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Category Archives: healthy living

Stirring the Pot

What’s for dinner?

Thanksgiving is just a few days away. Tweaking the menu from last year in anticipation of a crowd, I’ve printed out recipes, made multiple shopping lists, and started to stock pantry items. The swirl of definite maybe guests is sifting into a group of college students arriving Wednesday night with Eighteen, repeat guests from last year who know how to make a party, and relatives flying in on the day itself. I will shop for two days, cook for the two more, iron the linens and fret over the table settings, and I will love every minute of it. Thanksgiving, a holiday about gathering together, making and enjoying great food, and expressing gratitude, is among my very favorites.

Preparing an elaborate holiday meal is the kind of cooking I relish. From my early days, though, I’ve always been drawn to cooking. When I was little and I noticed my mother starting to pull out equipment in the kitchen, I would stop whatever I was doing, find a chair, and drag it to stand next to her, ready to help. I learned early to follow a recipe, readily ate a wide variety of foods, and found a love for the science of baking as soon as I was old enough to manage the oven on my own. By fifteen I made noodles and bread from scratch, mastered buttery chicken Kiev, plated a lovely salade niçoise, and annually crafted the family holiday favorite, bûsch de noël.

Flash forward twenty-some years and I found myself a very different kind of cook. Both of my children were specific eaters, but of specifically very different tastes. The daily grind of producing supper felt like a complicated dance of trying to please everyone that generally resulted in settling on a lowest common denominator, boring for both diners and cook. To complicate matters, while my peeps were still new on their gastronomic journeys, their mother shifted into vegetarianism (technically lacto-ovo-pescatarianism). To this day I honor my omnivores and try to address their tastes. The daily grind of putting healthy, balanced meals on the table and in their lunchboxes often feels relentless.

When Eighteen was still in elementary school, the honors program held a “Night of the Notables” event. Students learned about and then portrayed a variety of important historical and living people—dressing in costume and talking about the people whose lives and work they admired. Eighteen chose author Michael Pollan.

In those days, journalist, lecturer, and academic Pollan had hit one out of the park with publication of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, not, perhaps, standard reading for an elementary student. Having inhaled the young reader’s edition, my son co-opted my full version and read it cover-to-cover more than once. My memory falters a bit, but I think we made stuffed mushrooms to serve at his station—like his choice of Pollan, they were unusual and met with surprise by more than one in attendance.

Pollan’s star has continued to rise with good reason. He writes with vigor and conviction about the plates we put in front of ourselves and our families. Given the fandom in our household, I keep an eye on his work with affection. Recently I read an interview designed to generate publicity for a Netflix series tied into his most recent publication, Cooking. Pollan said: Aside from the many health benefits, cooking is also “one of the most interesting things humans know how to do and have done for a very long time…. There is something fascinating about it. But it’s even more fascinating when you do it yourself.”

Huh, I thought, captivated. He’s right. Other animals prepare their food, present it to one another, and have rituals around it, but no other animal cooks what it eats. Thus, whether creating a meal for one or a feast for a crowd, the act of cooking is truly a human one, something unique to the species. I’ve been so nourished by Pollan’s words that even simple weeknight dinners have become more absorbing for me.

A week before Thanksgiving, on Thursday afternoon, I chopped celery, carrot, garlic, and yellow pepper, turning them in pre-heated avocado oil in my soup pot. When they were tender, I added one of my favorite ingredients, a no-chicken chicken stock that somehow satisfies the rich warmth of chicken broth, the only thing I missed when I stopped eating poultry. That pan was on the stove waiting for the burner underneath it to click, click, click to a flame. When I returned home in the evening, I heated the broth gently and set to boil water in the pan on the next burner over, adding rice-ramen noodles that were be done in a matter of minutes. While the noodles drained, I reused the noodle pan to braise some escarole, my hands-down favorite green. Into warm broth went trimmed snow peas and then the cooked noodles. Fifteen enjoyed her weeknight ramen without greens; I piled them into mine.

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Leftover ramen, delicious on night two!

