Of the things that fascinate me but puzzle me most about humans, one is our capacity to wish away the hours and then beg time to stand still in consecutive breaths.
The most talented reader I know posted a review on goodreads recently about one of my favourite books – Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, a story that handles time and narrative in a unique way. Ben writes that he has “often lamented our slavery to linear time. It is a peculiar form of universal injustice, this fact that we can never revisit moments once they become ‘the past’, that the present is continuously slipping through our hands and solidifying into something we cannot change, except through the careful or careless manipulations of memory and history. What would lives be like if we could experience every moment simultaneously? What if we were conscious of time not as a line but as a point, all possibilities raging furiously and brilliantly at once.”
(You should probably stop here and go read what Ben has to say in its entirety. I’ll wait.)
I’m appropriating his words as a springboard to talk about time and perception. I’ve been long interested in the concept of linearity and how we actually experience different kinds of moments – Einstein’s hand on a hot stove for a minute and sitting with a pretty girl for an hour as one-and-the-same, when measured by feeling. Back in December, the tiny island state of Samoa skipped an entire day – poof! – to align with its primary trading partners. Where is December 30, 2011 for the Samoans – did it just never exist? And where do all those February 29s go, anyway? How do we make sense of an entire day gone missing from our calendar? Time doesn’t feel uniform. It doesn’t always meet our expectations of how hours and minutes and seconds should be neatly experienced. It’s relative. What’s a dog year? Heck, what’s a human year?
Neuroscientist David Eagleman has done a fair bit of work on this topic. His research interest dates back to a childhood fall from a rooftop – where time seemed to slow to a halt as he dropped through space toward the earth. He calls clocks “at best a convenient fiction… they imply that time ticks steadily, predictably forward, when our experience shows that it often does the opposite: it stretches and compresses, skips a beat and doubles back.” Pretty radical stuff from a scientist working with fMRI scanners to sort this all out at a neurological level.
This first part of 2012 has been a mental tug-of-war with time of my own making. I’ve been lost in the hilarity of countdown, knowing all-too-well that time-zero would bring with it fleetingness and the kind of moments that slip like sand through fingers, toward the impossibility of another countdown composed of all-too-slow days. As I shared with this emotional clock’s co-creator: what a shame that our finite hours can’t be stockpiled, to use later, tucked away for that coming moment when we want the minutes to stretch a little further, deeper, longer…
At times, I believe we are all little kids in the back of a station wagon, screaming: “Are we there yet?” But then we are snapping our fingers to freeze the next moment eternal, to no success.
Roasted Barbeque Tofu
I will admit that I am one of those strange sorts who has to ration my tofu, lest I eat it everyday. I love tofu. The texture can be off-putting if it’s prepared improperly, but pressed and roasted, it’s a great base for all sorts of dishes – for dipping, adding to stir-frys, covering in a yummy sauce or stuffed cold into a sandwich… the options are endless. I often cook up a block on Sundays to keep in the fridge as a quick lunch addition (or: to pluck cold from the tupperware and dip into mustard).
This version takes those crunchy roasted slabs and douses them in oniony barbeque sauce – vegan comfort food, even if you’re not a vegan.
For the pressed tofu
1 block extra-firm tofu
1 Tbsp grapeseed oil (or other neutral cooking oil)
1/2-1 tsp cayenne pepper (optional)
1/4tsp cumin (optional)
a liberal sprinkling of salt and pepper
For the sauce
1/2 medium red onion, sliced very thinly across
1/2 Tbsp grapeseed oil (or other neutral cooking oil)
1/2-1 tsp cayenne pepper
1/3c your favourite prepared barbeque sauce
a handful cilantro and lime wedges, to serve
1 large baking tray
something heavy to press the tofu (e.g., a bag of dry beans or can of tomatoes)
medium frying pan
For the pressed tofu
Remove tofu from packaging, rinse and wrap tightly in a few layers of paper towel. Sandwich between two dinner plates and press down with your weight of choice in fridge, a few hours up to overnight. Or, if lacking time, just give the tofu a few rounds of good squeezes with the paper towels until most of its moisture is removed.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
Slice the pressed tofu block into four quarters, then into 1/4-inch slices (yield: about 28 pieces). Mop off any excess moisture with additional paper towels. Toss in a bowl with oil, cayenne pepper, cumin, pepper and salt to coat evenly. Arrange in a single layer on a foil-lined baking sheet and bake for approximately 30 minutes, flipping the slices half-way through cooking. You’ll know the tofu is finished cooking when it’s sizzling, golden and crunchy to the touch.
