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Archive for March, 2010

Vegetarian Update: The New Normal

Wednesday, March 31st, 2010

I did it.

Well, almost.  Provided I make it through today without caving, then I can say I did it.  But given that I’ve made it this far I think I can count on myself to complete the day without wrecking my vegetarian experiment in its final hours.

When I last reported on the status of this project I was hitting some proverbial bumps in the road.  I was drooling over the smell of meat on grills, and puzzling over the nearly immeasurable role that food plays in our cultural landscape.  Since then I’ve bounced back a bit, thankfully.

My second book of the month, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals was an interesting read.  If Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma felt like a fascinating lecture from your best college professor, then Eating Animals feels like a freakishly well-sourced rant from your smartest activist friend.  But all of the propaganda was studded with incontrovertible facts that I couldn’t have dismissed even in the context of the most vitriolic rhetoric.  Nevertheless I think the strength of Foer’s bias ultimately proved counterproductive for me.  Not that it undermined his premise altogether, but I think I would have found his positions more compelling if presented in a more objective way.  He draws comparisons between people and animals that I believe are quite a stretch.  Many of his arguments ultimately rest on the assertion that animals are entitled to the same rights as humans, which I don’t believe.  I believe they are entitled to a respectable degree of welfare and a life free of suffering.  But I do not believe they are equal to humans.

One thing I did appreciate about Eating Animals was that Foer included passages from other stakeholders in the food industry.  In their own words he represented the arguments of a factory farmer, two family farmers, an agribusiness man, a PETA worker, and others.  These voices, alongside Foer’s own, painted a more complete picture of the competing perspectives in the larger food source landscape.  These are complicated problems and while Foer certainly pushed a particular agenda, I appreciated that he turned a few of his pages over to the voices of others.

So, where does this month leave me?  The short answer is, I’m not entirely sure yet.  Inasmuch as this experience has affected me throughout its course, I’ve tried very hard to prevent myself from drawing long-term conclusions prior to its close.  Now that I am here I have some mulling over to do.

There are some things I know for certain, and other things I haven’t yet worked out.  As for the things I know for certain:

  • The old maxim about 21 days to break a habit is true.  I hit a rough patch around two and a half weeks, and then things got much easier.
  • It is quite a challenge to get enough protein without meat.  Meat is a highly convenient protein source.
  • I will not forego meat altogether.
  • I will be much more selective in the meat I choose to eat.  I will try to find locally raised organic meat that was not subjected to factory farming methods.
  • I will select vegetarian options in most restaurants.
  • I will cook more (but not exclusively) vegetarian meals at home.
  • I sort of agree with Michael Pollan’s quote of the old French custom that any dietary restriction is bad manners, and will graciously eat any meal that is prepared for me by someone else without quibbling over its source.
  • I will not beat myself up if I occasionally slip and purchase/eat food that I can reasonably suspect was raised in a factory farming environment.
  • I will also pay more attention to the produce I eat, choosing regional or locally grown organic fruits and vegetables when possible.

As for the things I haven’t quite worked out yet:

  • How much am I willing to inflict my new beliefs system on my husband and son?
  • What impact would be brought to bear on our budget if I tried to buy only organic food?
  • How inconvenient will it be to change my shopping habits?  Is this a change I’m willing to make all of the time, some of the time?
  • How can I convey the importance of this issue to other people without sounding like a goody-two-shoes or a pushy evangelist?

So, yes, I have some thinking to do.  The last thing that I know, though, is that I’m glad I did this experiment.  I’m glad I know that I can go a month without meat and not feel too burdened by it.  I’m glad I’ve explored the dark side of the food industry and can make my decisions based on greater information than I did in the past.  And I’m glad that I’ve seen this project through and can feel satisfied with my (albeit minor) accomplishment.

I’d love to leave you with some pearl of wisdom; something poignant that will make you want to explore this topic for yourself.  But there are a couple of problems with that.  1) I have a very low tolerance for evangelism and I believe that what we put into our bodies is a highly personal decision.  What I’ve learned this month makes me believe that we are facing a system-wide problem that calls for broad attention and action.  But my little voice in the blogosphere is all I’m willing to offer.  You must decide for yourself what your beliefs are and how to comport your life accordingly.  2)  I’m still working much of this out myself and I don’t feel qualified to close this post with any statement so definitive when my own thoughts are still in their nascent form.

So I will close this post by saying, I’m glad to have learned what I learned.  I’m honored that you’ve followed along with me.  I hope I’ve sparked your curiosity on this topic.  And I hope you’ll explore it further on your own.

Negotiation Fail

Monday, March 29th, 2010

This post was supposed to be a victory lap. 

Instead I am here to tell you this story from quite a different perspective than I expected.

A little background…

GAP is a born negotiator.  He knows what he wants.  He knows how much ground he’s willing to cede.  He strategizes such conversations as he goes, always at least three steps ahead of his counterpart.  Whether it’s a sour customer service rep at a call center or an obstinate executive in a conference room, he is deft in his negotiations.  He is firm without being off-putting; friendly without being obsequious; and practical without being taken advantage of. 

I, on the other hand, am a rookie when it comes to negotiation.  And while I show moments of promise in my skills of verbal maneuvering, I lack the thirst for it that GAP has.  I’m inspired by what my husband can squeeze out of other people.  I wish I had more of it in me.  I think he wishes that too.

Slightly more than a year ago I traded in my single girl’s sedan for the new mom’s crossover SUV.  My zippy little Volvo that had served me so well since college graduation was facing mounting repairs and really no longer met my needs with two big dogs and a baby to tote around.  I’ll spare you the play-by-play, but when I found my new car I handled the negotiations on my own and with feigned confidence and I worked the dealer down to a surprisingly low final price.  It was such a high.  I felt strong and empowered and probably unreasonably proud of myself.  GAP was proud too. 

