Implicit Bias ~ Face to Face

I know when I first recognized my own implicit bias about gender. It was in the Fall of 2006 during a high school speech tournament in Helena Montana. I’d volunteered to judge the Lincoln Douglas debates and, along with a few other adults, was tired from a long day of civil argument as we sat to evaluate the final, prize-winning round.

The realities of gender inequality were not new to me. I was a fifty-two year old woman who had graduated from a women’s college at the peak of 1970’s Feminism. Over decades of work in film production, computer animation, and the Web, my primary colleagues were all men. Some of them, like my son’s father, were generous collaborators in favor of opportunity for all people. The majority, though, were male endowment heirs intent on seizing personal trophies. Harassment was surprising only when absent.

The Lincoln Douglas debate style takes its name from the original 1858 match between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas which focused primarily on slavery.  Now practiced mostly in high school speech tournaments, topics commonly center on moral questions argued between two people who are assigned either the affirmative or negative position.  The topic for the final round in Helena was: Civil disobedience in a democracy is morally justified.

The young contestants, a male and female, were both attractive, white, successful high school Seniors probably destined for law school.  Both were tall and well-groomed in conventional, tailored clothing. The young women had every sartorial detail crisp, tucked and aligned. In contrast, there was a noticeable rumple in the young man’s shirt. His tie, striped classic blue and red, was loosely knotted and slightly askew, suggesting an ivy league rebel.  

Throughout the debate, the young woman’s arguments were the most compelling and well-conceived, clearly affirming that civil disobedience is morally justified in a democracy. Her delivery was sincere and precise. I naturally agreed with her position.

Perhaps to mask his own distaste for having to support the negative view, the young man adopted a casually entertaining sarcasm that even highlighted the weakness in his argument, yet somehow also made it more appealing. Culture had granted him a wider range of persuasive tools than to his opponent.  On her, this approach would likely have seemed sloppy.  On him, though, it was charming and confident.  I found myself wanting to call him the winner.

Even the most intelligent and analytic of us will rely on cultural “rules of thumb” in everyday life. Acting without thinking because the situation appears to be “without question”. Face to face, these two young people seemed so evenly matched. Before laying down my final marks, I did shake off the enchantment of cultural mythology and gave the rightful win to the young woman.  But I had to consciously recognize and question my own conditioned bias in order to do it.

Acceptance of Denial - In Three Acts

Jim was tall, lean and intense. A successful engineer in sustainable energy, he spoke with the halting precision of those who carefully consider every word. He orchestrated training seminars on a global scale and wrote technical manuals about building the foundation of a fledgling industry. Jim was comfortable in his success and confident in his ability to be effective. I met him when he attended a digital media course I taught in Helena, Montana. When the course ended, we continued a casual friendship.

For the fun of it, our conversations often devolved into quirky fantasies about ways to profit from the foibles of human nature. I had my fall back novelty product, Shroud of Turin beach towels aimed at the Easter break crowds in Florida. Jim usually joked about writing a book called "Acceptance of Denial", targeted at middle aged men. The title alone guaranteed a best seller, he said. Even if the text was nothing but blather.

Jim married a woman with a young a boy from a previous marriage and undertook fatherhood with total commitment as a role model to his step son. Being an accomplished player himself, Jim introduced Sam to ice hockey and signed him up in the local junior league club where he volunteered as a coach, allowing all the more time to spend with Sam.

My son was also on the hockey team so I saw Jim often and watched Sam grow up along with the other boys. He was exceptionally intelligent and a gifted musician. His mother had a talent for languages which he inherited. Sam's future seemed brighter than the sun.

As Sam entered his teen years, Jim got an opportunity to study sustainable energy in Europe. His wife was thrilled since she could assist him using her talents as a translator. And Sam was beyond ready for the cool of living in a foreign country. So they spent nearly three years in Europe, living mostly in the Czech Republic. When the assignment expired, they returned to the US.

