Friday, August 31, 2007

Chance Meeting: Copley Square

I've been feeling really down this week--I believe "Down in Ye Aulde Mouth" is the proper terminology. (Not to be confused with "Long in Ye Aulde Tooth" which is something entirely different.) No specific reason for this case of the blues, really. Well, ok, a lot of specific reasons, none of which would individually result in low spirits, but with their powers combined leave me feeling....oh, sigh.

The biggest thing is the feeling of restless anticipation. There are so many things in the works these days that my life feels like one of those picture-puzzles where you move the tiles around and try to figure out what the whole picture is supposed to be. I've got a tile with culinary school over there (which starts in A WEEK. When did that sneak up on me?!), a tile with the Engineer over there, new roommates over there, a tile with some money concerns hanging out in the corner up there, one with anxieties about the Noodle Factory in the middle here, and another with possible future jobs/side jobs/freelance jobs/what-have-you edging around the perimeter. Oh and let's just throw in the fact that the seasons are changing and daylight hours fading for good measure--that's always a good one.

I've been trying to get my Inner Buddhist on the scene--working the whole angle about staying present with the feeling, not labeling it as negative or positive but just accepting it for what it is, staying compassionate toward myself, and just being open about the whole experience. Well...yeah. Humph. My Inner Buddhist might have a better time of it if I could focus on anything for more than five minutes without getting distracted and antsy about something else. And before you say it, all you clever sassy people out there, yes, I've been exercising and going for my runs. If I were superstitious, I'd say that writing that post the other day about how wonderful and meditative running is actually jinxed me to a week of less-than-tranquil and annoyance-ridden jogs. But no. My Inner Buddhist prevails. No big deal. This too shall pass.


Today is Friday, which is Farmer's Market Day for those of us who work near Copley Square. This Farmer's Market has a good vibe. Business folk, tourists, stroller-moms, homeless people, and local residents all jostle side-by-side, commenting on the fuzziness of the peaches, the reddness of the tomatoes, the variety of hot peppers. I've been going to this Farmer's Market for a good four years now and feel like it's a familiar happy place. Some days, I smile and talk to everyone--farmers and buyers alike. Some days, I'm feeling quiet and keep my head down, but it's soothing to just be around the fresh smells, the shining produce, the reaching hands, and the lively conversations. I usually head over on my lunch break and stock up on all my produce for the week (or at least until the next Farmer's Market on Tuesday). So I spent this particular Friday morning feeling grumpy, and feeling grumpy about being grumpy, and watching the clock in anticipation of lunch because surely - SURELY - if anything is going to at least temporarily lift this mood of mine it will be a visit to the Farmer's Market.



12:01...VROOOOOM! Off I go!

Grumpy on the way to the elevator. Grumpy press the button to the lobby. Grumpy crossing the lobby and stepping out into the sunshine. (Ah, sunshine! Maybe a little something unclenches inside me? A leetle bit?) Grumpy walking to the corner. Grumpy waiting for the light. Grumpy dodging silly cars with silly people who think it's a good idea to drive downtown. Grumpy waiting at the next corner, gazing over at the market stalls. Grumpy...and then...tap! tap! tap!

I turn around and see this woman beaming, just BEAMING, at me. She looks a little older than me and is wearing comfortable clothes. A gaggle of middle school aged kids surround her. I would have pegged her for a tourist looking for directions except that she wasn't giving me the tourist vibe (you get a sense for this after living in Boston for a few years). I give her a nervous half-smile in return.

"Did you go to the Cambridge Culinary School?"

I must have looked a little surprised at her telepathic abilities because she gestures to my bag. At which point I remember that a few weeks ago, I eagerly switched over to the messanger bag the school gives as part of their equipment kit. Which has the name of the school embroidered on the flap. Duh.

"Uh, no, actually," I reply [sheepish grin], "I start next week."

(Next WEEK! When did THAT sneak up on me?)

"Oh," she says, still beaming, "I just wondered because I work with Create a Cook, and a couple of our instructors graduated from the Cambridge Culinary school. We teach kids to cook."

"Oh! Wow!" I'm starting to warm up to her at this point. It's hard to resist a really good beam, plus kids and cooking makes my heart warm and un-grumpy.

She goes on, "We're out in Newton. You should look us up. I think they're looking for people to help with the weekend workshops."

