Aristotle said it first: a reflection on ancient common sense

3 Sep

Aristotle Politics

This is long overdue, considering I finished Aristotle’s Politics over a year ago. If you haven’t yet had the pleasure of wading through this classic, I am hoping to at least pique your interest with some of the ideas I found most strikingly applicable to America’s political and cultural landscape today. Written in 350 B.C.E. during ancient Greece’s classical era, Politics is Aristotle’s discussion of what form(s) of government best promote flourishing, or “the good life,” for individual citizens. I’m sure I missed some parallels, but in this post I’ll be focusing on three topics that certainly come up in the news frequently today: national boundaries, socialist policies, and violent crime.

A case for borders: Trump’s extension of the barrier between the United States and Mexico has met with a polarized response from the general public. Aristotle, however, sees the etching of clear boundaries as a practical and necessary defense strategy:

“To demand that a city should be left undefended by walls is much the same as to want to have the territory of a city left open to invasion, and to lay every elevation level with the ground. It is like refusing to have walls for the exterior of a private house, for fear they will make its inhabitants cowards. We have also to remember that a people with a city defended by walls has a choice of alternatives – to treat its city as walled, or to treat it as if it were unwalled – but a people without any walls is a people without any choice. ” (Book VII, Chapter 2)

At its core, border protection is a case for nationalism, a sentiment now considered a special type of bigotry in polite society. While the United States does not currently face threats of organized attack on our southern border, we do face the risk of dangerous, violent criminals slipping into our society. We need only to examine what happened when Chancellor Angela Merkel opened Germany’s border to one million refugees to conclude that some form of border protection is necessary. Many of these refugees were let in without any detailed background checks, and while likely most of them were merely looking to escape desperate and awful situations, the “bad apples” wreaked enough havoc for Merkel to reverse her 2015 decision three years later. Incidents of terrorism spiked, while sexual assault and murder at the hands of refugees similarly skyrocketed.

Aristotle would not have supported Bernie Sanders: very concisely, Aristotle gives a pretty solid reason for why socialist policies simply don’t work.

“What is common to the greatest number gets the least amount of care. People pay most attention to what is their own: they care less for what is common …even when there is no other cause for inattention, people are more prone to neglect their duty when they think that another is attending to it.” (Book II, Chapter 3)

The allure of socialism has entranced Western countries time and again throughout the 20th and now into the 21st century, beginning with the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. It sounds good: universal healthcare, government-funded university tuition, and an end to poverty. Unfortunately, it has never worked out that way, and never will. Under Lenin’s rule, the Bolshevik Party murdered over 4 million Russian citizens. A less vicious example that hits closer to the socialist paradise envisioned by U.S. democratic leaders such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is modern day Israel. While the Histadrut, or General Federation of Labor, control of nearly every sector of social and economic life in Israel seemed to work initially, the economy crashed and burned in the major 1965 recession. Between 1965 and 1967, unemployment tripled. The crisis peaked in 1984-1985, with government spending catapulting the inflation rate to 450%. In 1983, the U.S. government pledged to intervene with a $1.5 billion grant if the Israeli government promised to abandon its socialist policies. Not long after, a more capitalist economy resulted in a shrink in inflation to just 20% and a budget deficit down from 15 to 0%. The state-run economy was ultimately replaced by privately owned companies because Israelis slowly realized that this was the only way forward to be competitive in international markets. As former Minister of Energy and Infrastructure Moshe Shahal’s spokesman Natan Arad put it: “…Private initiative is superior in efficiency, in lowering prices through competition, and so on than government regulation… no matter how dedicated, hard-working and intelligent  government-employed or government-regulated management is – and many of our men certainly fit this category – private management will turn in better results. This philosophy has proved itself abroad in other countries which once believed in direct government intervention in every phase of business life.”

Less family = more violence: Continuing his argument against a society in which all things are shared in common, Aristotle makes a compelling observation about the effect nullifying the biological family can have:

“We may take as examples cases of assault, homicide, whether unintentional or intentional, fighting and slander. All these offenses, when they are committed against father or mother or a near relative, differ from offenses against people who are not so related, in being breaches of natural piety. Such offense must happen more frequently when men are ignorant of their relatives than when they know who they are.” (Book II, Chapter 4)

Our knee-jerk response to the thought of someone killing their grandmother is, naturally, sheer horror. But if said-person had no concept of what a grandmother or a mother or a sister is, having been raised without these very personal bonds of kinship, the crime is not understood as horrifying in the same way to the perpetrator.

The relationship between increased criminal activity and family breakdown in America was well-studied and documented during the 1980s and 1990s. In their comprehensive 1988 study of 11,000 individuals, Douglas Smith and G. Roger Jarjoura report “the percentage of single-parent households with crime between the ages of 12 and 20 is significantly associated with rates of violent crime and burglary.” In a 1994 Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention report, Kevin and Karen Wright examined the relationship between family life and crime, pulling from various studies. In their discussion on moral development and its relation to delinquency, the literature indicated that “parents play a critical role in moral development” and “delinquency is more likely when normative development is incomplete, where children are unable to distinguish right from wrong, feel little or no obligation toward standards of behavior, and have little respect for rights and welfare of others.”

Stepping away from the ancient Greek world and back into modern America, please enjoy this recipe for zucchini corn chowder, which is an adaptation of blogger Amanda’s recipe over at iamhomesteader.

