Monday, November 30, 2009

Home Cooking Celebrated

If you saw Julie and Julia, you'll remember the pivotal scene when the food critic from the New York Times comes for boeuf bourguignon at Julie's apartment.  Amanda Hesser, who plays herself in the film, went back to her laptop and wrote a piece about Julie's blog that made Julie famous and changed her life completely. 

Hesser, despite looking scarcely over the age of twenty-five, is an accomplished writer of books on food and its place in her life.  Together with her Times colleague Merrill Stubbs, she started Food 52, a blog for and about home cooks.  In addition to weekly recipe contests (among the most delicious recently was "Your Best Autumn Salad") where readers are both contributors and judges, they have amassed a fabulous database of dishes. 

Home cooks, say Hesser and Stubbs, are resourceful and inventive and can come up with dishes that rival those of professionals.  But they cite many other great reasons for making food in our own kitchens.  A couple of my favorites: "If you cook, you'll make your home an important place in your life." and "If you cook, people will remember you."

Friday, November 20, 2009

Secrets, Posted

Postsecret is the the largest advertisement-free Blog in the world; with 180,000 secrets posted, it's the most riveting bit of human drama to be found in the digital realm.  The site invites people to mail their secrets on postcards, and now the founder, Frank Warren receives 1,400 a day.  He keeps every single one, according to someone I know (he or she will remain anonymous, naturally) who went to a live event where he spoke.  The example above is the one that grabbed me from the current page, which updates at midnight every Sunday morning.  Each of these postcards is a gem.  There is art because it's beautiful in language and often aesthetically so as well.  There is shock, humor, and sweetness.  And, as in the post above, sometimes there is something unsettling.  We wonder about the whole story--what the hell is this about?

In his speech, Warren said the second most common statement he receives is, "I wish I had someone I could share my secrets with."  (The first, which I will leave to the experts, is "I pee in the shower".)  There are several paradoxes at work here.  People wish they could find someone with whom to share their secrets, yet they can only express this cry from the heart to someone they do not know.  They read a blog dedicated to secrecy--and read it rather obsessively, which I now understand after a half-hour on the current post--yet the live gatherings where Warren speaks are sold out regularly.

The person who introduced me to the site--he/she has been reading it since 2005, which means I am late to the party indeed, so there are no doubt readers for whom this is old news--told me today that "..the best [posts] are..gut-wrenchingly honest admissions of fault in some way.  What better way to say you're sorry, and provide an apology to a random person out there who so desperately needs an apology from another stranger?  It's closure for two unrelated [people} who happen to be reading the same website." 

How cool is that?  Sometimes our apologies are rejected, or they come too late.  Other times we wish we had been open to someone's reparations, but our hearts weren't ready.  Maybe reading the words we need from a stranger who has had a common experience can take us to a place where we can heal.

What we really want, according to Warren's anecdotal evidence, is someone who sees us for who we really are, secrets and all, and loves us anyway.  While there are many who claim cyberspace is dminishing our humanity, Postsecret provides plenty of evidence to the contrary.  Once you see it, you will find it very difficult to look away.    

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Stories in a Distracted Age

"The internet has evolved a new species of magpie reader, gathering bright little buttons of shiny knowledge, before hopping on to the next shiny thing."  So writes Ben McIntyre in a recent article in The Times. In the essay entitled "The Internet is Killing Storytelling," McIntyre argues that stories are central to any evolved civilization, and that sustained narrative--central to which is plot--is lost in a culture where we are all pulled from second to second by Outlook, Tweets and texts.

As a reader, I like to think I am outside of this, but recently I read the forward Maggie Jackson's  Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark AgeIn it, Bill McKibben, who authored the forward, asks the reader when the last time was that he or she sat in a car without listening to the radio.  I tried hard to remember when I drove home without changing stations perpetually and stealing glances at my Blackberry.  As I write this blog, I have NPR on and am fielding questions about tomorrow night's fourth grade play and whether we should get New Moon tickets on-line for Friday night.  The dog is barking, and I haven't started dinner yet.  The sound of a new text popping up on that Blackberry makes me lunge for it--why are reactions to that noise a textbook case of conditioned response?  If Jackson's dark age is indeed approaching, I'll be a pioneer. 

