27 November 2008

Pies! Pumpkin, Pecan, and Mince (sort of)

Here are three Thanksgiving pie recipes that are healthier than the usual versions – and tastier, too!

Pumpkin Pie

(I use fresh pumpkin – cut a small sugar pumpkin open, remove the seeds and gook, then bake, covered, until soft. Scrape the pie meat away from the shell, compost the shell, and use the meat.)

Puree in a blender:
2 cups pumpkin
2 cups half and half
½ to ¾ cup honey
2 Tablespoons molasses (Aunt Patty’s, unsulphured)
2 eggs
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
2 teaspoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

Pour into a single pie crust (basic recipe is 1 cup flour, 1/3 cup butter, and 5 or so Tablespoons cold water or milk – can jazz up with a bit of spices and sugar)

Bake at 450 for 10 minutes, then reduce heat to 350 and bake for another 45 minutes or so, until the pumpkin has set and is beginning to crack. Cool before eating.

Pecan Pie (without corn syrup!)

Beat together:
3 eggs
½ cup brown sugar
½ cup agave nectar
5 Tablespoons melted butter
1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla
2 cups pecans (lightly toasted)

Pour into a single pie crust (see above recipe for pumpkin pie) and bake at 350 until done.
Cool before eating.

Also, I tried an experiment that came out pretty good. This is a general guideline, not a recipe as such. I think of it as my Sort-of Mock Mince Pie

4 to 5 sliced, peeled apples
About a cup of dried fruit of your choice. I had figs, cranberries, cherries, and raisins on hand, so that’s what I used.
Season with cinnamon and cloves
Splash in some brandy (maybe ¼ cup?)
Throw in some pecan pieces

This one has both a bottom and top crust, decorated as you wish. Bake for 10 minutes at 450, then reduce heat to 350 until golden brown – about 45 or 50 minutes. Cool before eating.

13 November 2008

Creamed Spinach, Garlic Kale, White Beans, and Creamy Polenta

Oy, two months already since I last wrote? Okay, I’m a lousy blogger. But then, I’m not writing to be a blogger; I’m writing to share my thoughts, recipes, and life with whoever’s out there reading. (Hello? Anybody there?)

Garden update: Except for micro-slug damage, the winter veggies are doing well. The garlic has sent up its leaves, and the greens are beginning to show up at the dinner table. I’ve harvested the first round of spinach, plucking the largest leaves from the outer edges of each plant. Made an amazingly delicious creamed spinach by wilting the spinach, then covering it with a bechamel sauce (make a roux from 2 tablespoons each of melted butter and flour, then add about a cup of milk and stir it in until thickened) seasoned with a packet of Simply Organic’s onion soup mix.

I’ve also made one meal from the kale – sautéing it with garlic and serving it with white beans and creamy polenta. To make the white beans, soak 1 cup of them overnight, then:

Sauté one chopped onion
Add the beans
Add sprigs of thyme, rosemary, and sage
Add whole, peeled garlic (an entire head)
Add just enough water to cover the beans

Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer. Cook, covered, for a couple of hours, or until the beans have softened.

If you’d like, add two Aidel’s chicken apple sausages, sliced into ½ inch pieces, about ½ hour before the beans are done.

Serve the beans with the garlic kale over creamy polenta:

Bring 4 cups of liquid to a boil. I use 3 cups of chicken broth and one cup of milk or cream.
Add 1 cup of polenta
Reduce heat to medium and stir constantly for five minutes, then reduce heat further, to a simmer, and continue stirring regularly for 10 to 15 minutes, until the liquid is asbsorbed and the polenta has thickened.
Stir in ½ cup of mild grated cheese – I like fontina or jack
Add one small diced red bellpepper
Remove from heat and serve

Reheated polenta for lunch:
A client of mine turned me on to this. She takes a slice of leftover polenta and heats it briefly in the microwave. (Not owning – or wanting – a microwave, I use the toaster oven.) Then she drizzles olive oil on it and sprinkles it with pepper, toasted sunflower seeds, and a bit of grated parmesan cheese. Yum!

Farmer’s market only has two more Saturdays before it closes for the winter. Luckily, the garden is like a mini farmer’s market. Waiting patiently for me to choose them are beets, chard, kale, and spinach. And I saw the beginnings of a broccoli.

Also, the apples are ready to harvest. I’ll probably wind up drying them or making applesauce. They’re Fujis, and don’t taste very good. No doubt some of them will wind up in the Thanksgiving stuffing, and possibly in a pie. I’m thinking about taking some pears a friend canned that are too sweet for my taste and making a pie with them, apples, figs, cranberries, brandy, cinnamon and cloves, and I’m not sure what else.

11 September 2008

Veggie Songs

Peas squeak.

Seriously. When I pick the snow peas from the vine and place them in my hand, they gently rub against each other and produce a squeaking sound. It’s quite charming.

The green beans are quieter, issuing a small percussive snap when I break them free. Although would somebody please remind me next spring that I’m fonder of the idea of yellow wax beans than of the taste? I think there must be something about leaving the beans on the vine long enough to yellow that causes them to get a bit too starchy and tough. The Haricots Verts, however, are delicious: fresh and crunchy.

The sound of dill is softer yet. I picked a paper-lunch-bag full of dill leaves and set them out to dry, the whole time telling the dill how wonderful it smelled and that I was grateful for it; that it would be used well in spanakopita and zucchini latkes, in bread, and maybe even on fish.

And snails make a satisfying (if guilt-ridden) smack as they hit the pavement, having been launched over the fence once discovered hiding among the bean leaves.

This morning was dedicated to harvest. I walked over to the neighbors and picked up two dozen eggs, five of which I gathered directly from the hen house. (The cackling and carrying on of chickens is its own symphony of sorts.) While there, I helped myself (upon my neighbor’s invitation) to zucchini: four little, four medium, and one huge honker (for stuffing). Three small tomatoes made their way home with me, too, destined for tonight’s pizza. Then I wandered into my own garden, from which I harvested ½ pound each of peas and green beans, the bag of dill, and two bouquets worth of flowers (mostly dahlias).

Meanwhile, a loaf of oatmeal bread was baking. And later today I’ll wander over to the cows’ side of the pasture to collect blackberries. I’ve picked and frozen four one-pound bags so far, but would be happier with more. I love blackberries.

But what I love even more is gathering, and eating from my surroundings. I’m reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle right now (I’m in June), and am absolutely loving it. She’s a wonderful writer, and her attitude is refreshing. I wind up comparing her year-long experiment of eating only local food with Judith Levine’s Not Buying It. Where Levine came from a place of deprivation, Kingsolver embraces the challenge with a mindset of abundance and gratitude. And her daughter’s recipes are enticing – I will definitely be trying them. In fact, the book may wind up living on my cookbook shelf once I’m done.

Not that I’m ready to take the localvore pledge, but that’s mostly because of the dearth of local grains where I live. But I eat mostly local food, and of that, probably 90% organic.

In fact, one of the things that amuses me as I read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is the differences in crop availability. Kingsolver lives in a region that has seasons – snow, even. She also has more heat than we do here on the coast. My god, she’s talking about teasing tomatoes ripe in mid June! Here it is mid September, and my tomatoes are still little green guys. (My neighbor has a warmer garden plot, shielded from the wind, and his tomatoes are up against a wall that adds reflected heat. Hence he has some ripe already.) I can’t even think about growing hot-weather crops: melons, peppers, eggplant… Of course, I’m allergic to them, so for me it doesn’t matter.

Also, everything seems to be late this year. The first of my sunflowers just opened its sunny face today. And most of my dahlias are tight buds. Hopefully this means it’s not too late for me to put in the winter garden. I planted broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale, chard, spinach, and onion starts on Sunday.


My goodness, searching through my posts to provide links to recipes, I realized that I never shared my recipe for spanakopita. I apologize! Here it is:

Wilt one pound of cleaned spinach leaves.

Transfer the spinach to a large bowl and add:

8 ounces crumbled feta
one bunch of scallions, chopped
dill (about 1/2 cup fresh, or two Tablespoons dried)
mint (about1/4 cup fresh, or one Tablespoon dried)
nutmeg (just a light sprinkling)
Pepper (to taste)

You can also add:
toasted pine nuts (about 1/4 cup)
cottage cheese (to give it more bulk, up to 8 ounces)

Melt 4 Tablespoons butter and 4 Tablespoons olive oil together.

Brush the bottom of a square pyrex with the butter/oil.

Now begin the layering/buttering process with the phyllo dough, one sheet at a time, until you have about a dozen buttered sheets in the dish. Place your spinach/feta/herbs mixture on top of the phyllo, then proceed to cover it, one buttered sheet at a time, for another 8 to 12 sheets. Tuck it all in, brush the top with yet more butter, and bake at 350 until golden brown.

Warning: the measurements here are off the top of my head. You may need to tweak them. As always, I'm assuming you know how to cook and am offering the recipe as a guide.

06 September 2008

Being Prepared

September is National Preparedness Month.

Just yesterday, a couple of my fellow organizers and I wrote up an informational press release to help members of our community be prepared, just in case. Ironically, tonight when I came home from dinner out with a friend, I discovered that I had no running water. Apparently the water tank has run very low and, this being a dry (drought) year, the well has been inadequate in its duty of keeping the storage tank topped off. Oy. I’ve put a call in to Puryear water delivery so that Bill Puryear can bring me a load of water to refill the tank, which will set me back about a 100 bucks.

Luckily, I have water stashed here and there, enough to get through until Bill comes to save the day. And once I remembered that I have water stashed, I stopped stressing about the pipes being dry. Once again, I have everything I need for this instant, and can be grateful that all really is okay.

So, for your amusement and benefit, here are the preparedness tips that we wrote up yesterday. Hope they help you.

Prepare a communication plan. This includes important contact information for family and friends, and who will contact whom. Remember, if the power goes out and your phone cell dies, you will be without your phone list. So keep a written hard copy and an old-fashioned non-electric telephone handy.

