Spring Training

red bud

I’m on a long train ride today. Lots of time to kill. Not “kill”, exactly. I’m not trying to kill anything. Better to say, “lots of time to spend on meaningful activities”, like reading a new novel, or writing to a dear friend, or watching cute puppy videos.

Let me just start by saying that this train ride is bumpy. So bumpy that I may get seasick and have to stop typing. Ugh. I do not understand this bumpiness. What is doing the bumping? Isn’t the track made of smooth metal? Aren’t the train wheels made of smooth metal? This is worse than your average airplane flight. Also, there’s no wi-fi. I’m typing this as a Word document and will paste it later. Are we a civilized nation or what?

Anyway, I happened to be in the Berkshires for a family gathering, so I got on the train in nearby Hudson, NY, a town of about 7,000 on – where else? – the Hudson River. Driving through the pretty town on the way to the train station, I saw a mix of charming, stylish, and funky shops and restaurants. No time to explore today, but I’d love to come back. From what I gather, Hudson has been quite economically depressed; however, the past few years have seen an influx of young, hipster-types from New York revitalizing the downtown. It’s not clear whether the wealth has spread to the wider community; I hope so.

Readers of this blog know something of my love for coffee. I mention this now so that you will understand my suffering.

I had a little time before my departure while waiting at the quaint Hudson train station, so I popped across the street to get a cup of coffee. There was a cute little café that looked promising. A friendly, fellow-passenger-to-be agreed to watch my suitcase so I wouldn’t have to schlep it with me. I paid my two dollars, filled my cup from the pump-handled carafe thingy, and walked back to the station, looking forward to relaxing for a few minutes with my cuppa joe. I took three sips and threw it away. Awful. But it was a lovely morning, so I went outside to sit in the sun and wait for my train.

I arrived at Penn Station with a decent layover before my next train. Many eateries from which to choose. It was time for lunch so I selected a bakery/café with beautiful pastries, sandwiches, and salads in the front window. My create-your-own salad was pretty good, made even better because the woman who constructed it called me “Honey” and explained the salad-making system to me very patiently. Their iced coffee, however? Not so good. I took five sips and threw it away.

Back on the train for the long haul of the journey down to Charlottesville, VA. Six and half hours. It’s almost too late in the day now for me to have any caffeine, so after a few minutes I head to the café car through the swaying, bumping train, trying not to fall into the laps of the passengers I pass along the way. A girl can hope, though I really didn’t expect the Amtrak coffee to be very good. My expectations were met. Into the trash.

Talk about an uncivilized nation: good coffee is just too hard to find! And a day without good coffee is a sad day indeed. Why do the fine people of the United States tolerate this travesty? Oh well…coffee aside, it’s been an otherwise fine day. Apart from the bumpiness. And the bad food in the dining car.

I know it sounds like I’m complaining, but I’m not. Not really. I’m having a perfectly lovely day. I’m so happy not to be flying or driving. I’ve brought books to read, music to listen to, and my computer for writing. Also my own homemade trail mix, which is better than anything I’ve purchased all day. New Yorkers are friendly, the Amtrak folks are friendly, the guy sitting next to me is friendly.

Out the window, it’s turning from winter to spring before my eyes. In the Berkshires the only sign of spring was a few blooming crocus. In New Jersey, the forsythia was in bloom. In Baltimore, there were flowering trees – dogwood and magnolia. In D.C., not only are the famous cherry blossoms showing off along the Potomac (gorgeous!), but there are even green leaves on many of the trees and shrubs whizzing by. What a difference a few hundred miles make!

By the time I get to Charlottesville it’ll be dark, so I’ll have to wait till tomorrow to see the misty foothills of the Blue Ridge, and the woods and horse pastures out in the country where I’ll be staying. It’s a little early, but there may even be some new lettuce in the garden.

Life is good, people. Even when it’s bad, it’s good. Beauty can always be found. And kindness, too. At our big family seder this year, we said this blessing over the candles: In this season of renewal, may we awaken to the beauty all around us and the beauty within us. I’m wide-awake today.

This Is Not My Beautiful House*

lincoln log house

I have a confession to make. This week is the anniversary of a significant event in my life and I have found myself looking back over the last couple decades and feeling a little…let down. Disappointed. Baffled. I further confess that this is not the first time I’ve experienced such feelings.

I sometimes look around at my abode, my family, my circumstances, and I think, “WTF? How did I get here??”  Where is my charming, contemporary house with the master-bedroom suite and rooms decorated exactly as I want them to be? Where is the husband who plans surprise trips to Tuscany? Where is the sunny beach cottage with the huge picture window and screened-in porch? Where is the perfect career that supports my shoe habit while not aggravating my chronic illness?

