Friday, April 18, 2014

What adventure smells like

So I'm on another Epic Late-Night Grocery Run, cruising the aisles of Safeway in the middle of the night on a quest for frosted flakes, and suddenly I catch the scent of something familiar. And a split second before I can mentally identify the scent, a specific pleasure center in my brain pipes up with the thought, You're going to have an adventure.

Well, that's odd.

I turn around. Directly across the aisle from the cold cereal boxes are the plastic push-to-vend dispensers filled with bulk coffee beans. Rows and rows and rows of dispensers (Seattleites are particular about their coffee, even the home-brewed kind), and I see them and start to smile. Because, for once, I know exactly why my brain reacted as it did, priming me for an adventure just because I smelled coffee.

If you know me, you might find this mental connection a little silly; after all, I'm a member of a church that advises its members not to drink coffee or tea. (The first and only time I drank coffee in my life was as a demanding toddler. I was whining for some of my paternal grandma's morning coffee because it smelled so good, like a really exotic kind of hot chocolate. Grandma, knowing it was against my religion, kept telling me no, but then my mom -- no doubt realizing that anything forbidden becomes more tantalizing -- said, "Oh, go ahead, let her have some." After one big sip of hot, strong, acrid black coffee that tasted NOTHING like hot chocolate, I had zero interest in trying it again.) But for me, the scent of coffee figures into a lot of pleasant memories. It's part of the memory of my Aunt Marcia and Uncle John's home in the early morning, along with the other scents of breakfast cooking. It's part of the memory of going to the big Cost Plus flagship store in Oakland and wandering around looking at burlap bags of coffee, Asian teapots, scented votive candles, articulated wooden snake toys, whirligigs, alien antennae, Bee & Flower sandalwood soap, and little round chocolate-covered apricot brandy cordials. It's part of the memory of being 20 years old and having my first full-time adult job at an appraisal company, where the scent of coffee was always wafting from the break room.

Mostly, though, I remember summer days and Saturdays in childhood, piling into the orange VW microbus, and driving nearly an hour from our house in Concord through the East Bay towns of Walnut Creek and Orinda, through the long tiled stretch of the Caldecott Tunnel (the weather was always different on the other side), and a quick stop to pay toll before we headed over the Bay Bridge, with a quick dip into Yerba Buena Island -- and then the city vista of San Francisco stretched out before us, glittering and urbane and punctuated by the Transamerica and Coit Towers. And with that sight came a very specific scent: the strong, rich, unmistakable tang of roasting coffee from the Hills Bros. roasting plant on the Embarcadero.

That scent was a sign and a promise -- a sign that adventures were coming, and a promise that they would be memorable. Going into San Francisco meant visiting Ocean Beach, playing in the surf and finding fragile grey sand dollars to take home. It meant watching monkeys swing and play and hoot in their enclosure at the San Francisco Zoo. It meant walking between the stately columns and through the front doors of the old Steinhart Aquarium, or wandering through the Japanese Tea Garden, or getting a peek at the bison in Golden Gate Park. It meant visiting the ACT to watch plays with my junior high English class. It meant the Doggie Diner and Union Square and Green Apple Books. It meant the Exploratorium and the Palace of Fine Arts. It meant walking across the Golden Gate Bridge and getting a sweet sample of fresh-made chocolate at Ghirardelli Square, or running loose in Macy's. It meant getting a fresh loaf of Boudin sourdough and riding a cable car from Powell & Market to wherever it was going, or shopping for beautiful lacy dresses in the Gunne Sax outlet. Later, it meant catching a glimpse of a flock of wild parrots in flight, or walking into Rincon Center and seeing the "Rain Column" water feature for the first time, pouring 85 feet down from a ring in the center of the building's atrium.

But before any of that, there was the scent of coffee to usher us into whatever amazing event the day had to offer. And now, standing in the grocery store some 800 miles and thirty-odd years away, I close my eyes and take a slow, deep breath through the nose, and I can't help but smile again at what it does to me. No, I don't drink coffee, but I don't need to. In my mind the smell of roasting coffee will always be the incense of some great adventure yet to come, the promise of the unexpected, and the scent of wonder. And really, what more could you ask from one little bean?

