Toward the Light

"In this strange season, when we are suspended between realization and expectation, may we be found honest about the darkness, more perceptive of the light."--Jack Boozer
This evening, working my way through a hefty To Do list, I step outside to go retrieve my laundry from the basement and am struck momentarily still and silent. It's quiet in my backyard, save for the muffled dripping of halfhearted rain onto cement and the steady whir of cars on Fell Street. It's mild enough out that I've left the kitchen door open while I putter around, mild enough that I'm almost tempted to sit here for a while, just breathing and listening, mild enough that I can barely fathom the true winter I'll be descending into when I land in Boston tomorrow evening. I feel calmer than I have in days.

This week took it out of me. Despite regular flashes of delight--sitting in the dark at Berkeley Rep on Thursday night, S's arm around my shoulder, tipsy on awe and affection; letting what was meant to be a brief stop at my friends' holiday party last night stretch into many hours of fun; et alia--the past seven days have been oddly heavy and exhausting. There's so much cause for levity and brightness these days, but those kids have had to rumble with a murky dimness that, like its literal dark-at-4.30-p.m. counterpart, acts like an unwelcome party guest, arriving much too early, staying much too long, getting embarrassingly drunk, and loudly singing show tunes. Terrible ones. Off-key.

So I was relieved when, there in my backyard, avoiding the laundry for a few moments, I realized that although tomorrow shaves away a few additional moments of daylight, bringing with it the biggest dose of literal darkness we need to deal with all year, come Tuesday we start to change course. Being unable to resist the Obvious Metaphor, I thought, OK, then. There's so much more light ahead. Go that way.

It's all too easy sometimes to be dragged down by the slings and arrows, especially when they seem to come at you (read: me) as if from one of those machines at a tennis club that automatically lobs ball after ball without stopping. What's harder, though critical if you're (read: I'm) to continue functioning like the generally lucky, happy, smiling human you are (read: well, you know the drill), is to let them hit you and then let them fall. Maybe sweep them into a neat little pile, maybe just kick them aside. Walk away from them. Put ice on the bruises. Bandage the places the arrows drew blood. Keep walking. Keep walking.

Enough of this wintry darkness. There's so much more light ahead. Go that way.



Moonrise in Sonoma

There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.

-from Li Young-Lee, "From Blossoms"

I had forgotten this: the feeling of so much concentrated bliss that it's almost hard to breathe, and nearly impossible to fathom, at least for a while, that anything could ever be wrong in the world. But now I remember.

We spent the day in Sonoma, S and I and his visiting friend, and for hours I was so happy I sometimes couldn't speak. Sitting overlooking the lake at Gundlach Bundschu in the bright sun of late afternoon with my eyes half-closed and S's arms around me; looking up from every sip of wine to see that beautiful and adoring face close to mine; watching out the window as we sped through the heartbreakingly pretty golden hour scenery along route 12, my hand on S's knee as he drove: I don't have adequate words to describe how these things made something in me lighten and expand so much that there was no room for anything other than untempered joy and amazement.

Those two can't last forever on their own, of course; back in the city, with night fallen, there were parking woes, an unexciting and overly expensive meal out, S reaching a saturation point after 5 straight days with his friend, and the annoying reappearance of the real world in the form of outstanding work tasks and bills to pay and planning to do for the week ahead. And, of course, there was our goodbye, utterly untenable despite being very temporary, which has left me listless and unmoored.

And yet, and yet: those hours of sunshine, brilliant skies, baisers volés, hands touching, free wine, effortless joy--they've left me feeling calmer and more whole than I have for much too long, and have reminded me that sometimes fate or good luck or good timing intervenes and kicks open the door that's kept you for months in a murky dimness, leaving you blinking, dazzled, and pleasantly dazed in the sudden onslaught of light.



On Thursday, sometime near dusk, we will sit around my brother and sister-in-law's table, eight adults and one outrageously adorable child. One of that child's grandfathers will ask us to go silent for a few moments, then will say a blessing.

I'm not much for religion, but this grace I can abide. I'll bow my head, close my eyes, listen to what Dad or Rod says, and will give a collective thanks for all of this:

I am thankful more than anything for my darling Kate, the world's best niece. She reminds me that every time I think I've reached the extent of my ability to love someone, I never really have: I can always love more. I know this because every time I see her, or even hear her joyous babbles over the phone, my heart cracks open and expands a bit. It has grown a lot in the past 17 months.

Also amazing is my huge, crazy, immensely loving family. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that every single day, something reminds me just how lucky I am to have the kin I do. We love and support and stand by each other without condition, without preamble, without question. My family may not prevent me from occasionally falling flat on my face, but I never have any doubt that they'll be there to help pull me upright again.

If I had my choice, I'd pull my friends from the near and far reaches of the globe they inhabit--LA, Seattle, Portland, New York, Laos, North Carolina, Chicago, bits and pieces of Europe--and collect them all here in San Francisco. But I'll settle for knowing that they're out there, knowing that there's a litany of places I could go and find myself welcomed with open arms.

Despite what has been an occasionally hellacious and uncertain year work-wise, I'm grateful to have the freedom and flexibility to be my own boss (however inept I may sometimes feel in that role!) and to be able to say that I've created something of which I'm immensely proud.

I'm thankful to my Shanti client for reminding me time and again that love and compassion can cross any tangle of age, race, nationality, gender, and language. Too much of the world forgets how easy it is to just be human together.

And I'm grateful, finally, for this: walking back from Market Street on Thursday night with a smile involuntarily taking over my face after four hours of talking and laughing and pizza and wine; spending all day yesterday feeling funny, that kind of funny I haven't felt in a very long time; swimming in this delightful back-and-forth flow of words and photos and plans and possibilities. It all makes me amazed and awed and hopeful. "Hope is an unruly emotion," says Gloria Steinem. It is. It's also a giant breath of the purest air, and a shaft of early morning sunlight hitting a white wall, illuminating an entire room.


A Votre Sante

On Saturday morning, I woke up feeling slightly amiss.

I was in LA, staying at my friend D's apartment, down south both to attend a conference and to do some visiting. When I dragged myself out of bed for the first time, I sensed a pang of what felt like indigestion, which I assumed was due to either the vegetable-heavy meals I'd eaten at the conference hotel the day before or to the perhaps-one-too-many Hendrick's gimlets I'd enjoyed in the evening. But after a while, after a few round-trips between bed and washroom, I began to despair that this was regular indigestion because it would not leave me be and was in fact beginning to pummel me with serious and bizarre pain.