Back in Helena, Jim's work in energy consulting flourished. In the aftermath of 9/11 oil prices were beginning to climb beyond the stratosphere. His authority in cutting edge energy made him an in-demand expert with national media attention. Jim and his family became local celebrities in Helena and an invisible wall began to politely separate them from people they once recognized as friends.

Preparing to take my own son on a trip to Rome, some of my older cousins insisted that I get advice from Father Paul, a priest they'd all known since childhood. He was an accomplished stained glass artist who had done restoration work in some of the world's largest cathedrals, including St. Peter's. A long list of adoring clients vied to own his next original work.

My cousins created opportunities to brag about the marvelous trips they took with him to the Vatican. Hoping to stir envy, they would carry on without encouragement about being welcomed into secret inner sanctums simply because Father Paul was such a brilliant and special man. So unbelievably generous and caring, they said. He just happened to be teaching art history at a Catholic college in Helena, so of course I needed to contact him.  Basking in an opportunity to "pull some strings", they arranged for me to meet him.

I vaguely remembered Father Paul from my childhood when he was a teen-ager, but had no expectations beyond those my cousins had planted.  Being a renowned stained glass artist, Father Paul's priestly duties excluded the usual saying mass and such. He had special allowances about living arrangements giving him a private home and studio in a large old Victorian where we met for our appointment.

There was a veneer of polite formality when we met at the door which surprised me since we shared so many connections that boasted about his warmth and friendliness. There was no relaxed acknowledgement of the place we both grew up. 

As though bothered by an unwelcome intruder, he rushed to arrive at the point of our meeting. His eyes remained awkwardly averted as though fearing I would actually look into them.  This opened a recognition from my years in San Francisco and my stomach twisted with the queasiness of being told an obvious lie.

Something in his too fastidious manner projected a tension bigger than just being hidden behind a closet door and he knew that I felt it.  The heel of one foot kept grinding into the floor while he dug both hands into the deep pockets of sharply creased black pants.  The amazing Father Paul quickly covered enough Roman highlights to fulfill his obligation as a travel consultant then hurried me back out the door. 

Planning another European trip for myself, I read about a German concentration camp intended primarily for SS training and experimentation.  Situated only twenty miles from Berlin, Sachsenhausen was not hidden in an isolated region. Instead it was the dominant structure in the center of a small village called Oranienburg. 

I read an account of the camp's liberation written by a young American soldier new to the war.  He said that they began to smell the distinct stench of burning flesh when they were still over three miles from the camp. That's how powerful it was.

Yet when the American soldiers interrogated the local people, many of them claimed complete ignorance of what had taken place behind the barbed wire wall that separated them from the neighboring death camp. At the end of the war, German army commanders paraded thousands of skeletal men and women, the remaining prisoners, in a Todesmarsch (Death March) through Oranienburg in plain sight of the villagers. In their interviews, the villagers usually cited the Todesmarsch as the first time they had any idea about the real purpose of the camp. Even though the arriving American soldiers smelled evidence of it from three miles away.

Of course, there were resisters, sympathizers, and profiteers in Oranienburg.  Fear of ending up in the camp themselves was a strong incentive to ignore the evident truth.  But there were also a great number who seemed truly shocked when confronted with the reality. The only explanation for their ignorance seemed to be an extreme state of denial.

A few years after I met Father Paul, he was found dead in his studio.  The newspapers called it sudden and unexplained, code words for the suicides which happen all too often in Montana. For a long time, "What a shame" was the only comment made about it openly. The college mounted an exhibition of his stained glass art and a walking tour of patron homes where his commissioned work had been installed. "Such a great talent gone too soon," was all that was said.

Cloistered in the recesses of local newspapers, cryptic headlines began to appear about sexual abuse charges being filed against the Catholic Diocese. Names were not yet directly mentioned in the stories, but could be surmised by the timelines of when and where accusations were made. Father Paul's suicide now had a logical explanation. Terms of the eventual settlement required that names be named and published.  In the end, there was no doubt.