I hoped at the time that that experience would help me turn a corner.  I hoped that I would become a woman who doesn’t back down; doesn’t care what others think; doesn’t get bullied by policies or procedures.  I wanted to become a more powerful version of myself. 

Since then I’ve had moments of such empowerment.  But for the most part I’ve not found myself transformed.  I’m still more people pleaser than hard-nosed negotiator.

Which brings us back to this post.  Our vacuum cleaner has been intermittently on the fritz lately.  Because one rubber seal was compromised one time, the internal workings of the thing aren’t performing as they should and it’s been a headache.  The machine is out of warranty, but, because this has happened once before I know that if the manufacturer sends us one replacement part the problem will be solved.  Over the course of the past few weeks I’ve gone a few rounds with their customer service reps.  And this weekend was supposed to be the weekend that I really went to the mats – sat on hold as long as necessary; was polite but firm and insistent on their compliance with my needs; escalated to supervisors and managers until I was given what I wanted.

Here’s where the “fail” factors in:  I never even placed the call. 

I spent Saturday morning playing with IEP, and then cooking meals to deliver to two friends who are home with newborn babies.  I met up with my boys for an errand or two.  GAP and I napped on the couch in front of NCAA basketball.  I nibbled on chocolate cake.  I walked our dogs.  I piddled around online.  And, quite frankly, I had a really lovely day.  Sunday played out similarly.

I didn’t want to spend an hour of my weekend on the phone, listening to hold music and arguing with service agents over why they should cave to my requests.  It’s not fun for me.  And no matter how big a high I got from emerging victorious from my car purchase, I just don’t yearn for that rush in a way that makes me want to find a negotiating opportunity merely for the sake of winning.

When I mapped out this post it was all about standing my ground.  I envisioned my persistence and the resulting victory.  And subconsciously I hoped that slating a post for this very topic would serve as a catalyst to get me to do it.  Alas, not even public accountability got the phone to my ear. 

Eventually I’ll get fed up with the vacuum enough to place the call.  And I’ll sit on hold, plea my case, talk to supervisors and (hopefully!) get my way.  But in the meantime, in spite of all the bravado in my head, I’m here to tell you that this weekend I failed.  I had a challenge and I skirted it.  I had a goal in front of me and I didn’t even try.  Am I proud?  No.  Am I ashamed?  A little bit. 

This whole scenario has me thinking.  I feel like I let myself down.  But it’s not for the reasons I would have expected.  I’m not feeling defeated for not wanting to dig myself into a negotiation.  I realize that I don’t have to want it.  What I have to do is be willing to take on a negotiation when it’s necessary.  Right now, in this particular situation, it’s necessary, and I backed down.  And that’s what stings.

I suppose my little predicament here has a broader application.  It’s not just about a vacuum cleaner.  It’s about understanding a bit better how I want to interact with the world.  I thought I would be here telling you that picked a fight and won it.  Instead I am here telling you that I’m a woman who will fight when I have to, but avoid it when I can.  And as I think about it, I not so sure that isn’t the better place to be.

Personal, Not Perfect

Friday, March 26th, 2010

It’s around this time of year that Pottery Barn catalogs become dangerous for me.  I’m already in a spring cleaning mindset, and all of those symmetrically fluffed throw pillows and effortlessly organized home offices have me aching for such a zen-like space of my own. 

My desk itself is lovely.  Solid hardwood from Crate and Barrel and a hutch with two drawers and a cubby.  But recently I’ve been unable to appreciate it.  Over the past several weeks (okay, months) it has taken on a life of its own.  Or rather, it’s the sundry clutter upon it that has taken on a life of its own; the desk is an innocent bystander.  Current resident offenders?  IEP’s baby book that I don’t know quite where to store.  At least a dozen unspent gift cards stuffed into an envelope.  My baptismal records from the church I grew up in for the day when I finally and formally join the church we’ve been attending weekly for the past four years.  A horseshoe from my now-retired show mare that was given to me for luck on the eve of my wedding.  The reminder card for my upcoming dental appointment.  Hartmann luggage locks that I have never used.  A coffee mug peace offering from the St. Regis hotel in Shanghai after they ruined my favorite silk sweater.  A box of business cards from a job I haven’t had since 2007 that I am now using one-by-one as bookmarks.  And the list goes on.    

In the face of such disorder you can understand why Pottery Barn photography can easily become quicksand to me.  Before I know it I am sucked in, debating between colors named Wheat and Lemongrass.  I envision myself breezing in and out of our study, immediately zoning in on the exact sheaf of paper I needed because it was properly tucked away in an attractively labeled file.  (In these scenes in my head there is always sunlight streaming through the windows and I am always wearing a white linen tunic and tortoise shell glasses.) 

These visions seep from my brain and down to my fingertips where I skillfully dog-ear catalog pages and circle particular sku numbers.  I want linen-covered inboxes.  I want a cork board with tidy hanging folders.  I want perfectly arranged family photos in vintage silver frames.  I want a muted color palette that evokes both peace of mind and productivity.  I look at the scenes in these pages and I think, “I could live there.  That could be me!”

And this is the exact moment when a career in marketing can take the bloom right off the rose. 

“That’s exactly what you’re supposed to think,” my professional self tells me.  “They want you to put yourself in that scene.  They want you to believe that it suits you so that you will jump online and order each item in that picture.  They’ve made every room in the entire catalog detailed enough to seem homey but generic enough to appeal to you and every other 30-something woman in America.”

Professional Me can be a real drag sometimes.

