Just Life

On not writing - here or elsewhere

I don't want to cop to the fact that I may have accidentally given up on my blog. I'm having trouble cutting the apron strings. Since I last blogged with any regularity, I spent two years in graduate school getting my MFA in Creative Writing, then another grueling six months getting a Certificate in the Teaching of Creative Writing. (Both from Antioch University Los Angeles.)

During that time, I also dealt with my father's diagnosis with a terminal illness and his much-sooner-than-anticipated death a year and a half ago. Plus this year, not long after the anniversary of my father's death, my dear, beloved Grandma Pringle died. I was incredible close to and fond of her, and my family is very small, so to weather these two losses in such a short period of time while getting through grad school has taken everything out of me.

I am not complaining. I'm trying to explain. That I want to be back here, writing and sharing with you what I'm doing, but so much of it has seemed dark, buried in a place I didn't want to be in, let alone write about. But I'm not ready to give up on this yet. If any of you are still around when I get back to blogging, I'll be immensely grateful for your readership.

Thanks for sticking by me . xoxo

On marathons and more

I am not a runner. Let’s get that out of the way first. I’m pretty much the opposite of a runner. But I’m married to a runner, a man who has completed more than 25 marathons, two of them in Boston. He ran it just last year when the oppressive heat had him considering forfeiting and running this year instead. That is where my mind goes when I think about what happened in Boston yesterday. (Or, it’s one of many places to which my mind races.) Chris could have been there. But then it feels like a stretch, like a manufactured fear. A way to inject myself personally into the tragedy. Or is it a way to feel connected? I don’t know how to tell the difference.


I think about the fact that, over the years, I have been a spectator at a dozen or so of those marathons. I know the madness of trying to navigate your way through the crowds to get from point to point in the hopes of getting a glimpse of your runner and cheering them on. I’ve been with Chris in Hurley, Wisconsin for the relatively tiny Paavo Nurmi marathon, where the trees outnumbered spectators the entire way. I’ve been with him for Chicago, DC, St. Louis and, yes, Boston – all packed to the gills with people milling around, bands playing, runners in crazy costumes.

In other words, I also think: I could have been there. I could have easily been a spectator. It could have been me. Is this the most selfish line of thinking? Or is it just human nature to personalize tragedy? I don’t know how to tell the difference.

Marathons are curious events. There really isn’t anything like them. You know that if you’ve run one, or if you’ve shown up on the sidelines or if you’ve even groaned at the inconvenience of giant crowds shutting down the streets in your town. I’m aware that the tendency at this moment is to glorify, but there is a spirit to marathons, something really tangible.

Runners train for marathons with a dedication I simply can’t fathom, no matter how many times I’ve watched Chris go through the process. It is, to a bystander, nothing short of insane. On race day, friends, families and loved ones of runners come out to support them, along with total strangers to form a crazy community that feels strangely titillating and invigorating. These are, for the most part, not professional athletes. They are normal human beings, pushing themselves to the limits. The struggle and the victory shows on their faces. It is, at times, unspeakably moving.

And Boston is not just any marathon. It is the marathon. Legendary. The holy grail for many runners. It is the world's oldest annual marathon, dating back to 1897, attracting amateur and professional runners from across the globe. About half a million people come out every year to cheer on the runners. Half a million. Winning Boston is like winning no other race.

All marathons, though, have a little bit of Boston in them.

In Cincinnati a couple of years ago, we showed up to watch Chris and my brother-in-law Bill. Bill had only started running that year. The fact that he was finishing a marathon was inconceivable, the absolute embodiment of that thing we’re told all the time: you can do whatever you put your mind to.

As we waited for our runners around mile eleven, my sister and I were calling out to others, reading their names off their bibs and t-shirts, shouting encouragement. My youngest niece asked why we were cheering for those people. “Do you know them?” she asked. And I thought: no. And yes. And I told her that this was just what we do along the course – provide encouragement for everyone, not just the people we know.

Think about that, for a moment. When was the last time you found yourself cheering on a total stranger, an individual who might meet your eyes and light up a little? It doesn’t happen often in my life.

The fact that Chris has twice run Boston isn't the only reason I feel somehow connected to that marathon, either. When my family moved to the U.S. from Scotland in 1978, it was to Boston. It was my first American city, rife with history like perhaps no other. It holds a special place in my heart.

During that first year we joined some neighbors to pass out Dixie Cups full of water to runners along the route. It was crazy. I’d never seen so many people in my life – except, perhaps, the time the Queen came to Glasgow. All the color and the crowds and the cheering. All the camaraderie. To me, at the risk of sounding over-the-top, this was a foreign thing, something that became, in my mind, intrinsically linked with the very idea of America.

So I’m tempted to say that, for these reasons, yesterday’s bombings near the Boston marathon finish line feel personal. Then I look around and realize that what happened feels personal to everyone I know. Some more than others, but everyone’s heart is breaking a little. Everyone’s feeling raw at yet another act of senseless violence. We feel the way we feel. Our brains take our thoughts down dark corridors. I have to believe it’s just part of the process of making sense of the senseless.

I have no grand words of conclusion. I don’t have an upbeat message or a rallying cry to leave you with. I just have some thoughts, muddled and painful, racing through my brain. I’m probably a lot like you that way.

The point of re-entry

I've been mulling this over for months - how to return to a stagnant blog. Whether to return to a stagnant blog. Now that Vegan Fever has passed, what will be my focus? Do I need a focus? (Everyone else says "yes," by the way. Everyone may be in for some disappointment.) Do I need to play catch-up? To tell you where the months have taken me since that last, sad entry? Do I mention that they took me to Kentucky when fall was at its most beautiful?


Or then to Costa Rica for absolute perfection over my birthday?


And what about after that, when I went back to California, this time to Los Angeles - to return to graduate school after graduating from college half my life ago?

Venice Beach

Should I tell you what that experience is like, all the reading and writing and studying and the fear and exhilaration of being back in school?

Probably. Probably I should try to catch you up on all those things and more. But I've been corresponding this week with a friend who has suffered a profound and complicated loss, and in the midst of his grief he has discovered the most incredible freedom. Freedom, especially, not to look backwards, but to look forwards. To stop defining his life by what he sees in the rearview mirror.

So I feel less obligated to fill in the details about where I've been. The thing is, I'm here now. I'm not sure I need to know what I'm planning to write about. I do know that I want to give it another shot, showing up here on the page on a regular basis. So here I am. Let's see where we go.


What I needed

I needed all of it. I needed the cypress trees at Pfeiffer Beach, the way they stretched, low and dense, a canopy across the sand. I needed the eucalyptus, how it invaded the air and made breathing seem like something entirely new. I needed the sailboats on Monterey Bay and the vastness of the water stretched out before me. I needed the glimpse, in the distance, of the white puff from the whale's blowhole then, briefly, its tail before it disappeared back into the deep. I needed the redwoods towering above me and the strange, ropy patterns in the sandstone along the Pacific Coast Highway. I needed the craggy coastline and the crashing surf and the fog threatening to swallow it all.

