Monday, July 28, 2014

Exploring Connecticut: Blueberry Picking

When you can walk into the grocery store and buy blueberries at any time of the year, it’s hard to know when exactly they are in season. I certainly don’t know when most foods are in season, except for a vague knowledge that pumpkins and squash are harvested in autumn, and strawberries are in season in the summer.

This past weekend, when Aaron and I decided to go berry picking, I discovered that I had completely missed strawberry season, at least here in eastern Connecticut. I was very disappointed! Luckily, it is still blueberry season, so Aaron and I decided to pick blueberries. Aaron had only been berry picking once when he was about 9 or 10, and the only berry picking I ever did was along the creek behind my friend’s house as a little girl, where blackberries grew wild and delicious. (I sneaked the red ones when no one was looking.)

So we drove out to a blueberry farm about twenty minutes away, and realized we hadn’t brought any cash as we pulled up. Luckily, even in rural areas, one still encounters Dunkin Donuts, so we quickly drove back and got money out at the ATM.

Returning with our freshly withdrawn dollars, we arrived at the berry farm and walked down a slope to join the other pickers. I don’t think I’d ever seen a blueberry bush before that day. The farm was huge; the pickers only occupied a small section of the whole farm.

The price was only $2.70 a pound, which certainly beats the teeny containers in the grocery store! I enjoyed the satisfying plunks as blueberries fell into my plastic bucket, but plastic buckets are deceiving.

Aaron and I each had a small plastic bucket, about as big as a 16 oz. yogurt container. In addition to that, we had a gallon container lined with a plastic bag, into which we dumped our individual buckets. 

We never filled up our small plastic buckets. When you dump small amounts of blueberries into a gallon bucket, it doesn't seem as if there are all that many blueberries inside. However, when we walked up the hill to the checkout stand, we discovered that we had inadvertently picked over 3 pounds of blueberries!

We arrived home and Aaron made us smoothies: a blend of the blueberries, pomegranate lime juice from Trader Joe’s, and frozen mixed berries. Usually we add bananas and yogurt to smoothies to even out the texture, but even though we were out of both ingredients, the smoothie was amazing. I used to blend smoothies using only frozen fruit and juice, yet have recently discovered the tantalizing textures that a smoothie gains when we use fresh fruit.

I could snack on blueberries all day, but 3 pounds is way more than it seems, and we won’t be able to finish the blueberries simply by snacking! So we need your help, readers: what are your favorite blueberry recipes?

Also, I’d love to hear your berry picking experiences…who else managed to pick way more fruit than they anticipated? We had a lot of fun berry picking, and I’m hoping to take advantage of all the farms in the area, especially when fall arrives.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Write Journey

Get it? It’s the write journey for me…the right journey?


This is my first complete week of writing full-time at home!

It’s incredibly exciting to make this step, but it wasn't an easy process.

About a year ago, when Aaron and I moved to the East Coast, I decided to pursue writing. I loved writing intensively in college (and have been writing for my whole life), but my initial plan after college was to obtain my teaching degree. I spent two years as a preschool teacher, and I’ll always treasure the relationships I made with the kids, but I realized that I really didn't want to become a teacher. I just wanted to write. I began Sputnik Prose midway through my teaching stint in Santa Barbara (although in those days it was Work in Progress).

So I viewed our move as an opportunity to pursue my dreams as Aaron pursued his.

My first job on the East Coast was with a start-up women’s magazine. It was unpaid, but I loved seeing my name and words published online. However, unpaid is not going to pay the bills. I’d toyed with the idea of working in a coffee shop for a long time, and got a job at a local café.

At the café, I was treated like I was in high school. It wasn't all bad; I enjoyed my coworkers (most of whom were in college, not high school) and the food was delicious. But I was spending 30 hours a week in the café, instead of writing.

In mid-October, I started at a local preschool. As I worked part-time, I pursued writing as a career, but my next job didn't arrive until the end of November. However, this one paid me to write about books.

Around February, I realized that I needed to focus more effort on writing. So from February until the end of June, I job hunted wildly, with few results.

