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A Resolution for the New Year

Kevin Dooley Christmas from the present's perspective CC BY 2.0I just started reading Daniel G. Amen’s book, Unleash the Power of the Female Brain. In it Amen argues that women’s brains are hardwired for the following strengths: empathy, intuition, self-control, collaboration, and a little worry. In turn, each of these strengths corresponds to a vulnerability of sorts: respectively, a tendency to feel responsible for everything and everyone, knee-jerk feelings of anxiety without having amassed the full facts, futile and frustrating attempts to control others, excessive approval seeking, and unhealthy doses of worry that lead to chronic stress. I especially identify with the positive and negative attributes of the intuition and worry piece — self-control, not so much, to which anyone who has spent any time with me and a jar of nutella can attest.

I remember, when I was probably grumbling about some aspect of my perceived incompetence, a friend saying to me that I had to stop assessing my self-worth on such a day-to-day basis. Similarly, a former boyfriend used to call me out on my incessant tendency to “analyze.” I don’t know what worry is if not a nagging impulse to analyze, scrutinize, to tease apart events and issues in one’ life that are really quite small, making up a fraction of the whole, that, like threads in a loosely woven tapestry, need room to breathe. A healthy new year’s resolution for me this year might be to hit pause on all of the assessing and reassessing that I am so stubbornly prone to and measure my own failures and successes within the context, the arch, of my life as a whole. Along with that comes a clearer, more impactful and present vision of what I want my life to look like, otherwise known as perspective. Anyone care to join me, come December 31st, when the clock strikes midnight, in toasting the revelation that life is marathon, not a sprint, that taking things slow and steady with a lot of deep breaths is in fact the wisest way to win the race?

In the meantime, there’s dinner to worry about. But I’ve got a resolution for that, too: earlier this week I suggested the merits of cooking one’s way through an entire cookbook, and for me, that would be Quick and Easy Chinese, loosely inspired by author Nancy McDermott’s stint in the Peace Corps. Talk about perspective — what I love most about homemade Chinese food is that mise en place is an imperative. Mise en place is the chopping and measuring of all ingredients prior to cooking so that the cooking process is essentially reduced to combining everything over a flame. Literally, “putting in place” all the ingredients gives the cook a clear sense of where the recipe is going and certainly appeals to the control freak lurking in your female (or male) brain. For example:

Chicken Stir-Fry
Adapted from Almond Chicken, 
Quick and Easy Chinese

Ingredients

12 oz boneless, skinless chicken breast
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1/4 cup chicken stock
1 tablespoon dry sherry
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon Asian sesame oil
1/2 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 teaspoons chopped fresh ginger
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 cup chopped green bell pepper
1/4 cup chopped green onion

Tools

Mixing bowls
Measuring spoons/cups
Cutting board
Chef’s knife
Spatula
Whisk or fork
Large skillet

  •  Cube the raw chicken breast. Place it in a large mixing bowl with the soy sauce. Stir to evenly coat the chicken.
  • In a small bowl, combine the chicken stock, sherry, cornstarch, sesame oil, and sugar. Stir well.
  • Mince the ginger and chop the onion, green onions, and bell pepper. Have these ingredients ready to go in mixing bowls.
  • Heat the skillet over high heat. Add the vegetable oil and ginger. Add the chicken and spread it out into a single layer. Cook undisturbed until the edges turn white, about 1 minute, and then toss well.
  • Add the onion and green pepper. Cook, tossing now and then, until all the chicken is cooked through and the onions and peppers are fragrant and beginning to wilt.
  • Add the chicken stock mixture. Toss well to mix everything together. As soon as the sauce thickens, remove the pan from the heat and add the green onions. Serve with white or brown rice.

When Things Fall Apart

Justus Hayes La Chartreuse - Not Thorough Enough CC BY 2.0Yesterday morning I awoke to a crisis, of sorts — my closet had literally imploded in the middle of the night. Shelves smashed into the door, shoes shoved up against the wall, a heaving mass of clothes and bags and drawers to remove, gingerly, from the slightly cracked door. Today ended with a trip to Home Depot and a living room stacked with boxes and drawers, clothes hanging from my keyboard stand. This had to happen for a reason, I tell myself. Couldn’t find time to purge, now I’m forced to reckon with piles of things I forgot I owned.

