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“Physics for Poets” Finally Sinks In…14 Years Later

This is something of an open thank-you note to a past professor at Wayne State University. In my humanities undergrad days, a class with a text called Physics for Poets sounded about right–less math, more beauty. Boy was I wrong. As a senior returning somewhat shell-shocked from her year abroad in Germany, I was a less-than-ideal student. Plus, as the first in my working-class family to attend college, I was realizing my humanities path wasn’t the opening the doors I’d imagined it would, and my scholarship (and time) was running out.

So what would any mess of a college girl do? Why, cry in her her professor’s office. And that lucky guy was one Dr. Alvin Saperstein, who PhD’d at Yale and has a CV longer than the circumference of my now-pregnant waistline. There I sat, a failure because I couldn’t hack the deceptively sophisticated mathematics behind the “Physics for Poets” title, but what was really wrong was I had no idea what I was doing. At all. I was pretending, and in the midst of my hope to be a great scholar, I discovered I kind of hated it. Worse, in the process of focusing on my requirements to finish something, I had removed myself, or so I thought, from other opportunities. I was down a rabbit hole and feeling pretty sorry for myself.

And what would an accomplished theoretical physicists see before him? A girl who thought there was just one way. Someone who was narrowing her field of vision, ready to crash the rocks. He gave me two gifts: an incomplete and a bit of advice. It was something along the lines of “Don’t hem yourself in. Be bigger. Don’t limit yourself.” Whatever his words, it’s taken me a looong time to accept them.

Some of a dabbler, I’ve let the university mantra (that I “learn how to learn”) sink in a bit too far–as if I must follow some linear course in all pursuits: for example foundation course 101, followed by foundation course 102, and if I pass I can go to actual area of interest 201, etc. The time is over. Now that I’ve worked under people who figure it out as they go along, and my resolution is to try many things now–no permission required.

Postscript: I turned in my paper, and Prof. Saperstein told me I could do better, that I’m not a B student.

Bubba Bread

In my imagination, I’m capable of greatness. A great blog, a great home, a great holiday.

And if I could deliver holiday perfection (at any cost), I would bake Bubba Bread. This isn’t a bread machine project–there aren’t any shortcuts. I look to my maternal grandma for my example.

Her name was Loretta, but everyone called her Lee. Bubba is what we called her mother, a slavic immigrant who worked  as a domestic servant, and along the way mastered Eastern European baking. My only memory of Bubba is her gnarled knuckles and the morning she made donuts at my aunt’s house. She cut them with a juice glass and fried them in a shallow pan. They were delicious, but because she was so cross, she didn’t teach me to associate sweet home cooking with love.

Lee was another story. A fancy lady by nature, we never called her Bubba (“old woman”, as my mother remembers). She moved away when I was in middle school, and would come for 2 week visits once or twice a year after that. When she stayed, she slept in my room. She traveled with luggage packed with a book of dirty limericks, designer clothes (“sport” labels by Liz Claiborne, Donna Karan and Ralph Lauren), and her fine and hand-beaded jewelry wadded up in plastic bags in her purse. Even though I had special access, she was still a little distant. The way she showed her love was through doing things for us, and especially cooking.

Here’s a baking day with Lee: 6 a.m. alarm. Shower, put on designer sweats. No makeup, pull hair back in a bun. The shopping’s been done, the kitchen is spotless, the mixing and baking pans (in fact, every oven-proof object in the house) staged for the event. Brew coffee, quick bite and get started. To-do list: peel, boil and mash potatoes, zest oranges, measure, mix and knead dough, proof, roll and fill dough, bake. The choreography ends just in time for dinner.

Lee hummed and warbled crooner songs while she worked. Her family recipes hand written on large index cards, she would sometimes become frazzled by assembling everything and the sheer volumes she worked with. She turned the oven on before she started so the room would be warm (muggy, in fact) for proofing. My stepdad would complain about the elaborate nature of the day. A frugal shift worker, he’d fret about the energy bill and his daytime sleep was disturbed by the racket.

She was a funny lady–she wore too much blue creme eyeshadow (as if to mask her dark, dark eyes), she shopped at discount stores for her pricy labels (petite, she always had to hem her clothes)–in many ways her way of dealing with the world was about trying to transform or disguise herself as something other than the daughter of slavic immigrants. But when she was doing something as simple and as private as serving her family, she would completely wipe herself out.

