Book Review: Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

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I’m actually writing this review before I’ve even finished Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, because I’m savoring it so slowly it’s taking me forever to finish, and at the same time, I’m so excited about the book I couldn’t wait any longer to tell you all about it.

In her faculty bio, Robin Wall Kimmerer is described as a mother, plant ecologist, writer and SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, New York. She is also an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.

It’s typical of her that all these descriptors are laid out in the first sentence of her biography, because she does not compartmentalize her different selves (scientist, mom, Potawtomi woman), but rather weaves them together, like sweetgrass basket, to make an integrated whole. In the same way her prose, which takes the form of story telling, will use one unlikely metaphor, like her long fight with pond muck, or tapping maple trees, to bring out moments of unexpected beauty, connection and inspiration.

My first exposure to Dr. Kimmerer came via one of my favorite podcasts, On Being. Here’s a link to that episode: The Intelligence of All Kinds of Life. 

I remember first listening to this podcast while walking around our neighborhood one evening at twilight. As she spoke about the intelligence of all living things and the importance of our relationship with plants, how we are meant to love and live in a respectful, reciprocal relationship with the natural world, tears came to my eyes because the things she was saying were the things I have always believed–always known— but which are not supported by my culture.

As a result, I often feel a little crazy, or unmoored, because trying to live my ideals in this world is like swimming upstream. In fact, it is all but impossible. But hearing an author, a professor, a scientist on a big radio program speaking my truth in a calm, clear voice, as if it were fact, as if it were the most sensible thing in the world, eased my heart. I hope you have a chance to hear this podcast, or read her books, and if you’re like me, I hope it eases your heart, too.

At one point, and I can’t remember if this was in her interview or in the book, maybe both, she tells of asking her grad students a question. She asks them, “Many of us love the natural world. What would it mean if you knew the world loved you back?”

Her students, all being budding scientists, could not accept that proposition (anthropomorphism, sentimentality, etc.). So she tweaked it a little for their comfort and said, “Okay, make it a hypothetical. Hypothetically speaking, what would change if you knew the world loved you back?”

Then they lit up with ideas and possibilities. “Everything would change!” they cried.

I agree with Dr. Kimmerer. The world does love us back. It cannot speak, but it shows its love through selfless acts of giving, like a mother. Plants shower us with abundance. They give us food, medicine, textiles building materials, and less material gifts like beauty and solace. They even give us oxygen: their love for us fills our lungs with every breath. Plants are the basis of the food chain, so at the root of things, our lives are wholly sustained by and dependent on the beneficence of the plant world, and yet we so rarely take a moment say thank you.

Take a Look Bike Mirror

511SR6oUfgL._SL1200_In honor of bike to work week which, in the case of a work-at-home blogger such as myself should be called bike from work week, I thought I’d discuss one of my favorite bike commuting tools: my “dork mirror.”

This little mirror attaches to a pair of glasses so that you can watch motorists behind you updating their Facebook profiles, texting and Snapchatting while they “drive.” Combined with middle age, this accessory marks you as a serious bike dork. Add some Lycra and you’re a full fledged MAMIL (middle aged man in Lycra). Of course, I ditched the Lycra a long time ago and bike commute in this outfit:

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All it takes is a little saber rattling to disrupt those Snapchat sessions! But I digress.

What I really like about the Take a Look mirror is its durability. There’s a lot of poorly made plastic crap on the market these days. The Take a Look mirror is oddly, almost supernaturally, indestructible. I’ve sat on it so many times that I’ve lost count. It’s lasted for many years.

A mirror like this makes changing lanes a lot easier and gives you an awareness of what’s going on behind you. The mirror attaches to a pair of glasses and is fully adjustable. There’s an adapter kit if you want to attach it to a helmet.

The one caveat I’d add is that you need to be careful not to check the mirror too much. It’s more likely that something bad will happen in front of you: someone turning, a pedestrian jumping out from the curb, someone opening a car door. And you should be able to ride without using the mirror. That said, I never leave home without it.

Deep Work

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Do you find yourself unable to get work done, interrupted by incoming emails, Facebook updates and tweets? Can’t seem to get that garden planted or get that novel started because you’re too “busy?” How ironic that a computer science professor, Cal Newport, could be just the person to lead us out of our distraction with his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.

The book can be boiled down to this: thou shalt schedule uninterrupted blocks of time to focus on single, important tasks. And, yes, that includes thinking about how we spend our leisure time too. If you allow incoming texts and notifications to define your day you’ll turn into a human router, pushing around frivolous emails, text messages and silly cat videos.

To give in to these temptations is to train ourselves to be distracted. Alternately, the longer we spend in periods of uninterrupted concentration the easier it becomes to focus. It was Newport’s deconstruction of the Internet Sabbath that won me over. Newport says,

If you eat healthy just one day a week, you’re unlikely to lose weight, as the majority of your time is still spent gorging. Similarly, if you spend just one day a week resisting distraction, you’re unlikely to diminish your brain’s carving for these stimuli, as most of your time is still spent giving in to it.

This is not to say that there aren’t other benefits to putting aside one day and making it different than all the others. But let’s not kid ourselves that an Internet sabbath is going to cure the crack-like addictiveness of social media and click-bait websites. Newport suggests, “embracing boredom” and not surfing the web even when you’re waiting in line at the post office. Rather than schedule time away from distraction Newport suggests scheduling time to give into temptation. Go ahead and surf the web, just do it in a scheduled block of time. We are, after all, human and need to view the occasional cat video (or catch up on Root Simple blog posts!). But we can’t let those cat videos define our schedules and inhibit our ability to focus on a single task.

