Simple Summer Recipes: Lemon Verbena Sorbet

I love to bake. Bread, cupcakes, cookies, pies, count me in. But our house does not have central air and flipping the oven on in July and August for any length of time is an invitation to self flagellation. A cocktail party in Hell. I do my best to avoid it. Still, we do our best to only indulge in sweets we make ourselves, so how to satisfy the sweet sugar craving for dessert  when our kitchen turns into a sweat lodge? There’s only one answer. Continue Reading

10 Tips for Effective Meetings (If you really have to)

The same dungeon everywhere

Look as much as I’d like to spend my days puttering around the garden, baking, reading, writing, running or picking up more hobbies the fact is aspiring to be a career serial hobbyist doesn’t  pay the mortgage or day care bills. I have a day job. One that I really like with creative and competent co-workers, but it also has meetings. Lots of meetings. As much as I like my job, I really hate meetings. The vast, vast majority of these confabs wind up a meandering useless waste of time that just sucks the productivity out of a project. For what it’s worth, here’s how I try to run all my meetings when I’m forced (at knife point) to have any at all.

1. Objective
First, for the love of God, have an objective. A very concrete objective and purpose for the meeting. Remember by their very nature meetings should be a two way street of information sharing. Anything needing to just go one way could (and should) be handled via email or with one on one contact. One of my biggest corporate pet peeves is the regular recurring meetings that often exist just to get people in the same room.

2. Right Participants
Invite the right people. Invite the decision makers. On small project teams this often isn’t a problem, but in large companies and on sprawling projects this might take some due diligence, but worth the time not to run into decision moats were the meeting essentially grounds to a halt because no one present is empowered to make a decision.

3. Meeting Prep
Meeting time should be spent on tasks and useful discussion so prepare both yourself and participants prior to the meeting. Sitting around the conference room table is not the time to spring traps or argue over approach. You should discuss sensitive issues or agree on approach with key participants before the meeting.

4. Know the Technology
Part of your prep should be knowing how to use the technology in the room (phone/AV equipment) and any software you are using to present. Nothing deflates a meeting or takes the burnish of both a presenter or presentation than seeing them fumble their way through buttons, connections or cords before they get started. Take five or ten minutes to practice (preferably in the same room) and avoid the stumbling start.

5. Agenda
Don’t confuse this with an objective. The agenda is the flight plan. It’s the table of contents of what is to be covered in the meeting and should be provided BEFORE the meeting. Remember #1, a meeting is a team activity, a two way street. Save tasks that require a team effort for your meeting agenda.6.

6. Introductions (optional)

Know the tech

If you’re in a kick-off meeting or a large stakeholder meeting where it’s obvious the players might not know each other, as painful as it is, it makes sense to run through some quick introductions along with responsibilities. Note, if some folks have dialed in, as meeting emcee it’s a good idea to prompt them rather than wait in awkward silence as three people then try to talk at once. If people enter or join the call late, don’t break up the flow to ask who joined unless you’re waiting for a key stakeholder or there is a natural break in the conversation.

7. Stay on Track
You called the meeting. You set the agenda (and sent it out ahead of time). Manage to it. Don’t prejudge or dominate discussions and be polite but firm in taking the reins back when discussion begins to veer off track. Also, start on time. Respect other people’s time and they will respect yours (in theory).

8. Recap & Action Items
The last agenda item should always be a recap of the discussion along with a review of the pertinent actions items and who is responsible. If you meeting had a clear objective and agenda these items should come out organically as the meeting progresses and you need only to refer to your notes and make sure everyone agrees. I know that’s easier said than done. Don’t put off decisions or assume they will be covered in another (shudder) meeting. Things will pile up, time will be wasted and frustrations will mount as the project careens off course (which will doubltess lead to more meetings).

9. Follow Up with Meeting Minutes
It might feel redundant to do minutes, but it’s not. Especially not weeks (or days) later given the avalanche of meetings most people attend. As quickly as you can, write up some brief minutes and re-iterate discussions that were tabled (for the good of the meeting), action items assigned and other issues or follow up items.

10. Hold People Accountable
Don’t the let meeting fade away only to be repeated in two weeks. Actions were assigned, people agreed, hold them accountable. Politely follow up and remind them (okay, badger them) until the task is complete.

That’s it. It may look like common sense for the most part, but hold up a few of the meetings you attend this week to this list. It’s not hard, but it does take some effort to have effective meetings. Far better to hold off until really, really necessary.