Thursday, April 17, 2014

How to talk to an introvert

Based on what I've been reading, there are a lot of misconceptions floating around online and in person when it comes to the subject of introverts. People seem to think that all introverts are painfully shy (not necessarily), that they're social hermits who shun parties (that depends on the nature of the party), that they're oblivious navel-gazers (uh, we prefer the term "observant thinkers," thanks).

People gain and expend their energy in different ways. As you may have heard, introverts get their energy from downtime -- being left alone to read, watch movies, surf the web, daydream, create and otherwise "recharge." They don't have a problem with being alone; in fact, they'll go a little stir crazy if they don't get sufficient alone time. If you think of life energy as equivalent to money, downtime is how introverts make the cash they need to live.

So let's say your friendly neighborhood introvert has just spent several hours reading the latest Neil Gaiman novel and is feeling pretty flush with energy, and it's now time to sally forth and run errands. Errand-running means interacting with other people, and interacting with other people means spending some of that precious life energy. Most introverts expend their life energy the way people on a strict budget spend their money: carefully. They don't want to burn through their limited energy budget and not have anything meaningful to show for it.

This is why introverts, almost to a one, would gnaw off their own legs to avoid small talk; fluffy cotton-candy conversations about the weather and everyone's health and "how 'bout them Mariners" exhaust their limited energy reserves, and offer very little mental sustenance in return. This is also why many introverts avoid parties, especially parties where they don't know anyone; small talk is often the first step to getting to know others better, but introverts have such low tolerance for idle chitchat that they don't end up making new friends at such gatherings. Instead they tend to hover in an obscure corner, just breathing and listening to other people, or they flee the intense mix-and-mingle areas and find a quiet place to take a ten-minute introvert break.

But just because introverts don't like small talk doesn't mean they don't like to talk at all. They just want their conversations to be meaningful. (Remember, they've got a limited energy budget, so they want the most bang for their buck.) Generally speaking, then, introverts are drawn to conversations about ideas -- especially ideas that are already important to them. But they can also be genuinely interested in the ideas that make others tick, especially if such people are unabashedly enthusiastic about their passions. Seeing someone just light up about a concept that makes him or her happy is an experience well worth expending one's limited energy on, at least by my lights.

Introverts are opinionated (sometimes very opinionated, if my own example is any indication), but often won't venture to make comment unless someone asks first. So be the one who asks. Just be prepared for anything; many introverts are philomaths and are full of wide-ranging, interesting tidbits they've soaked up during their downtime. (Oh yeah, and if you want to be a mighty juggernaut at Trivial Pursuit team games, get their contact information! AND LO, YE SHALL BE THE UNSTOPPABLE INFOMANIACS!)

Oh, and another thing: some introverts have a tough time making prolonged eye contact during conversations. This doesn't mean they're not interested in what you have to say. Introverts tend to have an easier time making eye contact when they're relaxed; this tends to happen most often with people they've known for a while, or people whom they trust. Give them time. Meanwhile, take confidence in the knowledge that if an introvert deliberately chooses to continue a conversation with you, he or she is interested -- eye contact or no eye contact.

Some of my friends are introverts, so I'm going to be the one who asks: what's the best way for someone to engage you in conversation without making you want to hyperventilate and retreat to a locked room somewhere?

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Small satisfactions

Today, my kitchen island is clean.

True, everything else in the house resembles the detritus left behind after a Wild Rumpus, but that's not the point. Just for today, and maybe only for a few hours, I have proven to myself that I have the ability to impose some semblance of order on small spaces, to conquer the clutter. Whenever I feel discouraged at my awful housekeeping today, I can stop wrestling with whatever quotidian mess I'm fighting, look toward the center of my living space, and see a serene little clearing of organization and cleanliness in the jungle of chaos.

