Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Birthday Cake and Aspirations

In medieval England, small objects—gold coins, rings, thimbles, etc.—were added to birthday cake batter before baking. Finding one of these in your piece of cake meant you would experience wealth, a wedding, spinsterhood or whatever the object symbolized.

Three of my friends are celebrating their birthdays today. The youngest one is turning 50 (which just shows how old my friends are) and enjoying a week-long party with her family and loved ones.

It’s been interesting to watch my friends reach this milestone birthday. The celebrations have ranged from big parties to more intimate gatherings of close friends to please let this day pass with as little fanfare as possible.

While the party/no party choice is sometimes a matter of personality (some people just hate being the center of attention), I think it also has to do with how we view ourselves and what we’ve accomplished—or haven’t—at this age.

Turning 50 last year certainly made me take stock of where I was in life. It made me look (and laugh) at some of my youthful aspirations.

When I graduated from college and was ready to start making it on my own, I had three main goals for my life. The first was that I wanted to have a lot of fun. That was paramount to me after spending so much of my time during high school in the hospital. I’m happy to report that having fun has been and continues to be a driving force in my life. Of course, my definition of fun has changed over the years. But it’s still one of my primary pursuits.

My second goal, somewhat related to the first, was to be happy. For some periods of my life I’ve succeeded beautifully at this. Then there are other times where contentment was not on my radar. In retrospect, this ebb and flow of happiness seems simply to be a reality of life. Things beyond our control can happen and suck the joy right out of our lives. The trick is to find a way back to what makes you smile. Thankfully, I’ve been able to negotiate all of the detours I’ve encountered to date.

My last goal was to make my living from writing. This, too, I have done (at least so far), though not exactly as I planned. Optimistic child that I was, I gave myself a target age of 25 to become a published author, which was then to lead a few years later to regularly making the best-seller list. (Technically, I did reach the “published author” goal. At 23, I wrote two columns—one with a byline—in an internal life-insurance publication produced by my employer.) Luckily, writing isn’t a career that’s defined by youth, so I still have time to get published—though in my own way as I’ve noted in previous posts.

Because I haven’t abandoned my youthful dreams, I was able to approach 50 with a smile and a look to the future. My dear friends joined me for a long weekend of celebration at a nearby resort, where they delighted me by acting out an adaptation (created by my two BFFs from college) of my children’s novel. It was a grand way of bringing together fun, happiness and my writing.

It’s friends and moments like this that make my life so rich. No gold coins needed in my birthday cake.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Spiders and Tenacity

Spiders that create webs (not all do) have glands at the tip of their abdomens that secrete spider silk. Different glands produce different types of silk (sticky for catching prey, fine for wrapping it, etc.). Though webs appear fragile, spider silk is actually five times stronger than a steel strand of the same weight.

For our annual Halloween party, I usually end up removing real cobwebs to replace them with fake ones. The imitations make for more dramatic decorations (and don’t reflect poorly on my housekeeping skills), but their engineering pales in comparison to the genuine article.

If you’ve ever paid attention to a spider’s web-spinning activity, you know what a marvel it is. To begin the classic design, known as an orb web, this eight-legged wonder attaches a fine thread to an anchor spot, lets out more silk and swings on the end of it to a second anchor spot. Then it walks back and forth on the attached filament, adding more silk with each trip to strengthen the line.

The next step is to create a loose loop and pull down on the middle with another strand to make a Y shape. Walking back and forth, the spider continues to create an outside frame for the web, plus spokes (like those on a bicycle wheel) that are all connected in the middle. The last step is to move from spoke to spoke, letting out sticky silk in a spiral design.

(This animation from does a better job of showing the construction than my words can convey.)

Sometime in August of this year, a cross spider* appeared in our back yard. I found it one day after accidentally walking through its elaborate web while cleaning up after the dogs. As I waved the sticky threads away from my face, I noticed the spider—which had a body about the size of my thumbnail—race to the curled edge of a nearby leaf for cover.

A few minutes later, I returned to find it hard at work repairing the web I had just destroyed. The restoration began with the spider eating the broken threads. Spiders are great recyclers and devour old or damaged silk to help them produce more.

Over the next few weeks, I made a daily check on my backyard friend’s welfare. One particularly windy day, I found it clinging to the thin threads, holding on for dear life with all eight legs. The next day, the spider was in a new location with a brand new web, probably because the powerful gusts destroyed the first one.

I couldn’t help but admire the tenacity of this little creature. When forces beyond its control took away everything it worked so hard to build, it simply moved on, got to work and started anew. I doubt there were any hand-wringing, bemoaning, “why me?” moments. Simply an acceptance that this is where I am now and if I want to eat, I better get busy.

It seems that I have a lot to learn from spiders. When I get pushed off course—as I’m experiencing now with my career—I need to ditch the self-pity. Learn to accept and adapt. Get out on the end of a thread, find new anchor points and start spinning a life around my changed circumstances.

Remind myself that I too, have something within me that’s stronger than steel.

