Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Philosophy of Time

I grew up, for all intents and purposes, on a college campus. Before you get images of a six-year-old Mel wandering around frat parties in a toga and learning how to tap a keg before she even learned cursive, let me explain. My dad worked for a small liberal arts college in the Midwest, his alma mater and what would become my alma mater as well. With a small school like that, a community of sorts builds around the faculty, staff, and their families. Many hours of my youth were spent at college sporting events or playing hide and seek among the maze of filing cabinets in my dad's office or visiting my dad for lunch during breaks. Many of the professors knew me in diapers and were called "Uncle" by my sis and me. When I became a student there myself, there were professors whose classes I "boycotted" because I just felt awkward taking classes with people I knew so well. When my dad died, the first people to arrive on our doorstep to offer comfort were people from the college. My love for that institution runs deep because it is my home -- emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually.

Since graduating and starting my career, the time I spend on campus is admittedly little even though it's just located across town. Part of it is the fact that my career consumes so much of my time. Part of it is that it's a tough place to be without my dad. Just driving by the building where he worked for the majority of my life can give me a bit of a lump in my throat, and there's a small part of me that still expects to see him bouncing out the door. The times when I do tend to go back are usually to see a play or, lately, for a memorial service.

You see, those professors I grew up idolizing and eventually learning from are growing older, and despite what I may have suspected as a kid who would beg Dad to let me come have lunch with him and his friends in the Gizmo (the campus snack bar), they're proving to be mortal. In the past two years or so, three of these men who were fixtures of my youth have passed away, prompting the hosting of memorial services on campus. I always go to these services partly to pay respect to people who helped shape me but also because I kind of imagine it's something my dad would expect of me -- to go as his family representative.

I attended such a service today. As I looked around, I saw all these familiar faces -- people I've known longer than just about anyone outside of my family. There was my faculty adviser; there was the professor who taught me everything I know about writing (and grading writing); there was the woman who'd worked across the hall from my dad for decades; there was the professor who was the first one to tell me that I would be making a huge mistake if I didn't go into teaching. The thing is that these people are now, well, old. Hair is grey that didn't used to be. Weight has been gained or lost. Canes are present that weren't there before. The characters remained the same despite the betrayal of the outer shell. And then the thought occurred to me that I'M older, too. There might be grey hairs lurking under the ginger. Weight has most definitely been gained or lost (depending on when they last saw me). The little girl or saucy co-ed that exists in their memories is no more ... on the outside. It led me to ponder the very nature of time and come to the startling conclusion that time is a bitch.

As I listened to the stories that these people shared about their lost friend, I felt a profound sense of sadness. I'd lost a family friend, someone I'd never even had as a professor in class (largely because the thought of taking a philosophy class in college just intimidated the stuffing out of me). These people had lost a buddy, a partner, a friend. The stories they shared so vividly are now just memories, and the figures who populate those stories are slowly disappearing. This is a community that has been rocked by the loss of paragon after paragon, and the campus I grew up on is not the same one that some precocious little kid would grow up on today and it seems so weird to me that there are students attending the school who wouldn't understand the stories that my friends and I have of certain professors and their classes. How lucky we were to get on campus when these legends were still in their prime, before they succumbed to retirement and loss. I thought of how bonded in time my classmates and I are with classes before us in ways that younger students will never understand. And I felt sorry for those younger students. Even though I know their experience is a rich one, they are deprived of some incredible times -- both in the classroom and out.

Deeply philosophical for a Thursday afternoon in July, no?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Recipe I'll Share

Earlier this month, I said that, while I've spent the summer trying a wide variety of healthy recipes, I am reluctant to blog about them since very little of what I've been cooking has been original but rather recipes I've found on a variety of websites. I'm relenting tonight to share a recipe that's quickly become a favorite Chez Mel. This is a recipe that I feel like I've modified significantly enough that I don't feel like a plagiarist sharing it with you.