I’m a little funny too–I walk a line between Lee’s sense of service and “good is not enough”, and the energy wringer of my mom’s choice: aesthetics. In the middling way I approach things, I’m sure I match neither of them, but I’m inspired by both. I’ll cook Thanksgiving dinner, but it won’t be as good as Lee’s (and Bubba Bread is off the menu) or look so great as my mom’s, but maybe one day.

Store Bought Dessert Daughter to Host Thanksgiving

What combination of events could lead a daughter, heretofore permitted only to bring the occasional extra appetizer or dessert, to be encouraged to host Thanksgiving dinner? I’m not complaining, far from it. In the past I’ve hosted Thanksgiving brunch (back in the days when we lived just two blocks from the Detroit Thanksgiving Day Parade route) for a dozen or more people, and believe I’m considered a competent cook and warm host.

One thing particularly exciting to me (my entrepreneur’s stripes will show) is that we’ll need to get a folding table, which I could use for craft gatherings and/or a packing table after the holiday. Woo hoo! It’s like an early Christmas present for me.

Like most anyone, I love festive foods and people in my house. I come from a long line of mass quantity cooks–women who cook for tall men and to keep them in leftovers a week after the feast. I only recently learned how to cook for two and pare down the leftovers. My people eat 1/2 a bowl of salsa on a chip, and don’t look back. Thank goodness for my costco membership.

I’m relying on two of my favorite foodies, Mom and Martha Stewart, for recipes and how-tos. Luckily for me, I’ll be in my second trimester when Mom’s dreaded butter-under-the-turkey-skin ritual takes place, which should greatly reduce my risk of yacking.

Wish me luck as I prep for the events! I’ll post some snapshots and recipes when I can.

Shockproof

Flooded!

This is the first post in a series of 2 or more, in which I describe the aftermath of a relatively small but destructive flood in my basement on 9/10.

I bought them years ago because i thought they were ironically stylish–waterproof, shockproof men’s workboots.
Wintertime in the Cass Corridor, I’d wear them on my walk to work, back when my workplace was a couple blocks away. They were practical and more importantly surprising–tough-looking footwear a girl could wear to do electrical work–while standing in water.

In mid-professional age I’ve put them away for less noticeable footwear, but boy was I glad I kept them Saturday morning, when I walked down my basement staircase to find 3 inches of standing water in the cellar.

What was on the floor, and how high had the water gotten? Confident in my work boots, I slogged around to check out the destruction. With typical hubris, and because we’d never had water in the basement before (and so of course we shouldn’t worry, right??), we’d ignored our instincts and packed the place wall to wall. I use my basement for the obvious and perhaps less so–a pantry extension, laundry, off-season storage, an office, a studio, etsy.com inventory space. Walking around in my boots stirred up bits of debris and I wasn’t sure what was in that water, and I had a panicky feeling I was making things worse, and maybe there wasn’t anything to save.

I did the obvious–look on line while calling my parents. My father, who happens to be a retired plumber, was out of town. I started calling residential plumbers and called in the first guy who answered. This is what they found:

Culprit!

It looked like roots and was about the size of a bird’s nest, and probably caused the backup. Luckily it was just swampy-smelling runoff water and not raw sewage. The plumbers removed the stoppage and opened the caps so the water could drain. It emptied out in just minutes, like one great big flush. Once the plumbers were gone, we could truly assess the damage.

Greg and I wandered downstairs, torn between trying to find specific treasures and trying to start the cleanup. Friends suggested taking wet laundry to the laudromat right away (seems obvious but we were pretty shellshocked). I spent most the of the rest of the day at my neighborhood laundromat:

Laundromat!

These stacks are mine.

I can’t help but read this as if this is where customers are permitted to wash themselves, it was near a wash tub.

Four hours and never a moment to read.

I had several epiphanies while doing those 18 loads of laundry. Here’s an assessment of my thought breakthroughs and an inventory of my new skills:

  • Note to call the plumbing company and help them market their residential services
  • I gained some insight into laundromat business model, and how rather than upgrading their equipment, owners will offer a new pay service such as the large extractor. To the consumer, you’re paying the same money and getting out of the dryers faster for management.
  • How to claim the large dryers
    • key move 1: open the doors
    • km 2: strategic wheeled basket placement
    • km 3: fierce expression
  • Put one of your baskets on top of washers so you don’t forget your clothes.
  • People can be really kind anywhere. I talked with a lady waiting in her car (which smelled like fried chicken biscuits–sweet) and she showed genuine concern and gave me a little extra sense of grace to face everything, even when i felt wiped out and empty. It could have been worst. It could.

