KonMari and Me: A Toastmasters Tale

I scoped out my Toastmasters club before I even left European soil. I scoped out lots of things – I was unemployed and looking for new opportunity.

Anyway, as much as I wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail after the army, I wanted to join a Toastmasters club. I saw them both as means to purge said army from my system – one to let everything go, the other to start integrating into life anew. Everyone needs a tribe, after all, and I’d left the two tribes that had been mine for a lifetime: my church and the military. I’d also come out gay and married a man, which threw a curveball in that ‘integration’ aspect. Not gonna lie, it’s been a winding road. Whose life isn’t? 

But this club, my club, is Leadership Lambda, the first gay-aligned Toastmasters club in the world. The ‘first’ bit doesn’t matter so much any more, but understanding that it was a thing before Ellen was Ellen is pretty significant. More importantly, it was (and is) full of vibrant, fun-loving, and committed souls, and it became my home and my tribe right away, day one forward. I’ve been to all but maybe two meetings since then, and I’ve been in a leadership role for… most of my Toastmaster time. I love it.

Having grown up a theater kid and a bit of a ham, I love the opportunity to stand up in front of a crowd and deliver my thoughts – I’d like to think that I have the best thoughts, Mr. President. Anyway, it’s a way to keep my mind sharp, to practice my love of language, and to influence others. Toastmasters also offers ample opportunity to listen, to observe, and to be influenced by others. I journal now because of a Toastmaster. I have a mantra rather than a list of resolutions because of a Toastmaster. I trade cookies for biscotti because of a Toastmasters. It’s a delicious arrangement, both sweet and savory!

Increasingly, the aspect I love most about public speaking is the ability to powerfully and personably relate a story – funny, sad, silly, whatever. Storytelling is an art worth pursuing, I think, as it will still work when our technology fails us. It’ll quell the restlessness. That, and it’s just satisfying. 

I wrote and delivered a speech on Monday. I’d been chewing on the content for a while and opted to fill a hole in the evening’s programming. This week, it is the meat of this here blog. Without further ado, KonMari and Me.

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Have you ever felt like you just have too much stuff? If not, when’s the last time you moved?

For my husband’s parents, that last time was two years ago, from icy Indiana to subtropical southern Florida – Fort Myers. They spared nothing in their move, dragging every last thing from their home of thirty years across the country. Loc and I visited that Indiana house last summer – it was desolate. We did not, however, visit For Myers – it’s far too expensive for a weekend flight, and long breaks are for National Parks! But we have our own move pending, and Loc wants his comic books. So we booked a trip – Christmas to New Years, a proper family reunion.

Now, Loc is quite a collector. When I met him, he had a trinket from every country in Europe in a cabinet, and a magnet from every country in Europe on the fridge. We were apart for our first Christmas together, but we were together for our last in Germany, and we went all out: we now have enough ornaments to adorn two trees – and, until recently, two trees to put them on. By contrast, the only piece of furniture I owned before I met him was a bed. But I digress: the comic books.

I figured we’d carry an empty suitcase to Florida to bring Loc’s comic books home – a large suitcase even. Maybe, maybe we’d have to mail a box or two, media mail ground. We had flown into Orlando, met Loc’s elderly childhood neighbors, and driven three hours to Fort Myers, where we joined his parents and sister. We slept on the pull-out couch in the living room. His sister occupied the sewing room, off of which laid our long-pondered objective. We spent three days touring as a family; on the fourth, the elders rested, and Tam flew home: Objective Alpha was ours. We moved in.

I was staggered by what I saw: a slope of stuff extending the full length of a walk-in closet, from front floor to back wall. And against that back wall, sat Loc’s boxes … Loc’s very visible boxes. My estimation was, I learned… incredibly inadequate. We’d need not just a suitcase and a few mailers, but a small SUV to haul all of those comics, and we’d have to move a small mountain just to reach them! Having braced ourselves, we began. It took three days.

We went full Marie Kondo on Loc’s mom. Every single item in that closet became a pile on the floor. We found reams and reams of industrial fabric; boxes of ‘90s fashion, tags still attached; and stuffed animals enough to stock a petting zoo! Out it all went, into semi-organized piles in her sewing room. Loc held every item up to his mother, and together, they sorted everything into two piles: keep and toss. We filled two RAV4s with her belongings; we filled a third with his own. Then we reached the comic books, 32 archival-quality boxes in all. We emptied the closet, tossed every second thing, brought in new shelving, and put it all back together, neatly, comic books perched by the door. It was a proper Queer Eye affair.

