Lessons Of Adulthood: The Art Of Non-Conformity

November 1, 2010

Re-entry is always difficult.

This is true whether you’re going back to school after a long summer vacation, going through your mail when you’ve been gone for a while or – as in my own case this morning – sitting back down to work after taking a week off to travel with my family.

Imagine my delight, then, when I opened up the International Herald Tribune and happened upon this gem. It’s an article by Alice Rawsthorn, the New York Times‘ design columnist, in which she sings the praises of grinding and brewing your own espresso over and above resorting to the dreaded pod espresso machines of Nespresso et al. (The indisputable allure of George Clooney notwithstanding, natch.)

I loved this article for so many reasons. For starters – as erstwhile readers of this blog will know – our own hand-brewed espresso machine holds a hallowed place within our home. As I said to my husband – who taught me to know and love what it is to brew your own coffee – this was an article that was – quite literally – written for him.

Rawsthorn has many reasons for taking a principled stance against automated espresso machines. They’re boring. They’re ugly. They’re environmentally questionable. (Turns out it’s really hard to recycle all those tiny sealed containers.)

But the main reason she rails against them is that they suppress variety, experimentation and – yes – inconsistency. Part of the joy of grinding your own espresso, she argues, is precisely that you never quite manage to brew the same cup of coffee twice. And therein lies the fun – and true beauty – of doing it yourself. It’s the ultimate act of personalizing your consumption.

Which brings me back to my week away from this blog. We spent the week in Berlin, one of those über – (no pun intended) – European cities. While we were there, one of the many museums we visited was the Bauhaus Archive, a museum devoted to the Bauhaus school of design.

For those of you who missed that chapter in 20th century intellectual history (I did) – the Bauhaus movement was a school of modern art and architecture that sought to fuse the gap between art and industry by sublimating “art” in the romantic sense to the exigencies of 20th century technological progress. This school of thought was urban, minimalist, and sought, above all, to privilege functionality in design (so well captured in its motto, “Form follows function.”) In many ways, it was the aesthetic movement that paved the way for mass consumption.

With its hyper-utilitarian streak, the Bauhaus movement sought to hide the messiness of artistic creation – its flourishes, its sentimentality, its “coffee grinds” if you will. And while that yielded some really cool buildings and furniture (click here for some iconic Bauhaus chairs), the overall feel was one of clear lines and uniformity of purpose, if not form. (Read Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House for a particularly trenchant treatise on this point.)

Which is a long way of saying that as with architecture, so too with espresso machines:  sometimes the beauty of adulthood lies in that which is unpredictable and highly personal.

Which is also why – as I stood there grinding my highly messy-yet-original espresso this morning – I decided that today’s re-entry wouldn’t be so bad after all.

Image: Bauhaus Dessau by Mark Wathieu via Flickr under a creative commons license.

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Tips For Adulthood: Five Ways To Keep Your Brain Active As You Age

October 20, 2010

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

I had a senior moment the other day. I was talking to my daughter about my elementary school, and I started listing my teachers one by one. But when I got to fifth grade, I drew a complete blank. I could envision the lady perfectly – plump, jolly, liked to wear purple – and even remembered that her name began with an “F.” But for the life of me, I couldn’t remember her name.

I can be forgiven this lapse, of course. It was, after all, 35 years ago (cough.) But it was another sign that as we age, our memories aren’t quite what they once were.

In that spirit, here are five tips for keeping your brain active as you age:

1. Work. Pay no attention to all those French people behind the curtain, striking their hearts out because Nicolas Sarkozy is about to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62. New research reported in the New York Times last week shows that postponing retirement is actually better for your brain. Coining the phrase “mental retirement” to capture what happens when your brain is no longer getting regular exercise, the study shows that retired people as a group tend to do less well on cognitive and memory tests than people who are still working.

