Thursday, December 31, 2009

Be Kind to Yourself

I have struggled with my weight for years, along with a lot of my female relatives. A few have managed, somehow, to win the war either by losing it or by accepting it, but most of us battle on. We worship at the Church of Weight Watchers, and while math is not our strong point we can convert calories to points quicker than most people can blink. That formula is our 11th commandment. Growing up, “being good” meant iceberg lettuce and cottage cheese for lunch while staring wistfully at the box of cookies perched on top of the fridge, an altar to whatever the Patron Saint of High Metabolism might be. Even now, I cannot go into a grocery store without hearing my mother’s voice in my head as I survey the contents of my cart: last night, Cool Ranch Doritos were buy one/get one free, and as I put both bags on the conveyor belt I could hear her saying, as if she were standing next to me, “A moment on the lips, forever on the hips”.

To which I mentally replied, “Well, at least I put the Haagen Dazs back”.

Then I came home to find a Weight Watchers magazine in my mailbox, which was odd because I didn’t subscribe to it.

Subtle, huh.

The truth is, a few years ago I rebelled, quit “The Church” (for at least the seventh time), and spent an entire year in therapy trying to get to the route of my food issues. In retrospect it sounds ridiculous, but at the time I didn’t realize that what I had been doing was considered binge eating – basically, bulimia without the puking. And it honestly wasn’t that I felt bad about myself, or had no self-esteem, or even that I was bored – it’s that all this awful stuff had happened and I had utterly no idea of how to cope with it…so I ate. I knew how to do that. And then, for reasons I don’t remember, my doctor (not my therapist) set me up with a very old-school nutritionist, who in one 45 minute appointment managed to undo six months of therapy by insisting there was no emotional component to food. Yes, I’m pretty sure she sucked lemons for fun.

Recently, I discovered the show “Fat Friends”, another BBC gem (for which I cannot find a good internet link). What I both hate and love about BBC programs is their utter, brutal honesty. They have a way of creating characters that on one level are stereotypical – but at the same time so complex and real they almost make you want to cringe because you can so relate…like the fat boy who gets beat up by his schoolmates, who turns out to be overeating as a result of his parents divorce and feeling like he is responsible for taking care of his mother (who is clearly incapable of taking care of herself and has reassigned her son to the role of “man of the house”). Or the woman who finally loses a ton of weight because she thinks her husband is ashamed of her, when it turns out he actually, genuinely loves her regardless of how much she weighs, but was living in terrifying fear that she was losing weight so she could leave him. The program underscores two things for me: one, being overweight is so not about the food, but about the underlying emotional turmoil; and two, if we spent half the time we use up obsessing about our weight and the size of our bums on something really productive, the world would be SUCH a different place.

And yes, I would like to send the Lemon Sucking Nutritionist a copy of this program.

I write all this because it’s New Year’s Eve and I’m on the precipice of, yet again, trying to get a grip on my weight. Since leaving NYC I’ve managed to put back on the weight I lost a few years ago, partly because a whole NEW set of things happened that I didn’t know how to deal with. (That’s the thing about life, really – you can stop making old mistakes, but there are always new ones that come along.) It’s also partly because I got really unfocused, and started confusing “self kindness” with “self indulgence”. In her book “When You Eat at the Refrigerator, Pull Up a Chair”, author Geneen Roth makes some critical distinctions between these two things, chiefly that self-indulgence is “continuing to do what is harmful to you after you realize it is harmful”, whereas self-kindness is “stopping doing what is harmful to you”. The proverbial light bulb went off in my head when I read this last night, and I realized that more than anything else, “Be kind to myself” would be the best possible motto for 2010, and a great way to frame my Happiness Project work in the months to come. Because isn’t being happy the ultimate kindness we can show ourselves?

Happy New Year. (Champagne has 2 points).

