Sunday, October 31, 2010

I'm afraid...

It’s said we live in a fearful age.  Not walking to school, not taking candy from strangers (even on Halloween!), and not riding bikes in the early fall dusk are considered normal parental restrictions. In many ways, I was quite ‘ahead of the times’ in my upbringing. My parents were older when they had me, and some of my earliest memories are memories of being told ‘no.’ As in ‘no, you may not go swimming in your friend’s pool,’ ‘no, you may not ride your bike past the driveway,’ ‘no, you may not sell Girl Scout cookies door-to-door, even if I accompany you.’ I recently found a book that my mother used to read to me at bedtime—not a storybook, but a medical book that had illustrations of what you should do in case you accidentally were drowning or trapped in a blazing building. The little dying stick figures were quite funny, I must say!
Although this one REALLY creeps me out as a cyclist
 Flickr: Salim Virji

While it’s good to be prepared, I also remember that whenever I did finally win whatever argument I had about going away to sleep-a-way camp or something like that, I’d always find myself so paralyzed with all of the fears my mother had rehearsed with me—and my own anxieties—I couldn’t enjoy myself. ‘Be careful’ was so internalized that, like cancerous cells, the semi-legitimate fears (abduction and falling off the monkey bars) began to breed other fears. Soon I grew afraid of the dark, of escalators, of walking up and down stairs, of the murderous powers of see-saws…some parents have their children confront such fears. In my family, such caution was seen as an admirable trait, and they simply bought me a nightlight.

The fears my parents had were born from pure love, and a less anxious child might not have been so paralyzed by them. But my parents had grown up in uncertain, frightening environments, and had naturally anxious personalities as well.  You can see how when parents who are scared, and who know the world is a scary place have a naturally scared child…a ‘perfect storm’ of anxiety is the result…

That’s why I cringe every time someone says “be careful,” because I know I am never more at risk when I am careful, when I duck and anticipate something, expecting to get hurt.  That’s when the baseball comes down and cracks me in the face, because I was too afraid to reach out my hands and catch it.

Sometimes I'm so afraid that being fearful has become hard-wired into my body there is no way I can overcome all the experiences I've lost to fear...

Yet as an adult, I’ve done things that on paper make me sound brave. I’ve been to communist countries, moved to cities where I knew no one, and lived in apartments in neighborhoods where the sidewalks were crunchy with discarded condoms and needles. But I know how fragile my persona of bravery really is...

Flickr: DianthusMoon
Of course, taking silly risks with no emotional payoff is just that—silly, like playing in traffic. But taking risks that make life worth living—like running six miles, riding a horse, traveling spontaneously to a strange city, going to a party where you don’t know anyone—for me, at least, seem like an essential part of growing, learning, and changing.  How awful to look back on a day and to think you just spent it at your computer, without changing at all, in your mind, body, or soul!

Life is a bit like Trick-or-Treat—taking a risk, knocking on a strange door, and hoping against hope you get something wonderful and sweet.  And even if you get nothing, rejection isn’t as awful or as scary as you anticipate.

Flickr: elana's pantry
Well, unless you get coconut.  Now, that's scary stuff! But that is the subject of another post!

Happy Halloween!  Have a risky, daring, night and make it home alive and not too nauseous from all of the sugar!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Can I have another cookie? Please?

I’ve always been quite the negotiator.  Instead of kisses and ‘good nights,’ I was the type of child who would always attempt to wrangle an extra hours of awakeness before bedtime from my parents. Or an extra maraschino cherry in my Shirley Temple from the waitress at the West End Manor when my family dined out. My parents set a dollar limit on my elaborately cataloged Christmas list, but I’d always hopefully include some ‘optional’ [additional] items. In school, I was the student who would question if ‘a’ wasn’t an equally valid choice as ‘b’ on my corrected multiple choice exam, to snag a few extra points.  People thought I’d grow up to be a lawyer rather than just a woman who calls up to fight the mysterious charges on her Verizon phone bill.
Flickr: ginnerobot
I’m not sure what my bargaining powers have really gotten me in life. Less sleep, more sweets, and more toys—yes. Extra bargaining chips...of various kinds

But the small successes I’ve enjoyed in negotiations over my lifetime have fostered some rather unproductive thinking habits.

