Celebrating Great Books For Real Girls

THE STARS OF THESE YOUNG ADULT BOOKS SWEAR, STRUGGLE, AND GENERALLY ACT LIKE REAL TEENS

“NEW MIDDLE-GRADE AND YA PUBLISHER IN THIS TOGETHER MEDIA AIMS TO OFFER STORIES WITH MORE DIVERSE AND REALISTIC REPRESENTATIONS OF KIDS, ESPECIALLY GIRLS.” — Fast Company

In the frosty, early months of 2014, when there was still snow on the ground, a former (and fabulous) boss put me in touch with some very exciting entrepreneurs. Saira Rao and Carey Albertine came together a few years ago to take everything they’d learned in their careers in writing, television, and law, and form a social-purpose media venture called In This Together Media. Their goal? To put more, better, and relatable female (and racially diverse) characters into the world of children’s media—which has long been dominated by white, boy characters.

A social-purpose business, scrappy entrepreneurship, and books — I was hooked. Saira and Carey brought me up to speed on just how dismal the gender and race balance still is in children’s books, and I brainstormed ideas with them about more fun things they could be doing to highlight their books and mission. Then we made this really fun video together!

And it seems like they’re gaining traction. This summer, they were featured in Fast Company’s Most Creative People. This is some very deserved recognition! Seeing characters that reflect who we are gives us a sense of belonging and lets us see new possibilities for ourselves in the wider world. In honor of their work, I thought I’d reflect on a just a few books whose girls meant a lot to me when I was growing up:

  • Betsy, of Understood BetsySure she’s from 1916. But she gave me dreams of someday trying freshly tapped maple syrup poured onto snow to firm up and eat.
  • Vicky, of A Ring Of Endless LightThis gal could telepathically communicate with dolphins, and I was sure that one day, I would too.
  • Elizabeth, of Sweet Valley High (and Sweet Valley Kids, Sweet Valley Junior High, Sweet Valley University, Sweet Valley Thrillers, etc.). Two identical twins starred in this series—Elizabeth and Jessica—and while the whole world mixed them up, any girl reading could keep them straight and tell you which twin was her avatar. And I was an Elizabeth, bookish and rule-following, all the way.

Okay, I told you mine. Now you tell me yours?

Sweet Valley High
A Ring Of Endless Light
Understood Betsy

How to Cook Black Beans

Oh, mama mia, thanks to / cursed by this innocent, helpful post about cooking dry beans, I’ll have yet another source of anxiety when I go to the grocery store: the potential toxicity of BPA-free (!) canned beans. I am internally weeping. Back to the bulk bins.

The Zero-Waste Chef

Click here to go straight to the recipe.

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I don’t eat canned beans (or canned anything for that matter), for several reasons:

  • Cans are lined with plastic that often contains BPA. Because of heightened consumer awareness of the hazards of this chemical, food companies have been quick to adopt alternatives —which may pose similar or worse health dangers.
  • Canned food tasted bad. I find that canned beans taste like plastic and have a slimy, mushy texture. Food cooked from scratch always wins.
  • I can control what goes into my food when I cook it myself. Canned beans usually have a ton of sodium. Mine don’t.
  • Dried beans can cost less than canned. A pound of dried beans makes about three cans worth of cooked beans. Three cans of organic beans will almost always cost more than a pound of dried organic beans.
  • Dried beans consume less oil in their…

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Tale of The Bag Lady

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Every time I go to the grocery store around the corner, I bring a canvas or nylon tote with me. Because I don’t want to be this guy … And because every plastic bag I see gives me visions of a smoldering landfill in a post-apocalyptic future, bags swirling like crows in the air.

But in my effort to stay out of the cracked-up-enviro-loony bin, I let myself take home a load of groceries in a plastic bag when circumstances seem to require it. But I swear to myself: I will keep them, dammit! And I’ll reuse every one! 

My efforts are valiant: I use them to carry maybe-leaking containers of leftovers that I’ll eat for lunch. I use them to wrap my sneakers up when I pack a suitcase. I use them to carry disgusting, oozing compost from my apartment to the community garden.

Yet the bags somehow manage to outpace me. I use one as a bathroom trash can liner, and five show up in friends’ hands when they come over for a potluck. In recent months they finally filled up the bag-of-bags in my closet and began to spill onto the floor like crinkly dust bunnies.

