Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Four-Hour Chef

The 4-Hour ChefThe 4-Hour Chef by Timothy Ferriss
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have learned that whenever Tim Ferriss swoops in on his flying thingamajig, it's best to climb aboard, because we're in for a wild, unpredictable, and unforgettable ride. This book is thus far the pinnacle!

Some of the more negative reviews seem to hinge on the fact that this is not, in the purest sense, a cookbook. He goes over many recipes and techniques, but this is a book about learning, using the medium of cooking and food preparation as the means to that end. I love the very Tim reassurance near the beginning, promising that we'll take many side-trips so the cooking parts won't get boring. He does not disappoint: we learn how to build a fire with a bow and piece of twine, how to build a shelter against cold, how to memorize any list of numbers, and much more.

His love of learning is contagious. I started off being more than slightly irritated by Tim when I read 4-Hour-Workweek. I'm not in his demographic of what I would guess is 18-35 year old males, so it took a bit of exposure to develop a taste for his way of looking at the world. He's matured well and his self-deprecating tone goes a long way to deflecting some of the brilliance that otherwise blinds. Put simply, he's a lot of fun to read. You'll learn about things you wouldn't have thought about otherwise, and have a few laughs in the process. I'd recommend this for anyone with a passing interest in food.

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Monday, January 21, 2013

Senderos Fronterizos

Senderos fronterizosSenderos fronterizos by Francisco Jiménez
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the second in a trilogy by Jiménez recounting his life growing up as the child in a migrant farmworker family. I read this in Spanish, which makes the often sad yet hopeful story even more poignant. In this part of his story, the family stays in Santa María while the older children work and their father and mother work as they are able. Despite working for a cleaning service after school, nights, and weekends, Panchito manages to become a leader in his class and is off to college.

Jiménez offers plenty of description and explanation, so that readers today can understand the starkness and hardship of his life during his teenage years in the 1950s and 60s. Although parts are very sad, the story is not-- the boys manage to have a lot of fun and experience parts of a normal high school experience during a fun time in American history.

Reading this in Spanish made it far more poignant. There is an English version, but the Spanish is much more evocative. Read either to have a better understanding of the courageous families who have come here to give their children a better chance at life-- nothing about it is easy, but it is worth the read.

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Friday, January 18, 2013

Not the New Kids

We had the most gorgeous January weekend I can ever remember:  temperatures in the mid-70s by the afternoon both days, where we're usually somewhere near freezing.  Naturally, we made plans to be outside as much as possible.  On Sunday, we took an urban hike on a trail through our city that we'd never tried before, and it was great fun to explore things we'd only seen from the car in passing.   We'll walk this trail again, since it has a brontosaurus and two playgrounds.

My children are 10 and 5, and we started our family on the later side.  My grandparents on both sides, who greatly influenced me and the way I was brought up, were all Edwardian.  The family in which I was raised had and has a far different approach to life than what seems to be the norm these days.   The parents of children my daughter's age tend to be a good 15-20 years younger than we are; the age difference was not as great when my son was little, but the generation gap is really obvious now.  

I notice this in different ways, and it hit me again on the playground this Sunday.  Our children ran ahead of us on the trail to a grand-looking play structure, and in no time were up near the top, sliding down the slides, using the swings, and exploring.  We, the middle-aged parents, sat on the bench right next to the play area and enjoyed being able to talk for a little bit while they played.

Not too long after we got there, another family with similar-aged children arrived.  Mom and Dad jumped on the play equipment with them, chasing the kids around, helping them up the ladders, no more than an arm's-length away.  An adult acquaintance approached and interrupted their play.  The children hung around the parents, tugging at their sleeves.  My outgoing daughter asked the little boy near her age to come and play, and he declined, telling her he was waiting for his dad to come back.

I observe this at every playground we visit, and I see it very differently from these younger parents:  for me, the playground is a child's space.  I think it's fine for a parent to guide a toddler through an advanced play structure; no one wants a little one to fall off or out.  But once a child has his or her bearings, I firmly believe that it's time for the parent to take a seat and let the child explore the space, make friends with the other children, and not feel in any way obligated to "follow the leader" in the shape of an adult while in a safe play area.   I'm happy to push a little person on the swing, but once she's ready, she needs to learn to push herself.

