Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Online reading journal: The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz

The Art of Fermentation is a dictionary-sized orange tome with a friendly layout and 14 chapters bursting with information. I suppose it is meant as a reference, but I read it like a novel, alternating between feeling excited to try what I was reading, and feeling frustrated knowing that I will never try out everything that sounds interesting!

It was written by Sandor Ellix Katz, a fermentation revivalist. Check out his info-packed website Wild Fermentation!

Executive summary: This book is an overview of fermentation through history and around the world, covering what it is and how it can be used. Its tone is encouraging and personable - it's a field guide and manual, rather than a textbook. It's fermentation evangelism, in the best way possible.

Why I think this book is important: To begin with, I love Sandor's experimental approach to fermented foods and his constant encouragement to the reader to go out and try. It's so easy to be held back from trying something new by fear of doing something wrong, and I welcome the message that it's good to try and okay to fail.
I also see this book as an exploration of the creativity, ingenuity, enjoyment, and passion that make human culture so wonderful. It's evidence that we can make an art out of even the most ordinary aspects of living life - like preventing food spoilage! I found it truly inspiring to read about so many experts, researchers, and masters of fermentation - I can only hope to find my own niche in which to become an artful master.
Finally, this book is a manifesto, a call to arms, for a global culture that is more diverse, more conscious of its dependence on the environment, more appreciative of local traditions, and based more on community and creativity, and less on large-scale commercial systems. Sandor sees the revival of smaller-scale fermentation as a living example of this better global culture. Like him, I hope it continues to grow, spread, and diversify.

Also good: This book is a treasure trove for a foodie who likes to make stuff from scratch. It provides loads of practical information on how to ferment sugars, vegetables, milk, grains, beans, seeds, nuts, meat, fish, eggs and just about anything else you could think of eating, with instructions for well-known ferments like yogurt, wine, cheese, and beer, as well as lesser-known regional specialties, like kvass, mauby, viili, poi, merissa, and natto. Exciting stuff!
There's also a chapter for non-food applications of fermentation, and one with advice on starting up a fermentation based business.

Bits I especially like:

"If this book has an underlying agenda (and it assuredly does) it is to help us reconceive our relationship with what biologist Lynn Margulis calls the "microcosmos." Since Louis Pasteur discovered the role of microbes in disease more than a century ago, most of us have found ourselves on a war footing with respect to bacteria. . . . [And yet] we are discovering that one of the keys to our well-being is the well-being of the microflora with whom we share these bodies, and with whom we co-evolved. And it looks like they really, really like sauerkraut." - Michael Pollan, Foreword
"Reclaiming our food and our participation in cultivation is a means of cultural revival, taking action to break out of the confining and infantilizing dependency of the role of consumer (user), and taking back our dignity and power by becoming producers and creators." - Introduction
"Unfortunately, we have become increasingly isolated from the natural world, lacking awareness of and conscious interaction with animals, plants, fungi, and bacteria in our midst. Rather than continuing to distance ourselves from interaction with the larger web of life, we must reclaim these relationships. Fermentation is a tangible way of cultivating this consciousness and these relationships." - Ch. 1, Fermentation as a Coevolutionary Force
"Beyond sacred alcohol, fermentation has been valued throughout history primarily for its usefulness in preserving food. . . . Many people are becoming interested in fermentation for its nutritional and health benefits, which are considerable and can be quite dramatic. . . . Fermentation has also been used as a strategy for saving fuel, since fermentation digests certain nutrients that otherwise would require long cooking, and enables foods to remain stable at ambient temperatures without refrigeration. . . . Yet ultimately more compelling (at least for me) than preservation, health, or energy efficiency benefits are the complex edgy flavors of fermentation, which got me interested in all this in the first place. Food is not strictly utilitarian, after all." - Ch. 2, Practical Benefits of Fermentation
"The revival of fermentation at the local and regional scale goes hand in hand with the revival of local agriculture in the movement toward relocalization of our food and our economies. . . . This is economic development based on real production, real value, and real benefit, creating better choices for our communities by expanding the range of what is available as local food. We can revive local commercial production of ferments, as the revival of microbreweries, farmstead cheese production, and artisan bakeries demonstrate. And we do not need to wait for other people to do it. No less so than home fermentation, reviving fermentation in the form of local enterprise is a do-it-yourself venture." - Ch. 12, Considerations for Commercial Enterprises
"Self-sufficiency is a dangerous myth. We need each other. . . . Community is never perfect and takes hard work, because people have such varied visions, ideas, and values. But do the hard work of finding common ground, and build community with the people around you." - Epilogue: A Cultural Revivalist Manifesto
"Our growing awareness as individuals creating change in our own lives, and communities can (and must) build into galvanizing social movements. While reviving local food systems, we can also address inequitable access to resources by becoming part of existing movements for food justice and food sovereignty. While making use of indigenous wisdom in our cultural revival efforts, we can also acknowledge and act in solidarity with indigenous peoples struggling for survival. While trying to limit our own carbon footprints and environmental impact, we can also join social movements demanding the same of corporations and government policies. Personal actions can be powerful, but nothing like the force of collective action." - Epilogue: A Cultural Revivalist Manifesto
note: thanks to Martin for the illustration!