But McIntyre's stance isn't all dark.  He writes that the human desire to hear a story will ultmately make us stop and listen.  While NPR is arguably part of old media, one of it's strengths is the story.  Try turning off the engine in the middle of This American Life.  The driveway moment, as NPR calls it, is what I believe will help it transform itself into a new media format.  Our house is wired, but we still love our books.  They give us an oasis of silence in a very noisy world. 

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


On his blog The Someday Syndrome, Alex Fayle writes that the three things preventing us from reaching our goals are disinterest, inertia and fear.  To my mind, these are three increasingly pervasive levels of resisting change, since typically when we say we want to do something it's about changing ourselves: we want to be in better shape, save money, get a better job, move to our dream city. 

Disinterest is when we say we'd like to do something because we think others want to hear it.  We're going to apply to MBA school, maybe go after that promotion, start dating online.  When our heart isn't in it, we are just not going to do it. 

A journey of a thousand steps begins with one.  This is usually directed to people as an affirmation, but the truth is that the path of change is long and tedious. Overcoming inertia and altering one's lifestyle as far as, say. eating and spending (the things the vast majority of people say they want to change) means saying no to lots of little things every day. As any parent knows, it feels better to say yes than no.  But do it too often, and those affirmative answers will come back to bite you.

So inertia applies to routine things that are just unpleasant, which is of course subjective.  When I don't feel like cleaning out that closet or filling out any form or unloading the dishwasher--no idea why, but it's a task I put off routinely--I try to remind myself that I'll get rid of that nagging feeling and enjoy a brief moment of satisfaction.  Sometimes it works, but usually it's a deadline or the imminent arrival of houseguests that lights a fire under me.

Fear is the most resistant because it's what we're least likely to acknowledge.  People who've lost large amounts of weight and keep it off frequently say that they've only kept it off as a result of cognitive therapy, since the change in the way others react to them is a shock. They've always been the overweight, funny best friend, for example, rather than the hot guy.  When a guy like this meets a woman he likes, he might have a hard time understanding why she might want to date him, because his perception of himself is rooted in who he's always been, in his mind, rather than the new person he's become.  Sometimes that's so scary he just heads back to food, which not only comforts him but takes him back to his comfort zone of being the fat guy. (And yes, she should see his inner beauty, but the world is what it is.)  He knows being fit is better for his health and energy, but it's easier to go back to his old habits. Change means having the strength to move past perceptions of ourselves that prevent us from becoming who we dream of being.

Growth hurts and it's scary as hell.  That's why we talk about how we want to move to Paris or become a novelist or get rid of personal debt rather than just finding a practical way to do it. Twelve years ago, I got on a plane and moved to a new country, because I'd wanted to for a long time and the opportunity arose. A friend who'd already done it told me it would take two years to adjust, and she was right, not only about a big move but about any major life change.  Being in a completely new place means you lose your bearings.  Nobody knows your name or cares how they do things where you've come from, so don't bother telling them about it.  You need directions to the grocery store, or even the bathroom.  Often you feel very, very alone.  But that also means when you get there, you own it. As that same friend told me, "It's so hard and it takes a long time, but then you look back and you don't even know who that scared person was, because you've changed so much and you're proud you did what you said you were going to do."

Friday, November 13, 2009

Focus on What Matters

"Every task and project has consequences--but consequences don't matter in and of themselves.  What matters is how much those consequences mean to us....If something doesn't mean anything to you, then regardless of how important it is to others, how impressive it may be or how important it may have been in the past, it may be time to let it go."

--from How to Focus on What Truly Matters, November 13, 2009 post by guest blogger Sid Savara on Zen Habits.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Home, Part II

When friends stop by my house, especially if it's during the day and when I am on my own, the word they use to describe my living room is "peaceful."  The beautiful elementary school my children have attended is across the street, and my front window directly faces the original part of the building, which was constructed in 1922.  In my foyer, I have a lovely little picture window and the branches of a flowering tree fall partially into view, so that for much of the warm months I see pink blossoms and now, in the autumn, shades of yellow and orange. 

