Foodie [in]Security

I love food.  It might be my second biggest love after my family.  I’m certain that anybody who eats a meal with me can see the pure joy I derive from it.  Indulgences included, I have a great relationship with food.  My smile is brightest when I’m eating a healthy mix of nutritious food that acknowledges the need for treats every now and then.  (Clearly, my need for treats increases as my mileage does!)

Today, it’s so easy to become a foodie, and there is a growing foodie culture in the Hudson Valley, the “breadbasket of New York.”  The region is rooted in an agriculture economy, as I have mentioned before, and the produce that is grown is quite diverse.  We could adhere to a 100-mile restriction and get most of our food, if we planned ahead, pickled and canned, and/or were okay with more historic winter diets.  We’d be supporting local enterprise while being responsible about our carbon footprint as it relates to food suppliers.  And a major theme of the local agriculture movement is just that: instilling an understanding of where our food comes from.  In turn, this would inspire a better relationship with it, not only with how and what we eat, but also in our appreciation for production and transport.  Comprehending the complexity of our food systems could impart a more sustainable approach to how we live, improving our diet and decreasing the ecological impacts of our food habits.

The intentions behind the local food movement might be noble at heart, but how they are leveraged by capitalism can be disingenuous.  Is the marketability to our locavore sensibilities merely a passing fad, a way to gain market share?  What are the repercussions of creating a culture around food that isn’t accessible to everybody?  When surveying the city of Poughkeepsie, it was found that nearly one-quarter of the population identified some type of food insecurity during the year.  Whether this skipping a meal or going hungry it’s a very real issue in the city.  In the fairly local region of Dutchess County, there can, in fact, be such disparity within the food networks that the citizens exist in.  This is one issue that we hope to work on and is related to our decision and mission to program our newest housing development with social-impact space related to food and food education.

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I didn’t grow up food-insecure, but as part of a lower-class (and always hungry due to my fast metabolism and active lifestyle) in a way, I have always been a foodie.  Food is such a large and important budget item in low-income households that it’s hard not to embed a sense of continued need and intrinsic value in it. And it’s interesting to see how that continues to manifest itself for me even now that I feel much more financially secure.

My relationship with food is evolving as we immerse ourselves in the cultures surrounding agriculture up here.  As the summer has progressed and our CSA has continued to produce, we’ve had some unique opportunities to pick our own vegetables and herbs, such as basil, beans and parsley (other produce is usually already picked for us to collect).  I get lost in the act of picking to make sure that we have enough.  I take as much as I can because of the embedded value and the opportunity I’m giving to take as much as I want.

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Picking my own beans…I think I zoned out and picked 4-5 pounds in 30 minutes. Then we pickled them!

 

 

So I pick and pick and pick, getting lost in the act of squatting to twist beans off the plant, dropping them in a bag, and repeating with no abandon.  I feel a visceral need to make sure that we’re supplied for. But I also see the mission of the locavore movement and get closer to the earth while working for the food.  And it recenters my value for food; it begins to nurture beyond nourishment.  Perhaps this model can challenge the learned need to hoard when food is available; perhaps this economy and these resource networks can be reimagined to have great impact on people’s lives beyond their diet.

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A typical haul from our bi-weekly CSA share. 

 

Traversing to Traverse

I had an awesome opportunity to head to Michigan last week to attend Enterprise’ Affordable Housing Design Leadership Institute.  Although this is just the latest edition of a program that has taken place annually over the past 7 years, it was unique in that it partnered with and was co-hosted by the City of Detroit. Maurice Cox, Detroit’s Planing Director, was Katie Swenson’s professor back in graduate school at the University of Virginia, and previously on the selection committee for the Rose Fellowship.  So the depth and value of the Enterprise Rose network was on full display.  It was furthered by the introduction of Esther Yang, a Rose Fellowship alumni who Maurice had hired to be the Design Director of Detroit’s East Side.

