Thursday, July 30, 2009

Potrero Nuevo Farm

Potrero Nuevo Farm is a newcomer in Half Moon Bay's agricultural landscape. Not even two years old, it has already accomplished a lot and promises lots more in the field of sustainable farming and living. An offspring of the Potrero Nuevo Fund, a foundation that supports community based organizations, the farm is a slice of heaven.

Set in Half Moon Bay amidst rolling hills on Tunitas Creek Road, a winding paved road popular with bicycle riders, the farm could be a model farm. Thanks to, we joined a private tour by coowner Bill Laven, Vida Verde co-founder Shawn Sears and Suzie who works on the farm. While GreenMoms events always have an (obvious) environmental slant, this one was exceptional both in choice and inspiration.

Bill set the tone with a description of the barn/kitchen where we were sitting. "The walls are insulated with blue jeans," he said, "and the roof with soy products. The roof is also covered with solar panels that SolarCity installed. In addition, the farm is hoping to set up a gutter and storage tank system that will make it possible to collect rainwater to irrigate the fields." Right at the outset, we were impressed. Bill is a former teacher and took the time to learn the children's names before asking them questions - a nice plus for a family-friendly organization. Out of the barn, we crossed the road and headed up the hill to milk a goat.

Shawn led the way. He leads Viva Verde trips, environmental education programs for Bay Area 4th to 6th graders. Kids come, one class at a time for three days, and do stuff they don't do at home - such as sleep in teepees, milk goats, make fresh cheese, work on the farm or hike in coastal redwoods.

Our group got to pet the goats, learn how to make a teat with our fingers (to practice) and then milk a goat aptly named Squirt. Once we (more or less) understood how to make the A-OK sign with thumb and pointer to squeeze it down, we volunteered, children first, to fill the pail with warm goat milk. Slightly anxious in front of so many strangers, Squirt was eating a bucket of her favorite cereal. Each child took a turn, at first timidly and then with authority, while Squirt patiently withstood our milking trials. Adults followed, either intrigued or plain eager to see how it felt. Shawn caught us off guard when he asked around if anybody wanted a quick taste .... right off the tits! Giggles in the audience as Shawn began his targeting exercise, aiming directly at the drinkers' wide-open mouths. This was no easy task but clearly, he'd done it before. I tried and enjoyed the warm milk. It didn't have that strong goaty flavor but rather was mild and creamy.

We left the animal world to explore the vegetable world, led by Bill and Susan. We stopped first in front of three neat piles of compost. I'd always wanted to compost at home but never really knew how. As Bill and Susan explained the ins and outs, composting became very concrete. The key words are: greens to bring nitrogen (carrots, greens, peas...), brown to bring carbon (hay, wood shavings...), water and air. Arrange in layers, let it sit and turn over every other week, making sure the stack remains moist. If you have a farm or stables nearby, you can ask for horse manure to mix to the compost pile. When piles are active, they reach an impressive 140 to 160 degrees F. The children gathered around Susan who was scooping out two handfuls of compost from the middle of the pile to show how warm it was. "Are there any worms in there?" asked a little girl, hopeful. Unfortunately, the worms were busy at work - way down below. However the handfuls were warm and smelled like ... dirt - a pleasant surprise for everybody.

Our next stop was the alpacas and the chicken coop. Susan let the children lift the wooden doors of the chicken coop and browse through the straw to find warm eggs laid in the morning. How glorious the children looked with each a fresh egg in their hands, holding their prized possessions like they'd never seen an egg before. Meanwhile, the alpacas (recently shaven therefore looking like awkward fluffy pets) paced around. Still holding their egg, the childen each grabbed a handful of chicken feed and threw it on the floor. You'd think these chickens had been starved a week. They flocked to the feed spots, avidly pecking whatever they could eat. Out of seven chickens, there were four different varieties: Japanese Bantam, Cochin, Araucana and Brahma. One of them produces an egg with light blue hues, a true beauty.

We moved to the "production field," the vegetable garden where 26 different crops grow year round. Susan pointed to early girl tomato plants. "We're trying dry farming on those," she said. Dry farming combines water savings with sustainable agriculture. By drastically reducing irrigation, you encourage the plant roots to go very deep to get to the water table. "Not all types of soil are appropriate for this," added Bill, "you need a soil that retains moisture such as clay." If you live on stony soils, they might allow too much drainage for this type of farming but the idea to force plants to become self-sufficient for their water needs is fascinating.

