Saturday, November 15, 2008

Christmas [Season] Eve

I love Seasons. One of the only things I love more than Seasons are Holidays, because they seem to embody a certain season, concentrated on a particular date, that gives us an excuse to decorate & host parties & associate sights & smells & tastes with that particular day.

Just close your eyes and think about the 4th of July: sand & sunshine, the sm
ell of sunscreen & BBQ, and the taste of watermelon. Or Easter: little girls in pastel dresses, grass under high heeled shoes, the vinegary smell of dyeing Easter Eggs & the taste strawberries with whipped cream.

Even though we live in California, and the passing of the seasons looks more like switching from bikinis to wearing scarves with your tank tops, rather than a shift from raking leaves to shoveling
snow... even still, I love that subtle transition from one season to another. I love going to a Farmer's Market in late Spring, and seeing berries, corn & peaches overflowing from the carts, and I confess that I get a little giddy & my voice goes all squeaky in the Winter when I see that Eggnog Lattes have made it to the menus of my favorite coffee houses. Yes, I suppose that Seasons are just a marketing ploy in California, but I'm a happy consumer, none the less.

Since we've moved to Northern California, I have actually experienced a tangible change in the seasons every year, and there are many
months where one can usually find me curled up in our hallway, fighting our dog for room in front of our one, ill-placed heater.

Despite the fun of sand & watermelon, and despite my complaints about the cold in our drafty apartment, I have to say that this is, without a doubt, The Most Wonderful Time of The Year. When Halloween decorations start popping out & I get the uncontrollable urge to eat candy corn & carve pumpkins, a clock starts counting down in my mind. Yes, I love Halloween, and Thanksgiving is the most delicious meal of the year, but I can't help the feeling of impending Joy as Christmas approaches.

The other night, Chris & I came home from work at around midnight, and as I dragged myself through the door, I dug the mail out of our overstuffed mail box. Suddenly, my fatigue left me, as
Martha Stewart arrived in her full Christmas Glory on the cookie-filled pages of her magazine. Ever since then, the sky has been bluer, Chris has become increasingly charming & wonderful, buying a car sounds like a whole lot of fun, and my heart feels light & happy. Oh, Christmas, how I love you.

In a few days, we will drive down to Southern California for a conference, followed by days & days of zipping around Orange County freew
ays, stuffing ourselves at numerous Thanksgiving feasts, as well as buying a new car. And, I tell you, I couldn't be happier about it. Hooray for seeing friends & family; Hooray for turkey & cranberries & pumpkin pies; Hooray for baking till our fingers fall off. Who cares that it's 90 degrees in LA right now with Santa Ana winds? Thanksgiving is here, Christmas is on it's way, and the Season is Bright.

You might have noticed that I tend to experience Seasons & Holidays particularly through food. I hope there's not an unhealthy fascination there-- although I definitely know that eggnog lattes are unhealthy. My two new favorite late-Autumn/Early-Winter meals are shared below... neither of them are too terrible unhealthy. Enjoy-- and happy Christmas Season Eve.

Roasted Vegetable Salad:

2-4 servings
  • Make a trip to Trader Joes & buy the following: 1 bag of pre-cut Butternut Squash or Sweet Potatoes, 1 Bag of mini-Zucchini, 1 bag of baby Carrots, 1 tub of Grape Tomatoes, 1 Onion, 1 head of Garlic, 1 tub of Goat Cheese & one bag of Mixed Greens.
  • Preheat oven to 400 degrees
  • In a baking dish, toss the Butternut Squash/Sweet Potatoes, Zucchini, 1/2 the Carrots, a handful of Tomatoes, 1/2 a sliced Onion, 5 whole cloves of Garlic with a few glugs of Olive Oil, a few splashes of Balsamic Vinegar, Salt & Pepper. Bake for 30-45 minutes, until the carrots and butternut squash are tender.
  • Divide 1/2 the Salad mix on plates, and spoon roasted veggies on top, using the extra juices as salad dressing. Sprinkle with a little Goat Cheese & enjoy!

