Monday, March 31, 2014

Winter at the Beacon Food Forest

I first got involved with Seattle's Beacon Food Forest a little over a year ago. Back in December, I wrote an overview of 2013 volunteering with the project. Since then, there's been three monthly work parties this winter. Considering those are usually some of the coldest and wettest months, the turnout and productivity was astonishing. Here's a look back:

January was shockingly warm and beautiful. Plants were planted, trenches dug, stone walls built, ground mulched, tools cared for.
My personal area of most interest is the compost, and in January we prepared the site for the first official compost bin. We leveled and woodchipped while the carpenters finished constructing the lid for the 3-bin compost system.

Lunch was sunny, musical, and delicious, and at the end of the day we realized there had been 150 volunteers. Incredible!

The February work party felt like a more typical winter day with its chilling cold and foreboding clouds. Again, amazing volunteers came and contributed a ton of work. In addition to planting nursery plants, we also started seeding some seeds. I was helping with compost again, as we chopped compost materials and started building up the piles. Then the sky opened up right at lunch time, and it POURED. We huddled under the pop-up tents, drank tea, and accepted that sometime you just have to get wet and muddy.

The March work party was right before the vernal equinox, so it was technically still winter. The weather was pretty nice- not too cold, and only the smallest spatterings of rain. Then it got sunny! I couldn't understand why my face felt so warm when I got home, and it took me awhile to realize that I had gotten a little sunburned! 
The Beacon Food Forest recently installed several beautiful educational signs throughout the site. Extra special about this work party? The artist who designed the signs came up from Portland to be there! Illustrator Molly Danielsson is an artist with a background in science, and specializes in visually representing complex and sometimes technical ideas. Her explanations of biological processes from compost to urban forests are awesome.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Olympic Coast Weekend

While the rest of the world was thinking about the Olympics in Sochi, I was plotting my escape to Washington state's own Olympic peninsula. I was waiting for the next opening in razor clam season as my perfect excuse to drive to the coast. These big clams can only be dug in the cooler months, and only after the Department of Fish and Wildlife tests marine toxins to determine they are safe to eat.

There are several beaches on the southern portion of the peninsula with abundant clam populations where you can dig on approved dates. The best time to dig is 1-2 hours before low tide.
From Dept. of Fish and Wildlife Website
Last Friday, low tide was around 6pm, so that meant that my sweetie and I had to leave town a little early to get to the beach in time. It was still light, and we had no trouble finding the clam holes and catching our limit (15 clams each).
It was a gorgeous evening- calm, clear, mild, and with a stunning sunset. Our hard digging work was rewarded with burgers and beers at a nearby pub before heading to the campsite. We had to blanch the clams to take the shells off, and then get them into the cooler. Did you know the Jetboil pot is the perfect width and depth for dunking razors clams?

In the morning, we still had to clean the clams. The clouds had rolled in and the wind picked up, and a seagull eyed us relentlessly from his perch 15 feet away. One of us did the cutting open while the other scraped the guts out. It was sort of a ridiculous process to do at a campsite on a winter day, with one bucket of guts and one bucket of clean rinsing water. We had to keep hot water on the camp stove to dunk our freezing fingers. But we knew it would be worth it to have a cooler full of clean, delicious local clams.
It was a fun day of road tripping north up the peninsula. I had never been on Highway 112 toward Neah Bay, and it's a beautiful stretch of road as it hugs the shoreline out to the very corner of the state. We made it to the Shi Shi Beach trailhead in the late afternoon. It's a couple miles hike in, and while I don't usually backpack in rubber boots, I'm glad I wore them for this crazy muddy trail.
This section of the coast is breath-taking. Shi Shi is wild and rugged and you realize that it has looked that way for hundreds or thousands of years. The Point of Arches sea stacks are so unique, and the tide pools are plentiful. It was a little disconcerting though to see how much garbage was on and off the beach. I thought at first that it was from visitors not packing out their garbage, but then I realized that with the buoys and big blocks of styrofoam, it was more likely that  the debris had been washed ashore. If I ever got back there, I am definitely bringing a garbage bag to haul off some of the trash.
It rained during the night and all day on Sunday. That didn't stop us from walking around and exploring, and in fact the mist added to the ambiance. I must be a Pacific Northwesterner, because I found myself saying things like, "Wow, we got so lucky with the weather! We saw stars on Friday, and it didn't even rain on Saturday!"