Agree upon a reunion plan. Where will you meet, and when?

Stock up on the necessities of life. The general rule of thumb is three days and three nights of provisions to get you through 72 hours of living without electricity. (In Humboldt County, you may want to plan for longer outages.) Don’t forget your pets! Necessary provisions include one gallon of water per person per day, basic grains, and ready-to-eat, non-perishable food. Remember to include a manual can opener.

Pretend you’re camping. Have a camp stove, fuel, water purification system, a flashlight, extra batteries, candles, waterproof matches, toiletries, and a first aid kit readily accessible. (You may want to keep another first aid kit in your car, too.)

Don’t forget your medications. Advice varies, but we suggest having a two-week supply of all important prescriptions available. Remember to rotate them each time you refill your prescription so that they don’t expire.

Create a Grab and Go bag. This contains a change of clothes (extra underwear for children), jackets, blankets, basic toiletries, a picture of each family member, high-protein bars, bottled water, and your essential documents file. (For more information on creating a documents file, see below.)

Have a radio with extra batteries.
A NOAA weather radio is a good idea, especially if you’re in a tsunami zone. Either way, tune to KHUM at 104.3 or 104.7 FM for excellent live local coverage.

How to Create a Documents File:

What goes in a documents file?

Anything that would be a nuisance to replace. This includes:

A copy of all the cards in your wallet, front and back.

A copy of your driver's license.

Your passport.

Other vital documents such as birth certificates, marriage licenses, adoption papers, naturalization papers, your social security card.

A copy of your most recent insurance policies.

Photos of your valuable possessions.

Photos of your pets and other family members.

Your vehicles' pink slips.

Any other deeds showing title to property.

A copy of your most recent tax return.

A copy of your "just in case" data -- all that information someone would need to pick up the pieces if anything happened to you. (You can purchase my e-booklet, Organizing Your Estate, which takes you through the steps for compiling this data. Go to www.wintersdaughterpress.com and click on e-books.)

03 September 2008

Gleaning Fruit for the People

Yesterday’s Times-Standard had an article that made me think: Finally!

It’s a simple story about a woman who has the local food bank send in a volunteer gleaner to harvest the abundance of apples on her trees so that the fruit can go to people who need food.

Years ago, when I lived in San Rafael (Marin County, California), I would walk around my extended neighborhood and wonder at the plethora of produce wasting away on people’s unharvested trees. So much food! Apples, plums, figs, pomegranates, lemons, pears … why wasn’t anyone harvesting this? It seemed to me that there must be a way to have the fruit picked and distributed to those who were hungry. But no, I guess people were too concerned about their liability to have anyone come in and pick the trees clean.

Ah, but this is Humboldt County, not Marin. Not only does our local Food for People provide volunteer gleaners, it is part of the national Plant a Row for the Hungry program. As explained in the Times-Standard article, “Gardeners are asked to plant an extra row of food and donate it to Food for People, the food bank for Humboldt County. The purpose of the program is to ensure that everyone has access to the healthiest food choices available.”

Back in those Marin County days, times got tight. There was a period when my partner and I found ourselves needing the help of the local services. The saying “beggars can’t be choosers” was right on; the contents of the grocery bags we received were far from the healthy foods we tried our best to eat. Fresh organic produce? In our dreams. So I’m particularly pleased that programs exist to bring those apples (and whatever else folks plant or can’t keep up with themselves) to people needing help with groceries.

And who knows, with a bit of luck (and a lot more sweat), my garden may start producing enough to share with others! I’m excited – I got a worm bin for my birthday! And, I discovered yesterday, bats have finally moved into the bat house. So we’ve put a tray below their abode to catch their guano. Worm castings and bat guano – exciting shit.

23 August 2008

Birthday Party Recipes

Today is the last day of my forties. It’s been a good last day. Went to the Farmers’ market, which was jumping. (The college students are back in town and are buzzing about, getting ready for school to start.) Then I picked up a friend who’s escaping the Phoenix heat, and we drove up to Trinidad for lunch and a brief walk on the beach. From there we went (organic!) blueberry picking at Wolfsen Farm – picked 3 pounds of blubes, all of which are now washed and in the freezer.

And then I began cooking for my birthday party tomorrow. Made three dips: spinach (sour cream, spinach, and Simply Organic’s onion soup mix); a smoked salmon spread (salmon smoked by one of the local tribes blended into cream cheese, seasoned with fresh dill, the juice of half a lemon, and a teaspoon of horseradish); and baba ghanouj. I apologize upfront for the inexact measurements, but I didn’t measure when I made it. Still, it came out so good that I thought I’d share this recipe with y’all.

Baba Ghanouj

Bake two whole eggplants and one large red bell pepper at 350 until they’ve collapsed (about an hour). You’ll want something underneath them – they get juicy/drippy/messy. (Save the juice!)

Once the baked veggies are cool enough to handle, remove their meat and put it into a blender. Add in:

3 large garlic cloves, minced
1 lemon (the juice of)
¼ cup (approximately) sesame tahini
¼ teaspoon salt
2 (or so) Tablespoons olive oil
the juice from the baked veggies

Blend until creamy. Taste, and adjust seasonings as desired.


The other thing I made, last night, was a White Chocolate Cheesecake with Raspberry Swirl.

Melt ¼ cup of butter. Mix in a heaping cup of graham cracker crumbs and 1 Tablespoon ground cinnamon. Pat into the bottom of a springform pan, then put in the fridge to set while preparing the rest of the cake.

In a Cuisinarte, blend:

20 ounces cream cheese
4 eggs
½ cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 Tablespoons lemon juice
8 ounces white chocolate, melted at a low heat in a double boiler

Pour this on top of the graham cracker crust. Swirl in a few Tablespoons of raspberry sauce (raspberries cooked over a double boiler with just enough sugar to take away the tartness).

Bake at 325 for 45 minutes to an hour – until the cake has set.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool before refrigerating.

Serve with the remaining raspberry sauce (which you reserved and kept in the fridge) drizzled on top.

21 August 2008

A Gift to Myself

Listening to a radio show yesterday, I heard the question:

If you were dying soon and had only one phone call to make, who would you call and what would you say?

Normally this kind of question doesn’t work for me. I’m not good at choosing a favorite this or a best that. But the answer came to me immediately.

Anthony. I’d call Anthony and tell him I was sorry, that I never meant to hurt him, and that I love him deeply and dearly.

The radio host ended her show with the obvious question: Then why haven’t you called?

Well, in my case, it’s because he’s clearly asked me to leave him the hell alone. And because I love him, I am respecting his desire not to have contact with me.

But I miss the daylights out of him. Not as my partner/boyfriend. I still believe that our differences and desires were such that being a couple wasn’t the best configuration for us. But Anthony was also my best friend, and I miss his friendship. I miss his playfulness and humor and kindness. I miss our shared history. I miss his companionship, his voice, his silly notes, his cats. I miss being a part of his life, and his participation in mine.

I also remain convinced that breaking up was the best thing for both of us. I hear reports of his life and, from what I hear, he is indeed finding his wings. Which is what I’d hoped would happen when I removed my mothering self from his day-to-day life.

It’s an interesting combination of emotions, to be living with Ronnie and still missing Ant. And it’s hard, knowing that Anthony feels so strongly against me. I never, ever, meant harm.

On a related note: Melanie, my teacher, made an intriguing suggestion to me in class last night. We were discussing which attachments are holding us back. I realized that my biggest challenge was my attachment to how other people think of me. (This probably goes back to growing up with a volatile mother, and becoming hypersensitive to other people’s moods as a survival mechanism.)

Melanie suggested giving myself a birthday present. (I turn 50 this coming Sunday!) She says she does this every year. One year she gave herself the gift of not having to participate in boring conversations for a year. Anyway, she proposed that I gift myself with not caring what other people think of me.

Hmmm… Is this possible? I’ve been told that, at 50, women do exactly this. They stop giving a rat’s ass what others think and step into their own power. I like the idea. Of course, I still care what I think of myself – my integrity remains intact. I guess the idea is to become my own mirror, rather than looking to others for validation.

It’s worth a try!

20 August 2008

Those Special Folks from Our Past

I got a very special phone call today, one I never anticipated receiving.

A former student of mine, from the year I taught sixth grade (1989-1990), found me on the Internet and called. He’s pushing 30 now, has a young family and a career. But he’d run across one of those “who was a special teacher in your life?” questions and, once again, as he has over the years, he thought of me. So he looked me up and called, just to tell me that I had made a difference in his life, that I wasn’t like all the other teachers and that was why he and his classmates liked me – I was a real human being, more like a friend.

Oh my God – what a blessing! I remembered that year – my last year as a classroom teacher – as my year from hell. The principal had it out for me, and one of the students made life difficult because he’d really wanted to be in the other sixth-grade classroom with the “cool” teacher. I liked the kids, and I like to think I was an okay teacher. But never in my dreams did I think I’d made a memorable impact on those kids.

And a couple of weeks ago I received a shy “hello” from an old college colleague. I spent my senior year at Sonoma State as second-in-command on the school paper. My colleague was the editor the second semester, so we worked side by side for several months. And haven’t heard from each other since graduating in 1981. I’ve thoroughly been enjoying exchanging emails with him, and am looking forward to his visiting (with his wife) in the fall.

All of which has me thinking about former teachers who made a difference in my life. I can think of four.

Mrs. Fortman – a formidable English teacher at Analy High. It was because of her that I read Chaim Potok’s The Chosen and Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun. She appeared gruff and stern, but her classroom library was filled with thought-provoking (and somewhat radical) novels.

Russ Reade – also at Analy. Russ taught Social Biology, which was one of the two classes I actually showed up on campus for that year. He had us researching and thinking about issues like cryogenics and euthanasia – it was really more like a class on scientific ethics. He retired a short while later to buy a whore house in Nevada.