My cousins stopped bragging about the Vatican trips. It was as though Father Paul had never existed. I brought up his name once just to gauge their reaction and none of them heard what I said.

In their late teens, my son and many of his friends were busy testing the bounds of acceptable behavior. Keeping track of my own day to day parental tumult was more than enough to handle so, in general, I didn't pay much attention to what was happening with anyone else. 

I happened to cross paths with Jim one day and we exchanged the usual conversation between friends in a small town. While I alluded to concerns about my son's lack of enthusiasm for high school, Jim said that Sam's years in Europe had propelled him beyond the need of a classroom. He was now fluent in four languages which he used to help translate popular Wikipedia articles, all while maintaining his skill at classical piano and working full time at a local health food store. At seventeen, Sam was fit for maximum self direction. Jim and I parted ways wishing each other the best of luck. 

On an unusually warm night for Montana in June, a blaze of police cars wailed through Helena's narrow gulch of downtown streets. Three teen-age boys had been shot at close range by a fourth teen-age boy who know did not even know them. One of the boys died immediately while the other two survived with debilitating wounds. Early police reports said the shooter escaped on a bicycle but had been apprehended at home in his bed.

Because the crime was so brutal, all juvenile exemptions were waved. When the shooter's name was released it was nearly as shocking as what he had done.  It was Sam, Jim's bright and talented stepson who had shot three boys his own age, all strangers, as he looked into their eyes. 

News stories struggled to resolve the absence of motive with acts so ruthless their only logical explanation had to be revenge. Yet there was none. The boys screamed at him to stop but Sam twice reloaded his 45-caliber Tanfoglio handgun and emptied it into their bodies. When the ammunition was all gone, he beat his victims with the butt of the handgun, hard enough to break his own hands.

A few who knew him said that Sam was no stranger to guns and erratic acts.  But he was certainly a stranger to the lives he destroyed. And even to his own parents. 

Acceptance of Denial is a story that many will buy but few will read.

Slow Cheese 2013 ~ Bra Italy

Slow Cheese may be the most tasteful festival on Earth. A cornerstone of the Slow Food movement, this biennial event, next scheduled for September 18-21, 2015, takes place at its headquarters in Bra, Italy. Aside from travel and lodging expenses, this sumptuous celebration is free and open to the public. Slow Cheese 2013 was my last stop on a month long self-guided tour of Italy’s Emilia Romagna and Piedmonte regions and it nearly convinced me to cancel my return flight and take up residence there.

Started in 1997 when Slow Food founder, Carlo Petrini, first brought together a small band of local dairy farmers, attendance is now approaching the 200,000 mark. Hotel accommodation in the region is at a premium and usually booked several years in advance. For that reason and the fact that I love to mingle in local atmosphere, I stayed in a modestly priced Turin hotel about thirty miles from Bra and took the train back and forth. Round trip was 15 Euros and lasted about an hour each way with stops at every village along the route. Since trains run at thirty minute intervals throughout the day, I took breaks to explore these villages on my return trip. Trofarello, Vallongo, Morello, Oselle, Carmagnola, Bandito, and even Alba down the line from Bra, all have a place in my mindscape now.

My first trip to Bra was the day before the festival opened and I recommend doing this if at all possible. It is an opportunity to enjoy this delicate village for its own sake as its ancient cobblestone streets are still relatively empty of outsiders. And it is thrilling to observe the focused intensity that brings this enormous festival together from all parts of the world, often with less than a day of on site construction.

Bra, Italy

Preparation Day

Chaos turns to ecstasy overnight. Mishaps become happy accidents in a way that only the Italians have mastered.  Most notable for me was locating a pairing workshop I purchased as an additional event. As a side note, all the special workshops are affordable and rewarding.

