I might as well be in Chamonix!

My friend Reva likes to say, everybody has to be somewhere, I might as well be here. This week my somewhere is Chamonix, France where Jeff & I are on a trip with the Atlanta Ski Club. Chamonix is a classic European ski resort and certainly on the bucket list for those who love to ski.

Only this week most of my time will be off the mountain as I recover from a painful & lingering back injury. The short version of the story is that I had to carry our 65-pound Labrador, Daisy, around when she was having an arthritis pain episode & had trouble walking. I didn’t think about correct lifting techniques at the time, my main concern was for her comfort.

Weeks later, with no improvement, I finally went to the doctor. The good news is she thinks it was just a deep muscle strain that will heal with rest & physical therapy, not something more concerning like a disc or nerve problem. Nevertheless, I’m hesitant to over do it on the slopes & be back at square one. Jeff is scouting out some easy cruising runs for me so I can at least check the box that I’ve skied in France.

I’m certain I can find lots of things to keep me occupied off the slopes. One thing I’m looking forward to is re-connecting with my friend Cathy later in the week. She was an exchange student at my high school back in…well, it was a few years ago. She lives in Switzerland now and is planning to come to Chamonix in a few days. She actually tried to come on Sunday but they had so much snow here Friday & Saturday that the trains weren’t running. Weather looks better towards the end of the week.

What I likely will miss are the club’s day trips to Courmayeur, Italy & Verbier, Switzerland. I’ve skied in both of those countries before, in fact both in one day a couple of times, so the pressure is not on to hit another milestone.

Meanwhile I’m trying to remember my high school French, which thus far is coming out as a combination of French, Spanish & Italian. Perhaps by the end of the week I’ll get it right.

We flew from Atlanta to Zurich then took a train ride through beautiful scenery to Geneva. That allowed us a couple of days to rest & adjust to the local time before the rest of the club arrived for our transfer to Chamonix. We haven’t plotted out our return itinerary, that’s something we’ll work out later in the week (ah, the joys of standby travel).

Focusing on today, as Mont Blanc is finally trying to peek through the clouds that have enveloped the valley since we arrived, when I remember that everybody has to be somewhere, I’m fortunate to say, I might as well be in Chamonix!

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What’s in a name?

What do I have in common with pop stars? Unusual names in my family history, for one.

The pop culture world is abuzz this week with the birth of Blue Ivy Carter, her parents are pop star Beyoncé Knowles and hip-hop artist Jay-Z (born Shawn Carter), for those not in the know. Media reports suggest that although the name is unusual it holds significance for her parents and wasn’t just pulled, uh, out of the blue.

I had a doctor’s appointment the other day and the physician’s assistant who greeted me was named Ashley, my sister’s name as I told her. It’s old fashioned but seems to have made a comeback, of course with any number of spellings these days. In my sister’s case, Ashley was a surname a few generations back. (more on that shortly)

My three siblings and I were all named after a family member: my oldest brother after our father (and his father) with a typically Southern ‘III’ after his name as the third. My next brother was named after our maternal grandfather…he would note that he doesn’t recommend a full name where one’s initials spell out the name you are called, TOM in his case, which was monogrammed on his high school uniform sweater to some ribbing from his friends.

I was named for my mother, who was named for her grandmother, who was named for another ancestor. There was at least one Louise on my father’s side of the family so everybody was happy. A typical response to telling someone my name is Louise is, oh, that was my grandmother’s name. It’s not one you hear much anymore, but I’m OK with that. There was another Louise in my kindergarten class, and a Luisa in later school years, so I did have to share for a while. And it makes for some fun nicknames, Weezie, Weezer, LuLu (just don’t call me Lou!).

My sister’s name has the most storied origin in our family. She was named for Mary Ashley Royster, a maternal ancestor who lived in Raleigh, NC. Family lore says that she & her husband wanted their children to have distinctive names. So they named her children after states. Yes, states of the Union. The boys were Vermont Connecticut, Iowa Michigan, Arkansas Delaware, Wisconsin Illinois, and Oregon Minnesota; the girls were Louisiana Maryland, Virginia Carolina, and Georgia Indiana. More history here.

My grandmother was Virginia, but her middle name was not Carolina, it was an old family surname, Page, which is my middle name. I’m a fan of carrying family names through the generations, though I will admit I’m glad the state names didn’t gain traction in future generations. A couple of ancestors did try to carry it through, but note my full name is absolutely not Louisiana.