This is not the life I was supposed to have.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There are many, many good things in my life for which I am profoundly grateful. I have a roof over my head and good food to eat. I have a kind, generous, supportive husband. I have a smart, funny kid who challenges my stale assumptions. I have a good relationship with my parents and extended family. I have close friends. I get to spend time on creative endeavors. All my needs are met.

At the same time, my life does not look at all like I thought it would, like I dreamed it would, like I expected it would. And therein lies the rub: in my 20s and early 30s, I developed a few many expectations about what my life would look like. In fact, I had the whole thing pretty much worked out in my head and I just assumed that all would fall into place naturally. This seems laughable now, but I’m afraid I took it quite seriously and refused to be dissuaded by, you know, reality.

What is just dawning on me, ‘cuz I’m kinda slow, is that expectations are not the same as dreams. There is nothing wrong with dreaming about and planning for the life you want. My head is full of visions of the beautiful rooms, beautiful gardens, and beautiful clothes I might have. And why not? I value beauty and am always on the lookout for ways to add it to my life. But reality is what reality is, and to expect things to work out a certain way is, I see now, foolish. It leads only to disappointment and resentment. (I often feel rather like the proverbial tortured artist whose work (in my case, the life I’m trying to create) never matches her vision of it.)  Byron Katie says that when we argue with reality we will lose, but only 100% of the time.

When I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia, my husband and I had to make some major life adjustments. We already had a young child and it became clear that, in order to minimize my symptoms and maximize my functioning, I would not be able to raise my son AND have a job. My husband came to the conclusion that the best way to support our little family would be for him to make a career change, away from the high-stress job he had been preparing for, and toward a career with more flexibility. (Thankfully, he is incredibly happy and satisfied in his work; it suits him so well that he can no longer imagine the career he once anticipated.)

I happily stayed home with our son for several years, and right about the time I began to think I was ready for some part-time work he became very ill, requiring months of doctor visits, hospitalizations, tests and medications, culminating in major surgery and years of follow-up.  He’s doing very well now, but managing his health care had become practically a full-time job. Not to mention that, even with good health insurance, we incurred tens of thousands of dollars in medical expenses.

Hmm.

Let’s recap:
Me: chronic illness, no income
SH: change of career to lower-paying job
Man-child: serious illness, ongoing treatment

So, where is my beautiful house? Where are my trips to Italy? That’s where.

But did I change my expectations? I did not. I expected to live a certain way and every time I was not able to, it made me angry. I realize this makes me sound like a spoiled child (which I was not, by the way), but that’s not it; I had simply failed to differentiate between my dreams and my expectations. I was arguing with reality and losing.

What is the solution to this conundrum? How do we learn to have dreams, but not expectations? And if we do have expectations, how do we keep our equilibrium when they aren’t met? How do we gracefully adjust to the ever-shifting balance between the yin of a process-oriented life and the yang of a goal-oriented life? How do we teach our children these things?

How the heck should I know? I only figured out the first part yesterday. (Wait. This may not be strictly true. I have a sneaking suspicion that I know exactly how to solve this problem. I’ll get back to you on that…)

 

*possibly the best song ever, in the history of the universe

 

Quiet Please

woman with megaphone

What’s the deal with loud people? No, I’m not doing a Seinfeld bit. I’m really asking: what’s with people talking too loud in public places? As a person who spends a little a lot of time in a coffeehouse, this is an issue that comes up on a semi-regular basis. Everyone is sitting there minding their own business, engaged in solitary work or quiet conversation, when all of a sudden one person’s voice rises above the rest. This person might be on the phone, but not necessarily; often he’s talking to someone sitting right next to him. Or her. And, despite the fact that you really, really don’t want to know, you suddenly find yourself fully informed about said person’s job interview, or travel plans, or relationship with her mother. “Why?”, I want to ask this stentorian stranger, “Why are you doing that?” Does she want me to know that her mother calls her too much?

Seriously, why ARE they doing that? Let’s discuss. Sometimes, unfortunately, it’s obvious that there’s something not quite right with these, er, boisterous folks’ mental health. That doesn’t count; these people can’t help themselves. But what about everyone else? For instance, this guy sitting across from me now. He’s confabulating loudly about some real estate development deal. The person he’s talking to is speaking back to him in a normal tone of voice, but he continues to keep the volume cranked up. Is he hard of hearing? Perhaps, but he doesn’t seem to be having any trouble hearing what his conversation partner is saying. Is he oblivious? Attention-seeking? Narcissistic?  Do we sometimes get so wrapped up in what we’re saying that we literally forget where we are?

