Friday, December 14, 2012

The enemy of joy

     Maybe it's because it's the Christmas season or the end of another year, but I've been thinking a lot about the concept of joy: what it is, how we know we're experiencing it, where it comes from, and how we can get more of it. I've experienced fleeting happiness, I've been giddy with delight, I've laughed-out-loud.  But Joy with a capital J? I associate that with religious experiences, the birth of a child, or an exquisite experience in nature.  Joy is deep and heady; it's serious business to be joyful.

In Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, author Brene Brown, PhD, describes joyfulness as "probably the most difficult emotion to really feel.  Why? Because when we lost the ability or willingness to be vulnerable, joy becomes something we approach with deep foreboding."

That statement floored me.  For most of my adult life I have had an uneasy relationship with joy.  An example: when my husband first told me he loved me--at a subway station in Times Square--I remember feeling a woosh in my whole body.  I couldn't stop smiling, even after we parted ways to go to our respective offices.  I positively vibrated with joyfulness and it must have showed because a young man approached and started talking to me as we were waiting for the Walk sign to light up.  It had to be because of my smile--my default expression is usually one of distraction or mild annoyance, and neither are exactly inducement for flirtation. 

But I can place a pushpin right on the moment when my joy turned to fear.  Not an overt fear of what it meant to find the person you planned to marry, but the more subconscious kind, the dangerous subterfuge that tricks you into thinking that the laws of the universe dictate that joyfulness must always be followed by sorrow.  I became obsessed with my health, imagining all the ways I might die young, right at a time when I had found someone who loved me.  Like in a Julia Roberts movie, I would be stricken by Cancer and die young.  Love would become my enemy.

Ms. Brown would call this "rehearsing tragedy."  It may sound like something only neurotic, Woody Allen-types would practice, but according to Brown it's actually a common technique used to arm ourselves against our own vulnerability.  

"Softening into the joyful moments of our lives requires vulnerability," Brown writes, "When we spend our lives (knowingly or unknowingly) pushing away vulnerability, we can't hold space open for the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure of joy."

It is easy to see why we're uneasy with joy. Everyone likes to blame the media for society's woes, but I would agree with Ms. Brown that if not directly responsible for our insecurity, media certainly aggravates it.  Today I had the radio tuned to the news and heard the awful story about the school shooting in Newtown, CT.  Even after I had heard the account in as much detail as was known, I continued to listen throughout the day for updates.  I heard the same sound bytes over and over, the increasing number of dead, the predictably frantic response of the parents, the fact that the children all knew what a "lockdown" meant, which was heartbreaking in and of itself. The talking heads argued over whether or not it was the appropriate time to discuss gun control and I listened to a criminologist who described the type of deviant who would commit such a sick and desperate act.

Finally I had to turn the radio off.  Not because I didn't care but just to save my sanity.  Although I don't have any children of my own, I can still empathize with the pain of the parents who have just lost a child, and I could also imagine the fear that the families whose children were spared must be feeling as their veneer of safety living in a sleepy New England town is torn off with such ferocity. 

We are confronted by these tragedies all too often.  But I'm learning that dwelling on them for too long and worrying constantly about when the next shoe will drop won't make me or my loved ones any safer.  Such constant dread will only rob us of our human birth right to experience undiluted, uncompromising joy. 

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Name Game

a lightning whelk

"Bring me back a shell," said my mother over the phone when she heard I was spending a long weekend on Sanibel/Captiva Island in Florida.  My mother loves small objects that she can display on her windowsill or on her wooden bookshelf crammed with cookbooks dating back to the seventies: everything from The Frugal Gourmet to Jacques Pepin.  I don't think she consults her cookbooks much, but she likes seeing all their spines.

The shoreline where I found the whelk (pictured above) was located not far from the toll booth leading onto Sanibel Island.  We were there for a friend's lavish, multi-day wedding, but they weren't expecting us until 6 when we'd share drinks at a popular Captiva bar and grill.  I was overdressed from our flight out of a snowy Logan Airport, and the wind was whipping my silver scarf and strands of my hair into my eyes as I walked slowly along the shore, looking down for gifts from the sea.  

Mike and I later learned that some of the shells we found (including the whelk) weren't without their original occupants.  At the Bailey-Matthews Seashell Museum we watched a short film about the life of mollusks (yes, we really did).  To say the film was an amateur production would be paying it a compliment--it was more like the home movie your high school biology teacher might have filmed over winter break.  But the shells we saw on our walks were so varied and pretty that finding out their names and where they came from seemed the respectful thing to do, especially if I was going to be carrying pocketfuls of them home to Boston.  

We learned the difference between a gastropod and a bivalve, that the lower portion of the mollusk's body typically forms a muscular foot, which is used for creeping or burrowing in the sand.  I recalled that my lightning whelk still had it's black foot peeking out (when I tried to pull what I thought was the dead creature out, it stuck like it was glued in). I realized that I might have plucked a live organism from its natural habitat.  Not only was that inconsiderate to the poor gastropod, but it was also illegal in Sanibel.  Oops.

My authorized finds included an atlantic kitten paw; a broad-ribbed carditid that resembled the sort of fan ladies in polite society used to carry; a purplish calico scallop with what looked like small parasitic mouths covering it; and, my favorites, a few small and white spiny jewelboxes.  I'm not the type who can rattle off the scientific names of flowers or trees or birds (I'm reading a novel right now that features a scrappy young heroine who seems to have committed every volume of Handbook of The Birds of the World by heart--she rattles off their names to anyone within earshot).  I'd like to be more informed, know the proper names of things, what each thing does, and where it comes from. 

I'd like to have names for all the objects of the world, as if by having their name I can come to know them.

spiny jewelbox

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Book Review: The Untethered Soul by Michael A. Singer

Thank you to Noetic Books/New Harbinger Publications for the review copy.

On the back cover of this New York Times Bestseller is the question "who are you really?"  Before I read this book, I would have answered, "I am my thoughts, opinions, actions, experiences, and memories" or "I am a 39-year old wife, daughter, aunt, and friend." 

After reading The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself I realize that the answer is more philosophical and complex than all that.  Basically who I am and who you are exists in the seat of our consciousness.  We are the person who observes our thoughts, emotions, actions.

Why is this distinction of self important?  Because, according to author Michael A. Singer, "you not only have the ability to find yourself, you have the ability to free yourself."

I'm attracted to books on mindfulness because in the last few years I've realized that, like so many people, I'm in danger of losing myself in my thoughts.  It occurred to me that I was missing most of my life because my inner thoughts were loud and ceaseless, like some annoying passenger on a five-hour train ride who decides to pass the time by calling everyone she has ever known on her cell phone (which is why I try to get a seat in the Quiet Car as often as possible). I want to put these inner thoughts on mute so I don't miss the experience of being alive.

