Archive for January, 2010

Rant #26 “Prepared to My Liking”

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

Prepared to “My Liking”?

I’m about to embarrass myself the next time I go out to eat. There is a new catch phrase that is driving me bonkers. “Is everything to your liking?” What the hell is my “liking”?

It is entirely possible that I will say something so super-snarky that I might become one of those diners with a not-so-nice comments in my guest profile. But if I write about it before I say it, my good-natured dining persona might be preserved.

The question usually floats across the table during the “check-back,” the useful, considerate, moment when a well-trained server circles back to your table, shortly after serving the meal but before you’ve tucked in too deeply to a dish. The point is to make sure that everything is as it should be. Not too cold, or too rare, not too salty, not too spicy. It’s a good and important table service moment. In a busy kitchen anything can happen. An extra flick of the hot chili oil, a rare instead of a medium rare. Salt mistaken for sugar.

It’s mincing words, I know. Turning a courtesy into tiny meaningless chiffonades. The server is trying to be courteous, solicitous, even when they don’t hang around long enough to hear my answer. And truthfully, I hardly ever have anything to say. I’m not a picky eater. Rare, medium rare, more or less. Almost all restaurant meals are more or less okay for me if I like the company and I’m being treated with warmth. But the question confuses me. I know how to answer, “Is everything all right?”, or, “How is everything?” and lots of equivalent queries. But asking me about “my liking” is confusing for me. Do I like the dish? I can answer that easily. Yes, I do. Or, No, I don’t, and here’s the problem. Is “liking,” meant as a synonym for my “fondness” for the flavor balance, or the texture? Or do I think there’s too much eggplant purple and it’s overwhelming the red of the marinara? I don’t really know how to answer. Maybe “liking” is vaguely British, and I am so solidly American, that I miss the nuance. But next time you see me, at a table, with a server hovering, a question hanging in the air? Please come and clamp your hand over my mouth before I say something snarky.

Wellesley Rocks!

Monday, January 25th, 2010

RE: The Madeleine Korbel Albright Institute for Global Affairs

From: Louisa Kasdon ‘72

I have never been as proud of being an alumna of Wellesley College than I am at this moment. It has been a great honor for me to be asked to cover the 2010 Inaugural year of the Albright Institute by the Wellesley College Alumnae magazine.

Over the past three weeks, I’ve been able to watch the program go from being a well-crafted schedule of speakers and forums, to a life changing experience that will groom and guarantee that the forty fellows (Wellesley College juniors and seniors) will be among the global leaders of their generation. I was awed by the speakers – Wellesley faculty, and the remarkable group of Wellesley alums that came as “professors of the practice”; and by Madeleine Albright who spent the third and final week of the Institute with the kids: three hours each morning listening to student presentations, and two hours each afternoon sitting on a panel. She had dinners, teas, and went to a basketball game too!

Each morning, two groups of students presented a policy plan on one of the eight Millennium Development Goals; MDG’s in UN speak. The MDG’s are the milestones set by the international community as an agenda for measurable progress by 2015 on topics such poverty, gender equality, child health, and maternal mortality . Not exactly a trivial assignment for a bunch of young women in their early twenties to tackle! [One of the students turned 21 on the final day of the program.]

Secretary Albright was fair, funny, warm, wise, and completely engaged. She sat in a red armchair in the front of Founders 121 as each group of five Fellows presented their recommendations for how to achieve the stated development goal. The content and the quality of the presentations were amazing. In addition to mastering all the current themes of international development, the kids were able to offer concise and critical recommendations to move forward. They reviewed case studies, interviewed worldwide experts, mastered telephone books of data, and were able to present with poise, surety, style and fantastic mastery of video, audio and Power Point. Secretary Albright could have been a pretty terrifying interlocutor and she was decidedly not. I loved hearing her say, “Just as I wrote down a question to ask, in the next minute, you gave the answer!” The kids were in love with her. Impressed, awed, but in love.

The 40 Albright Fellows are an incredible group of young women––exceptional in so many ways before their Albright experience. To watch them in action, asking insightful, tough, witty, and very well mannered questions (especially when they were highly critical of the speaker) was to re-acquaint myself with the exceptional power of the Wellesley experience. Over three weeks, the forty fellows lived together in one dorm (Freeman), cooked meals together (it’s intersession and the dining halls are closed), sat, studied and socialized. Few of the forty knew each other when the session began. They were from as many different majors, and backgrounds as Wellesley can muster. From New Jersey and Nigeria, Vancouver and Jordon, from India and California, majoring in econ and classics, math and biochemistry, religion and poli sci. Most of the fellows had previous exposure to international issues – as summer interns, as international students, or during a year abroad.

They worked for three weeks, assigned into groups of five – and had to figure out how to manage personalities as well as the content. Just like the real world where you don’t always get to pick your working team! I laughed when one of the students said, “When they selected the Albright Fellows, they didn’t pick two leaders and 38 followers!”

At the end of program last Friday, I was weepy with pride. The kids were so splendid, the content of the program so stellar, and so well-presented with nary a hitch, Albright so candid and deeply serious… I could not have been prouder to call myself a Wellesley woman.

