Looking up

Today the train was late, and more crowded than usual. Instead of reading as I usually do, my book —and my phone—stayed in my backpack. We (commuters) packed ourselves in, and I found myself standing in front of an old woman, without a barrier of technology. She looked at me and laughed.

“Look at all of these people around. All on their cellies.”

I smiled slightly, which I intended to suggest a polite disinterest in the conversation. Instead it encouraged the woman to keep talking.

“What would they do without their cellies for one month?”

It’s almost impossible to avoid interaction with a stranger if you’re forced into such proximity without the comforting distance of a screen to separate you. I couldn’t ignore the woman or look away without seeming abruptly rude, so I continued to listen silently as she expounded on why cell phones were a detriment to society. Occasionally she would try to recruit the girl next to her into the conversation, but the girl had her headphones buried in her ears and her nose buried in her screen.

The woman talked, and I nodded and smiled, until the crowd dissipated enough that I could pull my phone out of my backpack. The woman made her disappointment known.

“What would you do without your celly for one month?”

I thought about that.

I’ve deactivated my social media accounts, so there’s no mindless scrolling through feeds filled with babies, vacations and bigotry. I don’t play games, so there’s no swiping catapult birds. While I do enjoy emojis, I’m not great at texting. My thumbs are imprecise and I don’t care to correct my mistakes.

So — what would I do for a month without my phone?

I would stop learning French, which I’m doing bit by bit each day. I would stop reading the news. I would stop reading long essays and magazine articles.

If I didn’t have my phone for a month I wouldn’t talk to my best friend who lives 400 miles away.

What I decided to tell the old woman? If I didn’t have my phone for a month I wouldn’t talk to my mother for a month. She looked up at me and smiled.

A few things I learned while being a casual vegan

Last year, my New Year’s Resolution was to eat vegan for a month. I promptly went back to a diet of animal protein in February, but I did gain some insights.

Eating vegan is not deprivation

When you make it known that you’re eating vegan, the first reaction of many people is an affected sense of concern for your health and well-being. When most people see a guy drinking a Coke, they don’t voice their opinions about how all of that sugar is going to give him diabetes. When people see their friend at the bar gorging on poutine, they don’t beg her to stop, concerned that she’s going down a path that can only lead to a heart attack — they take a bite. But when you tell people you’re eating vegan? Instantly, people make their opinions known.

How are you going to get protein? You’re just not eating enough. 

If people aren’t concerned for your health, they feel terrible that you can’t indulge in things like cheese, chocolate ice cream and steak, and try to make you feel terrible about it too. Don’t get me wrong, the thought of a cheeseburger makes my mouth water. But the thing about veganism is there’s a whole world of ingredients and flavors that everyone else is missing. Case in point: I’ve made delicious cranberry porridge, toffee chocolate bars (made with ‘flax eggs’), and soba noodle stir-fry that I would never have tried if I wasn’t specifically eating vegan. As I relax my stance and add foods back into my diet, those recipes (and more) are things I’ll keep in my rotation. You can keep your bland turkey sandwich.

Eating vegan probably means you need to check your privilege

“Check your privilege” is an unpleasant phrase, especially for those of us who have privilege to check. But, what I quickly realized is being a vegan (even a casual one) probably means you’re living in an affluent, or at least middle-class area. You have access to fresh vegetables and expensive grains like quinoa. You have the time to figure out how to use all of that broccoli rabe you got at the market.

Even when I’m not eating vegan, I try to buy predominantly organic produce and meat — and I think it’s important to remember that a lot of people can’t swing that. It’s definitely possible to be a vegan on the cheap: beans and rice are a great example. But unless you’re going to eat beans and rice for the rest of your life, acknowledging your privilege in having access to produce from around the world, even in the midst of a terrible New England winter, is important.

Eating vegan does not mean eating healthy

I decided to be vegan for a month primarily for health reasons: I found myself eating too much sugar and fat, and I thought a diet based around plants would be an easy way to cut calories and eat nutritiously.

Know what’s vegan?

Weird fake cheese.