The Untethered Soul struck a chord in me because it encourages detachment from this never-ending feedback inside our brains.  "The best way to free yourself from this incessant chatter is to step back and view it objectively," Singer writes. "There is nothing more important to true growth than realizing that you are not the voice of the mind--you are the one who hears it."

Singer goes on to say,

If you watch it objectively, you will come to see that much of what the voice says is meaningless. The truth is that most of life will unfold in accordance with forces far outside your control, regardless of what your mind says about it.  In fact, your thoughts have far less impact on this world than you would like to think.  Eventually you will see that the real cause of problems is not life itself.  It's the commotion the mind makes about life that really causes problems.

The idea that we are not our thoughts is sometimes a difficult concept to get one's head around.  But if you can understand this you are poised to enjoy your life much more than you ever could when you were viewing life through the filter of your inner thoughts and perceptions.

I did take issue with some of the sweeping proclamations in the book, such as "Once you reach this state [of letting go] you will never have to worry about anything ever again."  That may be true, but if it is human to suffer, then are we really meant to transcend all our worries all the time?  Wouldn't that make us more like automatons than real people? 

Singer goes on to write, "No matter what happens, you can choose to enjoy the experience.  If they starve you and put you in solitary confinement, just have fun being like Gandhi."  This seems oversimplified and, frankly, kind of ridiculous.  There are certain situations where having fun with adversity would be a baffling response (Can you imagine the Staten Island woman who lost her two sons in Hurricane Sandy "having fun with it?")

But then even the concept of Death is given a positive spin in the book.  If it were not for Death, Singer reasons, we would not appreciate our life and the lives of others.  If you thought that this week was your last week on Earth (or the last time you would talk to your mother or best friend), wouldn't you want to enjoy it (and reach out to that loved one?)  If Death did not exist we would squander our time because there would be no end of it.  So in this regard Death -- or our knowledge of it coming at any time -- becomes a gift.

Overall I responded to Singer's words and how he is able to boil life down to one choice: do you want to be happy or do you not want to be happy?  I don't think he's asking readers to wholly discard our difficult thoughts, emotions, and experiences.  Instead he encourages us to transcend them, to see that who we are is in fact larger than all that.  Depending on your religious beliefs, we are all existing on this constantly-changing, spinning Earth for a short time.  Do you want to give up your one chance to fully appreciate the ride?

The Untethered Soul was not a quick read for me because there were many ideas I wanted to digest slowly.  Like with life I wanted to pay close attention to this book.

Recommended for anyone interested in books on happiness and/or personal/spiritual growth.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Angry at the Herbs

My sad little herbs

Back in the spring I bought a little starter kit for an Italian herb window box at Barnes & Noble.  I never planted anything from seed before and all of my colleagues' talk of gardening had inspired me to take a baby step toward growing my own.  I live in an apartment so I had to keep it small anyway.  Italian herbs seemed a good way to get my hands dirty.

I didn't actually get around to starting my kit until August, which may have been my first mistake. The process was simple enough--you placed the clay pellets on the bottom of the container, soaked the eco-coir disks in water, then spread the resulting soil over the pellets. In this small way you had the opportunity to get your fingers knuckle-deep into soil, and the experience was both messy and primal. I finally had soil beneath my fingernails.

The next step was to sprinkle the tiny seeds each in their own section (sections were marked off with pencil on the side of the container) and cover the whole container with plastic wrap to speed up the germination.

My second mistake was leaving the plastic wrap on a little too long.  Sometimes I have a tendency of wandering away and forgetting things, and in this case, I didn't expect the germination to happen so fast.

It was exciting to see those first green shoots--each one the size of an ant.  I was supposed to put the container somewhere sunny.  Unfortunately our apartment is as dark as a cave.  Our livingroom has two windows and though we don't have any window treatment on them, they still don't shine much natural light into our cellar-like dwelling.  The sunniest room is our office so I placed the container on the windowsill that seemed to attract the most sun.

For a while there was noticeable progress.  The parsley growth were still as tiny as fleas but the oregano and basil were shooting up above the lip of the metal container.  Of course, I was anticipating the lush herbs I would be using in my tomato sauce by the end of the week, but my husband said to be patient--it would take more time.  Patience is not my virtue; in fact I have only a fleeting acquaintance with it.  But I mentally calculated that my herbs would be ready by September.

In October my husband suggested I harvest some of my stubborn little shoots to make room for them to grow exponentially.  They were too small to use but I needed to allow more room in what was becoming an overcrowded tenement.  Although I was pissed off that my shoots were stunted, they were still my little seedlings.  How could I choose which ones to kill and which ones to spare?  I had my own version of Sophie's Choice here, and I didn't want to cut any of them off from a potentially viable life as an additive in my marinara sauce.  But I hadn't come this far just to chicken out--if you wanted to live off the land, I reminded myself, you had to be willing to make the tough sacrifices. 

So I plucked about six shoots from the box.  I cradled them in a soft tissue and laid them to rest in my wastebasket.  One of my cats fished the wadded tissue out of the trash and spread dead seedlings all over my floor, leaving a trail of soil behind her.  Even at the last moment, these aborted herbs were denied a dignified burial.

After the brutal harvesting my herbs just stopped growing.  I watered them and turned the box around so both sides could receive benefit of direct sunlight.  Each time I went to check on them, my herbs remained dwarfed and barely fragrant.

That's when I got angry at my herbs.  I had given them my tender loving care and attention, but they refused to thrive.  They seemed another example of the failed potential I saw in my own life.  I still hadn't written that novel.  I hadn't traveled to the Amalfi Coast.  I hadn't been profiled in O magazine wearing a gown of jewel hues.  I was almost 40 and I couldn't even grow three simple herb plants.

I remember the last time I was unemployed, which was only for a month.  Still, my husband and I were both unemployed at the same time, and this seemed a bad omen.  But I didn't know from bad omens until some goldfish we had rescued from a wedding where they had been centerpieces all died in the same week.  I woke up one morning and found two of them had jumped from their bowls onto the place mats on our kitchen table.

We are doomed, I thought.

I did get a job pretty quickly after that and Mike did, too.  So maybe my superstitions were unfounded.  Still, I would like to see at least a couple of bunches of basil flourish. 

I keep hope alive.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

A slight detour (with recipe)

In the past month I've found myself in a new situation: I'm a stay-at-home housewife.  I say this with tongue planted firmly in cheek, but it could be said that until I find new employment I'm essentially living the life of an old-fashioned housewife.

It makes me appreciate the women's movement that flourished while I was still in diapers. I can ironically call myself a housewife without really meaning it.  Yes, in the absence of new accomplishments at a job I am priding myself on my skills with a toothbrush putting a new shine on the bottom of the bathtub.  I'm cooking Mike dinner almost every night AND a made-from-scratch dessert.  I greet him at the door in an apron, and I usually have on lipstick because I'm one of those women who finds it difficult to get motivated until I have my lipstick on.

