Thursday, October 25, 2012

A big step!

one step onto the horizon.I did it! I applied for the Amazon Associates program. If they accept me, I will be able to post links for you, my faithful readers, to buy stuff from them, and I will get a small commission each time you do.

I've hesitated about this for a long time. I've not enabled AdSense or any other kind of advertising on my blog, because I myself don't like blogs that are covered in ads, and I didn't want mine to be like that.

I've been listening to the podcasts of a guy called David Wood. He's an Englishman who grew up in poverty, left school at 15 and spent 10.5 years of his life backpacking through the world. He then became involved in multi-level marketing and other such businesses and became wealthy, but he also discovered that his passion lay in helping people achieve a better life. He became a trainer who goes around the world speaking to people and enthusing them to have what he calls "a kickass life".

One of the characteristics of a kickass life is the ability to look at oneself and the world with clarity and love, and to try new things as fearlessly as you can manage. Not to mention laughing a lot, which is something I try to do anyway, but now I have the endorsement of a major figure!

So one of the things I want to do is to take baby steps towards supporting myself and my family with the writing I do online. Affiliate links are a particularly painless way of doing that, both for myself and for you - they will be clearly labeled, they will only be for things I really recommend, and they won't clutter up the blog with noisy garbage neither of us wants to see.

In my fearful imagining, you are immediately repulsed by the entire idea, nobody ever comes to read this blog again, and my life loses all meaning.

In reality, I'm hoping you are mildly curious and not disapproving. Let me know if you feel strongly otherwise. It won't happen for a while, as I now wait with trepidation for Amazon's judgement - and yours.

Book Review - The Impact Equation by Chris Brogan and Julien Smith

René Magritte Disclaimer: I have been a fan of these two guys for quite a few years now, and I loved their first book. So it may not come as a huge surprise that I am enjoying this one, too, which they were kind enough to send me as an advance copy free of charge.

Let's start with the first page. You know, the frontispiece, the one after the dedications and the table of contents. It says:

Ceci n'est pas un social networking book.

So what does this tell us? First of all, that these guys know their Belgian surrealists - that's a twist on a very famous painting, The Treachery of Images, by René Magritte. They are signalling to us that they are smart, funny and cultured. If we are in on that secret, that means we are smart, funny and cultured, too! A good start. The statement is accurate, too - it's not a book about social networking, although obviously said networks are an important tool in their arsenal.

I was more amused than illuminated by their attempt to quantify the social impact of a business, person or brand using an actual equation, where the variables make a cute mnemonic, no less:

    C x (R + E + A + T + E)

C = Contrast
R = Reach
E = Exposure
A = Articulation
T = Trust
E = Echo

These are all interesting and useful concepts, and they are nicely broken up into sections: Ideas (which includes Contrast and Articulation), Platforms (which includes Reach and Exposure) and Network (Trust and Echo).

It all makes consummate sense - you need to start with a good idea (with high contrast and well articulated, so people will get excited about it), but you need a platform to share it with the world (reach a lot of people and get them exposed to the ideas), and most importantly, you need a network of people who care and will share it with their friends, because you have built trust and you echo, or resonate, with their lives and concerns.

They talk about matters as abstruse as bravery in life and as concrete as mind-mapping, whether in the form of those oval thingies with tails or whole storyboards. The book is chock-full of fascinating stories, from the Dollar Shave Club to Instagram, and analyses all of these businesses to see how they measure up in terms of the Impact Equation.

One could argue that anybody who has been around on the Net long enough (and has read Seth Godin, Clay Shirky, Chris Garrett, et al.) could have come up with these criteria for success, but Chris and Julien sat down and clarified them for us, and for this we should all be profoundly grateful. That they also peppered their book with examples and good advice as to what has worked well for them makes it even better and more useful - but I really think their main contribution has been to put into words what so many have been struggling to articulate.

Oh, and their book is just snicker-out-loud funny sometimes. "Welcome to the new tools, same as the old. Only better, because you actually know what to do with them. It's almost like puberty all over again." OK, I'm juvenile. Shoot me.

In conclusion, I enjoyed The Impact Equation, and I would recommend it to anyone who is looking to make a mark out there in The World.

