Hello, nutty-buttery-sweet-chewy-crunchy-fresh!

IMG_1577

I recently read that Battle Creek, Michigan is taking a beating due to shifts in eating habits. Yes, Kellogg’s is revising it’s sales goals after “a loss of $293m or 82 cents a share in the three months to the end of December.” I hate to add insult to injury, but Battle Creek, it looks as if I am saying goodbye to your “natural” brand Kashi.

For a few months my disenchantment with Kashi has grown. I was off-put by large packaging for little product, high cost and marginal taste differences between flavors. But I purchased Kashi without fail because I believed it was wholesome and I knew it was pretty good with my morning yogurt. My ennui ramped to discontent when I stumbled across the Internet preserved 2012 debacle claiming Kashi had tested positive for pesticide residue and GMO grains, as reported by the Cornucopia Institute. In response, Kellogg’s Kashi brand explained that bulk grain storage and processing could muddy their healthy intentions. Then they added two new USDA Certified organic cereals in December of that same year.

But this desire for change isn’t just about Kashi. I think Kashi products are a great options to Frosted Flakes and Pop-Tarts. What bothers me is that it is harder and harder to tell who is selling what product and what is in the food that we eat.

I thought, “Maybe I could learn to make my own cereal.” Despite a reputation for some intelligence, I wrote off the notion as too difficult and time consuming. Yes, lazy, I know.

Then a friend serendipitously sent me a granola recipe. The recipe was authored by Alton Brown (one of my culinary heroes) with a substitution by my friend, Meredith. Instead of the cashews in Alton’s recipe, Meredith substitutes pumpkin seeds and adds cinnamon and vanilla. I tried it Meredith’s way and the result was revelatory.

Until baking and eating this mix, I really had sub-par aspirations for how granola should taste. It was nutty, buttery, sweet, chewy, crunchy and FRESH. It has an incredible taste that packaged cereals cannot duplicate as that kind of yum is too difficult to preserve for long hauls to outlets, waits on market shelves and storing in cupboards before being consumed.

As for my fear that the process of making granola was too difficult? Hogwash. After making the recipe once, I had unintentionally memorized it. It was as simple as adding wet ingredients to dry, stirring and baking.

And if I grow tired of this taste combo, I can dream up any mixture of healthy grains, nuts, fruits and oils I enjoy and make my own recipe. It really is that easy.

(Sung to the tune of To Sir, With Love) But how do you thank a brand who has taken you from Eggos to Homemade? It isn’t easy but I’l try. If you wanted my health, You’ll be pleased to know that I’m closer with each day. You’ve lighted my way, to Kellogg, with love.

http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/alton-brown/granola-recipe.html 

One time at Buddha camp

 

Recently I grasped the concept: “It is later than you think.” I decided to no longer put off things I really wanted to do. I set a vacation plan to visit friends in California I had not seen in 10 years and attend a Buddhist retreat. I knew I wanted to be in the Redwoods for the retreat, thus began the Googling. There were options, but the language of Vajrapani Institute’s website resonated, so I reserved a space at a 10-day partial silence retreat on the nature of true happiness and Lam Rim (a school of Buddhism). It was such an incredible experience that I decided to share some of the insights, learning process and laughter.

 

Day Two – Duhkha

The haphazard progress of almost 30 silent people trying to serve, balance, pour, drink and eat breakfast in a small dining room brought to mind a stage play stumble through. It was clear that some were not attending their first mute rodeo. Yet elbows, sides and backsides bumped. Eyes often unintentionally met, then disengaged in a coy peak-a-boo. One attendee seemed to have moved to a separate area code while others stared off, read or studied their plates. The scene had the feeling of kindergarten…busy with learning. Learning how to noiselessly move in synch with others. Where eyes should rest. How to sit so close to a stranger you often touched while not exchanging a word. How to handle silence.

Observing silence is an unexpected boon. Though roughly a galaxy from shy, I am a natural introvert. I had forgotten that. Removing chitchat from the daily regimen has freed up a significant amount time to recharge in thought. I never before realized the energy it takes to observe the niceties. Getting this break is like hearing your school called in the list of snow-closures. A holiday you dreamt of receiving but had no power to bring into being.

photo 3Silence also allows you to draw your own conclusions in your own time, avoid distraction of your voice or the voices of others, hear your heart beating, avoid being caught up in drama or spreading discontent, get a break from phone calls and nagging devices, listen to the world around you, enjoy your senses, focus better, etc.

Our retreat is only partially silent. Daily, we spent about four and one-half hours in class where we were free to ask questions, one hour in discussion groups, and about 30 minutes of functional silence during working meditation. Functional silence means that you may ask questions, but they must be associated with your task.

But silence wasn’t all ease. I learned I have a strong instinct to meet eyes. I assume this is a residual from the primal brain, a tool to help assess intent or develop bonds. Classmates who didn’t welcome such visual intrusion made it obvious with body language. But the observation made me wonder if my ebullient nature had ever forced intimacy on people when the option of non-engagement would have seemed rude. I think the possibility highly likely. I will be more cognizant of this in the future.

—————-

I learned about a thousand things today – including the intense wonderfulness of the Vajrapani Institute’s hollyhock salad dressing and that my teacher may be David Bowie in disguise and Australian accent.

I am not exaggerating about the thousand new bits of knowledge…the estimate is likely conservative. Information flows fast and substantial in our classroom thanks to our teacher, Glen Svensson.

One of the myriad things covered today was duhkha. (The five-year-old in me laughs whenever I hear that word.)

Despite my giggling, potty-humored child mind, I want to talk about duhkha because not knowing this word made me set aside a book on Tibetan Buddhism 30 years ago. The discarded book began with the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths. The first of these four being, “All life is suffering.”

