Monday, October 01, 2007

Do we really want happiness?

I just want to be happy.

Isn't that the modest goal of so many of us? It's okay not to have the mansion, the Ferrari, the 2.4 kids or whatever, a life of happiness will get us through the tough times. Maybe not, according to the study cited in this Washington Post article. The study, published in the October edition of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that Americans need two happy events to counteract one negative one and thus regain their state of happiness. Apparently, we need more "happy" things to occur before we can really feel them.

What I wonder, though, is if the goal of happiness itself is as modest as we assume. Ask yourself if you are happy at different moments of the day. Would you really say, "Oh yes, right now, in the midst of this editing job, for example, I am happy." It seems to me that the answer a bit more shaded than a bright, sunny "YES!!"

I enjoy my work. It's challenging and fulfilling; it often brings the reward of a pleased client, and always leads to a check with my name on it. This makes me feel contented, fulfilled, pleased. But I probably wouldn't say happy. Would I get happy hearing that I won an important contract? Maybe, but with that happiness comes some trepidation and anxiety: more deadlines to meet, a greater and more sustained effort to produce the same level of work over a long period, worries about falling ill and needing replacements. Perhaps I shouldn't use work as the reference since it is unlikely to produce a purely happy moment, yet that is where I spend most of my time.

Maybe we set our sights too high when we define what is a happy event. Does it have to be something big and memorable? I know I can feel good when small things happen, such as when the librarian offers to order the book I'm looking for. Or when a stranger compliments my daughter and me because we are just so obviously mother and daughter. Those things make me feel good, for sure. But they do not equate with sustained happiness.

If happy is the opposite of sad, then we're talking extremes. I believe it's impossible to live a life on only one side of an extreme (unless there is something wrong, of course, such as depression). From my experience, we spend most of our time in the grey area between the two, sometimes vacillating to one or the other extreme but rarely staying there for a prolonged period. That's what I would call normal.

So what exactly is happiness? Can we really achieve it in life except for in periodic doses? Are we raising our expectations too high to actually meet them? Is the happiness we expect a sustained happiness? These are interesting questions to reflect on. And our answers may just lead us to the kind of life that is possible to live.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Fall Cooking

That fresh, cool fall air sure gets my cooking instincts all worked up. That and the multi-colored abundance spilling off the tables at our farmers' markets. And it helps to be mildly obsessed with reading books and blogs about food. (Just finished Barbara Kingsolver's latest called Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life). Add to that a Saturday afternoon sitting at Pixar's new animated flick Ratatouille, and you've got one food-crazed woman!

So last Saturday, I scrubbed up some zukes and made Kingsolver's Zucchini Chocolate Chip Cookies (pretty good; add some nuts!). Sunday found us at the local organic market where we came upon a ratatouille table laden with all the ingredients needed for a monster autumn vegetable roast: three kinds of eggplant, two colours of zucchini, orange and red tomatoes, green, red and yellow bell peppers.... We were drooling! So we snapped up all we'd need and headed off to spend the sunshine-y day indoors making some kick-butt food.

Ronald's Ratatouille
Not to be outdone, I dug out Molly Katzen's original Moosewood Cookbook to follow her recipe for Zuccanoes--you guessed it, stuffed zucchini. After such a meal, we wouldn't be satisfied with just a piece of fruit, or even a homemade cookie. Ronald let the inspiration flow and simmered some lovely pears in red wine sauce. We felt like we'd just eaten at a four-star restaurant, which I'm not sure we've ever actually experienced.

The best thing about cooking lately has been the involvement of my daughter. She has also been bitten by the food bug and is coming up with some amazing meal ideas. Stay tuned for more fun food!

2 large, firm eggplants, sliced or chopped
3 bell peppers, any colour, sliced or chopped
3-4 zucchinis, sliced or chopped
4-5 tomatoes, sliced or chopped
2 onions, cut into wedges
lots of garlic (6-8 cloves), sliced or left whole
Fresh or dried herbs: rosemary, thyme, basil, oregano
Salt and pepper
Olive oil

Decide if you're going to slice or chop your vegetables and then do them all in the same manner. After cutting eggplant, toss it with salt in a large colander and let rest for at least 10 minutes. Rinse and squeeze dry. (This supposedly removed the bitter taste from the seeds.)
Heat oven to 400 degrees F.
Coat a large oven pan with plenty of olive oil (1/4 cup or more).
Place all veggies into pan, either carefully layered as in the photo, or tossed in however.
Sprinkle on herbs, salt and pepper. Give the veggies a sprinkle of olive oil before placing them in the oven.
Roast the ratatouille for approximately 30 to 40 minutes until all veggies are soft. You can stir the vegetables if they're tossed in; sliced and layered ratatouille will cook fine if you leave it alone. Test eggplant to see if it's done (they take the longest to cook).

