San Francisco

Toast with Strangers

Course: Toastmasters Drop-in Meeting

Institution: San Francisco Toastmasters

Location: Schwab building, San Francisco

I arrived a few minutes before 6pm and took a seat in one of the chairs pushed up against the perimeter of a large conference room. Members were already seated around the table, some with name placards in front of them.

At the front of the room was a podium and a sign announcing the word of the day: Bailiwick (BAY-luh-wik, n). I would learn later that the word originates from the section of the courtroom that a sheriff (the bailiff) controlled.

We started on time. That alone made me sit up and take notice. I do love an event that respects my time. And it was a clue. This was going to be a structured experience.

The welcome was done by a gentleman referred to as the Sgt. at Arms in the one sheet program. I hadn’t heard that term since junior high. He introduced the Toastmaster, an Asian man with a deep voice and warm smile. He detailed the agenda. We would hear from a number of players: the Timer, the Distractions Keeper, the Word Master/Grammarian (about whom I was most excited) and evaluators. Then he outlined the speeches scheduled for the evening. He also introduced the theme of the evening: "Open heart. Open Mind. Open Door."

I didn’t quite catch the motivation behind the theme, but I felt it fit the purpose of my visit. I was there to open myself up to a new experience and specifically, new people. What some may find difficult to believe is that I’m incredibly shy when it comes to groups of people. I do okay one on one, but when I find myself faced with a group, I struggle with how to enter and then how to relate. But, meeting new people is on my list of priorities this year so I’ve decided to try activities that force me to meet folks and get me out of my social comfort zone.

First up were four speakers, all of whom were working through the Toastmasters’ book and focused on a particular skill in their speech like use of visual aids or inspiring an audience. There are apparently 10 speeches one has to complete to reach the first level in Toastmasters.

I listened and chewed gum to ease the onset of hunger. I find the 6 to 7pm hour tough for all activities. I’m always hungry then. I was stuffing a third piece into my mouth when a young woman next to me asked me for a piece. I have to admit this was surprising. It would just never occur to me to ask a total stranger for gum. Unsure how to respond, I handed her a piece. I told myself, if she asks for another one, I’m going to tell her to pound sand.

This would be an example of my anti-social behavior. While I couldn’t strike up conversation with her because a speech was going on, her request didn’t make me interested in speaking to her after. I looked around the room and wondered who I was interested in speaking with. I was holding myself back for some reason – holding back from engaging – going against the very reason I was there in the first place. Clearly, I had more work to do.

After the first four prepared speeches, guests were encouraged to introduce ourselves by saying our names and then telling the group about the “most commendable person I know.”

When the introductions wound their way around the periphery of the room to me, my heart started to beat faster and louder. I could feel the blood leaving my limbs. I moved the backpack that was on my lap to the ground, being sure to tuck away the straps so I wouldn’t trip on them when I stood to introduce myself.

The area clear of any possible road bumps, I jumped to my feet. The whole time I spoke my hands were covering my uterus like soccer players cover their genitals during a penalty kick. What did I think the attendees were going to do to me? Steal my eggs? Though it makes sense why my hands did that. Unconsciously, I was trying to protect myself and therefore my most vulnerable body part – my lady parts, received the attention.

When I sat back down I immediately started analyzing what I had said. Was it too trite? Did my volume peter out at the end, self-consciously? I didn’t even hear what anybody else said. I was too busy criticizing myself.

When the Toastmaster announced a bio break, I immediately moved to exit the room. When I stood I was woozy. My heart was still pumping wildly and the blood had not returned to my appendages. I somehow morphed my way to the restroom.

What is this?, I thought.   Being alive or a terrible affliction? Does public speaking get any easier? Does entering a room of strangers ever get comfortable?

Then it hit me, I was scared because the room was full of strangers. I had distanced myself from them mentally. The only way to feel comfortable with strangers is to see them as humans with whom you have something in common. I needed to recognize my interconnectedness in order to find them less threatening. Which, I’ve discovered, is only possible when I connect to my own humanity or said another way stop judging myself so harshly.

Does that mean I have to talk to that woman who asked me for the gum?, I asked myself.  No, I decided. I only have to admit that if I’d seen another woman with gum I probably would’ve wanted a piece, too.

How to Get Lucky

There are no direct flights from San Francisco to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Maybe it's a pre-trial, a sort of test to see if you can handle the unforgiving land you're about to visit. Perhaps, given its rugged terrain and pristine air, it's only right you should have to work for it.

I deluded myself into thinking that modern technology, like planes, would make it easier. I recently booked a flight to Jackson that connected in Denver. Long story short, my flight into Denver was delayed which caused me to miss my connection to Jackson at 7pm, the last flight to Jackson.

After a sprint to the gate and a cold rejection by the gate attendant, I took my place in the back of a very long line at United Airline's customer service. Apparently many flights were canceled or delayed due to that rarity called a thunderstorm in Denver.

I took up position and I could feel the tears starting to fill my eyes. I was tired - not only from the tedium of waiting so much of a day in an airport, and the sprint through the airport to my connecting gate, but also because these have been a long few weeks, months. Dare I say it? Year.

In that moment I felt utterly defeated. I surveyed my life and told myself I was single (therefore alone), without a fully-formed company or source of revenue - hell, a paycheck, running through my savings, utterly confused about what would come next in my life.

I almost hung my head and started to ball when an older gentleman next to me in line tried to engage me in conversation. I nodded without listening and at my first opportunity, turned away and started berating myself for wanting to cry.

Then I noticed something. I was not alone. I was in a line with a number of other people who had just gone through what I had and no doubt were experiencing the same feelings of frustration and anxiety. And yet, they were not crying, on the verge of a breakdown.

I took a breath and started to look around. Then I began to strategize. How do I solve this problem? How could I save my place in a very long customer service line but check other available flights? I turned to my phone.

I kept dialing customer service and finally reached an agent on the phone. He told me the next available flight wouldn't be for two more days - thus ruining my weekend trip and making the flight useless.

This sent me into yet another spiral of dark thoughts. I really needed this weekend. It was the only vacation I had allowed myself to have and I love Jackson. The outdoors and the peace it gives me are like nothing else. The nights are dark, the air is clear and crisp, the animals respected or they eat you. It's straightforward living at its finest.

I drew in a breath and said to myself, “Maybe Alicia, this is happening for a reason.” When I breathed out, I felt renewed. I surrendered to the situation. Instead of fighting it, I went with it and that’s when everything changed.

I struck up conversation with a young man in front of me and learned we were both headed to the same place. Together we strategized and hit on flying into Idaho Falls. Thankfully my frequent flyer miles bumped me up in line on the standby list and I was able to get on the flight.

While boarding the plane, I asked the gentleman boarding ahead of me if he was driving to Jackson and it turned out he was. We ended up sitting together and decided to drive together. This is something that I normally would never do. But it just felt right. I was calm and I knew with a certainty I haven't felt in a while that the universe was protecting me.

We didn’t get into Jackson until almost three in the morning and when he offered to let me stay with him and his wife at their place, I accepted. Again, I’ve never done anything like it in my life. But I just knew I’d be okay. So I said yes and texted my family his name.

They had a beautiful home on the Snake River and gave me a private room and bathroom that was gorgeous. “Who are these people?” I wondered as I fell asleep.

In the morning, they offered me breakfast and I came face to face with a moose peeking in their kitchen window. They then drove me several miles to my hotel. Their generosity was unparalleled. It was a beautiful day. I couldn’t believe my luck.

