Still Looking For My Zen

Another birthday, another delightful opportunity for me to take stock of my life. I get to weigh my successes and failures, laid out before me like a Balance Sheet or Profit and Loss Comparison (it’s tax season as I write this so you can guess where my head is) and assess my level of accomplishment. As I turn fifty-seven, I’ll be evaluating the degree of Zen I’ve managed to achieve, as that has been this year’s gift to myself. I’m up to ten minutes of meditation at a time. I perform my Downward Facing Dogs almost daily and haven’t faceplanted during Tree Pose in weeks. So, as I approach this next birthday, I’ll be celebrating my newfound ability to release negativity. I’m finding my truth; what is worth getting upset about and what is not. In other words, I’ve learned to let go of things I no longer give a shit about.

My language, since I’ve brought it up. I’m a verbalist. I express myself through words. And, if I throw in a sailor-worthy swear word for emphasis and someone finds it offensive, I don’t give a damn. With a cleansing breath in through my nose and out through my mouth, I mentally pardon them for not being as evolved as I am. Also regarding word choice, I no longer get that twinge in my heart when I use the expression-of-the-moment, and my children roll their eyes. As they unsuccessfully hide their smirks behind their hands, snickering at the Old Lady’s use of trendy phrases, I refuse to let them harsh my mellow. I offer a tranquil smile in response because deep in the cratered recesses of my mind, I’m still that groovy chick who can boogie down with the best of them. So, do me a solid and take a chill pill, ya dig?

I used to torture myself by succumbing to the advice of those opinion pieces, like “40 Things No One Over 40 Should Ever Do.” No more. At this Zen stage of my life, I no longer give a second’s credence to those articles written by snot-nosed prepubescents imperiously dictating age-appropriate behavior and fashion tips. If I want my knobby, 57-year-old knees on full display below the hem of a mini-skirt, I will not be age-shamed. My knees, my choice. And, while I’m at it, if I choose to wear a skirt cut all the way up to my nether regions, again, my choice. Just like it’s that Vogue-Editor-in-Chief-wannabe’s choice to look. Or not.

There was once a time when I wouldn’t step foot out of my house, not even for a quick trip to the grocery, without a full face of makeup and a lengthy session with my curling iron. I mean, what if somebody saw me, for Chrissakes? Now, when I need my chocolate fix, I don’t bother to change out of my flannel pajama pants, brush my teeth, or clean the crusties out of the corners of my eyes (please don’t think I’m totally gross) before racing out the door. You see, I have transcended my need for approval from others.

I admit there was a time when I performed random acts of kindness as much for the attention it garnered me as for the intention of helping someone. Now, with a more modest approach to altruism, I take quiet joy in offering support or coming to someone’s aid. I don’t need credit when I’ve graciously corrected someone’s toilet paper if it’s hanging the wrong way, trailing down the wall from the back of the roll. With a serene smile to myself, I switch it so the roll leads from over the top. The only reward I seek is the knowledge that I’ve set things right in the universe.

Once upon a time, my blood pressure would soar when I’d engage in the age-old battle of which is the best band of all time, the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. No more. I accept that people have different tastes. We all have our associations with this classic music, certain songs transporting us back to an early love or a past heartbreak. I enjoy both bands, and their lyrics and melodies are part of my constitution. If asked to choose, I assert with unwavering confidence that the Beatles are the greatest. But I’ve reached new heights of enlightenment and am no longer rattled when someone disagrees because I now recognize that they are entitled to their incorrect opinion.

I believe that good manners are the cornerstone of civilized society. As my children were growing up, I strove to model good behavior, often “rising above” someone cutting in line or speaking out of turn. With my own growth in mindfulness this past year, I’ve realized that I may be stunting the growth of others if I allow myself to be victimized by their bad behavior. Recently, I had the opportunity to explore my guru potential when I encountered a particularly teachable moment. I had just left a club in New York City and was standing on the edge of the street, hand raised to hail a cab, while carefully (and politely) avoiding interfering with other passing cars. As the yellow taxi careened toward me, a drunkenly raucous young woman in a skin-tight Spandex micro skirt, with her gazelle-like, perfectly tanned legs on full display, glanced at me as she pranced toward the car I’d successfully flagged. Oh, hell to the no! As she staggered, laughing at my stubby legs peeking out like sad little ghosts from beneath the bottom of my mid-thigh length dress, visions of Kathy Bates from Fried Green Tomatoes flashed through my head. I scurried toward the car handle, pushed her hand away, yanked the door open, and hip-checked her as I slid into the back seat. “You may be younger and faster, but I’ve been a bitch a whole lot longer.” As I chuckled over the memory of the incident afterward, I realized that I might have some work to do on my inner guru.

