What My Childhood Rock Collection Taught Me About Life

When I was a kid, I collected rocks. Wherever I went, I would stare at the ground seeking stones to add to my little box of drawers. Over the years, I accumulated (found and purchased) nearly a hundred small rocks from around the country — thanks to family road trips.

Amethyst Geode

Among my favorite rocks were the geodes, especially the amethyst. A geode is a sedimentary or volcanic rock with internal crystal formations.

What always fascinated me about my amethyst geode was the dual nature of this rock. On the exterior, it is rough, grey and uninviting, but crack it open and a magnificent cavern of vibrant violet crystals is exposed.

Geodes are like you and me.

As we grow up and we endure life’s elements, we may become worn and develop a harsh exterior. We might stop talking to people for fear of rejection, or stop taking risks for fear of failure, or become afraid to love and be loved because of the difficulties it may cause us.

Like Paul Simon of Simon & Garfunkel, we risk becoming rocks. As the classic ballad goes, we “build walls, a fortress deep and mighty, that none may penetrate.”

It takes work and care to chisel open a geode, but it is worth the trouble. What we discover when we get past the rough outer shell is a beauty and splendor we might never have imagined was there.

The No-Facebook Diet: Why I’m Giving Up Facebook for 46 Days

Social Notworking

Although not for religious reasons, I am participating in Lent this year by making the ultimate 46-day sacrifice. I am giving up Facebook.

These days, the idea of unplugging from the mother of all social networks seems downright, well, anti-social. Don’t we all have a Facebook friend or two who has at some point deactivated their account? The reactions of friends range from “This won’t last,” to “Now how will we keep in touch?” to “Is she crazy?”

It’s as though Facebook has a monopoly on our social lives. Go to the page in your Account Settings where you deactivate your account and the first thing you’ll encounter is five images of you with friends, just some of the people Facebook assures you “will miss you.” As if Facebook were the only way to stay in touch.

I’ve been on Facebook for only three and a half years, and — although I have curbed my addiction in recent weeks — I have no doubt spent thousands of hours on this single website. Having it on my mobile phone ensures that any instance of boredom can be cured by browsing my News Feed, commenting on friends’ photos and reading and “liking” interesting articles. I hope that giving up Facebook will free up this time and mental energy to devote to more productive and rewarding endeavors.

It’s not that I am against Facebook. In fact, there are many benefits to embracing your online life. And I am a proponent of the social web as a tool for democracy.

At the same time, I want to learn about my friends’ lives because they share things with me personally, not because I read their status updates and view their photo albums anonymously. I want to wish friends happy birthday because I remember their birthdays, not because Facebook alerts me. And I want to learn new things by seeking out knowledge, not by having it dumped on me in a massive, random stream of data shared by 500 different friends.

The truth is, most of my best friends rarely interact with me on Facebook anyway. We make contact over the phone and in person. We share experiences in real life.

While on the No-Facebook Diet, I will pursue my career goals, engage in real experiences and nurture new relationships the old fashioned way. I will maintain my actual social network without depending on an Internet company to manage my relationships. I anticipate a newfound sense of liberation in life without Facebook.

I’ve made some strong statements in this post, but the truth is I’m not sure exactly what effect this sacrifice will have. I’ve only been on Facebook a few years, and I can’t remember life without Facebook. That’s what disturbs me the most.

Be back April 24.

One exception: I reserve the right to click the “Share” button below my blog posts in the next 46 days to share stories from this blog on Facebook. Doing so takes me to a blank page and keeps my home page and News Feed out of sight.

Post to Facebook

Our School at Blair Grocery: Achieving the Impossible in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward

Compost at Our School at Blair Grocery

Last weekend while in New Orleans, I visited Our School at Blair Grocery, an alternative, hands-on school and non-profit organization focused on teaching youth in the Lower Ninth Ward the principles of urban farming and sustainability. Our School at Blair Grocery is not just some agricultural magnet school. Rather, it is a place of hope and empowerment for youth in one of the nation’s most impoverished and crime-ridden communities — the hardest hit in New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina.

I first learned about the Blair Grocery initiative when it was covered in the New York Times last month. See: New Orleans School Sows Seeds in Lower 9th Ward. I was moved by the story and shared it with a friend who is a New Orleans resident.

A couple weeks later, I received an invitation on Facebook to a talk in Gainesville by someone with a familiar name, Nat Turner. Turner, as he prefers to be called, is the founder of Our School at Blair Grocery. At the event, he told of his journey from public school teacher in New York City to pioneer of one of the nation’s most inspiring urban agriculture initiatives in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward.

Dissatisfied with his job in New York, Turner moved to New Orleans to help with the restoration effort after Katrina. He described a period of uncertainty where he knew he wanted to make a positive impact but was not sure how to apply himself. Given a little time and a number of revelations — including the reminder that, whoa, food comes from the ground! — Turner taught himself all he could about growing organic vegetables. Meanwhile, he began offering free tutoring sessions to kids in the Lower Ninth Ward out of his now-iconic blue school bus, and acquired a plot of land from an old, rundown grocery store to convert to a school. That, in a nutshell, is how Our School at Blair Grocery was born.