What started out as a potential nightmare turned out to be an invaluable lesson. I learned that people are inherently good and giving, and even more importantly, that I can trust myself to know who those people are. I also learned that sometimes, when everything seems lost, if you can just breathe and let go, what is supposed to happen will. And it can be a wonderful thing.

A Kick in the Butt

Course: K-Stars Track Workouts

Instructor: Andy Chan

Location: Kezar Stadium

K-Stars that’s what they’re called. I showed up at Kezar Stadium on a blustery Thursday evening. It was 6:30pm - really the reason behind my choosing the K-Starts track workout. I wanted to do a track workout to bring my running up to speed, as it were and the 6:30pm start time was perfect. Many of the other workout groups who run programs at Kezar start at 7pm and I find it difficult to plan my eating around that start time.

I wasn’t certain where the group would be meeting. The track was buzzing with various groups and lots of individual runners flitting about the track. Luckily, I found the K-Stars on my first random group approach.

Andy, the coach, told me I was in the right place. He took my money (only $4 a session) and introduced me to the group. Looking around I immediately worried that I was about to majorly embarrass myself.

Everyone looked lean and fast. There were a few women but from the looks of them I knew I would not be running with them. They looked unassuming, but as a former cross country runner I knew what to look for and they had the gams of fast runners. I spied a shy older Asian man on the periphery of the group and figured I’d be running with him.

After some quick stretching and a few striders we went straight to the work-out. Six 800s.

Ugh, I thought. The 800 is two laps around the track as fast as you can. It’s tortuous. What makes it so taxing is that it requires both aerobic endurance and sprinting speed.

We did the first 800 to see where everybody fell out in terms of speed. And of course, I came in dead last. That shy older Asian gentleman who looked like he was pushing 70? He kicked my butt. I was beginning to get a sense of what the K might stand for in K-Stars.

After the first 800 I was put in the second group - the slow group. Then a strange thing happened. I realized that I wasn’t upset. The Alicia of a few years ago would have been mentally kicking herself. The Alicia that showed up though knew she was out of shape, knew she wouldn’t be the fastest. My goal was just to finish the workout. Which I did.

The group was very supportive, calling my name as I brought up the rear every single 800. Normally, this would have irked me to no end. But this time I just smiled and gave a thumbs up.

I realized that beating myself up for being out of shape or being ashamed of my performance was not going to help. Running has taught me that if you don’t run hard you’re going to slow down, and that if you push yourself just a little bit more each time you run, you can improve. Though it does take time. Which, I guess, is just like life.

Knowing I can get better if I put in the work is immensely comforting to me. It makes the course clear. And that course is made easier when I am another type of K with myself – kind.


Course: Figure Drawing

InstructorMichael Markowitz

Location: San Francisco

Price: $500, 22 weeks

How to explain this class?  I doubt Michael would even want me to, but there’s so much in this class for artists that I think it requires at least some exposition.

To start, you have to interview with Michael before you’re admitted to the class. Don’t worry. It’s not a skills assessment. You can be an absolute beginner, like I was.  But more for Michael to communicate his expectations and suss out your commitment. He wants commitment and a three hour class every week for 6 months pretty much demands it.

The space is a cluttered movie set homage to artistry. It looks just like the space you would imagine a mad genius works in – charcoal drawings, pencils, pencil sharpeners, charcoal nubs nestled in crevices, newspaper print paper, track lights and work lights pointing in different directions casting intricate shadows and easels of various sizes and orientations surrounding a small platform for the nude models. The whole scene is covered in a light coating of black charcoal dust.

The class norms are straightforward. Show up on time, buy your newspaper print, gather up the sheets and staple them together on one end, attach them to an easel, bring your own charcoal sticks, sit or stand, and shut up. NO cell phones. Of course.

He starts with a bit of a lecture packed with lots of axioms you will think sound trite until you start drawing and think about what he’s said. Then he brings out the model – male or female, usually nude, introduces them, and then asks them what music they want him to play.

Then in the quiet and cold of the studio, the music creeps along the ceiling and fills the space. The model drops her robe (they’re usually women) and you’re faced with all your concerns, beliefs, and thoughts about nudity and the body. Once you manage that hurdle, you’re brought to the charcoal in your hand and the blank paper and the exhortations of Michael from time to time to draw your experience. Not the body outlines – like a murder victim, but follow your eye. Follow your eye!

You don’t know what to do and that’s the point. We’re primed to avoid the “I don’t know” experience. You will never know what to do. Just do it an integrated way – do it because it feels right.  Act on urge and impulse and see what happens, Michael says.  You’ll follow some urge and it will lead you astray. So what? Don’t copy – your aesthetic can’t be found in copying.  Everyone has an innate ability to be expressive – even you.

It’s difficult, at first, to not be self-conscious. The new place, the nudity, the perceived greatness of the other students in the room. But eventually, you’ve put charcoal to paper and made your marks. After a few minutes, Michael stops the model’s posing and asks you to step back. Look at what you think is good and what isn’t. Not other’s work. But yours.

He asks us and invariably, we hate our drawings.  Why do we hate our drawings?  Michael explains that the drawing becomes something to us – a reflection. And what is it reflecting back to you?  A lack of presence, a willingness to be taken in by your idea of what drawing is. To change, to create something different or more, you have to engage.

Whoa. Not what you’d think a drawing class would involve. Self-actualization? Yep. According to Michael, you may not have technical ability but you do have the capacity for expressive marks. Drawing is not figuring it out – it’s more experiencing something and expressing it.

He goes on to explain that when you hate a drawing there was likely no connection with it from the beginning and lacking connection, you defaulted into a process. That program or process called “knowing how to draw.” If you’re in such a hurry not to look at what you created – what does that mean about your relationship with it? Drawing will get away from you, he tells us, so you have to interact with error. Maybe you can’t un-muddy your drawing. Maybe you un-muddy your drawing by making it more muddy.

That moment you don’t know what to do? Sit with it. You get to that place because you lost creative collaboration – you are no longer feeling – no longer feeling what is pleasing or displeasing. Don’t flip the page and start over. Deal with the problem.

But I want to be better you may lament. Michael says the expectation that you’re going to make a great drawing is naïve. This expectation comes from wanting to be more than you are – be who you are and then grow from there. Be willing to let anything happen. Stop deferring experience. Let it come. Don’t try and avoid it.

And that was just from the first class.  There was more. But when I looked back at the notes I took after class each week, I noticed for the first time that he was teaching us the same thing over and over again – using different approaches – all through the medium of charcoal drawings.

It just takes a long time to realize what he is saying. And by realize I mean incorporate it. It’s one thing to listen and think you’ve learned, it’s another to embody it and that’s what drawing forces you to do. Take it in.

In one exercise, he asks you to partner with a classmate and you take turns watching each other draw. It’s one of the more difficult exercises for many students because you can feel exposed. And that’s the point. Your partner watches you draw for a while and lists the things you do when you draw. For example, do you anchor the page with your left hand? Do you always apply the same pressure? Do you start at the same point on the page in every drawing?

Your partner presents you their list and then you switch partners and observe someone else’s drawing.  After, you immediately think about how you can vary your moves, and if you step back, you realize your patterns apply to other relationships – to an intimate, to work, to the world.

The class connects to your life and your life connects to the class. In fact, it shows up in what you draw. There are no hard lines.  You and your drawing are in a relationship and what you bring to any relationship shows up in this relationship.  That was the big aha moment for me.

This isn’t art therapy. It isn’t learning how to be creative – though helpful in that respect. But as simple and complex as a drawing class. If you trust the experience it reveals a lot about yourself to you. If not, you’re taking a drawing class with a feisty little man named Michael.

