Sunday, May 3, 2015

Best things I read last month: April


Ya gotta read a lot if you want to write a little. Here are some of the best things I read this last month*:
*You might remember this as a formerly sometimes weekly post. I'm trying out a monthly version instead now. Let me know what you think!
"David Whyte on the True Meaning of Friendship, Love, and Heartbreak"
from Brain Pickings (@brainpicker)

"Nonviolence as Compliance"
from Ta-Nehisi Coates (@tanehisicoates) in The Atlantic (@theatlantic)

Also a great read about what's going on in Baltimore, "How Western media would cover Baltimore if it happened elsewhere."
from Karen Attiah (@KarenAttiah) in the Washington Post (@washingtonpost)

In "No Kids for Me, Thanks," Teddy Wayne quotes the editor of an anthology of stories from the childless-by-choice, Meghan Daum, as saying "The fact is, everybody is selfish. It's like saying, 'You breathe.'" 
from The New York Times (@nytimes)

Data is my favorite. Robinson Meyer takes a look at emoji use across the world in "Canada Loves the Poop Emoji." 
from The Atlantic (@theatlantic)

Chances are you'll either think this is sweet or terrifying or both, but regardless, it's also interesting. Make it through (or skip) the super-cat-lady intro of "Learning to speak the language of cats: How they’re actually telling humans what to do" for an interview based in research and science.
from Salon (@salon)

I learned that April 30 was National Poem-in-Your-Pocket Day, thanks to a display, pictured below, outside a grocery store from a local elementary school. I unrolled a scroll of paper to find E. E. Cumming's "maggie and milly and molly and may." National Poetry Month may be over, but don't let that stop you from reading some.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Cativersary: a year with a cat

I got a cat because of science and my friends.

My friends with cats, after seeing me interact with theirs and my delight at photos and videos, were the first who got me thinking about adopting one. With that seed planted, true to form, I did a lot of research on, well, how to have a pet.

In doing that, I read a lot of articles about studies that found numerous benefits of having pets or specifically cats. The science said a cat would improve my health and lower stress levels, and who am I to argue with science?

I read it and believed it, but having never had a pet, I didn't really know what to expect.

Friday, April 3, 2015

The luxury of... reading a book.

I don't really read books.

Don't misunderstand, I read a lot, but mostly in the form of news articles, blogs, essays and other things online. But sitting down to read a book? A whole book? I'm honestly impressed with myself if I finish two or three in a year.

Never mind that when I do finish a book, most of the time it's non-fiction, my favorite being the kinds of books that get hyper-focused on one topic or item. Reading a fiction story, as much as I enjoy it, just doesn't happen that often.

It boils down to how I need to, want to and feel I should be using my time. Reading a book feels like a luxury, and one I can't always afford.

The benefits of reading fiction are numerous: increased emotional intelligence and empathy, reduces stress, improves vocabulary and writing skills. And yet, it falls low on my list of things I feel like I should/have to/get to do. I feel guilty reading a book instead of cleaning something, cooking something, making something, learning something, writing something, doing something. I feel selfish because I feel like reading a book, unlike reading a news article or sharing a blog, doesn't feel like it explicitly serves a greater benefit than my own.

Yes, this drawing was re-purposed from a previous blog post

A couple weeks ago, I did a little purge of my bookshelf (management books I'll never read from my days in executive education, five-year-old internet marketing books that are surely outdated, weightloss cookbooks I really don't care about anymore, empty journals I've had for years in which I will never write), and popped open my copy of 1,000 Places to See Before You Die to see what, if anything, it had to say about Monterey, Calif., for an intended short trip. Monterey is indeed a place to see before you die, and the two page spread detailed the aquarium, Clint Eastwood's ties, and included a reference to John Steinbeck's time there and his novel Cannery Row.

Cannery Row. I read the words and remembered picking up a copy in a discount book store in Berkeley with a friend (probably the person I know who reads the most books, and definitely the person who took me to get my library card when I moved here) who said she thought I'd really like it. I liked The Pearl and Of Mice and Men, and the book was short and cheap, so I bought it.