Flicker CC images used clagnut, andresrueda, jblyberg

5 Steps for Overwintering Garlic

Garlic scapes, a rite of spring

In the side yard garden space is at a premium, so I decided to try overwinter garlic late last year. Six month later I think it’s doing okay. This is my first go round with garlic so the whole process is a bit of a mystery. We’re still feeling each other out to see if we’ll date again next fall. So far, so good.  I sunk three types of cloves into the ground around Halloween last year, covered it up with a good blanket of salt hay and then scoffed that anything would grow given the utter avalanche of snow we had in New England this year. But lo and behold, it did grown and it’s still growing (turns out cold stimulates the formation of the bulbs). Garlic is a hardy plant and given it’s preference or tolerance for cold, it’s a great way to extend the short growing season up here. Here are the five simple steps I followed (or plan to follow):

1. Get it in the ground
Plant it later, but before the ground freezes. That’s the one golden rule with garlic. This one I’m pretty sure I did right. If you’re in the Northeast, you’ll likely want to go with the hard-neck variety. The other variety (the one typically found in supermarkets is soft-necked). Garlic isn’t overly picking, like most veggies, it likes rich, well drained soil. I amended the rows with compost, added some additional soil and layered on the salt hay to control weeds and give the cloves a little insulation. Be sure to plant each clove flat side down, pointy end up. I kept the soil moist till the snow came. Then I just crossed my fingers.

After the winter...

2. Spring time maintenance
Around March, I pulled off a lot of the hay and was happy to find a number of hardy green shoots. I added a little seaweed fertilizer and largely left them alone other than some light weeding.

3. Scapes anyone?
This is like the trailer before the movie. Scapes are the curling part of the plant right before it flowers. Cut them off before they flower to force more energy into bulb development and to add some mild, garlic flavor to any number of dishes like stir-fry’s, eggs or pesto. I’m anxiously awaiting scapes now. This is a signal that the growing season is winding down.

4. Harvest
Once the leaves start to brown, it’s best to stop watering. When the stems start to collapse (but while still a little green), your garlic is ready to harvest. You can carefully dig down and check on the bulb size if you’re not sure. Be careful not to let it go too long or bulbs will start to rot in the ground. While some people like to use fresh, green garlic, most will want to dry and store cloves. I plan to try a bit of both. Place the bulbs on screens, or loosely braided, to cure in a dry, dark, airy place until thoroughly dry with papery skins. The bulbs can then be stored under cool, dry, dark conditions. Don’t forget to plant some of these cloves for next year’s harvest.

5. Enjoy
This is the whole point right? A little homesteading. Here are a few recipes I’m looking forward to trying with my garlic (and other veggies):
Roasted grape tomato and garlic pesto
Roasted Grape Tomato and Garlic Pesto Dip Recipe

 

Running with a Garmin: Friend or Foe

Never take an unrecorded step

As I’ve crept closer to my mid-thirties I’ve become better at curbing my instincts for buying up the latest gadget. Having to pay a mortgage and daycare bills will have that sort of mitigating effect. After seeing the new Garmin Forerunner however, I’m seriously fighting the itch. While mulling over my argument to Michelle about why I really need to upgrade my “virtual coach and training partner” I thought about how the Garmin (I have a now antiquated 305 model which feels like carrying a grandfather clock on your wrist) has changed the way I run the past three years.

Record Keeping
Even if you’re just running for health maintenance and not training for a race or other goal, not tracking and recording your runs can be a mistake. I’m not talking about religiously recording every step like a deranged fitness accountant (more on that in a minute) but not keeping any record of progress makes it hard to measure improvement and easy to slip into a rut and simply plateau.

PR’s
There is a dark side to being able to capture all those stats. In those first heady months after you strap a GPS to your wrist you’ll be setting all sorts of personal records and pushing to reach new goals. It’s fun. It’s invigorating. It’s enticing. Up to a point. Eventually you’ll reach a barrier and those PR’s and goals become harder and harder to accomplish. In and of itself this is not a bad thing and can help keep you pushing, helping you avoid that plateau. But it can also lead to disappointment and drain the fun out of running. Beware.

Sweet, sweet technology

Tuning
One benefit of pushing for those PRs and having constant access to pace and heart rate is the more closely you tune into your body. You’ll soon learn to judge your turnover in relation to pace and when you’re having a good day and a shot and when it’s not there. The latter is the harder lesson to learn. Not every time out is going to be a PR. Some days it will enough to just log the miles.

Letting Go
Something happened in the third year of running with the Forerunner. I started leaving it home more. I started running to just to run. I knew instinctively when I was loafing and when I was pushing. Some days I just plain didn’t care. I just wanted to go for a run and not be tethered to time and distance.