Monday, December 28, 2009

Happiness Project: Energy Consumption

An oddly restful Christmas holiday with just my parents and grandmother, and I am delighted to report that my niece called from California to tell me she loved her new quilt. She has yet to realize the patchwork is different -- miracle of miracles! She and her sister also loved the Project Runway dressmaking kits I got them, as well as the extra bits of fabric I sent, and my sister reports that they are Very Busy playing Fashion. Tim Gunn, watch out! My own favorite gifts include marshmallow lip gloss and an itunes gift card from the cat (aka my sister), with which I was able to download a bunch of much-wanted songs by Snow Patrol.

But moving along...I mentioned that I am embarking on Gretchen Rubin's "Happiness Project Challenge". January’s topic is energy, and (obviously) I got a little bit of a head start on this one…for some reason this whole thing really motivated me, and if I’ve learned anything it’s that very little motivates me, so I need to ride the wave while I can.

So. I started focusing on energy by looking at my energy consumption. At least during the winter months, when I am not running the air conditioner, my energy consumption is actually fairly low. I live in a small apartment that is in a converted mill, and that decision alone significantly reduces my own personal carbon footprint. My electric bill runs an affordable ~$30 a month, so there’s not much financial incentive to further reduce my costs. Plus, I own a car that gets 35-40 mpg, I take the train to work every day, and I recycle as much as possible. On the downside, as a renter I have no control over my appliances, which from what I can tell are not of the energy efficient variety, but I can use the cold water cycle in the washing machine, adjust the settings in my fridge/freezer, and limit the use of my dishwasher….all of which I do regularly. And, although heat is included in my rent, I have also made sure that my windows are shut tight, and I close the blinds at night to help retain heat.

My energy sins, though, are as follows:

  • I habitually forget to turn off the bathroom light.
  • I leave my phone and ipod chargers plugged in.
  • Things like my DVD player and printer, which I use infrequently, are plugged in and turned on.
  • My sewing machine is always plugged in.
  • I have a small fan in the bedroom that runs 24/7.

As “baby steps”, I’ve gone around the apartment and unplugged all the things that I use infrequently, and I’ve left myself a note on the door to remind me to turn things off – like the fan and the bathroom light. I know many of you are thinking, why on earth is she bothering to write an entire blog post about putting a note on her door…all I can say is, this is so antithetical to my default behavior it is almost akin to my skin spontaneously turning blue. I’m Just Not That Organized. But also – the point is that even small changes in our lives can lead to improvements, and a series of small changes can have a tremendous cumulative effect on our wellbeing. Even if I manage to save $5 a month on my light bill, that’s $60/year…which is a week’s worth of groceries, a new sweater, or a contribution to a charitable organization. And somewhere along the line, a little bit less of fossil fuels are being used on my behalf.

Next up in the energy challenge: Physical energy!

Sunday, December 20, 2009


I rarely cook. I'm single and have a small kitchen and rely on my microwave more than is necessary. A combination of forces this weekend, including a ridiculous snowstorm and the upcoming holiday, have driven me into the kitchen. Yesterday, in addition to the pink popcorn, I made these peanut butter cups, which were good (although tricky), and later I'm going to try making this caramel corn. Or at least I was, until my morning project completely derailed me...both me and my kitchen are currently covered in bits of melted chocolate and coconut, and I had to take a breather.

So - about these needhams. My paternal great-grandmother was something of an awesome cook. The stories my dad tells about her whipping up magnificent chocolate cakes at the drop of the hat are family legends. She died when I was three, but one of my earliest memories is of standing in her pantry on top of a little step stool, watching her pop popcorn, which is what she did whenever I visited. I called her "the popcorn Nana" (literal even then...) to differentiate her from my other Nana, my great-grandmother on my mom's side - who was also an excellent cook in her own right.

One of the things "the popcorn Nana" made for my dad when he was a kid was needhams. I think this is an old Mainer thing, because pretty much anyone not from Maine blanches when they hear the ingredients. Baked potato mixed with coconut and powdered sugar...well, it is a bit of a stretch. When I was younger, there was a company called Seavey's in Lewiston, Maine that used to manufacture these, but they went out of business a few years ago. Their needhams were a good-sized square, individually wrapped in a wax-paperish bag. You could buy boxes of them at the grocery store, and every once and awhile they'd make an appearance during the holidays at our house.