But for me it's all about making lemonade out of lemons.  Once I get a new job things will go back to the way they were--simple but adequate dinners at home during the week with some take-out thrown in, essential but cursory house cleaning, etc.  And I can credit the generation before mine for making it possible to choose what role I play in my marriage.  I'm not expected to keep house and serve my husband a cocktail at the end of the day.  But if I want to, it can be fun.  And right now I have to admit--it's kind of fun.

I start my day the way I always have--with a cup of coffee and my bowl of Kashi cereal.  I make Mike lunch, which is usually a peanut butter sandwich because he's a creature of habit.  Lately it's been Peanut Butter & Co's Dark Chocolate Dreams. The radio is tuned in to NPR, and I'm able to catch all the morning talk shows while I'm doing the dishes.  We don't have a dishwasher (well, one that works, anyway) so I wash all the dishes by hand--something that Mike used to do while we were both working.  This way he can (ideally) get to work on time, since it's time-consuming to hand wash all the dishes from my cooking and baking adventures the day before.

About an hour or so is spent on the computer before I take a leisurely shower and get the the dog out for a walk.  When I return, I eat lunch (usually leftovers from the previous night's dinner) and take an hour nap.  I've read about studies that say a short nap around 2PM is good for your health, and at home I'm actually able to do that--making me a more awake and happier person when the nap is over.  Then I clean something and get dinner started.  In between I check my email or Pinterest.

Speaking of Pinterest--that siren--I've been doing simple but absorbing projects I pinned on my DIY board.  Nothing Etsy-worthy, but fun stuff that uses up some clutter in a way that won't offend my "reduce-reuse-recycle" partner.  I made the letter "C" out of corks ("C" for our last names, not for "cork" as Mike suggested), a candle holder made from a cleaned-out cat food can and clothespins, and an autumn centerpiece with real acorns as a filler.

This is where I start to sound a little out-of-my-head.  Am I at summer camp?  Have I gone over to the dark side and become something out of The Stepford Wives?  What happened to my career aspirations?  My desire to make a mark in the world? 

Rest assured, those longings and ambitions are still very much a part of me.  But this is a tough economic time in a volatile job market.  I've been working in the same industry almost non-stop for the last sixteen years.  I could pull my hair out at the roots with worry about my unemployment, or I could take this opportunity to clear my head and do something different for a little while.  You should try a piece of my/Martha's Coconut-Buttermilk Pound Cake. It's to-die-for good.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Would I lie to you?

 Graphic taken from

"So-called vanity sizing is rampant in the clothing industry. Marketers are relabeling large-size clothes as small to give customers the satisfaction of feeling that they still fit into small-size clothing.

"'It's not a question of being lied to," University of Michigan marketing professor Aradhna Krishna said. "It's a question of do you want to be lied to.'"--NPR, "How Food And Clothing Size Labels Affect What We Eat And What We Wear"

In some areas of my life I want the truth--I'd rather read realistic accounts about the dust bowl in the Midwest or the quality of education for poor kids in the Bronx then I would Harry Potter or any of his fantasy ilk.  I listen to National Public Radio because I trust them as a truthful (if left-leaning) source of news.  If I have spinach between my teeth or the hem of my skirt is half-tucked in my underwear, please tell me.

But there are other instances where self-delusion is my go-to coping strategy.  In the last few years, denial about my body size is a lead example. 

It's not something I endlessly drone on about because I think people (and women in particular) are way too obsessed with body weight, awarding themselves when they're under some arbitrary number on the scale, self-denigrating themselves when they're over that number.  If we took our collective anger at our bodies and turned it on the real injustices in this world, we would be more powerful than the Supreme Court on a judgment day.

It doesn't go unnoticed, though, that I've put on more than a few pounds, especially when I'm tugging on a pair of jeans that fit me at one point in this decade and whose zipper has now formed an aversion for its other half.  I have had to put aside several pairs of jeans for "later," that nebulous time when I magically shed the fifty pounds I've gained in the last four years.  My favorite pair of jeans happens to be a pair of "stretch" DKNY jeans that still fit me even though they are a size 10, despite that fact that I've gone up a good 2-4 sizes in pants since I bought them.

Before this precipitous weight gain I was a "skinny."  Black men used to come up to me and tell me to put some "meat on that ass." New York sample sales were a breeze because I could fit into those display size 4s with little effort or prayer.  I'm not saying this to brag--only because I know what it's like to be thin, and it certainly does have its advantages (except when you're given just a slice of seat in a two-seater on the train by a man who thinks that's all you require to be comfortable.) But being thin by no means solves all of your problems, even your body image ones, because if you're prone to insecurity there are always other aspects of your appearance to fret over.

So do I want to be lied to about my current size?  Yes.  I don't mean I want to fit into a size four that's really a size fourteen.  But a little white lie--like a size ten that's really a twelve--that's perfectly acceptable.  I'm not ignorant about my true weight and even if I was, I have my annual doctor's appointment weigh-ins to keep me in the know.  I just don't want clothes shopping to be an ordeal when it usually is one of my greatest, frivolous pleasures.  If sizes were realistic I wouldn't buy a smaller size--anyone who has watched even one episode of What Not to Wear (or what my husband affectionately dubs "What Not to Watch") knows that wearing ill-fitting clothing makes you look heavier.  But I wouldn't be happy about it, and if I was in self-protective mode (denial), I'd probably blame the label for making impossibly skinny clothes, thus proving the marketers' point.

So lie to me...a little.  Not a "The Emperor has no clothes on" lie, but perhaps the "you look fine" lie  your husband tells you when you're late and he's shooing you out the door.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Manual for the Middle Aged

Cartoon by Ron Plath

This weekend I was in White Birch Books in North Conway, looking for a book even though I don't need a book (I'm always buying new books; I'll be on my deathbed ordering from Chronicle). I like to support bookstores because its one of the few areas in my life where my actions are in line with my beliefs (for areas in my life where I suffer from cognitive dissonance, see: loves animals but always orders red meat in restaurants). I refuse to shop on Amazon unless it's the villain of last resort. If I could conjure up new brick-and-mortar bookstores, I'd put one in every inner-city and in every medium-sized town. Who would support them? If you build it, the readers will come...

Anyway, I was excited about my first find--an advanced reading copy of The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth for $3. I'm a terrible hypocrite because part of my job is sending out ARCs to potential book reviewers and I'm careful to only send them to people who I think will actually REVIEW them. But then I buy someone else's ARCs for half-price at The Strand or at White Birch Books, thereby supporting reviewers who sell their ARCs and pocket the money (also see: eBay). At least White Birch uses the profits from ARC sales to fund author events.