This is a super filling meal and really takes little to no time at all to put together. I suspect it'll become a regular when school starts because I can make it quickly when I'm tired after a long day of teaching, coaching, and directing.

Black Bean Wraps

1 can of black beans, drained
1 large tomato, diced
1 avocado
1 tsp of lime juice (roughly)
1/2 cup of shredded cheddar cheese
4 whole wheat tortillas
garlic powder

-- Heat the black beans. Add a couple dashes of garlic powder according to your taste.
-- Put the avocado, cilantro, lime juice, and about 1/4 cup of the diced tomato in a food processor and blend. (Yeah, you're making guacamole. If you're looking to save even more time, buy a jar of pre-made guac.)
-- On each tortilla, put a tablespoon or two of guacamole and spread. Then add beans, tomatoes, and 1/8 cup of cheese. You can also top with a little sour cream if you're so inclined.

At my house, we each eat about 2 and are very satisfied. I've toyed with using salsa in lieu of the tomatoes just for a little extra kick of flavor. These are relatively low in calories, full of protein and "good fats", and super tasty. They've been a great, light dinner on hot summer nights. Give them a whirl and see what you think.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Wii Be Jammin'

This has been the summer of getting healthy again. About five years ago, I lost a lot of weight through healthy eating and an obsessive workout regimen. Five years later, I've put on a large portion of that lost weight and completely fallen out of the workout habit. I got lazy. I got complacent. And I've got a closet full of clothes that bear witness to that. My goal is to get back into those clothes. I began the process this summer with a renewed focus on what I eat and how much I eat. I've revolutionized my eating habits, introducing more fruits and vegetables and cutting back on unhealthy, processed junk foods. I could count on one hand the number of times I've eaten fast food this summer -- and those three times found me ordering a grilled chicken sandwich or a salad rather than a greasy burger and fries. (I've not eaten french fries since early June. Seriously!)

The result of this healthy eating is that I just feel better. I've lost roughly 15 pounds in about six weeks. What hasn't happened in that six weeks, though, is a renewed focus on exercise. I've talked about rejoining a gym, but I am worried that I will struggle to find time to go to the gym and will essentially be pouring money down the drain. I wake up every morning and think, "Oh, I should go for a walk" but it's too hot; "Oh, I should ride the exercise bike" but I don't feel like putting on shoes; "Oh, I should do yoga from On Demand" but I'm too lazy. I've been really disappointed in myself.

At the same time, my sis and I have been talking for about six months about buying a video game system. My motivation was initially two-fold: I wanted to be able to live stream Netflix onto my tv and I wanted to be able to play Rock Band. (That would allow me to realize my long-held dream to be a rock-n-roll drummer!) After reading and researching and talking to friends, I settled on buying a Wii. It gave me all that I wanted with an added bonus -- it would force me to get off my fat ass and be active. (And before you ask, no, Wii Fit is NOT on my wish list right now. I am just not ready to have a video game tell me how fat and out of shape I am. Maybe once I'm fitting into those clothes in the closet I'll be ready for a snarky video fitness trainer.)

I bought the Wii last week. It came with Wii Sports and Wii Sports Resort. I will admit that we spent the first day or so of Wii ownership watching stuff on Netflix. I was excited to be able to watch first season episodes of Saturday Night Live; my sis was excited to find old school 90's Nickelodeon cartoons like Angry Beavers and Aah! Real Monsters. Slowly but surely, though, we've found our way into the game discs. I spent Friday afternoon while my sis was at work playing 18 holes of golf . . . and going a stunning 36 shots over par. My sis has found a talent for bowling with a score pushing 200. She also is, apparently, quite a basketball prodigy. Yesterday before we went to the movie, I played about a half hour of tennis -- and did the same this morning upon waking up.

While playing tennis yesterday, I realized I was breaking a sweat -- like pretty seriously. I did a little research and found out I'd burned close to 100 calories in that half hour. Not too shabby.