P.S. It's my 100th blog post! Yikes. How did that sneak up on me? Paaarty!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Just Eat Real Food

This is a picture of my JERF shirt. I've worn it a few times, but I'm still too vain to post pictures of myself in a tank top. One of these days, maybe.

One of my favourite podcasters these days is Sean Croxton at Underground Wellness. He makes YouTube videos, has a podcast and a blog and a book and everything people need to have nowadays to make an impact. He's a reformed personal trainer who has gone from the "Eat Less, Move More" mantra of the low-fat paradigm to a holistic, paleo-type version of reality. He has hosted the Paleo Summit and the Real Food Summit, and the latter has become his latest passion. Since that is a passion I share, I'd love to talk about it some more.

When I was growing up in Israel, there were fast food restaurants, and I believe we may have patronised them from time to time. There were definitely real and good restaurants, and I have fond memories of going there, especially a Yemenite restaurant in Tel Aviv called Zion, which absolutely had the best hummus I have ever eaten anywhere, any time.

But most of the time, we ate at home. We shopped at the local grocery store and there was a "yarkan", a greengrocer, who came by once or twice a week to sell fresh produce from the surrounding farms. Later, when I was older, we went to the supermarket in the nearby town. Now the little local grocery store in the village is closed up and I don't know what happened to the "yarkan", but my family members who live in Israel still mostly buy and prepare real food. I should add that these are people who work full-time, so they are just as pressed for time as anybody else. They just care about what they put in their mouths. I remember my mother being creative with leftovers - Friday night's chicken usually ended up in chicken fried rice by Wednesday or so.

The same was true when I was a student in Amsterdam in the eighties. We ate out, but it was real food cooked in a restaurant kitchen. We mostly cooked at home and invited each other over for dinner. Real food was our life. If we had no money, we bought cheap food, but it was still food. Cooking for your friends was the ultimate expression of love for them.

I'm not sure when and how those concepts got lost in North America. Somehow it seems to be elitist to be interested in the provenance of your food, and you are expected to pay extra for the privilege of eating food that isn't drenched in Roundup. How did this happen, and why?

I know the story of the munitions factories that needed to be converted into fertiliser producers after the war, and of women who were sold the myth that they were much too busy to cook for their families. I remember TV dinners - we lived in the US for a few years in the sixties and seventies, and I think my mother bought a few out of curiosity. They certainly weren't a staple - ugh! I remember making my mother buy horrible cotton-like bread because I wanted the Bicentennial stickers (anybody remember those?). And yet that food was probably more nutritious than what we are feeding our children today - and there were no giant sodas.

I have busy children who sometimes have activities that keep them away from home at dinnertime. I hate those weeks - the dinner table is such an important place to reconnect at the end of the day. My wallet, their nutrition and our relationship all suffer when they are away from our dinner table too many nights a week. We are all sugar addicts but we are working diligently on taking better care of ourselves, and that means real food as much as possible. Fruit, nuts and cheese will make you feel so much better than granola bars or cookies.

Real food not only nourishes our bodies, it connects our souls and helps us feel rooted to our families and our land. What are you doing to feed yourself and those you love real food?

Friday, October 19, 2012

Fermentation Fun with Friends

A Portrait of the Author as a Lacto-Fermentation Instructor
On Thursday, October 18th, I had the privilege of teaching a lovely group of people about lacto-fermentation. The space we used was The Red River General Store at 5700 Henderson Highway - for my friends in the local Jewish community, that's the old Stern store. I was stunned to discover how many people were sentimentally attached to that place!

First of all, many thanks to my friend Rosalie, who brought her iPad and took pictures for me. Here is a picture of me behind the counter, posing with a jar of lacto-fermented pearl onions I brought along to demonstrate the kind of things we can make.

Gorgeous winter cabbage
This is one of the gorgeous winter cabbages our gracious hostess Monique provided for us to use. They were so beautiful, some people were munching on them as they went along.

