Saturday, January 26, 2013

A Spoon Full of Sugar

Mary Poppins knew how to make chores fun. We all daydream of the time when a lovely nanny with perfect pitch can come take care of the less-than-desirable items on our list, all with efficiency and good humor.

One of those less-than-desirable items for me is planning the week's menu. This may sound surprising to some, but as much as I occasionally enjoy cooking, it's the planning part that just bugs me somehow. There are many other things I'd rather be doing!

We all know that it makes good economical and healthful sense to plan one's week of meals ahead of time, and to subsequently go to to the store with a prepared list of needed items in hand.

We also know we should go shopping on a full stomach.

I usually aim to do both of these. I really do. However, I failed on the latter this morning, and left Whole Foods with a bag of (vegan) sour gummy worms. As soon as I got back into the car, I mauled the bag open grizzly-style and ate the entire contents while listening to Ira Glass's rushed chatter on NPR's This American Life. What can I say? Things got a little crazy.

But back to the menu planning. This often takes me a while. I sit in a sunny spot on the floor of our front living room, surrounded by stacks of cookbooks, hemming and hawing about what I'm going to make that week. I skim the books, trying to recall what the past successes were and which books they are in. And being a cookbook whore, I have many recipes to muddle through. Plus the cats always show up pining for attention in the midst of all this, so some time is lost there as well.

Sergio, always pining for attention. :) Isn't he adorable?

I wondered if I could streamline this process a bit so that I could have more quality time for important things, like satisfying my online solitaire addiction.

The first step was pushing my meal-planning day from Sunday to Saturday. Sunday can be such a "meh" day and adding food shopping to that day's activities suddenly struck me as a very bad idea. It's a much more tolerable chore on a Saturday morning, as you get it out of the way and you still have the whole weekend of possibilities laying out before you.

So here is the system, if one can actually call it that. I opened a new document in my Google account and entitled it Winner Recipes We Love. I shared it with my beloved, so that we could both add recipes to it. (You could just use a word document or  -- gasp -- write in an actual honest-to-goodness notebook.)

Then I began listing my cookbooks and the winner recipes we've tried from each one. (This isn't to say that these are the only good recipes in each book. They're just the ones we happened to have tried and loved so far.) Here is an example of what I've started. (I've still got a many books to go through, but you get the idea...)

Eat, Drink, and Be Vegan
47 Chipotle Lime Two-Bean Hummus
84  Peanut Passion Sauce
94  Cocoa Coconut Chili
95  Lemon Chickpea Lentil Soup
102 Thai Coconut Corn Stew
122 Broccoli Cashew Teriyaaki Tofu Stir-fry
131 Lemony Cashew-Basil Pesto on Pasta (better fresh, not as good for leftovers)
148 Thai Chick-Un Pizza

Chloe’s Kitchen
41 Warm Spinach-Artichoke Dip
73 Coconut Mashed Yams with Currants
95 Avocado Toast
101 Chloe’s Award-Winning Mango Masala Panini
191 Tempeh Piccata
201 Ginger Nutmeg Spice Cupcakes

Color Me Vegan
32 Quick Curried Swiss Chard
34 Beet burgers
37 Cajun Red Beans and Rice
38 Watermelon Granita
41 Raspberry Lemon Muffins
46 Citrus Salad
50 Peach Salsa
59 Carrot Fries
62 Sweet Potato Tacos (K likes)
76 Lemon Basil Vinaigrette
99 Frozen Banana Dessert
117 Kale Chips
129 Green Smoothies
152 Linguine with Purple Cabbage
176 Coconut Rice
179 Lemony Pan-Fried Chickpeas with Chard
180 Salt and Pepper Tofu
195 Black Olive Bruschetta
212 Nori Wraps with Orange Cashew Cream (K likes)
219 Chocolate Cherry Cookies
228 Carrot and Avocado Salad
229 Thai Coconut Soup
238 Indian-Style Black Bean and Veggie Burritos

The Vegan Slow Cooker
62 Soy Chorizo Black Bean Stew
74 Thai Red Curry Tofu and Veggies
110 Risotto
121 Tempeh and Veggies in Spicy Peanut Sauce

A few of these I've marked "K likes" because Ry is not a huge fan. So I plan these recipes for those nights when he is out on a gig. The numbers next to each recipe, you've probably guessed, are the page numbers in the book.