I know that the Wii cannot be my only source of exercise and that eventually I need to motivate myself to pursue some more serious outlets for fitness. But at least the Wii is putting me one step closer to those elusive clothes in the closet and making me feel a little less like a lazy slug. And if I can have a little bit of fun at the same time, how much cooler is that?

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Dream a Little Dream

AMC Theaters were offering dollar popcorn and sodas today, so it was the perfect time to catch a flick. I haven't had as much free time as I'd hoped this summer between acting as production manager for a local community theatre production of The Sound of Music and teaching a class at the nearby community college. There were a ton of movies playing in town that I would love to see, but my sis and I decided on Inception, figuring of all the movies playing in town, it would be the one we'd be the most disappointed not to have seen in theaters. So after a healthy breakfast of scrambled eggs with spinach and portabella mushrooms, we headed out.

I have always really admired Christopher Nolan's work. Memento is one of the best films of this century, and The Dark Knight proved that blockbuster doesn't have to be synonymous with lobotomy. Even Insomnia, which is probably the weakest of his post-Memento work, is pretty great, an overlooked gem. I went into Inception, then, with some pretty lofty expectations.

Nolan was a bit close-mouthed about this film and I purposely avoided reading many of the reviews (they just give away too much!), so I wasn't entirely sure what to expect outside of some killer visuals and probably a mind-freak of a story. That's precisely what I got. Nolan creates what is essentially a caper film set in the dreamscape. Leonardo DiCaprio (who seriously grows more appealing with each film) plays Cobb, a man who is able to invade people's dreams to extract information buried in their subconscious. He is hired by Saito, an Asian businessman (Ken Watanabe) to try to accomplish the opposite -- to invade someone's dream to plant an idea there. Cobb and his team (including Ellen Page and Joseph Gordon-Levitt) have to find a way to plant the idea in such a way that the "victim" (Cillian Murphy) believes that the idea originated with him. Thus begins an elaborate labyrinth of dreamscapes created by the team to accomplish their mission, a mission jeopardized by Cobb's own dream demons, specifically his wife (Marion Cotillard) who seems to be a dream saboteur.

Inception is both simple and incredibly complex. There were large chunks of time during the film where I felt like I had a permanent "WTF" look on my face as I tried to sort through the twists and turns the film kept throwing at me. When the film was over, my sis and I both looked at each other with the same bewildered expression, albeit one tempered by the exhilaration of being challenged and entertained at the same time. As we left, the people in front of us were discussing the film and trying to sort through the complexities. When was the last time you left a big Hollywood film and witnessed that?

Inception delivers on many levels -- it is smart and creative and vastly entertaining. The visuals, at times, take your breath away. Nolan is the filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan wants to be -- smart, surprising, and entertaining all wrapped up into one. I appreciate that Nolan never panders to his audience; instead, he seems to expect his audience to rise to his challenge. In a summer crammed full of sequels, Nolan's originality is a breath of fresh air.

Not that Inception is a perfect film. As much as I liked it, it shared some of the same qualities that often frustrate me a bit with his work. Nolan's films often seem to suffer from a certain emotional sterility. While there may be heartbreaking things happening onscreen (Guy Pierce trying to solve his wife's murder, Bruce Wayne witnessing the murder of his parents, Batman being forced to choose between his beloved Rachel or the noble Harvey Dent), there is a detachment at play there that often keeps me from getting truly emotionally invested in what's going on. Sometimes, the actors are able to rise above the restraints Nolan has in place. (I'm thinking in particular of Maggie Gyllenhaal's final moments onscreen in The Dark Knight.) Here, there are times when DiCaprio and crew seem to be going through the motions rather than the emotions; I felt like I was being kept at arm's length rather than being truly invited into their world.