“Say what, Buddha? Sure life can be tough, but it isn’t ALL suffering. Take a chill pill, dude.” (Don’t blame me, that is how we spoke back in the day.)

Fast-forward 30 years. Today, I learned that duhkha means unsatisfactory, not the oft-translated “suffering” I had encountered.

Oh, my kingdom for understanding duhkha back then! “All life is unsatisfactory.” Okay, still a big pill, but much easier to swallow.

Why did Prince Siddhartha come Buddha say life was unsatisfactory? Actually there are three aspects, or levels of duhkha to be considered. (I have also learned that Buddhists are extremely fond of enumeration.)

  1. Suffering (physical and mental)
  2. Change (all pleasure is temporal)
    1. Pleasure is based on external stimulus, so it is unreliable
    2. Pleasure is relative
    3. Pleasure – if pursued – turns into suffering
  3. All-pervasive (always the potential for suffering to arise)

Okay, Buddha. When you put it that way, I agree…all life IS duhkha. (Giggle) Please tell me about this second truth.

Thirty years have passed to get here. But, you can’t reclaim what is lost. Just use what is left to escape duhkha for yourself and others.

Day Three – Self and Consciousness

One part of Buddhism’s concept of consciousness (please forgive any upcoming mistakes by the student) is that it is a continuum of mental events rather than a thing moving through time.

Previously I saw my consciousness and I as indistinguishable. We were a bullet train plowing through the countryside night and day from my arrival point at birth (when my consciousness appeared in this world) to my destination of death (where my consciousness will cease). Or, if one believes in an afterlife, my consciousness would then continue into eternity.

In this new-to-me Buddhist construct, consciousness is more ethereal and impervious. A timeline still exists, but supple quick changes in the path seem more likely. Not being a hardened object, the consciousness would be more reactive (which could have both advantages and disadvantages). It also suggests that the path may be changed by even the slightest of internal and/or external forces. A tree could fall upon the tracks of my previous metaphor, however, that train would not be as responsive or subtle in its course alterations. In the Buddhist view, consciousness does not just materialize at birth then dematerialize at death, but continues its existence. In this way, consciousness is neither created nor destroyed…kind of a conservation of consciousness (for those of a scientific orientation).

—————-

Climbed the beautiful, winding path to Lama’s Ridge today where there are retreat cabins, a yoga deck, a commemorative stupa for Vajrapani founder Lama Yeshe, the peace trail and outdoor showers. One shower on Lama’s Ridge made the dorm showers superfluous. Neither rain, nor sleet, nor gloom of night stays this girl from the swift climb to her appointed shower.photo 1

View from an outdoor shower

Day Four – Is there a schadenfreude of the self?

“An effect of immense happiness may arise from even a small virtuous karma. An effect of immense suffering may arise from even a tiny non-virtuous karma…(wait for it) Therefore, solidify the certainty that even the subtlest of virtuous and non-virtuous actions follow you like shadows and produce both great happiness and great suffering.” (There it is)

The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment

Je Tsongkhapa (1357-1419)

I must admit that this thought has ruined a few perfectly good daydreams this week. Not only has it roused me to the reality that my time could be better spent, but that the subjects of these daydreams were manifestations of attachment that would not further, and may derail, virtuous growth. Yes, our actions have consequences. Whether you believe in one life or infinite lifetimes, our thoughts, words and actions follow us. For myself, I do not see those deeds following us as a boogieman or a fairy godmother waiting to attack or reward us. I see them as a sculptor working clay. The more faithful and earnest our efforts, the more the resultant image will resemble our best aspirations.

—————-

A great boost of creativity has accompanied my efforts this week. With it has come a spontaneous flow of cartoons around the subject of my experiences and misapprehensions here at Vajrapani.

SQUIRREL

-Chuck’s random thoughts

- She's out there

-Chuck’s random thoughts

Day Six: Me, Myself and I

My senses have grown keener…or I am now better able to notice and heed the reports they send. I believe this to be an outcropping of the silence. Since dialing it down from 11, my eyes, ears, nose, tongue and touch have kicked it up a notch. I am now a shark using its lateral line system to avoid collisions and locate possible nosh. Seems that most of us are growing in this way, as mealtime now resembles modern dance.

—————-

I completely filled a 70-page notebook today. That has been a rarity in my educational training. Even more astounding is that I finished a complete notebook in only six days of study. I came here thinking that I lacked concentration skills. I have learned that I am quite good at concentration. It is that I need to narrow my focus.

—————-

Cognitive fusion was the break-through thought of the day. Previously, I had only bothered to imagine its manifestations in the world as worst-case scenarios. But today’s explication of the Four Opponent Powers brought into focus the insidious ill effects of cognitive fusion and how the guilt that accompanies it may quickly lead us into feelings of hopeless and depression.

Cognitive fusion essentially is fusing the act with the person. Such as: “Good boy!”, “I am depressed.”, She is an addict.”, “I’m tired.” Both positive and negative assertions of cognitive fusion are detrimental. One may be a steppingstone to hubris and believing ourselves above ethics and the other ultimately makes us a victim who is incapable of change. Either way, we identify the self with a transient action. In so doing, we welcome in a concept of ourselves as limited, less than others, worthless, or better than others, perfect, above the law.

By simply recognizing that the thought or behavior was momentary and not an expression of who we are, we keep identification with that behavior at arm’s length. Though it may be instructive in ways to change, it doesn’t penetrate our perception of our selves. This gives us the space and hope we need to make course adjustments.

As it was explained to us, consider regret versus guilt.

In regret we conceive that:

I — have done —–> a bad action or harmful behavior

In guilt we conceive that:

I —-> am a bad person

In the regret model, we understand that – though we are responsible for the bad action or harmful behavior and must seek a way to remedy it – we are not bad people, merely people who have done something harmful.