Restaurants have become the bane of my existence. Recently, however, I’ve tapped into my Zenness to reclaim my enjoyment of eating out. I recognize that it is my duty as a patron to help the wait staff understand my little idiosyncrasies. I know they are trained to maintain the illusion of “fine dining” by whisking away my plate to some magical place behind closed doors to pack my leftovers into foil containers. But I need to make sure every last drop of saffron sauce is scraped into that container. I have to tightly roll up a paper napkin to create a divider between leftover pad Thai and the sugar peas. I must make sure that those nasty chickpeas I’ve carefully extracted from my loaded quinoa salad don’t accidentally end up going home with me. So, while they graciously and firmly tell me, “No, no, it’s no problem…I’ve got it,” I just as graciously and firmly place my hand on the plate and say, “I insist.”

One of my greatest anxieties in restaurants had become the constant hovering of the table clearers, eying me from across the room, ogling my every move. If I dared rest my fork to take a sip of water, I’d feel the rush of air as one swooped in to grab my plate away. When did the notion of “good service” devolve into forcing diners to gulp down their meals? The day I discovered myself hunched over my lunch, both arms protectively placed around my dish to nonverbally indicate that I was still actively engaged in eating, I snapped. I’d made the fatal error of thinking I could put down my utensils momentarily when the busboy grabbed my plate. “No! I am NOT done!” I yelled at the poor child, physically yanking back the half-full plate he had snatched. At that point, my Zen was nowhere to be found. These days, I try to ignore them as they drift about, poised to spring into action if I dare chew my food thoroughly. At the first sign of infraction, I place my fingers on the rim of the plate, draw a meditative breath, smile, and calmly inform them that I am a slow eater. Placing my hands over my heart chakra, I repeat myself. I am very slow. Bring-the-rest-of-the-table-their-dessert-while-I-finish-my-meal kind of slow. I will let you know when I am done.

Let me wrap up my restaurant rant discussion by saying that Sally from When Harry Met Sally has nothing on me. I understand that chefs are proud of their creations, thoughtfully combining flavors and textures to entice their customers. Unfortunately, I have dietary restrictions, not to mention an eccentricity or ten, and used to get stressed at the thought of customizing my order. I would pick out the components in my salad that I didn’t like or couldn’t eat because I didn’t want to be deemed “difficult.” Now, I get my salad precisely the way I want it. No cheese, egg, or meat. Dressing on the side, and is there any dairy in it? If so, just bring me oil and vinegar. Add olives and extra tomatoes, unless the tomatoes have been refrigerated or are underripe, in which case, leave them out altogether. Add walnuts, if they can be toasted; if not, add almonds. I like my carrots shredded, please, not diced or julienned. No spring mix – substitute Romaine and arugula instead, thanks. Could I more easily make my own salad at home and maintain my hard-earned tranquility? Sure, I could. But, as adorable as my husband is, I’m not immune to the eye-candy in the form of the thirty-something waiters at Maggiano’s Little Italy.

With age and wisdom comes Zen. At least the semblance of Zen. With nearly six decades under my belt, I am less concerned with how others view me and more comfortable in my own skin. I may decide to color my hair purple. I will continue wearing the jeans I love, possibly graduating from bell bottoms to bootcut, if the spirit moves me. I won’t worry about whether I’m “ladylike” when I let a string of obscenities fly at the reckless driver who nearly sideswiped me or when some little shit tries to steal my taxi. I refuse to count calories because I enjoy great, fully customized food. I laugh out loud and unabashedly. I’m giddy when I’ve indulged in a strong drink or glass of wine. My family, friends, and animals are the center of my world. Most significantly, however, as I reflect on my advancing years, I am deeply salty (cue my children’s rolling eyes) about the disco ball ring, inarguably the greatest women’s accessory ever designed, no longer being in fashion. Namaste.