Did I just talk myself out of it? Maybe I just need to go for a run.

Chewy Molasses Cookies

I’ll come clean. I’m a soft cookie man. If you give me a choice between a soft and chewy or hard and crispy, I’ll choose the former every time. The only hard cookie I can think of that I eat willingly are biscotti (soft and chewy with tea or coffee aren’t natural bedfellows) and even then the shower of crumbs sort of annoys me when the pleasure of dunking and dipping is done.

With the price of chocolate going through the roof to a thirty year high (c’mon you’re telling me intervening in the Ivory Coast isn’t in our national interests) I’m increasingly turning to these versatile molasses cookies as my go-to staple for a cookie fix. In our house we aspire to two food rules. One, the Epicurean rule of everything in moderation and two, the Pollan principle of indulgence is okay as long as you make it yourself. Continue Reading

9 Gardening & Yard To Do’s for Spring

Spring in Boston (maybe)

Yesterday was forty and frigid, but last weekend was nice and today promises to be warm enough to at least let my mind consider spring. Looking out the window right now, most trees have tentative buds and clumps of daffodils are risking blooms. The 18 foot slush pile in the driveway from the incessant winter snow plowing is down to mere inches and with any luck by next weekend will just be a melting memory. Spring in New England means the marathon, dressing in many, many layers for the fickle weather and shivering through those first few weeks of landscaping and yard work. It’s not a long growing season here, so every weekend counts, which means I have a list. A confession, I’m a big believer in lists. Need to get something done? Make a list. My ‘get-outdoors-it’s-finally-friggen’-spring’ list looks like this:

  1. Check the oil and sharpen the blades on the lawnmower
    This is an easy one that I’m sure way too many people overlook. Checking the oil, well, that’s no problem, but getting the blades sharpened really isn’t much harder. Most shops will take the whole mower and take care of it for you along with a seasonal tuneup. Well-sharpened mower blades drastically reduce mowing time. Well worth the effort.
  2. Check and fill all gas cans for lawnmowers and other tools
    While you’re dropping the mower off, fill up the gas can in the garage. Nothing worse than stalling out on a hot day in July halfway through mowing the back yard.
  3. Check garden hoses for cracks or leaks
    This one is especially critical for climates with harsh winters. Most people bring the houses in the garage around here, so checking isn’t a big deal unless the hose is getting old, but if you have any drip hoses buried in garden beds (or an irrigation system) it’s worth the time to check for leaks now and patch ’em up before you wake up one morning to a flooded plain where your peonies used to be.
  4. Examine outside wood or exposed wood for spots that may need repair or painting
    After the brutal icing we had in the northeast this year, I’m sure everyone is very aware of their roof conditions. Take some time to walk around your home and look up. So often we’re looking down with our yards, so it’s easy to miss spots that may have mold, mildew or just chipping paint.
  5. Check outside vents
    Another simple thing that can save a lot of time and money later. Make sure any outside vents are clear and make sure the attic (if you have one) is still getting proper airflow. Check the interior wood and insulation while you’re up in the attic too.
  6. Check gutters and downspouts
    Living right below a number of large, mature pines, this one is the bane of my existence. I call a service for the third floor ones, but the lower ones and downspouts are easily cleared with a hose and a ladder. Clearing the gutters of debris to make sure it’s properly draining can save you a number of much more expensive home repair bills.
  7. Planting peas

    Prepare the lawn
    After being covered in snow and going dormant, the most important thing you can do for your lawn is to give it a vigorous raking to remove any thatch (picking up stray branches and debris goes without saying right?). If you do nothing else, do this. I also spread some corn gluten, an organic weed controller (do this as early as possible), and grass seed mixed with clover. With pets and small children patrolling the lawns, I’ve tried to reduce chemical treatments I use. I’ve found the videos at safelawns.org a great resource.

  8. Prep and plant early garden beds
    This is typically the first one I tackle, so I can try to squeeze in an early spring crop. I’ll pull up the stray weeds, turn the beds and then add additional compost, fertilizers and soil before planting the cool weather crops. If I’ve overwintered any crops (garlic this year), I’ll check on them and remove some of the straw at this point.
  9. Mulch, prune and spray
    After the garden beds are done, I’ll look to prune bushes that have either died or been damaged by the winter weather. Pruning in the spring is typically best as plants are growing and regenerating. Next I’ll spread a good 2-3 inches of mulch in all the beds. This not only keeps down weeds, but helps plants retain moisture and it helps the soil as it breaks down over the year. It’s tempting to skip this or do it every other year. Fight that urge. Finally, As spring really gets going, be on the lookout for for aphids, aspens, and other hungry bugs that can wreak havoc on young leaves. These pests are easily eliminated with an application of liquid Pyola spray. I try to get most trees and flowering bushes an application earlier, rather than later. Then repeat the spray every two or three weeks.

