Ten Steps to Self-Improvement 

A quick glimpse at some of the diverse course offerings of the education-crazed East Bay.

Fitter. Smarter. Calmer. Artier. If all you've ever wanted was to evolve into your higher self, you're living in the right place. The East Bay is so education-crazed that its residents fill thousands of classes and workshops every month. Music, art, athletics, spirituality, drama, dance, and just plain book-learning -- there's so much self-improvement going on here that it's hard to walk down the street without becoming a better person.

Browse through this issue's course directory and discover classes that'll develop life skills you never knew you needed. Perhaps you'll learn knitting. Or you'll finally master the risotto. Maybe you'll even figure out how to defragment your computer's hard drive.

Just to offer you a sample of what's out there, here are ten classes you could take to make life -- or yourself -- more interesting.

Make your own lip balm

What's that slogan about teaching a man to fish? If you spend hundreds of dollars a year pampering yourself, take a class at the new Nova Studio in Point Richmond, where Lori Nova and her faculty teach people how to make soaps, lotions, and candles. The "Lip Balms and Bath Melts" class shows students how to concoct their own lip balms with all-natural bases such as sweet almond oil and shea butter and flavors such as mint, citrus, anise, vanilla, and lavender. You'll also learn how to get the balm into those little lipstick tubes and package it up to impress your friends.

January 30, 6-9 p.m. Cost: $32 plus $8 materials fee.
The Nova Studio, 24 W. Richmond Ave., Point Richmond; 510-710-0914. TheNovaStudio.com

Upgrade and repair your own computer

Rather than throwing up your hands each time your PC crashes, open it up and figure out what's wrong. This hands-on course will teach you how computers are put together, how operating systems work, and how to troubleshoot, upgrade, and repair basic computer systems. Instructor Ken Rush, a Silicon Valley veteran, will help you replace your hard drive and network your computer to others. He even promises that by the end of the class every student will have built a computer system from spare parts.

"Computer Repair and Upgrade ... Do It Yourself"
Wednesdays, March 3-24, 6:30-8:30 p.m.
Cost: $112. Livermore Area Recreation and Parks District, 71 Trevarno Road, Livermore; 925-373-5700. LARPD.dst.ca.us

Roulez the bon temps

Zydeco dance -- which originated in northern Louisiana -- is a style of two-step couples dancing that includes elements of cumbia and calypso. Dana DeSimone has taught zydeco and Cajun dancing at the Beat Dance Center for fourteen years. He also has won television dance championships, taught workshops in Louisiana, and led the Gumbo Ya-Ya's dance troupe. According to DeSimone, "The basic step is pretty easy to get, and then the beauty of zydeco is that you can make it as complicated as you want." He claims to specialize in teaching rhythm- challenged men how to dance, so bring your boyfriend to class. If the two of you want to take it on the floor after you're done with the course, DeSimone also puts on monthly dances that draw hundreds of people.

Cost: $45 per person for a four-week series of ninety-minute classes; see the Web site for registration information and full schedule.
The Beat Dance Center, 2560 Ninth St., Berkeley; 510-548-5348.
Users.lmi.net/thebeat

Swing a poleax

Admit it: You watched Return of the King and thought, "I'd look hot strapping a broadsword." Find out for yourself at this popular twelve-week class, which teaches authentic European martial arts using fencing gear and wooden "wasters." You need not have a military background to participate. Instructor Brian Price is an active participant in the Society for Creative Anachronism and has written extensively on medieval swordsmanship and tournaments. Those who survive to take the intermediate class will graduate to the poleax.

"Introduction to Medieval Swordsmanship"
Thursdays, January 15-March 25, 7:30-10:00 p.m. Cost: $100. Union City Leisure Services, 34009 Alvarado-Niles Rd., Union City; 510-675-5494. (for classes). www.ci.union-city.ca.us/leisure/lifestyle.html

Fatten up your neighbors

If you take Linda Moreno's three-hour "Candyland" class at Berkeley's Spun Sugar, you'll walk out with handmade marshmallows, penuche fudge, almond toffee, pecan turtles, chocolate-covered cherries, and marzipan apples. And you'll have made them all from scratch. In this hands-on class, Moreno demystifies the basics of candy-making -- tempering chocolate, molding marzipan, and, most important, using a candy thermometer -- so you can replicate all her recipes at home. Students who just can't get enough of that sugar magic can continue on to Spun Sugar's classes in cake decorating, truffles, cheesecakes, and "Candyland II."