2. Walk. But in case you’d still prefer to be living on the beach at 65 rather than toiling away in an office cubicle, be sure that you walk a lot in paradise. Another study out last week shows that walking at least six miles a week may be one thing people can do to keep their brains from shrinking and fight off dementia. Which is good news for me, even in my new-found hip, urban status as the owner of a collapsible bike. One thing that not owning a car really does is get you used to good, vigorous walks.

3. Be Social. Back when I wrote about five reasons to be optimistic about middle age, I referenced some new research showing that  – contrary to the long-held view that our brains get fixed in early childhood – circuits in the adult brain are, in fact, continually modified by experience. (See #1.) Turns out that one of the things that keeps the brain developing as we age is being social. In addition to getting out and meeting people, people who volunteer and help kids also seem to age better and help their brains.

4. Use the Internet. OK, this one is controversial, especially coming from someone who warned you not to get an e-reader lest it chip away at your capacity to engage in sustained, concentrated thought. But there are two sides to every story. And a lot of scientists – Harvard’s Steven Pinker, for one – think that far from damaging our brains as we age, the Internet and information technologies are helping us manage, search and retrieve our collective intellectual output at different scales. Colin Blakemore, a British neurobiologist concurs. As he notes – reacting to the prevailing “internet ruins our minds” thesis:  “At its best, the internet is no threat to our minds. It is another liberating extension of them, as significant as books, the abacus, the pocket calculator or the Sinclair Z80.” So by all means, grab that new Kindle, Grandma. And get a Twitter account while you’re at it..

5. Eat lots of fish. Many parents will be familiar with the importance of essential fatty acids (EFAs) for brain development in utero and in young children. (Neurotic parenting confession #346b: Until my son – who was born allergic to just about everything – was two, we regularly spiked his rice milk with flax seed oil for precisely this reason.) But it turns out that these so-called “good fats” are also increasingly seen to be of value in limiting cognitive decline during aging. Fish, for example, is a great source of EFAs. Flax-soaked salmon, anyone?

*****

On Monday, I was over on http://www.PoliticsDaily.com talking about reform of the British welfare system.

Image: thyme salmon with leek coulis by elana’s pantry via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.


Tips For Adulthood: Five Signs You’d Make A Lousy Housewife

October 13, 2010

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

I have tremendous respect for women (and men) who choose to work inside the home. And yet, when it comes to myself, I’m fairly certain that – even if I wanted to – I could never make it as a housewife. (Or house husband, as the case may be.)

If you’ve ever wondered whether you were meant to work primarily inside or outside the home, here are five indicators that should influence your decision:

1. You need help operating basic appliances. I’m not talking about fancy, fuzzy-logic rice cookers or super-deluxe espresso machines (replete with matching grinders). I’m talking boilers. All summer long, my husband and I noticed that the heat would come on at seemingly odd times. We tried tinkering with the thermostat in the hallway, but that had no effect. But then the heat would go off again and we’d forget all about it. The other day, while a service repair man was at my flat fixing our washer/dryer, I asked him if he could take a look at our boiler to figure out what the problem was. He opened the cabinet, looked at the boiler for about three seconds, and then turned to me and said…“Um…Miss? See this large red button here that says ‘On?”

2. You can’t even read the symbols, let alone the instructions. Forget instruction manuals. I think we all know that I’m lousy with those. I’m talking about the little symbols they devise for appliances so that even someone who can’t read (for example) can somehow manage to use the oven. Someone, that is, who isn’t me. I’ve lived in my house for nearly six months and – much like the heating problem, but even more frequently – I’d notice that whenever I put something in the oven, it tended to burn. Then, one evening when I was hosting a dinner party (and burning some lasagna), a friend of mine looked at the oven settings and noticed that the little squiggly lines that emanated off of one of the settings were also present on the setting I was using. “Um, no offense, but I think you’re grilling the lasagna” she said politely. (“Grill” being English for “broil.”) And when she showed me the little symbols, it all made perfect sense. Ah, so you mean you want to “bake” without the squiggly lines…got it.