It was time for a purge.

I remembered hearing that many stores were required by law to accept bags for recycling, and I was certain I’d seen a collection barrel at my local big chain grocery store. So for days—nay, weeks—I kept thinking in the back of mind: I’m gonna do it. I’m gonna clean out the bag mess in the closet. I’m gonna bag up all the bags and get them out of here once and for all. Bag bankruptcy. A fresh start, a new beginning! 

But you know how it goes. You’re busy. There are more urgent spring-cleaning priorities, like the stained kitchen mat or the grout in the shower. Not that I was going to get around to cleaning those, but there they were. So I set a date: the last week of May. By then I would have planted my garden (didn’t happen), celebrated my birthday (did happen), and finished a major project (phew!).

Memorial Day came and went, and it was time to Address The Bag Situation.

So you can see what I did, in that picture up at the top. See it? I bagged ’em. And I walked to the further away grocery store, because the one closest to me definitely does not offer the take-back service. But when I walked inside: no barrel. No bin. No take-backs.

What happened? I asked one of the cashiers. Didn’t you used to take back plastic bags?

“Yes,” she said, “We did. But the company who was supposed to collect them would never come. So we had to put them out by the dumpster.”

Words could not have expressed my dismay. The round-cheeked cashier with the lovely green headscarf gave me a friendly smile, and I tried to return it cheerfully. I tried not to look like a person whose dreams of spring-cleanliness and environmental heroism had just been crushed.

Those two bags-full-of-bags? They are sitting at this very moment on the floor of my kitchen, right where I photographed them, waiting for my next bright idea for their future.

The Backyard Bouquet

The backyard bouquet is everything that the florist’s bouquet is not.

Where the corner florist’s bouquet is full of identical, stick-straight stems, the backyard flowers bend and swerve like cursive letters.

Where the local deli’s bouquet has plastic-smelling carnations, the fresh-cut dianthus from the backyard still carry a spicy fragrance. I never knew these flowers to smell good until I smelled a fresh one.

Where the florist’s bouquet is patched together from flowers that flew in from foreign countries, often raised with pesticides and chemicals and by the hard labor of those not making upscale-florist salaries, the backyard bouquet is what you cut from everything blooming under your own hands. And maybe some tall, frilly weeds to fill it out.

The backyard bouquet is simple, unpredictable, haphazard, and lovely.

And it’s a pretty nerve-racking business model, as I’ve designed it. See, about a month ago, I arranged with a local coffee shop to plant a container garden in their backyard and sell bouquets from their counter. I loved cutting my own bouquets from my garden plot all last year, and I was so inspired by Tara’s backyard bounty, that I thought I’d try a low-stakes “slow flower” business experiment. At best, I’ll make back my tiny capital investment and a little extra cash to blow on cold-brew coffee or fancy cheese this summer. At worst, I’ll get to make pretty bouquets and learn a thing or two (at a price B-school can’t beat) about entrepreneurship.

If you find yourself in Brooklyn, swing by Primrose Cafe. Venture into the backyard and smell the anise hyssop or the Siberian wallflower, and especially the dianthus. It’s delicate and you have to get your nose real close, but when you do, it smells sweet and spicy, like nutmeg or cinnamon, and you’ll wish you could carry it with you all day long.

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Getting the business IN the ground.
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Natural beauty for sale 
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A teacup-size bunch I just made

When “Diversify Your Portfolio” Means Adding More Daisies

I first saw her when I happened across the book The 50 Mile Bouquet. It described her as a woman running a flower farm in her backyard in Los Angeles. My heart raced. I backed away slowly and put her out of my mind for six months. But when I was back in L.A., I looked up Silverlake Farms online, and there was a phone number to call, right there on the homepage. I hesitated. Should I tweet at them first? Should I try to sneak in as a WWOOF volunteer?

Forcing myself to dial, I mentally prepped my pitch to the intern I expected to reach. But Tara Kolla, flower farmer and entrepreneur, answered right away. Not only did she answer, when I told her I was a fan and wanted to see the farm, she said Sure, no problem, when’s good for you? When I hung up I did several victory wriggles of excitement.