In co-hosting the Institute, Detroit was able to rebrand it as Design Camp, and encourage local CDCs to apply to a part of it.  Thus, half of the development teams participating were from Detroit.  The structure of Design Camp allowed for the six Community Development Corporations (CDCs) to present a project in the schematic design phase to be reviewed and discussed by the greater audience, a dialogue that was led by a jury of ten design professionals.

Detroit is infamous among designers – a majority of both students and professionals are at least somewhat familiar with the structural issues of the physical fabric of the city (it was built for nearly 2 million, but is now just under 700,000) as well as the socio-economic challenges faced (the city filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy in 2013 and national historic trends in urban migration patterns as they relate to race are related to this).  In fact, in some ways, the educational value of the trip was not merely based in the Institute and juries alone, but in the larger conversation of community building and affordable housing in an area where the economy has been subject to decades of recession and stagnation.  Finding space for affordable quality housing amidst rapid gentrification may not be as big of a concern as affordable housing as an economic driver for revitalization, community stabilization and stewardship, and plans for urban contraction.  The continuing questions of socio-economic and community stabilization, the strategies employ and priorities we set, resonated with me in the challenges we’re addressing in Poughkeepsie.  Of course the scale of the issues in Detroit may dwarf what we experience in upstate New York, but the depth and breadth are similar.  Physical, social and economic challenges are merely surface-level issues that manifest from structural problems.  How much can physical interventions improve the conditions and outlook of a place if they don’t address the structural questions at the root?  How can we imbue development with consideration for these intrinsic challenges and the agency to proactively engage and address them?

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Contrasting the few days in Detroit – which were hot and required a lot of brain power – I was able to tack on a little bit of vacation on the back end of my trip out to Michigan.  With some advanced planning, the husband and a college friend and I went north to spend some time at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.  We had wanted to camp as part of our annual “boat trip,” in which four of us hang out for an extended weekend over the summer (our fourth BAILED on us last minute due to last-minute work obligations), but it’s apparently very, very difficult to score a campground if you try to get a day-of spot and even harder (or rather, takes more planning) to get a reservation.

We ended up showing up rather late and camped at a nearby state park for a single night.  It was dark and rainy that first evening, but when we woke, the weather was pretty spectacular, and our reservation for a hotel at nearby Traverse City ended up being a blessing.  We were required to take a two-night reservation, and ended up using both nights, and we got to spend a good amount of time in TC.  The city is small (15,000) and benefits from being right on Lake Michigan, but is also an easy drive to Sleeping Bear.  I was able to get in some visually spectacular runs, including a very warm 17 mile piece through on the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail, from Port Oneida to the Dune Climb and back to Glen Arbor, after which we went to a local favorite, Good Harbor Bay Beach.  The beach was sparse, and residents don’t advertise it, but it’s up there as one of the best beaches I’ve been to (and trust me, I’ve been to a lot), but both Jimmy and I were thrown off by how fresh the water was!  (We’re used to swimming in ocean water, and expected a higher salt content.)

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Empire out and back run along Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail
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Fort Oneida to Dune Climb and back to Glen Arbor
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Good Harbor Bay Beach, where the water threw us off for being a “too fresh”

We also spent both nights eating, drinking and lazing in Traverse City.  Of course I was thinking about work and noting how TC built a vibrant little downtown with social, cultural and natural amenities.  It was a great place to visit, and probably live, with thoughtful design elements that foster use of public space and encourage commerce.  But it also greatly lacked diversity – Jimmy and David (college friend) both pointed out how white the city was, even before I did.  It’s an interested characteristic of the city – and say what you will about Detroit, one thing I loved about it was how diverse it seemed while I was downtown.  How Detroit – and really any place – leverages that quality, I think, says a lot about the values of the city, and ultimately can affect how resilient the urban fabric is.

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A beautiful day in TC – the city was an easy scale for pedestrians
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The Little Fleet, a bit hipster, but lovely
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Brew, in TC – cozy, but maybe too hip

 

(North) East is Eden

One of the best things about my job is that about 10% of my time and energy is dedicated to  Hudson River Housing’s service area beyond Poughkeepsie.  I love the work that we’re doing, of course, that looks at small-city resilience, and, in my words, the idea of leveraging local expertise for economic stabilization.  But there are also economic and social challenges in areas outside the city that can benefit from our work.  Specifically, our work in the rural parts of Dutchess County is targeting economic, community and housing needs in the small towns that are hubs for the agricultural economies in the northeast part of the county.  In areas like Millerton, Amenia and Pine Plains, we’re currently doing outreach to see what services we can offer and are slowly making inroads to the communities out there.

