What’s cookin’

cookbooksI love cookbooks. I like to page through them, reading the recipes, mentally putting them together to figure out if something will work. I like the background stories that some of them include, and I imagine what it must have been like the first time that steaming dish made its way to the table. Mostly I like the way yet another assemblage of words–not prose, not poetry, not carefully crafted essays–can make the neurons fire in my brain to conjure pictures and flavors and smells. [Oh, how I love words and their power.]

Lately, though, I notice my cookbooks gathering dust. Never fear, I’m still feeding my family, but unless I’m reaching for a specific recipe that resides in the pages of my collection, I find myself reaching for my phone or my iPad to search the internet for inspiration.

I’m still trying to decide how I feel about that.

My approach is the same; I read through a recipe to assess it. I compare several different options. I imagine the outcome. It just feels so…impersonal. I miss holding the pages and smelling the paper, not to mention the fact that the screen on my phone gets pretty nasty from my internet cooking forays.

Still, it has its benefits. I have access to more resources than I could ever fit into my kitchen. I get the benefit of others’ reviews and commentary. [Note: ALWAYS read the commentary.] My cuisine choices are no longer limited by that which sits on my shelf. The world is really and truly at my fingertips.

As much as I love my hard copies and hope that paper cookbook publishing won’t fade away, on the whole, I think I’m far better off in this brave new world. I think we all are, actually, and two reasons stand out to me in particular:

  1. Accessibility. Anyone can find just about anything with an internet connection (free at most libraries for those who don’t have it at home). No longer are we limited by resources, e.g. how many/which cookbooks we can afford, what’s available in local stores, whom we know who can help.
  2. Competition. As a pretty firm believer in the corrections of the free market, I have to believe that increased accessibility and the corresponding increase in options will positively impact the quality of all. While things may look different in the end, I believe that survival of the fittest will make the winners–whatever they may be–far better than the original offering. I just have to be open-minded and keep a broad perspective.

It’s cookbooks for me, but it may be something else for you–I think the lesson is universal. Still, if you borrow one of my cookbooks, please don’t forget to return it!

Elbow room

256px-Chinese_banquet_in_a_banquet_hallI fell in love with a metaphor a few months ago. I’m not sure where it originated and I don’t remember where I heard it, but it goes something like this:

Once there was a man who died and found himself at the entrance to the afterlife. On one side of him, he saw a huge banquet hall labeled Hell. On the other side, he saw an equally huge banquet hall labeled Heaven. Both teemed with people, and the noise was deafening. When he went to investigate, he noticed something peculiar: no one in either hall could bend his elbows. Every single person’s arms were locked into a stick-straight position.

Upon closer investigation, the man noticed that the people in Hell were emaciated and furious. They kept trying to feed themselves, but their locked elbows wouldn’t allow it. The people in Heaven, on the other hand [see what I did there?], laughed and ate to their hearts’ content. You see, since their elbows wouldn’t bend to their own mouths, they had decided to feed each other.

You can call the banquet halls whatever you want if you don’t like the Heaven and Hell labels, but the point remains the same. You’ll starve if you go through life trying to fill your own needs, but once you get the focus off yourself, you’ll end up stuffed. Business or personal life, it works the same.

Try it. I dare you.

 

You have the power

Eva KorIn recent years, I’ve noticed how often life throws at me exactly the thing I need at exactly the time I need it. Every time that happens, I’m awed when I finally make the connection.

A few weeks ago, my daughter and I took a road trip and stopped for lunch in Terre Haute, IN. As we drove through town, I noticed a small church-like building with a sign that said CANDLES, Holocaust Museum. Intrigued as to why such a place would be in a dingy town along I-70, I filed it in my head for later exploration.

A day or so later, when we were settled at our destination, I googled the place and found that Eva Kor, a survivor of both Auschwitz and Josef Mengele’s heinous medical experiments, owns and operates that museum. She also gives talks there every Wednesday and Saturday at 1pm.

I’ve nursed an intense fascination with the events of World War II since childhood. Although it has come in phases, I was headlong in the middle of another one when I passed that building. My recent activity had included watching several documentaries, many of which included interviews with Eva Kor herself. Of course I adjusted our travel plans and made sure to hit Terre Haute on the way home on Wednesday, just in time for Ms. Kor’s talk. I was eager to hear what she had to say–a real live survivor!–and for my daughter to hear it, too.