We started with a brief overview of lactic acid fermentation (in which cells convert glucose into lactic acid and energy - it's the same process that happens in your muscles when you run fast, causing "the burn" - although if you are a scientist you may prefer to call it anaerobic glycolysis). It's a traditional method of food preservation all around the world, because the increased acidity of the food causes molds, botulism, etc. to be inhibited, making it very safe. The Lactobacillus bacteria responsible for this miracle are present everywhere, in the air, on the vegetables, on our hands, and most importantly, in our gut. Eating lacto-fermented food, whether vegetables or dairy, is a great way to heal our antibiotic-ravaged digestive systems.
We washed our hands and cut up that lovely cabbage. We added some good, real salt that had not had all its minerals stripped away, and also some caraway seeds and/or juniper berries for flavour. Then we squished that cabbage within an inch of its life - a source of great enjoyment for everyone, I think. Who says only kids can have fun squishing their food?

The salt drew liquid out of the cabbage incredibly quickly, and we soon found ourselves with liberal quantities of brine in our bowls. We then filled little mason jars (yes, I know, they don't seal as well as one would like, but they are great for beginners). We were careful to cover the cabbage with a nice big leaf to keep it submerged in the brine, and weighted it down with little plastic bags filled with excess brine (again, yes, I know, plastic in our food is B.A.D. But I hope everyone found a better, more suitable weight when they got home).
Chopped cabbage
We finished the evening with a quick, funny video about fermentation and some great discussion. Monique spoiled us with yummy snacks, coffee and amazing herbal tea.

I had an absolute blast and it looked like most people were having a good time. I'm hoping we can do this again - maybe we'll do a kombucha/water kefir/milk kefir session? I do need somebody to provide me with water kefir grains before I can do that ...

Finished productThanks again to Monique, Rosalie and everyone who came out on a rainy, yucky October night to celebrate lacto-fermentation with me!

Friday, October 12, 2012

In Praise of Failure

failureWhat a bizarre title. Why on earth would anyone praise failure? This light bulb looks spectacular, but it sure as heck is not functional as a light bulb anymore.

We are taught to fear failure. In school, failing is a source of shame - we are supposed to get it right the first time.  If you are the coach of a professional team, failure is guaranteed to earn you a one-way ticket out of your job. Other careers may be a little more forgiving, but in general, if you fail on a regular basis, you are regarded with contempt and pity. There is clearly something wrong with a broken light bulb, no matter how brightly it flares.

When I posted on Facebook the other day that I was planning to blog about failure, one person queried me about it and suggested writing about challenge instead. It's hard to accept that failure can be a good thing.

Another friend pointed me to this video of  J.K. Rowling speaking on the benefits of failure:

The most striking words she says here, in my opinion, are that failure at the conventional life that her parents envisioned for her allowed her to concentrate on what she really wanted to do, namely her writing. If, she says, she had been successful at the other things she tried to do, she probably would never have had the discipline and the concentration to write, and the world would never have been enriched by Harry Potter.

I myself, in my life, have been very successful at things that turned out not to matter very much, and which ended up being mere stepping stones to an unexpected outcome of greater value. Many people would consider the acquisition of a Ph.D. in physics to be a very successful achievement - and yet it turns out I did not want to be a research physicist, and that attempting to fit myself into that mould led me into depression and bad choices. Ultimately, though, that Ph.D. program gave me the husband and family I have today.

A B.Ed. eventually followed, but I found that I was a very square peg in the round hole of high school teaching. While I loved working with the kids, the things that I had hated about high school thirty-five years ago were still there, unfortunately. However, those two years of my life that I sank into the B.Ed. program allowed me to advocate far more effectively for my children than I would ever have been able to without it. It also cemented the teaching skills I have always had intuitively, even if I never get a "real job" as a teacher.

Where am I going with this? I was always the kid with so much potential. I am sure I have been a disappointment to my parents and teachers who thought I would build a career in science or education or maybe something else.

I'm still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up, how I can make an impact. Maybe I never will, but I hope and believe there is a contribution I can make to the redemption of the world. I just have to figure out what it is, given that every ostensible failure has led to an unexpected success in a different realm, and that I am not yet done with this journey. I am hopeful that my writing and teaching will help someone, somewhere, someday. That light bulb has failed in its ostensible purpose, but oh, what a gorgeous picture!

How about you, how have your failures given you unexpected gifts and strengths?