Our School at Blair Grocery

Although class was not in session when I visited, it was evident that the school is a thriving enterprise. Upon arriving with a couple of friends, we were greeted by a group of people who were laboring to renovate the building’s exterior. After knocking on the classroom door expecting to find Turner and perhaps a few others, I was startled to see 10 or 15 adults turn their heads toward us as we interrupted a strategy meeting.

Turner was kind enough to take a break from the meeting and show us around. The tour began at the giant compost heap, which is comprised of food scraps that are acquired free from local restaurants and grocery stores. The scraps in the pile decompose and are then fed to worms to produce nutrient-rich castings. “Everybody poops, but worms poop gold,” Turner joked. This golden poop is the lifeblood of all of the crops grown at the school.

The compost pile was an appropriate starting point for the tour, given that compost is, as a hand-painted sign on the property reads, “the foundation of our food system and thus, the source of all LIFE.”

We were then shown inside one of the school’s many small greenhouses (or “hoop houses”), which contain shelves of sprouts that are sold at $20 per pound to high-end food establishments in New Orleans, including Whole Foods and Emeril’s Restaurant. The sprouts are an easy sell because businesses love the idea of supporting local food and disadvantaged children, Turner said. This revenue is an important source of funding for the school, along with earnings from a weekly farmers’ market, which we also attended on Sunday.

“You can change the world with every bite.” – Wise words painted on one exterior wall

It is clear that Our School at Blair Grocery is deeply driven to not only produce local food (and tons of it), but to enrich the lives of young people in the process. We were not fortunate enough to meet any of the students — since class is in session Monday through Thursday, and we visited on Friday — yet their presence was evident in the youthful character of the school. The school walls are painted with inspirational quotations and the property is adorned with signs that teach human values.

The students also play a role in tending the many garden beds and rows, and selling the produce to food establishments. They are taught important skills in the process. Composting teaches math, as students calculate the appropriate ratio of green materials to brown materials. Sign-making and sales offer lessons in marketing and entrepreneurship. And the students are quizzed on readings and films about food security and sustainability.

The students work hard, and they reap the rewards. Not only does the school award them fresh produce and a minimum wage — both of which help to support their struggling families — but they are taught that they can be somebody in a world that otherwise regards them as nobodies.

“Faith in the fact creates the fact itself.” – Quotation on the business card of Turner’s teammate Rob

In his talk in Gainesville, Turner spoke of the skeptics and nonbelievers who have little hope for the youth of the Lower Ninth Ward. In a community with such poverty and a serious juvenile crime problem, keeping kids out of trouble — nevermind inspiring them to lead rewarding and successful lives — is next to impossible.

Luckily, to Nat Turner and his team, “impossible” is not a forbidden territory, but an alluring challenge. One that they are seeing through.

Schoolbus NY2NO at Our School at Blair Grocery

“Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.” – Muhammad Ali

Follow Our School at Blair Grocery via the school’s blog and Facebook page.

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Eat Together

Eating Together

With all the talk of what to eat, what not to eat, and how much to eat, we often fail to consider one factor that is equally as important to our wellbeing, and that is how to eat.

While Americans’ increasing abandonment of home-cooked meals certainly has negative nutritional implications, the abandonment of the dinner table is an equally troubling trend. My guess is that the fast food and frozen dinners that are replacing home-cooked meals are not being eaten at the table but rather in front of the TV, at the computer or in the car.

Yet it has been shown that children who eat dinner together with family are happier and less troubled as a result than those who do not. And I think these benefits apply to friends who eat together, too.

For the first time since I moved out of my parents’ house four and a half years ago, I live in a household with roommates who value eating together. For months, the four of us have regularly cooked together and dined at the table together. We also regularly have friends over for dinner. In my opinion, there is no better way to cherish life and companionship than to share food with friends.

This communal spirit around food has, without a doubt, contributed immensely to the positive atmosphere in our home. And in times when we eat together less frequently, it is obvious that something is lacking.

Want a better life? Don’t just eat better, eat together.

Top 12 Vegan Meals in Gainesville, FL

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When I moved to Gainesville four and a half years ago, I never expected that it would be the vegan-friendly paradise that it is. Although there are no 100% vegan restaurants — somebody please correct me if I’m wrong — most restaurants offer vegan options. We also have two local tempeh manufacturers, Jose’s Tempeh and Artie’s Tempeh. As a result, you can find tempeh dishes at many Gainesville restaurants.

Below is a list of my 12 favorite vegan meals at Gainesville restaurants, in no particular order. Warning: Tempeh haters may find this list somewhat unappetizing.