When the time came, we found ourselves face to face with the same diminutive woman I had seen in my living room, courtesy of Netflix. It felt very intimate, almost like a private conversation, as fewer than ten people showed up to hear her. I was crazy with excitement.

And Ms. Kor did not disappoint. We heard what it was like for her to grow up persecuted as a Jew. To be hurt at school. To be rounded up with her family and loaded up in cattle cars. To arrive in Auschwitz for the selection. To have her mother’s outstretched arms reaching for her and her twin sister etched in her brain as the last time she saw her. To endure the unspeakable horrors of being part of Mengele’s experiments on twins. And finally, to be liberated from hell on earth as a ten-year-old girl. It was intense, emotional, and moving.

But there was more.

What Ms. Kor really wanted to talk about was forgiveness. Through a variety of circumstances over the course of her life (read her book, or better yet, go see her in person–PLEASE), she decided she had to forgive the Nazis. Every single one of them. Hate was eating her alive, and forgiveness was her only way out.

Many people can’t understand how or why she did it. They say that there was no repentance, no remorse. They say that the crimes were too huge. They say that her family would be ashamed. After hearing Ms. Kor talk, I respectfully disagree.

Here’s why.

Forgiveness, says Ms. Kor, isn’t about the person who did wrong. It’s about freeing oneself from the pain and burden of the transgression and not letting it define your life. It’s about taking away the power it has to control you. Only the forgiver can decide whether to forgive; if she waits for remorse or atonement, then the power still rests with the transgressor. Forgiveness doesn’t mean condoning the action or even having a relationship with the person; it means letting it go and moving on.

In Ms. Kor’s words, “From the moment you forgive, they no longer control your life.”

You may not understand how she could forgive, and I’m sure I’ve not done her explanation justice. Go visit her, or at least poke around her website [http://www.candlesholocaustmuseum.org/], to hear it from her point of view.

All I know is this: only days after I heard Ms. Kor speak, I find myself faced with a choice in a painful situation. I can let the anger and hurt take over my being, or I can forgive. I haven’t worked through all of the emotion just yet, but I know what choice I will make as I set my path.

Forgive and heal. Humbling words from someone who has suffered more than most of us–divinely, fortuitously just when I needed to hear them.

Addendum: Here is how Ms. Kor defines forgiveness:

Forgiveness is not a pardon to those who have caused the injury, nor does it excuse the acts they used to cause it. These things are no longer the problem for the person who forgives. Forgiveness is the release of bitterness and indignation for our own personal healing.

Forgiveness does not require forgetting. It only asks that we refuse to accept our pain as a part of ourselves.

 

Coffee klatsch

creamerDoggone it. Why do my local grocery stores only carry plain-Jane flavors of coffee creamer? Vanilla, caramel, hazelnut, and a few seasonal concoctions are all that grace our shelves. I know from traveling and a few relevant trade shows that there are dozens of flavors we never see–flavors that appeal to me a whole lot more.

So here’s the dilemma. A store might say it is catering to the preferences of its clientele. Customers buy a lot of French vanilla, so they stock French vanilla. But how do customers (or the store) know whether they like cinnamon creme if they don’t even know it exists?

We limit ourselves by serving only current needs and desires. We look at what’s around us rather than looking ahead at what could be. Although we think we are meeting demand today, we’re actually limiting it in the long run. There’s a big difference between serving demand and creating it.

Forget coffee creamer. The point is that we have to think ahead. Where can we go? What can we accomplish? What new solutions can we offer? What can we do that no one has ever thought of? We move forward by looking beyond our current situation and reaching for more.

And lest you think my capitalistic heart has taken over, I’m talking about new ideas, not necessarily new products. Reach for the stars, friends. You might just find a planet.

Varsity blues

Varsity_LetterBefore I start with the “real” content of this post, I want to say that I am unbelievably proud of my son, who earned his varsity letter for wrestling this year–as a freshman. He worked really, really hard and took at least his fair share of bumps and bruises–to his body and his ego.

Now, onward.

Talking to my son’s wrestling coach the other day, I asked him his thoughts about the program. As much as he appreciated how hard those boys worked, he lamented the team’s lack of depth. Although there are 14 varsity weight classes, they could only fill 12 of them this season, and several of those spots only had one guy. That is, the guy who got the varsity spot took it by default; he didn’t have to wrestle off or prove he was better than anyone else.

Where I come from, said the coach, freshmen and sophomores wouldn’t even be sniffing at the varsity line-up. When I pushed for clarification, he went on to say that underclassmen would be working hard and paying their dues, getting better and stronger in the hope that they would be good enough to earn a varsity spot as a junior or senior.

