, she is a voracious reader. I have no right to pass judgement, had I with this woman, I'd miss out on a rewarding friendship. Just the same, coming to terms with extreme consumerism is something that I have to work on. I would like high end luxury items, not the obvious ones, you know the explicit labels, but there is plenty of high end luxury out there that is not so obvious. Of course, I need to find it discounted. Again, I keep returning to the question of why I feel this need to consume in this way. Why is this something that even matters? I don't know. There, I've said it.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Difference a Day or Three Makes... In my garden, again

I swear that my peonies are opening by the second, from tight little balls to big lush blooms. My irises, the few that are blooming, are doing so instantaneously. Everything is starting to pop. My hostas immediately feel like they have overgrown and are crowding out other gems, I just can't remember what is missing. It's too early for my lilies. Hmmm. I bought a poppy the other day and it's already opening. I hope it will survive its new home - a particularly dry and very sunny spot in my otherwise part sun/part shade garden. Not much has made it from year to year it this dead zone, just some thyme, penstemon (its second year), veronica (just barely), sundrops and some purple thing that blooms in the summer... oh, and of course weeds. So here are more photos, I'm amazed at how quickly everything is growing, maybe it's because I'm now outside after weeks and weeks of hiding from the cold, miserable rain.
Siberian Iris
Siberian Iris, I love them.
Baptesia, allium, rhododendron in the background
Columbine, lambs' ear
Hydrangea, hosta, blue columbine, lady's mantle, fern...
Water droplets on Lady's Mantle
New Poppies!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

My Little Patch of Green

I moved to the suburbs after living in The City for 12 years. I am an urban girl at heart but we needed the room to raise little people. Besides, my husband wasn't keen on living in The City. Sure, it's a great place to play but he really wanted to live a less frenetic lifestyle... so we moved. When we found our little patch of green with a house set upon it, my mother, an avid gardener, said to me, "oh, you're going to love gardening." "Me?" I seriously doubted her. Me? Are you kidding me? I haven't played in the dirt since I was 6. I had manicured nails. Me garden? No way, no how.

Then She, my mother, found azaleas and rhododendrons on sale for something ridiculous, like $3 a plant. So we bought 12 plants. And planted them ourselves. And that was the beginning. Then Mother started dividing her day lilies and iris and gave them to me. I had to dig in order to plant! And then I got bit by the gardening bug. I loved moving things here or there. It was like painting with plants or redecorating with flowers. I went to the nursery and found what was in bloom. When that became spent, I went back and bought something else that was then blooming. In the end, my garden pretty much has something blooming from the beginning of Spring through to the end of Fall. Here are a few shots of some of my favorites that have been in bloom this week. Enjoy.

Bearded Iris, inherited with the house
Champagne Elegance Iris
The other shot of the inherited iris
So, I'm just getting used to uploading photos and adding text. Here's the Champagne Elegance again
Blue Columbine
One of those $3 rhododendrons
My Japanese Maple - a birthday present from my husband
Lungwort, a gift from a friend. She was thinning out her plants.
A shadier spot, hydrangea, hosta and other stuff
The future... My peony buds!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Dr. Rice's Brownies

Back in in 2000, my mother, a personal property liquidator (she runs estate sales and really good house sales) was working for an elderly dentist by the name of Dr. Rice. While taking a break for lunch one day, Dr. Rice offered her some of the brownies he had just made.  Taken by the perfection of these brownies, Mother asked for the recipe. Dr. Rice preached how easy they were to make... and they are.  The key is the microwave, but if you don't have a microwave, just use a double boiler.  Also, there's no need for a mixer, just a fork or spatula.  These brownies are so easy, there is no reason to ever use a mix from a box again.  