LIGHTER ZUCCHINI CORN CHOWDER (makes approximately 7 cups)

INGREDIENTS:

1 Tbs. butter

2 strips bacon, chopped

1 yellow or sweet onion, chopped

1 Tbs. minced garlic

1/4 tsp. dried thyme

4 cups chicken broth

2 ears fresh corn

2-3 zucchini, chopped and quartered

1/2 cup 2% milk

1/2 cup half and half

1/4 cup cheddar cheese

1/4 tsp. salt

1/8 tsp. black pepper

1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper

DIRECTIONS:

  1. Melt butter in stockpot over medium heat. Add bacon and cook until browns, 3-4 min.
  2. Add onion, garlic, and thyme. Cook ~5 min.
  3. Add chicken broth. Increase heat to medium high to bring soup to a simmer.
  4. Once simmering, lower heat to medium and add zucchini, corn, milk, and half and half. Season with salt, black pepper, and cayenne pepper.
  5. Simmer for 8-12 min., or until vegetables are cooked.

CALORIES (per 1 cup): 100

Audio books for a better quarantine experience

28 Apr

As we all continue to be cooped up at home, fingers crossed that the coronavirus’ assault on immune systems nationwide will slow soon, I thought some audio book recommendations might help pass the time. Although the public library is closed right now, you can still access audio books via the Overdrive app.

I like to listen to books while doing something else, such as cooking or folding laundry at home, or performing an experiment at work. Because my attention is divided, I generally prefer audio books that are plot rather than character driven and not overly complicated. The most essential component to a good audio book, however, is the reader: someone who can perform convincingly different voices for each character while also maintaining a distinct and captivating narrator’s voice.

I can’t say the following list is exhaustive, but it’s certainly eclectic.

Crime Fiction:

fullsizeoutput_2f0The Strike Series: J.K. Rowling, under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, has quietly written four gritty novels featuring Afghanistan war veteran and amputee, Cormoran Strike, as a private detective struggling to make ends meet. Highlights include the romantic tension between Cormoran and his brilliant assistant, Robin Ellacott, despite her long drawn out engagement to an insufferably selfish and jealous Matthew Cunliffe; the office couch which consistently makes farting sounds; and murders which reveal complicated relationships either within the victim’s family or Cormoran’s personal life. The narrator, British actor Robert Glenister, is spectacular.

51RDUmC2REL._SY304_BO1,204,203,200_Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Trilogy: Stieg Larsson will keep your attention with his bizarre heroine, the perplexing Lisbeth Salander, Sweden’s best hacker and worst conversationalist. Her partnership with journalist and Casanova Mikael Blomkvist, initiated in the first novel by a cold case murder that the two together solve, generates unexpected plot twists and humanizes the ofttimes vengeful Salander. I’m currently re-listening to these books, and am as delighted by Simon Vance’s narration as I was the first time around.

Light Fiction:

51K1OpT+v7LAuthor Liane MoriartyI’ve listened to or read all eight of her novels except for The Hypnotist’s Love Story. Moriarty’s novels typically contain some secret or major event which she makes you very much want to be revealed. She rarely describes what anyone looks like, nor does she create more than a vague sense of time and place. However, she’s quite good at exploring the complexities of human nature and friendship, particularly between females. My favorites are Three Wishes, What Alice Forgot, and The Husband’s Secret.

51laCRyZikLAuthor Laura LippmanBorn and raised in Baltimore, Lippman sets all of her books within the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area. Street names, historical tidbits, and strong accents make the context come alive. She’s written both the Tess Monaghan series and stand-alone novels. Despite her dark subject matter, be it murder, prostitution, kidnap and rape, or a haunting childhood secret, she manages to incorporate humor, quirky characters, and astute observations about life. I especially recommend And When She Was Good and I’d Know You Anywhere.

Best Selling Novels:

617imZ75zSLThe Help: It’s 1962 in Jackson, MS, and fresh college grad Skeeter Phelan can’t seem to fit into the prescribed mold for white Southern young ladies. Instead of finding a husband, she pursues her dreams of becoming a writer, choosing a subversive topic to tackle, the experiences of black maids working for wealthy white families. Kathryn Stockett’s debut novel seamlessly interweaves fiction and civil rights history to portray an unlikely friendship between Skeeter and two black maids, Minny and Aibileen. The audio version is truly exquisite, mirroring the novel’s use of three separate narrators, including Octavia Spencer as Minny.

 

51vV-Rvl+RLWhere the Crawdads Sing: Kya, abandoned first by her mother, then by her siblings, and finally by her abusive, alcoholic father, learns to fend for herself in the marshlands of North Carolina’s coast. Her isolation, coupled with the townspeople’s rejection of her as the filthy and uncivilized “marsh girl,” make Kya’s situation desperately lonely. Delia Owen’s portrayal of Kya’s deep longing to love and be loved is reminiscent of Carson McCuller’s depiction of social misfits yearning for connection in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.

Classics:

51wHlhjCtkL._SL300_Lolita: Due to its unsavory subject matter, I anticipated at least disliking this book. But Nabokov’s lyrical prose, particularly in Jeremy Irons’ voice, has an almost trance-like effect, fixing the reader into a surreal state of fascination tinged with horror. Lolita is as disturbing as it is beautifully written, and its chief character, Humbert Humbert, as pathetic as he is monstrous.

51aKS+6StwL1984: George Orwell’s dystopian novel is all parts terrifying. In the opening chapter, Winston Smith is portrayed committing the worst of crimes. He’s illegally purchased a diary to transmit “thoughtcrime,” his negative and therefore forbidden perspectives on the government, punishable by death. Anticipation of repercussions for Winston Smith’s daring to defy Oceania’s totalitarian regime made it difficult for me to press pause.

61oWi5ky+oL._SL300_Brave New World: I recommend listening to Huxley’s dystopian masterpiece directly before or after 1984. The futuristic World State’s government takes great social engineering measures to regulate happiness, ensuring each constituent follows a comfortable, meaningless path. The stakes are deceptively high, however: those who don’t conform to free sex and pain-numbing drugs will be exiled!