If you do submit, however, you will start to see your patterns, your defaults, the ways you avoid, and even the ways you engage. You don’t get better and better. You get better, then worse, then worse some more, then better, then worse – forever. The trick is to not let the first time it gets bad throw you.  It’s like the old adage – falling down is an important part of learning how to walk. And the next time you don’t know what to do, you’ll remember Michael’s words:

“The next time you don’t know what to do, do something bold.”

Is Crossfit a Fit?

Course: Crossfit Orientation Institution: San Francisco Crossfit

Instructor: Angel O

Location: Behind the Presidio Sports Basement, San Francisco

I arrived a few minutes early and surveyed the scene. There was a circle of people in a parking lot tucked behind a retail store heaving weights about. It was quiet with only the intermittent shouts of "time" from a coach who was staring down at her iPhone. I was watching a group class. To be able to join a group class, San Francisco Crossfit requires people to take a two week, 6 session, orientation course.

I was there to get oriented. My orientation class was five people and I was the only gal. The other participants were all very nice fellas who, from the looks of them, were there to bulk up. Our instructor started by asking us to do three pull ups. Then he asked us to do squats with just our body weight. Then he told us how we were doing it all wrong.

The emphasis of the orientation, according to our instructor, was to make sure we learned key movements that Crossfit utilizes, like a proper squat. In the first class, he used the Socratic method or really, a bastardized version of it, to teach. The class participants often looked at each other puzzled because he'd ask a question without any context, like, "How does this work?"

We'd look at him and at each other. Was he talking about the pipe in his hand, the weight on the floor, what? Our instructor was buff, but a teacher he was not.

The second class incorporated an actual work out portion. We learned more moves and weight holds and then did a 15 minute session that was, admittedly, intense. It consisted of box jumps, squats, cleans and burpees.

The subsequent classes increased the work out portion even more until we were conditioned for a whole hour of Crossfit exercises. I thought the workouts were challenging, but the culture is a bit macho (which I don't believe it has to be). The instructor often made comments about “real men” who in his mind were capable of doing things that my cohorts couldn’t.

And the tough guy environment doesn’t lend itself to asking for help. Case in point: one of my fellow orientation classmates was getting tired after 3 sets of 25 box jumps, 25 weight ball tosses and a ¼ mile run (with the goal being 5 sets). To give you a sense, these are high boxes (the platform was above my knees). After the third set, I knew I wasn't going to be able to complete 5 sets of 25 jumps without very likely scraping my shins on the box during a jump, so I switched to a shorter box that I saw nearby.

The guy who was struggling on his sets never received instruction to switch or given the option and so what happened? He injured himself when a jump of his fell short and he hit the box with his shins. He fell to the ground and grabbed his leg in agony. Did our instructor go over to help him? Offer him any words of advice – even a shorter box? Nope.

That brings me to my main criticism of Crossfit: it’s an injury waiting to happen.

While I like the demanding workouts, it's pretty clear that you really have to monitor yourself in these classes. The instructors will push and it is up to you to decide how much your body can handle and make adjustments as necessary. They are simply not qualified (most are not certified trainers and all that’s required for a level 1 Crossfit certification is $1,000 and a weekend) to assess what you’re capable of or to understand limits. The program also isn’t set up to be tailored to individuals.

Further, after watching some group classes, it's clear that after the orientation you're pretty much on your own as far as form and stretching. While I saw one instructor catch a few form mistakes, most instructors I observed were looking at their phones or chatting with other instructors during the workouts.

So is Crossfit a fit? I think it's a good way to get our of your workout comfort zone for those who are experienced with weights, but if you're not and don’t know how to set your own limits, it may not be a fit.

How to Write Your Story

Course: Memoir I: Beginning Memoir Workshop

Institution: SF Writer's Grotto

Instructor: Rachel Howard

While a law student at Stanford I had the opportunity to take classes in their creative writing department. My professor, in his infinite wisdom, told me I should never write about what I know. According to him, this wasn’t “real” writing. Not sure what to do, I wrote fictional accounts of my stories. I started writing in the third person.

Ten years later, I find myself writing in the first person – a lot. Like here on this blog. It hit me, maybe it’s time to write my story, my truth; however unreal the effort. So this summer of self-actualization I decided to take a memoir class.

I walked into the SF Writer’s Grotto offices in downtown San Francisco and immediately judged the people I saw seated around the table. I guess I knew better than to expect Po Bronson, but I was a bit taken aback by my cohorts. Have you ever seen yourself in others and hated it?

I put my backpack down and surveyed the room. I immediately looked for the angry lesbian, the pampered Marina housewife, the retiree, and the whole retinue of writing class characters I have come to expect. I wondered which character they thought I was in my hideously bright pink cashmere sweater, dark jeans, and running shoes. I didn’t engage in conversation and instead discouraged would-be greeters by burying my nose in my blackberry until the instructor arrived.

The instructor, Ms. Howard glided in and began class. I listened to her opening preamble and thought, Why, Alicia, are you so god-damn judgmental?

Experience has taught me that the moment you find yourself judging someone else it’s invariably because you’re not owning up to something in yourself. It held true in memoir class. I realized that I want to tell my story but I am terrified of telling my story. I also was afraid that my story would somehow get lost in all the stories around the table. Would I be heard? And what if I am? I worried that telling my story meant laying it to rest. What happens after? I reasoned that once I put it down on paper I would then be really truly responsible for what happens next. A scary proposition.

While Ms. Howard is a delicate-featured, small-boned individual she is steely when it comes to the workshop process. She outlined her rules: we would each submit a piece to the group for critique. When reviewing the submitted pieces we were asked to read the piece two times, first for pleasure and the second with an eye for the positive.

I’ve taken a number of writing classes. Most of them have operated via the workshop method. Some of these classes were opportunities to display a participant’s utter lack of reading comprehension, others were tear the writer a new asshole sessions, but most operated under the guidelines of Ms. Howard’s class: first do no harm.

I have to admit that I struggled at first with the rules. I cringed at the idea that workshop was just going to be a love fest and I wouldn’t glean anything substantive from it. I found my first few critiques were very brief. When feedback was presented in class, I looked around and thought, How am I going to understand what people really think of my piece when we’re all forced to sit around and make nice? Are you saying anything good if you don’t say anything bad?

Still, I stuck to the rules and eventually, a funny thing happened, I started to see that every piece was actually good and the class discussion worthy of them. It finally clicked: How, really, do you judge someone’s story or their stage in the writing of it? When I made the connection, I stopped judging my own story so much and the words started tumbling out.

With every successive class, I felt my eyes and heart opening. I started to see the stories I had read in the eyes of the other students, or in the way they held their heads or shoulders. How they crossed their arms and leaned on the table or angled away from it. I begin to think, there’s so much pain in the world, and then I began to feel it. I wondered if it shouldn’t be required of everyone – to have to write your story. To face the truth as you know it.

It’s not always fun or easy, but I learned that those who are bravest – who do the work it requires to get close to their own experiences, are perhaps the finest writers. It’s so hard to do that very few people can actually do it. The rest of us? We’re learning how to write our stories. So when we’re ready and as we are ready – we can share them.

How to Photoshop in San Francisco

Course: Photoshop, Module 1 and Module 2

Institution: LearnIT

Instructor: David Liebman

Location: San Francisco

I have a very powerful tool. No, it’s not my long, lustrous hair, but CS5. It kind of sounds like a weapon. Creative Suite 5 is Adobe’s latest version of Photoshop. I attended a class on Monday to learn how to brandish the sucker.