But $3 isn't going to keep the store open through another summer, so I looked around for something else. I spotted a book of essays called 40 Things To Do When You Turn 40. I almost didn't pick it up. There was something embarrassing about it, like finding your parents' old copy of The Joy of Sex and seeing all those pencil drawings of naked couples with hippie hair and mustaches. This was the kind of book I thought I'd never buy because I was never going to be that old.

There is something compelling about lists, though (see: this blog post). And at least it wasn't titled 40 Things You Should Have Done By the Time You Turn 40, You Loser. 40 Things to Do When You Turn 40 sounds more like a wise instruction manual, a test prep for the future self, a view into those uncertain years I never fantasized about when I was a kid because my imagination only went as far as age 32. Would any of these 40 things make me happier than I am now (see: signs of Dysthymia include low energy, oversleeping, increased appetite--especially for cold cereal and 2nd Street Creamery Vanilla #148 , which is heaven in a pint)?

Reader, I bought the book. The woman who sold it to me looked like she might be in her 40's so I didn't have to slip the book under a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey.

I'll share some of the ideas in the book on here since I know a handful of people who are turning 40 along with me next year (see: most of my friends from high school). I may even do some of the things and talk about it. Unless it involves affirmations or letting your hair go grey.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

A hoarder's lament

Example of drawing on rocks. Photo was collected from this site:

My husband and I are waist-deep in water. I press my feet together like claws to grip what feels like a rock, then kick them upward to try and grab my prize.

A mussel.

I'm looking for stones at the bottom of Lovewell Pond, where we are vacationing this week. I figure the stones on the pond floor will be smoother and rounder then the jagged and broken ones you can easily collect on the shoreline. My husband dutifully dons his mask and snorkel and goes searching underwater, something I can't do because I might lose a contact and I didn't bring any spares.

He resurfaces with another mussel, half-covered in green gunk.

"Can you eat them?" I ask, thinking of the delicious steamed mussels in garlic-butter sauce we ate at a hole-in-the-wall seafood shack in Portland years ago.

"I don't think so. If you could, people would have taken them all by now."

That was true. Free seafood would not be left alone for long. Like coronet-shaped seashells and green and blue seaglass, treasures for the taking tend to go quickly. Look at me--I'm seeking to steal off with ROCKS.

Not any rock, but one that is light enough and smooth enough to draw on. It's a project I had seen on Pinterest. As I've mentioned before, that site has sucked up more than its fair share of my free time. I spend more time on that site than I do actually cooking the recipes or making the toilet-paper roll projects that I pin. But I am on vacation now and thought I'd try that simple project I had recently pinned of drawing on rocks. It might sound like a stupid way to spend my vacation time, but it was better than going into credit card debt at the nearby outlet mall. Right?

There is something in us that seeks to collect. We collect names on our Facebook and LinkedIn pages, foreign cities we've been to, restaurants where we've dined, books and music we like (though sadly as these collections become digitized, they're not as easy to show off to your friends), pictures, even spiritual acumen. It seems that there is never enough in our lives--we're always searching for that next thing to make our collections complete.

But this habit of collection comes at a cost: of time, money, living space, and especially peace-of-mind. It's hard to relax and just be content with where you are or what you already own without wondering what else is around the bend. I spend most of my vacations thinking about what I'm going to eat, do, read, buy, watch next. There is little time left for actual relaxation. If I'm lying in the hammock staring at the starlit-sky I'm also half-thinking about the leftover apple pie in the cabin, or what I'm going to do the next day. Even when I sleep I invariably have some kind of consumerist dream where I'm wandering around the same store that I dreamed about the week before. This is surely a first-world problem, but it's still something to stop and think about.

My first attempt at rock drawing. Think I'll try using paint next time.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

You're nobody special

"Living in fear is recognizing that life offers no guarantees but insisting otherwise. Despite the facts we are adamant that we are special, somehow immune from life's uncertain demands."--Michael Carroll, from Fearless at Work: Timeless Teachings for Awakening Confidence, Resilience, and Creativity in the Face of Life's Demands

About a month ago, I heard a story on the radio about a commencement speaker whose speech had gone viral. The graduation was at Wellesley High School in a tony suburban town outside of Boston. The speaker was historian David McCullough's son, David Jr. The topic? None of you are special.

They played an audio clip from the speech. David McCullough's son (who, my husband quipped, probably never felt special because he was always being referred to as "David McCullough's son") made the point that these high school seniors and others graduating across the country, all harbored the feeling of being special because they grew up in a society of "Everybody wins! You all get a trophy!"

Contrary to what your soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh grade report card, despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur, that nice Mister Rogers and your batty Aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you… you’re nothing special.

In the clip the audience titters at points. I imagine that when they left the auditorium, losing their black gowns to show off the suits and ties and Lily Pulitzer dresses they were wearing to have dinner at Cafe Mangal or Alta Strada with their parents, they probably laughed about the weird speech, asking each other, who invited that guy? Why couldn't we have gotten David McCullough?

I imagine this because when I was 18 I thought I was special. Despite being nerdy in high school and not going to any of my proms, I still felt special in other ways. I thought I would be a bestselling author. My parents even placed an ad in my senior yearbook saying that they looked forward to seeing my book on the shelf at Waldenbooks. They mentioned that particular store because I was a bookseller at one in the Monmouth Mall (Waldenbooks, a subsidiary of Borders Group, no longer exists so sadly that particular dream never came to pass). I had had some early successes--two poems accepted by Seventeen magazine, an acceptance letter to an exclusive summer program for NJ writers. I was bound for publishing glory.

And isn't that what we all think when we're young? Things invariably do get better after high school (unless you spent too much time in the tanning salon like the girl who sat behind me in homeroom. She must look like a Florida retiree right now. Or that retiree's leather purse). But they also get real. That's when you start to agree with the adage that if everyone is special than no one is. Because I'm sure everyone else from my high-achieving high school thought they were special, too.

If you're nothing special, it's not actually a terrible thing. It means you can accept yourself as you are. If you want to try and be successful at something, great, but if you fail it's OK, because if you're not special then no one expects anything from you. If you do succeed than people are usually happy for you. You don't have to be special to get an essay published in a newspaper, for instance, which means if you send out more pieces for publication and they're not accepted, it's no biggie. Just send more pieces to more magazines.

One of my writing teachers at Governor's School told me that he thought I had the discipline to be a successful writer. I remember being slightly miffed that he didn't say I had the talent. Discipline sounds so boring, like making your bed. Talent, on the other hand, sparkled like a 4-karat diamond on a celebrity's outstretched finger. I wanted to sparkle, and instead his only compliment was that I worked hard.

