To Russell Brand: We Just Figured Out the Meaning of Life in the Shower

Hey Russell,

I’ve been listening to your podcast and looking forward to Season 2.  I’m not listening to it chronologically.  I just listened to the Yanis Varoufakis straight through twice.  

I was in the shower this morning and was thinking about the many conversations you have with agnostics or atheists or non-goddies such as Yanis or Brian Cox. I’m also not much down for the Woo Woo Waitress in the Sky, but at the same time, I cannot deny the pull toward spirituality and the ritual expression of it in the form of meditation. You talk about the dichotomy within you between the pursuits and rewards of altruism and your narcissism. I feel that in myself as well, and a companion tug of war between my knowledge of the physical world and the connection I feel to a spiritual plane.  And you talk very eloquently about misdirected channeling of self-fulfillment through consumerism and never-ending acquisition of the material. 

But there is a bridge through consumerism to a higher, more fulfilling pursuit.  

I apologize that I need to explain to you my company. It is not a plug, I promise. It will make sense in a minute.  I am starting a store in Amsterdam called Ozarka which is an upmarket, low waste prepared foods and lifestyle store where all of our packaging is sustainable alternatives to single-use plastic and all of it is return for deposit.  When people shop with us, they return all of their packaging, which is then sanitized and put back into circulation.

I like m’little luxuries. But I’m in the process now of replacing all my fancy department-store cosmetics, creams, moisturizers, atomizers, exfoliationizers, shampooizers, and conditionerizers with stuff I make myself.  And here in lies the…scrub.  We don’t think about what goes on our body nearly as often as we think about what goes in our body.  Most of the chemicals in body care products are there for skin feel and preservation. For example, we’ve been marketed to, and thereby convinced that, a “greasy feel” is undesirable in body moisturizers.  In fact, if you just wait a damn minute, a homemade coconut/jojoba oil-based moisturizer loses its greasy feel and keep the skin softer, longer, than commercial moisturizers. It's a fraction of the cost, last longer.  Commercial moisturizers don’t want either of those properties. They are less profitable.

Is it possible to achieve the eternal through "correct consumerism?" I say "Yes." 

At Ozarka, our aim is to create mass adoption in order to make a measurable impact on sustainability. And in order to do that, you need to create as little a shift as possible in consumer behaviour and habits in order to make those habits sustainable. Or you need to replace convenience, which is killing our culture and our environment, with something better, like connection, pleasure, time for one’s self.  In fact, it is the time I took for myself this morning that lead me to writing this diatribe to you now.

It isn’t the consumption itself that is the problem, it is what we consume.  What if we replace the ritual of consumption with the ritual of production? The ritual of self-care?

What if what we consumed didn’t offer convenience to get us on to the next thing that makes us unhappy, but slowed us down so we could participate in happiness? And when you are happy, it is easier to be kind. And kindness propagates. It’s passed on from one person to another. And from, wait for it, one generation to the next. That is divine. That is eternal. From generation to generation, we are shifting the paradigm and definition of a fulfilled and meaningful life.  Our threshold and tolerance for cruelty, dismissive attitudes, abuse, and exploitation becomes lower and lower.    

Today, I dry-brushed my skin with a bamboo brush and then showered with body wash,  shampoo and vinegar conditioner that I made myself. I then moisturized with a moisturizer I made myself. The process of self-care placed me in a state where I was able to create the head space where I came to this conclusion. I am relaxed. I am happy and I am in a giving state of mind.  I make products for my friends based on what they need. And they know when it comes from me, there is nothing to throw away because all my packaging is reusable.  With this approach to consumerism,  I consume not things, but time. I give not just things, but time, attention.  I give love and thoughtfulness to another person. And none of this takes hours. It takes minutes. But what it gives…what it gives…

Your faithful Ozarkan,
Beth

“Where does the name come from?” Ozarka: Behind the Desk

Across the street from the stately, limestone fortress that is the prestigious Indiana University law school, sits a squat little concrete box of a building that mysteriously or perhaps conspiratorially, or as I would hope, mystically, has never been knocked down.  Google maps shows that it currently houses an establishment called “Chow Bar” where Chinese food and bubble teas are advertised in vinyl signage on the store front, and a “Penn Station East Coast Subs” which was also a sandwich shop in my day, under a different moniker.