"We need a few children to help harvest the lettuce plants!" said Susan, holding a cardboard box. Young volunteers eagerly followed her steps and with some grown-up guidance, neatly cut greens to put in the box. Meanwhile, I asked Bill what they did with all these vegeables. Surely, they sold them at the farmers market? Actually, they just started attending the Half Moon Bay Farmers Market three weeks ago but they only sell a portion there. The rest is donated to the Catholic Worker House for their soup kitchen, so that low-income families can enjoy farm fresh produce in their meals.

There are two last items that are noteworthy when you go to Potrero Nuevo Farm. The first one you see from the road and it's called The Bike Hut. It's a bright red former-garage-turned-small-barn where bicycle riders can stop to make a hot drink and rest. It's open 24/7 and relies on an honor system. There's a suggested donation for tea and coffee, plus picnic tables outside and the opportunity to refill your water bottle.

The second item is much more intriguing. It's an outhouse; not a regular outhouse though, a humanure toilet. In line with the farm's philosophy, it makes "humanure" out of you guessed what. Go on, don't be shy. Step inside and try it out. The inside has a gorgeous round window with a view on the hills, as well as a marble-like cement platform made with sea shells collected on the beach. Once you're done, scoop out a cup of wood chips, drop in toilet, close lid and take a whiff. Smell anything? No, there's nothing unpleasant here. It's actually surprisingly odor-free. The outhouse has two sides that are used every other year. After a year of sitting dry, you get humanure and believe it or not, it's safe to use as fertilizer in California farming. Not that it will be done at Potrero Nuevo Farm (Bill told me they wouldn't use it on vegetable beds not to gross out customers), but hey, it's a great dinner topic regardless. If you want to try a humanure toilet at home, check out this milk crate version. People will always remember you.

As for Potrero Nuevo Farm, you can meet these great folks by going to the Half Moon Bay Farmers Market, calling to farm to arrange a tour, or by keeping an eye on the website or Facebook page as a CSA might be in the plans. You can also join GreenMoms and participate in similar events by signing up here.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Swimming in the Bay: St Francis Yacht Club to Aquatic Park

"When you hit Fort Mason, cut to the wall," said Leslie Thomas of Swim-Art, a group that organizes open-water swims in the Bay. "The current is very strong and it will push you parallel to the shore. You want to make it to Aquatic Park's opening as quick as you can." As the last building of Fort Mason stood across from us, Barry the kayaker instructed our group to cut to Aquatic Park's wall. NOW. I started swimming. Really swimming. As if I'd been loafing about all the way from St. Francis Yacht Club. Until then, I'd been in denial of the current. Now, I could see easily myself floating away to Vallejo. I just couldn't believe how strong the current was.

On any given Sunday morning, waking up at 5.45am is probably not your usual routine. Mine either. But waking up bright and early to jump in 55 degree waters to get slapped by salty waves in the Bay? You'd have to be nuts/masochistic or seriously motivated. I like to think I'm part of the second group with a total understanding of the first group.

At 6.30am, I parked along Aquatic Park. My friend Christine pulled in at the same time. I had changed into my wetsuit directly from my pajamas so technically speaking, I was ready. While Christine changed, I observed a lone swimmer who was already doing laps along the buoy line. A guy suffering from agoraphobia maybe? Later in the morning, you sometimes have to fight for your square footage of swimming water. Leslie arrived and other people gathered.

We were to break into two groups (fast, not-so-fast) and drive to St. Francis Yacht Club at the Marina in two cars. There, we would wait for the last person, get instructions on the currents and dive in. On the parking lot, I was getting pretty cold barefeet without my fleece jacket. Shivering in fact. The air was brisk at best. We could only see the base of the Golden Gate Bridge's pillars. The rest was fogged in. Therefore, I couldn't wait to jump in the bay. Swimming would warm us up.

Mark and Robert, two swimmers, pointed at a black head bobbing in and out of the water. "Check it out, there's plenty of sea lions out there!" they said. Indeed, we wouldn't be the only ones getting wet. Finally, it was time to get in. We understood the drill.

