Friday, January 27, 2012

Perspective and Gratitude

I spent some time visiting with my parents last week. Since I've gotten very interested in family history of late, my stepmother decided to share with me some of her own history. I've wanted to ask her about it for years, but it always seemed like it could be a touchy subject, so I never had the guts.

You see, my step-mom was born in Cologne, Germany in 1941.

I got to visit her childhood home and meet the whole family 25 years ago when I took the train down from where I was living in Norway as an exchange student. To be honest, the most salient memories I have from that trip are the incredible feather bed that I slept on at Oma's house, and the train stop in Berlin where the East German guards boarded and demanded to see everyone's papers (this was before the unification of Germany.)

I suppose the experience in Berlin gave me a tiny, itty bitty taste of what it must have been like to live through Nazi Germany. According to my step-mom, researching family history had become a bit taboo in Germany, because during the Nazi period everyone was required to carry identification papers, which included a family tree dating back 4 generations to prove that you didn't have any Jewish blood.

Nevertheless, before Oma died, she put together a family history booklet for each of her seven children, and a photo album full of pictures from the war and before. It was really amazing to look at those pictures. Oma had seven children all born between 1936 and 1942. My first comment was "is that biologically possible?" My step-mom laughed and said, "two words - Catholic & twins!"
Anyhow, the first thing she pointed out was that she and all of her siblings had biblical names. I asked if her parents were very devout, and she said that actually it was a very subtle form of protest against the Nazi regime. Apparently as the nationalistic Aryan master race stuff was sweeping Germany, people were encouraged to choose traditional German names.

Her parents didn't want any part of it all, and so chose one of the few other options that wouldn't raise suspicions, biblical names.

As my step-mom was born in the latter part of the war, she didn't have too many memories of life under Nazi rule, but what memories she did have where amazing.

Her father had constructed their house on the outskirts of Cologne (Köln in German) shortly before the war broke out. He was very cognizant that war was on the horizon, so when he built the house he constructed a bomb shelter with 3 foot wide concrete walls in the basement. Much of my step-mom's early life took place in that shelter. She remembers that when the air raids would come, sirens would go off and everybody had to go down into the shelter. Her baby brother didn't actually have a crib, instead he had a basket with handles so it would be easy to grab him and run down to the cellar.

When you look at what was left of Cologne by the time the war was over, it's sort of hard to imagine that any bomb shelter could be adequate. (click on the picture to see the full resolution.)

She talked a lot about how they seldom had luxuries like shoes or clothes that fit... showing me in one of the pictures how her mother had sewn a hunk of fabric onto the bottom of her dress to extend it a few inches as she outgrew it, and how the toes of her shoes had been cut off when her feet got too big to fit. She also remembered how thin they all were and that they were hungry most of the time.

I asked if her father ever served in the military. She said that he had a job working for the telephone company, keeping the lines functioning, and so was needed at home and exempt from the draft. But near the end of the war they were basically taking every able bodied man they could find, regardless of age or occupation, so he received a draft notice.

By this time, her father, who was about 5'8" weighed less than 100 pounds. So when it came time to go to the draft office, he didn't eat for three days before hand, and then drank 15 cups of coffee before going in. She recalls that he was shaking so badly he could barely walk, and that his skin literally looked gray. Her mother was terrified that it would actually kill him, but it worked, and he escaped being sent to the front.

By this time it was obvious that Germany was losing the war, yet the German newspapers and radios kept up the drum beat telling the citizens that they were winning and that victory would soon be at hand. So Opa built a radio and they listened to the BBC broadcasts from the bunker in the basement. Oma had apparently worked as a nanny in England before the war and so was fluent in English. At any rate, this was a pretty daring thing to do because if they had been caught they certainly would have been killed.

As the invasion of Cologne neared, all of the civilians were evacuated from the city.

