Monday, December 9, 2013

My Endorsement of Jazz: Who Rescued Who?

As published in the February 2014 Hibu Publications

February is fast coming, another busy month for this humble writer. Valentine’s Day and President’s Day are this month, but there are also some lesser known holidays, such as Love Your Pet Day (Feb. 20), Walk the Dog Day (Feb. 22), and of course International Dog Biscuit Appreciation Day (Feb. 23).  February also means a lot of birthdays to me, and as much as I adore my husband, sister and niece, there is someone else who has a birthday this month.  My dog Jazz turns 11, a great milestone for this “rags to riches” pup.   
I started nudging at the husband for a dog after my elderly cats passed away. The idea of spending the day working at home without companionship was an uncomfortable proposition for me.  I did months of internet research to first find the perfect breed and then the perfect critter.  After applications, interviews and home inspections,  I made the rainy journey to Philadelphia to pick up my new “kid” just before Christmas 2011, an 8 year old Italian Greyhound from a rescue program.  I was instantly smitten with him.  He was greeted by my family warmly, and my parents and sister welcomed the new addition with sweaters and a “Grandma Blanket” which he snuggles under daily. It was obvious that Jazz was not treated well at all- his skin was dry and scaly, ears and nails filthy, bony, and mostly bald due to years of malnutrition. This was a little guy who, frankly, needed me as much as I needed him.  

There were lots of things that all of us had to get accustomed to: we had never had a family dog before, and Jazz had never had a family.  He had previously never eaten dog food, so this was all very new for his little digestive system.  I had never before had a pet that had so many needs, such as a winter wardrobe and sunscreen to protect his hairless parts during the summer.  Since he has been with us, he is much less timid than before, though we can clearly see his emotional scars.  He is my work partner and travels with me everywhere.  He loves the trips to the bank because he always gets a snack at the drive thru window.  Tenants always welcome him enthusiastically, neighbors say hello, and social media friends see frankly too many pictures.   He’s become an honorary student of my karate class.  A popular guy, like the cute star quarterback in high school, but he’ll always be Mommy’s Baby.  But like I said, he is turning 11 this year.  His hair on his face is turning gray and though he was never really the type to run around the house and play, he has more inclination to nap these days.  As I write this, he is sitting on his favorite chair in the living room, wrapped up under the Grandma Blanket and staring at me with his big eyes, whining for me to come pet him and kiss him on top of his bald wrinkly head.  Its almost time for bed, a soft crate draped with a blanket.  The heating pad inside is on a timer to click on at 8:30 so that it is toasty for him when he climbs in.  

As grateful as I am to have him (and I thank my husband regularly for such a gift), I feel very cheated. I wish he and I had found each other years ago.  He came to me as an old man, frail and uncared for.  He now lives a life of luxury, something that I think he has earned.   As with all things, he will not be around forever, so I will enjoy the time we have.  It will definitely hurt to say goodbye in the end, but I can’t live my life thinking about that.  It’s wasted time, time better spent napping in fresh clean puppy pajamas or taking a W-A-L-K.  We still have plenty of time for city and camping adventures.  Though our time together is short, Jazz and I are both better off for it.  We’re very lucky to have found each other. 
So now you know the story.  
Gotta go.  It's Cuddle Time.   

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

New Year's Disillusion- My Plan for 2014

Here we go, kids.  Its New Years Resolution time, or as the pessimist in me calls it, The Year's First Premeditated Implosion.  Now is the time to completely put away any of the self awareness that I may have accumulated over the last year and keep making the same old promises to myself that I know deep down I will never keep.  I love starting out the year knowing that in about a month, I will be labeling myself as a failure.  But yet, I continue to do it to myself, and I think a lot of other folks are in the same boat. Because I was curious, I researched the top resolutions for 2013 as gathered from users of social media websites.  I wasn't surprised.  Number one was change in diet and exercise, followed by save money, get organized, and drink less.  As I read this and I contemplated my experiences of the past year and what I have learned about myself, I realize something- all of these things are very general while the reasons why I have my bad habits that need "resolving" are specific.  For example, I am a sugar addict and I should cut back.  I crave sugar when I'm stressed.  If I try to cut out the sugar, I start to bite my nails.  So which one do I start with- the stress management, the sugar craving or the nail biting? Big resolution, lots of little ways it can fail, and for me, it always does.  Spending less money has the same pitfalls.  Am I shopping because I need new pants, or because I'm bored and avoiding the sink full of dishes waiting at home? Does 'stop being bored' need to be added to the resolution list?  You see how quickly it can snowball out of control?
I'm 35 now.  
I am never going to be in a size 2 again because I like being able to eat whatever I want. I need to just accept this and enjoy my dessert.  
So perhaps that's a good resolution:  Focus more time on who I am as a person.  Learn something new about myself by experimenting with who I am and what I can do.  I think that if I keep things very specific, like on a to-do list, I can check things off and my success is documented.  If I fail, what was the barrier that kept me from success? 
I think, this year, I would like to lessen my carbon footprint.  Pick a week and see how little garbage I can create.  Every time I reach for something processed, that wrapper will be staring at me.  Then come the questions- how does the piece of fruit as opposed to the candy bar make me feel? Instead of hitting the take-out place with all of its packaging for lunch break, maybe I should take along last night's leftover lasagna already packed in Tupperware.  What's the hang up there? What am I missing out on that the trip to the sandwich shop provides? It can go down deep if you follow the hole. 
My waistline wins, my compost bucket wins, my family wins because I'm cooking more instead of ordering a pizza.  I remember 'Be a better spouse and parent' from that Top10 list!
I'd also like to follow the three day detox diet designed by a Hollywood celebrity dermatologist who guarantees me beautiful skin.  Its only three days, not 365.  What if I look better and feel better afterwards? Can I take that feeling of small success and grow it into something bigger and even more meaningful?
Only if I really want to.   
So I think that's where I am for 2014.  Short, obtainable challenges that I don't have to worry about failing because they can teach me something about myself, whether I succeed or not.  Gain something from it, then try again.  
Another good resolution: Don't wait til January to get to know yourself.  Every day's a good day for that.  

