Monday, March 25, 2013

Brunch and Meditation

After last week's post on meditation (and giant pillows), I had a sudden flashback to something I had written years ago. It was buried within a larger piece called "30 Thoughts" in which I challenged myself to write for 30 days on topics for which I felt passionately--be it love or loathing, greatest hopes and fears. This list included everything from fruit trees to bed bugs, from my fear of the sun one day exploding to my unquenchable interest in cooking shows. One of the topics I wrote about was brunch, and how much I love the act of having brunch with friends. But as time has gone on, I realize that what I really liked about the piece was the conversation I documented that day, and how interesting it is to go back in time and see my thoughts on meditation, especially now that I have actually been trying meditation for myself (day13!). Don't you love to go back in time and see how your fears have evolved? While I am still leery of the snake metaphor (read will make sense), I do feel much more open to seeking out a calm place inside of myself, one that is free from self-doubt and anxiety, as Nicole so eloquently put it. And so, my thanks go out to Nicole for that conversation...and Elizabeth Gilbert for sparking our snarky commentary, and Oprah and Deepak for providing a script, and Melanie for introducing me to the 21-day challenge in the first place. Each time I close my eyes, I am sure that I am living my life a little bit better. And I am clearly sailing forward in good company, with those who also want to see all that is beautiful in the world.

Brunch - November 2009
Going out to brunch when you didn’t go out the night before is a beautiful beautiful thing. First of all, you slept well. You may have even slept for eleven hours. And oh, does that ever feel good. It's always nice if one person in your brunch group went out the night before, as she may have interesting stories to tell over brunch, and then you can enjoy not only feeling healthy and well-rested, but also up to date on all of the good gossip. But my favorite combination is brunch with just one other person who also slept for eleven hours and who also feels GREAT. It makes the coffee tastes better, and the Bloody Mary a bit spicier, and that’s all before you even start talking. And that really is the best thing about brunch: what you talk about. Brunch is the perfect time to dream, to ruminate, to cover the big stuff and feel like you actually got a satisfying answer. 

Rather than try to describe a typical brunch conversation, I will instead list the topics that Nicole and I covered today:
1)    Her Halloween party, and where all the booze could have possibly gone.
2)    Robb’s adorable trait of hording candy and any other goods for which he has great love and feels protective.
3)    Dreams: what we dreamed about recently and what we thematically dream about over and over. Nicole frequently dreams that she is getting angry at loved ones as they stay remarkably calm. She also has dreamed more than once that she was driving a car from the backseat. I dream quite often about parties where everyone I have ever known is in attendance. I dream most frequently about public transportation (subways, buses, airports) and all the ways in which transportation goes wrong. It is important to note that I rarely arrive at the place I am intending to go.
4)    Friendships that you accidentally ended and how you can possibly reopen the door to that friendship. Who is at fault? And is it worth it to be friends with these people again?
5)    At this point, Nicole stopped talking mid-sentence and saw that her ex-boyfriend was sitting at the end of the counter. He looked flummoxed, as he always looks. Nicole was very sweet and said hello, and he mumbled some words that I didn’t hear.
6)    We talked about Eat, Pray, Love, a book that she seemed to loathe and that I had been finding quite delightful. Though I always have a certain hesitation for books that are gigantically enormous New York Times bestsellers. If I were to write a book, I might be skeptical of my sincerity were it to hit the top-ten. I’d feel much more authentic in the top-200 zone. Nicole says that her primary issue with the book is that the author seems manipulative—that she seems to have spun the story to back up her bad behavior and that rather than embracing herself as an imperfect human, she turns herself somehow into a victim and is too self-congratulatory about her “crazy” life choices she is making. I say that I didn’t like it when she said she wasn’t worried about making friends in Italy because she makes friends everywhere she goes. And we both agree that as a reader you find yourself thinking “well it must be nice to be you.” I point out that I am sincerely enjoying the liveliness of her writing. Though, Nicole countered, she seems like she’s exaggerating. To which I mused, I think it would be hard to write a candid, soul-searching unbiased memoir when you have already been paid the advance. The pressure to “entertain” must be awfully compromising.
7)    I told Nicole that I am almost as scared to go to outer space as I am to enter the depths of my mind through meditation. And that I don’t see how it sounds appealing to have a snake coiled at the base of my spine which crawls through my vertebrae and explodes through the top of my head as God enters my body in the form of a beautiful blue light. I think that this sounds very scary indeed. Nicole explains to me that this is supposed to be the epitome of calmness. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a moment in your life that is not filled with self-doubt and anxiety? A moment where you are just able to see all of your inner beauty and all that is beautiful in this world? Sure, I say, but it still sounds scary. And I don’t see why it has to be a snake.
8)    I mean to ask Nicole at this point how many people I can bring to watch me try on wedding dresses the next weekend. But just at that moment, her ex's friend (and a girl Nicole was good friends with while she was dating the guy) approaches us and asks if we’d like to get a Bloody Mary after we finish brunch. Nicole agrees, then realizes her ex will be going, too. I offer my services as wingman, which she declines. And so I leave them to sort that mess out and walk home. I call Morgan on the way to double-check that I did indeed ask her to be a bridesmaid. She says yes, and we chat for a minute. It is Saturday in November, it’s bright and cold. I try to walk on the sunny side of the street, but at 2 pm, there’s not really direct sun on either side. I hang up when my hand gets too cold. I come into the house, make a pot of coffee, and write this.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Giant Pillows