Daphne Rose Kingma, of The Ten Things To Do When Your Life Falls Apart, would say that I’ve “integrated my loss,” number seven on the list of ten. Please forgive the implication that my closet is my life — although it has taken on a life of its own unfurled this way in the middle of my living room, so the metaphor seems apt. In all seriousness, Kingma writes that “crisis of any kind calls us into integration,” which means facing the troubles, losses that we experience, telling ourselves the truth about our struggles, and granting them a meaningful place in the narrative that we construct about our lives.

There’s a saying that I sometimes hear intoned in yoga classes: “I am exactly as I should be today.” It reorients the mind from a constant state of comparison — what is versus what should be — to simply, what is. With this mantra, the mind is freed up to observe and claim ownership of what naturally exists, and to proclaim the rightness of it, because it is. I imagine that this way of thinking has something do with the concept of integration, in its way of honing powers of observation versus powers of control, even the darker, unwelcome aspects of our surroundings, circumstances, and identities are acknowledged and incorporated.

Kingma writes that our “human nature prefers distinction, separation, and confusion, [but] our spiritual nature seeks wholeness, inclusion, and union. Since we are ultimately spiritual in nature, life keeps pointing us in the direction of this growth.” As much as we might resist embracing what is painful about life, casting our experience in a line, with steps “forward” and “back,” the reality is that we don’t selectively determine our path, instead, our path happens to us, and in it’s in our best interest to include the unplanned, unwanted directions in constructing a more three-dimensional image of ourselves.

It seems that I’ve veered a long way from my caved-in closet. As I pick up the pieces, I’ll try to embrace the chaos for what it is. After all, it is.

On Writing and Feeling

If there are mountains, I look at the mountains By Santoka Taneda English version by John Stevens If there are mountains, I look at the mountains; On rainy days I listen to the rain. Spring, summer, autumn, winter. Tomorrow too will be good. Tonight too will be good.

I received this poem in my inbox today and feel compelled to share it. Like many, I aspire to and struggle to live more purely in the present moment. With that struggle in mind, what a serene thought it is that “tomorrow will be good,” and so will today, and tonight, simply because what exists exists, and we are here to enjoy it. I find the poet’s simple, sparse language to be startingly articulate; in its simplicity, it deepens and subtly shifts my thinking about what it means to live in the moment, reassuring me that however scattered or anxious my state of mind, there is an inherent simplicity in having presence of mind. We simply need to be receptive to what surrounds us — “if there are mountains, look at the mountains.” The world does its work for us and we are here, simply enough, to receive the world.

There’s a mantra that I cling to, although I can’t remember where I encountered it, that “There is no pain in the present moment.” When I find myself rushing mentally, I am reminded that so much of human pain is sheer anticipation, cognitive chaos, the firing of neurons generating fear and angst, pain that does not exist apart from the ruminator’s overactive thought process. Which leads me to consider the discipline of writing. I’m sure that the same synapses that cause unnecessary, self-generated pain are the impetus behind beautiful and insightful streams of words. From that perspective, it’s not ideal to strictly limit one’s focus to what is immediate and concrete, but rather to pay close attention to feelings and thoughts that deviate from the moment and channel them into something concrete of their own, such as an outpouring of language.

If writing is a way of embracing our stray feelings and thoughts, allowing us to attend to the present moment of our own, individual, internal worlds, then I could do a better job of it. When a friend of mine recently challenged me to think about how much raw feeling is connected to my writing pursuits, I realized that I could better fuse the part of me that loves the creative act of laying out words on paper with the part of me that is sensitive, susceptible to a surplus of feeling. Sometimes I forget that writing is a tremendous receptacle for pain and joy and a whole range of feelings in between, and when I’m feeling down or up or somewhere in between I don’t think to turn to the page. How great it would be if instead of dumping, or sighing out our feelings of pain into something escapist, we could energize and invigorate ourselves, and validate the feelings we are having, by giving our feelings a voice. Here’s to writing from the heart.

Diving into Quiet

George Thomas Open book test. Get the point? CC BY-NC-ND 2.0There are different types of page turners. On the one hand, there’s The Goldfinch, the latest novel by Donna Tartt, brightly lit with imagery, possessing a smorgasbord of eccentric characters and a plotline that feels like switchbacks on a steep trail. Reading this book feels a lot like surfing, like riding big waves of information but never penetrating the onslaught of new characters, new settings. There’s the intimate existence that the main character, Theo initially shares with his mother, followed by vivid bouts of nostalgia for it, the subterranean, shrouded feel of the antiques workshop where Theo eventually finds refuge, the bright, sparse, and desolate conditions of his father’s Las Vegas house, the padded, snobby wash to his time living with the affluent Barbour family… It’s colorful; it’s rich with variety.

