Sunday, October 6, 2013

A Colorful Gathering

There is a reason that you can't find any used bowling balls in Oregon, and I'm going to tell you what it is.

Under a secluded tree, somewhere in the remote countryside, sit four hundred and thirteen -- wait, no, make that four hundred and fifteen, because she just bought out the local thrift store -- gathered bowling balls. I watch as the artist places the new ones.

It's a very large, very colorful gathering. What, I ask, are they doing here?

"Aging!" she tells me, delightedly.

Except for the ones that are used for Wilderness Bowling, she adds. That's a new sport you've never heard of that, no, I'm not making up. I wish I was.

These balls have to prove they have what it takes before she applies them to the task she envisions. Because, perhaps like many of the rest of us, some will crack under the strain of this wilderness experience. She has to be sure she knows what each one is made of.

And some do crack. She knows exactly what those ones are made of. Rubber and some very hard materials. The cracked ones look like large Easter malted milk balls someone has broken open.

The survivors have to stay intact for a good year -- or two, or three -- as long as it takes for her to collect the rest, and put them all together into -- well. That I can't tell you. Because I don't know.

This I can tell you: she's still looking. Because, she tells me, to compete her vision she still needs, oh, at least another four hundred.

The mind boggles. This one does, anyway.

So if you happen to have extra bowling balls lying around, let me know and I'll put you in touch with the artist. Then you can be a patron of the wilderness arts. Or a contributer to a new sport.

And if you, too, have been searching for used bowling balls and can't find them, at least you have that mystery solved.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Top 10 things you should know about Seattle's 2013 NW Chocolate Festival

You've heard about the NorthWest Chocolate Festival, September 20-22, right? If you like chocolate, you should plan to be there. Go put it on your calendar. Yes, now. I'll wait.

The festival has been expanding impressively these last few years, and is now held at Seattle's Washington State Convention Center. A little planning goes a long way.

Here are my top ten tips for getting the most out of the NW Chocolate Festival:

1. Plan to be there. If you're anywhere near Seattle, do come. It's so worth it. The single day pass price of $30 (advance price) is both a bargain and a steal given what you get: samples of some of the finest chocolate in the world, multiple educational tracks, demonstrations, and performances. And the VIP pass is a great way to make it an exceptional weekend. My advice? Buy your tickets in advance. Either way, keep the weekend open. If like most Seattleites you prefer to keep your options open until the very last minute, that's fine; the at-the-door price will still be a bargain.

2. Expect crowds. Serious crowds. Especially if you go on Saturday. Sunday tends to be less packed. I like people but last year I got overwhelmed by the sheer number of humans around me. Toward the end of Sunday (festival is over at 5pm), everything started to clear out. My advice: if you can't wrap your head around sharing space with thousands of other chocolate lovers and their kids, go early or go late. Chocolate knows no off-hours but if you don't like crowds Saturday morning or Sunday afternoon are your best bets.

3. Getting there is half the battle. Street parking will not be any fun. If you drive, save yourself time and hassle and park in the garage WSCC for about $15 for 6 hours -- cheap if you carpool with your friends, who you know want to go too. Better yet, take a bus, bike, Car2go, or a taxi. Directions and parking info here.

4. Pack healthy snacks. You'll have the chance to sample enough chocolate to make yourself truly sick. Before you know it you'll be craving something healthy like carrot sticks, nuts, or cheese sticks. Yes, there are places outside the festival to eat real food, but if you're like me, you won't want to leave. So bring healthy snacks to tide you over until you can tear yourself away.

5. Pace yourself, both in terms of how fast you walk and how much you sample. I'm not kidding about making yourself sick. And if you have children with you (or adults acting like children) pace them, too -- we can all use help in the face of temptation. Too much dark chocolate -- and most of this will be that, dark, at 70% or better -- can bring you right over the line of your personal theobromine limit. At my first festival weekend I simply didn't sleep and it wasn't the minimal amount of caffeine in chocolate. It was the theobromine.

