A Little Christmas Music

Sometime before Thanksgiving I was driving around and listening to classical music on public radio. They started playing a bright, brassy number with fast vibrato – probably something by a British brass band - and all at once, gosh darn it, I felt the spirit of Christmas move in my weary soul. The piece was not a Christmas hymn or anything explicitly written for the holiday, yet I found myself waiting at the traffic light, reflecting on my feelings and letting the music transport me to Christmases past.

My mind took me to when I was about 6 or 7: Pulling peppermints off of the advent calendar hanging on the door in the kitchen; unpacking the odd boxes that held the ornaments; the smell of candles, freshly snuffed; a package of Schwarzbrot from the Timmermann Bakery and rock-hard Haribo gummy bears; and brass music, compliments of my oldest brother, Rich. It was then that it hit me how much that brother was so entwined with my more visceral memories of Christmas.

Rich was about to graduate from high school when I was born, so Christmas and summer - his breaks from college - were really the only times I got to spend any amount of time with him as a kid. I remember feeling shy around him because I had to get reacquainted with him each time, but it helped that he brought me music, books, and once, a pencil case from New York City that was long a prized possession. Our house had a different energy when he was home – my other two siblings were around a bit more, too, along with my Oma, and sometimes my Uncle Art and Aunt Alice. While the house at other times of the year felt more like a kid’s domain (to me, at least), at Christmas, everything suddenly felt that much more adult. And thus I remember trying to act a little more like an adult, too – eating things I didn’t care much for because I knew they were special (like that Schwarzbrot), sitting at the table while the adults conversed, not always knowing what they were talking about but waiting for a moment that I understood or could insert a joke or make a funny face. I remember my brothers watching movies in the family room (Dad usually gave us sets of Laserdiscs for Christmas) while I played with my new toys in the living room, and hearing them laugh heartily. And at some point during his visit, Rich would inevitably turn on a cassette tape that featured one or several of his performances at school. Our parents listened with great interest and pride. I found it rather boring and couldn't wait to put on the fun records again.

One year Rich gave my parents a copy of the King’s Singers “A Little Christmas Music.” Not surprisingly, I didn’t like it one bit the first few times we played it – too stuffy-sounding, sometimes weird, what’s with men singing with high voices, anyway? – but it was on repeat long enough that the next year and in the years that have followed, it doesn’t feel like Christmas without it. Today when I listen to my favorite “Ding dong! Merrily on High” I feel a certain nostalgia toward that punchy brass. Those men in falsetto have even been known to prompt a tear if I'm not on guard. May the music always remind me of the joy of the anticipation of being reunited with family. Christmas is here.

Rich on the left, me with the stuffed animal abundance, Dad on the right


Holiday tonic

A number of fun, important things happened at our house in recent days. One was Thanksgiving, our first time ever to host, and the first time ever to seat more than 8 people around our table (a total of 11). Another was getting our parents (Joel’s and mine) in the same place long enough to share a meal and get to know each other in person for the first time in 8 years. It was a sweet evening that meant a lot to us. And another was paying our first sizable vet bill after our very playful cat accidentally - I'm being gracious here - snagged our sweet, trouble-avoidant dog, right on the eyelid. That doesn't really fit in the "fun" or "important" category, but it happened when everything else did. After some stitching and dental work while they were at it, she’s OK now, off drugs and no longer wearing the cone of shame.

But I'm still basking in the afterglow of those first two things. The Thanksgiving menu was something we planned for at least a month. As soon as we knew we were hosting, Joel got on a jag of thinking outside the turkey. At first I resisted (my one chance to roast an entire turkey!), but then I realized it might be kind of fun. So, for instance, instead of preparing a whole bird, we opted for several boneless breasts which we slow-roasted and glazed using this recipe. Instead of mashed potatoes, Joel whipped up one of our now-favorite risottos with caramelized fennel and onion. There were more traditional pairings in the mix, too, including these rolls, and though we worried there wouldn't be enough food, or that people would be disappointed that there were no sweet potatoes on their plate, everything turned out just fine, and I'd be happy to do it all over again. Thinking back on all of the planning, I already have sweet memories of the occasional argument over whether or not we should have potatoes, and the moment we discovered that slow-cooked onions just kind of taste like bland onions, and the feeling of being a good team in the kitchen. 