"Newton, you say?" I fumble in my Cambridge Culinary-issued messanger bag for a pen and paper, "What was that name again?"

She patiently gives me all the information again and then says that I can tell them that she referred me. I stammer my thanks, we chat for a few more minutes, and then we part ways. I watch her walk away, a gaggle of kids orbiting around her. I take a deep breath and find myself smiling. It sunny. I'm off to the Farmer's Market. A complete stranger just gave me a shot of confidence and a great reference to boost. And just like that, I think I can take off my grumpy hat.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Running to Center

When I'm out on a run, there comes this point when everything just...kinda...well...clicks. It usually happens somewhere after the first fifteen minutes--that would be the first fifteen minutes in which I chronicle every ache and pain my body feels, fuss with my headphones until they "feel right," skip back and forth between songs and podcasts, wish fiercely I had downloaded that Other Album before leaving for my run, debate possible justifications for cutting the run short, and worry that I should have gone to the bathroom one last time before deciding to bounce my bladder up and down for however long this goes on for.

Yes, somewhere after that first fifteen minutes, everything clicks. My body settles into the rhythm of running so that I don't have to think about it anymore. My breathing evens out and falls into pace with my stride. I start to notice the way the sunlight glints through the leaves, the changes in the bushes beside the path, the smell of the just-cut grass around the flower beds. I nod at people as we pass each other and grin at children. I don't even notice whatever music I finally settled on--it's become part of the background. I'll come back to it every now and again when a particular phrase or refrain catches my attention. My whole body, my mind, my heart--everything relaxes and focuses in on the one activity of running. And in that single-mindedness, I find that I am thinking of everything and nothing at all. Thoughts surface and then slip away. Moments from my day replay in my mind and then fade. Emotions, worries, all the daily trials and tribulations of being me all cycle through, but don't stay for very long. As soon as I notice myself thinking about something, I end up back in this moment of running and moving and breathing.

It took me a while to realize that this is meditation. This is what we try to do in meditation--this gentle cycling of thinking and coming back to the present. Neither preventing the distractions from surfacing nor actively seeking them. Just allowing them to happen and then letting them slip away. It's being present and engaged with the moment at hand.

I've tried traditional "sitting-down" meditation off and on through my life. I always had this feeling like I wasn't doing it right. I never felt the kind of inner calm that was described by the teacher or the books. Those people with inner calm on their tranquil, radiant faces always made me feel especially irritable. I always felt fidgety and would sneak peaks at the clock. Or if there was no clock, I would get very anxious about how much time had passed (or not passed) and how would I know when to stop and when is the leader going to sound that effing gong? I would get frustrated and grumpy over my lack of inner calm and end up reprimanding myself for not being good enough at meditating. Ha! Oh, the wily mind of the perfectionist.

I've now realized a few things about meditation, two things in particular:

1) There is no 'right' way to meditate. A teacher helps, but only if you trust that teacher and only if that teacher knows their stuff. I think that part of my problem when I was younger was that my teachers didn't really know much more about meditation that I did, however certified they may have said they were. (Note: This was during a time in my life when the label "New Age" was all it took to get my complete and utter devotion.) Yes, I think a teacher can help, but I also really think that the body knows. Deep down, you know. I think that's why meditation is so powerful--because it's intrinsic to you, and on some deep cellular level, you know how to reach that state of mind all on your own. It doesn't require you to call it meditation. I think that meditation can be found whenever you give yourself wholly to a certain activity to the point where thoughts do not hook you. I feel this so strongly when running, but I've also felt it while listening to music, while kneading bread, and while serving coffee as a barista at Starbucks.

2) The other thing I've realized is that it takes practice. It's possible that traditional, sitting-down meditation is not the way for me to go about meditating. It's also possible that I just didn't keep at it long enough to develop the habit and give my body and spirit a chance to really figure it out. I've been running regularly and for gradually longer distances for about two years now. I don't feel like I'm a natural runner. I was never athletic and getting into the habit of running was really hard. For a long time, running even short distances felt like dying. It really did. I kept thinking, "This is the craziest, most sadistic thing a person could do to their bodies. How is this good?" And then some athletic somebody would whisk by me and I would think, "Well...they don't look so crazy. And DAMN look at those CALVES."