6. Taste, don't gobble. Take a tiny taste of even the small samples they give you, savor it, try to understand it, and save the rest of the bite for later. That way you won't overwhelm your taste buds as quickly and you won't hit your limit as fast. While everyone comes to the festival for different reasons, if yours include finding out what the big deal about premium chocolate is, what makes it different from what you can buy at a grocery store, you'll want to pay close attention to what your tongue is telling you. Take your time.

7. Bring easy-to-carry tote bags for the chocolate you'll be buying to take home. Most vendors are going to be selling their wares at low festival prices so this is the time to stock up for both your personal chocolate needs and holiday presents. Yes, properly stored bar chocolate will easily last until the holidays and well beyond and you'll want to carry your purchases comfortably through the day. I always bring something I can sling over my shoulder, like a backpack. And I wear comfortable shoes.

8. Bring water. There will be water at the festival, but bring a small container to call your own so you can have it when you like rather than needing to search. I always bring a thermos of hot water -- mild green tea, if you must know -- because chocolate melts at body temperature and it helps me clear my palette between tastings. This year I'll probably bring an even bigger thermos, even though I'll need to carry it around, because I tend to go through it all.

9. Take a good look around. There will be so much to do and learn at the festival that you could be overwhelmed, but instead think of this as a self-directed course in chocolate based on your specific interests. Look at the schedule, see what appeals to you. Watch demos, listen to talks by industry insiders, attend performances that intrigue you, or just walk the floor admiring confections. If you're like me, you'll be impressed at how interesting chocolate is, how it affects humans world-wide, and what the implications of theobroma cacao are for the earth's sustainable ecosystem.

10. Say hello! Talk to the chocolate makers, the chocolatiers, and the educators. Find out what they think the most important issues of the day are with regards to chocolate. Some of the most deeply passionate and knowledgeable people in the world and industry will be there, and they care very much about what you, the end-consumer, knows and understands about chocolate. Don't be intimidated -- just say hello!

Got more questions about the festival? You might find the answers at the  festival facebook page, or this FAQ.

Or drop me a note!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Dog lovers: Let's treat humans this well, k?

We all know the script: you see an adorable puppy and walk up to the cute critter then find yourself making cooing sounds and doing baby-speak. There's wagging and petting. It's a mini love-fest! It all makes perfect sense when you're there.

I'm not judging you. Really I'm not.

Then you say something like:

"Who's a good boy? You are! You like that, don't you. Gimmi a kiss!"

Doggie kisses! Awww!

So...I have another script I'd like you to try on. It's the one where you treat an adorable human the same way you treat the adorable puppy.

That's right: you walk up to a good-looking guy. You ruffle his hair. You make cooing sounds. You say something like:

"Who's a good boy? You are! You like that, don't you. Gimmi a kiss!"

Human kisses! Awww!

Why only dogs?  Don't some humans deserve lavish affection, too?

Give it a try. Change the world.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Not much here. Just some words.

And yet you keep reading.
Words don't come after the design is done. Words are the beginning, the core, the focus.

Start with words.


Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Lovely Mr. Gaiman

"Are you going to the party?"

The one you need a special invite for. I'm a Clarion West grad and a writer (really, I am) so, yeah, I'm going.

"Neil will be there," she says breathlessly. "He's got his people with him. I think he's got a bus."

His people. A bus. Well, well. You've certainly come up in the world since Sandman, Mr. Gaiman, since the days I was one of a small group of fans who gobbled up your early issues at the comic book store.

The party is large and loud. There are a lot of people. Writers, publishers, students, board members, old friends. You can tell where Gaiman is by looking for the impassable knot of humanity, all straining forward toward a central point of black-clad, soft-spoken handsome Englishman, hoping for a touch of magic.

"Have you met Neil yet?" someone asks me.  I'm confused about why it matters, but I answer.

"No need," I say. "I met him five years ago. Said everything I needed to say then."

"What did you say?"

"I told him I'd been a fan for 20 years. He said 'thank you very much.' There didn't seem much more to say."