For the sauce
In frying pan over medium heat, sautee onions in oil until translucent and a bit crispy, about 5 minutes. Add cayenne pepper and barbeque sauce, salt and pepper to taste. Reduce heat to low. Add the baked tofu, letting it sit for about 5 minutes to absorb sauce. Sprinkle with cilantro and drizzle with lime juice.
Serve tofu with something starchy – mashed sweet potatoes or squidgy white bread, for example – to sop up all the sauce.
Feeds two hungry people for dinner.
A little over a year ago, I had a breast reduction.
I’ve vacillated over whether or not I would share this information in a place so clearly attached to my name. But there’s no shame in talking about our bodies, these vessels that carry us. So, fair heeding: I am writing today about something private and something uncomfortable. Please look away if it isn’t for you.
Having a breast reduction consumed my thoughts for so many years, from the time I realized the difficulties that come from having a small body and giant breasts. It made me so unhappy, but I was resigned to my life of modified yoga poses, intense backaches, and swearing off strapless dresses. Make the best of the hand you’re dealt, I’d say. It’s selfish and vain to have an elective procedure when you’re healthy. It’s not your place to alter a genetic destiny for sake of convenience. What will people say? And aren’t all plastic surgeons so sleazy? I shamed myself – deeply – into indecision.
One day, this constant monologue quit. We put so much stock in what others will think – how they will judge – when we make a change, especially one that’s outwardly detectable. But nobody did. My family cheered me on (loudly), my best friends were extra-ordinary supports, and if semi-strangers noticed, I never caught on. When I finally put the pieces into action, the most difficult part was overcoming my fear of a very real and serious elective procedure for a non-life-threatening condition.
My breast reduction was one of the best things I’ve ever done. For my health, mobility and awareness of my body – things that matter to make a good life. I spent my first 24 years partitioning my vessel from my identity, believing my body was something other than me because it restricted me. Cutting away flesh made room for so much more in my life that has nothing to do with appearance. I found a surgeon who wasn’t sleazy. Rather he was kind and upfront and generous with his immense talent. He chose plastics because it let him create the most extraordinary invisible changes for people: he reconstructed bodies to help mend all the broken things inside of them. He told me: “I’m going to change your life, Maria, not just your rack,” and I still laugh because his words are so true, if a bit crass.
Perhaps it is most significant that the experience has made me less judgmental toward others and their decisions, made with the best evidence in their hands. I’ll never know the entire story.
As with so many things, my breasts are really a way to talk about something else – action. One of my favourite bands has a really poignant lyric: “But the time is never right / No it’s never right / To step outside her life / To find what’s been lost / She’ll sleep on it tonight.” How often do we vow to change something – a behaviour, a habit, a state of mind – but keep telling ourselves that we’ll sleep on it? Make the call in the morning. Wait for a tidy January 1st, for tidy resolution.
And there we are, never stepping outside this life made up of our little decisions and their multitude effects.
This leap made me vow to grab future opportunities rough and hard, and run fast with them, and to be my own judge. To not ponder so darn much over the pros and cons and consequences that are mostly in my head.
Meyer Lemon Curd
Meyer lemons are fleeting – they come in December and January and then poof! Gone for another year. If you find a bag, as they are most often sold at the grocery store, this is the perfect use. I love the tangy curd layered with unsweetened cream, sandwiched between shortbread, or freezing cold and right off the spoon from the fridge.
Method based loosely on Alton Brown’s Lemon Curd.
5 whole, very fresh egg yolks
1 cup white sugar
5 meyer lemons, zested and juiced (yield: about 1/2 cup juice, 2 Tbsp zest)
1/2 stick unsalted butter, cut into pats and chilled
pinch of salt
1 medium heatproof metal bowl
1 medium saucepan
To a medium saucepan, add about one inch of water. Bring to a simmer over medium heat.
Meanwhile, whisk egg yolks and sugar in medium bowl until smooth. Add meyer lemon juice and zest and whisk until very smooth and bright yellow, about a minute.
Reduce heat to low and place mixing bowl over saucepan (like a double-boiler). Whisk constantly for about 10 minutes, until the mixture is bright but mellow yellow and coats your spatula. Promptly remove from heat and add butter, stirring completely to melt after each pat. The final product should be very glossy and smooth.