In the guilt model, we see the action as an expression of ourselves rather than the moment. We say, “I am a bad person.” And we believe it. Tell yourself you are a bad person long enough and you will only expect that what you imagine or do will be bad. Be told you are bad long enough and – if you are too young or unable to protect your psyche from the condemnation – and you will most likely choose thoughts and actions that live up to those judgments.

Once my eyes were opened to this trap, it seemed everywhere. We judge ourselves and others with barbed quips that equate person and action. We praise others and ourselves in the same way. I don’t know about you, but I want to be a person responsible for my thoughts and deeds rather than a person ruled by a false amalgamation of persona to deeds.

Day Seven – A Different Kind of Thanksgiving

“Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.”

                          – Albert Einstein

My first reminder of Thanksgiving was classmate Sam (in fancy dress) drawing my eyes to a note he had situated atop an upturned book. It read “Happy Thanksgiving!” Even in silence, we find ways to celebrate…especially Sam.

(BTW, one quick insight into silence. Since we entered silence the night we arrived, many of us did not know one another’s names. In this case, I didn’t think “especially Sam.” I thought “especially fun guy who is really present.”)

The lesson for Thanksgiving day serendipitously began with the concept of exchanging self with others, or – more familiar to our ears – dismantling our selfish attitudes and replacing them with cherishing others first. Not cherish as in soft words and sympathetic smiles disconnected from action. But cherish in ways that are best for the other person’s short- and long-term needs and happiness.

We practiced “tong len”, or giving and taking. Tong len is a meditative practice of mentally taking suffering from another, purifying it, and giving them our happiness.

—————-

I am not good at being in two places at once. Absorbed wherever I am, it often takes a pause to think deeply of those elsewhere whom I love. A failing? Perhaps. I always assume the best possible things are happening to those I love and they are as engaged where they are as I am where I am. Today, I took a pause to think of my family and friends. I pictured them laughing and hugging and telling stories. I wished them all the greatest happiness and the least of the reverse.

The only thing left to make this Thanksgiving perfect – after a decadently incredible lunch – is a bit more tong len and a short snooze in the Redwoods.

—————-

There was one cloud this Thanksgiving, quickly cleared by work meditation buddy Leslie while we cleaned the dinner dishes. (Hey, they said working silence and we were working.) I confided that as a new meditator I was struggling to hold onto joy while trying to meditate for the 45- and 60-minute sessions we were undertaking. I could not preserve focus that long. With Leslie’s assurances, I decided to invite in steadfastness…a favorable condition for joyous effort. In non-retreat vernacular, I was applying the wonder twin powers of: finish what you start and don’t bite off more than you can chew. I would set a goal of a shorter focus time in my pre-mediation intention. It worked. The goal was exceeded and – for the first time this week – my back stayed straight for the full hour.

Day Eight – On the Road to Shamatha

Today, the weather is no warmer, but I am. There is a pleasant chill at the level of my skin, but internally I remain cozy. Shocking as my circulation tends more toward the reptilian. Systems working better?

—————-

In silence, notes are passed. Loved ones leave messages. You have a question. You want to show support. In silence – without computers – all this message transfer is accomplished old school with writing implements and scraps of paper. I was pondering this when I walked to the Gompa (main hall) and to my study desk. Perched there, was a tiny origami book gifted to each of us by a classmate. Paper, again.

I rather enjoy seeing notes circulate. I know my thoughts flow more articulately at the computer. (I think it has to do with the percentage of the mind required to form symbols long hand versus tapping the symbol at a keyboard.) Still, there is something significant and weighty about people committing words to paper by hand. (Crazy, the world in which we live.)

I saw a classmate bending over pages of paper, slightly swaying as she read. Her hands caressed then refolded the pages before carefully placing them away. The reverence articulated in her movements was epic. Instantly, my mind clothed her in gothic hat and copious robes trimmed with fur, an academic master of antiquity, cradling sheaves of important and (often scarce) paper while she sat for her portrait.

I cannot remember ever touching my computer with that level of reverence. However, since I am an Apple user, a certain level of reverence is required.

NOTE: This evening we learned the source of our little books. Classmate and placid joy and fixer, Glendon, had folded them. Each book has 26 unique folds and a healing mantra was said over each fold. Thank you Glendon for turning paper into healing wishes.

—————-

Thinking deeply while on retreat has re-awakened a delight, an energy that has been hibernating. I had allowed constant work-work-work to transform me into a somnambulist. We need balance. Thought without action lacks worldly good. Action without thought accomplishes nothing remarkable.

Day Nine – The Artist Formerly Known as “Me”

I folded the blankets with which I had been shrouding myself during class and meditation. There was no need of them. I have somehow become warm from the inside.

—————-

Today, I am grateful for the Literary Criticism class that twisted my brain years ago. One such twist was the work of philosopher Michel Foucault, specifically his theories of distinction between linguistic signs and plastic elements as well as the equivalence of resemblance and affirmation. In literary terms this implies that there is no tether connecting an object to a visual or verbal representation. There is no intrinsic meaning in any word, syllable, or character. There is no ur-symbol or ur-utterance with the ability to convey meaning directly or be interchangeable with a visual or oral phenomenon.

Foucault’s theory made sense intellectually. However, my blinding love of language fought the knowledge. I was caught in thrall of the seeming control that language granted…to describe with finesse subtle shades of thought. The concept that words – objects in which I had placed so much love and effort – had neither intrinsic meaning nor physical grounding pulled at the structural load block of my psychic Jenga tower.

Sensing my crisis, friend Fred (knowing I am a visual as well as a verbal) asked me to close my eyes. He started to describe a painting titled The treachery of images (This is not a pipe) by René Magritte.

margritti-this-is-not-a-pipe

(Text translation: “This is not a pipe.)

