French Macarons

So I’m still baking through the Bouchon Bakery cookbook that I got for Christmas, and this weekend I made French Macarons: sandwich cookies made of two puffy meringue based shells, with a French Buttercream filling. I think they were the most delicious thing I’ve baked so far: I served them to my housemates at our house meeting, and my friend Tara asked  me if they were made from crack.

To make French Macarons, first you make a paste of almond meal, powdered sugar, and egg whites.

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Then you whip more egg whites with a pinch of sugar until they are light and fluffy.

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Then you cook some sugar syrup to 248* F.

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Then you combine the sugar syrup with the egg whites to make a meringue.

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Then you mix some meringue with the almond paste, pipe the dough onto parchment paper, and bake. Then you make a French Buttercream, pipe onto one cookie and sandwich with a second. They look like this when they’re finished:

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Some people say you should freeze the cookies in bubble wrap for a couple of days to let the flavor mature. These didn’t last that long.

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Chocolate Mocha Sabayon Sponge Cake

In my last blog post, I extended an invitation to local friends to challenge me to make something for them. The only requirements were that they covered the cost of the ingredients, and I got to pick the recipe.

Right away I received facebook messages from two friends asking me to bake for them. The first wanted cookies, but I talked him into petit fours glace, and the second wanted a cake that included chocolate in some fashion.

Petit fours are an interesting creation. The french will call lots of tiny desserts “petit fours,” but a true petit four glace is a square, bite sized dessert assembled in a certain way. Traditionally, they’re made of a sponge cake called genoise (jen WAHZ), and sliced into two or three thin layers, coated with a flavored syrup, filled with jam, topped with a layer of marzipan, and then dipped in a liquid fondant icing. Practically speaking, it’s a little cake filled with something and covered with something. I made one batch of traditional petit fours like I described above, but then I made a batch with butter cake, chocolate ganache filling, and orange liqueur syrup enrobed in a dark chocolate glaze and topped with a spiral of ganache.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures of mine, but here’s a recipe for some traditional petit fours with a picture.

Next I made a Christmas Eve cake for my friend Kelli. First I made a chocolate sponge cake and sliced it into two layers before filling it with a chocolate Sabayon cream. I coated the cake layers with a coffee syrup, and then iced the whole thing with a buttercream infused with chocolate and espresso.

Here’s a picture:

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This week I watched the movie Kings of Pastry (available on Netflix watch instant) and realized that I’m interested in the pastry arts as a whole- not just cakes.

I’ve been thinking about what I want to do with my newfound pastry passion. I got a stand mixer and a lovely cake stand and some other baking supplies for Christmas, and I’m thinking about taking a class this summer at the San Francisco Baking Institute. (website here.) I have apprenticeships in mind for down the road, and I’m really interested in traveling to France to interview pastry shop owners and learn their secrets. For the time being, however, I think I need to read a lot and bake a lot and develop a working vocabulary of the subject and a technical body of knowledge and skills.

This week I’m planning to make puff pastry from butter that I made from cream that my roommate Tara dumpstered from the Amazing Savings. How Asheville is THAT?!

-Brenna

P.S. My offer stands: what can I bake for you?

P.P.S. Not to blatantly advertise or anything, but I’m really excited for this program. I feel like Blake is throwing a party for all my friends here in Asheville!

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Chocolate Swiss Buttercream Cake, Rugelach, I’m Blogging Again

I took a break from blogging when the Writing Retreat ended- a break about as long as the Writing Retreat itself. I’ve been working in the studio and dealing with some Christmas orders, but I’ve also been baking a little bit.

First, I went to the library and started methodically checking out their cake books.

From reading them, I figured out that the “buttercream” I had been making was “American buttercream,” i.e. the lazy kind. Whatever, it’s good on cupcakes, but it’s excessively sweet with no depth to it. I started reading about the wonders of Swiss Meringue Buttercream, and I knew I had to make some, so I did. It was insane. Basically you make a swiss meringue, which consists of sugar and eggs yolks heated and whipped, and then you beat in soft butter. Here’s a great blog post about how to make it.

Next I decided to make French Meringue Buttercream, which was even better but slightly softer and less appropriate for piping. FMB is like SMB but it contains egg yolks instead of just egg whites.

As a result of reading these cake books and experimenting with frostings, I came to an important realization: the style of cakes (and different cake elements) that originated in Europe were better and more complex than those developed or commonly used in America. A typical American cake might consist of two layers of cake with American buttercream between the layers and on top of the cake. European cakes, on the other hand, often consist of multiple kinds of frostings and fillings and three or more layers. They are often glazed with a fruit syrup, filled with a mousse, curd, or pastry cream, frosted with an egg based buttercream, and then coated with marzipan or fondant. The stuff you typically find here in the states, even in high quality bakeries, just doesn’t compare.

With that in mind, I wanted to tackle a whole cake with multiple elements. Luckily, my stepfather was having a birthday. I made a three layer chocolate cake, coated the layers with a syrup made from cooked strawberries, and filled the layers with a thick chocolate ganache (heated cream poured over chocolate and stirred). Next I made a chocolate flavored Swiss Meringue Buttercream for the exterior of the cake. I also whipped some cream and included some sliced strawberries on top for decoration.

