Monday, April 6, 2009

From Seeds to Cezanne

Last night my husband came in from tennis and said he’d convinced our neighbor, his doubles partner, to plant a vegetable garden on the side of the house. All I could think is: wow. My husband has gone along with most of my green efforts, especially when they include saving money, like changing to CFS light bulbs, using cloth napkins and wipes and shutting off the lights with a vengeance. But it isn’t his crusade.

In fact while we both want to grow some veggies, he’s acting out of fun while I see it as a political act, ever the poli sci major, I guess. So when I heard he’d been urging our neighbor to join us in a victory garden, I knew we were on to something.

I immediately envisioned conversations over the backyard wall, the sharing of extra basil, the sharing of extra zucchini, the sharing of a beer and a barbecue. The whole 50s thing.

Maybe this is what it’s all about. Baking bread, eating a meal with family and friends, growing something - from agriculture to cities to culture. From seeds to Cezanne.

The Economist ran an article recently, What’s Cooking, about the first of five reports from the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science where they look at the evolutionary role of cookery.

You are what you eat, or so the saying goes. But Richard Wrangham, of Harvard University, believes that this is true in a more profound sense than the one implied by the old proverb. It is not just you who are what you eat, but the entire human species. And with Homo sapiens, what makes the species unique in Dr Wrangham’s opinion is that its food is so often cooked.

Cooking is a human universal. No society is without it. No one other than a few faddists tries to survive on raw food alone. And the consumption of a cooked meal in the evening, usually in the company of family and friends, is normal in every known society. Moreover, without cooking, the human brain (which consumes 20-25% of the body’s energy) could not keep running. Dr Wrangham thus believes that cooking and humanity are coeval.

In fact, as he outlined to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), in Chicago, he thinks that cooking and other forms of preparing food are humanity’s “killer app”: the evolutionary change that underpins all of the other—and subsequent—changes that have made people such unusual animals.

So stay tuned. We’ve been tearing up our yard, planting seeds inside and laying out the plan. Our neighbor already has a plum tree. How about a bushel of plums for a basket of tomatoes? And don’t forget the beer and the hot dogs. It’s going to be a long hot summer.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

April In Paris

I am relearning my French, digging through the morass of my oldish brain for vocab learned long ago and having the best time. Can you say pure joy? Much safer than a hormone pill, less sweaty than 30 minutes at my kickboxing studio and way more sexy. Can you say Sarkhozy and Carla? I’m online listening to a jazz radio station from Belgium and watching French talking heads deliver the news. The Middle East situation is ever so much more amusant in French.

What I do for love, this pure hobby moment has no money in it, that’s for sure. Living in SoCal I’d be much better off learning Spanish from scratch than picking up wherever I left off after 9 years of French. In fact I debated for years what to do when the kids were older and I supposedly had more time. I have no time but who cares.

So what if I could actually use Hispanic rather than mes études français in my day job as publicist to the non-stars, and therefore at least get a write-off. Who cares if no one around me speaks French, except my 17 year old daughter, et seulement un peu, but who wants to speak French avec votre mere ou avec ta teenage fille? The Internet has brought all things français to my door and it’s a wonderful world we live in.

I’ve found blogs, podcasts and websites, et aussi des livres d’enfants pas trop cher from the library book sale to help get me up to speed, which could take who knows how long but who cares. My Corsican French teacher from 7th grade who played the flugelhorn, had recorded an album and gave us so much homework by winter break the parents were protesting? Or my German French teacher from 10th and 11th grade who zapped us with quizzes as punishment when we couldn’t answer her early morning grillings? Or perhaps the 12th grade American French teacher who explained her flying lessons to us completment en français and never spoke a word of English all that year. Talk about your stress headaches. Will I ever have time for that kind of immersion again?

So I make do but with as much flair as possible. With my morning café au lait I read women stylists/photographers blogs, sometimes even in French, while I sit in my jeans, struggling with my own digital efforts to eke quaintness out of photos of big box stores and strip malls. C’est dommage mais we have no pâtisseries ici.

The BBC is my new best friend because it allows me to lire, écouter et parler in incremental lessons. And j’adore all those intense French men with the narrow glasses, spiky hair and well tied scarves posed in existential angst leaning over balconies with a Galois hanging from their sensuous lips. Bien sûr I’m married but I’m a woman d’un certain âge so I can turn to fantasy when necessary.

I found a lovely photographer-watercolorist who blogs about pastries, chocolates, elegant shops and Parisians with well-tied scarves around their neck. Paris Breakfasts. It’s like a tour bus ride without the fumes.

And then there’s the French Corner, this super everything about French blog with all sorts of links. I love links. It’s where I found the Belgium jazz. I think. I need to remember to bookmark immediately or else I’m lost in the forest without a baguette-crumb trail to lead me back.