I don't like the celebrity game. The one where you stand next to someone famous and try to pretend that you could become best-buds in a few seconds of small-talk. Or that perhaps by standing close some of their fame might rub off on you.

"Have you met Neil yet?" someone asks me.


"Where is he?"

"Over there."

I have things to do here. Talk to friends, publishers. Visit with His Potency, aka the excellent Jay Lake. Tell him "I love you" while I still can.

Lots of people, lots of noise. It doesn't take long before I'm ready to leave.

You got the foreshadowing reference, right? You know where this is going.

I'm putting my things together to leave when I notice a black-clad fellow surrrounded by only a few fans just a few feet away. I sigh, resolute, and walk over to pay my respects. After a moment he turns to me.


"I thought I'd come over and breathe the same air as you for a few moments," I say. "It seems to be the thing to do tonight."

He smiles. "And you are?" Ah, the lovely accent, the handsome face. He's a little older than when I saw him last, but aging with exceptional grace. I give him my name. He offers his hand. We shake.

"I'm Neil," he says.

"Yes," I say, "I know."

"I know that you know," he says, matching my tone, "but I have to say it, because it's the polite thing to do."

"And," I respond, "I know that you know that I know. Yes, you're very polite. Everyone is talking about how gracious you are. And how gorgeous."

"Oh, I couldn't say about the gorgeous part," he says modestly, "but I certainly do my very best to be gracious."

I assure him he has succeeded.

And I've had my minute. He turns away to be gracious (and gorgeous) to someone else, and then a woman tugs on my sleeve and asks me to introduce her to him. I laugh silently and introduce her to this man who won't remember me tomorrow but is, without question, gracious. And gorgeous.

I take a moment to inhale before I step away, to see if the air tastes any different here. Any more magic.

Oh, maybe just a touch.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Today We Remain

Death is awfully present in my life these days. A dear friend is dying. He's got stunningly good grace about it, but that's cold comfort. For him, for us. Frankly, the whole thing sucks. The dying, that is. His writing on the subject is impressive stuff.

It occurs to me, and this is probably obvious to you, that if you live long enough, everyone around you dies.  Beloved companion animals. Humans you can't live without. One day they're there, sensible and solid, saying things you couldn't make up if you tried, and then the next -- gone. Gone and done. Why is this so mystifying to me?

The math is clear: either you die, or you live on and those around you die. If you die, you (probably) don't have to face them dying, but otherwise, well, you do. Short of somehow managing to, say, drop an asteroid on yourself and everyone you know all at once (and if you have that kind of power let's talk--I promise to be very polite) either you go or they do.

Someone has to leave first. It can't happen any other way.

I don't know why this equation befuddles me. I feel like a child who can't understand simple single-digit arithmetic.

From what I can tell, most people don't face Death with much awareness. Whether because we're surprised, mentally altered, on meds, in pain, or in denial, most of us aren't very conscious of impending demise. Across the spectrum of human experience, we are primarily aware of others dying.

The point? The longer we live, the more it seems that Death follows us around, cutting down those near us. But that's only because Death hasn't yet put a hand on our shoulder. There's a wretched arithmetic to surviving those you love: someone has to remain.

Today, at least, I remain. As I watch those I love leave -- and prepare to leave -- I am reminded of how hard--how wrenching, how confusing--it is to be among those who remain.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Reflections on Death, God, and Sunshine

A friend of mine, a software engineer, faced the death of two loved ones in a single month. It was a rough time. She told me this:

"I'd like to file a bug report. In fact, I'd like to switch to a competitor's universe."

That reminds me of one of my favorite Terry Pratchett quotes, in which he says that the presumed extant Supreme Being seems to be lacking a moral compass.

I once asked a Sufi teacher "Does God exist?" His reply: "yes, but bear in mind that he loves mosquitoes just as much as he loves you."

And lastly, this from my dental hygienist: "Life's not fair. But the sun's come out."