Cott Hobart – was my Humanities teacher at Santa Rosa Junior College. I hold Cott personally responsible for gifting me with my spiritual path. He introduced us to Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung, and taught about the Eleusinian Mysteries. These have been my spiritual reference points ever since.

Gerry Haslam – taught English and linguistics at Sonoma State. He’s also a writer, and I own several of his books. (I keep very few books.) Gerry was also the faculty advisor on the college paper, so we got to know him reasonably well. He’s one of the most decent human beings I’ve ever met.

Who were your special teachers? And have you let them know?

13 August 2008

Summer Recipes

Seems all I’m doing these days is cooking. Which isn’t literally true, but it sure feels that way! Sunday I made veggie lasagna and two kinds of bread. Monday I made my sugar-free apple pie. (See “Apples” for the pie recipe.) Yesterday I made a version of my Southeast Asian shrimp/rice noodle salad. Today – in addition to clarifying almost a pound of butter – I finally dealt with the substantial donation of zucchini that my neighbors brought by on Sunday. (Grated it up, froze some of it, and turned the rest into a cake. Oh, and dedicated the two largest zukes to being stuffed. (See “Cooking Caveat” for the stuffed zucchini recipe.)

One of my readers recently told me that he’s tried several of my recipes – both here and in Following Raven, Finding Ground – and that they’re good. (They are!) Encouraged by his positive feedback, I’ve decided to share the recipes for my recent culinary endeavors. Enjoy!

Light Rye Bread (made in my bread maker on basic setting)
11 ounces water
1 teaspoon salt
2 Tablespoons olive oil
2 Tablespoons (packed) brown sugar
3 cups unbleached white flour
1 cup rye flour
¼ cup flax meal
1 heaping Tablespoon dried dill
2 Tablespoons (or so) caraway seeds
1 Tablespoon active dry yeast

Challah (made by hand in my wooden bread bowl)
1 cup milk
3 Tablespoons sugar
1-1/2 teaspoons salt
½ stick of butter
2 eggs

4 cups (plus) of bread flour
¼ cup flax meal
2 teaspoons yeast
(poppy seeds)

Knead until satiny and springy.
Cover and allow to rise.

Punch down, knead briefly, and allow to rise a second time.

Punch down, knead briefly, and break into three equal pieces. Roll these out into ropes, braid them, and allow to rise a third time, this time in a warm oven. (You can brush the top at this point with egg wash, and/or sprinkle on seeds.)

Bake at 350 until done, about 45 to 50 minutes.

Veggie Lasagna
A few hours before assembling, I start the tomato sauce, as follows:
One onion, diced
Lots and lots of chopped garlic (a whole head if you dare!)
Sliced mushrooms (about 1 cup)
Cubed zucchini (2 smallish ones)
Chopped tomatoes (I used two good-sized Brandywines)

Once the veggies have softened, add a 15 ounce can of tomato sauce and about ½ cup of red wine.

Season with (fresh if you have it!)

Cook, covered, over low heat for a couple/three hours, stirring occasionally.

Shortly before assembling, add 1 pound of cleaned spinach and a small bunch of fresh basil to the sauce.

Assemble in layers:

Enough sauce on the bottom to keep noodles from sticking
Lasagna noodles (cooked)
More sauce
Globs of Ricotta cheese (I use one pint total)
Globs of Pesto
Repeat: noodles, sauce, ricotta, pesto
Top: noodles and lots of sliced mozzarella cheese

Bake at 350 until bubbly and deep gold in color.

Chocolate Zucchini Cake

½ cup butter
¼ cup oil
1-1/2 cups sugar

Blend in:
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla

¼ cup cocoa
½ cup whole wheat flour
2 cups unbleached white flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
sprinkling of cinnamon

Mix in:
2 cups grated zucchini

Bake in a spring form pan at 350 for about 50 minutes.

Remove the side of the pan, allow to cool, then top with a chocolate glaze. (I melt about 1/8 cup of coconut oil over low heat, then remove it from the stove and mix in equal amounts of liquid sweetener (agave nectar or maple syrup, usually – sometimes both) and cocoa – about ¼ to ½ cup each. Adjust sweetener and cocoa to taste, then pour over the cake.

Southeast Asian Shrimp/Rice Noodle Salad
Chop and lay out on a large platter:
One small head of lettuce (I use red butter)
A healthy handful of fresh cilantro
A smaller handful of fresh basil
Several sprigs of fresh mint

You can also add a grated carrot and/or sliced green onions.

Top the vegetables with approximately 4 ounces of cooked rice noodles (Maifun).

Cook shelled shrimp in a dry skillet. (I am generous with the shrimp, usually allotting 9 or 10 for each person. Wood’s Wild American White Shrimp is especially delicious, and wild caught.) Place the shrimp on top of the cooked noodles.

Drizzle dressing over the salad, and sprinkle with toasted peanuts.

Dressing: (adjust to taste)
2 Tablespoons fish sauce
6 Tablespoons lime juice
1 teaspoon sesame oil
4 teaspoons sugar
minced ginger
fresh chopped mint

04 August 2008

A Whole New Mind

I recently finished reading Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age. His premise is that, because of the influence of Abundance, Automation, and Asia, jobs that were traditionally mastered by left-brain people are becoming obsolete in our culture and right-brain skills are coming into demand. His opening paragraph reads:

The last few decades have belonged to a certain kind of person with a certain kind of mind – computer programmers who could crank code, lawyers who could craft contracts, MBAs who could crunch numbers. But the keys to the kingdom are changing hands. The future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind – creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers, and meaning makers. These people – artists, inventors, designers, storytellers, caregivers, consolers, big picture thinkers – will now reap society’s richest rewards and share its greatest joys.

These people, these right-brainers, sure look a lot like what gets called ADD. Which feeds into my ongoing thesis that ADD is a difference, not a disorder, and that it is an evolutionary shift toward wholeness. (For more on this thesis, see my other posts labeled ADD.) Not only is there an increase in people who are labeled ADD, but Pink shows that these people will actually be the ones most likely to prosper as our economy shifts. (He’s quick to point out, though, that romanticizing right-brain qualities as better than left brain is bogus, that what we need is an androgynous brain.)

To determine whether your career choice is a good fit for our current culture, Pink proposes three questions to ask yourself:
1. Can someone overseas do it cheaper?
2. Can a computer do it faster?
3. Is what I’m offering in demand in an age of abundance?

(Whoo-hoo! My work as a professional organizer meets the criteria!)

17 June 2008

A Rainbow of Thankfulness

Chris Guillebeau, who writes at The Art of Nonconformity, was the guest blogger at Zen Habits recently. He wrote about living a life of gratitude, and challenged others to build a habit of gratitude.

Anyone who’s heard me lecture knows I’m big on gratitude, too. Principle #9 of my 12 Basic Principles of Being Organized is “Adopt an Attitude of Gratitude.” My usual rap is that much of our clutter comes from holding on “just in case,” from scarcity thinking, and that the opposite of scarcity is abundance and the quickest way to abundance is gratitude. By practicing gratitude every day, we build new neural pathways in our brain, much like curling weights builds biceps, or like water wears a new course over time. Daily gratitude becomes a habit, our default way of viewing the world, and teaches us that we are indeed blessed. In turn, we are better able to let go of the unnecessary in our lives, to simplify.

Anyway, that’s the rap. Today’s practice finds expression in color. There’s a line from a James Taylor song that runs through my head: “Deep greens and blues are the colors I choose.” Yes. Especially greens. Especially the greens of leaves, the warm young green of the underside of Big Leaf Maples as they’re lit by streaming sunlight from above, and the darker greens of firs and cedars and spruce in the forest behind. And the green of moss on river-wet stones.

Blue skies, of course, are always welcome here on the Pacific Northwest. Today brought the blue of the Pacific, too. After a leisurely late brunch in Trinidad, we went walking at Elk Head, eventually finding a niche along the cliff that provided some wind protection and a view of the ocean, with its two tones of blue – shallow turquoise meeting the deeper and darker, more true blue.

White gulls rode the thermals. As I lay in the warm sand, snuggled against Ronnie, I watched them glide by. One was having fun soaring backwards.

Of course, black ravens rode those same thermals.

Walking along the path we found native lilies just beginning to bloom, an almost pumpkin orange with brown spots. Red columbine with 5 bright yellow tubes in its center draped gracefully. Wild iris in varying shades of purple – from pale creamy with light purple striations to deep purple with yellow markings – brightened the trail. And cheery yellow buttercups (which are actually an invasive weed, but they’re so pretty!) decorated the open area by the parking lot.

On the way home, I noticed that the golden fields of mown pasture grass were now dotted with bales of hay. There’s something so pleasing about seeing acres of hay bales lined outside my kitchen window, extending clear across the valley.

Once we got home, I unpacked my wicker basket of produce that we’d bought at Farmer’s Market earlier in the day. Laid out on my fruit table are my favorite color -- three plates of red: raspberries, strawberries, and cherries. Oh my god do I love summer!!! For these fruits I am truly grateful…

And now, 10 o’clock at night, I look out my office window on a round white moon rising above the wooded hills.

Life is good.

16 June 2008

Recycling My Food

And I thought I was being so innovative…

You know that little piece of green onion that you cut off, along with the roots, when chopping up green onions? A while back, I decided that, instead of tossing them into my compost, I’d spoon them into the soil in my herb bed (a long planter box that Anthony built for me and that lives on my deck, right out my front door). Sure enough, those little darlings grew into brand-new (sorta) green onions. The ultimate in recycling and being “green,” eh?

Of course, I plant the garlic bulbs that have begun to sprout, too – and am happily harvesting fresh garlic as a result.

And a client recently gave me a bag of Warren Creek organic potatoes – Russets, Yukon Gold, Red Creamers, and Peruvian Purples – that had grown a tangle of roots in her ignored potato drawer. Those are now in the ground, covered with rice straw. A bit of luck and they’ll shoot out leaves, then, eventually, potatoes.