I’ve been back to Bloomington a few times since I lived there, as a student in the late ‘80s and early (then mid) ‘90s, and every time those two locations are something different: a Subway, a Pizza Hut, another chain of some sort, or a local joint that will go out of business.

When I lived in Bloomington, the Chow Bar was where Ozarka lived. It was born from a different sort of vinyl, the type that music was recorded on. It was the indie record store where I worked, and the best job I ever had, even if I wasn’t the best at the job.

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I would spend my days in there the happiest version of myself; on my feet, futzing and flitting about, rolling band posters tightly to get them back into their storage sleeves after showing them to customers. Playing music for people, and for myself. Hanging out with my boyfriend (now husband) who was in a band (because of course he was).   Organizing the CDs into their sacred alphabetical order behind the desk, by genre out in front of house.  It was a mom and pop shop minus the mom.  We’d order import singles and full length CDs from rarefied distributors. I’d take cash out of the register, close up the shop and run to the UPS depot before it closed to pick up orders—CDs packed into cardboard boxes battered from their cross-Atlantic journey.  We sold import singles with 3 songs on them for $10.95.  We had customers on waiting lists for this music.

It was in this little room where I first listened to the Shamen,  where I’d listen to Madchester compilations made by one of the other employees at the store. I listened to Pearl Jam’s  “10” when it had just come out and thought, “This is metal, why do I love it?” and where Nirvana’s “Nevermind” was in constant rotation, blowing our minds.  Ozarka was a microverse of verse, vice, grunge, rave, indie, goth, industrial, hip hop, alt country. It was a good time to be a record shop girl. 

I quit because Ozarka’s business practices (or lack thereof) started to catch up with itself. It was going out of business after staying afloat, I think, for 25 years, on what I assumed was questionable tax filings, making most of its margin renting porno VHS tapes we stored in the back. My most regular customer was a man whose last name was, I’m not kidding, Pispenis.  He’d rent half a dozen tapes at a time (all named with proper porno puns, mostly referencing Harrison Ford movies) and bring them back the next day. Someone was making a nice profit off pirated pornos copied from your friendly indie college rock store.

I went to work as a receptionist at a small real estate law firm whose owner was a graduate of Indiana University.  

The owner of Ozarka was being sued by a client of my new employer, unbeknownst to me, until the day he walked in and we were face to face, me sitting behind the desk, him standing in front of it. It was a short, embarrassing, and sad exchange for both of us.  I stepped inside the fortress, but it wasn’t a bad place to be.  It was solid, and there were opportunities there for college-dropout me. The owner was a kind and open-minded man and is my friend to this day. He took me in and then took me on.  

The law firm was the first step into my behavior as a serial “intrapreneur.” I have spent my career landing jobs and then doing work that has nothing to do with the job description. I can’t help myself.  I digitized that law firm with a gig of network (a big WOW in those days), and a WordPerfect macro manual.   I was sitting at my desk when my boyfriend called to tell me that Kurt Cobain committed suicide.  I cried.  My coworkers rolled their eyes. It was time for me to get on with it.

We’ll now jump through 20 years of corporate life, each of those years pulling me farther and farther away from the girl in the record shop.  I was a music editor at Amazon.com, and a bunch of other stuff. Then I moved to the Netherlands and worked for Microsoft under various titles I never understood, doing a bunch more stuff which was really important to me personally that had little to nothing to do with anyone else I was working with or the company bottom line.  Both companies gave so much education, experience, and security for which I am grateful. But the thing I learned most is that being an “intrepreneur” means you are trying to contort a vast organization to be compatible with who you are personally when it isn’t a natural fit. It’s an exercise in futility.  I let this happen. In order to make the impact I really want to make, I had to go out on my own.

So that is why Ozarka is Ozarka. Practically speaking, I also thought it was a good name because it is for the most part, pronounced the same in every language. But I discovered too late it’s not heard the same. The Dutch ear has a hard time hearing the R and they think I’m saying “Osaka” and think it is a Japanese store. I hope they get used to it.  I think they will. But most importantly,  I’m bringing back the spirit of that store in the little cement box; the connection with customers, the connection to myself, and the lick of rebellion that only music can incite. At Ozarka NL, we’re picking a fight, picking fresh foods,  and we’ll liberate what you eat from single-use plastic.  I’ll never be behind a desk ever again.

Rock on.

