Monday, April 23, 2012

A Taste of History: Mount Vernon Hotel

In 1799, John Adams' daughter Abigail decided she wanted a huge estate in 'the country'. She bought a 23-acre plot of land five streets long and and a Manhattan-Avenue distance wide. She and her husband Mr. Smith built a carriage house to accompany their estate home called Mount Vernon after George Washington's home, but it burnt down. In it's spot today is a Bed, Bath & Beyond.  
In 1826, the carriage house was purchased and turned into a day hotel (what we'd think of as a country club today). Most New Yorkers in the 1820s and 1830s used these day hotels to escape the city squalor and splurge on a trip ($.50). They would be treated to three delicious meals and two teas for $1.50. Quite the deal for a heaping bowl of turtle soup with lemon and egg white. 

I know real estate in Manhattan has been worth a pretty penny, but unfortunately the hotel went bankrupt after seven years. It was purchased as a private home for the Towle family for a couple generations then sold to the Standard Gas Light Company in the early 1900s. It was an antique store for six years before the Colonial Dames of America purchased the building for $50,000 in 1924. I sure am glad that they did, because they gave me the opportunity to fall back in time for a day! You would miss this gem between 1st Ave and York on Manhattan's East side if you didn't know it was there. Its pretty garden backs up against a storage facility and the next door neighbors run a multi-story parking garage.

I have been attracted to the history of this city since we moved. As it turns out, my Saturday excursion came in handy today during our weekly staff meeting. One of the Wellness Coordinators' responsibilities is to set up drop by booths in our client's workplace break rooms to talk with participants eligible for the wellness programs. During our call this morning I encouraged the staff to build a sugar stack on their tables this month to draw attention to our nutrition health coaching program. 

One of my Coordinators asked the team for recommendations on addressing the frequent regular soda vs. diet soda debate. I kept the conversation broad, explaining that in general we want to encourage people to avoid manufactured additives in our food regardless of what they are. Then, I remembered something I learned on my Mount Vernon Hotel tour!

In the 1820s and 1830s, a cone of sugar (maybe 12" high with a 4" diameter) cost a whopping $130! This meant that the average person might possibly taste a smidgen of sugar once per year. My how much the States have changed since then! I encouraged the Coordinators to talk about how our tastes change and how to keep sugar consumption in perspective. Sometimes I wish I could go back to the 1800s...

...until I turn on my lights and take a hot shower that is!

Monday, April 16, 2012

I get by with a little help from my Moms

I spent last week in San Diego at the Art & Science of Health Promotion Conference. It was a thrill!

How does one get such an amazing opportunity? By writing a proposal of course... Only I didn't complete a study or publish a white paper. I didn't have a poster presentation or a product to market. I just sent in a proposal offering to host a morning walking group.

Walking. That's it. Not prayer walking, not walking meditation, not even power walking. I just like to walk and proposed that others would want to as well. It's that point in my career where I have nothing to lose by trying this type of thing. I figured that a conference full of wellness professionals would want to get out, do a little networking, and get some fresh air before a long day of meetings. Sure enough, I got the invite!

I learned more than I can summarize in a blog post from this experience, but believe it or not one of the most important realizations is that I'd be lost without my Moms.

Peg, my mother-in-law, was super supportive of this little walking plan. She shipped a whole box of walking books, DVDs, articles and magazines for me to reference during my morning excursions. One of the best conversation pieces I got was an article she sent about how the design of neighborhoods has changed since 1950 (more car-friendly, less pedestrian friendly). My walkers and I were able to break the ice by chatting about where we were from and how our neighborhoods were laid out to encourage movement or prevent it. Thank you Mama Peg!

Kathy, has been teaching me problem-solving skills for nearly three decades. She saved the day the first night when I arrived and realized the weather report called for rain! I hadn't made a backup plan, but she knew who to go to (the concierge) and where to consider (mall walking). What would I do without her? Thank you Mom!

Fortunately, the rain burned off in time for all three of my walks.

Sure, Zumba and yoga might be fun, but what better way to prevent tired-butt syndrome than 7 a.m. lunges!

This was an interval one of my walkers suggested! Talk about some intense stairs. 

One quick note: I had the chance to talk with Richard Wilkinson, author of The Sprit Level. Dominic and I listened to him present his book at a Town Hall event in Seattle in 2009 and we have admired him ever since. The public has learned a lot about income gaps' effect on societal issues in the past three years. Maybe you'll get a future post devoted to this topic.

San Diego is clean and lovely. Don't let these photos fool you though, it was chilly! I had to get back to New York to experience spring again!

Talk about a nice hotel view

P.S. For all my fellow walking readers, this article series is a fantastic read.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

March goings on

Cherry Blossoms

We finally took the long anticipated trip to Washington DC to see the spring Cherry Blossoms. With the unseasonably warm winter, the trees started blossoming early this year and so we arrived just in time. We had a chance to see them at night.....

....and during the day. We also got a chance to catch up with some great Peace Corps friends, went to the presidents church on Sunday morning (we sat behind the head of the FBI Robert Mueller), and had a fancy dinner at some famous guy's restaurant whose name I forget.