Nevertheless my wheels are spinning.  One word from Professional Me’s little diatribe sticks in my head.  Generic.  That word stings.  I want, so much, not to be generic.  I want to be interesting and engaging.  I want to be unique and colorful.  I want to be quirky and idiosyncratic.  I do not want to be generic.

Wheels continue to spin.  The random bits of untended mail – file or toss.  The gift card envelope doesn’t need to be lingering about – it can go in a draw somewhere.  Same for the luggage locks.  But the St. Regis coffee mug?  It reminds me of the completely divine stay I had there; and of how, strangely, the coffee mug (which now holds my pens and pencils) was a trade up from that sweater (which would long have gone out of style by now).  The horseshoe?  It reminds me of the years I spend riding competitively and the passion I had for my firey mare; and of the thoughtfulness of my parents to give it to me as a wedding gift – a double entendre universally symbolizing luck, and serving as a unique talisman of my past.  Also on my desk sits a small black and white print of GAP’s and my engagement photo that I love for both its poignancy and its simplicity.

After inventorying all of the items strewn about my desk I come to a certain realization.  Some of those things aren’t just things.  They are experiences and memories.  They are moments translated into something tangible.  And they are utterly and exclusively mine; representations of my life and character.  They will never appear in any catalog layout.  They are far too unique, far too intimate, and as I think about it, not at all generic.  That’s the dangerous thing about perfection.  It begs us to purge the imperfect.  But with the imperfect comes the personal.  And with the personal comes the person. 

I will clean out my desk this weekend.  But it won’t be in search of a catalog-worthy image.  It will be in search of my own image.  I want my desk to look like me.  At the moment, any sense of Gale has been obscured by clutter.  But shortly I will be visible there again.  My desk will not be zen-like perfection.  But it will be mine.

You Can Never Go Home

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

Home can be a slippery concept. 

The city that I now call home is not the city where I grew up.  My hometown, however, hasn’t been “home” since I graduated college ten years ago. 

This comes up because I spent last weekend visiting my parents.  My sister was also in town, but neither of our husbands joined us.  So, with the exception of one IEP (whose abilities to change the dynamics of a weekend should not be underestimated), for a couple of days we were the same family of four of my childhood.

Visiting my parents is an odd mish-mash of emotions as it relates to the concept of “home.”  They still live in the house where I spent my adolescent years.  And for several years after I moved out, going back there still felt like going home.  It felt familiar, comfortable, and still in some way mine.  It still feels comfortable and familiar, but no longer mine.  Throughout the course of the past ten years I have moved to a different place along the continuum of “home.”  It’s a strange experience to realize that home no longer feels like home.  And I’ve puzzled quite a bit over when and why this happened. 

There is the physical.  One by one, every room in my parents’ house (except the kitchen) has been redecorated since I lived there.  The coffee table in the living room that I once stabbed with a letter opener as a toddler is now in my sister’s house out West.  The lilies-of-the-valley wallpaper that I picked out for my bathroom (and which was installed upside down…) has been removed and replaced with textured green paint.  The leather couch where I did my best napping was donated to charity.  The dark mahogany pool table in the den that occupied me and my friends on many weekend evenings throughout high school has been taken down and replaced with an exquisitely arranged seating area.  The dining room, whose walls used to be covered in bold stripes, now displays a more muted floral pattern.  And so on, and so on, and so on. 

There is the temporal.  The city itself has changed since I left.  Like any city, my hometown is not a snapshot of itself.  Naturally some things are the same, but many things are different.  Restaurants open and close.  People move to new homes.  Land is developed and re-developed.  Family members move back.  Friends move away.  And so on, and so on, and so on.  A city is an organism with a pulse that beats according to the people in it.  As those people grow and change, so does the city around them.  So even if I were to move back tomorrow, I could never return to precisely the city I left, because it doesn’t exist anymore. 

There is the emotional.  I have never lived in my hometown as an adult.  When I finished school I had a strike-out-on-my-own mentality.  “I can move back there any time” I thought.  “This is the time to go explore new places.”  And so I did.  But once GAP and I had settled into our current city and built our networks of friends and colleagues, it became clear to me that my logic had been backwards.  For numerous reasons, I have understood for several years now that I will never move back to my hometown.  This was a strange realization to face.  Even stranger?  I’m okay with it. 

And most importantly, there is the issue of family.  There are many maxims about home.  (It’s where the heart is.  It’s where you hang your hat.  It’s where your dirty laundry is.)  For me, home is where my family lives.  Of course my parents and sister are my family and I love them dearly.  But they are no longer the sun around which I orbit.  My hometown no longer feels like home for a few important reasons:  GAP has never lived there.  IEP has never lived there.  My giant, ever-shedding dogs have never lived there.  For me, home is where IEP’s toys clutter the floor of our sunroom.  It is the place with the telephone table in the kitchen whose corners were once chewed by Bernese Mountain Dog puppies.  It is the place where GAP’s and my bookshelves stand opposite each other because even now we refuse to co-mingle our books.  And it is the place where nearly ten years of academic, professional, and social roots have descended into the ground.

Over time I have grown to love this city and the life we have built here.  It may not always be home, but right now it is.  I doubt I will ever feel as bonded to it as I once did to my hometown.  But ten years ago I also would have doubted that never again living there would become a perfectly comfortable path for me. 

Like cities we too, quite literally, are organisms.  We change over time; not only in our looks, tastes, and interests, but also in the way we interface with the world around us.  In many ways I am vastly different from what I was at 22.  In other ways I am exactly the same.  And I suppose that the same is true of home.  Home is now “here” instead of “there.”  But it is still the place where I live my life on good days and bad.  And it is the place where my husband and son are at my side.