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Prep for one of Fifteen’s favorite weeknight meals: Eggies with asparagus and cheese. 

 

Fifteen and I are nearly always dashing in to a dark kitchen after dance, but with a little forethought and some pre-assigned leftovers, I’ve been setting our places with healthy, warm plates and no sense of drudgery. Incrementally Fifteen’s palate is expanding—and our dinner table conversations can’t be beat.

Under the energy of the new moon, may I wish you and yours the most wondrous Thanksgiving. I’m ever so grateful to each and every one of you who stops by to read these words. With all my love, Rxo

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Walk On

How are you doing with your training?

When Seventeen was Five-and-a-Half, we moved kit-n-caboodle a thousand miles west, arriving at the front door to our new Iowa home on a below-zero December day, just shy of Christmas. Earlier that fall, I worked with a realtor to find our big box. She asked me for my “hot button” items. I answered, “Living space. I don’t care if we sleep in closets; we’re all home, all the time. It’s cold there. We need room to move around.”

Some thirty-eight houses later, she showed me the brick-front at the top of a short street with an enormous pantry, morning and afternoon sun, a sizeable yard, and oodles of living space. It was, among other things, a “circle house,” not merely situated atop a suburban circle, but inside you could walk around the main floor in a complete circle, a figure eight even, if you were feeling fancy.

One evening as we were still settling in, figuring out the light switches, and dreaming of living room furniture, I was making dinner too slowly for the children. I remembered that when I was little, my mother would send my brother and me outside to run around our house. That house was ringed in wooden decks, so we could go all the way around without touching the ground. But the ground outside our new house was snow and ice covered, so I reasoned little feet could pound around the inside circle of our house without causing too much disturbance. I tore around the first lap with them and then said, “Keep running. Go! Go!” Off went Five-and-a-Half with Two-and-a-Half pell-mell behind him.

“What are you doing?” Their father asked, arriving home.

“We’re running marathon!” They panted past.

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Running boy then …

The next day I got a tape measure and marked off their course. Then I converted 26.2 miles to feet, divided by the indoor track’s running distance, and wrote 1,946 at the top of a blank sheet of paper. “This,” I told Five-and-a-Half, “is how many times you need to run around the house to run a marathon.” For some time after, every night he would run a few laps and record his progress. When the weather got warm and they could run around outside before dinner, the big backyard became a secret land, a place to dig, a world of adventures. The marathon was perhaps half-completed when it was forgotten.

Today Seventeen’s long legs could stride that same circle in no time. Nonetheless, I like the way our house expands and contracts—I can fill it with people for a party or snuggle in with the peeps for family movie night. With Seventeen away at college, I’m very aware that for most days it’s much too big for his sister, Fourteen, his grandmother, Ninety-Two, and me, but as I commenced training to walk a half-marathon, my treadmill in the basement became too confining and I started to roam.

From my front door I can walk a five-mile loop that touches four towns. I can take the bike path east to do errands like dropping the water bill at City Hall or making a deposit at the bank or west to my friend’s house a whole county over. I can loop a variety of little lakes that front the expansive corporate buildings for the countless banks and insurance companies that make their headquarters here. To mix things up I have added destinations like Trader Joe’s, four miles from home, and endless loops around larger lakes to which I have to drive. No matter where or how far I go, I start and end every walk sitting on second stair lacing or unlacing my shoes. Second stair was another feature of that first house I lived in, the place I would be asked to go and sit when I was naughty. Now it’s a seat of nostalgia and a convenient perch near the door.

Three weeks ago I completed my last long training walk, just shy of a half-marathon at 12.5 miles. Since, I’ve been walking a few days a week, between four and seven miles each time. I feel ready for the challenge even as I have started to feel that Sunday’s event is no longer the point. It’s the training, the feeling strong, the finding out what my body can do, and the connection to the world outside my house that feel like they matter. It’s the stick-to-it-iveness that inspires me, dovetailing nicely with stringing together word after word toward my second novel, learning the art of continuous narrative. It’s not the destination but the journey, as clichéd as this trope may be, that has become the point.