Of course, as the mom of a freshman who had wrestled varsity almost all season, my initial (internal) reaction was to go all mama-bear and protect my son’s accomplishments. The more I thought about it, though, the more I respected the coach’s position.

After all, if no one is challenging those boys for their spots–if they don’t have to worry about others rising through the ranks and threatening their hold on them–what’s their incentive to get better? They’re already “good enough,” right?

I thought back to some of the opposing teams our kids had faced this year, and the toughest ones always had huge programs. In fact, one team we wrestled even had an A-team and a B-team–both considered varsity–with an even larger number of JV guys hungering for their spots. No wonder they were so good–they just naturally pushed each other upward and onward.

I’m not saying our kids didn’t work hard. Oh, they did–they really did–and I’m proud of them all. But I also know that things look different when you can see the forest beyond the trees, and for our guys, that forest was a long way off. No wonder the coach thinks that the secret to the success of the program is to get more kids interested and participating.

Some people have an incredible internal drive and push themselves to improve no matter what. Even those people, however, need to see where the bar sits. That’s why when I was running in a lot of races, I not only looked at my time and strove to improve it, but I also looked at the winners’ times to see where I needed to go.

Competition can be healthy for all of us. It helps us get better individually and as a team. It doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game with one winner and one loser, either. After all, I might never make varsity but end up vastly better than where I started. Or I might lose my varsity spot to someone who has surpassed my ability–and I have to step it up to get it back.

Sure, there’s unhealthy competition, too. But when I look at this kind of situation, how does it make me a loser if I end up better than where I started? I shouldn’t be afraid of more people on “my” turf; I should use them to spur me on. The more the merrier.

Language lessons

Recently I worked on a side project that fell just a bit outside my realm of experience. It wasn’t that I hadn’t done similar things before; I just hadn’t done that particular thing. I viewed it as a surmountable challenge, and I dove in.

I made a few calls, asked a few questions, and got what I needed to move forward: the right words. You see, I knew what I needed to accomplish, but I didn’t know how to talk about it in a way that would make sense to the right people.

So I put myself out there and asked questions. I asked them until I could describe my subject in the vernacular of people in the know. The conversation to get there went something like this:

Me: Hi! I’m working on this project and I need to do XYZ. I also need a bit of an education.

Guy on the phone: Sure. Will you help me understand what you’re looking for?

*He asks as few specific questions, which I answer.*

Guy on the phone: Oh, you need [specific term].

Simple as that. Once I knew what to call my project, I was home free. My Google search results changed dramatically when I knew what to input. I found the right people to contact and could describe the project in their terms. Now I could get things done.

It’s funny how finding a simple key to a situation makes me giddy. And of course, I analyzed the heck out of it so I could boil it down to a couple of key lessons. First, don’t be afraid to ask questions–ask people who know and keep asking them till you get what you need. Second, speaking the right language gets results. When it comes down to it, words do matter.

Balancing act

Balancing actSome time ago, a colleague introduced me to a quote that goes something like this:

Balance, dare I say it, is vastly overrated. In the end, you might want to consider the benefits of imbalance, and the achievements that come with pursuing a passion with a single-minded devotion. –Colin Cowherd

I chewed on it at the time, “getting” it but still somewhat skeptical. After all, single-minded devotion to, well, anything means the rest of the stuff in your life will suffer, right?  It seems to me that there’s a trade-off between being okay–or even pretty good–at a lot of things and being really, really great at just one. I’ve got a family, after all. Single-minded devotion seems like a luxury when there are so many demands on my time.

Then I went to a football game. As usual, my team’s performance was wildly inconsistent. We had a great first drive, then we fell apart for a big chunk of the game. The reason? We’re really good at passing (the focus of the first drive) and struggle a lot at running (subsequent play series). It was pretty frustrating to watch.

My uncle and seatmate is blessed with the ability to always look for the silver lining. When the outcome looked hopeless, he turned to me and said, I’m glad to see we are trying the run. We need a balanced offense.

Without thinking, I shot back, Who cares about balance?! I want to win!

Light bulb moment. I finally got it, skepticism discarded.

Figure out what you do well. Practice it. Hone it. Perfect it. Do it better than anyone else and own it.

There’s another part of that quote that sums it all up: And if that means they sacrifice balance along the way, they don’t care. They’ve found something more important: results.

Thankfully, my team figured that out. We eventually went back to the passing plays that we do best–and staged an amazing comeback to win the game. Results.