We hiked out of Shi Shi and took a short side trip to Cape Flattery, the most northwestern point in the contiguous United States. By that point, it was dumping rain. Luckily, much of the muddy trail is boardwalked. Unluckily, I wanted to take more pictures but was worried about damaging my camera in the downpour.
As we left Neah Bay, we decided that more coffee was in order. It was cold, damp, and we still had a bit of driving to get to Port Angeles, not to mention to the ferry and back to Seattle. The next town was Clallam Bay, so we figured we'd take whatever we could find, even if it meant a gas station. We stopped at a little shop on a corner of town, which appeared to be a hodge-podge of mini-mart, gallery, and ice-cream shop. I didn't see an espresso machine, and thought maybe this was not going to fit the bill. I asked the lady if she had coffee, and she exclaimed in a sweet Australian accent, "Why yes! But only French press and pour over. I carry beans roasted nearby in Sequim by a father and son team. Are you a light roast or dark roast person?" Needless to say, it was a really good cup of coffee, one of those welcome surprises when you are on the road and don't know what you will find.

Back home we set to work making a big clam dinner before the rest went in the freezer. We fried some clams as an appetizer, then made a northwest version of pasta a la vongole- a delicious pasta tossed with a white wine-butter-garlic clam sauce. Next up will be zucchini-clam fritters and clam chowder. Yeah for catching and eating your own food!

Friday, February 28, 2014

How to Be a Better Coffee Customer

I recently started a totally new job, which means I am 99% sure that I will never, ever again in my life get paid to make espresso. A part of me will miss my awesome customers, the grounding feeling of being part of the rhythm of some one's day, and serving up delicious, artfully poured caffeinated beverages. But I will not miss doing customer service, especially the moments when customers are less-than-ideal.

I like to give folks the benefit of the doubt and assume that they just don't know when they are being rude... and then I thought, "Hey, I should write a blog post about that!" Lo and behold, some one else already did. How to Piss Off Your Barista from the Huffington Post is pretty spot on, and mentions a lot of what I wanted to say. But, in laying down my barista hatchet (tamper?), I still must say my piece, my way.

1. When you order your drink, place your WHOLE order then. It actually matters.

It's really frustrating to have a customer tell you when you're halfway through steaming a pitcher of milk that they actually wanted nonfat milk. Or soy. Guess what? All that half-steamed, lukewarm milk gets dumped out, wasted. Also, even adding, "Can you make that extra hot?" while the drink is in progress is annoying, because I have timed your drink down to the SECOND to make sure that the milk is already done steaming before your shot finishes pulling. A shot that has to sit starts to taste bad. So sure, I CAN make your milk extra hot, but that extra 15 seconds of steaming is 15 seconds your shot is sitting, getting gross. Am I supposed to serve bad shots? Or do I pull new ones, giving you free product AND making you and every one else wait longer? It's a lose-lose situation.

One more example: It takes more cold milk at the start to make a dry cappuccino than a wet cappuccino. More milk yields more foam. Also, good, silky foam can only be made while the milk is cold/cool (below body temperature) so asking a barista to make your cappuccino bone dry when she's already halfway through steaming the milk is physically impossible. But she will just smile and nod.

