Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Hunt

After flops and dead-ends and lots-of-excitement-but-ultimately-leading-no-where-leads, after lots and lots of cover letters and answering, in interviews, honestly and confidently and then wondering, "Was I too confident? But then again, shouldn't I be confident?," I now have a new job for our new life in our new home. And, it's a good one: challenging, interesting, demanding of my teaching, leadership, communication, and creative skills.

We moved up here at Christmas, and I served as a long-term substitute for a friend on maternity leave—a temporary position that helped my friend and kept me busy while I looked for the right job for me—until school ended the last week of May. Since moving, I poured mental energy into finding a new worklife for myself up here, and not having a job nailed down taught me a lot. Here's some of what I learned:

1) Being unemployed is terrifying.

I started graduate school two weeks after I graduated from college. That very summer, I completed my student teaching responsibilities and, by August, I had the job I would hold for the next 18 years. Never in my adult life had I been jobless. Granted, I am very lucky to be married to someone with a strong career, so we have been able pay rent and feed ourselves, but this was the first time since I was 22 in which I feared I'd have to depend on someone else's income. And, I hated that. I hated losing my sense of independence.

Additionally, while I've always known that I'm an extravert (though I need my periods of solitude, just like everyone else), when my substitute position ended and an undetermined future of days alone in a place where I still didn't know many people loomed ahead, that characteristic rose up inside me like a spector, a ghost of fear, echoing around my head like the voice in "The Rocking-Horse Winner," except my voice whispered, "You must have community, you must have community."

2) Humility is tough for me but it is something I must embrace.

I went into the job search thinking I'd be immediately hirable. My resumé was stronger than any resumé I'd looked at while helping to make hiring decisions at my old position, I spoke well and could draw on many experiences in interviews, and I had a whole slew of recommenders ready to speak about my skills. But I didn't get that job, and then I didn't get that one, and then that one. And no one even responded to my application and follow up call on that one. I had one interview then another interview, and another and another, but they went no where. I would try to figure out why, why that school or organization didn't want me, what skills I didn't have, what I didn't answer well enough, how I could improve presenting myself. I believed—and I still believe—that it's always good to aim for self-improvement and every attempt at getting a job was another way to grow.

But, the part that I had to accept, that really only came to me in the last couple weeks before finally getting a job, is that I had very little control over whether or not a school or organization hired me. There were thousands of other factors which I couldn't even see going into the hiring decision process. I had to stop crying to myself, "Why don't they want me?," and begin taking a roll with each punch then hopping up to try again each time.

If employers didn't think I would be a good fit for whatever reason, you know what? They're probably right.

3) I should try for even the unlikely.

One of the jobs I applied for was—at least in theory—the dreamiest job I could imagine, one that tangled up my love for plants and people, but it was also something that I didn't have the required experience for. I pulled out the stops on my cover letter and refined my resumé for the position anyway. I called on the help of excellent friends who had relevant job experience to comment on my application before sending it in.

No, I didn't get it. But I got practice applying for that type of job, and it gave me a clearer idea of what I needed to have to get that type of job, so, if that is a career direction I eventually pursue, I've got an idea of where to go.

If you're chasing prey through the woods, whether or not you catch it, your prey will leave a trail.

4) I need to mind my own gaps.

In addition to my big, new, very exciting job, last month I took on a small side job: maintaining an organic vegetable garden for a family in a neighboring town. I found this opportunity through a neighborhood online bulletin board, and it has been a lifesaver for me. My arrangement with my employer also allows me a little space to grow some of my own plants, providing me the ability to keep some of my rarer seed strains going. More importantly, the job gives me place to have my hands in the dirt, my eyes in their deep observation garden mode, and my head organizing crop starting, maintaining, clearing, and rotating.

I no longer mourn the garden I once had. Taking this side gig has both filled and freed me. It feels so good.