I am trying very hard to bring more balance into my life these days. Being a Libra and all, I'm already reasonably balanced when it comes to some things. I'm pretty good at not thinking about work when I'm not at work. And I'm okay at not thinking about my personal life when I am at my desk. Throughout the course of a week, I flutter between nights home in my pajamas, nights out with friends and too much wine, and nights spent working my ass off at Bikram yoga. But still, there are always ways we can work out the kinks, straighten our postures, and better integrate our yin and our yang. I worry too much about the future, for instance. I can literally feel myself drop out of "the moment" sometimes, obsessing over the past. Sometimes I audibly sigh in yoga when I'm supposed to be quietly breathing through my nose. Also, I'm not great at letting things roll off of me--once I'm upset, I tend to be upset for awhile.

In my aspirational quest to bring more balance into my life, I have embarked on two things this week, one a little more embarrassing than the other. The first is that I have started doing daily meditations with Oprah and Deepak. I know...go ahead, read that sentence over again. It's so new-agey/pop-pscyh, it kind of hurts. And is awesome. I love Deepak's pretty mumbling voice, the way his accent softens the vowels as he leads us into meditation, making a lengthy Sankrit word sound like it is one long uber-syllable. It is a 21-day challenge, and the purpose is to bring more unity between the mind and the body, helping our brains learn to listen to what our bodies are telling us and (eventually? I think?) heal ourselves with our minds. I don't know, I'm only on day 9. But I LOVE it. I've actually always wanted to try meditation, drawn to the idea of sitting quietly with nothing but your thoughts for 15 minutes a day. Whether you're trying to heal your body or bring balance to your life or find happiness or whatever, it doesn't really matter--what does matter is how fascinating those 15 minutes are each day. Sometimes I think of pickles. Sometimes my brain wanders to an obscure moment in the past. Sometimes I visualize a project I am ready to undertake. Sometimes I fall asleep (oops!). And sometimes I think of nothing at all. Ah, blissful nothingness. No matter what, I always open my eyes at the end and feel, well, peaceful. Capable. A little more patient. A little more willing to try again, even though I don't want to. And besides, if David Lynch has decided that meditation must be part of his daily practice, then there must be something to it, right?

The other thing I've done to bring balance into my life--and which, consequently, ties very well into a daily sitting-upright meditation practice--is to make these two giant pillows.

I didn't mean to make such giant pillows. I ordered them online at Target, and they arrived in this ginormous box a few days later. We needed new throw pillows for our couches, but holy cow, these are some THROW PILLOWS. They come in at 26 inches, and they are truly a delight.

When it came to making pillowcases for these monsters, like most things in life, I made this project much harder than it needed to be. I first pieced together a pillow front and back to match the exact dimensions of the pillow. But when I slipped the completed pillowcases over the inserts, they were sad and droopy...way too big. It was through this process of trial and error that I discovered I prefer my pillows to be nice and snug, extra plush, with just a little bit of bounce to it. If you want to make some great, over-stuffed pillows of your own, I've included instructions below. Minimal sewing skills required! Relaxing satisfaction guaranteed! Just ask Camper, who likes to play "mountain goat" over the mammoth pillows in order to get to his favorite spot at the window, where he practices his own form of meditation while watching pedestrians go by.