Sure, veganism meant more vegetables at most meals, but a stressful day at work meant Twizzlers out of the vending machine. I don’t even usually eat Twizzlers or buy things from vending machines. The point is, just because it isn’t made with animals doesn’t mean it’s healthy. If you want healthier eating habits, it’s not as easy as switching from one dietary restriction to the next – there are always workarounds to get the bad stuff your body craves. It’s the same as the organic and all-natural bandwagon: brands slap these labels on packages, and we trick ourselves into trusting that they’re wholesome foods.


So what did I learn as a casual vegan? Just about a year later, I’m in another unhealthy rut. Next stop: the Power of Habit.

Books I read in January

In an attempt to reflect more on what I’ve read, I’ll be posting a monthly list of books.

Fates and Furies — Lauren Groff
Although it’s gotten excellent reviews and even an endorsement from the President, I did not like this book. That said, I read it cover to cover. It’s a well-constructed narrative, but its literary tone came across to me as inauthentic and annoying. The juxtaposition of the two halves of the story was interesting, but the second half descends into territory where I just can’t suspend my disbelief.

On Writing Well — William Zinsser
Essential for anyone who writes nonfiction, or even anyone who has to write in any capacity at work. It’s a companion to The Elements of Style, which Zinsser recommends rereading once a year. I’d say the same for this book.

And with that…

The Elements of Style — Strunk & White, illustrated by Maira Kalman
Most writers own this classic text and refer to it often. The illustrated version is delightful and quirky.

When Breath Becomes Air — Paul Kalanithi
After I read its New York Times review, I preordered this memoir. When it arrived on my doorstep, I read it the same day. It’s stunning and emotional without being cloying. Recommended for anyone who works in healthcare, or anyone who wants to live their life with purpose.

Zero to One — Peter Thiel
I’m admittedly not the target audience for this book, but I didn’t like it. Redeeming quality: it is thought-provoking. If you haven’t come across Thiel’s interview question ‘what’s something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on?’ it’s worth some rumination, as is his belief that competition is for losers. But the book is abrasive and contrarian — unpleasant qualities in a book but surely contributors to Thiel’s success. References to Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk and the PayPal Mafia abound, and while they may be relevant they also come across as self-aggrandizing.

Lean In— Sheryl Sandberg
I’m a little late to the party on this one, I know, but I’m glad I finally read it. A lot of Sandberg’s examples and exhortations have made their way into popular culture, but reading the book put these ideas into context with practical examples and research.

Something I hadn’t come across were Sandberg’s thoughts around mentorship, which I found particularly useful at this stage in my career. She talks about how women are told they need to find a mentor to succeed — and studies do show that people with mentors achieve greater success. But she tied this quest for the perfect mentor to the fairy tales girls are raised on:

“We all grew up on the fairy tale ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ which instructs young women that if they just wait for their prince to arrive, they will be kissed and whisked away on a white horse to live happily ever after. Now young women are told that if they can just find the right mentor, they will be pushed up the ladder and whisked away to the corner office to live happily ever after. Once again, we are teaching women to be too dependent on others.”

I also found the chapter “Speak Your Truth” useful for anyone in the workplace — not just women — to read. It ties in nicely with White and Zinsser’s emphasis on clarity and simplicity:

“Truth is also better served by using simple language. Office-speak often contains nuances and parentheticals that can bury not just the lead but the entire point.”

The book also represents a shift in thinking about corporate culture and what it takes to be successful. I admire Sandberg for her bravery in writing the book, but also for her honesty — her openness about her emotions, misgivings, and mistakes make the book that much more powerful. Openness and honesty are qualities I’ve noticed in other management books from the startup world, which subvert the traditional corporate view that ‘nice guys finish last.’

Overall, a valuable book for women and men to read, but you already knew that.

America, as seen from above

Meet the SUNY Brockport alumna and Greece native behind JetHiking

Originally published in the July/August 2014 issue of Rochester, NY’s (585) magazine.

I do know this — the big and mysterious America is bigger than I thought. And more mysterious.” John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley

Amber Nolan is thumbing her way across the country, but she’s not plodding down the interstate waiting for an altruist to pick her up. As the self-dubbed “JetHiking Gypsy,” she’s traveling the country on private planes.

