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Catherine Wong loved baking ever since high school.  In college she was the go-to-girl for all things sweet and yummy but when it came to choosing a career baking had to take a step back.  Catherine staid with the food theme, though, and became a food scientist.  For years she created sauces: developed new ideas for pizza sauces, pasta sauces, meat sauces, tried, changed, improved and came up with intriguing flavors.

But baking remained her true passion.  After work she would rush home and start exploring with sweet ingredients, developing new flavors, trying to recreate what she experienced during her travels, e.g. French macarons.

Occasionally, I bring you a story under the headline “Sometimes small change isn’t enough”.  Remember Jutta who gave up her job as an admin in the pharma industry to teach English to students in Laos?  Catherine’s story is like that: eventually rushing from her kitchen-plus-lab at work to her home kitchen in the evening wasn’t feasible anymore and instead of giving up baking, Catherine gave up sauce making.

She is now a full-time baker in Sunnyvale.  She takes particular pride and joy in developing new flavors and letting her south-Asian heritage influence her creations.  In her interview she mentions delicious sounding creations like Thai-tea cookies or sweet and savory sea wheat macarons. We also talk about the challenges of running a small, new business.  Like many people starting out she finds marketing very hard and was stunned to find that, though people love a free cookie that doesn’t mean they are going to buy them for their next party.

It is an exciting and exhausting learning curve for Catherine but she is glad she took the plunge and followed her passion.  Having an understanding and supportive husband certainly doesn’t hurt.

The permalink for the interview is here.

The direct download link can be found here.


Have a look at Catherine’s webpage here: https://www.catcatsnomnom.com

And another picture of some of Catherine’s cookie creations.


Home away from home

The story of Jan-Wilem Knapen is a remarkable one.  This young boy who suffered from leukemia as a small child and later was diagnosed with and eventually died from brain cancer not only conceived of and inspired the creation of JW House, but played a very active role in the early fundraising to make it a reality. Having to spend a lot of time in the hospital he knew how hard it was for his family to care for him while in the hospital and wanted them and other people like them to have a place where they could go – a close by home away from home – to get a break from the sterile hospital environment.

Everybody who has ever spent long days at a hospital to be near a family member or friend in a medical crisis knows how difficult that is and how welcome even a short break is.  How necessary a bit or normality is and the opportunity to talk to others in a similar situation.  JW House offers just that to people – a little reprieve, a small break, a sliver of normal everyday life and caring support by the full-time staff and the volunteers.

A Home Away from Home

JW House is now open and serving that function of being a home away from home for the families of patients being treated at the hospitals in Santa Clara Valley. Since its grand opening in 2008, JW House staff and volunteers have welcomed thousands of people to enjoy a warm meal, much needed respite, friendly support, and comfortable beds.

Jim is one of the volunteers who started out by donating money and now works a 4 hour shift every Sunday evening at the house.  He washes dishes, makes sure the house is ready and comfortable but most importantly he is there, if one of the visitors needs a sympathetic ear of a good listener.  As Jim puts it, at “JW House we care for those who care for others.”

To learn more about JW House please listen to my interview with Jim.  I hope you will be inspired by his story and by how much pleasure he drives from helping others in difficult situations.

To listen to the interview please click here for the direct download link.

The permanent URL can be found here.



Website for JW House

Jim also mentions Ronald McDonald house as an institution with a similar mission, their website is here.


Handmade Items

Patti always had a talent for and interest in design and spent most of her professional life as a graphic designer for a number of companies and organizations.  From an early age on, she was also a avid sewist and two years ago she took the plunge and combined her passions and talents and started designing and sewing her own line of linen home products and home decor items and selling these handmade items.

The channel she is using for sales currently is Etsy where she runs a small shop; other channels such as arts and crafts fairs will follow in the near future.

In our interview Patti talks about her process of creating, where her inspirations come from and how much time it takes to run a one-woman shop and do everything from product conception to design, manufacturing, marketing, customer relations and finally shipping by herself.  Despite all the hard work she puts in, one can’t help but getting the impression that she really enjoys her work.

Whether you are looking to make selling your own work a job or a part-time opportunity to make a bit of money on the side: have a listen to Patti and be inspired to get started!

To listen to the interview please click here for the direct download link and here for the permalink.


Etsy is an online platforms where people can sell their own creations, art and crafts. If you want to check it out further please click here.

You can find Patti’s Store Heart Made Linens Gifts here.

There are other ways to sell your creations online, for example

  • CafePress, a site offers print-on-demand service
  • Zazzle, a site to upload your designs and then have products with that design manufactured for you
  • ArtFire, another site to sell handmade items, well-known for jewelry and works with Amazon’s wish list

These are the top 3 site of a list of 40 alternatives to Etsy that can be found here.


This interview and the show notes do not mean to be an endorsement of one online marketplace for handmade items over another.  If you are interested in selling your own products online please do some research and find out which platforms works best for you.