Your faithful Ozarkan,

Beth

Ozarka Goes to School Chapter 4: Ballymaloe Cookery Cult or School Lunch Gets an Upgrade

It’s so easy to lose momentum when writing a blog.  I need to get my brain back to Ballymaloe.  I live on a houseboat and have a small yard which I am slowly turning into a permaculture garden. It’s nothing fancy. I’m not sure if I’ll produce anything edible. But the entire garden is grown from seeds, food scraps, or potted herbs bought from the grocery store and replanted.  I tend to every one of those plants. I hover over them. Fret over them. Stare at them.   

I’ve just spent some time in the garden this morning revving up the synapses. Even in this tiny space, there is opportunity for sensory overload: the scent of the honeysuckle which hangs over our entry gate; the squeaks and squawks of the adolescent waterfowl still dependent on their parents; the little snail hiding under the bottom leaves of the pear tree—leaves that are being attacked this year with an ugly black fungus; and most of all, the neighbors causing an awful ruckus. Well, the sort-of neighbors causing a sort-of ruckus. There are warring families of magpies in adjacent trees that seem to be challenging each other’s territories. Man, can those birds make a lot of noise.

Sense memory activated, in my mind I’m back at the cottage with my roomies and we’re headed up the street to our first day of school. It’s a short walk up the country road--forest to the left, a tiny vacation suburb to the right.  Deeply embedded in Irish lore is the fantasy of the existence of fairies. I always keep an eye out for them. Maybe one is peeking out from behind a dewy, mossy, ancient stone wall--a wall I almost bash into every time I'm in a car, driving in the passenger's seat (if I nick the wall navigating that narrow road, I will blame fairy bewitchment--most likely a probable defense on the Emerald Isle).  They are watching the new recruits marching toward this school out in the middle of everywhere, which is so beautiful, so vast, so isolated, and so bucolic, it immediately filled me with intense, cynical suspicion.  And it got worse when I entered the school.

We walked into this school and it was a-buzz and a-blur with activity—cooks, assistants, managers, bakers, culinary students, hosts scurrying around with a welcoming cheerfulness that makes me teary.  We’re not used to this level of hospitality, this sheer gratitude for your very existence, in the Netherlands.  I was waiting for them all to break into harmonized song and synchronized dance. When do the houselights go down and the spotlight flip on with a satisfying “SSSHHUNK!” When does the soloist make her grand entrance?

Oh, there she is. The breakfast counter.  This was the first morning where we would claim chairs at a communal table then lurch toward this breakfast buffet--a soft glow hallelujah of homemade granola, Irish cheeses and breads, homemade yogurt, kombucha, and kefir water, rhubarb, bananas in a lime syrup, raw and pasteurized milk, and a deep yellow butter made from the milk of the Jersey cows just right out back.  Have you ever had truly fresh squeezed apple juice? It is so far removed from commercially produced apple juice you serve to a 2 year old, you wonder how they could possibly be called the same thing because they so very aren't. 

But breakfast was just a teaser.  Lunch was devastating. It was basically Thanksgiving every day, if every cook in your family was a professional chef and every member of your family was a self-important gourmand.  Ballymaloe hammers on the importance of fresh, local, organic. Fresh. Local. Organic. FRESH. LOCAL. ORGANIC.  The result is that an ordinary-looking salad of mixed greens tossed with a humble vinaigrette is the best damn thing you’ve ever tasted. I think at one point I might have been eating dandelions and grass and it was heaven.  I wasn’t sure and I didn’t care. 

The final knockout was the coffee breaks. Two per day where filtered coffee and two types of tea were served with a selection of unscrupulous cookies, cakes and pastries--little temptresses all.  One can only surrender. There was just too much selection, too much delicious, too much friendliness. The only defense was a pathetic attempt at portion control.  I told myself spinach, egg whites, and lemon water for two weeks when it was all over.  And oh yeah, I was actually here to learn something.

 

 Irish cheeses. 

Irish cheeses. 

 Breakfast.

Breakfast.

 Rosie Gray: The most friendly, enthusiastic, energetic, knowledgeable intern at Ballymaloe and I would hire her in a second and tried to.  

Rosie Gray: The most friendly, enthusiastic, energetic, knowledgeable intern at Ballymaloe and I would hire her in a second and tried to.  

