Tuesday, November 11, 2014

My Morning Coffee & Writing Ritual

I've been fine-tuning my morning writing ritual since 2008. I like writing in the morning, preferably by the light of an oil lamp if it's the wee hours, and the coffee is as much a part of the process as the ink and notebook. 

Sometimes, I have tea. Sometimes, I'm in a car. Sometimes, I'm at a picnic table in a campground. Sometimes it's in a cafe. Sometimes, I don't write at all-- but that's quite rare these days. 

I call it a ritual rather than a routine because I have such a reverence for the block of time I spend making my the coffee and then writing. It helps me think. It helps me stay sane. It helps me figure things out, get grounded. It's a meditation practice. I've called the writing "morning crazy talk" and "morning dump." I go to sleep pretty excited about my morning dump. Maybe that's what helps me wake up early without an alarm: the anticipation for this rather pleasurable ritual.

There might be a few days every month or two when I do not do the morning writing, either by choice or by chance. Those days make me treasure my ritual even more.

My mode of coffee-ing has varied from making Vietnamese-style drip coffee with condensed milk, to using a French press, to a moka, to making cowboy coffee. This pourover method is the latest, and I have a feeling it's going to stick.

I take this ritual with me wherever I go. Friends expect to see me with my coffee kit now when I roll into town.  

Electric kettles only recently entered my life. And oh, how fantastic they are. I thought I wouldn't prefer them over a regular kettle, but I do. I do.

I fill it to the count of 20.

This particular kettle is in the Noble Hotel staff kitchen for NOLS instructors (and interns) passing through Lander.

This is the travel kit this time around:

- a manual coffee mill (babysitting it...)
- #4 drip cone and paper filter
- my favorite mug
- whole coffee beans

I keep a small amount of beans in the tin, and the rest in an airtight container. Freshness is key to good coffee. Along with process.

I use two tablespoons (sometimes heaping) of whole beans for an 8-9 ounce cup of coffee.

These beautiful beans are from Dark Horse Coffee Roasters in San Diego. I'd tell you which one it is, but you really should go down to your local roaster/coffee shop and check out their beans. Another favorite is Raxakoul in Berkeley.

Dark Horse has a shop in Truckee now. All the more reason to hang out in Donner Pass next summer.

So, I cultivate particularities. Such as this.

I like to fold the seams of my coffee filter so that it rests more snugly in the drip cone.
I'm not sure it actually works, but it gives me good feelings.
By the time I've gathered my coffee bits and folded my filter, the water has come to a boil.

I pour some into the cup to warm it.
I wet and warm the paper filter. I like to think it helps ease away paper flavors, and that it allows the coffee to flow through more tastily.

This process is much easier than a French press when camping because there's no need to wash anything.

I'm not sure whether the mass manufacture of these recycled, biodegradable filters uses more or less water than it would take for me to rinse out a re-usable filter each day. Thoughts?

While the water eases off the boil, I quickly grind the coffee.

I've counted the number of turns it takes. On average, it takes around 70 turns for my morning cup.

It is easiest to grind with the mill between your thighs.

Go head, snicker.
After I open the grinder, I usually take a deep, glorious whiff of the freshly ground beans. It's one of the best parts of the whole process.

I put the coffee into the cone and slowly pour in just enough hot water to soak them, watching the lovely, pale brown "bloom" appear.
When there is a creamy bloom such as this, I know the coffee is going to be good.

Once it subsides, I try my best to pour in the rest of the 8ish ounces in a slim stream, making sure to create turbulence all around the cone (more frothiness!). This part of the process can be mesmerizing, so be careful not to overfill the cone. This will lead to some over extraction or a weak cup, not to mention possible spillage.

It's happened to me a couple of times.

And then, voila. You have your cup. And it is beautiful.

My cup has a patina (stains). Please don't let that distract you from the fact that this is delicious.

Don't sip it too much too soon, though. You'll burn your tongue. And that will be sad.
I carefully take the steaming cup of coffee to my designated morning writing area, where I reverently take a few sips.

