Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A Time and Place for Unhealthy Foods

My family hails from upstate New York, specifically the rural areas of Bainbridge and Walton, East of Binghamton. This is a land where nut-brown wood paneling and maroon vinyl adorn the bowling alleys and bars where my family gathers over the holidays. It is often bitterly cold outside during this time, the sun slanting early over the hills and the snow dust swirling like a lace curtain over the winding roads. Thus the cozy, dark corners of my Grandmother’s house and the local bars beckon us to gather there and linger for hours. This is vacation, after all, so I am always primed for a respite from my tidy routine. Good timing, since glistening popcorn balls, ribbons of strudel, scrumptious cakes and pies, succulent bacon, buttery mashed potatoes, golden fries and spicy hot wings suddenly besiege me. My sensory organs are piqued, my stomach ready to be commiserated and cheered.

I try to allow myself these few days away from my normal standards, but I am inexorably facing feelings of guilt deep in my psyche all the while. Why? Because I know too well the potential havoc these foods can wreak on my anatomy, and the environment to a great extent. But does it ever strike you as unfair that some of the best tasting foods are the worst for you?

No, I say, I will not be a patsy to my country’s gross obsession with fat and calories. It obviously has done nothing in the way of halting the spread of obesity and greed. Therefore, when faced with a platter of fried chicken tenders and fries that someone has ordered at the bowling alley my family often haunts during the holidays, I indulge in the name of tradition and celebration. It wouldn’t be fair to deny myself the full package of this experience, to not allow the wonder of comfort food to work its charm! The smell of the wing sauce, the glass rim of the beer bottle on my lips, the bowling saddle shoes on my feet, the sight of my family gathered together – the whole throw-my-reticence-to-the-wind experience must be fulfilled and relished; or these artifacts and scraps of nostalgia that illuminate my present life will fall prey to the wolves of dereliction. The scaffolding of my past will begin to decay with neglect. Thus, I indulge with reflection and gratitude, taking only enough to keep the wolves at bay, and leaving room for new memories to grow.

So go ahead, throw caution to the wind! Put an extra scoop of whipped cream on your hot cocoa and let the memories in!

How do you indulge and reminisce?

(Photo: My mom and I enjoy some holiday libations this Thanksgiving)

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Creature Comforts (Part 3): Paring down, Thankful Eating

This topic happens to fall on the week of our national Thanksgiving celebration. I write this from my Grandmother’s house in upstate New York, where my family has gathered over good food and drink to give thanks for all of life’s bounties. I was initially going to entitle this post, “Mindful Eating,” but upon realizing that Thanksgiving is but a day away, I will deliver my simple message via a short prose, so that I can get back to celebrating with my family, and so can you.

I love to eat. Food is undoubtedly one of my favorite things. I admit, however, that I don’t always “respect” everything I put in my mouth, most often because I am aware that the ingredients may not be all that wholesome for my body but at that moment I am too tired, too hungry, or too transfixed by the sweet, glorious crunchy sugar coating (for example) to care. What follows is usually a mindless devouring of the food in front of me, briefly satisfying as it goes down my throat. But in the end, I am left with an empty hole in my gut, as if the food I just held in my hands was only a mirage in a vast, empty desert. This is a habit I work hard to change, but I can't always expect perfection. Special occasions such as Thanksgiving, however, are great opportunities to put change into practice.

This Thanksgiving, as you sit down to this special meal with your family, take a moment to look at each delicious item on your plate. Imagine the time and energy that has gone into each bite. Think about the people you love who have prepared it, and if you took part in the preparations, give thanks – to God, to the universe, whatever your preference – for your ability to help. Be not just mindful of each bite, but thankful as well. Consider this your one chance to enjoy each bite, chewing slowly with focus and intent. Consider this likewise your one chance to observe the people who surround you, giving thanks for each of them as you enjoy this meal together. Do this today and everyday after.

After all, taking one day at a time, one bite at a time, and one celebration at a time, is the essence of paring down. It means choosing simplicity, but never accepting an empty hole in your gut – the great paradox of balance. So if you love your mother’s pumpkin pie that you get to eat but once or twice a year, don’t deny yourself that extra slice. Being thankful means relishing as well as slowing down. It means filling the void with simple gifts.

Happy Thanksgiving!

How do you give thanks everyday?

Monday, November 12, 2007

Creature Comforts (Part 3): Paring down: SHOPPING

Photo Ryan Smith ©

Continued from Paring Down, an introduction:

In regards to shopping and material possessions, how do we pare down without denying the happiness that can come with abundance?

