Developing a taste for fire

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Back in July 2014, I endeavored to cut out a lot of sugar from my diet – things like cold cereal, sugar in my tea, cookies, cakes, pastry, etc.

One thing I haven’t given up is chocolate. No way. No day. I’m a veritable chocoholic. Some of you will probably call me a food snob, but I’ve cultivated a taste for organic dark chocolate, around 70-72 percent cocoa content. Go any higher and I think the chocolate starts to taste chalky and kind of like eating a teaspoon-full of baking chocolate. Blech.

Go any lower and chocolate becomes sweet enough to kick me into overdrive with how much I want to consume.

Along with my abiding jones for chocolate, I’ve developed an affinity for chocolate with chili. Chocolate w/ chili started getting popular a few years back – though don’t quote me on the exact time frame (although I distinctly recall a scene in the 2000 film Chocolat when Vianne, played by French actress Juliet Binoche, added chili to her chocolate to woo Roux, played by Johnny Depp, and cast a spell over the townsfolk of Flavigny-sur-Ozerain).

Doing some online research, I found pairing chocolate with chili is a centuries-old tradition of the Mayans and Aztecs. Plus, those who enjoy mole’ sauce may be aware it’s made with chocolate too. Well, it’s online research – take it for what it’s worth, folks.

I’ve tried to do my own unscientific research on the best chocolate chili bars. I typically have one or two pieces in the afternoon, paired with unsweetened Earl Grey tea. The bergamot in the EG tea seems to enhance the taste of chocolate and the heat of the tea matches the heat of the chili and allows the chocolate to spread beautifully over the tongue, deepening its flavor.

My passion was first fired when I ate a Trader Joe’s chili cinnamon chocolate bar that was part of holiday chocolate flight gift. I saved it for last since I thought it was going to be dreadful, like its counterpart, chocolate with potato chip shards, salt and pepper. That was truly nasty. There’s only so far you can take gourmet, I think.

But TJ’s chili cinnamon bar was by far the best bar in the package, in my opinion. The chili was delicious and the cinnamon seemed an essential part of what made it delectable. I’ve longed for another bar since December and they’re just not something TJ’s carries off-season. Guess I’ll have to wait until next Xmas.

So here’s my opinion about the chili chocolate bars I’ve been able to find (by no means exhaustive – rather a delightful work in progress):

Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Chili & Cinnamon

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The Thing about Will

As a follow-up to my blog on ending my school semester and the freedom that gives me to pursue my personal goals this spring and summer, I thought it would be interesting to explore the concept of free will, or the ability to choose how to act, not controlled by fate or God (according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary – a resource I use constantly to understand the nuances of words. It’s a weird source of fun for this wordsmith!).

I’ve written on this blog about getting out of my comfort zone and facing my fears. That’s scary, exhilarating and fun. Unencumbered by fears, hesitation or inhibition, I’ve grown enamored of the concept of my own free will. I’ve become a sort of dare devil, pushing myself to do things that scare me.

In some ways, we’re only constrained by the barriers we put in front of ourselves when we want to do something. I’m powerless over others but I’m powerful over myself … (sometimes). I can choose my actions in any given situation. It, however, is up to me to deal with the consequences of those actions.

Getting out of your comfort zone is wonderful. I have to be mindful though of when I inflict my own self will on others.

Free Will(y)!

Free Will(y)!

This usually happens when I want something to happen and I’m impatient, waiting for results. I sometimes have a lot riding on something and it usually has to do with my ego – wanting what I want when I want it.

I pride myself on being a person that makes things happen. When they don’t go my way, that’s when I get impatient.

I learned recently too that when you impose your will on others, things can get messy. It’s great to makes things happen but not when you step all over another person’s boundaries.

Lesson learned.

I’ve been trying to locate my own boundaries and sometimes, I find myself stepping on other people’s boundaries inadvertently in the process.

There’s an interesting phrase for it, turned by “Inner Child” expert John Bradshaw: Self-will run riot.

I’ve also written about letting go and letting the universe take over on certain things. That’s a really hard thing for me to do. I make my intentions, execute my plans and then I want to control the outcome. That’s where I get into trouble.

Some people call it being Zen, just letting things unfold as they will. That’s been one of the hardest things for me to learn: Putting intentions into action and then letting go of the results.