The movie clocks in at 2 hours and 28 minutes, but it honestly could have used about five minutes more just to give the audience a tiny bit more exposition. I feel pretty safe in saying that the concept of dream banditry is pretty foreign to just about every single person sitting in the theatre, and yet the film begins mid-action with absolutely no context to help the audience adjust to this new world. Yes, that's part of the high expectations Nolan places on his audience, but it can also be a bit alienating to spend the first hour or so of a film trying to figure out just the basics of the world that's being presented. Is this dream robbery common knowledge in this universe? How does one get into such a line of work? Repeated viewings might help unlock some of the riddles lurking beneath the surface of the film, but that's expecting an awful lot of people to keep coming back to the theater again and again just to grasp what should be basic plot elements. It's not bad to create a film that benefits from repeat viewings, but it shouldn't demand such a commitment of time and money from the audience that just wants to understand what the hell is going on.

On the whole, though, Inception is a good film and definitely a film that should be enjoyed on the big screen. Eat a lot of fruits and veggies before you go to increase your brain power, though, because you will definitely be giving the ol' noggin a workout for those 2-1/2 hours. After a summer filled with vampires, airbenders, predators, and Adam Sandler, doesn't your brain deserve a little something more in its entertainment? Just follow it up with a walk down the hall to see Toy Story 3 if your heart needs a little something more engaging after the brain's gotten its feast.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Culinary Plagiarist

This summer has been one of great experimentation in the kitchen. I've spent countless hours on the internet trolling the myriad of cooking sites looking for healthy recipes I can try. I've tried foods I've never had before and cooked things I've never cooked before. With very few exceptions, every recipe I've tried has been a winner. Typically, those experiments have led to a joyful Facebook status or an email shot to other friends trying to find healthy recipes. A couple friends have even suggested that I blog more about the recipes I've been whipping up.

Therein lies my ethical dilemma. As much as I wish I had, I am not inventing these recipes. I'm looking at sites like Delish, Hungry Girl, and Skinny Taste. I've also become quite fond of the recipes found at Slim Fast. Is it really all that special that I'm cooking these amazing meals if the real credit belongs to the experts who created these sites? Even if I give credit where credit is due, I still feel like I'd be cheating.

Instead, I will recommend those looking for some healthy, tasty meals, to hit any of the sites I've listed here -- or just start googling recipes. I found some great recipes using quinoa just by visiting Google. When I wanted to try my hand at making guacamole for the first time, I ended up with a ton of different variations on the recipe and was able to create a sort of hybrid recipe that worked with the ingredients I had lying around the fridge. The point is that you don't have to be a slave to the same old routine, nor do you need to keep throwing your money at Ronald McDonald to fill you full of grease and fat. You can revolutionize your diet without leaving your desk, and maybe you'll be about 15 pounds lighter after six weeks, too.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Only in America

I am a thrifty Yankee, which is just my fancy way of saying that I like saving money. Don't get me wrong -- I love SPENDING money (as my checking account balance will tell you). Spending that money, though, brings an even greater thrill to me if I am saving in the process -- getting a bargain, using a coupon, that sort of thing. It is not unusual to find me spending a Saturday going to multiple grocery stores to take advantage of the sales each one offers. (And yes, I realize I'm probably blowing any savings in gas used, but hey! Don't rain on my parade!) My friends often tease me that any display of a new item is usually followed by a reporting of where I got it and how much I saved on it. There are times, though, when I draw the line.

I encountered just such a line Friday afternoon. I was at my local Hy-Vee taking advantage of an amazing meat sale they were having. (All the meat and cheese you could fit in a bag -- 15% off. I bought roughly 20 meals worth of meat for $50 and that $50 included buying a pint of raspberries, a pint of blueberries, curry powder, and seasoned salt called for in a recipe I have planned for later this week -- and the thrifty Yankee in me knows that Hy-Vee is the BEST place to buy spices for a reasonable price!) I stocked up on pork chops, steaks, and some organic chicken breasts.

As I headed towards the front, I happened to notice that there was a coupon on the front of the chicken announcing $1 off. My heart skipped a beat -- not only was I saving 15%, but now I could save yet another couple dollars? SWEET! Well, it was sweet until I looked closer at the coupon, and that's when I literally laughed out loud and marveled at the insanity of food consumption in our country.