For the forty fellows, having been an “Albright Fellow” will mean much in the world as they develop their careers on the global stage, and, in turn, become mentors to the hundreds of young women who will follow in their paths. For me, to be a Wellesley woman observing this inaugural year was to re-connect with the mission of the college in ways I thought were impossible.

I urge you all to go the college website and download one or more of the faculty or alumnae seminars, or one of the student MDG presentations. There isn’t a dud in the bunch.

Christmas in Lausanne

Sunday, January 17th, 2010

If I were a normal person, flying from Boston to Geneva on the day before Christmas, I would be writing about the wonder of Les Fêtes Noel in scenic, charming Switzerland. The grandeur of snow-topped peaks of the Swiss Alps at dusk, the sharp bright moonlight, and I’d be describing the archetypal Christmas dinner, with perhaps mulled wine, roasted goose, and a magical Buche de Noel with meringue mushrooms and flakes of chocolate bark. But this was our family Christmas, and it carries all the charm and challenge, the tight-lipped good humor of forced togetherness, of any family Christmas, celebrated anywhere in the world by jet-lagged, gift-exchanging Jews.

My oldest daughter and her husband live in Lausanne. They have very important jobs at the same company and they travel constantly. The weekend before Christmas, she’d had a meeting in Izmir. He flew from someplace in Tajikistan (or Azerbaijan) to meet her for the weekend in Istanbul. It was out of the question for them to travel back to the states again for the holidays. After all, we’d made our choice––Thanksgiving or Christmas in Boston? Turkey and cranberries beat out mistletoe, and here we were: me, my 92-year-old very game mom, (aka Meo, the grandmother of all grandmothers), my husband, his electric mobility scooter, two laptops, and five bursting ginormous bags. Daughter Number Two flew in from San Francisco, via Philadelphia and Frankfurt. Somewhere in Germany, perhaps courtesy of the snowstorm that shut down America, her own ginormous rolling duffel went on a five day vacation of its own, arriving in Lausanne at her sister’s apartment, a day or so after the holiday.

I’d lugged Christmas in a bag—a handful of tree ornaments, CD of Motown Christmas carols, a heap of our family Christmas stockings (Snowflakes for Katie? Trees for Evi? Or is it the other way around?). Plus an ingenious paper kit I found at the shop near our house in Cambridge that requires three adult American women to spend many hours weaving paper strips into a dozen red and white baubles for the Christmas tree. And, of course, many gifts. Large and small. For my kids and the new son-in-law, for my mom and my husband, and for my daughter’s in-laws who were flying in from San Francisco en route to a Club Med skiing vacation in the French Alps. Oops, almost forgot, for the brother and his new girlfriend, train-ing in from Vienna on Christmas Eve, as the concluding stop of a week’s European tour. Ten for Christmas dinner. A straight up menu, without a lot of folderol cooking, and no dilly-dallying. Come Christmas Eve in Lausanne, grocery stores close early.

This is best part of any holiday as far as I am concerned: logistics, cooking strategy and tactical shopping. Constraint One: ten jet-lagged adults arriving more or less in time for a festive evening meal; assessment of the capacity of the kitchen (one smallish super-modern combination microwave and convection oven), and an unintelligible induction cook top, which means that only three of my daughter’s fancy wedding present pots heat up at all. Screw all gleaming copper, the All-Clad and the Calphalon! On, Le Creuset and old chipped Dansk! Constraint two: Time. Twenty minutes to shop before closing. Constraint three: achievable simplicity for the staff on hand. So, the swat team of my two delectable girls and me bustle off to the local Co-Op, re-usable shopping bags in hand. We scout, we reconnoiter, we debate and we grab. Risotto with dried porcini mushrooms recently scavenged by husband on a trip to the Ukraine. Roasted vegetables—in Christmas-y colors: green asparagus, red peppers, finger slim carrots, red onions, white onions, and whatever else looked good hanging around in the fridge at home. We’d roast them with olive oil and garlic, and shred local Gruyere for a final gratinee. And what about baked sweet potatoes? What if we sliced them into thin rounds, and sprinkled them with salt from the honeymoon trip to Bali? And the obligatory simple green salad from butter soft lettuce and tomatoes trucked in from Spain.

At the center of the meal: the world’s most perfect beef tenderloin. Huge, expertly trimmed, and a red that makes most American beef look digitally colorized in comparison. This one extravagant Christmas purchase, (177 ChF), this one perfect log of meat, made me happier than all the shopping and scavenging done in anticipation of the whole season. The butcher, his fair Swiss face topped with a nose shaped like a perfect right triangle, presented the beef to us for inspection, as if it were the Hope Diamond. An artisanal miracle, right up there with perfectly runny cheese. Swiss people eat only meat from Swiss cows, and Swiss cows eat only green Swiss grass, (and possibly the occasional lump of chocolate, fed to them by a doting Swiss child with symmetric golden braids). The Locavore Gospel made real and sensuous, in a way that no bestselling screed will ever match. Madly we toss in some yogurt and cheese, tangerines, bread a panettone and a velvety chocolate Christmas mousse cake. (Joyeux Noel in marzipan letters). Plus three more pairs of underwear just in case the lost-in-space-luggage decides to spend Christmas in limbo. (It does. And for future reference, note that Lufthansa takes its phone off the hook for Christmas.)