I take every day as it comes. I delight in the things that I can control, one of which is (only) myself, and try as best as I can to leave the rest up to what the universe decides will be.

Ready to exhale …

And I’m exhaling.

This past week, I finished up on the fourth semester of my master’s degree program in Public Relations and Organizational Communications at WSU. It seemed to be a particularly challenging semester for me. There was an enormous amount of reading to do each week, tons of class presentations, and expectations that weren’t clear with the final project — which is never great for someone like me who likes a little direction with things, just so I deliver what’s expected.

There is nothing quite like the feeling of relief one gets, having turned in that final project and completed the final oral presentation. The ride into work the morning after, I feel close to euphoric.

And now, it’s on to four months of freedom!

No more reading 100+ pages of academic articles each week, with terms like ANOVA (analysis of variance, for anyone actually interested!), t tests and control groups knocking about in my head.

It’s an amazing sense of accomplishment after the blood, sweat and tears that go into completing the final research paper, usually about 20 pages … though mine came to 33 pages this time around.

And so, I’ve set my goals and intentions for the summer.

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What’s behind that smile?

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“Smile. It’ll make people wonder what you’re up to” – I have no idea who said this.

It’s been said that you can gain insight into yourself by noting the characteristics you most deplore in other people. That’s an interesting concept and one in which you can utilize if you’re really honest with yourself.

In the past, I’ve observed how a smile can be my default facial setting when it comes to approaching life. I’ve known people who go around with both middle fingers raised and that doesn’t seem to curry them much favor with others.

Alternately, sometimes it’s exhausting, having to put a smile on your face when your inner feelings don’t align.

Let's get happy!

Let’s get happy!

I was sparked with the idea about smiling as an act of dishonesty by my fellow blogger Better Not Broken. When is having a smile on your face a disingenuous act?

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Making that Connection

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“Only connect” – British novelist E.M. Forster

How often do you put yourself out there to connect to others? This is something that I’ve been working on for the last several years. My tendency is to keep the friends I have and not reach out to others to make new friends or to meet new people. I tend to procrastinate on things. I set intentions to reach out and then spend time mulling things over, wondering how people might react.

Hands

As I’ve moved out of my comfort zone, such as going back to school or seeking sources of personal support, I’ve made a lot of new friends who have quickly become lifelines of a sort. They emerged by my reaching out and in my own way, asking for help. It was a scary move but one that has paid off richly. I’ve forged relationships with people with whom I can call at almost any time. We bounce ideas off each other. We support each other in times of crisis. We work through things. We hash things out. My friends are sources of wisdom and insight. They are my chosen family. Continue reading

Therapy through music

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I was recently published in the Detroit Jewish News, March 26 edition. I wrote about the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Center’s Jeffrey Frank Wacks Music Therapy Program, which takes place at Karmanos’ main hospital and its Farmington Hills facility. The article features a husband of a patient, our talented music therapist Sayako Head and our wonderful oncology social worker Kathleen Hardy.

The program ends in June and Karmanos is looking for different funding sources to keep the program up and running. Since it was established last summer, it has helped approximately 150 patients and their families.

Music is definitely one of the ways I find comfort. I just put on Emmylou Harris and something about her voice soothes me.

Read the article here.

Happy Easter and Happy Passover to all of my friends and readers!

An essay on letting go

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Last week, I travelled down to lovely Orlando to see my very good friend Linda and her partner, Pam. Florida was hot, sunny, humid and just perfect for getting out of Michigan’s cold, drab winter. It was great catching up with Linda and seeing her new home. She had had enough of Michigan’s brutal winter last year and wisely moved away.

Linda and me in her backyard

Linda and me in her backyard

Taking a break was cause for celebration. And yet, I felt anxiety about leaving everything behind – my routine that is, things I “need” to worry about, things I technically should get done, leaving the house I should be cleaning.

There’s a lot of “shoulds” in my life.

It seems that I schedule something for every moment of my day, from the time I wake up until the time I go to bed. I work full-time while working part-time on a master’s degree. It’s a full load and when I’m in the middle of my semester, it’s like I put my blinders on, hunker down and put a laser focus on work and homework … and not much else.

After a while, this becomes tiring and the routine actually becomes addictive – having every moment of your day accounted for. I regularly watch the clock to see where I am in my day and what I’ve accomplished … and what I still need to do.

It was actually hard for me to let go of that routine and allow myself to have fun. I kept telling myself “Let go. Let go. Let go.”