I needed every bit of beauty Northern California could serve up to me.

I knew I had needed to make the call to let my cat go, my buddy of 17 years. I knew it wasn't fair to him to play out some fantasy, keeping him alive until I could get to his side. Even though making the decision from 2,500 miles away seemed impossible and surreal.

When I left the redwoods and the ocean and the waves crashing on cliffs behind me and came home, I needed to keep his bowl where it was for the first day, just as I needed to pick it up and put it away the next. I needed to toss out the ratty towel he used to sleep on behind the bathtub. I needed to keep the tuft of his white fur I found resting under my desk chair.

I needed to go out into the garden and pull out the last of this year's tomato plants, sobbing as I did, knowing it was the end of growing season, that we'd done all we could here. The plants were spent.

Later, I needed to be in the kitchen, my hands wet with the juice of the last tomatoes, cutting, roasting, coaxing them into a sauce.

I needed to feel my hands in flour, to cut butter into tiny pieces and pulse it into a dough, marveling how a few ingredients and a little electricity produce such a thing. I needed to peel the apples, toss them with lemon juice and sugar and place them in the dough.

I needed to make things. I needed to have things become, rather than go away.

I needed to cry, a lot. I needed to tell people that he wasn't just any cat. That I got him the last year of my drinking, the darkest and loneliest time in my life. I needed to tell people that he was the first thing I was able to take care of outside of myself, to make amends to. I needed them to know how, when my mother died, he sat with me as I made strange animal howls of grief.

Everything in life comes down to what we need at any given moment. That is how, I think, we get through what we get through - needing from minute to minute.

And that was what I needed, this week.

Writing under duress

I am writing this post at gunpoint. Knifepoint. Somethingpoint. My new therapist says to write something, stream-of-consciousness, no editing. My new therapist says to take action, to just engage in the act of writing, ego and outcome be damned. Many other people, of course, have given me the very same advice. But I'm not paying THEM an arm and a leg to tell me the obvious, am I?

I react well to financial investment in self-improvement, apparently. In other words, I'm afraid of going broke, so I need to feel I'm getting something concrete out of therapy.

I don't want to write about what I've been eating lately, for which I'm certain some of you will be grateful. It's not that I'm eating horrendously. Nor am I sticking to my food plan 100%. I'm firmly entrenched in the process of figuring it all out and I am bored, bored, bored of talking about it.

I keep asking myself what to write about here and the answer that keeps coming is: pain, pain, pain. It's not that I want to write about it. It's just that it's so bad right now I can't really see past it. It's like an annoying, distracting flashing neon sign so bright in my eyes I can't see anything else.

A couple of months ago, I went to see a pain management specialist. I have a rich history with pain management specialists - largely that I have a tremendous fear of them. So many times I've been told that I don't have fibromyalgia, that it doesn't exist, only to then be diagnosed with it. So many times I've been trotted off to the ineffective eight sessions of PT my insurance covers or pushed out the door with muttered instructions to eat better and put heat/ice on whatever ails me.

Doctors, in general, hate it when they cannot help you. Writers, in general, hate it when they cannot edit their own writing. This stream-of-consciousness directive is killing me.

But I digress. I went to the new pain management people. No one told me I didn't have fibromyalgia. No one told me I didn't have damage from two car accidents. No one said I can't help you. They said: here are four or five things that we can try and I wept with hope.

Now I'm two months into the process and feeling more cynical than before. I understand the goal is to keep going, keep moving forward, keep trying. But so far, the efforts to improve my pain seem to be falling flat. I did a horrendous six-week dance with Cymbalta, which I am still withdrawing from. I wasn't even on it long enough to see if it helped my pain.

I had an MRI, which showed two bulging cervical disks on top of everything else. I had a cervical epidural injection of steroids, which didn't do a thing except relieve my bank account of $600. Today I get to have another and feel like if I could have a stern talk with the injection about just what it's costing me, maybe it would endeavor to be more effective?

And then there was the psychiatrist they sent me to, who wrote about me for 15 minutes in large, childish letters on a legal pads. He handed me the name of a nutritionist and another doctor, who believes the body holds repressed rage as pain and who, he says, may be able to cure me of fibromyalgia in four, three-hour lectures. I scoffed. Internally, of course, because I'm polite like that.

But now? After the new meds and the epidural have failed me? Let's just say I'm inching closer to thinking about considering thinking about the possibility that that particular brand of voodoo might work.

And then there's the new therapist, who I saw once out of obligation, marching into her office with the intent to tell her I wasn't coming back. I already have a relationship with a therapist who I see when I need to. I don't need to start from scratch with the exhausting process of paying to tell a stranger who I am.

The universe, of course, had other plans. Because the new therapist says things that hit me where I live. The new therapist is coming at me from a different angle. She knows pain. She knows 12-step recovery. And, I'm slightly sheepish to admit, I knew in my gut she could help me.

She says to write, so here it is. My babbling. She says that we have to work on the idea that I have pain, it doesn't have me. It sounds like an awful, awful bumper sticker.

It seems like I have no choice but to try it out.

The numbers don't lie

So, a million years ago, when I began boring you with tales of this new whole foods, plant-based eating plan, I mentioned that the basic goal was to try and bring my cholesterol into check. As I mentioned in a previous post, part of the problem with me has been managing my expectations, which I was concerned were growing completely out of control. I have been known to start a food plan and throw in the towel when I failed to lose 20 pounds in two weeks. It was not too far afield to think my expectations of the Engine 2 Diet's cholesterol-lowering powers would be equally unrealistic.

As it turns out, not so much.

First, let's go back to the beginning, shall we? Back to my starting numbers, my lipid portfolio of shame - which I never did quite get around to telling you about, did I? I knew I'd have to eventually, but I was embarrassed. So let's start with the worst...

Let's start with what I weighed...

Ha! That's cute. You thought I was actually going to tell you that. Not on your life. Besides, I don't actually know what I weighed at the beginning of this adventure or what I weigh now. I stopped weighing myself a while ago and I don't keep a scale at home. I'm just too susceptible to pinning my entire self worth on that number. (I do let my doctor weigh me, however, but she doesn't tell me what the number is.)

Some numbers, however, I do know. I know that I started this process with an all-time high combined cholesterol of 243. (It's funny, when I tell people this, they either say, "Oh, my God, that's huge!" or "Oh, that's not so bad," which I think says a lot about their own family's numbers.

My LDL (the bad stuff) was 162. Not good. My HDL (the good stuff) was a respectable 50 - not great, but not the worst. And my triglycerides, whatever the hell those are, were 206

For the past month or so I've wondered - and by "wondered," I mean "obsessed about" - what results a person could reasonably expect in just 30-odd days. Sure, I wanted to see 60-point drop. That seemed fair and I''m impatient like that. After many long and mind-numbing internal arguments, I settled on hoping for 30. But I told everyone I was hoping for 20. Gotta save face an' all.