The classroom was fairly large with close to 30 folks in the room, each with a computer and students ranged from their 20s to 60s. We were also joined by three LearnIT Anywhere participants. These are students who take the course from their own homes and join by conference call and web ex.

Our instructor, David, was designer cool. He even wore a pageboy hat. Photoshop, he told us, is not a design tool, it’s really for photo editing and Illustrator is really the design tool. That clarification aside, he launched into how Photoshop works. Basically, Photoshop takes an image and turns it into pixels of different colors. In fact, in Photoshop when you change an image, all you are doing is changing the colors of the pixels – you never actually delete a pixel.

Next we learned how to hold a mouse correctly. Before you laugh, this is actually very important. Photoshop is probably the most physically demanding of software I’ve ever used. There’s a lot of clicking, holding and dragging of the mouse to get what you want. So it’s important that you grip the mouse with the heel of your palm resting on your desk. This helps cut down on repetitive motion injury and gives you greater control when you make “selections.”

Yes, in Photoshop, as in life, it all comes down to the quality of your selection. The term selection refers to grabbing and isolating the area of a photo on which you want to work. I won’t bore you with all the ways there are to make selections (there are lassos and magic wands, to name a few), but making selections is probably the most difficult part of learning how to effectively use Photoshop.

Fortunately, the style of the class was such that David would point out a tool, demonstrate how to use it and then give us plenty of time to try it ourselves with loads of sample photos. I had a seat in the back of the class near the door and from my vantage point I could see many of the other students’ screens. It was amazing to see just how differently everyone approached a task. I was also struck by all the genius ideas students had. For one exercise, we were asked to select two photos from the sample photos we’d been working with and blend them together. There weren’t two people who did the same thing. It was a great reminder of how much creativity lives in the world.

We then learned about “layers.” The software itself works much like how old photo shops did when they had to retouch or change a photo. Back then, if you wanted to say put a hat on someone’s head in the photo lab, you had to cut out a picture of a hat, paste it on clear plastic and then lay that plastic over the photo you were trying to change. The same process would apply if you wanted to add text to a photo. This concept of creating layers is duplicated in Photoshop. Layers allow you to manipulate different parts of an image without affecting the rest of the image.

The day ended with a short lesson in air brushing. Most people associate Photoshop with air brushed pictures. I learned how to air brush pictures of myself. I have to admit, it was a bit disturbing. I noticed for the first time, how much air brushing gives a flat affect to facial expressions. Though, I did find the actual coloring in of the dark circles under my eyes, very meditative.

I left class stuffed with information and a fabulous spicy tuna sandwich from a stand nearby, The Sentinel, our teacher's recommendation. One day of class really only scratches the surface. David advised that for every day you spend in class, you need three days of practicing after you leave class for the skills to really sink in. I’ve been practicing and am noticing that, not unlike my love life, my selections need work. But hey, the fun is in the practicing.


Because Toilets Run and Faucets Drip: Plumbing 101

Course: Basic Home Plumbing

Institution: Jill of All Trades

Instructor: Naomi Friedman

Location: San Francisco/Mission District

Price: $100

There’s nothing quite so harrowing as being intimidated by your hot water heater. I was getting into my car the other day when I swore it hissed at me. I turned around and stared at it. I realized in that moment that I didn’t have the faintest idea how to approach the 6 foot tin monster.

Later that evening, after wrestling a gob of hair from the drain in my bathroom sink (I swear I must lose enough hair every day to stuff a small animal), I decided that I needed help. I googled “plumbing classes San Francisco” and discovered a basic home plumbing course for women. I signed right up.

Our instructor was a plumbing contractor who lives in the east bay and has a self-professed love of repairs. I’m not sure that’s exactly what you want your plumber to tell you but I liked her enthusiasm for all things plumbing.

She started the class by asking the attendees (6 of us) what questions or issues brought us to the course. They were
1. Shower diverter
2. Running toilet
3. Hot water heater (this was my entry)
4. Installing a basin
5. Leaky faucet
6. Low shower pressure

She then distributed a hand-out with plumbing basics, including a history of plumbing. Early civilizations in Babylon, India, islands in the Mediterranean Sea and Rome had plumbing. Most pipes were made of clay at the time and women were often the manufacturers.

Next, we moved onto tools. You know you’re in a class for women when the instructor coos over baby bent nose adjustable pliers: “They’re just the cutest things in the world.” We covered the uses of a water meter key, channel locks or wide-mouth adjustable pliers, pipe wrenches and screw drivers. She wrapped up by emphasizing that “a big pipe needs a big jaw.” Indeed.

Familiarized with our equipment, we were each tasked with dissembling a faucet and finding its washer. A washer is a little piece of rubber in the faucet responsible for controlling the water flow. If it goes, you’ve got yourself a leak. It is easy to replace, however, if you know how to get to it. This is often not very straightforward. I, ever the eager student, stripped my faucet to within an inch of its life and indicted a poor unsuspecting piece of rubber with my screwdriver before the instructor set me straight.

I found this to be the best part of the class. Plumbing, in essence, is about solving mechanical problems. The mechanics of plumbing are really quite simple. What is more difficult is getting familiar with the various systems that support these mechanics. To get to know them you have to tinker. But who wants to tinker on their own plumbing set up? And most women know that if you have a husband, boyfriend or father within a one mile radius of your mechanical problem, you will not get a chance to tinker with it.

While I was decidedly the only woman in the class who receives regular manicures, I appreciated that I didn’t have to contend with a dude hogging the tools. Left to my own devices, I worked some screwdriver magic on a couple different faucet set ups and got the hang of it quickly. Our confidence built, we moved on to toilets.

As I’ve had run-ins with running toilets, I was already up on how they work. Most traditional style toilets use a ballcock (or fill valve) and float ball set up.

Alicia Morga plumbing 101

Fixing running toilets is usually just a matter of making sure the flapper (the black rubber stopper at the bottom of the toilet tank that allows water to exit the tank into the bowl) is sitting properly on its seat. We hovered over a disconnected toilet while the instructor pointed out components and explained their actions.

As we were a room full of women, we also talked hair and the havoc it wrecks on drains. Mesh drain plugs were highly encouraged. The easiest way to understand the location of a drain clog is to note how fast the sink fills when washing your hands. If it fills quickly, the problem is most likely in your trap.

Alicia Morga plumbing bathroom sink

For most sinks, you can actually go in and remove the debris in the trap yourself or use Drano (though she didn’t encourage the use of chemicals). If the sink takes a while to fill while washing your hands then the stoppage is likely in the wall and if that’s the case, Drano won’t help a bit. Her advice if the clog is in the wall? “Oh, yeah, then you call a plumber.”

We ended the day with hot water heaters. I cozied up to one and realized they’re not so tough. After step-by-step instructions on how to relight the pilot light, I was feeling positively cocky.

The biggest revelation was how the fix is often something really simple and plumbers get paid big bucks to come out and do something most home-owners could have done themselves. While I won’t be tinkering with my plumbing anytime soon, at least now I’m no longer afraid of my hot water heater.

How to Change Your Life

I’m sure you’ve heard the old adage: the only thing you can count on is change. There was, in fact, a whole publishing frenzy around this realization about ten years back. There was “Who Moved My Cheese? An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life”, “Who Made my Cheese?”, “Who Stole My Cheese” and even “Nobody Moved Your Cheese” (How to Ignore the Experts and Trust Your own Gut). It was a real cheese movement.

Most people get that change happens. The funny thing is that few folks seem able to affect it. The hardest part about changing, it seems, is where to start. Several years back, when everyone was moving their cheese, I was moving my stuff.

While I learned to be super organized and neat as a way to combat the chaos of my upbringing, I had never given much thought to my living environment until I moved to San Francisco. To commemorate the move, a friend gave me a book entitled, Move Your Stuff, Change Your Life : How to Use Feng Shui to Get Love, Money, Respect and Happiness.

From the title you might guess that it is not a great literary work. What it is, essentially, is a fun guide for using the principles of feng shui in your home. What is feng shui? It is the thoughtful placement of objects in your environment to get positive results. As much as your living environment affects you, you can affect your environment. In the book, Barry Gordon, a physicist, describes feng shui as “the intelligent use of intention through environmental metaphor.” I didn’t say it wasn’t deep.

Anyway, the idea is to take a look around and see what you are unconsciously saying in your life. Who or what are you letting in? Who or what are you keeping out? Your things, what you do with them, how you treat them and even where you place them are a physical manifestation of your conscious and often, sub-conscious.

Without getting too much into feng shui parlance, I’ll just say this: different parts of your home equate to different aspects of life, like relationships and love, career, prosperity, etc. The book recommends looking at each corner of your home to understand what areas of your life might be blocked – literally. For example, that treadmill in your bedroom just might be an outward manifestation of the treadmill your relationship is on. The cure is to move your things so that your environment begins to feel right. When you move your things you stir up energy and a change in energy, leads to a change in life.

So when I feel stuck, I get moving. I move my body: I try new routes to work in my car; I sleep on the “wrong” side of the bed. I move my clothes: I donate clothes I haven’t worn in over a year; I organize my sweaters by color. I move paper: I figure out which of my books have gone too long without being read and create a pile to work my way through; I clean out my office of old papers. You get the idea.

It all may sound silly but I am learning to believe that if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten. That being said, because I just went through a major life change, I didn’t realize what else needed changing. That is until I recently took another look around my house. Here’s what I noticed: several framed Mexican movie posters. I like collecting them but for the first time I really looked at one of them.

Exhibit A:

Alicia Morga Mi Marido

Do you see it? The trouble with this picture is visible but I decided to look up the movie and understand its plot. I found this synopsis of the movie: a wealthy widow hires a marriage agency to find a man to pretend to be her husband so that suitors do not bother her. Oh, dear. Is it any wonder my love life has been in such a state? I’ve literally been keeping Mi Marido (my husband) out.

I can only guess at what you might be thinking. Maybe something along the lines of “Does she really believe this stuff?” Yes. I do. Energy can be harnessed through intention and I have been hopelessly unintentional. I decided to take action. I took down that Mexican movie poster and put this up instead.

Let’s see what kind of change that brings.

Pilates 101: The Lilypad, San Francisco

Course: Pilates Reformer Class

Institution: The Pad

Instructor: Ansley

Location: San Francisco/Marina District

It started with pain - specifically that area where the hamstring meets the gluteus maximus – a real pain in the butt. I tried stretching, I tried kvetching and I even stopped running for a while. Nothing helped. So I finally made an appointment to see a sport’s doctor. She told me to stretch, stop running, and see her in a month.

I went straight home and Googled my symptoms. Yes, an often dangerous thing to do but this time, instead of thinking I had some rare form of cancer, I found Pilates.

I had heard of Pilates before and even tried it – a class at a spa here, a class at a gym there. The couple of times I tried it in the past, I was unimpressed. I wanted speed, I wanted heavy lifting, I wanted to sweat or I didn’t feel like I had a work out. What I didn’t get at the time was how much slow, controlled, precise movements that incorporate flexibility and balance can kick your butt and the pain, too. Ansley was to teach me that.

A quick history lesson: Pilates was developed by Joseph Pilates in Germany around the 1920s. It primarily focuses on the stomach muscles, lower back, hips and your butt, also known as the “powerhouse" or the “core.” These muscles are important to your stabilization and strength in daily living. Originally Pilates was done on the floor – called mat Pilates. Eventually, Joseph created equipment to up the ante, sort of speak, or rather, introduce additional resistance. The resistance is provided by different colored springs. The most common pieces are the Reformer, the Cadillac (like its auto brethren, this is a bigger more imposing piece of equipment), the Wunda Chair and the Ladder Barrel. Believe you me, they may have strange names but you’ll be calling them something else when a good teacher gets you on them.

I wasn’t sure what kind of person the name Ansley would be attached to, but after plunging through the Yelp reviews on Pilates classes in San Francisco, I noticed that the name came up a lot. “Drill sergeant,” “shows no mercy” were common descriptors. As I am pretty hard working at exercise as well as life, these descriptions made me all the more interested. “Good,” I thought, “maybe this Pilates thing isn’t just for delicates.”

So I went online to the studio where Ansley works: The Lilypad and made an appointment – sight unseen. When I found the studio on Union Street, I was immediately intimidated. Surely this was a watering hole of the Marina girl. As I approached, nothing but beautiful young women with perfect bodies entered the studio. I’m talking women who clearly gave up careers as print models to become trophy wives. I felt decidedly out of place.

Still, I mustered the courage my thirties give me and walked in. Ansley, it turns out, is a tall, blonde and striking woman. If you were to see her walking down the street and didn’t know her, you’d either want to be her or cower from her – really anything that prevented you from actually standing next to her.

Ansley greeted me and brought me over to a Reformer. I had a difficult time slowing down and easing into the moves. My balance was terrible. I couldn’t seem to delineate my right from my left or take deep breaths and my body started to shake embarrassingly. Our first session was very humbling. I don’t think I uttered a word for the first three sessions because I was concentrating so hard. For her part, Ansley continually gave direct clear instructions and gently corrected me. It was brutal and I was sold.

I couldn’t believe how difficult it was. Then it hit me, I had an outstanding teacher. Several months in now, she still does not let me half-ass anything. She constantly makes me aware of my body and my breathing and that is an incredibly grounding thing, if at first uncomfortable.

Also, after moving me through a number of basic moves, including learning how to get in touch with my pelvic floor (I know it sounds positively gynecological but it’s one of the first things you learn how to do, e.g., “tucking your tummy” and “going to neutral”) she has continued to build on the repertoire and that means I almost never know what she is going to have me do next. I am forced to focus – which is in of itself very meditative. But also a great counter-balance to sports where you can, after a fashion, learn to just get by – like running and cycling. You can’t do Pilates in your sleep.

This can be frustrating if you just want to tune out. What I like about it, though, is that I’m constantly learning and I know my brain’s neural networks are developing, just like my abs. In the mental sense, I find it very similar to a dance lesson and the Pilates moves often leave me fantasizing that I’m training for an all important ballet. Hey – a girl can dream, right?

Over time I have learned to hone in on the tiniest of movements - it takes a lot of muscle control to do it – and I’ve learned how not to judge tall, beautiful blonde women. Ansley is a taskmaster, but she’s also a dedicated business owner who is compassionate, funny, attentive, professional and as interested in learning as she is teaching, which I find is a quality of the best teachers out there.

I continue to learn from her. As a result, my strength, posture and flexibility have improved and I no longer have a pain in my butt – though some might think, I continue to be one.

Note: If you’re expecting to drop pounds by hitting Pilates once a week, I’m afraid you’re going to be very frustrated. If your goal is weight loss, I’d recommend Pilates as part of a more comprehensive plan. If you, like me, already have a pretty rigorous routine and want to take your body to the next level, I think Pilates is just the thing to do it.

Graphic Facilitation

Course: Graphic Facilitation

Institution: Individual

Instructor: Diana Arsenian

Location: San Francisco

I don’t know about you but 2010 has hit me hard. I just sold my company and my 20 year high school reunion is this June. It seems as good a time as any to reflect on my journey and think about what’s next. I didn’t know where to start so I consulted a friend, Rebecca, who in previous times of transition has been a fantastic sounding board. It’s no wonder as she runs her own Career Coaching service: Next Step Partners. 