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Make Your Own Gift: Finding Holiday Happiness When The Rest of the Year Has Sucked

As published in the December 2013 Central PA Hibu publications

Life is much more manageable when thought of as a scavenger hunt as opposed to a surprise party.- Jimmy Buffett    

I don’t mean to bring the mood down, but the holidays aren’t as much fun as when I was a kid.  Frankly, I don’t look forward to them at all.   I really dislike the month of December.  I’m fortunate to have all of my family nearby so that I don’t have to travel a long way, but there’s still lots of preparation for meals, presents to buy, parties to plan for and attend, the Christmas cards, all of these things that have deadlines (anyone who knows me knows that I’m not great at that).  There are several birthdays in December (including my own) that need considered, and business obligations that need tended to before the end of the fiscal year.  These are the things that are the constants year after year, no matter what else is going on.   Its only when December and the holidays come around that you start thinking about things that have happened over the past 11 months.  I lost my last 2 grandparents this summer- my grandfather, whose birthday is in December, passed away in early June, and of course, Grandma Jo left in August.  For me, that’s when it starts to hit home.  Both Mom and Dad are without parents for Thanksgiving and Christmas for the first time.   When my stepson passed away 6 years ago, that first Thanksgiving without him was the toughest for my husband’s family.  So my brain starts getting into those planning stages, not only to cope with the stress, but also with the grief that holidays can bring.  You can’t exactly take it off your schedule so that you won’t have to deal.  So where can I find my comfort this year?  Obviously with family, the only people in the world who can understand my feelings, because they share them with me.  But my crew and my husband’s crew are quite different in their own ways.  My inlaws are the Sicilian-Korean-Catholic New Yorkers.  Every Christmas Eve has been pretty much the same since the family came to this country in the 1920’s.  Fish dinner that includes all of my father-in-law’s Mediterranean tradition with my mother-in-law’s unique Asian touch, relatives coming from out of town crammed into their tiny dining room elbow to elbow, just like it used to be in my husband’s Bronx childhood.  Wine and conversation deep into the night, games, laughter, eating until you are ready to burst.  That’s every single Christmas Eve, and there’s a comfort that comes with that consistency.  But on the other side of the mountain, literally and figuratively, this is will be the first holiday for the Perry County side that will be missing an entire generation at the table.  We’re a small (but rowdy) crew as it is, so the loss of two will be felt more than ever this year.  My sister and I already started talking with Mom about it, and we’ve pretty much decided that we’re going to let my young niece and nephew decide how we’re going to do it this year.  Maybe we’ll have pancakes and bacon for Thanksgiving dinner instead of turkey, followed by a Wii Sports Championship Tournament.  Why not? Sounds like fun.  Let’s keep it exciting, bring some carefree kid-ness back into it.  Take a break from licking our emotional wounds, make some popcorn garland and decorate the pine tree in the backyard for the deer that come through in the early evening.  We may enjoy it so much that we can create new family traditions that my niece and nephew can pass to their kids.  Even the Sicilian traditions with their “old country” roots had to start somewhere.  Despite the fact that both sides of my family are very different, we all find comfort together because we share the same human experience.  We should embrace the  new and the old, finding our own happy place within it all.  And it’s not going to be gift wrapped under the tree.  Sometimes you have to go make it yourself. 

Sunday, August 11, 2013

My Kitchen on Mars: When Did Real Food Become Alien?

