Thursday, December 24, 2009

In the Kitchen

The Holiday Spirit has been elusive this year. I made all sorts of lists of things to bake and knit but most of them are still unmade. This morning though I felt more in the mood. I made some tea and cranked up the holiday music and got to work.

I did not have a whirling dervish in my kitchen. The cats could not be persuaded to dance, even to Run Run Rudolph. Instead I give you...

Coconut Rum Raisin Bundt Cake

There's a 1/2 a cup of rum in this baby. Fortunately there was a little extra batter and I was able to make a bundtlette, just for quality control of course.

Very tasty. Not that I was in doubt, what with the 2.5 sticks of butter, 1/2 cup of cream and the aforementioned rum. It's supposed to have a caramel drizzle but I think that is a little much. A simple dusting of powdered sugar will be much better.

Moving on now to biscotti & chocolate truffles.

I wish you all a very happy holiday and a wonderful New Year.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Winter Wonderland

Are you still out there dear readers? Or have you moved on to blogs that update more than once a quarter? I cannot blame you if you have. But if you are still here, here are some pretty pictures of the first winter snowfall. We will have a white solstice this year.

The Palisades

The Columbia University C

The Henry Hudson Bridge

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Good as New

I seem to be posting only once a month. It is still sort of annoying to type for an extended period. But that will be over soon, I am getting my hand fixed.
As some of you may know, I have had chronic problems with my right hand and wrist. Odd sensations, a feeling of internal pressure, and pain. Prior to having any health insurance I had gone to an acupuncturist and a massage therapist. Neither was terribly helpful. Yoga did seem to help and the pain was receding though the weird sensations remained. Then one day I noticed a lump on the top of my hand. It was only visible if I flexed my hand down, stretching the skin. Weird. What could it be? A bone out of place? Wouldn't that be terribly painful? Fortunately I know someone who has a formidable knowledge of anatomy. When I showed it to him without hesitation he said, "That's a ganglion cyst." Then he felt it. "Yup, feels like a cyst." Naturally I looked it up on the web. Then I made an appointment with an orthopedist and got the thing aspirated (i.e. sucked out with a hypodermic needle). This did not get rid of all the problems though the pain was mostly gone. As predicted by all the websites I'd visited the cyst returned. So I had it aspirated again. Still, no complete relief. The doctor said I might want to consider surgery. Normally I try to avoid that sort of thing but I simply cannot continue this way. I switched doctors at this point, opting for a hand specialist to do the surgery. I am going next Monday. I feel sort of beatific thinking about how wonderful it will be to have a hand that really works.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Pursuit of Happiness

You may be wondering what became of my happiness project. It's still going on. And I am not alone. The New York Times has a whole column about it called Happy Days: The Pursuit of What Matters in Troubled Times. The description says:

The severe economic downturn has forced many people to reassess their values and the ways they act on them in their daily lives. For some, the pursuit of happiness, sanity, or even survival, has been transformed. Happy Days is a discussion about the search for contentment in its many forms — economic, emotional, physical, spiritual — and the stories of those striving to come to terms with the lives they lead.

The topics of the column have ranged from near death experiences to spiritual retreats to the nature of sin among many others. I read it regularly and usually enjoy the essays though I don't always agree.

