Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Cost of Cohabitation

I caught the bouquet at my friend’s wedding in June 2008.  Call it maid-of-honor luck, but I didn’t really catch it; it literally fell into my hands in the most beautiful bouquet toss of all time.  The bride tossed it high and fair in the air, and it arced so perfectly towards me that I only moved one foot forward to catch it squarely in my hands.  I jumped up gleefully and held my prize in the air.  Everyone cheered and the photographer snapped my picture.

Grainy picture of the Bouquet Toss

But one person watching the bouquet toss wasn’t so happy:  the groom’s conservative grandmother.  As I heard on the wedding video a few months later, in the moments leading up to and immediately following my grand performance in the bouquet toss, Grandma was shouting in panic right next to the videographer, “No, she can’t catch it!  She’s married!  She’s married!”  Her panic made us all laugh uncontrollably because A.  Why was she taking the bouquet toss so seriously?  And B.  She was wrong.  I was not married.  But I was cohabiting with Ian at the time, and the groom’s family had told Grandma a little fib about our marital status to avoid upsetting her because she’s a traditional-values kinda gal.  I think the father-of-the groom confessed our living situation to her privately a few moments after the toss, letting her quietly stew in her renewed disappointment at “kids these days.”  

Chalk one up for the Bouquet Toss’ prognasticative powers because Ian and I were indeed the next couple to get married.  Of course, we had been practicing for awhile.  After our college graduation in 2007 we lived together for three years before tying the knot.  (Parenthetical confession: I should also include our senior year of college in the count because, as his roommates and mine - the bride - can attest, we were playing house then as well.)  

Many couples treat the Move-In question with careful consideration and planning.  I’ve cooed at the preview for the Valentine’s Day movie The Vow where Channing Tatum asks Rachel McAdams to move in with him by spelling it out in blueberries on her pancakes.  Adorable.  But there were no fruited move-in proposals for us.  In fact, I don’t even remember making the decision to move in together.  Without a peep of objection from either sets of parents, we signed a lease on a cute Hyde Park apartment in Chicago.  After a shop-til-you-drop Saturday spent marvelling at the prices of whisks and wastepaper baskets at Ikea, we U-Hauled ourselves into our first apartment and realized quickly that we loved living in sin.  We shopped for groceries together, split household chores, and learned the delicate diplomacy of sheet-sharing in our cozy queen bed.  Ian enjoyed my cooking, and I settled comfortably into never having to take the trash out again.  We fell easily into our cohabitation experiment.  

And it was very much an experiment.  During our cohabitation years, whenever anyone asked about our decision to live together before marriage, we gave the standard metaphorical rationale: that we were taking marriage for a test-drive.  Even if you’re sure you want to buy the all-new Honda Civic, you still test-drive it around the lot, right?  That’s how we felt about marriage:  we were sure we wanted to be with each other, but living together before marriage just seemed like the practical thing to do.  So we test-drove marriage for two years before Ian put a ring on it; three years before I put a ring on him.  It did make the transition to married life very smooth, practically indistinguishable.  In the months following our wedding, whenever folks asked that common courteous question, “How’s married life?”  I felt boring answering, “The same.”  I guess that’s better than responding “We just love filing a single tax return!”  

But there’s one thing I regret about cohabitation:  our money.  

You see, before we got married we kept all of our money in completely separate accounts.  We never considered opening joint accounts during those years because, if cohabitation was an experiment, then we didn’t want to join our assets in case we called it quits.  Plus, I reasoned, some married couples keep their money separate anyway. Joint accounts aren't even a given in marriage anymore. So we spent our money separately, and we saved it separately.  And it’s the latter that I now regret.  Mutually blind to each other’s bank accounts, we did not plan or save as much as we could have had we pooled our assets while cohabiting.  Of course, I say this with the benefit of hindsight.  I'm sure some long-term living-in-sinners and those who suffer from marriage inequality do pool their money and start financial planning early in their relationships. But we didn't. Joint accounts just weren't something we ever considered before marriage. But now that we’re married and share access to all of our money, we do organize our finances much more efficiently.  

