2.09.2016

Good Habits: Walk more, get more out of it

Sometime back in college, my friend Crystal and I went to Target and a guy stood out front offering "incredible" deals on gym memberships. As we passed him, he asked if we were interested in this opportunity to work out at one of the best gyms in town for no sign-up fee or whatever. I looked at him in the eye and said with a straight face, "I don't work out." That was completely snobby of me but hilarious at the time (okay, still a little funny now) and, as I recall, left him speechless.

Don't you worry - I've completely eaten my words as I've gotten older. But that statement did actually stem from one of my goals in life, which is to not have to drive myself somewhere to get exercise. I'd rather bike or walk to the store than ride a stationary bike or run on a treadmill. It's mostly about practicality, but there's also something about labeling activity as "exercise" or "working out" that makes me not want to do it. I figure that if I think of myself as someone who needs to get out and do something, I will get the exercise I need, and I will always do it. I've done okay in programming myself this way.


Then a couple years ago I got a FitBit and realized that even with the built in activity in my day, I wasn't getting close to the recommended 10,000 daily steps. It turns out that it's really not that easy to do, purely as a practical measure, unless you don't have a car or live in a carless culture. On one of those first few days of wearing my smart wristband, I remember going on a long walk (to get ice cream) and coming home to find that I'd only walked about half of my daily goal. That's actually pretty good, looking back on it now, but at the time I was shocked that it wasn't 10,000 steps. Motivated by that little tingle on my wrist that tells me I've reached my goal, I set out to find ways to get myself to walk more, and to consistently do so.


Still, it needed to be practical. Fortunately, we'd just gotten a dog, so I had a purpose in taking her for a good walk each morning. She loves it, and I feel like a good pet owner for giving her that chance to sniff around as she reads the neighborhood news (i.e., other dogs' pee spots). I get up earlier than I ever thought I would, but I've found that I really do enjoy being up before everyone else. I daresay it's kind of fun to notice the changing times of the sunrise, or to be the first person to walk on the sidewalk after a fresh snowfall. Best of all, it's fairly easy to keep this in my routine, because unless I'm sick and Joel's on dog duty (he's on dog duty most of the other times), I've got to get this poor dog out. I don't hit the snooze button...for the most part...but best of all, I have gotten to the point that when the alarm goes off, I just get up without thinking about it. 

But this alone was not enough. I had to deal with the other nine hours of my Monday-Friday week when I'm without my dog. That's when I remembered that there's a whole world of podcasts out there - ones I can learn from and be inspired by. I found my iPod and started downloading a bunch of fascinating-sounding episodes. (I do prefer using my iPod as opposed to my phone for this as it eliminates other distractions.)

It was through one of my podcasts that I learned that I'm "temptation bundling." This is the idea of combining something you should do (and find excuses not to) with something you truly enjoy or want to do as a way of getting you to do both. For me it means I save up podcasts to listen to only when I'm walking. Other examples of this: saving your favorite TV shows for the treadmill, or allowing yourself to drink scotch only while folding laundry, or taking a difficult relative out to dinner at your favorite restaurant. It's a way to power through unreliable willpower. So each week at fairly regular times during my workday, I pop in my earbuds and head out the door.

That's another key element to this system working: I've actually scheduled these walks as 15-minute meetings during my workday - meetings with my podcasts, I guess you could say - so I don't schedule over them. People who schedule my calendar can see I have these times blocked out and in very rare cases is it necessary to reschedule. And for the last couple years, this has changed my life. While out on these walks, sometimes I worry that others have noticed me laughing to myself or smiling for seemingly no reason. The other day I was holding back tears listening to Jason Alexander reading an essay about saying goodbye to a pet goldfish. But besides becoming an emotional grab-bag, I'm getting fresh air, clearing my head and enjoying time to myself, and walking so much more than I used to. It still feels practical to me because as I listen, I'm learning so much and have things to talk about other than work at the dinner table later. [As a sidenote, I've also signed up for a wine club and bought a very wonderful bra because of the brilliant advertising you get with podcasts. So I guess that's sort of a trade-off to a gym membership?]