Only in America, you see, would you be able to save a dollar off organic chicken . . . IF . . . you buy . . . a box of Velveeta shells and cheese.

Yes, the coupon was essentially encouraging you (and giving you a pretty nice little incentive) to pair this delicious, nutritious, healthy chicken breast with what is probably the most processed brand of macaroni and cheese you can get. In other words, be healthy but don't go crazy there!

It reminded me of a conversation my friend Danielle and I have had before. Both of us make concerted efforts to eat healthier and to buy healthy, nutritious foods. We often bond over the kind of smug self-satisfaction we both feel at the grocery store when we're loading up the conveyor belt with fruits and vegetables and healthy food rather than all sorts of junky, unhealthy foods like chips and candy. (Okay, yes, I still buy chips, but I go for fat free Pringles and have finally reached a point where I can make one tube last more than a week rather than one sitting!) Danielle says that she always feels like she's "sticking it to the man" in those moments.

Friday, it became clear that the man was "sticking it" back. Clearly, the producers of less-than-healthy foods are not going to take it sitting down when people opt to eschew their foods for better options. The Velveeta people made their appeal in the way most likely to get them some success -- offering money off. Organic chicken breasts are not cheap. The price can often be a bit prohibitive to people on a budget. Saving a dollar makes the cost much more appealing -- and closer in price to non-organic breasts. So let's "reward" them for both buying organic AND buying processed junk at the same time. People can leave the store feeling like they've done their part for the earth, for their health, and for their wallets, and the makers of Velveeta keep injecting their nastiness into American diets. Win-win.

I'm onto you, though, Mr. Man. I did NOT buy Velveeta Shells and Cheese, but I did buy plenty of organic chicken and other healthy foods. Keep it coming, though, Mr. Man. I welcome your challenges to my fortitude as well as your appeals to my thriftiness. Don't forget, though, that while I am a thrifty Yankee, I'm also a stubborn Irish girl, and this will is hard to shake, pal!

Saturday, July 10, 2010

My Self-Evident Truths

There are some things that I know are true about myself. I know that I have patience issues. I know that I could be more frugal. I know I'm a nerd. And I know I could not live a life without certain "basic" luxuries we take for granted.

This last truth was driven home over the course of this week as I decided to honor the birth of our nation by watching HBO's brilliant mini-series John Adams. First of all, I want to re-iterate that this mini-series is brilliant. The performances given particularly by Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney are a thing of beauty. I felt as if I was completely in the palm of their hand as they moved through their parts with such nuance and grace. Truly inspiring stuff!

Because Giamatti and Linney imbued their parts with such pitch-perfect realism, it allowed me to become just as engaged in what was the reality of John and Abigail Adams. At one point, I even thought to myself, "How on earth did people LIVE like this?" This was a time when your best bet for communicating with someone who was away was to hope you ran into a mutual friend who happened to be heading there. Abigail Adams entrusts letters to her husband with George Washington, knowing he will deliver them safely and that her words of chastely beautiful love won't fall into the hands of the British who would use them to mock Adams. For a lengthy stretch in their fifty-four year marriage, Adams was in Europe working to acquire much-needed allies and funding for the infant nation and his wife was home in Massachusetts raising their four children, tending their farm, and feeling very much abandoned by her husband who never wrote. Today, of course, the Adamses would have shot lengthy emails or spent late nights on Skype or even engaged in some randy sexting. How much easier would those years have been on Abigail and her children if they had had the ready access to communication that we have today?

Once Adams returned to the States, there were even more little glimpses of how I would never survive in post-Revolutionary America. To move from place to place, the only means of transportation available were riding horseback or riding in what looked to be a hideously uncomfortable carriage. Remember, too, that this was before such a thing as paved roads. Watching John Adams wedged in between the clearly unwashed masses in a crowded carriage as he left the White House for the last time, I could imagine the smell and discomfort and thanked the stars for my Chrysler Sebring and vowed to stop complaining about all of its faults (which are principally that I have not yet paid it off and it is not a Toyota Prius).