Turns out my recycling techniques are old hat, though. In this week’s North Coast Journal, Amy Stewart wrote a cute piece entitled “Eat Your Trash.” In it, she discusses the re-issue of Deborah Peterson’s Don’t Throw It, Grow It! 59 Windowsill Plants from Kitchen Scraps. To quote Amy: “There’s hardly a scrap of produce on your cutting board that can’t be given a second life, according to the authors. Carrot tops, garbanzo beans, peanuts, jicama, lemongrass, ginger – they can all be made to grow again. Spices and nuts can be sprouted as seeds, fruits and vegetables will grow from cuttings, and beans and peas will turn into climbing vines in a jiffy.”

You mean I can be recycling my carrots, too?

Of course, a lot of plants won’t produce here. Too much wind, not enough heat days. Rules out the possibility of ginger or lemongrass (both of which I like to cook with). And I think I read that growing beans is tricky. But maybe I can let some of my peas go all the way to seed, and then start new plants from them. (Duh – isn’t this the basis of seed saving? It’s a good thing I’m not dependent on my gardening to feed me. There’s so much I don’t know!)

What have you had success at re-growing?

12 June 2008

Redwoods and Rivers

I first lusted after the Trinity river 10 years ago, when traveling around the country, trying to decide where I wanted to spend my life. Driving along Highway 299, I looked up at the redwoods and firs and pines on the hills banking the river, then gazed down at the clear water and the run-able rapids, and thought, “I want in that water! Maybe I can get a job cooking for a river-running outfit.”

And then, Fourth of July weekend, 1999, I met the river-running outfit that would take me down the Trinity – as well as the Klamath, and the Rogue, and the Smith, and a bit of the Salmon. Michael Charlton, owner (with his wife, Wanda) of Redwoods and Rivers Rafting, had a booth at the Arcata Fourth of July festival. I signed up for a trip then and there.

My maiden voyage with Michael was the Pigeon Point run down the Trinity. I was so impressed by Michael (who has become a good friend over the years) that I refuse to even consider rafting with anyone else.

Why impressed? To begin with, I always feel safe. Rapids are fun, but I don’t run them for the thrill. I raft for the beauty and serenity of being on the water – for the mergansers with their ducklings scurrying upstream, the bald eagle swooping in for a fish and then carrying it back to the trees to eat, the endless Vs of green mountains when I look back upstream, the turtles basking on sun-baked rocks, the smell of white water. Michael and his guides (he runs a guide-training school, too) understand the beauty, are environmentally responsible, and are informative naturalists. They’re also gracious – rafting guests are always well fed and cared for.

Tuesday we spent a couple of hours on the Trinity. The water was running at about 2800 cfs (cubic feet per second). Shane, our guide, explained the flow as standing on the bank, looking across the river, and watching 2800 basketballs go by EACH SECOND. That’s a lot of basketballs. The powers that be are currently releasing enough water to keep the flow high; they are trying to mimic the natural spring flush of an undammed river. (For an interesting editorial on the politics of dammed rivers and diverting water to central and southern California for agricultural purposes – in this case, cotton – and the more sensible idea of keeping the water in the rivers so that they can heal – and even thrive! – see My Word by Aldaron Laird in the Times-Standard.)

I like Laird’s idea: “Perhaps the water in the Trinity should be used to recover and raise a bountiful crop of salmon on the North Coast, not cotton in the Westlands desert.” I’ve never quite understood the logic of perpetuating an economy that doesn’t fit its environment, such as raising water-dependent crops in areas that require importing water. Seems we’d all be better off if we work with what’s naturally available.

Which brings me to Michael and Wanda’s home. They purchased a number of acres along the Trinity, in Del Loma, a few years back. After rafting, Ronnie and I went back to their place for lunch, and to stay the night. I couldn’t get over how Wanda’s been landscaping the property! She’s collected river stones and built gardens everywhere: whimsical rock gardens studded with blue glass bottles and random objects; a small lawn bordered by a short rock wall and giant lavender bushes; and numerous rock-bordered flower gardens, one with a windmill. The tomato “cages” in the veggie garden are a cross-hatch of madrone branches, and the beans’ tipi is made of five long madrone limbs held together at the top with a rusted metal ring notched into them. Everything is made from resources found there on the property, or from scavenged items (“found art”).

Best of all, though, is Wanda’s version of a hammock. She’s hung a couple of old iron bed frames from the sturdy branches of yet another madrone, and thrown mattresses on them. We spent the night rocked to sleep beneath the madrone leaves, and woke in the early morning (thank you, Mr. rooster!) to the cheap-cheap-cheap of baby robins in their nest – almost directly above our bed – being fed by their robin parents.

10 March 2008

Fog Remembers the Redwoods (a poem)

A friend and I were discussing the weather, how it is so much foggier at his house, which is a mere dozen miles from mine. Explaining that the fog moves up his river valley, he said that "the fog remembers the redwoods." Struck by the lyricism of this image, I wrote the following poem.

Fog remembers the redwoods,
Early morning whispers,
Quiet conversations, caresses
Soft and slow;
Remembers drifting up river to
Nestle into strong arms,
Moisten dark earth, murmur secrets
hushed and low;
Remembers draping muted stillness
Around ancient shoulders.

Fog remembers the redwoods,
Misses the trees,
Still drifts silently along the river
Sighing, seeking repose.

09 March 2008

A few of my favorite songs

I guess most people just put these on their I-Pods, but I’m technologically behind the times (on purpose). No I-Pod in my life, so nothing I can hand over to a friend and say here, these are the tunes that rock my world. Instead, I’m writing them down here, in case you have any interest in which songs remain my favorites over the years (listed by the artist whose version I prefer). I’m sure I’ve forgotten some, but this is a start.

??? – Eli, Eli
Allman Brothers -- Stormy Monday
Blood Sweat & Tears – Spinning Wheel
David Bromberg – Will Not Be Your Fool
David Allan Coe – You Never Even Called Me By My Name
Crosby Stills Nash & Young – Wooden Ships
Dan Hicks – I Scare Myself
Chris Isaak – Wicked Game
John Mayall – California
Odetta – If I Had Wings
Bonnie Raitt – Angel from Montgomery
Pete Seeger – Oh Healing River
Pete Seeger – Masters of War (Dylan’s)
Nina Simone – Sinnerman
Nina Simone – Pirate Jenny’s Song (from Three Penny Opera)
Rolling Stones – Sympathy for the Devil
Rolling Stones – You Can’t Always Get What You Want
Talking Heads – Take Me To The River
James Taylor – Fire and Rain
Marshall Tucker – Can’t You See
Van Morrison – Moon Dance
Tom Waits – Nighthawks At The Diner
Kate Wolf – Golden Rolling Hills of California

What are some of your all-time favorites?

08 March 2008

My brain on Insomnia

It’s 4:30 in the morning, and I’m awake – again.

What do you think about at 4:30 in the morning?

My mind was floating over snippets of a fascinating book I’ve started reading, A General Theory of Love. In it, the authors were explaining the triune brain – the reptilian (what I call lizard brain), the limbic, and the neocortical, each with its different spheres of responsibility.

The authors explain that the limbic brain “collects sensory information, filters it for emotional relevance, and sends outputs to other brain areas thousands of times a day. … Human beings are immersed in a sea of social interchange, surrounded by a subtle communications network that most do not notice. The limbic brain is our internal cryptographic device, allowing us to decipher a flood of complex messages in an instant.” They then went on to describe a young man whose limbic system was malfunctioning, noting that he “didn’t acquire social conventions naturally; even with monumental effort they persistently eluded him. … Emotional signals remained obscure hieroglyphics to him.”

As I’m reading along the description of this young man, I’m thinking: Asperger’s. And, when I turn the page, sure enough, there’s the diagnosis. Aha! I think. So, Asperger’s is related to a weak link in the limbic system.

Back to 4:30 this morning. I’m rethinking this Aha!, and recalling a conversation I had about a client scenario (the clients remained anonymous – only the situation was discussed). My colleague is setting the stage, explaining that both parents are very bright engineers, and my mind jumps ahead to: the kid has Asperger’s. Yep, sure enough, that’s where the story goes. And then I remember an article I read a few years ago (maybe from The New Yorker?) about Asperger’s, and how it’s called the geek syndrome because it’s showing up noticeably among children where both parents are engineers, and maybe the increase is somehow related to more smart women pursuing careers and meeting smart men, who wind up combining their smart genes…

And then I have a 4:30 a.m. Aha! and get up to share it with whoever is actually reading my ramblings. The engineers aspect of Asperger’s is significant. Because doesn’t engineering (and other “geek”) smarts reside in the neocortical brain – the analytical, logical, sequential, executive-function brain? So Asperger’s must be related to an imbalance in the checks and balance system of the brain – too much power in the executive branch, not enough in the emotional.

(Okay, my brain just linked to our governmental system and current politics. Would it be accurate to say that our country is out of whack because too much power has been taken by the executive branch, while the congressional and judicial – which would they be? Limbic? Reptilian? – has been weakened and isn’t functioning properly? Oy, the ramblings of insomnia…)

Anyway, back to Asperger’s and on to ADD. In her latest email, Jennifer Koretsky, author of Odd One Out: The Maverick’s Guide to Adult ADD (see the articles section of my web site for a review), listed ten great things about ADD. These included compassion, creativity, a sense of humor and comedic flair, and intuition. (Why I love my ADD clients!) Notice that these traits all belong to the limbic realm. And ADD has been shown to be a weakness in the pre-frontal cortex. So again, we have a shift in balance between two parts of the brain. (The lizard brain is staying out of the power struggle, plugging along with basic operating procedures and survival, letting the newcomers hash it out.)