I make a darn good pumpkin pie.  It's a time tested recipe passed from my great grandmother to my grandmother to me (my mom doesn't mind being skipped because she gets free pie). It has always been the gold standard for me- it demands respect.  Those store bought pies are no match. I admit I'm smug about it, so much so that a few years ago, I entered it into a pie contest at one of the fall festivals.  What an emotional roller coaster it turned out to be. Off to the kitchen to create The Legend. After a few hours of preparation and some baking time, it was ready. Golden brown flaky crust, a smooth top with no cracks. I anxiously submitted my from-scratch beauty to the gray haired ladies for their judgment.  The wait seemed interminable! Here it comes- the announcement of the winners! Alas, I'm disappointed.  Time for the Walk of Shame to collect my rejected pan.  Two ladies brought my pan and to my dismay my pie had been virtually untouched! They proceeded to poke at it with the server the same way a 6 year old pokes at roadkill with a stick.  
"This doesn't look like a pumpkin pie.  Are you sure its cooked? No one even wanted to taste it."
"Yes ladies, it definitely is cooked. It may look a little different because of the type of pumpkin I used."
"Oh!! You mean this is made of real pumpkin? I've never had that before!"
Are you kidding me?! What a wake up call! They treated me like I was ridiculous and for a brief moment, I let them take away my confidence.  I relayed this story to members of my family and I got some needed sympathy to soothe my ego (my aunt almost wet herself laughing, which is also strangely comforting).
Yes, I peel and cook down my own pumpkin. I take pride in my orange hands that are stained from this labor of culinary love.  Admittedly, I grew up in the 1980's with working parents, so I've eaten my share of processed food.  But you know, at one point we also had a garden with melons and veggies, so at least I had an idea of what the real stuff was, which is better than a lot of kids have these days.  A relative in Florida mailed a huge box of oranges and lemons from her trees for Christmas one year.  I was in heaven, but my suburb-raised step kids  (who are actually rather adventurous eaters) wouldn't touch them because they didn't look like the stuff at the store with its paint and wax coating.  I love growing my own food.  I love my meat CSA- what a difference! So why then are my little dog and I so eager to get our fast food breakfast to share? I can make a beautiful egg sandwich with the bread machine, fresh eggs from my sister's chickens that make me practically giddy, and flavorful tomatoes and greens from my garden.   I've read the books.  I'm married to an expert in the field.  It scares me how easily I am tempted away from these beautiful things and into what is commonly referred to as the American diet.  I dropped cigarettes 12 years ago, no sweat.  Iced coffee?  I can't go without it.  But if a study came out that said my 'decaf-cream-sugar-coconut' was going to cause me cancer in 25 years, would I cut it out for good? I know that so-called Factory Food is bad. It makes me feel ill, wrinkly, fat, and tired, just like all of the books, blogs and talking heads on TV say it will whilst quoting the big university studies that are funded by who-knows. I wonder if the researchers change their ways based on what they see in the lab rats.  Maybe that's what I need to see for myself.  But am I already seeing it when I look in the mirror or watch the news? I suppose I'm just part of the culture that publishes thousands of tobacco-cancer studies yet sells billions of cigarettes, sells soda for cheaper than water, and gives blue ribbons to pies made out of a can.  So who are the ridiculous ones?  The lab rats didn't eat my pie.  Lesson learned.  Am I brave enough to live with the results?        

Friday, July 5, 2013

Plant Training: What My Garden Teaches Me

As published in the July 2013 Central PA Hibu magazines


A modern garden contains, for those who know how to look and to wait, more instruction than a library. - Henri Frédéric Amiel, Swiss philosopher and poet 