Funny, the necessity of including this translation proves a portion of Foucault’s argument.

As I visualized the artwork, it was all too clear. The word “pipe” (and any other word) is an arbitrary label assigned from of a need to communicate within a system of symbols and sounds.

Perhaps the effect induced by Magritte’s juxtaposition of the representation of a physical object with language negating that object would be better felt by English speakers this way.

This_is_not_a_pipe_by_kaciukas

When I was able to grasp a smidgeon of Foucault’s message in this way, my previous theory of language and meaning was eviscerated. What was left was a purple neon sign pointing down a rabbit hole. It wasn’t just that the word pipe that had no meaning. There literally was NO pipe. Break the “pipe” down to its component pieces, leave it whole, draw an image of it, search wherever you please, you will find no “pipe” anywhere. Indeed, all that exists is the “pipeness” we project upon an image, a word or an object.

This is where Tibetan Buddhism turns it up a notch and makes me happy for all that struggle to understand Foucault. The Buddhism schools we are studying seem to share a similar “no intrinsic meaning” concept, but they target an object much more dear…the “me.” BAM!

“Okay now, it is all well and good for a pipe not to be a pipe, but I am sentient being. I have cognitive function. I may clearly see myself. I can see others. Therefore, I AM ME! I am not a pipe, a house, a deer, the stars. The concept that ‘me’ is not an independent entity, separate from others directly contradicts my sight, touch, reason and folkloric independent American sensibilities.”

Wait a tick. Buddhism is not metaphysical nihilism, claiming that there is no me. Just that there is no “independent arising” me. That my existence is dependent upon everything else and that my construct of an independent me exists nowhere except my own egotistical mind. I believe that Buddhism would assert that the “me” we each perceive is an illusion…a result of the subject-object view of existence. That all knowledge of reality based on the eyes, ears, nose, even our sophisticated scientific instruments cannot give a realistic report of reality because they ONLY see what they see, hear what they hear, smell what they smell, measure what they measure. They cannot conceive of what exists beyond their limits to observe.

Another trick of the object-observer model, which Buddhism seems to have figured out way ahead of the curve, is that viewing the world objectively leads us to believe that objects and individuals are unchanging because we may see them as unchanged over time. I am sitting here today, looking the same as I looked last week. Thus, we deduce that I (and all other bits of data we divide and categorize) move through time independent of everything around us. The trouble with that deduction – as particle physics will vouch – is that everything is in a constant state of change. Nothing is ever the same moment to moment, though we may perceive it as the same since we cannot readily observe motion at the subatomic level. Buddhism and science seem to agree that we (and all objects) are not moving through time, but existing on a continuum of change.

Before I make this next statement, I must stipulate that my understanding of Buddhism is nascent, so a correction of any misstep already stated or about to be stated would be appreciated.

I think it could be said that Tibetan Buddhism asserts that there is a distinction between perception and the nature of reality. A distinction that limits our ability to see the world and ourselves in that world as it and we truly exist.

This is a new twist to ponder. If true, not even the skills of Magritte could make that one self-evident.

surrealistplumber_0

Day Ten – Brood X

An algebra teacher once called me a combative learner (cognitive fusion) because I asked questions about why the formulas we were given worked. It seemed I couldn’t find the switch in my brain that would allow me to remember things without context or an understanding of how they worked.

Buddhism asks us to question and to consider. It is open source code. Not pushing us to blindly accept, but merely to ponder and – if anything we find helps – use it to make our lives better.

Buddhism’s encouragement of inquiry appeals to me. I love questions and their answers. I love my questions, the questions of others, answers by still more voices. They all enter my ears and fill my mind with imaginings. Some of these ideas change my mental model of the world and result in growth.

For example, would spaceflight ever been possible without people who questioned and put their reputations (and sometimes even lives) on the line to refute that the earth was the center of the universe? That all life comes from life rather than spontaneous generation? That beings have a right to be free?

Without questions why bother with thought?

I believe it is suppleness, not rigidity that aids our conviction. We must retain the willingness to share our ideas and to really listen to those of others. We must allow that our mental models may be improved by considering the thoughts of others. Even those ideas that are not ultimately accepted in the affirmative add depth to our understanding. Every new concept tests our core beliefs and either alters them or makes them rise in validity.

I know there are plenty of minds out there that can amass and apply information without quibbling about why it is so. But I need the superstructure, the reason behind, the evolution of the concept, the questions.

Thirty-four years ago a geometry teacher explained how and why the formulas he shared worked. To this day I use geometry with relative ease. As for the algebra that the teacher couldn’t or wouldn’t explain the year previous? Regrettably – and to my deficit – algebra is merely a jumble of X’s and Y’s.

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Screen Shot 2014-12-05 at 4.06.54 PM

In 2004, I lived in Baltimore during the Brood X hatch of cicadas. The sky and trees were full of cicadas. The ground and squirrels’ bellies were full of cicada remains. I was dreaming of those cicadas when I woke this morning.

I think the cicadas appeared because I was feeling averse to leaving my warm bed, my new family of friends, the intensive learning, the yummy food, and the open air showers. This has been as restful and fulfilling a time as I can remember, and my mind knew there were struggles to come. Struggles to hold onto mindfulness, continue practice on the cushion, reinforce lessons, remove the habituation of stress rather than add to it. You know the score.

Those cicadas were in my mind because they too have to struggle. Brood X cicada nymphs live underground for 17 years before they crawl out, inch their way up vertical surfaces, attach themselves there and prepare to emerge from their larval skin, to molt.

