Thursday, January 31, 2008

Better late than. . .

Here's a bit of video footage I shot on New Year's Eve at Gracie's in Providence. They kindly let me come and take some photos and shoot a little video. I just hope you enjoy watching it half as much as I enjoyed shooting it! Oh, and a little music from Louis Armstrong never hurt!

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Don Soper turned 98 yesterday

Tuesday, January 29, Dad turned 98 years young.

He was born on a small farm near the tiny central Illinois town of Milmine. As a young boy his parents moved the family, dad and his older brother Carroll, into nearby Bement, the Piatt County seat, where they operated a restaurant for a time.

But money was also in short supply and at an early age dad learned to appreciate the connection between hard work and making money. While he never made much of the latter, he spent the next 70 years or more working hard for it nonetheless. He was, as an Irishman was heard to say once, "blessed with work."

After graduating from Bement High School in 1928 (that's his senior picture above) he enrolled in Brown Business College in Decatur, and in fact would spend much of his life in Decatur. Dad spent his life selling, mostly food: potato chips, cookies, he loved selling, he loved spending time with people, telling jokes, and just laughing about life.

He was married three times, but, as they say, the third time's a charm, and his last wife, Helen, was his best friend and loving companion for nearly forty years. She passed away in September of 1994.

After he stopped work, sometime in his 80s as I recall, he turned to spending his time volunteering for local Decatur organizations such as the Golden K (retired Kiwanis). He truly enjoyed his time as a tutor at Futures Unlimited, and continued to tutor until just before his death in 2004.

Happy Birthday Pop!


Don and Steve

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Not a word from anyone about dad

So as you might have guessed, not a word from anyone at the Anatomical Gift Association or Rush Medical College in Chicago about our dad; about where he is or whether the body they first claimed to be him is in fact dad.

Not one word.

It has gotten to the point where I have started a blog to track the "progress" of this particular tiny slice of our family's predicament. You can keep abreast of this story by following this link, or cut and paste this address in your browser window:

Just bookmark it and check back every couple of days or so.

In the meantime life, as the clichemongers say, goes on -- and so do we.

My brother Don continues to find happiness among the warm almond groves of Fresno, while Susie and I tackle the challenges of resettling in Providence, amidst a mild and pleasing winter along the ocean (sort of).

Susie continues to plunge ahead with making desserts for Gracie's. In fact, her name was in the paper Wednesday, 23 January, along with Chef Joe Hafner. They will be teaching a tart workshop in February and there was a small blurb about it in the Providence Journal -- Susie listed as "Pastry Chef" of Gracie's. That woman continues to amaze and astound me.

Yesterday, Wednesday, after she left Gracie's Susie and I met up at Pastiche, a pastry cafe located on Spruce street, just behind Atwell's avenue on Federal Hill. If you ever get to this small corner of Rhode Island, Pastiche is a place to come for a delicious cup of coffee and a heavenly bit of dessert. (In fact they are open until 11 pm virtually every night for that express purpose.) Service is smart, the food is wonderful, made fresh right on the premises and handsomely prepared.

As for me I'm still waiting to hear back about the web communication editor position. In the meantime I've been asked to do some freelance food photography, so I had to take the plunge and buy a new camera setup -- as you may recall my Nikon DSLR system was lifted from me somewhere along the line in our move from Paris last spring.

And of course we continue to downsize our space through the wonders of cyberspace as defined by eBay and Amazon -- and occasionally Craigslist. That Craig, what a guy!

Wish you were here!


Thursday, January 17, 2008

Donald W. Soper, 1910 to 2004, MIA

OK, so you've read the details of Don Soper's traveling medicine show in my previous entry. While pondering the fate of my father, who, by the way turns, 98 this January 29, here's a little something to think about:

I want my dad back

In November of 2004 my father passed away after a short illness. Even in death, my dad, a productive servant of his community, the consummate volunteer, sought to continue that spirit of giving and donated his body to science.

Specifically, my father donated his body to the Anatomical Gift Association of Illinois, located in Chicago. The AGAIL serves as a clearinghouse for a number of medical schools and research facilities, many in the Chicagoland area.

The way it works is like this: after the medical school is finished with a body, which is usually about two years according to the AGAIL, they have it cremated and return the "cremains" to the AGAIL who then in turn passes them back to the family.


Well, not quite.

Beginning in the fall of 2006, while we were living in Paris, I first contacted Brintlinger's funeral home in Decatur. They handled his memorial service as well as arranging for transporting him to the AGAIL in Chicago. No, they told me, they had no information on my dad but gave me the contact information for the people in Chicago, the AGAIL. I called the AGAIL and was informed that it was usually about two years before a body was released from the medical school and since my dad was handed over to Rush Medical College in the spring of 2005, it would be another half dozen months or so before his remains would be returned.

OK. Fine. Spring of 2007 came and went along with the summer, and no word from either the school or AGAIL.

