Chapter 2013 — Feeling (newly) Blessed

“The three grand essentials of happiness are: Something to do, someone to love, and something to hope for.” ~Alexander Chalmers


I’m so humbled by, and grateful for, the many kind words and good wishes I received today. Tonight, I feel like the kids on the Disney commercial. Tomorrow, I join a little enterprise that is at least one of the happiest places in Arizona, if not on Earth. Hooray…bedtime.

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90 Pounds of Breathing Heart: At Your Service

Aspiro, ergo juvo. This phrase so thoroughly describes Dolores McKay, it might as well be tattooed on her body. I breathe, therefore I serve. She’s a walking miracle for many reasons, including weighing in at only ninety pounds, despite having a heart of solid gold. We hadn’t met or spoken in months, but when she learned I was about to leave my job of 16 years, she was one of the first people to call and ask how she could help. If Dolores were a taxi, she would always be on duty– even when she was parked at the depot. Wherever she goes, so goes her heart, extending to everyone around her, alert for the Dispatcher’s call, ready to shine her light and pay it forward. Which explains how she ended up comforting the guy receiving chemo in the chair next to her.

Posted by Dolores on her Facebook profile, on Monday, November 7, 2011:

“With matching IVs, Scotty and I sat side by side for a couple of hours. I’d never met Scotty before, but I was well acquainted with the expression of despair in his eyes. I walked into the chemo area knowing an army of LOVE & LIGHT accompanied me. Scotty, felt alone. I shook in pain from the IV for a minute and Scotty noticed. To lighten things up, I asked Scotty why they hadn’t figured out how to bake chemo meds into brownies – that would really liven up this party. Scotty and I talked for 2 hours. Somewhere along the way, I found myself holding his hand and noticed his look of despair turned into an expression of peace. I’m home now. Tired. Achy. Nauseous. And I feel extraordinary in my soul. It was a fantastic day.”

The world is full of remarkable women, and Dolores has earned her place among them. Possessed with fierce determination, incredible courage and tremendous depth of character, she’s packaged in a stunning, petite exterior that often leads people to form snap judgments about her. Woe to those misguided souls! While her gracious presence captivates everyone else, those who underestimate her will likely receive the charming wrath of her Amazonian wit. She personifies the over-hyped word ‘unique’ in all respects: her exquisite attention to detail; her decisively chosen words; her precise articulation, her fashion sense; the way she moves. Debate team, teen model, science and math geek, nutritional adviser, fitness coaching, luxury hotels, the legal arena… her life experiences encompass so many varied worlds the sum total adds up to an entirely new level of unique.

I’ve had a “professional crush” on Dolores for years. I knew of and admired her from afar while working at The Royal Palms in 1996, but only during the past few years have I had the honor to really know her. To know her is to be truly in awe of her. To learn of the fears she has faced and challenges she has surmounted, is to be humbled and inspired. She has scaled scary peaks and climbed out of deep ravines, always holding her head high and staying classy.

A first-generation American and self-made, local businesswoman for more than two decades, Dolores was already no stranger to adversity when she became seriously ill a few years ago with a vicious auto-immune condition. Seriously as in, she nearly died. After undergoing every imaginable treatment, it was chemotherapy that finally saved her and helped her beat back this insidious disease.

Illness, like most misfortunes, is a curious thing. Family and others closest to you who should rally around and champion you, may often do the exact opposite. Business associates and clients may run scared, even while you continue to deliver on your promises without faltering. Whether it’s simply their inability to cope, or fear at the prospect of their own mortality, the sad reality is it leaves a physically weakened person at a loss for support during that most vulnerable time –when he or she may not have much time left.

Dolores was enthusiastically writing a book about the hotel industry when she fell ill, but a friend’s passing comment gave her pause and made her question if this was the book she should  be writing. Was there perhaps something even more important she needed to get down on paper first? Indeed, there was.

Battling for her health, marriage, career, and sanity, this mother of three had considerable time to reflect on all she would miss if she didn’t make it. She imagined missing her children’s teenage and adolescent years, being unable to share in their college experiences, never dancing at their weddings, and especially, the potential tragedy of not meeting her future grandchildren, and not being there to help guide their  lives with the wisdom only a grandmother can provide.

Stubbornly determined to live, not only did Dolores beat her death sentence, she was compelled to write a series of letters to Rosalind, Henry, and Paulina (or whatever her children end up naming them), in the event she proved to be an ordinary frail human and not  make it. Those letters evolved into the book Fuddle Cup, and that book is her gift to the world, just as the joy of working with and learning from her was a gift to the  hundreds of hospitality colleagues and employees whose lives she has touched over the years. So far, I’ve read it twice, and I am honored to help her promote it. Fuddle Cup is her engaging and timeless perspective on how to fill, balance and sip from one’s cup of life, in order to truly live that life to the utmost, while not sloshing and spilling on ourselves and those around us in the process. [click here to read an excerpt]

But life is messy at times. Unexpected bumps in our road inevitably cause our cup to tilt and our ‘stuff’ to spill about. Once again, at a critical time in her professional life, Dolores is challenged anew to fight for her survival. Despite speaking engagements and book signings that are scheduled, and her eagerness to charge full speed ahead, her physical body defies her. Rather than hide and wallow in pity, she has chosen to be ruthlessly honest and relentlessly commit to using her vulnerability to fuel her recovery while reaching as many others as possible who are struggling with their own issues: to give them hope and courage, to share all she has learned that ‘works’ to get her through and not merely survive, but to thrive, living every day joyfully, magnanimously, regardless of circumstances.