Ozarka Goes to School Chapter 3: Millennials and Me

I gave the GPS in my car one more chance.  I input the address of the nearest Tesco supermarket--a 30 minute drive. After almost an hour of backtracking, more swearing, and recalculating, I ended up in some sort of quasi-industrial park that had a small SPAR convenience store in it.  I bought some raspberries and a sandwich just so I wouldn’t feel like the trip was a total waste of time.  I pulled out my phone and got to the Tesco to purchase my travelling food staples: one roasted chicken, raw broccoli and cauliflower, hummus, a whole grain baguette, butter, and yogurt. I’m always especially excited about Irish yogurt. It is the best.  

Back home at the cottage, I began to unload my groceries when behind me I heard, “Hiy they-ah.”  My first roomie! This must be the roomie whose room, tacked with a nameplate bearing his South African surname, was across the hallway from mine.

Francois hung out and chatted with me while I unpacked my stuff. His ability to hang out is unparalleled. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone more laid back.  

Within a few hours, the rest of the tribe rolled in: Cian from Howth, a peninsula northeast of Dublin; Peter and Karen from Dundalk, just a hop south of the border with Northern Ireland on the east coast, and Andrew from Galway.  

Andrew. Cian. Francois. Karen. Peter. 

The fireplace in the living room was prepped for ignition and I asked who could start it up. Francois set it ablaze. Then we got to know each other a bit. Andrew, age 29,  is an engineer and PhD opening up a gourmet artisan bacon bar. Cian, age 21 who talks so fast he is constantly being asked to repeat himself, intends to open a restaurant and wine bar in a historic building. Twenty-six year old Pete’s family owns a few pubs and a night club where Karen, age 23, works. Every single thing Pete says is laugh out loud funny, except to Karen, who is beyond it. They want to convert the night club into a late night eatery. Francois, age 27, will open a high end ceviche establishment in Mauritius.  

And then there’s me. Beth, age 48, departing from her 20 years in tech to start a sustainable traiteur and grocery. Beth, who can easily be on her feet all day but, really needs to get her roots done, has arthritis in the pinky finger of her left hand, and crap knees.

The obligatory introductions completed, I exclaimed, “Hey! This is just like The Real World: Ballymaloe!” 

Blank stares. The kind of wide-eyed blank stares you will see on the faces of baby owls. 

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Two pups and a little dog. 

I don’t have kids (I have cats), and therefore not a lot of exposure to these kids who have come of age on, and possibly through, their phones.  I spent the next two weeks like Jane Goodall, observing from a close yet scientifically detached distance this pod of Millennials.  To me, a phone is a tool. To them, it’s part of their anatomy. They spend a lot of time bonding over watching viral videos on their phones.  They look everything up on their phones.  I can’t do that. The damn screen is too small. 

But they possess the superpowers that are universal among all of their age bracket—they have invincible livers. When I was their age, Madonna’s “Vogue” was in vogue and for a while I had a day job, went to college, and a couple of times a week, waitressed at a club until about 3 a.m.  I could do tequila shots, get three hours of sleep, and be absolutely functional the next day.

It was in this regard I realized that my 20s were a memory I am as detached from as any memory from my childhood.  That portion of my life has been released and is floating around like so much observable space junk.  So much time has passed, there is nothing about that time of my life that is relatable now, save for the name of my company.  And to hammer it home, Karen made some disparaging comment about “old people,” then looked toward me and compassionately remarked, “with present company excluded.”    

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Blowing bubbles was surprisingly therapeutic. I tried not to hyperventilate. 

One finding during my observation did surprise me: their taste in music. There was a collective preference for '90s hip hop and Karen, who has a lovely voice, could often be found humming a tune I was familiar with from my youth. Young Cian confessed to me that he prefers classic rock such as Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and Nirvana. Yep. 

At the end of our school days together, I would have to immediately retreat to my room to tend to the many Ozarka and personal tasks awaiting me; taxes, the pilot, the preparations for the sale of a townhouse. The kids would frequent the pub at the end of the street, always asking me through the closed door of my room if I was joining. I could not, due to these responsibilities, and am very grateful for the work I needed to do. These young people are good company and to try to keep up with them would have certainly resulted in my taking to my bed the following day.  