I don’t have any conclusions here; I’m simply sharing my realizations as they appear. The last piece I realized while reading A General Theory of Love is that my own intelligence is strongest in the limbic area. (Coming from a family that values neocortical intelligence, I’ve historically struggled with feeling less intelligent, not valuing my intelligence.) People expect me to be logical and analytical because I’m an organizer (and hell, I’m a Virgo). But I work very intuitively and on an emotional level with my clients. I also am able to know something – to “read” a person or situation – in an instant. (This was an on-going disagreement I had with Anthony. He refused to believe that I could do this and thought I was being judgmental. But if you read Blink, you’ll learn that our brains can and do work that quickly.) Anyway, I realized that my strength is in my limbic brain.

So, I’d love to hear your thoughts… Leave a comment?

28 February 2008

An Interview

The following interview by Geoff Rotunno was featured at www.thebooxreview.com a couple of years ago. It is no longer available at that web site, so I am republishing it here.

Personal chaos got you down? Step into our parlor, the online room of one utterly organized Boox Interview with author and professional organizer Claire Josefine, who spends some time explaining the hows and whys of instructing others in the spiritual art of acquiring order.

Boox: Our initial take on The Spiritual Art of Being Organized was that it is a book that is completely right for the times. Assuming you agree, why would you say that is so?

Given the response to the book that I've been receiving, I'd have to agree with you.

Spirituality and getting organized are both popular topics these days. But I believe The Spiritual Art of Being Organized speaks to a deeper need than current trends. Many of us, especially those who embrace the values of Voluntary Simplicity, are struggling to restore balance, connectedness, and meaning to our lives.

Let me elaborate. We live in a culture that emphasizes acquisition and immediate gratification. Good consumers that we are, we mindlessly accumulate possessions (and rack up debt). Meanwhile, it often takes two incomes to support a household these days. We're working more and accumulating more. Which means we have less time and more stuff taking up our time and space. Is it any wonder that we wake up one day to find our homes crowded with meaningless clutter and our lives unsatisfying? As Ken Blanchard says, "too many of us are spending money we haven't earned to buy things we don't need to impress people we don't like."

So here we are, working too much to support too much stuff. And watching television to numb our minds. But wait! Look! Check out these TV shows where people are totally disorganized and an organizer comes in and fixes it all for them. Talk about immediate gratification! Wouldn't it be nice if we could hire a professional organizer to play Mom, to come in and clean our room for us, make it all better — just like on TV?

Except it wouldn't work. Professional organizers are invaluable — they teach us how to organize; they provide support and encouragement and a helping hand. But the allure of having someone else come in to perform a clean sweep through our homes is just another version of our desire for immediate gratification, which is largely responsible for our mindless accumulation of clutter in the first place. Unless we shift our behavior and beliefs — which includes suspending gratification while we make conscious decisions based on our values and goals — we will simply re-create the clutter we've just purged. As I say in the book, chaos is conquered as much by awareness, gratitude, grounding, and breath as by a well-labeled filing system. Simplicity and order are valid — even crucial — choices. And they are found within.

Boox: But in a culture that does place so much emphasis on acquisition and immediate gratification, how do we make that shift? Do you talk about that concept during your consultations?

Josefine: Not everyone is going to — or even wants to — make that shift. I have clients who will continue to conspicuously consume, and there's not much I can do about it. Yes, I can point out the physical limits of their space and ask them how many, say, tablecloths, they need. And I can encourage them to let go of their excess, to share it with those who truly need coats or bedding or tablecloths. But I can't force them to change their buying habits, to delay their desire for immediate gratification. I can't force them to have a spiritual awakening, an "aha!" moment.

On the other hand, some of my clients have had that "aha!" moment where they wake up and say, "Wait, this is all wrong. What am I doing with all this stuff? Where's the balance in my life?" With these clients, yes, absolutely, I talk about making the shift. These are the clients (and readers) who thirstily drink up the 12 Basic Principles of Being Organized, because the Principles provide the tools we need to simplify and organize our lives.

How do we make that shift? We begin by simplifying our lives. We learn to set boundaries, to make choices based in love instead of fear, that we are able to make choices. We learn to practice gratitude, which guides us to realizing how blessedly abundant our lives are. We slow down, pay attention to our actions, bring consciousness back into our daily lives. We bring a structural foundation of order and organization into our lives. And we learn to ask for — and receive — help.

Boox: Of the benefits you list under your "Why Get Organized?" section, you state one good reason for attaining order is "to make money." How can getting organized lead to income?

Josefine: I'm thinking of a client of mine who writes and teaches for a living. We organized all her newspaper clippings and her computer document files for the book she is currently writing. We also created a schedule, carving out specific, regular hours for writing. (Because she works at home, she was having trouble creating a routine and setting boundaries with her time.) These organizational improvements enabled her to find information quickly (instead of taking hours to hunt for it), and helped her to complete her manuscript on time (which allowed her to collect the first part of her advance on the book). It also freed up time for her to work on income-generating projects such as workshops, lectures, and fund-raising.

Perhaps another way to look at this benefit is to see how being organized helps you avoid losing money. Let's look at a hypothetical independent consultant who's disorganized. Her disorganization can result in lost income because she forgets to invoice her clients (or follow up on collections), because she is unable to access information quickly enough to provide a timely and acceptable bid for a job, or because clients perceive her as unreliable and are reticent to trust her.

Becoming organized can remedy these pitfalls, can remove obstacles to making money. We spend less time looking for our tools, can put our hands on information more quickly, and can provide the desired product more promptly. The better organized we are, the more productive. And the more productive we are, the more we are profitable.

Boox: In your chapter called "Think!" you talk about how we seem to have a knack for sprawling horizontally rather than employing vertical solutions for our excess. Any idea why we default to the more scattered of the two?

Josefine: I think that horizontal sprawl becomes the default for two reasons. One is a lack of boundaries. The other is our innate laziness. Picture a bowl of water, but without the bowl, how it spreads outward along the available surface. When we're setting down pieces of paper (for instance) we're likely to behave like that water, spreading the papers out along an available surface. To store them vertically — in file folders or wall pockets, for example — requires work. If the vertical containers are already in place, and they are easy to access, then we are likely to use them. But because installing the vertical containers requires effort, it is not our natural — or default — solution.

Boox: What is the most common of all the states of client disorder you see upon initial consultation?

Josefine: There are two common problems. The first is a lack of clearly defined zones. A kitchen cabinet might have canned food, coffee cups, and kids' schoolwork all shoved in willy-nilly. Or a dresser drawer might have underwear jumbled up with socks, blue jeans, loose aspirin, unpaid bills, orphaned earrings, and bandages.

The second common problem involves the bane of our modern-day existence: paper! Many of us have not been taught how to handle the barrage of paper that enters our life. As a result, it invades every surface of our home, and maybe even our car. Piles of old mail, unread magazines, unpaid bills, paid bills, invitations, advertisements, notices, newspapers... On the kitchen table. The kitchen counter. The table by the entrance. The desk. The shelves. The dresser. The bathroom counter. The bed. The floor. Paper everywhere, except where we can find it!

By the way, I don't subscribe to the "handle paper only once" school. Expecting immediate and full action to be taken on every piece of paper each time is unreasonable. Yes, we want to make an initial assessment of the paper when we pick it up, rather than shuffle it from one pile to another. But I prefer the "all paper is F.A.T. — File, Act, or Toss" philosophy. By asking ourselves why we are keeping the paper, how we plan to use it, we can determine where to put the paper. If we are keeping it only for reference or legal documentation, it can be filed. If we need to act on it, we put it in the action file (to pay, to answer, to review, etc.). If we don't need to keep it, by all means, toss it! (Well, recycle it. But saying that all paper is F.A.R. doesn't have the same mnemonic appeal.)

Boox: What sort of feedback do you hear most often from clients who have embraced your techniques and discovered a holy state of order in their lives?

Josefine: I'm not sure any of my clients have ever discovered a "holy state of order." But they certainly have experienced marked improvement in their lives.

The most common feedback is an expression of gratitude for the help they've received and the hope they now have. Where they used to feel inept and ashamed, they now feel empowered. They understand how to organize, they experience the value of being organized, and they see how their spirituality supports being organized.

I received an amazing letter from a reader not long ago. She had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer, and was faced with not wanting to leave her 3600-square-foot home filled with 35 years of collecting for her family to deal with. She happened upon my book, and was transformed. She wrote to me: "You accomplished the impossible. You see, I have always detested neat, highly organized people. They are not like me. They made me feel faulty, inadequate, guilty, and so I pronounced them without creativity, spontaneity, or passion. But, from what I could learn about you from your writing, I began to like you, a person who alphabetizes spice bottles! This amazed me. ... I would not have been reached by a simple list of handy hints for organizing. What you had to reach was my deepest being, and you had to convince me to like you and trust you before I listened to you. That there was something in neat, organized, spice-jar-alphabetizing you that connected on a deep spiritual level with messy, chaotic me opened my mind. ... Thanks to your extraordinary book, the best imperfect person I can be has begun."

Boox: That's some terrific and immediately gratifying feedback! Do you find that you are consciously attempting to reach clients at more than the usual business relationship level, or is that just a good thing when it happens on its own?

Josefine: I don't try to reach clients on a more personal level; it's just who I am. I'm friendly and open and honest, and my clients tend to open up and trust me. (In turn, I honor their trust by keeping their identities confidential.)

Also, organizing is very intimate work. As an organizer, I can't help but see my clients' secrets, be it their bankruptcy papers or their cross-dressing wardrobe. And, as an organizer, I'm very accepting of the secrets I find. I think this vulnerability, coupled with my easy-going acceptance, facilitates a personal bond.