2. Take out your earbuds/Look up from your smartphone when ordering.

I remember when I moved to South Korea in 2010 and was riding the subway in Seoul for the first time. Almost every one was on their smartphone. It struck me, because it wasn't yet like that in the U.S. When I came back to Seattle over a year later, I noticed far more smartphone use in public, and it permeates not just our alone time, but our time when we would previously have been interacting with humans. Family dinners? Smartphone. At the bar with friends? Smartphone. Ordering your vanilla latte? Smartphone. I understand that for a customer, it might be their few minutes of downtime between work or classes or driving. But for a barista, it's her full-time job, and even though you are just one customer with a three-minute interaction, a whole day of that is incredibly dehumanizing. If some one wants coffee from a machine, I recommend making it at home or going to a gas station or coffee vending machine.

You may have already seen these videos, but while we are on the topic of the pervasiveness of smartphones, here is comedian Louis CK on Conan O'Brien talking about kids and phones, and here's MIT professor Sherry Turkle giving a fabulous TED talk Connected, But Alone. Also, I wanted to share this poem (recorded on KUOW) called Analog Love by Elissa Ball. Elissa is an acquaintance I met in college, and is a powerful poet now living here in Seattle. I love this poem and how in explosive reverence it reminds us of the visceral, tangible qualities of life and love that have gotten lost in this digital age.

3. Order whatever you want, but don't justify your choices to the barista.

Baristas ask follow-up questions about your drink just to be sure they are making what you want, not because they care one way or the other. So if you order a soy mocha, she might ask if you want whipped cream just because that's standard. For every customer who rolls their eyes and says, "Uh... of course not, it's a soy mocha!" there are just as many customers who say, "Uh, of course! Who would pass up whipped cream on a mocha?" There are people who order nonfat lattes with whipped cream. Any drink that seems strange or unlikely has probably been ordered. It starts to feel really inauthentic to smile and chuckle and agree with all the customers and their widely varying preferences.

4. Don't act like spare change is a major catastrophe.

This mostly applies at places that don't allow baristas to accept tips, such as state institutions. Once I rang up a guy's coffee, and it was $2.03. He balked then glared at me, "Are you serious? Two oh three?" he repeated. I assumed he thought it was too expensive and that's what he was mad about. After repeating the price a few more times, he finally said, "What am I supposed to do with 97 cents?" He stared at me expectantly. Surprisingly, this kind of thing happened often- customers being almost offended that they had to take any change.

Also, don't try to pay less for a drink than the full price. It's just tacky. That same guy probably wanted to pay a flat $2 to avoid getting change back, and I understand it's only three cents. But unless you see a penny jar with pennies to use, it is putting the barista in an awkward position. If she is not the business owner, it's not really up to her to undercharge you, and her till needs to be correct at the end of the shift.

5. Try to talk to your barista while waiting for your drink.

Remember, this is what she does full-time, or a good chunk of her working hours. And guess what? Making coffee all day can get kind of tedious. A little genuine connection or sense of humor goes a long way. If she seems busy or not able to talk right then, that's fine. But a huge part of what makes working in the service industry enjoyable is relating to people. And what is going to be more enjoyable to you as the customer, checking your Facebook newsfeed for the billionth time, or a barista who knows you? I got really close to some of my coffee customers, and still hang out with a few of them even six months after leaving that job.

It was actually a customer who inspired me to apply for the job I have now. In our quick exchange at the drive-through window, I told her I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do next in my life. "Well, how would you spend your days if money was no object?" she asked. "Writing and gardening!" I said. She nodded pointedly as she drove away, and that was the first time it had ever occurred to me to think of myself as a writer. I am now a writer at a job I love, thanks in part to one customer who was willing to really engage for a few minutes.

6. Don't assume your barista knows everything about the surrounding area.

If you do want to ask a logistical question, at least preface it with a "By any chance do you know..." and if they don't know then don't stare at them like they are an idiot. It may be shocking, but being a barista at a cafe does not preclude that we know directions to every part of the city, all the bus routes, what time they come, where the closest post office is, why the automatic door opener on the building next door isn't working, how to get to your biochemistry lab in the J wing, etc. Most baristas are barely trained enough in coffee, let alone the whole city.

