A Birthday Cheesecake

I was watching the cooking show Lidia’s Italy on PBS a few weeks ago, and she happened to be preparing a decadent looking Italian cheesecake. I instantly knew what kind of cake to request for my birthday.

Typically, Jesse will prepare my birthday cake by himself, but he was daunted by the cheesecake idea, so we prepared it together. Cheesecakes require a springform pan, which I have considered buying for years, but didn’t think I would use enough to merit the purchase. (For example, my bundt pan is collecting dust in the cupboard.) Unfortunately, my cake turned out pretty tasty, so I might be tempted to make cheesecake every week!

Lidia’s Italian cheesecake simply had ricotta and mascarpone cheese, as well as rum soaked raisins, an amaretti cookie base, and pine nuts sprinkled on top. Although her version is probably delectable, I went for an Italian-American cheesecake hybrid. My cake used ricotta, cream cheese, and sour cream. We made a blueberry sauce to top it using a recipe from our cooking Bible, The Joy of Cooking.

Birthdays are all about kitchen gadgets in our house. I got Jesse a pizza stone for his in May, which we have used to make cookies and bread as well as pizza. This morning, I unwrapped an immersion blender, and we used it to mix the cheesecake batter. I got a little overzealous with my new toy, overbeating when we added the eggs, so the cake puffed up while baking. Oops. No harm done to the taste.

The end result was a creamy cake that is less dense than a traditional American cheesecake. I may have accidentally dropped some crumbs on the floor that my cat gobbled up, so this cake gets the stamp of approval from the two humans and one feline in our house.

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Question of the Day: What is your favorite kind of birthday cake?

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Runner’s High

On a bright, sunny day in June 2002, I made an oath: I would never run another mile in my life. Ever. Again. Never.

At the time, I was participating in three weeks of torture known as “summer gym” so that I could fulfill my high school P.E. requirement, leaving more time during the school year to take electives. My un-athletic friends and I knew that anyone who showed up with a pulse would receive an A, so we expended as little energy as possible participating in kick ball, tennis, or frisbee golf.

Rollerskating was one of the activities that I didn’t mind, as it did not require teamwork, competition, or the throwing/hitting/kicking of spherical objects. Unfortunately, I still didn’t escape unscathed. I was flirting with my neighbor boy in the cafeteria of the retro roller rink when I lost my balance and fell down–smashing the break of my roller skate into my tail bone.

No permanent damage was done, but the next day my tail bone was sore. That was the day we were scheduled to do the dreaded Mile Run, four arduous laps around the high school track. Grumbling and complaining, my friend and I lined up at the back of our gym group. When our teacher started the timer, we watched the track athletes bound off like gazelles. Meanwhile, I took a few tentative strides and realized that my tail bone hurt with every step. So I decided to rebel and walk The Mile Run. My friend walked with me in solidarity. Fifteen minutes later, we crossed the finish line. My gym teacher had the audacity to role his eyes at me when I explained my rollerskating injury. He gave us a B for the activity, but we still got an A for the course.

And that’s when I made my oath. I was embarrassed by my lack of athletic ability. Even if I had run that mile, I would have still been one of the last students across the finish line. Running made me feel asthmatic and nauseous. I could never compete with those gazelle girls sporting their short shorts and swinging their pony tails.

I now see the value of physical education courses, but years of humiliating gym experiences left me with a feeling of incompetence and a loathing for physical activity.

Several years later, the retro roller rink made the evening news when it burned to the ground. (Arson. I think the owner made a bungled attempt at insurance fraud.) And I broke my oath.

I got into the habit of taking long, rambling walks around my neighborhood. One day, without an awful gym teacher standing by with a stop watch, I decided I wanted to go at a faster pace. I wanted to run. I ran a quarter mile (downhill) to the end of the road and felt like I was going to die. But I kept at it. Eventually I could run two or three miles before my chest felt like it was going to explode.

By the end of the summer, I realized that I liked running.

When I run, I feel like I am flying. Since there is a point in your stride where both feet are off the ground, this isn’t too far from the truth.

As my heart rate increases, I burn off stress as well as calories.

When I run, I escape the distractions of the internet and Facebook. I focus on my breath, soak up some Vitamin D (if I am lucky enough for the sun to be shining in Central New York), and just feel alive.