But what I'm here to tell you about now is drinking, of the somewhat healthy but festive variety. In the midst of dreaming and scheming our Thanksgiving plans, I came across an article in Rodale's Organic Life about fall shrubs. This has nothing to do with the plant variety, but the ultra-trendy, hipster tonic variety. I committed myself to making the apple shrub on a Saturday, which was simply a matter of slicing several pounds of Granny Smiths, covering them in brown sugar and cinnamon, refrigerating them for several days, stirring them each day, then straining on a Monday and mixing with apple cider vinegar. Best part, you can then snack on the apples or use them to bake into a quick dessert! The article described handing these refreshing apple shrubs to guests as they came in from the cold, either mixed with sparkling water or bourbon…or both. 

Unfortunately, a week later, this cozy image was quickly forgotten on Thanksgiving after we’d decided cranberry mimosas would be a festive morning drink for everyone. Oops. But who can go wrong with a festive mimosa?

Not to worry, though! Snow is in the forecast and I'm coming in from the cold each day and can mix up one of these refreshing tonics for myself. Depending on the hour, bourbon is added. And/or ginger ale. This sounds good. Experiment with your own, or come over and help me drink mine.

To our health!

Apple Shrub
from Rodale's Organic Life

9 Granny Smiths, washed and sliced into 8 slices each
4 c. loosely packed brown sugar
2 T. ground cinnamon
1 c. apple cider vinegar

Place all ingredients except the vinegar in a very large bowl or container. Stir for 5 minutes, then cover and place in the fridge. Stir the mixture again the next day, and one more day after that. After that (the third day), get your biggest strainer or colander and dump the mixture into it over another large bowl. You'll probably find some large gloopy chunks. Take a fine strainer and strain those out. Place the apples aside for snacking (I did this for about 3 days) or put into a baking dish and sprinkle your favorite topping over it and bake for dessert. Pour the apple cider vinegar in the strained liquid and stir to combine. Place in a jar and store in the fridge for up to a month.


Book Report the Fourth

Thanks to Facebook for reminding me that I do this book report every October.

Year 1 | Year 2 | Year 3

Apparently this past year has been a big year for books for me. I had a good dose of fiction, non-fiction, self-help, classics, and super-trendies. Some good, some garbage, some good garbage. So, without further ado, all the books I read in the last 12 months and what I thought of them.

1. Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marsha Pessl - This one just sort of fell into my lap with no introduction, but within a couple pages I was hooked. The plot centers on a teenage girl named Blue who is brilliant and clever and fills the story with who knows how many cultural and intellectual references. The plot kept me on my toes as Blue figures out what is going on in the life of the hippest albeit inappropriate film-studies teacher at the high school, and what led to her demise. It's dark with death and mystery and heartbreak, and a few rich-kid characters that made me glad I grew up in southern Idaho. A delightful surprise of a read.

2. The Wright Brothers by David McCullough - I read this wishing I had more time to read about history. I feel about these kinds of books the way I feel about watching multi-part documentaries on PBS. I know I'd love to learn about important historical stuff that sheds light on our society or our world, but isn't there something else I should be doing right now? I know, it's terrible. Accordingly, I slogged through this one. That says nothing about how much I did actually enjoy reading this fascinating story of how these two dedicated bike-mechanic brothers put their lives in jeopardy, in miserable conditions, in order to travel by air. And the drama (and tragedy) that came with trying to be the ones to do it the longest and farthest. If biographies are your thing, definitely read this one.

3. Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff - This was compared by many to Gone Girl, and I couldn't disagree more, aside from the fact that it was a story told through two spouses. Far fewer thrills in this one, but the beauty was in the play between the passionate and the subtle. I wasn't expecting to read through so many sex scenes, to be honest, so know what you're getting into. As I predicted after finishing it just before Christmas, it's one of those books I've mostly forgotten by now, though at the time I thoroughly enjoyed it.