That's all I got. I don't usually rant, but I wanted to just get that off my chest. And I'm going to enjoy not making any one coffee for a looooong time. I already have a policy of only dating men who make coffee for me, so I'm off to a good start!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

February of Champions

It's been over two weeks already, but I would be a terrible Seattleite if I didn't at least mention the Seahawks. You may have already heard about it, how they CONQUERED THE UNIVERSE? Or at the very least, won the Super Bowl?! 

Now, I'm not really much of a sports fan, but it was pretty amazing to see Seattle explode with so much pride and support. Suddenly everywhere you looked there were jerseys, hats, green and blue lights, banners, signs up in house windows, and whole downtown buildings decorated. The top of the Space Needle emitted the team's colors. Pretty much the whole city became the 12th Man. This was the view from my office for about 2 weeks before the big game.
And what did I do on that historic Sunday? I high-tailed it to the mountains, for a day of serene snow-tromping and hot spring soaking. Sacrilege, I know. I can't believe I'm even admitting that. I just didn't want to stay inside all day watching football when I've never been a fan. But I certainly was happy that so many Seattleites were happy to do just that. And I was kind of envious of all the delicious snacks that were being made and drinks being consumed.
The funny part was, when I got home around 6pm, I immediately checking the score and Facebook for the play-by-play. I suddenly had the overwhelming feeling that I couldn't completely miss the Super Bowl, so I ran to the pub across the street for a beer, some major Seattle camaraderie, and the last 20 minutes of the game. I cheered and hugged strangers and I have to say it was a pretty astounding evening to be in this city.

That weekend was also Imbolc, which is the halfway point between the winter solstice and spring equinox. I went to a Christmas tree burning at Golden Gardens- if you've never been to one of these, I highly recommend it. The quick woosh of flames is entrancing to watch, and you really do feel like some part of the darkness of winter is being burned away.
It was Groundhogs day too, and spring is indeed coming. But not before the weather took a seriously cold turn. That following week, it got beautifully clear and bitterly cold, making my bike commute painful for my fingers and toes.

That also meant it was in the 20's for the Seahawks Victory Parade, held the Wednesday after the game. I had to work that day, but luckily my office is in Pioneer Square, right on the parade route. These were some of the views out the window.
Even from five stories up, the  low roar of cheering from outside was audible for hours. I tried to get work done, but kept getting drawn to the window to watch the crowds in awe, who had arrived hours and hours before the parade started. I did go outside for a little while, and marveled at the people waiting steadfast in the cold, clustered onto a bridge, sitting in trees, and hanging from buildings.

My cousin and her husband actually drove to Seattle from Idaho to watch the parade, along with their two little boys, and were outside all day. I give them serious props for that. The day of the parade was pretty magical for me- not because I'm a Seahawks fan, but because I'm a Seattle fan. I will never forget how much energy, excitement, and joy was in the air. Call it a contact high.

The following weekend wasn't quite as civically momentous, but it was another great weekend. We celebrated my aunt's birthday by Riding the Ducks. Even though we are locals, no one in my family had ever done this land-and-water tour of the city. Verdict? It was really really fun. I learned a ton about Seattle that I didn't know, and it was a fast-paced, catchy, theatrical tour.
That night it snowed, and we got a long-awaited snow day. Everywhere kids were sledding and building snowmen. I tromped around the arboretum and Foster Island, with hot coffee and pain au chocolat. So far, February has been pretty fabulous.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Back in the Saddle

It's the last day of January, and I have to say that 2014 has started out great so far. At the beginning of the month I was between jobs and had a couple weeks of downtime, so I decided to take a little trip to the southern US and get some warm weather.

