Mind Over Muscle

The dream lasted forever.  It began with someone unlike me – but seemingly  me – wanting to go surfing.  Whoever it was, grabbed the short board headed up the hilly, tree-lined, street on the sunny morning then realized the beach was too far away so returned home to pick up the car.  From an aerial view, I could see my car, suspiciously like the car from last episode I watched of “Wheelers Dealers”,  caught in the middle of a formula one  race.  The track went right but my car veered to the left with other vehicles exiting the race.


I always have such great expectations the day before a vacation day.  I dream I’ll repaint the bathroom, visit my relatives, spend the day at the mall,  all while remaining in bed watching old movies.  It never turns out the way I plan.  I usually  finish  a load of laundry and grocery shop, if I’m lucky.  Today’s day off started with a good look in the mirror.   I looked at myself sideways, groaned, and grudgingly concluded, as much as I did not want to, that a trip to my local gym was overdue.  It’s not that I hate to work out.  Once I get going, I find a groove and actually enjoy it.  It is just the psyching up to actually go that is the problem.  So much energy goes into the getting ready between the cramming body parts into “breathable” , form-fitting “new technology” wear,  hair management, and color coordination to fluorescent shoes.  Another glance in the mirror and the gym rat was born.

My club is small, local, and best of all inexpensive.   With owners who served as Marines, the place is clean, the machines work, the neighborhood crowd includes all ages depending on the time of day, and once in a while you overhear local gossip.  Since it was the middle of the day, most of the crowd was either retired or under employed.  The younger members plugged into their phones and worked their way around the cardio machines or free weights.  The retirees sat on machines watching the TV’s slowly going through their reps.  Oddly, a thirty-something year old on a stair climber was speaking into her ear bud microphone, her voice gradually getting loader and faster as her workout intensified.  A type A, I surmised, desperately in need of some kind of weird attention.   Toward the free weights, two men were comparing current girlfriends to past crazy ones, reassuring each other their futures were brighter.

My mind usually starts to focus on where my feet should be, how I am supposed to breath,  what muscle group should be moving and I tune out everything else going on in my head. Usually.  But  I could feel the back fat rippling on the lat pull, the cellulite jiggle on the bike, the non-existent core muscles strain on each sit-up.  Surrounded by mirrors at all angles, I started to regret the holiday cookies and my long work hours.  My head dropped back on the exercise mat as I stared up at the ceiling. I tried to take a deep breath but it came out more like a sigh.  I tried not to think about the upheaval at  work then remembered  my odd dream.  With the move to another office further away, my longer driving commute had turned into a race every morning.  I don’t why I didn’t give it all up.  My life of sitting at a desk in a stress filled office now expanded into sitting behind the wheel in stress filled rush hour to get to my stress filled job.  No wonder my body was morphing into ball of fat and my heart felt weak.  At least the annoying woman on the stair climber was trying to leverage work with a workout.  I contemplated how many bad decisions I would make if I was to bark orders over a stair climber.  Here was my day off, doing something good for my body yet my brain couldn’t shut off my daily grind. No matter what I did today, my mind would be stuck going too slow in a fast race that I needed to exit.

Opening my eyes and looking around the club, it seemed the anxiety of daily life could not be avoided but we were trying.  We can try to sleep it off, eat it away, or work it off.  It was  very therapeutic to know my neighbors were trying to work it off with me.  At some point I am determined to make it to the beach and maybe I will see everybody there riding a more enjoyable wave.

Too Much

I had to turn the television news off and stop checking Twitter.  I couldn’t take the news spitting tidbits of the horrific scenes in Paris any longer.  I was still trying to wipe out the photos of the woman in shock when the Russian jet exploded.  Add to the shock of the Connecticut school shootings, the multiple college shootings, the shopping mall massacre in Kenya, and US military base assaults,  I find it’s just too much to take in and have given up trying to understand the logic behind violence.  I don’t care about the reasons why anymore.  As a priest stated in a local church homily after the Naval base shooting, “It is wrong, that’s all the matters.”

