Thursday, September 29, 2011

A Little Bit of Wisdom from a Graffiti Artist

Yesterday, Chef Matt and I took the kids to the park, and as I sat slowly breathing in the last of the warm summer air, I noticed a bit of graffiti on the bench. It read: "So live life."

The writer may have been intentionally profound, or perhaps it was just a casual scribble, but either way I was struck by this statement. So live life ... because it is short? So live life ... despite all that gets in our way? So live life ... and do not just survive it?

I think sometimes we forget to actually "live" our lives in our quest to barrel through the distractions. I know that is not a priority in my own world; when I am crawling on the floor scooping up wet, gummed-up bread that our son has thrown from his chair, or when I am nodding off during a two a.m. feeding, all I can focus on is keeping my head above water. I do not notice the adorable, gleeful smile on our toddler's face as he plays his favorite "toss food game," or the contented sighs of our snuggly baby.

I have the same excuses as everyone else for not stopping to smell the roses: no time and no energy. So many days, I look back sadly and realize that some great moments have passed me by because I was too busy giving baths and doing laundry and answering e-mails at work. I catch a few more of these moments when Matt is home because I do not feel that desperate urgency to get everything done at once, all by myself. Yet alone or with my husband, I feel like my "living" is slipping through the cracks.

The solution, I believe, is appreciation, and not an attempt to make every day a memorable one. Even though my days will not be "lived" largely -- we do not travel or go on a lot of outings or get really involved in the community or try to do grand things -- I can feel satisfactorily "lived" if I appreciate all the little things that add up to create my messy, scattered life.

I can tell you that today, I appreciated the sight of my two big kids rocking out to Elvis in the car, two little blond bobbleheads in my rearview mirror. I appreciated the taste of the season's last sweet corn, and a hug from my husband after a long day apart, and the feel of a sleepy baby on my chest.

I still had to scrape gummed-up bread off the floor, and I probably will tomorrow, too. But those words -- so live life -- flashed before my eyes as I was doing it, so I looked up at my son in his high chair. And he smiled at me.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Daydreams Have No Calories

When I was in fourth grade, my teacher inquired about the class's favorite foods. Competitive and anxious to please even at the age of nine, I replied that my favorite food was "fruit salad." Really what I wanted to say was "pizza," like all of my classmates, but fruit salad was the healthy, correct choice, meant to impress my teacher. I like fruit salad, certainly, but was lying through my teeth.

Many years later, I struggle with the healthy, correct choice, as so many of us do. It is especially difficult post-partum as I try to shift my eating habits back to normal and feel the daily pinch of a few extra pounds as I attempt to fit into things that clearly I am no longer built for.

This is a frustrating occurrence, largely because so many of the unhealthy, incorrect choices are the ones that I dearly love to eat. I think a lot of people live in fear of their food, for one reason or another. We fear calories, preservatives, trans-fat, sodium, pesticides and carbohydrates. We fear what certain foods will do to us, so we change our eating habits for the better. We make more responsible choices.

And to be honest, the thought of that makes me a little miserable. I like vegetables and fruits and lean meats, just as much as the next person, but I also like fried chicken and hollandaise sauce and Pop-Tarts. My great fear of food is imbalance, so my menu is largely about moderation. But I started wondering, what if I had one day where I could throw all my food-fears out the window and make the worst choices possible and eat whatever tasted good? It's almost too naughty to consider.

I would start with a huge breakfast: eggs over easy, American fries with cheese, a buttered English muffin, homemade spicy sausage, and a fat cinnamon roll with cream cheese frosting. Around ten-thirty, I would eat a chocolate eclair, and drink several cups of black coffee. For lunch, I would consume a heaping plate of pasta drowning in a red pepper cream sauce, a garlicky piece of foccacia bread, and at least three Cokes. For a late-afternoon snack, I might just sit down with a bowl of guacamole and eat it with a spoon. And for dinner, a crab cake with a nice aioli, a rack of lamb, buttery mashed potatoes with gravy, asparagus with a bearnaise sauce, and a creme brulee. Before bed, three scoops of cookies and cream ice cream, with a drizzle of Hershey's syrup.

My arteries hurt just a little, even thinking about it. There are very good reasons for making responsible food choices, but the devil inside me sometimes fights hard against healthy. And occasionally, he wins. I press on, however, and stick to my plan of moderation, dreaming about a red pepper cream sauce while eating my turkey sandwich for lunch.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Sweetbitter September 11

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was at a restaurant.

On the morning of September 11, 2007, I was in a hospital room.