I was mostly pleased with the way it looked.

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The chocolate ganache was slightly too thick and set up a little too hard once refrigerated, but that could be easily fixed by increasing the ratio of cream to chocolate next time. Overall, it tasted good.

Next, I made an Austrian pastry called Rugelach for a friend, as a gift from another friend. The dough consisted of flour, butter, and cream cheese. It was rolled into a circle and covered with a paste of raspberry jam, chocolate, and ground walnuts. That was covered with a layer of cinnamon sugar, and then the pastry was sliced like a pizza and the pieces were rolled into crescents. An egg wash was applied to the crescents and then more cinnamon sugar was sprinkled on top.

They looked like this:

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They seemed complicated before I began, but actually they just had a bunch of simple steps. I think I added too much jam to the mixture, because some of it oozed out and began to burn on the cookie sheets, and I had to carefully peel away the burned bits when I was done. They tasted good though, and looked impressive.

Today I’m baking some bread to test out the new breadpots I made this week.

I’m currently baking things for local friends for free- you just need to cover the cost of the ingredients. (Also, I get to pick the recipe.) Leave a comment if you want me to make you a cake or some pastries!

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The End of the Writing Retreat

We have less than 48 hours left of the writing retreat. I’ve completed my self-imposed challenge of writing 20 blog posts (19 topical posts, plus an intro and conclusion, which I’m counting as one post) and I’m about ready to go home. I made the last official grocery store trip this morning (though I’m sure I’ll end up running out again to pick up one thing or another) and the food budget has been totaled. (We’re underbudget! Yay!)

There’s still quite a bit of food left in the kitchen, some of it staple food from our hurricane prep shopping trip, and I’m trying to use up as much of it as possible before we have to leave. I’ve told the students that they need to be shoving food down their mouth holes constantly for the next 24 hours, and then we’ll be good to go. Some stuff definitely won’t get eaten (three boxes of lasagna noodles, anyone?), and we’ll either send it home with some of the students who are being picked up or take it to a food bank.

As for me, I’m excited to get home. I’m still having fun, and I’m happy to be here for the next couple of days, but when that’s over I’m ready to get back to Asheville. This fall I’ve been to San Diego for the Wide Sky Days conference and then Vermont for Not Back To School Camp and then Blake’s mom’s house for a week and then this retreat. I’m ready to sleep in my own bed.

I just got back from checking out more cake books from the Hyannis library, and I’m pricing electric mixers for when I get home. I’m thinking that this blog will turn into a cake and pottery blog when I’m back in Asheville.

Thanks so much for reading.

-Brenna

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What If You Didn’t Get Out In Time?

A few days ago I wrote a blog post entitled “Why I Dropped Out of College.” There was more response to that post than any other I had written yet, and a few hours after I published it I received an e-mail from a former New College classmate.

He wrote the following:

“Maybe this question is unintentionally angry (its definitely intentionally despairing), but its one I have meant to ask for a while. I have followed your writing project since you first posted it here. Your most recent post finally reiterated a question I’ve been meaning to ask? I am a person with a comparatively normal educational experience- that is, one who has a youth utterly and seemingly irrevocably deformed by public institutions from infancy to adulthood, enforcing my consumerism and utterly crushing an individuality and creative abilities. I did spend four years at [New College of Florida], read hundreds of ‘academic’ papers, composed a pretty big one, and then left with no ‘job prospects.’

For the millions (billions?) of people who were fatally schooled, ruining our minds and bodies, what hope is there at all? It comes off as fatalistic, possibly even maudlin, but I doubt its an anxiety you haven’t encountered already in others.”

The question kicked me in the gut a little bit. I struggle to imagine what my life would be like if I had been forced to attend traditional K-12 education. The small taste that I got (first grade, applying for the IB program, taking the SATs, drama at a local high school) was artificial and bitter, like cake frosting made with butter flavored shortening and too much red dye.

I know that many people have positive or neutral educational experiences in the traditional school system. But for many others, traditional school is a crippling, even paralyzing experience. I suspect that it would have been for me.

So what can you do? If you are forced unwillingly and miserably through primary school and secondary school and then (either willingly or begrudgingly) complete college, only to learn that you’re no better off educationally and economically than someone who went to the public library a lot, hung out around knowledgeable adults, and offered to work for free doing something they loved, what is left? What do you do next?

I think that the first thing you must do, before any progress or growth or forward motion can occur, is grieve. Grieve for the loss of so much time, your most valuable and limited resource. Grieve for the anxiety and the frustration and the despair to which you were needlessly subjected. Grieve for the gaslighting that you endured at the hands of those who told you that you must do this and you musn’t do that in order to have a successful future, until you came to believe them and doubt your own intuition.

Think about what happened to you, and write about it, and cry and scream and remember and repeat. Thrash around, scream at people, see a therapist, be unbearable. You are entitled to it. You have suffered a loss.

In the unschooling community we say that there is a process called “deschooling” that occurs when you quit school. It looks a bit like cocooning- not much happening on the outside, but a lot happening on the inside. I think that something similar needs to happen when you finish school for good. We typically provide this guideline for deschooling: one month for every year you spent in school. So if you attended high school and then college, you probably need at least sixteen months (since you graduated or since you realized you were pissed off) to grieve and deschool.