Total distance roughly 1.5 mile, feels like 1 mile because of strong current coming in (from the Golden Gate Bridge direction Bay Bridge). Hop from buoy to buoy until you're one fourth of the way to Alcatraz and then swim. At Fort Mason, cut towards the wall without waiting. Follow the wall 20 feet away and enter the lagoon. It should take just under an hour. There. We also knew to stick with our group and frequently check with our kayaker. Both were equipped with radios and connected to Leslie who would wait for us at the finish line. Barry and Colin the kayakers also had a horn that they'd only sound to get our attention in case of emergency.

We got in. The water felt good, not quite as cold as I expected it. After a few breast strokes to get water flowing down our spine (ah, the "wet" part in wetsuit), we broke into freestyle to get to the first buoy. Suddenly we felt fine and the waves not bad at all.

As expected we wouldn't see a darn thing underneath. I sort of scouted for sea lions - didn't really want to bump into one by surprise but given the visibility I wouldn't have any choice- and jellyfish but all I could see was a green glass sea with tiny bubbles sparkling around me. It was invigorating and I forgot all about getting up at 5.45am.

As it's hard to tell distances in open water - no black lines to follow at the bottom you see - we sort of hopped from point A to point B. Past the two buoys, we saw the shape of Fort Mason's buildings against a dark silver sky in the distance and swam towards them. Not sure we could have swimmed against the tide anyway. We were on a high-speed train, so to speak.

As salty as the water was, I didn't swallow too much of it and breathed every three strokes to even out chances of salty mouthfuls. Sometimes a wave would carry me higher than expected and my arm would find a second of void on the way down. It was weird. We were now pretty far from the shore but still saw the buildings on the Marina clearly. Barry kept paddling between the four of us of the not-so-fast group, checking in on us. Had I been on my own, I might have worried, not really knowing where to go or what to do. But with a kayaker with us and a boat ahead of us, I felt as safe as possible and enjoyed the experience to its full extent.

I've done a few swims now at Treasure Island but the feeling of freedom does not compare with the "real Bay." Outside of a wind-sheltered cove, we were at par with big oil tankers, coast guards and whatever wildlife was there. Above us, brown pelicans were soaring low, fishing for breakfast. To our left, Alcatraz Island. I couldn't decide if it looked far or close but looking at it from the water was definitely different.

From time to time, Christine and I waited around observing big boats on the horizon, fascinated. On such occasions, we chit-chatted as naturally as around a camp fire. How are you doing? Fine, and you? Feels good. Sure. Did you see that bloat? Sure did. Eventually we were reminded that this was an A to B "swim clinic" and we moved along.

Fort Mason on our right. Barry paddled to us and told us to get to the wall. NOW. So we did. At first I swam diagonally but when I saw that I was being literally carried away by the current I drastically adjusted my course. If I aimed before the wall, I'd eventually make it after the wall. We made it and I was relieved.

At the foot of the pier, the fishing lines looked dangerously close so we steared clear from them. Fishermen eyed us with interest. The neoprene wetsuit kind of fish, yup, a school of those. The pier's reinforced concrete pilings weren't too inviting and we followed them reluctantly until the lagoon opened, then made for the beach. There. Just under an hour. I felt exhilarated. Judging by the look of the others on the beach, they were happy too.

As a reward, we walked to Green's inside Fort Mason and devoured a fruit scone with vanilla rooibos tea. Can't wait to do it again.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Peter Pan the Musical at The Berkeley Playhouse

Another reason to cross the bridge? A boy who can fly. An abusive pirate captain. A fearless Indian girl. A lost island in Neverland. A jealous and impertinent fairy. Soaring high above Victorian London. Sounds familiar?

Last weekend, Berkeley Playhouse opened their summer performance of Peter Pan The Musical to a full house. We saw it with our 4 and 6 year olds and loved it.

Performing arts are usually all-kids or all-grown-ups affairs and this rare combination of both children (as young as 7) and adults works wonders. For some in the audience, the high point came when the pirate crew performed a manly tango with gusto. For others, the moment of bliss came when Peter Pan recovered his shadow played by a dancer in black and the pair waltzed away with Wendy in the nursery. Or it could be when actors climb in and out of coconut trees to engage in fights.