What are some of your family traditions?

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For the Love of MINI

This morning I took my MINI Cooper in for its first service appointment. It logged a little more than 10,000 miles in its first 21 months, which I hear is below the norm. If I didn’t drive to Savannah several times a year (500+ miles round trip) it would be much lower. I saw a recent news report that the average family spends $4,000/year on gas. I would estimate I spend far less than $1,000/year in gas for the MINI. Honestly sometimes when I’m at the gas station I can’t remember the last time I filled up.

I bought the MINI on St. Patrick’s Day, 2010 (3/17 for those of you who don’t recognize this as a national holiday), hence the car’s full name is MINI Finnegan O’Cooper. My love of MINI started with my Dad who always dreamed about having one, only it wasn’t big enough to tow his boat so he typically stuck with SUVs. Even though it’s a British car through & through, I thought it was fitting that our MINI would be given an Irish name, in memory & honor of my Dad’s Irish heritage.

My Dad loved to get his picture taken next to MINIs in his travels, here he is in Roundstone, Ireland in 2006:

I picked up that tradition on a European trip this year. Some new friends who joined us on a couple of tours got into the game too, hey Louise, there’s a red MINI, there’s a blue one! We even stopped for lunch at a restaurant in Rome where, coincidentally, the owner was trying to sell his 60’s vintage MINI. We passed on it, though the owner did a convincing sales job.

Here are some of the pictures. You can’t deny it, a MINI just makes you smile! (click on any photo to start a slide show)

My husband is 6’5” & it’s funny to watch people’s reactions as he gets in & out of the car. He says it’s the most legroom he’s ever had in a car, and doesn’t even have to push the seat all the way back. Though I would advise not sitting behind him when he’s driving unless you enjoy twisting up like a pretzel in a small back seat (I’ve done it, it wasn’t fun).

Here’s MINI Finnegan O’Cooper, MINI Finny for short:

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Sweet Daisy with our Christmas tree, she celebrated her 13th Birthday last week!

(apologies for the white extension cord in the shot…the bottom string of lights went out a few days ago and messed up the cord-hiding scheme. And besides, it’s hard enough to style a tree for a photo, much less an old dog!)

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Sometimes you need a do over

I’ve had two do overs recently, off-the-course Mulligans if you will. But I think that’s just life, sometimes you either have to start over or shift gears mid-stream and make the best of it. These aren’t life-altering events, mind you, just those little mishaps where you realize you goofed and then go with plan B.

The Christmas Card
While perusing custom-photo Christmas card templates on a number of websites, I found one on tinyprints.com that read Silent Night, Holy Night on the front. Perfect, I thought! On our cruise we took pictures of the sunset every night. So we had LOTS of pictures of sunsets that were picture perfect nearly every night.

The first photo I chose:

I thought it was beautiful, there was an island in the distance with interesting clouds and a bird flying through the middle of the frame. It was taken with a telephoto lens and while it was not the most crisp shot of the trip I thought it would translate well to print, especially for the smaller size of the card. Turns out, I was wrong. It didn’t translate. At all. The cards arrived looking fuzzy and dull. The original dark brown outline I had chosen didn’t help.

So I re-grouped. I went back through the photos and chose a new one that had more vibrant colors and the focal point of a lighthouse as we left the port of Livorno:

Using the same card I chose a light blue background color scheme, and semi-gloss paper vs the matte paper used on the original card. The first photo might have looked better on semi-gloss paper, but I didn’t want to risk it. In the end we were both pleased with the do-over card, and I’m thankful for website discounts that made the hit of a new order a little softer.

Flat Bread
My second goof up was with our bread maker. We don’t use it very often, though it does make tasty bread and is fairly simple to use…or so I thought. I put in all the ingredients for a three-cheese bread and punched in all the settings. But when it started I knew something was wrong based on it saying there was 1:45 left to go. Most loaves take around 3 hours to go through the full process.

Turns out I had put in the settings wrong and it was making just the dough without as many kneading/rising cycles as the recipe required. And of course without the cooking part. When it was done, I happened to be on the phone with my friend Lisa, and asked her advice. She said let it sit and see if it will rise. After about an hour and a half, with dinner growing later and later, I decided to shift gears.