Then, the crazy talk begins.

The red hanky is there because I'm afraid of dripping ink on the table. I write with india ink of various colors. The pen is a wooden chopstick that I drilled a hole into. I wrapped it in electrical tape for grip. The notebook is from Art Alternatives.

And there it is. My mornings (mostly). I hope you create/nurture a ritual of your own that nourishes you. Maybe it doesn't involve writing, maybe it does. Maybe it involves caffeine, maybe it doesn't. What I do know, after six years of doing this, is that it feels really good to have at least a little time and space with your thoughts in the morning.

I started with just one page in a wide-rule notebook, and maybe twenty minutes. It all starts somewhere. All it takes it starting.

Further reading:

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

From Oakland, CA to Lander, WY

As I neared the end of a six-month position as Admissions Associate at GirlVentures, I wasn't sure what late summer or fall would hold for me. I was on belay staff (mostly in babytown) at Berkeley Ironworks, but I knew that I wanted additional work. 

I'd unexpectedly embarked on a journey as an outdoor educator when I was offered the opportunity to work a short 7th grade girls backpacking course with GV in Point Reyes. I still need to write a post about that. One experience as a trip leader was enough to convince me that whatever I did next, I wanted it to further me along the path to more such work. At the urging of my coworker Grace, I applied for a fellowship with National Outdoor Leadership School

Soon after the phone interview, I left for a backpacking trip in Yosemite. I was nervous. Nervous that I wouldn't get the job, nervous that I would. Shortly after my return, I was offered the fellowship. It took me a few days to think it over. 

There are less than 600,000 people in all of Wyoming. Lander, where NOLS is based, is a town of around 7,500. In Oakland alone, there are over 400,000 people, but Bay Area cities all blend together, so the sea of people feels endless until you drive out an hour or two.

Asian Americans. Queer/trans folks. People of color. The Pacific Ocean. The Sierra. My loved ones. My lovely housemates. My favorite coffee roaster(s). I'd be leaving them all behind. Not just venturing a few hours north or south, not just for a few days or a couple of a weeks. For a couple of months.

I decided to do it. Because I've been telling myself for years to Do what you're afraid to do, among other mantrasMaybe it's just a part of my life now to spend three months away from home.

And also, of course, there's the access to climbing. I watched and enjoyed the Lander climbing film Wind and Rattlesnakes immensely when it came out last year. The section of Core about Lander climber BJ Tilden is my favorite of the whole film.

[Edit: I also owe a hat-tip to Jared Spaulding's blog for giving me a glimpse inside the Noble Hotel and the life of a NOLS instructor based in Lander.]

So on September 10th, I packed up my car, bundled Audrey into it with me (she flew down from Portland to accompany me), and we set out on I-80 for the 1,018-mile road trip from Oakland to Lander.

We camped in Winnemucca, Nevada, at a campground I'd found called Water Canyon. We built a fire, drank rye whiskey, and wrote.

In Salt Lake City, we stayed with a friend of a friend I knew from Ironworks, and climbed with a friend of a friend of a friend I knew from climbing outside and Twitter. (The climbing community is so great about travelers.)

And then, it was off to Lander. As we crossed the vast, flat land, I repeatedly exclaimed "I'm going to Wyoming!" There was not a little anxiety in my voice, tempered with excitement. As we hurtled along the freeway with an 80 mph speed limit, the fact of my distance from California got closer and closer to reality. 

The moving-in process would have been much more difficult if I hadn't had Audrey's help with the library of books I brought with me, plus climbing gear, my typewriter, and two months' worth of clothing. It was good to be able to walk around town with a friend. When I dropped her off at Riverton Airport, it really settled in that I was alone in Lander, Wyoming.

And, admittedly, that was something I was sort of looking for. Some distance. Some solitude. Space. Time.

Over the last seven weeks, I've come to deeply appreciate life here. Smaller, less dense, less hectic. Snow-capped mountains unobstructed by buildings. This crisp air. 

"It is better to know one mountain than to climb many."