Pears in wine sauce
This is a great recipe to make your guests think you've spent hours in the kitchen, slaving over a gourmet dessert. In reality, it's sinfully simple!
4 just-ripe pears
1/2 litre red wine
1 cup sugar
1 clove
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Peel pears but leave them whole and with their stems. Place them in a saucepan with wine, sugar and aromatics.
Cook over medium heat for 15 to 20 minutes.
Remove pears and place them in the refrigerator to cool.
Continue heating the syrup until it is reduced to the thickness desired.
Cool syrup. Serve pears individually with syrup poured over them and a scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Something in the air

Did you ever wonder why some people, some moments, become burned into your memory even if they last only a few seconds--and you are aware of it as it happens--while other faces and events just float away?

Last November, I had one of these "hyper aware" moments, as my friend Jo calls them.

Hubby, daughter and I had taken a spur-of-the-moment trip to the country for the weekend and decided to go for a walk in a provincial park. It was a cold day, cold enough for mittens and hats, but it was beautiful. The leaves had already fallen from the trees and rustled as we kicked them, crunched as we stepped on them. We were having fun teasing each other and trying to tickle DD.

At one point, we stopped at a small lake to read the information on the interpretation signs posted there. Only then did we realize that there were beaver huts and a dam right in front of us. As we studied the lake and noted where the beaver's dwelling was, a group of four people came up the trail and stopped at the same resting area. They appeared to be a family: an older couple in their fifties and a younger couple in their late teens or early twenties. The man began talking to us and told us that there were actually three beaver dwellings in the lake--a fact that he had learned from a park naturalist just the day before. He proceeded to tell us how to discern between an abandoned hut and a lived-in one. Then the woman asked where we were from. When we answered, they kind of looked at each other and I swear I saw a spark fly!

The couple had met in our neighborhood, at a theater that is about a five-minute walk from our house. They were standing in line when the woman approached the man, as yet unknown to her, and asked if he had a dollar to pay her entry to the film. He did, they went, and the rest is history. They have been married for 30 years and have two kids (the young lady and young man who were with them that day). They had only recently bought a home in the small town we were visiting.

The reason these people made such an impression on me can not be found in the words they used or the subjects we spoke of, and I can't quite put a finger on why our interaction seemed important to me. But it did. It has stayed with me as a special moment, something to be remembered.

Perhaps it was simply their kindness. We're not used to people just starting conversations in the city. Maybe it was because they were a family with older children spending a day together and enjoying each other's company. They asked if we needed a recommendation for a restaurant in the area, too, and described several caf├ęs that would serve the hot chocolate we craved. Could such generosity have struck a chord in me?

Again, I can't honestly say. But I know deep down that these are special people, and that they have something to teach us, something to share with us about love, about steadfastness, about kindness and caring for the ones closest to us but also for those we just stumble upon in the forest.

I know I will never forget them.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Where's Winter?

I love winter.

No, really. You don't understand. I loooooooove winter!

I live for the first snowflake of the season. My heart rate rises and I smile idiotically for hours as I kneel on the sofa, parting the sheer curtains with one hand, and gaze at the millions of tiny, individual flakes swirling in the air. I love the carpet of snow that muffles the city noise and sticks to the bottom of my boots. I am totally addicted to checking the weather forecasts from December to April with hope in my heart. And when I read "10 cm expected, " oh, the joy! I even have books on snow. Okay, now do you understand?

So the drama unfolds when we don't have any snow in our typically frigid white wonderland (that is, Montreal). I think I have SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) for the first time. Although SAD, a biochemical imbalance in the hypothalamus, is caused by the decrease in daylight hours, I think that it must be worsened by the lack of snow. I mean, there's no extra white to reflect what little light we have and give off that eerie glow at dusk. With no snow and mostly rain, there's no good reason to go outside in the few daylight hours we do have (not that they're very bright days). What are we going to do, build a rainman? Go puddle hopping in temperatures hovering near freezing (but rarely dipping below that illustrious 0, especially when precipitation is forecasted)?