This has cut down significantly on menu planning time, since I can quickly peruse the list and see the winners. I'm not listlessly flipping through cookbooks anymore. And while I continue to try new recipes, the frequency depends on the week ahead. Some weeks are just about the quick-and-easy standards when I know I'll have very little energy or patience for experimenting.

So that's my little trick. Not Julie Andrews-worthy by any means, but it helps get the job done quicker.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I have some solitaire to play. And kitties to pat.

See? As soon as those cookbooks land on the floor, Kaci appears ready to be admired. It never fails.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Abby Normal

What's normal?

Ask anyone who's lived or traveled away from home for a spell and, as much as she may have enjoyed her time, she'll probably admit that there is something very comforting about returning to one's own culture where the rules and language are a given. This can be true for cultures in distant lands, and it can be equally true for a culture a mere fifty miles away from your front doorstep. Ryan and I trek to Pennsylvania each December and I love our time there. But there is an undeniable thrill in seeing the familiar green Massachusetts Turnpike signs and other visual markers announce that we are almost home. My favorite stations reemerge on the radio. Even the obnoxious Boston drivers are somehow endearing. Our wonderful known world comes back into focus.

Life has so many forced surprises in store for each of us, that framing our lives in "normal" gives us a wonderful sense of stability. It's an anchor that keeps us safely tethered in a world that manages to occasionally make us feel blown off course.

Like everyone, I have my normal, and I love it. It might be a bit bland for some, but it makes me happy. One example: I can read all day. Get me hooked on a good author, and I'll snuggle in bed with a tank of coffee and some salted dark chocolate, completely content. (The Sookie Stackhouse series is my current drug of choice.) That might be torture to someone else whose normal is training for a triathalon. But it makes my little world lovely.

Another cornerstone of my normal is going to the movies. I can go by myself, with one friend, or with eight. Just as long as I have my homemade berbere popcorn and a cherry Coke (it's my one naughty movie allowance and one of the few occasions when I crave soda.) I'm completely sold into the movie producer's vision. You know the AMC thing they show after the trailers with the two gals and the guy watching the movie? The one where all the seats start turning into plants and stuff as they stare at the movie screen, smiling as only models can and sipping their sodas in a sweet yet sexy way? That's me, minus the sexy part. (I'm the one enveloped in cozy clothes with spilled pieces of popcorn in her lap.) I disappear blissfully into the movie's world. It's heaven.

Occasionally we all veer off slightly from our normal and try something different. A new restaurant. An undiscovered road to walk or run on. I recently started taking art classes again, which was initially intimidating. But like all small changes, it quickly got absorbed into my slow evolution of normal. Small changes to our normal are whimsical and nonthreatening.

Normal has its dark side, though. It can hypnotize us from seeing what we'd rather not see. We get so wrapped up in our view of the world, that we often fail to connect the dots because our normal creates a rather comfortable haze around us.

For years I viewed veganism as decidedly "abby normal," to quote Mel Brooks. It was extreme. It didn't jive with what I'd been taught. Vegetarianism was cute and acceptable. But veganism? Egads.

Besides, the animal cruelty couldn't be that bad, could it? After all, my parents ate animal products and they taught me so much about being kind and fair to everyone. I have a vivid memory of my father trying to dissuade my younger brother from buying Nike sneakers because he'd heard the company used child labor to make the shoes. He lost that particular battle, but his words stayed with me. My paternal grandparents were phenomenal humanitarians and early environmentalists. When I'd sleep over, we'd take early morning walks in the woods behind their house, always with a plastic bag in hand to pick up trash. Gramma taught me to cut the plastic 6-pack soda and beer holders into small pieces, lest a creature get strangled in the plastic rings. She also scolded me once when I was nine or so when I shared with her how I'd learned to fish during a camping trip. "But I throw them back in the water!" I explained. She emphatically asked, "Well how would you like it if someone stuck a long hook through your mouth?" And yet she enjoyed the occasional dinner of fish, a thought that did not enter my mind until recently. My mother would care for wounded animals that got hurt in our yard, as did my father. And friends and family were equally thoughtful and kind. I was surrounded by wonderful examples of compassion.