Then there are books that grab and hook you with one singular, powerful theme, like the book Quiet, written by Susan Cain. Quiet functions as a counterargument to the “extrovert ideal”: the notion, much espoused by American culture, that we should all aspire to be the loudest and the most charismatic in the room, because extroversion is the cornerstone of success. Cain points out both the value and the prevalence of introversion as a crucial personality trait with a large role to play within the sea of humanity. I find myself sucked into Quiet for an entirely opposite set of reasons than The Goldfinch — instead of hopping from one colorful, seemingly incoherent batch of characters/locales/plot twists to the next, I’m digging deep, finding my niche in precisely what Quiet has to say. Here are a few of Quiet’s insights that linger with me:

  • To heck with the widespread, if subconscious, perception that if you talk more, you’re smarter. I can’t tell you how many times I default to the role of listener while feeling slightly apprehensive that others might perceive me as dull. Now I know that I have something in common with at least 1/3 of the population who are similarly inclined.
  •  The difference between shy and non-shy introverts is one that fascinates me, and seems important. As Cain defines it, shyness is associated with varying degrees of social anxiety, whereas introversion is a more fundamental state, a preferred mode of operating in the world, an orientation, so to speak. A non-shy person who is in an introvert simply prefers listening, observing. This distinction is interesting, I think, because it touches on one reoccurring aspect of living in a state of introversion: the contrast between the introvert’s perception of herself, versus other people’s external perceptions of her.
  • Cain introduces the idea that cultural differences can account for degrees of introversion and extroversion. Not surprisingly, Americans on the whole are more extroverted than other nations, so even an American introvert might be more extroverted than, say, a Chinese extrovert? Maybe. It’s admittedly a stereotype but one that contains a lot of truth. I love idea that there are entire swaths of the American population who might feel more at home in a society halfway across the globe, especially one that is decidedly non-Western in its values and cultural norms.
  • Speaking of, Cain makes a fascinating, concrete link between American cultural norms and “the extrovert ideal” in pointing out that we are a nation of immigrants. America’s history of immigration, with the verve and risk-taking involved in exporting one’s physical, emotional, and cultural lives to a foreign society, implies that a higher percentage of the country’s population are extroverts. If we don’t literally inherit the temperament of an extrovert, we are left with an immigrant culture that reinforces extroversion.
  • Cain also makes the point that the Christian evangelical movement is one predicated on extroversion. Having briefly joined a Christian evangelical group when I was in college, I can testify to both the allure and the discomfort of a charismatic community in which the faith of the most outgoing members is prominently featured, compelling the community’s quieter members to develop a louder voice. In contrast, Catholicism is arguably a more contemplative, subdued, and ritualistic expression of Christian values, perhaps more suitable to introverts? It’s an interesting question, whether we gravitate toward religious traditions at least in part because they match our God-given temperaments…. I can think of many people who thrive on the bold, ebullient, assertive style of the evangelical church, but when I think about the reasons why I now worship in a Catholic setting, I have to admit that the introvert in me is more inspired and comfortable there.
  • Speaking of institutions that lean heavily toward extroversion, American classrooms: As a teacher, I can certainly attest to the fact that the most “progressive” pedagogical methods tend to uphold the “extrovert ideal” in that they require small group work and discussion. But Cain writes that contrary to popular belief, creative work is best completed alone. As teachers it’s tempting to gauge the success of an activity according to how it engaged the loudest, most assertive, most restless (and potentially disruptive) students in the room, versus the quiet observers. We forget how much creativity is possible in a subdued classroom that emphasizes independent learning and with that, quiet.

These are just some of the insights to be found in Quiet. A reoccurring reward of this read — for introverts, at least — is discovering and rediscovering yourself in its pages. I found myself feeling affirmed by the fact that being an introvert accounts for an entire bundle of familiar traits — e.g., preferring friendly social settings versus competitive ones, a strong conscience and a tendency toward guilt, a high sensitivity to one’s environment coupled with a tendency to feel overstimulated in large groups, a tendency toward anxiety, a tendency to emotionally withdraw from conflict, and a “cerebral nature.” This is a non-fiction work imbued with a lot of feeling, and I encourage fellow readers to dive on in, headfirst.