Rebecca suggested I meet with Diana Arsenian. Diana does what she calls graphic facilitation or put another way, artistic visualization. She draws or “visualizes” your words for you. The idea is for you to have a mirror of what you’re saying, projecting. This is part of the theory that everything you need or want is within you. You know the answers to your questions or problems, the goal is to help you clear away the clutter of thoughts, agendas, etc. and lure your answers out.

So, because I’m willing to try any sort of personal development class, I emailed Diana. After a few exchanged emails we scheduled a call. On the call Diana told me our session would be 2 hours and that after I’d have a series of posters I could take home for future reference. She also asked me a number of questions to understand where I was in my life. I told her, I’m in transition. She then gave me some homework. She wanted me to think about all the major turning points in my life. So the night before I was supposed to meet her I stayed up late and listed all the moments I could think of in my past, concentrating on the positive ones.

The next morning, I grabbed a hot tea and met her at her office off of Market Street. She has a cozy one room office with a big picture window that let in lots of light on even a foggy day. On the wall was a large strip of white butcher paper with my name written in graffiti-like block letters in the upper left hand corner and the rest of the paper was blank.

I had a seat at a desk facing the wall with the poster and Diana began by telling me a bit about her life and then the process. She said we would start by talking about my past, then go to another sheet and talk about who I am and then end with a third sheet where I would talk about my future. I would leave with three posters of my past, present and future.

She got me talking by asking about those turning points. Unsure about where to start, I started chronologically. Soon a number of colored markers appeared and every so often Diana would write something on the paper, draw a flourish, or highlight something in yellow. Before I knew it, a rhythm had developed and we were at the far edge of the paper – it now filled with words, color and meaning.

After we hit the end of the paper, Diana asked me to look at the paper and notice what jumped out at me. I was surprised to see a few recurring themes. But I was really moved to see that I have been able to make whatever I want happen my entire life. Even as a kid. My decisions were good ones – the best ones I could make with what I had at the time. And I was shocked to realize I have been, all along, a whole person. As someone who is constantly working on herself, this was a big one. I realized that I don’t need to change to be acceptable; I just need to trust my own inner voice. To wit, I learned I am a very powerful person.

The realization hit me hard between the eyes and then it started to slip away. I felt flustered and grasped to hold onto the feeling. We went on to do two more posters and I began to see how my present and future have been so informed by my past, “my story.” It was overwhelming. Eventually I stumbled out of her office and into the streets of San Francisco and felt blinded by the sun that had broken through.

A week later my poster and digitized versions of them came in the mail. I eagerly opened up the shipping tube and pulled out the first poster. I was excited to see all the colors and wondered what I’d see when I looked at it again. I put up the first poster, the “my story” poster, in the den. The next night, I wandered into the den to watch television and started looking at the poster from the corner of my eye. Then a funny thing happened, I started to feel really angry. I wanted nothing in that moment more than to rip down that poster. I wanted to rip it down and shred it into pieces.

At first, I didn’t quite understand my reaction. I just spent real money to go through this experience and get this piece of work, why do I want to crumple it up? The fact that the poster is the only original actually stopped me from doing it. I left it hanging while I tried to figure it all out. At the end of the week, still no closer to understanding my reaction, I took the poster down and put it back into the shipping tube and into my closet.

It’s taken me a few months now, but I finally understand what my body already knew (my body always seems to know before my mind does). I’m ready. I’m ready to let the past go and create a new story for myself. Now the question is, what will that look like?

Baking 101: The San Francisco Baking Institute

Course: Pastry Arts: Exploring Ingredients and Techniques

Institution: San Francisco Baking Institute (SFBI)

Instructor: Juliette Lelchuk

Location: South San Francisco/near the SFO airport

It was my lemon meringue pie entry in a baking contest when I was 13 that pretty much told me I was a baker. The night before my entry was due I stayed up all night making four pies from scratch – I had never made pie before but I was determined. There was also a time, in law school, when I baked something every day – desperate for a bit of the tangible in such an abstract world. I've dabbled in home baking for a good many years now. That’s why, with a little time on my hands, I jumped at the chance to take a professional baking course at the San Francisco Baking Institute. I decided to take the introductory pastry course: Pastry Arts: Exploring Ingredients and Techniques.

The course is 5 days and meets from 8am to 5pm each day. Pastries for breakfast and lunch are provided every day, and you get to take home massive amounts of baked goods every day. The morning starts with a lecture and the afternoons are spent in the lab – actually baking.

Day One: Chocolate Chip, Oatmeal Raisin, Peanut Butter, Snickerdoodle, Ginger Molasses, Diamond Cookies, and Coconut Macaroons

The first day was the longest lecture day and covered the pillars of baking. We spent a lot of time on the science of baking, covering things like stabilizers, emulsifiers, binding agents, gums, the sweetness scale, acidity, etc. Baking is basically a structure and once you know how to build, then you can go crazy - kind of like the relationship between structural engineering and architecture.

After lecture we went to the lab where I ended up at a table with a culinary student and a young woman who had never seen a mixer in her life. There was quite a range of skills and experience in the class. By the end of lab, the newbie was transferred to another table and it was just me and the culinary student pumping out cookies.

There are four basic mixing methods for cookies (“small cakes”): one-stage, creaming, sponge and sabler. Essentially, for cookies (and most baking for that matter) the order of ingredients matter, as does the temperature of those ingredients. For example, in cookies, if you add ice cold eggs to room temperature butter, you’ll cause the butter to seize up and then you’ll get butter chunks in your batter and even if it blends well you’ll get tunneling or channels in your end product.

Day Two: Muffins, Cream Scones, Butter Scones, Streusel Topping, Coffeecake

The next day, a new student joined the class, rounding us out to 15. She asked another student in the class to summarize day one for her and got this response: “You didn’t miss much; I just learned that I’ve been whipping the shit out of everything.” It’s important in baking to take your time.

In lecture we covered more of the essential baking ingredients: eggs and fats, and the mixing techniques for Quick Breads. Then we arrived at Meringues. I’m convinced my lemon meringue pie entry failed to take the prize because my meringue shrunk. So you can imagine my delight upon learning how to keep a meringue from shrinking or weeping – it almost moved me to tears.

After another long lecture, we headed into the lab to bake. My table was joined by the woman who skipped day one. She had also arrived for day two 45 minutes late. We’ll call her Ms. Late. I quickly learned she was not as interested in learning as I was. With the recipes right in front of her, she kept asking me which ingredients to use and what to do. I sensed she was going to be trouble.

Quick Breads
Quick breads are pastries that are leavened by chemical leaveners and steam, like muffins, scones, biscuits and coffee cakes. The mixing techniques are the blending method, the biscuit method (similar to the sabler method) and the creaming method. The main difference between the three is the timing of when you add the fat and the way you do it – either by just throwing it in, cutting it in or mixing it in. Be sure to sift all dry ingredients before incorporating when making quick breads and avoid over-mixing after adding flour. If you over-mix you’ll create more gluten and get a very chewy muffin. Also, it’s good to remember that anything with baking powder can be held in the refrigerator for up to 2 days, after that the powder will lose its oomph. If your recipe only has baking soda, you need to bake it right away. Finally, you don’t want quick breads to cool too long in the pan because the steam will make them too moist and they will fall apart when you try to serve them.