Whatever your favorite part in Peter Pan, you've gotta love a musical that includes aerial acrobatics, sword fights, live music behind the stage, creative sets, skilled actors/singers/dancers and a heart-warming Nana dog-nurse.

When we got inside the theater, we were relieved to see there were pillows on the floor at stage level for children to sit on because it was so crowded that we had to sit up in the pews (where the views weren't bad, mind you, since it's a small theater). After an introduction by director Elizabeth McKoy, the orchestra played the themes and the show began.

At first, we couldn't see the full set as dark blue curtains cradling the nursery were hiding the island coconut trees, pirate ship and Lost Boys hideout. Forgetting all about Disney's green Peter Pan, we grew to appreciate Brandy Collazo's impersonation of the egocentric likable brave boy who wants to never grow up. Ms. Collazo is already a veteran of Broadway-type performances in the Bay Area and she carries the character well into songs and bravado.

As we leave the nursery with aerials of various forms, the stage opens up on Neverland. By then, we'd already enjoyed solo and duo dance acts but we were about to discover the full extent of Tom Segal's skills as the show's dance choreographer. The pirate dances are simply to die for - completely offbeat, highly energetic and humorous.

In the pirate crew, actually, Captain Hook (Gabriel Grilli) and Smee (Michael Laplante) form of the funniest male duos I've seen in a long time, followed closely by the two pirates who rock back and forth a giant blue wave in the grand battle finale with a mischievous look in their eyes.

The other character who really stands out, when you compare with Disney's version, is Tiger Lily played by Rebecca Pingree, a former Janet Weiss in The Rocky Horror Show (tells you how charming and lioness she can be). Never before had I realized how strong a female character Tiger Lily was - and a leader too. The rivalry that sets her against Wendy to gain Peter Pan's undivided attention is one of strong elements of tension in the musical, where Tinkerbell definitely takes the back seat (no, no scantily-clad blond bimbo playing Tink).

Of course, when Tink sacrifices her life by drinking the poisoned medicine, the audience joins in that fantastic clapping act to show that we all believe in fairies and that Tink shouldn't die. When I saw Peter Pan the musical at the Orpheum with Cathy Rigby in 2006, that same wondrous clapping moment brought tears to my eyes too. Seldom as an adult can you actually take pride in believing in fairies!

After Indians and Lost Boys finally join forces and set aside their past resentment, that's when the pirates strike and the final battle does not disappoint.

My 4-year-old told me with pride after the show that the crocodile had nodded to her during that battle, waiting to get to Hook. What a sweet child-loving crocodile...

Now for practical details, because you wouldn't want to miss that show, would you? Peter Pan the Musical will be performed every single weekend through August 23 and features both evening (7 pm) and matinee shows. Note that the show lasts 2h30, but both my girls' attention didn't falter throughout. So go ahead, get your tickets here. Don't go whining in September that you missed it in July. It's not like you haven't had advance notice.

Plus, by attending this performance, you are encouraging the Berkeley Playhouse, a great place that operates both as an arts conservatory and a professional theater. These guys really deserve a good audience for all the hard work done and the quality of the show. So as I said earlier, yet another reason to cross the bridge ... or stay on your side if you already knew everything about sun-zoning.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

NASA's AMES Research Center: Fly Me To The Moon, 40 Years Later

Did you know ... the NASA now launches spacecraft as big as shoe boxes that look like toasters?

This particular nanosatellite is called PharmaSat and contains yeast. No, not to make space cakes. Its primary design is to study the efficiency of drugs in space, as in antifungal treatments for instance. Why? Well, if you're going to spend the next year or so headed towards Mars with other dudes who've got athlete's foot issues, you really want the toaster to nail the problem.

Obviously, there's more to PharmaSat than mushrooms in space but it shows a face of the Silicon Valley that few people are familiar with: the future of space exploration.

Missions Not Impossible

PharmaSat is one of several otherwordly projects that scientists work on at the AMES Research Center, a little city of its own with 5,000 people working on anything from music to the mechanics of roller-coasters applied to flight simulators. Built on 1,780 acres of land at the Moffett Federal Airfield, the AMES Research Center works on several high-profile missions that get the world's attention whenever they take off.