Apple Crisp

Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘press on’ has solved and will always solve the problems of the human race.” — Calvin Coolidge

You might say that my failed apple pie was a lesson in persistence. After making an apple pie with a burnt crust and mushy insides, I decided to switch to something easier: an apple crisp. Sometimes life calls for a little adjustment. Here is the recipe:

Apple Crisp
Adapted from Betty Crocker

Ingredients

4 medium tart apples, cored and sliced
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup oats
1/3 cup butter
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Tools

Apple corer
Chef’s knife
Cutting board
Mixing bowls
Measuring cups
Measuring spoons
Stand Mixer

  • Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease an 8-inch pan.
  • Slice the apples and spread them in the pan. Using an electric mixer with a paddle attachment, combine the remaining ingredients until well mixed.
  • Bake about 30 minutes until the top is golden brown and the apples are fork tender.

Embracing the Selfie Ethos

Cristian Iohan Ştefănescu #selfie CC BY 2.0We are all the stars of our own movies, the protagonists of our own stories, but it seems, with the “selfi(ie) generation” at the helm, as a society we’ve become more self-consciously so, keen on having an audience. Lately I’ve been wondering if this is such a bad thing — as my Facebook feed is inundated with babies and couple shots and cool views from exotic locales, it seems there’s more to the culture of selfies than narcissism. It has to do with a basic appreciation of life, a move toward sharing and celebrating the little moments.

I wonder if the selfie ethos is shaping us to savor our lives a bit more, to be more ebullient and overflowing and public with our little victories — more connected as a result of social media, not less.

There is an interesting CNN article about “the upside of selfies” that reveals some surprisingly positive statistics: according to Common Sense Media, one in five teens reports to feeling more confident as a result of social media, versus 4% feeling less confident. 29% of 13-17 year-olds report that social media made them feel less shy.

According to Rebecca Levey, the founder of a video platform for tweens, social media is an opportunity for kids with niche interests to find each other. It’s also a place for tweens and teens — and full-grown adults — to make their voices heard about important issues.

The New York Times has a name for such tweens and teens, and some of those full-grown adults — it’s called “digital natives,” folks who never had to adapt to the internet, for whom a virtual reality was always a matter of fact. Apparently, these so-called millenials are “the first in the modern era to have higher levels of student loan debt, poverty and unemployment, and lower levels of wealth and personal income than their two immediate predecessor generations had at the same age.” Who can knock ‘em for cheerleading their way through, for slapping a selfie on a genuinely difficult struggle?

I’m increasingly inclined to view my friends’ status updates, hashtags, and photo uploads as something to celebrate. Hear me? I want in on the minutiae of your life — it’s life-affirming to share it.

In the meantime, allow me to indulge in the selfie culture myself, by showing you what I made: muffins! That’s right — look at me, look at what I made! Orange marmalade muffins. They’re delicious. Or at least, I think so. Me. Myself(ie). And I. Here’s the recipe:

Orange Marmalade Muffins
Adapted from The Pioneer Woman Cooks

Ingredients

2 oranges
2 sticks butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon baking soda

Tools

Microplane zester
Cutting board
Sifter
Mixing bowls
Measuring cups and spoons
Stand Mixer with paddle attachment

  • Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Grate the zest of the two oranges. Measure the flour and sift it into a bowl.
  • Cream the butter and the granulated sugar.
  • Add the eggs and mix until combined.
  • Add the flour and the brown sugar and mix until just combined.
  • Combine the buttermilk and the baking soda. Add it to the mixture and stir until just combined.
  • Stir in the orange zest.
  • Line a muffin tin with paper liners and fill 2/3 full with batter. Bake until light brown and a toothpick inserted in the middle of the muffin comes out clean, about 13-15 minutes.
  • I had enough batter to repeat a second time, making six more muffins. Fill the empty muffin cups with water.

Slow Cooking

Screen Shot 2013-03-25 at 8.31.31 PMI bet you’re wondering what brisket has in common with yoga… The answer is that both involve the slow heating of deep-tissue. Yum! Or maybe I just grossed you out. Sorry.

Yesterday I went to a Hatha yoga class for the first time in a while — unlike the brisk pace of Vinyasa, Hatha moves slowly, forcing you to sustain each pose for several deep breaths.

I’m hoping that the slow and steady vibes carry over to the rest of my life, where I’ve got several projects cooking over a low flame. I’m trying to regain momentum with my freelance writing “business,” drumming up ideas to query and not rushing through the more straightforward Demand Media titles, only to land a rewrite, I’m trying to shed a few pounds I gained over the summer, and I’m trying to keep a clean house, even though I’m much more inclined to make a mess in the kitchen — as a matter of fact, I wear my frequent messes as a badge of soulful home cooking, but somebody’s got to clean up. And I feel bad saddling my husband with flour-dusted countertops, mixing bowls covered in dried goop, and onion skins, chopped nuts, and smears of stuff gathered on the floor. Now you get the picture? I’m laying it all out there.