Always start meringues with room temperature or warmer egg whites – this will cut down on the whipping time. In meringues, the earlier you add your sugar, the less volume you have. There are four types of meringues: common, French, Swiss and Italian. Common and/or French meringues are the most sensitive, least stable meringues. You really don’t want to use these to decorate with – yet they’re found the most often in recipes for pies with meringue toppings. You only use these types for when the meringue you’re making is going to be a part of a batter. The best way to keep your meringue from shrinking? Use a good on the fly meringue that’s pretty stable, the Swiss meringue.

Leavening is basically the production or incorporation of gases in a dough or batter that will give the end product volume, texture and shape. There were a lot of misconceptions about what is leavener and the teacher clarified that salt and buttermilk are not leaveners and used for flavor or moisture.

(1) The types of leavening:
a. biological (yeast – not covered in this course)
b. physical (oxygen aka air or steam), and
c. chemical (baking powder, baking soda, and baking Ammonia)

In professional bakeries everything is done in grams. A large egg weighs, on average, 50 grams. Lecithin is found in egg yolks and it helps create a stable, good emulsion. Emulsion is basically the combination of fat and water. Fat and water like to separate and so something is needed to encourage them to combine. When we homogenize milk we use something physical to make the emulsion happen. When you use an emulsifier – it has molecules that are both hydrophilic and hydrophobic – they both attract and repel water. Xantham gum, often used in gluten-free recipes, is a stabilizer but it can help in emulsion by making something thicker.

Starches from the flour gelatinizing and eggs coagulating sets the structure for your baked good. You don’t want to blast through any instructions that say to cream by using your mixer on high speed. You will get a high volume really quick but the structure will be less stable – uneven-sized cells will be produced and sometimes the results of this won’t be seen until you see the finished product and it looks like it has caved in on itself, has a poor crumb or has “tunneling.”

Tenderness in baking comes from fat and sugar and it’s hard to mimic. There are four different types of fat: butter, margarine, shortenings and oil. European style butter or “low moisture” butter just means it has more fat. Sometimes literally, see Plugra. There’s also Lurpak (Danish), Kerry Gold (Irish) and Vermont butter. Unsalted butter is used in baking in order to better control the flavor. In general, you don’t want to use butter that has been frozen but it’s okay for pie dough.

Butter tends to be 78% to 84% fat and the rest is water and milk solids. Oil, obviously, is 100% fat. Oil also has what is called an “extreme shortening effect.” “Shortening” in this context means tenderizing. Cakes are tender and therefore “short.” The sugar and fat does the shortening in the case of cakes. Cookies are also tender and it’s why they are often called short bread. Oil spreads through the batter easily and this means the flour particles can’t meet up with each other and create gluten (which makes something chewy). This is also why gluten-free recipes mainly use oil. Finally, you can exchange a solid fat for a solid fat in a recipe but if you go from a solid to a liquid fat you need to adjust the steps and the ingredients in your recipe. Remember though that liquid fat doesn’t hold air and so your mixing method will have to compensate accordingly.

Day Three: Angel Food Cake, Pound Cake, Brownies, Rocher Meringue, Pâte à Choux, Chouquettes, Gougères

Day three we jumped into cakes. In lab, midway through our time, we were informed by our teacher that she was transferring another student to our table to make us 4. The new member, let’s call her Mrs. X, asked to be moved from her table because she was not getting along with another man at her lab table. Within minutes of her moving to our table, I began to understand what may have been causing the trouble at Mrs. X’s original table.

I was folding flour into dough for a huge batch of brownies in a bowl by hand. As the lab is in a commercial bakery, everything we do is commercial-size. That means we often worked with 20 quart mixing bowls and very large quantities. Mrs. X saw me folding in the flour and told me that I had to be sure to scrape the sides. I nodded in assent and kept at my task. I do know how to scrape the side of a bowl. Apparently, she was unsure of my skills, so she proceeded to walk over and start scraping the bowl I was working in. As Mrs. X is a very large woman, her action physically moved me aside. I was pissed but I simply walked away and watched her basically fold the shit out of the brownies. After several minutes, she looked up and realized that the rest of the table was standing away from her and watching. She scurried over to me and said, “Oh it looks like I’ve made you mad.”

I said, “You have to admit, that was pretty off-putting.”

“Well,” she said in a huff and then went to turn away but not before she slipped on something on the floor and fell. The incident left a bad taste in my mouth.

There are 2 major types of cake: fat based and foam based. Each has several different mixing methods you can use. For fat based cakes – there is the creaming method (modified creaming method), liquid shortening sponge, and the flour-batter method. For foam based cakes there is the sponge method (separated egg sponge and whole egg sponge), chiffon method, and angel food method. The method used is linked to the ingredient composition.

Pâte à Choux
This is a pastry base for things like éclairs, chouquettes, gougère (cheesy thing), Paris-Brest (donut like thing) and Gâteau St. Honoré. It’s basically a thick paste made with milk, water, butter, flour, salt, sugar and eggs. The real trick is how many eggs to put in. The technique is to mix in eggs until you get a shiny consistency that is smooth and forms a clean, non-ragged “V.” This is hard to explain – but here’s a good shot of it. When you’re ready, you load it into a piping bag and pipe the desired shapes. Right before you are ready to put your shapes into the oven (and no sooner) you give the shapes an egg wash (meaning you brush egg on top of it). You don’t want the egg wash to sit for too long before it goes into the oven otherwise you might create a skin on the choux and reduce the volume of the pastry (its puff). At home, one should start a choux at 400°F and then after 10 minutes turn the oven down to 350°. You definitely need intense heat at the beginning. The visual clue that choux is baked well is a crackly top, browned with crevices. You want these crevices to be darker than a golden color. They should also feel light and hallow inside; if it’s too eggy inside, you’ve messed them up. Also, if you squeeze them and it has some give (and doesn’t just crackle), then that’s a sign that they are probably still too wet inside. Be sure the choux is totally cool before filling. Finally, cake flour shouldn’t be used for Pâte à Choux; it’s too weak for it. You can use all purpose flour but you will probably need more egg – pastry flour is ideal.

Day Four: Pie dough, Pâte Sucrée, Pastry Cream, Cheesecake and Lemon Bars
You know you’re in a baking class when you hear phrases like “the proteins have suffered.” Our day three attempt at choux didn’t exactly come out right. Different teams had scaled different recipes and the team that scaled the choux immediately came under the spotlight. One of the first ways you can screw up baking is by not being precise. We, however, were not deterred and continued on to Pie dough.

Lab was pretty straight-forward and the hardest thing about it was dealing with my lab partners. Through-out the week I marveled at how difficult it was for many folks to simply follow directions. They also seemed to not grasp the flow of each day. The teacher every day in lab would demonstrate what we were going to make before we made it. If you tried to go ahead of her, you might find yourself lost or with questions. That is why I would simply read the recipe ahead of time and then wait for her to demonstrate the product before I jumped in.

At this point in the week I was partnered with the culinary student on one side of the table and Ms. Late and Mrs. X were partners on the other side. As Mrs. X was a home baker that thought she knew everything and then proceeded to screw up every one of their recipes each day and Ms. Late was perhaps the laziest baker I had ever encountered, they were a fine pair. Once again they decided to shoot ahead of the teacher and start on the next recipe. They asked me, “What do we do with the vanilla bean?”

I said, “If you wait for her to demonstrate, I bet you’ll find out.”

Mrs. X and Ms. Late deemed this to be a snotty remark and then proceeded to tell me what was wrong with me. When I asked them to be concrete Mrs. X couldn’t come up with anything but Ms. Late specified that on day two I said “pastry flour” in an abrasive tone.

