Monday, October 28, 2013

Cooking with Alton

Karen, our daughters, and I had a terrific Friday evening at Alton Brown's "Edible Inevitable" show, now touring the country. If you don't know Mr. Brown, he's hosted several programs on the Food Network over the past 15 or so years, including his own long-running "Good Eats" show and the venerable "Iron Chef America." I can't think of a better way to describe his TV persona than Alton did himself during a Q&A portion of the show, recalling the start of his career when he wrote three phrases on a piece of paper: "Julia Child. Mister Wizard. Monty Python." That's Alton Brown.

The show was good. I don't want to spoil it for anyone who might google up this post, but it includes over-the-top cooking experiments, puppetry videos and music, with Alton proving himself a credible guitarist and saxophonist (backed by a drummer and bassist). He stressed the importance of cooking and eating as a family. He's also very funny with both prepared material and working with the audience on the fly. A dry, sardonic, quick wit.

Just one bit to capture the flavor of the evening: following a song dedicated to the wonder of the Easy-Bake Oven, which young Alton pined for only to be scolded that baking was for girls, Mr. Brown brought out the actual 1960s' Easy-Bake Oven, powered by a 100-watt light bulb, that he finally bought with his own allowance.

Now that he's a big-time TV star, how could he take the Easy-Bake to the next level while, perhaps, proving all the sexist naysayers wrong? Why, by wheeling out a two-story tall Mega-Bake Oven powered by 56,000 watts of concert lighting and inviting a volunteer on stage to help him bake a pizza in three minutes at 600 degrees.

That's Entertainment!

I'm about the same age as Alton, love to cook, and shared his experience of being a boy not sure that was a manly thing to do. My sister and I watched cooking shows for fun (I particularly remember Graham Kerr, the Galloping Gourmet) and Mom dutifully submitted to our experiments. I also shared my sister's Easy-Bake Oven.

I have a vivid memory of being 6 or 7 years old and going to some sort of 4-H demonstration in an auditorium at which boys--and not just any boys, but rugged critter-corraling ranch boys!--showed off their cooking and baking skills. I think the idea was that if you were going to raise, slaughter and butcher it, you'd better know how to cook it, too. That was all the permission I needed. If it was good enough for strapping country lads, it was good enough for me. I fed myself through college and, as the work-at-home member of my family, do more than half the cooking now.

That said, I'm no expert or "foodie." I'd call myself a confident home cook who enjoys the process. I'll try anything. I make a good b├ęchamel. I think the great value of the types of TV programs Alton does is that they encourage people to try. It's not that hard; give it a shot; what's the worst that could happen?

OK, "fire" could happen. That would be bad.

Also "food poisoning."

"Second-degree burns."

"Cuts and lacerations."

Forget what I said. Kitchens are a death trap.

Our girls left home as adventurous eaters and cooks. I think one of the essential life skills parents owe their children of either sex is being able to handle themselves in the kitchen. Cook with them, bake with them, and shove them out the door confident they're set to survive on better than fast food and Ramen. They, their friends, and the world will thank you.

Thursday, October 17, 2013


I've been living the dream--the self-employed freelancer's life--for about 14 years now, and realized I've never really written about how that works. It has a lot of pros but also some cons, demands some discipline, and isn't right for everyone. But it's sure right for me.

When I say "freelancer" I'm not talking entirely about cartooning. My bread-and-butter day job is science writing and editing, which in the next breath I always have to explain means I write about scientific topics for a variety of clients. My niche is energy-related subjects such as solar power, wind power, energy storage, advanced fuel cells, superconductivity, etc. Exactly what I write covers a broad range, from little marketing pieces aimed at the general public, to magazine articles and newsletters for specialists, to advanced technical papers I (ghost)write and edit on behalf of researchers and corporations. I need to know a little about a lot of subjects--a mile wide and an inch deep--and be able to pick up things fast. I don't have to be an expert in superconductivity, but I may have to learn enough about it by tomorrow to have an intelligent conversation with someone who is. It's invigorating.

I don't get my name credited on much of my work, which stopped mattering to me long ago just as long as they spell it right on my check. A lot of what I do is proprietary. I just searched for some publicly available examples and the best I could find is this White Paper on solar photovoltaics I co-authored in 2007. About half my stuff looks exactly like that.