I ended up rolling out the dough and following instructions for focaccia bread. I topped it with some chimichurri and shredded cheese, then put it in the oven hoping for the best. In the end, it was a great accompaniment to a simple tomato soup.

 

The next night we took the other half of the dough and baked it up as a small loaf. It didn’t rise much more while cooking, but still it was tasty. We sliced into it before I thought to get a photo, but here’s what was left:

 

For perspective, the dimensions of that dish are roughly 6” x 4.5”, as I said, it was a mini loaf.

 

While these weren’t huge issues in the grand scheme of things, they were good reminders not to sweat it when you have a mishap.

And just for kicks, here’s a couple of shots of a dinner that did not go wrong at all…last Saturday’s lasagna. The only do overs here were in the form of leftovers for a couple of days, with more to go in the freezer to enjoy another time!

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New Christmas Ornament Tradition

Jeff & I like to travel, and this year was no exception. I thought it would be fun to incorporate our trips into our Christmas tree by finding ornaments that reflect the places we’ve been and other memories from our year.

We’ll go buy a tree from a local lot that supports our neighborhood’s middle school this weekend. Here are the new additions that we’ll hang this year:

Santa on Skis
We already have a few ornaments that are skiing-related, we did meet on a ski trip, after all. While neither of us does any extreme skiing as Santa is doing here, I thought it would be a fun addition to the collection. In 2011 we took ski trips to Val Gardena, Italy, Big Sky, Montana and Valle Nevado, Chile. Valle Nevado will always hold a special place for us since that is where we met.

While in Italy we got a carved wood Nativity set, which will be another nice addition to our Christmas traditions.

We’re both Braves fans, and this year it was a fun ride, until a major late-season collapse. Such is the way for Braves fans. We took a couple of road trips to support the home team this year. First we went to Washington, DC to catch two games against the Nationals. The first game was notable with a hail delay in the early innings. They lost the first game & won the second.

Next we went out to San Francisco to watch the Braves take on the defending World Series champion Giants. We were definitely in the minority with our Braves gear on, to the point that one Giants fan even commented to Jeff about his, uh, courage showing up to root for the opposition. It was a full house, and a fairly quiet one at that. I recall being especially thankful that in Atlanta we have the fabulous & creative Braves organist to keep the crowd involved in the game. The Braves beat the Giants that night, so we went away happy.

We also saw a few games in Atlanta this year, StubHub has become our go-to source for good seats.

In May we spent an extended long weekend in St. Lucia, thanks to a great last-minute discount through Sandals resorts. We are not sit-on-the-beach-all-day people (well I’m definitely not any more) so we took advantage of some of the other resort amenities. They had a few small sailboats you could take out. I grew up on the water, and both of us had done some sailing many, many years ago. Though after a quick lesson we were ready to go again. It was lots of fun and we ended up sailing almost every day of the trip.

I documented our battle with some raccoons who invaded our attic here, and when I saw this ornament I knew we had to have it to commemorate that adventure. We hope in the future when we put this ornament on the tree that experience will remain a distant memory.

I think the ornament looks most like Three from his expression.

In October we took our first-ever cruise.

Our itinerary took us from Barcelona through the French Riviera and down the coast of Italy. Visiting a new port every day we often imagined a life of retirement on the Mediterranean. It was a fabulous time & we’re hoping to plan another cruise for 2012.

I can remember decorating the Christmas tree growing up and taking a trip down memory lane through the ornaments and other decorations. It will be fun to do the same with our own tree in years to come.

I owe special thanks to my Mother who started another family tradition a few years ago by sending me & my siblings a fresh wreath for the holidays. Ours arrived two days ago and served as the backdrop for these photos.

What are your favorite, family holiday traditions?

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Don’t Buy This Jacket

In the midst of all the store flyers advertising Black Friday deals, I saw this ad in the New York Times from Patagonia.  I loved the message, what a refreshing approach to the mass consumerism of the day.

With the catchy headline, Patagonia aimed to draw attention to the deeper message – the impact that manufacturing has on our environment. But what struck me more was their approach. The ad outlined the harm that the making of just one jacket has, and in specific terms that don’t take an engineering degree to understand. For example, the jacket requires 135 liters of water in the manufacturing process, that’s enough water, in their estimate, for 45 people for one day.