I have been having some troubles at work. One person's behavior has caused me and others to feel demoralized and increasingly stressed. I am not one of those people who can easily leave work behind; it follows me home, lurking in the back of my mind like some virtual bogeyman, ready to leap out and cause renewed irritation just when I begin to relax. I imagine conversations and plan speeches in my mind. What would John Adams say?
(He did say: “Be not intimidated… nor suffer yourselves to be wheedled out of your liberties by any pretense of politeness, delicacy, or decency. These, as they are often used, are but three different names for hypocrisy, chicanery and cowardice.”)
Perhaps just a wee bit much for a troublesome work situation. I have also found myself wishing that a particular event - poorly planned at the last minute - would tank and thereby teach the troublesome person a lesson. Disturbing and a sure sign that something must be done. The obvious thing is to find a different job but going about it willy nilly will not get me anywhere. That has been my modus operandi in the past - run away, not toward - and it just leads to the same situation in a different setting. I'm like the stereotypical battered woman who moves from one abusive man to another. So what can be done?
I intend to make an effort to bring back those little things that I have let slide. Like this blog for instance. And knitting. I don't know about you but I find it is easier to do something if I do it every day rather than once in a week. It becomes part of the structure of the day, a habit. So I will do some writing and some knitting - even if it is only a couple of sentences, a couple of rows - every day. And I will go out and sit in the park more often and cook interesting things for myself and maybe take a class here or there. I have allowed my jobs to take over my life and I have to take it back if I am to have any hope of transcending the cycle I have created for myself. Apathy is an easy habit to fall into and like all habits it is hard to break. Vigilance and faith will be required.

This brings me to Commandment 6. Live in the present. This is another toughy. I was thinking of getting a sign made. Attention: This is your life. It is happening now. Right now, this very moment. Be here. Or maybe I should get it tattooed so I can carry it with me wherever I go as a reminder to myself. Maybe I can even turn it into a habit.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Free Will or Not?

I've been reading Brian Greene's "The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality". It's quite readable, particularly since he likes to use the Simpsons in his explanatory metaphors. Some chapter names:

The Universe and the Bucket: Is Space a Human Abstraction or a Physical Entity?
The Frozen River: Does Time Flow?
Teleporters and Time Machines: Traveling Through Space and Time.

In this last one, Greene explores the concept of free will. If one accepts the tenets of classical physics then free will is an illusion. Bear with me while I try to explain.

In the beginning we had the Big Bang. All of the particles that make up the universe exploded outward in a specific way, their movement governed by the laws of physics. Therefore, if you knew the exact state of all of the particles in the universe at any given moment you could predict exactly where they would be at any other given moment. Therefore, you could predict the future. Everything that is happening is happening because it must. To quote Greene:

" You are made of a collection of particles, so if the laws of classical physics could determine everything about your particles at any moment -where they'd be, how they'd be moving and so on- your willful ability to determine your own actions would appear to be fully compromised."

Are you with me? This idea is simultaneously horrifying and incredibly comforting. On the one hand, you have no real choice. All of the good intentions and good will cannot avert disaster if that disaster is predetermined by what happened billions of years ago. If we are able to affect an event or to change something about ourselves it is only because that is how it must be. On the other hand, we can completely eliminate the dreaded what ifs. We agonize over decisions and when they do not turn out they way we want we think, what if? What if I had made another choice? Well, if you accept the deterministic view, then you made the only choice possible, there is no what if, not in this universe. This doesn't mean that we don't go on living each day, making choices, taking action; it just means that we make the only choices possible.

This is a very intriguing idea for someone like me. As has been noted, I have control issues. I have a lot of trouble just accepting things and spend a lot of time going over past events trying to find a way in which those events would have turned out differently. Faith that a higher power has things in hand is not an option; I just don't believe it. But this, this is science, logic, and reason. I understand it and I could accept that it is true, in spite of my need to control every last thing that happens. And if I can accept it and really believe it then it might release me from some of the endless rehashing of the past and worrying about the future (cue Doris Day singing Que Sera, Sera).

However, we do not live in a classical universe. Quantum theory changes things. It may be that even in a quantum universe particles behave in a predictable way, that if you could observe the quantum wavefunction for a particular particle you could use quantum mechanics (in this case an equation written by Schroedinger) to determine the wavefunction at any other given moment. But there is the problem of observation. Does the act of observing change the object being observed? Are we missing something, some part of the quantum reality? If that is so, it is quite possible that free will might play a part in physical laws.