And then, on a blog from an excellent writer, La Belette Rouge, who wishes she lived and wrote in Paris, don’t we all, I found a book, Tune Up Your French, to help me learn street French and the right body language which will help me sound like the real thing. Even as I write this post I’m practicing moving my shoulders in a je ne sais quoi kind of way. I can feel my accent improving with each shrug.

After an hour of parlez-vous’ing myself into a total flow moment I have to control myself from wishing the bank tellers ‘bon jour’. I feel so connected to the world, so cosmopolitan as I run errands with a long scarf draped artfully around my neck. Okay, so I’m living in an uber-suburb. Can you say let’s pretend?

So what is the photo of a torn, well loved petit larrouse at the top of the post you ask? That’s my French dictionary from elementary school. I needed a new one, très triste, because this poor bébé crumbles a little more every time je le bouge. See below. No patina. I need to take it to a café and spill a little coffee on it to break it in.

Now, excusez-moi while I conjugate a few verbs before I run errands and throw smoldering glances at my favorite bank teller. À bientôt.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Buy Local

A few weeks ago banners went up on one of the main streets, not main as in 'filled with shops and a joy to browse through' but main as in 'long and boring and filled with houses and empty sidewalks California suburban wasteland' main. They announced that we should buy local.

Did that mean run to the local branch of Costco, Barnes & Noble and Staples or the mom and pop beauty supply, chocolatier, alterations lady or the library Saturday book sale?

Or does it mean go to the Yard Sale! as the flyer stuck under my car's windshield wiper demanded? Someone had plastered every car in the lot with a waving piece of white paper. I dare you to pull it off and throw it in the back seat - not on the ground, shame on you for littering - without glancing at it to see what someone is selling you.

And whoever was hosting this visit to their driveway was offering up an entire house. We're talking power tools, appliances, office furniture, paintings. I looked for evidence that it was an estate sale or maybe 'we're moving because we can't stand the traffic jams on the 101 in the middle of the night'.

No, this was a yuppie dumping their stuff. My first thought was - The Economy.

Check out this list:

Appliances - stainless steel small fridge, side-by-side refrigerator with ice and water dispenser, toaster oven (stainless steel), coffee maker (black/stainless steel) bread maker (white), waffle maker (stainless steel), panini sandwich grill (silver), electric juicer (white), 10 cup rice cooker (black/stainless steel)

But wait, there's more!

Circular saw, power drill, tile saw, table saw, RotoZip saw, power sander, jig saw and don't forget the electric group: lawn mover, weed whacker, hedge trimmer, chain saw.

There's even more but you get the picture. When you get rid of the gimmicky appliances - rice maker? I use a pot and a cover - it can only mean you need the cash. That you would have had if you hadn't spent the money in the first place. Perhaps you lost your job or your house is in foreclosure and you need to vacate immediately. This is California we're talking about. Big numbers in unemployment and foreclosures.

These people are selling off both a ceramic hair curler AND a ceramic hair flat iron. If you have curly hair you want it straight. If you have straight hair, you long for the curls. We are a nation of never satisfied people. We are consumers.

Call me a looky-lu but I have to swing by and see who this is.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Tikkun Olam Fridays – Repairing the World One Step at a Time

Another Friday, another post on tikkun olam – to repair the world. Remember, you don’t have to finish the job, but it is your responsibility to start.

What action did you take this week, big or little, to make a difference?

Here’s an update on my post about the MN Adamov Fund that helps talented blind people in Russia and was started by a couple out of a spare bedroom in Boston.

Why did the Sussmans start this journey? Because Svetlana wanted to honor her father who she was very close to. He'd recently died and on the way back from the funeral on the plane she came up with a way to do that. The Fund supplies canes, computers and other objects to people in Russia, a country and culture that doesn't seem to help their citizens in quite the same way that we make an effort to do here.

The update: the Bay State Council of the Blind has just named Svetlana and Harris Sussman to receive the Outstanding Service Award of the year, for people who make a difference in the lives of blind people. The award will be given at the annual convention on March 28, 2009 at the Marriott in Natick, Massachusetts.

Catch Svetlana and Harris on YouTube talking about their work with the MN Adamov Memorial Fund. See how reaching out and helping takes no special skill or knowledge, necessarily, just a whole lot of effort and heart.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Nourishing Wednesdays

Last week A Mighty Appetite with Kim O’Donnel, the Washington Post food blog, ran a challenge to only eat from whatever was already in the pantry – Eating Down the Fridge. Instead of running to the store for last minute entrees, the goal was to eat from what was already in the house. I happened upon the post as I always do, by some trail through the food, simplicity, sustainability, We’re-in-the-Dark-Ages-II blogs that I read every morning along with HuffPost and LAObserved. It seemed like a fun idea so I jumped in mid-week.