Biography:

41Sqv1jNyIL._SX449_BO1,204,203,200_Losing Mum and Pup: This book introducted me to William F. Buckley Jr. and sparked an ongoing love affair with his writings and person. Christopher Buckley, author and narrator, reflects on growing up as the son of Bill Buckley, founder of National Review, and Pat, glamorous New York socialite. Although Christopher’s ability to put pen to paper is nothing in comparison to that of his father, he captures well the oftimes complicated and bittersweet relationship he had with his parents in various snapshots, and also gives honest, heartbreaking voice to the sadness we must all eventually face when a parent dies.

Just as we’ve covered a wide-range of book recommendations, the following recipe  extends Korean Beef Bulgogi into salad territory.

KOREAN BEEF BULGOGI SALAD

INGREDIENTS:

Beef Bulgogi (recipe credit: Olive & Mango) fullsizeoutput_2f1

1 lb. beef tenderloin or sirloin, cut into thin slices

1/2 cup peeled and grated pear

1/4 cup white wine

1 white onion, diced

4 cloves of garlic, minced

1/2 tsp. chili flakes

2 green onions, chopped

2 Tbs. soy sauce

2 Tbs. honey or brown sugar

1 Tbs sesame oil

Combine all ingredients of beef bulgogi marinade. Slice beef very thinly and add to marinade, tossing to fully coat. Marinate in fridge for one hour up to overnight. When ready, place beef in heated pan and cook until golden brown. Only a small portion of the beef bulgogi is needed per salad; store remaining beef in freezer.

Salad:

80 g cooked white rice (1/2 cup)

Romaine lettuce

Stir fried vegetables (i.e. mushrooms, celery, peppers, red onions, julienned carrots): season fullsizeoutput_2f3with sambal oelek chili sauce, soy sauce, salt, and pepper

1 Tbs. gochujang sauce

1 Tbs. ginger vinaigrette (i.e. ALDI’s)

2.5 oz. cooked beef bulgogi

ASSEMBLY:

Layer lettuce, rice, stir fried vegetables, gochujang sauce, vinaigrette, and beef in bowl. Eat!

CALORIES (per salad): 450

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One teeny problem with the movie “Late Night” that actually ruined the whole film

11 Feb

Late Night_ad

Last month, my fiance and I trekked (via airplane) to Park City for skiing with my sister and brother-in-law, aunt and uncle, and two of my cousins. Two frigid and snowy days of shredding the gnar were interspersed with rowdy Settlers of Catan matches, laughing fits only sisters and girl cousins can evoke, and too much good food.

On the journey there, I watched “Late Night,” the 2019 comedy-drama featuring Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling. Thompson’s character, Katherine Newbury, is facing forced abdication from her late night TV show throne due to ever worsening reviews. Kaling’s character, Molly Patel, hired merely to prove that Katherine does not hate women, ends up rescuing Katherine from her seemingly inevitable demise with fresh, down-to-earth, and spunky content.

I want to like this movie. The redemptive nature of its overarching story is temptingly well-crafted. We first meet a proud, stodgy, emotionally stunted Newbury who is unable to take even the most constructive criticism. She is a prickly diva who has lost touch with her audience and can’t be bothered to learn her staff writers’ names. Patel, the newest and least qualified member of the team, stands in stark contrast. She loves cupcakes and bright colors, wears her emotions on her sleeve, and above all else is unbearably earnest. Newbury initially ignores Patel altogether, seeing her as a quota filler who talks too much at writers’ meetings. However, thanks to Patel’s persistence and creativity, Newbury slowly begins to change. She stops mocking the people she interviews and performs a series of skits instead poking fun at herself for being old, white, and thoroughly British. Disney parallels abound: Newbury is transformed much like Shrek or the Beast, all thanks to Patel’s corresponding role as Fiona or Belle.

But all of the movie’s redemptive qualities are utterly shattered by one single little line.  It’s actually the first joke Patel offers as content for Newbury’s late night shtick: “Three Republican senators are proposing a bill to yet again defund Planned Parenthood. As always, the men most obsessed with women’s sex lives are the ones getting laid the least. I never thought I’d say this, but thank God I’m going through menopause.” This shameless bolstering of Planned Parenthood, after the 2015 release of videos exposing the federally funded institution’s trafficking of fetal body parts, is beyond the pale. I realize to be pro-life is to be radically far right in the eyes of the media, and I am also well-aware that mainstream media did their best to label the Center for Medical Progress‘ videos as a heavily edited farce. If you’re in that camp, I challenge you to watch, or perhaps re-watch, just one of the videos. The people being interviewed are real people, who actually worked for Planned Parenthood or one of its affiliates. It’s difficult to devise a scenario in which the disturbing content they share can be explained away by heavy editing. The third episode, in particular, is heartbreaking. In it Holly O’Donnell, an ex-procurement technician for Planned Parenthood affiliate Stem Express, LLC, tells the story of cutting open the head of a fully gestated fetus to procure its brain. While Planned Parenthood is adding body parts to their gruesome collection of for-profit fetal tissue, the American public is expected to smugly roll their eyes at those annoying Republican senators who, um, think this is a problematic situation?

It’s bad enough that “Late Night” supports Planned Parenthood’s nefarious practices. But what’s even worse is making light of abortion to begin with. Undergoing an abortion is an incredibly traumatic experience. A 2011 meta-analysis released in the British Journal of Pyschiatry, which covered 22 studies performed between 1995 and 2009,  linked undergoing an abortion to an 81% increased risk of mental health problems, including  depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicide. This is the most comprehensive study to date quantitatively analyzing the association between abortion and mental health. There’s really nothing humorous or guffaw-inducing about suicide, and there’s absolutely nothing funny about abortion, period.

