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Writing

Breast Friends

If you spend two weeks in close proximity to goat udders, it's inevitable that you'll think differently about your own breasts.

Or at least that's what happened to me. My husband and I had signed up to spend two weeks volunteering on a French farm where the farmer took one look at our soft hands and assigned us to what he considered his easiest job: milking the family's 27 dairy goats. And so once in the morning, once in the evening, Peter and I wheeled out the milking canisters and pumping gear (this was not a hand-extraction affair), lined up the goats at a feeding trough, and worked our way through the herd.

The monotony of the task was strangely satisfying, and I found myself looking forward to my time with the ladies, as I called them, skittish and ornery, with soft ears and narrow,Avatar-like pupils. Much like women's breasts, their udders came in all shapes and sizes. Some were huge and swollen, bumping into the goat's back knees as she waddled up to the milking station. Others would barely have qualified for a training bra. Some goats had lopsided udders, including one young animal whose left teat was so tiny that we didn't bother to milk it.

Usually, there's a clear distinction in my mind between the pasteurized, cereal-friendly stuff I buy in the grocery store and the baby-nourishing liquid that may one day emanate from my chest. But as I worked my way up and down the goats' ranks, massaging their udders to help the flow, the difference between the two became less obvious. I found myself suddenly very curious about milk.

For Slate, I write about Deborah Valenze's new book, Milk: A Global and Local History, and how it has forever changed my view of goats.

America's Bucket List

Considering that my most recent project was a parody travel guide called 101 Places Not To See Before You Die, I was a bit surprised when PARADE Magazine asked to put together a bucket list for America. But I'm very glad they did. From seeking out good barbecue to learning the lyrics to the second verse of the national anthem (did you know it's set to a drinking song?), it was fun to get a chance to come up with some genuine, feel-good ways to celebrate our country. That, plus Jimmy Fallon was on the cover.

How To Be A Better Decision-Maker

It was a fortuitously timed assignment: a piece about decision-making that I researched just as my husband and I were moving to a new city. Choices abounded. Here are my conclusions, written for O, The Oprah Magazine.

I felt like punching Benjamin Moore in the face. My husband and I had just moved across the country, and after a flurry of big decisions, we were down to the nitty-gritty: what color to paint our new apartment. The previous tenant had gone with blood red, midnight blue, and tan—a look I referred to as "depressed Betsy Ross." Hoping to achieve something more cheerful, we sat on the floor surrounded by dozens of paint samples—Classic Gray or October Sky? Silken Pine or Mystic Beige?—when all I really wanted was to be able to just flip a switch in my brain and let my rational self determine the perfect choice.

Eating Tarantulas in Phnom Penh

When my husband Peter ordered the fried tarantulas at Romdeng, a restaurant in Phnom Penh that specializes in traditional Khmer food, he was hoping that he wouldn’t notice he was eating spider. I know that sounds delusional, but lots of fried foods bear little resemblance to their original ingredients. Think of popcorn shrimp. Or a corn dog. There was a chance that the spiders would arrive so coated in batter that their true arachnid nature would be camouflaged, nothing but a stomach-turning afterthought.

“I bet they’ll be dipped in tempura,” said Peter, as we waited for them to arrive.

“Like a zucchini fritter,” I said supportively.

But neither of us was convinced.

Peter and I had many adventures during our seven months on the road. One of them: eating deep fried tarantulas in Phnom Penh. I wrote about the experience for National Geographic's Intelligent Travel blog.

Self-Loathing in O

I just had a piece come out in O, The Oprah Magazine about how to stop beating yourself up for stupid things (or, as they titled it, "How to stop being so damn hard on yourself").

While I pride myself on being kind to others, I do not show the same compassion to myself. Instead, I have a gift for letting trivial things suck me into a vortex of self-loathing. A missed workout, a bad piano practice: Anything can churn my mind into an emotional whirlpool that gathers strength by pulling in unrelated failings—say, my difficulty choosing clothes or my lack of a steady paycheck. "Why can't I dress myself? Why did I pick this career?" Eventually, I'm dragged all the way under: "Why am I so pathetic?"

Judging from the feedback I've received so far,  I'm far from the only person who does this. It really makes you wonder: why are we so damn hard on ourselves?

On the Road

As part of our transition between California and the east coast, my husband and I decided to take several months to travel the world. From volunteering on a French dairy farm to biking through the Baltic States to taking the Trans Siberian railroad to doing a homestay with Mongolian nomads, it's been quite an adventure.  I'm trying to keep up with it all  here.