Monday, September 15, 2014

Golden memories and unreasonable expectations

Often, when I'm not feeling so great, I start to wish that I would have everything sorted out and under control, and that I could just be happy and content and everything would be easy.

And sometimes I think back to a time that, from my current vantage point, seems like it was like that. When I was in university, or when I worked in Utah for a few months, or when I went to Crete on holiday with friends. I remember the sunshine, the happy moments, the relaxed moments, and it's like a video or photo where the light is golden and everything looks beautiful and perfect.

And I think, I want that. I want to feel like that right now. And I feel frustrated, that instead I am lost in my todo lists and chores and weird dreams from the night before, and the sad drama we watched on TV last night, and all sorts of uncertainties and fears. 

I think what I need to remember is that those golden times must have been the same. When I try, I remember too the times of lovesick anguish, social awkwardness, exhaustion, boredom, fear, overwhelm, and frustration. My journals are full of them. It's easy to dwell on the lovely times and pass over the harder times.

So maybe I never will reach that golden time I hope for, "when I figure stuff out and start to be properly happy." Maybe there's just the here and now, with its ups and downs, pains and joys. It sounds sad, but it feels freeing to accept. Maybe if I stop being disappointed that life isn't easier, I'll find the contentment that I'm looking for.

Friday, September 12, 2014

A nice mentor is not necessarily a good mentor

Today I wanted to do a book review, but an innocent call from a member of my postdoc lab led to a small storm of emotion and I'm a bit too jumbled up to write about anything other than my postdoc.

I'm still working through how I feel about my postdoc. It's a mix of shame, frustration, anger, and exhaustion. It didn't go how I wanted. There's a lot more I could say. Today I just want to issue a small warning to young scientists looking for somewhere to do an MSc, PhD, or a postdoc, or anyone looking for a mentor.

It's simple: a nice mentor is not necessarily a good one.

A nice person can still be too overwhelmed by other responsibilities to remember you unless you remind them that you're there. A nice person can still support you in applying for a project that they will later show little interest in. A nice person can still promise to do things for you and then drop the ball, over and over again. A nice person can still consistently put their own priorities ahead of yours.

I understand that it's hard to lead a lab, hard to be a mentor, and hard to be an academic in this day and age. I empathize, and at the same time I am angry, at them for not trying harder and at myself for taking so long to understand this simple lesson.

So there we go. A vent for me and a warning for you.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

I'm going to try to stop expecting happiness

I haven't given up on being happy, or anything like that. I've just realized that, once again, I am getting in my own way by having too-high expectations for myself.