I often find myself having dialogues such as this in my head:

Me: Look, God. I’ve vacuumed everything in the house and I haven’t said anything nasty about my stepmother for over a week.  So, how about that agent responding to my query?

God: Well…

Me: I haven’t bought any unnecessary clothing for months! I’ve also been working hard, rather than surfing online for vacation packages I can’t afford.  That’s at least worth an extra minute or two off my best time for running a mile, right? Or slightly more defined abs?

God: That’s not how the world is designed to function…

Me: But I’ve been running every day!  It’s so unfair that some people work out less than me but look fitter. Why did you give me this writing talent and then make twenty-six years olds who get pink books published about how they can’t stop shopping?

God: Look, I’m omnipotent so I know you’ve been to Harvard Divinity School.  Did they teach you nothing there? Life isn’t fair!

Me:  Okay, how ‘bout if I clean out the microwave too? I’m really trying hard to be a responsible grown-up, and it’s not like the things that I want are bad for me. It’s not like I’m asking for tequila.

God:  I think I need to work on that whole ‘peace in the Middle East’ thing for a bit.

Me: Look at this nice shiny apple I’m polishing…oops, sore subject. Sorry God!

Flickr: Whiteboard Dave

I guess life isn’t a series of bargaining chips that can be parceled out in some grand negotiation with the universe. Which is why, I suppose, I went through a phase of eating lots of sour cream and onion potato chips with creamy dip as a kid, reading escapist Victorian mysteries in my closet, where it was safe. In old books, things always worked out well, and the guilty were punished and the innocent were set free. And there were horses for everyone.
 Come to think of it, though, I'm not sure I would fare so well in a world where everyone got--not what they wanted or even needed--but what they deserved. I suppose all we can do is pray--for grace, and strive to to be more gracious. 

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Seventies Spice

If my mother was a Spice Girl, she would have been Seventies Spice. Paprika, the universal spice of the 1970s, was one of the few spices in our cupboard. We also had salt, of course (which was cast over her shoulder when she spilled it), black pepper (which we never used), and cinnamon sugar, which was sprinkled on buttered rye or raisin bread for my breakfast as a child.  And garlic salt as well, for meatloaf.
Flickr: ChrisGonzales90

I don’t know why paprika was so popular in the 70s. Perhaps because it was reddish brown and the memories I have from that time are tinted in natural, sepia hues of brown, yellow, orange, and pea-soup green. The brown bell-bottom corduroys I wore, the yellow ribbons on the trees to honor the hostages being held in the Iranian embassy, the orange couch I sat on as I played with my little computerized robot 2XL, and the green Jaguar I sat in, in line, waiting endlessly for gas.

I wonder if there was cookbook in the 70s called: How to cook chicken and fish. Page one must have read: take a piece of white chicken or a fish fillet. Sprinkle with paprika

The End. 

Paprika added color, and make it look like you tried.

I don’t know why spices have fashions, and for a long time, based on my memories of the plain chicken and fish connected to the paprika, I avoided the spice. Now I love paprika and eat it on sweet potatoes all of the time, along with broccoli, deviled eggs, cauliflower, and Vegan Quorn salad (fake meat mixed with yogurt and chopped vegetables). When in a cheesier phase, I liked it on mushrooms and melted Swiss cheese.

I don’t know why spices go through fashions—now it seems like cilantro is having a Moment.  I think the memories of the tastelessness of paprika came from how old it was…my mother kept spices for ages, and when I Googled paprika to answer the question ‘what the heck have I been eating for all of these years,’ I found out “Paprika deteriorates quickly, so it should be purchased in small quantities and stored in a cool, dark place for no more than 6 months.”

Ah, so that explains it. Ironically, around the shelf life of the Spice Girls.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

I think too much about Halloween...

Flickr: terren in Virginia
I always go through a bit of agony when I buy my Halloween candy. I didn’t grow up in a kind of normal ‘don’t eat too much candy but if you have a Ding-Dong, I won’t disown you’ type of household.   