After a torturous nearly 2 year hiatus due to several moves, I am pleased to announce that the garden at the new place is up and running!  My suburban yard is being converted from what is, in my opinion,completely useless, manicured, cookie-cutter fescue to beautiful raised veggie beds and dwarf fruit trees that will soon yield a delicious bounty for me to incorporate into my meal planning for the hungry brood.  The positive effects of nutrition that these things provide to me are obvious (and discussed thoroughly by those more educated in such matters than this humble writer), but there are also the other benefits to consider- those teachings so beneficial to mind and spirit that when properly practiced will render menotably less compelled to nag, thus more pleasant for my stepsons to live with. See, everyone benefits from the garden, even the teenagers.  And where you have teenage boys, you have a need for patience.  In February, I started sowing my seeds on the plant stand that my husband built.  Nagging and stomping my feet about additions to my busy schedule will not make those seeds more quickly ascend from their dark and dirty depths and into the factory generated sunshine in my garage.  They are going to do their own thing on their own time.  They've been doing it this way since before people were even here.  Their system works, I am at its mercy, and I not only benefit from the end result, but depend on it to keep me alive. Buddhism teaches of the impermanence of all things and for me, the garden is a good place to see this in practice.  We take this never ending cycle for granted.  In the fall, despite anything and everything I do to nurse that lettuce that I raised from the tiny seed, it will die.  It is the natural cycle of it- these plants will live, die, and return to the dirt in the form of nutrition for the next generation the following April.   For food to grow and thrive as all living things do naturally, it will indulge in my compost consisting of scraps from fruity counterparts from distant lands sacrificed for the cause. My kitchen bucket is filled thoughtfully, because I know that what I put in there this year will be feeding the stuff that I eat next year. The simple act of putting my apple core into the bucket instead of the landfill makes a huge difference in the lives of the plants and humans that I value. Despite the fact that I am one the most evolutionarily advanced beings on this planet, I must submit to this continuum if I am to survive.  My small actions matter in the eternal cycle of life.  Such deep philosophical concepts can be used in all aspects of daily life, including peaceful co-existence with the aforementioned teenage stepsons.  The concepts make sense; the proverbial seed has been planted.  But to take this knowledge and put it to positive use is an altogether different matter.   If you're not willing to get in there and get dirty, nothing is going to grow but unsightly and inedible weeds that, left unhampered, will take over everything in the yard, pushing out the beautiful things that have taken years to seed down.  Once you clear out the brush, you might be surprised by what is under there, fighting its way into the sun.  Making positive change in life is hard physical, mental and spiritual work.  With a few more seasons of practice, I hope to get pretty good at it.  No rush.  I'll blossom when the timing is right.  

Dirty Feet and Clean Dentures: My Continuing Adventures with Grandma Jo

As published in the September 2013 issues of the central PA Hibu publications.

She passed away July 27, 2013 before it could be published. 

7AM. She arrives wearing big fluffy slippers.  But they're only temporary.  Once she gets inside and gets settled in, they'll come off because she would rather be in bare feet.  I'm just like her.  When I was a kid, I remember my grandmother, the Old Bat as I call her with great affection, telling me that she wanted to be buried in her nightgown with her shoeless feet sticking out.   I spent a lot of time with her as a kid, and now, she spends Tuesdays and Thursdays at my house.   As a kid, our evening routine was that of the early-to-bed-early -to-rise-for-fifty-years factory worker: supper, Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy, bed, then up at 4:30 the next morning to clean the house before breakfast, which was typically Lucky Charms with canned milk.  Sweep the beetles off the car port, make a cake, sit on the porch and swat wasps for the rest of the day. She was the original cook, the one who taught me about her Depression era favorites, like egg custard pie.   When we made one a few weeks ago, she worried that she didn't remember how until I reminded her that she gave me her recipe card a few years ago ("Write it down for me before you forget it, you old bat" were my exact words, as I recall). At 86, her brain and body are wearing down, but when I set the pie ingredients down in front of her, she knew what to do with them.  She crimped the edges of the pie crust and explained to me that when her mother made pie, crimping the crust was always her job.  These days I have to turn the pan for her because she can't see, but her fingers know the old familiar routine.  We put it together and into the oven, and while it bakes to a delicious golden brown and fills my kitchen with the smell of warm and spicy nutmeg, she tells me stories of growing up in Perry County with her 10 brothers and sisters.  Her daddy grew wild hops, and he would make his own beer, wine, and 'shine at home.  The railroad workers were always enthusiastic customers, and it kept everyone fed when times were tough, which was almost always.  Occasionally, she and her sister would 'go fishing', but instead swipe a jug and float it between the rocks to get it cold.  "We got a whippin' when we got caught, but we would always tell him, 'Daddy, if you wouldn't make it, we wouldn't drink it'".  In the afternoon, she wants nothing more than to sit on the porch, and that's exactly what she and her little dog do.  That is what she's always done. While she enjoys the sound of the birds and the warm sunshine on her wrinkly legs, I water the garden, pull weeds, maybe grab some lettuce to incorporate into the meal I'll send home with her in the evening.  Without shoes, of course.  At least once during the course of a day, she tells me, "Oh Erin, don't get old".  Happens to the best of us, you old bat. She can't yodel anymore, and I regret having never asked for my lesson.  She can't put my hair in rag curls any longer. But there are some things you're never too old for.   A cup of coffee and a piece of pie on the porch is one of them.  She and I have done a lot of talking over the years, so we can afford to sit quietly with our feet up for a while enjoying the present, even when memories of the past elude us.  That pie's good.   What the heck, let's have another piece.  You only live once, right?                                                         

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Avoiding the Dead Beets

Don't let anyone rent space in your head, unless they're a good tenant.   