My first stop was visiting my dad in Florida. Once a year never feels like enough time with my sweet, fun, attentive, eccentric father, but it's better than nothing and I cherish our days together. On this visit, we went to Crystal River, which sits on a spring-fed bay where the water is a constant 72 degrees. Because of this, about 400 manatees leave the cooler Gulf waters in the winter to live there. It was pretty spectacular to be able to watch them swim.

Oh, but that part about going south to get some warm weather? I picked the exact wrong week to do it. It was during the polar vortex, when pretty much the whole country was blasted with freakishly, devastatingly cold temperatures. Of course, Florida wasn't -40F, but it was mild in the 40-60 degree range. The weather did, however, make for some amazing photographs nationwide, like these ones of Lighthouses in Michigan.

My second stop was to see Lindsey who lives in Austin. It was also cool and rainy, but that did not dampen my spirits. I got to catch up with my dear friend, hang out with her ridiculously cute dog (who is especially ridiculous in conjunction with the roommate's dog), go running, drink Texan beer, have lunch with a cousin, ride bikes, eat southern BBQ, and see really good live music.
When I got home I felt refreshed and ready to get to it. It was time to start my new job! I now work as a writer in downtown Seattle. It's a big and VERY welcome change. So far, I'm loving it. I feel like I'm coming back to myself in a strange way, like I am getting reacquainted with the parts of myself that were put on hold while doing work I didn't like as much.

I'm back in the saddle literally too, as I've committed to bike commuting to the office 3-4 days a week. A couple weeks ago, I spent a Sunday fixing up my bike- cleaned it, lubed the chain, put air in the tires, replaced the rear brakes, got a new tail light, and put new batteries in the headlight. The first day I rode to work was totally nerve-wracking, winding my way through the construction at south Lake Union and zig-zagging to Pioneer Square while trying not to get hit by cars every block of the ridiculous left-hand bike lane on 2nd Avenue. I got to work feeling equally elated and furious, wondering if the health benefits of cycling really outweighed the stress.

But since then it's gotten a little better, and I'm trying to accept that riding downtown is a whole other beast, and takes a whole other mindset. For now, I'm just going to enjoy the lifestyle change and the pedaling.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Shaking My Own Dust

Happy New Year! In the spirit of new beginnings and resolutions, I wanted to share a poem by Anis Mojgani. I saw him perform when I was in college in Bellingham back in 2003 or 2004. I remember him performing a piece called Shake the Dust. For some reason, as 2013 was winding down, the poem flooded back to my mind. I recommend watching the video of him, but just to give an idea, here is the beginning of the poem.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

This is for the fat girls.
This is for the little brothers.

This is for the school yard wimps
And the childhood bullies that tormented them
For the former prom queen 
And for the milk crate ball players
For the nighttime cereal eaters
And for the retired elderly Walmart store front-door greeters
Shake the dust.

This is for the benches and the people sitting upon them
For the bus drivers driving a million broken hymns
For the men who have to hold down 3 jobs
Simply to hold up their children
For the nighttime schoolers
And for the midnight bike riders trying to fly
Shake the dust.

This is for the 2 year olds who cannot be understood
Because they speak half English and half god
Shake the dust.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

2013 was a good year in a lot of ways, and a really hard year in others. The last few weeks, I've been doing whatever I need to shake my own dust.

First, I felt the physical need to clean things. I've been going through my closet and vacuuming the corners of my room. I checked my bookshelf to see if there were any books I needed to return to people. I vacuumed my car. I went to the Korean spa to soak and sweat and scrub away the dead skin.

It's also been a mental and emotional process of letting go of patterns that are no longer serving me. I want to feel clean and new and empty, and tie up the loose ends that I've had nagging at the back of my mind- having certain conversations, visiting friends and family I've been meaning to. I've needed to catch up on sleep, and have a couple lazy mornings. I've needed to just enjoy some time wandering in Seattle. I've needed to get outside, running stairs and jogging Greenlake in the rain. I've needed to get into the snow and laugh with girlfriends. I've needed to shake the dust of a recent breakup, and the dust of worrying about who or what I will find in the future.
And now that I feel clean and less weighted down, I'm excited for 2014. Really, really excited. I'm starting a new job that I am genuinely happy about, for the first time in several years. It's not something that I ever thought I'd be doing, but at the same time I know it will be a creative and intellectual challenge and a really good fit. There is a lot I want to do this year- not that I will resolve to do, but that I will just do.