Store cooled curd in a clean glass container with a layer of cling film directly on its surface. It keeps refrigerated up to two weeks.
Makes about 2 cups of curd.
This has been a quiet year, a private 2011, a passage of time tucked away, mostly. And already here is 2012 – to keep making this life, to gather new bits, and to figure out what matters and what doesn’t as best I can.
I self-servingly love year-end retrospectives for their future use, to see where I was in a moment long gone. To examine the ways that I was different from me, now, and what caught the light; whether it still catches.
There’s a line from Anatole France, about change and and its inherent melancholy, “for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.” We all from time to time want to dichotomize in this way – to cleanly sever who we are now from who we were then. We’re shamed by our greener selves, we selectively remember the bits that pit us against her, we may wish away the actions (and inaction) that led to here. This space provides a record to guard against false memory. I’m kinder toward who I was a year, two years, three years ago because I kept note. Having time in writing shows that while last year’s me was someone else, I can’t dismiss her. I still carry a lot of her inside.
Here are some ideas that caught my light in 2011. As always, thank you for reading along another year.
Some things I wrote in 2011
From dime stores spring prehistoric wrapping paper and notebooks filled with family history. Stuff, unexamined. We assign value in the game of toss or keep, but value is driven by meaning and context and future memories. Objective assessment is impossible. How do we separate the trinkets from the treasures, so the best recipes don’t get thrown away?
But nothing is shameful about setting goals and starting anew, however arbitrary January 1 is as a beginning. In a way, I think my humble, pared-down kitchen fare has been an unintentional resolution of sorts: to eat simply, to make uncomplicated and delicious food, and to honour my body.
Perhaps it is a product of my particular breed of introversion, but I don’t dream of becoming a mom like many women I know. If anything, the notion of responsibility for another life makes me want to run far, far away from the opposite sex. I have terrible fears of dropping babies or stepping on them or the worst case: not knowing how to love them right.
Our teenage protagonist might attend a concert and end up backstage, where the lead singer sees her through the crowd love-at-first-sight and whisks her away, happily ever after. Teenage dreams, with lots of adjectives.
Have you ever followed closely someone’s movements – watched how he lifts a utensil, the way he switches off knife and fork, or how he places the napkin when he leaves the table? That we each cradle a water glass or clink to a toast differently?
But it is helpful that most days I’d rather grocery shop and cook and eat what I’ve made at my own table. Cooking is really the best hobby, no? I mean – we have to feed ourselves, anyway – usually three times a day. Three occasions to satisfy our needs exactly as we please. That’s pretty fantastic.
Train 79 (December)
He will smile and wink and tell you he’s not supposed to refill your coffee cup. But he will anyway. And you thank him, because the coffee on Train 79 is not the murky dishwater that non-train-takers would expect to find aboard.
Some things I read in 2011
All the Single Ladies by Kate Bolick, The Atlantic (November)
What my mother could envision was a future in which I made my own choices. I don’t think either of us could have predicted what happens when you multiply that sense of agency by an entire generation.
Do you Suffer from Decision Fatigue? by John Tierney, The New York Times Magazine (August)
Remember that Jewish Israeli prisoner who appeared at 3:10 p.m. and was denied parole from his sentence for assault? He had the misfortune of being the sixth case heard after lunch. But another Jewish Israeli prisoner serving the same sentence for the same crime was lucky enough to appear at 1:27 p.m., the first case after lunch, and he was rewarded with parole. It must have seemed to him like a fine example of the justice system at work, but it probably had more to do with the judge’s glucose levels.
Healthy is not Enough by Allison, Always Something (November)
I was eight both the first time I called myself a feminist, and the first time I cried because my stomach stuck out… My mixed ideologies meant I would be a modern, working woman who was empowered, but I would also be thin and lovely.
The Possibilian by Burkhard Bilger, The New Yorker (April)
If Eagleman’s body bears no marks of his childhood accident, his mind has been deeply imprinted by it. He is a man obsessed by time. As the head of a lab at Baylor, Eagleman has spent the past decade tracing the neural and psychological circuitry of the brain’s biological clocks.
What Kind of Happy are You? by Susan Cain, The Power of Introverts (December)
It’s not an exultant kind of happiness. It feels more like a marveling at the fragile beauty of the human condition, and a pleasure in having someone articulate it so sensitively.
