Saturday, September 26, 2015

Subtract One

It is always better to be slightly underdressed.
Coco Chanel

A lot of what we see, read, hear and consume is about adding. You need to add more servings of fruits and vegetables. You need to add an exercise plan. You need to add some key pieces to your wardrobe or a new positive habit.

And so it is with subtracting. You need to cut calories. You need to de-clutter and get rid of your stuff. You need to embrace a less is more attitude. Edit your Facebook friend list. Purge negativity.

This post isn't about either of those ways of adding or subtracting. This post isn't about Common Core Math either.

This post reminds me of an old allegorical piece of advice by Coco Chanel. I had trouble finding her exact words online - there were many different versions attributed to her. The gist of it is that a well-dressed woman puts on all of the clothes and jewelry she wants to wear. Then right before leaving the house, she looks in the mirror and removes one item.

She does not mean one shoe, a purse or a dress. What she means is an accessory. So if the elegant woman is wearing a necklace, earrings and a bracelet, maybe she removes the bracelet. Or she keeps all the jewelry and removes the silk scarf.

Just because I quoted Coco Chanel once and paraphrased her once does not mean that I admire her. But even if a person is a Nazi sympathizer and a terrible anti Semite, they have small pockets of usefulness and even wisdom.

Coco Chanel is not a person I would want to get to know, but she was a fashion expert. I am not a fashion expert and I am not anti-Semite. I am not nearly as well dressed.

This is not about clothes. It is about time. For today's purposes, it is about what we call leisure time. It could be applied just as easily to any old time. But I'm starting small.

It's the weekend. Or a vacation. It's a free evening or a wide swath of time when you are not at work. Whatever it is, it is a time when you would like to catch up on a few things and also have some fun.

So you make some plans. This is a good idea.  If you don't make plans, time will just be whittled away.

Some people make just the right amount of plans for that specific day. My mother does this really well. I like to think I do too. But it took some trial and error and a learning curve for me.

I got good at it. That's why I'm giving advice. If you're already good at it, you can stop reading now and go do something else.

Here is a weekend scenario.

You plan a Saturday. You'll get up early to play golf with friends you haven't seen in a while. You'll have lunch at the club. Then you'll swing back home to take Billy and Tommy to baseball practice and while they're with the coach you'll stop by the gourmet market for provisions for tonight's barbecue. You'll drive back and watch practice for a few minutes, and take the kids home. Then you plan to jump in the shower, crack open a beer and man the charcoal in time to greet your friends and their kids for some adult fun and conversation while the kids play together.

Maybe you're energized by this day. Maybe you've got this time management thing down.

Or maybe on closer examination, you aren't so happy. You feel frazzled. Your partner is angry because you were 20 minutes late in picking up the kids and in your haste you forgot the beer for the barbecue. Or maybe everything came together fine, but you didn't bet on the traffic and the shower became a casualty. You feel hot and sticky and somewhat grouchy for the rest of the day.

You can't wait to go to work on Monday because the weekend of relaxing activities has left you feeling exhausted.

Here's another scenario. You plan a romantic long weekend trip to NYC. It's a beautiful day and the weather is perfect. You surprise your partner with a day of fun including a view from the top of the Empire State building, a stroll through Central Park and an exploration of Chinatown topped off with dinner. After that a cab ride to the theater district for the hottest show.

The whirlwind may be perfect for just the two of you. Some people are invigorated by this wall-to-wall activity.

But maybe your partner wanted to linger at one of these places. Or it's actually over-stimulating for both of you. You find yourselves bickering at dinner, and secretly wanting to go back to the hotel and bag the Broadway play.

Add a child or two to the above plans and expect some meltdowns.

This is supposed to be fun.

If you're enjoying yourself most weekends, having a sense of accomplishment and rejuvenation, are feeling good and refreshed after an evening out, then keep doing what you're doing.

But if you are miserable, your friends are mad because you're always late, your kids aren’t having as much fun as you imagined, you've over-complicate and over-plan,  you wonder where the time goes, the neighborhood association is complaining because you never cut the lawn, dinner is always sneaking up on you, you have a pounding tension headache on vacation, and the office feels like a spa after your ski excursion, then I have a simple solution.

Make your plans for the day. Then remove one thing from the schedule.