I do not receive any compensation from Etsy directly or from any seller on that platform or from any other of the online marketplaces mentioned!

Reading Partners

When Vivian was asked by a friend to help out with the Reading Partners program when a number of tutors suddenly departed she and her husband said yes. Little did they know that they would still be reading Partners five years later, driving to an elementary school once a week to work with kids who have fallen behind on their reading.

Research has shown that kids who don’t read proficiently by 3rd grade are 4 times more likely to leave school without a diploma than proficient readers.  The goal of Reading Partners and similar organizations is to close that gap in reading proficiency and make all kids proud and confident readers.

Reading PartnersIn her interview Vivian describes a typical reading session with a child and also speaks about the training and the time requirements involved with being a volunteer. Herself a retired teacher she fit right in; her husband, however, had never taught before.  He quickly became a enthusiastic reading partner who manages to get kids excited about reading.

Vivian spends about 1 to 1 1/2 hours per week on tutoring “her” child and enjoys the difference the program makes for children who – for whatever reasons – have trouble keeping up with their peers in reading.

Becoming a reading partner seems like a perfect opportunity to help somebody, make a real positive difference for a child while not taking over your entire life.

To listen to Vivian’s interview please go here for the direct download; the permalink is here


The Reading Partners website is here. They have programs not only in California but also in Colorado, Washington,  Minnesota, North and South Carolina, Texas, Oklahoma, Maryland, Washington D.C. and  new York.

If you are interested in becoming a volunteer you can go right here.

This link takes you to a 2011 study of almost 4000 kids done by The Annie E. Casey Foundation




Had I looked for the perfect story to illustrate the mission of A Varied Life I would need to look no further than the story of Susan Lutter.

A marketing professional she stopped working for money at the age of 50 and began, what she calls to “work from the heart”.  Her heart took her on an interesting and inspirational journey.  The first stop was volunteer work with Koko, the female gorilla who mastered more than 1000 signs of what is know as  ASL – American sign language.  In the interview you will hear Susan talk about her experience working with Koko, watching movies with her (guess who her favorite actor is) and learning that Koko does not like puppies but is very interested in food.

Her passion for great apes eventually took Susan to Cameroon and to a sanctuary for orphaned chimpanzees and gorillas, which have been rescued from the illegal trafficking and bushmeat trades. The helpless babies are literally nursed back to health with a bottle and live in the sanctuary until they – hopefully – one day can be released into the wild.

Susan was touched by the plight of these chimpanzee and gorilla babies.  Often their whole families were killed by criminals and so she decided to help.  She was also inspired by the people who are working in the sanctuary and live in the communities surrounding it.

Back home she began to raise money for the sanctuary and the conservation efforts.  When she learned that the local school really needed were not crayons and books but toilets she helped raise the necessary money to build them.  As Susan puts it: “they tell me what they need and I try and help them get it.”

Susan’s story is truly inspirational.  What started out as a part-time activity has turned into a fulfilling and rewarding passion, that Susan spends almost all of her time on.  Speaking with her made me want to pack my bags and take off for Cameroon to feed baby chimpanzees with a bottle.

To listen to my interview with Susan please go here for the direct download and here for the permanent link.


Susan’s webpage is Friends of Ape Action Africa and can be found here.  The blog to follow what is going on in the sanctuary and the communities around it is here.

The Facebook page of the sanctuary is here.




“Jump-Start your Life” recently was one of the  featured headlines of a fancy lifestyle magazine that I read. I had great hope to find some inspiration.  (more…)


Normally I bring you stories of people who added something new to their daily lives,  The mission of A Varied Life is to inspire people to add variety and not to change their entire lives around. However, sometimes a small change just isn’t enough and so – occasionally – I will bring you the story of somebody who did something radical.  Today it is the story of my friend Jutta, who lived in Laos for 4 1/2 years and taught English in Luang Prabang as a volunteer.

Jutta’s Story

All her life Jutta  wanted to teach and part of her professional career was spent on doing just that.  She taught computer classes and at some point run her own small business teaching seniors how to go online, create Word documents and generally get comfortable with using a computer.  During a trip to Italy she took a class to become licensed to teach English as a Second Langauge.  Little did she now that she would end up as an English teacher in Laos.

Her other passion is traveling. During a trip to Laos she spoke with many of the local people and found out how eager they are to learn English.  Though the language is taught in schools there, it is mainly taught by Laotians who never had the chance to live in an English-speaking country themselves and are unfamiliar with idioms and sometimes struggle with pronounciation of words in the English language which is so different from their own tonal language.

LaosAfter returning home she found out that she had been laid off from her job and everything fell into place for her.  She sublet her apartment, packed a suitcase and booked flights to Luang Prabang, where she had spent some time during her travels and met people from the Lao Educational Opportunities Trust.