My step-mom remembered that her father made dog tags for each of the children in case they got separated, and then piled them all into a little cart which he attached to the back of his bicycle. Seven children being pulled by a bicycle! She said they were all pretty thin by that point.

Anyhow, they waited until the very last minute, and so were one of the last families out of the city. Then, in the middle of the night they snuck back and hid in the shelter in their basement, waiting for the city to be liberated.

When the Americans finally arrived, my step-mom remembers three of them coming down to the cellar where the family was hiding. One of them, a black man (which was a big deal for my step-mom because she'd never seen a black person before) gave the children a bar of chocolate.

When the Americans left the kids tried to open the chocolate bar. They took off the paper, but were confused by the foil wrapper, and their mother had to show them how to open it. My step-mom remembers that as Oma was doling out the candy to her children, tears were streaming down her face. She asked her mom why she was crying, and Oma replied that she suddenly realized that her children had never had chocolate before.

Anyhow, the Americans came back frequently as Oma was one of the few people left in Cologne who could speak English. So she served as a translator and helped the American military post signs for the civilian population.

The stories are pretty amazing aren't they? I mean, when you think of the Germans in WWII, generally we think of the evil Nazi killers, and I think we tend to forget that there were also a lot of innocent civilians who got caught in that terrible chapter of history.

The whole thing made me feel pretty darned grateful for my easy, easy, easy life.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Brownies To The Rescue

Well, I've been out of it for the past few days. Sidelined with a migraine that just didn't want to let go.

So last night, I'm laying on the couch (or is it lying on the couch?) Well, whatever the correct grammar is, I was totally craving chocolate. My brain was telling me that this would be a bad idea. I mean the last thing you need when you've got a headache is a sugar rush and a bunch of empty calories, right?

But my body just kept screaming "Chocolate, chocolate, chocolate!"

Then I remembered my hungry headache theory, and figured, hey... it's been 48 hours of pain, and nothing else has helped... what do I have to lose?

So, I dragged my sorry ass off the couch and made a batch of utterly delicious gooey, chocolaty brownies, gobbled down WAY too many of them, and viola! Headache gone!

Hmmmm.... I'm not quite ready to start marketing it as a home remedy, but it does make you wonder...

Anyhow, if you've got a headache, or if you just feel like blowing your diet/healthy eating plan, here's the recipe:

Gooey-licious Brownies

1 1/4 sticks butter
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 scant cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
2 eggs
3/4 cup flour

note: if you use unsalted butter add 1/4 teaspoon salt, otherwise, no salt is necessary

Melt butter, sugar and cocoa powder in microwave safe bowl, stirring often until smooth. The mixture should be pretty hot, but be careful not to scorch it. Once it's all melted together and smooth, put it in the refrigerator to cool (you don't want to put the eggs into a really hot mixture or you'll end up with little bits of cooked eggs in your brownies - and yes, I know this from personal experience.)

While the batter is cooling, line an 8x8 square baking dish with either foil or parchment paper. Trust me on this one... you'll never get them out if you don't line the pan. Pre-heat the oven to about 330 degrees.

When the batter is cool enough to touch, add the eggs and vanilla (and salt if you're using any) stir vigorously until the batter is smooth. Add the flour and mix until smooth and spread evenly in your baking dish. Lick spatula and worry about salmonella from the raw eggs (optional).

Bake at 330 for 45 minutes or until a toothpick in the middle comes out clean. You may need to futz with the time and temperature a bit. The original recipe said to bake at 325 for 20-25 minutes, but when I tried it that way the middle was still raw. Of course, I am at about 6500 feet of altitude, so everything always takes longer to bake than advertised. Anyhow, adjust that part as you see fit.

Lift them out of the pan by the liner, let them cool before cutting them (if you can resist... I couldn't!)


Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Stationery Progress

This is yet another part of my "How I Escaped from the Rat Race" series... actually I've skipped forward a bunch of years, but just think of it like one of those artsy films that's out of sequence... I'll get to those other years eventually. To read the series from the beginning, click here.