But now I get it. Talent is a wonderful thing, but it doesn't mean anything if you're not using it. If you're told your a gifted writer or violin player or baseball pitcher it's easy to expect success without really trying. It's the work that matters, the effort and the time and yes, the failures, that make someone successful. And even then it may not be enough to be a bestselling author. It might just amount to a few published pieces over a lifetime. You're not going to be remembered the way Jane Austen and Emily Dickinson, or even, god help us, Danielle Steel will be remembered. But you'll have spent your life working at your craft, not resting on your laurels.

Monday, June 18, 2012


 I went to visit my parents for Father's Day this past weekend.  On Saturday they had invited friends of theirs to come over for a BBQ.  I had heard quite a bit about my father's friend Michael and his wife Angela, and their two daughters, Ludovica, 16, and Martina, 8. How gentile and intelligent Michael was.  What a great cook Angela was.  How beautiful and sweet their older daughter was and what a spark plug their younger daughter could be.  Despite being an irrational reaction, I sometimes bristle at the sound of my parents heaping praise on someone else's children.  It must be leftover from my insecure teenage years where any mention of another young girl's good looks or disposition would have me sulking for days, thinking, why don't they say those things about me?  They wish that other kid was theirs.

But when my husband and I met Michael and his family, I could see that my parents were right.  Michael was quiet and thoughtful.  Angela spoke very good English for someone who came over from Italy when she was 41.  She kept apologizing that she couldn't help with serving or clearing because she had to keep her swollen, post-op foot elevated. 

The older daughter, Ludovica, was lovely--tall and slim, with chestnut brown hair and the olive skin so many people try (and fail) to achieve with spray-on tans and Jergen's Natural Glow lotion.  She reminded me of the oldest daughter in the Von Trapp family--Louisa--from The Sound of Music--almost an adult, but still with a foothold in childhood, I am 16 going on 17, and all that. My husband later said, I didn't think a teenager existed who was so nice.  I kept looking for the chink in the armor and there wasn't any!  

But the family member who I liked the most was quite different from the rest.  She was a chatty, attention-seeking, boastful little girl with strands of stringy, long hair that she would often chew at when she wasn't holding forth as master of ceremonies at my parents' party.

When I get older, I'm going to own an Canadian Eskimo Dog.  

She said this with the authority that I might use when saying I refuse to argue with you anymore.

It turned out that a Canadian Eskimo Dog was just one of the many breeds she had listed on her Nook, under the assertive title "Dogs I'll Own."

Italian greyhond (sic)
French bulldog
German pincher (sic)

Are you going to own ALL of those dogs, I asked.  NOOO, she replied, as if she couldn't believe I would even bother to ask such a silly question.  These were just options and more breeds would be added before she was satisfied.

I was flattered silly when Martina decided that out of all the guests that night, she liked me best.  She would follow me around, sit next to me on the couch, and ask me what I was doing and where I was going when I got up to use the bathroom.  I was pleased to be chosen, like she had picked me to be her partner on the school bus trip and share her watermelon Jolly Ranchers.

We watched funny animal videos on her Nook, and then she switched back to her electronic lists. Another of her lists was BFFs.  But there were no names, just the header.  I asked her if she didn't have at least one best friend (an absolute essential for girls if they wanted to get through the worst of their school years.  I always had a best friend, even in sixth grade when many of my other friends abandoned me in various tactless ways.) She said no, all the girls her age were pushy and snotty.  She stuck her hands on her hips and sashayed around with her nose pointing to the sky.  New Haven, CT is apparently home to all manner of rich and snotty fourth-graders.

But the idea that she didn't have a BFF didn't seem to phase Martina. She was the kind of kid who didn't hide the fact that she was teacher's pet--getting quarters for knowing things like which animal stalks its prey the fastest? (the mantis shrimp--who knew that, besides Martina?).  She liked American Girl dolls and was definitely girly, but also liberally used the words "poop" and "butt" in ways that suddenly made those words the funniest in the human language. She cracked me up.

They say that one of the reasons people have children is so they can relive their childhood through their kids.  But I don't think that inclination is strictly the province of parents.  I find that the kids that I like the best are the ones who encompass the same qualities that I did at their age.  Is this vanity? Egotism? Or is it a wish to still have those qualities that made us so confident and fearless once upon a time?

Martina wasn't a simulacrum of me as a child, but she was close.  The bright, flowery sundress, the way she talked like an adult yet made silly faces like a child.  Her matter-of-factness.  Her hamminess.  All of those were traits that I had at age 8, and that I still have, hidden away so deep behind layers of adult conformity and fear that I don't believe they'll see the light of day again.

But as much as I laughed at Martina's antics, she also exhausted me.  At one point when it seemed that I would be babysitting for the rest of the night instead of relaxing with my glass of Prosecco after a long week, I slipped upstairs and barricaded myself in my old bedroom, which my parents have changed into a study.  I worried that when I returned she would no longer look for me, that I would never be her BFF.  But I treasure my quiet moments to myself.  And she's not my daughter.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Looking for a few good men and women

I attended a Volunteer Appreciation Dinner last night at an American Legion in Newton, MA.  Springwell organizes this every year, but this is the first one I've attended.  Every once in a while it feels good to know that what you do is appreciated, although I already know that my client and friend Linda appreciates me.  She always says so in the birthday and Christmas cards she gives me.

Because I've been volunteering with Linda for 3 1/2 years, Wendy, my coordinator from Springwell, asked me to give a speech about my experience.  I culled this from various blog entries I've written and I share it here as an inducement for anyone who has a little free time they'd like to use wisely and for a good cause.  If you do have free time (or can find some--we're all busy), I urge you to try volunteering--with Springwell or one of the many reputable organizations out there. For more information, click here.

Hello, I’m Jennifer Campaniolo and I’ve been volunteering with Springwell since December 2008.  I'm what they call a "friendly visitor" (a friend asked me if they were looking for "unfriendly visitors," the kind who arrive 1/2 hour late, upturn the cat's litter box, and throw their host's purse out the window. I said I didn't think so.)

The woman I visit once a week, Linda, is in her mid-sixties, and as far as I know she has been on disability her entire adult life, and has lived in various Section 8 housing.  She was adopted as a baby and most of her family is either dead now or out-of-touch.  She started having trouble with her legs when she was young, and perhaps out of fear of what people would think or just plain denial, her family acted as if nothing was wrong, and according to Linda, never addressed the problem. The likely-treatable condition became her life sentence.

Springwell does many things to help Linda, and my weekly visits are the least of them.  Because she lives alone and is disabled, Linda has groceries delivered every Sunday and a woman comes each Wednesday to do laundry and light housework. These are all services that Springwell provides.  For someone who lives alone and doesn't go out much, every interaction she has is an important part of her day.