Eventually I imagine that you will get bored with yourself and your depression and anger. I know I did after I dropped out of college. When I started to get excited about the question “What’s next?” I knew I had hit a turn in the road.

So what happens after that? You might want to read some books like these:

1. The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto
2. The Book of Learning and Forgetting by Frank Smith
3. The Teenage Liberation Handbook by Grace Llewellyn
4. Better Than College by Blake Boles
5. Summerhill by A.S. Neill
6. How Children Learn by John Holt
7. Nurturing Intelligences by Howard Gardner
8. Drive by Daniel Pink
9. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

Some of them (especially the Gatto) might make you mad again. That’s okay.

Next, do what you can to get your body, your social life, and  your finances in a good place. Sleep regularly, drink water, eat fewer bagels, do yoga, quit smoking, whatever. Cultivate a wide circle of friends who are fascinating, knowledgeable, and excited about life. Make sure that they are people you trust and in front of whom you can be vulnerable. Create a budget, stop buying crap, and evaluate your expenditures. Ask yourself whether the way you are making money is making you happy. If the answer is no, can you do something else right now? If not, make a list of the things you need to do to make money in a way that makes you happy, and then start doing the things on the list.

Finally, start paying attention to the things that make your heart beat a little faster.  Realize that you haven’t missed out on directing your own education- you’re just doing it kind of late. Figure out your Myer’s Briggs Type and take the Multiple Intelligences test in the Howard Gardner book.  Remember what things made you forget about time when you were a kid. Making sailboats? Searching for banana slugs? Reading Nancy Drew? What things make you feel that way now? Reading Chekhov? Baking bread? Looking at internal combustion engines? When you figure it out, move slowly but obsessively in that direction.

If you like baking bread, get the first recipe you can find and bake some immediately. The results will probably suck, and you will probably know what you need to do differently next time. Watch some youtube videos of people kneading, order The New Laurel’s Kitchen and try again. Then visit a bakery and ask to watch for the day in exchange for doing dishes, and find a pizza stone at Goodwill. Try again. Get a serrated knife. Try a more complicated recipe. Invite your friends over to eat pizza that you’ve made and ask for positive and negative feedback. Start reading baking blogs. Slowly buy equipment. Find an apprenticeship in a bakery. If at any point you decide that baking isn’t your thing, put it aside and try the same learning process with another subject. You can always pick it back up again later.

Work on forgiving everyone who forced you to go to school or bullied you while you were there or shamed you about your performance or told you to quit talking. Realize that they endured the same things that you did, that they are as broken as you are, and that you are not as broken as you think. The time you lost to school is a sunk cost. Your choice is whether or not you let it ruin your future, too.

I imagine that the friend who initially wrote to me might have been searching for a more theoretical discussion. Pragmatist that I am, I’ve answered the question in the form of a list of “Action Items” that may or may not be helpful. I don’t claim to have the answer, the prescription, or the panacea, but if I were to counsel the parallel universe version of myself about how to fix her life after she graduated from college, this is what I would tell her.

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Things That Hold Unschooling Back

Earlier this fall I attended the Wide Sky Days unschooling conference in San Diego, California. While I was there, I facilitated a talk entitled “Things That Hold Unschooling Back.” I was hoping to talk about ways that unschoolers keep unschooling from becoming a more mainstream movement; I also wanted to touch on criticisms of certain aspects of unschooling itself. The idea of running this talk made me nervous- there were things I was planning to say that I feared some attendees might find unpalatable- so I was surprised by what transpired.

The talk was well attended by a vocal group of long time unschoolers and some newbies. Rather than arguing with me or getting upset about the things I was saying, it seemed like most people came to air their unschooling grievances publicly. Sometimes it feels like it’s not acceptable to criticize unschooling at the conferences, so I think people were grateful for the opportunity to talk about the problems they saw with unschooling without judgement.

I had a list of topics that I wanted to discuss, and I felt like my list was fairly exhaustive. However, once we began talking I was so grateful to have long-time unschooling parents like Ronnie Maier and Pam Sorooshian in the audience, because they broached topics that I had not even considered. I don’t have a complete list of everything that we discussed during that hour, but I’d like to talk about some of the major points that came up.

1. The Venn Diagram Effect: Lately there’s been a lot of talk about other fringe/woo woo movements being compatible with or inextricably connected to unschooling. It seems like everyone’s talking about the law of attraction and homeopathy and anti-vaccination movements- and a whole bunch of other things- as if they are part of unschooling. They aren’t. It’s fine if you believe in the law of attraction and you unschool, or you’re a libertarian and you unschool, or you’re into reiki and you unschool- it only becomes a problem when you start telling people that they’re the same thing.

Why is this a big deal? Because only a small margin of people who might be interested in unschooling are also interested in the law of attraction. Insisting that they must go together alienates those people who might love unschooling but believe the law of attraction is bunk.