So when my doctor emailed me my results yesterday, I was gobsmacked to find out that my current total cholesterol is...189. Yep, that's a whopping 53 point, or 22%, decrease. The majority of that - and the part my doc's most pleased with - is the drop in my LDL from 162 to 104. A 35% drop.

You guys.  In just 28 days. OMG.

To say I'm pleased with the results so far is an understatement. Honestly, while I wasn't exactly contemplating a cheese steak, my focus and enthusiasm have been flagging a bit lately. Nothing like knowing that what you're doing is working to keep you motivated.

Ultimately, my goal is to get my total cholesterol under 150, which some researchers consider the "heart attack free zone." We'll see where I am in another 30 days.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, the news isn't all the best. Oddly, my good cholesterol also dropped, from 50 to 44. That's not exactly a desirable outcome, but I'm hoping with greater focus on exercise I can turn that around.

My triglycerides went up considerably - from 153 to 206. Not sure why that would be. Maybe because I'm not even sure what they are. Still, that's a move in the wrong direction, so I'm just going to sally forth and hope that things on that front even out over time.

But the point is this, y'all: I'm going to sally forth. Seems to be a theme around here of late.

Unexpected Territory, or Notes from Day 32

I had so many great plans for how I would write about the monumentous reaching of Day 28, the last day in the Engine 2 28-Day Challenge. I wanted to write about the Tater Tot Debacle of Day 26. I wanted to write on Day 28 about what a tough, unrelenting physically and spiritual journey I'd just completed. (I may or may not have just read Cheryl Strayed's lovely memoir "Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.") I may or may not have been over-identifying with her. Because, in fact, only one of us set out to traverse a tremendous stretch of land, crossing multiple treacherous terrains, many for which she was unproperly prepared. I'll give you a hint: it wasn't me. But I'm a projector and as I read her book - fairly devoured it, actually - I'm not ashamed to say I did feel the slightest thread of comradeship. Maybe thread is too strong a word. But what's less than a thread?

Either way, if you will stop laughing long enough at that comparison, I will embarrass myself further by trying to explain what I mean. My journey was unknown, as was Strayed's. I wasn't sure what I was in for and sometimes found myself woefully unprepared, just like Strayed. I encountered impenetrable walls of ice and crossed paths with rattlesnakes and bears. Just like...oh, forget it.

But it was hard in its own way and, I will confess, when my enthusiasm flagged around days 26 and 27, it was reading Strayed's book that injected me with instant perspective. How am I going to complain about not eating cheese when I'm reading about someone trekking in hundred-plus degree heat with half her body weight in supplies on her back? Don't worry. I did complain about it. Plenty. The book just made me feel like more of an ass for it.

I had all these thoughts about what Day 28 was going to look like, feel like. What it would mean. You know, heavy thoughts, man.

But none of that navel-gazing really came into play because Day 27 found me laid out with a cold/flu virus the likes of which I hadn't known. Two days of exhaustion, shakiness, dizziness, pain swallowing, headache and nonstop sneezing. (Now am I on par with Cheryl Strayed? Still no? Sheesh.)

There were no big Day 28 feasts. No parades. No celebratory phone calls or embarrassing deliveries of flowers. Just me, on the couch, feeling puny.

I think, in a way, that's a good thing. Because by the time I came up for air, albeit unsteadily, a couple of days had gone by and we were still just eating the way we had been eating. Without much fanfare, we decided to stay the course, soldier on, sallyforth.

And that, I think, is something even Cheryl Strayed might admit we have in common.

I'm traveling right now and still getting my sea legs, but when I feel better I'm sure I will write more about my conclusions from this adventure - and what it's going to look like for me in the next phase. I'll also get my blood tests work back from the doctor and we can see how effective just 28 days on this eating plan can be for lowering cholesterol.
Anyhoo, you'll just have to be real patient, won't you? Perched on the edge of your seat, even.

Day 19: Adventures in low-fat vegan baking

There will never come a time during the 28-day Engine 2 challenge where I say, "Yeah, but I just wish I could spend more time cooking." Within the past couple of days, though, I have found myself really missing baking, which had been one of my favorite hobbies throughout the winter and spring. I was getting close to mastering my pie crust and had just started to figure out cakes. So I decided to jump in and try a few low-fat vegan baking recipes and see what shook out. I started out braving the recipe entitled "Blueberry Dumpster Cobbler" from the Engine 2 cookbook. The book provides an explanation about the name, something to do with a dumpster fire being the fastest kind to put out and this is a quick and easy recipe. Still, it's an unfortunate choice for the name, especially since I can think of a host of other reasons to call it a dumpster cobbler.

I should have known better when I checked the list of ingredients - whole wheat pastry flour, baking powder, vanilla, soy milk, agave and blueberries. I thought, "Really? Can that add up to something that actually tastes good?"

And the answer is no. No, it cannot.

The cobbler part was dense and flat and had a strange chemical taste to it. Perhaps it was just the weird flavor combination of the soy milk and wheat flour. Maybe it was the taste of impending death. Who's to say? Either way, I'm not sure the reason we eat baked goods is because we want to invest a good amount of time trying to get used to the taste.

(It should be noted, however - and expected, by anyone who knows my husband well - that he ate the entire cobbler anyway. In which case, I think he becomes the "dumpster" in the cobbler name.)

Undaunted - or daunted, but eager to get that taste out of my mouth - I moved on to the Low Fat Vegan Black Bean Brownies featured on the Happy Herbivore site. I've heard good things about using black beans in regular brownies but, my expectations dashed by the Great Dumpster Cobbler Disaster of Aught-Twelve, I didn't have the highest expectations for these.

Which was probably fair, given that even the photo on the website isn't fooling anyone that these are going to taste like your regular ol' brownies. And they don't. They use bananas to help retain moisture, so the result is a slightly cocoa-y, banana-y, fudgy...thing. It's like a brownie's less-fun cousin, the one who sits in the corner at the wedding and no one asks her to dance because she's just a little weird even though she means really, really well.

But I'm trying to remember that my palate has already changed a lot in the last couple of weeks. I'm genuinely enjoying foods I wasn't thrilled about before. It's possible that I could become a person who craves these low-fat vegan brownies. It's also possible I could become a supermodel.

In case you miss my point, what I'm saying is: not likely.

Next up was another Happy Herbivore recipe: the Blueberry Breakfast Cake recipe. Now, if you think I was drawn to this recipe simply because it has the word "cake" in it, like a toddler with no self-control, you'd be 100% right. It's actually more like a coffee cake or a breakfast quick-bread and it benefits, I think, from a wider range of ingredients to give it a pretty nice texture. The flavor wasn't outstanding, but I think the fact that I didn't use great blueberries deserved a lot of the blame.

Dense and moist - absent the fluff eggs would bring to the equations - no one's gonna mistake this for a regular coffee cake. But that isn't really the point, is it? It'll still taste outstanding with a ton of butter spread on it! Kidding!