4. Girl Waits With Gun by Amy Stewart - I was really excited about this one as it's based on the true story of Constance Kopp, the first female sheriff in the U.S. The first few pages were written with an ease of wit and humor that I found delightful. Unfortunately the humor that captured me tapered off a bit as the plot thickened. Still, it was a charming bit of historical fiction. A few loose ends were left in the end, and I can only assume that these things will be addressed in the sequel, which I may or may not read.

5. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson - Of this list of books, this ranks toward the top. If you want to read a really engaging, thought-provoking book, read this. The main character dies at birth in chapter one but lives in chapter two, only to die again. Each chapter explores the lives of those around her and her effect on their outcomes, depending on her fate, ultimately spanning the two world wars.

6. Yes Please by Amy Poehler - This memoir is exactly what you would expect. It's full of tangential humor and you can hear Amy through it very clearly. I enjoy indulging in this stuff as a palate cleanser between big, heavy books. Plus, I've really come to love Amy over the years after initially being skeptical of her when she first joined SNL. It was inspiring to read about her work ethic and about being a woman in comedy - all the now-famous people she started out with, her friendship with Tina Fey, her work with the Upright Citizens Brigade, etc. It wasn't a memoir that featured some big life tragedy or epiphany, as memoirs often have. It was more of a happy childhood followed by taking risks, making connections, being real about life and how it sucks, and being alive during an exciting era in comedy. So, good job, Amy Poehler. Fun photos, too.

7. The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker - A sweet story that was made less sweet by the daughter character. I wanted to slap her. How a man like her father raised such an ingrate (though her character is redeemed later) is beyond me. Otherwise it's a wonderful love story set in Burma in the 1950s. 

8. Spark Joy by Marie Kondo - There's a real industry for getting us to think about our stuff. From minimalism to zero-waste homes, I get at once enthralled and repulsed. I think this book was a little bit of fresh air because it wasn't so much about getting rid of the stuff you don't need, but appreciating the things that bring you great joy, and filling your home with only those things. I've only gotten as far as the clothes part (and it's something I assess on a regular basis), and they're all still folded in my drawers in need little rectangles. It brings intentionality to homemaking rather than the "get organized" or "de-clutter" mentality. It also honors those things that may once have had meaning in your life, but no longer do. If you hear me whispering "thank you" while standing over old high school papers in the recycling bin, it's because of Marie Kondo.

9. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates - Dear everyone in America: PLEASEREADTHISBOOK. Thanks.

10. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith - God bless my high school friend Robin who keeps me true to the sensibilities of High School Liz, a girl characterized by her love of all things nostalgic, dreamy and old-fashioned, because she loaned me this book and I felt parts of my brain light up that had been dark since the last time I read Anne of Green Gables. Dodie Smith is better known for having written The Hundred and One Dalmations, but more should know about this one. I at once identified with the main character Cassandra and her penchant for journal-writing, along with her wittiness and self deprecation. Her journal is where she "captures" scenes from her daily life, which is lived in a dilapidated castle and surrounding area of a small village in England with her eccentric family. It's hilarious, sweet, tragic, and strikes my heart-strings just right.

11. Me Before You by Jojo Moyes - I wanted to read something that everyone was talking about, and this one happened to be available at the library. The only thing I really took away from it was a heightened appreciation for things I take for granted in everyday transportation that quadriplegics and their care-givers have to plan for in great detail. The love story felt thin and unrealistic, and I felt my eyes rolling one-too-many times. Somehow, I finished it. I decided I didn't want to see the movie, or read the sequel.

12. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara - This would be another book near the top of the list this year, but proceed thoughtfully if you decide to check it out. It will be gut-wrenching, and you need to be prepared that there are some horrible scenes - not just in a bruised-and-bloody, physical sense, but emotionally as well. I couldn't hold back the tears after feeling immense hopelessness for one of the main characters, in a way that made me think in new ways about friendship, love, family, and accountability. One of many great quotes: "[T]he only trick of friendship, I think, is to find people who are better than you are—not smarter, not cooler, but kinder, and more generous, and more forgiving—and then to appreciate them for what they can teach you, and to try to listen to them when they tell you something about yourself, no matter how bad—or good—it might be, and to trust them, which is the hardest thing of all. But the best, as well."