Yes, it's a small thing, but you've gotta start somewhere.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Why I am not a feminist

Actress Kirsten Dunst is apparently taking a beating in the media this weekend. Interviewed for the May issue of Harper's Bazaar UK, Dunst made some supposedly-controversial comments about the nature of gender (aka sex) roles in modern society:
Dunst is surprisingly outspoken on the subject of gender: "I feel like the feminine has been a little undervalued," she says. "We all have to get our own jobs and make our own money, but staying at home, nurturing, being the mother, cooking -- it's a valuable thing my [mom] created. And sometimes, you need your knight in shining armour. I'm sorry. You need a man to be a man and a woman to be a woman. That's why relationships work..."
Erin Gloria Ryan, writing for feminist blog Jezebel, considers these comments -- which for hundreds of years were merely commonsense wisdom about the sexes -- to be so abysmally stupid as not to be worth taking the time to refute with logic. She writes a mere 120 words on the subject (most of them shopworn middle-school clich├ęs about Dunst being blonde and "kind of dumb") and dismisses the rest. Nice work if you can get it.

So apparently feminism is all about women choosing to do whatever empowers them and makes them happy -- unless what empowers you and makes you happy happens to be championing the values of traditional femininity. Then the nurturing sisterhood, as one, becomes a pack of raging harpies to turn on you and tear you apart -- as Ms. Dunst could certainly attest.

But before feminists dogpile all over themselves in the race to shove Kirsten into the corner and crown her with the Dunst cap, could someone take the time to inform me what precisely was so shameful about what she said? Certainly it wasn't the sentiment. She took time to honor the contributions of her own mother, who made the choice to be a homemaker. She admitted that men and women need each other, and that each has something unique and valuable to contribute to a loving relationship. As far as I can tell, the source of all the ugly here is the suggestion by Ms. Dunst that men and women have different natures. Well, OF COURSE men and women have different natures. The most honest feminists already know this, even if they are loath to admit it -- after all, if men and women were exactly the same, all feminists would welcome men to their cause with open arms instead of calling them beastly, patriarchal oppressors, suggesting that women need men like fish need bicycles, and repeatedly excluding them from the girls-only treehouse. Solidarity, rather than segregation, would be the order of the day. Instead, even men who consider themselves ardent feminists are sometimes treated with suspicion and disdain, simply because they are male.

This controversy is one of many reasons why I don't call myself a feminist. Yes, I'm in favor of being able to own things in my own name, walking around in public without a chaperone and having basic control over my own body. But if you ask me, these things no longer make one a feminist -- only a member of a modern free republic. Due in part to the work of early feminists, ideas once grouped under the status of "feminist beliefs" are now widely considered to be commonsense beliefs. You know, I'm also in favor of adult women being able to vote, but that doesn't make me a suffragette. Women's suffrage, at least in my country, is a done deal; the American people have long since realized that it was wrong to force adults to be subject to laws which they were not allowed to vote on, simply because they were female. Furthermore, if there were a modern suffragist movement that wanted to extend voting rights to girls as young as age 6, I would be adamantly against it; such a move would effectively liquidate the democratic process. Likewise, I'm not a feminist because most of the early equity-feminist goals have been achieved, either through legislation or encouraging social change. And these days an alarming number of people who call themselves feminists seem to be attempting to rend and destroy the culture in which they live. I see much that is worth saving in my culture, so I cannot stand with those who would shred it to pieces for the sake of pulling down "the patriarchy."

The thing I find most odd about the behavior of the modern feminist movement is the way it seems to push back against individualism. Feminism is supposedly about women's liberation, about women's rights. To me, that includes the right to be free not to call yourself a feminist, the right to decide for yourself that you're already liberated, the right to choose to be a wife and mother first if that's what you really want. I see in this something akin to the process of raising a child; your ultimate goal as a parent is to work yourself out of a job, to help shape a healthy adult with her own thoughts and ideas, one who can live independently of you. Of course you miss the child, but you also take pride in the adult your child has grown to become. But this goal -- to glory in the triumph of strong, capable, well-educated, independent women in society -- seems to have been lost in the modern feminist movement. Far from their stated goals of female liberation, feminist leaders seem to panic at the idea that there are strong women in the world who have declared themselves mature enough not to require the support structure of a political movement. They seem to need a cadre of perpetual teenagers, constantly fearful of having their rights snatched away by the looming specter of the Male Chauvinist Pig, and never quite able to think or act independently of the Cause.