Stick To The Goat At Hand

Last summer my husband, Peter, and I spent two weeks on a family farm in France—a sort of "working vacation" in which we exchanged labor for room and board. The farm was home to a menagerie of pigs, cows, dogs, cats, chickens, and pigeons, but lucky for us, we didn't have to worry about any of them. Our sole responsibility was the family's herd of goats, which we were supposed to milk twice a day. It was the easiest job on the farm. And yet one morning, halfway into our stay, we managed to almost blow it.

In a piece for O Magazine, I learn the benefits of single-minded focus -- courtesy of a herd of French dairy goats.

Mindfuless Meditation for O

I've been meaning to start a daily mindfulness meditation practice for a long time, but thanks to this assignment from O, The Oprah Magazine, I actually started one. (And then got to participate in a full-day photo shoot that involved almost getting attacked by a bull.)

We've all had the experience of sensing time decelerate naturally when we're not so thrilled about what we're doing (think torturous spinning class or hour-long "synergy workshop" at the office). As my dear grandmother would have said, it takes only one colonoscopy to prove that time is relative. But what about the more enjoyable times in life? I hoped that practicing the popular and proven type of meditation called mindfulness—which focuses on bringing awareness to the present moment—might help me slow those times down as well.

White Whiskey

I've got a small piece in Men's Journal about the resurgence of small batch distillation. It's called White Whiskey:

If the greater number and variety of local and regional spirits at your neighborhood liquor store have you tempted to call micro-distillation a cool new trend, you’d be half-right — it’s more of a comeback. Early Americans were masters at turning harvests into hard alcohol using corn, potatoes, grain, apples, grapes — almost anything they could get their hands on. Converting food to booze didn’t just preserve the value of perishable crops; it also created a rich repertoire of homemade liquors, from rye whiskey, vodka, and bourbon to applejack, peach brandy, and unaged fruit spirits known as eau-de-vie.

I also did a big package about the spine called "The Complete Guide To Your Back" -- also for Men's Journal -- but I can't find it online except for this mention. Suffice it to say that you usually don't need surgery, and that if you're really hurting, you can ease the pain by sampling some small batch spirits.

A Taste Of Chocolate At a Former Army Post

Last weekend I had the pleasure not just of attending a workshop about chocolate, but of writing about it for the New York Times.

Wearing a short-sleeve shirt embroidered with his name, Mr. Recchiuti, whose shop is in the Ferry Building Marketplace, looked more like a mechanic than a fine chocolatier — albeit one with cocoa powder on his hands instead of grease.

He greeted each of his 19 students with a spoonful of liquid chocolate and a white plate holding eight samples arranged like numbers on a clock, with a small bowl with two roasted cocoa beans and a pinch of chocolate-covered barley — a “taste project” — at the center. The students would taste single-origin varieties of chocolate from around the world, and watch Mr. Recchiuti transform chocolate into confections that presumably could be replicated at home.

Stress

Here's the ironic thing about stress: The human body has evolved to cope with it too effectively. When you suffer under a crappy boss—a stressful situation, sure, but hardly life-threatening—your body responds as if you're being chased by a predator. Stress hormones like cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine spike, causing your attention to narrow and your body's inflammatory reactions to kick into high gear. This would help you avoid infection if, say, your boss bit you, but when continuously activated, inflammatory reactions can wreak havoc on your health, leading to increased risk of heart disease, stroke, depression, and diabetes. Chronic stress can even shrink your hippocampus, a part of the brain that supports learning and memory. In short: You need to calm down.

It is probably a bad sign that I completely forgot to post this piece I did for Outside Magazine about ways to beat stress.

The Sludge Report

phpthumb_generated_thumbnailjpgIf you want to avoid having conversations about your work, I highly recommend telling people that you're writing a three-part series about sewage sludge. It tends to shut them up quick. Thankfully, though, my personal sludge hell is reaching an end: The series was just published on Grist. Part one explains current uses of sewage sludge, and the rebranding effort it took to get there:

"The renaming contest [for sludge] received over 250 entries, many of which suggested that even water quality professionals still enjoy a good poop joke. Submissions included “bioslurp,” “black gold,” “sca-doo,” “hu-doo,” “geoslime,” and “the end product”; one person proposed rebranding sludge as “R.O.S.E.” (“Recycling Of Solids Environmentally”). Critics asked whether a rose by any other name would still smell as bad, and in 1991 WEF settled on “biosolids,” a term that Sheldon Rampton, co-author of Toxic Sludge Is Good For You, suggests “must have been chosen precisely because it evokes absolutely nothing in the minds of people who hear it."

