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We're Declaring Spring, Whatever the Calendar Says

basilTulips. The Easter Bunny. Flowered dresses. Clean closets.

Everyone welcomes spring -- which starts on March 20 this year -- in their own way.

For me, it’s time to start thinking about tomatoes.

In case you don’t already know this, I am a tomato snob. That is, I reject the perfectly formed, unblemished, bland, reddish-orangey blobs they sell in many supermarkets and offer up in salad bars. I also send back tomatoes in restaurants when they don’t smell or taste like the real thing.

I know I’m fortunate to live in a place with fantastic weather -- so fantastic, in fact, that we are readying our garden for the tomato plants we will pick up later this month and plant here in Silicon Valley. If all goes well, we should, in approximately 120 days, start enjoying a bounty of truly great tasting yellow (pear) and red (beefsteak, Early Girl, Roma) tomatoes.

To those of you who live in a similar clime, I encourage you to think about growing your own tomatoes, if you don’t already. If I can convince just one other person out there to grow their own tomatoes -- and to buy locally grown tomatoes when you have the chance -- I’ll feel like I’m doing my part to counter the negative effects of modern agribusiness on the tomato (you can read all about it in my essay on the topic, Confessions of a Tomato Snob.)

To those of you who may not be looking at planting a spring garden for a few more months, I offer my sympathies. I also have a suggestion: Herbs. Growing herbs is a lot easier than you think. Not only are they better tasting than the dried version, but you’ll also find that it will cost you a lot less than the fresh herbs you’ll find in most stores. Many nurseries now offer containers with a mix of herbs.

Here are five herbs I can’t do without -- and some suggestions for what to do with them.

Read more: We're Declaring Spring, Whatever the Calendar Says

A Month for Unsung Heroines

ChipetaHow many awesome, under-recognized women make up our history? Let's start by saying I recognized only one of the dozen honorees of 2014’s Women’s History Month, which kicked off March 1. This year, the National Women's History Project, which gave life to the list, chose to honor women of "character, courage and commitment."

“Against social convention and often legal restraints, women have created a legacy that expands the frontiers of possibility for generations to come,” the organization says of this year’s honorees. “They have demonstrated their character, courage and commitment as mothers, educators, institution builders, business, labor, political and community leaders, relief workers, women religious, and CEOs. Their lives and their work inspire girls and women to achieve their full potential and encourage boys and men to respect the diversity and depth of women’s experience.”

The woman who was familiar to me is Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq war veteran who was one of the first Army women to fly combat missions. She lost her legs and partial use of her right arm after her helicopter was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade and exploded. She earned a Purple Heart for her combat injuries, went on to serve as Assistant Secretary of Veteran Affairs, and in 2014 was elected to the House of Representatives for the state of Illinois.

You can find all the honorees here, and I encourage you to take a few minutes to read about these remarkable women. Here are a few I particularly wanted to call out.  

Chipeta (1843-1924). An Indian rights advocate who married a powerful chief of the Uncompahgre Ute tribe in what is now western Colorado, Chipeta (above) lived through the “often violent and brutal times of western settlement. Chipeta was a peacemaker who did not consider all settlers to be the enemy, often giving food to starving white families.”

Read more: A Month for Unsung Heroines

A Sweet Valentine's Day

Profiterole1The first time we put together our thoughts on Valentine’s Day in 2012, we offered some creative ways to say ‘I love you’ that didn’t involve overpriced ‘specials’ menus or expensive flowers. They include telling your family members one thing you love about them, sending an email to someone who hasn't heard from you recently, and getting out of bed early, putting on some warm clothes and comfy slippers and enjoying a cup of your favorite hot beverage in the brisk morning air.

Last year, we compiled suggestions for how to say “I love you” by taking a look at some of the most romantic sentiments shared in popular movies over the past 75 years.  One of our favorites is from The Runaway Bride: “I guarantee that we’ll have tough times. And I guarantee that at some point, one or both of us will want to get out. But I also guarantee that if I don’t ask you to be mine, I’ll regret it for the rest of my life. Because I know in my heart you are the only one for me.” 