The violence is not unfamiliar to human experience.  The world has been brutal since the beginning of time.  Why human development has stopped evolving  and has receded into the base of animal instinct cannot be explained.  Not enough of something, too much of something else, greed, poverty, genetic, environmental –  whatever the reason it gets all of us nowhere.  Earth’s soil is mixed with the countless deaths of the innocent.  Homer wrote about it.  Shakespeare wrote scenes about it.  The concept of fairness has been debated for centuries by philosophers.  Could it be that humans are just unable to move to peace because of our inability to identify with others?   Is it just how we are wired?  Or does it come in waves?  Cure Violence (cureviolence.org) believes violence works like a disease that spreads like a cold and should be isolated like an Ebola outbreak to cure.

Maybe.  Maybe violence is more like a genetic code that given the right environment, turns the mind on.  Too bad it doesn’t switch off with the right diet and exercise.  It just lingers silently for the rest of us to witness in disbelief.

I will pray for Paris, and Lebanon,  and Kenya,  and St. Petersburg,  and Connecticut, and anyone that is abused, and  for those that have had to watch a horrendous act of a  human gone terribly wrong.  But I won’t try to understand the violence.  Just can’t.

Into the Autumn

I opened the window that looks over the backyard and could barely hear the crickets, their soothing sounds slowed to nearly a whisper.  I wanted to keep the window open just for one last night but the heat has been turned on in the house to combat the recent chilly nights and so I slid the window shut.

Earlier this evening,  I had inspected the hopeful peppers and the sad tomatoes.  They had taken on a greenish-yellow hue, drooping on weepy branches.  I attempted to push them upright but they just slumped back into their droopy place. I recalled how the spring had such an optimistic start.  This was my first year of (somewhat unsuccessfully) growing vegetables by seed and I had waited from March to late May to see if my little babies would make it.  Marigolds, basil, Serrano peppers, and Roma tomatoes smiled at me from their little seed package pictures.  I envisioned giving  away my many extra plants to friends and family in the spring, reserving the best for my patio pots.  The world was bright and smiling and colorful.

I cheered when the first seedlings arrived  then panicked  after millions seemed to arrive all in one week filling the 48 mini pods of fertilized dirt.  To water or not to water, that was the daily debate – the debate I apparently lost.  Most of the plants had to be thinned out in an attempt to weed out the weak.  Most of the strong ultimately died, their little heads to heavy to be held up by the thin stem.  Only a few made it.  The survivors  were the pride of my summer.  I watched as they grew and chased the resident squirrel away as vegetables formed.  I would talk to each plant to boost their confidence and to speed their growth.  I studied the sun’s angle.  Each little bloom was a victory.  When my first pepper became ripe enough to pick, I winced as I removed it from the rest of the plant I was still nursing.  I threw the pepper into a chopped salad all the same.  If only the season could last forever.

Not surprisingly,  I was not mentally prepared for the arrival of  autumn and its steely grip on my small, immature crop.  When the Super Moon arrived, the days and nights had still been warm but the moon’s bloody shadow stole  the life from my garden and cast a spell on the beautiful trees nearby.  I knew dangerous change was in the air on Saturday as I sat in a cold rain peaking at the football field from beneath my clinging hood.  From the quickly abandoning stands, I stared down at my drenched canvas all-stars slowly realizing my feet were  freezing.  My jacket beaded with raindrops, the water pooling  on my arms and shoulders.   I still shiver at the memory of the wet chill..  No,  I decided,  I am not in the least bit prepared for the coming cold, for weekends sitting in a messy house wondering how I can get out of going anywhere that required clearing snow off my car while covered countless layers of outer wear.  I had little hope of getting through the next six months without some sort of distraction.

Where did the sunny days go?  The news has turned bad, the barbecue is covered,  and  the heat is on in the house.  The damn heat is on in the house.  My mood has shifted into low gear and I just want to go in reverse.