Have I thoroughly confused you? Not to worry, as Greene points out, physicists exist in a state of confusion. And that is okay. We do not need to know everything but we do need to explore and to theorize and to dream of what is possible.

Saturday, July 11, 2009


Hi, my name is Plaid Sheep and I am a control freak. It has been less than 24 hours since I last felt entirely responsible for a nasty event while simultaneously imagining the worst possible outcome.

What has prompted this? I'll tell you. (WARNING: Some soul searching ahead.) I joined an online group (a private group, entry must be approved) that had formed to deal with a problem created by a part of the state government. The members of the group were discussing how to deal with the problem and they were getting a little heated. I wanted to inject a bit of practical thinking. I spent about an hour crafting a message that would offend as few people as possible in the group while simultaneously getting my point across. Then I spent more time debating whether I should post it. I am in fact always very careful when writing anything online. Once it's there it's there, for anyone to see. What I did not anticipate is this message being forwarded to a reporter of a major newspaper who was doing a story on the said government problem. My words got hacked up, mis-quoted, and taken completely out of context. The upshot being that I am made to sound like a snarky bitch. And not only is my name there but I am listed as representing my place of employment. After reading it yesterday I spent the whole afternoon wanting to vomit.
Do you know someone who is always laying the blame elsewhere? Their parents didn't love them, their co-worker is out to get them, they never get given a chance? Well, I am the exact opposite. I invariably blame myself. I should have known better. I should have foreseen every possible outcome. I made the mistake. Intellectually, I know that this is not so. We cannot plan for every possible eventuality, we cannot live our lives forever anticipating the worst and trying to correct for it. We cannot, in other words, live in fear.
I have spent the morning thinking about this, about why I feel like my heart is being squeezed. It is quite clear that I am taking on all the responsibility. It's a bit like someone who gets mugged and then blames herself for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sure, it may be inadvisable to walk around in a sketchy neighborhood at night but the mugger is actually to blame. So why do I need to control everything? Perhaps it makes me feel safer. After all, if I can't control it then heaven knows what might happen. It's at moments like these that I feel the lack of a faith. How comforting would it be to say, "it is God's will and all is for the best"? I am also wary of taking this too seriously. There must be countless people who have been in this situation and there will be countless more after me. It is hardly the end of the world and if I have to deal with negative consequences then I will do that. Repeat to self: do not suffer future pain that may never come.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

You Are What You Eat

I've been commenting on other's blogs with abandon but have not managed a post of my own. It's been a little crazy at work with several crises including a demand from the State of NY and our graphic design computer giving up the ghost. Fortunately it is the logic board rather than the hard drive so the things we failed to back up will be retrievable. But it's still a big fat headache and a big fat bill. Have you seen the prices for Adobe software? It's madness I tell you...