Goals and Guts

Monday, March 22nd, 2010

On Friday morning I called my mother.  IEP and I were scheduled to fly in that evening for a weekend visit with my parents and sister.  I wanted to make sure she had our flight number and arrival time on hand.  We dispensed with logistics and then, with a mother’s unfailing intuition she keyed in on my temperament.

“Are you okay?  You sound… quiet.”

She was right.  I was quiet.  And I’m rarely quiet.  Ask anyone.  I am a non-coffee-drinking morning person.  It was a Friday.  I was just hours away from a fun weekend with my family.  There was no reason for me to be out of character.

We chatted for a few minutes.  I mentioned that the Daylight Savings change had taken a bigger toll on me than usual.  And, after beating around some rather large shrubberies, I confessed that I suspected that three weeks without meat was catching up with me and causing my energy level to wane.  Mom immediately started talking protein powder (she’s a big fan) and we hashed through a few other ways I could increase my protein intake.

Then, without notice, she switched gears on me.  I should have seen it coming, but I was tired and I didn’t.

“I’ve never really understood why parents force their kids to keep participating in activities that they don’t enjoy.”

I listened, still not realizing where she was going with this.  (Maybe I should start drinking coffee?)  I kept listening.

“You know, the kids who join the soccer team and clearly hate it after a couple of weeks, but their parents make them play the whole season because that’s what they signed up for.”

I started to clue in.

“Don’t you have enough challenges without forcing yourself to slog through something just because an arbitrary deadline was set?”

Aha.  She’s a sneaky one.  She never said, “Why don’t you just quit?”  She knows me well and knows that challenging my level of commitment to my vegetarian experiment is the last way to get me to bail.  She tiptoed through the topic much more delicately with statements like “With three weeks under your belt you’ve gotten the experience you were looking for,” and, “I just think life is hard enough without artificially complicating things further.”  In short, she appealed to my pragmatism.  (Below the belt, Mom…)

I explained that I didn’t think I’d yet gleaned all I wanted to from this experience.  I said that part of the full experience is continuing it even when I don’t want to.  And I mentioned that my second reading assignment might offer further enlightenment.  But the damage was done.  She’d gotten me thinking.

Why is it that we see success more as a function of a predefined goal than of the enlightenment we gain in pursuit of said goal?  We are constantly learning.  And with new knowledge comes new understanding and a new perspective.  If we don’t modify our ideals and goals accordingly, what did it accomplish for us to learn anything in the first place?

This line of thinking is outside of my comfort zone.  I’m goal oriented.  I find incredible satisfaction in accomplishing something I’ve set out to do.  I don’t disagree with the premise that “life’s a journey,” but I’ve always approached life as an accumulation of smaller destinations.  Nevertheless I can acknowledge that spending my life absently achieving one (sometimes arbitrary) goal after another doesn’t necessarily add up to something meaningful.  It takes both courage and wisdom to revisit a goal mid-course and perhaps decide that it lacks the merit you believed it had.  As a culture we value goals, and we really value people who achieve their goals.  To abandon a goal requires not only insight, but guts.

I’m not there yet.  I still believe in what I’m doing.  I’m continuing to learn and this experience is continuing to influence me.  I will see it through.  But I wonder about this seed that’s been planted.  I wonder if I will second guess my future goals, and to what end.  Will I abandon goals better left intact?  Will I doggedly pursue goals better abandoned?

I can’t begin to know.  But I suspect that merely considering the value being gleaned from goals in mid-pursuit will increase their benefit to me regardless of my decision.

Vegetarian Update: Cultural Connotations

Friday, March 19th, 2010

I won’t lie to you.  Wednesday night was rough.  It was a beautiful day – 60 degrees and sunny.  I got home from work a little earlier than usual, so IEP and I took the dogs for a walk.  We were chatting with each other, pointing out leaves, trees, and squirrels.  It was a perfect spring evening… until the halfway point of our two-mile loop.  It was faint at first, but with each step it became more distinct.  Someone was cooking out.  You know that smell: the first savory waft of meat on a grill after a long winter of propane and charcoal hibernation.  (If you don’t know that smell, woe is you.)  I usually cheer that smell.  It means that winter is officially behind us.  We’ve taken to our backyards with tongs in hand.  Hooray!!

Not so much for me, though.  For me that smell was just a tease; a nanny-nanny-boo-boo to my current vegetarian imperative.  Rather than slowing my pace to bask in the scent of sizzling hamburgers I hastened to move into neutral air space as quickly as possible.  Instead of being excited I was sad; sad that I couldn’t participate in one of my favorite springtime rites of passage.

This whole little episode, while brief and anecdotal, was a strong reminder to me of why so many of us have willingly turned a blind eye to the dark side of our food supply.  Meat tastes good.  Not only does it make us full gastronomically, but it makes us whole culturally.  Consider the extent to which meals are the lynchpin of our biggest cultural moments.  And consider the extent to which meat is the centerpiece of those meals.  The Thanksgiving turkey.  The Christmas ham or rib roast.  The ballpark hot dog.  The backyard barbecue.  Without meat these events would hinge on stuffing, Brussels sprouts, peanuts, and potato salad, respectively.  And while I love each of those things, they hardly get me excited enough to loosen my belt a notch to make extra room.

This, for me, is the biggest conundrum of my vegetarian experiment.  I want to be an informed consumer whose actions reflect her understanding and beliefs.  But I do not want to sever myself from the culinary components of my culture which make me feel a part of something significant and enduring. 

In a moment of blogging kismet, one of my commenters alerted me last week to an upcoming episode of Oprah that would feature my author du jour, Michael Pollan.  I set my DVR and watched it later that evening.  Mr. Pollan said a number of things I found valuable, many of which were also included in his book.  But one point I heard him make for the first time was the following (I’m paraphrasing).  “The great thing about this issue is that we get to vote.  And we don’t vote just once.  We vote with our forks three times a day.  And you don’t have to get every one of those votes right.  But if you get even one of those votes right each day, it will eventually amount to real change in the way our food supply is managed.”