Part two is about turning poop into gold -- or, more specifically, figuring out ways to recycle it into a marketable commodity. (Though, actually, there's a sewage treatment plant in Japan that is literally mining gold out of crap -- I kid you not.)

And part three is about shitting in a bucket. Or, more precisely, composting toilets.

The research for this series was provided by a Middlebury Fellowship in Environmental Reporting.

The Locavore's Dilemma

Ordinarily, I would never eat turnips. I managed to go 30 years without buying one. But now every winter I'm faced with a two-month supply, not to mention the kale, collards, and flat-leaf Italian parsley that sit in my refrigerator, slowly wilting, filling me with guilt every time I reach past them for the milk. After three years of practice, I've figured out simple ways to deal with most of these problem vegetables: I braise the turnips in butter and white wine; I sauté the kale and collards with olive oil and sea salt; I wait until the parsley shrivels and then throw it out. The abundance of roughage is overwhelming.

I subscribe to a CSA —a program, short for "community supported agriculture," in which you pay in advance for a weekly box of fresh produce delivered from a local organic farm. For the most part, it's great -- until you reach your seventh straight week of radishes and start to lose the faith. I wrote for Slate about my attempts to get it back.

Co-op Confessional

You know what I hate? The Park Slope Food Co-op. Sure, it has great organic food at incredibly low prices. But  something about the two-and-three-quarter-hour workshifts, self-righteous squad leaders, "work alerts" and widespread indignation against "the man" pushed me to the dark side. My resulting essay was featured in an anthology called Before the Mortgage (Simon and Schuster). 

It is Halloween. This month I am working at the front door, swiping membership cards. Halfway through the shift, sick of announcing to people that they are on “work alert” for missed shifts, I switch roles with my co-worker, Elga. Now I am head trick-or-treat coordinator, responsible for giving rewards to a costumed parade of pesticide-free children. Other shops, aware of the urban wives’ tale of razor blades being embedded in unwrapped treats, are handing out tootsie rolls and mini-Snickers bars. We are handing out apples. 

A small, androgynous fireman/bear walks up to me and extends its jack-o-lantern bucket. 

            “He’s adorable,” I say to the fireman bear’s mother, just as her child picks my apple out of the bucket and puts it back on the counter.

             “I want chocolate,” it says.

            “We’re not giving out chocolate.”

            “I want chocolate,” s/he repeats.

            “We only have apples.”

            “Chocolate!”

            “I don’t understand,” says the mother. “She’s been organic since birth.”

 

Flying the Coal-Powered Skies

In the not-so-distant future, cars could run on electricity, power plants on wind and solar energy, and city buses on zero-emission hydrogen fuel cells. But airplanes? Those just might run on coal.

Yes, coal. The U.S. Air Force wants to create a synthetic-fuel industry that, unless something better comes along, will mine America’s massive coal supply (we have more than a quarter of the world’s known reserves) and turn it into enough jet fuel for half its domestic operations to run on a 50/50 blend of synthetic and regular fuel by 2016. By the Air Force’s logic, it has no choice. It uses more fuel than all the other branches of the military combined, burning through 2.5 billion gallons of the stuff in 2007 alone—10 percent of the total used by the entire domestic-aviation fuel market—at a cost of $5.6 billion. And although oil prices have dropped in recent months, no one expects the relief to last indefinitely. Yet alternative fuels for aviation are hard to come by. The Air Force says it’s open to all sources of power for its fleet, but according to former assistant secretary of the Air Force William Anderson, petroleum, natural gas and coal are our only current options—and when you look at the U.S.’s resources, the choice is clear. “We’re not the largest holder of oil reserves, so that’s not a good option,” he says. “We’re not the biggest holder of natural gas. But we are the Saudi Arabia of coal.”

For Popular Science, I investigated the Air Force's plan to launch a domestic industry for coal-derived jet fuel.

The Body Image Index

I've long thought that the body mass index, the oft-cited calculation of whether you're obese, is flawed -- after all, it doesn't take into account whether your extra weight comes from muscle or fat. As an (equally meaningless) alternative, I propose a different measurement, one that reflects how you actually feel. I call it the Body Image Index, and I wrote about it for O Magazine.

What do feelings have to do with numbers? Most women know that it is possible to immediately gain 15 pounds by eating one pint of Ben & Jerry's. And when it comes to your butt (which can enlarge six sizes in the wrong pair of jeans), the rules of physics no longer apply. 