Financial planning is inherently forward-looking.  Yet, with my green visor over my eyes and my checkbook in my hand, I can’t help but look back on those three years of cohabitation with a bit of regret.  Then I remember that, while we can get more money, we can never get more time.  I am lucky to have already had so many loving years with my special someone.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Memory Journal: Haunted Trail of Tears

Yesterday, my eyes died.  No, not my baby blues; my Halloween spooky eyes - the ones that were hanging in our living room window and blinking on and off like menacing creatures in the dark - they broke.  The ill-timed loss of one of our central October decorations made me feel pretty bummed because I love Halloween.  I may not have the time or willingness to celebrate like this family, but I love everything about Halloween: the colorful leaves, the chubby pumpkins, the sticky spiderwebs stretched across neighbors' porches, and morning show hosts debating the sexiness of this year’s Halloween costumes.  ‘Tis the season.  

So when I decided to plan a weekend trip to Michigan with my dear friend, Kelly, and our significant others in late October 2009, I thought we should partake in at least one Halloween-themed activity. I suggested we go to a haunted house of some sort. We settled on the New Salem Haunted Woods in Dorr, Michigan.  And here’s what happened:

On Saturday night, the four of us - me, Ian, Kelly, and her husband, Mike - piled into Kelly’s red Jeep and programmed “Dorr, Michigan” into the GPS on her dashboard.  In true October fashion, it had been raining nonstop since we arrived the day before, but the skies cleared up on Saturday night.  So we left the wet roads of Saugatuck and headed east into the body of the state.  With only bright headlights and spotty GPS service to guide us, we arrived at our destination an hour later only to discover that the Halloween attraction I had chosen was located on a damp farm in the middle-of-nowhere, Michigan.  The littleness of the location comforted me because How scary can this really be?  

We parked the car, stepped out onto the soggy mud and immediately regretted our choice of footwear for the evening.  Slopping through the parking lot/field, we made our way into the fluorescent-lit barn all cheerful with its picnic tables, pumpkins, and hot chocolate for sale.  This looks family-friendly, I thought to myself, They’re even selling apple cider.  But we bypassed the seasonal items and went up to the counter to purchase our tickets.  There we noticed that this farm offers two Halloween attractions - the Haunted Woods and the Haunted Corn Maze - but the nice teenager at the cash box advised us against the Corn Maze because, as she put it,  “I don’t think you have the right shoes for it.”  Fair enough.  So we bought four tickets for the Haunted Woods and exited into the darkness outside where the only light came from the door of the ticket barn and the silver-lit metal of the animal sheds in the distance.  The newly-clear sky had chilled the air and the dampness around us, so we bundled up with gloves and hats and waited for the hayride to take us to the entrance to the Haunted Woods.  

The twenty-minute hayride renewed our sense of just how in-the-middle-of-nowhere we were.  The tractor driver dropped us off by a single bonfire, bordered on one side by woods and another by vast fields of corn, and above us a night sky dotted with many more stars than us city-folk are used to seeing.  Scanning the forest line on our left for the entrance to the Haunted Woods, I could see a single staff member directing groups to enter one at a time by crossing over a covered bridge painted a deep red.  Or bright red - I couldn’t really distinguish shades of colors because it was so dark out there.  The only light source was the bonfire, which was muddled at best because of the fifty-or-so visitors huddling around it for warmth.  It felt like Valley Forge meets Amityville Horror.

With a bit of wait ahead of us, I made a decision that negatively impacted the rest of the night:  I decided to pass our wait time by retelling the story of the movie Paranormal Activity to Kelly and Mike, who promised that that they had no interest in seeing it in the movie theater.  So I tilted my head from right shoulder to left and stretched out my arms, and I put on my best scary-storytelling face. As we gradually moved away from the bonfire towards the covered bridge entrance to the Haunted Woods, my scary story progressed through demon possessions and phantom Ouija boards, and the random shrieks of fear and frightened laughter echoing from the woods peppered the plot with real-life frights.  

I timed my storytelling so well that when I come to the conclusion -  “And then she leans over the body and LEAPS at the camera with blood all over her” - we found ourselves in front of the covered bridge waiting for the staff member to give us the go-ahead.  By then the four of us were chockablock full of adrenaline from the retelling of the scary movie and had not done enough emotional push-ups before the haunted triathlon that was now upon us.  Oops.

“Okay, you can go!”  Said the enthusiastic staff member.  So the four of us stepped forward, alone from the crowd.