Recently, as you may have read, I have been doing a lot of soul searching to find what it is that really floats my boat and motivates me.  New exercise classes, new hobbies, challenging myself to be more outgoing in my social circles, and tasting new foods and growing some in my new garden that I've never grown before.  In this process,  I have been assessing my personality by what I choose to eat.  I eat my share of beautiful things, but I was raised on, love, and fear I will never be able to live without my highly processed lovelies- cheese puffs, movie theater popcorn, bologna, hot dogs,  cheese fries. All so salty and delicious that my feet are swelling just thinking about them.  Quick, easy, and satisfying, prepared fast and efficiently and allow me to get back to work, but, and forgive me if I come too close to turning this into a diet blog, they really are nutritionally void, and I should stop eating them.

They are bad for me.
They are making me fat.
I think my lousy diet is giving me wrinkles.
I don't feel good about myself when I eat them.  
Who knows how many chemicals, pesticides and antibiotics are going into the garbage in my pantry (well actually I've just finished In Defense of Food and The Omnivore's Dilemma, so I now know more than I want).

I need to stop eating crap, as the writers of Skinny Bitch would so eloquently phrase it.  Why is it some people can part with these things, yet others cannot? I have lovely relatives that are vegan.  I have been to their home for dinner.  It consisted of tortilla chips, Triscuits, fresh vegetables, fruit, olives, a table full of beautiful things.  After how many years now, I remember that meal clearly.  I remember how much I enjoyed it and how satisfied I felt at the end.  Even for just a half hour, I was healthy.

I've not shared this yet, but professionally I am a landlady. I own and manage 13 properties. I didn't start off as a particularly good one, but I have learned along the way by trial and error.  I've been burnt more times than I would like to admit to.  I've let people get away without paying me what I am owed, and I've evicted my share of deadbeats. Over time, I have learned that to be taken advantage of and to be screwed out of money doesn't feel good, so I have had to alter my thinking, systems and processes and my ways of looking at the world and perspective tenants.  I do credit checks, ask some nosy questions, and educate myself before I let people into this place that I value. There are certain things that I hear innocently come out of a wanna-be tenant's mouth that sends up my "Run Away and Burn Their Application" flag.  I work hard for these houses, and these houses give back to my family.  I don't let just anyone into my place.  It is important for me that they take care of my house, give it what it needs to maintain it, even improve it.  If the tenant is not meeting their obligation and giving me what I need, they need to go.  No questions, simple policy.

Why can't food be the same way? I have to take vitamins to make up for where these crappy, albeit delicious, foods are not serving me well.  That's like taking money out the kids' college savings to cover the mortgage while the tenant lives there for free for 6 months. I would never even think of doing that with a house! But guess what.  I'm doing it with myself.  The above quote really says volumes to me.  I can easily  put my foot down with those who enter my house, but why do I feel powerless when it comes to what I put into my mouth and my brain?  Just as poor food leaves my body empty, negative people, thoughts and emotions also take their toll. Are hobbies, past times and things that make us truly happy and relaxed the cure for that deficiency?  But there's not room for everything, and eventually the decision has to be made to cut them out of your diet.  What a terrifying proposition!

So how does one do all this?  I'm not a therapist or a dietician. I guess I didn't get this way overnight, so perhaps the healthiest way is to take my steps little by little, learning along the way, just like I did with my work.  I should be as selective with food and friends as I am with tenants- limit myself to things that are of high quality because those are the things that will take care of me.  I would like to find the courage to let go of my tendency to try to control, draw my line in the sand and see what walks up to it every once in a while. I would bet that if I relaxed I would notice that, despite the fact that my anxieties try to convince my logic otherwise, not many things would approach my line. Its an extremely scary notion for me, but what a fantasy! What could a little piece of assuredness like that do in other aspects of my life?

Could it make me divorce Oscar Mayer? Not likely. I'm a landlady, not the Dalai Lama.

Little itty bitty baby steps.  Learn along the way.  Long term health and happiness is the goal- that applies to work, friends, family and food.

Good talk.


Saturday, March 16, 2013

You Want Fries with that Prozac?

An Indian chief is talking to his tribe about two dogs fighting in his mind; one is a white dog that is kind and courageous, and a black dog that is vengeful and angry. Both dogs are fighting to the death. A young brave, unable to wait till the end of the story, asks, "Which one will win?", and the chief replies, "The one I feed".