What’s unusual about this approach, in my experience, is the transparency about one specific product and its impact. It seems many more companies communicate their environmental successes by talking about what they have left out of the process, or what was theoretically saved by using less-intrusive raw materials or methods. That approach might give some consumers a false sense of environmental security – this product uses less material or less energy to produce, therefore it’s better. Which may not always be the case.

Some consumers might read the Patagonia ad in a negative way. Sure, there’s a bit of a guilt trip there, especially compared to the feeding-frenzy mentality of Black Friday sales. Full disclosure, my household was not immune to Black Friday either, Jeff did take advantage of a one-day sale on my Christmas gift (purchased online). I didn’t go anywhere near a shopping center, not to make a statement, it’s just not my thing to line up with hundreds of other people to save a few bucks. Though once I lined up in the middle of the night to buy R.E.M. concert tickets. That was back in the late 1980s, and well worth it, we got great seats!

Patagonia included a call to action in the ad, asking people to take the Common Threads Initiative pledge. The pledge asks for action on both sides, for example they pledge to make useful gear that lasts a long time, and to repair gear or find a new home for it when a consumer no longer needs it. Consumers pledge to only buy what they need, to fix what’s broken, and to keep items out of the landfill. Their goal is to get 50,000 people to sign the pledge, and they are tracking results online. It will be interesting to follow this Initiative to see if it gains traction. Kudos to Patagonia for asking for mutual responsibility in the effort.

In today’s environmental, and economic, climate, I hope their message was as impactful to others as it was to me.

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Marketing 2020: Shifting the balance between consumers & brands

Earlier this week I attended AMA Atlanta’s Signature Luncheon, where a panel of experts discussed the chapter’s white paper on the future of marketing: 20/20 in 2020: Toward a New Vision in Marketing. Moderated by Dr. Ken Bernhardt from Georgia State University, the panel included marketing pros from Chick-fil-a, The Coca-Cola Company, Cox Communications, Engauge and Google. You can read the full white paper here, summaries from AMA Atlanta President Jo Ann Herold here and Dr. Bernhardt here. I’ll give you a few highlights of what the panel covered.

Personalize it! There is a power shift happening from marketers to consumers. Consumers want personalized messages and want brands to make it easier for them to participate with the brand. They also want to have the same experience in social marketing as they do in person, say in a retail or foodservice environment. This requires faster engagement at all touch points. For example, if a customer has a negative experience and reaches out to the company via social media, the brand needs to respond in minutes or hours, not in days. A fast, authentic response can help salvage a bad experience.

It was noted that while it’s important to listen to your consumers to direct your marketing messages, it’s even more important to know your brand and align messaging accordingly. In other words, don’t let a few consumers re-define your brand to the extent that you stray too far from what your brand represents to the masses.

Be flexible. The future will require that marketers are flexible and can learn and adapt quickly. While 2020 is just a short eight years away, look at the last eight years and how rapidly brand marketing has changed. The emergence of social media, as well as technology (most notably mobile applications), has caused this shift. The 2020 consumers with spending power will have grown up with this technology, literally in hand.

The panelists commented that marketing has long been about research and planning. Looking at mounds of consumer data, then creating a five or 10-year strategic plan is becoming the way of the past for smart brands. Of course marketers will continue to crunch data and plan accordingly, only in the future it will be on a shorter timeframe. Often that data will come directly from consumers’ engagement with the brand, not necessarily from traditional market research. The panelist from Google noted they don’t typically plan more than 18 months out, because the marketplace is shifting that quickly. If you plan too far out in advance, what will you miss because you aren’t in position to shift gears? Know that along the way, missteps are bound to happen, but what’s important is how quickly you can recover and change direction.

Hit the target. Permission-based marketing continues to evolve. Consumers will continue to be more in control of the messages they get from brands, and they seem to be willing to give up some privacy in order to interact with a brand – for example by checking in with location-based applications, or using brand loyalty programs, to have a more targeted experience. Therefore those messages need to be more relevant. The challenge is to be able to maintain successful mass-marketing programs within that desire for a one-to-one relationship with your brand.

Get the skills. New skill sets will be required for marketers. One panelist noted that it will be vital to not just know marketing, but to know the technology behind it. Some brands will create their own platforms for engaging customers. Others will rely on those common resources that emerge in the marketplace, such as Facebook and Twitter today. In either case, marketers will need a grasp of what makes those applications most effective for customer engagement, not simply the messaging the brand pushes out. The panelists also agreed that the field of marketing is changing so rapidly it’s a challenge to predict what a brand marketer will look like in 2020. Looks like those still in the field then will be those who were able to adapt their own skills while keeping their brands on pace with the changes customers will demand.