We knew the covered bridge was safe because we had seen numerous groups of people cross it uneventfully before us.  So with the light of the bonfire nearly indistinguishable at our starting point, we headed onto the bridge and found that it was covered in sticky spiderwebs.  The fake kind, of course, but impressive nonetheless.  This was the first moment I realized that the production value on this little haunted shin-dig might not be as crappy as the location initially suggested.

After the covered bridge, a small barn awaited us on the edge of the black woods.  Already spooked by the storytelling and the spiderwebs, the Who Goes First question inevitable came up.  In my first and last display of bravery that night, I nominated myself to go first through the door of this scary building because this whole trip to the Haunted Woods was my idea, after all.  

So I pushed the door open into the dark barn to enter a dim, red-lighted room with a bubbling cauldron in the middle and no one else in sight.  Then, with my three guests behind me and my hand still on the door knob, I felt the door stop prematurely behind my hand.  It hadn’t hit the wall.  No, the door had run up against something much softer and pliant.   A person maybe.  But as soon as I realized the threat from behind, one emerged from the front.  A demented school teacher jumped out from behind the cauldron to scare the bejeesus out of us, followed in close coordination by the door creature from behind.  After a couple of high-pitched “Eeks!” from me and Kelly and manly congratulations of “Good one!” and “Nice scare!” from Ian and Mike , the two witches bid us a frightful welcome to their cauldron project, each with unblinking eyes and deep, throaty voices.  

Hightailing it out of the back door of the cauldron building, we re-entered the dark outdoors and saw our next destination a hundred feet ahead of us, the building that would take us deep into the Haunted Woods.  With bright moon and cornstalks on our right and black forest and scarecrows on our left, we set out on the straw-and-mud path to Building 2.  Fearful of an unexpected attack, I intertwined my arm with Ian’s and began to push him toward the cornfields (his side) away from the scarecrows (my side).  

Double whammy again.  

Someone jumped out of the cornfield on our right and the four of us screamed and jumped left.  The Child of the Corn was chasing after Kelly and Mike ahead of us and then BAM! one of the scarecrows came to life on my left side and began to run at me and Ian in his black robes and demonic face paint.  I dug my face into Ian’s left shoulder to make it all go away.  But it didn’t.  Scarecrow Man was following us.  Following me, more specifically.  He was hovering over me about 4 inches from my body.  So I squished my head and my eyes into Ian’s shoulder even more as we walked slowly towards Building 2.  And I waited until it was safe to look up again ...

A few moments later, I carefully tilted my eyes up to meet Ian’s and timidly asked, “Is he still there?”  


Perhaps out of a sense of learned politeness or maybe just our of fear-induced insanity, I felt the need to acknowledge his presence at this moment.  When Ian replied in the affirmative that Scarecrow Man was, indeed, still hovering over my left shoulder, I turned to face my attacker.  

We locked eyes for a moment before he unleashed the most frightening of screams directly in my face.

I let out a horrifying-yet-girly scream and flung myself back into the safety of Ian’s left arm.  Scarecrow Man broke character for one second to let out a little laugh of triumph before turning around to prepare for his next batch of victims.  

And then something happened.  It wasn’t a personal choice towards emotion or dramatics, but rather a purely physiological reaction to the intense fear I was feeling:  I threw my hands up over my mouth and started bawling.  I bawled all the way to Building 2, where we met up with Mike and Kelly, who had narrowly escaped Corn Monster by running away.  “Can we” - gasp - “please” - gasp - “go back?  I don’t like” - gasp - “this anymore.”  The boys said no, and they were right (That would have looked really lame to walk back through the entrance).  So Kelly put her hand on my shoulder, looked me in the eyes and reassured me that she was feeling just as frightened: “I’m right there with you.”

So we persevered through the Haunted Woods, from Building 2 to Building 20 and all the scary trails in between, and I cried the whole way through.  I cried as we shrieked together in the haunted graveyard as our feet sunk into simulated mud.  I cried when Kelly hit a Scary Tree Man with her purse.  And I cried while the four of us, blinded by the lights in the strobe-lit cavern, jumped back in unison when we opened the door to see a pitch black room.  We argued for a minute about who would go first before realizing that it wasn’t a room at all; it was the outside.  