13. The Course of Love by Alain de Botton - I have loved de Botton for years, ever since I was introduced to How Proust Can Change Your Life. He's my favorite explainer of philosophy, and in the last few years he's developed The School of Life and its online partner, The Book of Life, which applies much of his philosophical explanations into digestible lessons (with fun videos) about how to live, love, and work, among other things. This book felt like an extension of that project, and it was a quick read filled with epiphanies related to the particular tendencies of humans in relationships. I loved his suggestion that your partner should consider your act of moping as a compliment, because it implies that you believe he knows you so deeply that of course he'd understand why you are so upset. It's the perfect book for people who don't take self-help books too seriously but still love reading them (hello). This is one I'll revisit every few years, I'm sure.

14. The Solace of Stones: Finding a Way Through Wilderness by Julie Riddle - It's a crazy feeling to read a memoir written by your coworker because you come back to work each day after reading the night before and are like, WHOA. I've always known she is a gifted writer, but getting this intimate glimpse into a friend and colleague's life is an unusual, humbling honor. I am proud to know the woman behind the words, whose life experiences are surely making other women feel less alone.

15. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler - In the months leading up to summer I felt this strong urge to spend the hot months reading noir. Instead, I spent the summer trying to fall asleep at night. Reading something called The Big Sleep during the wee hours when I couldn't sleep was a cruel irony. Of course, the book had nothing to do with sleep, and everything to do with darkness. Certain passages were so delicious that if Joel was still awake, I would read them aloud. Ahem: "It was about eleven o'clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark little clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn't care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars." How does that not strike one's fancy?

16. Say Goodnight to Insomnia by Gregg D. Jacobs, Ph.D. - This book saved me. I came across it through NPR (which made me feel a little better about Jacobs' credibility), and it was like a light that took me through a dark, two-month-long tunnel of insomnia. I'm sure I will continue to experience nights like the ones I experienced this past summer, but I feel incredibly empowered with what I learned in this book through its principles of cognitive behavioral therapy. Jacobs takes you through the facts - how our minds and bodies rest, what sleep does for us, and how sleeping pills are only treating symptoms and often do more harm than good. He also debunks the myth that we need eight hours of sleep, and how the stress of believing we need a solid eight hours is actually making things worse for insomniacs like me. Turns out, a five-and-a-half hour night is all our brains need to fully recharge. Six hours is better, and seven is optimal. Eight hours or more can actually start to do damage. From there, it's all about achieving 90% sleep efficiency (i.e., insomnia is defined by sleep efficiency, i.e., the time spent in bed not sleeping vs. sleeping - you want to spend more time in bed actually sleeping, obviously), which happens through sleep scheduling and sleep hygiene. This meant that for a couple weeks, I stayed up past 11 p.m. or close to midnight to pressure my body into sleep mode, and then gradually went to bed earlier as my sleep efficiency increased. And if I lay awake longer than 20 minutes, I would go into another room and read for about a half hour, then go back to bed and try again (you repeat this pattern until you fall asleep). It took about six or seven weeks before I started going back to bed at my normal time and falling asleep within 20 minutes (the goal). I now average about six and a half hours of sleep each night, which is enough for me to feel refreshed and like myself. This whole process also brought a more regular practice of mindful meditation into my life. It wasn't the most fun read, but it was the most important one.

17. A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers - This was perfectly enjoyable. Call me a Dave Eggers fan, because I've liked everything I've read from him. It's a book that makes a statement, but not always in the way you might think. Because I knew of the movie adaptation first, I couldn't help but picture the main character as Tom Hanks, but it was a wonderful casting choice. If you don't feel like reading the book, go ahead and watch the movie because it followed the book well.

18. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Frye by Rachel Joyce - If you love stories about old British people coming to terms with their past, this is the book for you. I found it begging to be made into a movie starring Jim Broadbent. The premise is an endearing one: a man sets out to say his final goodbye to a former coworker, whose hospice is on the opposite tip of England, bringing nothing but the clothes on his back and unsuitable boating shoes on his feet - not even a cell phone. You don't know why he feels the need to say goodbye in person, but as the pilgrimage continues, you learn about the years since he last saw her, and the wife he's grown apart from. Great book club material.