It’s really annoying.

Or maybe I’m just a big fat grumpus. (Quiet, people who live in my house.)

But, you know, this little weblog is supposed to be about choosing a joyful life, so I don’t want to be too negative here. Inappropriate behavior is just a fact of life, something we all have to contend with at one time or another. Why get too upset about it? (Also, I have my feet up on the empty chair at my table. Is that inappropriate? And do I care? I was promised that once I reached a certain age I wouldn’t care what other people thought about me. I think I’m still waiting for that to kick in…)

Still, though, I wish there was something I could DO. I really want noisypants to shut up. And, my own (theoretical) crankiness notwithstanding, I bet everyone else in the place wants him to shut up, too. It’s quite distracting. Do I just have to suck it up, make the best of it by putting in my headphones?

Thank the gods for headphones, by the way. And Pandora. (Oh, hey, that’s funny…thanking the gods for Pandora!)

What would you do? Would you consider saying something to the offender? And if so, what would you say? Do you think any good would come of it?

I recently heard an interview with an etiquette expert. She was answering a question from the interviewer about how to deal with a fellow commuter who frequently crunches potato chips (slowly and deliberately) in the quiet car of the train. The expert advised first catching the noisy passenger’s eye and giving a little smile, just to let them know that you’re aware of them. If that doesn’t work, catch their eye again and this time give them the universal “shhh…” sign, putting your index finger to your lips. If that fails, go get the conductor.

That seems like pretty good advice. But a coffeehouse is not a quiet car. There are no rules about how loud your voice (or your crunching) can be. There is only social custom and, one can only hope, respect and consideration for those around you.

But maybe I’m thinking about this the wrong way. Maybe, by speaking so loudly, my fellow coffee-drinker is simply opening up the conversation, extending an invitation to the rest of us to join in. Maybe it’s an opportunity to make a new friend. Maybe next time I’ll just lean over and say, “Gee, I’m sorry you’re having so much trouble with your mother. Have you tried telling her how you feel?”

I’ll just need to locate my chutzpah first. I’m sure it’s around here somewhere….

Cookie Craving: Baking Without a Recipe*

oatmeal chocolate chip

The other night after dinner I was craving a little something sweet. And not just anything sweet; I wanted a cookie. We didn’t have any cookies in the house. We usually don’t, ‘cuz otherwise we eat them all and then feel bad about ourselves. But sometimes a girl just needs a cookie.

I could have asked the SH to run out to the store. He would have done it, he’s sweet that way. But it was, like, a million degrees below zero, and there was, like, 100 feet of snow out there. And anyway, a fresh-baked, homemade cookie is better than store-bought any day. I’m no expert, but I know my way around a kitchen. So I walked into mine and started looking around.

Some days (OK, a lot of days) I’m more than happy to spend an hour looking through recipes to find just the right one (or just for fun). I’m happy to take my time and carefully craft something delicious. But not on Tuesday. On Tuesday I wanted my cookies fast, and I didn’t want to spend any time at all with a recipe. I just wanted to throw something together.

Now, I’ve baked a lot of cookies in my day. But the thing is, I have a terrible memory. I rarely, if ever, memorize a recipe. I can never remember if it’s one teaspoon of baking powder or a half teaspoon. Is it a half cup of sugar or a third? When cooking, exactitude is generally not necessary. In baking, it kinda matters. But on Tuesday, what was important to me was spontaneity. And speed. (And chocolate)  Plus, it was a challenge: could I do it? could I walk into the kitchen and without a recipe produce a yummy batch of cookies? This is the sort of challenge I can get behind; it’s my idea of fun and there’s very little chance of injury or death.

You might be thinking that only a very confident, self-assured individual would attempt such a risky endeavor. These are not words that most people would use to describe me. In fact, I frequently struggle with feelings of self-doubt and insecurity. (The fabulous Elizabeth Gilbert has an inspiring post on this subject.)  But a certain amount of confidence is what it took to undertake my cookie challenge. Or, to put it another way, I had to access Trust. Trust in my own abilities. Trust that everything will be fine no matter what happens (my family won’t hate me if the cookies are ruined). I also needed to be willing to fail; it’s a real possibility when attempting something new. If the cookies were ruined, my ego might take a little hit, and certainly we’d all be disappointed — once you get your hopes up for a homemade cookie, it’s hard not to be disappointed when it doesn’t happen, isn’t it? But really I could just throw the offending cookies away and start over. Or give up and eat a grapefruit.