Sweet relief!  I don’t have to be perfect!  I can pop into a McDonald’s on a road trip without dismantling my entire values system.  I can go to a cookout at a friend’s house without nitpicking over the source of the meat they’re grilling.  I can live a normal life and still uphold my beliefs to a reasonable level.  Pardon me a moment while I exhale. …  Whew.  Okay.  I’m back now.

As for my reading assignments, I have finished (mostly) The Omnivore’s Dilemma.  (Full disclosure:  I skimmed the second half of the third section.  To take his intellectual premise to its logical extreme, Pollan spends the third section of the book actually hunting wild boar and foraging for mushrooms.  Since these are activities that will never factor into my own food chain I didn’t devote the same time and consideration to them that I did the sections on industrial and organic farming.)  And it was completely fascinating.  Perhaps my fascination stems in part from the fact that my level of interest in this topic includes me in a self-selected pool of people who are inclined find this book fascinating.  Nevertheless, I really enjoyed it.  It reads like the transcripted version of a lecture by a really interesting college professor.  He takes agricultural theory and brings it to life.  Topics like corn subsidies, grass species, and the dimensions of organic baby lettuce beds could be mindbogglingly dry.  But Pollan doesn’t just provide the facts.  He tells the story, and it lures you in.  He writes with a slant, to be sure; I was never confused about his position.  But when you consider that the slant I’ve been subconsciously provided by the food industry for 32 years tells a very different story, I don’t think a bit of impassioned positioning from Pollan discredits him that much.

I am more than halfway through the month of March now.  I am craving a hamburger.  My creative culinary juices are running thin and I’m missing my normal kitchen routines.  But I have another book to read and nearly two more meatless weeks in front of me.  I don’t presume that I’ve learned all I can on the topic of our food supply and its reverberations throughout our society.  So for the next 12 days I will continue to forge ahead.  Perhaps I will find myself energized by Mr. Foer.  I’m about 50 pages in and, again, riveted.  Perhaps I will sate myself with mental meat, rather than the hamburger I’d rather devour.

Painful Grace

Wednesday, March 17th, 2010

Two Sundays ago the Family P went out for our first long run of the year.  There is a large city park a few minutes from our house that is crisscrossed with running paths including a loop around the perimeter that measures about six miles.  During the spring, summer, and fall the three of us run this loop about once a week.  We meet up after work, or we venture out on weekend afternoons.  IEP smiles as we push him along, feeling the breeze brush across his face.  And GAP and I plug along behind him, taking care to ensure that he doesn’t take off his shoes and toss them overboard. 

There are many things I love about these runs.  The fresh air.  The sunshine (and sometimes rain).  The people-watching.  The sheer exhaustion that I feel at the finish.  And, the sore muscles that usually arrive the following day. 

That’s right, I love having sore muscles.  I love the burn in my quads and hamstrings.  I love the ache around the back of my ribcage.  I love feeling that distinct twinge every time I get up from my desk or walk a flight of stairs. 

Chances are that when it comes to pain, you fall into one of two camps: The “there is good pain and bad pain” camp, or the “there is only bad pain” camp.  Clearly, I’m in the former.

Good pain is the pain you feel when you’ve done something big (like run six miles for the first time after a winter of elliptical easy street).  You feel it because you’ve pushed yourself, and maybe accomplished something.  And when that burning sensation fires up inside your legs, you can think back on what your body did; the way that it performed when called upon; the way that it perhaps achieved more than you thought it could.  Pain is good when it serves a larger purpose.

Bad pain, on the other hand is everything else.  It’s the stubbed toe, the arthritic knee, the sprained ankle, and the crick in your neck.  It’s part of life, but it’s no picnic. 

Physical pain is mostly black and white.  For the most part you know in the moment which variety of pain you’re feeling.   Emotional pain is a more complicated animal.  The lines between good pain and bad pain blur across the human experience.  Bad pain can find redemption and a larger purpose at some as-yet-undetermined time in your life.  To wit…

Your first broken heart was a misery.  You were in love.  You believed that nothing could compare to the affection you had for this person.  You believed it would never end.  But it did.  (Hopefully you were no older than 17 or so.)  In the moment you were crushed, but over time you came to understand that heartbreak is universal; that having sat in a crumpled mass on the floor with nothing but a box of tissues and a melodramatic journal entry for comfort helped you understand how handle future break-ups with compassion and kindness; and that having suffered the end of something special will help you the next time around to see the gaping cracks that felled the prior relationship when they are merely fault lines.  The pain was real, but it was surmountable, and it gave you arguably more than did the relationship itself (especially if you were only 17).

If you really look, there are inordinate opportunities for pain to repurpose itself into something more worthwhile.  The loss of a loved one helps you reach out to someone else and to mitigate their pain.  Your encounter with a disease serves as a catalyst for your activism.  Your experience with prejudice opens your eyes to your own untenable judgments.  In most cases the benefits of these redemptive experiences don’t begin outweigh the original pain.  Offering your shoulder to a thousand crying eyes will never compensate for the loss of someone you loved.  But perhaps in some way it validates that pain; helps you to transform it (even a tiny portion of it) into something that borders on grace.

I’ve been dealt very little pain in my life.  This is all mostly theory to me – the untested musings of someone whose life has spared her the chance to test her hypotheses.  So perhaps my naiveté betrays me.  Perhaps I seem an innocent fool.  Perhaps with time, and the wear it brings, I will find the concept of transubstantiating pain into grace utterly preposterous.       