Practice practice practice. When I tried traditional meditation, I wanted to be perfect and so I got mad at myself when I got fidgety after a few minutes. When I first started running, I wanted to be perfect, so I got mad at myself whenever I had to stop and walk to catch my breath. I think the real turning point for my running came about a year ago. I don't even remember what motivated the change, but I remember saying to the Engineer, "You know, I think I'm just going to run every day. Even if it's just once around the small pond. I'm just going to do it." The Engineer raised his eyebrows at me--wanting to be supportive, of course, not disbelieving, per se, but also not entirely...sure. But I knew. I knew that there had been a shift inside me.

And somehow, deciding to run every day took the pressure off of being perfect. I no longer felt like I had to be super-awesome those two or three days when I went on BIG BAD RUNS. I mean, if I got really winded today or only made it around the small pond, no big deal. I'll be back again tomorrow. No big deal. When I started running every day, I also really started to feel the rhythm of it, the cycle of my days and my movements. Going running started to feel like returning to center.

Maybe your intention also made a difference. When I started running, I didn't set out to make it my way of meditating. It just happened. I think that if I had set out with intention of meditating, it might not have happened. Or maybe it would have--running is one of those things that you do actually have to concentrate on. If you're distracted with other things (Like clicking through every song on your iPod. Just saying), then you will inevitably trip over your own feet, get yourself slapped in the face with branches, lose your breath, step in goose poop, pull a muscle, and possibly careen into strollers or small energetic children. It's only when you give yourself over to the act of running (or biking or kneading dough or sit-down meditating) that the feeling of transcendence happens. It clicks. Everything clicks. Man, that's hard to describe. I guess that's why it's ineffable.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Cooking: Lazy Day Loaf

It's taken a year of research and experimentation, but I think I've finally discovered my solution to bread baking on hot, humid summer days. This recipe is a step up from the No-Knead Bread of recent fame, and I find that the flavor and crumb of this loaf is a vast improvement over that recipe.

And P.S. the man-hands in the pictures below belong to my dad. I'm thinking he has a possible future in the field of professional hand-modeling.

Baguette-Style Loaf
thanks to James McGuire, as published in The Art of Eating, No. 73 + 74

500 gr all-purpose flour

10 gr (1 1/2 tsp) fine salt (preferably kosher)
2 gr (1/8 tsp, or about a pinch) yeast
400 ml (1 5/8 c) water

Blend flour and salt in a bowl and form a well in the center. Pour the water into the well and sprinkle the yeast on top. Allow the yeast to dissolve (about 5 minutes). Using your fingertips, gradually begin to mix the flour into the water until all the flour is incorporated. This should take about two minutes. Cover the bowl and let rest for 10 minutes. When the ten minutes is up, give the dough its first fold. Slip your fingers between the side of the bowl and the dough. Grasp the dough between your fingers and thumb, lift the flap upwards to about the rim of the bowl, and then lay the flap across the top of the dough. Give the bowl a turn and repeat the folding until you have gone a full revolution--about 8 to 10 folds. Cover and let rest for 1 hour. After an hour, give the dough a second set of folds. Cover and let rest 1 hour.After two hours, give the dough a third set of folds. Cover and let rest 1 hour.
After three hours, give the dough a fourth set of folds. Cover and let rest 1 hour.
fter four hours, give the dough a final set of folds. At this point, the dough should largely come away from the sides of the bowl when you're doing this and the dough should hold a roughly spherical shape. Sprinkle a little flour between the dough and the sides of the bowl and turn the dough out onto a floured work surface (so the folds are now underneath). Dust the dough lightly with flour and cover with the inverted bowl. Let rest 20 minutes.

While the dough is resting, prepare a rising bowl or basket. If you have an actual rising bowl or basket, pat a little bit of flour into the sides and use that. If you're improvising, find a circular bowl or basket about the diameter of the dough and line it with a clean, smooth kitchen towel (not terry cloth or anything with a nap).