“So”, I said to myself, “what goes into a cookie?” Flour? Check. Eggs? Check. Definitely chocolate chips. And definitely oats. Sugar, butter, baking powder, baking soda, vanilla. That’s about it. How much of each one? Hmm…let’s wing it and see what happens.

Here’s what I threw together:

1 cup flour
1 cup oats
½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
pinch salt
6 tablespoons room-temperature butter
½ cup brown sugar
⅛ cup white sugar
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla

I used my ice cream scoop to scoop out big mounds of dough onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. I forgot to write down how long I baked them. I think it was twelve minutes. Maybe it was ten. I think I heated the oven to 350 degrees.

And can I tell you something? They came out great. Were they the best cookies in the history of the universe? No. Were they freakin’ delicious? Yes, they were. Big and chewy with a mellow sweetness and melting chocolate chips, they really hit the spot. We gobbled them up. And by “we” I mean primarily the man-child; the SH and I were allowed only two each. And by “allowed” I mean that someone around here has to put her foot down or else we will end up the size of a house.

The fact that the cookies turned out so well was very satisfying; but even more satisfying was the fact that I challenged myself. As challenges go, baking oatmeal cookies may not be on par with painting the Sistine Chapel or climbing Mt. Everest, but still…I had to access my creativity and I had to access my courage. And anytime we can do that, and value the time spent, we must be doing something right.

*metaphor for life

Homage to Citrus

Mixed citrus fruit

This week at our house, food-wise, the focus has been on citrus fruit. Actually, let’s face it, citrus is one of the few bright spots in an otherwise long, cold, grey winter* so we happily consume lots of it all season. Especially grapefruit, that wondrous globe of immune-boosting, mood-boosting sunshine.

But this week there’s been a little extra, in the form of a homemade cake and a homemade alcoholic beverage (bright spots any time of year, and an important part of a joyful, not-too-busy life).

A couple days ago I was in the kitchen (where I often am) and I noticed that we had quite a few lemons and limes that were reaching their past their peak. Suddenly I felt inspired to bake a cake (as I often do). I remembered that over at SmittenKitchen (my favorite food blog) there’s a recipe for a lime yogurt cake, so I used that as my reference. I put lots of lime and lemon zest in the batter, as well as lime juice. I made a syrup of lemon juice and sugar to pour over the top of the finished cake (it soaks in!). Then I made a blueberry sauce to serve with it (hooray for the 20 pounds of blueberries picked in August and stored in my freezer!). Well. You can imagine. It looked exactly like this:

lemon cake with blueberry sauce

And it tasted exactly like….well, you can imagine the sweet-tart goodness. Go now and make this cake. Go on. I’ll wait here.

All done? See what I mean?

Maybe you’re ready for a drink after all the hard work of baking a cake. Might I suggest something warming? This week, the SH has been making us hot toddies in the evenings. It’s a delicious cocktail of whiskey, citrus juice, and honey in hot water. I think, traditionally, a hot toddy is made with whiskey and lemon, but we’ve been making ours with a combination of lemon and orange juice. I bought bourbon, so we’re using bourbon (like I know the difference anyway). We like our hot toddies with more juice and less water so they’re nice and fruity. Good and good for you!

Go now and make yourself one of these. Go on. I’ll wait here.

Feel better? Me too.

 

*the other bright spot:

winter cardinal

 

Gold Star

Are there lots of things you’d like to get done every day? Productive, creative, good-for-you things? Do all these things bounce around in your brain, competing for your time and attention? Does all that knocking about in your skull give you a headache? Yeah. Me too.

Do you make all kinds of agreements with yourself about how you’re going to do all those important things, and then when you don’t do them you feel like a failure? Like a loser? Maybe like someone who can’t be counted on to follow through? Yeah. Me too.

Do you make excuses to yourself to explain why you didn’t do all those wonderful things? I’m too tired, my kid won’t leave me alone, my dog won’t leave me alone, I have to watch House of Cards? And of course everybody’s all-time favorite: I don’t have enough time? Yeah. Me too.

Pardon? The title of the blog? Oh. Right. I suppose since I’ve chosen to believe that there actually IS plenty of time for everything, I ought to have some thoughts about how to live that belief. I mean, how can I ensure that I actually DO all that good stuff? Especially given my tendency to put things off till I’m in the right mood, by which point I probably have run out of time.

I mentioned this topic to one of my favorite people the other day and she said, “Oh, you’re talking about accountability.”

“I am?”

“Sure, you’re talking about finding ways to hold yourself accountable for the agreements you make with yourself.”