Back in 2005, one of my dad's sisters gave me Nana's recipe for the needhams. Let me just say that when I moved out of that apartment two years later, I was still finding splotches of melted chocolate in cracks and crevices. Dipping sticky coconut in melted chocolate is an under-appreciated art form, is what I'm saying. Luckily, they tasted fine, but they did not in any way resemble the needhams anyone else in my family made.

So this weekend I tried again. Last night I baked the potatoes and made the filling, spreading it out on a pan, and stuck it in the fridge. This time I didn't even TRY for squares and went straight to making little balls before dipping it in the chocolate. The first few looked nice - rustic, handmade, but certainly edible. But after a few dips, the coconut got mixed in with the chocolate, and the next few were a little, well, ploppy looking. Exhibit A:

What is missing from this photo is me, covered in chocolate.

I've stuck the pan of coconut in the freezer, where it is currently sitting, in hopes that it will firm up more and make the dipping easier. The recipe encourages the use of paraffin wax in the chocolate, which I don't use because the idea of it grosses me out a little, but it will give the chocolate a nicer, glossy finish.

If you are motivated and have some time, here's the recipe, complete with my editorials. Let me know how yours come out!

2 medium baked potatoes
4 1/2 cups confectioners sugar
1 pound shredded coconut
butter size of a pea
1 teaspoon vanilla
24 ounces chocolate chips
1 or 2 squares of paraffin wax (3 inch squares)

Mash hot baked potatoes with the butter, and gradually add the sugar. [Editorial: what turns up in the bowl resembles glue. As far as I know, this is the intended outcome.] Add remaining ingredients. If the mixture is too dry, add more potato. Pat into buttered sheet 9 x 13. [I just lined a cookie sheet with wax paper.]

Chill mixture overnight. Cut into 1" squares. [Good Luck.] Take a portion of squares off the pan and stick the remainder back in the fridge, as these dip best when chilled and not at room temperature. [Amen.]

Melt chocolate chips on top of a double boiler. [I microwaved mine.] Add wax if desired. Dip squares into the chocolate, then place on wax paper to harden up. Since mixture is rather sticky, putting the square on top of a two-prong meat fork to dip into the chocolate seems to work well. [I wouldn't know, as I can't get squares to begin with.]

Needhams freeze well.

Edited to add: sticking the coconut mixture in the freezer about 30 minutes prior to dipping enabled me to get something resembling a square/rectangle. Alas, the freezing made the dipping more difficult, as the chocolate began to set up pretty quickly. I'm thinking that the paraffin wax might be necessary after time.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Pink Popcorn

When my sister and I were little Nanny, our maternal grandmother, would often have us for an overnight visit. One of the highlights of these visits was a special treat that we called "pink popcorn", which really does no justice to this sweet, salty and crunchy affair. We'd get ready for bed while Nan made the popcorn, then we'd close down the kitchen and take the popcorn to the living room, where we'd watch the Love Boat or whatever else might be on television, while Nan knit or crocheted.

A few years ago Nan gave me the recipe, and for some inexplicable reason I finally got around to making it this afternoon. And while I know time travel does not exist, let me just say that the minute I tasted this again I could practically feel myself sitting there on the couch in my flannel nightie, sitting next to my little sister with a bowl of popcorn in between us, with Nan sitting in the chair with her legs tucked up under her, yarn in her lap and instructions balanced on the arm of the chair. Powerful stuff, this is.

A few things about the recipe: first, I used a bag of microwave popcorn and it turned out just fine; second, you have to use butter - margarine won't work; third, any color food coloring will do, but once we had Nan make it blue and we swore it tasted different; fourth, as with anything involving hot boiling sugar be extremely careful, this is not a kid-friendly recipe; fifth, if kids are going to eat this, it might be worth the extra time to pick out the unpopped kernels; sixth, you have been warned, this stuff is like crack for anyone with a sweet tooth.

