Wednesday, December 17, 2014

December Birds

I'm not the only one who thinks things are little off these days, am I? I heard birds singing while I biked to work yesterday. Birds, singing away on December 16 like it was the most normal thing to do. That (plus the mostly green grass) has made me forget more than once that Christmas is next week. And 2015 is just a week after that.

It's hard for a Wisconsin girl to be festive without snow, plus we decided not to put up a tree in our apartment this year, so I'm holding off on Christmas spirit until I get to my parents' house. Besides, I have other activities to celebrate before then: welcoming Bailey and her boyfriend to Chicago/North America and congratulating Quinn on his college graduation. And let's be honest, I'll be totally fine if snow doesn't fall in Chicago at all this winter. No snow = no public transportation = saving $20/week.

The new year, though, that I don't know when I'll be ready for. On one hand, I'm very excited to see 2014 go. It wasn't my best year. It wasn't America's best year. Still, I'm not sure I want a whole new year to start quite yet--I have a few things left to do.

First, I want to enjoy December (birds and all).

Monday, December 15, 2014

What I Know About...Staying Thin

"What I Know About..." is a series that draws on my width of knowledge. While I'm not an expert on any one thing, I do know a little about a lot. Today I'm sharing what I know about staying thin--not fit or built or athletic or skinny, thin. I'm not a big person, but I'm also not at peak physical shape.

If you're nervous about the oncoming (or already happening) holiday parties, treats, meals, and lethargy and what they're about to do to your body, I have a few tidbits that might help. (Note: I'm not a doctor, trainer, nutritionist, or fitness expert--remember this is What I Know About. I promise that these things are true for me, and probably apply in general, but please consult a professional if you truly need health info.)

I know...
  1. I have genetics to thank. I can't take all the credit for my body shape--I got lucky with a speedy metabolism. I don't know how much my metabolism figures in to my figure, but it's got to be a fair amount.
  2. Cooking at home is the best and easiest way for me to maintain a healthy weight. It's no secret that eating out packs on the pounds, and studies have shown that "the more time a nation devotes to food preparation at home, the lower its rate of obesity." --Michael Pollan, Cooked
  3. If I don't buy garbage, I don't eat garbage. Cooking at home means buying groceries for meals, but also for snacks. As long as I have willpower in the grocery store, I have no choice but to continue that at home, where my snack options don't include (many) foods high in fat and sugar.
  4. Not having a car is a great boon to my physical activity. Without a car I get my cardio and weightlifting in by riding bike or walking almost everywhere. My bike gets stored in our dining room, so if I want to go anywhere I have to carry it down (and, when I return, back up) a flight of stairs. This applies to groceries as well--yesterday I pulled $100 worth of Aldi groceries up the stairs. I lifted with my legs, of course.
  5. "Exercise" is a loose term. Along with bike and grocery carrying, I take the stairs instead of the elevator/escalator, I park at the edge of the parking lot (in my work car) to get extra walking in, I vacuum/dust/carry laundry up two flights of stairs to put it away...basically, I try not to be sedentary since I know I won't go for a run more than a few times in a year.
  6. I don't love drinking water, but my body thanks me when I do. Things work better when they're hydrated.
  7. I make time for what's important to me. Yes, being thin is just how I've always been, but I also like my size and how my clothes fit, so I do spend several hours a week buying groceries, planning meals, and cooking for myself. I spend money on good quality foods--produce, grains, meat--so I don't have to spend money on medicine or doctor visits. I go out of my way to walk more and fit activity into my life instead of forcing myself to go to a gym. We only get one body, and I'm hoping mine lasts for 75 (or so) more years.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Interestings

The InterestingsThe Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

First thoughts: Man, I just love Meg Wolitzer. I think if this was the first book I'd read of hers, I'd be a little hesitant to like it as much as I do, but her characters are just awesome. And they're always so different. Where does she have space for all these personalities inside her head?

Where/when I read: Thanksgiving break.