Nonetheless Seventeen, who will be home from college, will join me at the starting line on Sunday. He will finally complete the marathon he started when he was a tiny boy. And I will discover just how much I can accomplish when I set my mind to it.

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…and now.

The moon is full on 10.15, and it’s a full moon by which to leave behind anything that no longer serves you. Happy Full Moon—I promise a post-half update early next week. Thanks for cheering us on, Rxo

Fitbit GO!

Fitbit GO!

How many steps have you walked today?

The first week that I wore my Fitbit, a graduation gift from my son for, he sweetly said, getting him through his public school experience, I walked a marathon without actually trying. My idea was that I’d walk as far as I normally do, a regular week, and see what my totals looked like. I did not anticipate that around my kitchen prepping for a party, for example, I can easily put in three miles. I knew the long, rambling walks I often enjoy outdoors with my friend would add up, but nonetheless it was a surprise when the email popped into my inbox celebrating my first marathon. It gave me confidence.

Could I, at 50, set my sights on walking the Des Moines Half-Marathon in October? Seventeen will be home for fall break from school. Fresh from summiting Harney Peak (7,242 feet) in South Dakota and cresting 10,000 feet in the Rockies in Colorado (we made it above the snowline in July), he feels physically ready for anything and is willing to walk with me. I’m less certain.

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Sioux Falls SD

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With infinite patience, my Fitbit prods me along. If I’m sitting still for the first fifty minutes of an hour, Fitbit will silently vibrate, a signal it’s time to move. When I cross 10,000 steps for the day, something I accomplish most but not every day, it celebrates on my wrist, treating me to electronic stars and fireworks. I’ve done that thing that people do at the end of the day, just a few hundred or even a couple thousand steps out, walked around and around and up and down and back and forth, just to see the light display. Fitbit and I can then go to sleep happy.

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The view from 10,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains

Sleep, however, is another matter all together. The goal set on my Fitbit is for seven full hours of sleep. From mid-May to late June, Fitbit recorded only a few such nights. The others fell short by as much as two hours. But, I reason, I’ve rarely in my life slept a full night. More alarming to me is the number of times I wake fully up. I understand that being restless and even waking—as I do to check the time and listen for the quiet in my house—are a part of a full night’s sleep. But waking up and staying awake, that awful experience when the mind spins up into action and going back to sleep seems impossible, these are all recorded by Fitbit, the electronic that wakes faithfully when I do and records my restless moments. Per the record on my phone, I was sleeping less and less, midnight worrying more and more.

And then an amazing thing happened. My peeps and I went on vacation. The first week I still wasn’t sleeping deeply, but we were having a blast. Each day we looked back on the day’s events and nominated a wonder—the falls of Sioux Falls, SD, where we played in the lingering sunset just a few days after Solstice; the Badlands, hot and full of colors and tourists, prairie dogs and a single noble big-horned sheep curled on his rocky perch surveying all that spread below him; Harney Peak, in the Black Hills, which we hiked a bit haphazardly, not really clear at the onset what we were in for. Truthfully, I’m not fully in the Harney Peak camp, having thought there might be nothing so wonder-filled as the experience of driving through the Needles and walking past the Cathedral Spires, craggy eroded granite pillars that reminded me of standing stones in Britain.

Experiencing absolute darkness—so dark it’s impossible to differentiate between eyes

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Mount Rushmore behind two future presidents (?). Love the cloud formation above the carvings—reminds me of Nomade, the sculpture in Des Moines.

open and closed—deep underground at Jewel Cave was another big moment, as was visiting Mount Rushmore. The buttes of eastern Wyoming made for conversation-provoking scenery as we drove through, and I gave some wonder points to the excellent pizza restaurant we discovered in downtown Lusk, WY. It’s the kind of place I would visit again were it not 660 miles from home.

The next few days were all things Rockies, experienced in Estes Park and Boulder. Stepping in snow on July 1 is certainly a novel experience. What’s more, Fitbit celebrated with me as three days that week I walked more than nine miles. Since it doesn’t adjust for difficulty or altitude, it had no idea how tough some of those mountain miles were.