So beginning in the fall of 2007 I started calling AGAIL in hopes of eliciting information regarding the status of my dad's remains. (photo below: Dad's 1928 high school graduation, Bement, Illinois.)

For several months I called and called and called. Each time I called I received the same promise from the staff that they would pursue this issue and try to find out what had become of my dad. And each time they promised to contact me. Did they call? Not once. Each time I had to call back since no one ever made an effort to call me back.

The last straw came during the week of January 7.

Shortly after the New Year I contacted AGAIL and spoke to the Executive Director, Mr. Paul Dudek. He informed me that since the medical school was closed for the holiday he would get in touch with Dr. James Williams at Rush Medical College on January 7, when they reopened for the next term. Dr. Williams, I was informed, handled these matters. Mr. Dudek said he would then contact me and inform me of the status of my father.

January 7 came and went. So did January 8 and January 9, and still no word from Chicago.

Once again I had to call AGAIL. On Thursday, January 10 I spoke with Mr. Dudek who explained that he was indeed sorry, but that he still had not heard anything from the school. But, not to worry, he would "call the school at once and call me right back."

You guessed it.

I never heard from him again.

It is now January 17 and still no word about my dad. Even more appalling is that no one besides his family seems to care.

In fact, it would appear that Rush Medical School has forgotten a cardinal rule of medical training: teaching physicians and medical personnel to be caring and compassionate for their patients and families.

Where is the compassion here? Where is the caring medical staff here?

I want my dad back.

Mid-January and an MIA

Well it's the middle of January here in Providence -- and probably where you live too.

The weather has been a bit goofy here lately. We had a gorgeous Sunday, then a fast moving, very serious snowstorm blow through on Monday, hammering most of New England. Folks living just inland maybe thirty minutes’ drive from us got about a foot of snow, we got about two to three inches of heavy wet snow. You know the kind, where one pound of snow contains an additional two pounds of water. That stuff.

Anyway, Tuesday brought us another beautiful day and we've pretty much stayed that way through the week. The temperatures rose and fell like the waves of a sea in a gale storm but without the drama. (photo above: looking up Westminster street toward downtown; below: our parking lot; bet you never saw one of those before, eh?)

It's sometimes hard to believe that we have only been in this home two months. It seems like a year since we've moved to Providence. But we've been feeling that way about time and space for quite some, uh, time now. Strange.

Susie continues to settle in at Gracie's restaurant here in Providence. She is still finding her flow at the restaurant and everyone there is very supportive and keen to help her become one of the team. They had their annual Christmas dinner this past Monday at Chez Pascal's (incredible coincidence, eh?) on Hope Street on the East side. Sadly it was for staff only. But brother-in-law Carl was in the area staying with us, and so he and I had Latino food at a restaurant just two doors down from our condo. Needless to say Susie's dinner was quite a bit different from our beans, rice and fajitas. (I've included a photo of the menu from her dinner.)
Fortunately for me Susie continues to try out new recipes at home. New items like a scrumptious Pear-Grapefruit-Pistachio tart. (See the photo below.) Did I say "Grapefruit"? You bet, and it works surprisingly well with the other flavors. In fact, it was so good that she made it again.

Whether it will find it's way onto Gracie's menu remains to be seen since she has already helped to make several key changes there: the addition of a chocolate tart, a passion fruit-raspberry bouche and macaroons with the coffee.

I had my first interview for the position of web communication editor at one of the local colleges last Friday. It went very well and if nothing else I came away feeling that I've certainly learned a lot surfing the web for so many years. Anyway, I'm keeping my fingers crossed that I'll get a callback for an onsite interview sometime in the next week or so. I'll keep you posted.

In the meantime I'm working on cleaning house by selling lots of our stuff on eBay, Amazon and Craigslist. We couldn't believe how much stuff we had in storage. But thanks to the wonders of technology we can move some of our "stuff" from our space into someone else's space. Then I suppose, in a few years' time they will decide enough is enough and repeat the process all over again, moving that same stuff somewhere else. All-in-all, a strangely effective process.

And speaking of strange, it appears that my father is missing.

Now some of you know that my father passed away in 2004. What you might not have known is that he donated his body to science and science apparently cannot find him.

But more of that in my next posting.

Until then, stay warm, keep cool and as always,

Wish you were here,


Wednesday, January 02, 2008

New Year's Eve at Gracie's

Normally Susan doesn't work evenings at the restaurant -- but New Year's was special. The restaurant had two seatings for dinner at 6 pm and 9 pm and so they needed Susan on hand to finish and then plate (some 120 plates or so) her "trio" of desserts: a chocolate ganache tart topped with a little gold leaf and fleur de sel, brioche pear caramel bread pudding with a little scoop of sour cream gelato, and a passion cream raspberry terrine (assembled in a buche mold) sliced and coated with crumble (a crunchy cookie like flour-butter-powdered sugar combo).

She had spent much of the last few days of 2007 preparing for this event and so by the time December 31 rolled around she was pretty much on top of things.