In this case, the unreasonable expectation is that I will be happy all the time. Content, satisfied, joyous, all of that. Maybe I've read too many websites, blog posts, and articles about how to be happy, or maybe I've just approached the goal of getting out of depression in my usual extra-high-achieving way. Either way, it's a problem, because happiness is not so straightforward, at least not when you're struggling with depression.

What I've realized is that for me right now happiness is like my black cat Miša (Misha). If I chase after her, she runs away; I can often grab her if I'm quick, but she won't be interested in staying. On the other hand, if I sit quietly, she'll come settle in my lap and fall asleep. She's not always at my side - she comes and goes following her own cat schedule - but if I let her be, she'll spend most of her day hanging out near me of her own accord.

I've been getting frustrated at not being happy all the time, and thinking that I must be doing things wrong: that I must not be happy because I'm not following a consistent routine, because I'm not doing enough exercise, because I'm getting up late every day, because some days I don't get dressed or do anything useful. So I've been pushing at myself all the time to do better, try harder, find the trick to make myself happy.

Now I think that I've been going at it all wrong. Why have I been expecting myself to be happy all the time? The more I think about it, the less I think that's a reasonable expectation for anyone, much less someone still figuring out depression.

So what's the plan now? To live, and be grateful for the good feelings that I have - feeling comfortable, feeling safe, feeling warm, feeling free - and do my best to accept the harder feelings that I'm dealing with - feeling uncertain, feeling insecure, feeling afraid. And when, out of the blue, I find that I am happy, to enjoy it while it lasts, but not try to hold on. And definitely, definitely not to beat myself up for not being happy!

note: Part of the thinking process that led to this post was started off by this article by Glennon Melton called Don't Carpe Diem that I found super insightful (especially because it uses mountaineering as a metaphor for life!). I recommend it.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

On realizing that it is not helpful to obsessively think over things I want to do

Many of my important realizations are super obvious in hindsight. It's not so strange; scientific progress often works in the same way. I guess it makes sense - once the pieces come together, the insight crystallizes, it's hard to imagine it any other way. Another way of looking at it is that it's hard to have any perspective when you're trying to figure out your own mind, with the same mind. Objectivity is hard to find. Common sense doesn't always work like it should.

All of which is a long introduction to what seems to me now a very obvious realization: spending my free moments thinking through tasks on my todo list is a waste of my life, and a big part of why I've felt so overwhelmed by my todo list all the time.

So why was I doing this? I think it started as a way to feel in control, on top of things ... and got to be a habit for filling in otherwise free brain time. And then it got to be so much of a habit that I didn't even notice myself doing it.

I'm surprised I even noticed now. Maybe my slower pace of life at the moment is helping, or the fact that I've started meditating again. What I do know is that a few nights ago, as I was lying in bed, waiting to fall asleep, I realized that I didn't need to think through what I should do the next day. A revelation!

So now, when I notice myself mentally idling by going over things I could do, want to do, or feel that I should do, I tell myself, "Stop. Don't worry - what needs to get done, will get done. You write things down. You won't forget. And everything else - it's not as important as finding calm and being happy in this moment, and the next moment. The only reason you want to do those other things is because somehow, you think they will make you happy. But you don't need them to be happy! Just be in this moment, right now. And trust that you will fill your time well each day, even without a complicated scheduling system or a todo list constantly looking at you. Have faith in yourself. Let go."

Monday, September 8, 2014

Over and over again, the answer is patience

I used to think I was patient: I don't mind waiting at a doctor's office; I like lots of repetitive, mindless tasks, like shelling beans; I like slow movies, slow books, slow stories.

But now I've noticed that when I can't see the end - when I don't even know if I can reach the end I'm striving for - I'm impatient to the max. I want to be healthy, I want to understand myself, I want to do good, and I worry that I should be all of that already, right now. I want to know how to live my life, and I want to know now.