2. The Feral Children Phenomena, aka Unparenting: Things can get out of control at conferences, y’all.  If you’ve just started unschooling and you’ve been to a few conferences you might think it’s cute and nice that parents are letting their six year olds run freely down the halls of the Marriot or the Hilton, causing property damage and irritation in the process. However, it’s led to us getting kicked out of multiple hotels and retreat sites, and it often makes the hotel staff and passersby who we come in contact with think that we’re crazy people.

Here’s a question that I think it would behoove parents to ask themselves, both while at conferences and in their day to day lives: “Is my child’s behavior creating negative externalities for other people?” When the answer to that question turns into a “yes,” then it is time for you to intervene.

Eli Gerzon wrote a great blogpost about excessive parental permissiveness in the unschooling community coming as a backlash against unschooling parents’ experience with excessively authoritarian parenting. I think unschooling parents should give their children as much freedom as possible. However, it often seems like the line in the sand for intervention is “when my child is endangering herself or others.” I think the line in the sand should be “when my child is endangering herself or others, or when she is being obnoxious and creating problems for other people.”

Below I’ve listed some behavioral situations in which you, as a parent, should definitely intervene. If you aren’t sure if your kid is capable of not doing the following things (or other things that create negative externalities) while you are not present, then you need to be present with him or her all the time. All of these things, at one point or another, have actually happened.

1. When your child is POOPING ON THE FLOOR of a conference center.
2. When your child is telling a businessman at the Del Mar Hilton to “Go fuck himself.”
3. When your child is getting off the elevator on the third floor and pushing buttons 4 through 25 on his way out.
4. When your child is destroying someone else’s property.
5. When your child is yelling or running into people or just generally being really high energy in a destructive or annoying way.

There’s another side to this coin. A few parents don’t keep an eye on their kids and it creates big problems for everyone. In addition, other people in the community feel like it’s unacceptable to tell a kid to knock it off when he’s behaving inappropriately. I hereby empower you to kindly, courteously, and gently speak up when someone else’s child is doing something obnoxious and say something like “Hey, would you mind being a little quieter? We’re trying to have a conversation.” Don’t scream, don’t threaten, don’t touch, don’t pull rank. Just politely ask them to knock it off- the same way you would do if a stranger in the booth next to you at a restaurant was screaming and carrying on.

3. The Unsocialized Unschooler: This isn’t so much something unschoolers are doing wrong as it is a trend that I’ve noticed. The awkward, unsocialized homeschooler does exist, you guys. I know we get together at conferences and the teens get on panels and talk about how they’re really quite socially competent, thank you very much, but of course the awkward kids aren’t going to volunteer to be on panels, are they? (Well, sometimes they are.)

I think about this in a “chicken or the egg” sort of way: do unschooling and homeschooling inherently make people awkward, or do people with socially awkward kids gravitate toward the unschooling movement because their kids were having a difficult time in school? Most of the time I think it’s the latter and it’s a correlation issue and not a causation issue. However, most people seem to believe the opposite, and believing that your kids are going to turn out to be completely socially incompetent if you homeschool them is a pretty powerful motivator to keep them in school.

4. The Problem With the Media: They’re looking for stories that increase their viewership. Viewers want to watch stuff that is exciting or sensationalist. As a result, media outlets want to do stories about unschooling, but they almost inevitably spin them in a negative or sensationalist way and end up making us look, again, like crazy people.

Frankly, I think most people should not try talking to the media about unschooling, because one has no control over the aired content and you typically end up being a pawn or a footnote in whatever point your interviewer is trying to make. I would make an exception if it’s a live interview and you can get a list of the questions beforehand- that way you know what you’ll be talking about and there’s no way to spin the story through editing.

To close, I want to make it clear that I’m writing this post not because I don’t like unschooling, but because I love it so much. I believe that it is only through honest, critical dialogue that we can make our movement better. Also I needed to get the stuff about bad conference behavior off my chest.

Unschooling affiliated people: How do you feel about this list? What else should be on it? Is there anything on the list that shouldn’t be there?

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Why I Dropped Out of College

When I was fourteen years old I asked for the Fiske Guide to Colleges for my birthday. I had known since I was very young that I wanted to go to the best college that I could get into as soon as I was done with “high school.” I didn’t know what I wanted to study or what I wanted to do when I was done with college, I just knew that I needed to go because I was a smart, capable young woman, and that is what smart, capable young women did.

I started unschooling at fourteen, but I thought that I would still need a transcript and some test scores to get into college, so I dual-enrolled at the community college and prepped for the SATs. When I was seventeen I sent out five college applications. I was accepted to three schools outright, waitlisted at a fourth, and asked to take another math class at a fifth.

I decided that I wanted to attend New College of Florida. I liked their educational philosophy (no grades, only written evaluations, the ability to create your own classes) and it was close to home and inexpensive. At the time there was a program in Florida that offered full in-state public tuition scholarships to anyone who met a certain SAT score, so my parents were just paying for room and board.

I left for school and had a difficult transition. The food in the cafeteria was pretty abysmal (It was later rated the second worst college food in the nation) and I lost some weight. I got into a really amazing acting class the first semester, and that made things a little easier. I was considering a sociology major, something that I now look back upon and laugh.

While all that was going on, I was really missing pottery. I had started throwing on the wheel the year before, and I had gotten really hooked. New College didn’t offer a single wheel class, and my attempts to design a pottery class for myself were unsuccessful.