Friday, June 05, 2015

Blank Slate

I keep talking about oatmeal and people keep asking me why. Why? Because it's awesome. It's not mushy or tasteless; instead, it's a fun canvas with which to play. Take, for example, my breakfasts this week. And, I didn't even stray into the realm of savory, but stayed with the sweet.


This is a favorite gild-the-lily version of oatmeal that I've written about before.


Since I know I like that teaspoon of bourbon in oatmeal, I figured I'd riff on the booze theme today and I made a version of rum raisin oatmeal. In the last minute or so on the stove, I dropped in the golden raisins and a teaspoon of dark rum. Off the stove, I stirred in dark brown sugar, then scattered walnuts and Maldon salt over the top, and of course, cream.


I made a tart seedling plum jam this week that didn't set up well but made a flavorful, tangy sauce that I wanted to try on the porridge, so I cooked the oats with a sliver of cinnamon stick and salt, sweetened very lightly with vanilla sugar, then dolloped on Greek yogurt and the plum sauce.


This morning, the overripe banana on the counter was my inspiration. After cooking the oatmeal, I stirred in a little dark brown sugar and chunks of the banana, then topped the bowl with walnuts I fried in a tablespoon of butter until the butter browned and the walnuts were fragrant. I added a sprinkle of Maldon salt for flavor and crunch.


I made a granola a few days ago that combined the flavors of vanilla, fennel seed, and grated orange peel for a delicious, Creamsicle effect. This morning, I worked with the same flavors. I sweetened the oats as they cooked with chopped dates, fennel seed, and a splash of vanilla extract. Off the heat, I salted the porridge, then topped with finely grated orange peel, almonds, and cream. This may have been my favorite bowl of the week.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Orchard Ghost

I think I'm going to haunt Filoli's orchard. I'm going to move into the leaning trellis webbed with hanging gourd birdhouses, make a mattress of tufted grasses, and fall asleep with whatever critters also feel comfortable there. While the grand house of the estate is wonderful, and the manicured formal gardens, so carefully pruned and color-coordinated, are models of a tightly controlled garden vision, it's the fruit trees where I want to be.

Maybe I'll turn into a beetle that bores into stately trunks of the old espaliered pears and apples. Or, maybe I'll be a floating salsify seed, dancing in the untended grasses and wildflowers under the trees.

This last visit I—the real me, the one that can't live in Filoli's orchard—came home and registered online for six of the many orchard walks through the summer to tour the fruit trees through their harvest season, tasting from their offerings, dreaming of which will eventually live in my someday home.

Friday, April 10, 2015

No Longer Julia

I make bread.

That's an essential part of who I am. Ten years ago, it wasn't, but with each year since then, it has become more and more part of me. I make bread.

I weigh out the flour and warm water, then add the starter that lives in a quart mason jar, feeding it again before it returns to its home in my refrigerator. I measure out salt and sprinkle it in. I stir and stir. I wait. I fold. I wait. I shape. I wait. I bake. I listen to the crust crackle as it cools. I eat.

A few years ago, a friendly acquaintance gifted me the starter which she had named Julia. In a kitchen where she also makes cheese, brews various beverages, and experiments in all sorts of ways, the woman had raised Julia. When Julia came to me, it smelled of dairy and champagne. It baked into sweet, crusty loaves. In its jar, it stuck mightily to itself and had an almost stringy quality. I loved Julia because it allowed me to improve my bread cred. At my old home, Julia kept its dairy-ish scent and produced fine loaves.

Once, a friend asked me for an outer leaf of cabbage from my vegetable garden because he had read that organically grown cabbage harbored yeasts that made for a good sourdough bread starter. I told my friend I'd be happy to give him the leaf, but I didn't see how helpful that'd be. Even if the leaf did harbor certain yeasts, his kitchen wouldn't necessarily harbor the same yeasts, and whatever lived in his general atmosphere would eventually become the microbes that lived in his starter. In other words, if he took the buggers from their home, they wouldn't necessarily survive, but something else just as good would pick up the game. I gave him some of Julia and told him that Julia might change at his house, depending on what was already there.