So this little haunted attraction in this little Michigan town gave us the biggest scares.  Kelly whacked her purse around in front of her trying to physically fend off any threats; Mike laughed defensively and held onto Kelly; Ian congratulated the actors on fine performances; and I cried.  A lot.  But we all made it through.

The four of us like to reminisce about this story. I've heard that scary experiences bind people together, and this one certainly tied our friendship knots even tighter.  So even though the Haunted Woods filled each of us up on as much “scary” as we’ll need for the next few years, it gave us a fun life story to share with each other.  Plus, it gave Scarecrow Man a fun story to tell his buddies: “Remember that one time at the Haunted Woods that I made that woman cry?  That was awesome.”  Yes, it was.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Vegan Experiment Update: Quitters Never Win

Three weeks ago today my parents, my husband and I began our month-long vegan challenge.  Three days ago, my parents gave up.  Their chosen instruments of failure were a Jimmy John’s Italian sub and a tuna sandwich - certainly a delicious defeat.  

Ian and I had both really wanted all four of us to cross the finish line together, so their downfall disappointed us.  But ever since the first week, we realized that our two teams were reacting to this vegan experiment differently.  Ian and I took to the diet shift quickly: we like how our plant-based meals make our bodies and our spirits feel.  Overall, we’re enjoying the physical, spiritual, and financial (from home-cooking) benefits from our new lifestyle, which I’ll expand upon once our month-long trial comes to end.  Stay tuned!

My parents had completely different reactions to the diet shift.  A week into the challenge I asked my dad how he was liking his vegan diet, and my usually diplomatic and mild-mannered father quickly and firmly responded, “I hate it.”  He had good reason to dislike the diet because, mysteriously, it was not agreeing with his system.  I recently wrote about how the higher fiber in my new diet was acting like Draino on my pipes, making me feel light and fresh.  Conversely, the high fiber in Dad’s diet acted like a power washer on his system, giving him stomach cramps and all the not-so-fun stuff that comes with those.  (He told me once in animated fashion that “apples are just not being digested at all.  At all!”)

My mom reacted well at first.  She said that eating a plant-based diet made her feel lighter and cleaner inside, and that her junk food cravings were going away.  But my mom is the kind of person who will compliment anyone on anything he tries to do.  Did you burn the popcorn in the microwave?  My mom will eat it.  Is the lettuce in your salad crisp-less and soggy?  She’ll say you’re Wolfgang Puck.  My mom is the queen of compliments, and I love the way she and my dad rush to make people feel proud of their own efforts.  So going into our vegan experiment, I expected her to start out with a rosy disposition.  

But my mom, who tends towards emotional eating, started to have some rather vocal complaints around Day 10: “All I want is one pancake.  Just one!”  And my dad joined in with her on my favorite complaint, “I’m tired of all of this chewing.  All these vegetables are making my jaw tired.”  So, stuck in vegan prison with her husband of thirty-eight years, my mom saw my dad’s give-in as her escape route back into the real world of omnivorism.

Now it’s my turn to complain - not about the diet, though.  About my parents’ failure to see it through to the end.  You see, before my dad’s firm declaration of “hate” for the new diet and my mom’s desire for “just one” pancake, they both had conspired in secret and determined that Veganism just wasn’t for them.  Merely a week or so into the process, they declared “We don’t want to eat like this forever,” and “I want to be able to eat things I like and celebrate on special occasions.”  And my parents didn’t even qualify these statements by using the external example of the Thanksgiving turkey - a cultural symbol that can puzzle even the most well-intentioned vegetarians.  No, they said that they wanted to eat the ribs at Famous Dave’s they saw advertised during Sunday Night Football.  Give that marketing team a raise.

I can’t help but think that this rationale is selfish.  From the animal rights perspective, if eating meat is a moral wrong, then the cultural significance around meat consumption shouldn’t matter, right?  In Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer quotes a young animal rights activist explaining her reasons for being a vegetarian:

I love calamari, I love roasted chicken, I love a good steak. But I don’t love them without limit. [Factory farming] isn’t animal experimentation, where you can imagine some proportionate good at the other end of the suffering. This is what we feel like eating. Yet taste, the crudest of our senses, has been exempted from the ethical rules that govern our other senses.