That’s it. Most of it can be knocked off in a solid weekend of work and you’ll get the growing season off on the right foot. It’s not all you have to do, but not doing it can set you up for disappointment or frustration later. An ounce of prevention now, saves a pound of problems later. Did I just quote my grandmother?

A Great Divide

(Note: This is a reprint of an article that first appeared in Sportsblah.com, a general sports blog I ran with my friend Greg [hi Greg!] from ’04 – ’07.)

Gone now, but this is a good representation

Rain. Just buckets of it. Back in mid-October, the Northeast had days of vicious, torrential, Judgement Day rain. Enough so that my parents’s basement, bone dry for twenty years, flooded. Lots and lots of things had to be thrown out. Among the soggy items that were subsequently tossed were my college textbooks and notes. Notes, mind you, so neat and adhering to the Cornell system that they had my now wife questioning the wisdom and sanctity of our marital bond. Don’t lie, we each have one of those questionable pseudo-serial killer traits. Mine is an overly orderly note taking tick. Greg has those creepy, dress up, paper dolls of the ’88 Yankees under his bed. Regardless, it wasn’t that box that was the true loss. It was the box next to the useless, yet expensive, college crap. No, not my 10 Nomar rookie cards or my complete ’86 Topps set. Those are kept warm and dry in a fireproof safe. The tragic loss was my early scorebooks.

Yup, I’m one of those. My name is Mike and I keep score at baseball games. It’s another of those great defining divides in our society. Chocolate or vanilla, Yankees or Red Sox, Bird or Magic, Ginger or Mary Ann, Red Shoe Diaries or Emmanuelle. It’s one or the other, there’s just no in between with some choices. Some people grow up with a security blanket or stuffed animal. My binky was a scorebook. I took it everywhere. I could blithely toss away my collection of moldering Ground Round sundae cup hats, my creased and yellowing pennants, or assorted Starting Lineup figures I can hardly identify now, but those books were a diary not just of a freakish, orderly and nerdy personality, but a testament to a fledgling baseball fan. Yes, half the notations on the first few pages make little sense or peter out after an inning or two. And yes, the glorious, tri-masted schooner on page six and the bloody stick figure battle royale on page nine probably don’t quite dictate what actually happened on any baseball field. But that’s half the point. The diary and maturation of a fan.

Those books captured my first visit to Fenway (a John Tudor start versus KC), a family vacation to Disneyland including a California Angels game (Rod Carew poster day), a youth soccer tournament in Niagra Falls with a trip to the new SkyDome (Pete Harnisch had a no-hitter into the eighth) and a PawSox extra innings affair ended by a Mike Greenwell homer in the twelfth. Flipping through the pages, you can almost see my interest in the game take root. Notations begin to make more sense. Batters no longer advance on the bases in a star-like pattern. Less ice cream is smeared over the pages. Outs no longer are recorded in the mysterious 17-8-2 fashion. Innings are tallied. Errors are meted out. Games are completed. History is recorded. A dork is born.

Keeping score in the bronx got me some respect

I suspect my Dad first taught me how to keep score as a way not to bankrupt him on hot dogs or cotton candy. Now he’d probably just package me off to the KidZone behind right field or tell me to watch the bloopers on the JumboTron. Back in the day though, Fenway barely even had any ads to distract a young kid. It was a choice between John Kiley’s organ stylings, rorschach tests of questionable seat stains or deciphering stanchion graffiti. But whatever the intentions, his ploy worked. Scoring kept me anchored to the action. It still does. Even the most ardent fans will admit baseball is not a speedy game. It may be a game of inches, but the strategy and makeup of a game unfurl slowly. Scoring in basketball is not the same and not really necessary from a fan’s perspective. In football it’s not even really possible, too much is going on. But for baseball, I find it an integral cog of attending. Pitch, hit, catch, record it. Scoring keeps me involved. It blocks out the increasing entertainment-first detritus of the modern “ballpark”; helps dull the migraine enduring the sound of another”Yankees Suck” chant and keeps me from assaulting the loud woman on the cell phone in the row behind me. For me, a mostly antiquated ritual is now a balm for the distractions of the modern game.

Unless it’s two-for-one beer night. That’s also sweet, sweet medicine.

 

Flickr  CC image attribution for photos used in this post: mwlguide, Caitlinator, terren in Virginia