I know this post was hard to stomach (pun intended), so I understand if you’ve lost your appetite. That’s why today I’m offering a comforting, yet relatively low calorie, dessert beverage. Sometimes when I feel overwrought or upset, like when I’m reading or watching what Planned Parenthood has done and continues to do, I find the following nightcap quite helpful in unwinding.

SPIKED HOT CHOCOLATE

INGREDIENTS:

1 packet Swiss Miss Milk Chocolate No Sugar Added Hot Cocoa Mix

1.3 oz. Chila ‘Orchata Cinnamon Rum Cream (the cheaper, but no less flavorful, version of Rumchata!)

DIRECTIONS:

Place water in tea kettle to boil. Meanwhile, use a kitchen scale to weigh out 1.3 oz. Chila ‘Orchata into a larger (12 oz.) coffee mug. Pour the hot chocolate mix over the liqueur. When the water has boiled, pour over other ingredients and mix to combine.

CALORIES: 200

A homey kind of beauty

24 Mar

Houses

I recently returned to adult life, moving to an apartment in the historic Bloomfield neighborhood last December after occupying my parents’ third floor for a good year and a half. I miss the pup, and talking to my mom everyday, and pestering my dad about the giraffe-sized stack of books he’s reading. But I’m only a 10 minute drive away, and I like having my own space.

I’ve never considered myself gifted, or even interested, in decorating. My mother passed this gene exclusively to my sister, while she exclusively passed on the cleaning and organizing genes to me. Yet I find myself enjoying the gradual furnishing and adorning a new place requires. I like performing small upgrades, including a new silverware set and feather-stuffed sofa pillows. I like hanging up artwork from Ireland and New Orleans, and finding nooks and crannies for all the animal ornaments I’ve acquired. I like how much I can’t wait to go home at the end of the day. I like the flood of relief experienced as I turn the key to push my door open into an escape of comfort and calm.

I worry decorating is just a self-indulgent practice, an aesthetically pleasing weekend hobby that only I benefit from. On the other, more sweeping hand, I muse there are internal and external ways in which a well-kept home is a noble aspiration. When we are happy at home, we are more likely to be happy elsewhere. We are also more likely to welcome others into our homes, and to share with them what we find beautiful. The goal is never to impress visitors, but to make them feel comfortable. There is a sterile beauty, too perfect to radiate warmth, and there is a cheerful beauty that draws you in with its self-forgetting contentedness.

My bedroom windows came with flower boxes. I can’t tell what blossomed last summer, now that the contents are frozen over and flattened by winter winds. I’m waiting, seemingly indefinitely, for the arrival of Pittsburgh’s fleeting spring to uproot and replant. At first I wasn’t considering this option. I thought it would be only for me, growing up pretty new shoots, and I already had enough cozy to keep me happy. But then I remembered what I loved most about Paris: everywhere you looked the windows displayed tidily kept flower boxes. It’s not the Eiffel tower or the Louvre or even the Seine River that hold the city together. The flowers are the glue. I’m thinking snap dragons, or zinnias, or perhaps primroses. Whatever I choose, I’m looking forward to catching a glimpse of colorful petals moving in the breeze as I walk up to the main entrance. Maybe someone else will catch a glimpse, too.

I’m trying to mix up my work snacks routine. After a very traditional St. Patrick’s Day meal, I’m hooked on cabbage soup. I can’t say it’s beautiful (judge for yourself), but it’s comforting in a way that makes it feel like I transported a slice of home in my lunch box.

CABBAGE SOUP

INGREDIENTS:

1 head cabbage, sliced thinly

1 onion, sliced thinly

10 cups water

10 bouillon cubes (chicken or beef; I opted for beef)

3 cloves garlic

1/4 tsp. salt

Pepper to taste

DIRECTIONS:

Place all ingredients in slow cooker. Cook on high for four hours.

CALORIES (per cup): 30

Cabbage Soup_pic 1

 

 

The perils of a modern mindset

27 Feb

55C799FB-2F6A-4870-9FAF-3BD4122B02A7

What did people do just one hundred years ago when faced with a seemingly insurmountable fear or woe? Where would you or I have turned to, in an age prior to smart phones, wireless, and sophisticated google search methods?

I have a theory: our ancestors got comfortable with not having all the answers. They had far more to fear: pregnant women were up against a 10% infant death rate, while anyone could be swept away by tuberculosis, pneumonia, or influenza. They had far fewer comforts, too: running water and cars were uncommon luxuries, and canned beer didn’t exist. Maybe they spent unseemly amounts of time feeling sorry for themselves, and maybe they dreamed of troubles being lifted, or at least of being able to buy shampoo. I don’t know. All I know is that they didn’t have the option of mining the internet in hopes of “fixing” inner angst, or to get the best advice for mending a fractured relationship, or to  get the definitive answers to frightful theology questions. They couldn’t call the person who could assuage their anxiety, or flood text messages to friends near and far, or pick a text fight with their boyfriend because maybe something is slightly off and needs probing. Instead, they likely let the terror of not making rent or growing old some day pass through their minds, then went and milked the cow or strung clothes out to dry.

They experienced scarcity of information; we experience an overabundance in which we ofttimes drown. They didn’t know because they didn’t have means to know; today, such naivete is not allowed. There’s no good reason to muse with someone else about, say, where coffee came from when there are countless books, articles, and websites waiting with readily available answers. I’m guessing they, the generation of one hundred years ago, learned much more from simply keeping company with life’s drearier prospects than we do with our anxious quest and fidgety need for solutions.

