Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Windows and Walls

Surprises are the best. Or the worst. By their definition they are out of our control and not of our making. We can go in search of them, we can be open to them. We can't will them to appear - they're surprises. We can rejoice in the positive or whine about the negative. They measure our resillience.

When change drops us in a new place, we can look for window or push against the walls. I've come to like the walls. There is a time before I make a decision that almost hurts, where I'm feeling I'm bursting either with possibility or from holding back what I know I need to do. Then I hit the wall and I have to decide on the direction. I did that today. I've been whining (to myself mainly) about weight creeping back since I lost a bazillion pounds a year and half ago. It's not rocket science. I need to walk more and eat fewer tortilla chips. Period. That's it. The bigger question is what took me so long?

Short answer, I like chips. It's cold. Longer answer, maybe I was getting uncomfortable in that new, smaller body. Change can be hard, even if we mentally know it's good. Our emotions have to catch up. That in between time can be tough. I think we have to be willing to be surprised both by our situations and by ourselves. There is so much beyond our control that we need to learn to make our best decisions, take our best shots, and if we hit a wall - use it. Climb over it, go around it, or blast a window through it. That space between a rock and a hard place, sometimes it's beautiful.

So what does this mean for our kids? Adults need a bedrock of confidence, faith, some inner tools to scale those walls. Kids need a backpack and a path. When the surprises come, parents lead the way and set the tone. You can prepare them with their own tools - for children these may be more concrete - good books, a favorite blanket or teddy, an unbroken routine. But prepare them to be flexible too. Help them learn to see the positive. What is the best part of a bad day? What's silly in a tough situation? Then make it concrete. Paint an old chair, plant seeds, make art from junk. Things change, they surprise us, and the changes are good.

So my personal wall - getting back to eating more carefully - that means I need to go to the store more often, spend more money on fruits and veggies - because I certainly deserve that as much as I do chips or chocolate - and create more of my favorite good for me foods. Here's a recipe I fix in large quantity for snacks.

Chop a half a cantaloupe or other melon (probably not watermelon) and a whole, skinned cucumber into 1/2 inch chunks. Finely chop about an eighth of an onion (I like red ones) and a whole serrano pepper (minus seeds and veins) or a 1/4 of a bell pepper depending on your love of heat. Mix the four ingredients in a bowl. Add about 1/3 cup of plain greek yogurt, salt and pepper to taste. Stir it up, let it sit for a while, and drain off any excess liquid. You can add chopped mint or cilantro if you like - or lime juice. Play around a little.  I eat this as salad or salsa for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. It's better than chips. Enjoy.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Puppies and Other Sources of Hope

Why do we all love puppies? Or at least the idea of them? They are soft and floppy and adorable. But more than that, they adore us. Who can resist a puppy wiggling in absolute delight just at the sight of us? Who can feel lousy when a puppy is licking at our faces? Not me.

And I'm longing for a dog. This one belongs to my son and after a number of chewed up items, muddy messes in the backyard, and rounds of carsickness, I promise you, he's still well loved. I want a dog to follow me around again, to take walks with me, to bark when someone is coming to the door. Dogs are simple. Treat them right and they'll reward you with affection. Train them and they're easy to live with. Correct them with love and they'll follow your lead. Hurt them and they'll be skitterish, resistant, or downright mean. Dogs are simple.

My dog Ralph used to nose me every morning at 7AM to have his breakfast. I didn't mind. What other creature bounded around in circles at 7AM, just happy to see me and get his food? He started my day with a smile. If I cried he sat at my side and licked my tears. He scared the UPS man with his huge bark and chased the ground squirrels out of the back yard.

Valentines Day is tomorrow and all of us looking for models of love or child rearing might look to our dogs. Keep it simple. Keep it kind. Delight in the existence of each other. Take walks together. Joy is amplified, meanness has consequences. My conclusion? Puppies are cute, but they also promise years of love and that is one kind of hope. Happy Valentines Day, guys.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Happy Lunar New Year - 4711

It's Chinese New Year - a celebration of thanks, good wishes, and new beginnings that lasts two more weeks. There are banquets, fire crackers, visits to friends and relations. Gifts of red envelopes with token cash inside wish the recipient prosperity. Eat long life noodles and oranges (gold) and you'll literally injest your new year's wishes.