So... the year was about 1997. I had purchased a house, was earning a bit more money (I think I made about $25K that year) and was starting to feel like I was edging my way toward the middle class. I was now the director of the little music school, which was growing by leaps and bounds... quickly morphing from a group of hippie musicians to a "cultural institution," now capable of paying me a real (albeit small) salary with full health benefits.

It was all great... and yet it wasn't. I mean it was really nice to not be quite as broke as I had been, yet there was a nagging sense that the mundane was nipping at my heels, ready to overtake me at any moment. Things that had never concerned me before were starting to play a major role in my life.

Suddenly I had to worry about watering the lawn, and fixing the furnace, and having "business" attire that I could wear when I met with granting agencies. I had meetings to attend, and a job that was taking WAY more than 40 hours a week. My salary had literally doubled in the past few years, yet I didn't really feel like I was any more financially secure. I guess I was starting to feel like the trappings of the modern world were catching up with me.

Then, one day... well actually it was one night... in the middle of the night... I was flipping channels and stumbled upon a quirky little documentary called Affluenza.

It was my first introduction to the voluntary simplicity movement, and it was a revelation. I had always lived frugally, and compared to the broader society around me, my trappings were really quite minimal. But it was certainly true, that I was starting to feel the nagging sense that it just wasn't good enough.

But here was a movement that preached financial prosperity, without the whole trap of materialism. Perhaps there was a way to enjoy freedom and financial security, without getting stuck in the cycle of meaningless spending. I was sold.

So I started to read everything I could find on the voluntary simplicity movement.

While there were many worthy tomes out there, the one that really made an impact was a book called Your Money or Your Life.

I'm sure many of you are familiar with this book as it has really become the bible for the movement. Well, part of the program in YMOLY is that you have to track all of your expenses... and I mean everything. Now, I didn't really think that I would find much when I did this little activity. I mean, I was frugal, right? I really didn't think there was much room to save without going back to feeling broke all the time. Oh, how wrong I was!

In the fist month, I determined (not joking here) that I had spent nearly $100 on, believe it or not... pens.

You see, I had a thing about pens... and pencils... and stationery... and paper... and ... well pretty much anything vaguely related to pens, pencils, stationery and paper. I just LOVED them. I loved the colors, and the squishy grips, and, well, just the whole thing.

But there it was, in stark black and white. $100 down the drain on pens. Oy vey! How could it be? It must have been some sort of anomaly, I figured. So I promptly set about ignoring the problem.

So another month passed, and I did my tally, and discovered to my horror, that, once again, I had spent nearly $100 on, you guessed it... pens. OK... at this point there was no getting away from the ugly truth of it... I had a problem.

So that night, as I was doing the dishes, I had a little talk with myself. Actually it was more of an argument.

Seriously, I was standing there doing the dishes, when I proceeded to have this little meltdown. I knew I needed to stop spending so much money on stupid stuff... I mean, really, how many pens does one human need? But part of me just kept saying, "But I WANT them... they make me happy."

Then came the statement that would change my life... well, actually, I'm not sure you could accurately call it a statement, since I didn't really say it out loud... I'm not THAT crazy... But anyhow... the words were:
Why can't I spend $100 on pens if I want to... It's MY money!
Then suddenly, like a ton of bricks, it hit me.


I'm not quite sure that I'm able to explain the depth of the epiphany, but I suddenly realized that there was nobody to argue with. It was really just a simple decision. I could have a pile of pens, or I could have $100 in the bank every month. Instantly, the answer became obvious.

When I looked at it a little deeper, I realized that the whole thing really had nothing to do with pens in the first place. You see, my love affair with all things stationery began in my youth when my best friend and I would go to the mall and spend hours and hours hanging out in the Hallmark store. I'm still not sure exactly what the draw was, but we'd inevitably come home with cute little flower shaped pads of paper, journals, and pens with hearts on them. It was our thing.