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Oops, I did it again: On making mistakes and being a perfectionist

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“Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”  — American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron from her book, “Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times”

Last week, I was feeling a little bit hangdog for making what I perceive as a blunder due to lack of communication. I’m in the communications field, for Heaven’s sake. Communicate, dammit! That’s what I’m telling myself right now.

I was feeling uneasy about myself, ashamed that a mistake took place, worried about the repercussions.

My sponsor Margo says that worrying about things is a way we feel we control them. And boy, do I love to control things!

One way I control things is trying to be a perfectionist. I try to control people, situational outcomes and the way people perceive me. One tiny flaw and the world is going all to hell!

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Aggressive. Assertive. What’s the diff?

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“Well behaved women seldom make history” – Book title by Harvard historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

So what does that mean for well-behaved women, such as myself?

I’ve been pondering the concepts of being well behaved (read: non-assertive).

My mother raised me to be well behaved. A good girl. Someone who doesn’t rock the boat. Someone who goes with the status quo. Someone who avoids conflict like the plague.

I’ve also been thinking lately about the notions of assertiveness and aggression. It’s helpful to consult Merriam-Webster to parse out the meaning of both words:

Aggressive: ready and willing to fight, argue, etc. : feeling or showing aggression: using forceful methods to succeed or to do something

Assertive:  disposed to or characterized by bold or confident statements and behavior

When you’ve been raised to be a good, well-behaved girl, one who doesn’t show her anger and irritation towards others, it leaves you in a quandary on how to be assertive without, say, coming out of the gate like a rabid pit bull, ready to rip someone’s head off should they tread on your boundaries.

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The women in J.D. Salinger’s life: Making sense of fathers and lovers

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At a recent book club meeting, we read and discussed the classic “Catcher in the Rye” by the notoriously reclusive (and now deceased) J.D. Salinger. It was a book I hadn’t read since probably my late teens or early 20s – the usual age when people seem to gravitate to the book. It seems to have been written for teens and young adults. But that’s not the only age demographic to whom the books appeals.

J.D. Salinger

J.D. Salinger

Reading it again, I found that its character of Holden Caulfield, and his youthfully cynical perspective on life, still holds power over me. To be sure, Holden is disillusioned with life as he teeters on the cusp of adulthood. Finishing the book, I found I’d fallen in love with Holden once again.

A particularly meaningful passage for me was the scene in the Natural History Museum in New York, where Holden lingers by the exhibits that never change – the deer drinking at waterholes and the birds in midflight, perennially aloft. “The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move,” Holden remarks. To me, it’s symbolic about his reticence to leave childhood behind and his desire for things to remain the same.

Having finished this book, I – like so many other readers — wanted to know more about the mysterious Salinger, the author with the brooding eyes and handsome face. I watched the 2013 documentary titled “Salinger” and learned more about his reclusiveness, his absolute absorption in his writing and the life of his characters – a habit that often meant the neglect of his second wife, Claire Douglas and their two children, Margaret and Matthew – as well as his interest in holistic and alternative medicine, and his embrace of Eastern religions and later Scientology.

The documentary also led me to discover that his daughter and memoirist, Margaret “Peggy” Salinger and the woman with whom he lived for 11 months – the writer Joyce Maynard, had written books about the lives they shared with the reclusive author.

I ordered both their books online and read Peggy’s first, “Dream Catcher” and then Joyce’s, “At Home in the World.” I was eager to know what it was like to live with a man who was engulfed by his own creative endeavors. I was also particularly interested in knowing about Joyce’s experience, considering that she was still a teenager when she met Salinger, who at the time was 53. Salinger was notorious for his attraction to women vastly younger than he was and that intrigued me, since it mirrored a relationship I had had with a man considerably older than I was that similarly lasted only 11 months and ended just as abruptly as Joyce and J.D. Salinger’s.

What I learned was that J.D. Salinger, or as he’s known to his familiars as Jerry, was Holden Caulfield (or should I say Holden Caulfield was Jerry Salinger). He was literally channeling himself through his character of Holden. I also learned, through the pen of Peggy and Joyce, that while Salinger was charming and charismatic, he also was narcissistic, self-absorbed, discontent, contemptuous and critical of others while unable to accept criticism towards himself, manipulative and in many instances an abusive person. Continue reading