The idea of selling local, cleanly grown flowers just hasn’t left me alone since last winter, when I found myself anxiously but helplessly buying bouquets (ranunculus from Norway, poppies from Japan, who-knows-where-from Trader Joe’s mixed bouquets) to break the gray monotony of, well, everything in the winter. I wanted to see if this was a realistic idea, and “backyard” sounded like the best place to start.

 

Silverlake Farms gets extremely tempting on Instagram
Silverlake Farms gets extremely tempting on Instagram

 

Tara is a calm, strength-radiating, funny, and generous wonderwoman. She showed me her backyard setup—just getting ready for the next planting—and over a good British cup of tea and a blood orange shared her experience with me, doling out tips and names of other people to know. I scribbled quickly and gratefully. Her experience, which has been that she needs to be working several small businesses at once, was no surprise. Diverse income streams are a smart move and an increasingly necessary one during these years of economic suckiness. It seems like the idea of running just one small business might be a dream, a thing of the past.

If you want to know more about her cut-flower business, her help-you-grow-your-backyard business, or the multi-farmer CSA she runs, you can read to your heart’s content on the Silverlake Farms site or any of the many articles written about her already. Did I mention she helped change the urban agriculture laws in Los Angeles? To say she’s got hustle would be a gross understatement.

At no point did Tara promise me that going into the urban farming business would be a rose garden. In fact, like any kind of farming, you probably have to be a little crazy to choose it in the first place. But if I ever do start up my own backyard enterprise, I’ll have her to thank. Here are my snapshots from the visit, which I have to say cannot do her genius any justice. After all, it’s January! You’ve gotta check out her site and her Instagram for a real treat.

In Which I Re-Insert Myself Amongst Fellow Natives In Los Angeles And Learn How They Are Going To Save The World

Ahh, nothing like winter in Los Angeles. Nights are cold and clear, there’s a faint whiff of fireplace smoke in the air, but the days are warm, sunny, and feel much longer than their east-coast counterparts. This particular return to my native L.A. has been a great chance—because I have more time and no terrible head-cold, for once—to explore some of L.A.’s off-the-beaten-path-of-consumerism aspects.

Over the weekend, I had a nouveau hippie double-header. On Friday night I went with friends to a Salon at a co-op house called Synchronicity. It really took me back to the days I went to parties at the college co-op houses, and the salons friends and I started in Chicago and New York years back. Overcrowded couches, kitchens with lots of signs about chores and rules taped on them, a guy doing fire poi in the backyard. I tried taking good pictures but mostly failed. But this photo from their site should give you a good idea:

Synchronicity gathered in their Los Angeles backyard

Synchronicity houses 12 people, some gorgeous citrus trees, a jacuzzi, and a recording studio in what looked like a converted garage or guesthouse. Apparently the house’s success has inspired at least half a dozen other co-housing groups to blossom on the very same block. The vibe was upbeat, some of the music was freaking fantastic (what were those sisters’ names?!), and one of the house members, a music teacher at a citywide organization, was on cloud nine because his housemates were holding a bake sale to recoup what he’d lost when his wallet was stolen.

The next day I got to see a Synchronicity-type setup on an even larger scale. I signed up for one of LA Eco-Village‘s regular Saturday tours. I brought a friend (who lived in one of the aforementioned college co-ops) with me, as did almost everybody else on the tour. I guess we were nervous about being kidnapped? Actually, I’d been really eager to see the place after reading Jennifer Chen‘s article about it in Bust magazine (sorry, no online article available). I’d had no idea it existed!

LA Eco-Village has a forty-unit apartment building, a second smaller building, a learning garden, and a mission to support all its’ residents efforts to live with as little ecological impact as possible. The tour, the group’s history, their mission and challenges were all fascinating and complex. Which explains why the tour is two and half hours long. Here’s a photo slideshow of some of the delights that caught my eye:

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The big, difficult question is whether one would live in a place like this. The price is right (rents are stabilized), and these are full apartments, so for better or for worse there’s more privacy and no regular communal cooking. There are monthly meetings that use a consensus process, and new residents face a two to six month getting-to-know-you process, which is probably also both for better and for worse for all involved.

It was an uplifting, inspiring example of the kind of mini-reality (communal, spontaneous, democratic, beautiful, affordable, green) you can create, though, when you refuse to simply slot yourself into the systems and choices (real estate, lawns, grocery stores, cars, individualism and accumulation) that you’re given. The woman who led our tour studied bio-ethics—she’s no slouch!—and has spent some sixteen years working with her neighbors to make LAEV’s dreams into realities, one small initiative at a time.