There are fancier ways of managing your time. I'm suggesting something simple.  Tweak later when you're better at this.

Subtract something. Just one thing. It’s the little black dress of time management and it will change your life.

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Tuesday, September 22, 2015


I'm standing in Times Square. They're lighting it gold for childhood cancer awareness. I am physically present. I'm there but not there.

I've been on Facebook, but am scrolling by a lot of the posting if it is about childhood cancer. I'm walking down the street when the words “awareness fatigue” pop into my head. The words stay. They fit.

I am not sharing pictures of Jacob on social media.  I only want to do that if it's not about cancer. He was more than just cancer. Even when he had cancer his personhood transcended that.

I'm not into him being a spokesperson. I am not making him a mascot. I'm leaving him be. This feels odd to say because he died. But he has better things to do.

I have better things to do with him.

We run into some nice people at Times Square. Childhood Cancer is like a small town. Everyone knows one another.

Hannah is with us. Noah is not. One of our friends asks after him. Noah doesn’t do awareness, Jeremy says.

A warm feeling envelops me. This is the best thing I’ve heard anyone say all day.

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Friday, September 18, 2015

30 Minutes A Day: Re-framed

Late last spring, I embarked on a new tradition. I stumbled over it by accident. I started taking a 30-minute walk every day. I wrote about that experience here.

I felt all kinds of benefits from the walk. I meandered. Except for the 30-minute part, I had no agenda. I took photographs. I invariably felt refreshed. I continued more or less consistently. I wrote another post about it last July.

This kind of stroll might be my version of meditation.

I thought I was going to keep doing this. I imagined the benefits of the 30 minutes a day building upon one another. I imagined writing about my experience in the fall and then the winter.

That is not what happened.

What happened instead was that I'd go out for my walk and enjoy it very much at the time. But sometimes, before and after the walk, I'd feel stressed out. I wasn't stressed out about other things then found later that taking the walk was worth it. The stress was about the walk itself.

The walk was becoming another obligation. The walk was becoming a nag.

One thing I value about myself is my consistency. For that reason, it was difficult initially to switch gears. One of the drawbacks to making blanket proclamations and plans is that it can lead to rigid behaviors. I started to see the writing on the wall.

Oftentimes, we make plans before all of the information is in. Sometimes we don't acknowledge when things have changed. Commitments made during one period of life may not work for another. That is what happened to me.

I gave myself permission not to go for a walk for 30 minutes a day. That was a start.

While out for a run or folding laundry, I thought about the walks I was taking. That is when I do some of my best thinking. More information trickled in.

The 30-minute walks were ideal for some days and not for others. This is not an all or nothing situation. It has nuances.

Going out for a 30 minute walk makes sense when I am doing the type of work that benefits from a break. Certain types of paperwork, organizing and unpacking, research, cleaning house and repetitive tasks done over a long period of time and keep me housebound are obvious things. Days where my schedule is flexible enough and not interrupted by outside forces are also welcoming to this walking experience.

Days where I spend a great deal of time out of my apartment do not make the most sense in terms of the 30 minute walk. Nor do days where interruptions are built in. Days where every moment is accounted for means that the walk may cause more stress than it alleviates.

There are days when my teenagers are around and need a great deal of interface from me. Sometimes the walk is not practical. Other times it's an excellent idea. It gives me a break. It gives them a break.

Finally, there are the kinds of days where creativity and very pleasurable work is the actual order of the day. The walk is not really needed the same way on those days. Those times I set aside for blogging, making collages or photography are examples of this. These activities are already akin to meditative experiences for me.

This change of plans may seem like a small thing. It is in fact a small thing when stacked up against more important stuff. But my being able to switch gears with this has other implications. Making distinctions between good walk days and bad walk days is great practice for sorting out matters of much larger consequence.

Sunday was a good day for a 30-minute walk.

I was doing a lot of scheduling, school paper signing, organizing and filing. There was minutia. There was banality. And while everything was timely, I had a bit of flexibility in terms of my time.

I used the 30-minute walk as both a break and a reward. I set out at the designated time. I made sure to pack an umbrella because the sky was getting dark and it was windy. Rain seemed imminent.

Barring a thunderstorm, I planned to stay the course.

This might not seem like a good time for a walk. For me it was ideal.