And now I find myself curiously detached from the activities in my life. I'm just not motivated to go out, to make plans or do anything that requires more effort than crawling from bed to computer (luckily I still have the gumption to work!). Even the holidays were flat for me--a person who usually decorates the house and bakes cookies for my entourage.

I'm blaming Global Warming, El Nino, Stephen Harper, SUVs and anyone or anything that is keeping my precious snow at bay this year.

But then again, maybe there's some kind of conspiracy to rid Montreal of snow... and redirect it to the prairies. Or even Vancouver, where they've gotten more snow than here, for goodness sake!

I've still got hope for some white coverage, but it's diminishing as we get deeper and deeper into "winter" and are still seeing temperatures of 5 degrees. Anybody know a snow dance?

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Christmas is coming

It's time to get organized and to start thinking about what we're going to give our friends and family for Christmas. How about nothing? That's the idea suggested at Buy Nothing Christmas (see links). Actually, they have a really interesting Website. If you're thinking that Christmas has become too commercial, that the corporate world is taking over your holidays, that the stress to find that perfect gift--and then pay for it--is becoming too much... then you've got to visit this Website! They suggest excellent alternative gifts to craft, create or recycle and they have fun, inexpensive ideas that really show people we care about them. That's what it's all about, eh?

We'll be buying gifts but we're also making something special (Top Secret). I have resolved not to panic this year. I will get everything in time. I will not wait till the last minute. I will remember which gift I got, or made, for whom. I will take time to enjoy my family. I will breathe.

Oh heck, it's only November. For goodness sakes! I've got plenty of time!
Do I sound like I'm panicking?

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

What to love about working at home

You don't mind getting out of bed, even if it is still dark and you have to wake up the kids for school. You know that, soon enough, the day will be yours. You will make your own decisions! (No boss! No smelly, chatty, gossipy, lazy coworkers!)
You can get tea whenever you want (or whenever you're stuck on the meaning of a word).
You can make your phone calls without wasting too much time. (But you can also get calls from Mom or Friend which will certainly be entertaining, but will definitely take a bite out of you work hours.)
You can take a walk whenever you feel like it.
You can gaze out the window at the Suits rushing off to their cars to sit in traffic for the next hour while you sit, all cozy, having already checked all of your email and ready to start in on the latest job.
You can work like a madwoman to finish something before school gets out (buy, hey, it'll be done, right?).
You can start dinner while working--just be sure to set the timer for whatever's cooking. (No need losing those nice pots by encrusting over-boiled pasta to them.)
You're home when the mail comes. (This is much more exciting than it seems. Imagine, you are the first person who gets to rip open those envelopes! Some of them containing checks with your name on them! You get to see what has come for everybody else in the household--and then, you can read their magazines before they get their hand on them! It's exhilarating!)
You have purpose! You have direction! Somebody needs you! (OK, so they all might need you at the same time, but still....)

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Your Body is a Temple

Oh boy, oh boy. Please check out this article from the Washington Post about faith-based clinics. (Click on above title for link.) Their premise is that they do not provide birth control pills or devices, abortions, or fertility treatments since these practices are contrary to their beliefs. So, women who frequent this clinic are taught natural fertility management--which I have absolutely nothing against (I even own a book on it)-- in order to control the size of their families. (Wonder what happens to infertile couples? Guess they just have to adopt. Or is that against god's will, too?)

Sure, these doctors have joined together with the sole purpose of creating a place where women with the same beliefs as theirs will be comfortable and they attempt to make their principles clear. But what about all the other women who seek birth control and are refused? They are not even referred to an outside doctor because that would be encouraging methods that the Christian docs don't support. Yikes! How can the patient's needs be refused by a doctor? By separating themselves from mainstream medicine, are such doctors contributing to the shortage of medical professionals? I suppose they only treat married women, too. Talk about closing one's eyes to reality.

These doctors and their church supporters claim that women going to non-member gynecologists find themselves ridiculed for not wanting to use prescription birth control. I find that hard to swallow. A choice is a choice. My doctor respects my choice to use the method that matches my desires and values, and only feels obligated to discuss statistical data and reported side effects. The final choice remains mine.

Whew, I'm all in a tizzy. I think what irks me most is that such practices are based on religion. One more way we divide ourselves and place only some of us on that higher moral pedestal.