Except, you know, that it would.

Here's what I think: incredibly low-fat vegan baking is not going to be amazing. Also, I'm probably the last person on earth to realize that. I'm curious to see what happens when I'm ready to play fast and loose with the fat grams. Maybe I'll discover that there's just no substitute for butter. But there's probably an acceptable compromise.

Or perhaps it's better to save up for an occasion to land face-down in one of Big City Small World Bakery's amaaaaazing vegan ding dongs, which could go head-to-head with any non-vegan chocolate cake any day of the week.

Although - and I was so fixated on results that I almost completely failed to notice this part - I still really, really enjoyed the act of baking again. Yes, even when it should have gone right in the dumpster.

Day 16: Post-travel, lessons learned

The black bean hummus tartine at Le Pain Quotidien in Georgetown.

First, can we just note that it is somehow DAY 16 of the Engine 2 Diet? I'm really not entirely sure how that happened. As we geared up for the halfway point - Day 14 - I wasn't sure I was going to be able to follow through. Oh, who am I kidding? I knew I could follow through. I just didn't know if I wanted to.

What a difference a few days make. Not to mention we have now survived what has heretofore been the biggest obstacle we've faced in our 28-day Engine 2 diet: travel.

Last Wednesday, we left the considerable safety and comfort of our little quinoa cocoon and headed out into the big, bad world. Specifically, the big, bad world of the Washington DC area to spend QT with Chris' family and a little bonus time with friends we hadn't seen in a long time.

Here's what we knew: the travel portion itself would require planning. The faffing around at the airport, the flight, the drive from Baltimore to DC -- none of it would be long, per se, but I only need about ten minutes to work up the justification for a snack. Fine. Nothing that a bag of trail mix, some fresh fruit, and a handful of Larabars couldn't fix.

We also knew we were staying in a hotel without a refrigerator. Or, without a refrigerator that doesn't charge a million dollars if you temporarily remove their soda to make room for refreshments of your own. That limited  what we could have in our hotel room for breakfasts. "No problem," we said cheerily and with stellar attitudes! "Who needs a real breakfast when you have the aforementioned trail mix and Larabars?!"

Biggest concern of all: there would be the matter of eating actual meals - both out at restaurants and at the home of family members kind enough to entertain us without having wheatberries injected into their carefully planned menus. One thing we have been determined to avoid is becoming those people who expect others to accommodate their crazy-ass eating approach. We realize we're the ones who are insane.

I will tell you, although I write from the comfort of the "other side" of this experience, it was tougher than I imagined. But here's what I learned:

Safety trumps variety: if you find a winner, stick with it

With some help from a clean-eating pal, we were able to identify a couple of healthy, vegan friendly options. She recommended Le Pain Quotidien and Sweetgreen, both chains that would give us at least a few options.

On our second day there, we lunched at Le Pain Quotidien and thought we'd died and gone to heaven. More than two options on the menu!!! And the food was absolutely delicious. We had a tartine - their specialty, Belgian open-faced sandwiches - of house-made whole grain bread topped with black bean hummus, roasted red peppers and avocado. Sublime! Chris ordered an organic quinoa tabbouleh salad that also rocked our world.

Funny how your perspective changes so much and so quickly when you eat this way. If you'd told me two weeks ago I'd have gone bananas over a quinoa tabbouleh salad, I'd have punched you in the face.

The organic quinoa taboule at Le Pain Quotidien in Georgetown.

So grateful for Le Pain Quotidien were we that we dined there again for brunch on Sunday, branching out to different dishes and feeling equally delighted and sated. And Sunday evening, we met our friend Lisa for dinner at the buzzed-about Founding Farmers, which also has a vegan-friendly section of the menu. It felt possitively decadent - delicious, creative, thoughtful food elevating what you might think of as vegan. Chickpeas and artichokes in a vegan puff pastry pocket? White bean cutlets in a gorgeous broth? Check and check!

It's hard to describe how it feels eating in places that give us more than one option. I'm sure if you've been vegetarian for a while, or are vegan, then you get it. It's also a little like being in early recovery. If you go into a bar, sure, there are non-alcoholic options for you to drink, but there's also a heightened and potentially-dangerous awareness of what everyone else "gets" to have. It feels unsafe. However, if you find yourself at a party where there is no alcohol served or a restaurant without a liquor license, that whole element of anxiety is removed from the situation and you feel...normal.

Plan, plan, plan

It turns out a handful of trail mix and some Larabars are not a plan. Nor is going to Chris' sister's house to see what they're making for dinner and then debating long and hard about whether or not you can make the vegetarian Mexican lasagna work for you (what about the cheese? the white flour tortillas?) and waiting until you're too pissy and hungry before you go off in search of some ready-made stuff you can actually eat.

A better idea: plan ahead of things you can make to accompany the planned dinner without insulting your hostess. You're not going to feel as bad eating your chickpea salad and portabella mushrooms while everyone else has buttery orzo and grilled salmon. (Note that I said you won't feel "as bad.") Or hit Whole Foods or the local health store and have options in hand when you arrive. Once we got that part right, it kept my self pity at bay.

There will be cheating

Maybe not for the zealous and true, but Chris and I are neither of those things. Hunger and heat got the better of us sometimes and we wound up making compromises that weren't strictly E2-approved. There may have been a mango sugar-free slushie we tried, rationalizing that it's really no different than the Diet Coke we've been drinking. It may also have been disgusting.

Some wheat pretzels were ingested in a fit of pique. Notice I didn't say WHOLE wheat pretzels. GASP! Just regular ones.

And then there was the falafel. And by "the falafel," I mean "the falafels." Even though we eventually struck a balance with making sure there was enough food for us at dinner, we didn't have any contingency plan for being starving at 10 o'clock once we were back at our hotel. Searching the nearest open restaurants, we settled on a falafel place.


Our rational: it's probably vegan, definitely vegetarian. The questionable parts: hummus made with oil, fried falafel patties, all wrapped in a white flour pita. We hemmed. We hawed. We ate. You should have seen us, folded into chairs in our hotel room, devouring falafel as though it were chocolate cake, feeling reckless and decadent, rationalizing our behavior.

Damn, it was tasty, too.

Let it go

Part of me - a very old, well-practiced part - is trying to beat me up over the "cheating." But the rest of me has a good belly-laugh at the idea that eating some hummus and falafel counts as cheating at all. I mean, how far must I have come, how well must I have generally stuck with this eating plan, for that to even be a thing?

And I didn't decide to do this to be stringent and punish myself over little things. No, in fact, I'm thinking back over this trip and counting how often we did the right things. Not to mention the number of times when doing the right thing was actually entirely pleasurable and delicious. They say your palate changes once you start to eat this way. Maybe that's so. But my brain's definitely changing along with it.

Day 9 or, I imagine some of you have lost a bet by now

As I sit down to write this, I am eating a heaping bowl of brown rice pad thai noodles with mushrooms, red peppers and tatsoi and topped with - wait for it - nutritional yeast.