But perhaps if I set my mind on this course now, when that pain shows up on my doorstep – dull, dreary, and altogether uninvited – I will embrace it.  I will wrap it around myself like a cloak.  I will feel its fibers and breathe its scent.  I will own it.  And when I am done with it, or perhaps before, I will begin to unravel those threads.  I will watch them pile up at my feet, and I will run them through my weary fingers.  And when the time is right I will reweave them into something of value; maybe even something quite lovely.  And I will give it to someone who needs it.  And it will warm them in the face of their own dull, dreary, and altogether uninvited pain. 

Again, I don’t know if this is reasonable to hope for.  But like the six miles I ran two Sundays ago, I think I might find that my body and mind are capable of more than I realize.

Shame and Prejudice

Monday, March 15th, 2010

Before commencing with today’s topic, I want to thank all of you for making the discussion around Friday’s post so sincere, honest, and voluminous!  I had some suspicions that that post would touch a nerve, but I had no clue the extent to which you all would share your beliefs and experiences.  Blogging, at its best, facilitates wonderful dialogue between curious and intelligent people from all walks of life.  The commenting around ”Pressured to Push” was one such example, and I want to offer my most heartfelt thanks for your incredible participation in the conversation that went on.  If you missed Friday’s post, feel free to join in the discussion now. … Now, moving along…

The protagonist of The Help was encouraged by an editor to write about what she sees that bothers her.  After a couple of fluff attempts at other topics she realizes that she is keenly upset by the relationships between Southern white families and their black maids.  The story continues from there as the young heroine proceeds to summon her inner pluck and quietly dismantle the delicately balanced domestic ecosystem in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s.

I enjoyed the book.  But something about it has been nagging at me since I reached its final page a few months ago.  The discussion prompts at the end ask all sorts of interesting questions.  But they are all local to the book.  They ask about the relationships between characters, how the characters were influenced by their surroundings, why we perceive certain characters in certain ways, etc.  And for a book whose characters were so willing to question the status quo, I’ve been bothered by the fact that the discussion questions don’t ask us to do the same.

We make mistakes.  As individuals, as a culture, and as a society, we commit all manner of offenses against all sorts of people (and animals, and ecosystems, etc.).  With time we come to recognize those offenses and typically do something to rectify the situation.  Slavery was abolished.  Women have suffrage.  Indian nations are sovereign land.  “Separate but equal” was ended.  Gays are slowly gaining a foothold on their civil rights in this country.  We’re making progress.

It’s easy to look back at this discrimination with embarrassment.  It’s easy to see in retrospect how hideous the dominant thinking of these latter days truly was.  And it’s equally easy to exhale a big sigh of relief knowing that today we are not guilty of the same transgressions.

But we are not perfect.  We are not fully evolved.  We are not immune from the cultural damage of new ignorant mistakes.  There are aspects of our society that our grandchildren will learn about in social studies text books and be made to cringe.  There are things we accept today that we will reflect upon in our later years and say, “That’s just how things were back then.”

But what are those things?  That’s the unasked discussion question that is stuck in my mind three or four months after reading The Help.  What is it that I’m doing today that is wrong?  What is that that I tacitly comply with or ignore?

Is it something environmental?  Is it the way we manage our food supply?  (I’m currently under the influence of Michael Pollan.)  Is it fuel-injection automobiles?  Is it prejudice against the obese?  What are the issues that surround me each day that I accept and yet shouldn’t?  What is the belief I hold today that will embarrass me down the road?  What is it that I might, given the awareness and the gumption, have the ability to change?

The very paradox of these questions is that they allude to the frustrating truth that “you don’t know what you don’t know.”  But yet we have changed over time.  We have righted (sort of…) our past wrongs.  And this means that at some point someone knew more than his peers.  At some point someone stood up and spoke out in defiance of conventional logic.  At some point that person was loud enough and persuasive enough to turn a cultural tide.

Abigail Adams was onto something when she wrote to her beloved John in the spring of 1776, “…remember the ladies…”  She knew that it wasn’t right to be denied a voice in the birth of her new country, yet her forward-thinking mind could only rattle so many social constructs.  But this is how it begins.  Someone pokes a small hole in the status quo.  Then Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton blow it wide open and in 1920 women’s suffrage is ratified.  Or Rosa Parks refuses to give up her bus seat, and nine years later LBJ signs the Civil Rights Act into law.  Or John Geddes Lawrence has the courage to appeal his case all the way to the Supreme Court.

Today’s social and political norms are my norms.  Right now I am not ashamed of them, but someday I hope I will be.  Not because I want to be wrong but because I’m sure that I already am wrong about something, and I hope I am always amenable to change.

Vegetarian Experiment: Recipe Recap #2

Sunday, March 14th, 2010

In keeping with my current vegetarian experiment, here are the latest recipes I’ve tried.  To see last week’s recipes, click here.  This past week’s challenge was incorporating more protein into my diet, so these recipes include more eggs and tofu than what I ate during my first week of vegetarianism.

Note: The title of each dish links to the recipe.  The Source link goes to the website’s homepage.

Asparagus, Artichoke, and Shitake Risotto
Source
Smitten Kitchen
Difficulty
:  Medium.  As I mentioned in last week’s recipe recap, if you’ve never prepped an artichoke before, you may find it helpful to watch a video of the process first.  This was my second artichoke rodeo (last week’s being my first) and I found it much easier and quicker the second time around.
Labor:  Medium.  Again with the artichokes.  Apparently I’m a glutton for punishment.  This recipe only called for two of them, though, and that cut down on the time required a lot.  Otherwise, it was par for the risotto course.  Lots of stirring, but I knew that going in.
Overall Results:  Decent.  I swapped Oyster mushrooms for the Shitakes and that was a mistake.  They have less flavor, less structure, and less color, and when you’re making a dish that is essentially formless, you need to make it perk up as much as possible. (Why the swap? When I went to the store the shitakes were really picked over.)  The Oyster mushrooms basically just blended into the rice and didn’t add much to the dish.  I don’t think that would have been the case with Shitakes.  I also didn’t love Deb’s artichoke cooking method.  I like the procedure outlined in last week’s Artichoke and Leek Lasagna recipe better.  Nonetheless it was a tasty dinner.  Just not a showstopper. 