We have a collection of condiments, my husband and younger daughter are the king and queen of condiments. They never met a jar of honey horseradish stone ground caper-packed mustard that didn’t have their name on it. If there’s a pretzel to dip in it, so much the better.

I, on the other hand, crave flours, grains, vinegars and oils. I never met a ground up piece of bark I didn’t want to try. And how many ways can you preserve milk? Condensed, evaporated, dry, coconut?

Then our oldest daughter has two friends who work at the local tea shop and have gifted us with little bags. On her trip to Edinburgh, she brought back Scottish Breakfast, to go with our English and Irish. The fact that I seem to have collected over a dozen teapots (I’m a coffee hound; how did this happen?) probably has probably been influential in why we can whip out an array of Teas from Across the Continents at our dinner parties.

The gastronomic challenge of not schlepping to the local market seemed like a plan. How much sunk money did I have in the freezer? And how old was the mystery meat hidden in the back corner?

So Friday night I made chili with pinto and kidney beans, threw in a can of green chilis and a pound of medium firm tofu. Tossed in one of the dozen cans of most-have diced tomatoes from Costco and crumbled in at least six spices, some of which were impulse purchases from intriguing ethnic market that caught my eye that I’m trying to use down. Then there was the salad with on-the-way-to-wilt iceberg, Chinese cabbage, spinach with a package of frozen corn and carrots all tossed with a choice of at least 4 salad dressings. For dessert, a fruit salad with cans of pineapples, Mandarin oranges, a mix of apples and a handful of frozen blueberries and strawberries.

Saturday morning the urge and time to bake melded. I know that whole wheat flour doesn’t last as long as white. The expiration date on the container was a distant memory. The quart of buttermilk needed to be mixed into something. I pulled out the Moosewood Cookbook, also something that has sat on the shelf for, well, decades. Ah, a quick bread. I threw in a handful of wheatberries (Note to self: next time cook them a little first for better ease of chewing). Brunch and tea snack. Delish.

Saturday dinner was meatloaf. Ground meat, grated carrots and celery. Bread crumbs made from frozen rye bread heavy with caraway seeds that I toasted and pulverized in my 25 year-old taped-up Cuisinart. And more herbs and spices.

Sunday morning I decided to make granola bars for school lunches. Oatmeal, wheat flour, wheat germ, dried cherries, 2 almost empty jars of eucalyptus and avocado honey, sesame seeds, almonds, eggs, and the requisite ground spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves.

Look out. She’s on a roll. Next up? That box of cake flour. Does anyone know the shelf life for cupcake sprinkles?

Monday, March 16, 2009

Happy Birthday to Me!

Today is my birthday and that’s as good a reason as Jan 1st to review how far I’ve come on my sustainable, living local journey.

One thing I’ve learned is that I’m not going to save the world, nor am I going to be perfect in my attempts to live as greenly as possible. I may not join any local green groups. They seem to be all twentysomethings and single and I’m not. My synagogue green team may fizzle, at least for the moment.

Since starting my blog last summer and reading and bookmarking way too many other blogs about the subject, I realized that there are some things I’m just not going to do. Oh well.

I will wear make-up, I won’t stop using shampoo and gel. So far I plan on continuing to dye my hair and those products aren’t the least toxic, I’m sure, and the greener stuff is too expensive. And don’t even bring up the concept of a Diva Cup. The dishwasher and refrigerator stay. Ditto the nasty cleaning solutions, at least for this year. I will never bike anywhere; my balance sucks.