By the time the second semester came around, my discontent was starting to grow. I felt like I didn’t know why I was there or what I was getting out of my classes, and I was watching my classmates graduate with little real world experience and almost no job opportunities. This was right after the financial collapse of 2008, and it seemed like an undergraduate liberal arts education was worthless- that your college diploma and two dollars would buy you a bus ticket.

In addition, I was totally frustrated with what seemed to be the very nature of a liberal arts education. We were assigned hundreds of pages of readings, written in this dense, verbose, masturbatory prose that no one in her right mind would read for pleasure or enlightenment. Then we were asked to analyze, interpret or regurgitate the information in pages upon pages of academic papers. And that was pretty much it.

With little exception, we didn’t DO anything. I think that was my biggest problem- I like to learn through action, and we never quite got there. I felt like every class was an introductory lecture that should have led to some awesome experiential learning but never did.

After my second semester ended, I spent the summer at home thinking about what I wanted to do the following year. In the end, I went back to school by default. I was tied in socially by that point, and I had a boyfriend at school to whom I wanted to be close. I made a final decision that I wanted to do a Psychology major, and I signed up for Psychology classes. I also signed up for a Queer theory class- a decision that would end up being the final nail in my college coffin.

Then I left for an unschooling conference. I knew I wouldn’t have time to do very much work over the weekend, so I was trying to do my Queer Theory readings on the plane trip, and the cookie finally started to crumble. I remember staring alternatively at the readings and the knob holding up the seat back tray when I started to panic. I consider myself to be a really good critical reader, but I couldn’t make head nor tail of any of these readings. It was literally as if the article was written in a foreign language, and it was fifty pages long. I remember thinking at that point that the emperor of undergraduate liberal arts was naked, and that if he really had something to say, he would say it in a simple and readable fashion. It seemed that if you spent so much time obfuscating your meaning with tricky prose, maybe you didn’t have anything too important to say in the first place.

The following day, I was on a panel representing grown unschoolers, and a good friend by the name of Ken Briggs asked: “So Brenna, why have you decided to go to college?”

I literally could not think of a single good answer for him, which was another small revelation. I think I ended up saying “sorry, today’s a bad day to ask me that question.”

Luckily, my parents hadn’t paid the housing costs for that semester yet, and I spent the weekend considering what I wanted to do. (They would have been in total support of any decision I made even if they had paid for that semester- it just made it easier that they hadn’t.)

I’d like to say that I ultimately made a totally rational decision that the time cost involved in continuing to go to college was not worth what I was getting out of my college classes. Maybe that reasoning was occurring on a subconscious level; I certainly wasn’t aware of it. In the end, I had to go with my gut. I knew that I was miserable in school and I didn’t know why I was there. I had come to hate it and feel like it was a waste of time that was getting in the way of my living a fulfilling life.

So I dropped out.

And I came home in a total panic. I spent about six months totally freaked about what I had done. I had nightmares several times a week that I had missed a test at school, or that I had needed to rush somewhere to get back into school.

I tried to spend a little bit of time each day thinking about what I wanted to do next, but I wasn’t really ready to do that at first, and forcing myself to examine my future was really terrifying.

Eventually, thinking about the future got a little bit easier and I started searching for an apprenticeship. On New Year’s Eve of 2009, I found one. Beginning to plan and prepare for that experience gave me more confidence about my choice to leave school. Actually participating in the apprenticeship convinced me, without a doubt, that I had made the right decision. (On the drive home from my first day at my apprenticeship I remember stopping for gas off of highway one and doing a little dance in the gas station parking lot from excitement and relief.)

I still have small moments of regret about leaving college. I was in the noodle aisle of the grocery store a few months ago, and I realized that I am never going to have a college degree. (I know, I could go back at any time- I’m certain I don’t want to.) I spent a moment feeling insecure about that, before remembering all the opportunities and experiences that I’ve had in the last three years that I would have missed out on if I had stayed in school.

Three years later, I can say with confidence that dropping out of college was the most liberating and empowering decision that I’ve ever made. I almost feel that my unschooling didn’t really begin until I dropped out of college, because I’m no longer doing anything because of the way that I think it will look on a transcript.

As it turns out, that’s a really nice way to live.

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Crystalline Glazing

 

In the spring of 2011, Blake and I traveled to India. We were sitting in a cafe in Dharamsala when I got an e-mail notifying me that I had been selected to serve as junior staff at Not Back to School Camp later that year. While I had been asked to staff at the first session, Blake had been invited to the second session as well. We planned on traveling to the first session together, and we had commitments after the second session ended, so I suddenly had a two week period during which I would need to occupy myself on the West Coast.

I immediately knew that I wanted to spend the two weeks doing something related to pottery. I started poking around online and found the website of the fabulous Dale Donovan in Corvallis, Oregon. He made crystalline glazed pots on a Christmas tree farm slightly outside of Corvallis- a town where I had lots of friends! I had been fascinated by crystalline glazing since I had first seen the technique the previous spring while attending Craft Boston, and I was determined to learn how to do it.