After a week of sleeping in unfamiliar beds, we arrived at the welcoming home of dear friends and one-time Iowa City neighbors. We enjoyed a lovely reunion and a delightful dinner. I could barely keep my eyes open at nine and my hostess sent me off to sleep. It comes as a surprise to me now, as I look at the data, that Fitbit recorded a particularly wakeful night. What I remember is sinking into the embrace of the perfect bed, sleeping a long time, and dreaming deeply and meaningfully about past events in the way that feels like my subconscious taking them out, sorting and ordering them, and then folding them neatly and putting them away. Perhaps Fitbit interpreted all of this unpacking and packing as restlessness. What that sleep launched has been a series of nights, including one more hotel stay on our trip (wonders in Denver never ceased) and arriving home after a grueling day’s drive, Denver to Des Moines, that have been increasingly better and better. I’ve slept deeply, woke rested, and seen fewer and fewer red and blue lines in Fitbit’s recording of my sleep, indicating that I’m still and peaceful most of most nights.

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Perfect cappuccino!!

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Brunch with these two at the Brown Palace Hotel

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White & dark chocolate fountain

Can I walk a half-marathon in a few months’ time? I can sign up, train, adjust my shoes, keep my toenails short, and see how it goes. As I blend the information from my electronic friend with what I know about being an active human, I am struck by the truth that rest is not just important but something we need to train for as well. Maybe that’s true for most things: whether it’s having fun, sleeping well, entertaining, working effectively, getting organized, or walking far—whatever our ambitions we need to train. A good night’s sleep encourages the next night’s good sleep. Ten thousand steps turn into 13.1 miles. The effects compound.

Fourteen recently used up a pile of gift cards and bought herself a Fitbit. From my perspective, the best result of this is that once an hour she comes strolling through the house, getting her 250 steps but leaving her room and checking in regularly with the rest of us. Thank you for checking in with me—Happy full July moon, Rxo

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Outdoor xylophones in Estes Park, CO. So much fun!

Anything but Routine

It’s what time?

A couple of weeks ago, in the days before, the battery on the little clock near my treadmill died and the clock, predictably, stopped. Equally predictably, it didn’t much matter. I’m a creature of habit. So long as I’m on my treadmill by 5:30am (alarm: 5:05), I’m back upstairs by 6:20 and while it’s a frenetic twenty-odd minutes, I can get Thirteen’s lunch made and shuttle her to the bus stop by 6:45. Back up the hill and into the garage, the next hour focuses on Sixteen, his departure for high school on a full belly with a lunch box full of leftovers. My own morning routine threads through the minutes in between, and by 8 the day is on schedule and well underway.

I’ve been thinking a shift would come when Thirteen no longer rides her early bus to junior high. But in my imagination, the break would not mean altering the order of things, just the time at which it would all get rolling. I should insert here that I’ve been walking on my treadmill first thing weekday mornings since March 2001. When there have been breaks in the routine, they’ve always been those kind of gaps where something feels a little out of whack all day long.

That doesn’t mean I don’t take a day off once in a while. I did just that last Monday, Sixteen’s first day as a civil servant. Leaving high school early to “serve his country” (as his band director put it while excusing him from the semester final), Sixteen started his new gig as a page in the Iowa Senate. The first day of the legislative term was his first day on the job—a whole new reality of getting up, getting washed and brushed and pressed in his dress clothes and heading east into rush hour traffic to commute from our house in the western suburbs to the gorgeous Iowa Capitol. I opted to lend him my support from the alarm clock on, so skipped the treadmill and was happy to be on hand to wave him out the door.

The next morning, versed in the experience of the day before and knowing that this day two lunches needed to be ready by 6:45 (the food at the Capitol is decent but expensive reports our Page), I woke early enough to hit the treadmill and stretched, turned, and snuggled deeper under the covers. I let the day roll around in my head, thoughts emerging for things that needed attending to, ideas forming, and, when the cacophony of alarms started sounding down the hall, I got up, jotted down my to-do list, and headed to the kitchen for tea. The peeps were out the door with lunches and thermoses, Thirteen complete with her viola and almost warm-enough clothing for the weather, Sixteen on the way to day two of his job.