But that's enough of that. What I really want to write about is feeding my cats. I have switched them over to a raw food diet. I've been wanting to do it for a while but it was tricky. When you buy raw pet food it comes frozen and needs to stay frozen so I had to remember to bring an insulted bag and come right home after buying it. Then I discovered that the pet place two blocks from me carries raw food. Much easier. And it's not that expensive, only 20 cents more a day than the good canned food I had been giving them. Why should I go to the trouble? I'll tell you.
The last cat that I had died of stomach cancer. When she got sick I began to do research into diet and alternative healing, not just for cats but for people too. (That turned out to be helpful for me later.) What you eat is very important and can help or hinder your body's ability to function. I don't know about you, but when I eat a lot of sugar and processed food I feel sluggish and unwell. The same must be true for our pets. I have seen the results. People often site litter boxes as a reason not to have cats. They're stinky and you have to get rid of the waste quickly and frequently. But if your cats eat raw meat their poop is drier and smaller and not stinky at all. And they drink less water so there is less pee. Their bodies utilize much more of what they've eaten so there is less waste. Then there's hairballs. My cats don't get them very often, once a month maybe. Now they don't have them at all. Nick gets this gunk in his right eye that has to be cleaned. But now the gunk is almost completely gone. This last thing is real confirmation that I made the right choice; his body isn't having to get rid of excess junk. Not that this surprised me. When I was doing my research I came across a study by Dr. Francis Pottenger. He conducted a raw meat versus cooked meat experiment. What he found was that cats that ate raw food had a much better immune system, stronger bones and teeth, and had much healthier litters. The cats that did best of all were the ones that were allowed to catch their own food. On the other hand, the cats that ate cooked meat had malformations in their skeletal systems, allergies, thyroid problems, respiratory problems, and smaller litters with a greater mortality rate.
The second half of the book deals with human nutrition. It details the benefits of breast feeding, raw milk (rather than pasteurized), and organic farming. There's a great experiment involving feeding milk to plants. The plants that got the raw milk were large and lush while the pasteurized milk group grew scrawny and the ones that got evaporated milk hardly grew at all. This chapter in the book is titled Reciprocal Relationship of the Health of Plants, Animals, and Human Beings. In other words, we're all interconnected and what we do to one affects the others. Other chapters include: Fad Diets and Optimum Nutrition and The Importance of Fats in Nutrition.
Pottenger conducted his experiments between 1932 and 1942. But apparently nobody was listening. We went on to create a whole world of processed food devoid of anything but convenience and an industrial farming complex that has depleted the soil of nutrients but filled it with chemicals. We are finally coming back around. Pottenger's study was republished in 1995, a sign of a renewed interest in the ability of good foods to heal the body. We can only hope that this trend will continue and that as more people begin to see that they are healthier and feel better we can restore our proper relationship to the Earth.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

I can't believe...

someone took the time to write this article. And that another bunch of people took the time to comment. Oh, and that some poor soul at the CDC was forced to compile the data in the first place. Next up, the detrimental effects of paper cuts on work productivity.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Good Choice

Every year the James Beard Foundation hands out awards to cookbooks.   There are several categories.  One of this year's nominees for Single Subject book is:

Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, with Recipes

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Commandment 5

5. Do not feel bad about being idle and still.

One weekend not long ago I was just sitting on my bed. I thought to myself, "I should be knitting. I like to knit so I should be doing it otherwise I'm wasting my leisure time." I actually thought that. I mean, how crazy is that? X is fun so I must do X. That's what my leisure time is for, fun, dammit. Of course it's ridiculous. Why shouldn't I just sit on my bed? Why must my time be filled with something? Why should I feel that simply being is somehow a waste? We are a very doing society. Idle hands are the devil's playground, life is for achievement, multi-tasking is good, productivity is paramount, yadda, yadda yadda.... I say fie on that and the horse it rode in on. Enjoyment is where ever you find it, in work or in idleness and it should not be scorned.

I've been reading Happiness: A History by Darrin M. McMahon. It's a scholarly work that aims to lead us through the various notions of happiness. It's hard to think of any other concept that is so sought after and yet so elusive and hard to define. One item in particular that I found interesting in the book is a letter from Luther (who it seems suffered from depression) to a prince who was feeling melancholy.

...(that) we may be relieved of the blindness and misery in which we are steeped so deeply, and may truly understand the Word and will of God and earnestly accept it... learn how to obtain an abundance of joy, happiness, and salvation, both here and in eternity...(we could hope) to be joyful in all things.

He called all creation "a pleasure garden for the soul". For Luther, misery and melancholy are signs of sin. Pain exists in life but it should not be sought after, it is not the path to salvation. Now, I've always associated Protestantism and Lutheranism in particular with asceticism and grimness. It seems I was mistaken. To be sure, there is an emphasis on the avoidance of sin and the idea that only the chosen will be saved, but there is also an embrace of joy and assurance that it can be found here in this life as well as in eternity. To quote McMahon, "Not only was human dignity compatible with earthly pleasure, but there was righteousness in the pursuit". Who knew?