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

"Sorry" doesn't change it

I've been using email longer than almost anyone I know, thanks to an early career on the net. There are some email subject lines that I've come to view with a certain amount of gravity.

The first is a person's name. It almost always means they're dead.

The second is "Sorry." This isn't always a suicide note, but recently that's just what it was.

There's something especially agonizing about losing someone to suicide. The pain ripples out in circles around the person to family, friends, communities. It affects far more people than they could possibly have guessed.

Every time I'm touched by a suicide, I want to reach out to all the people in my circles, just in case they might be thinking that way. I want to say this:

Friend, I don't dispute your right to check out early. Your body and consciousness belongs to you as much as anything can. I know life can be some hard shit, and yes, there are times to consider bailing.

But I want you to know something first.

People will suffer. You killing yourself causes deep emotional pain in more people than you realize. Even if you're considerate and avoid leaving blood on the walls, even with your thoughtful final instructions and that nice note about how it's not our fault -- even then, my friend, suicide is a violent, shocking, and brutal act.

We take the loss of you hard. Far more of us will be affected than you suspect. We'll be angry. We'll be hurt. Some will hurt a lot. Some our whole lives.

Given that you're considering throwing it all out anyway, I'm asking you to consider some other answers first. You think you've tried it all, but a sudden exit is evidence you haven't. Instead, throw out your career, your city, your clothes, your assumptions. Shake it up. Why not?

Listen, I've been where you're standing. I'm don't claim to know your pain, but I've stood at the edge of the cliff and looked over. I found other ways.

So I ask you to look for other ways. Find someone who understands. Ask for help. Take new risks. Seek out cohorts. Even meds. Why not? You've given up all other approaches anyway, right?

It's your choice, of course. But if you decide to take your life, be very clear that you're also taking parts of other people's lives with you. Being sorry doesn't change that.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Confidence, Competence, Stress, and You

If you feel good, you'll act empowered. Yeah, you already know that. Better posture, smiling -- that sort of thing. The body language that says, yeah, I've got it goin' on.

You might also have heard that if you act like you're feeling pretty good, even when you're not, your physiology follows suit. No?

Hear it now: researcher Amy Cuddy talks about success, social competence, and influence. This isn't just about appearance, either - she's also talking about how you feel inside, about stress, about taking action in situations where you might otherwise freeze up.

Her recommendation is simple, fast, and requires no purchase, which is why you might not have heard about it. Here it is: take two minutes to stand or sit as if you're on top of the world. That means unfold, expand your body, grab some great posture. Smile a bit.

Turns out there are measurable results. Brain chemistry changes. Risk tolerance goes up. Testosterone and cortisol increases. Stress coping improves.

What? We're back to "fake it til you make it"? Yes. Adds Cuddy, "fake it until you become it" because doing this again and again actually changes you physically as well as habitually.

Doesn't quite seem fair, does it? But to hell with fair. Cuddy's research says it works.

Have I mentioned dance lately? See the connection?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Subvert the Script

how are you fine thanks and you
"Hi, how are you?"

"Oh Fine thanks. And you?"


You hear it every day, yes? What the heck is this repetitive script really about? Ah, glad you asked.

It's a tribal affiliation assertion: I'm extending you temporary membership in my tribe. Probably only for this encounter, but who knows.

I'm saying "I see you". Most of us live in a world of way too many people, and that means we have to treat them like trees or rocks because they can't all be human beings. So -- I see you. You're not just a rock.

And it's an initiation protocol. It acknowledges that we're not just walking by but beginning some kind of exchange or transaction between us. We're engaging.

When taken literally the question has complicated ramifications. But it's not a literal question and few people want detailed (or long) answers.

"I didn't sleep at all well and I'm feeling some vague sense of underlying dread or maybe it's existential ennui or maybe indigestion and really is this all there is and I wonder whether I'm getting enough fiber. Thanks for asking."

No, I don't recommend you answer in detail because it breaks the (lightweight) social protocol and, frankly, I've done it, and I can assure you that it doesn't make you popular. Also, it defeats the multiple, socially essential purposes of this ritual.

