I will never be this young again

"Oh, yes, I did. I did, I had my cake, loved it, masticated it, chewed it and had everything I wanted." -Big Edie, Grey Gardens

Today is my 34th birthday. In a few years, I will look back on being 34, much like I now look back on being 24, and think about how young I really was. So today seems like an appropriate moment in time to decide that youth need not be wasted on the young. Each one of us, right now, is younger than we will eventually be. Isn't this worth appreciating?

I am, therefore, declaring a shift of mindset. This is a day to celebrate what I see when I look in the mirror, regardless of how I remember looking years ago. Certainly, it is a time to protect what I still have - to wear sunscreen, to eat sensibly, to get enough sleep, to maintain and build friendships. My skin will continue to sag and shrivel at its own pace. My metabolism may have other plans for my body. Friendships will fade and glow at various points. Thinking about my future eye-bags, foot surgery and arthritis is wasting time I could spend appreciating the fact that my eyes will never look so alive as they do today. That my feet can faithfully carry me for miles without much pain. That my legs have never felt so strong. That my parents are a phone call away. That my friends are having babies. That my dog, cat and Joel are at the door each day when I come home. That this is a wonderful life right now.

Which is why today is a day to celebrate being young. I will never be this young again. And: neither will you! Perhaps, as my dad says, the best is yet to come, but this is nevertheless a moment to seize and savor.


Thoughts before beginning my Whole30 experiment

My two main feelings right now: excitement (what could happen?!) and confusion (how did I become this person?). I have never really had any food aversions, allergies or chronic indigestion; I'm someone who believes that no food is forbidden as long as you eat real food and know your limits with the less-real food. I've grown weary of the number of conversations I've had in recent years about peoples' very specific diets. And yet, here I am, blogging about launching a Whole30 thing on April 24. (Here's a link in case you've never heard about this program.)

Why am I doing it? I'm not really sure yet. I have a decent level of energy. I get between 7-8 hours of sleep. I eat pretty well. I exercise regularly. And while I wouldn't be sad if I lost five pounds, my doctor told me I am at an ideal weight.

I suppose one reason is because I love a good lifestyle experiment. A 30-day challenge is enjoyable to me because it is a relatively quick way to make a lasting and usually positive change in my life, even if it's just a change of perspective, or a feeling of accomplishment for sticking it out. Another reason could be that food is a bit of an obsession for me. It's a subject I think about a lot and truly love learning about. I also believe that food is medicine and all that jazz, and that if I can understand how food works in my body, then I can feel that much more empowered by my choices - even if I ultimately decide that life is not worth living if I deny myself butter, cheese and wine (a decision I am fully prepared to make). As I am about to hit year 34, I feel that gentle urge toward some good old-fashioned self-discovery. I want to know what eliminating foods for 30 days could possibly do to/for me. Will my skin allergies go away? Will I sleep more deeply, and go to sleep more quickly? Will I have more energy, and what will that feel like? Will my mood be less swingy? Will I realize that drinking wine is more a habit than enjoyment? If I get a yes or two, then I think it will have been worth it. If I don't, then I can stop wondering and look for other ways to address what ails me.

I also acknowledge that choosing this kind of tough-love program is much easier than having it be prescribed to you as a result of a serious medical condition. Kind of like the time I took the bus to work for a month (my first major lifestyle experiment - 10 years ago!) but had the peace of mind that I still had a car in case of emergencies. But just as that experiment opened my eyes to a low-income population I could otherwise easily ignore, I hope my experience of doing my own Whole30 will make me more sympathetic to people with serious food allergies, sensitivities and other health concerns, and even more considerate when bringing treats to the office or a dish to a potluck.

Follow along if you dare, and know I will understand if you are totally bored by this topic. I'm not sure how often I'll blog about it, but I'm definitely open to comments and suggestions if you've done it yourself, or questions if you're thinking about jumping in.

In the meantime, I'll be over here drinking my final glasses of wine, eating slices of cheese and buttered toast for the next 36 or so hours.


Brownie points

Recipe: Coconut fudge brownies
SourceCook This Now by Melissa Clark
Tasting notes: fudgy, decadent, truffle-like

Other details:
  • The reason for the brownie: A birthday cocktail party, scheduled for a Friday night at my house.
  • What the brownie was supposed to be, originally: Chocolate cake. The recipe, by David Lebovitz, was subtitled "Chocolate Idiot Cake," because it was supposedly "so easy you have to be an idiot to mess it up." (Link to that recipe here) Let's just say it had been a long week by the time Thursday night, the night in which I planned to do everything for the aforementioned party, had rolled around, and visions of layer cakes or cream pies now seemed ridiculous. This cake would be more my speed, and the type of thing that was sure to be delicious with little effort. Things were going well until I plunged the spring-form full of batter into the water bath before placing it in the oven, per the instructions, without ensuring that the pan was water tight. Water leaked into the pan and spoiled what would have been a perfectly lovely, mousse-like cake. Next scenes: 
    • Me dumping water-logged chocolate down the drain, trying to keep tears from falling as I groaned about being the idiot who ruined the Idiot Cake.
    • Joel entering the kitchen as I clean the remaining bits of chocolate from the pan to share in my sadness and frustration. 
    • Me declaring, as calmly as I could, "Screw it. I'm just buying a damn cake." But a nice cake from a reputable bakery would surely be more money than I felt I could afford at that point. I'd already spent a pretty penny to host this party, and the more I thought about it, the more I felt I could try again.
  • How it became a brownie...: I didn't have all the ingredients to make the same cake a second time, nor did I feel like it at that point (I still love you, Lebovitz, but damn your recipe titles). Then I remembered I'd flagged the Melissa Clark brownie recipe awhile back and recalled how my birthday friend loves coconut and coconut oil, and fortunately I had everything on hand. I started again.
    • ...and then, tragically didn't: Water was my nemesis again. This time I added too much to the batter and realized it when flour islands were floating in a chocolate sea. I can't remember a time I had such an identity crisis in the kitchen. This is prompted much swearing, crying, and other behaviors that are very unflattering. I gave up my post after dumping everything either down the drain or in the trash, mustering just enough energy to wash the dishes, after Joel tried to console she who could/would not be consoled. I went to bed.
    • The labor of love: It's a wonder what a night of fitful sleep can do. I awoke Friday morning with new resolve. Yes, I had to go to the office, but perhaps I could explain the whole silly situation (because I could see that it was just a little tiny bit silly, after all) to my boss and she would graciously let me go home early. I did just that; my boss and I laughed and I was given the afternoon to prepare for this party. I returned to my desk to start wrapping things up, and not ten minutes later did I receive a text message from Joel. It was a photo of a pan of brownies covered in golden coconut. Yes, he made the brownies. He who had never baked anything in the time I've known him had decided the night before that he would dare to take on this challenge for the sake of my happiness. Not only did he make my day easier, but he humbled my heart, made me teary and speechless and grateful for his partnership.
    There's a theory in my world that things taste better when someone else makes it. To eat a homemade brownie in my home that I did not make was pretty much the best feeling. Yes, so maybe it's cute to say he earned brownie points, but this takes the term to a whole 'nother level. 
    Also, it's a really good recipe. If you can figure it out. (A "wife, mama and foodie living in St. Paul, MN," posted the recipe here.)


    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.


    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.


    "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.)


    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.