Now, I’m prone to collecting crap too. My mantra this year is ‘simplify.’ It’s a quest. So when Loc and I acquired our sixth and seventh strainers last weekend, it flipped a switch. At home, I set about sorting bowls and strainers for donation – gone, gone, gone. It was getting late, though, so I decided to turn in. In bed that night, I read a Christian Science article that made me laugh: Boomer parents: One Day This Will Be Yours. Grown Children: Noooo! It cited The Life-Changing Art of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo’s 2014 book that has swept the globe. I kept reading and learned about her new Netflix series, Tidying Up. Thinking of Loc, I giggled, leaned over to him, and whispered ‘Marie Kondo!’ He quickly responded ‘no! Nononononononono!’ I poked, he reacted; it turns out that he already knew about this Marie Kondo. And with that, I had found my husband’s scariest phrase: let’s get rid of some stuff! It was hilarious – I could hardly sleep for the joy of the prospect.

But with time, I wore him down. We have now watched two episodes of Tidying Up. He’s even liked them! And, her message nests neatly with my mantra, simplify: work through groups: clothes, books, papers, miscellaneous, and sentimental items; finish discarding first; tidy by category, not location, work sequentially, and ask if your things spark joy. So far, I’ve managed to discard… the colanders that I brought into our relationship; the count is now five. I admire the KonMari method; he does not.

But when we move this summer, we’ll court Marie Kondo anew. The American Enterprise Institute reports that American homes have grown by over 1,000 square feet since 1973 – big Americans need big spaces! I don’t imagine that Korean homes have kept pace, though. And, as it seems that that’s where we’ll be going, it’s time to lovingly consider each item, ask if it sparks joy, thank it for its service, and , if need be, to let it go.

I’ll spare you the Frozen song.

 

James

Yo! No-Knead Bread!

Guys, I had an epiphany on Monday – I can make no-knead bread!

This may not sound like much of a revelation to you, but to me, it was as exciting as, well, exciting as it gets around here. I haven’t baked bread in a long while; my yoga teacher training schedule has really cramped my culinary style, and I’m pretty sure my sourdough starter is dead in my fridge. This is all to say, I chose my priorities last fall, and bread was not one of them. So here we are.

Anyway, on Monday, I was poking around the Internet at the end of the workday, when I happened on the New York Times no-knead bread recipe. It’s basic – volume, not mass – and plain – 100% white flour – but it caught my fancy all the same. Apparently, it’s one of the most popular recipes the New York Times has ever posted! Wow!

Now, purist that I am, I started baking bread way back when with a sourdough starter – the most finicky of all bread making methods. My early progress is on Instagram – it was a steep, sloppy learning curve. Over time, I worked to proficiency in both sourdoughs and yeasted breads, both lean and enriched, never once seriously considering this simplistic method I saw from time to time on YouTube – I ain’t that basic, thanks. Or, leave it to me to tackle the summit first.

But purism takes a whole lot of time. A single batch of sourdough – in my latest incarnation – requires that the sourdough be removed from the fridge, fed with two parts flour and water, then fed again eight hours later, before sitting overnight to rise before the final dough is mixed. It must then be laboriously, arduously kneaded until nearly full gluten development – this precludes the successive folding required of lesser-kneaded doughs – before it is left to proof for four hours. Following those four hours, the loaf is lightly shaped, rested on the bench for fifteen minutes, then proofed again, this time in a wicker banneton, for three hours. Two hours into that final proof, the oven and Dutch oven must be preheated – yes, it takes that long to preheat cast iron properly. And fifteen minutes prior to the bake, the loaf must be dusted and inverted onto a parchment round, scored both for effect and appearance, and set for loading into the 450-degree cast iron pot. An 18-ounce loaf will bake in 45 minutes, of which the first 30 are covered, the remaining 15 uncovered – depending on the oven I use. It’s a demanding lifestyle; it can easily eat up a weekend. I haven’t had weekends to spare for some time lately. So, we’ve reverted to store-bought bread. It lasts suspiciously longer than it should…

…but this – this no-knead bread! 100 parts flour, 70 parts water, two parts salt, and one part yeast – scale, mix, set overnight. Twelve to twenty hours later, proceed with shape-proof-bake. Simple! I set about it with great interest – mix, cover, carry on. I went to bed, woke up, went to work, came home, and returned to my dough; it had risen from a rough lump to a nice pillow-like pile of dough. I scraped it out of the bowl and onto a floured counter; shaped it loosely, and left it to sit, covered. I cleaned up all my dishes, then shaped it again, tightly, before placing it in a well-floured banneton. It rose there until I was ready to bake it, after which I flipped it over.