You know, I resisted writing this book; at first I was going to have a friend ghost-write it for me. But I realized that the book had to be in my own voice, so I hired the friend to coach me, to hold my hand through the process. Now I find that it's my voice that reaches the readers. When I showed the above-mentioned letter to a friend, she commented that several of her colleagues read the book as a way of spending time with me — and they've never met me in person. This amazes me, that I'm able to reach people on a personal level, that they come to like me and want to spend time with me, through my writing. And through a book on organizing. Who woulda thunk?

Boox: Which of your 12 principles do people typically have trouble with the most, and why?

Josefine: Hmmm.... No one's ever told me that they're having trouble with one principle or another, so I'm not sure! My guess would be, based on observation, that implementing new habits and routines is most difficult. (I know it's hard for me.) When I asked a couple of friends, they quickly and unanimously replied that K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Sweetie) was hardest, which surprised me, because that one comes so easily for me. But then, being innately organized, perhaps it makes sense that my sticking points differ from those of my clients.

I'm guessing that different principles are challenging for different people. An AD/HD client might have trouble with K.I.S.S. or Be Realistic — or with Slow Down and Pay Attention — while another client might have trouble with Ask for Help. It's going to depend on the person. Which one do you find most challenging?

Boox: Asking for help has always been a personal challenge as well, so it does seem to depend on who you are. Why do you ask your clients, "What brings you joy?" Are there any other questions that you regularly pose?

Josefine: I believe that each of us has gifts to offer, talents to share that make the world a better place. And I believe we each have a duty to share those talents, to do the work of Tikkun Olam — a Kabbalistic concept that means Repair of the World.

Now, some of us know what our gifts are and plunge right in, doing our work. Others of us are unsure. (It took me until my late 30's to figure out what my gifts were.) I ask people "what brings you joy?" because — I believe — this is where we connect with our higher power, our Source. This is how we discover our path. I have a quote from Buddha by my desk: "Your work is to discover your work and then with all your heart to give yourself to it." Discovering what brings us joy leads us to discovering our work, which leads us to doing the work of Tikkun Olam.

Identifying our sources of joy also helps us clarify our values and goals, which helps us winnow out those items and commitments that detract us from our path.

As to other questions that I regularly pose... of course there are others! I'm a teacher at heart, and teachers ask questions. Besides, questions are a wonderful tool for finding answers. Probably my two most common sets of questions are: "Why are you keeping it? How do you plan to use it?" and "Do you like it? Does it make you smile?" And then there's the ever-pragmatic "Where will you put it?" ("I don't know" is not an acceptable answer.)

04 February 2008

The Four-Pronged Fork of the Fifties

In response to my talk on Earth-Friendly Organizing, given at the Eureka Public Library last Thursday, one of the audience members sent the link for The Story of Stuff to me. About the same time, a fellow organizer posted the link to our Simple and Sustainable Organizers Yahoo! group. The video is making the rounds, and with good reason.

Watching The Story of Stuff, I was reminded of an article I wrote on consumerism. Here it is:

A Brief History of Consumerism

Once in a rare while, I'll venture into a K-Mart or Target or such, only to be astounded by the excess of consumer goods filling the shelves. (As an organizer, I find a plethora of these same goods cluttering people's homes.) Such material abundance didn't exist 100 years ago. So, what happened? How did we get here, to a world suffocating under so much stuff?

The stage was set during the industrial revolution, when our ability to produce goods magnified immensely. (The changes in production capacity brought up an interesting debate at the time: should we focus on producing more stuff, or on having more time? More stuff won.) Then came The Depression, when people shut down and held back, went into scarcity thinking. They pulled into themselves, tight like a scrunched-closed fist.

After WWII a number of things happened, encouraging people to sigh a collective "phew!" and open up into an expansive mode again. I call these phenomena The Four-Pronged Fork of the Fifties. It was this fork that fed our modern-era consumerism.

Prong #1 was government programs. The Highway Trust Fund financed the creation of our Interstate Highway System, which fueled the development of urban sprawl. In addition to passing through downtown areas -- which encouraged automobile-oriented development patterns -- the expanding cobweb of highways made for easier distribution of foods grown by centralized, mass-production farming. This freed up farmland for suburban sprawl and shopping malls.

FHA loans enabled people to buy those suburban houses. The G.I. Bill also helped people to purchase their starter homes. And all those houses, of course, needed to be fully equipped. As William Kowinski wrote in The Malling of America, "As they traded their ploughshares for power mowers, suburbanites created an ever-expanding market for consumer products. All those houses had their own kitchens and laundries, living rooms and dens, and typically a bedroom for each child. The suburban dream clearly included refrigerators and ranges, washers and dryers, plus all the detergents, polishes and other support and maintenance products.”

Prong #2 was the proliferation of television and advertising. Besides being a venue for advertising, television portrayed (and continues to portray) upper-middle class as normal, making us think that what the well-to-do have is what we should all be having and what's wrong with us that we don't? Meanwhile, advertising started using psychology to create both fear and desire in us, compounding our sense of inadequacy.

Prong #3 was personal debt. Suddenly, it became easy to borrow money. (What's that commercial? "Life takes Visa." Or is it that Visa takes life?) Meanwhile, in conjunction with the Cold War, government and industry began equating democracy with the freedom to purchase, recasting materialism as patriotic. (And President Bush, in response to 9/11, encouraged the country to go shopping. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.) Not long ago, if we didn't have the money, we didn't buy it. Now, if we want it -- and it's our patriotic duty to buy it! -- we just put it on the credit card.

Prong #4 was planned obsolescence. This has three faces to it. One is where producers intentionally build things to fall apart. After all, there are only so many toasters you can sell before everyone who needs one, has one. If you want to continue selling toasters, you better make them chintzy and irreparable. The second face of planned obsolescence takes its lead from the fashion industry, where things go out of style long before they cease being functional. Witness automobiles, furniture, kitchen decor, technology... . The third face is one of manufactured scarcity. Jim Sinegal, CEO of Costco, was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying, "We try to create an attitude that, if you see it, you ought to buy it because chances are it ain't going to be there next time. You're going to come in and find that maybe we have some Lucky jeans that we're selling. You come in the next time and we don't have those jeans but we have some Coach handbags. That's the treasure-hunt aspect. We constantly buy that stuff and intentionally run out of it from time to time."

The Four-Pronged Fork of the Fifties fed our culture to create the bloated, consumerist world in which we find ourselves today. But just because this is where we are doesn't mean we need to stay here. We are products of our culture, but we are not victims to it. We can choose to step out of mindless consumption and into simplicity. We can choose to live consciously, to take back our power and live in harmony with our values. We can choose to walk out of K-Mart and Target and such, empty handed. We can even choose not to walk in.

And how more simple can we get than baking our own bread? I cooked up a couple of loaves Sunday night, and thought I’d share the recipe.

2 cups warm water
2 Tablespoons yeast
2 Tablespoons sugar
2 Tablespoons olive oil

Once it’s proofed, slowly work in:
2 Teaspoons salt
1 Cup whole wheat flour
½ Cup oat bran
4 to 5 Cups white flour

Knead until smooth and silky.

Coat with olive oil, cover, and allow to rise until doubled in bulk, between 2 and 3 hours.

Punch down, break in half and fit into two bread loaf pans.

Coat with olive oil again, cover, and allow to rise a second time (until they look load-size).

Bake at 375 until done. (Sorry, I didn’t notice how long this took.)

Remove from loaf pan and allow to cool.

30 January 2008

Organizing by the Numbers: A Comparison of Principles

Since its inception in 1985, NAPO has exploded to almost 4,000 members and is still growing. A plethora of books on organizing has followed suit. I am fascinated by how each author finds a different approach to presenting the basic principles – or, in other cases, the basic process – of organizing. What follows is a comparative presentation of 15 different sets of principles. They are listed in order of the number of principles they put forth, ranging from 14 to 3. If you know of other books with different approaches, please e-mail the information to me at organized@humboldt1.com. Also, if you find this comparison valuable, please bookmark it on del.icio.us, Digg, or the social bookmark of your choice. Happy organizing!
Organizing Solutions for People with ADD
by Susan Pinsky

14 Rules of Organizing

1. Give everything a home.

2. Store things on the wall or a shelf, never on the floor.

3. Take advantage of vertical storage space.

4. Use hooks instead of hangers.

5. Don’t increase storage, reduce inventory.

6. Touch it only once (mail, laundry, etc).

7. If you haven’t touched it in a year, discard it.

8. Duplicate where necessary to store things where you use them.

9. Eliminate items that duplicate functions (electric and manual can opener, for example).

10. Arrange items in activity zones.

11. Don’t overcrowd your storage.

12. Easy to access and easy to put away.

13. Name your storage (sock drawer, dish cabinet).

14. Make sure “rough” storage (garage, basements etc.) are well lit and easily accessible.

The Spiritual Art of Being Organized
by Claire Josefine

12 Basic Principles of Being Organized

1. Think! Think vertical, think verbs, think function, think consequences.

2. Put like with like within zones created by function.

3. K.I.S.S. (Keep it simple, sweetie).

4. Create, and use, habits and schedules.

5. Be realistic.

6. Set boundaries.

7. Dishes before dusting.

8. Slow down and pay attention.

9. Adopt an attitude of gratitude.

10. Base decisions in love instead of fear.

11. Remember that we have choices.

12. Ask for help.

All You Really Need
by Jane Campbell

The Elements of Order

1. Own Less.

2. Give Stuff a Home.

3. Make it Pretty.

4. Categorize.

5. Handle Paper Centrally.

6. Store, Don't Obscure.

7. Files are Better than Piles.

8. Wean Yourself.

9. Travel with Care.

10. Be in Charge.

11. Respect the Earth (But).

12. Invest in a Professional.

The Spirit of Getting Organized:
12 Skills to Finding Meaning and Power in Your Stuff

by Pamela Kristan

12 Organizational Skills

Witness Skills develop a point-of-view
1. Observing gathers data

2. Acknowledging places value

Threshold Skills get us into and out of organizing
3. Beginning decides where to start