For many who battle chronic illness, life separates into two distinct eras, everything before the sickness, and the new normal one adjusts to after. Dolores may be more fragile than ever, but she’s still larger than life. She lives and gives passionately, with a servant’s heart. It’s the only way she knows how to live, given her heritage, hospitality upbringing, and her career. The words no, can’t and impossible do not exist in her vocabulary. Letting anyone down is simply not an option. She lives and breathes service, whether she’s delivering an outrageous hotel experience, a practical lesson, or a heartfelt message.

Chemotherapy on Monday, public speaking on Friday. No big deal, she’s got this. Because Dolores McKay is one of those rare and extraordinary individuals who not only takes everything in stride, but sees any setback –even the possibility of imminently dying– as a direct, personal challenge. Powerful pharmaceutical drugs have assaulted this tiny dynamo’s body in the past few days, but Dolores is determined to tell her story at Arizona Storytellers this Friday night. Most people, learning they are dangerously ill on Friday and must undergo chemo on Monday, would probably cancel the speaking engagement scheduled a few days later. But a woman with centuries-old gypsy blood in her veins, takes such a distressing turn of events and says, “Hah! I’ll be fine by Friday. No way will I miss speaking at charity event, on 11-11-11 of all dates. No way!”

As one of her most devoted fans, I’ll be excited to see her on stage offering up pearls of wisdom and hope. Bet there will be a ‘Scotty’ in the room who truly needs them.

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September 12, 1996

It was a Thursday night.

Mom lay in a coma, in a hospital bed, in the tiny, always-coveted front bedroom (it had an outside door). Our brothers had gone home hours ago; all still lived within 30 minutes of our childhood home. Carmie was sleeping in the finally-finished basement. Sara, sitting post in the antique wing chair, had fallen asleep reading. Linda and I were on the living room sofa drinking tea and watching a movie, attempting a mental respite from painful reality. Actually, I was watching the movie and poking her to stay awake. I wish I could remember the movie. It feels important to remember. Maybe Linda does.

We four daughters were exhausted from worry and sporadic sleep. Sara and I are owls like Mom; the other two are larks (although Linda likes to burn the midnight oil as well). So one or both of us would stay up until all hours, reading. Every few pages, we would glance up to be sure Mom’s chest was rising and falling. If we fell asleep at 4:00 or 5:00 am, we knew Carmie and/or Linda would be up in an hour or so, and Mom wouldn’t be ‘alone’ for long. I do remember the books I was devouring during those few weeks: Jane Austen, Henry James, Edith Wharton, escaping to other eras, other family dramas, avoiding the waking nightmare of our own.

She had been lucid up until a few days before: talking, telling stories, making jokes. Linda had asked her to send us a reassuring sign when she left us, and she promised she would. Her taste buds were shot, but her nose was in perfect working order. “What is Marianne cooking? Tell her she burned the garlic.” She had soldiered on as she always did, without complaining, insisting the pain wasn’t too bad. Carmie was the last to arrive. As the oldest, she knew Mom the longest –perhaps the best– and must have seen past her brave face. After she spoke with the hospice nurse, morphine started to gently carry our Mom away. So we were getting used to the idea it was just a matter of time. A few days, maybe a week.

I gave up trying to keep Linda awake and also dozed off. It seemed like hours, but was probably only 20 minutes later when a noise startled me awake –some type of alarm or buzzer– as well as cold tea spilling in my lap, from the mug in my slack hand. My heart was racing, yet I felt glued to the couch. Linda woke, rubbed her eyes, and immediately stumbled towards the kitchen. “Mare! C’mere, hurry!” I jumped up and ran to the kitchen, dark but for the florescent fixture illuminating Mom’s eclectic assortment of treasures on the little shelf above the sink. We stared, puzzled, at the buzzing stove timer. There was nothing near it; no pots, pans or anything remotely touching it and triggering it, as our dear sister-in-law Roseanne had washed and dried the dinner dishes, and stored everything away. I turned the timer off, but it started again. Linda adjusted it forward and then back to the off position, and it stopped briefly, but then started again. The third time we apparently turned the knob to precisely the right spot; it did not buzz again. We looked at each other quizzically, brows furrowed, and spoke in whispers, relieved the commotion had not woken our other sisters. With our tea warming in the microwave, we stood side by side in silence, facing the dark dining room that led down the hall to the bedroom.

Wide awake, mugs in hand, we returned to the couch. Linda picked up the remote and was just starting to channel surf when suddenly Sara rushed in and said “Lin! Mare! Come quick. I don’t know what she’s doing, but something’s changed.” I called down the stairs to wake Carmie. She was racing up in a flash, as if she hadn’t even been asleep. We four sisters gathered at our Mom’s bedside as she breathed her last breaths. I swear you could visibly see her spirit leave too, like a mist or curl of smoke rising up from her body. I was holding her left hand, and I remember being surprised by how quickly it began to grow cold in mine. A few of my hot tears fell upon it, and I kissed them before gently placing it at her side.