I've not been in a very good mood lately. Frankly, I've been kind of a miserable thing to live with. Very negative, irritable, sarcastic. Smiling has become a bit of challenge as of late. My weight is creeping up. My house is messier than it should be. I would rather go shopping than do my work. To boot, my cooking sucks. When we had family over to eat about three weeks ago, I made a beautiful porcini mushroom risotto. Guess what? My heart was hardly in it, and it tasted that way. My rice was too raw. My beautiful idea and fantasy of how it should taste was ruined by my crappy attitude. Dried porcinis are pricey, too. Thank God I had some scotch there to make me feel better temporarily. I made a really nice vegetable stir fry for my grandson's birthday party last weekend. It was crisp, fresh tasting and very good when it was cooked, but I put it in the crockpot to keep it warm as the party began. It quickly turned soggy and not at all appetizing, and you know something? I really didn't care much. For 12 years, I have made dinner to satisfy the needs of the hard working hubby and the growing teenagers, but, as I have described in an earlier rumination, your head and heart have to be in it as much as your mixing spoon does. I'm not there lately. My cooking is something that, prior to my funk, I took pride in. It is something that I pretty much learned out of necessity. My parents are by no stretch cooks, so I bought cookbooks and watched a lot of Food Network to get the education that I needed to feed something nutritious to my new husband and his children while most of the people I went to high school with were still in college. Not much time to experiment and have fun. I've got a hungry crew to feed and a budget to do it with, as I'm sure most readers can relate to. When did I slip into Martyr Mode? I wasn't like this a few years ago. I was happy, energetic and outgoing, not afraid to do something that others would disapprove of. I have flamingoes in my front yard, for Christ's sake. Where's that chick? I miss her. I am still pretty brave compared to most, but when you throw 'doesn't give a damn' in there, it becomes a problem for broads like me that are quick with their sharp tongue. When my sister asks me how I am and she laughs hysterically at my answer, I feel like me again. Where have I lost my ability to see the humor in my day to day? When did stuff start getting to me? When did I start paying so much attention to the quirks of others to make me read into them and let them bother me? I'm not perfect, so why should I get impatient with others when they are not? Why do I let the actions of others affect me so when they shouldn't in the slightest bit?

I am feeding the wrong dog, and it is making a total mess of things.

It makes sense to me that I need to return the focus to myself, obviously the most important person in my life. When I was an EMT, they taught us to never put ourselves in danger because if we got hurt, we wouldn't be able to help others (my favorite was the lesson for a Hazardous Materials Incident Management where it was explained that we needed only two pieces of equipment- a lawn chair and a pair of binoculars).

So what are the things that I enjoy doing that I need to get back to after a long grumpy winter?

I wanna eat.
I wanna cook.
I wanna be active and walk my cute little dog and take our tortoise to play in the backyard.
I wanna grow my veggies. I haven't done it for two years because we spent all of last summer packing up the house we were moving out of.

Today, I started 144 seeds in the starter pots. Peppers, lettuces, collard greens, daikon radish, lots of arugula, peas, parsley and basil. And that's just in one raised bed of my new house. I have a lot more to do. I'm looking forward to growing my own food again. Two years ago I sent my husband, who I practically worship, to work with a nice salad from our garden almost everyday. My labor of love for him. I feel an enormous sense of pride when I create a meal made out of something from my own backyard. I wanna tell the world that I worked for this meal from beginning to end, dammit, and it tastes delicious, its more nutritious than anything that has pesticides or wax coating from the grocery store and it was nurtured with time, sunshine and fresh water. That's part of my personality- I take care of things, and I try hard to do it right.

I am the only one who can do anything about my crappy outlook. I started exercising again about 2 weeks ago and I'm already seeing improvement. Today, I've chosen to start my garden to give me something to replenish the self worth that the cold winter has taken from me. It's time to plot and plan my apologies to my stepchildren for being crabby and condescending. Tomorrow is St. Patrick's Day and I've picked a recipe for a chocolate cake made with Guinness. I've got a stash of audiobooks to go through. Leisurely of course. Making myself a good person again is not a chore, but it should be something that is enjoyed because I'm doing it for the right reasons. Sounds strangely like making sauce. Hmmm....

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Zen of Sauce

I made pasta sauce.
With crab legs.
It's good.
Start with The Holy Trinity.  Olive oil, garlic, onion.  Sweat that down with salt.
Don't burn it.
Add your seasonings to the mix.  Don't burn it.
Add your tomatoes.  There are lots of kinds, pick your favorite.  Don't burn them.
Add the sugar. Don't burn it.
Let it cook.
And cook.
Don't burn it.
And cook.
And cook.
Don't burn it.
Add a little water and tomato paste when needed.
Don't burn it.
When its close to done, add some crab legs.  Let them cook in the sauce.
Don't burn it.
When it's done, you'll know.  Use your eyes, nose and tongue.   You'll need your ears too, listen for how fast its simmering.
Don't burn it.