Yeah, our lives are cake walks in comparison, and I sure don’t want to return to a time when no part of a Friday night bubble bath – streaming Netflix on my iPad, sipping white wine, the bubbles –  would be possible. I do want to be willing, as my working theory argues our ancestors were, to accept the unknown. I want to face an obscured future, the good and the bad, even the most bad, without trying to control outcomes. I want to get comfortable with the uncomfortable realities of our frail existences. Maybe it really is OK to not be OK. Maybe that’s part of God’s provision for us in a fallen word. Just maybe.

Today’s recipe, roasted chicken, would be considered extravagant fare one hundred years ago. Paired with cooked vegetables and a hearty loaf of bread, our ancestors would think this chicken is only proper for Christmas dinner. Yet for us, it’s such a simple meal, with easily attainable ingredients and minimal prep. That’s a paradox I can appreciate.

ROASTED CHICKEN (adapted from Country Side Cravings’ recipe)

INGREDIENTS:

1 whole chicken, giblets and majority of skin removed

1/2 Tbs. iodized salt

1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper

1.5 Tbs. McCormick Grill Mates Montreal Chicken seasoning

1/4 tsp. black pepper

1 Tbs. minced garlic

1 Tbs. olive oil

DIRECTIONS:

Preheat oven to 400 F. Combine all spices and garlic. Rub chicken with olive oil, then rub with spice mixture. Place seasoned chicken in a baking dish (any 13×9 pan will do) sprayed with PAM. Bake chicken for 80-90 minutes, or until cooked through.

CALORIES (per 3 oz. serving without skin): ~110

 

B77B5E16-2888-4579-B409-A31936507D4C

When your emotions are running wild and you can’t just be still and know

14 Jan

cinque terre_breaking wave

I’ve read enough Ann Voskamp posts lately for her writing style to seep into my thought processes. If you, too, are a Voskamp lady aficionada, may I lead with noting that imitation is the highest form of flattery…

You know those late nights when you’re all foggy brained and aching for sleep, but your mind is still operating on its last dregs of caffeine? It’s dragging you through your own dirt, that unpleasant catalog of your every mistake, missed opportunity, and insecurity. It’s replaying conversations that happened a year ago, or just today. Did I say the right thing? Too many things? Or did I avoid the important things? It’s pricking you with regret over how you frittered last weekend away, continue to repeat the same sin, or failed at a friendship. It’s trying to solve what can’t be solved: I’m not good enough. How can I make myself good enough? Or how can I justify myself, and decide I’m good enough?

Nothing is well with your soul when anxiety hijacks your brain, sending it fluttering into obsessive self-guilt. Anxiety is nothing less than the devil telling you a half-truth, that you’re not good enough. The devil wants to leave you there, to either throw up your hands in apathy that leads to self-destruction, or to rationalize that through working harder, denying self more, or living more radically you will be good enough.

quote_god plan for lifeThe devil delights in this half-truth because he knows how easily we forget to push past it to the only truth that can combat our deepest self-hatred and grief over spotted pasts and grievous sins: Jesus is more than good enough. He is the only good, the only means by which we become “good enough.” So go on, look inside yourself. Sit with all that making a muck of it and missing the mark and straight-up turning your back on God. Just don’t stop there. Don’t let the anxiety spiral into a god that cannot be pleased. Move past it, to look outside yourself, to the one who heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds (Psalm 147:3). Who says those wounds don’t include self-inflicted ones? Who says they don’t include the kind of backsliding that makes your mind recite a blasphemous mantra: you are hopeless, you are hopeless, until you decide it must be true?

Anxiety is not the be all end all. The debilitating self-questioning does not have the final say, because while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). When you’ve finished surveying your inner rot, survey the cross. Be dazzled by what the prince of glory did for you that you could not do for yourself. Be so drenched in God’s abundant grace that your guilt and inner angst are drowned out. Take hold of the promise that is ever-present and ever-true: neither death nor life, neither angels nor rulers, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39).

Being still and knowing that God, not I, is in control presents an ongoing challenge. I wrestle with leaving unresolved matters in God’s hands, with leaving my messiness in the potter’s hands. In my struggle, I’ve found that habits, good or bad, influence my ability to trust God and be known by Him. It’s a stretch to say that my lunch-eating habits shape my Christian walk, but I’m going for it. The following is a very simple recipe for a Mediterranean-inspired salad, which I do eat four days a week!

QUASI-MEDITERRANEAN SALAD

INGREDIENTS (makes 2 servings):

1 bag baby carrots

2 heads Romaine lettuce

4 cups mixed greens

1/2 red onion, diced

2 Roma tomatoes

1 English cucumber, halved and sliced

1/4 cup Feta cheese

6 oz. grilled chicken breast strips (I buy these ones at ALDI)

2 Tbs. Tzatziki sauce (Costco variety is ideal!)

2 Tbs. light balsamic vinaigrette dressing (like this one from ALDI)

DIRECTIONS:

  1. Boil baby carrots until tender. Drain and let cool. Distribute into four small plastic containers.
  2. Meanwhile, combine both lettuce varieties, red onion, tomatoes, cucumber, and Feta cheese. Distribute salad mixture into two large plastic containers.
  3. Using kitchen scale, weigh out 3 oz. of chicken strips into two small plastic containers.
  4. Place 1 Tbs. tsatziki sauce and 1 Tbs. balsamic vinaigrette into a small plastic container. Repeat with second container.
  5. Pack 2 lunches with salad, chicken, dressing, and carrots. When ready to eat, first warm the carrots in microwave, then combine all ingredients and enjoy!