Newport has a refreshing agnosticism towards our technological future. He’s neither anti-tech nor techno-optimist. He’s of the “right tool for the job” mindset. In a provocative chapter called “Quit Social Media” Newport compares things like Facebook and Twitter to a farmer’s tools and suggests,

Identify the core factors that determine success and happiness in your professional and personal life. Adopt a tool only if its positive impacts on these factors substantially outweigh its negative impacts.

In other words, just because a tool exists doesn’t mean you should use it. I’ve spent a lot of useless time on Facebook in recent years despite the fact that it and Twitter account for less than 5% of the traffic to this blog. Most visitors come from Google. I’d be better off spending focused time writing better how-to blog posts than chasing likes.

Now most of us have to deal with what Newport calls “shallow” tasks, such as responding to emails and going to meetings. For myself and, I suspect, most people reading this blog, we need to adopt one of the middle-ground solutions Newport recommends: scheduling large blocks of time to take on single, important and challenging tasks while not allowing shallow duties to occupy more than 50% of our days. For some, such as the novelist Neal Stephenson, that Newport offers as and example, a more radical disconnection may be necessary. Stephenson doesn’t have an email account. As Stephenson puts it,

If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. But as those chunks get separated and fragmented, my productivity as a novelist drops spectacularly.

Lastly I want to give a tip of my metaphysical hat to Newport for acknowledging a non-materialist justification for avoiding distraction. Usually, when the topic of our distracted age comes up, the solutions are all about brain science. Newport throws a bone to us non-reductionist types with an appeal to the sacredness of craftsmanship, honed by long periods of concentration. This craftsmanship can extend to all our work and leisure activities even to mundane tasks like doing the dishes.

Newport has an excellent blog focusing on deep work and study habits here.

George Rector: M.F.K. Fisher’s Dirty Old Uncle

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We struck gold in the depths of the library the other day when I dug up Dine at Home with Rector: A book on what men like, why they like it, and how to cook it, by George Rector, c.1937.

Rector (1878-1947) was a restaurateur and popular author. This book is ostensibly a cookbook–I don’t know what else it would be–but it doesn’t have recipes per se. Instead, he just mentions how to cook things as he’s steaming along. I’m in love with the hardboiled yet strangely comforting prose (though I do have to ignore the casual sexism and racism of the period).

Seems most cookbooks these days range from bland to, at best, passionately sincere. Old George is just in it for the fun. The pleasure of reading him is filed in my brain alongside the pleasure of reading M.F.K. Fisher, though he’s more like her dirty old uncle. Which is to say you’d happily read either them even if you have no intention of ever cooking anything ever again.

Speaking of casual sexism, I’m particularly fond of the chapter titled “When the Wife’s Away”, which steps befuddled menfolk from the basics of grilling a steak (“Steak is a good thing to begin on; don’t be scared off because it’s one of the aristocrats of the cow kingdom…”), to how to scramble eggs over a double boiler (“that’s the dingus Junior’s cereal is cooked in…”) to making “that noble experiment known as Rum-Tum Ditty” for the boys when they come over for cards. Rum-Tum-Ditty, I have to say, defies explanation. Let’s just say the ingredients include whipped egg whites, a pound of cheese and a can of tomato soup.

Speaking of befuddled menfolk, Erik is quite fond of this passage about making Hollandaise sauce (from the chapter titled “A Touch of Eggomania”), not least because it has introduced the term “hen fruit” into our lives:

For eggs Benedict, you need Hollandaise sauce, an additional contribution of the hen fruit to the pleasures of the palate, and to the confusion of cooks. Hold on to your hats and we’ll round that curve. Add four egg yolks, beaten to the thick, lemon-colored point, to half a cup of butter melted in a double boiler. Stir as you add the eggs and keep stirring–stir with the calm and temperate perseverance of the mine mule making his millionth trip down the gallery. That’s the secret–that and getting the water in the bottom hot as blazes without ever letting it come to a boil. Just before the mixture gets thick–timing again–put in a tablespoon of lemon juice and cayenne pepper to taste, and I hope and believe you’ll have a crackajack Hollandaise. Which is something to have, because it’s cantankerous stuff, as the tears shed by millions of cooks down the ages all testify.

How to Turn a Rotary Phone Into a Push-button Phone

IMG_6841Last month, AT&T forced us to switch to a voice over internet protocol (VOIP) phone service. When they did so my beloved Western Electric 500 rotary phone (that sits atop the cat scratcher I blogged about yesterday) could no longer dial outgoing calls. So much for backwards compatibility!

Thankfully, some Google searching led me to a device you can install in your rotary phone to turn it into a hybrid rotary/push-button phone. Old Phone Work’s rotary pulse to tone converter not only made the phone dial again but also added last number redial and stored numbers.

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You need to be somewhat of a phone geek to install this gadget. It took me about an hour to sort out the wiring with directions specifically for WE500s that I downloaded from the Old Phone Works website. Thankfully, many vintage phones, such as ours, have labeled connections and are easy to rewire. The Old Phone Works pulse-to-tone converter, pictured above, fits completely within our old phone. The phone dials just as it used to, but at the end of each turn of the dial a pulse is emitted. The pulse-to-dial converter I bought won’t work on a conventional phone line (non-VOIP) as the voltages are too high. For non-VOIP service Old Phone Works has this pulse to tone converter.

The reasons we still have a land line–as well as why we haven’t switched to cable service–are complicated and will have to wait for a future blog post. But right now I’m enjoying the novelty of navigating phone trees with a dial phone. It’s one of the more ridiculous projects around the compound, but I like that a 50 year old phone, built like a tank, is still working.