After 20 minutes, pick the dough up and gently reshape it into a sphere by tucking the ends under. Invert it into the rising basket so the folds are on top. Cover with plastic wrap or a towl and let it rise at room temperature for 45 - 50 minutes. The loaf has sufficiently risen when a fingertip indention disappears completely in 2-3 seconds. If it springs back like a rubber ball, it's not ready; if the indention remains, it's risen for too long and your loaf will still be yummy, but won't rise as much in the oven. After the dough has been rising for a half an hour, place a baking stone in your oven and pre-heat the oven to 450-degrees.*

When the dough is ready, sprinkle a pizza peel with a light layer of cornmeal (or the back of a cookie sheet will do) and tip the dough onto it. Quickly cut a few scores into the surface of the dough--about a half-inch deep--with a razor blade. Slide the dough into the oven onto the baking stone. Using a spray bottle, spritz the inside of the oven (avoiding the light) and the surface of the dough and quickly close the door. Repeat this a few times in the first five minutes of baking.

When the loaf begins to color (after about 15 minutes), turn the oven down to 350-degrees. Also, rotate the loaf every 15 minutes so that it bakes evenly (most oven have 'hot spots' that can cause un-even baking). After 45 minutes, start checking for doneness. If you thump the bottom of the loaf with your thumb, it will sound hollow--like you're knocking on a door. The surface should be a caramelly-color with spots of darker toast color. The internal temperature should be about 210-degrees.

Allow to cool for 20 minutes. Serve with room-temperature butter sprinkled with sea salt and a few dollops of good honey.

*You can also bake this in a dutch oven, a la 'No-Knead Bread.' Just place your dutch oven inside the oven so both pre-heat at the same time. When it comes time to bake, tip the dough into the dutch oven and cover with lid. Let it bake for about 30 minutes with the lid on and finish with the lid off.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

May I not hide from my shenpa

So I was looking at the calendar at work the other day, trying to figure out when these books will publish and if we're going to make the class date and yadda yadda, and it suddenly hit me that if things had gone differently a few months ago, I'd be getting married in two weeks.

Wow. That feels so incredibly strange. It's like there's a ghost-life walking beside me with a finger hooked through a piece of my spirit. The ghost of "What Might Have Been." I think I've subconsciously been avoiding thinking about this. I mean, I knew it was coming--how could I not?--but it's always been in the Distant Future, you know? The ever-future and never-present. And now the present is looming and I feel caught off guard.

I was talking about this to a friend of mine and he said, "I know just what you mean. So many significant dates: anniversaries and birthdays that should have been celebrations." These days are so bittersweet--it's so hard to know whether to celebrate or mourn them. And in our culture of polar opposites, there
really isn't a precedent for doing both.

The Engineer and I have talked about wanting to do something on the day to kind of...commemorate it. Not celebrate it, exactly. But more...acknowledge it.
Our Once-Wedding Day. Of course, my instinct is to curl up in my darkened room with my back to the world and close my eyes until it's all over. But I have a feeling there's probably something more healing and connecting that could also happen. Some curling up might still be in order.

That Other Emma feels so close. She's just in the next room, she's within shouting distance. I can reach out and almost touch her. She has no idea I'm here. I watch her and I envy her. I know how sad she really is, how unsure and brave, but her future is clear. Even more important than that is that she believes it. She believes in that future. And though this new life I'm living is honest and real and joyful, it's also terrifying and almost unbearably painful.
Her dreams were my dreams for too long not to envy her.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Microwave Safe?

This article in the New York Times made me giggle with memories of my friend Adrianne and me daring each other to stand in front of the microwave when we were about twelve:

The Claim: People Shouldn't Stand Too Close to a Microwave

For some reason, we really thought that standing in front of the microwave would cause us to instantly mutate or render us sterile for LIFE. Life was an inconceivably long time back then--so inconceivable that I couldn't imagine ever having children, so the idea of sterility wasn't overly frightening. Apparently. Crazy kids.

My parent's old, wood-paneled microwave with the turny-knobs of contoured plastic still does kind of worry me, though. It's bulk dominated the kitchen--it loomed over the lip of the counter and made an interesting, if startling, WHIRRRRRR! noise when in use. As a kid convinced she had magical powers (oh no, not ME!), I was certain I could see the waves of Evil Red Radiation oozing out from edges of the microwave door.

My folks finally replaced it a few years back--not because it didn't work (my dad is quick to point out) but because they were remodeling the kitchen and all the other appliances were getting an upgrade, so....farewell, Beloved Faux-Wood Worrisome Lurking Microwave Oven.

Actually, though, I think my parents might have bequeathed it upon my less-mistrusting younger brother who has made the mistake of living close enough to home to "benefit" from my parent's cast-offs. A dubious honor. Danger lurks!