Huh. Apparently, I’ve been operating under the assumption that, if there was something I wanted to start doing — say, “get more exercise” — I should be able to just start doing it. And keep doing it. And if that didn’t happen it meant I was weak-willed or I must not really want it.

But of course none of us is inherently able to be 100% accountable, 100% of the time. That’s why some people have “workout buddies” and some people belong to writing groups or Weight Watchers. Sometimes we need other people to help us stick to our agreements.

The woman who has a workout buddy struggles with sticking to an exercise plan, but she regularly shops for and cooks healthy dinners as if it were the most natural thing in the world. The man who joined a writing group needs help staying on track to finish his novel, but he happily gets up early every morning to go running. We’re great at holding ourselves accountable in certain areas of our lives but not in others.

Obviously, it just wouldn’t be practical to have a buddy or a support group to help us with ALL the challenging agreements we make with ourselves: I will clean my house every week, I will read the New York Times every morning, I will get to work on time, I will call my mother every Sunday, I will meditate every day, and on and on. We mustn’t say we don’t have time for those things. We simply mustn’t.

I’ve got a bunch of stuff I want to start doing. Yoga stuff. Writing stuff. Sewing stuff. So you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to do what kindergarten teachers all over America do: I’m going to make a star chart. I printed out a table with six columns and many, many rows. Each agreement gets a column and every day of the week gets a row. I went to the craft store today and bought sheets of tiny, shiny gold stars (they keep them in the “teacher” section!). Now I’ll be able to track the agreements I’ve made with myself and accurately evaluate my progress.

Of course it’s important to be realistic; we don’t want to set ourselves up for failure. I like coach Molly Gordon’s 7-5-4 standard, which she applies to anything you want to do daily. If doing yoga 7 days a week is the ideal I’m striving for, I’ll consider five to be just as valid — five gold stars in a week means a job well done. And four days? I can do four days no matter what; that’ll be my baseline minimum — it’s realistic and I’ll consider it a success. If you’re starting something new but don’t intend to do it every day, simply adjust the standard: 5-4-3, 3-2-1 — whatever makes sense to you.

Hey, look at that – I finished this post. Hooray for me! I get a gold star!

 

In the Mood

I’ve been thinking about discipline. Self-discipline, to be precise. It’s not my forte. Even now, just this minute, while my intention is to write this post, I clicked away from this page to watch clips of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler at the Golden Globes. After typing three sentences. Three.

Also I think I’m a little ADD. Or, as my aunt likes to say, I have “adult onset — hey, look at that!

I have a strong tendency to do things only when I’m in the “right mood” to do them. Return phone calls and emails. Make dinner. Exercise. Write. To put a positive spin on this, you could say I’m a “free spirit” who “follows her bliss” and isn’t “a slave to the clock.” Less generously, but just as accurately, you could say that I’m undisciplined and a slave to my emotions.

I have a lot of conversations in my head that go “I really should do some yoga now…yeah, but I don’t feel like it”; or, “It’s 5:30, I really should go make dinner now…yeah, but I don’t feel like it.” Some of you are probably saying, “You don’t feel like it? What’s that got to do with anything? If it’s time to make dinner, just make dinner.” (Stop yelling at me…) If that’s you, you’re clearly a different personality type from me. We’ve all got our strengths and weaknesses, haven’t we?

Still, I’d like to improve my self-discipline skills. If nothing else, I bet I’d get a lot more done each day.  I could try yelling at myself — I’m pretty good at the berating and admonishing of self — but I suspect this would not be an especially effective method of motivation. Besides, “be nicer to self” is up there at the top of my list of How to Live a More Joyful Life. I could consult one of the many books written on the subject of habit formation, but I’m too undisciplined to read them.

Instead, I think I’ll just practice. When there’s something that needs doing, I’ll practice choosing to do it instead of choosing to not do it. I’ll set an intention. It’ll go something like this: “I take care of my responsibilities in a timely fashion. Chores, projects, errands, things I enjoy and things I don’t enjoy – I attend to each one at the appropriate time.” I won’t get it right every time. I won’t get it right a lot. I’ll catch myself falling into old habits and patterns. When that happens, I’ll celebrate: I’m on to myself! Woo hoo! (I will not actually say “woo hoo.“)  And then I’ll step toward the new way again, reminding myself of my intention. Reminding myself that I have to choose it every time. The more I practice, the better I’ll get. The choosing will happen more and more automatically until, at some point, what I’ve got is a shiny new and improved habit.

Oh look — it’s 5:30. Time to go make dinner. But, you know, I’m really not in the mood. I wonder who’s on Facebook right now….?

What do you want? A miracle?