My friendship with Linda is not the stuff of Tuesdays with Morrie, but she is always happy to see me, which puts me at ease. My one other experience volunteering with senior citizens was with a 96 year-old woman in a rehabilitation hospital in New York City who would sometimes ignore me when I came into the room, although that could have been her bad hearing.  But sitting facing away from me on her institution-issued hospital bed, even her back seemed hostile. 

Linda, on the other hand, smiles at me when she meets me at her door. I ring her buzzer around 7PM and when I tell her who it is, she cheerfully answers "OKAY!" She meets me at the door wearing either pink or blue scrubs. She doesn't work in a hospital, she just finds them comfy. I greet her cat Maxine while Linda goes to get our two cans of seltzer water.  Every week I bring a snack for us to share, usually hummus and celery or guacamole and chips.

I thought that when I came to visit her we would play Scrabble or watch old movies or read to each other or listen to soothing music.  But she wasn't interested in any of that.  She wanted to talk.  Linda likes to talk about her love of cats (her own cat plus the many stuffed cats and cat paraphernalia with which she surrounds herself), and enjoys showing me whatever new item she has bought from a catalog or that her neighbor found for her in the basement where residents put stuff they no longer need.  

Another of her favorite topics is the arrangement of her furniture. I can always count on her to ask me if the desk lamp would look better on the table near the front door or next to the waterless electric fish tank. Would it change the aesthetic of the room to swap the display case of beanie babies with the low book shelf containing all her Dr. Phil books and John Denver CDs?

I don't think she really listens to my response. She just likes asking. Rearranging her apartment is something to do, a challenge, a never-ending project.

Because of her disability, Linda has never held a full-time job. She once volunteered at Mass General Hospital, assembling surgical tools for doctors. But that ended when she had trouble getting in and out of Boston on time.

I can see why Linda is endlessly moving her stuff around, why she changes her phone company as frequently as her bed sheets, why she quickly returns items she orders from catalogs and goes back and forth between a Verizon cell phone and a Jitterbug. These are the otherwise mundane tasks that keep her occupied and engaged. Granted, changing phone plans is one of many chores that busy people dread. Who wants to spend an afternoon talking by phone to customer service? Linda does. And if she gets a good rep on the phone it means the difference between a bad day and a great one.

"Some people have jobs to think about." She once said to me in a moment of astute self-awareness, "All I have to think about all day is my furniture and things."

When we're talking, I try to be fully present for her. I look her straight in the eye to let her know I'm interested, even when she repeats herself, which is often. Through my visits with Linda, I'm learning patience. I'm learning to listen, with no expectations or agenda of my own. I have to remember that it's her life, and I'm just there to be a witness.

We all need a witness for our lives.  Although I still fill out a time sheet for Springwell, I consider Linda a friend and assume she feels the same.  I typically leave her apartment in a good mood. Though on paper we don't have a lot in common--she doesn't like reading, watching movies, or cooking, for example, and I am not a fan of John Denver or Pillow Pets--we still find plenty to talk about and there's hardly a moment of silence when we get together.

And let's face it--there's also that little glow of the do-gooder that we all experience when we volunteer or commit some random act of kindness.

It's really true that you can get out of volunteering as much (or more) than you put in.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Sanctity of Sox

Photo Credit:

"The peace that comes from peaceful surroundings is not
          true peace.
     Only in the peace obtained in the midst of activity
     Is found the true sphere of one's original nature.
The pleasure that comes from pleasurable surroundings is
          Not true pleasure.
     Only with the pleasure obtained in the midst of
Can one see the true movements of the mind." 

          --From Master of the Three Ways: Reflections of a Chinese Sage on Living a Satisfying Life, by Hung Ying-ming, translated by William Scott Wilson

I've been getting back into walking lately. This comes after one handlebar-gripping turn on Cosette, my bicycle, one recent Friday.  Inspired by my husband and the fellow bike commuters I work with--who still manage to get into work earlier than me, looking fresh-faced and energetic like they just stepped off the set of a commercial for multigrain breakfast cereal--I announced on a Thursday night that I intended to start riding my bike to work.  But the reality of riding in the same lane as cabs and trucks, snaking my way to Horticultural Hall where I work, and nearly getting run over when I crossed a lane of traffic just when the light changed--and those cars hurtling toward me were not slowing down, what was a 38 year-old cyclist in a skirt doing in the middle of the street anyway--changed my mind about the pleasures of tooling around the city on my pretty bike with the baguette-ready basket as a means to get around.   

So I went back to my old standby.  I walk for the same reasons many people walk--for exercise, for the head-clearing effects, for the simplicity of it.  But there is another force that I can't leave out, one that makes walking the best option...really, the ONLY option.

The Green Line of the "T" has always been one commuter away from a sardine can, but lately it seems like it's getting worse.  I would console myself with the thought that the college students will be going back to their parents' houses in May, but even that offers little relief, because overlapping with the end of the Spring term is the start of Red Sox season.  To fans this is a blessed time of year, one of the most holy after Patriots season.  Another year of sunny afternoons at Fenway, drinking $8 beers whilst having the person in the bleacher behind you spill their $8 beer all over the back of your favorite shirt (if I was paying $8 for a Sam Adams, I'd hold that cup steadier than a surgeon's scalpel to avoid ANY of it spilling.) Or if it's raining, drinking $4 beers at any number of bars in the Fenway area, getting beer spilled on your shoes.

For me, this is the beginning of the seasonal onslaught of red t-shirts, ballcaps, jackets, earrings, watches, go cups, oversized finger forms, and every other matter of kitchsy item that can be emblazoned with those pair of white socks on a red background.  The people who wear this fan flair travel in packs and don't know (or have forgotten since the same time last year) that the doors on both sides of the train car don't open at Kenmore Square, so there is always a lot of pushing in a train car that is already filled to bursting with people and their bags, ordinary folks who have just ended their workday and want only to get home, where no one is yelling,

"It's this stop, Jon! That door don't open.  C'mere, I'm holdin' the door far ya."

Why couldn't they segregate the Red Sox fans from the rest of us non-baseball nuts?  Give them their own little red shuttle bus shaped like a pair of socks that would have interior soundproofing so the people on the street wouldn't be subject to the cacophony of a bunch of white people yelling over each other while downing their contraband hooch.  Better yet, keeping in mind how the city would burn down to the ground in riots if they closed Fenway Park, find a way to pick up and move the beloved baseball stadium to some outer suburb--maybe close down a few Walmarts while they're at it--and plop it down in an area that doesn't even touch the city borders.  They did that with The Kinsale Irish Pub, why can't they do it with a sports arena?

Of course, to say any of this while in Boston, to even whisper it under your breath, is against the law.  If a Bostonian heard that I had no interest whatsoever in the Green Dragon, or Monster, or whatever it's called (who cares, it's just a wall, right?) and that I wouldn't go to a game if someone handed me a pair of free tickets for seats located right behind home plate, I'd be carted away by the Boston Sports Authorities (BSA) and thrown into a gulag in Springfield. 