Ok, ready?

4-6 cups popped popcorn
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
1 1/2 tablespoons butter
a couple drops of red food coloring
Powdered sugar (confectioner's sugar)

Spread the popped popcorn in a lightly greased shallow pan. In a saucepan, combine the sugar, water, butter and food coloring and bring to a boil while stirring. Boil until the soft ball stage (230-240 degrees). Gradually pour the syrup over the popcorn and stir until there is even coverage (it will get sticky). Sprinkle powdered sugar on top while it's all still warm. Let it cool a bit before eating - but not too long, as its best while still slightly warm. It will allegedly keep for a few days in an airtight container, but honestly? We've never had any leftovers.

Someone asked for a photo -- I suspect this will look like a bowl of popcorn to most people but if you look really hard, there's a hint of pink. I could have used another drop or two of food coloring.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Requisite Annual Navel Gazing 2009

Like a lot of people, I find this time of year a good spot to stop and think about what I’ve accomplished and what I want to achieve in the coming year. I stopped making resolutions a long time ago, but I do like to pause and reflect about the things that are important to me, identify areas that I want to focus on, and outline baby steps I can take to move myself forward. And when I say “baby steps”, I mean exactly that – for example, in 2008 I set the goal for myself of simply submitting one essay for publication, which I did just under the wire in late December. The point was simply to put something I had written in the mail. I had utterly no expectations; in fact, I took consolation in the fact that the essay would never see the light of day. I was simply forcing myself to confront my fear of sending my work out.

(I recognize how weird this may sound for someone who blogs, but the thing about blogging is that unless you are, say, Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, it’s very easy to assume nobody is reading the thing, and so it feels private…even when it’s not.)

Imagine my surprise when, six months later, I found out the essay was going to be published. When they asked me if the work “was still available for publication” (meaning, nobody else had bought it) I almost fell off my chair from laughing. Nobody else had SEEN the thing.

(While I had been published before, during college, it was a fluke of grand proportions involving my roommate’s brother desperately needing copy for a new magazine he was art directing, and him grabbing my first journalism class assignment off the kitchen table. I was so blasé about the whole thing that I was truly startled when I showed up at class and my professor was stunned that one of his students had been published. At the age of 21 I had no idea this was actually a big deal.)

At any rate, having this latest essay published was proof positive for me that in fact, baby steps can work, and so I set about to figure out other parts of my life that might benefit from them. In 2009 I had this vague notion that I wanted to figure out what makes me happy, after realizing that a succession of things (boyfriends, jobs, apartments) were not making me happy (shocking, I know). This wasn’t a goal that could necessarily be quantified, but through a series of baby steps I started noticing improvements in my mood. Eventually I stumbled upon Gretchen Rubin’s blog and officially christened my explorations as a Happiness Project. In 2010, as I continue exploring happiness, I’m going to follow Rubin’s monthly happiness challenge, where every month I will focus on a particular area of my life. I am not 100% sure how I will deal will all of her topics , so I may change things up a bit if something more relevant comes up. But there’s something appealing about this approach; I like the idea of devoting one month to something. It seems like it will be long enough to investigate and make some changes, but short enough so that I won’t get sick of it.

January’s topic is Energy, and while I’m not yet sure what Rubin has in mind, I am going to define this in three specific ways: physical, emotional, and consumption (as in, electricity). There are some basic things that I already know affect my energy levels …but I’m interested in exploring this further. Like, for example, every few months I think to myself, I really should take a basic multi-vitamin, because my idea of good nutrition is a grilled-cheese and tomato sandwich. I run out and buy vitamins, take one, and then promptly forget about them for another few months. What would happen if I actually took one every single day? Totally a baby step. And maybe I won’t feel any differently, but it’s possible that it might just boost my energy a bit. If not, no harm/no foul. Likewise, I know that there are a number of small things I can do to reduce my energy consumption, including unplugging my rarely-used toaster, DVD player, and printer. Small things, but still valuable.