I stuck to my Tuesday rounds—the grocery store, the bank, the pharmacy, my desk—finding my way onto the treadmill about 3:30 in the afternoon.

On Wednesday, it was 1pm. On Thursday, shortly after 2. Friday, even though the resident civil servant had the day off, I opted to continue my delicious morning lie-in (yes, it feels like sleeping in when I don’t get up until 5:45), and headed to the basement for a walk only after I’d had enough time to digest the delicious breakfast Sixteen and I enjoyed together.

At one point I looked at the clock: the little hand was on the ten and the big hand was on the two, in the classic formation of clocks and watches for sale. My first thought was the clock had stopped again—didn’t I just replace that battery I wondered? Could it have been already depleted or from a bad batch? Had I put it in backwards? It took a few steps for me to realize, no, wait, it really was ten minutes after ten. And with that dawning of understanding came delight. Too often in the past when the routine changed, I had let my treadmill time or other things important to me go in favor of the to-do list or, even more likely, meeting everyone else’s needs. But this week I didn’t do that. I walked, instead, every day, including Saturday when I never do, and hit 18 miles for the week. And even though the time never correlated with my internal idea of when I should walk, it worked. I found myself looking forward to my walk, whatever time it happened.

Another week and the timetable hasn’t gotten any less topsy-turvy. Walking around the clock still feels a bit off to me, but I’m pleased that I’ve embraced the shift and prioritized the time anyway. I started walking first thing in the morning years ago because it’s important. But in the literature surrounding just about any self-care practice, that is always the advice: do X first. Want to build a good exercise or meditation habit? Interested in drinking lemon water in the morning or getting organized for a successful day? Trying to write a novel? No matter what you’re hoping to accomplish the advice is always the same: do it first thing in the morning. The reality is I can only do one thing first thing, so I am learning to prioritize the activities in a day that are important to me. With twenty-four hours available each day, selecting how I will best live them is what’s important. Rather than routine or schedule, I’m subscribing to rhythm and liking all the possibilities of each moment24 hours

The full Wolf Moon of January shines all over the world—if it’s not behind the snow clouds. Hoping wherever you are, you and yours are safe and warm and digging your own new year’s rhythm. Thanks for attending my journey with me, xoR

Slip-Sliding Away

You’ve lost more weight, haven’t you? How’re you doing it?

For Christmas, I bought Fifteen a punching bag. It’s rather enormous, a weighted bag with a water-filled anchor hanging from a seven-foot high punching bag stand. The UPS man had to bring it in two deliveries, kindly trundling in each piece on his hand-truck. I wrapped the boxes in moving blankets, looped bungee cords around them, and left them under the Christmas tree in spite of my usual tradition of not putting out any gifts until Christmas Eve.

The cats promptly turned the boxes into their sofa/look out the window spot, so the joke became that I had gotten him a cat tree. There were other guesses, of course, but I don’t think he actually knew what was in the boxes.

A second-degree black belt, he works out with bags at the TaeKwonDo studio on a regular basis. His delight in his gift was all over his face as he peeled off the moving blankets. His father helped him put the stand together, and by Christmas night he was punching his bag with glee.

In the months since, he has regularly disappeared to the basement to “punch bag.” His workouts include using the hand weights I’ve accumulated over the years and some time on my treadmill. When he’s stuck on homework or some creative endeavor (he’s currently competing in a daily, group poetry contest), off he goes to the basement, and shortly thereafter we hear sounds like giant rodents are scuffling below. Invariably he comes up smiling, sweaty, and with the answers to his writing or homework riddles all sorted out. Recently he said there are two presents that have completely altered his way of life—the laptop computer he received when he was Fourteen, and the punching bag.