Our sweet mother Antoinette. She loved people, studying the Bible, and nutrition. She was musical, with a mezzo soprano voice and piano fingers so talented her teacher recommended her to Julliard. Child of the Depression, she was resilient, resourceful, remarkable. In the 1940’s, she made baby food from scratch and pancake syrup from apple peelings. In the 1970’s, she made yogurt, cheese, bread, and bought bulk food from a co-op. Baking was her passion, and our house was warmed with the tempting aromas appropriate to every religious and ethnic holiday –not just Italian Catholic ones. She packed me lunches like fried eggplant sandwiches on ‘brown’ Roman Meal bread, with an apple and a tiny Tupperware of raisins and nuts for snacks. It took me years to realize I was the lucky one, the lone outcast who wasn’t eating Oscar Mayer or marshmallow Fluff on Wonder bread, with sides of Frito Lay and Hostess.

Mom loved coffee, road trips, late night TV and changing the wallpaper on a regular basis. She longed to travel but kept her feet firmly planted and grew seven children instead. She ached to dance, but contented herself with dancing in her heart, as she shared their joys and relished the role of Grandmother. At weddings, she would giggle as she sipped a single amaretto sour, thinking herself quite decadent. She attended a Messianic Jewish Church the last ten years of her life. She nursed her husband through cancer, her parents through old age, and as she lay dying, was most concerned for the epileptic sister she had helped care for since she was a teenager. While her liver failed her physically, I believe she died of a broken heart, having lost her two lifelong best friends in December 1995 and July 1996.

There is a snapshot in my mind of the shelf above the sink. Throughout that cramped kitchen’s many incarnations of wallpaper and paint, comfortably familiar glimpses of Mom’s life cycled on and off that shelf for decades. A Palm Sunday cross tucked between recycled jars rooting Spider plants, Philodendrons and Wandering Jews. A dried out wishbone or two, a peach pit, a spool of thread with a needle stuck in it. A Veteran’s Day lapel poppy, a bottle of vitamin E oil, and a prayer card from the most recent funeral –or six. Her rings, if she was kneading bread. Underneath, a milk carton with eggshells, coffee grounds and vegetable scraps for her compost pile; and a red ceramic frog with yellow speckles (painted by yours truly, age 10), perched on the side of the sink, his open mouth holding a plastic mesh scrubber. Convinced the automatic dishwasher was wasteful, outside of holidays she used it most often as a drying rack.

Mom was a farmer’s granddaughter, the daughter of a grocer, married to a farmer’s son. She loved to plant, gather, forage, harvest, preserve, cook and bake. She lived to nurture everyone she encountered, doling out heaping helpings of food, proverbs, nutritional advice, compassionate understanding, and her sunny disposition, until she was certain a body was full, body and soul. How fitting she chose the stove, the modern-day hearth and heart of the home, to let us know her time on Earth was done.

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Ciao Ciao, from the heart…

"Wheresoever you go, go with all your heart." -Confucius

Once upon a time in 1991, while wearing a 1950’s diner waitress uniform and fishnet stockings, I met a bearded man who said I had “huge instincts” for the restaurant business. He respected my dream of being a writer –being a writer himself, so I agreed to give it a whirl for a year. My passion for hospitality was rooted growing up in an extended, East coast, Italian family of 13, and several years working at a Mom-and-Pop Italian restaurant. The Lettuce Entertain You management program elevated my core beliefs, values and early experience with a solid foundation of industry basics.

After five years of corporate burgers, shakes and meatloaf, we set off, together with our coworker Tania Craft, on a treasure hunt. We sought a different kind of wealth, ’emotional paychecks’ like unfettered creativity, freedom to make independent decisions, and the ethereal joy found in service. [From “Wikipedia: service: the intangible equivalent of an economic good… The tertiary economy… Each service is unique.”] Just a few of dozens, those brief definitions only scratch the surface.

Recalling the early years of Cowboy Ciao brings to mind the priceless learning experience of actually getting open. Business plans, blueprints, permits, training manuals, construction; it was all new to me. We opened on the proverbial shoestring, with Peter’s lovable father-in-law Al Jacinski serving as General Contractor, and directing every pair of spare hands to help bring Cory Golab’s design to life. I loved getting my hands dirty as Al and Cory took us on a learning adventure of setting tile, mortaring brick, hanging sheet rock, applying drywall, faux painting and more.

Although I have been pulled in other directions during the two decades or so since I made that one year promise, Peter always found ways to help me grow, instead of go. When I protested I didn’t have the training and skills necessary to run a kitchen, he declared me the chef anyway. I muddled through, thanking my lucky stars I had hired Bernie Kantak, whose natural talent, formal training, and fearless experimentation quickly made him the ideal candidate to take over and evolve the menu.

Baking, however, was in my comfort zone, and in the tiny space that was the original Cowboy Ciao kitchen, baking saved me. A few months before we opened, I lost my mother quite suddenly. Baking kept me sane through the dark tunnel of grief that followed. I baked, prepped, cooked, interviewed, hired, ordered, inventoried, scheduled, planned, delegated, sang, served, schmoozed, and baked some more. Singing saved me too. It was a heart-and-soul connection to my beautiful Mom and her mezzo-soprano voice I had never head.