CALORIES: 250 (per serving)

Salad Pic 2.jpg

 

 

 

 

The short and long of it: on blogging, book writing, and persevering

10 Mar

Graham Greene

Novelist Graham Greene

Hello there. I’ve been off writing a kids chapter book. I’m back, at least for today. Book writing is a different speed. Whereas a blogger must deliver with every word, a novelist is at liberty to meander and subject the reader to mundane details. A good blog post is like a slice of chocolate mousse pie: rich and satisfying up until the final bite. A book? I’m still figuring that out, but so far I’d say it’s like watching someone drive to the grocery store and back, make purchases, prepare a meal, and host a dinner party. There are moving parts and parts to slough through. I’m learning to make space for the everyday and to resist forced majesty. A book requires more patience and less perfectionism; more consistency and less brilliancy. I must give the story breathing room, letting it develop slowly over time.

In an article titled “How Writers Write,” William Landay quotes Graham Green: “So much of a novelist’s writing…takes place in the unconscious; in those depths the last word is written before the first word appears on paper. We remember the details of our story, we do not invent them.”  Indeed, my book’s characters are but an amalgamation of personalities I’ve known or encountered in my actual life. Everyday, I try to build a different scene based on someone familiar: the mom who cleans obsessively, or the dad who can’t tolerate cereal being slurped at the breakfast table, or the kid whose guilty pleasure is reading with a flashlight under the covers well past bedtime.

My story line, however, is unfamiliar: it’s about an experience that, as a kid, I would have wanted to read about. Here, I am attempting to engage in a form of escapism that children seem to effortlessly partake in with their imaginations. I want kids to experience reading my book as I did Julie Andrew’s “Mandy,” in which the heroine escapes from an orphanage to an abandoned cottage that she then spruces up. I relished each description of Mandy’s cottage renovations, from planting flowers to securing and arranging cutlery, and envisioned how I would fix up a cottage given the opportunity.

It’s the intertwining of the humdrum into something extraordinary that I’m after. It seems like a wholly new thing to be chasing, but when I think about it, I’m always after the remarkable within the ordinary. I want each day to be significant and become unhappy when it turns out boring or same-old. Yet, in the grand scheme of things, strings of routine days turn into pretty significant accomplishments. For me, hours of practicing Kreutzer’s etudes and Barbara Barber’s advanced scales led to a spot as a second violinist in Pennsylvania’s All State Orchestra. I am reminded, too, when I look back on my very first blog post, how my writing has developed just by making a habit of it. Think: isn’t the same true for you in something you’ve slugged through for weeks, months, years, perhaps even decades?

In the same vein, guess which food I’m going to point you to today? Yep, that’s right: oatmeal, my constant work-in-progress.

OVERNIGHT OATS 

 

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INGREDIENTS (makes 1 serving):

1/3 cup quick oats

1/3 cup 1% milk (or other low-fat milk of your choice)

1/4 cup plain, non-fat Greek yogurt

Drizzle honey (~1/2 Tbs.)

Berries: any combination of blueberries, blackberries, sliced strawberries, raspberries

Salt, to taste

DIRECTIONS:

Layer oats, milk, yogurt, and honey in a tight-seal plastic container. Top with berries. Place lid on container and store in fridge overnight. Remove from fridge the following morning, fully mix ingredients together, and salt to taste prior to eating.

CALORIES: ~200

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Why I Aspire to be more like Anne of Green Gables

24 Sep

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The recent Netflix series “Anne with an E” whimsically transports the viewer into a type of dream world. No, not one without heartache or mistreatment or hard times, but one where Anne’s sheer enthusiasm and sense of wonder irresistibly soften each blow.  To Anne, Avonlea is “the most beautiful place on earth.” She reads far too many books, resulting in expressions such as “it is a scrumptious pleasure to make your acquaintance” and “isn’t Saskatchewan just the most delicious name to say?” Matthew Cuthbert, who co-adopts Anne with his sister Marilla, says she “loves trees and flowers and such,” and “she’s got a lot of romantic notions about life.”

Not only is Anne’s character irresistible, but life on Prince Edward Island, too, holds a certain charm. There is only one school house, one church, one main street to shop on. Obviously, the late 19th century was a simpler time than that in which we live today. Indeed, it is refreshingly so. Anne finds great joy in crowding her hat with wildflowers hoping to make a good impression on her first day of school. She feels like the luckiest girl in the world when Matthew buys her a dress with puffed sleeves. In contrast, modern me views the outdoors functionally as a gym option and only wants to fill my online cart with more items once I strike upon a cute dress.

We 21st century Americans seem to have an options problem. We are overstimulated by social media, consumerism, and curating our self-presentation to the point of exhaustion. We are made paralyzingly insecure by our inability to keep up, to keep busy, to keep going. Worse still, we are so wrapped up in what everyone else is doing that we’ve stopped talking to each other. I traveled Labor Day weekend, and on the shuttle from the Pittsburgh airport to parking, I noticed the couple in front of me didn’t exchange a single word. She was on Instagram, he was on Facebook, just scrolling. I, too, was guilty of checking my phone too frequently over that same weekend while in the company of dear friends I rarely get to see.

I don’t actually want to time-travel to the late 19th century. I like hot showers on-demand, not dying of bacterial infections, and box brownies far too much. I do, however, enjoy  44 minute bursts of escape into Anne’s Avonlea. I want to want a kindred spirit the way Anne does more than I want to stare at my phone. I want to generously win over difficult people as Anne does her best friend Diana’s mother. I want but one sliver of Anne’s spunk and grit, because I think it takes bravery to really engage with others, to be a true blue friend.