One of the foremost challenges evident from just six months out there is duel economies and the way residents align themselves behind either one.  Though much of the area is dedicated to farm land – both small scale and larger commercial farms – there is also a tourism industry predicated on weekenders and seasonal residents, most of who come up from New York City. Like any community in which there is a large part-time population, there are some difficulties that bubble up.  In the context of HRH’s work, this boils down to two major challenges: housing becomes unaffordable for full time working-class residents in the vicinity of jobs; and economic resources to bolster business tend to focus on capital coming from the outside.  It’s not to say that there is any ill will between these two camps, but I do find it odd that there isn’t more collaboration between the two.

In early talks with community members (some of whom have the same thoughts regarding these issues) I’ve tended to use the phrase “economic scaffolding.”  It’s the brainy way of describing the need to create a sustainable economy based on a diversification.  In this situation, I advocate for better cooperation between local residents/businesses that cater regionally and industry that seeks to draw in external capital from tourists.  A less politically-correct discussion usually involves me stating that “economies based on $200 pillows are not sustainable,” and even within Dutchess County, there are cities, like Millbrook, that have seen their fortunes come and go as they fall out of favor as the cute town with great antiques.

Part of the challenge is that some of the “main street” businesses in towns like Millerton (Millerton and Millbrook…confusing, right?) don’t seem to acknowledge that catering to local citizens can be lucrative.  And it might not be, when compared to income driven by [rich] visitors.  But a business model that serves both tourists with deep pockets and a diverse base of local residents would likely be more sustainable in the long run.  In my mind, I can already name three places in the area that are seemingly successful, drawing in both visitors and residents (Oblong Books, Irving Farm Coffee House, and Pine Plains Platter) – and these are some of my favorite places in the area.

But an even simpler way to engage the surrounding residents and diversify, towns should facilitate cooperation and collaboration between businesses of diverse industry.  I use the term “main street” businesses because I mean to contrast them to the farms and farmers that are based in the area.  There are many large-acreage commercial farms, but a new cottage industry of small-scale organic farms are taking hold in the region.  In the vein of slightly-hipster start-ups and wholesome, organic food, these farmers are using traditional methods and pairing that with their knowledge of social media and modern trends to use a slightly different business model for today’s eater and eatery.  During my time doing outreach in Northeast Dutchess, I’ve met a few of these farmers – from Rock Steady Farm and Flowers, Full Circus Farms, and Chaseholm Farm – and it’s great to see them work in an industry that not many young people are drawn to.  Our work strives to support their business and we hope to leverage the farms in order to create a regenerative socio-economic platform in which “main street” businesses/commerce and agriculture are mutually supportive.

On a very real-world level, we’ve personally decided to spend more time out in that area of the county.  We’re about equidistant from Pine Plains and Amenia as we are from Poughkeepsie – though the drive to the former areas seem much longer because there’s not much between us and them.  We love the small towns and the agricultural aspects of life further east and have been embracing it: going to the Amenia Drive-In on Friday night to catch Finding Dory, and signing up for a CSA with Rock Steady.  Our first pick up was actually this week, and we received a bounty of greens, including lettuce, kale, spinach, and chard (it IS leafy green season), peas, herbs, cabbage, scallions and beets.  I’m always a bit wary about beets, and sometimes I like them, while sometimes I don’t, but I’m liking them right now, so I’m in luck.

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Dusk at the Amenia Drive-In.  Packed house (field?) for Finding Dory.
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Summer salad with arugula, orange slices and beets from Rock Steady’s CSA, paired with strawberry yogurt.  The perfect lunch for a hot day in upstate New York!