My view of service expanded. It came to encompass: sharing knowledge; teaching skills; leading by example, tempering criticism with kindness, expressing approval often, and never being too busy or too tired to listen. With a certain mindset, everything is service, including attention to, and appreciation for, those delivering the mundane, less glamorous support so critical to a smooth operation. Every role is important, but not everyone is up to the tasks involved in the uniquely demanding roles of hostess and dishwasher [rolling up ones sleeves and braving the dish pit is a great equalizer and reminder to stay humble]!

I came to understand the thrill of sensing talent and optimizing conditions for it to blossom, encouraging an easy rapport between the face of the house and the heart of the house, all for the mission of multiple, synergistic bouquets of experiences being arranged on any given night. Servers and bartenders guide and recommend; cooks take pride in precise plating; guests relax, enjoy and discuss dinner on the drive home or at the office the morning after. The respective teams put the restaurant and kitchen back together, and prepare to do it again the next day, some of them gracing other establishments to wind down with a cocktail or a cold one. But somewhere between the mise en place and the mignardises, magic happened.

Whether deep in the weeds in March, or ghost town lonely in August, our mandate for having fun worked wonders for morale, and made the trying times more bearable. That other bearded man, the guy on the cover of the wine list holding the glass between his teeth? With a proficiency for glassware destruction so acute it prompted a house rule of “create some chaos,” David Freleng was like our CLO –Chief Laugh Officer– through multiple tours of duty, over a span of many years. Many others also returned time and again, but perhaps most remarkable was the number of opening team members who stayed at Ciao for nearly a decade, or transitioned over to Kazimierz, Sea Saw, and Digestif.

These 15 years at Cowboy Ciao have been a memorable adventure. Whether in the kitchen, on the phone, working the room or a special event, I feel my most important role has been to communicate: to welcome, to encourage, to appreciate. Along the way, I’ve been an advisor, bartender, barista, big sister, brand advocate, cheerleader, coach, confidante, counselor, crying shoulder, den mother, devil’s advocate, detail diva, entertainer, experience designer, house mother, nursemaid, mouthpiece, plumber, promoter, sounding board, and upholsterer [upholstery, now that’s fun, need to play with my staple gun again real soon].

People ask me if it was worth it, investing myself for so long. Absolutely. I touched many people and helped make a positive difference in their perception of their experience, and that is of paramount importance to me, along with a collection of handwritten notes received over the years. My definition of success is more aligned with the simple teachings of my Sicilian immigrant grandparents, than anything taught in college or the business world. Be kind, be fair, be helpful, care deeply. Oh –and of course, grow, buy, prepare, serve and eat only real food. 😉

It has been fantastic to witness the growth of the Valley dining scene over the past two decades. I’m grateful for guests and co-workers I’ve come to know as friends, and for cherished relationships with industry and community partners The Scottsdale CVB and Local First Arizona, and at many Valley resorts and hotels. I’m ecstatic about the food and beverage renaissance at Sky Harbor Terminal 4, and proud Cowboy Ciao will be part of the local flavor welcoming visitors to the Valley. But what gives me true joy is seeing so many former ‘Ciaosters’ take a Recession-be-damned attitude and either grow with other organizations, or act on their own entrepreneurial spirits. Some of those exceptional players I’ve been privileged to work alongside most recently include: Matt Diamond  The Main Ingredient | Sean Tevik/Adrienne Donnelly Thomas George Estates | Eric Duffy Tenderbelly Pork | Tagan Dering/Frank Vairo Amaro Pizzeria & Vino Lounge | Payton & Shantal Curry Guerrilla Gourmet | Tracy Dempsey  Tracy Dempsey Originals | Nobu & Sarah Fukuda Nobuo at Teeter House | Bernie Kantak/Andrew Fritz/Gina Moe/Richie Moe Citizen Public House | Pavle & Emily Milic FnB

Many are asking me, “Well, what’s next for you Marianne/Mari/@ciaomari?” To be honest, I don’t know yet. I am exploring a wide range of possibilities, and I’m wildly excited about several. Ironically, while many friends are packing their firstborns off to college this fall, I’m the one saying farewell to what for years I’ve teasingly referred to as ‘my firstborn.’ Whatever I do, wherever I go, I will go with all my heart. I’m curious to learn new skills, enthusiastic about meeting new challenges, and excited to welcome every moment in which I’m blessed with the chance to be the difference in the lives I touch.

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Travel: Sicily or bust

If we live truly, we shall see truly. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Not everyone wants to travel the world, but most people can identify at least one place in the world they’d like to visit before they die. Where is that place for you, and what will you do to make sure you get there?