And then things sort of went off a cliff: D knocked on the bathroom door, opened it to find me curled up fetally on the floor (cushioned, mercifully, by a bath mat), and, alarmed, asked what was going on. I could only answer I don't know and serious pain and auuuuuugggghhh. He helped me off the floor and back into bed as the lower-left side of my abdomen exploded into excruciating hurt, getting worse by the moment.

Do you want to go to the hospital? he asked, and I said, No, no, I'll be fine, imagining that in fact I would, that whatever this was would pass, that I would manage to make it downtown to the conference as originally planned. And then I became a groaning, writhing mess of hurt, and he said, That's it: I'm calling 911.

At this point, I couldn't speak clearly for the pain, but running through my head was this: no, not 911. That means an ambulance, which means a huge expense, which my insurance will only cover half of. No matter that there was no way D could, on his own, maneuver me into his car and to the closest hospital, let alone that I was likely to improve on my own. But even as I heard him telling the 911 dispatcher his address, all I could think was not Relief is coming but No, no--too expensive.

The EMTs came, strapped me to a gurney, sped us to the ER at Cedars-Sinai. In a haze, I signed what felt like an endless series of papers to get myself admitted, waited for the IV stuck into my left arm to deliver painkillers and anti-nausea drugs, had blood drawn, got rolled into a tube for a CT scan, and spent hours floating into and out of consciousness, all the while trying to beat back flittering bits of thought about how much all of this would cost me.

It was that fear--cost, cost, cost--that kept me from waking D up in the middle of the night on Saturday, hours after we'd come home from the hospital, and asking him to take me back because the pain had returned, that fear that kept me from taking myself to get help on Sunday night when, in my own bed in San Francisco, I was pulled from sleep at 2 a.m. by pain that would not let go. On Monday, I gave in and called my own doctor, hoping, as he examined me, that he wouldn't ask for another scan or any sort of expensive testing.

And that, of course, is insane. I wish my first thought in each of these cases had been Something serious is wrong, and I clearly need help, not If I try to make it through this on my own, I won't need to worry about an unpayable stack of medical bills. And I, it's important to note, actually have insurance.

The intricacies of the health care debate currently raging here baffle me, but this much I understand: there are entirely too many people in the U.S. who don't even have the (possibly) marginal medical insurance I have, and who really would be in serious danger of major financial catastrophe should they find themselves in need of an ambulance ride, a CT scan, a bed in an ER, a battery of lab work. Too many people who might actually forgo care they need, even in an emergency, because they simply can't afford it. Now more than ever, I'm stunned by how crazily wrong that is.

Despite my foray into medical drama, I consider myself lucky: lucky to have had D around to shepherd me through a process I don't think I would've made it through on my own on Saturday morning, and to stay with me all day in the ER; lucky to have friends here in SF who drove me to my doctor's office, brought me ginger ale and bland food, showered me with offers of help, anything, any hour, just call. I'm lucky to be young (-ish) and healthy, these kidney stones aside, lucky that I wasn't dealt a crappy hand in terms of major medical issues. And I'm damn lucky to have insurance that will at least offset part of the costs of what I've just gone through, however hideous those costs may be.

At the risk of stating the overly obvious, it's depressing and painful to contemplate how many millions of people right here within our borders are nowhere near that lucky.


Changing the Question

I'm staring down the end of the Hunger Challenge as I write this, and I have to admit to both a huge dollop of relief and a pang of loss. Believe me, I am so excited to be able to eat with fewer restrictions as soon as Sunday rolls around that I'm more than a bit tempted to watch the clock strike 12 and then celebrate with a hunk of cheese and a glass of bourbon. But there has been something grounding, and something extremely eye-opening, about this past week that will inevitably be lost when my food budget balloons past $4 a day once again.

The question I started with this week was, "Is it possible to eat on $4 a day?" (For those catching up, this is the average daily amount food stamp recipients in California get.) Then I changed that question slightly, to "Is it possible to eat more or less locally, organically, and very healthfully on $4 a day?"

When, early in the week, I realized that the answer to both permutations of that question would, for me, be a resounding "No," my challenge became to experience just how hungry it's possible to get if, in fact, you try to stick with the healthy, local, organic thing on $4 a day. The answer, in short: Very, very hungry. Literally painfully hungry. Hungry enough that you unwittingly shed pounds, lose the ability to focus and think clearly at times, get tired more quickly, and have to deal with a rumbling stomach with relatively alarming frequency.

[As an aside, I will say here that several other folks who took this year's Hunger Challenge (you can find a list of their blogs and Twitter feeds on the left side of the HC webpage) seem to have made it through within budget, and eating fairly well. Some admit to "cheating." Some took planned breaks from the Challenge. I recommend taking a peek at a few of the other participants' blogs--very interesting stuff.]

Having grown somewhat acclimated to that nagging hunger (though not nearly acclimated enough not to celebrate its coming demise), and fully acknowledging that this week has been an experiment from which I've always had an escape hatch--the ability to blow my budget if I wanted to, coupled with the knowledge that this is a project with a set end point, not my everyday reality--I want to change the question yet again, and this time to splinter it into several.

How, in a country as insanely rich as the U.S. (economic downturn notwithstanding), can so many people go so hungry? There were about 34 million food stamp recipients as of April 2009--up 20% over April 2008. And that's only the folks who qualify for food stamps. According to the San Francisco Food Bank, "In California, a single person is eligible to receive food stamps, only if their yearly gross income is $14,079 or less. A 2-person household is eligible only if they make $18,941 or less. And a family of 4 can't have more than $28,665 in income." This means that if you live in San Francisco and, as a one-person household, make $14,100, you're ineligible.

Will we ever be able to fix what's broken with our food system--farmers who grow crops they know will have to go to waste (but for which they'll be paid anyway, due to subsidies), factory farms that are disasters for animals, employees, and the environment alike, increasingly packaged and processed foods that often seem like the least expensive options? Will we reach a point at which it's possible for anyone who wants to commit to eating locally and organically to do so, regardless of their income level?

And, most pressingly, do I have the power here to change any of this?