Someone said that patience is a virtue, and braised brisket is a fine instructor of this oh-so-true truism. We’ve been eating the fruits of my labor all week. Here goes:

Braised Beef Brisket
Adapted from Mark Bittman’s How To Cook Everything

Ingredients

1 large eggplant, cubed
Olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons butter
2 cups chopped onions
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1 chopped tomato
1 teaspoon minced garlic
3 cups chicken stock (or beef, or vegetable)

Tools

Dutch oven or large pot
Measuring spoons
Measuring Cups
Mixing bowls
Chef’s knife
Cutting board
Plate
Paper towels
Mixing spoon or heat-proof spatula
Tongs

  • Chop and measure the onions — about 2 small to medium sized onions will equal 2 cups — mince and measure the garlic, cube the eggplant, chop the tomato, and measure out 3 tablespoons  of the tomato paste.*
  • Measure out the stock or water and have the butter, olive oil, salt, and pepper on standby.
  • Heat a Dutch oven over medium-high heat for a few minutes. Add a heaping tablespoon of olive oil and swirl to coat the pan. Place the brisket inside the Dutch oven and sear for 5 minutes on each side. As the first side cooks, season the top side with salt and pepper. After you flip the brisket, season the second side. Remove the brisket to a plate. (This step, aka searing the outside of the meat, is optional.)
  • Wipe the pot with a paper towel and add the butter over medium heat. When the butter starts to foam, add the onions, sautéing them until they’re soft, 10-15 minutes. Add salt and pepper, and stir in the tomato paste, chopped tomato, and garlic.
  • Put the meat back in the pot. Cover it with the cubed eggplant and the 3 cups of stock. Turn the heat to low, cover the pot, and simmer for 2 1/2 to 3 hours, turning the meat about every 30 minutes. (I forgot to do this and it turned out fine, but hey, it can’t hurt.)
  • If the sauce seems too thin (mine was admittedly a bit watery) Bittman recommends removing the meat and boiling the liquid over high heat, scraping the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon, until it thickens. Taste the liquid, adding salt and pepper if needed. Cut the meat against the grain, into thin slices.

*I’m pretty sure that I’ve heard Mark Bittman knock the practice of mise en scène, aka, preparing and measuring all the ingredients before you start cooking. It may seem fussy for his minimalist style, but I think it’s a small enough step that gives the best cook an added sense of ease and control. In other words, it makes cooking more fun 🙂

Screen Shot 2014-02-12 at 9.16.20 PM

 

Letting Go of Summer with a Sweet Tart

photo My husband tells me that I am a risk taker. I’ve never thought of myself as one, but being in my late twenties with a few big decisions under my belt, I realize that I have a rather high threshold for taking things on and learning as I go. I think my relatively high threshold for risk-taking is buttressed by a strong amount of dogged persistence, which tends to carry me through. In fours of being a teacher, I’ve taught four different curriculums and consulted on a few more, I’ve worked retail, taught ACT classes, group fitness classes, and a little freelance writing… Hmm… what does this say about me? Sometimes I take pride in being able to juggle different things and sometimes I bemoan my lack of a single focus 🙂

The other day I happened upon Live to Write — Write to Live’s post on The Genius of Curiosity, and I thought, yeah, that’s me. I can’t seem to commit to a singular passion in life, so maybe, just maybe, I possess the genius of curiosity? 🙂 In chapter four of The Ten Things, called “Letting Go,” Kingma reminds us that

“As human beings, we are evolutionary animals. There is a push, a draw in us to move toward and become that which we haven’t become yet — more, better, wiser, more deeply loved, more deeply loving.”

The notion of personal evolution does seem to hint at what’s “genius” about living in a state of unfolding curiosity. It’s certainly hard to feel satisfied with yourself, much less stuck in a state of complacency, when you have multiple interests, or feel pulled to spend your time in different ways. And that’s a good thing, right? Writer Suddenly Jamie, in her post on The Genius of Curosity articulates it this way:

“Curiosity is more valuable than passion. Passion is blinding and consuming. It is biased and stubborn. Passion is exclusionary. Curiosity, on the other hand, is playful and open. Curiosity can learn through discovery. Curiosity expands your world; passion diminishes it, closing in around you like tunnel vision.”