Then, in the seventh grade, she moved away. Even all these years later, the loss is so palpable that it still makes tears well up in my eyes. We vowed to write, and we did... every week, for years and years, and visited each other every summer. And all of the stationery and the pens took on new meaning. They weren't just things... they were my connection to her. Eventually we grew up, went our separate ways, and lost touch. But somehow, the obsession with pens remained. I guess it was my way of holding on to the best friend that I ever had.

Um... can you guess which one is me. Hint... the love of cats is nothing new!
So, once I realized what the thing with pens was really all about, it became easy to let go, because the word "should" had been removed from the equation. There was nothing and nobody left to struggle with, there were only the feelings of loss that I had been running away from for many, many years.

When I finally had my "day of reckoning" I discovered, that I had... not kidding... 4 grocery sacks full of pens. But, by that point the pens had lost their grip over me, so I packed them up and took them to work, where they all got put to good use.

That was my first real step down the road of voluntary simplicity, and I've never looked back. Over the years I've had to learn similar lessons over... and over... and OVER!

So many of the things we do, really don't have anything to do with the behaviors themselves, and each time I uncover the real emotions behind them, magical change comes unbelievably easily.

And... in case you're curious... I found my best friend again, after about 25 years. You'll never believe this, but it turned out that both of us were busy reading the Harry Potter books... in Spanish.

It's enough to make you believe in magic!

For the the next post in this series click here.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Thoughts on Simplicity

Well, 'tis the season for making resolutions. And my resolution this year is to stop making resolutions!

Really, I'm not just being a sarcastic smart aleck... I actually think that resolutions are, in general, a really bad idea. If you've been reading my blog for a while, you may have noticed a little theme repeating itself over and over... (yes, the phrase "repeating itself over and over, is soft of like the department of redundancy department, but bear with me here).

I tend to believe that people in this culture have a pathological fear of their own humanity. I don't say that to judge, gawd knows I'm an expert at the art of self avoidance.

But the older I get, and the more I slow down, the more it becomes strikingly apparent to me that so many of the people I admired in my youth, really were just more adept at the art of hiding their humanity than I was. You know the people I mean... the ones who seam so god damned "normal." The ones who have nice sterile little lives that seem to be bereft of untidy emotions and unfinished business... the Marcia Brady's of the world.

So as I've been cruising the blogosphere these past few days, I've had to bite my proverbial tongue many times at the long lists of goals and resolutions that I see splayed out across the interwebs.

Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against the idea of making positive changes to one's life, it's just the "I'm gonna hold my breath and force myself to do this thing" approach that makes me crazy. It's not that I am immune, I'm just old enough to have tried and failed the "resolution" approach many, many, many times.

The way I see it, people pretty much always do what they want to do. So whatever dysfunctional things you're doing must be serving some sort of purpose in your life. And until you uncover what that purpose is, there is just no way that you're gonna be able to muscle your way into changing your behavior. Oh, you might be able to maintain it for a while, but unless you really deal with the emotions underlying it all, you're doomed to failure.

It's sort of like practicing "tantrum yoga"... you know, that's where you hold your breath until god gives you your way. It just ain't the path to enlightenment as far as I can tell.

Anyhooo... lots of people are resolving to simplify their lives right about now, and while that's great, it's just that... well... so much of what I see people touting as "simple" just isn't.

First we have the arts and crafts approach...

Now, I have nothing against arts and crafts, and I do believe that there is much to be gained in doing things for yourself rather than relying on some poor slob toiling away in a deathtrap factory somewhere in China. And while it is great to "re-use" things that might otherwise end up in a landfill, so many of these projects just seem like crazy make-work propositions which serve no useful purpose other than to keep the doer occupied and paint a lovely and meaningless picture of "living a simple life."