For a long time, I was a fair-weather runner. If the forecast didn’t predict a temperature between 55 and 75 degrees and sun, then I would probably choose to walk rather than run, go to the gym, or just stay inside. Despite my good intentions of last summer, I stopped running after I started a new job in August, and I never signed up for a 5K.

Then when my friend told me she was running a 5K the weekend we planned to visit her in Boston, I impulsively signed up, too. I had been walking twenty hours a week for my job, so I wasn’t too concerned about training or being in shape for the race. Then I quit my job, was only doing yoga as exercise, and realized that the race day was fast approaching. I had only run once the entire winter, on an unseasonably warm day in January.

So on a frigid day in early March when the temperature was 26 degrees but the windchill was 18 degrees, I laced up my running shoes and set out to run three miles. It was awful. My nose was running, my cheeks felt raw from the wind, and my breath rattled in my chest. I turned back before the halfway point. By the time I got home, I thought I was going to throw up. Or maybe die.

And yet, I also felt good. I didn’t think I could endure such awful weather. But I did. If I could run over two miles in a sub-freezing temperature, then in what other ways could I surprise myself? The truth is, many of the limitations I impose on myself are entirely mental. When I am running and an arctic wind is whipping my face, I don’t feel comfortable or good or happy. But I feel strong and confident. I know that I can conquer any challenge.

On race day,  I was not in great shape. I struggled, but I pushed myself, and soaked up the energy of my friend and the other 5,000 runners in the race. I had fun, and I want to run another race again soon.

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Since the race, I have started to get back on a regular running schedule. My goal is to run five days a week for a total of 25 or 30 miles. I am adding mileage slowly to avoid injury. For now I’m not too concerned about time. I am much more like the tortoise than the hare.

I am immensely thankful that the days are slowly getting warmer and that I can wear fewer layers when I run. But I learned a lot in the past few weeks. Previously, on miserable snowy or rainy days, when I (in my warm, cozy car) spotted runners on the sidewalk, I used the shake my head in wonder. What crazies, I thought. Now I am one of those crazies. Having re-discovered the thrill of running, a little inclement weather isn’t going to stop me from seeking out a runner’s high.

Questions of the Day: How did you feel about gym class as a kid? How do you approach fitness today? Do you run?

Dreams of Summer

Four months have slipped off the calendar since my last post. What happened? Work consumed me, and I considered abandoning this blog altogether. Now, I’ve rearranged some things in my life, and this seems like the opportune time to revisit this digital space that I’ve created.

To briefly summarize:

In November, I took the GRE.

In December, the cat decided all the Christmas presents were for her.

nessie presentsAt first, I was enchanted by the winter wonderland that central New York became:

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But as I was assaulted by snowflakes, I felt like this poor little squirrel:

squirreliiAt the end of December, I finally submitted my graduate school applications.

In January, I waited to hear about graduate school.

In February, I waited to hear about graduate school. I signed up for yoga classes to battle with the stressors in my life.

March didn’t really come in like a lion. It has been cold and gray. But I finally heard about graduate school! Looks like Jesse and I will be in the same history program.

My body and soul are in desperate need of sunshine. It’s not that I dislike winter. But I wish I could eliminate the muddy, slushy, dirty mess that marks the transition from winter to spring. As in, just remove February from the calendar.

I know spring blooms will be here soon. In the mean time, I will share some photos from last summer:

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DSC_8671redI am already looking forward to the bright, humid, sticky days of summer, but I know I really should savor the present. Spring is a fragrant and joyful season. Spring is about growth, and I intend to focus on personal growth. I became frustrated recently because I was no longer happy with my job. Last August, I told myself I would do that job until I started graduate school. I had made a commitment. I was locked into that path. I feared change. I told myself I had to stick it out.

When I finally admitted to myself that sticking it out wasn’t going to work, I felt immense relief. And new opportunities came my way.

Embracing change is never easy. But in the future I hope I can more quickly acknowledge when I have gained all that I can from an experience and allow myself to move onto something new.

Question of the day: How do you approach change? Do you embrace it or avoid it?

A Walk through Ohio City

Rain is pounding on the windows, Jesse and I are pecking away at our respective laptops, and my cat is curled at my feet.

Just a few days ago, I was strolling through Cleveland without a jacket, snapping photos.