There was so much anxiety surrounding sugar at home, when Halloween came ‘round and I could get free candy from adults by looking vaguely cute, I counted the days until I could be released upon the streets.  I was Halloween-obsessed.

At first, everything about Halloween was a struggle. I had to wear a plastic princess costume rather than having a home-sewn one like my friends with more ‘crafty’ mothers. I had to cover up my gypsy costume with a sweater—even though it was 60 degrees outside.   

As I grew older, though, I collected great childhood memories as well as great Halloween stashes. The year that I dressed up as Sherlock Holmes, with my long hair stuffed in a deerstalker and an Inverness cape slung over my shoulders was particularly inspired. It was so cold that year that my magnifying glass got frosty, but the lack of trick-or-treaters plus the unusual nature of my costume translated into an insulin-inducing pillow bag full of candy. 

One woman with a particularly beautiful, expensive house lined with glass picture windows and a spiral staircase in a very exclusive part of town actually took my friend and I on a tour of her home (I know, I know, not safe). As well as doused us with chocolate.

I still love Halloween, and I aim to please the kids that come to my house now that I’m grown.  I want to be the ‘cool candy house.’ To be honest, my adult chocolate preferences tend to be dark, dark dark, and bittersweet as my heart. But as evolved as we are as a foodie culture, I’ve yet to hear a ten –year-old say: “Look what I got! Sea Salt-infusused 86% cacao bars!” 

Thus far I’ve bought some mini-Twix and for those strange children not that fond of chocolate, some white chocolate Hershey’s cookies and cream bars. More may be forthcoming for the goodie bags—that is only a preview.

I’m always very annoyed by people who make a big deal about hating Halloween. For those of you who know my father and stepmother,  you will be unsurprised to know that they disdain All Hallows Eve for being ‘not Greek.’  Tiny portions, giving to strangers=not Greek. Thanksgiving, of course, because they like the food better and the portion sizes, has become an unofficial Greek holiday.

My personal philosophy is: if you make a little girl in a Strawberry Shortcake dress and her brother in a teddy bear costume cry because you’ve turned off your light and aren’t willing to part with a five cent fun-sized piece of candy… what cold, dark soul you must have

I also don’t understand people who refuse to give candy to kids who are too old/not in a ‘real costume.’  For heaven’s sake!  It’s Halloween!  Kids have cellphones at age six and are worried about getting into college at nine! A fourteen year-old is wearing a black t-shirt and enjoying the last gasp of his childhood and you won’t give him a itty bitty crunch bar because he’s too self-conscious to put on a superhero cape?  Get over yourself!
Flickr: mateoutah

I take a controversial stand that toys like stickers and pencils (but not plastic spider rings) are okay, provided they accompany candy and are not given in lieu of sugar…but I will end by saying one thing that has not changed, no matter what the decade or nutritional fashion: is that it is NEVER NEVER okay to give out tiny boxes of Sun Maid raisins. NOT okay. I actually love raisins but raisins=universal Halloween coal.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Magical thinking...

I caught myself staring into the refrigerator last night. After a long day, I was too tired to coherently process its contents.

 The freezer, filled with mysterious bags, most of which contain one baked good purchased a month ago.
 And yes, that is indeed dog food in a sealed container in my refrigerator. At least I'm well-stocked up on 9-volt batteries.

Need I say that it's time to go shopping?

I'm very good about shopping for produce--it's a rare day that I don't stop at a supermarket to grab something fresh for dinner.  But I've been swamped with work to the point that I really haven't felt like braving anything longer than the '7 items or less' line.

Because I always eat the fruit and vegetables I have, but the cereals and baked goods can sit in the freezer for months, I always feel like I look like a far less healthy eater than I actually am, based upon the contents of my refrigerator at any given moment. It's because I ate the broccoli that I have so many corn muffins, left, I cry!

So if anything happens to me, dear readers, please let everyone know that I haven't been living on Golden Grahams for the past decade. In fact, those were bought for some cereal bars I made for someone else!