Aaron and I estimate the number of jobs I've applied for to be in the hundreds range…as in, more than two hundred. Most of the places I applied to never responded, even after multiple attempts to contact them via phone and email.

Here’s what a typical day looked like for me when I was working at home: I’d wake up, hopeful that this would be the day I’d find a job. I’d brew a cup of Irish Breakfast Tea, flip open my computer, and send a slew of follow-up emails. Then I’d scour my typical websites (Ed2010, Mediabistro, and Journalism Jobs, to name a few) and send applications.

Around mid-afternoon, I’d despair of ever finding a job. On good days, this led to half an hour of yoga and a cup of peppermint tea. On bad days, it led to tears on Aaron’s shoulder.

By the end of the day, I’d realize that once again, another day had passed in which I had not gotten a job.

Of course, that wasn't the end of the story.

In May, I was contacted by Arkleus. I absolutely loved interviewing inspiring people and hearing their stories. Many of them were young people pursuing their dreams as well. I've heard so many incredible stories through Arkleus, and am excited about every article I write for them!

June 30 was a magical date in Cooke family history. I received two job offers in the same day, and accepted both. They allowed me the flexibility to start writing from home, and a few days later, I gave my two week notice at the preschool. As I finished at the preschool and began to write full-time, I often clocked eleven hour days, and worked weekends.

Aaron was incredibly supportive throughout the entire process, and I firmly believe that if I wasn't married to him, I never would have done all this writing. He’s inspired me to be the best version of myself, and to grow continually. He’s critiqued my writing and supported me no matter what.

It’s been an uphill journey to get to this point, but I wouldn't trade the process. A year and a half ago, I doubted that I’d ever be published. Now I’m writing every day (outside when the weather is nice!), getting paid, and practicing yoga on my lunch break. I’m beyond excited that I have the opportunity to do this, and look forward to all that I will learn.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Exploring Connecticut: Rocky Neck State Park

Aaron and I have agreed that we always need to live on the coast. Even though we’re now about forty-five minutes away from the beach, it does my heart good to know that a short drive can still bring us to the ocean. Ultimately we’d live right on the ocean, but we’ll be content with a coastal state.

There’s something magical about the beach; spending time by the waves is always a soul-cleansing experience for me. My thoughts untangle and my mind opens to the vastness of a world so much larger than me. I love the sun and the heat and the sand and the sound of the waves. In college, I felt like I had arrived when I could track sand all around my dorm room after a few hours at Butterfly Beach. I prided myself on the everlasting presence of sand in the car in Santa Barbara.

Well, our Subaru didn't see sand until this past weekend, but at last, we were able to journey to the beach! On Sunday morning, we woke up, packed a bag of snacks and a backpack of books, and hopped in the car. We drove for about fifty minutes until we arrived at Rocky Neck State Park in Niantic, Connecticut.

Visitors can also go hiking at Rocky Neck, and can camp there. We spent all our time being lazy beached whales, but the surrounding area did look quite beautiful.

Everyone warned me that East Coast beaches are different from West Coast beaches, but I was pleasantly surprised by Rocky Neck. It was very sandy (a high compliment in my book), and although the waves were teeny tiny, the water was warm and I enjoyed wading far out from the shore; the water wasn't very deep, especially as the tide went out.

There were a few noteworthy differences, however. We had to pay thirteen dollars to park. True, people were supposed to pay to park at East Beach back in Santa Barbara, but that was a super touristy beach, and we only went there if we had walked from State Street. The beaches closer to our house were all free, and if they had started charging, we would have just parked in nearby neighborhoods. The entrance to Rocky Neck was not close to any neighborhoods (although we saw some once we walked further along the beach), and after paying at the booth, we drove for probably a mile before we reached the parking lot.

Second, the beach was absolutely packed. There were so many people! It reminded me of Lake Tahoe on the Fourth of July. There, limited personal space receives new definition, as hundreds of people pack in a tiny space to watch the fireworks. Rocky Neck wasn't quite as packed, but it was still far more crowded than the beaches we frequented in California, which were mainly local beaches off the beaten tourist path.

Third, the wildlife was different. This was a fun culture shock; people were actively hunting for crabs! Most families had a net to use! I even saw a few crabs. There were also several tiny schools of fish that I saw while I was wading, and unfortunately, I have no idea what kind of fish they were. The plants were different too; the park was packed with trees until a grassy plain brought us to a bridge, beyond which we saw the sand for the first time. We didn't see the sand until we were standing on it.

Even with such slight beach culture shock, we had an absolutely lovely time. We managed to find a corner of the beach that wasn't quite as crowded, and spent the next few hours unknowingly working on some sunburns (we did apply sunscreen, but not enough!), eating chips, salsa, and apricots, and finishing the books we brought. Aaron is currently blazing through some Terry Pratchett novels, and I finished Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck. It felt so healthy to soak up the sun after logging so many hours indoors over the winter. I felt physically and mentally free. Lying in the sun felt so decadent!

Overall, we really enjoyed our beach day! We always did our best to never take the beach for granted in Santa Barbara, but there was a small part of us that definitely did. Beach trips are more rare now, and all the more wonderful when they happen. I’m looking forward to experiencing more Connecticut beaches, with perhaps some Rhode Island and Massachusetts beaches thrown in the mix!

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Kitten Resilience

A few months ago, I had an important decision to make.

Where would Hobbes get spayed?

The idea of major surgery for my kitten made me really nervous. When my mom was seven months pregnant with me, her cat Jezebel, who was only seven years old, went to the vet for a routine teeth cleaning, and died. She had a previously undiagnosed heart condition that was discovered when she couldn't withstand the anesthesia. Obviously I have no memory of Jezebel, yet it was a traumatic event for Mom, and some of that sadness must have passed on to me. “Routine surgery” aren't words that reassure me.

I called a mobile clinic, which was $120 cheaper than the least expensive vet quote I’d received, and something in my voice must have told the woman on the other end that I was a crazy cat mom. She was incredibly reassuring, and told me that she takes her dog, who is her best friend, to the vet that performs surgeries in the mobile clinic. I put the date on the calendar and tried to forget about it.

Yet June 23 crept closer and closer, and finally, I found myself removing Hobbes’ food at 10 PM the night before her surgery. She was a little confused, but not very mad. She did try to break into a leftover pizza box on the counter around three in the morning. Luckily I woke up and was able to prevent her from eating the crumbs!

The clinic was stationed at a local PetCo about thirty minutes away, so Hobbes and I left early the next morning. I had expected to drop her off, leave to do some writing, and return to pick her up. I hadn't anticipated the line I’d wait in, or the conversations I’d have while I was waiting. I’d underestimated, foolishly, the power of pets to bring people together. While not everyone was quite as crazy as me, all the people in line cared about their pets, and had stories to share. I heard the story of a lady whose cat died while she was having heart surgery, but she had recently adopted a new beautiful white cat, who was there with her to be spayed. I met several lovely cats, included two black cats whose cat mom was a sweet ten-year-old girl who hoped to be a veterinarian one day. I even found out that there are good places in the area to go strawberry picking.

Hobbes is a very vocal cat, but once we got in line with all those other cats and humans, she quieted down and only made a peep once or twice. I was so proud of her! I dropped her off, and then went to a local Panera Bread, put the finishing touches on an Arkleus article, and ate lunch.

Hobbes looked like she’d been infected by zombies when I picked her up. She was absolutely silent the whole ride home, but did smile at me. The clinic vets told me to keep her in a confined space, so Aaron and I hastily set up a recovery camp in the bathroom with her litter box and water bowl and bed. Even though she tried to wander around, we locked her in the bathroom, and I was very glad we did. She tried to climb into the litter box, but was apparently still in pain and couldn't make it, so she peed twice on the floor. She never has any accidents, so I know she made an effort to get in the box. In fact, she didn't even pee in the car ride on the way home.

Hobbes usually complains very loudly if she gets shut in the bathroom. That night, however, she quietly climbed in her bed and stayed there for the entire night. In the morning, I fed her and let her out of the bathroom. She still looked drugged, but she did eat, and then she climbed up onto our bed and, according to Aaron, stayed there for the rest of the day. He was not feeling well either, so the two of them laid in the bed together all day.

When I arrived home from work that night, Hobbes looked one million percent better. (Aaron was better too!) She greeted me, meowed at me, and was eager to eat. She jumped into the window to watch me in the garden, and had plenty to say. I had been worried when she was so quiet, and was glad to hear her little voice and watch her personality return.

Other than her shaved belly, there’s almost no indicator that Hobbes recently underwent major surgery. She’s fierce, that little one, and she has a lot to teach me.

I’d dreaded that surgery for months, but now it’s over, and Hobbes is healthy and happy. She was never agitated, but was very calm and trusting throughout the entire experience. When I go through rough experiences, am I as calm and trusting? When change occurs in my life, or I face a particularly stressful challenge, I can know that in a few years, I’ll look back and realize how much I learned from that time. I’m learning to trust through difficult times, and seek to grow rather than to worry.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Create a Tiny Home Office

The Hobbit Hole is too small for a desk. We can fit a bed, a kitchen table, and a couch, but don’t have much room for other medium to large-sized furniture. However, I currently work from home two days a week (plus time on weekends), and wanted space to set up a home office.

Moving was not an option, nor did we want to move. We love the Hobbit Hole and our lovely backyard, as well as the convenient location to Aaron’s campus. Buying a desk was not an option either; there’s no place to put one anyway. I tried to set up a desk in a corner using a TV tray and kitchen chair, but that lasted for maybe two days. I thought about working at the kitchen table, but that didn’t work either.

Then Aaron’s Nana was getting rid of a comfy chair, and gave it to us. We set it up next to one of our bookshelves. Without ever discussing our functioning arrangement, I began to consistently use the new chair, and Aaron began to use the couch to study. I pulled the couch ottoman over to rest in front of the chair and used it as a desk, on which I could set my notebooks and refer to one as I wrote in the other. I could also place tea on the bookshelf, which is very important, because Aaron and I usually drink anywhere from 2-7 mugs of tea per day (don’t worry, we drink mainly herbal teas without caffeine; peppermint tea is our preferred blend). 

I began referring to the chair jokingly as “my office”. Yet as Aaron and I referred to it as the office, it began to feel more like a spot designated for work. Calling the chair “the office” helped the space seem official. Aaron suggested that I clear off a shelf of the bookcase to use specifically for my writing.

So today, I took the next first step towards making a home office in our small Hobbit Hole. In about thirty seconds’ time, I cleared off a shelf and began placing items on it that I’ll use in my writing business. I have pens, my notebooks, a dictionary, an idea journal, a MLA/Grammar reference book, a to-do list, and a picture of Checkers. Hobbes likes to join me in the office, too.

It’s important to be intentional about working from home. In order to create a productive space, it’s important for me to set myself up for success. My body is primed to relax in pajamas, so they don’t provide the kind of drive I need to write and research. Yoga pants are okay; I don’t climb into bed in those. In fact, yoga pants ready me for the mental and physical awareness of yoga, so they play into the goal of being productive at home.

I find it helpful to create a to-do list for the day. This tip came from my dad, who also telecommutes. Even if I don’t accomplish every single goal, the list gives me a trajectory for the day and helps keep me on track.

As my writing business expands, I appreciate having a designated office space. My office space evolved organically, and if you’re looking for a space in your own home, I encourage you to think outside of the desk. Some people need a desk to be efficient, and if that’s you, I’ve heard Ikea has awesome small desks! Yet if you can be efficient in a variety of locations, start opening your eyes to the places in your home where you naturally work the best. It may be that those spaces have the potential to be converted into a home office!

I expect my current space will continue to evolve as new needs surface, but for now my office works really well!

How does your working space help you stay organized and effective?

Monday, June 9, 2014

Exploring Connecticut: Coventry Regional Farmers' Market

84° F is the perfect temperature for this California girl, and that’s the temperature our world reached here in Eastern Connecticut on Sunday! To celebrate, we made a trip to the Coventry Regional Farmers’ Market.

The market is supported by Whole Foods, and was selected as New England’s Best Farmers’ Market by Yankee Magazine in 2012. It’s the largest farmers’ market I've ever been to. Attractions included live music, an oyster bar, booths with books by local authors, and food trucks. It occurs at the Nathan Hale Homestead. Those of you who don’t live in New England and aren't up on your Revolutionary War History may not know this, but Nathan Hale was a spy for the American army and was born in Coventry. He attended Yale University. He was only 21 when he was executed. Nathan Hale is a pretty big deal around here, as far as men who have been dead for over 200 years can be.

The farmers’ market had the feel of a large outdoor fair. People watching was definitely a highlight. In particular, we were surprised at how many people there were with full body tattoos. There were also lots of families and elderly people. The crowd was a contrast to the farmers’ market in Santa Barbara, where the gathering was primarily made up of hippies, twenty-somethings, and young families. 

We bought Russian kale, sun-dried tomato garlic chevre cheese, homemade rigatoni, and chorizo. Later that afternoon, we ate an entirely local snack: chevre cheese spread over Chabaso bread. Chabaso Bakery is located in New Haven, and they bake some of the best bread I've ever tasted! It’s a little more expensive in grocery stores, but it’s always worth it. 

Sunday evening I cooked the rigatoni, and made tomato sauce to go along with it. It was amazing! Aaron is not a huge pasta fan, but he married someone who ate almost nothing but pasta growing up (before my under-stimulated taste buds developed insatiable cravings for Mexican food). I've worked hard to convert him to pasta, and on Sunday he was definitely impressed by the fresh pasta and homemade sauce, and even went back for seconds!

We very much enjoyed the farmers’ market! I’ll definitely be going back there as often as possible throughout the summer, for the Russian kale if nothing else. We ate some of it for dinner tonight and it was delicious! We haven’t tried the chorizo yet (I’m planning to cook it up mid-week), but everything else was simply scrumptious.

I wanted to buy fruit, too, but didn't see much other than apples. I either missed the rest of the fruit, or will have to wait until summer. I've heard that most gardens are planted around Memorial Day, which means it will probably take a few more weeks for more produce to show up at a farmers’ market.

One interesting difference between California and New England that I've noticed is that in California, it’s summer right now. Summer begins near the end of May or the beginning of June. Here in New England, it’s really only been spring for three or four weeks. The leaves didn't come back fully until mid-May. The start of June did not mark summer for me. I need to relish spring a little more before I welcome summer.

My season schedule here is behind the season schedule in California. Of course, we didn't really have seasons in Santa Barbara. I always thought we had seasons in Southern California, because it would get kind of cold and rain for a few weeks in February. Here’s the hard truth: when you can get married in December in a sleeveless dress on a warm, sunny day, there are no seasons. When the temperature hits 90° in January and you can go to the beach in a bikini, there are no seasons.

It’s been fascinating to notice all these differences.

So far my coworkers at the preschool have provided the locations for these two Exploring Connecticut articles, and I’m so grateful that I get to share their Connecticut knowledge!

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Arkleus Broadcasting is Live!

Recently I began writing for Arkleus Broadcasting, a news network that seeks to highlight creative individuals who create beauty and positive change. So far they've highlighted a couple who’s been married for 60 years, a hero police dog, and a couple that creates art based on mythical designs, to name just a few.

My first assignment was to write about Jessamyn Rodriguez, who founded Hot Bread Kitchen in New York City. As I researched other articles and videos telling her story, and spoke with representatives from Hot Bread Kitchen, I was increasingly inspired by her story.

Arkleus launched on June 2, and my article came out on June 3 (although I was working that day, so I didn't see it until today!). Today in lieu of a long blog post, I’d like to point all you lovely readers to the article, titled “In This East Harlem Kitchen, Hope Rises”. To accompany the article, I also recorded a short video clip that Arkleus used in their daily show, It’s All Good. You can watch the clip here.

I’m excited to see what Arkleus brings to the Internet. There are not many news publications out there that are focused on presenting the goodness in the world. I've enjoyed writing for Arkleus so far, and can’t wait to research and read more amazing stories.

When you don't have any pictures readily available, go for pictures of kittens and ferns.