Plenty of books are out there discouraging "helicopter parenting," so the experts must have noticed how aberrant and ultimately damaging the constant hovering is for children, who need to be working hard at becoming independent, competent individuals.  I do not have any recollection of either of my parents being part of my play space.  I remember us reading together, cooking together, taking walks and bike rides, but in creative play, that was my time to be my own independent self.  I grew up spending most of the daylight hours in summer engrossed in play with my neighborhood friends, and adults were hazy shadows inside in the air conditioning.

I'm more of a rocket parent than a helicopter parent.  My philosophy is to spend great time and care preparing for the launch sequence, and then to stand back and have some faith that everything we've done will be successful.  My children may make some mistakes, but then they get the opportunity to grow and learn from them.  I am certain there are younger parents out there who take the long view and don't overtake their children, but it seems to be common and very peer-encouraged in the twenty-something parent cohort these days.

Boundaries help to create healthy relationships. We have a strong mutual sense of where one person stops and the other starts.  I firmly believe in beginning as we mean to go on, and for us, that's encouraging independence and differentiating between parents and children.

Just for fun and to digitally high-five someone else out there who really gets it, Lynn Harris offers an excellent annotated list of books that make us non-helicopters more than a wee bit uncomfortable:  The Helicopter Parent's Reading List   Any of those look familiar to you?  It's interesting that Ms. Harris gathers all the children's books that have made me uncomfortable.  The Giving Tree is a tale of co-dependence, where the taker kills the giver in the end.  Yikes.

Friday, January 11, 2013

An Antiquated Skill Set

I envy people who have truly useful skills and aptitudes.  People who can fix houses, easily pick up languages, play many instruments, or are really good with babies-- those are skills that have always been important and always will be.  I can make basic repairs, struggle with Spanish, can sing most of the notes,  and only just manage with babies, but I really do envy those who can do useful things with ease and panache.

My special talent, though, would have won me friends and influenced people a few centuries ago. It's almost completely pointless in the throwaway age:  I can sew, hand-embroider, knit, or crochet anything.  If it's a stitch I don't know, I can teach it to myself from a book or a video.  If it's a daunting project with several hundred colors of embroidery floss, I can get it done.  It doesn't overwhelm me.  I can hand-knit or crochet sweaters, socks, hats, scarves, mittens, or blankets.  I can make clothes or fix damaged clothes.  I can take a blank piece of linen and do this:
Desiderata.  One L O N G poem. 

I've loved the Desiderata since before the confusion was cleared up that it was written by Max Ehrmann in the 1920s rather than a monk in the 1600s.  It's a lovely poem with good advice for anyone on how to live in this world.

This tapestry took me several years to complete, with a long period of time where I didn't do anything with it and rather taught myself to knit socks, then made a red cashmere afghan, thinking I'd rather have something useful to show for my work.  I got about a third of the way down and put it aside. I decided to finish this by the end of 2012, because it's so large and I'd already bought the silk thread, and I hate to leave something even marginally worthwhile unfinished.  It's being framed now and it will hang in our entryway so the children can have it memorized by the time they leave home.

When I was dropping it off to be framed, an older lady stopped at the counter and asked if I'd done this.  I said yes, and she asked, "By machine?"  No, I replied, by hand.  She rolled her eyes.  "Too much work.  I don't think I could stand it!" was her response.  On the contrary, I find it relaxing to create.  I don't sit and watch television without something to do, ever, so the handwork gives me something worthwhile to create during that downtime.  I'm not that easily entertained by TV and this does help.