Favorite quotes:
"Despite my wisdom by now, I am small-minded and predictable." -Jules

"I know I still cause harm, probably a ton of it no matter what I do. And it kills me, it just kills me, that maybe the best you can ever do is cause less harm." -Ethan

"This is love, even if it doesn't feel like it." -Jules

Favorite characters:
Jonah Bay-I relate to him somehow. Despite the fact that he's a brilliant gay man, the son of a folk singer, and a genius in robotics.
Jules & Dennis's relationship-feels very natural.
Jules & Ethan's relationship-also feels natural, but it shouldn't, so that's kind of magical.
Ethan Figman-a saint, but also flawed, but mostly sensitive and introspective and caring.

Recommended for: character lovers, confused people, people with flaws, artists, dreamers, readers, vacation-goers, homebodies, and doodlers.

Final thoughts: Wolitzer not only knows how to write stories, she knows how to end them. I don't have a lot else to say because I mostly let myself get caught up in the story while reading. It was a great experience.

View all my reviews

Friday, December 12, 2014

Gift Idea Ideas

Around this time of year, every blog/website/magazine seems to have their own version of a Gift Idea Round Up. I, being a procrastinating shopper and someone who never knows what to get people for Christmas, always read them. And I always come away disappointed. I've finally realized that what I don't like about these lists is their specificity: instead of "ideas," these lists are full of actual products that the writer/curator wants me to go out and purchase. I know I can use the products as a springboard for my own shopping list, and I do, but what I really want is a list that helps me think about why I'm giving gifts in the first place.

On the practical side, I truly feel the best gifts are the ones that will be used (and maybe even used up--I don't want to be the source of clutter in someone else's life!). If tchotchkes are what bring a person true joy and happiness, fine, I'll get that, but otherwise I will search high and low for something functional, consumable, and/or memorable (as in an experience of some sort).

On the personal side, I also think about the person and tailor the gift not just to them, but to my relationship with them. More specifically, I like to give people something similar to things they give me throughout the year: food, comfort, free rides, inclusion, good times, love, laughter...I think you get it. These things are both tangible and not, but there's usually always a matching gift for them.

So that's my formula for gift giving. Of course, this all goes out the window if someone actually has a request. A Christmas request is a blessing, gosh darnit, and you best honor that. It takes 100% of the guess work out of shopping and guarantees a happy camper. The thing is, most adults don't have requests. Asking for requests usually elicits a "Oh, you don't have to give me anything," or a "I'd be happy with whatever you get me," because most of us have been raised to not expect gifts and to be grateful for whatever we have/get. To those people I say: just come out and say what you want because I know you'll be sort of disappointed if I don't magically figure it out!

Another note on having requests and a word of advice for the financially independent: often, having a disposable income means being able to buy whatever you want whenever you want. This means, come gift-giving seasons, people are at a loss for what to give you. If you hold off purchasing some of your wants, then gift-givers might have a better chance of getting you a gift you'll appreciate. Practice minimalism and intentional consumerism while helping out those who are clueless as to what to give you for the holidays. Wins all around!

All of this being said, I do have several go-to gifts that (I think) work for a variety of people. Yes, I make substitutions or alterations for each person, but these "gift templates" are great starting points when time is running out and I'm short on ideas.

Start with a theme. Instead of trying to find the perfect gift, think of an appropriate theme, then get smaller items that relate to it. Essentially, a gift basket. In the past I've done "Recuperate and Relax" (heating pad, foam roller, post-workout drink), "Hydration" (fancy shampoo/conditioner, a few favorite drinks, lotion), "Movie Night" (popcorn, candy, movies/rental gift cards), and "Expat" (peanut butter, Oreos, candles, a book written in English).

Think about needs (and wants). Where is the recipient in life? A college kid living away from home might need grocery money. S/he probably wants to spend that money on booze. Help them out with a gift card to a nearby store and six pack of something classier than what they're used to. A grandma bracing herself for another winter might need more bags of salt or heavy-duty boots. She probably wants something a little more sentimental. Look for something cozy and cute, like sturdy slippers. If you'll be around, offer to shovel for her.