For someone who doesn't find the time to read books, I sure do buy a lot of them.

That Saturday night, I drew a bath and started reading. Somehow the water was still pleasant after an hour, and I had made it through a good chunk of the book. On Sunday, I picked up a croissant at the bakery around the corner and a cup of coffee, and sat down with the book for a bit longer, passing 100 of it's 196 pages. I set the book down to get to work on my weekend chores, and at one point thought to myself, "if I put away these boxes and take out this recycling and vacuum that carpet, then I can sit on the couch in the sunshine with my book and really enjoy myself." What motivation this turned out to be. Less than an hour later I was able to relish reading by the sunlight coming through my window, knocking out 50 or 60 more pages with a cat curled up next to my leg.

Monday morning I returned from a morning walk with 10 minutes to spare before I had to start getting ready for the day, so I read a few more pages. I came home from work, made dinner (it was a bowl of cereal), ate dinner, and suddenly had a cat in my lap and was ready to read more. I finished Cannery Row, and re-read the first paragraph. I was sad the book was over.

Every time I sat down to read, it felt like I was giving myself a present, a treat. This is what I mean when I describe the luxury of reading. Books are gifts and treats. They are nourishing, educating and enriching.

I think I'll read another.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

An ode to Daylight Saving Time

Anticipation: 
one lost hour promises more. 
Daylight Saving Time.

On the first morning of Daylight Saving Time, when we turn our clocks forward one hour, I wake up in the dark, start my chores and tasks for the day with less time than my body's clock feels I have, perhaps on less sleep than I would have liked.

The first morning of Daylight Saving Time is not Daylight Saving Time’s best side. Usually.


This year, for the first time, I experienced an immediate merit to Daylight Saving Time this first morning. I woke up to a cat walking over me and pawing at my covers, like she does every morning an hour before her breakfast time, begging for pets and adoration and, perhaps if she is annoying enough, early breakfast. Only this morning, thanks to Daylight Saving Time, this begging didn’t start until.... her breakfast time. Cats don’t know we have sprung forward.

The sun will set tonight at 7:09pm where I live. The hour I lost this morning will pay itself back with many hours gained in extra sunshine when I leave work, sunshine in which to play or be productive or enjoy my home. I am always more productive during the daylight. My home always looks better in the daylight.

I know that tomorrow, Monday morning, when I take my morning walk it will be a little darker than my morning walks last week. Dark enough, perhaps, to discretely pick an excess lemon hanging over the sidewalk for my kitchen, or to pluck a stalk of lavender or a freesia to perfume my bathroom.

The first day of Daylight Saving Time is a lesson in delayed gratification, lush with anticipation. If we can be optimistic, wipe the sleep from our eyes those first few mornings and be just a little patient, we know that this one shortened day promises many longer days. It promises spring blossoms, the imminent summer and everything it means to each of us. It promises much to anticipate, with only a short wait.

Wait.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Best things I read this week, March 1-7


Ya gotta read a lot if you want to write a little. Here are some of the best things I read this past week:
"This is an Essay About a Fat Woman Being Loved and Getting Laid"
by Sarah Hollowell (@sarahhollowell) on The Toast (@TheToast)

That's it for this week. That's how much I loved this essay. It's everything. When I first read this Tuesday morning, I actually felt upset that I had read it at work and not at home: I wanted to jump up, yell, exclaim, scream. I wanted to dance and shake and feel the energy this brought up within me shoot out of my finger tips embodied in sparks. 

This essay deals with fat bodies and sex; I hope neither offends you but I really don't want to hear it if it does. Sarah Hollowell speaks honestly and bravely about her body, fighting the pervasive propaganda she cites in her essay. She acknowledges her desirability. In writing and sharing this, she acknowledges mine. 

All this is to say that I can't say enough how much I loved reading this and wish everyone could and would read it too. The least I could do it give it the spotlight here that it deserves. 