But here’s what I have done:
  1. used cloth napkins
  2. used face towels instead of paper towels for clean-ups
  3. shut off lights
  4. kept the AC and heater off as much as possible
  5. washed clothes with cold water in an energy efficient washer/dryer
  6. rack dried several loads a week
  7. used less soap when I washed clothes
  8. used recycled tissues and toilet paper
  9. used recycled paper towels, but only to wipe off vegetables and fruits
  10. showered in the downstairs bathroom because the water heats up way faster than the upstairs bath
  11. recycled voraciously meaning I pull misplaced cardboard boxes and toilet paper rolls from wastebaskets
  12. printed less from the computer
  13. screwed in CFS lights throughout most of the house
  14. took re-useable bags to the market including hemp produce bags
  15. worked from home – both me and my husband
  16. planted a garden (this weekend we went beyond a few pots and the side yard and dug up the backyard, more on that in future posts)
  17. cooked from scratch (new efforts to do it as much as possible means less packaging, less chemicals, less money spent - my personal political statement)
  18. baked bread, cakes, muffins
  19. baked challah every week, almost
  20. cooked fearlessly knowing it’s only food and everything is an experiment
  21. lived more fearlessly, life is an experiment and there’s no constants, only variables
  22. bypassed non-local food when possible which is easy enough in CA
  23. shopped at non-chain stores or at least engaged sales clerks from chain stores in conversation (it’s not their fault they work for The Man)
  24. supported green political measures, helped elect Obama with calls and driving to Nevada to knock on doors
  25. attended local and county-wide meetings on issues
  26. attended city meetings to hear the issues, so what if it’s boring at least someone cares
  27. read my hometown city newsletter website
  28. composted every single onion, carrot and potato peel. I will personally build more topsoil on my little nano acre of California countryside
  29. flushed less, since I live in California, where it never rains, nor pours anymore either
  30. monitored our errands so driving is efficient
  31. carpooled to lectures and theaters
  32. rented movies or used the library stacks
  33. bought books from library sales or borrowed from within the county system
  34. supported bloggers who help get the word out by commenting on their posts
  35. kickboxed at my local, non-chain gym
  36. used re-useable water bottle
  37. took my drive-time coffee in a re-useable mug
  38. shopped from my closet and accessorize from my stash
  39. made some charity donations
  40. put in some volunteer time
  41. read about other cultures
  42. read something besides the LA Times and the NY Times, like the Financial Times, to get another perspective
  43. shot photos of other cultures, buildings, anything
  44. signed up on Facebook, yawn, at least that’s my thought
  45. learned more techie stuff, but there’s always more, more, more
  46. smiled at people, looked them in the eye, listened when they talk
  47. reconnected with lost relatives and friends
  48. and said please
  49. thank you
  50. I’m sorry – lots more

… and that was just ten months. Not that I want to brag – not that I ever do - but that looks pretty damn good when you number it. I’ve boiled my goals down to community and creativity. Oh and earning money too, but that’s only my day job. To which I must now return. But only a half day, as it is my b’day.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Building Community One Conversation At A Time

What a great communal, supportive day I had today! It just goes to show ya that even in the wide open spaces of SoCal suburbs, a person can say hello, give a little verbal hug and make somebody’s day.

After schlepping all the way to the OC for a business meeting, leaving at 6:30 a.m., and then schlepping back, in my least favorite mode of transport – the LA freeway system, it was all I could do to straighten my desk and check my emails. After putting in a few hours in my sleep-deprived state, I decided to pack it in and run some errands.

I went to the dry cleaners to drop off our visiting oldest daughter’s raincoat which had been dragged through the snows and rains of Boston and Germany for 3 years. It looked like what I imagine a raincoat would look like if it actually saw duty as stormy weather wear. Remember, we are having a Big D drought in my neck of the woods. The shop owner gave me a big welcoming smile, asked where I’d been and typed my name into the computer without me reminding her.

Then I went to the tiny Middle Eastern market next to the dry cleaners. I hadn’t been in there since they opened last year. The owner explained to me, in halting English, how to cook the farina I bought. Then another sales person offered me some of the tea they were about to brew but I had to leave for the bank before it closed. When I asked about whether he sold homemade hummus, the shop owner said next time, just give him a few minutes and he would make some special for me. You can bet when I come back for the raincoat, I’ll drop in for some hummus and pita.

At the bank, formerly known as WaMu, (they should have known that the goofy name was going to lead them down the road to disintegration), all the tellers and bankers have been trained to smile and greet everyone, several times over. They’ve really ramped up the friendliness. But I love it. If you can’t give me more than .01% interest, at least look me in the eye and say hello like you remember me.

One of the teller supervisors asked me how my day had been. I told her I’d done a new business pitch with a group via a Webinar for the first time and she said, “That must have been nerve wracking.” Wow, she was right, it was. How empathetic. It actually made me feel good. And I waved to everyone on my way out and they waved back.

Then, after guiltily hitting the office for awhile, I went off to kickboxing at my local, small karate studio that I’ve been going to for almost 3 years except for the last 3 months when I just ran out of steam. What do you mean that's an excuse?! So I went back to it last week and I know my body will start thanking me eventually. But the happy part is when I walked in last Thursday, people came up to me, virtually slapping me on the back, calling me by name, welcoming me back. The place where everyone not only knows your name, they know your body mass index but they don’t care. They encourage you to kick harder anyway. I love it!

So what does all this Day in the Life of a Formerly More In Shape Publicist mean? It’s not like I don’t talk with my friends or colleagues all day long. It’s the quality of today’s interactions that tells me that focused conversations among folks as they go about their day can build community. That if I can get to know the tellers at my bank in the middle of a Great Recession, for goodness sakes, well, there’s hope that we can build something more, one pleasant conversation at a time.