For one thing, I've noticed that people are very adverse to rain. They will go right inside once it starts looking dark and foreboding. I found the streets to be nearly empty. Not only did this make my walk more peaceful, but also I had fewer folks to worry about when taking some of the weirder photographs I do.

Once it started to sprinkle people started running in a frantic attempt to go inside before more water hit them. There was screaming and flailing. There was wrestling with umbrellas.

The rain began while I was in a lush garden. I positioned myself under some trees and saw some interesting stuff to photograph. Sometimes I used my umbrella propped up on some branches or the ground to keep my iPhone dry so I wouldn't have to worry about it.

I took a video of raindrops hitting a marble bench and making an interesting dot pattern, but it was a little too boring for anyone but me, so I deleted it.

It never became torrential and it reduced to a steady, misty drizzle. I dispensed with the umbrella and walked out on the sidewalk. The flowerbeds were very interesting.

I'm going to let you in on a little secret about rain. It can be good for photography.

I'm not referring to stormy situations. I am not talking about high winds. I am not talking about weather-advisory thunder and lightning.

I am talking about a lazy drizzle.

When there's a lazy drizzle it is highly uncomfortable for most people. But it is fine for me. It might be okay for you too. If I were putting out a singles ad, I could honestly that I enjoy long walks in the rain. I have already mentioned that this alone is a good thing for photography. Less people mean fewer headaches.

Cloudy skies almost always accompany rain. This gives you a nice, even light. This isn't the time to get all experimental with shadows. There won't be many. But you can explore a softer look.

The wetness has a lacquer like effect when it lands on things. That shine, plus the soft even light makes colors pop. It's like the palette is on steroids.

While rain gives a nice jolt to colors that are already intense, it does something equally interesting to more muted hues. Mauve, silver - grey, olive green, terra cotta and taupe look decidedly richer.

Things become dotted and splattered in a way that I like. The video I took may have been boring. But I loved what the rain did to this leaf.

When it's raining, the differences between what is light and what is dark can be intensified. Case in point: the dirt in this flowerbed became darker and blacker when wet, while the dead stems remained light in color. This is a lovely edition to an ongoing series called Past Their Prime. It also reminds me of a scratchboard.

I worked to capture an image that is the essence of wet. After several attempts, the rain and I came up with this.

Moving forward, I anticipate taking more 30 minute walks - some of the time. I'll move through the crisp autumn days a half hour here and there and slog through snow the same way. There are times to be disciplined about something. There are times not to be. Today I'll be talking about a walk outdoors. Tomorrow it will be something bigger.

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Sunday, September 13, 2015

Blue About Gold

September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. Ashley was a healthy child just like yours for six years before her leukemia diagnosis. If you think that Childhood Cancer can’t happen to your child or your family you are sadly mistaken. Childhood Cancer is not rare. Help spread awareness. Go Gold!

These are not the actual words of any one individual. It is a composite of many statements I have seen in my news feeds on Facebook and Twitter, shouted in rallies, and mailed to me in fundraising letters. Names have been changed. Words have been changed.  I re-worked it but I didn't write it. I wouldn't write it.

The rest of this writing is mine. I am addressing this to parents of healthy kids. Your kid doesn't have cancer. None of your kids ever had cancer. You are not a bereaved mom or dad. You are a regular parent doing more or less the best you can.

I'm giving you a heads up in case you see something like this in your newsfeed or inbox or your snail mail. I'm showing you this now because you might hear something similar on TV. Childhood cancer is making the rounds.

The Childhood Cancer community might seem like one big cohesive group. The truth is that childhood cancer advocacy is made up of individuals. As such, I often agree with other voices in this community. But sometimes I disagree.

This is one of those disagreeing times. There are a lot more days in September. If I didn't say something now, I’d be losing my mind until October, when some of the more vocal childhood cancer people start begrudging the breast cancer people their success.

The statement above is hitting below the belt.

Don't go there. Don't take it to heart.

If you want to join my family in Times Square this September, you are invited. They're lighting it gold for September.

If you want to wear a yellow shirt or a gold ribbon, I'd be thrilled. If you take a moment to remember Jacob or kids like him, that means a lot. You can make a donation here and feel good about kids with cancer getting the best possible care.