Maybe not the big stuff: there's not a whole lot I alone can do to change California's food stamp policies (among the most convoluted and restrictive in the nation) or to make responsibly produced food cheaper or to even begin to have any impact whatsoever on national agricultural legislation.

But there's the small stuff. How many times do I pass the Food Bank collection bin in Rainbow without putting a few cans or boxes of food in it? Um, all the time. I vow to change that. When was the last time I volunteered to be on a food bank crew for a day? Uh, circa 1998, with Otis and DaveG. I think 11 years between shifts is more than long enough.

What the Food Bank needs the most, though, more than the occasional few cans of non-perishables and the occasional handful of volunteer hours (though both, I know, are greatly appreciated), is donations. They're able to exact an impressively high rate of return: for a $20 donation, they can provide $180 worth of groceries to San Franciscans who, unlike me, aren't just experimenting by eating on a budget.

So I'm wrapping up this fascinating, painful, engrossing week by making a $40 gift to the San Francisco Food Bank, in honor of this experience and in honor of my mom's upcoming birthday (October 7). I am amazingly fortunate to have grown up never knowing hunger, no matter how tight things sometimes got, and to have parents who have always fed and nourished me, both literally and figuratively. Mom, thank you, and I love you.

I don't need to tell you all (though, of course, I will anyway) that for the price of one meal out, or a halfway decent bottle of wine, or a few fancy ice cream cones, or a slab of high-quality cheese, or insert-your-own-indulgent-foodstuff-here--for the price of any of this, just once, you can do a lot to support a food bank that's working to battle hunger in your area. If you've been following my Hunger Challenge adventures this week, I truly hope you'll consider making a donation--no matter how great or modest--to a hunger-relief program in your community. (You can find one by using Feeding America's online directory.)

I hope you'll also consider trying the $4-per-person-per-day challenge at some point, even if only for a day or two. It's both jarring and immensely enlightening.

Oh, and my final tally for the week? $28.97, and a profound understanding of how fortunate I am to be able to call this just an experiment, and to call it done.



This afternoon (Day 6 of the Hunger Challenge), as I left the gym and contemplated the evening ahead, I realized there was very little I could do by way of socializing that would not involve blowing my food budget--which, truth be told, was already looking a bit threadbare, due to the luxury of a Larabar for lunch ($1.29). I couldn't have dinner with friends (at least not a dinner in which I could eat what they did), couldn't go out for drinks, couldn't have people over for drinks. Going to a movie might've been a possibility, provided I didn't eat or drink anything during the show. No thanks.

Then I looked back at the past few days and thought about the other socializing opportunities I'd had to sacrifice in the name of eating within a $4-per-day budget. I couldn't go to Cav on Monday to celebrate its 4th anniversary with a glass of champagne, because even though the champagne would have been free, everything else would've cost me. (Plus, technically, I suppose even the bubbly would have had to count.) On Wednesday, I begged out of the once-monthly social get-together I have with some of my fellow organizers here in SF because whether we went out or ate in somewhere, I'd have to stick with water. Last night: cheapest just to stay in. Tonight, I'm craving a drink and some company, but I have 27 cents left in the day's coffers.

It's funny (except that it's not): when I imagined how this project would go, I visualized collective dinners, an occasional glass of (very, very cheap) wine, and less impact on my ability to go out and have fun (or stay in and have fun, for that matter). And so we come to another thing I've always taken for granted: the ability to spend money on food and drink as a form of entertainment and communing with friends.

I'm ready for this week to end as much because I'll be able to actually be able to go out and engage in the sort of socializing I usually do (i.e., the sort that involves food and drink) as because I'm tired of eating each meal with a calculator at my side.


Time Slows, Annoyance Grows

It's Day 500--er, Day 5--of the Hunger Challenge, and the passage of time has all but ceased.

Today has been an in-the-office day for me, and typically on days like this, I'll look at the clock at, say, 10 a.m. and then discover, approximately five minutes later, that it's 1.30 p.m. Today, notsomuch. Regardless of the fact that I'm both getting a bunch of stuff done and obliterating a fair amount of time on Facebook and the like, the minutes have lengthened to hours. I had breakfast around 8.30--the same bowl of cereal that managed to do a decent job yesterday of filling me up for a few hours--and found myself hungry again less than an hour later. I promised myself I'd wait until noon for lunch, and that turned out to be a vow with painful repercussions, as it took about a day and a half for the numbers in the corner of my computer screen to creep to 12.00. And, of course, any feeling of satiety disappeared within the hour.

There doesn't really seem to be an escape from this lingering hunger. Exercising keeps it at bay temporarily, and then, of course, exacerbates it. Busying myself with work and chores gives me something to do but doesn't quiet my stomach. Even sleep can only do so much: this morning, though I would gladly have slept more to delay the need to eat, I got so hungry that I couldn't convince my body to go unconscious again. (There's a French phrase that keeps floating back to me: dormir c'est manger--to sleep is to eat. Evidently that only goes so far.)

I will acknowledge here again that there are things I could do to cut my food costs further in order to be able to eat more. I could go conventional and processed, could cut out coffee (or go the non-Fair Trade, non-sustainable route), could cut out fruits and veggies (second to coffee in terms of expense). But, of course, I'm too stubborn for that, and would (somewhat twistedly) rather deal with a few more days of hunger than give up the part of this Challenge that has let me realize just how vast the divide between Truly Good Food and Truly Affordable Food is.

Which brings us to the source of my annoyance. If you are a person of limited means who wants to avoid food grown with pesticides or trucked in from thousands of miles away, food that's overly processed or packaged, meat from animals that have been raised in cruelty, or stuff from Big Agra, you're kind of hosed.

With a few exceptions, food that's grown and produced in a way that's healthy and sustainable for the land from which it comes, that's cruelty-free for the animals behind (or in) it, that comes from the small, local farms and makers I think many of us would like to support if we could, and that's good for the people who grow, pick, process, package, and sell it--food like this does not come cheap. Some of it is laughably expensive: there's not a visit I make to Rainbow Grocery that does not have me stumbling across something that's so pricey it stops me in my tracks. And some of it is just expensive enough not to make sense if what you're truly concerned with is cost: if you're hungry and on a budget, why would you go for the organic plums at $3 a pound when the conventional ones cost a third of that?