But yes, also, I am indeed suggestion subversion. Subvert the script in your own head. Listen to yourself say the words. Notice what's really going on.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Good Day to Eat Chocolate

I am eating chocolate today. Since I'm a semi-professional (heh) in fine chocolate, what with teaching tasting classes and writing newsletters, Valentine's Day seems a good day to indulge. (Unlike other days. Ha.)

What, you may ask, am I eating? Glad you asked.

Nova Monda's Gold Label. 80% yet powerfully floral with a bite and a coffee and nut tail -- a good wake up chocolate...

Dandelion's Madagascar 70%, which hits me with cherry-berry and carries on for a while, leaving me feeling bright.

Rogue's Hispaniola 70% -- a heavy hitter and not for the faint-hearted. Tones of bitter orange peel, ash, and, sure, licorice I guess (see liner notes). The right kind of bitter, anwyay. I save this bar for special occasions.

And, believe it or not, Amedei's Toscano White, because it was recommended as an exemplar of the breed and I'm trying to understand white. Not sure I get it, even with this sample. Ah well.

Finally, Zotter's Labooko Sheep's Milk, with a whopping 55% chocolate -- we're talking serious milk, folks -- a best-of-breed. The sort of milk that gives lie to the snobbery I used to have about how milk chocolate could never be as good as dark. As this melts oh-so-smoothly in my mouth I'm so very glad to be wrong.

Eat chocolate today, my friends. Yes, do. But go up, up up: find something quality, something extraordinary. Go pay $10/bar -- you are worth it. Think of it as a Valentine's Day gift to you. For the cost of 2 high-end lattes. Toss a few more bucks at the barmaker struggling to bring you the best of Theobroma cacao from the rainforests and jungles of your beautiful planet.

As you unwrap and nibble, think romance: listen to the chocolate. Take your time. Caress with your tongue. Let the flavors roll through your mouth, your mind, your spirit.

Because that's what really good chocolate does.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

An Adventure in Terror

I don't know what I was thinking.

Actually, yes, I do. I was thinking I didn't like my choices. To me skiing is uncontrolled falling down a frozen mountainside, hurtling toward trees and humans who don't get out of the way. "Tubing" isn't much better and sounds vaguely dirty.

I considered the zip-line forest tour. Online comments included: "amazing!", "so much fun!" and "do it!" But flying through the air in a Canadian winter? Sounds cold. Skip it.

But then while packing I realize I have some excellent winter clothes. It dawns on me that the cold problem is solvable. And I do like trees and forest.

That's how, when at the last minute there is a cancellation, I end up on the zipline tour. What am I thinking as I get into the van to go up into the mountains? That I've solved the cold problem. With layers. Clever, me.

We walk into the woods under towering snow-clad hemlock pines. We cross a swaying ice-encrusted bridge between two tall trees. It's a bit high up, I realize, looking over the side. But at least I'm not cold.

Our first platform is built around a 150 year-old hemlock pine with bark rippled like frozen rivers. Very pretty. I look over the edge. The ground is far away. Very far away.

The plan is this: the guide clips your harness to a metal line connecting our tree platform to another one. He opens a gate and you step off into space. The zipline catches your weight. Gravity accelerates you down and then across hundreds or thousands of feet of open air to the other platform. You see the forest in a unique way. Like a bird. It's tons of fun, we're told.

I look over the edge again. I don't feel so good.

It turns out there are two sorts of people in the world. Those who think heights are cool and do things like parachuting and ziplines, and those who know heights are not cool and don't. My group is made up of the first sort. A bit nervious maybe, but no one is going into a full-blown panic. Except maybe me.

I've done ropes courses. Even a bit of ziplining. But somehow the memory of how petrified I was has vanished until this moment. What the hell had I been thinking when I signed up for this?

That I would be cold. Having solved that problem, I had somehow missed the other now quite urgent problem: I am about to die.