Baked Gnocchi
Source: Recipe card I picked up at the grocery store
Difficulty: Easy.  Except for chopping one clove of garlic and half an onion, this is basically “dump and stir” cooking.  Anyone can do this.
Labor: Low.  This was in the oven in about 10 minutes.
Overall Results: Pretty good.  But then how could it not be with that amount of cheese stirred in?  There wasn’t much depth of flavor, but that could be easily remedied by adding some vegetables and fresh herbs.  Also by eliminating some of the cheese.

Ingredients
1 cup panko or other white breadcrumbs
3 Tbs butter
1½ tsp Italian seasoning*
¼ tsp salt
1 16-oz package gnocchi (vacuum packed, available on pasta aisle)
1 14.5-oz can diced tomatoes
1½ cups half and half (I used whole milk)
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
½ cup shredded provolone cheese
½ cup plus 2 Tbs shredded parmesan cheese

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350.
  2. In a large saucepan melt the butter over medium high heat.  Add breadcrumbs, Italian seasoning, and salt.  Stir until all breadcrumbs are coated.  Remove half of the seasoned breadcrumbs and reserve.
  3. Add onion and garlic to pan and sauté until softened, about two minutes.
  4. Add tomatoes (with juices), half and half, and gnocchi.  Heat until simmering, about 5 minutes.  Remove from heat and stir in mozzarella, provolone, and ½ cup parmesan cheese.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  5. Pour gnocchi into an ungreased 9×9” baking dish.  Top with remaining 2 Tbs parmesan cheese and reserved breadcrumbs.  Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until bubbly.

*I didn’t feel like buying a new jar of Italian Seasoning, the components of which I already had sitting in my spice rack.  I just used about ½ tsp each of dried basil, oregano, and sage, and added a pinch of red pepper flake.  It worked fine.

Eggs in Tomato Sauce
Source
: Smitten Kitchen
Difficulty
: Easy
Labor: Low.  There are about 20 minutes of total cooking time, but most of that is inactive while the sauce simmers. 
Overall Results:  Wow!  Talk about comfort food!  This was cozy and delicious.  I almost didn’t make it because GAP had plans Wednesday night and it was a convenient excuse not to cook.  I’m very glad I didn’t take the short cut.  I think this could become part of our weeknight rotation! 

I loved it as prepared according to the recipe, but there are a few things I’ll tweak next time.  First, I’m forever substituting olive oil for butter, but in this case I think the sauce would benefit from swapping butter for the olive oil.  I think it would mellow some of the acidity in the tomato puree.  Secondly, leaving the eggs in the sauce for 5 minutes cooked the yolks all the way through.  I like a runny yolk, so next time I’ll cut the cooking time to 3 minutes or so.  Lastly, the recipe says this amount of sauce is enough for 4 eggs.  You’d have to really stretch it to get 4 servings out of it.  If you want to have enough extra sauce for dipping and sopping, this will really only serve two.   

Peanut Braised Tofu with Noodles
Source
: Williams-Sonoma
Difficulty: Easy
Labor: Low
Overall Results: Very good.  This dish came together very easily and was quite tasty.  I was a little nervous about the sauce because I used natural peanut butter (which sometimes separates when used in recipes) and reduced fat coconut milk.  However, neither affected the quality of the dish at all.  If you used rice noodles I recommend breaking them in half before cooking so that they don’t clump together as much when served.  This was comforting and delicious.  IEP even loved it.  After his first bite he immediately started signing “more!”  The only drawback to this recipe is that it doesn’t reheat well.  It was significantly better the first time around.

Asparagus Frittata
Source: My own head
Difficulty:  Depends.  If you have a nonstick ovenproof skillet it’s super easy.  If your ovenproof skillet isn’t nonstick it can take a little finessing.
Labor: Low
Overall Results:  This is a great recipe to have in your back pocket.  You can add any vegetables, meat, or cheese and come up with countless versions.  I used asparagus and gruyere because that’s what I had sitting around.  You can use mushrooms, broccoli, sausage, cheddar, goat cheese, etc.  The possibilities really are endless.  Frittatas are most commonly served for breakfast, but I love them as a simple lunch or supper along with a tossed green salad and a hunk of crusty bread.  They also reheat nicely as leftovers.

Ingredients:
2 eggs
6 egg whites
½ lb pencil-thin asparagus, trimmed and cut into ½-inch segments
½ cup grated cheese
2 Tbs milk or cream
1 Tbs butter
2 Tbs olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

  1. In a shallow sauté pan filled halfway with simmering water, blanch the asparagus for about 3 minutes.  Drain the asparagus in a colander and wipe the pan dry.  Warm 1 Tbs of the olive oil in the pan over medium high heat, and return asparagus to the pan.  Sauté until slightly browned, about 3 minutes.  Set aside.
  2. Slide oven rack to highest level and preheat broiler on high.
  3. In a medium sized bowl combine the eggs and egg whites and beat with a whisk.  Stir in the grated cheese, prepared asparagus, milk/cream, and one pinch each of salt and pepper.
  4. In a 10” to 12” ovenproof skillet (preferably nonstick)* warm the butter and remaining 1 Tbs olive oil over medium heat.  Swirl the pan to ensure that there is an even coating of oil/butter all over the pan.  Pour in the egg mixture and cook, undisturbed, until the eggs are set around the edges and mostly set in the middle – 5 to 6 minutes.  You will have a runny pool of egg mixture on top in the center.  Slide the skillet into your oven centered underneath the broiler.  Leaving the oven door cracked, broil the top of the frittata until it is fully set and slightly browned on top, 2 to 4 minutes.  Watch carefully during this time as your frittata can quickly go from perfectly browned to completely burned quickly.
  5. Remove skillet from oven and using a rubber spatula carefully loosen the frittata from the pan.  If you’re using a nonstick skillet this should be very simple.  If your skillet isn’t nonstick, be patient while working your spatula around the edges in circles, sliding the spatula a little bit farther with each turn.  When the frittata is completely loosened, slide it onto a cutting board and slice into 4 to 6 wedges.