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Review - Your Teen for parents Magazine

One of the perks of being a blogger, even as small a fish as I am, is that sometimes people will send you things to review. I was fortunate that the lovely and accomplished Susan Rubin Borison, publisher and editor-in-chief of Your Teen for parents magazine, sent me a copy of their fall issue. I read it with great interest. I should have blogged about this earlier, but yeah, I got distracted by Elul and all the stuff that followed it. Sorry, Susan, here is your review!

First let me start by saying that the magazine is very attractive and well-made, visually. It is well-written, and the mix of articles is good and interesting - some health, some parenting, some bullying and peer pressure, a book review, a celebrity interview. I would definitely recommend it to anyone looking for a parenting magazine that goes beyond the tween years - most of them seem to cap at 12 to 15 years of age, when the fun is only just beginning! You can read it online or subscribe to the print edition.

This particular issue features articles about the incredible pressure many older teenagers put on themselves in high school, because they want to get into a highly selective university. The words "especially in affluent communities" appear a couple of times in this issue, and I'm sure that is no coincidence. These kids take on enormous course loads, drive themselves nuts with too many extracurricular activities, and are at a high risk of burning out. The articles advise, very sensibly, that parents take steps to broaden the college list, cut back on the activities and APs, and generally work to support their kids in stepping back from this debilitating perfectionism.

I have a few friends whose children are on this track, although I'm very grateful my own kids are not. I don't entirely understand the rationale behind this kind of pressure, although I do get that the kids mostly put it on themselves (why?). Yes, it may be harder out there than it was when we were kids (or is it? Maybe our kids are just more coddled and fragile?). I would love to see some statistics that show that people who go to expensive, selective universities for undergrad really do better in the long run than people who go to so-called second tier schools, or even (gasp!) state schools. The only thing I can think of that these universities really do better for undergrad is let you hobnob with the children of the rich and influential. That can certainly be of assistance in a career, but I don't see it as being anywhere near essential. Good work habits and a healthy dose of interest in what you are learning will take you far. The other important thing to remember is that your choice of undergrad major will not necessarily define your life forever - people can and do make mistakes, and it is OK to change course in midstream. Of course that is much harder to do when so much has been invested in getting into that dream university, that dream program. What if it was all for nothing? So crushing.

One could shrug the whole thing off as an extreme case of first world problems, were it not for the miasma of anxiety that emanates from this publication. So many things to worry about, so many ways kids' lives could go terribly wrong if their parents screw up. The responsibility and anxiety weighing down the parents are just unbearable, it seems. Did our parents worry like this about us?

Maybe this is a reflection of the general anxiety and fear that seem to pervade North America nowadays. Climate change, financial insecurity (I'm sure many people are far more concerned with keeping their house than getting their kids into Harvard), the dreadful polarisation of Western society, all combine to make us very fearful and insecure, and no wonder we are projecting this onto our kids. I can't help comparing this time to the interbellum, with its rise of so many fascist movements, leading eventually to the Second World War and the Holocaust. I hope we have wiser leaders than that generation did.

To summarise, this is a good magazine about parenting teens, and it clearly reflects the zeitgeist very well. I am looking forward to reading future editions, and I hope you will, too.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Do You Want to Learn to Ferment?

Well, folks, if you find yourself in the Winnipeg area in the evening of October 18th, you have an opportunity to put your hands into some cabbage. I am going to be teaching an intro-to-fermentation class at The Red River General Store, 5700 Henderson Highway (about 12 km north of the Perimeter).

We will be cutting up cabbage and pounding it within an inch of its life, salting and spicing and pressing down into jars (much smaller than pictured here), so that the lovely lactic acid bacteria on the vegetables can do their magic and turn them into the kind of delicious sauerkraut people used to make 100 years ago - and you get to take one of those jars home with you to continue its journey, first on your counter and then in your fridge.

I will explain why this is safe (a darned sight safer than buying beef nowadays, that's for sure!), the lovely Monique will provide the space and refreshments, and a good time will be had by all, I hope.

$20 gets you all the materials, the instruction and an informative handout. Come on up and get fermenting! Space is limited. Click here to register.