"Hey," I say to John, one of our two guides. "I'm thinking of bailing. What do I need to do to get out of here?"

"Oh," he says in his heavy English accent, "you'll be fine!"

"Seriously," I say. "I don't want to do this. I didn't realize it would be so --"  I know I sound like an idiot now but that's okay. Idiot compares well to dying. "So high."

"The next one's a bit higher," he admits, "but you'll be fine! A woman on this morning's run was as scared as you are and she was fine."

I don't bother asking how he can possibly know how scared I am. I look over the edge again. This is insane. It's hard to think clearly through my primal, unreasoning terror. My lizard brain is screaming.

"Ah, just give it a try!" John says. "You'll like it!"

I'm pretty sure he's wrong.

The group is going now. Clip on, step off into air. A loud buzzing "zzzzippp-pah!" sound. "Next!" John calls brightly.

I want to throw up. I want to grip the railing and never let go.

"I don't think I can do this," I tell one of the remaining guys. Only much later do I realize that my ability to speak sensibly despite being wretchedly sick with terror is giving the erroneous impression that I'm actually okay.

"Perfectly safe," he says unhelpfully.

"I know. I just don't think I can do it. I'm really scared."

I can bail on this, I remind myself. Sure, it's trouble for the guides, but that's their problem. Mine is staying alive.

"Well," he asks, "what are you scared of?"

Good question. If I'm going to bail, I decide, I want to know why. Quick, like a racecar mechanic, I take my mindset apart.

It's not the safety; I can see how the harness and redundant clip system works, and the process is pretty safe. It's not the accelleration either, which, while impressive, is no worse than an airplane taking off, something I regularly risk and actually enjoy.

It's the height. If this were 10 or 20 feet off the ground, as I absurdly imagined, I'd be okay. It's the stepping off into 80 feet of empty air from a perfectly good platform. I try to reason with my lizard brain, but it's having none of that. An horrific future awaits, it tells me.

One by one my group goes -- zipppp-pah! -- off to the other side.

I'm a software engineer. I like to solve problems. What's going on in my head is a problem. I don't have time to fix it but can I make a fast patch? A few moments later I have a plan. I still don't want to do this but I do want to see if my brain-hack workaround will fly. So to speak.

And my time's up. Step up or bail. I walk to the gate and John clips me onto the line. Now the patch: I shut my eyes and imagine the ground only 10 feet down. My lizard brain is screaming so I do it again. It doesn't believe me, but it can't see anything with our eyes closed, so it can't be sure.

In that split-second of plausibility, I bend my knees, feel the harness catch, and step forward into air.

I go. Down and fast. I want to see, so I open my eyes. There's forest sailing by and snow covered land 100 feet below. I'm okay, and oddly, no longer terrified. I was right: it was the step off the platform, not the ride. The brain-hack worked.

The next platform starts higher, some 160 feet up, and I'm freshly terrified. So we -- my lizard brain and I -- go through it again: eyes closed, visualize, step forward. Again, enroute, I look around. A river snakes through deep snow banks. Trees fly past. I come to the other side.

It gets easier each time. Not easy, but easier. On the final zip I step off with my eyes open to see if I can. Someone takes a picture.

While I wouldn't call it fun there's something powerfully satisfying about pushing through impassable terror with a brain-hack I built myself, on-the-spot. That's some cool real-world engineering.

As we're driving down the mountain I realize something else: I wasn't cold. Not once. FTW.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Easily Amused

"It's funny how the printer only runs out of paper when you're trying to print something," I say, refilling the hungry little bugger.

My companion was distracted by something, probably by reading the document I'd printed half of, so it took him a moment to register what I'd said.

"Yeah," he answered finally, "but at least it's in the last place you looked."

We both laughed.
Hungry Little Bugger
Hungry Little Bugger

There are moments when I'm pretty glad to be alive. A lot of those moments seem entwined with humor and backed by laughter.

That's just the sort of comment that would have made me roll my eyes in disgust when I was younger.  I must be growing up; I'm more and more easily amused.