Do a little snooping. If you're comfortable with the recipient, snoop around their life. Ask friends and family members if they've talked about things they might like. When you're at their house, sneak a peek into their closets/pantries/bedrooms...jk, sort of. Full disclosure, I do this during Thanksgiving at my parents house to see where they might be in need of something and regularly do it at home when I'm thinking about what to get my roommates. A lot of times people have blind spots to things they're used to living without. Examples: stemless wineglasses, fancy coffee, butter dishes...(most of my snooping is in the kitchen).

Scratch-offs. When in doubt, get a holiday-themed scratch off. It's great for all ages. (Give the kiddos a penny and let them have at it. They'll have a ball trying to match the need to tell them there's money on the line.) And if there's a winner, even better!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A Journal Journey Pt 2

Another journal milestone: I finished this little guy (finally) after just over a year of scribbles. My journaling was slow this year, something I hope to remedy in 2015. I love blogging and writing on here, for an audience, but journaling is my true release and creative outlet/muse. It only took me until about now to realize that I have a hard time writing creatively before I write out all the junk first. So, less journaling means less creative writing, which means a less fulfilled human. Anyways, I know that now, so here's to fulfillment in 2015!

And here's my journal journey to date: everything personal and cringe-worthy from my life in 12 notebooks.
It's strange that I know most of their contents by their covers. The black one is my Rome journal, one of my favorites for obvious reasons. I taped/stapled nearly every receipt, ticket stub, train pass, brochure, and whatever other scraps of paper I came into contact with while abroad inside (that's why it won't close) and I'm so glad I did. That's something I forget to do now, but hope to make a habit again. Those scraps trigger memories and inspire stories. The one with the circles and the white one with the hair tie around it are from MercyWorks. There's a lot of growth in those (so much I needed hair ties to keep them secured). Large portions of all of these journals feature my favorite lines from songs and books, silly to-do lists, and self-pep talks. Sometimes I recalled a day's events, but more often than not I just recorded the moment's feelings, anxieties, prayers, goals, and hesitations.

Up next, filling this guy with whatever inspires me.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Chicken & Noodles: Relationship Observations and a Recipe

Isn't it funny how the books we read and meals we make inspire so many conversations? These simple touchstones can carry me through an evening of companionship--though sometimes the dialogue can get a little heated, as was the case Saturday night when Jesus and I made dinner and I discussed my current read, Cooked, by Michael Pollan. (Readers of this blog know I'm a fan--see here.)

The book has already brought up a myriad of life-thoughts for me, and I'm only 50 pages in. Especially as I (continue to) pontificate to Jesus while reading, it's clear that food (and where it comes from) is pretty important to me. I strive to eat food (not food-like products) and think about how it gets to my kitchen/table/mouth. Jesus's philosophy is quantity over quality, getting the most for the least, and protein above all.

These contradictory principles have worried me in the past, but so far haven't been an insurmountable point of contention. It helps that I do most all of the cooking when we're together, so I have control in that area. (By choice--I very much enjoy it. Plus, Jesus makes a great sous chef. Don't think he doesn't do his share or at least wash dishes!) And he'll eat whatever I make--if homemade/home-cooked/real food is offered to him, he definitely takes it over fast food. He just won't go out and search for these things on his own.

To illustrate our food logic: I love soup. I never/rarely order it at restaurants because I know I can make it cheaper and better at home. Soup is easy to make, hard to mess up, super comforting in the cold months, and can be as hearty as you want when you're the chef. Jesus hates soup. Or rather, he hates broth. Give him a rotisserie chicken and a side of veggies and he's happy. Put those ingredients in a bowl with some chicken stock and he's up in arms wondering where his sustenance is.

The meal that inspired this revelation? Chicken noodle soup from scratch. I used store-bought noodles, but balanced that out by using a whole chicken for the meat and stock. I roped Jesus into helping and heard all about how cutting up the chicken on our own, boiling it off the bone, using the bones for stock, and adding all that water was counter-intuitive to our his end goal: eating chicken. I listened, then watched as he devoured two bowls.