Today the big uncertainty revolving through my mind is how to balance enjoying life with doing good. How do I decide how much effort to devote to each? How good a life do I deserve? Is it right to indulge in luxuries when I could donate the money that pays for them to so many worthy causes instead? Is it even possible to figure out a balance?

I've worried about this before and I've looked for answers in books, articles, documentaries. So far I haven't found any. All I've found is individual, all-too-incomplete stories of other people's lives. Some sacrificed themselves for their work; some didn't.

Obviously there is no simple, one-size-fits-all answer. And from my struggles to figure this question out, it's clear that there is no easy answer just for me, either. For now, I have to accept that life comes with tough questions, like this one, that I may never solve. And that the best I can do is be patient, keep trying to figure things out, and struggle along - until one day, if I'm lucky, I realize that I'm living as I want to live.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

My story, version 1

I always like to know more about the people behind the blogs that I read - for that matter, I always like to hear people's life stories. So here is mine - one side of it, at least.

I am always at a bit of a loss when someone asks me where I'm from. 

The simple answer is that I'm American - though I didn't feel American until I moved abroad, and when I go back to the U. S. now I'm hit with a culture shock every time.

In any case, the simple answer often isn't enough. To begin with, I have this odd foreign name - Yael - that troubles most people I meet. Even if they are capable of pronouncing it just fine, the Y (missing from many alphabets, or rarely used) tends to throw people off. "What an interesting name," they say inquiringly, and I complicate matters by answering, "It's Hebrew."

If there's time, I expand. I speak Hebrew with my parents and brother. My mom is from Israel - in fact, I was born there too. My parents moved to the U. S. when I was a year and a half old, thinking they would move back after a few years after my mom's business picked up. It didn't. They stayed. No, my dad is not from Israel - he's from Mexico. 

At this point, some (usually the older ladies) say, "Ah! Of course! You look like you have Mexican blood!" And I feel obligated to explain that, well, yes I have a few generations of Mexican blood behind me, but before that it's all European. My olive skin, as far as I know, has nothing to do with indigenous Americans. My father's family, like my mother's, is Jewish and came from Eastern Europe. My skin, my hair, my eyes, and my last name are Slavic. And yet, as I take pains to explain to those who get confused at this point, my father is one hundred percent Mexican, and so were his parents. 

There are more details of course, and as it turns out, more countries in the mix. My dad's side came to Mexico from Poland and Russia. My mom's parents came to Israel via complicated paths that I always confuse - I just know that Hungary, Luxembourg, Slovakia, Ukraine, and Spain are involved. One day I will learn more and finally remember my own ancestry properly.

And then there's the story of how I ended up living in Europe, how I ended up with a Slovenian husband, and where I'm going next ... but that is for another day! For now, it will suffice to say that yes, I am American - and at the same time Mexican, Israeli, and Jewish, as well as a traveler trying to be a global citizen, with my head often in the clouds or in a book. 

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Feeling overwhelmed

For me, one of the most difficult troubles I have in my day-to-day is feeling overwhelmed. It makes me not want to do anything; it makes me want to lie down, hide, lose myself in a book or TV or a film or the internet.

There are some little things I have tried to keep myself from feeling overwhelmed: to do lists, a daily schedule, starting the day with a treat like tea or a hot shower. They often help. But as I wrote yesterday, I'm thinking now that tricks like these, by their nature, are never going to be complete solutions.

I also have some strategies for addressing the problem of overwhelm in a deeper way. I am trying to let go of tasks that are on my list because I feel that I should do them, rather than because I need to do them or want to do them. I am trying to be more patient, to accept that progress takes time, and to expect less from myself each day. I am trying to focus on my top priorities, and to accept that there's only so much I can work on, or learn, or improve in myself at any one time. And I am trying to build more time into each day for resting, for quiet, and for being kind to myself.

Everything is helping, at least some of the time - the little tricks, the introspection, the attempt to live my life more slowly and in a more considered way. And yet, I still have so many difficult mornings, when getting up and starting my day seems so, so hard. When I go back to sleep even though I've slept more than enough, just because it's cozy in bed, and safe, and the idea of starting my day feels too big to deal with. So what now?