To Make These Giant Pillows:
You'll need pillow inserts, fabric, scissors, measuring tape, thread, iron, pins, and a sewing machine.

Begin by measuring your pillow. Write those numbers down somewhere. Subtract two inches from your measurements to find out the size of the piece of fabric you should cut for your pillow front. (So, for instance, if your pillow is 26" x 26", you'll want your pillow front fabric to by 24" x 24".) 

For the back of the pillow, you'll want to cut two pieces of fabric so that you can make an overlapped opening--that way you can remove your pillow insert and wash the pillowcase, which is especially useful if your husband decides that the pillows are his favorite for napping and also likes to sit on them while eating ice cream. Your two pieces of fabric for the back should be the same height as the pillow front (24"), but widthwise they'll need to overlap by 4". To get this measurement, divide the pillow front width by half (12") and then add 4" to the width. So you'll have two pieces for the back that are 24" tall x 16" wide. 

Once you've cut out your fabric, you'll want to finish the opening of the pillow back. On one of your pillow back pieces, fold over one of the 16" edges about 1/4" to the wrong side and iron; then fold again 1/2" and iron. Pin the fold in place and sew. Repeat on the other pillow back piece.

Next, lay the pillow top fabric on the floor with the RIGHT SIDE of the fabric facing down. Lay the pillow back pieces on the pillow top piece with the RIGHT SIDE facing up. You want to align the edges of the front and back, and the two back pieces should overlap each other in the middle. Pin all around the edges, then sew around all four edges with a 3/8" seam allowance. Trim away excess fabric around all of the edges so your seam allowance is about 1/4", and then iron all of the seams open. 

Turn the pillowcase inside out and iron the edges again, making sure the seams lay nice and flat. Then sew all around the perimeter of the pillowcase again with a 1/2" seam allowance. (This is called a French Seam! You're neatly enclosing your seam allowances so there are no raw edges on the inside.)

Turn the pillowcase right side out and stuff with the pillow insert.

Place pillow on couch and meditate (optional).

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Adventure Backpack

A couple months ago when I dyed my backback turquoise, I had a vision. It was me in cut-off jeans, hiking through an overgrown trail in the jungle. I imagined there would be boulders to sidestep and large, bushy jungle plants I'd have to push back with my forearms. I imagined that it would be hot and sticky, and that at the end of the trail would be something fabulous--a swimming hole with a gushing waterfall perhaps? A tall stand of trees in the midst of a rain forest? Or, perhaps a Mayan temple. Yes, a Mayan temple would work nicely.

It's funny how wrong it feels to wear a turquoise backpack with a black wool peacoat in the winter in New York City, compared to how right it feels to wear a turquoise backpack with cut-off shorts, a tank top, converse sneakers, a cowboy hat, and yes, even a bandanna tied around your neck. So I suppose that deep down when I picked my dye color, I had my trip to Mexico in mind. I was creating an Adventure Backpack! One that would serve me well while mounting hundreds of crooked hand-built steps to reach the top of a Mayan ruin. One that I wouldn't mind getting messy or sweaty. And in a color that goes well with the smells of sunblock, sweat, and possibly Pringles. 

It's funny, though...after sifting through all of the pictures taken by friends on this trip, I wasn't able to find a single straight-on shot of my turquoise Adventure Backpack. But I think these ones I did find get the point across. Oh, to be on an adventure again...till the next time, backpack, till the next time.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Hybrids - the Mutts of the Tomato World

I planted tomato seeds today. This was, in fact, not at all what I planned to do. Not today, not this winter, not even this year. The biggest reason I was surprised to find myself planting the tomato seeds is because we were in Mexico yesterday. And I have to go to work tomorrow. And, well, with only one day to sulk in the weak New York sunshine before heading back to a day of good, bad, and ugly work emails, I figured that I would remain on my back in bed, that my biggest achievement would be going to the store to get milk so that I could make myself a single cup of coffee. And yet, while I stood at the back door in my pajamas, watching Camper sniff around the yard, I noticed that the snow crocuses were opened up and bathing in the sun in a small patch, right next to a pile of dog poop and an upside down Adirondack chair that we hadn't righted since the hurricane last October. And something in me, not quite as lavender and perky as the snow crocuses, but not as beat down as that Adirondack chair, wanted to make things right. To move forward, to do better. I don't think this had a thing to do with Mexico and a week of relaxing. I don't think it had a thing to do with the nonstop pico de gallo that we shoveled into our mouths on tortilla chips, or my ravenous urge to grow my own tomatoes to go in said pico. I think it had to do more with the fact that the first day of daylight savings saves my soul each year, and that I cannot imagine a year going by where I do not plant tomatoes. Win lose or fail, I love my damn vegetable garden. To not try try again, that just wouldn't be me.