We threw Michael Vick in jail for abusing dogs in a violent tradition that cuts across many cultures; and Catalonia, Spain just banned their emblematic tradition of bullfighting.  Yet we continue to source 99% of our meat from factory farms, which are an ethical and environmental catastrophe.  

But forget about the animal rights argument for now.  My parents failure to finish our vegan challenge makes me sad because I wanted them to like it.  And I wanted them to like it because, after reading The China Study, I’m newly convinced that plant-based diets are best for nutrition, health, and longevity.  They’re refusing a healthier lifestyle, and from the perspective of a loving child, that refusal seems selfish - that you prefer to eat what you want and die early than to eat brown rice and broccoli and live longer.  Certainly, if my father had a heart attack but was still eating bacon cheeseburgers, I could call him selfish for shortening his lifespan.  So why do I have to wait until he has a heart attack to call him selfish?  

You see, I love my parents; I want them to live a long life; and I’m sad that they’ve refused a lifestyle that likely would have lowered their blood pressure, improved their cholesterol levels, and decreased their risks of colorectal and other cancers.  Instead they’re choosing Famous Dave’s.  But I guess the real tragedy is our tendency to take our health for granted.  Now excuse me while I go bake a lentil patty.  

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Cilantro-Lime Rice and Black Beans

You know the big questions in life:  How and why did the universe begin?  Is there life after death?  Do we have free will?  Well, folks, put my face next to Socrates’ and print my name in high school history books because I’ve figured out the answer to one of humanity’s great questions.  No, I don’t know the meaning of life.  Better:  I know how Chipotle makes their rice and beans taste so darn good.

I found a copycat recipe for Chipotle’s rice online, and I improvised the bean recipe after finding out that the secret ingredient in their black beans is (drum roll please)... cumin!

So as we continue to ponder humanity’s existence in the universe, at least we can indulge in a warm bowl of basmati rice and cumin-simmered black beans.  And maybe taking the time to celebrate these little epicurean triumphs and enjoying life’s small pleasures - maybe that’s the meaning of life after all.  

Cilantro-Lime Rice 
1 teaspoon vegetable oil or butter
2 teaspoons fresh cilantro
2/3 cup white or brown basmati rice
1-2 cups water
1/2 teaspoon salt
Juice of 1-2 limes

1. In heavy saucepan heat the vegetable oil over low heat. Add the rice and lime juice and stir for one minute.
2.  Add water and salt and bring to a full boil.
3.  Turn heat to low and simmer for about 25 minutes or until rice is tender
4.  Add cilantro and fluff with a fork.

Black Beans 
1/2 pound of dried black beans
4 cups of water
1 clove of garlic minced
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon cumin
1 bay leaf
salt to taste

1.  Prepare dried beans by soaking them in water overnight.  Rinse beans after soaking.
2.  Add 4 cups of water to soaked beans and bring to a boil.
3.  Reduce heat to simmer for 1hr30min or until beans are tender.
4.  Add garlic, oregano, cumin, bay leaf, and salt to beans and bring to a boil.
5.  Reduce heat to simmer for 2 hours until thick.  Adjust spices to taste.  

Sunday, October 16, 2011

I'd like the world to buy me a Coke

I am not an emotional eater.  Quite the opposite, in fact: whenever I feel upset, my (fortunately) limited body issues are the first guests to show up at my pity party, and they’re rude and loud and shout things in my mind like “Oh you’re sad about that silly thing?  Well you should really be sad about the cellulite on your upper thighs.  No ice cream for you tonight.”  If I were more depressed I’d probably be skinnier, but I’m a-ok being happy and a bit plump, thankyouverymuch.

I may not be an emotional eater, but I do have one food addiction: Soda.  Or Coke.  Or Pop.  Whatever you want to call it, all of those words make my mouth water.  I generally prefer brown or clear sodas, so I won’t do the Dew and I don’t wanna Fanta.  But my discrimination ends there.  I like Coke and Pepsi, regular and diet, Dr. Pepper and Mr. Pibb, and root beer and ginger ale.  My favorite drink in the world is a Coke Icee, and I’ve been known to get uncharacteristically cranky at the movie theater if they only have the stupid white cherry or blue raspberry flavors.  True connaisseurs of frozen beverages know that Coke and Red Cherry are the must-have flavors.  I guess you could say I’m an Icee purist.    