When we moved up to the Bay Area this winter, Julia was one of the last things I packed. The night before our very-early morning move, I packed a cooler full of the perishables that were coming up with me, Julia included. A week after we moved, I made the first two loaves in our new home. As usual, I fed Julia before tucking it away in the refrigerator. The next time I made bread, I noticed that Julia smelled a litte more sour than before and it didn't quite have the same glutinous quality as it used to. But the loaves it made were fantastic; the internal chew and complexity of flavor below the crust were better than ever. Eventually, Julia transformed into a very, very sour—almost putrid smelling—starter that is as runny as crepe batter, though I feed it the same weights of flour and water as I always have. From this starter, I'm baking the best loaves I've ever baked, with better flavor, crust, and chew than what Julia ever gave me.

So, Julia is no longer Julia and needs a rechristening. It needs a name worthy of its ability to change and improve, relinquishing the old and making room for the new. Suggestions?

Friday, March 20, 2015

On Aging, or The Inevitability of Compassion

Last weekend, Indiana and I hiked the short but steep side of Sugarloaf and I started thinking about twenty years ago, when I was in college, while my parents lived in Arizona. One Christmas when I was visiting them, my brother and I decided to hike Superstition Mountain, from the Siphon Draw trail to the Flatiron. I am in much better shape now than I was in college; my brother, on the other hand, is and has always been a mountain goat, tireless, seemingly pain-resistant, and unstoppable. (An example: My dad and he hiked the Angel Trail in the Grand Canyon together once. After camping a day or two at the bottom, the day of the ascent, my brother carried his stuff up at his natural breakneck pace, then came back down, met my dad who was only partway up the trail—and my dad's no athletic weakling—picked up Dad's gear and carried it up, and took a nap in the car while my dad made it to the top.) Initially, I had been hesitant to try the difficult trail, but I wanted to spend time with my brother, and the area is so beautiful I consented.

Phone photo from the top of Sugarloaf last weekend: a hazy day over the bay. I have no pictures of the Superstition hike.
We got a late—a very late—start the day we set out to hike, so we began the climb after noon. It was winter time, but it was also near Pheonix, so I wore jeans and a t-shirt with my dad's old parka tied around my waist. The initial part of the hike was gorgeous and easy, a sloping rise studded with ocotillo and scrub. But behind rose a wall of rock, splitting the ground like the cracked and stained teeth of a giant devil's lower jaw. The trail ascended sharply, and we skittered over and around boulders, jumped over crevices, and carefully made our way up the siphon, the almost-bare stone slide spattered ever-so-dangerously with gravel that could send us shuttling to broken bones, or worse. I hurt and breathed hard. My brother taught me how to get my body and my breathing in a rhythm so I could hurt less.

We reached the top of Flatiron around 3:30pm, and my brother shimmied up an impossible-looking rock spire to get an even better view. I tucked against the spire to eat a tangerine and hide from the angry wind. As if I sat on the edge of a giant layer cake, the stone slipped down at what appeared to be a 90 degree angle from where I perched. The view crumbed away, infinite, wondrous.

Though I had wrapped up in the old coat on the top, I began to warm as we headed down, and I tied it around my waist again. It took us less time to go down than go up, but we were still racing against the setting sun of a short winter day. As the sun sank, so did the temperature, but I sweated with exertion. This time I skittered down the siphon like a crab, low to the ground, and in the grey, we had to be careful on narrow ledges. We passed only two hikers in the first part of our hike down; they were heading up. When we made it about halfway down, we encountered a twenty-something woman sitting, knees held to her chest against the gathering cold. She wore shorts, a t-shirt, and flip-flops. Blisters glistened under the edges of her shoes' straps. Even in the dusk, I could tell she had pale skin and dark hair. We greeted her.