 I am by no means an expert at making sauce.  But who can be, since everyone's sauce is different?  Different proportions of different ingredients.  The vegetables are all different depending on where they are growing in the world.  There's nothing special about jarred sauce because every jar tastes the same at every house.  My Irish/French/German sauce is different from my Korean mother in law's, whose is different from her Sicilian mother in law's from whom she learned.  Less enjoyable? No.  Its my individual statement.  There's also the experience of the sauce.  What else was going on while I was making this sauce, at home, in the world, in my head, in the heads of those who are going to be enjoying it in a few hours?  In order to not burn it,  you need to watch it.  Smell it, look at it, touch it with the spoon, taste it.  Almost constantly. I'm a busy lady, so I can't make sauce everyday.  It needs to be done at the right time and in the right mindframe.  Making sauce is something of a meditation.  You must be aware of what is going on inside the pot and what is going into it.  You also need to be in touch with those senses.  You can make a fresh sauce quickly, but it won't have the depth and character of a beautiful sauce that has been cooking on the stove for hours.  You have to devote the time.  It is not something that can be done as a "what the hell' last minute thing.  Its a devotional not to be reserved for Sunday.
So if someone tells you "your sauce is so good", there's more going on there.
Maybe its "I hate tomatoes, but.."
Or perhaps ".... It reminds me of my grandmother's house".
Or "...Ralph and I went to Rome for our anniversary, and we had sauce just like this!"
"This brings back memories, some sad, some happy".
Food has the power to inspire such emotion.
A jar of Ragu doesn't bring back a memory because it wasn't cooked with any.  The smell permeates the house and gets the attention of everyone.  Its a mixture of emotions- excitement, then some reminiscing, fantasizing, longing, then comes the rumbling stomach which brings the task at hand into focus. And the pot hasn't even made it off the stove yet.  No mention of the delicious pasta yet (which is a whole thing on its own. Crab sauce is served with linguini- discussion over).  Let's head for the table.  Let the newly activated senses take over.  I start with the pasta first.  Sauce looks like the right color and consistency.  I know this because I've made it so many times before.  Sauce is delicious and smoothe, well cooked.  Activate ears- here come the compliments. How about some of the crab legs? This is a meal that should be eaten with a plastic tablecloth and dark clothes.  If you have a papercut, its gonna hurt, but its so worth it.  You will be up to your elbows in sauce and crabby bits.  Its impossible to eat this civilly, so don't bother.  Everyone else will be covered in it too, enjoying what you have focused on for the past several hours.  Notice I say focused, not labored.  Pour your glass of wine. You're gonna get sauce all over the glass.  Go ahead, lick it off the stem.   
Enjoy it.
Savor it.
Clean up  your dish with some fresh bread.
All of your ingredients should be married into one perfectly balanced union.  Your cooking experience, your feelings, thoughts and emotions can be tasted. If you don't accept sauce making as a time to ruminate and find your kitchen zen, you can taste it. Enjoy the heaviness off of your shoulders and onto your belly, just for a little while.

Now try to keep that feeling when you're scrubbing your nails and the tablecloth later. Like I said, its worth it.

Bon apetit, and what the hell, namaste, too.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

I Eat, Therefore I Am

"Cogito ergo sum", Latin for "I think, therefore I am", always pops into the minds of those in the midst of metaphysical introspection. The ponderings of Descartes speak very much to the "keep it simple, stupid" doctrine that we try to emulate as a New Year's Resolution, but then fail miserably as soon as we hit the first traffic jam of the year. His conclusion was that if you are even considering your existence as a cognizant being, then you must be as such. Piece of cake. So let's give thought to a different one today - "Comedam ergo sum". "I eat, therefore I am". Yeah, I like this one better for today. Obviously there is the physical act of ingesting food in order to provide nutrients to your body for its survival. Not that I expect you to remember back that far, but that was the original reason for food. Fortunately, we now live in a society where we don't have to worry about where the next meal is coming from. An abused privilege in overweight America? Maybe we'll talk about national obesity statistics another day.  For now, I've got a point to make.

Here's the question of the day- How much conscious thought goes into what you choose for breakfast?
What goes through your mind to help you make your decision?
Your heritage?
Your calorie conscience?
Your refrigerator leftover inventory?

Congratulations, you've made a choice. Do you feel good about your choice?
Do you eat every little bite of scrambled egg because it was drilled into you that, even though you're not particularly enjoying it, you need to clean your plate or be punished?
Does your packet of oatmeal bring memories of Dad making you breakfast when you had a snow delay?
Perhaps its easy and tastes good and anything beyond that makes your head hurt.

Be honest with yourself- were you even hungry this morning, or did you just eat because you felt like it was the right thing to do?
"Dr. Oz says I have to eat breakfast".
"I have to take my pills with food".
"I'm really not hungry, but I need to mindlessly cram something in because the morning meeting might go long and I'll miss my lunch break!"
"The stress of making lunches and getting the kids dressed and fed and out the door is unbearable!  Give me something sweet!".