The result is impressive, and yet they are one oasis in a vast, polluted city. When my friend and I wandered through Koreatown to find lunch, I felt like I was transitioning between parallel universes, and I felt deeply grateful  that I’d been allowed to visit.

Getting A Tune-Up For An Old Timey Radio

“Iconoclastic economist Herman Daly helped popularize the term ‘steady state economics.’ … [A]t its essence steady state economics is a closed loop system that mimics nature in that it does not need new inputs or materials to keep running. It runs at a steady state and doesn’t grow lest it overshoot the carrying capacity of the natural resources on which it depends. Repair, repurposing, and recycling are what make the system work.” – Stet Hollbrook in Make Magazine

I get my first glimpse of the inside of a radio.

I fall into that gray area between “worrisome hoarder” and “worried environmentalist” when it comes to dealing with STUFF. My floor fan that blows as much air as a kitten could breathe onto you? Not dead yet! My grandparents’ little radios from the 1950s? Sentimental and retro! But having a lot of STUFF, especially stuff that isn’t working well, is a bummer. After years—literally years!—of knowing about this group called The Fixers Collective, who meet monthly to tinker with broken stuff, I managed to get myself coordinated enough to bring two old radios and a rotating floor fan to one of their Thursday evening sessions.

I was probably there for three hours. You might say that’s a lot of time to get some electronic appliances repaired, but I promise you I would have spent as much time trying to find a repair shop and schlepping there and back. Plus, this way I got to see the magic that happens behind the (plastic) curtain!

I asked the curly-haired, skateboarding young guy working on my fan how he got involved in this unglamorous volunteer gig and he said he “just liked doing it.” Another gal about my age with very Etsy-chic style seemed to have an art/design background.

At a very pleasant evening’s end, they had cracked the mystery of my very cantankerous fan and had it finally blowing at a proper speed. But it still wouldn’t rotate. The radios were really fun to look at and play with, and I got to lend my fingers to the task, holding this or that in place while others tinkered. I left with both radios seeming to work better (they used to lose their connection to the stations at the slightest nudge or breeze) and a sense of relief similar to when you finally get that dentist’s appointment over with.

Then, just this week, Vincent, who oversaw the whole evening, sent me an email saying that he had a knob belonging to one of my radios, and that Make Magazine had written an article about them! See Make Magazine’s article on the Fixers Collective and the stubborn niche of people who refuse to go along with planned obsolescence. 

I don’t wish any of my things to break, but if they do, I’ll be excited to get them fixed.

Partially-read book review: The Circle Of Simplicity

Look, oh friends, where I’ve been all morning. Post-shower, post-breakfast, I didn’t have it in me to sit down at the old laptop just yet. I was sleepy, sure, but I was also nervous because I have to return a library book a.s.a.p. — some other patron has requested it, and so I can’t do my usual renew-it-six-times-until-I-get-around-to-it routine — and I’ve been wolfing it down like it’s a cake that’s about to spoil. So I took my green tea to the community garden to camp out for half an hour, to get a few more pages in. You know, until the mosquitoes drove me to insanity. But this is a perfect day, warm but not humid, sunny but not hot, and the mosquitoes must all be napping, and I read and chatted with other gardeners coming in to water their plants and walk their babies for an hour and a half. 20130731-113334.jpg

“What are you reading?” asked JoJo, a fellow gardener, a public school teacher and expecting father asked when he came in to water his plot. I showed him my book: The Circle of Simplicity: Return to the good life, by Cecile Andrews, which caught my eye on a recent borrowing spree at the library. (Its first blurb is from the one and only Juliet Schor.) “Does she say you should join a community garden?” he said with a smile. “I think she’s going to,” I replied.

Andrews’ premise is, in a nutshell, that we’re not well, we hard-working Americans. We’re tired and cranky and lonely and sick and divorced and a little desperate. And it’s because we’ve been sold on the idea that we should follow a certain formula: success in work + success in building a little castle = happiness and success in life. But the big TVs and cars only separate us from other people, and working to buy those things separates us from our true gifts, passion, and drains our energy for life. Not to mention the toll this all takes on the poor planet, which we’re squeezing dry with all our successful widget-producing and comfortable, affluent living.