But I know soda is bad for me because it has loads of tasty, tasty sugar in it.  So I’ve tried to give it up at least three times before, but the thirst-quenching brown bubbly potions have always drawn me right back in a few days later.  Next thing I know I’m cooing at the Coca-Cola polar bears playing with penguins and smiling at the throw-back Pepsi cans.  I fall for the soda marketing as much as the product itself.  So sign me up for Intervention because I am a full blown soda addict.

Kind of.

Let me qualify my addiction.  I’m not like that guy on Dr. Oz who drinks 14 liters of soda a day.  Hand to the Bible, I don’t even drink soda every day because we purposefully don’t keep it in our house.  But like any good addict, whenever I have access to it I order it almost every time.  This generally means I order soda when I’m eating out.  At restaurants I’ve even convinced myself that I’m insulting the waiter if I just order water - that he/she will be upset to not have the extra $2 tippable dollars on the bill.  Some people enhance their meals with wine; I enhance mine with Coke.  It’s like my meals are symphonies and Coke is the percussion.  Sure you can have a fine concert without it, but we all know it wouldn’t be the same.  

But, folks, my addiction hit a new low last week.  Somebody knocked over my to-go cup of Coke, and I reacted like a drug addict whose lines of white powder just got blown into the carpet by the high-speed ceiling fan.  And all my soda-starved frustrations were all directed at this guy:

Yes, I got really upset with my dear puppy Teddy who got neutered on Wednesday and has since become a destructive beast lumbering into walls and end-tables with his nearly two-foot-in-diameter cone of shame. One of the cone-victims was my Coke, and I reacted like Gollum losing his soda Ring.  Mourning the loss of my sugary Precious to the irrevocable fibers of our living room rug, I dove head first into a the fires of soda-addicted desperation, and I started whining with a ferocity that would make any three-year old proud.

So maybe it’s time for me to turn in my membership at the Soda Pop Club.  I probably shouldn’t love any food as much as I love soda.  Maybe I’ll give it up... tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Family Matters

Ian and I got into a little fight today.  We have different ways of communicating our anger in a fight: I raise my voice and slam a door or two while Ian furrows his eyebrows.  (Clearly Ian’s way is much healthier, but slamming doors doesn’t cause wrinkles in my forehead.)  I know it's over now because he just brought me the plug for my laptop, and an angry Ian would have said something snarky before delivering the power cord.  Plus I hear him eating barbeque potato chips and watching X-Men.  Angry Ian would be drinking water and reading a brooding political book like Profit Over People.  

We were arguing over something extremely stereotypical: my inlaws.  Specifically, Ian and I both struggle with our relationship with his stepmother.  (Inlaws, stepmother - I told you it was stereotypical).  We’re stuck in this horrible cycle of mutual disdain and extreme sensitivity.  We don’t know exactly when this cycle began, and we don’t know when it’s going to end.  So let me give you a few examples of what goes down with the three of us:
  • In an etiquette misstep, I comment to Ian on the missing “e” on my namecard at Stepmom’s Thanksgiving dinner a la Anne of Green Gables.  Stepmom overhears me and takes this as a personal insult.  She fires back during dessert by criticizing my cooking in front of everyone.  I don’t know that she’s upset about my “e” comment, so I feel taken aback.
  • Ian makes a lighthearted joke comparing Stepmom to a person we don’t know she dislikes.  At dinner an hour later, Stepmom says to Dad, “Can you believe Ian compared me to that person?”  Ian feels antagonized.  
  • On Christmas vacation, I am helping Stepmom make a tasty stuffed french toast breakfast.  Visiting Aunt comes up to take our picture.  I lean in, but Stepmom shakes her hand to say “no” and backs away from me.  Maybe she feels uncomfortable because we all still have our just-woke-up faces and hair, but I feel like she just doesn’t like me.

I can see the dude-bros out there rolling their eyes and wondering why their girlfriends always tell them they should be more sensitive.  I know, dude.  This is sensitivity on steroids, and the three of us are Barry Bonds.  Other members of our family have said “Don’t be so sensitive” and “I’m sure she didn’t mean it that way.”  If I were giving advice to myself I’d say something like “Just let it roll off your shoulders.”  But somehow the three of us are all really sensitive, we are sure it was meant that way, and we hold onto the littlest comments with an iron grip in our memories, refusing to let them go.