19. The Turner House by Angela Flournoy - There are two phrases that keep getting stuck in my head as a result of this book: "There ain't no haints in Detroit," and "There truly ain't no party like a Turner house party." Beautifully written fiction about the life of a family in Detroit: how they got there, the ways they try to escape, and the ghosts they must reckon with in order to live a fulfilled life. You should read it, if only to give me someone to talk about it with.




I might as well rename this blog to "Melissa Clark recipes I've made." Honestly, just when I think I'm ready to venture into new cookbook territory, I always fall back into her Cook This Now book. But I do really like her approach to recipes - they're not fussy, the end product is almost always delicious (my one stinker is her recipe for paratha bread, but I think that was because my whole wheat flour had gone rancid), and they don't take forever to make (except for mallobars...worth the effort). I also like that at the end of each recipe, she lists ideas for how to alter the recipe and/or use what you have on hand. And they all have that air of elevating an ingredient that keeps me excited about eating and cooking.

I made this cake this past Sunday. I have found that one of the best ways to beat the Sunday blues is to make sure there's cake at the end of it. Yes, you have to go back to work tomorrow, but first: cake. You see? You must eat your cake before you return to reality.

For this cake, I used the last four black plums available at my neighborhood grocery store. I probably could have used one more, but it still turned out great. The cornmeal shone through, even as the brilliance of the plums took center stage. It was really a treat to turn this rightside-up to reveal the congealed masterpiece underneath.

Upside-down Polenta Plum Cake
adapted from Cook This Now by Melissa Clark

My notes: I used plain low-fat yogurt and cultured unsalted butter and loved the result. I also would recommend taking the yogurt/sour cream out of the fridge along with the eggs a half hour beforehand, along with the butter, to take the chill off so as not to re-harden the butter when you're beating it together. If you don't, however, it will still turn out OK. Just a suggestion.

4-5 large plums, red or black, pitted and sliced into 1/2-inch slices
1 1/2 c. sugar
3/4 tsp. kosher salt
1 c. fine cornmeal (not coarse polenta, strangely)
1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 c. unsalted butter, room temp.
4 large eggs, room temp (ideally)
1/3 c. plain yogurt (low fat or whole milk, greek or regular, or sour cream), not super cold
2 tsps. vanilla extract
Whipped cream or ice cream, for topping

1. Preheat the oven to 350. Line a 9-inch springform with parchment paper and butter the entire interior well.
2. In a large skillet over medium high heat, cook the plums, 1/2 c. sugar and 1/4 tsp. salt, stirring occasionally, 15-20 min., until the plums are tender and the liquid begins to reduce and the whole thing looks like something syrupy you'd drizzle over pancakes. Spread the hot fruit (carefully) into the prepared pan.
3. In a small-ish bowl, whisk the cornmeal, flour, baking powder, and remaining 1/2 tsp. salt.
4. In your mixing bowl, cream the butter and remaining 1 c. sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time and beat completely before each addition. Beat in the yogurt and vanilla.
5. Fold in the dry ingredients by hand with a spatula and pour over the prepared fruit. Bake until the cake is golden and springs back when you gently press with your finger, about 45 minutes.
6. Cool the cake for 10 minutes before releasing the springform and inverting it to a serving plate. Serve warm, at room temp, or cold with desired creamy accompaniments. Good plain, too. Store in the fridge for a few days if necessary.


Catching up

I've written, like, five posts about why I haven't been blogging lately and they're all crap, and I'm realizing that blogging about not blogging is the number-one reason I haven't been blogging. Because it's really boring.