As a child I'd go to the refrigerator hoping that somehow, spontaneously, a cake or a pie or candy would appear between the loaves of chaste rye bread, eggs, lunchmeat, and defrosting steaks my mother had selected.  I'd usually skulk away with a peanut butter sandwich on cinnamon raisin bread with marmalade, the only remotely 'interesting' things that I could find in the 'fridge.

Given that I'm now the one paying the utility bills, I don't know why I stare into the depths of the refrigerator--I know what is in there.  It's not like elves will come late at night and fill it with some mysterious bounty.

But that is how my mind works. I pretend to be a pessimist, but I'm always hoping for good surprises. That I'll wake up more coordinated and beautiful than I was the day before. Or there will be an email in my inbox from an agent I queried saying: "guess what?  we want to publish your book."

I have a similar relationship with my clothes closet.  I blame it all on The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe--and The Wizard of Oz. The idea that somehow you'll open a door, and find a new life, a new something, as if by magic.  Instead, I tend to find a fuzzy peach hidden behind the oatmeal silo.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A matter of taste...

It's gotten far too cold for wimpy little me to eat ice cream, so when I saw a list of the top ice cream flavors, I viewed the post with a kind of detached interest.   The top three were as follows:

1. Vanilla, 29%
2. Chocolate, 8.9%
3. Butter pecan, 5.3%

Which got me thinking...of course, these factoids are cute to know and to debate, but really when it comes to a preference for something like ice cream flavors, there is no wrong and a right. There is no moral difference between someone who say, likes the more popular vanilla versus the minority who flavors butter pecan.  But what an awful world it would be if only one taste was correct and allowed.

Imagine if someone, for a complex array of biological, environmental, social, and psychological factors, didn't like vanilla ice cream or chocolate, and really, really liked butter pecan. Only instead of people saying, "okay, that's cool, I like vanilla, you like butter pecan," the butter pecan lover was made to feel somehow 'wrong' for liking butter pecan. Say he had to waste endless hours, brooding as an adolescent asking himself: "what's wrong with my taste buds?  Why do I crave butter pecan?" Instead of spending productive hours, say, learning to play the violin or getting good grades or watching reruns of The Simpsons after school, or finding the best damn butter pecan in the state, let's say the poor kid felt he had to force himself to like vanilla.  What a shame and a waste of valuable time...

And imagine if people who did 'fess up to liking butter pecan and walked around the streets, eating butter pecan ice cream cones were spat upon, harassed, even attacked.

How ridiculous to dislike, reject, or even distrust someone because of a matter of different tastes...

Sometimes I wonder if there is something very strange about the human brain that makes it very, very hard to admit that other people might have a different subjectivity, opinion, or tate.  Hearing that someone has a different taste--even in pizza or ice cream--can make someone confused.  And how much more so with sexuality...

If only we could, as a society, just decide that preference is just that--taste--and there is a reason that there is more than one flavor of ice cream at Baskin Robbins.
Flickr: iirraa

Well, I am partial to vanilla with peanut butter, but that's another post.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Eat, drink, and be merry (but please eat)

When I say I don’t drink, most people think it’s because I have a tortured relationship with alcohol or I’m so uptight that I’ve never had a drink in my life.  Neither is true.

                It is true that tasting my parent’s wine as a child (under their supervision) convinced me at an early age that booze tasted ‘nasty.’

But when I moved to England, I resolved that I would become a ‘total Brit’ and that meant drinking deeply of all of the new experiences the UK had to offer—and just drinking deeply.
Flickr: brostad

After all, I had read a number of biographies of Michael Caine and Peter O’Toole.  I felt that to assimilate--as I wished to do--required me to drink.  And drink more. My suspicions that I had to increase my alcohol consumption were confirmed by my new circle of friends.

While some of my college friends had woken up in other people’s dorm rooms, my new friend Andy had once woken up in  Wales. You know you’re a serious drinker when you begin the night in the Midlands and wake up in a land where ‘w’ is a vowel and you have to call your father to pick you up.

                At first, I limited myself to a glass or two of white or red. Then one day, I was asked by one of my new friends to participate in a ‘murder mystery’ night to celebrate the opening of a new Waterstone's bookstore. The PR event would involve a staged (bloodless) murder, followed by a cocktail reception hosted by actors pretending to be 'suspects.'  At the end of the murder mystery, the killer's identity would be announced.