Like a good neighbor

The standards for being neighborly in New York City are pretty low: be respectful to those in your proximity by being quiet, picking up after your pets, and walking in public at a speed that would indicate you had somewhere to go.  But this reflection isn’t so much about the way to act and not act in NYC (that’s been covered pretty well by others) as it is about the welcoming that we’ve received so far from our new neighbors.  I suppose we’re the ACTUAL new neighbors, but you get my point.

Mary Ellen and John are a couple in their seventies who moved from Queens twenty years ago to raise ten kids in a haunted house (more on that later) built in the late 1700s.  They still hold hands.  They live across the street in a green two story that is large but lived in.  The exterior looks like a work in progress, but as they mentioned, when you’re a family of twelve you renovate a room at a time.  Our house was originally the barn for their house, and today their lawn, which is bordered by a small pond, includes signs calling for the repeal of the SAFE Act, posts to elect Willie Nelson for President in 2016, and a wooden wagon, the size of a car, called the “Pie Cart.”  John and Mary Ellen didn’t too much like the previous owners (who can blame them?) so were happy to see a young(er) active couple move in across the street.  They welcomed us with a pineapple upside down cake that was surely baked using a recipe out of a 1950s glamour magazine.  Because, of course.

Karl and Becca live next door in a 1960s rambler with vinyl siding.  It might be my worst nightmare to live in a house like that, but I understand the need for cheap and fast-built housing, and why it appeals to young(er) buyers.  I could go on and on about the affect of mass-build tract housing, subdivision development, and the social effects of separating customization and personalization from home design/building.  Instead, I’ll mention that Karl and Becca are awesome because the have a handful of animals that they keep for their own sustenance: 5 or 6 chickens for eggs, 3 or 4 goats (for who knows what?), and some number of pigs.  They might also keep bees for honey, but I might also just be dreaming that up because I want to keep bees (and chickens…but no other animals really).  Last week, they came over to welcome us with some fruits of their bounty – a dozen eggs from their chickens – though I was in the shower at the time.  It was almost perfectly timed, since we had our fridge plugged in only a few days later.

Needless to say, these couples are resetting expectations for what it means to be neighborly.  Our Brooklyn neighbors were never this friendly (except for Ben and Hedda, who were THE BEST). I wonder what type of neighbors we are and going to be, but with these expectations in place, we will have to rely on our charisma to not be out done.  Community engagement is very much part of my fellowship and it’s something I (apparently) excel at.  But ultimately, I’m very much an introvert and just want to hang out with my husband and my dog.  (I’ll hang out with our kids too once we have them.)  So Jimmy will have to take on more of the neighborly role.  Lucky for both of us, he’s super friendly and charming and loves just chatting away.

Furnishing with patience and luck

How do you furnish 2000 square feet of residential space that used to be a barn?  Or rather, how do you furnish a house you moved into, from an apartment in Brooklyn that was approximately one-third the size?  Or rather, how do you do so without spending thousands and thousands of dollars or, alternatively buying a lot of Ikea furniture, that would cost a lot anyway, but would likely not stand the test of time?  And also, how do you furnish a place out in the country as a hybrid between contemporary/transitional design and farmhouse comfort?  These were all the questions we asked ourselves halfheartedly, even before the move, because we knew, ultimately, we had a budget of zero dollars to spend.

We don’t really have any advice here, other than to be patient and lucky.  We take comfort in this process knowing that, as a couple, we’re pretty good at being both.  We figured it would be a waste of time and money to buy chairs and such that we would sigh at day after day. We admit to have high expectations and standards for the quality of design and construction for our furnishing, but we also have the strength of will to wait until something great and reasonably priced to come along – even if that means doing without some stuff until we could find something wonderful that there was the budget for.  Everything has to be just right – including the price tag.