Ohio City, a neighborhood just across the Veterans Memorial Bridge from downtown Cleveland, is an eclectic community.  It is home to the West Side Market, which I visited several years ago.  I distinctly remember seeing an elderly lady hobbling along, a wicker basket on her arm; a shawl wrapped around her head and tied beneath her chin.  She looked like she had just stepped off a boat from the Old World.  In the other direction, there was a drag queen wobbling along on high heels.

I knew the rest of the neighborhood had to be just as interesting, and I’m glad I got the chance to go back.

Here is a bit of what I saw:

This telephone poll was crooked by more than just a few degrees.

Cleveland is urban.

It is rusty.

And smelly.

Yet somehow optimistic.

If you give it a chance, it has pleasant surprises in store.

It is a city full of people who do not give up.

I’m glad I had the opportunity to train there for three weeks.

Once Hurricane Sandy has subsided, I will be back to canvassing in Syracuse.  In the mean time, I hope everyone in Sandy’s path stays safe and dry.

Pumpkin and Fastman

Autumn is slipping by, and I haven’t taken many photos.  I’m in my third and last week of training in Cleveland, and I’m liking this activist business.  I am angry, but I am channeling the anger into something productive.

Still, it’s imperative that I step back from the issues.  If I let any one passion consume me, then I will probably self-destruct.  The only point in preserving the environment is because there is so much that is wonderful about this world that we can’t afford to let go.

I was reminded of this wonderfulness last weekend.  I received a picture on my cell phone, which I was hesitant to open because I have neither texting nor data on my cell phone plan.  I don’t know how much it cost me to receive that photo, but the joy it gave me was priceless.

It was Fastman, holding a guitar and smiling cheekily.

Fastman is my coworker Lauren’s neighbor.  He is a chubby little nine-year-old guy who frequently wears shorts but no shirt or shoes.  When he heard the sounds of ukelele, guitar, and drums emanating from Lauren’s apartment a few weeks ago, he begged his mom to go downstairs to visit.  While his mom shared the latest apartment complex gossip, Fastman gave Lauren a requisite hug and then turned his attention to Pumpkin.

Pumpkin is a one-year-old white cat with splashes of orange on his back.  He is lithe and dainty and prances about on his tip toes.

The reunion of Pumpkin and Fastman was a glory to see.  Fastman began to sprint around the kitchen, sliding on the black and white tiles.

“Chase me, Pumpkin!  You can’t catch me!” he shouted.

And chase him Pumpkin did.  When Fastman zigged, the cat zigged.  Pumpkin zagged when the boy zagged.  They whizzed about in a blur of motion for ten or fifteen minutes, until Pumpkin melted onto the floor abruptly, as only cats can, and Fastman was wheezing.  His mom admonished him to settle down before he had an asthma attack.

I have seen cats chase ribbons and computer cords and flying squirrels, but I have never seen one chase a nine year old boy.  Running about the kitchen, Fastman and Pumpkin tugged the adults in the room into the present moment.  Fastman didn’t need Nike tennis shoes, computer games, or a smart phone to make him happy.  He was a kid, doing what kids do best.  When he went home, he left behind a wake of contentment and peace.

So when I got Lauren’s photo, I smiled.  A cat, a Fastman, and a group of friends are a recipe for happiness. Moments of joy are all around us, we just have to find them.  They’re what life is all about.  And they’re what’s worth fighting for.

What I Learn from Children

Update: I recently wrote a guest post for my friend Rebecca at Rebecca in the Woods. The post is titled Lizards in Europe.  Check it out, and make sure to read about some of Rebecca’s adventures in northern Wisconsin.  My favorites are always the posts about squirrels and mushrooms. 

Let me tell you about Andy and Samantha.*

I knocked on their door yesterday evening and told their mom about the plan we’re supporting to restore the health of the lake and the river.  She was a supporter and wanted to make a donation.  She told Andy to finish eating his supper, but Andy was too interested in the visitor at the door to think about eating.  While the mom went to get her checkbook, I chatted with Andy and Samantha.
Andy is in the fifth grade, and he likes his teacher.  He is a friendly boy, but his speech is a little difficult to understand.  I believe that he has a developmental disorder.