I think our society collectively denies so many things that are interesting and valuable about a life that travels in a zig zag pattern, rather than a straight arrow. For example, we often deny that curious people, people that try different things and fail, who go through “phases,” well into adulthood, can lead some of the most passionate lives, despite how things look, in the sense that their lives are always in a phase of growth and expansion. On the other hand, there’s a palpable feeling of freedom that comes from placing limitations on our expectations of ourselves, picking a role or a goal or a direction and pursuing it narrowly, deeply, with passion. Oy.

photo-2You know what I’m feeling curious about these days? Tarts, sweet and savory. Somehow I have a hunch that in putting my perfectly symmetrical, perfectly fluted metal tart pan to good use, I’ll be refreshed, ready to gain insight about “next steps,” and all the necessary soul-searching involved. Today I find myself celebrating the end of a difficult summer, during which I spent considerable time indoors, by making a tomato tart filled with summer’s quintessential ingredient, a product of the SUN.

It started with being handed a heavy, generous bag of tomatoes by my father-in-law, and wanting to find a tart recipe that didn’t smother the tomatoes in cheese — though this tomato crostata still catches my eye — but showcased their fresh, juicy flavor in the form of pretty, roasted slices. I found what I was looking for in The Martha Stewart Baking Handbook, simply, “Tomato Tart” on page 268. Speaking of curiosity, this book is an endless source — going through its recipes, cover to cover, could easily be my vocation for a while (oh, lookee here) It’s been my baking bible since college, the source of what I consider to be, hands down, the best chocolate chip cookie recipe, and true to Nigella Lawson’s conception of the “domestic goddess” baker “trailing nutmeggy fumes…” which I cited in my most recent post.

Matter of fact, I think I was gifted the book at some point during college, another time rich with curiosity and uncertainty and anxiety about where I was headed next, which proves Nigella Lawson’s other claim about baking, and cooking: It’s “a way of reclaiming our lost Eden… Cooking, as we know, of cutting through things, and to things, which has nothing to do with the kitchen.”  ‘Nuff said — the process begins with the making of pâte brisée, which literally translates into “broken pastry,” used for savory pies and tarts:

Tools

Oven thermometer
Chef’s knife
Cutting board
Tart Pan
Timer
Tupperware
Measuring cups
Measuring spoons
Food processor
Liquid measuring cup
Sheet pan
Aluminum foil
Large mixing bowl (optional)
Pastry cutter (optional)
Plastic wrap
Rolling pin
Small mixing bowl
Spatula

Ingredients

Pâte Brisée
(Makes 2 13-inch rounds)

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 sticks (16 tablespoons) unsalted butter, cold, cut into small pieces
1/4 cup ice water (4 tablespoons), plus more if needed

Filling

Head of garlic
Olive oil, 3 tablespoons
1/2 recipe Pâte Brisée
3/4 cup Fontina cheese
3-4 ripe but Roma tomatoes
Salt and pepper
Fresh thyme