I opened the window again.  Don’t go crickets.  Please don’t go.  The moon was only kidding.

Breakfast Fusion

My desire for making blueberry muffins came in the morning, after my run, when the morning hunger starting kicking in and the adrenaline had not quite worn off.  I had bought a quart of blueberries the week before at the farmer’s market and had brought a little for lunch a few times during the week.  They had been fresh, sweet, and juicy.  Fresh baked muffins seemed like a perfect fit for the weekend.

I pulled my Julia Child’ s Baking with Julia and my relatively new Cook’s illustrated The Science of Good Cooking  to compare versions.   For most of my life, I would use just one recipe when I made anything but lately I found my options seem to be better when I combined ideas.  Or at least, I thought it improved the end product.  It started when I began canning.  I had compared a family pickle method to the Ball’s Blue Book method and added a bit more sugar.  Then later, I compared my sister’s peanut butter cookie recipe to Bon Appetite’s , Ina Garten’s turkey meatloaf to my mother-in-law’s traditional meatloaf, potato salads,  and – viola!- my own food fusion.  Sometimes they worked (better pickles) and sometimes they didn’t (peanut butter cookies that stuck to the roof of the mouth).  Either way, the end product wound up as a masterpiece of the moment or more like an experiment of expressionism since  I never remembered what I exactly changed because I never thought to write anything down.

So there I was, reading glasses on, staring at one list of ingredients that included cake flour, sour cream, and whole milk and another that needed all-purpose flour, buttermilk, and mashed up blueberries.  I didn’t really like either one completely.  The fusion creativity began to rush through my veins as I began to take inventory of what I had on hand.  Cake flour, no but I had bread flour.  A moment of clarity took place as I did a quick check  of the page facing Cook’s Illustrated marching orders defining the types of flours and their uses.  I soon learned the disastrous effect bread flour would cause.   All-purpose flour – check.  Sour cream – check.  Milk –  no, not a drop.  In a panic, I needed to catch my husband coming back from the bank and possibly grocery shopping to see if he could save the morning.  I called his cell.  No answer.  I texted, waited, but no immediate response.   Proceeding with my mission while I waited, I wrestled around the top shelf of the pantry and found the baking power hiding behind the corn meal. The heart stopping shock came when I check the remaining blueberries.  12 left and looking a little old.  Not nearly the 2 cups that both books prescribed.  I quickly texted my husband again, telling him to never mind, just as his car pulled into the driveway.  He hadn’t checked his phone,  thank heaven, and had purchased a pint of fresh local blueberries as a whim.  No milk.  I was just too close.  I couldn’t let the cooking bug pass. Grabbing my keys, I headed to the neighborhood Italian bakery/grocery store for the milk.

Saturday mornings at the bakery isn’t someplace you will be able to come and go quickly something that should have dawned on me 5 minutes earlier.  The parking lot was packed and it was three people deep at the long counter.  I made my way back to the milk.  They had both – buttermilk and regular.  Which recipe called for the buttermilk?  Was it the one with the cake flour, the sour cream, and the mashed blueberries?  Or was that even the one I was making.  I nabbed them both and took my place in line next to a man with a 5 week old baby and a woman buying enough bread to feed an elementary school. I scanned the bread and spotted the nice Italian loaf which had been determined would be good for the house since I was going there anyway.   While my bread was being sliced, the cashier asked, “What else can I get you?”.  Dangerous question to ask me as I glanced at the brownies staring back at me from beneath the glass counter.  My stomach rumbled.   Two milks, one slicked loaf of Italian bread, and two frosted brownies later, I found myself back in my kitchen staring at the cookbooks.  Too late for me to turn back now as my messy countertop  would take too long to clean up anyway.