Green Onion Risotto
(from Epicurious)
2-4 servings
  • 4 cups (or more) low-salt chicken broth
  • 2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) butter (I use less)
  • 1 bunch green onions, white parts finely chopped, green parts thinly sliced
  • 1 cup arborio or medium-grain rice
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • 2 tablespoons Fat Free Half & Half (from Trader Joe's)
  • Bring broth to simmer in medium saucepan over medium heat. Reduce heat to low and keep warm.
  • Melt butter in large saucepan over medium heat. Add chopped green onions and cook until soft, stirring often, about 6 minutes. Stir in rice. Add wine; cook until almost all liquid is absorbed, stirring frequently, about 2 minutes. Add 4 cups broth, 1 cup at a time, cooking until almost all broth is absorbed before adding more, stirring frequently, until rice is tender but still firm, about 20 minutes. Stir in sliced green onions, Parmesan, and Half & Half. Add more broth by 1/4 cupfuls as needed if dry. Season with salt and pepper.
**You can also serve 4 people a yummy, filling meal by combining these 2 recipes-- there should be more than enough, 'cause this is a super filling, vegetarian meal =)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Shoppers Remorse

Shopping is supposed to be fun. Unless I'm having a yucky Fat Day or I can't seem to find anything interesting in the stores, I tend to be one of those girls who enjoys shopping. I definitely love getting new things. Even a new tube of toothpaste or bottle of shampoo elicits a tiny thrill for me, and I have to confess that I actually enjoy grocery shopping-- all those pretty fruits & vegetables & endless opportunities for creativity in the kitchen. I've heard that a special little Happy Button goes off in most people's brains-- a chemical reaction that produces joy-- when they buy new things.

So why is it that for the last week or so, I have had a pit in my stomach with all the shopping I have been doing? No, I'm not going back on my Christmas resolution or getting caught up in new clothes-- we are in the market for a new car.

Every time I say those words I get understanding nods & sympathetic looks (and, of course,
advice). I thought that shopping for a new car would be fun-- like getting a new tube of toothpaste, only exponentially better. It turns out that I would rather just get the toothpaste.

It seems as though our entire world is revolving around cars-- researching, crunching numbers,
looking into loans, talking about money, test driving, trying to shake off the grime of skeazy car salesmen. Chris & I decided we were going to spend quality time together the other night-- not talking about cars or watching TV, but just being together. We couldn't think of a single thing to do. We sat on the couch, staring off into space, sipping our tea and trying to avoid what was on both of our minds: The Question of Which Car to Buy?

It should be pretty straight forward: look at a few reports
, drive a few cars, talk to some friends & family members who are more knowledgeable than I, and make our choice. But it seems that no one can agree on what the best car for us might be.

Just when we thought we had our choice nailed down (a Toyota Matrix), I suddenly got cold feet. I don't want a car. I just want my Isuzu Trooper-- my 14 year old, 200,000mi, clunky, gas guzzling, ready to fall apart at the seams Trooper. I love that thing. Who wants an expensive, dinky, trendy little car when I can keep Old Faithful? Well, that's just the thing: I can't keep Old Faithful, and all roads seem to lead down the path of new car smells. No more throwing the dog in the back of our SUV after a romp at the beach, or hauling Craigslist couches around, or driving over curbs when parallel parking, or off-roading in Big Bear. I guess maybe that's part of growing up.

It's not just that I'm being whiney and adverse to change. The truth is that I'm scared. It makes me ill to think of spending so much-- and whether its new or used, it feels like a lot of money, when we go out to the movies about 4 times a year & buy our wine at Grocery Outlet.

There are a hundred reasons why we should get a new Toyota Matrix (which I have gone over so many times that I just can't bear to type out in explanation-- but trust me, it makes sense on paper), and especially to buy it within the next 2 weeks (yikes! Those darn Dealer Incentives). But when I just want my big, boxy SUV, it's hard to drop that kind of cash on something I just don't feel excited about.

The thing is, I want to live a life that is simple, generous, open handed & free from distractions. That's hard enough to do, living in San Francisco. I am honestly afraid that adding something so expensive just won't match up to those values. I pray & I research & I talk it over with everyone (until we're all tired of it), and I still feel unsettled.

What's a girl to do? Part of me just wants to make the decision & get it over with, so I can get my
life & especially my marriage back. I can't even remember how many times in the last few days I've fallen asleep on the couch while Chris researches cars online. Nothing says Romance like Consumer Reviews or Morris the car salesman. I'm tempted to do that "say a prayer, close my eyes & spin the globe until my finger stops on my perfect destination" type of thing.