My home is a refuge from a rather frenetic life.  My commute to work is an hour each way, and my job is what most people would consider challenging, although I am certainly not curing any diseases or changing any lives.  My children keep me busy, though this phase of parenting seems mostly about driving them from place to place. 

The small things make my house feel this way.   Although most of my home decor comes from Target and Ikea, it's carefully chosen.  (My daughter tells me I veer into an overabundance of red in my living room, but I have to do something to overcome the bland carpet my landlady installed too many years ago. Plus red makes me happy.)  When flowers are on sale at Central Market, I buy the yellow ones and put them in a beautiful crystal vase.  My bedroom has nice linens.  I have fluffy white towels and launder them every couple of days.  I buy wine that costs ten dollars instead of six, and I cook a good meal every evening I am home. 

For many people, these are extravagances, but in my defense I call upon Gretchen Rubin's Happiness Project.  One of Gretchen's rules for happiness is this:  what you do every day matters more than what you do every once in a while.  Having a comfortable home with some nice things--and I pick and choose according to what I really care about rather than spending for instant gratification--gives me a space where I can regenerate.  Yes, I could save more money, but I'm not in debt and I have a decent cushion financially, though I don't have a title on a house.  I do my best to walk the line of responsibility while still finding ways to make life delicious.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Slowing Down

I started running when I was fifteen, motivated by a group of interesting people in my tiny hometown.  They were professionals, mostly in their thirties, and I looked at them as the kind of people I hoped to someday become.  But I didn't have a lot of confidence in my athletic ability.  I'd been the tiny girl picked last in gym for dodgeball, volleyball and pretty much every other game.  So I started running after school in November, and used the early dark (yes, where I grew up the sky grows black around 4 as winter approaches) to pick up the habit without embarassing myself. 

That spring I ran my first 10K race, and felt like I'd found something I could do.  It didn't involve coordination or strength, just determination.  I lost weight and got plenty of compliments, but for me the real thrill came from feeling like I was tougher than most people: I could go out and run eight or ten miles when it was twenty below.  Okay, so maybe I was a little crazy, but it was where I first understood the warm glow of smug superiority, not to mention how great an endorphin high feels.  I put my head down and went as hard as I could (was there another way?) and ended up with a persistent stress fracture in my first year at university.  I had a bone removed from my foot, and decided I wasn't destined to be an athlete after all. 

Maybe because I grew up in a place where there wasn't a gym, I shied away from joining one.  I became a mom and a walker, and it kept me fit enough.  Then my son decided to run a 5K with his school team, and I thought, for this, maybe I can run again. It felt amazing to propel my body forward at speed again.  But after a couple of months, my Achilles tendon bothered me quite a lot and, long story short, has continued to do so for over a year. In an effort to keep up a serious level of fitness, I broke down and joined a gym, got on the dreaded machines, and then discovered through my facility I could access treatment for my injury as well.

What did I learn from my physiotherapy sessions?  That I needed to do all those core moves I'd avoided forever.  But most important, I must be mindful about my form--in putting my head down and going as hard as I could, I wasn't thinking about using the major muscles that keep our bodies stable--to keep from getting hurt.  So going like hell without thinking about it isn't going to take me where I want to go, which is to be fit until the end of my life. 

This life I live like a race.  So many of us do, and yet we never feel like we get to the finishline.  Last weekend I ran a very slow six miles, but I did so paying attention to my posture and my breathing.  It was really hard work.  Not physical pain, because using the proper form means I can run fairly fast without killing myself.  But the idea that I have to slow down and think is really, really difficult.  This seems to be a lesson I must learn again and again.  But when I got home?  No pain. 

Now I am intrigued by the idea that slow get me back to a serious level of fitness, at least as base training. In today's Globe and Mail, there is the first Article in a series by reporter David Ebner, where he learns that training slow might eventually pay off.  He is two months away from a backcountry ski trip that will last six days.  Translation from Canadian:  he will basically climb Whistler Mountain in a week.  If he thinks slow works, maybe I need to tell my Type A brain to give it a rest, too.