Forgive me. I suppose you could say that the self-pity has settled in full-force. I think it started about five days ago and I expect it to last, oh, say, 18 more days. This eating plan, she wears on me.

And perhaps I'd be more chipper if I had undergone some sort of miraculous transformation in the last nine days but, sadly, this is not the case. Where I expected to feel energetic and invigorated, I am tired and cranky. I'm still not eating enough. I'm hungry all the time and my intestines are in a constant state of legume-induced agony.

I have hopes this will soon pass. Otherwise, I shall snap and kill someone.

I will say I owe the fact that I am still on plan to my kind and supportive husband, Chris. Were I doing this alone, it would be a nightmare. Can you imagine the marital fall-out if I sat eating a bowl of faro while he chowed down on a burger? No doubt our recent wedding anniversary would have been our last.

Chris deserves all the credit for keeping our eyes on the prize these last few days. Yesterday, I was rolling around on the couch, moaning, "French fries! Freeeeennnnnch frieeeeees!" He did not cave. He may have suggested I have a sweet potato instead. If I'd had the energy, he'd have been punched in the face. I'm still feeling very face-punchy. But ultimately, I appreciate his fortitude.

I think. Now that I'm writing about it, French fries are starting to sound mighty good again...

In other news, I am also feeling quite poor. Now, I realize I am not poor but I'd be lying if I wasn't having a little produce-induced financial insecurity. What I'm saying is: eating a ton of fresh produce is expensive. I've always known that this is a major reason that America's poorest are also our most obese and health-challenged. But I get it now more than ever. Yes, the whole grains are cheap, but the shopping carts full of fruits and veggies - which we are consuming, dutifully, in giant quantities - add up.

There's an anecdote in the Engine 2 book - which I have grown to hate with a searing, white-hot intensity (see, Rip Esselstyn's not the only one who can draw on fire analogies) - from a woman who says she's saving a ton of money feeding a family of four on a whole-foods, plant-based diet. Unless she was feeding her family a rack of lamb every night - and maybe she was - I don't see it.

Speaking of the book, I understand that its goal is to promote this healthy-eating lifestyle, and that from a Marketing 101 perspective, it's a good idea to pepper the text with glowing testimonies. However, I think I'd be more on board with this if there were also testimonies from people saying, "This is hard. It's challenging. It's not always delicious and it takes a good deal of adapting. I had to struggle for a while before I found my stride." Selling this sort of transition as easy and without obstacles, claiming that substitutions taste JUST LIKE their high-fat, processed food counterparts seems disingenuous to me.

And a final observation from the past few days: vegetarian products that fancy themselves meat-like generally a) aren't and b) suck. I'm looking at you, seitan. Although it's been 20 years since I last had it, I thought perhaps there had been some massive leaps and bounds with seitan. Alas, it seems the scientific community has inexplicably been focused on other things.

I thought, Hmmm. Maybe this giant, chewy lump of wheat gluten really does taste like chicken.


We won't be doing that again. Why, if we're eating a plant-based diet, do we even need to pretend like we're eating meat? It's not fooling anyone. So I'm sticking with tofu which, although not always pleasant, at least we understand one another. No block of tofu ever said, "I'm exactly like chicken!" Because we'd all just laugh at that, wouldn't we? SILLY TOFU!


Day Four

Is it a bad sign that I'm still counting the days of this four-week adventure? I mean, is it bad that the last thing I think before I fall asleep at night is "Three down, 25 to go..."? Or that the first thing I think when I wake up is, "Jesus, really? We're only on day four?"

I may be losing my enthusiasm for this change and could require a serious attitude adjustment. Or perhaps - just perhaps - I need to be a little patient with myself and acknowledge it's gonna take a little while for me to settle in.

I'm finding that the biggest challenge to eating a whole-foods, plant-based diet is my deep and abiding commitment to laziness. You guys, this thing is hard work. I don't mean it's hard work avoiding big piles of meat and bowls of ice cream. So far, that hasn't been too difficult. But the problem with whole foods is that they come whole. Which means you have to do a lot of prep work. Significantly more than pulling a Lean Cuisine out of the box and bunging it in the microwave for five minutes.

If anyone says that all things worth doing require hard work, I will punch them in the face. I'm playing it pretty fast and loose with the face punches right about now.

That said, there have been some gratifying experiments - my quinoa, corn, mango and black bean salad, for example, turned out to be delish. There have also been some food experiments that taste distinctly like punishment. Like the chocolate "pudding" from the Engine 2 recipe selection. It involves mixing together cocoa powder, silken tofu, agave and vanilla.

There's an anecdote in the Engine 2 book that they served it to a fire chief who doesn't subscribe to their healthy living approach and he didn't know it wasn't regular chocolate pudding. To which I say, with all gratitude and respect for the service he provides, that fire chief's an idiot.

Of course, I still ate a bowl of it.

In addition to - or perhaps because of - the amount of planning and prepping required to eat this way, I'm finding my biggest obstacle is that I'm not eating enough. I'll put off meals or snacks because I can't be bothered trying to get my pea-sized brain to figure out what to ingest and then I find myself at the garden center grasping at giant pots so I don't pass out. I have to work on eating more and more often. Not normally a problem for me in the face of junk food. Odd that it would be so difficult when the challenge is to eat healthily.

I also realized that no matter how much lip service I paid to my intentions, I have to recognize that some of my expectations are unrealistic. The purpose of this exercise is to lower my cholesterol, to become more heart-healthy and try to upset my genetic legacy for heart disease. And yet, I found myself, on day two wondering why I wasn't rail thin yet. Clearly I have to do some work on the strong mental connection I have between eating changes and weight. Considering my mother put me on my first diet when I was 11, it's probably understandable that this is a tough rope to cut.

And then there's my pain. The book talks about how eating this way helps with any number of chronic ailments and, even though there wasn't a single mention of pain-related issues, I secretly internalized a hope that it would cure my fibromyalgia. In four days, at that. I don't think I even knew how much I'd hoped this to be the case until a pain cycle settled in and I got mad at the diet. Nobody promised me less pain. I made that part up. Get it together, brain!

In case you're interested, here's a rough "recipe" for the quinoa salad I made the other day. I just played with the ratios, so you can adjust them to include more or less of things. You could also substitute other whole grains or even whole wheat cous cous for the quinoa if it's not your bag.


  • 2 cups quinoa, cooked & cooled
  • 2 cups black beans
  • 1 cup corn (I used the canned Summer Crisp corn, as it's crunchier)
  • 1 mango, diced into little bits
  • 1/3 cup diced green onions
  • 1/2 cup diced red or yellow peppers

Mix 'em all together in a big bowl and toss with the following dressing:


  • Juice of 1 or 2 limes
  • 1 large clove of garlic, minced
  • 2 TBS agave syrup
  • Couple pinches cumin
  • salt & pepper to taste

Now, the Engine 2 Diet technically nixes adding oil to food, but I added about a tablespoon of grapeseed oil to the dressing. I don't actually think it made much difference, so I'd probably just pass on it next time.





