Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Running on empty

I have been running for about 40 years. This summer, I stopped. Heel pain made it so.

When my doctor banned running, I wasn’t unhappy. The mindless pounding out of mile after mile was getting to me. It certainly wasn’t as much fun or as free of aches and pains as it used to be. What running had become was a habit, one that lacked motivation.

On my approved exercise list were yoga, cycling, rowing, and any strength training I could do while sitting. So I trooped to the gym and reworked my workout.

I also renewed my practice in sitting meditation, and this has been the hardest exercise by far. Two years ago, I took an eight-week course in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). I continued my meditation practice faithfully, but soon life got in the way. I eventually resorted to app-based guided meditations to keep me somewhat connected.

Then, earlier this month, I went on a week-long retreat led by the founder of MBSR, Jon Kabat-Zinn. We engaged in sitting meditations, followed by walking meditations, followed by more sitting. There were a few sessions of lying down meditation and yoga, but sitting predominated.

What we were really doing was paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally. We were cultivating awareness through non-doing, even though, we learned, nothing important was left undone.

After a week of relatively little movement or exercise, I felt rejuvenated. I realized I had been running on empty in the larger sense. Sitting and paying attention brought clarity, helping to identify what truly was on my mind—and watching these thoughts come and go.

Mindfulness is something I can apply to everything I do. Even running. All I need now is the doctor’s go-ahead, and I’ll be off exploring miles of mindfulness. Step by step. Moment by moment. On purpose.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Seeking comfort in good bakes and adorable reality



The harder it is to watch the daily news, the more I seek the TV-equivalent of comfort food. Real people making real cakes, biscuits, pies, cupcakes, tartlets—or even the French ham-and-cheese sandwich known as croquet monsieur.

All these and more are the stuff of comforting programs like “The Great British Baking Show,” which in the UK is known as “The Great British Bake Off.” Each season 12 amateur bakers compete in three areas per episode, with signature, technical, and showstopper challenges. At program’s end, one competitor is named Star Baker, and one goes home, with the process continuing over 10 weeks until a single winner emerges.

USA Today has called the show “one of the most adorable reality shows on-air today.”

Food writer and TV presenter Mary Berry and celebrity chef Paul Hollywood set the challenges, then taste and judge the results. Hosts Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins provide structure, comic relief, and the beloved countdown “One, two, three—BAKE!”

The settings are as gorgeous as the confectionery creations, always on the grounds of some castle or manor, with a large white tent providing shelter for all the action. And, yes, there can be quite a lot of action in baking shows, with cream to be whipped, eclairs to be filled, berries to become jam, dough to prove, and dozens and dozens of identical sweets to present for judging.

All the while, the clock ticks, hosts and judges hover, and proven recipes prove fickle and difficult to reproduce. Bakers can’t help but watch their creations through the oven door, often sitting on the floor and willing them to rise or crisp or lightly brown. It’s the kind of gentle tension necessary to at least temporarily forget the hostile tensions erupting all over the world.

Helping to make “The Great British Baking Show” so comforting is how pleasant and supportive everyone is: competitors to one another; hosts and judges to everyone under the tent. For bakers who shine and those who go pear-shaped (a British idiom for failing) there are hugs all around and words of encouragement.

Even when Mary finds pastry with the reviled “soggy bottom,” she praises some other element: a flavor, the presentation, a topping. Likewise, Paul will declare something a “good bake” even if the flavors don’t wow him.

Now that the current season is done, changes are underway. The series is leaving the BBC for a rival UK station, taking Paul with it—but not Mary or hosts Mel and Sue. The good news is viewers can catch up on previous seasons, both on PBS and Netflix.

And for those of you who like a little more American flavor to your bakes, watch the spin-off series “The Great American Baking Show” (previously called “The Great Holiday Baking Show”). Mary judges alongside celebrity pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini, with hosting duties shared by Nia Vardalos (“My Big Fat Greek Wedding”) and husband Ian Gomez (“Cougar Town” and “Supergirl”).

Whichever version you watch, the show reverses the old adage about staying out of the kitchen if you can’t stand heat. With the way things are heating up these days, the kitchen has become a comforting place to be—especially as a spectator watching tasty treats rise to perfection.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Eclipsing terrestrial strife…temporarily

Double-eclipse image using binoculars
One of the best things about the solar eclipse on Monday was it also eclipsed all the troubling news that has become a staple of our world. Instead of bombast and confrontation, there was wonder and awe.

While not in the path of totality, the Philadelphia area experienced a partial solar eclipse—79.9 percent, to be precise. And, thanks to streaming video from NASA, I was able to clearly see the sun’s corona, the eclipse “diamond ring,” and the effect known as Bailey’s Beads.   

Later, I saw photos of International Space Station silhouetted against the sun, in perhaps the best example of photobombing in our solar system.

I didn’t have the requisite solar eclipse glasses, but people on the streets of Media were generous in sharing. And even though I had seen bigger and better images from NASA, putting my eyes on the small orange disk with a bite missing was an awesome experience.

So was seeing people spilling out of offices into impromptu gatherings. One law office I passed looked more like a tailgate party, with family and friends gathering in the parking lot—all wearing their eclipse glasses. One man called to me, cautioning against looking up without the right eyewear, so I’m guessing he was the personal injury attorney at the firm.

Once home, my husband and I broke out the cardboard boxes, white cardstock, and pins. We made all sorts of pinhole cameras, which worked amazingly well. As did using binoculars to reflect a double image onto cardboard.

The short window of the partial eclipse in my neighborhood lasted about two hours and 40 minutes. Enough time to remind me about the importance of putting daily distractions into perspective and keeping the long view. Think of the expression “can’t see the forest for the trees,” then take it to an astronomical level. Or, as my mother used to say, “This, too, shall pass.”

Monday, August 14, 2017

Three’s a crowd


Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. Manny, Moe, and Jack. This, that, and the other thing.

The rule of three proves itself time and again. In writing, sets of three characters or events are more effective for engaging readers and telling a story.

More broadly, three examples are frequently used to prove a point.

Three things set a cadence, making the overall idea more interesting, memorable, and enjoyable. At least that’s the theory. But there’s always someone who doesn’t get the memo.

I recently received a donation thank-you letter from a local charitable organization involved in literacy. As a freelance writer, I tend to read such written materials more closely than others might. I pay attention to phrasing, grammar, and the rhythm of the language.

There was nothing wrong with the one-page letter, but it felt jarring to my ear. The rule of three went out the window. Instead, it hit hard on a diminished version—the rule of two—as excerpts below show:
  • With your involvement and backing
  • …providing open and free access
  • …to information and enlightenment.
  • …variety of materials and programs
  • …that you and your fellow patrons
  • …our lively and exciting summer schedule
  • utilizing and supporting
And there are more examples, but you get the point. None of these, individually, sends up a red flag. But after a half-dozen, they begin to stand out. At least to me.

I don’t know why the writer so heavily favored pairs of examples instead of the more common sets of three. Maybe three really is a crowd. Or maybe I’m overthinking this. I'm guessing the latter.

So, here is my delayed response to the thank-you letter: You’re welcome.