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Zen and the art of cheese making

Full disclosure: I haven’t read the popular book I’m borrowing this title from. But it’s an appropriate (and catchy!) description of my experience last month at the Institute of Urban Homesteading’s cheese making intensive.

For a day and a half on an unseasonably sunny January weekend, I joined seven other amateur cheese enthusiasts at a home in North Oakland. I sat in the living room as people arrived and got settled, waiting for Ruby, our instructor and the founder of the Institute of Urban Homesteading in Oakland, to get the cheese making intensive and our mini-learning community started.

The stairs up to Ruby’s home are tiled with mosaics calling for happy thoughts and positive intention for each of the dozen or so steps. The best way to describe Ruby’s home, even before really meeting her, is that it’s clearly personal. There are shelves and shelves of books, and art everywhere. When I find out later that Ruby is an artist, I wonder which pieces are hers. I walk through two rooms to get to the kitchen, which is bright, brighter than the rest of this floor, both because of the sunlight and it’s light colors and hard surfaces in contrast to the soft textures of different fabrics throughout the living areas. Ruby is warm and friendly, and no-nonsense. As I enter she is explaining to another student why the milk she brought won’t work for the class. The student apologizes repeatedly and Ruby assures her she doesn’t need to feel bad, but also tells her where to go later to get the kind of milk we need. Ruby is unapologetic in her correction. I like Ruby, and I like being in her home.

Once everyone had arrived, we introduced ourselves: my name is Bettina, I live not far from here in Oakland, and a special thing about cheese and me is that last spring I got to do a cheese assembly demo at Harley Farms in Pescadero. People shared their experiences growing up with goats, failed attempts at making ricotta cheese and love for cheese in general.


---

I’m glad we weren’t asked why we were taking the class during these introductions. I am terrible at lying, and, even knowing it might make people uncomfortable, would have probably awkwardly told the truth: I needed a distraction this particular weekend. Without something to do, I would have most likely sat at home thinking about things I didn’t want to think about and being sad. That said, it makes me pretty anxious to put myself in new situations with new people, so I tried to find a friend to attend the class with me, to no avail. I finally signed up only a few days before the class, alone. Once I had registered and paid, I immediately felt a little relief. I had taken a slightly scary step, and one that, once I made the commitment (i.e., the non-refundable fee), I knew would make me happier for that weekend even if the anxiety of a new situation made me uncomfortable in the moment.

---

The first pots of milk were waiting for us when we filed into the kitchen. Ruby told us we were going to jump into our first two projects with little information, and that we needed to trust her when she promised she’d explain once we got started.

Ruby more than kept her promise about explaining things. Every lesson built on the last, by design no doubt. One of those pots became yogurt (some of which became yogurt cheese), and the other was the start of a batch of feta. Ruby explained cultures by making us think about the Greek roots of the words, and followed the etymology and science with simple explanations for remembering their applications. We made ricotta. Ricotta is one of my favorite cheeses. We talked about equipment and resources and dos and don’ts and what were really dos and dont’s. We ate. We cleaned. We split into groups to make mozzarella and queso fresco, and looked around Ruby’s “mini farm” of rabbits and bantam hens while we had short breaks to let the curds sit. We watched, cheered and helped each other. Ruby explained as we started these two projects, that even though we could each only work on one, each cheese had something special about it. There was a lot special about this class.

At the end of our first day, we all shared our reflections. The word that came to my mind was “accessible.” We spent five hours working with dairy and at the end of it, I felt confident I could go home and replicate any of those projects with ease (once I bought the just-a-couple-more pieces of equipment I needed)(note to self: you still need to buy some equipment).

Ricotta draining
Queso fresco into the press
Rabbits in Ruby's backyard

---

One of my classmates reflected on his gratitude. He talked about his gratitude for learning and his appreciation for the milk we were using, and that he was reflecting on the life cycles of the cows and the plants that provide it. I don’t usually think like this, but I leaned into this idea. Maybe not so much because I was grateful for the milk (I probably should be more grateful for the milk), but because I was grateful for what this experience was giving me.