Another thing that's very interesting about it is the similarity to Buddhist thought. The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism are:
1. Life means suffering.
2. Suffering is caused by attachment and craving.
3. It is possible to avoid suffering by letting go of cravings.
4. The path to end suffering leads down the middle between Hedonism and Asceticism. (the Eightfold Path).

The real difference between the two philosophies is the means to ending suffering. For the Protestants it is God's grace and for the Buddhists it is entirely in your own hands. It's a big difference, but nonetheless, we are more alike than we prefer to think.

Monday, March 09, 2009


In case you were wondering, I can confirm that avoiding habitual thinking is very, very hard. But hard work has its rewards. On Saturday I went to the park. Instead of taking my usual route in I took an alternate way and then I sat for a while in a spot where I don't usually sit. I'd been there for about 10 minutes when a hawk landed on a low branch not 12 feet from me. He was grand, almost 2 feet tall with a 4 foot wing span. We sat there together for some time. Eventually I got up and walked a little closer. He let me approach for a bit but then flew off to a higher branch and began to nonchalantly clean his feathers. I took this as my cue to leave though I was sorry to go. I wished he would come and sit outside my window. I wonder what the cats would think of him? Not something to pounce on with his long talons and serious beak. I would not like to be something small and furry and see those piercing eyes looking at me. I hope I get to see him (or her) again.

I had another reward too, but this one I gave myself. This week's bread is chocolate bread. Half the recipe makes a large loaf that smells heavenly. I had a slice this morning with peanut butter but I think it may be best all by itself. I recommend it.

Sunday, March 01, 2009


March has come in like a lion. It's snowing today and spring seems far away. This is always the hardest part of the winter for me, the home stretch. It seems as if spring will never come and then suddenly the world is green.


Though I am technically Christian - that is, I was baptized - I have never had faith or practiced beyond the occasional Christmas service. But there is one tradition that I have taken up recently. Lent. Not out of penitence or desire to prepare for Easter but out of a desire to change my thinking, my attitudes, and possibly my life. Last year I gave up negative thinking for Lent. If I had a negative thought I would banish it, and if possible replace it with a positive one. As you might expect, this was not easy though I did fairly well and have continued the practice as best I can. This year I'm trying something harder. I'm giving up habitual thinking. This includes those frequent negatives but also judgments and choices of all sorts. Any habit is hard to break and habits of thought particularly so. The monkey mind wants to follow familiar paths, to take the easy way. Vigilance is required as well as acceptance of the stumbles that will happen. But as in meditation this is not failure. You just start again. So when I have an automatic thought about something, from the guy who cuts me off at the subway door to deciding what to eat for lunch to accepting a perceived limitation I will stop and think about it differently. Modern science has come to see the brain as very plastic, malleable and changeable. We can make new roads, new patterns of thought, new habits if we try.
Since I am - technically - Eastern Orthodox my Lent will begin tomorrow and end on the Friday before Orthodox Palm Sunday which is April 12. Why are the dates different you ask? For some reason the Orthodox church still uses the Julian calendar to calculate its holidays. I have no idea why. It worked out well for me when I was a kid because we had 2 Christmases, one on December 25 and then another on January 7. Who doesn't want two days of presents and celebratory dinners (which always included cake)? Then the Orthodox church changed its Christmas to coincide with the rest of the Christian church. But it did not do this for Easter. Again, I have no idea why. It really doesn't matter. One just needs a beginning.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Commandment 4