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Avoid sticky situations that could damage your brand.

This week I attended the BlogWell Atlanta conference, put on by SocialMedia.org. The conference had a great format, quick-hit case studies from Atlanta-centric corporations on their social media efforts. My favorite was from The Home Depot, describing an online community they built with employee bloggers who are true subject matter experts. Next time I have a DIY project to take on, I’m going to pose a question to the experts and await their reply.

What struck me about The Home Depot’s effort was first, the authentic voice that comes across when you empower employees to share what they do in the stores with an online community. These aren’t PR and marketing people writing for the site, they are seasoned associates with specific expertise, who still work in the stores, and are in the online community to engage customers in another format. The second takeaway, for me, was the trust the company puts in these experts. They are free to direct the subject matter and there aren’t layers of approvals required that could slow down response time or take away the unique voice of each expert.

The conference also included a general session about ethics. The speaker emphasized that social media ethics is a matter of law, not opinion. The FTC has dictated certain guidelines, including:
• Require disclosure and truthfulness in social media outreach.
• Monitor conversations and attempt to correct misstatements.
• Create social media policies and employee training programs.

The bottom line is that companies, and individual bloggers, must be authentic in their voice and transparent about anything that might be seen as un-ethical. For example, if you are paid to review a product, you should disclose it. If you are a company and are recruiting, and paying, people to speak on your behalf, you should expose it. If you see false information about your company online, you should attempt to clarify it to the best extent possible. Of course, not every company will see every mention, but at the very least in company-sponsored sites or where the company has fuller engagement, the conversation should be monitored. The minimum standard on social media messaging should be: Is it apparent to the average reader that a message is marketing, not an authentic customer commentary?

The other element to social media ethics is communicating to employees about the rules. The biggest risk is that employees don’t know that what they’re doing might be wrong. This thinking also applies to any agencies a company may hire to implement a communications plan. There are increasingly more examples of social media gone wrong. Sometimes it’s because a campaign came across as offensive, sometimes it’s because an individual posts an inappropriate message that goes viral and damages a company’s reputation.

SocialMedia.org has a handy toolkit online that can be helpful to companies trying to establish, or clarify, social media policies and employee training.

The speaker concluded with this message: If you have to ask if something is wrong, don’t do it. I had a grad school professor at UGA who often said: the four most important words a public relations professional can say are: “Hey, wait a minute!” That advice, learned more than 20 years ago, is just as relevant today.

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A 10-day Cruise in 300 Words or Less

Oceania's Nautica anchored off Portofino, Italy

We quickly got into vacation mode on our recent Mediterranean cruise on Oceania’s Nautica, so the blog suffered from a bit of neglect. And now, how to boil down a fabulous 10 days in just a few words & pictures? Nearly impossible.

While I do plan to re-create some of the memories in future posts, here are a few highlights:

Palma de Mallorca Cathedral at sunrise

Valledemossa

We had a private tour of Mallorca with two other couples that we ‘met’ online via the web forum Cruise Critic. This was our shortest day in a port but one of our favorite days of the whole trip.

Our guide, Miguel, took us to the Bellver Castle, to a lovely village in the hills called Valledemossa, and to the magnificent Palma de Mallorca Cathedral. Comparing notes with other travelers we definitely saw much more than others were able to see in the short time in port.

The Casino in Monte Carlo, we didn't test our luck.

St. Tropez and Monaco were stunning, as we expected. Definitely fun to dream about what it might be like to live a carefree life on the French Riviera!

Not too surprising, this yacht entering the Monaco harbor is named "My Trust Fund."

But along with those dare-to-dream spots, we also visited charming places like Portofino and Sorrento where it’s more realistic to see yourself and your life there…someday.

Our cruise ended in Rome where we had a whirlwind tour of the major sites one day, followed by a visit to the Vatican Museums & St. Peter’s Basilica our last day. We were definitely tired out and toured out by then. Jeff called it the trip of a lifetime. I said I’m not ready to commit to that, as I know we’ll have another adventure just as fabulous before too long!

Portofino, Italy, I could see myself living here...someday.

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