The short version of those scrapped posts: insomnia is the pits. I've spent over a month now with an epic case of insomnia that is just now starting to become manageable, thanks to a book with a super-cheesy title and a supportive partner. I have almost gotten to the point now where I'm actually thankful to have to face this - particularly the root of it - because it's teaching me a lot about stress and anxiety and life beyond insomnia. I'm meditating and changing my internal dialogue and all sorts of other calming things with the power of my mind. Better yet, all this introspection and mindfulness seems to be building a tremendous urge to be creative and active and social and to open myself to new things, if only to refocus my energy and attention on that which is life-giving, and to prevent myself from Googling insomnia forums.

Since my last blog entry, a lot of life-giving summer has happened. We enjoyed a weekend of baseball and family time in Seattle. While there I got to visit both Essex (for cocktails) and Delancey (for pizza), which had long been on my list due to my appreciation of all things Molly Wizenberg. I picked a bunch of cherries, completed my first (and only, so far) canning project, and made bread with my own sourdough starter. I visited my family in Boise. I went to a David Bazan show, and an art opening for my friend and former professor. I finished knitting a pair of socks. I read "The Big Sleep" by Raymond Chandler while finding the title hilariously ironic since I read most of it during sleepless nights. We over-nighted at the lake; we picnicked by the river. We rode our bikes to Sunday brunch and around downtown. We celebrated many family birthdays. I embroidered a shirt for my dad. I planted dahlias, which are now blooming, and tomatoes, which I'm now harvesting. We started watching Stranger Things. We revisited our favorite spots at Bowl & Pitcher. We went to friend's wedding, and to a beer festival. I invented new recipes with my CSA haul. We've taken many walks at sunset, and have driven along the Palouse. We are watching the summer Olympics.
David Bazan

Home from our morning walk - magical June when both peonies and roses are blooming

I love the smell of my hands after touching a tomato plant

A bottle of wine and a piece of river to ourselves

Sourdough starter

Pizza at Delancy

Father's Day present

Making cookies with my niece

Cocktails at the lake

Luna loving life


Boutique pensione bathroom in Seattle
 A few things yet to happen: a roadtrip with the dog (Boise again), a river float/paddle, swimming (!!), and a Spokane Indians baseball game.

Aside from that, there's that festering need to be creative I mentioned above. The other day I challenged myself to commit to a Creative Hour each day. It could be 20 minutes, too, but an hour is a good goal for me. This helps me think about my creativity each day and gives me freedom in how I want to explore it, depending on my mood. This could be anything from trying a new recipe to picking something from a Pinterest board to continuing on the sweater I've been working on. To be honest, I probably already spend an hour on a lot of these things without really thinking of it, but having that "creative hour" lens really makes me feel that much more intentional and willing to branch out.

So that's that. I hope to check in here a bit more, use a camera that is not always my phone, and show proof of my work. That's what I always intend to do, but in summertime, it's sometimes nice to let these things just sit in reflection mode a bit longer. Speaking of reflection, Joel said something perhaps unintentionally profound to me the other day when we came home after a bike ride. He said, "You can ride up any hill as long as you're in the right gear." I thought about this later and how much that spoke to what I'm going through right now. I've had to do a lot of adjusting lately to account for variations in sleep and energy, but I feel like I'm finding a mode and frame of mind that is helping me get through this chapter, however long it lasts. Our ability to adapt is a gift.


Good habit: Head to the bar

Nearly every Tuesday and Thursday after work, I head home real quick, say hello to the gang, change my clothes and head to the bar. I usually find myself there first thing on Saturday morning, too. Now that I've possibly made your eyebrows rise in judgement/horror, the bar I'm referring to is not my local watering hole. This is the kind that's bolted to a wall, one that aids in balance and stretching and is at the center of a complete workout at Bar Method. Har har.

Last spring, finding myself lacking the personal motivation and time to exercise outside of my daily walking routine, I thought maybe what I needed was a Pilates class...or something. I loved taking classes at the Y when it worked for my schedule - there's something about the camaraderie, accountability, shared misery, encouragement and the variety that helps me actually want to go. So last April, after noticing a few different studios pop up around town, I signed up for a barre class. I had googled it a bit and decided it was my kind of workout: a lot of micro-movements that build long, lean muscle and maybe just a light layer of sweat. Barre studios are similar to ballet studios in that they're usually lined with mirrors that have bars affixed to them. There's a lot of work at the bar itself, but also a bit of floor/mat work that is akin to Pilates. Many classes use light weights and small exercise balls, too.