I guess, in the end, it's just a car. It doesn't define me, or my marriage, or my life. I suppose all we can do is make the best decision we know how, working together, and either be content or learn from our mistakes. That doesn't sound so bad... but it still scares me to death ;)

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Advent Conspiracy

This week marked the first day of winter for me. Yes, I know, it's barely November-- but on Tuesday, the air was crisp and cold, the sun set at approximately 2pm, our house developed a frigid draft, and I actually had a wear a jacket outside during the day (something this Southern Californian can never get used to).

Not that I'm complaining-- although there will be a time for that. After all, there's nothing more delicious than snuggling under flannel sheets & a down blanket when it's frosty outside... or stocking up your kitchen with butternut squash, risotto, and hot chocolate. I'm
still in that honeymoon phase where sweaters & scarves are fun & exciting and rainy weekends mean reading on the couch, while listening to our Fireplace DVD (don't make fun-- something about having that crackling fire on the TV screen actually does heat up our apartment. I swear).

But, of course, the one thing that really makes the coming of Winter exciting is Christmas. Oh, just writing that sends a little thrill up my spine, and I feel the adrenaline pumping merely thinking about setting up our little Christmas t
ree, listening to the Rat Pack sing Christmas carols, walking by Macy's display window in Union Square (with all the little puppies & kittens from the SPCA), and unwrapping the carved wooden nativity scene we bought in Uganda. Be still my heart. Decency and proper etiquette keep me from doing any of these things before Thanksgiving has had its turn-- but a girl can still dream.

One thing I am working hard not to dream about, though, is my Christmas wish list. Chris & I live on a pretty tight budget, and really only get new things twice a year, at Christmas and on our birthdays. Because of our parents' generosity (some would call it gluttonous spoiling), we do pretty well for ourselves, and I rarely feel want or need.

In fact, most years, as Christmas approaches, I start off by saying "I really don't know what to ask for. I have everything I need." I rack my brain and finally realize that a new sweatshirt would be nice. Oh, and I could use a pair of tights for when it gets cold... and a skirt to go with them, when I wear my tall boots. On second thought, another pair of jeans that fit under my boots would be great, too. And its always nice to take a little trip to the spa for a facial. Oh yeah, I was thinking I wanted new PJ's...

You can see where this is going. Ever since we have gotten married
and my gift receiving has increased by 1/3rd, I look at my closet, post-present opening, and feel a little nauseated. Every year, I tell myself I will return some of it-- that I don't need that much stuff, and that it just breeds greed & materialism in me. To my recollection, though, I never have... and that makes my heart heavy.

Last night, one of our stude
nts showed us this great video called Advent Conspiracy. You should definitely watch it. In fact, watch it right now, before you continue reading....
I just watched it again, and it really is so inspiring.

So, in light of the $450 billion dollars spent on Christmas every year, and the $10 billion it would take to bring clean drinking water to the entire world, I have decided that I want to change the way I do Christmas. I need to think & pray about it a little more, but I know I want at least half of the opulent amounts of money spent on me over Christmas to go to the poor.

Sadly, it hurts a little bit just saying that, and I confess a part of me wonders if I will be able to stick with it. I think about all those things that my mind so easily jumped to-- the things that I want, but don't need. I think about the little thrill I get wearing new clothes, feeling stylish, and just how fun it is to have something *new*. I love it. I relish it. But I hate it at the same time. What if I could really free myself from that, and, instead, find a deeper joy in giving?

Part of me feels ashamed at how difficult it is to make that commitment. But there it is, in black & white, posted for all the world (or the 3 people that actually read this blog) to see. I don't write all of this to sound magnanimous or holy, but to share my internal struggle & to challenge others to do the same.

What do you really need?
What can you do without?
What can you give away?

These are questions I have been asking myself for a while now, and I confess, I haven't been very quick to act. Let that change now, little by little.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Purple... or Black

All right, I admit it: I am probably the worst informed, most ignorant human during this election season. And I confess that I do feel a little bit of shame in my ignorance-- but only a little bit.

There are two reasons why my shame is minimal:

1) I will have nothing better to do this coming election day than my normal Tuesday routine. The reason is that I have been disenfranchised. Although I have lived in San Francisco for over three years, and have registered to vote here, every year when I go to cast my ballot, my voter information mysteriously disappears. Chris-- who is registered as Independent-- has always been able to vote, but I-- although I don't say it loudly here-- am registered Republican, and always get lost in the shuffle.