The Wedding by Shannalee T’Koy Mallon, Food Loves Writing (November)
…and I held his hand and I looked at his ring and I called him my husband and he called me his wife, and we knew this was big, this day, this commitment, this new family we had made. And just like that, it was over. Or just like that, it begun.
Champagne flute in hand – see you in 2012!
Previous years-in-review on anthimeria.com
Warm thanks for the above images, all on Flickr:
I have taken the train to Windsor a dozen times each year starting in 2004, when I began university in a city far, far away.
When you take the train enough, you acquire certain train-taking skills. You know just when to leave work in time to catch the subway and collect your ticket and secure a spot in line for the best people-watching vantage. You know about finding a favourite seat (half-way up the car in a window’s back half for the widest view, and on the south side traveling toward home so you can see the skyline and the lake and the crumbling brick stations and the people-catching-people as they spill off the train). You’ve learned how to wedge your ticket stub in the plastic crevice of the seatback in front of yours for the ticket collector to collect. And once you reach London, if you still have your now-empty paper coffee cup from the coffee you bought just before Oakville Station, you smile and ask the attendant for a refill when he returns with the snack cart. He will smile and wink and tell you he’s not supposed to refill your coffee cup. But he will anyway. And you thank him, because the coffee on Train 79 is not the murky dishwater that non-train-takers would expect to find aboard.
Always, London Station signals half-way home.
When you take the train enough, you get to know the other people on the train – out of your large sample, you establish a Typology of Train Takers. Most of these train-takers fit your first type, the Distracted Ones. With two little white buds growing out their ears, their perpetual springtime blooms.They are listening to music or movies or maybe a book on tape. They are lost inside a dome of noise – sometimes it spills over to where you sit, and hopefully not with a pulsating bassline.
In the seat next sits the Serious Business Man with his ThinkPad and loosened tie. He likes the leg room and the young lady next (you) who looks (fingers-crossed) particularly untalkative. He’s too busy for conversation, what with his spreadsheets and blinking BlackBerry: counting his stars for money. Before he counts he feasts. He orders a turkey sandwich with baby carrots and ranch dip, and a cheese plate, and a little green canister of sour-cream-and-onion chips, and a can of Diet Coke. He pays the attendant $16.50 for his cellophane banquet. As he chews, he casts dire glances at the Family with Children in the four-seater, with the infant whose scream will soon distract from his sky accounting.
The Gazer packed her very best library book to while away the hours. As she reads, she listens to pieces of conversations and the clack-clack-clack of wheels meeting track and inevitably, she reaches into her seat-pocket for the in-train magazine – to see if anyone has completed the puzzles, and if he used pen or pencil, and to check his answers. She’s abandoned her book to stare out her carefully-chosen window at the land and the lake and the escarpment, and more times than not, she spots most of the farm animals on her standard list of farm animals (a game of “Where’s Waldo?” with livestock). Especially now beneath the dramatic early-winter sunset and its unearthly glow that illuminates each beast. Cow. Horse. Sheep. Pig. Check.
When you take the train enough, you know to call dad just outside Chatham to deliver your boilerplate message: “Hi! We’re running 15 minutes behind. I will see you at 11:30?” And because this is the Toronto to Windsor route, and all the truly billingual attendants go north to Montreal, the final call rings over the loud-speaker as you approach Windsor Station, first in English and then in very butchered French nous vous souhaitons une agréable journée. You note the offended Francophones aboard.
Always, when feet meet platform, dad waits in his usual parking spot, and he intercepts your cream-and-brown-and-navy plaid bag, and you breathe the breath you keep deep inside for these first minutes home. Because Windsor Station is next to the brewery with its billowy fermenting yeast clouds that mingle with the car exhaust and damp asphalt and river. The air of reunion pools in your nostrils and it’s the best bad smell you will ever know.
P.S.: Thanks, Lan, for the nudge.
[Image: Train Window by Chambo25 on flickr]
I think happiness has a lot to do with the concept of “enough.”
Enough is, of course, relative. For me, it comes from a need to never be wanting, to take care of myself, and to be independent – and always in a place that I can walk away from a circumstance that makes me unhappy. Not to speak around the matter – I’m talking about material things – not my psychological or emotional wells (though the concepts are related). I’ve been this way for as long as I have understood money – that I never want it to be a limiting factor in how I live.
With this comes an odd sort of frugality I’ve cultivated over the years – one that, along with working hard, has ensured I have enough. Of course, this equation is my own circumstance and I do not want to generalize experience: hard work plus saving is just one way. But I’m grateful that it’s meant my well-being is not wound up in what I can and cannot have.