I was drawn to these creatures and spent hours photographing, recording and reading about them. One thing I learned is that there are many obstacles to their survival. Fungi that mutate their development, birds and squirrels that snatch their bodies for snacks, some fail to escape their former skin, others have wings damaged by rain before they have a chance to expand and dry. Cicadas have to struggle to emerge. Cut open the outer skin to help a cicada break free and it will most surely die. It is the struggle that is necessary. The struggle that forges their strength and resolve to escape their nymph existence, expand their wings, harden and fly.

“The way is not easy,” the dream cicadas were telling me in their shrill, pulsing songs.

They made me realize how fortunate I have been in burrowing up from the ground, finding a good tree on which to attach and beginning the process of change.

—————-

I set my intent to really be here each moment of all ten days of this retreat. To do the work, know the people, walk the hills, and learn. I was steadfast and earned my own respect. So now, I would like to dedicate my effort to:

– Our teacher, Glen Svensson. You are not David Bowie in disguise, but you are a rock star. Your humor, kindness, patience and clarity are deeply appreciated. Straddling the cultures, languages and years for the sake of shared learning, your supple, encyclopedic mind shone a light on dark places and helped us achieve that which could not have been done alone.

– The help of so many.

– Venerable Drolma, Heidi and Glendon for having my back (and my dish duty) when I was overcome by duhkha.

– My discussion group. What a fortunate and lively mix of joyous, searching minds. So glad we were able to spend our daily hour in speech together.

– Leslie, my dish duty partner, joyous worker, confidant and beautiful soul.

– The kitchen staff of Vajrapani Institute. We said little, but your dedication taught me much.

– Vajrapani Director Fabienne. Though the time together was brief, your spirit is a tangible joy.

– 2013 sponsors of our 2014 retreat session. Your generosity filled our hearts and our minds with virtuous desire to continue to learn and practice. Many of us could not have made it here without your generosity.

– Two notebooks one and half pens

Thanks to all, I arrived at Vajrapani one small droplet of Buddhist academic knowledge and one small droplet practice. I leave a gallon jug of theory and one small droplet of practice…but now with aspiration and a straighter back.

—————-

Post Script:

Since leaving Vajrapani Institute and my new friends forged in silence (and a some whispers) a few things have changed.

  1. I have unsubscribed from every email subscription previously flooding my inbox, tightly restricted my Facebook alerts, and discontinued Active.com alerts about friends completing exercise. Though hearing the whistle blow when a friend completes a workout still feels like witnessing an angel earning its wings, the alert invades my thoughts. These changes have freed me from a great number of distractions and the loss of precious moments of life.
  2. I have continued to eat like a vegetarian. In fact, a strange thing happened on one of the planes coming home. By the time the steward came to my row, the non-meat meals had been claimed. I found myself asking if there might be anything that I could receive that didn’t contain meat because I was a vegetarian. It wasn’t a lie. As physically impossible as it may be, I think that my body managed to speak before my mind. I just feel so much better physically since leaving meat behind that my internal processing systems want to keep it that way.
  3. Ditto the vegetarian change with soda pop. I don’t want to get too excited yet regarding abstaining from soda as this has been a lifelong battle. But I am optimistic and filled with the desire to make this the last time I give up soda.

WEEK FOUR CSA CHALLENGE – TIN FOIL TÊTÊ-À-TÊTE

 

Ivy

Welcome, July 4th weekend! Family parties, visits, fireworks, tons of running around and no real time to cook or clean-up. Tin foil to the rescue! It works in ovens, on pans, grills, steaming, frying, to store leftovers. It works everywhere but the microwave.

 

This week’s food-stuffs: Kohlrabi, Fennel, Three Butter Lettuces, Cucumbers, Kale 

Week Four Challenge:

Spend as little time as possible in the kitchen or at my computer and select recipes that involve tin foil.

 

Food for thought

–      I tested two recipes using kohlrabi and I still don’t really know how it tastes. Next time it shows up in my CSA bag, I will need to make something simpler to get a real taste…perhaps bite into it raw.

–      I must admit, two of the butter lettuces never made it to tin foil. I happened on a family dinner with the CSA goodies in tow and broke out two heads to make a gorgeous family salad with avocado, caramelized pecans, blue cheese and pears. So worth it.

 

And now…THE RECIPES AND REVIEWS

kohlrabi fritters

The recipe: Kohlrabi Fritters with Cilantro Mint Chutney

The link: http://localfoods.about.com/od/chipsfriedsomebaked/r/Kohlrabi-Fritters.htm   and http://localfoods.about.com/od/condiments/r/cilantromintchutney.htm

The review: I don’t usually make fried foods at home, but when I read cilantro mint chutney, I decision was made. It was a good call. This chutney was superb! The fritters were very good, but good in the way that freshly fried anything is good. Much like a potato chip is often just a vehicle for salt and dip…the potato isn’t the star, it just adds the crunch. In this dish, the kohlrabi isn’t the featured player. Very yummy, but the search for the real kohlrabi continues. Oh, and the tin foil in this recipe was a godsend. I lined the frying pan with it and clean up was a snap. After the pan had cooled, I folded a corner of the tin foil into a spout and was able to drain the pan without a drip.The pan didn’t even need to be washed!

pan tinfoilpour off tinfoil

 

 

cucumber salad

The recipe: Roasted Cucumber Sandwiches

The link: http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/Roasted-Cucumber-Sandwiches-366725

The review: Rule Brittania! Brittania rules the lunch! I have lost count of the number of cucumber sandwiches I have seen served in British films and television shows. However, I have never worked up enough curiosity to consider trying one for myself. In my book, cucumbers were good enough for infusing my water, but nothing else. This recipe made me realize what I have been missing. Scrumptious! This recipe goes straight to my “Can’t wait to make again” file. Despite the photo, I ate my cucumber sandwich open face. I didn’t want all the bread covering up the flavor of the filling. Also, rather than the roll the recipe calls for, I used sweet potato bread I had on hand.

cucumbers before roasting

 

 

fennel baked

The recipe: Fennel Gratin

The link: http://www.simplyrecipes.com/recipes/fennel_gratin/print/

The review: I had to get a little creative with this one. I needed to feed five adults and only had one fennel bulb. But I did have extra kohlrabi, so I chopped it as closely as I could in style to the fennel and used it. The result was good and I must say, I liked the way roasting fennel with cheese mellowed its anise taste. Perhaps it was my fault, but the cooking duration to brown the cheese seemed excessive and dried out the dish. If you try it, I would suggest keeping a close eye on the gratin while it cooks to avoid a similar plight.