There's a big, complex, difficult, frustrated argument to make here about how broken our whole system of growing, subsidizing, processing, packaging, and distributing food is. I, alas, am too spaced out this week to summon the brain power to even attempt to make that argument with any degree of eloquence or sense. (Besides, I think it's safe to say that many others have made it before me, to much greater impact.)

But I'll just say that that argument has played out for me this week in the form of the realization that when you're eating on a very limited food budget (and perhaps relying on the generosity of others to supplement it), you have to choose to either eat organically, locally, and sustainably or to eat enough. Were this more than a one-week experiment for me, I don't think that would be a particularly hard choice.


Temptation and Hiding Hunger

I was pleasantly surprised this morning when, despite having eaten breakfast earlier than normal (around 7.30) in order to make it to a meeting downtown at 8, I found myself still feeling pretty satisfied at 10 a.m., the start of a training session I sat in on at a client's office. 10.30 and I was still doing pretty well. At 11, things started to go downhill, and I could feel and hear my stomach start to rumble. I spent the next hour hoping it would stop, hoping no one else in the room would hear it.

There can be something overly intimate, something hard to handle and vaguely unseemly, about witnessing someone else's hunger (or someone else's gluttony, or any part of someone else's digestive process). We might be interested in hearing about others' meals or food preferences or adventures in cooking, but we're happy, I think, not knowing too much about what's behind them.

I've been fairly avidly watching the show "Hoarders" on A&E, both because it's relevant to my work and because it's pretty engrossing. One thing that struck me about this week's episode was how, from the outside of the two featured subjects' homes, it would be impossible to know that extreme clutter lie waiting inside. Hoarding was (check: is) a very private, very hidden issue for both of these people. Unless you happened to get a peek inside their houses, you'd never know about their struggles.

This got me thinking about the secrecy of hunger. If I were truly forced to eat on $4 a day (plus whatever supplemental foods I happened to get), and thus had to go hungry on a regular basis, I can confidently say that I'd do my best to hide it. Because isn't there a sense that if you don't have enough for food, something is amiss--and it's likely something that reflects negatively on you? Maybe people think your priorities are out of whack, or assume you're blowing your cash on something else, or deem something about you insufficient if you can't scrape together enough money to pay for decent meals, especially if you're working. (Factoid: 60% of the clients the San Francisco Food Bank served in 2008 were from working families.) If you keep your hunger a secret, you don't have to deal with anyone else's perceptions, no matter how flatly wrong they may be.

Evidently something like one in eight people in the U.S. does not regularly get enough to eat. One in eight. That's a ludicrously high figure for such a wealthy country, and it means, among other things, that somewhere in the sphere of people you know is likely at least one person going hungry. I'm willing to bet you probably couldn't pick that person out. I know I couldn't.

But here's something interesting: this week, people know I'm hungry (the attendees at this morning's meeting aside). And I can't begin to count how many offers I've had of free food. If the rules of the Hunger Challenge allowed for supplements to the $4 per day I'm allowed to spend, I would probably be able to eat at least one meal a day that was given to me or purchased for me by someone else.

I would have, for example, been able to join the Israeli tonight in enjoying a burrito from the Little Chihuahua. He offered to pay. I demurred, citing the rules. So he brought his burrito over and ate it while I opted for arugula salad (roughly 75 cents). I resisted again when he brought out two mugs to make tea ("That's, like, 20 cents," I said. "Over budget."), and gave in only when he rummaged in the snack drawer, brought out a Canadian Kit Kat, and said, "Come on, can't you at least have one piece?" I did. That was about 20 cents. Over budget, yes. But I couldn't resist.

I dream of a burrito, of a bowl of pasta AND some salad AND bread. I'm longing for a cupcake, a glass of wine, a cup of salted caramel ice cream from BiRite. I would love a bowl of yogurt drizzled with honey and sprinkled with almonds, would be so thrilled to cut off a big slice of the ricotta salata I bought on Sunday and pop the entire thing into my mouth. I just picked up my CSA box this afternoon and felt briefly on the verge of a breakdown as I washed the impossibly plump, impossibly beautiful bunch of grapes that came in it. I ate two. If I play my cards right, I can eat a small handful of them tomorrow.

I am so weary of being hungry, of calculating the cost of every meal, of having to resist not only actual temptations (cupcakes, ice cream, wine, the bottle of Woodford's Reserve sitting in wait on my bar) but also things that, in any other week, would not qualify as temptations: yogurt, grapes, big salads, second servings of pasta, a baguette from La Boulange, as much produce as I can possibly stand.

I remind myself that I need only survive three more days of this and then it's back to reality. I'm so (literally) achingly humbled to truly understand that, for a mind-boggling number of people in a nation that has so much, this is reality. How can that be?


Of Losing, Food Porn, and the Bottomless Pit

I stood on the scale at the gym today (Day 3 of the Hunger Challenge) and discovered that I've lost two pounds. Since Sunday. Yikes. I'm all for a little bodily rightsizing when appropriate, but a pound a day is not exactly the healthiest way to go about it. Oh, and also? Losing weight in this manner makes you an airheaded, loopy doofus. At least it does if you're me.

It's not an exaggeration to say that being more or less constantly hungry has made me markedly dumber, yesterday in particular. I reached a point last night at which my brain was so conking out on me and my stomach was growling so loudly (for real; it would have been comical were it not so depressing) that all I could do was sit in bed and read. Check that: try to read. I didn't get far before giving up and just going to sleep.

Here's what baffles me a bit: I know I'm eating less than I normally do, and probably have not had nearly enough fat over the past few days, but still, it's not like I'm eating nothing, or eating vapidly. Whole grains, fruit, veggies, protein: check, check, check, check. And yet every time I consume something, it seems to fall deep into the bottomless pit that has suddenly become my stomach. I had a hefty-ish bowl of oatmeal this morning, for example, which normally would be enough to fill me up for at least a few hours. But within 30 minutes I was ravenous again, as if my body had completely forgotten that I had just dosed it with food. Lunch was whole wheat pasta with onion, spinach, and white beans. Time spent feeling full after eating: just about 20 minutes, at which point I would have been delighted to have a second bowl. What gives? Shouldn't my metabolism be slowing down (at least as much as my brain has)?