To avoid the Red Plague I might hail a cab, but it would be faster to ride on the shell of a sea turtle than trust my luck in a cab stuck in stadium traffic.  One time I tried to take a cab home and it cost me $18 to go six blocks.  I ended up jumping out of the cab after paying the driver so I could walk the rest of the way home.  Meanwhile my cabbie was shaking his head, wondering how he was going to extricate his cab from the coarse snarl of cars.

To avoid the whole scene I simply walk home.  I mark all the home game days on my small Pema Chodron calendar hanging on the bulletin board at my work desk, and on those days when there's an "X" I put on my sneakers (or if I've forgotten my sneakers, I take mincing steps in my work shoes, coming home with blisters on the soles of my feet.  Believe me, it's worth the physical pain.)

My husband says there are something like 81 home games from mid-April through early October, and that's if the Sox don't make the playoffs.  But think to hard to yourself, "Please let them lose!"and the BSA might hang you by your feet in the gulag. 

So I keep my annoyance to myself, which is the way of survival for most city dwellers trying to find their own patch of peace and quiet among the crowds.

And I consider the bonus of toned calves just in time for bare-legged season. 

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Character study

"Rather than obsessively following states of mind such as anger, fear, or grasping, states that will bring harm to ourselves and others, we can let go as though dropping a burden. We are indeed burdened by carrying around habitual unskillful reactions. As wisdom reveals to us that we don't need these reactions, we can abandon them."--Sharon Salzberg, from Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness

Every town has at least one "character."  If you're in New York City, there are too many to take notice, but in Brookline there is one particular woman I'm thinking of.  She's an older lady--maybe in her 70's--with a well-coiffed head of short white hair.  She is usually trailing a rolling suitcase behind her, or she's got a very vibrant-pink-colored Jansport backback on as if she were on her way to go hiking in The Whites.

I see her walking in my neighborhood, but I've also seen her get off at the same "T" stop as me at Heinz Convention Center in Boston.  Recently, I saw her get on the train as I was heading home for the day.  She sat right next to me.  I have a thing about not looking at people for more than 1/2 second because I don't want to seem like I'm nosy or rude.  This is a problem for someone who likes to write about human nature.  I did notice she was eating old-fashioned gumdrops from a bag and that she smelled of fish.

The reason I say she's a character is that whenever I run into her, it's her voice that I hear first.

"Get out of the road, you jackass, don't you see people are crossing!"  

"No turning on a red light, ass****.  Who taught you to drive?"

"Hey, Buddy, slow the fu*k down!  You're going to mow someone over."

I should add that most of the time that she's yelling at traffic, she's not actually crossing the street or in the road at all. Either she's a self-appointed crossing guard for the residents of Coolidge Corner, or at one time she was the victim of a hit-and-run and now she's the vigilante of automobile safety.

I do wonder about this woman.  Most of the time when I see other people react to her, they either step aside with a worried glance or they laugh.  I understand both reactions, even though as I get older I grow more empathetic of people who stray from the norm and wince when I see them mocked. 

What I wonder is, what really makes her so angry?  And is her anger only reserved for this one occasion?  She doesn't appear bedraggled enough to be chronically homeless.  Does she have a family?  Anyone who looks out for her?  Tries to get her to calm down, even smile once in a while?  Her anger--like many people's--is palpable and contagious.  If I'm around an angry person not only do my defenses go up, but my blood pressure increases and I start thinking about how satisfying it would be to tell someone off (which I rarely do because confrontation nauseates me.)

Some women fear being a bag lady when they're old, even if they are currently well-off.  But it seems just as troubling to be an angry old lady, mad at a world that has changed too much, too fast.

Or perhaps she's always been angry and never learned how to manage it, and so now her anger is magnified, making her into less of a character and more of a caricature of the curmudgeonly old woman.

It seems to me that if I want to grow into a happy old woman, now is the time for me to learn how to let things go.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Happiness is the sum of each moment

Photo still from the film The Descendants

"'Well, that's what life is — this collection of extraordinarily ordinary moments," [Alexander] Payne says. "We just need to pay attention to them all. Wake up and pay attention to how beautiful it all is.
'If you were falling in love and you could go back in time and relive a day and see the banal things you did that you'd forgotten about, you'd weep, looking at that day,' Payne says. 'Somewhat dramatic things happen, and you don't even always notice them — that's what life is.'
Those moments, unless you write them down or photograph them, drift off and away. They just go by."--From "The Extraordinary, Ordinary Life of Alexander Payne" by Susan Stamberg, via 

My husband and I were walking to Shaw's to do our regular Sunday morning grocery run.  We like to go early in the morning, both of us unshowered, in sweatshirts and sneakers, my static-prone, fine hair looking like it's lost its way and is flying in multiple directions.  Once inside the store we're relieved to see plenty of carts lined up waiting for us, carts that actually move forward when you push them rather than side to side.  The few customers who are already there are mostly loners--middle-aged men in hooded sweatshirts to hide their unshaven faces, a college student in a BU tee buying a tub of skim milk, a woman with a small child negotiating about a package of cookies.  The loudest sounds in the store come from a trio of Haitian men, likely brothers, who laugh with the gusto of people who are completely free and comfortable expressing themselves when they are together.

My husband has brought The Wizard, a pocket adding machine like the sort a 1950's housewife would use.  It's hard to tell sometimes if he really enjoys being eccentric or if he just relishes the look of bewilderment that's so frequently on my face.  Actually it doesn't have to be one or the other.

We are shopping using only cash and The Wizard will help us stick to our budget.  Of course the electronic calculators on our cell phones that we carry around anyway would do just as good a job, but that would be less fun for him.  He is a fountain pen user.  He has a collection of old-fashioned, double-edged safety razors.  He enjoys reading every plaque on every statue in the park.

Although I predict a fight over whether or not we really need to buy both a sheep's milk cheese and a cow's milk cheese, or whether it's really worth buying two boxes of premium crackers to use a $1.00 off coupon,  we actually do pretty well.  Unaccustomed to looking for the price of an item--my old style being, hey, this looks yummy, I'm throwing it in the cart before I even look for a price tag because who cares how much it costs, I want it--I find that we've spent $60 in the first aisle of the store alone.  But at least we have a cart half-filled with fresh produce and meat and cheese, rather than three kinds of jarred pasta sauce, a $20 bottle of Balsamic Vinegar, and Nutello.

In fact, in our attempt to keep under our spending limit, we skip most of the middle of the store, where the majority of the processed foods live, and pick up milk and eggs on the outer periphery.  There is a nice buzz of cooperation between us, and when we walk out of the store, me pointing out that we went $8 under budget, I know that my husband is happy, which makes me happy, and it gets better when I take the extra money and buy Monkey Bread with Caramelized Walnuts at Clear Flour bakery to have with breakfast.  At $6.75, it feels like a splurge, when normally I can't walk out of that place without spending less than $20 on heavenly carbs.