When I got to my first class, I instantly went into comparison mode. For me, the comparing is not so much about my fitness level as it is about what I'm wearing. Fortunately this studio's website had a "what to wear" section, and also a heads-up that it was a barefoot studio, so you don't have to worry about what's on your feet. Still, when I got there, I felt a bit out of place. I was greeted by a super-perky 20-something who instantly made me feel old. The other women there were, for the most part, younger than me. They wore long spandex tights with no panty-lines, their hair was expertly wrapped into messy buns, and they were stretching at the bar like they've done it their whole young lives. Among these Lululemon all-stars, I felt pretty frumpy in my outfit that I probably spent no more than $30 on seven or so years ago. At least my hair looked awesome (I told myself), albeit too short for a messy bun.

Around the room were framed inspirational posters with shabby-chic lettering with sentiments like, "Embrace the shake." I learned during my googling that "the shake" happens when  you work your muscles so deeply that they start to give out. The way you "embrace" this is that you keep pressing through them, despite the fact that your legs and then your entire body are a little bit out of control. Like convulsing.

Ready to begin?

The music started and the instructor came out and got us right into it, and though it was a bit fast-paced, there wasn't a lot of coordination needed. (Good news for me.) As we worked through the first few muscle groups, the one I dreaded most was yet to come: thigh. This was where the shake tends to happen violently. Since most of these exercises are repetitive, isometric movements, it's easy to begin confidently because it seems easy. One of the thigh exercises involves standing with your feet hip-width apart, on your tip-toes as high as they can go, with your tailbone tucked in. From there, you hold onto the bar with one hand, your other hand on your waist, and bend your knees to about a third of the way down from standing, and from there you bend your knees down an inch, then up an inch, and repeat. Simple. You got this. But after a 30 seconds or so you start to lose your mind with the shaking and burning that is happening as you're staring yourself down in the mirror, clinging to the bar for dear life. They tell you if you're shaking a lot, don't even worry about moving up and down. This is the time to - you guessed it - embrace the shake. It's almost laughable. After an hour, I left feeling well-worked, refreshed, and shaky for several hours. My muscles had never been worked quite in that way.

And...surprise. I loved it and felt empowered. I just wasn't totally sold on that studio. I looked up a different place a little further from my house called Bar Method. It's a franchise and there are hundreds of them across the country. Where the first studio had more of a cool downtown loft aesthetic, the Bar Method was more like a spa, thoughtfully built for flow. You walk into a reception area, where there is a sign-in, then a waiting area with an assortment of magazines and a bouquet of flowers, a mini fridge with bottled smoothies and water, a Keurig machine, etc. You keep walking through to a curtained-off area to find the changing room and lockers - all very clean, all very white. Truly, you walk in here and you feel like you've escaped from the grind. They also offer stuff like daycare and even have a monthly bookclub and some incentive programs, like earning "Bar Star" status (which earns you your own locker and monogrammed towel), and lavender socks after taking a certain number of classes. This place is a socks-ON studio, which was great news for my foot joints, because that means it's also carpeted (which I thought would be gross, but isn't).

Here were the young 20-somethings (but they tend to wear their hair in high pony tails and also have giant diamond rings), and even some teens, but also ladies more my age - professionals and working moms - as well as women who are nearing retirement if not already there. But what I ended up appreciating most was the level of attention by each of the instructors. Each one learns every person's name. Throughout the class, they may correct your form or they may cheer you on - out loud, on their mic, in front of everyone. I am usually the kind of person for whom this would be mortifying, but strangely, it's a nice reminder that I'm seen and cared for and working hard. I also like how we "thank our bodies for working hard for us" at the end of class. The whole thing is a surprisingly mindful experience. And then we clap and cheer for ourselves. It all sounds a little silly but gosh darn it, I'm into it.