This is my last big embroidery project for the foreseeable future, and it was a big one.  I've already moved on to knitting a scarf to go with a hat I made for my daughter, who observed correctly that she had no scarf.  I'm hoping to have enough yarn for matching mittens.
Baby sweater with unfortunately-spaced buttons

But really cute buttons at that.
Maybe I'll take up carpentry one day and find out that I'm really good at it.  Maybe I'll learn to play the piano I dust every week.  I am working hard at learning Spanish (more on that soon), and the days of figuring out what babies need are thankfully behind me now; these days, those babies request handknit items and help select the wool.  Someday, I hope, my loved ones will look at these things made with love and remember me by them, more so than a dress or sweater or hat made in China and bought cheap.  Maybe they'll hang this Desiderata in one of their own homes one day. I'll stick to my knitting, quaint a thing to do as it is.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Merry Pranksters and the Way Out of the Reagan Years

Late Autumn 1988.  My senior-year Government class walked into John Cabiati's classroom (follow the link to read how great he was and is), and the only thing written on the chalkboard was "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test."  Intrigued, the son of a US Senator asked Mr. Cabiati what that was, exactly.

"Sorry, guys, my sophomore class ran over and I don't have your stuff up yet," he replied.

Someone else pressed.  "But what is that?"

Hands in pockets as usual, he took a deep breath.  "You guys really want to know?"

Heads nodded around the room.   Cabiati dug in his briefcase and pulled out a 1967 issue of Time Magazine.

He flipped to an article inside that had a circle of not altogether clothed hippies dancing.  He pointed to one of them, fortunately mostly covered by another dancer in the photo and visible only to the shoulders.  "That's me," he said.

Being 17 and 18, naturally we all burst out laughing.  Cabiati had our attention.  (He always had our attention.  I'd already met all my high school credits with honors and been accepted to college, so I frequently did not attend my afternoon classes, but I came back to school to attend this last-period class.  How about that?)

"The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is the book started the 60s, folks," he went on.  "Tom Wolfe followed Ken Kesey around with the Pranksters, rode along on the bus, and chronicled the start of the 60s from the West Coast, where it all got going.  Technically it started with the Beat Movement, but Neal Cassady was the bridge between the Beats and the hippies.  Neal drove the bus, guys.  They went all over the country doing acid tests and waking people up who had been dozing since World War II!  They dropped a lot of acid, which I would not recommend, and found like-minded individuals who were ready to change the way things were done in this country.  And if that's not fun enough, you can read how the Grateful Dead got started right in front of him."

Cabiati was in school at Stanford at the time, so he saw The Bus in person when they rolled through California, met everyone in the book, and was part of history, which was often the case.  He was at the Human Be-In at Golden Gate Park with Ginsberg and Leary and the Dead and the Pranksters.  He explained what the social climate had been like and why the counterculture movement evolved to push back against the normal-formal expectations that young people were simply not willing to accept.

Before the hour was out, we had a much better understanding of what went down in the '60s and why, and I was down a lifelong rabbit hole learning more on what this was all about.  I went to the bookstore right after class was out and bought the last copy on the shelf.  Cabiati was clever, to put it mildly:  the nation had just elected Vice President George H.W. Bush, locking in another four years of Reagan-style conservatism after the last eight. He was not a little disappointed, being a liberal-leaning Libertarian who was philosophically opposed to the direction the Republican party had taken.  I think he saw a lot of parallels between the social climate of the 1980s and the 1950s, and he wanted to influence at least a handful of people to question authority.

It worked.  I've been questioning authority ever since.  I went on to earn two degrees in social work, and learned the best way to game the system for my clients was by playing it from the inside.  I learned that when someone is not just like the others, to pay attention because there's value there.  I learned what a reviewer put brilliantly on the Great Teachers website regarding Cabiati:  he took us government service brats and taught us to understand the shortcomings of the big operation inside the Beltway.  I developed a healthy cynicism for government machinery while creating a working relationship with lawmakers who could influence legislation for my clients, and in some cases, directly assist them.  I learned to ask questions and not follow blindly.

This one book started it all for me-- I was a good little follower until I read this book and felt my mind open up.  There's no pontificating, no expository writing, just Wolfe reporting what he saw in his own fashion, and the reader must draw from the ensuing chaos and beauty the technicolor unfolding of the counterculture movement as it happened in real time.  If you haven't read it, it's worth the time.  Many of the people in it are still around and even have websites, so it's been fun to see how they turned out, or didn't.  I didn't turn out to be a hippie; quite the opposite, but I have the questioning voice over my shoulder all the time, asking why?  Why do we have to do it that way?  Is there a better way?