But we all ate meat and eggs, wore leather, and drank milk. It was never presented as a choice, really. We all just did this. It was normal.

Flip that coin, though, and see the results of this normal from the animals' perspective? Quite a different story. And though I may be wrong about this, I believe that if these same lovely people saw and heard what happens to the animals used for these products, their reactions would be similar to my own. If they actually saw the journey of the cattle in India and China and what workers will do to a collapsed animal to get it back on its feet on its way to slaughter. If they saw the harvesting of the leather and realized that, dear God, that animal is still alive. If they saw what people did to those cute male chicks in hatcheries, the same ones we go gaga over in Easter commercials. If they saw animals destined for "humane slaughter," legs roped together and their bodies shaking from fear so badly that the sides of the pickup truck they are lying in rattle. How could any of us possibly support it once we knew? Once we saw? Once we heard?

And this is why we resist learning what happens. Why so many of us (me included) have said, "I can't bear to know," as we eat our bacon. We know, deep inside, that we couldn't support it. And that we'd have to divorce ourselves from our normal and be cast adrift from our beloved anchor.

The initial challenges of such break from normal are twofold.

One: The people in your life your hold dear may try to coax you back to normal, no matter how diplomatic you try to be. They may try to reason with you, debate with you, scare you, even roll their eyes at you. But, most fascinating, all but a rare few will not want to hear a word of what happens to the animals. Because it will threaten their normal. And nobody wants their normal threatened. I speak from experience because, while I never disagreed with people about animal rights, I was your classic example of "don't tell me." I knew that knowing the truth would be a game changer.

Two: While small changes are fun and playful, a large paradigm shift in one's normal is very intimidating. Cooking without animal products seems loony at first. It's a complete upheaval of so many dimensions of our lives. We worry about the health consequences. Losing our anchor is unsettling to say the least.

But here's what I discovered. I didn't go adrift. I still had the anchor. I had just pulled it up into the boat and then cast the sails to explore new ports. It was, in fact, actually kind of fun! The food I was trying out was surprisingly tasty. Sure there were some culinary disasters, but that had happened plenty of times when I ate animal products. We used WAY less trash, as most of our refuse went into the compost. And what did go into the trash didn't rot or smell. After a while and some experimentation the food got -- damn -- really good.

The salty old harbor I had long anchored in paled in comparison to the new places I was exploring. And there was an unexpected beauty to creating a new normal. A normal that finally matched the Golden Rule touted by so many.  Only a month after going vegan, I found it laughable that I'd ever considered it a big deal. My old normal seemed kind of pathetic and out of date. It smelled of mothballs. I loved my new normal.

In Young Frankenstein, Igor picked the abnormal (abby normal) brain by accident. But the resulting person ended up being a pretty cool guy. (And pretty good in the sack, if you remember Madeline Kahn's reaction to his overtures ...)

Because when you get down to it, normal is not all it's cracked up to be. Abby normal can be cooler. Healthier. More fun. And way more in line with your own ideas of what kindness and empathy really mean. 

Pull up the anchor. See what happens.

I triple dog dare you.


What are some fun sides of your normal?

Thursday, January 3, 2013

A New Year! (Regrets and Silver Linings)

Like Sinatra, I've had a few regrets, but too few to mention.

On the other hand, they can be worth mentioning. Because regrets are very powerful motivators. They are your conscience giving you a well-needed kick in the pants. Or a glaring roadsign demanding that you take the next exit. "This is not who you are!" it beseeches. "Come on, man! Take a different path. Pull it together. Honestly." Regret changes us.

Sixteen years ago I boarded a plane for Bolivia to volunteer in the Peace Corps. Three years later, like the thousands of volunteers before me, I left full of experiences and memories that forever altered me.

Most of those were very positive, but I had one very strong regret. It involved a pair of kittens.

Now don't get all worried. Nothing horrible happens, so you can uncover your eyes and keep reading.