 

kale on grill

The recipe: Crispy Tuscan Kale on the Grill

The link: http://www.rachaelray.com/recipe.php?recipe_id=4476

The review: Apologies, this dish was scarfed up so fast, I wasn’t able to get a photo of my attempt. This is a photo from Rachel Ray’s website. I cooked it on tin foil on the grill and it was super good. Like the kale chips I have made in the past, but the punch of balsamic vinegar in this recipe and cooking them on the grill made them even more yummy.

 

roasted salad before

The recipe: Roasted Romaine Lettuce

The link: http://simplynutricising.com/nutritionpage/recipes/salads/roasted-romaine-lettuce/

The review: Okay, this wasn’t romaine lettuce. I had to improvise. Either way, this dish was fast, delicious and beautiful to behold. And unlike the grilled lettuce I made for the dinner party, this “salad” retained its heat through serving that brought great nuance to the taste. The dressing is quite good, but a bit sharp. I would suggest using it sparingly until able to judge for yourself. (Photo above: before baking – Photo below: after baking)

roasted salad after

 

 

Nevada “Vadie” Elizabeth Smead Gray


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Nevada Gray was an excellent cook, and my paternal grandmother. The most advanced countertop appliance grandma owned was an underpowered standing mixer, still her magic hands created some of the best food I can remember tasting. From cornmeal mush and handmade noodles to meringues and grandchild-pulled taffy, grandma’s house was the place to go when you were hungry. Despite that one regrettable lunch when a grilled cheese sandwich for my six-year-old self included extra sharp cheddar cheese, a disappointment I now blame on underdeveloped taste buds.

 

I thought of my grandma this weekend as I was harvesting my first crop of spinach. What would I make with this bounty? I remembered grandma making her own noodles on the Formica tabletop…egg yolks, olive oil and milk filling a nest of flour. I decided I would make spinach ravioli…using grandma’s recipe and pasta roller.

 

Though I had never made pasta before, I was confident I could do it. After all, I had watched grandma prepare and hang noodles a hundred times. Then I recollected the truth of that phrase. Grandma would do anything for you, but she seldom would do it with you. The closest I ever got to helping her make pasta was sitting on the stool watching her work.

 

Whenever it was time to cook and I would ask to help, grandma would fold down the retractable steps from the tall stool in her kitchen, let me climb up and then very deliberately fold the steps away, explaining that my job was to sit still and watch. There seemed no room for advancement in grandma’s kitchen, but I do remember being ecstatic when she once allowed me to tamp sugar – a very few crystals at a time – into the bowl of rising meringue.

 

Recipe, ingredients and pasta machine gathered, I scrubbed down the Formica countertop and began with high hopes. I measured out 1 3/4 cups of semolina flour and formed it into a bowl. I cracked one large egg and six large egg yolks into its center, then added 1 1/2 teaspoons olive oil and 1 tablespoon milk. I broke up the egg yolks with my fingers and started the long process of slowly drawing the flour into the mixture by turning circles in the mixture with my fingers. I used a dough scraper to keep the flour gathered in an unbroken circular dam. Once all the flour had been incorporated, I let the dough rest while I cleaned the counter and mixed spinach, basil, ricotta and just a dash of nutmeg into a scrumptious ravioli filling and tucked it into the fridge.

 

Then I got to work kneading the dough. After my first push, I heard grandma’s slightly raspy voice telling me never to fold the pasta dough onto itself like pasty dough. I remembered the heels of her veined, nimble hands working the dough forward while simultaneously reforming it into a tight ball. I did the same. Soon the dough became more subtle, more silky and springy. I thought I may be done. Then I remembered her turning toward me in my stool perch and instructing, “When you think it is done, you knead at least ten more minutes. You can’t overwork this dough.” So I loosened my wrists for the next onslaught of dough pushing and twenty minutes later, the dough felt supple and flawless as baby skin, I knew it was ready.

pasta dough

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I rested the dough in the fridge for 30 minutes, cut the batch into thirds and then cut each third again to begin to crank it through the pasta machine. I placed the machine’s manual knob on the thickest setting and turned the handle to pull the dough between the rollers. I folded the pressed dough in half, turned it ninety degrees and put it through again. I did this four times total, until the dough was a lovely rectangular sheet, then ratcheted the rollers one step closer and turned the dough through again. Six times, the wheel turned higher and the rollers churned out a thinner, longer sheet of dough.

 

The look of the pasta was actually alarming as I had used fresh eggs from a local free-range, organic farm and the yolks were so orange-yellow that the pasta dough looked like Velveeta rolling in and out of the machine. This was especially disconcerting as Grandma wouldn’t allow processed cheese food in her home…hence the cheddar grilled cheese sandwich debacle.

 

I laid out the first milled pasta ribbon on the counter, scooped droplets of ricotta/spinach goodness onto its top and then folded it over, pressing together the edges and cutting the raviolis free with a pizza cutter.

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Several hours, two batches of dough and two exceedingly tired wrists later, I sat down to a plate of fresh, homemade ravioli. I may need a little more practice to reach grandma’s level of mastery, but let me tell you, this first effort was incredible.