If you're looking for a little listening inspiration for your next walk...or workout, here's a short list of podcasts (I could have listed closer to 20) that have stood the test of time for me, except for the first one, which launched just recently but I immediately love it and and read the column it's based on for years so I'm sure it will continue to be good.

1. Modern Love , based on the New York Times essay column of the same name. Try: Just One Last Swirl Around the Bowl (the one that made me cry)
2. Death Sex & Money, about the things we should talk about, but don't. I wish I were friends with the host, Anna Sale, in real life, but my day was made when she favorited one of my tweets. Try: Autism Isn't What I Signed Up For
3. On Being, which is always uplifting and inspiring to me. I try to listen to this one at the beginning of my week. Try: David Steindl-Rast - The Anatomy of Gratitude
4. Happier, a podcast from the author of several books about happiness, Gretchn Rubin, and her sister Elizabeth Craft. They are incredibly helpful in their discussions about how we form habits, and how people are different in their habit tendencies. Try: Save Your String (podcast 22)
5. The Splendid Table, if only to listen to the sultry voice of Lynne Rosetto Kasper. Try: Any of them, if you love food, but I did especially like $4 a Day
6. The Dinner Party Download, which is like a variety show for the ears. Jokes, culture, cocktails, etiquette, history lessons, music selections. Try: the one with John Slattery
7. Spilled Milk, my very indulgent choice. I don't expect anyone to like this, really. There is no real value to this show other than feeling like you are best friends with the hosts, which I would love to be. I laugh all the time at/with them. Try: Cocoa nibs
8. 99% Invisible, about "all the thought that goes into the things we don't think about." Episodes are brief, fascinating little history lessons and the ones I discuss most with other people after hearing them. I could recommend so many of them, but this one about awareness at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic is really, really good.







1.27.2016

Recipe test: Mama Leone's Chicken Soup

I feel like everything I post in January is about coping with January. It's either convincing myself that it's a great month, or that it's in my power to make it a great month, or that it could be worse. The truth is: January is the single hardest month for me all year. What a mood for a fresh start! New years should start at the cusp of a season that promises sunshine and growth, not in the heart of one of the coldest, darkest months. I hope everyone in the southern hemisphere fully appreciates this difference. Because if there were a month I could afford to escape from - put my work on hold, get someone to live in my house, and fly south - it is most definitely this one. Snowbirds, I salute you.

In another few days, I'll have survived another January and I can spend the month of February making amends for the various things I lost control of (temper, laundry, spending habits). By the time spring rolls around, I hope to be a decent human being again, with new insight on how to live this portion of the year. I am truly grateful that the last week has brought warm temperatures to melt most of the grimy snow and has also offered a bit of sunshine, including one of the most gorgeous orangey pink sunsets that usually only come this time of year (I know because I usually manage to snap a picture of it. In this case I was on the bus and my phone was somewhere at the bottom of my bag).

In the meantime, we're trudging along. I have a long list of books I'd like to read this year, and I've been reading as though I just discovered an amazing new hobby. I've breezed through three different books so far this year and am ready to get through another two quickies, perhaps over the weekend.


I have been buying us flowers each week. When we were in Mexico over Christmas, I bought a most intriguing bud vase that I'm enjoying filling each week with a new bloom. And using all my other small bottles and vases for the rest of the bouquet, spreading it around the living room.

And last week we loved eating this recipe for a chicken soup that features tomatoes and heavy cream, with chicken, tarragon, paprika and spinach as other delights. It came from my Oregonian Cookbook that I bought as reading material for the road during a too-brief stop in Hood River last summer. Since then I've cooked so many great things from it, a number of them having become instant favorites for us. This is one of them.