Whether you find the following recipe irresistibly simple or refreshingly good, I hope it makes you think of Anne…

EGG WHITE VEGETABLE SCRAMBLE

INGREDIENTS (makes 3 servings):

 1.5 cup egg whites

1 bag spinach

1 container button mushrooms, sliced

5-6 red vine tomatoes, diced

1/4 cup feta cheese, crumbled

Salt and pepper

DIRECTIONS:

Wilt the fresh spinach in sauce pan over medium heat. Remove spinach and any residual moisture. Spray pan with PAM, and add mushrooms and tomatoes. Once cooked, remove from pan and add egg whites. Once egg whites are almost cooked, season with salt and pepper and add feta. To assemble for lunch meal prep, distribute egg whites and vegetables evenly across three containers. Serve with a piece of toast.

CALORIES (without toast): 150 (per serving)

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Paris for Non-lovers

17 Jun

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Believe it or not, Paris is worth visiting when you’re not romantically involved. You just have to tell the vendor persistently marketing the raspberry red, heart shaped lock that you and your travel buddy are in a ‘no love’ type relationship prior to ascending onto a platonic Seine River boat cruise. It’s effective, eventually.  Kidding aside, a recent four-day stint to the city of lights with my dear friend Kaitlyn was chock full of stunning sights and scrumptious food. Since I don’t have a funny story to rival last summer’s blonde and helpless episode in Dublin, I’d like to instead describe how we successfully navigated the lush Parisian landscape without a single heart flutter:

Day 1: Montmartre – Moulin Rouge =  Friend Zone

After alighting from Icelandair F1540 at 6:20 am with at best four hours of sleep and grumbling stomachs due to the lack of flight service, we somehow managed to first bump into old friends while shuttling to the train station. Well, friends in the sense that your big sister’s co-worker’s brother is your friend. Peter, who I recognized as the brother of a kid I played violin with at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Miss., and his wife, Anne, were visiting Paris for a wedding. And yes, they had done the Icelandair #Stopover, which is apparently a-mah-zing.

IMG_2227Map in hand, Kaitlyn shrewdly steered us to our lodgings in Oberkamp for luggage drop-off, and subsequently towards the Montmartre area, wherein towards the beginning of the 20th century Picasso and other greats made art history while surviving at the Bateau-Lavoir. Is the juxtaposition of eating crêpes nearby a whimsical carousel after the stunning view atop Sacré-Cœur even remotely likely to speed one’s heart palpitations? Psssh, only if you’re a sucker.

Day 2: The Palais Garnier for free is more sleazy than steamy

The morning was marked with accidental failures, specifically redefining its hours IMG_2281by waking up at 12:40 pm and unwittingly not paying the Palais Garnier 10 euro (I think? At least?) access fee by entering via the gift shop. Our honest mistake was admittedly enjoyable; the opera house is real fancy! Next, a stroll through Tuileries Garden transitioned to a spontaneous walk through the Rodin, due to persistent rain. I wasn’t aware appreciating the works of Michelangelo’s modern equivalent would be considered romantic, but according to Marie Claire it’s the 6th most so activity in Paris. The rain having subsided somewhat, we next traipsed along Champs-Élysées, managing to defy its high-end atmosphere by eating chocolate croissants at Brioche Dior. Curiosity did, however, lure us into the flagship Louis Vuitton store, which currently features a winking Mona Lisa and always serves bubbly to paying customers.

And now, I must break with my theme and admit whole-heartedly that the Eiffel Tower is definitely for lovers. You can’t reach the very tip-top without some transferrance of the dreamy backdrop to your state of mind. But it’s also an adventure, especially close to midnight on a chilly and blustery night when you’ve opted to climb the stairs to the first summit.

Day 3: The Louvre’s Nintendo audio tour just makes you feel like a third grader

We woke up at a more acceptable hour, 8 am, with the intention of beating the line IMG_2446to climb Notre Dame Towers. I sidetracked these efforts, by having us stop at Traiteur Saveurs de Pains Viennoiserie for espresso and pattiseries. I can’t say I will crave a second tarte fruit rouge, but the presentation was excellent. We did not beat the lines, arriving at 10 am and waiting a good hour to ascend the Notre Dame Tower’s 327 stairs. No big deal – I used that time to complete a crossword and secure additional hot beverages for myself and Kaitlyn.  The winding ascent is dizzying, yet worth the great view from the top. Of more interest to me concerning the Gothic cathedral is Victor Hugo’s role in preserving it. The Hunchback of Notre Dame,  published in 1831, arguably served as a plea to not demolish or repurpose the church, which was at the time in a sorry state of disrepair.  “Gothic art was then regarded as ugly and offensive,” state Nadeau and Barlow in The Story of French, “so Hugo’s choice of the location was deliberate: it linked the grotesque characters with the ugly art…which he, as a Romantic, found beautiful.”

Being good tourists, we wasted no time getting to the Louvre. As we learned from IMG_2454our tour guide on Day 1’s Seine river cruise, it would take three continuous and sleepless months to view every piece of art housed in the Louvre, given a three second viewing time. We targeted the Renaissance paintings section, using the Nintendo audio tour to learn about select works. The Louvre is noisy, thanks to its overcrowding of people and art. I imagine it’s better enjoyed by the locals in the dead of winter, when less tourists are around.

Day 4: Forget bringing sexy back; Latin Quarter food finds are worth the vacation pudge

Kaitlyn informed me pre-trip that “eating is her hobby.” We had been killing it on the food front days 1-3, but managed to take our gourmand quest to a higher level on IMG_2499day 4. It being Whit Monday, our planned destination, Palace of Versailles, was closed. Instead, we wandered the Latin Quarter and discovered an outdoor food mart, where we sampled macaroons and specialty wines, and a hotbed of fondue restaurants. One of them, Le Marathon, had a hot non-fondue deal, too: a three-course meal for only 10 euros! I enjoyed French onion soup, chicken and french fries, and opted for espresso in place of the third course. We really struck gold in the ladies room, wherein coupons for various attractions were being displayed next to the sink. (I should mention, too, that our waiter wooed Kaitlyn as she exited the restroom, giving her a kiss on the cheek and remarking on her beauty!) I grabbed a coupon for the Musée du Chocolat, and shortly after we found ourselves learning about chocolate’s origins as an unsweetened drink consumed by the ancient Aztecs and Mayans. Test tasting, a chocolate sculpture of the Eiffel Tower, and a chocolate-making demonstration were included in the museum as well.