So the question now before me is whether I need feminism, or whether feminism needs me. More and more it seems to me that the latter statement is more true than the former. As a political movement that needs the power of the masses to effect its goals, modern feminism is trying to pull in as many women as possible by trying to convince them that if they believe in such common-sense notions as women voting, owning property, not being sexually harassed at work, etc., then They May Already Be Members! But I don't accept that notion. And I'm just enough of an old-fashioned rugged individualist that I don't believe political and social change only takes place by stirring up the emotions of well-choreographed mobs.

Sorry, ladies. I'm standing with Ms. Dunst on this one.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Tra-la-la BOOM-de-ay, I'm wat-chin' A-ni-me...

It's been a long while since I followed any anime series; I think the last time was when Miss V was going through her anime/manga obsession in middle school. But just recently I've had a couple of shows recommended to me by friends, so I'm working my way through each one, an episode or two at a time. Maybe you'll like them too -- so here they are:

Four middle-school students from the undersea town of Shioshishio -- Hikari, Manaka, Chisaki and Kaname -- must attend school in a town on land after their middle school closes down. They are not welcomed by their fellow students, most of whom are prejudiced against sea-people, but one of the land-dwellers, a fisherman named Tsumugu, befriends them. It's hard enough just being a teenager without the added sturm und drang of having friends or sweethearts who can't breathe underwater. Part magical realism, part teen drama, with beautifully surreal visuals.

An alien race known as the Gamilans have been waging total war against Earth, making it all but uninhabitable. In desperation, the U.N. Cosmo Navy uses alien technology to transform the WWII-era Japanese battleship Yamato into a spaceship, sending its crew on a desperate mission to save Earth from complete destruction. A recent remake of the 1970s anime classic (aka Star Blazers in the U.S.) with some updates to the storyline, a few new characters, and (not to be disloyal to the original or anything) better animation. They're currently planning a feature film for release in Fall 2014, so now's a good time to prepare by watching this.


Monday, April 07, 2014

Spring adventures with V

Well, Miss V has the week off for spring break, so we went just everywhere today -- runnin' errands and buyin' stuff. Oh, and rolling down the windows and singing along loudly and obnoxiously with the radio. (This is a moral imperative on the rare occasions when we see actual sun and blue sky in the greater Seattle area.)

V is a junior this year, but every day brings us a little closer to the time she heads off for post-graduation adventures -- whether that's college, a mission, work on a film, or some other major event. We've tried to teach her the things she needs to know to function independently and capably as a young woman making her way in the world. She's got a good head on her shoulders and in many ways is more mature in her thinking than her peers. With the possible exception of cooking, which she still shows very little interest in learning, she's got most of the basic life skills she'll need.

The whole point of being a parent (or, in this case, a guardian) is to work yourself out of a job. I know that. I want V to be ready for whatever life throws at her, and I'm glad she's learning the things she needs to know.

I'm just really going to miss her when she goes.

Saturday, April 05, 2014


Kids who grow up in big families tend to eat a lot of beans. They're cheap, nourishing and you can cook them in about a bazillion ways. And my mom knew all sorts of ways to cook them: bean soups, baked beans, bean casseroles, bean salads... and, of course, pinto bean chili.

Just so you don't get the wrong idea, I should probably mention first that my mom is an excellent cook. Night after night she came up with tasty, inexpensive, well-balanced meals, often on the fly and with whatever ingredients we had on hand. And of course I'm going to bypass all those peaceful, delicious occasions and discuss the one time when things went disastrously wrong. I'm such an ingrate.