It was raining for part of the time, which one might imagine would have put a damper on the trip; however, Washington DC is a great place to be in the rain. There are so many wonderful museums right on the mall and we had a great time in spite of the weather. A highlight for me was this painting that I've been wanting to see in person for some time

It's a painting by the Armenian artist Arshile Gorky, and is perhaps the most famous/known Armenian painting in the West (there are actually two copies of it I believe). The movie Ararat is partially based around it's creation. It's based on a picture taken with his mother in Van just before the Armenian Genocide in which his mother died of starvation. The story that I heard many times while in Armenia was he couldn't seem to paint his mother's hands satisfactorily, as it brought him too much pain; they made her memory too real for him. So he kept trying to paint them, only to scrape off the paint in disgust at his inability to do a proper rendering which did his mother's memory justice. You could really see the relief on the painting where he had again-and-again scrapped off the paint of her hands. I have no real opinion on the aesthetics of the painting, but I think it's a cool story.

Zulu Wedding

We had a chance to attend our first wedding in the Bronx, and what a wedding it was. She is Zulu and grew up in South Africa, and he is from somewhere in the American South (Perhaps Alabama). They've actually been married for years and have 2 kids (another on the way), but her family finally had the chance to make it to the states to celebrate.

They decided to have a traditional American wedding and then flip-the-script and have a traditional Zulu wedding. Sarah spent the better part of a week trying to locate a proper dashiki and a proper dress for the occasion. As expected, she succeeded (you can't stop Sarah):

Not everyone was able to find the proper attire in time, but I was glad that we had.

All in all it was an interesting experience, especially the Zulu portion of the wedding. There was lots of dancing, and the father/patriarch of the family running around with his traditional gown and headdress grabbing the microphone and making various statements about proper female subservience.


Sarah and I are continuing to try and check off all those boxes of things we “must-do” before we leave New York. It’s my observation that ‘New Yorkers’ (whether transplants of natives) are tirelessly driven to attach themselves to exclusivity and superlativity (not a word I realize… but I’m using it anyway) in any way they can. So for example, people are not satisfied to go to a pudding restaurant (yes… that’s a restaurant which only serves pudding), they will instead seek out a pudding restaurant that is not well known so that they can visit it with a goal of - at their next social gathering - blatantly steering the conversation towards pudding and then declare that they’ve found, “the BEST pudding restaurant in the city… and the best part about it… it still hasn’t become popular, so it’s not all crowded with tourists yet.” I personally find all of it exhausting. Why do I bring this up? Two reasons: 1) I get annoyed with it and sometimes shamelessly use blog posts as catharsis and 2) To explain the challenge in wading through all the self-serving suggestions and those which may perhaps have merit. We tend to stick with the tried and true, more traditional spots to check of our list….

Thus we ended up recently at these two legendary New York delis:

We didn't get a good picture, but above is Russ & Daughter's, which apparently has 'the best' lox bagels in the universe. While Sarah tends towards more humble portions of vegetables and salmon I am partial to the occasional could-have-sustained-the-entire-Donner-Party-through-that-terrible-winter serving of meat. thus, we headed next over to Katz's Deli (conveniently just a block away).

As made clear by the above signage it has been known as 'the best' since 1888. I thought it was 'just ok'. I tried the Reuben (which I believe they're known for) and some matzos ball soup. See below.

Moving right along.... One of the perks of being a student and living near campus is that we have the chance to attend some great lectures. We were excited to attend the recent Gannon Lecture. I was super interested as Sarah’s grandfather - when he learned I would attending Fordham -graciously gave me a wonderful book by Rev. Robert Gannon, S.J. called After Black Coffee. Reverend Gannon was a famous after dinner speaker (when after dinner speakers could still be famous) and the book transcribes some of his most famous speeches which touch on various social issues of the time. He really was quite a speaker (clear even through just the transcriptions) and so Sarah and I were excited to attend the annual Dean’s Gannon Lecture. Plus it was a fancy lecture so there was a nice spread of good food and an open bar... but who wants to see pictures of a lecture... I'll leave it there.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Star struck Easter

He is Risen! Alleluia!
Happy Easter all.

In February I sent a postage-paid return envelope addressed to myself to the office at St. Patrick's Cathedral. If you want to see His Eminence on Easter Sunday, you have to get an early start. Sure enough, two weeks ago my envelope returned with four tickets to today's mass enclosed. It was to be the highlight of our worship weekend. After Maundy Thursday, Tenebrae, and Easter Vigil at Fordham this week I thought an Easter in the big city would be a treat. As it turns out, it was distracting.

Don't get me wrong, Timothy Cardinal Dolan gave an excellent homily reminding us that the most influential person in our lives is Jesus. He reminded us not to look for the living (i.e. Jesus) among the dead (i.e. the distractions of this world). He gave us a good sprinkle, we heard the St. Patrick's cathedral choir sing a glorious rendition of the Hallelujah chorus, and we fumbled through the Lord's Prayer in Latin. Despite my best efforts though, I was distracted.

By distracted, I mean I easily succumb to tourism. I've lived here nearly two years now
and for some reason when cameras fly out I drop right into tourist mode myself - trying to get a good shot of whatever it is people seem to think is a big deal. Today, it just so happened mass was a tourist trap.

What would you look at if this lady was sitting a few pews in front of you?

Or, if this man was behind you?

I learned something from this experience, and I learned it in less than 5 minutes: I prefer to worship in a place where people could care less about what we're wearing. Jesus doesn't.

For your viewing pleasure: