Generation X Feed

A Life of 'Voluntary Simplicity' - Q&A with Living Low in the Lou's Claire Schosser

Claire and Mike Schosser
Claire Schosser and Mike Gaillard.

By Lisa Brunette

Part 1 of a 3-Part Series

Claire Schosser writes Living Low in the Lou, a blog chronicling her and her husband Mike's journey of reduced energy consumption and self-sufficiency. She opted for early retirement back in the mid-1990s (with Mike following in 2001) by reducing their expenses through living simply, growing much of their own food, and forgoing many of the shiny new conveniences that the rest of us take as givens. For those outside the area, "the Lou" is a popular nickname for St. Louis, Missouri. The Schosser/Gaillard homestead is located on a one-acre plot in suburban St. Louis and includes many mature, productive nut and fruit trees, an extensive annual garden, an herb garden, and a glassed-in front porch that functions as a greenhouse.

Claire and I discussed their lifestyle and garden over the course of two in-person visits and many back-and-forth email conversations between spring 2020 and spring 2021. This three-part Q&A series covers the topics voluntary simplicity, suburban homesteading, and getting the most food for the time and space in your garden.

LB: You call your way of life "voluntary simplicity." For Cat in the Flock readers, explain how you live, and how it's different from mainstream expectations.

CS: Voluntary simplicity means that we decide what our values are and how to live to express those values instead of allowing mass culture to tell us what we are supposed to value and how we are supposed to live. It also means doing our best to live within the limits of what the earth can provide. 

The less time we spend on earning money and on all the activities, like commuting, that are required to earn money, the more time we have for our own interests. Spending less time earning money means we have less money to spend, so we limit the goods and services that money buys to the lowest level that we can manage. The less we spend on any particular good or service means the more we have to spend on something else we might need or want, so we prefer goods that are high quality and last for a long time and/or require little or no maintenance and/or are secondhand and/or are human powered. We do our own cooking and cleaning and as many other basic household services as we have the skill to do. These choices generally entail using less energy and less energy intensive materials than we would otherwise use, which also means we cause less pollution and waste to be produced so we come closer to living within the earths limits.

Violets
While others might see wild violets as weeds, Claire regards them as an early spring source of nibbles, as well as a food for pollinators.

LB: That sounds great. I have two followup questions for you on this. First, removed from the dependence on a job, how have you spent your time instead? Second, what sorts of modern conveniences have you decided are not important? Do you wash your dishes by hand? Line-dry your clothes? I ask because Anthony and I began hand-washing our dishes last year since dishwashers are so weak these days that we ended up washing them ourselves after a wash cycle anyway, and we wanted to save money as well as use the wash water in our garden afterward. We were surprised to find we both actually enjoy washing dishes - it's meditative and satisfying. 

CS: The house didn’t include a dishwasher when we bought it, and the kitchen is so small I didn’t want to lose any space to a dishwasher, so I decided I would wash the dishes by hand. Although I had a dishwasher most of my adult life, I find I don’t miss it at all. I often mull over ideas while I’m doing the dishes, or I listen to music.

After washing the dishes, I put as many as I can on a rack and let them air-dry. Perhaps I’m easily amused, but it’s satisfying to find a way to arrange the dishes on the rack so I don’t have to dry any of them myself!

Dish Rack
The dish rack at the Schosser/Gaillard household.

While we have a clothes dryer - it came with the house - I dry our clothes on clothes racks most of the year. Because they aren’t abrading each other as they tumble around in the dryer, our clothes last many more years than they did when I used the clothes dryer all the time. My three pairs of fleece-lined blue jeans that I wear for five to six months of the year are well over 10 years old, and I can still wear them in public!

I don’t use a vacuum cleaner. Our floors are wood and linoleum, so I sweep them with a broom and mop them to clean them. We rake leaves with a rake and shovel snow with a shovel. I dig garden beds with a shovel instead of a tiller. Mike splits wood by hand. Sometimes he saws it by hand, too, although he uses an electric chainsaw when sawing by hand becomes too difficult. 

We don’t have a television. Instead, we each read a lot and have particular interests that we pursue.

As for what we do instead of a job, we have lives. Granted, part of the time we do the not-so-fun things like cleaning, paying the bills and keeping track of expenditures, and mowing the mix of grass and weeds that isn’t part of one of the gardens. Most of the time, however, we are doing something that we enjoy and that furthers our life goals. This includes each of us having an active spiritual practice and doing volunteer work. We enjoy reading and creative pursuits such as writing and playing music. I spend a lot of time working on the various gardens and watching the birds who live here or visit.

Birdhouse
A birdhouse beckons over Claire's garden plot.

LB: You and Mike shifted to this lifestyle back in 1994. Taking such drastic steps as you have to get off the hamster wheel was, I'm sure, rarer back then. What made you decide to do it? How hard was it, initially? What are your biggest struggles now?

CS: I came to St. Louis in 1984 to work as a research chemist for a large multinational corporation. If I had been happy with corporate life, perhaps Id still be working and we wouldnt be having this conversation. But I wasnt happy. It wasnt just that I didnt like my job; nothing about corporate life appealed to me. I could see how every step up the corporate ladder restricted further what employees could say, do, or think. The only question was how long I could stand to continue working there. The answer: eight years.

When I quit my job, our household income dropped by almost two-thirds. We adjusted our spending downward, but within a year, it became clear that we were spending more than Mike earned. We tried to determine where we could reduce expenses enough to live on Mikes wages, but we couldnt seem to find any place where we could cut spending. 

Luckily I found the book Your Money or Your Life in early 1994. By applying the nine-step program in the book, we learned which expenses really were fulfilling and in line with our values and which werent. Knowing that, we dropped or reduced the most unfulfilling expenses. Within six months we were saving money, which by itself was a big boost to morale. Since we had dropped unfulfilling expenses, we felt better from that as well. 

Mike retired in 2001, when we calculated we had enough income from savings to cover all of our expenses. Then we moved in 2002 to our current house, drawing on savings to make energy-saving improvements. Interest rates declined in the early 2000s, reducing our income further. We went through some lean years, until we aged enough to begin drawing our pensions. Right now were doing well, while we continue to increase our resilience to economic fluctuations.

Canoe and Red Buds
A canoe under the red bud trees at Claire and Mike's place.

LB: That's an incredible life trajectory, Claire! By the way, Anthony's mother used Your Money Or Your Life (YMOYL) to retire early at age 55, pursuing a spiritual path and involving herself in a community called The Red Door that she helped found. She was active in both pursuits until she died of pancreatic cancer in 2011. So Anthony has read YMOYL as well. The problem for our generation, however, is that a lot of the advice in that book is no longer valid. Generation X has seen a dramatically widening wage gap between corporate leadership and the worker base. Pensions are no longer a thing (no employer has ever offered either of us one). Ours is the first generation in many to do less well than our parents. Finally, there are no longer any safe investments; savings accounts, CDs, etc., earn next to nothing, so we're left with very little besides the (rather volatile) stock market, and even today's 401Ks are tied to it. All that said, is there any advice you can give us as we work toward a hopeful kind of retirement? Also, I'm curious whether you had ever thought about leaving corporate life to go into a softer career, such as non-profits, or teaching? I've done both although in the end I had to opt for corporate work in order to pay off heavy student loan and other debt. 

Garden
A view of the tidy food garden.

CS: YMOYL worked for Anthony’s mother and for us because we could take advantage of pensions and good interest rates on safe investments. Without those the YMOYL goal of living off of interest from savings for many years becomes impossible; ordinary people cannot save enough money to do that at the current very low interest rates. 

I think the changes you’ve described are likely to continue and bring with them further changes that make the kind of retirement that my parents’ generation experienced a rare thing. To put it in ecological terms, previously stable economic patterns have been disturbed and are becoming more so with time. One of the things that permaculture teaches, a concept it borrowed directly from ecology, is that diverse ecosystems are more resilient to disturbance: they handle it better, it doesn’t tear them apart. 

Dogwood Blossom
Dogwood blossoms.

 What you and Anthony are doing and what Mike and I are doing increases resilience to economic disturbances by increasing our options to respond to it. The only form of resilience many people know is to earn more money. That is becoming more difficult to do. However, a more potent form of resilience is to need, and spend, less money and to increase our skill base so that we can more easily adapt to changing conditions. By growing some of your own food, you spend less at the grocery store; you eat better so you are healthier; you learn a skill that you can share with others; and you enjoy the satisfaction of gardening. By refurbishing patio gliders you saved the money you would have spent on lower-quality patio furniture and their replacements when they broke, you learned another skill, you have sturdy and beautiful patio furniture that will last for as long as you have a patio, and you have the satisfaction of doing it yourself. Everything you write about shows the different ways in which you and Anthony increase your resilience and maximize your options for later in life. The best advice I can give you is to keep doing what you are doing!

You asked if I considered other options for paid work such as teaching or working for a non-profit organization. Although I enjoy teaching on an informal basis, I never considered teaching in public schools. Even when I attended them in the 1960s and 1970s, it was clear that you couldn’t teach what or how you wanted. In grad school I did my research with a professor who began his career the same semester I started, so I had a front-row seat to watch the pressures that are involved in obtaining tenure. That was enough to discourage me from becoming a professor. Non-profit work didn’t seem much different from corporate work to me, except that it didn’t pay as well.

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Welcome (Virtually) to Our Home for the Holidays!

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By Lisa Brunette

One of the fun activities Anthony and I participated in pre-COVID-19 was the holiday parlor tour here in St. Louis' Lafayette Square neighborhood. It was a treat to tour historic homes - some dating as far back as before the Civil War - all done up for the holidays. We look forward to a day when such in-person events are possible again. In the meantime, we've given the 116-year-old Dragon Flower Farmhouse a holiday makeover and invite you to tour it from the comfort and safety of your own living room.

Fa-La-La-Llama

Speaking of comfort, the below llama pillow comes out only for the holidays... I'm not sure why a pink llama says Christmas, but it certainly does. As you might have learned from our last post on the living room makeover, we've got complementary colors pink and green in the main downstairs space. Complementary means they're opposites on the color wheel, and that makes them a vibrant pairing, as in the pink pillow on chartreuse here.

Llama pillow

The llama theme is echoed in the Christmas tree, as a key ornament. I've hung this one and a couple of other ornaments behind the tree to make the smallish tree seem a bit grander, as well as fill the blank walls left when I removed an antique leather whip and two vintage family photos that didn't look right as backdrop for ol' tannenbaum.

Xmas_OrnamentWall

The tree is strung with white lights and colors that harmonize with the room's palette: pink, green, white, gold, and natural tones from straw and wood. Rather than spending a lot of money just to color-coordinate a tree, I simply split our ornament collection into two categories, these muted tones and another crop all in primary colors, which fit the smaller tree in the dining room. But before I move onto that room, I want to linger here a bit in the living room, with of course the mantel as the focal point.

This Mantel Moment

Xmas_Mantel

I really love how the mantel looks for the holidays. The candelabra on the left is a vintage 1960s Brutalist design, which I found at a tiny thrift window shop that used to be part of a sweet little café owned and run by two women in Chehalis, Wash. The mercury glass candle holders are from World Market, and the brass deer is an antique mall find. I wish I could say I made the stockings myself, but they're from Etsy. (At least I hung them with care!). Yes, Chaco gets a stocking... what did you expect? Zander has one, too, but he's staying in Seattle for the holidays. 

The cube vase on the left is a collectible piece of memorabilia - a brick from the old St. Louis Arena, a major concert and sporting venue for 70 years before it was imploded in 1999. The other vase is handcrafted by an artist, but I picked it up at an antique mall on the cheap and unfortunately don't know anything about who made it.

Here's a variation on the mantel from 2019, with the Brutalist candelabra replaced with a star hurricane lamp, and the balance shifted.

Mantel 2019

Ornament Lament

Thinking about that Arena brick puts me in the mindset to share this holiday tragedy. You see, I went to a good number of heavy metal concerts at that place back in the day, but one of the acts I did not see was Kiss. I've related the whole story previously on the blog, but basically my parents were super strict sort of beyond reason, and they would not allow me to go to this particular Kiss concert in the late 80s, which would have been something to remember and tell your kids about, you know? What I did have, however, was this amazing Kiss ornament, gifted to me by my friend Alyssa Naumann back in the 90s, after she heard my Kiss concert sob story and wanted to give me something to make up for the loss. 

Kiss Ornament

Yeah, that's a Rock and Roll Over Kiss ornament right there, and you'll notice up above I used past tense: What I did have, however, was this amazing Kiss ornament... Past tense because a day or two after I took this photo, Chaco BROKE it. My wonderful Kiss ornament, which I have looked forward to getting out each Christmas for the past 25 years, on the floor, shattered to bits. Because of the CAT.

Words were said, my friends, and a grudge was held... for at least an hour, anyway. Chaco wormed his way back in pretty quickly, I have to admit.

Sigh. 

Red Tree

Have a Ball

The Kiss ornament was on the 'red' tree in the dining room, where a brighter palette prevails, all inspired by the ironic and iconic Miss Fortunato painting, done by Monica Mason, the wife of an old colleague of mine from the St. Louis Science Center. It was part of a series on circus side show acts; Miss Fortunato is "the luckiest woman in the world," because she's so beautiful, all manner of butterflies flock to her face, as if it's a flower (obscuring her face from the viewer). This painting originated in St. Louis, has traveled with me to Miami, Florida, and Seattle, Wash., and has now returned to just a few blocks from the home where it first hung. It fits well in between the moulding detail.

Here we are, all ready for a small dinner party before the holidays. The wool felt balls are from World Market (I can't help it; I'm a fan), and the turquoise table settings are Fiestaware. The vintage side cabinet is probably from the 1940s and was left behind by the previous owner of my house in Tacoma; I added heavy caster wheels and painted it black (it had been puke pink). The top comes off but was damaged in our last move, alas. The pewter candle holders in the two paneled areas are from my sister, Amy, who had them in her home for many years and then kept them in storage after the glass hurricanes broke and her décor changed. When she saw our dining room, she realized they'd be perfect, and she is right.

Dining Room Xmas

This dining room is actually next up for renovation, as that aforementioned brown paint is on full display here, too, covering all of the window and doorway trim, as well as a chair rail that runs the length of the room, which you can see above. We're thinking about a deep blue-green, as this room faces southeast, gets plenty of light, and could handle a darker hue. I'm considering painting the walls, trim, and the above white cutouts all the same color, for a more dramatic, rich effect. Maybe even the ceiling? What do you think? My brother keeps crying 'earth tones,' but that's not really my jam.

That concludes our virtual tour. Merry Christmas to those of you who celebrate the holiday. And to all, may 2021 bring you peace, happiness, and the freedom and safety to go... maskless!

Note: This post contains an Etsy affiliate link, but all other recommendations are non-sponsored.

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Around the World with Ernest and Friends - 'Fly Brother' Airs on Public TV, Create TV

Ernest
Ernest White II in Mongolia.

 

Editor's note: You know it's a thrill when a friend makes it to the big time. I've known Ernest White since the two of us were in grad school together for creative writing, both trying to turn our lives into art. We've stayed in touch ever since - across multiple time zones, career changes, and major life events. I've loved watching him evolve from writer to multimedia storyteller. I'm over-the-moon excited to bring you this announcement about his debut public TV series, Fly Brother. Here's Ernest.

By Ernest White II

It may seem odd to launch a new travel television program in a year when travelers are grounded with canceled and postponed plans to traipse around the planet. For my TV debut, the timing may not have been perfect, but it did give a new sense of meaning to my work. 

Fly Brother with Ernest White II is a new travel docu-series available in the United States on Public Television Stations and Create TV nationwide. The show follows my travels around the globe meeting with real-life friends and getting a local’s perspective as they show me around their home cities. In each episode, I visit their favorite hotels, restaurants, social haunts, and more. Throughout the season, we see festivities, food, and fun, but also the friendship that proves the whole world is our tribe.

Mike-Ana-and-Ernest-SF-Edited
Ernest and friends Michael Childress and Ana Ayala.

Season one takes viewers to Brazil, Canada, Georgia, Namibia, Sweden, Ethiopia, India, Tajikistan, South Africa, Colombia, and Morocco. My friends and I chase sunsets in Cape Town, twirl to the samba beats of São Paulo, explore the jazzy side of Stockholm, and much more. As the world begins to reopen to tourism, I'm also making plans to (safely) film a second season filled with even more unique experiences. 

Nambian-North-5-by-Ernest-White-II
In the Northern Flatlands of Namibia.

Beyond allowing viewers to ease the pangs of wanderlust, the show focuses on the power of connection and friendship through travel. As a gay, Black American man, I left the U.S. for a decade in search of adventure and community. I've circumnavigated the globe six times, befriending people of all walks of life along the way. It was during those travels that I realized that everyone—myself included—wants the same things in life: to be seen, empowered, and loved. It’s my life mission to express this love and sense of community through storytelling. As the world reckons with its problematic past and present, making an effort to build a better future, this unique message of interconnectedness is needed now more than ever.

Hong-Kong-by-Ernest-White-II-e1437674039264
Hong Kong.

The series first started airing on Public Television Stations this past spring and then made its national cable debut on Create TV in August. The show airs on Mondays at 10:30 a.m., 5:30 p.m., and 10:30 p.m. EDT. But don’t worry if you’ve already missed out on a few episodes. Create TV will re-air each episode of season one October 19th, so you can be a part of all the fun from the beginning, starting with one of my favorite cities and my former home for several years: São Paulo, Brazil. 

Sao Paulo by Rodrigo Soldon
São Paulo. Image credit: Rodrigo Soldon via Flickr.

For more information on the show, including how you can catch the latest episode in your area, sign up for the Flight List at flybrother.net

About Ernest White II

Ernest is a storyteller, explorer, executive producer, and host of television travel docu-series FLY BROTHER with Ernest White II, currently airing in the United States on Public Television Stations and Create TV nationwide. He is also founder and CEO of Presidio Pictures, a new film, television, and digital media studio centering BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and senior/elder narratives. Ernest’s writing includes fiction, literary essay, and travel narrative, having been featured in Time Out London, USA Today, Getaway, Ebony, The Manifest-Station, Sinking City, Lakeview Journal, Matador Network, National Geographic Traveler’s Brazil and Bradt’s Tajikistan guidebooks, and at TravelChannel.com. He is also senior editor at Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel, former assistant editor at Time Out São Paulo, and founding editor of digital men’s magazine Abernathy.

ErnestWhiteII_headshot-590x590

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The Secret to Our Six-Pack Marriage

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By Lisa Brunette

This month marks our sixth anniversary; here we are at our wedding in Seattle back in 2014. I chose this image to front the post because it captures the secret to our success as a couple: We both have a good sense of humor, and we're not afraid to laugh at ourselves, either.

You'd have to be able to chuckle in the face of adversity to weather the slings and arrows of the past six years. It's been a tremendous time of change as we've taken on challenges that seem more befitting twentysomething newlyweds, rather than second-time-around middle-agers like us.

While we married six years ago, we've been a committed couple for nine, and in our first year together, we lost Anthony's mother, A. Grace, to pancreatic cancer.

A truly independent soul, she'd wanted to change her name to just "Grace," but authorities said she had to at least have an initial along with it, so she chose A, and when asked, she would say it stood for "Amazing." So it was with a sense of charmed destiny that we held our wedding at a spiritual center where we'd found community, its name the same as hers.

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Grace made a deep, lasting impression on me in our short time together. Perhaps as a way to keep her with me, I named a major character in my novel series after her. The Dreamslippers series launched the month before our wedding.

A mere five months after our honeymoon, Anthony and I made the decision to move away from Seattle, the place we'd both called home for a decade. As a federal grant manager, his gigs were all term-limited to the length of the grant, usually two to three years, and his grant ran out. Not finding opportunity in Seattle, he cast a wider net, and a position presented itself in a little town called Chehalis.

It was both difficult and easy to leave Seattle. Difficult because of family - my stepson, then in high school - and friends it would be tough to be further away from. But Chehalis is only an hour and a half from Seattle, so we reasoned that these days, that's basically commuting distance, with regular train service between to ease the matter. Still, the decision was not taken lightly. Here we are with Zander at our wedding. 

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And here are my sisters in crime, with whom I shared many a drink and a laugh during years of losing loved ones, divorce, career drama, dating at middle age, and just living, the four of us exploring together all that Seattle has to offer. It hurt to leave them.

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So, in what way was leaving Seattle an easy decision? Anthony and I had been priced out of the housing market, and as Gen Xers, we'd consistently got the short end of the stick, surviving long periods of war, recession, and the dissolution of that nice little thing called pensions, with Social Security not likely to be there for us when we need it. Anthony and I were in our forties and staring into a future that showed little promise of that thing our parents' generation enjoyed: retirement. 

We'd also seen the city change dramatically in our decade as Seattleites, and not usually for the better. I describe this in two farewell pieces I penned for the blog - Bye-bye, Bartell... And Seattle, Too and Seattle, A Love Letter.

We were able to buy a house in Chehalis, a burg of only 7,000 people located at the midpoint between Seattle and Portland.

My working life changed tremendously with the move. I continued to write and edit for the game company where I'd managed a team for the previous four years, but I stepped down from the role as supervisor, passing the baton to my number one hire. I worked 3/4-time and remotely, with once-a-quarter visits to the office. I now also had the responsibility of novelist, as Cat in the Flock had proved just successful enough to push me to write followup books in the series. 

Here's my work crew at our wedding.

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When Anthony first introduced me to Chehalis, I had been very skeptical. It's in a county with a relatively high unemployment rate, and its landscape has been ravaged by meth. But the rural vibe had a certain appeal, and what sold us on the plan was the cute Craftsman house we were able to purchase for a mere fraction of the price it would have fetched in Seattle. We found there a friendly, supportive community, and for awhile, it looked like we might stay.

But then that light bulb of an idea blinked off, in a hurry.

I'd made a solid decision to exit the game company after five years, bolstered by the success of my first novel. Unfortunately, a year after Cat in the Flock released, the self-publishing bubble burst. So I turned to the freelance writing that had provided an income in the past, both journalism and game writing. However, another problem surfaced: Anthony's grant would come to an end, and contrary to what his boss had promised him during the hiring process, she was not going to retire and vacate her (permanent) position. Also, the college president who'd foreshadowed great things for Anthony was, um, fired. With few job prospects in our vicinity, we were in danger of soon finding ourselves without health care and other benefits. Efforts to turn up other opportunities failed.

We'd also, truth told, had a rough time of it in Chehalis. Zander fell into some wrong crowds back in Seattle, and we had to resort to some pretty drastic interventions in order to get him back on track. Of course we blamed ourselves even if it wasn't our fault, and it didn't help that the kid's mother tried to cast blame on us as well. We moved him to Chehalis with us, and he finished his last year of high school there. We also suffered a series of major health problems, and unfortunately discovered that Chehalis' medical offerings left a lot to be desired as we found ourselves taking frequent (and expensive) jaunts to Seattle to see specialists we wouldn't have to report for malpractice.

I know, this all sounds a bit too grave. Here, look at this fun piñata pic from our wedding!

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Fortunately, our extensive efforts to circle the wagons around Zander paid off. We're the proud parents of a hard-working, upstanding, promising young man. He's enrolled full-time at University of Washington and works as an assistant manager in a grocery store. During this very trying spring, he donned a mask and continued on as an essential worker. He also turned out to support his community during the protests that held Seattle for much of the spring. He visited us for two weeks this summer, one as our official intern at Brunette Games.

But back to Chehalis. With the books not earning an income and the full-time job prospects for us both slim, Anthony and I again began to plot our next move. We scoured the scene for opportunities in Walla Walla, his home town, and St. Louis, mine. We got a hit in St. Louis.

After I spotted the university's call for applicants to teach game design in late spring 2017, things moved rather quickly. They offered me a position as visiting professor, and I'd need to start work in St. Louis in July. That left us no time to sell our house, get Zander off to college, pack up, and make the cross-country journey. It proceeded about as awkwardly as you can imagine, with Anthony and I living apart for three months, me trying to string together affordable Airbnbs and having some truly awful experiences (drug deals, broken appliances, and dirty dishes, oh, my!), and the two of us having to put our Chehalis home onto the rental market when it wouldn't sell.

Feeling blue again? Check out this place setting from our wedding.

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I wish I could tell you that St. Louis and this teacher gig were the answer to our prayers, but they were... most decidedly... not.

Fortunately for me, two of the games I'd consulted on and written as a freelancer gained attention, one for its experimental innovation and the other for its commercial success. Suddenly, I had opportunity out the ying-yang, just at a time when I realized the university had overstated its promise of release time for such professional pursuits. Soon I'd have not just a full-time job's worth of game writing on my hands, but enough to hire additional help. Still, I loved teaching, and I had really wanted the university role to work.

But in early 2018, I withdrew my candidacy for tenure. It had become clear that the department's toxic environment would only bring me intense frustration in the years ahead. I also had no respect for the other visiting professor in our rather new, rather small program, and I did not relish the idea of trying to work with him for the long haul.

I ended up dodging a bullet. By spring, my office was barraged with complaints against that other professor, one of them a very serious allegation of sexual harassment. I don't want to spend more ink on this than I already have, so let's just say that I was monumentally relieved that I'd already made the decision to leave. That individual is no longer working at the university, thank goodness, but the fallout will be long-lasting.

Now I know you really need to see this pic of what a little girl looks like when she sees the bride for the first time.

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So in 2018 I hired some of my former game design students, as well as the Seattle-based editor of my books, and we were off to the races as Brunette Games, official. We've been thick with clients and games ever since. By 2019, I was already overwhelmed with the demands of running a business as well as a team, so I cast a sideways glance at Anthony, who worked for a micromanaging boss he didn't respect. He'd landed a position at a local non-profit, but obviously, it was the wrong fit. 

He had a decade of experience in grant management, preceded by a decade in the game industry as a brand manager. We'd already taught together when, in my final semester at the university, we linked my course in narrative design with his course in tabletop games, and it was a huge success. We had a solid marriage built on trust and communication. Surely we could work together, too.

It's been a year and a half since Anthony joined Brunette Games, and we have no regrets. I'm not going to sugarcoat how excruciatingly stressful it can be to go into business for yourselves, but somehow, it's easier knowing you have each other's backs. 

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I call this our "six-pack" marriage for the six years packed full of major life events, and not any other reason. We certainly aren't sporting six packs here, and since we've both lost the ability to drink, we can't count on a six pack to ease our pains. 

But we can crack a joke like anyone's business. We never forget to laugh, or to reach for each other's hand.

P.S. Who took our lovely wedding photos? Alexandra Knight Photography.

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The Skill That Goes Into a Skillet

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By Anthony Valterra

Right now, it is trendy to reach back for older technologies. There are, likely, a number of reasons for this. First, nostalgia is ever-present in our culture. When I was a young chap in the early 1980s, the decades of the 1950s and 60s were all the rage. We watched "Happy Days" and "Laverne and Shirley." My junior high even referred to our dances as "sock hops." Secondly, I believe there is a growing dis-ease within our society over the constant updates on technology. I am sure that I am not the only one who has vented out loud over some new improved version of an app, program, or website that is less functional, convenient, and/or easy to use. People are beginning to wonder, "Is there really that much value in the latest gadget?" Maybe some of that old technology is perfectly fine, does the job at least as well (if not better), and doesn't try to steal your private information in the bargain.

Cooking is one of the subject areas where some people are embracing older technology. I now grind my own coffee beans. And I use a hand grinder. It takes almost exactly as long as it takes for my water to boil to grind beans for my French press, I use no electricity, and my grind is exactly the way I want it. I think my coffee is now better than what I get at my local coffee shop. I also use cast iron skillets. And that is the subject of today's blog post.

I am aware that there are new technologies emerging in the realm of non-stick pans. I've heard that these new "blue diamond" pans are supposed to be toxin-free, non-stick, and virtually indestructible. I've also heard that they chip and/or scratch easily, and lose their non-stick surface quickly. Well let me introduce you to my little friend, "the cast iron skillet." The cast iron skillet is, truly, nearly indestructible. It used to be common for skillets to be passed down from generation to generation. They can lose their non-stick surface, but re-seasoning them is easy to do. I suppose, if you really tried hard, you could scratch one, but not with any kitchen utensil I know about. So, why have we switched to these new tech pans?

Well, cast iron does require a bit of thought and effort. But in return, you get a device that will not wear out and will not add toxins to your food or your home. In order to use cast irons, there are a few things you need to do:

  1. You need to season your pan (which I will cover).
  2. You need to learn how to care for your pan (covered in an upcoming post).
  3. You need to learn how to cook with your pan (covered in an upcoming post).

Seasoning Your Pan

Seasoning a pan is not difficult, but it will take some time. I would set aside an afternoon. You can get plenty of other things done at the same time, but you will want to be around to monitor the process. 

How do you know if your pan needs seasoning? The simple answer is that it looks dirty. If you are using your pan correctly (which will be covered in an upcoming post) and food is consistently sticking to your pan, or if it will not wash up easily after use, then it probably needs seasoning. If you can see rust, or discoloring, or the surface is uneven, you probably need to season. Rust is the enemy. You really want to get that off. If it does not scrape or wash off, here is an odd trick that really works; cut a potato in half, sprinkle the rust with baking soda and use the cut potato to rub the rust off. 