I remember it was when I was fifteen that I, too, first learned the pleasures of a regular work out routine. Sure, I had been in disorganized sports, PE, and dance over the years, and I had even done a little running on my own; however, the year I lived with my father in Tucson, Arizona, I swam laps in the swimming pool every day after school. Sixteen times across the pool and back, breast stroke, and I had my mile. Then a dip in the hot tub and I could comfortably walk home, even in January, the mild evening wrapped around me along with my wet towel.

Swimming, running, and then the 80s craze for aerobics kept me active all through high school and college. In grad school I bought an exercise bike and alternated peddle-fests with workout videos, branching into step and Callanetics and adding to my ever-growing Jane Fonda video collection. In addition to feeling strong and lithe and being the best shape and weight I had every enjoyed, I liked physical activity—working out was a pleasure.

I’ve made some goofs along the way, like the enormous weight machine I bought that took up an entire spare bedroom in the house on Long Island. I’ve made countless New Year’s resolutions to get fit or be slim and have broken them quickly. Once I bought a NordicTrack that I loved until I no longer loved it … and I learned to ride an actual bike at 27 and rode vigorously for a while. Then, when I bought my first treadmill in March 2001, it became a fixture in my world and I am a better human being when I walk on it than when I don’t.

That doesn’t mean I’m always in the best shape. So while I’m also a better human and a much better me when I weigh less, eat more, and walk often, I’ve struggled over the years with my weight and my good health. Every time I’ve conquered the battle of the bulge—and cried “never again will I cease working out and eating right”—it’s been by following a sensible, logical plan for exercise and healthy eating, generally adhering strictly to the letter of the plan.

At the beginning of this year I was feeling hopeless. My weight was up well over my “never again” upper limit, my clothes were tight, my treadmill was collecting dust and spider webs, I was suffering from aching hips and sore feet, and I’m quite certain I was eating and drinking in an attempt to ease my broken heart. I had agreed to co-host a winter cleanse through the yoga studio, and while it had sounded like a grand idea, I found I was dreading participating in the fifteen-day eating plan.

I had even told our nutritionist, when we had arranged the presentation of the cleanse to Radiant Om Yoga regulars, that I was a letter-of-the-law girl, that my participation would be to follow her prescription from start to end with no variation from whatever she set down. Closer and closer grew the start date, a safe three weeks after the New Year, and I suddenly couldn’t image doing what she was asking, grocery shopping all over town for specialized ingredients, making my own non-dairy milks, and drinking detox beverages she alluringly called “elixirs” that included ingredients like cranberry concentrate and organic apple cider vinegar. I sent her a note, “I’m overwhelmed.”

I received back the sweetest shore-up email possible bearing the gift of a stream-lined cleanse and an invitation to just keep it simple.

So I did. To my own surprise, I followed the spirit of the cleanse, starting on January 20, and here, 48 days and 14 pounds later, I am still following that spirit. I’ve eaten neither white flour nor white sugar nor potatoes. I’ve excised cheese and many grain-based products and enjoy just a little dairy. I’m back on my treadmill six days a week and I’m feeling fabulous—no joint issues, clothes are fitting better, and people are noticing. Most importantly, I’m noticing—noticing that what works for me is really a blend, a blend of what I know not to do—definite nos—with a healthy dose of embracing the spirit of what I am going to do. And yes, that means that in addition to lots and lots of healthy greens and nuts and seeds, once in a while a martini is a part of the plan.

On Facebook and at home, it’s become a ritual to report my numbers—at post time 14 pounds lost, 33 books sold. I’m proud of my accomplishments thus far and grateful, as ever, to you for coming along on the journey with me. I’ll be away for the new moon in March, but I’m quite certain I’ll have stories to share when I return. Watch for another off-schedule blog post from me soon. Happy full worm moon, a few happily warmer days late. Namaste, Rxo

Leo (left) and Starling (right) under the Christmas tree and in front of the mysterious blanket-wrapped package.

Leo (left) and Starling (right) under the Christmas tree and in front of the mysterious blanket-wrapped package.

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