This constant, nagging hunger and waning intelligence have conspired to convince me that the way to get through this week is to spend time browsing what can only be considered food porn: Mark Bittman's column in the New York Times (his soba salad this week looks so good I could weep); my friend Heather's blog, called Pestle Mortar (her specialties are desserts, which I miss achingly); the site for a new fancy-pants frozen yogurt place in the Fillmore. I read them, salivate, sigh. Meanwhile, my stomach begs with my eyes to just stop already.

I think it's safe to say by now that no, it's not especially possible to eat a filling, local, organic, produce-rich diet--especially not one that includes the blazing extravagance of a cup of Fair Trade coffee in the morning--on $4 a day. Were I thinking straight, I might throw in the towel here, call the experience done and the conclusion reached, and go to town on a block of cheese.

But my addled brain pushes me forward. If I can't prove that one can be truly Pollan-esque on this sort of budget, at least I can get a true visceral sense of what happens when you can't get enough to eat--of how physically uncomfortable it is to be hungry, of how much harder it is to function on a less-than-adequate supply of calories, of what it's like to go through your day in a vague mental fog.

Of course, come Sunday morning, I can go to Fraiche and gorge myself on a bowl of high-end frozen yogurt with organic fruit and some sort of stupendous baked good, then can follow that up with three full meals of whatever strikes my fancy.

This is for the 34 million people in the U.S. who can't.



It's Hunger Challenge day 2, and I'm hurting.

Having gone over budget yesterday by $2.50, I've got a bit of saving to do today and for the next few days if I hope to stay within the $28 limit by week's end. This cost-cutting makes for an underfed and not very happy me.

Had I any faith whatsoever in my ability to make it through this very busy day (including a 3-hour meeting with a new client) without coffee, I would've saved myself 78 cents by foregoing this morning's dose. But because yesterday's alternate caffeine experiment didn't go so well, I made that splurge today, and thus have had to give up 78 cents' worth of food as a result. It's a bit past 4 p.m., I've been up since 7.30 a.m., and I've eaten only a cup of multi-grain flakes with strawberries and an almond butter-and-jam sandwich on whole wheat. To say I'm hungry would be a serious understatement.

If I were smarter and/or less stubborn, I'd give up on the healthy, organic, and local thing and would switch at this point to the cheapest food I could get my hands on, ingredients and provenance be damned. But I'm sorry to say that I'm sort of That Person--the one who honestly loves whole-grain everything, can't handle many processed foods, and gets a little (OK, perhaps a lot) hung up sometime on where her food comes from and what's in it. I'm learning that while it doesn't necessarily take a huge food budget to be That Person, it does take more than $4 per day.

So what happens when you're forced to eat on a very restricted budget and you burn through it too quickly? You try to fill up on whatever food comes your way. (For the purposes of the Hunger Challenge, even food I don't purchase counts toward my daily tally, so this one does not, alas, apply.) You lower your standards, maybe, about what you eat--hunger, after all, is a powerful motivator.

Or, for a little while, you go hungry. Today's (unsurprising) lesson? That really, really sucks.


Numbers, Bulk Foods, and Real Caffeine

It's day 1 of my participation in the San Francisco Food Bank's Hunger Challenge, and I can already share my first lesson: no matter how much cheaper tea may be than coffee, attempting to substitute the former for the latter as my daily caffeine source is a huge mistake.

I woke up this morning to an empty coffee canister in the kitchen, and rather than make the journey to Peet's for some replacement beans--which, at roughly $13/pound for the Fair Trade Blend I usually get, would have neatly chipped away at my $4/day spending limit--I decided to have a nice cup of black tea instead.

Wrong. Wrong. I am just now, at 3 p.m., getting over the resultant grumpiness, and only because I have just returned from Rainbow with a pound of Jeremiah's pick and am writing this with a cup of same next to me.

Fueled as I now am by real caffeine (price per day: 78 cents), I can begin the mental gymnastics involved in calculating the price-per-serving of the bulk foods that will make up the, um, bulk of my eating this week. The bulk route is the one I normally take, but I'm hewing to it even more this week as I attempt to eat as few prepared and packaged foods as possible. All of this is wonderful for my body, the earth, and the purposes of this experiment, though hideously painful in terms of the math involved.

Today's breakfast, for example, consisted of the aforementioned cup of tea (with milk and a bit of honey); steel-cut oatmeal with strawberries, brown sugar, and milk; a glass of grapefruit juice; and a piece of toast with peanut butter. What did all of that cost? Join me, won't you, on the journey to figure that out.

First, the tea. The bag I chose was one in a box given to me as a gift, so I have zero idea how much it actually cost, but am willing to peg it somewhere around 20 cents. The honey, about a teaspoon from a 16-oz. jar that was $5, comes out, by my calculations, to $0.05. I'm too stubborn to measure or calculate the splash of milk I used, so we'll call it 5 cents as well, though it was probably more like 2 or 3. Grand total: 28 cents, plus mental fatigue.

The likelihood of my continuing this insanely detailed math for everything I eat, condiments and all, is slim. So here and now, I'm making a deal with myself that I will be allowed to guesstimate the costs of herbs, spices, sweeteners, condiments, and oil, lest I go completely mad.

Leaving out the details, I've come up with $1.57 as the costs of this morning's meal. Lunch--Israeli couscous with roasted zucchini and tofu--clocks in at $1.80. The cup of Ciao Bella blood orange gelato I was somehow powerless to resist at Rainbow? $1.09 (and worth every penny). My total for the day thus far: $5.25.


For 2/3 of a day's largely organic, largely local, very tasty eating and caffeinating, not bad. But still $1.25 over budget for the day, and dinner isn't even on the horizon. So much for thoughts of arugula salad with melon, almonds, and ricotta salata; since I'm already borrowing against tomorrow, bean and barley soup is going to be more like it.


Of the Hunger Challenge, No Impact Man, and Logical Extremes

Having recently read The Omnivore's Dilemma and, as a result, spending more time than usual thinking about all things food, I was inspired a few weeks back to sign up for the San Francisco Food Bank's 2009 Hunger Challenge.

The Hunger Challenge, which officially starts this Sunday, is a week-long event in which participants agree to eat on $4 per person per day, or $28 per person per week--the amount the average food stamp recipient in California receives. The purpose of the challenge is to raise awareness of what it's like to try to eat healthfully on very limited funds, to highlight the work that the San Francisco Food Bank does, and to raise funds for the SFFB.