4. Spend out a.k.a. Avoid Sunday Best Syndrome

Why is it that we like to save things for special occasions? The good china, the crystal glasses, the pretty blouse; we hide them away most of the time, saving them for who knows what. It is true, if you use something it may wear out or get broken or get used up. I have vanilla beans in my cupboard. I've had them since well before Christmas, waiting for the best recipe to use them in, not wanting to waste them. It's kind of a silly notion. After all, if I leave them in the cupboard so long that they lose their potency then I really will have wasted them. Same goes for pretty clothes. The hand knitted sweater may not last for years and years if I wear it a lot but I will have enjoyed it much more throughout its life. Why should my normal day not merit wearing a cashmere sweater, why should my every day dinner not be worth the beautiful china? Where did this come from? I blame my parents. For once, they may actually be responsible. Of course they are the product of their parents and so on. Generations of hard working souls who saved for a rainy day or for their retirement, denying themselves during most of their lives so that the end would be safe. I'm all for saving something for the future but also for spending some money now on things that make your spirit lift; drinking your wine out of a hand blown glass, silk lingerie, and soft sheets. I don't need two houses, three cars and a yacht, just some little things that bring beauty and flavor to life. Spend Out.

On a related topic, here is some more pizza on the olive oil dough and a loaf of Broa, Portuguese corn bread.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Mmmmm, cheese.

Happiness is fresh baked bread. Because this is so true I am going to make all the different breads in the Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day, one per week. I'm not doing them in order since that would result in my eating only flatbreads for several weeks. (One friend of mine asked me, "Why would you need anything but flatbread?" but I do think I should skip around.) I have already made several recipes (the semolina is my favorite so far) and today I baked some pizza using the olive oil dough. Not bad. For the tomato sauce I used Fairway's Roasted Garlic Pasta Sauce (very tasty) and for the mozzarella I used my own. That's right, I made mozzarella. It's actually pretty easy though it does require a couple of items you won't find at the local grocery. If you want to make your own go check out the New England Cheesmaking Company. It turned out pretty decent for a first try. I think I need some practice but that should not be a problem. It does use a lot of milk. A half gallon makes about 8 oz of cheese. The rest is whey. If I had not accidentally spilled the whey down the drain I could have used it to make ricotta. I will do it next time and report back.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

"But above all things, truth beareth away the victory"

Even before I began my Happiness Project I knew that there were lots of books on the subject. Many can be found at the local Barnes and Noble. However, wishing to avoid bankruptcy and loss of living space I went to the library. Or more accurately, I went to the library's online catalog. I typed in happiness under the "subject" search and got over 200 results. Some of my favorite titles include: "Taming the Gremlin", "I'd Rather Laugh", "The Joy Diet", and "Money Can Buy Happiness". I requested several titles one of which is already available for pick up. I love the library. In fact, I can say that the library makes me happy. It's an ancient idea, going back even beyond the legendary library at Alexandria. Here in the U.S. there was a town library in Boston as early as 1636 (the current Boston Public Library was founded in 1852) and Ben Franklin created the first subscription library which allowed people to buy shares in the library. The money raised was used to buy more books. Libraries funded by taxpayers were created by Andrew Carnegie who's foundation financed the building of almost 1700 libraries. Thank goodness for all of them. I especially like small town libraries. They don't have a giant collection but they have charm and grace and they really smell like books. You can curl up in a corner and disappear into the pages of a novel. It's not so easy at the Mid-Town branch of the New York Public Library. It's filled with fluorescent lights and plastic chairs and way too many people. But don't get me wrong, it's wonderful too, just for the sheer number of books and other materials available, about 7 million items total in 86 branches. Even this number is dwarfed by the Library of Congress, considered to be the largest library in the world. It holds 138 million items including books, maps, sheet music, and manuscripts. According to their website they add 10,000 items to the collection a day. Amazing.

New York Public Library Main Branch

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Commandment 3

The next commandment on my list is short, sweet and really hard.