Sighing, I washed the blueberries.  As directed, I “whisked”  together the flour, salt, and baking powder. Putting my reading glasses back on,  I doubled checked the recipe (which one was I using again?) and realized I put an eighth of cup too much of the flour.  No biggie.  I’ll just add a little more sugar.  In another bowl, I was to whisk the sugar and eggs.   It would not have been an issue had I actually had sugar.  I always, always buy sugar, I mumbled to myself.  How could be out?  I worked to get less than a cup out of my sugar canister.  Fusion, I told myself, fusion.  My pitiful bag of brown sugar laid where I had left it the last time I made cookies.  It will have to do, I told myself as I added large pinches to my beaten eggs.  After waiting for the butter I had hastily melted in the microwave to cool, I mixed and combined the rest of the ingredients including the pint of whole blueberries together and shoved the pan into the oven.

I eyed the brownies while I waited.  Somehow the wafting blueberry intoxicating aroma I had imagined was lost to impatience as I eyed the rising batter.  I imagined licking the frosting off the side of one of the brownies when the oven’s buzzer finally went off.

An hour and half later the dishes were washed and the blueberry muffins were safe in their Ziplock.  Although a little like a rubber ball, they were tasty but, then,  I was pretty hungry.  It always takes a day or two to truly appreciate the madness of a hungry cook, I justified.   I thought about the economies of scale of baked goods.  Next time I get a craving in the morning, I told myself,  I may have to skip the art of fusion and just go for mass production of my local bakery.  I wondered if they had chocolate chip muffins.

Don’t Fence Me In

I’m running on the peak of a sand dune, each side sloping down to the beach.  Above the dune  is nothing but big, puffy, clouds in an enormous, blue sky.  I run into the wind.  The sand grasses  move to and fro and I can hear the roaring of the beach.  I am weightless, alive, as  I keep running.   I notice  the air turning colder and as I look around, I realize someone is stealing my sheets.

I lie on the edge of the bed, a sliver of a sheet against the blasting air conditioner and my elbow begins to itch.  Coming back from vacation has been tough.  Everyone talks about going on vacation, what they did on vacation, where they went on vacation, blah, blah vacation.  No one who comes back from their little moment in paradise wants to talk about the cruel reality of getting up for work again nor do they wish to speak of the greater hatred of the alarm clock. Oh, how the time that only moments ago was all yours and only yours is now swallowed up by laundry, grocery shopping, and tasks you put off until your return.   The mosquito bites and third degree sunburn I worked so hard to avoid vex me in vicious tandem as I painfully and relentlessly scratch at my arms, back, legs, nose.  Maybe it isn’t hives, maybe it was poison ivy, but it all becomes unbearable  – miserable reality without a midday cocktail and a steady stream of Aerosmith.

I don’t how I complained as a kid on summer days whining, “I have nothing to do.”  Why wasn’t swimming all day enough?  My feet were always barefoot.  My friends were always coming up with new games – freeze, statues, kick the can.  And when the street lights came on, you went home.  Like a pack of gypsies, the entire four block radius was the playground for my neighborhood posse.  Bologna  with ketchup was our filet, tuna fish with pickles our seared ahi, grilled cheese sandwich with American slices our guilty desire.  We woke with the sun, we ran with the wind.  Now I spend  a few measly days each summer attempting to recapture just a little of the freedom I took for granted.  There I was.  Me in my  purple shorts with the red pockets and my t-shirt with my name written on it a hundred times in multiple colors.

If I cannot run weightless with sand dancing all around me , then I must go on somehow in denial that my childhood has ended.  I pack my lunch with low-fat yogurt, 2% mozzarella cheese sticks, and a hint of sodium crackers.  Rebelliously, I include a stuffed bag of cookies .  I  might as well find solace in sugar.  I mean, really, it’s the kitchen’s little beach isn’t it?  It moves like sand, it fills your soul like sand, and brings a little sunshine to chocolate chips and vanilla.  Maybe I will sit in my car at lunch with my shoes off, stare out my sunroof, and listen to Deep Purple.