Of course, I have yet to hit on the medical advances I take for granted -- like anesthesia and toothpaste. As the Adamses aged, their teeth showed the ravages of time, becoming progressively black and gnarly looking. Even worse were the scenes where the Adamses daughter Nabby was diagnosed with breast cancer. Initially, I was a bit shocked that doctors in the early 1800's knew what cancer was. For some reason, I thought it was one of those 20th century "discoveries." Slowly, though, the horror of Nabby's diagnosis settled in when the doctor announced that the young woman's breast would have to be removed to fight the cancer -- and I realized that this surgery would take place with no anesthesia, nothing to dull the horrific pain outside of a stick wrapped in cloth for her to bite down on when the pain was overwhelming. Nabby Adams Smith went through a mastectomy wide awake to the pain and horror of it. It was like a Saw movie brought to life and who knows how many women endured such torture for years before medicine advanced enough to at least knock them out for the surgery.

Of course, in the absence of all these things we take for granted, I also couldn't help but once again marvel in the miracle that was the birth of this nation. Perhaps one of the most moving scenes for me came in the moments following the Continental Congress's vote to declare independence from England. I imagined a scene of whooping and rejoicing -- a complete embodiment of the revolutionary spirit. Instead, the men sat there in silence with this look on their faces that basically said, "Good Lord, what have we just done?" The weight of their vote clearly sat heavy on their shoulders as they came to terms with just what their vote meant -- the death, the sacrifice, and the danger that was ahead for them and all they held dear.

And they did it all without Facebook and toothpaste. Miraculous!

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Happy Birthday, America

I'm not one of those people who wears her patriotism on her sleeve. I don't own any flag pins or patriotic t-shirts. I don't fly a flag. I've never once uttered a phrase like, "Love it or leave it." I never copy and paste the pro-America Facebook statuses that my friends often implore me to do. Being a liberal, I'm sure it would be easy to even question my patriotism since I've never been shy about voicing my disgust with choices made in the government. Yes, I get frustrated. I get angry.

And yet, I am a patriot.

Flaws and all, I love this country. I love that I get to wake up every morning and make choices that others don't get the opportunity to make. I love that I have opportunities available to me regardless of my gender, skin color, or religious beliefs. I love that I can say what I think without fear. I love that I am protected from tyranny. I love that I live in a nation where culture can thrive, where intellect can prosper, and where choices are abundant.

As you celebrate the birth of our nation today, I encourage you to think about what an amazing thing this birth was 234 years ago. A group of people decided that enough was enough and sat down and created an amazing document -- the Declaration of Independence. Click that link and read that document and think about what a bold and brave thing these men did. They stared into the face of the most powerful nation in the world (the U.S. of its time -- perhaps even mightier) and said, "Fuck you!" They had had enough of the King's tyranny, and they had an idea that maybe they could create something better. When push came to shove, they just wanted to live their lives freely and not have to wake up worrying what new hassle the King would present them. They wanted to govern themselves and not be subjected to the whims of the King. They wanted independence and so they sat down and declared it. Not only that, but they had the balls to actually sign their names to what could easily have become their own death sentence. They were willing to lose everything -- their lives, their fortunes, and their honor -- in order to insure freedom. It's a thing of beauty, and I never fail to get a lump in my throat when I read those words and think about the hope that emanates from every word on the page -- the hope that things will get better.

Today, I will spend my Independence Day the way many Americans are. I'm going to go to a movie. I'm going to grill out with some friends. I'm going to watch fireworks. But I'm also going to spend a little time thinking about the amazing, courageous, rebellious spirit that ignited 234 years ago and made it possible for me to do all those things. Let's keep the hope alive that we can continue in our pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness for many more years to come.