I love that it's first and foremost a creamy tomato soup with some chicken thrown in. But we did find that we preferred a little more chicken, so next time I make it, I'll use a whole pound instead of the recommended 8 oz. I also increased the amount of tomato because we often have some leftover canned tomatoes in the fridge after making pasta sauces and whatnot. It didn't seem to throw off the balance. Both of these changes are reflected in the recipe below.

Recipe grade: A+ !!

Mama Leone's Chicken Soup
adapted from The Oregonian Cookbook

1 lb. boneless, skinless chicken breast
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 T. vegetable or grapeseed oil
3 T. butter
1 medium onion, diced
3 stalks celery, diced
1 T. minced garlic
1/2 tsp. dried tarragon
1/2 tsp. dried oregano
2 tsp. sweet paprika
1/2 c. plus 2 T. all-purpose flour
8 c. chicken broth
1 14.5-oz. can diced tomatoes in juice (I added a little extra tomato juice from a leftover can of whole tomatoes and recommend it if you happen to have it.)
3/4 c. whipping cream
2 c. thinly sliced fresh spinach

Preheat oven to 375. Line a baking sheet with foil. Season chicken with salt and pepper and place on the baking sheet. Bake 15-20 minutes, or until done. Remove from oven and cool. When cool enough to handle, dice the meat and set aside.

Meanwhile, heat the oil in a stockpot over medium heat. Add the butter and melt. Saute the onions and celery until the onions are translucent, about 6-7 minutes. Add the garlic, tarragon, oregano, paprika, 2 teaspoons salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Cook, stirring, for 3-4 minutes. Add the flour and stir until well-combined.

Slowly whisk in the chicken broth and bring to a boil. Add the tomatoes and cream. Reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Add the reserved chicken and simmer 10 minutes more. Just before serving, stir in the spinach.

1.15.2016

"Someone is staring at you in 'Personal Growth.'"

I'm starting something new, which I will furthermore categorize as "Good Habits." This will be a once-in-awhile-to-regular series about things I'm learning about getting my rear in gear. If these good habits are of benefit or inspiration to others, all the better. This series is in fact a good habit in itself, because it keeps me in the habit of writing.



Good Habit: Make Lists

Okay, this is a pretty obvious one. But it's foundational for this "good habits" series.

I was once interviewing people for a job and one of the questions I asked was, "What's your system for multitasking?" The answer for everyone - literally, everyone: lists. I probably should have asked the question in a different way because maybe the answer was too easy. But what made this especially eery was that all these people followed it up with some version of, "I love checking things off, and I sometimes even put things on my list that I have already done, just to check it off." It was like they consulted with each other ahead of time.

But back to the subject. Lists help you get stuff done, keep track of tasks, feel accomplished, remember things, and in job interviews, they may help prove you're the right person for any job where you're responsible for lots of tasks at once. For me, though, lists aren't always about doing, they're about staying centered and focused and developing my sense of self. My main reasons for having a notebook filled with lists:

1. They serve as a strange diary. Even if it's a grocery list, these itemized collections remind me of the context in which they were gathered. Not long ago I came across a page in my notebook that listed dried currants, beef brisket, pink salt, peppercorns, cabbage and buttermilk from March 2014. It was from the time I made corned beef (a days-long process) and Irish soda bread. I'm not saying every grocery list is meaningful, but in this case, I can remember that particular setting of spring that year, watching "Waking Ned Devine" while eating that homemade Irish meal, at a time when I was almost done with the biggest freelance project of my life, during the last month Joel and I spent without a dog in our lives. My mind fills in the details with just this weird list of things. If grocery-lists-as-diaries is a little too out there, consider list-keeping as an easier way to keep a  diary. When I'm traveling, I find it's easier to just write a list of the things I noticed or ate or places I went, fun moments, etc., rather than bother with commentary about everything. It's much less intimidating because I can jot things down as I go. Again, my mind often fills out the in-between. (The key, of course, is to always carry your notebook.) Photos help too, of course.

2. Lists often reflect an idealized vision of myself: The Person Who Gets Things Done,  The Thoughtful One, The Self-Care Aficionado. Rarely do I get to cross everything off of these lists, but it shows me where I struggle. I suppose these undone lists could make me feel pretty bad about my shortcomings, until I realize I can just make a new list! And starting over with new momentum is great.