Take, for example, my quilt. Many years ago, I decided that my life had become too complicated and I needed to "simplify". Since one of my mental images of simplicity was Laura Ingalls Wilder, one of the first things I did was to set out to make a handmade quilt using bits of cloth I had salvaged from a bag of clothing that was destined for the rag bag.

I dutifully cut out squares and planned my pattern, and after a few months of painstaking work discovered that all I had accomplished was to drive myself stark raving mad.

Here's the thing... I didn't need a quilt. Plus, if I did need a quilt, I could actually purchase one used from the thrift store for less money that it was costing me to buy the thread for my interminable quilt project! But, oh how I fought and fought with it... how could I just give it up? I mean, it was so green, so hand made, so utterly and completely simple... wasn't it?

When I look back on it I can see that I really wasn't very interested in quilting at all. What I wanted was the pretty picture of Laura Ingalls Wilder sitting there in a tiny cabin spending hour upon hour in quiet contemplation. But the only purpose that my quilt was serving was to keep me busy and occupied and to give me one more thing that I was supposed to be doing. Seriously, how is this "simple?"

So as you peruse the many patterns for making bracelets out of pop can pull tabs...

 or baskets from braided bits of old magazines...

or coasters from... well really, you could make a coaster out of just about anything, couldn't you?

Anyhow, my point is this... filling your life with a bunch of projects that only result in having a house full of crap that you really don't need in the first place will only give you more work and more things to deal with... but it is a nice distraction...

OK... so next we have the "I'm swearing off _____(fill in the blank with the societal evil of your choice)"  approach. This is very closely related to the "I vow to commit to _____(fill in the blank with the wholesome and virtuous behavior du jour.)"

Yes, folks, it's January, and all over the world television sets are being packed away into closets, sugar and cream are being banned from kitchens north and south, exercise equipment is flying off the shelves, and people everywhere are working hard at packing themselves into tight little boxes.

All I have to say is Oy! I mean, it's great if you want to try new things, or try not doing certain old things, but really, truly, making a whole new pile of rules for yourself to follow is just not my idea of "simple." Frankly, I find it thoroughly exhausting to even read some of the lists that I've seen people making. I WILL do X every day, come hell or high water! To me, this is not simple, it's just exchanging one set of arbitrary rules for another, and that really doesn't seem like progress to me.

You see, it doesn't really matter who cements the bars in place... prison is still prison. So if forcing yourself to follow a whole pile of rules is your idea of simple, then bring on the hair shirts I say!

OK, I could go on and on, but I think you're probably getting my point. The whole object of simple living is to make your life more SIMPLE, as in easy, or less complicated. But so many of us are, on some level, wedded to our complicated lives... and it's not because we have no say in the matter... it's that the complications serve us in some way, shape or form.

So here's what I think. If you really want to simplify your life, start by sitting quietly and doing nothing. Don't make it into a "task" that you must accomplish, just look for opportunities to do nothing, and take them when they arrive.

Here's an example. I've been having a lot of work done on my teeth. I broke a tooth and it finally got me to drag my sorry ass into a dentist's office after nearly 15 years of avoiding it. At some point when this whole little dental adventure is complete, I'll write and tell you all of the gory details, but for the moment, suffice it to say that lately I've spent a large number of hours sitting in a chair and waiting.
And, the truth is... I sort of like just sitting there. It's also really amusing to watch the assistants and receptionists who keep trying to foist magazines and other "distractions" upon me. It's hard for them to understand, but really, I've been just enjoying the opportunity to sit and do nothing.

You see, it's not really that we're addicted to FaceBook or Twitter, or television or Netflix or texting, or computer games or any of the bazillions of other distractions that the modern world provides... we just hate the thought of having to be with ourselves for any meaningful period of time.

It's often said that simple living is about "making do with less" and I think there is some truth to that statement. But unfortunately, "making do" often turns into "making work," which really doesn't help to simplify anything. I guess I just think we need to focus more of our energy on the "less" part of the equation and let the "making" take care of itself.