I still couldn't get him to see that the activity of cutting the chicken and knowing I wasn't wasting any part of it added to my eating experience, but I think he found new respect for me (if his "I love you. That's gross," as I dislocated the thigh bone means anything). Even if I don't go to the From Scratch Extreme every time, I like to challenge myself. I always learn something. Spending non-screen time with my boyfriend is always a positive, and we had a lovely meal at the end of it all. I guess until he refuses to eat what I serve (as if), we're doing okay.

Chicken and Noodles (from the Pioneer Woman)

This recipe isn't meant to be soup, but depending on how much broth you make/use and if you add the flour at the end (I didn't), it can range from soup to stew to...chicken and noodles. Enjoy!

1 whole cut up fryer chicken (YouTube "how to cut a whole chicken" for helpful walk throughs)
2 carrots, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
1/2 medium onion, diced (I used almost a whole onion)
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp tumeric (I left this out)
1/4 tsp white pepper (I used black)
1/4 tsp ground thyme (I used an Italian seasoning mix)
2 tsp parsley flakes
16 oz egg noodles
3 tbsp flour (optional)

Cover chicken in 4 quarts water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low. Simmer for 30 minutes. (Heads up, you're gonna need a huge pot. Or two medium sized ones at least.)

Remove chicken from pot to a cutting board. With two forks, remove as much meat from the bones as you can, slightly shredding meat in the process. Keep meat off to the side. Return bones to broth and continue simmering on low, covered, for 45 minutes.

Remove bones from broth. Add vegetables, herbs, and spices. Stir to combine and simmer for 10 minutes.

Increase heat and add egg noodles and chicken. Cook for 8-10 minutes. (I stopped here and served myself a bowl of hearty chicken noodle soup.)

Optional: mix flour and a little water. Stir until smooth. Pour into soup, stir to combine, and simmer for another 5 minutes, or until broth thickens a bit.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Sunday Night Survey: Consumerism & Camaraderie Edition

I'll never be a social butterfly or a person who loves shopping, but I can pretend for a weekend--this weekend to be specific. I officially started my Christmas shopping, which leaves me feeling strangely content and successful despite my distaste for the consumption of the season. I also caught up with two friends from different circles of my life. Altogether, the weekend was refreshing and a great kickoff to my subtle festivity (Subtle Festivity is coincidentally a proposed title for my pretend lifestyle blog).
Macy's: outdoing everyone else's festivity since 1858.
Making: chicken noodle soup from scratch (whole chicken, store-bought noodles).
Drinking: tea at home, tea at tea shops, tea in Starbucks, and tea before bed.
Eating: in a very crowded Macy's food court.
Traveling: up and down escalators in search of better views and to cross off my shopping list.
Finding: a few deals along the way.
Talking: about siblings and parents and heath insurance and life goals.
Picking: out my health insurance plan for next year. I can't wait to hardly use it (because knock on wood I'm luckily and purposefully healthy).
Marveling: at the amount of people out shopping.
Wandering: past and through the Christkindl Market (very briefly--it was packed on Saturday night).
Watching: the Badgers lose the Big 10 Championship spectacularly.
Breaking: in a brand new journal, a good time for...
Re-committing: myself to my personal writing practice.
Reading: Cooked by Michael Pollan.
Getting: my news from SNL.
Putting: away the orange-colored and pumpkin-flavored candles.
Pulling: out the reds, greens, pines, and cinnamons.
Arranging: one strand of Christmas lights over our living room window. Festivity!

Sunday School

Here is what I learned today, compliments of writer/blogger Melissa Frederick (in a guest post on Brevity):
Like it or not, we writers have to accept that the only way to get good at writing is to write and share that writing with others. If the only space we have to hone our skills is a blog, so be it. 
Here's the article in entirety: "About Getting Good: The Many Paths to Literary Mastery".