Bar Method folks are sure to tell you you're building long, lean muscle. It's true. The muscles are there and some are kinda visible! I aim to go 3 times a week, thus fulfilling one of my original Day Zero goals. I rarely make excuses to not go because I know how good I always feel at the end - better than I'd feel if I didn't. I even went on the Saturday morning of my birthday, just so I could wear the birthday tutu. Who knows how long I'll stick with this particular mode of exercising, perhaps long enough to earn those coveted lavender socks. Either way, whatever I do, I'm just gonna thank this body for working hard for me.

Birthday tutu


Shortbread: an appropriate pre-summer bite

And suddenly, it's pretty much summer around here. With a big vacation behind us, I'm kind of looking forward to a pretty chill summer spent mostly in my city and within 400 miles. To a fault we've always kind of been last-minute summer planners, partly because summer is not always equated with time off or school vacation for us (though it's easy for people to think I get summers off because I work at a college). No, it's more like a really nice time of year to be working, a time to take advantage of all the weekends and everything that happens after 5 p.m. on weekdays. I'm cool with that.

Right now, my running list consists of picking strawberries at Greenbluff, riding bikes to new breweries, keeping the flowers properly watered, finding some new hikes with the dog, watching baseball, going swimming, sleeping with the windows open, eating al fresco, going to the movies, figuring out if we can redo the deck, visiting family, paddling down the Little Spokane, turning on the air conditioning, staying up late, getting up early, reading some lighthearted books (I seriously need this), making sorbet and freezer jam, and sweating. 

And baking when it's not unbearably hot.

Still reflecting on my Whole30 experience, I've reincorporated pretty much everything back into my diet, but eating isn't quite the same. It's enjoyable, but I'm finding that I'm more annoyingly discriminating. I'm almost back up to my normal weight (and normal is fine), and while it's possible some of this could be muscle, I'm hoping I didn't just screw up my metabolism. So I'm being a little more careful than I might otherwise be for a little while, which is probably good anyway. 

What this means: I'm back to making very small cookies. 

This recipe for Sprouted Kitchen's Chocolate-Drizzled Oatmeal Shortbread is delightfully simple and another one of those recipes that I almost always have the ingredients for. The recipe, as written, makes 20 cookies, but with my "make it smaller" mentality, I was able to churn out about 33 cookies by rolling the log a bit thinner, more like 2 inches thick instead of 3, before cutting it into 1/2-inch thick cookies. I just kept a closer eye on the oven, but the timing worked out to be about the same. Refrigerated dough logs are also nice because you don't have to bake it all at once, and if you decide that it is, in fact, too hot to turn on the oven, just wait for a different day.

Chocolate-Drizzled Oatmeal Shortbread
adapted from The Sprouted Kitchen cookbook

1 1/2 c. old-fashioned rolled oats
1/2 c. unsalted butter, room temp
1/2 c. sugar in the raw (turbinado sugar)
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 egg
3/4 c. all-purpose flour (or rice flour for GF)
1/4 tsp. sea salt
1/2 tsp. grated nutmeg
2 1/2 oz. dark chocolate
Flaked sea salt, for garnish

Pulse the oats in a food processor to create a course flour, not completely smooth. Place oats in bowl and set aside.

Wipe out the food processor bowl and add the butter and sugar. Cream until light. Add the vanilla and egg and mix, scraping down the bowl as necessary. Add the oats, AP flour, salt and nutmeg and pulse a few times to combine. The dough should be fairly tacky.

Carefully turn out the dough onto the counter. Using your hands, roll the dough into a log, 2-3 inches in diameter (per my note above). Roll up the log in plastic wrap or parchment paper and chill in the fridge at least an hour, if not more.

When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment.

Working quickly, slice the log into 1/2-inch cookies and place them on the baking sheets 1-2 inches apart (mine didn't spread that much). Bake until the edges just begin to brown, 14-16 minutes. Transfer cookies to a wire rack to cool completely.

As the cookies cool, melt chocolate in a heatproof bowl over simmering water. When cookies have cooled, place them back on the parchment paper used for baking (you can keep them on the cooling rack, too, with the paper underneath). Using a spoon or a plastic bag with the corner snipped off, drizzle the melted chocolate over the cookies as you'd like. Sprinkle the flaked salt. Let the chocolate firm up completely before storing.