Later at the kitchen table, which is half covered with sections of the Globe, we are each tearing off pieces of the sticky bread and licking the cinnamon sugar off our fingers.  It is a MOMENT.  Nothing life-altering or euphoric, just a MOMENT when all is peaceful. My husband says, "I like Sunday breakfast with you."  Right back at you, babe.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Mindful Cooking

Photo: The "cheesy" snowman appetizer I made on New Year's Eve, from an idea I found on Pinterest

"The greatest mistake you can make in life is to be continually fearing you will make one."--Elbert G. Huddard

Last spring I started a family recipe binder.  I bought a stack of clear insert sheets, and divided them by categories like "Eggs and cheese," "Shrimp and meat" (shrimp is the only fish I can stomach), "Vegetarian" (that section is the thickest because Mike is a veggie and a good guinea pig for my cooking lessons). The rule is my family recipe binder can only include dishes I have made and liked (or that would be good with some minor tweaks).  On each one I write the date and make notes about the process and results ("Make this one when tomatoes are in season" or "Mike LOVED it but it gave him gas").

The recipes themselves are from all over--stained index cards in my mother's handwriting for dishes I remember having as a kid, like Lentil Stew and Chicken Cacciotore, which she wrote out for me before I left home.  My own writing on torn notebook paper, some sheets dating back to my college years when I used to go to the library and copy down recipes from hardcover cookbooks I couldn't afford to buy.  Lots of pages ripped from magazines, dating back to 1994, when my job at the University Bookstore included managing the magazine rack. When a new issue came in, I was to pull the old one off the shelf and rip the cover off in order to mail the unsold covers to the distributor.  I'd take topless copies of Eating Well and Food & Wine back to my dorm room, ripping out recipes I planned to follow once I had more than a hot plate and one aluminum pot.

Photo: Chicken with cherry tomatoes, onions, and grits

Back then I was eager to have my own kitchen because cooking dinner was something very adult and sophisticated.  I didn't see it as domestic drudgery, like cleaning the toilet and washing the windows.  Cooking was dinner parties, family meals around the table, creating new tastes and experimenting, sharing my love of food with my guests or partner.

 Photo: Shrimp stir fry with shiitakes and snow peas

What I love about cooking (and baking, although that tends to be a more exact science) is that I generally don't worry about making a mistake.  It's one of the few areas of my life where it doesn't bother me if I screw up a step because I usually find a way to fix it so the dish is still edible, or even unaffected.  I think it's this kitchen confidence that keeps me from second-guessing myself.  Cooking and baking are fun, they're creative, and you usually get an end result that makes people happy. 

Photo: Mini lasagne in pastry shells

I find that unless I've had a particularly tiring day, even cooking on weekdays can end things on a good note.  Yes, it means laundry has to wait until tomorrow night and maybe the pile of dishes will sit overnight.  But cooking and baking are two of my favorite ways to unwind, especially on a cold winter night when you feel lucky to be indoors, warm, and well-fed.  You have to find the things that engage you in this life--and then have the courage to pursue them without worrying about being perfect. 

Photo: Coconut chocolate-chunk muffins (made with coconut and rye flours)

It's good to have a creative outlet where you aren't expecting to win anything, or make money off of your effort, or impress strangers (yes, I am sharing pictures of my cooking and baking online, but that's simply because I love looking at pictures of food and yes, I'm proud of what I make).  I almost always follow recipes so it's not like I'm coming up with all new dishes destined to win a cook-off.  I do slip in the odd substitution here and there, and by doing that I learn what flavors compliment each other and how I can work with a recipe when I don't have all the ingredients readily at hand.

Photo: Chicken with potatoes, green olives, and lemon

I was surprised when I heard from my mother that most of the family members in my generation on my father's side, Italian-American women and men living in a city where just a few blocks away there are stores carrying every imaginable ingredient, never learned to cook from their older relatives (or simply don't bother).  My great aunts and uncles, my grandparents--they all cooked amazing Italian fare everyday, but these days my cousins are more likely to order in Chinese or serve cold cuts at social gatherings.  I don't understand how they could grow up with such a bounty of home-cooked food always available to them and not want to replicate this for their own families. 

Mike grew up with home cooked meals every night, but like most kids he also had a taste for junk food.  Recently, after he heard that Hostess (and the New England division, Drake's) was going bankrupt, he started searching the snack aisles of every convenience store, bodega (or as New Englander's curiously call them, Spa), and supermarket in Kendall Square trying to find his childhood favorite, Funny Bones, those chocolate-covered peanut butter and devil's food logs.

Growing up I wasn't allowed to eat Twinkies or Devil Dogs, though inexplicably my mother did allow me to have Hawaiian Punch and Chips Ahoy cookies, which are no paragons of health. For some reason it was anything Hostess-branded (including Wonder Bread) that was off-limits to me.  Of course she couldn't stop me from eating whatever was offered at the slumber parties hosted by laxer mothers, or at the convenience store five blocks away that my friend Heather and I would frequent, gripping our weekly allowance in our fists.

Thing is when I did have my first Hostess cupcake, I wasn't blown away.  In fact I was disappointed in the off-taste of the creamy filling, which I thought would taste more like the fresh whipped-cream my mother made.  The little frosted donuts and the coffee cakes were pretty good, but nothing special.  I far preferred my mother's homemade cookies.

Yesterday Mike found his Funny Bones at our local Shaw's.  Wanting to see if the coffee cakes were better than I remembered, and, more importantly, wanting to share in his nostalgia, I picked up a box.  I felt like a felon placing the artificial cakes in the cart.  I didn't want anyone to see them and say to the person next to them,"Wow, that couple isn't discriminating about what they eat, are they?"

When we got home and unloaded the groceries, I opened the box of coffee cakes and slid out a plastic-wrapped two-pack.  They were smaller than I remembered, but most things are when you're a grown up.  They tasted OK--sweet, but not cloyingly so, and moister than I was expecting (of course, they contain "stabilizing agents," whatever those are).  Mike savored his first Funny Bone, which he said was just as tasty as he remembered and a little taste of his childhood.

So when I told him that I was planning to bake brownies, he said, "What for, we have the Drake's cakes."

"I want to try this new recipe in Cook's Illustrated," I said.  "They've perfected the classic brownie.  Anyway, the Drake's will last for weeks and weeks. Isn't it Twinkies and cockroaches that can outlive us in a Nuclear attack?"  Maybe that's something else I like about making something from scratch--it's a delicious moment in time best enjoyed the moment it's served.

Photo: Cook's Illustrated brownies