That’s not to say we wouldn’t drop a heftier amount if it was a good value.  (For reference, though, “heftier” is somewhere in the $300 range.) Take, for example, the first piece we picked up since moving to the barn.  We can’t tell you what year or manufacturer it’s from, but when we saw the piece – a low-sitting, mid-century wooden thing in narrow, rectangular rails, arms, spindles and supports, with nice joinery to boot – we figured that for $80 it was worth it to pick it up and have the upholstery done ourselves.  The $260 price tag on the job was a steeper than preferred, but that’s always the case.  The vendor who ended up making the seat and back cushions was great. We’re really happy with how it turned out, and since we had it done to order we could pick out the cushion size, color and fabric.  We hadn’t gotten upholstery done before, so in that regard it was a useful exercise, and it showed us that we would have be a little more creative in how we acquired what other furnishings we would need.

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Custom cushions on a low-slung, wooden chair with nice lines.  Pretty, but pretty spendy.

Truthfully, we think we would have been fine without picking up other furniture for a while.  And we fully understand now that we should really view “antiquing” as a hobby defined more by window shopping and less by purchasing.  We would put patience into practice here and be fine with austerity (WAY better to keep things simple than over done, no?). So we weren’t expecting to suddenly acquire the rest of our seating needs in a single swoop so soon.  But when a good friend announced that her high-end clothier/cobbler company was getting rid of the designer furnishings that it used in store, we leveraged the luck previously mentioned and took advantage of this chance.  We ended up with a set of three Saarinen side chairs, a pair of Risom lounge chairs (armless) and two counter-height Marais bar stools for our kitchen island.  The furniture was somewhat faded and stained, but given that our total cost was about 4% (yes, FOUR PERCENT) of the original retail price, we could live with some stains (especially because we’re likely to get more stains on the things).  Plus we figure, we know a good upholstery place now anyway – and we love using local services to help the economy.

So we are set for most of our furnishings for now.  There are still some things we’d like – beds are on the priority list, though getting to the list itself is not very high priority – but right now we’re just trying to figure out where to put things, especially while we are finally unpacking.

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Patience and luck to furnish a house on the cheap is helped by good friends and fast getaway cars.

Planting [Ideas]

Five months after altering my professional trajectory and I’ve been delinquent in my attempt to reflect on the change and process.  (I’m just the worst!) Since January, we’ve moved to the “country” and have been trying to renovate our house.  We ended up closing on a residence that was originally built as a barn in 1783, because of course we would, and the renovation has been going slower than we’d like.  Of course I tend to downplay how big of a job it is: a gut renovation of the kitchen, two bathrooms, the dining room (most involving raising the ceilings) and a replacement of the roof.  When I type it out, it sounds like quite a bit.  But the work has been going well, albeit slow, and we’re in the process of curating our furnishings to be the right level to twee without being over the top.  Mostly this means going to antique stores when we have time, lamenting over how much stuff costs, and finding crazy deals on furniture through random sources.  (I’ll blog about how we bought $5000 worth of furniture for 3% of MSRP.  That was not a typo.)

People we’ve met seem to fall on some spectrum between surprised and concerned when we mention that we moved up from Brooklyn.  Sometimes wide-eyed they ask, “How are you doing?” I like the idea that we’d be shocked by life up here.  As if we didn’t make the choices we did with some information beforehand.  It’s totally great up here, and we’re trying to figure out more ways to own the space we’re occupying between urban sensibilities and an inherent embrace of the woods.  (Note: We each vacillate in different directions between the two.)

Our first attempt to put energy into a bucolic life (that will surely involve chickens, bees, pickling and hunting) has been to do some vegetable planting.  We’d been looking forward to growing some of our own vegetables, but we still bought about a dozen starts on a whim while at the store.  We planted a total of about 7 tomato starts, some dill, basil, kale, rosemary and mint.  A couple of those died within the first couple weeks when the overnight temperature dipped to about 34 degrees.  Eep!  But that was about two weeks ago, and since then the temperatures have been climbing to over 90 both today and yesterday.  The starts we used were fairly young, and we replaced the ones that died, but we are hoping that we are successful and can cut our monthly tomato and herb bill down to zero.  (It’s a very specific bill, I know!)  I’m sure it’s a quick step from tomato plants onto self-sustainment.  I mean, not really, but, like with everything in life, I’m choosing to approach this with wild optimism.