When I returned to the house, Greg and his friends Scott, Steve and Brian had been working for hours, and managed to mop and bleach most of the basement. The plan, as they devised it, was to systematically clean the floors from one side of the floor to the other, as well as the bottom of every salvageable item that they could move to the safe zone. Naturally, this required the guys taking turns picking up plastic bins of stuff from the “dirty” side of the basement and jibing one another “could you wipe my bottom?” To the guys’ credit, all this cleaning is in addition to dragging out several cubic yards of wet garbage, including paper, books, cardboard, and other stuff. And these guys had the patience to allow Greg and me once I returned to sort and consider stuff. More on that (and other notes) later. I leave you with a few more photos.

Guys cleaned up and bleached everything.

Awesome article no. 343 that shouldn’t be in the basement.


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Letters from Gamie: Installment #2

“Smile Ms. Sarah…Sponsor to Gamie”

This is a continuation of a previous post, in which I present some mail art I received from a friend and recount our acquaintance. 

 At 23, I became serious with my now-husband, Greg, and decided that working in university-town cafe (read: bar) wasn’t working. Ever the foodie, I moved my job and eventually our home to the southern end of the Cass Corridor business district and worked for Avalon bakery.

Gamie lived in an apartment not far from Wayne State campus, near the building where Joni Mitchell spent some time in the 1960s. He would ride his 10-speed to the bakery, which was all windows facing the street, and wait on a stone bench for me to come out for my inevitable smoke break.

“Confidential Business Mail”

In the hours I spent talking with him–first as a waitress and beside him at the bar, then as an organic bakery worker–he made nebulous references to women. It’s hard to trace precisely why, but in the end I suspected he might have lived in a crackhouse. Arguments go something like this: It was the mid-late 90s, and he looked like he was in his 40s, which would have placed him a teen to young adult in the Detroit crack heyday. He was very self sufficient and poised, yet it seemed as if he’d been damaged somewhere along the line. Where he was observant, alert and clearheaded about what people were doing, he appeared clueless about what motivated them–he seemed mostly to enjoy nicotine, caffeine, and the kindness of strangers. Finally, he was suspicious and wary of men while adoring and idealizing most women.

dated 1999/2000

To continue that theme, Gamie had a wistful but emphatically chaste relationship with several woman-friends  in service positions. In fact, as a response to my first post about Gamie, a fellow Cass Cafe graduate said he asserted women were the “mothers of the universe.” Even in public he would keep to himself, never practicing the myriad prententious habits people who wait for people to talk to pick up, such as looking at the local paper or perusing a carefully selected book. He was transparent–this mass of Black flesh and bone, sitting alone and sometimes softly giggling to himself.

The only time he became sharp was when i asked him about where and how he lived, or how he knew “the Women.” He talked about The Women so much, I couldn’t help but press for more information. What did they do? Where were they?  His comments were murky on the topic, and sometimes his eyes would dart and his countenance would darken. In those moments, he might even turn away.

If I were a romantic, I would call Gamie fable-dwelling to the verge of castle-haunting, and perhaps ghetto-yawning. His little pinky definitely has more street cred than my 150 lbs of transplanted suburban girlhood. Was he a flaming pimp, or crackhouse footservant, or something i couldn’t calculate with my inadequate state university formulas? For anyone who saw his habits, this was apparent: He had what he needed, and he knew how to get by.

There’s one more installment to go, in which i trace the arc of the dissolution of our friendship (and share more mail art).

Letters from Gamie: Installment #1

For several years i had a friend named Gamie. Not Jaime or Jamie, but Gamie.

He was a bit of a dandy. In the summer, he’d show up in white pants, a red polo shirt, and a coordinating patriotic ascot, a sailor cap at a jaunty angle upon his head to top it off. He was trim, small, and angular. At first sight, a Black man on a 10-speed in the Cass Corridor might make you think, “homeless.” He wasn’t. I know for sure, because over the years, I was presented with several letters–paste-ups of news trimmings and pen markings, for the most part–complete with return address.