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A dirty skillet that needs re-seasoned.

But if you have no experience with a cast iron skillet, you may not know what to look for. So, this is what a well-seasoned cast iron skillet looks like. The surface of the pan should look like a black mirror. It will not be reflective enough for you to actually see yourself in it, but it does reflect light. The surface will be smooth and even. When you wipe it with a paper towel, the paper towel should show little or no residue.

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A well-seasoned pan

Step 1: Wash the pan

One thing seasoning does is use a lot of heat to clean your pan, but let's do our best to give the process a head start. You can start by using a metal spatula and water, as hot as you can take it, to melt and scrape any food or rust off of your pan. If you have food or gunk that is really baked on, put a bit of water in the pan and simmer it for about a minute to loosen it up. To get the pan really clean, I recommend steel wool without any soap embedded in it (like SOS pads have). You don't have to be religious about not using soap on your pan, especially if you are about to season it. But those steel wool pads are handy to have around after your seasoning, so why not buy a box? And if you are going to use soap, I recommend avoiding soaps with perfumes or chemicals.

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Plain steel wool - no soap

Once the pan is clean, heat up your oven to around 375 degrees. Make sure the pan is bone dry. You can even heat it up on the stove, on a low temperature, to make sure you drive off all the moisture. Using a paper towel, wipe the surface of the pan with oil. If you have done a good job cleaning it, the paper towel should come off clean. If it is not perfect, like I said, the process will clean it. Put your pan into the oven face down and let it bake for an hour. After an hour, turn off the oven and let it cool down naturally. Remove it from the oven (carefully - it might still be hot) and wipe it with oil again. Is the paper towel coming off showing nothing but the oil (no black gunk)? Congratulations, you're done! If it is still blackened by wiping the surface of the pan with oil, clean it, and bake it again. Repeat this process until the pan wipes without leaving residue.

I hear some of you remarking, "You say 'oil,' but you don't say what kind." That is a tricky subject and one that people feel pretty strongly about. Here are some guidelines. Any oil (except olive oil) that is liquid at room temperature is in danger of adding PUFAs (polyunsaturated fatty acids) to your diet. Some people think PUFAs are liquid death; others think that in a proper ratio with saturated fats they are fine. Traditionally, skillets were seasoned with lard, tallow or other animal fats. These work well, but if you are not using your skillet regularly (multiple times a week), they can go rancid. Some oils add flavor to the pan, which can transfer to your food (avocado, sesame, coconut, flax). Some people dislike that, and some people are looking for that. Finally, some people need their pan not to smoke at a very high temperature. They are planning to use their pan to do things like sear steaks before cooking them. In that case they need to use oils with very high smoking points (avocado, safflower, refined olive oil). If you've been following this blog you know that we render our own fat, so it will be no surprise that we use tallow. We cook with our skillet almost every day, so there is no real concern with the fat going rancid.

Can you mess up the process? You bet. I managed to make cardinal error number one seasoning the pan for this post. I did not make sure the pan was bone dry before wiping it down with oil and putting it in the oven. When you do that the oil clumps up, and your pan looks like it is wearing a camouflage pattern.

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Terrific - I messed it up

The fix is elbow grease. I got to spend a whole lot of time with steel wool in my hand and hot water. I even used salt instead of soap. It took a good 20 minutes of work, but in the end I got the pan seasoned correctly.

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A well-seasoned pan

Seasoning a skillet is one of those processes that anyone can do without understanding what is going on. It's like getting water scale out of the bottom of a teapot. You can know that an acid will likely break up that alkali residue, or you can do what your grandma did and pour some vinegar into the teapot and let it sit before cleaning it. But for those who are curious, here is the layman's science behind seasoning. The iron in the skillet is porous, and the high heat opens those pores wide enough to let the fat seep into the pan. This forms a layer that both protects the metal and creates a non-stick cooking surface. Thus, the effects of flavored oils, high heat oils, and the risk of oils that can easily go rancid. The oil you use to season the pan is still there after the process, even after you wipe it away.

The nice thing about seasoning is that it is not like coating a pan with a non-stick teflon. That is something that can only be done once, and only done in a factory. Seasoning can be done, redone, and done by you in your own home.

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