We’re lucky in that our backyard gets a lot of sun during the day, which should help the plants thrive.  We’re putting the pots on the south end of a bizarre concrete slab that the previous owners (no comment) had built.  Eventually (read: in two weeks) we hope to use that space to be a spot for outdoor gathering around a fire pit with seating and a grill, but we have so many ideas that it takes a while to get through them all!  Luckily, an impending visit from a large group of our Brooklyn friends should move us to action at a bit faster pace.  Now if only we could stop travelling…

Here We Go

I was mindlessly checking a well-known architecture website back in July, clicking through various articles and job-postings when I came across a particularly compelling announcement.  The Rose Fellowship, offered by the Enterprise Foundation, first came on my radar back in college – the second or third year it was offered.  It was presented as a social-impact opportunity for architects – an alternative to the career paths that students typically think of while in design school.  And with a focus on affordable housing, community development and sustainable design, it certainly stood in contrast to what’s become a fetishization of architecture.

Fifteen years after that first inkling, and after a good deal of work experience  in a variety of architecture firms, the posting stared me in the face: partnering early-career architectural designers with local community development organizations to facilitate an inclusive approach to development in order to create green, sustainable, and affordable communities.  The language was neither sexy nor unnecessary, but then neither was the opportunity.  A three year stint working with a host organization on affordable housing and community engagement within poorer neighborhoods was a far cry from the trajectory of my career in ultra-high-end residential; and it would mean nearly 50% pay cut and, most likely, a relocation.  Yet it still interested me as something I would find rewarding and challenging, something I could excel at, and something that would inspire me to be better.

The work plan and fellowship offered at Hudson River Housing, in partnership with MASS Design Group, was, in my mind, perfectly written and enticing: using affordable housing and community engagement to develop economic resiliency and catalyze revitalization in the city and surrounding rural areas.  It didn’t hurt that I could easily identify with the constituency that HRH seemed to serve – the working poor of a NYC suburb, the surrounding Hudson River Valley.  I imagined a town and a community reminiscent of the Rest Belt, and a greater community as one banking on unsustainable weekend tourism and seasonal residents.  I pictured woods and farms, old brick buildings, a vibrant arts and culinary community, and natural resources like the river and the mountains.  And I romanticized an escape from the city to the Middle of Nowhere that would be an amazing professional opportunity and an even better personal one (to live off the land a bit, to live amongst the trees!).

Of course the application process was rigorous and nerve-wracking: a lengthy written application reminiscent of college entry; a summit involving presenting; a walking tour and lengthy personal interview.  The whole thing reminded me of Survivor, really, where we had to outwit each other. But 6 months later, with as much skepticism and fear as excitement and passion, I find myself hiking up to Poughkeepsie to work in the city and engage the Hudson River Valley every day.  The ride is beautiful and inspiring, the early morning sky always a blue-shade of white, the river rarely rumbling to whitecaps.

I have no illusions of being some sort of savior for POK, nor do I think that I’ll be able to solve the economic stagnancy plaguing the area.  And I still sometimes wonder if I’ll make it through the next three years.  But I am inspired by the town and the area around it: the quiet of the woods and the beauty of the people and the diversity of the community.  So I’m trying to buy-in to what I’m doing and where we are: moving here permanently, buying a house, leaving some of my urban sensibilities behind, and instilling myself as a member of the communities I seek to engage, contribute to, and empower towards inclusion and resiliency.  And all the while, I’m changing my lifestyle from urban to rural, or something  closer to the latter, anyway.

Every move here is a baby step, of course, and I often wonder if I’ll have an impact, or if moving out to the woods will have an impact on my life and my outlook. But as we speed along the Hudson to the last stop on Metro-North, I pass the landmarks of my childhood – Bear Mountain, West Point, the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge – and I quietly whisper to myself that this fellowship, this position with HRH and MASS, was made for me.  And not because of the work available in social-impact architecture, its relationship to political and social networks, and not just because of the chance to live in the woods, closer to the land, but really, because of how the two have intertwined here, and how the two are seen as scaffolding and fostering each other.

I am terrified and excited to say the least, but I am ready to work.