* * * * *

…Meat-Free? Dairy-Free? Gluten-Free? Uh…Yum?

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The first thing I noticed the other morning was that my kitchen reeked like dirty feet. It took me a moment to realize that the source of the offense was not my husband’s gardening sneakers parked by the back door but, instead, the remnants of the previous night’s dinner-gone-wrong still fermenting in the garbage can. Even with the lid tightly secured, the odor socked me in the gut unlike any smell had since the first trimester of my pregnancies over two decades ago.

That dinner was the most recent installment in my ever-evolving culinary experiments. My husband—my long-suffering, gung-ho, real sport of a Guy (yes, that’s actually his name)—had forced a neutral look on his face as he bravely took the first bite of my latest creation. Over thirty years, I’d become proficient at finding mouth-watering recipes in cookbooks or online, then modifying them beyond recognition to align with my ethical concerns, ongoing health self-education, or doctor-advised dietary restrictions. Over thirty years, Guy has learned to adapt to whatever I placed in front of him.

When we first met, a McDonald’s cheeseburger with a side of fries and a large Coke was Guy’s lunchtime staple and, in his estimation, a well-balanced meal. It had meat, dairy, a bun, lettuce, tomato, and onion (so, basically, a salad), and potatoes. Sure, the Coke was pure sugar, but what’s one vice? he thought, since the rest hit all of the essential food groups. By the time we met in 1984 however, I had just quit an advertising sales job where one of my clients was a beef and pork product producer. I’d only gone once to that advertiser because once was all it took for me to refuse ever to return. Also, I never ate beef or pork again. So, while everything else in my McDonald’s lunch mirrored Guy’s, I opted for the filet-o-fish sandwich instead of the cheeseburger.

Through our early years of marriage, Guy enjoyed my cooking. I mastered quiches; soufflés in red bell peppers; baked lasagnas; even a quick, vegetarian modification of Hamburger Helper. I was a wizard with Salmon en Papillote and could whip up a mean Chicken Cacciatore. I tackled recipes like a defensive guard, and we rarely had leftovers for next day’s lunch. Our weekly restaurant visit was to The Chowderpot on Thursdays with an all-you-can-eat salad bar, including endless pick ‘n peel shrimp and bottomless soup bowls.

While I had given up red meat and pork before we met, Guy continued to satisfy his cravings when we were guests at someone else’s home or if he had a work lunch. When our son was born though, he had a sudden and absolute shift in how he viewed the food on his plate. In one fell swoop, he became a vegetarian. He gave up all red meat, pork, poultry, even seafood. With my husband’s shift in perspective, I chose to eliminate all meat from my diet as well. Since we decided to raise our child as a vegetarian too, I had extra incentive to provide a diet complete in vitamins and nutrients. This is when I began my foray into tofu, tempeh, lentils, black beans, and new, exotic-sounding grains like quinoa. We discovered seitan and a growing number of meat substitutes by Morningstar Farms and Quorn.

By the time our daughter was born, I’d mastered the meatless diet. With a colicky baby resulting in next to no sleep, I had little energy to make the planned, nutritious gourmet offerings my family was used to. A quick pasta dinner with a side of broccoli and a multi-vitamin was about all I could swing. When our daughter was ten, a savvy friend suggested her ongoing intestinal troubles may be connected to the dairy-heavy diet that television commercials had convinced me was essential for my growing children’s bone development. Back to the internet to learn how to safely eliminate dairy to see if that was, in fact, my daughter’s problem. Within days, lifelong symptoms disappeared and she claimed to feel better than she ever had. That got me thinking. Could my own battle with intestinal unpredictability be related to dairy too? A month later, I knew it was. Since then, even a small amount of butter or cream results in noise and pain from my gut that demand I be more careful.

With this recent revelation, I stopped buying dairy. With articles and reports about factory-farming in the egg industry, I ticked off eggs from my shopping list as well. I furiously sought substitutes that my family would find acceptable as I doled out their daily dose of vitamin B12. Soon, my son left for college and scurried to Vermont where he was free to indulge in as much Cabot cheese as he wanted. My daughter mysteriously had “other plans” when I’d announce dinner would be broccoli loaf or spaghetti squash with meatless balls. Yet my husband always chewed his food gamely, nodding in appreciation of my efforts.