I survived day one. Can I be done now?

Well, folks. I did it. I survived yesterday, our first day of LIFE CHANGE - by which I mean, following the Engine 2 Diet for a plant-based, whole-foods approach. And, let me tell you, it's every bit as exciting as it sounds. Sunday I made a lengthy list of items the book recommended I'd need to pick up. Being the good, obedient girl that I am, I added things to my list being careful not to think too long and hard about a) what they were or b) what the hell I was supposed to do with them.

However, as Sunday slipped away, I became increasingly gun shy about the whole thing. What was I doing? Why was I doing it? Amazing how quickly I can forget. At Whole Foods, I tossed items dutifully into my cart, fighting a feeling of doom with each addition. Liquid amino acids? I don't know what ANY of those words mean. NUTRITIONAL YEAST FLAKES? ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?

But I promised myself I'd make this change. And so I came home Sunday night, put away all the evidence that I was about to embark on a brave new journey, and then promptly ate McDonald's and a big slice of chocolate cake. If I gotta go down, I'm going down fighting.

Then Monday rolled around. D-Day. I woke up refreshed and ready to meet the challenge with this attitude: I'm not doing it and you can't make me. I was facing the first of many moments of panic-induced catatonia as I thought: what the hell am I supposed to eat?

Starting off gently, my husband handed me coffee with almond milk. Well, that'll take some adjusting.

As the day progressed, Chris kept saying,  "Look at us, being all vegan." Until I told him that if he didn't stop using the word vegan I was going to punch him in the face. Now that I'm actually doing this thing - as opposed to flapping my mouth about it - there's something about that label that gets me panicked, makes me think I'm doing something impossible or undesirable. Yes, it's shorter than saying, "Look at us, trying to eat a whole-foods, mostly-plant-based diet." But that version doesn't seem quite as scary.

Not quite, anyway.

I decided that the only way I'll survive the days ahead is to stop looking at this as some overwhelming, foreign change - and focus instead on what I'd normally eat and figure out how to adapt it. Morning, then, wasn't that tough. Usually I just have coffee and fresh fruit-and-vegetable juice and, except for the fat-free creamer I like to mainline, there's not much to alter there.

Then lunch came around and because I hadn't wanted to think too much about it, I delayed it to the point where I was shaking with hunger. I almost cried at the realization that I would have to make some food. And while I wasn't up to tackling a recipe from the Engine 2 book, I know enough about what I'm supposed to be eating to throw something together. Into a bowl went some cold brown rice, a rinsed can of chickpeas, some chopped cucumbers, asparagus and peppers. A small handful of walnuts and dried cranberries.

I made a quick dressing of fresh lime juice, garlic, and agave. And, here's where I have to confess my first serious departure: I added a little grapeseed oil to the dressing. I KNOW! The Engine 2 police would have confiscated it, but it made it a little more tasty for me. While I'm wary of giving myself too much rope,  I'm also trying not to be too rigid about this. Success will be if I incorporate most - or even many - of the nutrition lessons into my everyday life. I'm not going to freak out about a tablespoon of oil split across a giant salad. (Although clearly I AM freaking out a bit, since you can HEAR the rationalization, can't you?)

The rest of the day progressed okay. Ditto today so far. I won't pretend that it isn't tough. Again, the biggest thing I'm battling is this voice inside me that screams "YOU CAN'T EAT ANYTHING," when, clearly, that's not true. It's just that I'm going to have to try. Put forth a little effort. Get creative.

I know. It sounds exhausting, doesn't it?

And a final observation: if there's such a thing as the Chickpea Council of America - and I like to think there is - then all I can say is they are going to owe me BIG TIME. They are fast becoming a mainstay of my diet, and if they're casting for Miss Chickpea USA, I guess all I'm saying is I'd like to, at least, be considered.

Like a vegan

A few months ago, I watched the documentary Forks over Knives and – persuaded by its arguments for a plant-based, whole food diet – I promptly became a vegan.

In my mind.

In reality, I didn’t immediately change much about my eating habits. Maybe I bought a little freekeh at the store and a handful of wheat berries, but it’s not like I cooked them or anything.

On some level, though, the messages from the film got stuck in my craw, for better or worse,  especially those linking an animal-protein and dairy heavy diet with heart disease. I’m no good with science-y stuff – as evidenced by the fact that I just used the phrase “science-y stuff” – but the fact that heart disease and cancer rates are significantly lower in countries whose diets are nearly devoid of those things is pretty heady stuff.

Especially since, nearly three weeks ago, my father underwent open heart surgery, a quintuple bypass. He is, thankfully, recovering well but the experience has forced me to take a more serious look at my heart health.

My mother died at 60 of a heart attack brought on by an aortic aneurysm. There had been no previous symptoms or indications that she was suffering from heart disease. And this seems to be in keeping with statistics – for many, sudden death is the first and only symptom of heart disease.

My parents’ history combined puts all four of their children in the highest risk group for developing heart disease.  For someone who spent a chunk of her twenties having panic attacks and feeling certain her heart was going to explode, this isn’t calming news.

I mentioned in a previous post about my struggle with some corticosteroids I was on for low blood pressure. When we were trying to figure out the cause of that issue, I did a stress test. If you haven’t had one, it’s a delightful process in which they hook you up to an ECG while you exercise on a treadmill for a few minutes, as hard as you can, to see how your heart fares. It’s intended to uncover any irregularities or blockages. The good news was that my heart, as far as that’s concerned, is in dandy shape.

But taking the steroids left me packing a lot of extra weight, which is piled on top of the extra weight I was already carrying and have carried for most of my life. That’s no good for the ol’ ticker, either. So far, my meager attempts to lose it haven’t amounted much and that’s been nagging at me – not to mention dampening my spirits.

In addition, I have high cholesterol and I’ve been unsuccessful in lowering it significantly, even under the specter of being put on a statin – something I really, really would like to avoid.

A segment of Forks over Knives covered the story of a firehouse in Austin, Texas, where the men had banded together to eat more healthily when it was revealed one of their members had dangerously high cholesterol. The firehouse adopted – and still sticks to – a plant-based, whole-foods diet. I kind of love the idea of all these strong, bulky men sitting around eating quinoa and carrots.

Fear, as you probably know, is a terrific motivator. Sitting in the waiting room for five hours as they cracked open my father’s chest and removed veins from his legs to build five different bypass sites, my thoughts weren’t all about his wellbeing. I wish I could say they were. But a part of me was equally consumed with fear because I couldn’t help thinking: I don’t want that to be me.

Thus, a few weeks of mulling later, I find myself gearing up to make the change. The Change.  I’m about to embark on the 28-day eating plan outlined in the Engine 2 Diet by Rip Esselstyn, the Austin firefighter who designed the eating plan for his station.