3. Lists serve as reminders, but not always the kind to be checked off. The whole "gratitude journal" idea is simply one magnificent list of what makes your life rich. Similar to the first point, it's something you want to look back on and remember. Other lists to not cross off are about things that remind me of what I enjoy or have enjoyed - movies, books, experiences, things to do when I'm between projects, my million-dollar ideas.

4. They serve as a brain dump that sometimes reveal patterns. This especially happens to me at work. I build a list anytime something is on my mind - anything from a big idea to small details - and like my brain, it's not always that organized or structured. But it's only in making these lists, often several at a time, that I can start to see patterns and decipher ways to categorize and prioritize, or combine ideas with existing projects.

My favorite system for list-making is a combination of a bullet journal, which I keep in my purse at all times (for personal daily things, indexing of places to go/things to do/books to read/movies to watch, aspirational thoughts, and quick to-do lists), and Wunderlist for lists that I use over and over again and/or share with others (grocery staples, packing lists, work tasks). Before I landed on this system I struggled to keep list-making a habit, but I think the bullet journal is so fun in its analog but efficient nature (I just learned that there are Pinterest boards dedicated to the Bullet Journal...I'm not nearly this creative), and I just love the "ding" of a completed task on Wunderlist.

I've started my new bullet journal for the year and am enjoying looking back at last year's. Many pages are filled with notes from when we were buying our house - people to call, things to inspect, prices of things, and pros and cons. And also grocery lists, trip plans, the exorbitant amount of money I paid for a beer in the airport while waiting for my plane ($9 for a Negro Modelo!!), names of knitting patterns, etc.

Do you love lists? Are you one of those people who write things down that you've already done, just so you can check it off? (I'd probably hire you, if so.)

1.12.2016

Cookies for everyone

The Seahawks were playing in frozen Minnesota on mute in the other room, and every time I looked in I kept focusing on all that breath hanging around the players. Football is a sport I usually tolerate because people I love love it, but seeing those teams in those freezing conditions only added to my general disdain of a brutal game. In any case, it was making me feel cold. (Is that empathy, or sympathy? I can never keep those terms straight.) I kept thinking I should take a bath. Instead I put together a stock pot of chicken carcass and vegetables to simmer on the stove for a couple hours. I finished my chores, the kind I only do with gusto in January (like cleaning out the pantry, or taking a lemon half to the hard water stains in the shower - just to see if it actually works [it does, on certain areas]). But when it came down to it, what this Sunday really called for was making giant cookies. Surely that would be the warmest, most comforting thing. If I could give those poor freezing football players something to combat the cold, this would not be a solution, but it would be a nice gesture.


I'm working my way through my "Recipe Adventure" spreadsheet, and therefore my cookbooks, and after cleaning out the aforementioned pantry this weekend, I had search terms a-plenty to choose my next recipe. For this: several half-opened bars of dark chocolate, a bag of dried cherries, pecans, and a Costco-load of oats.

The recipe is from my Science of Good Cooking book by America's Test Kitchen. I wouldn't say the recipe - Oatmeal Cookies with Dark Chocolate, Cherries and Pecans - is a remarkable one, but it is a smart use of ingredients. Blame January for tiring me out, but I'm too lazy to post it, especially because many people have a go-to oatmeal cookie recipe - or one can be found easily on the internet. So take your basic oatmeal cookie recipe but be indulgent in the extras. Add 4 oz. of chopped dark chocolate, about a cup of dried tart cherries, chopped, and a cup of pecans, toasted and chopped. Lots of chopping, but worth it. Take them out of the oven sooner if you like soft cookies, later if you like them crisp (as mine turned out to be).

Make tea. Eat cookie. If you still want to soak in the bath, do so at your earliest convenience. It's January and this is what I love about it.