3. You need to psych yourself up for ironing. Just before school started this autumn, I realized that my son needed his school uniform labelled. And because – between all the sports gear and the regular uniform – he’s got quite a lengthy list of school attire, this was going to take some time. Truth be told, all you need to do is set up the iron and apply the labels. (OK, you also need to iron each one like three times so it’s a bit more involved than that.) But that’s really it. And yet, I must confess that I find ironing completely oppressive. In order to execute this task, I literally had to play loud music, lay out all the clothes in assembly line fashion next to the ironing board and then talk to myself as I ironed each successive item to get me through the ordeal.

4. You can’t even count the rooms in a house. I’m not a terribly visual person (as I think the previous entry attests.) My husband – who is – can corroborate this.  I once famously scoped out an apartment for us in Boston and came home extolling the virtues of our new “three bedroom,” only to have him arrive a short while later and inquire as to where the third bedroom was located. The answer was…nowhere. It’s O.K. I have other talents.

5. You’re a hopeless cook. I recently asked my 9-year-old what he wanted for dinner. “How about some international cuisine?” he answered. “Um,you mean like Chef Boyardee?”

Image: 69/365 housewife with nothing to do by katie cowden via flickr under a Creative Commons license.


Tips For Adulthood: Five Signs You Think Like A Man

August 18, 2010

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

A few weeks ago, I posted a link to a quiz on the BBC website called Sex ID that purported to let you know whether you think like a man or a woman. (Warning to those who have yet to take it: the quiz lasts about 20 minutes.)

If you managed to make it through this quiz, you’ll know that a lot of the tasks that they have you do boil down to whether you’re good at reading maps and judging the angle of parallel lines (more typically male traits) vs. whether you can read people’s expressions and identify with them (more typically female traits.)

I’ve since been informed via The Guardian that a new study is out showing that behavioral differences between the sexes are not, in fact the result of fundamentally different wiring in the brain, but rather the result of societal expectations.

Be that as it may (and I’m sure that this is one of those debates that will rage into eternity and beyond), I’ve been giving the whole male vs. female thing some more thought since taking that quiz, where I scored (huge sigh of relief?) as a prototypical-thinking woman. Here are some further indicators I’ve come up with that shed light on whether or not you think like a man:

1. You like reading instruction manuals. While I’m quite sympathetic to Gretchen Rubin’s admonition over on The Happiness Project to read the instruction manual, there is a distinction between doing something because you *ought* to do it and doing something because you enjoy it. I hereby submit that I absolutely hate reading instruction manuals and – as a result – have spent many a frustrated moment by either failing to consult them ex ante or failing to save them somewhere useful ex post. My husband, in contrast, has an entire file full of instruction manuals for virtually every single appliance in our house. Not only does he consult them regularly, he actually seems to enjoys it! And instruction manuals in video form are even better, as with this video on how to take apart and re-assemble my new Brompton folding bicycle. Hey, it’s your funeral, as they say…

b. You like to talk about gadgets. I’ve posted many times on this blog about my husband’s penchant for gadgetry. I don’t think that’s an inherently male trait – many of the things he’s bought for us have been hugely useful and I like them as much as he does. But there’s using them and then there’s talking about using them. And I’ve noticed lately that guys like to spend an inordinate amount of time cataloging, describing and comparing gadgets in a way that women don’t.

c. You read David Pogue’s column in the NYT religiously. Which brings us to a corollary of (b) – David Pogue’s technology column in the New York Times, Pogue’s Posts. Don’t get me wrong. If I’m in the market for a new cell phone or a digital camera, I turn to Pogue first. The guy is unbelievably knowledgable about technology and a terrific writer to boot. But as generic reading material on the order of “Here’s how I’m going to spend my breakfast?” Not so much. Whereas my husband is glued for hours.