On our one night off, the Saturday between our two weeks of study, my housemates made plans to go party in Cork and had reserved a cab to take them home at 2:30 in the morning. I couldn’t get to sleep while they were gone and I realized it was because I was…what was I? What was it I was feeling that was making me so restless? Oh my god. I was…worried…about them.  I did finally fall asleep soundly enough I did not hear them come home.  I would consider myself a nurturing person, but maternal, I am not. So I’m guessing that in this moment there was perhaps an undiscovered drop of instinct that was dispensed and spent while the kids were out.  Glad that’s out of the way.

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The housemates.

Photo credits: Anne O'Sullivan

Ozarka Goes to School Chapter 2: GPS in Ireland means “Get Possibly Somewhere.”

I stood in line at the Sixt rental car desk at Cork Airport for a considerable amount of time. There were two customers in front of me. The first customers, British, were two elderly sisters and their extra elderly, wheelchair-bound mother. The rental car customer service woman was on the horn with one of the ladies’ husbands (I know this because I could hear him yelling through the phone).  The ladies had not bought insurance and the insurance could not be purchased through the husband’s credit card because the name didn’t match the name on the reservation. The ladies did not have a credit card of their own. I’m not sure what happened to them. They were placed to the side and I think perhaps transportation by bus was being arranged for them, possibly back to England.  I am always baffled by people who do not know how airports work.

The next customer in line was a distinguished Dutch gentleman who became incensed when the purchase of insurance at the desk quintupled the total amount for his car rental. He relished giving his customer service desk man a mighty lecture about what the man already knew: that the insurance costs more than the rental of the car itself and how ridiculous this is. We live in a world of fake discounts (Hello, Easy Jet).  I know that this man (because I know the Dutch) was angling for a discount which he was not going to get and probably knew it. But it’s always worth a try. He finally slapped down his credit card with no lack of indignation and got on with it.

Next was my turn. Not that I wouldn’t be extra nice anyway (of course), but I knew the beleaguered service desk reps could use a break so I cheerily said I would like the full insurance, I was very happy to be in Cork, and on my way to my cooking school.  The Sixt man said he would give me an upgrade to a brand new small SUV that had GPS/satnav already installed which was saving me 12 pounds per day.  Score!

Anyone who has driven through Ireland knows that driving directions are something akin to treasure hunt. As soon as I was to get off the main highway, I was to drive through a few tiny villages, turn at a church, turn again at a pub, and drive on until I would find the entrance to the school on my right.  

I had the directions printed out and should have just followed them. But why do that when you can rely on technology?! I thought I would town hop by directing the GPS to take me to the town center of Castlemartyr then I would do the same for Garryvoe and would know I overshot my mark if I ended up in Shanagarry.  

Most of the roads in Ireland are narrow and rugged. This I was prepared for. But it had been raining and many of the roads taking me to my destination were flooded over and pocked relentlessly with inhospitable potholes.  As I got deeper into the countryside, the roads became ever more primitive. Finally after about an hour of driving a route that should have taken 40 minutes I had “arrived at my destination” which was a muddy path (under no criteria could it be called a road)  that led to a single, isolated farmhouse.  The GPS had a different idea of what the “center of Castlemartyr” was. 

After a few minutes of denial, self-doubt, incredulity, and swear words, I realized that the GPS in this rental car had no idea what the center of anything was. I used my phone the rest of the trip. 

It took another 20 minutes bouncing through opaque water and gravel and small craters before I arrived at the school. It was Sunday.  The gates were closed.  Someone was supposed to be there to let me in.  I had no idea where I was staying. I got out of the car and repeatedly pushed a button at the gate. No answer. I called the number to the school and someone answered and then opened the gate.  It was Tim Allen, Darina’s husband.  I drove through the gate to culinary Oz. After some confusion as to which entrance to the school I was to walk though, I found Tim who shook my hand and said I was “very welcome.”  

Tim took me to the cottage which would be my accommodation and home for the next two weeks. It was a home I would share with 5 housemates, all of whom ranged from half my age to less than half my age.

 Credit: Anne O'Sullivan

Credit: Anne O'Sullivan

Fake Chai on the Sly

 Every night. 

Every night. 

Counting the days until we can get our toes in some white sand. Until then, this is getting us through. 

Fill a mug with milk or dairy alternative and stick it in the microwave for 90 seconds. Make sure it doesn't boil over.

Sprinkle some cinnamon and fake or real sugar in the milk.
Add 1/4 tsp of real vanilla extract.
Stir.
Finish with a quick shaving of fresh nutmeg on top.