12.31.2015

Look

Last January, I invited a crafty friend of mine to a workshop where we made dreamcatchers. 

Dreamcatchers! I know. I have to admit I’ve never been a dreamcatcher person. But in the spirit of being bold and open in the new year, I was compelled to give it a shot. It turned out to be such a lovely evening with other women who were creative, down-to-earth, and not necessarily dreamcatcher-types, either. We drank wine, talked about our lives, and about what brought us there. We gathered around long tables with supplies, and with a couple of examples laid out to spark our creativity, we assembled our dreamcatchers to our liking. 

At the end, we were instructed to tie a piece of fabric on the dreamcatcher with a “word of intention," i.e., a word we would focus and meditate on throughout the year. Again, not something I would normally be into, but I felt like I was in a safe space to do something a little out of my comfort zone. 

My friend chose the word “Yes,” as she wanted to be more adventurous and say “yes” to doing new things this year. Me: I landed on the word “Look." My hope for that word was that I would make more  of a conscious effort to take in my surroundings, to not miss the daily miracles that were happening in front of me, to not be distracted with the things that don’t nourish my senses. And it also had to do with being thankful for what I have, if only I would take the time to look around and truly see it.









At this, the end of 2015, I realize how much more profound the word “look” has become. This year has been one of the hardest ones in recent memory for people I love. And it has been a year in which news and politics seemed to have rocked my emotions more than ever before. In each case, I’ve felt some level of helplessness or despair. But in moments of quiet, I find myself returning to that word, “Look.” Where is the beauty and good in this life? Sometimes it’s as simple as looking at my dog and her sweet, knowing eyes. But other times, the search requires more intention on my part. I often come back to the Fred Rogers quote about looking for the people who are helping in times of disaster and hardship. A trick I learned from my dad is to end each day thinking about the best thing that happened. If I’m consistent enough to form it into a habit, I begin to look at my day differently, thinking about how what I’m experiencing at this moment might be the best thing of the entire day. I have yet to be consistent about it, but I'm trying.

My dreamcatcher is still hanging on my wall, and I’ve considered taking it down a number of times, in part because my hair sometimes gets caught in one of its twigs (yes, it has twigs in its design) when I walk by. But whether I take it down or leave it up, I hope to continue my intention to “look” in 2016.









As for my friend who chose “Yes” with the hope of trying new things, she said “Yes” to her boyfriend’s proposal a couple months later, did a triathlon in the summer, got married in August, and in one of the strangest but beautiful moments I may ever experience at a house party, let us watch a live ultrasound of the little human growing inside her. I’d say that’s a dreamcatcher success story.

As I get older, life feels heavier, but I'm finding the heaviness makes beauty that much more profound. My wish for you and for me this coming year is that we will find beauty in each day because we have looked for it and found it.


Cheers to 2016!

11.30.2015

How to *really* make Oma's dinner rolls

Five years ago, I posted the recipe to Oma's dinner rolls and remarked on the simplicity of the recipe, which was written in old-fashioned short-hand. I felt pretty proud of myself for having had a successful time with them. Five or so years later, I look at the photos and realize I had a few things to learn - I can tell just by looking at the rolls I made that first time that I used too much flour. Therefore I don't feel right leaving that recipe there without some key details that will actually ensure success. This is a reflection of the notes I've since written in the margins, like letting the rolls rise in the pans before baking, or how to know when the rolls are done. For posterity and for hopefully continuing the tradition of Oma's dinner rolls with family and anyone else who loves a tender, buttery dinner roll, below is a much better recipe in 21st century step-by-stepness.




Oma's Dinner Rolls, take 2

Makes roughly 30 rolls

Ingredients:

1 cup whole milk 
1/2 cup Crisco (I use the white kind, though if you like the butter-taste version of Crisco, use that)
1 1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup warm water
2 tsp. yeast
4 1/2 cups of flour, but have more ready to go, just in case
(You'll also need a half stick of butter for the next day)

The night before baking day:

1. Pour milk into a medium saucepan and bring it just to the point that it starts to boil and develop a big froth on top. Remove from heat and plop in the Crisco, sugar and salt. Stir until the Crisco is completely melted and you no longer hear the sugar granules scraping on the pan.