* Thanks to Patricia Michaels of for identifying the species.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Attics and Creative Sparks

Ancient Greeks who lived in Attica, the peninsula that includes Athens, used to build a low, decorative wall above the main building to hide the roof. In time, these became enclosed and the space between known as an “Attic story,” later shortened to “attic.”

Five years ago, what is now my office was just unimproved attic space. To access it back then, you had to put a ladder into the front bedroom closet, push a 2’ by 2’ piece of plywood out of the way and shimmy around the clothes rod and through the cutout. Once there, you had to walk on the joists because there was no flooring. Loose insulation filled the spaces between, 100 years of dust clung to the rafters and you couldn’t stand upright except for where the roof peaked.

It was perfect.

Luckily, a friend—who has the design and construction skills I lack—shared my view. In a few short months, and lots of physical labor later, we went from wishful thinking to reality.

Now I not only have an office that I love, but also wonderful memories of building it. I particularly enjoyed watching my friend design on the fly every time some new challenge presented itself—and there were many in this quake-altered frame. My vision of “we could do something with this space” became a fun, creative challenge for her.

This is more or less what I’m trying to do with my book and website. Present a starting point for other people’s creativity. Offer the spark that ignites an imaginative fire.

I could say that this whole idea started because I want to help young people unleash their creative power so they can visualize and build a better world. But the truth is less altruistic. I simply want a way to publish my completed (finally) book.

After doing some research, it didn’t seem like going the agent/editor, print-on-demand or e-book route was quite right for me. So I came up with my own idea.

What I’m envisioning is a website—actually, more like a community—built around the novel that encourages anyone and everyone to upload their own work based on the story. This could be illustrations, videos, songs, animation, side stories, costumes, games, puzzles—whatever.

But it’s more than that. Readers also earn “extras” as they go deeper into the novel. Some of these include an animated map that tells where the chapter takes place. An electronic bookmark that at sign-in goes directly to the last page read. A highlighter, notepad, sketchpad, chapter summary, and other tools to help kids record key things about the plot and characters so they can create their own contributions.

Then there’s my favorite extra, the 3-6 pop-up tidbits in each chapter. These pertain to something going on in the story and provide interesting trivia (the Chinese had armor made of paper), as well as activities (how to create a quill pen) and behind-the-writing stories (one of the female characters was male in an earlier draft). These are much like the tidbits that frame each post on my blog.

I could go on and on about the other things such as the contests, polls, section for parents and teachers, etc. But the final site might look very different from my vision given my limited budget.

Or maybe if I get the right team working with me, it will be even better than I envisioned. Just like the attic where I’ve come up with these ideas.

Who knew that an ancient architectural adornment would have such a profound impact on my future?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Cork and Thinking Differently

Cork comes from the thick, spongy bark of the cork oak tree. Slabs of bark are hand harvested from the trees 12 times in their 250-year lifetime. In addition to wine stoppers, bulletin boards and fishing rod handles, this renewable resource can be used for flooring and ground into concrete mixtures.

During dinner the other night, some friends and I debated about what to do with the wine cork. The bottle obviously belonged in the recycling bin. But the cork? Compost or trash?

Now this certainly isn’t the first bottle of wine that’s passed through my house. But recently, I’ve become even more vigilant about practicing “reduce, reuse, recycle,” which prompted the cork question.

This heightened awareness probably stems from San Francisco’s new law that requires everyone in the City to recycle and compost. Yes, you read that right. A law.

Now exactly who is going to make sure everyone’s banana peels go into the green (compost) bin instead of the black (trash) bin is another question. Perhaps we can draw from the staff that enforces the law stating that all pets kept outdoors must have access to clean drinking water at all times.

San Francisco has a number of unenforceable mandates that invite ridicule. Yet sometimes there’s a smart idea wrapped inside that legislative language, which leaves me conflicted. I admire the way our city often sticks its neck out and tries a new approach to the same issues bedeviling everyone else. Because it’s easy to jump on the bandwagon once someone else builds it. Or laugh at their construction if it fails. What’s hard is to be the one with the blueprint—and the guts to implement it.

So looking at this latest law, you can see the benefit in its intention to shift 75% of the City’s waste into composting and recycling programs by next year, leading up to the ultimate goal of zero waste by 2020. It’s a cheap and effective way to be eco-friendly. And recycling and composting programs can be set up quickly, making them a solution we can implement now.

Like I said, great idea. But a law?

Could we maybe have considered using education instead of legislation? Tried creating something that makes composting and recycling cool? Like hilarious videos on YouTube that get passed from friend to friend. An online invitation to upload funny or clever things—animation, songs, photos, poetry, artwork, whatever—that teach people how to create zero waste. Visits from celebrities to schools that achieve the best record of recycling and composting throughout the school year. That type of thing.

If we’ll take our willingness to think differently a step further, we might figure out how to use peer pressure instead of police pressure to achieve the same goals. Get people involved and excited in something that benefits us all. Compel them to comply with a motivating message instead of a toothless law.

Maybe that’s a way we can get this City to work better. Just a thought.

Oh, and that wine cork? It goes in the trash. At least for now. We have until 2020 for someone to think differently about how it can be collected and distributed to the flooring and cement manufacturers that can reuse it.