Both days are milestones for me, one tragic and one joyful, and as we near the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks and the fourth anniversary of my first day as a mother, I am struck by how much life does, indeed, go on.

In 2001, I was waiting tables to make a little extra money. Full-time, I was a copy editor at a newspaper; it was my first job out of college. One of my customers told me that they had heard about a plane hitting the World Trade Center in New York, and wasn't that a horrible accident? Twenty minutes later, another customer told me that a second plane had hit the other tower, and with a terrifying swooping feeling in my stomach that I associate with close calls while driving or other near-misses, I understood that this was no accident.

My editor called me at the restaurant and told me to come in right away. In restaurant uniform, I spent the rest of the day, until the wee hours, watching CNN and editing page after page of attack special editions. It was exhausting, mournful, and, if you will forgive me, energizing. As journalists, we are trained to seek out news, act quickly, and cover stories with responsibility and accuracy. An event of such magnitude pushed us all to the limits of our training as we scrambled to keep up and report judiciously on the waterfall of news. And as I cried watching the replay of that plane hitting the tower, I felt like I was somehow doing my part to make sense of this mess.

Six years later, as America was marking the time the planes had hit the towers, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania, I sat in a hospital bed holding my newborn daughter. I had, only the day before, remarked that I hoped I did not have a 9-11 baby. But the force of nature pushed me past midnight on September 10 to a birth date of the commemoration day of great national tragedy.

Now that date is a bittersweet anniversary, or perhaps a sweetbitter anniversary. Before, when someone mentioned September 11, my first thought, of course, was of the attacks. But now, my first thought is of the beautiful, sweet, spunky little girl whose first act of defiance was to be born on a day that her mother did not want.

Her birth reminded me that life continues. This sentiment is perhaps of little comfort to those who lost loved ones on 9-11, or in the subsequent wars, but as humans, as Americans, that is what we do. We mourn, we remember, we pick up, we keep moving. As she gets older, I hope that my daughter will not see her birthday as an unfortunate intersection with those tragic events but rather as a reminder that our days are precious.

As we eat our cake and ice cream tomorrow, and as I reflect on the long days of vending-machine food in the 2001 newsroom, we will honor the memory of the victims and celebrate the life of a girl who started her life with an exclamation point: "I am here! I am born on a day of sadness, and will make the world a better place!"

Sunday, September 4, 2011

You May Say I'm a Dreamer, But I'm Not the Only One

When I first met Chef Matt, we had a philosophical disagreement on what it is that makes the world go 'round. I said love, and he said dreams. In seven years, neither of us has changed our position, but we are starting to understand the other's point of view.

For me, dreams are a nice diversion, something to think about while hoping you have a winning lottery ticket, but not essential to survival. Love, as we learned from Lord Voldemort's shortcomings, is the most powerful force on earth.

But my husband is a dreamer. It is a part of his fabric. And while some of his grand ideas teeter on the ridiculous (building a pirate ship and sailing around the world dressed in a cravat and large hat), his dreams related to the world of food are maddeningly possible ... if only we had an endless supply of disposable income.

First and foremost, he wants his own restaurant. I think the world of celebrity chefs make this dream all the more enticing, because it seems like every chef on earth has his own place. But in reality, very few do, and of those, few survive more than a couple years. For Matt, as it must be for every hopeful small-business owner, the allure lies in freedom -- to be his own boss, to be the artist in his own cozy, warm, 25-table restaurant.

Second, he wants to write a cookbook. This dream is already in production, and has been for several years, but the demands of the full-time job and family relegate all cookbook-production to the few minutes of wind-down time before bed.

I think what makes these dreams so wonderful is that Matt has absorbed these visions into his character and finds time, just about every day, to ponder the possibilities. Dreams, as any certified dreamer will tell you, are sometimes what make life bearable, for they allow you to choose an ultimate happiness and wander there every day, at least in your head.

As a dreamer's wife, I am concurrently impressed and saddened by his dreams. I love that he is so invested in these ideas and knows them outside and in, as if they already existed. I am saddened that it is something as unyielding as money and time that keeps his dreams locked in his mind. But I am the practical one: I do not dream as he does, so I have neither the frustration nor the joy.

Our dreams reveal so much of who we are; pirate ships and scratch-kitchen restaurants reveal someone with an adventurous and creative spirit. And every once in a while, dreams leave that little place they occupy in the backs of our minds, and come down to earth.

While I still maintain that it is love that makes the world go 'round, I have to say that dreams, and the dreamers behind them, make the world go forward. Successful dreamers build new opportunities, create something out of nothing, achieve after years of work or failure, and give the rest of us hope that perhaps, our time is coming.