(Author: Chris Guillebeau)

Sicily or bust

“The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” ~St. Augustine

I have never leaned toward popular fiction, but The Accidental Tourist is one of my favorites. The 1988 film adaptation (William Hurt, Kathleen Turner, Geena Davis) is an absolute hoot. Macon Leary writes guide books –in survival manual format– for business travelers who share his distaste for being away from the familiar comforts of home. Grieving his murdered son, lamenting his lifeless marriage; his unruly Welsh Corgi provides Macon a blessed, barking distraction. Geena Davis received a best supporting actress nomination for her role as Muriel, the irrepressibly sunny dog trainer who tries to spark Macon’s curiosity for travel and his capacity for joy.

The concept of not wanting to travel is completely foreign to me. As a child, I was excited by weekend day trips to Brooklyn or New Jersey to visit relatives. As a tween, I never missed tagging along if someone needed to be dropped off or picked up at JFK or La Guardia, usually sporting my green velvet hat, convinced I looked as sophisticated and grown up as Janis Ian on her ‘At Seventeen’ album cover. It was the late 1970’s and dressing smart was still the norm when boarding a plane, train or boat. I was rehearsing to be the world traveler I longed to be.

Once the travel bug bit, that itch wouldn’t quit. I was a gypsy from age 14 to 24. Annual trips to Texas to visit family; Italy with high school Italian class, including my first love and –consequently or coincidentally?– my oldest sister along as a chaperone; a Bahamas cruise with a classmate’s family; Bahamas redux with HS/college gal pals; Colorado and D.C. with college organizations; Bermuda with a childhood BFF and her parental units; a week-long double-date in Florida followed by a post-graduation European tour (14 countries in 29 days), both with a college BFF; 8 months living in London with BFF#1 on student work visas, 2 weeks in Turkey before heading back across the Pond; reunion of the Europe grad trip in NOLA; Denver – Shreveport – Chicago for trade shows representing an Italian importing company. Then, a fateful 2 weeks with family in the desert Southwest, followed by a temporary -or so I thought- relocation to Arizona the following year. My passport began gathering dust, while my wanderlust puzzled over being deserted.

The first time my Mom visited us in Arizona, she was awestruck by the scenery. A true nature lover, the Sonoran desert’s natural beauty captivated her. I recall her commenting how my Grandmother would have loved it here because it looked so much like Sicily. Mountains, churches, wide-open blue sky, diamond-bright stars at night, prickly pear cactus. Mom had never been to Sicily, but she had heard her mother’s descriptions, recalled from Grandma’s memories as a young girl, since she set sail for America around 1919, passed on in 1984, and not once in all that time did she return to her birthplace.

When my Mom was dying, I wistfully told her how sorry I was we had not gone to Italy with my sister and cousin the previous spring. We had talked about it fleetingly and hesitantly. What held us back? Lack of money, lack of time, perhaps her fear or guilt about leaving her sister behind at home. She brushed off my tearful regret with a smirk and a weak wave. “Don’t be silly. I didn’t even know those people.” With one foot in Heaven, she was already speaking of herself in the past tense. I was not lamenting the “old country” relatives she had not met, but rather the places she had not seen, the experiences she had not enjoyed, the life she had not lived.

Tears fell on the cover of Mom’s blank passport as I held it in my hands a few years later. I imagined her driving on back country roads in Italy. She loved to drive, having only first learned at age 35. After Dad passed, she fantasized about road trips with a travel companion, maybe even RV’ing. Tears sting my eyes now as I think of small towns she didn’t see, postcards she didn’t send, maps she didn’t wear out. Circumstances, obligations, fear and guilt: all possible, plausible reasons she was, mostly, an armchair tourist. Cheerfully, she vicariously enjoyed the trips others took, with the exception of my brother Michael’s year-plus government-sponsored tour of Vietnam. But oh, how she wished to travel to destinations of her own choosing, to lose herself -and find herself- in the delight of discovering an unknown place and falling in love with it.

There are many places I would like to visit, but Sicily is the place I must go, for a thousand and one reasons. For festivals, cannoli, caponata, and Mt. Etna. For the sea, the seafood, Greek temples, for a gelato in brioche with Lina de Luca, a lovely Neapolitan woman I have yet to meet in person. For the dialect, lemon groves, shepherds, and the incredible, edible art of martorana (marzipan). If I were told I had only a year to live, or perhaps just a month, Sicily would be the trip that must be taken. For myself, for Mom, and for at least 987 other reasons.

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Day 4: My Post-it Question

That which each can do best, none but his Maker can teach him. Where is the master who could have taught Shakespeare? Where is the master who could have instructed Franklin, or Washington, or Bacon, or Newton? . . . Shakespeare will never be made by the study of Shakespeare. Do that which is assigned you, and you cannot hope too much or dare too much. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Identify one of your biggest challenges at the moment (ie I don’t feel passionate about my work) and turn it into a question (ie How can I do work I’m passionate about?) Write it on a post-it and put it up on your bathroom mirror or the back of your front door. After 48-hours, journal what answers came up for you and be sure to evaluate them.

Bonus: tweet or blog a photo of your post-it.

I Will Stop Procrastinating Starting Tonight (which has become tomorrow)

How many of us will be as fortunate as Grandma Moses? Whether we begin creating early or late in life, if we begin thanks to…

– a dare
– curiosity
– serendipity
– soul stirrings
– natural talent
– unusual circumstances
– an avocation ignited by passion
– resourcefulness born of necessity or
– any other motivator…

…the important thing is that we do begin. That we allow ourselves to falter, to fail, to begin again. That we celebrate any success we choose –no matter how small– between our stumblings, failings and new beginnings.