I immediately drafted Dale an e-mail, asking if I could come work in his studio and learn how to make crystalline glazes from him. I didn’t expect to hear anything back: I had needed to do quite a bit of fishing when searching for my first apprenticeship the previous spring, and I didn’t think I would luck out on my first try- it was just too perfect.

Much to my surprise, Dale e-mailed me back within a couple of days, telling me that he had worked with many apprentices over the years and that he would love to have me in his studio. When was I going to be in the area?

It was amazing how quickly things fell into place after that. Some family friends in Corvallis graciously opened their home to me, and they even had a bicycle I could use to get to my apprenticeship each day.

Once the apprenticeship began, I was very busy. I slaked down hundreds of pounds of clay in five gallon buckets and mixed the resultant glop with dry trimmings in a pug mill. It’s difficult to do this without creating results that are too dry or too wet, and my initial results were so hard that they clogged the pugmill’s mesh screen. As a result of that I disassembled the entire pug mill, cleaned it, greased it, and assembled it again. In addition, Dale asked me to organize his gallery- a project I adopted with relish.

In return, he showed me how to produce successful crystalline glazes. He threw a series of large and small vases and bowls on the wheel, and I did the same. We bisque fired them, and then I mixed a series of 22 different glazes in 500 gram batches. We used those glazes to run glaze tests on small test shapes and recorded the results. Then we selected a few glazes that we liked the best and I mixed them in larger quantities. Finally, we applied those glazes to our bisqued pots and fired them on pedestals. When they came out of the kiln we separated them from the pedestals and used a bench grinder and then a lapidary wheel to smooth and finish the bottoms.

By the time the two weeks ended, I was totally confident that I could go home and develop my own line of crystalline glazes, and that’s exactly what I did. I had never even mixed a glaze before, but I ordered a precision kitchen scale and a crystalline glazing book and I began buying things like Titianium Dioxide and Alumina Hydrate in bulk at the local pottery supply store.

My first few batches of crystalline pots were inconsistent, and when I got the glazes working properly I went on to have difficulties separating the pedestals from the bases of the pots. Less than a year since I started making crystalline work on my own, however, I can say that I have a line of crystalline glazes that give me consistently good results.

If you were just interested in hearing about my apprenticeship, stop reading now! The next section of this blog post contains tips and technical details directed at potters (chemists might be interested as well).

Here’s a basic formula for a crystalline glaze:

-50% Frit 3110 (A Frit is a combination of minerals that have been heated until they turned to glass, and then ground back into a powder. It works to lower the melting temperature of the glaze.)
-25% Silica (Silica, also known as flint, is what sand is made of. It melts and turns to glass.)
-25% zinc oxide (this is used to create crystals.)

Most crystalline glazes are variations on that theme, with other minerals sometimes added in for different effects. My base recipe also includes titanium and alumina. When fired, the silica and zinc in the glaze combine with one another chemically and form zinc silicate crystals.

The formula I provided above creates a white crystalline glaze. To color the glaze, you add one or two colorants in a concentration almost always below 10%. Some minerals you might use for color include iron, copper, cobalt, and nickel. Most of these colorants are toxic in their powdered form, so it’s important to wear a respirator when mixing.

Mixing glazes is a lot like baking a cake. Once the dry stuff is sitting together in a bowl, you add the liquid measure (water, in this case) and combine. I use a hand-held immersion blender to mix my glazes, and I don’t sieve.

Next, you brush the glaze on (or dip, but I make small batches so I brush). I do three coats with most glazes- four or five if the glaze has a higher metal content for complicated reasons.

Finally, I find a pedestal that matches the diameter of the foot of the piece that I’ve glazed, and I use a mixture of Elmer’s glue and kaolin (a mineral found in porcelain clay) to glue the piece to the pedestal. Crystalline glazes don’t have any alumina in them, and alumina is used in most glazes to make the glaze stick to the side of the pot instead of running everywhere. However, alumina also inhibits crystal development. The result of not including alumina is a really runny glaze that needs a pedestal below it to catch excess glaze that runs off the pot. Otherwise, you ruin your kiln shelves. (Even with proper pedestals, it seems like I’m constantly ruining kiln shelves.)

Next the piece goes in the kiln (with a bunch of other pieces) and goes through the firing cycle. My kiln has a very precise computer built into it, so I program it to run exactly the schedule that  I want. I’ll fire the first 1800 degrees at 308 degrees per hour, and then decrease the speed to 108 degrees per hour. Finally, I let the kiln “soak” at the peak temperature (about 2350F) for 15 minutes. Next I drop the temperature rapidly and let it sit at 2050F for two hours, and then 1950F for 30 minutes.

There are four major factors that affect the kinds of crystals you will get in a crystalline firing. Varying just one of these factors by a small margin can create totally different results which is awesome and infuriating. The important factors are:

1. Firing schedule: For example, I can decrease the soak that I give the kiln by as few as nine degrees, or vary the time, or vary the speed of the approach to peak temp, and my results change drastically.
2. Glaze formula: Changing proportions of glaze ingredients creates big appearance changes, for obvious reasons.
3. Glaze thickness: It’s counterintuitive, but a thicker glaze application gets me fewer crystals, and vice versa. A really thin coat will give me millions of rough, ugly crystals all over the pot’s surface and a coat that’s too thick will result in no crystals.
4. Clay body: Crystalline is almost always made with porcelain clay, but different kinds of porcelain have different properties and can create different results.