Here’s where the fun happened. The loaf, though floured, stuck to my banneton. I’ve been there before – I pried it away gently, loaf unharmed. I transferred it to a piece of parchment, placed it on my pizza peel, and prepared to load it into my piping-hot cast iron pot. I pulled my pot out of the oven, staged it for loading, then went to transfer my dough – slide from peel to hand, drop into pot, cover, cook.

Nope – this one fought like an octopus at every edge; it’d overflowed its parchment and onto the peel below, to which it was solidly stuck. I tried to pry it off gently, then roughly, then gave up, used a bench knife, folded the thing into a taco, and quickly dropped it into the pot. As the blob defied definition, I dropped it awkwardly; it made contact with the wall of the pot and fused immediately. To top it off, I hadn’t even scored the loaf, a sure recipe for a blowout – the most novice of novice moves. I thought I’d have a spaceship of a loaf for sure. Or maybe a lopsided volcano. I’d like to think I’m open minded.

Rather than vent any frustration, I just laughed; I’m learning! I had no clue whether the parchment was under or in my dough, and it was bound to be a unique loaf, given its placement. I placed the lid back on my pot and placed it back in the oven. Forty minutes later, I had a golden brown boule, my first in months. It looked a bit like a volcano, a bit like a toothless monster, devouring my parchment paper. But it was light, airy, and delicious – a welcome break from the dark days of the empty bread box.

With a bit more confidence, I mixed up a brand new batch of dough, set it in the corner, and called it a night. I put it in the fridge the next morning, and baked it the following evening. Bread’s back in my court! I just pulled my third loaf using this method out of the oven, and I’ll be using it until life slows down. And when’s that, you may ask? Probably never… the writing’s on the wall: we’re moving to Korea!

James

Musing. Me, Thirty?

Lately, I’ve been giving life a lot of thought.

I’ve always wrestled with journal keeping; for me, a fairly introspective person, an entry can go on for pages. I’m also a busy person by nature and not terribly fond of sitting still, so that does me in; I haven’t written regularly for years. 

Last month, though, I figured a reasonable format out. I’m on the cusp of turning thirty and, though I’m married to a man in his mid-thirties, I still find the prospect intimidating (my metabolism!). So, I’ve turned to books. I’ve been on this yoga niyama/yama kick – these are the ten principles of yoga that precede the physical practice in importance (more later), but I’ve also been reading The Road to Character, by David Brooks. It’s given me a lot to chew on. 

From David Brooks, I learned that Dorothy Day loved Leo Tolstoy. From A.N. Wilson, in his introduction to War and Peace, I learned that ‘Tolstoy was without zest for literary work. He was too happy.’ And yet, Tolstoy cranked out not one, but two masterpieces of humanitarian literature. I’m fortunate in many ways; among them, I don’t share Tolstoy’s easy joy. I brood. I find I’m drawn to the sorrow of Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie and Lowell; in it, he mourns the passing of his mother. Should Have Known Better resonates strongly for me, as do numerous other pieces in the album. But, unlike Sufjan, I still have both of my parents. And yet, I always carry a sense of loss. That’s life, I guess. It does get heavy at times. 

Anyway, I picked up this reasonable format in my reading. To bring myself out of my everyday doldrums, I’ve decided to focus on the positive things in my life. It’s pretty simple; every day, I write three things that I’ve done that I’m proud of – going out of my way to be kind, not acting on an impulse, paying complete attention to another. And, in the spirit of self improvement, I also write three things that I wish I’d done better – I’m trading in new year’s resolutions for incremental change. Last year, my main goal was to reduce my waste to to as near zero as I could. As part of that, I created a closed-loop food waste system, to keep my food waste out of landfills. I did reasonably well – having a worm bin has been great. This year, I’m working on impulse control, simplification, and other little acts of discipline. I’ll continue building on last year’s goals too – these are lifestyle decisions I’m making, not whims to be fancied then forgotten.

Yoga has gotten me into a regular habit of morning meditation and exercise, and I find that journaling fits perfectly between mindful meditation and my practice. Nested as such, I’ve found this habit an easy one to add to – and keep in –  my routine – far easier than, say, flossing. It fits within the larger trajectory that I’ve set for my life as well, as it’s a way to continually return to what I value. We are what we perpetually do, are we not? 

So, here’s to a new year, a new decade, and a steady dedication to the things that matter. 

Oh, and my metabolism? Today’s diet features Belgian waffles with all the fixings, and homemade crème brûlée. I’ll believe the hype when it happens.

Peace,

James