We lug home our loot. Three strapping Americans with good sturdy re-useable shopping bags, stumbling through the city streets of Lausanne. The light is beginning to fade. Shopkeepers checking watches and turning their locks in unison. The light in the steeple of the Lausanne Cathedral glows holiday red. And then, the bells. A symphony of medieval bells ringing in the holiday as darkness falls. Christmas Eve in Lausanne and the women are cooking.

Ophelia Dahl from Partners in Health at Wellesley College — Haiti, Three Days In

Sunday, January 17th, 2010
Wellesley, Ma January 15. 11:00 AM

By Louisa Kasdon

Ophelia Dahl, Executive Director of Boston-based Partners in Health (www.pih.org) spoke to a capacity crowd of students, and other members of the Wellesley College community this morning about the current situation in Haiti. Dahl is a Wellesley College alumna, class of ’94, and was scheduled to be on campus this morning as a visiting faculty member this morning as part of the three-week inaugural program of the Madeleine K. Albright Institute for Global Affairs. The new institute selects 40 students every year for training as future leaders in global affairs. Dahl’s talk, in the midst of a humanitarian crisis, veered quickly from a planned presentation focused on an over view of community based health programs to a hard hitting update on the situation in Haiti. Students were riveted. Her arrival, even before the earthquake, was anticipated much as an icon coming to campus. She came, stuffed the mike into her waistband, and smiled. “As an alum, every time I drive through the gates of the campus I believe that things are going to be all right.”

But today is not an all right day for Dahl or anyone else concerned about international issues. Her arrival was late, delayed by a conference call––much of it by satellite telephone––with her colleagues and friends now on the ground in Haiti. “My head is spinning a bit, “in understatement, as she catalogued all the complexities of getting emergency aid to Haiti in the aftermath of Wednesday’s 7.0 earthquake. “ We are hearing from our colleagues on the ground that the casualties may be far higher than initial reports, possibly as high as 250,000 lives lost. And it is still very hard to get information. Even though our staff work for us in the Central Plateau and other regions, they have family who live in Port Au Prince and we have not heard from many of them since the earthquake struck,” she said, addressing the students and others, her manner fatigued yet calm. “There are still severe aftershocks, and they are hampering the ability to mobilize. The quake struck the government, the UN, the ports the airports, the Red Cross and the communications system, and each loss compounds a terrible problem. All major aid organizations are damaged or destroyed.” Dahl said that one of her colleagues, a physician from Brigham and Women’s Hospital landed in Port Au Prince just as the earthquake was occurring. “We were in a budget meeting and she sent us a message–‘SOS…SOS…We need supplies. Everything is crushed.”

Because of PIH deep roots in the country, the organization was able to start moving expertise and supplies to the capital city quickly. “Our staff is trained and local and didn’t need to wait for instructions from Boston,” she explains. “They knew which medical supplies were needed instantly. What can a doctor do if he doesn’t have bandages and morphine in a situation like this? With supplies that we could bring in from our hospitals and from a supply chain in the Dominican Republic, they were able to get to work.” As the 600 members of the PIH staff moved in from their bases, they “encountered boulders on the roads, roads that were hard to define as roads, and a wave of quake victims already moving out of the capital to the still staffed and equipped PIH operated hospitals in the Central Plateau, three hours from the capital area devastated by the quake”. Dahl reports that in addition to the need for dollars, medical supplies, orthopedic and surgical equipment, there is also a need for everything blankets and sleeping bags, to flashlights and tents. “It is winter in Haiti and people are getting cold. Right now, there is no way in or out. It’s not clear who is coordinating in the country, or who is manning the control tower at the airport. The government is knocked out.”

The crisis is intense, but the process of rebuilding Haiti is long one, and Dahl hopes that “international imagination and attention” can stay focused on Haiti’s needs beyond the immediate. She says that PIH has received “generous outpouring of funds” through its website in the past few days, but more will be needed for sustainable recovery. We have to clear the debris from roads, get the airports open, and get aid supplies delivered and get the bodies removed before the inevitable next wave of disease. Then we have to focus on the re-building process.”  Partners in Health has a long-term commitment to the area and is already thinking about long-term needs. “ We have to think about the lasting echoes of this disaster, beyond the immediate trauma. Will we need to build bridges? Roads? We have to keep from mission creep, but we also have to be nimble and do whatever it takes to help the country recover.”  Partners in Health has begun to receive donations from corporations in the medical industry for everything from crutches to operating equipment. “It means so much to be able to say to a friend or colleague from Haiti, ‘Yes, we can send that.” To find out more about the current situation in Haiti and about PIH’s efforts on the ground, visit the website www.standwithhaiti.org