I know we’re not the only people in the world who struggle with family relationships.  The stepparent-child and the inlaw relationships are so susceptible to strife that they’ve become celebrated pop culture stereotypes a la Cinderella and Meet the Parents.  Even outside of those roles, families often have particular divisions.  Indeed, as I’ve grown into adulthood, I’ve started to notice the political relationships within my own family that I never noticed as a child - that this aunt doesn’t like this one, and that nobody actually likes this uncle.  Even my Dad tried to comfort me when I was upset about a Stepmom incident by saying “Annie, this is just how families are sometimes.”

But that’s not good enough for me.  Ian and I both want a better relationship.  So why are we having trouble getting one?

First, all relationships in our lives are each painted with the primer of past interactions, and those are hard colors to change.  Has someone been really mean to you in the past?  Then you’re probably not going to like if if they criticize your new haircut, right?  A criticism from a criticizer is another example of rejection.  But a criticism from a friend is an anomaly, so we might take it as a joke or as an expression of concern.  

This craving for acceptance certainly translates into the struggles we face with Stepmom.  Taking the examples above, the “Does he/she like me” question clouds the lenses through which we judge each others’ actions.  Every one of our actions, no matter the intention behind it, is judged as evidence of acceptance or rejection of the actor, and all three of us - me, Ian, and Stepmom - are guilty of this judgement.

So because the Anne-Ian-Stepmom relationship has been painted over and over again with the solid color of “rejection,” we end up over-criticizing each other’s actions, and they build on top of each other to create a very precarious relationship.  It’s like each misinterpreted comment is another block pulled from the base of our family Jenga set and placed on top of our mounting frustrations and insecurities, and we all just end up tip-toeing around each other hoping not shake the table and make the tower fall.  Ian’s the kind of person who wants to just keep stacking the blocks, but sometimes I just want to knock the tower over to start anew.  Hence the fight.  I felt insulted and confrontational today and wanted to knock the Jenga set over.  But that would break the cardinal rule of marriage-family relationships: “Only I may criticize my family.”  

So why can’t we shake the feeling of rejection?  Because the three of us are stuck in a a contorted cycle of over-sensitivity.  

First things first: I’m really tired of being called “too sensitive.”  Sure, it makes me cry and gives me headaches in cases like this one, but I generally consider sensitivity to be a character strength, not a weakness.  Us sensitive folk are very in tune with other people’s feelings, we’re great listeners, and we make great friends.  And because we have such a strong desire to be accepted as part of the group, undoubtedly a Darwinian trait, you could even say sensitive people are more evolved.

So feel free to call me “sensitive,” but I’ll take that as a compliment.  You see, deep down, the three of us are so sensitive about our relationship because we care about it.  Family is the most important social group, after all, so our craving for acceptance within it is very powerful and the feelings of rejection must be equally as powerful.  I know when it comes to family strife, it’d be easier to be unemotional about it and let it roll off my shoulders.  But surely indifference is more tragic than emotion.  

And that’s my real point: our family members may hurt our feelings and say the wrong things and we’ll hold grudges for awhile.  But we react strongly because we care about them above everyone else.  So as Ian and I salve our wounds and nurse our grievances, perhaps we should realize that we’re hurt because we care about our relationship with Stepmom.  Maybe we care a lot.  And that’s what we should tell her.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Maple Peanut Butter Crispy Treats

Ian would make a good hand model, wouldn't he?

Sweet treats + Super easy recipe = Danger ahead

Case in point: Paula Deen.  The recipe below may not be one of hers, but I love Miss Paula anyway.  I love her big white hair, I love her comical proclivity for butter, and I love the way her thick Savannah accent makes words like "oil" have one syllable and words like "pen" have two.  And she has a special talent for simplifying should-be-hard-to-make-food, like the time she showed me how to make donuts with three ingredients:  peanut oil, cinnamon sugar, and store-bought biscuit dough.  Tempted by sweet treats and fearing for my waistline, I watched that episode with the same astonishment as Dr. Frankenstein looking at his beautiful and horrific monster creation. 