For many, myself included, making—cheese, crafts, robots, whatever—is a very satisfying and relaxing process. Seeing something come together by the work of your own hands is satisfying. It’s a win and it’s order when other things in life might not be either.

I know people who say they don’t like to bake because they don’t like to follow the steps, and prefer the freedom that cooking gives them. Making cheese is more like baking in this regard—you have to follow the steps. I don’t mind following steps, it feels like a ritual. Completing the ritual bears rewards. I don’t have to make decisions, I just have to do. I know from the start that if I do correctly, I’ll almost always get my expected outcome. I both have and lack control. Sometimes my mind clears as I go through the motions. I think it’s the closest I come to meditating.

---

I got home a little before 6pm, exhausted. I had been skeptical when I got the pre-class email from Ruby suggesting we not make plans for the Saturday evening between sessions, due to the amount of information we’d have to digest; Ruby was of course right about that. I had sought a distraction and that was what I got. I fought to stay awake past 8pm, and succeeded only because I was watching a weird movie and texting with a pretty lady.

Sunday morning I set out 30 minutes before our meeting time with my backpack on and tennis shoes laced, to walk the 1.3 miles to class. I passed Oaklanders who greeted me, “it’s going to be a beautiful day!”

I replied, “it already is!”

Morning walks on beautiful days should not be taken for granted.

---

When we all arrived Sunday morning, Ruby told us she had started to make the brie the night before and ended up with, well, not brie; later, she told us, we would talk about what do with a “failure.” She showed us some cheese that looked like a cross between ricotta and fromage blanc—smoother than ricotta but not quite as smooth as fromage blanc. We tasted it, and noted the white mold characteristic of brie, even without the brie texture. Someone asked, “Are you going to tell us what to do with the failure?” Ruby replied, “That’s it. You eat it. It’s not brie but it’s still cheese.” Turns out that quite often when you “fail” at making a specific cheese, you still have cheese. Sometimes things don’t turn out how we plan, but that doesn’t mean they can’t turn out ok.

---

Energized from one day of learning behind me, I approached the remainder of the class with confidence and even more enthusiasm. I volunteered more—to drain the curds and flavor the yogurt cheese and wash the wine cups. I took fewer notes and instead better watched and experienced the work we were doing. I stood closer when I couldn’t see. I answered when we were quizzed on what we had learned. I had great conversations with my classmates. I went for seconds and thirds of eating straight cultured butter and didn’t care.

Each day of the intensive scheduled time for a “communal feast.” We ate some of the cheeses we had made and we brought food to share. Everyone took a role in helping to prepare the meal or clean up after it. For strangers in a new kitchen, we worked together well. One person complimented the technique another used in slicing the baguette; everyone agreed the person in charge of seasoning the ricotta with herbs and garlic did an exceptional job; people exchanged recipes for the homemade goods they brought; there was wine. After our feast on the second day, Ruby asked if we were all “feeling fat and sassy?” The top I wore that day read, “Fat and Sassy Beer.”

Seasoned ricotta
Our first feast...
...and our second

---

Cheese making is transformative. You see a chemical transformation take place right in front of you as the milk separates into curds and whey. And for me, at least for this weekend, cheese making class was transformative.

I started the class seeking a distraction and wary of the feelings I was trying to avoid by taking said class, uncomfortable and shy spending the day with people I didn’t know, and knowing so very little about the topics of cheese making and homesteading. I was out of my comfort zone on many levels. I left the class happy, re-charged. I left confident I could go home and make any of the cheeses and dairy products we had learned to make, but also knowing I’d have to work on my patience with some. I left feeling empowered that I had taken control of my emotions, even if just for a few hours on a few days. I left feeling fat and sassy and satiated and safe.

Milk...
Curds...
Cheese

Saturday, February 14, 2015