Now I think that, perhaps, this overwhelm is just a part of going through big changes, like the fear, insecurity, and vulnerability that are hanging around too. Now I think that, perhaps, sometimes, there is no solution, except to keep moving forward, and to have faith that things will get better. So that is what I am going to do. I am going to accept that I feel overwhelmed sometimes. I'm deciding that it's okay. I am going to be kind to myself, and let myself stay in bed each morning for another hour or two if that's what it takes, and not feel bad about it. And most importantly, I'm going to keep moving toward my dreams, one little step at a time, with faith that things will keep getting better, and that everything will be okay.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Turning away from tips and tricks

Tips and tricks are everywhere on the internet, in the media, in suggestions from friends. They're quick, they're tempting, they're seductive. And for some things, details of ordinary life, they're great. White vinegar and baking soda really do do a great job of cleaning sinks and faucets. I really have gotten great curls by sleeping with wet hair wrapped around a headband. And I've learned some excellent and easy methods for making paper flowers and other party decorations. But for the big things, the important things, the difficult things, tips and tricks are deceptive, distracting, and harmful.

I've gotten sucked in so many times, spent so many hours reading blogs, hoping that one of the magic-sounding tricks would make a difference. "5 Ways to Find Calm When You're Stressed." "10 Secrets to Eating Healthy." "How to Increase Your Productivity Instantly." Most of the time, the suggestions make sense. They're not bad. But they didn't work for me. I didn't stick to them, or they didn't help when I tried them, or I forgot about them immediately. And I never stopped to think much about it.

Now I'm starting to see real changes in my life and in myself, and it's suddenly become clear that none of these changes have anything to do with tips and tricks. I've made progress through introspection, through examining the way I think and make decisions, through questioning my priorities and goals. Not by trying to do ten minutes of yoga every day, or taking five deep breaths whenever I'm overwhelmed, or doing a test to tell me what career I'd be best at, or by adding flax seeds to my breakfast cereal. It's been through realizing that right now exercise is not my highest priority, by finding out that I can be kind to myself and that everything's better when I am, by asking myself again and again what work I actually enjoy doing, rather than what work I like the idea of, and by paying attention to how I feel when I eat different foods and discovering that vegetables make me feel good. It's been slow, halting, and difficult.  Sometimes it's been painful; sometimes I have despaired. But I think it's the only way I'll keep moving forward - one tiny step at a time.

So another deceptively hopeful filter has come off my eyes, and I see things a tiny bit clearer. I'll probably keep falling for those promises of quick results and easy change ... but hopefully now I'll realize soon after that they're the lifestyle equivalent of "This Housewife Made $32,000 in Her First Month Working Online!" or "Papayas Are the New Weight Loss Secret!" One step at a time!

Saturday, August 2, 2014

A starting point

After months and months of thinking about this blog and yet wavering over how to move forward, I am determined now to start again even if I don't know where I'm going. I think a good place to start, then, is the foundation of my fledgling life philosophy: the two main desires I have for my life.

These two desires, or goals, or aims, are what comes to mind when I imagine what kind of life I want, so that I will be satisfied when I face death one day. Remembering them helps me focus on what is important to me. Making decisions based on them helps me resist social pressures, be myself, and be happy. And they are very simple:

1. I want to enjoy my life.
Life, this planet, this universe are full of beauty and wonder. There is so much to see, hear, taste, experience, and enjoy, and I want to revel in it all. Plus, being happy seems intrinsically preferable to me to being unhappy! So I want to be happy.

2. I want to do good.
As I care about myself, I care about other people and other animals, and wish for them to be happy, to live well, and to be free of suffering. I want to protect the organisms, places, and artworks that make our world beautiful. And I want to contribute to the welfare of others and the protection of what's wonderful as much as I can.

That's it!