“I’ve always had this adventurous spirit,” said Nolan. Two years ago, after graduating from SUNY Brockport and a short stint working for a travel rag in New York City, she was trying to find unique ways to get around the country. Her roommate at the time worked at a small airport and told her sometimes pilots would walk over to the car rental and ask if anyone wanted to go up for a ride.

“I started thinking about that ,” Nolan said. “[And I thought] I bet they’d be willing to take a hitchhiker.” Thus, JetHiking was born in July 2012 with the dual purpose of getting people interested in budget travel and promoting general aviation. “A lot of travelers just go straight to the big cities,” she said. “They go to Miami, they go to New York, they go to L.A., and I’ve seen those too on this trip.” But hop on a private plane, and “you never know where you’re gonna end up in small town America.”

The people she’s met along her journey demonstrate the diversity and genuine nature of Americans. She remembers meeting one woman who had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Throughout her treatment, as the medical bills piled up, she refused to give up her plane. Then, there was the man who lived out of his car for a time, but always had his plane.

Regardless of the extent of their personal struggle, she’s found pilots are always willing to help a hitchhiker. “It’s almost like going back to 1950,” she said. Instead of the suspicion or apathy for strangers that characterizes much of our modern society, the people she meets at airports are welcoming and generous. Often when Nolan lands at an airport, someone will let her borrow their car, give her a ride, or offer a place for her to stay. And, the more pilots hear about her story, the more help she’s offered getting to her destination — whatever it may be. Her website and mission have been featured on sites like Matador Network, Couchsurfing, and Vagabondish, among countless local media outlets in the many cities she’s visited.

Though Nolan spent much of hear early life in suburban Greece, the launch of JetHiking has given her the chance to see hundreds of locations. In a little less than two years, she’s visited forty-two states. Alaska is next on the list, and Nolan is looking forward to visiting the one state where residents actually rely on general aviation just to get around. In fact—she’s almost giddy at the thought of seeing teenagers parking their planes on the grounds of their high schools.


Bergen brothers bring Sapienza Design to Brooklyn

Originally published in the May/June 2014 issue of Rochester, NY’s (585) magazine.

For an expat of those wide-open spaces that surround our Flower City, nostalgia paints memories of driving down backroads scattered with farmhouses and fields. The weatherworn beams of old barns sprout from the earth like the ruins of a forgotten time. Perhaps it’s this nostalgia that anchors Brooklyn-based brothers William and Andrew Sapienza. Originally from Bergen, Genesee County, they made their way to a furniture design company, albeit in a roundabout way.

A few years ago, older brother William packed up to move to Brooklyn. He accepted a job catering photoshoots for companies like Macy’s and J. Crew. “I didn’t move down here to start a furniture design company, in any way,” he laughed. But a conversation with his boss about the growing reclaimed wood furniture trend turned to inspiration. “It occurred to me, I’m from a farm town,” he said. As he thought of those ramshackle countryside barns, the wheels started turning. “These old barns — people look at them as more of a liability,” he said. “They’re not really looking at it as possible art or anything that would be useful.” So, with the help of an instructional YouTube video, he built his first table out of reclaimed barn flooring.

Andrew was interning in Washington D.C. at the time but quickly joined the effort. He sold some pieces in the capital, but as his internship drew to a close, he was left with two options: “It was either go back to Rochester, or move in with your brother in New York,” said William. So to Brooklyn he went, and pitched in with everything from design to sales and marketing.

Today, about two and a half years later, Sapienza Design works out of a full shop in Greenpoint with a collaborative designer. Their lumber comes from upstate. They’ve acquired some from their grandfather’s stock. He owned a tree service, and they use some of the lumber he milled in their higher-end line, named Muldoon after him. It’s sentimental to the brothers, and with some this heirloom walnut, they’ll build a table with inlay and engraving for the family to use in cabin he built in the Adirondacks.