I have an inherent need to string words together on a regular basis. It empties my head and fills my heart. It brings me joy. The Trust 30 daily challenges reinforce this. With nearly every prompt, my love and passion for writing is the theme of, or at least the catalyst for, my response post. Yet here I sit on Day 20, working on Day 4, in the middle of the night, the time of day my brain is currently wired to create. I do believe I can change and improve two aspects relative to that last sentence. For my health and my sanity, I will.

Oh I’ve read the prompts, I’ve thought about them, I’ve begun several. I’ve fallen behind in completing them because I am neither inherently disciplined nor do I lead a structured life. Once upon a time, I was a compulsive list-maker. I lived by my day-planner, desk and wall calendars. Oddly enough, just as life became difficult and demanding, I let these important habits and tools slip by the wayside. For days, weeks, months and years, I let too many things, from big pictures to minutiae, clatter around in my cluttered mind.

Procrastination is practically a disease in my family. Only one of us escaped growing up in chaos without catching it, although surely there are challenges at the opposite end of the spectrum as well. Recently however, I remembered I have a secret weapon, a natural remedy. My messy, creative, adult free spirit has an evil (or angelic, depending on your perspective), twin; an OCD little girl who craves order, organization, and at least some semblance of a routine. I hardly recognize her when she turns up, like when she scoops the litter box three, four, five times in one day. <— See? She does exist! Perhaps I can summon her as a sort of left-brain muse, as I accept the additional challenge of forming better habits. Perhaps we will collaborate, and with her help, I will master them, beginning with procrastination. After all, how many of us will be so blessed to live to be 101?

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One Strong Belief: Genital Integrity

St Anthony Monastery, Florence AZ

One Strong Belief

It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude. – Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance

The world is powered by passionate people, powerful ideas, and fearless action. What’s one strong belief you possess that isn’t shared by your closest friends or family? What inspires this belief, and what have you done to actively live it? (Author: Buster Benson)

I Believe in Genital Integrity

Strong beliefs have never been my strongest suit. Being easygoing and open to persuasion comes naturally to me; taking a hard line position does not. I learned to be a diplomat by necessity, as the last of 7 children, and always the youngest person in a household of 13. Born under the sign of Libra, I’m practiced at weighing the options, adding a healthy dose of optimism and compassion, and still declining to make a choice or pass judgment. At times my indecision has caused me grief –roads taken/not taken, money wasted for example– or frustrated some who view flexibility as an irresponsible cop-out to avoid commitment and the potential for subsequent fallout or blame. On the other hand, going with the flow has often helped me mediate disagreements to successful outcomes and diffuse tense, sticky situations. With this touchy topic encompassing cultural habits and religious beliefs, I trust my tongue-in-cheek approach encourages any discourse to be respectful and peaceful.

My passionate stance against circumcision is relatively recent. My dear friend Katie Hodge Dean shared a link to the blog Peaceful Parenting, where I’ve learned more than the average single, child-free woman likely knows about lactation, co-sleeping, attachment parenting, home-schooling, and raising intact boys. Today’s entry is quite apropos. Intact men reading this may enjoy a gleeful reminiscence of personal ‘ballooning’ experiences:

I have come to believe genital integrity is a basic human right. More to the point, I believe circumcision, male or female, is a barbaric act of mutilation, performed without an individual’s consent. Who would agree to be thrust into excruciating pain, with the potential for infection, disfigurement or even death, by allowing the cutting –without anesthesia– of one of the most sensitive areas of the body? The newborn baby in an American hospital ‘agrees’ by default. His only means of defending himself against the assault would be to writhe incessantly, but he is strapped (or held) down) to prevent this. A young Somali girl may face the horrific pain of her fate with stoic anguish, rather than face being an outcast. She may be tied or forcibly held down or, in a bizarre juxtaposition of mercy and brutality, be knocked into unconscious submission by a blow to the head.

Female genital cutting is illegal in the United States. Why are male babies not similarly protected by law? Doesn’t birth itself already involve enough blood, screams, trauma and pain? Who knows why I developed this One Strong Belief. Perhaps because I’m a sucker for stories; hearing, telling, reading, and writing them. There was no instant, conscious decision to take a stand, but rather a feeling that grew as I processed the heart-wrenching stories and apologies to sons, written by parents who wish they had accessed more/better/different information, challenged their ob/gyn, set aside their fears and discomfort to at least have an open, reasoned discussion.

I’m inclined to believe these statements are more true than false:

Circumcision facts (and myths) are discussed only minimally by most parents.
Circumcision violates the Hippocratic oath. The physician promises “to do no harm.”
Circumcision is cultural. Non-religious circumcision is a purely American phenomenon.
Circumcision is a medical necessity for only a tiny percentage (2%) of newborn males.
Circumcision is not decried by the medical community because it generates revenue.

The AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) website offers parents a few pros and cons about “should we or shouldn’t we” but the information is surprisingly brief and mostly unscientific. Supposedly there is no health organization in the world which advocates the cutting of the foreskin of a healthy newborn male. On a positive note, trends in recent years show more US parents are evaluating the varied and conflicting information, leading many to make the less common choice, even if it means little Johnny “will look different from Daddy” and, both Daddy and Mommy will need to learn, and teach their son, about the care (in a nutshell, just leave it alone) and eventual development of his natural equipment.

My personal belief aside, I do not judge any parent(s) for the choice he/she/they make(s). But now, whenever I hear someone I know is expecting, with rare exceptions, I hope and pray they are blessed with a baby girl. So there you have it, what inspired my One Strong Belief. As for actively living it, I suppose with this post, I have declared myself to be, as the term goes, an “intactivist.”

A few weeks ago, a HS classmate posted on Facebook about San Francisco voting on a circumcision ban in November and added her comment: “I think it’s time to end cultural mutilations.” A lively debate began, but then quickly petered out. I’ve pasted in my comments from that thread, below the line after the article, if anyone is interested.


Chris, I totally agree and applaud you for posting about a hot & sensitive topic. I have raised eyebrows for having the nerve to have an opinion, especially as a child-free (and now unmarried), woman. It makes people uncomfortable & they don’t want to go there.

Tom re: (female genital mutilation) Male or female, why should any level of mutilation be acceptable? If not medically necessary, isn’t it a violation of human rights? As for religion, two Jewish (male) doctors have written books decrying it, advocating merely a tiny ‘symbolic’ cut at the bris instead. Read countless agonized stories by parents who regret not making an informed decision. There are more impressive, updated sites, but this is simple food for thought. This site is a little over-the-top and amateurish, but the plain truth is just as ear piercings naturally close up, the foreskin can be stretched and restored.  [*smiles* and wonders if a few curious and open-minded men will consider taking matters into their own (or their partner’s) hands] This site is very thorough, actually a critique of the above site, based on one man’s experience with prostate surgery and restoration

Yes, I am deeply passionate about this serious subject, joking & innuendo aside. Incorporating humor seems to make it a little more palatable for the masses. 😉


#Trust30 is an online initiative and 30-day writing challenge that encourages you to look within and trust yourself. Use this as an opportunity to reflect on your now, and to create direction for your future. 30 prompts from inspiring thought-leaders will guide you on your writing journey.

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Today in one sentence: Writing brings me to life

Prompt: Liz Danzico – Today

Your genuine action will explain itself, and will explain your other genuine actions. Your conformity explains nothing. The force of character is cumulative. – Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance

If ‘the voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tracks,’ then it is more genuine to be present today than to recount yesterdays. How would you describe today using only one sentence? Tell today’s sentence to one other person. Repeat each day.

(Author: Liz Danzico)

As my heart and mind collaborate in word choreography, my soul dances with wild abandon.

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15 Minutes to Live – Thanks for the Memories!

Angel Cloud on "Rapture Day" 5-28-11

The #Trust30 project is a 30-day, prompted, online writing challenge that encourages you to look within and trust yourself. My SM mentor, Phoenix foodie/techie/all-around awesome guy/hubby/daddy @chrislee was tweeting about it Wednesday afternoon. Instantly, instinctively, I knew it would be the ideal daily kick in the ass to help me act on my passion for writing.

#Trust30 just started — perhaps you’ll create your own adventure of self-discovery at

The first prompt (May 31) is 15 Minutes to Live by Gwen Bell.

You just discovered you have fifteen minutes to live.

1. Set a timer for fifteen minutes.

2. Write the story that has to be written.

Thanks for the Memories!

Wow. So this is it. After thinking about writing for years –decades even, it comes down to this. My lasting words for all posterity will not be carefully crafted and finessed. They’ll tumble out in a jumble of erratic thoughts, amid bad grammar and poor punctuation, in this technical format that’s hardly my forté, since I’ve never, ever used it before and I am seriously technically challenged on my best day. Clearly, there’s a lesson here already. It’s time for me to have a showdown with the dEvil named procrastination.

15 minutes. Dear God, could you make an exception? I’ve been a good girl…mostly. Please, may I have an hour, perhaps even two? I’ve got so much to say. So much. I know, I know, I should have started years ago.*sigh*

Mostly I want to say…I’m grateful. It’s been a remarkable life. That I was even born is a miracle! Bless my parents, having sex and making a baby when they were 40 and 55 years old! WTH were they thinking? Was the TV set broken?  Did the ancient oil burner in the basement run out of fuel on a bitterly cold January weekend? Craziness! Sure, today it’s fairly common…but in 1965? Anyway, they got lucky and lucky me, I came to be!

It wasn’t just them I was born to. It was to a whole big, disorderly, chaotic, dysfunctional family. Not knowing any better, I loved them, thought they were great. Still do. Especially the old people. To this day, I am endeared toward old people. They come with history, stories, wisdom and often, a calming aura. They are in no hurry, they’ve got nothing but time.  And they have stuff to intrigue a child: statues of saints that look stolen from church, big brooches, hats in their original 30 year old hatboxes, old embroidered linens, monogrammed handkerchiefs, musty uniforms dotted with colorful pins, and candy.