Take the current LCROSS lunar mission that looks for water underneath the surface of our moon. Or the KEPLER mission that searches for other worlds like Earth in galaxies around us. Or the SOFIA mission, a flying astronomical observatory in the stratosphere.

Does this read like a script for a sci-fi blockbuster? It should. What these guys are doing is out of this world - for real.

Behind the Scenes

I visited the AMES Research Center to interview Dr. Kim Ennico, an astrophysicist who develops instruments to make measurements of astronomical objects. She recently worked on the LCROSS mission and as I entered the building for the meeting, she showed us a graph with the most recent position of the LCROSS spacecraft orbiting around the moon, looking no less excited than a toddler with a new firetruck.

If you thought of scientists as loopy people in white robes, it's time to revisit the stereotype. Granted, these guys have a weakness for the color white when it comes to scientific wardrobe. Granted too, not everybody calls her recent pastry tryout X-PRP1 for eXperimental Plum Raspberry Pie-1. Martha may just call it a fruit pie a la spatiale (or a space pie!).

But someone like Dr. Ennico is above all seriously having fun and if it takes tons of math equations to get her enthusiasm, I'm game to try!


Dr. Ennico is a passionate individual with a very curious mind who makes you wonder why you didn't question the established order more when you were a kid. When growing up, she just wouldn't take "because it's the way it is" for an answer and retreated to books at the library to find satisfy her curiosity. Now, she gets to play with cool toys that go into space, a job she clearly loves.

"There's nothing wrong with being curious," she says, adding that the necessary corollary of frequent experimentation is accepting to learn from past mistakes. If you are never afraid to fail, obviously you will expose yourself more openly to new ideas and accept whatever results you get. I found this attitude very healthy. Children should be encouraged to learn and figure things out.

You'll learn more about what makes kids love science in my next article for Actually if you want to involve them in live science before, this weekend just might be your luck.

Moonfest 2009

Got kids who enjoy robotics, rocket launches and weird science? Have neighbors who collect telescopes to watch the moon? Come celebrate the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11's 1969 lunar landing this Sunday July 19, 2009 at the AMES Center. The MoonFest is a free event that will include music, kids activities and yes, rocket launches (plus, robots thanks to the Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute).

Yes, it's been 40 years since that giant leap for mankind. Time to sing Fly Me To The Moon and watch a commemoration in photos here on SFGate.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Across Tenaya Lake - Open Water Swimming at 8,150 feet

Surrounded by granite domes and lodgepole pine forests, Tenaya Lake is the crown jewel of Yosemite National Park's high country. Set at 8,150 feet (2.484 m), the silver blue lake is a beautiful sight to behold right after you pass Olmsted Point.

Since it is one of the few Sierra lakes not open to motor-boating and surprisingly attracts very few swimmers, my friend Christine and I decided to swim across it from East to West on July 4, 2009. We are currently training for Escape from the Rock, a swim race from Alcatraz Island to San Francisco's Aquatic Park and we thought a high Sierra lake would be great training ground.

The lake is roughly 1 mile long and when I asked a ranger if she had any advice for crossing the lake, she looked at me with googly eyes and asked if I had a wetsuit. Guess it doesn't happen too often.

The East side seems like a better starting point since the area is very shallow (see the photo for how shallow and clear the water is - bonus points for no rocks) and you can warm up with a few strokes before reaching a big boulder that's really the start of the swim. Plus, our goal was to reach the tall white tree in the middle of the western-side beach and we didn't want to venture too long over deep unknown waters.

Water temperature was hard to gage but high 40s to low 50s (roughly 10-12 degrees Celsius) seems fair based on averages and the fact that nights were in the low 40s.

As far as itineraries, we closely followed the northern edge of the lake, trying to keep parallel with the hiking trail just in case we needed an emergency landing. After all, we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. I strapped around my waist a bright yellow belt with a waterproof disposable camera (to take photos) and flip flops, in case I needed to exit and follow the trail on foot. As my husband commented, "you'll be more buoyant like this!" Sure, buoyant was what I needed.

The first dive was refreshing as the lake's waters slithered down our spines until we warmed up enough to feel comfortable. Christine with a black swim cap on, I with a bright green Swim-Art swim cap, we didn't linger long in shallow waters as we planned on completing the swim in an hour or so.