Re-thinking your priorities, finding your own truths about what you want in life, and connecting with other people— at the grocery store, on your block, at the playground or church or temple — are some of the big-picture remedies she suggests. The more involved you are in authentic relationships, and the more time you spend doing things that give you pleasure, fulfillment, and purpose, the less time you spend numbed out in front of mediocre television (this book was written in 1997, before TV got a lot better) or shopping, worried that your clothes aren’t good enough yet.

A lot of her anecdotes and analyses might feel familiar to a reader who is already exploring these ideas, but she’s very astute at identifying subtle factors: for example, the way wide streets and the fact that we don’t build front porches anymore make it harder for us to have casual contact with our neighbors. Even in New York, where we live in close proximity, many neighborhoods have seen their hangout cafes, or their community-based grocery stores, replaced by big chains. This book will make an outstanding introduction for anyone interested in just exploring their own doubts and questions about their lifestyle for the first time. In fact, I think it makes an excellent read to start with before jumping into Juliet Schor’s Plenitude (check out Treehugger’s recap here), which is less philosophical but gets down to the brass tacks of sustainability and personal economics.

“Simplicity Circles,” a cross between a book-club and a consciousness-raising group, are part of Andrews’ vision toward helping people change their lives. You can’t change without support and community, she says, and you can’t have community without laughter. That’s partly what I hope to do with this blog — laugh at the foibles that come along when trying to make deliberate change, and to share them with others. I’m thinking about putting a little note inside the book when I return it to the library, so maybe the person who’s waiting for it so eagerly will invite me to join theirs.

UPDATE: I picked up the book again over a late lunch, and came across this spot-on description of gardening:

“My whole life experience has taught me that the intellectual life is superior to the physical life, particularly the life of nature. So it wasn’t until just a few years ago that I started gardening. I had always thought that the reason you gardened was to have flowers around, so it would look beautiful. I didn’t realize that gardening was an end in itself.

 

In fact, I was astonished to see how much I loved weeding—it was almost a mystical experience. I would start weeding and become totally absorbed. Down on my knees among the tall flowers and plants, I felt different, I felt expanded. I wouldn’t want to stop, even though I knew that, after all that bending, I probably wouldn’t be able to walk the next day.”

WNYC Bike Graph

Last one to the bike station has to take the train!

Even though the Wall Street Journal and other forward-thinking institutions believe New York’s CitiBike program is the perfect storm of evil, a silly-and-charming story aired on WNYC pitted the bike program against the subway and a Yellow Taxi to see which could return its radio producer to the studio fastest.

I’ll spare you the suspense: the bike won!

It’s probably due to that irrefutable journalistic evidence that the bikes are becoming so popular in certain areas, you almost can’t get one. Check out the graph below from another great bit of WNYC coverage of the new program. It shows that the bikes near Penn Station are basically “selling out” during the morning commute. I wonder if the main customers are people who commuted into the city afar — isn’t that a fascinating possibility?

Steven Melendez and Louise Ma / WNYC Data News Team. Follow @datanews. http://project.wnyc.org/penn-station-bikes/
Steven Melendez and Louise Ma / WNYC Data News Team. Follow @datanews. http://project.wnyc.org/penn-station-bikes/

I love that the program is seeing early success like this — now if only we could know how many of those estimated 30,000 rides a day (WNYC’s number) were from people who otherwise would take a car or taxi.

And availability does seem like a critical issue. As someone who’s pretty familiar with constant nearly-late-to-work syndrome, not knowing whether or not I’d get a bike would discourage me from making it my regular commuting routine, even if it only took me a block out of my way to go see. (Currently, I’ve still got my own private, personal bike. So 2012!) That block makes the difference between needing to power walk and needing to break into a light trot, between on-time-ish and definitely late.

How Will My Next Mayor Affect What I’m Having For Dinner?

With so many lefties to choose from in the upcoming mayoral primary, how will I ever decide? I’m no one-issue pony, but I do like a helpful digest of each guy and gal’s take on the biggies. So thank goodness The New School is offering the recording of this forum on food issues and PolicyMic wrote a helpful summary of each candidate’s responses.

Mayoral Candidate Forum on the Future of Food in New York City – on Livestream.com