What was meant to be a few months working and living in Laos turned into four and a half years during which Jutta not only worked at the LEOT school but also taught monks and started a girls English class in her home.

In her interview Jutta talks about the challenges and joys of being an English teacher in Luang Prabang.

The direct download link is here

The permalink is here



Here is the link to the Lao Educational Opportunities Trust – LEOT




mothering a tween

Recently, I came across this article about mothering a tween written by Juli Fraga. The title “Being Mom To A Middle Schooler Can Be The Toughest Gig Of All”  caught my attention.  The author, a psychologist, writes about the challenges of mothering a tween.

On the one hand there are all the new worries one faces with a child who is developing his or her independences: how much freedom to give the child, how much should their online activities be monitored, how much can I trust them to do the right thing and how much do I have to accept that they’ll do something stupid and a) suffer the unpleasant consequences but b) also learn from that experience and – hopefully – avoid worse stupid behavior in the future.

On the other hand there is the missing reward one gets from mothering a baby or small child, all the wet kisses and little arms slung around ones neck, all the snuggles and giggles and happy moments that are being replaced by eye rolls and utterances of “Mom!!” in a way that makes it clear that you – once again – have done/said/expected something so incredible stupid or embarrassing that there are hardly any words for it.

Then there are all the changes going on with the mother itself, physiological such as hormonal changes or psychological when a question comes up along the lines of “I put my career on hold to be a mother.  What do I do now?”

This is a difficult time for many women and there is certainly not one answer for all.  Some women might be able to restart their careers or get deeply involved with volunteer work or a rewarding hobby but one thing seems clear: doing something other than obsessing over the child is a good place to start.  Finding people in similar situations for support can help. Making new friends, doing something meaningful or fun can help.

And here we come full circle to the mission of A Varied Life: adding variety to your life can help, starting something new can help or picking up something you cared about that but fell by the wayside during those years of intensive mothering can help.

I’d love to record your story if you started something new in your life during the challenging time of mothering your tween (or teen).  Please share so other women in the same situation can be inspired.

Contact me at tina@avariedlife.com

Volunteer Diver
Volunteer Diver

A volunteer diver at the Steinhart Aquarium high-fives the kids

Andy Frazer is an accomplished and experienced diver.  During a trip to the Steinhart Aquarium at the California Academy of Sciences he realized that he can combine two of his passions: diving and volunteering by becoming a volunteer diver at the aquarium and helping with the monumental tasks of keeping the algae at bay and the anemones well-feed while entertaining the visitors by waving and high-fiving them and raising awareness of critical conservation issues.

Becoming a Volunteer Diver

In this interview Andy speaks about how he became a volunteer diver, what the necessary qualifications are, the safety measures put in place to avoid accidents and how rewarding it can be to scrub algae off windows.

Programs like this are available at most large aquariums as keeping the large windows clean is a monumental task.  So if you live in or near a city with an aquarium and this sounds like fun – go check out the website.  Some links are in the resources section below.

Here are the links to the podcast.  Please excuse some minor stray sounds during the recording, I hadn’t expected my neighbor’s construction work being so loud on a Saturday.

The direct download is here and the Permalink can be found here.

Andy really leads a very varied life and also has a website where he records oral histories of people, mainly of Japanese-Americans who have been incarcerated by the U.S. Government during WWII.  Have a look at his blog to listen to those stories.


The website of San Francisco’s Steinhart Aquarium is here (www.calacademy.org/exhibits/steinhart-aquarium)

If you are interested in volunteering at the Academy of Sciences the link for all opportunities, not just diving can be found here

Here is the link to the live video of the Philippine Coral Reef tank. You can watch the dive show live each day at 11:30 am and 2:30 pm (PDT).

Links to Volunteer Diving Programs

This is an incomplete list of aquariums that have diving volunteer programs across the US. Just Google the aquarium in your city to find out whether they need help.

Click here for diving volunteer opportunities at the Long Beach/Aquarium of the Pacific

If you leave within a 45 minutes drive of Monterey, CA, check here

Andy mentioned the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, the link to their volunteer site is here, Volunteer opportunities at the New England Aquarium in Boston and at the NY Aquarium.

Here is the site of the Downtown Aquarium in Denver

Here is the site for the Tennessee Aquarium and here for the Florida Aquarium in downtown Tampa and here for the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher.

Just a few more:

For the Center for Aquatic Sciences  in Camden, NJ click here

For the Great Lakes Aquarium in Duluth, MN click here

Blogs and Articles

Here is an article from the California Diver Magazine’s online edition about volunteer divers at the academy

Article about aquarium diving in www.alertdiver.com

Article about becoming a volunteer diver



Right Time

A few interviews into this project I have across a bit of a theme.  As I speak with people I hear sentences like “I always wanted to do that”, “I have thought about doing – whatever it is we are talking about –  for a long time”, or “someday I want to do that”.

Here are some thoughts on that topic.