Any attempts at imitating French cuisine will pale in comparison to the real deal. Instead, I recommend a simple yet delicious picnic menu, which we heartily enjoyed on our train from Paris to Barcelona:

PARISIAN PICNIC

INGREDIENTS:

– 1 loaf of French bread from any patisserie (it will cost you less than 1 euro)

– 1 wedge of Brie cheese

– Red globe grapes

– A bottle of Etxe Peio‘s wine (purchased from the aforementioned Latin Quarter food mart)

DIRECTIONS:

Prepare small cheese sandwich bites by folding Brie cheese into pieces of bread. Pair with grapes. Re-use espresso cup as wine cup.

CALORIES: who cares, you’re on vacation

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Why should we keep writing?

4 May

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I’ve set a personal goal to complete Clifton Fadiman’s Lifetime Reading List. My pace is more the slow crawl of a starfish after pigging out on mollusks than the steady trudge of a horse. Even if I read all 176 books, which span across most genres, history, and the world, I’ve only scratched great literature’ surface. There’s still John Steinbeck and Rudyard Kipling, Willa Cather and Sigred Undset, Carson McCullers and W.E.B. Du Bois. Not to mention Trollope’s forty-three other novels, or almost any meaty, historical biography. Talk about FOMO! Sometimes, too, I’d like to dig into a compactly compelling Graham Greene novel or indulge in some Harold McGee-type food nerd reads.

An overwhelming volume of outstanding books, essays, poems, and articles exist already. An unconquerable amount. Yet we continue writing, churning out news pieces and novels and biographies and blog posts. Why do we feel compelled to keep scribbling? Are we actually producing new thoughts and ideas, or just transposing an old song into a new key? History does repeat itself, and nothing we do or write will ever be entirely original. Yet, I believe we feel almost burdened with telling our own stories. We want to represent our own sentence within the broader pen strokes of mankind’s tale. We want to link our time to past and future ones. National Review writer Jonah Goldberg touched upon this idea in a recent newsletter: “Man is a story-telling animal, and stories are what give us meaning, direction, and passion.”

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In a world that is becoming evermore cluttered with words, it’s easy to feel like our own don’t matter much, like we’re just re-mowing the grass in a well-manicured lawn. But I think this mindset undervalues the everyday impact we have on each other. Hearing from someone we love, or admire, is quite different from reading something similar in a George Eliot novel or a Shakespeare sonnet. This applies both to all my fellow bloggers in what we write, and also to everyone who interacts with fellow humans. If what you write matters to one other person, it matters. The same applies to what you do. So while I deeply value and revere the great classics, I also deeply value writers of our time, some better known than others. Ann Voskamp is a constant, beautifully-expressed source of encouragment; Tim Challies keeps me grounded; Jill Carattini outputs informative yet soul-stirring blogs; and Jim Geraghty is my main news source.

We can’t know where we are going without a sense of where we came from. We desperately need, then, to read books that have stood the test of time. We also can’t get to where we are going without probing through and making sense of where we are now, which is why we need to supplement our reading with bloggers and writers of our own time. Risky behavior for a purist, I know. While I plan to prioritize my current Fadiman-list read, Herodotus’ The Histories, I’m also planning to steer away from the ancient Greeks here and there to tap into the here and now. So read on, reader; write on, writer. Every word counts.

If Pinterest counts as a culturally relevant source of the here and now, yours truly has got her finger on the pulse. My most recent recipe find, in the pursuit of any and all slow cooker novelties, is a Vietnamese Bahn Mi Rice bowl, except I made it into a salad. Perfect for low-cal lunchtime feasting!

BANH MI SALAD BOWL

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INGREDIENTS (makes 3 servings):

CHICKEN:

11 oz. boneless, skinless chicken breast

3 Tbs. soy sauce

1/2 Tbs. brown sugar

Pinch of salt

1/ tsp. pepper

1 Tbs. minced garlic

1 jalapeño, sliced

PICKLED VEGETABLES:

1 cup shredded carrots

8-10 radishes, sliced

2 Tbs. white granulated sugar

1/4 tsp. salt

6 Tbs. white vinegar

SALAD:

1/2 head of red cabbage, chopped

1/4 cup cilantro leaves, chopped

DIRECTIONS:

Chicken: Season chicken with salt and pepper. Place in slow cooker. Combine garlic, soy sauce, brown sugar, and jalapeño. Pour over chicken. Cover and cook on low setting 5-6 hours or until chicken appears cooked through. Once cooked, shred chicken and reserve sauce.

Pickled Vegetables: Meanwhile, combine sugar, salt, and vinegar. Add in shredded carrots and radish slices. Let sit at least 30 min, then drain or else let remain in juices (I chose the latter option). Keep refrigerated.

Assembly: Before eating (or when packing your lunch), layer 1/3 purple cabbage, 1/3 pickled vegetables, and 1/3 cilantro in bowl or plastic container. Heat and top salad with chicken.

CALORIES (per serving): 200

(Adapated from: skinnytaste)

Salad is better enjoyed with addition of a sesame vinaigrette, such as Kraft’s lite Asian toasted sesame dressing (add 45 calories/2 Tbs.)