I was renting my dilapidated property in a small town called Yotala for about $20 a month from a relatively well-to-do couple that lived in the city of Sucre, only half an hour's busride away. Like all properties in Yotala proper, mine was enclosed behind clanging metal gates and high walls made from oversized, crumbling mud bricks. Each property was its own secret world. Mine had old gardens that snaked around the small house in an overgrown, gnarled fashion, much the way I imagined Frances Hodgen Burnett's famed secret garden did. There were exotic lilies that sprang unexpectedly from weeds, and passion fruits growing sneakily up the sides of the house. (Passionfruit, I soon learned, attracted the scariest looking spiders you can imagine. About the width of a child's hand, hairy, and flat as a piece of thin cardboard.) Eventually, I planted a small vegetable garden way in back. There was a lemony/tangeriney tree back there too. (I never figured out what the fruit was but it made the most marvelous lemonade.) But other than going back there to occasionally harvest those goodies, I never had any need to visit that part of the property.

Now the landlords hired a tiny man to come in occasionally and look after the gardens. He didn't seem to do that much, but he was nice enough and having him stop by now and then forced me to practice my pathetically rudimentary Quechuan language skills. He was very poor and was always dusty. Even the skin on his finely wrinkled face was dusty. His wife was ... well ... a piece of work. I can't think of another way to describe her that would be pleasant. She too was tiny and she'd emerge every now and then on my property to scare the living daylights out of me, always shouting what sounded like insults, and hitting me with things. I never knew why she did this, but some unnameable thing about me royally pissed her off. She reminded me of those kitchen witches that graced many a home in the seventies and early eighties. A violent kitchen witch. Poor tiny man.

One day, towards the end of my first two years and right before I moved to La Paz to work directly in the Peace Corps main office, the tiny man brought two kittens to my property, one male and one female. I can't recall his reasoning, though he did attempt to explain once. I don't know how or why they came into his possession. I always guessed he kept them on my property because of his scary wife, but I never really knew. (Again, my Quechua was pretty bad. And he didn't speak any Spanish. Let's just say I improved at charades during those two years.) Regardless of his reasons, he left the kittens on the property and would stop in every day to feed them.

The kittens were terrified of me, which was initially surprising since cats and I tend to get on quite well. But animal abuse was the norm there, so they had every right to be afraid of an unknown human. People mostly kept cats around to keep the mice at bay.

The kittens stuck to each other in a protectively hunched, furry mass, and they fled whenever I showed up, usually scooting into the back yard where I was a rare threat. The tiny man continued to come by to feed them, and I'd throw them some food at other times of the day, just to fatten the poor things up a bit. They were so damned pitiful.

In my last week at the house, I came home and the female ran directly up to me, clearly upset. This was oddly out of character and I wondered where the male went. Maybe tiny man took him back? I began feeding the newly brave girl, but she always seemed very anguished. I assumed that she just missed her brother and was lonely. A couple of days later, I was trying to soothe her with soft pats and some more food, when I heard a strange birdlike call coming from the back of the property.  I couldn't imagine what it was. But I went to the back to investigate and the noise got much louder. The female kitten followed me anxiously.

And suddenly I knew. Her brother was back there. Something was wrong. I followed the noise to the very back wall, a fair distance from the house, and peered into a dry, abandoned water tank. There, looking up wide-eyed and frantic was the little male kitten, trapped and meowing with such loud ragged force, it shocked me. He'd been in there for at least two days with the hot sun baking his unprotected, parched body. He looked like a little furry, matted skeleton.

I reached down and pulled him out. He weighed nothing.

His sister was visibly relieved that I'd finally caught on, and she meowed along with her brother. As I held the previously skittish kitten, he clung to me, purring and shaking. I began to cry a little at this heartbreaking scene. They were just so starkly desperate. I carried him back to the covered porch, his sister right at my heels.