3. Let it go.

My brother-in-law can make a decision or a choice and regardless of how it turns out he does not revisit it over and over.  I would pay real money to be able to do that.  I love to replay things in my head, trying out different scenarios, as if by sheer force of persistence I could change how things turned out.  This is one of those places where evolution took a wrong turn. What possible use to the species is this kind of self-torture?  And I know I'm not the only one. This is a frequent topic of conversation with people I know: how do you let the mistake or the wrong choice or the bad relationship go?   It's not that I hold grudges.  I have very little trouble forgiving others for their mistakes (except in one or two instances).  But my own errors?  They follow me around like some kind of deranged puppy, begging for my attention.  Those unproductive thoughts are particularly obstinate if my mistake or bad decision affected someone else.  I am in favor of learning from mistakes but this kind of gerbil-on-a-wheel thinking is not helpful.  I must repeatedly remind myself: Let It Go.  I have gotten a tiny little bit better at it.  

Saturday, January 31, 2009


In the continuing pursuit of my happiness project I've been doing some reading. Yesterday I was leafing through a short compilation of the writings of Marcus Aurelius who was a Stoic. These days the word stoic conjures up a stone faced guy with a stiff upper lip and no discernible emotions in the face of tragedy. In fact, the Stoics were really the Buddhists of the West. For example, Buddhism embraces the idea that nothing is permanent, and that forming attachments and giving in to cravings creates suffering. Marcus Aurelius wrote:

Why should anyone be afraid of change?
What can take place without it?
What can be more pleasing or suitable to universal Nature?


Of the life of man the duration is but a point, its substance streaming away, its perception dim, the fabric of the entire body prone to decay, and the soul a vortex, and fortune incalculable, and fame uncertain. In a word all things of the body are as a river, and the things of the soul as a dream and a vapour; and life is a warfare and a pilgrim's sojourn, and fame after death is only forgetfulness.


Everything existing is already disintegrating and changing... everything is by nature made but to die. The length of one's life is irrelevant, for look at the yawning gulf of time behind thee and before thee at another infinity to come. In this eternity the life of a baby of three days and the life of a Nestor of three centuries are as one. To desire is to be permanently disappointed and disturbed, since everything we desire in this world is empty and corrupt and paltry.

Buddhists (and yogis) use meditation and mindfulness to heighten awareness and turn the mind into an ally. Marcus Aurelius wrote:

Concentrate on the mind, your ruler: you are old; it's time to stop your mind acting like a slave, pulled puppet-like by the strings of selfish desires.


Stay here in the present. Recognize what is happening to you.

I think Stoics and Buddhists would have gotten on very well.

One of my favorite thoughts so far:

Not becoming like your enemy is the best revenge.

I wish someone had told the former White House administration.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Commandment 2

You'll like this one.

2. Never take anything too seriously (especially yourself)

I often tell people that I have to make a wise-ass remark periodically or I start to feel uncomfortable. It's true. Humor is a necessity, right up there with breathing and eating. I can joke about pretty much anything. If you find someone who can't laugh at themselves, look out. Every now and then I catch myself falling into seriousness, into the kind of mind set that creates maudlin journal entries and can generate self-pity making life much harder than it needs to be. It's only life for goodness sake, lighten up. If people laughed more the world would be a better place. And I don't mean giggling or evil mustache-twirling or a polite little chuckle. I mean the full-on, tears-down-the-face, belly-shaking laughter. Never mind fiber, we are not getting our full RDA of laughter. I work in a place that is all about self-discovery, peace, and enlightenment. People expect serenity and flower-power thinking. I don't really fit those expectations. One person who comes there told me she really liked the juxtaposition of my black, cynical humor with this place of serious peace. Excellent (hands rubbing together). This commandment should be pretty easy. Which is good because most of the others are Herculean. Really. Would I kid you?

Saturday, January 24, 2009


Part of Gretchen Rubin's Happiness Project is a list of commandments she created for herself. This seemed like a fine idea so I am adopting it. Furthermore, I am co-opting her first commandment as my own. The rest of my list is not in any particular order but this first one is definitely the most important.

