Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Year of Skills: Part 3

July: Bike Repair

July was positively lame compared to June. I know, I know, I'm sorry, but I can't keep up that level of glamor forever.

Another thing I can't keep forever--check out that smooth transition--is my bicycle. While we were in Ethiopia over Christmas, our next-door neighbor who never locks the doors (we live in Oakland: who doesn't lock the doors?!?) failed, yet again, to lock the door, and our bicycles, which we kept in a hallway closet, were stolen. Let's take this moment to mourn my bicycle, which I loved passionately.

Isn't it beautiful? Also, heavy.

In any case, in July I saw an advertisement for free bike repair classes offered at a chain of bike shops around here, and I thought that was the perfect skill for the month, especially as I was taking my bike into the city (and by the store) anyway to get to the pier for a sailing offsite for work. (OK, I can keep up that level of glamor forever, or at least for a long time.)

I expected the bike repair classes to be, you know, classes, but instead I was the only one who showed up, and I got a free hour of individual bike repair instruction from an expert. Not a bad deal, I say, even though the main thing I learned is that I'm not strong enough to pull off or put on a bicycle tire. Clearly if I plan on ever getting a flat, I should do some finger workouts first.

August: Programming

The company where I work is incredibly engineering-oriented; the company exists for them and by them and the rest of us are just auxiliaries. I'm not complaining, mind you, but it does mean that I'm intrigued by their skills. As I see it, I file a request for something to happen to the site or to one of our tools, and bam! some time later (occasionally some long time later) it's fixed. It's like magic! (Slow, slow magic.) I wanted in on that magic myself; not that I'd ever get good enough to be able to fix the site myself, but at least with some grounding in programming I might not be so incredibly bowled over by what our engineers can do.

There's not much more interesting to say about this one, and certainly no pictures. I started out teaching myself PHP with some tutorials online and books from the library, but I then expanded my repertoire to JavaScript because that's what Codecademy was teaching. It's fun, but I'm nowhere near confident enough to actually build anything myself. This, after quilting, is the skill that I continue to work on the most, mostly because, with the enthusiastic approval of my manager, I now get to use work time to practice. (Should I mention, yet again, how much I love my job?)

September: Canning

Mike's parents are impressively self-reliant people: they grow the majority of produce they eat, they built their own house, they even barter with friends who have sheep and bees. (Mike hates it when I say that because it makes them sound like they're hunter-gatherers in some pre-currency economy. So let me clarify: they trade cash for fresh honey. But from a friend! Someone they know!) Needless to say, I, the citified useless intellectual child of citified useless intellectual parents, think this is incredible.

With touching faith and optimism, Mike's mother thinks I could someday be the kind of homemaker she is, and, knowing how much I love her homemade jams, last Christmas she gave me a canning kit: mason jars, tongs, etc etc. I thought I would never use the kit--I like to eat other people's homemade jams, see; all of the joy but none of the work--but hey! It was the Year of Skills and I needed something to do in September, so I canned some heirloom tomatoes.

The canning process itself was fairly easy--chop up some tomatoes, put them in jars, boil away!--but because of that, I'm suspicious: what if I did it wrong? How am I supposed to know? I'd really rather not get botulism.

And thus, we have three small jars of tomatoes sitting in our kitchen still, waiting for the day that I give up entirely and throw them away. It was fun while it lasted.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Year of Skills: Part 2

April: Driving a Stick Shift

I didn't have a car when we got married, but Mike did, and it was a stick shift. It's really embarrassing that it took me a year and a half of marriage to get around to learning how to drive our car, but Mike never seemed to mind giving me rides, and I didn't mind biking or taking BART when he couldn't. In any case, the Year of Skills was the push I needed to learn, and I spent several Saturdays in April out at the abandoned naval base in Alameda--flat, empty, and perfect for shifting gears--or at the cemetery in Piedmont--perfect for practicing hills--and now I can now confidently drive our car around town, and once I even drove it on the highway! When I say that with such pride I suddenly feel sixteen again, slowly turning circles in a parking lot with an anxious parent slamming on the air brakes.

(This was also a small cheat, since a friend in college had tried to teach me to drive a stick shift before. He gave me several great lessons but I never got as high as third gear and I never actually drove his car on the road, just in a parking lot. By April 2011, I had been out of college for five years (!) and had essentially forgotten all of his lessons.)

No picture here, either. It's a 1998 blue Honda Civic. Try to imagine it.

May: Making Cheese

I didn't plan a skill for May until the third week, and I had no ideas for one until I posted about my goal on Facebook and solicited suggestions from friends. Nearly 100 comments later, a friend said that she and her husband had a leftover cheese-making kit they were trying to get rid of, and, in case I wasn't intrigued already,  their homemade ricotta was delicious. Sold! So in May I tried to make cheese. Unlike the other skills so far, I tried to teach myself this one using the internet (oh, thank you internet!) and the instructions in the kit. Mike was in New York for most of May and June so I had plenty of time alone in our apartment to waste milk. I'm sure there are more efficient and fun ways to waste milk, but still, this wasn't so bad, even if it never resulted in proper cheese. (My first attempt ended in rubbery and unpalatable lumps and my last attempt ended in delicious curds that never really turned into a solid. I smeared some on a loaf of bread (homemade, of course--that's one skill I actually do have) and called it good.

June: Scuba Diving

Despite having lived in the tropics for years and despite being a passionate and dedicated snorkeler, I never learned to scuba dive. My youngest brother has heart trouble and my father has lung trouble, so obviously scuba diving was right out for our family. Also, I'm a total wuss and scuba diving seemed scary. Mike, however, loves scuba diving, and so with a trip to Indonesia planned for our summer, he insisted that I learn. I spent late May and early June reading all the books to prepare for the written certification test, and then at the end of June I did the initial pool work with a friend of Mike's in Davis, who is a certified instructor with a backyard pool.