Samantha is in the eighth grade and has fourteen teachers because she has an alternating schedule.  I only had eight teachers when I was her age, and I still found middle school overwhelming.

When their mom reappeared, she said matter-of-factly, “Andy, the dog ate your food.  It’s all gone.”

The shock and dismay on Andy’s face was priceless, but he took the turn of events in stride.  I felt bad that I had enabled the dog to commit his crime.

I told the family about the importance of writing letters and encouraged everyone to get involved.  The mom was too busy, but Samantha piped up.  “I can do it.”

“Do you have time?” her mom asked.

“Yes.  We can write them,” she affirmed.  Andy nodded his head.

We agreed that they would tuck their letters under the door mat.

Before I left, Andy wanted to know my name and made sure that he introduced himself, his sister, and his mom.  Then he spread his arms wide and enveloped me in a hug.

I thanked him and told him that made my day better.

At the end of the night, I had to walk an extra half mile to pick up their letters, but I knew that they would be waiting for me under the mat.  Samantha had written two articulate letters and had helped Andy to sign one.

When a stranger appeared at his door, Andy literally welcomed me with open arms.  He was curious and receptive to what I was doing.  Samantha was enthusiastic about getting involved.  She saw a way to make a difference and took action.

My heart had a warm squishy feeling as I walked away from their house.  I read their letters with my flashlight as I walked and somehow managed not to trip.

We all have the potential to be like Andy and Samantha (and their mom deserves a lot of credit for nurturing them and helping them become such awesome kids).  They remind me to greet each stranger and enter each new situation without judgment.  With every interaction, we can seek the goodness in others.  And when offered an opportunity to make a difference, we can seize it.

*Andy and Samantha are not their real names

Why Are We All Too Busy?

I knock on doors every evening between 4:00 and 9:00.  This means people come to the door when they’re in the middle of making dinner, getting ready to go to a football meeting, or trying to bathe squirmy toddlers and get them to bed.

The common refrain that I hear (several dozen times a night) is: I’m too busy right now.

Often neighbors will rattle off a list of very important things they have to do.  Some of which probably are important.  But we are all so busy that we don’t stop to distinguish between which activities are meaningful and which are just . . . filler.

There is a myth that most Americans wholeheartedly believe.  It is a myth that work and activity are inherently good.  If we toil at a job for a certain number of hours every week and have a large number of obligations outside of work, then we are doing the right thing.

It is what’s expected of us.

For many of us, how busy we are is a measure of our self worth.

I am coming to believe that this myth causes me great stress.  There have been times when I felt like a violin string that was ready to snap.

It causes me to miss out on potential moments of Joy.

I don’t connect with those around me because my head is too busy running over my to-do list.  I end up feeling bad about what I haven’t accomplished.  I cease to exist in the present and am caught in a cycle of worry.

The obvious conclusion is that I need to slo-w d-o–w—n.  The ultimate way to slow down is through meditation, something I frequently read about but rarely do.  The idea is that if you can’t clear your mind and be calm when you are sitting perfectly still, then how will you be able to find peace and serenity in any other situation?

Although I don’t currently meditate, I am trying hard to put my energy towards what really matters to me.  The hardest thing for me is to opt not to do something when I feel as if others expect me to.  I fear that saying no means I will disappoint them.

But sixty, seventy, or even eighty years from now, when I look back on my life and consider how I’ve spent my time, those people I “disappointed” won’t be there beside me.  If I choose what really matters, then my life will be richer, and ultimately I will do more good for this world.

I have learned that the best thing to do when I’m “too busy” is not to plow through my next important task, but to take a walk and observe the beauty of the world around me.  Flowers bask in the sun and unfold at their own pace.  They are never too busy.  And animals aren’t aware of time in the same way as humans.  Sleeping is always at the top of my cat’s to-do list.

Nature reminds me that how many tasks I accomplish in a day does not alter who I am.  The length of my to-do list doesn’t make me a better person because it has nothing to do with what kind of person I am.

(My alternative, although less helpful, approach to managing stress is bursting into tears and eating a large bowl of ice cream.)

Question(s) of the day: Do you ever feel overwhelmed by your to-do list, and if so, how do you handle this?

(I now have Photoshop and couldn’t resist playing around with some effects.)

The irony of this post is that I haven’t updated my blog in over a week . . . because I’ve been busy.