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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 🙂

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