I dropped Susie off at the restaurant at about 7 or so in the morning. A little before noon Dick and Dorothy drove down from Douglas and the three of us then packed into our Mini and headed into town to snatch Susan away from the restaurant and give her a much-needed break for lunch.

We found a place to park right in front of the restaurant -- the city was starting to fill up as folks jockeyed for positioning themselves for the evening and late night festivities. Anyway the four of us walked around the corner to the Trinity Brewhouse, a noisy, packed pub where we had delicious burgers, freshly made beer (no bottled stuff here -- Mannie take note!) and some of the best service we've ever experienced in a restaurant. Our server, a slip of a girl with blueish-green-tinged hair, was genuinely friendly, helpful and reminded me ever so much of the barmaid at the wonderful pub Susan and I had lunch with Richard and Pauline, just outside of Coventry, England.

After lunch the four of us squeezed into the Mini and drove back to the apartment. We said au revoir to Dick and Dorothy and after Susie took a shower and changed clothes, I drove her back into town. The plan was for me to come into Gracie's later that night and spend the evening with Susie.

Which is exactly what happened.

A little before nine, after the first seating had come and gone, I drove into town, dropped the car off with the valet parking attendant and walked inside Gracie's. The restaurant was packed, with lots of laughter and you could just feel the fun emanating from every corner of the place. Most of the staff -- at least the front of the house folks -- were dressed in 1970s attire (last year it was 1920s garb I was told), and some of the girls struggled with those huge and unwieldy go-go boots!

My station was pretty much keeping out of the way, although I did get a chance to help Susie and Matt plate desserts later on. And speaking of Matt, one of the prep cooks, here's a little bit of restaurant etiquette that the average diner sees rarely if at all in restaurant staff: an uncanny ability to sense when someone needs help and the genuine willingness to provide that help immediately. I watched it percolate among the servers and could see it most clearly when Matt came downstairs -- all the cheese plates and dessert plates were being laid out in the lower level banquet room -- and dove right in, helping Susan with her work flow. And when it came time to start passing out the dessert plates, a few minutes before midnight, everyone pretty much pitched in and helped do just that.

I've put some photos online that I hope will give you a small idea of what the energy in the kitchen was like, and will be putting a short video on very soon as well. (Click here to see the photos!) It's really quite astonishing how the system works. Feeding 120 or 140 people in a span of six hours, providing them with the space, the comfort of a relaxed atmosphere and then giving them outstanding food and wine is a real skill to be sure but it is more than that I think: it is an art.

Anyway, we all shared in some wonderful sparkling wine (from Italy thank you very much) and there was plenty of food leftover for the staff to enjoy a New Year's feast.

From Miss Ellen and Joe Hafner to the servers, bartenders, sommelier, line cooks, prep cooks, dishwasher, everyone in fact at Gracie's are consummate artists. I say that not as the husband of someone who works there. That's too obvious. I say that as someone who watched this process from a small corner of the kitchen. Patrick's right: it is a ballet.

Wish you had been there!


Tuesday, January 01, 2008

One door closes. . .

The following folks have seen fit to leave us behind during 2007, and I'm wondering what all the fuss was about. In some cases, it was certainly warranted. In others, well, I'm not so sure. Anyway, you decide:

Lady Bird Johnson
Boris Yeltsin
Norman Mailer
David Halberstam
Kurt Vonnegut
Mstislav Rostropovich
Beverly Sills
Luciano Pavarotti
Jerry Falwell
Tammy Faye (Bakker) Messner
Art Buchwald
Molly Ivins
E, Howard Hunt
Rev. Robert Drinan
Thomas Eagleton
Ernest Gallo
Betty Hutton (not Betty Hutton!)
Jack Valenti
Michael Brecker
Wally Schirra
Ike Turner
Dan Fogelberg
Evel Knievel
Robert Goulet
Marcel Marceau
Jane Wyman
Grace Paley
Leona Helmsley
Brooke Astor
Merv Griffin
Tom Snyder
Liz Claiborne
Tige Andrews
Michelangelo Antonioni (I still don't understand his movies)
Ingmar Bergman (nope, I don't get his either)
Joey Bishop (not Joey Bishop!)
Janet Blair
Lorraine Day
Teresa Brewer
Roscoe Lee Browne
Porter Wagoner
Ron Carey
Yvonne de Carlo (Moses' girlfriend and Herman Munster's wife - whoa!)
Deborah Kerr (was she beautiful or what?)
Richard Jeni (one funny guy)
Don Ho
Mr. Wizard (Don Herbert)
Kitty Carlisle
George Grizzard
Laszlo Kovacs
Madeleine L'Engle
Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell)
Charles Nelson Reilly
Tom Poston
Carlo Ponti
Oscar Peterson
Tommy Newsom
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.
Sidney Sheldon
Joel Siegel

Whew, that's a lot of cultural history shuffling on this mortal coil, eh?

So, what door will open for you this brand-new year? We ask ourselves that each and every day.

Wish you the best and happiest of New Years!

Steve and Susie, living the sweet life in Providence.