3 squares (3 ounces) bitter/unsweetened/baking chocolate 
1 1/2 sticks butter

1 1/2 cups sugar
3 eggs
1 tbs vanilla

3/4 cup flour
1 tbs. cocoa
1/2 tbs. baking powder

3/4 cup chopped walnuts (optional)
3/4 cup chocolate chips

How To:
1. Preheat oven to 375.
2. Microwave chocolate 1 1/2 minutes.  
3. Add butter and heat 30 seconds longer.  Stir until smooth.  
4. Stir in sugar, eggs, and vanilla.  Less stirring means more tender brownies.  
5. Add flour, cocoa, baking powder.  Stir.  
6. Add nuts and chips.  
7. Bake in a 9” x 9” greased pan for 25 minutes, but check with with a clean knife or toothpick.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Magnolia Bakery's Chocolate and Vanilla Buttercreams

Since I got these recipe's online, I'm assuming (hoping) that these really are from Magnolia Bakery's cookbook. I had read that these are not true buttercreams but that doesn't bother me. They are really easy to make and very delicious.   The chocolate buttercream is perfect for the Seriously Amazing Chocolate Cake recipe that is posted on this blog.

Magnolia Bakery's Chocolate Buttercream Icing  (from

Covers 2 9-inch cakes or 24 cupcakes
  • 1 1/2 cups unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 tablespoons milk
  • 9 ounces semisweet chocolate, melted and cooled to lukewarm
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2 1/4 cups sifted powdered sugar 

1. Melt the chocolate, place in a double boiler over simmering water on low heat for 5-10 minutes; stir occasionally until the chocolate is completely smooth and no pieces remain; remove from heat and let cool 5-15 minutes or until lukewarm.

2. To make the buttercream: In a large mixing bowl, beat the butter using an electric mixer on MEDIUM speed for about 3 minutes or until creamy.

3. Add the milk carefully and beat until smooth.

4. Add the melted chocolate and beat well for 2 minutes.

5. Add the vanilla and beat for 3 minutes.

6. Gradually add in the sugar and beat on LOW speed until creamy and of desired consistency.  Be sure to beat the icing for the amount of time called for in the recipe to achieve the desired creamy texture.

For my daughter's birthday, I made cupcakes and the children decorated them. I made a batch of the vanilla buttercream and divided it out into smaller cups. Each cup was colored differently, red, pink, purple, blue, green, etc.  so everyone had their choice of frosting. They also dipped the frosted cupcakes into sprinkles. They had a blast. 

I've also used this to dirty ice cakes before applying fondant. Because my family is chocolate oriented, I don't get to make this buttercream as often. You can also substitute the vanilla for orange or lemon oil.  Go slowly and taste along the way. The oils are very strong. 

For my own birthday I made a lemon cake (I think it was, I can't remember) anyway, I made the buttercream with orange oil and a few sprinkles of ground ginger.  SO GOOD! I just had an idea, you could mince crystalized ginger and add that to orange scented buttercream.
Magnolia Bakery's Vanilla Buttercream
From More From Magnolia by Allysa Torey, online from
Makes enough for one 2-layer 9-inch cake or 2 dozen cupcakes*

·       1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
·       6 to 8 cups confectioners’ sugar
·       1/2 cup milk
·       2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1. Place the butter in a large mixing bowl. 
2. Add 4 cups of the sugar and then the milk and vanilla. 
3. On the medium speed of an electric mixer, beat until smooth and creamy, about 3-5 minutes. 
4. Gradually add the remaining sugar, 1 cup at a time, beating well after each addition (about 2 minutes), until the icing is thick enough to be of good spreading consistency. You may not need to add all of the sugar. 
5. If desired, add a few drops of food coloring and mix thoroughly. 
6. Use and store the icing at room temperature because icing will set if chilled. Icing can be stored in an airtight container for up to 3 days. It freezes well too!

If you are icing a 3-layer cake, use the following recipe proportions:
1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter
8 to 10 cups confectioners’ sugar
3/4 cup milk
1 tablespoon vanilla extract


Seriously Amazing Chocolate Cake

I prefer cake made from scratch over cake from a box. Simple, real ingredients plus the I did it myself factor is very satisfying. This moist chocolate cake is a real pleaser.
Originally the recipe calls for a 9 x 13" pan but I've also made it a a layer cake using two round cake tins.  A few years ago, my mother found the recipe online @ which is now www. and they don't have this cake listed on the site. Their loss, our gain!

Makes 1 Cake. 