I was taken back for a second. I had a moment where I struggled with old thoughts – I can’t get along with anyone, I’m a terrible manager, I hate people. Then I thought, wait a minute – this is ridiculous! After a long day, however, I couldn’t quite get together the words to explain to her how frustrated I was with her. Instead I kept my mouth shut and stifled a laugh. When I thought about it, it really was kind of funny.

Buddhism teaches you to embrace your enemy and see him or her as your greatest teacher; to use each encounter with someone you dislike as an opportunity to examine your ego and break down your arrogance. So that night I spent time reflecting on the incident. What she heard in my voice day two was “pastry flour, stupid.” The recipe was literally right in front of her yet she was asking me. The reality is I resented her laziness. I wasn’t the boss or even the team leader in this course, but people turned to me for guidance. Why? Because I work hard to be on top of it. What made me angry was that I wasn’t looking for the role and yet there I was acting the part. I just wanted to bake but when she asked for help I helped. I wasn’t smarter than her or probably even more competent than her. She had just figured out the fine art of getting other people to do her work for her and she saw me as an easy target – which, it seems, I am. Then instead of setting the boundary and telling her I was frustrated with her expecting me to catch her up when she was late or figure things out for her, I swallowed my anger and it leaked. Right into the pastry flour.

Pie Dough
You know what pie dough is, right? When you see recipes that call for lemon juice, this is just to help retard oxidation or that graying that happens when you store dough. Lemon juice can also make it easier to roll (also known as its extensibility). Because pie dough is very susceptible to over-working, pastry flour is highly advised. New bakers have a tendency to touch pie dough way too much.

The flakier the dough, the more liquid you’ll need. You get flakier dough with larger flat chunks of butter you leave in the dough. So you’ll get to a flaky batter before you get to a mealy one (more crumbly pieces of butter) and then if you keep mixing you’ll get to shortbread.

While you can use a mixer, it’s best to make small production by hand. It shouldn’t come together like a dough before you’ve added your liquid. If it does – you over mixed it. If it does, just add sugar and turn it into shortbread. You cannot save it. Don’t even try. Pie dough should rest for at least 4 hours after mixing (over night is even better) and it should be very cold when handling. Also, for those of you out there who love fat like I do, you can substitute lard for butter without any adjustments to the recipe. You might also want to check out Leaf Lard – it’s like pig Crisco! Finally, pie dough freezes very well if well wrapped (because the fat will absorb any freezer smell – so wrap well) – for months. It can also go right from the freezer to the oven.

Day Five: Madeleines, Financiers, Marble Cake, Rustic Fruit Pie, Fresh Fruit Tart, Lemon bars and Cheesecake
The final day was all lab work and really about putting the finishing touches on a lot of the things we set up the day before, like the pie dough and Pâte Sucrée. It was also a day for me to practice not working so hard. I kept to myself, did the work I wanted to do, and left the rest to the others. And you know what? It worked. I was at peace.

Pâte Sucrée
Pâte Sucrée is a rich, sweet pastry dough used for tarts. To give it extra flavor, try substituting almond meal (almond flour really) for a portion of the flour in the recipe. You can make it with either the creaming or sabler method. However, you don’t want to incorporate air when mixing, so don’t whip it, just mix. This dough should also be rested for at least 4 hours. With pie dough you shouldn’t re-work any scrap you have but with Pâte Sucrée dough you can.

Custards contain whole eggs or egg yolks, sugar, milk and/or cream and sometimes starch. Quiche is considered custard but does not contain sugar. There are two types of custard: (1) cooked or stirred custard (e.g., pastry cream) and (2) baked custard (e.g., Crème Brûlée). Under-cooked pastry cream will be too soft and have a starchy mouth feel. Pastry cream can be prepared ahead of time up to three days, but not frozen. A baked custard is baked in a water bath around 300°-325°F, usually covered with foil or another sheet tray to maintain even temperature and a humid environment. They are almost always served chilled and can be served in a mold or unmolded. You know custard is ready when you touch the top and it jiggles. It shouldn’t spring like a cheesecake, just jiggle.

The class is a great overview for beginners but a lot will be lost on you if you haven’t had much experience in the kitchen. I think it’s best for understanding the science of baking and practicing technique – which is what baking comes down to.

As for me, I learned to roll my own dough.

With the Greatest of Ease

Course: Flying Trapeze

Institution: The Circus Center

Instructor: Scott Cameron

Location: San Francisco

Interestingly enough there is a glut of February birthdays at Consorte Media. So we decided to celebrate everyone’s birthday, including my own, with a company event. I, being the boss lady, decided on Flying Trapeze. The Circus Center in San Francisco offers flying trapeze lessons and ever since I heard of it I have wanted to try it. With whom else to attempt a circus act than my own company?

Surprisingly, most everyone was game. We arrived at the Center on a rainy afternoon in work-out clothes. I didn’t bother to reference the website and see about recommended attire and just wore yoga pants. Turns out they are the perfect things to wear.

The Center basically looks like an old gymnasium with a big net strung across the length of the room. There were 3 instructors, one woman and two men – 3 bods like you’ve never seen. Very in shape. The lesson started with words of warning about what places in the room we should avoid and what we should do when our cohorts were up on the Trapeze. Next, one of the instructors showed us what we would be doing on a static trapeze. It basically looks like a big swing hanging from the ceiling about 6 feet above a stack of blue mats.

Because I signed us up for the class, the instructors identified me as the ringleader and had me go first. So I sauntered over to the mats and was helped up to grab the bar of the static trapeze. The instructors explained ideal body position while I hung from the swing. Then upon verbal cues, like “Hup,” I swung my legs up and hooked them over the bar. On the next cue, I then released my hands from the bar and arched back. At this point you are hanging from the bar by just your legs. My hands are actually sweating as I type this just remembering my nerves.

Still, I am the fearless leader, so I sucked it up, showed no fear and performed the tasks. After demonstrating the ideal body arch I swung back up to put my hands on the bar and then pulled my legs down so I was hanging just by my hands. Funny how putting your hands back on the bar is easier than taking them off.

Next the instructors demonstrated how we should jump off the platform once we were up on the real trapeze. The idea is not to hesitate and make the jump more like a hop – enough to get clearance but you’re not long jumping here. We all tried it and then it was show time.

The instructors took their positions – one up at the platform, one holding on to a line connected to our harnesses (oh yeah, you do wear a safety harness – thank God!) and another in a position to bark instructions while we were mid-air.

Without even stopping to think I scrambled up the steep ladder and onto the platform. What wasn’t so clear from the ground instruction is how much you have to lean out from the platform in order to grab the swing. When you’re leaning out the only thing holding you is the instructor – he’s holding onto your safety harness from behind – that’s it.

For me, this was the hardest part. The instructor told me to lean out and grab the swing. Before I leaned out I asked, “Do you have me?”

“Oh yes,” he said. I took a deep breath and told myself, “He’s a professional, Alicia. You can do this!” Then I leaned out and grabbed the swing. At this point I’m still on the platform and just have to jump. The second hardest part. I took another deep breath, gripped the bar with two hands and jumped.

And then I heard the most amazing whoop-like sound. It was me screaming.

Everybody got a turn. Our goal was to execute a “catch” by the end of the lesson. You can see me performing the catch below.


It was a blast. It was also very interesting to see how each of our personalities came out when faced with fear: who tackled it and who didn’t. In the end, I was very proud of my team.

Like anything new, the hardest part is trusting the process and making the leap. I think the Circus taught us that with the right support, you can jump and be okay. I hope that no matter the number birthday, the Consorte team always remembers that.