The official rules of the Hunger Challenge require that everything participants eat during the course of a day count toward the $4 limit, including food and drinks consumed outside the house. The only things for which we get a free pass are salt, pepper, and tap water. Everything else, including cooking oil, condiments, and other staples, must fall within the $4/day limit.

To add a slightly Pollan-esque spin to my own Hunger Challenge, I'm going to try to eat as locally and organically as possible while still staying within the $28/week limit, partly to see whether it can be done and partly to get a better sense of what, other than produce, is actually feasible to source from within the San Francisco Bay Area. And no, I'm not going to go hunt my own wild pig, leave a bowl of sourdough starter on my windowsill to catch wild yeast, or boil down part of the Bay to score locally sourced salt.

My thinking about and planning for the Hunger Challenge this morning has coincided with reading Elizabeth Kolbert's review in the New Yorker of Colin Beavan's No Impact Man, the story of one family's attempt to live for a year with zero carbon impact. (There's also a documentary of the same name, and Beavan blogs about both his year-long experiment and his ongoing work here.) It's safe to say that Kolbert--whose reportorial focus in her work for TNY is on climate change issues--doesn't put much stock in the power of "stunts" like Beavan's (or Henry David Thoreau's, or other I'm-off-the-grid-and-eating-locally authors) to impact meaningful change.

I'm torn here. Part of me finds Beavan's experiment somewhat ludicrous and insanely extreme: no toilet paper? No electricity at all? (Did he write his book longhand on the back of recycled scraps of paper or what?) Never being able to take a car, train, subway, or bus anywhere? Never taking the elevator to your 9th-floor apartment, even with a 2-year-old in tow? Trying to get your wife to swear off tampons, coffee, and the newspaper? Seriously? I understand the desire to take an idea to its logical extreme in order to make a point, but the danger of doing so is that you'll turn people off altogether: well, I'm not about to give up toilet paper, disposable feminine hygiene products, the sad "luxury" of taking the bus when it's snowing like hell outside, and the chance to actually hold a newspaper in my hand once a week, so forget it.

Another part, though, respects what he's done, and believes that, yes, in order to reverse the tide of global warming we do indeed need to convince politicians to step up (as Kolbert notes in her review), but we also need to be more mindful of what it's possible to do at a personal level to stop the suckage.

And so it's off to the library to prep for the week ahead by picking up a few cookbooks for inspiration and No Impact Man for some thought-provoking reading. (I cannot possibly be the first one to note the disconnect between Beavan's desire that people purchase his book and his proselytizing about consuming as little as possible.)

Tune in next week for dispatches from my attempt to eat cheap (and local-ish) and to read No Impact Man while resisting the urge to overnight Colin Beavan a case of TP.


The First

I will forget, sometime in December, say, that there was a night when I stood in my kitchen listening to the first rainfall of the season and almost got teary-eyed because it sounded so beautiful.

I will forget, when things get wet-to-the-point-of-never-really-drying a few months hence, that I went out for a run this evening, managed not to beat the rain, came home wet not so much from the exertion of my workout but from the water falling from the sky, and loved it.

I will forget, on those days when it's raining so hard that even leaving the house becomes a logistical challenge, how I reveled earlier in the smell of newly wet and still warm cement as I ran.

And I will forget, when it's dark at 5 p.m. and that darkness is only made heavier for being so sodden and cold, that something in me was ever ok with this sign that we're inexorably turning the corner towards fall.

But for the moment, I silence iTunes, and for a few minutes just sit and listen to the low hiss of cars on Laguna driving over wet pavement, listen to a steady drip-drip-drip on the back porch that suggests some re-caulking of the walls there lies ahead for me, listen to the tiny music of what must be individual drops hitting the leaves of the tree in the backyard. And for the moment I swear that nothing has ever sounded sweeter.



"When was writing ever your profession? It's never been anything but your religion. ... Since it is your religion, do you know what you will be asked when you die? But let me tell you first what you won't be asked. You won't be asked if you were working on a wonderful, moving piece of writing when you died. You won't be asked whether it was long or short, sad or funny, published or unpublished. You won't be asked if you were in good or bad form while you were working on it. You won't even be asked if it was the one piece of writing you would have been working on if you had known your time would be up when it was finished. ... I'm so sure you'll get asked only two questions. Were most of your stars out? Were you busy writing your heart out? If only you knew how easy it would be for you to say yes to both questions."

--J.D. Salinger, "Seymour: An Introduction"


The Moment

Last Saturday, Cape Cod, dusk.

We're sitting around the fire pit in the yard of what was once my grandparents' house (now officially my aunt and uncle's), a fair chunk of the family. The day before we threw a surprise party for my grandmother's 90th birthday ("the biggest surprise of my life," she called it). Earlier on Saturday a clutch of us ran in the Brew Run, I with my cousin Sarah at my side the whole way--a delight on many levels--and then sat down to our annual clambake feast.

After dinner, my Uncle Bob built a fire, and by ones and twos we started congregating around it. Now, with night coming, we're swapping stories, laughing so hard we occasionally double over. We run back and forth to the food tent to fetch cake, and then, just to gild the lily, Aunt Char brings out a platter of cookies. (Later, Sarah will dip that gilded lily in glitter by bringing out the makings of s'mores, and Jess will root around in the dark until she comes up with a few suitable marshmallow roasting sticks.) We stick glass bottles of various colors and sizes into the coals to watch them slowly soften and collapse, then try to retrieve them, with varying degrees of success.

Uncle Eric points out the North Star. Someone points to the moon, heavy and huge, and asks, Waxing or waning? I guess waxing, not wanting to think of the fullness going (too soon, too soon). My niece sits on my mother's lap in her pj's, an earlier attempt at putting her down for nightnights having proved unsuccessful; now she watches the flames rapt, growing quiet and sleepy. The circle around the fire grows as more people drag chairs down to join us.

Pause here.

These few hours--these few days--have been so achingly perfect that for a while I forget that they won't last. Heather raises a toast to Twin Chimneys, the family "manse" (quotes intentional); this is the last summer we'll know it as we have for the past 35 years. Starting soon, it will get the renovation it so sorely needs, and in the process will be stripped to the studs. Starting even sooner, family members will start peeling off to return home, setting off our long succession of goodbyes. And starting even sooner still, people will turn in for the night, our circle like a waning moon, the fire beginning to die down.