If you want to organize a fundraiser with your kids' school or at work, let us know. We can help you get started.

If you want to help kids with cancer by all means do so.

It is possible - but not probable - that your child may get cancer. It is true that Jacob was healthy until he wasn't. No one can say which kid will get cancer.

Childhood cancer is not one big disease. It's actually a lot of different cancers under an umbrella. "Find a cure for childhood cancer" sounds oddly inaccurate to me. Finding cures for medulloblastoma, ALL, Wilm's tumor and neuroblastoma is more like it.

The chances of Jacob being diagnosed with his particular cancer type were approximately one  in 4,500. When you factor in his age at diagnosis, the unusual presentation, and other features, he may have been the only child in the world with his exact diagnosis at that exact time.

Numbers are numbers until it hits home. Once Jacob was diagnosed, the situation was 100 percent.

I'm not going to get into numbers for childhood cancer in general. Even one is too many.

But the odds are still overwhelmingly in your favor. The child you wished for, the one who is toddling around, the one starting school, the one starting college is probably not going to be diagnosed with childhood cancer.

Most likely, when all is said and done, if you're reading this now, cancer is going to happen to someone else's kid.

So if you want to help - a donation, a fundraiser - hell, a thumbs up - do it altruistically, or because of some other kid, my kid, me, or an idea. People help other people all the time.

You have my permission to put fear about childhood cancer touching your children out of your mind. It is unfair and unnecessary to ask you to go there.

Here's the thing. I'm different from you. My child had cancer. But I'm also the same.

I have two other kids. These kids are healthy. They are teenagers. They've made it this far. They're both doing great. There are no guarantees. But I am so hopeful.

When I see a post or promotion asking for my help and there is urgency because my child might be next then I know I am being manipulated in the most egregious way. I received a snail mail from St. Jude to this effect. I took the free address labels and ripped up the letter.

I am a childhood cancer activist. But I am fair. I won't use Jacob's memory to scare and coerce people with healthy kids.

My yellow ribbon is borne out of heartache and loss. That said, my September gold comes with a responsibility and positive mission.  We all have choices about what to do with our portion of that gold ribbon. Here's what I'm doing with mine.

You can join Jeremy and I along with Hope & Heroes in Times Square, which is lighting gold in honor of Childhood Cancer Awareness Month on September 17th.

Camp Sunshine invites families touched by Childhood Cancer and bereaved families to camp, for fun, fellowship and support. Donate here.

I’m really inspired by the work  - and fashion - Bravehoods is engaged in.

This image is a thorn in my side and is making the rounds.

Awareness, targeted research, and funding save lives. Sour grapes about breast cancer success doesn’t.

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Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Cold Soups: Part Two

I had a lot of fun creating ColdSoups: Part One. Autumn here in the Northeast can be an up and down proposition temperature wise. It’s currently a 90-degree, sunny September day. So there’s still time to try these before its cold enough to crave winter fare and comfort foods.

Golden Gazpacho with Avocado
By Justin Capple, August 2014 Food & Wine Magazine

Yellow tomatoes and green avocados give this soup a stunning color palette. Lucky for us, it’s also delicious and cooling. Here’s the recipe.

Buttermilk Corn Soup with Shrimp
Health Magazine

Jeremy and I are crazy about buttermilk, so this recipe had us at hello. Summer – or early fall – translated into a soup.

Adapted from the MoosewoodCookbook

One of my sweetest memories revolves around this soup. My toddler son Jacob was hospitalized for chemotherapy and then infection. It was a long stay. I was in the throes of early pregnancy and feeling finicky and grouchy. All I wanted was a cold, creamy and comforting Cascadilla. The hospital cafeteria wasn’t cutting it.

Jeremy set about gathering a supply of basic kitchen gadgets for this cook-free delicacy. He did some targeted food shopping. Then he proceeded to make this soup in Jacob’s hospital room. Jacob didn’t have any, but Hannah did, albeit indirectly.

On a more practical note, this soup might be worth trying if you find traditional Gazpacho too tart and acidic.

Our adaptation is that we omit the mushrooms and garnishes. The soup is endlessly customizable, so do what inspires you. We feel there is no substitute for regular sour cream. I photographed my cookbook page for easy reference, or you can find it here.