The book says you can make a significant change in your cholesterol and triglyceride numbers in just this short period. Now, I’m not a person who is converted instantly and without skepticism by documentaries. Does part of me wonder if this isn’t all selective research citing and hype aimed at moving more books off the shelves? Sure. But I also know, on some gut level, that eating this way is going to be elucidating.

I do, however, like that the book is frank about the fact that, after the 28-day period, people maintain their plant-based, whole-food diets to varying degrees. It helps me that the message isn’t: you have to change your ways forever and ever. It seems to be: try this, it’ll help you, and if you decided to hang on to some or all of the eating habits, that’ll be great for you.

So…here we go. Monday is The Day. And since I have a little history of writing about my struggles with change, I’ll be tracking the experience here in the hopes it’ll keep me a little bit more accountable.

Now, who’s with me?


Where’d everybody go?

In which our heroine diagnoses herself & curses the healthcare system in our country

It took me a while – embarrassingly long, actually – to figure out why I haven’t been fired up about writing this blog. Or taking and posting photos on Learning Curve. Or doing much of anything, really. It took me until two days ago to figure out why the last six or seven weeks have been marked with a staggering ennui, requiring energy I simply don’t have just to go through the motions of each day. Weeks of being a ghost presence in my own life, feeling disjointed and disconnected from everyone and everything. A few days ago, I was self-diagnosing online – as you do – examining the side-effects of a corticosteroid I started taking a couple months back. I had noticed sudden weight gain, face puffiness, fatigue and an increase in joint and muscle pain and, sure enough, each of those was on the checklist.

Then, I saw, at the very end of the list, this little gem: depression.

I know it seems obvious looking at it from the outside, but to me it came as a bit of a lightning bolt. A disinterested, dull lightning bolt, but a bolt nonetheless. Here I had been thinking that my life had just reached a point of being patently uninteresting, that I had used up all my enjoyment and would need to hunker down for the next few decades of disinterest.  When what was actually happening seemed to be real, clinical depression.

Now, I am no stranger to depression. I’ve suffered from it on and off since adolescence. Clearly, though, it’s been a long enough time since I’ve experienced it in full force that I had trouble recognizing it. That, I suppose, is the good news.

I also think that I’ve become used to certain cyclical dips in engagement, shall we say, that come from being in chronic pain. It’s a given that if you don’t feel well much of the time, your energy and enthusiasm are going to take a hit. And I think I too easily call those moments depression – we do tend to bandy the term around, don’t we? – so that when the real thing comes a-knocking I didn’t recognize it early enough.

So now I am left with a choice – although it really doesn’t seem much of one. The corticosteroids I was taking were keeping my blood pressure stable; somehow mine became weirdly low, which I discovered because I felt faint all the time, tired, and had no energy. Ironic, then, that the treatment for it created a similar set of symptoms. Similar, but not the same. Because even when I was wandering around the surface of the earth with blood pressure of 70/50, I may have felt woozy and tired, but I didn’t feel despondent.

That’s the trade-off with modern medicine, isn’t it? Do I choose the condition or its treatment? How do you determine which is the lesser of two evils?

And all of it leads me to another place today: some very real anger at and sensitivity about the healthcare debate that is at hand in our country. It is difficult for me to hear people argue theories and abstracts when I am one of the people upon whom the outcome will have a real and serious impact.

My husband and I are both self-employed, each of us bringing a pre-existing condition or two to the table. He’s largely a healthy guy, a marathon runner. On paper, I’m a mess. I have fibromyalgia (a chronic condition with no known cure), hypothyroidism, polycystic ovarian syndrome and orthostatic hypotension. I’m a recovering alcoholic to boot – which seems to give actuaries the heeby jeebies above all else.

From a health insurance standpoint, it makes life difficult. I can’t tell you how many individual plans we were rejected from before finding one that would accept us – at an exorbitant monthly copay. People like us cannot have it all. Would we choose catastrophic coverage and keep our fingers crossed? Good prescription medicine coverage or copays for doctor visits, because we couldn’t have both?

We wound up with a plan that helps cover prescription meds, procedures at 70/30, but no doctor visits. Before, when we had group insurance through work, I was able to see specialists who could help keep all my ailments in balance. That’s simply not a reality for us anymore, and it has had a very real and significant impact on my health.

That said, I am truly grateful that we have health insurance at all, or else we’d be facing two possibilities: either we’d go bankrupt trying to take care of my many and sundry illnesses or I’d just have to go entirely untreated. It is not lost on me that those are the options many face.

I don’t like to get too political on here, mostly because I’m not particularly good at it and I rarely have any idea what I’m talking about. But at a gathering the other night, some friends debated the question of whether or not healthcare is a basic human right. I understand that some people don’t think so and I can intellectually process their rationale, but it’s awfully hard to hear it and not take it personally.

Because no matter how objective we pretend to be about it, what we’re really talking about, to me, is whether or not I have the right to be well, to have access to a pain free life without it costing us everything we have and jeopardizing our financial security. And it seems to me that those arguing against it always seem to be some combination of young, healthy, or wealthy enough to afford access to private, top-notch care.

I don’t really wish to start a debate, though, and perhaps I’m over-simplifying matters. I often do. I’m a Scorpio, after all. I’m hard-wired to react. And what does all this rambling have to do with the original matter at hand, my depression? I don’t know, but I will say this: despair is a terrible place to be, even temporarily.

Yesterday I was able to email my doctor and get her advice on coming off the corticosteroids. It made me aware, simultaneously, of how lucky I am to have a doctor who consults with me via email to help keep visit costs to a minimum, and how crazy it is that I can’t easily and affordably get help figuring this out, achieving some sort of balance.

So I have been off the corticosteroids for two days. I won’t say it’s been a miracle recovery, but I’m starting to feel better. My spirits are slightly lifted, but now I have to wait and see if my blood pressure plunges. It feels like a tremendous trade-off and I feel a little bit like I’m figuring it out alone.

However, I do notice that I seem to have written a blog entry here, something that has felt entirely too daunting the past few weeks. That’s something, right? It didn’t cost me a penny, either. And I didn’t have to wait for the Supreme Court to decide on it.

For the love of Leslee, Facebook & humanity in general

I’ve been thinking a lot in recent days about my friend Leslee. At least, I think she’d agree that we’re friends. We both lived in St. Louis at the same time, ran in the same circles, and while we didn’t get to know one another as well as I’d have liked, we always enjoyed each other’s company. And I think we’d have become better friends if I hadn’t moved to Ann Arbor in 2005. Although, considering Leslee’s always off gallivanting in some other part of the globe, teaching English or generally doing good, it’s hard to say for sure. Instead, my friendship with Leslee has moved primarily to Facebook, “liking” a comment here and there or leaving a smart-ass remark on the other’s “wall.” As with many of my Facebook friends, I haven’t actually laid eyes on Leslee in a very long time.