I should probably back up a minute and explain my failures. For the last two years, our tomatoes have sucked. On the brink of ripened victory, the leaves have turned yellow, always starting at the bottom, and then a wave of brown works its way up, as though many sets of strong, weathered hands are strangling the neck of the main stem, leaving the branches and leaves lifeless and bone dry. It's depressing as all get out to watch. After some research two years ago, I came to the conclusion that we had some sort of fungus, most likely verticillium wilt, which can live in the soil for years and years. Last year I thought I would outsmart it and resorted to using wooden baskets from the grocery store to make a container garden, but the plants stayed leggy and weak, the stems never turning that ugly shade of dark green that signifies robust health in tomato pallor. They grew and they fizzled, nothing at all like the first year that we grew tomatoes in our yard. That year we hauled out one heirloom monster after another. I literally wrestled the bushes, emerging from between two plants smelling like I'd been having a steamy affair with a tomato leaf. My skin turned green as I roped up the trellises, and I loved every second of it. That, in itself, might be the problem. I know how good it can be when the tomato season is working.

After last year's fancy pants heirloom tomato crop failed, I decided I would just sit this year out. There's just not much you can do when the one section of your yard that gets proper sunlight is doomed with a killer fungus. But actually, there is something you can do. If you're the right mix of desperate and determined and you're willing to walk away from the heirlooms, you can always grow a hybrid tomato.

For the last several years I've avoided the hybrids in the seed catalog. They sound sinister and manufactured, and they often have meatier names (like Big Beef or Supersteak) instead of my loftier, fantastical heirloom names (like Black Krim or Big Rainbow). But as it turns out, these hybrids were produced for people just like me--people who can't grow a regular old heirloom tomato because of their growing conditions--or, I suppose, people who just want a safe bet. Hybrids are not, however, the product of a sterile laboratory. The main difference between heirlooms and hybrids is that heirlooms are strains that have been reproduced for generations without cross-breeding, while hybrids are a cross between two or more different varieties that are bred to take on the positive traits of the parent plants. Heirlooms are generally appreciated for a particular quality--striking color, a particularly sweet taste or meaty flesh--but much like a purebred dog, they are also a bit more fragile. If the conditions aren't quite right--not enough or too much water, a disease in the soil--they'll flop just like a shih tzu after eating a chocolate bar. The hybrids, however, are the mutts of the tomato world. They may not be as spectacularly cute and tasty, but they're tougher, more resistant to conditions, and if they happened to eat a chocolate bar, they might have a tummy ache, but it's not a big deal.

So today, I set out in search of seed packets with the word "hybrid" plastered across the front. I also looked for the codes on the packet that tell you which disease this seed is resistant to (check out this web site for more awesome info about how to identify plant diseases and all of that):
V Verticillium Wilt
F Fusarium Wilt
FF Fusarium, races 1 and 2
FFF Fusarium, races 1, 2, and 3
N Nematodes
A Alternaria
T Tobacco Mosaic Virus
St Stemphylium (Gray Leaf Spot)
TSWV Tomato Spotted Wilt Virus
In addition to going the hybrid route, I've decided I'm doing things a little different this year. Rather than filling up my individual plastic cups with dirt and planting seeds like I've done in the past, I grabbed a takeout container and poked holes in the bottom, filling it up with about an inch of dirt. I wetted the soil and dropped my seeds half an inch apart, and then I covered them all with a sprinkling of dry dirt and pressed them into place. A little straw marks each seed type, and plastic wrap keeps them cozy. They're currently on top of the furnace by my bed, but in about ten days when they germinate, I will place them under fluorescent light bulbs in the kitchen like a true gardening psychopath. This, supposedly, is where the magic happens. Where the plants become burly and thick and bushy and get that true ugly green that I'm looking for. There will be transplanting, and there will be more manufactured sunshine. And then, hopefully, many steps down the road, there will also be tomatoes. Uniform and sweet, red and unadorned, and God- (and fungus-) willing, plentiful.