At first, I was glad I could see through my big swimming goggles. For sure, I'd be able to avoid obstacles. However for some reason, I got nervous when visibility trickled down to less than a few meters. That's odd given that I have absolutely no qualms swimming at Treasure Island with Christine every other week with just enough visibility to see my hand. That was not something I expected to feel.

The other thing I did not expect - but I should have- was how sweet the water was. After weeks of swimming in Treasure Island's salty waters or my community pool's mix of chlorine and salt, that was actually nice. The water tasted sweet and I liked it.

As I scouted the bottom for unusual or oversize objects (for instance, boulders like this nice specimen or fallen logs - of which there are many), I did not see a single sign of aquatic life. Though Tenaya Lake is open for fishing, there's usually barely more than a boat or two with anglers enjoying the alpine landscape. When we were swimming across, Christine and I crossed the path of two kayakers but there was none of the fishing kind on our side.

My strategy was to try to swim above somewhat visible ground as much as I could as deeper bottoms spooked the hell out of me. Again, there's no reason for this but it just did so I preferred to stay in "safer" waters. As the lake's underwater topography varies a lot depending on where you are, sometimes that meant being a hundred yards from the shore and sometimes that meant being 20 yards from the shore.

Christine was ahead of me, regularly checking on my green cap to make sure we were on the same path. When we thought we reached mid-point, in front of Polly Dome (? I think, although climbing topos seem to indicate other possibilities), we actually stopped to chit chat and take photos. Yes, that's how relaxed we were. Floating in the middle of a dream lake is not such a bad thing, after all. We took the time to take in the landscape from a rare vantage point and turned around.

Our voices seemed incredibly loud, yet the lake wasn't quiet at all. There were a few gently rolling waves and the sound of the wind swooshing on the water. A few cars here and there, hardly noticeable. From where we were, we couldn't hear the birds. We felt so good reaching half point that we even took turns diving underwater to snap a few shots. Although it was hard focusing through the goggles with the tiny lens of the camera, we managed to get ourselves in the frame. As the water was really kind of chilly, we didn't stay very long under water though. To warm up, one solution - get back to swimming! So we did.

Crawl again, breathe every third stroke, and keep the rhythm. After that point, we really wanted to reach the end. My only problem with the second half of the swim was that we needed to leave the shores during a pretty long time to swim above deep and dark blue waters. Again, I felt nervous. Somehow, I'd grown accustomed to criss-crossing logs, broken bits of rock and rotting chairs (even the remains of a boat if I'm not mistaken) and I was not mentally ready for the unknown.

Ah well, ready or not, there was no turning back. There was only going forward and we both did. I followed Christine who plowed through the now-deep blue waters with a firm and non-equivocal stroke. As for me, I could see the white tree clearer now and tried not to think much of the lake's depth. I knew we were getting closer at every stroke even if it seemed like an eternity.

We veered to the left (45 degrees left, roughly) and aimed for a single boulder surfacing above the lake. As we were getting near it, I nearly had a panic attack after Christine warned me about something but I couldn't hear what she was saying. An arm's length away from me, a vertical tree trunk's top was reaching just the surface of the lake but not quite so that it was impossible to notice it from above. I very nearly swam into it. After that, I occasionally closed my eyes and concentrated on the white tree ahead.

I could make human shapes now. I could even make two little girls running on the beach and two men, one holding a striped blue and white towel for me. Our cheerleading team! Galvanized, I doubled the pace - or so it seemed to me.

As I read on a triathlon swim report a while ago, you don't want to look like a wimp at arrival so you sprint to the finish line. Inspired, I swam until I heard my little girls' "hurray's" and made it out of the water on the sand.

The water on the edge felt nice and warm. We quenched our thirst with bottled water and jumped on spekulaas (Dutch-type ginger snaps) to perk up. All counted, stops and all, swimming across Tenaya Lake took us an hour and 10 minutes. Now swimming from Alcatraz doesn't seem that absurd anymore. It's just a matter of trying.

As for Tenaya Lake, I think I'll do it again. Christine likes it too. After all, if my second girl's middle is Tenaya, it's for a good reason. I love that place.