"Candyland"
Offered February 21 and March 3, 9 a.m.-12 p.m. Cost: $60. Spun Sugar, 1611 University Ave., Berkeley; 510-843-9192. SpunSugar.com

Plan for your retirement

Christina Ahlstrand, a certified financial planner who has taught financial planning courses at Piedmont Adult School for a decade, says that many of the folks who enroll in "Preparing for Retirement" are facing that "Oops, I'm fifty!" moment, with no idea of how to make their savings last until their eighties. They're not alone: Three in four adults in middle age have no specific retirement plan. So she covers the basics -- tax law, how different retirement plans work, Social Security and Medicare, mutual funds -- to help students come up with savings strategies. "It's not about amassing money, it's about controlling your future," she says.

"Planning for Your Retirement"
March 3 and 10, 7-9 p.m. Cost: $45.
Piedmont Adult School, 800 Magnolia Ave., Piedmont; 510-594-2655. PiedmontAdultSchool.org

Play the steel drums

Anthony "Cannon" Hernandez grew up in Trinidad, playing with some of the island's top steel-pan musicians, and teaches around the Bay Area. In his introductory class, students (ages fourteen and up) will learn how to play the "pan" and about the history and culture that surround it. You need only bring a strong sense of the beat; Cannon teaches classic calypso rhythms as well as contemporary steel-drum musical forms. Those who want to continue can take private lessons, or even graduate to the Richmond Bloco, the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts' performance ensemble.

"Adult Steel Drums"
Wednesdays, beginning in February, 6:30-8:00 p.m. Cost: $168.75. East Bay Center for the Performing Arts, 339 11th St., Richmond; 510-234-5624.
EastBayCenter.org

Figure out what your mechanic is talking about

Taking your car into the shop can be a neuroses-inducing experience. Do you pretend you know what's wrong with it or admit your complete ignorance? Does your mechanic overwhelm you with jargon? Are you terrified of being overcharged? Chabot College designed "Auto Mechanics for Dummies" with new car owners and automotive Luddites in mind. Manuel Franko, a practicing mechanic and instructor at Chabot, goes over the parts of the car and how they all work together. Then he explains how to keep your car running smoothly: checking the oil and fan belts, reading the lights, changing the tires, and telling the good noises from the bad.

"Auto Mechanics for Dummies"
Saturday, February 21, 11a.m.-4 p.m. Cost: $55. Chabot College Community Education, 25555 Hesperian Blvd., Hayward; 510-723-6665. Chabotweb.clpccd.cc.ca.us/ComEd

Snag a striped bass

If you have mountainwoman aspirations or are just looking for an excuse to stare blankly into the bay, take one of FishFirst!'s beginning fly-casting classes. This one-day workshop teaches novice fishers two fly-casting techniques -- the overhead and roll casts -- and helps those more experienced with the rod and reel to improve their control, distance, and speed. The class (which is generally limited to six people) is held at the Oakland Casting Ponds. You can bring your own equipment or test out some of the loaners the Albany school (and store) provides. Finding flattering waders, though, is up to you.

"Beginning Fly Casting"
Second Saturday of every month, 2-5 p.m.
Cost: $60. Fish First!, 1404 Solano Ave., Albany; 510-526-1937. www.fishfirst.com

Find inner peace (or just a piece of it)

Blood pressure. Immune system. Memory and mood. Even bowel function. A whole host of studies have shown the physiological benefits of meditation. Whether you're looking for enlightenment or strategies for staying sane on the 880, the East Bay is chockablock with Buddhist, Vedantic, Jewish, Christian, and way-out-there meditation classes. For a lesson in the classics: Every Saturday morning the Berkeley Zen Center -- established more than thirty years ago by Shunryu Suzuki, the author of Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind -- offers instruction in zazen (sitting meditation) for truly beginner minds. You can stay for the lecture afterward or come back for the daily morning and evening sessions.

Saturdays, 9:20-10:00 a.m. Free.
Berkeley Zen Center, 1931 Russell St., Berkeley; 510-845-2403. BerkeleyZenCenter.org

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