One of those things is to keep on blogging, which I have done steadily since 2007. I love having this place to come and write and think and share. Even though some argue that the blog is dead, I am going to be here right on through this new year, plowing forward with a heart full of gratitude.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Solstice and Christmas

The days leading up to Christmas were really fun this year. On the Friday before, we had our first snowfall of the season in Seattle! It was barely more than a dusting and melted by late morning, but it was still beautiful and enough to give schools a late start.
Saturday was Winter Solstice. Luckily, my good friend Will was free for a few hours, and willing to help me extract honey from my backyard hives. I had already harvested the extra honey frames at the end of summer, and tucked the bees in for the winter. But the frames have just been sitting in a tupperware bin in the house until I finally got around to renting the necessary extraction equipment. I set everything up in the basement, Will opened a delicious Firestone Walker Double Barrel Ale, and we set to work. The first step was to cut the "caps" off the honey comb with a hot (electric) uncapping knife.
When the honey in a cell is ready, the bees magically know that the moisture content is below 18%, and they put a wax cover or "cap" over that cell. Here you can see how the knife slices off the thin cap to expose the honey in each cell.
If parts of the comb are too recessed and don't get cut with the knife, you have to use a capping scratcher to scratch off the wax cap.
I had a 4-frame hand-crank extractor, so after uncapping 4 frames, we loaded them in. And then spun it! The centrifugal motion forces the honey onto the walls of the extractor, then it runs down the walls and out a spout at the bottom.
It was so satisfying to see enough honey extracted to start flowing out. Pure honey straight from the comb, with bits of wax still in it. And on the shortest day of the year, to reap the abundance of the longest days. In a post on Will's blog he mentions the process, and sums it up well: "It was a sticky, sticky business to be sure, and became completely hilarious when we both got a little buzzed and I dropped my phone in a puddle of honey, but dude, really, can you think of a better way to celebrate the winter solstice?"

No, no I can't.

The evening was also appropriately celebratory for the holiday, as I cooked up a Smitten Kitchen eggplant dish and headed over to the Feast of the Winter Solstice, put on annually by the Fremont Arts Council. It's the biggest potluck you'll ever go to, a true feast, with hundreds and hundreds of people bringing food. There were about 8 tables that looked like this.
There's food, art, bonfire, lots of live music, dancing, and even headdresses to borrow. 

On Monday, I went to my aunt's house and she taught me how to make lefse. It's basically a Norwegian flatbread made with mashed potatoes and flour. She was an awesome teacher with all sorts of tricks and tips that she has learned over the years in making this traditional dish for our Christmas Eve party on the Norwegian side of the family. She even had a lefse-specific electric griddle and a wooden wand, like the ones that you would use to flip a crepe.
Then she said, "While you're here, do you want me to show you krumkake too?" Krumkake is a cookie-like dessert where the batter gets cooked thin in a decorative iron, then while it's still hot gets rolled up. When it cools, it's light and crispy.
Christmas was pleasant and mellow as ever. Christmas is just one day though, and I like that there really is a "holiday season" that spreads things out. I know it's cheesy, but the beauty of being an adult is that we can celebrate this time of year how we want. For me, I did lots of cooking and eating and drinking, but also a lot of cold, misty runs around Greenlake. I saw a lot of family, but also spent time with chosen family of dear friends who were back in town. And on Christmas night when everything was over, cleaning the kitchen and putting away wrapping paper brought some wistfulness and also a small sense of relief.