This is a Native American saying that has popped up in various places in my readings about the outdoors, exploration, and outdoor education. I want to get to know the mountains of California better. There are smaller places there, too, for me to get to know. And I want to get to know more of the United States. There is so much still to learn that the small bit of it I've known up to this point.

For most of my life, I dreamed about visiting countries on other continents and rarely considered traveling to the middle parts of the country that I was born and raised in. Those seemed less for me, and more foreign, than foreign countries. But that's changing. Perhaps this is a part of the continuing process of accepting and owning my Americanness, and wanting to have a fuller conception of what that is, what that means for me.

I'll be in Southern California again in a couple weeks to see family and friends for the holidays. I'm bracing myself for the shift back to traffic and density and cars and billboards. And then it's back to Oakland. Traffic, density, billboards. I haven't even left Lander yet and I'm already considering when I might spend time here again. I feel a pull here that is similar to what I tend to feel in other places, but it has an air of possibility and even practicality around it that other places don't.

But I haven't lived this way in that many different places. Miles to go, yet.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Walking Past Rattlesnakes

The rattlesnake lay partially coiled on the right side of the trail, still making faint sounds of wariness and irritation when Miho started hiking again. "Do you want me to go first?" Elizabeth asked as I hesitated.  I looked up at her, then promptly turned and walked past the snake as it slowly slid around the small boulder and descended the hill, making its way out of sight.

We were about halfway through our 5-day backpacking trip along the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River. We had started from White Wolf and would finish at Tuolumne Meadows. It was late July. It was hot. It was rattlesnake season. The El Portal Fire was still burning through thousands of acres though we didn't see much evidence of it in the sky. We were a group of eleven women of color from age 22 to 53, brought together by Balanced Rock Foundation for this backcountry journey, on the tenth anniversary of these women of color trips. The claim is that it is the only trip of its kind in the country.

I know that there are women of color leading other women of color on trips in the backcountry in the United States, but it seems that the Balanced Rock trip is indeed the only institutionally-led and supported one.

Maybe it's because I grew up in an immigrant household-- not only an immigrant household, but a refugee household-- that I had not considered working in the outdoors, or even backpacking recreationally. It was never in my range of vision. I didn't see it as a possibility for me. From outdoor exploration camp in sixth grade to team-building high ropes courses through college and beyond, I cannot recall a single counselor or instructor who was a woman of color.

That's not unusual, of course. Everyone has different interests, different vocations, different ways that they recreate, different places they want to spend their leisure time. The practice of carrying 30-40% of your bodyweight across long distances in remote places is understandably not commonly appealing across any demographic. And taking such journeys is far from the only way to recreate outside, nor is it necessarily a more valid way of experiencing nature than to spend an afternoon in a regional park.

I don't think everyone should go backpacking. I don't think everyone needs to try rock climbing. But what I recognize now that I think about my journey into outdoor education is that these activities were on the edge of my subconscious. Like the students I watched walk back and forth in front of the LGBT Resource Center office at UC Irvine, apprehensive about walking in. But I knew that I could walk into the LGBTRC. I saw people like me in there. And for most of my life, I didn't see people like me backpacking, I didn't see people who looked like me climbing.

The journey to finding these things that are so important now (camping, climbing, outdoor education) happened in small increments. I could say it began with a roommate in college who instigated a camping trip. She was Vietnamese American, and really really into camping. Her excitement was contagious. A bunch of us went car camping somewhere south of Orange County, along a river. We slept under the stars, cooked over fire, and, because we were in college, drank quite a bit. And though I didn't do much camping until years after that, I think of that experience as the first time I realized that camping was not just a white american thing. (There's a lot to unpack there about growing up perceiving myself as not ah-khaing, not American, associated with this as well.)

Despite a lifetime of exposure to American ideals about individualism and following bliss and doing what the heart truly desires, I am coming to understand how the smallest spark of encouragement, the smallest invitation, has a profound effect on expanding what I believe is possible for myself.

(To be continued.)