As with other parts of my life – how I mind my pennies is driven by tiny mantras:
Save the first paycheque. Spare no expense on groceries or the best restaurants. Experiences over things. Excepting underwear, old is usually better than new. Not everything is stuff, but most stuff is. Collect travel points, then pay off the full balance. Walking > subway > taxi. Borrow it from the library first. And a skilled cobbler can almost always fix worn soles.
These mantras are the context within which I buy Champagne and thrift store teacups and plane tickets without pause, and they limit me, too. I couldn’t tell you the last time I brought home a $20 top or tube of lipstick, or made dinner from the freezer section, or threw away a pair of shoes.
One thing is sure. My love of cooking has never been predicated on frugality. I love the theatre of restaurant dining and a pizza delivery straight from the box. But it is helpful that most days I’d rather grocery shop and cook and eat what I’ve made at my own table. Cooking is really the best hobby, no? I mean – we have to feed ourselves, anyway – usually three times a day. Three occasions to satisfy our needs exactly as we please. That’s pretty fantastic.
I’ve found it fitting that most of my favourite foods just happen to come from the humblest ingredients. Braised beans, whole roasted fish, stews, garden vegetables sprinkled with salt, warm craggy bread… and anything from a pâtisserie.
What the French do with butter and flour! One of my Saturday to-dos is a morning croissant and café crème from Pain Perdu – after I’ve returned the week’s library books, and checked the Salvation Army and Goodwill for pretty tablewares. Pain Perdu is my very favourite little bakery and makes Toronto’s very best croissant – delicate, shattering, deep brown, and full of sweet buttery layers – the very opposite of Starbucks’ enormous, flabby, wan specimen.
While croissant is not the easiest pastry to replicate at home (at least with my limited baking skills), chouquettes are.
Little cabbages in French – and so named for their shape – chouquettes (SHOO-ketts) are made from a cooked egg-based dough called pâte à choux that’s piped and sprinkled with coarse sugar, then baked. The savoury version are known as gougères, whose dough has a cheese such as comté or gruyère added. The little rounds puff up into golden morsels of eggy, buttery air. The proper French version of chouquette uses a crunchy large-grain sugar for topping – but I prefer a solid cinnamon-sugar crust that crisps into a sweet hat and shatters undertooth.
It’s just butter, flour, eggs, sugar and salt – but you can’t put a price on flung-open windows, the May breeze, and a cinnamon-scented afternoon.
1 cup room temperature water
1/2 tsp fine sea salt
2 tsp granulated sugar, plus 1/4 c for dusting
6 Tbsp unsalted butter, in chunks
1 c all-purpose unbleached flour
4 large eggs, at room temperature
1 tsp cinnamon, for dusting (optional)
2 large baking sheets
small metal saucepan
large freezer bag or piping bag
Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Line both baking sheets with parchment paper.
In saucepan, combine water, salt, 2 tsp sugar and butter. Bring to a very rapid boil (it will almost overflow the sides of the saucepan). Remove immediately from heat and vigourously stir in flour. The dough will pull away from the pan and look a bit like a mound of marzipan. Let dough rest 5 minutes.
One by one, add the eggs, stirring after each is added to smoothly incorporate – the dough will get looser and looser. Don’t worry if it seems the eggs won’t combine – just keep stirring, and as if by magic, everything will come together. The final product will be a silky, shiny and smooth pale yellow paste.
Scoop dough into a piping bag or large freezer bag (if using a freezer bag, cut off 1/2 centimetre opening at one of the points). With both hands steadying the bag, pipe whole-walnut sized balls onto the parchment, well-spaced so they have room to poof – as in the above photo.
Cover each ball with a generous douse of sugar (about 1/2tsp each). If desired, gently sprinkle cinnamon over top.
Bake one tray at a time in your oven’s middle rack (no lower, or the bottoms may burn). Be cautious not to open the oven door as the chouquettes bake, so they poof properly. At 25 minutes, open the oven to let in a bit of cool air, then bake for another two minutes – the balls should be a nice caramel colour. You’ll know they are done if you tap the bottom of a ball and it sounds hollow. Popping one in your mouth is also a good test for doneness.
Eat immediately. Or store in an airtight container and freeze up to one month – slide into a 250 degree Fahrenheit oven for 10 minutes to reheat and crisp before serving.
Makes 36 puffs.