  1. Curry Tempeh @ The Reggae Shack
    When I take friends to Reggae Shack, arguably my favorite Gainesville restaurant, I always recommend the curry tempeh. Reggae Shack has just about as many vegan options as non-vegan ones, with something like ten vegan entrees, four vegan sandwiches, and vegan appetizers like veggie patties, festivals and dutty fries. Don’t forget vegan smoothies and vegan carrot cake — my stomach is growling just from thinking about it.
  2. Tempeh Burrito @ El Indio
    Lettuce, tomatoes, guacamole and deep-fried tempeh perfectly wrapped in a large tortilla. One complaint I have about El Indio is the amount of paper and packaging they waste. The burrito is wrapped in aluminum foil and placed in a paper bag, which is then placed in a plastic bag along with way more napkins than you need. Otherwise, recommended. Warning: The tempeh burrito contains dairy by default, so be sure to ask for it vegan.
  3. Orange Tofu @ Saigon Legend
    You know Orange Chicken? This is the same thing but with tofu instead, and a bunch of stir-fried veggies, served over rice. Saigon Legend, a Vietnamese place on University Ave between 13th and 12th, has good, cheap food and a kind staff.
  4. Mongolian “Chicken” @ Merlion Singapore Cuisine
    Merlion, on south 13th street, has an entire five- or six-page vegan menu complete with faux meats galore. It’s hard to pick just one item, but I love the Mongolian “Chicken” (for onion lovers only!). Recommended appetizers: Avocado Vegetarian Soup and Veggie Chicken Satay.
  5. Sunshine Sandwich @ Flaco’s Cuban Bakery
    Drunk and hungry after the bars close downtown? Stop by Flaco’s and order a vegan Sunshine Sandwich. Carrots, onions, peas, olives, mustard — and some other stuff I don’t remember because I’m not usually “at my best” when I go there — on some delicious bread and pressed to perfection. Warning: The Sunshine contains dairy by default, so be sure to ask for it vegan.
  6. Raw & Vegan Night @ The Jones Eastside on Tuesdays
    My friend and outstanding chef Krishna Mali works at The Jones, and he has pioneered vegan and raw specials on Tuesday nights. Highlights include: “Raw-gout” raw spaghetti and Sesame Tempeh. According to what a waiter recently told me, raw chocolate avocado pie may be coming soon.
  7. $2 Tempeh Burgers @ Mother’s Pub & Grill on Wednesdays
    Go to Mother’s Pub on Wednesdays from 3 to 9 and get a deep-fried tempeh pattie on a bun with a Miller High Life or Narragansett (21-oz.) for a total of three dollars. Add a side of tater tots for 50 cents. What a deal!
  8. Tempeh Fried Rice @ Steamers
    Steamers is a hole-in-the-wall a couple blocks north of UF campus. When I go I usually get the Tempeh Fried Rice (ask for no eggs) and eat it outside on the plastic picnic benches. Large portion size. Warning: The tempeh fried rice contains eggs by default, so ask for it vegan.
  9. Nori-Wrapped Tempeh Tacos @ The Top on Tuesdays
    Tuesday is Taco Tuesdays at The Top. As with most of the food at The Top, the nori-wrapped tempeh tacos are magnificent.
  10. Vegan Benedict @ The Top brunch on Sundays from 11am to 2pm
    Hungover from Saturday night? Visit The Top for Sunday brunch and get yourself one of these babies. Fried tofu, lettuce and tomatoes over a biscuit, topped with a vegan cheese sauce and served with a side of homefries.

    I’ll let this photo do the rest of the talking:

    Vegan Benedict at The Top in Gainesville

  11. Tofu Quiche @ Book Lover’s Cafe
    Book Lover’s Cafe is the only vegetarian restaurant in Gainesville. It’s situated inside Books Inc., a used bookstore that’s also worth checking out. The Tofu Quiche is a good, lunch-sized portion that comes with your choice of soup and a slice of bread. Go support them, I hear business is rough for them these days, and I would hate to see Gainesville’s only all-vegetarian restaurant disappear!
  12. Krishna Lunch @ UF Plaza of the Americas from 11am to 1:30pm
    This one is not a restaurant, but it may as well be! I spent practically every lunch break of my college career sitting in the grass across from the University of Florida’s Library West enjoying a $4 plate (with free seconds) of Krishna Lunch with friends. Serving students on campus since 1970, the local Hare Krishnas know how to cook a great meal — my favorites are the curry chickpea dish on Tuesdays and chili on Fridays.

Don’t forget dessert:

  • Vegan Ice Cream @ Karma Cream
    Karma Cream is an organic ice cream cafe on University Ave, featuring about 12 vegan ice cream flavors, which you can combine in whatever way you’d like in a cup, cone, shake, sundae, over a vegan cookie or brownie, or even in a coffee or beer float! Also sold at Karma Cream: vegan cupcakes, organic beer, coffee and tea and organic dairy ice cream.
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