d. You like playing strategy games. This may have actually been one of the questions on the BBC quiz; I can no longer remember. But since taking that quiz, my son and I happened to open up Othello, a game that one of his friends gave him for his birthday last year. It’s one of those deceptively simple games that actually requires an enormous amount of strategy on the part of the players. If you’re like me, you take the easy route on this game, maximize your winnings as you go, and ultimately lose. If you’re like my son or my husband, you look like you’re losing all the way along but at the very last minute you win because you’ve been thinking like 6 moves ahead the whole time. (Ditto Settlers of Catan, the greatest game of all time.)

e. You (still) like assembling Legos. Someone recently gave my husband one of those adult Lego kits. It was a model of Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous Falling Water home (see above), a painting of which is hung in our living room. I think Legos are really cool, especially this new architectural series. But, much like gadgetry, it’s something I’d rather admire than actually build. So if this had been given to me as a present, it probably would have languished somewhere in a closet, taking up space on my never-ending “should” list. Whereas my husband spent weeks with the kids building this house, which now adorns the mantle in our living room right in front of our picture. (He’s in good company, btw. Apparently, to kill time during a recent trip abroad, English football legend David Beckham confessed that he spent a night in a hotel constructing The Taj Majal.)

As I read this over, I realize that it may provide more of an insight into my marriage than it does into generic male/female brain differences. Then again, I do think that having a division of labor is key to a happy marriage, so maybe that’s a good thing!

Image: falling water lego side by happy via flickr under a Creative Commons license

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Tips For Adulthood: Five Things To Do On A Staycation

August 4, 2010

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

My family is doing a staycation this year. We’re taking a few local trips here and there. But mostly – due to assorted work deadlines and exhaustion from our recent move – we’ll be at home in London.

Apparently, we’re not alone. Here in the U.K., a combination of airline strikes and the Eurozone debt crisis have prompted many more British people to holiday at home this year. In the United States, the whole concept of staycation (a word now enshrined in the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary) has shifted from being a temporary outgrowth of the financial crisis to a social phenomenon that’s here to stay.

I love London, so I don’t really mind being here in the summer. Still, the longer days, warmer weather, and changes to the kids’ schedules do inspire me to do things a bit differently, if for no other reason than to shake up my own routine.

So if, like me, this is a summer when you’re going to give traveling a pass, here are some ways to mark the occasion:

1. Discover a new place. One way to make a staycation feel special is to travel somewhere new near your home. This might be a new museum, a restaurant you’ve been meaning to try or that park that’s just a bit too far to visit during the school year. At the top of my list is to take a backstage tour of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London’s oldest theatre. On their tours, a group of actors perform key events from this theatre’s rich history while you look around. I may even (gasp) do this on my own, since I don’t think any of my friends or family members quite shares my thespian enthusiasm. (Adulthood fantasy #6 is where I manage a community theatre troupe in which I also make the occasional cameo. Hey, we all need to dream…)

2. Get a new toy. Usually, we associate the novelty of a new toy with children. But it’s equally valid for adults, who also need to play. This year, my summer treat to myself is a bicycle. Because our new house is located considerably further from the kids’ schools and assorted other activities, I find that I’m often in motion between the hours of three and five on any given afternoon. And so we finally broke down and bought a bike for me on Ebay. It’s one of those funky collapsible things – (a Brompton, for those in the know) – because I’ll need to take it on the Tube and the bus with the kids. Bonus? I feel terribly hip and urban. Bonus-by-association? Guess who’s got a handy new gadget to play with?

3. Learn a new skill. “It’s like riding a bike.” The only problem with that old chestnut is that it only means something if you actually *know* how to ride a bike. In light of our staycation, my husband and I took the command decision that this was an opportune time to teach my nine year-old how to ride a bike. (I know, I know. Ridiculously late to be teaching him this life skill, especially since his six year-old sis has been bike riding for more than a year. What can I say? We’re bad parents.) But we’re on it now, and – in light of #2 – it also means that we can now go for family bike rides.