3 ounces unsweetened chocolate
1/2 cup butter
2 1/4 cups light brown sugar
3 eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup sour cream
1 cup boiling water

1 Preheat oven to 350°F.
2 Melt chocolate, either on the stove or in the microwave and set aside.
3 Beat butter in large mixer bowl then add brown sugar and eggs, and beat until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes.
4 Add vanilla and melted chocolate, and beat to combine.
5 Combine flour, baking soda, and salt and add to chocolate mixture gradually, alternating with sour cream, beating after each addition.
6 Stir boiling water into the batter - the batter will be thin.
7 Pour into two 9 inch round cake pans which have been greased and floured.
8 Bake for 35 minutes, until cake centre springs back when touched.
9 Cool for 10 minutes before removing from pans. Allow to cool completely before applying frosting.

If I layer the cake, say if it's two rounds, or I double the batter and make two 9 x 13 cakes, I'll use blackberry preserves between the layers.  I also use Magnolia Bakery's Chocolate Buttercream (recipe is it's own blog post) to frost the cake.  Then I find the best looking berries in the market and decorate the top of the cake.  

My parents have blackberry bushes and every year my mother makes blackberry purée and gives me some. I've served the cake with the blackberry purée on the side.  It's phenomenal.  I'm not a big cake fan, believe it or not, but this cake with the purée, I can't pass up.  


Sunday, May 15, 2011

When going to the theater...

...even if it's your child's dance recital or some other inane theater experience, it's still the theater!  Last night, my family went to see my son's breakdancing performance. It was a dance recital for the (for the most part) upper school of a local dance school. There was everything from six year olds fumbling through "ballet" to tappers of all ages, jazz, lyrical, more lyrical, angry lyrical, ballet with former professional dancers, ballet with very non-professional (adult) dancers and a quasi-professional salsa duo, or was it tango, whatever it was, she was twice his size, at least her thighs were (not complaining about her thighs, just that the proportions of the two dancers together were way off), but they were confident and capable.

If I didn't have a dance background, it would have been pretty boring (except for my son, he was awesome, of course!).  So I can only imagine just how painful it was to watch for most of the audience. But that does not mean you can 1) send texts and/or emails 2) play Bubble Breaker on your cell phone 3) check the time on your phone 4) talk on your phone or 5) talk to your seat mate.  Do you know how bright your phone's screen is in the dark?  People, it's rude and distracting.  Also, when they announce at the top of the show that flash photography is prohibited because it's dangerous to the dancers, DON'T DO IT! IT IS A HUGE DISTRACTION TO THE PERFORMERS!!!! Also, by they way, it's annoying to the rest of the audience. Flash... Flash.... Flash.

Another tip, don't take videos during the performance. Your kid is going to look like a bright blur, whether it's on a camcorder, cell phone, or Flip camera.  The audience becomes a sea of bright screens in front of you while people were recording their kids. Not only that, but when you record, you tend to miss the actual performance. And live performance is far better than the recorded version. The magic doesn't transfer.  (Besides, the school hired a professional to take video. Spend another $25, enjoy the show, spare the rest of the audience, and get a better recorded version on DVD.)

When  you child has finished performing, don't get up and leave. It's rude to the other performers, it's rude to the rest of the audience. You might get surprised by what you'll see. Just because it's not Lincoln Center, doesn't mean there won't be something of value to see.  However, if you're with a small child who is getting restless because she is up past her bedtime but wanted to see her big brother dance, I give you permission to leave at intermission.  And that is the time to get up and walk out, at intermission (thank you, dear husband, you handled her well), not in the middle of a routine.  Don't bring a baby or a two year old or even a four year old. Get a babysitter instead.

And another thing, it's the theater. Get dressed up. I'm not suggesting black tie or even cocktail attire, but certainly not ratty jeans and a sports jersey (I haven't been talking about a rock concert here, have I?).  Make going to theater special, it's not a trip to the grocery store. Show the performers some respect (show the other audience members some respect, too). Make it special for them, even if the performer is your 5 year old.  Your child will see that you take them seriously.  Besides, how else will they learn? Children learn by their parents' example.

There, I've said it.