But in many cases, they pull what they can from a barn, store it at their parents’ house in Bergen, and ship it to the shop as needed. Even in its new life as a table or stool, the wood retains its weathered look. This is the unique character customers are seeking. “We try to accentuate that,” William said. “The knots, the old nail holes, everything just really sets it apart from anything else out there.”

When it comes to inspiration, it all goes back to those country barns. “Just to sit back and stare at the real thing, and have that image trapped in your mind when you come back down to the city, or you walk into our shop and see those boards that you saw when you were back home, it’s inspirational,” said William.

The new microbrewers

Farm Brewery License ushers in an era of homegrown hops and malthouses

Originally published in the March/April 2014 issue of Rochester, NY’s (585) magazine.

A new breed of breweries is cropping up all over the state — with hopyards and malthouses sprouting alongside them. Modeled after the New York Farm Winery act of 1976 that launched the Finger Lakes wine region into a bona fide agritourism destination, the newly minted Farm Brewery license aims to encourage the growth of not only beer tourism in the state but also the agricultural endeavors of hops growing and malting.

The legislation, which went into effect in January 2013, offers license holders opportunities like holding beer tastings and selling brewing equipment, souvenirs, and beer by the pint. Currently, farm breweries must use at least twenty percent hops and twenty percent other ingredients grown and produced in New York State. By 2023, the percentage will increase to no less than 60 percent, and after 2024, no less than 90 percent.

Such hefty requirements, among other factors, have spurred a rapid increase in the local hops industry. It may seem novel, but Cornell Cooperative Extension’s hops expert Steve Miller explained that during much of the 19th century, New York State was the biggest hops producer in the country. Due in part to the industry moving west, insect and disease problems, and eventually Prohibition, the industry in New York died out. “Hops is pretty labor-intensive, so people just pulled them out and went into other types of agriculture,” he said.

Recently, the crop started making a comeback. In the past year, 140 acres of hops were planted statewide — double that of last year. However, Miller says the resurgence in the hops industry isn’t just due to the farm brewery legislation. “The brewers in New York really have a strong interest in using local hops,” he said. “Their flavor is different than the hops you buy of the same varieties from different places.”

The other local ingredient farm breweries need is malt. The barely that is sprouted, dried and kilned to make malt must be grown in New York State. Miller says because brewers use a lot more malt by weight than hops, supply will need to catch up with demand. So far, Miller counts a half dozen malt houses that are open or will be opening. “It’s like the start of a new industry,” he said.

One of the trailblazers is Ted Hawley, owner of NY Craft Malt in Batavia, Genesee County. So far, the need isn’t outstanding—but as more farm breweries open for business and other established breweries clamber for local ingredients, “there would be a problem for sure,” Hawley said. His operation has already grown exponentially. Last year, they grew 500 acres of barley, and this year increased to 2,500 acres. Within the year, they hope to increase their operation and double in size.

And Hawey’s goals don’t stop there. With a governor’s committee of distillers, maltsters and brewers, he’s trying to blaze a path for barley. “Our region is really new to malt-grade barley,” said Hawley. Much of the barley grown in the region is feed-grade (meant for livestock), and farmers are still trying to figure out the best varieties for malt. “There’s a lot of education and research that needs to be done to sustain the direction we’re going in now,” he said.

And then there are the farm breweries themselves. So far, there are twenty-one across the state, including Abandon Brewing in Penn Yan, which joined the ranks this November. The idea to open a microbrewery had been brewing in owner Garry Sperrick’s mind, but as the legislation loomed, “we shifted gears,” he said. He, Master Brewer Jeff Hillebrandt, and Assistant Brewer Jeff Fairbrother started planning the business as the legislation went through. That swayed a lot of what the trio did—including planting their own hops. For now, they’re procuring hops from a handful of local growers, but growing their own was an essential step. “Right now, there’s really not enough New York State hops, and definitely not enough barley to go around,” he said. “Short term, it’s going to be a challenge. Long term, I actually think it’s pretty good,” he said. He sees parallels to the way the Finger Lakes wine industry has blossomed and thinks the region’s nascent beer industry can capitalize on the same spirit of camaraderie. Abandon Brewing, situated on Keuka Lake, attracts many visitors in the midst of wine trail tours. “We’re already being integrated,” he said.