But for a while we're all here. Bob throws more logs on the fire. Eric fishes a droopy bottle from the flames. The platter of sweets makes another round. The house glows from inside in the background, still standing. The North Star flickers. We laugh. We laugh. We're here.


Grand Delusion? Of Zipcar and the iPhone

Among the things I'm sorely tired of is the fact that my car is parked in a garage that's about 5 1/2 blocks from my house, necessitating a trek every time I want to drive somewhere. You'd think that, several years into this arrangement, I would have mastered the art of adding 7-8 minutes onto my estimated transit time, allowing me to get wherever I'm going when I'm actually supposed to be there, but no. I'm late impressively often.

I rent a garage not so much because it's a drag to look for parking in Hayes Valley (it is, but I'm often around during odd times and could hypothetically score some decent spots), but because I am forever scarred by the fact that my car got broken into twice within the first month I'd moved here. The logic goes that I'd rather pay to rent a garage space than pay to have one of my car windows fixed yet again.

But I may be reaching the end of the line here. My car, a luxurious 1993 Toyota Corolla, still runs like a champ, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the automotive equivalent of slow, steady internal bleeding is happening under the hood, and that one of these days I'm going to discover that I need to replace, like, everything.

So all of this got me thinking about the possibility of selling the car, ditching the garage space, and signing up with Zipcar, which has a lot literally at the end of my block. No more stupid trek to Fulton Street, no more garage rent, no more worries about emergency Corolla surgery--just a nice little Mini there when I need it (more or less).

I go back and forth on the math and the pros and cons here. Would I ultimately save money if I joined Zipcar, given how much I drive? Would I severely regret not having a car at my disposal every single time I needed it, no question? Would I be inspired to take Muni more often--and, as a result, to put up with an even longer chunk of transit time?

Come with me on this little logic detour for a moment. Thinking about taking Muni made me think, Well, it could be reasonable if I had a phone that let me go to NextBus to figure out whether I'd be better off waiting for the 21 or whether I'd be better off walking/driving/cursing SF's public transit. And then: You know, a phone like, say, an iPhone. And then: Because if I didn't have to shell out for garage rent, gas, and insurance every month, I'd have an additional chunk of money that I could obliterate on something else, such as one of AT&T's expensive-ass monthly plans. Me, Zipcar, my iPhone: what a happy trio we would be.

All of this sets aside for the moment the fact that I loathe AT&T and fear I wouldn't be able to use an iPhone as a phone in or near my house because of the crappy reception (though Nir sat on my sofa last week and demonstrated to me the upward tick of the bars on his iPhone and then sent a bunch of texts as a bonus). But my desire for a new Apple gadget is such that I might be willing to give AT&T the benefit of the doubt that they're ever going to do a damn thing to improve reception in SF. Hope springs eternal.

So here's my request: persuade me one way or the other. Adios to the voiture and hello to the iPhone? Stick with the Corolla and the (cough, cough) first-generation Motorola Razr (hey, it still works after being dropped more times than I'm willing to admit)? Sign up for Zipcar but wait on the iPhone? Leave me a comment and sway my decision.


Et tu, April?

There's a line (attributed to Plato here and there, but who knows) that I run through my head on repeat when things get a little (or a lot) sucky in my world: "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle."

I've called upon those words a lot in the past few weeks, what with the discovery that I owe a staggering amount in taxes (staggering amount paid in estimateds last year evidently notwithstanding), the sudden and unexplained disappearance of the latest garçon, and continued slogging to make up for the slowness of business over the past few months.

And here's what really blows: this month in particular, it seems like Plato is more right than ever. So many people in my life, relatively speaking, have been socked with crap lately. One client is in the midst of a sad and painful separation. Another is contending with a very serious and totally unexpected health issue. My cousin, whose father-in-law recently died after a battle with leukemia, found out today that her 6-year-old son has cancer.

I could go on, but I'll stop the litany there, because I think you get the point.

In a client's office yesterday, I stood for a moment in front of the vase of daffodils set on the reception desk and leaned in to inhale. I had forgotten how daffodils smell: like newness, like starting again, like spring. Like some vague--if frequently un-keepable--promise that sooner or later, things will turn around and the loss and falling and failing and sadness will stop.

Because the receptionist was away from the desk, I lingered longer than I might have otherwise, with my face basically in the bouquet. I breathed in that smell, said a silent Please, and then walked away to lose myself in work. Because how much power can daffodils have against the world?



So, fine: there may have been a bit of vanity Googling happening earlier this evening. And there among the dozens of book-related links (or what I assume to be book-related links but cannot confirm as such, given that they're in a language other than English of French) and other work-related stuff were a few bits and bobs from Sinister.

Can I even begin to describe Sinister? There was a point when I had to try to do that fairly often, to explain how it was that I got to know JDS, how it was we came to decide we were compatible enough to spend several weeks traversing southern Europe together in the summer of 2002, in a car sans AC, en route to and returning from a music festival in Spain. The explanation would go something like this:

"Sinister? It's, um, a mailing list. About this band named Belle & Sebastian? They're Scottish."

And then whoever had been foolhardy enough to ask would more or less immediately find him- or herself sated, not wanting to know any more.

Sinister was (and still is) technically a mailing list devoted to all things B&S. But for several years running, roundabouts the turn of the century, it was much more. It was, for dozens of 20/30/40-something kids like me the world over, a sort of proto-blog. It was a place to post long, rambling messages crammed with literary allusions, news about indie bands, references back and forth to other posts, and more miscellaney than you could shake a stick at.

It was, for me, at least, an excellent procrastination tool: I can't imagine how many hours of Microsoft's time I spent reading and writing posts on Sinister. It was a connection to the UK (where vast swaths of Sinisterites resided), to other chunks of Europe; to J, first in Montana, then in Argentina, then in Slovenia; to sweet indie kids like Laura Llew (whom I found on Facebook but have not yet friended) here in the U.S. It was the source of much of the music I now can't imagine living without.

I read my Sinister posts now (find more, if you're truly a glutton for punishment, by searching the archives for my name) and feel a pang of something I can't entirely describe. There's a fascination in such a clear look back at my younger self, a little sigh at some particularly pungent memories, a bigger sigh at having moved beyond the substance of those memories. There's a sense of opening a time capsule and being able to fully identify the contents but not really having much idea of what to do with them other than hold them for a little bit and smile.