This particular workshop was a high profile vertical tasting of Parmesan cheeses ranging in age from six months to ten years, paired with French champagnes aged three to fifteen years. Not finding the venue on the official Slow Cheese map, I went to a Help tent where the guides, after extensive consultation among themselves, realized that the venue hadn't been included on the map. Va bene! They quickly improvised a sketched addition to my map and I came away with a personal experience of Italian perspective.

Slow Cheese is a distillation of all that is essential to human culture.  Those with the good fortune of being there know what a sensuous treasure that is.

Slow Cheese 2013

Forging Health and Heritage

We unwittingly ingest a lot of plastic. Aside from hidden amounts that leach into every pore of our petroleum-based lives, the stacks of peeling non-stick cooking utensils in any thrift store are an obvious visual confirmation.

Too convincing to ignore, evidence about the hazards of consuming synthetic polymers is reviving an appreciation for all-metal cookware that endures, and can even improve, through generations of use. Of course, ingested metal is not always benign.  A classic example is the likelihood that lead leached from water pipes and pewter wine goblets caused the insanity that helped to end the Roman Empire. And everyone today should be aware of hazardous mercury levels in seafood.

Parmesan Cheese Kettle - Bra, Italy
Many common metals, though, are proving to be the best choice for use in the kitchen, especially those that are a natural part of the human body. A growing food safety awareness is polishing the gleam on copper cookware for its inherent microbial properties which is old news to traditional Parmesan and Gruyere cheesemakers who may still be using the same copper production kettles their ancestors forged generations ago.

Credit: Blu Skillet
Blending art with utility, hand crafted metal cookware casts its beauty on everyday life. For artisan level producers, such as Blu Skillet Ironware in Seattle's Ballard district and Brooklyn Copper Cookware in Brooklyn, New York, the greatest challenge has been keeping pace with customer demand.
Credit: Brooklyn Copper

Brooklyn Copper Cookware (BCC) was deluged with orders soon after it opened near the abandoned site of America's last great copper cookware manufacturer, the Bruno Waldow Company.

In response, BCC expanded its business model through partnerships with other artisan coppersmiths and expects to soon launch a new chapter in the history of hand made American cookware. The BCC website is brimming with reverence for the art of heirloom kitchen tools.

For those looking to try their own hand at working metal, the Farm to Table concept outlines a logical path for learning the craft. Start with simple (and forgiving) garden tools before taking on the more demanding pots and pans.

Every Summer in Montana, brothers Mark and Dennis Van der Meer of Bad Goat Forest Products offer affordable workshops on forging your own garden tools.  The Van der Meers are thorough but entertaining instructors with a contagious passion for metal work. Even the distraction of earning advanced degrees in various sciences didn't pull them away from the hammer and anvil. The Farm Hack video below is an overview of a typical workshop experience.

Durable handcrafted metal tools for the kitchen and garden are a bridge between preserving our heritage and sustaining our future. In the present, they are the essence of timeless pleasure.

Touring Paradise

LaFranchi Ranch
View of the LaFranchi Ranch
Tours of the dairy farms and creameries in Sonoma and West Marin are always the sell-out attraction of the annual California Artisan Cheese Festival, held each Spring in Petaluma, CA. 

During the 2012 Festival, I was grateful to lead the tour entitled, “California's Cheesemaking Counties: Sonoma to Marin”. Limousine service was provided by Pure Luxury.  Reggie, our wonderful chauffeur, wafted us for a full day between three farmstead cheesemakers covering cow, goat, and sheep milk types.

Curious Goat - Achadinha Dairy
Curious Girl ~ Achadinha Morning Milk
Achadinha Cheese Company 
Starting with the Pacheco Family Dairy and Achadinha Cheese Company, we arrived just in time to see “the girls”, as Donna Pacheco affectionately refers to her goats, line up for their morning shift in the milking parlour.