Well go ahead and call me a culinary James Bond because I love these kind of dangerously easy recipes.  I obviously can't eat any of Paula's butter-rich recipes during our 30-Day Vegan Challenge, but I've found some great alternatives.  Here's a dangerously easy (and vegan!) treat adapted from Heidi Swanson's website 101 Cookbooks.  

Maple Peanut Butter Crispy Treats
3/4 cup peanut butter
3/4 cup maple syrup
1 teaspoon salt

1 cup vegan (or regular) marshmallows
4 cups crisp brown rice cereal

1. Combine the peanut butter, maple syrup, salt, and marshmallows in large saucepan over low heat until fully melted, smooth, and bubbling a little bit.
2.  Mix in the rice cereal until well coated.
3.  Scoop 1-2 tablespoons onto wax paper.  Let cool and enjoy!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Roasted Apple, Butternut Squash, and Caramelized Onion Pizza

We're on day three of our month-long vegan challenge, and the plant-based foods we're eating are playing some interesting tricks on our bodies.  No dairy means no clogged sinuses, so my nose is breathing happy through my little bean-shaped nostrils.  And all that plant-based fiber is acting like Draino on my digestive pipes, so I'm starting to understand what my mom meant when she said "fiber will change your life."  My leafy friends are also quickly teaching me the difference between feeling full because I'm bloated and feeling full because I'm satiated. 

But the plants that we're eating played their most interesting trick on our minds.  No, we didn't eat bad mushrooms and go on a psychedelic adventure.  That's much too exciting.  Rather, we've both had dreams about meat and cheese.  Monday night I dreamed I about a piece of pepperoni on a slice of pizza, and last night Ian dreamed about a McDonald's sausage breakfast sandwich.  To our subconscious brains' credits, we were both picking off the meat and cheese from our dishes.  So in the fierce battle being waged in our minds between the Green Army of plants and the Red Army of meat, it looks like the plants are winning.  And with no stuffy noses and clear pipes below, they just might win the war.

The gods of Domino's and Papa John's must have divinely intervened in my dreams on Monday night to project an image of a cheesy pepperoni pizza.  I'm sure it was an act of desperation because the night before I had eaten a truly delicious, cheese-less pizza.  I found the recipe for Roasted Apple, Butternut Squash, and Caramelized Onion Pizza on vegan chef Chloe Coscarelli's website.  I first heard about her after she won Food Network's Cupcake Wars with vegan cupcakes - and she was competing against traditionally-made cupcakes!  Impressive, right?  Well, her other creations are equally praise-worthy.  I've adapted her recipe below.  Be careful - you might fall in love with her Garlic Bean Puree as much as I have.

Buy or make pizza dough (I used Rustic Crust Tuscan Six Grain) 

Garlic White Bean Puree (can be prepared up to 2 days in advance)
  • 1 (15-ounce) can cannellini or other white beans, rinsed and drained
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • ½ teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Pizza Topping

  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 onion, thinly sliced
  • Sea salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 cups (½ -inch) cubes peeled butternut squash
  • 1 cup spinach
  • 1 apple, peeled and thinly sliced (preferred: honeycrisp, gala, or fuji)
1. To make the Garlic White Bean Puree: Blend all ingredients in a food processor until smooth.
2. In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons oil over medium-high heat and sauté onions until soft and lightly caramelized, about 20 to 30 minutes. Season generously with salt and pepper.
3. In the meantime, toss remaining 2 tablespoons oil with squash and season generously with salt and pepper. Transfer to a large rimmed baking sheet and roast for 30 to 35 minutes until squash is fork tender, turning once or twice with a spatula. Remove from oven and set aside. Turn heat up to 450 degrees F.
4. Turn oven heat down to 375 degrees F or pizza dough package instructions.
5.  Spread a layer of the Garlic White Bean Puree evenly over the Pizza Dough. You may not want to use all of the puree, just enough to coat the dough. On top of the dough, arrange the spinach, caramelized onions, roasted butternut squash, and apple slices. Season with salt and pepper, and brush the edges of the crust with olive oil.
6. Bake for about 15 to 20 minutes (or pizza dough package instructions), until the crust is slightly browned or golden. Let cool, slice, and devour!