Our friendship began at the Cass Cafe, a bar where i worked during college. I lived with friends and studied during the day; nights I worked at the bar. One night while i was enjoying my “shift” pint, we began our first talk. It was about the film, The Wizard of Oz. He thought it was all pretty spectacular, especially the tension between the young and old female leads. He would ponder, and end his musings with a question-command-statement, such as “Imagine, all that splendor, and she melted in water!”  I was fascinated by his “aw shucks” vocabulary, sing-song, high-pitched voice, and the Value Village-chic way he presented himself.

He would always pause to get his bearings upon entering the cafe. He would stand in the entryway, shy and demure, before advancing to the bar or the smoking area. He smoked hand rolled, filterless cigarettes. He drank sugar, with a little black coffee poured in to melt it down. His eyes were yellow with jaundice, and through the years I never saw him eat food. At one point, he was visiting the University of Detroit dental school in an attempt to save his large buck teeth. After repeated appearances with tape like binding on his from teeth, he lost most. He would continue to show a sense of humility about the appearance of his mouth, and as a result, his laugh was girlish and shy.

In the next post, I’ll share more original mail art from Gamie.

a day ON

things have been slow for me at work, and with a big project looming next week, my manager agreed to let me take three days off. here’s what i’ve been up to:

Basically, i’ve been drilling stuff into the walls. The temporary countertop gives me a particular sense of satisfaction, and there’s a bit of a story behind why. The photo below shows what was happening in the southwest corner of the kitchen until about 3 p.m. on Wednesday.

But the story behind how our kitchen ended up like this begins with a winter accident. I fell and tore a ligament in my thumb, resulting in about 8 weeks in a cast, surgery and physical therapy. During this time, i couldn’t do much around the house and especially not dishes. I swayed my Father, a retired plumber, to bring a carpenter friend out to remove a cabinet and install a dishwasher. My Dad, who was a plumber for about 35 years, said it was the hardest installation he’d ever done.

When in doubt, my household tends to put off decisions. So, we ended up spending the summer with the 24″ x 24″ cabinet in the corner, unused and collecting dust (and everything else). On Wednesday i finally had the extra time. I charged my drill and went to the hardware store. The countertop is not perfect, but it’s better than it was last week, and i saw lots of stock stuff we could easily use to create the built-in desk i’ve been thinking about for that corner–just give me a while while we decide!

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a funny thing happened on my way to the blog…

i’m one of Those People. When i was choosing names for my blogs and found some that were taken by inactive bloggers, i was really irritated. How come you get great blog name XXX only to neglect it completely? And here i am, 6 months since my last post.
Today, coincidentally, i had my first truly marketable technology-related business idea. I read one of the entrepreneur lists with blurbs about their successes, and a web based service concept occurred to me. Naturally I pitched the idea first via 145 characters to my husband. And when i got home, while doing some other task i realized i should search for the URL and there it was. The idea was so obvious, it was even the same site name i’d thought of! My business ideas often fall into artisan private label food or creative services camps, so i was pretty excited that i thought of something web-relevant. 
In full disclosure, i started blogging in part to create, in theory, new job opportunities. That hasn’t happened yet, although i appreciate my friends’ enthusiastic support and site referrals. While i’m an entrepreneur at heart, i’ve made appeals in my current company for an opportunity to ply my skills at some new dayjob. I’m turning my focus back here because i’ve been overlooked 4 times. In my career opportunity deficit, i’ve realized something else–that those who do themselves can do today. why should i wait for someone else to stamp my idea with their approval when i can find some small scale ways to bring them to market myself? Right, i don’t think i should, either. i can do, will do, and won’t stop until i do do. (OK, now you can laugh!)
 
What have i been doing since last writing? i’ve been taking classes in project management, which if you know me personally you’ll realize is a perfect fit for me professionally. more than anything, i desire seeing a vision come to life. my previous experiences have been mostly through entrepreneurial foodie endeavors, but now i’m highly engaged in creative projects at work. This may sound weird, but i credit my work and educational experience for my awesome Halloween costume (post to come after the big reveal). 
i’ve always considered myself a creative person, but i had sort of a high school curriculum view of how to approach creativity–you have to master one skill before progressing to the more advanced skill. I would give up projects in other media because i couldn’t draw, for example. i hate this type of thinking, and college freed me by teaching me how to learn. i’m enthusiastic about planning even if the ideas don’t get off the drawing board. i’m going to throw some ideas around and not give myself a hard time if i don’t follow through on some of them.

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the magician’s assistant