Private Conversation:
Me: Oh, darling handsome husband of mine (I really do say that), why do you eat rice everyday for breakfast?
Hub: Because I like it.
Me: That's it? Just because you like it?
Hub: Yeah. But its not just the rice. The rice is just the vehicle for other ingredients. You can add anything to it, and make something interesting everyday. That's why I never get bored with it.

Eat THAT, Descartes.

Our physical bodies are our vehicle through life. Through the ages, every "human vehicle" has had the shared experiences- birth, bearing children, hunting for food, death, in the "keep it simple, stupid" mindset. I suppose it's every individual's mindset that steers the vehicle. Some do it because Grandma told them to. Or maybe God. Time-honored tradition. Special memories.

And that's kind of the whole point here. Who's driving, where are we going, and why are we going there?  Just like the person, the journey is individual, totally unique, hopefully fun on the most-part, but sometimes lonely and scary.  The fuel that goes into the car is different for everyone. What distance are you willing to go and how hard are you willing to work to get your fuel?  How far do you expect that fuel to take you?  Will the fuel I chose for breakfast this morning and every morning for the rest of my life get me to my destination?

I'll chew on that.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

My Food Identity

As the spiritual leader Emmet Fox once said, "It is the food which you furnish to your mind that determines the character of your life".

No wonder I am so %!&@? up.

Spin the globe and pick a spot.  Every culture has holidays, traditions, and celebrations with a focus on the "breaking of bread" with kith and kin.  Right from the get-go, the serpent lead Adam and Eve into temptation with an apple, screwing us all for eternity.  Its noted in the Book of Revelation that the body and blood of Christ is emphasized in a heavenly feast.  Buddhists monks are vegetarians who they won't take the life of an animal, but of course, if they are offered meat with their daily alms, they will not decline it.  Thanksgiving turkeys, pork on New Years, fish on Christmas Eve, some religion-based, some superstition, all cultural, all revolving around the sharing of food and drink. Universally, everyone needs it, everyone craves it, and everyone thinks everyone else's sucks next to Mama's. Major differences in regional cuisine come down to what is fresh and local (not a lot of whale blubber in Cuban cuisine) and preparation methods available (the indiginous people of cold northern Japan hang fish, their main staple, outside for weeks to dry it).  Northern Italians eat potatoes, southern Italians eat more citrus and olives.  Thanks to cable TV, you can now have a Norwegian Christmas feast in central Texas, if that's what floats your boat.  Diverse foods are more available than ever, and some will happily experiment with different tastes and exciting cooking methods, trying recipes on YouTube cooking shows.  Others are traditionalists who have fond memories of Nana spending hours in the kitchen making her generations-old recipe from scratch (my father in law has a definite opinion of Giada and her fresh look on Italian cuisine).   

So what do I mean when I say "Food Identity"? Obviously its different for everyone because of the number of factors involved.  My mother grew up on squirrel pot pie in her very small farm family.  If you tried to introduce squirrel pot pie to my husband's huge Sunday family dinners in the Bronx, well, Central Park just might have enough to go around.  And pasta con sardi doesn't go well with Granddaddy's Schmidts Beer.  The life I live today as a mid 30's rural girl married to a middle aged New Yorker is much different than how I grew up.  I get as giddy over a bologna and cheese sandwich with mayo as I do rare tuna with roe at Morimoto. "What do you want for breakfast?" should not be a complicated question, but yet, I find myself unable to answer that question on an almost daily basis.  There are times when I relish a trip to a new restaurant.  Sometimes, I dread it, perfectly happy to sit home with Slim Jims and Weather Channel because of resentment, negative body image, or laziness.  In 13 years, my parents and my in laws have not shared a meal other than an annual holiday buffet equipped with frozen hors d'oeurve and oven brined turkey (my dad doesn't like it, but he's overruled on this one).  

How did I get to this strange place? 
How many other people are here? 
My food preferences have changed as I've grown up.  What else?

This isn't so much an analysis of food as it is the people (namely me) who eat it. To what extent do the food choices our parents make for us as babies shape our personalities?  Some people maintain those tastes and never deviate from what they know as tradition while others associate those childhood meals with pain, suffering and poverty, vowing never to subject their children to such hardship.  Yet others yearn for culinary adventure a la Andrew Zimmern.  Can we identify the people in these categories from a distance, I wonder?

If nothing else, dear reader, you and I have something in common- we're people and we're hungry.  The world has quite an extensive menu.  About once a week or so we'll take a peep and see what's cooking, deeply breathe in the aromas and try to separate this dish ingredient by ingredient.  Some days, I will want to eat alone, others, I will need a comforting hand to hold under the table.  Like a meal, life has its courses, and I'm ready to learn to savor it all.  

Bon appetit!