Chilled Carrot Soup with Sweet Pea Cubes
Shape Magazine, July / August 2015

There is something magical about this soup. How fun is it that you can make a cold carrot soup, then float cubes of peas mixed with buttermilk right in it? It tastes fantastic. I made this for the first time while Hannah was trekking through Eastern Europe earlier this summer. I can hear her complaining in the next room about the heat. Time for an encore.  Recipe here.

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Friday, September 4, 2015

Vacation Stack

Earlier this August, I prepared to take a vacation with my family.

We are very fortunate. My husband’s family has a beautiful house in the Berkshires. We planned a 10-day trip there.

On the vacation agenda was hiking, an activity the entire family enjoys. We planned to take trips to the beach, have a museum day, a family movie night and meals cooked on the grill. We mapped out a nice balance of activities and relaxation.

In addition, I wanted to spend a substantial amount of time sitting and reading. I wanted to bring a stack of books with me on vacation.

My plans included reading some of many books, rather than packing and finishing two or three books.

About a week before the vacation, I set out to assemble my stack of books.

There were two books from the library that I had already started and was enjoying. I renewed those books. I packed them for my vacation.

One of the books was a gift from a friend who works in publishing. She is a book matchmaker for me. She is excellent at this. In addition, the book she sent me was something that she may have thought I needed to read because of some of my behaviors while her children and mine attended the same elementary school.

I know how to take a hint. I added that book to the reusable shopping bag I had designated for the stack.

I then consulted my Books to Read list. I ordered the rest of my stack from Amazon Prime.

Ordering all of these books was a splurge. Most of the time I reserve books at the library. Some of the books on my list would be so popular that I would need to wait a long time. Vacation time is like a special treat. I wanted my books to feel that way too.

I fashioned my order to be a mix of books I really wanted to read. I included some fiction and nonfiction. Since I was spending money on the books and helping to keep the publishing industry afloat, I was savvy. I ordered one book that the other three members of my family would want to read when I am finished.

Two of the books I ordered would be books I would want to keep and place on the shelf I have designated as my personal reference library.

One of the books had no real rhyme or reason other than an intriguing review I read.  This one book, purchased in hardcover – was an impulse item.

Once we arrived at our vacation locale, I unpacked the stack and arranged it fetchingly on a dresser in the bedroom.

The next morning, I carried the stack to the living room. Over the course of the vacation, the stack resided on the screened porch, the dining room table, the coffee table and the bedroom. One or two of the books would accompany me on vacation jaunts.

I thought about the best way of approaching my stack. An icebreaker was in order.

I began by reading five pages of each of the books. Once I read five pages of each book, I could read more of each book, more of only one book, or a mix.  This is a construct I found extremely appealing. That is why I continued to do that for the duration of the vacation. That is why I adapted this plan once I arrived back home.

I loved reading my five pages, then adding that book to the bottom of the stack. I loved rotating the books. I loved the sculptural quality of the stack. It was like a horn of plenty, only with books.

Near the end of our vacation, some extended family members vacationed with us at the country house. It did not take long for the other vacationers to notice the stack. The stack makes quite a statement. The stack is a conversation opener.

One vacationing family member asked if she could look at the books in the stack. I discovered that I liked nothing better than have a family member who is also a friend leaf through my stacked books.

The stack led to many conversations about the books - whether certain books were as extraordinary as people said they were, what advice given in books was good and which authors had their heads up their asses when it came to certain topics.

It was also nice to discuss which book reviewers had true understanding of a book and which clearly had their heads up their asses.

It was fun to hold forth on which writers were the real deal, which books were difficult to put down and which books could be a little slow going if I had to read more than five pages a day.

I finished two books in the stack while on vacation. The stack is now residing on the coffee table of my apartment. I have added two more books to the stack because I have discovered I like having a large stack. I like reading many books at once.

I am planning to spend a three-day weekend at the country house.  I look forward to assembling the Labor Day weekend stack. Watch this space for future stacks.

 Book titles in photograph, from top:

1) How To Raise An Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims

 2) The Rocks by Peter Nichols

3) Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee

4) I Know How She Does It by Laura Vanderkam

5) How To Be A Friend To A Friend Who’s Sick by Letty Cottin Pogrebin

6) Signs Of Life by Natalie Taylor

7) The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion

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