 

The time invested in making the ravioli was unjustifiable when weighed against the cost of even the most upscale fresh ravioli packages in the store. But I don’t think I will buy it pre-made again.

 

I realized by making my own pasta that I really didn’t understand what was so great about convenience? I can shovel convenience food into my mouth without any real appreciation or enjoyment. When I ate my homemade ravioli, I gratefully chewed every little bite, tasting the nuance of flavors, letting my tongue investigate the velvet of the dough, pondering future filling flavor pairings. I understood that this meal on my plate was a treat, a gift, a sacrament As I swallowed, I celebrated my awareness of the origin of each ingredient and the double pleasure that I had grown the spinach and the basil myself.

 

Convenience frees us from the work of meal preparation, but it also separates us from the magical alchemy that is food preparation. Divorced from understanding of what goes into our meals, each bite is more about sustenance and less celebration. Having the work done for us is tempting, but there is a connection that is lost…a connection that I am no longer willing to forego. For time sake, some meals may need to be simple like a sweet potato and beans. But having invested my time and mental energy into it, even the most simple meal will be more nurturing.

I used to wonder how grandma could spend so much time in her kitchen, seemingly lost in the revelry of cooking and cleaning. I thought she must think the work a chore on some level. But now I think I understand grandma a little better. Perhaps she didn’t love doing all those dishes by hand, but she loved making food miracles that would nourish those she loved.

 

Thank you, Vadie for all your lessons. And thank you for this one that I may have been slow to understand, but will always cherish.

Hog Honey

I woke excited to prepare huge quantities of bean soup with vegetables and ham. I lit a candle…fire is essential to any artistic endeavor. I chopped and caramelized sweet red onions in organic butter, then added garlic and carrots and parsley. I drained and refilled a bowl containing a medley of 13 rehydrating types of beans. My spirits were high and the house smelled incredible.

This was the second batch of inspiration bean soup I had made. In the first, I had used half a cut of “ham in natural juices” and the soup had turned out aggressively salty. This time, I had soaked the ham in water for about 8 hours…in effect performing a reverse-brining. I drained the ham and began to prepare it for its introduction to flame. I popped a cube of ham into my mouth. Three chomps in, I stopped chewing. The ham was no longer salty…but it was no longer anything. Even the texture seemed imitation…as if the layers of muscle had not been incubated in an actual sus.

I chewed a few more times hoping my taste buds had been wrong. Nope, there it was – or more accurately – there it wasn’t. The taste, the texture, the mitigating pleasure that allows me to swallow the killing and eating of sweet Wilbur had been stolen. This little piggy had died in vain. It had likely been raised in confinement and inundated with antibiotics used to fend off the diseases that arise from close-quarter living.

It is estimated that 10 million pounds of antibiotics are used each year to keep factory-raised pigs healthy. That is three times of the amount used to treat human illness per annum. Wonder if there is a connection to the evolution of antibiotic resistant super bugs?

But back to the point, I knew antibiotics were used and conditions were not good in mass farming, but that did not stop me buying this ham in natural juices in the first place. For that action, I am truly remorseful. I am very sorry, piggy.

Rather than racing to the bottom in cost, perhaps if I – and others like me – never again paid for factory farm pork, things would be different. But I was part of the tasteless, inhumane, and pollution-producing problem.

I had heard of an aquaculture farm called Veta La Palma located in Spain. Their production methods stress biodiversity and eco-relationships. Fish farms usually pollute massively and demand more protein sources to feed the fish than make their product economically wise. But the kind of “farming” done at Veta La Palma demands no feed and in fact cleans the water that flows into it from the Guadalquivir River. This fish farm masquerading as marshlands has actually saved the wetlands and created a de facto bird sanctuary that hosts some 250 species of birds, of which some 50 are in threat in other areas. Folks at Veta La Palma will tell you that they lose 20% of their fish to birds, but the interplay of all species right down to phytoplankton make it all work, and make their fish delicious. They say, they farm extensively, not intensively. A new motto for business?

Closer to the trough, I remember visiting my Great Aunt Ruth’s and Great Uncle Glenn’s farm in Transylvania, North Carolina when I was a child. While there, I was treated to a porcine taste that seems to have been a culinary mirage. Life-long blue dogs, Ruth and Glenn’s dogs were named after the Kennedy boys and their pigs were named Kissinger and Nixon. These pigs were raised traditionally, eating scraps from the house and crops from the farm. Each slaughter season, the ham would be cured and hung. When it was brought into the farmhouse for preparation, it was encrusted with mold. With farm-breed familiarity and nonchalance, Aunt Ruth cut off the mold and set about making Sunday dinner. I must tell you, I have never, ever tasted the duplicate of that ham’s taste and texture. One better, Aunt Ruth made a “hog honey” that – as near as my six-year-old brain could comprehend –  as the scant collected dripping from the fried ham. There was so little, but I wanted to eat it all…with my fingers…then rub it on my skin to have the goodness absorbed there too. No joke, even at six, I knew hog honey was food of the gods.

I could try to inject flavor into the store-bought piss-poor replica meat* before me this day, but I knew the soup would likely be better off without it. Still, a pig had died for my sins. We had better eat it.

I dropped the pan-fried porkesque nuggets into the soup as I made a vow. Never again would I buy anything other than “ham” grade pork and I would – from now on – purchase all my meat products from family farms.  Meat is used sparingly at my house. My health is worth the investment of better meats as is the treatment of the animals that feed us, our shared ecological system, and the message sent to big agra. Food should taste good, animals should be raised and slaughtered humanely, and producing food should not toxify our planet.**

*Not the pig’s fault.