Once, I was in my late 20s, lived a very different life, didn't have to use eye cream every night, actually wrote in a journal, and found friendship and connection and sometimes solace in a random spot: among fans of a band I happened to love. That was Sinister.


Sing it, David!

Just when you think David Allen is vanilla and corporate, along comes something like this (from his most recent newsletter):
Certainly being able to maintain a positive vision amidst the challenging and often messy day-to-day stuff is a wonderful life skill to hone. But you may need to be judicious and pick your battles. Though the storm you're in is probably going to make you stronger and wiser, right now you might not like it. Your choice is how you get through it - as victim, or as captain/commander. In other words: life's a bitch, and what's the next action?


Long Night's Journey into Day

On Friday, in those moments of sudden stillness, N tells me that apparently the body releases some kind of paralyzing chemical during sleep, which is why, he says (after telling me not to quote him on this), you sometimes have those moments during dreams in which you're frantically, desperately trying to move but cannot.

I've had dreams like that: I want to run or get up or turn but I'm stuck, leaden, right where I am, as if some greater force is exacting control over my limbs. I wake up with a start, relieved to realize, though it takes some time, that my body is mine again, that I'm free to move as I please.

This morning I thought of that dreaming, of that sleepy paralysis, and realized that, if you (like me) go in for the occasional grand extrapolation, you might say that much of the grand ol' US of A is on the cusp of being pulled out of just such a dream. It was a long one, and exhausting, in which we thought we could move or scream or do something, anything, to stop feeling like so much was out of our control (and quite possibly getting worse all the while). Something kept us frustratingly still.

But it's morning in America, my friends, and I don't mean the Reagan kind of morning. I mean the kind when we wake up and understand that we can move again, understand that our futile attempts to shift our frozen limbs or open our mouths and hear something come out are over, understand that though much of the past eight years were significantly more than just a bad dream, they're over.

Tomorrow morning, human voices will wake us, but with apologies to TSE, we won't drown. At long last, the senseless, useless flailing and sinking are over.

We won't drown. We'll swim, finally, toward what looks once again like a reachable shore.


Procrastination Tools of the Week

I've had a productive few weeks here in the early stretch of 2009, which clearly means it's time for a bit of procrastination. There's always Facebook, Flickr, and the passel of blogs I follow (see sidebar), but sometimes my time-wasting needs to be a bit more specialized. Here's what I've been turning to lately when I need to kill time creatively.

The Black Cab Sessions
The schtick: indie musicians play songs in the back of a London cab. (What musicians, you might ask? A safe rule of thumb is that if you've heard them on All Songs Considered, they've also played a number in the back of the cab.) It's sort of like a (very) mini concert with only you (and the cabbie and the videographer) as the audience.

For the record: Jens Lekman, you can play in the backseat of my car anytime.

Diamond Dave
Words don't do it justice. Just go there and click around. I defy you not to giggle (or at least chuckle). My recommendation is to leave the site open in its own tab/window all day for easy access when you need a DLR fix, which you might find happens surprisingly often.

Daily Routines
A compendium of articles and blurbs detailing the daily habits of various artists, authors, designers, and other public figures (Mr. Rogers included), Daily Routines has the potential to make you feel both much, much better and much, much worse about your own level of productivity. I especially like Stefan Sagmeister's take on the breakfast of champions.


You're both sentient

Match.com (yes; quiet) has this new-ish feature in which they (it? whatever) offer for your perusal what they call the Daily 5: five profiles of people they feel you might be interested in, based on your own profile, geography, and stated preferences.

Now, I can understand the need to sort of go wide here in order to cough up five new people each and every day, even in a city like SF, where online dating is not exactly a novelty. But still, there seems to be more than a bit of reaching happening. To wit, the criteria on which today's five potential matches were presented to me:

  • You both fancy felines.
  • Like you, he's not a smoker.
  • He's also interested in bowling.
  • Like you, he's not a smoker.
  • He's also interested in bowling.
  • He's athletic and toned.
  • Like you, he's not a smoker.
  • He's also interested in bowling.
  • He's athletic and toned.
  • You both fancy felines.
  • Like you, he's not a smoker.
  • He has a graduate degree.
  • Like you, he's not a smoker.
  • Pretty impressive - he has a Ph.D.
  • Both of you are into swimming.
My list of desirables, I'm afraid, goes far beyond being a non-smoker (though that's, like, 1000% non-negotiable) and being up for the occasional evening of bowling. If Match would tweak the algorithm they use here to include things like "Like you, he can correctly punctuate a sentence," "Pretty impressive--he doesn't use the phrases 'I work hard and I play hard' and 'I'm into exploring new things' in his profile," and "He's a tall, skinny, cute kind-of-alternaboy-but-not-one-with-an-ironic-mullet who has a thing for Canadian pop and salted caramel and understands why you snort drinks out your nose for laughing so hard when watching 'Arrested Development,'" I might put a bit more stock in this tool.

As it is, though, the Daily 5's success rate is currently on par with allowing my 6-month-old niece to select for me. (Actually, she might even do a better job; I should enlist her help.) Perhaps Match can follow the lead of Netflix and offer $1 million to whoever can improve their algorithm by the greatest number of percentage points. I'm happy to be your equivalent of "Napoleon Dynamite" and "I Heart Huckabees," guys; I might well be that baffling in my tastes.

Oh, and in closing, a note to any potential suitors: don't let Match's hackneyed attempt at alliteration convince you to add the phrase "I fancy felines" to your profile. Very much not OK.


Ring out

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

— From In Memoriam, Alfred Lord Tennyson

2008, you were both a delightful success--book published, business craziness (in a generally good way), appearance of fascinating people on the scene, arrival of World's Cutest Niece--and a heartbreaking pain in the ass. You and I, we did our time. Now Tennyson and I would like to show you the door.

2009, you and I are going to take it slow. Don't get any big ideas and, like, start calling me twice a day or putting your feet up on the furniture or anything. I'm hopeful that I'll learn to love you, but I'm smart enough to hold back until I get to know you a little better. Ask 2008 how to make me happy and how, markedly, not to. It'll tell you, especially if you buy it a drink.

In the meantime, I'm going to celebrate a decent first day of you by pouring myself a glass of wine and continuing to work my way through "Curb Your Enthusiasm" from the beginning.