I work at home. It's great; it's also lonely. I am a huge fan of solitude, but sometimes it's even too much for me. I have a little network of people I keep in touch with and can call for lunch to stave off cabin fever. Still, it's a lifestyle that would make a more social person miserable.

Discipline is a challenge, sitting here working while dishes need washing and the dog needs walking. I have some tricks. One is to dress up as if I were leaving the house for an office job--nice slacks, button-down shirt, good shoes. A subliminal signal that "it's work time." I've relaxed in recent years, but when I started freelancing that put me in the right frame of mind. Also, I try to leave some small, easy task undone each night that I can dive immediately into the next day. It establishes a rhythm of getting right to work instead of screwing around for half the morning.

The Internet is both my best friend and worst enemy. Government statistics, corporate filings, quarterly reports, press release archives, and news libraries are available with a click. I have clients in other countries I'll never meet face to face.  I literally would not be able to do my job without it. On the other hand, Facebook or a tour of my favorite bookmarks can absorb an hour in a moment, and they're always there, on the exact same machine I use for work. It's insidious.

Other people often don't seem to understand that working at home is still working. They think nothing of calling to chat or asking you to run errands in ways they never would if you were sitting in an office. The thing is, my schedule is flexible enough that I probably can take the time to chat or run that errand; what you don't see are the extra hours I put in after dinner or on the weekend to make up for it.

Being a freelancer means not just doing the job your clients pay you to do, but also running a small business. I send out invoices, track income and expenses, draft statements of work, schedule my time, manage insurance, pay quarterly taxes, keep track of which clients require what paperwork. It doesn't need to consume a ton of time but it has to be done right.

Then I weave in cartooning. Making comics is very important to me, and I haven't quite cracked the nut of finding/making enough time to do as much of it as I want. I try to set aside time for it in my schedule, but it's hard to turn down well-paying work for something speculative and unlikely to pay at all. For a while I tried to treat cartooning as a separate career that required a dedicated time commitment. For example, every Wednesday would be Make Comics Day that I would take as seriously as if I had to go out and report to a second job. That lasted less than a month--probably until the first time something critical came up on a Wednesday. So I cartoon when I can, fitting it into the ebb and flow of gigs. I'm not happy with that solution.

But I'm lucky and I know it. My worst day as a freelancer is better than my best day as someone's employee. I knew I was a successful freelancer when, after a few years, I had the courage and confidence to say "No." I'm grateful. I'm also grateful that my wife Karen has an excellent job that nets a steady paycheck. I often compare my income to a farmer's: months may pass with nothing, until one day the crops all come in. My standard joke is that my entire retirement and healthcare plan consists of not pissing off Karen. Relying solely on a freelancer's income would be a hard way to support a household. I have friends who do it and I have no idea how. I'm not expressing awe, I literally don't know how they do it so don't ask me.

Freelancing is a good life, but not one for the weak or timid.

* * *

My compressed nerve recovery continues. Thanks for the advice and support expressed here, on Facebook, and privately. It's definitely a "two steps forward one step back" situation but the trend is toward healing. Though my fingers still tingle, I can draw again. I'm tapering off the powerful prescription narcotics and may soon have surplus pills to sell (that's a joke, NSA/DEA!).

I know many who've endured worse and don't want to make too big a deal of it (lest my neighbor Larry the Fed read this and greet me, as he did after my first post on the subject, with "hey Wimpy Kid!"), but this thing has knocked me on my butt for a month now and made me a lot more sympathetic to others than I might have been before. I'll try to stay in better shape. We'll see how long my resolve lasts but I'm beginning to understand that, especially as we age, maintenance isn't extravagance or vanity; it's a necessity. Whatever it takes to avoid another month like this one.

* * *

An hour after posting the above, I realized how to tie it together. There's no limit to the amount of sick time a freelancer can take, although I don't get paid for any of it. I can't imagine getting through my compressed nerve episode in a normal job. "Sorry boss, I really need to take a nap right now." I couldn't quit work at 3 p.m. nor could I start work at 3 a.m., which I've done some nights when I couldn't sleep. At the very least, I'd need a lot more medication to get through the day.

I don't know if that counts as a "pro" or "con." I sure appreciate the freedom. 'Specially at nap time.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Ah, L'Amour

Our girl dog Riley has a boyfriend who lives down the block: Simba, a yellow cat who comes running every time he sees us approach. Sometimes he follows us home and stares longingly through our windows. I'm not sanguine about interspecies romance, but these crazy kids might just make it work.