Grabbing some change,  I put him down and ran to the butcher, where I bought a half a pound or so of cow's meat (a whole other story that I'll go into on another day). I returned to the front gate and could hear the meowing on the other side as they wailed against the five minutes of abandonment. I reemerged into their world and they followed me to the kitchen, tripping over each other to be closer. Cutting the meat into tiny pieces, I put the food and a bowl of water in the shade and sat down next to them. The girl ravaged the meat (I'd already been feeding her for two days, but she was still a skinny minny). The boy, however, ignored the bowl and plate. His one concern was crawling up my pants leg with his weak little claws. I pulled him up, realizing that he wanted to be held. His only desire at that moment was astonishingly not food or water, but feeling safe, loved, and protected.

So I held him for a very very long time. And soon his sister, now finished eating, jumped up too, and they fell asleep purring in my lap as the sun went down. They refused to leave my side.

The timing was terrible. I had to leave for my new post in La Paz and bringing two cats was not in the cards. I packed up my belongings with a heavy heart. I was sad, of course, to leave my town and the good friends I had made there. But I was very upset at leaving this new pair of friends that I had become very attached to in such a short amount of time. Would tiny man and his strange wife take proper care of them? Tiny man might. I had doubts about his wife. But what could I do?

The kittens followed me to the door, meowing. I hardened my heart and walked out, patting their heads a final time, wishing them luck, and assuring them that everything would be okay. They weren't my cats, after all. One can't solve every problem.

My good friend Margarita drove me and my few possessions to Sucre. There I spent the next two nights at my city home, which I shared with several other volunteers, getting ready to move to La Paz. I couldn't get the kittens out of my head, though. Were they okay? Would the boy get stuck in the tank again?

Finally, after losing enough sleep over it, all logic left me and I resolved to go get the kittens and bring them with me to La Paz. If they weren't allowed on the plane, I'd just take the 24-hour bus ride with them. I'd figure it out somehow. I'd get the paperwork needed to bring them home with me to the United States, no matter what it took.

I hopped on a truck back to Yotala carrying a small box with a blanket inside. I was excited to retrieve them and my heart was at peace now that I was finally doing the right thing. I hadn't returned the key to the owners yet, so I let myself back through the gate and called to the kittens. They didn't come. I searched every inch of the property, continually calling them.  I even checked the well. They were clearly gone and the place was empty.

Regret filled me. Why why why did I ignore my instinct to care for them? Why did I ever leave them? Now I had no idea where they were, as I didn't know where the tiny man lived. I had no idea if they were being cared for or if they were left to fend for themselves. I can't believe tiny man would ever intentionally harm or desert them. But I had to wonder at their quality of life with his wife around.

Regret is a tough thing to swallow. I've never forgotten those two kittens. They've probably passed on by now. I adopted my current kitties, Kaci and Sergio, less than a year later (after I'd returned home to the States) and they're both fourteen now. Cats don't tend to survive as long in Bolivia.

I can still picture them at that gate, trying in vain to follow me outside. If I could manipulate time, I would have taken them with me without a second thought. I would have followed my heart and let the details work themselves out.

I hope they made it.  I hope they had some happiness in their lives. I hope they forgave me.

But that intense regret changed me. When I see an animal in need now, I don't turn away, no matter how inconvenient it might be. I always stop. I always do what I can to help.

And since going vegan, I've noticed my empathy for humans increase as well. I don't walk past homeless people, pretending not to see them as I once did. Even if I have no money or food, I'll always smile or say hello. If I see a child that looks lost, I go to them immediately.

I don't say this to throw on a halo. Only to reflect that regret, as painful as it is, has a huge silver (non-halo) lining. Regret is our deepest self outlining the borders of who we are. Never pass here again, it warns. This isn't who you were meant to be.

I never have to give it a second thought now. Regret has molded me into a stronger advocate for others. I don't have to sit and reflect, "Remember those kittens? Remember how that felt?" It's deep in my cells now. It's become part of who I am. I no longer hesitate.

The experience isn't unique. We all have moments, some regretful, that define us. They're not pleasant, but they are powerful. 

It's hard not to wallow in what we have done. Or perhaps worse, not done. But if we can turn regret on its head, and let the experience serve us, then it's almost like a second chance, isn't it? And that's pretty great when you think about it.

So I raise a glass of bubbly to you and your regrets. May they allow you to continue to become who you were meant to be.