Anyway, one crisp autumn afternoon Mom cooked up an epic pot of homemade chili using some of our food-storage pinto beans. The fantastic scent of that chili slowly filled our big kitchen, and by dinnertime I was ravenous. I got a bowl, spooned up some chili, put it into my mouth and --


I'd just bitten into a rock. Fortunately I didn't break a tooth, but the aggregate all came apart, bits of rock and dirt and who-knows-what-else mixing with the chili in my mouth. I gagged on the obnoxious slurry of beans, rocks and loam and ran to the sink to spit it out.

Dry beans, being natural products, must be carefully sorted and washed to remove any foreign objects before they're cooked. Most of the time my mom sorted the beans one by one, but on this particular occasion she was running short on time, so she just cooked them up without checking. And I got the benefit of eating a natural product in its fully natural state. For a long time after that, I had chili trust issues.

That's not to say there aren't any food prep disasters on my own record. Several years ago, after Miss V came to live with us, I had a sudden yearning for romanesco. We'd gotten used to buying cheap, fresh, fractal green romanesco at the farm stand near our house in Eugene, and I'd developed a taste for it, but not many supermarkets stock romanesco on a regular basis. They do, however, stock organic romanesco in season at PCC Natural Markets. So I drove over to my local PCC, picked up a couple of heads, rinsed them and gave them a good steaming in preparation for dinner.

V, who had just taken a class about the virtues of natural, organic food, was all ready to be wowed by the romanesco. We took the lid off the pot, doled out the fractal-ly cruciferous goodness and were tucking in when she made a horrible face and said, "I can't eat this. It's got bugs."

And it did indeed have bugs -- tiny little black bugs that could easily have been mistaken for pepper, but weren't. In my excitement at finding some romanesco to buy, I'd forgotten that organic produce needs a little more TLC than conventionally-grown produce. You need to immerse organic romanesco in salt water for some time, just to encourage any living stowaways to vacate the premises before you cook it. I'd missed that step... and since I wasn't keen on adding any unauthorized protein to our diet that night, we had to pitch the romanesco into the trash.

I was reminded of these two experiences just recently, when I started reading a new book. It's what the Hollywood people would call a high-concept story, in that the premise immediately engages you and draws you in. It's well-paced, the main character is funny and interesting, and I do want to read more. But there is an issue with it. It's the language.

My response to profanity and vulgarity in media varies a bit. Some mild oaths are just vaguely discomfiting, like biting into a food you severely dislike. Some are a little worse, like the experience of finding rocks in chili or bugs in romanesco. And some foul language is like getting the equivalent of a mouthful of thumbtacks or broken glass.

The first sentence of this story is four words long, one of which is a thumbtack-eating vulgarity. And similar language is scattered throughout the 55 pages I've read so far. It makes me wince, because this story is good. The language doesn't need to be there.

Yeah, I know, I'm a sheltered, hopeless prude who needs to get with the times, right? It's unreasonable for me to expect authors, directors, singers, actors and other media people to alter their language just to meet my aesthetic expectations. Teens and adults are gonna swear; anyone can hear worse language in the average public high school. It's perfectly natural. Get over it.

Thing is, I think I've already proven that just because something is "natural," that doesn't automatically make it desirable. Poison ivy is natural. Skunk spray is natural. Crows picking at roadkill and dogs consuming their own feces -- yep, also natural. Maybe adult humans using vile language is also natural, but if so it falls into this same category of natural-but-undesirable behavior. I wish I didn't see so much of it in our society; I think people who make a habit of swearing -- or of introducing profanity into their creative work -- are lazy creators. More to the point, they seem to have forgotten, or have never learned, the unnatural-but-desirable habit of being gracious to others. Modifying one's language to exclude profanity is a gentlemanly or ladylike act; one does it to ensure that others are immediately comfortable in one's presence.

And no, avoiding profanity doesn't come naturally to everyone. It takes time, thought and work -- like sorting through dry beans, like immersing romanesco in salt water, like making sure the food that nourishes you and makes you strong isn't in some way contaminated. But take it from someone who can still taste the memory of dirt clinging to her tongue -- it's worth the effort.