2. Transfer the milk mixture into the bowl of your stand mixer. This will help it cool off a little bit before you add yeast, but just in case, add a couple loose cups of flour and stir with a spatula until combined. Test the temperature of the dough with your finger - it should be just warm or lukewarm. 

3. Add the warm water and the yeast to the dough mixture and stir with a spatula. Add a couple more loose cups of flour and turn the mixer to low with the dough hook attachment. Scrape down the sides after 30 seconds or so, then let the mixer continue to do its thing for a couple minutes. If, after 2 minutes, the dough is still clinging to the side of the bowl, add a half cup of flour. Let it go for another couple minutes at a low speed. It's normal for the dough to cling just a little bit, but in most places it should cleanly pull away from the bowl. Add small spoonfuls of flour if absolutely necessary. Otherwise, let the mixer knead the dough for about 5 minutes after the initial 2. When you pull the dough off the hook, you should notice it's tacky and tender, but still able to be pulled off the hook with relative ease.

4. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and place in the fridge overnight to rise.

Baking day:

1. Turn on a space heater if your kitchen runs cold like mine does. It may make little difference but I think it helps. 

2. Turn the refrigerated dough out on to a barely floured board and divide into 3 similarly sized balls. Let them rest 15-20 minutes, uncovered.

3. Melt 1/4 c. butter in the microwave and set aside (salted would probably be the best, but I usually use unsalted). Working with one ball at a time, roll the dough into an 11x7 inch rectangle. Again, use as little flour as humanly possible. The dough should be cold and tacky enough that it sticks a little but comes off the surface without leaving anything behind. Brush the butter on the top of the rectangle and then roll lengthwise to create an 11" long log. Tap in the ends a little to make them even.

4. If you have a bench scraper with measurements on it, this is a great time to use it. Otherwise, use a sharp knife to swiftly cut the log into 1.5" rolls. Place cut-side up in an ungreased muffin tin. Continue this process with the other balls.

5. Turn the oven to warm and set a small bowl of water in the bottom of the oven. Set a timer for 3 minutes as it warms, then turn off the oven. Cover the rolls loosely with plastic wrap and allow them to rise for 30 minutes in the warmed oven.

6. Remove rolls from the oven, then heat it to 375 degrees. I like to do one pan at a time, but do as you'd like if you want to bake all at once - but you'll need to adjust the baking time. If you do one pan at a time, remove the plastic wrap and place the rolls on the center rack and bake for 10 minutes. Check the rolls - they should be lightly golden and be pulling away from the sides of the tin ever so slightly. If they're still pale, keep them in the oven for another 2 minutes. I have found that 12 minutes is the magic time for my oven, but all ovens vary, of course. 

7. When the rolls are done, let them cool for a couple minutes in the pan. You should be able to twist them loose with no trouble, though in some cases a butter knife is helpful to unstick a couple edges.

After a few more minutes of cooling, they are ready to enjoy when you are!




11.29.2015

The week in photos: Nov. 23

I picked up my camera again this week in an effort to capture the beautiful and the blahs. A few phone photos thrown in for good measure.

We decided to bring champagne cocktails to Thanksgiving dinner. But we had to test a few variations first, of course. We ended up keeping it simple with a cranberry mix, triple sec and Brut with cranberries for garnish.


It's been really tricky taking my daily walks around campus after Windstorm 2015. Destruction everywhere.

It snowed this week so I took the bus to work. It's fun to be downtown.



My trivia team. We play to win. (We even won that Reese's bar.)

Moonset on Thanksgiving morning.


You can't make this stuff up.

Roll dough. I have made Oma's rolls for years and this week I'll post a modernized version of her recipe after trying to decipher my notes along her very basic instructions.


The best spot in the house on a sunny afternoon.
My brother has masted the art of turkey.