  • Dice the butter into small pieces and place it in a small tupperware container with the butter wrapping over the top. Place the tupperware in the freezer to get the butter really cold (it warms up as you’re dicing it). Put ice water in a liquid measuring cup and place it in the refrigerator.
  • Measure the flour and salt into a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Pulse to combine. Grease the tart pan.
  • Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and place a whole head of garlic on a small sheet pan covered with a medium sized piece of aluminum foil. Cover the head of garlic in one tablespoon olive oil. Loosely wrap the oily garlic in the foil.
  • Take the diced butter out of the freezer and add all of it to the flour/salt mixture. Pulse to combine, about 10 seconds, or “until mixture resembles coarse crumbs with some larger pieces remaining.” If, like me, you have a small food processor that “mists flour” when it’s full, use a pastry cutter (or two hands) to mix the dough by hand. Add 4 tablespoons of ice cold water in two batches, “just until the dough holds together without being wet or sticky.” If the dough is still too crumby, add water by the tablespoon, until the dough holds when you squeeze it together.
  • Place a large piece of plastic wrap on the counter and turn the dough out onto the plastic wrap, shaping it into a disk with your hands. Place another piece of plastic wrap on top, and wrap the dough in plastic, refrigerating at least 1 hour or overnight. (You can freeze this dough for up to 1 month — before using it, thaw overnight in the refrigerator).
  • Place the garlic in the oven and roast for 45-60 minutes while the dough sits in the refrigerator. Check the garlic after 45 minutes; it’s done when you can easily insert a paring knife into the side. (It took 60 minutes for me). Unwrap the garlic and allow it to cool. Set the oven temperature to 450 degrees F.
  • Lightly flour a clean work surface and rolling pin. Remove the chilled dough from the refrigerator and roll out the dough into a large, 13-inch round, about 1/8 inches thick. Roll from the center out for even thickness.  If like me, the consistency of your dough was less than perfect, cracking as you rolled it and yielding a lopsided circle, you can always cut off the longer parts and press pieces of the dough into the tart pan. If needed, you can grab a pinch of dough from the second pâte brisée, since the recipe makes two. I am still trying to perfect the art of not over mixing dough but getting it pliable and solid enough to roll out evenly… I like to err on the side of under mixed dough that requires some cutting and pressing into the pan (you can’t tell once it’s baked)…
  • After pressing the dough into the tart pan, refrigerate the dough in the pan for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, once the garlic is cool enough to handle, press it with the side of a chef’s knife to loosen the cloves. Slice each clove at the top and squeeze the pasty, roasted garlic into a small mixing bowl. Mash it all into one paste with a fork. Slice a few roma tomatoes into 1/4-inch thick slices. Grate and measure the cheese.
  • Time to assemble the tart. Remove the chilled dough and using a small spatula, spread the roasted garlic paste all over the chilled pastry. Sprinkle 1/4 cup cheese over the garlic paste. Then lay the sliced tomatoes in a circular pattern and sprinkle with the remaining 1/2 cup cheese. Drizzle the tomatoes with 2 tablespoons olive oil and sprinkle with fresh thyme (gently pull thyme leaves off the stem by pinching two fingers and running them down the stem).
  • Lower the oven temperature to 425 degrees F. Bake for 45-55 minutes. Ta da.

photo-4

 

 

Lovingkindness and Positive Psychology

vice1, Buddha in a car, Traffic jam with a camera in Bangkok. Everything seemed to move except the Buddha.

vice1, Buddha in a car, Traffic jam with a camera in Bangkok. Everything seemed to move except the Buddha. CC 2.0

It seems appropriate, following the anniversary of so much death and destruction, to share the Buddhist Lovingkindness meditation, something I’ve been practicing lately in honor of September being National Yoga Month. Just kidding — I only know that September is National Yoga Month because of a few instructor shout-outs at my gym, whose classes, if we’re honest with ourselves, definitely lift our collective mood for their powers to tone and tighten, but can also remind us, spiritually speaking, of our inherent interconnectedness, even if it’s just a momentary “ohm” that does it.

The lovingkindness meditation falls into the category of “psychological Buddhism,” where we integrate certain principles and practices of the Buddhist religion into our lives for therapeutic purposes. On September 11, 2001, I distinctly remember being despondent and silent as I rotated through my set of high school classes, and being unable to stomach any food. As a matter of fact, I remember my mom made lasagna that night. Hah, my sharp memory for all things edible has been with me long before I became one of those people who takes pictures of food and blogs about recipes. As I pushed it around on my plate, my dad, with his characteristic rationality, put things into perspective by pointing out that this was the first national tragedy that my brothers and I had lived through. Actually, I think he used the phrase “our generation,” words that somehow normalized the awful, horrific events of the day.

Earlier that afternoon, my AP European History teacher had asked me and a friend if we were okay, that we seemed quiet and scared. A classmate cracked a joke about my demeanor, and then, in a rare instance for my high school self of not caring what my peers thought of me, I snapped back about how I was “empathizing with all the people in that plane.” Everyone sort of stiffened, respectfully, and then another friend after class approached me, saying “I can’t believe she asked you why you were scared.”

Undoubtedly, we all have our own distinct memories of what that day felt like. Looking back, I’m almost proud to share that I was viscerally affected by what happened, even if my rational understanding of the international politics was null, and AP history classes were the bane of my high school existence (until I took elective history classes, and then grew to really like history, especially historical fiction, and then taught high school history, if dance history and theatre history count…)

Lately I’ve become interested in practicing positive psychology. According to “Psychology Today,”

“Positive psychology is the scientific study of what makes life most worth living. It is a call for psychological science to be as concerned with strength as with weakness; as interested in building the best things in life as in repairing the worst; and as concerned with making the lives of normal people fulfilling as with healing pathology.”