The day after I start the kiln, I unload it. I wait until it has cooled to three or four hundred degrees, and then I pull the pieces from the kiln one at a time and submerge them in cold water. Subjecting them to such severe thermal shock helps make the joint between the piece and the pedestal crack apart seamlessly. This is the part of the process where pieces are often broken, but the cold water technique has been working well for me. After running the pieces under water I tap the pedestals on the ground and they usually separate from the pots.

The final step involves grinding the bottom of the piece to a smooth finish. I use a bench grinder first, then a silicon carbide sanding disc that’s attached to a throwing bat. Once the piece is totally smooth on the bottom, I wash it thoroughly and it gets photographed, priced, and listed on etsy.

This technique is perfect for me: It requires a lot of precision, cataloging, and experimentation, and I like that about it. It’s also a nice change from the more creative, artistic, fly by the seat of your pants work that happens at the wheel. Thanks for reading this far!

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Asheville’s First Unschooler House

Last winter, Blake and I tried to start a grown unschooler house in Asheville. He posted it on his website. We talked it up to other unschoolers and advertised it on facebook. We looked at rental properties in Asheville and brainstormed about how to get around neighborhood associations. We ran into resistance from property owners who didn’t want twelve young adults (or five) suddenly moving into their rental houses. We discovered an old brothel law on the books in Buncombe County which states that it is illegal for more than four unrelated adults to occupy the same residence.

Eventually, we gave up. We rented a two-bedroom house, found a roommate, and lived happily ever after. For six months, until the house got sold out from under us and we had to move.

We knew that other people had group houses in Asheville, and we still really liked the idea of starting an unschooler house. We just didn’t know how to get around the property issue. It seemed like all of our acquaintances who had started group houses owned property, and we weren’t in a position to purchase a 6BR/4BA at the drop of a hat. We put the scheme on the back burner for the time being.

Blake went off to travel for the summer, and I moved into the house of the Asheville Holistic Birth Collective in West Asheville. At one point, there were seven people living there- all women. The house was owned by our good friend Tara Dean, and there was an awesome workshop space downstairs, a chicken coop full of laying hens in the backyard, a lovely kitchen with a gas stovetop range, a compost pile, an enormous southern style front porch with a giant swing, and an adorable and functional clawfoot bathtub. We were walking distance from the grocery store, the health food store, and the city’s hottest bar and ice cream shop. Basically, it was fabulous.

In the early fall, Blake came home and we left to do some traveling. Tara found a subletter to rent our room while we were gone, and we headed north to work at Not Back To School Camp and the Writing Retreat. Tara checked in with us while we were at camp, letting us know that one of our current roommates was moving out and she was trying to fill the space. She had several possible replacement candidates and felt optimistic about them.

Then, one after another, like flaky dominoes, they fell through. By this time we had reached the Writing Retreat, and she contacted us with more news. The occupants of the other room- a totally awesome mother and daughter-  were also leaving. Plus, the woman subletting our room was pregnant and planning on moving out and getting her own place soon. The awesome lesbian couple who had been living in the cute shed in the backyard had moved out and gotten married. Suddenly, we were looking at a totally empty house. Tara e-mailed us and asked when we could skype with her to discuss the situation.

The following afternoon, we sat down at Blake’s computer and connected with her via the Interwebs. Tara started us off with a question.

“How would you guys feel about starting an unschooler house?”

I was so excited I think I peed a little.

We went on to discuss logistics: Rent and utility costs, house fund, whether we would cook group dinners, how many bedrooms needed to be filled, and when she wanted to get this thing off the ground.

A few days later, she sent us a name and told us the website would be up and running within a week. And that brings us to today.

Ladies and gentleman, I’d like to present Asheville’s first unschooler house. It’s called The Roost: A Place Where Unschoolers Flock. The website should be available very soon, and I’ll post it as soon as it’s complete. It will contain more concrete details regarding costs, move-in dates, and so on.

Get yer applications in! Maybe we’ll be preparing a group dinner or playing an epic game of Settlers of Catan together soon.

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A Day in the Life of the Writing Retreat Kitchen Manager

If you’re reading this blog, you probably know that I’m currently working at the Unschool Adventures Writing Retreat in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. What you may not know is that, in addition to running a small group, keeping this blog, offering writing feedback, and cooking the occasional dinner, I’m fulfilling a very specific staff role: the kitchen manager.

Other staff are filling specific  roles as well: Cameron is the activities coordinator, Matt is responsible for dealing with chores, Blake is directing, and Dev is handling meds, first aid, and counseling.

I love details, spreadsheets, budgeting, and logistics, so this is pretty much the perfect job for me. And we have two awesome things this year that we didn’t have last year: A membership to the unfortunately named “BJ’s Wholesale Club” and a delivery account with Stop-N-Shop. The ability to buy in bulk is awesome, because these kids are like locusts, and the delivery account is awesome because it’s all online and the whole thing is searchable and sortable by unit price. Instead of going to the store and examining the price tags of each bottle of olive oil for the price per quart, I can run a search for olive oil and have the results sorted by those criteria. I can also sort the results by total price, fat content, carbohydrate content, relevance, protein content, caloric content, and size. It’s the kind of thing that I could go crazy over. Luckily, I don’t have time.