4. Tackle something on your “dreaded” to-do list. I once wrote a post entitled “Five Ways To Get On Top Of Your To Do List.” One of the strategies I recommended was to divide your to-do list in half into long-term and short-term items. The idea was to tick something off of the short list every day, and to take a step towards removing something on the long list every week. I think this strategy works very well. But it does pre-suppose that every so often, you really do take that crucial step on the dreaded (long) to-do list. In my case, I’ve had “clean rugs” on there for – oh, you really don’t want to know how long. But darn it if I didn’t pluck up my courage yesterday and call around for some estimates. (Needless to say – and like most of the “dreaded” tasks – contemplation was much worse than execution.) And now I feel so much better as a result. Up next? Wash duvet cover…

5. Read some really long books. Let’s face it. We all have a list of books on our bedside table which – tempting as they might seem – we never get around to reading because they’re just too long. And I don’t mean the medicinal ones that you feel you *ought* to read so that you’re up to speed on such and such a topic. (Eternal Message of Muhammed anyone? Oh, is that just me?) No, I mean the really good ones that entail a level of commitment that’s just beyond your comfort level during a busy week. I just finished the third volume in the highly addictive Dragon Tattoo series – The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets Nest. Now I’m on to Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall. Up next? Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. If time, there’s always Tolstoy’s War and Peace. No, seriously. Don’t laugh.

What are you doing this summer around home?

*****

For those who are interested, I’m over on Politics Daily today talking about a lawsuit against the British government on the grounds of gender discrimination in its new austerity budget.

Image: Very early Brompton (number 333) by marcus_jb1973 via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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GPS For Gay Sex Hits Heterosexual Market

July 8, 2010

Remember online dating? Gosh, that seems so last century. An iPhone application which allows cruising gay men to locate one another instantly using Global Positioning System technology is now spreading to the heterosexual market.

This latest rage in online romance is called Grindr. Grindr is a free, downloadable iPhone app that lets you find “gay, bi, curious guys near you.” It’s sort of a sexual version of toptable — an iPhone app that allows you to search for all the restaurants offering a certain cuisine in your immediate vicinity. Similarly, Grindr provides a grid of who else in your neighborhood is using Grindr, what they look like and — tantalizingly — exactly how far away they are from you, measured in feet. If there’s mutual interest, you can begin to “chat” and . . . who knows? The night is young.

Grindr has been hugely popular since its release in March 2009. There are now more than 700,000 men in 162 countries using Grindr, with 2,000 downloading it every day. A BlackBerry-friendly version was launched last month. It’s so popular that its creator — the 33-year-old American-born Joel Simkhai — will be releasing a “straight version” by the end of the year targeted at heterosexuals.

Read the rest of this article at http://www.PoliticsDaily.com…

Image: i-Blue GPS 757 logger and TOKompass midlet via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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iPhone 4: Way Cool But Is Anyone Recycling Their Old Ones?

June 28, 2010

Last week was quite a week for novelty and inspiration. Alongside the USA’s dramatic victory over Algeria in the World Cup and the longest tennis match in history, Apple also rolled out the latest incarnation of its incredibly popular iPhone.

In Japan, where the launch for the iPhone 4 began on Thursday morning, Apple’s exclusive wireless carrier had sold out by early afternoon. In the United States, more than 600,000 pre-orders for the new phone crashed the system on Wednesday. One eager soul in Dallas camped out at an Apple store a full week before the launch. Some in the telecommunications industry are expecting that Apple will sell 9.5 million of them by the end of June. (Compare that with the first iPhone release in 2007, when it took about 2½ months to sell 1 million.)

In my own neighborhood here in London, there was already a queue around the block by the time the Vodaphone Store opened at 10 a.m. Men and women in suits tapped out texts on their soon-to-be-outdated iPhone 3G’s. Mums sipping Starbucks tried to keep restless toddlers in their strollers. In short: Dozens of people delayed the start of this stunningly beautiful June day by several hours, all so that they could be the first to get their hands on this latest i-toy.

Read the rest of this post at www.PoliticsDaily.com

image: iPhone 4 line on launch day at San Francisco Apple Store 125 via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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