My Grandma and Grandpa were Sicilian immigrants born in the 1890’s. They taught me to love growing food and flowers, planning one meal ahead, buying quality on sale, supporting local businesses, and bringing a care package when invited to someone’s home. On the second floor of our house, with them and Mom’s sister, Aunt Nicki, I experienced laughter (I Love Lucy), learning (The Galloping Gourmet), exercise (Jack LaLanne), music (Lawrence Welk) and simple fun (checkers, Canasta, Bingo). They ate healthy food heartily and unhealthy food in moderation. They walked everywhere they went and their bodies only began failing in their 80’s. I spent so much time with them in the first years of my life. No wonder I spoke my first word in Italian and still feel their profound influence in my life.

Edwin P. Butler. A WWI veteran, drifter, sign painter, antiques collector, reformed hard drinker, tobacco chewer. People around town nicknamed him Colonel Sanders, to me he was a ‘bonus’ grandfather. Except when he removed his false teeth to scare me, then he was a real live monster. He knocked on the back door one night in the 1950’s and asked Mom if he could have his “old room” back. (My childhood home was a boarding house before we lived there). With 6 kids to feed and water, Mr. Butler lived with us for 20+ years; we became his family. He gave me my first taste of dining out: at Casale’s deli he would enjoy eat split pea soup and buttered rye bread while I nibbled a grilled cheese. At Sam’s luncheonette, he’d order me egg creams or ice cream sodas while he had coffee and a cheese or egg salad sandwich. I always went home with forbidden candy. When my sister Sara was small, he bought her the entire Nancy Drew series one book at a time, but that’s a story for another day.

My father. Third son, but the first to survive, the eldest of six surviving out of thirteen total, christened Michelangelo, after Nunzio 1 and Nunzio 2 died in infancy. Motherless boy, would-be football player, dog lover, deer hunter, horse whisperer, reluctant farmer, dockworker, milk man, mechanic, taxi driver, gambler, dreamer. Man of few words, unless the topic was baseball, hunting, politics or the ponies. Born in 1911, he might have turned 100 two weeks ago had he eaten like the grandparents! But no, he liked donuts, and meat, and resentment. 34 years before he became my Grandpa’s son-in-law, Dad was first his nephew, as his Zia Antonietta (my paternal Grandpa’s sister) was our maternal Grandpa’s mother. I wish I had known Dad’s parents. You miss quite a lot when you are the “caboose” at the end of the train, the last little dishwasher. More stories for another day.

My mother. My Angel mother Antoinette, named for her father’s mother, the grandmother she never knew, her husband’s aunt, my Great Aunt. First generation Italian-American, Brooklynite, elder of two daughters, child of the Great Depression, pianist, mezzo soprano, business college graduate, young wife, mother, baker, bowler, gardener, sewer, wallpaper hanger, conversationalist, conservationist, canner, cook, nutritionist, ecologist, recycler, composter, couponer, Bible reader, letter writer, armchair traveler, driver, electronics technician, retail worker, civil servant, grandmother, caretaker, widow, senior citizen student (ASL and Italian), retiree, snowbird, devoted sister, friend to all. Dreamer, idealist, romantic, comic. Fan of the Love Boat, Fantasy Island, Golden Girls, Arsenio Hall, Highway to Heaven, Touched by an Angel. If there is a Heaven, surely she is there and, I will be overjoyed to see her again.

Oh stop smirking; of course I am going There. After all, I’ve been a good girl…mostly. And ohshit, time is up. But I haven’t told you about my 6 wonderful siblings and their spouses, 10 nieces/nephews, the Greatkids, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends I treasured and who cherished me, animals I loved and was loved by, places I traveled to, people I met, food I ate, wine I drank, languages I spoke, jokes I screwed up, scenes I stole, scenes I blew, cakes I baked, instruments I played, prayers I prayed, love I made, songs I sang, things I learned from teachers I never forgot, strangers & friends I smiled at, encouraged or consoled, photos I took, pizzas I tossed, beaches I walked, fish I caught, pretty dresses I wore, horses I rode, letters I wrote & received, moments I seized, babies I held, kids I watched grow, tomatoes I grew, flowers I arranged, rooms I decorated, gifts I wrapped, sunrises & sunsets that filled me with awe, thunderstorms – snowfalls – fallen leaves – blooming bulbs –a thousand scenes of nature that enchanted me, books & movies I loved, my favorite shoes, weddings I danced at, stars I wished upon, beauty I admired, stories I didn’t write, kisses that left me breathless, the great love of my life…and countless other people, places and things that helped me feel so vibrantly, completely alive for these past 45.7 years.

I’ve loved life and it has loved me back, you were right Mr Schweitzer or was it Mr Schlesinger? I’ve loved people and some, perhaps most, have loved me back. I forgive those who hurt me, I pray those I may have hurt find the grace to forgive me and that we all journey on freely. It’s been a wonderful life Mr Capra, Mr Stewart, and I’m eternally grateful. I have no regrets, only lingering enthusiasm, appreciation, and bemused wonder for having been given the chance to go to the ball, at all. Thank you Mr Disney, I had a perfectly lovely time. Mr Hope, truly, thanks for the memories.

“Wrap it up Marianne, story’s too long.” Fine, but know this, I’m just beginning. And 15 minutes will rarely be enough.

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