Last year we had a giant food budget and a lot of wasteful spending as a result. This year we have a much nicer space, but we also have a smaller food budget and seven additional students.

Here’s what a day in my life as the kitchen manager looks like:

I wake up and meander over to the larger building where most of the students are staying. I check the “Food Request List” and make note of any new requests listed in the last 24 hours. I make a judgement call about whether to purchase the things on the list. Mostly I’m considering appeal and cost effectiveness. Things on the “yes” list might include: hummus, apples, sliced cheese, brown rice, oats, and deli meat. Things on the “no” list include: almond butter (too expensive), apple juice (liquid sugar), Elijah’s beard (an actual request), poop (I don’t know what even), and fertilized eggs (yeah right, Paul).

Next I take a look at the “I used the last of the…” list and check the contents of the fridge and the breakfast nook. I realize that somehow the students have managed to eat approximately five hundred pounds of bananas, apples, nutella,  and everything bagels in the time since I went to sleep the night before (this is only a slight exaggeration) and that today will need to be a grocery store day. I realize we’re out of milk in the upstairs fridge, and I head to the basement to replenish from the second refrigerator filled mostly with dinner food.

Back upstairs I realize that the sign labeled with the cryptic words “Dinner Food: DO NOT EAT” was somehow unclear and that some food that we’ll need for dinner tonight is missing, presumably eaten. That goes on the list as well.

Once the list is complete, I head to the store. I go to BJ’s first and load up on bulk items. Protein bars, cereal, milk, butter, sour cream, cream cheese, hummus, eggs, almond milk, canned beans, crushed tomatoes, flour, and bread go in the cart. By the time I get to the end the jumbo cart is completely full and I’m piling the bread on top. (A few days before the hurricane was scheduled to hit we filled a second cart totally full of bottled water.) I check out, pocket the receipt, and load the car.

Next I head to Stop-N-Shop (I only place online orders when I need a ton of stuff- today I’m just picking up some breakfast and lunch items.) and grab another cart. I buy lunch meat (we serve mostly vegetarian food but try to supply some organic, humanely raised meat for the omnivores) and then head for the bagels. I buy nine to twelve bags of bagels and pick up some more olive oil because we’re out. English muffins are on sale, so I stock up. I pick up some chocolate chip cookies and sugar cookies and plan to ice them later for the group. Then I head to the produce section and buy carrots. Then I start filling the cart with bananas and apples. We need a ton of cauliflower for a dinner, so I pick up five heads and make my way to the checkout. The elderly man in front of me raises his eyebrows at my cart.

“You must really like cauliflower!”

“I have a lot of rabbits,” I tell him with a completely straight face. I’m not sure if he believes me.

When I get home I rally the troops and ask them to unload the car. They oblige eagerly, happy that I’ve come bearing food. I quickly realize that I’ve forgotten to get nutella, and there will surely be a riot if this situation isn’t rectified soon. I add it to the list for tomorrow.

I put the groceries away in a meditative state, thinking about how annoying this job can be and how much I love it. A student comes in and asks if I’ve purchased more almond milk, and I find it for her. I unload the apples and they are attacked with a vengeance.  I add the receipts to my spreadsheet and calculate that if I continue spending at this rate we’ll come in under budget. Eventually I sit down to write a new blog post. We’ve come to the middle of the retreat by now, and I’m struggling to come up with additional topics, but I have one that I’m excited about for today.

Dinner is served at six thirty, and I’m not cooking today. The staff fills their plates and disappears into the lounge for staff meeting. The interruptions begin almost immediately.

“Can I come in and get my laptop?”

“I left my bag in here!”

Blake tells them to wait until we’re done, but they don’t listen.

“It’s RIGHT there!”

Finally, we resort to locking the door. I think that most of the students are curious about what goes on in the staff meetings. I’m tempted to tell you that we make lists of which students we’ll sacrifice or something similar, but in fact it’s typically a time for us to check in with each other and discuss the following day’s activities in addition to any problems that need to be addressed. When dinner is over we mingle with students and wait for the dishes to be done before gathering everyone for the all-group meeting.

The meeting is inevitably irritating, with people speaking out of turn, arguing with one another, talking amongst themselves, and broaching irrelevant topics.

It’s also really nice. It’s often the only time all day that we’re all together in the same space, and we’re packed like sardines into the living room. There’s a decidedly bright and  friendly vibe in the air, and students cuddle and hang out with one another.

When the meeting adjourns we have small group meetings. Typically we check in and share our writing, soliciting critiques from one another. Tonight, Matt and I have a special surprise planned: about halfway through the meeting, he shows up with his small group to do battle in a rousing game of “Poop Smoothie.”

When we’re done there’s often partner dancing, games of Catan, or some other evening event like a poetry night or a talent show. I usually turn in around midnight, leaving the younger folks to burn the midnight (or 5am, as the case may be) oil.

I wake up the following morning thinking about my grocery list.

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