Luckily for both kids, they were away at school when my doctor suggested I try a gluten-free diet to address lingering symptoms of Lyme Disease. That added a whole new level of difficulty to my cooking challenge. Finding gluten-free breads without that chalky after-taste and experimenting with gluten-free flours and gluten-free panko crumbs taxed my patience, but Guy kept eating what I produced. What I really, really wanted though, was a grilled cheese sandwich. To most people, that doesn’t sound like a big deal. But to me, it had been a lot of years since I’d indulged in the real thing. No butter, no cheese, and most recently, no bread.

That’s when I had my great idea for dinner the other night. Like a translation app, my mind has learned to read a recipe and automatically make the exchanges for ingredients I can’t use. For grilled cheese, I replaced the butter with Earth Balance. I bought Go Veggie! Cheddar “cheese” slices. And for the bread, I substituted cauliflower. I found a recipe online and followed the instructions for grating the cauliflower, squeezing out excess moisture, mixing with egg (I used Ener-G Egg Replacer), herbs and spices, and Parmesan cheese (I used Go Veggie Parmesan). I mixed it all together and created slices of “bread,” then constructed grilled “cheese” sandwiches. Served next to a steaming bowl of vegan “cream” of tomato soup, my husband eyed his meal with thinly disguised apprehension. I eagerly watched him take his first bite and awaited his verdict. Slightly disappointed that his eyes didn’t light up with surprised enthusiasm, I watched him finish chewing, then swallow.

“Well?” I asked.

“It’s…not bad. I can see what you were going for.”

“Going for?” I blinked rapidly. “It’s a grilled cheese!” How could he not know that?

“I’m thinking that maybe—and I’m not saying absolutely—but possibly the ‘bread’ could have been cooked a little more. It’s just a little under-done in the center.”

I’d show him! I dipped a corner of my sandwich into the soup and took a hearty bite. Instead of the gooey cheesiness enfolded between pan-fried-in-butter crispy toast that my mouth was anticipating, I chomped into tasteless rubber surrounded by foot-flavored granular particles. I couldn’t even pretend in the moment. Two chews later and I spit it into my napkin and threw the remains into the trashcan where it stayed, stinking up the kitchen until morning.

I recently developed an obsession with John Joseph, the lead singer from Cro-Mags and Bloodclot. He is vegan, a triathlete, and the author of a book about vegan nutrition, Meat is For Pussies. He is coarse, foul-mouthed, and deeply knowledgeable about living a healthy vegan lifestyle. I adore him. His video for making a vegan lasagna had me laughing and convinced me to give it a shot. Off I went to Whole Foods with my husband in tow. I was excited as my cart started to fill up with the ingredients to make John Joseph’s recipe. I snagged some plum tomatoes, broccoli, and blackstrap molasses. I skipped over the zucchini that John suggested for his recipe as Guy hates anything that looks remotely like a squash. I found the Kite Hill ricotta, Daiya mozzarella cheese, and Beyond Meat crumbles. I allowed Guy to choose tomato sauce. Finally, I went in search of the lasagna noodles. I scoured the shelves from top to bottom but couldn’t find what I was looking for. Always quick with the substitutions, I snagged a box of manicotti tubes instead.

“Look!” I said, proudly displaying my find. I was already envisioning how I would stuff the noodles with my lasagna fixings and it would still be delicious.

But Guy’s face had dropped. It had sunk so far to the ground that it seemed I had to look down at my 6’2” husband to meet his eyes.

“What’s the matter?” I asked, utterly baffled. “I thought you liked manicotti.”

With his mouth turned down, he jerked his head in the direction of the box I held out. “But they’re gluten-FREE!”

I burst out laughing. My poor husband. I’d sliced and diced nearly every edible pleasure out of his diet. I’d gotten him excited at the thought of a hearty lasagna, complete with fake cheese and fake meat, slipping in some broccoli for additional nutrition, but he’d forgotten my gluten issue. That was the final insult. I hadn’t seen him look that sad since the Yankees lost to the Red Sox in the 2004 American League Championship Series.

I’m not a heartless person. I could see that he had hit his limit on my creative food reconstruction. I had mercy on him and relented.

“Okay. No gluten-free manicotti. I’ll use eggplant instead,” I said, conveniently forgetting his aversion to all purple foods.