**Apologies as well to all vegetarians and vegans. You are absolutely right. But I cannot yet join your ranks.

You can’t get what you want (Till you know what you want)

joejackson

A friend once told me that you keep facing the same challenges in life until you learn the lessons they are there to teach. Lately, my personal growth curriculum has forced my thoughts to the end of life. I seem to be okay with knowing my life will end and accepting of the dice roll that is physical deterioration. I know my relative ease with these ideas may be partially attributed to the statistical distance these events have from my current location.

However, when I think about all that is lost in death, I lose my cool. All the possibilities, the dreams and the embraces that the departed held just evaporate. No more chapters will be written. If they didn’t live in harmony with their truest desires, they will not get that chance again here and now.

I try to soothe myself with Tolkien’s observation that all our parts in this tale will end. “That each of us must come and go in the telling.” The coming is a thing of joy. The going is a foregone conclusion. But what is left undone or unsaid in the synapses of those on both sides of the divide grieves me beyond description. Perhaps their was nothing I can do to change the grief I have felt and will feel about what is left undone by others. But maybe I could change it for myself. Here was a lesson to be learned.

I realized that the thought of orphaned dreams bothered me so much because I have so many dreams to lose, and I assume that is true for others. I would like to blame circumstance for holding me back from the doing and the saying. But growth demands honesty. I have used circumstance as an excuse to avoid facing the unknown of the journey.

“Basta!” a fiery voice inside interrupted. Apparently, my inner self is an assertive Italian woman who has had enough. She was right. It was enough! Enough delaying…enough worrying who I might let down…enough waiting for a sign…enough financial roadblocks…enough sheltering…enough marching in place. It was time to move. Anadre veloce!

I started to think about which move to make first. For years, I have wanted to attend a meditation retreat, cruise along Route 66, enjoy non-virtual time with dear friends around the globe, finish writing those three books, play with friends each day, watch every TED talk, meditate daily, travel. Even my shortest list could exceed the remaining 33 years of average life expectancy afforded to a 47-year-old U.S. woman. What if my expiration date fell below the average? (By the way, did you know that the United States ranks 40th in life expectancy throughout the world? But that is an investigation for a later date.)

I started to do a writer’s meditation…stream of consciousness writing. Yes, it is an oxymoron. Tying fingers cannot keep up with the supercomputer speed and nuance of the brain. However, the technique usually helps me find something meaningful. I began transcribing my thoughts rather than directing them. In other words, I got out of the way of my brain. Suddenly, without consciously thinking it, I typed, “you can’t get what you want, till you know what you want.” Thank you, Mr. Joe Jackson. I stopped typing and asked myself which of my desires meant the most to me. Which actions – if taken – would allow me to contemplate my funeral pyre with satisfaction rather than regret?

I made my list. Then I added one more item. To say yes to any offer to which I might regret saying no.

Just then, I received an Evite to kayak with a group of awesome babes. In the past, I have largely opted out of these invitations in favor of work. In the present, I clicked “attending” immediately, then asked myself what was next.

In the week since, I have clicked and texted and replied “attending” to everything I really want to do and started doing them all. My life is already changing dramatically. I no longer feel stuck, frozen, frustrated and resentful. I am vibrant and glowing and energetic. I am constantly opening and discovering. I am largely in the moment. Life may end in death, but the knowledge of death is a push toward life.

This weekend I added years to my life

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For months I have fretted over the stiff back; elevated scapulas; weak core; inhibited circulation; lackluster spinal muscles; and tight hamstring, flexor and calf muscles that have resulted from too much sitting. Let’s face it. Our technology-based office and entertainment lives have turned many of us into a round-shouldered, doughy-middled race of electronic achievers. We may be changing the world, but our evolutionary trajectory is being changed by office and lounge furniture that has not kept up with our knowledge of best body practices.

The dilemma? I could find no way to diminish the hours I worked at my computer. I work out daily. Still, a minimum of eight hours a day sitting versus one to two hours in motion…doesn’t take Archimedes to predict the result.

A few weeks ago, I learned about the Katzmarzyk-Lee study which asserts that “life expectancy in the United States would be two years higher if adults reduced their sitting time to less than three hours a day.” Hip news outlets starting touting sitting as the new smoking. Not so as statistics show that on average women smokers “lose about 11 years of life expectancy…men lose about 12.” Still, too much sitting is a life expectancy boggart, to say nothing of its menacing effects on life-long health.

So there I was, stuck between a paycheck and an expiration date. At last, I decided to stop thinking and start standing. I googled standing and standing/sitting desks. I was blown away by the prices and underwhelmed by the ticky-tacky of the models I could afford. So I decided to build my own. I researched standing desk ergonomics and sat down to draw.

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Before setting about the build, I took one last online browse. My eyes alighted on a treadmill standing desk! What? Yes, a standing desk built to accommodate a treadmill. I even found a treadmill desk with a removable balance ball chair. My covetous heart flamed.

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Busily figuring how many meals would need to be forgone to have such a wondrous product, a friend softly stated, “Perhaps you should stand before you run.”

The sunrise glow of consumerism was dimmed. My friend was right. Shifting from a workday of sitting to a workday of standing would be a monumental feat. Best to try it out before investing the 401K.

I decided to retrofit my current desk. If I became a standing desk convert physically as well as a philosophical, I could settle on a permanent solution later. I collected building supplies from around the house as well as four shelf brackets from the hardware store and – three slight design modifications later – I had done it! Created a workstation that would give me back years of my life. It may be an eyesore to those concerned exclusively with visual aestetic. But to me, it is the most beautiful time travel device since Dr. Who stepped into the TARDIS.

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As I write this, I have now been standing at my new desk for over two hours. Like any new workout routine, I foresee two to three weeks of muscle adjustment and endurance building. What a paltry price for additional healthy years of life.

If you try this at home:

-Build wisely and well to avoid crashing your computer…literally

-Measure yourself to get the best ergonomic configuration for your body

-Include a wedge or stool to allow for position variation…it is invaluable