                 They needed an American to play one of the sleazy-looking ‘criminals.’  No salary, but Waterstone’s would feed the actors dinner beforehand.

                I arrived, dressed in an appropriately tarty outfit to find that the free ‘dinner’ was a tiny bowl of ten small strawberries, a frightening-looking cold sausage that looked like a rawhide chew toy, and one bottle of wine per actor.  There were no glasses, but one of my fellow actors located some tiny mouthwash cups in the Waterstone’s employee restroom (or water closet, as it is called across the pond).

                While I knew that I could handle a glass of wine with food, I’d never drank on an empty stomach before. I also had no idea how many mouthwash cups added up to a glass—or a bottle—of wine.  However, I was hungry and nervous, and I nibbled away at my two strawberries, and drank and refilled—and drank some more—from my Dixie cup.

                There is a blank patch in my memory between the flowers on the wax paper cup and staggering out of the bookstore reception room after the event. I was told that I played my role as an obnoxious American quite well. I do remember the bathroom, or 'water closet,' however.
Flickr: Alaskan Dude

The sign for the WC wasn't quite as noble-looking as this one, but the happiness I found upon reaching the WC was majestic.

I do remember being sick, staring at the toilet. I was quietly alarmed at the redness I saw and then I remembered the strawberries I had eaten.  It wasn’t blood.
This floor feels so cool. So nice against my cheek,” I thought. I had felt sick but lying on the tile, I didn’t feel so bad.  “I’ll just rest here for a bit, and then I’ll feel better.” It seemed so logical!

I awoke to the sound of a blaring alarm. A woman in a bathrobe and a policeman were standing nearby.  Apparently, I had passed out, fallen asleep, and set off the bookstore’s burglar alarm in the middle of the night.

The woman was the manager of the store. She had been called by the police after the alarm had begun to clang.

For some reason, I didn’t feel very upset.  I pleasantly explained what had happened, and they called me a cab, which I took to the YMCA where I was staying.  I lay in bed for an hour or two, and then went to work.  I felt a bit achy, mostly from laying in a fetal position for several hours near a toilet.

 On my way to work, I walked past a McDonald’s.  I hadn’t eaten at McDonald’s in years, but I found myself walking in and ordering a biscuit with egg and cheese. 
Flickr: callmecrochet

I had sobered up enough to remember I was a vegetarian, so I ordered it specially made without any bacon or sausage.  It tasted delicious, as did the symmetrically perfect square hash brown, coffee and orange juice I got with it.

By mid-morning, my headache began and slowly I understood what had transpired the night before.

Of course, I had to call the man who had arranged the PR event, and soon the story spread.

“Did you get a lot of reading done?” asked one of my friends in that tone of voice that the British use to let stupid Americans know how very, very grateful they are to have lost the Revolutionary War.

Moral: If your first instinct when drunk is to eat some high-fiber fruit and pass out in a bookstore, you shouldn’t be doing any heavy drinking.

 I didn’t stop drinking after that, but my illusions of ever becoming someone who could imbibe with wild abandon were dead.  There is something in me that just doesn’t love alcohol.  It’s not even the loss of control.  It’s that every time I drink, I remember how dreadful it feels to drink too much, and that kills whatever buzz I feel before it starts.
              I prefer to save my calories for chocolate—and an extra egg and cheese biscuit. 

              And I have come to the sad realization I shall never wake up in Wales, without a great deal of planning beforehand.  The best I can hope for is eating Welsh Rarebit.  A proper Welsh Rarebit is made with beer, cheese, Worcestershire sauce, dry mustard, butter, and cream.  Reading the poetry of Dylan Thomas aloud while eating is optional.

               However, even here I usually opt for a more chaste mixture of 3 or 4 tablespoons of shredded cheddar, a teaspoon of  butter, a splash of milk and Dijon mustard, followed with a sprinkle of paprika, if I'm feeling especially spicy. Spread on buttered toast, and then crisped under the broiler until brown.