Hang tight

OHandleHere’s something that might surprise you about me. As fiercely independent as (I like to believe) I am, I like for someone else to do the driving–particularly when we’re talking about my significant other. Don’t get me wrong; I’m neither afraid to drive nor do I dislike driving–and I’ve definitely done my fair share. It’s just a quirk I have.

For the last few months, I’ve let myself be chauffeured about quite a bit. And boy-oh-boy, did that take some getting used to. The first time we took an exit ramp at slightly above the speed limit with me in the passenger seat, I thought we were going to careen off the road. Luckily I glanced at the speedometer before I really let him have it–only to discover that he was going somewhat slower than my standard ramp speed. What the heck? Why did it feel so different?

Because everything’s different in the passenger seat, that’s why.

When someone else holds the wheel, terra firma often feels like skid city. Try as I might, I can’t stomp on the imaginary brake hard enough or throw enough body English on the car to change anything. When I’m not in control, I feel way less secure.

That was a big eye-opener for me, especially when I recognized the metaphor. Life surely feels different when you’re not in control.

And then I went a step further. I started thinking about people who have been in my passenger seat. How secure do I make them feel? Do they try to make compensatory adjustments for my feckless navigation? Have they just accepted it?

I’d like to think I’m a little more respectful of those alongside me since I’ve had this revelation, but time will tell. And lest I forget the lesson, I’m about to receive frequent reminders. My son starts driver’s training soon. Hold on and hang tight!

Sally forth

not an optionYou can never go back. Ever. If I had a dollar for every time I learned that lesson the hard way…well, you know the saying.

It’s true. It’s impossible to recapture a moment, to reverse a mistake, to revisit the past. And it’s almost as difficult to pick up something where you left off and go on as if there had been no break. You can never go back.

But you can make a new start.

I’ve struggled to make a series of life adjustments over the past year. Instead of finding a new world order and taking charge, I’ve come pretty close to letting it take charge of me. Among (many) other things, I haven’t been running, and the last post I made to this blog was too many months ago to count.

But I can’t go back.

So here’s the deal. I’m recommitting to writing, but I won’t just pick up where I left off. Since this is a new start, I’ve given the blog a new look and I plan to freshen up the content, too. I’m not sure how yet, but if I wait till I figure it out completely, Wordsmatter will remain dormant. So I’m forging ahead and pounding the keyboard. I’ll figure it out as I go along. Suggestions welcome.

In the meantime, sally forth!

P.S. If you think this post applies to more than writing, you might be right.

More camp notes

jakeididitA couple of weeks ago, I made a return trip to Minnesota to pick up my son from wrestling camp. He made it through 28 days of hard, hard work in a boot camp style atmosphere that improved not only his wrestling skills, but also his dedication, discipline, and sense of responsibility. He came home physically exhausted but knowing he has the will to see any goal through to the end.

How did that happen?! After all, the kid is only fourteen.

The founder of the camp, J Robinson, took a few minutes to talk to the parents after the last practice. Much like when I deposited my teenaged wrestler into his charge four weeks earlier, the words he spoke have stuck with me since.

As J explained the kids’ daily activities, he emphasized that not one had been included thoughtlessly. Each activity, and its placement along the camp timeline, had been chosen intentionally in order to accomplish a specific outcome. All the campers, for example, had to do stadiums (running up and down the stadium steps) at 6:30am for the first three days of camp. They had to do them over and over and over, until there was not a single kid who wasn’t sore the next day. The goal, said J, was that when the alarm went off the next morning, each kid had to make a decision. He had to decide whether to get up and do the next drill, even though it didn’t feel good.

To reach a goal, you can’t be bound by how you feel, J said. You should only be bound by what you want.

Whoa. I’ve been thinking ever since about how many times I haven’t done something that would push me toward the achievement of a goal–simply because of how I felt. How many times I skipped my daily run because I didn’t want to go out in the heat or the cold, because I was tired, or because it was inconvenient. How many times I decided at the last minute not to attend an event that would have strengthened a friendship or furthered an interest because I was too comfortable where I was. How many times I didn’t speak up because I thought I might get embarrassed. I postponed the achievement of my goals–whether they revolved around fitness level, a relationship, my career, or personal fulfillment–because I was bound by how I felt.

I watched my son do something harder than I’ve ever done, and he did it successfully. He got past himself. He set a goal, and he did it.

Don’t be bound by how you feel. Be bound only by what you want. Powerful stuff.