This year, we decided it was time to say it with food. While many might think of brownies and chocolate truffles for Valentine’s Day, I offer up instead profiteroles -- a French dessert that’s basically a cream puff that you fill with ice cream and decorate with chocolate sauce. They look like you went to a lot of trouble but they are actually pretty easy to make. You’ll find lots of recipes online for making the choux pastry (also used for éclairs), but this modified version of a recipe created by chef Delia Smith is the one I’ve come to rely on over the years.  -- Connie Guglielmo

Read more: A Sweet Valentine's Day

The Olympics and Knitting: More in Common Than You Might Think

Regular readers of One Thing New – or just those who tripped across my column, "The Five Stages of Commuting: From Denial to Knitting" – know I’m an enthusiastic if infrequent knitter. So when I ran into Laura Zander at a conference last year, I felt like I had met knitting royalty. Zander runs Jimmy Beans Wool, one of the largest web sites selling luxury yarns for knitters and crocheters.

I soon learned she had a young son, loves to ski, and recently published her fourth book. I was dying to know how she managed it all, and just as curious to know why she called her company Jimmy Beans. Below are edited excerpts of our conversation about entrepreneurship, knitting, and Olympic skiers.
 
How did your store come to be known as Jimmy Beans Wool?

Jimmy is my nickname. Not that long after we met, Doug [her husband] and I were listening to a song by Todd Snyder called Doublewide Blues. I had just moved from Texas, and I bought a trailer because it was cheaper than rent. In the song there is a character named Jimmy, and he is the coolest guy in the whole trailer park because he has a blue plastic pool on the back deck. My husband started saying, “You’re cool like Jimmy.” He’s never called me anything else.
 
How about the “Beans”?
 
When we started the store it was both a coffee shop and a yarn shop.
 
The beans didn’t work out?
 
We thought, and all our friends thought, that the town really needed a coffee shop with spots to sit, and it’d be cute that there would be some yarn there as well.
 
After about six months we ended up selling the espresso cart because the yarn took off. It would get to the point where a woman would be prepared to spend $100 on some yarn and I’d have to say, “Can you hold on a sec, I have to make this $3 cup of coffee?”
 
Why go into business for yourself?
 
I was a software engineer in San Francisco during the dot-com days, as was Doug. Then the bust happened. We had purchased a house in the Lake Tahoe area and were renting an apartment in San Francisco. We decided to move up to that house full time.
 
I created my first company, Castle Peak Solutions, to build web sites for small businesses around town. I was unbelievably unsuccessful.
 
I had also just learned to knit and was totally obsessed with it. I was flipping through a Vogue Knitting magazine and saw an ad for a little teeny tiny company called Lorna’s Laces. There was not a web site listed. I called Lorna Miser-- and said, “I noticed you don’t have a web site. I can build you one.” We became friends and she said I should open a yarn shop.
 
At this point I would come home every day with a new idea of what I was going to do. Doug would usually just laugh and move on. This time he said, “Why don’t you find out how much it will cost?”  
 
I figured it would take about $30,000 to open a shop, and we had about $30,000 in the bank.
 
Did it seem risky to open a yarn shop just as online commerce was taking off?
 
No. And now I feel like we should have more retail stores. Yarn, you’ve got to touch it. It’s a shopping experience. It’s not toilet paper. It’s not even a book, where there’s something to be said for physical bookstores.
 
You need help. There’s community in a store that you can’t find online.
 
The web site came pretty soon after. We were software engineers. So of course we thought we’ll have this yarn shop. But in our town 80 percent of the population are/is second homeowners. We thought our customer would go back to the Bay Area, and if she needs more she’ll order more from us online. Last year we did more than $7 million in sales. And 98 percent of that came from the web site.
 
How do you manage the business, your dozens of employees, spend time with your son and husband, and not go nuts?
 
Something has to give, and it’s different week to week. This past year I’ve been traveling a ton. What gave was my physical fitness. I haven’t been exercising because I can get home and I can work out for an hour, or I can be with my son for an hour. I choose to be with my son.
 