If you’d like to play along, visit Rubin’s blog or check out her upcoming book (I have no relationship, business or otherwise, with her; I just like her blog). Also, another good source I've found for “annual life planning”, for lack of a better term, is Chris Guillebeau’s blog.

Purple Redux Done

If you've been wondering where I was...I was back in purple land, making a second quilt for my youngest niece. I tried my best to make it "exactly the same", although it was not possible to make the patchwork match precisely. Because I had to buy more fabric to make this one, I think it is possible that I have more purple fabric now than when I started these...

Sunday, December 6, 2009

A Few of My Happy Things

It's snowing out and for some strange reason I am WIRED; cannot sleep at all. Since 'tis the season and all that, plus I haven't written about my happiness project in a while, I thought I'd share a few things that made me happy this week.

1) Harney & Sons cinnamon spice tea. Here in the Boston area it can be found at Au Bon Pain, Barnes and Nobles, and Roche Brothers. It’s a very sweet tea – no need for sugar-and I find it extraordinarily comforting, plus it smells very holiday-like. It is caffeinated, although they do sell a decaf version; I don’t recommend drinking the regular stuff before bed (although I have been known to ignore my own advice and curl up at night with the tea, a blanket and a good book).
2. The new catalog from Halcyon Yarn. When I was a kid in rural Maine, the arrival of the new Sears catalog in the mail was a big deal – my sister and I would fight over it, then spend hours poring over the clothes and toy sections, circling the things we wanted Santa to bring us. The Halcyon Yarn catalog is smaller, but no less full of least, if you are prone to dreaming about fiber projects. Every time I get one of these in the mail I start thinking about how much I’d like to try weaving or spinning, but the last thing I need is another hobby. Also? downtown Bath, Maine, where the store is located, is one of my favorite places on the planet.
3. Knitting. I virtually stopped knitting for about six weeks, a combination of other projects percolating and repeatedly forgetting my knitting bag. Re-resolving to finish something (anything!), I fished out a sock project from my UFO (unfinished object) pile. Shockingly, the first sock was literally five rows away from being done, which is sort of odd; I’m guessing I was probably knitting on the train and had to stop suddenly to get off, because I can’t imagine what else would have stopped me from kitchener stitching a toe. But I digress. The point of this is to say that I was reminded that there is something about repeatedly making tiny stitches with excellent sock yarn on wooden needles that I find ridiculously comforting.
4. The Tori Amos “holiday” album, Midwinter Graces. This is not your typical sing-alongChristmas carol album, but even if you don’t consider that a good thing this CD is worth investigating. Even if you are not particularly enamored with Tori Amos, it is worth investigating. Don't be put off by the fact that she looks possessed on the album cover (what were they thinking?!). The songs are beautiful interpretations of traditional Christian and pagan themes, creating new out of the old (which ought to shut Glenn Branca up). A few of the songs can even survive the holiday season. My favorite on the album is her version of “Jeannette Isabella” – it makes me happy every time I hear it.
5. David Sedaris. I’ve been re-reading his books of essays this week, plus the current New Yorker has a story by him in it about sea turtles, and I am yet again marveling at both his humor and his essay construction. He simutaneously makes me want to pick up my own writing again and want to burn everything I have ever written because it will never be as good as his stuff.
6. NPR. For some odd reason the planets have mysteriously aligned and I can now, finally, get NPR on my clock radio. I am swooning to again wake up to Steve Inskeep’s voice (although…still miss Soterios Johnson from my NYC days…). There was recently a Morning Edition segment where Neil Gaiman (writer of "Coraline" and friend of Tori Amos – “Neil says hi by the way”) was talking about audio books, and there was a short clip of him interviewing David Sedaris. I was amused, not the least of which because Sedaris...well, he has kind of a strange voice. In fact, I have a hard time listening to him and honestly, if he wasn't so funny, I wouldn't even try. Which reminds me, it's about time to pull out his "Holidays on Ice" book!