Phone photo: I took the less steep way down Sugarloaf.
She told us that she was from Flagstaff, where it was really winter, and her boyfriend had brought her down here for the day. She hadn't realized they'd be hiking, and since every other time she'd come down the mountains towards Phoenix, it was hot, she had thought she had dressed appropriately. But she hadn't, and she couldn't go any further, so she hunkered down on the boulder to wait for her boyfriend and his friend to finish heading up and back. We told her we had passed them, and if they did make it to the top, it would be a couple hours before they made it back. We offered her water and tangerines, yet she shivered and refused both. Company for her waiting, to walk her back down the mountain, we made our offers. She declined, resolutely.

Clearly set on waiting alone, she waved us off as we continued down the mountain. Soon, we were in the deep dark, our only light the desert night sky. As the trail eased up towards the bottom of the mountain, we nearly trotted along, knowing our mother must be fretting with us on the trail after dark. And, we were right: by the time we called our mom to let her know we were safe and at the car, my mom had already called the rangers to alert them that we were inexperienced night hikers still on the trail, and my dad was in his car heading our way.

Phone photo: in San Juan Canyon at the base of Sugarloaf.
Although it's entertaining to us all now, at the time, our late descent on the mountain terrified my parents, and in all the tension surrounding our return, I didn't realize until the next day my selfishness born of youthful narcissism. Reaching the top was less important than my parents' very real fear, and we should have saved our trip for another day when we could get ourselves together earlier. I figured that out then. But it's only in reflection, through years of experiencing both the real and metaphorical chilliness that life throws at everyone, that a very obvious truth strikes me. I'd never miss it now and I spent almost all of last week's hike fretting over it.

The girl on the mountain may not have wanted our water or tangerines or company, but what she needed, at the very least, was the old parka. If I took that hike today, I'd come down without a coat.

Monday, March 02, 2015

Blossom Time

When I was 17, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston changed my life. I had forever loved books, but none had shifted my perspective so powerfully before this novel; or, to think about it differently, previous to this book, I had not been aware of the work a book was doing on me. The book lifted me off my feet and through a hurricane. I couldn't stop thinking about it for weeks.

Florida (where the book takes place) and California share at least one trait: in parts of both, spring arrives early. In my neighborhood right now, overgrown backyard fruit trees hang over hedges and fences, setting the hilly blocks snowy with petals and metallic with bees. The arsenic-sweet scent of prunus species trying to reproduce soaks into everything. This time of year, when the fruit trees go to it, I can't help but think of the novel:

"It was a spring afternoon in West Florida. Janie had spent most of the day under a blossoming pear tree in the back-yard. She had been spending every minute that she could steal from her chores under that tree for the last three days. That was to say, ever since the first tiny bloom had opened. It had called her to come and gaze on a mystery. From barren brown stems to glistening leaf-buds; from the leaf-buds to snowy virginity of bloom. It stirred her tremendously. How? Why? It was like a flute song forgotten in another existence and remembered again. What? How? Why? This singing she heard that had nothing to do with her ears. The rose of the world was breathing out smell. It followed her through all her waking moments and caressed her in her sleep."

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Soul Food

There are many problems with the book The Telling Room by Michael Paterniti, but there are many greatnesses as well. One such is this, a snippet of philosophy the main character Ambrosio shares that the author tucks away in a footnote:

"I have a litte jar in my cave," he said, "a four-liter jug, the last wine made by a good friend of mine before he died: Joselito. It is now the second anniversary of his death, and I'm always thinking of him. I think of how he might have laughed at this joke, or that moment. Any little thing will remind me of him. And once in a while I want to drink his wine. I want to drink him, not his wine. I take a swig of it, of him, and I put the cork back on him. Maybe someone who hears this thinks I'm off my rocker, but this is what I believe: When I give anything—wine, a tortilla, my cheese—I am inside that. And of all the people who eat what I offer, only a special few realize that there's a spirit present, that there's my love."