We need a better way to quantify these fluctuations -- a formula that goes beyond your BMI and calculates the feel of overweight. So I propose the personal body image index (PBII).

The general idea is as follows:

• Start with your weight.  • Subtract seven pounds if you have just worked out.  • Add five if you've single-handedly finished a plate of guacamole and chips; four for macaroni and cheese; six for death-by-chocolate cake.  • Subtract 10 pounds if people nearby are fatter than you. • If you're wearing black pants, subtract two; if in a bathing suit, add eight.  • If you are more than seven years older than the group average or are surrounded by bikini-clad undergraduates with toned stomachs and cellulite-free thighs, add 20.

Volitan: The Sun-Powered Sailboat

I wrote an article for Popular Science about a Turkish sailboat powered not just by wind, but by sun. A teaser for the nautically inclined:

A desire to make boating clean again inspired Hakan Gürsu and Sözüm Dogan of the Turkish design firm Designnobis to envision a zero-emission, engine-assisted boat that didn’t burn a drop of fuel—and was swank enough for the yachting set. Their solution is Volitan, a 105-foot concept sailboat powered by nothing but sun and wind. The ship’s strong, lightweight body is made from a composite of carbon fiber and epoxy resin and covered in carbon-foam lamination. Its two solid, solar-panel-covered sails, which extend from the ship’s body like wings (the boat is named after a flying fish found in the Mediterranean), catch wind when the sailing is good, and deliver electricity to the two 200-horsepower electric motors that propel the ship when the wind won’t cooperate. Controlled by an onboard computer, the wings rotate and tilt to track both the sun and wind. The energy they harvest is stored in conventional marine batteries that sit at the bottom of the boat’s centerboard and act as ballast.

The Great Awakening

For Outside Magazine, I spent a night in a strip mall in Fremont with a bunch of electrodes attached to my head, doing a sleep evaluation. I can't say it was the best night I ever had, but it made me even more obsessed with my eight hours a day than I was before. And believe me when I say that I take my sleep seriously.

As little as 20 hours without sleep leaves you with the same impaired attention and slow reflexes of someone who is legally drunk. Chris Eatough, six-time winner of the World Solo 24 Hours of Adrenaline Championship mountain-bike race, says that during a day-long competition, his vision will occasionally stop. "I'll be flying downhill with rocks and trees to dodge," he says, "and I'll get a snapshot of the trail that doesn't change for four or five seconds."

Omega-3 Phatty Acids

Oct. 17, 2006 | I can't say I've ever eaten yogurt fortified with microencapsulated fish fat before, but hell, there's a first time for everything. I'm in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, and Ian Lucas, executive vice president of global marketing at a marine research company called Ocean Nutrition, has just handed me a spoon. The yogurt sitting between us is flecked with peach, but it also contains a surprise: powdered oil from smushed anchovies, encapsulated in pork gelatin. You might say it's surf and turf in a cup. It's also just one of a slew of newly developed food products that have been fortified with omega-3 fatty acids. With the yogurt still in front of me, Lucas pours a large, cold glass of fish-oil fortified milk as I rip open a bag of omega-3 tortilla wraps -- all products that contain what's referred to in industry circles as designer lipids. Food technologists working the world over have been busy figuring out how to shrink fish oil capsules to microscopic size and bake them into bagels. Entire companies have devoted themselves to breeding algae laden with omega-3, which can be dried into flakes and used as animal feed, or sprayed as powder and used in food products. There are already omega-3-fortified eggs and infant formulas on the market (not to mention margarine, gummy candies, orange juice, fruit chews, nutrition bars, chocolate, bread, pizza crust and, yes, yogurt) -- and eventually there will be omega-3-fortified cake. There will be cookies. There will be omega-3 ice creams and cheeses. Research has even begun on omega-3 pâté.

I'll admit it: I went through a year of my life where I was obsessed with omega-3 fatty acids. Luckily for me, Salon shared the love.

A Chicken in Every Plot, a Coop in Every Backyard

Novella Carpenter remembers the day she killed her first chicken. It was a rooster named Twitchy who had been injured by an opossum that got into her backyard chicken flock. About to leave for vacation, Ms. Carpenter, 34, had no way of caring for the wounded Twitchy while she was away. So she took it to the back porch and chopped off its head.

Before I wrote this article for the dining section of the New York Times, I had no idea you could keep chickens in the city. Now I kind of want to get some.