Integration is key all the way down the line. Whether collaborating with hops farmers and maltsters, comparing notes on pesticide management, or stopping by a neighboring brewery for a pint, there’s a veritable sense of brotherhood in the burgeoning brew industry. “That’s what the wineries have done, and that’s what we’re doing as well,” said Sperrick.

The future of farming

Hops provide a booming option for agricultural entrepreneurs

Excerpted from a three-part story originally published in the March/April 2014 issue of Rochester, NY’s (585) magazine.

Bluebell Hopyard’s story begins with three disparate lives: Kurt Charland, an engineer; Rob Potter, a retired schoolteacher; and Fred Armstrong, owner of a Rochester animation studio, whose mutual backyard hobby brought them together in a venture that hearkens back to the hops industry’s heyday in New York.

“We’re quite an eclectic group,” said Charland. “Rob and I have been doing beer for quite some time, and Fred dabbles in it himself.” A few years ago, each of them cultivated a miniature hopyard for personal use. Meanwhile, the craft beer industry in the state continued to grow, spurred by plans of a farm brewery license which would require brewers to use a percentage of local hops. Inspiration struck the trio: what if they did some commercial growing?

Within two weeks of that conversation, they had written a business plan, broken ground and planted poles on Armstrong’s property on the banks of Mud Creek in Farmington. With the help of family and friends, they built the hopyard from scratch. The endeavor began with about 300 plants and quickly quadrupled in size. “It was like a whirlwind,” said Charland.

It’s an age-old process. From Perle hops in Germany to Chinook in Washington, hop plants grow on a tall trellis system. At Bluebell, the trellises are locally harvested locust poles. “It basically looks like a grape vineyard on steroids,” said Charland. “Some yards use pressure treated poles; ours are just natural trees. They sometimes look goofy because they’re all kinds of crooked — but you know what? We really enjoy the character.” The plants wind their way up the poles to produce cone-shaped flowers that are harvested and added to beer.

In the beer-making process, hops are used for two main purposes: to add additional flavor and aroma and to act as a natural preservative. Some seasonal beers are brewed with fresh, wet hops picked right off the bine, but most beers require dry hops, which are harvested and quickly dehydrated for later use. Different varietals impart distinct flavors, from floral to citrus. You can find many of the heavy-hitters at Bluebell: Cascade, Chinook, and Willamette, among others. But the hops they’re most proud of are a batch of heirloom BH Clusters. “We have two varieties of hops that have been growing in the area locally since the early 1800s,” Charland said. One was growing wild in the woods near Mud Creek, and a friend discovered the other behind the Valentown Museum in Victor. (At one time, a hopyard stretched from the museum to Turk Hill Road. That’s roughly the stretch along Route 96 from Valentown to the opposite end of Eastview Mall.)

The Bluebell team have started to cultivate both wild varieties, but it will be a few years before the plants fully mature. A small yield has allowed the team to brew some experimental batches with the earthy citrussy hops, and they’re looking forward to the recipe newly opened Victor Brewing Company will produce with them. As Bluebell’s crop continues to mature, they’ve already had a steady stream of customers ranging from home brewers and brand-new breweries to Rochester mainstays. “I think a lot of it has to do with the new New York State Farm Brew law (effective January 2013),” said Charland. “Besides that, everybody wants to use a local product. You’re going to get a much better, higher quality product from a small mom and pop farmer like us, versus a commercial farm where they’re just harvesting a product to sell.”

As hops and brewing make a strong return to the greater Rochester area, Charland, Potter and Armstrong are re-pioneering an industry that was once a major life force in the area. They’re learning from other up-and-coming farmers, too. “We’ve learned by meeting with people who have started their own hopyards and by trial and error, and it’s an ongoing learning experience,” said Charland. Whether it’s determining the best methods of dealing with pests and fungus or watering and irrigation, there’s a little bit of ingenuity and a little bit of luck involved. “We’ve made a couple of mistakes,” said Charland. But they’re rewriting history — and in New York, that history is brewed with hops.