*A note on skillets.  Nonstick is obviously best.  If you don’t have an ovenproof nonstick skillet (I don’t), anodized aluminum (such as Calphalon One brand) will also work just fine.  If you only have a stainless pan (such as All-Clad) I would recommend using some extra butter in your skillet and working very slowly with your spatula.  And be prepared for some stickage. 

Dark Chocolate Mousse Ice Cream
Source
: Orangette
Difficulty
: Medium
Labor: Medium
Overall Results: Sooooo delicious.  I found this recipe last fall and have been making it ever since.  I like to add an extra ½ to one cup of milk or cream, though.  I think it makes the final product a bit softer.  Other than that, I pretty much stick to the recipe.  This stuff never lasts long in our house.  Enjoy!

*Note – This is a great recipe to make concurrently with the frittata, as it calls for 6 egg whites, and this one calls for 6 egg yolks.

Pressured to Push

Friday, March 12th, 2010

To my male readers (both of you):  This one may be a bit outside of your wheelhouse.  Please feel free to keep reading.  If you’ve been through this experience I would be keenly interested in your perspective from the other side of the fence.  But this post is more estrogen-packed than usual.  Consider yourselves warned.

One of my best friends is pregnant with her second child.  She’s due any day and we’re all eagerly awaiting her little girl’s arrival.  Her son was born just shy of two years ago via a C-section after attempts at a vaginal delivery proved unsuccessful.  This time around my friend is hoping for a vaginal delivery, and has taken a series of very targeted steps toward that end.  When her previous OB was unsupportive of her interest in a VBAC she jumped ship and found a new OB who is.  She has hired a doula to guide her throughout labor and serve as her advocate with other medical staff.  She has researched VBACs extensively, and discussed the matter at length with her husband to cultivate his endorsement and support.  She is prepared.

The other night during dinner (at the dining room table, like the good little Lenten observers that we are) GAP and I were discussing our friend’s upcoming delivery, and, in spite of all her planning, we can’t help but feel a little bit nervous about it.  Once a woman has had a C-section vaginal births pose certain risks.  And, given those risks GAP posed the question: Why is it that women want a vaginal birth in the first place?

He didn’t limit his questioning to VBACs, either.  It is my casual understanding that many obstetricians prefer to deliver via C-section because less is left up to chance and fewer things can go wrong.  And I suspect that at some level GAP believes (particularly given our experiences with IEP’s delivery) that all babies would more prudently be delivered surgically.  He doesn’t really understand many women’s strong desire for vaginal deliveries.

His belief is that society has trumped up vaginal birth into some sort of a spiritual experience and that we women feel, either consciously or unconsciously, that it is something we are supposed to want.

I swiftly responded by asserting that this belief cheapens a woman’s emotions surrounding a vaginal birth.  I took it to mean that if our feelings weren’t original and uninfluenced by society, then they didn’t have as much value.  He countered (quite eloquently, I might add – he drives me nuts this way…) with the following analogy:

If I were to read A Tale of Two Cities in a vacuum, knowing the plot only, and not being able to relate anything outside of the book back to it, I would think it was a good book, but that’s it.  But when I come back to that book with knowledge of Christian allegory, Greek mythology, and all of the other layers that human society has added to it over the years, its meaning and significance grows exponentially.  Just because the more meaningful reading was influenced by society doesn’t diminish the value I took from it.

I couldn’t argue with that.  (Dammit!)  So we moved on in our discussion.

He asked me why I had wanted a vaginal birth when IEP was born, and why I would want another one the next time around.  I talked primarly about recovery times and other practical matters.  But what I couldn’t adequately articulate is the strong sense (instinct?) of wanting to push; of, after carrying this baby inside of me for nearly 40 weeks, needing to exert myself to the brink of exhaustion to bring his new life into the world.  And I wanted to feel that sense of completion, of (quite literally) deliverance.  It felt right.  And I believe that a C-section would have robbed me of the right and climactic ending to this process. 

(Note: If we had known at the time what was happening to IEP during delivery we would have gone straight to the OR.  And if either the baby or I are in any amount of distress during my next delivery I will sign on the dotted line for surgery immediately.  I would never pursue a vaginal birth in the face of legitimate medical risk.)

The son of a friend of mine was full breach in the womb, and she delivered via a planned C-section a week before her due date.  In the weeks leading up to the delivery she lamented the loss of that moment when the baby is born after hours of labor; the moment I described above.  In the interest of full disclosure I feel that I should note here that when he was several weeks old she confessed that her concerns were rendered moot once her son was born.  On the back end she didn’t feel that her birth experience suffered for lack of the “moment” at all.

So what is it, then, that makes us want to push?  And for the women who have no interest (scheduled C-sections have been on the rise for years), what is it that makes you want to avoid it?  Has society inflated our emotions about vaginal deliveries?  Or is there really something there – powerful, yet intangible; poignant, yet inexpressible; instinctual, yet untenable – that pressures us to push?