4. Ending disengages from the work

Shaping Skills intervene in the physical world
5. Sorting reveals order within the chaos

6. Staging set up an active area

7. Storing sets up archives and collections

8. Shedding identifies what you don’t need and moves it out

Option Skills
open up or settle down possibilities
9. Imagining opens up options

10. Choosing settles down options

Skills to Carry On place organization in context
11. Sustaining renews the system

12. Engaging makes connections

The Fly Lady's
11 Commandments

1. Keep your sink clean and shiny.

2. Get dressed every morning, even if you don't feel like it. Don't forget your lace-up shoes.

3. Do your Morning Routine every morning, right when you get up. Do your Before Bed Routine every night.

4. Don't allow yourself to be sidetracked by the computer.

5. Pick up after yourself. If you get it out, put it away when you finish.

6. Don't try to do two projects at once. ONE JOB AT A TIME.

7. Don't pull out more then you can put back in one hour.

8. Do something for yourself every day, maybe every morning and night.

9. Work as fast as you can to get a job done. This will give you more time to play later.

10. Smile even when you don't feel like it. It is contagious. Make up your mind to be happy and you will be.

11. Don't forget to laugh every day. Pamper yourself. You deserve it.

How to Conquer Clutter
by Stephanie Culp

Ten Commandments on Clutter

1. Stop procrastinating.

2. Quit making excuses.

3. Use it or lose it.

4. Learn to let go.

5. Be a giver.

6. Set limits.

7. Use the in and out inventory rule.

8. Less is more.

9. Keep everything in its place.

10. Compromise.

Smart Organizing
By Sandra Felton

The Bare Bones

Three STEPS to set-up in the house so it works well -- and easily:
1. Consolidate - Group everything together with like items.

2. Containerize - Store them in an appropriate place in containers with labels.

3. Condense - Get rid of duplicates, unused, unwanted, unneeded items.

Two ROUTINES that work consistently in the set-up you have created. Set clock for 10 or 15 minutes:
4. Four things in morning - your choice.

5. Four things at night - your choice.

Five HABITS to keep clutter on the run:
6. If you get it out, put it up.

7. Apply the 30-second rule consistently.

8. Follow the forest camping rule today.

9. Look, really look, at your surroundings.

10. Use little minutes.

The Organizing Sourcebook
by Kathy Waddill

9 Strategies of Reasonably Organized People

1. Make your systems fit you and your life.

2. Sort everything by how you use it.

3. Weed constantly.

4. Use the right containers and tools.

5. Label everything.

6. Keep it simple.

7. Decide to decide.

8. Get help when you need it.

9. Evaluate honestly and often.

It's Hard to Make a Difference When You Can’t Find Your Keys
by Marilyn Paul, Ph.D.

7-Step Path to Becoming Truly Organized

1. Establish Your Purpose.

2. Envision What You Want.

3. Take Stock.

4. Choose Support.

5. Identify Strategies for Change.

6. Take Action.

7. Go Deeper to Keep Going.

Order from Chaos:
A 6-Step Plan for Organizing
Yourself, Your Office and Your Life

by Liz Davenport

1.The Cockpit Office.

2. Air Traffic Control.

3. The Pending File.

4. Make Decisions.

5. Prioritize Ongoingly.

6. Daily Habits.

Odd One Out
The Maverick's Guide to ADD

by Jennifer Koretsky

5 Essential Skills for Managing Adult ADD

1. Break the cycle of overwhelm.

2. Work with your ADD, not against it.

3. ADDjust your attitude.

4. Take control of your space and time.

5. Live out loud.

Organized to Last:
5 Simple Steps to Staying Organized

by Porter Knight

1. Plan

2. Purge

3. Sort

4. Place

5. Use

Zen Habits
by Leo Babauta

Four Laws of Simplicity

1. Collect everything in one place.

2. Choose the essential.

3. Eliminate the rest.

4. Organize the remaining stuff neatly and nicely.

Organizing from the Inside Out
by Julie Morgenstern

1. Analyze

2. Strategize

3. Attack, using SPACE

Assign a Home

Clear and SIMPLE™
by Marla Dee

1. See It

2. Map It

3. Do it, using STACKS

Assign a Home
Keep It Up

Finally, although these affirmations aren’t exactly principles, they are so right-on that I couldn’t resist including them. They are from Clutterers Anonymous.

Clutterers Anonymous Affirmations

We have found that saying affirmations helps us replace negative thoughts with positive ones. Take what you like and leave the rest.

1. I nurture my spirit by surrounding myself with beauty and harmony.

2. I believe I am entitled to surroundings of serenity and order and a joyous life.

3. I set reasonable goals, remembering that my first priority is my well-being.

4. I schedule what I can do at a comfortable pace. I rest before I get tired.

5. I allot more time than I need for a task or trip, allowing a comfortable margin for the unexpected.

6. I decide which are the most important things to do first.

7. I do one thing at a time.

8. I schedule quiet time for communing with my Higher Power. Before I accept any new commitments, I first ask for guidance from my Higher Power.

9. I eliminate an activity from my schedule before adding one that demands equivalent time and energy.

10. When I feel overwhelmed, I stop and reconnect with my Higher Power.

11. I allocate space and time for anything new that I bring into my life or home.

12. I simplify my life, believing that when I need a fact or an item it will be available to me.

13. I affirm abundance and prosperity, thus I release the need to hoard.

14. I ask for help if I have any difficulties in working the program.

15. I schedule time for play and rest, refusing to work non-stop.

16. I believe that I can recover from cluttering and use my experience to benefit others.

17. I accept my progress as proceeding in God's time. I know that patience,tolerance, and taking my time aids me in my recovery.

18. I am gentle with my efforts, knowing that my new way of living requires much practice.

19. I do not yield to pressure or attempt to pressure others.

20. I realize that I am already where I will always be, in the here and now. I live each moment with serenity, joy, and gratitude.

28 January 2008


Despite outward appearances of confidence and grounding, I feel blown off balance too easily by external winds. Whether it’s a bi-polar client forgetting her appointment (again) and then acting out in response, or the fear that someone dislikes me, or being co-dependently entangled in a friend’s financial mess, I find myself thrown off course. And so, I am working on the trait of equanimity, of balance.

A friend offered the image of a Whirling Dervish, spinning and spinning around a calm core. This reminded me of a lecture I attended over a decade ago. I’d gone to hear an Ayurvedic practitioner speak at my neighborhood bookstore. He went around the room, identifying each of our dominant doshas. When he got to me, he stumbled. I was either Pitta-Kapha or Kapha-Pitta (Fire-Earth or Earth-Fire) with a core of Vatta (Air) running through my center. (I’m Pitta-Kapha.)

It appears my challenge is to cultivate a calm core, to shift it from air to earth. But how does one change a vapor to a solid? Thinking about water, I realized that one applies cold. So the trick is to chill. Be cool, dude. When the universe tosses me a glitch, take a breath and step back, gain perspective. Remember that there’s a bigger picture than what’s immediately in front of me, and be willing to accept that I don’t have all the information.

The other piece, I think, is to religiously practice grounding through meditation. I’ve been avoiding this for years, although I’m not sure why. A couple of years ago, at the county fair, the palm reader caught my eye and I knew I had to see her. (I’ve never been to a palm reader before or since.) The gist of her message was this: I am psychic and need to be meditating. Okay… I do have a strong relationship with my intuition, and I’ve been told that I’m amazing at running energy, but I don’t feel psychic in the usual understanding of the word. Still, I have been taking beginning psychic classes from Melanie Tolley. She teaches a grounding and aura-cleansing technique that I am now practicing every night before I go to bed. It puts me into a meditative state and, hopefully, will strengthen my grounding abilities so that I can snap to that place whenever I need. Then I’ll just have to remember that I can be grounded at will!

27 January 2008

The Minds, They Are A’Changing

Our minds are changing, and I suspect that technology is contributing to the change.

A while back, I wrote a piece on television and ADD (Wait, Maybe We Shouldn’t Kill Our TVs). Since then, I’ve had the pleasure of watching a based-on-the-book lecture by David Weinberger, Everything is Miscellaneous.

I adamantly insist that, when creating a filing system, “Miscellaneous” is verboten – it is the black hole of filing. As long as we are talking about physical items, I believe it is important for us to identify how something is being used and why we are keeping it, and then to use that information to guide where we put it.

In his talk, Weinberger explains how the concept of “a place for everything and everything in its place” makes sense as an organizing concept so long as we are dealing with physical objects. After all, physical objects occupy space, and only one object can occupy that space at one time. But with the advent of computer technology, and especially with the Internet, how we access information has changed. Information no longer needs to occupy only one space. Indeed, online, it can be accessed from many different angles, and becomes more available to us the more places it is “filed.”

I have a client who is a nonfiction author and who’s been diagnosed with ADD. She had file drawers full of clippings and notes for the book she was writing, and hired me to help organize those files. It was a fascinating process because she continually saw the relationships between the information, the connections, and wanted to file accordingly. But the connections were fluid and changeable, which makes accessing the information difficult. Instead, I encouraged her to let me set up the files based on what the information actually was, instead of what it could be. (This worked well for her, by the way, and she thanked me for insisting on this system.)

Because we were dealing with physical objects, with pieces of paper, we were limited to choosing one place for each paper. To set up a cross-reference system – let alone to maintain it! – would have been beyond tedious. BUT, if all this information had been bits of data living in the Internet ether, we could have pursued a different organizational model.

Here’s where I’m going with this: The Internet mirrors the ADD mind. Both are structured around connections and relationships, instead of being limited to linear space.

Which leads me to wonder: What is the relationship between the technological explosion (of television, and of the Internet) and the changes I’m seeing in how our minds process information?

The other piece I’m wondering about is: Why are so many more people being diagnosed with Aspergers? I now have three friends with Aspergers children. How does this fit in with the increase of folks with ADD, and with the changes in technology and how we receive and process information? Or does it?