I still make dinner, but I don’t really cook. We hired a cleaning lady. While we’re at work, Doug and I don’t talk. We used to chat all the time. Now I consciously think about if what I’m going to interrupt him with is worth interrupting him or if we can talk about it later.
 
Over Christmas was the first time I’d done a knitting project in ages. I don’t read very often. I don’t do any hobbies or crafts for myself any more.
 
Would the business be different if you didn’t have children?
 
Yes, but personally I think the business is better because I do.
 
Before we had our son, Doug and I worked seven days a week. We could accomplish things simply through brute force and time. Now I’m forced to let things go because I simply refuse to work seven days a week any more. I was forced to delegate.
 
When you first hired employees for Jimmy Beans, what surprised you about managing people?
 
How much I sucked at it. The main difficulty was in communicating what I wanted. I’ve learned over time that when you’re asking someone to do something, you need to be very specific about it.
 
I used to tiptoe around a lot of stuff. I was 27 when I opened the store. The majority of people who worked there were 50 years old. So I just avoided any kind of real management. I still have a hard time with my role and how people see me. I’m getting there, especially as I get older.
 
How did you end up sponsoring the U.S. Ski team?
 
I was in Germany at a knitting show with the president of [yarn company] Coats and Clark North America. He’s from Canada and he’s a skier and hockey player. We thought that somehow, there has to be a connection between knitting and skiing.
 
A couple weeks later he got in touch with me and said, “Find out what it would take to become a sponsor, and we want to do it with you.” We became, with Coats & Clark, the official yarn supplier to the U.S. snowboard team and freeskiing team. All the athletes get yarn, needles, and patterns. The VIPs that go to world cup events get yarn and patterns.
 
At a big [skiing] event there’s a sampler village, and you’ve got Nature Valley handing out granola. We have Stitch Mountain, where we’re handing out yarn, teaching people to knit. People love it. What better thing to do after a day of skiing but sitting in the lodge and making a hat? A lot of the athletes knit and crochet.
 
How did you get the idea for Stitch Mountain, the book of patterns you recently published?
 
Doug was skiing in Alaska with Tommy Moe. I was like man, you’re with Tommy Moe, we’ve got to come up with something. Ask him if he’ll be in a book. It’ll be Tommy Moe saying, “Here’s the hat I wish someone could make for me.” Or, “Here’s my lucky socks. Whatever works for him.” We spent a year getting athletes to say yes. [Olympic mogul skier] Shannon Bahrke — her grandmother made her a blanket years ago and she still uses it. We did our version of her blanket as a pattern in the book. [Free style skier and gold medal contender] David Wyse knits as well. A hat in the book is modeled on one he made for his wife.
 
A percentage of the sales from the book go back to the ski team.
 
What advice would you have for entrepreneurs just starting out?
 
Cash flow is king. Make sure you’re building a profitable business. With profit comes freedom. You have options. You have creativity. If you’re always struggling with the money part of it, it just stifles creativity. In that sense, it’s just like the rest of your life.

February 5, 2014

Missed our last issue? Here you go:
7 Smart Way to (Literally) Play Dumb

If you liked this story, you might also like:

Awesome Role Models for Girls -- or Anyone
Temple Grandin: You've Got to Stretch These Kids!
How I Learned to Work a Room, and You Can Too

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Photo courtesy of Laura Zander


 

Oscar Movies and the Bechdel Test


The Bechdel test is simple. To pass it, a movie must include:

1. Two female characters
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something other than a man

The shocking thing about the Bechdel test isn’t how easy it is to pass. It’s how many movies fail.

This year’s Oscar contenders for Best Picture demonstrate that you can have a movie with strong, complex female characters that still fail the Bechdel test (Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock, is the most obvious example).

But in many cases, a movie’s inability to pass the Bechdel test is quite telling. Take 12 Years a Slave, for instance. Yes, the main character is male. But isn’t it odd that in a serious movie with a variety of themes, no women ever talk to each other unless they’re talking about men? What does that tell us about the filmmakers’ take on women, and on female relationships?

Read more: Oscar Movies and the Bechdel Test



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