1. Be Plaid Sheep.

Seems simple enough, be myself. But it isn't simple at all. I don't know about you, but I sometimes wish I could be different, that I liked loud crowded parties or that I didn't feel responsible for every last damn little thing. But it's never going to happen. Sure, I might develop a taste for the occasional Bacchanalia or walk away from a problem without solving it but I'm never going to turn into Mame. Nor would I really want to. (Well, maybe just once in a while.) The only sensible thing (and lord knows I'm sensible) is to just be me as well as I can. Wish me luck.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

New Project

I found a new blog today. New for me, that is. It's called The Happiness Project and is written by Gretchen Rubin. I recommend it. Today's entry is particularly good - it's a quote from Simone Weil. I've had an abiding interest in the topic of happiness. It seems such an elusive thing. The Oxford English Dictionary has 4 definitions.
The main one: The quality or condition of being happy.
1. Good fortune or luck in life or in a particular affair, success, prosperity.
2. The state of pleasurable content of mind, which results from attainment of what is considered good.
3.Successful or felicitous aptitude, fitness, suitability or appropriateness, felicity.

Their definitions of happy are:
1. Coming or happening by chance, fortuitous chance.
2.Having good "hap" or fortune, lucky, fortunate, favored by lot, position or other external circumstance.
3. Characterized by or involving good fortune, fortunate, lucky, prosperous.
4.Having a feeling of great pleasure or content of mind, arising from satisfaction with one's circumstances or condition. Glad, pleased.
5.Successful in performing what circumstances require, apt dexterous.
6. Slightly drunk.

It's also a verb, to make someone else feel good-to happy.

I think that's quite interesting. Many people would put #4 as the primary definition, with outside circumstances being important. Buddhists would say that's the wrong way to look at it. They view happiness as something that comes from within, that you create it by giving up attachment and aversion, by coming to see that the self is not real, that one is part of the whole and that working for the good of others before yourself is the way. And Aristotle would like #5 best. He thought one could not call oneself happy until reaching the end of life and seeing that it was well and virtuously lived.

I reject the simplistic view. I think happiness arrives by many roads. Some internal, some external. It's not that I think that money can buy happiness. But money is important, it is. I don't need mountains of it, 4 houses, 3 cars and a yacht. But money is necessary to maintain oneself. To eat, to wear clothes, to have a roof over ones head. I have always rejected the notion (popular in many religions) that this earthly existence is not important. To me that's just silly. If it's not important why have it at all? Is God the first producer of reality TV? I don't believe it. If the physical world is just a way station why are orchids so beautiful, why does fresh bread smell so wonderful, why can music transport us? Nor can it be that it is only a test, a job to complete. I also reject the reductionist view that we are nothing more than a bunch of cells determined to reproduce and that all our feelings and dreams and struggles with faith and happiness are nothing more than evolutionary by-products.

Recently I had a short conversation with a practicing Catholic. I didn't know she was until part way through the conversation. I admit, I was surprised. She is a museum educator, sophisticated, liberal in her convictions. Her husband is a well known physics professor and though he is not as involved as she, he does not see a contradiction in his study and his faith. I was forced to look at my own prejudices, my own ideas about what a Catholic or Christian is like. She told me that she had grown up Catholic, had tried other Christian churches and found them wanting. She missed the liturgy, she said and though she did not accept everything it was the best place. She asked me what I believed. I told her I believe the universe is a living thing, a giant organism that we are all part of, like cells in the body. There is no real thought here, no ultimate purpose but there is connection, cause and effect. The butterfly's wings may indeed cause a storm. Can we ever really know? I also agree with Shakespeare that there is more to the universe than is dreamt of in our philosophy. I avoid certainty. I think it's dangerous. I prefer the person who has doubts, questions, an open mind. Look out for those who are certain, they are full cups, unwilling to bend or admit the possibility that there is more than one way to see things, that many roads may lead to the same place.

I've digressed a little, just a little, from the topic of happiness. As you probably surmised from the title of this post I am beginning my own happiness project. I'll keep you posted on how its going.