They were as curious about us as we were about them! More than 1000 strong and of various breeds including, Alpines, Saanens, Toggenburgs, la Manchas, Oberhaslis, floppy-eared Nubians, and mixes of all types, it was easy to see how smart and socially savvy these girls are.

While playing with newborn kids, we learned that “Nanny” goats really are just that!  Mother goats take turns watching over piles of babies.  When one “Nanny” ends her shift, another wanders in to take her place. The babies are never alone.
Achadinha Kids in a Cuddle
Achadinha Kids in a Cuddle

Highlighting our visit was a creamery tour that explained every step in the process of making Achadinha’s expanding selection of goat and mixed milk cheeses from fresh feta to year old hand pressed wheels.  Along the way, we tasted every cheese and met every member of the Pacheo family, a wonderful welcome at the start of our day.

Achadinha Cheese Company Links:Achadinha Cheese Company ; Novato PatchYelp Reviews

Nicasio Valley Cheese Company
View of the LaFranchi Dairy
View of the LaFranchi Dairy
Our next stop was the LaFranchi family’s organic dairy and Nicasio Valley Cheese Company where we first enjoyed a locally sourced lunch while overlooking the gorgeous green hills of West Marin.

Scott Lafranchi holding Nicasio Square
Scott Lafranchi ~ Nicasio Square
Established by Fredolino LaFranchi  in 1919, the cattle ranch and dairy are among the oldest in the county.  In 2007, as a tribute to their Swiss heritage, the family began making cheese under the guidance of Swiss master cheesemaker Maurizio Lorenzetti and the venture has become an award winning success.

Sold in leading grocery and specialty stores throughout the Bay Area, Nicasio Valley cheeses are also available in the family’s own delightful shop next to the creamery.  Our tour enjoyed lingering there for nearly an hour over a tasting and discussion of the family’s signature Italian-Swiss cheeses.

Nicasio Valley Cheese Links:Nicasio Valley Cheese ; North Bay Business Journal ; Novato Patch

Barinaga Ranch 
Spring Lambs at Barinaga Ranch
Spring Lambs at Barinaga Ranch
The tour finale at Barinaga Ranch in Marshall could not have been more exciting.  Just as we arrived, a ewe went into hard labor and so we followed Marcia Barinaga, the ranch owner and cheesemaker, into the barn where she helped to deliver twin lambs.

Marica is one of Marin’s most recent converts to ranching and cheesemaking.  Both she and her husband, Corey Goodman, are molecular biologists who planned to use the ranch as a place to retire. But for Marica, an avocation soon became a new full-time career.

Ewes and Lambs at Barinaga Ranch
Ewes and Lambs at Barinaga Ranch
Located on a hillside above the east shore of Tomales Bay with views of Point Reyes and the Pacific beyond, the Barinaga Ranch is a spectacular member of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT), the first land trust in the United States dedicated to preserving farmland and maintaining it for productive agriculture. Along with an experienced ranching staff and four Great Pyrenees shepherd dogs,

Marcia raises flocks of East Friesian and Katahdin sheep and is experimenting with a crossbreed of the two.  Once the lambs are weaned in the Spring, she begins milking the ewes twice a day in order to produce a Basque style cheese that harkens back to her family heritage.

In 1900, Marcia’s grandfather immigrated from a Basque village to the mountains of Idaho where he became a sheep rancher.   Although he didn’t make cheese with his sheep milk, Marcia saw Basque cheesemaking as a natural tribute to her ancestral lifestyle.  In 2007, she went to the Basque country and learned to make their traditional cheeses.  Produced by hand and in limited quantities, Marcia's cheeses are now among the most celebrated in the country.
Barinaga Ranch Links:Barinaga Ranch ; Bay Area Bites ;Culture Magazine

Cuddle with a Cute Kid!
Cuddle with a Cute Kid!
The California Artisan Cheese Festival
Visit the Festival Website: ( for schedule and registration details. Tours sell-out fast! Get tickets now or get on the waiting list.  An adventure of the heart is calling!