I am not Chinese, but I've written books on Chinese culture. I've studied a little Mandarin. I love the sweeping brush strokes of Chinese characters. When I've helped my publisher sell books on Asia, I'm always surprised that browsers at the booth, often teachers, say things like "I'm not Chinese. I wouldn't be interested." Or, "I have a lot of Filipino students, I'll buy this book on the Philippines." Aren't we all enriched by each other's traditions? Don't we understand each other better after we go to a New Year's banquet or walk through a Daoist temple?

I am forever grateful to my parents for taking me to San Francisco's Chinatown as a child. I don't remember a world without red envelopes. They didn't embrace Chinese culture or even Chinese food but they showed me the places where I could do that. They were open to all kinds of ideas and people. They didn't believe that "our way" was the only way. They debated ideas and encouraged us to read.

Do you try out new ideas in your home? Do you serve up new tastes along with respect and information? Do you invite all kinds of people into your living room - and then listen to them. This is my wish for you for the new year (4711 by the way). That in this year of the snake you are clever and careful and your good luck springs from being open to many people and new ideas. Create a family that accepts people, tries new ideas, and allows for creativity and you'll have many good years to come. gōng xǐ fā cái

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Smallest Things

I woke up this morning, opened the shade, and saw a dozen warblers bumping each other around to get to the seeds in our feeder. Next, my coffee was ready for me. And I had made fresh gluten free lemon muffins for breakfast. Nothing could feel better. Sometimes those smallest things just make me smile. The sum of those makes a great morning. The sum of great mornings starts a great week. The decisions we make to be up or down, to take care of ourselves every day are important.

One of the things I've done for myself is to quit gluten (no more awful itchy skin) and sugar (no more high blood sugar, high cholesterol), and walk (no more high blood pressure.) After seeing so many loved ones suffering from chronic, uncontrollable conditions it seemed unconscionable  not to make these small, individual decisions, every day, to take care of myself. Result - me minus 60 or 70 pounds depending on what day it is. Me, happy and healthy. Me eating sugar free, gluten free muffins and watching my birds.

Several friends have asked me to talk about my weight loss, so although weight is a subject I rarely am/was comfortable with, I'll do it occasionally here. Let's start with those gluten free muffins - which I try to keep to eating one a day - watching carb intake.

Lemon Blueberry Gluten Free Sugar Free Muffins

Preheat oven to 400F.  Note, I live at 4500 feet so this is a high altitude recipe. You may need to adjust a bit - especially on the baking powder if you live at sea level.

2 cups gluten free flour mix
1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon xanthum gum
a bit of salt
about 2 to 3 tablespoons of sugar twin - you can leave this out if you're a purist.

Mix in separate bowl: 1/4 cup oil, 2 eggs, juice of one lemon, about 3/4 cup milk

Add wet ingredients to dry alternating with about 2/3 cup greek yogurt (be sure there's no modified food starch in the yogurt you use, and no sugar or corn syrup) Mix with a fork until you have a thick batter but one that will drop easily from your spoon. Add about a cup of blue berries. Fill 12 greased muffin tins. Bake at 400 for about 20 minutes.

Tip - I make this basic muffin substituting unsweetened applesauce for yogurt, adding about a teaspoon of vanilla and without the lemon juice or sugar twin for nice, sweet sugar free blueberry muffins.

Cool these babies down and enjoy.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Sing Up Some Joy

When is the last time you sang? At church? Washing dishes? In the car? Has it been years? I used to sing all these places and now I rarely do. I got busy, and I just got out of the habit. Maybe people didn’t want to hear me. I think I’ll have to change that. When we were kids we always sang in the car. We sang hymns with my grandmother. I sang lullabies to my dolls. There isn’t enough singing, I’m thinking. Go ahead, sing.
I used to sing with my brother. He has a strong tenor voice and we sang in harmony. Then parkinsons took hold of his vocal chords and it's hard to understand him - unless he sings. There is his voice, strong and clear with every note. You know what else? Our new grandbaby loves music. It quiets her. I sang her every one of those lullabies I know. And one day, I overheard her six year old brother singing her a lullaby that my mother used to sing to me. There’s the best reason. Sing out your sorrow, sing to your babies, sing up some joy. Sing!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Pass the Biscuits

There is a long view of life that gets clearer as I get older. Ten years seems like a short time and yet waiting a year for something seems a big investment of my days. In terms of family, I see now that we choose the memories to remember, and whether we know it or not, we choose the ones we create. It is the sum of these memories that becomes our experience - positive or negative - in the same way that it is the sum of our small, daily decisions that becomes our life. We can want our kids to remember happy childhoods but that takes two things - create happy memories with them, and then hope, when they are adults, they decide those are the ones to focus on.