Chris reminded me of this little conspiracy recently, and-- like a good little citizen-- I printed out my voter registration to make sure that there would be no snags this time around (Haha! Take that, you crazy San Franciscans!). I then proceeded to leave that registration under a pile of mail and missed the registration deadline. Clearly, this is a conspiracy to keep me disenfranchised. However, it also allows me to tune out all political jargon because I am no longer responsible for the fate of our nation. Sorry guys, I can't help you this time.

2) My ignorance breeds only minimal guilt both because of a streak of rebellion and a fear of confrontation.

Now, my idea of rebellion is getting my nose pierced my & having a
small tattoo on my back. I kind of missed out on the whole lying to my parents & sneaking out the bedroom window to party High School days. And I get irritated when my little expressions of individuality become trendy-- like how every girl in the world seems to have their nose pierced or a tattoo on their back ("Tramp Stamp"... awesome. Just the image I was hoping to convey); and even little things, like when knitting became popular in the Christian crowd, and I had to give it up because it just didn't seem fun & different anymore. I know, I'm a rebel.

Well, this rebellious, need-to-be-different streak has really gotten me into trouble with politics. I just can't decide who to rebel against. Do I roll my eyes and scoff at my conservative, right-wing upbringing, breaking the shackles of the Republican regime and gaining independence not only for myself, but for the millions of poor & oppressed around the world? OR, do I rebel against these starry-eyed Neo-Socialist liberals, and stand up for God's Way, voting as Jesus would?

And that's where the other problem comes in: the fear of confrontation. Partly, it is my ignorance that keeps me out of political debates (I confess, I don't want to sound stupid, and I don't have many actual facts to add to the conversation). But also, I just can't stand all the arguing, the polarization and the name-calling that seems to be inevitable with those conversations. Can't we all just get along?? I simply don't want to become one of those ugly, angry people.

This is the part where my satirical irony turns serious. I live in an extremely liberal city, and work for a very conservative Christian organization. I hear every argument, see every bumper sticker, and get every email forward known to man. And the more I hear, see and smell, the less I want to be a part of it.

It seems like every opinion is based, not on issues or
passion, but on anger, dislike, mistrust and an us-verses-them mentality-- from both sides of the fence. I see inside myself a propensity for that same grumbling, complaining attitude, that same subtle sense of superiority over the other side, and that same habit of generalizing, assuming and name-calling. And it scares me. I simply don't want to allow that to breed inside of me because I admit that I see my own weakness to it.

The other night, after coming home from another gathering where angry politics seemed to be the flavor of the day, I felt confused, unsettled & ugly inside. Questions were swimming around in my mind:
  • Shouldn't my relationship with God keep me from generalizations, from judging or labeling groups of people, having an in-crowd and an out-crowd, or an us-verses-them mentality?
  • Shouldn't my love for people allow me to truly listen to others' opinions and help them to feel safe, known and cared for? Why do political conversations always seems to offend, divide, assume & polarize?
  • What was really important to Jesus: Homosexuality? Abortion? Immigration? The Economy? War? How did He respond to the political questions of His time?
  • How can I live a life of love, acceptance & freedom and still interact with politics? Is there a way to do blend my spirituality and my ballot?
  • What issues are truly important to me? Why are so few of those issues ever discussed by either side?
During the angry political discussion I found myself trapped in (the one that led me to all those questions), a [politically passionate] friend exclaimed "I honestly don't know how anybody could still be undecided at this point in the election!" Chris & I looked at each other and smiled. He quietly said, "I am." The silence was deafening as roomful of shocked Democrats stared at him in disbelief (and if it was a different crowd, I'm sure Republicans would have been equally shocked). "There are a lot of issues that are important to me," he said " and I don't think either side fully represents all of them. I'm honestly torn." [Luckily, we escaped with our lives and our friendships in tact]

Let it be known that I have a great love for my country, and-- despite my sarcasm-- I truly believe it is my civic duty to be involved in politics (or at least to vote-- too bad I screwed up on that one!). Let it also be known that I am not blaming, accusing or claiming that everyone else is wrong, while I have found some magnanimous path to enlightenment.

My question is: What do I do when both sides have issues that I believe in and disagree with? What about those issues that no one is talking about? And, most importantly, can I live my life not being Blue or Red, but simply a follower of Jesus? Does that have to be a color?

In the Art World, Red and Blue make Purple. But I don't know if I want to be a blend. I think I would rather be something completely different-- like Black, maybe... the absence of color. Besides, Black is kind of different and rebellious, and sounds so politically correct. ;)