Yeah, I know. I’m aware that cynics denounce Facebook and other social media as substitutes for “real” friendships. I get that they’re the lazy person’s way to stay up-to-date on people’s lives with just a mouse click. And I know that it’s far more de rigeur to roll your eyes and declare oneself “over” Facebook, but I love, love, love the fact that it has allowed me to keep tabs on people I might have lost track of otherwise.

This is all swirling around my head right now because on March 1, her first day back in Korea, Leslee was hit by a car in Daegu. To clarify, with details that tell you enough about Leslee that you’ll start to feel you know her too: she was in a taxi when she witnessed a car accident and got out to help the victims. When she did so, Leslee was struck by another car. She sustained massive, life-threatening injuries, including multiple broken bones and damage to numerous internal organs.

I may never have known about Leslee’s accident had it not been for Facebook. And I’d have missed out on one of the most moving, uplifting uses of social media I’ve ever had the privilege to witness.

Within hours of the accident, a friend of Leslee’s had created a Facebook group for her friends and family. It garnered hundreds of members in extremely short order and quickly turned into an online vigil, a virtual gathering place for her loved ones to seek and lend comfort and prayers. People from all over the world post photos of Leslee every day, share thoughts and good memories, write messages directly to her – even if she isn’t yet able to read them.

The Facebook group has become a clearinghouse for information, providing updates from her hospital bedside, sometimes hour-by-hour. The group has also proven tremendously and pragmatically helpful to her parents and friends in Korea – in one case, something as simple as helping her parents find an adapter for their laptop in Daegu. It’s remarkable – a unified, mobilized throng of people all focused on a single goal: loving Leslee back to health.

For me, Leslee’s Facebook group has allowed me to express my sympathy to the friends and family who know her far better than I do. It’s allowed me to bear witness to an extraordinary force: an online community in the very best sense of the term. I now check for updates a few times throughout each day, always touching in right before I go to bed.

I do it for two reasons. The first is, of course, to see how Leslee’s faring. The second is because, when I take in the outpouring of love and support for her scrolling across my screen, I feel somehow less alone, less vulnerable and fragile about life and the world.

I’m grateful to the friends of Leslee who created the group in the first place, and to those who labor to bring us updates on the latest setback or small triumph. And I’m feeling extremely grateful – and even charitable - towards our ol’ pal Facebook which, damning multi-million dollar movies and waning street-cred aside, maybe isn’t such a bad thing after all.

Ten reasons I love Olivia

Few Valentine's Days are life-changing. Perhaps I should rephrase that: few of my Valentine's Days have been life-changing. (It could be that I'm doing them wrong.) But one was - February 14, 2002, when my sister gave birth to her youngest, my crazy-wonderful niece Olivia. You should know this kid. You really should. She's smart and hilarious and full of beans and she is our full-on guarantee that, no matter what, there will never be a dull moment. I can't believe I've gotten to be her aunt for a decade.

So I just wanted to take a moment to say: Happy birthday, Livvie Lou. I love you. And here are just ten of the gazillion reasons why:












Beside myself

I'm practically sitting on my hands I'm so excited. Wait. What? You thought I would post about my travels? While I was gone? Oh, reader. You are so, so precious. And I'm certain that I shall, eventually, get around to writing some perfunctory recaps of my trip to Glasgow and Amsterdam. But for now, I'm rendered too nervous because of this:

Or, more specifically, because of this: lemony olive oil banana bread, which I put in the aforementioned thing. It is my first foray into baking with an oven so far out of my league I swear it laughs at me a little when I open the door. Not unkindly. Maybe.

I've never really had a great oven before, certainly nothing this fancy-pants. Nor have I, for most of my life, much cared whether I had a great oven. Now I find myself in a place where my horizons have broadened (read: I've aged) and suddenly I care a great deal more about things like baking pies and my own bread.

I know. I'm not sure who I am, either.

We have lived in a rental house - which we like a lot - for nearly six years now. It has a deck that practically doubles the living space in summer, our landlord's the nicest guy and we're in a great location. Yet, for years there has been an increasing tension building between me and the previous stove, a gorgeous-looking old-timey Roper vintage number.

It was frequently the first thing people commented on when they came into our house. Enjoy the following short play:

Them: "Wow. Awesome stove."

Us: "Yeah, but..."

Them: "It's super cool looking."

Us: "Yeah, but the oven temperature's uneven. And the oven itself is uneven. And there's only one rack. And only one of the burners stays lit..."

Them: "But do you love it?"

Because it's a curious thing - when people see something they think is lovely and unusual, especially if it hearkens back to another time, they get all soft and gooey. Soft and gooey to the point of having selective hearing. And it's not fair to blame it all on others because, let's face it, we put up with that stove for a lot longer than we might have otherwise were we not keenly aware that it had some sort of intrinsic cultural value simply by dint of being Vintage.

It's an interesting topic for me to consider at a time when I'm trying, despite appearances, to think more about what I own and what I need to own. In Glasgow, I stayed at the flat of my Grandma, who has recently  moved into a retirement home. At nearly 94, she's about as mentally spry as they come, although her hearing could use a little boost. And until the last year she's enjoyed an enormous amount of independence, thanks to assistance from her loyal son and the NHS.

My grandma lived in that flat my entire life. I think the family lore is that she bought it nearly 50 years ago for 800 pounds, perhaps the best investment anyone in my family's ever made. Until this visit, I'd never even been in the place without her. It was a strange confluence of feelings - I felt a little as though I were spying on her life, but it also made me feel closer to her, somehow comforted, as I'm still trying to get used to the idea of her living anywhere else.

I had thought I would do an artsy project of photos from my Grandma's life - you know, Granddaughter Sums Up Grandmother's Life Through Objects. But as I started to look around my Grandma's tiny flat, I realized just how few things she owns. Partly by necessity - a small flat doesn't lend itself to an acquisitive lifestyle. But I think it's also just who she is - sentimental in a way she's had to be to get through life, unattached to things , unwilling to toss something aside simply because a newer version is available. The negotiations it took to get her to use an electric kettle a few years back made the Camp David Accords look like casual banter.

There were only a few things I found truly, searingly personal. Her rose-colored dressing gown, hung up behind her bedroom door. The drawer with neatly folded nightgowns in pastel shades, with a little cotton lace trim at the edges. Four small canisters of Elnett hairspray and a handful of half-used Coty powder compacts. A few pieces of jewelry - nothing I particularly recognized - scattered in a few different boxes throughout her bedroom.

And I guess that if there were a place where all this babbling about the new oven and my Grandma's old flat were to cross over, it would be something I haven't quite crystallized yet, something about stuff and value. What defines us. When we're supposed to hold on and when we're supposed to let something go. When we're being pragmatic and conscientious and when we're just being stubborn and defeatist. When we're reusing and when we're just resisting.

It will not surprise you, I'm sure, to learn I have no answers. I'd blame jet lag, but I think we all know it'd be unfair to jet lag.

All I know for sure is this: right now I have banana bread. She has risen. She is level. And she might actually be cooked all the way through.