“Pathology” is the study of diseases. The lovingkindness meditation falls into the category of positive psychology, with its emphasis on recognizing our spiritual interconnectedness with people and the environment, and by reminding us of our potential to subtly affect the outside world by projecting positive energy.

In this article, Buddhists and psychologists compare beliefs about managing emotions in order to achieve overall well-being, comparing the tenets of Buddhism and the status quo in modern psychology. According to the authors, Buddhists view emotion and cognition as part and parcel — they don’t even have a word for “emotion.” In Buddhism, what’s more important than shifting through distortions of thought is cultivating suhka, a state of general happiness and emotional equilibrium. Suhka

“includes a deep sense of well-being, a propensity toward compassion, reduced vulnerability to outside circumstances, and recognition of the interconnectedness with people and other living beings in one’s environment.”

To achieve this state of mind takes decades of mindfulness training — mindfulness, I also know from personal experience, from practicing “psychological Buddhism,” means to observe your experience in the moment, from your environment to your own thought process, and distinguish between reality, versus subjective ideas or beliefs that you are projecting onto that reality.

Buddhists categorize negative emotions more broadly into three fallacies: cravings, animosity or hatred, and the belief in a fixed, concrete self, apart from the world. I find it so interesting that these emotions are viewed as inherently toxic because they inherently deny our interconnectedness with other people and our environment. When we crave something or feel strong hostility toward someone, in both cases, we exaggerate the qualities of the object we desire or resent, and we seek to claim ownership of it in some way. In reality, according to Buddhist philosophy,

“the self is constantly in a state of dynamic flux, arises in different ways, and is profoundly interdependent with other people and the environment.”

In my opinion, there’s something so eye-opening and soothing about this concept of the self, however much it clashes with Western culture. It’s so refreshing, may because of “the dynamic flux,” element, which suggests that the self is eclipsed and the universe at large is broadened, buzzing. At church, I often find myself wrapped up in my own, individual worship, and then it takes a conscious internal reminder to simply look up and acknowledge the other Christians who are present with me, undergoing the same weekly, re-conversion. Psychological Buddhism, and the lovingkindness meditation in particular, gives me a chance to broaden my immediate awareness. I think it benefits us all, so here are two versions, borrowed. (One’s a transcript and the other is an audio download.) Namaste.

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Sergiu Alistar, YOGA 2, CC 2.0

Pro Dev, Seriously

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As the school year approaches, those of us in the teaching profession start pondering things like “motivation,” “engagement,” and other intangibles that either invigorate our classrooms with the best kind of energy, or swallow our best efforts.

Hence, August Professional Development!

I was recently required to watch a video on the use of humor in the classroom, including appropriate targets for humor, explicit reasons why humor is important, and suggestions for incorporating humor cues into your planning. This breakdown could easily sound a bit OCD, but I thought it was one of the better professional development topics I’ve encountered.

I remember last year I was reading a teacher’s blog. It made the astute, somewhat taboo assertion that yes, you should care about your students liking you. Obviously, set limits with your students, build a structured classroom environment, set a goal of mutual respect and not personal popularity. Whew. That sounds familiar.

That said, teaching (and learning) are both benefited when students like the teacher. The importance of like-ability is widely accepted when it comes to landing a job or interviewing at a college, so why dance around the issue between teachers and students? What is the best route to like-ability? As demonstrated by Cosmo Brown in Singin’ in the Rain, “Make ‘em laugh…”

To me, the really smart aspect of the humor PD was the suggestion of scripting humor into your lessons, alongside transitions and pacing and other planned elements. This seemingly uptight approach to humor is perfect for the teachers who are more to the point, so to speak, who could most benefit from using humor to lighten the mood. Planned humor may be excessive, but it acknowledges the relationship building skills at the heart of teaching, and the fact that everyone can build these relationships in their own way.

It also acknowledges the importance of being yourself in a position of authority. So much of high school teaching boils down to effectively asserting your authority and respecting students’ sense of independence. One of the best pieces of “professional development” anyone gave me was this quote by Nelson Mandela:

“There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory within us. It is not just some. It is in everyone. And as we let our own light shine we consciously give other people permission to do the same.”

Humor is one, small way to give students permission to “let their light shine” by consciously doing it yourself. To be fair, certain instances of unbridled “self-expression” are not so enlightened — for example, doing a standing split against the door frame and farting in the middle of class, or sitting out a dance class, eating a tub of icing in the corner. These are horrible examples of “letting your light shine,” but I had to end with them. They make me laugh out loud.

[Photo is from Charlottes Photo Gallery on flickr]

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