So, Mr. Cabiati, thank you.  Myself and countless others who experienced your class thank you for helping us out of the gilded cage of the Reagan years, for raising our consciousness and teaching us how to be real citizens in a democracy.   And thanks to Ken Kesey, who's on the other side, and the band of Pranksters for waking up a generation who had been raised to think and see in black and white-- and turning on the COLOR.  My life has been richer for it.

"You don't lead by pointing and telling people where to go.  You lead by going to that place and making a case."  ~Ken Kesey

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Speaking Spanish Like A NativeSpeaking Spanish Like A Native by Brad Kim
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I would love to be able to review this book and state that it was instrumentally helpful in improving my conversational Spanish, but I can't do that, primarily because of the structure of the book.

The content is oddly organized, alphabetized by English meaning and not cross-referenced in Spanish anywhere. I read a colloquialism in a magazine a day after finishing the book, remembered having seen it, and was not able by the index, table of contents, or otherwise to locate the Spanish phrase in the book-- I would have already had to have known the English, and therefore not needed the book.

It's unclear how the author intended the reader to assimilate the information. The contact-paper binding and strange editing point to the book being self- or small-house published; it really could have benefited from editorial expertise and having someone knowledgeable in language instruction publication to help re-work the material into something usable.

There are many, many phrases, sayings, colorful expressions, and so forth presented here, but only in quippy paragraphy form introduced by the English equivalent. I will keep this book for a while hoping to find a way to use it, but for being able to comprehend what a Spanish speaker or writer is saying, this is not the resource.

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Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Happy Reading

I allegedly taught myself to read at age two, which I think is a bit of a stretch.  I know I was reading something after my third birthday, though, and I can't remember not reading.  It was a bit of a problem in preschool when I read the teeny tiny print at the bottom of the worksheets, completed the task, and went back to my book.  The teacher caught on and changed the assignment long after I'd stopped paying attention.  Despite that discouragement, I stayed in school long enough to finish my master's degree.  :)

Formal education is important to have a base of knowledge and proper credentials for what you want to do in life-- I see it as a key to unlock doors that would otherwise not be available.  Much of what I consider more essential learning, though, I've taught myself through a lifelong love of reading.  Here's my stack of books for 2013:

2013 Reading

I realized after I took the picture that I forgot to put Cervantes' Don Quixote on the pile, but it's in there as well.  I also have my Nook loaded with about a dozen books; some of the Free Fridays selections have been quite good lately.

This year is another year of mostly nonfiction.  Plenty of Thomas Jefferson, both primary material and scholarly critique.  I'll read Emerson's greatest work.  I'll read a compendium of poems that someone deemed the Top 500 and wonder where some of my favorites are, and then pass the book along to the library book sale.  I'll improve my Spanish beyond intermediate and hopefully not get completely overwhelmed.  I'll keep reading up on how to parent gifted children without upsetting them or slipping into insanity.  

I'll post my Goodreads reviews over here, but if you'd like to discuss, we can be friends on Goodreads:  You'll see that I run on about every book I finish... so let's discuss!  Happy reading!

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Happy 2013!

Happy 2013!

Long time no writing, huh?  My intention to be a prolific writer in 2012 got away from me, I'm afraid.  Here's to 2013 being better for that.  It's a fresh new year with so much possibility!

I read all the books in that big stack last year, and many more; I have a new stack to share for 2013 and can't wait to dive into all of them!  I will start posting my Goodreads reviews over here for anyone interested.   I've kept a reading list since 2000, and it's kind of fun to editorialize everything and see what other readers' impressions have been.

Since I last wrote, I've continued my studies in Spanish and will write more about that as I've moved from a rank beginner to somewhere in the middle.  I trained in August to become a literacy tutor, and now I teach a student a bit older than myself how to be a  more fluent reader and speller, and I'm reminded each time how fortunate I've been in my education.  I put the knitting down and finished a long-undone needlework project, which I'll share before I send it off to be framed later this week-- and then go buy some more sock yarn.  I continue to deal with my slowing midlife metabolism and will not go gently into that good night!

Here's to a year of reflection, action, peace and productivity!