I’m not going to deny it; sometimes money can provide happiness. As much as I am proud of my frugality and aptness at paring down, buying new things does provide a certain satisfaction when it comes to embracing and expressing my identity. But it is the simple enjoyment of each item I acquire that allows me to be mindful of when I have enough and when I just have too much.

I know a lot of people who buy something just because it is on sale. This is an easy way to quickly attain too much. I try to go shopping with a list of things I need (and “need” is subjective isn’t it?) and only buy those things. If something is on sale, great! If not, I usually base the level of need on the price and either take it or leave it. I try to be a selective and mindful shopper; as I hear my products beeping across the scanner at checkout, I pretend I am a kid in a candy store, ogling at what I am able to buy.

Ultimately, balance is the goal here: my $300 pair of cowgirl boots from Austin, Texas is one of my most prized material possessions. But though they sit on a shelf to be admired, I wear them (and dance in them) several times a week and have them repaired and cleaned often. Lesson: splurge when the time is right, but cherish the heck out of the purchase and admire it daily. Once you stop admiring or wearing an item, which often happens, give it away. This will de-clutter your mind and your closet, providing a new perspective on the wonderful things you still hold dear.

Also, take the time to go through that overflowing attic or that spare room full of stuff you’ve been meaning to sort through. Donate or recycle anything you no longer wear frequently, or that no longer serves an aesthetic or emotional purpose in your home. You will hopefully find that paring down is even more rewarding than filling up your shopping cart. Don’t save it for a rainy day! There’s no better time than now to initiate positive change in your life.

P.S. This also applies to buying gifts. Give fewer, more meaningful gifts – be excessive with warm complements and good cheer!

What are your most prized possessions and in what ways do you cherish them? What are your shopping habits and how do you pare down in regards to material possessions?

Monday, November 5, 2007

Creature Comforts (Part 3): Paring down, an Introduction

“In spite of illness, in spite even of the archenemy of sorrow, one can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways.”
- Edith Wharton
After a brief interlude, I continue my Creature Comforts series with another idea about how one might find a happy medium between comfort and precariousness. This topic will be presented in several parts since it is one worth deliberating on. Within these parts, I will hash out the notion of paring down: What does it mean to pare down in a society where more equals more? How can we pare down in a way that doesn’t deny us our happiness? And what’s the point? This section will serve as my introduction, followed by several posts that provide specific examples of how one might pare down.

“Simplify Life” is a notion that has gained more and more prevalence during the twenty-first century thus far. With all the choices available to us, and our burgeoning consumer habits, we are crying out for simplicity in the hopes of finding a more wholesome way to nourish our souls. As a culture, we often look back on the “good old days” as examples of how simple and easy life used to be. Things tend to seem as though they were better back then. Problem is, the people living “back then” looked to their pasts for the same inspiration. Thus, we must find ways to carve out simplicity in our present lives, lest we trap ourselves in an endless web of nostalgia. This can involve giving up some of our creature comforts, but in the end I truly believe it is worth the sacrifice.

Despite the heralds of gloom and doom about the shrinking middle class and lack of sufficient health care, my life as a North American feels downright cushy. Perhaps part of the reason I feel this way is due to my sunny disposition; I don’t often want for much and am generally satisfied with what I have. But I did indeed grow up in a country where it is easy to live comfortably, speaking subjectively of course, on teacher’s salaries. My parents, both teachers, had four children, and though I couldn’t always get the outfit or toy that I wanted, my basic needs were met and I had a blissfully happy childhood (no lie!). Essentially, I learned to rejoice in small ways and dream about big things (like the quote above). I believe this is the crux of the debate about frugality, prosperity, and simplicity in our abundant and plush society. It is the moral to this story.

So, what is the point of paring down?

I am going to be a bit extreme here and say it is our responsibility to pare down in everything we do day to day. It is our duty to limit in any ways we can the strain we put on our natural resources. Sure, spending bolsters the economy and we, as consumers, are what drive this capitalist machine. But it is easy to get more than we need or ask for in our society, e.g. whopping helpings at restaurants. Gladly, it isn’t hard to break the habit of accepting blindly what is placed in front of us. The point? Paring down is the simplicity we’re searching for, and it is not as hard to attain as we might think.

I look forward to reading your thoughts and comments about this topic in this and the following posts. Enjoy this great day!