20 January 2008

Feeling Crabby

If I didn’t know better, I’d swear Mercury’s been retrograde. Seems everything’s falling apart recently. In the past two weeks, I’ve had to replace the toilet and the washing machine. Which has put me through the environmental-ethics wringer.

It appears that Mr. Rooter does not recycle the toilets, even though Kernen Construction takes porcelain fixtures – for free – crushes them, and re-uses them for road base. He doesn’t want to “drive all the way up there” (about 10 to 15 miles); it isn’t worth his time and expense. Sigh. (Otherwise, he's a nice guy and provides great customer support.) Had I known that Kernen Construction recycled toilets, and had I had more time before committing to the old one being replaced, I would have searched out a plumber who took the old fixture in to Kernen. Instead, I’ve contributed unnecessarily to the landfill.

Anthony and I hauled the old washing machine, which would cost almost $200 more to repair than to replace new, to the recycling center and paid the $17 recycling fee. It, at least, will not go to the dump. But I bought a brand-new washer instead of a refurbished one, which means I am consuming considerably more “embodied energy.” It’s just that, when it comes to machines, I want the assurance that it won’t die on me prematurely. Somehow, buying new feels like a safer bet.

But now I feel like a failure as an environmentally-conscious consumer. Okay, the toilet is a low-flow that’s actually designed to work with 1.5 gallons per flush, and the washer is an Energy Star front loader, so it uses minimal water and electricity. Still, I feel like I failed. I should have recycled the toilet, should have bought used instead of new… Shoulda, woulda, coulda.

Perhaps this is where I need to remember that old Al-Anon wisdom of “progress, not perfection.” Overall I have a reasonable eco-footprint (other than the fact that, because I live in the country, I am car dependent). My usual garbage amounts to maybe a quarter of a brown grocery bag per week – everything else is composted or recycled. I buy primarily organic, from small local farmers when possible. I clean with eco-groovy cleaners (mostly Bon Ami and elbow grease), have a small (fully insulated) house.

Or am I justifying away my guilt?

My mom (Franci Gallegos) was proud of being named environmentalist of the year in Sonoma County. She bravely battled the lumber barons (as she called them), fighting to preserve her local watershed. Yet I remember being disgusted by what I deemed her hypocrisy, i.e., the lack of environmental awareness and behavior in her own home. Never mind that she smoked and her whole house reeked something awful (the cat boxes didn’t help); her cupboards were filled with toxic cleaning solutions and unhealthy food. A true “Sierra-Club environmentalist” – that was my mom.

Granted, my life is a hell of a lot cleaner than hers. Still, I wonder if there’s a voice somewhere in my head that says I’m being “just like her.” (And God knows we don’t want to be like our mothers! Isn’t that our great fear, to look in the mirror and see Mom?) Maybe, somewhere inside, I am equally disgusted with my own apparent hypocrisy, which is how I judge my imperfection, and how I project that others will judge me.

Dang. All I wanted was a working toilet and washing machine. How did life get so complicated?


On a completely different note, here’s the recipe for tonight’s dinner.

Thai-Inspired Crab Cakes

1 large carrot, grated (about 1 cup)
2 green onions, cut thinly (plant the root ends that you cut off – they’ll re-grow!)
1 stalk lemongrass, finely minced
about ½ cup of chopped fresh cilantro
1 thumb-sized piece of fresh ginger, grated (a small thumb, that is)
1 Tablespoon fish sauce
3 Tablespoons lime juice
1 teaspoon sugar

Let this sit for a little while so that the flavors can intermingle. When ready to cook the cakes, mix in:
1 egg
Panko crumbs (between ½ cup and 1 cup, just enough to hold everything together)

Then gently fold in:
¼ to 1/3 pound of fresh crab (Dungeness)
6 small prawns, shelled, de-veined, and chopped (optional)

Heat your skillet, add oil (I use organic canola) and fry up the crab cakes over a medium-low heat.

Makes about 16 “slightly flattened golf-ball” sized cakes. (This is how Anthony described the shape and size when I asked him about them.)

08 January 2008

Cate Cummings

Today’s issue of Shelf Awareness brought a piece of startling news. Cate Cummings, “a freelance publicist who specialized in mind/body and metaphysical titles, died on January 3 from cancer. She was 53.
 Her career spanned more than 25 years, according to the Kansas City Star, which said that she will be remembered ‘for her quick wit, her compassionate treatment and advocacy of animals and her love of life.’"

Cate handled a publicity campaign a couple of years ago for my book, The Spiritual Art of Being Organized. She loved the book. What’s more, she believed in it.

Although I never had the pleasure of meeting her in person, we had several good talks over the phone. Cate was funny, warm-hearted, generous, and knew her stuff. She also loved cats as much as I do; we’d spend half our time on the phone exchanging cat stories.

I had no idea that Cate was ill, although I guess that explains why emails to her came back with the message that her mailbox was full. In fact, I’d been looking forward to finally meeting her at the INATS show in Denver this June. Phooey.

Cate, I’m sorry I never got to meet you. I’m grateful for your support and wisdom, and pray that you are happy, wherever you are now. I know it’s cliché, but the world is poorer for your absence. Bless you.

06 January 2008

Computer Literacy?

I read on Southern Review of Books that a Russian publisher is releasing a novel that was written by a computer. Evidently, a group of philologists and software folks collaborated to write a program known as PC Writer 2008.

The result? To quote the Southern Review: “The basic story line of what the publisher claims is the first computer-generated novel, conditionally titled ‘[True love]*.wrt’, is the love story of Anna Karenina’s main characters. The action takes place on an unknown island in times similar to the present. The book is written in Haruki Murakami’s manner, while the style is based on the vocabulary, language and literary tools of 13 Russian and foreign authors of the 19th and 20th centuries.”

This reminds me of an idea I had back in college, circa 1980. My friends and I were playing a lot of Scrabble back then, and one of my buddies was a computer programmer. We also fancied ourselves poets, or at least hung out at poetry readings. My idea was this: to take all the words created in our Scrabble games – and only these words – and then write a computer program that would generate poetry from that limited allotment of vocabulary. We would program the computer to “write” so many lines with pre-determined (and varying) noun/verb/adjective patterns, and to incorporate meters. I fancied the result would be a sort of Found Poetry, with maybe a bit of Dada flavor. These would be our Scrabble poems.

Okay, so it isn’t a great Russian novel. Heck, I never even wrote the program (or rather, worked with my programmer friend so that he could write the program). But it was a fun idea, and here we are, almost 30 years later, with a variation on the computer-writer theme.

04 January 2008

Lac d'Elk

Winters in western Sonoma County could be exciting. I remember, growing up in Camp Meeker, how the Russian River would crest its banks, and we’d (foolishly) drive out to Monte Rio and toward Guerneville to see the flood. It seemed magnificent, exhilarating. Except of course for the poor folks who actually lived along the riverbanks. Silly people, I judged – why would they live so close to a river they knew flooded regularly?

Thirty years later, I must turn the same judgment on myself. As it has every year that I’ve lived here, the Elk River is rising. It crested its banks this afternoon, and I watched it crawl across Farmer John’s field toward my house.

It’s actually lovely, in a way. I can gaze across the pasture through my kitchen and bedroom windows. This time of year, the riparian willows are bare, so I can see through them to the river’s bank and beyond to Farmer John’s dairy barn. When the river rises to its bank, I see its shimmer through the trees. And when it crests, it forms pools in the pasture’s hollows. Eventually those pools grow until they join into one continuous, rippling brown flow. Then the birds arrive, the blue herons and the crows, maybe a turkey vulture or two.

Usually the river stays there, about one-third of the way across the pasture toward my house. About once a year, though, it gets bad. Elk River becomes Lac d’Elk, a wide, mucky current sprawling from Larry’s fields, through the Franceschi’s back property, across the road to my back yard. The river makes a big U right at my place, and Farmer’s John pasture is the space inside the U. When we flood, the river fills the U-shaped pasture, joining banks right through my property.

And when the river REALLY floods, it rushes up around my house. My home becomes an island, with water gushing around and under the building.

This is where I thank my architect for suggesting that, as long as I had to put in a new foundation when I bought the place, why not raise the house 3 feet?

Had we not raised the house, it would have been destroyed by flood the first winter I lived here. As is, it came up 18 inches in the carport that year, literally ½ an inch from coming in the back door to the utility room. (I did not raise the little rooms that are at the back of the carport.) The house, thank God (and my architect), is out of harm’s way.

But the carport gets thrashed by the flood waters. It’s always an interesting call once the river’s risen. Is this the time it will flood all the way? Will it flood tonight, after I’ve gone to bed? How much more will it rain, and what’s going on with the tides?

Just in case, I drove the rider mower over to Marianne’s tonight and stored it in her shelter, high on her hill. I also parked my car up by the road. If I truly thought it would flood tonight (and none of the residents down Elk River Courts -- who become stranded back there because their bridge gets covered by water -- have moved their cars up to the road, so I guess the danger isn’t that high), I would move the bicycles and the push mower up onto my tenant’s back steps. (His house is on slightly higher ground and out of flood range.)

So why the hell did I buy a place on a river that floods, given how I used to scoff at people who did just this when I was younger? Well, other than karma… I honestly did not know it would flood. I was informed, during the purchasing process, that the property was zoned 100-year flood plain, and that it had flooded just a few years prior. Hey, I had another 100 years, right?

Well, if Pacific Lumber/Maxxam had not destroyed the river with sedimentary run-off from their rapacious logging upstream, I probably would have had that 100 years. Instead, I have a home that I love with an annual “lakeside” view.

* * * * *

Well, it's morning now and the Elk River is back within its banks. Evidently, last night was not the night for our annual flood. It was, however, quite a storm, with lightening brightly visible through closed eyes and long loud thunders and rain slamming into the bedroom windows. All at 2:00 a.m. Sleep? What's sleep?