(Side note: his pool was only 4 feet deep. This was a good way to keep me from being terrified of the whole endeavor. This also meant that we had to use his neighbor's pool for the final portion of the training, and so we dutifully trooped down the street--wearing wetsuits, flippers, and air tanks--in search of a deeper backyard pool. It was like I was living in a Wes Anderson movie.)

I just needed two more days of certification once we got to Indonesia, and, of course, Indonesia having no real rules, we persuaded the instructor to shorten that to one day. I'm now a card-carrying scuba diver, and getting over my fears paid off: we dove around and through a sunken World War II ship, and we saw sharks. Sharks! I can die happy now.
Two very white people about to enjoy a wreck dive with sharks.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Year of Skills: Part 1

January: Yoga

I started out with a small cheat, since I had tried yoga before. When I was in grad school, I very occasionally did Bikram Yoga with a friend, but stopped going when my friend's bring-a-guest-free coupons ran out. When a Groupon deal for a yoga place near my apartment came up, I snapped it up.  I went a few times, sweat copiously, got ever-so-slightly more flexible, and stopped going when my Groupon visits ran out. I sense a theme.

(As an aside, I find the idea of "hot yoga" as a specialized brand hilarious: in India, they just call that yoga.)

I have no pictures here. You wouldn't want to see them even if I did.

February: Quilting

I've never been a big crafter, or at least not in the cutesy-things-on-Pinterest or craft-activities-at-church senses, but when I was in middle school I spent many happy hours in my room knitting, cross-stitching, and needlepointing, usually while listening to oldies radio, and one summer when I was in high school I spent many happy hours in my room making colorful collages out of pictures I cut from magazines. (Yes, I was a loser, but such a happy one.) In February I wanted a new skill that could take me back to that childhood tranquility, and when my aunt presented us with a beautiful quilt she had made for her wedding the answer was obvious. My aunt very graciously agreed to teach me the basics, and I launched into working on a baby quilt for my cousin, who, luckily, was not even pregnant at the time. (I don't need extra deadlines in my life.)

I think this was my favorite skill for the year, and one of only a few that I've kept doing into 2012.  I was right that quilting brings the meditative, time-slows-down sense I craved, and I love thinking about matching and contrasting fabrics; it's also a good outlet for the batiks I've been collecting since I lived in Indonesia. Any day I can find a few minutes to cut or sew or even just browse quilting blogs is a good one. I've got three or four quilts in progress at the moment, and now I just need to learn to actually finish my quilts, as I'm still working on the baby quilt I started last February. (This taught me another important lesson: don't hand-quilt. If you're a sub-par seamstress like me, it takes forever.)

Sometimes I take over our entire living room with a quilt.

March: Shooting a Gun

Yoga is so Bay Area, and quilting is so feminine, that I decided March was time for something completely different, and luckily, the universe cooperated. The team I had worked for half-time was invited to spend an afternoon at a private shooting range used by...a government agency, let's say, with a shooting instructor there to help us explore the guns. (I forget what I'm allowed to say to say here so I'll just be vague. Sorry)

I am not that badass. I am mostly just terrified.

I had shot a gun once or twice before--usually at shooting ranges in Idaho with my grandpa, an avid hunter--but this still counted as new, because I had never gotten any actual gun training, not to mention from a government instructor, and I had never shot an original 1920s Tommy gun. (They are surprisingly heavy. I now know why 20s criminals shot from the hip.)

This is not a Tommy gun. I know that.

My job situation ended up changing in early March (adding another newish skill, resume crafting and interviewing), but since I stupidly never abandon a goal (see that bit about still reading every article in every issue of The New Yorker), I stuck with the Year of Skills. To be continued!

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

The Year of Skills: Intro

In 2010, my goal for the year was to read every article in every issue of that year's The New Yorker, and so for 2011 it was understandable that I'd be interested in doing slightly less reading. (I still read every article in every issue of The New Yorker, though; what can I say? I'm an obsessive personality.) Looking back at 2010, the beginning of the year was filled with instability, since in the course of about six months I got married, applied to law school, quit grad school, and got a full-time job. I think I was seeking something constant and familiar, and if you were raised in my house there is nothing more constant or familiar than The New Yorker.

Looking back at 2011 now, I can see that I was facing exactly the opposite situation: my job, which I still loved, was promising to be become a little more stable and routine, as I had just finished working half-time for another team and was returning back to my original role after three months of being totally overwhelmed and learning challenging new things every day. I had just been asked to visit Austin to train a team there on doing my work, since after only a year, I was the second most senior member of the team (!). I was feeling like an expert, like I knew it all…and I hate that feeling. I need constant change and learning to be happy, and it was looking like my job was just going to let me coast.

And so I set a different sort of goal for 2011: learn a new skill every month. The basic parameters were pretty loose: it had to be a doing skill, not a knowing skill; I had to start the skill during the month but didn't have to master it (either during the month or ever); and the definition of "new" was either something I had never tried or simply something I had tried but never succeeded at. I didn't choose all my skills beforehand, though I made a list of things I was interested in, and so many of the year's skills represented what was going on in my life at the time. If I were a better or more dedicated writer, I'd turn this experience into one of those A.J. Jacobs-style books, but alas, "writing a book" was not one of the year's skills, and instead, I'm going to turn it into a series of blog entries. Stay tuned for (dum dum dummmmmm) The Year of Skills.