It seems the things I remember most from my own childhood are things we did. They were physical and memorable - water fights with my brothers, camping in the redwoods, playing a fairy princess in our kindergarten play, cooking with my granny. I remember kneeling on a straight chair in the kitchen so I could reach the counter, sprinkling the flour on a board, cutting in the shortening, kneading, rolling. It was fun and delicious. My brother Dean and cousin Roger used to have contests of who could eat the most biscuits - I'm thinking they topped off at about fifteen each. We ate them for breakfast with butter and syrup, or sometimes with fried chicken at Sunday dinner. Then we slathered them with peach jam.

If you don't do homemade biscuits you should try, just once. Let the kids roll and cut. Don't worry about the flour on the floor. The dog will lick it up, or you always have a broom. I'll have to make a batch to get the measurements - Granny taught me to eyeball the ingredients. Going now to do that. Back in an hour with the recipe:

Preheat oven to 400 F. (about 210 C.) Lightly grease a baking sheet. Mix 2 cups flour, 1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cut in about 1/3 to 1/2 cup Crisco until bits are smaller than peas. (Do this with two table knives. Hold one in each hand and pass the blades across each other as though they were scissors cutting the shortening.) Stir in about 1 cup milk until the mixture holds together and is sticky to touch. Turn it onto a floured surface. Knead the dough into the flour about 20 times until it feels smooth to the touch. It should be soft but not sticky. Flour your rolling pin and roll the dough to about 1/2 inch thick. Fold the dough in half and roll it out again. Fold again, this time leaving the dough about 3/4 inch thick. Flour a round biscuit or cookie cutter, or use the floured top of a small glass to cut your biscuits. Bake for about 12 minutes, until they rise and tops are lightly browned. Serve with butter and warm syrup.

Monday, January 21, 2013

My Virtual Kitchen Table

I wish I could invite you over for coffee, but many of the people I love live far away. So virtual coffee it is and this morning I'm serving Starbuck's Casi Cielo - almost heaven. It's my favorite. What to expect on this new blog? My opinions on books and maybe a bit of pragmatic politics. I'll share some recipes if it moves me, but mainly, I want to talk about families. And experience. I've earned that.

Like my friends, my family is scattered. So was the one I grew up with - back in the day - but I could count on my mom to show up if I needed her and to always put on a cup of coffee and dish up an opinion - even if it was just with a look. Now I'm in that position, and it occurs to me that there are many things I haven't said. Some of them never came up. Some seemed obvious. But now, I want to share.  I'm hoping this blog will be funny and helpful and a little crazy. Come back often to see if I'm successful. For now, pour yourself a cup of coffee. Here goes.

I have a newborn granddaughter. She's got big eyes and is learning to smile. I'm reminded again, that our children aren't born as blank slates. I believe they come preloaded with their own personalities and maybe with their own trajectory in this world. But they are master observers. They learn day by day from their caretakers. They learn to sleep, smile, babble. And that continues every month and year. You may not yet believe it, but kids see you, listen to you, and will pattern so much after you, the people who literally care for them. They want to be like you. So at the risk of being a bit preachy, I'll sum up where we're going -

Do you want your child to be respectful? Respect your partner, your friends, your family. Want her to be a reader? Don't just read to her. Be a reader yourself. Want your child to have a good vocabulary? It's not about flash cards. Talk to him, not at him.  Have a conversation - yes, with your two or three or four year old. Want him to be healthy? Eat healthy and be active. Take care of yourself. Want her to have high self esteem? Take time for yourself. Everyday. Model, model, model. That's the secret to teaching and to guiding your child.